Fly me to the Saitama (2019) by Hideki Takeuchi)

Manami (Haruka Shimazaki) is on her way from Saitama to Tokyo for her wedding. Her parents (Brother Tom and Kumiko Aso) turn on the radio in the car for the long journey and are tuned into a radio drama telling the urban legend of the history of Saitama and Tokyo’s long struggles. The radio play takes us back to a time when Saitamese were subjected to various mistreatments and discriminations at the hands of the Tokyoites, discriminating against those from other prefectures. Rei (Gackt) attempts to fight this injustice and create an equal society where Saitamese are treated the same as people from Tokyo, while the head of a prestigious Tokyo University, Momomi (Fumi Nikaido) is determined to maintain the status quo. The fight for acceptance will also lead the people of Saitama into conflict with their other major rival, the citizens of Chiba Prefecture.

“Fly me to the Saitama” is an outrageous comedy based on the ridiculous premise of a fantasy war between Saitama and Tokyo. It throws so much at this surreal story, including influences from various genres. We see everything from Tokyo university students dressed in renaissance period clothing, science-fiction dressed police officers with rayguns, Edo-period costumes, even dinosaurs. The film will do just about anything for a joke, with funny costumes, scenarios, wordplay, and visual gags. Much of the comedy relies heavily on local stereotypes, though the comedy is so broad that almost all audiences will find something to enjoy, the more people know about these places, the more funny they are likely to find it. The actors do a great job, with Fumi Nikaido and Gackt playing their roles perfectly straight-faced despite the madness around them. The film is directed by Hideki Takeuchi, based on the manga by Mineo Maya, and with a screenplay by  Yuichi Tokunaga. The script and performances are ironically a celebration of the creativity and good humour of everyone involved, showing an ability to laugh at themselves.

The film is a broad comedy, taking themes of discrimination and prejudice and showing them to be utterly ridiculous. It allows people to laugh at local stereotypes in the confidence that they are so outrageous that they are never cruel. The finale of the film has a simple yet poignant message of bridging divides between people and not allowing ourselves to be separated by self-imposed borders. A hugely enjoyable film that puts everything into finding the humour in how people look at each other and themselves.

Pulse (2001) by Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Ryosuke Kawashima (Haruhiko Kato) has recently bought a computer to get connected to the Internet. When he turns it on he is taken to a peculiar and disturbing website that seems to show people sitting alone in rooms and a message asking if he would like to see a ghost. He asks at the university computer department if they have any idea what is happening. Computing teacher Harue Karasawa (Koyuki) attempts to help him. Another student tells him that there is a theory that the spirits of the dead, having becoming too numerous, have begun to pass over into the world of the living. In a parallel story, Michi (Kumiko Aso), an employee at a flower shop, is also made aware of this unusual phenomenon when she goes to find their co-worker who has been missing for several days. The appearance of these figures, both on computers screens, and in the world, grow increasingly frequent and events threaten to overwhelm those involved.

Written and directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, “Pulse” takes inspiration from traditional ghost stories. Many of the scares in the film revolve around eerie happenings, such as dark figures appearing or disappearing suddenly. The music by Takefumi Haketa is disturbing, representing the howls of disturbed spirits. The sets used also give the impression of an old-fashioned ghost story, with abandoned buildings, and even a laboratory packed with various leads and devices. “Pulse” transposes these elements onto the modern world of computers and the internet, using techniques such as image manipulation and the idea that the screen may not be as much of a barrier as people think.

The film underscores its ghost story thrills with a deeply disturbing sub-strata of existential angst and fear of isolation. The concept of the Internet as a tool to connect individuals, but which will actually result in them becoming ever more distant from one another is interesting. Throughout the film there is a clear separation between the living and the dead. Kawashima is a young man who utterly rejects the notion of ghosts. He is forced through these occurrences to confront his fear of death. The character of Harue fears being left alone. The finale of the film is unexpected, bringing the story full circle to the opening narration, and making us question our assumptions of what has gone before. There is discussion in the film about the difference between life and death, about the imperceptible line between the two. Enough space is left for interpretation although as with much of the film it seems to be more about thematic exploration that any literal interpretation of events.

Instant Swamp (2009)

In a frenetic opening monologue, Haname Jinchoge (Kumiko Aso) introduces us to her life and philosophies. She goes through her daily routine as a chore, enjoys a sludge of ten spoons of coffee in milk each morning, and lives with her mother (Keiko Matsuzaka), her father has left for a more wealthy woman. Haname loses her job at failing women’s magazine publication and her mother takes ill resulting in a coma. They manage to fish a letter out of a sunken post-box that tells Haname that her real father is not who she thought, but is instead a bohemian figure called Light Bulb (Morio Kazama), who is now running a bric-a-brac store. The eternally upbeat Haname sets out to meet him, hoping that her discovery of her mother’s former partner might return her to consciousness.

“Instant Swamp” has a bizarre and convoluted plot that is perfectly in keeping with its protagonist and her eccentric behaviour. The film is an off-beat comedy that relies heavily on slapstick humour and unusual scenarios. It often delights in subverting expectations with ridiculous reveals. Much of the dialogue is clearly designed more for laughs than realism and it plays like a series of sketches that happen to involve the same characters. Not all of the jokes work, but there are enough of them that this does not matter. In the same way, the plot moves along at such a pace that there is always something else to be invested in, albeit temporarily, like a wild treasure hunt that is constantly throwing up more hints to follow. The jokes are helped, even when the material is weak, by some great comedic performances. Kumiko Aso is very charismatic in the lead role and really sells every gag. Morio Kazama as Light Bulb gives a good performance as the humorous yet untrustworthy shop owner. The supporting actors, Eri Fuse as Haname’s co-worker Ichinose, and Ryo Kase as a punk electrician named Gas, are also excellent in their roles. The film is written and directed by Satoshi Miki, whose fertile imagination shows in every scene.

“Instant Swamp” is a peculiar film about the magic of everyday life. In an early scene, Haname’s mother tells her there is a kappa in the garden. Haname refuses to be drawn in, believing this to be a silly delusion. Similarly, when she is tasked with writing an article on ghosts for her magazine she is highly sceptical, despite her co-workers’ belief in the supernatural. However, by the end of the scene Haname has experienced her own transcendental moment of magic, finally converted to the idea that the world is a wide and wonderful place where anything can happen. The film is not attempting to suggest scepticism is wrong, but that most people spend their lives in narrow channels and often miss out on the opportunities that may be surrounding them for experiencing “magic”. This idea is also emphasised in the use of antiques dealing as a central plot point. Haname’s meeting with Light Bulb proves to be important as she learns that the value of an object is not necessarily in its price, but in its emotional weight. She learns to value things based not solely on their use. Again, this is shown in her own attachment to a bent nail, the importance of which is lost on almost everyone she shows it to. The theme of luck plays throughout the film in parallel with this idea. Haname believes that throwing away a lucky black cat statue in her youth has led to her streak of misfortune. However, when she is tricked into buying something that is seemingly useless at the end of the film, she has grown enough to appreciate the potential in even the lowliest of things. Life, she realises, is not based on luck, but instead on making the most of what you have and in seeing opportunity in every new day.

Love and Peace (2015)

Ryoichi Suzuki (Hiroki Hasegawa), a lowly office clerk, dreams of becoming a rock star and reliving the successes of his younger years. He also has romantic inclinations towards his co-worker Yuko Terashima (Kumiko Aso). One day at lunch he buys a small pet turtle which he takes back to his apartment, sharing with it his hopes and ambitions and naming it ‘Pikadon’. After being bullied for having the turtle at work, Ryoichi flushes it down the toilet. The film then splits into two stories: one following Ryoichi on his journey to musical greatness via series of unlikely chance encounters; the other following Pikadon as he finds his way to a homeless man (Toshiyuki Nishida) in the sewers, who has collected a group of talking toys and animals to him.

Written and directed by prolific film-maker Sion Sono, this film has the expected blend of hilarity, tragedy and all-out insane spectacle. “Love and Peace” always seems to be heading in one direction and then quickly takes you somewhere unexpected. The finale of the film is a spectacle that is utterly ridiculous, but entirely in keeping with the anarchic sensibilities of the rest of the film. The split narrative of Ryoichi and Pikadon gives an interesting flavour to the film, showing the darker side of society’s relentless obsession with fame to the detriment of compassion and care. The abandoned toys in the sewers serve as a poignant reminder that consumerism often leads to a selfish mindset that neglects anything seen as old or worthless. The acting is great, particularly from Hiroki Hasegawa, who does a fantastic job portraying the put-upon Ryochi, bullied and unable to achieve his dreams, and later his rock-star alter-ego “Wild Ryo”, boastful and comfortable with the adoration of large crowds. Also great is Toshiyuki Nishida, who plays the homeless man to whom all the lost toys manage to find their way. His portrayal of the kindly drunk is one of the most touching parts of the film. The music consists largely of two songs: Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”, and the constant refrain of Ryoichi’s big hit “Love and Peace”, which you may find yourself humming throughout.

The main theme of the film concerns Ryoichi’s search for fame and how this leads to him abandoning those things that are truly important. It is far from subtle in the transformation of this retiring office worker into an arrogant rock star and likewise in showing the effects of his selfish actions. There is also the complimentary story of the toys, who find themselves abandoned and unloved once Christmas is forgotten (a metaphor for the fickle nature of celebrity and a pointed statement on the consumerism of the season). I would highly recommend this for the unexpected laughs, the bizarreness of the concept, and for some genuinely moving moments involving the homeless man and the toys.