Anime Supremacy! (2022) by Kohei Yoshino

A first-time anime director becomes involved in a ratings war with her hero while attempting to see her creative vision brought to fruition. Hitomi Saito (Riho Yoshioka) quits a solid career as a public servant to enter the highly competitive world of anime. Seven years later, in charge of her first project as director, she is keen to see her story realised, not least as her series will be going up against another from famed director Chiharu Oji (Tomoya Nakamura), whose work first inspired her to enter the industry. Hitomi must navigate issues with her staff as well as concerns from the network and her production manager Yukishiro (Tasuku Emoto), who wants the reserved Hitomi to do more promotion for the show. Meanwhile, Oji is also going through creative issues much to the frustration of his assistant Kayako (Machiko Ono).

“Anime Supremacy!” is a fun, drama based on a novel of the same name by Mizuki Tsujimura, that shows us behind-the-scenes at an anime production company; showing the high-paced, combative reality of creating what is one of the most popular forms of entertainment in Japan, and increasingly the world. We see the rush to deadlines, the vast amount of talent it takes to put an episode together, and the conversations between the creatives and the business-minded management. Riho Yoshioka gives a superb comedic performance as Hitomi, with her charmingly expressive characterisation also leaving room for moments of thoughtfulness and passion. Tomoya Nakamura and Machiko Ono also have great on-screen chemistry, with the troubled artist constantly at odds with his overworked assistant. There is a huge supporting cast here and some of them miss out on character development. This is particularly true with Kazuna (Karin Ono), whose side-story goes nowhere despite her being an engaging addition as a brilliant artist completely wrapped up in her own world. The direction is energetic, with occasional flashes of creativity, especially the animated additions showing the battle between the two shows as an ongoing race between the protagonists.

Fans of anime will no doubt enjoy the film as a look at the creative processes and some of the characters who bring to life these fantastical shows. While at times the film is confused in its messaging, attempting to juggle the stories of Hitomi, Chiharu, and to a lesser extent Kazuna, the characters are interesting and the central rivalry ensures we are invested in the ending. Hitomi is someone who has a singular vision and this single-mindedness leads her to neglecting or under-appreciating her colleagues. As she matures through the film we see her gradually begin to understand the value of teamwork and the efforts of others. There is also a strong theme running through about the struggle of artists to protect their work from the predations of corporate interests who want to sanitise everything for marketability. Interestingly both animators in the film choose a different path in the end and it is left to the audience to decide what is most important, success as defined by financial gain or popularity, or as defined by cleaving to your own ideals.

Yakuza and the Family (2020) by Michihito Fujii

A poignant story of a young man’s involvement in a crime family told over two decades. In 1999, Kenji Yamamoto (Go Ayano) attends the funeral of his father, who died through drug abuse. Shortly after he finds a surrogate parent in the figure of Hiroshi Shibazaki (Hiroshi Tachi), who recruits him into his yakuza organization. 6 years later Kenji has risen to be one of the most respected members of the gang, and a personal favourite of the boss. He falls for a club hostess named Yuka (Machiko Ono) and looks out for the son of a murdered yakuza member, Tsubasa. Following a lengthy jail sentence for murder, Ken returns to the outside world in 2019 to find things much changed for those around him, discovering that Tsubasa (Hayato Isomura) has become tangentially involved in the same world as his father.

Writer-Director Michihito Fujii creates a stylish crime thriller in “Yakuza and the Family”, an emotional character-driven drama punctuated by flashes of violence. Languid shots of sunsets and cityscapes give way to creative handheld camerawork as we are plunged into the viscerally brutal realities of gang life. The sleek visuals of Keisuke Imamura’s cinematography don’t overpower the drama, but allow the story to slip in and out of the romanticised aesthetic of the Yakuza genre. Taro Iwashiro’s score also compliments the story perfectly, capturing the harsh exterior and underlying fragility of the characters. The large and impressive cast give a captivating ensemble performance. Go Ayano’s “Ken” is a deeply vulnerable and conflicted character, circumstance having driven him into a life of crime. There is a childlike aspect to him to, most obvious in his faltering relationship with Machiko Ono’s Yuka. Ono gives a powerful performance as Yuka, dragged into the orbit of the yakuza largely against her will, defined by her relationships with Ken and her daughter, but with a strong sense of self preservation and steely resolve. Ryutaro Ninomiya (director of “Sweating the Small Stuff”) also features in a small yet important role as Ohara. Hayato Isomura, as the older Tsubasa, is one of the most sympathetic characters, as we see him falling into the same trap as Ken while searching for a father figure.

“Yakuza and the Family” is a film about the paternal and fraternal bonds of organized crime families, but also about the need of young men for father figures. Both Ken and Tsubasa both appear as drifting, directionless, characters, lacking a role model or figure to turn to for support or comfort. Their search for acceptance, perhaps even love, drives them to the overemphasis of their masculine aggression and pride, Ken through becoming a vicious Yakuza member, and Tsubasa becoming a fighter. The yakuza are often referred to as a ‘family’, but we see here that it is a twisted, house-of-mirrors version of family, providing the members with only a poor simulacrum of a genuine parent-child relationship. The film ends on a bittersweet note, highlighting both the dark side of crime, yet also the importance of kindness and charity and the impact it can have on others. A superb character-driven Yakuza drama with an excellent cast that is well worth a watch.

The Mourning Forest (2007) by Naomi Kawase

Machiko (Machiko Ono) has recently started work at a nursing home for the elderly in rural Kansai. It is revealed in flashback that she has lost a young son in an unspecified accident after letting go of his hand, something for which her partner cannot forgive her. One of the care home residents, Shigeki (Shigeki Uda), is a man struggling with dementia whose wife died thirty-three years ago. Shigeki struggles with outbursts of emotion and anger, especially when Machiko attempts to move his bag. A priest visiting the home tells them that thirty-three years after death a person will become one with Buddha, and therefore will be unreachable by the living. Machiko and Shigeki develop a relationship that grows warmer as time progresses and she decides to take him on a day trip. When the car breaks down, the two are stranded in the countryside. Shigeki leads her on a long hike through the woods, during which they both process their grief.

“The Mourning Forest” is a heartfelt look at death and the effect it has on those left behind. It is explained later in the film that “Mogari” (in the Japanese title) refers to not only the period of mourning, but the place of mourning. For Machiko and Shigeki, the journey through the forest is a metaphorical journey through grief to acceptance. We learn little about Machiko’s son and Shigeki’s wife, and there is a palpable emptiness at the heart of the film that perfectly captures the feeling of bereavement. The sequence in which Shigeki plays a duet before being left along with the plaintive notes of his solo melody ringing out in the dark perfectly typifies this sense of loss following the death of a loved one. The performances from Machiko Ono and Shigeki Uda are raw and believable. Machiko is a character putting a brave face on her loss, attempting to find reason for living. Even in his confusion, Shigeki senses that something is missing from his life. The priest early in the film explains that living has two meanings, not only physically existing but feeling and experiencing things. It is often the case that people close themselves off from the world following the passing of a loved one. In their arduous hike through the forest, Machiko and Shigeki, experience hardships and suffering as well as positive moments, and it is all of these combined that contribute to a sense of living. The film features some stunning cinematography, particularly in the shots of the natural world, whether a butterfly hovering above a stream or the towering trees of the forest. There is a gentle piano score that compliments this sense of a rural idyll, and a natural world that can be both beautiful and terrifying.

The film will not be for everyone. At times it is slow and ponderous, often with little dialogue, focussing on the cinematography, score and acting to tell its story. The dark themes, of loss and mourning, also make it a tough watch. However, the film’s gentle contemplation of death is handled well and the beautiful direction and superb acting make it worthwhile for those looking for something with deep meaning and resonance.