Under the Stars (2020) by Tatsushi Omori

A young girl begins to question her parents belief in an unusual cult in this examination of faith and family. As Chihiro Hayashi suffered with terrible exczma as an infant, her father was recommended a miracle water, apparently imbued with cosmic energy. When they rub this on Chihiro she is cured of her painful skin condition. Now at primary school, Chihiro (Mana Ashida) and her parents are still part of this cult, drinking the ‘blessed’ water provided by the organization daily, while her parents are further involved in odd rituals of dousing themselves in water, and buying various products from the sect. Chihiro’s older sister (Aju Makita) is sceptical, refusing to completely follow their rules, and eventually distancing herself from them. However, despite the teasing of her friend Nabe (Ninon), and the concerns of her uncle Yuzo (Kohei Otomo), Chihiro is reluctant to leave her parents.

Based on the book by Natsuko Imamura, with a screenplay by director Tatsushi Omori, “Under the Stars” is a touching coming-of-age drama about an often overlooked problem: that of children growing up in religious households, unable to reject their parents beliefs. While Chihiro’s parents are not violent or abusive, in fact they are shown as loving and kind towards their daughter, they believe in a nonsensical placebo: something that is ridiculed by many around Chihiro. While their behaviour is bizarre to the audience, it appears perfectly natural to Chihiro, who has grown up surrounded by these beliefs. Mana Ashida gives a great performance as the young Chihiro, dealing with regular schoolgirl issues such as a crush on her teacher Minami (Masaki Okada) as well as the conflict between her parents, friends and extended family. She is well-adjusted in spite of her parents asking her to do strange things, such as wearing a pair of glasses to alter the way she sees the world; or drinking the expensive bottles of water in order to prevent illness. Masatoshi Nagase and Tomoyo Harada are also excellent as her loving yet misguided parents, playing straight-faced their adherence to the cult’s practices. They are sympathetic figures, especially as their entry to the cult was prompted by their daughter’s illness and seems well-intentioned in attempting to prevent harm to her and others. Chihiro is caught between two worlds, exemplified by her school friend Nabe, and Sanae (Ai Mikami), another child brought up in the cult. The film avoids sentimentality, with most of the responses to Chihiro’s family being confusion or mild amusement. Chihiro’s uncle Yuzo’s attempts to break them out of this mindset is one of the more emotionally raw moments, showing his distress at what has happened to his sister’s family.

“Under the Stars” ends on an ambiguous note, showing the ludicrous fiction that Chihiro’s parents are living, yet at the same time making clear their love for their daughter. This echoes the film’s central theme that good people can be easily manipulated by these groups. Minami teaches mathematics and science, suggesting that Chihiro is stuck between worlds of fact and fantasy, reality and religion. Having being misinformed her entire life, and slowly seeing the truth, she nevertheless clings to her parents and wants to please them. The film sheds light on the practice of cults making money off credulous and well-meaning individuals, while depicting the positive and negative aspects of piety, in Chihiro’s bond with her parents and their adherence to the organization. A powerful film about the tragedy of growing up in a cult, and the strength of human relationships and religious convictions.

The Many Faces of Ito-Kun A to E (2018)

Scriptwriter Rio Yazaki (Fumino Kimura) is teaching a class on writing drama, telling them to avoid the clichés of fateful love-at-first-sight meetings. Her student Seijiro Ito (Masaki Okada) tells her he has experienced just such a chance encounter with the girl of his dreams. Yazaki is working on a new drama to top her popular series “The Doll House”. Following a talk to female fans decides to use the stories of several women in the audience to base her new work on. The women, given letters to protect their identities, are interviewed in turn and we see their stories. The first has been in love with a man for five years who has never returned her affections. The second wants to avoid the attentions of her admirer. C and D are friends who are both interested in the same man. It transpires that at the centre of their loves and heartbreaks is the same man: Ito. Through their stories we also learn a little about Yazaki’s own past in flashback, and her opinions on women.

Bassed on the novel by Asako Yuzuki, with a screenplay by Kohei Kiyasu, the film has an interesting structure with several layers of stories wrapping the central plot of the novelist working on her new book. Ryuichi Hiroki directs the film at a relaxed pace with an unflashy style that keeps your attention on the characters. In the second half of the film we begin to get some genuine emotional weight, with the consequences of Ito’s various relationships appearing one after another. The film presents a number of issues surrounding relationships, but it somewhat confusing as you are never quite sure if this is really happening; or whether it is Yazaki’s personal anxieties coming out in her telling or imagining of the stories. Rio Yazaki is an interesting character, played brilliantly by Fumino Kimura. She is highly motivated and willing to sacrifice almost everything to her dream of writing. We learn that a previous relationship ended badly and set her against the idea of love existing in the real world. She is aware that relationships are messy. She offers a strong role model for women in that she doesn’t believe they should be so focussed on impressing men. Ito is a little harder to understand, on the one hand he is portrayed as a playboy, dating or flirting with five different women throughout the course of the drama, but he is also scared of relationships and commitment. Masaki Okada is likeable but the character himself is so hard to fathom that you spend most of the film wondering if this is real or not, and how much is speculation on the part of Yazaki. The film attempts to put a neat bow on things at the end, in a scene that takes an exceptionally long time to explain what is in essence a fairly typical theme. It would perhaps have been better for the film to remain ambiguous about its intentions, as the multiple narrative threads offer the viewer so many more possibilities for meaning than the film eventually presents as its own summation.

The film explores the complex relationships between men and women, dissecting some of the various tropes of romantic dramas such as unrequited love or love triangles. A reflection on women’s views of men, through Yazaki’s view of Ito. Yazaki has become somewhat cold to the idea of real love, seeing it only as a money making tool through her writing, due to her past heartbreak. She looks down on the women who come to her, believing them to be naïve to believe in love. It is an atypical romantic drama that has more going on beneath the surface of its apparent adherence to the tropes of the genre.