Godzilla Minus One (2023) by Takashi Yamazaki

In the dying days of World War Two, kamikaze pilot Koichi Shikishima (Ryunosuke Kamiki) abandons his mission, returning to a nearby base on Odo island. When the island is attacked, by a sea monster the locals call Godzilla, only Koichi and the chief engineer Tachibana (Munetaka Aoki) survive. Koichi returns to Tokyo in shame where he meets a young woman, Noriko (Minami Hamabe) and child Akiko, who have been orphaned by the bombing raids on the city. The three of them begin living together, but their peace is threatened when Godzilla, now supersized by post-war nuclear tests in the ocean, re-emerges to devastate large areas of the city. Koichi, along with a minesweeper crew he is working with, joins a group of ex-navy civilians, who hatch a plan to take down Godzilla when it appears again.

Written and directed by Takashi Yamazaki, “Godzilla Minus One” takes place in the years following the Second World War, capturing the thematic resonance of Ishiro Honda’s 1953 “Godzilla”. Godzilla can be seen as a representation of the horror of nuclear war, and the incredible sequences when the creature attacks depict this perfectly. Humans are insignificant and their weapons woefully ineffective in stopping the rampaging creature. It is a war film that replaces battlefield scenes with a symbolic representation of the sheer terror and incomprehensible violence of war. A Godzilla film is only as strong as its human protagonists, and Koichi’s journey, from his shame at running from his suicidal duty to realising his true calling in taking care of Akiko and Noriko, provides a great focus for the drama. We also have great supporting characters, such as Tachibana, an engineer whose entire crew is wiped out by the creature; the young Mizushima, who feels he has missed out by not being conscripted to the war; Shikishima’s neighbour Sumiko (Sakura Ando), who berates Koichi for shirking his kamikaze mission when so many others have died for the country; and many of the ex-naval officers, who fear that they are to be plunged into another unwinnable conflict after barely surviving the last one. The film’s special effects are a marvel, showing the incredible size of Godzilla as it devastates the city, knocking buildings aside and blasting areas with its nuclear beam. The sequences at sea are also amazingly well done, with the human characters feeling very exposed in the face of this leviathon. The film also does a superb job with the period setting, feeling completley believable, with the bombed out remnants of Tokyo suburbs, and the historic train networks and Ginza district, as well as the military ships and planes. The film owes a debt to the 1954 original, and could be seen as a retelling or an homage, albeit with new characters and story. This is brought home by the use of Akira Ifukube’s origiginal Godzilla theme which adds a dramatic and nostalgic touch. The score by Naoki Sato provides an epic, sentimental and awe-inspiring accompaniment to the action.

Godzilla has always had a strongly anti-war and anti-nuclear message, with the creature being the perfect stand-in for the harrowing attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that closed out the Pacific conflict. “Godzilla Minus One” questions the Japanese involvement in the war, with Koichi’s role as a kamikaze pilot being the prime example. He feels ashamed that he saved his own life rather than dying for his country. However, it becomes apparent that perhaps having young men throw their lives away for the Emperor was not only cruel and unecessary, but actually counter-productive. As they prepare to tackle Godzilla, Noda is at pains to point out that they intend to save lives and that suicide missions are at odds with their newfound respect for life and protecting civilians. It is a change in mindset that marks a shift from enforced self-sacrifice imposed at the will of a dictatorial militaristic system to a belief in preserving life at all costs. That saving yourself and your family is nothing to be ashamed of. There is nothing noble or honourable about war or dying, instead it is a necessary evil in a world in which terrors and external threats exist. An incredibly powerful film, not only in the stunning visual effects and awesome monster attacks, but in the emotional heart of the film, Koichi, Noriko and Akiko’s surrogate family finding a path through the horrors they have witnessed.

Shin Kamen Rider (2023) by Hideaki Anno

The Kamen (or “Masked”) Rider character is a long-standing Japanese superhero who needs little introduction to the domestic audience having appeared in popular manga and television series. Hidaki Anno’s reboot does a great job of introducing the character to those less familiar with him. An insect-human hybrid (or “Aug” as they are known in this world), our protagonist Takeshi Hongo (Sosuke Ikematsu) has had his DNA fused with that of a grasshopper, gaining that insect’s incredible agility and other abilities. Hongo is given a brief run-down of his new powers by Doctor Midorikawa (Shinya Tsukamoto) who worked on the program that created him, before Hongo sets off with the doctor’s daughter, Ruriko (Minami Hamabe) to fight the other animal human hybrids (including a bat, scorpion, and wasp) before taking on the ultimate danger: the Butterfly Aug, Ruriko’s brother Ichiro, who is determined to steal the life energy from every living thing on earth. Hongo is also joined by a second Masked Rider in the form of Hayato Ichimonji (Tasuku Emoto), who is at first reluctant to fight alongside him.

Director Hideaki Anno (best known for the “Evangelion” franchise) was brought up on shows such as Kamen (“Masked”) Rider, with their mix of bizarre Sci-Fi action and genre bending plots. His love of the series shines through here (Anno co-wrote the film with Shotaro Ishinomori who worked on the series) as “Shin Kamen Rider” doesn’t attempt to modernise or update the original, instead retaining the feel of an older, serialized drama. The costumes may have been slightly modified, but are still recognizably those of the original. Everything from the wacky plots, the fight-sequences that take place in abandoned industrial sites, to the melodramatic score by Taku Iwasaki, it all feels nostalgic for a different era of superheroes. The higher budget is evidenced in a couple of stand-out fight sequences: the anime-inspired duel with Wasp-Aug (Nanase Nishino), and the superhero-esque battle involving Tasuku Emoto’s second masked rider. The film’s action sequences are decidedly brutal, with copious amounts of blood spattered around and the choreography is fun, again reminicent of older martial arts films. Anno’s direction is a great fit for this film, with his use of creative camera angles and willingness to utilise a variety of styles, moving from simple one-on-one battles to special effects laden sequences, creating that manic tone befitting the live-action comic action. Fans of the original series will no doubt enjoy this new take on the character, familiar but with a modern polish, while those new to Kamen Rider will enjoy the retro-action.

Perhaps surprisingly for a series based on the premise that motorbikes and insects are cool, “Shin Kamen Rider” has a surprising thematic and emotional depth. The central idea running throughout is humanity’s search for happiness, something both protagonists and antagonists continually refer to. The villains wish to either control everyone, thereby destroying free will and the potential for negative emotions; or simply remove their souls, again with the same effect. The protagonists on the other hand, realise that this is not an ideal solution and instead wonder if it is possible to find happiness while maintaining a sense of individual identity. Other ideas thrown into the mix are themes of transhumanism and the potential advances in genomic science, and Artificial Intelligence; and no retro-science fiction would be complete without a sinister capitalist corporation exploiting science for military application and profit. “Shin Kamen Rider” in many ways is an antidote to the recent slew of reboots and remakes which attempt to modernise their properties or make them more in keeping with modern sensibilities. Instead the film revels in nostalgia, with its off-beat explanations of the various elements that were perhaps never intended to be explained, and brings us right back to the feeling original audiences must have felt sitting in front of the television waiting expectantly for the next instalment. A fun, nostalgic superhero film that is sure to bring new audiences to the franchise.

HELLO WORLD (2019) by Tomohiko Ito

Naomi Katagaki (Takumi Kitamura) is a shy, bookish high-schooler who is assigned to the school’s library team, alongside other students including Ruri Ichigyo (Minami Hamabe). Ruri is also quiet and it seems that the two would make a good couple if either was confident enough to make the first move. The Kyoto of 2027, when the film is set, is part of a large scale project by the government to record the city for a vast historical record. Naomi is forced into action when he meets a future version of himself who explains to him that Naomi’s reality is in fact a version of Kyoto stored in a computer system known as Alltale. This future Naomi (Tori Matsuzaka), explains that it is imperative that he establishes a romantic relationship with Ruri and protects her from a tragedy that is to occur in the near future. With his future self’s help, Naomi sets about doing this, also being given a powerful tool to manipulate the simulated world around him; but things to not go smoothly when the system begins to reject the changes that they are causing to the historical record.

Based on a screenplay by Mado Nozaki and directed by Tomohiko Ito, “HELLO WORLD” switches up the highschool romance formula with elements of time-travel and science-fiction. Naomi is a familiarly sympathetic awkward teen, who struggles to confess his feelings to Ruri, who later transforms into something more akin to a superhero along with world-changing powers. It is an interesting dynamic, drawing together the two genres of high-school romance and superhero action. The film pulls several narrative twists throughout that keep things interesting and break with tradition, reveals about the true nature of the world and character motivations.

Heavily utilising computer-aided design and animation techniques, these stylistic choices pay off later in the film with truly incredible moments when Naomi’s reality begins to break apart around him. The use of computer animation also allows for a striking contrast between rainbow coloured elements and hyper-realistic backgrounds that gives the film a unique feel and helps further the sense of a world that is at once tactile and believable yet prone to collapsing into a the maelstrom of a corrupted computer system. The visualisation of computer program elements, a mix of authoritarian police officers and folkloric animal spirits further demonstrates the film’s creative blending of genres and styles. It is a testament to the strength of the protagonists that with such a chaotic backdrop of collapsing realities, not to mention the very nature of their own existence, that the central relationship between Naomi and Ruri manages to hold our attention and inspire sympathy for their situation.

“HELLO WORLD” is a curious film as it juggles several plots at the same time. Naomi’s relationship with Ruri, his attempt to become the hero of his own story, win the beautiful maiden and save her and the world from its impending doom, is a familiar journey for young male protagonists. Through his spiritual and emotional guide, the older version of himself, he learns to be confident and finally manages to transcend even his ‘all-knowing’ mentor to become able to direct his own destiny. The other theme the film tackles is the nature of reality and questions around fate, free will and the purpose of our personal struggles. Naomi takes the knowledge that he is part of a computer program surprisingly calmly, considering he is being told that he is not living in the real world, only a simulation. Everything around him is essentially pre-recorded and therefore predestined. This new understanding of the world around him gives him great power, allowing him to manipulate the events and people around them as his future self directs him to. It also challenges the audience to consider if it would be possible to alter this ‘reality’, something the computer program attempts to counter as it would jeopardize the stability of the system. More interestingly than these free will versus determinism questions, is the focus on Naomi’s own psychology. He continues to fight for Ruri, whom at first he is even reticent to talk to, despite learning that in fact this world he is in is not the true reality. It is an interesting dilemma and highlights the idea that humans can only interact with the world subjectively. To Naomi, his experience is all that matters; there is no point fighting for anything other than his own desires, even those of his future self. “HELLO WORLD” is a film that weaves a psychological science-fiction narrative through a romantic high-school melodrama, creating a story that toys with your mind as much as your emotions.

Kakegurui (2019) Tsutomu Hanabusa

Hyakkao Academy is a prestigious establishment for the elite with a peculiar code of conduct. School life is governed by gambling, something that all students are expected to participate in. Those unable to pay their fees to the academy become the ‘pets’ of the wealthier students. The student council rules over this draconian hierarchy, enforcing the rules and ensuring that those of the lower classes don’t step out of line. There are no teachers or lessons, instead everything is a matter of money and chance, with the lucky destined for greatness and the unlucky pushed to the bottom of the pile. One student, Yumeko Jabami (Minami Hamabe), seems to possess a preternatural gift for gambling, able to turn almost any situation to her advantage and blessed with good luck. She soon becomes a beacon of hope for other downtrodden students, who see in her an example of how they might all succeed given one fortuitous turn of events.

The school is not entirely beholden to the council and a group of breakaway students known as “The Village” have established a refuge, shunning gambling and living in an equitable way with others. This group of almost religiously ascetic students are led by Itsuki Sumeragi (Ruka Matsuda) and Amane Murasame (Hio Miyazawa). The student council is unimpressed by this alternative society and the head of the student council Kirari Momobari (Elaiza Ikeda) decides on a course of action that will force them to gamble, by offering a blank wish-fulfilment paper to the winner of the upcoming election tournament. Students enter in pairs, the fate of the school to be decided by games of chance.

“Kakegurui” is based on a manga by Homura Kawamoto and a subsequent television drama series. The film throws us right into the action, with a heavy exposition dump early on explaining how the school works and a who’s who of the main players. The premise is wacky, requiring a significant suspension of disbelief, but acts as a perfect metaphor for capitalist societies where money decides everything. The students at the school are so privileged that the only thing that can truly separate them is their ruthlessness and willingness to risk everything on chance. The village, by contrast, offers a utopian vision of a world where everyone is equal, and where money holds no power over people. This high-concept approach offers an exciting opportunity for a discussion of these themes while keeping the tone light and frivolous.

The cast do a great job with the comic feel, often over the top, melodramatic posturing and cartoonish expressions highlighting the absurdity of what is happening. Marika Ito in particular is highly enjoyable as Tomu Inuhachi, whose outsider status and comic tomboy performance is hugely endearing. There is a large cast and each member manages to create something special with their character, making them instantly recognizable and their personalities shine through. In keeping with the live-action manga style, they are almost all played as eccentric caricatures. The design is also clearly inspired by the manga, with sets and costumes all hyper-realistic or caricatured. With the red-black uniforms reminiscent of casino croupiers, and the white robes of the villagers lending them a religious aspect.

The film does lose its way somewhat in the second half. It gets bogged down in the technicalities of two of the games that are to decide the council elections. These games take up a large portion of the run-time, and although unavoidable they can become a slog. This is not the biggest problem with the latter portion of the film though. The idea of the village versus the school is a perfect antagonistic clash of world views and it is immediately apparent which system is preferable. The set up early on leads you to believe that this is a film with a message about rapacious upper classes and downtrodden unfortunates. It seems clear that the villagers will show a better path, one that circumvents the need for participation in this system. However, the leaders of this group are also forced to participate. While the ending is upbeat you are left with the strange feeling that nothing was really gained by the characters as they are back in the same situation as before, perhaps worse since they have succumbed to the same avarice and lust for money that typifies their rivals in the school. The filmmakers intention was clearly to make a knockabout comedy rather than a socio-economic satire, but it means that the film does not really hold together at a thematic level, unless you consider it to be a double-bluff (possible in a film about gambling) and that actually the message is intended to be “the house always wins”.

Kakegurui Compulsive Gambler is a fun, live-action manga adaptation. The performances are enjoyable and the plot is engaging, taking some unusual turns. Worth watching if you are looking for a distracting comedy with plenty of fun moments and over-the-top acting, but disappointing in that it could have gone for a more powerful message in the latter half.

I Want to Eat Your Pancreas (2017)

As a high-school teacher (Shun Oguri) is sorting the books in the library by Dewey numbers with a group of students, he is reminded of his former classmate, Sakura Yamauchi (Minami Hamabe), with whom he had a close relationship at school. The film then turns to this story with the younger boy, a retiring, lonely figure, meeting the popular, chirpy Sakura. While at hospital he finds her diary and learns that she has pancreatic cancer, with perhaps only a year to live. With her secret exposed, Sakura becomes friends with him as he is the only person with whom she can share her inner turmoil. The two of them spend time together on what might be described as a series of dates, although their relationship does not move beyond a fond friendship. Unlike other films of its kind, in which a terminal illness provides a tragic basis for a romantic relationship, this is not a saccharine story of young sweethearts. Sakura’s reasons for confiding in him are as much selfish as driven by romantic interest, with the main reason being an unwillingness to distress her best friend Kyoko.

The film utilises flashbacks to tell its story and without a doubt the scenes with the younger actors are the strongest parts. The framing device of the older characters does resolve itself into an emotional climax at the end of the film, but for the most part is a distraction from the genuinely enjoyable interaction between the young boy and Sakura. Minami Hamabe is incredible as Sakura: bright, charismatic, but harbouring deep fears and sorrow which occasionally surface. Takumi Kitamura provides a good foil, being the polar opposite in many ways, he is initially awkward, his stoic acceptance of life and Sakura’s fate complimenting her outgoing, fun-loving persona. Later in the film he also has scenes of deep sadness that are more impactful following his quiet, subtle performance earlier. Another enjoyable performance is that of Yuma Yamoto, the gum chewing classmate, who appears regularly as comic relief, with one major recurring joke. Sho Tsukikawa’s direction is beautiful with some interesting transitions between the past and present. For the most part the direction and music are what might be expected from a high-school romance. The story is adapted from a novel by Yoru Sumino, with a screenplay by Yoshida Tomoko. The dialogue is well-written and the moving back and forth through time gives the film a good sense of rhythm as you wait to see where both stories are leading.

A heartbreaking story with a poignant message about treating each day as if it were your last. This is a common theme and there are a few films of this type, but by keeping things unsentimental for the most part makes the final dramatic scenes here more impactful. Sakura is not under any illusions about her fate and both the young character’s acceptance of this tragic fact is a great example of enjoying life despite adversity.