Wonder Wall (2018) by Yuki Maeda

The historic Konoe student dormitory building in Kyoto, built in 1905, is nearing the end of its life. The university authorities want to demolish it, believing it to be unsafe. For 10 years the students who live there have been arguing to protect the dorm, with ongoing discussions with the university and student services providing a common cause for them. Cupie (Ren Sudo) and Masara (Kazunori Mimura) are idealistic freshmen, believing that the integrity of the dormitory must be preserved. Their group of student activitists are led by Mifune (Haya Nakazaki), an older student who has taken on the role of spokesperson for the group, and his deputy Shimura (Amane Okayama). Their struggle against University bureaucracy, represented by a no-nonsense middle-aged receptionist nicknamed ‘Tetrapod’, is complicated when Mifune’s sister, Kaori (Riko Narumi) begins work at the student servives desk.

“Wonder Wall” is a simple film, revolving around the debate of whether or not to knock down the dormitory, with broader allegorical significance. Early in the film there is reference to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the southern border wall proposed in the United States. These call to mind other political moments where young people have been instrumental in combatting forces of oppression and division. The students’ fight against the authorities is not particularly about the dormitory, with the students themselves realising something needs to be done about it, but instead represents for them the importance of standing up to authority and having your say. The students understand that they are fighting a losing battle, but continue regardless, believing that it is the fight itself that is important more than the eventual outcome. The struggle is what binds them together and gives them a purpose. The film also represents the freedom of youth against the rigid authoritarian structures of society, represented by impenetrable levels of bureaucracy. The bohemian lifestyle of the students is perfectly depicted, with them sleeping where they like; empty bottles strewn around; raucous meetings to discuss protocol for rubbish in their commune-like residence; and the chaotic backdrop of clothes and books strewn around their accommodation.

Yuki Maeda’s direction, with hand-held camerawork, wandering through the dormitory, or in amongst the group as they confront student services, makes you feel a part of the students’ environment and their struggle, fully immersed in the disordered yet liberating atmosphere of rebellious youth. The naturalistic performances and large supporting cast also help give a sense of believability with costumes and set-design telling much of the story too. The screenplay by Aya Watanabe does a good job of focussing on the particular struggle of these students, while leaving room for interpretation. It raises questions about the human urge to confront authority; the importance of freedom of expression and protest; how students have changed, or not, through the years; and also what the dormitory symbolises for the students. The performance of a song by supporters of the dormitory give a glimpse of what it is they are truly working to protect. They know that the building is probably unsuitable, even potentially dangerous, but it is the human element that they are fighting for, the sense of community that they have found, and the idealism of youth, that they want to preserve and carry forward with them.

Burst City (1982) by Sogo Ishii

A wild joyride through the heart of the punk subculture of the early 1980’s, “Burst City” offers a snapshot of the rebellious spirit of a generation. The film revolves around a number of punk gangs and their struggles against the police, each other, and the development of a new nuclear power plant. Every night these leather-clad young men and women gather to rock out to punk bands, take drugs and drag race. Meanwhile, two vigilantes on a motorbike and side-car, drive around looking for revenge for an earlier murder; and a man pimps out a young woman to wealthy businessmen.

“Burst City” plunges us into the heart of the riotous, chaotic heart of the punk movement, capturing and embodying the essence of anarchism, youthful exuberance, violence, and excess that typified it. The plot, such as it is, takes a back seat to a montage of exciting moments, whether it is people engaging in racing their tooled-up cars or the musical performances of several popular punk bands such as The Roosters, The Rockers, and The Stalin. It feels at times much more like a documentary than a film, a collage of characters and scenes that come together to present a complete picture of the period. Sogo Ishii’s direction embraces the spirit of the punk subculture, with a dizzyingly active camera often fighting its way through the action, flashing lights, speeded up footage, and raw energy and creativity mirroring the energy of the subjects. The punk aesthetic exudes from every frame and the rough way the plot and scenes hang together only adds to its charm. The music provided by the punk bands involved also offers a raucous, passionate rage to the film.

As a cultural documentary, “Burst City” offers us a look at a startling and era-defining time. Anti-authoritarian youth sub-cultures found their most strident voices in the punk movement. The shadow of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still hung over post-war Japan, morphing into the activism against nuclear power and nuclear weapons through subsequent decades. Ishii’s film does not delve too deeply into the values and politics of its protagonists. Though we see them fighting with the power plant developers and the police, this seems to be largely down to them being seen as natural enemies, rather than an in-depth discussion of the rights and wrongs of their position. In one amusing scene we see a group of punks asking each other what day it is and what they should be doing, their supreme goal to bring down the goverment and authority forgotten in a haze of alcohol and fatigue from nightly revels. The film seems to both promote their values, while also criticizing their lack of meaningful contribution to society. Likewise, we see this moral ambiguity in the treatment of women. While the young woman forced into prostitution is raped and abused by the businessmen. her horrifying ordeal stands in stark contrast to the mixed-sex congregations of the punk band audiences, and the genderfluidity of their fashion and make-up choices. We also see the drug use affecting the scene, with people lost to the needle, while others enjoy more harmless pursuits. The punk scene is shown as one full of contradictions, with violence and agression sitting alongisde youthful joie de vivre and a search for fun and community. If you want to understand what the punk movement was about and what it meant to those who lived through it, this film offers a warts-and-all portrayal of the scene.

NEET Election (2015) by Hikaru Okita and Kiminari Suzuki

Chihiro Inagaki (Kento Kasahara) is a 30-year old NEET, not in education, employment or training. Despite being a top student, and graduating from a prestigious university, he quit his first job after three months after realising that the world of work was not what he had expected. Following his short-lived career he heads to Tokyo to become an actor, but alas this is also doomed to failure. Finding himself back in his hometown of Niigata, he is struggling to get a job, being rejected from every interview he applies for. Chihiro moves into a share-house with other 30-somethings lacking gainful employment, these include Yumi, a woman who still harbours dreams of working in a maid café, Shiho, a former idol, Shinnosuke and Mr. K, a wannabe wrestler never seen without his mask on. The group want to take over one of the shuttered units in the local shopping precinct, but they are unable to convince anyone to lend them money or support their efforts. Finding himself at a loss, Chihiro meets a man who tells him the best way to get the government to listen is to stand to be an assemblyman in the upcoming city elections. Chihiro sets out to do just this, listening to residents problems and working on his pitch to represent the young people of Niigata city.

“NEET Election” is a solid idea but sadly lacking in its execution. It meanders around far too often and needlessly stretches a thin plot to breaking point. The film is intended as a comedy, but a lot of the jokes fall flat. It is clear that the filmmakers wanted to go for a wacky, loveable comedy about a man struggling against the system, but the set-ups and payoffs of the jokes just aren’t really there. One example of where the film does live up to the promise of an over-the-top comedy is in an impromptu flash-mob performance in the centre of town to generate interest in Chihiro’s campaign. But this feels a little out of place in comparison with the rest of the film that revolves around him talking to citizens, delivering speeches and listening to their problems. A bigger problem than the dearth of comedic moments is the lack of any serious connection with the characters. We find out about the shopkeepers who are struggling through the recession, but the woman whose sweetshop is on the verge of closure seems unconcerned, and we don’t see people particularly concerned about it. Likewise, Chihiro’s fellow NEETs seem to almost shrug off their situation, not pleased by it, but far form angry or upset by the lack of jobs. A moment later in the film, where Chihiro is accosted by two women asking about Japan’s nuclear energy industry, again gives an example of where the film could have delved a little deeper into the difficulties of running for office, but it is almost passed over.

The film doesn’t really succeed as a comedy or political drama, with too few laughs and too little detail or emotional investment garnered for the characters. This is a shame because voter apathy is something that is a real problem and the film had the potential to create engagement with the subject of politics. Kasahara is good in the lead role, and the supporting cast do their best with the material, but it could have gone much further in detailing the genuine problems faced by people and how difficult it is to break through in the political system. Instead it comes across as a bland exploration of its subject, never fully developing the premise into something entertaining.