Child of Kamiari Month (2021) by Takana Shirai

Primary school student Kanna (Aju Makita) lives with her father (Minako Kotobuki). As the school marathon approaches it stirs up difficult memories of the death of her mother at the previous year’s event. When Kanna breaks down at the marathon and runs away, she meets Shiro (Maaya Sakamoto), a rabbit god who tells her she must run to Izumo in Shimane Prefecture, gathering victuals from various shrines for a feast of the gods that is due to take place soon. Shiro tells her that her mother was an Idaten, a god of running, and Kanna is to take on that mantle. The two are also joined by Yasha (Miyu Irino), a demon with a grudge against the Idaten running gods who lost them their own place among the deities.

“Child of Kamiari Month” is aimed firmly at a younger audience with a formulaic and familiar plot and characters, including a strong-willed heroine and magical side-kicks. The film follows Kanna on a journey of acceptance as she comes to terms with her mother’s absence, creating a fantasy framing to better help both her and the potential audience learn how to grieve. The animation can be static at times, but the film ably sidesteps this issue of motionless backdrops with the introduction of a magical bracelet that freezes time. This provides an interesting environment, real world yet transfigured by raindrops hanging in the air and people frozen in place, as Kanna, Shiro and Yasha, along with various deities, remain mobile. It is fun to see the gods of the various shrines, but it seems like an opportunity was missed to do more with them. Most only appear briefly in a montage of Kanna collecting the produce for the feast. It would have been interesting to explore some of the characters and significance behind them. The score by Jun Ichikawa and Naoki-T is one of the highlights of the film, part whimsical fantasy but shifting to darker tones as the weight of Kanna’s sense of loss becomes more apparent.

The film’s has a simple yet noble message for its audience, showing young children what it is like to deal with the death of a parent, with a comforting and supportive cast of characters helping the protagonist overcome her grief. This is well done, subtly transforming the lost parent into a magical persona with exceptional abilities, no doubt how she is seen by her daughter. Her mother’s divinity forms the second strong theme of the film, with Kanna lacking this ability and perhaps concerned about living up to her expectations. Later in the film Kanna learns that it is a person’s will rather than their genes that define their greatness. It is an excellent message for children, especially those dealing with something similar. The film is also and interesting look at the religious heritage of the society, showing the various gods and shrines emblematic of a polytheistic, collective society, as opposed to a monotheistic one. This is further emphasised by Kanna’s reliance on Shiro and Yasha as companions on her quest. Kanna is both coming to accept the loss of her mother and also reconnecting with a wider society, coming to understand that she is far from alone. “Child of Kamiari Month” is a fun fantasy adventure that tackles difficult themes, though it may lack appeal outside the younger age group.

This Transient Life (1970) by Akio Jissoji

Siblings begin an illicit, incestuous affair in this erotic drama touching on lust and faith from Akio Jissoji. 21-year old Masao Hino (Ryo Tamura) is a disappointment to his father, neither attending university or wishing to follow him into the family business. His friend, priest Ogino (Haruhiko Okamura), introduces him to Master Mori (Eiji Okada), who is hard at work carving a statue of Kanon, goddess of harmony, for his temple. While their parents are away Masao begins a sexual relationship with his 25-year old sister Yuri (Michiko Tsukasa). In order to keep this secret from their parents he tells her she must marry Iwashita (Kotobuki Hananomoto), their groundskeeper. Masao moves away to become an apprentice to Master Mori, later beginning an affair with Mori’s wife, Reiko (Mitsuko Tanaka).

Akio Jissoji’s “This Transient Life”, from a script by Toshiro Ishido, is a beautifully artistic film, displaying its creativity in every frame and scene; fluid direction is used to create a sense of life and vibrancy. A striking example of this is in the scene where the camera snakes its way through the Hino home, following Masao and Yuri, becoming voyeur documentarist while capturing an emotionality and physicality that draws the audience into the moment. The cinematography likewise creates stunning shots that seem full of metaphor and meaning, with angles emphasizing elements of the setting, such as the immovable stones of the temple or the ranks of statues that stand silent watch. These alongside the extreme close-ups help draw a distinction between the living and the dead, the transient and the eternal, in keeping with the themes of the film. The music by Toru Fuyuki is also used in an descriptive capacity, with sudden stings emphasising characters coming to stark, often shocking, realisations. Underlying all of this cinematic inventiveness is a story that harks back to ancient tragedies, drawing in timeless themes of sex, lust and faith. As with the chiaroscuro lighting, the choices faced by the characters are often stark, though their apparent simplicity belies a cauldron of roiling passions and competing desires. Aside from the sex scenes, the action is surprisingly static, with characters often lost in self-reflection or in discussion with others. The real action here is on an emotional and philosophical level, and the actors do a fantastic job with the nuanced portrayals of these characters, striving towards higher purpose in an apparently godless world.

“This Transient Life” is the first of Jissoji’s “Buddhist Trilogy”, though you do not need to be a scholar of the religion to appreciate the themes expressed. They are universal and timeless, a conflict between base human desire and a quest for something more, something transcendent or spiritual, that people have striven for throughout history. Masao is a man who appears to have no morality. As he explains to Ogino the priest, his lack of belief in heaven and hell leads him to act as he will, unconstrained by human law. At several points throughout the film he asks questions of Mori and Ogino that shake their faith. He is a rogue element in a society that is strictly conditioned to follow the precepts set down by religious orders, in this case Buddhist ideals and the notion of a correct or just path. His lust for his sister is a sin that cannot be countenanced by his friend, but in his worldview, the fact that he has the capacity and will to commit such an act seems at odds with any divine plan for humanity. Masao and Ogino have a tete-a-tete in which his troubling philosophy is offered up to the monk, who rejects it, but not without being shocked by its potential truthfulness. The ambiguous nature of the film, in particular the shocking ending, allows the audience to make up their own mind about both faith and morality. A stunning film that illustrates a deeply controversial and thought-provoking story with supreme artistry.

Evangelion 2.0 You Can (Not) Advance (2009) by Hideaki Anno

In this instalment of the “Rebuild of Evangelion” series we are introduced to a new Eva pilot, the feisty, confident Asuka Langley Shikinami (Yuko Miyamura), who joins Shinji (Megumi Ogata) and Rei (Megumi Hayashibara) in battling the Angels. There are a number of other subplots introduced here, with the return of Ryoji Kaji (Koichi Yamadera), a former friend of Katsuragi (Kotono Mitsuishi) who appears to be involved in some sort of plot with the head of NERV. We also see more of the shadowy SEELE organization, and two more Eva pilots, Kaworu Nagisa (Akira Ishida) and Mari Makinami (Maya Sakamoto).

This time round there is much more going on in the story, with the film asking you to keep track of several plot threads. The film manages to fill its run-time with great character interaction, extreme action scenes with clashing Angels and Evas, and numerous mysteries to keep things interesting. Asuka is a great addition as she adds not only more firepower to NERV, but also another stumbling block for the socially awkward Shinji to tackle. We learn more about Katsuragi in this film, and even something about Gendo Ikari (Fumihiko Tachiki) that goes some way towards explaining his cool demeanour. The film sees a step up in the level of violence, underscored with a rock inflected soundtrack from Shiro Sagisu as we see the Evas literally tearing Angels apart, and cities awash with blood. As in the first the animation is incredible in evoking a sense of scale. The film’s mix of mechs and metaphysics comes to a head in the final head-spinning moments when the fate of the earth and humanity are brought to a thrilling (almost) conclusion. This second film builds on everything the first did so well, the intriguing interpersonal struggles, the awe-inspiring action, while adding several more layers to everything to create a film that rewards re-watches for details that perhaps only become clearer with greater context from subsequent films.

“Evangelion 2.0” deals a lot more with the themes of family, friendship and belonging, as we see the children enjoying themselves, and even a tender scene between Shinji and his father. Asuka represents everything Shinji is not, confident and fiery, but both share a sense of selfishness and repressed fear of rejection. The film sets up various conflicts, between Shinji and Asuka, Shinji and his father, SEELE and Gendo, NERV and the Angels. It is a world in which there is no clear sense of right or wrong. Shinji is again forced to work out what he stands for. The film ends with an awesome, tantalising, bewildering cliff-hanger, that upends everything that has gone before and leaves you desperate to find out what will happen to the characters. An incredible sequel that brings together adrenaline-pumping action in a battle of truly Biblical proportions.

Suffering of Ninko (2016)

Ninko (Masato Tsujioka) is a trainee Buddhist monk with a problem: despite a religious proscription against carnal lust, he finds himself irresistible to women. As he walks through the town with his fellow monks he is accosted by women who are barely able to restrain their desire. Being dedicated to his chosen path, Ninko resists any and all temptation, but soon he begins to be visited by strange manifestations in his dreams. As he attempts to ward off the thoughts through recitation of sutras, the visions of lascivious women exposing themselves to him and luring him to unwanted thoughts become to much. He flees the temple and sets off on a pilgrimage to find some kind of solace. On his way he comes across a ronin (Hideta Iwahashi) and the two of them travel together to a remote mountain village. There they hear tell of a mysterious mountain woman (Miho Wakabayashi) who manages to entrap men with sexual desire before killing them. The samurai agrees to kill the woman, ridding the village of this fear, and sets out with Ninko to face this peculiar foe.

“Suffering of Ninko” is the debut feature of Norihiro Niwatsukino, who not only wrote and directed the story but was also responsible for the special effects and animated sequences. The story has a folkloric feel about it and this is played up with the use of narration and the interweaving of traditional-looking animation. The film has a great visual style and although the locations used are sparing it does a good job of recreating the period in costumes and sets. The cinematography by Takayuki Okazaki and Shunichiro Yamamoto is a joy to behold, reminiscent of classic period and samurai dramas with vivid colours and camera work emphasising the ambient beauty. The style of animation reflects Japanese wood-cuts or ancient calligraphy and adds to the film’s charm. Masato Tsujioka does a good job with the character of Ninko, a man who is struggling to balance his innate sexuality with his religious duties. The narration by Quoko Kudo is important in creating a tone for the film that suggests it should be read more as a moralistic fable than a true-life account. The main cast is rounded out with Hideta Iwahashi as Kanzo the ronin and Miho Wakabayashi as Yama-onna.

Although the premise of the film, a sexually irresistible man fighting off the advances of insatiable women, may sound like that of a raunchy sex comedy, in truth the film is actually far more thoughtful than this. “Suffering of Ninko” treads a fine line between the sublime and the base and plays on the apparent contradictions inherent in human nature. Ninko’s role as a priest is in constant conflict with his reality as a man and the innate sexual desires that comes with that. Sexual repression through religion has been a feature of many civilizations and here it is brought to the screen in a way that is not overly sombre, but similarly doesn’t take its subject lightly. The removal of masks by characters during his extended sexual dream suggests that Ninko sees through humanity’s seemingly respectable façade. This is further emphasised by his meeting of the woman in the forest, where she talks to him from behind a mask. Kanzo tells Ninko that he both desires sex and is repelled by it, in the same way that Kanzo desires violence but shies from it. This duality of nature is important. There is a shame attached to sex in modern society that is partly, though not entirely attributable to the control exercised by religious organizations. “Suffering of Ninko” features many scenes set outdoors and Ninko’s escape from the temple shows this return to nature narrative. He is a man struggling against instinctive desires in pursuit of something higher in the form of religious transcendence. The film is one that is worth watching as it presents a unique directorial vision that blends arthouse with low comedy, but has a genuine depth of theme and ideas.

Love Exposure (2008) by Sion Sono

Yu Honda (Takahiro Nishijima) leads a life is one steeped in Christian tradition. Following the death of his mother, a devoutly religious woman, he lives together with his father who turns to the priesthood to deal with his grief. However, his father’s increasingly stringent demands for his son to confess his sins soon leads Yu into the gang lifestyle in order to find something worthy of confession. Yu meets up with a group of tearaway teens who are into shoplifting and soon graduates to taking covert upskirt photos of women, believing sexual perversion to be the one thing that will satiate his father. Meanwhile, Yu’s father falls in love with a sexually aggressive woman who leads him away from his calling as a priest, and Yu continues with his perverse hobby along with his newfound friends. Yu has sworn off sexual or romantic relationships with any woman other than his “Maria”, after his mother told him in his youth that she wanted him to find a girl exactly like the mother of Christ. Unexpectedly, while in drag after losing a bet, Yu meets his Maria in the shape of Yoko (Hikari Mitsushima). This girl is also carrying plenty of emotional and psychological baggage, having suffered physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her promiscuous father. Yoko falls in love with Yu, believing him to be a woman called Miss Scorpion. Unable to confess to her as himself, Yu is in emotional turmoil. A second girl, Aya Koike (Sakura Ando), is meanwhile attempting to destroy Yu’s family, by converting his father to the cult of Zero Church that she is involved with.

Written and directed by Sion Sono the film is clearly the work of an auteur of exceptional talent and unique vision. While a four-hour movie may sound long, Sono’s skill at storytelling and the characters, humour and ideas he manages to pack in make this an enjoyable watch from start to finish. The running time also allows for a full exploration of several of the themes of the movie. The film is chaptered, and with the main three characters of Yu, Yoko and Aya, it is broken up in such a way that maintains the audiences interest throughout. As well as several plot strands, such as Yu’s deception of Yoko as Miss Scorpion, the Zero Church, and even Yu’s father’s romance, each relationship sets up another conflict requiring resolution. The actors all do an incredible job with the material that veers from slapstick to serious without ever undermining itself. Takahiro Nishijima is great as Yu, who is fighting to reconcile his religious upbringing with his emotional urges. It is a credit to him that he creates a believable character of Yu, who could have been simply a caricature pervert. The film later makes a point of contrasting him with just such characters to emphasise his own psychological depth. Aya Koike is a force of nature, manipulative and vicious, though again with good reason. Hikari Mitsushima delivers a spellbinding performance. While her initial appearance seems to suggest a typical angry teenager, as the film progresses and we see her open up emotionally she shows a huge range. In particular her recitation of the biblical passage Corinthians 13 is an incredible piece of acting and one of the highlights of the later portion of the film.

What begins as a satirical look at the perversion of religion and its obsession with deviancy, and in particular sexual deviancy, expands to include various topics. There is throughout an examination of sex, both its dark and destructive aspect as well as its undeniable power and significance in human relations. The film also deals with issues of abuse, emotional, physical and sexual, and how this can impact on the development of individuals. It may be convenient for some to boil the film down to an essential message about the importance of love, or even a more cliched “love conquers all” philosophy, but that would be to miss the point. The film’s multifarious dimensions, the merging and distorting of divine and obscene imagery, suggests an intention to purposely blur the lines between what is and is not sacred or important to humanity. People struggle under the weight of imposed religious morality, and it is openly mocked at times, but there is an understanding that people need something to strive towards or cling to. For some in the film this means substituting the traditional Christian church with a new cult, for others it is an obsession with perversion, for others it is love. “Love Exposure” is rarely condescending, even when pointing out the absurdity of humans. It instead attempts to unravel the various social pressures, psychological foundations, and basic human drivers to understand why humans act the way they do.