Ashura (2005) by Yojiro Takita

As dark forces mass, a fearless Demon Warden fights to protect humanity from the hellish horde in this historical-fantasy epic. After an incident in which he struck down a young child, famed Demon Warden Izumo (Somegoro Ichikawa) leaves the profession, beginning a new career as a popular Kabuki actor. Meanwhile, Bizan (Kanako Higuchi) a demon witch, along with the help of Izumo’s former colleague Jaku (Atsuro Watabe), works to bring about the revival of Ashura, the demon overlord, whose re-emergence will in turn see demons once again overrun the earth. Izumo meets a mysterious woman, Tsubaki (Rie Miyazawa), who has no memory of her past and the two are set on a path that will lead them to the edge of Armageddon.

“Ashura”, directed by Yojiro Takita, is an action fantasy based on the mythology of dark demon gods who delight in destruction. The film’s elaborate sets and exquisite costumes beautifully capture the period and it is fun to see the depiction of kabuki performances which play a role in the drama. The film itself is reminiscent of a theatrical production, not only in the melodramatic plot and acting, but the way that scenes play out in small sets, similar to “Kwaidan” (1964). There is a sub-plot running throughout of a kabuki playwright who follows Izumo to get inspiration for what may be his greatest story yet. Perhaps because of these comedic interpolations the film occasionally lacks a sense of threat and urgency, partly alienating us from the drama. Takita’s previous film “When the Last Sword is Drawn”, also employed a framing device which distanced the audience from the action. The fight choreography is strong, with a great sequence early on in which the demon-wardens attempt to clear a town of its demonic inhabitants. The CG and visual effects are hit and miss, often unnecessary and undermining the incredible set design and the film is certainly strongest when the fantasy elements are depicted more subtly, such as the demon at the beginning who sings a melancholic tune, setting the scene for what is to follow.

Japan has a rich tradition of mythology, demon-lore, and fantasy tales to draw from and “Ashura” does a good job of bringing to life this epic of men versus the forces of evil. The central twist in the story is evident early on, but still provides some degree of tension as we contemplate what will happen to the characters when they find out. The most interesting character is Tsubaki, whose qualms over who or what she is affect our emotional involvement with the film. It questions the nature of evil and whether it can be overcome or halted by rationality or even love. “Ashura” will appeal to fantasy fans, with prophecies, witches, demon-hunters and demon gods, sword-fighting and romance capturing the best elements of the genre.

No Longer Human (2019) by Mika Ninagawa

A dramatization of the later life of Osamu Dazai, acclaimed author of works such as “The Setting Sun” and “No Longer Human”. The film introduces us to Dazai (Shun Oguri) as he is enjoying mass success after publication of his recent novel. While the literary community showers him with praise, his personal life is far from perfect. As well as a predilection for alcohol, Dazai is also a serial womanizer despite being married with children. Dazai continues to live a life of excess, seemingly unable to restrain his worst impulses, later struggling with a serious illness that, along with his reckless behaviour, threatens to bring his life to an end prematurely before he is able to finish his masterwork “No Longer Human”.

Mika Ninagawa’s film is a lavish, colourful affair, with an almost fairytale aesthetic. The bright costumes and high-contrast sets bringing to the fore a sense of energy, passion and creativity that surround Dazai. There is an expectation here that the audience knows something of Osamu Dazai, with characters referencing his works, in particular an almost prophetic fixation by some encouraging him to complete “No Longer Human”. For those unfamiliar with the status of Dazai in Japan’s literary pantheon, the film can be a difficult watch as he seems to have few redeeming qualities; he is arrogant, antagonistic and unfaithful. Dazai has a deep loathing for Japanese societal norms, often railing against it in public and through his work that intends to tear down the traditional in favour of supplanting it with the emerging style he himself is helping to create. Fortunately, the film spends as much time on the women in his life as Dazai himself, with his wife and lovers being central to the story. Ninagawa’s use of colour may also suggest that these are in fact the more interesting characters, their hope and passion shining bright against the author’s nihilistic, moral vacuum. We often see them dressed in bright colours, as opposed to Dazai’s dark, patternless clothes. It is these women that seem to provide inspiration to him and direct his behaviours. A stellar cast includes Shun Oguri, Erika Sawajiri, Fumi Nikaido, and Rie Miyazawa, as well as a scenery chewing cameo from Tatsuya Fujiwara. Ninagawa’s direction is theatrical, using bold colour palettes to create sets that lean more towards fantastical romance than gritty realism. One all-out fantasy sequence later in the film, in which Dazai’s room drifts away as he is left alone with his work is a powerful visual that remains in keeping with the slightly larger than life presentation. Likewise, the melodramatic score by Jun Miyake is reminiscent of timeless romances, with a grandiose elegance to them that captures perhaps the myth of Dazai more than the reality.

It is this discrepancy between the man and the myth that lies at the heart of the film. Dazai is a respected author despite his numerous personal failings. Later in the film, in the fantasy sequence aforementioned and an earlier scene in which he almost succumbs to his illness, it becomes clear that Dazai is little more than his writing. He is, in essence, what other people have made him. He remains an enigma, with his works being the only key to his real personality. His egocentrism is a product of friends and lovers heaping praise on him and he is trapped in the role of ‘literary genius’, unable to reconcile it with his own behaviour. It often seems that it is his wife and lovers are the ones who are truly experiencing life, while for Dazai ‘life’ remains only something to put into his work. He lives in a mechanical way, with everything he does or experiences serving his art. An interesting look at this historical figure, whose works have gone on to great acclaim, that also investigates the role of women and Dazai’s treatment of them at this time.

The Twilight Samurai (2002) Yoji Yamada

Following the death of his wife, a poor samurai, Seibei Iguchi (Hiroyuki Sanada), struggles to raise his two young daughters and keep his senile mother. His colleagues at the store-house nickname him “Twilight” as he always returns home early rather than join them for drinks. We learn that Seibei is a peaceful, forward-thinking man, who is skilled with a short sword. He is befriended by Tomoe (Rie Miyazawa) whom he has known since childhood, but their relationship is fraught with problems. Knowing of his skill with a sword the clan tasks him with the assassination of another rogue samurai, promising greater profits in return. At first hesitant, he acquiesces to this order from the lord.

Based on the short story “The Bamboo Sword” by Shuhei Fujisawa and directed by Yoji Yamada, the film creates an authentic period atmosphere, with expertly designed sets and costumes. The story is an archetypal samurai drama, with illicit romances, honour and ideals of war and peace played out perfectly. The audience is drawn in by the masterful direction, which really gives a feel of closeness with the characters. The acting is exceptionally emotive, and the young child actors are particularly good in their roles.

Myriad themes are interwoven, but above all it is the story of a generation of samurai becoming obsolete. Seibei’s peaceful, unprejudiced ideologies are mocked in the film, but will resonate with modern audiences. This tragic yet uplifting story of the passing of the samurai age is a must watch.

Her Love Boils Bathwater (2016)

Futaba Sachino (Rie Miyazawa) lives with her daughter Azumi (Hana Sugisaki). The bathhouse they used to run is now closed after her husband (Joe Odagiri) ‘vanished like steam’ a year ago. When Futaba is given a devastating diagnosis of terminal cancer she goes to find her former partner, who is now living alone with his daughter Ayuko. The two come to live with Futaba and Azumi and they re-open the bathhouse. With little time left Futaba endeavors to set her affairs in order, uncovering a family secret and making sure that the two girls are taken care of.

Written and directed by Ryota Nakano, “Her Love Boils Bathwater” is a poignant yet uplifting story about the value of kindness. There are as many moments to make you smile as to weep and it treads a delicate balance between sentimentality and realism. All of the characters are given a backstory, however small, and the script does a good job of weaving together various subplots into a coherent narrative. The entire cast do an admirable job of creating believable family dynamics. Rie Miyazawa is a caring and compassionate mother dealing with the shock of her sudden illness. Remaining strong for her children, while displaying an inner turmoil and sense of loss, the character of Futaba provokes real empathy and love for her determination. Hana Sugisaki shines as Azumi, dealing with her own problems at school and later taking on responsibilities for many of the other characters. She is a mirror to Miyazawa’s kindness and strong-willed nature, while also retaining an independent spirit. Out of all the characters she undergoes the greatest journey, from shy and awkward schoolgirl to a confident surrogate mother to her family. The rest of the cast are all excellent, particularly Aoi Ito as Ayuko, who does an incredible job with very emotionally challenging material. The direction of the film is good, allowing the actor’s performances to shine. There is interesting use of cut-aways, to the chimney of the bathhouse, which may also resemble a crematorium chimney, or blue skies with clouds floating by. Discussion of the afterlife in the film is minimal, largely revolving around one young character whose mother is deceased. Religious notions are largely superceded, explicitly at the end, by a more humanist philosophy amongst the characters, that the reality of everyday love and joy is something that should be cherished over a belief in heaven.

“Her Love Boils Bathwater” is a moving portrait about life and family set against the backdrop of an imminent death. This prognosis early in the film sets everything in context for the audience, although certain characters remain unaware of it until later. However, it is not a film that dwells on death so much as an examination of the joy of life. Although there are powerfully emotional scenes, there is also a lot of subtle humour and tender moments between mother and daughter or the two sisters that emphasize the idea that life is precious and each moment has the potential for joy. The film features several characters who are without a mother, though cared for by other characters. The importance of parental affection from those other than the biological parents is an important theme. This is generalized more widely into the notion of the paramount importance of kindness in society. Futaba’s relations with everyone she meets are typified by this more than anything, her ability to forgive, and her resolve to keep going through adversity. In the final section of the film we see this kindness repaid by those she has touched. An emotional film that is a celebration of the best of human nature, a plea for kindness in a world of misfortune.