Bittersand (2021) by Tomoya Sugimoto

When scurrilous rumours are written about high-school student Eriko (Ayane Kinoshita), classmate Akito (Yuki Inoue) decides to take the blame. This seemingly frivolous decision leads to seven years of regret as Akito is unable to forget what happened following the incident. Now grown up, Akito’s friend, Yusuke (Riku Hagiwara), an amateur film-maker suggests using their high-school experiences as the focus of a documentary, and the two attend a reunion with plans of revealing all about what really happened.

“Bittersand”, requires suspension of disbelief that the rumours surrounding Eriko would have led to her total ostracisation and would still be relevant to the characters seven years later. Sadly, the moment of revelation is more likely to provoke a shrug rather than any sense of surprise. If something more serious than the juvenile relationship troubles and teenage pregnancy were the reason for the class still harbouring any interest in what happened, it could have been more impactful. The film itself even appears to acknowledge this with one fellow former-student laughing off Akito and Yusuke’s presentation and wondering why the others aren’t willing to simply get on with the reunion afterwards. The film misses a chance to focus on things that would be more interesting, such as why one characters physical appearance changes drastically, how one character managed to raise a child as a teen mother, or even giving us an insight into how the original incident affected the characters. The film is not all bad, with a mixed bag of performances, and some great direction. Perhaps the worst you could say about the film is that it is underwhelming; that it answers questions that the audience weren’t interested in asking.

One of the themes of “Bittersand” is how memories and experiences can linger and affect our later lives. Even something as seemingly insignificant as the events of Akito’s high-school years stay with him. The use of frequent flashbacks is an effective way to show this, emphasising the idea that past and present are inextricably interlinked, and our consciousness often drifts from one to the other without distinction. As discussed the film often misses out on exploring its most interesting elements. The ideas of infidelity, regret, the importance of the truth and the impact of malicious rumours, and the unreliability of memories, are left to wither on the vine. A fairly innocuous young adult melodrama that will appeal to people who like high-school gossip. The moment of exposure, with a criminal investigation style chart up on the blackboard is absurdly over-the-top, perhaps suggesting that the film is intentionally comedic.

Aristocrats (2020) by Yukiko Sode

Two women from different social classes become romantically involved with the same man in this feminist fable. Hanako Haibara (Mugi Kadowaki) is the daughter of a doctor whose recent separation from her fiance is met with disappointment by her family. Her friends and parents begin to set her up on a series of blind dates, one of which, arranged by her brother-in-law, is with the charming Koichiro Aoki (Kengo Kora). Hanako falls immediately for Koichiro and the two soon arrange to be married. However, she discovers that he is having an affair with a woman named Miki Tokioka (Kiko Mizuhara). Miki is from a working class family, but studied at the prestigious Keio University where she met Koichiro. Through a mutual aquaintance, Hanako and Miki meet one another to discuss what to do, a meeting that gives them both pause to think about their lives and how they have been impacted by Koichiro.

Based on Mariko Yamauchi’s novel, “Aristcrats” is almost two parallel films that play out with little overlap. The film is chaptered, with alternate chapters following Hanako and then Miki. The novel was serialised in a monthly magazine, and director Yukiko Sode allows the narrative to play out in an unhurried way that draws us into the lives of the two protagonists. The two women only meet twice in the whole film, for brief scenes, but this parallel structure allows us to contrast and compare their lives and choices. The cinematography gives a sense of wealth and luxury, with many high-class locations shown to best advantage, brightly lit with little movement reflecting the characters’ stiff social niceties. The classical score by Takuma Watanabe further emphasises this sense of an upper-class sensibility. The elegant surroundings of Hanako’s life, with expensive restaurants, jazz clubs, and summer retreats, are in stark contrast to the conditions of Miki’s life, her disorganized working-class home very different to the sterile environs of Hanako’s world. Mugi Kadowaki’s Hanako is a character who is trapped in a gilded cage, with few concerns about money; she is instead troubled by not living up to her family or husband’s expectations, her lack of a child, and perceived lateness in getting married. Both Kadowaki and Kiko Mizuhara give fantastic performances as women forced to follow social norms against their wills. The women are rarely confronted by serious problems, but the mundane, everyday sexism they face builds an incredible pressure that shapes the way they look at the world. Their friends, Itsuko and Rie, played by Shizuka Ishibashi and Rio Yamashita, are also interesting characters, representing women who are emancipated from the expectations of people around them. They offer a fun counter-point to the protagonists, being forthright in their determination to follow their own path in life rather than that set out for them by others.

“Aristocrats” offers an interesting look at the class divide in Japanese society, drawing a clear distinction between those fortunate enough to be born to wealthy families, living a life of afternoon teas and country homes; and those at the lower end of the income scale, who struggle for everything they have. Despite the difference in background, Hanako and Miki both face similar problems as women: the pressure to marry and have children, the expectation that they will submit themselves to their husband or partners will, and in short that they are there as little more than window dressing for the men around them (as Miki spells out to Itsuko during their conversation). Both women are trapped by circumstance, forced into societal obligations and unable to make their own decisions. Both have a friend who displays an alternative way of life. Hanako’s friend Itsuko is an independent woman, travelling the world playing violin, who shows little interest in settling down; while Miki’s friend Rie, dreams of starting her own business, and not being bound by the financial constraints that have bedevilled Miki. At heart the film is about finding freedom and making your own choices. It’s stark depiction of rigid morality seems out of place in the modern world, and the film’s commentary on these outdated beliefs provides a powerful indictment of the patriarchal system that persists in modern society. An enjoyable film with great central performances that depicts the reality for a lot of women while offering hope that things could be different and are perhaps changing, albeit slowly.

5 Centimeters Per Second (2007) by Makoto Shinkai

Two teens face a difficult separation in this melancholic exploration of young love. Takaki Tono (Kenji Mizuhashi) and Akari Shinohara (Yoshimi Kondo) become friends after both transferring to the same high school in Tokyo. After Akari moves north to Tochigi they remain in correspondence. Takaki decides to take a train to meet her, knowing it will perhaps be the last time as he is soon due to move with his family as well. As the snowy weather worsens and the train is delayed, his agony at reuiniting with Akari is heightened. Following Takaki’s move another girl, Kanae Sumida (Satomi Hanamura), becomes romantically interested in Takaki, but realises that she is unable to close the distance between them due to his longing for Akari.

Makoto Shinkai’s “5 Centimeters Per Second” returns to a theme from his earlier short film “Voices of a Distant Star”, that of a separated couple struggling with loneliness and yearning for human connection. It is unconventional as films go in that there is very little plot or dialogue, with most of the story told through the internal monologues of Takaki and Kanae. Instead it explores its themes in a more expressionistic way, creating a tangible world through small details. Water droplets on a train window; the light from a vending machine at a remote station; cherry blossoms blowing by a railway crossing; all of these picturesque images evoke feelings that are relatable but impossible to describe. The film is around sixty minutes and comrpised of three segments. The first shows Takaki travelling to meet Akari, the second Kanae procrastinating in confessing her love to Takaki, and the third some time later as both Takaki and Akari regret their loss. This atypical structure and lack of any conclusion or closure for the characters may be offputting to some, with its melancholic ending. It is best to approach the film more as an experience, one that you can explore and enjoy without worrying about following a narrative or hoping for plot points to be tied together. What the film does offer is a unique take on the romantic drama, with animation that realises the beauty of the everyday, the commonplace given significance by the characters. The world of “5 Centimeters Per Second” is searingly real in its ordinariness, with delayed trains, and circumstances outwith the characters control, but manages to find magic in these familiar environments.

“5 Centimeters Per Second” refers to the speed at which cherry blossoms fall to the ground. The film, with its twin focus on both the industrial, trains and rockets, and natural worlds, fields and oceans, relates to the central theme that life moves on in spite of humans. Takaki and Akari’s sundered love is hearbtreaking precisely because nothing changes around them. They are left yearning for something that will never come to pass while the world moves on. At its heart the film questions what that love is when it cannot be expressed; it shows us a vision of a beautiful yet uncaring world, the joy and hope of being in love tempered by human anxieties and feelings of helplessness. A stunning experimental animation that eschews traditional narrative to create something more poetic and at times transcendent.

Drive my Car (2021) by Ryusuke Hamaguchi

Theatre director Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) leads a seemingly ideal life with his loving wife Oto (Reika Kirishima), a popular television screenwriter. After returning home early following a cancelled flight, Yusuke finds his wife having sex with another man. He doesn’t confront her about this and when she dies shortly afterwards he is left with a deep sense of regret. A couple of years later Yusuke is hired to direct a production of Chekov’s “Uncle Vanya” in Hiroshima, a play in which he himself previously played the titular character. As specified by company policy Yusuke is assigned a driver to take him to and from the production company. The driver, Misaki Watari (Toko Miura), harbours her own secrets and the two contemplate their lives and past mistakes during their lengthy commutes.

Based on several Haruki Murakami short stories, with a screenplay by director Ryusuke Hamguchi and Takamasa Oe, “Drive my Car” is a contemplative drama dealing with themes of loss, regret, hope, and perseverance. Hamguchi directs at a gentle pace, allowing the performances to speak for themselves, with several long takes and scenes that unfold in a naturalistic way. The performances from Hidetoshi Nishijima and Toko Miura are understated yet intriguing, endlessly fascinating in their conversations and monologues and always leave the audience wanting to know more about them. The supporting cast are all similarly engaging, with nuanced backstories and characters of their own, particularly Lee Yoon-a (Park Yoo-rim), who communicates through sign language, and Koji Tatsuki (Masaki Okada), a young actor also grieving the death of Oto. The cinematography throughout mirrors these nuanced performances, capturing both the stunning scenery of Hiroshima and Hokkaido alongside more prosaic moments, and finding the charm in both. “Drive my Car” is a film that luxuriates in long scenes that give the audience a sense of the passage of time, with the viewer’s patience rewarded with truly heartfelt moments of revelation and realisation for the characters.

“Drive my Car” centers Chekov’s play with lengthy passages from the drama being recited or performed throughout. We often see Yusuke in his car reciting his lines to a recording of his wife performing the other role. There is a symmetry between the play and the film, particularly in the themes of regret and suffering; with Vanya feeling he has wasted his life, and Yusuke also feeling he wasted time with his wife through his feelings of betrayal. The film’s use of the play and of a multi-lingual, including sign language, cast and script, offers the perfect backdrop to explore ideas of meaning and communication, and whether it is ever possible to bridge the divide between individuals. The film looks at the idea of storytelling as a means to impart feeling and information, with Yusuke and Oto’s relationship largely revolving around them sharing story ideas to better understand one another. So much is said in the film, and yet also left unsaid, with questions left unanswered and mysteries left unsolved, much like in life. “Drive my Car” challenges us to look beyond what is said to uncover a deeper truth about reality and human nature. With its multiple layers, drama within drama, incredible peformances, and stunning cinematography, the film proves an enjoyable and throught-provoking experience.

Luxurious Bone (2001) by Isao Yukisada

Miyako (Kumiko Aso) works as a call-girl, living with her friend Sakiko (Tsugumi Otake) with whom she shares a bond that hovers over the border of sisterhood and life partners. After encountering a client, Shintani (Masatoshi Nagase), with whom Miyako experiences sexual pleasure for the first time in her life, the two women begin to drift apart. Miyako suggests that Shintani should sleep with Sakiko, an event that draws the three into a love triangle in which their various flaws and anxieties are reflected.

“Luxurious Bone” begins with poetic sentiments being recited over the credits, followed by bones being removed from a crematorium furnace. This proves to be an apt set up for a film that is both artistic, meaning glimpsed through fragments of character and story, and with an underlying melancholy. Written by director Isao Yukisada and screenwriter Shoichi Masahiko, the story is relatively straightforward, revolving around the three main characters and their complicated relationship, and the film expects the audience to be familiar with these archetypes, rarely delving too deeply into their backgrounds. Many things are left unsaid, or rather left to viewer interpretation, with direction, lighting and cinematography often standing in for dialogue. Sakiko’s broken leg, the phantom bone that seems permanently lodged in Mayuko’s throat, or the three goldfish confined to a blender, are all clues to what is happening internally with the characters. The performances of Aso, Otake and Nagase are exceptional, with very few supporting characters they manage to keep the audience’s attention with their portrayals of these complex characters. Miyako has resigned herself to a life of prostitution to support Sakiko, while longing for something more. Shintani is perhaps the most mysterious, perhaps intended simply as a catalyst between Miyako and Sakiko, but with shocking moments that indicate a more conflicted character. Sakiko is the most sympathetic and we learn most about her, but many things are never satisfactorily resolved, a common theme across the film.

The film asks a lot of its audience, rarely stating its intentions clearly. It is for the viewer to piece together what is happening with the characters through a fore-knowledge of typical romantic stories, and the various visual clues presented. There are themes of the relationship between sex and love, with a clear distinction between Miyako’s work as a call-girl, which gives her no pleasure either physically or emotionally, and her relationship with Sakiko, which operates on a deeper level. There is also the peculiar idea that Miyako wants to reach Sakiko, to create a bond with her, through Shintani, using a surrogate lover to connect the two women. The film’s occassional graphic eroticism and brief flash of fish-based gore, may seem out of place in a film that appears quite tame on the surface, but that would be to misunderstand the depth of feeling that is raging behind the characters. A curious romantic drama that plays on themes of human connection and the difficulty in expressing our feelings clearly.