A.I. Love You (2016) by Shogo Miyaki

Haruko Hoshino (Aoi Morikawa) is works as a kitchen porter while dreaming of opening her own patisserie someday. Disillusioned by a series of job interview rejections she finds comfort in an unusual source: a mysterious mail advertising a free A.I. phone application that you can speak with. She downloads it and names it “Love” (‘Ai’ in Japanese). Love (Takumi Saito) offers her support and words of wisdom, suggesting that she try to make some recipes and have her boss (Akira Ishida) taste them. Love also suggests that she should pursue a romantic interest in the shape of co-worker and talented chef Naoto (Shuhei Uesugi). As Love offers her advice and Haruko grows in confidence, their relationship begins to develop into something more than one of convenience.

Based on the manga by Ken Akamatsu, “A.I. Love You”a simplistic romantic tale with a technological twist. The A.I. element is a modern take on the traditional narrative of a human friend with burgeoning feelings for Haruko. Aoi Morikawa is charismatic and likeable in the lead role, often performing a one-woman show to the camera as she speaks with the voice of Love (Takumi Saito). Her problems are far from insurmountable: she is already a competent pastry chef and the improvement she needs to gain her bosses approval and follow her dreams are almost imperceptible to the viewer. Similarly, her romantic troubles are overcome fairly easily. The film is short and moves along quickly, leaving little time for character development, with the supporting cast mostly filling stereotypical roles. Shuhei Uesugi as the handsome love interest; Anne Nakamura as Haruko’s friendly co-worker Kyoko, and Akira Ishida as her irrationaly irritable boss.

Despite a lack of originality or depth the film will appeal to fans of romantic dramas. Much like a pastry it is light, fluffy fun, saccharine sweet and visually appealing. Later in the film there is a hint at darker themes, with the deletion of Love suggesting a similarity with human death, and despite a lack of build up it does manage to be emotionally engaging. However, the film largely sticks to the well-trodden path of romantic comedy dramas, with an uplifting message about trying hard to achieve your dreams. An enjoyable performance from Aoi Morikawa makes it worth a watch.

Bubble (2022) by Tetsuro Araki

Mysterious bubbles descend on Tokyo, destroying the city and leaving it mostly submerged under water. Years later, the survivors have formed into teams who compete in parkour competitions for scarce resources. Hibiki (Jun Shison) is a member of the Blue Blaze team, fighting against the Red Lobsters, Denki Ninjas, and the dangerous technologically-advanced Undertaker group. The Blue Blaze squad live on a ship with Makoto (Alice Hirose), a scientist who is researching the strange bubbles that are still present and that have led to odd permutations in gravity. Hibiki, a solitary figure, finds companionship in the shape of Uta (Riria), one of the bubbles who comes to life in a modern take on The Little Mermaid folk tale.

There is a lot to like in “Bubble”, drawing as it does on various popular tropes and ideas from anime, fantasy and folk tales. The central story, a post-apocalyptic group of survivors provides an interesting backdrop to the romantic Little Mermaid-esque tale of Uta and Hibiki’s relationship. The film’s philosophical underpinnings reference both environmentalism, in the shape of the flooded city and vast cosmological ideas such as the inevitable desctruction and potential rebirth of the universe. The animation and artwork are exceptional, with detailed depictions of the sunken city and colourful, opalescent light shows with stars and bubbles creating a psychedelic experience. The action is top-class with a focus on parkour being a great way to show the CG-enhanced environments. The story is underexplained, perhaps relying on audience famliarity with both the romanctic and post-apocalyptic genre, with the characters also falling into easily recognizable stereotypes. No real explanation is given for the bubbles, or Uta’s apperance, and there is little character development outside of Hibiki, whose struggle with over-sensitivity to noise (his name meaning “sound” or “echo”, alongside Uta’s “Song”), is an emotional angle to the loner protagonist archetype. However, what the film does do well is in creating a moving, energetic, thought-provoking experience; not always logical, but alwasy engaging. The score by Hiroyuki Sawano complements the heart-pounding action and quiet contemplation of the film.

“Bubble” features the sunken cities of 2009’s “Shangri-la” and the frenetic, death-defying action of “Attack on Titan”, the vibrancy and detail of Makoto Shinkai, and the magical fairytale dreamscapes of Mamoru Hosoda, but brings it all together in a unique package. It may be slightly lacking in a strong central motivation for the characters, but the visual spectacle means that it is easy to ignore this lack of depth and simply marvel at the colourful animation and emotionally chaged romance. In a final summing up, the film reaches for some sort of message for humanity, settling on a traditional moral characterised in the saying “Fall seven times, get up eight,” in suggesting that loss can be overcome and people will always rebuild from destruction. This life-death cycle could have been worked in to the story earlier, and more sense made of the bubbles, which are window-dressing for the most part, but overall the film succeeds in being a magical experience.

Bitter Honey (2016) by Gakuryu Ishii

An aging writer (Ren Osugi) finds solace in his pet goldfish, anthropomorphised as a beautiful and flighty young woman in red (played by Fumi Nikaido). The two of them enjoy a curious relationship, with a frisson of sexual tension, and the goldfish, named Akako, also begins to explore the world on her own. Akako comes across a woman in white, named Lady Tamura (Yoko Maki), who she believes to be the ghost of a former lover of her master. The writer is also visited by the late author Ryunosuke Akutagawa (Kora Kengo), his literary rival. The writer’s flights of fancy slowly begin to consume him, perhaps as an escape from his recent terminal diagnosis as he nears his last days.

Based on a 1959 novel by Muro Saisei, with a screenplay by Takehiko Minato, “Bitter Honey” is a bizarre magical realist fable that draws no line between the real world and that of the imagination. The opening scene shows the writer and the woman in red together, he writing, her lounging, and aside from a few subtle hints in the score and dialogue it does not become clear that she is in fact a goldfish until the end of the scene. The film continues in this illogical, dream-like manner, treating Akako as a human, even to the point of her having conversations with others, while we know that she is a fish. The anthropomorphic nature of her character is incredibly powerful as the audience comes to care about Akako, her desires, her frustrations with the writer, and her relationship with other non-existent (in a real sense) people, such as Lady Tamura. Of course rationally both her and Lady Tamura can only exist in the imagination of the writer, something he alludes to later in the film, but it is still enjoyable to watch Nikaido’s performance as the bouncy, youthful goldfish, and it raises the question of free will and control in an interesting twist on a common trope in relationship dramas. The dance that Akako performs throughout is perfect in capturing the character of a goldfish, billowing tail and flowing movements. Ishii’s direction is excellent, staging the drama beautifully and, along with Norimichi Kasamatsu’s luxuriant cinematography, stunning set design and use of colour, emphasizing the sense of being lost in a fantastical dreamworld. Toshiyuki Mori’s score and the sound design perfectly compliment this stylish direction, humourous, melancholic, and with effects sounding like water droplets when Akako is on screen.

“Bitter Honey” has a surreal, folkloric atmopshere that is enjoyable to watch, helped by excellent performances by Ren Osugi and Fumi Nikaido. The plot is relatively thin and, much like in a dream, there are elements that don’t always connect perfectly with one another. The most obvious reading of what is happening is that the author, realising he does not have long left, is working on a story about his pet goldfish, imagining her as a young woman; while at the same time he reminisces about his relationship with fellow author Akutagawa and the mysterious Lady Tamura. The lines between reality and fiction are blurred by having Akako act independently, becoming a player in the drama in her own right. The relationship between the writer and Akako is genuinely moving, and the strongest element of the film, suggesting a lack of distinction between the real and the fantastical, or at least diminishing the importance of such a distinction. The film also comments on the struggles of the author, who always felt second best against the acclaimed Akutagawa, but for the most part it remains almost light-hearted as he enjoys an imaginary relationship with Akako. An entertaining magical-realist tale about an old man and his cherished pet goldfish.

Another Lonely Hitman (1995) by Rokuro Mochizuki

Following a brutal hit on a rival mob boss, Yakuza hitman Takashi Tachibana (Ryo Ishibashi) is released from a ten year prison sentence. He is welcomed back to his former group to work with a fresh-faced new associate named Yuji (Kazuhiko Kanayama), who looks up to the older man for his role in taking out the top of the Hokushin Family. Tachibana is rewarded with a prositute named Yuki (Asami Sawaki), whom he forms an attachment too. As the group begin to get involved in drugs and a gang war with another faction, Tachibana begins to question his life and whether or not he would be happier leaving to be with Yuki.

“Another Lonely Hitman”, based on the novel by Yukio Yamanouchi and directed by Rokuro Mochizuki, is a gangster film that focusses on the aftermath of such a bloody lifestyle. From the brutal opening assassination, complete with blood and brains leaking out of the victims head, we cut to Tachibana’s post-jail attempts at redemption and rediscovery of who he is. From here the film follows two threads: the first of Tachibana’s blossoming relationship with Yuki, whose joie de vivre stands in stark contrast to the grim, remorseful Tachibana; and the second of Tachibana’s gang becoming embroiled in another turf war with a rival faction. The romantic drama and crime thriller plots run in parallel and provide plenty of action and emotion. Ryo Ishibashi gives a great central performance as the former hitman who is beginning to question his choices; while Asami Sawaki’s Yuki is entertaining as a lively, carefree call girl. Their relationship is the heart of the film and you really root for them to make it out of the world of drugs and violence that typify the yakuza lifestyle. The soundtrack by Kazutoki Umezu features a mix of sultry brass and ominous piano, again highlighting the dualistic nature of the story, striving for beauty in an ugly world.

The film’s character-driven drama, as Tachibana tries to make a choice between returning to his previous life of drugs and murder; or striking out on a new path, provides some great moments as his two world (of love and hate) collide. The yakuza are shown as shallow, incompetent, avaricious and short-tempered, with a sub-plot involving Tachibana’s superior Mizohashi (Toshiyuki Kitami) attempting to create a golf resort with a local politician. While Tachibana seems calm and collected, the other yakuza are childlike in their sadistic aggression. It is shown that Tachibana took heroin before performing his hit for the gang, the suggestion perhaps being that he required that lack of self-restraint to carry it out. The drug becomes emblematic of the filthy world of crime, while he dreams of a pure existence and escape with Yuki. Another symbolic element to the film is Tachibana’s impotence with Yuki, that seemingly ends when he makes his decision to break with the yakuza. Again, it suggests he is unable to enjoy genuine pleasure while trapped in the make-believe hardman world of the criminal gang. We also have a running visual metaphor of fish and ocean life that Tachibana watches in his hotel room. Later Yuki is forced to make a jigsaw of an ocean scene. As the two make their escape attempt at the end of the film, it is no coincidence then that it is by a harbour; with the open sea promising freedom from the tawdry iniquities of human society. An emotionally charged Yakuza film about crime and redemption, with strong central performances from Ishibashi and Sawaki.

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.