Moonlight Whispers (1999) by Akihiko Shiota

A tortured teenage love story touching on themes of perversion and control. Takuya Hidaka (Kenji Mizuhashi) and Satsuki Kitahara (Tsugumi) are classmates and members of the same high-school kendo club. Hidaka finally musters the courage to declare his love for Kitahara and shortly after they sleep together. The relationship is short-lived however, when Kitahara discovers that he recorded the sound of her urinating while at his house. She calls him a pervert and leaves in disgust. Later she begins dating Hidaka’s friend Tadashi (Kota Kusano). Hidaka pleads to be allowed to be near her and she begins to engage with his unusual desires, allowing him to watch her and Tadashi on a date and even having sex.

Based on a manga of the same name, with a screenplay by Yoichi Nishiyama and director Akihiko Shiota, “Moonlight Whispers” is certainly not a normal relationship drama, though it contains many features of the genre. It lures you in with the conventional romance of the young teen protagonists early in the film. The only sign that things may not progress smoothly is Hidaka stealing a sniff of Kitahara’s gym shorts from her locker. The actors all do a fantastic job with their characters. Hidaka and Kitahara capture the awkward, faltering of a first romance, while Kota Kusano’s confident Tadashi acts almost as a conventional romantic leading man in contrast with their twisted relationship. For a film dealing with the perversion of cuckolding, the film is rarely explicit, allowing the emotional import of the drama to drive the story, rather than the physical. One example of this is in the long take of Takuya sitting in a dark cupboard while he listens to the sounds of Satsuki and Tadashi’s lovemaking in the room. The swirl of emotions in the audience, discomfort, frustration, incomprehension, only growing stronger as the camera remains fixed on him. The cinematography largely leans on the romantic drama style, with soft-focus sunsets, and a realism in the dialogue scenes, an ironic counterpoint to the content of the story. The soundtrack, used sparingly, of delicate guitar, also suggests a more romantic story that what we are watching, heigtening the tension between expectation and reality that allows us to sympathise with the characters.

The film takes a unique look at relationships, focussing on a very particular fetish. Hidaka wants to observer Kitahara, to hold the perfect version of her in his mind, and completely fails when given the chance to have a physical relationship with the real Kitahara. He is utterly devoted to her, prepared to do anything for her, even when there is nothing in it for himself, and to go to incredible extremes to prove himself. But understandably, Kitahara is not interested in this, wanting a real relationship. However, she soon comes to indulge Hidaka, whether to satisfy him or herself is left ambiguous, but that is the heart of what the film is about. The obligations people have towards each other, the give-and-take of all romantic and sexual relationships is depicted starkly through this exaggerated example. We see the difference between Kitahara’s relationship with Hidaka and Tadashi, one asexual and based on a distinct power imbalance, while the other (perhaps considered more conventional) does not seem to satisfy her emotionally. A provocative film that forces the viewer to reassess their notions of romantic love and relationships.

Whisper of the Heart (1995) by Yoshifumi Kondo

Childhood romance blossoms in this light-hearted Ghibli film directed by Yoshifumi Kondo. Bookish schoolgirl Shizuku (Yoko Honna) is intrigued when she discovers the same name on a number of library cards. She decides to find out who the mysterious Seiji Amasawa (Issei Takahashi) is and is surprised to learn that he is at the same school as her. Their fledgling romance appears doomed to be short-lived however when Seiji reveals his plans to travel abroad to become a violin maker.

Based on a manga by Aoi Hiiragi, with a screenplay by Hayao Miyazaki, “Whisper of the Heart” differs from the more fantastical Ghibli films in having an entirely real world, non-magical setting. It excels in bringing the studio’s incredible artistry to urban city streets, creating a wonderful sense of place, with extreme care taken in depicting the quotidian details of schools and apartments. From the opening panoramic shots of the city to the final credits where we see cars and people passing, incredible efforts have been taken to create a believable world with all its peculiarities. This sense of capturing reality rather than creating it is heightened by the humble direction, that never feels as if it showing off the incredible work of the background artists, but allows you to notice the small things as the action unfolds. The movie is largely set around a real-world location in Tama city, which is depicted beautifully in the animation, including the hills and mix of buildings and greenery that typify this kind of residential area.

Shizuku’s family apartment with piles of books and papers and all the great confusion of life packed in there helps to completely transport you. Likewise, the way shadows play over characters, or the reflection in train windows, each moment is packed with many subtle yet startling details that help build a tangible and enrapturing drama. Shizuku is a likeable protagonist, as with many Ghibli heroines she is defined by curiosity and passion, with her first charming romance being the perfect subject for a young audience. The pace can be sedate at times, with Shizuku’s story having few twists, instead it revolves around a number of ‘moments’ that manage to beautifully capture the feelings of the protagonists without ever stating them explicitly. Surprisingly perhaps for a children’s film there is much more subtext than story. Some of the best moments involve the antique shop owner, Shiro (Keiji Kobayashi), as he shows her an old grandfather clock, and the statuette of an elegantly dressed cat known as Baron Humbert von Gikkingen. The film will spend time over these quaint moments, allowing us to truly feel a sense of wonder at things that might otherwise go unobserved. This does mean that is a film that will be appreciated more by those who spend time considering these scenes and their meanings, as opposed to expecting to be guided through a generic romance plot.

“Whisper of the Heart” deals with themes of personal growth and sundered love. Precious gems buried deep under rock is used as an analogy for individuals discovering their particular talents or uncovering what is most meaningful to them. The first love experienced by the youthful protagonist is beautifully depicted in its faltering, unsure nature, the uncertainty twinned with an indescribable happiness. The poignancy of Shiro’s story about his own unrequited love, separated many years prior, is one of the most touching moments of the film. The film can also be seen as a commentary on the power of art, song, sculpture and the written word. Shizuku’s love of books, and Seiji’s love of music, along with Shiro’s passion for restoring antiques all speak to the important connections they feel with these things, that represent some eternal emotion of humanity: love. A subtle yet powerful love-story that speaks to deeper emotions of human connection and kinship.

Theatre: A Love Story (2020) by Isao Yukisada

Following a chance meeting on the street and a brief romance, impoverished playwright Nagata (Kento Yamazaki) and Saki (Mayu Matsuoka) move in together. Their relationship is far from easy though. Nagata is writing for a theatre troupe called “Oroka” which he established with his school friend Nohara (Kanichiro Sato), but his lack of success leads the group to slowly fall apart. Saki does her best to encourage him, but his difficult personality, driven by his anxiety and ego, lead to arguments between the two.

Written by Ryuta Horai and directed by Isao Yukisada, “Theatre: A Love Story” is a poignant look at a troubled relationship. Over the course of the film we witness Nagata and Saki as they attempt to work out their differences and support one another in their own ways. The script gives us numerous moments that reflect those parts of romantic relationships that often go unrepresented on film. Awkward silences, arguments about nothing much at all, the inexpressible joy of simply being together, or moments of silliness that help to build that indefinable bond. It is touching to hear Nagata talk of the warmth he feels simply hearing Saki laugh; and Saki’s clear devotion to her boyfriend. The well-observed script is brought to life by an excellent cast. Kento Yamazaki and Mayu Matsuoka create a believable couple, perfect in their imperfections. Yamazaki’s Nagata is a brooding, frustrated young man who takes out his anxieties and feelings of inadequacy on Saki, while Matsuoka’s Saki is both endlessly charming, funny and charismatic, yet harbouring deep dissatisfaction with her own life and Nagata, supporting him despite her misgivings. The supporting cast, including Kanichiro Sato as Nagata’s urbane friend, and Sairi Ito as Aoyama, a former member of Nagata’s acting troupe who goes on to find success as a theatre critic, further underscoring his own lack of achievement, all do an incredible job with the naturalistic style of dialogue. Throughout there are hints to the theatrical, in Nagata’s narration of his life and relationship, his inner thoughts constantly chewing over his insecurities. There are also poetic monologues, such as when he is taking Saki home on his bike, vocalising his feelings for her. The wistful score and direction sweep us along on the journey with these two lovers, whose relationship can often seem incomprehensible given their difference in personality: Saki is outgoing and fun, while Nagata seems often miserable and misanthropic.

“Theatre: A Love Story” is a film about a man who is struggling with various insecurities. He lashes out at those around him, variously criticising other playwrights, refusing to go to Disneyland as he believes he can’t enjoy other people’s creations, and refusing to let Saki enjoy other people’s work. His controlling, often petulant behaviour, masks a deep-seated fear of rejection and his neuroses about his own ability. Jealousy over more successful writers lead to him being angry or upset at Saki without really knowing why. All of these facets of human psychology and relationships are insightfully written and portrayed in the film. Nagata is far from a likeable character, but as things progress we come to an understanding of his behaviour. Saki on the other hand indulges Nagata’s worst impulses, giving him exactly what he wants, attention and praise, but not what he needs, a cool appreciation of his abilities and his flaws. A beautifully wrought relationship drama that deftly depicts the various complexities of human emotions and a poignant portrait of a man dealing with his own sense of inadequacy.

Two Portraits of Miyagino (2010) by Tatsuji Yamazaki

A tale of love and betrayal in Edo-era Japan, touching on the relationship between art and life. The film opens with an introduction to Toshusai Sharaku, a historical ukiyo-e artist, whose prolific output over a short period and unknown identity have led many to speculate about who he was, and the details of his life. Miyagino (Tomoko Mariya), a prostitute, explains in a monologue to police officers that she was responsible for his death, although the details of what has happened are unclear. The story returns us to 1794 where we find the artist Yataro (Ainosuke Kataoka), working under his master Sharaku (Jun Kunimura), on portraits of various kabuki actors and actresses. Yataro begins a relationship with Okayo (Aimi Satsukawa), Sharaku’s grand-daughter. He is constantly reminded of his relationship with Miyagino, which began some time before, as he works on a portrait of a female impersonator playing the role of Miyagino.

“Two Portraits of Miyagino”, directed by Tatsuji Yamazaki, from a screenplay by Masaaki Sakai, is a film that plays with theatrical alienation techniques, wrongfooting the audience at times and blurring the line between reality and performance, or history and artistic representation. Many of the outdoor sets have stage-like painted backgrounds; shots of city streets have miniature character models being moved around a small set by a puppeteer; and we see black-clad ‘invisible’ figures in the background providing the musical accompaniment to scenes. The careful use of light and staging all increase the sense of watching a drama unfold that has the distinct sense of artifice. This is also evidenced in the script. From Miyagino’s opening soliloquy, the film will often break into dialogues or monologues that could easily be direct from a stage production, taking pains to distance us from the drama, while capturing the emotional power of each scene. This is helped by amazing performances from all the leads and a small cast of extras, including Kirin Kiki. They show a depth of emotion, with purposeful movements and expressions again reminiscent of theatre.

The beautiful cinematography and direction make this film joy to watch. Each shot is carefully staged as if the actors were a living painting. There is a moment when the film slips into highly stylised kabuki performance, and it is clear to see the threads of inspiration in the way this film is constructed. There is a focus on minutiae, such as a single falling leaf, or technical effects such as wind blowing across the set, that give the impression that everything has significance. The soundtrack includes both traditional instruments, the clack of woodblocks breaking up a scene, or the strains of koto providing background music, along with a more modern score of strings and piano. Again giving the sense that we are immersed in a theatre production, standing on-stage beside the actors, or stepping into the portraits they are creating.

The story is told achronologically, building mystery around the relationship between Yataro and Miyagino. As the title may suggest the film’s central focus is on Miyagino, as much or more so than Yataro. Her opening scene shows us a woman who society has cast aside, a pitiable figure whose job makes her an outcast. We learn that she has been abandoned by her family and everyone around her, including Yataro. It gives an insight into the status of women in society at that time with modern parallels. The film also asks us to question the relationship between art and reality, with the prints Yataro creates never capturing the fullness of Miyagino’s life. It draws out a tension between the ‘performance’ of this story and the genuine emotions that are expressed by the actors. This is compounded by the fact that Yataro is creating prints of actors portraying characters, who are in turn played by actors in this film. While it may sound confusing, the film’s meta-elements rarely detract from the narrative, which is compelling.

Perhaps the most difficult idea the film poses is in the constant criticism Yataro receives from his master. Namely that he is lacking a soul. The suggestion perhaps that Yataro, while skilled, is still lacking something vital for the creation of great art. That he is never quite breaking through the superficial to find some deeper significance to his work. It is never quite clear what Sharaku wants from him, or Miyagino, or what Yataro wants for himself. As with much of the film we are left to question this and many more of the character’s peculiar behaviours, left to wonder what their true nature is, much as the people who look at Sharaku’s drawings.

Any Crybabies Around? (2020) by Takuma Sato

A young husband and father, Tasuku (Taiga Nakano) tries to make amends for his previous misbehaviour in this emotional drama. The Namahage festival is a point of local pride in the northern town of Akita. Each year men dress up in straw costumes and terrifying demon masks, moving from house to house warning children to be good and not to cry. Tasuku heads out to the festival, leaving his wife Kotone (Riho Yoshioka) and young daughter Nagi at home. However, after drinking too much he ends up running down the street naked, embarrassing both himself and the town. What’s worse is that the festival was being televised to give the whole country a look at this important tradition. Two years later we find Tasuku living in Tokyo, having separated from Kotone. His best friend Shiba (Kanichiro Sato) turns up and encourages Tasuku to come back to their hometown. Tasuko sees the opportunity to redeem himself and perhaps rekindle his relationship with Kotone and his daughter.

“Any Crybabies Around?”, written and directed by Takuma Sato, gives us a look at a rural community in northern Japan and the festival of Namahage. It is always great to see these cultural traditions represented in film, in much the same way that the recent “Ainu Mosir” focussed on the Ainu festivals. It is a film in which relatively little happens, instead focusing on character, the plot is essentially Tasuku asking for forgiveness for what he has done and trying to come to terms with his past mistakes. The sedate pacing gives the audience time to reflect on what has happened and sympathise with the characters, allowing you to make your own mind up on whether his fate is justified. The acting from Taiga Nakano and Riho Yoshioka as Tasuku and Kotone gives us a look at a separated couple with an uncomfortable relationship. What remains of the love between them is hidden beneath layers of hurt and shame, their recriminations often painful to witness. Scenes of sparse or no dialogue give the actors great opportunity to show their talent, drawing us in to the story of this doomed romance, and again giving the audience final judgement on their actions. The cinematography utilises the landscape to heighten the emotional tension. The crashing waves against the cliffs are a perfect visual metaphor for both the surging passions of Tasuku and the impassive, monolithic traditions of the town that shape everyone who lives there.

The film is about a man atoning for past mistakes and trying to make things right. As a young father, Tasuku’s drunken escapade may hardly seem like the kind of thing to worry about. However, in this rural town we feel the oppressive weight of tradition and the importance of compliance to cultural norms. As in many tight-knit communities, each person is bound to each other through ties of heritage, and the significance placed on continuing traditional festivals such as Namahage is a matter of more than simple pride for some. Tasuku’s behaviour is considered a disrespect to the town elders, perhaps even past generations, more than an unfortunate error of judgement. Tasuku is a tragic hero, his odyssey seeing him in self-imposed exile in Tokyo before finally making the journey back to his hometown. This semi-mythic narrative works well with the focus on Namahage, almost creating its own legend alongside that more ancient one. It is also a film about the loneliness of ostracization for those who have fallen short of what society expects. In showing us the aftermath of a man who has erred and is on a journey of redemption, the film gives us an insight into the often stifling nature of society, where respect for the past is of paramount importance. The final moments of the film are a devastating denouement, with a heart-wrenching scene that works perfectly both narratively and symbolically. A worthwhile watch about a man struggling to regain his place in society after a spectacular fall from grace.