Parks (2017) by Natsuki Seta

Jun (Ai Hashimoto) is struggling to come up with a thesis for the communications professor on her socio-cultural studies course. By a quirk of fate she bumps into Haru (Mei Nagano), who is searching for her grandfather’s former sweetheart from letters she discovered after her passing. The two girls set out to find this woman and soon meet her grandson, Tokio (Shota Sometani), who tells them that she has also recently passed. The three discover an old incomplete recording of a song that the old couple had written and recorded together and decide that they should write the rest of the song, which they later decide to perform at the upcoming music festival in the park.

The thin plot, languid pacing, and gentle, non-confrontational atmosphere of the film is much like spending a pleasant afternoon sitting in a park, watching the world go by. Much of the film is set in and around the park, the green space offering a soothing backdrop to the drama, along with the melodic score. While there are romantic undertones with the historic story, this tension is not there in the leads, which is refreshing to see. Instead they are just three young people enjoying youth and finding their way in the world. The film features a couple of sub-plots, one involving an elderly friend of Haru’s grandmother and one relating to Jun’s past as a child star, that are underused. Instead the plot is centred on the three young adults and their quest to rediscover the past and understand the relationship of Haru’s grandfather and his former girlfriend through the fragments that are left. All three leads are supremely likeable and play well off one another. Shota Sometani delivers a comic performance as the energetic, nerdy Tokio; Ai Hashimoto and Mei Nagano have good chemistry as the new friends, balancing a wistful melancholy about the passage of time and the joyful experiences of youth.

“Parks” was commissioned as a celebration of the 100 year anniversary of Inokashira Park and the film’s themes of conservation and time emphasise a feeling of respect towards the place. It perfectly captures the atmosphere of parks as multi-generational spaces, brimming over with memories and individual stories. The trees and waters of the park offer comfort in giving people a sense of perspective. The film portrays this sense of living both with and apart from the past by having Haru step into her grandfather’s story in several moments of magical realism. “Parks” is an experiential film that hits all the right notes and captures the emotive, transcendent atmosphere of these spaces. The themes of reconnecting with the past, the power of music, the passage of time and finding peace and purpose, are all beautifully articulated. A relaxing watch with great performances from the leads and a calming, contemplative atmosphere.

Romance Doll (2020) by Yuki Tanada

Art graduate Tetsuo (Issei Takahashi) turns up at a warehouse on the recommendation of a friend. He soon discovers the job he has been set-up with is designing and manufacturing sex dolls along with senior designer Kinji (Kitaro), nicknamed Kin-Kin. He sets about his task diligently, but his first creation is deemed inadequate by their boss as it is too unrealistic. Kinji comes up with a plan: they will advertise for a female breast model by pretending that they are making prostheses for medical use. When Sonoko (Yu Aoi) turns up to model, Tetsuo falls in love with her and the two are soon married. Tetsuo finds he is unable to tell her about his real profession and Sonoko has a difficult secret of her own to share with him.

Writer and director Yuki Tanada has worked on a number of romantic comedy films and her familiarity with the genre shines through in this well-balanced relationship drama. “Romance Doll” is paced perfectly and uses gentle humour to introduce the characters. It eschews crude gags but the early scenes as Tetsuo is introduced to his new job are entertaining in the casual way they treat the subject matter of love dolls and the respect Kin-Kin has for his work, seeing his role as something akin to a sculptor of great art. The relationship between Tetsuo and Sonoko is tender and relatable, both uneasy at first and likeable but not without their flaws. Issei Takahashi as Tetsuo begins as an archetypical awkward young singleton, but develops into a more rounded character through his relationship with Sonoko. Yu Aoi (who also featured in Tanada’s “One Million Yen Girl”) delivers an incredible performance, hugely charismatic and  capturing both the strength and fragility of the character. The supporting cast all do an excellent job, but the film keeps a firm focus on the two leads. The direction is great throughout, with excellent use of framing and blocking, particularly in the scenes between Tetsuo and Sonoko. The dinner table is almost transformed into an interrogation room as their relationship hits several bumps in the road. There are also carefully considered cutaways that say a lot very succinctly. One such example is the still shot of two coffee cups, still part full, resting on the table following an argument, that perfectly encapsulates a sense of things left unsaid and the comfortable fantasy of the perfect relationship being brought to a sudden halt.

In many ways a straightforward tragic-romance plot, the inclusion of Tetsuo’s peculiar line of work helps give the film a quite unique feel. Alongside themes of relationship troubles, honesty and questions of fidelity, there is also an important idea brought to the fore. That of the distinction and relationship between sex and love. The film rarely sexualises Tetsuo’s work and the dolls are only ever seen as objects, quite distinct from Sonoko who displays a warmth and tenderness. As the title suggests, the idea of a “love doll” (as they are called in the film), or more accurately a “sex doll” would be quite distinct from a “Romance Doll”, which suggests a deeper connection and one that is born of struggle and genuine understanding for another person. The film is well made and brings out incredible performances from the two leads. It’s gentle blend of humour, romantic drama, and philosophizing on the nature of love make it a hugely enjoyable watch.

Beautiful, Goodbye (2019) by Eiichi Imamura

Daisuke (Yusuke Takebayashi) is on the run after attempting to murder a man who he believed to be beating his child. While driving away in a stolen car he hits a woman who is standing in the road in the middle of the night. This woman is Natsuko (Bi Yo), who is dealing with her own issues. Natsuko is undead, recently returned to life after suffering fatal head injury, and also on the run from an unpleasant and abusive boyfriend (Kosuke Haruki) who has performed a ritual to resurrect her. Daisuke and Natsuko set off together on a curious road trip attempting to outrun their fates.

Writer and director Eiichi Imamura delivers a unique take on the romantic road movie genre, and a reimagining of zombie movie tropes. The film keeps a close eye on the two protagonists. Yusuke Takebayashi’s portrayal of the nervous, stuttering Daisuke, immediately evokes sympathy for him. It is clear early on that he is not a hardened killer. As the film goes on he gains in confidence and we see him develop a better understanding of himself. Bi Yo’s Natsuko is the catalyst to his transformation, her easy-going attitude and humour helping him come out of his shell. She exudes charm and it is interesting to see the zombie here as a thinking, feeling being, which adds a layer of tragedy to the character. The two of them play well off one another and their relationship develops naturally without melodrama. The film has a gentle pace as the two travel together and gives the audience plenty of time to ruminate on the themes of fate, death and human relationships. Everything else seems to fade into insignificance as they drive along, with many scenes having only the two of them lost in their own conversations. The film will occasionally cut to Natsuko’s boyfriend (Koki Nakajima) as he attempts to find her, but for the most part it is Daisuke and Natsuko’s relationship that provides the impetus for the drama. The film ably manages to drift between blackly comic whimsy, in Natsuko’s reappearance as a zombie, and tragically doomed romance. The cinematography, by Kosuke Haruki, sets off this tone perfectly with golden sunsets and soft natural lighting that creates a relaxing vibe throughout. The smooth meditative score likewise heightens this sensation of a slow drift towards the inevitable as Daisuke and Natsuko continue their journey.

“Beautiful, Goodbye” is a film about the relationship between Daisuke and Natsuko and their reliance on one another. The metaphor of a lightbulb and a plug socket is used, fittingly unusual for the characters, to demonstrate their interdependence. The fact that Natsuko is a zombie from the moment they meet helps draw attention to the inevitable, that both of these characters are heading down a dead-end street. The only thing they don’t know is how long the road will be. As such both are forced into making the most of the time they do have. It is this also that adds the aforementioned element of doomed romance to their story. The audience realises that whatever happens, the relationship between a man on the run for attempted murder and a zombie, is unlikely to have a happy ending. Despite the darkness at its heart, it is a film that on final reflection comes with a great deal of hope. The chance meeting of these two characters proves to be a fortunate encounter with both coming to understand and reflect on who they are and what they have done. Though their time together may be short, it helps both to understand what it is they are living for. “Beautiful, Goodbye” gives us a fresh twist on the conventional road-trip romance, with captivating central performances and a transformative message about life and death.

G@me (2003) by Satoshi Isaka

Sakuma (Naohito Fujiki) is a well-to-do young businessman at a marketing company, living the highlife with a penthouse apartment and a fancy car. He is suave and confident, delivering pitches for his company with consummate ease. His latest project is for Mikado Beer, for whom he is developing a festival-cum-amusement park concept in Odaiba. When the president of Mikado, Katsuragi (Ryo Ishibashi), decides to shut down the project, feeling it’s not in touch with their image, Sakuma takes it as a personal slight from the wealthy mogul. While wandering past Katsuragi’s house one night he sees a young woman jumping the fence. Following her, she tells him that she is Katsuragi’s daughter Juri (Yukie Nakama) from an affair he had years ago. She has moved in with them following her mother’s death but wants to get away, feeling she doesn’t fit in. Juri suggests to Sakuma that they fake her kidnapping and extort money from her father, splitting the money. Hesitant at first, Sakuma agrees to go along with this, seeing it as a way of getting back at Katsuragi. Things don’t go to plan when Sakuma and Juri begin to develop feelings for one another, and secrets are revealed.

Based on a novel by Higashino Keigo and directed by Satoshi Isaki, “G@me” is a stylish crime caper with a heavy helping of romance. The film opens with stunning shots of the Tokyo skyline and into Sakuma’s apartment, where we see him lying prone on the floor, with his narration furthering the noir aesthetic. The film has a glossy sheen, with the characters playing for high-stakes, large sums of money and (perhaps more importantly for them) their own reputations and egos. The plot is slightly silly and requires some suspension of disbelief that every element of the various schemes goes exactly to plan. But this is not a film to let something like logic get in the way of a good story. Naohito Fujiki and Yukie Nakama give great performances as the wannabee scammers with an uneasy relationship. Ryo Ishibashi is the perfect hardnosed businessman with a sinister air who becomes Sakuma’s nemesis. The film has more than a couple of surprises, with the twists and turns of the plot becoming increasingly unlikely as they become more enjoyable. There is rarely a sense of danger in the film, despite things taking a darker turn in the second half. This is partly down to the mixed narrative, one of the fake kidnapping plot and one the burgeoning relationship between the couple. The more serious aspects are brushed over and what is left is a fun mystery thriller whose momentum keeps people from asking too many questions.

The film develops the popular crime theme of deception, with double-cross upon double-cross and nobody’s motives or actions being entirely what they seem. Much like its characters the film is pretty shallow, with both the crime story and the relationship drama not moving much beyond plot drivers. The fake kidnapping is a solid premise and the two actors do a great job, but as things progress it is a case of diminishing returns as it goes from stylish thriller to farcical crime caper when they try to recover the money. Sakuma’s reasons for getting involved, either the money or the girl, seem poorly thought out for a man who is clearly intelligent and already living in relative luxury. The sleek look of the film and pulp crime novel pacing ensure that it is never a dull ride though. “Game” is an entertaining film with two charismatic leads and a plot that keeps you guessing right until the end.

Wood Job! (2014) by Shinobu Yaguchi

When Yuki Hirano (Shota Sometani) fails his university entrance exams he finds himself at a loss. Not able to follow his classmates to further education, he is dealt a further blow when his girlfriend tells him they should split up. While out drinking with friends he sees a leaflet advertising a one year project to work in forestry. Enamoured by the beautiful young woman on the leaflet he sets out for the countryside where he learns all about this new trade under the stern guidance of Yoki (Hideaki Ito). He is then assigned to the remote village of Kamusari, where he is pleased to find the woman from the leaflet Naoki (Masami Nagasawa) is also living. Yuki attempts to ingratiate himself with the villagers, learning about rural life and the woods, in hopes of connecting with Naoki. Naoki however, having been disappointed by another trainee, is reluctant to fall for Yuki.

“Wood Job!” is based on the novel by Shion Miura. Written and directed by Shinobu Yaguchi (Swing Girls, Robo-G) it is very much part of his oeuvre of lighthearted comedies. With a romantic plot and plenty of gentle humour it is an easy watch. Most of the laughs come from Yuki’s attempts to learn about forestry, including tying knots, using a chainsaw, and not shouting “Timber!” when the trees fall. When he finally makes it to Kamusari we are treated to scenes of him balking at their local food and drink (road-kill deer and alcohol with a dead snake in) and customs. There is a comfortable familiarity to the plot and it delivers exactly what you expect from early on at every turn. That is not to say it is not enjoyable. The film builds on a sense of relaxation that is in keeping with the themes, which are all about the quiet, nature-focussed rural life, as opposed to the rat-race of the city. The charismatic cast exude bonhomie and their affable and affectionate relationships are entirely believable. Shota Sometani is likeable as the inept and naïve city kid, completely out of his depth, but with a bottomless passion and determination to battle on. Masami Nagasawa provides the perfect foil as the cool and confident school-teacher Naoki, whose worries about her future are always bubbling below the surface of her genial disposition. Hideaki Ito also delivers a great comic turn as Yuki’s superior Yoki, at first displeased by what he sees as Yuki’s incompetence, but slowly won over by his resolve. The film was shot on location in Mie prefecture and features stunning shots of the forested mountains. The direction distinguishes between the city and the countryside in an interesting way, using a frenetic fixed camera on Yuki in the overwhelming and chaotic city and large panoramic takes in the countryside, firmly differentiating the hectic streets from the quiet charm of the mountains.

The traditions of rural communities are a fascinating insight into human civilisation and can offer a window into what has been lost by the move to increasingly large metropolitan areas. The nature of forestry work demands a close connection with and understanding of the natural world, and “Wood Job!” reflects on this in various conversations between the characters. Whether that is the idea that nature deserves respect, or the deep understanding of ones place in history through the cycles of harvesting and planting. Yuki is a character who is completely lost, having fallen off the expected path from high-school to university to work. His move to the countryside provides him with a chance to examine what is important in life. The pace of life, the simplicity born of a lack of distractions, the focus on community and tradition, all of these things change his perspective. In the end, Yuki’s journey speaks to everyone who is trapped in the largely meaningless and monotonous faux-reality of modernity. It is a call for a return to nature, to ideals of family, community, and enjoying the good things in life.