A Whisker Away (2020) by Junichi Sato and Tomotaka Shibayama

Miyo (Mirai Shida), also known as Muge,  is a middle-schooler who seems to have boundless energy, her bright and cheery disposition masking a disatisfaction with her life and past family issues. She lives with her father (Susumu Chiba) and his new partner (Ayako Kawasumi) after her mother (Sayaka Ohara) left them both when Miyo was in primary school. Miyo also has a huge crush on her classmate Kento Hinode (Natsuki Hanae), but is unable to express herself seriously to him. Hinode is also dealing with family issues, putting on a brave face to the world. He confides his feelings in a stray cat, who he names Taro after a dog that died. Unbeknownst to Hinode, Taro is actually Miyo, who acquired a magical mask allowing her to transform into a cat. Things become serious when the mysteirous cat mask-salesman (Koichi Yamadera) offers Miyo a choice between remaining as a cat or giving up the magical mask.

Directed by Junichi Sato and Tomotaka Shibayama, with a screenplay by Mari Okada, “A Whisker Away” is an enjoyable family film, with magic, romance, and relatable characters. There is a fairytale feel to the story, with the mysterious cat salesman, a simple yet difficult choice for the protagonist, and elements such as the hidden city of the cats. This fairytale atmosphere is also emphasised in Miyo’s literaly rose-tinted view of Hinode, the screen blushing pink when she sees him. While the story follows a traditional narrative, it also smuggles in tougher themes that will resonate with some viewers. The separation of Miyo’s parents, their bitterness towards each other and the impact it has on Miyo, are depicted honestly. The film also does not shy away from issues of mortality, with the mask salesman attempting to steal the longer lifespan of humans by offering the switch to life as a cat. It also does a great job with the two leads, Miyo and Hinode, being typical teenagers in their inability to express themselves openly, resorting to either an exaggerated ‘brave face’ persona, or turning inwards. The supporting cast, even smaller roles such as Hinode’s older sister, are all given something of a backstory and personality, helping to make them more than just window dressing.

The art, animation and elemental effects all create a tangible world that also seems to echo the characters emotional states. The warmth of the sun, the dampness of the rain, are all palpable, and the subtle environmental details create a believable setting. Even the magical world of the cats is presented in a realistic way (although it is hard to see how cats managed to construct walkways and cable cars). The score, by Mina Kubota, is perfect for the film, blending eerie mystery when the cat salesman appears with the sentimental, romanticism of Miyo and Hinode’s relationship. The traditional fantasy elements in a modern setting is something that is reflected in the music, with various instruments and styles contemplating both the contemporary romance or the older, more mysterious, magical moments.

“A Whisker Away” is a film that bolsters a familiar teen romance story with more difficult themes of dealing with loss. The separation of Miyo’s parents and her ostracization by classmates is upsetting to watch and gives a deeper understanding of her over-the-top clowning as an attempt to deal with it. The film works well for children and adults in that sense, with a magical romance for younger viewers, while older viewers will latch on to the difficulties in introducing children to new partners, or being a new parent to a child. There is also a strong theme of being able to express yourself that runs throughout, both in the story of the children and the adults. It contrasts the relaxed life of a cat, with that of humans, whose lives are filled with difficulties. The cat salesman offers Miyo an easy way out, but one that will not result in true happiness. In order to get what she wants, she must face up to people and the world. A hugely enjoyable family film with beautiful animation and a story that is engaging for viewers of all ages.

Scherzo (2021) by Takayoshi Shiokawa and Kanta Tomatsu

Koji (Takayoshi Shiokawa) forgets everything, waking up each morning with no memory of his previous life. In fact, Koji is only a name he has chosen for himself as he is unable to remember his past. When he meets Hinako (Meiko), who suffers with the same condition, the two set out to find a way to restore their memories. When we first meet Koji, he is living in a part-built apartment, without any walls, and only a matress, chair and television furnishing the empty space. His bearded, unkempt appearance is explained by his condition, as he forgets to shave, his lack of memory meaning he is never able to progress, essentially each day seeming to him like his first and last. He has only few connections with the world, including a love of baseball, and documents his life with a digital video camera. Hinako is also a lost soul, unable to root her existence in anything permanent, until her connection with Koji provides some form of comfort and solidity.

Based on a screenplay by Takayoshi Shiokawa, who also plays the lead Koji, “Scherzo” is a poignant character study of a man who has lost touch with society. We never find out the cause of Koji or Hinako’s memory loss, the facts of the condition being less important than what it tells us about the modern world. It is a simple, effective way to portray two people who are adrift in society, directionless, lacking any real emotional connection to the world or others in it. The film excels at telling this story visually, with Koji’s living space being a perfect example, or the poignant shots of him alone at various popular date spots. The lack of walls, the snatches of scrawled memos, and the striking image of the television and chair, are rich in metaphor, giving us a powerful emotional sense of his mental state without the need for exposition. The film does provide moments of humour, such as Koji’s trip to a bar without any means of paying, or the first morning Koji and Hinako wake up together with no memory of who or where they are. These lighter moments help to puncture some of the sombre, existential dread that characterises much of the film. The performances, by Takayoshi Shioyokawa as Koji and Meiko as Hinako, are excellent, and the two work well together. It would be hard to call this even an unconventional romance, as other than their shared condition the two seem a poor match; but their chemistry and naturalistic performances are engaging. Much of the film is concerned with memory making, Koji’s video recorder and Hinako’s polaroid camera both playing an important role in telling the story. The film draws us into their wold by having cuts with a stark blue screen of a video camera breaking up scenes, and often switching to Koji’s recordings, creating an uneven sense of time passing, as if we are only seeing brief glimpses of their lives. Many sequences are filmed in a guerrila, documentary like style, feeling like an authentic date diary between the leads, further helping build empathy and understandig with them. In keeping with the classical music-inspired title, the film features a piano score that lends depth to the film. Late in the film we see a series of documentary style vox-pops asking people if there is anyone they love in the world. By using these genuine responses the film deftly sidesteps sentimentalism in expressing its central theme, the importance of human connection and affection.

The meaning of “Scherzo” as a short musical composition is telling as the title of the film. Both Koji and Hinako are only able to live their lives in the moment, a fleeting experience that is untethered from both the past and the future. The use of the camera, as well as being a novel storytelling device, also serves a thematic purpose, showing the impermenance and fallibility of memory. When Hinako questions the difference between a memory and a recording, it is a thought that stays with the viewer and one that colours much of what happens throughout the film. A second important thread to the film is the primacy of recordings and media in society, and perhaps an obsession with looking back rather than living in the moment. The film begins with a stacatto, distorted video of Hinako singing in the rain and Koji can often be seen looking over photographs and video in an attempt to recall things that have happened. The camera serves as both a useful tool for him, but also distances him from his experiences. Everything he receives is second hand, he is forever looking back on events, unable to recapture the emotions connected with them. In the positioning of the television and chair in his living space we also see a warning to a society fixated on media, as opposed to looking out to the world around them and having genuine experiences. An engaging film that raises interesting questions with an interesting concept and two fantastic lead performances.

Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop (2020) by Kyohei Ishiguro

Yui Sakura (Someguro Ichikawa), known familiarly as ‘Cherry’, is a quiet, thoughtful young high-schooler, working part time at a day care centre for the elderly, and spending his free time compiling haiku. Yuki (Hana Sugisaki), known online as ‘Smile’, is an outgoing social media influencer who has taken to wearing a face mask to avoid revealing the braces straightening her buck teeth. The two bump into each other at the mall and soon form a strong friendship despite their differences. Yuki agrees to help Yui find a record for one of the old people at the care centre, Mr. Fujiyama (Koichi Yamadera).

“Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop” treads familiar ground as a feel good teen drama, with strong visuals, and simple, brightly-coloured art, giving it a dazzling quality that instantly captures the imagination, creating an upbeat, enjoyable, summer atmosphere in keeping with the characters and setting. The character and world design all utilise a simplicity of style with recognizable characteristics, this stereotyping further emphasised by the use of nicknames for many of the main characters, including ‘Cherry’, ‘Smile’, ‘Japan’ and ‘Tough Boy’. The story too is pared back to its most basic elements, essentially a youthful summer love story twinned with Mr. Fujiyama’s search for the missing record and his own forgotten romance. With an upbeat pop soundtrack and colourful animation the film is a perfect watch to lift your spirits.

“Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop” creates a tension between the traditional poetry form of haikus and the ultra-modern elements embodied by Yuki, such as an obsession with mobile phones, social media and celebrity. The film brings haiku to a contemporary world, showing the power of words and poetry. The “beauty through simplicity” of haikus is an ethos that aptly describes the film itself. The story, the visuals, the animation, are powerful precisely because of their simplicity. Examples of this include the moments where we see Yui and Yuki in split screen, drawing our attention to their similarities and differences. Yui wears headphones to avoid having to engage with the world, while Yuki wears a face mask avoid the attention of the world. It is these moments that make the film such an enjoyable watch; what appears on the surface a straightforward story, on second glance has so many elements just below the surface. It is possible, just as with a haiku, to find genuine beauty in this simple romantic tale.

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.