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.

Rainbow Song (2006) by Naoto Kumazawa

Tomoya Kishida (Hayato Ichihara) is working as a runner for a production company, currently recording a pop music video. He is an awkward young man, constantly talked down to by his superiors and seemingly unable to do anything correctly, although he is likeable and keen to please. He sends a text to an old friend, Aoi Sato (Juri Ueno), who he has not seen in a number of years after she moved to America. Kishida is later upset to learn from a news report that Aoi has died in a plane crash. He attends the funeral with his boss Higuchi, meeting her parents and her sister Kana (Yu Aoi) who is blind. On the drive home, as Holst plays on the car radio, Kishida thinks back to his time with Aoi. The film is told in a chaptered style, beginning at the end and slowly working back around to the beginning. We see Kishida’s initial meeting with Aoi, when he was chasing another girl whom she worked with. Due to his persistence, they eventually form an uneasy friendship. Aoi, a budding director, decides to cast him in her first amateur film “The End of the World”. Their relationship develops slowly and it is clear that they both have feelings for one another, but Kishida lacks the confidence to tell her how he feels.

“Rainbow Song” is an interesting twist on the traditional relationship drama, since we already know from the beginning what happens to Aoi, and that Kishida and Aoi did not end up together. This is to the film’s advantage as it takes the focus off the usual will-they-won’t-they hook and allows for a much more nuanced and poignant examination of their relationship. While it largely steers clear of cliché, the film knows exactly how to pull at the audiences heartstrings, with a piano and string score by Hiroaki Yamashita that swells at all the right moments. The film also uses Holst’s “Venus” and “Jupiter” a lot, pieces that have significance later on as the soundtrack to Aoi’s film. The music is occasionally a little overpowering in moments that could have relied solely on the performances of the two lead actors.

Kishida is a believably nuanced character, shy, sincere, funny, unambitious, honest. Hayato Ichihara is perfectly cast, humorous and charming in his confused interactions with women, either hitting on someone who is already taken, or failing to notice Aoi’s developing feelings towards him. Juri Ueno also shines in her role as we see her transform from annoyance at his behaviour to acceptance and later affection at his quirks. The script offers many fantastic moments with the pair and they have a good chemistry together. Surprisingly, given the tragic events that open the film there are a few very funny scenes. One of the best moments is Kishida’s ill-fated experience at a speed dating event he is taken to by Aoi. Again, the brilliance of the premise is that even in the moments of romance or humour there is always the dark cloud of the inevitable tragedy lingering over everything.

The staging of “Rainbow Song” is noteworthy as it often drives the narrative forward. The positioning of characters in relation to each other and  their surroundings tells the story just as much as the dialogue and acting. The cinematography also provides some beautiful moments, such as when the two leads are standing by a puddle that reflects a rainbow. It is a simple shot, perhaps a little melodramatic, but the subtlety of the rest of the film allows it a pass on moments such as this. The film is perhaps a little drawn out, although the chaptering helps in breaking the story up into smaller, sometimes self-contained, stretches. The film was written by Shunji Iwai (under a pseudonym), along with Ami Sakurai and Miyuki Sato and both dialogue and plot are carefully constructed with a sense of realism to everything that happens.

Early on the theme of fate is established and the film itself plays on this through its plot structure. In knowing what will happen and witnessing the events with that knowledge, the audience is put in the unusual position of seeing things with the benefit of hindsight that the characters do not have. Kishida is criticised by his boss for not being able to alter the weather for the following day’s shoot, to which he replies that that would be impossible. His boss then retorts that he should at least look worried about it. This notion that there a things that will happen that we cannot change, that in fact we can only change our feelings about them is a powerful notion. Tragic events do occur and we can only look at them and decide how we feel about them. In the same way, Kishida cannot relive his time with Aoi, only look back on it with either love or regret. The second major message of the film is that of utilising your limited time wisely and taking advantage of every opportunity. There are several moments where Kishida has the chance to begin a serious relationship with Aoi, but always seems to back out. In contrast, when given the chance to move to America, Aoi takes it. They reflect each other in this regard, one hesitant and one bold enough to take their opportunities. The tragedy is that Kishida is doomed to miss his chance for true happiness, and that Aoi is doomed to take hers. The dualistic and contradictory nature of fate and free will is threaded throughout this story though never stated quite so boldly.

“Rainbow Song” is a subtle, nuanced look at relationships, that builds to a surprisingly devastating finale as we are taken through Kishida’s emotional recollections of the time he spent with Aoi and his series of missed chances. Worth a watch as a unique take on tragi-romantic drama.

Hot Gimmick: Girl Meets Boy (2019) by Yuki Yamato

Based on the manga “Hot Gimmick” by Miki Aihara, this film about teenage romance is a tough watch for all the wrong reasons. Hatsumi (Miona Hori) is a shy teenager, romantically and sexually inexperienced, who seems to be easily manipulated by those around her. Early in the film she is asked by her more worldly-wise younger sister Akane to buy a pregnancy kit, drawing the distinction between the two girls. When her neighbour Ryoki (Hiroya Shimizu) finds the kit, he blackmails Hatsumi into being his slave. This is where things take a turn for the perverse and logic flies out the window. Ryoki is clearly interested in Hatsumi romantically, using this as a way to get close to her, however his behaviour is so inexplicable for someone who also appears to be socially awkward that it is hard to believe. It also creates an uncomfortable dynamic as Hatsumi is forced to obey him and we are left wondering why she doesn’t completely reject this or report him. Things don’t get much better when another of Hatsumi’s neighbours, Azusa (Mizuki Itagaki) turns his attention to her. Azusa is an old friend recently shot to stardom as an idol, and seems very interested in Azusa. However, after taking her to a party where he drugs her drink, we realise his intentions are not entirely pure. Azusa is rescued from the horrors of what could have followed by Shinogu (Shotaro Mamiya), her older brother. We later learn Shinogu is not biologically related and that he also has romantic intentions towards her. Later in the film Hatsumi is tricked into sending a nude video to Azusa, which he then proceeds to blackmail her with.

While ostensibly a romantic drama, the film contains so many uncomfortable moments, blackmail, revenge porn, suggestions of date rape, the quasi-incestuous nature of her relationship with Shinogu, it is hard to be charmed by any of the characters. Throughout, there is the sense that Hatsumi should choose one of these men, but they all behave so reprehensibly the sanest thing would be for her to get as far away as possible. The issues the film raises are all interesting starting points for a film about teenage life and worries, but it feels as though the filmmakers are unaware of the seriousness of what is happening. Incidents that would be the major plot point of any other film are passed over as though they were minor annoyances, or something that is a regular occurrence for teenagers. The ease with which Hatsumi forgets transgressions against her leaves a sour taste suggesting that women are essentially mindless pawns in a game played by despicable men. She is lacking in agency for the most part, either unaware or unconcerned by what happens to her.

Sadly the plot is far from the worst part of this movie. The editing is nauseating from the beginning. In the opening sequence we see fast cuts to still images of several characters, some we are yet to be introduced to. Throughout the camera will suddenly cut to random elements in a scene. There are some great shots, but again they are rushed, appearing for a second at a time before the camera gets distracted by something else. It is as if you are looking through the eyes of someone with a very short attention span, and little understanding of what is important at any moment. It is a shame, because without the rapid pace the cinematography would have been given time to shine, with Shibuya providing an excellent backdrop for the chaotic lives of the protagonists. In the second half the editing does calm down a little and we get some of the better scenes. The standout moments are in the dialogues between Hatsumi, Azusa and Ryoki. Miona Hori does a good job with the more emotional scenes when she finally confronts them. Hori is an idol singer and her performance is strong, but undermined by the script and characterisation of her as something of an airhead (but without the charm to compensate). Hiyori Sakurada who plays Akane is very good and has some of the most poignant moments in a side-story about her own relationship. The scene between Hatsumi and Ryoki seems as though there is too much dialogue crammed into one scene. It may be an adaptation issue, in attempting to condense the story for a short runtime, but the film is far from short, coming in at just under two hours. They could have largely cut Akane’s story and focussed on the rivalry between Azusa and Ryoki, which seems to be at the film’s heart.

Essentially the film is a coming-of-age story, with Hatsumi learning that she has the power to choose who she dates. What should have been an uplifting message is undercut by the subtext that she should allow herself to become whatever her partner wants. She is mocked as being stupid throughout and it doesn’t seem to bother her; the idea of being blackmailed and treated as a slave is almost shrugged off; likewise the attempted date-rape that she either forgets or forgives, and her older brother’s deceit. As well as being a terrible role-model for young women, the film also depicts its male characters as universally awful, aggressive, lustful and disingenuous. This poorly conceived film is severely lacking, distracting from any high-points with confused editing and worrying subtext.

Air Doll (2009) by Hirokazu Koreeda

Bae Doona stars in this modern fairytale about an inflatable sex doll that comes to life. This miracle prompts her go out into the world and explore. Nozomi, as the doll is named, is a wide-eyed innocent to the bizarre behaviours of the citizens of Tokyo. We are treated to several scenes of her attempting to follow what others are doing or understand what is going on that gives us a fresh perspective on the everyday. She stumbles across a DVD rental store, where she is employed as an assistant, forming a close friendship with the young man who works there. At nights she returns to her owner, assuming an inanimate aspect to perform her role as a sex toy. On her daytime perambulations she meets a number of lonely people, including an old man pondering his existence, a middle-aged receptionist trying to recapture her youth, and a young pervert who spies on her in the store. As days go by, Nozomi attempts to fathom some reason for her existence.

Bae Doona’s performance as Nozomi is perfect in its fragile naivete and childlike wonder at the world. Throughout the film we see her becoming more confident and her range of expressions growing as she begins to understand emotions. Comedian Itsuji Itao plays her owner as a comi-tragic figure. We learn a little about him through short scenes of him at work and at home with Nozomi. While it may be tempting to laugh at his situation, we come to see that he is not a bad person, in fact he shows kindness to the doll beyond its basic utility, but rather a man disillusioned with society and withdrawn into his own reality. The same is true of the other characters in the film who are variously struggling to integrate with society or form connections with other people. There is a late cameo from Joe Odagiri as the dollmaker, which provides an interesting moment for Nozomi as she is essentially meeting her Maker.

The screenplay by director Hirokazu Koreeda is based on the original manga by Yoshiie Goda. “Airdoll” is a film that has an intriguing premise. The Little Mermaid is mentioned during the film and is among others one of the key influences, particularly in Nozomi’s later relationship with Junichi (Arata Iura). She is the typical fish-out-of-water, attempting to fit in and find love, albeit with an adult twist. The film is a tough watch at times due to the relentlessly downbeat tone. The various side-characters all have something to say about modern society, whether that is about the focus on youth and beauty, the misunderstanding of the relationship between sex and love, or the search for meaning in an otherwise meaningless life. The film often feels that it is labouring the same point but in slightly different ways. That being said there are few genuinely shocking moments, where the film seems to completely jump the tracks. Not in terms of its own internal logic, but in terms of what an audience might expect. One of these comes near the end of the film and sees a sudden shift from humorous to horrifying. It is peculiar as it cuts across the mild melancholy of what has come before in a brutal way.

Pin Bing Lee’s cinematography takes us right into the world of Tokyo, with sweeping rooftop scenes showing the contradictory nature of the city as a place that is at once bustling yet without any real sense of soul. The opening sequence is a good example of the film’s visual storytelling with Itsuji Itao’s lonely figure sitting on a train travelling around the tracks, trapped in the monotonous daily grind. Likewise Bae Doona’s early experiences with the world that rely on her acute facial expressions and body language before she learns to converse fully with others. Katsuhiko Maeda’s score underlines the melancholic nature of the film, with plaintive piano and strings drifting along and the use of breathing on the soundtrack is a clever device, a nod to the protagonist’s tenuous existence and also creating the sense of the city itself as a living thing.

The film is certainly an interesting watch, with plenty to say about modern life. The depressing, nihilistic tone may be hard for some to swallow, but it is not without its enjoyable moments. Joe Odagiri’s characters asks Nozomi pointedly to tell him if there was anything good in the world, or was it all just one long trial. The audience is left to ponder this question throughout with the meaning of life seeming to always hover just out of reach of the characters. Surprisingly, the sexual politics of the film are left largely unaddressed, although the set-up leaves plenty of room for projection from the audience about the rights and wrongs of relationships. Rather than a personal study the film is best examined as a wider commentary on society. There has been a disconnect between sex and love in society that seems to be damaging the heart of humanity itself and leading to the sort of alienation we witness amongst the characters. A worthwhile watch with a superb central performance and a novel twist on an old idea.

Kakera: A Piece of our Life (2009) by Momoko Ando

Haru (Hikari Mitsushima) is a university student trapped in an unfulfilling relationship. Her boyfriend Ryota (Tasuku Nagaoka), slovenly and uncaring, is seeing other women, and their loveless sex is the only thing keeping him coming back. While drinking alone in a coffee shop, Haru is approached by Riko (Eriko Nakamura), a prosthetics artist who was instantly attracted to her. The two begin a relationship, Riko having fallen in love, and Haru to escape her loneliness. The two women clearly want different things from each other, Haru nervous of commitment and Riko desperate for her to reciprocate her feelings of love. Following an argument, Riko also begins a relationship with a patient Toka (Rino Katase), for whom she is making a prosthetic breast.

Based on the manga “Love Vibes” by Erika Sakurazawa, with a screenplay by director Momoko Ando, the film is a straightforward story that is given real weight by its central performances. On the surface it is a simple love story, from Haru and Riko’s initial meeting we are drawn into Haru’s struggle to commit to Riko and leave her boyfriend Ryota. As it progresses we see that Riko is far from the perfect escape, bringing her own baggage and fears of rejection. Mitsushima gives a great performance as the naïve and somewhat easily-led Haru. She is unhappy, but indecisive, trapped in a world of her own creation. Her shyness may be symptomatic of her confusion about her sexuality, in contrast to the more assertive and confident Riko. Riko knows exactly who she is, and Nakamura gives a strong performance, and has much more dialogue, delivering some blistering speeches as she ruminates and rages about modern society. Tasuku Nagaoka’s Ryota is portrayed as a womanizer, with little feeling outside of sex, but he is also studious and clearly hardworking in his job. His flaw is that he is not providing Haru with what she wants, which is a deeper emotional connection. Rino Katase’s Toka is similarly a deeply flawed character, at once sympathetic yet domineering. She is a cold mirror to Riko, sharing her trait for possessiveness.

The script is heavy with metaphor and conversations often drift into philosophising on the nature of humans and sexuality, and the meaning of love. The cinematography does an incredible job of showing the emotional struggles of the characters, from the opening scene, in which Haru and Ryota’s relationship is perfectly encapsulated without any dialogue. One of the other standout moments is Haru’s dive into a pool full of the night sky, although somewhat at odds with the realism of the rest of the film. The gentle piano score by James Iha is romantic and drifts in and out as required, rarely overpowering the drama, but underlining the emotions that are resonating from the characters.

“Kakera” shows us women trapped in a male dominated world. This is evident in the sequence at an izakaya, when they are the only two women on a long table of besuited men. Their emotional scene plays out while these businessmen stare in blank silence, a representation of the women’s frustrations bubbling over in a society where they are largely ignored. It gives us a realistic portrayal of relationships, with jealousy threatening to tear them apart. There are a number of metaphors that are alluded to in the story. Riko’s job as a prosthetist, creating new body parts for people who have lost them through accident or illness, is an on-the-nose reference to people searching for love. The expressions “your other half” or “the missing piece” are often used to describe the feeling of finding love. Here it is made explicit that love is something that will fill a hole in your heart, or make you complete. That without love it is as though you are missing something vital. Some may disagree with this idea, but it is clear that both Haru and Riko are desperately searching for something. Whether that is love, or a deeper understanding of themselves and their own needs is debateable. The second metaphor, one that is less clearly defined, is the connection between war and sex or love. When the two women watch fireworks, Riko comments that they appear to be both ascending and descending, perhaps referencing the notion that love can be both positive and negative. In a later uncomfortable moment, Ryota forces himself on Haru while a war movie plays on the television. Again, this may be symbolic of the idea of male sexuality as aggressive, even destructive, or that both sex, lust and violence are inherent human traits. Love transcends these things, by being something outside of the purely physical experience. This metaphysical love is what both characters are striving for and something that the film succeeds in drawing out. With excellent cinematography, performances and score, this is a romantic movie that creates believable characters and has something profound to say about relationships.