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person, in fact he shows kindness to the doll beyond its basic utility, but rather a man disillusioned with society and withdrawn into his own reality.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.

Enoshima Prism (2013)

High-school student Shuta Jogasaki (Sota Fukushi) visits his friend’s mother’s house on the second anniversary of his friend Saku’s death. It is clear that he feels some responsibility for what happened. While there he finds a time-travel watch. Sceptical at first, he soon discovers that the watch allows him to travel back in time to just before his friend died. He is reunited with his former high-school friends Saku (Shuhei Nomura) and Michiru (Tsubasa Honda), who he has drifted apart from following her move to England. Shuta decides to alter the events of the past so that Saku might live. He is confronted by the ghost of a girl at their high-school who is trapped there following a similar disturbance in the flow of time. This girl, Kyoko (Honoka Miki), warns him not to interfere with events that have happened in case he too becomes stuck in this parallel time.

Written and directed by Yasuhiro Yoshida, Enoshima Prism blends elements of high-school romance and time travel in a light-hearted comedy that touches on the theme of friendship. The time travel twist is a novel way to tell the story and creates an energetic pacing as Shuta moves back and forth between past and present. The main cast all work well together as the three childhood friends. The character of Kyoko is a great addition and almost sees the film start to take on a paranormal, ghost-story, element that manages to shuffle in quite comfortably beside the time-travel plot. This paranormal element is also complimented by the character of science-teacher and occult enthusiast, Matsudo (Yo Yoshida), who gives a great comedic performance. Despite some good performances and interesting story ideas, “Enoshima Prism” often plays things safe as a genre high-school tale. A melodramatic score and simple, almost by-the-numbers, style of shooting give things the feel of a television drama.

The film’s focus is on the power of friendship and the consequences of altering the past. While the film does not break much new ground in terms of its plot, the love triangle and time-travel dilemmas having featured in many high-school dramas, it does have a few interesting ideas (such as the ‘time prisoner’ Kyoko) and the story moves at a good pace. The understated cinematography and light piano score, while not adding much, do not detract from the performances and blend of comedy, drama and science-fiction that make the film an enjoyable watch.

Love Exposure (2008)

Yu Honda’s life is one steeped in Christian tradition. Following the death of his mother, a devoutly religious woman, he lives together with his father who turns to the priesthood to deal with his grief. However, his father’s increasingly stringent demands for his son to confess his sins soon leads Yu into the gang lifestyle in order to find something worthy of confession. Yu meets up with a group of tearaway teens who are into shoplifting and soon graduates to taking covert upskirt photos of women, believing sexual perversion to be the one thing that will satiate his father. Meanwhile, Yu’s father falls in love with a sexually aggressive woman who leads him away from his calling as a priest, and Yu continues with his perverse hobby along with his newfound friends. Yu has sworn off sexual or romantic relationships with any woman other than his “Maria”, after his mother told him in his youth that she wanted him to find a girl exactly like the mother of Christ. Unexpectedly, while in drag after losing a bet, Yu meets his Maria in the shape of Yoko. This girl is also carrying plenty of emotional and psychological baggage, having suffered physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her promiscuous father. Yoko falls in love with Yu, believing him to be a woman called Miss Scorpion. Unable to confess to her as himself, Yu is in emotional turmoil. A second girl, Aya Koike, is meanwhile attempting to destroy Yu’s family, by converting his father to the cult of Zero Church that she is involved with.

Written and directed by Sion Sono the film is clearly the work of an auteur of exceptional talent and unique vision. While a four-hour movie may sound long, Sono’s skill at storytelling and the characters, humour and ideas he manages to pack in make this an enjoyable watch from start to finish. The running time also allows for a full exploration of several of the themes of the movie. The film is chaptered, and with the main three characters of Yu, Yoko and Aya, it is broken up in such a way that maintains the audiences interest throughout. As well as several plot strands, such as Yu’s deception of Yoko as Miss Scorpion, the Zero Church, and even Yu’s father’s romance, each relationship sets up another conflict requiring resolution. The actors all do an incredible job with the material that veers from slapstick to serious without ever undermining itself. Takahiro Nishijima is great as Yu, who is fighting to reconcile his religious upbringing with his emotional urges. It is a credit to him that he creates a believable character of Yu, who could have been simply a caricature pervert. The film later makes a point of contrasting him with just such characters to emphasise his own psychological depth. Aya Koike is a force of nature, manipulative and vicious, though again with good reason. Hikari Mitsushima delivers a spellbinding performance. While her initial appearance seems to suggest a typical angry teenager, as the film progresses and we see her open up emotionally she shows a huge range. In particular her recitation of the biblical passage Corinthians 13 is an incredible piece of acting and one of the highlights of the later portion of the film.

What begins as a satirical look at the perversion of religion and its obsession with deviancy, and in particular sexual deviancy, expands to include various topics. There is throughout an examination of sex, both its dark and destructive aspect as well as its undeniable power and significance in human relations. The film also deals with issues of abuse, emotional, physical and sexual, and how this can impact on the development of individuals. It may be convenient for some to boil the film down to an essential message about the importance of love, or even a more cliched “love conquers all” philosophy, but that would be to miss the point. The film’s multifarious dimensions, the merging and distorting of divine and obscene imagery, suggests an intention to purposely blur the lines between what is and is not sacred or important to humanity. People struggle under the weight of imposed religious morality, and it is openly mocked at times, but there is an understanding that people need something to strive towards or cling to. For some in the film this means substituting the traditional Christian church with a new cult, for others it is an obsession with perversion, for others it is love. “Love Exposure” is rarely condescending, even when pointing out the absurdity of humans. It instead attempts to unravel the various social pressures, psychological foundations, and basic human drivers to understand why humans act the way they do.

Modern Love (2018)

Modern Love tells the story of a young woman Mika, who is struggling with the mysterious disappearance of her boyfriend, Teru. When a new planet appears in the solar system its presence presages several inexplicable phenomenon. Mika comes into contact with her own doppelganger, and then a third lookalike Mika. These are revealed to be parallel universe versions of Mika, though the circumstances of each are slightly difference. For one, she has just met and begun dating Teru, for the other Teru has committed suicide and she has largely come to terms with his death. The three then become trapped in a time-loop and must work together to understand how to break out of this eternally recurring day. This leads Mika to uncover the mysterious Agartha, a name she had previously been introduced to by an odd customer at the travel agency where she works.

Writer and director Takuya Fukushima has crafted a compelling drama with science-fiction elements never detracting from the central themes of love and loss. The idea of parallel worlds is an interesting way to explore Mika’s psychological struggles by externalising her confusion and anxieties. The mysteries established are enough to hold your attention throughout and the sense that the world is falling apart and anything could happen makes for an exciting story. The side characters are less strong and add little to the film other than basic exposition. The direction is good and in particular the use of locations such as the empty bar and the later scenes in the rustic European setting for Agartha. Azusa Inamura gives a great performance as Mika (and the two alternate Mikas). We sense her loss and confusion as well as her various relationships with Teru. Takuro Takahashi’s Teru is also given time to shine, though less so than Mika and the two have a good chemistry.

Modern Love is about a journey of self-discovery and coming to terms with loss. Mikas psyche is fractured between her memories of Teru and her present situation of dealing with his loss. This is demonstrated in the three versions of herself that converge in the same world. Likewise the idea of being stuck in a time-loop will be familiar to those suffering with depression as it seems that she cannot move on but is forced to relive the same memories while not progressing with her own life. Particularly interesting is the concept of Agartha, which is an esoteric idea of a land that exists at the centre of a hollow earth. In this film Agartha is used both as a sort of heaven or afterlife, as well as symbolising an exploration of the human soul or psyche. In her journey to find this place and uncover its secret, Mika is in fact delving into her own mind to attempt to unravel the confused feelings of loss and try to discover a path back to her own life.