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.

Ride or Die (2021) by Ryuichi Hiroki

Two women go on the run in this stylish romanctic thriller. Rei (Kiko Mizuhara) has had a crush on her former highschool classmate Nanae (Honami Sato) for years. When Nanae turns up out of the blue and reveals that she is in an abusive relationship, Rei takes matters into her own hands. After killing Nanae’s violent husband, Rei goes on the run from the police. Deciding she can’t let her go alone, Nanae joins her and the two make their escape from the city. While attempting to outrun the inevitable, the two women reassess their relationship.

Based on the manga “Gunjo” by Ching Nakamura and directed by Ryuichi Hiroki from a screenplay by Nami Sakawa, “Ride or Die” has all the elements of an exciting crime drama, sex, murder and two troubled protagonists. What begins as a stylish thriller soon morphs into a romantic road trip movie, with the two leads cruising around Japan, largely unphased by what has happened. The inciting incident of the crime is merely a means to get these two characters back together after a long separation; with the main focus being on Rei’s attempt to win Nanae’s heart. The direction, with many long hand held takes, demands the best of its actors and both Mizuhara and Sato deliver in their performances with many emotionally charged moments between them. Both are struggling with their sense of self, their worth and identities, which they hide beneath an outwardly upbeat persona. Their chemistry together is believable and you can sense the halting confusion of two people who are working out exactly what their relationship is. One of the weaker elements of the story is the relationship of Rei and her girlfriend Maki which is broken off unceremoniously and undermines some of the sympathy we might have for Rei. The cinematography and aforementioned style of long takes draws us in to the drama completely, as the omnipresent camera follows them through environments smoothly, allowing the action to unfold in a naturalistic way. Occasionally, the film can be a little indulgent with its long tracking shots of cars, but they always look stunning. The film shifts gears several times from being a stylish crime thriller and an light-hearted romantic drama, with explicit sex scenes and unflinching violence on the one hand, and on the other a pop soundtrack as the two women laugh and enjoy each other’s company.

“Ride or Die” is about two women rediscovering who they are, unrequited love, domestic violence and the trap of not being able to express yourself. Rei’s infatuation with the girl from her highschool is a passionate love that pushes her to the extremes of behaviour. She is tragic in her one-sided passion for Nanae. The two are separated not only by their sexuality, but by their wealth and status, with Nanae feeling indebted to Rei. We feel this tension throughout, the tugging of various impulses and obligations that drive the two characters. One of the most heartbreaking moments in the film is reserved for Maki, a supporting character, whose relationship with Rei touches on themes of one-sided love and being comfortable with your sexuality. The domestic violence faced by Nanae is depicted starkly, her body covered in bruises, and the catharsis of her husband’s death is something the audience will sympathise with. However, issues of male violence are brushed over to allow for the flourishing of Rei and Nanae’s relationship on their own terms. A film that occasionally obscures its more meaningful themes with its stylish veneer, it nevertheless is an exciting romantic crime adventure with two outstanding performances from its leads.

Blue, Painful, Fragile (2020) by Shunsuke Kariyama

Ryo Yoshizawa and Hana Sugisaki star in this young adult drama about two students with big dreams. Kaede Tabata (Yoshizawa) maintains a philosophy of absolute non-engagement, his belief being that if you do not connect with people you can’t hurt them or be hurt by them. This all changes when he meets Hisano Akiyoshi (Sugisaki), a bright and socially conscious classmate. Hisano is someone who believes in changing the world for the better, ending poverty, war and discrimination. The two decide to begin a club called Moai, with the intention of running social events and improving things in a small way. However, as the club becomes larger it evolves into a group for connecting students with potential employers, and Kaede is forced to reassess whether he really wants to be a part of this more corporate club or whether it should continue at all.

While the film contains elements of romantic comedy drama, it also has a strong message about social issues and the difficulties in trying to make positive change in the world. The two protagonists are diametrically opposed in their worldviews, one a pessimist who believes change is impossible and that the best approach is simply not to try and alter things; and the other convinced that everyone can make a difference to the world. It is fun to watch the dynamic between these two, helped by great performances by Ryo Yoshizawa and Hana Sugisaki. Their clashing personalities make both their friendships and the disagreements between Kaede and Hisano feel genuine. The supporting cast, including Amane Okayama as Kaede’s friend Tosuke, Honoka Matsumoto and Nana Mori do a great job as idealistic young characters who . Yoshizawa and Okayama work great as the friends, with many of the funniest scenes together. The plot has a couple of twists that make it more interesting than an average drama. It flicks back and forth over the space of two years to show what the club was and what it became, which helps create a sense of mild intrigue as to what happened in the intervening time. The film is rarely entirely serious in tone, even when it touches on more serious themes of corruption, sexual harassment and abuse of power, instead remaining firmly in the comfortable territory of soft focus, brightly lit scenes featuring a cast always looking their best.

“Blue, Painful, Fragile” is a film that really captures the personalities of its characters and their relatable dilemmas in attempting to work co-operatively. It covers a number of issues that will be particularly pertinent to its younger target audience, including the social issues such as climate change, poverty, discrimination and war; the issues of corporatism corrupting any potentially benevolent social enterprise; data privacy; sexual harassment and mistreatment of women. But at its heart it is the central conflict between the two leads that drives the story. People are problematic, with their own jealousies and insecurities jeopardizing any attempts to do good. The film shows us that Kaede is kind hearted in his desire to do no harm, but his reticence to engage means he is also not making any positive contribution to society. On the contrary, Hisano wants to do good, but unwittingly ends up creating something that evolves into an organisation that has little to do with her high-minded ideals.

Snakes and Earrings (2008) by Yukio Ninagawa

A young woman becomes fascinated by the idea of body modification after a chance encounter at a club. Lui (Yuriko Yoshitaka) meets Ama (Kengo Kora) at a nightclub and is immediately intrigued by his punk style, dyed hair, piercings, tattoos, but most of all his split tongue. He offers to take her to his friend Shiba (Arata Iura) who runs a tattoo and piercing parlour. Lui decides that she will get her tongue pierced, with the intention of achieving a split tongue (a painful process involving increasingly large tongue studs), and also a tattoo. On their first meeting, Shiba tells her that her innocent appearance turns him on as he is slightly sadistic. Lui says that she is masochistic and it is not long before the two are involved in a sexual affair that they keep secret from Ama. Things are further complicated when Ama beats up a gangster who harasses them in the street and Lui decides to protect him from the law.

Based on the novel by Hitomi Kanehara, with a  screenplay by Takuya Miyawaki and director Yukio Ninagawa, “Snakes and Earrings” gives us a look at disaffected youth in Tokyo and the subculture of those who enjoy body modification. The plot takes a back seat to the emotional themes, that of a young woman trying to find some meaning in her life. Yuriko Yoshitaka’s Lui is a woman who seems completely numb to the world around her, distant from her parents and with few friends, lost in a sea of banal corporate culture. Kengo Kora’s Ama is easily the most sympathetic character, his rough punk appearance hiding a kind-hearted soul. Arata Iura’s mysterious Shiba appears as the agent of chaos between the two, seen largely in his denlike studio where he is the master of his domain. The small supporting cast features an appearance from Tatsuya Fujiwara as the yakuza, but the focus is on the three leads and their tortuous love triangle. The film’s guerrilla style filmmaking, shot on the streets of Shibuya help give the sense of a living world, pulling us in to the bustling city teeming with life. The majority of the story takes place in a limited number of sets, including the tattoo parlour and Ama’s apartment, which helps to keep the story focussed. There is not much of a plot, but the relationships between the three leads are intriguing and exciting enough, the sex scenes are not explicit but get across the power relationship and mix of brutality and sensualism in their lovemaking. The melancholic score of piano and strings resonates with this downbeat, nihilistic atmosphere.

“Snakes and Earrings” begins and ends with Lui in Shibuya, the camera whirling around to look at the various billboards and company logos, all the while in absolute silence. It is the perfect way to express her complete disillusionment with the world. This is a young woman who has completely checked out, nothing excites or motivates her. The sado-masochism and body piercing is the perfect metaphor for that desire to simply feel something, anything in the world, even if it is painful. The pain she experiences helps her to connect with people for the first time in a long time. We learn that she is not in contact with her family and her relationship with her friend seems superficial.  Not all of the film is as easy to analyse as the central theme of finding a sense of self expression and fulfilment in a meaningless culture that strips us of our humanity. There are themes of sex and violence, as you may expect, but also ideas of death that are harder to reconcile with Lui’s story. It is a downbeat story with a compelling portrayal of someone who seems to have hit rock bottom attempting to feel something for the first time in a long time.