River’s Edge (2018)

A high-school drama that deals with several serious issues. Haruna (Fumi Nikaido) is in a relationship with Kannonzaki (Shuhei Uesugi), who is cheating on her with her friend. Fellow classmate Yamada (Ryo Yoshizawa), who is being bullied by Kannonzaki, becomes friends with Haruna who feels sorry for him. Yamada is gay and therefore something of a social outcast amongst his peers. He takes Haruna to see his ‘treasure’, the skeleton of a corpse he discovered in an overgrown field beside a river. Another classmate (Sumire), who works as model and suffers from bulimia, is also aware of this body. The story follows each of these characters as their lives intersect and impact on each other through a series of increasingly dark and dangerous situations.

The film makes much in its opening scenes of the looming industrial site that belches forth smoke and discharges filth into the river. The setting highlights the complex, dirty nature of teenage life, being a metaphor for the corruption of society on the pure children who are born into the world. Director Isao Yukisada makes good use of cuts, for example between sex and scenes of vomiting or violence, to show the confused blend of emotions that characterise this period of life. There are for example highly comic transitions between a sex scene and the consumption of bananas or sausages, which function to underscore a message about the interconnectedness of these characters who at first seem to socialise only in a shallow sense. The bulimic subplot likewise offers a human counterpoint to the idea of the factory that both consumes and then vomits back pollutants. The acting is occasionally hit and miss, but Fumi Nikaido and Ryo Yoshizawa give fantastic performances. The ensemble cast are all given fairly hefty roles, with their own nuances and dilemmas to face. There is a little overacting, but with such a collection of actors and scenes it is easy to move past them. It is a little overlong, the second half becoming directionless, seeming more like a series of vignettes rather than a single narrative. This is easy to understand as the film is based on a manga by Kyoko Okazaki and is perhaps attempting to fit too many stories into a single cohesive narrative. The film often seems like it is struggling to fit in all of the stories it wants to tell, something that is far easier in the long form, episodic nature of a manga. The film is rarely dull however, being a kaleidoscope of teen angst and genuinely shocking scenes. All the various subplots are resolved to varying degrees of satisfaction.

The film discusses death, most prominently in the characters’ reactions to the corpse and in a latter shocking scene with Haruna. This corpse is symbolic of the characters confronting death itself, with the associated nihilism and overwhelming realisation that there is really no goal at the end of life, simply a series of tragedies. Bulimia, infidelity, anger, jealousy, homosexuality, and bullying are all shown to be part of life and the audience is left to find some morality amongst a morass of sin and suffering. There is an unspoken distance between many characters, who are unable to relate to one another, despite being in desperate need of someone to help them. They are isolate, impulsive, nothing is neatly resolved. It is a fizzing, unstable collage of teenage emotions showing the darker side of human nature. River’s Edge is a solid drama that deals with a number of important themes and leaves you speculating on the characters actions long after it is over.

Your Name (2016)

Mitsuha is a highschool girl living in a remote rural community. A conscientious girl, she takes part in the villages cultural event as a shrine-maiden along with her younger sister and grandmother. But Mitsuha dreams of moving to Tokyo away from the monotony of rural life. Taki is a highschool boy living in Tokyo, the very life that Mitsuha dreams of and the two find themselves inexplicably living each other’s lives. At first they believe that this second life is simply a dream that they struggle to remember on waking, but as the pair’s friends explain to them their bizarre behaviour they begin to understand that what is happening is real. Without knowing each other they have somehow become bound together. As the film progresses there are several twists and turns that take the story in unexpected directions as a disaster threatens Mitsuha’s hometown.

Makoto Shinkai (5 Centimeters per Second) has once again directed a stunningly beautiful animation. The world of the film, both rural and urban, is recreated with exceptional skill and an eye for incidental details that help bring it to life. Many of the scenes are works of art, the lakes and mountains of Mitsuha’s home are exquisitely depicted. Shinkai certainly has developed a recognizable style of his own and that is present here, in particular the use of light, with dazzling sunbeams, starlight, dawn and dusk captured brilliantly, though occasionally it becomes excessive and a more restrained approach may have worked better. You can feel the mountain air and the bustle of the city and it is a world that you could happily step right into. RADWIMPS provide several songs for the film and this seems to indicate a step to a more commercial direction for Shinkai. The piano score more reminiscent of earlier works is still here, but there are a number of up-tempo montage sequences, a focus on comedy, and more traditional relationships developed in the subplots that make this a more easily accessible work. The story does a good job of keeping you guessing. Unlike other body-swap movies where the plot is explained in the beginning, the film keeps its secrets until it is ready to reveal them. In the end everything is wrapped up more neatly than some might like, but the way it builds to that moment is so full of emotion that it is forgivable. Both Mitsuha and Taki have entertaining subplots in their own stories and characters that are enjoyable to watch.

As with Shinkai’s earlier works (Voices of a Distant Star, The Place Promised in our Early Days, 5 Centimeters per Second), “Your Name” deals with a theme of love and a couple sundered by an impossible distance. The characters are always reaching for something that is just out of grasp. In particular when their attempts to call one another fail to connect. The film also contemplates the nature of fate and the inter-connectedness of humanity. Doors opening and closing throughout the film offer a perfect visual metaphor for the choices that guide our lives. The film largely shies away from discussing the transgender themes implied in its premise. These are largely played for laughs with the characters becoming used to each other’s bodies or acting out of character. Nevertheless, that aspect of the film is somewhat unavoidable given the story. There is so much to enjoy about the film, from the incredible animation, deep themes, humour, and a thrilling story that it is definitely worthy of the praise it has garnered.

The Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue (2017)

This film follows the lives of two lonely singletons in the capital city trying to find something to live for. Mika is working as a nurse in the day and a barmaid at a seedy club at night. Having left her father and sister in the countryside she finds herself in the position of many young people, surrounded by crowds of people but with a debilitating sense of hollowness at the heart of things. Shinji is similarly a distressed young man, working as a temporary labourer in construction. He is a nervous character, battling financial worries and with a collection of fellow workers that typify the sorts of troubles present in many modern societies, health and economic problems, and relationship issues.

The screenplay by director Yuya Ishii is based on collection of poetry by Taihi Saihate. The poetic influence is apparent from the very beginning with characters talking in a melancholy tone about various observations on city life. The title gives away the film’s contemplative, philosophical nature, and it is far from being a typical boy-meets-girl romance. The two characters bump into one another at intervals and there are questions here about how much stock you can put in the chance encounters that guide our lives. There are sub-plots involving Shinji’s co-workers, one of whom is suffering health issues and another who is a foreign worker. Some of the most effective scenes see the characters in a sort of daze as life passes them by. Our two protagonists struggle to relate to others and the whole film has a depressive quality only lightened by the moments of beauty that appear amidst the chaos of Tokyo. The cinematography is impressive employing a number of techniques to emphasise the characters loneliness as well as great use of colour throughout. The central performances of Shizuka Ishibashi and Sosuke Ikematsu are perfectly understated and get across the personalities of the characters.

The film’s central themes will be familiar to anyone who has seen this sort of drama involving young people in a big city. The depression and isolation felt living in a crowd of strangers, compounded by economic uncertainty, relationship worries and an all pervasive nihilism. The film tackles many themes and shows Tokyo in a real and personal way as well as its impact on the people living there. The blend of poetry, philosophy, interesting characters and incredible cinematography makes for a fantastic cinematic experience.

The Place Promised in Our Early Days (2004)

Following an unknown conflict, Hokkaido (now renamed Ezo) has been separated from the rest of Japan. Ezo is now under control of “the Union”, while Japan itself is controlled by the United States. High school friends Hiroki and Takuya are intrigued by a large tower on Hokkaido, that can be seen even as far south as Tokyo. They begin work on a plane that will fly them to the tower, to see what it is. They decide to tell their high school classmate Sayuri about their project, taking her to see the plane. While there, Sayuri looks out towards the tower, seeing a vision of it exploding. The film then shifts to three years later. Sayuri has not been seen for three years, Takuya is working for a government program intending to establish the proposition that there are multiple-universes, one of which is being brought into view by the tower on Ezo. Meanwhile Hiroki has fallen into a depression due to Sayuri’s disappearance.

Writer and director Makoto Shinkai has crafted a beautiful film. Although the film does involve a war and talk about multiple-dimensions, the focus is kept largely on the relationships of the three main characters, with everything else serving to move their story forward, or work as a metaphor for their hopes and desires. The animation is truly stunning, with the artists having a great eye for detail, and a real love of the quiet countryside of northern Honshu. The pacing of each scene is judged perfectly, cutting between characters and small details in the environment. There are many short scenes fading to black, which help to cover a lot of time and ground in a relatively short run-time. With minimal dialogue you have a fully realised world. The music matches the animation, transcendently beautiful compositions for piano and violin heightening each emotion.

The film is a simple love story, though using various brilliant conceits to further emphasise what the characters are feeling. The tower acts as a symbol of the characters dreams, promises (with the boys promising Sayuri that they will take her there someday), and of the unknown future. It is ever-present, though always out of reach, representing whatever it is that the young characters are hoping for. I would recommend this as a beautiful love story, with fantastic animation and score. Although it is overly-sentimental in places, it does have a huge emotional impact.

April Story (1998)

Nireno Uzuki travels from Hokkaido to Tokyo to begin university. A lonely, confusing time for the young girl as she moves into her apartment, makes new friends, and learns to live by herself. Towards the end of the film we see her reason for travelling to a university so far from home. A boy who she is in love with is also attending that university.

The film is short and largely without major incidence. The director uses a lot of handheld shots and the acting is naturalistic, often seeming more like a documentary than a film. The score is similarly understated soft piano music, but the whole is a pleasant experience. It captures the feeling of being alone in a new place. Each of the scenes has something to say about the experrience of living alone, fears, dangers, melancholy, but also the joy.

A film more about feeling than action. Not a traditional love story, in fact we only find out about her romantic interest late in the film, but definitely worth a watch.