Awake (2020) by Atsuhiro Yamada

Shogi, Japanese chess, is a popular but unforgiving game, with relatively few people making it to the upper echelons of top players. “Awake” is inspired by real events of the Denousen tournament which pitched an elite Shogi player against the best computer. The film follows Eiichi Kiyota (Ryo Yoshizawa), a programmer who creates the system “Awake” that is able to compete at an incredibly high level. As a child Kiyota attended a shogi academy where he met Riku Asakawa (Ryuya Wakaba), who would go on to be one of the country’s top player and would be the one to challenge Kiyota’s computer.

Inspired by true events, the film follows the formula of a sports movie, with the central rivalry driving the action. Kiyota, a strong player in his own right, feels disappointed that he is unable to compete with the very best, unfortunately finding himself in a club with Asakawa, whose abilities are largely unmatched. Kiyota then devotes himself to creating the AI system that he hopes will be able to beat Asakawa, along with the help of Isono (Motoko Ochiai), the lone misanthropic member of his University’s computing club. Large parts of the film are taken up with shogi matches, and it will no doubt add a level of enjoyment if you understand the game. Even for those less familiar, the film does a solid job of explaining what is going on and when players reach a crucial moment or make a serious blunder. A relatively straightforward story and an easy watch. The performances from the two leads Eiichi Kiyota and Ryuya Wakaba, demonstrate these chracters dedication, concentration and determination to win. Writer and director Atsuhiro Yamada crafts a simple yet effective tale of sporting rivals, showing the rise of the two young men from youths at their shogi academy, through their divergent careers. The single-minded focus they share for the game is reflected in the film also with very little extraneous material about their lives. We see Kiyota’s father and a small number of supporting characters, but for the most part the narrative remains fixed on their desire to excel in shogi.

While the film is ostensibly about the battle between human and AI, and questioning what future there is for humans when computers finally become unbeatable; there is a more human and emotional theme running throughout. The teacher at the shogi school explains to the youths there that very few individuals ever make it as a professional. While we are brought up to do our best, it is interesting to consider what happens when we fail to achieve what we set out to; or more troubling when we see someone who is better at the thing we are most passionate about. Kiyota’s story is a familiar one, since almost everybody will be somewhere below the top spot in any chosen sport, activity, or profession. His story shows how he is able to take his intelligence and pour it into a second hobby, that of programming, able to memorise large texts and learn quickly the skills he needs. He also seems to be at peace with the fact that his journey to becoming a professional shogi player was cut short, and that the most important thing is continuing to improve even if you never achieve perfection.

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.

Not Quite Dead Yet (2020) by Shinji Hamasaki

A surreal comedy about a difficult father-daughter relationship. Nanase (Suzu Hirose) has never forgiven her father Kei (Shinichi Tsutsumi) for not being by her mother’s bedside when she passed away. As lead singer of a death metal band she pens excoriating lyrics about how much he stinks and how much she dislikes him. Her father seems oblivious to this, focussing only on his research at a pharmaceutical company. When the company develop a drug that allows a person to die and later return to life, Kei finds himself temporarily deceased for two days. There is a plot afoot by a rival company to take them over, which Kei learns about shortly after dying. His assistant Taku (Ryo Yoshizawa) hears about this attempt to steal the company and its research; and along with Nanase they attempt to save her father’s company, while Kei tries to contact them from the spirit world.

Writer Yoshimitsu Sawamoto and first time director Shinji Hamasaki deliver a hilarious look at death that delights in poking fun at tense parent-child relationships. Odd characters, wordplay jokes, visual humour, and surreal moments all work together to create a film that has no intention of being taken seriously. The excellent comedic central performance of Suzu Hirose (Our Little Sister) as Nanase, gurning and howling her way through the film, alongside the equally amusing straight man act of Shinichi Tsutsumi as Kei, is a fantastic dynamic, the wild child teenager conflicting with her boring father. A fantastic supporting cast, with Yukiyoshi Ozawa as Kei’s assistant, Kyusaku Shimada as the rival company head, and cameo roles for Lily Franky as a spirit guide and Den Den as a ramen chef, give the whole thing a variety show feel, with some scenes playing almost as standalone sketches. The rock music sets off the riotous punk aesthetic, sticking one finger (the index finger) up to the norms of family dramas. There is little surprise in the resolution of the film and it never attempts to flesh out the narrative or characters, instead using every moment to cram in more jokes. The film even actively pushes back against convention at times, with Nanase telling Taku that this is not some kind of romantic drama.

“Not Quite Dead Yet” follows a long cinematic tradition of poking fun at death, puncturing any sense that it is something to be concerned about. By having a pill that allows people to die temporarily it further distances us from the fear of death. In this universe death is simply another state humans might be in, no different than being asleep. Nanase and Shinichi’s relationship deteriorates after the passing of her mother, with Kei burying his head in his work while Nanase vents her frustrations through her music. The film shows a slow coming together of the two and the realisation of the importance of living life and not forgetting those people who are left behind. With its whimsical premise and a short run time packed with laughs, the film is an easy watch that is sure to raise a smile.