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.

On the Street (2020) by Rikiya Imaizumi

The film opens with Aoi Arakawa (Ryuya Wakaba) and his girlfriend Yuki (Moeka Hoshi) in the middle of breaking up. It is Yuki’s birthday, but after confessing to infidelity she confirms that she wants to split. Aoi works at a second-hand clothes store in Shimokitazawa, an area popular with young people. Fuyuko Tanabe (Kotone Furukawa), who works at a nearby bookstore, shows interest in him, but the inexperienced Aoi seems unable to pick up on such signals. A student film-maker, Machiko (Minori Hagiwara), a regular at his shop, asks him to appear in her project; a task which Aoi is singularly unsuited to, his acting proving so poor that he is cut from the finished film. After the filming he has a heartfelt conversation with Iha JoJo (Seina Nakata), a crew member on the production. Meanwhile, Yuki is regretting her decision to leave him.

“On the Street” is a slice-of-life drama about relationships, with lengthy conversations between characters. Writer-director Rikiya Imaizumi keeps the focus on these dialogues between Aoi, the women he encounters, and his friends. The naturalistic acting and realistic and relatable script provide a window into their worlds. With a mostly static camera, the film is almost documentary-like as we see coffee houses, music clubs, pubs, and apartments, and witness the everyday lives of the characters. Through these long takes we develop a familiarity with them, feeling as if we are simply hanging out with a group of regular people. The scene between Aoi and JoJo is one of the best moments of the film, as they sit and discuss various topics of little importance, just learning how to relate to one another. All of the actors do a great job, with their naturalistic performances in stark contrast to the terrible job Aoi does of acting in Machiko’s student film. “On the Street” is a film that you have to relax into without the expectation of any stunning revelation or melodrama. What the film instead provides is an insight into aspects of human relationships, along with some genuinely funny humour deriving from the characters and situations. In particular, the police officer who appears at times and begins on a bizarre unprompted confession about his personal life; and the scene in which there is a misunderstanding about who is dating who. There are also interesting artistic touches such as the mirroring of certain scenes, as between Aoi and Yuki at the beginning, a dynamic that is repeated later with Yuki and another character; and the reappearance of the police officer. These patterns and repetitions happen naturally, but suggest that there is order in the seeming chaos, or that the characters are bound to the same cycle of make-ups and break-ups, that their lives are a rhythmic flow rather than a monotonous drone.

“On the Street” is a film that emphasizes realism above all else. The conversation between Aoi and the coffee house owner, where they discuss the value of art, film, literature, and culture, makes this clear. It is never fully expressed what they mean by this, but there is a distinction implied between life and art. Similarly, in Machiko’s production we see Aoi completely unable to act a scene in which he simply has to read a book, an activity which he spends every day doing naturally. This is also evidenced in the fact that Aoi’s scene is eventually cut from the film, something that Tanabe takes offence to as she practiced the scene with him previously. If you are looking for a brilliant slice-of-life relationship drama, “On the Street” offers a relaxing watch, with great performances and a script that is relatable and full of humour.