Theatre: A Love Story (2020) by Isao Yukisada

Following a chance meeting on the street and a brief romance, impoverished playwright Nagata (Kento Yamazaki) and Saki (Mayu Matsuoka) move in together. Their relationship is far from easy though. Nagata is writing for a theatre troupe called “Oroka” which he established with his school friend Nohara (Kanichiro Sato), but his lack of success leads the group to slowly fall apart. Saki does her best to encourage him, but his difficult personality, driven by his anxiety and ego, lead to arguments between the two.

Written by Ryuta Horai and directed by Isao Yukisada, “Theatre: A Love Story” is a poignant look at a troubled relationship. Over the course of the film we witness Nagata and Saki as they attempt to work out their differences and support one another in their own ways. The script gives us numerous moments that reflect those parts of romantic relationships that often go unrepresented on film. Awkward silences, arguments about nothing much at all, the inexpressible joy of simply being together, or moments of silliness that help to build that indefinable bond. It is touching to hear Nagata talk of the warmth he feels simply hearing Saki laugh; and Saki’s clear devotion to her boyfriend. The well-observed script is brought to life by an excellent cast. Kento Yamazaki and Mayu Matsuoka create a believable couple, perfect in their imperfections. Yamazaki’s Nagata is a brooding, frustrated young man who takes out his anxieties and feelings of inadequacy on Saki, while Matsuoka’s Saki is both endlessly charming, funny and charismatic, yet harbouring deep dissatisfaction with her own life and Nagata, supporting him despite her misgivings. The supporting cast, including Kanichiro Sato as Nagata’s urbane friend, and Sairi Ito as Aoyama, a former member of Nagata’s acting troupe who goes on to find success as a theatre critic, further underscoring his own lack of achievement, all do an incredible job with the naturalistic style of dialogue. Throughout there are hints to the theatrical, in Nagata’s narration of his life and relationship, his inner thoughts constantly chewing over his insecurities. There are also poetic monologues, such as when he is taking Saki home on his bike, vocalising his feelings for her. The wistful score and direction sweep us along on the journey with these two lovers, whose relationship can often seem incomprehensible given their difference in personality: Saki is outgoing and fun, while Nagata seems often miserable and misanthropic.

“Theatre: A Love Story” is a film about a man who is struggling with various insecurities. He lashes out at those around him, variously criticising other playwrights, refusing to go to Disneyland as he believes he can’t enjoy other people’s creations, and refusing to let Saki enjoy other people’s work. His controlling, often petulant behaviour, masks a deep-seated fear of rejection and his neuroses about his own ability. Jealousy over more successful writers lead to him being angry or upset at Saki without really knowing why. All of these facets of human psychology and relationships are insightfully written and portrayed in the film. Nagata is far from a likeable character, but as things progress we come to an understanding of his behaviour. Saki on the other hand indulges Nagata’s worst impulses, giving him exactly what he wants, attention and praise, but not what he needs, a cool appreciation of his abilities and his flaws. A beautifully wrought relationship drama that deftly depicts the various complexities of human emotions and a poignant portrait of a man dealing with his own sense of inadequacy.

Lesson of Evil (2012) by Takashi Miike

            Takashi Miike gives us a violent crime thriller following a deranged psychopath in this gory film adaptation of Yusuke Kishi’s novel. The film begins with a scene in which two parents anxiously discuss their problematic son, right before he murders both of them with a knife. We then move forward in time to find Hasumi (Hideaki Ito) working as a high-school English teacher. He is charismatic and well-liked by his students. Following incidents of cheating at the school, Hasumi suggests perhaps interrupting the signal from their mobile phones during tests, which would be illegal but would also prohibit such cheating. Cheating is far from the only problem at the school, with one teacher sexually harassing a female student, and another involved in an affair with a male pupil. Hasumi also soon reveals himself to be far from the ideal mentor his students imagine, himself using his knowledge of the sexually harassed student to first scare away her abuser, and then to begin an affair with her himself. Hasumi comes under suspicion by another teacher, Tsurii (Mitsuru Fukikoshi), and several students, who believe he may have been involved in a rash of suicides at a previous school he worked for.

            The first half of the film plays out as a high-school drama, with elements of a murder mystery, as we delve deeper into the character of Hasumi and discover more of his secrets.  Just as you are beginning to piece together a semblance of what might be termed normality in this world, the film completely throws this plot out of the window and turns into an almost comedic rampage of death and destruction, as Hasumi begins to dispatch the students of the school one by one with a shotgun. Ito gives a great performance as evil incarnate who is able to mask his sadistic tendencies with a veneer of respectability. The film also features a great cast of young actors as the school. Shota Sometani and Fumi Nikaido, who worked together previously in Himizu, KENTA and Elina Mizuno all bring a vitality to their roles as believable high-schoolers trapped in an incredibly dangerous situation.

The film is beautifully shot, with some fantastically atmospheric images and the direction holds your attention throughout. There are striking visuals that add a depth to the film beyond what is in the script. Examples of this include the contrast between the permanently grey shadowy look of Hasumi’s house, and the brightly lit school scenes during the day. Later in the film there is a great tonal discrepancy that emphasises the film’s dark satire, as Hasumi rampages around a school colourfully adorned with balloons and handmade ornaments, often cast in red light.

“Lesson of Evil” can be enjoyed as a straight-forward slasher film, with an evil monster brutally dispatching innocent teenagers. However, the film demands consideration in its use of folkloric and theological allusion. Hasumi is troubled by the appearance of two ravens, we later see him researching Odins corvid companions Munnin (memory) and Huginn (thought). Hasumi kills the raven he names Huginn, but continues to dwell on the presence of Munnin. This is perhaps some reference to Hasumi’s lack of compassion and his senseless crimes, albeit with his past sins being inescapable. While it is easy to see the film as pure exploitation cinema, it plays both sides of the aisle, indulging in this while also offering a perfect satire and critique of our obsession with violence. The high-school massacre at the end of the film goes on so long that you are forced to consider your reaction to it. Ito’s crimes transform from being blackly comic with the first unexpected killing, through terror when you realise that he is not going to stop, and finally a sort of numb sense of inevitability that you are going to witness the slaughter of every innocent child at the school. The film is unflinching in its portrayal of violence, creating a sense of uneasiness as it flips between moments of humour (such as Hasumi being temporarily deafened by the sound of his gun), to horror as we see students cowering in fear. We see several moments in the film that may be a direct attack on American gun culture and the tragedies stemming from it: these include Hasumi’s own past as a Harvard graduate, his use of English, and later in the film a scene in which he trips over an American flag as part of a moon landing display. In fact this entire sequence of slaughter is rich with background details that speak to the waste of talent and creativity that such killings result in. We are also left to ruminate as the title of the film suggests on what we mean by evil, whether and how it can be defeated. A number of characters plead with Hasumi for an explanation of his actions, but none is forthcoming. At the end we are left only with the horrific aftermath and no clearly picture of what caused it. Again, this may be an attempt to poke fun at the notion that killing and violence can be understood rationally or that crimes such as this can be ameliorated by context.

As with many of Miike’s films, “Lesson of Evil” blends a number of genres, making you unsure what to make of it at times. In the end you are left to reflect on your own experience and impressions of the film, and perhaps come to a deeper understanding of yourself through it. As the killer says to the police in the film, it is not his job to explain why he has done what he has done, that is for them to do. The same might be said of the audience. It is not necessarily the artist’s job to explain themselves clearly, it is your job, as the viewer, to consider what you have seen and your reactions to it and see what that tells you about society and yourself.

Little Miss Period (2019) Shunsuke Shinada

Aoko (Fumi Nikaido) works as a journalist at a lifestyle magazine. As well as her demanding job and attempting to form a relationship with her romantic partner’s teenage daughter, she also has to deal with an unwanted visitor every month. This comes in the form of a large pink fluffy mascot in red pants, representing her period. Miss Period, as she is known, repeatedly punches her hard in the stomach, and Aoko has to lug her around on her back. Miss Period also occasionally puffs out soporific vapour making Aoko drowsy. In this world, every woman is followed around by a similar mascot, some larger and some smaller, but all irritating in their own way. Yamamoto (Sairi Ito) is a cleaner at this same company, still living with her parents, with her period being just one more frustration on top of the stress of work and her lack of a boyfriend. A third plot thread revolves around Aoko’s sister Hikaru (Risaki Matsukaze), and her boyfriend, as they begin a fledgling romance. These women must attempt to remain strong and reach their goals, while this invisible burden seems determined to disrupt their lives.

Based on the manga by Ken Koyama, “Little Miss Period” addresses head on an issue that is of major importance to women, yet often goes ignored by companies and even partners. Making the period a visible, comically designed and portrayed, mascot, which appears early on like a horror movie slasher creeping up on her victims, is a brilliant touch. Externalising this issue, showing the physical exertion and determination required to cope with it, makes for an entertaining way to deal with the various problems caused by it. Both Fumi Nikaido (Fly Me to the Saitama) and Sairi Ito (Love and Other Cults) get the chance to show off their comedic talents. Both are supremely likeable in their roles. Nikaido’s Aoko is a determined career woman, who will not let anything stand in her way. Working in a difficult environment she finds she has to pretend not to be affected by her period, instead putting on a brave face in front of her co-workers. Her relationship with Karin (Toyoshima Hana), the daughter of her widowed lover, is one of the most moving parts of the film, showing her trying to do her best for this girl who is unwilling to accept a new mother. Ito’s Yamamoto on the other hand is a virtual shut-in, resentful of everyone around her and painfully shy when confronted with the chance for love. Director Shunsuke Shinada does a great job of bringing what is a weird concept to life on the screen. The design of Miss Period (Seiri-chan in Japanese) is bizarre, and could so easily have derailed the narrative, but all the actors do such a tremendous job of acting alongside it that it becomes just another character in the drama. The film goes heavy on the comedy of what is happening, deflating the taboo around menstruation, cramps, nausea, drowsiness and other symptoms, with gentle humour. Also, the oblivious male characters who continue on as normal despite the women being weighed down or distracted by this, offers relatable humour for the male audience. The men in the film are also troubled by their own unwanted anxieties, in the form of Mr. Sex Drive (who appears spouting lewd pornographic phrases) and Little Boy Virgin (a cherubic figure representative of their lack of sexual maturity). The film’s surrealist, farcical comedy sits evenly alongside moments that are full of heart and genuinely moving.

While “Little Miss Period” is on one level a knockabout comedy, it also shines a light on an often taboo subject. Women still suffer discrimination in the workplace due to a lack of understanding and compassion on this issue. If the film gets people talking about this and understanding what could be done to alleviate some of the problems associated with it, then it will have performed a great service. Despite the message, the film is never po-faced, relying on humour to get its points across. As a film it is hugely entertaining, relying on physical gags and some excellent performances from the leads to develop believable characters and relatable comedy.

The Naked Director (2019)

Toru Muranishi is a famous name in the world of Japanese porn, prominent from the heyday of the industry in the 1980’s as one of the most prolific directors of adult videos. Based on real events, this television drama takes us back to the formative years of his directorial career and the numerous revolutions that typified the era. The first episode begins with Muranishi (Takayuki Yamada) standing in nothing but his white underwear with a large camera on one shoulder as he holds forth about the importance of his profession. We are then taken back to Muranishi working as a salesman for English encyclopaedias. He has a talent for sales, convincing his customers that they absolutely need these encyclopaedias to improve their personal and professional lives.

When he comes home to find his wife, and the mother of his two children, having an affair with his co-worker, his world is thrown into turmoil. While out drinking he meets Toshi (Shinnosuke Mitsushima), a young man who is flogging illicit audio recordings of couples from a nearby love hotel. The two strike up an unlikely partnership with Muranishi’s talents making a huge success of their business. Together they get into producing their own magazines together with a third partner Kawada (Tetsuji Tamayama). As times change, so do they, setting up adult stores and later getting into making pornographic videos. Along the way they are beset by the puritanical Japanese police and their strict censorship laws; the yakuza who have a hand in the largely underground industry; and their rival porn studio run by wealthy boss Ikezawa (Ryo Ishibashi).

In parallel with Muranishi’s story is that of Megumi (Misato Morita), later to become the porn actress Kaoru Kuroki, one of the industry’s biggest stars and a symbol of sexual liberation. Beginning as a student, Megumi lives at home with her austere mother, but slowly she experiences a sexual awakening and decides to break out of the traditional role ascribed to her and become a porn actress.

The series is hugely enjoyable. While Muranishi and Kuroki are real and this is based on a true story, it is unclear precisely how much of this is dramatized. Whatever the case may be, it is packed with action, with Muranishi on the run from the police or shooting pornographic films, and also a lot of drama, especially in Kuroki’s relationship with her mother that forms the heart of her story. There is a lot of sex and nudity in almost every episode and it doesn’t hold back from a graphic depiction of its subject matter. Some may complain that the series smooths off some of the edges of the porn industry, and of the characters. Later in the series things do take a dark turn as we see the introduction of drugs, in the form of meth, being used to trap young women into performing. However, the majority of the series takes the tone of a light-hearted romp with comical moments and the stakes are largely confined to financial troubles or the company struggling to survive in a competitive industry. The story is full of twists and turns with each episode either bringing a new triumph or disaster to Muranishi and his rag tag gang of employees. This gives the series a sense of forward momentum and you are never quite sure what is going to happen next.

The cast is exceptional. As well as the main cast, the series stars Lily Franky as the police officer who is constantly investigating their activities; Takenori Goto as “Rugby” and Sairi Ito as Junko, Muranishi’s hard-working assistants; Ami Tomite and Nanami Kawakami also feature, and Koyuki gives a great performance as Megumi’s mother Kayo.

The series is based on the book “Zenra Kantoku Muranishi Toru Den” (The Legend of Muranishi Toru, the Naked Director) by Nobuhiro Motohashi, and is directed by Masaharu Take, Eiji Uchida and Hayato Kawai. All three are experienced directors having worked in television or film for a number of years and it shows in the style of the series. Largely set in the eighties, they manage to capture the period feel with costumes and set-design. The soundtrack is an interesting selection of instantly recognizable and catchy western songs.

Despite being the central character, Muranishi remains something of a mystery throughout. We see only briefly the effect his wife’s affair had on him and it is hard to get a sense of what is really driving him to do what he does. In contrast, Kaoru Kuroki is much more of an open book as we see her actions as an expression of personal freedom. The pornographic industry provides an interesting focal point for discussions of personal liberty, exploitation, lust, sex, capitalism, and many other things. The series constantly shows that pornography is a business designed to make money, this is the driving motivation behind almost all of the characters. It also shows how the adult industry is often driven underground in what is a largely conservative society; the strict censorship laws and prohibitions are in stark contrast to the obvious popularity of these materials. The rights and wrongs of government interference are barely touched on. Kaoru Kuroki’s philosophy of sexual emancipation is given more time, but still more could have been done with the character.

“The Naked Director” is a fun show that smooths off most of the rough edges of its protagonist in favour of giving the audience and enjoyable comedy-drama. Excellent direction and design along with an amazing cast make for a hugely enjoyable watch.

Love and Other Cults (2017)

Ai Shima is a troubled young woman. Her mother, a religious cultist, sends her away to a cult centre for seven years, further destabilising her fragile psyche. When she returns to schooling Ai catches the attention of fellow classmate Ryota, who falls in love with this peculiar girl. While the two never seem to quite come together, their relationship forms the basis for an exploration of everything from gang culture, Japanese youth, drug abuse, religion, sex and pornography and what causes relationships to form. Through several secondary characters, such as family, friends, gang members, and others, we get a look at the complex web of competing loyalties that form a modern life.

Eiji Uchida (Lowlife Love) writes and directs and once again has created a vivid warts-and-all portrait of modern Japan and in particular youth culture. The cinematography is fantastic, both in the shots of the majestic Mount Fuji and surrounding fields and forests and in the urban streets of Tokyo, complete with hostess bars and all the elements that make up a modern city. The script brings in so many elements that there is rarely a dull moment in the ninety minute film. Sairi Ito, who plays Ai, is truly great in the film as a social chameleon who seems to adapt to every situation she is in, whether cultist, adopted daughter, gang member, or porn actress. Every role she takes on seems like a natural progression, no matter how bizarre it might seem on paper. The supporting cast also do an incredible job of building a believable world of various characters.

As the title of the film suggests it is an atypically love story that takes an ironic approach to the traditional romance tale. While there are romantic sub-plots present, love is generally portrayed as just another of several competing interests for characters, and one that is hard to distinguish in a world awash with sex, religion, crime, drugs and any other number of distractions. Uchida has created a fun, entertaining film that can also be understood as a detailed examination of modern society. While it remains ambivalent about the value of the several “cults” people devote themselves too, it does offer a believable representation of society.