Bad Lands (2023) by Masato Harada

Sakura Ando and Ryosuke Yamada star as step-siblings who become involved in the violent underworld in this crime drama. Neri (Ando) works as part of a gang defrauding vulnerable people, under the auspices of the ex-Yakuza Takagi (Namase Katsuhisa). She lives a rough life in a slum in Osaka, surrounded by fellow homeless and societal drop-outs, after leaving Tokyo many years before. When her brother Yashiro (Yamada) is released from jail, she asks Tamaki to give him a position in the organization. Tamaki has plans of his own, taking on a hit job and accumulating gambling debts with disreputable individuals. Nira is drawn into this while also facing the prospect of a violent billionaire (Yasushi Fuchikami) who is tracking her down. All the while the police are on the trail, attempting to piece together evidence to take down the fraud ring.

“Bad Lands”, based on Hiroyuki Kurokawa’s 2015 novel “Keiso” (“Weeds”) and directed by Masato Harada (Hell Dogs) is a complex crime thriller with a large cast of characters and several plot threads twisted together. At its heart is Sakura Ando’s Neri, whose criminal work comes more through necessity than choice. Ando is excellent in the role, with her acerbic retorts to her male accomplices and her simmering resentment and trauma that has pushed her to this point. It is clear that the film is based on a novel with the interconnecting stories often feeling a little shoehorned in, the main plot following Neri and Yashiro, while sub-plots involving Neri’s past and the ongoing police investigation could have formed whole films by themselves. However, this large canvas approach does create a real-world feel that the film capitalises on, particularly early on as we see the gang attempt to take down a score in public, with every extra a potential witnesses, co-conspirator, or police officers. The whole supporting cast do a great job, with scene stealers such as Ryudo Uzaki’s Mandala, an ex-Yakuza who now spends his days drinking and gambling. A classical soundtrack and allusions to Dostoevsky and Hegel give the film an air of sophistication amongst the low-lifes and thugs who populate its world.

In an over two-hour run-time the film manages to cram in so many characters and stories that it is hard to pick out a single overarching message. Neri and Yashiro are understandably made somewhat sympathetic despite their actions, while the rest of the people around them are variously depicted as despicable leeches who attempt to profit off the misery of others, or those unfortunates who society has let fall off at the lower end. The most reprehensible charater is without doubt Yasushi Fuchikami’s sadistic CEO, who abuses women physically and sexually and lacks any moral compass. In a world in which such an individual can become an ultra-wealthy and highly-respected company boss, is it any wonder that brutality and avariciousness typify the lower orders as well. The moral choices presented to the characters may be black and white to many, but the film offers shades of grey too. The police investigation is hindered by higher-ups wishing to protect certain connections they have with the gang bosses they are there to keep in check; while those at the bottom show certain values of trust, loyalty and compassion that are admirable and notably absent from the people society asks us to respect. A fun, complex crime drama with a superb cast of characters that gives an insight into the increasingly stratified society of modern Japan.

Godzilla Minus One (2023) by Takashi Yamazaki

In the dying days of World War Two, kamikaze pilot Koichi Shikishima (Ryunosuke Kamiki) abandons his mission, returning to a nearby base on Odo island. When the island is attacked, by a sea monster the locals call Godzilla, only Koichi and the chief engineer Tachibana (Munetaka Aoki) survive. Koichi returns to Tokyo in shame where he meets a young woman, Noriko (Minami Hamabe) and child Akiko, who have been orphaned by the bombing raids on the city. The three of them begin living together, but their peace is threatened when Godzilla, now supersized by post-war nuclear tests in the ocean, re-emerges to devastate large areas of the city. Koichi, along with a minesweeper crew he is working with, joins a group of ex-navy civilians, who hatch a plan to take down Godzilla when it appears again.

Written and directed by Takashi Yamazaki, “Godzilla Minus One” takes place in the years following the Second World War, capturing the thematic resonance of Ishiro Honda’s 1953 “Godzilla”. Godzilla can be seen as a representation of the horror of nuclear war, and the incredible sequences when the creature attacks depict this perfectly. Humans are insignificant and their weapons woefully ineffective in stopping the rampaging creature. It is a war film that replaces battlefield scenes with a symbolic representation of the sheer terror and incomprehensible violence of war. A Godzilla film is only as strong as its human protagonists, and Koichi’s journey, from his shame at running from his suicidal duty to realising his true calling in taking care of Akiko and Noriko, provides a great focus for the drama. We also have great supporting characters, such as Tachibana, an engineer whose entire crew is wiped out by the creature; the young Mizushima, who feels he has missed out by not being conscripted to the war; Shikishima’s neighbour Sumiko (Sakura Ando), who berates Koichi for shirking his kamikaze mission when so many others have died for the country; and many of the ex-naval officers, who fear that they are to be plunged into another unwinnable conflict after barely surviving the last one. The film’s special effects are a marvel, showing the incredible size of Godzilla as it devastates the city, knocking buildings aside and blasting areas with its nuclear beam. The sequences at sea are also amazingly well done, with the human characters feeling very exposed in the face of this leviathon. The film also does a superb job with the period setting, feeling completley believable, with the bombed out remnants of Tokyo suburbs, and the historic train networks and Ginza district, as well as the military ships and planes. The film owes a debt to the 1954 original, and could be seen as a retelling or an homage, albeit with new characters and story. This is brought home by the use of Akira Ifukube’s origiginal Godzilla theme which adds a dramatic and nostalgic touch. The score by Naoki Sato provides an epic, sentimental and awe-inspiring accompaniment to the action.

Godzilla has always had a strongly anti-war and anti-nuclear message, with the creature being the perfect stand-in for the harrowing attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that closed out the Pacific conflict. “Godzilla Minus One” questions the Japanese involvement in the war, with Koichi’s role as a kamikaze pilot being the prime example. He feels ashamed that he saved his own life rather than dying for his country. However, it becomes apparent that perhaps having young men throw their lives away for the Emperor was not only cruel and unecessary, but actually counter-productive. As they prepare to tackle Godzilla, Noda is at pains to point out that they intend to save lives and that suicide missions are at odds with their newfound respect for life and protecting civilians. It is a change in mindset that marks a shift from enforced self-sacrifice imposed at the will of a dictatorial militaristic system to a belief in preserving life at all costs. That saving yourself and your family is nothing to be ashamed of. There is nothing noble or honourable about war or dying, instead it is a necessary evil in a world in which terrors and external threats exist. An incredibly powerful film, not only in the stunning visual effects and awesome monster attacks, but in the emotional heart of the film, Koichi, Noriko and Akiko’s surrogate family finding a path through the horrors they have witnessed.

Monster (2023) by Hirokazu Koreeda

Worried about her son’s strange behaviour, single mother Saori (Sakura Ando) confronts his school, believing that he is a victim of bullying by his class teacher Hori (Eita Nagayama). Unimpressed by Hori’s rote apology, she continues pressuring the school. The reason for Hori’s reluctance to offer a full mea culpa is that he doesn’t believe he has done anything wrong, instead insisting that the problem lies with Minato himself (Soya Kurokawa), who he argues is in fact the perpetrator of bullying against another classmate Hoshikawa (Hinata Hiragi). It may be that both Minato’s mother and Hori are incorrect as we see that Minato and Hoshikawa’s relationship is more complicated than they imagine.

Written by Yuji Sakamoto and directed by Hirokazu Koreeda, “Monster” follows in the ‘Rashomon’ tradition of having the same story told from three perspectives, with each retelling uncovering more of the truth. Each time we see the story we are able to sympathise with the protagonist, whether Sakura Ando’s frustrated mother, desperate for answers and an apology; Eita Nagayama’s well-meaning but unlucky Hori, a victim of malicious rumours and misunderstandings; Soya Kurokawa’s Minato and Hinata Hiragi’s Hoshikawa, schoolboys attempting to navigate their feelings for one another. The emotional connection engendered by these characters is aided by fantastic performances, particularly from the young stars who create a believable relationship between Minato and Hoshikawa. The film weaves these stories together skillfully, teasing out each revelation, with scenes shot from a different angles showing the new perspective being brought to the situation. There is a sense of a delicately balanced composition in the screenplay, with each story beginning with a fire at a hostess club and ending with a typhoon. It builds like a classical piece, with the same moments, characters and motifs running through, each time with a slight difference. The Ryuichi Sakamoto score (who sadly passed two months before the film’s release and to whom the film is dedicated) ffers simple yet effecting accompaniment to the narrative.

“Monster” is a film that tells three stories and changes tone with each narrative twist. The first section deals with bullying, and the difficulty of parents to understand and protect their children. All evidence seems to point to the conclusion that Minato is the victim, and Saori’s reaction is perfectly understandable in this situation. Her love for her son and need to protect him blinds her to any other possibility, and even the true cause of his unhappiness. Hori’s story further drives home this idea of objective versus subjective truth, with his comi-tragic downfall caused by people unwilling to listen to his side of the story. We see in the rumour spread about his visiting a hostess club how easy it is for lies to spread and the truth to be manipulated. In the final, and most powerful part, we see that it is Minato and Hoshikawa’s forbidden love for one another that has caused the anxiety of Minato’s mother and the woes of Hori. This part draws on the previous sections, in which people are either unaware of the truth or prohibited from telling it. Minato himself has trouble confronting the truth of his own feelings of Hoshikawa. In the end the film is a plea for people to be able to live openly, to love freely and without the need to hide. The web of lies and deception that spins from a society’s inability to be honest can have devastating consequences. In its final, joyful moment, we see the storm caused by this emotional dishonesty break and the light of truth and acceptance shine through. In his first Japanese film since 2018’s “Shoplifters”, director Koreeda delivers a beautiful rumination on love and truth.

Shoplifters (2018) by Hirokazu Koreeda

A boy named Shota (Jyo Kairi) is taken around by Osamu (Lily Franky) on shoplifting sprees, stealing food and other necessary items. Osamu lives with his partner Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), older woman, Hatsue (Kirin Kiki),and her grand-daughter Aki (Mayu Matsuoka). The precise relationships between the characters are not established until much later, but the five live together as a family unit. Nobuyo works at a laundry for low pay, Hatsue lives off her pension, and Yuki makes money working at a peep show. When Osamu and Shota come across a five-year old girl, Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), sleeping outside they decide to take her in. Despite initial concerns that this might be considered kidnapping, the group decide to treat her as a surrogate daughter. Yuri’s own parents are abusive and the family feel she would be safer with them. When they hear police are looking for her on the news they cut her hair and rename her Lin. As the search for the missing girl closes in, the bonds of family are sorely tested.

With films such as “Our Little Sister” and “Like Father,Like Son”, writer and director Hirokazu Koreeda has established himself as a master of the family drama. In “Shoplifters” he once again shows tremendous skill in creating a believable family dynamic, with the overlapping, meandering dialogue completely drawing you in to the story. The actors all give exceptional performances that further engenders a feeling of familiarity from the beginning. Particularly noteworthy are Sakura Ando, who transitions effortlessly from the hard-edged working woman to maternal compassion for Yuri,and the late Kirin Kiki, star of other Koreeda films, who plays the grandmother. Jyo Kairi and Miyu Sasaki also do an incredible job of bringing to life the two youngest members of the family. The brilliance of Koreeda’s direction is in its subtlety. Every scene is well shot and framed but in a way that never draws attention to itself. The film draws you in so completely, that it is easy to forget that these are actors being directed, or that the camera has been set up or locations dressed. Everything is done with such apparent ease that you can almost step through the screen into the drama and forget that this is artifice and not a fly-on-the-wall documentary. Early scenes of the household, piled high with the assorted flotsam of a disorderly life, are a great way of establishing the characters quickly. The film then proceeds to add detail to these sketches by showing a little of each life. Every character has their own particular problems. “Shoplifters” also uses humour amidst the bleakness of the characters situations and is not afraid of portraying morally ambiguous protagonists. This realism in style and story makes for a completely engrossing drama.

“Shoplifters” fits neatly in with recent Koreeda film in dealing with issues of family and belonging. It also raises more serious questions, as in his earlier film “Nobody Knows”, with themes of child neglect and abuse. This is tackled in a subtle way in the film and is more potent for it. The film also looks at poverty and its effects on people. All of the characters are struggling to make ends meet with poorly paid, dangerous or degrading work. It creates sympathy for the characters while highlighting the terrible reality that they face. The most pertinent and poignant question the film asks concerns the meaning of family. “Shoplifters” offers a glimmer of hope that there are people out there who are caring and compassionate, but the heart-breaking ending is a significant statement against the oftentimes harmful nature of societal convention.