School in the Crosshairs (1981) by Nobuhiko Obayashi

A schoolgirl with supernatural powers takes on an alien intent on world domination in this fantasy adventure. Yuko (Hiroko Yakushimaru) discovers that she has unusual abilities when she is able to reverse the direction of a truck that is about to hit a young child. She later meets a mysterious figure who offers to help harness her powers to take over the world. A transfer student begins recruiting Yuko’s classmates to a new cram-school where they seem to be brainwashed into becoming obedient and docile. It is up to Yuko to save her classmates from this alien threat.

Written by Taku Mayumura and directed by Nobuhiko Obayashi, “School in the Crosshairs” is a light-weight fantasy adventure. Despite some interesting elements: telekenesis and extra-terrestrials, the film fails to really develop its characters and themes. The actions of the aliens are analogous with an totalitarian states, with their quasi-fascistic uniforms and authoritarian dictats, but this subtext is left largely unexplored. The film’s quirkier moments help maintain the viewer’s interest, with musical numbers performed by the students at their club recruitment day, or a neighbour who has a chimpanzee as a pet, but it somehow feels lacking, both in story and character. We never feel fully involved with Yuka and the alien threat never feels particularly real. This is largely due to a lack of explanation or consequences in what unfolds. It is a series of bizarre events culminating in a somewhat lacklustre denoument between Yuko and the aliens that takes place in a liminal space, further distancing it from any real threat.

Director Nobuhiko Obayashi was fiercely anti-war, expressed most beautifully in his masterpiece “Hanagatami”. This film is perhaps an early attempt to work in some of the themes of totalitarian government. We see early on that the class is slightly unruly, although nothing serious, and how the intention to make them conform to the rules turns into something more sinister. With the children enslaved to an ideology of conformism and persecuting those who break the rules, they lose their freedom and individuality. While we see a little of this in the film, it would have been interesting to expand on it, perhaps showing the impact on the characters and the world outside of the school. However, with so many disparate elements, many of which fail to connect, the film is unfortunately more of a curiousity than a must-see.

Tang and Me (2022) by Miki Takahiro

Former pop-idol Kazunari Ninomiya plays an immature man who finds new purpose in life in this children’s science-fiction comedy. Ken (Ninomiya) spends his time playing video games instead of doing chores, frustrating his wife Emi (Hikari Mitsushima). When a robot appears behind his house, Ken believes he might be able to impress Emi by trading the robot by trading it for a more functional model. The robot, also voiced by Ninomiya, has no memory of where it is from and little apparent value, however Ken soon discovers that the robot may be highly sought after. He travels to meet robotic expert Rin (Nao Honda) and Tang is stolen by two shady individuals leading him to try to recover the robot and return it to the professor who built it.

“Tang and Me” is a children’s fantasy adventure based on the book “A Robot in the Garden” by Deborah Install. The story centers on the relationship between Ken and Tang with the slapstick comedy arising from Tang’s childlike naivete about the world pitched firmly at younger viewers. While the plot offers few surprises, Ninomiya does a good job as the hapless Ken, creating a believable relationship with Tang as the two embark on a road trip leading to him maturing as he learns to empathise with the robot. Hikari Mitsushima plays Ken’s long-suffering wife Emi, with a great supporting cast of comic and dramatic actors. The electro-pop and cheerful score provide a light aural accompaniement to the bright, colourful visuals. The future of “Tang and Me” is a utopia of clean streets, drone delivery, gaudy lightshows, and little in the way of threat. The surprisingly violent military application of robotics and Artificial Intelligence is necessitated by the plot, but the film is at pains to point out that this is done at the behest of foreign investors.

Artificial intelligence and machine learning are increasinly becoming an important part of human society. “Tang and Me” shows a world coddled by technology, with the humans facing few problems or dangers. They live in a state of childlike innocence about the world outside. Tang’s appearance forces Ken to face up to his responsibilities and learn compassion for others rather than continuing in his selfish ways. The film also has a strong message about the misuse of technology by humans, showing a scene in which fear causes the robot to brutally massacre both humans and machines, suggesting that the real danger is not the technology but the people who are programming it. Alongside the story of Tang as a surrogate child for Ken, this gives the film a little more depth and makes it an enjoyable all-ages science fiction fable.

Summer Time Machine Blues (2005) by Katsuyuki Motohiro

During a sweltering summer heatwave, members of a high-school science-fiction club find themselves in a pinch when they break the remote for the air-conditioning in their clubhouse. An unlikely hero arrives in the form of Tamura, a time-traveller from the future, whose time-machine may offer a solution to their problems. The group begin experimenting, zipping back and forward through time to attempt to fix the broken air-conditioning remote. However, they soon realise that their tampering with time may have unintended consequences.

“Summer Time Machine Blues” is a feel-good summer comedy that manages to spin a wild tale from a very simple premise. It takes a little time to get going with the opening sequence, showing the members of the club playing baseball and at the local baths, providing an introduction to the characters. However, once the time-machine appears the pace picks up, with trips back into the first scenes making great use of the concept and low-budget, largely showing things from different angles or how seemingly innocuous events were caused by their time-travelling. Largely set around the clubhouse, the film manages to tie things together in a satisfactory way, explaining even the most minor details as due to their actions. The older cast seem out-of-place playing the childish students and the comedy is often rather forced, but the energetic plot and the way the film weaves together the narrative with characters in different time periods makes for an enjoyable watch. There is fun to be had in noticing details from earlier reoccuring in later scenes and realising the connections between their actions and consequences.

Time-travel always provides an interesting element to a film, with its related possibilities and paradoxes. The creators of “Summer Time Machine Blues”, clearly have a love for the genre and fit in many of these familiar ideas (the film includes “Back to the Future” showing at a local cinema). By taking such a ridiculous reason for travelling back, to fix the air-con remote, the film punctures the often pretentious nature of such narratives, with ideas of fate and free will seeming somewhat grandiose when set aside such an everyday concern. The story has a lighthearted feel that doesn’t concern itself overly with thematic depth or even character development; but works well as a summer farce.

A.I. Love You (2016) by Shogo Miyaki

Haruko Hoshino (Aoi Morikawa) is works as a kitchen porter while dreaming of opening her own patisserie someday. Disillusioned by a series of job interview rejections she finds comfort in an unusual source: a mysterious mail advertising a free A.I. phone application that you can speak with. She downloads it and names it “Love” (‘Ai’ in Japanese). Love (Takumi Saito) offers her support and words of wisdom, suggesting that she try to make some recipes and have her boss (Akira Ishida) taste them. Love also suggests that she should pursue a romantic interest in the shape of co-worker and talented chef Naoto (Shuhei Uesugi). As Love offers her advice and Haruko grows in confidence, their relationship begins to develop into something more than one of convenience.

Based on the manga by Ken Akamatsu, “A.I. Love You”a simplistic romantic tale with a technological twist. The A.I. element is a modern take on the traditional narrative of a human friend with burgeoning feelings for Haruko. Aoi Morikawa is charismatic and likeable in the lead role, often performing a one-woman show to the camera as she speaks with the voice of Love (Takumi Saito). Her problems are far from insurmountable: she is already a competent pastry chef and the improvement she needs to gain her bosses approval and follow her dreams are almost imperceptible to the viewer. Similarly, her romantic troubles are overcome fairly easily. The film is short and moves along quickly, leaving little time for character development, with the supporting cast mostly filling stereotypical roles. Shuhei Uesugi as the handsome love interest; Anne Nakamura as Haruko’s friendly co-worker Kyoko, and Akira Ishida as her irrationaly irritable boss.

Despite a lack of originality or depth the film will appeal to fans of romantic dramas. Much like a pastry it is light, fluffy fun, saccharine sweet and visually appealing. Later in the film there is a hint at darker themes, with the deletion of Love suggesting a similarity with human death, and despite a lack of build up it does manage to be emotionally engaging. However, the film largely sticks to the well-trodden path of romantic comedy dramas, with an uplifting message about trying hard to achieve your dreams. An enjoyable performance from Aoi Morikawa makes it worth a watch.

The Door into Summer (2021) by Miki Takahiro

Based on a novel by Robert A. Heinlein with a screenplay by Tomoe Kanno, “The Door into Summer” is a science-ficiton infused romantic drama. Soichiro (Kento Yamazaki) has a tragic run of bad luck, losing both his mother and father, and then his step-father. Soichiro’s only friends in the world are a stray cat he names Pete; and his step-sister Riko (Kaya Kiyohara). Following her father’s death, Riko goes to live with her uncle Kazuhito (Hidekazu Mashima) who runs the robotics company that Soichiro works for. After being double-crossed by Kazuto and his partner Rin (Natsuna), Soichiro decides to go into a cryogenic sleep for 30 years, finding things changed in unexpected ways when he reawakens in the future of 2025.

The film’s main failing is an overly complicated plot that takes so much time to explain that it leaves little room for character development or emotional attachment. The relationship between Soichiro and Riko, and even Soichiro and Pete are largely forgotten about for a long period after he wakes up in the future. The use of cryo-chambers and time-travel make things interesting, but cause the film to feel disjointed, without a clear focus on a central plot element. When Soichiro wakes up in the future he finds that things have changed and sets about finding out what happened to his former company, but it seems out of character for him, who would surely be more concerned about what happened to Riko, and leaves the audience missing that more meaningful story. By only moving things forward a few years from where we are currently the film also forgoes the opportunity to offer an exciting futurist world, with things appearing little changed aside from the mass adoption of androids and holographic signpost. Ideas of time-travel, androids, and technological advancement would all have been interesting aspects to explore, but the film seems to ignore in its most intriguing elements. The actors all doing a good job with the light romance and melodramatic evil corporation storylines, Yamazaki and Kiyohara have good chemistry as the step-siblings which makes it even more disappointing when they are separated.

Early in the film Soichiro explains that in winter, Pete wants all the doors opening, believing that he can find a door back to warmer, summer weather. Similarly Soichiro wants to use technology to travel into what he hopes will be a brighter future, without realising that life cannot be so easily ignored. The film’s central message seems to be that you have to pass through the dark times to reach the light, but again it strangely doesn’t dwell or expand on this theme. “The Door into Summer” has a lot of interesting ideas but never fully realises them, instead using science-fiction as window dressing to tell a rather lacklustre romantic story. There is far too little character development and a plot that is so focussed on getting from A to B that it forgets to tell a meaningful story along the way.