Luxurious Bone (2001) by Isao Yukisada

Miyako (Kumiko Aso) works as a call-girl, living with her friend Sakiko (Tsugumi Otake) with whom she shares a bond that hovers over the border of sisterhood and life partners. After encountering a client, Shintani (Masatoshi Nagase), with whom Miyako experiences sexual pleasure for the first time in her life, the two women begin to drift apart. Miyako suggests that Shintani should sleep with Sakiko, an event that draws the three into a love triangle in which their various flaws and anxieties are reflected.

“Luxurious Bone” begins with poetic sentiments being recited over the credits, followed by bones being removed from a crematorium furnace. This proves to be an apt set up for a film that is both artistic, meaning glimpsed through fragments of character and story, and with an underlying melancholy. Written by director Isao Yukisada and screenwriter Shoichi Masahiko, the story is relatively straightforward, revolving around the three main characters and their complicated relationship, and the film expects the audience to be familiar with these archetypes, rarely delving too deeply into their backgrounds. Many things are left unsaid, or rather left to viewer interpretation, with direction, lighting and cinematography often standing in for dialogue. Sakiko’s broken leg, the phantom bone that seems permanently lodged in Mayuko’s throat, or the three goldfish confined to a blender, are all clues to what is happening internally with the characters. The performances of Aso, Otake and Nagase are exceptional, with very few supporting characters they manage to keep the audience’s attention with their portrayals of these complex characters. Miyako has resigned herself to a life of prostitution to support Sakiko, while longing for something more. Shintani is perhaps the most mysterious, perhaps intended simply as a catalyst between Miyako and Sakiko, but with shocking moments that indicate a more conflicted character. Sakiko is the most sympathetic and we learn most about her, but many things are never satisfactorily resolved, a common theme across the film.

The film asks a lot of its audience, rarely stating its intentions clearly. It is for the viewer to piece together what is happening with the characters through a fore-knowledge of typical romantic stories, and the various visual clues presented. There are themes of the relationship between sex and love, with a clear distinction between Miyako’s work as a call-girl, which gives her no pleasure either physically or emotionally, and her relationship with Sakiko, which operates on a deeper level. There is also the peculiar idea that Miyako wants to reach Sakiko, to create a bond with her, through Shintani, using a surrogate lover to connect the two women. The film’s occassional graphic eroticism and brief flash of fish-based gore, may seem out of place in a film that appears quite tame on the surface, but that would be to misunderstand the depth of feeling that is raging behind the characters. A curious romantic drama that plays on themes of human connection and the difficulty in expressing our feelings clearly.

Shrieking in the Rain (2021) by Eiji Uchida

A first-time female director battles studio executives, chauvanistic crew members, and the ratings board, as she tries to bring her vision to life in this comedy-drama from Eiji Uchida. Hanako (Marika Matsumoto) is directing her debut film, an erotic thriller about love and betrayal. Lacking the confidence to stand up to her overbearing crew, consisting of older male lighting and camera operators, she feels as if she is losing control of the production as she navigates various vested interests such as the producer’s desire that it not be slapped with a restricted rating that will damage their box office takings. Hanako is far from the only member of the cast and crew struggling with the film. Older actress Kaede (Maeko Oyama) sees the film as her last chance to prove her acting ability, willing to go all the way in the final sex scene to show that she is a true artist; and Yoshie (Serena Motola), an aspiring camera woman, is facing the same sexism as Hanako.

“Shrieking in the Rain” is a comedy-drama film with an uplifting atmosphere reminiscent of a less cynical world. Set in 1988 it shows a film industry that is a very male-dominated environment, one in which Hanako’s ostensible power as a director is continually undermined by her lack of authority as a women with the men around her. Things perhaps haven’t changed enough in the industry to this day, but the choice of setting does allow the film-makers to push some of the behaviour, with women being smacked round the head or shouted at in front of the entire studio, to an extreme perhaps consigned to history. Most of the film takes place in the single film set or the nearby studio buildings. It has a behind-the-scenes feel as we watch what happens on the other side of the camera, with this motley crew working to capture the pivotal scenes of their movie. The cinematography by Kenji Noguchi, has a beautiful sunset feel of late-eighties nostalgia.

We often see Hanako surrounded by her crew and actors, visually establishing the power dynamics and the sense of pressure she feels from all sides. The three women who provide the backbone of the story, Hanako, Yoshie and Kaede, are all enjoyable characters with actors Marika Matsumoto, Serena Motola and Maeko Oyama giving powerful performances as women beset by an inhospitable world of entrenched sexism and self-important men. “Shrieking in the Rain” tackles these issues with a light touch, providing plenty of comedy to ensure that it never feels like a sermon on the wrongs of the film industry. This lighthearted approach to the drama is emphasized by the sentimental score, often indistinguishable from the melodrama of the film within a film. It is a testament ot the film’s whimsicality that the final sequence, an all-out song and dance number performed by the crew, does not seem out of place beside the more serious themes, not to mention the nudity and sex of the production they are filming.

The film recreates in the microcosm of this single film studio a sense of what many women in the workplace have to contend with. Hanako is far from incompetent, even though she is a newcomer to directing, but she is constantly chastised for her decisions, being asked why she needs another take or why she cannot simply change her plans for certain scenes to make them suitable for a general audience. It can be hard to understand why Hanako persists and it seems even she has her doubts about whether she is in the right job. A particular traumatic memory from her past seems to drive her creativity and determination to finish this film and this past trauma seems to chime particularly the other women on the production, although their own pasts remain unknown. Hanako’s relationship with Yoshie, who looks up to her as a female role model is touching and you find yourself willing them to succeed against the ignorant behaviour of the male crew. However, the film is far from a polemic against chauvanism, with many other aspects and subplots to enjoy. The foremost amongst them is the power of film itself to transport people, as the experienced actor Kazuto (Yuma Yamoto) explains to pop-idol Shinji (Kenta Suga), to another world. The introduction of a character working for the film classification board allows for some ridiculing of the often nonsensical rules defining lewdness or inappropriate behaviour in film. And Kaede’s character depicts the difficulties of aging in an industry obsessed with youth. A fantastic cast in a film packed with interesting characters, each showing an aspect of the film-making process or problems associated with it, “Shrieking in the Rain” is sure to entertain film fans looking for a lighthearted take on the industry.

An Adolescent (2001) by Eiji Okuda

A middle-aged policeman and a teenage schoolgirl begin a relationship in this drama based on a short story. Tomokawa (Eiji Okuda) works as a police officer, largely abusing his position of authority as seen early in the film when he sleeps with a woman whose missing cat he is returning. He is later propositioned by a high-school girl named Yoko (Mayu Ozawa) out of the blue while at a cafe. They go to a hotel and spend time together, but the girl later refuses payment from him. The two later begin a sexual relationship which is complicated not least by the girl’s age as Tomokawa discovers that she is only 15. Yoko is also the sister of Tomokawa’s young friend Sukemasa (Akira Shoji), a mentally handicapped young man. Yoko and Sukemasa’s father was a suicide and their mother (Mari Natsuki) no longer lives with them. Instead they are taken care of by their grandfather, Shozo (Hideo Murota). It transpires that Yoko’s grandfather created the large tattoo of a single male bird on Tomokawa’s back, while Yoko’s mother (Tomokawa’s former lover) left him after promising she would have the female counterpart tattoo drawn on her own back.

Based on a short story by Mikihiko Renjo, with a script by Katsuhiko Manabe and Izuru Narushima, the difficult subject matter of “An Adolescent”, will no doubt deter some from watching and it is certainly a film that should be appreciated as a work of fiction. Mention is made of Tomokawa’s perversion in chasing after a teenage girl, but for many this acknowledgement may be insufficient explanation to what happens. If you can get beyond that the film is an intriguing look at adolescence, aging, and relationships. The performances, especially from Mayu Ozawa as Yoko, whose behaviour may not always be understandable but are always believable. It is a nuanced portrayal of a girl who has suffered various tragedies, such as the death of her father and abandonment by her mother, but maintains a determination to follow her desires. Okuda’s Tomokawa appears to be a boy trapped in a man’s body, slowly coming to accept the responsibility of adulthood. Intimate handheld camerawork helps us connect with the characters and the use of background details and staging helps enliven the action. Towards the end of the film Ozawa has two incredible moments with Yoko’s mother and Tomokawa, delivering passionate dialogues that speak to the maelstrom of emotions she is experiencing. Despite the subject matter, there is a lot of humour in the film, with Tomokawa being a ridiculous man-child figure, working as a policeman but at heart still very much a good-for-nothing tearaway. The score by Shigeru Umebayashi features sombre strings that lend weight to the drama, framing it as a timeless love story as opposed to something more seedy. The film features sex and nudity, but it works in the context of the film, showing the eroticisation of Yoko by Tomokawa and also in parts, such as bathing sequences, making it something commonplace adding to a sense of realism.

One of the central themes of “An Adolescent” is that of aging and regret. Tomokawa is a man who wears the respectable uniform of a police officer, but underneath is still marked as a delinquent by his tattoo. Yoko could perhaps be seen as the inverse, whose school uniform is concealing her desire to be considered an adult. We learn later in the film that Sukemasa’s intellectual disability was due to witnessing his mother having sex, following his father’s suicide. This link between carnal knowledge and maturity is interesting and ties in to the relationship between Tomokawa and Yoko. The significance of the tattoos is something that harks back to ancient legends, suggesting that there is something transcendent about the couples’ relationship, that it is not simply about the physical world. They are lost souls searching for one another across time. The film is telling the story of Tomokawa and Yoko attempting to grow up, their relationship seemingly being the missing piece that allows them to move forward. An interesting film with some great performances if you can get over the subject matter.

Lowlife Love (2016) by Eiji Uchida

Tetsuo (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) is an amateur film director. After having a small independent hit a few years before, he has decided to make this his career despite making almost no money and having little recognition. Instead, he uses his limited fame, and his acting school, to attract vulnerable women who are desperate to be cast in his films. His life is a string of cigarettes and loveless sex. A talented screenwriter named Ken (Shugo Oshinari), with dreams of big-screen success, comes to him with a script that Tetsuo is sure will provide the basis for the film that will finally see him leave his underdog existence behind. After charging him 20,000 yen for the privilege of joining his film group, Tetsuo agrees to work with him. At the same time, a naive young woman named Minami (Maya Okano) turns up at Tetsuo’s acting class to audition for him. The washed-up director, far from nurturing this young talent, attempts to take advantage of her. Minami refuses his advances, stating she is in love with Ken. Eventually, Minami manages to escape this band of struggling artists and become a successful actor (albeit by sleeping with a more famous director), leaving Tetsuo and Ken behind. The film is populated with a huge cast of enjoyable characters, such as Tetsuo’s sister Akina (Nanami Kawakami), the talentless actress Kyoko (Chika Uchida) who resorts to sleeping with directors to get roles; a successful director named Kano (Kanji Furutachi) who we learn is no less perverse and immoral than Tetsuo; Mamoru (Yoshida Hosoda), a friend of Tetsuo who makes a living selling low-budget softcore porn; and the stingy producer Kida (DenDen) who keeps recommending they add nudity to their films to make them sell.

Written and directed by Eiji Uchida, “Lowlife Love” features some stunning performances and a heady blend of love, sex and a blackly humorous commentary on the world of film-makers. Tetsuo is hardly a likeable protagonist, however relatable or sympathetic he may be in his attempts to make it as a director, as we see him sleeping around, taking advantage of people constantly, and lacking motivation. However, it is precisely this complexity that makes the film so irresistible, like a horrific car-crash that you can’t look away from, despite how traumatic it might be to witness the endless failures of this man, both in life and as a filmmaker, or the way that Minami is treated. None of the characters are particularly good or bad, they are just doing what it takes to survive in this harsh world. There is a sequence late in the film, when Minami, who has gone from powerless to completely in control breaks down in tears as she realises what she has become. You can feel her sense of frustration and upset at the complicity in the harsh system that this entails. In this heartbreaking scene we run the full gamut of emotions from lust, to anger, and despondency. Kiyohiko Shibukawa’s disreputable Tetsuo is an immoral womanizer, but we are swept along with his constantly frustrated attempts to make something of himself. Maya Okano gives a truly spellbinding performance as Minami, at first naive but gaining in confidence as she realises her own ability. The supporting cast all give great comedic performances as the seedy, disreputable sorts that seem to be commonplace in this industry. The cinematography by Kenji Noguchi is great throughout, with a few stylistic flourishes that show that unlike the protagonists they are depicting the makers of this film are at the top of their game.

Writer and director, Eiji Uchida, has created a complex tale of imperfect humans struggling with what they are doing with their lives. The emphasis on sex throughout the film is not incidental. It is these primal biological urges that seem to be the only constant driver of the characters’ behaviour. Early in the film a character comments that Tetsuo does nothing but sleep around and as the film progresses it asks the difficult question of whether there is really any more to life than that, whether all life is simply a hedonistic free-for-all, or if people are driven by more than sexual desire. It is made clear that sexual attraction, lust and jealousy are inextricably linked with people’s behaviours and even their success or failure. This is made clear in the characters of Tetsuo and Kano, who seem different only because of their varying degree of success as a filmmaker, while we discover they are both equally perverse and self-absorbed. The film also provides a stark commentary on the manipulation and exploitation, particularly of women, that seems to be prevalent in the film industry. When DenDen says there is no difference between pornography and other films, his words might be more true than he realises, as we see women treated merely as objects to satisfy men, lacking any agency of their own. Even Minami’s own success is dependent on her lowering herself to being used by directors.

In contrast to the almost relentless negative portrayal of the film industry, and perhaps the “Love” the title is referring to, we have filmmaking itself. It seems the only thing that Tetsuo is genuinely passionate about, and perhaps speaks to the ideal that through cinema and the arts we can attain something more real than reality, both an escape and at the same time an absolute truth. Film is the thing that keeps him going, despite his failures, it symbolises something that is human and at the same time beyond the seedy, everyday humanity we are forced to endure. Of course, the film’s ironic take on the industry often undermines this naïve belief, but nevertheless there is something pure in even the most despicable characters. In the end, the fact that they hold on to these dreams, of being a movie star, or creating a popular film, is what makes them poignant, believable and sympathetic.

The Perfect Education (1999) by Ben Wada

18-year old schoolgirl, Kuniko (Hijiri Kojima), is kidnapped by a 43 year old man in this crime thriller. After being taken to her captor Iwazono’s (Naoto Takenaka) house, Kuniko is told that he doesn’t want to rape her, rather to groom her into a perfect sexual partner. His intention is to experience a true love and perfect sex, connecting body and mind. Kuniko is understandably disturbed by his behaviour but appears to slowly grow closer to him.

Based on a novel by Michiko Matsuda, with a screenplay by Kaneto Shindo, “The Perfect Education” is a curious film, owing a debt to Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita” in its theme. The film begins as a thriller, but soon develops into a relationship drama, with a battle of wits between Kuniko and Iwazono. Kuniko often commands him, goads him, denigrates him, while Iwazono appears as a pathetic figure, apologetic and more of a voyeur than a real threat. He tells Kuniko early on that he will cut her if she tries to leave, but she has soon manipulated him into getting her whatever she wants, taking her on holiday, and buying her new clothes. The uncomfortable subject matter is brilliantly utilised with excellent direction, by Ben Wada, and cinematography, often leading to conflicting feelings in the audience as we watch the power struggle between these two characters. Early on we see deep, ominous shadows in Iwazono’s apartment, later replaced by brighter settings, including on their holiday to an onsen resort. The various occupants of Iwazono’s apartment block provide comic relief, again creating an slightly disturbing tone by puncturing the tense drama happening in their same residence. The classical score likewise emphasises this strange disconnect and drift between light and dark, with an often uplifting, even romantic accompaniment to Kuniko and Iwazono’s strange relationship. The way the score swells before an abrupt stop again works to manipulate the audience and make them question exactly what is happening, whether we are likewise beginning to become inured to the danger of Iwazono. Hijiri Kojima gives a spellbinding performance as Kuniko, more than a match for Naoto Takenaka’s Iwazono.

“The Perfect Education” is an erotic crime thriller with a controversial theme that many viewers may find uncomfortable. It gets at the heart of what sex and relationships are about, a battle of desires and demands, with aggressor and victim often shifting places. The film’s nuance and apparent ambivalence about the fate of Kuniko give it a certain power, confronting the audience with these events while seemingly offering little in the way of commentary itself. The film perhaps gets close to revealing unpalatable truths about humanity and the psychology of relationships, leaving much unsaid and open to interpretation. In the end, it is up to the audience to take what they will from this story, but it is undeniably one that is thought-provoking and with two excellent performances from Kojima and Takenaka.