Isn’t Anyone Alive? (2012)

A group of students at a medical hospital start to succumb to a mysterious sickness that kills within a few moments. As they die coughing and spluttering, their friends grow worried that they will be next. The disease strikes without warning and without any apparent cause. We are introduced to several characters early in the film. A group of friends who are planning for a wedding; a pregnant student who is discussing with her former lover and his new partner arrangement of child maintenance payments; and the waiter taking their orders. There is a man looking for his sister who works in the hospital; and a man whose infatuation with her has yet to find voice. There is also an odd couple, Yama and Dr. Fish, fleeing the scene of a train accident.

This blackly comic tale has a bleak and unforgiving premise that makes for a tough watch. It displays a cold detachment from the characters that leaves the audience with a feeling of being an uncaring observer. The conversations between the characters throw up a few funny lines and much of the humour in the latter half comes from their inability to deal effectively with death. Their minor obsessions pale in comparison to the ultimate fate that awaits all of them. Unfortunately, much of the work of unravelling the film’s meaning is left to the viewer. It offers few insights into the human condition, and sadly and ironically seems to care little for the characters. It is a series of ultimately insignificant events culminating in death. It never feels as though it fully develops its premise into anything more meaningful for the characters or the audience. To put a more positive spin on things, the film does have a punk sensibility in its nihilistic outlook. By failing to explain anything it is almost challenging the audience with the inevitability and inexplicability of death. However, it must be said that this would be more enjoyable if there were at least some interesting things done with the deaths. The film is based on a stage play and this shows in the framing of many scenes, with a few characters engaged in what appear to be small comedic vignettes. The film fails to take advantage of its form until the final moments. When we see the incredible sunsets, birds and planes falling from the sky and the wreckage of the train crash, it comes close to being worthwhile, but it is a big ask to sit through the rest of the film for these moments of striking visual poetry at the end of it all. The cast (including Shota Sometani and Mai Takahashi) all do a decent job with their roles, but the script falls a little flat. The occasional use of music offers a sense of momentum that promises more than the film eventually delivers. Another missed opportunity is in the film’s use of occasionally blacking out certain portions of the screen. This is an example of visual flair that, had it been used less sparingly, could have enlivened the rest of the film.

“Isn’t Anyone Alive?” looks at the problem of death. The characters are all young people, largely unaffected by this and the film seems to be challenging its audience to take the idea of mortality seriously. Many of the characters remark that they should think carefully about what their last words should be. There is an aside about a character who should have professed his love for a woman before his untimely demise. The film offers little comfort in terms of a philosophy to deal with death or any sense of purpose in the characters. It could be argued that this film is intended as a slap in the face for shallow youths who do not understand the importance of life, but I feel its message could have been delivered in a more entertaining way.

The Eternal Zero (2013)

After attending their grandmother’s funeral, two young adults discover that she was remarried following the death of her first husband, the biological father of their mother. The two set out, with the blessing of their step-grandfather, to find out the truth about their grandfather Miyabe (Junichi Okada). He had been a pilot in the war, flying one of the famed Zero fighter planes. Many of his contemporaries from that time describe him as a coward who was quick to run from battle. However, his grandson Kentaro (Haruma Miura) perseveres with the investigation that soon reveals a very different story. Far from being weak, Miyabe was one of the top pilots, but his belief in the sanctity of life and determination to save others put him at odds with his fellow pilots.

“The Eternal Zero” is based on the book by Naoki Hyakuta and directed by Takashi Yamazaki from a screenplay by Yamazaki and Tamio Hayashi. The story flits back and forth between the ‘present’ of 2004 and the war years. It is a structure that allows for much needed breaks in the narrative of Miyabe’s wartime experiences as well as giving the filmmakers a way of showing the impact of his actions two generations later. The wartimes segments are enlivened by some great aerial sequences, with Zeros and American fighters being recreated through CGI, that capture the ferocity and deadliness of the fighting. We see some of the most pivotal battles of the war, Midway and Guadal Canal, recreated, though the characters are fictional. There are only a couple of brief glimpses of bloody or violent scenes, but it is enough for the audience to understand the seriousness of what is at stake. Junichi Okada plays Miyabe with a calm air that shifts alarmingly in a later scene when he comes to understand the true horror of war. There are some great supporting performances from Mao Inoue as his young wife, Hirofumi Arai as his fellow pilot Kageura, an aggressive, gung-ho counterpoint to Miyabe, and Min Tanaka who plays his sombre older self. Shota Sometani also stars as a likeable young recruit who is helped by Miyabe. The film is rather longer than it needs to be at over two hours, and the acting at times overly dramatic. It suffers most when it attempts to steer the audience to a conclusion rather than allowing the story to stand for itself, though for the most part it is an engaging and emotional tale.

“The Eternal Zero” looks back at the war from the Japanese perspective with a mature eye, acknowledging the rampant nationalism and idolatry that led many to their deaths, and admitting that mistakes were made. A number of the characters comment on the fact that their way of thinking has changed with the passage of time. Some may dismiss this as a sly attempt to avoid taking responsibility for some of the atrocities committed during wartime, a way of distancing those who were there from these very different times and circumstances. However, the men who fought were young at the time, and fed imperial propaganda that indoctrinated a sense of superiority, and a do or die mentality into its military. The film’s central message is one of the value of life, not to throw it away needlessly, but to preserve it as our greatest asset. In contrast to his fellow pilots, Miyabe believes each life he can save, including his own, will be more valuable than those lost in pursuit of victory. It is a belief that is vindicated by many in later life who praise him for his stance, one that was difficult at the time. This is a powerful and important message to try to do the right thing even when those around you are pressuring you to conform to their own ideals.

The Sion Sono (2015)

Sion Sono is a prolific director, having made over 40 films in his career. He came to prominence through gory horror films such as “Suicide Club”, but he has created works in several genres, comedies like “Love & Peace”, a hip-hop musical “Tokyo Tribe”, and more dramatic works such as “Himizu” and “Cold Fish” (inspired partly by real world events). The film discusses the fact that he is hard to categorise, in some ways having created a category all of his own, the “Sion Sono” film. He is an auteur, both writing and directing many of his projects. However, Sono admits that he has enjoyed more fame and success abroad than in Japan, suggesting that the Japanese film industry tends to shy away from films that show the country in a bad light. His focus on sex, violence, pornography, crime, and other taboo subjects have helped to turn him into a cult star rather than a mainstream success. But it clear from this documentary that success is not something that Sono feels is the most important thing in life. We see early on his disordered studio, with large canvases strewn around and wild impressionistic scribblings across them and slap-dash calligraphy pinned to the wall. We witness an amusing scene as Sono attempts to explain something of his process, and his philosophy, to the cameraman, as he daubs paint on a canvas, in a haphazard way, creating some sort of story in his own mind as he goes, and discussing the purity of the canvas being despoiled by his paint. Rather than strive for perfection he belives true beauty lies in these imperfections, lives that are full of mistakes and rectifications. Later on he suggests that he values quantity over quality, inverting the familiar in his own controversial style he seems to be determinedly set against mainstream expectations. Sono’s primary drive is to create. As he say himself, it doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad, humans are here to create, to express themselves, and to live. It is a chaotic philosophy but it appears to have paid off for the director. Despite many in the film suggesting he should have become famous sooner than he did, his recent celebrity due to several fantastic films in a short span of years has ensured his place in the pantheon of top directors.

The film follows Sono through a year of his life as he works on “The Whispering Star” (2015) and talks about many of his other works. There are interviews with Shota Sometani and Fumi Nikaido (co-stars in Himizu), his wife and actress in the Whispering Star, Megumi Kagurazaka, producers, friends, and even his sister. Together they paint a picture of a man who is slightly eccentric, incredibly driven, passionate about his work, kind, and with a love of film stretching back to his childhood. During the segment with his sister he digs through old notebooks, showing his early film criticism, including a “Sion Sono” awards with Best Picture, Actress and Actor awards. There is also fascinating insight into how he creates his work, looking round sets, frantically scribbling down storyboards, dictating a precis of a new film to his assistant. In some of the most powerful scenes of the film we see Sono and his team in Fukushima, the area devastated by a nuclear plant explosion and which featured as a backdrop in both Himizu and The Whispering Star. As he speaks to locals, some of whom he recruits to act in his movie, we hear of their loss following the tsunami that destroyed their homes and businesses. Although the film doesn’t go into this in great detail it is clear that Sono feels this is an important issue to highlight. In fact this segment stands as a great documentary in itself on the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami.

A great behind-the-scenes look at how this director works, his formative experiences, philosophy and creativity. Sono says that the only thing that concerns him is making interesting films, whether they succeed or fail financially. This documentary is certainly interesting, offering a great insight into a director with a unique vision.