Himizu (2012) by Sion Sono

The 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, that devastated the North-east coast of Honshu and badly damaged the Fukushima nuclear plant, left many without homes and jobs and in a state of despair. “Himizu” begins with scenes of the destruction left behind: buildings reduced to rubble, personal possessions abandoned, and lonely figures wandering through the wasteland of a once populous town. Sumida (Shota Sometani) is a middle-school student whose family boat business has stalled in the wake of the tragic events. His parents are of little help, his mostly absent father returning only to demand money to furnish his own debts, and his mother finally giving up to run off with a fling. Sumida’s only companions are a group of homeless individuals whom he allows to stay by the boathouse and use the shower. His classmate Keiko Chazawa (Fumi Nikaido), is obsessed with Sumida, writing down and pasting his words on her bedroom walls; enamoured by his ordinariness and refusal to conform to the positive world view espoused by their teacher. Keiko decides to help him make the boathouse successful again, despite him repeatedly rejecting her assistance. Keiko’s mother is unsupportive, telling her daughter she is preparing a noose for her to hang herself and make her parent’s lives easier. Despite this Keiko remains positive, encouraging Sumida not to give up and trying to help him out of his depression.

Based on the manga by Minoru Furuya, writer-director Sion Sono creates an uncompromising drama set in the post-tsunami era: a dystopia that is nevertheless grounded in reality. The script was written before the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, but was altered to feature this as a central element. The tragic events of 2011 loom large in the film, which uses its protagonists to tell a story that reflects the feelings of many. The financial ruin and feelings of depression that beset Sumida will be familiar to those who suffered. Meanwhile, Keiko represents the feelings of hope that they can rebuild and that however dark things are there is light at the end of the tunnel. Shota Sometani captures the cold, detached malaise of a young man who has suffered beyond his years, with tumultuous feelings of anger and unfairness repressed as he tries to come to terms with his fate. Fumi Nikaido provides the perfect foil as his gleefully hyperactive stalker, who bears her own sorrows lightly. A talented supporting cast includes Tetsu Watanabe as a simple-minded yet kind-hearted homeless man; Megumi Kagurazaka as Keiko’s uncaring mother; and Denden as a tough yakuza boss. The film’s narrative moves between the main characters and gives us a stark portrayal of a society that is trying to rebuild from the debris of disaster. Despite the generally downbeat tone of the film, there are moments of levity and humour sprinkled throughout, with the homeless individuals providing much of the comic relief. The direction and cinematography by Sohei Tanikawa is exceptional, pulling you through a chaotic emotional landscape with a visceral sense of the pain the characters are feeling. The shots of the earthquake-stricken locations need little extra to evoke feelings of upset at the realisation of what has been lost; and the film manages to retain this powerful, provocative air throughout, with the characters being sympathetic victims of the tragedy and emblematic of the anguish caused by it. The film features a classical score of Mozart and Barber that further heightens this intense dramatic quality.

 As well as dealing with the aftermath of the earthquake, the film also touches on other topics, such as domestic violence, suicide, nuclear power, the far right, abuse of women, and mental health. It questions humanity’s response to such tragedies, with secondary characters discussing how they personally profited from the devastation. Later in the film we see characters turning to theft and violence, further emphasising the fact that bad people will continue to exist. In contrast, Sumida is a character who is unable to pick himself back up following the loss, his feelings of being trapped and seeing no future for himself are a powerful representation of the crippling effects of depression. The question for the characters is what they do with their own lives; whether they allow themselves to be overcome with despondency and hopelessness, or strive to change their situation, in short how they go on living after such a traumatic experience. The poem that opens the film, read by Keiko, and is repeated by Sumida near the end, talks about people judging others while being unable to understand themselves. This can be read as a message to people to believe in yourself, to examine your own will, hopes and dreams and to follow them no matter how difficult it might seem. The film offers few easy answers, with an enigmatic ending that provokes deep rumination on the many themes raised by the story. An incredible work that documents the loss, in every sense, felt after the earthquake, and encourages us to consider how we go on.

Parks (2017) by Natsuki Seta

Jun (Ai Hashimoto) is struggling to come up with a thesis for the communications professor on her socio-cultural studies course. By a quirk of fate she bumps into Haru (Mei Nagano), who is searching for her grandfather’s former sweetheart from letters she discovered after her passing. The two girls set out to find this woman and soon meet her grandson, Tokio (Shota Sometani), who tells them that she has also recently passed. The three discover an old incomplete recording of a song that the old couple had written and recorded together and decide that they should write the rest of the song, which they later decide to perform at the upcoming music festival in the park.

The thin plot, languid pacing, and gentle, non-confrontational atmosphere of the film is much like spending a pleasant afternoon sitting in a park, watching the world go by. Much of the film is set in and around the park, the green space offering a soothing backdrop to the drama, along with the melodic score. While there are romantic undertones with the historic story, this tension is not there in the leads, which is refreshing to see. Instead they are just three young people enjoying youth and finding their way in the world. The film features a couple of sub-plots, one involving an elderly friend of Haru’s grandmother and one relating to Jun’s past as a child star, that are underused. Instead the plot is centred on the three young adults and their quest to rediscover the past and understand the relationship of Haru’s grandfather and his former girlfriend through the fragments that are left. All three leads are supremely likeable and play well off one another. Shota Sometani delivers a comic performance as the energetic, nerdy Tokio; Ai Hashimoto and Mei Nagano have good chemistry as the new friends, balancing a wistful melancholy about the passage of time and the joyful experiences of youth.

“Parks” was commissioned as a celebration of the 100 year anniversary of Inokashira Park and the film’s themes of conservation and time emphasise a feeling of respect towards the place. It perfectly captures the atmosphere of parks as multi-generational spaces, brimming over with memories and individual stories. The trees and waters of the park offer comfort in giving people a sense of perspective. The film portrays this sense of living both with and apart from the past by having Haru step into her grandfather’s story in several moments of magical realism. “Parks” is an experiential film that hits all the right notes and captures the emotive, transcendent atmosphere of these spaces. The themes of reconnecting with the past, the power of music, the passage of time and finding peace and purpose, are all beautifully articulated. A relaxing watch with great performances from the leads and a calming, contemplative atmosphere.

Wood Job! (2014) by Shinobu Yaguchi

When Yuki Hirano (Shota Sometani) fails his university entrance exams he finds himself at a loss. Not able to follow his classmates to further education, he is dealt a further blow when his girlfriend tells him they should split up. While out drinking with friends he sees a leaflet advertising a one year project to work in forestry. Enamoured by the beautiful young woman on the leaflet he sets out for the countryside where he learns all about this new trade under the stern guidance of Yoki (Hideaki Ito). He is then assigned to the remote village of Kamusari, where he is pleased to find the woman from the leaflet Naoki (Masami Nagasawa) is also living. Yuki attempts to ingratiate himself with the villagers, learning about rural life and the woods, in hopes of connecting with Naoki. Naoki however, having been disappointed by another trainee, is reluctant to fall for Yuki.

“Wood Job!” is based on the novel by Shion Miura. Written and directed by Shinobu Yaguchi (Swing Girls, Robo-G) it is very much part of his oeuvre of lighthearted comedies. With a romantic plot and plenty of gentle humour it is an easy watch. Most of the laughs come from Yuki’s attempts to learn about forestry, including tying knots, using a chainsaw, and not shouting “Timber!” when the trees fall. When he finally makes it to Kamusari we are treated to scenes of him balking at their local food and drink (road-kill deer and alcohol with a dead snake in) and customs. There is a comfortable familiarity to the plot and it delivers exactly what you expect from early on at every turn. That is not to say it is not enjoyable. The film builds on a sense of relaxation that is in keeping with the themes, which are all about the quiet, nature-focussed rural life, as opposed to the rat-race of the city. The charismatic cast exude bonhomie and their affable and affectionate relationships are entirely believable. Shota Sometani is likeable as the inept and naïve city kid, completely out of his depth, but with a bottomless passion and determination to battle on. Masami Nagasawa provides the perfect foil as the cool and confident school-teacher Naoki, whose worries about her future are always bubbling below the surface of her genial disposition. Hideaki Ito also delivers a great comic turn as Yuki’s superior Yoki, at first displeased by what he sees as Yuki’s incompetence, but slowly won over by his resolve. The film was shot on location in Mie prefecture and features stunning shots of the forested mountains. The direction distinguishes between the city and the countryside in an interesting way, using a frenetic fixed camera on Yuki in the overwhelming and chaotic city and large panoramic takes in the countryside, firmly differentiating the hectic streets from the quiet charm of the mountains.

The traditions of rural communities are a fascinating insight into human civilisation and can offer a window into what has been lost by the move to increasingly large metropolitan areas. The nature of forestry work demands a close connection with and understanding of the natural world, and “Wood Job!” reflects on this in various conversations between the characters. Whether that is the idea that nature deserves respect, or the deep understanding of ones place in history through the cycles of harvesting and planting. Yuki is a character who is completely lost, having fallen off the expected path from high-school to university to work. His move to the countryside provides him with a chance to examine what is important in life. The pace of life, the simplicity born of a lack of distractions, the focus on community and tradition, all of these things change his perspective. In the end, Yuki’s journey speaks to everyone who is trapped in the largely meaningless and monotonous faux-reality of modernity. It is a call for a return to nature, to ideals of family, community, and enjoying the good things in life.

First Love (2019) by Takashi Miike

Leo Katsuragi (Masataka Kubota) is an up and coming boxer. Yuri (Sakurako Konishi) is a woman addicted to meth and prostituted out to pay off her father’s debts. Kase (Shota Sometani) is a yakuza about to betray his employers by intercepting a delivery of meth and selling it on. His partner in crime is a crooked cop, Otomo (Nao Omori). Their plan is to grab the drugs, and make Yuri the scapegoat by renting her out on the night of the theft. When Leo receives a terminal diagnosis, a tumour on the brain, he sets off into the Tokyo night, lacking all will to carry on. A chance encounter with Yuri gives him something to fight for and the two head off together, chased by Kase and Otomo, the Yakuza, the Triads and the police.

Miike creates a vibrant world full of colourful characters with a fast paced script that never lets up. From the opening cross cuts of the various storylines we are thrust forward into the action, constantly flipping back-and-forth between the main players in the drama. The film doesn’t take itself too seriously, preferring the extreme or ridiculous rather than the mundane. This is evident early on when we see a severed head blinking in disbelief, and reaches its climax in a triumphant getaway chase beginning with a car flying out of a second story window. The film is packed with fantastic action, black comedy, and humorously idiosyncratic moments. There are two central plots: Leo and Yuri’s relationship and Kase’s drug heist gone wrong. Yuri is given a tragic backstory of abuse, and her attempts to find the boy who once helped her are touching. Her comedown from addiction is also well-played and provides an interesting angle to her character. Likewise, Leo is also a troubled individual, abandoned by his parents and struggling with the weight of his diagnosis. Both Masataka Kubota and Sakurako Konishi give incredible performances and it would have been great to see more of them. One of the issues, if it can be called such, is the film’s dual structure, with both the couple’s relationship and Kase and Otomo’s attempts to discover the drugs taking equal time. As an audience you find that you want more of both of these stories, but are constantly split between them.

The acting from the entire cast is perfectly pitched between blackly comic and serious crime drama, a difficult feat to pull off. Outside the main cast are suitably chilling performances from Seiyo Uchino as Gondo the yakuza boss, and Mami Fujioka as the Chinese Triad Assassin. As in his previous Black Society Trilogy, Miike includes the Chinese underworld as an integral and symbiotic part of the Japanese criminal society, with their dialogue in Chinese. It seems an unusual point to mention, but with much Japanese cinema you would be forgiven for thinking of Japan as an entirely homogenous society with no foreign elements or influences.

Having worked in the genre of crime for his entire career Miike knows all the tropes of Yakuza stories and how and when to subvert them. Examples of this include Kase’s attempts to murder a potential witness to his crimes, being interrupted by her elderly flatmate, and the inventive way he decides to kill her. It seems also there is a knowing wink to the camera in moments such as Godo’s final scene and the Chinese gang member “one-armed” Wang (Yen cheng-kuo), creating a tension between drama and comedy. The design of the film is stylish, with great use of colour and framing throughout. It also manages to capture the grime of the Tokyo streets and run down apartments. Despite the fantastical nature of the plot the set design ensures it remains grounded firmly in reality.

Fans of Miike’s work will find much to enjoy here. “First Love” has almost everything you would expect from the director of “Dead or Alive” and “Audition”. He crafts an understated love story woven through the turmoil of a hard-boiled crime drama. The action sequences, including car chases and sword fighting are all expertly done, and there is a forward momentum to everything that makes it a joy to watch. If anything it is a film about finding your reason for living. In a world where you are beset on all sides by violence and chaos, you can discover that one thing that keeps you focused. At the beginning of the film, Leo has his boxing and Yuri is addicted to meth. By the end, both have found each other and something meaningful to fight for.

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.