Face (2000) by Junji Sakamoto

After murdering her sister, an introverted woman sets out on a journey of self-discovery while fleeing the police. Masako (Naomi Fujiyama) works with her parents in a dry-cleaning and repair business in Kobe, largely confined to sewing in her room, with little apparent interest in the outside world. When her younger sister, Yukari (Riho Makise), working as a hostess in Tokyo, pays a visit it is immediately clear that the two sisters could not be more different. The outgoing Yukari berates Masako for not getting out more, while Masako seems to harbour a grudge against her younger sister. When their mother dies, the two are left alone and an argument sees Masako kill Yukari in a fit of pent up rage. After contemplating suicide, Masako heads out to try and find her absentee father. Along the way she faces sexual violence and other trials as she learns to be resilient and independent. Her odyssee takes her to a bar in Beppu where she works for Ritsuko (Michiyo Yasuda) and Hiroyuki (Etsushi Toyokawa) and begins to experience happiness for the first time.

“Face” written by Isamu Uno and Junji Sakamoto and directed by Sakamoto is a tragi-comic tale that works as a coming-of-age story for a woman whose self-imposed isolation has left her almost childlike in her naivety and lack of assertiveness. Naomi Fujiyama’s performance as Masako is full of charm and underlying insecurities. We never learn the exact reason behind her father’s departure, or her hatred of her younger sister, but her awkward, misanthropic attitude is captured perfectly by Fujiyama. “Face” is an unsual mix of difficult subject matter, familial murder and rape, but overall has a darkly comic tone and even some out-and-out humour, such as when Masako is learning to ride a bike or to swim, activities she always wanted to try. Even in its final moments the film leans towards the comedic and the jaunty score emphasises this lighthearted tone. The plot swings from one experience to the next, some good, some bad, presenting us with a chequered impression of life’s ups and downs. There are some outstanding moments in the direction but for the most part the focus is on the performances, which are all outstanding. Riho Makise, as the forthright and independent Yukari, and Michiyo Yasuda and Etsushi Toyokawa as bar hosts Ritsuko and Hiroyuki, act as the worldly-wise foils to Masako’s naive heroine.

The sympathetic Masako is a unique character battling her own demons. The fact that she is a fugitive is brought up throughout as a plot device to keep her moving to the next place, forcing her into the path of the next character who will help her piece together a sense of self in this complex society. But it is this journey of self-discovery that lies at the heart of the drama. We see her at her highest and lowest points and how she responds to both kindness and cruelty. In the end, Masako’s fate rests entirely in her own hands, both happiness and misery available to her, showing the extent to which our experiences are shaped by our reactions to circumstance. A worthwhile film with a fantastically nuanced central performance.

The Sound of Grass (2021) by Hisashi Saito

Kazuo (Masahiro Higashide) is taken to a psychologist after suffering a stress-related breakdown who recommends a break from work, medication and regular excercise. Kazuo soon takes to his new hobby of running, setting out on solitary jogs morning and evening every day. His partner Junko (Nao) is supportive but finds his low mood frustrating, a problem exacerbated by her pregnancy. Meanwhile, Kazuo’s friend Kenji (Shunsuke Daito) tries to help him as best he can. At the same time transfer student Akira (Kaya) is struggling to fit in with his classmates, finding friendship with another lost soul in the shape of Hiroto (Yuta Hayashi) and his sister Minami (Yuki Mine). The three youths often see Kazuo on his daily circuit, neither aware of the others problems.

“The Sound of Grass” is based on a story by novelist Yasushi Sato, who took his own life in 1990. It is often a difficult watch, its themes of depression and suicide amplified by a relentlessly oppressive atmosphere. The film opens with a long sequence of Akira skateboarding through the largely deserted streets of Hakodate, the port city where the film takes place, an impressive sequence that typifies the film’s superlative cinematography and direction by Hisashi Saito. With wide shots of the city, parks and port, we get a sense of place and reality that also work in harmony with the story, with the conflicting sense of life surrounding Kazuo being both immediate and remote. The audience is taken along with Kazuo as he runs around the city, crossing the large bridge, climbing the park steps, or circling the carpark. These sequences, soundtracked by an uplifting piano score, stand in stark contrast to the moments when he is at home or in conversation with others, that seem to lack energy. That may seem like a criticism, but it perfectly replicates the hopelessness and sense of stasis that typifies mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, as well as the fluctuation between highs and lows. His illness doesn’t express itself in wild outbursts but in a complete lack of energy or interest in things around him. Higashide gives an incredible performance as Kazuo, and his scenes with Nao’s Junko are heartbreaking to watch as these two characters, who clearly love one another are unable to traverse the vast unseen divide between them. The story of Akira, Hiroto and Minami, is almost a separate, yet parallel story, linked only by themes of isolation and suicide. Mental health can be difficult to depcit on film, without straying into cliche or exploitative exageration, but “The Sound of Grass” presents a realistic view of this issue that can go unseen and have devastating consequences.

In a more conventional film, you might imagine that Kazuo’s running would be the miracle cure to his illness; or that Akira finding friends would lead to an uplifting ending to comfort the audience. “The Sound of Grass” avoids such easy solutions, showing that mental health issues are not something that can easily be resolved by taking up excercise or talking to people, although both of these can be helpful in combatting the worse effects of depression. In its lack of simple answers, or comforting conclusions, the film offers a powerful, emotional, and discomforting depiction of depression. The naturalistic performances from the whole cast help to build this sense of real people with real concerns. What makes the film powerful is not that it is extreme, or shocking, but that it is painfully believable. Not an easy watch, but a worthwhile exploration of this important subject.

Eternally Younger than those Idiots (2020) by Ryohei Yoshino

Secrets and traumatic memories lurk beneath the surface of this university drama. Student Horigai (Yui Sakuma) is due to submit her thesis, gathering questionnaire responses on childhood experiences and how this affects people’s dreams for the future. When her friend asks her to take notes in a philosophy class, Horigai meets Inogi (Nao), a student with her own troubled past. Horigai and Inogi become firm friends, offering mutual support as they deal with various issues. Horigai’s dream is to work in child protective services, a long term goal since she saw a kidnapping case on the news many years before. In this world where everyone is struggling with personal problems or emotional stress, including her colleague Yasuda (Yo Aoi) and Homine whom she has a crush on, Horigai wonders if she has what it takes to help others, or even herself.

Based on a novel by Kikuko Tsumura and directed by Ryohei Yoshino, “Eternally Younger than those Idiots” is a film that creeps up on you. The opening sequence of students enjoying a drinking party, mocking Horigai’s choice of career and her virginity, seems perfectly innocent, drawing you into a youthful, playful atmosphere where people seem to be enjoying life albeit in that aimless way typical of young adults who are not quite sure how their career will pan out. But little by little we discover the secrets, anxieties, and traumas, which lie beneath the surface of each of the characters. Sexual problems, rape, suicide, child neglect, divorce, all of these things are introduced in a naturalistic way, simply elements that make up people’s characters. The film avoids exploiting these issues, but instead focusses on the way they have shaped those affected. Yui Sakuma and Nao give incredible performances as Horigai and Inogi, both with a great sense of fun and humour, but hiding darker secrets. Their excellent chemistry makes the scenes with both of them very satisfying and their friendship believable. The film relies on character and script with most of the traumatic incidents only mentioned by characters. Yoshino’s direction keeps things interesting and the sets often evoke a great sense of atmosphere, using the environs such as spacious lecture halls, the posters of models on Horigai’s walls, or the cluttered space of Inogi’s apartment to tell us more about these people and their lives. moves the story along, using its environments, spacious lecture halls, or the confusion of Horigai’s apartment to highlight particular moods. The camera is also used to separate characters, or frame them in particular ways that emphasises their relationships. The film will often have character speaking over the phone, a great visual way to show the emotional distance between them.

“Eternally Younger than those Idiots” manages to balance upsetting themes with charming characters and beautiful cinematography. In eschewing explicit depictions of the darker elements it creates a powerful emotional resonance as we see the characters struggling with their own sense of impotence or victimhood. The film explores how powerless people are to change situations, especially past tragedies, and how they affect psychological development. It offers no easy answers, rather allowing us to experience this sense of helplessnes along with the characters. There are brighter moments in the film, with Horigai and Inogi’s relationship offering many entertaining moments in the depiction of a firm friendship born of shared experience. The film also suggests that people do have control over what they do, with Horigai’s determination to follow a path of child protection, and Homine’s helping of a neglected child, showing that there is light in a world that is full of evils. It is not possible to alleviate all the problems of the world, but you should try to make things better where you can.

Typhoon Club (1985) by Shinji Somai

A group of teenagers are trapped at their rural school during a typhoon in this adolescent drama. Girlfriends Yasuko and Yumi; their friends Midori and Michiko (Yuka Onishi), a serious student who has a soft spot for classmate Mikami (Yuichi Mikami); and Mikami’s friends Ken (Shigeru Benibayashi) and Akira (Yoshiyuki Matsunaga) all come-of-age in one way or another through their experiences. We also follow Rie (Yuki Kudo) who flees to the city to escape the storm and is approached by an older student named Kobayashi (Toshinori Omi). Alongside the children, the film also focusses on their long-suffering teacher Umemiya (Tomokazu Miura) who has his own relationship troubles.

“Typhoon Club”, written by Yuji Kato and directed by Shinji Somai, is an acutely observed teen drama, capturing the uncertainty and energy of the high-schoolers, while also addressing serious themes affecting them. The voyeuristic framing, as we watch conversations through windows or open doorways, draws us into their inner world, and the script captures the playful air of teenage friends, or their meandering conversations. The pop and reggae score by Shigeaki Saegusa also helps emphasise a sense of youthful joie de vivre. The young cast all give believable performances and work well together. You can feel the tension between the boys and girls, and the affection between the friends. Without a single plot, the film’s strength is in its characters and letting them evolve through the situation they find themselves in. Nothing feels forced in the script and their relationships are all naturalistic. Lesbian romances, sexual harrasment, and bullying, all feature, but the film always feels genuine and never exploitative.

When the storm arrives we are treated to incredible effects of howling wind and lashing rain that capture the awesome power of such events and the somewhat surreal atmosphere accompanying them, that sense that the world is in complete turmoil. The majority of the film is taken up in simple conversations between the chracters, but they are always entertaining to watch. The film also features some interesting surreal elements, such as the two people playing the ocarina in the early morning city streets following the storm. Introduced and left without much commentary it subtly pushes the sense that the storm has a semi-mythical significance, beyond simple meteorlogical phenomenon. That it is some sort of rite of passage for the children, an awesome natural force that they must overcome to realise their potential.

“Typhoon Club” is an exploration of what it is like to be on the cusp of adulthood, with the students’ sexual awakening coming alongside the overwhelming realisation that childhood is ending and they are staring down the barrel of a long life and eventual death. This theme of mortality is raised in the shape of Yasuko who discusses her grandmother’s illness. The idea of taking on responsibilities is expressed through Umemiya, the teacher, who still seems to behave like a child, struggling to accept that he must now grow up. The storm comes to represent this hormonal cyclone, both isolating the characters, particularly in the case of Rie; being a dangerous, unpredictable and uncontrollable force; and yet also something liberating. When the children run outside in their underwear, there is a sense that they are completely free. They have given themselves over completely to the whims of fate and the elements that surround them rather than sheltering from them. In the film’s most clear reference to a philosophy, the characters discuss the possibility of people transcending their own species through death. Through the storm they appear to reach this transcendence, the suspension of the natural order allowing them to shrug off their inhibitions and simply exist, free of terrestrial concerns. Late in the film there is a suicide involving one of the characters that comes slightly out of the blue, although it does tie in to these themes of mortality and transcendence. The film also features a scene of attempted rape, or sexual assault, which may also be hard to swallow. “Typhoon Club” gives us an unvarnished depiction of puberty, drawing in elements that often function both literally and allegorically, with the external storm coming to symbolise the characters fears and struggles. An entertaining and thought-provoking film on what it means to grow up.

Homestay (2022) by Natsuki Seta

A soul named Blank is returned to the body of a recently deceased high-schooler named Makoto Kobayashi (Kento Nagao). Blank is told by a figure known only as the Guardian (played by various actors), who has the ability to freeze-time and speak through those around Makoto, that he has one hundred days to find the cause of Makoto’s death, and he will be given three guesses to answer this question. If he finds out what killed Makoto, Blank will be returned to life; if not he will return to the amorphous, ineffable of the great beyond. Returned to life in the body of Makoto, but without any of his memories, Shiro must speak with Makoto’s brother Mitsuru (Ayumu Mochizuki), his long-term friend Akira (Anna Yamada), and an older student named Mitsuki (Rikako Yagi), as well as Makoto’s parents (Hikari Ishida and Kuranosuke Sasaki), to understand what led to his death.

“Homestay” is based on the novel “Colorful” by Eto Mori, with a screenplay by Tomoe Kanno, and sets up an intriguing mystery with its fantastical concept of soul transference. It is probably best to ignore some of the plot-holes, such as the fact that people are not suprised by Makoto returning to life. We see early on him not only recently deceased, but actually in a mortuary cold-storage and about to have an autopsy performed. It would also conceivably be easier for Blank to find out what happened simply by asking at the hospital where he awoke, or asking his mother or brother how he died, but for plot reasons nobody is willing to give him a straight answer. However, the central thrust of the film is less concerned with the practicalities of his death but in the journey of discovery that Shiro/Makoto must go on to rediscover his reasons for living. There are some good moments with Makoto’s relationships with Mitsuru and Akira providing a familiar romantic love-triangle, and his relationships with his family offering darker family drama. The performances of Anna Yamada and Rikako Yagi as Akira and Mitsuki are powerful as love-interests who nevertheless have their own issues to confront. One of the biggest barriers to the story becomes the concept, which does provide a striking mystery, but also creates a slightly morbid background to what is happening. Essentially Blank is piloting a corpse, engaging with people who knew Makoto, without any knowledge of his former life. The twist at the end clears this problem up, and in hindsight is the only possible explanation for Blank and Makoto’s symbiotic relationship. However, it is slightly odd throughout to see Blank worried about Makoto’s problems beyond simply wanting to avoid being returned to whatever purgatory he was resident in. It makes it hard to judge Kento Nagao’s performance, as it’s not clear if he is playing Makoto or Shiro piloting Makoto, perhaps explaining the slightly awkward mannerisms. The special effects are entertaining with the Guardian occasionally pausing reality to deliver a message to Blank or ask if he has solved the mystery yet. It is a simple yet effective distancing tool which supports the central theme of objectivity over subjectivity. There is also a lot going on in the plot, with numerous stories all playing out around Makoto, and they are balanced well giving the film a great momentum as we try to resolve what is happening with all these characters.

Homestay sets up an interesting mystery, which does hold your attention for the most part. There are difficult themes around bullying and suicide which the film depicts well. However, these are largely wrapped up in that saccharine teen-romance way that makes you wonder what the problem was in the first place. Makoto is a slightly awkward teen, but has a beautiful best friend who is also romantically interested in him. He is a talented artist, but is father wants him to pursue a more academic route. Makoto’s art plays a major part in the story. It is how he expresses himself and his love for Mitsuki, and is a stand-in for the confusion of feelings inside introverted people. It also provides a metaphor for life; that people are a kaleidoscope of colour. For those suffering depression they lack the objectivity to realise this, instead seeing only a single black existence. The novel’s title “Colorful” speaks to this idea, that people should appreciate life as a vast colourful canvas, rather than a focus on the negatives only. This is further emphasised by the spirit being names Shiro (meaning Blank or White), a blank canvas on which to draw Makoto’s life in all its vibrancy. While its conclusions about depression and suicide may be somewhat trite, the film does a good job of depicting a young teen boy going through these kinds of struggles, unable to see the wood for the trees. If you are a fan of romantic high-school dramas with tragic undertones, “Homestay” provides an entertaining spiritual twist to the genre.