Bitter Honey (2016) by Gakuryu Ishii

An aging writer (Ren Osugi) finds solace in his pet goldfish, anthropomorphised as a beautiful and flighty young woman in red (played by Fumi Nikaido). The two of them enjoy a curious relationship, with a frisson of sexual tension, and the goldfish, named Akako, also begins to explore the world on her own. Akako comes across a woman in white, named Lady Tamura (Yoko Maki), who she believes to be the ghost of a former lover of her master. The writer is also visited by the late author Ryunosuke Akutagawa (Kora Kengo), his literary rival. The writer’s flights of fancy slowly begin to consume him, perhaps as an escape from his recent terminal diagnosis as he nears his last days.

Based on a 1959 novel by Muro Saisei, with a screenplay by Takehiko Minato, “Bitter Honey” is a bizarre magical realist fable that draws no line between the real world and that of the imagination. The opening scene shows the writer and the woman in red together, he writing, her lounging, and aside from a few subtle hints in the score and dialogue it does not become clear that she is in fact a goldfish until the end of the scene. The film continues in this illogical, dream-like manner, treating Akako as a human, even to the point of her having conversations with others, while we know that she is a fish. The anthropomorphic nature of her character is incredibly powerful as the audience comes to care about Akako, her desires, her frustrations with the writer, and her relationship with other non-existent (in a real sense) people, such as Lady Tamura. Of course rationally both her and Lady Tamura can only exist in the imagination of the writer, something he alludes to later in the film, but it is still enjoyable to watch Nikaido’s performance as the bouncy, youthful goldfish, and it raises the question of free will and control in an interesting twist on a common trope in relationship dramas. The dance that Akako performs throughout is perfect in capturing the character of a goldfish, billowing tail and flowing movements. Ishii’s direction is excellent, staging the drama beautifully and, along with Norimichi Kasamatsu’s luxuriant cinematography, stunning set design and use of colour, emphasizing the sense of being lost in a fantastical dreamworld. Toshiyuki Mori’s score and the sound design perfectly compliment this stylish direction, humourous, melancholic, and with effects sounding like water droplets when Akako is on screen.

“Bitter Honey” has a surreal, folkloric atmopshere that is enjoyable to watch, helped by excellent performances by Ren Osugi and Fumi Nikaido. The plot is relatively thin and, much like in a dream, there are elements that don’t always connect perfectly with one another. The most obvious reading of what is happening is that the author, realising he does not have long left, is working on a story about his pet goldfish, imagining her as a young woman; while at the same time he reminisces about his relationship with fellow author Akutagawa and the mysterious Lady Tamura. The lines between reality and fiction are blurred by having Akako act independently, becoming a player in the drama in her own right. The relationship between the writer and Akako is genuinely moving, and the strongest element of the film, suggesting a lack of distinction between the real and the fantastical, or at least diminishing the importance of such a distinction. The film also comments on the struggles of the author, who always felt second best against the acclaimed Akutagawa, but for the most part it remains almost light-hearted as he enjoys an imaginary relationship with Akako. An entertaining magical-realist tale about an old man and his cherished pet goldfish.

Dreams (1990) by Akira Kurosawa

An anthology of short films based on Kurosawa’s dreams. The first story sees a young boy (Mitsunori Isaki) accidentally stumble across a fox wedding, despite the warning of his mother not to go out in the rain. Later he is told that he must kill himself with a knife, or return to the land of the foxes to hand back the knife. The second story revolves around the “Doll Festival” as the young boy finds a group of living human dolls that promise to restore a devastated peach orchard. The next story is a group of mountaineers trapped in a blizzard attempting to reach their camp. The fourth part sees a soldier returning from war, confronting the ghosts of his fallen companions. In part five, an artist (Akira Terao) enters the paintings of van Gough, conversing with the famous creative (played by Martin Scorsese). Part six concerns an extinction-level nuclear disaster and part seven sees a man speaking with a demon in a post-apocalyptic landscape. The final part has a man come to a rural “Windmill Village”, where he converses with an elderly resident about the importance of living a natural life.

“Dreams” is a peculiarity in Akira Kurosawa’s filmography, seeing him tackle styles and settings that are rarely seen in his other works. It is interesting to see his take on the survivalist drama, disaster movie, war film, science-fiction, fantasy, and surrealism, making you wonder what these could have been if they were each spun into full length stories. It is also novel to see Kurosawa work with greenscreen effects and monster makeup, still showing a creativity after a long career of samurai epics and historical dramas. Each section is around fifteen minutes, with just enough time to establish characters and theme. Kurosawa based these vignettes on dreams he had seen and they have an ephemeral quality, set in unreal environments where logic doesn’t necessarily flow as normal. These stories are adrift in space and time, the characters existing only in that moment, without a wider world around them. This limitation in time allows them to expand on creating a visual and audio spectacular, without worrying too much about character development or twists. There is a focus on the emotional rather than the logical, with elements left to the audiences interpretation. The direction is striking, particularly in the use of colour. Red appears prominently throughout a number of sections, representing both joy and suffering. The operatic score beautifully captures each scene, reflecting the grand visuals, varying from traditional instrumentation to popular classical music. The easiest reference point for the film would be “Kwaidan” (Kobayashi, 1964), with its individual stories imbued with history and tradition. There are also echoes of Andrei Tarkovsky, in the “Tunnel” episode and the final scene of trailing green fronds in the river.

Dream interpretation is a source of endless fascination to many people. While watching “Dreams” there are two questions that come to the fore. Firstly, where the dreams come from; and secondly what they signify. The answer to both of these may be the same. The dreams depicted seem to come from the fears and hopes of Kurosawa, some with a more direct connection to personal experience, and others seen through a metaphorical lens. Several themes appear to tie together certain sections. Tradition and history, and the loss of it, is a major concern. With the fox wedding and Doll Festival, we see Japanese folklore brought to life. The final section in which the elderly villager laments modernity and the death of the old ways, brings things full circle from these earlier sections, old age speaking to youth about the importance of holding on to these “magical” notions and the old ways. Kurosawa is understandably also concerned about his work and perhaps even his legacy. The section about the mountaineers, perhaps the least transparent in terms of interpretation, may be representative of the creative struggle, while also speaking to the fear of death. And the section with van Gough gives us Kurosawa’s idealised creative, a man absolutely committed to his art. Darker concerns also permeate the film, notably death and human extinction brought about by our own stupidity. The military man, one of the most affecting sections, speaks to the senseless waste of life in war; while the sections detailing nuclear holocaust speak clearly to the existential fear prominent in the post-atomic age. However, in the final scene we have again a hopeful note, that humanity might yet save itself from this fate, by embracing the environment, by returning to what we once held self-evidently important, namely living with nature rather than in a desperate struggle against it. “Dreams” is a film that reflects the hopes and fears of many people, a creative, surreal, vision that prophecies two potential futures for humanity.

Funky Forest: The First Contact (2005)

A collection of surreal shorts, including dance routines, animated segments, nonsensical comedy skits, aliens, canine film directors and more. Throughout a two-hour run time the audience is assaulted with an eclectic, stream-of-consciousness, merry-go-round of drama, slapstick, puerile jokes involving bodily functions, dadaist segments in which you begin to wonder whether this is intended to entertain or frustrate you, and parts which defy explanation entirely. The film will occasionally tease you with a recurring character, a common theme or concept mentioned in different scenes, but on the whole it is fascinatingly, even hypnotically, anarchic.

The film was written and directed by Katsuhiro Ishii, Hajimine Ishimine and Shunichiro Miki, who obviously delight in completely bamboozling their audience. Although the film might be accurately described as unconventional, there is undeniable talent on show here. Each segment does have at least a few clever ideas, and they know how to provoke a response when necessary. With each segment being short, there is also the chance that if you are not enjoying one, there will be something else that you will like. The film features a large cast, including some well known actors such as Rinko Kikuchi and Tadanobu Asano, as well as Evangelion director Hideaki Anno (some of whom appear in multiple roles).

The film should be enjoyed as a collection of short sketches, more akin to a variety show, than a traditional beginning-to-end story. Ridiculous as much of it is, I felt that it was far from meaningless. It does what great art should and provokes you, it provokes you to wonder what is happening, perhaps even offering you a perspective on life that you may not have considered. It is certainly one of the weirdest films you will ever watch, and I would recommend that you give it a try, especially if you are a fan of surrealist comedy. It is an experience that you are not likely to forget in a hurry.