Ice Cream and the Sound of Raindrops (2018) by Daigo Matsui

A theatre troupe rehearse in a small drama workshop for a play. As they work through their lines and several of the scenes, the film switches back and forth between the actors preparing themselves, performing and hanging out with one another. Further blurring the lines between reality and fiction, the characters they are playing are given their own names. Kokoro Morita is the lead in the play (and the film) and we learn more about her character through her interactions with her brother Yuzu, boyfriend Taketo (Taketo Tanaka), and best friend Reiko (Reiko Tanaka). Although Kokoro is the lead she seems alienated at times from the rest of the group and struggles with confidence, often being told her performance is not good enough, or that she needs to emote more. As the film progresses, the two stories, both of the play being rehearsed, and the rehearsal period itself, intertwine and build to a dramatic conclusion.

Writer and director Daigo Matsui runs a small theatre company and his love of the art of drama is captured here beautifully. The film takes place over one long take, with simple staging, and relies on dialogue between small numbers of the actors to tell it’s story. Along with the hand-held camerawork this presentation gives the sense of a theatre production and takes us right inside the action. It blurs the lines between art and life, not only having the characters take the names of the actors, but also in the way that there is little distinction between what is ‘performance’ and what is ‘real’. The film changes to a widescreen aspect when they switch to theatrical mode, to emphasise the notion that this is acting, however it becomes apparent that there is very little dividing the trial run performances of the characters and their own emotions. The film goes out of its way to create this sense of theatrical alienation, by having a guitarist and rapper duo appear at various points almost as a Greek chorus to echo the themes of the drama. Their seeming omnipresence is one example of the film toying with the notions of art and life as reflective of one another. The performances of all of the actors in the film is emotional and poignant and you find yourself completely immersed both in their own stories, and in the play despite being fully aware that it is theatre. In particular, Kokoro Morita, who is in almost every scene and whose character builds with each moment, is incredible in the nuanced role of the young actress. The switching back and forth between the two styles, one melodramatic and one realistic, showcases an exceptional talent. The direction and staging are crafted so elegantly to build the sense of a real world around the action without drawing attention to the skill on display. It is thoroughly captivating and only in hindsight do you realise the effort required to achieve the effect of many of the transitions from scene to scene. In the latter half of the film the action moves out of the theatre into the damp, rainy streets, and later to a theatre, so smoothly that you are completely swept along with the characters in a way that feels entirely natural.

“Icecream and the Sound of Raindrops” is a film that ruminates on the idea of art as a reflection of life. In the performances of the cast we see people who are dealing with genuine emotion, albeit in a constructed reality. The scripted dialogue is representative of something real, and likewise the real world is also to an extent portrayed as performative. The relationships we form with others are no more than a stage play for our own benefit. As the film progresses we come to understand that these actors are constantly involved in performance, whether knowingly or not, but without the prospect of an audience seeing it. This metaphor for life, that of a performance going on without an audience, is one that the film captures perfectly. Matsui seems to be questioning the purpose of art, theatre, film, in a way that is entertaining yet nevertheless has a melancholic undertone. The ending suggests that art has a powerful significance in human life and culture, both helping us to understand trauma and reflect on our experiences; and also that life itself is a performance perhaps in turn inspired by our internalisation of the same art we create.  

Astral Abnormal Suzuki-san (2019) by Daisuke Ono

Lala Suzuki (Honoka Matsumoto) lives in rural Gunma with her mother and younger brother. Her main creative outlet is her YouTube channel, where she creates a bizarre character that she seems to carry on into her everyday life, including wearing an eyepatch and wandering around with a large mallet. When she receives a call to say that a television company wants to come and film her she sees her big chance, but her hopes are dashed when the company executives change their mind after seeing her videos and decide not to run the show. Lala’s frustrated, angsty behavior is explained when we discover that her twin sister, Lili, is a successful personality working in Tokyo, having succeeded at an interview which Lala failed.

Written and directed by Daisuke Ono, the film is ostensibly a comedy, but often feels more like an emotional drama as we watch Lala slowly succumbing to feelings of rage and resentment towards her sister. On first viewing the film can seem lacking in jokes, with a few sparse laughs and long stretches where little to nothing is happening. Lala seems disaffected and prone to aggressive outbursts. Her ‘comedic’ videos are largely unfunny, with her bizarre sense of humour almost impenetrable to anyone but herself. It becomes apparent only later in the film that this is not a comedy in the conventional sense, that we are actually not meant to laugh at Lala, but to sympathise with and perhaps even pity this character. She is a failure on her own terms, but unable to see why she is not famous or accept any other course than the stardom she feels she deserves. She feels ill-treated by the world. The film can be a difficult watch at times, and takes reflection to see the funny side of what is happening. The deadpan humour and drawn out jokes can seem impenetrable, but there are some fantastic lines and moments that have the feel of a cult classic in the making. Honoka Matsumoto gives a fantastic performance in twin roles as the disaffected Lala and the successful sister Lili, creating a believable tension between the two, even in scenes where she plays opposite herself. She is supported by a small cast including Mayuko Nishiyama and Taketo Tanaka as her long suffering mother and brother.

“Astral Abnormal Suzuki-san” is an offbeat comedy about someone who is struggling to succeed in a world that is obsessed with fame. The use of twins is a clever way to show that for every successful actor there are many more who will never be recognized and who will spend their lives as complete unknowns. This accounts for the film’s peculiar tone in that it is following the character who did not make it, who is not succeeding in fulfilling their goals, and who feels isolated, depressed and frustrated about her lack of recognition. There is a moment in the film when Lili is on television with a fake brother and mother played by actors (adding insult to injury, Lala is not portrayed at all in the family unit), and given a fictitious backstory. It shows the unreality of television. As Lala tells her student, everyone involved in the media is a liar. While the humour may be hit and miss, the performances are strong and by the end of the film you begin to sympathise with Lala’s situation.