Anime Supremacy! (2022) by Kohei Yoshino

A first-time anime director becomes involved in a ratings war with her hero while attempting to see her creative vision brought to fruition. Hitomi Saito (Riho Yoshioka) quits a solid career as a public servant to enter the highly competitive world of anime. Seven years later, in charge of her first project as director, she is keen to see her story realised, not least as her series will be going up against another from famed director Chiharu Oji (Tomoya Nakamura), whose work first inspired her to enter the industry. Hitomi must navigate issues with her staff as well as concerns from the network and her production manager Yukishiro (Tasuku Emoto), who wants the reserved Hitomi to do more promotion for the show. Meanwhile, Oji is also going through creative issues much to the frustration of his assistant Kayako (Machiko Ono).

“Anime Supremacy!” is a fun, drama based on a novel of the same name by Mizuki Tsujimura, that shows us behind-the-scenes at an anime production company; showing the high-paced, combative reality of creating what is one of the most popular forms of entertainment in Japan, and increasingly the world. We see the rush to deadlines, the vast amount of talent it takes to put an episode together, and the conversations between the creatives and the business-minded management. Riho Yoshioka gives a superb comedic performance as Hitomi, with her charmingly expressive characterisation also leaving room for moments of thoughtfulness and passion. Tomoya Nakamura and Machiko Ono also have great on-screen chemistry, with the troubled artist constantly at odds with his overworked assistant. There is a huge supporting cast here and some of them miss out on character development. This is particularly true with Kazuna (Karin Ono), whose side-story goes nowhere despite her being an engaging addition as a brilliant artist completely wrapped up in her own world. The direction is energetic, with occasional flashes of creativity, especially the animated additions showing the battle between the two shows as an ongoing race between the protagonists.

Fans of anime will no doubt enjoy the film as a look at the creative processes and some of the characters who bring to life these fantastical shows. While at times the film is confused in its messaging, attempting to juggle the stories of Hitomi, Chiharu, and to a lesser extent Kazuna, the characters are interesting and the central rivalry ensures we are invested in the ending. Hitomi is someone who has a singular vision and this single-mindedness leads her to neglecting or under-appreciating her colleagues. As she matures through the film we see her gradually begin to understand the value of teamwork and the efforts of others. There is also a strong theme running through about the struggle of artists to protect their work from the predations of corporate interests who want to sanitise everything for marketability. Interestingly both animators in the film choose a different path in the end and it is left to the audience to decide what is most important, success as defined by financial gain or popularity, or as defined by cleaving to your own ideals.

And Your Bird Can Sing (2018) by Sho Miyake

Tasuku Emoto plays a part-time bookshop employee who falls for one of his co-workers, Sachiko (Shizuka Ishibashi). He seems unfazed by Sachiko’s ongoing relationship with their boss at the bookshop, beginning an affair with her. When Sachiko is introduced to his room-mate Shizuo (Shota Sometani), the three of them begin hanging out together, the lines between friendship and romance becoming increasingly blurred.

Based on the novel by Yasushi Sato, the film was shot on location in Hakodate and the northern city plays a starring role in the film as we follow the characters through late nights and early mornings, the quiet streets, tramlines and telegraph poles a permanent fixture in their lives. While it might be described as a love-triangle, the central tension of the protagonists relationship rarely bubbles to the surface, instead the film delights in subtlety, with stolen glances, or moments of contact left for the audience to decide what the characters are thinking. There is a conflict between the characters’ apparently nonchalant attitutude to romance and each other and the audiences desire to see them express some deeper emotion. The central cast do a great job with these complex characters, believably lackadaisical and directionless young adults, far from the typical romantic heroes of film.

“And Your Bird Can Sing” is a slice-of-life romantic drama that brings us into the world of three lost souls who manage to find a degree of stability through their unconventional relationships with one another. These highly relatable characters with their insecurities and halting attempts at romance are enjoyable to watch, the audience almost being an unseen participant in their lives as Sho Miyake’s intimate direction brings us into the heart of the drama. For the most part the film’s style and tone reflect the ambivalent, carefree attitude of the protagonists, rarely forcing the plot, and instead allowing the characters to simply live and experience the world around them. The film waits until its final moments to give the audience a degree of closure, with the characters finally giving voice to their unspoken feelings. The slow pace and lack of a conventional plot may alienate some, but the film succeeds in creating intriguing protagonists and a believable world lacking the familiar surities of more run-of-the-mill love stories.

Shin Kamen Rider (2023) by Hideaki Anno

The Kamen (or “Masked”) Rider character is a long-standing Japanese superhero who needs little introduction to the domestic audience having appeared in popular manga and television series. Hidaki Anno’s reboot does a great job of introducing the character to those less familiar with him. An insect-human hybrid (or “Aug” as they are known in this world), our protagonist Takeshi Hongo (Sosuke Ikematsu) has had his DNA fused with that of a grasshopper, gaining that insect’s incredible agility and other abilities. Hongo is given a brief run-down of his new powers by Doctor Midorikawa (Shinya Tsukamoto) who worked on the program that created him, before Hongo sets off with the doctor’s daughter, Ruriko (Minami Hamabe) to fight the other animal human hybrids (including a bat, scorpion, and wasp) before taking on the ultimate danger: the Butterfly Aug, Ruriko’s brother Ichiro, who is determined to steal the life energy from every living thing on earth. Hongo is also joined by a second Masked Rider in the form of Hayato Ichimonji (Tasuku Emoto), who is at first reluctant to fight alongside him.

Director Hideaki Anno (best known for the “Evangelion” franchise) was brought up on shows such as Kamen (“Masked”) Rider, with their mix of bizarre Sci-Fi action and genre bending plots. His love of the series shines through here (Anno co-wrote the film with Shotaro Ishinomori who worked on the series) as “Shin Kamen Rider” doesn’t attempt to modernise or update the original, instead retaining the feel of an older, serialized drama. The costumes may have been slightly modified, but are still recognizably those of the original. Everything from the wacky plots, the fight-sequences that take place in abandoned industrial sites, to the melodramatic score by Taku Iwasaki, it all feels nostalgic for a different era of superheroes. The higher budget is evidenced in a couple of stand-out fight sequences: the anime-inspired duel with Wasp-Aug (Nanase Nishino), and the superhero-esque battle involving Tasuku Emoto’s second masked rider. The film’s action sequences are decidedly brutal, with copious amounts of blood spattered around and the choreography is fun, again reminicent of older martial arts films. Anno’s direction is a great fit for this film, with his use of creative camera angles and willingness to utilise a variety of styles, moving from simple one-on-one battles to special effects laden sequences, creating that manic tone befitting the live-action comic action. Fans of the original series will no doubt enjoy this new take on the character, familiar but with a modern polish, while those new to Kamen Rider will enjoy the retro-action.

Perhaps surprisingly for a series based on the premise that motorbikes and insects are cool, “Shin Kamen Rider” has a surprising thematic and emotional depth. The central idea running throughout is humanity’s search for happiness, something both protagonists and antagonists continually refer to. The villains wish to either control everyone, thereby destroying free will and the potential for negative emotions; or simply remove their souls, again with the same effect. The protagonists on the other hand, realise that this is not an ideal solution and instead wonder if it is possible to find happiness while maintaining a sense of individual identity. Other ideas thrown into the mix are themes of transhumanism and the potential advances in genomic science, and Artificial Intelligence; and no retro-science fiction would be complete without a sinister capitalist corporation exploiting science for military application and profit. “Shin Kamen Rider” in many ways is an antidote to the recent slew of reboots and remakes which attempt to modernise their properties or make them more in keeping with modern sensibilities. Instead the film revels in nostalgia, with its off-beat explanations of the various elements that were perhaps never intended to be explained, and brings us right back to the feeling original audiences must have felt sitting in front of the television waiting expectantly for the next instalment. A fun, nostalgic superhero film that is sure to bring new audiences to the franchise.

Shape of Red (2020) by Yukiko Mishima

A woman stuck in a rut sees the possibility of a new life when she reconnects with an old boyfriend. Toko (Kaho) is living a simple yet unexciting life with her husband Shin (Shotaro Mamiya) and their young daughter Midori. Having given up on her career as an architect to become a wife and mother, she is now confined to housework, looking after her daughter and tending to her husband’s needs. Her mother-in-law’s presence is a constant reminder of her prescribed role in the household. A chance encounter with an old partner Kurata (Satoshi Tsumabuki) gives Toko a glimpse of a life she could have had with this man. They begin a passionate affair, awakening in Toko a hidden desire for freedom and self-fulfilment. Kurata invites her for a job interview at the architectural firm he is working for. Toko’s liberation from the role of mother and wife begins to see her question her past decisions and long for something more.

“Shape of Red”, based on the novel “Red” by Rio Shimamoto, is a film that tackles the oftentimes subtle ways in which women are held back from achieving their potential and expressing their own wills. Early in the film we see Toko collecting her daughter from nursery, performing chores at home and later a rather mundane sexual exchange with her partner Shin, in which it is clear her role is to provide pleasure for him despite receiving little in return. When she later meets Kurata and begins work at the company we see her gaining in confidence and troubled over what has become of her life. The tragic twists later in the film are devastating, but no more so than the disturbingly familiar conversations throughout that undermine Toko’s independence and make clear that she is there to support her child and husband rather than follow her own dreams. When Toko applies for a job and an eyebrow is raised over the blank space on her CV; or when her husband chastises her for not fulfilling what he sees as her duties; or the lies she is forced to tell her in-laws. All of these moments offer a deft character study of a woman who is completely trapped in the banal suburban housewife role, which is only a part of what she is as a woman.

The cinematography in the film helps bring us along on Toko’s journey of self-discovery, often keeping close to her or emphasising her perspective. The scenes inside the car, with Toko and Kurata cocooned together, make their emotional connection as tangible as their isolation from the world. The use of snow and rain to bring home the warmth of their connection as opposed to the cold outside is also a creative way to portray their relationship. The use of colour and framing also shows a flair for visual storytelling, often wordlessly expressing exactly what is going on. This is helped by an incredible central performance from Kaho as Toko, who encapsulates perfectly the anxieties and feeling of constriction and helplessness of the character. The difficulty of her choice, between Shin and Kurata, is writ large in her actions and we can feel the turmoil that she is in having to make such a decision. The performances of Satoshi Tsumabuki as Kurata, Shotaro Mamiya as Shin, and Tasuku Emoto as Kodaka, all offer excellent characterisations of men who are far from the typical villain, but nevertheless take on the role of antagonist in Toko’s quest for freedom. They offer a look at men from the female perspective, either too demanding or oppressive in the case of Shin, or too frivolous in the case of Kodaka.

The film deals with the difficulties of navigating life as a woman. Having to choose between family and career; constantly feeling belittled by men around you; and the pressure of relationships and raising children. “Shape of Red” is a film about a woman who has lost her way and is trying to discover what it is she wants from life. This is complicated by her marriage and daughter, who are tying her to her past decisions. When Toko’s mother tells her that she believes Toko has never really loved any man, it offers an interesting insight into the themes of the film. Far from being a saviour, Kurata merely offers a means of escape from her humdrum life. To use a metaphor from the film, Kurata is only showing her a window through which she can see her future. One without her overbearing husband and in which she is free. The construction of this dream house in the film, which Toko adjusts to have a large picture window, shows the construction in physical form of her ideal life, and the expanding potential of her possible futures. “Shape of Red” is a moving film with incredible performances and superb visual storytelling. A dissatisfied wife embarking on an affair is not uncommon in romantic dramas, but this film’s power is in its universality and its rallying call for women to embrace their own desires, however hard it might seem.