It’s a Summer Film! (2020) by Soshi Matsumoto

Uninmpressed with her school film club’s current project, a saccharine romance, ‘Barefoot’ (Marika Ito) along with her friends ‘Kickboard’ (Yumi Kawai) and ‘Blue Hawaii’ (Kurara Inori) sets out to make her own passion project, a samurai film inspired by classic black and white movies. She manages to recruit a motley crew for sound and lighting, and finds the perfect lead in the shape of the mysterious Rintaro (Daichi Kaneko), who suddenly appears in her life. As they are making their film, competing with rival Karin’s (Mahiru Koda) romantic drama, they discover that there may be more at stake than the film premiere at the upcoming school festival.

Directed by Soshi Matsumoto, with a screenplay by Matsumoto and Naoyuki Miura, “It’s a Summer Film!” is a charming love-letter to classic historical cinema with a meta twist. ‘Barefoot’ is an engaging protagonist, and Marika Ito’s energetic and expressive performance is enjoyable. She plays a typical outsider hero, with her interest in historical epics, short-cropped hair, and passion for cinema marking her out as a geek, in contrast with Mahiro Koda’s mainstream heroine Karin. There is great chemistry with the trio of ‘Barefoot’ and her friends, ‘Kickboard’, a member of the astronomy club, and kendo-club member ‘Blue Hawaii’. All three of them represent slightly unusual hobbies that bind them together. The story’s meta-element is not explicit, but the film itself follows many tropes of the teen romantic comedy: a rivalry with a more popular student; the outsider heroes; the third act declaration of love. There is certainly an irony that ‘Barefoot’ is attempting to make a samurai epic, but finds herself entangled in a romantic comedy in her relationship with Rintaro. Early in the film ‘Kickboard’ mentions making a science-fiction film and this element also finds it’s way into “It’s a Summer Film!” with the inclusion of a time-travel sub-plot, that functions to distinguish the film from other ‘film-making’ comedies. Most of the humour comes from the difficulty of making a film and the uncharacterstic, but inspiring, interest in high-quality samurai dramas over cheap romances of the lead characters.

“It’s a Summer Film!” is a lot of fun for people who love cinema. It’s subtle self-referential style, including a joke about one of the “students” looking like a 30-year old man, who they nickname ‘Daddy-Boy’, is entertaining without having to force the humour. The time-travel element is likely to split audiences, but works in the context of the meta-narrative, of a self-aware ‘summer film’ that falls into many of the same narrative cliches that they are simultaneously critiquing. ‘Barefoot’ discovers in the future that films are only 5-seconds long, and that there are no longer cinemas. This is probably the film’s most unsubtle criticism of modern trends in film-making, audiences’ dwindling attention spans and the preponderence of people consuming media on mobile phones in short bursts. Although “It’s a Summer Film!” hits all the notes of a typical high-school romantic-comedy, its charm and self-awareness make it supremely watchable. The likeable cast and light-touch comedy are comfortable and remind people of the enjoyment of watching films and the power of cinema to take you on a journey.

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.

Bounce Ko Gal (1997) by Masato Harada

A group of teenage girls spend a wild, dangerous night on the streets of Tokyo, earning money through the seedy world of ‘compensated dating’. Maru (Shin Yazawa), who has recently had an abortion for an unwanted pregnancy, goes to meet a male client. The man (Koji Yakusho) turns out to be a Yakuza and takes her ID and phone, telling her he’ll give them back when she pays him. Her friend, Jonko (Hitomi Sato), heads to the Yakuza to negotiate getting Maru’s phone and ID back. Meanwhile, Risa (Yukiko Okamoto), is hoping to make enough money to set herself up in New York, with her flight leaving in less than 48 hours. After selling her underwear and being directed to a softcore porn shoot, she meets up with Raku (Yasue Sato) and the two form a friendship. Risa has also captured the attentions of Sap (Jun Murakami) who works as a scout for young girls.

“Bounce Ko Gals”, written and directed by Masato Harada, does an incredible job of capturing the fashions and trends of the period, while shining a light on the dark underbelly of society. The early scenes with the schoolgirls, with their famous roll-down white socks, fake-tan, and relatable obsessions, set the scene for a film that, despite an apparently exploitative story, firmly establishes things from their perspective. The cast all do a great job with a script that exudes believability, with coarse, unguarded conversations alongside moments of emotional candour between the friends. They are smart, funny, worldly wise and cynical, while also being victims of a society that sees female value only in terms of appearance and sex. The camera wends its way through crowds, plunging us right into the throngs of people, creating a palpable sense of energy and movement. Told across a single day, scenes often cross-over, with the camera following one group then catching sight of another protagonist and switching to them. This all goes to help the sense of a living, breathing city and real characters.

The film is an incredible social document, offering a window to this specific period in time, the world of ‘compensated dating’ and the sexualisation of young girls. We see various aspects of this, including girls selling their underwear and school uniforms; ‘talent’ scouts picking up girls on the street to sell to hostess clubs or pornography companies; and older men paying for dates with teen girls, usually with a sexual motive. The film steers clear of moralising, but rather questions the type of society where these behaviours are prevalent and, to an extent, normalised. It is a society where women and girls are considered second-class and existing only for the amusement of men. Also one where youth is fetishized. As the teens state at one point, high-schoolers (Japan has middle and high school), are already considered old ladies. However, this film empowers its protagonists, showing them as savvy and self-sufficient in the warped economy where money rules all and girls can be easily exploited. It shows the dangers of what they are doing too, with brief indications of brutal violence, but also there is a sense of fun and camaraderie between the girls that shines through. One important moment near the end of the film sees the trio of Risa, Raku and Jonko conversing while a group of priestesses perform their rituals nearby. It gives agency to them, and suggests that the choices women make are entirely their own and that it is possible to find strength through companionship in a world that seems determined to keep them down.

Inakunare Gunjo (2019) by Akina Yanagi

Former schoolfriends Nanakusa (Ryusei Yokohama) and Yu Manabe (Marie Iitoyo) find themselves reunited on a mysterious island, not sure how they got there. The island is for people who have been thrown away and the only way to leave is by finding the thing they have lost. This curious mantra is all the inhabitants understand of their bizarre liminal world. The island is perfectly normal in most respects, with everyday services in operation: a school for the students; dormitories for housekeepers. There is even a postal system. Certain fantastical elements include an eternal staircase which supposedly leads to a witch on the mountain who is able to answer any question. Unlike the others who are happy to remain there, Yu wants to leave the island and soon recruits her fellow students in a plan to escape.

“Inakunare, Gunjo” (English: “Go Away, Ultramarine”), written by Minato Takano, from a novel by Yutaka Kono, and directed by Akina Yanagi, offers an interesting twist on the standard high-school romance drama. The mystery of the island is intriguing, inviting speculation as to why these people are there and whether and how escape might be possible. The complete normality of their surroundings gives things a familiar feel despite the odd situation, a subtly disturbing undertone to the typical high-school setting. The story is chaptered, layering the mystery with each new twist, as they try to uncover the nature of the island. The secret is resolved towards the end in an unambiguous but suitably ambivalent way, offering a complete explanation but one which some may find unsatisfactory. The film occasionally seems trapped by its high-school romance plot and fails to develop the more interesting concepts suggested by its premise. The films location offers the perfect backdrop, a quaint seaside town with the endless stretch of ocean nearby isolating the characters in this small community, while showing the unreachable horizons, and ragged natural beauty that surrounds them. The actors all do a good job with their characters, leads Ryusei Yokohama and Marie Iitoyo have good chemistry and their relationship is relatable.

The central mystery of this film is well disguised and I would suggest watching the film before reading this to avoid spoilers. We discover at the end of the film that the island is not inhabited by real people, but instead by the parts of people’s personalities they have thrown away. With a change in circumstances, maturing, or willfully, people may discard parts of themselves they no longer need. This fascinating psychological idea, of an island inhabited by the unwanted psychological baggage of individuals, is not developed to its full potential in the film. Confusing the issue further it is hard to see exactly what is wrong with most people on the island, making you wonder why this would be the part of their personality they would abandon. The film is engaging as a romantic drama, but it would have been interesting to see these deeper psychological themes developed. Well worth a watch if you are looking for something a little different.

Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop (2020) by Kyohei Ishiguro

Yui Sakura (Someguro Ichikawa), known familiarly as ‘Cherry’, is a quiet, thoughtful young high-schooler, working part time at a day care centre for the elderly, and spending his free time compiling haiku. Yuki (Hana Sugisaki), known online as ‘Smile’, is an outgoing social media influencer who has taken to wearing a face mask to avoid revealing the braces straightening her buck teeth. The two bump into each other at the mall and soon form a strong friendship despite their differences. Yuki agrees to help Yui find a record for one of the old people at the care centre, Mr. Fujiyama (Koichi Yamadera).

“Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop” treads familiar ground as a feel good teen drama, with strong visuals, and simple, brightly-coloured art, giving it a dazzling quality that instantly captures the imagination, creating an upbeat, enjoyable, summer atmosphere in keeping with the characters and setting. The character and world design all utilise a simplicity of style with recognizable characteristics, this stereotyping further emphasised by the use of nicknames for many of the main characters, including ‘Cherry’, ‘Smile’, ‘Japan’ and ‘Tough Boy’. The story too is pared back to its most basic elements, essentially a youthful summer love story twinned with Mr. Fujiyama’s search for the missing record and his own forgotten romance. With an upbeat pop soundtrack and colourful animation the film is a perfect watch to lift your spirits.

“Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop” creates a tension between the traditional poetry form of haikus and the ultra-modern elements embodied by Yuki, such as an obsession with mobile phones, social media and celebrity. The film brings haiku to a contemporary world, showing the power of words and poetry. The “beauty through simplicity” of haikus is an ethos that aptly describes the film itself. The story, the visuals, the animation, are powerful precisely because of their simplicity. Examples of this include the moments where we see Yui and Yuki in split screen, drawing our attention to their similarities and differences. Yui wears headphones to avoid having to engage with the world, while Yuki wears a face mask avoid the attention of the world. It is these moments that make the film such an enjoyable watch; what appears on the surface a straightforward story, on second glance has so many elements just below the surface. It is possible, just as with a haiku, to find genuine beauty in this simple romantic tale.