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.

Moonlight Whispers (1999) by Akihiko Shiota

A tortured teenage love story touching on themes of perversion and control. Takuya Hidaka (Kenji Mizuhashi) and Satsuki Kitahara (Tsugumi) are classmates and members of the same high-school kendo club. Hidaka finally musters the courage to declare his love for Kitahara and shortly after they sleep together. The relationship is short-lived however, when Kitahara discovers that he recorded the sound of her urinating while at his house. She calls him a pervert and leaves in disgust. Later she begins dating Hidaka’s friend Tadashi (Kota Kusano). Hidaka pleads to be allowed to be near her and she begins to engage with his unusual desires, allowing him to watch her and Tadashi on a date and even having sex.

Based on a manga of the same name, with a screenplay by Yoichi Nishiyama and director Akihiko Shiota, “Moonlight Whispers” is certainly not a normal relationship drama, though it contains many features of the genre. It lures you in with the conventional romance of the young teen protagonists early in the film. The only sign that things may not progress smoothly is Hidaka stealing a sniff of Kitahara’s gym shorts from her locker. The actors all do a fantastic job with their characters. Hidaka and Kitahara capture the awkward, faltering of a first romance, while Kota Kusano’s confident Tadashi acts almost as a conventional romantic leading man in contrast with their twisted relationship. For a film dealing with the perversion of cuckolding, the film is rarely explicit, allowing the emotional import of the drama to drive the story, rather than the physical. One example of this is in the long take of Takuya sitting in a dark cupboard while he listens to the sounds of Satsuki and Tadashi’s lovemaking in the room. The swirl of emotions in the audience, discomfort, frustration, incomprehension, only growing stronger as the camera remains fixed on him. The cinematography largely leans on the romantic drama style, with soft-focus sunsets, and a realism in the dialogue scenes, an ironic counterpoint to the content of the story. The soundtrack, used sparingly, of delicate guitar, also suggests a more romantic story that what we are watching, heigtening the tension between expectation and reality that allows us to sympathise with the characters.

The film takes a unique look at relationships, focussing on a very particular fetish. Hidaka wants to observer Kitahara, to hold the perfect version of her in his mind, and completely fails when given the chance to have a physical relationship with the real Kitahara. He is utterly devoted to her, prepared to do anything for her, even when there is nothing in it for himself, and to go to incredible extremes to prove himself. But understandably, Kitahara is not interested in this, wanting a real relationship. However, she soon comes to indulge Hidaka, whether to satisfy him or herself is left ambiguous, but that is the heart of what the film is about. The obligations people have towards each other, the give-and-take of all romantic and sexual relationships is depicted starkly through this exaggerated example. We see the difference between Kitahara’s relationship with Hidaka and Tadashi, one asexual and based on a distinct power imbalance, while the other (perhaps considered more conventional) does not seem to satisfy her emotionally. A provocative film that forces the viewer to reassess their notions of romantic love and relationships.

Hanagatami (2017) by Nobuhiko Obayashi

As the second world war looms, a group of teenagers are drawn together by friendships and romances that will come to define them. 17 year old Toshihiko (Shunsuke Kubozuka) becomes good friends with two of his classmates, the stoic and philosophical Kira (Keishi Nagatsuka) and the cool and inspiring Ukai (Shinnosuke Mitsushima). He admires both for their apparent lack of fear and mature outlook on life, which contrast sharply with Takashi’s own wide-eyed naivety. Meanwhile, Mina (Honoka Miki) is confined to her room through tuberculosis, looked after by her widowed sister-in-law, Takashi’s aunt (Takako Tokiwa). Her friends Akine (Hirona Yamazaki) and Chitose (Mugi Kadowaki) come to visit her in her room, attempting to keep up her spirits in the face of her terminal illness. As the war grows nearer they are forced to confront the various tragedies that await them.

Nobuhiko Obayashi’s (House) final work is a colourful, experimental, impressionist look at youth in the lead up to war. Based on a 1937 novella by his friend Kazuo Dan, Obayashi sat on the completed script for the film for forty years before finally deciding the time was right to direct. The film is set in Katsura and the production recruited many locals as staff and extras. The use of Katsura’s cultural festival makes the film historically significant as it is the first time this has been filmed.

“Hanagatami” is full of Obayashi’s inimitable style and bizarre directorial choices. The film is bookended with narration explaining that it is based on a book and throughout it often engenders a sense of dramatic alienation from the action. The early sequences in particular play with notions of time and place as characters step between scenes. The use of superimposed images, digital effects and often inexplicable decisions such as reversing camera angles during dialogue scenes all characterise Obayashi’s style. It is something akin to looking at a collage composed of various scraps of ideas, beautiful and bizarre imagery, that helps to build up a whole picture of theme, place and character. The film uses bold colours and harsh theatrical lighting and there is a sense of surrealism and fantasy woven through the more straightforward teenage drama plot. The performances of the leads, in particular Shunsuke Kubozuka as Toshihiko are theatrically exaggerated caricatures that chime well with the often chaotic style. All of the cast give great performances, including supporting roles from Takehiro Murata as an anti-war teacher and Takako Tokiwa as Takahashi’s aunt. The melodrama of the acting and direction is underscored by a soundtrack that repeats several songs and melodies, each of which come to represent a particular emotion. It is film that is abundant with metaphors, the white snake, the red rose petal becoming a droplet of blood, cherry blossom, the sea, but never dwells on these things or allows them to become the story. The unconventional style and parade of evocative imagery, poetry and philosophical musings are overwhelming at times, but Obayashi always draws us back to the protagonists and their personal journeys through a tale that is rich in universal meaning.

Obayashi has crafted a uniquely engaging and deeply emotional drama that blends traditional and experimental techniques. His style is provocative and will not appeal to everyone. It feels distinct and unfamiliar, with its art-house aesthetic, often almost cartoonish visuals distracting from the story. But if you let go of any preconceptions about how film should be made there is much to enjoy here. The film has a strong anti-war message, in particular noting the futility and horror of war. By showing us the carefree existences of the characters in the build up of hostilities we come to understand everything that is lost in war, innocence, friendships, and hope for the future. The film also gives us a prism through which to see the war, with each character representing a unique view on events and their own impression of what is happening. “Hanagatami” feels like a labour of love for the director and those working on the production. It encapsulates everything that was unique about Obayashi’s work, a timeless yet truly original story.