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.

Hot Gimmick: Girl Meets Boy (2019) by Yuki Yamato

Based on the manga “Hot Gimmick” by Miki Aihara, this film about teenage romance is a tough watch for all the wrong reasons. Hatsumi (Miona Hori) is a shy teenager, romantically and sexually inexperienced, who seems to be easily manipulated by those around her. Early in the film she is asked by her more worldly-wise younger sister Akane to buy a pregnancy kit, drawing the distinction between the two girls. When her neighbour Ryoki (Hiroya Shimizu) finds the kit, he blackmails Hatsumi into being his slave. This is where things take a turn for the perverse and logic flies out the window. Ryoki is clearly interested in Hatsumi romantically, using this as a way to get close to her, however his behaviour is so inexplicable for someone who also appears to be socially awkward that it is hard to believe. It also creates an uncomfortable dynamic as Hatsumi is forced to obey him and we are left wondering why she doesn’t completely reject this or report him. Things don’t get much better when another of Hatsumi’s neighbours, Azusa (Mizuki Itagaki) turns his attention to her. Azusa is an old friend recently shot to stardom as an idol, and seems very interested in Azusa. However, after taking her to a party where he drugs her drink, we realise his intentions are not entirely pure. Azusa is rescued from the horrors of what could have followed by Shinogu (Shotaro Mamiya), her older brother. We later learn Shinogu is not biologically related and that he also has romantic intentions towards her. Later in the film Hatsumi is tricked into sending a nude video to Azusa, which he then proceeds to blackmail her with.

While ostensibly a romantic drama, the film contains so many uncomfortable moments, blackmail, revenge porn, suggestions of date rape, the quasi-incestuous nature of her relationship with Shinogu, it is hard to be charmed by any of the characters. Throughout, there is the sense that Hatsumi should choose one of these men, but they all behave so reprehensibly the sanest thing would be for her to get as far away as possible. The issues the film raises are all interesting starting points for a film about teenage life and worries, but it feels as though the filmmakers are unaware of the seriousness of what is happening. Incidents that would be the major plot point of any other film are passed over as though they were minor annoyances, or something that is a regular occurrence for teenagers. The ease with which Hatsumi forgets transgressions against her leaves a sour taste suggesting that women are essentially mindless pawns in a game played by despicable men. She is lacking in agency for the most part, either unaware or unconcerned by what happens to her.

Sadly the plot is far from the worst part of this movie. The editing is nauseating from the beginning. In the opening sequence we see fast cuts to still images of several characters, some we are yet to be introduced to. Throughout the camera will suddenly cut to random elements in a scene. There are some great shots, but again they are rushed, appearing for a second at a time before the camera gets distracted by something else. It is as if you are looking through the eyes of someone with a very short attention span, and little understanding of what is important at any moment. It is a shame, because without the rapid pace the cinematography would have been given time to shine, with Shibuya providing an excellent backdrop for the chaotic lives of the protagonists. In the second half the editing does calm down a little and we get some of the better scenes. The standout moments are in the dialogues between Hatsumi, Azusa and Ryoki. Miona Hori does a good job with the more emotional scenes when she finally confronts them. Hori is an idol singer and her performance is strong, but undermined by the script and characterisation of her as something of an airhead (but without the charm to compensate). Hiyori Sakurada who plays Akane is very good and has some of the most poignant moments in a side-story about her own relationship. The scene between Hatsumi and Ryoki seems as though there is too much dialogue crammed into one scene. It may be an adaptation issue, in attempting to condense the story for a short runtime, but the film is far from short, coming in at just under two hours. They could have largely cut Akane’s story and focussed on the rivalry between Azusa and Ryoki, which seems to be at the film’s heart.

Essentially the film is a coming-of-age story, with Hatsumi learning that she has the power to choose who she dates. What should have been an uplifting message is undercut by the subtext that she should allow herself to become whatever her partner wants. She is mocked as being stupid throughout and it doesn’t seem to bother her; the idea of being blackmailed and treated as a slave is almost shrugged off; likewise the attempted date-rape that she either forgets or forgives, and her older brother’s deceit. As well as being a terrible role-model for young women, the film also depicts its male characters as universally awful, aggressive, lustful and disingenuous. This poorly conceived film is severely lacking, distracting from any high-points with confused editing and worrying subtext.