Hana and Alice (2004) by Shunji Iwai

Best friends Hana (Anne Suzuki) and Alice (Yu Aoi) begin to drift apart after starting high-school. Hana begins following an older boy they saw at the train station, later discovering he is a senior in her school Rakugo club. When the boy, Masashi (Tomohiro Kaku), bangs his head against a shutter door, Hana seizes the opportunity, telling him he’s lost his memory and that he recently confessed his love for her. Meanwhile, Alice is scouted by a talent agency and begins auditioning for parts in commercials. Hana’s dishonesty grows as she later tells Masashi that he used to date Alice too leading to a complicated love triangle between the three.

“Hana and Alice” is a beautiful depiction of teenage friendship, with incredible performances from the two leads. The chemistry of Anne Suzuki and Yu Aoi is enjoyable from beginning to end, with their believable quirks and clear affection for each other making them instantly likeable. What is a fairly straightforward love triangle is enlivened with the plot of Masashi being told he has lost his memory. The film follows a traditional high-school narrative, building to a school festival at the end, with romantic dates, friends falling out and making up, and a touching look at Alice’s somewhat chaotic home life with her mother. The script captures so many relatable moments, with the girls shivering in the cold waiting for a train, or gently ribbing one another over their appearance, and luxuriates in simply spending time with these two characters. Writer and director Shunji Iwai also created the charming score captures the youthful atmosphere and compliments the stunning cinematography by Noboru Shinoda which brings a magic to the everyday environments of the girl’s lives: school, parks, cafes and the seaside.

In Hana and Alice, Iwai creates two likeable protagonists with believable backstories. The characterization and performances are engaging and make you keen to spend time with them and find out what will happen along the way. Although a disservice to Tomohiro Kaku, who is great as Masahiro, his character serves simply to offer a mirror through which the two girls are able to reflect on their own feelings and relationship. The film’s central theme remains friendship and how this can be maintained when people’s lives and interests begin to diverge. Hana and Alice are shown as literally and figuratively in tune with one another at the beginning, even mirroring one another’s movements. The audience is fully invested in hoping that this friendship will not be destroyed. We learn a little of Alice’s backstory, and briefly about Hana, but the film manages to suggest so much more, propelling the story through character rather than plot. A fantastic high-school film that breaths fresh life into the traditional teenage girl drama.

Harmful Insect (2001) by Akihito Shiota

After her mother attempts suicide, schoolgirl Sachiko Kita (Aoi Miyazaki) begins skipping school, finding companionship with two homeless men in the neighbourhood. Her schoolfriend Natsuko (Yu Aoi) doesn’t give up on her, calling at her house every day before school. As well as her mother’s health, rumours also circulate concerning a relationship Sachiko had with her sixth-gradge teacher Mr. Ogata (Seichi Tanabe), with whom she remains in correspondence.

“Harmful Insect”, written by Yayoi Kiyono and directed by Akihiko Shiota, is a character-driven drama focussing on the peculiar circumstances of Sachiko’s life. The film is light on dialogue in a way that echoes Sachiko’s inability to express herself to those around her, including her mother and Natsuko. Most of her feelings are expressed in the letters to Ogata and his responses to her, but these are also often shrouded in metaphor. This lack of explicit answers leaves us desperate to learn more about the characters and attempting to piece together a cohesive picture from the hints we are given. The direction itself is a major key to solving many of the mysteries of Sachiko’s character, with often jarring cuts, the isolation of characters through framing, giving us an insight into how she perceives the world. Aoi Miyazaki’s Sachiko is a conflicted character, neither a traumatised youth nor a delinquent teen, her circumstances are troubling and yet she still has the fortitude to continue.

The film deals with several difficult themes, including suicide, sexual predators and rape, without moralising, instead providing an intresting character study that gives the audience time to consider what Sachiko is experiencing and how it might impact on her. Sachiko’s drawing books at random from a bookshelf; her letters to Ogata detailing dreams of a starless sky; her rebellious behaviour and her decisions to skip school and return, all provide subtle hints of a complex individual attempting to regain control in a life that has taken much of it from her.

Rurouni Kenshin 2: Kyoto Inferno (2014) by Keishi Otomo

The film opens with an atmospheric sequence in which we see police chief Hajime Saito (Yosuke Eguchi) tracking down the dangerous gang-boss Makoto Shishio (Tatsuya Fujiwara), a figure who was believed to have been killed at the battle of Toba-Fushimi, which brought about the new age of peace in Japan. This opening sequence establishes Shishio as a dangerous villain, intent on exacting revenge on the world. We pick up the story of Himura Kenshin (Takeru Sato), and his friends Sanosuke (Muneta Aoki), Kaoru (Emi Takei), Megumi (Yu Aoi) and others from the first film, when he is asked to travel to Kyoto to find Shishio and kill him. Kenshin reluctantly  agrees, setting up a series of thrilling encounters with Shishio’s gang.

With the same cast and director as the first Rurouni Kenshin film, this includes much of what made that film great. The action sequences are exciting, well-choreographed, both one-on-one duels and fights against larger numbers. The film introduces a few new characters, including Sojiro Seta (Ryunosuke Miura), who has one of the best fights in the film with Kenshin. The story has a darker tone than the first, with a much more intimidating villain. Shishio appears wrapped in bandages after being betrayed and burnt in his last battle, and is believed to be equal in strength, speed, and skill to the semi-legendary Kenshin himself. The imagery of fire and hell in the beginning is a fantastic introduction to this character and sets the scene for an epic showdown. The film does a reasonable job of distinguishing itself, although the basic elements remain unchanged. Once again the film benefits from Takuro Ishizaka’s incredible cinematography and an epic score by Naoki Sato.

A fine sequel to the first film, with everything that was enjoyable about it reproduced here. The film-makers succeed in upping the tension with a darker, more violent villain and some incredible action set-pieces. The film is the first part of a two-part story, meaning that the end of the film builds to a climax that doesn’t arrive. However, it does an great job of setting up that confrontation for the next film.

Rurouni Kenshin (2012) by Keishi Otomo

A new age is dawning in Japan, one of peace following the bloody struggles of rival samurai. After the last battle of a long war, legendary swordsman Battosai (Takeru Sato) determines never to kill again, leaving his blade on the battlefield. 10 years later Japan is a very different country, narcotics are pouring in and wealthy businessman Kanryu Takeda (Teruyuki Kagawa) is taking full advantage of this, building an opium empire that he intends to spread around the globe. Himura Kenshin, formerly known as Battosai, is living peacefully in this new world when events force him to fight. He is met on his adventures by a fellow former samurai (Yosuke Eguchi), now chief of police, a dark figure who stole his sword named Jin-e Udo (Koji Kikawa), and several friends and allies, including a young woman Kaoru Kamiya (Emi Takei) who runs a dojo, Megumi Takani (Yu Aoi), on the run from Takeda, and a street fighter, Sanosuke Sagara (Muneta Aoki). Kenshin must struggle to protect his friends from Udo without resorting to killing, which he has forsworn, and defeat the corrupt businessman Takeda who rules this new order.

“Rurouni Kenshin” is based on a popular manga, and does a fantastic job of bringing the story to the screen with a blend of serious action and colourful characters. The villain of the piece is an over-the-top caricature of a corrupt, wealthy drug baron, showering people with money to get what he wants, and with a monomaniacal sociopathic scheme of world domination through drug trafficking. There are several other characters who are larger than life, such as Sanosuke, who wields an improbably huge sword. But the joy of the film is that all the characters and scenes are played straight, with even the more outrageous moments taken seriously. The quieter moments between Kenshin and his friends help build empathy before the action begins, and the characters, although not particularly deep, are all given convincing motivations. The choreography of the swordplay is particularly impressive, giving a sense of elegance and brutality at the same time. Keishi Otomo directs the action in such a way to make the movement clear and easy to follow, allowing you to appreciate the skill of the actors. Naoki Sato’s incredible score creates several distinct tones that work well together. Examples include the use of a limping, comic theme for the main villain, which is juxtaposed against the more sombre music when Kenshin is recalling his past as an assassin. Takeru Sato’s Kenshin is a likeable lead, and something of an enigma in the movie. Although we first see him carving a bloody path through a battlefield, he appears as a kind-hearted, even naive, soul throughout most of the film, except when he is pushed to show his prowess with a katana. His sword, the “back-blade” (with the cutting edge on the side facing him) is a nice touch, representing his desire not to kill, and makes him even more of a hero.

A thrilling action epic with a timeless story and enjoyable characters. Kenshin is an excellent conflicted protagonist, with a dark past and a vow to not kill balanced against his supreme skills as a swordsman. “Rurouni Kenshin” is a film about the value of peace, and turning away from death and slaughter, and also about the power of friendship.

From Miyamoto to You (2019) by Tetsuya Mariko

Hiroshi Miyamoto (Sosuke Ikematsu) falls in love with Yasuko Nakano (Yu Aoi) at first sight. Compassionate and caring to a fault, Miyamoto is even undeterred by Yasuko’s former boyfriend barging into her apartment while he is there. Their relationship soon hits rocky waters however when Yasuko is raped by the son of Miyamoto’s boss, Takuma (Wataru Ichinose), a tough rugby player whose charisma earns him an invite to sleep over at Miyamoto and Yasuko’s apartment following a drinking session. Following the attack, Miyamoto decides to go all out to hunt down Takuma and punish him, but finds it difficult given his physical weakness. This frustration at his inability to protect Yasuko and harm Takuma sends him spiralling into a rage for revenge. Things are further complicated when Yasuko discovers that she is pregnant.

Director Tetsuya Mariko (Destruction Babies) continues his fascination with male violence in this adaptation from the manga by Hideki Arai. The film is achronological in structure, beginning with a sequence showing Miyamoto bloodied from a fight and apologising to his boss for a recent fracas. We then see Yasuko, who is pregnant, and Miyamoto at their soon-to-be parent’s in laws, explaining that they are to be married. It makes for a bold opening, raising questions about what Miyamoto was fighting for, how this couple, who may have secrets they are keeping from their parents met, and exactly what is going on. Sosuke Ikematsu and Yu Aoi are excellent in the lead roles, able to shift in an instant from cosy, likeable couple, to screaming fury or howling grief. It is a change that is required as the sucker punch that comes in the form of Takuma, played perfectly with charmingly concealed malice by Wataru Ichinose, shifts the film from a simple drama into something more akin to a theatrical tragedy. From the realism of these early conversations we are suddenly given their souls laid bare, the pain and suffering evident in their faces, tears streaming, snot flying, beet-red contorted physiognomies leaving nothing to be expressed. The latter half of the film sees Miyamoto on what might be described as a legendary quest to slay the monster who has perpetrated this evil on his princess. He sets out with grim determination, the low chance of success driving him to increasing anger. “From Miyamoto to You” is a film that plays with expectations in more ways than one, with the structure offering us a puzzle to piece together once all the evidence is gathered, and a strange concatenation of tonally divergent moments. This is evidenced early on with the appearance of Yasuko’s former lover, which is at once alarming, suggestions of infidelity and perhaps domestic abuse, and amusing, with his unhinged rambling and bizarre behaviour. Later in the film we are given an even starker example in the fight between Miyamoto and Takuma, which runs the gamut from horror to slapstick and back as they trade blows.

The framing of Miyamoto is incredible, with Mariko showing a flair for staging the actors for maximum impact. The contemplative moments, with individual characters or couples framed by the environs of their apartments, are captured with a clever use of camera and minimal movement; while the latter explosive emotional outbursts are captured with an eager and energetic camera that pulls us into the action.

“Miyamoto” is a film about male potency and how men see themselves, both personally and in terms of their relationships. The rape in the film is truly shocking and unexpected and the uncomfortable feeling of being violated remains with the audience throughout. In the past films have dealt with the consequences of rape for the victims, but here the focus is on the partner of the victim and how he comes to terms with both what has happened and his inability to prevent it. The film deals with primal fears and emotions, with the protagonist battling his own inadequacy along with the injustice that has been perpetrated. The fantastic performances by Ikematsu and Aoi as this loving couple who are torn apart by tragedy help to draw us into a narrative that offers a glimpse of humanity at its most brutal and atavistic. Despite the violence, the film nevertheless has moments of hope, with Miyamoto’s quixotic quest bringing out his best qualities as well as his worst.