Romance Doll (2020) by Yuki Tanada

Art graduate Tetsuo (Issei Takahashi) turns up at a warehouse on the recommendation of a friend. He soon discovers the job he has been set-up with is designing and manufacturing sex dolls along with senior designer Kinji (Kitaro), nicknamed Kin-Kin. He sets about his task diligently, but his first creation is deemed inadequate by their boss as it is too unrealistic. Kinji comes up with a plan: they will advertise for a female breast model by pretending that they are making prostheses for medical use. When Sonoko (Yu Aoi) turns up to model, Tetsuo falls in love with her and the two are soon married. Tetsuo finds he is unable to tell her about his real profession and Sonoko has a difficult secret of her own to share with him.

Writer and director Yuki Tanada has worked on a number of romantic comedy films and her familiarity with the genre shines through in this well-balanced relationship drama. “Romance Doll” is paced perfectly and uses gentle humour to introduce the characters. It eschews crude gags but the early scenes as Tetsuo is introduced to his new job are entertaining in the casual way they treat the subject matter of love dolls and the respect Kin-Kin has for his work, seeing his role as something akin to a sculptor of great art. The relationship between Tetsuo and Sonoko is tender and relatable, both uneasy at first and likeable but not without their flaws. Issei Takahashi as Tetsuo begins as an archetypical awkward young singleton, but develops into a more rounded character through his relationship with Sonoko. Yu Aoi (who also featured in Tanada’s “One Million Yen Girl”) delivers an incredible performance, hugely charismatic and  capturing both the strength and fragility of the character. The supporting cast all do an excellent job, but the film keeps a firm focus on the two leads. The direction is great throughout, with excellent use of framing and blocking, particularly in the scenes between Tetsuo and Sonoko. The dinner table is almost transformed into an interrogation room as their relationship hits several bumps in the road. There are also carefully considered cutaways that say a lot very succinctly. One such example is the still shot of two coffee cups, still part full, resting on the table following an argument, that perfectly encapsulates a sense of things left unsaid and the comfortable fantasy of the perfect relationship being brought to a sudden halt.

In many ways a straightforward tragic-romance plot, the inclusion of Tetsuo’s peculiar line of work helps give the film a quite unique feel. Alongside themes of relationship troubles, honesty and questions of fidelity, there is also an important idea brought to the fore. That of the distinction and relationship between sex and love. The film rarely sexualises Tetsuo’s work and the dolls are only ever seen as objects, quite distinct from Sonoko who displays a warmth and tenderness. As the title suggests, the idea of a “love doll” (as they are called in the film), or more accurately a “sex doll” would be quite distinct from a “Romance Doll”, which suggests a deeper connection and one that is born of struggle and genuine understanding for another person. The film is well made and brings out incredible performances from the two leads. It’s gentle blend of humour, romantic drama, and philosophizing on the nature of love make it a hugely enjoyable watch.

Rainbow Song (2006) by Naoto Kumazawa

Tomoya Kishida (Hayato Ichihara) is working as a runner for a production company, currently recording a pop music video. He is an awkward young man, constantly talked down to by his superiors and seemingly unable to do anything correctly, although he is likeable and keen to please. He sends a text to an old friend, Aoi Sato (Juri Ueno), who he has not seen in a number of years after she moved to America. Kishida is later upset to learn from a news report that Aoi has died in a plane crash. He attends the funeral with his boss Higuchi, meeting her parents and her sister Kana (Yu Aoi) who is blind. On the drive home, as Holst plays on the car radio, Kishida thinks back to his time with Aoi. The film is told in a chaptered style, beginning at the end and slowly working back around to the beginning. We see Kishida’s initial meeting with Aoi, when he was chasing another girl whom she worked with. Due to his persistence, they eventually form an uneasy friendship. Aoi, a budding director, decides to cast him in her first amateur film “The End of the World”. Their relationship develops slowly and it is clear that they both have feelings for one another, but Kishida lacks the confidence to tell her how he feels.

“Rainbow Song” is an interesting twist on the traditional relationship drama, since we already know from the beginning what happens to Aoi, and that Kishida and Aoi did not end up together. This is to the film’s advantage as it takes the focus off the usual will-they-won’t-they hook and allows for a much more nuanced and poignant examination of their relationship. While it largely steers clear of cliché, the film knows exactly how to pull at the audiences heartstrings, with a piano and string score by Hiroaki Yamashita that swells at all the right moments. The film also uses Holst’s “Venus” and “Jupiter” a lot, pieces that have significance later on as the soundtrack to Aoi’s film. The music is occasionally a little overpowering in moments that could have relied solely on the performances of the two lead actors.

Kishida is a believably nuanced character, shy, sincere, funny, unambitious, honest. Hayato Ichihara is perfectly cast, humorous and charming in his confused interactions with women, either hitting on someone who is already taken, or failing to notice Aoi’s developing feelings towards him. Juri Ueno also shines in her role as we see her transform from annoyance at his behaviour to acceptance and later affection at his quirks. The script offers many fantastic moments with the pair and they have a good chemistry together. Surprisingly, given the tragic events that open the film there are a few very funny scenes. One of the best moments is Kishida’s ill-fated experience at a speed dating event he is taken to by Aoi. Again, the brilliance of the premise is that even in the moments of romance or humour there is always the dark cloud of the inevitable tragedy lingering over everything.

The staging of “Rainbow Song” is noteworthy as it often drives the narrative forward. The positioning of characters in relation to each other and  their surroundings tells the story just as much as the dialogue and acting. The cinematography also provides some beautiful moments, such as when the two leads are standing by a puddle that reflects a rainbow. It is a simple shot, perhaps a little melodramatic, but the subtlety of the rest of the film allows it a pass on moments such as this. The film is perhaps a little drawn out, although the chaptering helps in breaking the story up into smaller, sometimes self-contained, stretches. The film was written by Shunji Iwai (under a pseudonym), along with Ami Sakurai and Miyuki Sato and both dialogue and plot are carefully constructed with a sense of realism to everything that happens.

Early on the theme of fate is established and the film itself plays on this through its plot structure. In knowing what will happen and witnessing the events with that knowledge, the audience is put in the unusual position of seeing things with the benefit of hindsight that the characters do not have. Kishida is criticised by his boss for not being able to alter the weather for the following day’s shoot, to which he replies that that would be impossible. His boss then retorts that he should at least look worried about it. This notion that there a things that will happen that we cannot change, that in fact we can only change our feelings about them is a powerful notion. Tragic events do occur and we can only look at them and decide how we feel about them. In the same way, Kishida cannot relive his time with Aoi, only look back on it with either love or regret. The second major message of the film is that of utilising your limited time wisely and taking advantage of every opportunity. There are several moments where Kishida has the chance to begin a serious relationship with Aoi, but always seems to back out. In contrast, when given the chance to move to America, Aoi takes it. They reflect each other in this regard, one hesitant and one bold enough to take their opportunities. The tragedy is that Kishida is doomed to miss his chance for true happiness, and that Aoi is doomed to take hers. The dualistic and contradictory nature of fate and free will is threaded throughout this story though never stated quite so boldly.

“Rainbow Song” is a subtle, nuanced look at relationships, that builds to a surprisingly devastating finale as we are taken through Kishida’s emotional recollections of the time he spent with Aoi and his series of missed chances. Worth a watch as a unique take on tragi-romantic drama.

Killing (2018)

Mokunoshin Tsuzuki (Sosuke Ikematsu) is a samurai boarding in a village of rural farmers. He has a relationship with one of the women in the village, Yu (Yu Aoi), and spars with her brother Ichisuke (Ryusei Maeda) daily. Their peaceful existence is interrupted by the appearance of another samurai, Jirozaemon Sawamura (Shinya Tsukamoto), whom they witness defeating another man in a duel. Sawamura conscripts the Mokunoshin and Ichisuke to join him on a trip to Edo and Kyoto, which they agree with, Mokunoshin reluctantly and Ichisuke happily. Sadly, their plans are disrupted by the appearance of a group of ronin whom the villagers fear are there to rob them. Events soon turn violent and Tsuzuki is caught up in a world of death that he had avoided until then.

Written and directed by Shinya Tsukamoto, “Killing” is on the surface a simple samurai story, though with a dark subtext. The sets and costume design are perfectly evocative of the period and the score by Chu Ishikawa compliments the action perfectly with drums and traditional instrumentation. Where the film strays from the well-trodden path of other samurai dramas is in its arthouse aesthetic. The story is pared back to its essentials, that is to say it is about the taking of life and what this means for the person who does it. The sword-fighting and sparring sequences are well-choreographed and have a fluidity and intensity that makes them a joy to watch. When real swords are used, the film does not shy away from blood spatter and some wince-inducing injuries. There is also humour, often darkly comic, employed to great effect. Tsukamoto is a director with a unique style and will often use a conventional idea in an unusual way. One example is in a scene between Tsuzuki and Yu, that is both tender and erotic without being explicit. It also, as with many other scenes, manages to capture wordlessly yet perfectly exactly what the relationship is between the characters. Dialogue is often sparse with the performances speaking for themselves and the cast do an excellent job with their roles. Ikematsu is brooding and troubled with the path he is set on; Yu Aoi is a tough foil for him, the emotional mirror to the seemingly cold samurai characters. Tsukamoto himself is suitably intimidating as the deadly swordsman, almost personifying death itself. Certain stylistic flourishes, such as darkening the camera, are used sparingly but to great effect throughout. The film’s simplicity may not appeal to everyone, but it allows the themes room to breathe and allows the audience to experience the emotional turmoil of the characters without the need to follow excessive characters or subplots.

As the title suggests, this is a film about killing. Tsuzuki is a man who shies away from violence. His life in the village, despite daily training, is an easy one and he appears comfortable. Sawamura’s appearance is almost like a dark spirit descending on the villagers. The notion of a spirit becomes more apparent at the very end of the film as an unseen force seems to be drifting through the forest searching for its next victim. Sawamura tells Tsuzuki that to not use his sword makes it meaningless. He exists to kill. In this way Sawamura represents the very evil of murder itself, appearing in this rural idyll and setting of a catastrophic chain of events. “Killing” also discusses the theme of revenge, whether it is ever justified and whether a cycle of revenge can ever be broken. ‘Kill or be killed’ is an oft used phrase, but this film exposes the horror of the sentiment in recognizing that there is no good option. Of course, most would consider killing to be preferable, but that leads to a loss of self that is almost as devastating as being killed. “Killing” examines this moral conundrum in a way that leaves a lasting impression, building to a darkly satisfying climax. The film is a philosophical take on the popular samurai genre that dissects what it means to kill and whether killing strips us of our humanity.