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.

Turtles are Surprisingly Fast Swimmers (2005) by Satoshi Miki

A bored housewife discovers a second life as a spy in this quirky comedy. Suzume Katakura (Juri Ueno) lives a mundane and monotonous life, consisting mainly of chores and looking after a pet turtle Taro. Her husband, working abroad, calls her only to check how the turtle is doing. Her friend “Peacock” (Yu Aoi) is everything Suzume is not, outgoing and energetic, with dreams of moving to France. One day, by chance, Suzume spots a thumbnail size sticker notice with a contact number for somebody looking to recruit a spy. She soon meets with Shizuo (Ryo Iwamatsu) and Etsuko (Eri Fuse), an unusual couple who, without question, give her 50,000 yen ‘living expenses’ and invite her to join their group of undercover agents working for a foreign government. They tell her that she is to be a ‘sleeper’ agent, and must remain inconspicuous, tasking her with various odd missions and giving her questionable advice and tips on spying. Suzume continues her life with newfound purpose, while the other residents in the town seem to be doing the same, waiting for the day that they will be called to action.

Satoshi Miki’s film find comedy in the juxtaposition of the humdrum life of its protagonist suddenly plunged into the thrilling world of espionage. The story unfolds as a series of comic scenes, often intercut with flights of fancy or flashbacks, and it is hard to discern much of a plot until the film is almost over. The humour is broad with surrealist non-sequiturs, sight gags and cringeworthy wordplay jokes. Juri Ueno gives a great central performance, expressive and relatable in her confusion about what is happening around her. Eri Fuse and Ryo Iwamatsu are perfect in their roles as unlikely spies, with their bizarre conversations and behaviours making for some of the funniest scenes. The rest of the cast, some with only a little to do, play their parts well, delivering deadpan absurdism.

“Turtles are Surprisingly Fast Swimmers” is a film about seeing the world from a different perspective. Suzume’s life is unbearably drab until she is essentially given a licence to reassess her surroundings and the other inhabitants of this small town. In another sense it is a story of self-discovery, with a message that the world is what you make of it. The social norms that can inhibit self-expression and stifle creativity and enjoyment are carefully ridiculed here, as we see Suzume carrying out tasks such as cleaning and shopping under the guise of being a sleeper agent, enlivening an otherwise dull existence. The idea being that you cannot change your duties, but you can change how you approach them. The one thing you have control over is how you interact with the world and how you choose to see things. The film also satirises the conformism of society summed up in the expression “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down”, with various secret agents striving to be absolutely average and unremarkable in every regard to maintain their cover. A whimsical farce with a great cast of comic actors, the film’s inoffensive humour and relaxed tone make it an enjoyable watch.

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.