Adrift in Tokyo (2007) by Satoshi Miki

Two men embark on a stroll around the capital in this easy-going comedy drama. Fumiya (Joe Odagiri) is deep in debt, having spent 8 years as a student. The man sent to collect on these debts, Fukuhara (Tomokazu Miura), comes to him with a bizarre proposition: if Fumiya will accompany him on a walk around the city he will hand him enough money to clear his debts. Fumiya later discovers that Fukuhara has killed his wife and intends to hand himself in at a particular police station; but wishes to spend his final days taking in sights that he used to enjoy with his wife. The two of them set out, meeting quirky characters and philosophizing about their lives, before Fumiya is recruited into a fake family consisting of Fukuhara, his fake-wife Makiko (Kyoko Koizumi) and her neice Fufumi (Yuriko Yoshitaka).

“Adrift in Tokyo”, based on the novel by Yoshinaga Fujita and directed by Satoshi Miki, takes you along on a meandering journey, its languid pace sustained by the odd-couple dynamic of Fumiya and Fukuhara, both men searching for something intangible on their perambulations. The comedy is similarly understated with the occasional flash of surrealism, such as the 66-year old cosplayer, or the psychedelic rocker Fumiya ends up tailing through the streets. In its loosely strung-together series of quirky moments and ideas the film captures the sense of tramping through a city as diverse as Tokyo. “Adrift in Tokyo” very much adheres to the mantra that it is the journey rather than the destination that is important, never fully reconciling certain ideas and offering little in the way of closure.

Fumiya repeatedly refers to the fact that he was abandoned by his parents and seems to find a surrogate father in Fukuhara. Fukuhara also seems to lack a sense of identity, instead hiring himself out to play a character in a fake family. As the two wander around they come across different aspects of the city, questing for a sense of self amongst the overwhelming variety of Tokyo. The bizarre characters they meet, glimpsed only briefly, offer a window into the myriad lives that are carrying on around each individual. It is perhaps hard for people to discover who they are while feeling part of such a vast whole.

Snakes and Earrings (2008) by Yukio Ninagawa

A young woman becomes fascinated by the idea of body modification after a chance encounter at a club. Lui (Yuriko Yoshitaka) meets Ama (Kengo Kora) at a nightclub and is immediately intrigued by his punk style, dyed hair, piercings, tattoos, but most of all his split tongue. He offers to take her to his friend Shiba (Arata Iura) who runs a tattoo and piercing parlour. Lui decides that she will get her tongue pierced, with the intention of achieving a split tongue (a painful process involving increasingly large tongue studs), and also a tattoo. On their first meeting, Shiba tells her that her innocent appearance turns him on as he is slightly sadistic. Lui says that she is masochistic and it is not long before the two are involved in a sexual affair that they keep secret from Ama. Things are further complicated when Ama beats up a gangster who harasses them in the street and Lui decides to protect him from the law.

Based on the novel by Hitomi Kanehara, with a screenplay by Takuya Miyawaki and director Yukio Ninagawa, “Snakes and Earrings” gives us a look at disaffected youth in Tokyo and the subculture of those who enjoy body modification. The plot takes a back seat to the emotional themes, that of a young woman trying to find some meaning in her life. Yuriko Yoshitaka’s Lui is a woman who seems completely numb to the world around her, distant from her parents and with few friends, lost in a sea of banal corporate culture. Kengo Kora’s Ama is easily the most sympathetic character, his rough punk appearance hiding a kind-hearted soul. Arata Iura’s mysterious Shiba appears as the agent of chaos between the two, seen largely in his denlike studio where he is the master of his domain. The small supporting cast features an appearance from Tatsuya Fujiwara as the yakuza, but the focus is on the three leads and their tortuous love triangle. The film’s guerrilla style filmmaking, shot on the streets of Shibuya help give the sense of a living world, pulling us in to the bustling city teeming with life. The majority of the story takes place in a limited number of sets, including the tattoo parlour and Ama’s apartment, which helps to keep the story focussed. There is not much of a plot, but the relationships between the three leads are intriguing and exciting enough, the sex scenes are not explicit but get across the power relationship and mix of brutality and sensualism in their lovemaking. The melancholic score of piano and strings resonates with this downbeat, nihilistic atmosphere.

“Snakes and Earrings” begins and ends with Lui in Shibuya, the camera whirling around to look at the various billboards and company logos, all the while in absolute silence. It is the perfect way to express her complete disillusionment with the world. This is a young woman who has completely checked out, nothing excites or motivates her. The sado-masochism and body piercing is the perfect metaphor for that desire to simply feel something, anything in the world, even if it is painful. The pain she experiences helps her to connect with people for the first time in a long time. We learn that she is not in contact with her family and her relationship with her friend seems superficial. Not all of the film is as easy to analyse as the central theme of finding a sense of self expression and fulfilment in a meaningless culture that strips us of our humanity. There are themes of sex and violence, as you may expect, but also ideas of death that are harder to reconcile with Lui’s story. It is a downbeat story with a compelling portrayal of someone who seems to have hit rock bottom attempting to feel something for the first time in a long time.

Noriko’s Dinner Table (2005) by Sion Sono

17-year old Noriko Shimabara (Kazue Fukiishi) lives at home with her father Tetsuzo (Ken Mitsuishi), her mother Taeko (Sanae Miyata), and her younger sister, Yuka (Yuriko Yoshitaka). Bored of life in their rural hometown of Tokoyama, Noriko leaves travels to Tokyo to meet another young woman she met online. This woman is Kumiko (Tsugumi), who runs a “family rental” business, where people who have lost loved ones can hire them to act as their family on a short or long term basis. Noriko is followed by her younger sister Yuka, both of them taking on aliases, Mitsuko and Yoko. After the death of his wife, their father, Tetsuzo, begins to investigate their whereabouts, at first believing this to be connected to the mysterious “Suicide Club” cult that is growing in notoriety following the mass suicide of a group of schoolgirls at Shinjuku Station.

Written and directed by Sion Sono, this film takes place in the same timeframe as his earlier film “Suicide Club”, and is linked tangentially through subtle nods and more explicit references. While there is some overlap in the themes of the two films, “Noriko’s Dinner Table” is vastly different in tone. The film is divided in to chapters, each giving a perspective of a different character, and there are long stretches of narration further heightening the novelistic style. This helps keep the film feeling fresh over a two and a half hour runtime, as we switch back and forth between different characters, their actions and thoughts. Tomoki Hasegawa again provides a score that is melodic and contemplative. At heart the film is a coming-of-age story, about a young woman striving for her freedom and a sense of individuality and personality. Kazue Fukishii gives an outstanding performance in role of Noriko, feeling trapped by her small home town and discovering her confidence in the persona of Mitsuko. Tsugumi’s Kumiko is a disturbing example of a woman entirely detached from those around her, lacking any human connection. Ken Mitsushi’s Tetsuzo has perhaps the most upsetting chapter (in a strong field), as a father who has lost both his daughters and his wife through his obliviousness to their needs and feelings. His work as a reporter is a cruel irony as he struggles to uncover the reason behind his children’s disappearances, apparently unaware of what is happening to his family.

“Noriko’s Dinner Table” is a film about finding your identity and learning how to relate to others, with the unusual “family rental” company being a great way to explore this. It allows for a discussion of family relations as a form of acting, or as something transactional. This alienation from the direct family, with characters only playing the part of daughters or wives, allows them to better understand what is required of them and also what their own desires are. As with “Suicide Club” there are a number of strong visual metaphors employed, such as the snapping off of a thread on a coat to symbolise a break from family control or a fresh start. Philosophical discussions about the importance of reciprocity in human relations, again abstracted to a discussion about “flowers” and vases”; about life as a circle; and about the imperfect nature of life; are handled well leaving enough nuance and subtlety for interpretation. This notion of life as an imperfect, ever changing, is what the film captures beautifully, by not attempting to give any moral message; but instead portraying a dysfunctional family and flawed characters, and asking the audience to consider human relationships in all their complexity. For all its bizarre moments and brief flashes of violence, “Noriko’s Dinner Table” is a relatable story of the timeless adolescent desire to strike out and make your own way in life, on the way discovering who you are and what is important to you.

Robo-G (2012)

When their robot falls out of a window a week before a major robotics exhibition, three hapless engineers need to find a way out of their dilemma. They decide to hire an elderly actor, Shigemitsu Suzuki (Mickey Curtis), to get inside the remaining shell of their creation and pretend that it is still functioning normally. The old man wows attendants at the robotics show with his displays of dexterity and lifelike movement, seemingly able to do anything, causing the three engineers to panic that their ruse will soon be uncovered.

This light-hearted family comedy has a great premise which is amusing enough to carry a sometimes weak script. There are moments of slapstick humour with most of the jokes deriving from the public’s ignorance of the old man inside the robot suit. Mickey Curtis, playing the elderly Suzuki, does a great job with the character, who is shown to be struggling with modern life and feeling a little abandoned by society. The three engineers (played by Gaku Hamada, Junya Kawashima and Kawai Shogo) also have some great moments. We also follow a young engineering student (Yuriko Yoshitaka) who is obsessed with the marvellous robot, and members of Suzuki’s family. I found that it was an entertaining film, very similar to others in the genre (director Shinobu Yaguchi’s other films include “Waterboys” and “Swing Girls”), with a fun story and central performances, although some of the sub-plots are only very briefly addressed with the film’s main focus being on the jokes.

Despite being a knockabout comedy, the film also involves an emotional heart in the portrayal of the elderly Suzuki. We see him largely ignored by people around him due to his advanced years, and when he gets inside the robot suit there is an interesting dynamic as he is beloved by everyone and highly entertaining, but nobody sees him. A fantastic reflection of society valuing youth over age, further highlighted with the advancement of robotic technologies making people partially obsolete. I would recommend this film as an easy watch with a few great comedic moments.