Movie Review – Birds Without Names

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EXPECTATIONS: A compelling dramatic mystery filled with grit. And also, YU AOI!!!!!!!!

REVIEW: Director Kazuya Shiraishi is a filmmaker that has gone of a bit a rise these past few years. Since his breakout hit with the 2013 crime drama The Devil’s Path, from 2016, he’s made five films and they have all revolved or worked alongside on one specific type of genre: the crime film.

Whether he makes a comedy like Twisted Justice, or an erotic drama like Dawn of the Felines, or in the case of this review, a romantic drama, Shiraishi is bound to add a certain amount of grit to make his work stand out.

And now we have Birds Without Names, a romantic drama that revolves around a murder mystery based on a novel by Mahokaru Numata, with a fantastic cast and actress extraordinaire Yu Aoi in the lead role. Will the film stand out and become another stellar entry into Shiraishi’s filmography?

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Yu Aoi stars as the 33-year-old Towako, a woman who has been scrounging off room and board off her live-in-boyfriend, Jinji (Sadao Abe). Jinji is a timid 48-year-old construction worker who keeps Towako fed and clothed while basically not being the boyfriend of the year due to his lack of cleanliness and at one point in the film, his lack of finesse on how to use the toilet.

Towako doesn’t give really care about Jinji, to the point where she verbally abuses him repeatedly. Nevertheless, she needs him to survive. Jinji is submissive and endures the humiliation to keep Towako, while Towako still pines for her ex-lover Shunichi (Yutaka Takenouchi), who broke up with her 8 years ago in a monstrously ugly fashion.

Towako has a weakness for sophisticated looking men, and when Jinji is not around, she sneaks off to love hotels with her current lover, Makoto (Tori Matsuzaka), a married man, who is of course in a designer suit. All of these relationships will coalesce when it is reported to Towako that Shunichi has gone missing.

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Does the film live up to Shiraishi’s stellar filmography? Not only does it accomplish that feat, it might actually be his best film yet. Birds Without Names is based on a novel of the same name by Mahokaru Numata, the famous female author who specializes in crime stories that feature manipulative men, brutal women and complicated relationships; basically the dark side of human nature.

Which makes it the perfect source material for Shiraishi to adapt and expand his directorial range. To manage a story like this, a good director would apply an understated approach to the storytelling and thankfully, Shiraishi is up to the task. Learning from his mistakes with his heavy-handed storytelling in The Devil’s Path, he manages to tell the story at a measured pace which effectively brings out a gradual sense of tension; by ably showing reliance on visual storytelling (for the most part) that compels and most of all, being able to milk great performances out of the committed cast.

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Yu Aoi gives one of the best performances of her career as Towako, a depressed and gradually unstable woman who has not moved on from her past boyfriend, who had treated her monstrously. She never tries to make her character sympathetic and delves into the poisonous flaws of her character with aplomb. There’s a point in the film where she really looks like she is about to burst with emotions and it’s a wonder to behold.

Sadao Abe is equally as good, playing a character who’s hangdog behaviour and naivety make him become the glue of the film that holds it together. He may be the most sympathetic character by default, but he also does irredeemable actions that make him flawed, just like Towako. The supporting cast are no slouches, with Yutaka Takenouchi lending credibility and nuance to an incredibly despicable character and Tori Matsuzaka who capably shows shades of his character being more than what his facade conveys.

As for the flaws, there is a through-line of casual misogyny that will definitely put off some viewers. Especially in the case of Towako’s behaviour, where she basically allows the bad behaviour of the male characters to happen and even gets in on it to harm other women i.e. Shunichi’s wife.

But there is the ending to consider, which is quite touching and compelling to the point where it will make audiences re-evaluate what they thought of the characters prior to the climax.

Overall, Birds Without Names is a great piece of work from Kazuya Shiraishi, that not only succeeds as a great romantic drama but as an actors showcase for all involved, especially Yu Aoi.

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Quickie Review

PROS

The cast all give fantastic performances, with a career-best from Yu Aoi

Measured, nuanced storytelling

Never shies away nor pulls any punches from the dark nature of the story

CONS

Moments of misogyny

Polarizing ending

SCORE: 8/10

Cast: Yu Aoi, Sadao Abe, Tori Matsuzaka, Yutaka Takenouchi, Eri Murakawa, Masaaki Akahori, Muck Akazawa, Shu Nakajima
Director: Kazuya Shiraishi
Screenwriters: Taeko Asano, based on the novel of the same name by Mahokaru Numata

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Movie Review – Japanese Girls Never Die (NYAFF 2017)

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EXPECTATIONS: A fun, anarchic story about obsession and media scrutiny. And of course, YU AOI!

REVIEW: For those who have read my reviews, it is well known that I am a huge fan of Japanese actress Yu Aoi. Ever since I saw her in Hana and Alice (which was my first Japanese film I ever saw), I have been a huge fan of her work; particularly with how soulful and precise her performances are, without any reliance on overacting or histrionics.

But funnily enough, she was just one selling point of this film. Another selling point were the themes of sexual discrimination and misogyny and how it is explored and defined in present-day Japan. Some of my favourite or memorable films of recent years happen to be films set in Japan and were about the same themes i.e. Pun Homchuen & Onusa Donsawai’s Grace and Sion Sono’s Tag and Anti-Porno.

So when I heard about the film, Japanese Girls Never Die, was going to have both Yu Aoi and the same thematic material as the films mentioned earlier, it was just too exciting to pass up. So does the film live up to my expectations? Or will it just end up being in a dark alley, beaten to a bloody pulp?

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The film starts off with a bunch of misfits causing havoc by spray painting stencils of a missing posters. The film also features a gang of high school girls who are infamous for beating up men with baseball bats (A Clockwork Pink? Okay, I’ll stop.). The face on the missing poster is 27-year old Haruko Azumi (Yu Aoi), an office worker who is unhappy at work, at home, and with her unrequited yearning for her childhood pal turned neighbour (Huey Ishizaki), who just happens to be beaten up by the same gang of girls.

A typical day of Haruko is filled with misogynistic and perverted male bosses making inappropriate comments about the age, appearance and relationship status of their female employees, all while trying to hire another female employee. By night, she navigates the stresses of living with her family of three generations, with her stressed mother and her aging grandmother.

We also have 20-year old Aina (Mitsuki Takahata), a spirited and bubbly girl who thrives on fun and excitement. She thinks she has found it in a form of a potential boyfriend, Yukio (Taiga) and the two apparently hit it off. But Yukio has other ideas with Aina, but on the side, he starts off a grafitti team with his friend, the shy Manabu (Shono Hayama) and starts tagging the city. As Aina spots the two, she joins in and they all get inspired by a missing poster that happens to feature Haruko, and a viral sensation is born.

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So basically there are two stories going on and the film is played out in a non-linear fashion, which admittedly  takes quite a bit to get used to the storytelling technique. But when you consider the unbelievable sides (including fantasy and wish-fulfillment plots)  and realistic sides of the story (loneliness, ennui and sexual discrimination) are blurred together, it actually becomes very effective, as it conveys the themes of the story in an entertaining and distinct manner.

And we got through a lot of themes here. Whether its office politics, family dynamics, portrayals of art, gender politics, Japanese pop culture, capitalism and many more, the film is absolutely jam-packed with ideas, with surprising replay value.

A lot of the credit goes to cinematographer Hiroki Shioya and editor Satoko Ohara, whom give the film a distinct look and feel, which applies to all three acts (and stories), leaving them easy to discern.

Even the use of pop culture, which director Matsui uses a lot in his prior films like Wonderful World End, (which is completely evident of perpetuating sexual objectification) is used in a satirical and metaphorical fashion.

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Even with all of the hard work going on display from behind-the-scenes, the film also packs an amazing performance from Yu Aoi. Showing subtlety, restraint and even a certain sense of cool whilst hinting a sense of anger, resentment and hostility, Aoi totally inhabits the character to the point that her screentime has a larger impact than expected. And yes, even with the expected posters and grafitti plastered throughout the film.

Mitsuki Takahata, whom I last saw in Jossy’s, is bubbly and energetic as Aina, and although she might seem a bit petulant at first, she provides a fine contrast to Aoi’s performance, as the two make it easier to see both generations shown offsetting each other very well.

The supporting cast are all good, with the men (including Taiga, Shono Hayama and Huey Ishizaki) giving relatable, yet pathetic performances, while the women (including Akiko Kikuchi and Maho Yamada) make the most out their small roles. Particularly Yamada, who has some of the best and incisive lines of the film.

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As for its flaws, not all of the ideas in the film are explored equally due to there being so many; the storytelling can be a bit off-putting in its intent in its non-linear fashion and the ending is a bit overdone, although it features a great animated cut-scene by Ryo Hirano.

But the message is loud and clear and Japanese Girls Never Die delivers that message in an exuberant, vibrant and even slightly poignant fashion. And with Yu Aoi as the face (and the heart) of its message, the film will linger in one’s mind for quite a while.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic performance from Yu Aoi

Good supporting cast

Exuberant direction, vibrant cinematography and precise editing

Much thoroughly explored thematic material to mull through

CONS

Overworked ending

Polarizing storytelling

Not all ideas are explored equally

SCORE: 8/10

Cast: Yu Aoi, Mitsuki Takahata, Taiga, Shono Hayama, Huwie Ishizaki, Ryo Kase, Akiko Kikuchi, Maho Yamada, Motoki Ochiai, Serina
Director: Daigo Matsui
Screenwriters: Misaki Setoyama, based on the novel “Azumi Haruko wa yukue fumei” by Mariko Yamauchi

Movie Review – Under the Fence (San Diego Asian Film Festival 2016)

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EXPECTATIONS: Something pleasant and worthwhile from director Nobuhiro Yamashita. Plus YU AOI!!

REVIEW: Director Nobuhiro Yamashita is a director whose work I have followed recently and all of his work that I have seen so far, I have enjoyed. La La La at Rock Bottom was a fantastic comedy/drama with two stellar lead performances (FUMI NIKAIDO!!), while Linda Linda Linda is a favourite of mine, with its realistic portrayal of high school life, lovable performances, its understated humour and a rocking soundtrack.

So when I heard that Yamashita was making a film that had Joe Odagiri and Yu Aoi as the leads, I was psyched beyond belief. So does Over the Fence reach…over the fence?

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Yoshio Shiraiwa (Joe Odagiri) is dumped by his wife (Yuka) and goes back to his hometown of Hakodate. With nowhere to go in life, he attends at a vocational school, learning carpentry for unemployment benefits. At the vocational school, he meets Kazuhisa (Shota Matsuda) and the two become friends.

One day, Kazuhisa takes him to a nightclub for a business proposal and a night on the town. There, Yoshio meets a hostess, Satoshi (Yu Aoi). Endearingly spirited as well as having a strange affinity for the behaviour of animals, Yoshio gradually becomes attracted to her and the two start a relationship. But with complications like troubled pasts and troublesome events at the school, will Yoshio and Satoshi get together in the end?

From the looks of the synopsis, director Nobuhiro Yamashita is back to what he does best, which is portraying the life of the lower-class like in films like The Drudgery Train and Ramblers. But in the case of Over the Fence, the story is a bit more downbeat and depressing, in terms of its themes. That is most likely due to the source material by Yasushi Sato, who also wrote the source material for The Light Shines Only There.

But unlike that film, Yamashita executes the storytelling with an understated, yet assured touch. The revelations, dramatic beats, the lack of a musical score all point out that the film is aiming for more of a realistic yet contemplative vibe, rather than a melodramatic vibe. Not only does it make the storytelling more immersive, but it also gives the drama a much-needed punch when the conflicts arise.

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The actors inhabit their roles really well and adapt their performances with the understated storytelling really well. Joe Odagiri has been playing these type of laid-back characters for years to the point that he could do it in his sleep. In Over the Fence, he does it again, but he still does it well and he makes it easy to believe that his character is a slacker.

As for Yu Aoi, her character is a much more complex role that could have been borderline irritating, but she nails it. Not only does she make her character believable and sympathetic, her star-quality charisma makes her character immensely likable. Her impressions of animal behaviour deliver belly-laughs. Odagiri and Aoi have an endearing chemistry and Yamashita brings out the best out of them in terms of dramatic intensity. With Aoi, it comes to no surprise but for Odagiri, it’s nice to see him being pushed in terms of his acting chops.

The supporting cast all do great with their roles as well, even adding life to their minimal screen-time. Shinnosuke Mitsushima is quietly intense as bullying victim, Mori, while Shota Matsuda does well as the lothario/salesman, Daishima. Yuka makes a big impression as Yoshio’s ex-wife, in her minimal screen-time, conveying the pain of her character convincingly.

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Despite the potentially depressing storyline, director Yamashita still has time to fit in his whimsical humour that made his past films enjoyable. Besides the animal impressions that Aoi does, there are some scenes of absurdity like how a child is left on a theme park ride during an argument between the two leads that are quite amusing.

As for flaws, there was a lack of development of Satoshi’s backstory that could’ve been up to par with Yoshio’s backstory and the pacing could have been tightened up a bit, but it is understandable that the story is told this way, seeing that it involves characters slacking through life and its supposedly boring minutiae that people go through. Fortunately, the film ends in a satisfying way that made the film worthwhile.

Over the Fence is another quality hit for director Nobuhiro Yamashita, with great performances from Joe Odagiri and Yu Aoi, assured direction from Yamashita, a committed supporting cast and an effective balance of realism and the trademark Yamashita humour. Yu Aoi’s impressions of animals is worth the price of admission.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Great leading performances

Subtle, understated direction gives revelations a punch

Sprinkled, whimsical humour offsets the potentially grim story

CONS

Inconsistent backstories

Lack of action within the plot

SCORE: 8/10

Cast: Joe Odagiri, Yu Aoi, Shota Matsuda, Yukiya Kitamura, Shinnosuke Mitsushima, Takumi Matsuzawa, Tsunekichi Suzuki, Yuka
Director: Nobuhiro Yamashita
Screenwriters: Ryo Takada; based on the novel by Yasushi Sato

Film-momatic Flashback – Hana & Alice

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EXPECTATIONS: I had none whatsoever.

REVIEW: I knew this review had to be written sooner or later. To clarify this statement into detail, this is the very first live-action Japanese film that I witnessed without intent. It was a time when I was in high school and I was basically discovering who I am and after a long day of school, I was watching afternoon television; obviously the perfect time for top A-grade programming. Skimming through channels, I switch to SBS and I see two schoolgirls walking in an early cloudy morning. Sounds uneventful and boring but what really captured me was the cinematography and how clean it was. Little did I know, it was a Japanese film, especially when the title of the film was shown in English. Ever since, I was hooked and I have never looked back. Until now. Hana and Alice is definitely a Shunji Iwai film through and through. But is it worth a viewing for the uninitiated or will be a long-trudging slog?

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Anne Suzuki and Yu Aoi star as the titular characters; junior high school classmates, ballet students and they are the best of friends. Hana is the closed book who conforms with others like a passenger while Alice is the free spirit who acts on her impulses. On one morning, Alice leads Hana on a trip to a strange train station, where they begin to spy on a tall foreign man and someone they presume to be his Japanese younger brother. While an incredibly random conversation about Hannibal Lecter abruptly and amusingly ends Alice’s schoolgirl crush, Hana serendipitously encounters the young Japanese man, named Miyamoto (Tomohiro Kaku), again when she joins the Japanese comedy club in high school. Instantly taking a liking to Miyamoto, she begins to follow him after school when he accidentally hits his head against a metal gate. Hana immediately seizes the opportunity and tells Miyamoto that he has not only suffered amnesia, but also that he is dating her.

Miyamoto plays along with despite his skepticism, until he discovers the pictures Hana took months earlier during her stalking sessions with Alice. Suddenly, Hana has turned Alice into Miyamoto’s ex-girlfriend, whom he has also supposedly forgotten, thanks to his supposed amnesia. As Miyamoto tries to put together his “lost” past with Alice, Alice realizes that she, too, has started to like him. However, Alice has issues of her own: her divorced mother (Shoko Aida) would rather spend more time dating than parenting; her father (Sei Hiraizumi) treats her well, but rarely sees her; and she gets scouted by a talent agency, even though her acting skill is amusingly next to nil.

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The story sounds like a sappy love triangle that would be right at home for a sappy Nicholas Sparks film, but fortunately, it is anything but. The story has a lot of fascinating details and odd quirks that gives the film good replay value, like the Hannibal Lecter reference or the barbed commentary on the Japanese entertainment industry or the use of snails or how the leads subtly practice their ballet stances while waiting for the train to arrive. Just in the recent viewing of the film, I realized that despite Hana’s persistence in her fabrication of a relationship with Miyamoto, the film gradually features the presence of flowers throughout. There might not be a growth of a relationship, but there is growth of Hana as a person. The film-making is absolutely stellar, with magnificent production values considering the budget. The cinematography by Noboru Shinoda (R.I.P) is done on digital cameras, but it preserves Iwai’s feel for soft-lighting that gives the film a magical atmosphere that is usually reserved for fantasy films. The music, the editing and the directing, all done by Iwai, is above reproach. The music in particular is a piano-melodic delight to hear and accentuates the breezy magical feel of the film.

But we all know the real reason why the film works: the two leads. The film just comes to life spectacularly whenever they share the screen together and their chemistry is fantastic to witness. Like I said in my The Case of Hana and Alice review, the two have such a good chemistry, it is incredibly hard to believe that they weren’t friends before filming. Don’t get me wrong, the film does not fall apart when the leads are apart; they are just as good when they are separate. Anne Suzuki (who is famous for her role in Initial D) is a joy as the lovestruck Hana (which is Japanese for flower) who causes quite a bit of trouble to get the love she desperately strives for. Her character isn’t the most developed out of the two, but her role in the story is the most important and although her methods almost endanger her to become a bit unsympathetic (she gets Alice into her deceptive ways), her character is quite relatable and Suzuki sells it with conviction, particularly in a scene when she is in a confrontation with Miyamoto backstage.  The standout of the two is Yu Aoi, as Alice (short for Arisugawa) who plays the high-spirited side of her character perfectly. Her character has the best moments in terms of scenes (her ballet dance is a highlight) as well as her character development (her scenes with her mother and father exemplify that).

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The supporting cast are just as good in their roles, with Sei Hiraizumi providing a subtle sadness as Alice’s father, due to their disconnect (the scene he has with Yu Aoi is a very touching scene) and Shoko Aida as Alice’s mother, who is busy focusing on dating rather than parenting. She has a scene where she comes out in her underwear, which leads to a  shock for Miyamoto, and it is awkwardly hilarious as you expect. As for Tomohiro Kaku, it took quite a bit to me to warm up to but his quirks (including his well-timed hiccups) shy attitude got to me. His character is not so much a fully-formed person, but is essentially a catalyst of what obstacles the two leads will end up going through. Who knows, if two pubescent girls were yearning for an average guy like myself in my high-school days, I’d probably react the exact same way. There are some surprising cameos that all amuse; from Sadao Abe, Ryoko Hirosue, even Hiroshi Abe, who plays a suitor of Alice’s mother.

As much as I can rave on and on about this film, there are some flaws that stick out to me like a sore thumb. For one, at 135 minutes, the film is quite long for a simple story such as this. Secondly, the film tends to focus more on details and character and not enough on the storytelling. Those who want their films focused and plot-driven will definitely be irked.

But overall, with an odd, yet amusing sense of humour, a plot that dwells more on details than actual storytelling, beautifully melodic music, captivating female characters and immersive cinematography, Hana and Alice is a great starter for those who love slice-of-life films as well as getting into Shunji Iwai’s work.

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Quickie Review

PROS

The leads have such fantastic chemistry, it’s hard to think that they weren’t acquainted before the film

Many minute details add to the joy of the film (like how the leads stand on the train platform, subtly practicing their ballet)

Cinematography looks great, especially when it was filmed on HD digital video

CONS

Not much of a plot (reliance on minute details and character than plot, like many Iwai films)

Overlong running time

SCORE: 9/10

Cast: Yu Aoi, Anne Suzuki, Tae Kimura, Sei Hiraizumi, Shoko Aida, Tomohiro Kaku, Takao Osawa, Ryoko Hirosue, Hiroshi Abe
Director: Shunji Iwai
Screenwriters: Shunji Iwai

Movie Review – Journey to the Shore

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EXPECTATIONS: A slow, contemplative romantic journey that eventually makes a reasonable impact. Plus YU AOI!

REVIEW: Kiyoshi Kurosawa is known to the West as a master of horror due to his films like Pulse (Kairo), Cure, Seance and others. I personally disagree, not because his films are bad as horror films (they are certainly not), but he is a master of using stillness and silence to induce tension, whether it is dramatic or horrific. Even in slice-of-life family dramas like Tokyo Sonata, his films can be quite hard to watch. But like every director, they have their misfires. The horror film Loft, which in my mind is underrated and misunderstood, was seen as unintentionally funny while the sci-fi film Real was seen as incredibly misguided and a complete mismatch between director and the source material. Now we have Journey to the Shore (nothing to do with the Chinese fantasy tale, Journey to the West), a contemplative and tender story, based on a novel by Kazumi Umoto, that joins tropes of romance and ghosts. Will this film be a perfect match between Kurosawa and the source material, or will it be another misfire?

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Widowed three years ago when her husband drowned, Mizuki (Eri Fukatsu) works as a private piano teacher. Her father died when she was 16 and her mother passed away five years ago. One evening, her husband Yusuke (Tadanobu Asano), a former dentist, appears in her apartment and asks her to come with him on a final journey – to places and people who have meant a lot to him in the past three years – prior to the final passage of passing on. Basically, it is a road movie where we meet various characters, played by a fantastic supporting cast, we find out more about the predicament of the leads as well as character growth.

Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa adapts the story through a naturalistic means as well as adopting his methods of stillness and silence, Journey to the Shore is a touching exploration of love and death. Kurosawa’s direction elevates this film, taking the fantastical plot into heights that ring true to the audience, i.e. how we deal with deaths of loved ones. The world the characters inhabit is hyper-realistic, yet the characters themselves are intentionally lifeless, almost letting go of their spirit and struggling to survive in their conditions. Even little touches i.e. Fukatsu’s hair covering her face and gradually uncovering throughout the film compliment the film in terms of character. The cinematography by Akiko Ashizawa compliments that really well, especially in terms of lighting at certain times of the film when characters reach a certain point in growth, like how Mizuki confronts Tomoko (Yu Aoi) a former girlfriend of Yusuke. The music by Yoshihide Otomo is delicate yet emotionally stirring, but it can be overly used at times, becoming more cloying than rewarding.

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The wonderfully talented cast certainly helps the film, with leads Eri Fukatsu and Tadanobu Asano making their keep, particularly Fukatsu. Having done a ton of various roles from comedic roles (Bayside Shakedown) to tortured roles (Villain) and villainous roles (Parasyte Parts 1 & 2), Fukatsu does one of her best performances as Mizuki. The way she portrays her passion and lost love for her husband with such restraint is captivating to watch, like in a scene where she expresses anger to Yusuke for her past relationships. Asano isn’t that far off in his likable yet enigmatic performance that is hiding a past life that is not so easy to like. For the supporting cast, Yu Aoi is fantastic in her one scene as she is confronted by Fukatsu, while acting veterans Akira Emoto and Masao Komatsu, ironically, give much-needed life to their characters, particularly Komatsu, who plays a character who is halfway towards passing on.

As much as the acting and the directorial technique is, the film is not without its flaws. Besides the overuse of music in dramatic scenes, the pacing can be a bit vexing. Although the intent for the pacing is there i.e. in becoming more lively as the film goes on, it can be annoyingly glacial for audiences. The storytelling can be a bit messy in its episodic structure. There is one subplot that involves another couple going through the same situation as the two leads are and it drags the film while driving a point to the audience that they already know. Fortunately, it reaches a powerful ending that is parts beautiful and concise.

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Overall, it is a nice change of pace for Kurosawa, as he ventures towards another genre and with an amazing cast to back him up, Journey to the Shore is a touching love story with a twist that shows that Kurosawa still has his directorial skills intact.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s assured and composed direction

Production values are great, especially the cinematography

The cast give fantastic performances

CONS

Music can intrude to the point of being melodramatic

The storytelling can be a bit messy

The pacing can irk some

SCORE: 7/10

Cast: Eri Fukatsu, Tadanobu Asano, Yu Aoi, Masao Komatsu, Akira Emoto
Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Screenwriter:  Takashi Ujita, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Kazumi Umoto (novel)

Movie Review – The (Murder) Case of Hana and Alice (Japanese Film Festival 2015)

EXPECTATIONS: A film as charming and beautiful as its live-action predecessor.

REVIEW: In my previous review of April Story, I’ve mentioned that the first live-action Japanese film that I saw was Hana and Alice, so you can probably assume that I had high expectations for this animated prequel. And to hear that all of the original cast had returned for the film had me excited (although one actor plays a different role). Even more so is the type of film-making for the prequel (rotoscope animation, like in A Scanner Darkly), which is an ingenious way of sidestepping the age of the actors as well as still filming in real environments and sets. But I was afraid that Shunji Iwai would not be able to capture the magic of the original as well as not conveying his visual film-making to his bet to the media of animation. Well guys, I am happy to report that this film is not only a fantastic story about lost love and what it can do to a person but it is also a charming, beautiful and oddly weird story about the beginning of a delightful friendship.

Set in the year 2000 (as evident by the flip mobile phones), three years before the events of the live-action film, were are introducted to Tetsuko “Alice” Arisugawa (Yu Aoi), a 14 year old girl who moves into a new town, Fujiko, with her recently divorced mother (Shoko Aida). The people there aren’t exactly the helpful kind, with many weird and eccentric characters that you think it might not get any weirder, until Alice is swept into a case that involves ghosts and a murder of a student, Yuda (a playful way of saying Judas). Through her investigations, she is led to meet with a shut-in, Hana Arai (Anne Suzuki), who not only is an integral part of the case but she is also a neighbour of Alice. The two work together in solving the case but what they might end up with in the end is more than a solved case.

Now you’re probably wondering (especially for people who have seen the live-action film) is why in the world would the prequel involve ghosts and murder? It turns out it is a lot of fun, similar to cases that Scooby-Doo or Nancy Drew would investigate, but this is a Shunji Iwai film. His films were always more about details than story so if people are reading this review and/or are planning to watch this film expecting a true mystery will be quite disappointed. Fortunately, Iwai succeeds in making the film a character study about two girls who forge a friendship that made the live-action film so compelling. The rotoscope animation does take a bit of time to adjust at first but the movements of the characters look surprisingly natural and the scenery and locations such as Hana’s flower garden to the playground gymboree where Alice plays look breathtaking. One of the things that make the film such a great thematic follow-up to the live-action original is how the film is so naturalistic, you forget that you’re watching an animated film but a fairy tale come to life, and the cinematography and music of both films really capture that feel.

Another thing that makes the film a resounding success is the cast. The only way the film would work is that the two leads can make you believe that they could be the best of friends and they clearly are up to the task. Yu Aoi is still the goofy, playful and strong Alice and has plenty of opportunities to show it, like investigating a lead who may or may not be the right person or hysterically pleading her mother to move out of their new house because it might be inhabited by ghosts. Anne Suzuki is still the timid, lovesick instigator, who may or may not have been responsible for the murder, that you can’t help but want to give her a hug. The actresses still have the lovely chemistry that again makes you question why the two weren’t friends in the first place. There’s a scene later in the film where they lay snugly under a car for warmth and the two bond that I really enjoyed, and it is one of the many scenes in the film that bring it to life. Even the scene when the two first meet played out exactly the way I wanted it to be, with amusingly bad first impressions. What makes their interactions even more joyful is the fact that the two are playing 14 year olds, yet the actresses are double their age, so whenever they act out the character’s youthfulness, it comes off as hilarious.

I also loved that Iwai got every actor from the original film and have them reprise their roles. Like a scene with Alice and her father (Sei Hiraizumi) who visits every month is very touching due to the restrained sadness of Hiraizumi’s performance. Or how Alice’s mother is beginning to flirt with men, trying to regain her lost youth is amusingly portrayed by Shoko Aida. There’s a scene when Alice joins her childhood friend to a ballet studio, with Tae Kimura reprising her role as the ballet teacher. Even Tomohiro Kaku comes back, but in a different role as a teacher, who has a passion for snails (a visual joke that appears in the live-action film). It is callbacks to the original film like these that the initiated will definitely appreciate. The callbacks don’t just come from the reprising cast, but from the costumes (Hana wears the same sweater from the earlier film, as well as Alice in another scene), duplicated shots and even the live-action film’s origins (the presence of Kit Kat, which was integral to having the short films of Hana and Alice that lead to the live-action film).

But the uninitiated do not need to be hesitant to watch this film since the final product is so endearing and wonderfully realized that it will make you nostalgic for the friendships and times at school. A truly beautiful story about a blossoming friendship by Shunji Iwai.

Quickie Review

PROS

The move from live-action to rotoscope animation has not dulled Shunji Iwai’s visual film-making

The chemistry from the two leads has not dulled over the past 11 years

Shunji Iwai’s weird and quirky humour is still apparent

Many small and amusing callbacks to the original live-action film

The original supporting cast reprise their roles with great effect

CONS

Some of the animation looks jerky at times

Those looking for an actual mystery will be disappointed

SCORE: 9/10

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Cast: Yu Aoi, Anne Suzuki, Ryo Katsuji, Haru Kuroki, Tae Kimura, Sei Hiraizumi, Shoko Aida, Ranran Suzuki, Tomohiro Kaku, Midoriko Kimura
Director: Shunji Iwai
Screenwriters: Shunji Iwai