Review: ‘We Are Little Zombies,’ starring Keita Ninomiya, Mondo Okumura, Satoshi Mizuno and Sena Nakajima

September 19, 2020

by Carla Hay

Sena Nakajima, Keita Ninomiya, Mondo Okumura and Satoshi Mizuno in “We Are Little Zombies” (Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories)

“We Are Little Zombies”

Directed by Makoto Nagahisa

Japanese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Japan, the dark comedy/drama “We Are Little Zombies” has an all-Japanese cast of characters representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: A group of four teenage orphans who resist adult supervision become unlikely pop stars and navigate the pitfalls and fickleness of fame.

Culture Audience: “We Are Little Zombies” will appeal primarily to people who like arthouse films with a quirky sense of humor.

Sena Nakajima, Satoshi Mizuno, Keita Ninomiya and Mondo Okumura in “We Are Little Zombies” (Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories)

The comedy/drama “We Are Little Zombies” (written and directed by Makato Nagahisa) takes the movie cliché of orphans being pitiful and desperate for love, and blows up that narrative with this concept: “What if there are orphans who aren’t really sad that their parents are dead?” “We Are Little Zombies” gets its title because the four 13-year-old orphans at the center of the story feel like emotional zombies. It’s a zany movie filmed with a lot of artistic and kitschy flair, but it’s not recommended for people who like to see conventional storytelling in a film.

Who are these four orphans? And exactly why do they have so much apathy about their parents’ deaths? It’s because the kids didn’t feel like their parents really loved them. All four of the orphans seemed to have met at an orphanage, where they quickly bonded with each other. When they ask a yard worker outside to take a group photo of them, he says, “Smile, everyone. Cheer up. You look like zombies.” And so, the nickname sticks.

The leader of this group of orphans is bespectacled Hikari Takami (played by Keita Ninomiya), who is also the narrator of the story. Hikari’s parents died on a tour bus owned by a company called Super Wild Coach Tours, which has a slogan like “Destination: Happiness” and takes people on trips like an All You Can Eat Strawberries tour. Hikari, who felt neglected by his parents, deadpans in the narration that it’s “the worst-named package tour of all time. So much for happiness. They went straight to hell.”

Yuki Takemura (played by Mondo Okumura) was raised by a single dad, who committed suicide. Yuki is the only one of the four orphans who has siblings. After their father’s death, the siblings were split up and put in separate foster homes. It’s shown in flashbacks that Yuki was physically abused by his father. Yuki also has an older brother who’s an aspiring punk musician who would practice with his band in the family’s garage and typically treated Yuki as a nuisance if Yuki tried to watch the band perform.

Ikuko Ibu (played by Sena Nakajima) also felt unloved by her parents, who were murdered. (It’s mentioned later in the movie that the murder suspect was apprehended, but there’s no mention of what happened to this suspect.) It’s shown in flashbacks that Yuki had a strange relationship with her parents because Ikuko’s father Haruhiko (played by Masatoshi Nagase) appeared to have incestuous thoughts about her. Ikuko’s mother, also named Ikuko (played by Rinko Kikuchi), resented her to point where she called her daughter Ikuko a “femme fatale” and accused Ikuko of having a strange effect on people.

Ishi (played by Satoshi Mizuno) felt disconnected from his parents because they worked so much. His parents owned and operated a restaurant, which didn’t leave much time for them to give Ishi attention. His parents died in a gas explosion at the restaurant. Ishi’s reaction is relief because he knows he won’t have to spend long hours working at the restaurant, as he was expected to do when he got older.

Because Hikari is the narrator, “We Are Little Zombies” spends the most time showing how he dealt with his parents’ death. At the funeral, where none of the adults spoke to Hikari, he can’t cry. He says in a voiceover, “Reality is too stupid to cry over. I’m not sad … A funeral … is five times more boring than history class.”

Hikari continues in saying that he can’t remember the warm touch of his parents because “I was never loved … Since no one can help me, there’s no point in crying.” And Hikari says in a voiceover: “While the bodies are being cremated, please enjoy some phantom piano.” And then some piano music plays. It’s one of the movie’s many quirks.

Throughout the movie, there are many artistic touches that are reminiscent of 1980s video games. Scenes are framed as if they are part of videogame sequences. There are bright neon colors and florescent lighting. And the movie’s original music (also by Nagahisha) sounds like it came straight from a 1980s videogame from Sega or Nintendo.

The movie’s cinematography (by Hiroaki Takeda) is similar to going on a ride in an amusement park, since the camera dips at odd angles and sometimes bounces around at an almost-dizzying pace. There are a few scenes that involve live fish being taken out and put back in water, and the camera sometimes gives a fish-eye view of what’s happening.

And the movie also contrasts the colorful scenes with stark interiors that have neutral colors. The scenes with muted colors are usually when there are parental or authority figures who try to oppress the kids. It’s an obvious metaphor for how drab and dull they think life can be under adult supervision and how much more vibrant their lives are when they’re free to be on their own.

Despite these seemingly whimsical motifs in the movie, there are also some dark themes of childhood neglect and abuse. Ikuko’s father tells her that if he were younger, he would want to marry her. She tries to shrug off this creepy comment by saying that she can’t get married because her ring finger is missing. (It’s true. The ring finger on her left hand is missing.) Meanwhile, Ikuko says in a voiceover, “Mom once told me that she wished I didn’t exist.”

Ishi has had insecurities over whether he was a wanted child because his father once told him that the only reason why he married Ishi’s mother was because she was pregnant. Hikari’s father was a womanizer, and the infidelity caused a lot of pain in his marriage and family. In a voiceover, Hikari says that he knows that his father was well-loved by a lot of people, but Hikari wonders if his father ever loved him.

In one of the dark humor scenes of the movie, the pregnant mistress of Hikari’s father calls the house shortly after the funeral. She doesn’t know that Hikari’s parents have died. And so, when Hikari answers the phone, he nonchalantly tells her the bad news. She is heard wailing in grief on the other line before Hikari calmly hangs up the phone.

The four orphans are sent to various homes but are unhappy there. They rebel by trying to run away or by trying to skip school. During all of this youthful rebellion, the orphans end up on the streets with some homeless people. And there’s a wacky musical interlude where the homeless people break out in a banjo-playing song.

This musical experience inspires the four orphans to form an electro-pop band called Little Zombies. Hikari is the lead singer, Yuki is the guitarist, Ikuko is the keyboardist, and Ishi is the drummer. They make a music video of themselves called “We Are Little Zombies,” a song that is insanely catchy and is very memorable, long after you see the movie. The orphans put the video on the Internet and think not many people will see it.

Instead, the video goes viral and catches the attention of editors of a major magazine, which does a big article about the orphans. The article leads to more media attention. And before you know it, Little Zombies are very famous. As Hikari explains, “We went from being poor zombies to glamorous rock stars.” The kids in the band go from wearing school uniforms as stage outfits to clothing that was designed so they could look like steam-punk-inspired, edgy artists who made their clothes out of garbage.

The kids soon find that after they become famous, people at home and at school who used to ignore or bully them now want to be their best friends. The orphans also become targets of greedy adults who want to exploit the band’s sudden fame to make money for themselves. And the band has an obsessive fan base on social media. The movie has biting commentary on what fame can do to people, particularly people who are still children, and how celebrity obsessions can take a very dark turn.

Underneath all the goofy hijinks is a message that people can’t really find love through fame and public adoration. If the four Little Zombies thought that they would be happy as pop stars, they learn some harsh life lessons along the way. “We Are Little Zombies” drags a little too long (the total running time is two hours), but there’s enough originality and compelling visuals in the movie for people to be interested in finding out what happens to these emotionally jaded kids who aren’t as tough as they might think they are.

Oscilloscope Laboratories released “We Are Little Zombies” in select U.S. cinemas on July 10, 2020, and on digital and VOD on September 8, 2020.

Review: ‘Children of the Sea,’ a magical adventure from Japan

September 9, 2020

by Carla Hay

“Children of the Sea” (Image courtesy of GKIDS)

“Children of the Sea”

Directed by Ayumu Watanabe

Available in the original Japanese version (with English subtitles) or in a dubbed English-language version.

Culture Representation: This Japanese animated fantasy film takes place primarily in an unnamed Japanese city, with teenagers as the lead characters and adults as supporting characters, representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A teenage girl, whose scientist parents work at a local aquarium, encounters two mysterious aquatic teenage boys who were found at sea and who want to get away from the scientific experiments that have forced on them.

Culture Audience: “Children of the Sea” is a family-friendly film that will appeal mostly to fans of Japanese anime and animated adventure films.

“Children of the Sea” (Image courtesy of GKIDS)

The gorgeous Japanese animated film “Children of the Sea” immerses viewers into a fantasy world that compares and contrasts life on land and life underwater, but there’s a very “real world” environmental message that is present throughout the story. Directed with both enchanting whimsy and technical prowess by Ayumu Watanabe, “Children of the Sea” has some eye-popping animated visuals that deserve to be seen on the biggest screen possible. Daisuke Igarashi wrote the “Children of the Sea” adapted screenplay from his manga of the same title.

The story, which takes place in an unnamed Japanese city. is told from the point of view of a teenage girl named Ruka Azumi (who’s about 15 or 16 years old) during her summer break from regular school sessions. Her vacation gets off to a rocky start when Ruka, who is a rugby player for her school, is wrongfully accused of starting a fight with a fellow student during rugby practice. The other student, who was playing on the opposing team, was the one who was the physical aggressor, because she deliberately tripped Ruka during the game. 

A supervising teacher calls Ruka into his office and scolds her for being a “troublemaker.” He doesn’t want to hear Ruka’s excuse that the bullying student was the one who started the fight. And he tells Ruka that if she won’t apologize to the other student, then Ruka shouldn’t bother coming to practice anymore.

Feeling dejected and misunderstood, Ruka decides to go to Enokura Aquarium where her father Masaki works as a scientist. Ruka has happy memories of spending her childhood at the aquarium. One of these memories, which is shown at the beginning of the movie, is when Ruka saw a ghost in the aquarium. Her father is one of the aquarium’s scientists who evaluate aquatic life and do experiments, such as seeing how dolphins respond to certain sounds. 

While at the aquarium, Ruka discovers a friendly teenage boy in a back room. He’s about the same age as Ruka, and his name is Umi. He shows Yuka that he has an extraordinary ability to swim and float underwater for long periods of time without any breathing equipment. Ruka is very intrigued by Umi and wants to become his friend.

Ruka’s father tells her that Umi was found 10 years ago with another boy off of the shores of the Philippines. Scientists discovered that Umi and the other boy (who is slightly older than Umi) were raised primarily underwater by dugongs. The boys, who are apparently orphaned and raised as brothers by the dugongs, were kept at the aquarium for research.

One evening, Umi invites Ruka to go with him to see a will o’ the wisp at the beach. Ruka is surprised to see what she thinks is a comet or shooting star, but Ruka insists that it’s a will o’ the wisp. He also tells Ruka that animals shine when they want to be found.

While at the beach, Ruka sees the teenager who is described as Umi’s adoptive older brother: His name is Sora, whose skin is so pale that at first Ruka thinks that Sora is a ghost. Sora has blonde hair and blue eyes, which implies that he’s of European descent, while Umi has the appearance of being Filipino. It’s never explained in the movie how Umi and Sora ended up being stranded at sea together, since both boys don’t seem to have any memories of their human families.

Unlike the amicable reaction that Ruka got from Umi when they first met, the first time she meets Sora, he’s rude to her. Sora tells Ruka that she’s “boring.” He adds, “Umi has me. He’s not interested in you.” It also becomes clear as the story unfolds that Sora is more rebellious and more impulsive than Umi.

Sora is growing tired of being a research subject and wants to spend less time away from the aquarium. This restlessness is one of the main reasons why Sora, Umi and Ruka end up taking a joyride on a boat. It isn’t until they’re in the middle of the sea and that Sora admits he doesn’t know how to sail the boat and he was just winging it as they went along. And so, when the boat’s engine mysteriously stalls, the three teens don’t know how to fix it.

It’s during this fateful boat ride that Ruka discovers Umi’s and Sora’s seemingly magical powers to communicate with the aquatic creatures. She also gets to experience underwater life for the first time in some of the movie’s most visually stunning sequences, including seeing whale shark creatures. Sora eventually warms up to Ruka, but he still feels leery about anyone he thinks might try to break his brotherly bond with Umi.

It’s implied that Ruka has special powers too, but she isn’t fully aware of them yet. Meanwhile, Umi and Sora tells her that numerous creatures in the ocean will be gathering for a Birth Festival underwater and are looking for festival guests. Sora says he’s been traveling the world with a scientist named Jim to research the festival’s connection to Umi and Sora.

The trio makes it back to shore, but it won’t be the last time Ruka, Umi and Sora go out to sea together and experience dangerous situations. There’s a boat they use called the Rwa Bhineda that is a key part of their adventures together. One of the people they encounter near the boat is Angurâdo, a young man who wants to be Jim’s assistant.

There’s also an aquarium scientist named Anglade, who wants to keep Umi and Somi at the aquarium for research, even though it’s becoming obvious that the teenagers are growing into young men and want more independence. And there’s a town eccentric named Dehdeh, an elderly woman with apparent psychic abilities.

Ruka is close to her father, but she has a tense relationship with her mother Kanako, a scientist who also works at the aquarium but is on a leave of absence. The reason is because she’s an alcoholic, which is a secret that has brought shame to the family and has caused Ruka to have resentful feelings toward her mother. Kanako’s work colleagues describe her as “brilliant,” but Ruka doesn’t have much respect for her mother because of how Kanako’s alcoholism has negatively affected the family. It’s one of the reasons why Ruka doesn’t like to spend much time at home.

“Children of the Sea” has subtle and not-so-subtle environmental messages about the world being destroyed by humans’ recklessness and greed. Climate change and how it’s affecting the environment are on display when a megamouth shark and hundreds of fish wash up dead on near the aquarium. A typhoon suddenly occurs during one part of the story. And the movie has constant themes of urgent messages that aquatic animals are trying to communicate with humans.

STUDIO4°C, the animation studio behind “Children of the Sea,” infuses this story of teen rebellion meets environmentalism with a lot of reverential images of aquatic life. Creatures such as dolphins and whales are portrayed as just as intelligent (and sometimes smarter) than humans. And underwater life, although certainly not a utopia, is presented as a lot more harmonious and tranquil than the land inhabited by destructive humans.

The animation also takes risks by having some truly psychedelic imagery toward the end of the movie. Joe Hisaishi’s musical score perfectly complements the mood of each scene. And even though “Children of the Sea” is longer than a typical animated film (the total running time is 111 minutes), director Watanabe makes it a well-paced story. Some of the characters are more layered than others, so viewers will want to keep watching to see what it all means in the end. (There’s also an end credits scene that shows an epilogue to the story.)

The voices of the “Children of the Sea” characters are portrayed by different actors, depending on the version of “Children of the Sea.” The original Japanese version (with English subtitles) has Mana Ashida as Ruka, Hiiro Ishibashi as Umi, Seishu Uragami as Sora, Win Morisaki as Anglade, Goro Inagaki as Masaki Azumi, Yu Aoi as Kanako Azumi, Toru Watanabe as The Teacher, Min Tanaka as Jim and Sumiko Fuji as Dehdeh. There’s also a U.S. version, with the dialogue dubbed in English, that has Anjali Gauld as Ruka, Lynden Prosser as Umi, Benjamin Niewood/Benjamin Niedens as Sora, Beau Bridgland as Anglade, as Marc Thompson as Masaki Azumi, Karen Strassman as Kanako Azumi, Wally Wingert as The Teacher, Michael Sorich as Jim and Denise Lee as Dehdeh.

Some adults might think that animation is mostly for kids, but “Children of the Sea” is a great example of an animated film that can tell an intriguing story that’s relatable to people of any generation. It’s clear that the movie has a viewpoint that if aquatic animals could talk, they would be begging humans to treat the underwater world with more respect because how underwater life is treated affects us all. The movie’s environmental message isn’t preachy, but it shows how people on land are connected to the life that’s underwater and how lessons learned from the past can shape the future. 

GKIDS released “Children of the Sea” on digital, Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix on September 1, 2020.

Review: ‘A Girl Missing,’ starring Mariko Tsutsui, Mikako Ichikawa and Sôsuke Ikematsu

August 9, 2020

by Carla Hay

Mikako Ichikawa, Miyu Ogawa and Mariko Tsutsui in “A Girl Missing” (Photo courtesy of Film Movement)

“A Girl Missing” 

Directed by Kôji Fukada

Japanese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Japan, the psychological drama “A Girl Missing” has an all-Japanese cast representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash:  A home nurse becomes involved in the drama of her employer’s family when the family’s teenage daughter disappears and secrets threaten to tear relationships apart.

Culture Audience: “A Girl Missing” will appeal primarily to people who like arthouse films that have layers of psychological intrigue.

Sôsuke Ikematsu and Mariko Tsutsui in “A Girl Missing” (Photo courtesy of Film Movement)

On the surface, “A Girl Missing” (which takes place in Japan) seems to be a mystery about a teenage student who goes missing. But the movie is actually an intricate psychological drama about how this missing-persons case affects two women who are close to the missing girl. Written and directed by Kôji Fukada, “A Girl Missing” also has some underlying social commentary about society’s pressures affect how women express their sexuality, and how secrets and lies can have ripple effects that go beyond someone who wants to keep something hidden.

“A Girl Missing” isn’t in chronological order, but one thing that viewers will eventually see is that the story shows what life was like for middle-aged home nurse Ichiko Shirakawa (played by Mariko Tsutsui) before and after the disappearance of a teenage daughter in her employer’s family. Ichiko is a mild-mannered and responsible caretaker for the ailing Tôko (played by Hisako Ôkata), the grandmother matriarch of the family.

Ichiko reports to Toko’s daughter Yoko Oishi (played by Nahoko Kawasumi), the person in the family who has the power to fire Ichiko. However, Ichiko works for an agency called Cocon Nursing Station, so if her services are no longer needed in a home, she can probably find another job through the agency.

Yoko has two daughters who live in the family home: Motoko (played by Mikako Ichikawa), who is in her early 20s, and Saki (Miyu Ogawa), who is in her mid-teens. Saki is a very well-behaved bright student, while Motoko seems to be living an aimless life, since she’s not in school and doesn’t appear to have a job. However, Motoko does mention to Ichiko one day she’s thinking about becoming a nurse just like Ichiko. Yoko’s husband (Motoko and Saki’s father) is barely seen in the movie, presumably because he works a lot away from home.

Motoko helps Ichiko take care of Tôko when she can. Despite their big age difference, Ichiko and Motoko have developed a close friendship where they feel comfortable doing social activities together outside of the home, such as having lunch. One day, Ichiko and Motoko make plans to have lunch together at a local café. Saki hears about those plans and asks to join them.

While they’re all seated at a café table, it’s clear that Saki is a very diligent student because she’s working on some classwork at the table. Therefore, she isn’t really paying attention when Ichiko’s introverted nephew Tastuo Suzuki (played by Ren Sudo) suddenly appears in the café. Ichiko is surprised to see Tastuo (who is the son of Ichiko’s sister Risa), and they make small talk before he leaves.

Shortly after this lunch, Saki disappears after last being seen on surveillance video leaving her cram school. What happens next in the story involves a web of intrigue and betrayal where Ichiko has to make some choices that will affect the rest of her life. It’s enough to say that she goes through an emotional transformation that upends her previously comfortable and safe life, which includes being engaged to a doctor named Kenji Tozuka (played by Mitsuru Fukikoshi), who’s the single father of a pre-teen son. (Ichiko has no biological kids of her own, and the movie doesn’t mention any previous romances that she might have had.)

Motoko, who’s not happy that Ichiko is getting married, has a boyfriend too. His name is Kazumichi Yoneda (played by Sôsuke Ikematsu), and he plays a pivotal role in the story. Motoko repeatedly asks Ichiko if she’s sure that she’s going get married, and Ichiko always says yes. Motoko asks Ichiko if she’d like to get a place with Motoko so that they can live in together as roommates.

Ichiko declines the offer and tactfully suggests to Motoko that she move in with Kazumichi instead. It’s Ichiko’s polite way of telling Motoko that she needs to mind her own business and get a life. The reason why Motoko disapproves of Ichiko getting married to Dr. Tozuka is hinted at early on, and it becomes even more obvious as the story unfolds.

“A Girl Missing” has a narrative structure that shows segments of the “before” and “after” of Ichiko’s life in non-chronological order. Therefore, viewers might wonder why Ichiko’s demeanor, physical appearance, lifestyle and home are very different in various parts of the movie. Why her life undergoes a major transformation is explained in bits and pieces, like a puzzle that eventually tells the whole story when the entire puzzle is put together.

All of the movie’s cast members do a good job in their roles, but Tsutsui is particularly impressive since she’s able to convincingly portray Ichiko becoming a very different person by the end of the movie than she was in the beginning. It’s this character arc that is the heart of the story. And although Saki’s disappearance was a catalyst for some of the events, certain characters’ underlying motivations made it inevitable that Ichiko’s life would go through a major upheaval.

Not everyone likes watching a movie that’s told in a non-linear way. But if viewers are open to this type of movie narrative, “A Girl Missing” tells a richly layered story about self-identity, how people present themselves to society, and how those perceptions can affect how society treats them in return.

Film Movement released “A Girl Missing” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on July 31, 2020. The movie was released in Japan in 2019.

Review: ’37 Seconds,’ starring Mei Kayama

January 31, 2020

by Carla Hay

Mei Kayama and Misuzu Kanno in "37 Seconds"
Mei Kayama and Misuzu Kanno in “37 Seconds” (Photo courtesy of Knockonwood)

“37 Seconds”

Directed by Hikari

Japanese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Set primarily in modern-day Japan and with some scenes in Thailand, the dramatic film “37 Seconds” has an Asian cast of characters, and the protagonist is a young female illustrator who has cerebral palsy.

Culture Clash: The movie depicts the struggles and prejudices that a person with physical challenges must constantly face, as well as personal conflicts between a mother and a daughter.

Culture Audience: “37 Seconds” will appeal primarily to viewers who are interested in Japanese movies or movies that give the rare opportunity of making someone with cerebral palsy the star of the story.

Mei Kayama and Shunsuke Daitô in “37 Seconds” (Photo courtesy of Knockonwood)

One of the first things that people need to know about the Japanese drama “37 Seconds” is that it’s not a “disease of the week” depressing movie where people are supposed to feel sorry for someone with a physical disorder. Nor is it the type of movie where the person with the physical challenge enters a competition to face seemingly insurmountable odds. The story of “37 Seconds” (written and directed by Hikari) is about a much more subtle self-awakening that happens to an aspiring manga artist in modern-day Tokyo.

When we see the wheelchair-bound Yuma Takada (played by Mei Kayama) in the first few scenes of the movie, she’s shown to be someone who likes to be as independent as possible, as she takes public transportation around town. Yuma lives with her overprotective single mother, Kyoko (Misuzu Kanno), who still insists on bathing Yuma, even though her daughter has full use of her hands.

Yuma, who is 23 but looks like she could be in her late teens, has a part-time job working as an assistant for her pretty cousin Sayaka (played by Minori Hagiwara), a semi-famous manga artist, who has her own YouTube channel and loves to wear Harajuku fashion. Yuma is as shy and insecure as Sayaka is bold and confident.

At one of Sayaka’s book signings, Yuma unexpectedly attends as a show of her support, but Yuma gets a rude awakening when she finds out that Sayaka has been telling people that she doesn’t have an assistant. (And that’s not the only thing that Sayaka lies about when it comes to her work.) Feeling hurt and unappreciated, Yuma decides to pursue plans she started earlier to do some freelance artwork. Yuma makes cold calls to several manga publishing companies to find out if they’re looking for new artists.

She’s automatically rejected by places that don’t take unsolicited material. But one place is willing to give her a chance, and she’s able to get an interview immediately. The only catch? It’s at a magazine called Weekly Boom, which publishes erotic manga. Yuma, who’s a naïve virgin, is just happy to get an opportunity to be hired as an artist, so she goes to the interview, not really knowing what to expect.

The female Weekly Boom editor (played by Yuri Ono) who interviews Yuma takes a look at Yuma’s artwork and explains to her that if she gets hired at the company, she would have to draw sexually explicit art. The interviewer isn’t concerned with Yuma’s cerebral palsy; she’s more concerend about how much Yuma actually knows about sex. When she asks Yuma if she’s ever been sexually intimate with anyone, Yuma tells her the truth and says she’s a virgin. The interviewer tells Yuma to come back when she’s sexually experienced.

Yuma goes home and researches porn on the Internet so she can get an idea of what she can draw. Still curious, she decides to try and find a man online so she can lose her virginity to him. That leads to a series of somewhat comical blind dates whom she meets in a café. One date is a shy social misfit like Yuma, and he basically admits that he’s a recluse who’s too scared to have sex with anyone. Another date is a flamboyant eccentric who seems like he probably isn’t sexually attracted to women. The last date she meets with is a nice guy who says he would have no problem hanging out with her but he doesn’t want to take her virginity.

The next thing you know, Yuma is in a seedy area of Tokyo where the streets are lined with sex shops and massage parlors. She asks a pimp (played by Kiyohiko Shibukawa) on the street how she can hire a male prostitute. He makes a phone call and manages to find a gigolo who’s available to do the deed, so Yuma arranges to meet the guy later in a hotel that she’s rented. (The movie doesn’t really explain where Yuma has gotten the money, but it’s presumed that she gets some kind of disability income from the government.)

All of this looks fairly convincing, since Yuma has the type of unassuming personality where it seems plausible that she could go up to a pimp on the street with this request and he’d be willing to help her. Because Yuma isn’t the type of young woman whom predators would consider “sexy,” because she’s in a wheelchair, it’s entirely believable that she could go to this sleazy area and not be targeted for sex crimes. As far as a pimp is concerned, a woman in a wheelchair is of no use to him, and he actually might feel sorry for her.

Yuma’s encounter with the gigolo is one of the most amusing parts of the movie. Let’s just say that some akward things happen, so he gives her a discount on his regular fee. The encounter with the gigolo is important to mention because after Yuma leaves the hotel room and gets ready to leave, she notices that the elevator doesn’t work, so she calls for help.

It’s during this situation that she meets two people who will change the course of her life in this story. One is a middle-aged female prostitute named Mai (played by Makiko Watanabe) and her “caretaker”/driver Toshi (played by Shunsuke Daitô), who’s in his 20s. When Yuma first meets them in the hotel hallway, Mai is also with a wheelchair-bound customer, a senior citizen named Mr. Kuma (played by Yoshihiko Kumashino), who is clearly infatuated with Mai.

Seeing that Yuma is alone and kind of stranded at the hotel, Mai and Toshi offer to give her a ride home so that she doesn’t have to take public transportation. The four of them pile into a van, and Yuma reveals why she was at the hotel. Because Yuma doesn’t pass judgment on what Mai does for a living, she and Mai form a fast friendship.

On another day, she calls Mai, who takes Yuma out for some fun around town. First, they go to a sex shop where Mai buys Yuma a dildo that Yuma has picked out because she thinks it looks cute. Then, Mai takes Yuma shopping for new clothes and then to a beauty parlor where Yuma gets her hair and makeup done. After that, they end up at a gay bar watching some of the patrons doing karaoke, and Yuma gets drunk on sake.

Meanwhile, Yuma’s mother Kyoko suspects that something is going on with her daughter, so she snoops through Yuma’s belongings while Yuma is out of the house. She’s shocked to find the erotic drawings that Yuma has made as practice. So by the time Yuma gets home, she’s very drunk, and her mother is furious and confronts her over what she has found in Yuma’s room.

They have a big argument where Kyoko says that Yuma can’t survive without here. Yuma retorts by saying that she can, but that her mother is too afraid to be alone. And then Yuma blurts out something that deeply hurts her mother and makes her back out of the room: Yuma says her absent father left because he couldn’t stand to be with Kyoko.

One of the best things about “37 Seconds” is that the story could have gone in a very predictable way for the rest of the movie, but the story takes a turn that most people will not expect at all. It’s enough to say that secrets are revealed, including the full reason why the movie is titled “37 Seconds.”

Kayama, who has cerebral palsy in real life, makes her film debut with “37 Seconds,” and she admirably carries the movie with a performance that shows Yuma’s emotional transformation. But as Yuma’s mother Kyoko, actress Kanno has the most heartbreaking moment in the film. This movie is recommended for anyone who wants to discover a story about unique people who experience an unpredictable and poignant turn of events.

Netflix premiered “37 Seconds” in the U.S. and Canada on January 31, 2020.

Review: ‘Weathering With You,’ an animated romance from Japan

January 15, 2020

by Carla Hay

"Weathering With You"
“Weathering With You” (Photo courtesy of GKIDS)

“Weathering With You”

Directed by Makoto Shinkai

Available in the original Japanese version (with English subtitles) or in a dubbed English-language version.

Culture Representation: This Japanese animated fantasy film takes place primarily in Tokyo, with teenagers as the lead characters and adults as supporting characters.

Culture Clash: In this alternate and supernatural world, underage teenagers who live on their own try to find their identities and independence, while sometimes clashing with adults who might try to control or exploit them.

Culture Audience: “Weathering With You” is a family-friendly film that will appeal mostly to fans of Japanese anime and romantic animated films.

“Weathering With You” (Photo courtesy of GKIDS)

“Weathering With You” is an old-fashioned love story wrapped up in a modern setting with futuristic and sci-fi/supernatural elements. This charming animated movie (written and directed by Makoto Shinkai) was Japan’s official 2019 entry for the Best International Feature Film category for the Academy Awards—and it’s almost the polar opposite from Japan’s 2018 entry: the bleak drama “Shoplifters,” which was about a group of thieves from different generations who live together. Interestingly, both movies do have something in common. The central characters are financially unstable people who are living outside the margins of regular society and who find themselves with a surrogate family.

In “Weathering With You,” viewers first see 16-year-old runaway Hokada Morishima on a ship going to Tokyo, where he wants to escape from his remote island home. While on the ship, and after hearing that a major rainstorm is headed that way, Hokada foolishly goes outside during the storm and almost gets swept overboard. He’s saved by a young man, and as a thank you, Hokada buys dinner for the stranger when they arrive in Tokyo. It’s clear from this scene that Hokada is an impulsive risk-taker, but he also has a kind heart.

Because Hokada is underage and doesn’t have any proper ID, it’s difficult for him to find a job. While figuring out where he’s going to get his next meal, a teenage girl who works at a local café takes pity on him and gives him a free hamburger. Hokada eventually runs out of money, and he ends up homeless and living on the street, where he finds a gun in a paper bag and keeps the weapon. That gun will get him into trouble later in the story. Meanwhile, Tokyo and other parts of Japan are experiencing torrential rainstorms.

As luck would have it, Hokada lands a job interview, based on going to an address of a business card he’s found. It’s a small magazine company run by a mysterious widower in his 30s named Keisuke “Kei” Suga, who works out of his cluttered home with his young female assistant named Natsumi. Keisuke and Natsumi report supernatural news stories, and the latest trends they’re chasing have to do with unusual weather-related events. Hokada is hired on the spot to be an assistant/housekeeper. His salary is very low, but he gets a free place to live and free meals as part of his employment.

Shortly after getting the job, Hokada sees the girl from the café being manhandled on the street by a sleazy local club owner, who’s pressuring her to work for him. (It’s implied in the movie but not said out loud that he owns a strip club.) As the club owner and a henchman try to force the girl into the club, and she resists, Hokada intervenes and is punched in the face by the club owner. Hokada then pulls out the gun and shoots it in the air, giving him and the girl a way to escape.

The girl’s name is Hina Amano, and she says she’s 17 and soon about to turn 18. As a thank you for rescuing her, Hina invites Hokada over to her place and makes him lunch. It’s during their lunch date that they both find out that they have something in common: They are living on their own without parental supervision. Hokada confesses that he ran away from home because he thinks living with his parents is too stifling. Hina lives with her younger brother Nagisa (nicknamed Nagi), and she says that the mother who raised them died about a year ago. (Somehow, Hina and Nagisa, who don’t seem to have any other living relatives, have avoided going into foster care.)

Hina also has another big secret that she reveals to Hokada: She’s a “sunshine girl”—a rare “weather maiden” who has the ability to make it stop raining and bring the sun out, simply by praying. Because Hina has recently quit her job, and Hokada wants to supplement his measly income, they both decide to go into business together by offering her weather-control services to the public. They start a website together, and almost immediately, their business becomes a successes, with Nagisa often tagging along when they go to different locations to fulfill weather-changing requests.

But their success comes at a price: According to folklore, the more a sunshine girl uses her weather-changing abilities, the more her body begins to transform from flesh into spirit, until she is supposed to disappear forever into the spirit world. It couldn’t come at a worse time, since Hokada and Hina are starting to fall in love.

Complicating matters, the police (led by the stern Detective Takei) are on the hunt for Hokada, since his parents have reported him missing, and he was caught on surveillance video using the loaded gun in the street fight where he rescued Hina. Meanwhile, Keisuke (who’s depressed and has a drinking problem) has secrets of his own about his family that end up affecting his relationship with Hokada.

If you’ve seen Studio Ghibli films, then you’ll probably know what to expect for this movie’s animation (from production companies CoMix Wave Films and Story Inc.), which has an unfussy but expressive animation style that’s very similar to Studio Ghibli films. The voices of the “Weathering With You” characters are portrayed by different actors, depending on which version of “Weathering With You” that you see. The original Japanese version (with English subtitles) has Kotaro Daigo as Hokada, Nani Mori as Hina, Shun Oguri as Keisuke, Tsubasa Honda as Natsumi, Sakura Kiryu as Nagisa and Yûki Kaji as Detective Takei. There’s also a U.S. version, with the dialogue dubbed in English, that has Brandon Engman as Hokada, Ashley Boettcher as Hina, Lee Pace as Keisuke, Alison Brie as Natsumi, Emeka Guindo as Nagisa, Riz Ahmed as Detective Takei.

“Weathering With You” won’t be considered a major Oscar-winning Japanese animation classic, such as director Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away,” but “Weathering With You” is still a better-than-average modern animated film. Although “Weathering With You” includes serious social issues about homelessness and the hazards of messing with the environment, ultimately this is a sweetly sentimental film where the biggest messages are about taking life-changing risks for true love.

GKIDS released “Weathering With You” for special sneak-preview screenings in select U.S. cinemas on January 15 and January 16, 2020. “Weathering With You” arrived in wider release in U.S. cinemas on January 17, 2020. The movie was originally released in Japan in 2019.