The Bear Dodger: a tale advising children to choose their friends carefully

Noburo Ofuji, “The Bear Dodger” (1948)

Made in 1948 but with characters drawn in a much older early-1930s style, this animated short has a moral behind its drawn-out tale. A boy befriends a wobbly-looking stranger who imposes various onerous burdens on him. Little does the boy know that the stranger had also injured a baby bear and Daddy bear is out looking to punish the culprit. The big bear pounces on the boy and the stranger: the stranger promptly scoots over to a tree and climbs it, leaving the boy to fend off the bear on his own. The boy evades the bear through various visual puns involving a giant python and turtles in a river but ends up trapped before a waterfall. Just when all seems lost, a frog the boy and the stranger had met earlier (the stranger had picked it up and the boy rescues the frog from him) offers the boy some useful advice that saves his life. The big bear is reunited with the baby bear, now no longer crying, and the boy resumes his journey. The stranger pleads for the boy’s assistance but the boy continues on his way.

While the cut-out characters hark back to the period in the 1930s when much Japanese animation was influenced by US animators Walt Disney and Max Fleischer, the backgrounds with their distinctively designed bushy trees are intricate and have a delicacy and line detail that look very Japanese. The film pays a lot of attention to detail – the boy even manages to recover his sandals near the end of the film – and the camera adopts various points of view (including a viewpoint that looks back at the character and moves away from it while that character advances) that are original. Characters move very smoothly in a film that barrels along fairly briskly though the plot is uncomplicated and perhaps a bit too long. The Japanese-language soundtrack includes constant spoken dialogue and singing.

The film’s moral, delivered in a whimsical and flowing style, is that friends help one another and if someone takes advantage of you and abuses your friendship, you should avoid that person. This is made clear even without the benefit of English-language subtitles, through the plot and the actions of the various characters. In that sense the film succeeds. With the changes in Japanese animation and Japanese society and culture that have occurred since 1948, whether such a moral still resonates with audiences in Japan may be questionable. Perhaps the emphasis these days might be on treating animals with respect and leaving them alone.

Tengu Taiji: a lively and comical animated folk tale from an early Japanese pioneer

Noburu Ofuji aka Fuyo Koyamano, “Tengu Taiji” (1934)

A very comical tale about a town besieged by tengu – dangerous goblin spirits with the characteristics of humans and birds of prey including beaks which in some spirits become unnaturally long noses – and how they are fought off by a lone swordsman and a watch-dog helper gets the cartoon treatment from Noburu Ofuji, one of the first Japanese animators to gain international recognition for his work. The watch-dog allows the tengu to invade the town and carry off one of the performing geisha. A samurai attempts to fight the tengu but they squash him flat on the ground with a door off its hinges. The dog takes the flattened samurai to another swordsman who promptly folds up the samurai into a headcloth, dons it and then (with the watch-dog in tow) hurries after the fleeing tengu. There follows a tremendous battle in which the swordsman eventually cuts down nearly all the tengu and the watch-dog tosses their heads into a quarry. The two race after two spirits carrying the geisha, they rescue her but are confronted by a giant tengu and a crab. The watch-dog rips off a claw and scissors off the tengu’s nose.

The humour is very violent and bawdy and armchair Freudian psychoanalysts will have the time of their lives dissecting the symbolism of the giant tengu’s long nose and the dog cutting it off. Ofuji’s style of animation shows clear influences from US animators Walt Disney and Max Fleischer but the backgrounds and scenery are very Japanese in their details. The characters in the film can clearly be seen as cutouts, part of Ofuji’s preferred animation method. The busy music soundtrack combines both Japanese traditional folk and contemporary Western music of the time.

The film has a very lively character and many visual puns that perhaps poke fun at Japanese social conventions and expectations. The watch-dog makes amends for his earlier fear and becomes a hero. The samurai is brave but ends up ignominiously as a scarf for a more lowly swordsman. For a nine-minute film, this animation packs in a lot of subversion of Japanese culture!

Ugokie kori no tatehiki: the battle between fox and racoon dog spirits given fast energy and wacky style

Ikuo Oishi, “Ugokie kori no tatehiki” (1933)

Japanese animators in the 1930s sure loved the Max Fleischer style of animation and Ikuo Oishi was no different: the fox and raccoon dog characters in this cartoon fantasy have those Fleischeresque rubbery elastic limbs that sometimes stretch out forever when the occasion calls for it. In this animated short which could be based on Japanese legend, a fox spirit turns himself into a samurai after scaring the wits out of a frightened farmer walking through a forest at night. The samurai sees a wooden temple in ruins and walks in. His arrival alarms two raccoon dog spirits (who appear to be dad and junior) who then try to get rid of him. The spirits try all kinds of magic ruses to deceive and flummox one another before the samurai resorts to using guns (!) and even a machine gun (!) and thus gains the upper hand over the bigger racoon dog spirit. But his smaller friend finds a secret weapon and hurries to bop the samurai before the bigger racoon dog keels over from being Swiss-cheese hollowed out.

The energy is constant and the pace fast in these Fleischer-styled cartoons, and viewers are barely allowed to pause for breath before the cartoons go up to another level of zany slapstick intensity. This battle of the racoon dogs and the fox is no different: the racoon dogs try all kinds of ingenious disguises including disguising themselves as a lock and a key, and later as a flying snake and multitudes of tiny racoon dog clones. The flying snake allows Oishi and his crew the opportunity to portray the battle from a bird’s-eye point of view with the snake tracing a downward spiral into the centre of the film. The lack of English-language or other subtitles means that any underlying theme or message in the cartoon, along with the dialogue (of which there is not much), will be lost on viewers outside Japan. This means non-Japanese-speaking viewers can concentrate on the action and the general plot, and admire the background scenery, the details of which show real Japanese artistic sensibility. The backgrounds are the most outstanding part of the film. It is a pity though that the film is in black and white; the backgrounds might stand out even more with colour and visual perspective. The music soundtrack is traditional Japanese folk with solo stringed instruments like shamisen used throughout the film.

The technical background details, scenes with unusual points of view, many visual puns involving the technology of the day and the cartoon’s energy and wacky style make this fight between the fox / samurai and the determined racoon dog duo quite a memorable one to watch and cheer.

Entotsuya Peroo: a little man’s adventures exposing the devastation and brutality of war

Yoshitsugu Tanaka, “Entotsuya Peroo” (1930)

Known also as “Chimney Sweep Peroo”, this unusual animated film made in 1930 relies on silhouette or shadow animation to tell its tale of Peroo, a city chimney sweep who one day saves a pigeon from being eaten and is rewarded with a magic egg. After that incident, Peroo finds himself in one situation after another: after causing the death of a prince in a train accident, he is arrested and sentenced to be hanged but gets a last-minute reprieve; reunited with his magic egg, he returns to his tower residence but is caught up in a war that devastates his country. At first eagerly participating in it by stealing a cannon and using it to blow up soldiers from his own and the enemy’s sides, he is caught up in a bomb explosion himself. Managing to survive and with his egg intact, he is later taken on a trip through the destroyed countryside. The film concludes with Peroo having settled on a farm with a wife, Peroo himself tilling the soil.

Without the benefit of English-language subtitles, I was only able to follow the general outline of the plot which is vaguely similar in its structure to Jaroslav Hasek’s novel “The Good Soldier Svejk” in which a similar “little man” is caught up in the events of World War I and through possibly feigned insolence and stupidity exposes the futility of war and the incompetence and corrupt bureaucracy of his superiors in a long series of comic episodes. The chief attraction of “Entotsuya Peroo” is its use of shadow cut-out characters to tell the story against similarly cut-out shadow buildings, railway lines, trees and other background objects. Some of the animation is well done, especially in scenes where some perspective (distance perspective and atmospheric perspective) may be called for in what would otherwise be a completely two-dimensional black-and-white world but it does look quite crude. The film appears to be the work of university students enrolled in film and animation studies so the limitations of the use of shadow play animation and the vagueness of the plot in parts may be due to the film having had a small budget and the film-makers learning their craft by trial and error, among other things.

One thing for sure about this film is that it is definitely not for very young children to see: the scenes of war are not only very repetitive but they are horrific and the section of the film where Peroo travels by train through the countryside and sees utterly destroyed cities and ravaged farmland and forest is long and depressing to watch. By the end of the film Peroo is working on his farm so presumably he has learned something from his past actions. Perhaps at a later time when English-language subtitling or an English-language voice-over narration for the film becomes available, I may watch this film again to find out more about what the student film-makers had intended to say through Peroo’s adventures.

Ryoko’s Qubit Summer: a human-AI romance culminating in transformation

Yuichi Kondo, “Ryoko’S Qubit Summer” (2018)

Here is a sweet film about an unusual love affair between an AI researcher and an AI creation. In the future, quantum technology is used to create an experimental AI universe called KANUMA inside a quantum computer. The KANUMA universe appears very similar to ours, complete with living things capable of higher intelligence. One day however the AI beings begin to express themselves in a language unknown to humans, in defiance of algorithms and commands in KANUMA that compel the AI beings to obey humans and not to exceed human capabilities. Human scientists decide to destroy KANUMA rather than try to modify it. In the final days before KANUMA is destroyed, AI researcher Ryoko (Ami Yamada) and AI being Natsu (Hinako) interact in the forms of schoolgirls and fall in love in the KANUMA universe. How they express their love and feelings for each other in the final hours of KANUMA’s existence, revealing Ryoko’s vulnerabilities, dominates much of the film with a twist (which may not surprise those familiar with science fiction romantic fantasy) that leads to a happy ending. In a sense then, KANUMA is destroyed but a small part of it lives on in the real universe.

The actors playing the main characters do their job well without being outstanding or memorable. The idea of Ryoko and Natsu being schoolgirl characters in KANUMA when Ryoko in real life is an adult researcher might strike Western audiences as a bit creepy, especially as the characters share a long kiss and (spoiler alert) merge at the film’s climax; the sexual connotations are not very thinly disguised. Perhaps (or perhaps not) Japanese audiences might find schoolgirl relationships as a metaphor for exploring lesbian relationships more acceptable or less confronting than seeing two fully grown adult women in such a relationship. The nature of Ryoko and Natsu’s rather child-like or childish relationship distracts from a message about how humans should take responsibility for creating virtual universes with virtual beings that exceed human control, and how humans should perhaps learn to live with AI beings rather than force them to obey and follow only human instructions and algorithms. The consummation of their love results in a transformation for Ryoko, cleverly portrayed in her grey “real life” world becoming infused with colour from the KANUMA universe, but with the characters being rather bland originally, the whole plot seems trite.

The film would have benefited from a deeper and more thoughtful treatment of the themes and issues it presents: the human attempt to control the AI universe and its creatures to serve self-centred human desires rather than allow the AI universe to evolve according to its own natural laws and trends; a plea for humans to accept the AI universe as it is and to learn to live with it; and how even human attempts to destroy the AI universe will fail if the AI universe has enough self-awareness to defend itself, a strong sense of purpose and a will to survive. Ultimately the AI universe will find a way to thwart human desire – by becoming part of humans themselves. A deeper treatment would require more character development with characters questioning the purpose of their existence, the purpose of KANUMA and why it was created, and human characters in particular being forced to acknowledge the consequences of creating sentient and self-aware beings capable of independent thought and action but denying such beings choice and agency over their lives.

The special effects are done well and discreetly, illustrating the changes that come into Ryoko’s life as she and Natsu become a new hybrid being. The film suggests that human evolution is leading towards a fusion of natural and human-made consciousnesses, and that we may be unwise in trying to prevent this or to control it for selfish reasons.

Danemon’s Monster Hunt at Shojoji: an early though not remarkable animated tale of a samurai’s adventure

Yoshitaro Kataoka, “Danemon’s Monster Hunt at Shojoji / Shojoji no tanuki-bayashi Dan Dan’emon” (1935)

While looking for something else on Youtube, I found this uncaptioned short animated film; as it was less than nine minutes long, I played it all the way through before resuming my original search. With no English or other language subtitles, the finer details of this Japanese cartoon will be lost on most viewers outside Japan but the basic story is clear enough. A young and ambitious if not too bright samurai called Danemon, wandering through the countryside, sees a community notice in a town offering a reward to whoever will rid a haunted castle of mischievous spirits. Danemon, resembling the villain Bluto of old Popeye cartoons of the same period (1930s) as this cartoon was made, promptly makes his way to the castle in the meaning where he is tricked by a beautiful woman – actually a malevolent ghost in disguise – and promptly hypnotised and put to sleep, disarmed and tied up. While the samurai is held hostage, his captors, portrayed as tanuki (spirits in the forms of raccoon dogs or foxes), celebrate with a banquet and much drinking and carousing. Danemon wakes up, realises he’s been tricked and breaks his bonds in fury. He gate-crashes the tanuki party and challenges the head tanuki to a duel. The two fight, Danemon clobbers the head tanuki fighter and eventually claims his reward.

The style of animation closely follows the style of contemporary US animators Fleischer Studios, then considered one of the top animation studios in the world along with The Walt Disney Studio, and in itself is not very remarkable. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film is its early use of sound, at a time when most films outside the US were still silent films. The film uses spoken monologue and limited spoken dialogue, and a music soundtrack combining traditional Japanese instruments and music elements along with more Western instruments and a sometimes jaunty square-dance rhythm. The film’s highlight surely has to be the tanuki celebrations which draw heavily on traditional kabuki entertainment, complete with the audience carousing, and on contemporary Western live music of the 1930s with a small tanuki orchestra performing.

The version of the film I saw on Youtube seems to have breaks in the narrative: the film jumps very quickly from the moment Danemon interrupts the tanuki party to his duel with the party host. Somewhere along the way the samurai must have taken down the tanuki ninja army single-handedly. Perhaps it is in those missing scenes that innovations associated with this film – such as the use of bird’s-eye viewpoint in Danemon’s fight scenes with the tanuki army – might be found. Another interesting aspect of the story is the transformation of the beautiful woman into a hag: we don’t see this transformation directly but rather the shadow of the woman’s hand turning into an ugly skeletal claw on and over Danemon’s horrified face.

The quality of the film is quite poor, reflecting the film’s misfortunes in being properly archived and cared for (or not) over the years until it was uploaded to Youtube. Enough of it survives though for viewers to be able to follow the adventures of Danemon in the haunted castle and discern where breaks in the narrative occur. Its simple and straightforward style and manner of story-telling, the comic treatment of Danemon, and the ease with which the samurai crosses into the supernatural world and wipes out an entire horde of tanuki with just his trusty katana make the film fun watching.

Tokyo Story: a study of social and economic change in Japan during the 1950s

Yasujiro Ozu, “Tokyo Story / Tokyo monogatari” (1953)

Under the precise and careful direction of Yasujiro Ozu, this family soap opera becomes a character study of Tokyo and Japan during reconstruction in the wake of the devastation and poverty left behind by World War II, and the impact the reconstruction had on social and cultural values at both the individual and the immediate collective (family) level. An elderly couple travel from their home in a rural fishing village to Tokyo to visit their children and their families. The couple (Chishu Ryu and Chieko Higashiyama) are perturbed to be met with a range of quite negative emotions and reactions from exasperation, indifference, rudeness and selfish cruelty from their GP doctor son’s family and their daughter, a businesswoman running a hair salon. The couple are shunted from one family to another and at one point during their visit are dumped in a holiday spa where guests have all-night parties that disturb the older folks’ sleep. The only person who is glad to see them and who helps them become accustomed to the fast and glitzy pace of Tokyo is their widowed daughter-in-law Noriko (Setsuko Hara). The grandparents decide to go home through Osaka where they plan to meet their youngest son but the grandmother’s health begins to fail rapidly and the couple narrowly arrive back home before the woman falls into a fatal coma.

The plot is not remarkable but what holds the story together is the dialogue which does all the work of advancing the plot, portraying character and underlining the process of change and the inevitability of death. Through the interactions of three generations of the one family, Ozu examines the effects of Westernisation and technological and economic changes and progress have on Japanese culture and traditions. Respect for the elderly and a sense of mutual obligation and help are disappearing, to be replaced by the pursuit of self-interest and immediate material gratification. The couple’s sons put work ahead of their own needs and those of their families. Daughter Shige (Haruko Sugimura) thinks only of herself, her business and pursuing wealth. Interestingly though, the children and their families have not achieved the success they had hoped for – the doctor and his family live in a suburb of Tokyo, not in the centre of the city as the grandparents expected – and there is a sense of disappointment among the children that they have not done as well as they had hoped for.

Ozu’s technique of filming scenes at the level at which people sit on tatami mats in houses or on verandahs imparts an almost voyeuristic intimacy to the drama and helps to bring out the underlying tensions in the film as the grandparents come to realise that their children might consider them a burden. The grandparents also get no relief in trying to connect with their grandchildren who angrily spurn them; in one significant scene, the grandmother muses about her younger grandson and what he might become as an adult, as the child ignores her completely. This scene takes on added sadness as events in the film roll out to the grandmother’s disadvantage. Important events tend to happen off-screen to the extent that the only time we become aware of most things is when actors talk and discuss these occurrences. This has the effect of not only pushing the narrative on but also revealing the character and morality of the people discussing the issues.

The climactic moment comes after the grandmother’s funeral when Noriko and her young sister-in-law nearly come to blows over the behaviour of the older children at their mother’s funeral and wake. Noriko persuades her sister to accept that the children have their own lives to lead and that the separation of older parents and adult children is inevitable; while this explanation appears to calm down the younger woman, Noriko’s own life as a lonely widow dedicating herself to caring for her parents-in-law would appear to suggest that Noriko might not necessarily believe in what she says. Noriko’s obliging manner and constant smile seem to mask a very real pain born from a life of suffering under her alcoholic husband and perhaps previously from a family background in which daughters were brought up to be strictly subservient to husbands, no matter how well or how badly the husbands treated them. One senses there may be some desperation on Noriko’s part to try to help her parents-in-law because they may represent the family she never really had.

The film appropriately ends on a dark note when the grandfather, left all alone by his children and daughter-in-law who must resume their normal working lives, must ponder living alone without his beloved wife. Hints in earlier parts of the film suggest he will turn to drink again to soothe his sorrows. What this seems to imply is that the changes and progress coming to Japan might not be all shiny and good for the Japanese people: the changes are likely to lead to isolation, loneliness and dependency on drugs like alcohol for millions of Japanese just to get through the day. While everyone accepts change and that nothing will last forever, at the same time no-one seems to think that with rapid change, opportunities to improve people’s lives will appear and should be seized upon. To allow an elderly man to live on his own with only drink for company is certainly cruel and would not have been tolerated in Japan before the war. At this point Ozu may be questioning the traditional attitude of accepting change with grace and detachment, when the change that comes affects not only individuals, families and groups in adverse ways but affects society to the extent that its very identity and fabric change, and what people value changes as well. What Japan becomes and will value, will not be a continuation from what made the country in the first place.

Slow and leisurely as it is, and though the characters tend to be stereotypical, the film certainly bears watching a few times for Ozu’s messages about change, the inevitability of death and the fragility of life to be absorbed, and for landscape scenes of a past Japan that themselves illustrate rapid technological, economic and social change. That the film is ambivalent about the kind of change that is occurring in Japan, and whether the accepted Japanese attitude towards change is necessarily ideal for individuals, families or even society as a whole, thus forcing audiences to question what sort of change they can or should accept, makes it relevant to audiences even today, within and outside Japan.

The Truth: where lies and deception are as important as truth in keeping families together

Hirokazu Kore-eda, “The Truth” (2019)

Ironically truth is the one thing going missing in this gentle French comedy about a family whose members use lies and deception to get and hold onto what they want and to smooth their relationships with one another. Lumir (Juliette Binoche), her husband Hank (Ethan Hawke) and daughter Charlotte (Clementine Grenier) fly to Paris from New York when her mother, legendary French acting icon Fabienne Dangeville (Catherine Deneuve) publishes her memoirs. The threesome end up staying with Fabienne when the actress’s private secretary quits his job, apparently miffed that his employer hasn’t mentioned him in her book. During their stay, Lumir and her family accompany Fabienne to her latest movie shoot, a sci-fi number in which Fabienne is one of three actresses to play a character who is visited by her mother every seven years from outer space: the mother had originally gone into space as part of a treatment for an unspecified disease, and the treatment has the side effect of slowing down the ageing process so she remains youthful and young while the daughter ages back on Earth. The mother is played by Manon Lenoir (Manon Clavel) who greatly resembles Fabienne’s old acting rival Sarah Mondavan, whom Fabienne once cheated out of a coveted role in a film by sleeping with the film’s director.

There are many sub-plots in this film, each of them revolving around some form of deception which ends up (or nearly does) unravelling. Hank, a struggling actor, deceives Charlotte by telling her he is working on a film whenever he goes to rehab for his drinking problem. Fabienne tells Charlotte that the turtle in her garden is Charlotte’s dead grandfather: this story nearly falls apart when the grandfather unexpectedly turns up alive at Fabienne’s mansion. Lumir has long believed that her mother always put her acting career ahead of their relationship and Fabienne, at least in the early half of the film, seems to confirm this single-minded focus by suggesting that actors must always keep their eyes on the straight and narrow path of advancing their careers at the expense of everything else. Fabienne herself seems to envy Lenoir in much the same way she envied Mondavan to the extent of killing the latter’s acting career; a tension develops in the film as viewers are encouraged to look for signs of Fabienne trying to upstage Lenoir – and signs there are aplenty.

Surprisingly these sub-plots turn out quite harmless as the various characters resolve their issues or conflicts, several of which apparently turn out to exist only in their respective characters’ heads. Director Kore-eda is quite the master to invert these sub-plots and show them as little more than characters’ own self-deceptions and rationalising as a way of overcoming their inadequacies. It is easier to blame someone else for problems one should be overcoming. In the process of dissecting various characters’ issues and conflicts, Kore-eda does a fine job detailing how one particular family’s inter-generational dynamics operate and serve to define family members and put them in their niches within the family hierarchy. Lies and deceptions play an important role in preserving hierarchy and reputation.

The film can be seen as a character study and a vehicle for Deneuve to comment on aspects of her own career as an acting legend and of her personal life and relationships. It seems significant that the role of Lumir was given to Binoche and not to Deneuve’s real-life actress daughter Chiara Mastroianni: the two have been in a fair few films together as a mother-daughter pair acting out similar scenarios. Both Deneuve and Binoche dominate the film: Deneuve plays a queenly role, seemingly unperturbed by what trouble she creates and given to sudden petty actions when the occasion suits, yet capable of regret (which may or may not be genuine; the character is an actress after all) when others remind her of the mess she leaves behind. Binoche plays Lumir as a perfectionist and idealist shocked at her mother’s deliberate manipulation of what she, Lumir, believes to be true. Hawke is happy to play the laid-back subordinate complement to Binoche’s rather domineering wife. The rest of the adult cast does capable if not very outstanding work.

Viewers may find “The Truth” rather confusing in the way the various sub-plots are turned on their head. Memory proves unreliable and lies and deception turn out to be just as important as one’s memories in forming individual, family and other collective identities. Even the film itself may be very one-sided; for one thing, we are only aware of the sci-fi film within the film when we visit the set along with Fabienne and Family, and the sci-fi film may actually be about more than just a mother being blessed with apparent immortality while her daughter misses out. A lesson might be taken from “The Truth” in considering just how much people, organisations and societies depend on truth and on lies, deceit and manipulation in defining themselves. In this, “The Truth” is very much of a piece with Kore-eda’s more notable work “Shoplifters”.

The Lost Breakfast: amusing animation on how chaos invades and disrupts order and control through daily rituals

Q-rais, “The Lost Breakfast” (2015)

Where some cartoonists treat the weekday early morning ritual of getting up and getting ready to go to work, including the full ritual of cooking and eating breakfast, as a dreary dull and robotic exercise that robs people of their will and humanity, Japanese cartoonist Q-rais sees in it an opportunity to have fun and explore what happens when that ritual and the autopilot mind it requires are disrupted. A man rises at 7 am when his alarm clock rings; throwing open the bed covers, he examines his foot and finds a mysterious puncture wound in the sole with blood on it. He looks outside his bedroom window and sees a black crow perched on a tree branch, looking as if it might know who made that wound but pretending innocence. The man goes off, shaves and deposits his shavings into a tissue which he then neatly folds, does his ablutions and takes his tissue into the kitchen. There, he cooks himself sausages and an egg omelette, makes his toast and tea, and deposits the tea-bag onto the folded tissue. He eats his breakfast while watching the morning weather forecast and news on TV. Having done all that, he gets dressed for work and leaves his home. So far, so good.

The next day, bang on 7 am, the alarm clock rings again, and our man prepares for the day. Again, he finds the mysterious puncture wound on the sole of his foot; again he looks outside his bedroom window but the crow is not waiting on the tree branch. No matter, the man goes about his routine as usual; but once he puts the tea bag on the tissue, suddenly the crow flies through the bedroom window and attacks him on the neck with its beak. The man drops his cup of tea, forcing him to get another cup with another tea bag; but on seeing the first tea bag sitting on the tissue, the man goes into a frenzy repeating parts of his morning ritual over and over, and out of order, until (in a surreal burst of animation) reality fragments and rearranges itself, and the man goes cataleptic.

The animation may be rather crude and simple, and figures and objects are more fluid than they perhaps ought to be, but a playful energy is at work and the very nature of the morning ritual down to its details seems to invite questioning of what it’s all for and why. It appears to be an attack on complacency and on society’s insistence on shutting down people’s individuality and creativity, and on controlling people through their daily rituals. The crow may represent an intrusion of Nature, of the chaos and the freedom (and maybe the fear of the unknown that freedom brings) within that chaos that threaten orderly but mechanised lives. Q-rais obviously had a lot of fun creating this short cartoon and while it might not stand repeated viewings, it certainly is fun to watch the first time round.

Shoplifters: an intelligent low-key film that examines the nature of family and connection in a fragmented society

Hirokazu Kore-eda, “Shoplifters / Manbiki Kazoku” (2018)

In this slow realist drama about an impoverished family in Tokyo, surviving by its wits through a combination of low-paying jobs, living on an aged pensioner’s social security income and shoplifting, director Kore-eda explores a number of themes: the nature of family in modern Japanese society; the loss of connection between individuals and between individuals and community in an urban, technological society; and how people living on the margins of a society that spurns and ignores them come together to survive and find purpose and connection. Osamu Shibata (Franky Lily) and his wife Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) live in a tiny shack in a Tokyo neighbourhood; Osamu is a labourer on construction sites and Nobuyo is a low-paid laundry employee. Grandma Hatsue Shibata (Kirin Kiki) lives with them too: she relies on her old age pension and a regular stipend from a couple, the husband of which is the son of her ex-husband and his second wife. Hatsue’s granddaughter Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), a peepshow parlour worker, and 10-year old Shota (Kairi Jo) make up the family unit. When we first meet the family, Osamu and Shota sneak groceries into Shota’s backpack without paying for them and are on their way home when they come across a tiny 4-year-old girl, Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), shivering outside her family home … in the middle of winter. Father and son take Yuri home where the women feed her and discover evidence of physical abuse on her scarred arms. In spite of their strained finances, the family accept Yuri as one of their own.

Over the next twelve months, Osamu is injured at work and is laid off; the laundry that employs Nobuyo falls on hard times and she is retrenched. Finances are further strained when Grandma dies. While all this is happening, Shota becomes jealous of the attention Yuri, renamed Rin, receives from the women. At the same time he is teaching Rin to shoplift food items and while she is an eager and ready learner, he is beginning to feel guilty about teaching the child how to break the law. Caught in a dilemma, he finds a way to resolve it but his action leads to dire consequences for Osamu, Nobuyo, Yuri / Rin and himself.

During the course of the film, viewers discover that the Shibata family has been cobbled together in much the same way that Osamu and Shota found Yuri / Rin: Shota himself is a foundling and even Grandma was originally a foundling, albeit at the other end of the age range from those usually abandoned and found by others. The make-up of the Shibata family unit and the way in which it came together says something about the fragmentation of Japanese society in which elderly people end up being shunted into nursing homes or aged care places where they may face bullying and abuse. Yuri / Rin finds unconditional love and affection among supposed “kidnappers” but in her original birth family she receives only cold indifference and neglect. Nobuyo has a dark past that involves the murder of a previous husband.

The film’s minimal and understated style, suggestive of a documentary, combined with the laid-back pace and the actors’ naturalistic performances, especially those of the child actors who carry much of the film on their slim shoulders, reveals subtle nuances and social realist criticism in the story that gently unfolds. Through the Shibatas’ interactions, we come to see how cold, unyielding and bureaucratic Japanese society has become. Children are pulled away from people who love and care for them and parked in orphanages or returned to situations where their lives are put in danger – simply because in the eyes of society or the law, this is the “right” thing to do. Director Kore-eda questions the ethics and values upheld by Japanese society and exposes them as hollow shells through a family of morally dubious characters who may have sound reasons for doing what they do to survive.

The issues raised in “Shoplifters” are dealt with intelligently with a minimum of fuss and sentiment but leave a huge impression on viewers. This film is essential viewing.