Black Kiss (2004)

Asuka is an aspiring model who has just moved to the big city. She finds lodgings with a rather abrasive woman named Kasumi. One night in the flat Asuka witnesses a brutal murder at the Hotel Bats across the street together with Kasumi. They call the police who begin to investigate but the case proves to be very strange indeed. Playing on bizarre coincidences, occultism, supernatural elements, and family drama, the investigation take a number of surprising turns on the path to finding the killer.

Black Kiss is an odd blend of crime drama and horror. In the naming of Hotel Bats and the constant thunderstorm raging outside it seems to be paying homage to macabre horror tales. Early in the film we have a sex scene and the gory disembowelling of the victim, however these elements are not really continued throughout. Unfortunately, much of the film is shot, written and acted more like a daytime drama, which is at odds with some of the better film-making on display. The film’s story begins with Asuka witnessing the crime, but soon we are introduced to the detectives and other side characters who also carry a part of the story. The film may have benefitted from a clearer focus on a single character to sustain the mystery. This would mean there are things that this character would need to find out. Instead the film attempts to confuse the audience with red herrings and inexplicable twists, such as references to the number 9 that are all but indecipherable. The film is certainly not without merit. There are some very well shot sequences. In particular the scene between the two flatmates on a rooftop, with one acrobatically cartwheeling along a ledge against the city lights in the background. The music here is also at its best. The score features some great moments, such as during the sex scene with a strange but oddly fitting choice to use an amelodic screeching, and the aforementioned scene on the rooftop evoking a calm. Other parts of the film are fairly standard action tunes that seems to be in keeping with the films wildly divergent quality.

The film outstays its welcome and seems a little directionless at times. However, there are moments that are worth watching for and it is clear that the creators intentions were to create a thrilling mystery with twists and turns, referencing both hard-boiled crime dramas and traditional horror stories. It is a film that seems not to know it’s own strengths and so lingers too long on the more tedious characters or elements.

Versus (2000)

Two recently escaped convicts meet up with a group of gangsters who are taking them to safety. After a disagreement regarding a female hostage of the group, one of the men decides to make a run for it, through the woods to freedom. However, these are no ordinary woods. The “Forest of Resurrection”¬† has the power to bring the dead back to life. What follows is a fight for survival between the convict and his female companion and the men chasing them. In a later twist the man realises that there is a reason why he has been brought back to this particular forest as an ancient adversary returns.

Written by Ryuhei Kitamura and Yudai Yamaguchi the script is a ridiculous blend of Yakuza and Zombie film tropes. The majority of the runtime is dedicated to the action sequences that are the film’s major strength. Essentially a series of fights that are loosely contrived through various characters happening upon one another, there is enough variety to keep them fresh, especially with the zombie element thrown in. The film doesn’t shy away from violence and fans of gore will not be disappointed with the bucket loads of blood, and practical effects for gunshots and other injuries. Decapitation, dismemberment, punching a hole straight through a zombie: all of these are commonplace in a film that doesn’t take itself too seriously. There are moments of intentional slapstick and black humour that lighten the tone. The main issue with the film is that it never quite manages to draw you in on an emotional level, for the most part being surface action and violence. Kitamura’s direction does keep things entertaining, with stylish 360-degree shots, lively editing and some fantastic framing that elevates the film above its basic story. The actors are all well cast and bring their eccentric characters to life, doing a great job with the fight choreography as well as the comedic beats.

“Versus” will appeal to fans of zombie films and the more bizarre yakuza movies, complete with jokes about missing hands, liberal use of violence, increasingly ridiculous guns employed to blast characters out of situations. The film’s own self-awareness of the silliness of its premise along with skilful and stylish direction make this worth a watch for fans of the genre. While there is very little to appeal on a dramatic or story level, the action scenes, with great choreography and practical effects, make for a fun distraction.

Close-knit (2017)

11-year old Tomo is left alone when her mother walks out on her. Her uncle, Maki, a kind-hearted man agrees to take her in. On the way to his home he tells Tomo that he has a special lady in his life, something he wanted to tell her before they meet. When Tomo arrives she is introduced to Rinko, born male, who is transitioning to be a woman. Maki and Rinko have a loving relationship and become surrogate parents to Tomo. A sub-plot involves Tomo’s classmate, named Kai, who is dealing with his own gender identity and homosexuality.

Written and directed by Naoko Ogigami, who wanted to confront the issues of LGBTQ communities in Japan, “Close-knit” positions itself firmly in the category of mild family drama. While it confronts the themes of bullying, homophobia and conservative attitudes, it never attempts to shock its audience. Instead the tone is upbeat, calm, friendly, and respectful. Rinko is shown to be a kind-hearted woman and there are very few moments of threat, that can occasionally lead to one wondering what the purpose of the film is. It seems intended to show the normality of transgender people and homosexuality, though for many viewers this will perhaps seem unnecessary. The more engaging story seems to be that of Kai, who suffers bullying and feelings of isolation and depression. ¬†However, to criticise the film for being too mild, or not going out of its way to shock, may be to miss the point. Creating such a drama centred on a transgender woman in itself is a brave act and before long the gentleness and charm of the film has eased the audience into acceptance in a way that perhaps a more hard-hitting drama would not. Ogigami’s skilful direction makes the film a delight to watch, with exceptional framing and attention to minutiae that bring out the emotional content of scenes. I especially liked the mirrored shots at the beginning and end of the film that show the transition or growth of a particular character.

An interesting film that deals with themes of family, gender identity and sexuality. “Close-knit” is a charming family drama with a twist. It confronts its subject in a refreshingly frank and honest way without resorting to sensationalism or crude jokes. It might be accused of not confronting the genuine difficulties of reactionary conservative views on this issue, but this is just not that kind of film.

Shin Godzilla (2016)

Following a thrilling action packed opening sequence of an unknown creature emerging from Tokyo Bay and rampaging through the city streets, destroying buildings and forcing people to flee before it, various government departments must work to find out what it is and how to stop it. Their response will determine the fates of millions of citizens. Soon a task force of scientists and experts is set up to discover the nature of the being, led by government official Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa) and his American counterpart, Kayoko Patterson (Satomi Ishihara). Together this team establishes that the creature seems to be radioactive and capable of rapidly evolving. The seemingly indestructible force, that they name Godzilla, continues on its destructive course, putting them in a race against time and raising difficult questions about how they deal with it.

Written and directed by Hideaki Anno (Evangelion, Love and Pop) with additional directing duties for Shinji Higuchi (Attack on Titan), the film wastes no time by getting straight to what people want to see: a giant creature knocking down buildings and terrorizing the population. This opening sequence is a great way to start as it gives the audience no time to settle and draws you right into the crisis rooms where they are scrambling to counter this unexpected catastrophe. Anno’s face paced directorial style works well to create a sense of panic and the script is perfect in evoking high level discussions on military response, scientific analysis, and the political considerations of the prime minister and his team. Throughout the pacing is good, giving us a couple of lulls in the action to establish characters and spell out more clearly what is happening and the import of the decisions they are taking. There are moments of humour throughout though the film never becomes a parody. It has a satirical edge that doesn’t undermine the drama, perfectly balancing a great action film with a more intelligent discussion on various real-world events. A great cast help to bring to life the script and it doesn’t shy away from complex explanations that help establish a sense of realism to the incredible concept. The use of large casts, in conference rooms and in action sequences works well to give the impression that this is something of incredible significance. Rather than a few isolated characters, there are always larger groups of people listening in or reacting to events. The scenes of Godzilla are exciting, increasing in scale and ferocity as the film progresses. Using a mixture of miniatures, practical and digital effects, the filmmakers create some incredible set-pieces, but always with one eye on the human element by cutting back to reaction shots or the smaller scale impact.

The film continues the tradition of the original Godzilla by creating an interesting subtext to the action. The monster is discovered to be radioactive, a theme that ties in with Japan’s recent Fukushima nuclear plant disaster. The way that government responds to this threat is especially poignant given the real world correlation. Shin Godzilla also appears to be a pointed attack on government incompetence and conservative mindset (evidenced by their consistent sidelining of a female expert who turns out to be correct in everything she suggests). It praises scientists, experts, and using intellect over raw firepower to overcome Godzilla. As with the original there is a discussion of the use of nuclear weapons, and an even more heavily emphasized consideration of Japan-America relations. It celebrates international co-operations, intelligence, warns of the threat of nuclear power while also acknowledging its benefits, and provides a satire of government inadequacies. However, all of these things tie into the story and are never forced. A fun, intelligent monster movie that succeeds on every level. Spectacular action sequences tempered by thoughtful exploration of the underlying themes.

Kwaidan (1964)

An anthology of four short films based on the popular supernatural tales of Lafcadio Hearn. The first film “The Black Hair” tells the story of a former retainer brought low by the death of his lord. After leaving his wife and marrying another woman he begins to regret his new life and returns to his old home to find that things are not as he expects. The second story “The Woman of the Snow” tells the tale of a couple of woodcutters trapped in a blizzard. The older man is killed by a mysterious pale woman who takes pity on the younger man allowing him to live if he swears not to tell another what he has seen. In the next tale “Hoichi the Earless” the spirits of an ancient battle visit a blind biwa player who is led to the spirit world to play for them. The final story “In a Cup of Tea” tells of a man who is troubled by spirits after seeing a face appear in his cup.

The four stories contained in “Kwaidan” are connected by a common theme of the supernatural, though they cut directly between each with no common characters. It is therefore more akin to watching four short films than a single narrative. The film respects the source material of the Lafcadio Hearn book, which provides a great base. Each of the paranormal tales builds to a twist ending or an inexplicable occurrence and with a short running time none of them outstay their welcome. Director Masaki Kobayashi does a great job of bringing the stories to life. There is a sense of theatre to the film with amazing sets and painted backgrounds giving the impression that these are retellings of ancient legends. However, this does nothing to lessen the impact of the drama with good acting and sound design along with the set decoration creating an impressive atmosphere of dread. There is also an interesting use of light, with blues and reds used to great effect. It is a perfect blend of theatre techniques with the medium of film.

Intriguing supernatural stories that are brought to the screen in timelessly beautiful versions. Many of the stories warn of the danger of spirits or focus on the horror of death. I would highly recommend this for fans of folklore and ghost stories. The design elements, music and acting perfectly capture the eerie atmosphere of Hearn’s tales.

Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl (2009)

Monami (Yukie Kawamura) is a vampire recently transferred to a new high-school where she falls for Mizushima (Takumi Saito). This draws the ire of Keiko (Eri Otoguro) who also has eyes on him. Unbeknownst to all, Keiko’s father, the vice-principle, and the sexually voracious school nurse are conducting experiments to create a living being from a corpse. Monami turns Mizushima into a vampire, feeding him her blood in a Valentine’s Day chocolate. When Keiko falls to her death after finding out about their relationship, her father reanimates her body and the ultimate monster match is on.

Written by Yoshihiro Nishimura and directed by Nishimura and Naoyuki Tomomatsu, the film is ridiculous from start to finish. With a title like that you would not expect anything else. What is interesting is how many of the plot points actually do tie together and build toward the climactic showdown, rather than being unrelated set-pieces. It plays with a number of genres, high-school romance, vampire and monster movie tropes, subverting them at every turn. There is a dark sense of humour here, particularly in the “wrist-cutting” club and group that obsess over Black American culture. It offers a twisted look at high-school including the more unpalatable elements. The special effects work is first class, with a lot of emphasis on physical effects and models, as well as CG. Rather than frightening the audience its aim is to disgust and it achieves this time and time again. That being said this felt a little tamer than 2008’s Tokyo Gore Police, which depending on your tastes may be a good or a bad thing. There are sequences of gore, gallons of blood, severed limbs and suchlike but rarely anything as nightmare-inducing as that film contained. Here the comedy and horror are more finely balanced.

The film is an exercise in pushing the boundaries of taste. It’s at its best when at its most outrageous and there are a few scenes where you may laugh in spite of yourself, if nothing else for the sheer effort the film is putting into some of the jokes. The actors do a great job and are clearly relishing the opportunity to act childishly with the off-colour material. The film has the feel of a child’s Halloween drawing brought to life, or a director who has been given the ultimate set of toys to play with and allowed to do whatever he wants. Schlocky horror comedy that isn’t afraid to make a fool of itself.

The Boy and the Beast (2015)

The film begins with a brief introduction telling the tale of a fantastical land of animals, whose great warriors fight for the prize of becoming the new lord. When these animal lords pass away they become new gods. We are then introduced to a young human boy Ren, whose parents are recently divorced. Feeling frustrated he runs away and ends up living on the streets of Shibuya. Ren is discovered by an anthropomorphic bear and monkey. Following them he finds his way into the animal world. The bear turns out to be the legendary fighter Kumatetsu who must do battle with the boar Iozen. Kumatetsu decides to take Ren in as his disciple, renaming him Kyuta (a play on him being 9 years old). Kumatetsu is slovenly, arrogant and a terrible teacher, being self-centred and stubborn. However, Kyuta soon begins to learn from him, and he from Kyuta. When Kyuta returns to the world of humans he must make a difficult choice to leave Kumatetsu, his surrogate father, behind and return to his real father and his real life, or to support him in his most difficult hour.

Written and directed by Mamoru Hosoda (Wolf Children) the film is a poignant exploration of masculinity and fatherhood. Though their relationship is dysfunctional there is affection between Kyuta and Kumatetsu. Each lacks the emotional intelligence to express themselves verbally, but nevertheless they provide support for each other, complimenting the others’ weaknesses. In the case of Kumatetsu it is his inability to listen or learn from others, in Kyuta’s case it is his lack of strength or self belief. The animation in the early portions of the film takes us on a journey through the dark back alleys of Tokyo, with abandoned bikes, the eerie glow of vending machines, as well as the bright lights of Shibuya’s famous crossing. When it moves to the world of animals there is a definite shift in tone to a more lighthearted art and animation style. This works fantastically well in creating a definite intersection between reality and fable. What Ren learns in the fantastical world of Kumatetsu is a good way to explore what might be difficult themes in a human drama. There is plenty of humour and clowning here that captures a childlike sense of joy and wonder while at the same time not shying away from the seriousness of what Ren is experiencing.

The central theme of the film is that of a father son relationship. Through Kumatetsu and Ren’s fraught experiences with one another they both grow to appreciate having a surrogate parent or child. Kumatetsu’s violent outbursts are softened by his characterisation as a bear creating a safe way to explore themes of parental aggression. We learn to sympathise with both Ren and Kumatetsu and understand why both act the way they do, while also willing them to resolve their differences. At the end there are touching moments later in the film when you realise that their anger is a sign of affection. The film also deals with themes of strength and masculinity, particularly in relation to Ren’s journey to becoming a man. It asks the question of what true strength is, whether physical or emotional, and how important that is for surviving life’s hardships. This is an important film for understanding not only the stresses that divorce and separation from a parent can have on a child, but also offers a male perspective on how to deal with these issues.

Your Name (2016)

Mitsuha is a highschool girl living in a remote rural community. A conscientious girl, she takes part in the villages cultural event as a shrine-maiden along with her younger sister and grandmother. But Mitsuha dreams of moving to Tokyo away from the monotony of rural life. Taki is a highschool boy living in Tokyo, the very life that Mitsuha dreams of and the two find themselves inexplicably living each other’s lives. At first they believe that this second life is simply a dream that they struggle to remember on waking, but as the pair’s friends explain to them their bizarre behaviour they begin to understand that what is happening is real. Without knowing each other they have somehow become bound together. As the film progresses there are several twists and turns that take the story in unexpected directions as a disaster threatens Mitsuha’s hometown.

Makoto Shinkai (5 Centimeters per Second) has once again directed a stunningly beautiful animation. The world of the film, both rural and urban, is recreated with exceptional skill and an eye for incidental details that help bring it to life. Many of the scenes are works of art, the lakes and mountains of Mitsuha’s home are exquisitely depicted. Shinkai certainly has developed a recognizable style of his own and that is present here, in particular the use of light, with dazzling sunbeams, starlight, dawn and dusk captured brilliantly, though occasionally it becomes excessive and a more restrained approach may have worked better. You can feel the mountain air and the bustle of the city and it is a world that you could happily step right into. RADWIMPS provide several songs for the film and this seems to indicate a step to a more commercial direction for Shinkai. The piano score more reminiscent of earlier works is still here, but there are a number of up-tempo montage sequences, a focus on comedy, and more traditional relationships developed in the subplots that make this a more easily accessible work. The story does a good job of keeping you guessing. Unlike other body-swap movies where the plot is explained in the beginning, the film keeps its secrets until it is ready to reveal them. In the end everything is wrapped up more neatly than some might like, but the way it builds to that moment is so full of emotion that it is forgivable. Both Mitsuha and Taki have entertaining subplots in their own stories and characters that are enjoyable to watch.

As with Shinkai’s earlier works (Voices of a Distant Star, The Place Promised in our Early Days, 5 Centimeters per Second), “Your Name” deals with a theme of love and a couple sundered by an impossible distance. The characters are always reaching for something that is just out of grasp. In particular when their attempts to call one another fail to connect. The film also contemplates the nature of fate and the inter-connectedness of humanity. Doors opening and closing throughout the film offer a perfect visual metaphor for the choices that guide our lives. The film largely shies away from discussing the transgender themes implied in its premise. These are largely played for laughs with the characters becoming used to each other’s bodies or acting out of character. Nevertheless, that aspect of the film is somewhat unavoidable given the story. There is so much to enjoy about the film, from the incredible animation, deep themes, humour, and a thrilling story that it is definitely worthy of the praise it has garnered.

Lost Serenade (2016)

Kaori is a piano teacher, previously fired from her job at a university after having an affair with a fellow teacher. This same co-worker and his wife bring their son to Kaori for piano lessons, bringing her back into contact with this rather distasteful character who seems to shoulder no responsibility for his actions, instead pushing all the blame on Kaori. Her other student is Yuu, a young girl who seems very introverted. Yuu’s father Toshio works as a photographer and takes his daughter to the lessons. After a piano recital, Toshio offers Kaori a lift home with himself and his daughter. When Kaori wakes up in the woods she realises she is unable to remember exactly what happened, but begins to recall that she was drugged and raped by Toshio. She later learns that Yuu is also the victim of abuse at the hands of her father.

Needless to say, this is not for the fainthearted, with its delicate subject matter it is often a difficult watch. Writer and director Masato Ozawa offers a restrained look at these issues, never opting for gratuitous violence, but instead focussing on the effect of abuse on the victims. In fact, the film takes the clever decision of skipping over scenes of abuse until later on, instead it is always implied at, either in a character’s averted gaze, or something being just a little off in their mannerisms. Nori Sato gives a heartrending performance as Kaori, who faces a mental breakdown following her assault, and also the misogynistic attitudes that seem prevalent in society. Not only does she have to come to terms with what has happened, but her mother shows little sympathy, and her former lover also uses her in his own way. We see that she is completely confused by what has happened and it is not processed easily. Uwa Ishibashi who plays Yuu is also a tragic figure, pulling out her hair in angst, silently accepting of her fate, it is uncomfortable and pitiable. Kentaro Kuruyama’s Toshio is suitable slimy as the abuser, with his behaviour being inexcusable, but giving a great example of how somebody like this can hide in plain sight, giving the appearance of being a loving parent.

Rape and child abuse are serious issues that are presented here in a way that is startlingly real. While many films cover these topics, they often go for an extreme portrayal, whereas here they are shown as a sort of everyday evil, with a blurry line between regular immorality (such as in the married man having an affair). It also puts emphasis on the impact on the victims, rather than the perpetrator. This results in an incredibly powerful drama, as most times these are the very people who are forgotten in these stories (more often following either the police, or the abuser, or some other more “exciting” plot line). We are shown a horrifying picture of the psychological torture that they must endure trying to come to terms with what has happened to them. Far from enjoyable, this is an important piece of film-making shedding light on a difficult topic.

Metropolis (2001)

Based on the manga by Osamu Tezuka that is based on the film Metropolis (1924). The construction of a giant ziggurat by the Red Duke, leader of the Marduke group, brings huge crowds to the streets to celebrate this symbol of humanity’s progress. This is a city where robots and humans live side by side, although robots are often mistreated and hunted down if they step out of line. A detective from Japan, Ban, accompanied by his nephew, Kenichi, arrive in the city to find the killer of Professor Laughton. They are soon caught up in a plot involving the Red Duke, his homicidal protege Rock, a new type of robot, an anti-capitalist revolution, and more.

“Metropolis” does an incredible job of creating a believable city, with the bustle of crowds, airships flying overhead, machines whirring away, and the whole robot/ human society and interactions appear well thought out. There are so many details to take in that it is stunning. The influence of the original “Metropolis” is evidenced in the design of the city, it is sprawling with skyscrapers, motorways and street vendors. The jazz soundtrack gives this a unique twist on other science-fiction, and there is a blend of noir and steam-punk. The robots are clunking and unpolished, aside from Pero, the robot detective. The design of all the characters is interesting, with exaggerated features, bizarre haircuts and moustaches. It doesn’t attempt to go for realism but it remains consistent throughout. The story also does not shy away from violence, with several people being shot dead, and a number of quite emotionally distressing scenes.

The film has a lot to say about the direction that society is heading in. With increasing automation of jobs, robotics technology advancing, and the evolution of Artificial Intelligences. The haunting last words of the robot Tima “Who am I?” perfectly encapsulate many of the ideas surrounding¬† what robots are or may become. There is an interesting sub-plot involving the power and class distinctions between the Mardukes, a sort of Luddite religion that is strongly opposed to robotics, and the common people who have their own reasons for protesting robots.