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.

The Curse (2005)

The film begins with a voice-over explaining that Masafumi Kobayashi, a famous paranormal investigator, died shortly after completing a documentary on a mysterious case. The following film takes the form of a found footage documentary, following Kobayashi as he investigates peculiar occurrences that may have a supernatural explanation. Looking at telepathic children, disappearances, a blood rite, an ancient demon, and other unusual happenings, Kobayashi soon finds himself getting dangerously close to the heart of the mystery.

The found footage style of the film works well, with certain television personalities playing themselves, and a choppy, cut-up style that adds to a sense of disorientation. It sprinkles in clues as events unfold and keeps the audience watching closely for anything that might help them establish connections between events. Seemingly unrelated or insignificant details are briefly glimpsed and then later return with a moment of revelation. For the most part the film relies on building tension with a series of simple effects, such as rope being knotted by someone in their sleep, or somebody standing stock still and groaning. Most of the gore is reserved for the later portion of the film. The horror aspect relies on you finding the idea of restless spirits, demons, or telepathy, plausible. However, even without that there is a solid central mystery being unravelled that will hold attention.

“The Curse” is a solid, if slightly generic, horror fare. The idea of ghosts or spirits returning from the afterlife is a common feature but given an interesting twist here with the realism of the documentary style. The film creates a believable set-up by introducing you to the investigator and also including fairly mundane interviews along with the more eerie occurrences.

Dark Water (2002)

The film begins with a young girl, Yoshimi, as she waits to be collected from kindergarten, watching from inside the school as the other children’s parents come for them. We then cut to an older Yoshimi, who is going through a divorce and hoping to retain custody of her daughter, Ikuko. Mother and daughter move to an old apartment that seems to have a serious damp problem, with puddles of water in the lift and dripping from the ceiling. Yoshimi soon becomes aware of a dark secret relating to one of the former residents of the apartment block and struggles to maintain her sanity as she investigates.

A psychological horror film that is very tightly written and has some great cinematography. The film plays on a sense of foreboding, slowly building tension and dropping clues about what has happened in the apartment block. Early on in the film we are told that Yoshimi suffered a nervous breakdown and was treated for a psychiatric illness (this is said to be caused by her work as a translator of violent novels). This adds to the film because you are never sure if what you are seeing is a product of her delusions, or whether it is real. The acting from the two leads is good and there are plenty of creative scares, shadows on monitor screens, the appearance at several points of a red satchel, and the presence of water throughout. I would rate this higher than a lot of similar ghost stories as it does have a deeper message and is very stylish.

The main theme of the film is abandonment, specifically dealing with the loss of a parent. There are a number of characters in the film who seem to suffer a similar fate. This definitely falls into the category of creepy horror; rather than going for shocks it is more interested in drawing you into the characters world. At the end of the film I felt more a sense of sadness than terror and I think this is the films major strength: it uses horror as the means to tell a fantastic story that will make you think. Don’t go in expecting blood and gore, this is a slow-burner, but it is rewarding at the end.

Marebito (2004)

When a freelance cameraman witness an unusual suicide in an underground passage he begins a dark journey to find the source of that man’s terror. His journey takes him to a strange subterranean tunnel system, which he believes is the netherworld. There he finds a young woman, or what looks like a woman, whom he takes back to his apartment. As he tries to take care of her things get stranger: she only drinks blood; he is followed by mysterious strangers, and it seems his sanity is crashing around him.

The film is all about creating an unsettling atmosphere. It is not particularly terrifying, but it is certainly an interesting blend of fantasy and psychological horror. There are references to Richard Shaver and deros which might be unfamiliar to some, but I think this adds to the film’s charm. Following the success of Ju-on, director Takashi Shimizu takes a step away from the traditional ghost story to attempt something different. For the most part it’s successful, though it provokes more curiosity than fear. Very simply shot with lots of handheld camerawork, and a suitably ominous sound.

The film is an exploration of fear and madness reminiscent of early twentieth century science fiction and horror novels, with something unusual lurking just beneath the surface.

Onibaba (1964)

The film begins with a hole, a deep, dark hole, that has existed (so we are told) forever. We then see to two soldiers, apparently fleeing a battle. The soldiers are killed by two women, who steal their armour and sell it on to a trader in stolen goods. These two women are our protagonists, surviving by selling stolen armour, fishing, and waiting for their son and husband to return from the war. When their neighbour, a man named Hachi, returns from the war, without her son, the mother is unhappy, believing him to be a coward. The young girl begins an affair with Hachi, visiting him each night in secret. Her mother-in-law, worried about losing the girl as well as her son attempts to end this relationship.

The story is told in quite a minimalist way, similar to a play, with a small cast of characters and each scene teaching us something about them, or advancing the plot in some way. I also found it very similar, in some regards, to a fairy-story, especially so in later scenes when there seems to be a fantastical element introduced. The film does not shy away from sex and violence, being the primary drivers of the plot, and there is also a lot of discussion about hell and sin that was interesting to see. The music at the beginning of the film I felt was a little out of place, with almost a jazz soundtrack playing, but it seems to get better as the film progresses. The acting from the leads was good, and there were some moments of incredible emotion. The cinematography was excellent, and the director really utilises the environment, swaying grasses, wet paddy fields, caves and rivers to emphasise what is going on, or how you should be feeling. There is a sense of desolation of the two women, living alone among a vast field of tall grass that perfectly captures without words their feelings of being left behind by the men who have gone to fight the war. This is further emphasised by the hole that is shown at the beginning of the film (a pit into which the women throw the bodies of soldiers they have killed). This is a fantastic metaphor for death, evil, and perhaps even a certain emptiness at the heart of humanity. We see the hole at the beginning, throughout, and in the final scene. I feel that using these more abstract techniques the film raises itself above others in the genre.

I found that the message of the film, and its take on sex, was surprisingly refreshing, as we see at the end of the film which offers a very different conclusion than you might expect. This is far from being a horror film in the modern sense, more of a psychological thriller, with the true ‘horror’ being in the behaviour of the characters. It offers a unique take on lust, sex, and war, and the feelings of loss and abandonment by those left behind in wartime. I would highly recommend this film, as it is a great example of somebody with a clear vision bringing it almost perfectly to the screen.

Ju-on 2: The Grudge (2003)

Driving down the highway with her husband, actress Kyoko screams in terror when she sees the ghost of Toshio crouched at her feet. Her cry causes them to swerve and crash which leaves her husband in a coma and causes Kyoko to lose her baby. The doctor later tells her that she is still pregnant much to her surprise and horror. This film continues with the non-linear, chaptered story of the haunted house of the first film. This time round the principle characters are Kyoko, a young school-girl Tomoka and a reporter Megumi.

If you enjoyed the first film, this is more of the same. A larger budget is evident from the opening scenes and the drama expands to new locations and story-lines. The repertoire of the ghosts is also more diverse from the first film with a number of interesting new appearances and deaths. The non-linearity also deepens the mystery with one of the deaths in particular warping the time-line to provide an extra eeriness. Again the direction is great, with use of light and shadow, inter-cutting and camera movement to keep the audience guessing whether what they’re seeing is real or a nightmare, or even whether it has happened or is going to happen. The ending is gruesome though the film again relies more on building characters and establishing the mythology rather than out and out gore.

While this is nothing new in the franchise, with the story being continuous and no major revelations about the characters or really much relation to the first film it’s still an interesting watch. The innovative ways in which the characters are terrorized by the spirits and the number of characters ensure that you always have something to look forward to. An atmospheric drama featuring perhaps two of the most memorable spirits in film.

Ju-on: The Grudge (2002)

Home-carer Rika is assigned to an old lady, Sachie, in suburban Tokyo. On arriving at the house she finds the lady motionless and soon becomes aware of an evil presence in the house. She finds a deathly pale young boy, Toshio and later witnesses a dark figure hovering above Sachie. The film then cuts back to show the events of Sachie’s son and his wife, who died under mysterious circumstances. It seems there is a curse on this house brought about by an earlier murder of a mother at the hands of her husband. The house is now haunted by the ghosts of Kayako, the mother, and Toshio, her young son who went missing and those who enter are destined to be haunted and killed by the curse. The detective who investigated the original case, Toyama, is brought back to try to explain. And his daughter Izumi who sneaked into the house with her classmates also becomes a victim.

The story unfolds through a number of chapters detailing the various experiences of the characters, Rika, Hitomi (Sachie’s daughter), Toyama and Izumi as well as other minor characters. This chaptered approach keeps the film moving along, feeling more like a compilation of short stories building on a central idea. It can be hard to work out who is who and what order the stories are taking place as the time-line is non-linear. The film is not as scary as it’s reputation might lead you to believe, instead building an air of quiet unease and growing terror. The scares are largely one of a kind, i.e. either Kayako or Toshio being glimpsed in the background, or appearing suddenly.  It is very well shot and the music really adds to the sense of creeping dread. It is a great example of how to direct low-budget horror, as most of the fear is produced through very simple camera movements or positioning.

This film is a cinematographic representation of an old-fashioned ghost story. From the look of Kayako and her son -pale white, lank black hair and white-less eyes -to scenes which are reminiscent of old Kabuki theatre (people being pulled backwards off-stage) it is  interesting as a glimpse at a traditional ghost story being modernised and set in a claustrophobic suburban house.