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.

Ringu (1998)

The film opens on two high-school girls sharing ghost stories about a cursed videotape. Rumour has it that those who watch the videotape receive a call soon after and are told by a mysterious voice that they will die in one week. One of the girls admits to having seen the tape with three others a week before. When they all die unexpectedly on the same day a reporter, Reiko Asakawa, begins to follow the case of the cursed tape. When she watches the tape herself the phonecall comes shortly after and she must race to discover the secret of the tape in order to prevent her own death.

With a simple plot and small cast of characters the film builds a believable mythology surrounding the cursed tape and the audience is drawn into the story immediately. From the eerie opening violin stings the score is enjoyable and adds a lot to the character of the film. Although the film is regarded as a horror, it is more of a mystery thriller with horror elements than flat-out terrifying. Director Hideo Nakata does a fantastic job of creating tension and the film is strongest when it relies on subtle camera angles or eerie situations.

A well-made ghost story which uses minimal gore but a great deal of atmosphere and suspense. This is worth a watch as it has become one of the most famous horror films of all time, and the character of the ghost, Sadako, is perhaps one of the best known characters in Japanese film.

Based on the book by Koji Suzuki.

The Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue (2017)

This film follows the lives of two lonely singletons in the capital city trying to find something to live for. Mika is working as a nurse in the day and a barmaid at a seedy club at night. Having left her father and sister in the countryside she finds herself in the position of many young people, surrounded by crowds of people but with a debilitating sense of hollowness at the heart of things. Shinji is similarly a distressed young man, working as a temporary labourer in construction. He is a nervous character, battling financial worries and with a collection of fellow workers that typify the sorts of troubles present in many modern societies, health and economic problems, and relationship issues.

The screenplay by director Yuya Ishii is based on collection of poetry by Taihi Saihate. The poetic influence is apparent from the very beginning with characters talking in a melancholy tone about various observations on city life. The title gives away the film’s contemplative, philosophical nature, and it is far from being a typical boy-meets-girl romance. The two characters bump into one another at intervals and there are questions here about how much stock you can put in the chance encounters that guide our lives. There are sub-plots involving Shinji’s co-workers, one of whom is suffering health issues and another who is a foreign worker. Some of the most effective scenes see the characters in a sort of daze as life passes them by. Our two protagonists struggle to relate to others and the whole film has a depressive quality only lightened by the moments of beauty that appear amidst the chaos of Tokyo. The cinematography is impressive employing a number of techniques to emphasise the characters loneliness as well as great use of colour throughout. The central performances of Shizuka Ishibashi and Sosuke Ikematsu are perfectly understated and get across the personalities of the characters.

The film’s central themes will be familiar to anyone who has seen this sort of drama involving young people in a big city. The depression and isolation felt living in a crowd of strangers, compounded by economic uncertainty, relationship worries and an all pervasive nihilism. The film tackles many themes and shows Tokyo in a real and personal way as well as its impact on the people living there. The blend of poetry, philosophy, interesting characters and incredible cinematography makes for a fantastic cinematic experience.

Prophecy (2015)

The film begins with an intimidating and mysterious message broadcast from an internet cafe. The unknown man, whose face is obscured by a makeshift newspaper mask, reveals a “prophecy” that ill fortune is about to befall the boss of a company who were responsible for producing poisoned food, but who escaped justice by the police. In subsequent videos he threatens revenge on a company employee who humiliated a man in a job interview, and others. His brand of vigilantism soon gains a following and he becomes an online celebrity. Meanwhile the detectives assigned to the case race to follow the clues to uncover the identity of the figure, or figures, known as the “Paperboy”. The film begins with an intriguing and simple set-up, but the audience is soon introduced to the character of Gates (Tomo Ikuta) and his friends, the young men responsible for the “Paperboy” incidents, and given a details examination of their circumstances.

Director Yoshihiro Nakamura does a great job with the film. In particular keeping the narrative fresh throughout. Not only with the twists and turns of the central police investigation, but by turning the genre on its head and showing us events from the perspective of the perpetrators. Far from undermining the mystery, it instead turns the film into a battle of ideals. On the one hand Gates and his companions are justified, popular among a downtrodden citizenry, champions of justice, respect, and many noble ideals. However, Erika Toda’s detective is also a sympathetic character, fighting sexism, and clinging to her own idea of what constitutes right and just actions. In fact it becomes clear that the central villain of the film is perhaps society itself. The way that humans cluster together for both positive and negative reasons. We see staff at a company bullying a temporary worker, and how the same instinct causes people to rally to the “Paperboy” cause. The script sets up a number of fantastic scenes that demonstrate these concepts and build on them, while never losing sight of the main plot. The acting is superb, especially Erika Toda as the detective, and Toma Ikuta as “Gates”. The supporting cast of Gate’s friends, Kohei Fukuyama, Ryohei Suzuki, Yoshiyoshi Arakawa and Gaku Hamada, are also fantastic and help to create a believable sense of cameraderie and emotion during their scenes together.

A fantastic film that is packed with ideas about justice, memetic culture, the power of internet movements, vigilantism, the structure of Japanese society, and in particular how this relates to the treatment of immigrants or outsiders. A far more thought-provoking film than the plot might at first suggest. The film-makers have used a common crime drama to explore many different themes and issues in society.

Based on the manga by Tetsuya Tsutsui

Perfect Blue (1997)

Pop idol Mima has made the decision to leave popular trio CHAM in order to begin a career as an actress. The film follows Mima’s trials as she tries to find herself through her new profession, understand who she is and what she is doing, as well as navigating the often sordid world of fame. Her miseries seem to pile up as she attracts a stalker, who sets up a website detailing her every move, and her former band-mates become successful following her departure. Mima is also troubled by an identity crisis, as she struggles to distinguish between her life and the characters she portrays on screen, as well as between dreams and reality.

Satoshi Kon’s first feature film is a psychological thriller that breaks with convention to offer us a real look inside the mind of someone who is losing theirs. From the opening scenes, in which we see Mima performing and shopping intercut, we are presented with the idea of duality, emphasized by various shots of reflections in glass, mirrors and polished floors. The direction utilises cuts and fades to blur the lines between Mima’s acting and her reality, drawing you into her world and making later revelations in the film as confusing for the audience as they are for the character. The script was based on a novel, though many elements were changed. The story interweaves so many elements that it becomes overwhelming, again helping create an empathy with the character as you are experiencing the same whirlwind of complexity and confusion that Mima is feeling in her new career. The music, by Masahiro Ikumi, creates a sense of dread with the soundtrack occasionally imitating the sound of heavy breathing, or disjointed noises with a background buzz that might as easily be insects or television static.

The film does an incredible job of covering many themes, the central one being that of change. Mima is essentially attempting to become a new person, leaving behind her pure, virginal image as a young pop idol to become a strong confident woman. It is about the struggle of understanding yourself as much as the pressures that are applied on you to conform to a certain standard, or to people’s expectations of you. It also offers a dark commentary on the music and entertainment industry as you see how they treat people. The end of the film is ambiguous, and like many other scenes almost demands that you think about what has preceded it and try to make some sense out of this peculiar world, and the character of Mima. There is so much in this film that it deserves several repeat viewings.

Based on the novel Perfect Blue: Complete Metamorphosis by Yoshikazu Takeuchi

Love & Pop (1998)

Based on a novel by Ryu Murakami (In the Miso Soup, Coin Locker Babies), “Love and Pop” tells the story of four high-school girls as they get involved in the world of “compensated dating”. The film’s protagonist is Hiromi (Asumi Miwa) who lives with her parents and younger sister. As the girls wander round the streets of Shinjuku they engage in the practice of compensated dating, where older men will pay them for their time. While out shopping, Hiromi spots an expensive ring that she would like to buy. Her friends agree to help her by going as a group to karaoke with a man. At the end of their date the man asks them each to chew a grape and spit it back into their hands. These he puts in sealed containers, asking them for a false name or high-school to attribute to each. Following the date Hiromi decides they should split the money, still leaving her short of the cash she needs to buy the ring. Heading off alone she finds other men to accompany and becomes involved in increasingly dangerous and sexualised situations.

Director Hideaki Anno, who also wrote the screenplay, is best known for his work on the anime series Evangelion. In “Love & Pop” it seems that his creative energy was focussed on the style, with Murakami’s story providing the structure. Utilising various unusual camera angles, switching aspect ratios, fish-eye lenses, cameras attached to cups, train-sets and more, help to create an endlessly inventive world that is in keeping with the minds of these young protagonists. You get the sense that you are seeing everything from their perspective, one that is vibrant, inventive, full of fun, curious, a little disorientating, but above all alive. The actresses all do a great job with their characters and you quickly learn to distinguish them by their particular traits. Tadanobu Asano also appears as a peculiar figure who communicates primarily with a stuffed animal.

The film is essentially a coming-of-age story. We see Hiromi grow up rapidly from a fun-loving teen to someone who realises the dangers that life presents. “Love & Pop” deals with the issue of “compensated dating” in an even-headed way, with most of their encounters being fairly mundane (albeit perhaps incomprehensible to people outside Japan), while not ignoring the inherent dangers of what they are doing. The men that approach them are portrayed as oddballs, but not psychopathic. Similarly the girls are rarely portrayed as victims, but bold, confident young women, despite a certain naivety or carelessness. Another of the themes, and one that I feel Anno particularly drew out, was that of communication and isolation. One sequence features two characters using sign-language to converse over train tracks, and much of the plot revolves around the use of a phone on which characters leave message which are later replied to by unknown men. Throughout there is the feeling that characters are speaking at one another rather than genuinely communicating. The friendship of the main characters is described not as them telling each other everything, but knowing when not to ask questions. The endless stream of voice messages on the phone are a tragic example of a multitude of people who are calling out for somebody to genuinely connect with. I would highly recommend this movie. The story is unique and it is layered with various themes that make it worth thinking about.

The Naked Island (1960)

 

The film tells the story of a family who live on an island in the Seto Inland Sea. The parents of two young boys must struggle to keep their crops watered. They travel to the mainland on a small boat to collect water and transport it back to the island, constantly returning to refill their buckets. We see that the soil on the island soaks up the water almost instantly and the dry summer makes this an interminable and unenviable task as they carry their heavy loads up the hill to their fields. This Sisyphean task comes to represent a more general fight for survival.

Director Kaneto Shindo creates a startlingly realistic portrait of rural farm life. At times the film feels more like a documentary as we watch the family carry out their duties. Most of the tension in the film comes from the constant struggle of the family to survive, a struggle that is brought into sharp relief in the final portion of the film when the elder son falls ill. The film moves at a relaxed pace and there is no dialogue or plot to speak of. The seasons change and the family endure. Their island seems at once to be both a paradise and a sort of purgatory where they must continually fight the parched earth to get anything to grow. It can be a chore to watch at times, with little recognizable drama, but in the end it is effective in portraying the simple lives of these people. There are a number of beautiful shots and the score manages to evoke a sense of tranquillity while at the same time foreshadowing the terrible events of the films conclusion.

“The Naked Island” is a film that sets out with a clear purpose to show the hardships encountered by those working the land. The island setting is perfect as it shows both the isolation of the family and lends a sense of danger as they are cut off from the rest of the world. The constant need for water comes to symbolise humanities wider struggle for survival against a hostile planet. Also interesting to note is that much of the film seems to portray events from the mother’s perspective. We can see the burden of her water buckets as a metaphor for the stresses placed on her as a woman, a wife and a mother. Overall, it is a great example of film-making from the era. There are many ways to analyse the story and various scenes, but it is also a fantastic window on the past.

When Marnie Was There (2014)

Anna is withdrawn and anxious. Isolated from her classmates, she takes solace in her drawings. After an asthma attack her foster mother sends her off to the countryside, believing that the cleaner air will do her some good. While there Anna discovers a mysterious house and meets another young girl, Marnie, with whom she becomes good friends. The house has been abandoned for a long time and it is clear early on that Marnie may not be real. Dreams, memory and reality are blended together as Anna slowly uncovers the details of Marnie’s past and subsequently reveals something about herself too.

The story is based on the novel of the same name by Joan G. Robinson, with the action transposed to Japan. Director Hiromasa Yonebayashi has crafted a beautiful film that will speak to many people. Anna is a character that you are immediately drawn to, though without overly sentimentalising her experiences. She suffers social anxiety, asthma, and we learn early on that she does not smile a lot. This is due to the death of her parents at an early age, something that has left her feeling isolated and disconnected from the world. The film does a great job of showing how she grows and learns to cope with this childhood trauma. The animation is spectacular. From the opening sequence of a busy play park there is a vibrancy and life to everything that happens. As with many Ghibli films the natural world is as much of a character as everyone else. In this film the effects on the sea are mesmerising with the added importance of the sense of receding tides tying into the themes of the film. There were also a number of techniques used to perfectly capture what was happening such as the faces of Anna and Marnie being overlaid at one point to show their similarities.

When Marnie Was There is a film about loss and memory, regret and redemption. The themes are subtly introduced in the guise of a mystery story and never overplayed. While it deals with serious issues there is humour introduced throughout, and in the latter parts the character of Sayaka seems introduced purposefully to help counterbalance the tragedy. This is another classic from studio Ghibli. While it lacks some of the whimsy of their more fantastical films, it is a powerful emotional drama that reaches a satisfying resolution.

Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell (1974)

The film begins with Ogami Itto skiing downhill on the specially adapted baby cart carrying his infant son Daigoro. It is one of the striking features of this series that it juxtaposes serious moments, scenes of rape, torture and death, with more silly exploits such as this. White Heaven in Hell is the final film in the series and it does not disappoint. There is an almost melancholic feel to things as we see in the wintery landscape at the beginning. It is the perfect environment as it shows the world to be cruel and unforgiving. Ogami’s long term rival Retsudo Yagyu sends his daughter, now the last of their line, to defeat him. Her highly skilled knife juggling technique fails to kill Ogami setting up the grand climactic battle between Retsudo and the “Lone Wolf”.

Zombie assassins, a machine-gun baby cart, skiing samurai, this film has no problem with presenting more ridiculous moments. However, these are also tempered with more ordinary scenes of Ogami and his son. This film sees Daigoro more expressive, with looks of shock at what is happening. I am not sure this is a positive change, as we previously learned that he had the “eyes of death” and was inured to violence. The choreography is incredible and the special effects are once again exceptional. We see a body be sliced in half, blood spurting, and even the ghostly apparitions of Yagyu’s son. There are a few stand out scenes, but the final battle is again a masterclass in over the top action. The music is a bizarre blend of contemporary seventies vibe with  electric guitar and a jazzy melody, while there are more fitting songs for a historical epic utilised at other points.

A fitting end to this fantastic series. All of the films have standout moments and bring something new to the table. This film manages to tie up the story with Retsudo and Ogami that was established in the very first film and brings things to a close in a satisfactory way.