Cocolors (2017)

Fuyu and Aki are friends living in an underground community following an unknown catastrophe. All of the denizens of this subterranean city wear large helmets obscuring their faces, adding to a feeling of mystery that continues throughout the film. “Cocolors” raises a number of questions. What are they doing down here? What happened to the outside world? Will they ever return to the surface? Fuyu carries round a picture of the outside world, something he has never seen. This black and white line drawing comes to symbolise a hope that there is a better, brighter world above. Seven years later, Aki is sent to the surface and returns with coloured crayons for Fuyu to finish his drawing. As the film progresses, we slowly learn a little about their society and what happened to the world

“Cocolors” uses computer animation with a hand-drawn aesthetic that is engaging and interesting. There are a lot of little details in the backgrounds, pipes and machinery, along with the character design that add to a sense of realism. The film spends little time on explaining the world, but immerses you in the details and makes everything seem believable, drawing on elements of steam-punk and post-apocalypse fiction.

The film has a strong anti-war message about the devastation that would be caused following a nuclear holocaust. One of the great strengths is the subtlety and mystery that are sustained throughout. Especially the mystery of who or what is beneath the helmets, how they came to be underground, and what they are working towards. The film understands that most of these things are of secondary importance to the central theme of hope in hopeless situations. It certainly has a couple of head-scratching moments where reality begins to break down, something that works well with the animation style. By creating a slight sense of unreality, and keeping the characters faces obscured, the film is able to contemplate its themes without the need for the typical clichés of heroes and villains.

Party ‘Round the Globe (2017)

Two co-workers at a small electronics company travel together to a Paul McCartney concert at Tokyo Dome. One of the men is a humorous, talkative individual, the other sits in stoic silence, eyes fixed on the road. As the film progresses we cut back to the life of this quiet individual as he goes about his daily routine, watering plants, working at his monotonous job, listening to news stories of terror attacks and disasters, and thinking about a former life.

Written and directed by Hirofumi Watanabe the film has many hallmarks of an indie feature. Shot in black-and-white, long static camera takes. The film drags the audience into the tedium of the protagonists life. This is far from an easy watch as you almost begin to feel the oppressive weight of this on him. These lengthy sequences are broken up by the scenes of his car journey as his companion continues to ramble on about The Beatles, Bob Dylan, music fans, and other interconnected topics.

This is not a film that immediately endears itself to the audience. In fact it almost goes out of its way to do everything to turn you off watching. But there is something strangely intriguing about it. Perhaps because of the almost offensively boring nature of certain scenes it makes you think about what is happening. What is the significance of the radio stories to this man? What is it he wants from life? What does he feel about the concert he is driving to? What happened in his past? The film offers few answers but it does draw the character realistically enough that you can assume that there are answers. Certainly not for everyone, but if your patience allows and you are a fan of slow-burn human dramas with a humorous tinge, it is worth a watch.

Antiporno (2016)

When our heroine Kyoko wakes up in a mysterious room, painted bright yellow with an adjoining red bathroom, it is not immediately apparent whether this is reality or a dream. This sense of unease continues throughout a plot that moves rapidly from sequence to sequence following its own ‘dream-logic’ that intertwines flashbacks, hallucinations, fourth-wall breaking, and heartfelt soliloquising from Kyoko. The film revolves around Kyoko (Ami Tomite), an author who paints out her characters on large canvasses before writing her novels. Kyoko spends the majority of the film in this unreal space, met by her assistant, journalist, camera woman, and the film is as much about what is going on in her head as in the real world. The plot is hard to explain without giving away the more enjoyable twists and turns of this psychological drama.

Writer and director Sion Sono creates an unsettling yet compelling world that is constantly surprising the audience. The stylish sets help create an intriguing theatre-like space along with the classical score giving the whole film the feeling of a performance. Antiporno is a reflection on soft-core pornography, and it takes its subject seriously, unpacking various issues associated with pornography in society. The characters are intended more as archetypes than with any real backstory. Ami Tomite gives a stunning performance as Kyoko, whose shifting character evokes sympathy and revulsion in equal measure. She is the only character who is given a backstory, that further adds to the impression that this whole film is taking place at least in part inside her head. Everything is beautifully shot and frames with Sono showing a mastery of his craft.

Circling the central subject of sex and pornography, the film presents a plethora of ideas. You can almost imagine that this is the result of a brainstorming exercise, and the film itself jumps from one idea to another. Some of the issues raised are the pressures put on women to fulfil two competing roles for men, that of the whore and the virgin, and how this relates to a woman’s idea of herself and her worth to society. We see the intersection of sex and violence, the emptiness at the heart of consuming pornography. Despite some difficult themes the film never feels like a morality tale. The film emphasizes the naturalness of sex and rails against the shame so often associated with it. It understands that intelligent debate on the subject, rather than moral panic, is the best way to tackle issues. I would highly recommend this film as an intelligent psycho-drama about sex, with a stunning central performance, excellent direction, and a story that forces you to consider any preconceptions you might have about sex, pornography and society.

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.

Battle Vixens (2003)

When a new female transfer student Sonsaku Hakufu arrives at Nanyo Academy and begins challenging everyone in the yard to fight, her cousin rushes in to help her before she causes serious damage. This is no ordinary school, and no ordinary world, as various individuals have an earring that contains the spirit of a legendary figure from the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history. The ditzy, upbeat protagonist is the spirit of a legendary warrior who loved fighting for its own sake and was a champion of the period. As the story progresses the characters find themselves involved in numerous fights with other students, replaying historic battles and attempting to avoid their fates.

Based on the manga by Yuji Shiozaki, and directed by Takashi Watanabe, the series contains many tropes from similar sexploitation series, going to almost any length to include upskirt shots of the girls, jiggling breasts, or sexually charged sequences. Each of the characters is given a unique personality though they remain largely surface level clichés. The conceit of the reincarnated spirits makes for an interesting story as the characters attempt to escape from their predestined paths, or relish following them. Those with knowledge or interest in this period of history may get more out of the series than the casual viewer, as each episode ends with a brief historical note on who the characters are meant to represent and what happened to them. The fight scenes are good and the humour, though broad, is entertaining. The major weakness is in the story that never really grabs your attention in the way it should. With the characters established it too often feels like a sequence of battles without a meaningful purpose. We see the rise and fall of several of the characters, but despite engaging fights you never feel a sense of danger. This is partly down to the outlandish premise that significantly impacts the ability to relate with anyone.

The central theme of the film is the idea of fate and escaping from it. Being reincarnated the characters are essentially living out another life in the modern era. This also conjures up the notion of a cyclical history where humanity is doomed to repeat its former errors and violence is an ineradicable human trait. By the end the characters do manage to change their course, but this raises the question of why they couldn’t have done this earlier. Despite a weak story the series moves quickly and does feature some exciting sequences and humour. Its main flaw is that, much like the characters, it feels as though it is going through the motions with few surprises.

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.