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

The Ghost in the Shell (Deluxe Edition) – Masamune Shirow

As cyber-punk manga goes this is probably the most well-known and highly-regarded of them. Influenced by a variety of sources, and in turn providing inspiration for many later artists, “The Ghost in the Shell” is a work that has become truly embedded in the public consciousness (whether people know it or not).

The manga focuses on a future society in which the internet and cyberisation have blurred the lines between humans and robots, and the real world and the online world. Our protagonists are a special ops team whose purpose is to stop high-level hackers and other cyber-criminals. Led by their charismatic leader Motoko Kusanagi, under the supervision of Aramaki, Section 9 is intended to operate somewhat independently of regular law enforcement. They are joined by other team members, Bato, Ishikawa, and even, unusually, a fully human member Togusa. Each chapter of the manga follows the team on a separate action-packed mission and there is clearly a love of cop dramas and science-fiction throughout. Shirow is also dedicated to details and his entertaining footnotes are a pleasant addition to the narrative. Whether it is explaining his thoughts on the political set-up of Japan, or simply to tell you that he quite likes porridge, it is an endearing part of the work that helps you feel closer to the author and understand their reasoning behind certain story decisions. The world of “The Ghost in the Shell” contains a fantastic level of details, whether it is government ministers who reappear, or the explanation of how cyberisation techniques work, and all of this helps create a reality to this unfamiliar future. There is also a sense of fun that is lacking in later iterations of the franchise, with characters often appearing in more cartoonish form to make quips.

The art work is great throughout, with incredible cities, crowded streets and more.  They are drawings that it is fun to pick over and spot little additions or simply marvel at what you are seeing. Shirow keeps everything hi-tempo, and states a dislike for exposition when it can be avoided. You will often see characters being active while explaining which helps keep things interesting while giving huge amounts of information at the same time. And every moment of drama is captured perfectly, whether helicopters landing, or characters running, leaping or fighting. The stories all work well in the episodic format as well as a longer story involving the Puppeteer (that was used in the anime film adaptation). A must-read for fans of dystopian science-fiction and action-packed comic books.

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.

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons (1973)

Having recovered from the bloody finale to the last film, Itto Ogami and Daigoro are confronted by a mysterious group who have a job to offer the wandering ronin. Each one carries a part of the payment for his services and after attacking him and being defeated reveals a little more of the story. This new mission revolves around a lord who is pretending that his illegitimate daughter is his son and heir to his dynasty, while he keeps his true son hidden away from the world. Along the way there is a side story involving Daigoro becoming caught up in the activities of a female pickpocket who is able to change appearance quickly. During this escapade he shows his steadfastness and complete dedication to honourable conduct.

By breaking up the central story into several encounters with the different assassins the film generates a great sense of momentum that builds towards a thrilling finale. In some ways the film is smaller in scale than what has gone before, with some fantastic one-on-one duels. The structure keeps the audience guessing about the next part of the tale and Daigoro’s side-story is an entertaining distraction (he also has some fun interactions with the princess towards the end of the film). The standout action sequence must be Ogami’s underwater assassination and stealing the scroll that he is contracted to regain.

Thrilling action sequences, more of Daigoro, and a novel approach to telling the story make Baby Cart in the Land of Demons a great follow on to the previous films.

Death Note 2: The Last Name (2006)

This film follows on directly from the first. After a second Death Note falls into the hands of Misa, a young television personality, things become more complex. L must now hunt for two killers, both helped and hindered by the presence of Light, whom he remains convinced is the original killer.

The film introduces a new demon, Lem, who seems to be a more realistic character than Ryuk, whether through the animation or voice acting. The rivalry between the two leads intensifies and the mind games and mental acrobatics required to outfox one another become almost exhausting. Although slightly longer than the first this film is so packed with incident it races along.

Often contemplative on the nature of morality and power, the film analyses the psychology of the characters and the necessity or horror of their actions. And the final scenes are fitting tribute to the ideas raised. If you liked the first, this won’t disappoint.

Death Note (2006)

When a number of criminals begin to die unexpectedly, many people are pleased, seeing it as representative of divine retribution. The police determine to establish the cause. To this end they employ the assistance of “L”, a shadowy figure, but undoubted genius-detective, who offers to find the person he believes is responsible. The killer is none other than the police chief’s own son, “Light”, whose sense of injustice becomes deadly when he discovers the “Death Note”, a notebook of the demons which will cause the death of any person whose name is written in it. He is accompanied by Ryuk, the demon whose book he has taken possession of.

The film is well-paced with many twists as Light and L play their cat-and-mouse game. The effects on the demon are not flawless, but for the most part the gripping story makes this a minor issue. Shusuke Kaneko’s direction creates the right balance of realism and fantasy. The atmosphere is tense, with an anything-can-happen feel. Tatsuya Fujiwara brings real emotion to the character of Light and Kenichi Matsuyama is suitably oddball in his portrayal of the mysterious investigator L.

The film’s story is the main attraction here, with controversial issues such as justice and criminality played upon heavily (at one point Light can be seen reading Nietzche’s “Beyond Good and Evil”). An exciting action film with atypical philosophical underpinnings.

Based on the Manga by Takeshi Obata.


Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Peril (1972)

A thrilling pre-titles opening sequence effectively sums up what this series is about. We see a topless swordmistress take down a group of ninjas, blood spraying theatrically across her bared chest. A quick cut to Itto Ogami as he is hired to kill this woman. As the titles roll a couple of minutes in the filmmakers have essentially told you everything you need to know about what is to follow. This is not in any way a criticism, but praise. Film four in the popular series seems to have found the heart of the story and presents exactly what the audience has come to expect. In an interesting twist Daigoro, Itto’s son, wanders off and is discovered by a rival swordsman who threatens him. Realising the child has the Eyes of Death, due to his repeated contact with violence, he spares him. This time spent with Daigoro helps set up his character a little more as we see the toll his father’s choice has had on him. We also learn more about the woman from the beginning of the film from a tattoo artist who produced the artwork we see on her at the beginning.

Utilising voice-overs and characters talking about stories lends the film a story-book quality, as though this is a famous historical event or legend. This also helps us to see certain characters as archetypes and their struggles as universal. The character of O-Yuki (the female warrior Itto is hired to assassinate) is mysterious and poignant. She is a more sympathetic villain than in previous instalments and one worthy of Itto’s respect. Once again the film does not spare the bloodshed and in a thrilling scene in a small temple we see Itto dispatch of a group of ninjas, severing limbs, blood pouring out across the floor. Decapitations, lopped off arms, splitting skulls, every conceivable wound that could be inflicted with a blade is used in a violently creative series of action sequences. As might be expected there are a couple of scenes that are similar to previous instalments, with an onsen, a climactic battle, but the action and story are highly entertaining.

Itto Ogami’s legend has at this point grown so that he is known throughout the land. It is always hard with a long running series not to make the protagonist into some kind of superhero. Baby Cart in Peril does a good job of this by seeing him badly injured and struggling to maintain the absolute composure he shows in usual circumstances. By giving us an example of Daigoro in trouble we also see his second major weakness: that of protecting his son. This film also shows us again that while he is undoubtedly capable of callousness and not averse to killing, he does maintain an underlying code of honour in his behaviour.