Asura (2012) by Keiichi Sato

In a world suffering from famine a woman gives birth to her son. With starvation warping her sensibilities she almost resorts to eating the infant to survive. Terrified by the thought of what she was about to do she runs, leaving her child to fend for itself. Eight years later the boy (Masako Nozawa) has become feral, killing and eating people to stay alive. When he crosses paths with a monk (Kinya Kitaoji) he is little more than a beast, snarling without language and knowing only how to fight. The monk gives him the name Asura and tries to steer him back to a path of humanity, attempting to teach him Buddhist sutras. Asura later meets a young woman, Wakasa (Megumi Hayashibara), whose kindness encourages him to follow a better path. However, some people want revenge for the deaths he has caused and the darker side of Asura’s nature is always lurking just beneath the surface.

Based on a manga by George Akiyama, Asura is directed by Keiichi Sato. The animation style blends 3D computer generated models with a hand-drawn style. The characters have a sketchy design, with pencil lines visible on their features, which gives the film a storybook feel. This complements the plot which resembles a fable. There are some stunning sequences enabled by the digital art techniques, such as soaring aerial shots, and the final battle. The computer-aided graphics also provide some fantastic weather and lighting effects and give the world a tangible feel, further enhanced by great sound work. The music by Yoshihiro Ike, Norihito Sumitomo and Susumu Ueda includes a thrilling theme and an orchestral feel that offsets the drama perfectly. The story is tragic and the emotions raw. There are also a lot of bloody action sequences and the kinetic energy of Asura’s acrobatic fighting style is a joy to watch. The character of Asura is likeable despite his horrific deeds in the early part of the film and provokes genuine sympathy in his struggle to rein in his atavistic instincts in favour of more civilised behaviour. Again the look of the characters goes a long way towards making them memorable and the film as a whole has a unique feel.

Asura is at heart a simple morality tale about redemption and retaining ones humanity in the face of terrible circumstances. In the beginning of the film Asura has lost all semblance of humanity, having resorted to killing to survive. He moves and sounds like an animal and has no compassion for other humans. The priest and Wakasa, by contrast, are prepared to die rather than sink to the level of killing or indulging their worst instincts. Through their kindness Asura is shown another way to live. It is an interesting moral conundrum as to what should be permitted in order to survive. In a harsh world, where starvation leads people to desperate acts, is it possible to retain a civilised society? Alongside this question, the film also asks the audience to consider Asura’s position, having already committed terrible crimes. Can and should he be forgiven? Can he redeem himself? Some of those Asura meets treat him as a villain, others as a victim, and this impacts him in turn. A film that asks important questions of its audience, with excellent animation and a unique style.

Spirited Away (2001) by Hayao Miyazaki

The film begins with a young girl, Chihiro, moving house with her parents. Just before arriving at their new home, they come across a mysterious forest track, and at the end of the track, a wall with a passageway leading on into the darkness. Chihiro, at first wary, is forced to follow her parents through into what turns out to be an abandoned theme park. Things soon take an dark and unusual turn when her parents, gorging themselves on food lay out on an unattended stall, turn into pigs. What follows is a magical and spectacular adventure, full of dragons, witches, strange creatures and unforgettable characters, such as ‘No-Face’ and various nature spirits.

The film is a great ride from start to finish, following an odd dream logic that keeps your attention as it moves from one unusual character or scenario to the next. In spite of the dreamlike and fantastical nature of this other world, it is made to feel entirely real. The animation is fantastic, with every scene showing incredible attention to detail – from moss and flowers growing in the crevices of stones, to all the many signs on the spirit world streets. The scenes inside the bath-house are a particular delight, with so many characters bustling around, you are sure to want to watch again to make sure you haven’t missed any little expression or moment. The score by Joe Hisaishi is similarly brilliant, capturing the mood of the film perfectly, not an easy task as it drifts from whimsy to melancholy, from action-packed to thoughtful reflection. The story is constantly twisting and turning, and the unexpected nature of this world means that there are constantly new surprises.

At heart a coming-of-age story as Chihiro, who is moving house in her real life, is forced to cope with a strange new world, full of bizarre and often dangerous experiences. Woven through this is a message of environmentalism, with the spirits representing a natural world that is slowly being destroyed, or at least ‘stressed’ by modernity. Without over-emphasising the point it offers a poignant reminder of the importance of protecting our world. A fantastic film with incredible animation and a great message.

Spiral (2000) by Higuchinsky

As Kirie (Eriko Hatsune) is on her way to school she notices her friend Shuichi’s father apparently fixated on the spiral pattern of a snail shell. The man’s interest in spirals soon becomes an obsession and Kirie begins to see other occurrences of this phenomenon. At first thinking it a ridiculous oddity, she soon becomes worried and terror begins to set in when several people die in gruesome circumstances related to the spiral pattern.

“Spiral” is based on the manga “Uzumaki” by horror master Junji Ito, with a screenplay by Takao Niita. Director Higuchinsky creates a strange and disturbing experience that blends several genres, from blackly comic thrills to grotesque body horror, to the psychological terror of avant-garde arthouse films. The cinematography by Gen Kobayashi is in a washed out tone that heightens the sense of unreality. The film feels staged or dated in a way that is unsettling, almost as though it is happening in a parallel world where everything is ever so slightly off-kilter. The story is compelling, despite the unbelievable premise, and the grotesque nature of the deaths is genuinely shocking. The script is simple yet effective in showing everything but explaining nothing, leaving the meaning entirely up to the imagination of the viewer. Eriko Hatsune as Kirie and Fhi Fan as Shuichi, are charismatic and do a great job with the material, playing things completely straight throughout increasingly bizarre occurrences. Keiichi Suzuki and Tetsuro Kashibuchi create a score that complements the odd, dreamlike sensibilities of the story, limping from comic accompaniment to dark oppressive tones.

The film’s strength lies in never fully explaining what is happening, or why, with several possible interpretations swirling around. The spirals provoke a dangerous obsession in those who are afflicted and this is the most simplistic reading of the plot: as a straightforward morality tale on the dangers of obsession causing people to lose sight of their lives and become so consumed that it finally kills them. There is also a darker reading related to mental health issues, particularly depression and anxiety leading to a decent into an increasingly troubling, pessimistic, and all-consuming world view. The idea of the spiral, particularly a downward spiral, bring to mind primal fears such as these, and for this reason the film grows more unsettling when picking apart the potential themes. This will appeal to fans of over-the-top horror and psychological horror alike, with a unique story that draws you in to contemplating the significance of the spirals along with the characters.

Akira (1988) by Katsuhiro Otomo

Akira opens with the devastating image of what appears to be a nuclear explosion tearing apart Tokyo in a flash of blinding white. 31 years later Neo-Tokyo has risen from the devastation, the urban sprawl of the city burying the secrets of the past. Motorcycle gangs, rioting and protests against the government are commonplace, and the city appears to be once again on the brink of societal collapse. Teenage friends Tetsuo and Kaneda, members of a biker gang head out to take on their rivals, the “clowns”, in a high-speed chase through the city. Tetsuo crashes into a boy who appears to have strange powers, his first interaction with a trio of mysterious children with telekinetic abilities. The government capture Tetsuo, who soon comes to realise that he is developing powers that he is barely able to control. Meanwhile Kaneda has fallen for a girl, Kei, who is working with a radical anti-government group attempting to uncover the governments secretive experiments on these children.

Written and directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, who also wrote the manga on which it is based, “Akira” is a stunning achievement. From the high-speed chase that kickstarts the action to the cosmic horror of the final moments, the animators go all out to create a world that is vibrant and alive. The backgrounds are detailed with graffiti and signs of decay that make the world feel real and lived in. Add to this the explosions, shattering glass, water and lighting effects, and there is so much visual information on screen at any one time that it demands your attention. This is a good thing as the story moves at a break-neck pace. The manga on which it is based runs to 2000 pages, which means certain characters and subplots in the film are addressed only briefly, such as the government discussions and the quasi-religious group who worship Akira. Characters such as Tetsuo’s girlfriend and the leader of the resistance movement are likewise underdeveloped. This does however go a long way to making the film’s world feel absolutely real, as there is always the sense that a lot more is happening off-screen. There are two main story threads, one involving Tetsuo and Kaneda’s relationship, and one involving the secret government experiments, both of which are engaging and benefit from the background information we do get. The impact of the score is one element that cannot be understated, with tribal drums and breathy vocals, chanting and bells, it creates a unique sound that is traditional and timeless. The blasts of sound are an assault on the senses in the same way as the striking visuals.

Akira is a film that is at once epic, dealing with themes of cosmic significance, societal collapse and man’s hubristic drive towards ever more destructive technologies, and at the same time deeply personal, dealing with the psychology of Tetsuo, a young orphan who feels mistreated by the world. The nuclear era has more than ever led humanity to confront its inability to control what it is creating. The scientists and military in the film are representative of the naïve attempt to control such weapons (in this case represented by the children they are experimenting on). In one scene of the film we see the colonel and the scientist descending in an elevator, looking out over the towering skyscrapers. This visual metaphor for the inevitable fall after the rise of civilisation is poignant, even more so given that what they are facing has already happened before. They are doomed to this cycle of destruction and rebirth. Kaneda and Tetsuo are oblivious to their machinations, living at street level they are unaware that there are grand schemes afoot. The tragedy of Tetsuo is that he is a victim of society who is suddenly given absolute power. He is jealous and insecure, but what is terrifying is not that he is a flawed individual, but that he is given a power that allows him to act out his most harmful urges. It is also possible to see in him a rejection of religious ideology. Those who believe Akira and Tetsuo to represent some sort of salvation are in for a rude awakening when they realise that ultimate power can be misused and in fact will rarely benefit society. It is a rejection of the notion that absolute power is a good thing and questions the belief that the relentless march of progress is heading in the right direction.

Street Mobster (1972) by Kinji Fukasaku

Born on the date that Japan lost the Second World War, Isamu Okita (Bunta Sugawara) is told at a young age that his birthday is unlucky. His childhood is rough, with an absent father and a mother who drinks and prostitutes herself. Okita soon becomes involved in the gang lifestyle, interested in money, gambling and women. He and his friends are involved in sexual violence. When he gets caught up in a fight with the Takigawa gang, his retaliation leads him to five years in jail. On release he meets up with Kimiyo (Mayumi Nagisa) who he had previously raped and has now become a prostitute. She blames Okita, but the two soon form an unusual bond, both being outcasts from society. Okita soon gets embroiled in the yakuza world again, when he joins up with the Yato group, who are involved in a turf war with Takigawa. Things become dangerous when a new mob boss from Osaka appears on the scene and joins forces with Takigawa.

Director Kinji Fukasaku teams up again with the star of his “Battles Without Honour and Humanity” star Bunta Sugawara to tell another tale of violence on the mean streets of Tokyo. Although a pre-titles card explains that all events and characters are fictional, there is nevertheless an anonymised truth in the portrayals. Sugawara does a superb job of portraying the loathsome Okita, who should be irredeemable but somehow evokes a degree of sympathy due to his charismatic performance. Mayumi Nagisa is exceptional as Kimiyo, whose tragic backstory creates one of the most compelling tensions in the film. To say that the characters are morally ambiguous would be an understatement, many are downright despicable in their treatment of women and their drive to violence. However, the film does not attempt to sugarcoat the image of gangsters. They are not slick, handsome or smart, but crude and violent. Kinji Fukasaku shows us a world of grime and misery. As Okita leaves the city he explains that everything has changed during his time inside. He is a man out of place in his environment. Fukasaku directs the action scenes in a frenetic, whirlwind of motion, that is almost overwhelming. It is often hard to see exact details, but captures an atavistic brutality that typifies the characters.

“Street Mobster” is a film that shows the sickening violence of gangland life. Okita is driven almost pathologically to a course of action that is destructive and dangerous for himself and those around him. It touches briefly on his upbringing as a cause of his violent ways and also in the mention of his birthday in the sense that there may be nothing that can be done. Tackling the “nature or nurture” argument as a cause for criminality does not limit the responsibility for his actions, but it creates the sense of unavoidable tragedy. The squalor that characters live in and the sense that they have been somehow side-lined by the world, or left behind by progress, also offers some explanation for their actions. Kimiyo’s tragic story is that she is dragged unwillingly into this world, but that she still attempts to do her best. In the portrayal of mob bosses the film gives a sense that the odds are always stacked against people like Okita, due to his lack of status. The hierarchical nature of the underworld, as with other parts of society, means that he can strive to attain a position of power, but will always be subject to the whims of his superiors. “Street Mobster” is a brutal gangster film with a solid plot and some fantastic acting that will appeal to fans of the genre. Fukasaku blends realism with almost theatrical melodrama in an entertaining crime story that also has deeper sociological and psychological themes at work.