The Naked Director Series 2 (2021)

Toru Muranishi (Takayuki Yamada) is on top of the world, with Sapphire Productions making money hand over fist, his staff and stars, including Rugby (Takenori Goto), Junko (Sairi Ito), Naoko (Ami Tomite), and manager Kawada (Tetsuji Tamayama), are all happy with how things are going. But Muranishi is dreaming bigger; after finding out about the new technology of satellite television he dreams of having his videos distributed to every home, seeing a vision of porn ‘raining down from the sky’. Meanwhile, Detective Takei (Lily Franky) is still playing both sides of the yakuza while unfortunate Toshi (Shinnosuke Mitsushima) acts as a lackey under boss Furuya (Jun Kunimura). Kaoru Kuroki (Misato Morita) is coming to terms with her fame as Japan’s premier adult actress and the company is taking on a slew of new talent.

“The Naked Director Series 2” has the same energy and outrageous comedy moments as the first series, but also delves more into the darker side of the industry. We see Muranishi’s arrogant, overbearing persona both in a positive and negative light as it wins him contracts, but alienates those around him. Most poignant are the stories of Kaoru Kuroki, and to a lesser extent Naoko, who are figuring out what it means to be a porn actress and whether they can ever leave the industry. New characters include Yuri Tsunematsu’s Miyuki, whose wide-eyed innocence hides a determination to succeed, but also finds that being a porn actress may not be as glamourous as it seems. The large and impressive ensemble cast, most returning from the first series, fully embody their characters, their quirks and personalities shining through even when they are only briefly on screen. While the series again mostly sticks with Muranishi’s story, there are plenty of moments for the rest of the cast to shine.

Series 2 is directed by Masaharu Take, lead director on the first series, and Kotaro Goto.  The show is stylish from start to finish with the camera becoming a part of the action and constant creativity on display. The series also features a couple of fantasy sequences which add a little comedy to things, with Muranishi floating in space to the strains of The Carpenter’s “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft”. The soundtrack throughout the series features some great tracks, often used ironically. The score is not always limited to songs of the 1990’s, but the songs are generally well-selected and give the series a youthful energy. The recreation of the time period through costumes and set-design is impressive, recreating the 1990’s with as much gusto as series one did the 1980’s, a nostalgic look back at a lost era of fashion.

Much of the series is about regret and making mistakes. Gone is the naivety of their early careers; the characters now fully enmeshed in the ‘business’ side of the porn industry. This sense of being jaded is highlighted perfectly by having the pornography often playing as background noise. Things which are there to excite the general public are mere wallpaper to the protagonists. As money worries, relationship issues, business deals, and more consume Muranishi and the other characters, the shimmer of the glamourous image of their business is peeled away to reveal a world as soul-crushing and difficult as any other. An incredible second act to the first series, this time around revealing many of the failings of the characters and the difficulties they go through to maintain their sense of self.

Moonlight Whispers (1999) by Akihiko Shiota

A tortured teenage love story touching on themes of perversion and control. Takuya Hidaka (Kenji Mizuhashi) and Satsuki Kitahara (Tsugumi) are classmates and members of the same high-school kendo club. Hidaka finally musters the courage to declare his love for Kitahara and shortly after they sleep together. The relationship is short-lived however, when Kitahara discovers that he recorded the sound of her urinating while at his house. She calls him a pervert and leaves in disgust. Later she begins dating Hidaka’s friend Tadashi (Kota Kusano). Hidaka pleads to be allowed to be near her and she begins to engage with his unusual desires, allowing him to watch her and Tadashi on a date and even having sex.

Based on a manga of the same name, with a screenplay by Yoichi Nishiyama and director Akihiko Shiota, “Moonlight Whispers” is certainly not a normal relationship drama, though it contains many features of the genre. It lures you in with the conventional romance of the young teen protagonists early in the film. The only sign that things may not progress smoothly is Hidaka stealing a sniff of Kitahara’s gym shorts from her locker. The actors all do a fantastic job with their characters. Hidaka and Kitahara capture the awkward, faltering of a first romance, while Kota Kusano’s confident Tadashi acts almost as a conventional romantic leading man in contrast with their twisted relationship. For a film dealing with the perversion of cuckolding, the film is rarely explicit, allowing the emotional import of the drama to drive the story, rather than the physical. One example of this is in the long take of Takuya sitting in a dark cupboard while he listens to the sounds of Satsuki and Tadashi’s lovemaking in the room. The swirl of emotions in the audience, discomfort, frustration, incomprehension, only growing stronger as the camera remains fixed on him. The cinematography largely leans on the romantic drama style, with soft-focus sunsets, and a realism in the dialogue scenes, an ironic counterpoint to the content of the story. The soundtrack, used sparingly, of delicate guitar, also suggests a more romantic story that what we are watching, heigtening the tension between expectation and reality that allows us to sympathise with the characters.

The film takes a unique look at relationships, focussing on a very particular fetish. Hidaka wants to observer Kitahara, to hold the perfect version of her in his mind, and completely fails when given the chance to have a physical relationship with the real Kitahara. He is utterly devoted to her, prepared to do anything for her, even when there is nothing in it for himself, and to go to incredible extremes to prove himself. But understandably, Kitahara is not interested in this, wanting a real relationship. However, she soon comes to indulge Hidaka, whether to satisfy him or herself is left ambiguous, but that is the heart of what the film is about. The obligations people have towards each other, the give-and-take of all romantic and sexual relationships is depicted starkly through this exaggerated example. We see the difference between Kitahara’s relationship with Hidaka and Tadashi, one asexual and based on a distinct power imbalance, while the other (perhaps considered more conventional) does not seem to satisfy her emotionally. A provocative film that forces the viewer to reassess their notions of romantic love and relationships.

Yakuza and the Family (2020) by Michihito Fujii

A poignant story of a young man’s involvement in a crime family told over two decades. In 1999, Kenji Yamamoto (Go Ayano) attends the funeral of his father, who died through drug abuse. Shortly after he finds a surrogate parent in the figure of Hiroshi Shibazaki (Hiroshi Tachi), who recruits him into his yakuza organization. 6 years later Kenji has risen to be one of the most respected members of the gang, and a personal favourite of the boss. He falls for a club hostess named Yuka (Machiko Ono) and looks out for the son of a murdered yakuza member, Tsubasa. Following a lengthy jail sentence for murder, Ken returns to the outside world in 2019 to find things much changed for those around him, discovering that Tsubasa (Hayato Isomura) has become tangentially involved in the same world as his father.

Writer-Director Michihito Fujii creates a stylish crime thriller in “Yakuza and the Family”, an emotional character-driven drama punctuated by flashes of violence. Languid shots of sunsets and cityscapes give way to creative handheld camerawork as we are plunged into the viscerally brutal realities of gang life. The sleek visuals of Keisuke Imamura’s cinematography don’t overpower the drama, but allow the story to slip in and out of the romanticised aesthetic of the Yakuza genre. Taro Iwashiro’s score also compliments the story perfectly, capturing the harsh exterior and underlying fragility of the characters. The large and impressive cast give a captivating ensemble performance. Go Ayano’s “Ken” is a deeply vulnerable and conflicted character, circumstance having driven him into a life of crime. There is a childlike aspect to him to, most obvious in his faltering relationship with Machiko Ono’s Yuka. Ono gives a powerful performance as Yuka, dragged into the orbit of the yakuza largely against her will, defined by her relationships with Ken and her daughter, but with a strong sense of self preservation and steely resolve. Ryutaro Ninomiya (director of “Sweating the Small Stuff”) also features in a small yet important role as Ohara. Hayato Isomura, as the older Tsubasa, is one of the most sympathetic characters, as we see him falling into the same trap as Ken while searching for a father figure.

“Yakuza and the Family” is a film about the paternal and fraternal bonds of organized crime families, but also about the need of young men for father figures. Both Ken and Tsubasa both appear as drifting, directionless, characters, lacking a role model or figure to turn to for support or comfort. Their search for acceptance, perhaps even love, drives them to the overemphasis of their masculine aggression and pride, Ken through becoming a vicious Yakuza member, and Tsubasa becoming a fighter. The yakuza are often referred to as a ‘family’, but we see here that it is a twisted, house-of-mirrors version of family, providing the members with only a poor simulacrum of a genuine parent-child relationship. The film ends on a bittersweet note, highlighting both the dark side of crime, yet also the importance of kindness and charity and the impact it can have on others. A superb character-driven Yakuza drama with an excellent cast that is well worth a watch.

Tokyo Fist (1995) by Shinya Tsukamoto

Tsuda (Shinya Tsukomoto) works as an insurance salesmen, living a comfortable, if monotonous life, with his girlfirend Hizuru (Kahori Fujii). Their relationship is jeapordized with the reappearance of Tsuda’s old schoolfriend, Kojima (played by Tsukamoto’s own brother Koji Tsukamoto), a small-time boxer, who soon makes a move on Hizuru. The three of them are plunged into a world of emotional and physical violence as Tsuda takes up boxing in an attempt to revenge himself on Kojima and win back Hizuru.

“Tokyo Fist” is an unconventional boxing film, the action flowing from the emotions of the characters instead of vice versa. What begins as a simple narrative about a jilted lover on a mission of revenge soon becomes a much deeper analysis of societal violence and human psychology. Writer-director Tsukamoto infuses the film with sequences that draw a direct comparison between the physical and the emotional, tipping into art-house and horror with its visceral, abstract visuals. The use of colour shows a director who is at ease using the full range of cinematic techniques to tell his story. It is very much a film that requires thought and attention, noting the shifts from blue to red, the frenetic hand-held camerawork and framing, the flashes of extreme bloodletting, all of these things are not simply done to keep things visually interesting, but are an integral part of the storytelling. The film provokes its audience, drawing you in to sweat-drenched close-ups and flinch-inducing sequences of body modification, causing you to experience the pain and suffering of the characters along with them. Tsukamoto gives an excellent performance in the lead role as Tsuda, a man who is forced to forsake his comfortable life for one of violence and struggle, buffeted by his own emotions and the actions of others. Kahori Fujii’s Hizuru is far more than a supporting role with a narrative all of her own, a parallel to the struggle of the two men she is involved with and a reflection of the themes of suffering as a form of release. Her relationship with pain comes to be one of the most intriguing aspects of the film, seemingly reinventing herself as her situation changes. Koji Tsukamoto’s Kojima is likewise a complex character, particularly after his backstory is revealed, who reflects the same paranoia, deep-seated anger, and sense of helplessness expressed by Tsuda.

Shinya Tsukamoto returns to a common theme in his work, that of violence and pain. The use of boxing here gives a perfect story on which to hang many of these themes, acting as a conduit for the passion, suffering, physical and mental pain, that pervades society. As the film progresses the central story of Tsuda, Hizuru and Kojima, becomes less important, instead overwhelmed by the enormity of the forces that seem to be guiding them. Jealousy, lust, anger, hatred, revenge, many of the worst human impulses are characterised in these three individuals. Their individuality becomes blurred as they increasingly reflect each other in their rush towards suffering, perhaps they are simply becoming conduits for an ever present aggression in the world itself. There is an interesting scene with the moon that suggests inescapable natural urges are driving them. The film also shows how their environments, the grim, urban decay of the city’s streets and underpasses, inform and emphasise their emotions. A thought-provoking film that demands deeper consideration. Excellent central performances and a director at the top of his game in creating a work that captivates, dragging you through the suffering of its characters in the hopes that you come out with a deeper understanding of the forces that drive human interaction.

Demon Slayer: Mugen Train (2020) by Haruo Sotozaki

While it is possible to enjoy this film without having seen the Demon Slayer anime, I would advise watching the series first. The film picks up directly from the end of the last episode of the show, with Tanjiro (Natsuki Hanae), Zenitsu (Hiro Shimono) and Inosuke (Yoshitsugu Matsuoka) boarding the titular Mugen Train (or “Infinity Train”). There they find the Flame Hashira, Rengoku Kyojuro (Satoshi Hino), who is on a misson to defeat a powerful demon. It is not long before the demon makes their presence known, putting our heroes to sleep in hopes of killing them while they are vulnerable. This gives us a look into the psyche of the characters through various dream sequences which they must escape from.

Essentially an extended episode, “Demon Slayer: Mugen Train” is an action-packed continuation of the set-up that ended the series, featuring gory demonic fights and slapstick comedy. It is great to see the characters back in action again after the training they have undergone. We don’t get too many answers to the questions raised at the end of the show, such as the mystery surrounding Tanjiro’s father, or any nearer a cure for Nezuko (Akari Kito), as this story is intended to bridge the two series. However, there are plenty of twists and surprises in store and it builds expectation for series two with a thrilling climactic battle that pushes the story forward in a dramatic way. The blend of animation styles, featuring 2D and 3D animation, the garishly juxtaposed comedy, dark themes and subtext, explosive action, powerful soundtrack, and moving storylines, will be familiar to fans of the show and the film delivers everything you have come to expect from “Demon Slayer”. This is hardly surprising as the film has the same director as the series, and the same incredible music from Yuki Kajiura and Go Shiina creating that epic feel.

In having a demon who uses the power of dreams to entrap their victims, the film allows us to look at the characters inner-lives, Tanjiro’s underlying trauma; Zenitsu’s infatuation with Nezuko; and Inosuke’s animalistic desire to fight are highlighted as key drivers in their behaviours. The decision to set the film almost entirely aboard a train means that the filmmakers are able to expand this inner-world without the distraction of too many new elements. Instead we have again creative antagonists, using unknown Blood Demon Arts, and the chemistry of the protagonists as they do what they do best. A must-watch for fans, the film has already become a box-office smash due to the popularity of the show and is sure to provide a springboard for viewers to get excited before the release of the second series.