Grasshopper (2015) by Tomoyuki Takimoto

Following the death of his girlfriend a man becomes entangled in a dark, underground world of drug gangs and assassins. On Halloween night in Shibuya a car ploughs into the crowd killing a young woman named Yuriko (Haru). Distraught at her untimely death, her boyfriend Suzuki (Toma Ikuta) goes undercover with a pharmeceutical company that is a front for a malicious gang run by Terahara (Renji Ishibashi). Suzuki’s boss, Sumire (Kumiko Aso) is a sadistic femme fatale who soon becomes suspicious of Suzuki’s intentions. Meanwhile, hired killer Kujira (Tadanobu Asano) who forces people to commit suicide for Terahara is troubled by the sins of his past. Becoming a liability to the gang he is targetted by fellow assassins Iwanishi (Jun Murakami) and Semi (Ryosuke Yamada).

Based on the novel by Kotaro Isaka, “Grasshopper” is a noir thriller that sets up several great characters. We are sympathetic to Suzuki’s quest for revenge and his complete inadequacy in going up against hardened killers and gangsters. Saccharine flashbacks of him and Yuriko often feel at odds with the violent tone of the film, but do create a clear distinction between the world he has lost and the one he finds himself thrust into. Tadanobu Asano’s Kujira has perhaps the most intriguing backstory, troubled by the ghosts of his victims who appear before him; it is a similar tale with Semi, who suffers a ringing in his ears that is only calmed when he is killing. There is a slight imbalance in tone and story that runs through the film, with the characters jostling for the position of protagonist and it lurches from the brutal fight sequences and grim life of Kujira to the more incompetent amateur detective antics of Suzuki. Suzuki remains the protagonist, but the film sets up these two interesting assassins that feel as thought they deserve their own film. The film also introduces fantasy elements that are creative, but never fully developed as an integral part of the story. These shifts in tone are also present in the eclectic score, with a mix of operatic, hard rock and soft piano. However, despite these inconsistencies the film creates some incredible moments, particularly in the fight sequences and chase through the streets. Director Tomoyuki Takimoto crafts a stylish crime drama and the noir tone is handled expertly with rain drenched, neon lit streets, and dark alleyways.

A hugely entertaining noir thriller with great visuals and a collection of fantastic characters. Suzuki is an everyman hero whose search for revenge is charming and understandable. There is contrast between Suzuki who is desperate for revenge but unable to attain it and Kujira and Semi (the only other characters whose names appear on screen), hardened killers who are made to question their profession. Suzuki’s unsuitability as a killer is a weakness in the world he finds himself in, but is also what makes him a decent man. He is a relatable protagonist preciscely because he is unable to imagine himself killing anyone. The fates of Kujira and Semi offer an oddly moralistic but understandable ending when considering the rights and wrongs of the characters. At times it feels like these three characters should not exist in the same film, but that creates a fantastic tension that builds to a stunning conclusion.

Chaos (2000) by Hideo Nakata

It is hard to describe the plot of “Chaos” without giving away the twists and turns that enliven the plot. The film revolves around Komiyama (Ken Mitsuishi), a company president, his wife Saori, his mistress Satomi (Miki Nakatani), and a handyman (Masato Hagiwara) who is believed to have kidnapped Komiyama’s wife. On returning to his office after a lunch with his wife, Komiyama receives a call from Kuroda (Masato Hagiwara), to say his wife is being held hostage and he wants money for her release. All is not as it seems however and the film constantly wrong-foots the audience by showing that many of the players involved in this plot know far more than they are letting on.

The film is directed by Hideo Nakata, who is best known for his horror fare and who brings that same sense of creeping dread to this crime thriller. “Chaos” features a relatives small cast, largely consisting of the three central protagonists and two police officers who are called in to investigate the disappearance of Komiyama’s wife. The performances, particularly of Masato Hagiwara and Miki Nakatani are excellent, playing roles within roles as they deceive others around them, with double-crosses and backstabbings the order of the day. Satomi and Kuroda’s relationship remains in question until the end of the film. The story by Hisashi Saito (who also worked on Shinya Tsukamoto’s “Tokyo Fist”) perfects the crime genre, with the tightly wound plot unravelling slowly with each new revelation. There is also some fantastic foreshadowing that comes in to play later, laying out clues for the audience, but always leaving them one step behind the characters. The film plays the same trick several times: setting up a scenario then showing either one or other of the protagonists to be lying about their actions or motivations, but it works each time and lulls the audience into an acceptance of expectation rather than closure, with each new piece of the puzzle rasing more questions. The peculiar score by Kenji Kawai is a mix of percussion and chime, slightly lilting and off-kilter suggestive of the notion that not everything is as it seems in the story.

“Chaos” is a film about control and manipulation. This is best represented in the scene in which Kuroda binds his captive, a frisson of sexual tension passing between them as she gives herself over to him. The narrative builds on a series of turns in which it is revealed that the people we thought were powerless are in fact playing the other characters; the people presumed to be victims turn out to be perpetrators. An enjoyable crime thriller that maintains tension throughout by slowly untangling a web of lies surrounding the protagonists.

Throne of Blood (1957) by Akira Kurosawa

Based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth, “Throne of Blood” tells the story of Washizu, a captain of the lord of Cobweb Castle, and his ill-fated supplanting of his former master. After helping to put down a traitorous revolt by a rebel named Fujimaki, Washizu (Toshiro Mifune) and fellow captain Miki (Minoru Chiaki), are returning to Cobweb Castle to receive their reward for valiant action in the field. On the way through a nearby forest they meet a spectral figure (Chieko Naniwa), who foretells that they will both have great futures. Washizu is told he will rise, first to the head of north mansion (home of the traitor Fujimaki), and then to Lord of Cobweb Castle, while Miki’s son will eventually take that title. They both laugh, but when they arrive at the castle, they are both promoted to the positions promised them by the spirit. Washizu starts to believe the prophecy and is led to heinous acts, including killing his lord Tsuzuki (Yoichi Tachikawa), supported by his wife Asaji (Isuzu Yamada), in order to secure the position that was promised him and later attempts to avoid his fate of losing the titles he has attained.

The story follows the play quite closely, including some of the more well-known scenes, such as the ghost at the feast, and Washizu’s (Macbeth’s) wife trying to wash blood from her hands, translating the events to feudal Japan, with samurai lords, and a spirit, rather than the traditional witches. The plot is lean and sharp, making its points about self-fulfilling prophecy, loyalty, dishonour and guilt succinctly and with each scene having some impact or import to the story. It is said that Kurosawa often paints out each scene he directs on a canvas, and uses this as a reference, and here you can see that the composition of each shot has been considered carefully, framing exactly what is necessary. Little touches, such as the auguring spirit turning a wheel (to symbolize the circular nature of history and the rise and fall of the characters), are well-thought out, but not over-bearing in their symbolism. Foreshadowing, such as the rack of arrows that Asaji sits beside after the death of Tsuzuki likewise emphasise the themes of inescapable fate in a subtle way. Kurosawa draws out the horror of the story, with sinister touches such as the witch and the blood-stained room of the traitor Fujimaki, helped by the turns of Masaru Sato’s sombre yet terrifying score. The film also uses silence to spectacular effect, particularly in the scene following Tsuzuki’s death, when the piercing silence leaves the viewer to contemplate the atrocity that has been committed.

Kurosawa and Shakespeare are an unbeatable combination, as later evidenced by Ran (based on King Lear), with the director’s style well-suited to the grand themes of the bard’s work. “Throne of Blood” offers a moral message about the dangers of ambition and hubris, from the first ominous, foreboding poem being sung across scenes of barren earth where once the great castle stood, to the end, where we return to the same site. This is a world in which humanity is buoyed along by fate and entirely at its mercy, unable to truly experience free choice or action. The story considers the notion of fate and man’s doomed attempts to avoid it. There is ambiguity in the tale as to whether Washizu’s actions make his situation worse, whether the prophecy is fulfilled only because he became aware of it, or whether everything that happens is unavoidable. The film begins and ends with the site of the former Cobweb Castle, setting the scene as a warning for future generations. Full of action, horror, and intrigue, “Throne of Blood” is an expertly directed and superbly told story of ambition, paranoia, and dishonour.

Hell Girl (2019) by Koji Shiraishi

In 1965 a girl gets revenge on the school bully by calling on Hell Girl (Tina Tamashiro), an infernal avenger, and her fellow demons to take her to hell. These demons demand a terrible price however, as anyone who calls on them will also be taken to hell when they die. In 2019, the now elderly woman’s son, photo-journalist Jin Kudo (Kazuki Namioka), is asking to use this story for an article. The woman dies shortly after and the demons come to take her. When an idol, Sanae Mikuriya, (Mina Oba) is attacked by a crazed fan, leaving her with facial scarring, she also calls on Hell Girl (who is now contactable through a website; although only at midnight, and only by those holding a serious grudge). And later when Miho’s (Nana Mori) friend, Haruka (Sawa Nimura) falls victim to a dangerous black metal singer Maki (Tom Fujita), Hell Girl finds herself with another young woman willing to take this demonic bargain.

“Hell Girl” is based on the anime by Takahiro Omori, with the live action film being written and directed by Koji Shiraishi (Carved: The Slit Mouthed Woman). The film’s central premise, of an infernal ‘deal with the devil’ in the form of the revenge service offered by ‘Hell Girl’ is pretty solid horror fare, but unfortunately the film fails to capitalize on it. We rarely see the hellish tortures the victims are subjected too, with only a minimal look at one character being eaten by worms. This means that for the most part the threats of eternal damnation are not particularly terrifying. The tone is often more dark fantasy, with supernatural anti-heroes in the shape of Hell Girl and her band of demons. The film perhaps relies on some fore-knowledge of the manga, with none of these hellish characters fleshed out much, and even Hell Girl herself rarely making an appearance. Later in the film they seem to appear even when not summoned, and they seem to take little joy in their work, simply taking any soul they are asked to. This lack of characterisation is also apparent in the human protagonists, who either have no meaningful motivation or are unlikeable enough that their characters’ fates are no great cause for sadness. The seemingly tit-for-tat, and thoughtless nature of them calling up Hell Girl for revenge, becomes almost risible, requiring no effort and with too few obvious consequence shown to the audience. The film gives us brief glimpses of a psychedelic hell, a teen-friendly Teruo Ishii fairground that is always careful not to be too extreme, limiting itself mostly to decapitation, and where the demons conform to comfortable horror tropes (scars, dark clothes).

“Hell Girl” is a by-product of a successful anime and manga franchise, which doesn’t move much beyond its premise. The demons go through the motions of taking people to hell in a way that give the audience little cause for concern about its protagonists. With more character work and creative depictions of hell it could have worked, but unfortunately it fails to entertain.

A.I. Love You (2016) by Shogo Miyaki

Haruko Hoshino (Aoi Morikawa) is works as a kitchen porter while dreaming of opening her own patisserie someday. Disillusioned by a series of job interview rejections she finds comfort in an unusual source: a mysterious mail advertising a free A.I. phone application that you can speak with. She downloads it and names it “Love” (‘Ai’ in Japanese). Love (Takumi Saito) offers her support and words of wisdom, suggesting that she try to make some recipes and have her boss (Akira Ishida) taste them. Love also suggests that she should pursue a romantic interest in the shape of co-worker and talented chef Naoto (Shuhei Uesugi). As Love offers her advice and Haruko grows in confidence, their relationship begins to develop into something more than one of convenience.

Based on the manga by Ken Akamatsu, “A.I. Love You”a simplistic romantic tale with a technological twist. The A.I. element is a modern take on the traditional narrative of a human friend with burgeoning feelings for Haruko. Aoi Morikawa is charismatic and likeable in the lead role, often performing a one-woman show to the camera as she speaks with the voice of Love (Takumi Saito). Her problems are far from insurmountable: she is already a competent pastry chef and the improvement she needs to gain her bosses approval and follow her dreams are almost imperceptible to the viewer. Similarly, her romantic troubles are overcome fairly easily. The film is short and moves along quickly, leaving little time for character development, with the supporting cast mostly filling stereotypical roles. Shuhei Uesugi as the handsome love interest; Anne Nakamura as Haruko’s friendly co-worker Kyoko, and Akira Ishida as her irrationaly irritable boss.

Despite a lack of originality or depth the film will appeal to fans of romantic dramas. Much like a pastry it is light, fluffy fun, saccharine sweet and visually appealing. Later in the film there is a hint at darker themes, with the deletion of Love suggesting a similarity with human death, and despite a lack of build up it does manage to be emotionally engaging. However, the film largely sticks to the well-trodden path of romantic comedy dramas, with an uplifting message about trying hard to achieve your dreams. An enjoyable performance from Aoi Morikawa makes it worth a watch.