The Forest of Love (2019) by Sion Sono

Sion Sono is well-known for his subversive genre work, with gruesome body horror, nihilistic punk philosophy and black humour. “The Forest of Love” is a prime example of his oevre. In the same vein as “Cold Fish”, which took for inspiration a series of horrific murders, “The Forest of Love” also begins with an note that this is “Based on a True Story”, though as things progress that statement becomes harder and harder to believe. The case on which it is based is one of depraved sadism, abuse, and torture. Sono’s film manages to capture the despicable nature of the crimes, but also throws in many elements of his own creation in a bizarre blend of satire and bloody crime drama. The film begins with a young man, Shin (Shinnosuke Mitsushima), recently arrived in Tokyo meeting up with two film fanatics, Jay (Young Dais) and Fukami (Dai Hasegawa), who dream of entering the Pia Film Festival and becoming great directors. The three soon begin working together and meet up with Taeko (Kyoko Hinami), who introduces them to Mitsuko (Eri Kamataki). Taeko and Mitsuko are erstwhile high-school friends who drifted apart after one of their classmates died in tragic circumstances. Mitsuko is approached by a man, Joe Murata (Kippei Shiina), who claims to want to return a 50 yen coin to her, but it soon becomes obvious that he is a dangerous conman. Everyone Murata comes into contact with seems to get drawn into his orbit, despite being a completely despicable human being. The three young men decide he would make an excellent subject for their film, believing him to be responsible for several murders that have occurred recently. The truth is far more shocking as he subjects them and the women to a series of sadistic games, fleeces them of their money, and drags them into a hellish world of torture and killing, seemingly with little reason.

Kippei Shiina plays Murata with a sickening relish as a completely amoral human who cares for nobody but himself. His charisma is skin deep and his egocentric sadism is hard to stomach. His psychopathy is succinctly summarised by him in the opening scene when he describes the act of killing as akin to losing your virginity, something that once it is done it provokes no great change, it is simply a meaningless transition to becoming a murderer. Kyoko Hinami is perhaps the standout performance and the character of Taeko is the emotional heart of the drama. Her behaviour is often incomprehensible, but she seems self-aware enough to finally realise the horror of her situation. “The Forest of Love” is a film that seems determined to provoke a reaction, whether that is laughter or revulsion, which it does numerous times. Sono knows how to play the audience, confounding them with sudden shifts in tone and style that play alongside the warped characters to create a disorienting experience. The scene where Murata breaks out a mini piano to serenade his girlfriend’s parents is one such scene that is completely ridiculous and seems to come straight from a musical comedy, not something you would expect in a film that also features sado-masochistic electrocution and dismembered corpses. Another prime example is when two characters are frolicking with a hose as they wash down a room that has just been used to cut up a murder victim.

“The Forest of Love” may be a little overlong, a bizarre work that shows a creative mind throwing everything he has at it and hoping some of it works. For the most part it does, although many moments will be familiar to those who have seen “Cold Fish”, “Strange Circus”, “Love/ Exposure”, “Suicide Club” and other examples of Sono’s more extreme filmography.

The characters of Shin, Fukami and Jay, creations of Sono’s who almost feels like they have stumbled into this crime story from another film, are a clear reminder that the film should be seen as a commentary on events and society rather than a straightforward retelling of a true crime drama. They are fascinated by the crimes of Murata, going so far as to become directly involved in them. In what is perhaps a self-referential moment, Jay explains that he loves film because you can do anything you want, including travelling the world having sex and killing people. Jay can be seen as Sono inserting himself into the film to comment on the fascination people have with abhorrent behaviour. As for the crimes, the film offers very little in the way of an explanation, outside of Murata being a manipulative person who is able to convince others to join him. It does however create a visceral sense of dread and revulsion for the crimes and the way people are treated by him.

This is definitely worth a watch if you are a fan of Sion Sono’s extreme films. There are many moments that will make you squirm, laugh or want to turn away in disgust. Sono may be re-treading familiar themes and ideas but the quality and shock value are no less than in those earlier works.

Big Tits Zombie (2010) by Takao Nakano

When a film has a title like that you are really only watching it for two reasons. Written and directed by Takao Nakano, “Big Tits Zombie” is based on the manga by Rei Mikamoto and stars several adult film stars in what is a low-budget comedy horror romp. Beginning in media res we see two of our heroines (Sora Aoi and Yumi Yoshiyuki) surrounded by zombies, hacking their way through with a katana and a chainsaw. Lena (Aoi) then kindly offers in voiceover to take us back to where this all began. Having just returned from Mexico, Lena is looking for work and finds it in the “Paradise Theatre” stripclub. Working alongside her are Ginko (Yoshiyuki), Maria (Mari Sakurai) who has a goth-loli style and love of Shakespeare, Nene (Tamayo) who is into reading tarot, and Darna (Io Aikawa) from south Asia who is raising money for her family back home. With few customers the women are bored. They are then farmed out to the local onsen spot to entertain the patrons there with female wrestling and other games. Following a fight in their dressing room, they discover a hidden passage behind a wall that leads down to an underground chamber. The chamber contains many occult books and a portal to hell. Because why not? When Maria begins reading an incantation from one book she unwittingly summons the dead back to life.

The film is as ridiculous as the title suggests and doubtless nobody involved was expecting a masterpiece. The manga “Big Tits Dragon” by Rei Mikamoto on which the film is based no doubt gave more weight to the film through giving each character some sense of personality. There is an attempt to give Lena some backstory and character development, even if it largely involves her getting drunk and having regrettable sexual encounters. The others are likewise all given a peculiar character quirk. Darna’s love of money and Maria’s gothic obsession are traits that do tie into the story in interesting ways, and it is more than you might have expected for anything to make sense in this film. One of the oddest moments of the film is a flashback involving Ginko, where she explains how she previously killed one of the zombies after he broke into her home and killed her younger sister. This subplot doesn’t really come back in any major way, which is a missed opportunity.

Speaking of missed opportunities, while there are plenty of zombies in the film the titular breasts make relatively few appearances. The sequence near the end where they have breasts sprayed with arterial spurt from slain zombies one would imagine would be a common occurrence in the film, but it plays as though it is intended as a scene inserted simply to justify the title. This wouldn’t be an issue were it not for the fact that the filmmakers rarely seem to make use of their biggest assets, that being the great cast of actresses he has. The script has several decent jokes, but too few to really class this as an out and out comedy. When they meet a blue ogre from hell who is in middle-management and complaining about the number of souls he is having to contend with, a little like an overpopulated prison as he remarks, the scene feels underplayed. Likewise, there are many creative moments, such as a woman having her organs eaten in the style of ‘body sushi’, playing ping pong with an eyeball, and a woman whose organs flail around like tentacles, that suffer through poor effects work. The last of these is severely damaged as you can see the strings holding up the puppetry. The flame-throwing vagina was one moment that absolutely caught the tone of the film, somewhere between horror and comedy, but it needed to push the envelope in this vein more often.

Sadly, the film falls between two stools. Neither raunchy or terrifying enough to be a standout of the ‘ero-guro’ genre, nor funny enough to be a great comedy. It’s short runtime means it is sure to find an audience looking for some B-movie goodness, but again the filmmakers really missed a trick in not going all out either in terms of the sexploitation or horror to make this truly memorable. It is to their credit that they attempt a modicum of plot and character and there is enough to keep you entertained, but it could have been so much more.

Hot Gimmick: Girl Meets Boy (2019) by Yuki Yamato

Based on the manga “Hot Gimmick” by Miki Aihara, this film about teenage romance is a tough watch for all the wrong reasons. Hatsumi (Miona Hori) is a shy teenager, romantically and sexually inexperienced, who seems to be easily manipulated by those around her. Early in the film she is asked by her more worldly-wise younger sister Akane to buy a pregnancy kit, drawing the distinction between the two girls. When her neighbour Ryoki (Hiroya Shimizu) finds the kit, he blackmails Hatsumi into being his slave. This is where things take a turn for the perverse and logic flies out the window. Ryoki is clearly interested in Hatsumi romantically, using this as a way to get close to her, however his behaviour is so inexplicable for someone who also appears to be socially awkward that it is hard to believe. It also creates an uncomfortable dynamic as Hatsumi is forced to obey him and we are left wondering why she doesn’t completely reject this or report him. Things don’t get much better when another of Hatsumi’s neighbours, Azusa (Mizuki Itagaki) turns his attention to her. Azusa is an old friend recently shot to stardom as an idol, and seems very interested in Azusa. However, after taking her to a party where he drugs her drink, we realise his intentions are not entirely pure. Azusa is rescued from the horrors of what could have followed by Shinogu (Shotaro Mamiya), her older brother. We later learn Shinogu is not biologically related and that he also has romantic intentions towards her. Later in the film Hatsumi is tricked into sending a nude video to Azusa, which he then proceeds to blackmail her with.

While ostensibly a romantic drama, the film contains so many uncomfortable moments, blackmail, revenge porn, suggestions of date rape, the quasi-incestuous nature of her relationship with Shinogu, it is hard to be charmed by any of the characters. Throughout, there is the sense that Hatsumi should choose one of these men, but they all behave so reprehensibly the sanest thing would be for her to get as far away as possible. The issues the film raises are all interesting starting points for a film about teenage life and worries, but it feels as though the filmmakers are unaware of the seriousness of what is happening. Incidents that would be the major plot point of any other film are passed over as though they were minor annoyances, or something that is a regular occurrence for teenagers. The ease with which Hatsumi forgets transgressions against her leaves a sour taste suggesting that women are essentially mindless pawns in a game played by despicable men. She is lacking in agency for the most part, either unaware or unconcerned by what happens to her.

Sadly the plot is far from the worst part of this movie. The editing is nauseating from the beginning. In the opening sequence we see fast cuts to still images of several characters, some we are yet to be introduced to. Throughout the camera will suddenly cut to random elements in a scene. There are some great shots, but again they are rushed, appearing for a second at a time before the camera gets distracted by something else. It is as if you are looking through the eyes of someone with a very short attention span, and little understanding of what is important at any moment. It is a shame, because without the rapid pace the cinematography would have been given time to shine, with Shibuya providing an excellent backdrop for the chaotic lives of the protagonists. In the second half the editing does calm down a little and we get some of the better scenes. The standout moments are in the dialogues between Hatsumi, Azusa and Ryoki. Miona Hori does a good job with the more emotional scenes when she finally confronts them. Hori is an idol singer and her performance is strong, but undermined by the script and characterisation of her as something of an airhead (but without the charm to compensate). Hiyori Sakurada who plays Akane is very good and has some of the most poignant moments in a side-story about her own relationship. The scene between Hatsumi and Ryoki seems as though there is too much dialogue crammed into one scene. It may be an adaptation issue, in attempting to condense the story for a short runtime, but the film is far from short, coming in at just under two hours. They could have largely cut Akane’s story and focussed on the rivalry between Azusa and Ryoki, which seems to be at the film’s heart.

Essentially the film is a coming-of-age story, with Hatsumi learning that she has the power to choose who she dates. What should have been an uplifting message is undercut by the subtext that she should allow herself to become whatever her partner wants. She is mocked as being stupid throughout and it doesn’t seem to bother her; the idea of being blackmailed and treated as a slave is almost shrugged off; likewise the attempted date-rape that she either forgets or forgives, and her older brother’s deceit. As well as being a terrible role-model for young women, the film also depicts its male characters as universally awful, aggressive, lustful and disingenuous. This poorly conceived film is severely lacking, distracting from any high-points with confused editing and worrying subtext.

Harmonium (2016) by Koji Fukada

Toshio (Kanji Furutachi) is a man living a comfortable life with his wife Akie (Mariko Tsutsui) and young daughter Hotaru (Momone Shinokawa). He has a workshop at home where he manufactures parts. Out of the blue and old friend, Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano), turns up and enquires how he is doing. Yasaka is recently out of an 11 year jail term and Toshio agrees that he can work with him and stay with his family. Akie is not comfortable with this at first, but Yasaka soon shows himself to be a kind individual, teaching Hotaru the harmonium which she is practicing for an upcoming recital. Akie’s acceptance of Yasaka, and their own friendship, sees him confess to the murder that put him in jail for 11 years. Akie’s Protestantism means that she is keen to forgive him and believes that god is looking out for him.

The following synopsis contains spoilers.

“Harmonium” is a film of two halves. The first is a slow character study of Toshio, his family, and Yasaka. At almost exactly the halfway point we are hit with three sudden and shocking moments that come like a gut-punch and leave the audience reeling. None are entirely unexpected, but the nature of what happens colours the entire second act and makes us reassess everything that went before. Firstly, while on a family outing Yasaka moves to kiss Akie, their relationship has become closer, and the two begin an affair behind Toshio’s back. The second shock comes after a scene in which Yasaka is rejected by Akie. We see him leave the house and he spots Hotaru on her way home. In the next moment we find Yasaka over Hotaru’s body, blood seeping from her head. Toshio and Akie find their daughter and Yasaka walks away. As if this moment were not shocking enough, the film then cuts to 8 years later. Toshio and Akie are still living and working as before, Toshio has now taken on a new apprentice, Takashi (Taiga). We learn that Hotaru was not killed in the incident, but paralysed and left in a wheelchair and barely able to communicate. This tragic occurrence leads to soul-searching from both Akie and Toshio, who eventually reveals his own role in the murder Yasaka committed.

Written and directed by Koji Fukada, “Harmonium” is a film that relies on an excellent script, superb performances from the main cast and direction that leads the audience through the subtle build up and crushing twists without being overly ostentatious. It is a character driven narrative that looks at a brutal and tragic occurrence and the impact it has on people. It can be hard to comprehend exactly what the message of the film is on first watch, but it is something that will stay with you. There are two dialogues early in the film that may shed some light on the underlying themes of the film. The first is when Hotaru is discussing a spider she heard about whose prodigy eat their mother. She asks whether the mother will go to heaven. The father asks later whether the children will go to hell for eating her, finally reasoning that they will all go to hell because even the mother must have eaten her mother and so on. This notion of heaven and hell is raised in conjunction with Akie’s protestant faith and the film is in part an exploration of notions of sin and redemption. Both Toshio and Yasaka have sinned, but the film asks pointedly whether either can be redeemed. Religion is raised again in a conversation between Akie and Yasaka, when he asks her whether she is like the kitten or the monkey when it comes to god. The kitten, he explains, is carried along by the scruff of its neck, while baby monkeys cling to their mother themselves. He believes she is like the cat, carried along by god partly unwillingly, while she disagrees, stating she clings to god more like the monkey.

Every performance in the film is praiseworthy, especially that of Mariko Tsutsui as Akie, a woman who is struggling through the most difficult circumstances and in danger of losing her faith. Kanji Furutachi gives an excellent performance as Toshio, who we learn is an atheist. He appears to have completely shut himself off from the world, including his wife and child to a certain extent, perhaps through guilt or an attempt to suppress his personality. Tadanobu Asano is also excellent as Yakasa, whose mannerisms appear unnatural, but in a way that is hard to fully define. There are moments that can be genuinely chilling, as when he sees Hotaru for the first time, but always played subtly so you are never quite sure if you are just imagining it. In a way the film is provoking the audience into making judgements on him, in the same way many in society would when confronted with an ex-convict.

Fukada’s direction helps to tell the story, further strengthening the script and performances into something that is completely engrossing. As mentioned, the film is one of two halves in terms of the narrative structure. There also appears to be a shift in direction following the incident. Early in the film there are many static shots, and framing is largely flat, with characters facing one another across a table for instance. As the film moves to the second half we see a more active camera, off-kilter shots and the momentum seems to suggest a couple that is falling apart. Colour is also used to great effect, whether the white overalls of Yakasa, or the apparent switch in clothing of Akie and her daughter during a dream sequence later in the film. The minimalist score, that really only begins late in the film, helps to emphasise the final dramatic moments.

“Harmonium” is a difficult film to watch, with very dark themes about the most horrific of incidents. It is a film about how the past can come back to haunt you, and how people learn to live with their mistakes. We never discover what happened with Yasaka and Hotaru. Unlike a conventional crime story, the film is unconcerned about the details of the crime, but more interested in the impact it has on the survivors. The feelings of anguish suffered by Toshio and Akie come crashing together with their own feelings of guilt over what happened. The Japanese title of the film “Standing in the Abyss”, probably captures this sense of utter devastation and loss the best. They are two people who are living, but unable to move on or climb out of their personal hell. A film that is definitely worth the watch for the fantastic performances and heart-wrenching story.

Air Doll (2009) by Hirokazu Koreeda

Bae Doona stars in this modern fairytale about an inflatable sex doll that comes to life. This miracle prompts her go out into the world and explore. Nozomi, as the doll is named, is a wide-eyed innocent to the bizarre behaviours of the citizens of Tokyo. We are treated to several scenes of her attempting to follow what others are doing or understand what is going on that gives us a fresh perspective on the everyday. She stumbles across a DVD rental store, where she is employed as an assistant, forming a close friendship with the young man who works there. At nights she returns to her owner, assuming an inanimate aspect to perform her role as a sex toy. On her daytime perambulations she meets a number of lonely people, including an old man pondering his existence, a middle-aged receptionist trying to recapture her youth, and a young pervert who spies on her in the store. As days go by, Nozomi attempts to fathom some reason for her existence.

Bae Doona’s performance as Nozomi is perfect in its fragile naivete and childlike wonder at the world. Throughout the film we see her becoming more confident and her range of expressions growing as she begins to understand emotions. Comedian Itsuji Itao plays her owner as a comi-tragic figure. We learn a little about him through short scenes of him at work and at home with Nozomi. While it may be tempting to laugh at his situation, we come to see that he is not a bad person, in fact he shows kindness to the doll beyond its basic utility, but rather a man disillusioned with society and withdrawn into his own reality. The same is true of the other characters in the film who are variously struggling to integrate with society or form connections with other people. There is a late cameo from Joe Odagiri as the dollmaker, which provides an interesting moment for Nozomi as she is essentially meeting her Maker.

The screenplay by director Hirokazu Koreeda is based on the original manga by Yoshiie Goda. “Airdoll” is a film that has an intriguing premise. The Little Mermaid is mentioned during the film and is among others one of the key influences, particularly in Nozomi’s later relationship with Junichi (Arata Iura). She is the typical fish-out-of-water, attempting to fit in and find love, albeit with an adult twist. The film is a tough watch at times due to the relentlessly downbeat tone. The various side-characters all have something to say about modern society, whether that is about the focus on youth and beauty, the misunderstanding of the relationship between sex and love, or the search for meaning in an otherwise meaningless life. The film often feels that it is labouring the same point but in slightly different ways. That being said there are few genuinely shocking moments, where the film seems to completely jump the tracks. Not in terms of its own internal logic, but in terms of what an audience might expect. One of these comes near the end of the film and sees a sudden shift from humorous to horrifying. It is peculiar as it cuts across the mild melancholy of what has come before in a brutal way.

Pin Bing Lee’s cinematography takes us right into the world of Tokyo, with sweeping rooftop scenes showing the contradictory nature of the city as a place that is at once bustling yet without any real sense of soul. The opening sequence is a good example of the film’s visual storytelling with Itsuji Itao’s lonely figure sitting on a train travelling around the tracks, trapped in the monotonous daily grind. Likewise Bae Doona’s early experiences with the world that rely on her acute facial expressions and body language before she learns to converse fully with others. Katsuhiko Maeda’s score underlines the melancholic nature of the film, with plaintive piano and strings drifting along and the use of breathing on the soundtrack is a clever device, a nod to the protagonist’s tenuous existence and also creating the sense of the city itself as a living thing.

The film is certainly an interesting watch, with plenty to say about modern life. The depressing, nihilistic tone may be hard for some to swallow, but it is not without its enjoyable moments. Joe Odagiri’s characters asks Nozomi pointedly to tell him if there was anything good in the world, or was it all just one long trial. The audience is left to ponder this question throughout with the meaning of life seeming to always hover just out of reach of the characters. Surprisingly, the sexual politics of the film are left largely unaddressed, although the set-up leaves plenty of room for projection from the audience about the rights and wrongs of relationships. Rather than a personal study the film is best examined as a wider commentary on society. There has been a disconnect between sex and love in society that seems to be damaging the heart of humanity itself and leading to the sort of alienation we witness amongst the characters. A worthwhile watch with a superb central performance and a novel twist on an old idea.