Busu (1987) by Jun Ichikawa

Mugiko (Yasuko Tomita) moves from Izu to Tokyo, starting at a city school and joining her aunt’s geisha house in Asakusa. Given the name Suzume, she begins work helping the other geisha and learning the dances and entertaining duties of the house. Meanwhile at school she struggles to fit in, finally finding a role for herself when she is asked to dance at the school festival.

“Busu”, written by Makiko Uchidate and directed by Jun Ichikawa, is a coming-of-age story dealing with ideas of tradition meeting contemporary society. The sequence of Suzume running along behind the rickshaws through inner-city Tokyo shows this peculiar blend of long-standing ritual in a modern setting. The depiction of high-school life is enjoyable, as well as Suzume’s sense of isolation after her move. Ichikawa’s direction is endlessly creative, allowing the character-driven story to flow without cleaving to any particular plot. Suzume’s experiences at high-school and at the geisha house are realistic without resorting to melodrama. There is a potential love interest in the athletic classmate, but whatever connection there is between them is left largely unexplored. The score is varied, with pop song interludes accompanying montages of Suzume exploring the city. It is a film that emphasises Suzume’s point of view, her wide-eyed innocence, her sense of isolation, her hopes and fears. Occasionally seemingly incidental details, such as armed police storming into a building, or a woman accosting what we presume is an unfaithful lover, all help to establish a lived in world, one in which Suzume is keenly aware of the dangers.

When she comes to perform her dance at the school show, the audience are completely behind her. This symbol of the traditional values she has been taught seems to be a life-affirming moment for her, connecting her with her family and the past. In a sense Suzume’s story is timeless, the difficulties she faces in fitting in and finding her own way through the various familial and cultural pressures one that has been told many times throughout the generations. Her performance perhaps suggesting that this cycle, of searching for independence before finally settling on a balance between freedom and restraint, is one that is destined to be endlessly repeated. The final moments of the film see Suzume reunited with her mother having experienced life for herself she appears comfortable and confident in relating to her as a woman.

Baptism of Blood (1996) by Kenichi Yoshihara

Actress Matsuko Uehara (Lisa Akikawa) formulates a gruesome plot to transfer her brain into her teenage daughter Sakura (Rie Imamura) in order to steal her beauty. Suffering with a peculiar skin condition that creates a mould-like disfigurement, Matsuko leaves acting, holing up in her country residence for many years. When her daughter is old enough, she takes her to a room at the back of the house which houses a strange contraption. Her daughter Sakura is terrified to see that the machine is intended to remove her brain and replace it with her mothers and attempts to escape. Following the operation, Matsuko (now in Sakura’s body) begins an affair with her piano tutor. Meanwhile, the tutor, KazuyoTanigawa (Naoko Amihama) is plotting with his wife (Chihiro Tago) to steal the fortune of the Uehara’s. Their plot is threatened when an investigator Takamatsu (Shinya Kashima) turns up at the house.

Based on a manga by Kazuo Umezo, with a script by director Kenichi Yoshihara, “Baptism of Blood” is an enjoyable B-movie gothic horror, with an absurd premise that nevertheless provides a few gory shocks. The sequence in which the brains are exchanged is disturbingly graphic, with excellent special effects. The rest of the film is remarkably bloodless, instead relying on the eerie scheming of the protagonist for its thrills. It is hard to take the film seriously given the premise, but both Lisa Akikawa and Rie Imamura do a fantastic job with the melodramatic plot. The film moves along at a good pace, with the sub-plot of Tanigawa and his pregnant wife, detective Takamatsu, and a late stage twist, helping keep things fresh. The final turn of the tale is fun and helps make some sense of what goes before.

Interestingly given the title (in Japanese simply “Baptism”), the references to Christian theology appear largely incidental. Sakura attends a Christian high-school and we see Matsuko wearing a crucifix, but religion’s often dangerous obsession with youth, beauty and virginity, is an underused thematic element. Matsuko’s disfigurement is an unfortunate physical signifier of her sinister nature, again a more traditional, folkloric, take on good versus evil, with the dynamic of a mother yearning for her daughter’s beauty. The final twist confuses things considerably as it reveals that both Matsuko and Sakura are not entirely stable individuals, leading us to question the reality of what has happened. There are darker themes present here, most obviously in the sexual predator Tanigawa who needs little encouragement to begin a relationship with the teenage Sakura. The film is very much a traditional gothic horror in modern guise, with illicit desires, a mad scientist, and a heartless female villain, dealing with themes of sexual abuse, voyeurism, and a dangerous coveting of youth. A fun film for the sheer audacity of its premise and worth watching for the aforementioned brain-swapping sequence.

Lovesick Dead (2001) by Kazuyuki Shibuya

Midori (Risa Goto) is a high-schooler troubled by a recurring dream of a roadside shrine and the ancient practice of Tsuruji, where a person stands by the shrine and asks the first passer-by whether they will find love or not. Midori’s dream always ends with the appearance of a dark figure. On her first day at a new school she meets Suzue, whose friends relate several other eerie stories involving Tsuruji. Two of the students meet a gruesome end after trying Tsuruji, lending credence to these rumours. Midori also meets an old friend called Ryusuke who she hasn’t seen for 10 years. Meanwhile, Midori’s mother begins to break down, continually scrubbing mold off the walls of their apartment.

Based on a Junji Ito manga, with a script by Naoyuki Tomomatsu, “Lovesick Dead” (also known as “Love Ghost”, brings together three ghost stories disguised as a high-school romance. The first concerns the Tsuruji shrine and the violent fates awaiting the girls who attempt to discover their futures; the second revolves around Midori and Ryusuke’s relationship; and a third is centred on Midori’s mother and the disappearance of her father 10 years prior. The film spends a long time setting up Midori’s high-school classmates, who are then jettisoned in the final third as the story comes to focus on the story of Ryusuke. The three story threads can be largely seen as distinct plots, as they mostly function without reference or relevance to the others. When we reach the moment of revelation, the film does provide an intriguing twist, throwing in a new element to the story and slowly beginning to untangle the various mysteries established earlier on. There are plot holes and inexplicable moments that undermine the entire story of the school and Midori’s new classmates, but it is a satisfactory, if unsurprising, conclusion. There are flashes of brilliance in the direction and storytelling here, isolating characters with clever framing, and setting up certain elements of the twist beforehand so it doesn’t feel like you have been misled. The acting is largely melodramatic and the cast have little to do, with an emotional range from slightly concerned to seriously worried. Aside from two suicides, the film’s horror elements are confined to the creepy ghost stories, with a comfortably traditional feel. The soundtrack does an excellent job in complementing the gothic romance.

As with many films dealing with the idea of fate or premonition, “Lovesick Dead” presents us with the dangers of discovering your own fate. As this doom is always inescapable it is unwise to search too keenly for it. The film also poses the intriguing logical question of a self-fulfilling prophecy, whereby the recipient of this preternatural warning becomes the agent of their own destruction, therefore fulfilling what was foretold. The Tsuruji plotline is the most interesting part of the film, bringing a traditional tale to a modern audience it offers a unique take on the dark fate awaiting horror victims. In contrast, Midori’s own story with Ryusuke is a more typical ghost story with psychological elements; and Midori’s mother’s tale is one of guilt and despair. These two stories suffer a little due to a lack of serious character work. There is a lot to explore in this atypical “mother-daughter” relationship and the way that their pasts are impacting their present, but the film wraps up relatively quickly after we discover what has happened, giving little time for such an emotional denouement. “Lovesick Dead” draws together several traditional high-school horror elements in a film that moves quickly and doesn’t outstay its welcome. It is unlikely to offer genuine shocks, but if you are looking for a mildly chilling tale you will enjoy it.

Alice in Borderland Series 2 (2022)

Series 2 picks up right where we left off, with Arisu (Kento Yamazaki) and his new friends taking on the face card challenges in the hopes of finding their way out of the bizarre other world they are trapped in. Episode one begins with a burst of violence as the King of Spades guns people down mercilessly in a much-changed Shibuya, showing that nobody is safe. This proves to be true as the deaths pile up throughout the series, including several shocks. We see several more games this time around, all ultra-violent twists on old classics, such as a guessing game where the losers are doused in corrosive acid, or a high-octane game of tag that sees contestants running around a giant industrial structure. The large budget is evident on screen in the fantastic sets and special effects, particularly bringing to life an abandoned Tokyo overgrown with weeds, and the swooping, wide-angle shots that make the unreal seem believable. There are elements of disaster movie, action, romance, and science-fiction that are all underscored with the central emotional drama of the main cast. Most are returning characters, with the inclusion of newcomer Yuri Tsunematsu as a no-nonsense high-school girl. The central mystery is not unravelled until the final episode, and then with a couple of entertaining misdirections (referencing two other popular ‘death game’ series, “Kaiji” and “Gantz”). Wrapping things up is a big task and the solution may prove unsatisfactory for some viewers who were hoping for a different explanation as to what happened, but it does a solid job of bringing together the themes of the show in a way that feels fitting.

The ‘Death Game’ genre lives or dies on its characters. “Alice in Borderland” remains opaque enough throughout that viewers are free to interpret its message as they like. It works as a socio-political satire with the unseen forces of the world putting its citizens through a meat grinder. The arbitrariness of death, the senseless nature of the games, the unbeatable odds, all lend themselves to interpretation, either philosophical or political. The series’ intent is to shock its viewers into living life rather than losing hope. It shouts at us that we need to keep fighting, to keep trying, however hard or futile things seem, and that in the end the only thing that matters is life. Throughout Arisu is searching for an answer, a meaning to his life, or an explanation to this world, and the series continues to deny this to him, and by extension the audience. In the instance that the truth is revealed we are almost beyond the point where the answer has any meaning to us. Instead the underlying message of the series is that of human solidarity in the face of adversity, confronting our mortality, and the idea of simply living as an end in itself.

Hell Dogs (2022) by Masato Harada

Goro Idezaki (Junichi Okada) is working his first shift as a patrol officer when five people are gunned down in an armed robbery. Believing he was to blame he sets out to kill the members of the Chinese gang responsible. He is later picked up by the chief of the undercover crime squad and asked to infiltrate the Toshokai yakuza group. Under the name of Kanetaka he pairs with another yakuza hitman called Muroka (Kentaro Sakaguchi). The two are assigned to protect the new head of the family, Toake (Miyavi). As he gets closer to bringing down the group, Kentaro must ensure that his cover is not blown.

Based on a comic book by Akio Fukamachi and directed by Masato Harada, who also wrote the script, “Hell Dogs” is a stylish crime thriller with flashes of nihilistic violence. The story will be familiar to fans of the genre, with an undercover cop; various double-crosses; sexual liaisons that threaten to undermine the operation; and gangster in sharp suits. The array of characters creates a sense of realism, with bosses and capos, enforcers, the mob wife, the police chief, the love interest, an assassin, call girls, and more enlivening the world, although due to the constrictions of film many are little more than plot drivers. The central relationship between Kanetaka and Muroka is well-done, although there is never any real sense that Kanetaka has conflicted loyalties, which seems like a missed opportunity to create some tension. Several side characters, in particular Noriko (Shinobu Otake) suffer from this lack of time, with their backstories largely brushed over. That being said the star-studded cast is firing on all cylinders, bringing these archetypes to life with charisma to spare. The action sequences are well-done, leaving no doubt about the brutality of these criminal regimes, though they occasionally tip into the ludicrous, such as when two people miss each other several times from point-blank range. These moments occur often enough to be considered the film’s ironic humour, or a sideways comment on genre conventions, as when a character comments on never having seen a female assassin before.

Idezaki’s redemption arc sets him on a hero’s path, journeying through hell to make amends for his past mistakes. Although he is not personally to blame for the initial crime, his determination to set things rights displays a lex talionis sense of justice. A question arises as to whether Idezaki is driven by a sense of justice, or something darker, hate, drive to dominate, or pure aggression. Bosses on both sides of the criminal divide point Idezaki at a target, which begs the question of how different they are and whether Idezaki’s life is guided more by luck than free will. This comparison is brought up again, when Muroka relates Idezaki’s story, not knowing who he is, suggesting that ideas of honour, loyalty and justice are mirrored in the police and the yakuza. One side story that is given short shrift is that of Muroka’s ex-girlfriend, who has begun a survivors group for people who have lost loved ones to gang violence. It is one of several curious ideas thrown into the mix, another being the various undercover agents who are revealed throughout and the police force’s negligence in taking care of them. A complex crime thriller with enough interesting characters to breathe life into the well-worn story of a cop going undercover in the yakuza.