Suffering of Ninko (2016)

Ninko (Masato Tsujioka) is a trainee Buddhist monk with a problem: despite a religious proscription against carnal lust, he finds himself irresistible to women. As he walks through the town with his fellow monks he is accosted by women who are barely able to restrain their desire. Being dedicated to his chosen path, Ninko resists any and all temptation, but soon he begins to be visited by strange manifestations in his dreams. As he attempts to ward off the thoughts through recitation of sutras, the visions of lascivious women exposing themselves to him and luring him to unwanted thoughts become to much. He flees the temple and sets off on a pilgrimage to find some kind of solace. On his way he comes across a ronin (Hideta Iwahashi) and the two of them travel together to a remote mountain village. There they hear tell of a mysterious mountain woman (Miho Wakabayashi) who manages to entrap men with sexual desire before killing them. The samurai agrees to kill the woman, ridding the village of this fear, and sets out with Ninko to face this peculiar foe.

“Suffering of Ninko” is the debut feature of Norihiro Niwatsukino, who not only wrote and directed the story but was also responsible for the special effects and animated sequences. The story has a folkloric feel about it and this is played up with the use of narration and the interweaving of traditional-looking animation. The film has a great visual style and although the locations used are sparing it does a good job of recreating the period in costumes and sets. The cinematography by Takayuki Okazaki and Shunichiro Yamamoto is a joy to behold, reminiscent of classic period and samurai dramas with vivid colours and camera work emphasising the ambient beauty. The style of animation reflects Japanese wood-cuts or ancient calligraphy and adds to the film’s charm. Masato Tsujioka does a good job with the character of Ninko, a man who is struggling to balance his innate sexuality with his religious duties. The narration by Quoko Kudo is important in creating a tone for the film that suggests it should be read more as a moralistic fable than a true-life account. The main cast is rounded out with Hideta Iwahashi as Kanzo the ronin and Miho Wakabayashi as Yama-onna.

Although the premise of the film, a sexually irresistible man fighting off the advances of insatiable women, may sound like that of a raunchy sex comedy, in truth the film is actually far more thoughtful than this. “Suffering of Ninko” treads a fine line between the sublime and the base and plays on the apparent contradictions inherent in human nature. Ninko’s role as a priest is in constant conflict with his reality as a man and the innate sexual desires that comes with that. Sexual repression through religion has been a feature of many civilizations and here it is brought to the screen in a way that is not overly sombre, but similarly doesn’t take its subject lightly. The removal of masks by characters during his extended sexual dream suggests that Ninko sees through humanity’s seemingly respectable façade. This is further emphasised by his meeting of the woman in the forest, where she talks to him from behind a mask. Kanzo tells Ninko that he both desires sex and is repelled by it, in the same way that Kanzo desires violence but shies from it. This duality of nature is important. There is a shame attached to sex in modern society that is partly, though not entirely attributable to the control exercised by religious organizations. “Suffering of Ninko” features many scenes set outdoors and Ninko’s escape from the temple shows this return to nature narrative. He is a man struggling against instinctive desires in pursuit of something higher in the form of religious transcendence. The film is one that is worth watching as it presents a unique directorial vision that blends arthouse with low comedy, but has a genuine depth of theme and ideas.

One Cut of the Dead (2017)

This review contains spoilers so if you have not seen the film already, I recommend you do before reading as there are some great twists to enjoy.

A film crew are gathered in a remote water treatment plant to film a low budget zombie film. During a break in filming the make-up lady (Harumi Shuhama) explains to the two leads (Yuzuki Akiyama and Kazuaki Nagaya) that there is an urban legend about the site that say when blood is spilt it will raise the spirits of the dead. Before they know it cast and crew are being attacked by zombies and must fight for their lives. The film’s opening half hour is a perfect B-movie horror flick, complete with dodgy acting, poor quality special effects and a story that makes little to no sense. After the credits roll (surprisingly early) “One Cut of the Dead” then turns into a film within a film within a film, when we discover that in fact everything we have just seen was all part of a special live television show as part of the recently launched zombie channel. We follow director (Takayuki Hamatsu), cast and crew as they rehearse for the film we have just watched and this is where the fun really starts. Once you realise that in fact the first part was not meant to be serious and in fact did not at all go according to the script, you are treated to the same events again, this time from behind the camera, with drunken extras, numerous mistakes, and a quick-thinking director trying to keep the live show going amidst the chaos.

Writer and director Shinichiro Ueda has created something truly special in this film. While many may think the zombie movie has been wrung to its last drop, he manages to do something unique with the genre. For everyone who has ever made a low budget film with their friends this film will ring painfully true. Its genius is in the structure. Going in knowing nothing about the film you soon settle down into what appears to be another cheap zombie film. Disused buildings, shoddy special effects, and peculiar line reads. It is an impressive opening, shot in one take, and this section alone would be worthy of praise, despite various apparent flaws. However, when the film then takes you a further step back behind the scenes and you realise that what you watched was a construction of the characters who are acting in it, there is a unique style of humour that provides for some laugh out loud moments. Suddenly, you are forced to recontextualise everything you just saw. The film has essentially shown you the punchline, and is now giving you the joke, which creates a fun atmosphere of expectation as you want to see what you know is coming and are anticipating the pay off in advance. The cast of “One Cut of the Dead” comprises entirely of first-time and unknown actors. Takayuki Hamatsu is well cast as the director, Takayuki Higurashi, of the ill-fated film. His relationship with daughter (Mao) is one of the highlights of the movie. Yuzuki Akiyama gives a very enjoyable performance as the lead actress with Kazuaki Nagaya playing opposite her. Also, Harumi Shuhama is fantastic as Higurashi’s overly zealous actress wife. The cast were chosen by the director for their awkward qualities and workshopped the film together. This approach of casting relative newcomers works well as there is great chemistry between everyone involved and the apparent lack of artifice in their performances is perfect for the story.

As mentioned, the opening “film” is enjoyable in its own right as a schlocky zombie comedy film and credit to the film-makers for pulling off this “one-take” style. All of the actors deserve praise for their roles in the film as there is not a bad note from anyone and everyone has a least a couple of hilarious scenes that they own completely. At the end of the film you can feel the camaraderie of the cast of this project, so completely does the film draw you in to the making of it. The cast are mostly given almost stereotypical roles, but pull them off with aplomb, for example the “idol”, the actor who wants to be taken seriously, and the director who is just trying to avoid messing up completely.

“One Cut of the Dead” deserves to be seen by anyone who is a fan of low-budget film-making, zombie movies, or comedy. It excels of every level of film-making and acting with a script that is laugh-out-loud funny. For those into film-making it has a lot of in-jokes, such as characters using eye drops to fake tears, the way of getting fake blood spray or corpses into shot, special effects, and more. The ending is a heart-warming testament to the power of co-operation that is sure to leave you with a smile on your face. This film reaffirms the absolute joy that films and film-making can be.

Bilocation (2013)

Bilocation is the supernatural phenomenon whereby an individual appears in two places at the same time. Artist Shinobu (Asami Mizukawa) is hard at work trying to finish a painting of the view from her balcony when the doorbell to her apartment rings. The man at the door is Masaru (Yosuke Asari), a blind man who has just moved into her block. After meeting Shinobu the two get married. It is at this point Shinobu’s life changes course, she explains, and we are soon to find out that is in more ways than one. On a trip to the supermarket she is brought up by the check-out staff who tell her that not only was she there 10 minutes prior, but is attempting to use an identical bank note to pay. Suspecting fraud they call in the police. The policeman turns out to be part of a group investigating bilocation and invites Shinobu to their group. Each member is suffering the same problem with a mysterious double appearing at intervals and interfering with their lives. These doppelgangers grow increasingly dangerous as the group works to understand them and then to stop them.

“Bilocation” is based on a novel by Haruka Hojo, with a screenplay by director Mari Asato. It is an intriguing concept on which to base a supernatural horror, with the eerie sense of being followed and the secondary fear of having another being living out your life providing ample chills. The film blends the best elements of creepy ghost stories and mystery dramas, relying heavily on a sense of foreboding and the occasional shock tactics as one of the bilocations appears suddenly. There are several plot turns layered so that even if one is obvious it is unlikely audiences will fully unravel the mystery until the end. There are a few moments that require some suspension of disbelief in order to sustain the conceit, but the film’s greatest strength is in using the central idea of bilocation to explore more primal fears and take a look at the psychology of the individuals affected. Asami Mizukawa gives a great central performance as Shinobu, whose journey from baffled to worried to outraged gives the audience much to enjoy. The film in a similar way shifts gears from suspense to action, constantly wrongfooting the audience. The camerawork in the film shows a deep understanding of horror conventions. A particularly standout scene comes early in the film when the camera drifts from Shinobu to an empty hallway, the importance of this shot only becoming clear later.

The phenomenon of bilocation almost predetermines themes of identity and duality. For Shinobu the true horror of having this double is her loss of self. She becomes increasingly annoyed at the thought of someone else taking her place. There is a deeper significance to this, made apparent by the use of reflections in mirrors and pools of water, which is the notion of self as a constructed reality. What Shinobu sees in the mirror is what everyone around her sees and recognizes as “Shinobu”, but that is far from a complete picture of who she is as a person. There is a horror of the loss of individuality and the idea that you could be easily replaced that will resonate with most people. Through the side characters other themes are explored that hinge on this. The mother whose double takes her sickly child from the hospital, or the man whose bilocation assaults a co-worker losing him his job. This plays to a fear of loss on a more tangible level than Shinobu’s loss of self-image, but helps to emphasise the significance of what is happening. A secondary reading of the film is that the bilocations are representative of something that is kept hidden within the individual. This is most apparent in the police officer Kano (Kenichi Takito), whose double seems to be an expression of his ego, or base instincts, lashing out indiscriminately. Beneath the veneer of civilised society there are atavistic ulterior characters lurking in everyone. A simple yet brilliant concept that lends itself to various psychological interpretations.

Kamikaze Girls (2004)

Momoko (Kyoko Fukada) is living in a small rural village and has few friends. Obsessed with 18th Century France she dresses in frilly clothes, in the style known as ‘Lolita’. After her parents separated when she was young, her father began selling knock-off “Versach” merchandise. When his gangland past catches up with him they move to the prefecture of Ibaraki north of Tokyo. Momoko appears content to isolate herself from others, focussing on her fashion and saving money to buy clothes from her favourite store in Tokyo. Her peace is shattered when she decides to raise money by selling of some of their old fake clothing stock. The arrival of the rough and tumble biker Ichiko (Anna Tsuchiya) is a shock to the well-mannered Momoko. But Ichiko seems to grow fond of her, repeatedly appearing at her house, and soon the unlikely pair form an unlikely bond.

“Kamikaze Girls” is based on a novel by Novala Takemoto. Takemoto is also a fashion designer who has designed clothes for the label “Baby the Stars Shine Bright”, which happens to be Momoko’s favourite store in Tokyo. The film is directed by Tetsuya Nakashima (Confessions, World of Kanako), who does a fantastic job with the hyperactive teen aesthetic. The film is fast-paced, with intercutting sequences, flashbacks, and animation creating a colourful and chaotic world. It’s garish tone and in-your-face style are completely in keeping with the characters and story. While “Kamikaze Girls” certainly puts comedy before anything else, it never loses sight of its two protagonists. Momoko and Ichiko are the heart of the story, with their chalk-and-cheese personalities providing much of the impetus for the action. One is resigned to a life of solitude, while the other seems terrified of being alone. The performances by Kyoko Fukuda and Anna Tsuchiya are exceptional. Tsuchiya is outrageously boisterous as the biker, and Fukuda’s prim and proper Lolita is a great take on the stereotype. Both seem to be enjoying their roles and have good chemistry. Also giving an enjoyably quirky turn is veteran character actor Kirin Kiki as Momoko’s befuddled grandmother. Though entirely different you sense that their friendship is genuine. The music in the film is by Yoko Kanno (Ghost in the Shell) and underscores the visuals perfectly with a rock-pop vibe.

“Kamikaze Girls” is a fairly straightforward tale of friendship. Taking two young women with starkly different interests it shows how they can come together. The film delves a little into the background of each character, with dysfunctional home lives and bullying leading them down their respective paths. While this doesn’t overshadow the comedic tone of the film, it does offer some contrast to what is otherwise a lighthearted romp. The film also looks at the importance of socialisation for establishing a sense of self. Both characters are in their own way living an unbalanced life, drawn towards a particular subculture that gives them little sense of individual identity. One cannot form connections with others, while the other seeks out any kind of companionship even when it leads to her own corruption. Through each other they discover that it is important to broaden your horizons and look beyond your own narrow interests. Their relationship may seem unlikely at first due to their lifestyle choices, but it becomes apparent that they are both looking for the same thing in a trustworthy friend. “Kamikaze Girls” is a lot of fun to watch with a fast-paced story, likeable characters and a great sense of humour.

A Snake of June (2002)

Rinko (Asuka Kurosawa) works as a mental health nurse and lives a comfortable, if apparently sexless, existence with her husband (Yuji Kotari). A package arrives at their apartment and Rinko finds a number of photographs showing her pleasuring herself. There is a mobile phone in the package and she is soon contacted by a man (Shinya Tsukamoto) who wants to blackmail her with these images. He proceeds to lead her on several sexually charged trials, including walking around in an uncharacteristically short leather skirt, buying a sex toy, and inserting a remotely operated vibrator. This man tells her that he is suffering from a terminal illness and that she is the only thing that makes him happy. Rinko’s husband soon discovers the blackmail and attempts to track down this man who is forcing his wife to perform these acts.

Writer and director Shinya Tsukamoto is no stranger to twisted narratives and difficult subject matter. “A Snake of June” sees the auteur director taking on the erotic thriller genre and infusing it with his own particular style. The film is shot entirely with a blue tint that gives it a unique look and the cinematography is nothing short of stunning. The endlessly pouring rain and torrents of water pouring into drains create an almost unbearable sense of tension, blending concepts of sex and violence through pure visual storytelling. The connection of moisture and sex is understandable, but here it is taken to an extreme that creates an oppressive atmosphere of almost hyper-sexuality. This is balanced against the asexual couple at the heart of the narrative. When we see them they are always seated apart. It also seems that Rinko’s husband has an obsession with cleanliness, perhaps referencing the sense of shame that some feel in relation to their sexual urges. Their homelife is painfully sterile, while outside the world is filthy and rain-soaked. This is further highlighted by the rain pounding on the glass window above Rinko as she bathes. She can sense that she has cut herself off from something that is calling her. The shadows of the rain pouring above certain characters, the close-ups on drains, the intercutting of a snail, all do a perfect job of creating an atmosphere that is as gripping as it is terrifying and confusing. While it may not always be apparent what the precise meaning of particular shots are, they have a subconscious and cumulative effect that is undeniable. There are shots that will linger with you long after the film has finished. The eroticism of the film is expertly done and understands that it is often far more about what is suggested than what is shown. It lingers on expectation and suggestion rather than lurid details. Tsukamoto also shows his tendency for horror with the nightmarish vision of characters looking through telescopic headgear at scenes of sexual torture. The character of Rinko is brilliantly brought to life by Asuka Kurosawa, whose story is one of self-discovery and gives a nuanced portrayal of women and sexuality. Yuji Kotari is no less important as a foil for Rinko. His constant cleaning and his anger at discovering the blackmail is important in understanding their relationship. He is almost unreadable sometimes, showing devotion to his wife but a complete lack of physicality in their relations. Both characters have back stories that are alluded to, that help the viewer understand this rather odd relationship. Shinya Tsukamoto himself rounds out the main cast, playing the villainous blackmailer.

Nothing is quite clearly defined in the film, eroticism and horror, love and sex, life and death, all of these are in conflict with one another. There is a theme running through of sex as both dark and dangerous, yet also an emancipatory force. The characters live in their cordoned off home, secure from the metaphors for sex and debauchery outside. The husband’s dedication to cleanliness seems to reference the idea of expunging sin. The death of his mother is alluded to and there is clearly something in his psychology that prevents him being physically intimate with his sexually attractive wife. Likewise, Rinko’s father was a drunken bully, which may have led to her closing herself off from male advances and seeking a similarly asexual partner. The film is divided into sections “woman” and “man”, and the trio of characters act almost as archetypal figures, with Tsukamoto being an unknown quantity, perhaps representative of death or some dark force that is controlling the lives of the man and woman. This work is Tsukamoto at his absolute best, showing a unique talent for directing. “A Snake of June” is beautifully shot and has a story that is engaging, but leaves enough unsaid for multiple interpretations.