Pornostar (1998) by Toshiaki Toyoda

An aimless drifter finds himself recruited into a violent gang struggle in this crime drama. We never learn much about the protagonist Arano (Koji Chihara), who wanders the streets of Tokyo clutching a sports bag. When he is confronted by gang leader Kamijo (Onimaru) he shows little reaction to his aggressive threats. When he later turns up at their headquarters having murdered two other gangsters, Kamijo decides rather than killing him, as they were instructed to do, to use him in their negotiations with drug-dealers and their turf-war with rival Yakuza boss Matsunaga (Tetta Sugimoto). However, Kamijo soon discovers that he is unable to control Arano’s violent outbursts and hatred for all yakuza, threatening their business and their lives.

Writer-director Toshiaki Toyoda creates a unique crime drama from the perspective of a mysterious outsider who strolls carelessly into the violent underworld of thugs, drugs and punks. We have familiar scenes of mobsters dealing with their boss; attempting to sell acid; or wondering how they are going to carry out their orders to murder the head of another crime family. But in each situation things are complicated by Arano’s nihilistic and unpredictable world view. We never discover why he hates the Yakuza so fiercely, although any number of reasons would be easy to imagine. Likewise, he remains an enigma with regards to his past and also what he carries around in his bag. It is a crime thriller that seems to be cracked wide open with the inclusion of this singular individual. The direction moves from stylised sequences to more mundane everyday moments, and the score similarly appears at moments of high drama while being entirely absent at other moments. This creates a tonal dissonance between the ‘real’ world and the stylised violence of the yakuza film in which the protagonist finds himself.

“Pornostar” delights in the mystery of its central character. The contents of the bag that he carries remain unknown throughout, lending themselves to even a metaphysical interpretation. Arano remains somewhat distant from us as the audience and we are never sure exactly what he is thinking, or what he might do next; his reasoning for joining the gangsters is similarly left unexplained. We do see him stand up to an adult bullying children, which may suggest some motivation for his actions. Likewise, his hatred of the yakuza is suggestive of some past history with them. His only concern seems to be what will be written on his epitaph, a question he asks several times throughout the film. Perhaps he is intended to be a blank slate, buffetted by those around him, lacking any will of his own. His tragedy seems to be that he is unable to walk his own path, rather forced into the violent society we see around him. The sequence early in the film when we see him appear through a crowd of people at a crosswalk is the perfect metaphor for this theme of attempting to establish a sense of individuality in a society.

Ashura (2005) by Yojiro Takita

As dark forces mass, a fearless Demon Warden fights to protect humanity from the hellish horde in this historical-fantasy epic. After an incident in which he struck down a young child, famed Demon Warden Izumo (Somegoro Ichikawa) leaves the profession, beginning a new career as a popular Kabuki actor. Meanwhile, Bizan (Kanako Higuchi) a demon witch, along with the help of Izumo’s former colleague Jaku (Atsuro Watabe), works to bring about the revival of Ashura, the demon overlord, whose re-emergence will in turn see demons once again overrun the earth. Izumo meets a mysterious woman, Tsubaki (Rie Miyazawa), who has no memory of her past and the two are set on a path that will lead them to the edge of Armageddon.

“Ashura”, directed by Yojiro Takita, is an action fantasy based on the mythology of dark demon gods who delight in destruction. The film’s elaborate sets and exquisite costumes beautifully capture the period and it is fun to see the depiction of kabuki performances which play a role in the drama. The film itself is reminiscent of a theatrical production, not only in the melodramatic plot and acting, but the way that scenes play out in small sets, similar to “Kwaidan” (1964). There is a sub-plot running throughout of a kabuki playwright who follows Izumo to get inspiration for what may be his greatest story yet. Perhaps because of these comedic interpolations the film occasionally lacks a sense of threat and urgency, partly alienating us from the drama. Takita’s previous film “When the Last Sword is Drawn”, also employed a framing device which distanced the audience from the action. The fight choreography is strong, with a great sequence early on in which the demon-wardens attempt to clear a town of its demonic inhabitants. The CG and visual effects are hit and miss, often unnecessary and undermining the incredible set design and the film is certainly strongest when the fantasy elements are depicted more subtly, such as the demon at the beginning who sings a melancholic tune, setting the scene for what is to follow.

Japan has a rich tradition of mythology, demon-lore, and fantasy tales to draw from and “Ashura” does a good job of bringing to life this epic of men versus the forces of evil. The central twist in the story is evident early on, but still provides some degree of tension as we contemplate what will happen to the characters when they find out. The most interesting character is Tsubaki, whose qualms over who or what she is affect our emotional involvement with the film. It questions the nature of evil and whether it can be overcome or halted by rationality or even love. “Ashura” will appeal to fantasy fans, with prophecies, witches, demon-hunters and demon gods, sword-fighting and romance capturing the best elements of the genre.

Hard Days (2023) by Michihito Fujii

An all-star cast chase after a hidden fortune in this slick crime thriller based on a Korean original. Detective Kudo (Junichi Okada) drives through the rainy streets, dealing with a call from his wife, Misako (Ryoko Hirosue), who is planning to separate along with his child Mina. Another call from his section chief tells him there is an ongoing investigation into corruption, possibly centering on Kudo’s connection with the Senba yakuza family. Things only get worse when Kudo hits a pedestrian who has stumbled into the road. While trying to hide the body, Senba (Akira Emoto) tells him that there is a hidden fortune in a vault protected by a large temple, whose shady dealings with top-rank politicians includes money laundering. Kudo is not the only one after the stash, with Internal Affairs officer Yazaki (Go Ayano) also keen to get to the money.

“Hard Times”, directed by Michihito Fujii (“Yakuza and the Family”) is a fast-paced crime thriller, with a far-fetched plot and plenty of darkly comic moments. Kudo’s attempts to dispose of the corpse could be straight out of a slapstick comedy and the whole film tests suspension of disbelief to the limit. The plot is farcical, in the sense that every misstep by Kudo simply pushes him further into trouble, all the while he is simply trying to do his best for himself, his wife and daughter. He is a sympathetic character, stressed to the eyeballs, fallible and resourceful. Yazaki is starkly contrasted with Kudo, consumed by status and his job, with his marriage to the boss’s daughter being simply another step on the ladder, lacking any emotional content. There are plenty of shock moments too as the story plays out, constantly keeping a step ahead of the audience.

The film’s opening as Kudo’s colleagues fret about a potential corruption investigation into their section is a perfect set-up for what is to follow. Throughout Kudo is presented with a series of moral choices, both large and small: whether to lie at a traffic stop about drinking, or to hide a dead body in his recently deceased mother’s coffin. He doesn’t alway do the right thing, but the film suggests that at heart his chief desire is to protect and support his family. When he says to his wife that he’s truly sorry he couldn’t make her happy, we see that all his behaviour and misbehaviour is underlined by his love for his family. Meanwhile, Yazaki and Senba are cynical, money-minded, living either lonely existences or in relationships characterised by a lack of connection and warmth. Senba makes reference to lizards that hop in a desert to prevent burning on the hot sand. Kudo is a hostage to the vissicitudes of fate, his misfortune leading him to some dark junctions, but the one thing he is able to decide his what he’s fighting for.

Goth (2008) by Gen Takahashi

Two teens obsessed with murder decide to follow the diary of a serial killer to find his most recent victim. Despite having a seeminlgy happy homelife with his mother and sister, Itsuki Kamiyama (Kanata Hongo) has a dark obsession, sneaking out to visit gruesome crime scenes. His classmate Yoru Morino (Rin Takanashi) shares this morbid fascination, living alone and investigating horrors in her gothic study. When Yoru finds a diary belonging to a killer who severs the left hands of his victims and poses them like art installations, their interest leads them to follow his trail of death, rather than turning in this important evidence to the police.

The ‘goth’ subculture: dark clothes, fixation on death, suffering, murder, and all things dark and gruesome, is a fascinating social phenomenon. The film never quite gets to the root of why its protagonists have such an apathetic and nihilistic world-view, but it does capture their behaviour and ennui perfectly. Rin Takanashi’s Yoru is a pale, lonely figure, who drifts through life like a ghost herself following a childhood accident that left her sister dead. Meanwhile, Kanata Hongo’s Itsuki seems on the surface to be a sociable, well-adjusted high-schooler, who nevertheless engages in morbid fantasies. It makes for an interesting crime-horror film in which the two protagonists are not particularly interesting in cracking the case, but instead fascinated by the idea of murder and serial killers. The dark tone, covering suicide and death, may be off-putting to some, but it creates an stomach-churning tension that goes beyond the usual shock of more grotesque horror fare. The darkness here comes from the characters’ deep well of alienation and twisted idolisation of despicable acts. The two constantly refer to the aesthetic beauty in how the murderer poses the corpses, showing their complete disassociation with the act of killing and death. The soundtrack, featuring a peculiarly eerie marimba melody and choral recitations, further enforces this sense of dread, occasionally turning to something more angelic and operatic to show how the teens themselves view their activities as almost transcendental. For them there is nothing morbid about researching killers, but instead something beautiful, beholding the line between life and death and the transience of existence. When Yoru lies in the river where one of the victims was placed, Itsuki imagines her with blood streaming from a slashed wrist. It is both disturbing yet darkly beautiful as we see her life essence swept along in the current, suggestive of tragic archetypes throughout the ages.

No doubt “Goth” will prove a hard watch for some, as it forgoes the usual impulse of films to want justice to be done for murder victims. In closing the film solves many questions that you might want answered, but leaves much more to audience interpretation. The film could be seen as a rumination on society’s fascination with death and murder. Although not always to the extent of the protagonists here, humans have an insatiable appetite for real life crime documentaries, stories about serial killers, and often ignore the plight of the victims, instead interested only in the idea rather than the reality. In the same way the protagonists look at the world in a cold, distant way, barely moved by the sight of death. The extent of the goth subculture and fascination with murder outside of it, speaks to a deep-seated need in humans to attempt to understand our own morality and nature, dwelling on this disturbing yet inevitable fact of life. Itsuki casually remarks that people can be divided into those who kill and those who are killed. It is a dark commentary on mankind, but it does highlight this duality of man in his twisted worldview.

Bad Lands (2023) by Masato Harada

Sakura Ando and Ryosuke Yamada star as step-siblings who become involved in the violent underworld in this crime drama. Neri (Ando) works as part of a gang defrauding vulnerable people, under the auspices of the ex-Yakuza Takagi (Namase Katsuhisa). She lives a rough life in a slum in Osaka, surrounded by fellow homeless and societal drop-outs, after leaving Tokyo many years before. When her brother Yashiro (Yamada) is released from jail, she asks Tamaki to give him a position in the organization. Tamaki has plans of his own, taking on a hit job and accumulating gambling debts with disreputable individuals. Nira is drawn into this while also facing the prospect of a violent billionaire (Yasushi Fuchikami) who is tracking her down. All the while the police are on the trail, attempting to piece together evidence to take down the fraud ring.

“Bad Lands”, based on Hiroyuki Kurokawa’s 2015 novel “Keiso” (“Weeds”) and directed by Masato Harada (Hell Dogs) is a complex crime thriller with a large cast of characters and several plot threads twisted together. At its heart is Sakura Ando’s Neri, whose criminal work comes more through necessity than choice. Ando is excellent in the role, with her acerbic retorts to her male accomplices and her simmering resentment and trauma that has pushed her to this point. It is clear that the film is based on a novel with the interconnecting stories often feeling a little shoehorned in, the main plot following Neri and Yashiro, while sub-plots involving Neri’s past and the ongoing police investigation could have formed whole films by themselves. However, this large canvas approach does create a real-world feel that the film capitalises on, particularly early on as we see the gang attempt to take down a score in public, with every extra a potential witnesses, co-conspirator, or police officers. The whole supporting cast do a great job, with scene stealers such as Ryudo Uzaki’s Mandala, an ex-Yakuza who now spends his days drinking and gambling. A classical soundtrack and allusions to Dostoevsky and Hegel give the film an air of sophistication amongst the low-lifes and thugs who populate its world.

In an over two-hour run-time the film manages to cram in so many characters and stories that it is hard to pick out a single overarching message. Neri and Yashiro are understandably made somewhat sympathetic despite their actions, while the rest of the people around them are variously depicted as despicable leeches who attempt to profit off the misery of others, or those unfortunates who society has let fall off at the lower end. The most reprehensible charater is without doubt Yasushi Fuchikami’s sadistic CEO, who abuses women physically and sexually and lacks any moral compass. In a world in which such an individual can become an ultra-wealthy and highly-respected company boss, is it any wonder that brutality and avariciousness typify the lower orders as well. The moral choices presented to the characters may be black and white to many, but the film offers shades of grey too. The police investigation is hindered by higher-ups wishing to protect certain connections they have with the gang bosses they are there to keep in check; while those at the bottom show certain values of trust, loyalty and compassion that are admirable and notably absent from the people society asks us to respect. A fun, complex crime drama with a superb cast of characters that gives an insight into the increasingly stratified society of modern Japan.