Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance (1974) by Toshiya Fujita

Yuki Kashima (Meiko Kaji) returns in this sequel to the blood-spattered revenge drama “Lady Snowblood”. The infamous assassin is arrested after her terrifying killing spree and sentenced to death. She is given a choice by Seishiro Kikuki (Shin Kishida), head of the secret police: to die or to help him kill an anarchist by the name of  Ransui Tokunaga (Juzo Itami), after retrieving something from his house. Yuki moves in as a maid with Tokunaga and his wife (Kazuko Yoshiyuki), and soon comes to trust them. She learns that the object she is to obtain is evidence that threatens to topple the government. She decides to help Tokunaga and later a rebel bend led by his brother Shusuke (Yoshio Harada).

The film has a very different feel to the first film. As that film ended with Yuki achieving her own personal vendetta, it was clear things needed to move in another direction. This film is far more of a political thriller, and Yuki, while important to the plot, is often not the focus of the action. The film opens with the temple of Priest Dokai in a state of disrepair, festooned with cobwebs. Dokai is dead and we see Yuki mourning at his grave beside that of her mother. This continues the theme of generational change, suggesting a clean break with the past as Japan moves towards a new era. The backdrop to this film is the end of the Russo-Japanese war, and the poverty caused by rampant inflation. The citizens are living in slums while the secret police attempt to maintain the current order by putting down resistance movements to the government.

Along with a darker and more politically conscious tone, the film also does away with the chaptered divisions of the first and most of the flashbacks. The film is told in a more traditional style and there is more time spent with certain characters, including Yuki. Meiko Kaji is given a more nuanced role, dealing with loss and gaining more allies in the form of Ransui and Shusuke. There is also an interesting subplot about these brothers’ own relationship. The action sequences will not disappoint fans of the first movie, in particular scenes where Yuki faces off against multiple opponents, giving Kaji chance to show her swordsmanship. There are the gory deaths one might expect, as well as some genuinely chilling scenes of torture. Toshiya Fujita’s direction seems to take a cue from the story, with a more contemplative tone. While still being a fast-paced action story, the direction is more considered, moving away from the manga influences of the first towards a more cinematic style, and the set-pieces build on what was seen in the original.

The story itself is interesting, perhaps even more so than the first, in tackling political issues and social themes. It looks at a period of Japanese history following the military campaigns in Manchuria, with the Japanese people having lost that wide-eyed innocence about Imperialism and now living in the aftermath of deprivation while the government enjoy the spoils. The secret police are portrayed as villainous, while the anarchist is an entirely sympathetic character. This bold political statement fits the revenge plot style recognizable from the first film, offering extreme yet believable antagonists. The sets of the  lower quarters are fantastic and give a real sense of the destitution that was commonplace. This change in focus, from Yuki’s personal journey to a more socially conscious theme, gives “Love Song of Vengeance” a very different feel to the first “Lady Snowblood”. A superb sequel that builds on the character and offers a completely fresh story, albeit with the familiar elements of swordplay and skulduggery that made the first such fun to watch.

Paprika (2006) by Satoshi Kon

A new technology allowing people to enter another’s dreams has been developed at a research facility. The head of the research department, Atsuko Chiba, is using it to help a detective, Konakawa, with anxiety dreams he’s suffering. When the head of the department undergoes some kind of breakdown they realise that one of the devices, named the DCMini, which allow people to enter dreams has been stolen and is being used illegally. What follows is a chase through the dream world and reality to attempt to discover who the culprit is and how to stop them.

Based on a book by Yasutaka Tsutsui, director Satoshi Kon (Perfect Blue) creates a mind-bending psychological drama, that blurs the lines between reality and imagination in a way that is perfectly suited to animation. Every scene is full of colour and vitality and there is so much room for invention on offer with the central premise that is used to brilliant effect. The sequences of the giant procession through the dreams is a particular marvel for the sheer amount of stuff on screen. The film may require multiple viewings to appreciate every nuance and background detail. Susumu Hirasawa’s score is a hyperactive blend of instrumentation and digitised noise that encapsulates a sense of floating in through a chaotic world.

Concerning itself with dreams gives the film the scope to analyse many tenets of human experience in the world. It looks at the link between dreams and reality, ideas of freedom, madness, alter-egos and more. Definitely a recommended watch for those who enjoy stunningly animated philosophical or psychological science-fiction.

The Twilight Samurai (2002) Yoji Yamada

Following the death of his wife, a poor samurai, Seibei Iguchi (Hiroyuki Sanada), struggles to raise his two young daughters and keep his senile mother. His colleagues at the store-house nickname him “Twilight” as he always returns home early rather than join them for drinks. We learn that Seibei is a peaceful, forward-thinking man, who is skilled with a short sword. He is befriended by Tomoe (Rie Miyazawa) whom he has known since childhood, but their relationship is fraught with problems. Knowing of his skill with a sword the clan tasks him with the assassination of another rogue samurai, promising greater profits in return. At first hesitant, he acquiesces to this order from the lord.

Based on the short story “The Bamboo Sword” by Shuhei Fujisawa and directed by Yoji Yamada, the film creates an authentic period atmosphere, with expertly designed sets and costumes. The story is an archetypal samurai drama, with illicit romances, honour and ideals of war and peace played out perfectly. The audience is drawn in by the masterful direction, which really gives a feel of closeness with the characters. The acting is exceptionally emotive, and the young child actors are particularly good in their roles.

Myriad themes are interwoven, but above all it is the story of a generation of samurai becoming obsolete. Seibei’s peaceful, unprejudiced ideologies are mocked in the film, but will resonate with modern audiences. This tragic yet uplifting story of the passing of the samurai age is a must watch.

Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989) by Shinya Tsukamoto

We begin with a man (Shinya Tsukamoto) inserting an iron bar into his leg in a gruesome and inexplicable scene. The man, after seeing maggots crawling around this, runs down the street where he is hit by a car. The film then cuts to a young office worker (Tomorowo Taguchi) who is experiencing hellish nightmares of twisted metal. When he awakes he finds a piece of metal sticking out of his face. This man later returns to his apartment, where he makes love to his girlfriend (Kei Fujiwara). However, a giant drill emerges from his groin and his transformation into the “Iron Man” of the title accelerates. We later learn that this man and his girlfriend were the ones who hit the first man in their car, later disposing of the body and having sex nearby where they dumped it.

“Tetsuo” has a surreal nightmarish quality heightened by use of non-linear storytelling, bursts of stop-frame animation, even the stark chiaroscuro photography. The visuals are stunning and horrific and there are genuine moments of terror as the film plays a lot with claustrophobic close-ups and angles. Shinya Tsukamoto both wrote and directed and it is clearly a singular vison that is being presented here, although drawing on many cyberpunk ideas such as transhumanism and the fetishization of machines. The music by Chu Ishikawa also captures this terrifying tone, with dark, metallic clanging beats really exaggerating the sense of dread and unreality. The overall sound design also goes a long way towards creating a nightmarish vision of a future overrun by the machines.

This film is definitely an experience more so than a story. The make-up and special effects are incredible, capturing the tangled filth of the industrialised world, and a great example of body horror. It can be a difficult watch at times, and will certainly not be for everyone, the frenetic editing can make it tough to follow. There are hints of social commentary, a critique of industrialisation and man’s relationship with machines, alongside themes of psychoses, paranoia, shame, abuse and sexual violence. A unique and terrifying industrial body-horror that is worth a watch for fans of the genre.

Battles without Honour and Humanity (1973) by Kinji Fukasaku

1949. Hiroshima. The devastation of the atomic bomb and the harsh economic conditions of post-war Japan are apparent in the shanty town that has been erected amongst the rubble. We are introduced in quick succession to a number of people who are later to become important players in the Japanese underworld: Yakuza bosses and captains. A young ex-soldier, Shozo Hirono (Bunta Sugawara), is sent to prison for killing a gangster. Inside he meets Hiroshi Wakasugi (Tatsuo Umemiya), a member of the Doi Family. The two become blood-brothers and Hirono is inducted into the chaotic world of crime. What follows is an unpredictable, bloody, violent, telling of the various power struggles in the decades following the war. 

Based on newspaper articles of the time by Koichi Iiboshi, the film has a style that is almost documentary-like in places, going so far as to present on screen the names and dates of death of the gangsters who are killed. It requires some concentration to keep in mind all the characters and their allegiances throughout, but this helps add to the sense of realism. The opening scenes of the film, set in the ramshackle streets of Hiroshima, perfectly set up the brutal chaos that is to follow, as we are pushed through noisy crowds, and see a series of gruesome events taking place simultaneously. It is a masterclass in setting up numerous characters and establishing a tone for the film. The film never lets up this relentless pace, with scene after scene adding to the confusion and devastation that the Yakuza leave in their wake. Directed by Kinji Fukasaku, who later went on to helm the Battle Royale adaptation, this film abounds with his style: frenetic, gory, and with a good eye for framing a scene and telling a multiple character story. The actors all do a good job. The music by Toshiaki Tsushima suits the film well, setting the feel for the period.

I would highly recommend this film to fans of the Yakuza genre as one of its finest examples. Although the film does have great flair and stylishness, it does not necessarily glorify the violence. The killings are instead shown to be a mundane affair, taking place so regularly that you become almost desensitized to them. It is a great look at post-war Japanese society from the perspective of the Yakuza.