Gate of Flesh (1965) by Seijun Suzuki

Post-war Japan is a harsh place, the dog-eat-dog mentality engendered by the war mixed with the disappointment of defeat. The citizens live in a situation of dire poverty, surviving on rations and basic supplies, watched over by the keen eyed Military Police and the prowling US occupiers. A young woman, Maya (Yumiko Nogawa), is caught stealing food to survive. She is taken to Sen (Satoko Kasai), the strong-willed leader of a group of prostitutes, as a way out of her situation. This band of women have set up their own business in the crumbling ruins of an abandoned building. They wear their profession as a badge of honour, working for themselves, driving other women from their territory, and having strict rules about who they will sleep with. Their number one rule is that they must never sleep with a man without payment. However, when ex-soldier Shintaro Ibuki (Joe Shishido) turns up looking for refuge after stabbing a GI, he threatens to destroy their carefully managed business.

Director Seijun Suzuki and cinematographer Shigeyoshi Mine take us right to the heart of the action of post-war Japan, with the streets bustling with people from all walks of life trying to survive. In contrast to the greys and browns of their surroundings, the central cast of women are always dressed in the same single bright colours, that helps identify them and sets them apart from everyone else. The actresses all do a fantastic job with their characters, giving them a sense of individuality. Yumiko Nogawa’s defiant leader, Sen, Tomiko Ishii’s upbeat Roku, Kayo Matsuo’s wily Mino, Yumiko Nogawa’s fragile yet determined Maya, are a charismatic quartet whose wild, funny, unpredictable, even cruel antics, are always a pleasure to watch. Joe Shishido gives a strong performance as Ibuki, who is putting a brave face on his inner turmoil. Misako Tominaga is also excellent as Machiko, a member of the group who gives in to her feelings and is cast out. All the characters appear fiercely independent but each harbours their own personal tragedy, whether the loss of a husband or a brother in the war. One of the strengths of the film is that it does not create heroes. Every character is flawed, often being cruel, malicious, or greedy, but it is clear that they are products of their environment. The score by Naozumi Yamamoto features a plaintive melody with repeated snatches of song that are often hummed or whistled by characters. There are also several songs that are performed by the cast at various points. The use of a pounding drum at moments of crisis for Maya is powerful. It breaks up the flow of action in a way that suddenly brings home to the audience the impact of everything on her. Suzuki also uses cross-fading imagery to good effect, especially in the moments when we see the ghosts of the past appearing before characters in a moment that moves, like much of the film, from joyous to morose.

“Gate of Flesh” begins with titles shown over drawings of naked corpses. This understanding of the fragility of life seems to haunt both the characters and the audience as the drama unfolds. Following any war or great loss of life, the old certainties disappear. To see a corpse makes us wonder what the point of living is in the first place, given the inevitable conclusion. This is a question posed by one character in the film. This nihilism also helps to explain the mindset of the women, who see their bodies as no more than flesh, a commodity to be sold and for them to profit from. They base their self-worth entirely in terms of business transactions, which in turns strips them of their inner selves, leading them to cruelty. At first they may seem heartless, but it becomes clear that they are simply keeping their emotions buried in order to adapt to a world that seems to have abandoned morality and compassion. In one powerful moment, Maya seduces a priest who had tried to help her, and this is a confirmation that human beings may aspire to higher things but their nature will always draw them back to their primitive urges. It is interesting to consider the male-female dynamics in the film, with the group of women being a strong group who are disrupted by the appearance of a man. Their reactions to him seem over-the-top, even childish, which may be a release of their pent-up emotions in reaction to the cold personas they have assumed. The colour-coded dresses they wear may also give an insight into each of their true personalities, or perhaps represent how they wish to be seen. They are holding on to a brightness and hope that is disappearing from the world around them. “Gate of Flesh” is a masterclass in directing with excellent performances and a story that touches on the very nature of humanity.

Mardock Scramble (2010-2012) by Susumu Kudo

When Rune Balot (Megumi Hayashibara) is killed by gangster Shell (Kazuya Nakai) her biggest challenge is only just beginning. She is brought back from the dead as an android by Dr. Easter (Hiroki Tochi), who along with his partner Oeuf Coque (Norito Yashima), a shapeshifting entity, pleads with her to take the stand in court against her killer. Their intention is to get to the bottom of his criminal enterprise. “Mardock Scramble” is based on a novel by Tow Ubukata and the story is split into three films. “The First Compression” follows Balot as she is given a new life under the Mardock Scramble O9 Protocol. “The Second Compaction” leads her to a casino where she must gamble for the memories of women Shell has killed. “The Third Exhaust” brings the story to a thrilling conclusion as she takes on her killer.

“Mardock Scramble” follows in the footsteps of other classic cyberpunk, with its transhuman protagonist being another great role in the mould of Motoko Kusanagi (Ghost in the Shell) or Deunan Knute (Appleseed). Unlike those characters she has suffered serious trauma and the films are certainly much darker in tone than many others in what is itself an often grim genre of crime and violence. Rune is a victim of incest and sexual abuse, falling into prostitution at a young age. She has little respect for herself and has isolated herself from regular human interactions. Her relationship with Oeuf Coque is one of the best parts of the story as the two must grow to trust one another. The art and animation do a good job of creating the world and it is a shame that the films do not explore more of it. Despite having one foot firmly in cyberpunk, it definitely has its own style. The “Paradise” they visit in the second part has a unique design and the film has its own aesthetic, with Easter’s transport and other details adding a lot of texture to the world. The script balances humour with its emotional moments. The first part has some fairly wacky concepts, such as Oeuf Cocque, which could have jarred against the serious subject matter of Rune’s trauma, but they work fine. The flashes of comedy grow more infrequent towards the end and the finale packs an emotional punch.

Mardock Scramble deals with many difficult themes, including sexual assault and rape. Underlying this there is a serious question about whether violence is ever justified, in revenge or self-defence in particular. Both Rune and Shell have been victims in an earlier life and this is given as partial justification for his actions. The idea of fate plays heavily in part two and ties in with this notion. The idea of transhumanism is also explored in some depth, with Rune being able to remotely operate electrical devices, Shell having his memories stored externally, and one character being no more than a head in a cage.

Yarukya Knight (2015) by Katsutoshi Hirabayashi

Makoto Gosuke (Tomoya Nakamura) moves to a school ruled by the female students. The girls, fed up with their strict and perverse teacher, Arashi (Alexander Otsuka), have kicked him out and taken over the school. Misaki Shizuka (Nina Endo) is the leader of this new female-led revolutionary governing order. The male students meanwhile are kept in check, repeatedly punished for their sexual desires, stripped and tied up for their apparent impertinence. Gosuke falls in love with Misaki and urges the other boys to take a stand and take back the school. When cruel teacher Arashi returns, Makoto and Misaki must put their differences aside to fight together against their common enemy.

“Yarukya Knight” is based on a manga of the same name by Nonki Miyasu. Director Katsutoshi Hirabayashi uses an active camera and off-kilter angles to create an exciting visual style. Special effects are used sparingly but to great effect to further emphasise that the film should be seen as a live-action cartoon. In particular a scene of our protagonist being thrown so forcefully into a wall that he becomes lodged there. All members of the cast do a fantastic job with their characters and have great comedy timing and performances. Particularly Tomoya Nakamura, Nina Endo and Erisa Yanagi.

A simple teen comedy that treads familiar ground of male sexual desire and female attempts to avoid it. The dynamic between the groups works well as a catalyst for much of the humour. The jokes usually land well and the premise is amusing. The sexual politics that the film portrays are simplistic and rely on stereotypical views of teen life, but this plays to the film’s strength. It creates a host of likeable characters in a tongue-in-cheek teen comedy.

Yakuza Law (1969) by Teruo Ishii

Three stories set in different historical periods, connected only thematically, show the yakuza way of life in all its cruelty. The first takes us back to the era of samurai and swordfights in the street. We are told that the yakuza have only two rules: don’t steal and don’t sleep with married women. Following the violent overthrow of a rival group, one gang feels their position is secure. But affairs and a loss of control by the boss leads to a devastating climactic showdown. The second story is set many years later and follows a gang member recently released from prison. Having served three years for an attack on a rival boss, he is disappointed when his fellow yakuza do not come to visit. He is further upset to find his former girlfriend, believing he had died, to be with another man. The final story centres on a gold heist gone wrong and an elite marksman. Double-crossing gangsters and gun fights abound.

Director Teruo Ishii delights in the most violent and extreme of human drama. “Yakuza Law” begins with credits playing over scenes of grisly and creative tortures employed by gangsters (most of which are not even seen in the film itself). This clues the audience in to the shock value that is at the heart of much of this film and also creates an atmosphere of dread that follows every character. Death and punishment are ever present threats in the world of the yakuza. The three stories act as morality tales (albeit emphasising the twisted moral code of the yakuza), with simple plot structures and broadly drawn characters established to make a point about honour, betrayal, and retribution. The film is packed with action and doesn’t shy away from the gory details of their various punishments, whether cutting off body parts, drowning, burning with a lighter, or even more creative tortures used in the final chapter. Tonally the film is a great example of the exploitation genre, moving from disturbing to comedic with startling alacrity. By the time the third part rolls around it’s no longer clear whether any of it is meant to be taken seriously. The special effects are pushed to their limits (and often beyond) to show the depravity of these people. Even when the effects are shoddy, the sheer cruelty or bizarreness of what is happening is enough to make it alarming. The fact that “Yakuza Law” is essentially three films in one is amazing, as all three parts are all equally engaging and do something different with the premise of gangsters breaking their promises and the backlash that follows.

“Yakuza Law” has a very tongue-in-cheek approach to its subject matter that makes it difficult to easily judge its sincerity. The yakuza are shown to be both terrifying and ridiculous in equal measure, with their strict code of honour barely disguising their underlying thuggish behaviour. Setting the three stories side by side also gives the film a theme of the eternal atavism and strips away the veneer of civilisation to show that throughout the generations these men do not change. The perceived cruelty of yesteryear is in fact replicated in modern times, with only the uniforms changing from yukata to sharp suits. Despite their reputations the yakuza are seen as pitiable figures, who lack empathy and are separate from the outside world. They are insular and trapped in a self-perpetuating cycle of violence that is doomed to eventually swallow anyone in its orbit. “Yakuza Law” will appeal to fans of the exploitation genre, with plenty of off-the-wall action and torture. It also provides an examination of the pathology of violence and gang mentality that is brought into stark contrast by the triple narrative structure.

Beach Volleyball Detectives Parts 1 and 2 (2007) by Yumi Yoshiyuki

While playing volleyball, a group of three female officers see a man spying on them. After running him down they find a memory stick containing information about a nuclear bomb threat. The group are joined by a CIA operative who arrives and the four of them must go undercover. They sign-up for an international volleyball tournament alongside Chinese, Indian and Russian teams. The Chinese competitors, under the auspices of the mysterious “Black Sun”, are planning to destroy the world and it is up to the Japanese to stop them.

“Beach Volleyball Detectives” is a film that has a concept that could absolutely have worked in the right hands. The farcical plot and blend of low-brow titillation and slapstick humour do provide a few good moments, but on the whole they are undermined by the poor production quality. The locations in Chiba are hardly fitting for the sexy tone the film is trying to establish and the sets are usually no more than empty rooms dressed with a few posters and props. In a film such as this a silly and unbelievable plot and wooden acting is hardly a significant drawback, but the film never reaches that critical mass of humour or outrageousness, often being bland and uncreative. The actresses are there to look good and little else. There are jokes about Chinese, Russian and Indian stereotypes that again suffer from poor execution. It feels as though little effort was put into anything beyond the basic premise, which makes it remarkable they managed to convince even this small cast to star in it. Film’s like the live-action “Cutie Honey” and “Oppai Volleyball” show that the problem is not necessarily with the fundamentals, but with the execution. Likewise, “Ping Pong” and “Prince of Tennis” are examples of over-the-top sports comedies that are engaging. The problem here is that not enough effort went into the production. An egregious example of this is in the use of CGI volleyballs. There is absolutely no reason why the actresses could not have strung together a couple of plays, and in the close-up one shots it is completely unnecessary to use special effects. I loved the concept of players each having a video game-esque special move, but again this was undermined by poor quality graphics. They could have done more of the visual gags with practical effects with just a little more creative thought.

Overall, “Beach Volleyball Detectives” is probably one best avoided. It is lacking in quality humour, script, dialogue, acting and special effects. It is almost incredible that a film about women playing beach volleyball can be so uninteresting.