Toshimaen: Haunted Park (2019) by Hiroshi Takahashi

Saki (Rie Kitahara) and a group of her school-friends visit the cursed Toshimaen theme park. The curse is said to visit those who knock on the old door of the theme-park mansion, or look into their own reflection in the hall of mirrors. Those who succumb to the curse, which can only be broken by riding the merry-go-round, disappear to some unknown place. As Saki’s friends are taken one by one she begins to wonder if these happenings are related to the earlier disappearance of her friend Yuka (Arisa Komiya). “Toshimaen: Haunted Park” is written and directed by Hiroshi Takahashi, who also worked on the “Ring” series.

The colander-like plot is par for the course for this kind of teen thriller, but occasionally becomes distracting in just how convenient certain elements are. The curse is less scary when there is a clear and simple way to stop it given along with the instructions for causing it. The story itself creates more confusion by making Yuka a villainous vengeful spirit. It makes sense in this story, but begs the question of what happens to others who are taken by the curse such as the three film-makers at the beginning. The entire story only functions with these particular characters and a very particular set-up. This would be fine if the film isn’t also suggesting that the curse is something that pre-exists them. The acting is serviceable, with teenage schoolgirl dialogue and on-the-nose exposition delivered believably enough. In the latter third the film begins to show promise, creating a suitably spooky atmosphere as we reach the typical ‘final girl’ scenario. The haunted theme-park, and a race to restart the electrical circuits for the rides, create tension that is missing from the rest of the film. That being said the brief glimpse of more supernatural elements, as the girls face a looming chasm preventing them leaving the park, only emphasise what opportunities were missed with this premise. Ideas such as a ghost house that is genuinely haunted, or the house of mirrors, feel underused.

A by-the-numbers horror about a haunted theme-park and a ghoul with a grudge. “Toshimaen: Haunted Park” suffers from a large number of plot holes and underwhelming action that fails to capitalise on the premise. The final third introduction of more supernatural elements is where it seems to finally find it’s purpose, but it is too little, too late. A low-budget thriller that may find an audience with younger viewers but is unlikely to provide effective scares for an older audience.

Bittersand (2021) by Tomoya Sugimoto

When scurrilous rumours are written about high-school student Eriko (Ayane Kinoshita), classmate Akito (Yuki Inoue) decides to take the blame. This seemingly frivolous decision leads to seven years of regret as Akito is unable to forget what happened following the incident. Now grown up, Akito’s friend, Yusuke (Riku Hagiwara), an amateur film-maker suggests using their high-school experiences as the focus of a documentary, and the two attend a reunion with plans of revealing all about what really happened.

“Bittersand”, requires suspension of disbelief that the rumours surrounding Eriko would have led to her total ostracisation and would still be relevant to the characters seven years later. Sadly, the moment of revelation is more likely to provoke a shrug rather than any sense of surprise. If something more serious than the juvenile relationship troubles and teenage pregnancy were the reason for the class still harbouring any interest in what happened, it could have been more impactful. The film itself even appears to acknowledge this with one fellow former-student laughing off Akito and Yusuke’s presentation and wondering why the others aren’t willing to simply get on with the reunion afterwards. The film misses a chance to focus on things that would be more interesting, such as why one characters physical appearance changes drastically, how one character managed to raise a child as a teen mother, or even giving us an insight into how the original incident affected the characters. The film is not all bad, with a mixed bag of performances, and some great direction. Perhaps the worst you could say about the film is that it is underwhelming; that it answers questions that the audience weren’t interested in asking.

One of the themes of “Bittersand” is how memories and experiences can linger and affect our later lives. Even something as seemingly insignificant as the events of Akito’s high-school years stay with him. The use of frequent flashbacks is an effective way to show this, emphasising the idea that past and present are inextricably interlinked, and our consciousness often drifts from one to the other without distinction. As discussed the film often misses out on exploring its most interesting elements. The ideas of infidelity, regret, the importance of the truth and the impact of malicious rumours, and the unreliability of memories, are left to wither on the vine. A fairly innocuous young adult melodrama that will appeal to people who like high-school gossip. The moment of exposure, with a criminal investigation style chart up on the blackboard is absurdly over-the-top, perhaps suggesting that the film is intentionally comedic.

Blackboard (1986) by Kaneto Shindo

The body of a high-school boy is found in a river tied to a stolen bicycle. Two of his classmates soon come forward to confess to his murder, claming that they were victims of bullying by the boy. While the school authorities wish to maintain their reputation, denying all suggestions of bullying; a reporter sets out to uncover the truth, speaking to the boy’s family, homeroom teacher, and others surrounding the case. Through a series of flashbacks we see the murder victim Takeshi (Terutake Tsuji), believed to be the leader of a gang of ‘punks’ by some at the school, and his friendship with Tomoko (Ryoko Sano), a victim of bullying herself. We also learn about Takeshi’s life; and attempts by his teacher Mr. Tomita (Ryuzo Tanaka) to steer him away from the path he is on.

Writer-director Kaneto Shindo, delivers a powerful dissection of an age-old problem: bullying. Opening with the grim, documentary-like discovery of the body, complete with dramatic news reports, the case is soon resolved, leaving us with only the question of why it happened, and whether it could have been avoided. Shindo maintains an anthropological distance from his subject, largely allowing characters to speak to various opinions on the matter. There are those who want to ignore evidence of bullying; others who suggest it is the children’s upbringing, or societal problems, that are to blame; and through the character of Tomoko (saved herself from bullying by Takeshi) we see a nuanced picture of the bully, struggling with his own issues, having difficulty at school, and living in a single-parent household. The film discusses all of the various factors as well as the devastating impact bullying can have on individuals, and brings home in its final scenes the tragedy of lives that can be lost to it in extreme cases. The film highlights the subjectivity of any attempts to provide easy answers solve these sociological issues. In particular, the sequences in the school staffroom where we see everyone offering their opinions on what should be done with the children. However, it is at its most powerful when we see the bullying in the context of the cruelty of society as a whole, in particular the sequence of Takeshi’s widowed mother cleaning toilets and being forced off benefits for attempting to make extra money. The film suggests that perhaps society should look to the way it treats its members if it truly wants to solve this issue. The wrecked boat by the shore is another moment of visual poetry, the discarded, useless shell providing shelter for Takeshi’s gang, ironically grafittied with the word “dream”.

“Blackboard” avoids placing blame on any one individual, suggesting that it is a confluence of factors that lead to bullying and that its aftermath is not easily avoided. The inclusion of Tomoko, a victim herself, is not intended to create sympathy for Takeshi, but to add another dimension to a character who comes to symbolise the death of hope for a generation. One of the most striking lines is a father telling his son that he is weak for being bullied, and that he should simply become a bully himself. If this is the mindset that children are taught, then the tragedy of this drama becomes a sad inevitability. “Blackboard” is a challenging watch but a bold attempt to understand the deeper causes of a damaging societal issue.

Harmful Insect (2001) by Akihito Shiota

After her mother attempts suicide, schoolgirl Sachiko Kita (Aoi Miyazaki) begins skipping school, finding companionship with two homeless men in the neighbourhood. Her schoolfriend Natsuko (Yu Aoi) doesn’t give up on her, calling at her house every day before school. As well as her mother’s health, rumours also circulate concerning a relationship Sachiko had with her sixth-gradge teacher Mr. Ogata (Seichi Tanabe), with whom she remains in correspondence.

“Harmful Insect”, written by Yayoi Kiyono and directed by Akihiko Shiota, is a character-driven drama focussing on the peculiar circumstances of Sachiko’s life. The film is light on dialogue in a way that echoes Sachiko’s inability to express herself to those around her, including her mother and Natsuko. Most of her feelings are expressed in the letters to Ogata and his responses to her, but these are also often shrouded in metaphor. This lack of explicit answers leaves us desperate to learn more about the characters and attempting to piece together a cohesive picture from the hints we are given. The direction itself is a major key to solving many of the mysteries of Sachiko’s character, with often jarring cuts, the isolation of characters through framing, giving us an insight into how she perceives the world. Aoi Miyazaki’s Sachiko is a conflicted character, neither a traumatised youth nor a delinquent teen, her circumstances are troubling and yet she still has the fortitude to continue.

The film deals with several difficult themes, including suicide, sexual predators and rape, without moralising, instead providing an intresting character study that gives the audience time to consider what Sachiko is experiencing and how it might impact on her. Sachiko’s drawing books at random from a bookshelf; her letters to Ogata detailing dreams of a starless sky; her rebellious behaviour and her decisions to skip school and return, all provide subtle hints of a complex individual attempting to regain control in a life that has taken much of it from her.

Jigoku (1960) by Nobuo Nakagawa

Shiro Shimizu (Shigeru Amachi) is due to marry Yukiko Yajima (Utako Mitsuya), but their happiness is cut short by a fatal accident. While in a car with his friend Tamura (Yoichi Numata), Sora is involved in a fatal hit-and-run. Tamura doesn’t believe they should go to the police, realising that the man they killed is a lowly gangster. Things go from bad to worse for Shiro when Yukiko is killed as they are on their way to the police station in a taxi. Sora escapes to a rural old people’s home where his parents are living. This offers little reprieve as he discovers his mother is dying; his father has taken a mistress; there is a nurse who looks uncannily like Yukiko (also played by Utako Mitsuya); and when Tamura, Yukiko’s parents, and the crash victim’s mother and former lover turn up looking for revenge, it seems that Sora will never escape the consequences of his actions.

With a screenplay by director Nobuo Nakakawa and Ichiro Miyagawa,”Jigoku” is a film that is divided quite neatly into two parts. It begins as a crime thriller involving Sora and Tamura’s hit-and-run incident and the fallout from this and Yukiko’s subsequent death. In the latter half of the film, the characters find themselves in hell, with Sora attempting to rescue his unborn daughter Harumi. This is the point at which the film becomes a straight horror, with gruesome depictions of people wallowing in rivers of blood and filth; being flayed alive or sawn into pieces. The fantastical depictions of hell, the Sanzu river, and the King of Hell who oversees these punishments, stand in stark contrast to the human drama that precedes it, with the film’s dissection of guilt and morality suddenly ramped up by the carnage that awaits the sinners. The cinematography by Mamoru Morita creates an atmopshere of dread from the beginning, with characters often isolated by deep shadows in dimly lit environments. The effects in hell are well done, often relying on simply techniques, or juxtaposition of imagery to create a disquieting feeling of tormented souls. The flayed bodies, piercing by spikes, sawing, are interspersed with sombre moments of lost children piling stones, suggest an underworld that is both a place of despair and torture depending on what landed you there.

Part crime thriller, part dark fantasy, with an element of tragic romance thrown in for good measure, “Jigoku” is a highly entertaining moral drama. The film’s outlook is bleak, with almost every character eventually ending up in the infernal realm regardless of the nature or severity of their sin. Shiro is a sympathetic protagonist: largely swept along by others, when he does attempt to make things right it always ends up making matters worse. In this sense, along with the seemingly indiscriminate way punishments are handed out in hell, the film makes us question the nature of this afterlife. Early in the film a professor delivers a lecture on the various perceptions of hell in religions throughout history and across the world. “Hell” as a concept has reappeared in almost every major religion. As “Jigoku” demostrates, it is an idea that is fantastical and often only loosely connected to a genuine attempt to punish sinners, more often simply a vicarious imaginary pleasure for survivors or those who believe they are morally superior. Here there are few who escape the tortures of Hell, whether they are fully deserving or not. This depiction, with its excesses and horrors, asks us to re-evaluate our own morality and ask what our conception of hell tells us about our desire for revenge.