Paranoia Agent (2004)

A series of interconnected stories tied together by the sinister figure of a roller-blading, bat-wielding assailant known as “Lil’ Slugger” (Daisuke Sakaguchi). The series begins with Tsukiko Sagi (Mamiko Noto), who designs a popular character named Maromi (Haruko Momoi), a pink cartoon dog; a mascot who becomes something of a talisman for her company and their most popular character. She is soon under pressure to create another success on that level, and while walking home is attacked by an shadowy figure wearing golden rollerblades and swinging a golden bat. As she recovers in the hospital, two detectives, Keiichi Ikari (Shozo Iizuka) and Mitsuhiro Maniwa (Toshihiko Seki) are put on the case, tracking down the young boy believed to be responsible for the assault. Throughout the series we are introduced to various characters, each of which suffer some kind of trauma, paranoia, fear, or stress, and all of whom are targeted by the mysterious figure of Lil’ Slugger.

Directed and co-written by Satoshi Kon (Perfect Blue, Tokyo Godfathers), the film has a dark tone throughout, dealing with themes of violence, suicide, abuse, and having realistic and unsympathetic characters. Black humour is often used to alleviate some of the tension, but the overwhelming sensation while watching will be one of confusion. The stories often seem to break down into dream-sequences or other surreal moments, feature characters whose fragile psyches seem to be collapsing as the plot progresses. It becomes clear early on that this is not a straightforward mystery, and that there may be a supernatural or psychological element to the story. I was concerned that the ending would be a let-down, considering the fantastic premise and set-up, but I was not disappointed. There is a sense of fulfilment at the end of the story, a sort of catharsis for the characters, and the whole thing ties together thematically, if not strictly logically. The script is excellent, building up a sense of real characters, living in surreal circumstances, with great voice acting by the whole cast. Some episodes in particular are inspired, such as the episode centred on an animation studio and the various jobs that entails. Emphasising the dualistic nature of the series, the score by Susumu Hirasawa is likewise ominous and cheery by turns. It is best to go into this show not knowing too much about it, as there are some great twists and turns.

The series deals with some very serious themes, depression, anxiety, suicide, mental disorders, as well as painting a picture of a dysfunctional society. The character of Lil’ Slugger is left somewhat open to interpretation, as a psychological phenomenon conjured from the fevered imaginings of the protagonists, or as an elemental force that descends on people who are feeling life is too much for them. I would highly recommend this series to anyone who enjoys psychological horror, mystery, and something that will have you scratching your head throughout attempting to figure out the significance of it all.

First Love (2019) by Takashi Miike

Leo Katsuragi (Masataka Kubota) is an up and coming boxer. Yuri (Sakurako Konishi) is a woman addicted to meth and prostituted out to pay off her father’s debts. Kase (Shota Sometani) is a yakuza about to betray his employers by intercepting a delivery of meth and selling it on. His partner in crime is a crooked cop, Otomo (Nao Omori). Their plan is to grab the drugs, and make Yuri the scapegoat by renting her out on the night of the theft. When Leo receives a terminal diagnosis, a tumour on the brain, he sets off into the Tokyo night, lacking all will to carry on. A chance encounter with Yuri gives him something to fight for and the two head off together, chased by Kase and Otomo, the Yakuza, the Triads and the police.

Miike creates a vibrant world full of colourful characters with a fast paced script that never lets up. From the opening cross cuts of the various storylines we are thrust forward into the action, constantly flipping back-and-forth between the main players in the drama. The film doesn’t take itself too seriously, preferring the extreme or ridiculous rather than the mundane. This is evident early on when we see a severed head blinking in disbelief, and reaches its climax in a triumphant getaway chase beginning with a car flying out of a second story window. The film is packed with fantastic action, black comedy, and humorously idiosyncratic moments. There are two central plots: Leo and Yuri’s relationship and Kase’s drug heist gone wrong. Yuri is given a tragic backstory of abuse, and her attempts to find the boy who once helped her are touching. Her comedown from addiction is also well-played and provides an interesting angle to her character. Likewise, Leo is also a troubled individual, abandoned by his parents and struggling with the weight of his diagnosis. Both Masataka Kubota and Sakurako Konishi give incredible performances and it would have been great to see more of them. One of the issues, if it can be called such, is the film’s dual structure, with both the couple’s relationship and Kase and Otomo’s attempts to discover the drugs taking equal time. As an audience you find that you want more of both of these stories, but are constantly split between them.

The acting from the entire cast is perfectly pitched between blackly comic and serious crime drama, a difficult feat to pull off. Outside the main cast are suitably chilling performances from Seiyo Uchino as Gondo the yakuza boss, and Mami Fujioka as the Chinese Triad Assassin. As in his previous Black Society Trilogy, Miike includes the Chinese underworld as an integral and symbiotic part of the Japanese criminal society, with their dialogue in Chinese. It seems an unusual point to mention, but with much Japanese cinema you would be forgiven for thinking of Japan as an entirely homogenous society with no foreign elements or influences.

Having worked in the genre of crime for his entire career Miike knows all the tropes of Yakuza stories and how and when to subvert them. Examples of this include Kase’s attempts to murder a potential witness to his crimes, being interrupted by her elderly flatmate, and the inventive way he decides to kill her. It seems also there is a knowing wink to the camera in moments such as Godo’s final scene and the Chinese gang member “one-armed” Wang (Yen cheng-kuo), creating a tension between drama and comedy. The design of the film is stylish, with great use of colour and framing throughout. It also manages to capture the grime of the Tokyo streets and run down apartments. Despite the fantastical nature of the plot the set design ensures it remains grounded firmly in reality.

Fans of Miike’s work will find much to enjoy here. “First Love” has almost everything you would expect from the director of “Dead or Alive” and “Audition”. He crafts an understated love story woven through the turmoil of a hard-boiled crime drama. The action sequences, including car chases and sword fighting are all expertly done, and there is a forward momentum to everything that makes it a joy to watch. If anything it is a film about finding your reason for living. In a world where you are beset on all sides by violence and chaos, you can discover that one thing that keeps you focused. At the beginning of the film, Leo has his boxing and Yuri is addicted to meth. By the end, both have found each other and something meaningful to fight for.

Yamamoto Eri Becomes Recoverability Zero (2015) by Yuki Kuwarazuru

The film begins with a radio announcement stating that Kyoto has been hit with some form of attack in an ongoing unspecified war and the city is now quarantined. Soga (Kota Nakano) and Miyabe (Kosuke Komura), investigators from the health department, are searching for Eri Yamamoto, who has been missing since her last check-up three months ago. Her physician has no idea where she might be. It becomes clear that certain members of the population are suffering from a rare condition known as mad man disease, that leads to them harming others. The two detectives come across Eri’s sister Yui (Yui Mikami) and her boyfriend (Minoru Takanaka), who are feeding and taking care of the infected Eri (Miyuki Osaki) in their basement. They slowly close in on Eri’s whereabouts and condition, uncovering the mystery of her disappearance. Written and directed by Yuki Kuwazuru ((Not) Perfect Human), the film is an exploration of several themes concerning compassion for illness and mental health.

A bizarre art-house detective story with elements of body horror, “Yamamoto Eri Becomes Recoverability Zero” is a curious experience with a few unexpected scares. The plot is set-up very briefly and what follows is an exploration of some dark societal issues. In the dialogues between Soga and Miyabe we hear the various concerns of the general population around people with this unknown virus. Certain of the characters believe that the only way to deal with victims is by killing them. Soga goes armed to cases and is fully prepared to shoot them rather than risk being attacked himself, while Miyabe is more compassionate to sufferers. The performances of Kota Nakano and Kosuke Komura are good in the role of detectives, especially when they have scenes together discussing the ethics of their profession. Likewise, Yui Mikami and Minoru Takanaka make a good pair as they struggle with whether to help Eri or not. Mikami also has several flashback moments with Miyuki Osaki’s Eri where we get to see the two of them before the tragic events leading to the quarantining of certain individuals.

A low-budget is polished by creative direction, with plenty of hand-held camera work and scenes that have a fluidity and sense of purpose. The large number close-ups don’t always flatter the acting and there are a number of scenes that feel a little stretched, but a short runtime mean that there is not the central concept remains intriguing throughout. The story is chaptered and plays with its chronology by having each of the three chapters run as flashbacks leading up to the beginning of the preceding chapter. In this way we are brought into the investigation of Eri’s disappearance, through the horror of her condition, and finally onto an understanding of her tragic situation. Filmed largely in indoor locations gives the sense that the city’s population has significantly dwindled, but more could have been made of this in external scenes where we see a few people around in the streets. The film uses the distinction between quiet conversational scenes and sudden flashes of extreme body horror to great effect. One of these terrifying moments involves Yui’s boyfriend becoming completely traumatised after seeing Eri in the garage. She is completely ravaged by the disease and we realise why they are shunned. After Eri attacks him, Yui’s boyfriend stumbles into the street and appears to be in some sort of mania, perhaps representative of the madness that has spread from Eri to him, or perhaps his own paranoia at the thought of being infected.

This sequence leans into one of the central themes of the film: fear of infection. The cause of the mad man disease is never specified. It could be due to radiation from the bomb falling on Kyoto; it could be representative of Eri’s psychological trauma following her husband’s death; or it could be related to her pregnancy, which comes to play a central role later in the film. The characters appear to be terrified by the idea of catching mad man disease, and reticent to approach those with the condition. They go as far as suggesting that they should exterminate them. This is a dark reflection on humanity’s lack of sympathy with afflicted individuals; the shunning of those with mental and physical illnesses. We see the love of Yui for her sister, which leads to her overcoming this fear or disgust and taking care of her. The final moments of the film leave us with a stomach-churning moment that is sure to stick with the viewer, and leads to something of a re-examination of the earlier portion of the film. While shocking, the film is clearly intended as a metaphorical examination of cultural norms and the treatment of the sick. This final moment is perhaps intended to shock the audience into contemplating the various characters and situations and coming to some understanding of what is to be done if people are to move forward with more compassion.

My Dad is a Heel Wrestler (2018) by Kyohei Fujimura

9-year old Shota (Kokoro Terada) is unaware of what his father Takashi (Hiroshi Tanahashi) does for a living, but he admires him for being strong and kind-hearted. One day he sneaks out of his house, climbing into the back of the family car to follow his dad to work. At first believing he is involved in some shady business, seeing him with two other burly men in an alley way exchanging greetings and cash, he soon discovers that his father is in fact a wrestler. As “Cockroach Mask” he plays the role of heel to the heroic wrestlers, such as “Dragon George” (Kazuchika Okada). Shota is shocked and disappointed that his father is a figure of hate, believed to be weak and untrustworthy by the crowd, constantly using underhand tactics in his fights, booed and reviled by the audience. Little does he know that his father was once the legendary wrestling champion Takashi Omura, whose career was cut short after suffering a knee injury. Shota must come to terms with his father’s new role, learning to love him even as the bad guy. Meanwhile, journalist and wrestling obsessive Michiko (Riisa Naka) is busy writing an article on Omura/ Cockroach Mask, for her magazine, after hearing that he is aiming to become the champion at an upcoming tournament.

“My Dad is a Heel Wrestler” is clearly aimed at a young audience. The plot is straightforward and for the most part we follow events from Shota’s perspective, occasionally seeing Takashi as he struggles with his rehabilitation and his role as the heel to more popular wrestlers. The story is premised on the idea that Shota does not understand the role of heel wrestlers, and would not be impressed that his dad is a wrestler of any kind. He may also be too young to fully understand that wrestling is a show as opposed to a genuine competition. Later in the film, Shota’s friend Mana (Maharu Nemoto) tells him that it is amazing enough that he is a wrestler at all, which had he been told that earlier would have saved him a lot of angst. That being said, if you leave your cynicism at the door, the film does have a lot to recommend it.

The young actors do a great job as Shota’s friends. Kokoro Terada is likeable as Shota and his upset at discovering his dad has a job where he appears to be disrespected is portrayed well. Maharu Nemoto is energetic and engaging as Shota’s wrestling fan classmate, Mana. Most of the young cast have little to do, but they all give solid performances that are enjoyable. One of the most entertaining characters in Riisa Naka’s Michiko, whose enthusiasm and infectious passion for the sport spills over each time she is on screen. One of the highlights of the film are the wrestling sequences themselves. Having a cast of real pro-wrestlers, Hiroshi Tanahashi, Kazuchika Okada, Ryusuke Taguchi, and Hirooki Goto among them, means that essentially these are full-on professional wrestling matches on screen. The athleticism and skill they bring to these scenes make them a joy to watch. In addition, Hiroshi Tanahashi does a fantastic job of portraying the family man and former champion Omura. His relationship with Shota is believable and genuinely moving.

At heart this is a film about the relationship between a father and son and learning to accept people for who they are and respect their dreams. Shota begins the film full of love for his father, his idealised image of the kind and tough figure he knows later shattered when he realises that everyone appears to hate him and he is acting like a bad guy. Tanahashi wants to do everything he can to earn the love of his son, who he clearly cares for a lot. He also wishes that he could return to his glory days, the heel wrestler gig being something of a comedown from his career highs. He accepts the position because his injury prevents him from returning as a face and his love of wrestling means he’s not willing to quit. There is also an interesting subtext to the film; one which is best articulated by Michiko who explains that wrestling needs both heels and faces. In society there are different roles to fill, not everyone can be the top, but they can play their part. This acceptance of a less than perfect situation and realising the importance of what you have (in this instance the love of a father or son) rather than striving for an impossible ideal is an important message. Overall, “My Dad is a Heel Wrestler” has enough there to keep you entertained, although it will perhaps appeal most to a younger audience or pro-wrestling fans.

Kakegurui (2019) Tsutomu Hanabusa

Hyakkao Academy is a prestigious establishment for the elite with a peculiar code of conduct. School life is governed by gambling, something that all students are expected to participate in. Those unable to pay their fees to the academy become the ‘pets’ of the wealthier students. The student council rules over this draconian hierarchy, enforcing the rules and ensuring that those of the lower classes don’t step out of line. There are no teachers or lessons, instead everything is a matter of money and chance, with the lucky destined for greatness and the unlucky pushed to the bottom of the pile. One student, Yumeko Jabami (Minami Hamabe), seems to possess a preternatural gift for gambling, able to turn almost any situation to her advantage and blessed with good luck. She soon becomes a beacon of hope for other downtrodden students, who see in her an example of how they might all succeed given one fortuitous turn of events.

The school is not entirely beholden to the council and a group of breakaway students known as “The Village” have established a refuge, shunning gambling and living in an equitable way with others. This group of almost religiously ascetic students are led by Itsuki Sumeragi (Ruka Matsuda) and Amane Murasame (Hio Miyazawa). The student council is unimpressed by this alternative society and the head of the student council Kirari Momobari (Elaiza Ikeda) decides on a course of action that will force them to gamble, by offering a blank wish-fulfilment paper to the winner of the upcoming election tournament. Students enter in pairs, the fate of the school to be decided by games of chance.

“Kakegurui” is based on a manga by Homura Kawamoto and a subsequent television drama series. The film throws us right into the action, with a heavy exposition dump early on explaining how the school works and a who’s who of the main players. The premise is wacky, requiring a significant suspension of disbelief, but acts as a perfect metaphor for capitalist societies where money decides everything. The students at the school are so privileged that the only thing that can truly separate them is their ruthlessness and willingness to risk everything on chance. The village, by contrast, offers a utopian vision of a world where everyone is equal, and where money holds no power over people. This high-concept approach offers an exciting opportunity for a discussion of these themes while keeping the tone light and frivolous.

The cast do a great job with the comic feel, often over the top, melodramatic posturing and cartoonish expressions highlighting the absurdity of what is happening. Marika Ito in particular is highly enjoyable as Tomu Inuhachi, whose outsider status and comic tomboy performance is hugely endearing. There is a large cast and each member manages to create something special with their character, making them instantly recognizable and their personalities shine through. In keeping with the live-action manga style, they are almost all played as eccentric caricatures. The design is also clearly inspired by the manga, with sets and costumes all hyper-realistic or caricatured. With the red-black uniforms reminiscent of casino croupiers, and the white robes of the villagers lending them a religious aspect.

The film does lose its way somewhat in the second half. It gets bogged down in the technicalities of two of the games that are to decide the council elections. These games take up a large portion of the run-time, and although unavoidable they can become a slog. This is not the biggest problem with the latter portion of the film though. The idea of the village versus the school is a perfect antagonistic clash of world views and it is immediately apparent which system is preferable. The set up early on leads you to believe that this is a film with a message about rapacious upper classes and downtrodden unfortunates. It seems clear that the villagers will show a better path, one that circumvents the need for participation in this system. However, the leaders of this group are also forced to participate. While the ending is upbeat you are left with the strange feeling that nothing was really gained by the characters as they are back in the same situation as before, perhaps worse since they have succumbed to the same avarice and lust for money that typifies their rivals in the school. The filmmakers intention was clearly to make a knockabout comedy rather than a socio-economic satire, but it means that the film does not really hold together at a thematic level, unless you consider it to be a double-bluff (possible in a film about gambling) and that actually the message is intended to be “the house always wins”.

Kakegurui Compulsive Gambler is a fun, live-action manga adaptation. The performances are enjoyable and the plot is engaging, taking some unusual turns. Worth watching if you are looking for a distracting comedy with plenty of fun moments and over-the-top acting, but disappointing in that it could have gone for a more powerful message in the latter half.