The Vanished (2006) by Makoto Tanaka

A journalist travels to a remote village to investigate supernatural happenings in this suspenseful horror. Sota (Soko Wada) works at a magazine specialising in extreme content. While he wants to expose the truth about the stories he covers, his boss is more interested in selling exciting stories to increase sales. His boss suggests Sota take on a case involving a drowning victim who was discovered without any internal organs. While sceptical at first, Sota takes the job, travelling to meet the mortician who performed the autopsy, who informs him that the child appears to have never had organs. When this body then returns to life and flees, Sota travels to the remote village of Hinoemura to look into the circumstances surrounding a previous mystery. Years earlier a group of children disappeared on a school trip in the area; but it seems that some of them still roam the woods nearby. Whether ghosts or something more sinister, Sota has no choice but to follow the trail of clues, finding an elderly couple who remained behind in the village along with their son Sadohiro, and who are repeatedly visited by the vanished children.

Based on a short story by Hideyuki Kikuchi, director Makoto Tanaka, who also wrote the screenplay, develops an intriguing horror mystery. In the opening scenes we see an old man mourning his wife’s death when the figure of a child begins tapping on the opaque glass of the door asking to be admitted. It draws in the audience to question exactly what is going on, layering the mystery with the disappearance of the group of children; the body without organs; the existence of unaging children; and a figure who seems to want to kill these children, melding the best of the detective and horror genres. The film falls off significantly after the revelation of what is actually happening, the special effects and rush to the ending not doing justice to the slow build and quietly suggestive horror of the preceding investigation. Soko Wada’s Sota is a likeable protagonist, a typical skeptic drawn into a world of unnatural terrors, although there are hints of a paranoia that are not fully developed. Similarly, the film largely leave the characters as shallow archetypes, instead focussing on creating an eerie atmosphere. When it is at its best, in the dread-filled silences and disturbing peculiarities of Sota’s investigation, it does create a suitable unsettling tone. This is aided by Koji Endo’s score of low strings and ghostly woodwind.

“The Vanished” plays on several tropes of traditional horror: vanished children and supernatural forces. Rather than the usual child ghosts, this film takes on post-mortem demonic posession, with the children being used as bait to lure out others. We also see the difficulty of the bereaved adults to let go of their children, or accept that they are gone. This underlying tragedy provides a degree of emotionality to the standard supernatural monsters, but the film shies away from making this more of a central theme. Sota also feels like a character that should have been more developed. We see briefly following the conclusion of the mystery that he is suffering from a sort of paranoia and visions of his own. It almost feels as if this is an idea that should have been developed in a sequel, as the skeptic suffering doubts about the nature of his reality, but instead it is thrown away as a cheap topper to the main story. Overall, “The Vanished” offers a fun mystery-horror that builds tension and an intriguing story, but is let down by a resolution that fails to tie together the various ideas suggested by the premise.

On the Street (2020) by Rikiya Imaizumi

The film opens with Aoi Arakawa (Ryuya Wakaba) and his girlfriend Yuki (Moeka Hoshi) in the middle of breaking up. It is Yuki’s birthday, but after confessing to infidelity she confirms that she wants to split. Aoi works at a second-hand clothes store in Shimokitazawa, an area popular with young people. Fuyuko Tanabe (Kotone Furukawa), who works at a nearby bookstore, shows interest in him, but the inexperienced Aoi seems unable to pick up on such signals. A student film-maker, Machiko (Minori Hagiwara), a regular at his shop, asks him to appear in her project; a task which Aoi is singularly unsuited to, his acting proving so poor that he is cut from the finished film. After the filming he has a heartfelt conversation with Iha JoJo (Seina Nakata), a crew member on the production. Meanwhile, Yuki is regretting her decision to leave him.

“On the Street” is a slice-of-life drama about relationships, with lengthy conversations between characters. Writer-director Rikiya Imaizumi keeps the focus on these dialogues between Aoi, the women he encounters, and his friends. The naturalistic acting and realistic and relatable script provide a window into their worlds. With a mostly static camera, the film is almost documentary-like as we see coffee houses, music clubs, pubs, and apartments, and witness the everyday lives of the characters. Through these long takes we develop a familiarity with them, feeling as if we are simply hanging out with a group of regular people. The scene between Aoi and JoJo is one of the best moments of the film, as they sit and discuss various topics of little importance, just learning how to relate to one another. All of the actors do a great job, with their naturalistic performances in stark contrast to the terrible job Aoi does of acting in Machiko’s student film. “On the Street” is a film that you have to relax into without the expectation of any stunning revelation or melodrama. What the film instead provides is an insight into aspects of human relationships, along with some genuinely funny humour deriving from the characters and situations. In particular, the police officer who appears at times and begins on a bizarre unprompted confession about his personal life; and the scene in which there is a misunderstanding about who is dating who. There are also interesting artistic touches such as the mirroring of certain scenes, as between Aoi and Yuki at the beginning, a dynamic that is repeated later with Yuki and another character; and the reappearance of the police officer. These patterns and repetitions happen naturally, but suggest that there is order in the seeming chaos, or that the characters are bound to the same cycle of make-ups and break-ups, that their lives are a rhythmic flow rather than a monotonous drone.

“On the Street” is a film that emphasizes realism above all else. The conversation between Aoi and the coffee house owner, where they discuss the value of art, film, literature, and culture, makes this clear. It is never fully expressed what they mean by this, but there is a distinction implied between life and art. Similarly, in Machiko’s production we see Aoi completely unable to act a scene in which he simply has to read a book, an activity which he spends every day doing naturally. This is also evidenced in the fact that Aoi’s scene is eventually cut from the film, something that Tanabe takes offence to as she practiced the scene with him previously. If you are looking for a brilliant slice-of-life relationship drama, “On the Street” offers a relaxing watch, with great performances and a script that is relatable and full of humour.

Drifting Home (2022) by Hiroyasu Ishida

A group of children find themselves stranded in a derelict building floating through an endless ocean in this fantasy adventure tale. Kosuke (Mutsumi Tamura) and Natsume (Asami Seto) spent their childhood together in the same apartment block. Following the death of Kosuke’s grandfather Yasuji (Bin Shimada), the two have grown apart. As the summer holidays approach it seems that they are no closer to healing their relationship. Kosuke’s friends Taishi (Yumiko Kobayashi) and Yuzuru (Daiki Yamashita) drag him along on a ghost-hunting expedition in the now condemned apartments. They find Natsume hiding inside and are later joined by classmates Reina (Inori Minase) and Juri (Kana Hanazawa). During a storm the children are transported to a world where the only thing that remains is the building surrounded by a seemingly endless sea. They find another inhabitant of the apartment block named Noppo (Ayumu Murase) who seems to have a peculiar connection with the building. While they occasionally pass other floating buildings, there are no other people and the group begin to wonder if they will ever find their way home.

Directed by Hiroyasu Ishida, with a script by Ishida, Hayashi Mori and Minaka Sakamoto, “Drifting Home” is a simple yet effective children’s adventure tale, featuring magical elements, exciting action, and deeply emotional themes that will resonate with audiences young and old. The majority of the film takes place in the same block of apartments and other derelict buildings, with the cracked concrete overgrown with moss and weeds , exposed and rusted rebar, providing an impactful background for the story. Similar to the post-apocalyptic sunken cities of “Bubble” (2022), these spaces are recreated with details that make clear they have many stories of their own to tell. The film is also reminscent of “The Drifting Classroom” (1987), with its children lost in time and space, but here the actual mechanics of what is happening are more fairy-tale than science-fiction. The characters are enjoyable, with believable dynamics amongst the familiar stereotypes and entertaining conversations. This is helped by great voice acting, leaning into their exuberant, youthful joie de vivre. There is plenty of action too, with the computer-enhanced animation allowing for some amazing moments, such as the children climbing up the side of the building or ziplining across to a new rooftop, turning the commonplace structures into stone pirate ships. The incredible animation is bolstered by sound design that draws the audience into this world of pattering rain and crashing waves; and the score by Umitaro Abe is suitably epic, not shying away from the raw emotionality demanded by the story.

The film’s simplistic plot belies a depth of emotion and complexity in the interpersonal relationships between the characters. The reason for Kosuke and Natsume becoming friends, involving problems at home, and their falling out following Yasuji’s death, are both difficult issues for a children’s film to tackle, but are handled delicately. Running throughout the film is a melancholic atmosphere that is perhaps more likely to speak to an older audience. Noppo’s character, it is revealed partway through, is an anthropomorphic manifestation of the abandoned, condemned, building; one who yearns to be reunited with his former inhabitents, whose laughter made the building what it was. Perhaps the most tragic character in the story, there will be no salvation for Noppo, only resignation to his inevitable fate. The film asks us to contemplate what the places we are familiar with mean to us, do they posess a spirit or anima, that makes them more than simply a stage for our own lives. Noppo’s impending fate also symbolises for the characters their own loss of innocence and childhood’s inevitable end. As they move on with their lives, they are reminded of the importance of places that they know, and the very concept of ‘home’. “Drifting Home” manages to weave together a fun, action-packed story, with themes of environmental awareness and growing up.

Blind Beast (1969) by Yasuzo Masumura

A kidnapping victim begins to sympathise with her captor in this tale of moral degeneracy and sado-masochistic lust. Aki Shima (Mako Midori) is a model who has recently found fame as the subject of an exhibition of erotic photography and sculpture by a famous artist. While visiting the gallery she sees a blind man running his hands over the statue of her, an eerie sight that causes to her to flee. She is later abducted by this man, Michio (Eiji Funakoshi) and his mother (Noriko Sengoku), and taken to a remote warehouse. This warehouse is Michio’s studio, where he sculpts body parts. Born without sight, he intends to use Aki as a model for a new work of art, one born of the sense of touch. After a few failed escape attempts, Aki finally gives in to Michio and the two later begin a sado-masochistic physical relationship that grows increasingly violent as they attempt to push the boundaries of pleasure and pain.

Based on a story by the master of skin-crawling horror Edogawa Rampo, “Blind Beast” is a film that confronts the audience with a creepy, and subtly terrifying scenario. When we see Michio caressing the statue, and later Aki herself, there is something unseemly about it, making real the metaphorical objectification of the female form. The story is pared back to provide a simple yet effective horror tale, featuring only three actors and largely taking place in the same large warehouse studio. Mako Midori’s Aki Shima is a sympathetic heroine, making attempts to flee, wilful and yet drawn irresistably into the moral void of Micho’s world. Eiji Funakoshi is a sinister villain, playing the unassuming psychopath role with unnerving charm. The main setting of the film, the warehouse-cum-studio is an almost fantastical space, the walls hung with large sculpted noses, eyes, and limbs, and the floor taken up with a giant model of a naked woman. This focus on the body and human form makes us aware of every itch and tingle, every spine-chilling or toe-curling moment emphasised by the fact we are trapped in Michio’s world of physical touch. This is helped by the excellent direction of Yasuzo Masumura, utilising shifts into deep black to depict both Michio’s blindness and depravity. Hikaru Hayashi’s score is features strangely romantic melodies that make us question what is happening between the protagonists as they sink into debauchery and violence. “Blind Beast” avoids graphic depictions of what is happening, cutting away from the worst moments, while at the same time blending the emotional and the physical to the extent that the audience has no choice but to feel each cut as they begin their journey of sado-masochistic excess.

Michio is a typical horror villain, sexual repression leading to deviancy, his Oedipal relationship with his mother, and apparently preternatural abilities to hunt his quarry by smell and sound. However, Michio can also be seen as a stand-in for male lust and moral degeneracy in general. His single minded pursuit of Aki, his attempts to capture her and reproduce her form, to contain her, provide metaphorical potential for those looking to draw societal messages from the film. Likewise, Aki is a symbol of female emancipation, turning her body to her own financial gain, strong-willed, independent, and cautious, she is far from a helpless heroine. In its final third the film begins to delve into far more Freudian territory, moving fully away from a sense of realism as Aki loses her sight and becomes a counterpart to Michio, engaging in acts of hedonistic abandon and mutual destruction. “Blind Beast” questions human desire and posits an inevitable tendency towards violence and death, drawing out timeless themes of Eros and Thanatos in a film that creates a powerful atmosphere through stunning acting and direction. There is something mythological about the horrifying finale that will stay with you long after the film is over.

The Master Plan (2021) by Yuichi Sato

Makoto (Mackenyu Arata) and Kida (Takanori Iwata) are childhood friends, both orphans they have grown up with only each other for support. While still at school the two are joined by a third orphan, transfer student Yocchi (Anna Yamada). These three inseperable companions grow up together, with their feelings of friendship blossoming into romance. Years later, Makoto and Kida are working at a car repair shop when model Lisa (Anne Nakamura), the daughter of a prominent politician, arrives after having been involved in an accident. Makoto sets his sights on Lisa and spends years trying to get close to her. Meanwhile, Kida joins a shady organisation as a euphamistically labeled ‘negotiator’. As Makoto’s feelings develop for Lisa, Kida and Makoto’s relationship grow more complex as secrets from their past still linger between the two.

Based on the novel by kaoru Yukinari, “The Master Plan” is a thriller that relies heavily on a non-chronological structure to keep its secrets. Unfortunately, the plot is wound so tightly that when the revelation finally arrives it is the only possible answer to what has preceded. This mystery also leaves little time for serious character development or anything outside setting up the dominoes ready to knock them down in the final half hour. This finale also moves so far away from the realms of realism that it undermines some of the more interesting character work that has come before. There are certainly some positives in the film. The scenes with the three friends are charming, with the Arata, Iwata and Yamada having a believable chemistry and some great moments together. Their relationship is the heart of the film and they are sympathetic and enjoyable in their constant pranks and clear affection towards each other. The cinematography features some powerful moments, capturing the sense of youthful energy and anxieties about the future and director Yuichi Sato makes a stylish thriller, perfectly drawing out the tension between the players and the mystery lurking beneath the story. Naoki Sato’s score mirrors this sense of unease and hidden secrets.

While the film’s convoluted plot, featuring some inexplicable decisions, undeniably detracts from the emotional impact of the finale, the film does feature some fantastic, if disjointed, moments. Yocchi’s fear of being forgotten is one of the most affecting sentiments expressed throughout, and the film’s use of a back-and-forth approach to storytelling, moving between their childhood memories and the present, reflects this idea of a permanent connection with the past. The use of the crossroads, which play an important part in the story, as a metaphor for this juncture between past and present, where memory drifts like morning mist, is subtle yet effective. All three children are orphans, which makes their links to one another more important, being surrogate siblings and family for one another. “The Master Plan” is a film in which these interesting characters are unfortunately trapped in a tawdry thriller, with more interesting themes of family and memory ignored in favour of a second-rate mystery.