Noriko’s Dinner Table (2005) by Sion Sono

17-year old Noriko Shimabara (Kazue Fukiishi) lives at home with her father Tetsuzo (Ken Mitsuishi), her mother Taeko (Sanae Miyata), and her younger sister, Yuka (Yuriko Yoshitaka). Bored of life in their rural hometown of Tokoyama, Noriko leaves travels to Tokyo to meet another young woman she met online. This woman is Kumiko (Tsugumi), who runs a “family rental” business, where people who have lost loved ones can hire them to act as their family on a short or long term basis. Noriko is followed by her younger sister Yuka, both of them taking on aliases, Mitsuko and Yoko. After the death of his wife, their father, Tetsuzo, begins to investigate their whereabouts, at first believing this to be connected to the mysterious “Suicide Club” cult that is growing in notoriety following the mass suicide of a group of schoolgirls at Shinjuku Station.

Written and directed by Sion Sono, this film takes place in the same timeframe as his earlier film “Suicide Club”, and is linked tangentially through subtle nods and more explicit references. While there is some overlap in the themes of the two films, “Noriko’s Dinner Table” is vastly different in tone. The film is divided in to chapters, each giving a perspective of a different character, and there are long stretches of narration further heightening the novelistic style. This helps keep the film feeling fresh over a two and a half hour runtime, as we switch back and forth between different characters, their actions and thoughts. Tomoki Hasegawa again provides a score that is melodic and contemplative. At heart the film is a coming-of-age story, about a young woman striving for her freedom and a sense of individuality and personality. Kazue Fukishii gives an outstanding performance in role of Noriko, feeling trapped by her small home town and discovering her confidence in the persona of Mitsuko. Tsugumi’s Kumiko is a disturbing example of a woman entirely detached from those around her, lacking any human connection. Ken Mitsushi’s Tetsuzo has perhaps the most upsetting chapter (in a strong field), as a father who has lost both his daughters and his wife through his obliviousness to their needs and feelings. His work as a reporter is a cruel irony as he struggles to uncover the reason behind his children’s disappearances, apparently unaware of what is happening to his family.

“Noriko’s Dinner Table” is a film about finding your identity and learning how to relate to others, with the unusual “family rental” company being a great way to explore this. It allows for a discussion of family relations as a form of acting, or as something transactional. This alienation from the direct family, with characters only playing the part of daughters or wives, allows them to better understand what is required of them and also what their own desires are. As with “Suicide Club” there are a number of strong visual metaphors employed, such as the snapping off of a thread on a coat to symbolise a break from family control or a fresh start. Philosophical discussions about the importance of  reciprocity in human relations, again abstracted to a discussion about “flowers” and vases”; about life as a circle; and about the imperfect nature of life; are handled well leaving enough nuance and subtlety for interpretation. This notion of life as an imperfect, ever changing, is what the film captures beautifully, by not attempting to give any moral message; but instead portraying a dysfunctional family and flawed characters, and asking the audience to consider human relationships in all their complexity. For all its bizarre moments and brief flashes of violence, “Noriko’s Dinner Table” is a relatable story of the timeless adolescent desire to strike out and make your own way in life, on the way discovering who you are and what is important to you.

Suicide Club (2001) by Sion Sono

When a group of fifty-four high school girls unexpectedly throw themselves off a platform at Shinjuku station into the path of an oncoming train, detectives are called on to investigate. Kuroda (Ryo Ishibashi), the detective leading the operation is baffled by these apparently senseless deaths. The main theory appears to be the existence of a suicide cult that young people are mysteriously drawn to. The detectives are then contacted by a hacker calling herself The Bat (Yoko Kamon), who tells them there is a website where they can see red and white circles symbolising men and women who have died. Disturbingly, the dots appear before the suicides. The detectives also discover pieces of skin from the victims, sewn together and wrapped up in long roll. As the suicides show no sign of decreasing, the police face a race against time to uncover the cause. Characters soon uncover  more worrying connections: with a violent underground group led by a man calling himself Genesis (Rolly), and a quintuplet of pre-teen pop idols named Dessert.

Writer-director Sion Sono presents a pitch-black satire about the state of modern society, with elements of graphic horror, police mystery and social commentary. Viewers should be advised that the film is incredibly gory in parts, with liberal use of blood, a macabre plot-point involving a roll of strips of flesh cut from victims, suggestions of animal cruelty, and visceral, grotesque scenes that will stay with you for a long time. While this extreme approach undoubtedly contains an element of childish glee in seeing how many disgusting and bloody scenarios you can show on screen, they are rarely needless. The gut-churning horror is done with the intent to provoke not only a physical but an emotional response, to shock a jaded public into understanding the severity of suicide (something which is often in danger of being trivialised both in society and media). There is no quiet end for these characters, who explode in fountains of gore, while onlookers scream in impotent terror. The film really has one major goal, to satirise a culture that prides itself on collectivism, and following the crowd, that has become hypnotised by banal and childish entertainment to the neglect of thought and individuality. The film manages to step neatly from graphic violence to more emotionally charged scenes where characters are struck with the realisation that they may be partly or wholly to blame for the horror of their situation. In particular, Ryo Ishibashi does a fantastic job of a complex character. The film also has its surreal moments, such as the gang of sadists who perform an impromtu musical number in their underground bowling alley hideout, or the spine-chilling voice of the youngster who calls the detectives to berate them following another death. The film slides easily between its various tones and while it may seem at first to be an exploitative gore-fest, it is actually surprisingly compassionate in its portrayal of suicide. The black humour is largely reserved in the build-up to the deaths, and seems to be mocking not only the commercialised society that alienates people from themselves and others (the film’s main target); but also ridiculing the simplistic explanations put forward by the police. The score by Tomoki Hasegawa helps in establishing a tone that is able to keep up with the film’s shifting tones, and often keys the audience into when the film is being sincere or playful.

The film is intended as a message to the audience to wake up and live your life, rather than following the herd. The film is about discovering your individuality and bemoaning the collectivism that leads to depression and suicide. The film’s commentary on the problem of suicide is wide-ranging and there are many subtle moments that may be missed in a first viewing. This include notions of childhood and adolescence. The pop idol group “Dessert” who play a pivotal role have an average age of 12.5, putting them at the beginning of puberty. While the first group we see commit mass suicide are just slightly older females, suggesting that the film is also taking a swipe at the problems and pressures that can assail young people, especially girls at that age. When the character of Mitsuko arrives at the theatre at the end to be questioned by an audience of children, the film again seems to be hinting at some disconnect between the adult world, with its responsibilities and conditions, and the world the children inhabit, which is free of such things. “Suicide Club” is a film with a bold message, that revels in provoking and pricking the conscience of the audience.

Confessions of a Dog (2006) by Gen Takahashi

Takeda (Shun Sugata) is promoted from a lowly beat officer to the investigations department. While the money is good, helping to support his pregnant wife (Harumi Inoue), he soon discovers that corruption is rife in the force, with the police taking a cut from Yakuza drug deals. On the orders of his superiors he carries out his duty diligently, the line between right and wrong slowly vanishing from sight. When a new recruit, Roppo, starts at Takeda’s old police job he is shown the ropes by two older patrolmen, who give him an insight into how they operate and the various scams they perpetrate with immunity. After a run in with the police in which he is beaten up for prying in their business, a bar owner, Kusama (Junichi Kawamoto), and his photo journalist friend, Kitamura (Kunihiko Ida), set out to expose the corruption in the police force that goes right to the top.

Gen Takahashi’s film is a cross between a morality play and an investigative documentary. While the characters and plot are fictional, there is a chilling ring of truth to everything. The inspiration for the story came from Takahashi’s friend, journalist Yu Terasawa, who has worked on uncovering police corruption. The low-level officers are shown to be violent and horny, abusing their position to commit assault and even rape. The conspiracy of silence surrounding them allows them to act without fear of reprisal. The detectives are no less reprehensible, although more organized in their lawbreaking, with everything from entrapment, witness intimidation, drug use, frequenting prostitutes, protection rackets and bribery on display. The film is unrelenting in its depiction of the police as a force for evil in society, with not a single redeemable character among them. Shun Sugata’s performance as Takeda perfectly captures the fall of an honest, gentle man into his role as just another cog in the corrupt machinery of the state. His monologue at the end is spine-chilling as he tears apart the thin veil of respectability to show the police for what they truly are. Although the script is heavy in detail, with Takahashi clearly wanting to get across as much as possible about all the various ways the police are corrupt, it does a decent job of weaving it into a cohesive narrative. It never comes across as a lecture on the evils of the police. Takeda’s wife and daughter offer further emotional weight to the drama, being emblematic of the life he is leaving behind when he becomes further involved with the scandals that are unfolding. “Confessions of a Dog” features some standout direction, at times like a police procedural, at others using theatrical techniques with lighting changes and monologues to make a strong point.

Police corruption is a serious issue and one that citizens should rightly be aware of given the trust that is placed in them. The film is all the more shocking for the realistic way in which it portrays police corruption from the lowest to the highest levels. Most crime films exaggerate to the point that they are hard to believe, but nothing that is shown here seems unbelievable. The film comments on the nature of this corruption as something that is inseparable from the police force, with the hierarchical structure and solidarity amongst officers engendering these behaviours. There are echoes of fascism in the idea that officers are ‘only following orders’ from their superiors. It blames a supine press, essentially repeating official statements to a largely oblivious public for the problem; offering a faint hope that people could be better informed and take action to prevent these things happening. An epic police drama that meticulously details corruption in the force, while at the same time telling a heart-breaking personal story about how such organizations can turn even good natured individuals into unquestioning servants of a damaging system.

Mother (2020) by Tatsushi Omori

A destructive mother-son relationship is put under the microscope in this shocking drama. Akiko (Masami Nagasawa) drags her son Shuhei (Sho Gunji/Daiken Okudaira) around with her, using him to garner sympathy with family to extort money from them. Shuhei bears his mother’s unpleasant attitude, carrying out her orders without complaint. When Akiko falls into a relationship with an equally unlikeable host, Ryo (Sadao Abe), Shuhei’s life gets even more difficult. Ignored and abandoned by his mother, he is forced to fend for himself. His mother and Ryo later return without a word of apology; but their relationship also goes off the rails when Akiko reveals she is pregnant. As the years go by, Akiko seems incapable of changing or showing any kind of affection towards her children. When they are found sleeping rough, they are approached by a charity working with homeless and impoverished individuals which may offer Shuhei an escape from his tragic life.

Written by director Tatsushi Omori with Takehiko Minato, “Mother” is confrontational and shocking in its unflinching portrayal of Akiko and Shuhei’s relationship. Akiko is a deeply unpleasant and unredeemable character, an abusive and negligent mother, and her treatment of Shuhei is often difficult to watch. Masami Nagasawa delivers a breathtaking performance as Akiko, both repulsive yet compelling at the same time. The character arrives fully formed and we are given no more than faint hints of the cause of her behaviour. It would be almost impossible to sympathise with this character, but Nagasawa makes the character understandable if you pay close attention to certain conversations, mannerisms, and actions throughout. There are definite indications of mental health issues, a selfishness and desire for attention driving her behaviours, along with a paradoxical protectiveness of her children despite her own exploitation of them. Shuhei is portrayed by Sho Gunji and Daiken Okudaira, who both do an incredible job as a child growing up without a positive role model, lacking in confidence, who is nevertheless devoted to his mother. The film’s unrelenting portrayal of a truly horrific experience for Shuhei is its strength as it offers no easy answers, but instead challenges the viewer with a situation that is sadly based firmly in fact. The script builds on each tragedy, piling horror upon horror for Shuhei as Akiko moves from one mistake to the next. Tatsushi Omori’s direction brings us in to the heart of the action with a gritty realism. It also allows the film’s themes space to percolate, with powerful lingering shots on specific moments that stand out as turning points in the relationship between Akiko and Shuhei.

“Mother” is a film that shuns sentimentality to deliver a dark story of parental abuse. While it takes its story to extremes, the most shocking realisation is that the relationship depicted is far from uncommon. It explores the significance of a mother-son relationship and the damaging effects of negligent and exploitative parents. It raises questions about Akiko’s past: Shuhei’s lack of a father, her relationship with her own parents and sister, and what factors might have contributed to her behaviour and amoral outlook on life. Akiko is both victim and abuser, caught in a cycle of neglect and passing on her traumas to her children. However, none of these things excuse or ameliorate her actions. In the selfless characters of the charity worker (Kaho) the film does offer some hope of a better future for children who are otherwise failed by their parents and a largely uncaring system. The importance of education and housing for children who are struggling, and help for people suffering mental health issues. A distressing yet worthwhile film that puts uncomfortable issues into the spotlight.

Ichi (2008) by Fumihiko Sori

Haruka Ayase stars in this female-led reimagining of the famous tale of a wandering blind swordsman. The film begins with a brief backstory of “Ichi” (Ayase), a blind woman who is part of a group of Goze (travelling musicians). She is ostracised and expelled from the group for having lain with a man. She sets out to find her tutor, a blind swordsman. She meets a man, Toma (Takao Osawa), a samurai who seems to be completely hopeless with his sword. When the two of them are attacked by bandits, Ichi quickly dispatches them. Believing it was Toma, the Yakuza running the town, led by Toraji Shirakawa (Yosuke Kubozuka) decide to hire him as a bodyguard to help with their struggles against the nearby bandits led by Banki (Shido Nakamura). Still with hopes of finding her master, Ichi remains with Toma as the two prepare for a showdown with these violent outcasts.

The story of Zatoichi, the blind swordsman, has been told many times in film, and it is a tale that requires very few elements to be effective. Haruka Ayase gives a great performance in the lead role, both fearsome yet fragile. We learn about her backstory, the rape that she suffered and her expulsion from the group of goze, her struggles to form relationships with people and her quest to find a purpose in her life. She is also looking for a reason for the bloodshed and killing she seems incapable of escaping. Osawa’s Toma is likewise a troubled individual, battling his own demons that prevent him from becoming a great swordsman and living up to his father’s expectations of him. The film’s main weakness is that it spends little time on these interesting character aspects and instead forces the characters into less engaging conflicts with the villains. Shido Nakamura is clearly enjoying himself, gleefully hamming it up as Banki, alongside Riki Takeuchi as his chief henchman. Their cartoonish performances feel slightly out of place with the more moving scenes between Ichi and Toma. Where the action is concerned the film does an excellent job of portraying the elegance and fatal effectiveness of Ichi’s technique. There are several standout moments when it comes to the choreography, such as the attack on the village by bandits and Ichi’s showdown with them. Unfortunately, there is often a lack of realism in the film, which jars with its earnest attempts to garner sympathy for the characters. The costumes and sets are well designed, and thought has been put into them, but they are often so pristine looking and a lack of extras is to the film’s detriment when it comes to believability.

In trying to deliver both an energetic action film and a more character-driven drama, “Ichi” just misses the mark on both. The film’s central themes are those of discovering your purpose and understanding the value of human life. In a film that sees so many unceremoniously cut down it is an odd message to attempt to deliver. Ichi is a woman who is unable to see right from wrong as she puts it, having rejected notions of morality through her own harrowing experiences. She is desperately searching for guidance, exemplified in her quest to find her former master, and someone to show her the ‘light’ (to use the film’s own metaphor) out of her nihilistic impression of the world. The film is entertaining as a simple action tale, but it brushes too quickly over certain moments that would have leant some emotional depth and wastes a great performance from Haruka Ayase.