Bloody Chainsaw Girl (2016) by Hiroki Yamaguchi

Rio Uchida stars as a chainsaw-wielding teenage delinquent in this slice of silly splatter comedy. Giko Nokomura (Uchida) is a rebellious high-schooler, who inexplicably totes around a chainsaw (telling her teachers it’s due to her family’s construction business). On her way to school to take a make-up test she is waylaid by a group of classmates who have been transformed into cyborgs by Nero Aoi (Mari Yamachi), a troubled fellow student. Amongst them is Sayuri Bakutani (Seira Sato), whose post-human upgrades include the ability to fire rockets from her crotch. As well as these cyborg students, Giko also has to deal with members of the ninja club, led by Hanzo (Yuki Tamaki), a transgender student whose ninja skills are also bolstered by Nero’s experimental cyborgization.

“Bloody Chainsaw Girl” is a tongue-in-cheek splatter comedy, fully aware of its own ridiculousness. Director Hiroki Yamaguchi includes everything that you might expect from the genre: low budget special effects, unnecessary upskirt angles and unexpected nudity, hyper-energetic performances, gory dismemberments, and plot-holes galore. The film’s humour does provide a few puerile laughs and gets by on the sheer audacity of the film-maker’s intentions. Much of what happens seems like an attempt to test out various special-effects, utilising CG and practical effects, with the flimsiest of plots stringing these things together. The film is based on the manga by Rei Mikamoto, and the direction shows this influence in its unrestrained use of dutch-angles and frantic camerawork, as well as the music video-like credits sequence that is straight out of an anime. The score by Masahiko Horikura is emotional and solid. As with the direction, it shows a competence that sometimes seems wasted on this particular story. The film makes great use of its locations. Although the abandoned school and rooftop are staples of the low-budget genre, the underground industrial facility makes a superb villain’s lair.

The cast do a great job with their characters, treating them with largely undeserved reverence. Uchida’s Giko is a no-nonsense, unwilling heroine, more concerned with the results of her test than the bizarre cyborg invasion happening around her; while Mari Yamachi goes all-out super-villain with her over-the-top performances as Nero. At around 80-minutes, the film gets straight into the action and is a clear run to the final showdown. An entertaining splatter film that leans into its silliness. There is a message here, about how loners can choose between two paths, of revenge or acceptance of who they are, as well as references to sexism and bullying; but to be honest the plot and themes are largely iirrelevant. Simply switch off your brain and enjoy the gory spectacle of a high-school girl tearing through cyborgs with a chainsaw.

Masked Ward (2020) by Hisashi Kimura

Junior doctor Hayami (Kentaro Sakaguchi) is brought in by his senior Kosakai (Ryohei Otani) for a night-shift at a former psychiatric hospital, vestiges of which include the disused and padlocked operating theatre and iron bars that can be used to close off the upper floors, making them inaccessible other than via the elevator. Hayami is met by nurses Higashino (Noriko Eguchi) and Sasaki (Rio Uchida) and doctor Tadokoro (Masanobu Takashima). Not long into his shift a man in a clown mask who recently held up a convenience store arrives with his hostage, a woman named Hitomi Kawasaki (Mei Nagano). Hayami’s night is made worse through macabre discoveries about the goings-on at this hospital and his own feelings of guilt about the recent death of his girlfriend Yoko (Izumi Fujimoto), Kosakai’s sister.

If it sounds like a convoluted plot, that is part of the appeal of this unsettling thriller. Based on a novel by Mikito Chinen, who worked on the screenplay alongside director Hisashi Kimura, “Masked Ward” traps a small cast of characters in the environs of the hospital and maintains the tension by steadily revealing a series of dark secrets that piece together in horrifying ways. Many of these mysteries and disparate elements seem irrelevant or incompatible until the end when they are drawn together. The film spends a lot of time setting up this complex plot and struggles to give its characters significant depth. Hayami and Kawasaki’s relationship is developed through shared experiences of trauma and Kentaro Sakaguchi and Mei Nagano give solid performances as people trapped in a difficult situation. The film plays with chronology, beginning with a single unseen survivor from the events that go on to form the majority of the plot. This sets up a tense atmosphere as you know early on not everyone will get out of the hospital alive. It also works to throw you off the scent, offering unreliable information that the audience must attempt to sift through. The script and direction work to keep this sense of mystery, and the film is at its best when the characters are confined to the hospital, with fear and suspicion ever present. The film occasionally utilises unecessary flashbacks that often add little to the plot, for example in showing the audience what has happened previously after a character has just explained the same thing. This tendency to show too much also applies to the crash sequence depicting the accident that led to Yoko’s death, which would have been more impactful with suggestive editing rather than showing what is a fairly underwhelming stunt.

For the most part “Masked Ward“is a solid pared back thriller, setting up a small cast in a single location with the viewers anxious to see who will survive the night. Later the film transitions into a morality tale about unscrupulous medical practices and revenge. The need to maintain the mystery early on means that many of the themes remain obscure for a long time which leaves the third act feeling like a different part of the story. Hayami’s guilt over Yoko’s death is largely abandoned in favour of Kawasaki’s story, which is interesting, but again suffers from a sudden shift in tone. The film may have been better focussing on the hosipital and treatment of patients early on to let the audience in on the secret prior to it becoming the central focus. The film works well as a tense crime thriller, with the fugitive armed-robber and his hostage holing up in the hospital; and the third act moral drama about what has been happening at the hospital is also interesting, but somewhat hamstrung by the film having that mystery element and inability to tell the audience that that is where we are heading. The film moves at a fast pace, with lots of great reveals, but feels a little disjointed, both in the script and editing, perhaps suffering slightly under the amount of plot threads and ideas it attempts to bring together.

No Longer Human (2019) by Mika Ninagawa

A dramatization of the later life of Osamu Dazai, acclaimed author of works such as “The Setting Sun” and “No Longer Human”. The film introduces us to Dazai (Shun Oguri) as he is enjoying mass success after publication of his recent novel. While the literary community showers him with praise, his personal life is far from perfect. As well as a predilection for alcohol, Dazai is also a serial womanizer despite being married with children. Dazai continues to live a life of excess, seemingly unable to restrain his worst impulses, later struggling with a serious illness that, along with his reckless behaviour, threatens to bring his life to an end prematurely before he is able to finish his masterwork “No Longer Human”.

Mika Ninagawa’s film is a lavish, colourful affair, with an almost fairytale aesthetic. The bright costumes and high-contrast sets bringing to the fore a sense of energy, passion and creativity that surround Dazai. There is an expectation here that the audience knows something of Osamu Dazai, with characters referencing his works, in particular an almost prophetic fixation by some encouraging him to complete “No Longer Human”. For those unfamiliar with the status of Dazai in Japan’s literary pantheon, the film can be a difficult watch as he seems to have few redeeming qualities; he is arrogant, antagonistic and unfaithful. Dazai has a deep loathing for Japanese societal norms, often railing against it in public and through his work that intends to tear down the traditional in favour of supplanting it with the emerging style he himself is helping to create. Fortunately, the film spends as much time on the women in his life as Dazai himself, with his wife and lovers being central to the story. Ninagawa’s use of colour may also suggest that these are in fact the more interesting characters, their hope and passion shining bright against the author’s nihilistic, moral vacuum. We often see them dressed in bright colours, as opposed to Dazai’s dark, patternless clothes. It is these women that seem to provide inspiration to him and direct his behaviours. A stellar cast includes Shun Oguri, Erika Sawajiri, Fumi Nikaido, and Rie Miyazawa, as well as a scenery chewing cameo from Tatsuya Fujiwara. Ninagawa’s direction is theatrical, using bold colour palettes to create sets that lean more towards fantastical romance than gritty realism. One all-out fantasy sequence later in the film, in which Dazai’s room drifts away as he is left alone with his work is a powerful visual that remains in keeping with the slightly larger than life presentation. Likewise, the melodramatic score by Jun Miyake is reminiscent of timeless romances, with a grandiose elegance to them that captures perhaps the myth of Dazai more than the reality.

It is this discrepancy between the man and the myth that lies at the heart of the film. Dazai is a respected author despite his numerous personal failings. Later in the film, in the fantasy sequence aforementioned and an earlier scene in which he almost succumbs to his illness, it becomes clear that Dazai is little more than his writing. He is, in essence, what other people have made him. He remains an enigma, with his works being the only key to his real personality. His egocentrism is a product of friends and lovers heaping praise on him and he is trapped in the role of ‘literary genius’, unable to reconcile it with his own behaviour. It often seems that it is his wife and lovers are the ones who are truly experiencing life, while for Dazai ‘life’ remains only something to put into his work. He lives in a mechanical way, with everything he does or experiences serving his art. An interesting look at this historical figure, whose works have gone on to great acclaim, that also investigates the role of women and Dazai’s treatment of them at this time.

It’s a Summer Film! (2020) by Soshi Matsumoto

Uninmpressed with her school film club’s current project, a saccharine romance, ‘Barefoot’ (Marika Ito) along with her friends ‘Kickboard’ (Yumi Kawai) and ‘Blue Hawaii’ (Kurara Inori) sets out to make her own passion project, a samurai film inspired by classic black and white movies. She manages to recruit a motley crew for sound and lighting, and finds the perfect lead in the shape of the mysterious Rintaro (Daichi Kaneko), who suddenly appears in her life. As they are making their film, competing with rival Karin’s (Mahiru Koda) romantic drama, they discover that there may be more at stake than the film premiere at the upcoming school festival.

Directed by Soshi Matsumoto, with a screenplay by Matsumoto and Naoyuki Miura, “It’s a Summer Film!” is a charming love-letter to classic historical cinema with a meta twist. ‘Barefoot’ is an engaging protagonist, and Marika Ito’s energetic and expressive performance is enjoyable. She plays a typical outsider hero, with her interest in historical epics, short-cropped hair, and passion for cinema marking her out as a geek, in contrast with Mahiro Koda’s mainstream heroine Karin. There is great chemistry with the trio of ‘Barefoot’ and her friends, ‘Kickboard’, a member of the astronomy club, and kendo-club member ‘Blue Hawaii’. All three of them represent slightly unusual hobbies that bind them together. The story’s meta-element is not explicit, but the film itself follows many tropes of the teen romantic comedy: a rivalry with a more popular student; the outsider heroes; the third act declaration of love. There is certainly an irony that ‘Barefoot’ is attempting to make a samurai epic, but finds herself entangled in a romantic comedy in her relationship with Rintaro. Early in the film ‘Kickboard’ mentions making a science-fiction film and this element also finds it’s way into “It’s a Summer Film!” with the inclusion of a time-travel sub-plot, that functions to distinguish the film from other ‘film-making’ comedies. Most of the humour comes from the difficulty of making a film and the uncharacterstic, but inspiring, interest in high-quality samurai dramas over cheap romances of the lead characters.

“It’s a Summer Film!” is a lot of fun for people who love cinema. It’s subtle self-referential style, including a joke about one of the “students” looking like a 30-year old man, who they nickname ‘Daddy-Boy’, is entertaining without having to force the humour. The time-travel element is likely to split audiences, but works in the context of the meta-narrative, of a self-aware ‘summer film’ that falls into many of the same narrative cliches that they are simultaneously critiquing. ‘Barefoot’ discovers in the future that films are only 5-seconds long, and that there are no longer cinemas. This is probably the film’s most unsubtle criticism of modern trends in film-making, audiences’ dwindling attention spans and the preponderence of people consuming media on mobile phones in short bursts. Although “It’s a Summer Film!” hits all the notes of a typical high-school romantic-comedy, its charm and self-awareness make it supremely watchable. The likeable cast and light-touch comedy are comfortable and remind people of the enjoyment of watching films and the power of cinema to take you on a journey.

Intolerance (2021) by Keisuke Yoshida

A father comes to terms with his daughter’s accidental death in this powerful examination of grief. When Kanon (Aoi Ito) is caught shoplifting at a local supermarket, she is chased down the street by the owner-manager Naoto (Tori Matsuzaka). After dashing out into the road Kanon is hit by a car and then a truck, killing her instantly. Kanon’s father Mitsuru (Arata Furuta) blames Naoto for his daughter’s death, believing rumours that he has a predilection for young girls and may have interfered with Kanon. Separated from his wife, Shoko (Tomoko Tabata), Kanon’s mother, Mitsuru has little support aside from his young co-worker. Naoto is supported through the difficult aftermath and public scruitiny by one of his colleagues Asako (Shinobu Terajima), who refuses to believe he is responsible.

“Intolerance”, written and directed by Keisuke Yoshida, is a rumination on the grieving process. The scene of Kanon’s death is depicted brutally and shockingly, although not overly graphic the audience experiences the sudden violence of the acccident. We are shown little before the accident, other than her uncomfortable relationship with her overbearing father. Mitsuru is a stern disciplinarian who has little interest in his daughter’s life before her sudden death. What unfolds after the action is a heart-wrenching portrayal of parental loss. Arata Furuta gives an astounding performance as Mitsuru, driven by anger against those he believes are responsible mixed with his own sense of regret that he showed little affection for his daughter when she was alive. A complex character, far from a perfect father-figure, he seems to want to make amends for past failures by lashing out at the world and placing the blame on others. Tori Matsuzaka’s Naoto is also overcome by a deep sense of shame, realising that he is in part responsible for the death and perhaps regretting his actions. “Intolerance” is shot in a down-to-earth, everyday style, with the supermarket and streets of the fishing town where it is set depicted without embellishment. It is a perfectly ordinary place, with ordinary people experiencing a tragic and extraordinary event in the death of this schoolgirl, showing the impact of this loss on those connected with Kanon.

As well as the utter despair and impotence that Mitsuru feels the film also touches on how such incidents are often manipulated by the media and how people who are not involved can effect public perception. Shortly after the accident the media descend on Naoto’s supermarket and Mitsuru’s home asking for interviews. And we see in short newsroom sequences, and social media, the public rapidly develop their own assessments of those involved and what happened free of facts or first-hand knowledge of these people or the emotional turmoil they are going through. The death of Kanon finally provokes Mitsuru to take an interest in his daughter’s life, interrogating her teachers about bullying concerns, accusing Naoto of lying about her shoplifting, and even reacting harshly to his ex-wife’s attempts to calm him. Mitsuru’s growing acceptance of what has happened and final feeling of connection with her is bitter-sweet as it comes with the realisation that he will never have a chance to express his affection for her. A touching film about loss and how its impact can change people.