Alice in Borderland Series 2 (2022)

Series 2 picks up right where we left off, with Arisu (Kento Yamazaki) and his new friends taking on the face card challenges in the hopes of finding their way out of the bizarre other world they are trapped in. Episode one begins with a burst of violence as the King of Spades guns people down mercilessly in a much-changed Shibuya, showing that nobody is safe. This proves to be true as the deaths pile up throughout the series, including several shocks. We see several more games this time around, all ultra-violent twists on old classics, such as a guessing game where the losers are doused in corrosive acid, or a high-octane game of tag that sees contestants running around a giant industrial structure. The large budget is evident on screen in the fantastic sets and special effects, particularly bringing to life an abandoned Tokyo overgrown with weeds, and the swooping, wide-angle shots that make the unreal seem believable. There are elements of disaster movie, action, romance, and science-fiction that are all underscored with the central emotional drama of the main cast. Most are returning characters, with the inclusion of newcomer Yuri Tsunematsu as a no-nonsense high-school girl. The central mystery is not unravelled until the final episode, and then with a couple of entertaining misdirections (referencing two other popular ‘death game’ series, “Kaiji” and “Gantz”). Wrapping things up is a big task and the solution may prove unsatisfactory for some viewers who were hoping for a different explanation as to what happened, but it does a solid job of bringing together the themes of the show in a way that feels fitting.

The ‘Death Game’ genre lives or dies on its characters. “Alice in Borderland” remains opaque enough throughout that viewers are free to interpret its message as they like. It works as a socio-political satire with the unseen forces of the world putting its citizens through a meat grinder. The arbitrariness of death, the senseless nature of the games, the unbeatable odds, all lend themselves to interpretation, either philosophical or political. The series’ intent is to shock its viewers into living life rather than losing hope. It shouts at us that we need to keep fighting, to keep trying, however hard or futile things seem, and that in the end the only thing that matters is life. Throughout Arisu is searching for an answer, a meaning to his life, or an explanation to this world, and the series continues to deny this to him, and by extension the audience. In the instance that the truth is revealed we are almost beyond the point where the answer has any meaning to us. Instead the underlying message of the series is that of human solidarity in the face of adversity, confronting our mortality, and the idea of simply living as an end in itself.

Ju-On Origins (2020)

Since its release “Ju-On” (Takashi Shimizu, 2001) has established itself as a classic horror, spawning sequels, remakes and a crossover with “Ring” (Sadako vs. Kiyoko, Koji Shiraishi, 2016). This mini-drama, six half-hour episodes, first takes us back to 1988. Yasuo Odajima (Yoshiyoshi Arakawa) is a paranormal investigator who is introduced to the story of the mysterious house by a co-presenter, Haruka Honjo (Yuina Kuroshima), whose partner recently visited the place while house hunting. Certain spirits that inhabit the house haunt many people who come into contact with it, often terrifying them to death or causing some violent or fatal misfortune. Around the same time a schoolgirl, Kiyomi (Ririka), is tricked by her classmates into visiting the house and there subjected to sexual abuse. The series then moves forward, to 1995 and 1998, as occurences at the house and in the lives of people connected with it become more gruesome and bizarre.

Written by Hiroshi Takahashi and Takashige Ichise, and directed by Sho Miyake, “Ju-On Origins” creates several interwoven stories that all converge on this same ill-fated residence. The short half-hour episodes and multiple narratives mean it is fast-paced, moving swiftly from one story to another, often more of a detective drama that straight horror. The mystery of what is happening in the house twinned with genuine concern for the characters makes it gripping from start to finish. For fans of the original films there is also interest in seeing these new characters and revisiting the cursed residence. The scares are a mixture of bloody body horror, more visceral and shocking than anything in the original films, and the more familiar creepy moments. These subtler moments are often more effective, creating an uncomfortable atmosphere from often simple things: mewling cats, ringing telephones, small details in the background. However, when it does go for more disturbingly graphic scares, it hits the mark, reinventing and exploring the more gruesome aspects of the “Ju-On” myth, including spousal and child murder, and sexual assault. The direction uses some of the techniques of the original film, off-kilter angles, holding on a scene until the audience realises there’s a figure in the background, but also features great use of light and colour, with scenes shifting from light to dark. There are more special effects involved in this series, which can be hit and miss, but are nevertheless audaciously extreme. The cast all do a great job in bringing the curse of the house to life, creating real characters in an unreal situation. In particular Yoshiyoshi Arakawa in a rare serious role, and Ririka whose complex character is one of the most intriguing.

One of the things that makes “Juon Origins” interesting is the meta reading of the film. In several episodes we hear or see news reports of real-life crimes and tragedies, two very high-profile murders, the Sarin Gas Attack, and the Kobe Earthquake. These add a disturbing aspect to the film, almost drawing horror from these true crimes into the narrative, providing an uncomfortable reminder that horror and evil exist in our own world. Odajima, one of the first characters we are introduced to and one whose story is intricately linked with the house, is asked on a number of occasions why he is writing a book on the paranormal; and this question could also be asked not only of this film, but horror films in general. The question of human fascination with evil, whether real-world or supernatural, is a pertinent one, especially considering the inclusion of the genuine stories mentioned above. The idea of the cursed house, spirits calling for revenge, unsatisfied rage, anger, despair, are things that are seen as resulting from the violence and abuse that took place there. In part, the series is not questioning the origin of this cursed house, but the origin of the film “Ju-On”, and indirectly all horror. That is, why do writers, artists, and film-makers, make disturbing works. It does not spring from some imagined fear, but from the horrors they see in the world. Whether this is a form of escapism or an attempt to explain our relationship with evil is up for debate. “Ju-On: Origins” is a series that takes it’s subject matter seriously, creating a potent dread that is as much to do with our own fears as the supernatural horror.

Psycho-Pass 2 (2014)

Investigator Akane Tsunemori (Kana Hanazawa) heads up division one as they take on a new challenge in the shape of a mysterious figure intent on tearing society apart. Following an incident in which a fellow detective, Mizue Shisui (Marina Inoue) is kidnapped and her Dominator used to kill an Enforcer, the team uncover the villain Kamui Kirito (Ryohei Kimura), a figure who is able to keep his Hue clear while committing horrendous acts and who is recruiting others to his cause to confront the Sibyl system that controls their society. Along with the other memebers of Division One, Tsunemori faces down a sadistic foe while attempting to maintain her own unblemished character.

The first series of “Psycho-Pass” introduced us to this futuristic society where people are judged based on the colour, or Hue, of their characters, criminality being determined by a collective intelligence AI known as Sibyl. “Psycho-Pass 2” jumps straight into the action, assuming a foreknowledge of Investigators, Enforcers, Dominators, Hues, the Sibyl System, Holograms, and Drones, that are commonplace in this world. Instead Investigator Tsunemori, now more worldly wise following the preceding events, is given a new case and an intriguing mystery in the shape of Kamui. The series builds this investigation through the series, expertly introducing new clues, and delivers a series of thrilling confrontations as things progress. The script draws in elements from criminalistics, referencing Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, and philosophy, with discussions on the Omnipotence Paradox, creating a show that is both entertaining and thought-provoking about both potential futures of crime prevention and our current thinking about criminality.

The noirish shadows and sharp suited investigators not only make for a stylish crime drama, but emphasise the disconnect between a world in which crime coefficients can be calculated, in black and white, but where anxieties around a more grey morality are ever present. The series blends elements of science-fiction and gothic horror, technological advancements such as holograms and drones sit alongside the often brutal explosions of gore and terrifying moments of cruelty. The story uses these elements, contrasting primeval violence with the supposedly civilising qualities of science and progress.

Many of the ideas in Psycho-Pass 2 are  carried over from the first series. The central question remains the legitimacy of the Sibyl system and its edicts on who is or is not a criminal. Again the show offers few easy answers. Despite the violence perpetrated by Kamui, there are also significant issues with the implementation of a system that applies numbers to people’s ‘criminality’. A second theme the series discusses is the notion of proxy criminality, taken to an extreme by having people unwittingly controlling deadly weapons while believing they are interacting with a harmless online game. This further highlights the problems with a society that judges only those directly involved with crime, ignoring those whose involvement is indirect, or who may unknowingly be causing harm. A fantastic follow up to the first series that delivers on all the elements that made it so enjoyable while introducing several new ideas an a complex central mystery.

The Naked Director Series 2 (2021)

Toru Muranishi (Takayuki Yamada) is on top of the world, with Sapphire Productions making money hand over fist, his staff and stars, including Rugby (Takenori Goto), Junko (Sairi Ito), Naoko (Ami Tomite), and manager Kawada (Tetsuji Tamayama), are all happy with how things are going. But Muranishi is dreaming bigger; after finding out about the new technology of satellite television he dreams of having his videos distributed to every home, seeing a vision of porn ‘raining down from the sky’. Meanwhile, Detective Takei (Lily Franky) is still playing both sides of the yakuza while unfortunate Toshi (Shinnosuke Mitsushima) acts as a lackey under boss Furuya (Jun Kunimura). Kaoru Kuroki (Misato Morita) is coming to terms with her fame as Japan’s premier adult actress and the company is taking on a slew of new talent.

“The Naked Director Series 2” has the same energy and outrageous comedy moments as the first series, but also delves more into the darker side of the industry. We see Muranishi’s arrogant, overbearing persona both in a positive and negative light as it wins him contracts, but alienates those around him. Most poignant are the stories of Kaoru Kuroki, and to a lesser extent Naoko, who are figuring out what it means to be a porn actress and whether they can ever leave the industry. New characters include Yuri Tsunematsu’s Miyuki, whose wide-eyed innocence hides a determination to succeed, but also finds that being a porn actress may not be as glamourous as it seems. The large and impressive ensemble cast, most returning from the first series, fully embody their characters, their quirks and personalities shining through even when they are only briefly on screen. While the series again mostly sticks with Muranishi’s story, there are plenty of moments for the rest of the cast to shine.

Series 2 is directed by Masaharu Take, lead director on the first series, and Kotaro Goto.  The show is stylish from start to finish with the camera becoming a part of the action and constant creativity on display. The series also features a couple of fantasy sequences which add a little comedy to things, with Muranishi floating in space to the strains of The Carpenter’s “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft”. The soundtrack throughout the series features some great tracks, often used ironically. The score is not always limited to songs of the 1990’s, but the songs are generally well-selected and give the series a youthful energy. The recreation of the time period through costumes and set-design is impressive, recreating the 1990’s with as much gusto as series one did the 1980’s, a nostalgic look back at a lost era of fashion.

Much of the series is about regret and making mistakes. Gone is the naivety of their early careers; the characters now fully enmeshed in the ‘business’ side of the porn industry. This sense of being jaded is highlighted perfectly by having the pornography often playing as background noise. Things which are there to excite the general public are mere wallpaper to the protagonists. As money worries, relationship issues, business deals, and more consume Muranishi and the other characters, the shimmer of the glamourous image of their business is peeled away to reveal a world as soul-crushing and difficult as any other. An incredible second act to the first series, this time around revealing many of the failings of the characters and the difficulties they go through to maintain their sense of self.

Demon Slayer (2019)

When Tanjiro Kamado’s (Natsuki Hanae) family are brutally murdered by a demon, he is set on a path to become a demon slayer, an elite of warriors tasked with protecting the world from these creatures.  His mission is complicated by his sister, Nezuko (Akari Kito), who has been transformed into a demon. Unlike most demons, Nezuko is able to restrain herself from devouring humans, and Tanjiro hopes that his journey may lead him to a cure for her eventually. The two are joined by fellow fighters, Zenitsu (Hiro Shimono), a boy constanly on the lookout for love, and Inosuke (Yoshitsugu Matsuoka), a reckless swordsman who wears a boar’s head mask. Together they take on various demons, in the hopes of one day catching up with their leader Kibutsuji (Toshihiko Seki).

Based on the manga by Koyoharu Gotouge, “Demon Slayer” follows in the tradition of stories such as “Dragonball” and “One Piece”, with it’s young male protagonists on a journey of self-discovery, battling monsters, and growing stronger with each encounter. From the off the story begins with several great hooks, the murder of Tanjiro’s family, a mystery surrounding his father, and his sister’s transformation, all of which beg for resolution. As with many fantasy shows there is a lot of world-building, with the various fighting styles, Blood Demon Arts, and mythology surrounding the demons and demon slayers. Each demon they encounter comes with a unique style of fighting, which helps keep the episodes fresh as more is uncovered about their abilities. There is an often unusual blend of tones and styles throughout, with the show shifting gears rapidly from the comedic eccentricities of Zenitsu and Inosuke, to the sombre and often poignant backstories of Tanjiro and many of the demonic characters. These more wacky moments work to lighten the tone, which would be relentlessly downbeat and disturbing if we only had the melancholic quest for revenge of our protagonist, but often seem aimed at a younger audience than the show would be suitable for. This is certainly not a show for children, with brutal fights that do not hold back on the blood and gore; decapitations and dismemberment are common occurances in the life of a demon slayer.

“Demon Slayer” is set in the Taisho period and does a good job of depicting the dress and lifestyle of the time. The art and animation, in keeping with the story, consists of several styles, with stunning backgrounds and weather effects, and more cartoonishly exagerated character moments. The character designs are very much in keeping with the manga style, large eyes and expressive features, and are used to give everything a sense of energy. Despite being packed with melodramatic moments (many characters are prone to wailing and howling in anguish), the show does manage to be genuinely moving. This is helped by the epic score by Yuki Kajiura and Go Shiina. Alongside the incredible animation, the soundtrack helps build a sense of scale and tension.

“Demon Slayer” is a film about light and dark, life and death. With the transformation of Nezuko early on in the show, we are left with a difficult moral choice (familiar to fans of zombie movies): she is a demon, a flesh-eating monster, but also family. Tanjiro believes in her absolutely and will do anything to protect her, while other demon slayers want to destroy her. Throughout the show we are presented with this kind of moral dilemma, with many of the demons having tragic backstories.Tanjiro’s aversion to killing is understandable and makes him more human than many action protagonists who jump willingly into slaughter. Theological themes around the notion of good and evil abound in the show, and it is this on top of the action that makes an entertaining watch. Zenitsu and Inosuke, and later the elite Hashira demon slayers, are also good examples of flawed characters. Although they are ostensibly the heroes, they often behave irrationally, selfishly, or stupidly, creating a further sense that perhaps demons and humans are not so different after all. An incredible adventure story with dark themes, action-packed moments and a compelling cast of characters.