Vampire Clay (2017) by Soichi Umezawa

A group of art students begin to notice strange occurrences at their rural studio. After working with sculpting clay dug up nearby they begin to be attacked by the clay, which takes on various forms. It seems to have a craving for blood grows stronger with each victim it devours.

“Vampire Clay” has a small cast and is set almost entirely in the single location of the art studio. The lack of complexity in the story is more than made up for with the creativity of the concept and the numerous opportunities it affords for shocking body horror moments. The use of physical effects, sculpted monsters, blood and gore, are well done. The film is tongue-in-cheek and unlikely to prove scary to those familiar with the genre, although there are a couple of moments that are either creepy or unpleasant enough to send a shiver down your spine. The film is helped enormously by some expert direction by Soichi Umezawa. There is a clear understanding of horror tropes, with lingering shots managing to build tension despite showing very little. The film tips over from creeping terror into outrageous special-effects-led monster movie at times, before going completely overboard in its final moments, and it is fun to see a creative team that clearly did not feel restrained by their budget. The cast are a mixed bag, but the central performances are engaging. With any film of this type, you are aware early on you are going to lose a high percentage of them by the end. The story is well told when we finally reach the exposition scenes intended to explain away the phenomenon. It gives just enough information to tie things together without burdening the film with an unnecessarily complex reasoning. The score is effective in setting the tone, with everything from operatic vocal wailing to an industrial soundtrack of synthesizers and clanging pipes. Not to mention the occasional jazz style songs that play somewhat unexpectedly at times.

A fairly standard supernatural horror story that is far better than it has any right to be. Great use of practical effects, editing and music, combine to produce something that is highly entertaining. The film actually finds time for character moments and there is a subplot running throughout regarding the artist’s endeavors to get into prestigious art schools. This theme of jealous revenge is not fully expanded on but it doesn’t really matter. A silly B-movie horror that showcases the creativity of the team behind it.

Demon City Shinjuku (1988) by Yoshiaki Kawajiri

Following a cataclysmic battle with the demon Rebi Ra (Kiyoshi Kobayashi), warrior Genichiro (Banjo Ginga) is defeated and an earthquake separates Shinjuku from the rest of the world. It becomes a place infested with monsters, abandoned by humans, and largely forgotten. Ten years later, Genichiro’s son, Kyoya Izayoi (Hideyuki Hori) is called upon to challenge the demon. The President of the Federation’s daughter Sayaka Rama (Hiromi Tsuru) enters the city and the two must fight their way to the heart of it, meeting friends and foes along the way.

“Demon City Shinjuku” is based on a 1982 novel by Hideyuki Kikuchi. The film, directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri, is replete with monsters and martial arts, while the story is a typical fantasy narrative. Our main character is a wise-cracking playboy prompted to his quest by a spirit guide, he falls for the beautiful princess and they set out to defeat a dark lord. The story is rarely surprising, but on the plus side it is never pretentious. The designs of the demons are good for the most part and the horror elements are well done. Likewise, the deserted city of Shinjuku is atmospheric. The soundtrack is packed with amped up electronica to compliment the action and the headache inducing strobe lighting effects similarly are in keeping with the frenetic pace of the film.

The film ends with a reference to the myth of Pandora’s Box but this is as deep as the film gets. The character of Sayaka overcomes several obstacles through love and purity, in contrast to the horrors of the monster world. An interesting subtext, but one that the film never expands upon. Despite a lack of character depth or surprises in the story, the film works as a cheesy action flick with a couple of good one-liners, some exciting fight scenes, interesting monster design work and solid animation. If you’re feeling nostalgic for the 1980’s or looking for something that is engaging without being overly taxing, then this could be the film for you.

Fukuchan of Fukufuku Flats (2014) by Yosuke Fujita

Tatsuo Fukada (Miyuki Oshima) lives out his life, content with his lot, working at a construction company and drinking with his friend and co-worker. He also spends time with his two oddball flatmates, one of whom recently completed a pilgrimage of Buddhist shrines to atone for his sin of stealing panties, the other who is living with a giant snake in his apartment. Despite his friends’ insistence that he find a girlfriend, and attempts to matchmake for him, Tatsuo remains steadfastly single, happy with his hobby of decorating and flying kites. In a parallel story we follow Chiho Sugiura (Asami Mizukawa), a young woman who quits her job in order to follow her dreams of becoming a photographer. When she unexpectedly comes face to face with Tatsuo she is reminded that they were at school together. Tatsuo was mercilessly bullied for his appearance and Chiho begs his forgiveness for her part in the teasing. She is enamoured by his features and wishes to use him as the subject in her art, finally finding her muse in Tatsuo.

Written and directed by Yosuke Fujita, “Fukuchan of Fukufuku Flats” is a peculiar film in many regards. The pacing is very slow for the first hour until the film finally gets to the connection between Fukada and Sugiura. There are also tonal discrepancies in many sequences. For example, the sexual harassment of Chiho by a respected photographer, and hints towards his violence towards women seems at odds with the comedy stylings of other moments. The other element that is hard to reconcile with the general feel-good drama vibe is the character of Akira Nonoshita (Asato Iida), who swings wildly from a geeky caricature into something far more terrifying. The film is not without its moments though. The writing throws up some genuinely funny dialogue between the flatmates and it is clear to see the intention of the wackier elements. Miyuki Oshima uses her talents as a physical comedian to great effect, and her expressive features find themselves equally suited to more serious drama. Asami Mizukawa does a good job, but her part, as with many other characters seems underwritten.

“Fukuchan of Fukufuku Flats” is ostensibly a comedy, but finds itself lacking enough jokes to keep things interesting. The talented cast do their best with the material. The film is at its strongest when it reaches its revelatory moment about Fukada and Chiho, but it does so little to really set up the characters even this moments lacks the impact it should have. The film’s central theme is that of forgiveness and moving on with life, but the message is confused by its bizarre tone. Themes of sexual perversion and violence seem completely out of place and the relevance to the story of Fukada, the film’s protagonist, is tenuous. Despite the fantastic central performance of Oshima, this film sadly falls short as both a drama and a comedy.

Asura (2012) by Keiichi Sato

In a world suffering from famine a woman gives birth to her son. With starvation warping her sensibilities she almost resorts to eating the infant to survive. Terrified by the thought of what she was about to do she runs, leaving her child to fend for itself. Eight years later the boy (Masako Nozawa) has become feral, killing and eating people to stay alive. When he crosses paths with a monk (Kinya Kitaoji) he is little more than a beast, snarling without language and knowing only how to fight. The monk gives him the name Asura and tries to steer him back to a path of humanity, attempting to teach him Buddhist sutras. Asura later meets a young woman, Wakasa (Megumi Hayashibara), whose kindness encourages him to follow a better path. However, some people want revenge for the deaths he has caused and the darker side of Asura’s nature is always lurking just beneath the surface.

Based on a manga by George Akiyama, Asura is directed by Keiichi Sato. The animation style blends 3D computer generated models with a hand-drawn style. The characters have a sketchy design, with pencil lines visible on their features, which gives the film a storybook feel. This complements the plot which resembles a fable. There are some stunning sequences enabled by the digital art techniques, such as soaring aerial shots, and the final battle. The computer-aided graphics also provide some fantastic weather and lighting effects and give the world a tangible feel, further enhanced by great sound work. The music by Yoshihiro Ike, Norihito Sumitomo and Susumu Ueda includes a thrilling theme and an orchestral feel that offsets the drama perfectly. The story is tragic and the emotions raw. There are also a lot of bloody action sequences and the kinetic energy of Asura’s acrobatic fighting style is a joy to watch. The character of Asura is likeable despite his horrific deeds in the early part of the film and provokes genuine sympathy in his struggle to rein in his atavistic instincts in favour of more civilised behaviour. Again the look of the characters goes a long way towards making them memorable and the film as a whole has a unique feel.

Asura is at heart a simple morality tale about redemption and retaining ones humanity in the face of terrible circumstances. In the beginning of the film Asura has lost all semblance of humanity, having resorted to killing to survive. He moves and sounds like an animal and has no compassion for other humans. The priest and Wakasa, by contrast, are prepared to die rather than sink to the level of killing or indulging their worst instincts. Through their kindness Asura is shown another way to live. It is an interesting moral conundrum as to what should be permitted in order to survive. In a harsh world, where starvation leads people to desperate acts, is it possible to retain a civilised society? Alongside this question, the film also asks the audience to consider Asura’s position, having already committed terrible crimes. Can and should he be forgiven? Can he redeem himself? Some of those Asura meets treat him as a villain, others as a victim, and this impacts him in turn. A film that asks important questions of its audience, with excellent animation and a unique style.

Spirited Away (2001) by Hayao Miyazaki

The film begins with a young girl, Chihiro, moving house with her parents. Just before arriving at their new home, they come across a mysterious forest track, and at the end of the track, a wall with a passageway leading on into the darkness. Chihiro, at first wary, is forced to follow her parents through into what turns out to be an abandoned theme park. Things soon take an dark and unusual turn when her parents, gorging themselves on food lay out on an unattended stall, turn into pigs. What follows is a magical and spectacular adventure, full of dragons, witches, strange creatures and unforgettable characters, such as ‘No-Face’ and various nature spirits.

The film is a great ride from start to finish, following an odd dream logic that keeps your attention as it moves from one unusual character or scenario to the next. In spite of the dreamlike and fantastical nature of this other world, it is made to feel entirely real. The animation is fantastic, with every scene showing incredible attention to detail – from moss and flowers growing in the crevices of stones, to all the many signs on the spirit world streets. The scenes inside the bath-house are a particular delight, with so many characters bustling around, you are sure to want to watch again to make sure you haven’t missed any little expression or moment. The score by Joe Hisaishi is similarly brilliant, capturing the mood of the film perfectly, not an easy task as it drifts from whimsy to melancholy, from action-packed to thoughtful reflection. The story is constantly twisting and turning, and the unexpected nature of this world means that there are constantly new surprises.

At heart a coming-of-age story as Chihiro, who is moving house in her real life, is forced to cope with a strange new world, full of bizarre and often dangerous experiences. Woven through this is a message of environmentalism, with the spirits representing a natural world that is slowly being destroyed, or at least ‘stressed’ by modernity. Without over-emphasising the point it offers a poignant reminder of the importance of protecting our world. A fantastic film with incredible animation and a great message.