School in the Crosshairs (1981) by Nobuhiko Obayashi

A schoolgirl with supernatural powers takes on an alien intent on world domination in this fantasy adventure. Yuko (Hiroko Yakushimaru) discovers that she has unusual abilities when she is able to reverse the direction of a truck that is about to hit a young child. She later meets a mysterious figure who offers to help harness her powers to take over the world. A transfer student begins recruiting Yuko’s classmates to a new cram-school where they seem to be brainwashed into becoming obedient and docile. It is up to Yuko to save her classmates from this alien threat.

Written by Taku Mayumura and directed by Nobuhiko Obayashi, “School in the Crosshairs” is a light-weight fantasy adventure. Despite some interesting elements: telekenesis and extra-terrestrials, the film fails to really develop its characters and themes. The actions of the aliens are analogous with an totalitarian states, with their quasi-fascistic uniforms and authoritarian dictats, but this subtext is left largely unexplored. The film’s quirkier moments help maintain the viewer’s interest, with musical numbers performed by the students at their club recruitment day, or a neighbour who has a chimpanzee as a pet, but it somehow feels lacking, both in story and character. We never feel fully involved with Yuka and the alien threat never feels particularly real. This is largely due to a lack of explanation or consequences in what unfolds. It is a series of bizarre events culminating in a somewhat lacklustre denoument between Yuko and the aliens that takes place in a liminal space, further distancing it from any real threat.

Director Nobuhiko Obayashi was fiercely anti-war, expressed most beautifully in his masterpiece “Hanagatami”. This film is perhaps an early attempt to work in some of the themes of totalitarian government. We see early on that the class is slightly unruly, although nothing serious, and how the intention to make them conform to the rules turns into something more sinister. With the children enslaved to an ideology of conformism and persecuting those who break the rules, they lose their freedom and individuality. While we see a little of this in the film, it would have been interesting to expand on it, perhaps showing the impact on the characters and the world outside of the school. However, with so many disparate elements, many of which fail to connect, the film is unfortunately more of a curiousity than a must-see.

Death at an Old Mansion (1975) by Yoichi Takabayashi

Famed detective Kousuke Kindaichi faces an intellectually challenging mystery in this locked-room crime thriller based on the book “The Honjin Murders” by Seishi Yokomizo. On the wedding night of Kenzo Ichiyanagi (Takahiro Tamura) with his beautiful bride Katsuko (Yuki Mizuhara) they are found dead in a locked outside room, a bloodied katana stuck in the ground outside and a bloody trail of finger marks down one wall. Inspector Isogawa (Eishin Tono) arrives and soon concludes that the killer may be a three-fingered vagrant who appears to bear a grudge against Kenzo. When a friend of the family, Kosuke Kindaichi (Akira Nakao), arrives he turns his attention to the case and soon finds a series of peculiar clues that lead him to a shocking conclusion.

Director Yoichi Takabayashi creates a respectful cinematic version of Seishi Yokomizo’s classic mystery tale. The film follows the traditional whodunnit pattern, and the plot of the novel, with a large cast of characters, including Kenzo’s sister Suzuko (Junko Takazawa) and brother Saburo (Akira Nitta); and Katsuko’s uncle Ginzo (Kunio Kaga). The early scenes of the wedding feast are packed with intrigue, with suspicious glances and tensions bubbling beneath the surface. Takabayashi does a great job with misdirecting the viewer with red herrings before revealing the ingenious, if somewhat improbable, solution to the case. The film leans into the gruesomeness of the crime, with a gory murder scene and brutal slaying. It also relies on flashbacks to the slaying and recreations of what the characters imagined happens. These sepia-toned segments, shorn of dialogue, are a fun way to show the various theories surrounding the deaths of Kenzo and Katsuko.

“Death at an Old Mansion” will appeal to fans of old-school detective tales, with a fun combination of Isogawa’s well-meaning inspector and Kindaichi’s unconventional approach to solving the mystery. The performance by Akira Nakao as the improbable genious detective shows us an ever-active mind, focus trained on minor details that always turn out to be the key to some new revelation. There is also a dark, morbid undertone to the story, which largely keeps the spotlight on the particulars of solving the case. This is achieved through the creative elements such as the occasional shots of the two koto strings ringing in the rain; and also Junko Takazawa’s characterisation of Suzuko, whose fey and childlike character seems to be somehow tenuously balanced between the worlds of the living and the dead. The film does a great job of sticking to the original story, while also embossing it with creative direction, use of colour and artistic elements that evoke a deeper emotional connection to the victims.

Adrift in Tokyo (2007) by Satoshi Miki

Two men embark on a stroll around the capital in this easy-going comedy drama. Fumiya (Joe Odagiri) is deep in debt, having spent 8 years as a student. The man sent to collect on these debts, Fukuhara (Tomokazu Miura), comes to him with a bizarre proposition: if Fumiya will accompany him on a walk around the city he will hand him enough money to clear his debts. Fumiya later discovers that Fukuhara has killed his wife and intends to hand himself in at a particular police station; but wishes to spend his final days taking in sights that he used to enjoy with his wife. The two of them set out, meeting quirky characters and philosophizing about their lives, before Fumiya is recruited into a fake family consisting of Fukuhara, his fake-wife Makiko (Kyoko Koizumi) and her neice Fufumi (Yuriko Yoshitaka).

“Adrift in Tokyo”, based on the novel by Yoshinaga Fujita and directed by Satoshi Miki, takes you along on a meandering journey, its languid pace sustained by the odd-couple dynamic of Fumiya and Fukuhara, both men searching for something intangible on their perambulations. The comedy is similarly understated with the occasional flash of surrealism, such as the 66-year old cosplayer, or the psychedelic rocker Fumiya ends up tailing through the streets. In its loosely strung-together series of quirky moments and ideas the film captures the sense of tramping through a city as diverse as Tokyo. “Adrift in Tokyo” very much adheres to the mantra that it is the journey rather than the destination that is important, never fully reconciling certain ideas and offering little in the way of closure.

Fumiya repeatedly refers to the fact that he was abandoned by his parents and seems to find a surrogate father in Fukuhara. Fukuhara also seems to lack a sense of identity, instead hiring himself out to play a character in a fake family. As the two wander around they come across different aspects of the city, questing for a sense of self amongst the overwhelming variety of Tokyo. The bizarre characters they meet, glimpsed only briefly, offer a window into the myriad lives that are carrying on around each individual. It is perhaps hard for people to discover who they are while feeling part of such a vast whole.

Mystic Shrine Maiden (2019) by Takeshi Sone

A local shrine maiden discovers a past tragedy in this whimsical drama. Toko (Miyu Yoshimoto) works as a maiden at the shrine in her small hometown, performing chores for the priest and making frequent visits to the residents who are always happy to see her. When she is told that the town festival will not take place due to some peculiar ancient prohibition, Toko takes it upon herself to prepare for the celebration herself. She later meets a young girl at the lake nearby, causing a panic in her father who tells her the lake is off-limits to those from the village. With a little help from a geeky visitor, Toko uncovers the mystery behind this unusual prohibition.

Director Takeshi Sone is better known for his gruesome horror tales, but with writer Motoki Nakamura creates something cheerful and uplifting in “Mystic Shrine Maiden”. The film touches on folklore and tradition, with darker elements, but for the most part things are kept upbeat. The opening musical number performed Miyu Yoshimoto, who plays the gleeful, eternally optimistic Toko, creates an atmopshere of joyful whimsy, with some fantastic camerawork. The direction is well-done, with a charming freshness that becomes both a strength and a weakness. What begins as a comedy becomes darker later on when we discover details of Toko and Mayumi’s past, and what happened to Toko’s mother; however many of these moments are brushed over without much time to delve into the tragedy. At a sprightly 70 minutes the film could have benefitted from a little more focus on the characters, who are largely left as charicaturish figures: a wannabee magician, a hopeless mime, a woman who likes playing hide-and-seek. All of these could have been fleshed out and tied into the central narrative. As it is the film remains an insubstatial and innocuous drama.

Toko is brought back to life through her mother’s sacrifice with survivors guilt leading her to uncover the mystery and rejoin her old friend. There is also a dark twist on the coming-of-age story which would see Toko passing on to adulthood following her discoveries, but her sees her passing over to the other side. These darker elements are woven into a story that on the surface appears as an enchanting exploration of youthful joie de vivre, with an unconventional subtext.

Pornostar (1998) by Toshiaki Toyoda

An aimless drifter finds himself recruited into a violent gang struggle in this crime drama. We never learn much about the protagonist Arano (Koji Chihara), who wanders the streets of Tokyo clutching a sports bag. When he is confronted by gang leader Kamijo (Onimaru) he shows little reaction to his aggressive threats. When he later turns up at their headquarters having murdered two other gangsters, Kamijo decides rather than killing him, as they were instructed to do, to use him in their negotiations with drug-dealers and their turf-war with rival Yakuza boss Matsunaga (Tetta Sugimoto). However, Kamijo soon discovers that he is unable to control Arano’s violent outbursts and hatred for all yakuza, threatening their business and their lives.

Writer-director Toshiaki Toyoda creates a unique crime drama from the perspective of a mysterious outsider who strolls carelessly into the violent underworld of thugs, drugs and punks. We have familiar scenes of mobsters dealing with their boss; attempting to sell acid; or wondering how they are going to carry out their orders to murder the head of another crime family. But in each situation things are complicated by Arano’s nihilistic and unpredictable world view. We never discover why he hates the Yakuza so fiercely, although any number of reasons would be easy to imagine. Likewise, he remains an enigma with regards to his past and also what he carries around in his bag. It is a crime thriller that seems to be cracked wide open with the inclusion of this singular individual. The direction moves from stylised sequences to more mundane everyday moments, and the score similarly appears at moments of high drama while being entirely absent at other moments. This creates a tonal dissonance between the ‘real’ world and the stylised violence of the yakuza film in which the protagonist finds himself.

“Pornostar” delights in the mystery of its central character. The contents of the bag that he carries remain unknown throughout, lending themselves to even a metaphysical interpretation. Arano remains somewhat distant from us as the audience and we are never sure exactly what he is thinking, or what he might do next; his reasoning for joining the gangsters is similarly left unexplained. We do see him stand up to an adult bullying children, which may suggest some motivation for his actions. Likewise, his hatred of the yakuza is suggestive of some past history with them. His only concern seems to be what will be written on his epitaph, a question he asks several times throughout the film. Perhaps he is intended to be a blank slate, buffetted by those around him, lacking any will of his own. His tragedy seems to be that he is unable to walk his own path, rather forced into the violent society we see around him. The sequence early in the film when we see him appear through a crowd of people at a crosswalk is the perfect metaphor for this theme of attempting to establish a sense of individuality in a society.