Alice in Borderland (2020)

A series of violent games tests the wits and courage of young Tokyoites as they work to find out who is behind them. Arisu (Kento Yamazaki) is a jobless gamer, berated by his elder brother for not helping out. Leaving home he meets up with his best friends: barman Karube (Keita Machida) and office worker Chota (Yuki Morinaga). After hiding out from the police in Shibuya, they emerge into an empty city. It appears that the entire population besides them has instantly vanished, leaving everything behind. Game arenas begin to appear with across the city, all managed by some unseen force. Completing these dangerous challenges rewards them with more time to live; failing means death. Arisu and his friends find themselves fighting for their survival, meeting other characters such as the athletic Usagi (Tao Tsuchiya), who is trapped in this otherworld with them, trying to return home.

“Alice in Borderland” is based on the manga by Haro Aso and does a good job of converting the frenetic energy and pace of that format to a live-action drama. The opening episodes set up the characters with minimal effort, introducing us to the three friends and immediately establishing their rapport. Kento Yamazaki is likeable as Arisu, a failure in life who suddenly finds his talents an indispensable asset in the world of the games. Keita Machida and Yuki Morinaga give off a warmth as his friends and the three have a great chemistry and dynamic. As the series progresses, this pattern is repeated, with instantly relatable characters introduced with a short backstory in flashback that lends motivation or personality to their role. Later in the series, the characters join a larger group who are working together under the leadership of Hatter (Nobuaki Kaneko) to escape back to the normal world. These characters live in a hotel complex renamed “The Beach”, where they spend their days lounging in swimwear, and their nights competing in the games to earn playing cards for the leader (believed to be the only way to return to the normal world). There is a definite slowing of pace at this point. While the first three episodes are almost non-stop action, we move into more character study and contemplation of the situation. That is not a bad thing as many of the new characters are equally, if not more, intriguing than the old characters, such as Hikari Kuina (Aya Asahina) and Chishiya (Nijiro Murakami), whose story becomes one of the most exciting. Direction and cinematography give the whole series a sleek look, particularly during the action moments. The CGI is far better than most live-action manga adaptations and used sparingly enough that it does not detract from the story.

Japan is no stranger to the ‘death game’ genre, from “Battle Royale” to “Gantz” there are several examples of this type of story. “Alice in Borderland” follows these with a few fresh twists on the format. We have a mysterious presence who is running the games, forcing the humans into conflict and struggle; a hero who believes that there is a better way than killing to escape the game; and a series of deadly scenarios. As the title suggests, the series makes several references to “Alice in Wonderland”, with playing cards used to determine the type and difficulty of the games, characters named “Usagi” (Rabbit) and “Hatter”. Rather than fighting each other, or an alien force (as in the other examples of this genre given), here they are challenged with puzzles, tests of strength, and tests of honour or loyalty. Much like those other series, the sense that this is a chaotic new world is replaced by the realisation that in fact this is the real world stripped back to its most essential and atavistic elements. Later in the series the references to authoritarian government and the role of the military in supporting oppressive regimes are unavoidable. The Beach is a darkly satirical reflection of a society that is happy to accept horrific things so long as they can enjoy themselves. The people there show no desire to find out who is behind the games (that kill large numbers of them); nor do they make any attempt to change a hierarchy that sees them as expendable tools in the acquisition of power for the leaders. When they are forced into playing a “Witch Hunt” game, the sight of them throwing dead bodies onto a fire will recall for many the horrors of fascist dictatorships. “Alice in Borderland” draws clear parallels between the behaviour of individuals in this new world, and society in general. The games act as a test not only of their intelligence and strength, but their moral character. For fans of this genre, there is a lot to enjoy, great action sequences, likeable characters, and an curious mystery at its heart. What it says about humanity may be disturbing but is also a poignant reminder of our many weaknesses as well as our capacity for courage and triumph against the odds.

Godzilla (1954) by Ishiro Honda

Following a nuclear test at sea several vessels sink beneath the waves, consumed in flames. On the nearby Odo island, people begin to talk about a legendary creature, Godzilla, who has been woken by the testing of these weapons and will return to wreak havoc. Paleontologist Dr. Yamane (Takashi Shimura) sets out to investigate the island and they soon come face-to-face with the gargantuan Jurassic-era lizard that they name Godzilla. After its first destructive incursion onto land, the government establish an Anti-Godzilla task force to develop some means of killing the creature. Meanwhile, the fiancé of Yamane’s daughter, the brilliant scientist Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata) may have created a weapon capable of bringing down the monster. However, worries about the implications of this devastating device cause him to hesitate.

“Godzilla” is a thrilling action film and political drama, centred on the mysterious titular monster. There is a love triangle subplot involving Yamane’s daughter Emiko (Momoko Kochi), Serizawa, and Ogata (Akira Takarada) whose salvage ships were destroyed in the first contact; but for the most part the film is focussed on the monster and the devastation it causes. The script builds anticipation of Godzilla’s first appearance, showing the panic caused by the sinking of the two ships, and the disbelief of officials when they discover the true cause. After the first sighting of Godzilla the film is a fast-paced action film, with one-sided firefights between the military and Godzilla, people fleeing in terror as the city falls around them, and a growing sense of dread at the realisation that this creature might never be stopped. The film uses miniatures and trick-photography to give a sense of the scale of Godzilla as we see him rampaging through the streets, or peering over the top of mountains. Haruo Nakajima and Katsumi Tezuka put on the monster suit to play Godzilla and do a great job of making the creature into a real character as opposed to simply a foil for the human protagonists. While his motivations are unclear, you get a sense of sentience and purpose to his actions. The film also features a large cast of extras, with the crowds of government officials, and the inhabitants of Odo and Tokyo, emphasising the scale of the monster and the believability of the situation. “Godzilla” draws on earlier monster movie imagery, such as the packed laboratory of Dr. Serizawa where he is busy creating some terrifying new weapon; and also on war films, with the enemy being replaced by a giant monster. The score by Akira Ifukube is similarly infused with elements of horror, with heavy pounding drums, and gung-ho action themes.

Ishiro Honda’s “Godzilla” is a metaphor for the death and devastation caused by nuclear weapons. At several points throughout the film, the atomic bomb and Nagasaki are mentioned explicitly. The story has a strong anti-war, anti-nuclear message, with the scientists being uncertain about creating an incredibly powerful weapon even in the face of this great peril. We see how people, the government and scientists react when faced with a threat and a difficult choice. One of the most touching scenes is of the high-school students singing for peace, particularly poignant considering this film was released almost a decade following the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There is also a definite critique of modernisation and the loss of traditional respect for nature. The scene in which Odo island is battered by a fierce storm suggests a reading of Godzilla as the revolt of nature against man’s destructive tendencies. Whether a metaphor for ecological destruction or nuclear terror, Godzilla gives a dire warning to humans that we are far from the most powerful force on earth and might easily trigger an extinction level even. Worth watching for the incredible action and poignant storytelling, “Godzilla” uses the monster movie genre to deliver a powerful message for future generations.

Smoking (2018)

An unlikely group of assassins work together to give various petty gangsters their come-uppance in this blackly comic crime series. Sabe (Ryo Ishibashi), Hifumin (Kaito Yoshimura), Goro (Tomomi Maruyama) and Haccho (Nobuaki Kaneko) are four homeless individuals who provide a service to those with the money to pay; namely killing gangsters and other ne’er-do-wells. Their gimmick is that Sabe, who has some medical training, flays the tattoos off their victims backs, delivering them as grisly proof that they have eliminated their target. As the series progresses we learn that Sabe was formerly employed by a shady organization known as The Cleaner, who also specialised in underworld killings. The other three members of his team, the mute teen Hirofumin, intelligent and kind; the heavyweight prize-fighter Goro, whose terrifying proportions strike fear in their victims; and the sharply dressed Haccho, each have their own tragic backstory that brought them together one by one to form this team known as “Smoking”.

The story is based on a manga by Iwaki Hiroshi and its origins show in the colourful characters and outrageous set-ups for each episode. The four leads are almost heroic archetypes, a sort of super team all bringing their unique skills to the mix. The series is twelve episodes, each under a half an hour, in which they are usually presented with a new job to undertake. As the series progresses we learn more about each character, and the over-arching story of The Cleaner and Sabe’s past bring some unity to the story as they are all drawn into a violent showdown with this gang. There is plenty to enjoy in “Smoking” if you don’t take things too seriously. The set-ups are ridiculous, taking real world criminal activity and exaggerating it into something more fantastical. Examples of this include a gang that has an entire hospital full of elderly people who they have hooked on drugs; or an underground martial arts betting ring, where the fighters are also pumped full of narcotics before beating each other to death. The idea of peeling off the tattoos of each victim is a unique touch, showing that our protagonists are just as brutal as the irredeemable gangsters they take down. The four leads are perfect in their roles. Ryo Ishibashi (Suicide Club, Audition) lends an air of credibility to the outlandish story. Kaito Yoshimura (Love and Other Cults) does a good job as the largely silent and sympathetic Hifumin. Tomomi Maruyama and Nobuaki Kaneko are no stranger to television dramas and do a great job with the roles of Haccho and Goro, offering much of the comedy in their bickering and both excelling when their stories take a dark and tragic turn.

“Smoking” occasionally suffers from certain limitations of television drama and budget constraints. The pacing is uneven at times; perhaps unsurprising since each episode has to be wrapped up in such a short time. This could perhaps have been helped by running some of the stories over multiple episodes. It certainly helps build tension later in the series when we begin to get recurring characters and the semblance of an over-arching plot. Often there will be little discussion of what their plan is, which makes things seem matter-of-course and again does little to provide a sense of threat. Often the characters will put themselves in dangerous situations that draws their intelligence into question. These are clearly televisual shortcuts to ramp up a sense of danger, or bring all the required characters together in a particular place, but again it undermines any real sense of threat. This is not always the case and there are episodes that work very well in the short episodic format, such as the MMA betting ring episode. The direction and look of the show can also be hit and miss, with stylish shots and moments reminiscent of heroic crime dramas followed by very mundane scenes of the characters in their makeshift home, or out on the streets. It excels when it strives for a manga aesthetic and this is definitely something that could have been more prominent. The series is clearly set in a hyper-stylised version of reality, so trips itself up in going for a more believable look at times.

Crime thrillers usually follow either the cops or the criminals, whereas “Smoking” follows a group who are somewhere on the border between good and evil. On the surface their actions are horrific, killing and skinning their victims, but they are doing it for the greater good by ridding the city of violent gangsters. As Sabe flays his victims he usually delivers a short speech about peeling away their skin to reveal the monster within. It is a show that asks us to question our understanding of crime and society. The tattoos that mark these individuals are a sign of their criminality, but their sins cannot be so easily stripped away as their flesh. As things progress our natural sympathy with the protagonists is strengthened as we learn about what brought them together, each having had dealings with some criminal element. The central premise, of a group who are paid to kill gangsters, suggests an interesting irony in how we deal with crime in society. By doing this work, dealing out this punishment, that may be deemed good or even necessary, they are lowering themselves into the mud along with their victims, becoming the very monsters they are trying to eliminate. “Smoking” is well worth a watch for fans of crime dramas, with an excellent cast and a story that is fast-paced and packed with melodrama.

Ichi the Killer (2001) by Takashi Miike

A masochistic mobster and a sadistic assassin are pitted against one another in this gory crime story from Takashi Miike. When a yakuza boss goes missing, his chief enforcer Kakihara (Tadanobu Asano) goes in search of clues. Kakihara has violent sado-masochistic tendencies, as we can see from the numerous scars across his face, his mouth being a wide slit held together with piercings. Kakihara comes to learn that the killer of his boss was one Ichi (Nao Omori), a man who has been brainwashed into being a heartless killer, with sadistic inclinations. As they draw closer to a confrontation, we are given a series of gruesome, violent, stomach churning scenes in one of the finest examples of Japanese exploitation cinema.

Not a film for the faint-hearted or those easily repulsed by gory special effects, the director Takashi Miike blends cartoonish violence, horror, pitch black comedy, along with realism in an unsettling portrayal of the darker drivers of human behaviour. The film is based on a manga by Hideo Yamamoto and the characters feel very much like comic book heroes and villains that have landed in a gritty, crime-infested Tokyo familiar from many yakuza films. This sense of the fantastical is emphasised in the use of colour, Ichi’s superhero-like costume, and helps make the content more palatable. The direction moves from fast paced action to more sedate scenes of character interaction. There is definitely a chaotic punk feel early on, with jarring cuts and music, and a handheld camera racing through the neon-washed streets swarming with people. We also see high-angled framing and off-kilter action that brings out the comic-book feel and helps bring the audience into this anarchic world where anything goes and the only certainty is pain and violence. The film pushes the boundaries of good taste at times, with infamous scenes involving a severed tongue, reference to rape, domestic abuse, and scenes of torture. However, the film holds together as a solid crime drama, with the central narrative being easy to follow. A fantastic supporting cast includes Alien Sun, a Chinese prostitute; Shinya Tsukamoto as Ichi’s mysterious handler Jijii, and various gang members played by Sabu, Shun Sugata, Kiyohiko Shibukawa, and Suzuki Matsuo who plays twins Jiro and Saburo.

It would be easy to dismiss this film as a violent, gory thriller, made with the intention of pushing the audience to the limit of what is acceptable. For those willing to examine the film carefully, there are deeper meanings here. Ichi could almost be considered the Id, driven solely by violent and sexual urges, confused, struggling to establish some kind of morality in his disordered existence. Kakihara also appears as a metaphor for human desire for violence and suffering; he is a comment on viewers of this film, who wish to sit through something so uncomfortable, to be shown the absolute lowest, most grotesque imagery, in order for some kind of spiritual gratification. There are also numerous allusions to the relationship between violence and sex, familial relationships and the abuse of power that can occur within them. Both Ichi and Kakihara are products of their environment, deeply disturbed individuals who typify the dog-eat-dog mentality of society. Worth watching for the creative scenes of carnage, but also worthy of consideration at a deeper level.

Kagemusha (1980) by Akira Kurosawa

A thrilling samurai epic about loyalty and lordship from a master of the historical drama. A kagemusha, or ‘shadow warrior’, is a body double used to avoid the lord being put in danger, or to trick the enemy. The film begins with prominent warlord Shingen Takeda’s brother Nobukado (Tsutomu Yamazaki) having found a perfect double of the lord, a former thief who he saved from hanging. Although he is nothing like the fearsome lord in manner, he is the spitting image of him (Tatsuya Nakadai plays both Shingen Takeda and his new kagemusha). At this time three mighty leaders are vying for control of the county: Ieyasu Tokugawa (Masayuki Yui) and Nobunaga Oda (Daisuke Ryu), who have formed an alliance are in bitter conflict with the third, Shingen Takeda. Takeda is close to victory, when he is shot and wounded by a sniper. Following his death, the kagemusha must step in to take his place, as per the lord’s wishes, for three years. This presents a problem for Takeda’s supporters as this doppelganger risks exposing himself as an imposter. Meanwhile, Tokugawa and Oda move forward with their campaign to unify Japan; and Takeda’s son Katsuyori (Kenichi Hagiwara) attempts to win power in his own right.

“Kagemusha” is set during the warring states period, a pivotal moment of Japanese history. It takes for its basis one of the possible stories about Takeda’s death and spins a fantastical tale of deception and feudal conflict culminating in the Battle of Nagashino. The film has a theatrical feel to it, beginning from the opening scene in which we have a long dialogue between Nobukado, Takeda and their new kagemusha. Simply staged with a fixed camera it relies on the excellent performances and framing to tell the story. Throughout the film this carefully considered tone is maintained. Kurosawa is known to have painted out his own storyboards and it shows in the composition of each shot. Background details take on great significance, whether the suit of armour that hangs in the background as Tokugawa sits in his hall, or the incredible landscapes of crashing waves at the shore. Each detail is carefully calculated to enhance the drama, drawing out the power of the surrounding environment to bolster the unfolding drama. Kurosawa also knows how to use extras to maximum effect, from scores of corpses showing the horror of battle, to the triumphant marching of spearmen and cavalry. The use of colour is also notable with scenes lent vitality through the reds, greens and blues of armour and banners.

Kurosawa uses long takes and scenes to excellent effect in “Kagemusha”, giving the actors space to express themselves and ideas and emotions time to take on real significance. One example of this is in the scene where the sniper explains how he shot Takeda. Rather than a quick explanation, we are given an extended sequence where he runs step by step through his actions. It is in Kurosawa’s measured pacing that scenes such as this are leant dramatic weight. In the scenes with Takeda’s grandson and mistresses the unbearable tension that he may be exposed is drawn out, creating a palpable sense of threat.

The soundscape also feels inspired by theatre, with the use of traditional instruments played for reactions or mood setting. As the film progresses we get a more traditional epic score that begins to play over the battle scenes. Equally noteworthy however is the film’s use of silence in many scenes, allowing the acting to speak for itself. Again an example of Kurosawa’s still, contemplative style that allows the audience to really empathise fully with  the trials and tribulations of the kagemusha.

While much of the film is a tragic lament on the loss of nobility and the horror of war, it also features plenty of humour to lighten the tone, such as hapless servants walking over an area they have just brushed, the kagemusha discovering Takeda’s body, or crude jokes about how the kagemusha should deal with Takeda’s mistresses in the same way he does the horse (by claiming he is too ill to ride that day). Kurosawa’s belief in his actors is justified, with Tatsuya Nakadai delivering an incredible performance as Takeda and the kagemusha. We watch him transform from a lowly thief to the embodiment of honour and calm surety.

The film is at once an historical epic, with the clashing of great martial forces for the future of Japan, and at the same time a highly personal tale of one man’s journey to discover a sense of honour. One of the bloodiest periods of Japanese history, the warring clans knew that whoever triumphed would control the fate of the country. The opening and closing of the film show the great sacrifices that were made to achieve what they believed was a unifying mission, with hundreds upon thousands killed. The film offers little praise or condemnation of the actions of Tokugawa, Oda and Takeda, giving a stoic appraisal of their actions. All are shown to be great leaders and there is little indication that any one of them is better or worse than the others. In the story of the kagemusha we are given an account of a man who is forced to become someone better than he is. When the film begins he is disloyal, avaricious and immature; by contrast Takeda is shown to be a thoughtful and fearsome warrior. The film might be read as a commentary on how individual will can be forced into subservience to a lord or master, necessitating complete destruction of the ego in service of a higher power. However, the film also suggests that Takeda is truly great and that this transformation of the lowly thief into a lord is something of an honour. One interesting aspect of the film is the kagemusha’s relationship with Takeda’s grandson, who immediately marks him out as an imposter. He states that he is no longer afraid of him, and later their relationship becomes one of genuine warmth. This indicates a more nuanced view of the difference between Takeda and kagemusha, showing what the first had to sacrifice in order to become a fierce warlord. An incredible film that speaks to what it means to be a leader and giving an insight into this bloody period of history.