Doppelganger (2003) by Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Engineer Hayasaki (Koji Yakusho) is working on a robotic chair that allows paralysed people to operate artificial limbs through a connection with the brain. One day he comes home to find a doppelganger who attempts to help him push the project on, while also causing havoc through his aggressive behaviour. Meanwhile, a young woman Yuka (Hiromi Nagasaku) is disturbed to hear of her brother’s suicide, while his doppelganger sits at home working on a novel. Hayasaki’s double hires an assistant called Kimishima (Yusuke Santamaria) to help with the chair; continuing their work in an abandoned warehouse even after Hayasaki is fired from the medical company that had funded his research.

“Doppelganger” is a mix of horror, classic science-fiction, and mystery, with a tone that shifts from dark to humorous. The uncomfortable atmosphere is compounded by a plot that becomes increasingly wild as it reaches a dramatic climax, even abandoning the doppelgangers towards the end. Writer-director Kiyoshi Kurosawa expects the audience to engage with the film, rarely explaining things, or even explicitly revealing what is happening. Instead we experience Hayasaki’s bizarre situation first hand and are asked to make our own minds up about what is real or unreal, and the significance of the doppelgangers. This is even more keenly felt in the story of Yuka’s brother, Takeshi, a disturbing situation that appears and is resolved without any apparent connection to Hayasaki’s own problem. Kiyoshi excels at creating uncomfortable moments, using space and framing that suggests unseen or unknown horrors. Even the smallest moments take on a sinister aspect and we are left anxiously awaiting some new terrible revelation. However, the film also balances this darkness with a blackly comic tone, with Hayasaki’s unhinged behaviour not quite tipping over into something more pitiful. Koji Yakusho does a fantastic job with the two Hayasakis, who have distinct personalities and approaches to work and life. The film utilises simple yet effective techniques to show the two of them together and we can feel that they are two different people who happen to look identical. The use of split screen is also a great addition, adding to the uncertainty about whether this is Hayasaki’s delusion or a manifestation of Hayasaki’s darker nature. The score by Yusuke Hayashi captures this strange blend of horror, comedy and science-fiction, with ominous chords and jaunty melodies.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s “Doppelganger” explores the duality of its protagonist Hayasaki and that of humanity in general. Hayasaki is a man who has devoted his life to his work, neglecting any kind of social or romantic pursuits. His doppelganger, more assertive, aggressive, and decisive, represents those elements of himself he has kept hidden, agressively pursuing Yuka. Hayasaki’s dislike of his double shows how much he wants to distance himself from these elements of his own psyche. Takeshi’s case is more tragic, suggesting the choice that lies before many people, with his ‘real’ self committing sucide while his doppelganger pursues his creative tendencies.It is the Id-like doppelgangers that seem to know what is truly important to the individuals, while the true self of the Ego is forced into a life controlled by others. The film’s upbeat ending sees things resolved in a positive if unconventional way, but one that chimes with the underlying message of self-awareness and self-discovery.

The Stare (2016) by Miki Koichiro

After witnessing a bizarre death, Ayano Mishima (Tomomi Itano), who works at a television production company, is drawn into an historic mystery and comes face to face with an ancient curse. Individuals are being troubled by disembodied eyes that peer at them from gaps in furniture, vents, or between curtains, their paranoia spiralling until they are eventually killed by an unseen force. After seeing this Mishima sets out to discover the cause, leading her to the mysterious 9 mountain pass where an ancient village has been submerged beneath a reservoir. Mishima’s boyfriend is admitted to an institution when he too begins to see the mysterious presence, forcing Mishima to find a solution to the curse.

Based on a novel by Shinzo Mitsuda, “The Stare” (Japanese title: Nozokime) is a good old fashioned ghost story, with a fun folkloric ghoul as the primary antagonist. Whereas usually horror will focus on fear, here the spectre provokes paranoia, leading characters to tape over any cracks or gaps they find in their apartments. This hidden eye is chilling in its inexplicable nature and for the fact that there is very little the victims can do to avoid being harassed by it. For the most part the film avoids straight-up gore or violence, with only a few instances of bloody deaths, and one character gouging their eyes out. These restrained uses of special effects work to the film’s advantage. Like much horror of this genre, part of the fun is the unravelling of the central mystery: of who the spirit is, why they are upset, and how they might be appeased. Ex-AKB idol Tomomi Itano does a good job in the central role of horror heroine.

“The Stare” is a fairly by-the-numbers horror with solid direction from Miki Koichiro and a unique antagonist. Japan has a wealth of folkloric monsters to pick from, so its always interesting to see a ghost with a unique angle to their kills, and this is about as unique as they come.

Tokyo Gore School (2009) by Yohei Fukuda

High-schooler Fujiwara (Yusuke Yamada) is dragged into a mobile game in which students fight to win points in this teen action film. In heavy-handed narration Fujiwara explains his cynical world view, that of a society divided neatly into ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. When he is chased and attacked by a group he finds that thousands of people are playing the “Chain Game”, in which stealing someone’s phone wins you points, and losing means your darkest secret will be revealed to the world. Fujiwara finds himself the target of former friends led by Todoroki (Shunya Shiraishi) and teaming up with an unknown female student.

The film’s problems start with the title, which misrepresents the story by suggesting a splatter-horror film. The Japanese title is more fitting, but would translate poorly to English. The story is formulaic, reminiscent of the mobile-phone driven dread of “Keitai Kanojo”, or the pugilistic high-school antics of “Crows”, and plot hole galore make it hard to relate to the characters. Even within the film, characters manage to come up with a simplistic solution to being hunted via mobile phone (to travel round on a bus during the play time). Another might simply have been to not have a phone (or as one character does, have a phone that doesn’t send e-mails). These solutions never seem to occur to characters with the majority of the narrative relying on this kind of complete lack of common sense. The film has an overly serious tone for such a ludicrous premise; the low-stakes seeming mismatched with the actions of the protagonists. The inclusion of a couple of violent scenes, with stabbings and one character being beaten to death, also seem inserted to give the film a sense of danger, but instead come across as completely unnecesary and inexplicable given what we know of the characters. The ridiculous plot, melodramatic acting, and amateurish cinematography mark this out as a low-budget experiment. The best parts of the film are the chase and fight sequences, with elements of parkour injecting some much-needed excitement to proceedings. However, the film seems intent on pushing the dramatic elements which are far weaker.

Fujiwara’s puerile dog-eat-dog mentality, suggesting a strict dichotomy of weak and strong individuals would perhaps have been an interesting idea to explore. The film also raises the spectre of the famous “Stanford Prison Experiment”, in which participants given the roles of prisoners and guards came slowly to enact those roles with increasing violence and abuse of power. “Tokyo Gore School” sets up these ideas of bullying, the corrupting nature of power, social hierarchies, and even limply gestures towards society reflecting our atavistic tendencies. However, it loses its way once it gets going, with the mobile “Chain Game” not offering much in the way of insight into human relations. A muddled ending leaves the audience with mixed feelings about Fujiwara. A missed opportunity to tell an interesting story about power dynamics in society, the danger of mobile environments promoting bullying and violence.

9 Souls (2003) by Toshiaki Toyoda

A rag-tag band of prison escapees set out to help each other realise their final wishes before they are re-captured or killed. After murdering his father, shut-in Michiru (Ryuhei Matsuda), finds himself locked up with a group of violent offenders. A short time into his sentence they manage a miraculous escape, deciding to stay together, travelling around in a campervan as they re-visit important places and people from their pasts. The film features an all star cast including Jun Kunimura, Kiyohiko Shibukawa and Yoshio Harada.

Writer and director Toshiaki Toyoda had long wanted to make a prison break film, beliving them to be one of the most exciting genres. Partly based on a true news story of escaped convicts travelling around together, “9 Souls”, brings together an incredible cast and motley collective of criminals who act almost as a surrogate family to each other. Toyoda clearly put a lot of work into the characters, each of whose crimes are briefly written on screen, and the outstanding cast manage to portray these disparate individuals without going into unnecessary exposition or flashbacks of their lives. In fact we only see one crime comitted by the group pre-arrest (even then it is off-screen), the murder of Michiru’s father, with the others only referencing their offences. This helps us empathise with the group, whose murderous pasts would make them quite irredeemable. Instead we are treated to a comic road-trip as the group attempt to evade capture, dressing as women or having to avoid old acquaintances. The direction is first-rate, with the characters framed to show their physical and emotional proximity and several incredible shots of the surrounding scenery as they travel. The ruddy sunlight of the film suggests a melancholic realisation that these men may be on their final journey. The soft-rock score, slowly ramping while going nowhere captures the sense of frustrated ambition.

“9 Souls” leans into a metaphysical reading with moments that seem particularly unreal. Director Toyoda has stated that films allow us to blend reality and imagination, and that is evidenced here. The group’s escape is one egregious example of a miraculous occurence that defies belief (they see a mouse, realise it must have a hole somewhere, and the next moment they are running free of the prison). Another example is in one escapee’s discovery of a peep-show that appears like a mirage, which sees him complete his own journey. Each of the men seems to be searching for something to bring themselves peace and it could be said that in some sense they are already dead, simply lost souls attempting to justify themselves before they pass on (either to incarceration or the long sleep of death). Whether they are seeking redepmtion for their crimes, attempting to right the wrongs of the past, or prove to themselves that there is some good in their hearts, they are brought together by the hope that this is true. The final moments of the film, which again rely on this blurring of reality, drives home this point that it is hope that keeps people alive. A fantastic prison break film that touches on the ideas of what is truly lost when people commit crime and questions the notion that humans can be entirely bad.

Lonely Glory (2022) by Keitaro Sakon

When she loses her job, a young woman moves back in with her siblings and attempts to sort out their lives for them. Haruka (Kokoro Morita) is a confident, forthright businesswoman, appointed as a leader at the counselling company she helped found. Due to her overbearing attitude, she is accused of workplace harrasment and asked to leave the firm by the CEO. When Haruka’s mother dies, her siblings are faced with difficult choices. Her eldest brother wants to continue running the small shop owned by their parents, while also pursuing a younger woman he wants to marry; her sister Miwako (Eriko Nakamura) is unhappy at having moved home after a divorce six years before, leaving behind a daughter; while Haruka’s younger brother, Takuji (Haya Nakazaki) is long-term unemployed. Haruka’s get-up-and-go attitude sees her clash with her siblings as she tries to force them to make tough decisions, pursue their romantic interests or start businesses of their own.

A fun take on the family drama, setting up a sibling rivalry and tension between the different world-views and characters of the four adult children. Writer-director Keitaro Sakon’s “Lonely Glory” tackles familiar problems among families, such as how to best carry on their parents legacy; dealing with relationship problems; lack of motivation; and different perspectives on how these issues should be addressed. Kokoro Morita gives a great central performance as Haruka, garnering sympathy in her attempts to help her family, while at the same time being brash and pushy, a black sheep in a family who would rather not disturb the status quo. There is a subtle tragedy in the background to the narrative, highlighted when the family give only cursory congratulations on learning it is Miwako’s birthday. It seems they are siblings who have little interest in each other’s lives, to the extent of not realising when one has a birthday. Keitaro Sakon’s direction captures the family dynamics in the way the characters seat themselves around their ramen shop; and the active camerawork helps bring us inside their lives.

Like a placid lake disrupted by a stone, Haruka’s return to the family fold sees their comfortable lives disturbed, with dramatic consequences. Haruka comes to have doubts about her businesslike approach to life, realising that she is overly demanding of others. She is constantly active and wanting to solve what she sees as problems, while the family are more bound by traditions of not rocking the boat. While Haruka’s actions largely lead to positive outcomes, we are left to wonder, along with Haruka, exactly what her own happiness would look like and why she has this restless energy to improve herself and those around her. This unique family story will resonate with people who have ever had a difference of opinion or approach with their siblings.