Flesh Pier (1958) by Teruo Ishii

Hidden behind the glamourous streets and bright lights of Tokyo’s Ginza is a seedy underbelly of sex and criminality. With prostitution outlawed, gangs run “call girl” businesses fronted as legitimate enterprises. One such operation is being run out of the “Arizona” nightclub. Detective Yoshioka (Ken Utsui) is an undercover cop from Osaka working with the Tokyo police to unravel the various criminal connections which link Japan to international groups. He soon meets an old flame Rose Rumi (Yoko Mihara), a dancer at “Arizona” and part of the criminal conspiracy, and Haruko (Akemi Tsukushi), a reporter who has followed him on the lookout for a big scoop.

Directed by Teruo Ishii and written by Ishii and Akira Sawada, “Flesh Pier” is a crime thriller centred on the world of sex work and prostitution. The film shies away from titillation, with sexualised scenes being confined to the nightclub “Arizona” and their scantily clad dancers. Utsui is a charismatic lead, the slick noir detective playing double-agent in the dangerous Tokyo underworld. Mihara gives a great performance as Rose Rumi, a woman who has made mistakes but is intent to put them right, bringing sensuality, heart and toughness to the role. The film is well-written with a number of characters all of whom have their own personal stories going on but which pull together in a thrilling showdown. There are twists and turns as characters are threatened with being uncovered. The dialogue is snappy, with the sparse, noir style delivered stylishly by the actors. The music moves from the jazz of the nightclub to a sinuous orchestral score that envelops the drama.

“Flesh Pier” is a film about a city and a country going through major changes. One of the major changes is a more outward looking Japan than may have been common pre-war. We see the police dealing with international crime syndicates trafficking women. English newspapers are seen, American characters feature, and the Japanese characters are well-travelled and familiar with other cultures. The foreign influence extends to the smart suits, casino roulette wheels, and cabaret clubs, and other cultural imports. The foreign characters are the villains in the film, but the film does not shy away from showing the darker side of Japanese society either. The film’s portrayal of women is equally balanced. It shows the objectification of women in nude photoshoots and cabaret clubs. But also has two strong female characters. Rumi and Haruko are both fearless and forthright, a sign of the changing times in a typically male-dominated society. We see the shame associated with prostitution and how it is something typically levelled at women. The film seems to be dealing with many of these themes just at the point they were reaching the public consciousness or able to be discussed openly. It does a perfect job of capturing a period in time with a thrilling narrative and a director with a great sense of style.

Gantz: Perfect Answer (2011) by Shinsuke Sato

Following on from the first Gantz film, we pick up the story of Kei Kurono (Kazunari Ninomiya) as he continues fighting aliens, trying to collect enough points to resurrect his friend Masaru Kato (Kenichi Matsuyama. This film adds more mystery to the central plot, with a girl carrying a small Gantz-like orb that tells her to kill various people (referring to them as keys), a group of black-suited men attempting to track down Gantz, and a detective also attempting to unravel the secrets of the various incidents occurring around the city.

If you enjoyed the first Gantz movie, this one offers more of the same. The new additions to the story are good for the most part, further pulling the rug from under your feet if you thought you had a handle on what was happening in the first movie. There are some fantastic action sequences here too, with long fight scenes on a train and in the city streets taking up a large chunk of the run-time. I felt that these suffered from being a little over-long, and not having the same sense of fun or originality as the first film (an onion alien is a much funnier and unique concept than men in black suits). We see a little more of Kurono and his girlfriend Tae Kojima here, and also learn more about Kato. I didn’t feel entirely satisfied with the ending to this film. It brings things to a conclusion, but in a way that still leaves many things unanswered.

This film plays more on the interpersonal relationships of the protagonists, there are some great moments of sacrifice, team-work, and the ending is a nice way to round off the series with the idea that even ordinary people can achieve extra-ordinary things if they try. A fun “part two” to the first film, and I would definitely recommend it as an action packed science fiction film with a great sense of style.

Gantz (2010) by Shinsuke Sato

On his way to a job interview university student Kei Kurono (Kazunari Ninomiya) sees an old school friend, Masaru Kato (Kenichi Matsuyama), attempting to rescue a man who has fallen onto the subway tracks. After attempting to pull his friend back up onto the platform the two of them are hit by a train and killed, but instead of everything going dark, they wake up in a bright apartment room with a view of Tokyo Tower. There are several other people in the room, as well as a mysterious black orb. The orb, known as Gantz, tells them that they are dead, and their lives are now his to command. He orders them on various missions to kill aliens, handing out weapons and suits that give them super-human strength and speed. Kurono and Kato, alongside a girl named Kishimoto (Natsuna), and the others who have found themselves in the room are sent to various locations to destroy the aliens, and awarded points for their performances. Prizes are awarded for certain amounts of points, the most sought after being the chance to return to life.

Based on the popular manga by Hiroya Oku, “Gantz” is a great example of a beautifully simple mystery. Everything that is happening is made explicit, but without ever really explaining why it is happening. The central conceit, that the protagonists are dead already, leads to a surprising amount of tension, as you root for them to be returned to their lives, or discover what is going on with Gantz and the room. Excellent costume design and special effects make this an enjoyable watch and the action scenes are highly entertaining spectacles. The main criticisms I would have of the film is that it leaves a lot for the audience to piece together on very little information. Either you will learn to accept that what is going on is intended to be a fun, enjoyable action film, with an inexplicable plot; or it will seem as though the writer didn’t know how to tie up this fantastic mystery he had set up. There are huge amounts of gore and violence in the film, with bodies exploding, and deaths aplenty. The film is the first of two-parts, so you could see this more as a set-up explaining the basics of the world, and get you hooked into the bizarre world of Gantz.

There are some interesting ideas at play here. The first time you see the players transported to the Gantz room, it is intriguing enough to carry almost the entire film, as you keep watching to find out how they explain such an odd occurrence. The notion that there are hidden aliens, and the constant niggling suspicions around who or what the aliens are, whether the players are really alive or dead, are engaging. One of the most interesting ideas presented, though not particularly dwelt upon, is the notion that perhaps the aliens are not the bad guys after all, and the players are being tricked into killing innocent beings. Overall an enjoyable watch, though it spends more time on the action scenes and less on the philosophy or morality of what’s happening.

The Third Murder (2017) by Hirokazu Koreeda

When lawyer Tomoaki Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama) is brought in to defend Misumi (Koji Yakusho) on a charge of murder, it appears to be an open and shut case. Misumi confesses to the crime and appears remorseless. However, as Shigemori delves into his past and the details surrounding the crime a different story begins to emerge.

Writer-director Hirokazu Koreeda has made his name as an incredible film-maker with a string of family-focussed stories (“Our Little Sister”, “Like Father, Like Son”). With “The Third Murder” he brings his careful observations of human behaviour to the courtroom drama. The plot of the story is straightforward, with a lawyer defending a man he believes is guilty, but the world is packed with characters and moments that make deeper connections to universal themes. It is a dialogue- heavy film with characters spending a lot of time discussing the case details. This can make for a dry experience at times, but is made enjoyable in two main ways. Firstly, by turning the film into something more akin to a detective drama, with Shigemori interviewing various individuals and cross-examining the suspect, Misumi. In fact, the film shies away from courtroom scenes until its final third. Secondly, the performances, particularly from Masaharu Fukuyama and Koji Yakusho are exceptional, showing their experience and charisma on screen. Most of the standout scenes are featuring only the two of them conversing through a plexiglass screen. Mikiya Takimoto’s cinematography is slick and has a sombre tone that is fitting for the story.

“The Third Murder” investigates the very notion of truth. The lawyers are shown to be individuals for whom the truth is of relatively little importance. Their job is to have their clients acquitted, whether they are guilty or not. In fact, this very point is raised at one point by the prosecution attorney. It also looks at the notion of crime and guilt in relation to provocation, by contextualising the murder. Crime is a subject that provokes strong emotions but is rarely black and white. This film does a good job of explaining the potential pitfalls in jumping to conclusions.

Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji (1955) by Tomu Uchida

Genpachi (Chiezo Kataoka) and Genta (Daisuke Kato) are retainers to samurai Sakawa Kojuro (Teruo Shimada), on their way to Edo. Along the road they meet various fellow travellers. A young boy interested in becoming a spear-carrier like Genpachi, a shamisen player (Chizuru Kitagawa) and her daughter, a policeman on the trail of a thief, among others. The fates of everyone on the road become intertwined with both humorous and tragic results.

“Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji” is directed by Tomu Uchida from a script by Shintaro Mimura and Fuji Yahiro. It is an interesting story with both comedic elements and more serious social themes explored through the various characters. The humour may be a little outdated and slapstick but the two servants Genpachi and Genta are likeable and relatable enough, carrying the burden of supporting their master on his journey. In the later half of the film the tone shifts and is much more downbeat and pessimistic. The cinematography is well-done and in particular the staging and framing of every shot shows a masterful understanding of technique, utilising theatrical staging with more modern techniques such as overhead shots.

The film has a strong social message regarding the class system that is as strikingly relevant today as it was at the time of release, and even during the period when the film is set. Our attention is drawn early to the various professions of the travellers on the road, in particular the difference between the status of Genpachi and Genta and their master Kojuro. The turning point of the film comes when Kojuro receives the praise for the actions of Genpachi and we realise that respect is something that is inherited rather than earned. The film augments this central theme with the characters of the mother whose daughter is to be sold into prostitution. Also, with the arrogance of the samurai whom Kojuro meets later in the film. It is a passionate appeal that a person’s worth not be judged by their social standing, but by their actions. At the end of the film, Genpachi warns the boy not to become a spear-carrier. This may be a plea to the audience that they should never be bound by the disputes of others, or a more pessimistic acknowledgement of an unavoidable fate. One of the characters earlier in the film makes reference to the fact they everyone has a master, “But who is the lord’s master?” he asks. A deity? Are we doomed from birth to walk a particular path. And does it always end in violence?