Bloody Muscle Body Builder in Hell (2012) by Shinichi Fukazawa

Bodybuilder Shinji (Shinichi Fukazawa), his ex-girlfriend (Asako Nosaka), and a psychic (Masaaki Kai) enter a haunted apartment in this low-budget splatter horror. 30 years after his father’s death, killed by an angry girlfriend, Shinji and the others head there, led by his ex-girlfriend who is investigating the paranormal. Not long after arriving they disturb the ghost of his father’s vengeful lover and are forced to do battle with the evil spirit. This film apparently had a long production period, with filming beginning in 1995 and editing in 2005.

Written and directed by star Shinichi Fukazawa, the film’s shoestring budget give it a homemade charm, with shaky physical effects, blood spatter, and dodgy CG, creating a wacky, over-the-top tone that is more comedic that terrifying. The film is firmly tongue-in-cheek, the bodybuilding protagonist reminiscent of typical action hero types, and the surreal slapstick of much of the story and the effects raises a few smiles. Moments such as the heroes being unable to burn a corpse because one recently quit smoking on the advice of the other; or severed limbs attacking independent of a body, all play into the blackly humour tone The film is shot on grainy film stock that also adds to the feel of a throwback horror. The apartment setting does lend a claustrophobic attitude and ensures things keep moving. A a little over an hour in length there is no time to rest as the trio attempt to fight their way to safety. There are rarely moments of respite given they are never more than a room away from a demonic spirit. If you are a fan of silly low-budget splatter films then this does the job, with an outrageous premise and some fun effects work.

Juho 2405 (2013) by Toichiro Ruto

A newscaster begins to see horrifying waking nightmares involving a young girl in this psychological horror. Reika (Yuka Masuda) is troubled by visions of various crimes she is reporting on, seeing the figure of a mysterious ghost appearing at each scene. Following a complete breakdown she is admitted to hospital where she meets a young girl Akane, who appears to be connected to these cases. Reika becomes unable to distinguish what is real as she starts to remember a tragedy that happened 10 years before.

“Juho 2045”, based on a story by Tomokazu Yamada with a screenplay by Erika Tanaka, follows many familiar horror tropes: a vengeful spirit, a mysterious past, and a protagonist with a slowly deteriorating psyche. The acting is melodramatic and the story predictable, but there are things to enjoy here. From the start there are some stunning visuals and solid special effects. It does a good job of creating an eerie atmosphere. It doesn’t take too long to unravel the central mystery, but with the added psychological elements there are a few surprises along the way. The chilling score by Ken Matsubara (G@me) also ramps up the tension, despite the inclusion of an ill-fitting pop song partway through.

The film leans on several popular themes, such as suicide, pregnancy, revenge and the horrors of the past coming back. It adds an interesting angle to the traditional ghost story in the claim that young spirits are less likely to act morally or logically, their sense of right and wrong being underdeveloped. This may however be a poor attempt to explain away the film’s lack of a logical plot. The story could have benefitted from more character development of Sachiko, the child’s mother, with her story not covered in too much detail. Also, the film sets up an interesting premise with Reika as a newscaster, ideas of the media perhaps pushing people to suicide, or the representation of crimes and tragedies in the news, being an angle that is not pursued in enough detail. Overall, “Juho 2405” is an entertaining horror, with strong visuals and a fun psychological element, but it could have done more with its themes and characters.

My Little Sweet Pea (2013) by Keisuke Yoshida

Mugiko Koiwa (Maki Horikita) and her brother Norio (Ryuhei Matsuda) are surprised when their mother Saiko (Yo Kimiko), who left them years before, suddenly reappears in their life hoping to rebuild their strained relationship. Following a short illness, Saiko dies and Mugiko has to travel to her hometown to complete the burial procedure. While there Mugiko meets a number of people who knew Saiko and comes to reassess her mother and their relationship.

“My Little Sweet Pea” is a heartwarming and poignant family drama. Directed by Keisuke Yoshida from a screenply by Yoshida and Ryo Nishihara, the film looks at the relationship between a daughter and her estranged mother. At times the story feels a little uneven, beginning with Mugiko arriving at her mother’s hometown with her ashes and telling the first part in flashback, before later returning to the present and Mugiko’s interactions with the townsfolk, including Michiru (Yumi Aso) who offers her a place to stay. Where the film does excel is in its characters. Maki Horikita gives a moving performance as a young woman who feels let down by her mother, but who later comes to an understanding and even appreciation of her. Her frustration at her mother’s reappearance, unwittingly destroying her comic books and interrupting her anime viewing, will be familiar annoyances to many viewers. Acting as the perfect foil to her are Yo Kimiko as a mother awkwardly trying to make amends with her daughter, and Yumi Aso who acts as a surrogate parent to Mugiko and allows her to express herself indirectly to her deceased mother. Some of the most powerful scenes, at the crematorium and the graveyard, are devastating to watch, with a palpable sense of loss. The sense of community in this small rural town also comes across well in the film. Despite some difficult themes the film also has a lot of humour, such as the dangerously distracted taxi driver who knocks down a policeman near the beginning.

A film about a daughter coming to terms with the loss of her mother and reassessing their relationship. There is a believable tragedy in the fact that Mugiko never really knew her mother and therefore feels no desire to engage with her when they are reunited. Mugiko and Norio have both moved on, Norio perhaps more hurt than Mugiko, who has less of a memory of her mother. The message of the film is that children should cherish their parents, and try to forgive their mistakes, as it is too late to show affection when they are dead. We also see in the film the similarities between mother and daughter, with Mugiko dreaming of being a voice actor just as her mother dreamt of being an idol. An emotional and ultimately uplifting family film with some touching moments.

A Whisker Away (2020) by Junichi Sato and Tomotaka Shibayama

Miyo (Mirai Shida), also known as Muge,  is a middle-schooler who seems to have boundless energy, her bright and cheery disposition masking a disatisfaction with her life and past family issues. She lives with her father (Susumu Chiba) and his new partner (Ayako Kawasumi) after her mother (Sayaka Ohara) left them both when Miyo was in primary school. Miyo also has a huge crush on her classmate Kento Hinode (Natsuki Hanae), but is unable to express herself seriously to him. Hinode is also dealing with family issues, putting on a brave face to the world. He confides his feelings in a stray cat, who he names Taro after a dog that died. Unbeknownst to Hinode, Taro is actually Miyo, who acquired a magical mask allowing her to transform into a cat. Things become serious when the mysteirous cat mask-salesman (Koichi Yamadera) offers Miyo a choice between remaining as a cat or giving up the magical mask.

Directed by Junichi Sato and Tomotaka Shibayama, with a screenplay by Mari Okada, “A Whisker Away” is an enjoyable family film, with magic, romance, and relatable characters. There is a fairytale feel to the story, with the mysterious cat salesman, a simple yet difficult choice for the protagonist, and elements such as the hidden city of the cats. This fairytale atmosphere is also emphasised in Miyo’s literaly rose-tinted view of Hinode, the screen blushing pink when she sees him. While the story follows a traditional narrative, it also smuggles in tougher themes that will resonate with some viewers. The separation of Miyo’s parents, their bitterness towards each other and the impact it has on Miyo, are depicted honestly. The film also does not shy away from issues of mortality, with the mask salesman attempting to steal the longer lifespan of humans by offering the switch to life as a cat. It also does a great job with the two leads, Miyo and Hinode, being typical teenagers in their inability to express themselves openly, resorting to either an exaggerated ‘brave face’ persona, or turning inwards. The supporting cast, even smaller roles such as Hinode’s older sister, are all given something of a backstory and personality, helping to make them more than just window dressing.

The art, animation and elemental effects all create a tangible world that also seems to echo the characters emotional states. The warmth of the sun, the dampness of the rain, are all palpable, and the subtle environmental details create a believable setting. Even the magical world of the cats is presented in a realistic way (although it is hard to see how cats managed to construct walkways and cable cars). The score, by Mina Kubota, is perfect for the film, blending eerie mystery when the cat salesman appears with the sentimental, romanticism of Miyo and Hinode’s relationship. The traditional fantasy elements in a modern setting is something that is reflected in the music, with various instruments and styles contemplating both the contemporary romance or the older, more mysterious, magical moments.

“A Whisker Away” is a film that bolsters a familiar teen romance story with more difficult themes of dealing with loss. The separation of Miyo’s parents and her ostracization by classmates is upsetting to watch and gives a deeper understanding of her over-the-top clowning as an attempt to deal with it. The film works well for children and adults in that sense, with a magical romance for younger viewers, while older viewers will latch on to the difficulties in introducing children to new partners, or being a new parent to a child. There is also a strong theme of being able to express yourself that runs throughout, both in the story of the children and the adults. It contrasts the relaxed life of a cat, with that of humans, whose lives are filled with difficulties. The cat salesman offers Miyo an easy way out, but one that will not result in true happiness. In order to get what she wants, she must face up to people and the world. A hugely enjoyable family film with beautiful animation and a story that is engaging for viewers of all ages.

My World (2021) by Murantin.

A man (Yoshitaka Ishizuka) wakes up naked in a park. Gathering his clothes from nearby he wanders the streets of an eerie uninhabited world. He seems drawn to a library and when he leaves he looks up at the night sky to see planet earth above him. Later he meets a schoolgirl (Yuka Funahashi) who takes him back to her home. She treats him kindly, feeding him and playing Othello with him, but handcuffs him up in the basement when her boyfriend is coming round. Later the man sees another woman (Misato Akizawa) in a red dress at the library, which stirs memories that threaten to expose dark secrets and unravel the mysteries of this strange world.

“My World” is much like seeing the scattered pieces of a puzzle and being asked to reconstruct the narrative from them. It sets up several intriguing mysteries, adding a few more as things progress. Why is he waking up naked in the park? Why is the world apparently uninhabited besides him and a couple of other people? Who are the girl and the woman in the red dress? All of these questions are answered throughout the film, but it requires concentration to put it all together. On occasion the film slips into more abstract, art-house territory, a visceral, emotional jolt that keys us in to the fact that things perhaps aren’t meant to be taken literally. The film plays with space and time, creating this liminal dimension where we are as disoriented as the protagonist, not sure whether he is alive or dead, awake or dreaming. The soundtrack by Hisayuki Ishikura captures the bizarre, otherworldy tone perfectly, a blend of industrial electronica, and percussion that could almost be the protagonists psyche leaking into the score, at times a scramble of freestyle drumming and at others a sinister metronomic click-clock. The actors do a good job with their characters who remain mysterious but with enough depth to make them engaging.

The film is a fantastic mystery-box for those who enjoy analysing and picking apart clues in the visuals and dialogue. While much of the puzzle is explained, not explicitly but with enough information to grasp what is happening, it does leave a number of things open to speculation. There is a psychological element to the film, with the ‘world’ that the man finds himself in being partly of his own construction. As a short film, just over an hour, it is an entertaining watch, moving along briskly enough that there is always something new to concentrate on. There are also many memorable moments, almost dreamlike in their effect, such as the image of earth hanging silently in the night sky, and the more arthouse moments with the protagonist in a stark white space. Definitely worth checking out if you are a fan of this kind of surreal, arthouse mystery.