Cold Fish (2010) by Sion Sono

Nobuyuki Shamoto (Mitsuru Fukikoshi) is the owner of a small fish store. Together with his wife, Taeko (Megumi Kagurazaka), and wayward daughter, Mitsuko (Hikari Kajiwara), they maintain a fairly unimpressive existence. When his daughter is caught stealing from a supermarket, she is helped out by Yukio Murata (Denden), a rival fish store owner who offers her a job at his store. Murata is comical, arrogant, outgoing, everything Shamoto is not. But soon things take a turn for the worse when Shamoto discovers that Murata’s jolly façade hides a much darker, violent character.

The film is well written with the mysteries surrounding Murata and the psychological and physical violence building to a screaming crescendo in the final act. It is far from an easy watch, with scenes of rape, abuse and very graphic scenes of dismemberment, but with director Sion Sono’s trademark black humour running through it. The main actors are fantastic. Fukikoshi does a great job of portraying the timid, disgusted Shamoto, and he does an incredible job of making this unimaginable transformation believable. The unhinged couple of Murata and his wife, a delightfully unhinged performance from Asuka Kurosawa, are also genuinely chilling with sudden changes from bright humour to dark violent moods. The film is long but almost every scene, whether the visceral, violent murders or the sharp dialogue are riveting. Shiya Kimura’s cinematography is stunning and the film almost revels in creating something beautiful out of a subject matter that is dark and nihilistic. The music by Tomohide Harada helps increase the sense of danger and draw you into the film.

“Cold Fish” may appeal to lovers of gore and exploitation cinema, and there is no shortage of shocking scenes, but, the film also expresses an underlying philosophy of alienation and nihilism that means the violence is far from gratuitous. The dissociative, sadomasochistic characters act in a world where the violence serves to puncture a sense of ennui which plagues them otherwise. The film offers no easy answers with the finale being an increasingly sickening display of human psychopathy. If you are a fan of this genre of blackly comedic, hyper-violent thrillers, then this is definitely a recommended watch. Enjoyably disturbing film.

Tokyo Drifter (1966) by Seijun Suzuki

Tetsuya (Tetsuya Watari) is a young gangster loyal to his boss Kurata (Ryuji Kita). Kurata has decided to go straight and Tetsuya with him. Tetsuya earns the ire of rival gang leader Otsuka (Hideaki Esumi), by refusing to join with them. Things are further complicated by a real estate deal involving a third boss, Ishii. Tensions run high and bullets start to fly, leading to a number of deaths. Kurata tells Tetsu to leave Tokyo and his singer girlfriend, Chiharu (Chieko Matsubara), and head north. But trouble is never far behind and he soon finds his loyalties being tested.

With constraints on both time and money, director Suzuki managed to create up a film that has all the razzle-dazzle pop elements associated with the 1960’s generation alongside the unpredictable violence of the gangster genre. The story, by Yasunori Kawauchi, is straightforward enough, introducing several main players and a series of dodgy deals and double-crosses. Tetsuya is a likeable hero, sharp-suited and sharp-shooting, and Tetsuya Watari brings an effortless cool to the role in keeping with the youthful feel of the film. Suzuki uses colour to great effect and in a way that might at first seems at odds with the genre. Gone are murky hideouts and chiaroscuro lighting associated with the yakuza, replaced by brightly lit rooms painted in garish colours. There is comic-strip style to both the story and the staging, which, alongside some unusual editing, musical-like sequences of the main character singing the theme song, give the film a peculiarly tongue-in-cheek feel. It is a film that waltzes light-footed through the genre, absolutely nailing the most thrilling aspects of yakuza stories, while at the same time being a one-of-a-kind piece . The music by Hajime Kaburagi picks out the upbeat and enjoyable vibe of the film, with a jazz and pop infused score.

“Tokyo Drifter” deals with several themes familiar to the yakuza genre, primarily ideas of honour and the difficulty in breaking out of a life of crime. Tetsuya is a man who shows utter loyalty to his boss, who is like a surrogate father to him, in a world where loyalty is often poorly rewarded. His choice of profession means that he is doomed to be an outsider, unable to form significant relationships with others. This is typified in his interactions with Chiharu, who he is forced to abandon when things become too dangerous. Where “Tokyo Drifter” succeeds is in its depiction of the period. The stark contrast of colourful discotheques and the bright lights of the city with the lonely hideaways of the yakuza gives the sense of youth culture going on above the surface while underground the old rivalries persist. The film’s primary aim is to entertain. It is pulp entertainment elevated to an art form by a director with boundless creativity who doesn’t take himself or his art too seriously.

An Actor’s Revenge (1963) by Kon Ichikawa

Yukinojo (Kazuo Hasegawa) is a female impersonator working at a travelling theatre company. During a performance in Edo she finds a small group in the audience who were responsible for her parents’ tragic deaths. These are Lord Sansai Dobe (Ganjiro Nakamura), Kawaguchiya (Saburo Date) and Hiromiya (Eijiro Yanagi). Yukinojo is set on a course of revenge against this trio, though simply killing them will not suffice; he wishes to see them suffer madness before facing their ultimate fate. A side-story involves a thief, Ohatsu (Fujiko Yamamoto) and her accomplices, who get caught up in Yukinojo’s quest for retribution.

“An Actor’s Revenge” sets out its stall in the opening moments as Yukinojo fixes his eyes on his victims. What appears at first to be a simple revenge story, soon turns into a careful exploration of what this quest for vengeance means for Yukinojo and the psychology of revenge. At first cold and sly, we see Yukinojo become genuinely upset as she realises that she is in part destroying herself through her actions. She is consumed by her desire to see them punished and with each life she takes she knows she will become less herself and more a killer. The idea of actors, roles, masks and false identities, plays well against this backdrop. It set up the twisted tale quite nicely with the notion that people may not be what they seem. The audience come to realise that it is not only Yukinojo who is disguising a secret, but almost every character has a hidden life they are concealing from the world. Sexual politics, surprisingly perhaps, does not play a major role in the story, although Yukinojo’s appearance or transformation is mentioned several times, often in a derogatory way. It is interesting to contrast his story with that of Ohatsu, as the two could be considered to have swapped genders in terms of more traditional roles. Ohatsu is very much a woman in a man’s world, taking on their values and outdoing them in callousness, while Yukinojo embodies feminine wiles and compassion for her victims. A stunning film to look at with exceptional performances, a thrillingly dark revenge story with a peculiar hero, and a fantastic score.

From the opening shots of a Kabuki performance, the film is beautifully shot, and continues this theatrical aesthetic with actors’ careful movements, vibrant colours, and excellent use of framing. This gives “An Actor’s Revenge” a stylish look and blurs the line to some extent between the life on stage and reality. The screenplay by Natto Wada, shows a flair for dialogue, with conversations driving the majority of the action. It captures a range of voices and knows exactly when to withhold certain information (such as the precise details of Yukinojo’s father’s death) for maximum impact later on. Yukinojo’s own story has all the elements of a great drama, a tragedy spurring our hero to revenge, feelings of guilt or procrastination over what he must do, and a cast of colourful characters, both comedic and sinister to enliven the story. Kazuo Hasegawa’s performance as Yukinojo is exceptional as he undergoes several transformations and seems in genuine moral distress over his course of action. Hasegawa also plays one of the thieves, Yamitaro, a duel role that is commented on by the characters for their likeness to one another. Fujiko Yamamoto gives a thrilling turn as the cool and calculating Ohatsu, a woman totally in charge of her less capable followers. The orchestral score by Tamekichi Mochizuki and Masao Yagi, with piano, strings and harp, is the perfect counterpart to the sumptuous cinematography. There are a number of leitmotifs used throughout for certain moments or characters, and the music is carefully weighted to lend impact where required.

My Neighbours the Yamadas (1999)

Nonoka is the youngest child of the Yamadas, an ordinary family living in Japan. She lives with her older brother, her mother and father, and her grandmother. The film is a series of vignettes showing their everyday interactions. In one of the early segments we see Nonoka being left at a supermarket by her family after she falls asleep, and their panicked attempts to find her again. Another shows attempts by the father to bond with his son. While they are not tied together by theme or an overarching plot, these segments give a full picture of family life that is sure to resonate with many people.

The film is based on a manga by Hisaichi Ishii with a screenplay by director Isao Takahata. The story feels very much like a serialised comic strip, with some scenes being no more than a single joke or reflection on family life. They  are punctuated by haiku which give a wry reflection on the behaviours of the characters, by creating a poetic image to symbolise the commonplace experiences. The animation is done in digital watercolours, that give the sense of a moving picture book. Similarly, the chaptered approach keeps things interesting. There is no real structure and the film is more akin to watching a series of shorts than a single narrative. The humour in the film is well-observed, relying on the family dynamics and characters. In particular, the bickering between husband and wife, the grandmother’s nonchalant rudeness, or Nonoka’s stoic acceptance of the bizarre situations she encounters. The script in this regard is excellent in reflecting everyday conversations between family members and different generations. There is also great use of fantasy sequences that are perhaps a reference to Nonoka’s understanding of events. The melodic piano score and bright visuals create a peaceful atmosphere that gives levity to any threat, such as the parents losing their daughter, or confronting a biker gang.

“My Neighbours the Yamadas” is a film that has a timeless quality, with eternally relevant subject matter, and an art style that is sure to be enjoyed for years to come. There is a poignancy to several scenes that manages to compliment the humour without becoming overbearing. This is a film that can be appreciated by different generations, with different experiences and perspectives colouring their response to the film. Children are sure to find humorous parallels to their own lives, while adults may share the parents’ frustrations at older relatives. Overall, the film is a joyful experience that manages to perfectly capture the family experience.

Tokyo Zombie (2005)

Mitsuo (Show Aikawa) and Fujio (Tadanobu Asano) are employed at a fire extinguisher factory nearby “Black Fuji”, a giant rubbish tip that has grown to gargantuan size. The two friends spend their breaks, and most of their work time, practising jujitsu together. When their boss dies the two travel to “Black Fuji” to dispose of the corpse. The mountain, full of everything people wish to dispose of, appears to be resurrecting the dead and soon there are zombies roaming the streets. After several narrow scrapes, during which Mitsuo is bitten, the story jumps forwards in time five years. Tokyo is now a post-apocalyptic society, with the rich living in palatial towers while those less fortunate are left with the zombies on the lower levels. In honour of his mentor, Fujio earns money as a fighter in an arena where the poor and zombies are forced to fight for the entertainment of wealthy Tokyoites.

Based on a manga by Yusaku Hankuma with a screenplay by director Sakichi Sato (who also produced the screenplays for Takashi Miike’s “Ichi the Killer” and “Gozu”), “Tokyo Zombie” is a black zombie comedy that is sadly lacking in enough humour or gore to make it truly exceptional. Tadanobu Asano and Show Aikawa give decent performances in the lead roles, but there is little for them to do except clowning around. They are cast as dim slackers that find themselves unexpectedly in the worst of all possible situations. There are a couple of character moments, but for the most part their interactions consist of low brow slapstick and crass humour. This would not be a problem if the material was stronger. The film has a couple of fun moments, both blackly comic (with gruesome deaths) and more farcical (when the pair realise they have been driving south instead of north away from the disaster), but many of the gags fall flat and there is a recurring joke that is overused (despite being unfunny the first time around). It is a film that comes up short in every department, neither wacky enough to satisfy comedy fans, or gory enough to satisfy horror fans. There are flashes of what could have been throughout, such as in the animated segment, but these are overwhelmed by the long stretches of drama that offer little in the way of entertainment.

“Tokyo Zombie” is a disappointing film for a number of reasons. Firstly, the two leads are both fine actors and they are not without talent in comedic roles, they are simply underused with cheap material and a lack of character. Secondly, the film feels almost restrained at times. For something with this premise, and no real requirement for realism or sincerity, it could have really pushed the boundaries in terms of surrealism or taste. It often seems like it is playing things safe, with fairly standard comedy fare, and needlessly so since the premise is so ridiculous it has nothing to lose from going for a more extreme tone. The film touches on several issues, that while not exactly unique in the genre, could have been utilised better to create a more satisfying experience. Unfortunately, ideas of societal inequality, environmental issues, and the central theme of loyalty and friendship, never really see their potential realised with any kind of payoff later in the film.