Ashura (2005) by Yojiro Takita

As dark forces mass, a fearless Demon Warden fights to protect humanity from the hellish horde in this historical-fantasy epic. After an incident in which he struck down a young child, famed Demon Warden Izumo (Somegoro Ichikawa) leaves the profession, beginning a new career as a popular Kabuki actor. Meanwhile, Bizan (Kanako Higuchi) a demon witch, along with the help of Izumo’s former colleague Jaku (Atsuro Watabe), works to bring about the revival of Ashura, the demon overlord, whose re-emergence will in turn see demons once again overrun the earth. Izumo meets a mysterious woman, Tsubaki (Rie Miyazawa), who has no memory of her past and the two are set on a path that will lead them to the edge of Armageddon.

“Ashura”, directed by Yojiro Takita, is an action fantasy based on the mythology of dark demon gods who delight in destruction. The film’s elaborate sets and exquisite costumes beautifully capture the period and it is fun to see the depiction of kabuki performances which play a role in the drama. The film itself is reminiscent of a theatrical production, not only in the melodramatic plot and acting, but the way that scenes play out in small sets, similar to “Kwaidan” (1964). There is a sub-plot running throughout of a kabuki playwright who follows Izumo to get inspiration for what may be his greatest story yet. Perhaps because of these comedic interpolations the film occasionally lacks a sense of threat and urgency, partly alienating us from the drama. Takita’s previous film “When the Last Sword is Drawn”, also employed a framing device which distanced the audience from the action. The fight choreography is strong, with a great sequence early on in which the demon-wardens attempt to clear a town of its demonic inhabitants. The CG and visual effects are hit and miss, often unnecessary and undermining the incredible set design and the film is certainly strongest when the fantasy elements are depicted more subtly, such as the demon at the beginning who sings a melancholic tune, setting the scene for what is to follow.

Japan has a rich tradition of mythology, demon-lore, and fantasy tales to draw from and “Ashura” does a good job of bringing to life this epic of men versus the forces of evil. The central twist in the story is evident early on, but still provides some degree of tension as we contemplate what will happen to the characters when they find out. The most interesting character is Tsubaki, whose qualms over who or what she is affect our emotional involvement with the film. It questions the nature of evil and whether it can be overcome or halted by rationality or even love. “Ashura” will appeal to fantasy fans, with prophecies, witches, demon-hunters and demon gods, sword-fighting and romance capturing the best elements of the genre.

Summer Time Machine Blues (2005) by Katsuyuki Motohiro

During a sweltering summer heatwave, members of a high-school science-fiction club find themselves in a pinch when they break the remote for the air-conditioning in their clubhouse. An unlikely hero arrives in the form of Tamura, a time-traveller from the future, whose time-machine may offer a solution to their problems. The group begin experimenting, zipping back and forward through time to attempt to fix the broken air-conditioning remote. However, they soon realise that their tampering with time may have unintended consequences.

“Summer Time Machine Blues” is a feel-good summer comedy that manages to spin a wild tale from a very simple premise. It takes a little time to get going with the opening sequence, showing the members of the club playing baseball and at the local baths, providing an introduction to the characters. However, once the time-machine appears the pace picks up, with trips back into the first scenes making great use of the concept and low-budget, largely showing things from different angles or how seemingly innocuous events were caused by their time-travelling. Largely set around the clubhouse, the film manages to tie things together in a satisfactory way, explaining even the most minor details as due to their actions. The older cast seem out-of-place playing the childish students and the comedy is often rather forced, but the energetic plot and the way the film weaves together the narrative with characters in different time periods makes for an enjoyable watch. There is fun to be had in noticing details from earlier reoccuring in later scenes and realising the connections between their actions and consequences.

Time-travel always provides an interesting element to a film, with its related possibilities and paradoxes. The creators of “Summer Time Machine Blues”, clearly have a love for the genre and fit in many of these familiar ideas (the film includes “Back to the Future” showing at a local cinema). By taking such a ridiculous reason for travelling back, to fix the air-con remote, the film punctures the often pretentious nature of such narratives, with ideas of fate and free will seeming somewhat grandiose when set aside such an everyday concern. The story has a lighthearted feel that doesn’t concern itself overly with thematic depth or even character development; but works well as a summer farce.

Noriko’s Dinner Table (2005) by Sion Sono

17-year old Noriko Shimabara (Kazue Fukiishi) lives at home with her father Tetsuzo (Ken Mitsuishi), her mother Taeko (Sanae Miyata), and her younger sister, Yuka (Yuriko Yoshitaka). Bored of life in their rural hometown of Tokoyama, Noriko leaves travels to Tokyo to meet another young woman she met online. This woman is Kumiko (Tsugumi), who runs a “family rental” business, where people who have lost loved ones can hire them to act as their family on a short or long term basis. Noriko is followed by her younger sister Yuka, both of them taking on aliases, Mitsuko and Yoko. After the death of his wife, their father, Tetsuzo, begins to investigate their whereabouts, at first believing this to be connected to the mysterious “Suicide Club” cult that is growing in notoriety following the mass suicide of a group of schoolgirls at Shinjuku Station.

Written and directed by Sion Sono, this film takes place in the same timeframe as his earlier film “Suicide Club”, and is linked tangentially through subtle nods and more explicit references. While there is some overlap in the themes of the two films, “Noriko’s Dinner Table” is vastly different in tone. The film is divided in to chapters, each giving a perspective of a different character, and there are long stretches of narration further heightening the novelistic style. This helps keep the film feeling fresh over a two and a half hour runtime, as we switch back and forth between different characters, their actions and thoughts. Tomoki Hasegawa again provides a score that is melodic and contemplative. At heart the film is a coming-of-age story, about a young woman striving for her freedom and a sense of individuality and personality. Kazue Fukishii gives an outstanding performance in role of Noriko, feeling trapped by her small home town and discovering her confidence in the persona of Mitsuko. Tsugumi’s Kumiko is a disturbing example of a woman entirely detached from those around her, lacking any human connection. Ken Mitsushi’s Tetsuzo has perhaps the most upsetting chapter (in a strong field), as a father who has lost both his daughters and his wife through his obliviousness to their needs and feelings. His work as a reporter is a cruel irony as he struggles to uncover the reason behind his children’s disappearances, apparently unaware of what is happening to his family.

“Noriko’s Dinner Table” is a film about finding your identity and learning how to relate to others, with the unusual “family rental” company being a great way to explore this. It allows for a discussion of family relations as a form of acting, or as something transactional. This alienation from the direct family, with characters only playing the part of daughters or wives, allows them to better understand what is required of them and also what their own desires are. As with “Suicide Club” there are a number of strong visual metaphors employed, such as the snapping off of a thread on a coat to symbolise a break from family control or a fresh start. Philosophical discussions about the importance of reciprocity in human relations, again abstracted to a discussion about “flowers” and vases”; about life as a circle; and about the imperfect nature of life; are handled well leaving enough nuance and subtlety for interpretation. This notion of life as an imperfect, ever changing, is what the film captures beautifully, by not attempting to give any moral message; but instead portraying a dysfunctional family and flawed characters, and asking the audience to consider human relationships in all their complexity. For all its bizarre moments and brief flashes of violence, “Noriko’s Dinner Table” is a relatable story of the timeless adolescent desire to strike out and make your own way in life, on the way discovering who you are and what is important to you.

Reincarnation (2005) by Takashi Shimizu

Nagisa Sugiura (Yuka) is auditioning for a role in a film adaptation of a real-life murder story. Many years before a man killed eleven people at a hotel in Gunma, including his own son and daughter. Nagisa is cast to play the young 10-year old daughter who was murdered, but things soon take a sinister turn when she begins to see visions of this girl and starts to wonder if there is something supernatural going on. Another actress, Yuka (Marika Matsumoto), a firm believer in reincarnation tells her this could be a possible explanation, something hinted at throughout. As work begins on the film the director Matsumura (Kippei Shiina) takes the cast and crew to the hotel where this horrific incident took place and Nagisa begins to spiral into a nightmare somewhere between memory and hallucination.

Directed by Takashi Shimizu (The Grudge, Marebito) from a screenplay by Shimizu and Masaki Adachi. “Reincarnation” is a chilling experience, mixing a haunted hotel mystery with psychological horror. By setting up the film within a film, the writers create doubt about what is going on that continues until the final moments. We are never sure how much of what we are seeing is real, or whether Nagisa is hallucinating. This sense of unease is pervasive, particularly later in the film, as it is not only the characters but the audience themselves whose sense of reality is being toyed with. Whereas many horror films offer an easy escape, the villain of this piece is not easily identifiable, and so impossible to counter. This sense of an unstable reality is heightened with great use of practical effects, such as the appearance of the young girl who was murdered at various moments. The editing also plays with the sense of space, by having the camera move from the real world of Nagisa, into her imagination, through the memories and old footage of the incident, and the constructed set of the film. This perfectly captures her increasingly warped psyche as she tries to establish what is happening to her. The music by Kenji Kawai (Dark Water) creates a dark atmosphere with echoing strings and synth providing an ominous backdrop to the action. The use of creaks and knocks and later the whirring of an old-fashioned camera help to build a soundscape that is terrifying without the need for bombast. The film builds a quiet dread throughout, rarely relying on gore or shock moments, but a creeping terror that draws you in and has you on the edge of your seat. The simplest of effects are done with finesse, such as the child’s doll that comes to life, or the sudden traumatic flashes of murder victims that assault Nagisa when they visit the hotel. Much of this imagery gets under the skin and troubles you long after it has passed, creating that feeling of an ineffable darkness waiting beyond this world. The terror of the unknown is brought to the fore. There are moments that don’t make strict logical sense, such as Nagisa’s casting as a 10-year old girl. However, this matters very little in the overall scheme of things, as we get the full psychological and emotional weight of what Nagisa is going through in a way that may have been diluted if everything was neatly explained. Yuka gives a great performance as the haunted and terrified Nagisa, capturing her descent into fear and panic as she struggles to untangle the strange web of unfamiliar memories she is caught in.

“Reincarnation” relies on familiar tropes, such as restless spirits and revenge, but does everything so well that it is a model of how these stories should be told. The idea of ghosts returning to life to seek vengeance plays on the primal fear of the unknown. Death is the great boundary that people can only cross in one direction and the thought that there may be two-way traffic is disturbing. It also ties into notions of guilt and shame about tragic events that have happened and the inability of people to change them. Nagisa is deeply troubled by the events of the past. We also witness her feelings being dismissed or disbelieved by those around her, again offering a deeper layer of horror to events. Not only is she beginning to lose any solid foundation for her reality, she increasingly has nobody to turn to for reassurance. “Reincarnation” is an excellent example of a film with great scares born of the concept and characters, truly terrifying in parts, with a dark twist.