The Fable: The Killer Who Doesn’t Kill (2021) by Kan Eguchi

Following on directly from the first “Fable” film, we find the legendary hitman (Junichi Okada) living under his secret identity of Akira Sato in Osaka, alongside his associate posing as his sister (Fumino Kimura). He is still working at the design company alongside Misaki (Mizuki Yamamoto) and Kainuma (Masao Yoshii). Sato’s past comes back to haunt him in the form of Utsubo (Shinichi Tsutsumi), a former target who is now running a non-profit organization for disadvantaged children as a front for his criminal activities. Four years ago Fable took down five members of his group, but was called off killing Utsubo himsel. Utsubo is out to avenge his brother’s death. Sato is also reunited with a young woman, Hinako (Yurina Hirate) who he saved from the gang, but whose spine was damaged in the rescue.

“The Killer Who Doesn’t Kill” is an enjoyable follow up to the first film, delivering the same mix of action and comedy. The first film had its problems with uneven tone and pacing, neither of which are fixed here. Essentially this sequel succeeds and fails in all the same ways as the previous film. The film recycles several weak gags, such as the Jackal Tomioka and hot food elements of Fable’s character, and again the odd blend of slapstick alongside genuinely gruesome killings and abuse is often hard to reconcile. The opening action sequence is incredible and there are some highly entertaining and inventive action moments, with use of extreme slow-motion to show Fable’s incredible reflexes. The film often seems at a loss when outside of these action moments, struggling to know exactly what to do with the characters, who are largely stereotypical action heroes or villains. The story of Hinako is a welcome addition, adding some much needed emotion and the way the characters backstories are intertwined is interesting. This time there is far more of a connection to Fable’s past and therefore it feels far more meaningful. Yoko is also given more to do in this film, showing her own martial prowess.

Fans of the first film will enjoy this and it delivers some fantastic fight scenes and action. It is hard to see why they wouldn’t simply go for a straight-up action film, retaining some of the better character-led comedy while removing the sillier elements. It’s a missed opportunity as taken individually there are some incredible scenes, but it often feels like two distinct films spliced together, one an ultra-violent and stylish underworld thriller and the other a wacky comedy. Overall, the film is an improvement on the first and certainly has elements to recommend it despite its flaws.

We Couldn’t Become Adults (2021) by Yoshihiro Mori

A man in his mid-40’s begins to think back on his previous relationships and heartbreak. Makoto Sato (Mirai Moriyama) is working as a graphic designer, creating animations and visuals for television. Suddenly confronted by middle-age, and realising he has become, in his words, “boring”, he begins to reminisce about his life and how he ended up here. He begins writing a memoir, working backwards through the years as we see his most recent relationship that ended badly due to his lack of commitment; a liaison with Sue (Sumire), and perhaps his most meaningful and poignant relationship with Kaori Kato (Sairi Ito).

Directed by Yoshihiro Mori, with a screenplay by Ryo Takada based on Moegara’s book of the same name, “We Couldn’t Become Adults” has a reverse chronological narrative, beginning in the present and taking us through the 2000’s to the 1990’s. While this is an interesting way to tell the story, but often hinders attempts to understand and relate to Sato’s character. In Christopher Nolan’s “Memento”, this backwards narrative served to bring us to an appreciation of the way the character’s memories worked, while here it distances us from the character (who presumably has a chronological memory of these events). A better approach may have been to mix the memories up, perhaps to better draw together repeating symbols or moments, such as the breakups, or the beginnings of relationships, places where Sato made the same mistakes or was influenced by earlier experiences. It requires a lot of the audience in asking them to remember scenes through the reverse-chronology and piece the narrative together at the end. The story running backwards also unfortunately undermines some of the emotionality of the film, as we are not shown the character’s relationships before the breakup, but vice versa. Despite this the film does feature some fantastic performances, from Mirai Moriyama and Sairi Ito in particular. Their understated romance is believable, with its own quirks, and the couple have good chemistry. As in life things move along, and Sato recalls his past as a series of memorable moments that have meaning for him. The film does a great job of depicting the quiet night streets of Tokyo, a sense of emptiness amongst this mass of humanity.

“We Couldn’t Become Adults” is a downbeat, often depressing film, especially for those who have been through failed relationships or are nearing middle-age. The character of Sato is sympathetic in his belief that he has not achieved anything, that his life has led him nowhere, his melancholy further exacerbated by an inability to commit to relationships following past heartbreak with Kaori. The film’s reverse narrative symbolises this human characteristic of constantly looking backwards, searching for meaning in the past, that can often hinder progress. Sato is stuck in the past, but also (as the adage goes) doomed to repeat it. His relationships fail because he is always judging them against an idealised vision of the past. So while the film takes us back from his less-than-perfect present situation, to what he believes was the best part of his life, we also realise that his current depression and loneliness is due perhaps to a misremembering of this same past, and inability to recognize the positives that he has missed along the way. The film is a nuanced character study of a man repeatedly failing to deal with heartbreak, and trapped in his own memories of happier times. Excellent performances and cinematography certainly make it worth a watch, but at times it can be a difficult experience to witness this man’s yearning for a joy that will remain permanently out of reach.

Kyoshin (2021) by Keiichi Higuchi

Takehiko (Akihiro Yamamoto) is an incredibly sensitive empath: a man capable of physically experiencing the pain others are suffering. Following a traumatic incident in which Takehiko and a friend (Keisuke Soma) were witness to a violent rape, he finds himself unable to masturbate without severe physical pain. He decides to participate in an experimental therapy. The therapist Shiori (Mitsuki Moriyama) is also an empath, with a traumatic history of her own, and the two of them work together through a series of sessions, often erotically charged, in an attempt to separate Takehiko’s own feelings from those of others. Shiori has been helped by her boss (Kimika Yoshino) with whom she is also romantically involved.  Meanwhile, Takehiko’s elder brother (Daichi Yamaguchi) is struggling to please his boss who sees his attempts to help his brother as unecessary coddling of him.

Written and directed by Keiichi Higuchi, “Kyoshin” is a psychological thriller with dark themes of depression, rape, sucide and trauma. Early in the film Takehiko references the 27 club, a group of famous singers who all died at that age. Being 26 himself he wonders if he will make it through his next year. The world of “Kyoshin” is a disturbing one, filled with suffering, death, sexual abuse, and one that someone who can feel the physical pain of others would find hard to live in. The film does a good job of making the concept of this kind of empath believable, even when Takeru is able to feel the physical pain of objects such as a can being crushed. The clinical setting of Shiori and Takehiko’s sessions somehow heightens the eroticism and sense of threat, magnifying the intensity of the emotions by placing them in such a cold, institutional space. The story is unconventional and often experimental in style, drifting into sequences that appear to be set inside Takehiko’s psych. There are a number of things in the film that are left ambiguous and it offers few easy answers to either what is happening or any possible solution. The whole cast do an incredible job in creating believable characters, in the case of Yamamoto and Moriyama they manage to convey a palpable frisson of sexual tension and also pain in their scenes together. Daichi Yamaguchi also excels as Takehiko’s elder brother, whose miserable existence, being constantly harrassed by his boss, and his love for his brother makes him a hugely sympathetic character. In a film that is all about interpersonal relationships and the distance between people, Higuchi’s direction, the framing of scenes and blocking of actors, manages to convey these things subtly and without drawing too much attention to them. Again, particularly in the scenes with Takehiko and Shiori where we see her moving behind him, or circling around him, there is a sense of their relationship developing.

Many films take as their theme the modern fascination with alienation, people who have lost all connection to the world or ability to feel anything. “Kyoshin” looks at things from the other angle and asks what would happen if someone were able to feel too much. With a protagonist who suffers all the evils and harms of the world as if they were happening to him. While the empathic condition depicted may be an exaggeration it is nevertheless a perfect representation of conditions such as anxiety or post-traumatic stress, which may cause similar feelings of distress when being confronted with dangerous situations. The complete disregard and lack of understanding his elder brother’s boss shows to this situation is also a sad indictment of much of societies apathy to mental health issues and sufferers. Takehiko is largely left to suffer alone. The subject matter, including sexual assault and suicide mean it is not always an easy watch, but they are handled delicately in a powerful film that has an important message about mental health.

Parallel (2021) by Daiki Tanaka

A gory, shocking, stylised crime drama with themes of revenge and abuse. The film begins with a young girl, Mai, being abused by her parents, putting out cigarrettes on her, locking her in a cupboard, and hints of sexual molestation. The girl is saved from this despicable situation by a cross-dressing murderer who breaks into their apartment and slays her parents. Years later Mai (Momona Naraha) is working as an escort with her friend Kana (Koyuki Sugasawa), when she meets Mikio (Sojiro Yoshimura), who unbeknownst to her is the notorious ‘cosplay killer’ responsible for several murders. Mikio is a reclusive figure, whose shy demeanour gives no indication of his criminal activities. He is also the anonymous author of a popular anime show, which is a colourful metaphor for his crimes and an attempt to reconcile the evil in the world and his own past traumas.

Written and directed by Daiki Tanaka, “Parallel” combines a superhero narrative of a young girl rescued from depraved parents and a man fighting to redress the balance of good and bad in society, with a gory exploitation flick, with lashings of blood and brutal slayings. The film’s stylish cinematography and use of colourful lighting creates an oddly joyous atmosphere, distancing the audience from the horror of many of the killings. Along with the techno soundtrack, an excellent score provided by Kenji Kato, they become more entertaining than disturbing. This strange contrast is also seen in Mikio’s wearing a cutesy character mask and wig during the crimes, offsetting the violence with an unsuitably cheery aesthetic. Momona Naraha and Sojiro Yoshimura do a great job with their characters, both struggling with bitter memories from their past, deeply broken individuals who nevertheless have hopes and dreams of a better tomorrow. The scenes between the two of them are a thrilling mix of danger, vulnerability, romance, and youthful uncertainty.

On the surface the film has an exploitation feel, with many of the killings being extremely gory and over the top. However, this contrasts with Mai’s story, which is deeply upsetting and the film does not hold back with its depictions of violence and the psychological distress that follows. The opening sequence is hard to watch as they feature a young girl being tormented, but it sets up perfectly Mai’s later difficulties in coming to terms with what happened and who she is. Her path, becoming an escort, turning inwards, is vastly different to Mikio, who sets about killing those he considers a negative influence in society. Both of these individuals see their suffering as external, something to be shied away from or attacked, rather than accepting their own vulnerabilities and attempting to change themselves from within. The film discusses transformation as an important part of the process of recovering, moving beyond defining yourself solely as a victim, and it is this capacity for change that both are attempting to discover. “Parallel” also discusses the role of media in constructing stereotypes or escapist fantasies to deal with difficult situations. Mikio’s anime is a thinly veiled allegory for real world events, even using the transvestite killer as one of the characters. In one scene we see Mikio dancing with the television, capturing his desire to escape into that world, and his crimes are also reflective of a revenge fantasy. In this regard the film has its cake and eats it, being both a contemplative discussion of victims recovering from abuse, and media as an unhelpful distraction, while also being a gory revenge thriller that sees bad people get their comeuppance. Highly entertaining, “Parallel” will appeal to those who enjoy gory crime films, but be warned that the subject matter can be distressing.

Manzai Conflict (2021) by Kenya Okubo

A manzai double-act called “Ashtray Brothers”, who specialize in off-colour material see their relationship fall apart in this bleak drama. The duo are banned from performing at a club as their act is unsuitable for most customers, with subjects ranging from family murder, rape, and other perversions. The writer Tsukaguchi (Saimen Tatsutaka) is determined to perform manzai in his own way, as rude and abrasive as possible. Following one of their shows, Kunimatsu (Kuregonta) is offered a job performing on television if he works alone and cleans up his act. This once-in-a-lifetime opportunity is the polar opposite of what Tsukaguchi seems to want for the pair though. Tsukaguchi’s alcoholism and womanizing soon lead him to conflict with his girlfriend too, and he soon starts to see his life unravel before him, consumed by anger and jealousy, as his friend and girlfriend desert him.

Written by director Kenya Okubo and lead actor Saimen Tatsutaka, “Manzai Conflict” is a difficult watch due to an unremittingly bleak tone and an unlikeable protagonist. Tsukaguchi has almost no redeeming characteristics, bullying Kunimatsu, mistreating his girlfriend, stubborn, violent and narcisistic. The film itself seems to delight in being transgressive and offensive. The long manzai set that begins the film features the two men performing their routine to no audience noise, leaving an uncomfortable silence for the viewer to watch this increasingly disturbing act, almost willing you to get up and leave yourself. It must be admitted that Saimen Tatsutaka’s gives a stunning performance, fully immersing himself in the despicable role, to the point where it is hard to dissociate the actor from the character. The other performances seem to feed off this energy, or cower from it, whipped around in the hurricane surrounding this one-man natural disaster. The film also features some excellent camerawork, with a grainy texture and grim atmosphere capturing the dark heart of the protagonist. The film has a short run-time at a little under 70-minutes and rattles along at a pace, really coming into its own in the latter half as Tsukaguchi’s mental state begins to deteriorate.

The main issue here is that the film lacks any real message. The narrative is challenging and transgressive in the same way as Tsukaguchi’s manzai act. Enjoying black humour is one thing, but when the protagonist seems to embody that same brutal misanthropy as his on stage persona it is very hard to have to watch. The film may have benefitted from showing more of Kunimatsu and Tsukaguchi’s girlfriend, to off-set this grim story and offer some contrast to the unremittingly depressing nature. However, that may be to miss the point of the film. If the intention is to provoke a response here, to have the audience feel something, even if it is stomach churning disgust or fist-clenching rage, then it is a success. The film forces us to witness this horrific individual, whose misplaced rage, egoism, and nihilistic outlook on the world see him spiral out of control. But without a counterpoint it often feels like more of a chore than a pleasure.