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.

Scherzo (2021) by Takayoshi Shiokawa and Kanta Tomatsu

Koji (Takayoshi Shiokawa) forgets everything, waking up each morning with no memory of his previous life. In fact, Koji is only a name he has chosen for himself as he is unable to remember his past. When he meets Hinako (Meiko), who suffers with the same condition, the two set out to find a way to restore their memories. When we first meet Koji, he is living in a part-built apartment, without any walls, and only a matress, chair and television furnishing the empty space. His bearded, unkempt appearance is explained by his condition, as he forgets to shave, his lack of memory meaning he is never able to progress, essentially each day seeming to him like his first and last. He has only few connections with the world, including a love of baseball, and documents his life with a digital video camera. Hinako is also a lost soul, unable to root her existence in anything permanent, until her connection with Koji provides some form of comfort and solidity.

Based on a screenplay by Takayoshi Shiokawa, who also plays the lead Koji, “Scherzo” is a poignant character study of a man who has lost touch with society. We never find out the cause of Koji or Hinako’s memory loss, the facts of the condition being less important than what it tells us about the modern world. It is a simple, effective way to portray two people who are adrift in society, directionless, lacking any real emotional connection to the world or others in it. The film excels at telling this story visually, with Koji’s living space being a perfect example, or the poignant shots of him alone at various popular date spots. The lack of walls, the snatches of scrawled memos, and the striking image of the television and chair, are rich in metaphor, giving us a powerful emotional sense of his mental state without the need for exposition. The film does provide moments of humour, such as Koji’s trip to a bar without any means of paying, or the first morning Koji and Hinako wake up together with no memory of who or where they are. These lighter moments help to puncture some of the sombre, existential dread that characterises much of the film. The performances, by Takayoshi Shioyokawa as Koji and Meiko as Hinako, are excellent, and the two work well together. It would be hard to call this even an unconventional romance, as other than their shared condition the two seem a poor match; but their chemistry and naturalistic performances are engaging. Much of the film is concerned with memory making, Koji’s video recorder and Hinako’s polaroid camera both playing an important role in telling the story. The film draws us into their wold by having cuts with a stark blue screen of a video camera breaking up scenes, and often switching to Koji’s recordings, creating an uneven sense of time passing, as if we are only seeing brief glimpses of their lives. Many sequences are filmed in a guerrila, documentary like style, feeling like an authentic date diary between the leads, further helping build empathy and understandig with them. In keeping with the classical music-inspired title, the film features a piano score that lends depth to the film. Late in the film we see a series of documentary style vox-pops asking people if there is anyone they love in the world. By using these genuine responses the film deftly sidesteps sentimentalism in expressing its central theme, the importance of human connection and affection.

The meaning of “Scherzo” as a short musical composition is telling as the title of the film. Both Koji and Hinako are only able to live their lives in the moment, a fleeting experience that is untethered from both the past and the future. The use of the camera, as well as being a novel storytelling device, also serves a thematic purpose, showing the impermenance and fallibility of memory. When Hinako questions the difference between a memory and a recording, it is a thought that stays with the viewer and one that colours much of what happens throughout the film. A second important thread to the film is the primacy of recordings and media in society, and perhaps an obsession with looking back rather than living in the moment. The film begins with a stacatto, distorted video of Hinako singing in the rain and Koji can often be seen looking over photographs and video in an attempt to recall things that have happened. The camera serves as both a useful tool for him, but also distances him from his experiences. Everything he receives is second hand, he is forever looking back on events, unable to recapture the emotions connected with them. In the positioning of the television and chair in his living space we also see a warning to a society fixated on media, as opposed to looking out to the world around them and having genuine experiences. An engaging film that raises interesting questions with an interesting concept and two fantastic lead performances.

Rurouni Kenshin: The Beginning (2021) by Keishi Otomo

Kenshin Himura (Takeru Sato) joins an anti-shogunate force led by Katsura Kogoro (Issey Takahashi), soon becoming one of their greatest assessins due to his unmatched skills with a sword. Himura meets a young woman Tomoe Yukishiro (Kasumi Arimura), recently bereaved after the man she was due to marry was cut down by Himura. Tomoe, overcome by grief, slowly comes to realise that Himura’s violent image masks a much more kind-hearted soul, and one that yearns for peace.

“Rurouni Kenshin: The Beginning” is a prequel to “Rurouni Kenshin: The Final”, and draws a lot of its tension from the viewing order (The Final being released first). Having seen “The Final”, and previous Kenshin films, we already know the fate of Kenshin and Tomoe, so at times this is a poignant watch not so much for what is happening on screen, but for what we know is coming later for these characters. Despite being a prequel, and the fifth in a series of lengthy historical epics, the film manages to feel fresh and inventive. The story is more sombre and melancholic than pervious entries. The fight sequences see a more brutal, violent, deadly, approach replacing the bombast, acrobatics and large scale battles of earlier films. This is fitting as we are seeing Himura in his previous incarnation as ‘Battosai the Killer’, before he became a peaceful wanderer, when his determination to restore the Emporer saw him on a single-minded mission to eliminate all pro-shogunate forces. The choreography is outstanding again, but with a more merciless edge. The film’s focus on a small cast of characters, the majority of the narrative revolving around Himura and Tomoe’s relationship, allows for a different feel from the ensemble casts we are familiar with, creating a more personal and nuanced drama. Their story is a tragic love story predestined by their political and personal motivations. Knowing what is coming makes it all the more difficult to watch their relationship develop, their mistrust replaced by a growing loyalty. The pacing, score and cinematography all reflect the tragic themes, using the environments to bolster the action; the wintry duel at the end perfectly captures the coldheartedness and silent suffering of the protagonists. Being the fifth film in the series, there is familiarity in the exceptional work of set and costume designers, recreating the historical Kyoto, and for keen-eyed viewers it is interesting to note the small details in every scene.

This film takes us back to before Kenshin became “Rurouni”, when he was still a coldblooded killer, effortlessly dispatching scores of shogunate soldiers. It is somewhat surprising that he still appears as a largely sympathetic character, despite his copious bloodletting and slaughter of hundreds of individuals, but Sato’s performance and the delicate way the script deals with the tumultuous period setting mean that we are able to relate to some extent with the protagonist. The film tackles the thorny issue of whether violence, even murder, is ever justified in achieving political ends. As Tomoe tells Himura, the idea of fighting for peace seems strange. His actions are completely contrary to his stated desire to bring about peace, apparently causing only suffering. As with other Kenshin films, the real history of the period is used primarily as set dressing, and the film has little commentary on the rights or wrongs of each side of the conflict. No doubt, historians will know the significance of shogunate and imperial forces, but for the viewers it is enough to know that our hero is fighting for the emporer, and those trying to stop him are fighting for the shogun. The finale of the film returns us to the opening of the first live-action Kenshin film, a beautiful ending that recontextualises Himura’s actions following the battle of Toba-fushimi. An incredible denoument to the “Rurouni Kenshin” saga, a contemplative drama that gives depth to the character and raises difficult questions about the role of violence in effecting change.