Pure Japanese (2022) by Daishi Matsunaga

Daisuke Tateishi (Dean Fujioka) works on the ninja show at an Edo-themed amusement park. Although he is a skilled martial artist, he is relegated to doing the sound effects as it is believed he is traumatised following an incident at a previous job. When one of the cast members leaves, he is elevated to a performing position but his genuine swordfighting ability ruffles feathers with his co-workers. Meanwhile, elderly farmer Ryuzo Takada (Tetsu Watanabe) is being pressured to sell his land to greedy developers at the behest of politician Kurosaki (Tetsuya Bessho). Daisuke meets Ryuzo’s daughter Ayumi (Aju Makita) and agrees to help protect her from this unscrupulous gang, drawing himself into conflict with them.

“Pure Japanese” is directed by Daishi Matsunaga (Pieta in the Toilet) with a screenplay by Tatsuo Kobayashi. The plot of the film is straightforward, with greedy developers pressuring an unwilling elderly local into giving up their land. Daisuke’s story also is a familiar one of a young man overcoming past trauma. However, these story elements largely serve as hooks on which to hang the film’s main themes. Many plot elements remain unresolved and there is certainly no happy ending. Instead the film uses its characters and situations to challenge traditional notions of Japanese identity. The cinematography is exceptional, with stunning shots of mountains and rivers offering a timeless counterpoint to the human drama. The staging and lighting is also a joy, with carefully constructed shots that reflect both the real world and the fictional drama of the ninja performances, with the line between the two becoming blurred as the story progresses. The action sequence that takes place later in the film, playing on the hyper-stylised portrayals of samurai films is well shot and choreographed. This latter half of the film seems to diverge from the first half, but the two work well together in the context of the film by exemplifying some of the themes visually in the contrast of a more violent, fantastical ending following the human drama. The music echoes this theatrical style, with loud discordant chords playing over scenes of heightened emotion, and the drumbeats and percussion underscoring the fight sequence reminiscent of traditional stage performances.

The film uses its simple plot to explore the notion of national identity. Early in the film Daisuke is given a “Pure Japanese” kit that promises through a nose swab to tell and individual what percentage of their genetic makeup is Japanese. While most of his colleagues recieve around 60 to 80 percent, Daisuke performs the test by himself and claims to recieve 100 percent. Later in the film it is revealed that this kit is pseudo-scientific nonsense, and a discussion ensues as to what it means to be Japanese, whether in fact there is any genetic basis at all. We see Daisuke being bullied for singing English songs as a child; references to Yukio Mishima (a well known nationalist); the idea of globalisation versus traditional communities; and constant reference to the idea of a “Japanese” identity. Daisuke’s work at an Edo-themed park gives us an insight into the connection between the past and present and there is a sense in which Japan is unable to move on from its violent past; and perhaps even doomed to repeat it. In the character of Daisuke, a stand-in for the ‘true’ Japanese identity, we are given a conflicted character, capable of care and protecting the less fortunate, but also of violence and destruction.

Yakuza Apocalypse (2015) by Takashi Miike

Yakuza, vampires and martial arts collide in this wacky action comedy from Takeshi Miike. Kageyama (Hayato Ichihara) is a young gang member whose sensitive skin and inability to get a tattoo sets him apart from his fellow mobsters. He is however fiercely loyal to the boss (played by Lily Franky). When the boss, who happens to be a vampire, is killed, he manages to confer his powers on Kageyama with his dying breath. Kageyama then sets out to get revenge on the group who killed him, including traitor Aratetsu (Kiyohiko Shibukawa), mysterious English-speaking vampire hunter (Ryushin Tei), a martial artist (Yayan Ruhian), and a kappa (a mythical water creature). Kageyama is aided by Hogan (Denden), a bartender who knows the vampire secret, and a swelling army of new bloodsucking demons created by Kageyama. He also hopes to protect a young woman named Kyoko (Riko Narumi) who he has feelings for.

“Yakuza Apocalypse”, directed by Takashi Miike from a screenplay by Yoshitaka Yamaguchi, is a bizarre action-comedy that attempts to juggle several distinct elements. Whether you are a fan of martial arts films, violent exploitation cinema, surrealist humour, or modern takes on the vampire mythos, there is something for you to enjoy here, though the plot and editing can be a disjointed at times. It seems to jump from scene to scene in a frenetic way, often failing to set up key emotional threads such as Kageyama and Kyoko’s relationship, or background on who characters are or their motivations. For the most part you can ignore this, and simply enjoy the excellent direction, fight choreography and blend of childish comedy and gory action. However, the discrepancy in tone does a disservice to some elements that could have worked better either as a more straightforward fantasy yakuza film or out-and-out comedy. It often comes across as a collection of inventively violent moments, such as a man having his head twisted off, or inexplicable characters such as a frog-costumed pugilist (Masanori Mimoto) and a disturbing kappa, that seem to be from completely separate films.

The film’s comparison of vampires and yakuza, both bloodsucking parasites leeching off hard-working citizens is entertaining and the splicing of the two genres works well, allowing for the unholy union of these gruesome mythologies that have built up both around gangsters and nosferatu. When it works the satire is excellent, but all too often it misses the mark by attempting to balance the  relationship between Kageyama and Kyoko, or even Kageyama and the boss, with the absurdist metaphor of the main plot. While there are a lot of enjoyable moments, over the top comedy and brutal, rollicking action sequences, “Yakuza Apocalypse” seems wayward and unfocussed, with an interesting satire buried under an abundance of eccentric characters and non sequitur.

Grasshopper (2015) by Tomoyuki Takimoto

Following the death of his girlfriend a man becomes entangled in a dark, underground world of drug gangs and assassins. On Halloween night in Shibuya a car ploughs into the crowd killing a young woman named Yuriko (Haru). Distraught at her untimely death, her boyfriend Suzuki (Toma Ikuta) goes undercover with a pharmeceutical company that is a front for a malicious gang run by Terahara (Renji Ishibashi). Suzuki’s boss, Sumire (Kumiko Aso) is a sadistic femme fatale who soon becomes suspicious of Suzuki’s intentions. Meanwhile, hired killer Kujira (Tadanobu Asano) who forces people to commit suicide for Terahara is troubled by the sins of his past. Becoming a liability to the gang he is targetted by fellow assassins Iwanishi (Jun Murakami) and Semi (Ryosuke Yamada).

Based on the novel by Kotaro Isaka, “Grasshopper” is a noir thriller that sets up several great characters. We are sympathetic to Suzuki’s quest for revenge and his complete inadequacy in going up against hardened killers and gangsters. Saccharine flashbacks of him and Yuriko often feel at odds with the violent tone of the film, but do create a clear distinction between the world he has lost and the one he finds himself thrust into. Tadanobu Asano’s Kujira has perhaps the most intriguing backstory, troubled by the ghosts of his victims who appear before him; it is a similar tale with Semi, who suffers a ringing in his ears that is only calmed when he is killing. There is a slight imbalance in tone and story that runs through the film, with the characters jostling for the position of protagonist and it lurches from the brutal fight sequences and grim life of Kujira to the more incompetent amateur detective antics of Suzuki. Suzuki remains the protagonist, but the film sets up these two interesting assassins that feel as thought they deserve their own film. The film also introduces fantasy elements that are creative, but never fully developed as an integral part of the story. These shifts in tone are also present in the eclectic score, with a mix of operatic, hard rock and soft piano. However, despite these inconsistencies the film creates some incredible moments, particularly in the fight sequences and chase through the streets. Director Tomoyuki Takimoto crafts a stylish crime drama and the noir tone is handled expertly with rain drenched, neon lit streets, and dark alleyways.

A hugely entertaining noir thriller with great visuals and a collection of fantastic characters. Suzuki is an everyman hero whose search for revenge is charming and understandable. There is contrast between Suzuki who is desperate for revenge but unable to attain it and Kujira and Semi (the only other characters whose names appear on screen), hardened killers who are made to question their profession. Suzuki’s unsuitability as a killer is a weakness in the world he finds himself in, but is also what makes him a decent man. He is a relatable protagonist preciscely because he is unable to imagine himself killing anyone. The fates of Kujira and Semi offer an oddly moralistic but understandable ending when considering the rights and wrongs of the characters. At times it feels like these three characters should not exist in the same film, but that creates a fantastic tension that builds to a stunning conclusion.

Karate Girl (2011) by Yoshikatsu Kimura

10 years after her father was killed and her sister kidnapped, Ayaka Kurenai (Rina Takeda), descendent of the legendary Kurenai Karate-ka Shoujiro, is drawn back into a conflict with the man who killer her father (Tatsuya Naka) in attempt to steal the family’s prized black belt. Ayaka, under a changed name, is working at a movie theatre, when her incredible karate skills in taking down a thief bring her to the attention of Muto (Kazutoshi Yokoyama), who soon realises that she survived an attack on their dojo 10 years prior. Muto has been training her younger sister Natsuki (Hina Tobimatsu), also under an alias, to his own leathal style of karate. Ayaka has no choice but to take him on, along with his henchman Keith (Richard Heselton), rescue her sister, and resist attempts to take the black belt from her.

“Karate Girl” is a martial arts film first and foremost, with the story providing only a loose thread to tie together various set-pieces. The plot is simplistic and predictable and there are a few eye-rollingly questionable moments, such as why characters would be wearing karate gi outdoors; or why they suddenly move to the rooftop for the final confrontation. Muto is a cartoon villain, complete with his own underground lair-cum-dojo where he concocts his nefarious schemes. It is highly likely you will know exactly how the story will end after the introductory five minutes, and one of the central twists seems so obvious it is surprising the characters take so long to realise it. However, the negatives out of the way, the actual karate is incredibly well choreographed, fluid and energetic. Director Yoshikatsu Kimura worked as second-unit director with star Rina Takeda on “High-Kick Girl” (2009) and here again we see him making the best of her skills. The direction, utilising a hand-held style and minimal editing makes these scenes enjoyable and you can see the skill of the performers. These scenes are packed with variety, largely involving large scale fights between the protagonists and a host of villains. There are moments where it is clear no attempt is being made by the foils to fight back or evade being struck, but its still a joy to see the high-kicking, wall-jumping, acrobatic style. Takeda and Hina Tobimatsu, who play Ayaka and Natsuki, are incredibly talented, really selling their kata and fights, helped by a large cast of able stunt performers. We see some behind the scenes training over the credits that shows what effort went in to creating some of these moments.

Your enjoyment of this film will depend on how much you enjoy watching karate. The plot is paper-thin, exisiting solely to set up a central conflict between Ayaka and Muto. However, the action scenes are well shot and entertaining enough to make it worth a watch for fans of martial arts films. Similar to “High-Kick Girl”, but with a slightly higher production value. The film makes some attempt at a message, with the contrast between Ayaka’s belief, passed down by her father, that karate is for protection, and the villain’s advocacy of karate being used to kill. But its hard to kid yourself that this film is more than it sets out to be, an enthusiastic, action-packed karate film with two incredible lead performances. In this regard it absolutely succeeds.

Baby Assassins (2021) by Yugo Sakamoto

Two high-school assassins attempt to develop covers as ordinary members of society in this action-comedy. Mahiro (Saori Izawa) and Chisato (Akari Takaishi) are skilled killers but lack any knowledge of the real world, having comfortably managed to maintain a front as high-schoolers while they carry out jobs for their mysterious employer, a man who delivers targets to them from time to time. They are told that they should move in together and start looking for part-time work, a prospect which doesn’t appeal to either of the girls. As they struggle to adapt, with Mahiro failing a series of interviews, and Chisato finding employment in a maid cafe, a fresh threat appears in the shape of a violent Yakuza boss and his children.

Written and directed by Yugo Sakamoto, your enjoyment of “Baby Assassins” will vary based on the mileage you get out of the comedic premise: the juxtaposition of hardened, efficient killers and absent-minded, socially-awkward teens. This whiplash from murder to mundanity provides much of the humour, with one scene showing them disposing of a corpse before moving immediately onto worrying if they have time to make the film they have tickets to. “Baby Assassins” wastes no time and at just over 90 minutes, it moves at a lively pace. This is understandable as the story is simplistic and the sadistic Yakuza villain is such a familiar archetype he hardly needs much introduction. The highlight of the film is the relationship between Chisato and Mahiro, with fantastic performances from Akari Takaishi and Saori Izawa. They capture the bored teen mindset and also look extremely competent in the action sequences, shifting seamlessly from cold-blooded murder to everyday concerns about ruining their clothes. This relationship also provides the emotional heart of the film as their differences lead to confrontation between them. Mahiro is introverted and slightly less well-suited to adult life, while Chisato is more bright and cheerful, easily able to adapt to part-time work at a maid cafe. The action sequences, courtesy of stunt director Kensuke Sonomura are gory and energetic, with emphasis again on the humour rather than any serious consequences, showcasing the girls’ training and utilising gun-fu and hand-to-hand combat. The final third is taken up with a highly entertaining takedown of the Yakuza orginization, which comedically undermines this fairly stereotypical third-act sequence by having the girls comfortably dispatch most of them, completely emasculating the hard ganster aesthetic. This ease in which the killings sometimes proves a double-edged sword, providing a few laughs at the casual way the girls deal with their targets, but also leaving little time for any real tension. This is most apparent in a scene in which two major villains are dispatched, their deaths used as a gag that comes as a surprise but leaves you feeling that the film has robbed you of a more significant confrontation between the heroes and villains.

“Baby Assassins” is a fun take on both the assassin genre and the teen friendship movie, running these parallel stories of Mahiro and Chisato attempting to get along as well as the background evil of the Yakuza. The best scenes are in the maid-cafe with Chisato taking to it easily, while Mahiro is visibly uncomfortable with attempting to present a cheerful face to the public. There is a subtle satire on the current state of work and how young people are supposed to adapt to society, brought out when the girls speak with the maid cafe staff. The top maid is amazed that they have so much money for lunch, barely able to afford a decent meal herself. The girls are financially stable through their assassination work, part of the reason why the jobs they are applying for hold so little interest for them. It is not something the film dwells on, but it certainly makes you wonder whether a world in which murder is remunerated far better than almost any other job is one that is functioning correctly. There is also a feminist bent to the film, with the young women being constantly underestimated by their targets, which makes it even easier for the girls to kill them. The film sets up two entertaining characters, with enjoyable central performances, and it is a film that lends itself perfectly to sequels. While the film is light on story, it works well as an introduction to the characters and world and it would be great to see more of them.