Demon City Shinjuku (1988) by Yoshiaki Kawajiri

Following a cataclysmic battle with the demon Rebi Ra (Kiyoshi Kobayashi), warrior Genichiro (Banjo Ginga) is defeated and an earthquake separates Shinjuku from the rest of the world. It becomes a place infested with monsters, abandoned by humans, and largely forgotten. Ten years later, Genichiro’s son, Kyoya Izayoi (Hideyuki Hori) is called upon to challenge the demon. The President of the Federation’s daughter Sayaka Rama (Hiromi Tsuru) enters the city and the two must fight their way to the heart of it, meeting friends and foes along the way.

“Demon City Shinjuku” is based on a 1982 novel by Hideyuki Kikuchi. The film, directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri, is replete with monsters and martial arts, while the story is a typical fantasy narrative. Our main character is a wise-cracking playboy prompted to his quest by a spirit guide, he falls for the beautiful princess and they set out to defeat a dark lord. The story is rarely surprising, but on the plus side it is never pretentious. The designs of the demons are good for the most part and the horror elements are well done. Likewise, the deserted city of Shinjuku is atmospheric. The soundtrack is packed with amped up electronica to compliment the action and the headache inducing strobe lighting effects similarly are in keeping with the frenetic pace of the film.

The film ends with a reference to the myth of Pandora’s Box but this is as deep as the film gets. The character of Sayaka overcomes several obstacles through love and purity, in contrast to the horrors of the monster world. An interesting subtext, but one that the film never expands upon. Despite a lack of character depth or surprises in the story, the film works as a cheesy action flick with a couple of good one-liners, some exciting fight scenes, interesting monster design work and solid animation. If you’re feeling nostalgic for the 1980’s or looking for something that is engaging without being overly taxing, then this could be the film for you.

Asura (2012) by Keiichi Sato

In a world suffering from famine a woman gives birth to her son. With starvation warping her sensibilities she almost resorts to eating the infant to survive. Terrified by the thought of what she was about to do she runs, leaving her child to fend for itself. Eight years later the boy (Masako Nozawa) has become feral, killing and eating people to stay alive. When he crosses paths with a monk (Kinya Kitaoji) he is little more than a beast, snarling without language and knowing only how to fight. The monk gives him the name Asura and tries to steer him back to a path of humanity, attempting to teach him Buddhist sutras. Asura later meets a young woman, Wakasa (Megumi Hayashibara), whose kindness encourages him to follow a better path. However, some people want revenge for the deaths he has caused and the darker side of Asura’s nature is always lurking just beneath the surface.

Based on a manga by George Akiyama, Asura is directed by Keiichi Sato. The animation style blends 3D computer generated models with a hand-drawn style. The characters have a sketchy design, with pencil lines visible on their features, which gives the film a storybook feel. This complements the plot which resembles a fable. There are some stunning sequences enabled by the digital art techniques, such as soaring aerial shots, and the final battle. The computer-aided graphics also provide some fantastic weather and lighting effects and give the world a tangible feel, further enhanced by great sound work. The music by Yoshihiro Ike, Norihito Sumitomo and Susumu Ueda includes a thrilling theme and an orchestral feel that offsets the drama perfectly. The story is tragic and the emotions raw. There are also a lot of bloody action sequences and the kinetic energy of Asura’s acrobatic fighting style is a joy to watch. The character of Asura is likeable despite his horrific deeds in the early part of the film and provokes genuine sympathy in his struggle to rein in his atavistic instincts in favour of more civilised behaviour. Again the look of the characters goes a long way towards making them memorable and the film as a whole has a unique feel.

Asura is at heart a simple morality tale about redemption and retaining ones humanity in the face of terrible circumstances. In the beginning of the film Asura has lost all semblance of humanity, having resorted to killing to survive. He moves and sounds like an animal and has no compassion for other humans. The priest and Wakasa, by contrast, are prepared to die rather than sink to the level of killing or indulging their worst instincts. Through their kindness Asura is shown another way to live. It is an interesting moral conundrum as to what should be permitted in order to survive. In a harsh world, where starvation leads people to desperate acts, is it possible to retain a civilised society? Alongside this question, the film also asks the audience to consider Asura’s position, having already committed terrible crimes. Can and should he be forgiven? Can he redeem himself? Some of those Asura meets treat him as a villain, others as a victim, and this impacts him in turn. A film that asks important questions of its audience, with excellent animation and a unique style.

Akira (1988) by Katsuhiro Otomo

Akira opens with the devastating image of what appears to be a nuclear explosion tearing apart Tokyo in a flash of blinding white. 31 years later Neo-Tokyo has risen from the devastation, the urban sprawl of the city burying the secrets of the past. Motorcycle gangs, rioting and protests against the government are commonplace, and the city appears to be once again on the brink of societal collapse. Teenage friends Tetsuo and Kaneda, members of a biker gang head out to take on their rivals, the “clowns”, in a high-speed chase through the city. Tetsuo crashes into a boy who appears to have strange powers, his first interaction with a trio of mysterious children with telekinetic abilities. The government capture Tetsuo, who soon comes to realise that he is developing powers that he is barely able to control. Meanwhile Kaneda has fallen for a girl, Kei, who is working with a radical anti-government group attempting to uncover the governments secretive experiments on these children.

Written and directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, who also wrote the manga on which it is based, “Akira” is a stunning achievement. From the high-speed chase that kickstarts the action to the cosmic horror of the final moments, the animators go all out to create a world that is vibrant and alive. The backgrounds are detailed with graffiti and signs of decay that make the world feel real and lived in. Add to this the explosions, shattering glass, water and lighting effects, and there is so much visual information on screen at any one time that it demands your attention. This is a good thing as the story moves at a break-neck pace. The manga on which it is based runs to 2000 pages, which means certain characters and subplots in the film are addressed only briefly, such as the government discussions and the quasi-religious group who worship Akira. Characters such as Tetsuo’s girlfriend and the leader of the resistance movement are likewise underdeveloped. This does however go a long way to making the film’s world feel absolutely real, as there is always the sense that a lot more is happening off-screen. There are two main story threads, one involving Tetsuo and Kaneda’s relationship, and one involving the secret government experiments, both of which are engaging and benefit from the background information we do get. The impact of the score is one element that cannot be understated, with tribal drums and breathy vocals, chanting and bells, it creates a unique sound that is traditional and timeless. The blasts of sound are an assault on the senses in the same way as the striking visuals.

Akira is a film that is at once epic, dealing with themes of cosmic significance, societal collapse and man’s hubristic drive towards ever more destructive technologies, and at the same time deeply personal, dealing with the psychology of Tetsuo, a young orphan who feels mistreated by the world. The nuclear era has more than ever led humanity to confront its inability to control what it is creating. The scientists and military in the film are representative of the naïve attempt to control such weapons (in this case represented by the children they are experimenting on). In one scene of the film we see the colonel and the scientist descending in an elevator, looking out over the towering skyscrapers. This visual metaphor for the inevitable fall after the rise of civilisation is poignant, even more so given that what they are facing has already happened before. They are doomed to this cycle of destruction and rebirth. Kaneda and Tetsuo are oblivious to their machinations, living at street level they are unaware that there are grand schemes afoot. The tragedy of Tetsuo is that he is a victim of society who is suddenly given absolute power. He is jealous and insecure, but what is terrifying is not that he is a flawed individual, but that he is given a power that allows him to act out his most harmful urges. It is also possible to see in him a rejection of religious ideology. Those who believe Akira and Tetsuo to represent some sort of salvation are in for a rude awakening when they realise that ultimate power can be misused and in fact will rarely benefit society. It is a rejection of the notion that absolute power is a good thing and questions the belief that the relentless march of progress is heading in the right direction.

Gantz: 0 (2016)

The hugely successful franchise, with manga, anime and live action versions, continues with this computer animated film. When Kato is killed in a subway stabbing he appears in a mysterious apartment room with a giant black ball in the centre. The set-up will be familiar to those who have seen previous instalments in the series, and this film cuts straight to the action. The Gantz ball sends Kato and his team, model Reika, Suzuki, young boy, to Osaka to take on the terrifying aliens that have invaded. These take the form of various creatures of Japanese mythology. There the team meet with their Osaka counterparts, led by a cocky trio of men, and a young woman Ayumu.

“Gantz: 0” is directed by Yasushi Kawamura, from a screenplay by Tsutomo Kuroiwa, and this latest episode essentially retreads familiar ground, while attempting to go one better on the action and excitement of previous installments. Hiroya Oku’s manga has been adapted a number of times, most of which follow the same story, or at least the first part of the manga series. This film takes the action to Osaka, an idea developed in a spin-off manga series. The decision not to spend to much time on explanations, which would be meaningless exposition for most fans, plays to the film’s advantage. Instead we are given a new set of characters and get straight to the battle. The animation is spectacular and allows for the sequences to get as crazy as both manga and anime versions, with incredible creations for the aliens, and the use of various technologies seen later in the series’ such as the bikes and upgraded weapons, even a gigantic mechanized suit. It is great to see Osaka recreated affectionately here, and places such as Dotonbori feel realistic. The film takes place almost entirely in this location and it is clear the animators put a lot of effort in to the sets, with plenty of background detail. The characters are as interesting, though understandably given little time to develop.

The Gantz franchise has always delighted in giving its audience, primarily young men, exactly what it wants, fully embracing the low-brow exploitation angle, while at the same time being excellent at telling a story full of intrigue. This film has all the usual elements, exciting fight sequences, monsters, beautiful female heroines, and a dark tone enlivened by its more peculiar comedic elements. The central concept of the story, of people battling impossible odds is there. There is certainly meaning behind the madness and it could be argued that this is the ultimate exploration of a trend towards extremes. It involves so much of Japanese culture and mythology you can feel it bulging at the seams with interpretations, though it rarely stoops to explaining itself. It’s heroes are archetypical and the struggle against villains as a timeless story that has been expertly updated by this series. This film is sure to please fans of the franchise. It adds little in terms of developing the series, but fits perfectly in the cycle and gives exactly what fans might hope for.

Versus (2000)

Two recently escaped convicts meet up with a group of gangsters who are taking them to safety. After a disagreement regarding a female hostage of the group, one of the men decides to make a run for it, through the woods to freedom. However, these are no ordinary woods. The “Forest of Resurrection”  has the power to bring the dead back to life. What follows is a fight for survival between the convict and his female companion and the men chasing them. In a later twist the man realises that there is a reason why he has been brought back to this particular forest as an ancient adversary returns.

Written by Ryuhei Kitamura and Yudai Yamaguchi the script is a ridiculous blend of Yakuza and Zombie film tropes. The majority of the runtime is dedicated to the action sequences that are the film’s major strength. Essentially a series of fights that are loosely contrived through various characters happening upon one another, there is enough variety to keep them fresh, especially with the zombie element thrown in. The film doesn’t shy away from violence and fans of gore will not be disappointed with the bucket loads of blood, and practical effects for gunshots and other injuries. Decapitation, dismemberment, punching a hole straight through a zombie: all of these are commonplace in a film that doesn’t take itself too seriously. There are moments of intentional slapstick and black humour that lighten the tone. The main issue with the film is that it never quite manages to draw you in on an emotional level, for the most part being surface action and violence. Kitamura’s direction does keep things entertaining, with stylish 360-degree shots, lively editing and some fantastic framing that elevates the film above its basic story. The actors are all well cast and bring their eccentric characters to life, doing a great job with the fight choreography as well as the comedic beats.

“Versus” will appeal to fans of zombie films and the more bizarre yakuza movies, complete with jokes about missing hands, liberal use of violence, increasingly ridiculous guns employed to blast characters out of situations. The film’s own self-awareness of the silliness of its premise along with skilful and stylish direction make this worth a watch for fans of the genre. While there is very little to appeal on a dramatic or story level, the action scenes, with great choreography and practical effects, make for a fun distraction.