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.

Hard Days (2023) by Michihito Fujii

An all-star cast chase after a hidden fortune in this slick crime thriller based on a Korean original. Detective Kudo (Junichi Okada) drives through the rainy streets, dealing with a call from his wife, Misako (Ryoko Hirosue), who is planning to separate along with his child Mina. Another call from his section chief tells him there is an ongoing investigation into corruption, possibly centering on Kudo’s connection with the Senba yakuza family. Things only get worse when Kudo hits a pedestrian who has stumbled into the road. While trying to hide the body, Senba (Akira Emoto) tells him that there is a hidden fortune in a vault protected by a large temple, whose shady dealings with top-rank politicians includes money laundering. Kudo is not the only one after the stash, with Internal Affairs officer Yazaki (Go Ayano) also keen to get to the money.

“Hard Times”, directed by Michihito Fujii (“Yakuza and the Family”) is a fast-paced crime thriller, with a far-fetched plot and plenty of darkly comic moments. Kudo’s attempts to dispose of the corpse could be straight out of a slapstick comedy and the whole film tests suspension of disbelief to the limit. The plot is farcical, in the sense that every misstep by Kudo simply pushes him further into trouble, all the while he is simply trying to do his best for himself, his wife and daughter. He is a sympathetic character, stressed to the eyeballs, fallible and resourceful. Yazaki is starkly contrasted with Kudo, consumed by status and his job, with his marriage to the boss’s daughter being simply another step on the ladder, lacking any emotional content. There are plenty of shock moments too as the story plays out, constantly keeping a step ahead of the audience.

The film’s opening as Kudo’s colleagues fret about a potential corruption investigation into their section is a perfect set-up for what is to follow. Throughout Kudo is presented with a series of moral choices, both large and small: whether to lie at a traffic stop about drinking, or to hide a dead body in his recently deceased mother’s coffin. He doesn’t alway do the right thing, but the film suggests that at heart his chief desire is to protect and support his family. When he says to his wife that he’s truly sorry he couldn’t make her happy, we see that all his behaviour and misbehaviour is underlined by his love for his family. Meanwhile, Yazaki and Senba are cynical, money-minded, living either lonely existences or in relationships characterised by a lack of connection and warmth. Senba makes reference to lizards that hop in a desert to prevent burning on the hot sand. Kudo is a hostage to the vissicitudes of fate, his misfortune leading him to some dark junctions, but the one thing he is able to decide his what he’s fighting for.

Godzilla Minus One (2023) by Takashi Yamazaki

In the dying days of World War Two, kamikaze pilot Koichi Shikishima (Ryunosuke Kamiki) abandons his mission, returning to a nearby base on Odo island. When the island is attacked, by a sea monster the locals call Godzilla, only Koichi and the chief engineer Tachibana (Munetaka Aoki) survive. Koichi returns to Tokyo in shame where he meets a young woman, Noriko (Minami Hamabe) and child Akiko, who have been orphaned by the bombing raids on the city. The three of them begin living together, but their peace is threatened when Godzilla, now supersized by post-war nuclear tests in the ocean, re-emerges to devastate large areas of the city. Koichi, along with a minesweeper crew he is working with, joins a group of ex-navy civilians, who hatch a plan to take down Godzilla when it appears again.

Written and directed by Takashi Yamazaki, “Godzilla Minus One” takes place in the years following the Second World War, capturing the thematic resonance of Ishiro Honda’s 1953 “Godzilla”. Godzilla can be seen as a representation of the horror of nuclear war, and the incredible sequences when the creature attacks depict this perfectly. Humans are insignificant and their weapons woefully ineffective in stopping the rampaging creature. It is a war film that replaces battlefield scenes with a symbolic representation of the sheer terror and incomprehensible violence of war. A Godzilla film is only as strong as its human protagonists, and Koichi’s journey, from his shame at running from his suicidal duty to realising his true calling in taking care of Akiko and Noriko, provides a great focus for the drama. We also have great supporting characters, such as Tachibana, an engineer whose entire crew is wiped out by the creature; the young Mizushima, who feels he has missed out by not being conscripted to the war; Shikishima’s neighbour Sumiko (Sakura Ando), who berates Koichi for shirking his kamikaze mission when so many others have died for the country; and many of the ex-naval officers, who fear that they are to be plunged into another unwinnable conflict after barely surviving the last one. The film’s special effects are a marvel, showing the incredible size of Godzilla as it devastates the city, knocking buildings aside and blasting areas with its nuclear beam. The sequences at sea are also amazingly well done, with the human characters feeling very exposed in the face of this leviathon. The film also does a superb job with the period setting, feeling completley believable, with the bombed out remnants of Tokyo suburbs, and the historic train networks and Ginza district, as well as the military ships and planes. The film owes a debt to the 1954 original, and could be seen as a retelling or an homage, albeit with new characters and story. This is brought home by the use of Akira Ifukube’s origiginal Godzilla theme which adds a dramatic and nostalgic touch. The score by Naoki Sato provides an epic, sentimental and awe-inspiring accompaniment to the action.

Godzilla has always had a strongly anti-war and anti-nuclear message, with the creature being the perfect stand-in for the harrowing attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that closed out the Pacific conflict. “Godzilla Minus One” questions the Japanese involvement in the war, with Koichi’s role as a kamikaze pilot being the prime example. He feels ashamed that he saved his own life rather than dying for his country. However, it becomes apparent that perhaps having young men throw their lives away for the Emperor was not only cruel and unecessary, but actually counter-productive. As they prepare to tackle Godzilla, Noda is at pains to point out that they intend to save lives and that suicide missions are at odds with their newfound respect for life and protecting civilians. It is a change in mindset that marks a shift from enforced self-sacrifice imposed at the will of a dictatorial militaristic system to a belief in preserving life at all costs. That saving yourself and your family is nothing to be ashamed of. There is nothing noble or honourable about war or dying, instead it is a necessary evil in a world in which terrors and external threats exist. An incredibly powerful film, not only in the stunning visual effects and awesome monster attacks, but in the emotional heart of the film, Koichi, Noriko and Akiko’s surrogate family finding a path through the horrors they have witnessed.

Jigen Daisuke (2023) by Hajime Hashimoto

Tetsuji Tamayama stars as the hitman with a heart of gold in this neo-western-noir based on the popular Monkey Punch manga character. Following a shoot-out in which his famed gunslinging abilities are let down by a hairsbreadth accuracy defect in his gun, Jigen (Tamayama) returns to Japan, where he hasn’t been for years, to find a legendary gunsmith named Yaguchi (Mitsuko Kusabue). On arrival he finds that Yaguchi has given up the underworld and is now focussed solely on watch repairs. However, when a young mute girl (Kotoka Maki) arrives bearing a token from a former friend, Yaguchi asks for Jigen’s help, promising to fix his gun in return.

Jigen is a traditional outsider hero, finding himself drawn into helping people for his own ends, but slowly learning to love his young charge. The character is something of a blank canvas, as is typical with this kind of protagonist, as we see him early in the film travelling the world and showing of his quick-draw abilities. Even when he returns to Japan he seems to have few contacts or connections and we learn little about his life. The film has an interesting mix-and-match tone, with some fantastical sets, such as Deigyo-gai, the home of the cities criminal underclass, alongside many scenes shot in the ‘real world’. It consistently steps a toe outside the bounds of reality, with some comedically over the top fight sequences. The best example of which is perhaps the central villain Adel (Yoko Maki), who performs a backflip in her wheelchair, while firing a gun at multiple assailants. This whole sequence is beyond ridiculous, but in keeping with other moments in the film, such as Jigen’s own preternatural skills with a weapon, or the other antagonist (Masatoshi Nagase), a man who is able to shapeshift his appearance at will. While the story is one that has been told before: lonely hitman has to take care of a young child, the film does a good job with it, layering in several characters, such as Yaguchi, the villains (whose nefarious schemes are as over-the-top as their characters), and some excellent set piece fight sequences. The score also has a western-noir feel, moving between the high-octane action of fights and the emotional moments. A fun watch and it will be interesting to see where the character of Jigen goes in any potential sequels.

The film’s antagonists are attempting to steal hormones from children in order to produce a drug that halts the aging process. Reminiscent of the procedures in “Helter Skelter” (2012) it is a rather gruesome plot for a film that seems quite light-hearted on the surface.The aging Yaguchi stands in stark contrast to Adel, whose obsession with eternal youth sees her becoming increasingly unhinged. Meanwhile, Jigen himself is clinging on to using his first gun, suggesting that he too is tied to his past. In one interesting scene the characters discuss a version of the “Ship of Theseus” thought experiment, questioning whether Jigen’s gun, which has had every part replaced, might still be the same weapon. Jigen explains haughtily that the memories remain, suggesting that this is what is most important in acscertaining whether it is the same item. In the same way the characters appearances, shown most prominently in the chameleonic Kawashima, have little bearing on who they are, it is what is in their heart that is important. While Jigen might exude the aura of a cold-hearted killer, he is inside someone who when it comes to it decides to protect the innocent.

Tokyo Gore School (2009) by Yohei Fukuda

High-schooler Fujiwara (Yusuke Yamada) is dragged into a mobile game in which students fight to win points in this teen action film. In heavy-handed narration Fujiwara explains his cynical world view, that of a society divided neatly into ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. When he is chased and attacked by a group he finds that thousands of people are playing the “Chain Game”, in which stealing someone’s phone wins you points, and losing means your darkest secret will be revealed to the world. Fujiwara finds himself the target of former friends led by Todoroki (Shunya Shiraishi) and teaming up with an unknown female student.

The film’s problems start with the title, which misrepresents the story by suggesting a splatter-horror film. The Japanese title is more fitting, but would translate poorly to English. The story is formulaic, reminiscent of the mobile-phone driven dread of “Keitai Kanojo”, or the pugilistic high-school antics of “Crows”, and plot hole galore make it hard to relate to the characters. Even within the film, characters manage to come up with a simplistic solution to being hunted via mobile phone (to travel round on a bus during the play time). Another might simply have been to not have a phone (or as one character does, have a phone that doesn’t send e-mails). These solutions never seem to occur to characters with the majority of the narrative relying on this kind of complete lack of common sense. The film has an overly serious tone for such a ludicrous premise; the low-stakes seeming mismatched with the actions of the protagonists. The inclusion of a couple of violent scenes, with stabbings and one character being beaten to death, also seem inserted to give the film a sense of danger, but instead come across as completely unnecesary and inexplicable given what we know of the characters. The ridiculous plot, melodramatic acting, and amateurish cinematography mark this out as a low-budget experiment. The best parts of the film are the chase and fight sequences, with elements of parkour injecting some much-needed excitement to proceedings. However, the film seems intent on pushing the dramatic elements which are far weaker.

Fujiwara’s puerile dog-eat-dog mentality, suggesting a strict dichotomy of weak and strong individuals would perhaps have been an interesting idea to explore. The film also raises the spectre of the famous “Stanford Prison Experiment”, in which participants given the roles of prisoners and guards came slowly to enact those roles with increasing violence and abuse of power. “Tokyo Gore School” sets up these ideas of bullying, the corrupting nature of power, social hierarchies, and even limply gestures towards society reflecting our atavistic tendencies. However, it loses its way once it gets going, with the mobile “Chain Game” not offering much in the way of insight into human relations. A muddled ending leaves the audience with mixed feelings about Fujiwara. A missed opportunity to tell an interesting story about power dynamics in society, the danger of mobile environments promoting bullying and violence.