Yamamoto Eri Becomes Recoverability Zero (2015) by Yuki Kuwarazuru

The film begins with a radio announcement stating that Kyoto has been hit with some form of attack in an ongoing unspecified war and the city is now quarantined. Soga (Kota Nakano) and Miyabe (Kosuke Komura), investigators from the health department, are searching for Eri Yamamoto, who has been missing since her last check-up three months ago. Her physician has no idea where she might be. It becomes clear that certain members of the population are suffering from a rare condition known as mad man disease, that leads to them harming others. The two detectives come across Eri’s sister Yui (Yui Mikami) and her boyfriend (Minoru Takanaka), who are feeding and taking care of the infected Eri (Miyuki Osaki) in their basement. They slowly close in on Eri’s whereabouts and condition, uncovering the mystery of her disappearance. Written and directed by Yuki Kuwazuru ((Not) Perfect Human), the film is an exploration of several themes concerning compassion for illness and mental health.

A bizarre art-house detective story with elements of body horror, “Yamamoto Eri Becomes Recoverability Zero” is a curious experience with a few unexpected scares. The plot is set-up very briefly and what follows is an exploration of some dark societal issues. In the dialogues between Soga and Miyabe we hear the various concerns of the general population around people with this unknown virus. Certain of the characters believe that the only way to deal with victims is by killing them. Soga goes armed to cases and is fully prepared to shoot them rather than risk being attacked himself, while Miyabe is more compassionate to sufferers. The performances of Kota Nakano and Kosuke Komura are good in the role of detectives, especially when they have scenes together discussing the ethics of their profession. Likewise, Yui Mikami and Minoru Takanaka make a good pair as they struggle with whether to help Eri or not. Mikami also has several flashback moments with Miyuki Osaki’s Eri where we get to see the two of them before the tragic events leading to the quarantining of certain individuals.

A low-budget is polished by creative direction, with plenty of hand-held camera work and scenes that have a fluidity and sense of purpose. The large number close-ups don’t always flatter the acting and there are a number of scenes that feel a little stretched, but a short runtime mean that there is not the central concept remains intriguing throughout. The story is chaptered and plays with its chronology by having each of the three chapters run as flashbacks leading up to the beginning of the preceding chapter. In this way we are brought into the investigation of Eri’s disappearance, through the horror of her condition, and finally onto an understanding of her tragic situation. Filmed largely in indoor locations gives the sense that the city’s population has significantly dwindled, but more could have been made of this in external scenes where we see a few people around in the streets. The film uses the distinction between quiet conversational scenes and sudden flashes of extreme body horror to great effect. One of these terrifying moments involves Yui’s boyfriend becoming completely traumatised after seeing Eri in the garage. She is completely ravaged by the disease and we realise why they are shunned. After Eri attacks him, Yui’s boyfriend stumbles into the street and appears to be in some sort of mania, perhaps representative of the madness that has spread from Eri to him, or perhaps his own paranoia at the thought of being infected.

This sequence leans into one of the central themes of the film: fear of infection. The cause of the mad man disease is never specified. It could be due to radiation from the bomb falling on Kyoto; it could be representative of Eri’s psychological trauma following her husband’s death; or it could be related to her pregnancy, which comes to play a central role later in the film. The characters appear to be terrified by the idea of catching mad man disease, and reticent to approach those with the condition. They go as far as suggesting that they should exterminate them. This is a dark reflection on humanity’s lack of sympathy with afflicted individuals; the shunning of those with mental and physical illnesses. We see the love of Yui for her sister, which leads to her overcoming this fear or disgust and taking care of her. The final moments of the film leave us with a stomach-churning moment that is sure to stick with the viewer, and leads to something of a re-examination of the earlier portion of the film. While shocking, the film is clearly intended as a metaphorical examination of cultural norms and the treatment of the sick. This final moment is perhaps intended to shock the audience into contemplating the various characters and situations and coming to some understanding of what is to be done if people are to move forward with more compassion.

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.

Blame! (2017) by Hiroyuki Seshita

In the future humanity cowers in a vast city that extends down to unfathomable depths and stretches away limitless in all directions. Humans lost control of the robots many generations before and now the machines continue without instruction, building the city and hunting down any remnants of humanity. A group of scavengers come across a mysterious traveller named Killy, who is looking for any surviving humans with the “Net Terminal Gene”, which would allow them to interact with their environment, thereby neutralising the threat from the roving Exterminators. When he reveals to them a potentially limitless food source in another part of the city, they agree to accompany him on his quest.

Based on a manga by Tsutomu Nihei, “Blame!” is directed by Hiroyuki Seshita from a screenplay by Sadayuki Murai. It features elements that will be familiar to fans of post-apocalypse science fiction: deserted cityscapes; robot killing machines; and humans struggling to survive in a world that has superceded them. One of the most exciting things about the film is the scale of the world that they have created. The art direction is mesmerising to look at, with vast expanses of uninhabited skyscrapers. There is an eerie atmosphere surrounding everything. Likewise the design of the scavenger, or “electro-fisher”, suits shows great care, blending both ancient samurai and futurist aesthetics. The scuffs and scratches on their helmets and the decrepitude of the buildings do a fantastic job of making the world feel lived in. The robots, with their insect-like look and movement, provide several creepy yet thrilling action moments. The film benefits too from having a relatively small cast, which we are introduced to little by little. There are three young scavengers, Tae, Zuru and  Fusato, their elders, Killy and a scientist Cibo whom they meet on their journey. The story is pared down to its essentials, and follows a straightforward quest narrative: mysterious outsider, small band setting out on a quest, and a final climactic struggle for supremacy.

“Blame!” differs from many cyberpunk stories in that it wears its pessimism about the future of humanity on its sleeve. This is a world that has quite literally outgrown humans. They are shown to be minute figures scuttling around in their meaningless lives, while the robots they created have taken over control of the world from them. This provides a rather dark and depressing backdrop to the story. The film also touches on the idea of a loss of history and culture. The people here are not only cut off from any other survivors by their distance, but they are cut off from the past. They cannot remember a time when humans were in control of technology. In this regard the film takes present concerns about the efficiency and dangers of Artificial Intelligence to a devastating conclusion. There are theological themes at work here. The main computer system is an almost god-like figure, while the humans appear to have no religious affiliation. It is interesting to consider a time when humans will no longer be the dominant power in the world, having ceded control to computers. “Blame!” is a hugely entertaining watch for fans of cyberpunk or apocalyptic science-fiction, with great design, exciting action and interesting underlying philosophy.

Cocolors (2017)

Fuyu and Aki are friends living in an underground community following an unknown catastrophe. All of the denizens of this subterranean city wear large helmets obscuring their faces, adding to a feeling of mystery that continues throughout the film. “Cocolors” raises a number of questions. What are they doing down here? What happened to the outside world? Will they ever return to the surface? Fuyu carries round a picture of the outside world, something he has never seen. This black and white line drawing comes to symbolise a hope that there is a better, brighter world above. Seven years later, Aki is sent to the surface and returns with coloured crayons for Fuyu to finish his drawing. As the film progresses, we slowly learn a little about their society and what happened to the world

“Cocolors” uses computer animation with a hand-drawn aesthetic that is engaging and interesting. There are a lot of little details in the backgrounds, pipes and machinery, along with the character design that add to a sense of realism. The film spends little time on explaining the world, but immerses you in the details and makes everything seem believable, drawing on elements of steam-punk and post-apocalypse fiction.

The film has a strong anti-war message about the devastation that would be caused following a nuclear holocaust. One of the great strengths is the subtlety and mystery that are sustained throughout. Especially the mystery of who or what is beneath the helmets, how they came to be underground, and what they are working towards. The film understands that most of these things are of secondary importance to the central theme of hope in hopeless situations. It certainly has a couple of head-scratching moments where reality begins to break down, something that works well with the animation style. By creating a slight sense of unreality, and keeping the characters faces obscured, the film is able to contemplate its themes without the need for the typical clichés of heroes and villains.