Red Angel (1966) by Yasuzo Masumura

Ayako Wakao stars as a young wartime nurse on the frontlines in this harrowing historical drama based on the book by Yoriyoshi Arima. Sakura Nishi (Wakao) begins her work at a field hospital in China, tending to the wounded soldiers of the Sino-Japanese war. As well as witnessing gruesome amputations, she is also a victim of sexual assault by patients. Nishi becomes involved with a double amputee names Orihara (Yusuke Kawazu), blurring the lines between her duty and natural compassion for the suffering she sees. She later moves to a front-line station where she meets Doctor Okabe (Shinsuke Ashida), falling for the older doctor, who himself is battling morphine addiction and seems to have a rather pessimistic view of life. When their field hospital comes under attack, Okabe and Nishi, along with the rest of the staff and soldiers stationed there are forced to fight for their survival.

“Red Angel” gives us a look at what life was like for those working on the frontlines of conflict in the early 20th Century. We bear witness to the the grim field hospitals, with countless bodies lying in agony, groaning for relief, while doctors declare whether they are to be helped or shortly to die; the operating rooms where limbs are severed to save lives; and other depressing details, such as Okabe’s addiction to morphine; Nishi’s assault at the hands of patients; the enforced prostitution of women; and the devastating effects of a cholera outbreak. The film is a bleak depiction of the circumstances, seen through the eyes of the sympathetic Nishi, who provides the heart of the film. Wakao gives a brilliantly nuanced performance, as Nishi deals with not only the horrifict sights and sounds of the hospital, but her feelings towards the other doctors and patients. In one striking moment she attempts to save the life of a man who sexually assaulted her, not wishing him to think that her inaction was a form of revenge. The film’s sound design, the sawing of bones, the retching of cholera sufferers, along with the use of extras in the scenes of injured soldiers strewn around over-crowded hospitals, create a visceral, claustrophobic atmosphere that forces us to be a part of this bloody enterprise. At a little over 90 minutes, the film moves at a brisk pace, and it sometimes feels that we do not get to spend enough time with Nishi or explore her relationships with others, aside from Okabe. But this also speaks to the film’s strengths, and Wakao’s performance, that despite the trauma and horror we want to see more of her life.

The complicated morality of war is explored through Nishi’s decisions, her compassion and sense of duty guiding her throughout. The film doesn’t shy away from depicting the horrors of conflict alongside Japanese war-crimes such as the rape through enforced prostitution of captured women. While it largely steers clear of political messaging, aside from comments by Okabe on the nature of humanity, the film’s simple act of depicting the gruesome, dehumanising, consequences of fighting are enough to establish it as a supreme example of anti-war filmmaking. Paraplegia, suicide, impotence, drug-addiction, the film delves into the often unspeakable truths behind the propaganda of war, showing us the human suffering that results. But throughout there is the shining light of Nishi, whose calm, compassionate, actions stand in stark contrast to the darkness surrounding her.

Once Upon at Crime (2023) by Yuichi Fukuda

Red Riding Hood and Cinderalla get caught up in a murder investigation in this comic twist on the classic Grimm’s fairy tale. While out walking in the woods, Red Riding Hood (Kanna Hashimoto) comes across Cinderella (Yuko Araki). With the help of two witches they are transformed into beautiful dresses in time for the upcoming ball at which the prince (Takanori Iwata) is to choose a bride. Things begin to go wrong when their carriage, driven by a recently transformed mouse named Paul (Tsuyoshi Muro), hits someone on the road. The investigation into this death, of renowned stylist Hans (Masaki Kaji), sees doubt cast on several individuals before Red Riding Hood’s unique powers of perception and deduction begin to unravel the mystery.

“Once Upon a Crime” is a comic-fantasy that subverts the traditional fairy tales of Red Riding Hood and Cinderella by turning it into a detective drama. Based on a novel by Aito Aoyagi, it has a pantomime feel with over-the-top acting and anachronistic references that add a humorous accompaniment to the central story. The plot is farcical, continually wrongfooting the audience with each new twist, as the ridiculous evidence piles up. The cast do a great job with the comedy, largely aimed at children but with a surreal, nonsensical style that provides some fun moments, such as the mouse carriage driver being asked if he has a license, or the bickering between Barbara the witch (Midoriko Kimura) and Red Riding Hood over her lack of magical ability. The opulent costumes are sure to delight fans of fairytale princesses, along with the extravagant castle, ballroom scenes, and whimsical fantasy moments.

The film is a fun twist on the traditional princesses and damsels in distress, with a superb cast of non-conformist heroines, the whipsmart Red Riding Hood, with her Sherlock Holmes-like powers of deduction, the outrageous Barbara the Witch, whose incompetence is matched only by her self-belief; and Cinderalla, whose character is given more depth that we might expect. The film closes with hints of a sequel and it would be interesting to see what other wild adventures our heroine might end up in. Overall, a fun, lighthearted take on Cinderella with a wry sense of humour that nevertheless succeeds in creating sympathetic characters.

And Your Bird Can Sing (2018) by Sho Miyake

Tasuku Emoto plays a part-time bookshop employee who falls for one of his co-workers, Sachiko (Shizuka Ishibashi). He seems unfazed by Sachiko’s ongoing relationship with their boss at the bookshop, beginning an affair with her. When Sachiko is introduced to his room-mate Shizuo (Shota Sometani), the three of them begin hanging out together, the lines between friendship and romance becoming increasingly blurred.

Based on the novel by Yasushi Sato, the film was shot on location in Hakodate and the northern city plays a starring role in the film as we follow the characters through late nights and early mornings, the quiet streets, tramlines and telegraph poles a permanent fixture in their lives. While it might be described as a love-triangle, the central tension of the protagonists relationship rarely bubbles to the surface, instead the film delights in subtlety, with stolen glances, or moments of contact left for the audience to decide what the characters are thinking. There is a conflict between the characters’ apparently nonchalant attitutude to romance and each other and the audiences desire to see them express some deeper emotion. The central cast do a great job with these complex characters, believably lackadaisical and directionless young adults, far from the typical romantic heroes of film.

“And Your Bird Can Sing” is a slice-of-life romantic drama that brings us into the world of three lost souls who manage to find a degree of stability through their unconventional relationships with one another. These highly relatable characters with their insecurities and halting attempts at romance are enjoyable to watch, the audience almost being an unseen participant in their lives as Sho Miyake’s intimate direction brings us into the heart of the drama. For the most part the film’s style and tone reflect the ambivalent, carefree attitude of the protagonists, rarely forcing the plot, and instead allowing the characters to simply live and experience the world around them. The film waits until its final moments to give the audience a degree of closure, with the characters finally giving voice to their unspoken feelings. The slow pace and lack of a conventional plot may alienate some, but the film succeeds in creating intriguing protagonists and a believable world lacking the familiar surities of more run-of-the-mill love stories.

The Black House (1999) by Yoshimitsu Morita

An investigation into potential insurance fraud turns into something far more sinister in this crime thriller. Wakatsuki (Seiyo Uchino), working at an insurance firm, receives a call from a woman named Sachiko (Shinobu Otake) asking if she would receive a payout in the case of suicide. When he goes to the house he finds her strange husband, Shigeru (Masahiko Nishimura), and discovers their son, Kazuya, hanging in the next room. Shocked by the discovery the firm begin an investigation into the family, with Wakatsuki suspecting foul play. Things turn deadly as bodies start to pile up and suspicion falls on Sachiko, who seems surrounded by cases of disability and death leading to insurance claims.

“The Black House” is based on the book of the same name by Yusuke Kishi and directed by Yoshimitsu Morita. The film starts off in a seemingly casual manner, soft jazz score and the somewhat mundane day-to-day work of Wakatsuki’s insurance company. The mild-mannered investigators and bright settings, makes the reveal of Kazuya’s body in a shockingly matter-of-fact manner, all the more terrifying. As the film goes on it plays with this discrepancy in tone; the horror influences becoming more apparent as Wakatsuki’s investigation proceeds. It is hard to know if the tonal inconsistencies are entirely intentional, with the film varying wildly in style and atmosphere. Perhaps the most egregious example is the scene in a girl’s bar with a scantily clad dancer accompanied by rave music, fitting uncomfortably with everything before and after. The film’s genteel investigation is constantly being disrupted by harsh, graphic violence more reminiscent of a gritty crime thriller; the run-of-the-mill daytime soap-opera tone of the investigation providing a counterbalance and stark relief to the horror. That being said, once the main investigation into Sachiko’s family gets underway it keeps up a pace with twists and turns in the plot and this lurking dread that something monstrous is about to be uncovered. The use of colour, in particular Sachiko’s yellow clothing, the flashing coloured lights of the investigation room, and the gaudy single-colour cuts between some scenes, reflects the psychological element of the film, and the film-maker’s seem to play with the audiences expectations and experience in other ways, such as the aforementioned tonal shifts, the wild swings in the score from melodic to harsh screeches or dark industrial resonance.

“The Black House” does a great job at building up its horror incrementally, at first only hinting at the sinister, nihilistic outlook of its central villain, before racing towards a blood-soaked finale. Through the characters of psychiatrist Kaneishi (Kenichi Katsura) and Wakatsuki’s girlfriend Megumi (Misato Tanaka), we are treated to discussions of Jungian dream analysis and descriptions of psychopathic traits. While the antagonists are clearly unhinged, their behaviour is not so unbelievable as to not be chilling. With its blend of crime drama and horror, “The Black House” has something for fans of either genre, with a strong story and idiosyncratic style making for a gripping watch.

The Sea and Poison (1986) by Kei Kumai

Following the second world war, a captured Japanese doctor is facing interrogation by an American officer for his role in the live vivisection of 8 American captives during the war. Suguro (Eiji Okuda), the well-meaning junior doctor recounts his time working under doctor Hashimoto (Takahiro Tamura) at a medical facility, leading up to their infamous experiments. His fellow junior doctor, Toda (Ken Watanabe), does not share his qualms about the goings-on at the hospital, including lying to patients about deaths in surgery, or their live autopsies, all of which he believes furthers medical knowledge. The doctors and nurses at the facility continue with their jobs under constant threat of air raids and influence from the military.

Following the Second World War, many of the war crimes committed by the Japanese army, including the infamous Unit 731 were uncovered. In “The Sea and Poison”, based on the 1957 novel of the same name by Shusaku Endo, director Kei Kumai attempts to shed light on this, creating a moral drama that is chilling in its revelations and implications. Masao Tochizawa’s black and white cinematography creates a stark visual metaphor in the darkness that gathers in pristine white operating theatres. The hospital, ostensibly a place of hope, is nevertheless swarming with the shadow of death which seem to grow darker as the place is overtaken by concerns other than the health of the patients. The characters themselves are caught between the worlds of medicine and war, of helping to save life and taking lives. Eiji Okuda’s performance as Suguro captures the character’s anxieties and discomfort at what he is witnessing, along with his sense of impotence to stop it. The two scenes where we see operations are shown in gory detail, with exposed organs and viscera reminiscent of the most brutal horror films. Largely dialogue free save from the particulars of the operation, the actors explore the complex emotions of the staff as they witness these events, scientific curiosity; a vicarious sense of revenge from the soldiers; and the moral complexity of doing something so heinous for the greater good. The score by Teizo Matsumura has elements of the macabre and theatrical, with warped melodies alongside operatic arias that reflect the contrast in the film itself of terrible acts and the higher moral concerns of some characters.

“The Sea and Poison” is an important film that discusses the immoral acts carried out under the veil of war and in the name of scientific inquiry. Suguro is not a heroic character, failing to stop what happens or even to decline taking part in the experiments. Nurse Hilda, a German married to the head doctor, asks another nurse about god’s justice, and this is a theme that is repeated throughout the film. The idea that humans are operating without a set moral code, or with one that is flexible enough to accept such atrocities as a natural or unavoidable part of progress is a terrifying one. We see in the film that the military encroach on the hospital, later physically as they crowd into the operating theatre, suggesting that evil is intermingled with good and occasionally overpowers the better natures of people. In its cold, clinical, dissection of human nature the film finally settles on a chilling conclusion, that perhaps evil is as much a part of human nature as good. It offers a faint hope in the character of Suguro, who in his strolls by the sea is able to see society for what it is, suggesting that individuals have within them the power to ignore orders to do evil and are instead able to think morally and rationally outside of the system.