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.

Junji Ito Maniac Tales of the Macabre (2023)

Junji Ito’s superlative manga have been portrayed on film several times (Uzumaki, Tomie) and this new anthology series allows the creators the opportunity to explore a number of stories, varying from surrealist, psychological, paranormal and gory horror.

The sheer number of fresh ideas presented here makes the series endlessly entertaining. We have tales of weird science, playing on notions of quantum physics where people pass through solid objects alongside more traditional horror fare of ghosts and poltergeists. The series also delights in twisting a familiar tale into something more surreal, such as the episode in which a suspicious ice-cream man takes children for a ride around the block in his van, with the the twisted revelation somehow being more disturbing that the imagined terror. The film takes uncomfortably familiar situations such as stranger danger like this and then distorts it into something graphically surreal. Some of the endings are slightly laughable, but nevertheless strangely unsettling. Another example of this sort of outrageous, logic-bending horror is in the giant head-shaped balloons that appear and begin strangling people; again merging the bizarre with the genuine terror of suicide. Rationality is often left at the door, with the inclusion of inexplicably creepy characters in an otherwise normal family, such as a boy who walks around with nails dangling from his mouth.

Ito’s style is immediately recognizable and the show does a good job of replicating it with the character and art design imitating the wilder elements of his peculiar ouvre. It is a world of almost permanently overcast skies, dull colours, and people who seem scarily at home with the preternatural terror they encounter. Overall the anime is understated, slow, and relies more on the queerness of the particular situation than overt graphic violence. There are no jump-scares, or graphic shocks, instead the episodes rely on a creeping fear and the sheer oddness of the setups. Episodes end suddenly, often without completely explaining or resolving the central tension, leaving the audience with that lingering uncertainty not only about what happened to the characters, but often what the significance of the events were. With its narrative creativity and left-field take on the horror genre “Junji Ito Maniac” is well worth a watch for fans of Ito or horror in general for

Alice in Borderland Series 2 (2022)

Series 2 picks up right where we left off, with Arisu (Kento Yamazaki) and his new friends taking on the face card challenges in the hopes of finding their way out of the bizarre other world they are trapped in. Episode one begins with a burst of violence as the King of Spades guns people down mercilessly in a much-changed Shibuya, showing that nobody is safe. This proves to be true as the deaths pile up throughout the series, including several shocks. We see several more games this time around, all ultra-violent twists on old classics, such as a guessing game where the losers are doused in corrosive acid, or a high-octane game of tag that sees contestants running around a giant industrial structure. The large budget is evident on screen in the fantastic sets and special effects, particularly bringing to life an abandoned Tokyo overgrown with weeds, and the swooping, wide-angle shots that make the unreal seem believable. There are elements of disaster movie, action, romance, and science-fiction that are all underscored with the central emotional drama of the main cast. Most are returning characters, with the inclusion of newcomer Yuri Tsunematsu as a no-nonsense high-school girl. The central mystery is not unravelled until the final episode, and then with a couple of entertaining misdirections (referencing two other popular ‘death game’ series, “Kaiji” and “Gantz”). Wrapping things up is a big task and the solution may prove unsatisfactory for some viewers who were hoping for a different explanation as to what happened, but it does a solid job of bringing together the themes of the show in a way that feels fitting.

The ‘Death Game’ genre lives or dies on its characters. “Alice in Borderland” remains opaque enough throughout that viewers are free to interpret its message as they like. It works as a socio-political satire with the unseen forces of the world putting its citizens through a meat grinder. The arbitrariness of death, the senseless nature of the games, the unbeatable odds, all lend themselves to interpretation, either philosophical or political. The series’ intent is to shock its viewers into living life rather than losing hope. It shouts at us that we need to keep fighting, to keep trying, however hard or futile things seem, and that in the end the only thing that matters is life. Throughout Arisu is searching for an answer, a meaning to his life, or an explanation to this world, and the series continues to deny this to him, and by extension the audience. In the instance that the truth is revealed we are almost beyond the point where the answer has any meaning to us. Instead the underlying message of the series is that of human solidarity in the face of adversity, confronting our mortality, and the idea of simply living as an end in itself.

The Violence Action (2022) by Toichiro Ruto

An undercover assassin is tasked with taking on a dangerous Yakuza syndicate in this comic-book crime caper. Kei (Kanna Hashimoto) works as an killer-for-hire, with dual cover as a University student and call-girl working out of a ramen shop. This compilation of Japanese pop-culture action cinema tropes extends is completed with a wacky side-kick with a bullet-proof wig (Takashi Okamura), a love-lorn fellow student who traipses after her; over-the-top gangsters led by a dad-joke loving boss; a villain possessed of supernatural martial prowess; Kei’s fellow assassin, the sniper Daria (Yuri Ota); love hotels; warehouse fights; gangland shootings; and a handsome, morally dubious love-interest.

“The Violence Action” is based on the comic book by Shin Sawada and Renji Asai. The film adaptation, written and directed by Toichiro Ruto, co-writte by Itaru Era, suffers from two major issues. One is the tonal inconsistency, shifting gears from slapstick comic action (bullet-proof wigs; aerobatic gunfights) to ultra-violent scenes (albeit with CG blood) including people being shot with a nail-gun. The puerile humour twinned with the mature tone is reflective of a trend in pop-culture of infantilisation; merging entertainment for kids and adults. Children’s films become more violent, while adult films are stripped of emotional depth. This results in what we have with “The Violent Action”, a film that never seems sure of what it is doing, other than throwing as many elements from other enjoyable films into the pot and giving it a stir. The issue with this is that you are consistently reminded of better films. The second failing of the film is in its headache-inducing editing, with hyperactive cuts that are unnecessary, giving it a music-video style that adds nothing to the drama. Unfortunately, these cuts are often use to disguise a lack of technical ability in the cinematography, the rapid cuts perhaps seen as the lesser of two evils by the director. The film suffers by comparison to “Baby Assassins” (2021), which managed to establish some degree of character for its protagonists and pulled off the comic-action vibe much better.

It is hard to know if the film is aiming for a B-movie feel, many elements would suggest this, but even if it were it still fails to create significantly outrageous set-pieces that would allow it to pass in the genre of more wacky action films. There is such a confusion of plot lines (an assassin questioning her choices; a leadership struggle within the Yakuza; a man double-crossing the mob; a love-sick teenage boy lusting after a dangerous girl; the sniper with a dark past; the hospitalized friend and dreams of revenge), all of which have been done before, and none of which are given enough time here to become the main focus. “The Violence Action” is akin to flipping through a series of action movie trailers, getting a brief impression of each one, but no consistent plot or memorable characters.

Hell Girl (2019) by Koji Shiraishi

In 1965 a girl gets revenge on the school bully by calling on Hell Girl (Tina Tamashiro), an infernal avenger, and her fellow demons to take her to hell. These demons demand a terrible price however, as anyone who calls on them will also be taken to hell when they die. In 2019, the now elderly woman’s son, photo-journalist Jin Kudo (Kazuki Namioka), is asking to use this story for an article. The woman dies shortly after and the demons come to take her. When an idol, Sanae Mikuriya, (Mina Oba) is attacked by a crazed fan, leaving her with facial scarring, she also calls on Hell Girl (who is now contactable through a website; although only at midnight, and only by those holding a serious grudge). And later when Miho’s (Nana Mori) friend, Haruka (Sawa Nimura) falls victim to a dangerous black metal singer Maki (Tom Fujita), Hell Girl finds herself with another young woman willing to take this demonic bargain.

“Hell Girl” is based on the anime by Takahiro Omori, with the live action film being written and directed by Koji Shiraishi (Carved: The Slit Mouthed Woman). The film’s central premise, of an infernal ‘deal with the devil’ in the form of the revenge service offered by ‘Hell Girl’ is pretty solid horror fare, but unfortunately the film fails to capitalize on it. We rarely see the hellish tortures the victims are subjected too, with only a minimal look at one character being eaten by worms. This means that for the most part the threats of eternal damnation are not particularly terrifying. The tone is often more dark fantasy, with supernatural anti-heroes in the shape of Hell Girl and her band of demons. The film perhaps relies on some fore-knowledge of the manga, with none of these hellish characters fleshed out much, and even Hell Girl herself rarely making an appearance. Later in the film they seem to appear even when not summoned, and they seem to take little joy in their work, simply taking any soul they are asked to. This lack of characterisation is also apparent in the human protagonists, who either have no meaningful motivation or are unlikeable enough that their characters’ fates are no great cause for sadness. The seemingly tit-for-tat, and thoughtless nature of them calling up Hell Girl for revenge, becomes almost risible, requiring no effort and with too few obvious consequence shown to the audience. The film gives us brief glimpses of a psychedelic hell, a teen-friendly Teruo Ishii fairground that is always careful not to be too extreme, limiting itself mostly to decapitation, and where the demons conform to comfortable horror tropes (scars, dark clothes).

“Hell Girl” is a by-product of a successful anime and manga franchise, which doesn’t move much beyond its premise. The demons go through the motions of taking people to hell in a way that give the audience little cause for concern about its protagonists. With more character work and creative depictions of hell it could have worked, but unfortunately it fails to entertain.