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.

The Fable (2019) by Kan Eguchi

An elite hitman (Junichi Okada) is asked to lie low for a year with strict instructions not to kill anyone in this live-action manga adaptation from Kan Eguchi. Following a mission in which he takes out an entire group of rival gangsters, the man is given the new identity of Akira Sato, and along with his partner (Fumino Kimura), now renamed Yoko Sato, they  are relocated to Osaka. They are told they must lay low for a year and not kill anyone, or do anything to raise suspicions. While under the protection of another mob boss, Ebihara (Ken Yasuda), “Sato” soon finds himself drawn back into the world of gang violence and vendettas when Ebihara violent brother Kojima (Yuya Yagira) is released from prison and begins stirring up trouble. Sato is also targetted by two ganstgers who know him as the urban legend “Fable”, who believe that taking him out will assure their own legendary status. While attempting to remain inconspicuous, Sato begins work at a design agency, falling for his co-worker Misaki Shimizu (Mizuki Yamamoto).

Based on a popular manga series by Katsuhisa Minami, with a screenplay by Watanabe Yusuke, the story of a hitman who is ordered not to kill has a lot of potential, but unfortunately this film rarely makes the best of its premise. The opening sequence, featuring a fun, ultraviolent takedown of a group of gangsters by a balaclava clad gunman, is well-shot and ramps up the excitement. A subsequent fist-fight, in which Sato must pretend to take a beating while actually being completely in control, is one of the best examples of the blend of comedy and action the film is aiming for. However, a lot of the jokes fall flat. For every solid character-based comedy moment, such as this fight or the former killer’s attempts to reinvent himself as an artist, there are weak running gags, such as his aversion to hot food and his love of childish comedian Jackal Tomioka that make little sense and serve to undermine any potential threat or tension. It is a fine line to tread between comedy and action, and this film pushes both to extremes with sexual violence and brutal stabbings sitting uncomfortably alongside the slapstick humour. The action sequences are enjoyable, but slightly undermined by the sense that “Sato” will never be killed or even seriously injured. It is a cartoon world, with exagerrated stereotypes, that struggles to maintain tension or establish emotional connection to the characters.

“The Fable” is a comedy-action film that fails to fully satisfy as either. It is a shame as the action sequences where things fall into place give a glimmer of what could have been, but the tonal inconsistency sadly let it down. The cast do a reasonable job given the script, playing up the larger-than-life characters, but again they struggle to resonate on more than a superficial level, mostly conforming to stereotypes such as the undercover hero, the love interest, or the psychopathic villain. The film works as a slightly silly action story, with a few stand out scenes, and is never outright bad, but rather underwhelming.

Moonlight Whispers (1999) by Akihiko Shiota

A tortured teenage love story touching on themes of perversion and control. Takuya Hidaka (Kenji Mizuhashi) and Satsuki Kitahara (Tsugumi) are classmates and members of the same high-school kendo club. Hidaka finally musters the courage to declare his love for Kitahara and shortly after they sleep together. The relationship is short-lived however, when Kitahara discovers that he recorded the sound of her urinating while at his house. She calls him a pervert and leaves in disgust. Later she begins dating Hidaka’s friend Tadashi (Kota Kusano). Hidaka pleads to be allowed to be near her and she begins to engage with his unusual desires, allowing him to watch her and Tadashi on a date and even having sex.

Based on a manga of the same name, with a screenplay by Yoichi Nishiyama and director Akihiko Shiota, “Moonlight Whispers” is certainly not a normal relationship drama, though it contains many features of the genre. It lures you in with the conventional romance of the young teen protagonists early in the film. The only sign that things may not progress smoothly is Hidaka stealing a sniff of Kitahara’s gym shorts from her locker. The actors all do a fantastic job with their characters. Hidaka and Kitahara capture the awkward, faltering of a first romance, while Kota Kusano’s confident Tadashi acts almost as a conventional romantic leading man in contrast with their twisted relationship. For a film dealing with the perversion of cuckolding, the film is rarely explicit, allowing the emotional import of the drama to drive the story, rather than the physical. One example of this is in the long take of Takuya sitting in a dark cupboard while he listens to the sounds of Satsuki and Tadashi’s lovemaking in the room. The swirl of emotions in the audience, discomfort, frustration, incomprehension, only growing stronger as the camera remains fixed on him. The cinematography largely leans on the romantic drama style, with soft-focus sunsets, and a realism in the dialogue scenes, an ironic counterpoint to the content of the story. The soundtrack, used sparingly, of delicate guitar, also suggests a more romantic story that what we are watching, heigtening the tension between expectation and reality that allows us to sympathise with the characters.

The film takes a unique look at relationships, focussing on a very particular fetish. Hidaka wants to observer Kitahara, to hold the perfect version of her in his mind, and completely fails when given the chance to have a physical relationship with the real Kitahara. He is utterly devoted to her, prepared to do anything for her, even when there is nothing in it for himself, and to go to incredible extremes to prove himself. But understandably, Kitahara is not interested in this, wanting a real relationship. However, she soon comes to indulge Hidaka, whether to satisfy him or herself is left ambiguous, but that is the heart of what the film is about. The obligations people have towards each other, the give-and-take of all romantic and sexual relationships is depicted starkly through this exaggerated example. We see the difference between Kitahara’s relationship with Hidaka and Tadashi, one asexual and based on a distinct power imbalance, while the other (perhaps considered more conventional) does not seem to satisfy her emotionally. A provocative film that forces the viewer to reassess their notions of romantic love and relationships.

Demon Slayer: Mugen Train (2020) by Haruo Sotozaki

While it is possible to enjoy this film without having seen the Demon Slayer anime, I would advise watching the series first. The film picks up directly from the end of the last episode of the show, with Tanjiro (Natsuki Hanae), Zenitsu (Hiro Shimono) and Inosuke (Yoshitsugu Matsuoka) boarding the titular Mugen Train (or “Infinity Train”). There they find the Flame Hashira, Rengoku Kyojuro (Satoshi Hino), who is on a misson to defeat a powerful demon. It is not long before the demon makes their presence known, putting our heroes to sleep in hopes of killing them while they are vulnerable. This gives us a look into the psyche of the characters through various dream sequences which they must escape from.

Essentially an extended episode, “Demon Slayer: Mugen Train” is an action-packed continuation of the set-up that ended the series, featuring gory demonic fights and slapstick comedy. It is great to see the characters back in action again after the training they have undergone. We don’t get too many answers to the questions raised at the end of the show, such as the mystery surrounding Tanjiro’s father, or any nearer a cure for Nezuko (Akari Kito), as this story is intended to bridge the two series. However, there are plenty of twists and surprises in store and it builds expectation for series two with a thrilling climactic battle that pushes the story forward in a dramatic way. The blend of animation styles, featuring 2D and 3D animation, the garishly juxtaposed comedy, dark themes and subtext, explosive action, powerful soundtrack, and moving storylines, will be familiar to fans of the show and the film delivers everything you have come to expect from “Demon Slayer”. This is hardly surprising as the film has the same director as the series, and the same incredible music from Yuki Kajiura and Go Shiina creating that epic feel.

In having a demon who uses the power of dreams to entrap their victims, the film allows us to look at the characters inner-lives, Tanjiro’s underlying trauma; Zenitsu’s infatuation with Nezuko; and Inosuke’s animalistic desire to fight are highlighted as key drivers in their behaviours. The decision to set the film almost entirely aboard a train means that the filmmakers are able to expand this inner-world without the distraction of too many new elements. Instead we have again creative antagonists, using unknown Blood Demon Arts, and the chemistry of the protagonists as they do what they do best. A must-watch for fans, the film has already become a box-office smash due to the popularity of the show and is sure to provide a springboard for viewers to get excited before the release of the second series.

Rurouni Kenshin: The Final (2021) by Keishi Otomo

Taking place several years after the previous film, Himura Kenshin’s (Takeru Sato) peace is once again disturbed by a figure from his past. Enishi Yukishiro (Mackenyu Arata) bears a major grudge against Kenshin, for causing the death of his sister Tomoe (Kasumi Arimura), who was briefly married to Kenshin. Enishi is also working alongside Shanghai mafia boss Wu-Heishin (Takuma Oto), who is under investigation by Hajime Saito (Yosuke Eguchi).

Following on from previous instalments in the saga, “Rurouni Kenshin: The Final” features the familiar stylish action sequences and a lot of nostalgia for the first three films. As well as the return of most of the cast, including Yosuke Eguchi, Emi Takei, Munetaka, Aoki and Yu Aoi, the film also sees the return of Ryosuke Kamiki in another superb fight. There is a nostalgia to seeing the gang back together again and taking on a fresh challenge, and with the same director, composer and cinematographer it is almost as if no time has passed between the releases. The story this time around feels like a more personal affair and Kenshin and Enishi’s backstory and rivalry is a strong thread on which to hang the as-ever impressive action sequences. We learn through flashbacks of their history together, including how Kenshin got the crossed scars on his cheek. Once again the action choreography offers an amazing spectacle, from Enishi’s first fight in a train, through large scale battles and emotionally charged duels later on, there is an endless creativity and skill in each of these set-pieces. The sight of dozens of extras engaged in combat is an incredible sight, the vitality and skill of the actors a marvel to see. The story of the Shanghai mafia investigation is given short shrift, being far less interesting than Enishi’s main plot, but again the film gives ample time to several supporting characters, helping to flesh them out a little.

Despite a run time of over two hours, in keeping with previous films, the story is well-paced and rarely drags. The screenplay, also by director Keishi Otomo, is continuously pushing the plot forward, slowly revealing details about either Kenshin’s history, or the characters around him, building up a sense of connection to events and people that allows the fight sequences to land with a genuine sense of threat. Everything about this project proves not only a serious budget, but a dedication to making something that looks incredible. The costume and set design perfectly recreate the period, while adding colour and vibrancy to the characters, building a believable world around the fantastical plot. Takuro Ishizaka’s cinematography is also beautiful to look at and the film uses light, locations and weather, to emphasise certain moments. Snow softly falling over a tragic death, fires tearing through the city, using the background details to heighten the emotional content of certain scenes. Naoki Sato again provides an incredible score that slips easily between drama and action.

“Rurouni Kenshin: The Final” sees a darker side to Kenshin, similar to when we first encounter him. Despite his easy-going appearance, the film makes clear that he was a killer and has caused great suffering in the past. Enishi’s desire for revenge is understandable and we are left with difficult moral questions about both of them. The film is one of the best big-budget action films in the genre and a welcome return for these characters.