Meatball Machine Kodoku (2017) by Yoshihiro Nishimura

A sequel/remake to 1999’s “Meatball Machine”, for which Yoshihiro Nishimura provided the special effects, this film sees him take full creative control, both writing and directing. Nishimura is known for his outrageous splatter horror and black comedy with a filmography including “Tokyo Gore Police” and “Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl”. For those who have seen those other works, the first thirty minutes of “Meatball Machine Kodoku” might be something of a shock. It starts pretty simply and could almost be mistaken for a regular drama. Our protagonist, 50-year old Yuji Noda (Yoji Tanaka) works for a debt collection agency, spending his days attempting to extract money for late bill payments and getting nothing but disrespect and slammed doors for his troubles. His boss is less than sympathetic, shouting at the downtrodden Noda. His only respite is a visit to a second-hand bookstore and the lovely Kaoru who works there. Worse is to come for Noda as he discovers that he has cancer. After Kaoru takes him along to a meeting of a bizarre religion, Noda runs away and finds himself enticed into a burlesque club, where he is later ripped off by the staff and thrown out in the street. It may seem as though this is more than enough plot for any movie, but this turns out to be merely preamble. Throughout this a mysterious woman, with white hair and a PVC coat and top hat is wandering around the city. We discover she has in fact been drawing a giant circle that surrounds central Tokyo. A large glass descends on the city trapping a portion of the citizens inside. This is the first look we get at Nishimura’s trademark gore and black humour, as a man urinating in the street has his penis severed, and another couple engaging in a little al fresco sex are cut in half, their lower halves spurting blood while they continue to go at it. And… roll titles. Things are about to get messy.

From this point forward the central plot really kicks into gear. Noda is trapped inside the glass jar with a race of parasitic aliens who are able to take over people’s brains turning them into a conglomeration of machine and flesh and causing carnage wherever they go. Noda has to escape and find Kaoru. Along the way he is helped by a group of martial artists and we see people who he knew before the event transformed into horrifyingly deformed beings, with grotesque outgrowths of organs and mechanical appendages. The film features utterly horrific imagery, but throughout it all there is a twisted sense of fun as the violence is so extreme that it tips into comedy. It is certainly not a film for the squeamish as we see eyeballs drilled into, intestines ripped out and gallons of blood sloshing around. However, fans of Nishimura’s work will find a lot to enjoy in the inventive, over-the-top action sequences and no-holds-barred gruesomeness. It is a genre Nishimura has worked in for a long while and it shows. He has perfected many of the special effects techniques and this stands as perhaps the finest example of his work. There is a clear line from this to Shinya Tsukamoto’s “Tetsuo” in the transformed human-machine hybrids, and late in the film there seems to be a direct homage in a sequence in which we see a character running down the street.

The direction is good with lots of hand-held camera work giving a chaotic sense to the action. There are lots of subtle moments, call-backs and visual gags in the film too for those paying attention.

The central premise of the film comes at the end when we discover the reason for the alien invasion and all the mayhem that has ensued. Right before the film ends we also see some brief flashes of documentary footage, animals in slaughterhouses and battery-farmed eggs, alongside pictures of large congregations of people in city streets. It finishes with the single ironic word “humans”. However horrific things are in the film, it seems to say, humans are responsible for killing, slaughter and devastation on a far bigger scale. This is fiction, the fantastical nature of death and gore and violence here is as nothing to the true horror of humanities own destructive urges. Fans of Nishimura are sure to love this film as it is everything you could hope for from a splatter horror comedy.

First Love (2019) by Takashi Miike

Leo Katsuragi (Masataka Kubota) is an up and coming boxer. Yuri (Sakurako Konishi) is a woman addicted to meth and prostituted out to pay off her father’s debts. Kase (Shota Sometani) is a yakuza about to betray his employers by intercepting a delivery of meth and selling it on. His partner in crime is a crooked cop, Otomo (Nao Omori). Their plan is to grab the drugs, and make Yuri the scapegoat by renting her out on the night of the theft. When Leo receives a terminal diagnosis, a tumour on the brain, he sets off into the Tokyo night, lacking all will to carry on. A chance encounter with Yuri gives him something to fight for and the two head off together, chased by Kase and Otomo, the Yakuza, the Triads and the police.

Miike creates a vibrant world full of colourful characters with a fast paced script that never lets up. From the opening cross cuts of the various storylines we are thrust forward into the action, constantly flipping back-and-forth between the main players in the drama. The film doesn’t take itself too seriously, preferring the extreme or ridiculous rather than the mundane. This is evident early on when we see a severed head blinking in disbelief, and reaches its climax in a triumphant getaway chase beginning with a car flying out of a second story window. The film is packed with fantastic action, black comedy, and humorously idiosyncratic moments. There are two central plots: Leo and Yuri’s relationship and Kase’s drug heist gone wrong. Yuri is given a tragic backstory of abuse, and her attempts to find the boy who once helped her are touching. Her comedown from addiction is also well-played and provides an interesting angle to her character. Likewise, Leo is also a troubled individual, abandoned by his parents and struggling with the weight of his diagnosis. Both Masataka Kubota and Sakurako Konishi give incredible performances and it would have been great to see more of them. One of the issues, if it can be called such, is the film’s dual structure, with both the couple’s relationship and Kase and Otomo’s attempts to discover the drugs taking equal time. As an audience you find that you want more of both of these stories, but are constantly split between them.

The acting from the entire cast is perfectly pitched between blackly comic and serious crime drama, a difficult feat to pull off. Outside the main cast are suitably chilling performances from Seiyo Uchino as Gondo the yakuza boss, and Mami Fujioka as the Chinese Triad Assassin. As in his previous Black Society Trilogy, Miike includes the Chinese underworld as an integral and symbiotic part of the Japanese criminal society, with their dialogue in Chinese. It seems an unusual point to mention, but with much Japanese cinema you would be forgiven for thinking of Japan as an entirely homogenous society with no foreign elements or influences.

Having worked in the genre of crime for his entire career Miike knows all the tropes of Yakuza stories and how and when to subvert them. Examples of this include Kase’s attempts to murder a potential witness to his crimes, being interrupted by her elderly flatmate, and the inventive way he decides to kill her. It seems also there is a knowing wink to the camera in moments such as Godo’s final scene and the Chinese gang member “one-armed” Wang (Yen cheng-kuo), creating a tension between drama and comedy. The design of the film is stylish, with great use of colour and framing throughout. It also manages to capture the grime of the Tokyo streets and run down apartments. Despite the fantastical nature of the plot the set design ensures it remains grounded firmly in reality.

Fans of Miike’s work will find much to enjoy here. “First Love” has almost everything you would expect from the director of “Dead or Alive” and “Audition”. He crafts an understated love story woven through the turmoil of a hard-boiled crime drama. The action sequences, including car chases and sword fighting are all expertly done, and there is a forward momentum to everything that makes it a joy to watch. If anything it is a film about finding your reason for living. In a world where you are beset on all sides by violence and chaos, you can discover that one thing that keeps you focused. At the beginning of the film, Leo has his boxing and Yuri is addicted to meth. By the end, both have found each other and something meaningful to fight for.

Melancholic (2019) by Seiji Tanaka

Kazuhiko (Yoji Minagawa) is a university graduate still living at home with his parents, having never found a full-time job. His listless existence seems drab and colourless with little excitement enlivening the daily monotony. Stopping by the bathhouse one day he bumps into a former high-school classmate, Yuri (Mebuki Yoshida), who asks him if he is planning to go to their upcoming school reunion. It is clear that she has an interest in him, but Kazuhiko’s social awkwardness almost leads to him missing his chance with her. He begins a halting relationship with Yuri and takes her advice to get a job at the bathhouse. However, both these developments come under strain when he discovers the bathhouse is being used as a front for yakuza hits and the disposal of corpses killed in gangland disputes. Along with his co-worker Akira (Yoshitomo Isozaki), Kazuhiko begins working this second job, unable to get out of his obligations to the bathhouse owner Higashi (Makoto Hada).

“Melancholic” is a black comedy with a twisted premise that creates a driving tension through its various relationships. It is tightly scripted, with Kazuhiko’s world and choices boiling down to only a few individuals: Akira, his co-worker, employee, Yakuza boss Tanaka (Masanobu Yata) and his girlfriend, Angela (Stefanie Arianne). The film is a blend of character study, with our protagonist stress-tested almost to breaking point by the uncomfortably dangerous situations he finds himself in, and comedy with often hilarious scenes arising from the peculiar premise of a socially awkward man at the centre of a gangland murder operation. Yoji Minagawa gives an amazing performance, permanently uncomfortable, squinting and shuffling, and baffled by everything from Yuri’s advances to discoveries about those around him. Mebuki Yoshida is incredibly likeable as the cute, kind and sympathetic love interest and the uneasy tentative nature of her relationship with Minagawa’s character is perfectly written and acted. Yoshitomo Isozaki provides great comic relief as Akira, whose poorly educated yet easy going character is at complete odds with the anxious Kazuhiko.

Written and directed by Seiji Tanaka, the film revolves around Kazuhiko and his relationships with the world, both romantic and as an employee. He is a man who has avoided finding a permanent job for unexplained reasons, either personal choice or due to his character. We see a former classmate who has become a major success as a pianist and his achievement seems in stark contrast to the apparent failure of Kazuhiko to find gainful employment. He is a man whose character defects, shyness and lack of motivation, seem to doom him to miss important chances in life. This is most painfully exemplified by his near-miss conversations with Yuri that rely heavily on her persistence to make their relationship work. The theme of work and obligations plays heavily throughout, taken to an extreme through the introduction of the yakuza and the disposal of bodies. There is a question hanging over the value of work and what causes people to do things for other people, especially despicable or otherwise intolerable things. Whether for money, for love, for fame, or out of a sense of solidarity with others, the actions of every individual are examined closely. The film offers no concrete answers, but it does give us a cast of expertly drawn characters that shed light on how people interact with one another and the vicissitudes of fortune that set people on certain paths.

EXTE: Hair Extensions (2007) by Sion Sono

Yuko (Chiaki Kuriyama) stars as a wannabe hair stylist sweeping floors at a salon. When her wayward half-sister Kiyomi (Tsugumi) leaves her young daughter Mami (Miku Sato) with Yuko, she discovers that the child has been badly abused and neglected by her sister and decides to look after her. Meanwhile, Yamazaki (Ren Osugi), a man with a serious hair fetish, steals a corpse from the mortuary where he is working, cutting off the endlessly growing hair for use as hair extensions, which he provides for use at salons. The hair still retains the tortured soul of the deceased, the victim of an organ harvesting gang, and is soon causing havoc, killing indiscriminately. It is not long before Yuko’s own salon is given this questionable hair and she must fight to protect Mami.

“EXTE” is directed by Sion Sono, a master of the bizarre and ridiculous. The film mocks the common trope of ghost stories where long black hair is a defining feature of their characters. It is a satirical look at the banality of much of the genre. This is evidenced early in the film with the risible dialogue between the dock workers in the opening, and Yuko narrating her own introduction, drawing attention to how predictable and uninspired the film’s set-up is while also being a clever way of getting through what would be dull exposition, character names and quick personality checklists. The film repeatedly undermines itself in this way, creating a tone that is self-referential comedy horror. There are moments of terror in the film, whether the flashbacks of the young woman’s torture at the hands of organ harvesters, or the more commonplace horrors of child abuse that Mami suffers at the hands of her mother. In this way the film almost lures you in with the promise of something throwaway while subverting expectations by actually delving into some genuinely dark themes. Chiaki Kuriyama is likeable as Yuko and does a good job with the various tones that the film attempts, from lighthearted drama, to scenes of emotional distress. Tsugumi is deeply unlikeable as her sister, and Ren Osugi brings a scenery-chewing eccentricity to the creepy, hair-obsessed recluse Yamazaki. Sono again shows his skill with direction, pushing the special effects too far at times to create an over-the-top aesthetic that never takes itself too seriously. The use of a Christmas jingle is one example of this unorthodox style, another the impromptu song performed by Yamazaki, that is irreverent and inappropriate yet entirely in keeping with the rest of the film.

Sion Sono is having fun with J-Horror tropes with EXTE, creating a humorous deconstruction of typical ghost stories that have dominated the genre. The decision to set a fantastical supernatural evil against the genuinely terrifying sublot of Mami’s abuse at the hands of her mother, is potent. Perhaps the film’s way of saying that typical horror audience’s focus on ridiculous or unlikely horrors leads them to overlook everyday traumas. Yamazaki can also be seen both as a caricature of the sinister lurking figure common in horror films, but also as a much darker stereotype. His fetish and objectification of the corpse could be a commentary on the beauty industry and male perversions more widely. He does not care about women, only about the hair. The hollowness at the heart of “EXTE” is symbolic of the lack of meaning or significance in much of the horror genre or society more widely. Everything is superficial and fake (in the same way that the hair extensions are taking reality and making it something frivolous and unnecessary). A satirical side-swipe at the whole horror genre, that revels in its irreverent tone and delights in subverting expectations.