Doppelganger (2003) by Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Engineer Hayasaki (Koji Yakusho) is working on a robotic chair that allows paralysed people to operate artificial limbs through a connection with the brain. One day he comes home to find a doppelganger who attempts to help him push the project on, while also causing havoc through his aggressive behaviour. Meanwhile, a young woman Yuka (Hiromi Nagasaku) is disturbed to hear of her brother’s suicide, while his doppelganger sits at home working on a novel. Hayasaki’s double hires an assistant called Kimishima (Yusuke Santamaria) to help with the chair; continuing their work in an abandoned warehouse even after Hayasaki is fired from the medical company that had funded his research.

“Doppelganger” is a mix of horror, classic science-fiction, and mystery, with a tone that shifts from dark to humorous. The uncomfortable atmosphere is compounded by a plot that becomes increasingly wild as it reaches a dramatic climax, even abandoning the doppelgangers towards the end. Writer-director Kiyoshi Kurosawa expects the audience to engage with the film, rarely explaining things, or even explicitly revealing what is happening. Instead we experience Hayasaki’s bizarre situation first hand and are asked to make our own minds up about what is real or unreal, and the significance of the doppelgangers. This is even more keenly felt in the story of Yuka’s brother, Takeshi, a disturbing situation that appears and is resolved without any apparent connection to Hayasaki’s own problem. Kiyoshi excels at creating uncomfortable moments, using space and framing that suggests unseen or unknown horrors. Even the smallest moments take on a sinister aspect and we are left anxiously awaiting some new terrible revelation. However, the film also balances this darkness with a blackly comic tone, with Hayasaki’s unhinged behaviour not quite tipping over into something more pitiful. Koji Yakusho does a fantastic job with the two Hayasakis, who have distinct personalities and approaches to work and life. The film utilises simple yet effective techniques to show the two of them together and we can feel that they are two different people who happen to look identical. The use of split screen is also a great addition, adding to the uncertainty about whether this is Hayasaki’s delusion or a manifestation of Hayasaki’s darker nature. The score by Yusuke Hayashi captures this strange blend of horror, comedy and science-fiction, with ominous chords and jaunty melodies.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s “Doppelganger” explores the duality of its protagonist Hayasaki and that of humanity in general. Hayasaki is a man who has devoted his life to his work, neglecting any kind of social or romantic pursuits. His doppelganger, more assertive, aggressive, and decisive, represents those elements of himself he has kept hidden, agressively pursuing Yuka. Hayasaki’s dislike of his double shows how much he wants to distance himself from these elements of his own psyche. Takeshi’s case is more tragic, suggesting the choice that lies before many people, with his ‘real’ self committing sucide while his doppelganger pursues his creative tendencies.It is the Id-like doppelgangers that seem to know what is truly important to the individuals, while the true self of the Ego is forced into a life controlled by others. The film’s upbeat ending sees things resolved in a positive if unconventional way, but one that chimes with the underlying message of self-awareness and self-discovery.

9 Souls (2003) by Toshiaki Toyoda

A rag-tag band of prison escapees set out to help each other realise their final wishes before they are re-captured or killed. After murdering his father, shut-in Michiru (Ryuhei Matsuda), finds himself locked up with a group of violent offenders. A short time into his sentence they manage a miraculous escape, deciding to stay together, travelling around in a campervan as they re-visit important places and people from their pasts. The film features an all star cast including Jun Kunimura, Kiyohiko Shibukawa and Yoshio Harada.

Writer and director Toshiaki Toyoda had long wanted to make a prison break film, beliving them to be one of the most exciting genres. Partly based on a true news story of escaped convicts travelling around together, “9 Souls”, brings together an incredible cast and motley collective of criminals who act almost as a surrogate family to each other. Toyoda clearly put a lot of work into the characters, each of whose crimes are briefly written on screen, and the outstanding cast manage to portray these disparate individuals without going into unnecessary exposition or flashbacks of their lives. In fact we only see one crime comitted by the group pre-arrest (even then it is off-screen), the murder of Michiru’s father, with the others only referencing their offences. This helps us empathise with the group, whose murderous pasts would make them quite irredeemable. Instead we are treated to a comic road-trip as the group attempt to evade capture, dressing as women or having to avoid old acquaintances. The direction is first-rate, with the characters framed to show their physical and emotional proximity and several incredible shots of the surrounding scenery as they travel. The ruddy sunlight of the film suggests a melancholic realisation that these men may be on their final journey. The soft-rock score, slowly ramping while going nowhere captures the sense of frustrated ambition.

“9 Souls” leans into a metaphysical reading with moments that seem particularly unreal. Director Toyoda has stated that films allow us to blend reality and imagination, and that is evidenced here. The group’s escape is one egregious example of a miraculous occurence that defies belief (they see a mouse, realise it must have a hole somewhere, and the next moment they are running free of the prison). Another example is in one escapee’s discovery of a peep-show that appears like a mirage, which sees him complete his own journey. Each of the men seems to be searching for something to bring themselves peace and it could be said that in some sense they are already dead, simply lost souls attempting to justify themselves before they pass on (either to incarceration or the long sleep of death). Whether they are seeking redepmtion for their crimes, attempting to right the wrongs of the past, or prove to themselves that there is some good in their hearts, they are brought together by the hope that this is true. The final moments of the film, which again rely on this blurring of reality, drives home this point that it is hope that keeps people alive. A fantastic prison break film that touches on the ideas of what is truly lost when people commit crime and questions the notion that humans can be entirely bad.

Dead Sushi (2012) by Noboru Iguchi

The sushi bites back in this horror comedy from writer-director Noboru Iguchi. Keiko (Rina Takeda) is dismissed from her father’s sushi restaurant after failing to meet his high standards. She finds employment at an inn where she finds it hard to adapt, making few friends beside the janitor Sawada (Shigeru Matsuzaki). A large group from a pharmaceutical company arrive to stay at the inn, with the hostess Yumi (Asami Sugiura) and her husband (Takashi Nishina) keen to please. Things don’t go to plan however when a homeless man who previously worked at the same pharmaceutical company, Yamada (Kentaro Shimazu), is infected with a dangerous virus from some sushi he found in the rubbish. This virus turns the sushi into living, flesh-eating, parasites. The whole inn must fight to save themselves from the monstrous undead sushi that now threatens to destroy them.

“Dead Sushi” is a film that revels in the ridiculous from premise to execution, throwing in anything and everything that might be entertaining: karate (courtesy of the supremely talented Rina Takeda), zombie-esque horror, gory CG-enhanced effects, nudity, fart jokes and slapstick. It is definitely one that requires you leave your brain at the door and simply enjoy it for what it is. Those familiar with Iguchi’s oevre (films such as “The Machine Girl” and “Mutant Girls Squad”) will recognize the blend of splatter horror and black comedy, although here it is played mostly for laughs, toning down some of the more stomach-churning elements of the grotesque horror. There is something almost quaint about the movie, with the central conceit being so laughable that it could easily have worked as a film for a younger audience, with some of the puerile humour and moments such as the singing sushi playing well with all ages. The decapitations, blood-letting and nudity later on almost appear added in to make the film more violent and ‘adult’ (in contrast to most films that desire a broader audience). The cast all give excellent comedic performances, especially Sugiura as Yumi, whose contorted expressions are in keeping with the cartoonish violence. Rina Takeda ais also fantastic, showing off her martial arts and acting skills in the role. The special effects, including work from long-time collaborator Yoshihiro Nishimura, are fun, though the practical work far outdoes the computer generated moments providing the charming, handmade feel of their early work. The sound design of the film also heightens the enjoyment factor, furthering the sense of a live-action anime with martial arts effects.

An outrageous takedown of several Japanese holy cows, with both sushi, corporate culture and deference for customers in the firing line. The moments when members of the pharmaceutical company are pretending a high level of sophistication and knowledge of sushi, while the hostesses of the inn look on admiringly is one example of the satirical undertones to the wacky plot. To have the sushi turn on the customers, and even one person turn into a killer tuna fish, punctures notions of respect for culture and tradition, laughing at something that is often seen as serious. Keiko’s relationship with her strict, overbearing father, again plays on this idea of youth being liberated from their staid and conservative forebears. The film parodies horror films as it draws out a global cultural obsession with zombies to an absurd point, by having something that is so dead it can’t possibly return to life come back. “Dead Sushi” is a silly diversion, a tongue-in-cheek horror comedy that does all it can with the idea of sushi as its primary antagonist.

Almost Coming, Almost Dying (2017) by Toshimasa Kobayashi

Sex and death, two of humanities most enduring fascinations are brought together in this darkly comic tale. After many years out of work, and trying with little success to become a manga artist, Manabu Nakagawa (Nou Miso) finally finds a job as a tutor for an autistic boy. However, while out celebrating his new income by visiting a prostitute on New Year’s Eve, Manabu is brought down by RCVS, a disease that affects the brain causing painful headaches. Manabu is taken into hospital, under the care of doctor Ishige (Shunya Itabashi). When his parents and sister come to visit, his mother is keen to know where he was when he had his accident, a stress that Manabu could do without.

“Almost Coming, Almost Dying” is based on Manabu Nakagawa’s manga, and directed by Toshimasa Kobayashi with a screenplay by Hiroyuki Abe. The film follows Manabu (Miso), a who typifies the unlucky comedy archetype, brought low at his most vulnerable moment. It finds black comedy in the dark situation of having a serious illness, balanced against the embarrassing situation where it occurred. The shift from raunchy comedy early on, to suddenly a rather morbid hospital-based dark comedy fits the story, hitting the viewer as unexpectedly as Manabu himself is struck with this condition. The disease itself is portrayed as a red and black bear mascot with an exposed brain, who whacks Manabu with a bat around the head, causing his headaches. These surreal moments, along with the toilet humour, help keep things light-hearted, despite the depressing connotations of the story. After all, there is little to do but laugh at the arbitrariness of these things and people’s inability both to control their own urges or escape their own mortality. The jazz soundtrack by also keeps the film from becoming overly downbeat. The central ongoing gag, of Manabu being unable to tell his family where he was when he had his attack, becomes a little drawn out, but there are plenty of other great moments of cringe humour, such as having the toilet door left open while people wander past a helpless Manabu, or him asking the doctor if he can still masturbate with this condition. Nou Miso does a great job with the character, his hapless, put-upon expression familiar to anyone who has had to be taken into hospital, or suffer the indignity of personal questions.

Sex and death are subjects that are often both taboo and of endless interest to people, two things that we cannot escape as humans. Things that we would rather not discuss openly are ripe for comedy and that is no more apparent than in “Almost Coming, Almost Dying”. Nakagawa’s manga was based on his own experiences, which helps provide believable scenarios, the comedy is rarely forced, but born out of the personalities of its characters and the situations they find themselves in. It is a great example of art created from tragedy, with the writer turning his ordeal into something that can be enjoyed. An amusing dark comedy about an unfortunate incident and how people deal with shame.

The Laughing Salesman NEW (2017) by Hirofumi Ogura

Moguro Fukuzo, as he is introduced at the beginning of every episode, is a peculiar kind of salesman; he works not for money, but only to see satisfied customers. The nature of his business is also unusual. He appears unexpectedly to offer people some sort of boon or way out of any current problem. Whether this is a stressful day job, financial worries, or other personal worries. Moguro offers to help, using some magical ability to allow them to experience happiness before suddenly removing it and bringing them crashing back to harsh reality. In fact, in every case the person usually ends up far worse than they started and Moguro heads off laughing into the sunset.

It is hard to place “The Laughing Salesman” into a particular category. Blackly comic, it has elements of moral fable and psychological horror, with the ‘clients’ being led astray to indulge in their worst vices, or else being tormented by some uncontrollable compulsion. There are a few where the message seems to be clear, such as a man berated by his boss who then becomes that same monstrous power-hungry figure when given the opportunity; or the man who wants to hide his face behind a mask and is then forced to live this second life permanently along with the negatives it entails. Others are less clear and on occasion even people with no apparent foibles are accosted by Moguro who proceeds to destroy their lives seemingly for the fun of it.

It is clear that the “Laughing Salesman” character has a lasting appeal. Beginning life as a one-shot manga titled “The Black Salesman” by Motoo Abiko (also known as Fujiko A. Fujio) in the late 1960’s, the first publisher it was sent to considered it too scary to be published. It was later turned into a long running anime series with 127 episodes. This new iteration only has 12 episodes, each split into two distinct stories, but it is enough to give a flavour of the warped world of the salesman character. The writers Naohiro Fukushima, Asami Ishikawa, Midori Natsu and Hirofumi Ogura, create an anthology series that manages to not repeat itself, with each story having a unique issue or problem within the confines of a familiar structure. The animation style leans towards exaggerated caricature, which suits the “house of mirrors” style stories that show people at their worst and bring their flaws to the fore. Each character is named ironically for a personality trait or some other personality trait.

In spite of the comedic tone there is an underlying darkness as the show seems to mock individuals for their hope of a better world. The character of Moguro himself may be a reference to the devil tempting people to sin, or else simply causing chaos in the world. One of the darkest elements of the show sees Moguro take each of his clients/victims to a bar named the Magic Nest. Here they sit, the same barman continuously polishing glasses, while behind them on the wall is a terrifying painting depicting a hellscape, with a Baphomet triumphant above a crowd of lost souls. It leads the viewer to think that there may be more going on thematically than simply an eccentric character causing mischief.

“The Laughing Salesman” is a show that brings into sharp relief some of the worst elements of society, such as selfishness, greed, workplace harassment, and also popular vices such as money, women or drink. It doesn’t offer easy answers, in fact Moguro tends to make everything much worse. Instead it forces the viewer to confront the issues by deliberately muddying the waters into a moral maze from which there may be no escape. The characters are rarely heroes, and Moguro is certainly not swooping in to save them. Well worth watching if you enjoy dark fantastical fables.