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.

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.