The Naked Director Series 2 (2021)

Toru Muranishi (Takayuki Yamada) is on top of the world, with Sapphire Productions making money hand over fist, his staff and stars, including Rugby (Takenori Goto), Junko (Sairi Ito), Naoko (Ami Tomite), and manager Kawada (Tetsuji Tamayama), are all happy with how things are going. But Muranishi is dreaming bigger; after finding out about the new technology of satellite television he dreams of having his videos distributed to every home, seeing a vision of porn ‘raining down from the sky’. Meanwhile, Detective Takei (Lily Franky) is still playing both sides of the yakuza while unfortunate Toshi (Shinnosuke Mitsushima) acts as a lackey under boss Furuya (Jun Kunimura). Kaoru Kuroki (Misato Morita) is coming to terms with her fame as Japan’s premier adult actress and the company is taking on a slew of new talent.

“The Naked Director Series 2” has the same energy and outrageous comedy moments as the first series, but also delves more into the darker side of the industry. We see Muranishi’s arrogant, overbearing persona both in a positive and negative light as it wins him contracts, but alienates those around him. Most poignant are the stories of Kaoru Kuroki, and to a lesser extent Naoko, who are figuring out what it means to be a porn actress and whether they can ever leave the industry. New characters include Yuri Tsunematsu’s Miyuki, whose wide-eyed innocence hides a determination to succeed, but also finds that being a porn actress may not be as glamourous as it seems. The large and impressive ensemble cast, most returning from the first series, fully embody their characters, their quirks and personalities shining through even when they are only briefly on screen. While the series again mostly sticks with Muranishi’s story, there are plenty of moments for the rest of the cast to shine.

Series 2 is directed by Masaharu Take, lead director on the first series, and Kotaro Goto.  The show is stylish from start to finish with the camera becoming a part of the action and constant creativity on display. The series also features a couple of fantasy sequences which add a little comedy to things, with Muranishi floating in space to the strains of The Carpenter’s “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft”. The soundtrack throughout the series features some great tracks, often used ironically. The score is not always limited to songs of the 1990’s, but the songs are generally well-selected and give the series a youthful energy. The recreation of the time period through costumes and set-design is impressive, recreating the 1990’s with as much gusto as series one did the 1980’s, a nostalgic look back at a lost era of fashion.

Much of the series is about regret and making mistakes. Gone is the naivety of their early careers; the characters now fully enmeshed in the ‘business’ side of the porn industry. This sense of being jaded is highlighted perfectly by having the pornography often playing as background noise. Things which are there to excite the general public are mere wallpaper to the protagonists. As money worries, relationship issues, business deals, and more consume Muranishi and the other characters, the shimmer of the glamourous image of their business is peeled away to reveal a world as soul-crushing and difficult as any other. An incredible second act to the first series, this time around revealing many of the failings of the characters and the difficulties they go through to maintain their sense of self.

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.

Big Man Japan (2007) by Hiroshi Matsumoto

Comedian Hiroshi Matsumoto writes, directs and stars in this slapstick take on the kaiju genre. Daisato (Matsumura) lives a simple life, alone in a small house, taking care of a stray cat he found. But when Japan calls for a hero, he is forced to transform into his alter ego “Big Man Japan” (Dainihonjin). Travelling to an electrical power station, he is zapped with energy, growing to an incredible height in order to take on various humongous monsters that Japan is inexplicably harassed by. Unfortunately, for Daisato, his efforts are far from celebrated: when they are acknowledged at all people largely complain about the state he leaves the city in, or his poor performance in fighting these monsters.

“Big Man Japan” is a film that takes the kaiju monster genre and turns it into a farce. The low-brow comedy is best exemplified with the monsters, the design of which is suggestive of sexual anatomy, and with jokes about stinky excretions, and Big Man himself running around in a pair of purple pants, it would be hard to mistake this for an intellectual film. However, the film does also provide some clever moments of satire, such as the idea of Big Man having a manager (played by Ua) who struggles to help him with corporate sponsorship. Most of the best moments are actually not the monster fights, where the shaky CG, used for Matsumoto and a string of Japanese comedians as the monsters, often distracts from the action; but the mockumentary style interviews with Daisato as he goes about his everyday life. These segments, with the off-screen journalist asking questions about his routine, his life, and his estranged family, are humorously juxtaposed with the idea of a powerful, lauded superhero, which is what you might expect. It is almost a film of two completely contrasting styles, with the subtle humour of the interviews interspersed with the outrageous slapstick of the monster battles.

Hiroshi Matsumura’s talents as a writer and performer shine through here. The poor CGI does undermine some of the actions and several broader jokes fail to land, but Matsumura’s natural charm and comedic ability carry the film through. By far the most entertaining sections are when the film has something to say, either about corporatisation, the struggles of fame and living up to the expectations set by previous generations, and even a sideswipe at religious pretentions with a mock ceremony to call forth Big Man’s powers. The subplot involving Daisato’s grandfather, the fourth Big Man, offers a glimmer of emotional resonance to the story, but for the most part it is simply a tongue-in-cheek homage to giant monster movies.

Tiger: My Life as a Cat (2019) by Masaya Kakehi

Suzuo (Hiromitsu Kitayama) is a struggling manga artist. His most famous work, “Cat-Man”, has stalled before publication of the final volume. Suzuo has no interest in finishing this project, instead spending his time gambling at pachinko or the racecourse. Also, he hates cats and only drew the comic because he knew it would sell. His wife, Natsuko (Mikako Tabe), and daughter, Miyu (Kokoro Hirasawa) remain devoted to him despite his apparent laziness and inability to stick to his deadlines. When he is hit by a car and killed he is allowed to return to earth as a cat and manages to become part of Natsuko and Miyu’s lives again, although they remain largely unaware of his presence. He is helped by fellow cat, Whitest (Marie Itoyo), who teaches him what it means to comfort his family.

Based on the manga by Mina Itaba, with a screenplay by Toshiya Ono, this family film about losing a parent manages to balance lighthearted humour with some challenging themes. It is clear early on that Suzuo and Miyu’s relationship is loving. Despite his failings as a father she looks up to him, emulating him by drawing her own manga. The film’s central conceit is handled well with Kitayama dressed in a cat costume, rather than relying on digital effects. We do occasionally see him as an actual cat, but the choice to have him play the character in costume allows for much more emotional scenes between him and his daughter. The lack of flashy special effects also means that you are not distracted from the story and the acting can shine. Many of the scenes rely on the performances and dialogue as opposed to slapstick or low-brow comedy, such as when Suzuo arrives at the judgement desk of heaven, which is played as an amusing two-handed sketch between him and the judge, played by comic writer and actor Bakarhythm. Hiromitsu Kitayama’s comedic performance is highly entertaining, moving on from the initial fish-out-of-water humour when he is first reincarnated, to character driven humour and pathos. Young actor Kokoro Hirasawa is incredible as his daughter and provides the film an emotional core with some heart-breaking scenes between her and her father. “Tiger” is often surprisingly well shot for a film that is a knockabout comedy. The sequence when Suzuo chases the ambulance, or the scenes through the window, the warm room stark against the darkening night, show the filmmakers taking even a surreal comedy like this seriously.

“Tiger” is a film about dealing with the loss of a parent. Miyu, perhaps even more so than Suzuo, becomes the centre of the drama as she tries to come to term with her father’s death. Despite feeling ashamed of his behaviour at times she remains devoted to him and his sudden death forces her into reconciling her emotions and understanding her relationship with him. There is also a theme of what we are able to give to others. Suzuo is asked by the judge in the afterlife what he intends to do if he is given the chance to return and it is only later he realises what his role is for his daughter. As Suzuo explains to Whiteness, when she also has to deal with a bereavement, sometimes just being there is enough. For a film aimed at children the difficult themes are not glossed over. The use of reincarnation is not used as a way to sidestep the tragic inevitability of death, but rather offers a way of dealing with the grief it causes those who remain. The death of Suzuo is brutal and final and the film’s exploration of his passing is refreshingly unsentimental, giving us a look at coping and moving on for those left behind.