The Warped Forest (2011) by Shunichiro Miki

2005’s “Funky Forest: The First Contact” brought together three directors who created a bizarre, surrealist montage of skits. “The Warped Forest” sees one of these directors, Shunichiro Miki, return to the same vein of wacky, non-sequitur comedy with an ensemble cast including Rinko Kikuchi and Fumi Nikaido. It could be considered a sequel of sorts to the first film, and fans of “Funky Forest” will recognize the same surrealist slapstick humour with. This time there appears to be more of narrative, although you would be hard-pressed to explain exactly how things tie together. We open with a group of three men discussing the merits of communal bathing, before discovering that they have been missing for two days. The film then returns to two days prior where we have the same three men, along with three sisters, and three young students, an alien craft suspended above the earth, talk of ‘dream-tampering’, and sexualised fruits growing from nyad-like creatures. Having the same groups of characters gives the film a sense of consistency and narrative, but this is confused by all the inexplicable oddities they encounter. The people of this world use nuts, which they pull from their belly buttons (because, why not?) as currency, and there are also a group of Lilliputian characters who live alongside the humans (or are they ordinary humans living in a land of giants?).

The film relies heavily on shock value and slapstick, deftly sidestepping Japan’s strict rules on pornography with its sexualised imagery (in particular the aforementioned fruits, and a gun that shoots white goop from a penis at the end). The main through-line of the film concerns the spaceship and a questioning of what dreams are and how they relate to everyday life. Several characters are keen to delve into the world of dream-tampering, which allows people to travel through space-time and live out their every fantasy. In contrast, others warn that this sort of tampering can lead to people being cursed in the real world. As with “Funky Forest” before, “Warped Forest” lends itself to interpretation through its abstract nature, like wandering through a gallery of modern art. Is there a significance to the small people, the exposed belly-buttons; the genital-like fruits that people are constantly licking at or suckling on? Much like a dream on waking, the film presents itself in a way that makes you curious to uncover the meaning behind the apparent madness, remaining just out of reach, but leaving you with a powerful emotional reaction to the imagery which, if nothing else, is extremely memorable.

Once Upon at Crime (2023) by Yuichi Fukuda

Red Riding Hood and Cinderalla get caught up in a murder investigation in this comic twist on the classic Grimm’s fairy tale. While out walking in the woods, Red Riding Hood (Kanna Hashimoto) comes across Cinderella (Yuko Araki). With the help of two witches they are transformed into beautiful dresses in time for the upcoming ball at which the prince (Takanori Iwata) is to choose a bride. Things begin to go wrong when their carriage, driven by a recently transformed mouse named Paul (Tsuyoshi Muro), hits someone on the road. The investigation into this death, of renowned stylist Hans (Masaki Kaji), sees doubt cast on several individuals before Red Riding Hood’s unique powers of perception and deduction begin to unravel the mystery.

“Once Upon a Crime” is a comic-fantasy that subverts the traditional fairy tales of Red Riding Hood and Cinderella by turning it into a detective drama. Based on a novel by Aito Aoyagi, it has a pantomime feel with over-the-top acting and anachronistic references that add a humorous accompaniment to the central story. The plot is farcical, continually wrongfooting the audience with each new twist, as the ridiculous evidence piles up. The cast do a great job with the comedy, largely aimed at children but with a surreal, nonsensical style that provides some fun moments, such as the mouse carriage driver being asked if he has a license, or the bickering between Barbara the witch (Midoriko Kimura) and Red Riding Hood over her lack of magical ability. The opulent costumes are sure to delight fans of fairytale princesses, along with the extravagant castle, ballroom scenes, and whimsical fantasy moments.

The film is a fun twist on the traditional princesses and damsels in distress, with a superb cast of non-conformist heroines, the whipsmart Red Riding Hood, with her Sherlock Holmes-like powers of deduction, the outrageous Barbara the Witch, whose incompetence is matched only by her self-belief; and Cinderalla, whose character is given more depth that we might expect. The film closes with hints of a sequel and it would be interesting to see what other wild adventures our heroine might end up in. Overall, a fun, lighthearted take on Cinderella with a wry sense of humour that nevertheless succeeds in creating sympathetic characters.

A Girl in My Room (2022) by Natsuki Takahashi

After breaking up with his girlfriend of two years, Yo (Riku Hagiwara) is surprised to find another young woman (Shiori Kubo) in his room. However, his new guest turns out to be the ghost of a previous tenant who died there and whose spirit is tied to that apartment. Unable ot remember her own name, Yo names her Aisuke. After attempting to speak to the realtor about this unexpected turn of events, Yo finally comes to accept Aisuke’s presence and the two begin hanging out together. Yo’s co-worker suggests employing her aunt, a psychic, to perform a rite to drive Aisuke out of the apartment. But Yo’s burgeoning feelings for Aisuke leave him conflicted.

Written and directed by Natsuki Takahashi and based on the manga by Chugaku Yamammoto, “A Girl in My Room” is a charming, light-hearted supernatural romantic comedy, setting up a perfect odd couple in Yo and Aisuke. There is a poignancy to their relationship, seperated as they are by the line between life and death, but the similarity in age means that for the most part we have a conventional love story. We see Aisuke advising Yo on where he went wrong in his last relationship, while Yo tries desperately to come up with a solution to this unexpected occurance. The two actors have great chemistry together, with their spirited conversations being a highlight of the film. Riku Hagiwara’s hapless romantic lead learns to care for Aisuke in a way that he was never able to with his previous girlfriend. He also has some great comic moments with the realtor (Shohei Uno) as he attempts to explain his situation. Shiori Kubo (a member of girl-group Nogizaka 46) is charismatic and entertaining as Aisuke, with her regional dialect and casual manner. The plot develops in a familiar way, but with the lingering sense of unease about Aisuke’s eventual fate.

As romantic ghost stories go, “A Girl in My Room” provides us with plenty of heart and laughs. It sticks close to the two protagonists as we see them grow closer to one another, learning what it means to care for someone. The film was shot on location in Onomichi, highlighting the charm of this city in Hiroshima prefecture. Essentially a twist on a traditional romantic comedy, with two characters thrown together by circumstance, the film’s casual, understated tone makes it a relaxing watch for fans of the genre.

Summer Time Machine Blues (2005) by Katsuyuki Motohiro

During a sweltering summer heatwave, members of a high-school science-fiction club find themselves in a pinch when they break the remote for the air-conditioning in their clubhouse. An unlikely hero arrives in the form of Tamura, a time-traveller from the future, whose time-machine may offer a solution to their problems. The group begin experimenting, zipping back and forward through time to attempt to fix the broken air-conditioning remote. However, they soon realise that their tampering with time may have unintended consequences.

“Summer Time Machine Blues” is a feel-good summer comedy that manages to spin a wild tale from a very simple premise. It takes a little time to get going with the opening sequence, showing the members of the club playing baseball and at the local baths, providing an introduction to the characters. However, once the time-machine appears the pace picks up, with trips back into the first scenes making great use of the concept and low-budget, largely showing things from different angles or how seemingly innocuous events were caused by their time-travelling. Largely set around the clubhouse, the film manages to tie things together in a satisfactory way, explaining even the most minor details as due to their actions. The older cast seem out-of-place playing the childish students and the comedy is often rather forced, but the energetic plot and the way the film weaves together the narrative with characters in different time periods makes for an enjoyable watch. There is fun to be had in noticing details from earlier reoccuring in later scenes and realising the connections between their actions and consequences.

Time-travel always provides an interesting element to a film, with its related possibilities and paradoxes. The creators of “Summer Time Machine Blues”, clearly have a love for the genre and fit in many of these familiar ideas (the film includes “Back to the Future” showing at a local cinema). By taking such a ridiculous reason for travelling back, to fix the air-con remote, the film punctures the often pretentious nature of such narratives, with ideas of fate and free will seeming somewhat grandiose when set aside such an everyday concern. The story has a lighthearted feel that doesn’t concern itself overly with thematic depth or even character development; but works well as a summer farce.

Zom 100: Bucket List of the Dead (2023) by Yusuke Ishida

After landing his dream job, Akira (Eiji Akaso) finds that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Overworked and increasingly pressured by his agressive boss, Akira is overjoyed a year later when a virus outbreak sees Tokyo devastated by rampaging zombies. Realising that he no longer has to go to work, Akira begins making a bucket list of things he wants to do before turning into a zombie himself. He teams up with fellow survivor, Shizuka (Mai Shiraishi), a no-nonsense woman who is at first skeptical of Akira’s happy-go-lucky complacency; and also finds and rescues his University friend Kencho (Shuntaro Yanagi). The three of them set out to find an aquarium in Ibaraki that may be the last refuge of the living in this new world.

This horror comedy, based on the manga by Haro Aso and directed by Yusuke Ishida, moves at a good pace, setting up Akira’s disillusionment with his job and the familiar quotidian pressures of captialist societies. Much of the humour comes from the juxtaposition of the everyday with the grotesque horror elements. The zombie make-up is delightfully gory, with bulging veins and black blood pouring from their mouths. It is a thrill to see the zombie infested streets of Shinjuku and the Kabuki-cho district; and the characters taking refuge in the Don Quixote department store, with its array of cosplay and novelty goods. It has a similar feel to the “Alice in Borderland” sequel, particularly in its use of recognizable Tokyo environs twisted by the bizarre sitiuation. For the most part the film does a great job of balancing the horror with the comedy. In the final action-packed sequence it does tip into complete farce as they face off against one of the most unique CG monsters ever seen in a zobie movie. The zombies here appear to be animated by some evil spirit, contorting themselves as if they were puppets on unseen strings, rather than the shambling, easily avoided wrecks of yore. There is a perfunctory explanation for the outbreak, but for the most part the zombies are simply a narrative trigger for the protagonists who are more concerned with surviving than understanding the situation.

As with most zombie films, the survivors are forced to work together to escape the rampaging hordes, with themes of friendship and co-operation winning out over selfish individualism. But running throughout “Zom 100” is a striking critique of capitalism. It is hardly new to the genre, being a major part of George A. Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead”, but here transposed to Japan, where death from overwork has been recognized as a serious problem, this theme has plenty of bite. The depiction of Akira’s company will be familiar to some degree to many people working for large businesses, with its uncaring attitude towards staff and unthinking push towards working people ever harder. Akira’s determination to do what he wants to do is compelling and will appeal to many, although it is depressing that it takes almost the entire population being turned into zombies to allow the remaining humans to live with such freedom. When he finally meets up with other survivors, he discovers that they have ordered themselves in a manner similar to what he believed they had just escaped. The humans have willingly sacrificed their own freedoms to become part of the operation run by Akira’s former boss Kosugi (Kazuki Kitamura), who has happily taken on the role of dictator. There is a distressing sense that humankind is doomed to this destructive way of living, the weak dominated by the strong and personal freedom being subjugated by the will of the rich and powerful. A fun horror comedy that offers a glimpse of freedom in a society overrun by mindless zombies.