Suffering of Ninko (2016)

Ninko (Masato Tsujioka) is a trainee Buddhist monk with a problem: despite a religious proscription against carnal lust, he finds himself irresistible to women. As he walks through the town with his fellow monks he is accosted by women who are barely able to restrain their desire. Being dedicated to his chosen path, Ninko resists any and all temptation, but soon he begins to be visited by strange manifestations in his dreams. As he attempts to ward off the thoughts through recitation of sutras, the visions of lascivious women exposing themselves to him and luring him to unwanted thoughts become to much. He flees the temple and sets off on a pilgrimage to find some kind of solace. On his way he comes across a ronin (Hideta Iwahashi) and the two of them travel together to a remote mountain village. There they hear tell of a mysterious mountain woman (Miho Wakabayashi) who manages to entrap men with sexual desire before killing them. The samurai agrees to kill the woman, ridding the village of this fear, and sets out with Ninko to face this peculiar foe.

“Suffering of Ninko” is the debut feature of Norihiro Niwatsukino, who not only wrote and directed the story but was also responsible for the special effects and animated sequences. The story has a folkloric feel about it and this is played up with the use of narration and the interweaving of traditional-looking animation. The film has a great visual style and although the locations used are sparing it does a good job of recreating the period in costumes and sets. The cinematography by Takayuki Okazaki and Shunichiro Yamamoto is a joy to behold, reminiscent of classic period and samurai dramas with vivid colours and camera work emphasising the ambient beauty. The style of animation reflects Japanese wood-cuts or ancient calligraphy and adds to the film’s charm. Masato Tsujioka does a good job with the character of Ninko, a man who is struggling to balance his innate sexuality with his religious duties. The narration by Quoko Kudo is important in creating a tone for the film that suggests it should be read more as a moralistic fable than a true-life account. The main cast is rounded out with Hideta Iwahashi as Kanzo the ronin and Miho Wakabayashi as Yama-onna.

Although the premise of the film, a sexually irresistible man fighting off the advances of insatiable women, may sound like that of a raunchy sex comedy, in truth the film is actually far more thoughtful than this. “Suffering of Ninko” treads a fine line between the sublime and the base and plays on the apparent contradictions inherent in human nature. Ninko’s role as a priest is in constant conflict with his reality as a man and the innate sexual desires that comes with that. Sexual repression through religion has been a feature of many civilizations and here it is brought to the screen in a way that is not overly sombre, but similarly doesn’t take its subject lightly. The removal of masks by characters during his extended sexual dream suggests that Ninko sees through humanity’s seemingly respectable façade. This is further emphasised by his meeting of the woman in the forest, where she talks to him from behind a mask. Kanzo tells Ninko that he both desires sex and is repelled by it, in the same way that Kanzo desires violence but shies from it. This duality of nature is important. There is a shame attached to sex in modern society that is partly, though not entirely attributable to the control exercised by religious organizations. “Suffering of Ninko” features many scenes set outdoors and Ninko’s escape from the temple shows this return to nature narrative. He is a man struggling against instinctive desires in pursuit of something higher in the form of religious transcendence. The film is one that is worth watching as it presents a unique directorial vision that blends arthouse with low comedy, but has a genuine depth of theme and ideas.

One Cut of the Dead (2017)

This review contains spoilers so if you have not seen the film already, I recommend you do before reading as there are some great twists to enjoy.

A film crew are gathered in a remote water treatment plant to film a low budget zombie film. During a break in filming the make-up lady (Harumi Shuhama) explains to the two leads (Yuzuki Akiyama and Kazuaki Nagaya) that there is an urban legend about the site that say when blood is spilt it will raise the spirits of the dead. Before they know it cast and crew are being attacked by zombies and must fight for their lives. The film’s opening half hour is a perfect B-movie horror flick, complete with dodgy acting, poor quality special effects and a story that makes little to no sense. After the credits roll (surprisingly early) “One Cut of the Dead” then turns into a film within a film within a film, when we discover that in fact everything we have just seen was all part of a special live television show as part of the recently launched zombie channel. We follow director (Takayuki Hamatsu), cast and crew as they rehearse for the film we have just watched and this is where the fun really starts. Once you realise that in fact the first part was not meant to be serious and in fact did not at all go according to the script, you are treated to the same events again, this time from behind the camera, with drunken extras, numerous mistakes, and a quick-thinking director trying to keep the live show going amidst the chaos.

Writer and director Shinichiro Ueda has created something truly special in this film. While many may think the zombie movie has been wrung to its last drop, he manages to do something unique with the genre. For everyone who has ever made a low budget film with their friends this film will ring painfully true. Its genius is in the structure. Going in knowing nothing about the film you soon settle down into what appears to be another cheap zombie film. Disused buildings, shoddy special effects, and peculiar line reads. It is an impressive opening, shot in one take, and this section alone would be worthy of praise, despite various apparent flaws. However, when the film then takes you a further step back behind the scenes and you realise that what you watched was a construction of the characters who are acting in it, there is a unique style of humour that provides for some laugh out loud moments. Suddenly, you are forced to recontextualise everything you just saw. The film has essentially shown you the punchline, and is now giving you the joke, which creates a fun atmosphere of expectation as you want to see what you know is coming and are anticipating the pay off in advance. The cast of “One Cut of the Dead” comprises entirely of first-time and unknown actors. Takayuki Hamatsu is well cast as the director, Takayuki Higurashi, of the ill-fated film. His relationship with daughter (Mao) is one of the highlights of the movie. Yuzuki Akiyama gives a very enjoyable performance as the lead actress with Kazuaki Nagaya playing opposite her. Also, Harumi Shuhama is fantastic as Higurashi’s overly zealous actress wife. The cast were chosen by the director for their awkward qualities and workshopped the film together. This approach of casting relative newcomers works well as there is great chemistry between everyone involved and the apparent lack of artifice in their performances is perfect for the story.

As mentioned, the opening “film” is enjoyable in its own right as a schlocky zombie comedy film and credit to the film-makers for pulling off this “one-take” style. All of the actors deserve praise for their roles in the film as there is not a bad note from anyone and everyone has a least a couple of hilarious scenes that they own completely. At the end of the film you can feel the camaraderie of the cast of this project, so completely does the film draw you in to the making of it. The cast are mostly given almost stereotypical roles, but pull them off with aplomb, for example the “idol”, the actor who wants to be taken seriously, and the director who is just trying to avoid messing up completely.

“One Cut of the Dead” deserves to be seen by anyone who is a fan of low-budget film-making, zombie movies, or comedy. It excels of every level of film-making and acting with a script that is laugh-out-loud funny. For those into film-making it has a lot of in-jokes, such as characters using eye drops to fake tears, the way of getting fake blood spray or corpses into shot, special effects, and more. The ending is a heart-warming testament to the power of co-operation that is sure to leave you with a smile on your face. This film reaffirms the absolute joy that films and film-making can be.

Kamikaze Girls (2004)

Momoko (Kyoko Fukada) is living in a small rural village and has few friends. Obsessed with 18th Century France she dresses in frilly clothes, in the style known as ‘Lolita’. After her parents separated when she was young, her father began selling knock-off “Versach” merchandise. When his gangland past catches up with him they move to the prefecture of Ibaraki north of Tokyo. Momoko appears content to isolate herself from others, focussing on her fashion and saving money to buy clothes from her favourite store in Tokyo. Her peace is shattered when she decides to raise money by selling of some of their old fake clothing stock. The arrival of the rough and tumble biker Ichiko (Anna Tsuchiya) is a shock to the well-mannered Momoko. But Ichiko seems to grow fond of her, repeatedly appearing at her house, and soon the unlikely pair form an unlikely bond.

“Kamikaze Girls” is based on a novel by Novala Takemoto. Takemoto is also a fashion designer who has designed clothes for the label “Baby the Stars Shine Bright”, which happens to be Momoko’s favourite store in Tokyo. The film is directed by Tetsuya Nakashima (Confessions, World of Kanako), who does a fantastic job with the hyperactive teen aesthetic. The film is fast-paced, with intercutting sequences, flashbacks, and animation creating a colourful and chaotic world. It’s garish tone and in-your-face style are completely in keeping with the characters and story. While “Kamikaze Girls” certainly puts comedy before anything else, it never loses sight of its two protagonists. Momoko and Ichiko are the heart of the story, with their chalk-and-cheese personalities providing much of the impetus for the action. One is resigned to a life of solitude, while the other seems terrified of being alone. The performances by Kyoko Fukuda and Anna Tsuchiya are exceptional. Tsuchiya is outrageously boisterous as the biker, and Fukuda’s prim and proper Lolita is a great take on the stereotype. Both seem to be enjoying their roles and have good chemistry. Also giving an enjoyably quirky turn is veteran character actor Kirin Kiki as Momoko’s befuddled grandmother. Though entirely different you sense that their friendship is genuine. The music in the film is by Yoko Kanno (Ghost in the Shell) and underscores the visuals perfectly with a rock-pop vibe.

“Kamikaze Girls” is a fairly straightforward tale of friendship. Taking two young women with starkly different interests it shows how they can come together. The film delves a little into the background of each character, with dysfunctional home lives and bullying leading them down their respective paths. While this doesn’t overshadow the comedic tone of the film, it does offer some contrast to what is otherwise a lighthearted romp. The film also looks at the importance of socialisation for establishing a sense of self. Both characters are in their own way living an unbalanced life, drawn towards a particular subculture that gives them little sense of individual identity. One cannot form connections with others, while the other seeks out any kind of companionship even when it leads to her own corruption. Through each other they discover that it is important to broaden your horizons and look beyond your own narrow interests. Their relationship may seem unlikely at first due to their lifestyle choices, but it becomes apparent that they are both looking for the same thing in a trustworthy friend. “Kamikaze Girls” is a lot of fun to watch with a fast-paced story, likeable characters and a great sense of humour.

Instant Swamp (2009)

In a frenetic opening monologue, Haname Jinchoge (Kumiko Aso) introduces us to her life and philosophies. She goes through her daily routine as a chore, enjoys a sludge of ten spoons of coffee in milk each morning, and lives with her mother (Keiko Matsuzaka), her father has left for a more wealthy woman. Haname loses her job at failing women’s magazine publication and her mother takes ill resulting in a coma. They manage to fish a letter out of a sunken post-box that tells Haname that her real father is not who she thought, but is instead a bohemian figure called Light Bulb (Morio Kazama), who is now running a bric-a-brac store. The eternally upbeat Haname sets out to meet him, hoping that her discovery of her mother’s former partner might return her to consciousness.

“Instant Swamp” has a bizarre and convoluted plot that is perfectly in keeping with its protagonist and her eccentric behaviour. The film is an off-beat comedy that relies heavily on slapstick humour and unusual scenarios. It often delights in subverting expectations with ridiculous reveals. Much of the dialogue is clearly designed more for laughs than realism and it plays like a series of sketches that happen to involve the same characters. Not all of the jokes work, but there are enough of them that this does not matter. In the same way, the plot moves along at such a pace that there is always something else to be invested in, albeit temporarily, like a wild treasure hunt that is constantly throwing up more hints to follow. The jokes are helped, even when the material is weak, by some great comedic performances. Kumiko Aso is very charismatic in the lead role and really sells every gag. Morio Kazama as Light Bulb gives a good performance as the humorous yet untrustworthy shop owner. The supporting actors, Eri Fuse as Haname’s co-worker Ichinose, and Ryo Kase as a punk electrician named Gas, are also excellent in their roles. The film is written and directed by Satoshi Miki, whose fertile imagination shows in every scene.

“Instant Swamp” is a peculiar film about the magic of everyday life. In an early scene, Haname’s mother tells her there is a kappa in the garden. Haname refuses to be drawn in, believing this to be a silly delusion. Similarly, when she is tasked with writing an article on ghosts for her magazine she is highly sceptical, despite her co-workers’ belief in the supernatural. However, by the end of the scene Haname has experienced her own transcendental moment of magic, finally converted to the idea that the world is a wide and wonderful place where anything can happen. The film is not attempting to suggest scepticism is wrong, but that most people spend their lives in narrow channels and often miss out on the opportunities that may be surrounding them for experiencing “magic”. This idea is also emphasised in the use of antiques dealing as a central plot point. Haname’s meeting with Light Bulb proves to be important as she learns that the value of an object is not necessarily in its price, but in its emotional weight. She learns to value things based not solely on their use. Again, this is shown in her own attachment to a bent nail, the importance of which is lost on almost everyone she shows it to. The theme of luck plays throughout the film in parallel with this idea. Haname believes that throwing away a lucky black cat statue in her youth has led to her streak of misfortune. However, when she is tricked into buying something that is seemingly useless at the end of the film, she has grown enough to appreciate the potential in even the lowliest of things. Life, she realises, is not based on luck, but instead on making the most of what you have and in seeing opportunity in every new day.

Love and Peace (2015)

Ryoichi Suzuki (Hiroki Hasegawa), a lowly office clerk, dreams of becoming a rock star and reliving the successes of his younger years. He also has romantic inclinations towards his co-worker Yuko Terashima (Kumiko Aso). One day at lunch he buys a small pet turtle which he takes back to his apartment, sharing with it his hopes and ambitions and naming it ‘Pikadon’. After being bullied for having the turtle at work, Ryoichi flushes it down the toilet. The film then splits into two stories: one following Ryoichi on his journey to musical greatness via series of unlikely chance encounters; the other following Pikadon as he finds his way to a homeless man (Toshiyuki Nishida) in the sewers, who has collected a group of talking toys and animals to him.

Written and directed by prolific film-maker Sion Sono, this film has the expected blend of hilarity, tragedy and all-out insane spectacle. “Love and Peace” always seems to be heading in one direction and then quickly takes you somewhere unexpected. The finale of the film is a spectacle that is utterly ridiculous, but entirely in keeping with the anarchic sensibilities of the rest of the film. The split narrative of Ryoichi and Pikadon gives an interesting flavour to the film, showing the darker side of society’s relentless obsession with fame to the detriment of compassion and care. The abandoned toys in the sewers serve as a poignant reminder that consumerism often leads to a selfish mindset that neglects anything seen as old or worthless. The acting is great, particularly from Hiroki Hasegawa, who does a fantastic job portraying the put-upon Ryochi, bullied and unable to achieve his dreams, and later his rock-star alter-ego “Wild Ryo”, boastful and comfortable with the adoration of large crowds. Also great is Toshiyuki Nishida, who plays the homeless man to whom all the lost toys manage to find their way. His portrayal of the kindly drunk is one of the most touching parts of the film. The music consists largely of two songs: Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”, and the constant refrain of Ryoichi’s big hit “Love and Peace”, which you may find yourself humming throughout.

The main theme of the film concerns Ryoichi’s search for fame and how this leads to him abandoning those things that are truly important. It is far from subtle in the transformation of this retiring office worker into an arrogant rock star and likewise in showing the effects of his selfish actions. There is also the complimentary story of the toys, who find themselves abandoned and unloved once Christmas is forgotten (a metaphor for the fickle nature of celebrity and a pointed statement on the consumerism of the season). I would highly recommend this for the unexpected laughs, the bizarreness of the concept, and for some genuinely moving moments involving the homeless man and the toys.