Minbo, or the Gentle Art of Japanese Extortion (1992)

The staff at a high-class hotel have a problem. The Yakuza are causing trouble, being abusive to staff, refusing to pay their bills, and other antisocial behaviour. With the manager (Akira Takarada) at a loss he recruits an accountant, Suzuki (Yasuo Daichi) to lead operations to rid the hotel of these people, along with his assistant Wakasugi (Takehiro Murata). The two prove to be incompetent, lacking the strength and wit to out-fox the gangsters. They decide to bring in criminal lawyer, Mahiru Inoue (Nobuko Miyamoto), who specialises in Yakuza-civilian relations. The film is essentially a farce with some great scenes showing the various tricks of the Yakuza swindling people out of their money. Later in the film things take a dark turn when the manager of the hotel is framed for a sexual assault on a minor. Having finally gone too far, the hotel double down on their efforts to get rid of the Yakuza once and for all.

Director Juzo Itami faced a backlash from the Yakuza following the release of the film, being assaulted by gangs who disliked their portrayal in the movie. There are also those who believe Itami’s death to be suspicious and linked to these groups. The film is a fantastic crime-comedy film that has surprisingly dark undercurrents. Not only are the Yakuza shown to be ridiculous, but also violent thugs that should not be respected in Japanese society. The direction is solid and Itami clearly has a good sense of comic timing and framing set-pieces. The script also moves at a great pace and is well-structured into various acts, becoming acquainted with the problematic Yakuza and our hapless heroes, then the secondary plot involving the manager, and finally their showdown with the gangsters. The comic soundtrack by Toshiyuki Honda is very much of its time, but in keeping with the film’s light-hearted tone. The great achievement of the film is that it manages to discuss a serious societal problem with humour without shying away from the darker elements.

The Yakuza are a staple of Japanese cinema, from Kinji Fukasaku’s “Yakuza Papers” series, to Takashi Miike’s “Black Society Trilogy” and Takeshi Kitano’s “Outrage”. This film’s intention was to puncture the mystique around these groups and show them as bullies and criminals. There is nothing honourable about the characters in the film and they lack the aura of cool that has been established by many films. Instead they are loud, lazy and obnoxious, making their money by taking advantage of the good nature of those around them. A great film with some hilarious moments and a serious message underpinning the comedy.

Mutant Girls Squad (2010)

A delightfully silly slice of gory action from three masters of the genre. When Rin (Yumi Sugimoto) reaches her sixteenth birthday she is told by her father that she is a mutant. This certainly explains her feelings of isolation at her highschool and alienation from classmates. Shortly after this revelation their home is invaded by the anti-mutant police who kill Rin’s parents. Rin meets Rei (Yuko Takayama) who is part of a team of mutants fighting against the human society who are oppressing them. They are led by Kisaragi (Tak Sakaguchi), a samurai transvestite. Rin also befriends another mutant Yoshie (Suzuka Morita) and the three of them are tasked with taking down a government official opposed to mutants.

The title should give away the fact that this film does not take itself too seriously. What little plot there is acts as a slender frame on which to hang outrageous comedy-horror action sequences. Everything from the police having guns on their noses, to one girl’s power being to have two tiny arms reaching out from her ears (this is far from the most ridiculous of their abilities), will certainly appeal to anyone with a childish sense of humour and love of obscene splatter comedy. The handmade quality of the film gives it a real charm and the amount of effort that has gone into costumes, special effects (including a lot of physical effects) and gore speaks to a highly motivated and talented crew. The film is helmed by three directors, Yoshihiro Nishimura (Tokyo Gore Police), Sakaguchi (Re:Born) and Noboru Iguchi, from a script by Iguchi and Jun Tsugita. The directors clearly share a love of schlocky horror and action and their enthusiasm is infectious. The film is hyperactive and insane, feeling like a student film given a budget that allows them to bring their madcap ideas to life. All of the main actresses go all-out in their performances, embracing the wacky premise and melodrama, and do well in both comedy and action roles.

The film is essentially a bully revenge story with a well-worn message of anti-discrimination and embracing difference. It revels in weirdness and eccentricity and is a film that wants to run as far from ‘mainstream’ as it is possible to get. Only recommended for those with a black sense of humour and a love of gory violence.

Greatful Dead (2013)

Nami is a young girl who lives at home with her elder sister and her parents. Her mother is obsessed with giving money to overseas charities and one day decides to leave the family and travel to help these suffering children in person. This leads to Nami’s father taking up with a mistress, who eventually leaves and her father commits suicide. Nami’s sister also leaves home to go and live with a boyfriend. Nami’s only companion seems to be the television, and in particular a sales channel from which she purchases various items. Years later, living off her inheritance from her father, Nami has taken up watching other lonely individuals. From her vantage point on the roof she spies with binoculars or telescope these people who seem set on a path of solitude. She also follows them around the city, noting down their activities in a diary and is excited to discover a new “solitarian”. Her behaviour is charmingly eccentric, but takes a dark turn when she enters a man’s home and is delighted to find him dead, taking a photo with the corpse. She then discovers another lonely man, whom she begins stalking, camping out nearby his house. When this man begins to reconnect with the world, first with Christian community volunteers, and then with his own family, Nami takes matters into her own hands to ensure that he remains alone.

Directed by Eiji Uchida, “Greatful Dead” with a screenplay by Uchida and Estuo Hiratani is a film of two quite distinct halves, that seem stitched together down the middle. The early part of the film where we see the young Nami ignored and eventually abandoned by her parents, is a tragic portrayal of a neglected child. This segment also gives us a hint at later developments when she unexpectedly cracks a mop around a classmates head. The film then moves into a lighthearted comedy, complete with bouncy music, and a joyful Nami cataloguing all the lonely people she sees around the city. The second half of the film moves into dark horror and doesn’t hold back on the violence and gory sequences. However, both parts bleed into one another. There are elements of dark humour in the first half, and slapstick in the second. Kumi Takeuchi manages both parts exceptionally, being likeable and fun and shifting gear into creepy and terrifying later. Even when it is clear she is beyond helping, she still manages to evoke a degree of sympathy and is a joy to watch. Takashi Sasano, who plays her elderly stalking victim, likewise goes through a transformation, from irritable old man to a kindly grandpa and later to a victimised person who has had enough.

The film explores loneliness and isolation in a tongue-in-cheek way. Nami’s story is a sorrowful tale of neglect leading to later inability to function in society. Even as her sister constantly tells her “normal is best”, Nami is set on a path of abnormality, seeking out similarly lonely individuals who have given up on society. She is lacking attention and emotional support from those around her. Loneliness is a huge social issue and this film does a great job of showing the reasons for it, but also offering hope that this is not a path that people are tied to. The finale of the film seems to be a rejection of the mindset that isolating yourself is the best option. It entertains as comedy and horror-comedy and leaves much of the thinking to the audience. For example themes of religion, in particular Christianity, consumer and media culture, and the rigid social norms of marriage and family are all there for viewers to unpick. However, you choose to enjoy it, as an off-beat black comedy, or social satire, it is definitely unique in both style and outlook.

Battle Vixens (2003)

When a new female transfer student Sonsaku Hakufu arrives at Nanyo Academy and begins challenging everyone in the yard to fight, her cousin rushes in to help her before she causes serious damage. This is no ordinary school, and no ordinary world, as various individuals have an earring that contains the spirit of a legendary figure from the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history. The ditzy, upbeat protagonist is the spirit of a legendary warrior who loved fighting for its own sake and was a champion of the period. As the story progresses the characters find themselves involved in numerous fights with other students, replaying historic battles and attempting to avoid their fates.

Based on the manga by Yuji Shiozaki, and directed by Takashi Watanabe, the series contains many tropes from similar sexploitation series, going to almost any length to include upskirt shots of the girls, jiggling breasts, or sexually charged sequences. Each of the characters is given a unique personality though they remain largely surface level clichés. The conceit of the reincarnated spirits makes for an interesting story as the characters attempt to escape from their predestined paths, or relish following them. Those with knowledge or interest in this period of history may get more out of the series than the casual viewer, as each episode ends with a brief historical note on who the characters are meant to represent and what happened to them. The fight scenes are good and the humour, though broad, is entertaining. The major weakness is in the story that never really grabs your attention in the way it should. With the characters established it too often feels like a sequence of battles without a meaningful purpose. We see the rise and fall of several of the characters, but despite engaging fights you never feel a sense of danger. This is partly down to the outlandish premise that significantly impacts the ability to relate with anyone.

The central theme of the film is the idea of fate and escaping from it. Being reincarnated the characters are essentially living out another life in the modern era. This also conjures up the notion of a cyclical history where humanity is doomed to repeat its former errors and violence is an ineradicable human trait. By the end the characters do manage to change their course, but this raises the question of why they couldn’t have done this earlier. Despite a weak story the series moves quickly and does feature some exciting sequences and humour. Its main flaw is that, much like the characters, it feels as though it is going through the motions with few surprises.

Dead or Alive (1999)

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The film’s opening sequence knocks you over the head with its rebellious attitude. Intercutting between a strip-show, cocaine snorting gangsters, a shoot-out, and an apparent suicide, are coming at you so thick and fast that it is overwhelming. Once the narrative proper starts there is a clear intent to shock, with bestiality porn shoots, a horrific death involving an enema, and several other alternately horrific and hilarious set-pieces. The central story involves a feud between gangster Ryuichi (Riki Takeuchi) and police detective Jojima (Show Aikawa), though it is hard to say that is what the film is truly about. Rather that rather staid plot is used as a canvas for director Takashi Miike to create a work that is troubling and humorous in equal measure.

Director Takashi Miike’s “Black Society Trilogy” established his reputation as a talented film-maker, with an exciting, politically conscious take on the Yakuza genre. With Dead or Alive, Miike again tackles many of the same issues, but there is something different in “Dead or Alive” a punk aesthetic that is typified in the extreme opening and closing sequences of the film. It almost feels as though Miike is attempting to sabotage his own work, although it might be politer to suggest he is creating a post-modernist masterpiece. There are a number of fantastic scenes here, building character and back story, and Takeuchi and Aikawa give incredible performances throughout. During the interrogation scene there is an almost unbearable tension between the two leads. Watching a Miike film you are aware that he is fully in control. If he wants you to feel panic, dread, to laugh or be shocked or even upset, he can, casually confounding your expectations throughout. The film is such an eclectic mix of slapstick and gross out humour wrapped around a core of serious crime drama that it shouldn’t work, but somehow it does. Miike almost seems to be suggesting that he could make a great Yakuza epic if he wanted, but is constantly distracted by some wild or hilarious idea with which to toy with the audience, or perhaps it is all a commentary on the film industry, or whatever else occurred to him that day.

Miike delights in taking well-worn stories about cops and gangsters and turning them on their heads. There is social commentary here, on crime, the treatment of women, immigration and more, but it feels as though the whole thing has been through a blender. It is a kaleidoscope of ludicrous over-the-top moments, sombre family drama and scatological humour. Obscene, bizarre, satirical, at times emotionally raw, it is a film that pulls no punches.