The Violence Action (2022) by Toichiro Ruto

An undercover assassin is tasked with taking on a dangerous Yakuza syndicate in this comic-book crime caper. Kei (Kanna Hashimoto) works as an killer-for-hire, with dual cover as a University student and call-girl working out of a ramen shop. This compilation of Japanese pop-culture action cinema tropes extends is completed with a wacky side-kick with a bullet-proof wig (Takashi Okamura), a love-lorn fellow student who traipses after her; over-the-top gangsters led by a dad-joke loving boss; a villain possessed of supernatural martial prowess; Kei’s fellow assassin, the sniper Daria (Yuri Ota); love hotels; warehouse fights; gangland shootings; and a handsome, morally dubious love-interest.

“The Violence Action” is based on the comic book by Shin Sawada and Renji Asai. The film adaptation, written and directed by Toichiro Ruto, co-writte by Itaru Era, suffers from two major issues. One is the tonal inconsistency, shifting gears from slapstick comic action (bullet-proof wigs; aerobatic gunfights) to ultra-violent scenes (albeit with CG blood) including people being shot with a nail-gun. The puerile humour twinned with the mature tone is reflective of a trend in pop-culture of infantilisation; merging entertainment for kids and adults. Children’s films become more violent, while adult films are stripped of emotional depth. This results in what we have with “The Violent Action”, a film that never seems sure of what it is doing, other than throwing as many elements from other enjoyable films into the pot and giving it a stir. The issue with this is that you are consistently reminded of better films. The second failing of the film is in its headache-inducing editing, with hyperactive cuts that are unnecessary, giving it a music-video style that adds nothing to the drama. Unfortunately, these cuts are often use to disguise a lack of technical ability in the cinematography, the rapid cuts perhaps seen as the lesser of two evils by the director. The film suffers by comparison to “Baby Assassins” (2021), which managed to establish some degree of character for its protagonists and pulled off the comic-action vibe much better.

It is hard to know if the film is aiming for a B-movie feel, many elements would suggest this, but even if it were it still fails to create significantly outrageous set-pieces that would allow it to pass in the genre of more wacky action films. There is such a confusion of plot lines (an assassin questioning her choices; a leadership struggle within the Yakuza; a man double-crossing the mob; a love-sick teenage boy lusting after a dangerous girl; the sniper with a dark past; the hospitalized friend and dreams of revenge), all of which have been done before, and none of which are given enough time here to become the main focus. “The Violence Action” is akin to flipping through a series of action movie trailers, getting a brief impression of each one, but no consistent plot or memorable characters.

Tokyo Living Dead Idol (2018) by Yuki Kumagai

When the lead singer of a popular idol group, Tokyo 27-ku, is bitten by a zombie, she has 72 hours to find a cure before the virus transforms her. Miku (Nana Asakawa) comes off stage with her bandmates, Moe (Yumeri Abe) and Yuri (Runa Ozawa), arguing about their performance. After starting as underground idols the trio are beginning to gain popularity. However, this is put on hold when a zombie takes a bite out of Miku’s arm. Miku flees, with police sent out to search for her, and teams up with a small-time detective (Shogen). The two of them set out to find Dr. Kumozawa (Koichi Takamatsu) and Alicia (Chisato Koizumi), whose blood is rumoured to be a cure for the zombie virus. They must also evade the attentions of the Zombie Hunters, who roam the streets of Tokyo.

“Tokyo Living Dead Idol”, written and directed by Yuki Kumagai, brings a few new elements to the zombie mythology. In this tale the zombie infection takes three days before beginning to rot the brain core and turn people into the flesh-eating monsters we all know. This gives an impetus to the story as Miku races to find a solution to her problem before it is too late. For this low-budget film it also means they can largely avoid having to do large crowd shots of rampaging zombies, with the populace here appearing largely unphased by the occasional infection. The film does feature a few entertaining, anime-inspired, fight sequences, with katana-weilding zombie hunters; and the inclusion of parkour zombies is another fun addition. The plot is workmanlike, establishing several threads and tying them all together neatly, albeit sometimes without much fanfare (as in the case of Miku’s reunion wiht her bandmates at the end of the film). The comedy is largely in the dialogue and situations, with some of the best moments coming through off-hand remarks. Not all of the jokes land and the horror is sometimes undermined by overuse of CG blood rather than practical effects, but the final third provides an action-packed and emotionally fulfilling climax.

The blend of two popular subcultures, idols and zombies, is unique and entertaining. Miku is not a typical heroine, being portrayed as arrogant and disrespectful to her bandmates early on we are nevertheless sympathetic when she is bitten. Miku, Moe and Yuri are played by members of the Idol Group Super*Girls, which lends some believability to their performances. The film comments on government corruption, with the man developing the zombie viruses in kahoots with the department responsible for controlling them; the cure being withheld from the population until such time as it is financially beneficial for the government to release it. “Tokyo Living Dead Idol”, with its unique protagonist, also includes characters such as the two idol fans who want to protect Miku. These are contrasted later with a group of zombies who fetishise her, interested only in her sex appeal. It is an interesting concept, the positive and negative aspects of fan culture, also emphasised by one of the Zombie Hunters who turns out to be a huge fan of Tokyo 27-ku. This theme is never fully developed, but it provides an interesting angle to the traditional zombie story. The ‘mindless’ nature of much of the entertainment industry and fandom. “Tokyo Living Dead Idol” is a unique take on zombie lore, with the inclusion of idols and a countdown to becoming a zombie creating a fast-paced, horror-comedy for fans of B-movie action.

Hard-Core (2018) by Nobuhiro Yamashita

Two men working a meaningless job find a high-tech AI robot in this existential comedy-drama. Unlike his younger brother Sakon (Takeru Sato) who is a high-flying professional, Ukon (Takayuki Yamada) is stuck in a rut. Along with his simple-minded friend Ushiyama (Yoshiyoshi Arakawa), he finds work with an elderly man who is part of some right-wing political group. This man and his assistant Mizunami (Suon Kan) have the two digging in a tunnel for gold that may or may not exist. One night Ushiyama finds a robot under the abandoned factory where he is sleeping that may provide a solution to their current troubles, but at the same time brings difficulties of its own.

Directed by Nobuhiro Yamashita, with a screenplay by Kosuke Mukai, this manga adaptation is a film that includes many disparate elements that never quite come together in a satisfactory way. The lowbrow comedy, such as Ukon’s attempts to help the naïve Ushiyama lose his virginity; or their attempts to hide the robot from prying eyes are amusing; but the film also seems to be striving to be more than a simple knockabout comedy, undermining the potential for more serious discussions with the more outrageous moments. Ukon and Ushiyama’s relationship is touching, being almost surrogate siblings to one another. Takayuki Yamada and Yoshiyoshi Arakawa are perfectly cast as this odd couple, Yamada as a dissatisfied individual who is striving to find some purpose in life, and Arakawa as the childlike, semi-mute, vulnerable Ushiyama. The film begins to find its feet after the discovery of the robot, giving the characters a unique situation to deal with, but at the same time it is unclear what the science-fiction element adds to the narrative.

“Hard-Core” is at its best when focussed on the relationship between the two protagonists, and the comparisons between them and their robotic companion. There is a lingering sense of existential angst in the film, with the shot of a dead cicada bringing home this idea that life is fragile and transient. There is also a strong desire in the character of Ukon to find meaning in his life. At the beginning of the film we see he is a man who is disgusted by humanity, lashing out at people enjoying themselves while he drinks himself into a stupor. Both Ushiyama and the robot, in contrast, are blissfully ignorant of the world around them, rarely troubled by concerns beyond the here and now. As Ukon’s brother explains to him, the robot has no will or desires, it does what it does because it is told to. It is the tragedy of humans that they are searching for meaning in a meaningless world. In the same way that they are digging for gold and Mizunuma’s daughter Taeko (Kei Ishibashi) is searching for physical pleasure, to the exclusion of all else. “Hard-Core” is an unusual film because it attempts to juggle so many genres, action, romance, existential drama, comedy, and science-fiction, and often seems to drift aimlessly from one to the other. Much like the journey of the protagonist, it is often hard to discern a deeper meaning amidst the madness.

The Adventures of Kosuke Kindaichi (1979) by Nobuhiko Obayashi

Famous detective Kosuke Kindaichi (Ikko Furuya) finds himself entangled in a mysterious case involving the missing head of a statue. A group of roller-skating, clown-costumed, art thieves are causing havoc with a spate of robberies. When they accost Kindaichi Kosuke and ask him to return to his only unsolved case, involving famous artist Haida, he sees the opportunity to finally answer that outstanding mystery. Along with officer Todoroki (Kunie Tanaka) and the leader of the theives Maria (Miyuki Matsuda), Kindaichi encounters a series of comedic situations in search of the culprits.

Based (very loosely) on the works of popular crime author Seishi Yokomizo, “The Adventures of Kosuke Kindaichi” is part detective story, part slapstick comedy, and part self-referential, fourth-wall breaking satire. The film credits Yokomizo’s work as its basis, with a screenplay by Koichi Saito and Akira Nakano, but it is director Nobuhiko Obayashi’s style that colours every moment of this lively crime caper. The Kindaichi of the film is a caricaturish figure playing up to his reputation as a dishevelled detective, with exaggerated tics such as scratching his head and his unkempt style marking him out as a figure of fun. The film rarely takes itself seriously, with numerous wordplay gags, pratfalls, animated moments, inexplicable appearances of Superman, and surrealist comedy representative of the counter-cultural trend tearing down revered figures. There are references to various Kindaichi cases from the books, a fun in-joke for those familiar with Yokomizo’s work. If you are a fan of the books however, this film will probably not be for you, as it seems to almost mock the very notion of the character. Obayashi brings the character of Kindaichi to the contemporary era of discotheques and rollerskating youths; and creates a bizarre confusion of non-sequitur humour and punchlines without set-ups. Later in the film there is even a Seishi Yokomizo cameo as his royalties for the Kindaichi stories are delivered, further muddying the waters about what is going on.

“The Adventures of Kosuke Kindaichi” is either an incomprehensible mess, a kaleidoscopic comic masterpiece, or a multi-layered self-reflective work that considers Kosuke Kindaichi as a fictional character as well as the protagonist of this story; and that comments on the police force and its depiction in media. Obayashi does not constrain himself to conventional storytelling, which can be both a good and a bad thing, allowing for an artistic and unique style that is able to express more than a straightforward story would; but also means throwing in several ill-fitting elements, the murder and mayhem struggling to find a tonal balance. The film is likely to have a mixed response, the audience’s enjoyment based on the extent to which they are willing to leave pre-conceptions and expectation behind and give in to the bohemian daring of Obayashi’s filmmaking.

Yakuza Apocalypse (2015) by Takashi Miike

Yakuza, vampires and martial arts collide in this wacky action comedy from Takeshi Miike. Kageyama (Hayato Ichihara) is a young gang member whose sensitive skin and inability to get a tattoo sets him apart from his fellow mobsters. He is however fiercely loyal to the boss (played by Lily Franky). When the boss, who happens to be a vampire, is killed, he manages to confer his powers on Kageyama with his dying breath. Kageyama then sets out to get revenge on the group who killed him, including traitor Aratetsu (Kiyohiko Shibukawa), mysterious English-speaking vampire hunter (Ryushin Tei), a martial artist (Yayan Ruhian), and a kappa (a mythical water creature). Kageyama is aided by Hogan (Denden), a bartender who knows the vampire secret, and a swelling army of new bloodsucking demons created by Kageyama. He also hopes to protect a young woman named Kyoko (Riko Narumi) who he has feelings for.

“Yakuza Apocalypse”, directed by Takashi Miike from a screenplay by Yoshitaka Yamaguchi, is a bizarre action-comedy that attempts to juggle several distinct elements. Whether you are a fan of martial arts films, violent exploitation cinema, surrealist humour, or modern takes on the vampire mythos, there is something for you to enjoy here, though the plot and editing can be a disjointed at times. It seems to jump from scene to scene in a frenetic way, often failing to set up key emotional threads such as Kageyama and Kyoko’s relationship, or background on who characters are or their motivations. For the most part you can ignore this, and simply enjoy the excellent direction, fight choreography and blend of childish comedy and gory action. However, the discrepancy in tone does a disservice to some elements that could have worked better either as a more straightforward fantasy yakuza film or out-and-out comedy. It often comes across as a collection of inventively violent moments, such as a man having his head twisted off, or inexplicable characters such as a frog-costumed pugilist (Masanori Mimoto) and a disturbing kappa, that seem to be from completely separate films.

The film’s comparison of vampires and yakuza, both bloodsucking parasites leeching off hard-working citizens is entertaining and the splicing of the two genres works well, allowing for the unholy union of these gruesome mythologies that have built up both around gangsters and nosferatu. When it works the satire is excellent, but all too often it misses the mark by attempting to balance the relationship between Kageyama and Kyoko, or even Kageyama and the boss, with the absurdist metaphor of the main plot. While there are a lot of enjoyable moments, over the top comedy and brutal, rollicking action sequences, “Yakuza Apocalypse” seems wayward and unfocussed, with an interesting satire buried under an abundance of eccentric characters and non sequitur.