Distance (2001) by Hirokazu Koreeda

“Distance” begins as the anniversary of a terrorist attack poisoning Tokyo’s water supply is approaching. The attack, which killed hundreds and injured thousands, ended with the cult members responsible committing suicide. Four individuals, partners and relations of the cult members, make a pilgrimage on this anniversary to the lake where they died. Kiyoka (Yui Natsukawa), a teacher whose husband joined, meets up with Minoru (Susumu Terajima), whose wife also left him to become a member. Along with Atsushi (Arata Iura) and Masaru (Yusuke Iseya), whose brother and sister respectively took part in the incident, the four of them head to the lake, driving deep into the forest. While there they meet Sakata (Tadanobu Asano), a former member of the cult who fled before the others went through with their plan. When they return to their car they find it has been stolen, along with Sakata’s bike, and the five are forced to take refuge in a nearby house that was used by the cult.

Writer and director Hirokazu Koreeda excels at bringing the best out of his actors. Within a few short scenes or snatches of dialogue we are completely invested in their characters. Whether it is Atsushi with his girlfriend, or the scenes in which the four meet up, they are able to capture the essence of who they are with a shorthand and chemistry that make their relationships believable and engaging. All of the central performances are pitched perfectly as they deal with the layers of guilt, loss and regret, all while attempting to continue with their lives. Koreeda’s realist approach to can be seen in the dialogue which feels natural, getting across information without feeling weighed down by exposition. There are several long takes, such as Kiyoka with her husband and Minoru with his wife, in flashback, where we see the advantage of giving characters room to breathe. In Minoru’s scene in particular there is a sense of helplessness to his situation that is emphasised by the extended scene. Where others may cut away when the central message has been communicated, that his wife is leaving to join the cult, we are put right in his shoes as he rages confusedly about this, unable to walk away from the situation as the scene becomes increasingly uncomfortable for both him and the audience. Koreeda also uses hand-held camerawork to take us inside their world, stripping away the artificial nature of film to create something more documentary-like in style. The film also features interview segments with most of the protagonists, with them being questioned by the police after the events, that stand in stark contrast to the scenes in the forest, from  a static angle with the characters dead centre. This helps get across the message of life as messy and at odds with the world of law and order as typified by the police.

The film is loosely inspired by real-world events in which cults have committed terrorist acts. Rather than going for an obvious critique of such groups, Koreeda instead focusses on those surrounding the members. The film asks difficult questions about why people join such cults, but also whether their friends, partners and family should or are able to stop them. The responsibility for these acts must ultimately reside with the individual, but we see through the story of Atsushi that there may be warning signs that are missed and that catastrophe might be averted. It investigates the notion of societal as opposed to personal responsibility. The film is infused with this melancholy and sense of regret that nothing was done to stop them. It is also interesting to note that the central characters are not victims of the attacks, but relatives of the perpetrators, and in the case of Sakata someone actively involved in the cult. It is a film that provokes thought on these subjects without offering any easy answers. We see in the character of Minoru that his ignorance, perhaps lack of care, about his wife may have contributed to her joining the cult. Similarly, Atsushi is shown to be distant from his brother. At heart “Distance” is a film about dealing with tragedy and seeking understanding and redemption. The title also suggests a sense that people remain isolated from one another, even those who they believe they are closest to, and ponders whether it is ever possible to really know somebody. The interview scenes are reminiscent of “Rashomon” and the film can be read as an investigation of the nature of truth, with the police representing the supposed objective reality and the characters experiences and reminiscences a more subjective understanding of who these individuals were. A beautifully crafted film with incredible acting that takes the audience on a journey into the dark and unexplored regions of human psychology.

Paprika (2006) by Satoshi Kon

A new technology allowing people to enter another’s dreams has been developed at a research facility. The head of the research department, Atsuko Chiba, is using it to help a detective, Konakawa, with anxiety dreams he’s suffering. When the head of the department undergoes some kind of breakdown they realise that one of the devices, named the DCMini, which allow people to enter dreams has been stolen and is being used illegally. What follows is a chase through the dream world and reality to attempt to discover who the culprit is and how to stop them.

Based on a book by Yasutaka Tsutsui, director Satoshi Kon (Perfect Blue) creates a mind-bending psychological drama, that blurs the lines between reality and imagination in a way that is perfectly suited to animation. Every scene is full of colour and vitality and there is so much room for invention on offer with the central premise that is used to brilliant effect. The sequences of the giant procession through the dreams is a particular marvel for the sheer amount of stuff on screen. The film may require multiple viewings to appreciate every nuance and background detail. Susumu Hirasawa’s score is a hyperactive blend of instrumentation and digitised noise that encapsulates a sense of floating in through a chaotic world.

Concerning itself with dreams gives the film the scope to analyse many tenets of human experience in the world. It looks at the link between dreams and reality, ideas of freedom, madness, alter-egos and more. Definitely a recommended watch for those who enjoy stunningly animated philosophical or psychological science-fiction.

Battles without Honour and Humanity (1973) by Kinji Fukasaku

1949. Hiroshima. The devastation of the atomic bomb and the harsh economic conditions of post-war Japan are apparent in the shanty town that has been erected amongst the rubble. We are introduced in quick succession to a number of people who are later to become important players in the Japanese underworld: Yakuza bosses and captains. A young ex-soldier, Shozo Hirono (Bunta Sugawara), is sent to prison for killing a gangster. Inside he meets Hiroshi Wakasugi (Tatsuo Umemiya), a member of the Doi Family. The two become blood-brothers and Hirono is inducted into the chaotic world of crime. What follows is an unpredictable, bloody, violent, telling of the various power struggles in the decades following the war. 

Based on newspaper articles of the time by Koichi Iiboshi, the film has a style that is almost documentary-like in places, going so far as to present on screen the names and dates of death of the gangsters who are killed. It requires some concentration to keep in mind all the characters and their allegiances throughout, but this helps add to the sense of realism. The opening scenes of the film, set in the ramshackle streets of Hiroshima, perfectly set up the brutal chaos that is to follow, as we are pushed through noisy crowds, and see a series of gruesome events taking place simultaneously. It is a masterclass in setting up numerous characters and establishing a tone for the film. The film never lets up this relentless pace, with scene after scene adding to the confusion and devastation that the Yakuza leave in their wake. Directed by Kinji Fukasaku, who later went on to helm the Battle Royale adaptation, this film abounds with his style: frenetic, gory, and with a good eye for framing a scene and telling a multiple character story. The actors all do a good job. The music by Toshiaki Tsushima suits the film well, setting the feel for the period.

I would highly recommend this film to fans of the Yakuza genre as one of its finest examples. Although the film does have great flair and stylishness, it does not necessarily glorify the violence. The killings are instead shown to be a mundane affair, taking place so regularly that you become almost desensitized to them. It is a great look at post-war Japanese society from the perspective of the Yakuza.

Rashomon (1950) by Akira Kurosawa

Escaping from a downpour, a commoner (Kichijiro Ueda) takes shelter at Rashomon gate, where he meets a wood-cutter (Takashi Shimura) and a priest (Minoru Chiaki) who are discussing a recent trial they have witnessed. The wood-cutter tells the man that as he was walking through the forest a few days before, he came across a dead samurai. The priest had earlier seen the samurai (Masayuki Mori) leading his wife (Machiko Kyo) on a horse in that direction. Later a thief Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune) was caught with the weapons from the samurai. Tajomaru is taken to trial and tells his version of events, claiming that he did kill the samurai. They also hear the story of the wife of the samurai, which is different in points to that of Tajomaru. We also get two different version of events, with no hints as to which is correct, and all seeming to take the blame for the death of the samurai.

Based on a short story by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, the film has an interesting structure, one that would later influence many other works. Instead of being a straightforward narrative, we are instead presented, through flashbacks, with several versions of the same event, and asked to choose which one we believe or trust. This makes the film engaging, especially when you reach the third and fourth versions, as you attempt to puzzle out why they would be lying about certain things, whether you can trust the witnesses, and what the true circumstances of the murder were. Unlike other historical films, this is focussed heavily on the telling of stories, and dialogue between the major players, rather than action sequences. All the actors do a great job, particularly the three involved in the crime, as they act out the various interpretations of the scenes. Akira Kurosawa’s direction is fantastic, with the use of static cameras during the trial scenes putting you in the role of an unbiased judge as each story is told, and use of framing and movement in the flashback sequences showing you exactly what you need to see. Both the story and direction work together to create a compelling narrative, that keeps you wanting to learn more about what really happened.

The film asks some difficult questions about the nature of truth and reality, and also includes some very dark themes of murder and rape, although never graphic, and nasty characters. At the beginning of the film we see the crumbling Rashomon gate amidst a rainstorm, which acts as a perfect visual metaphor for the chaotic reality of life, and the forces of nature that act to destroy what civilisation attempts to construct. The lack of order symbolised by the gates destruction is explained as the characters tear firewood from the building, further emphasizing the necessary selfishness of humanity). A deserved classic, this film is a must watch for fans of cinema, as it inspired the way many future stories were told.

Psycho-Pass (2012) Series One

Akane Tsunemori (Kana Hanazawa) has recently joined the police as an Investigator tracking down dangerous criminals. Due to advances in technology they are now able to determine an individual’s crime coefficient and take them down without the need for evidence or trial. The Investigators work together with Enforcers, people who have high crime coefficients but work on the side of the law, whose criminal tendencies make them ideally suited to tracking and capturing other criminals. They use guns known as Dominators, which give a reading and will allow either a paralysing or fatal shot to be taken. Among the Enforcers in Akane’s unit is Shinya Kogami (Tomokazu Seki), a man who was once an investigator himself, but whose obsession over a particular case led him to tip over into criminality. Akane’s respect for him puts her at odds with her superior investigator Ginoza (Kenji Nojima), who believes that Enforcers and Investigators are fundamentally different and that her role should be more that of a handler than a colleague. They soon find themselves on the trail of a serial killer named Shogo Makishima (Takahiro Sakurai) who appears to be able to outwit them at every turn. His apparent lack of a crime rating also leads them to question the morality of deciding right and wrong based on the “crime coefficient”.

An intelligent crime drama, “Psycho-Pass” takes theories of criminalistics and forensic psychology to their natural conclusion in a futuristic setting. In deciding that people can be categorised as criminal or innocent through a simple number based on various factors, society has given itself over to notions of right and wrong being determined by computer. In this world there is no room for nuance. There are no crimes of passion, crimes of necessity or opportunity, only crimes. The calculation of this number is opaque, nevertheless the police force have completely prostrated themselves before the technology – and the all-powerful Sibil System that controls it – no longer trusting their own judgement of a person’s character. As well as this criminological aspect, there is also a more philosophical theme running throughout. The notion that people are fated to be a certain way, and that in fact the moral or right path for a person is to do that thing they feel most suited for, even if that involves crime or killing. Essentially, the technology has taken away people’s free will as they are forced into behaving exactly as the machine wants them to, whether right or wrong. As the series progresses the various flaws in this seemingly utopian system become apparent. Ideas of good and evil are subject to question and various revelations regarding the characters leads the viewer to reassess what they have perceived about this world. In Makishima, the series has a villain that is a perfect foil to the protagonists. While they are bound to the law, he is entirely lawless, perhaps even in a Nietzschean sense “Beyond Good and Evil”, believing that the only moral path for a person is to do what they wish or are best at. A secondary villain emphasises this point even more, that criminality is often a matter of context; psychopathy often being a useful aberration in human populations, perhaps the desire to confront and destroy pre-existing systems being a necessity for humankind to progress.

The animation by Production IG (Ghost in the Shell) is exceptional. Textured surfaces, background details and lighting effects all help to create the sense of a real world. Likewise, weather effects such as the pouring rain in the opening episode, or wind rustling coat collars, work towards the noirish feel. There are a number of technologies in the film, such as the avatars that characters can create around themselves, that are interesting additions to the world. The visualisation of online spaces is also well done with unique character designs. The series does not shy away from depicting violent and brutal crimes, with abuse and murder both graphically portrayed. This all helps to create a sense of dread that pervades the story. You are aware early on that there really are lives at stake if the detectives fail to catch the killer. An absolutely thrilling ride from start to finish, with high-tension action sequences and a story that goes headlong for several important questions about how society is managed. A blend of all the best elements of cyberpunk and noir detective stories, with themes of criminality and societal control that encourage the audience to think about the potential implications of these things on our own world.