Agitator (2001) by Takashi Miike

An underground rivalry spirals out of control in this thrilling yakuza tale from a master of the genre. Two rival gangs, the Shirane and Yokomizo groups find themselves locked in a tit-for-tat struggle following the death of one of their members. Things escalate when the heads of the groups are targeted. All of this is part of an audacious plot to take over the groups and see them affiliated with the larger Tenseikai syndicate.

With his “Black Society” and “Dead or Alive” trilogies of the nineties, Miike established himself as a director with a unique style, with often bloodspattered and extreme stories of violence. “Agitator” owes more of a debt to the former than the latter, something akin to a modern day “Yakuza Papers” in its complex hierarchies and increasingly dangerous vendettas, albeit with fictionalised Yakuza families. At the heart of the film is the rivalry between Shirane and Yokomizo gang members, that gives the audience larger forces to split up the large cast of characters. Much of the narrative involves plotting and manipulation by the higher-ups of the yakuza, punctuted by the violence carried out by their underlings. A few characters do fall by the wayside and there are relationships that are underdeveloped. Miike has a fantastic eye for blocking and framing scenes, using inventive camerawork to enliven what would otherwise be tedious scenes of exposition.

“Agitator” deals with themes familiar to many yakuza films: the shifting line between honour and duty; the cycle of violence engendered by revenge; and the hierarchical nature of criminal gangs, and by extension society, that sees people suffering at the whims of their superiors. The film is a sprawling gangster epic with excellent performances and a plot that keeps upping the ante with every twist and turn.

Flesh Pier (1958) by Teruo Ishii

Hidden behind the glamourous streets and bright lights of Tokyo’s Ginza is a seedy underbelly of sex and criminality. With prostitution outlawed, gangs run “call girl” businesses fronted as legitimate enterprises. One such operation is being run out of the “Arizona” nightclub. Detective Yoshioka (Ken Utsui) is an undercover cop from Osaka working with the Tokyo police to unravel the various criminal connections which link Japan to international groups. He soon meets an old flame Rose Rumi (Yoko Mihara), a dancer at “Arizona” and part of the criminal conspiracy, and Haruko (Akemi Tsukushi), a reporter who has followed him on the lookout for a big scoop.

Directed by Teruo Ishii and written by Ishii and Akira Sawada, “Flesh Pier” is a crime thriller centred on the world of sex work and prostitution. The film shies away from titillation, with sexualised scenes being confined to the nightclub “Arizona” and their scantily clad dancers. Utsui is a charismatic lead, the slick noir detective playing double-agent in the dangerous Tokyo underworld. Mihara gives a great performance as Rose Rumi, a woman who has made mistakes but is intent to put them right, bringing sensuality, heart and toughness to the role. The film is well-written with a number of characters all of whom have their own personal stories going on but which pull together in a thrilling showdown. There are twists and turns as characters are threatened with being uncovered. The dialogue is snappy, with the sparse, noir style delivered stylishly by the actors. The music moves from the jazz of the nightclub to a sinuous orchestral score that envelops the drama.

“Flesh Pier” is a film about a city and a country going through major changes. One of the major changes is a more outward looking Japan than may have been common pre-war. We see the police dealing with international crime syndicates trafficking women. English newspapers are seen, American characters feature, and the Japanese characters are well-travelled and familiar with other cultures. The foreign influence extends to the smart suits, casino roulette wheels, and cabaret clubs, and other cultural imports. The foreign characters are the villains in the film, but the film does not shy away from showing the darker side of Japanese society either. The film’s portrayal of women is equally balanced. It shows the objectification of women in nude photoshoots and cabaret clubs. But also has two strong female characters. Rumi and Haruko are both fearless and forthright, a sign of the changing times in a typically male-dominated society. We see the shame associated with prostitution and how it is something typically levelled at women. The film seems to be dealing with many of these themes just at the point they were reaching the public consciousness or able to be discussed openly. It does a perfect job of capturing a period in time with a thrilling narrative and a director with a great sense of style.

The Third Murder (2017) by Hirokazu Koreeda

When lawyer Tomoaki Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama) is brought in to defend Misumi (Koji Yakusho) on a charge of murder, it appears to be an open and shut case. Misumi confesses to the crime and appears remorseless. However, as Shigemori delves into his past and the details surrounding the crime a different story begins to emerge.

Writer-director Hirokazu Koreeda has made his name as an incredible film-maker with a string of family-focussed stories (“Our Little Sister”, “Like Father, Like Son”). With “The Third Murder” he brings his careful observations of human behaviour to the courtroom drama. The plot of the story is straightforward, with a lawyer defending a man he believes is guilty, but the world is packed with characters and moments that make deeper connections to universal themes. It is a dialogue- heavy film with characters spending a lot of time discussing the case details. This can make for a dry experience at times, but is made enjoyable in two main ways. Firstly, by turning the film into something more akin to a detective drama, with Shigemori interviewing various individuals and cross-examining the suspect, Misumi. In fact, the film shies away from courtroom scenes until its final third. Secondly, the performances, particularly from Masaharu Fukuyama and Koji Yakusho are exceptional, showing their experience and charisma on screen. Most of the standout scenes are featuring only the two of them conversing through a plexiglass screen. Mikiya Takimoto’s cinematography is slick and has a sombre tone that is fitting for the story.

“The Third Murder” investigates the very notion of truth. The lawyers are shown to be individuals for whom the truth is of relatively little importance. Their job is to have their clients acquitted, whether they are guilty or not. In fact, this very point is raised at one point by the prosecution attorney. It also looks at the notion of crime and guilt in relation to provocation, by contextualising the murder. Crime is a subject that provokes strong emotions but is rarely black and white. This film does a good job of explaining the potential pitfalls in jumping to conclusions.

Red Snow (2019) by Sayaka Kai

Shogo Kodachi (Arata Iura) is a reporter who travels to a remote town to investigate the circumstances of a disappearance of a young boy over thirty years ago. Although the police believe they know what happened to the boy, the woman who was arrested never admitted to his kidnapping and murder. The reporter meets with Kazuki (Masatoshi Nagase), the brother of the murdered child, whose memories of his brother’s disappearance seem to be partial and distorted. Shogo also meets with Sayuri (Nahana), the daughter of the woman accused of the kidnap and murder thirty years before.

“Red Snow” is a unique crime drama, less concerned with the details of the case than the subsequent impact such an event has on the relations of the victims and the murderer. The crime is in fact solved early on, it is clear that the boy was kidnapped and killed, but many people either refuse to admit what happened or have misremembered details about the case and their experiences. The setting, with falling snow and an iron grey sea, create a cold atmosphere that is reflected in the stony silence of those the reporter interviews. The cinematography by Futa Takagi gives the world a gritty, noir feel, with the chill of the wind and the darkening skies creating an oppressive atmosphere in which the drama unfolds. The soundtrack of natural sounds and breathy woodwind is likewise harsh and disturbing. This is the first film from writer/ director Sayaka Kai but it is an impressive debut and shows a prodigious talent for storytelling. The small cast make for a taut thriller that keeps you guessing at the exact details of the case. Many of the characters operated in a grey area of morality, their history and motives obscured, but their carefully constructed characters remain fascinating whether relatable or repulsive.

The film takes an unusual form for a crime drama, with the crime already solved before the film begins. The incredible central performances mean we are brought into the world and psychology of those who survived the horrific events of thirty years before. It is a story about the difficulty of memory and how people can supress traumatic moments from their past. Both Kazuki and Nahana are victims in their own ways and the film shows how people and society are often all to quick to forget things they would rather not remember.

jam (2018) by Sabu

A blackly comic tale with three interconnected stories taking place over a single day. Enka singer Hiroshi (Sho Aoyagi) is kidnapped by a superfan, who forces him to record a new song for her; recently released from prison, Tetsuo (Nobuyuki Suzuki) is on a vengeful mission, attacked by the former gang members who left him to the police, while taking care of his ailing mother; and Takeru (Keita Machida) is a man who is attempting to do three good deeds a day in hopes that this will mean his comatose girlfriend recovers.

The film is very funny, though often with a dark twist, with kidnapping and violent street fights. All three of the stories are given time to develop and the way that they interconnect is interesting. The film begins with a sequence in which a man is driving an injured woman in a car, creating an instant sense of mystery. It later loops back to this same scene, now with the audience understanding who the characters are and the circumstances leading to this juncture. Much of the film takes place at night with characters wandering the city streets, and the cinematography does a great job of capturing the murky, dimly lit city. With three stories woven together the film has a good rhythm, intercutting between them and flowing from one to another. The script is written to create mystery about the characters and it gives the audience a chance to guess at what might have happened before given an explanation. In the story of Tetsuo the film is almost a straightforward crime action revenge film, while Hiroshi seems to be living in a black comedy, and Takeru a tragic relationship drama. The actors are do a good job with their characters, fully believable even in unbelievable situations. The various tones of each section should not work, but somehow they coalesce into something like a tableaux of warts-and-all modern life.

“jam” is a film about the interconnectedness of human experience and how ones actions impact on others. The three characters can be roughly categorises as good, bad and neutral, and there are explicit references to ideas of karma and fate. The world is populated by people with varying motivations and understandings of the world and their place in it. This is typified particularly by the Enka singer, whose fans seem to draw a deep meaning from the songs, while he has no real interest in the song order or their significance. It is about how society functions with so many diverse people, how they clash or work together, how good intentions can lead to bad outcomes, and every action has consequences. An enjoyable film that brings together three disparate characters and plots in a unique way.