Blind Beast (1969) by Yasuzo Masumura

A kidnapping victim begins to sympathise with her captor in this tale of moral degeneracy and sado-masochistic lust. Aki Shima (Mako Midori) is a model who has recently found fame as the subject of an exhibition of erotic photography and sculpture by a famous artist. While visiting the gallery she sees a blind man running his hands over the statue of her, an eerie sight that causes to her to flee. She is later abducted by this man, Michio (Eiji Funakoshi) and his mother (Noriko Sengoku), and taken to a remote warehouse. This warehouse is Michio’s studio, where he sculpts body parts. Born without sight, he intends to use Aki as a model for a new work of art, one born of the sense of touch. After a few failed escape attempts, Aki finally gives in to Michio and the two later begin a sado-masochistic physical relationship that grows increasingly violent as they attempt to push the boundaries of pleasure and pain.

Based on a story by the master of skin-crawling horror Edogawa Rampo, “Blind Beast” is a film that confronts the audience with a creepy, and subtly terrifying scenario. When we see Michio caressing the statue, and later Aki herself, there is something unseemly about it, making real the metaphorical objectification of the female form. The story is pared back to provide a simple yet effective horror tale, featuring only three actors and largely taking place in the same large warehouse studio. Mako Midori’s Aki Shima is a sympathetic heroine, making attempts to flee, wilful and yet drawn irresistably into the moral void of Micho’s world. Eiji Funakoshi is a sinister villain, playing the unassuming psychopath role with unnerving charm. The main setting of the film, the warehouse-cum-studio is an almost fantastical space, the walls hung with large sculpted noses, eyes, and limbs, and the floor taken up with a giant model of a naked woman. This focus on the body and human form makes us aware of every itch and tingle, every spine-chilling or toe-curling moment emphasised by the fact we are trapped in Michio’s world of physical touch. This is helped by the excellent direction of Yasuzo Masumura, utilising shifts into deep black to depict both Michio’s blindness and depravity. Hikaru Hayashi’s score is features strangely romantic melodies that make us question what is happening between the protagonists as they sink into debauchery and violence. “Blind Beast” avoids graphic depictions of what is happening, cutting away from the worst moments, while at the same time blending the emotional and the physical to the extent that the audience has no choice but to feel each cut as they begin their journey of sado-masochistic excess.

Michio is a typical horror villain, sexual repression leading to deviancy, his Oedipal relationship with his mother, and apparently preternatural abilities to hunt his quarry by smell and sound. However, Michio can also be seen as a stand-in for male lust and moral degeneracy in general. His single minded pursuit of Aki, his attempts to capture her and reproduce her form, to contain her, provide metaphorical potential for those looking to draw societal messages from the film. Likewise, Aki is a symbol of female emancipation, turning her body to her own financial gain, strong-willed, independent, and cautious, she is far from a helpless heroine. In its final third the film begins to delve into far more Freudian territory, moving fully away from a sense of realism as Aki loses her sight and becomes a counterpart to Michio, engaging in acts of hedonistic abandon and mutual destruction. “Blind Beast” questions human desire and posits an inevitable tendency towards violence and death, drawing out timeless themes of Eros and Thanatos in a film that creates a powerful atmosphere through stunning acting and direction. There is something mythological about the horrifying finale that will stay with you long after the film is over.

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.

Ikigami (2008) by Tomoyuki Takimoto

An authoritarian state maintains order by systematically killing one in every thousand individuals in this satirical, dystopian drama. At the age of six, children are injected with a vaccine with a 0.1% chance of killing them at a specified time between the ages of 18 and 24. The people who are due to die receive 24 hours warning in the form of an Ikigami (or death notice); they are given access to free food, accommodation and transportation, as well as a pension for their surviving relatives, but if they commit a crime this money will go to pay their victims. Kengo Fujimoto (Shota Matsuda) works for the government office responsible for delivering these notices, little by little beginning to question his work as he sees the human impact of this policy. The first person he contacts is Tsubasa Tanabe (Yuta Kanai), who receives notification of his impending death on the eve of a major breakthrough as a singer. The second is shut-in Naoki Takazawa (Kazuma Sano), the son of a politician (Jun Fubuki), whose Ikigami stirs him out of his apathy and depression to violent action. And finally Satoshi (Takayuki Yamada) who is caring for his blinded sister Sakura (Riko Narumi) after the two of them were orphaned.

Ikigami” presents an fascinatingly subtle dystopian future, that could even be set in the modern day if not for this minor addition of the law mandating the death of a percentage of the population. The film’s opening sequence, where we see a man attempting to take revenge on his school bully, is something of a misdirection, leading us to think we are about to witness an action-packed anti-establishment thriller. The film soon settles into a more sombre, downbeat tone, with almost monochromatic offices where the government officials deal with the death notices, and sentimental moments as the characters contend with their premature ends. This is intentional, with director Tomoyuki Takimoto and the crew drawing a distinction between the cold corporatism of this inhuman policy, with the deep emotionality of the humans it affects. The score by Hibiki Inamoto, of heart-wrenching strings, is used sparingly, often allowing the performances to speak for themselves. The sizeable cast do a great job, with what is effectively three separate storylines, of Tsubasa, Satoshi and Sakura, and Naoki. Importantly, we sense the connection or lack of with these characters and those around them, buying into their sense of regret at things left unfinished, or deep sorrow at what they will miss out on. In the direction, with scenes shot through surveillance cameras, or the repeated shots of monorails, the film provides visual shorthand for many of the themes and ideas, such as mortality and the seemingly impossible struggle against faceless authoritarianism.

“Ikigami” is based on the novel by Motoro Mase, who also worked on the screenplay, and establishes a simple yet compelling premise. The given reason for this seemingly cruel act is that it provokes a respect for life in the citizenship, and that their fear of death keeps them subservient. We learn that crime rates have fallen and people’s gratitude for life makes them work hard and not step out of line. The film’s subtle authoritarianism, reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984 with its references to thought-crime and the coldly bureaucratic nature of state violence, is a dystopia that only slightly exaggerates a lot of common societal problems and a government’s attitude towards controlling their population. Japan is a society very much built around ideas of conformity and the film satirises this perfectly, with parents willingly allowing their children to be injected with a potentially fatal capsule; politicians actively cheering on the death of individuals for the greater good; and the matter-of-fact way this horrific law has become a part of everyday life. There are suggestions throughout that people are fighting back against the system, but they are shut down quickly, with people being hauled off for re-education or punishment. And despite the senselessness of what is happening, most of those affected accept their fate without considering taking action against the state. In this way the film is perhaps more powerful, or gives a better idea of how insidious totalitarian ideology can be, as there is no impending revolution, only a fragile hope for a better tomorrow, and a population with no way to organise or fight back against a fatal, technocratic evil.

While the film might most easily described as a satire, there are also elements that seem jarringly sentimental and life-affirming. Tsubasa’s reconciliation with his old friend, and Satoshi and Sakura’s relationship almost seem to be proving the government’s argument that the system works to create a respect for life. These moments, packed with emotionality, stand in stark contrast to the world of Fujimoto, of workers carrying out orders without ever truly contemplating the effects of their actions. In a sense the film is providing propaganda for the totalitarian regime, while trusting that the audience are wily enough not to fall for it. A striking dystopian drama that shows the true horror of totalitarianism and the dangers of an overly passive society.

Grasshopper (2015) by Tomoyuki Takimoto

Following the death of his girlfriend a man becomes entangled in a dark, underground world of drug gangs and assassins. On Halloween night in Shibuya a car ploughs into the crowd killing a young woman named Yuriko (Haru). Distraught at her untimely death, her boyfriend Suzuki (Toma Ikuta) goes undercover with a pharmeceutical company that is a front for a malicious gang run by Terahara (Renji Ishibashi). Suzuki’s boss, Sumire (Kumiko Aso) is a sadistic femme fatale who soon becomes suspicious of Suzuki’s intentions. Meanwhile, hired killer Kujira (Tadanobu Asano) who forces people to commit suicide for Terahara is troubled by the sins of his past. Becoming a liability to the gang he is targetted by fellow assassins Iwanishi (Jun Murakami) and Semi (Ryosuke Yamada).

Based on the novel by Kotaro Isaka, “Grasshopper” is a noir thriller that sets up several great characters. We are sympathetic to Suzuki’s quest for revenge and his complete inadequacy in going up against hardened killers and gangsters. Saccharine flashbacks of him and Yuriko often feel at odds with the violent tone of the film, but do create a clear distinction between the world he has lost and the one he finds himself thrust into. Tadanobu Asano’s Kujira has perhaps the most intriguing backstory, troubled by the ghosts of his victims who appear before him; it is a similar tale with Semi, who suffers a ringing in his ears that is only calmed when he is killing. There is a slight imbalance in tone and story that runs through the film, with the characters jostling for the position of protagonist and it lurches from the brutal fight sequences and grim life of Kujira to the more incompetent amateur detective antics of Suzuki. Suzuki remains the protagonist, but the film sets up these two interesting assassins that feel as thought they deserve their own film. The film also introduces fantasy elements that are creative, but never fully developed as an integral part of the story. These shifts in tone are also present in the eclectic score, with a mix of operatic, hard rock and soft piano. However, despite these inconsistencies the film creates some incredible moments, particularly in the fight sequences and chase through the streets. Director Tomoyuki Takimoto crafts a stylish crime drama and the noir tone is handled expertly with rain drenched, neon lit streets, and dark alleyways.

A hugely entertaining noir thriller with great visuals and a collection of fantastic characters. Suzuki is an everyman hero whose search for revenge is charming and understandable. There is contrast between Suzuki who is desperate for revenge but unable to attain it and Kujira and Semi (the only other characters whose names appear on screen), hardened killers who are made to question their profession. Suzuki’s unsuitability as a killer is a weakness in the world he finds himself in, but is also what makes him a decent man. He is a relatable protagonist preciscely because he is unable to imagine himself killing anyone. The fates of Kujira and Semi offer an oddly moralistic but understandable ending when considering the rights and wrongs of the characters. At times it feels like these three characters should not exist in the same film, but that creates a fantastic tension that builds to a stunning conclusion.

Chaos (2000) by Hideo Nakata

It is hard to describe the plot of “Chaos” without giving away the twists and turns that enliven the plot. The film revolves around Komiyama (Ken Mitsuishi), a company president, his wife Saori, his mistress Satomi (Miki Nakatani), and a handyman (Masato Hagiwara) who is believed to have kidnapped Komiyama’s wife. On returning to his office after a lunch with his wife, Komiyama receives a call from Kuroda (Masato Hagiwara), to say his wife is being held hostage and he wants money for her release. All is not as it seems however and the film constantly wrong-foots the audience by showing that many of the players involved in this plot know far more than they are letting on.

The film is directed by Hideo Nakata, who is best known for his horror fare and who brings that same sense of creeping dread to this crime thriller. “Chaos” features a relatives small cast, largely consisting of the three central protagonists and two police officers who are called in to investigate the disappearance of Komiyama’s wife. The performances, particularly of Masato Hagiwara and Miki Nakatani are excellent, playing roles within roles as they deceive others around them, with double-crosses and backstabbings the order of the day. Satomi and Kuroda’s relationship remains in question until the end of the film. The story by Hisashi Saito (who also worked on Shinya Tsukamoto’s “Tokyo Fist”) perfects the crime genre, with the tightly wound plot unravelling slowly with each new revelation. There is also some fantastic foreshadowing that comes in to play later, laying out clues for the audience, but always leaving them one step behind the characters. The film plays the same trick several times: setting up a scenario then showing either one or other of the protagonists to be lying about their actions or motivations, but it works each time and lulls the audience into an acceptance of expectation rather than closure, with each new piece of the puzzle rasing more questions. The peculiar score by Kenji Kawai is a mix of percussion and chime, slightly lilting and off-kilter suggestive of the notion that not everything is as it seems in the story.

“Chaos” is a film about control and manipulation. This is best represented in the scene in which Kuroda binds his captive, a frisson of sexual tension passing between them as she gives herself over to him. The narrative builds on a series of turns in which it is revealed that the people we thought were powerless are in fact playing the other characters; the people presumed to be victims turn out to be perpetrators. An enjoyable crime thriller that maintains tension throughout by slowly untangling a web of lies surrounding the protagonists.