Another Lonely Hitman (1995) by Rokuro Mochizuki

Following a brutal hit on a rival mob boss, Yakuza hitman Takashi Tachibana (Ryo Ishibashi) is released from a ten year prison sentence. He is welcomed back to his former group to work with a fresh-faced new associate named Yuji (Kazuhiko Kanayama), who looks up to the older man for his role in taking out the top of the Hokushin Family. Tachibana is rewarded with a prositute named Yuki (Asami Sawaki), whom he forms an attachment too. As the group begin to get involved in drugs and a gang war with another faction, Tachibana begins to question his life and whether or not he would be happier leaving to be with Yuki.

“Another Lonely Hitman”, based on the novel by Yukio Yamanouchi and directed by Rokuro Mochizuki, is a gangster film that focusses on the aftermath of such a bloody lifestyle. From the brutal opening assassination, complete with blood and brains leaking out of the victims head, we cut to Tachibana’s post-jail attempts at redemption and rediscovery of who he is. From here the film follows two threads: the first of Tachibana’s blossoming relationship with Yuki, whose joie de vivre stands in stark contrast to the grim, remorseful Tachibana; and the second of Tachibana’s gang becoming embroiled in another turf war with a rival faction. The romantic drama and crime thriller plots run in parallel and provide plenty of action and emotion. Ryo Ishibashi gives a great central performance as the former hitman who is beginning to question his choices; while Asami Sawaki’s Yuki is entertaining as a lively, carefree call girl. Their relationship is the heart of the film and you really root for them to make it out of the world of drugs and violence that typify the yakuza lifestyle. The soundtrack by Kazutoki Umezu features a mix of sultry brass and ominous piano, again highlighting the dualistic nature of the story, striving for beauty in an ugly world.

The film’s character-driven drama, as Tachibana tries to make a choice between returning to his previous life of drugs and murder; or striking out on a new path, provides some great moments as his two world (of love and hate) collide. The yakuza are shown as shallow, incompetent, avaricious and short-tempered, with a sub-plot involving Tachibana’s superior Mizohashi (Toshiyuki Kitami) attempting to create a golf resort with a local politician. While Tachibana seems calm and collected, the other yakuza are childlike in their sadistic aggression. It is shown that Tachibana took heroin before performing his hit for the gang, the suggestion perhaps being that he required that lack of self-restraint to carry it out. The drug becomes emblematic of the filthy world of crime, while he dreams of a pure existence and escape with Yuki. Another symbolic element to the film is Tachibana’s impotence with Yuki, that seemingly ends when he makes his decision to break with the yakuza. Again, it suggests he is unable to enjoy genuine pleasure while trapped in the make-believe hardman world of the criminal gang. We also have a running visual metaphor of fish and ocean life that Tachibana watches in his hotel room. Later Yuki is forced to make a jigsaw of an ocean scene. As the two make their escape attempt at the end of the film, it is no coincidence then that it is by a harbour; with the open sea promising freedom from the tawdry iniquities of human society. An emotionally charged Yakuza film about crime and redemption, with strong central performances from Ishibashi and Sawaki.

Masked Ward (2020) by Hisashi Kimura

Junior doctor Hayami (Kentaro Sakaguchi) is brought in by his senior Kosakai (Ryohei Otani) for a night-shift at a former psychiatric hospital, vestiges of which include the disused and padlocked operating theatre and iron bars that can be used to close off the upper floors, making them inaccessible other than via the elevator. Hayami is met by nurses Higashino (Noriko Eguchi) and Sasaki (Rio Uchida) and doctor Tadokoro (Masanobu Takashima). Not long into his shift a man in a clown mask who recently held up a convenience store arrives with his hostage, a woman named Hitomi Kawasaki (Mei Nagano). Hayami’s night is made worse through macabre discoveries about the goings-on at this hospital and his own feelings of guilt about the recent death of his girlfriend Yoko (Izumi Fujimoto), Kosakai’s sister.

If it sounds like a convoluted plot, that is part of the appeal of this unsettling thriller. Based on a novel by Mikito Chinen, who worked on the screenplay alongside director Hisashi Kimura, “Masked Ward” traps a small cast of characters in the environs of the hospital and maintains the tension by steadily revealing a series of dark secrets that piece together in horrifying ways. Many of these mysteries and disparate elements seem irrelevant or incompatible until the end when they are drawn together. The film spends a lot of time setting up this complex plot and struggles to give its characters significant depth. Hayami and Kawasaki’s relationship is developed through shared experiences of trauma and Kentaro Sakaguchi and Mei Nagano give solid performances as people trapped in a difficult situation. The film plays with chronology, beginning with a single unseen survivor from the events that go on to form the majority of the plot. This sets up a tense atmosphere as you know early on not everyone will get out of the hospital alive. It also works to throw you off the scent, offering unreliable information that the audience must attempt to sift through. The script and direction work to keep this sense of mystery, and the film is at its best when the characters are confined to the hospital, with fear and suspicion ever present. The film occasionally utilises unecessary flashbacks that often add little to the plot, for example in showing the audience what has happened previously after a character has just explained the same thing. This tendency to show too much also applies to the crash sequence depicting the accident that led to Yoko’s death, which would have been more impactful with suggestive editing rather than showing what is a fairly underwhelming stunt.

For the most part “Masked Ward“is a solid pared back thriller, setting up a small cast in a single location with the viewers anxious to see who will survive the night. Later the film transitions into a morality tale about unscrupulous medical practices and revenge. The need to maintain the mystery early on means that many of the themes remain obscure for a long time which leaves the third act feeling like a different part of the story. Hayami’s guilt over Yoko’s death is largely abandoned in favour of Kawasaki’s story, which is interesting, but again suffers from a sudden shift in tone. The film may have been better focussing on the hosipital and treatment of patients early on to let the audience in on the secret prior to it becoming the central focus. The film works well as a tense crime thriller, with the fugitive armed-robber and his hostage holing up in the hospital; and the third act moral drama about what has been happening at the hospital is also interesting, but somewhat hamstrung by the film having that mystery element and inability to tell the audience that that is where we are heading. The film moves at a fast pace, with lots of great reveals, but feels a little disjointed, both in the script and editing, perhaps suffering slightly under the amount of plot threads and ideas it attempts to bring together.

No Longer Human (2019) by Mika Ninagawa

A dramatization of the later life of Osamu Dazai, acclaimed author of works such as “The Setting Sun” and “No Longer Human”. The film introduces us to Dazai (Shun Oguri) as he is enjoying mass success after publication of his recent novel. While the literary community showers him with praise, his personal life is far from perfect. As well as a predilection for alcohol, Dazai is also a serial womanizer despite being married with children. Dazai continues to live a life of excess, seemingly unable to restrain his worst impulses, later struggling with a serious illness that, along with his reckless behaviour, threatens to bring his life to an end prematurely before he is able to finish his masterwork “No Longer Human”.

Mika Ninagawa’s film is a lavish, colourful affair, with an almost fairytale aesthetic. The bright costumes and high-contrast sets bringing to the fore a sense of energy, passion and creativity that surround Dazai. There is an expectation here that the audience knows something of Osamu Dazai, with characters referencing his works, in particular an almost prophetic fixation by some encouraging him to complete “No Longer Human”. For those unfamiliar with the status of Dazai in Japan’s literary pantheon, the film can be a difficult watch as he seems to have few redeeming qualities; he is arrogant, antagonistic and unfaithful. Dazai has a deep loathing for Japanese societal norms, often railing against it in public and through his work that intends to tear down the traditional in favour of supplanting it with the emerging style he himself is helping to create. Fortunately, the film spends as much time on the women in his life as Dazai himself, with his wife and lovers being central to the story. Ninagawa’s use of colour may also suggest that these are in fact the more interesting characters, their hope and passion shining bright against the author’s nihilistic, moral vacuum. We often see them dressed in bright colours, as opposed to Dazai’s dark, patternless clothes. It is these women that seem to provide inspiration to him and direct his behaviours. A stellar cast includes Shun Oguri, Erika Sawajiri, Fumi Nikaido, and Rie Miyazawa, as well as a scenery chewing cameo from Tatsuya Fujiwara. Ninagawa’s direction is theatrical, using bold colour palettes to create sets that lean more towards fantastical romance than gritty realism. One all-out fantasy sequence later in the film, in which Dazai’s room drifts away as he is left alone with his work is a powerful visual that remains in keeping with the slightly larger than life presentation. Likewise, the melodramatic score by Jun Miyake is reminiscent of timeless romances, with a grandiose elegance to them that captures perhaps the myth of Dazai more than the reality.

It is this discrepancy between the man and the myth that lies at the heart of the film. Dazai is a respected author despite his numerous personal failings. Later in the film, in the fantasy sequence aforementioned and an earlier scene in which he almost succumbs to his illness, it becomes clear that Dazai is little more than his writing. He is, in essence, what other people have made him. He remains an enigma, with his works being the only key to his real personality. His egocentrism is a product of friends and lovers heaping praise on him and he is trapped in the role of ‘literary genius’, unable to reconcile it with his own behaviour. It often seems that it is his wife and lovers are the ones who are truly experiencing life, while for Dazai ‘life’ remains only something to put into his work. He lives in a mechanical way, with everything he does or experiences serving his art. An interesting look at this historical figure, whose works have gone on to great acclaim, that also investigates the role of women and Dazai’s treatment of them at this time.

Angel Dust (1994) by Sogo Ishii

A forensic psychologist is brought in to help investigators with a serial murder case involving women being injected with a poison on the Yamanote line and surroundings. Setsuko Suma (Kaho Minami) is a forensic psychologist called in by the police, assigned to work alongside two detectives. The killer seems to strike every Monday at 6pm with a similar modus operandi. Suma’s unconventional style involves her attempting to become one with the killer to better understand their psychologist and pre-empt their attacks. One of the victims is a former patient of Re-Freezing Psychorium, an institute that offered to reprogram cult members, run by Suma’s former lover Rei Aku (Takeshi Wakamatsu). As the investigation continues, Suma seems to be increasingly caught between her own past traumas and the world of the killer.

Directed by Sogo Ishii, with a screenplay by Ishii and Yorozu Ikuta, “Angel Dust” is a psychological thriller that takes us on a dark journey through the subconscious. Early in the film we have claustrophobic hand-held camera work on a packed rush-hour train, with disorienting quick-cuts to the weary passengers. This is followed up by a dream sequence of Suma and her partner Tomo spelunking. The majority of the investigation scenes are shot with clinical fixed angles or minimal movement and a grey colour pallette. Norimichi Kasamatsu’s cinematography thus provides an excellent contrast with the cold, logic of the case and the writhing human emotions underneath. The sequences where we see rapid photo slides flicker across the screen is particularly effecting, moving too fast to really gain much information from them they are not only visual exciting but also slightly unsettling, suggesting Suma’s own state of mind and loosening grip on rationality as the audience attempt to make sense of this subliminal imagery. Kaho Minami gives an incredible performance as Suma, a hard-headed woman whose dark past and own psychological issues threaten to overwhelm her composure. Takeshi Wakamatsu’s Rei Aku is the perfect villainous foil, a man with a deeply disturbing philosophy and criminal past who gives off an air of rationality that makes Suma question herself. The excellent direction and cinematography, that is as much a part of the storytelling as the script and performances here, is complemented with Hiroyuki Nagashima’s subtly disturbing score of trance-like sound loops of percussive electronica.

Sogo Ishii’s “Angel Dust” is a film that lures you in with a murder mystery and becomes something more disturbing as we begin to experience the same sense of unease as the protagonist. The who and how are mysteries that are easily resolved, and largely insignificant to Suma herself, leaving the more troubling question of why. The sense of Suma grasping for meaning in this world is heightened by the various clues the film throws up: the connection of the date Monday with the phases of the moon; the repeated tune that is whistled before the murders; mentions of Nietzche, Dazai, and fairy tales suggesting a literary link with the killer. All of these things in the end are significant only to the extent that they represent the various subconscious elements that act on our conscious actions. When Suma speaks with Aku we see in the background Mount Fuji, the white top and dark below a perfect representation of the vast, ineffable Freudian subconcious. The film is experiential in places, with the aforementioned photo-slide moments being discomforting and other surreal elements appearing throughout to make the audience unsure of their own conclusions about what is happening.

There is a strong theme of control present in the film, not least in the idea of people being brainwashed, and it questions how much free will people really have. Again the focus is not on solving the crime, but investigating why the killer is doing this, what drives them, and whether it is possible to truly understand people’s motivations. A fascinating psychological thriller that asks the audience to psychoanalyse the protagonist as much as the killer.

First Love (2021) by Yukihiko Tsutsumi

Forensic psychologist Yuki (Keiko Kitagawa) is interviewing a young murderer for a new book. The girl, Kanna (Kyoko Yoshine), has apparently murdered her father and told police that they will have to find out why she did it. As Yuki begins loooking into Kanna’s past, her relationship with her mother and father, and her mistreatment at the hands of several men, it awakens dark memories of her own. Yuki is also forced to confront lawyer Kasho (Tomoya Nakamura), the brother of her husband Gamon (Yosuke Kubozuka), with whom she shares a secret.

Based on a novel by Rio Shimamoto, Tsutsumi’s film is a detective thriller in which the details of the case are less important than the reasons behind this crime. Kanna’s depiction early on, with a bloody knife and her seemingly apathetic response to killing her father suggests a psychopathic personality, but we soon discover the various traumas that led her to this moment. Yuki appears to be heading in the other direction, with a composed front disguising past heartache and emotional stress. The confrontations between Yuki and Kanna, either side of Perspex in a prison interview room are a highlight of the film, with outstanding performances by both Keiko Kitagawa and Kyoko Yoshine. The supporting cast are also great in nuanced roles, in particular Hoshi Ishida as Yuji, a young man who had a relationship with Yuki when she was younger. The script can be quite on-the-nose, driving home its themes of how childhood trauma can affect people and the horrors of child abuse. This often comes across in large expository scenes where they make sure that you understand what is happening; it may have benefitted from a more subtle approach. The film doesn’t shy away from difficult issues, with paedophilia, child abuse and exploitation, self harm, and sexual abuse being a large part of the plot. These things are mentioned in a very matter-of-fact way, which is appropriate for the psychologist and detectives objective viewpoint and also makes them more terrifying by the apparent ubiquity and mundane nature of these actions. The best moments of the film come with these revelations, which are genuinely heart-breaking. However, the film sometimes struggle to keep up a sense of tension and balance. In particular it ties together the stories of Yuki and Kanna in a way that is not wholly satisfactory, drawing a parallel between their stories that never quite rang true. In terms of the tone also the piano and strings score often seems overly sentimental, lacking the darker tones suggested by the story and being at odds with what is happening on screen. The film does feature some exceptional cinematography, utilising the interview room at the prison to great effect with the reflections of Yuki and Kanna showing their connection.

“First Love” is a film about childhood trauma and how it affects development. Both Yuki and Kanna suffered difficult incidents involving their fathers and other men, with the constant threat of sexual violence causing severe emotional detachment and unease in society. The film portrays these things in a subtle yet powerful way, with Yuki’s father gazing at schoolgirls, or the disturbing drawing of a young Kanna beside two naked male figures. One of the most troubling elements of the film is Kanna’s relationship with Yuji, which the film perhaps had too little time to delve into. Helped by Hoshi Ishida’s performance, the courtroom scene towards the end of the film is a devastating depiction of a man who has failed in his duty of protection to this young girl, his shame and regret evident. “First Love” can be a difficult watch due to the subject matter, but the excellent cast and beautiful cinematography make it worthwhile. It has very little in the way of answers, but in terms of raising awareness of these issues it does a spectacular job.