Pornostar (1998) by Toshiaki Toyoda

An aimless drifter finds himself recruited into a violent gang struggle in this crime drama. We never learn much about the protagonist Arano (Koji Chihara), who wanders the streets of Tokyo clutching a sports bag. When he is confronted by gang leader Kamijo (Onimaru) he shows little reaction to his aggressive threats. When he later turns up at their headquarters having murdered two other gangsters, Kamijo decides rather than killing him, as they were instructed to do, to use him in their negotiations with drug-dealers and their turf-war with rival Yakuza boss Matsunaga (Tetta Sugimoto). However, Kamijo soon discovers that he is unable to control Arano’s violent outbursts and hatred for all yakuza, threatening their business and their lives.

Writer-director Toshiaki Toyoda creates a unique crime drama from the perspective of a mysterious outsider who strolls carelessly into the violent underworld of thugs, drugs and punks. We have familiar scenes of mobsters dealing with their boss; attempting to sell acid; or wondering how they are going to carry out their orders to murder the head of another crime family. But in each situation things are complicated by Arano’s nihilistic and unpredictable world view. We never discover why he hates the Yakuza so fiercely, although any number of reasons would be easy to imagine. Likewise, he remains an enigma with regards to his past and also what he carries around in his bag. It is a crime thriller that seems to be cracked wide open with the inclusion of this singular individual. The direction moves from stylised sequences to more mundane everyday moments, and the score similarly appears at moments of high drama while being entirely absent at other moments. This creates a tonal dissonance between the ‘real’ world and the stylised violence of the yakuza film in which the protagonist finds himself.

“Pornostar” delights in the mystery of its central character. The contents of the bag that he carries remain unknown throughout, lending themselves to even a metaphysical interpretation. Arano remains somewhat distant from us as the audience and we are never sure exactly what he is thinking, or what he might do next; his reasoning for joining the gangsters is similarly left unexplained. We do see him stand up to an adult bullying children, which may suggest some motivation for his actions. Likewise, his hatred of the yakuza is suggestive of some past history with them. His only concern seems to be what will be written on his epitaph, a question he asks several times throughout the film. Perhaps he is intended to be a blank slate, buffetted by those around him, lacking any will of his own. His tragedy seems to be that he is unable to walk his own path, rather forced into the violent society we see around him. The sequence early in the film when we see him appear through a crowd of people at a crosswalk is the perfect metaphor for this theme of attempting to establish a sense of individuality in a society.

Hard Days (2023) by Michihito Fujii

An all-star cast chase after a hidden fortune in this slick crime thriller based on a Korean original. Detective Kudo (Junichi Okada) drives through the rainy streets, dealing with a call from his wife, Misako (Ryoko Hirosue), who is planning to separate along with his child Mina. Another call from his section chief tells him there is an ongoing investigation into corruption, possibly centering on Kudo’s connection with the Senba yakuza family. Things only get worse when Kudo hits a pedestrian who has stumbled into the road. While trying to hide the body, Senba (Akira Emoto) tells him that there is a hidden fortune in a vault protected by a large temple, whose shady dealings with top-rank politicians includes money laundering. Kudo is not the only one after the stash, with Internal Affairs officer Yazaki (Go Ayano) also keen to get to the money.

“Hard Times”, directed by Michihito Fujii (“Yakuza and the Family”) is a fast-paced crime thriller, with a far-fetched plot and plenty of darkly comic moments. Kudo’s attempts to dispose of the corpse could be straight out of a slapstick comedy and the whole film tests suspension of disbelief to the limit. The plot is farcical, in the sense that every misstep by Kudo simply pushes him further into trouble, all the while he is simply trying to do his best for himself, his wife and daughter. He is a sympathetic character, stressed to the eyeballs, fallible and resourceful. Yazaki is starkly contrasted with Kudo, consumed by status and his job, with his marriage to the boss’s daughter being simply another step on the ladder, lacking any emotional content. There are plenty of shock moments too as the story plays out, constantly keeping a step ahead of the audience.

The film’s opening as Kudo’s colleagues fret about a potential corruption investigation into their section is a perfect set-up for what is to follow. Throughout Kudo is presented with a series of moral choices, both large and small: whether to lie at a traffic stop about drinking, or to hide a dead body in his recently deceased mother’s coffin. He doesn’t alway do the right thing, but the film suggests that at heart his chief desire is to protect and support his family. When he says to his wife that he’s truly sorry he couldn’t make her happy, we see that all his behaviour and misbehaviour is underlined by his love for his family. Meanwhile, Yazaki and Senba are cynical, money-minded, living either lonely existences or in relationships characterised by a lack of connection and warmth. Senba makes reference to lizards that hop in a desert to prevent burning on the hot sand. Kudo is a hostage to the vissicitudes of fate, his misfortune leading him to some dark junctions, but the one thing he is able to decide his what he’s fighting for.

Goth (2008) by Gen Takahashi

Two teens obsessed with murder decide to follow the diary of a serial killer to find his most recent victim. Despite having a seeminlgy happy homelife with his mother and sister, Itsuki Kamiyama (Kanata Hongo) has a dark obsession, sneaking out to visit gruesome crime scenes. His classmate Yoru Morino (Rin Takanashi) shares this morbid fascination, living alone and investigating horrors in her gothic study. When Yoru finds a diary belonging to a killer who severs the left hands of his victims and poses them like art installations, their interest leads them to follow his trail of death, rather than turning in this important evidence to the police.

The ‘goth’ subculture: dark clothes, fixation on death, suffering, murder, and all things dark and gruesome, is a fascinating social phenomenon. The film never quite gets to the root of why its protagonists have such an apathetic and nihilistic world-view, but it does capture their behaviour and ennui perfectly. Rin Takanashi’s Yoru is a pale, lonely figure, who drifts through life like a ghost herself following a childhood accident that left her sister dead. Meanwhile, Kanata Hongo’s Itsuki seems on the surface to be a sociable, well-adjusted high-schooler, who nevertheless engages in morbid fantasies. It makes for an interesting crime-horror film in which the two protagonists are not particularly interesting in cracking the case, but instead fascinated by the idea of murder and serial killers. The dark tone, covering suicide and death, may be off-putting to some, but it creates an stomach-churning tension that goes beyond the usual shock of more grotesque horror fare. The darkness here comes from the characters’ deep well of alienation and twisted idolisation of despicable acts. The two constantly refer to the aesthetic beauty in how the murderer poses the corpses, showing their complete disassociation with the act of killing and death. The soundtrack, featuring a peculiarly eerie marimba melody and choral recitations, further enforces this sense of dread, occasionally turning to something more angelic and operatic to show how the teens themselves view their activities as almost transcendental. For them there is nothing morbid about researching killers, but instead something beautiful, beholding the line between life and death and the transience of existence. When Yoru lies in the river where one of the victims was placed, Itsuki imagines her with blood streaming from a slashed wrist. It is both disturbing yet darkly beautiful as we see her life essence swept along in the current, suggestive of tragic archetypes throughout the ages.

No doubt “Goth” will prove a hard watch for some, as it forgoes the usual impulse of films to want justice to be done for murder victims. In closing the film solves many questions that you might want answered, but leaves much more to audience interpretation. The film could be seen as a rumination on society’s fascination with death and murder. Although not always to the extent of the protagonists here, humans have an insatiable appetite for real life crime documentaries, stories about serial killers, and often ignore the plight of the victims, instead interested only in the idea rather than the reality. In the same way the protagonists look at the world in a cold, distant way, barely moved by the sight of death. The extent of the goth subculture and fascination with murder outside of it, speaks to a deep-seated need in humans to attempt to understand our own morality and nature, dwelling on this disturbing yet inevitable fact of life. Itsuki casually remarks that people can be divided into those who kill and those who are killed. It is a dark commentary on mankind, but it does highlight this duality of man in his twisted worldview.

Jigen Daisuke (2023) by Hajime Hashimoto

Tetsuji Tamayama stars as the hitman with a heart of gold in this neo-western-noir based on the popular Monkey Punch manga character. Following a shoot-out in which his famed gunslinging abilities are let down by a hairsbreadth accuracy defect in his gun, Jigen (Tamayama) returns to Japan, where he hasn’t been for years, to find a legendary gunsmith named Yaguchi (Mitsuko Kusabue). On arrival he finds that Yaguchi has given up the underworld and is now focussed solely on watch repairs. However, when a young mute girl (Kotoka Maki) arrives bearing a token from a former friend, Yaguchi asks for Jigen’s help, promising to fix his gun in return.

Jigen is a traditional outsider hero, finding himself drawn into helping people for his own ends, but slowly learning to love his young charge. The character is something of a blank canvas, as is typical with this kind of protagonist, as we see him early in the film travelling the world and showing of his quick-draw abilities. Even when he returns to Japan he seems to have few contacts or connections and we learn little about his life. The film has an interesting mix-and-match tone, with some fantastical sets, such as Deigyo-gai, the home of the cities criminal underclass, alongside many scenes shot in the ‘real world’. It consistently steps a toe outside the bounds of reality, with some comedically over the top fight sequences. The best example of which is perhaps the central villain Adel (Yoko Maki), who performs a backflip in her wheelchair, while firing a gun at multiple assailants. This whole sequence is beyond ridiculous, but in keeping with other moments in the film, such as Jigen’s own preternatural skills with a weapon, or the other antagonist (Masatoshi Nagase), a man who is able to shapeshift his appearance at will. While the story is one that has been told before: lonely hitman has to take care of a young child, the film does a good job with it, layering in several characters, such as Yaguchi, the villains (whose nefarious schemes are as over-the-top as their characters), and some excellent set piece fight sequences. The score also has a western-noir feel, moving between the high-octane action of fights and the emotional moments. A fun watch and it will be interesting to see where the character of Jigen goes in any potential sequels.

The film’s antagonists are attempting to steal hormones from children in order to produce a drug that halts the aging process. Reminiscent of the procedures in “Helter Skelter” (2012) it is a rather gruesome plot for a film that seems quite light-hearted on the surface.The aging Yaguchi stands in stark contrast to Adel, whose obsession with eternal youth sees her becoming increasingly unhinged. Meanwhile, Jigen himself is clinging on to using his first gun, suggesting that he too is tied to his past. In one interesting scene the characters discuss a version of the “Ship of Theseus” thought experiment, questioning whether Jigen’s gun, which has had every part replaced, might still be the same weapon. Jigen explains haughtily that the memories remain, suggesting that this is what is most important in acscertaining whether it is the same item. In the same way the characters appearances, shown most prominently in the chameleonic Kawashima, have little bearing on who they are, it is what is in their heart that is important. While Jigen might exude the aura of a cold-hearted killer, he is inside someone who when it comes to it decides to protect the innocent.

9 Souls (2003) by Toshiaki Toyoda

A rag-tag band of prison escapees set out to help each other realise their final wishes before they are re-captured or killed. After murdering his father, shut-in Michiru (Ryuhei Matsuda), finds himself locked up with a group of violent offenders. A short time into his sentence they manage a miraculous escape, deciding to stay together, travelling around in a campervan as they re-visit important places and people from their pasts. The film features an all star cast including Jun Kunimura, Kiyohiko Shibukawa and Yoshio Harada.

Writer and director Toshiaki Toyoda had long wanted to make a prison break film, beliving them to be one of the most exciting genres. Partly based on a true news story of escaped convicts travelling around together, “9 Souls”, brings together an incredible cast and motley collective of criminals who act almost as a surrogate family to each other. Toyoda clearly put a lot of work into the characters, each of whose crimes are briefly written on screen, and the outstanding cast manage to portray these disparate individuals without going into unnecessary exposition or flashbacks of their lives. In fact we only see one crime comitted by the group pre-arrest (even then it is off-screen), the murder of Michiru’s father, with the others only referencing their offences. This helps us empathise with the group, whose murderous pasts would make them quite irredeemable. Instead we are treated to a comic road-trip as the group attempt to evade capture, dressing as women or having to avoid old acquaintances. The direction is first-rate, with the characters framed to show their physical and emotional proximity and several incredible shots of the surrounding scenery as they travel. The ruddy sunlight of the film suggests a melancholic realisation that these men may be on their final journey. The soft-rock score, slowly ramping while going nowhere captures the sense of frustrated ambition.

“9 Souls” leans into a metaphysical reading with moments that seem particularly unreal. Director Toyoda has stated that films allow us to blend reality and imagination, and that is evidenced here. The group’s escape is one egregious example of a miraculous occurence that defies belief (they see a mouse, realise it must have a hole somewhere, and the next moment they are running free of the prison). Another example is in one escapee’s discovery of a peep-show that appears like a mirage, which sees him complete his own journey. Each of the men seems to be searching for something to bring themselves peace and it could be said that in some sense they are already dead, simply lost souls attempting to justify themselves before they pass on (either to incarceration or the long sleep of death). Whether they are seeking redepmtion for their crimes, attempting to right the wrongs of the past, or prove to themselves that there is some good in their hearts, they are brought together by the hope that this is true. The final moments of the film, which again rely on this blurring of reality, drives home this point that it is hope that keeps people alive. A fantastic prison break film that touches on the ideas of what is truly lost when people commit crime and questions the notion that humans can be entirely bad.