Face (2000) by Junji Sakamoto

After murdering her sister, an introverted woman sets out on a journey of self-discovery while fleeing the police. Masako (Naomi Fujiyama) works with her parents in a dry-cleaning and repair business in Kobe, largely confined to sewing in her room, with little apparent interest in the outside world. When her younger sister, Yukari (Riho Makise), working as a hostess in Tokyo, pays a visit it is immediately clear that the two sisters could not be more different. The outgoing Yukari berates Masako for not getting out more, while Masako seems to harbour a grudge against her younger sister. When their mother dies, the two are left alone and an argument sees Masako kill Yukari in a fit of pent up rage. After contemplating suicide, Masako heads out to try and find her absentee father. Along the way she faces sexual violence and other trials as she learns to be resilient and independent. Her odyssee takes her to a bar in Beppu where she works for Ritsuko (Michiyo Yasuda) and Hiroyuki (Etsushi Toyokawa) and begins to experience happiness for the first time.

“Face” written by Isamu Uno and Junji Sakamoto and directed by Sakamoto is a tragi-comic tale that works as a coming-of-age story for a woman whose self-imposed isolation has left her almost childlike in her naivety and lack of assertiveness. Naomi Fujiyama’s performance as Masako is full of charm and underlying insecurities. We never learn the exact reason behind her father’s departure, or her hatred of her younger sister, but her awkward, misanthropic attitude is captured perfectly by Fujiyama. “Face” is an unsual mix of difficult subject matter, familial murder and rape, but overall has a darkly comic tone and even some out-and-out humour, such as when Masako is learning to ride a bike or to swim, activities she always wanted to try. Even in its final moments the film leans towards the comedic and the jaunty score emphasises this lighthearted tone. The plot swings from one experience to the next, some good, some bad, presenting us with a chequered impression of life’s ups and downs. There are some outstanding moments in the direction but for the most part the focus is on the performances, which are all outstanding. Riho Makise, as the forthright and independent Yukari, and Michiyo Yasuda and Etsushi Toyokawa as bar hosts Ritsuko and Hiroyuki, act as the worldly-wise foils to Masako’s naive heroine.

The sympathetic Masako is a unique character battling her own demons. The fact that she is a fugitive is brought up throughout as a plot device to keep her moving to the next place, forcing her into the path of the next character who will help her piece together a sense of self in this complex society. But it is this journey of self-discovery that lies at the heart of the drama. We see her at her highest and lowest points and how she responds to both kindness and cruelty. In the end, Masako’s fate rests entirely in her own hands, both happiness and misery available to her, showing the extent to which our experiences are shaped by our reactions to circumstance. A worthwhile film with a fantastically nuanced central performance.

Death at an Old Mansion (1975) by Yoichi Takabayashi

Famed detective Kousuke Kindaichi faces an intellectually challenging mystery in this locked-room crime thriller based on the book “The Honjin Murders” by Seishi Yokomizo. On the wedding night of Kenzo Ichiyanagi (Takahiro Tamura) with his beautiful bride Katsuko (Yuki Mizuhara) they are found dead in a locked outside room, a bloodied katana stuck in the ground outside and a bloody trail of finger marks down one wall. Inspector Isogawa (Eishin Tono) arrives and soon concludes that the killer may be a three-fingered vagrant who appears to bear a grudge against Kenzo. When a friend of the family, Kosuke Kindaichi (Akira Nakao), arrives he turns his attention to the case and soon finds a series of peculiar clues that lead him to a shocking conclusion.

Director Yoichi Takabayashi creates a respectful cinematic version of Seishi Yokomizo’s classic mystery tale. The film follows the traditional whodunnit pattern, and the plot of the novel, with a large cast of characters, including Kenzo’s sister Suzuko (Junko Takazawa) and brother Saburo (Akira Nitta); and Katsuko’s uncle Ginzo (Kunio Kaga). The early scenes of the wedding feast are packed with intrigue, with suspicious glances and tensions bubbling beneath the surface. Takabayashi does a great job with misdirecting the viewer with red herrings before revealing the ingenious, if somewhat improbable, solution to the case. The film leans into the gruesomeness of the crime, with a gory murder scene and brutal slaying. It also relies on flashbacks to the slaying and recreations of what the characters imagined happens. These sepia-toned segments, shorn of dialogue, are a fun way to show the various theories surrounding the deaths of Kenzo and Katsuko.

“Death at an Old Mansion” will appeal to fans of old-school detective tales, with a fun combination of Isogawa’s well-meaning inspector and Kindaichi’s unconventional approach to solving the mystery. The performance by Akira Nakao as the improbable genious detective shows us an ever-active mind, focus trained on minor details that always turn out to be the key to some new revelation. There is also a dark, morbid undertone to the story, which largely keeps the spotlight on the particulars of solving the case. This is achieved through the creative elements such as the occasional shots of the two koto strings ringing in the rain; and also Junko Takazawa’s characterisation of Suzuko, whose fey and childlike character seems to be somehow tenuously balanced between the worlds of the living and the dead. The film does a great job of sticking to the original story, while also embossing it with creative direction, use of colour and artistic elements that evoke a deeper emotional connection to the victims.

Adrift in Tokyo (2007) by Satoshi Miki

Two men embark on a stroll around the capital in this easy-going comedy drama. Fumiya (Joe Odagiri) is deep in debt, having spent 8 years as a student. The man sent to collect on these debts, Fukuhara (Tomokazu Miura), comes to him with a bizarre proposition: if Fumiya will accompany him on a walk around the city he will hand him enough money to clear his debts. Fumiya later discovers that Fukuhara has killed his wife and intends to hand himself in at a particular police station; but wishes to spend his final days taking in sights that he used to enjoy with his wife. The two of them set out, meeting quirky characters and philosophizing about their lives, before Fumiya is recruited into a fake family consisting of Fukuhara, his fake-wife Makiko (Kyoko Koizumi) and her neice Fufumi (Yuriko Yoshitaka).

“Adrift in Tokyo”, based on the novel by Yoshinaga Fujita and directed by Satoshi Miki, takes you along on a meandering journey, its languid pace sustained by the odd-couple dynamic of Fumiya and Fukuhara, both men searching for something intangible on their perambulations. The comedy is similarly understated with the occasional flash of surrealism, such as the 66-year old cosplayer, or the psychedelic rocker Fumiya ends up tailing through the streets. In its loosely strung-together series of quirky moments and ideas the film captures the sense of tramping through a city as diverse as Tokyo. “Adrift in Tokyo” very much adheres to the mantra that it is the journey rather than the destination that is important, never fully reconciling certain ideas and offering little in the way of closure.

Fumiya repeatedly refers to the fact that he was abandoned by his parents and seems to find a surrogate father in Fukuhara. Fukuhara also seems to lack a sense of identity, instead hiring himself out to play a character in a fake family. As the two wander around they come across different aspects of the city, questing for a sense of self amongst the overwhelming variety of Tokyo. The bizarre characters they meet, glimpsed only briefly, offer a window into the myriad lives that are carrying on around each individual. It is perhaps hard for people to discover who they are while feeling part of such a vast whole.

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.