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.

Melancholic (2019) by Seiji Tanaka

Kazuhiko (Yoji Minagawa) is a university graduate still living at home with his parents, having never found a full-time job. His listless existence seems drab and colourless with little excitement enlivening the daily monotony. Stopping by the bathhouse one day he bumps into a former high-school classmate, Yuri (Mebuki Yoshida), who asks him if he is planning to go to their upcoming school reunion. It is clear that she has an interest in him, but Kazuhiko’s social awkwardness almost leads to him missing his chance with her. He begins a halting relationship with Yuri and takes her advice to get a job at the bathhouse. However, both these developments come under strain when he discovers the bathhouse is being used as a front for yakuza hits and the disposal of corpses killed in gangland disputes. Along with his co-worker Akira (Yoshitomo Isozaki), Kazuhiko begins working this second job, unable to get out of his obligations to the bathhouse owner Higashi (Makoto Hada).

“Melancholic” is a black comedy with a twisted premise that creates a driving tension through its various relationships. It is tightly scripted, with Kazuhiko’s world and choices boiling down to only a few individuals: Akira, his co-worker, employee, Yakuza boss Tanaka (Masanobu Yata) and his girlfriend, Angela (Stefanie Arianne). The film is a blend of character study, with our protagonist stress-tested almost to breaking point by the uncomfortably dangerous situations he finds himself in, and comedy with often hilarious scenes arising from the peculiar premise of a socially awkward man at the centre of a gangland murder operation. Yoji Minagawa gives an amazing performance, permanently uncomfortable, squinting and shuffling, and baffled by everything from Yuri’s advances to discoveries about those around him. Mebuki Yoshida is incredibly likeable as the cute, kind and sympathetic love interest and the uneasy tentative nature of her relationship with Minagawa’s character is perfectly written and acted. Yoshitomo Isozaki provides great comic relief as Akira, whose poorly educated yet easy going character is at complete odds with the anxious Kazuhiko.

Written and directed by Seiji Tanaka, the film revolves around Kazuhiko and his relationships with the world, both romantic and as an employee. He is a man who has avoided finding a permanent job for unexplained reasons, either personal choice or due to his character. We see a former classmate who has become a major success as a pianist and his achievement seems in stark contrast to the apparent failure of Kazuhiko to find gainful employment. He is a man whose character defects, shyness and lack of motivation, seem to doom him to miss important chances in life. This is most painfully exemplified by his near-miss conversations with Yuri that rely heavily on her persistence to make their relationship work. The theme of work and obligations plays heavily throughout, taken to an extreme through the introduction of the yakuza and the disposal of bodies. There is a question hanging over the value of work and what causes people to do things for other people, especially despicable or otherwise intolerable things. Whether for money, for love, for fame, or out of a sense of solidarity with others, the actions of every individual are examined closely. The film offers no concrete answers, but it does give us a cast of expertly drawn characters that shed light on how people interact with one another and the vicissitudes of fortune that set people on certain paths.

Gate of Flesh (1965) by Seijun Suzuki

Post-war Japan is a harsh place, the dog-eat-dog mentality engendered by the war mixed with the disappointment of defeat. The citizens live in a situation of dire poverty, surviving on rations and basic supplies, watched over by the keen eyed Military Police and the prowling US occupiers. A young woman, Maya (Yumiko Nogawa), is caught stealing food to survive. She is taken to Sen (Satoko Kasai), the strong-willed leader of a group of prostitutes, as a way out of her situation. This band of women have set up their own business in the crumbling ruins of an abandoned building. They wear their profession as a badge of honour, working for themselves, driving other women from their territory, and having strict rules about who they will sleep with. Their number one rule is that they must never sleep with a man without payment. However, when ex-soldier Shintaro Ibuki (Joe Shishido) turns up looking for refuge after stabbing a GI, he threatens to destroy their carefully managed business.

Director Seijun Suzuki and cinematographer Shigeyoshi Mine take us right to the heart of the action of post-war Japan, with the streets bustling with people from all walks of life trying to survive. In contrast to the greys and browns of their surroundings, the central cast of women are always dressed in the same single bright colours, that helps identify them and sets them apart from everyone else. The actresses all do a fantastic job with their characters, giving them a sense of individuality. Yumiko Nogawa’s defiant leader, Sen, Tomiko Ishii’s upbeat Roku, Kayo Matsuo’s wily Mino, Yumiko Nogawa’s fragile yet determined Maya, are a charismatic quartet whose wild, funny, unpredictable, even cruel antics, are always a pleasure to watch. Joe Shishido gives a strong performance as Ibuki, who is putting a brave face on his inner turmoil. Misako Tominaga is also excellent as Machiko, a member of the group who gives in to her feelings and is cast out. All the characters appear fiercely independent but each harbours their own personal tragedy, whether the loss of a husband or a brother in the war. One of the strengths of the film is that it does not create heroes. Every character is flawed, often being cruel, malicious, or greedy, but it is clear that they are products of their environment. The score by Naozumi Yamamoto features a plaintive melody with repeated snatches of song that are often hummed or whistled by characters. There are also several songs that are performed by the cast at various points. The use of a pounding drum at moments of crisis for Maya is powerful. It breaks up the flow of action in a way that suddenly brings home to the audience the impact of everything on her. Suzuki also uses cross-fading imagery to good effect, especially in the moments when we see the ghosts of the past appearing before characters in a moment that moves, like much of the film, from joyous to morose.

“Gate of Flesh” begins with titles shown over drawings of naked corpses. This understanding of the fragility of life seems to haunt both the characters and the audience as the drama unfolds. Following any war or great loss of life, the old certainties disappear. To see a corpse makes us wonder what the point of living is in the first place, given the inevitable conclusion. This is a question posed by one character in the film. This nihilism also helps to explain the mindset of the women, who see their bodies as no more than flesh, a commodity to be sold and for them to profit from. They base their self-worth entirely in terms of business transactions, which in turns strips them of their inner selves, leading them to cruelty. At first they may seem heartless, but it becomes clear that they are simply keeping their emotions buried in order to adapt to a world that seems to have abandoned morality and compassion. In one powerful moment, Maya seduces a priest who had tried to help her, and this is a confirmation that human beings may aspire to higher things but their nature will always draw them back to their primitive urges. It is interesting to consider the male-female dynamics in the film, with the group of women being a strong group who are disrupted by the appearance of a man. Their reactions to him seem over-the-top, even childish, which may be a release of their pent-up emotions in reaction to the cold personas they have assumed. The colour-coded dresses they wear may also give an insight into each of their true personalities, or perhaps represent how they wish to be seen. They are holding on to a brightness and hope that is disappearing from the world around them. “Gate of Flesh” is a masterclass in directing with excellent performances and a story that touches on the very nature of humanity.

Yakuza Law (1969) by Teruo Ishii

Three stories set in different historical periods, connected only thematically, show the yakuza way of life in all its cruelty. The first takes us back to the era of samurai and swordfights in the street. We are told that the yakuza have only two rules: don’t steal and don’t sleep with married women. Following the violent overthrow of a rival group, one gang feels their position is secure. But affairs and a loss of control by the boss leads to a devastating climactic showdown. The second story is set many years later and follows a gang member recently released from prison. Having served three years for an attack on a rival boss, he is disappointed when his fellow yakuza do not come to visit. He is further upset to find his former girlfriend, believing he had died, to be with another man. The final story centres on a gold heist gone wrong and an elite marksman. Double-crossing gangsters and gun fights abound.

Director Teruo Ishii delights in the most violent and extreme of human drama. “Yakuza Law” begins with credits playing over scenes of grisly and creative tortures employed by gangsters (most of which are not even seen in the film itself). This clues the audience in to the shock value that is at the heart of much of this film and also creates an atmosphere of dread that follows every character. Death and punishment are ever present threats in the world of the yakuza. The three stories act as morality tales (albeit emphasising the twisted moral code of the yakuza), with simple plot structures and broadly drawn characters established to make a point about honour, betrayal, and retribution. The film is packed with action and doesn’t shy away from the gory details of their various punishments, whether cutting off body parts, drowning, burning with a lighter, or even more creative tortures used in the final chapter. Tonally the film is a great example of the exploitation genre, moving from disturbing to comedic with startling alacrity. By the time the third part rolls around it’s no longer clear whether any of it is meant to be taken seriously. The special effects are pushed to their limits (and often beyond) to show the depravity of these people. Even when the effects are shoddy, the sheer cruelty or bizarreness of what is happening is enough to make it alarming. The fact that “Yakuza Law” is essentially three films in one is amazing, as all three parts are all equally engaging and do something different with the premise of gangsters breaking their promises and the backlash that follows.

“Yakuza Law” has a very tongue-in-cheek approach to its subject matter that makes it difficult to easily judge its sincerity. The yakuza are shown to be both terrifying and ridiculous in equal measure, with their strict code of honour barely disguising their underlying thuggish behaviour. Setting the three stories side by side also gives the film a theme of the eternal atavism and strips away the veneer of civilisation to show that throughout the generations these men do not change. The perceived cruelty of yesteryear is in fact replicated in modern times, with only the uniforms changing from yukata to sharp suits. Despite their reputations the yakuza are seen as pitiable figures, who lack empathy and are separate from the outside world. They are insular and trapped in a self-perpetuating cycle of violence that is doomed to eventually swallow anyone in its orbit. “Yakuza Law” will appeal to fans of the exploitation genre, with plenty of off-the-wall action and torture. It also provides an examination of the pathology of violence and gang mentality that is brought into stark contrast by the triple narrative structure.