Hell Dogs (2022) by Masato Harada

Goro Idezaki (Junichi Okada) is working his first shift as a patrol officer when five people are gunned down in an armed robbery. Believing he was to blame he sets out to kill the members of the Chinese gang responsible. He is later picked up by the chief of the undercover crime squad and asked to infiltrate the Toshokai yakuza group. Under the name of Kanetaka he pairs with another yakuza hitman called Muroka (Kentaro Sakaguchi). The two are assigned to protect the new head of the family, Toake (Miyavi). As he gets closer to bringing down the group, Kentaro must ensure that his cover is not blown.

Based on a comic book by Akio Fukamachi and directed by Masato Harada, who also wrote the script, “Hell Dogs” is a stylish crime thriller with flashes of nihilistic violence. The story will be familiar to fans of the genre, with an undercover cop; various double-crosses; sexual liaisons that threaten to undermine the operation; and gangster in sharp suits. The array of characters creates a sense of realism, with bosses and capos, enforcers, the mob wife, the police chief, the love interest, an assassin, call girls, and more enlivening the world, although due to the constrictions of film many are little more than plot drivers. The central relationship between Kanetaka and Muroka is well-done, although there is never any real sense that Kanetaka has conflicted loyalties, which seems like a missed opportunity to create some tension. Several side characters, in particular Noriko (Shinobu Otake) suffer from this lack of time, with their backstories largely brushed over. That being said the star-studded cast is firing on all cylinders, bringing these archetypes to life with charisma to spare. The action sequences are well-done, leaving no doubt about the brutality of these criminal regimes, though they occasionally tip into the ludicrous, such as when two people miss each other several times from point-blank range. These moments occur often enough to be considered the film’s ironic humour, or a sideways comment on genre conventions, as when a character comments on never having seen a female assassin before.

Idezaki’s redemption arc sets him on a hero’s path, journeying through hell to make amends for his past mistakes. Although he is not personally to blame for the initial crime, his determination to set things rights displays a lex talionis sense of justice. A question arises as to whether Idezaki is driven by a sense of justice, or something darker, hate, drive to dominate, or pure aggression. Bosses on both sides of the criminal divide point Idezaki at a target, which begs the question of how different they are and whether Idezaki’s life is guided more by luck than free will. This comparison is brought up again, when Muroka relates Idezaki’s story, not knowing who he is, suggesting that ideas of honour, loyalty and justice are mirrored in the police and the yakuza. One side story that is given short shrift is that of Muroka’s ex-girlfriend, who has begun a survivors group for people who have lost loved ones to gang violence. It is one of several curious ideas thrown into the mix, another being the various undercover agents who are revealed throughout and the police force’s negligence in taking care of them. A complex crime thriller with enough interesting characters to breathe life into the well-worn story of a cop going undercover in the yakuza.

Somebody’s Flowers (2021) by Yusuke Okuda

A sombre drama about loss and dementia. Takaaki’s (Shinsuke Kato) is left to look after his elderly parents after his brother Kento dies in a car accident. His father Tadayoshi (Choei Takahashi) has dementia, often wandering off, calling Takaaki by his brother’s name, and forgetting what he is doing; while his wife Machi (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) does her best to care for him. When a new family, the Kusumotos, move into their apartment block, tragedy strikes when the father is fatally injured by a falling flower pot, leaving his wife, Akari (Misa Wada), and young son, Sota (Ruse Ota), to cope with his loss. Takaaki begins to suspect that it may have been Tadayoshi who dropped the flower pot, although his father shows no signs of remembering the incident. Takaaki attempts to protect his father by lying and terminating the contract of his home helper, Satomi (Honoka Murakami), who is also suspicious.

Written and directed by Yusuke Okuda, based on personal experience of a family member with dementia, “Somebody’s Flowers” is an often touching and tragic drama that looks at a serious social issue. The depiction of Tadayoshi’s condition is sensitive while tackling the strain it puts on his wife and son. Choei Takahashi’s performance as the elderly Tadayoshi, with unsure steps, repetitive statements, and absent expression, capture the peculiar vulnerability of those suffering memory loss. The rest of the cast, Kazuko Yoshiyuki as his loving wife, and Takaaki as his morally conflicted son, whose feelings towards his father move from exasperation to concern, do a fantastic job creating a sense of a family unit doing their best to carry on after the death of Kento and the deteriorating condition of Tadayoshi. The film’s inciting incident, the death of Akari and Sota’s father and husband, gives the film a semblance of plot, but for the most part it is a more documentary-like exploration of these characters and their experiences. The scenes at the grief councelling group consolidate this documentary style as the participants give their thoughts on bereavement. “Somebody’s Flowers” leaves the audience to decide where they stand on the issues presented, particularly concerning the guilt of Tadayoshi, while creating scenes that brim with emotionality. The direction and framing heighten the impact of each scene, with an emphasis on character viewpoints guiding the audience through and offering varied perspectives on what has happened. The minimalist score breaks in rarely to set the scene, but never undermines the realism of the story. A scene late in the film, in which Tadayoshi believes he is talking to his lost son Kento, and encourages Takaaki to speak with his brother, is effecting in its simplicity and again succeeds on the strength of the main cast, capturing the complex emotions of the characters.

“Somebody’s Flowers” is a film in the vein of Koji Fukada’s “Harmonium”, dealing with a difficult social issue, with a story that doesn’t attempt to sensationalise or rationalise on behalf of the characters. We are presented with a situation that engenders sympathy for the protagonists, struggling with dementia and taking care of someone with the condition. It asks difficult questions about guilt, blame and responsibility, loyalty, loss and forgiveness. In the case of Tadayoshi he is incapable of taking responsibility for his actions, almost childlike in his innocence and unconscious of his own actions. In the survivor’s group we see people still struggling to forgive the perpetrators of the accidents that took their loved ones; while Takaaki must contemplate the possibility that his father is a murderer (albeit unwittingly). “Somebody’s Flowers” creates a powerful emotional drama about death and dementia that asks the audience to consider their own feelings on the issues it raises.

The Violence Action (2022) by Toichiro Ruto

An undercover assassin is tasked with taking on a dangerous Yakuza syndicate in this comic-book crime caper. Kei (Kanna Hashimoto) works as an killer-for-hire, with dual cover as a University student and call-girl working out of a ramen shop. This compilation of Japanese pop-culture action cinema tropes extends is completed with a wacky side-kick with a bullet-proof wig (Takashi Okamura), a love-lorn fellow student who traipses after her; over-the-top gangsters led by a dad-joke loving boss; a villain possessed of supernatural martial prowess; Kei’s fellow assassin, the sniper Daria (Yuri Ota); love hotels; warehouse fights; gangland shootings; and a handsome, morally dubious love-interest.

“The Violence Action” is based on the comic book by Shin Sawada and Renji Asai. The film adaptation, written and directed by Toichiro Ruto, co-writte by Itaru Era, suffers from two major issues. One is the tonal inconsistency, shifting gears from slapstick comic action (bullet-proof wigs; aerobatic gunfights) to ultra-violent scenes (albeit with CG blood) including people being shot with a nail-gun. The puerile humour twinned with the mature tone is reflective of a trend in pop-culture of infantilisation; merging entertainment for kids and adults. Children’s films become more violent, while adult films are stripped of emotional depth. This results in what we have with “The Violent Action”, a film that never seems sure of what it is doing, other than throwing as many elements from other enjoyable films into the pot and giving it a stir. The issue with this is that you are consistently reminded of better films. The second failing of the film is in its headache-inducing editing, with hyperactive cuts that are unnecessary, giving it a music-video style that adds nothing to the drama. Unfortunately, these cuts are often use to disguise a lack of technical ability in the cinematography, the rapid cuts perhaps seen as the lesser of two evils by the director. The film suffers by comparison to “Baby Assassins” (2021), which managed to establish some degree of character for its protagonists and pulled off the comic-action vibe much better.

It is hard to know if the film is aiming for a B-movie feel, many elements would suggest this, but even if it were it still fails to create significantly outrageous set-pieces that would allow it to pass in the genre of more wacky action films. There is such a confusion of plot lines (an assassin questioning her choices; a leadership struggle within the Yakuza; a man double-crossing the mob; a love-sick teenage boy lusting after a dangerous girl; the sniper with a dark past; the hospitalized friend and dreams of revenge), all of which have been done before, and none of which are given enough time here to become the main focus. “The Violence Action” is akin to flipping through a series of action movie trailers, getting a brief impression of each one, but no consistent plot or memorable characters.

Blackboard (1986) by Kaneto Shindo

The body of a high-school boy is found in a river tied to a stolen bicycle. Two of his classmates soon come forward to confess to his murder, claming that they were victims of bullying by the boy. While the school authorities wish to maintain their reputation, denying all suggestions of bullying; a reporter sets out to uncover the truth, speaking to the boy’s family, homeroom teacher, and others surrounding the case. Through a series of flashbacks we see the murder victim Takeshi (Terutake Tsuji), believed to be the leader of a gang of ‘punks’ by some at the school, and his friendship with Tomoko (Ryoko Sano), a victim of bullying herself. We also learn about Takeshi’s life; and attempts by his teacher Mr. Tomita (Ryuzo Tanaka) to steer him away from the path he is on.

Writer-director Kaneto Shindo, delivers a powerful dissection of an age-old problem: bullying. Opening with the grim, documentary-like discovery of the body, complete with dramatic news reports, the case is soon resolved, leaving us with only the question of why it happened, and whether it could have been avoided. Shindo maintains an anthropological distance from his subject, largely allowing characters to speak to various opinions on the matter. There are those who want to ignore evidence of bullying; others who suggest it is the children’s upbringing, or societal problems, that are to blame; and through the character of Tomoko (saved herself from bullying by Takeshi) we see a nuanced picture of the bully, struggling with his own issues, having difficulty at school, and living in a single-parent household. The film discusses all of the various factors as well as the devastating impact bullying can have on individuals, and brings home in its final scenes the tragedy of lives that can be lost to it in extreme cases. The film highlights the subjectivity of any attempts to provide easy answers solve these sociological issues. In particular, the sequences in the school staffroom where we see everyone offering their opinions on what should be done with the children. However, it is at its most powerful when we see the bullying in the context of the cruelty of society as a whole, in particular the sequence of Takeshi’s widowed mother cleaning toilets and being forced off benefits for attempting to make extra money. The film suggests that perhaps society should look to the way it treats its members if it truly wants to solve this issue. The wrecked boat by the shore is another moment of visual poetry, the discarded, useless shell providing shelter for Takeshi’s gang, ironically grafittied with the word “dream”.

“Blackboard” avoids placing blame on any one individual, suggesting that it is a confluence of factors that lead to bullying and that its aftermath is not easily avoided. The inclusion of Tomoko, a victim herself, is not intended to create sympathy for Takeshi, but to add another dimension to a character who comes to symbolise the death of hope for a generation. One of the most striking lines is a father telling his son that he is weak for being bullied, and that he should simply become a bully himself. If this is the mindset that children are taught, then the tragedy of this drama becomes a sad inevitability. “Blackboard” is a challenging watch but a bold attempt to understand the deeper causes of a damaging societal issue.

Jigoku (1960) by Nobuo Nakagawa

Shiro Shimizu (Shigeru Amachi) is due to marry Yukiko Yajima (Utako Mitsuya), but their happiness is cut short by a fatal accident. While in a car with his friend Tamura (Yoichi Numata), Sora is involved in a fatal hit-and-run. Tamura doesn’t believe they should go to the police, realising that the man they killed is a lowly gangster. Things go from bad to worse for Shiro when Yukiko is killed as they are on their way to the police station in a taxi. Sora escapes to a rural old people’s home where his parents are living. This offers little reprieve as he discovers his mother is dying; his father has taken a mistress; there is a nurse who looks uncannily like Yukiko (also played by Utako Mitsuya); and when Tamura, Yukiko’s parents, and the crash victim’s mother and former lover turn up looking for revenge, it seems that Sora will never escape the consequences of his actions.

With a screenplay by director Nobuo Nakakawa and Ichiro Miyagawa,”Jigoku” is a film that is divided quite neatly into two parts. It begins as a crime thriller involving Sora and Tamura’s hit-and-run incident and the fallout from this and Yukiko’s subsequent death. In the latter half of the film, the characters find themselves in hell, with Sora attempting to rescue his unborn daughter Harumi. This is the point at which the film becomes a straight horror, with gruesome depictions of people wallowing in rivers of blood and filth; being flayed alive or sawn into pieces. The fantastical depictions of hell, the Sanzu river, and the King of Hell who oversees these punishments, stand in stark contrast to the human drama that precedes it, with the film’s dissection of guilt and morality suddenly ramped up by the carnage that awaits the sinners. The cinematography by Mamoru Morita creates an atmopshere of dread from the beginning, with characters often isolated by deep shadows in dimly lit environments. The effects in hell are well done, often relying on simply techniques, or juxtaposition of imagery to create a disquieting feeling of tormented souls. The flayed bodies, piercing by spikes, sawing, are interspersed with sombre moments of lost children piling stones, suggest an underworld that is both a place of despair and torture depending on what landed you there.

Part crime thriller, part dark fantasy, with an element of tragic romance thrown in for good measure, “Jigoku” is a highly entertaining moral drama. The film’s outlook is bleak, with almost every character eventually ending up in the infernal realm regardless of the nature or severity of their sin. Shiro is a sympathetic protagonist: largely swept along by others, when he does attempt to make things right it always ends up making matters worse. In this sense, along with the seemingly indiscriminate way punishments are handed out in hell, the film makes us question the nature of this afterlife. Early in the film a professor delivers a lecture on the various perceptions of hell in religions throughout history and across the world. “Hell” as a concept has reappeared in almost every major religion. As “Jigoku” demostrates, it is an idea that is fantastical and often only loosely connected to a genuine attempt to punish sinners, more often simply a vicarious imaginary pleasure for survivors or those who believe they are morally superior. Here there are few who escape the tortures of Hell, whether they are fully deserving or not. This depiction, with its excesses and horrors, asks us to re-evaluate our own morality and ask what our conception of hell tells us about our desire for revenge.