Shady (2012) by Ryohei Watanabe

Misa (Aya Banjo) is a loner at her high-school, bullied because of her looks and given the nickname Pooh (after Winnie the Pooh), her only solace is in the biology club of which she is the sole member and where she looks after a goldfish called Kintaro. That is until Izumi (Izumi Okamura) comes into her life. Izumi seems so unlike Misa, being cute and outgoing, but she is also alienated from the class, as the other popular girls are jealous of her looks. The two form a firm friendship built on their outsider status. The mystery of their missing classmate, Aya (Ayumi Seko), who along with Marina (Reo Saionji) is one of the class bullies, looms large as Misa and Izumi become more closely connected and things take a horrifying turn as Misa realises her new friend may be hiding a dark secret.

Writer-director Ryohei Watanabe’s debut feature, “Shady” is a taut thriller that builds tension throughout. It is a story that builds on strong characters and the everyday anxieties and paranoias of high-schoolers, expertly weaving in darker threads. Aya Banjo gives an incredible performance as Misa, shy and awkward yet with a resilience earned through years of torment. We are drawn into her world, her suffering, and her joy at finding a friend and her insecurities are always bubbling just below the surface. Izumi Okamura is also exceptional in her role, a bold and brash teenager but with a chip on her shoulder at how she is ostracized from her classmates. Izumi undergoes a transformation as the film progresses and we see character traits develop from troubling to terrifying. This is the first acting role for both; Aya Banjo is best known as a singer (under the name Minpi*b) and Izumi Okamura was working as a model when cast. The director picked both for their look and wrote characters that closely resembled his image of them. Their chemistry is believable and their conversations capture perfectly a tentative high-school friendship. The direction works well for the film and shows off the best of the actresses. What begins as a high-school friendship drama soon turns into a psychological thriller and the angled camera and use of long uncomfortable takes helps draw out the unpleasant yet inescapable nature of the situations Misa finds herself in. The film touches on a number of themes, many that are not explicitly stated but glint out in moments of ambiguity. One such scene is when Izumi paints Misa’s toenails, an act of girlish bonding that is given almost erotic overtones as Izumi slips beneath the covers and Misa moans as she blows softly on her feet. As with much of the horror in the film suggestion proves to be more powerful than straightforward attempts to shock.

“Shady” builds on many thriller themes and plot points, with its strength being in the two fantastic lead performances that draw you in emotionally before introducing the darker tone of the latter scenes. It is a film about friendship, loneliness, loyalty and bullying among other things. The relationship between the two girls is conventional in many ways, thrown together by chance despite their differences, and the two actresses do a great job in creating a sense of normality while hinting at something more worrying. The film takes what are everyday fears or emotions and turns them into something darker. The final third of the film is packed with several twists and moments that make you reconsider what you have seen previously. The girl’s feelings of rejection, acceptance, anger, helplessness, are all expertly portrayed and help create rounded characters. A subtly affecting thriller about teenage anxiety and the joys and dangers of friendship.

G@me (2003) by Satoshi Isaka

Sakuma (Naohito Fujiki) is a well-to-do young businessman at a marketing company, living the highlife with a penthouse apartment and a fancy car. He is suave and confident, delivering pitches for his company with consummate ease. His latest project is for Mikado Beer, for whom he is developing a festival-cum-amusement park concept in Odaiba. When the president of Mikado, Katsuragi (Ryo Ishibashi), decides to shut down the project, feeling it’s not in touch with their image, Sakuma takes it as a personal slight from the wealthy mogul. While wandering past Katsuragi’s house one night he sees a young woman jumping the fence. Following her, she tells him that she is Katsuragi’s daughter Juri (Yukie Nakama) from an affair he had years ago. She has moved in with them following her mother’s death but wants to get away, feeling she doesn’t fit in. Juri suggests to Sakuma that they fake her kidnapping and extort money from her father, splitting the money. Hesitant at first, Sakuma agrees to go along with this, seeing it as a way of getting back at Katsuragi. Things don’t go to plan when Sakuma and Juri begin to develop feelings for one another, and secrets are revealed.

Based on a novel by Higashino Keigo and directed by Satoshi Isaki, “G@me” is a stylish crime caper with a heavy helping of romance. The film opens with stunning shots of the Tokyo skyline and into Sakuma’s apartment, where we see him lying prone on the floor, with his narration furthering the noir aesthetic. The film has a glossy sheen, with the characters playing for high-stakes, large sums of money and (perhaps more importantly for them) their own reputations and egos. The plot is slightly silly and requires some suspension of disbelief that every element of the various schemes goes exactly to plan. But this is not a film to let something like logic get in the way of a good story. Naohito Fujiki and Yukie Nakama give great performances as the wannabee scammers with an uneasy relationship. Ryo Ishibashi is the perfect hardnosed businessman with a sinister air who becomes Sakuma’s nemesis. The film has more than a couple of surprises, with the twists and turns of the plot becoming increasingly unlikely as they become more enjoyable. There is rarely a sense of danger in the film, despite things taking a darker turn in the second half. This is partly down to the mixed narrative, one of the fake kidnapping plot and one the burgeoning relationship between the couple. The more serious aspects are brushed over and what is left is a fun mystery thriller whose momentum keeps people from asking too many questions.

The film develops the popular crime theme of deception, with double-cross upon double-cross and nobody’s motives or actions being entirely what they seem. Much like its characters the film is pretty shallow, with both the crime story and the relationship drama not moving much beyond plot drivers. The fake kidnapping is a solid premise and the two actors do a great job, but as things progress it is a case of diminishing returns as it goes from stylish thriller to farcical crime caper when they try to recover the money. Sakuma’s reasons for getting involved, either the money or the girl, seem poorly thought out for a man who is clearly intelligent and already living in relative luxury. The sleek look of the film and pulp crime novel pacing ensure that it is never a dull ride though. “Game” is an entertaining film with two charismatic leads and a plot that keeps you guessing right until the end.

Distance (2001) by Hirokazu Koreeda

“Distance” begins as the anniversary of a terrorist attack poisoning Tokyo’s water supply is approaching. The attack, which killed hundreds and injured thousands, ended with the cult members responsible committing suicide. Four individuals, partners and relations of the cult members, make a pilgrimage on this anniversary to the lake where they died. Kiyoka (Yui Natsukawa), a teacher whose husband joined, meets up with Minoru (Susumu Terajima), whose wife also left him to become a member. Along with Atsushi (Arata Iura) and Masaru (Yusuke Iseya), whose brother and sister respectively took part in the incident, the four of them head to the lake, driving deep into the forest. While there they meet Sakata (Tadanobu Asano), a former member of the cult who fled before the others went through with their plan. When they return to their car they find it has been stolen, along with Sakata’s bike, and the five are forced to take refuge in a nearby house that was used by the cult.

Writer and director Hirokazu Koreeda excels at bringing the best out of his actors. Within a few short scenes or snatches of dialogue we are completely invested in their characters. Whether it is Atsushi with his girlfriend, or the scenes in which the four meet up, they are able to capture the essence of who they are with a shorthand and chemistry that make their relationships believable and engaging. All of the central performances are pitched perfectly as they deal with the layers of guilt, loss and regret, all while attempting to continue with their lives. Koreeda’s realist approach to can be seen in the dialogue which feels natural, getting across information without feeling weighed down by exposition. There are several long takes, such as Kiyoka with her husband and Minoru with his wife, in flashback, where we see the advantage of giving characters room to breathe. In Minoru’s scene in particular there is a sense of helplessness to his situation that is emphasised by the extended scene. Where others may cut away when the central message has been communicated, that his wife is leaving to join the cult, we are put right in his shoes as he rages confusedly about this, unable to walk away from the situation as the scene becomes increasingly uncomfortable for both him and the audience. Koreeda also uses hand-held camerawork to take us inside their world, stripping away the artificial nature of film to create something more documentary-like in style. The film also features interview segments with most of the protagonists, with them being questioned by the police after the events, that stand in stark contrast to the scenes in the forest, from  a static angle with the characters dead centre. This helps get across the message of life as messy and at odds with the world of law and order as typified by the police.

The film is loosely inspired by real-world events in which cults have committed terrorist acts. Rather than going for an obvious critique of such groups, Koreeda instead focusses on those surrounding the members. The film asks difficult questions about why people join such cults, but also whether their friends, partners and family should or are able to stop them. The responsibility for these acts must ultimately reside with the individual, but we see through the story of Atsushi that there may be warning signs that are missed and that catastrophe might be averted. It investigates the notion of societal as opposed to personal responsibility. The film is infused with this melancholy and sense of regret that nothing was done to stop them. It is also interesting to note that the central characters are not victims of the attacks, but relatives of the perpetrators, and in the case of Sakata someone actively involved in the cult. It is a film that provokes thought on these subjects without offering any easy answers. We see in the character of Minoru that his ignorance, perhaps lack of care, about his wife may have contributed to her joining the cult. Similarly, Atsushi is shown to be distant from his brother. At heart “Distance” is a film about dealing with tragedy and seeking understanding and redemption. The title also suggests a sense that people remain isolated from one another, even those who they believe they are closest to, and ponders whether it is ever possible to really know somebody. The interview scenes are reminiscent of “Rashomon” and the film can be read as an investigation of the nature of truth, with the police representing the supposed objective reality and the characters experiences and reminiscences a more subjective understanding of who these individuals were. A beautifully crafted film with incredible acting that takes the audience on a journey into the dark and unexplored regions of human psychology.

Paprika (2006) by Satoshi Kon

A new technology allowing people to enter another’s dreams has been developed at a research facility. The head of the research department, Atsuko Chiba, is using it to help a detective, Konakawa, with anxiety dreams he’s suffering. When the head of the department undergoes some kind of breakdown they realise that one of the devices, named the DCMini, which allow people to enter dreams has been stolen and is being used illegally. What follows is a chase through the dream world and reality to attempt to discover who the culprit is and how to stop them.

Based on a book by Yasutaka Tsutsui, director Satoshi Kon (Perfect Blue) creates a mind-bending psychological drama, that blurs the lines between reality and imagination in a way that is perfectly suited to animation. Every scene is full of colour and vitality and there is so much room for invention on offer with the central premise that is used to brilliant effect. The sequences of the giant procession through the dreams is a particular marvel for the sheer amount of stuff on screen. The film may require multiple viewings to appreciate every nuance and background detail. Susumu Hirasawa’s score is a hyperactive blend of instrumentation and digitised noise that encapsulates a sense of floating in through a chaotic world.

Concerning itself with dreams gives the film the scope to analyse many tenets of human experience in the world. It looks at the link between dreams and reality, ideas of freedom, madness, alter-egos and more. Definitely a recommended watch for those who enjoy stunningly animated philosophical or psychological science-fiction.

Battles without Honour and Humanity (1973) by Kinji Fukasaku

1949. Hiroshima. The devastation of the atomic bomb and the harsh economic conditions of post-war Japan are apparent in the shanty town that has been erected amongst the rubble. We are introduced in quick succession to a number of people who are later to become important players in the Japanese underworld: Yakuza bosses and captains. A young ex-soldier, Shozo Hirono (Bunta Sugawara), is sent to prison for killing a gangster. Inside he meets Hiroshi Wakasugi (Tatsuo Umemiya), a member of the Doi Family. The two become blood-brothers and Hirono is inducted into the chaotic world of crime. What follows is an unpredictable, bloody, violent, telling of the various power struggles in the decades following the war. 

Based on newspaper articles of the time by Koichi Iiboshi, the film has a style that is almost documentary-like in places, going so far as to present on screen the names and dates of death of the gangsters who are killed. It requires some concentration to keep in mind all the characters and their allegiances throughout, but this helps add to the sense of realism. The opening scenes of the film, set in the ramshackle streets of Hiroshima, perfectly set up the brutal chaos that is to follow, as we are pushed through noisy crowds, and see a series of gruesome events taking place simultaneously. It is a masterclass in setting up numerous characters and establishing a tone for the film. The film never lets up this relentless pace, with scene after scene adding to the confusion and devastation that the Yakuza leave in their wake. Directed by Kinji Fukasaku, who later went on to helm the Battle Royale adaptation, this film abounds with his style: frenetic, gory, and with a good eye for framing a scene and telling a multiple character story. The actors all do a good job. The music by Toshiaki Tsushima suits the film well, setting the feel for the period.

I would highly recommend this film to fans of the Yakuza genre as one of its finest examples. Although the film does have great flair and stylishness, it does not necessarily glorify the violence. The killings are instead shown to be a mundane affair, taking place so regularly that you become almost desensitized to them. It is a great look at post-war Japanese society from the perspective of the Yakuza.