Confessions of a Dog (2006) by Gen Takahashi

Takeda (Shun Sugata) is promoted from a lowly beat officer to the investigations department. While the money is good, helping to support his pregnant wife (Harumi Inoue), he soon discovers that corruption is rife in the force, with the police taking a cut from Yakuza drug deals. On the orders of his superiors he carries out his duty diligently, the line between right and wrong slowly vanishing from sight. When a new recruit, Roppo, starts at Takeda’s old police job he is shown the ropes by two older patrolmen, who give him an insight into how they operate and the various scams they perpetrate with immunity. After a run in with the police in which he is beaten up for prying in their business, a bar owner, Kusama (Junichi Kawamoto), and his photo journalist friend, Kitamura (Kunihiko Ida), set out to expose the corruption in the police force that goes right to the top.

Gen Takahashi’s film is a cross between a morality play and an investigative documentary. While the characters and plot are fictional, there is a chilling ring of truth to everything. The inspiration for the story came from Takahashi’s friend, journalist Yu Terasawa, who has worked on uncovering police corruption. The low-level officers are shown to be violent and horny, abusing their position to commit assault and even rape. The conspiracy of silence surrounding them allows them to act without fear of reprisal. The detectives are no less reprehensible, although more organized in their lawbreaking, with everything from entrapment, witness intimidation, drug use, frequenting prostitutes, protection rackets and bribery on display. The film is unrelenting in its depiction of the police as a force for evil in society, with not a single redeemable character among them. Shun Sugata’s performance as Takeda perfectly captures the fall of an honest, gentle man into his role as just another cog in the corrupt machinery of the state. His monologue at the end is spine-chilling as he tears apart the thin veil of respectability to show the police for what they truly are. Although the script is heavy in detail, with Takahashi clearly wanting to get across as much as possible about all the various ways the police are corrupt, it does a decent job of weaving it into a cohesive narrative. It never comes across as a lecture on the evils of the police. Takeda’s wife and daughter offer further emotional weight to the drama, being emblematic of the life he is leaving behind when he becomes further involved with the scandals that are unfolding. “Confessions of a Dog” features some standout direction, at times like a police procedural, at others using theatrical techniques with lighting changes and monologues to make a strong point.

Police corruption is a serious issue and one that citizens should rightly be aware of given the trust that is placed in them. The film is all the more shocking for the realistic way in which it portrays police corruption from the lowest to the highest levels. Most crime films exaggerate to the point that they are hard to believe, but nothing that is shown here seems unbelievable. The film comments on the nature of this corruption as something that is inseparable from the police force, with the hierarchical structure and solidarity amongst officers engendering these behaviours. There are echoes of fascism in the idea that officers are ‘only following orders’ from their superiors. It blames a supine press, essentially repeating official statements to a largely oblivious public for the problem; offering a faint hope that people could be better informed and take action to prevent these things happening. An epic police drama that meticulously details corruption in the force, while at the same time telling a heart-breaking personal story about how such organizations can turn even good natured individuals into unquestioning servants of a damaging system.

Mother (2020) by Tatsushi Omori

A destructive mother-son relationship is put under the microscope in this shocking drama. Akiko (Masami Nagasawa) drags her son Shuhei (Sho Gunji/Daiken Okudaira) around with her, using him to garner sympathy with family to extort money from them. Shuhei bears his mother’s unpleasant attitude, carrying out her orders without complaint. When Akiko falls into a relationship with an equally unlikeable host, Ryo (Sadao Abe), Shuhei’s life gets even more difficult. Ignored and abandoned by his mother, he is forced to fend for himself. His mother and Ryo later return without a word of apology; but their relationship also goes off the rails when Akiko reveals she is pregnant. As the years go by, Akiko seems incapable of changing or showing any kind of affection towards her children. When they are found sleeping rough, they are approached by a charity working with homeless and impoverished individuals which may offer Shuhei an escape from his tragic life.

Written by director Tatsushi Omori with Takehiko Minato, “Mother” is confrontational and shocking in its unflinching portrayal of Akiko and Shuhei’s relationship. Akiko is a deeply unpleasant and unredeemable character, an abusive and negligent mother, and her treatment of Shuhei is often difficult to watch. Masami Nagasawa delivers a breathtaking performance as Akiko, both repulsive yet compelling at the same time. The character arrives fully formed and we are given no more than faint hints of the cause of her behaviour. It would be almost impossible to sympathise with this character, but Nagasawa makes the character understandable if you pay close attention to certain conversations, mannerisms, and actions throughout. There are definite indications of mental health issues, a selfishness and desire for attention driving her behaviours, along with a paradoxical protectiveness of her children despite her own exploitation of them. Shuhei is portrayed by Sho Gunji and Daiken Okudaira, who both do an incredible job as a child growing up without a positive role model, lacking in confidence, who is nevertheless devoted to his mother. The film’s unrelenting portrayal of a truly horrific experience for Shuhei is its strength as it offers no easy answers, but instead challenges the viewer with a situation that is sadly based firmly in fact. The script builds on each tragedy, piling horror upon horror for Shuhei as Akiko moves from one mistake to the next. Tatsushi Omori’s direction brings us in to the heart of the action with a gritty realism. It also allows the film’s themes space to percolate, with powerful lingering shots on specific moments that stand out as turning points in the relationship between Akiko and Shuhei.

“Mother” is a film that shuns sentimentality to deliver a dark story of parental abuse. While it takes its story to extremes, the most shocking realisation is that the relationship depicted is far from uncommon. It explores the significance of a mother-son relationship and the damaging effects of negligent and exploitative parents. It raises questions about Akiko’s past: Shuhei’s lack of a father, her relationship with her own parents and sister, and what factors might have contributed to her behaviour and amoral outlook on life. Akiko is both victim and abuser, caught in a cycle of neglect and passing on her traumas to her children. However, none of these things excuse or ameliorate her actions. In the selfless characters of the charity worker (Kaho) the film does offer some hope of a better future for children who are otherwise failed by their parents and a largely uncaring system. The importance of education and housing for children who are struggling, and help for people suffering mental health issues. A distressing yet worthwhile film that puts uncomfortable issues into the spotlight.

Memories of Matsuko (2006) by Tetsuya Nakashima

Sho (Eita) is something of a dropout, having moved to Tokyo to be a musician, he is stuck in a rut. His father (Teruyuki Kagawa), who he hasn’t seen for two years, arrives to tell him that his aunt, Matsuko (Miki Nakatani), has died. Matsuko was apparently murdered in a park. Sho arrives at her apartment to clear out and is met by her neighbour who tells him Matsuko was disliked by those around her, with poor hygiene and odd behaviours, including screaming for no apparent reason. Sho is intrigued by his aunt’s story and so begins a journey of discovery as we are whisked back in time to follow the young Matsuko through several decades of her life. Beginning as a child competing for her father’s affections with her ailing sister; then a short-lived career as a teacher; Matsuko goes through a number of violent relationships, always searching for happiness and a sense of belonging.

“Memories of Matsuko” is artistic, vibrant, and exuberant, blending elements of fantasy and musical sequences with moments of brutal realism. The plot is cleverly constructed, with flashback sequences and the wraparound story of Matsuko’s nephew delving into his aunt’s chequered past. It never loses momentum and the two elements work well together. The film will often have characters describe something that happened, and then go back to show it, creating an expectation of upcoming events. Far from undermining the tension, after all the audience knows from the beginning Matsuko’s fate, it heightens a feeling of tragic inevitability. Miki Nakatani’s performance is exceptional, a complex character dealing with trauma and tragedy. The direction is frantic, flashing imagery and bright, varicoloured sets, blinding lights glinting through windows. The opening sequence and the massage parlour musical number are an assault on the senses and there is always the feeling that you are being shown Matsuko’s own view of particular moments in her life, part real-life and part coloured by her emotions. The set design of filthy, rubbish strewn apartments, the digitally enhanced fantasy funfair, are superb in creating a visceral, impactful sense of the psychological made manifest. Part of the film’s brilliance is being able to move seamlessly between various tones. There are dark themes of domestic abuse and parental neglect, alongside comedic scenes and moments of transcendental joy and hope.

This film is a masterclass in film-making, creating a truly unique experience that is engaging from beginning to end. As Sho delves further into his aunt’s colourful and atypical life, he learns what it is to live and to love. Matsuko seems to be a victim of fate, moving from one abusive relationship to the next, and seeing any happiness she finds snatched away from her. There are references to Dazai Osamu, famous author and suicide, that connect to the central themes of struggling to find a meaning or purpose for life, while being on a self-destructive path. This is counterbalanced by the religious notions, most notably embodied by the character who carries around a Bible and is obsessed with the phrase “God is love”, that seems to offer a more hopeful outlook for humanity. It is hard to break down everything in the film as it is so packed with incidence, touching on societal issues such as the sex industry, patriarchy and male violence, faith, mental health, relationships, family, and the nature of memory. An incredible experience that utilises the art of cinema to tell a compelling film packed with raw emotion.

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.