Greatful Dead (2013)

Nami is a young girl who lives at home with her elder sister and her parents. Her mother is obsessed with giving money to overseas charities and one day decides to leave the family and travel to help these suffering children in person. This leads to Nami’s father taking up with a mistress, who eventually leaves and her father commits suicide. Nami’s sister also leaves home to go and live with a boyfriend. Nami’s only companion seems to be the television, and in particular a sales channel from which she purchases various items. Years later, living off her inheritance from her father, Nami has taken up watching other lonely individuals. From her vantage point on the roof she spies with binoculars or telescope these people who seem set on a path of solitude. She also follows them around the city, noting down their activities in a diary and is excited to discover a new “solitarian”. Her behaviour is charmingly eccentric, but takes a dark turn when she enters a man’s home and is delighted to find him dead, taking a photo with the corpse. She then discovers another lonely man, whom she begins stalking, camping out nearby his house. When this man begins to reconnect with the world, first with Christian community volunteers, and then with his own family, Nami takes matters into her own hands to ensure that he remains alone.

Directed by Eiji Uchida, “Greatful Dead” with a screenplay by Uchida and Estuo Hiratani is a film of two quite distinct halves, that seem stitched together down the middle. The early part of the film where we see the young Nami ignored and eventually abandoned by her parents, is a tragic portrayal of a neglected child. This segment also gives us a hint at later developments when she unexpectedly cracks a mop around a classmates head. The film then moves into a lighthearted comedy, complete with bouncy music, and a joyful Nami cataloguing all the lonely people she sees around the city. The second half of the film moves into dark horror and doesn’t hold back on the violence and gory sequences. However, both parts bleed into one another. There are elements of dark humour in the first half, and slapstick in the second. Kumi Takeuchi manages both parts exceptionally, being likeable and fun and shifting gear into creepy and terrifying later. Even when it is clear she is beyond helping, she still manages to evoke a degree of sympathy and is a joy to watch. Takashi Sasano, who plays her elderly stalking victim, likewise goes through a transformation, from irritable old man to a kindly grandpa and later to a victimised person who has had enough.

The film explores loneliness and isolation in a tongue-in-cheek way. Nami’s story is a sorrowful tale of neglect leading to later inability to function in society. Even as her sister constantly tells her “normal is best”, Nami is set on a path of abnormality, seeking out similarly lonely individuals who have given up on society. She is lacking attention and emotional support from those around her. Loneliness is a huge social issue and this film does a great job of showing the reasons for it, but also offering hope that this is not a path that people are tied to. The finale of the film seems to be a rejection of the mindset that isolating yourself is the best option. It entertains as comedy and horror-comedy and leaves much of the thinking to the audience. For example themes of religion, in particular Christianity, consumer and media culture, and the rigid social norms of marriage and family are all there for viewers to unpick. However, you choose to enjoy it, as an off-beat black comedy, or social satire, it is definitely unique in both style and outlook.

The Lies She Loved (2018)

After a chance encounter at a railway station, Yukari Kawahara (Masami Nagasawa) falls in love with a young doctor Kippei Koide (Issei Takahashi). However, following his sudden collapse and being taken to hospital in a coma, she is informed by the police that both his name and past is false. His place of work also has no record of him. She hires a detective (Daigo) to investigate who this man was whom she has spent several years in a relationship with. When they discover that instead of working he was visiting a cafe and working on writing a book they use this text to uncover the true identity and past of the man.

The film is directed by Kazuhito Nakae, from a script by Nakae and Nozomi Kondo. The acting is good with humorous moments that do not undercut the genuine emotional scenes. There is a subplot about the detective and his relationship with his ex-wife and daughter that plays well in supporting the themes without distracting too much from the main plot. The enjoyment of the film is conditional in part on how intrigued you are by the central mystery or how satisfied you are by the eventual revelation. This investigation takes up the majority of the film, which leaves less time for the more interesting aspect of Yukari’s reaction to the discovery that he is not who he said he was.

The central idea of the film, a man who has lied about his entire past to his partner, is fascinating and offers an interesting examination of what someone would do in that situation. Themes of deciet and forgiveness are well presented in both plot and subplot. Throughout Yukari remains convinced that her boyfriend is a good person and seems relatively unaffected by the revelation that he has lied about his past. In contrast the detective’s story, in which he mistrusts his wife after an affair, offers a little more in the way of emotional substance. An entertaining film that could have delved a little deeper into the motivations of the characters.

Prophecy (2015)

The film begins with an intimidating and mysterious message broadcast from an internet cafe. The unknown man, whose face is obscured by a makeshift newspaper mask, reveals a “prophecy” that ill fortune is about to befall the boss of a company who were responsible for producing poisoned food, but who escaped justice by the police. In subsequent videos he threatens revenge on a company employee who humiliated a man in a job interview, and others. His brand of vigilantism soon gains a following and he becomes an online celebrity. Meanwhile the detectives assigned to the case race to follow the clues to uncover the identity of the figure, or figures, known as the “Paperboy”. The film begins with an intriguing and simple set-up, but the audience is soon introduced to the character of Gates (Tomo Ikuta) and his friends, the young men responsible for the “Paperboy” incidents, and given a details examination of their circumstances.

Director Yoshihiro Nakamura does a great job with the film. In particular keeping the narrative fresh throughout. Not only with the twists and turns of the central police investigation, but by turning the genre on its head and showing us events from the perspective of the perpetrators. Far from undermining the mystery, it instead turns the film into a battle of ideals. On the one hand Gates and his companions are justified, popular among a downtrodden citizenry, champions of justice, respect, and many noble ideals. However, Erika Toda’s detective is also a sympathetic character, fighting sexism, and clinging to her own idea of what constitutes right and just actions. In fact it becomes clear that the central villain of the film is perhaps society itself. The way that humans cluster together for both positive and negative reasons. We see staff at a company bullying a temporary worker, and how the same instinct causes people to rally to the “Paperboy” cause. The script sets up a number of fantastic scenes that demonstrate these concepts and build on them, while never losing sight of the main plot. The acting is superb, especially Erika Toda as the detective, and Toma Ikuta as “Gates”. The supporting cast of Gate’s friends, Kohei Fukuyama, Ryohei Suzuki, Yoshiyoshi Arakawa and Gaku Hamada, are also fantastic and help to create a believable sense of cameraderie and emotion during their scenes together.

A fantastic film that is packed with ideas about justice, memetic culture, the power of internet movements, vigilantism, the structure of Japanese society, and in particular how this relates to the treatment of immigrants or outsiders. A far more thought-provoking film than the plot might at first suggest. The film-makers have used a common crime drama to explore many different themes and issues in society.

Based on the manga by Tetsuya Tsutsui

Dead or Alive (1999)

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The film’s opening sequence knocks you over the head with its rebellious attitude. Intercutting between a strip-show, cocaine snorting gangsters, a shoot-out, and an apparent suicide, are coming at you so thick and fast that it is overwhelming. Once the narrative proper starts there is a clear intent to shock, with bestiality porn shoots, a horrific death involving an enema, and several other alternately horrific and hilarious set-pieces. The central story involves a feud between gangster Ryuichi (Riki Takeuchi) and police detective Jojima (Show Aikawa), though it is hard to say that is what the film is truly about. Rather that rather staid plot is used as a canvas for director Takashi Miike to create a work that is troubling and humorous in equal measure.

Director Takashi Miike’s “Black Society Trilogy” established his reputation as a talented film-maker, with an exciting, politically conscious take on the Yakuza genre. With Dead or Alive, Miike again tackles many of the same issues, but there is something different in “Dead or Alive” a punk aesthetic that is typified in the extreme opening and closing sequences of the film. It almost feels as though Miike is attempting to sabotage his own work, although it might be politer to suggest he is creating a post-modernist masterpiece. There are a number of fantastic scenes here, building character and back story, and Takeuchi and Aikawa give incredible performances throughout. During the interrogation scene there is an almost unbearable tension between the two leads. Watching a Miike film you are aware that he is fully in control. If he wants you to feel panic, dread, to laugh or be shocked or even upset, he can, casually confounding your expectations throughout. The film is such an eclectic mix of slapstick and gross out humour wrapped around a core of serious crime drama that it shouldn’t work, but somehow it does. Miike almost seems to be suggesting that he could make a great Yakuza epic if he wanted, but is constantly distracted by some wild or hilarious idea with which to toy with the audience, or perhaps it is all a commentary on the film industry, or whatever else occurred to him that day.

Miike delights in taking well-worn stories about cops and gangsters and turning them on their heads. There is social commentary here, on crime, the treatment of women, immigration and more, but it feels as though the whole thing has been through a blender. It is a kaleidoscope of ludicrous over-the-top moments, sombre family drama and scatological humour. Obscene, bizarre, satirical, at times emotionally raw, it is a film that pulls no punches.

Destruction Babies (2016)

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Destruction Babies begins in a port town where Shota (Nijiro Murakami) sees his brother Taira (Yuya Yagira) involved in a fight with a large gang. Needless to say the outnumbered Taira is being badly beaten before the gang are forced to run by the arrival of another villager. Shortly after, Taira leaves town and begins a journey of violence, attacking random passers-by in the street on a seemingly pointless personal quest to disrupt his environment. His antics soon attract the attention of another youth Yuya Kitahara (Masaki Suda) who joins him on this mission to violently assault strangers. They also kidnap a hostess named Nana (Nana Komatsu) who also becomes involved in their activities.

Directed by Tetsuya Mariko and written by him together with Kohei Kiyasu, the film is clearly designed to shock. Occasionally you will be subjected to musical accompaniment that sounds like someone threw a drum kit and an electric guitar into an industrial shredder. Hidenori Mukai’s score is purposefully offensive, and in keeping with the tone of the film. The film constantly pricks your conscience by letting you inside the life of this disturbed individual. The camera follows Taira around the streets, searching for victims, making it clear that you cannot escape him, while at the same time making no attempt to explain him. While the story of Taira is fascinating, the tale of his brother is less so and there is an uneasy sense that there was a message there that never quite became clear. Despite its plot and reputation (described as “extreme”), the film is actually a surprisingly polished drama. With beautiful cinematography and a score that is perfectly chaotic, though veers just to the right side of listenable. The acting is good throughout. Yuya Yagira gives a quite disturbing performance as Taira. You are never quite sure if he’s suffering some sort of mental health issue, or just enjoys scrapping and being badly injured. Masaki Suda is extremely unlikeable as an outrageous stereotypical teenage boy, obsessed with sex and violence. Nana Komatsu also gives a heartfelt performance as the shoplifting hostess who gets swept up in their world.

The marketing for the film describes it as extreme, but I feel as though this may have been an in-joke. The fight sequences are undoubtedly brutal as we hear the wet clatter of fists on increasingly bloodied physiognomies, but to see this simply as another violent film would be to miss the point. It is actually a commentary on violence and societies reaction to it. It is a difficult watch, not because of the various scenes of people being pulverised, but because of the apparent pointlessness of it all. It’s hard to describe the plot of Destruction Babies as there seems very little purpose to anything that is going on. But on reflection this is exactly the point. One character later on comes to this realisation, a little too late for him, that what they are doing is meaningless, and that perhaps people should take a step back and consider their actions. The violence gives them some form of escape, of self-expression, but in the end he can’t see what he is trying to do. Not an easy watch, but there are some enjoyable moments. It is a film that will perhaps be unfairly dismissed as another purposelessly bloody film about teenage tearaways. It may also be criticised for not going far enough in its punk sensibilities and being more disturbing or outrageous. Personally, I found it a difficult watch, a little overlong, but one that certainly demands consideration. It won’t be for everyone, but if you like violent films with a satirical edge, this is just the ticket.