Goth (2008) by Gen Takahashi

Two teens obsessed with murder decide to follow the diary of a serial killer to find his most recent victim. Despite having a seeminlgy happy homelife with his mother and sister, Itsuki Kamiyama (Kanata Hongo) has a dark obsession, sneaking out to visit gruesome crime scenes. His classmate Yoru Morino (Rin Takanashi) shares this morbid fascination, living alone and investigating horrors in her gothic study. When Yoru finds a diary belonging to a killer who severs the left hands of his victims and poses them like art installations, their interest leads them to follow his trail of death, rather than turning in this important evidence to the police.

The ‘goth’ subculture: dark clothes, fixation on death, suffering, murder, and all things dark and gruesome, is a fascinating social phenomenon. The film never quite gets to the root of why its protagonists have such an apathetic and nihilistic world-view, but it does capture their behaviour and ennui perfectly. Rin Takanashi’s Yoru is a pale, lonely figure, who drifts through life like a ghost herself following a childhood accident that left her sister dead. Meanwhile, Kanata Hongo’s Itsuki seems on the surface to be a sociable, well-adjusted high-schooler, who nevertheless engages in morbid fantasies. It makes for an interesting crime-horror film in which the two protagonists are not particularly interesting in cracking the case, but instead fascinated by the idea of murder and serial killers. The dark tone, covering suicide and death, may be off-putting to some, but it creates an stomach-churning tension that goes beyond the usual shock of more grotesque horror fare. The darkness here comes from the characters’ deep well of alienation and twisted idolisation of despicable acts. The two constantly refer to the aesthetic beauty in how the murderer poses the corpses, showing their complete disassociation with the act of killing and death. The soundtrack, featuring a peculiarly eerie marimba melody and choral recitations, further enforces this sense of dread, occasionally turning to something more angelic and operatic to show how the teens themselves view their activities as almost transcendental. For them there is nothing morbid about researching killers, but instead something beautiful, beholding the line between life and death and the transience of existence. When Yoru lies in the river where one of the victims was placed, Itsuki imagines her with blood streaming from a slashed wrist. It is both disturbing yet darkly beautiful as we see her life essence swept along in the current, suggestive of tragic archetypes throughout the ages.

No doubt “Goth” will prove a hard watch for some, as it forgoes the usual impulse of films to want justice to be done for murder victims. In closing the film solves many questions that you might want answered, but leaves much more to audience interpretation. The film could be seen as a rumination on society’s fascination with death and murder. Although not always to the extent of the protagonists here, humans have an insatiable appetite for real life crime documentaries, stories about serial killers, and often ignore the plight of the victims, instead interested only in the idea rather than the reality. In the same way the protagonists look at the world in a cold, distant way, barely moved by the sight of death. The extent of the goth subculture and fascination with murder outside of it, speaks to a deep-seated need in humans to attempt to understand our own morality and nature, dwelling on this disturbing yet inevitable fact of life. Itsuki casually remarks that people can be divided into those who kill and those who are killed. It is a dark commentary on mankind, but it does highlight this duality of man in his twisted worldview.

Jigen Daisuke (2023) by Hajime Hashimoto

Tetsuji Tamayama stars as the hitman with a heart of gold in this neo-western-noir based on the popular Monkey Punch manga character. Following a shoot-out in which his famed gunslinging abilities are let down by a hairsbreadth accuracy defect in his gun, Jigen (Tamayama) returns to Japan, where he hasn’t been for years, to find a legendary gunsmith named Yaguchi (Mitsuko Kusabue). On arrival he finds that Yaguchi has given up the underworld and is now focussed solely on watch repairs. However, when a young mute girl (Kotoka Maki) arrives bearing a token from a former friend, Yaguchi asks for Jigen’s help, promising to fix his gun in return.

Jigen is a traditional outsider hero, finding himself drawn into helping people for his own ends, but slowly learning to love his young charge. The character is something of a blank canvas, as is typical with this kind of protagonist, as we see him early in the film travelling the world and showing of his quick-draw abilities. Even when he returns to Japan he seems to have few contacts or connections and we learn little about his life. The film has an interesting mix-and-match tone, with some fantastical sets, such as Deigyo-gai, the home of the cities criminal underclass, alongside many scenes shot in the ‘real world’. It consistently steps a toe outside the bounds of reality, with some comedically over the top fight sequences. The best example of which is perhaps the central villain Adel (Yoko Maki), who performs a backflip in her wheelchair, while firing a gun at multiple assailants. This whole sequence is beyond ridiculous, but in keeping with other moments in the film, such as Jigen’s own preternatural skills with a weapon, or the other antagonist (Masatoshi Nagase), a man who is able to shapeshift his appearance at will. While the story is one that has been told before: lonely hitman has to take care of a young child, the film does a good job with it, layering in several characters, such as Yaguchi, the villains (whose nefarious schemes are as over-the-top as their characters), and some excellent set piece fight sequences. The score also has a western-noir feel, moving between the high-octane action of fights and the emotional moments. A fun watch and it will be interesting to see where the character of Jigen goes in any potential sequels.

The film’s antagonists are attempting to steal hormones from children in order to produce a drug that halts the aging process. Reminiscent of the procedures in “Helter Skelter” (2012) it is a rather gruesome plot for a film that seems quite light-hearted on the surface.The aging Yaguchi stands in stark contrast to Adel, whose obsession with eternal youth sees her becoming increasingly unhinged. Meanwhile, Jigen himself is clinging on to using his first gun, suggesting that he too is tied to his past. In one interesting scene the characters discuss a version of the “Ship of Theseus” thought experiment, questioning whether Jigen’s gun, which has had every part replaced, might still be the same weapon. Jigen explains haughtily that the memories remain, suggesting that this is what is most important in acscertaining whether it is the same item. In the same way the characters appearances, shown most prominently in the chameleonic Kawashima, have little bearing on who they are, it is what is in their heart that is important. While Jigen might exude the aura of a cold-hearted killer, he is inside someone who when it comes to it decides to protect the innocent.

9 Souls (2003) by Toshiaki Toyoda

A rag-tag band of prison escapees set out to help each other realise their final wishes before they are re-captured or killed. After murdering his father, shut-in Michiru (Ryuhei Matsuda), finds himself locked up with a group of violent offenders. A short time into his sentence they manage a miraculous escape, deciding to stay together, travelling around in a campervan as they re-visit important places and people from their pasts. The film features an all star cast including Jun Kunimura, Kiyohiko Shibukawa and Yoshio Harada.

Writer and director Toshiaki Toyoda had long wanted to make a prison break film, beliving them to be one of the most exciting genres. Partly based on a true news story of escaped convicts travelling around together, “9 Souls”, brings together an incredible cast and motley collective of criminals who act almost as a surrogate family to each other. Toyoda clearly put a lot of work into the characters, each of whose crimes are briefly written on screen, and the outstanding cast manage to portray these disparate individuals without going into unnecessary exposition or flashbacks of their lives. In fact we only see one crime comitted by the group pre-arrest (even then it is off-screen), the murder of Michiru’s father, with the others only referencing their offences. This helps us empathise with the group, whose murderous pasts would make them quite irredeemable. Instead we are treated to a comic road-trip as the group attempt to evade capture, dressing as women or having to avoid old acquaintances. The direction is first-rate, with the characters framed to show their physical and emotional proximity and several incredible shots of the surrounding scenery as they travel. The ruddy sunlight of the film suggests a melancholic realisation that these men may be on their final journey. The soft-rock score, slowly ramping while going nowhere captures the sense of frustrated ambition.

“9 Souls” leans into a metaphysical reading with moments that seem particularly unreal. Director Toyoda has stated that films allow us to blend reality and imagination, and that is evidenced here. The group’s escape is one egregious example of a miraculous occurence that defies belief (they see a mouse, realise it must have a hole somewhere, and the next moment they are running free of the prison). Another example is in one escapee’s discovery of a peep-show that appears like a mirage, which sees him complete his own journey. Each of the men seems to be searching for something to bring themselves peace and it could be said that in some sense they are already dead, simply lost souls attempting to justify themselves before they pass on (either to incarceration or the long sleep of death). Whether they are seeking redepmtion for their crimes, attempting to right the wrongs of the past, or prove to themselves that there is some good in their hearts, they are brought together by the hope that this is true. The final moments of the film, which again rely on this blurring of reality, drives home this point that it is hope that keeps people alive. A fantastic prison break film that touches on the ideas of what is truly lost when people commit crime and questions the notion that humans can be entirely bad.

The Black House (1999) by Yoshimitsu Morita

An investigation into potential insurance fraud turns into something far more sinister in this crime thriller. Wakatsuki (Seiyo Uchino), working at an insurance firm, receives a call from a woman named Sachiko (Shinobu Otake) asking if she would receive a payout in the case of suicide. When he goes to the house he finds her strange husband, Shigeru (Masahiko Nishimura), and discovers their son, Kazuya, hanging in the next room. Shocked by the discovery the firm begin an investigation into the family, with Wakatsuki suspecting foul play. Things turn deadly as bodies start to pile up and suspicion falls on Sachiko, who seems surrounded by cases of disability and death leading to insurance claims.

“The Black House” is based on the book of the same name by Yusuke Kishi and directed by Yoshimitsu Morita. The film starts off in a seemingly casual manner, soft jazz score and the somewhat mundane day-to-day work of Wakatsuki’s insurance company. The mild-mannered investigators and bright settings, makes the reveal of Kazuya’s body in a shockingly matter-of-fact manner, all the more terrifying. As the film goes on it plays with this discrepancy in tone; the horror influences becoming more apparent as Wakatsuki’s investigation proceeds. It is hard to know if the tonal inconsistencies are entirely intentional, with the film varying wildly in style and atmosphere. Perhaps the most egregious example is the scene in a girl’s bar with a scantily clad dancer accompanied by rave music, fitting uncomfortably with everything before and after. The film’s genteel investigation is constantly being disrupted by harsh, graphic violence more reminiscent of a gritty crime thriller; the run-of-the-mill daytime soap-opera tone of the investigation providing a counterbalance and stark relief to the horror. That being said, once the main investigation into Sachiko’s family gets underway it keeps up a pace with twists and turns in the plot and this lurking dread that something monstrous is about to be uncovered. The use of colour, in particular Sachiko’s yellow clothing, the flashing coloured lights of the investigation room, and the gaudy single-colour cuts between some scenes, reflects the psychological element of the film, and the film-maker’s seem to play with the audiences expectations and experience in other ways, such as the aforementioned tonal shifts, the wild swings in the score from melodic to harsh screeches or dark industrial resonance.

“The Black House” does a great job at building up its horror incrementally, at first only hinting at the sinister, nihilistic outlook of its central villain, before racing towards a blood-soaked finale. Through the characters of psychiatrist Kaneishi (Kenichi Katsura) and Wakatsuki’s girlfriend Megumi (Misato Tanaka), we are treated to discussions of Jungian dream analysis and descriptions of psychopathic traits. While the antagonists are clearly unhinged, their behaviour is not so unbelievable as to not be chilling. With its blend of crime drama and horror, “The Black House” has something for fans of either genre, with a strong story and idiosyncratic style making for a gripping watch.

Drive into Night (2022) by Dai Sako

Workers at a scrap-metal plant become involved in a police investigation in this multi-layered, psychological crime drama. Akimoto (Tomomitsu Adachi), spends his days driving around trying to secure scrap iron for his company. One night while out drinking with his co-worker Taniguchi (Reo Tamaoki), the two meet a saleswoman who was at their company earlier in the day and has been for a drink with the foreman Hongo (Tsutomu Takahashi). Following an incident that we don’t see much detail of, the woman disappears and suspicion falls on the company. Akimoto and Taniguchi succeed in placing the blame on Hongo, who must deal with the police enquiries, while the two men involved in the disappearance deal with their guilt over what happened.

The first half of “Drive into Night” is a sleek crime thriller, setting up several everyman characters, complete with their quotidian neuroses, extra-marital affairs, and their mundane, interminable work-life cycle. None of them appear particularly villainous, which makes what happens to the woman all the more shocking. After her disappearance, the film splits in two with one strand following Hongo and Taniguchi as they cover for their crimes and try to understand what is happening; and the other part following Akimoto as he becomes involved with a bizarre organization that claim to be able to create a new life for their followers. Akimoto’s relationship with a Filipino hostess, and entanglements with the Yakuza, suggest that the writer and director would be comfortable making a conventional crime drama, but are choosing to go off-piste and make something far more compelling and thought-provoking. The religious overtones, references to the devil, the ‘rebirth’ of Akimoto, ideas of sin and guilt, come together with the more traditional fare of hidden bodies, an underworld of clubs operated by gangsters, and cheating wives to create a film that is operating on more than one level, a knotted narrative that requires some work to untangle. The pared-back electric guitar of the detective story growls with heavy distortion when we reach moments of psychological trauma, further establishing the film as a bi-partite treatise on both the emotional and physical nature of humanity.

Dai Sako’s stylish direction, with outstanding cinematography by Yasutaka Watanabe, carries the film forward and offers a key to what is truly happening with the characters and the themes. The ultra-modern visual style matches the up-to-the-minute references to coronavirus and a sign proudly proclaiming the beginning of the Reiwa era. The mystery at the heart of the film soon becomes immaterial as we follow its effects on the characters involved, or implicated in the death of the woman. “Drive into Night” succeeds in telling several thematically and tonally diverse stories, which come together to create a fascinating if discordant whole.