Snakes and Earrings (2008) by Yukio Ninagawa

A young woman becomes fascinated by the idea of body modification after a chance encounter at a club. Lui (Yuriko Yoshitaka) meets Ama (Kengo Kora) at a nightclub and is immediately intrigued by his punk style, dyed hair, piercings, tattoos, but most of all his split tongue. He offers to take her to his friend Shiba (Arata Iura) who runs a tattoo and piercing parlour. Lui decides that she will get her tongue pierced, with the intention of achieving a split tongue (a painful process involving increasingly large tongue studs), and also a tattoo. On their first meeting, Shiba tells her that her innocent appearance turns him on as he is slightly sadistic. Lui says that she is masochistic and it is not long before the two are involved in a sexual affair that they keep secret from Ama. Things are further complicated when Ama beats up a gangster who harasses them in the street and Lui decides to protect him from the law.

Based on the novel by Hitomi Kanehara, with a  screenplay by Takuya Miyawaki and director Yukio Ninagawa, “Snakes and Earrings” gives us a look at disaffected youth in Tokyo and the subculture of those who enjoy body modification. The plot takes a back seat to the emotional themes, that of a young woman trying to find some meaning in her life. Yuriko Yoshitaka’s Lui is a woman who seems completely numb to the world around her, distant from her parents and with few friends, lost in a sea of banal corporate culture. Kengo Kora’s Ama is easily the most sympathetic character, his rough punk appearance hiding a kind-hearted soul. Arata Iura’s mysterious Shiba appears as the agent of chaos between the two, seen largely in his denlike studio where he is the master of his domain. The small supporting cast features an appearance from Tatsuya Fujiwara as the yakuza, but the focus is on the three leads and their tortuous love triangle. The film’s guerrilla style filmmaking, shot on the streets of Shibuya help give the sense of a living world, pulling us in to the bustling city teeming with life. The majority of the story takes place in a limited number of sets, including the tattoo parlour and Ama’s apartment, which helps to keep the story focussed. There is not much of a plot, but the relationships between the three leads are intriguing and exciting enough, the sex scenes are not explicit but get across the power relationship and mix of brutality and sensualism in their lovemaking. The melancholic score of piano and strings resonates with this downbeat, nihilistic atmosphere.

“Snakes and Earrings” begins and ends with Lui in Shibuya, the camera whirling around to look at the various billboards and company logos, all the while in absolute silence. It is the perfect way to express her complete disillusionment with the world. This is a young woman who has completely checked out, nothing excites or motivates her. The sado-masochism and body piercing is the perfect metaphor for that desire to simply feel something, anything in the world, even if it is painful. The pain she experiences helps her to connect with people for the first time in a long time. We learn that she is not in contact with her family and her relationship with her friend seems superficial.  Not all of the film is as easy to analyse as the central theme of finding a sense of self expression and fulfilment in a meaningless culture that strips us of our humanity. There are themes of sex and violence, as you may expect, but also ideas of death that are harder to reconcile with Lui’s story. It is a downbeat story with a compelling portrayal of someone who seems to have hit rock bottom attempting to feel something for the first time in a long time.

Not Quite Dead Yet (2020) by Shinji Hamasaki

A surreal comedy about a difficult father-daughter relationship. Nanase (Suzu Hirose) has never forgiven her father Kei (Shinichi Tsutsumi) for not being by her mother’s bedside when she passed away. As lead singer of a death metal band she pens excoriating lyrics about how much he stinks and how much she dislikes him. Her father seems oblivious to this, focussing only on his research at a pharmaceutical company. When the company develop a drug that allows a person to die and later return to life, Kei finds himself temporarily deceased for two days. There is a plot afoot by a rival company to take them over, which Kei learns about shortly after dying. His assistant Taku (Ryo Yoshizawa) hears about this attempt to steal the company and its research; and along with Nanase they attempt to save her father’s company, while Kei tries to contact them from the spirit world.

Writer  Yoshimitsu Sawamoto and first time director Shinji Hamasaki deliver a hilarious look at death that delights in poking fun at tense parent-child relationships. Odd characters, wordplay jokes, visual humour, and surreal moments all work together to create a film that has no intention of being taken seriously. The excellent comedic central performance of Suzu Hirose (Our Little Sister) as Nanase, gurning and howling her way through the film, alongside the equally amusing straight man act of Shinichi Tsutsumi as Kei, is a fantastic dynamic, the wild child teenager conflicting with her boring father. A fantastic supporting cast, with Yukiyoshi Ozawa as Kei’s assistant, Kyusaku Shimada as the rival company head, and cameo roles for Lily Franky as a spirit guide and Den Den as a ramen chef, give the whole thing a variety show feel, with some scenes playing almost as standalone sketches. The rock music sets off the riotous punk aesthetic, sticking one finger (the index finger) up to the norms of family dramas. There is little surprise in the resolution of the film and it never attempts to flesh out the narrative or characters, instead using every moment to cram in more jokes. The film even actively pushes back against convention at times, with Nanase telling Taku that this is not some kind of romantic drama.

“Not Quite Dead Yet” follows a long cinematic tradition of poking fun at death, puncturing any sense that it is something to be concerned about. By having a pill that allows people to die temporarily it further distances us from the fear of death. In this universe death is simply another state humans might be in, no different than being asleep. Nanase and Shinichi’s relationship deteriorates after the passing of her mother, with Kei burying his head in his work while Nanase vents her frustrations through her music. The film shows a slow coming together of the two and the realisation of the importance of living life and not forgetting those people who are left behind. With its whimsical premise and a short run time packed with laughs, the film is an easy watch that is sure to raise a smile.

Eriko, Pretended (2016) by Akiyo Fujimura

Losing someone is never easy and this film looks at how people deal with grief. Eriko Yoshioka (Haruka Kubo) is a struggling actor, her main claim to fame being a brief appearance as a background dancer in a beer commercial. She lives with her flatmate who has dreams of being a famous stand-up double act comedian. When her sister dies, she heads back to her hometown for the funeral. Her sister Yukiko has left behind a son, Kazuma (Atsuya Okada), whose father is unknown to the family. After the ceremony, Eriko agrees to stay for a while to look after Kazuma while they decide what will happen to him. Eriko is then contacted by a Hanae (Miki Nitori), Yukiko’s old boss, who recruits Eriko as a “mourner for hire”; their job being to attend funerals and grieve, a process which is intended to help the soul pass to the afterlife.

“Eriko, Pretended” is an interesting look at how people behave following a death. The simple story allows time to contemplate the themes as Eriko deals with her sister’s passing. Haruka Kubo gives an understated performance in the lead role, displaying a complex and believable response to her sister’s passing. Miki Nitori is good as Hanae, a strong businesswoman, but also someone who has absolute belief in the value of her profession. Although short the film does feel stretched at times, not helped by the depressing nature of the story. It does not establish much attachment to the secondary characters, even Kazuma and Eriko’s relationship feels a little shallow. Much of the film is workmanlike, in direction and music, lacking the visual metaphor, use of colour and lighting that might have enlivened and enhanced the narrative. Towards the end of the film there is a scene of the empty rooms of the house that is effortlessly impactful, but these moments are too infrequent, with the majority of the film lacking that sense of a deeper meaning.

The concept of performative grief is one that can be found throughout history, with wailing and pulling of hair, the wearing of black, and other outward displays of loss and sadness common across many cultures. Early in the film we see Eriko at an audition in which she is asked to show emotion for a character who has died. Unable to realistically express sadness she is passed over for the role. When she later takes up the job of a hired mourner, she is at first confused by the job and later annoyed at another hired group of mourners whose exaggerated wailing borders on parody of the grieving process. Eriko’s seeming inability to mourn appropriately, or vocally, enough is offset by her caring for her orphaned nephew. In showing the falseness of what they are doing as hired mourners, it helps to highlight the real sense of loss that she is feeling and the difficulty in coming to terms with the death of a family member. Crying is a physical response intended to release pent-up emotions and therefore it is part of the healing process for those left behind. Characters discuss the role mourning has in helping the spirits of the dead reach the other side. The notion of grieving breaking some metaphysical barrier to the afterlife can perhaps be better understood as the living finally ‘letting go’ of their loved ones and allowing their soul to travel on ahead as a happy memory, rather than dwelling on their death. “Eriko, Pretended” has an interesting story, dissecting the often peculiar customs surrounding death, but often fails to develop an emotional connection to its characters.

The Mourning Forest (2007) by Naomi Kawase

Machiko (Machiko Ono) has recently started work at a nursing home for the elderly in rural Kansai. It is revealed in flashback that she has lost a young son in an unspecified accident after letting go of his hand, something for which her partner cannot forgive her. One of the care home residents, Shigeki (Shigeki Uda), is a man struggling with dementia whose wife died thirty-three years ago. Shigeki struggles with outbursts of emotion and anger, especially when Machiko attempts to move his bag. A priest visiting the home tells them that thirty-three years after death a person will become one with Buddha, and therefore will be unreachable by the living. Machiko and Shigeki develop a relationship that grows warmer as time progresses and she decides to take him on a day trip. When the car breaks down, the two are stranded in the countryside. Shigeki leads her on a long hike through the woods, during which they both process their grief.

“The Mourning Forest” is a heartfelt look at death and the effect it has on those left behind. It is explained later in the film that “Mogari” (in the Japanese title) refers to not only the period of mourning, but the place of mourning. For Machiko and Shigeki, the journey through the forest is a metaphorical journey through grief to acceptance. We learn little about Machiko’s son and Shigeki’s wife, and there is a palpable emptiness at the heart of the film that perfectly captures the feeling of bereavement. The sequence in which Shigeki plays a duet before being left along with the plaintive notes of his solo melody ringing out in the dark perfectly typifies this sense of loss following the death of a loved one. The performances from Machiko Ono and Shigeki Uda are raw and believable. Machiko is a character putting a brave face on her loss, attempting to find reason for living. Even in his confusion, Shigeki senses that something is missing from his life. The priest early in the film explains that living has two meanings, not only physically existing but feeling and experiencing things. It is often the case that people close themselves off from the world following the passing of a loved one. In their arduous hike through the forest, Machiko and Shigeki, experience hardships and suffering as well as positive moments, and it is all of these combined that contribute to a sense of living. The film features some stunning cinematography, particularly in the shots of the natural world, whether a butterfly hovering above a stream or the towering trees of the forest. There is a gentle piano score that compliments this sense of a rural idyll, and a natural world that can be both beautiful and terrifying.

The film will not be for everyone. At times it is slow and ponderous, often with little dialogue, focussing on the cinematography, score and acting to tell its story. The dark themes, of loss and mourning, also make it a tough watch. However, the film’s gentle contemplation of death is handled well and the beautiful direction and superb acting make it worthwhile for those looking for something with deep meaning and resonance.

We are Little Zombies (2019) by Makoto Nagahisa

After Hikari’s (Keita Ninomiya) parents die in a bus accident, he meets three other children at the crematorium who have likewise lost their parents, through suicide, murder and in a house fire. The four form an unlikely friendship, united by tragedy, and head out without any real plan of what they will do next. They return to each of their homes in turn, recovering items they have left behind, and reliving the circumstances of their parents’ deaths. While sitting around in a slum building populated by homeless individuals, they decide to form a band and are picked up by a talent scout who happens by while they are performing. As the “Little Zombies” they soon enjoy huge popularity with the disaffected youth of Japan, but it seems as though not even stardom will puncture their sense of detachment from the world around them.

“We are Little Zombies” is a film with a dark sense of humour, beginning from the opening scenes at the crematorium. While most films dealing with bereavement would show an emotionally tumultuous coming-to-terms with loss, this film takes the polar opposite approach. Instead it shows the characters, especially Hikari, as completely unphased by what has happened, unable to cry over his parents who were cold and distant in life. Instead he is permanently lost in the otherworld of his handheld video games. Likewise, the other characters deal with their situation stoically, death having seemingly little consequence for those who are left. Writer/director Makoto Nagahisa shows huge creativity in this idiosyncratic film, with the use of a digital 8-bit soundtrack and camera angles giving the feel of a  videogame (at times even cutting to game graphics that represent the four main characters). There is a sense that anything could happen as characters talk direct to camera, dream sequences and inner monologues interrupt the action, and fantasy increasingly intrudes into their realities. As the film progresses, the bizarre situations only increase. This sense of anarchic surrealism is in keeping with the youthful protagonists. They look on calmly as the world about them grows increasingly strange. The songs are catchy and the jokes are good. The four leads (Ninomiya, Satoshi Mizuno, Okumura Mondo, and Sena Nakajima) do a fantastic job, oddly compelling in their unemotional response to their parents deaths and charismatic in their interplay as a group of friends. The music, composed by the director, is great, playing on everything from videogame themes to loops of shop music and classical pieces.

The film takes an unconventional approach to the themes of loss and grief. The characters all seem emotionally detached from the world, whether because they genuinely lack compassion or are struggling to come to terms with their experiences. The loss of their parents has untethered them from the usual coping mechanisms of children. They are all at sea and rather than dealing with the death of their parents they have isolated themselves emotionally. However, this comes at the cost of a loss of direction. They live for minor accomplishments, similar to those achievements of video games. The structure of the film, as “stages” and “missions”, highlights this lack of an overarching purpose in their lives. It is in the end a film that is about life and what people live for. The deaths early on are a stark reminder that there is in the end little purpose to life in itself outside of what people can create for themselves. “We are Little Zombies” is a quirky film, revelling in its black surrealist humour, but with a great deal of heart beneath the surface.