Mandala (1971) by Akio Jissoji

Two disenchanted young men and their partners become involved in a cult in this erotic experimental film from Akio Jissoji, part two of his “Buddhist Trilogy”. We are first introduced to the two couples in a motel, where they are watched over by members of the cult. Shinichi (Koji Shimizu) and his girlfriend Yukiko (Akiko Mori), and Hiroshi (Ryo Tamura) and his girlfriend Yasuko (Hiroko Sakurai). Members of the cult rape Yukiko on a beach after knocking out Shinichi. When he comes around he also engages in sex with her unconscious body, excited by the feeling of her being in a death-like state. They are later introduced to the cult led by Maki (Shin Kishida), who are self-substitent through agricultural work, and whose aim is to stop time, to step outside the boundaries that constrain normal human society. They believe that eroticism is a means to achieving this, putting them in a state that is beyond the temporal.

Written by Toshiro Ishido and directed by Akio Jissoji, “Mandala” is a difficult work to watch, not only as it features rape, abortion, and suicide, but also for the complex blend of political, philosophical, and religious thought that comprises the plot. If you have seen “This Transient Life”, the first part of  Jissoji’s “Buddhist Trilogy”, the similarities in style here will be apparent throughout, from specific camera moves and angles to the way certain conversational scenes are framed and blocked. This film is largely in colour, utilising black and white to great effect in creating a distance and contrast with particular mindsets. We largely see the black and white appear later in members of the cult who have given themselves over to the notion of rejecting time, or living in a liminal state on the cusp of death, while the colour represents perhaps the clear eyed view of life as it truly is. The minimal score, again by Toru Fuyuki, includes pipe organ music and a soundscape of ticking clocks, further emphasising the theme and ominous presence of time. Again there are heavy religious overtones to the work, with close-ups of prayer beads and Buddhist imagery of demons throughout.

The story itself is relatively straightforward, although the actions of the characters, particularly the cult members, may be almost impossible to understand at first. Essentially the protagonists are looking for an escape from their lives; they are failed revolutionaries, who see in the cult a means of transcending the human world, becoming something outside of it. One of the men throws himself wholly into this new religion, abandoning his sense of time, his connection with the living world, subsuming himself into the eternal, while the other finds it harder to disengage from humanity, largely sickened by what he sees as nothing more than a debauched sex/death cult. The film tackles themes of political disenchantment, religious fervour, eroticism, mankind’s relationship with time and death, and nihilism, or the rejection of what we might consider human values. The political and philosophical diatribes that the characters go on certainly leave you with questions about the right and wrong path for people, and the film’s ambiguities, including a particularly dark ending, mean that it stays with you long after it is over.

Tiger: My Life as a Cat (2019) by Masaya Kakehi

Suzuo (Hiromitsu Kitayama) is a struggling manga artist. His most famous work, “Cat-Man”, has stalled before publication of the final volume. Suzuo has no interest in finishing this project, instead spending his time gambling at pachinko or the racecourse. Also, he hates cats and only drew the comic because he knew it would sell. His wife, Natsuko (Mikako Tabe), and daughter, Miyu (Kokoro Hirasawa) remain devoted to him despite his apparent laziness and inability to stick to his deadlines. When he is hit by a car and killed he is allowed to return to earth as a cat and manages to become part of Natsuko and Miyu’s lives again, although they remain largely unaware of his presence. He is helped by fellow cat, Whitest (Marie Itoyo), who teaches him what it means to comfort his family.

Based on the manga by Mina Itaba, with a screenplay by Toshiya Ono, this family film about losing a parent manages to balance lighthearted humour with some challenging themes. It is clear early on that Suzuo and Miyu’s relationship is loving. Despite his failings as a father she looks up to him, emulating him by drawing her own manga. The film’s central conceit is handled well with Kitayama dressed in a cat costume, rather than relying on digital effects. We do occasionally see him as an actual cat, but the choice to have him play the character in costume allows for much more emotional scenes between him and his daughter. The lack of flashy special effects also means that you are not distracted from the story and the acting can shine. Many of the scenes rely on the performances and dialogue as opposed to slapstick or low-brow comedy, such as when Suzuo arrives at the judgement desk of heaven, which is played as an amusing two-handed sketch between him and the judge, played by comic writer and actor Bakarhythm. Hiromitsu Kitayama’s comedic performance is highly entertaining, moving on from the initial fish-out-of-water humour when he is first reincarnated, to character driven humour and pathos. Young actor Kokoro Hirasawa is incredible as his daughter and provides the film an emotional core with some heart-breaking scenes between her and her father. “Tiger” is often surprisingly well shot for a film that is a knockabout comedy. The sequence when Suzuo chases the ambulance, or the scenes through the window, the warm room stark against the darkening night, show the filmmakers taking even a surreal comedy like this seriously.

“Tiger” is a film about dealing with the loss of a parent. Miyu, perhaps even more so than Suzuo, becomes the centre of the drama as she tries to come to term with her father’s death. Despite feeling ashamed of his behaviour at times she remains devoted to him and his sudden death forces her into reconciling her emotions and understanding her relationship with him. There is also a theme of what we are able to give to others. Suzuo is asked by the judge in the afterlife what he intends to do if he is given the chance to return and it is only later he realises what his role is for his daughter. As Suzuo explains to Whiteness, when she also has to deal with a bereavement, sometimes just being there is enough. For a film aimed at children the difficult themes are not glossed over. The use of reincarnation is not used as a way to sidestep the tragic inevitability of death, but rather offers a way of dealing with the grief it causes those who remain. The death of Suzuo is brutal and final and the film’s exploration of his passing is refreshingly unsentimental, giving us a look at coping and moving on for those left behind.

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.