Yakuza Apocalypse (2015) by Takashi Miike

Yakuza, vampires and martial arts collide in this wacky action comedy from Takeshi Miike. Kageyama (Hayato Ichihara) is a young gang member whose sensitive skin and inability to get a tattoo sets him apart from his fellow mobsters. He is however fiercely loyal to the boss (played by Lily Franky). When the boss, who happens to be a vampire, is killed, he manages to confer his powers on Kageyama with his dying breath. Kageyama then sets out to get revenge on the group who killed him, including traitor Aratetsu (Kiyohiko Shibukawa), mysterious English-speaking vampire hunter (Ryushin Tei), a martial artist (Yayan Ruhian), and a kappa (a mythical water creature). Kageyama is aided by Hogan (Denden), a bartender who knows the vampire secret, and a swelling army of new bloodsucking demons created by Kageyama. He also hopes to protect a young woman named Kyoko (Riko Narumi) who he has feelings for.

“Yakuza Apocalypse”, directed by Takashi Miike from a screenplay by Yoshitaka Yamaguchi, is a bizarre action-comedy that attempts to juggle several distinct elements. Whether you are a fan of martial arts films, violent exploitation cinema, surrealist humour, or modern takes on the vampire mythos, there is something for you to enjoy here, though the plot and editing can be a disjointed at times. It seems to jump from scene to scene in a frenetic way, often failing to set up key emotional threads such as Kageyama and Kyoko’s relationship, or background on who characters are or their motivations. For the most part you can ignore this, and simply enjoy the excellent direction, fight choreography and blend of childish comedy and gory action. However, the discrepancy in tone does a disservice to some elements that could have worked better either as a more straightforward fantasy yakuza film or out-and-out comedy. It often comes across as a collection of inventively violent moments, such as a man having his head twisted off, or inexplicable characters such as a frog-costumed pugilist (Masanori Mimoto) and a disturbing kappa, that seem to be from completely separate films.

The film’s comparison of vampires and yakuza, both bloodsucking parasites leeching off hard-working citizens is entertaining and the splicing of the two genres works well, allowing for the unholy union of these gruesome mythologies that have built up both around gangsters and nosferatu. When it works the satire is excellent, but all too often it misses the mark by attempting to balance the  relationship between Kageyama and Kyoko, or even Kageyama and the boss, with the absurdist metaphor of the main plot. While there are a lot of enjoyable moments, over the top comedy and brutal, rollicking action sequences, “Yakuza Apocalypse” seems wayward and unfocussed, with an interesting satire buried under an abundance of eccentric characters and non sequitur.

Life: Untitled (2019) by Kana Yamada

A group of young women working at an escort agency attempt to come to terms with the lives that have brought them to this point. Kano (Sairi Ito) runs out on her first client, deciding to work at the company “Crazy Bunny” as a general staff rather than an escort. She gets on with most of the other women, feeling the same sense of failure and societal pressure that has led her to this job. The large group of employees include number one girl, Mahiru (Yuri Tsunematsu), manager Kawashima (Hanya), driver Ryota (Tanaka Shunsuke), quiet Chika and old-timer Shiho (Reiko Kataoka). A new girl Riyu (Tomoko Nozaki) clashes with the strong-willed Atsuko (Aimi Satsukawa), and Hagio (Dai Ikeda), another male employee deals with his own relationship issues.

“Life: Untitled”, written and directed by Kana Yamada (who adapted the story from her own stage play), gives us a glimpse into the lives of women employed as escorts, or “Delivery Health” workers alongside the mostly male staff. The film largely consists of conversations between the main cast, complaining about customers or their work, or arguing with each other. The actual work they do is only mentioned, which allows us to explore the psychological and emotional toll their work takes on them. There is no plot to speak of, but certain thematic ideas connect the characters. Again their backstories largely go unmentioned, and there are many things in the film that are there to be guessed or inferred from contextual or behavioural clues. The incredible ensemble cast do a great job at building believability in their characters and interactions, feeding of each other’s energy. Given the number of characters, their screen time is sometimes limited, and some characters have only small roles, but their performances and script make their interactions the highlight of the film, especially the meaningful conversations between Kano and Shiho, or Mahiru and her sister, played by Serena Motola. Sairi Ito gives a nuanced performance, both emotional and comedic in her role as a young woman trapped working at an escort agency without the benefit of making the knd of money the others are earning. Yuri Tsunematsu also provides a strong focal point in the film, her apparent sublimation of her own will to the job occasionally cracking to show a woman whose anger against society drives her on in spite of how she is perceived by others.

While the tone is mostly downbeat, with characters having little hope of their situations improving, and coming to realise that they are considered as the lowest of the low in society, there are lighter moments, with character based humour occasionally pricking through the depressing atmosphere. These include the arrival of a new older woman to the agency, who seems completely ill-suited to the job and showing the more ridiculous side of this work. Yamada’s direction brings us into the story, creating a lived-in feel to the “Crazy Bunny” office space, and moving along with the characters without distracting from the action. The roots of the theatre play are still on display here, with the characters in largely single environments and the focus on script and performance rather than action.

The film’s lack of a plot and downbeat outlook on life might be offputting for some, but there are things to enjoy here. The performances from the whole cast are fantastic, drawing on each other in certain scenes to create some powerful moments of drama and tension. The depiction of sex work, although largely referenced rather than shown, is not one of empowerment but reduction of these women to a single function, and reducing human relationships to a transactional process devoid of emotion. Two major themes run through the film. The first is one of the inability to form human connections in a world based on transactional, largely monetary, relationships. The women at the agency are there to be hired out by men for various sexual favours. Shiho discusses how she broke up a family; the women’s sense of value and their own worth is distorted by their job; and Hagio and Ryota also both struggle to find love, burdened with the gap between expectation and reality. As with much of the film the themes are suggested rather than explicit. We can see how the commodification of sex has led to a warped sense of values amongst the characters, who cannot distinguish genuine emotion from transactional value. There is also an existential thread running through the film, with characters wondering what they are doing with their lives and whether human society is more than the lust and avarice that drives individuals.

Lowlife Love (2016) by Eiji Uchida

Tetsuo (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) is an amateur film director. After having a small independent hit a few years before, he has decided to make this his career despite making almost no money and having little recognition. Instead, he uses his limited fame, and his acting school, to attract vulnerable women who are desperate to be cast in his films. His life is a string of cigarettes and loveless sex. A talented screenwriter named Ken (Shugo Oshinari), with dreams of big-screen success, comes to him with a script that Tetsuo is sure will provide the basis for the film that will finally see him leave his underdog existence behind. After charging him 20,000 yen for the privilege of joining his film group, Tetsuo agrees to work with him. At the same time, a naive young woman named Minami (Maya Okano) turns up at Tetsuo’s acting class to audition for him. The washed-up director, far from nurturing this young talent, attempts to take advantage of her. Minami refuses his advances, stating she is in love with Ken. Eventually, Minami manages to escape this band of struggling artists and become a successful actor (albeit by sleeping with a more famous director), leaving Tetsuo and Ken behind. The film is populated with a huge cast of enjoyable characters, such as Tetsuo’s sister Akina (Nanami Kawakami), the talentless actress Kyoko (Chika Uchida) who resorts to sleeping with directors to get roles; a successful director named Kano (Kanji Furutachi) who we learn is no less perverse and immoral than Tetsuo; Mamoru (Yoshida Hosoda), a friend of Tetsuo who makes a living selling low-budget softcore porn; and the stingy producer Kida (DenDen) who keeps recommending they add nudity to their films to make them sell.

Written and directed by Eiji Uchida, “Lowlife Love” features some stunning performances and a heady blend of love, sex and a blackly humorous commentary on the world of film-makers. Tetsuo is hardly a likeable protagonist, however relatable or sympathetic he may be in his attempts to make it as a director, as we see him sleeping around, taking advantage of people constantly, and lacking motivation. However, it is precisely this complexity that makes the film so irresistible, like a horrific car-crash that you can’t look away from, despite how traumatic it might be to witness the endless failures of this man, both in life and as a filmmaker, or the way that Minami is treated. None of the characters are particularly good or bad, they are just doing what it takes to survive in this harsh world. There is a sequence late in the film, when Minami, who has gone from powerless to completely in control breaks down in tears as she realises what she has become. You can feel her sense of frustration and upset at the complicity in the harsh system that this entails. In this heartbreaking scene we run the full gamut of emotions from lust, to anger, and despondency. Kiyohiko Shibukawa’s disreputable Tetsuo is an immoral womanizer, but we are swept along with his constantly frustrated attempts to make something of himself. Maya Okano gives a truly spellbinding performance as Minami, at first naive but gaining in confidence as she realises her own ability. The supporting cast all give great comedic performances as the seedy, disreputable sorts that seem to be commonplace in this industry. The cinematography by Kenji Noguchi is great throughout, with a few stylistic flourishes that show that unlike the protagonists they are depicting the makers of this film are at the top of their game.

Writer and director, Eiji Uchida, has created a complex tale of imperfect humans struggling with what they are doing with their lives. The emphasis on sex throughout the film is not incidental. It is these primal biological urges that seem to be the only constant driver of the characters’ behaviour. Early in the film a character comments that Tetsuo does nothing but sleep around and as the film progresses it asks the difficult question of whether there is really any more to life than that, whether all life is simply a hedonistic free-for-all, or if people are driven by more than sexual desire. It is made clear that sexual attraction, lust and jealousy are inextricably linked with people’s behaviours and even their success or failure. This is made clear in the characters of Tetsuo and Kano, who seem different only because of their varying degree of success as a filmmaker, while we discover they are both equally perverse and self-absorbed. The film also provides a stark commentary on the manipulation and exploitation, particularly of women, that seems to be prevalent in the film industry. When DenDen says there is no difference between pornography and other films, his words might be more true than he realises, as we see women treated merely as objects to satisfy men, lacking any agency of their own. Even Minami’s own success is dependent on her lowering herself to being used by directors.

In contrast to the almost relentless negative portrayal of the film industry, and perhaps the “Love” the title is referring to, we have filmmaking itself. It seems the only thing that Tetsuo is genuinely passionate about, and perhaps speaks to the ideal that through cinema and the arts we can attain something more real than reality, both an escape and at the same time an absolute truth. Film is the thing that keeps him going, despite his failures, it symbolises something that is human and at the same time beyond the seedy, everyday humanity we are forced to endure. Of course, the film’s ironic take on the industry often undermines this naïve belief, but nevertheless there is something pure in even the most despicable characters. In the end, the fact that they hold on to these dreams, of being a movie star, or creating a popular film, is what makes them poignant, believable and sympathetic.

Himizu (2012) by Sion Sono

The 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, that devastated the North-east coast of Honshu and badly damaged the Fukushima nuclear plant, left many without homes and jobs and in a state of despair. “Himizu” begins with scenes of the destruction left behind: buildings reduced to rubble, personal possessions abandoned, and lonely figures wandering through the wasteland of a once populous town. Sumida (Shota Sometani) is a middle-school student whose family boat business has stalled in the wake of the tragic events. His parents are of little help, his mostly absent father returning only to demand money to furnish his own debts, and his mother finally giving up to run off with a fling. Sumida’s only companions are a group of homeless individuals whom he allows to stay by the boathouse and use the shower. His classmate Keiko Chazawa (Fumi Nikaido), is obsessed with Sumida, writing down and pasting his words on her bedroom walls; enamoured by his ordinariness and refusal to conform to the positive world view espoused by their teacher. Keiko decides to help him make the boathouse successful again, despite him repeatedly rejecting her assistance. Keiko’s mother is unsupportive, telling her daughter she is preparing a noose for her to hang herself and make her parent’s lives easier. Despite this Keiko remains positive, encouraging Sumida not to give up and trying to help him out of his depression.

Based on the manga by Minoru Furuya, writer-director Sion Sono creates an uncompromising drama set in the post-tsunami era: a dystopia that is nevertheless grounded in reality. The script was written before the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, but was altered to feature this as a central element. The tragic events of 2011 loom large in the film, which uses its protagonists to tell a story that reflects the feelings of many. The financial ruin and feelings of depression that beset Sumida will be familiar to those who suffered. Meanwhile, Keiko represents the feelings of hope that they can rebuild and that however dark things are there is light at the end of the tunnel. Shota Sometani captures the cold, detached malaise of a young man who has suffered beyond his years, with tumultuous feelings of anger and unfairness repressed as he tries to come to terms with his fate. Fumi Nikaido provides the perfect foil as his gleefully hyperactive stalker, who bears her own sorrows lightly. A talented supporting cast includes Tetsu Watanabe as a simple-minded yet kind-hearted homeless man; Megumi Kagurazaka as Keiko’s uncaring mother; and Denden as a tough yakuza boss. The film’s narrative moves between the main characters and gives us a stark portrayal of a society that is trying to rebuild from the debris of disaster. Despite the generally downbeat tone of the film, there are moments of levity and humour sprinkled throughout, with the homeless individuals providing much of the comic relief. The direction and cinematography by Sohei Tanikawa is exceptional, pulling you through a chaotic emotional landscape with a visceral sense of the pain the characters are feeling. The shots of the earthquake-stricken locations need little extra to evoke feelings of upset at the realisation of what has been lost; and the film manages to retain this powerful, provocative air throughout, with the characters being sympathetic victims of the tragedy and emblematic of the anguish caused by it. The film features a classical score of Mozart and Barber that further heightens this intense dramatic quality.

 As well as dealing with the aftermath of the earthquake, the film also touches on other topics, such as domestic violence, suicide, nuclear power, the far right, abuse of women, and mental health. It questions humanity’s response to such tragedies, with secondary characters discussing how they personally profited from the devastation. Later in the film we see characters turning to theft and violence, further emphasising the fact that bad people will continue to exist. In contrast, Sumida is a character who is unable to pick himself back up following the loss, his feelings of being trapped and seeing no future for himself are a powerful representation of the crippling effects of depression. The question for the characters is what they do with their own lives; whether they allow themselves to be overcome with despondency and hopelessness, or strive to change their situation, in short how they go on living after such a traumatic experience. The poem that opens the film, read by Keiko, and is repeated by Sumida near the end, talks about people judging others while being unable to understand themselves. This can be read as a message to people to believe in yourself, to examine your own will, hopes and dreams and to follow them no matter how difficult it might seem. The film offers few easy answers, with an enigmatic ending that provokes deep rumination on the many themes raised by the story. An incredible work that documents the loss, in every sense, felt after the earthquake, and encourages us to consider how we go on.

Cold Fish (2010) by Sion Sono

Nobuyuki Shamoto (Mitsuru Fukikoshi) is the owner of a small fish store. Together with his wife, Taeko (Megumi Kagurazaka), and wayward daughter, Mitsuko (Hikari Kajiwara), they maintain a fairly unimpressive existence. When his daughter is caught stealing from a supermarket, she is helped out by Yukio Murata (Denden), a rival fish store owner who offers her a job at his store. Murata is comical, arrogant, outgoing, everything Shamoto is not. But soon things take a turn for the worse when Shamoto discovers that Murata’s jolly façade hides a much darker, violent character.

The film is well written with the mysteries surrounding Murata and the psychological and physical violence building to a screaming crescendo in the final act. It is far from an easy watch, with scenes of rape, abuse and very graphic scenes of dismemberment, but with director Sion Sono’s trademark black humour running through it. The main actors are fantastic. Fukikoshi does a great job of portraying the timid, disgusted Shamoto, and he does an incredible job of making this unimaginable transformation believable. The unhinged couple of Murata and his wife, a delightfully unhinged performance from Asuka Kurosawa, are also genuinely chilling with sudden changes from bright humour to dark violent moods. The film is long but almost every scene, whether the visceral, violent murders or the sharp dialogue are riveting. Shiya Kimura’s cinematography is stunning and the film almost revels in creating something beautiful out of a subject matter that is dark and nihilistic. The music by Tomohide Harada helps increase the sense of danger and draw you into the film.

“Cold Fish” may appeal to lovers of gore and exploitation cinema, and there is no shortage of shocking scenes, but, the film also expresses an underlying philosophy of alienation and nihilism that means the violence is far from gratuitous. The dissociative, sadomasochistic characters act in a world where the violence serves to puncture a sense of ennui which plagues them otherwise. The film offers no easy answers with the finale being an increasingly sickening display of human psychopathy. If you are a fan of this genre of blackly comedic, hyper-violent thrillers, then this is definitely a recommended watch. Enjoyably disturbing film.