Mystic Shrine Maiden (2019) by Takeshi Sone

A local shrine maiden discovers a past tragedy in this whimsical drama. Toko (Miyu Yoshimoto) works as a maiden at the shrine in her small hometown, performing chores for the priest and making frequent visits to the residents who are always happy to see her. When she is told that the town festival will not take place due to some peculiar ancient prohibition, Toko takes it upon herself to prepare for the celebration herself. She later meets a young girl at the lake nearby, causing a panic in her father who tells her the lake is off-limits to those from the village. With a little help from a geeky visitor, Toko uncovers the mystery behind this unusual prohibition.

Director Takeshi Sone is better known for his gruesome horror tales, but with writer Motoki Nakamura creates something cheerful and uplifting in “Mystic Shrine Maiden”. The film touches on folklore and tradition, with darker elements, but for the most part things are kept upbeat. The opening musical number performed Miyu Yoshimoto, who plays the gleeful, eternally optimistic Toko, creates an atmopshere of joyful whimsy, with some fantastic camerawork. The direction is well-done, with a charming freshness that becomes both a strength and a weakness. What begins as a comedy becomes darker later on when we discover details of Toko and Mayumi’s past, and what happened to Toko’s mother; however many of these moments are brushed over without much time to delve into the tragedy. At a sprightly 70 minutes the film could have benefitted from a little more focus on the characters, who are largely left as charicaturish figures: a wannabee magician, a hopeless mime, a woman who likes playing hide-and-seek. All of these could have been fleshed out and tied into the central narrative. As it is the film remains an insubstatial and innocuous drama.

Toko is brought back to life through her mother’s sacrifice with survivors guilt leading her to uncover the mystery and rejoin her old friend. There is also a dark twist on the coming-of-age story which would see Toko passing on to adulthood following her discoveries, but her sees her passing over to the other side. These darker elements are woven into a story that on the surface appears as an enchanting exploration of youthful joie de vivre, with an unconventional subtext.

Ashura (2005) by Yojiro Takita

As dark forces mass, a fearless Demon Warden fights to protect humanity from the hellish horde in this historical-fantasy epic. After an incident in which he struck down a young child, famed Demon Warden Izumo (Somegoro Ichikawa) leaves the profession, beginning a new career as a popular Kabuki actor. Meanwhile, Bizan (Kanako Higuchi) a demon witch, along with the help of Izumo’s former colleague Jaku (Atsuro Watabe), works to bring about the revival of Ashura, the demon overlord, whose re-emergence will in turn see demons once again overrun the earth. Izumo meets a mysterious woman, Tsubaki (Rie Miyazawa), who has no memory of her past and the two are set on a path that will lead them to the edge of Armageddon.

“Ashura”, directed by Yojiro Takita, is an action fantasy based on the mythology of dark demon gods who delight in destruction. The film’s elaborate sets and exquisite costumes beautifully capture the period and it is fun to see the depiction of kabuki performances which play a role in the drama. The film itself is reminiscent of a theatrical production, not only in the melodramatic plot and acting, but the way that scenes play out in small sets, similar to “Kwaidan” (1964). There is a sub-plot running throughout of a kabuki playwright who follows Izumo to get inspiration for what may be his greatest story yet. Perhaps because of these comedic interpolations the film occasionally lacks a sense of threat and urgency, partly alienating us from the drama. Takita’s previous film “When the Last Sword is Drawn”, also employed a framing device which distanced the audience from the action. The fight choreography is strong, with a great sequence early on in which the demon-wardens attempt to clear a town of its demonic inhabitants. The CG and visual effects are hit and miss, often unnecessary and undermining the incredible set design and the film is certainly strongest when the fantasy elements are depicted more subtly, such as the demon at the beginning who sings a melancholic tune, setting the scene for what is to follow.

Japan has a rich tradition of mythology, demon-lore, and fantasy tales to draw from and “Ashura” does a good job of bringing to life this epic of men versus the forces of evil. The central twist in the story is evident early on, but still provides some degree of tension as we contemplate what will happen to the characters when they find out. The most interesting character is Tsubaki, whose qualms over who or what she is affect our emotional involvement with the film. It questions the nature of evil and whether it can be overcome or halted by rationality or even love. “Ashura” will appeal to fantasy fans, with prophecies, witches, demon-hunters and demon gods, sword-fighting and romance capturing the best elements of the genre.

The Boy and the Heron (2023) by Hayao Miyazaki

When his mother is killed in a firebombing that destroys the hospital she was in, Mahito (Soma Santoki) and his father (Takuya Kimura) move from Tokyo to live with Mahito’s aunt Natsuko (Yoshino Kimura). While the Second World War continues, and despite his father’s work at a factory producing parts for fighter planes, and the recruitment drives in the local town, Mahito finds himself in a tranquil, rural paradise, grieving his mother’s death. Things are interupted when a grey heron (Masaki Suda) that lives on the estate begins talking to him and he discovers a mysterious tower in the grounds, overgrown and hidden by forest. He learns that his great-uncle (Shohei Hino), involved in dark magic, created the building that has since been sealed off. When his aunt goes missing in the vicinity of the tower, Mahito sets of to find her and is transported to a paralell world, where his great-uncle is the creator and anthropomorphic and militaristic parakeets rule the realm. Aided by a woman named Kiriko (Ko Shibasaki) and the heron, Mahito also finds a younger version of his mother (Aimyon), and tries to rescue them and return to his own world.

Writer-director Hayao Miyazaki’s latest film features many of the elements we’ve come to expect from Studio Ghibli, with the war-time setting reminiscent of “The Wind Rises” and a fantastical world akin to “Spirited Away”. The Japanese title “How do You Live?” is taken from a 1937 novel of that name by Genzaburo Yoshino. The novel appears briefly in the film, but the film’s plot is distinct from it. In essence the film is a simple tale of a boy attempting to come to terms with the death of his mother, while embodying the values and characteristics of a traditional hero in his unwavering attempts to save his family: bravery, compassion, and intelligence. The film has darker moments too, with the heron’s appearance being often accompanied by sinister proclamations, and a sequence in which Mahito is swarmed with frogs that completely engulf him. In short it is not a film for very young children, but those on the cusp of adolecence, with its messages about growth and coming-to-terms with the darker aspects of humanity. The animation is spellbinding, from the aforementioned frogs, to the magical creatures known as wara-wara and flocks of birds, the film has a vibrancy and kineticism that is exciting to see. The opening sequence, seen in flashback throughout, has an impressionistic feel, that perfectly captures the horror and confusion of the firebombing, perhaps mixed with Mahito’s own memories of this traumatic event. The score, by longterm collaborator Joe Hisaishi, of sparse, plaintive piano further heightens the sense of loss and loneliness of Mahito’s journey. The film’s more surreal moments, the otherworld being a place that often defies logic, give the sense that the whole alternate reality is a place of metaphor and meaning, less fantastical and more meta-physcal or psychological in aspect.

An incredible example of simple yet effective storytelling that balances comedy and tragedy, whimsy and dark emotional drama. The film leaves it to the audience to find their way through this often confusing mix of tones and styles, with elements such as the wara-wara being unborn children in the ‘real’ world, and the relationships between people Mahito has met and their doppelgangers in the otherworld. Similarly, while the references to war are minimal, they are clearly important as we see the fighter-plane cabins being lined up at Natsuko’s house. Whether there is a connection between the parakeet king and his army, or the anthropomorphic inhabitants of the magical world’s insatiable appetites, and the militarism of this period in Japanese history, again is left for the audience to puzzle out. “The Boy and the Heron” is a wonderful example of what films can do best, leave you with stunning visuals that provoke a deep emotional response without necessariliy explaining to you the whole meaning. As with the best art, it allows you to be carried along by the mystique and grandeur of the creation, raising questions about life, loss and spiritual growth.

Once Upon at Crime (2023) by Yuichi Fukuda

Red Riding Hood and Cinderalla get caught up in a murder investigation in this comic twist on the classic Grimm’s fairy tale. While out walking in the woods, Red Riding Hood (Kanna Hashimoto) comes across Cinderella (Yuko Araki). With the help of two witches they are transformed into beautiful dresses in time for the upcoming ball at which the prince (Takanori Iwata) is to choose a bride. Things begin to go wrong when their carriage, driven by a recently transformed mouse named Paul (Tsuyoshi Muro), hits someone on the road. The investigation into this death, of renowned stylist Hans (Masaki Kaji), sees doubt cast on several individuals before Red Riding Hood’s unique powers of perception and deduction begin to unravel the mystery.

“Once Upon a Crime” is a comic-fantasy that subverts the traditional fairy tales of Red Riding Hood and Cinderella by turning it into a detective drama. Based on a novel by Aito Aoyagi, it has a pantomime feel with over-the-top acting and anachronistic references that add a humorous accompaniment to the central story. The plot is farcical, continually wrongfooting the audience with each new twist, as the ridiculous evidence piles up. The cast do a great job with the comedy, largely aimed at children but with a surreal, nonsensical style that provides some fun moments, such as the mouse carriage driver being asked if he has a license, or the bickering between Barbara the witch (Midoriko Kimura) and Red Riding Hood over her lack of magical ability. The opulent costumes are sure to delight fans of fairytale princesses, along with the extravagant castle, ballroom scenes, and whimsical fantasy moments.

The film is a fun twist on the traditional princesses and damsels in distress, with a superb cast of non-conformist heroines, the whipsmart Red Riding Hood, with her Sherlock Holmes-like powers of deduction, the outrageous Barbara the Witch, whose incompetence is matched only by her self-belief; and Cinderalla, whose character is given more depth that we might expect. The film closes with hints of a sequel and it would be interesting to see what other wild adventures our heroine might end up in. Overall, a fun, lighthearted take on Cinderella with a wry sense of humour that nevertheless succeeds in creating sympathetic characters.

Hiruko the Goblin (1991) by Shinya Tsukamoto

An archaeologist and a schoolboy must fight a subterranean terror in this B-movie fantasy horror. While investigating an underground cave, Professor Yabe (Naoto Takenaka) and schoolgirl Tsukishima (Megumi Ueno) unwittingly awaken an ancient monster, which decapitates its victims, using their heads as part of its form. Yabe’s friend Professor Hieda (Kenji Sawada) and his son Masao (Masaki Kudo) find themselves battling against this monster, which now has the face of Masao’s former crush Tsukishima. The two are in a race against time to destory the creature and seal the site under the school before there is a mass invasion of them.

Director Shinya Tsukamoto, who rose to fame with his cyberpunk body-horror cult favourite “Tetsuo”, takes on a more traditional horror fare in “Hiruko the Goblin”, based on the “Yokai Hunter” manga by Daijiro Morohashi. The plot is wafer thin, with heroes fighting an inexplicable supernatural threat, but enlivened with some fun side-characters such as Watanabe the janitor (Hideo Murota) who is tasked with defending the school, and the way in which the monsters steal the heads of their victims, creating a sense of terror when Masao and Hieda are forced to face former friends (now transformed into hideous creatures). The film’s practical special effects, including stop-motion, lends the film a hand-made B-movie feel that is in keeping with the shaky plot. The monster design is unique, with arachnid style legs scuttling around with human faces, and their speed and agility is quite horrifying to witness. The film also features some interesting elements with the creatures’ ability to influence the thoughts of its prey, forcing them to reveal information or commit suicide. For the most part a straightforward horror, the film also leans heavily into its fantasy elements, with prophecies, ancient rites, and a quest for a crown in the goblin lair. The soundtrack also straddles both horror and fantasy genres, with ominous notes and a light, plaintive melody sung by the Tsukishima monster suggestive of the Siren song of Greek mythology.

A fun, fantasy horror with a unique monster terrrorizing the protagonists. “Hiruko the Goblin” doesn’t shy away from shock moments but with a fast-paced action style. Fans of low-budget horror special effects will find much to enjoy here too.