The Warped Forest (2011) by Shunichiro Miki

2005’s “Funky Forest: The First Contact” brought together three directors who created a bizarre, surrealist montage of skits. “The Warped Forest” sees one of these directors, Shunichiro Miki, return to the same vein of wacky, non-sequitur comedy with an ensemble cast including Rinko Kikuchi and Fumi Nikaido. It could be considered a sequel of sorts to the first film, and fans of “Funky Forest” will recognize the same surrealist slapstick humour with. This time there appears to be more of narrative, although you would be hard-pressed to explain exactly how things tie together. We open with a group of three men discussing the merits of communal bathing, before discovering that they have been missing for two days. The film then returns to two days prior where we have the same three men, along with three sisters, and three young students, an alien craft suspended above the earth, talk of ‘dream-tampering’, and sexualised fruits growing from nyad-like creatures. Having the same groups of characters gives the film a sense of consistency and narrative, but this is confused by all the inexplicable oddities they encounter. The people of this world use nuts, which they pull from their belly buttons (because, why not?) as currency, and there are also a group of Lilliputian characters who live alongside the humans (or are they ordinary humans living in a land of giants?).

The film relies heavily on shock value and slapstick, deftly sidestepping Japan’s strict rules on pornography with its sexualised imagery (in particular the aforementioned fruits, and a gun that shoots white goop from a penis at the end). The main through-line of the film concerns the spaceship and a questioning of what dreams are and how they relate to everyday life. Several characters are keen to delve into the world of dream-tampering, which allows people to travel through space-time and live out their every fantasy. In contrast, others warn that this sort of tampering can lead to people being cursed in the real world. As with “Funky Forest” before, “Warped Forest” lends itself to interpretation through its abstract nature, like wandering through a gallery of modern art. Is there a significance to the small people, the exposed belly-buttons; the genital-like fruits that people are constantly licking at or suckling on? Much like a dream on waking, the film presents itself in a way that makes you curious to uncover the meaning behind the apparent madness, remaining just out of reach, but leaving you with a powerful emotional reaction to the imagery which, if nothing else, is extremely memorable.

Bitter Honey (2016) by Gakuryu Ishii

An aging writer (Ren Osugi) finds solace in his pet goldfish, anthropomorphised as a beautiful and flighty young woman in red (played by Fumi Nikaido). The two of them enjoy a curious relationship, with a frisson of sexual tension, and the goldfish, named Akako, also begins to explore the world on her own. Akako comes across a woman in white, named Lady Tamura (Yoko Maki), who she believes to be the ghost of a former lover of her master. The writer is also visited by the late author Ryunosuke Akutagawa (Kora Kengo), his literary rival. The writer’s flights of fancy slowly begin to consume him, perhaps as an escape from his recent terminal diagnosis as he nears his last days.

Based on a 1959 novel by Muro Saisei, with a screenplay by Takehiko Minato, “Bitter Honey” is a bizarre magical realist fable that draws no line between the real world and that of the imagination. The opening scene shows the writer and the woman in red together, he writing, her lounging, and aside from a few subtle hints in the score and dialogue it does not become clear that she is in fact a goldfish until the end of the scene. The film continues in this illogical, dream-like manner, treating Akako as a human, even to the point of her having conversations with others, while we know that she is a fish. The anthropomorphic nature of her character is incredibly powerful as the audience comes to care about Akako, her desires, her frustrations with the writer, and her relationship with other non-existent (in a real sense) people, such as Lady Tamura. Of course rationally both her and Lady Tamura can only exist in the imagination of the writer, something he alludes to later in the film, but it is still enjoyable to watch Nikaido’s performance as the bouncy, youthful goldfish, and it raises the question of free will and control in an interesting twist on a common trope in relationship dramas. The dance that Akako performs throughout is perfect in capturing the character of a goldfish, billowing tail and flowing movements. Ishii’s direction is excellent, staging the drama beautifully and, along with Norimichi Kasamatsu’s luxuriant cinematography, stunning set design and use of colour, emphasizing the sense of being lost in a fantastical dreamworld. Toshiyuki Mori’s score and the sound design perfectly compliment this stylish direction, humourous, melancholic, and with effects sounding like water droplets when Akako is on screen.

“Bitter Honey” has a surreal, folkloric atmopshere that is enjoyable to watch, helped by excellent performances by Ren Osugi and Fumi Nikaido. The plot is relatively thin and, much like in a dream, there are elements that don’t always connect perfectly with one another. The most obvious reading of what is happening is that the author, realising he does not have long left, is working on a story about his pet goldfish, imagining her as a young woman; while at the same time he reminisces about his relationship with fellow author Akutagawa and the mysterious Lady Tamura. The lines between reality and fiction are blurred by having Akako act independently, becoming a player in the drama in her own right. The relationship between the writer and Akako is genuinely moving, and the strongest element of the film, suggesting a lack of distinction between the real and the fantastical, or at least diminishing the importance of such a distinction. The film also comments on the struggles of the author, who always felt second best against the acclaimed Akutagawa, but for the most part it remains almost light-hearted as he enjoys an imaginary relationship with Akako. An entertaining magical-realist tale about an old man and his cherished pet goldfish.

No Longer Human (2019) by Mika Ninagawa

A dramatization of the later life of Osamu Dazai, acclaimed author of works such as “The Setting Sun” and “No Longer Human”. The film introduces us to Dazai (Shun Oguri) as he is enjoying mass success after publication of his recent novel. While the literary community showers him with praise, his personal life is far from perfect. As well as a predilection for alcohol, Dazai is also a serial womanizer despite being married with children. Dazai continues to live a life of excess, seemingly unable to restrain his worst impulses, later struggling with a serious illness that, along with his reckless behaviour, threatens to bring his life to an end prematurely before he is able to finish his masterwork “No Longer Human”.

Mika Ninagawa’s film is a lavish, colourful affair, with an almost fairytale aesthetic. The bright costumes and high-contrast sets bringing to the fore a sense of energy, passion and creativity that surround Dazai. There is an expectation here that the audience knows something of Osamu Dazai, with characters referencing his works, in particular an almost prophetic fixation by some encouraging him to complete “No Longer Human”. For those unfamiliar with the status of Dazai in Japan’s literary pantheon, the film can be a difficult watch as he seems to have few redeeming qualities; he is arrogant, antagonistic and unfaithful. Dazai has a deep loathing for Japanese societal norms, often railing against it in public and through his work that intends to tear down the traditional in favour of supplanting it with the emerging style he himself is helping to create. Fortunately, the film spends as much time on the women in his life as Dazai himself, with his wife and lovers being central to the story. Ninagawa’s use of colour may also suggest that these are in fact the more interesting characters, their hope and passion shining bright against the author’s nihilistic, moral vacuum. We often see them dressed in bright colours, as opposed to Dazai’s dark, patternless clothes. It is these women that seem to provide inspiration to him and direct his behaviours. A stellar cast includes Shun Oguri, Erika Sawajiri, Fumi Nikaido, and Rie Miyazawa, as well as a scenery chewing cameo from Tatsuya Fujiwara. Ninagawa’s direction is theatrical, using bold colour palettes to create sets that lean more towards fantastical romance than gritty realism. One all-out fantasy sequence later in the film, in which Dazai’s room drifts away as he is left alone with his work is a powerful visual that remains in keeping with the slightly larger than life presentation. Likewise, the melodramatic score by Jun Miyake is reminiscent of timeless romances, with a grandiose elegance to them that captures perhaps the myth of Dazai more than the reality.

It is this discrepancy between the man and the myth that lies at the heart of the film. Dazai is a respected author despite his numerous personal failings. Later in the film, in the fantasy sequence aforementioned and an earlier scene in which he almost succumbs to his illness, it becomes clear that Dazai is little more than his writing. He is, in essence, what other people have made him. He remains an enigma, with his works being the only key to his real personality. His egocentrism is a product of friends and lovers heaping praise on him and he is trapped in the role of ‘literary genius’, unable to reconcile it with his own behaviour. It often seems that it is his wife and lovers are the ones who are truly experiencing life, while for Dazai ‘life’ remains only something to put into his work. He lives in a mechanical way, with everything he does or experiences serving his art. An interesting look at this historical figure, whose works have gone on to great acclaim, that also investigates the role of women and Dazai’s treatment of them at this time.

Lesson of Evil (2012) by Takashi Miike

Takashi Miike gives us a violent crime thriller following a deranged psychopath in this gory film adaptation of Yusuke Kishi’s novel. The film begins with a scene in which two parents anxiously discuss their problematic son, right before he murders both of them with a knife. We then move forward in time to find Hasumi (Hideaki Ito) working as a high-school English teacher. He is charismatic and well-liked by his students. Following incidents of cheating at the school, Hasumi suggests perhaps interrupting the signal from their mobile phones during tests, which would be illegal but would also prohibit such cheating. Cheating is far from the only problem at the school, with one teacher sexually harassing a female student, and another involved in an affair with a male pupil. Hasumi also soon reveals himself to be far from the ideal mentor his students imagine, himself using his knowledge of the sexually harassed student to first scare away her abuser, and then to begin an affair with her himself. Hasumi comes under suspicion by another teacher, Tsurii (Mitsuru Fukikoshi), and several students, who believe he may have been involved in a rash of suicides at a previous school he worked for.

The first half of the film plays out as a high-school drama, with elements of a murder mystery, as we delve deeper into the character of Hasumi and discover more of his secrets. Just as you are beginning to piece together a semblance of what might be termed normality in this world, the film completely throws this plot out of the window and turns into an almost comedic rampage of death and destruction, as Hasumi begins to dispatch the students of the school one by one with a shotgun. Ito gives a great performance as evil incarnate who is able to mask his sadistic tendencies with a veneer of respectability. The film also features a great cast of young actors as the school. Shota Sometani and Fumi Nikaido, who worked together previously in Himizu, KENTA and Elina Mizuno all bring a vitality to their roles as believable high-schoolers trapped in an incredibly dangerous situation.

The film is beautifully shot, with some fantastically atmospheric images and the direction holds your attention throughout. There are striking visuals that add a depth to the film beyond what is in the script. Examples of this include the contrast between the permanently grey shadowy look of Hasumi’s house, and the brightly lit school scenes during the day. Later in the film there is a great tonal discrepancy that emphasises the film’s dark satire, as Hasumi rampages around a school colourfully adorned with balloons and handmade ornaments, often cast in red light.

“Lesson of Evil” can be enjoyed as a straight-forward slasher film, with an evil monster brutally dispatching innocent teenagers. However, the film demands consideration in its use of folkloric and theological allusion. Hasumi is troubled by the appearance of two ravens, we later see him researching Odins corvid companions Munnin (memory) and Huginn (thought). Hasumi kills the raven he names Huginn, but continues to dwell on the presence of Munnin. This is perhaps some reference to Hasumi’s lack of compassion and his senseless crimes, albeit with his past sins being inescapable. While it is easy to see the film as pure exploitation cinema, it plays both sides of the aisle, indulging in this while also offering a perfect satire and critique of our obsession with violence. The high-school massacre at the end of the film goes on so long that you are forced to consider your reaction to it. Ito’s crimes transform from being blackly comic with the first unexpected killing, through terror when you realise that he is not going to stop, and finally a sort of numb sense of inevitability that you are going to witness the slaughter of every innocent child at the school. The film is unflinching in its portrayal of violence, creating a sense of uneasiness as it flips between moments of humour (such as Hasumi being temporarily deafened by the sound of his gun), to horror as we see students cowering in fear. We see several moments in the film that may be a direct attack on American gun culture and the tragedies stemming from it: these include Hasumi’s own past as a Harvard graduate, his use of English, and later in the film a scene in which he trips over an American flag as part of a moon landing display. In fact this entire sequence of slaughter is rich with background details that speak to the waste of talent and creativity that such killings result in. We are also left to ruminate as the title of the film suggests on what we mean by evil, whether and how it can be defeated. A number of characters plead with Hasumi for an explanation of his actions, but none is forthcoming. At the end we are left only with the horrific aftermath and no clearly picture of what caused it. Again, this may be an attempt to poke fun at the notion that killing and violence can be understood rationally or that crimes such as this can be ameliorated by context.

As with many of Miike’s films, “Lesson of Evil” blends a number of genres, making you unsure what to make of it at times. In the end you are left to reflect on your own experience and impressions of the film, and perhaps come to a deeper understanding of yourself through it. As the killer says to the police in the film, it is not his job to explain why he has done what he has done, that is for them to do. The same might be said of the audience. It is not necessarily the artist’s job to explain themselves clearly, it is your job, as the viewer, to consider what you have seen and your reactions to it and see what that tells you about society and yourself.

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.