Suicide Club (2001) by Sion Sono

When a group of fifty-four high school girls unexpectedly throw themselves off a platform at Shinjuku station into the path of an oncoming train, detectives are called on to investigate. Kuroda (Ryo Ishibashi), the detective leading the operation is baffled by these apparently senseless deaths. The main theory appears to be the existence of a suicide cult that young people are mysteriously drawn to. The detectives are then contacted by a hacker calling herself The Bat (Yoko Kamon), who tells them there is a website where they can see red and white circles symbolising men and women who have died. Disturbingly, the dots appear before the suicides. The detectives also discover pieces of skin from the victims, sewn together and wrapped up in long roll. As the suicides show no sign of decreasing, the police face a race against time to uncover the cause. Characters soon uncover  more worrying connections: with a violent underground group led by a man calling himself Genesis (Rolly), and a quintuplet of pre-teen pop idols named Dessert.

Writer-director Sion Sono presents a pitch-black satire about the state of modern society, with elements of graphic horror, police mystery and social commentary. Viewers should be advised that the film is incredibly gory in parts, with liberal use of blood, a macabre plot-point involving a roll of strips of flesh cut from victims, suggestions of animal cruelty, and visceral, grotesque scenes that will stay with you for a long time. While this extreme approach undoubtedly contains an element of childish glee in seeing how many disgusting and bloody scenarios you can show on screen, they are rarely needless. The gut-churning horror is done with the intent to provoke not only a physical but an emotional response, to shock a jaded public into understanding the severity of suicide (something which is often in danger of being trivialised both in society and media). There is no quiet end for these characters, who explode in fountains of gore, while onlookers scream in impotent terror. The film really has one major goal, to satirise a culture that prides itself on collectivism, and following the crowd, that has become hypnotised by banal and childish entertainment to the neglect of thought and individuality. The film manages to step neatly from graphic violence to more emotionally charged scenes where characters are struck with the realisation that they may be partly or wholly to blame for the horror of their situation. In particular, Ryo Ishibashi does a fantastic job of a complex character. The film also has its surreal moments, such as the gang of sadists who perform an impromtu musical number in their underground bowling alley hideout, or the spine-chilling voice of the youngster who calls the detectives to berate them following another death. The film slides easily between its various tones and while it may seem at first to be an exploitative gore-fest, it is actually surprisingly compassionate in its portrayal of suicide. The black humour is largely reserved in the build-up to the deaths, and seems to be mocking not only the commercialised society that alienates people from themselves and others (the film’s main target); but also ridiculing the simplistic explanations put forward by the police. The score by Tomoki Hasegawa helps in establishing a tone that is able to keep up with the film’s shifting tones, and often keys the audience into when the film is being sincere or playful.

The film is intended as a message to the audience to wake up and live your life, rather than following the herd. The film is about discovering your individuality and bemoaning the collectivism that leads to depression and suicide. The film’s commentary on the problem of suicide is wide-ranging and there are many subtle moments that may be missed in a first viewing. This include notions of childhood and adolescence. The pop idol group “Dessert” who play a pivotal role have an average age of 12.5, putting them at the beginning of puberty. While the first group we see commit mass suicide are just slightly older females, suggesting that the film is also taking a swipe at the problems and pressures that can assail young people, especially girls at that age. When the character of Mitsuko arrives at the theatre at the end to be questioned by an audience of children, the film again seems to be hinting at some disconnect between the adult world, with its responsibilities and conditions, and the world the children inhabit, which is free of such things. “Suicide Club” is a film with a bold message, that revels in provoking and pricking the conscience of the audience.

Gothic and Lolita Psycho (2010) by Go Ohara

The subculture of ‘gothloli’ is one that is perfectly suited to this brand of anarchic comedy-horror-action, blending as it does the cutesy cartoonish nature of Lolita with the darker gothic style. Yuki (Rina Akiyama) is a caricature of at typical goth-loli, bedecked in coquettish black Victorian frills, on a mission to avenge the death of her mother for unspecified motives. The film begins in an underground nightspot which seems to be somewhere between a disco, S and M club, and torture dungeon for gangsters. We see people tormented with a blow torch, cage-fighting, or playing an ultra-high stakes game where the penalty is killing a poor victim. This is the kind of establishment where a severed head squashed with a mallet brings a cheer rather than a scream. In this kind of environment, Yuki is hardly out of place. Her target: Sakie, a woman who is controlling the gambling in this establishment. Yuki’s weapon of choice is a lethal umbrella, bullet-proof and with a  sharp blade in the end. We see through flashbacks an attack on Yuki’s family that left her mother dead and her father, a priest, in a wheelchair. Yuki sets out to kill the five people responsible and perhaps find some answers.

Directed by Go Ohara and written by Hisakatsu Kuroki “Goth Loli Psycho” is silly low-budget fun and doesn’t pretend to anything more. We find that each of the characters seems to have paranormal abilities, either telekinesis or psychic powers. There are a few nice touches, such as Yuki burning tarot-style cards each time she dispatches one of her targets. The humour is slapstick but works for the most part, with some laugh-out-loud moments if you have a black sense of humour. The villains are distinguished enough from each other to make their encounters entertaining. There is plenty of action and the direction of the fights is well done. Visual effects are largely practical, and mostly work well, though budget constraints mean there are recognizable rubber heads and limbs. The CG effects are understandably poor, and an example of where suspension of disbelief, or turning a blind eye is required. Likewise, the locations of early fight sequences, a school gym and rooftop, seem a little uninspired. However, the underground nightclub and the climactic setting of the film are fantastic stages for the carnage. All of the actors know exactly how ludicrous the premise is and ham it up at every opportunity. The music has some fantastic choral arrangements for when Yuki executes a rival, playing into the style of the character.

Nobody watching a film called “Goth Loli Psycho” will be expecting high art. It has enough charm to make it entertaining, leaning more to the tongue-in-cheek comedy side than the extreme gore (although there is no shortage of blood on display). From the opening moments we know exactly what film we are getting and it rarely strays from the well-worn revenge film path. Worth checking out if you are looking for something wacky to pass the time.

Meatball Machine Kodoku (2017) by Yoshihiro Nishimura

A sequel/remake to 1999’s “Meatball Machine”, for which Yoshihiro Nishimura provided the special effects, this film sees him take full creative control, both writing and directing. Nishimura is known for his outrageous splatter horror and black comedy with a filmography including “Tokyo Gore Police” and “Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl”. For those who have seen those other works, the first thirty minutes of “Meatball Machine Kodoku” might be something of a shock. It starts pretty simply and could almost be mistaken for a regular drama. Our protagonist, 50-year old Yuji Noda (Yoji Tanaka) works for a debt collection agency, spending his days attempting to extract money for late bill payments and getting nothing but disrespect and slammed doors for his troubles. His boss is less than sympathetic, shouting at the downtrodden Noda. His only respite is a visit to a second-hand bookstore and the lovely Kaoru who works there. Worse is to come for Noda as he discovers that he has cancer. After Kaoru takes him along to a meeting of a bizarre religion, Noda runs away and finds himself enticed into a burlesque club, where he is later ripped off by the staff and thrown out in the street. It may seem as though this is more than enough plot for any movie, but this turns out to be merely preamble. Throughout this a mysterious woman, with white hair and a PVC coat and top hat is wandering around the city. We discover she has in fact been drawing a giant circle that surrounds central Tokyo. A large glass descends on the city trapping a portion of the citizens inside. This is the first look we get at Nishimura’s trademark gore and black humour, as a man urinating in the street has his penis severed, and another couple engaging in a little al fresco sex are cut in half, their lower halves spurting blood while they continue to go at it. And… roll titles. Things are about to get messy.

From this point forward the central plot really kicks into gear. Noda is trapped inside the glass jar with a race of parasitic aliens who are able to take over people’s brains turning them into a conglomeration of machine and flesh and causing carnage wherever they go. Noda has to escape and find Kaoru. Along the way he is helped by a group of martial artists and we see people who he knew before the event transformed into horrifyingly deformed beings, with grotesque outgrowths of organs and mechanical appendages. The film features utterly horrific imagery, but throughout it all there is a twisted sense of fun as the violence is so extreme that it tips into comedy. It is certainly not a film for the squeamish as we see eyeballs drilled into, intestines ripped out and gallons of blood sloshing around. However, fans of Nishimura’s work will find a lot to enjoy in the inventive, over-the-top action sequences and no-holds-barred gruesomeness. It is a genre Nishimura has worked in for a long while and it shows. He has perfected many of the special effects techniques and this stands as perhaps the finest example of his work. There is a clear line from this to Shinya Tsukamoto’s “Tetsuo” in the transformed human-machine hybrids, and late in the film there seems to be a direct homage in a sequence in which we see a character running down the street.

The direction is good with lots of hand-held camera work giving a chaotic sense to the action. There are lots of subtle moments, call-backs and visual gags in the film too for those paying attention.

The central premise of the film comes at the end when we discover the reason for the alien invasion and all the mayhem that has ensued. Right before the film ends we also see some brief flashes of documentary footage, animals in slaughterhouses and battery-farmed eggs, alongside pictures of large congregations of people in city streets. It finishes with the single ironic word “humans”. However horrific things are in the film, it seems to say, humans are responsible for killing, slaughter and devastation on a far bigger scale. This is fiction, the fantastical nature of death and gore and violence here is as nothing to the true horror of humanities own destructive urges. Fans of Nishimura are sure to love this film as it is everything you could hope for from a splatter horror comedy.

Meatball Machine (2005) by Yudai Yamaguchi and Junichi Yamamoto

Yoji Muranishi (Issei Takahashi) works as a machinist in a factory. Cutting something of a lonely figure, he spends his lunchbreak looking over the fence from the factor at a woman, Sachiko (Aoba Kawai), who lives next to the factory, and spends time with his friend Doi. Something strange is going on in the city, with a mysterious creature appearing from the river and killing a young boy before transforming him into a grotesque conglomeration of metal, flesh and tentacles. A parasitical alien is taking over humans and turning them into necroborgs, forcing them to fight, with the victor devouring the weaker combatants. When Muranishi stumbles across Sachiko being sexually assaulted by his boss he steps in to help and the two head back to his house. Sachiko is taken over by one of the aliens and becomes a mass of metal. Muranishi is told by a man familiar with these beings that his best hope of saving her is to kill her. Muranishi heads out to attempt to rescue the woman he loves while escaping the same fate himself.

Directed by Yudai Yamaguchi and Junichi Yamamoto “Meatball Machine” is a splatter horror comedy that revels in disgusting and extreme imagery. The special effects work by Yoshihiro Nishimura is incredible and there are some truly stomach-churning creations. In particular the design of the creatures that infest the humans will thrill anyone who is into body-horror, somewhere between a tumour and hideous embryonic predator. Despite having no identifiable human features, these beings are completely understandable. One of the film’s strengths is that the explanations for what is happening are largely left unsaid until later in the movie, yet from the first instance of a human being taken over, and the sight of this small parasitical entity, it is entirely clear.

The plot is almost a twisted love story buried beneath a flood of science-fiction and horror elements. The central thread is Muranishi’s quest for Sachiko, but it proves to be a thin line on which to hang the talents and creativity of the special effects department. The directors show a firm knowledge of horror and do a great job at creating atmosphere, with off-kilter camera angles and strobe lighting effects. The majority of the film is shot in a muddy half-light, with the greys and browns of the industrial district emphasising a feel of decay, both economic and social. It doesn’t shy away from showing the uglier side of the city, with trash, weeds, iron railings and unappealing architecture.

It seems like the kind of film that the filmmakers had a lot of fun making and there are many moments that will raise a smile despite the horrific imagery. These include one of the necroborgs having a windscreen wiper to clear off blood after he has savagely dispatched a rival; and even the parasitical creatures in their fleshy command-stations have a definite comedic tone once the initial revulsion has passed. Worth a watch for fans of the bizarre and grotesque, “Meatball Machine” hangs by the slenderest of plot threads but fills its runtime with creative and excessive moments.

The Forest of Love (2019) by Sion Sono

Sion Sono is well-known for his subversive genre work, with gruesome body horror, nihilistic punk philosophy and black humour. “The Forest of Love” is a prime example of his oevre. In the same vein as “Cold Fish”, which took for inspiration a series of horrific murders, “The Forest of Love” also begins with an note that this is “Based on a True Story”, though as things progress that statement becomes harder and harder to believe. The case on which it is based is one of depraved sadism, abuse, and torture. Sono’s film manages to capture the despicable nature of the crimes, but also throws in many elements of his own creation in a bizarre blend of satire and bloody crime drama. The film begins with a young man, Shin (Shinnosuke Mitsushima), recently arrived in Tokyo meeting up with two film fanatics, Jay (Young Dais) and Fukami (Dai Hasegawa), who dream of entering the Pia Film Festival and becoming great directors. The three soon begin working together and meet up with Taeko (Kyoko Hinami), who introduces them to Mitsuko (Eri Kamataki). Taeko and Mitsuko are erstwhile high-school friends who drifted apart after one of their classmates died in tragic circumstances. Mitsuko is approached by a man, Joe Murata (Kippei Shiina), who claims to want to return a 50 yen coin to her, but it soon becomes obvious that he is a dangerous conman. Everyone Murata comes into contact with seems to get drawn into his orbit, despite being a completely despicable human being. The three young men decide he would make an excellent subject for their film, believing him to be responsible for several murders that have occurred recently. The truth is far more shocking as he subjects them and the women to a series of sadistic games, fleeces them of their money, and drags them into a hellish world of torture and killing, seemingly with little reason.

Kippei Shiina plays Murata with a sickening relish as a completely amoral human who cares for nobody but himself. His charisma is skin deep and his egocentric sadism is hard to stomach. His psychopathy is succinctly summarised by him in the opening scene when he describes the act of killing as akin to losing your virginity, something that once it is done it provokes no great change, it is simply a meaningless transition to becoming a murderer. Kyoko Hinami is perhaps the standout performance and the character of Taeko is the emotional heart of the drama. Her behaviour is often incomprehensible, but she seems self-aware enough to finally realise the horror of her situation. “The Forest of Love” is a film that seems determined to provoke a reaction, whether that is laughter or revulsion, which it does numerous times. Sono knows how to play the audience, confounding them with sudden shifts in tone and style that play alongside the warped characters to create a disorienting experience. The scene where Murata breaks out a mini piano to serenade his girlfriend’s parents is one such scene that is completely ridiculous and seems to come straight from a musical comedy, not something you would expect in a film that also features sado-masochistic electrocution and dismembered corpses. Another prime example is when two characters are frolicking with a hose as they wash down a room that has just been used to cut up a murder victim.

“The Forest of Love” may be a little overlong, a bizarre work that shows a creative mind throwing everything he has at it and hoping some of it works. For the most part it does, although many moments will be familiar to those who have seen “Cold Fish”, “Strange Circus”, “Love/ Exposure”, “Suicide Club” and other examples of Sono’s more extreme filmography.

The characters of Shin, Fukami and Jay, creations of Sono’s who almost feels like they have stumbled into this crime story from another film, are a clear reminder that the film should be seen as a commentary on events and society rather than a straightforward retelling of a true crime drama. They are fascinated by the crimes of Murata, going so far as to become directly involved in them. In what is perhaps a self-referential moment, Jay explains that he loves film because you can do anything you want, including travelling the world having sex and killing people. Jay can be seen as Sono inserting himself into the film to comment on the fascination people have with abhorrent behaviour. As for the crimes, the film offers very little in the way of an explanation, outside of Murata being a manipulative person who is able to convince others to join him. It does however create a visceral sense of dread and revulsion for the crimes and the way people are treated by him.

This is definitely worth a watch if you are a fan of Sion Sono’s extreme films. There are many moments that will make you squirm, laugh or want to turn away in disgust. Sono may be re-treading familiar themes and ideas but the quality and shock value are no less than in those earlier works.