Battle Girl The Living Dead in Tokyo Bay (1991) by Kazuo Komizu

After a meteor lands in Tokyo Bay, the chemical reaction causes parts of the population to turn into zombies. A blockade is placed round the area and the ground defence force take control of the city. While they scramble to create an antidote, Keiko (Cutie Suzuki), the daughter of an army colonel, is brought in to help rescue any survivors. She later comes face to face with the Fujioka (Kenji Otsuki), the leader of the ground defence force, and his sinister plans.

Written by Hitoshi Matsuyama and directed by Kazuo Komizu, “Battle Girl” is classic B-movie fare, with an outlandish premise and predictable plot that serves only to move the characters from one action scene to another. The film is self-aware enough to realise its inherent silliness, often leaning into it, for example having Keiko lift a man by the neck upside down, or a zombie that is diced up into pieces. Cutie Suzuki, a pro-wrestler before starring in this film, has a great presence, clearly familiar with portraying a tough character. It is perhaps surprising that the use of her skills as a fighter is quite limited, with only a few moments showing off wrestling moves. For the most part she is a generic action heroine. Despite the predictable plot, the film throws in enough elements to keep things engaging, such as the ‘Battle Kids’, a group of young survivors who have teamed up to try and escape the city, and the ‘Monsters’, a group of thugs charged with preventing Keiko discovering Fujioka’s secrets. The action scenes are engaging, again benefitting from having a wrestler in the lead role, and the decapitations, explosions, and gun fights ensure there is rarely a dull moment. There are a few laughably poor special effects, understandable given the small budget, using obvious dummies; but for the most part the gore is good. Where the film does excel is in creating an eerie post-apocalyptic environment, with sparsely furnished industrial settings giving a sense of desolation and decay. The ambient score likewise emphasises this threat-laden atmosphere. There are a couple of strong visuals and scenes in the film too, particularly when Keiko confronts a group of zombies, and the plot builds to two fantastic large scale sequences of zombie assaults on the survivors.

On the whole, “Battle Girl” is a fun, fast-paced, action-horror, with an entertaining turn from star Cutie Suzuki. The themes of corrupt officials and military personnel, the dangers of radiation and scientific arrogance are familiar to the genre and the plot will not surprise fans of this type of story. However, there is some genuine artistry here in the stylish direction, soundscape and set design that make it worth a watch.

Sweet Home (1989) by Kiyoshi Kurosawa

A film crew head to the mysterious country mansion of a deceased artist to uncover his lost paintings, only to be terrorized by the ghost of his wife. Film director Kazuo (Shingo Yamashiro), his daughter Emi (Nokko), producer Akiko (Nobuko Miyamoto), reporter and host Asuka (Fukumi Kuroda), and crewman Taguchi (Ichiro Furutachi) enter the mansion in the woods unsuspecting of their fate. They are delighted to discover a never-before-seen mural depicting a mother with child, but soon things begin to take a sinister turn. Asuka begins speaking in tongues and digs up the coffin of an infant outside. The crew come to realise that the house is haunted, or ‘cursed’ as they are later told by elderly gas station manager Yamamura (Juzo Itami) who comes to their aid. The terrifying backstory of the Mamiya family is brought to light and the crew find themselves in a fight for survival against the violent spirit of Lady Mamiya.

“Sweet Home”, written and directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, was released alongside a videogame of the same name. This video game was one of the primary inspirations behind the original “Resident Evil” game, which has since gone on to spawn numerous sequels and a film series of its own. Kurosawa’s film is based on a simple premise, a cursed house that the group must survive, one that allows the characters and outrageous action to take precedence. In many ways the reason for them being at the mansion is insignificant, the central story is of what happened to the Mamiyas and how they are going to escape with their lives. Lady Mamiya’s backstory is a gothic, gruesome tale; mostly told in exposition it nevertheless provokes a shudder. The film varies in tone from knockabout comedy, such as when Taguchi nearly accidentally decapitates Kazuo with a hefty axe he found in a shed, to some increidble gore effects in the latter half that stand alongside the best in the splatter film genre. The mix of simple effects, CG effects, and audacious practical monster effects make for an enjoyable watch for fans of fantastical horror. The cast do a great job, both in the lighthearted comedy and the horror action. The relationships between the widower Kazuo and his daughter, and Kazuo and Akiko, are engaging and provide a solid secondary plot thread through the shocks and scares of the main story. Kurosawa’s direction makes the most of the locations, filling them with dark shadows, and making the mansion come alive. It treads several well-worn tropes (the eerie mansion, the local who warns them of danger, the group dynamics of comedic and serious characters), but the skill of the director is in creating something that is fun and engaging even with that familiar premise.

Themes of family run strongly through the film, with Kazuo and Emi having lost a wife and mother, and the story of Lady Mamiya revolving around the loss of her own child in horrifying circumstances. The relationship between Kazuo and Emi is the reverse of Mamiya who lost a child. The loss of his wife has left Kazuo unsure of how to raise his daughter and unable to form new relationships, for example with Akiko. Likewise, Emi seems to be missing her mother, though in subtler ways, perhasp the reason she wants her father to remarry. Their drama is at odds with the events that occur at the Mamiya mansion, almost a completely separate narrative about trying to rediscover love and rebuild a relationship with a bereaved child. However, it is this juxtaposition that makes the film exciting. “Sweet Home” has a knack for turning on a sixpence from chilling to funny to poignant, switching emotional register without skipping a beat. The disparate elements create something that is hugely entertaining, with moments to please horror fans of all kinds.

Ghost Squad (2018) by Noboru Iguchi

A team of ghosts come to a young woman to ask for her help in getting revenge against their murderers in this slapstick horror from Noboru Iguchi (Dead Sushi, Mutant Girls Squad). Rika (Anna Yanagi) is gifted with the ability to see the dead. After splitting up with her boyfriend, a trio of ghosts appear to cause havoc, beating up this man on her behalf. They explain to her that people living on the cusp of life and death, such as her, are able to see the ghosts. These restless spirits are also able to draw her life energy, somewhat inexplicably, by kissing her. We learn that all of these ghosts were murdered and are seeking restitution. Keiko (Sumire Ueno), a schoolgirl who was killed before being able to give her father his birthday present; Akari (Minori Mikado), a cutesy twin-tailed teen, who acts like a puppy when she gets excited; and Yoshie (Yuni Hong), whom Rika had previously believed was her (living) friend. They are later joined by Naomi (Asaka Nakamura), a spirit guide and trainer, who helps get the team in shape for taking on their adversaries, a group of gangsters in the town responsible for their torture and deaths.

This comedic horror is lighthearted for the most part, albeit with dark and serious undertones of rape and murder of young teen women. As with Noboru Iguchi’s other works, it is fun to see these capable female protagonists getting even with the reprehensible men who cut their lives short. The energy and enthusiasm of the actresses makes the most of a ridiculous script. The cast go all out with the material, flinging themselves gleefully into their roles. They have excellent comedic skills, managing to pull of the puerile sight gags and remain straightfaced while reading a script packed with bizarre moments. However, when the film does dip into more emotional territory they prove themselves more than capable, being completely captivating and creating a genuine sense of loss concerning their deaths. The direction is crisp and clean, helping maintain a bright and cheerful atmosphere, and there is fun, cartoonish CG with the ghost energy effects. Iguchi is also known for crude, disgusting, practical effects work, but this film is tame by comparison to others, with scenes only occasionaly featuring body horror. Hints of exploitation cinema are also limited to the girls kissing and one egregious scene with an actress stripping down to her underwear to have an ‘air shower’. As with “Dead Sushi” it occupies a peculiar situation, with the style, characters and humour being almost straight from a children’s film, while the focus on rape and murder, and the occasional gruesome effect could not be considered child friendly. This seeming mismatch between tone and content will be familiar to those who have seen other works, adult themes with childish sensibilities.

“Ghost Squad” is a fun comedy-horror but nevertheless has genuine heart. The trio of ghosts are sympathetic due to their traumatic ordeals and having their lives taken away long before their time. Amongst the comedy and chaos of the story we have several moments that delve into some dark and difficult reflection on such crimes. The film asks us to consider not only the suffering of the victims, but the adequacy of the justice system that allows men to perpetrate such crimes with immunity or limited punishment. It also questions whether there is any possibility of redemption and what the role of revenge is in society. However, the film’s central thematic focus is on the tragedy of the victims, who have lost the most important thing: life; and also to realise how precious life is in a world where it can be easily taken away.

Ju-On Origins (2020)

Since its release “Ju-On” (Takashi Shimizu, 2001) has established itself as a classic horror, spawning sequels, remakes and a crossover with “Ring” (Sadako vs. Kiyoko, Koji Shiraishi, 2016). This mini-drama, six half-hour episodes, first takes us back to 1988. Yasuo Odajima (Yoshiyoshi Arakawa) is a paranormal investigator who is introduced to the story of the mysterious house by a co-presenter, Haruka Honjo (Yuina Kuroshima), whose partner recently visited the place while house hunting. Certain spirits that inhabit the house haunt many people who come into contact with it, often terrifying them to death or causing some violent or fatal misfortune. Around the same time a schoolgirl, Kiyomi (Ririka), is tricked by her classmates into visiting the house and there subjected to sexual abuse. The series then moves forward, to 1995 and 1998, as occurences at the house and in the lives of people connected with it become more gruesome and bizarre.

Written by Hiroshi Takahashi and Takashige Ichise, and directed by Sho Miyake, “Ju-On Origins” creates several interwoven stories that all converge on this same ill-fated residence. The short half-hour episodes and multiple narratives mean it is fast-paced, moving swiftly from one story to another, often more of a detective drama that straight horror. The mystery of what is happening in the house twinned with genuine concern for the characters makes it gripping from start to finish. For fans of the original films there is also interest in seeing these new characters and revisiting the cursed residence. The scares are a mixture of bloody body horror, more visceral and shocking than anything in the original films, and the more familiar creepy moments. These subtler moments are often more effective, creating an uncomfortable atmosphere from often simple things: mewling cats, ringing telephones, small details in the background. However, when it does go for more disturbingly graphic scares, it hits the mark, reinventing and exploring the more gruesome aspects of the “Ju-On” myth, including spousal and child murder, and sexual assault. The direction uses some of the techniques of the original film, off-kilter angles, holding on a scene until the audience realises there’s a figure in the background, but also features great use of light and colour, with scenes shifting from light to dark. There are more special effects involved in this series, which can be hit and miss, but are nevertheless audaciously extreme. The cast all do a great job in bringing the curse of the house to life, creating real characters in an unreal situation. In particular Yoshiyoshi Arakawa in a rare serious role, and Ririka whose complex character is one of the most intriguing.

One of the things that makes “Juon Origins” interesting is the meta reading of the film. In several episodes we hear or see news reports of real-life crimes and tragedies, two very high-profile murders, the Sarin Gas Attack, and the Kobe Earthquake. These add a disturbing aspect to the film, almost drawing horror from these true crimes into the narrative, providing an uncomfortable reminder that horror and evil exist in our own world. Odajima, one of the first characters we are introduced to and one whose story is intricately linked with the house, is asked on a number of occasions why he is writing a book on the paranormal; and this question could also be asked not only of this film, but horror films in general. The question of human fascination with evil, whether real-world or supernatural, is a pertinent one, especially considering the inclusion of the genuine stories mentioned above. The idea of the cursed house, spirits calling for revenge, unsatisfied rage, anger, despair, are things that are seen as resulting from the violence and abuse that took place there. In part, the series is not questioning the origin of this cursed house, but the origin of the film “Ju-On”, and indirectly all horror. That is, why do writers, artists, and film-makers, make disturbing works. It does not spring from some imagined fear, but from the horrors they see in the world. Whether this is a form of escapism or an attempt to explain our relationship with evil is up for debate. “Ju-On: Origins” is a series that takes it’s subject matter seriously, creating a potent dread that is as much to do with our own fears as the supernatural horror.

Carved: The Slit-Mouthed Woman (2007) by Koji Shiraishi

Based on a playground urban legend, this slightly silly horror sees a monstrous figure begin a terrifying rampage of kidnap and killing. The film begins with groups of children telling the story of the Slit-Mouthed Woman, who removes her mask to reveal a face sliced from ear to ear, and who cuts her victims in a similar way with a pair of large scissors. After an earthquake strikes the town, this woman begins to appear and snatch children in plain sight. When her student Mika (Rie Kuwana) is taken by the Slit-Mouthed Woman, teacher Kyoko Yamashita (Eriko Sato) along with Noboru Matsuzaki (Haruhiko Kato) set out to try and stop her and save the children that have been taken. They are helped by a schoolboy who has collected data on the woman, and Noboru’s personal experience as a child.

Directed by Koji Shiraishi (Noroi: The Curse) and written by Shiraishi and Naoyuki Yokota, “Carved: The Slit-Mouthed Woman” is standard horror fare, with a supernatural monster coming after young children, a dark backstory, violence and even a spooky old house in the woods. Part of the problem is in making such an urban legend into a believable figure. The Slit-Mouthed Woman’s appearances seem random, happening in broad daylight, witnessed by everyone, before equally sudden and inexplicable disappearances. This robs her actions of any tension in the buildup, often happening before you’re aware that there was even a threat. As a villain she also seems remarkably easy to stop or simply shove aside, as any character who attempts it ably demonstrates. The second narrative problem is in her motivation, which is muddled at best and non-existant at worse. The film may work better for children, with the children being the main victims and the non-supernatural horror revolving round mistreatment of children. It is this balance between a slightly spooky fable for children (watch out for strangers) and a genuinely terrifying horror for adults (keep an eye on your children) that sees the film perhaps pull back in certain moments, never fully developing the more troubling themes it hints at. On the positive side the film does have a great, if comfortably familiar, third act, when they finally track down the monster to her hideout and a fun showdown ensues. The sound design and score by Gen Wano and Chika Fujino also does a good job of evoking the eerie, sinister atmosphere of a ghost train.

The urban legend of the Slit-Mouthed Woman references a childhood fear of strangers and a parental fear of their children going missing. This film also weaves in a secondary horror that is more interesting than that primary narrative. We learn that Yamashita hit her young daughter, meaning that she is now no longer in contact with her. Her daughter lives separately with her father. Mika also suffered violence at the hands of her mother, as did Noboru. This theme of maternal child abuse provides a dark undertone to the film, and one that makes parts of it an uncomfortable watch. It is never made clear why the women act this way, presumably due to mental health issues, post-natal depression and multiple-personality disorders are hinted at. Instead the film seems to suggest that women occasionally turn violent for little reason. The depiction of such women as evil seems a step backwards in the understanding of such conditions. “Carved: The Slit-Mouthed Woman” is a fun horror that doesn’t expect too much from its audience, but could have used its platform to tell a more interesting or more nuanced story.