School in the Crosshairs (1981) by Nobuhiko Obayashi

A schoolgirl with supernatural powers takes on an alien intent on world domination in this fantasy adventure. Yuko (Hiroko Yakushimaru) discovers that she has unusual abilities when she is able to reverse the direction of a truck that is about to hit a young child. She later meets a mysterious figure who offers to help harness her powers to take over the world. A transfer student begins recruiting Yuko’s classmates to a new cram-school where they seem to be brainwashed into becoming obedient and docile. It is up to Yuko to save her classmates from this alien threat.

Written by Taku Mayumura and directed by Nobuhiko Obayashi, “School in the Crosshairs” is a light-weight fantasy adventure. Despite some interesting elements: telekenesis and extra-terrestrials, the film fails to really develop its characters and themes. The actions of the aliens are analogous with an totalitarian states, with their quasi-fascistic uniforms and authoritarian dictats, but this subtext is left largely unexplored. The film’s quirkier moments help maintain the viewer’s interest, with musical numbers performed by the students at their club recruitment day, or a neighbour who has a chimpanzee as a pet, but it somehow feels lacking, both in story and character. We never feel fully involved with Yuka and the alien threat never feels particularly real. This is largely due to a lack of explanation or consequences in what unfolds. It is a series of bizarre events culminating in a somewhat lacklustre denoument between Yuko and the aliens that takes place in a liminal space, further distancing it from any real threat.

Director Nobuhiko Obayashi was fiercely anti-war, expressed most beautifully in his masterpiece “Hanagatami”. This film is perhaps an early attempt to work in some of the themes of totalitarian government. We see early on that the class is slightly unruly, although nothing serious, and how the intention to make them conform to the rules turns into something more sinister. With the children enslaved to an ideology of conformism and persecuting those who break the rules, they lose their freedom and individuality. While we see a little of this in the film, it would have been interesting to expand on it, perhaps showing the impact on the characters and the world outside of the school. However, with so many disparate elements, many of which fail to connect, the film is unfortunately more of a curiousity than a must-see.

Tokyo Gore School (2009) by Yohei Fukuda

High-schooler Fujiwara (Yusuke Yamada) is dragged into a mobile game in which students fight to win points in this teen action film. In heavy-handed narration Fujiwara explains his cynical world view, that of a society divided neatly into ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. When he is chased and attacked by a group he finds that thousands of people are playing the “Chain Game”, in which stealing someone’s phone wins you points, and losing means your darkest secret will be revealed to the world. Fujiwara finds himself the target of former friends led by Todoroki (Shunya Shiraishi) and teaming up with an unknown female student.

The film’s problems start with the title, which misrepresents the story by suggesting a splatter-horror film. The Japanese title is more fitting, but would translate poorly to English. The story is formulaic, reminiscent of the mobile-phone driven dread of “Keitai Kanojo”, or the pugilistic high-school antics of “Crows”, and plot hole galore make it hard to relate to the characters. Even within the film, characters manage to come up with a simplistic solution to being hunted via mobile phone (to travel round on a bus during the play time). Another might simply have been to not have a phone (or as one character does, have a phone that doesn’t send e-mails). These solutions never seem to occur to characters with the majority of the narrative relying on this kind of complete lack of common sense. The film has an overly serious tone for such a ludicrous premise; the low-stakes seeming mismatched with the actions of the protagonists. The inclusion of a couple of violent scenes, with stabbings and one character being beaten to death, also seem inserted to give the film a sense of danger, but instead come across as completely unnecesary and inexplicable given what we know of the characters. The ridiculous plot, melodramatic acting, and amateurish cinematography mark this out as a low-budget experiment. The best parts of the film are the chase and fight sequences, with elements of parkour injecting some much-needed excitement to proceedings. However, the film seems intent on pushing the dramatic elements which are far weaker.

Fujiwara’s puerile dog-eat-dog mentality, suggesting a strict dichotomy of weak and strong individuals would perhaps have been an interesting idea to explore. The film also raises the spectre of the famous “Stanford Prison Experiment”, in which participants given the roles of prisoners and guards came slowly to enact those roles with increasing violence and abuse of power. “Tokyo Gore School” sets up these ideas of bullying, the corrupting nature of power, social hierarchies, and even limply gestures towards society reflecting our atavistic tendencies. However, it loses its way once it gets going, with the mobile “Chain Game” not offering much in the way of insight into human relations. A muddled ending leaves the audience with mixed feelings about Fujiwara. A missed opportunity to tell an interesting story about power dynamics in society, the danger of mobile environments promoting bullying and violence.

A Muse Never Drowns (2022) by Nozomi Asao

Sakuko Kizaki (Miku Uehara) is a member of her high-school art club along with her friend Emi Otani (Kokoro Morita) and talented fellow student Hikaru Saibara (Kogarashi Wakasugi). While the group are out sketching at the docks, Sakuko is knocked into the water. Hikaru paints the flailing Sakuko and the picture is hung up in the school stairwell and praised for its quality. When Hikaru asks Sakuko to model for a new portrait, she is at first unwilling, not understanding the reason for her classmate’s interest in her. Meanwhile, Sakuko is being forced to pack up her things at home as her family, her father (Yota Kawase) and his new heavily pregnant wife Satomi (So Hirosawa), are moving out. Believing she has little talent for art she bags up her sketches and drawings, but soon finds a new creative outlet, collecting bits and pieces from the things they are throwing out and constructing a boat from the discarded scraps.

“A Muse Never Drowns” is a beautifully composed film, with each element helping drive forward the themes of growth and creativity. From the first moment we see Sakuko sketching the boat, to the final moments when we see the wildly creative construction she has made from junk, we see her develop in a way that is relatable and believable. Writer-director Nozomi Asao focuses on the relationship between Sakuko and Hikaru, creating an incredible depth of emotion between them. The power of their scenes is in the subtle everyday concerns that are driving them, anxieties about their own talents, and fears for the future, as well as uncomfortably new feelings of affection. The performances of Miku Uehara, Kokoro Morita and Kogarashi Wakasugi are note perfect, reflecting their immaturity alongside a growing sense of self-confidence and yearning for independence without veering into melodrama. Sakuko’s home situation is likewise understated; she has a good relationship with both parents, but with an underlying tension due to the loss of her birth mother. Asao’s use of visual and narrative metaphor works well without being too obvious. Some great examples of this are the fantastical boat that Sakuko constructs from the broken pieces of her home; and the sequence in which we see this home being demolished. Characters occassionaly philosophise on life and relationships, but the script manages to work in these more poetic moments with the characters and situations.

A coming-of-age film that expertly weaves plot and theme together in its tale of young women confronting the future and themselves. Sakuko is typical of many young teenagers, having been passionate about something, but later realising that there are more talented individuals out there. Hikaru, who seems to Sakuko to be achieving everything she wants, is also anxious about the things she is unable to attain. Together they are able to see life more clearly, finding solace in each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and reassess what it is they want from life. They come to realise the importance of creativity and constant reinvention. We learn early in the film that they are the only two who have yet to submit their applications to higher education, emphasising this sense that both are lost and unable to see the path forward. They have spent so long trapped in their own hopes and anxieties that they are unable to see that they need to change in order to progress. The film ends with this positive message that people are able to change, to adapt, and to reinvent themselves constantly in order to face a world that can be full of unexpected disappointments. A wonderful coming-of-age story that is sure to resonate with audiences young and old.

Busu (1987) by Jun Ichikawa

Mugiko (Yasuko Tomita) moves from Izu to Tokyo, starting at a city school and joining her aunt’s geisha house in Asakusa. Given the name Suzume, she begins work helping the other geisha and learning the dances and entertaining duties of the house. Meanwhile at school she struggles to fit in, finally finding a role for herself when she is asked to dance at the school festival.

“Busu”, written by Makiko Uchidate and directed by Jun Ichikawa, is a coming-of-age story dealing with ideas of tradition meeting contemporary society. The sequence of Suzume running along behind the rickshaws through inner-city Tokyo shows this peculiar blend of long-standing ritual in a modern setting. The depiction of high-school life is enjoyable, as well as Suzume’s sense of isolation after her move. Ichikawa’s direction is endlessly creative, allowing the character-driven story to flow without cleaving to any particular plot. Suzume’s experiences at high-school and at the geisha house are realistic without resorting to melodrama. There is a potential love interest in the athletic classmate, but whatever connection there is between them is left largely unexplored. The score is varied, with pop song interludes accompanying montages of Suzume exploring the city. It is a film that emphasises Suzume’s point of view, her wide-eyed innocence, her sense of isolation, her hopes and fears. Occasionally seemingly incidental details, such as armed police storming into a building, or a woman accosting what we presume is an unfaithful lover, all help to establish a lived in world, one in which Suzume is keenly aware of the dangers.

When she comes to perform her dance at the school show, the audience are completely behind her. This symbol of the traditional values she has been taught seems to be a life-affirming moment for her, connecting her with her family and the past. In a sense Suzume’s story is timeless, the difficulties she faces in fitting in and finding her own way through the various familial and cultural pressures one that has been told many times throughout the generations. Her performance perhaps suggesting that this cycle, of searching for independence before finally settling on a balance between freedom and restraint, is one that is destined to be endlessly repeated. The final moments of the film see Suzume reunited with her mother having experienced life for herself she appears comfortable and confident in relating to her as a woman.

Lovesick Dead (2001) by Kazuyuki Shibuya

Midori (Risa Goto) is a high-schooler troubled by a recurring dream of a roadside shrine and the ancient practice of Tsuruji, where a person stands by the shrine and asks the first passer-by whether they will find love or not. Midori’s dream always ends with the appearance of a dark figure. On her first day at a new school she meets Suzue, whose friends relate several other eerie stories involving Tsuruji. Two of the students meet a gruesome end after trying Tsuruji, lending credence to these rumours. Midori also meets an old friend called Ryusuke who she hasn’t seen for 10 years. Meanwhile, Midori’s mother begins to break down, continually scrubbing mold off the walls of their apartment.

Based on a Junji Ito manga, with a script by Naoyuki Tomomatsu, “Lovesick Dead” (also known as “Love Ghost”, brings together three ghost stories disguised as a high-school romance. The first concerns the Tsuruji shrine and the violent fates awaiting the girls who attempt to discover their futures; the second revolves around Midori and Ryusuke’s relationship; and a third is centred on Midori’s mother and the disappearance of her father 10 years prior. The film spends a long time setting up Midori’s high-school classmates, who are then jettisoned in the final third as the story comes to focus on the story of Ryusuke. The three story threads can be largely seen as distinct plots, as they mostly function without reference or relevance to the others. When we reach the moment of revelation, the film does provide an intriguing twist, throwing in a new element to the story and slowly beginning to untangle the various mysteries established earlier on. There are plot holes and inexplicable moments that undermine the entire story of the school and Midori’s new classmates, but it is a satisfactory, if unsurprising, conclusion. There are flashes of brilliance in the direction and storytelling here, isolating characters with clever framing, and setting up certain elements of the twist beforehand so it doesn’t feel like you have been misled. The acting is largely melodramatic and the cast have little to do, with an emotional range from slightly concerned to seriously worried. Aside from two suicides, the film’s horror elements are confined to the creepy ghost stories, with a comfortably traditional feel. The soundtrack does an excellent job in complementing the gothic romance.

As with many films dealing with the idea of fate or premonition, “Lovesick Dead” presents us with the dangers of discovering your own fate. As this doom is always inescapable it is unwise to search too keenly for it. The film also poses the intriguing logical question of a self-fulfilling prophecy, whereby the recipient of this preternatural warning becomes the agent of their own destruction, therefore fulfilling what was foretold. The Tsuruji plotline is the most interesting part of the film, bringing a traditional tale to a modern audience it offers a unique take on the dark fate awaiting horror victims. In contrast, Midori’s own story with Ryusuke is a more typical ghost story with psychological elements; and Midori’s mother’s tale is one of guilt and despair. These two stories suffer a little due to a lack of serious character work. There is a lot to explore in this atypical “mother-daughter” relationship and the way that their pasts are impacting their present, but the film wraps up relatively quickly after we discover what has happened, giving little time for such an emotional denouement. “Lovesick Dead” draws together several traditional high-school horror elements in a film that moves quickly and doesn’t outstay its welcome. It is unlikely to offer genuine shocks, but if you are looking for a mildly chilling tale you will enjoy it.