Highschool of the Dead (2010-11)

Following the outbreak of a zombie virus, high school student Takashi Komuro (Junichi Suwabe) is forced to fight against the hordes of the living dead. Joining him are fellow survivors including his former girlfriend Rei Miyamoto (Marina Inoue), an intelligent, rich-kid Saya Takagi (Eri Kitamura), martial arts expert Saeko Busujima (Miyuki Sawashiro), portly geek Kota Hirano (Nobuyuki Hiyama), and teacher Shizuka Marikawa (Yukari Fukui). The group must work together, putting aside any former differences to escape from the school and find their way in this post-zombie apocalypse.

“Highschool of the Dead” is based on the manga by Daisuke Sato with illustration by Shoji Sato. Sato’s previous work was mainly self-published and this was his first non-“adult” project. The show borrows heavily from the exploitation genre, with graphic violence, blood splattering everywhere as they take out zombies in often darkly-humorous ways. The female protagonists are all endowed with improbably large bosoms and the camera rarely misses an opportunity for a shot of jiggling breasts or exposed panties. The male characters, Takashi and Kota, who presumably act as the surrogates for the intended audience, find themselves in the unusual position of being at once surrounded by beautiful young women, and simultaneously threatened with a gory death at the hands of rampaging zombies. There are serious tonal shifts throughout from horror to comedy, and it often has the feel of a show entirely put together by people who had no higher objective than to bring to the screen exactly what their audience would want to see. Although there are any number of zombie shows, this one does keep things fresh and fast-paced, with constant changes of environment and new challenges for the group. The introduction half-way through the series of a young girl and a dog to the group further alters the dynamic. The animation utilises several techniques, with comic inserts, frenetic CG enhanced action sequences, and the art-work on the zombies is especially good. The rock soundtrack keeps up the energy, and I enjoyed that the credits for each episode are accompanied by a different track.

A simple zombie survival tale that will appeal to anyone who is a fan of sexploitation cinema and gory horror. At times the show rises above the ridiculous and there are some moving sequences when it seems that the enormity of their situation finally catches up with the characters, but these are usually followed by more outrageous action or sex-jokes to lighten the mood. I would highly recommend it as one of the standout examples of the genre, with excellent animation work and character design and a story that keep throwing up unique and exciting scenarios.

Kakegurui (2019) Tsutomu Hanabusa

Hyakkao Academy is a prestigious establishment for the elite with a peculiar code of conduct. School life is governed by gambling, something that all students are expected to participate in. Those unable to pay their fees to the academy become the ‘pets’ of the wealthier students. The student council rules over this draconian hierarchy, enforcing the rules and ensuring that those of the lower classes don’t step out of line. There are no teachers or lessons, instead everything is a matter of money and chance, with the lucky destined for greatness and the unlucky pushed to the bottom of the pile. One student, Yumeko Jabami (Minami Hamabe), seems to possess a preternatural gift for gambling, able to turn almost any situation to her advantage and blessed with good luck. She soon becomes a beacon of hope for other downtrodden students, who see in her an example of how they might all succeed given one fortuitous turn of events.

The school is not entirely beholden to the council and a group of breakaway students known as “The Village” have established a refuge, shunning gambling and living in an equitable way with others. This group of almost religiously ascetic students are led by Itsuki Sumeragi (Ruka Matsuda) and Amane Murasame (Hio Miyazawa). The student council is unimpressed by this alternative society and the head of the student council Kirari Momobari (Elaiza Ikeda) decides on a course of action that will force them to gamble, by offering a blank wish-fulfilment paper to the winner of the upcoming election tournament. Students enter in pairs, the fate of the school to be decided by games of chance.

“Kakegurui” is based on a manga by Homura Kawamoto and a subsequent television drama series. The film throws us right into the action, with a heavy exposition dump early on explaining how the school works and a who’s who of the main players. The premise is wacky, requiring a significant suspension of disbelief, but acts as a perfect metaphor for capitalist societies where money decides everything. The students at the school are so privileged that the only thing that can truly separate them is their ruthlessness and willingness to risk everything on chance. The village, by contrast, offers a utopian vision of a world where everyone is equal, and where money holds no power over people. This high-concept approach offers an exciting opportunity for a discussion of these themes while keeping the tone light and frivolous.

The cast do a great job with the comic feel, often over the top, melodramatic posturing and cartoonish expressions highlighting the absurdity of what is happening. Marika Ito in particular is highly enjoyable as Tomu Inuhachi, whose outsider status and comic tomboy performance is hugely endearing. There is a large cast and each member manages to create something special with their character, making them instantly recognizable and their personalities shine through. In keeping with the live-action manga style, they are almost all played as eccentric caricatures. The design is also clearly inspired by the manga, with sets and costumes all hyper-realistic or caricatured. With the red-black uniforms reminiscent of casino croupiers, and the white robes of the villagers lending them a religious aspect.

The film does lose its way somewhat in the second half. It gets bogged down in the technicalities of two of the games that are to decide the council elections. These games take up a large portion of the run-time, and although unavoidable they can become a slog. This is not the biggest problem with the latter portion of the film though. The idea of the village versus the school is a perfect antagonistic clash of world views and it is immediately apparent which system is preferable. The set up early on leads you to believe that this is a film with a message about rapacious upper classes and downtrodden unfortunates. It seems clear that the villagers will show a better path, one that circumvents the need for participation in this system. However, the leaders of this group are also forced to participate. While the ending is upbeat you are left with the strange feeling that nothing was really gained by the characters as they are back in the same situation as before, perhaps worse since they have succumbed to the same avarice and lust for money that typifies their rivals in the school. The filmmakers intention was clearly to make a knockabout comedy rather than a socio-economic satire, but it means that the film does not really hold together at a thematic level, unless you consider it to be a double-bluff (possible in a film about gambling) and that actually the message is intended to be “the house always wins”.

Kakegurui Compulsive Gambler is a fun, live-action manga adaptation. The performances are enjoyable and the plot is engaging, taking some unusual turns. Worth watching if you are looking for a distracting comedy with plenty of fun moments and over-the-top acting, but disappointing in that it could have gone for a more powerful message in the latter half.

Hot Gimmick: Girl Meets Boy (2019) by Yuki Yamato

Based on the manga “Hot Gimmick” by Miki Aihara, this film about teenage romance is a tough watch for all the wrong reasons. Hatsumi (Miona Hori) is a shy teenager, romantically and sexually inexperienced, who seems to be easily manipulated by those around her. Early in the film she is asked by her more worldly-wise younger sister Akane to buy a pregnancy kit, drawing the distinction between the two girls. When her neighbour Ryoki (Hiroya Shimizu) finds the kit, he blackmails Hatsumi into being his slave. This is where things take a turn for the perverse and logic flies out the window. Ryoki is clearly interested in Hatsumi romantically, using this as a way to get close to her, however his behaviour is so inexplicable for someone who also appears to be socially awkward that it is hard to believe. It also creates an uncomfortable dynamic as Hatsumi is forced to obey him and we are left wondering why she doesn’t completely reject this or report him. Things don’t get much better when another of Hatsumi’s neighbours, Azusa (Mizuki Itagaki) turns his attention to her. Azusa is an old friend recently shot to stardom as an idol, and seems very interested in Azusa. However, after taking her to a party where he drugs her drink, we realise his intentions are not entirely pure. Azusa is rescued from the horrors of what could have followed by Shinogu (Shotaro Mamiya), her older brother. We later learn Shinogu is not biologically related and that he also has romantic intentions towards her. Later in the film Hatsumi is tricked into sending a nude video to Azusa, which he then proceeds to blackmail her with.

While ostensibly a romantic drama, the film contains so many uncomfortable moments, blackmail, revenge porn, suggestions of date rape, the quasi-incestuous nature of her relationship with Shinogu, it is hard to be charmed by any of the characters. Throughout, there is the sense that Hatsumi should choose one of these men, but they all behave so reprehensibly the sanest thing would be for her to get as far away as possible. The issues the film raises are all interesting starting points for a film about teenage life and worries, but it feels as though the filmmakers are unaware of the seriousness of what is happening. Incidents that would be the major plot point of any other film are passed over as though they were minor annoyances, or something that is a regular occurrence for teenagers. The ease with which Hatsumi forgets transgressions against her leaves a sour taste suggesting that women are essentially mindless pawns in a game played by despicable men. She is lacking in agency for the most part, either unaware or unconcerned by what happens to her.

Sadly the plot is far from the worst part of this movie. The editing is nauseating from the beginning. In the opening sequence we see fast cuts to still images of several characters, some we are yet to be introduced to. Throughout the camera will suddenly cut to random elements in a scene. There are some great shots, but again they are rushed, appearing for a second at a time before the camera gets distracted by something else. It is as if you are looking through the eyes of someone with a very short attention span, and little understanding of what is important at any moment. It is a shame, because without the rapid pace the cinematography would have been given time to shine, with Shibuya providing an excellent backdrop for the chaotic lives of the protagonists. In the second half the editing does calm down a little and we get some of the better scenes. The standout moments are in the dialogues between Hatsumi, Azusa and Ryoki. Miona Hori does a good job with the more emotional scenes when she finally confronts them. Hori is an idol singer and her performance is strong, but undermined by the script and characterisation of her as something of an airhead (but without the charm to compensate). Hiyori Sakurada who plays Akane is very good and has some of the most poignant moments in a side-story about her own relationship. The scene between Hatsumi and Ryoki seems as though there is too much dialogue crammed into one scene. It may be an adaptation issue, in attempting to condense the story for a short runtime, but the film is far from short, coming in at just under two hours. They could have largely cut Akane’s story and focussed on the rivalry between Azusa and Ryoki, which seems to be at the film’s heart.

Essentially the film is a coming-of-age story, with Hatsumi learning that she has the power to choose who she dates. What should have been an uplifting message is undercut by the subtext that she should allow herself to become whatever her partner wants. She is mocked as being stupid throughout and it doesn’t seem to bother her; the idea of being blackmailed and treated as a slave is almost shrugged off; likewise the attempted date-rape that she either forgets or forgives, and her older brother’s deceit. As well as being a terrible role-model for young women, the film also depicts its male characters as universally awful, aggressive, lustful and disingenuous. This poorly conceived film is severely lacking, distracting from any high-points with confused editing and worrying subtext.

Tag (2015) by Sion Sono

It is hard to give a synopsis of this film without spoiling what is the most fun part of watching it: the constant unexpected shocks, gross-out moments, and bursts of ultra-violence. The film follows three main characters, Miyuki (Reina Triendl), a high-school student, Keiko (Mariko Shinoda), a reluctant bride, and finally Izumi (Erina Mano), a marathon runner, whose sections blend into one another to give the impression that this is one personality represented as three individuals. The film has a dream-like sensibility to it, flowing from scene to scene, mixing nightmarish fantasy with reality.

The film begins with a unique scene of carnage, almost as ridiculous as it is terrifying, and doesn’t really let up from there. It could best be described as an absurdist horror, which will surprise, amuse and disgust you (sometimes in the same scene). It becomes apparent early on that what you are watching is not intended to be realistic, but read as a metaphor for something else. Writer and director Sion Sono is known for grotesque and sexualised imagery and here we have both. It makes a mockery of cheap exploitation almost while exemplifying the genre itself, think schoolgirl underwear peeked under short skirts and extreme carnage that seems to come out of nowhere. “Tag” does not scrimp on the horror with some genuinely disturbing moments. It keeps you on edge in a way that plays into the themes of the film. There is an ever present threat that is heightened by the surreal nature of what is unfolding. The acting from the three leads is fantastic and they do a great job of expressing the terror of what is happening. Supporting performances from Yuki Sakurai, Aki Hiraoka and Ami Tomite are enjoyable and the cast all have good chemistry together as friends. It is clear that the director intended this to be more than a simple horror-action film, and the direction does a good job of creating a sense that there are social themes under the surface. An early sequence of Miyuki by the river, with corpses and clothing strewn about, has a peculiar beauty to it, and throughout there are moments that are unforgettable for a variety of reasons.

“Tag” is grotesque, exploitative, and sensationalist, but also with a strong message against misogyny. The fears faced by Miyuki and Keiko, around school and marriage, are exaggerations of typical anxieties faced by girls and women. The use of the white feathers exemplify this notion of a perceived feminine purity that becomes tainted throughout life and the fear this engenders. This is twinned with the paranoia of the opening sequences which see Miyuki switch uniforms (moving up in school years). She is constantly buffeted by forces she cannot control, perhaps representative of puberty, and forced to keep moving forward. Later in the film the white feather comes to symbolise freedom. We see it at the end of the film when the characters seem to have finally broken free of their constraints. Miyuki’s friend tells her to remember that the world is surreal and there is no predetermined path. This idea, that you should not allow yourself to be defeated by the world, but keep your own sense of yourself alive is important. The final scenes drive home this message about a patriarchal society that treats women as playthings, becoming almost a critique of the film itself and the way it treats its main characters. The film is a cry for individualism in a world where women are forced into particular roles. We constantly see characters running from some unseen force, or pushed and pulled by other characters into situations they are not sure about, or don’t fully understand. The real conflict here is between the women and society itself. It is also a film about free will versus determinism, albeit told in its own bizarre, blood-spattered way. I would recommend this film to any fans of gory exploitation cinema with a twisted sense of humour and an unexpected message.

Bento Harassment (2019) by Renpei Tsukamoto

Single mother Kaori (Ryoko Shinohara) comes up with a unique scheme to get back at her unresponsive teenage daughter, Futaba (Kyoko Yoshine). When Futaba refuses to speak to her, Kaori decides to create kyaraben (character bento), depicting everything from household products to famous comedians in an attempt to embarrass her daughter into communicating with her. As the days go on, the characters and messages in the lunchboxes get more outlandish and ridiculous as the two go head to head in a battle of wills.

“Bento Harassment” is a charming and often hilarious portrayal of a difficult mother daughter dynamic. The loss of her husband and troubled relationship with her daughter make Kaori a deeply sympathetic character. We are rooting for her from the beginning as we see her struggles to get her daughter through high-school (a seemingly thankless task) and hold down two separate jobs. Ryoko Shinohara gives a supremely enjoyable performance, showing the steely determination to not let her daughter get the better of her, and also tender moments as her actions are beneath it all driven by love for her child. Futaba is not an entirely unsympathetic character, and more so as the film progresses, we are shown a different side to her. Kyoko Yoshine is excellent in the role of a difficult teen whose cool exterior hides a deep respect for her mother. Rena Matsui is also good as Futaba’s older sister.

“Bento Harassment” comes up with an original and light-hearted way to show the hardships of motherhood. It also shows mouth-watering examples of the traditional lunchboxes with all manner of food on display as well as the picturesque island of Hachijojima. One running joke in the film is characters mentioning, in an offhand way, that Hachijojima is actually part of Tokyo (the rural island being at complete odds with the image of the sprawling metropolis). The cinematography and soundtrack are colourful and joyous and the whole film has a comfortable air that allows the audience to simply relax and enjoy the jokes and straightforward drama as it unfolds. There is a subplot in the film of a single father and his son that runs in concert with that of Kaori and her daughter, however, it is unusually only resolved post credits. There are also a couple of moments of fake credit sequences that break the fourth wall in a somewhat jarring way given that this type of humour is not present elsewhere. The film also takes a turn in its final act which seems like a manipulative and unnecessary attempt to add a degree of peril to the plot. However, the film is so packed with charm and humour that these issues are really only minor quibbles.

Screenwriter and director Renpei Tsukamoto’s film is an uplifting look maternal love and the trials of bringing up teenagers in a single-parent household. The two leads play perfectly off one another and capture the complex relationship of the mother and daughter, both the good and bad. The film’s ending may be predictable, the film is absolutely a drama that enjoys a comfortably safe plot structure, but it is nevertheless effective and impactful. Thanks to the performances and humour we are exasperated and frustrated along with the characters, fully invested in them with every annoying bento-box that is created and pried nervously open.