Confessions (2010) by Tetsuya Nakashima

A stylish psychological thriller that exposes the ever-present darkness as the heart of humanity, “Confessions” tells the story of a school teacher Yuko Moriguchi (Takako Matsu), whose 4 year old daughter Manami (Mana Ashida) is found dead in a swimming pool. While the police verdict is accidental drowning, Moriguchi knows that two of her own students bear responsibility for Minami’s death. Shuya Watanabe (Yukito Nishii) is a talented student who has a nihilistic outlook on life. Abandoned by his mother at a young age, he is narcissistic and lives only to prove his superior intelligence in the hopes of winning his absent mother’s attention and affection. He recruits his classmate, the underachieving and unsuspecting Naoki Shimomura (Kaoru Fujiwara), in hopes that the two of them will commit a crime that will finally gain him the respect he feels he deserves. Moriguchi tells the class that she will leave her job and, as her students are unable to be punished for crimes as minors, she has taken it upon herself to get revenge for the murder of her daughter. The film begins with Moriguchi’s story and moves onto the lives of the two boys responsible for her daughter’s death, as well as a third classmate, the enigmatic introvert Mizuki (Ai Hashimoto), both before and after the incident. Each new perspective draws us deeper into this twisted story of murder and revenge.

The film is based on the book by Kanae Minato with a script by director Tetsuya Nakashima. The story is divided into distinct sections, each narrated in part by a different character, occasionally achronological with overlapping moments from different perspectives. The opening monologue delivered by Takako Matsu’s experience acting in theatrical productions shows as she builds tension with her delivery of a long opening monologue. This scene, which takes up a large portion of the first half of the film is a fantastic introduction, setting up the dynamics of the characters and their personalities, the central themes, and a lot of exposition in an entertaining way. The young actors who play the three leads do an incredible job with difficult material. Yukito Nishii embodies the fears of parents and teachers everywhere as the irredeemably sadistic Shuya. Kaoru Fujiwara is sympathetic as the helpless accessory to murder who later reveals a darker side to his character. Ai Hashimoto does a good job with a relatively small role as Mizuki, a confused adolescent; and Yoshiteru Terada  offers some light relief as the oblivious replacement teacher Yoshiteru “Werther” Terada, attempting to raise the spirits of the class following Moriguchi’s departure. The film is shot in a highly stylized way with liberal use of slow motion and the plot unfolds at a crawl that further accentuates the feeling of dread, allowing characters to languish in their suffering or feelings of regret. A subdued colour palette and melancholy score echo this bleak tone. Almost each scene plays out in a half light that reflects the nihilistic worldview of the characters; with neither light nor dark, but a hopeless Sisyphean grind of life unfolding day by interminable day. With a strong original story, the cinematography and direction are used to create an artistic impression of what is unfolding, with striking visuals that enhance the force of the narrative; such as Shuya’s construction of a clock that runs backwards, or the cat and kitten outside his apartment.

“Confessions” is a film that deals with several difficult themes. The death of a small child will draw instant sympathy from the audience. It is a wrong that demands to be righted in any just world. A verdict of accidental death removes any hope of retribution for the crime, forcing Moriguchi to revenge herself upon her two students. By showing the story of Shuya and Naoki, the film asks us to consider their own right to life and what led them to this crime; also how blame is to be apportioned and what punishment may be justified. Mizuki’s character highlights the turmoil of conflicting adolescent emotions, her character sympathising with a schoolgirl who killed her family. Throughout the characters ask themselves what life is truly worth, each of them so lost in their own subjective realities and borne along by feelings of hurt and hate that they are unable to see that they are causing more suffering through their actions. Although the film muddies the morality of its characters, throughout it retains a strong message on the importance of human life. While it is almost unbearably bleak in its outlook, there are faint rays of hope that shine through; hints that things could be different, that ideals such as forgiveness and redemption are not unattainable.

Shady (2012) by Ryohei Watanabe

Misa (Aya Banjo) is a loner at her high-school, bullied because of her looks and given the nickname Pooh (after Winnie the Pooh), her only solace is in the biology club of which she is the sole member and where she looks after a goldfish called Kintaro. That is until Izumi (Izumi Okamura) comes into her life. Izumi seems so unlike Misa, being cute and outgoing, but she is also alienated from the class, as the other popular girls are jealous of her looks. The two form a firm friendship built on their outsider status. The mystery of their missing classmate, Aya (Ayumi Seko), who along with Marina (Reo Saionji) is one of the class bullies, looms large as Misa and Izumi become more closely connected and things take a horrifying turn as Misa realises her new friend may be hiding a dark secret.

Writer-director Ryohei Watanabe’s debut feature, “Shady” is a taut thriller that builds tension throughout. It is a story that builds on strong characters and the everyday anxieties and paranoias of high-schoolers, expertly weaving in darker threads. Aya Banjo gives an incredible performance as Misa, shy and awkward yet with a resilience earned through years of torment. We are drawn into her world, her suffering, and her joy at finding a friend and her insecurities are always bubbling just below the surface. Izumi Okamura is also exceptional in her role, a bold and brash teenager but with a chip on her shoulder at how she is ostracized from her classmates. Izumi undergoes a transformation as the film progresses and we see character traits develop from troubling to terrifying. This is the first acting role for both; Aya Banjo is best known as a singer (under the name Minpi*b) and Izumi Okamura was working as a model when cast. The director picked both for their look and wrote characters that closely resembled his image of them. Their chemistry is believable and their conversations capture perfectly a tentative high-school friendship. The direction works well for the film and shows off the best of the actresses. What begins as a high-school friendship drama soon turns into a psychological thriller and the angled camera and use of long uncomfortable takes helps draw out the unpleasant yet inescapable nature of the situations Misa finds herself in. The film touches on a number of themes, many that are not explicitly stated but glint out in moments of ambiguity. One such scene is when Izumi paints Misa’s toenails, an act of girlish bonding that is given almost erotic overtones as Izumi slips beneath the covers and Misa moans as she blows softly on her feet. As with much of the horror in the film suggestion proves to be more powerful than straightforward attempts to shock.

“Shady” builds on many thriller themes and plot points, with its strength being in the two fantastic lead performances that draw you in emotionally before introducing the darker tone of the latter scenes. It is a film about friendship, loneliness, loyalty and bullying among other things. The relationship between the two girls is conventional in many ways, thrown together by chance despite their differences, and the two actresses do a great job in creating a sense of normality while hinting at something more worrying. The film takes what are everyday fears or emotions and turns them into something darker. The final third of the film is packed with several twists and moments that make you reconsider what you have seen previously. The girl’s feelings of rejection, acceptance, anger, helplessness, are all expertly portrayed and help create rounded characters. A subtly affecting thriller about teenage anxiety and the joys and dangers of friendship.

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.