Chaos (2000) by Hideo Nakata

It is hard to describe the plot of “Chaos” without giving away the twists and turns that enliven the plot. The film revolves around Komiyama (Ken Mitsuishi), a company president, his wife Saori, his mistress Satomi (Miki Nakatani), and a handyman (Masato Hagiwara) who is believed to have kidnapped Komiyama’s wife. On returning to his office after a lunch with his wife, Komiyama receives a call from Kuroda (Masato Hagiwara), to say his wife is being held hostage and he wants money for her release. All is not as it seems however and the film constantly wrong-foots the audience by showing that many of the players involved in this plot know far more than they are letting on.

The film is directed by Hideo Nakata, who is best known for his horror fare and who brings that same sense of creeping dread to this crime thriller. “Chaos” features a relatives small cast, largely consisting of the three central protagonists and two police officers who are called in to investigate the disappearance of Komiyama’s wife. The performances, particularly of Masato Hagiwara and Miki Nakatani are excellent, playing roles within roles as they deceive others around them, with double-crosses and backstabbings the order of the day. Satomi and Kuroda’s relationship remains in question until the end of the film. The story by Hisashi Saito (who also worked on Shinya Tsukamoto’s “Tokyo Fist”) perfects the crime genre, with the tightly wound plot unravelling slowly with each new revelation. There is also some fantastic foreshadowing that comes in to play later, laying out clues for the audience, but always leaving them one step behind the characters. The film plays the same trick several times: setting up a scenario then showing either one or other of the protagonists to be lying about their actions or motivations, but it works each time and lulls the audience into an acceptance of expectation rather than closure, with each new piece of the puzzle rasing more questions. The peculiar score by Kenji Kawai is a mix of percussion and chime, slightly lilting and off-kilter suggestive of the notion that not everything is as it seems in the story.

“Chaos” is a film about control and manipulation. This is best represented in the scene in which Kuroda binds his captive, a frisson of sexual tension passing between them as she gives herself over to him. The narrative builds on a series of turns in which it is revealed that the people we thought were powerless are in fact playing the other characters; the people presumed to be victims turn out to be perpetrators. An enjoyable crime thriller that maintains tension throughout by slowly untangling a web of lies surrounding the protagonists.

The Sound of Grass (2021) by Hisashi Saito

Kazuo (Masahiro Higashide) is taken to a psychologist after suffering a stress-related breakdown who recommends a break from work, medication and regular excercise. Kazuo soon takes to his new hobby of running, setting out on solitary jogs morning and evening every day. His partner Junko (Nao) is supportive but finds his low mood frustrating, a problem exacerbated by her pregnancy. Meanwhile, Kazuo’s friend Kenji (Shunsuke Daito) tries to help him as best he can. At the same time transfer student Akira (Kaya) is struggling to fit in with his classmates, finding friendship with another lost soul in the shape of Hiroto (Yuta Hayashi) and his sister Minami (Yuki Mine). The three youths often see Kazuo on his daily circuit, neither aware of the others problems.

“The Sound of Grass” is based on a story by novelist Yasushi Sato, who took his own life in 1990. It is often a difficult watch, its themes of depression and suicide amplified by a relentlessly oppressive atmosphere. The film opens with a long sequence of Akira skateboarding through the largely deserted streets of Hakodate, the port city where the film takes place, an impressive sequence that typifies the film’s superlative cinematography and direction by Hisashi Saito. With wide shots of the city, parks and port, we get a sense of place and reality that also work in harmony with the story, with the conflicting sense of life surrounding Kazuo being both immediate and remote. The audience is taken along with Kazuo as he runs around the city, crossing the large bridge, climbing the park steps, or circling the carpark. These sequences, soundtracked by an uplifting piano score, stand in stark contrast to the moments when he is at home or in conversation with others, that seem to lack energy. That may seem like a criticism, but it perfectly replicates the hopelessness and sense of stasis that typifies mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, as well as the fluctuation between highs and lows. His illness doesn’t express itself in wild outbursts but in a complete lack of energy or interest in things around him. Higashide gives an incredible performance as Kazuo, and his scenes with Nao’s Junko are heartbreaking to watch as these two characters, who clearly love one another are unable to traverse the vast unseen divide between them. The story of Akira, Hiroto and Minami, is almost a separate, yet parallel story, linked only by themes of isolation and suicide. Mental health can be difficult to depcit on film, without straying into cliche or exploitative exageration, but “The Sound of Grass” presents a realistic view of this issue that can go unseen and have devastating consequences.

In a more conventional film, you might imagine that Kazuo’s running would be the miracle cure to his illness; or that Akira finding friends would lead to an uplifting ending to comfort the audience. “The Sound of Grass” avoids such easy solutions, showing that mental health issues are not something that can easily be resolved by taking up excercise or talking to people, although both of these can be helpful in combatting the worse effects of depression. In its lack of simple answers, or comforting conclusions, the film offers a powerful, emotional, and discomforting depiction of depression. The naturalistic performances from the whole cast help to build this sense of real people with real concerns. What makes the film powerful is not that it is extreme, or shocking, but that it is painfully believable. Not an easy watch, but a worthwhile exploration of this important subject.