One Cut of the Dead (2017)

This review contains spoilers so if you have not seen the film already, I recommend you do before reading as there are some great twists to enjoy.

A film crew are gathered in a remote water treatment plant to film a low budget zombie film. During a break in filming the make-up lady (Harumi Shuhama) explains to the two leads (Yuzuki Akiyama and Kazuaki Nagaya) that there is an urban legend about the site that say when blood is spilt it will raise the spirits of the dead. Before they know it cast and crew are being attacked by zombies and must fight for their lives. The film’s opening half hour is a perfect B-movie horror flick, complete with dodgy acting, poor quality special effects and a story that makes little to no sense. After the credits roll (surprisingly early) “One Cut of the Dead” then turns into a film within a film within a film, when we discover that in fact everything we have just seen was all part of a special live television show as part of the recently launched zombie channel. We follow director (Takayuki Hamatsu), cast and crew as they rehearse for the film we have just watched and this is where the fun really starts. Once you realise that in fact the first part was not meant to be serious and in fact did not at all go according to the script, you are treated to the same events again, this time from behind the camera, with drunken extras, numerous mistakes, and a quick-thinking director trying to keep the live show going amidst the chaos.

Writer and director Shinichiro Ueda has created something truly special in this film. While many may think the zombie movie has been wrung to its last drop, he manages to do something unique with the genre. For everyone who has ever made a low budget film with their friends this film will ring painfully true. Its genius is in the structure. Going in knowing nothing about the film you soon settle down into what appears to be another cheap zombie film. Disused buildings, shoddy special effects, and peculiar line reads. It is an impressive opening, shot in one take, and this section alone would be worthy of praise, despite various apparent flaws. However, when the film then takes you a further step back behind the scenes and you realise that what you watched was a construction of the characters who are acting in it, there is a unique style of humour that provides for some laugh out loud moments. Suddenly, you are forced to recontextualise everything you just saw. The film has essentially shown you the punchline, and is now giving you the joke, which creates a fun atmosphere of expectation as you want to see what you know is coming and are anticipating the pay off in advance. The cast of “One Cut of the Dead” comprises entirely of first-time and unknown actors. Takayuki Hamatsu is well cast as the director, Takayuki Higurashi, of the ill-fated film. His relationship with daughter (Mao) is one of the highlights of the movie. Yuzuki Akiyama gives a very enjoyable performance as the lead actress with Kazuaki Nagaya playing opposite her. Also, Harumi Shuhama is fantastic as Higurashi’s overly zealous actress wife. The cast were chosen by the director for their awkward qualities and workshopped the film together. This approach of casting relative newcomers works well as there is great chemistry between everyone involved and the apparent lack of artifice in their performances is perfect for the story.

As mentioned, the opening “film” is enjoyable in its own right as a schlocky zombie comedy film and credit to the film-makers for pulling off this “one-take” style. All of the actors deserve praise for their roles in the film as there is not a bad note from anyone and everyone has a least a couple of hilarious scenes that they own completely. At the end of the film you can feel the camaraderie of the cast of this project, so completely does the film draw you in to the making of it. The cast are mostly given almost stereotypical roles, but pull them off with aplomb, for example the “idol”, the actor who wants to be taken seriously, and the director who is just trying to avoid messing up completely.

“One Cut of the Dead” deserves to be seen by anyone who is a fan of low-budget film-making, zombie movies, or comedy. It excels of every level of film-making and acting with a script that is laugh-out-loud funny. For those into film-making it has a lot of in-jokes, such as characters using eye drops to fake tears, the way of getting fake blood spray or corpses into shot, special effects, and more. The ending is a heart-warming testament to the power of co-operation that is sure to leave you with a smile on your face. This film reaffirms the absolute joy that films and film-making can be.

Bilocation (2013)

Bilocation is the supernatural phenomenon whereby an individual appears in two places at the same time. Artist Shinobu (Asami Mizukawa) is hard at work trying to finish a painting of the view from her balcony when the doorbell to her apartment rings. The man at the door is Masaru (Yosuke Asari), a blind man who has just moved into her block. After meeting Shinobu the two get married. It is at this point Shinobu’s life changes course, she explains, and we are soon to find out that is in more ways than one. On a trip to the supermarket she is brought up by the check-out staff who tell her that not only was she there 10 minutes prior, but is attempting to use an identical bank note to pay. Suspecting fraud they call in the police. The policeman turns out to be part of a group investigating bilocation and invites Shinobu to their group. Each member is suffering the same problem with a mysterious double appearing at intervals and interfering with their lives. These doppelgangers grow increasingly dangerous as the group works to understand them and then to stop them.

“Bilocation” is based on a novel by Haruka Hojo, with a screenplay by director Mari Asato. It is an intriguing concept on which to base a supernatural horror, with the eerie sense of being followed and the secondary fear of having another being living out your life providing ample chills. The film blends the best elements of creepy ghost stories and mystery dramas, relying heavily on a sense of foreboding and the occasional shock tactics as one of the bilocations appears suddenly. There are several plot turns layered so that even if one is obvious it is unlikely audiences will fully unravel the mystery until the end. There are a few moments that require some suspension of disbelief in order to sustain the conceit, but the film’s greatest strength is in using the central idea of bilocation to explore more primal fears and take a look at the psychology of the individuals affected. Asami Mizukawa gives a great central performance as Shinobu, whose journey from baffled to worried to outraged gives the audience much to enjoy. The film in a similar way shifts gears from suspense to action, constantly wrongfooting the audience. The camerawork in the film shows a deep understanding of horror conventions. A particularly standout scene comes early in the film when the camera drifts from Shinobu to an empty hallway, the importance of this shot only becoming clear later.

The phenomenon of bilocation almost predetermines themes of identity and duality. For Shinobu the true horror of having this double is her loss of self. She becomes increasingly annoyed at the thought of someone else taking her place. There is a deeper significance to this, made apparent by the use of reflections in mirrors and pools of water, which is the notion of self as a constructed reality. What Shinobu sees in the mirror is what everyone around her sees and recognizes as “Shinobu”, but that is far from a complete picture of who she is as a person. There is a horror of the loss of individuality and the idea that you could be easily replaced that will resonate with most people. Through the side characters other themes are explored that hinge on this. The mother whose double takes her sickly child from the hospital, or the man whose bilocation assaults a co-worker losing him his job. This plays to a fear of loss on a more tangible level than Shinobu’s loss of self-image, but helps to emphasise the significance of what is happening. A secondary reading of the film is that the bilocations are representative of something that is kept hidden within the individual. This is most apparent in the police officer Kano (Kenichi Takito), whose double seems to be an expression of his ego, or base instincts, lashing out indiscriminately. Beneath the veneer of civilised society there are atavistic ulterior characters lurking in everyone. A simple yet brilliant concept that lends itself to various psychological interpretations.

A Snake of June (2002)

Rinko (Asuka Kurosawa) works as a mental health nurse and lives a comfortable, if apparently sexless, existence with her husband (Yuji Kotari). A package arrives at their apartment and Rinko finds a number of photographs showing her pleasuring herself. There is a mobile phone in the package and she is soon contacted by a man (Shinya Tsukamoto) who wants to blackmail her with these images. He proceeds to lead her on several sexually charged trials, including walking around in an uncharacteristically short leather skirt, buying a sex toy, and inserting a remotely operated vibrator. This man tells her that he is suffering from a terminal illness and that she is the only thing that makes him happy. Rinko’s husband soon discovers the blackmail and attempts to track down this man who is forcing his wife to perform these acts.

Writer and director Shinya Tsukamoto is no stranger to twisted narratives and difficult subject matter. “A Snake of June” sees the auteur director taking on the erotic thriller genre and infusing it with his own particular style. The film is shot entirely with a blue tint that gives it a unique look and the cinematography is nothing short of stunning. The endlessly pouring rain and torrents of water pouring into drains create an almost unbearable sense of tension, blending concepts of sex and violence through pure visual storytelling. The connection of moisture and sex is understandable, but here it is taken to an extreme that creates an oppressive atmosphere of almost hyper-sexuality. This is balanced against the asexual couple at the heart of the narrative. When we see them they are always seated apart. It also seems that Rinko’s husband has an obsession with cleanliness, perhaps referencing the sense of shame that some feel in relation to their sexual urges. Their homelife is painfully sterile, while outside the world is filthy and rain-soaked. This is further highlighted by the rain pounding on the glass window above Rinko as she bathes. She can sense that she has cut herself off from something that is calling her. The shadows of the rain pouring above certain characters, the close-ups on drains, the intercutting of a snail, all do a perfect job of creating an atmosphere that is as gripping as it is terrifying and confusing. While it may not always be apparent what the precise meaning of particular shots are, they have a subconscious and cumulative effect that is undeniable. There are shots that will linger with you long after the film has finished. The eroticism of the film is expertly done and understands that it is often far more about what is suggested than what is shown. It lingers on expectation and suggestion rather than lurid details. Tsukamoto also shows his tendency for horror with the nightmarish vision of characters looking through telescopic headgear at scenes of sexual torture. The character of Rinko is brilliantly brought to life by Asuka Kurosawa, whose story is one of self-discovery and gives a nuanced portrayal of women and sexuality. Yuji Kotari is no less important as a foil for Rinko. His constant cleaning and his anger at discovering the blackmail is important in understanding their relationship. He is almost unreadable sometimes, showing devotion to his wife but a complete lack of physicality in their relations. Both characters have back stories that are alluded to, that help the viewer understand this rather odd relationship. Shinya Tsukamoto himself rounds out the main cast, playing the villainous blackmailer.

Nothing is quite clearly defined in the film, eroticism and horror, love and sex, life and death, all of these are in conflict with one another. There is a theme running through of sex as both dark and dangerous, yet also an emancipatory force. The characters live in their cordoned off home, secure from the metaphors for sex and debauchery outside. The husband’s dedication to cleanliness seems to reference the idea of expunging sin. The death of his mother is alluded to and there is clearly something in his psychology that prevents him being physically intimate with his sexually attractive wife. Likewise, Rinko’s father was a drunken bully, which may have led to her closing herself off from male advances and seeking a similarly asexual partner. The film is divided into sections “woman” and “man”, and the trio of characters act almost as archetypal figures, with Tsukamoto being an unknown quantity, perhaps representative of death or some dark force that is controlling the lives of the man and woman. This work is Tsukamoto at his absolute best, showing a unique talent for directing. “A Snake of June” is beautifully shot and has a story that is engaging, but leaves enough unsaid for multiple interpretations.

Strange Circus (2005)

A twisted horror story about incest, rape, trauma and revenge. 12 year old Mitsuko is forced into a cello case by her father and made to watch him have sex with her mother. He later begins abusing his own daughter. When her mother becomes aware of this it leads to a breakdown in their relationship. Mitsuko begins to believe they are in some respect switching places, with her taking the place of her mother. After she pushes her down the stairs and kills her things get even more bizarre. We are then introduced to Taeko, a woman who is writing the story we have until this point being watching. It is clear that Taeko is also somewhat disturbed. The film suggests that this may be the grown-up Mitsuko, or a version of her shattered psyche (both are played by the same actress). As the plot unfolds we are confronted with several horrifying revelations.

Director Sion Sono is no stranger to gory horror and sexual violence. Though you get the sense here, as in other films (Suicide Club, Noriko’s Dinner Table), that the shocks are far from gratuitous, instead serving to emphasise much deeper and more terrifying themes. The opening scene of the film takes place in a cabaret club with all manner of bizarre characters. It is a metaphysical space of nightmares with a carnival atmosphere, part burlesque, part house of horrors. A guillotine is brought onto the stage and a willing volunteer for decapitation coaxed from the audience. This is Mitsuko. This opening is a perfect example of Sono’s unconventional style of storytelling. Not everything that happens in the film is to be taken too literally. Instead he would rather you focus on the emotional content, finding truth and significance beyond the merely factual. In its closing scenes the film, until that point a dizzying spiral of insanity, does tie everything neatly together in some regard, but leaves room for interpretation. The intercuts to the Ferris Wheel, Mitsuko’s school walls morphing into bloody flesh, and the blurring of the lines between various characters, help to give the film a sense of paranoia and uneasiness that is in keeping with the protagonists own feelings. This is a film that succeeds in making you feel disgusted at what is being perpetrated on these women. The music is likewise a creepy, lilting carnival score, with the off-key blast of accordion further enhancing the unsettling atmosphere. The actors all do a magnificent job, especially Masumi Miyazaki as Mitsuko and Taeko.

Strange Circus is a film that deals with themes of incest and sexual violence. It is an experiential film in places. That is to say its intent is to make you fully empathise with the characters sense of repulsion, isolation and confusion. You are meant to feel as Mitsuko feels, that her abuse is at once incomprehensible but undeniably grotesque. Her view of the world is completely distorted by what she endured and as the film progresses you realise that both Mitsuko and Taeko are unreliable narrators. I would definitely recommend the film for fans of Sion Sono’s other horror films, with much the same aesthetic and themes here.  

Mutant Girls Squad (2010)

A delightfully silly slice of gory action from three masters of the genre. When Rin (Yumi Sugimoto) reaches her sixteenth birthday she is told by her father that she is a mutant. This certainly explains her feelings of isolation at her highschool and alienation from classmates. Shortly after this revelation their home is invaded by the anti-mutant police who kill Rin’s parents. Rin meets Rei (Yuko Takayama) who is part of a team of mutants fighting against the human society who are oppressing them. They are led by Kisaragi (Tak Sakaguchi), a samurai transvestite. Rin also befriends another mutant Yoshie (Suzuka Morita) and the three of them are tasked with taking down a government official opposed to mutants.

The title should give away the fact that this film does not take itself too seriously. What little plot there is acts as a slender frame on which to hang outrageous comedy-horror action sequences. Everything from the police having guns on their noses, to one girl’s power being to have two tiny arms reaching out from her ears (this is far from the most ridiculous of their abilities), will certainly appeal to anyone with a childish sense of humour and love of obscene splatter comedy. The handmade quality of the film gives it a real charm and the amount of effort that has gone into costumes, special effects (including a lot of physical effects) and gore speaks to a highly motivated and talented crew. The film is helmed by three directors, Yoshihiro Nishimura (Tokyo Gore Police), Sakaguchi (Re:Born) and Noboru Iguchi, from a script by Iguchi and Jun Tsugita. The directors clearly share a love of schlocky horror and action and their enthusiasm is infectious. The film is hyperactive and insane, feeling like a student film given a budget that allows them to bring their madcap ideas to life. All of the main actresses go all-out in their performances, embracing the wacky premise and melodrama, and do well in both comedy and action roles.

The film is essentially a bully revenge story with a well-worn message of anti-discrimination and embracing difference. It revels in weirdness and eccentricity and is a film that wants to run as far from ‘mainstream’ as it is possible to get. Only recommended for those with a black sense of humour and a love of gory violence.