Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989) by Shinya Tsukamoto

We begin with a man (Shinya Tsukamoto) inserting an iron bar into his leg in a gruesome and inexplicable scene. The man, after seeing maggots crawling around this, runs down the street where he is hit by a car. The film then cuts to a young office worker (Tomorowo Taguchi) who is experiencing hellish nightmares of twisted metal. When he awakes he finds a piece of metal sticking out of his face. This man later returns to his apartment, where he makes love to his girlfriend (Kei Fujiwara). However, a giant drill emerges from his groin and his transformation into the “Iron Man” of the title accelerates. We later learn that this man and his girlfriend were the ones who hit the first man in their car, later disposing of the body and having sex nearby where they dumped it.

“Tetsuo” has a surreal nightmarish quality heightened by use of non-linear storytelling, bursts of stop-frame animation, even the stark chiaroscuro photography. The visuals are stunning and horrific and there are genuine moments of terror as the film plays a lot with claustrophobic close-ups and angles. Shinya Tsukamoto both wrote and directed and it is clearly a singular vison that is being presented here, although drawing on many cyberpunk ideas such as transhumanism and the fetishization of machines. The music by Chu Ishikawa also captures this terrifying tone, with dark, metallic clanging beats really exaggerating the sense of dread and unreality. The overall sound design also goes a long way towards creating a nightmarish vision of a future overrun by the machines.

This film is definitely an experience more so than a story. The make-up and special effects are incredible, capturing the tangled filth of the industrialised world, and a great example of body horror. It can be a difficult watch at times, and will certainly not be for everyone, the frenetic editing can make it tough to follow. There are hints of social commentary, a critique of industrialisation and man’s relationship with machines, alongside themes of psychoses, paranoia, shame, abuse and sexual violence. A unique and terrifying industrial body-horror that is worth a watch for fans of the genre.

Rin Daughters of Mnemosyne (2008)

Rin Asougi (Mamiko Noto) works as a private investigator at Asougi Consulting along with Mimi (Rie Kugimiya). While investigating the disappearance of a cat, Rin meets Maeno (Nobuyuki Hiyama), who joins her at the detective agency. They are called upon to investigate a case involving a secretive research organisation experimenting on humans. Under the auspices of one Sayara Yamanobe (Rie Tanaka), they are attempting to uncover the secret of immortality, in the process producing an army of shambling zombies. Rin reveals that she and Mimi are actually immortal, having been touched by the Time Fruits from the tree Yggdrasil. Rin and Mimi are called upon to solve more cases, all the while fighting against the evil Apos (Akira Ishida) who seems hell-bent on destroying Rin. While women touched by time fruits become immortal, men who are touched become dark winged angels whose sole desire is to kill the immortal women. Apos is an intersex and as such possesses is a cross between the immortal and the demonic.

In six episodes the show manages to create an engaging and novel world, drawing on Norse mythology and Christian symbolism, with angels, seraphim and immortality all providing a colourful backdrop to the action. It is also interesting to see the episodes structured over a long time period, making the most of the protagonist’s immortal natures. We begin in 1990’s Shinjuku and end in 2055 Kyoto. This allows for the story to have different types of plot, with the earlier episodes being hard-boiled detective drama, albeit with plenty of comedic flourishes, to a more futurist science-fiction in later episodes, and fantasy in the final episode. It is a heady mix of various genres, foremost of which are graphic horror and erotic fantasy. The torture of women in the show is balanced by having the strong characters of Rin and Mimi at the fore. Rin and Mimi, due to their longevity, have almost preternatural intelligence, being much more than they appear on the surface. The villain Apos is deeply unlikeable and provides the perfect antagonist with his nefarious plot to destroy the immortals. The art style captures the dark streets of Tokyo with neon-lit streets and the golden sunsets over the city. There is great design work in the angels and some of the technologies seen in later episodes.

Mnemosyne is the Greek goddess of memory and the show plays with the concept of time and memory in relation to a sense of self. Rin and Mimi never alter as the years pass and the idea that a person is shaped by their experience is one that is of particular significance to them. The villain, Apos, survives by eating memories, particularly painful memories, and lives to see others suffer so that they can grow stronger by consuming their anguish. Later in the series, Rin loses her memory, and in doing so is almost able to escape from her fate. The show seems to suggest that memories can be both a benefit in reaffirming an individuals sense of self, but also a burden that ties a person to their fate.

It is explained that the Time Fruits produced by Yggdrasil have differing effects dependent on who is touched by them. Women become immortal and unable to be killed. Men become angels, supremely powerful but doomed to a very short life. The immortal women are drawn irresistibly to the men, unable to contain their lust, and the men are likewise drawn to devour the women. It is an interesting dichotomy, of absolute power or immortality, and perhaps plays on the notion of men as a powerful but destructive force, and women as a life-giving and sexualised force. The ideas of Eros and Thanatos as contrasting yet complimentary drives in human nature is one that is shown in all its gory detail here. Definitely a worthwhile watch for those interested in erotic horror with a philosophical bent.

Meatball Machine Kodoku (2017) by Yoshihiro Nishimura

A sequel/remake to 1999’s “Meatball Machine”, for which Yoshihiro Nishimura provided the special effects, this film sees him take full creative control, both writing and directing. Nishimura is known for his outrageous splatter horror and black comedy with a filmography including “Tokyo Gore Police” and “Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl”. For those who have seen those other works, the first thirty minutes of “Meatball Machine Kodoku” might be something of a shock. It starts pretty simply and could almost be mistaken for a regular drama. Our protagonist, 50-year old Yuji Noda (Yoji Tanaka) works for a debt collection agency, spending his days attempting to extract money for late bill payments and getting nothing but disrespect and slammed doors for his troubles. His boss is less than sympathetic, shouting at the downtrodden Noda. His only respite is a visit to a second-hand bookstore and the lovely Kaoru who works there. Worse is to come for Noda as he discovers that he has cancer. After Kaoru takes him along to a meeting of a bizarre religion, Noda runs away and finds himself enticed into a burlesque club, where he is later ripped off by the staff and thrown out in the street. It may seem as though this is more than enough plot for any movie, but this turns out to be merely preamble. Throughout this a mysterious woman, with white hair and a PVC coat and top hat is wandering around the city. We discover she has in fact been drawing a giant circle that surrounds central Tokyo. A large glass descends on the city trapping a portion of the citizens inside. This is the first look we get at Nishimura’s trademark gore and black humour, as a man urinating in the street has his penis severed, and another couple engaging in a little al fresco sex are cut in half, their lower halves spurting blood while they continue to go at it. And… roll titles. Things are about to get messy.

From this point forward the central plot really kicks into gear. Noda is trapped inside the glass jar with a race of parasitic aliens who are able to take over people’s brains turning them into a conglomeration of machine and flesh and causing carnage wherever they go. Noda has to escape and find Kaoru. Along the way he is helped by a group of martial artists and we see people who he knew before the event transformed into horrifyingly deformed beings, with grotesque outgrowths of organs and mechanical appendages. The film features utterly horrific imagery, but throughout it all there is a twisted sense of fun as the violence is so extreme that it tips into comedy. It is certainly not a film for the squeamish as we see eyeballs drilled into, intestines ripped out and gallons of blood sloshing around. However, fans of Nishimura’s work will find a lot to enjoy in the inventive, over-the-top action sequences and no-holds-barred gruesomeness. It is a genre Nishimura has worked in for a long while and it shows. He has perfected many of the special effects techniques and this stands as perhaps the finest example of his work. There is a clear line from this to Shinya Tsukamoto’s “Tetsuo” in the transformed human-machine hybrids, and late in the film there seems to be a direct homage in a sequence in which we see a character running down the street.

The direction is good with lots of hand-held camera work giving a chaotic sense to the action. There are lots of subtle moments, call-backs and visual gags in the film too for those paying attention.

The central premise of the film comes at the end when we discover the reason for the alien invasion and all the mayhem that has ensued. Right before the film ends we also see some brief flashes of documentary footage, animals in slaughterhouses and battery-farmed eggs, alongside pictures of large congregations of people in city streets. It finishes with the single ironic word “humans”. However horrific things are in the film, it seems to say, humans are responsible for killing, slaughter and devastation on a far bigger scale. This is fiction, the fantastical nature of death and gore and violence here is as nothing to the true horror of humanities own destructive urges. Fans of Nishimura are sure to love this film as it is everything you could hope for from a splatter horror comedy.

Meatball Machine (2005) by Yudai Yamaguchi and Junichi Yamamoto

Yoji Muranishi (Issei Takahashi) works as a machinist in a factory. Cutting something of a lonely figure, he spends his lunchbreak looking over the fence from the factor at a woman, Sachiko (Aoba Kawai), who lives next to the factory, and spends time with his friend Doi. Something strange is going on in the city, with a mysterious creature appearing from the river and killing a young boy before transforming him into a grotesque conglomeration of metal, flesh and tentacles. A parasitical alien is taking over humans and turning them into necroborgs, forcing them to fight, with the victor devouring the weaker combatants. When Muranishi stumbles across Sachiko being sexually assaulted by his boss he steps in to help and the two head back to his house. Sachiko is taken over by one of the aliens and becomes a mass of metal. Muranishi is told by a man familiar with these beings that his best hope of saving her is to kill her. Muranishi heads out to attempt to rescue the woman he loves while escaping the same fate himself.

Directed by Yudai Yamaguchi and Junichi Yamamoto “Meatball Machine” is a splatter horror comedy that revels in disgusting and extreme imagery. The special effects work by Yoshihiro Nishimura is incredible and there are some truly stomach-churning creations. In particular the design of the creatures that infest the humans will thrill anyone who is into body-horror, somewhere between a tumour and hideous embryonic predator. Despite having no identifiable human features, these beings are completely understandable. One of the film’s strengths is that the explanations for what is happening are largely left unsaid until later in the movie, yet from the first instance of a human being taken over, and the sight of this small parasitical entity, it is entirely clear.

The plot is almost a twisted love story buried beneath a flood of science-fiction and horror elements. The central thread is Muranishi’s quest for Sachiko, but it proves to be a thin line on which to hang the talents and creativity of the special effects department. The directors show a firm knowledge of horror and do a great job at creating atmosphere, with off-kilter camera angles and strobe lighting effects. The majority of the film is shot in a muddy half-light, with the greys and browns of the industrial district emphasising a feel of decay, both economic and social. It doesn’t shy away from showing the uglier side of the city, with trash, weeds, iron railings and unappealing architecture.

It seems like the kind of film that the filmmakers had a lot of fun making and there are many moments that will raise a smile despite the horrific imagery. These include one of the necroborgs having a windscreen wiper to clear off blood after he has savagely dispatched a rival; and even the parasitical creatures in their fleshy command-stations have a definite comedic tone once the initial revulsion has passed. Worth a watch for fans of the bizarre and grotesque, “Meatball Machine” hangs by the slenderest of plot threads but fills its runtime with creative and excessive moments.

Paranoia Agent (2004)

A series of interconnected stories tied together by the sinister figure of a roller-blading, bat-wielding assailant known as “Lil’ Slugger” (Daisuke Sakaguchi). The series begins with Tsukiko Sagi (Mamiko Noto), who designs a popular character named Maromi (Haruko Momoi), a pink cartoon dog; a mascot who becomes something of a talisman for her company and their most popular character. She is soon under pressure to create another success on that level, and while walking home is attacked by an shadowy figure wearing golden rollerblades and swinging a golden bat. As she recovers in the hospital, two detectives, Keiichi Ikari (Shozo Iizuka) and Mitsuhiro Maniwa (Toshihiko Seki) are put on the case, tracking down the young boy believed to be responsible for the assault. Throughout the series we are introduced to various characters, each of which suffer some kind of trauma, paranoia, fear, or stress, and all of whom are targeted by the mysterious figure of Lil’ Slugger.

Directed and co-written by Satoshi Kon (Perfect Blue, Tokyo Godfathers), the film has a dark tone throughout, dealing with themes of violence, suicide, abuse, and having realistic and unsympathetic characters. Black humour is often used to alleviate some of the tension, but the overwhelming sensation while watching will be one of confusion. The stories often seem to break down into dream-sequences or other surreal moments, feature characters whose fragile psyches seem to be collapsing as the plot progresses. It becomes clear early on that this is not a straightforward mystery, and that there may be a supernatural or psychological element to the story. I was concerned that the ending would be a let-down, considering the fantastic premise and set-up, but I was not disappointed. There is a sense of fulfilment at the end of the story, a sort of catharsis for the characters, and the whole thing ties together thematically, if not strictly logically. The script is excellent, building up a sense of real characters, living in surreal circumstances, with great voice acting by the whole cast. Some episodes in particular are inspired, such as the episode centred on an animation studio and the various jobs that entails. Emphasising the dualistic nature of the series, the score by Susumu Hirasawa is likewise ominous and cheery by turns. It is best to go into this show not knowing too much about it, as there are some great twists and turns.

The series deals with some very serious themes, depression, anxiety, suicide, mental disorders, as well as painting a picture of a dysfunctional society. The character of Lil’ Slugger is left somewhat open to interpretation, as a psychological phenomenon conjured from the fevered imaginings of the protagonists, or as an elemental force that descends on people who are feeling life is too much for them. I would highly recommend this series to anyone who enjoys psychological horror, mystery, and something that will have you scratching your head throughout attempting to figure out the significance of it all.