Baptism of Blood (1996) by Kenichi Yoshihara

Actress Matsuko Uehara (Lisa Akikawa) formulates a gruesome plot to transfer her brain into her teenage daughter Sakura (Rie Imamura) in order to steal her beauty. Suffering with a peculiar skin condition that creates a mould-like disfigurement, Matsuko leaves acting, holing up in her country residence for many years. When her daughter is old enough, she takes her to a room at the back of the house which houses a strange contraption. Her daughter Sakura is terrified to see that the machine is intended to remove her brain and replace it with her mothers and attempts to escape. Following the operation, Matsuko (now in Sakura’s body) begins an affair with her piano tutor. Meanwhile, the tutor, KazuyoTanigawa (Naoko Amihama) is plotting with his wife (Chihiro Tago) to steal the fortune of the Uehara’s. Their plot is threatened when an investigator Takamatsu (Shinya Kashima) turns up at the house.

Based on a manga by Kazuo Umezo, with a script by director Kenichi Yoshihara, “Baptism of Blood” is an enjoyable B-movie gothic horror, with an absurd premise that nevertheless provides a few gory shocks. The sequence in which the brains are exchanged is disturbingly graphic, with excellent special effects. The rest of the film is remarkably bloodless, instead relying on the eerie scheming of the protagonist for its thrills. It is hard to take the film seriously given the premise, but both Lisa Akikawa and Rie Imamura do a fantastic job with the melodramatic plot. The film moves along at a good pace, with the sub-plot of Tanigawa and his pregnant wife, detective Takamatsu, and a late stage twist, helping keep things fresh. The final turn of the tale is fun and helps make some sense of what goes before.

Interestingly given the title (in Japanese simply “Baptism”), the references to Christian theology appear largely incidental. Sakura attends a Christian high-school and we see Matsuko wearing a crucifix, but religion’s often dangerous obsession with youth, beauty and virginity, is an underused thematic element. Matsuko’s disfigurement is an unfortunate physical signifier of her sinister nature, again a more traditional, folkloric, take on good versus evil, with the dynamic of a mother yearning for her daughter’s beauty. The final twist confuses things considerably as it reveals that both Matsuko and Sakura are not entirely stable individuals, leading us to question the reality of what has happened. There are darker themes present here, most obviously in the sexual predator Tanigawa who needs little encouragement to begin a relationship with the teenage Sakura. The film is very much a traditional gothic horror in modern guise, with illicit desires, a mad scientist, and a heartless female villain, dealing with themes of sexual abuse, voyeurism, and a dangerous coveting of youth. A fun film for the sheer audacity of its premise and worth watching for the aforementioned brain-swapping sequence.

Lovesick Dead (2001) by Kazuyuki Shibuya

Midori (Risa Goto) is a high-schooler troubled by a recurring dream of a roadside shrine and the ancient practice of Tsuruji, where a person stands by the shrine and asks the first passer-by whether they will find love or not. Midori’s dream always ends with the appearance of a dark figure. On her first day at a new school she meets Suzue, whose friends relate several other eerie stories involving Tsuruji. Two of the students meet a gruesome end after trying Tsuruji, lending credence to these rumours. Midori also meets an old friend called Ryusuke who she hasn’t seen for 10 years. Meanwhile, Midori’s mother begins to break down, continually scrubbing mold off the walls of their apartment.

Based on a Junji Ito manga, with a script by Naoyuki Tomomatsu, “Lovesick Dead” (also known as “Love Ghost”, brings together three ghost stories disguised as a high-school romance. The first concerns the Tsuruji shrine and the violent fates awaiting the girls who attempt to discover their futures; the second revolves around Midori and Ryusuke’s relationship; and a third is centred on Midori’s mother and the disappearance of her father 10 years prior. The film spends a long time setting up Midori’s high-school classmates, who are then jettisoned in the final third as the story comes to focus on the story of Ryusuke. The three story threads can be largely seen as distinct plots, as they mostly function without reference or relevance to the others. When we reach the moment of revelation, the film does provide an intriguing twist, throwing in a new element to the story and slowly beginning to untangle the various mysteries established earlier on. There are plot holes and inexplicable moments that undermine the entire story of the school and Midori’s new classmates, but it is a satisfactory, if unsurprising, conclusion. There are flashes of brilliance in the direction and storytelling here, isolating characters with clever framing, and setting up certain elements of the twist beforehand so it doesn’t feel like you have been misled. The acting is largely melodramatic and the cast have little to do, with an emotional range from slightly concerned to seriously worried. Aside from two suicides, the film’s horror elements are confined to the creepy ghost stories, with a comfortably traditional feel. The soundtrack does an excellent job in complementing the gothic romance.

As with many films dealing with the idea of fate or premonition, “Lovesick Dead” presents us with the dangers of discovering your own fate. As this doom is always inescapable it is unwise to search too keenly for it. The film also poses the intriguing logical question of a self-fulfilling prophecy, whereby the recipient of this preternatural warning becomes the agent of their own destruction, therefore fulfilling what was foretold. The Tsuruji plotline is the most interesting part of the film, bringing a traditional tale to a modern audience it offers a unique take on the dark fate awaiting horror victims. In contrast, Midori’s own story with Ryusuke is a more typical ghost story with psychological elements; and Midori’s mother’s tale is one of guilt and despair. These two stories suffer a little due to a lack of serious character work. There is a lot to explore in this atypical “mother-daughter” relationship and the way that their pasts are impacting their present, but the film wraps up relatively quickly after we discover what has happened, giving little time for such an emotional denouement. “Lovesick Dead” draws together several traditional high-school horror elements in a film that moves quickly and doesn’t outstay its welcome. It is unlikely to offer genuine shocks, but if you are looking for a mildly chilling tale you will enjoy it.

Toshimaen: Haunted Park (2019) by Hiroshi Takahashi

Saki (Rie Kitahara) and a group of her school-friends visit the cursed Toshimaen theme park. The curse is said to visit those who knock on the old door of the theme-park mansion, or look into their own reflection in the hall of mirrors. Those who succumb to the curse, which can only be broken by riding the merry-go-round, disappear to some unknown place. As Saki’s friends are taken one by one she begins to wonder if these happenings are related to the earlier disappearance of her friend Yuka (Arisa Komiya). “Toshimaen: Haunted Park” is written and directed by Hiroshi Takahashi, who also worked on the “Ring” series.

The colander-like plot is par for the course for this kind of teen thriller, but occasionally becomes distracting in just how convenient certain elements are. The curse is less scary when there is a clear and simple way to stop it given along with the instructions for causing it. The story itself creates more confusion by making Yuka a villainous vengeful spirit. It makes sense in this story, but begs the question of what happens to others who are taken by the curse such as the three film-makers at the beginning. The entire story only functions with these particular characters and a very particular set-up. This would be fine if the film isn’t also suggesting that the curse is something that pre-exists them. The acting is serviceable, with teenage schoolgirl dialogue and on-the-nose exposition delivered believably enough. In the latter third the film begins to show promise, creating a suitably spooky atmosphere as we reach the typical ‘final girl’ scenario. The haunted theme-park, and a race to restart the electrical circuits for the rides, create tension that is missing from the rest of the film. That being said the brief glimpse of more supernatural elements, as the girls face a looming chasm preventing them leaving the park, only emphasise what opportunities were missed with this premise. Ideas such as a ghost house that is genuinely haunted, or the house of mirrors, feel underused.

A by-the-numbers horror about a haunted theme-park and a ghoul with a grudge. “Toshimaen: Haunted Park” suffers from a large number of plot holes and underwhelming action that fails to capitalise on the premise. The final third introduction of more supernatural elements is where it seems to finally find it’s purpose, but it is too little, too late. A low-budget thriller that may find an audience with younger viewers but is unlikely to provide effective scares for an older audience.

Jigoku (1960) by Nobuo Nakagawa

Shiro Shimizu (Shigeru Amachi) is due to marry Yukiko Yajima (Utako Mitsuya), but their happiness is cut short by a fatal accident. While in a car with his friend Tamura (Yoichi Numata), Sora is involved in a fatal hit-and-run. Tamura doesn’t believe they should go to the police, realising that the man they killed is a lowly gangster. Things go from bad to worse for Shiro when Yukiko is killed as they are on their way to the police station in a taxi. Sora escapes to a rural old people’s home where his parents are living. This offers little reprieve as he discovers his mother is dying; his father has taken a mistress; there is a nurse who looks uncannily like Yukiko (also played by Utako Mitsuya); and when Tamura, Yukiko’s parents, and the crash victim’s mother and former lover turn up looking for revenge, it seems that Sora will never escape the consequences of his actions.

With a screenplay by director Nobuo Nakakawa and Ichiro Miyagawa,”Jigoku” is a film that is divided quite neatly into two parts. It begins as a crime thriller involving Sora and Tamura’s hit-and-run incident and the fallout from this and Yukiko’s subsequent death. In the latter half of the film, the characters find themselves in hell, with Sora attempting to rescue his unborn daughter Harumi. This is the point at which the film becomes a straight horror, with gruesome depictions of people wallowing in rivers of blood and filth; being flayed alive or sawn into pieces. The fantastical depictions of hell, the Sanzu river, and the King of Hell who oversees these punishments, stand in stark contrast to the human drama that precedes it, with the film’s dissection of guilt and morality suddenly ramped up by the carnage that awaits the sinners. The cinematography by Mamoru Morita creates an atmopshere of dread from the beginning, with characters often isolated by deep shadows in dimly lit environments. The effects in hell are well done, often relying on simply techniques, or juxtaposition of imagery to create a disquieting feeling of tormented souls. The flayed bodies, piercing by spikes, sawing, are interspersed with sombre moments of lost children piling stones, suggest an underworld that is both a place of despair and torture depending on what landed you there.

Part crime thriller, part dark fantasy, with an element of tragic romance thrown in for good measure, “Jigoku” is a highly entertaining moral drama. The film’s outlook is bleak, with almost every character eventually ending up in the infernal realm regardless of the nature or severity of their sin. Shiro is a sympathetic protagonist: largely swept along by others, when he does attempt to make things right it always ends up making matters worse. In this sense, along with the seemingly indiscriminate way punishments are handed out in hell, the film makes us question the nature of this afterlife. Early in the film a professor delivers a lecture on the various perceptions of hell in religions throughout history and across the world. “Hell” as a concept has reappeared in almost every major religion. As “Jigoku” demostrates, it is an idea that is fantastical and often only loosely connected to a genuine attempt to punish sinners, more often simply a vicarious imaginary pleasure for survivors or those who believe they are morally superior. Here there are few who escape the tortures of Hell, whether they are fully deserving or not. This depiction, with its excesses and horrors, asks us to re-evaluate our own morality and ask what our conception of hell tells us about our desire for revenge.

Tokyo Living Dead Idol (2018) by Yuki Kumagai

When the lead singer of a popular idol group, Tokyo 27-ku, is bitten by a zombie, she has 72 hours to find a cure before the virus transforms her. Miku (Nana Asakawa) comes off stage with her bandmates, Moe (Yumeri Abe) and Yuri (Runa Ozawa), arguing about their performance. After starting as underground idols the trio are beginning to gain popularity. However, this is put on hold when a zombie takes a bite out of Miku’s arm. Miku flees, with police sent out to search for her, and teams up with a small-time detective (Shogen). The two of them set out to find Dr. Kumozawa (Koichi Takamatsu) and Alicia (Chisato Koizumi), whose blood is rumoured to be a cure for the zombie virus. They must also evade the attentions of the Zombie Hunters, who roam the streets of Tokyo.

“Tokyo Living Dead Idol”, written and directed by Yuki Kumagai, brings a few new elements to the zombie mythology. In this tale the zombie infection takes three days before beginning to rot the brain core and turn people into the flesh-eating monsters we all know. This gives an impetus to the story as Miku races to find a solution to her problem before it is too late. For this low-budget film it also means they can largely avoid having to do large crowd shots of rampaging zombies, with the populace here appearing largely unphased by the occasional infection. The film does feature a few entertaining, anime-inspired, fight sequences, with katana-weilding zombie hunters; and the inclusion of parkour zombies is another fun addition. The plot is workmanlike, establishing several threads and tying them all together neatly, albeit sometimes without much fanfare (as in the case of Miku’s reunion wiht her bandmates at the end of the film). The comedy is largely in the dialogue and situations, with some of the best moments coming through off-hand remarks. Not all of the jokes land and the horror is sometimes undermined by overuse of CG blood rather than practical effects, but the final third provides an action-packed and emotionally fulfilling climax.

The blend of two popular subcultures, idols and zombies, is unique and entertaining. Miku is not a typical heroine, being portrayed as arrogant and disrespectful to her bandmates early on we are nevertheless sympathetic when she is bitten. Miku, Moe and Yuri are played by members of the Idol Group Super*Girls, which lends some believability to their performances. The film comments on government corruption, with the man developing the zombie viruses in kahoots with the department responsible for controlling them; the cure being withheld from the population until such time as it is financially beneficial for the government to release it. “Tokyo Living Dead Idol”, with its unique protagonist, also includes characters such as the two idol fans who want to protect Miku. These are contrasted later with a group of zombies who fetishise her, interested only in her sex appeal. It is an interesting concept, the positive and negative aspects of fan culture, also emphasised by one of the Zombie Hunters who turns out to be a huge fan of Tokyo 27-ku. This theme is never fully developed, but it provides an interesting angle to the traditional zombie story. The ‘mindless’ nature of much of the entertainment industry and fandom. “Tokyo Living Dead Idol” is a unique take on zombie lore, with the inclusion of idols and a countdown to becoming a zombie creating a fast-paced, horror-comedy for fans of B-movie action.