Ashura (2005) by Yojiro Takita

As dark forces mass, a fearless Demon Warden fights to protect humanity from the hellish horde in this historical-fantasy epic. After an incident in which he struck down a young child, famed Demon Warden Izumo (Somegoro Ichikawa) leaves the profession, beginning a new career as a popular Kabuki actor. Meanwhile, Bizan (Kanako Higuchi) a demon witch, along with the help of Izumo’s former colleague Jaku (Atsuro Watabe), works to bring about the revival of Ashura, the demon overlord, whose re-emergence will in turn see demons once again overrun the earth. Izumo meets a mysterious woman, Tsubaki (Rie Miyazawa), who has no memory of her past and the two are set on a path that will lead them to the edge of Armageddon.

“Ashura”, directed by Yojiro Takita, is an action fantasy based on the mythology of dark demon gods who delight in destruction. The film’s elaborate sets and exquisite costumes beautifully capture the period and it is fun to see the depiction of kabuki performances which play a role in the drama. The film itself is reminiscent of a theatrical production, not only in the melodramatic plot and acting, but the way that scenes play out in small sets, similar to “Kwaidan” (1964). There is a sub-plot running throughout of a kabuki playwright who follows Izumo to get inspiration for what may be his greatest story yet. Perhaps because of these comedic interpolations the film occasionally lacks a sense of threat and urgency, partly alienating us from the drama. Takita’s previous film “When the Last Sword is Drawn”, also employed a framing device which distanced the audience from the action. The fight choreography is strong, with a great sequence early on in which the demon-wardens attempt to clear a town of its demonic inhabitants. The CG and visual effects are hit and miss, often unnecessary and undermining the incredible set design and the film is certainly strongest when the fantasy elements are depicted more subtly, such as the demon at the beginning who sings a melancholic tune, setting the scene for what is to follow.

Japan has a rich tradition of mythology, demon-lore, and fantasy tales to draw from and “Ashura” does a good job of bringing to life this epic of men versus the forces of evil. The central twist in the story is evident early on, but still provides some degree of tension as we contemplate what will happen to the characters when they find out. The most interesting character is Tsubaki, whose qualms over who or what she is affect our emotional involvement with the film. It questions the nature of evil and whether it can be overcome or halted by rationality or even love. “Ashura” will appeal to fantasy fans, with prophecies, witches, demon-hunters and demon gods, sword-fighting and romance capturing the best elements of the genre.

Goth (2008) by Gen Takahashi

Two teens obsessed with murder decide to follow the diary of a serial killer to find his most recent victim. Despite having a seeminlgy happy homelife with his mother and sister, Itsuki Kamiyama (Kanata Hongo) has a dark obsession, sneaking out to visit gruesome crime scenes. His classmate Yoru Morino (Rin Takanashi) shares this morbid fascination, living alone and investigating horrors in her gothic study. When Yoru finds a diary belonging to a killer who severs the left hands of his victims and poses them like art installations, their interest leads them to follow his trail of death, rather than turning in this important evidence to the police.

The ‘goth’ subculture: dark clothes, fixation on death, suffering, murder, and all things dark and gruesome, is a fascinating social phenomenon. The film never quite gets to the root of why its protagonists have such an apathetic and nihilistic world-view, but it does capture their behaviour and ennui perfectly. Rin Takanashi’s Yoru is a pale, lonely figure, who drifts through life like a ghost herself following a childhood accident that left her sister dead. Meanwhile, Kanata Hongo’s Itsuki seems on the surface to be a sociable, well-adjusted high-schooler, who nevertheless engages in morbid fantasies. It makes for an interesting crime-horror film in which the two protagonists are not particularly interesting in cracking the case, but instead fascinated by the idea of murder and serial killers. The dark tone, covering suicide and death, may be off-putting to some, but it creates an stomach-churning tension that goes beyond the usual shock of more grotesque horror fare. The darkness here comes from the characters’ deep well of alienation and twisted idolisation of despicable acts. The two constantly refer to the aesthetic beauty in how the murderer poses the corpses, showing their complete disassociation with the act of killing and death. The soundtrack, featuring a peculiarly eerie marimba melody and choral recitations, further enforces this sense of dread, occasionally turning to something more angelic and operatic to show how the teens themselves view their activities as almost transcendental. For them there is nothing morbid about researching killers, but instead something beautiful, beholding the line between life and death and the transience of existence. When Yoru lies in the river where one of the victims was placed, Itsuki imagines her with blood streaming from a slashed wrist. It is both disturbing yet darkly beautiful as we see her life essence swept along in the current, suggestive of tragic archetypes throughout the ages.

No doubt “Goth” will prove a hard watch for some, as it forgoes the usual impulse of films to want justice to be done for murder victims. In closing the film solves many questions that you might want answered, but leaves much more to audience interpretation. The film could be seen as a rumination on society’s fascination with death and murder. Although not always to the extent of the protagonists here, humans have an insatiable appetite for real life crime documentaries, stories about serial killers, and often ignore the plight of the victims, instead interested only in the idea rather than the reality. In the same way the protagonists look at the world in a cold, distant way, barely moved by the sight of death. The extent of the goth subculture and fascination with murder outside of it, speaks to a deep-seated need in humans to attempt to understand our own morality and nature, dwelling on this disturbing yet inevitable fact of life. Itsuki casually remarks that people can be divided into those who kill and those who are killed. It is a dark commentary on mankind, but it does highlight this duality of man in his twisted worldview.

Hiruko the Goblin (1991) by Shinya Tsukamoto

An archaeologist and a schoolboy must fight a subterranean terror in this B-movie fantasy horror. While investigating an underground cave, Professor Yabe (Naoto Takenaka) and schoolgirl Tsukishima (Megumi Ueno) unwittingly awaken an ancient monster, which decapitates its victims, using their heads as part of its form. Yabe’s friend Professor Hieda (Kenji Sawada) and his son Masao (Masaki Kudo) find themselves battling against this monster, which now has the face of Masao’s former crush Tsukishima. The two are in a race against time to destory the creature and seal the site under the school before there is a mass invasion of them.

Director Shinya Tsukamoto, who rose to fame with his cyberpunk body-horror cult favourite “Tetsuo”, takes on a more traditional horror fare in “Hiruko the Goblin”, based on the “Yokai Hunter” manga by Daijiro Morohashi. The plot is wafer thin, with heroes fighting an inexplicable supernatural threat, but enlivened with some fun side-characters such as Watanabe the janitor (Hideo Murota) who is tasked with defending the school, and the way in which the monsters steal the heads of their victims, creating a sense of terror when Masao and Hieda are forced to face former friends (now transformed into hideous creatures). The film’s practical special effects, including stop-motion, lends the film a hand-made B-movie feel that is in keeping with the shaky plot. The monster design is unique, with arachnid style legs scuttling around with human faces, and their speed and agility is quite horrifying to witness. The film also features some interesting elements with the creatures’ ability to influence the thoughts of its prey, forcing them to reveal information or commit suicide. For the most part a straightforward horror, the film also leans heavily into its fantasy elements, with prophecies, ancient rites, and a quest for a crown in the goblin lair. The soundtrack also straddles both horror and fantasy genres, with ominous notes and a light, plaintive melody sung by the Tsukishima monster suggestive of the Siren song of Greek mythology.

A fun, fantasy horror with a unique monster terrrorizing the protagonists. “Hiruko the Goblin” doesn’t shy away from shock moments but with a fast-paced action style. Fans of low-budget horror special effects will find much to enjoy here too.

Doppelganger (2003) by Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Engineer Hayasaki (Koji Yakusho) is working on a robotic chair that allows paralysed people to operate artificial limbs through a connection with the brain. One day he comes home to find a doppelganger who attempts to help him push the project on, while also causing havoc through his aggressive behaviour. Meanwhile, a young woman Yuka (Hiromi Nagasaku) is disturbed to hear of her brother’s suicide, while his doppelganger sits at home working on a novel. Hayasaki’s double hires an assistant called Kimishima (Yusuke Santamaria) to help with the chair; continuing their work in an abandoned warehouse even after Hayasaki is fired from the medical company that had funded his research.

“Doppelganger” is a mix of horror, classic science-fiction, and mystery, with a tone that shifts from dark to humorous. The uncomfortable atmosphere is compounded by a plot that becomes increasingly wild as it reaches a dramatic climax, even abandoning the doppelgangers towards the end. Writer-director Kiyoshi Kurosawa expects the audience to engage with the film, rarely explaining things, or even explicitly revealing what is happening. Instead we experience Hayasaki’s bizarre situation first hand and are asked to make our own minds up about what is real or unreal, and the significance of the doppelgangers. This is even more keenly felt in the story of Yuka’s brother, Takeshi, a disturbing situation that appears and is resolved without any apparent connection to Hayasaki’s own problem. Kiyoshi excels at creating uncomfortable moments, using space and framing that suggests unseen or unknown horrors. Even the smallest moments take on a sinister aspect and we are left anxiously awaiting some new terrible revelation. However, the film also balances this darkness with a blackly comic tone, with Hayasaki’s unhinged behaviour not quite tipping over into something more pitiful. Koji Yakusho does a fantastic job with the two Hayasakis, who have distinct personalities and approaches to work and life. The film utilises simple yet effective techniques to show the two of them together and we can feel that they are two different people who happen to look identical. The use of split screen is also a great addition, adding to the uncertainty about whether this is Hayasaki’s delusion or a manifestation of Hayasaki’s darker nature. The score by Yusuke Hayashi captures this strange blend of horror, comedy and science-fiction, with ominous chords and jaunty melodies.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s “Doppelganger” explores the duality of its protagonist Hayasaki and that of humanity in general. Hayasaki is a man who has devoted his life to his work, neglecting any kind of social or romantic pursuits. His doppelganger, more assertive, aggressive, and decisive, represents those elements of himself he has kept hidden, agressively pursuing Yuka. Hayasaki’s dislike of his double shows how much he wants to distance himself from these elements of his own psyche. Takeshi’s case is more tragic, suggesting the choice that lies before many people, with his ‘real’ self committing sucide while his doppelganger pursues his creative tendencies.It is the Id-like doppelgangers that seem to know what is truly important to the individuals, while the true self of the Ego is forced into a life controlled by others. The film’s upbeat ending sees things resolved in a positive if unconventional way, but one that chimes with the underlying message of self-awareness and self-discovery.

The Stare (2016) by Miki Koichiro

After witnessing a bizarre death, Ayano Mishima (Tomomi Itano), who works at a television production company, is drawn into an historic mystery and comes face to face with an ancient curse. Individuals are being troubled by disembodied eyes that peer at them from gaps in furniture, vents, or between curtains, their paranoia spiralling until they are eventually killed by an unseen force. After seeing this Mishima sets out to discover the cause, leading her to the mysterious 9 mountain pass where an ancient village has been submerged beneath a reservoir. Mishima’s boyfriend is admitted to an institution when he too begins to see the mysterious presence, forcing Mishima to find a solution to the curse.

Based on a novel by Shinzo Mitsuda, “The Stare” (Japanese title: Nozokime) is a good old fashioned ghost story, with a fun folkloric ghoul as the primary antagonist. Whereas usually horror will focus on fear, here the spectre provokes paranoia, leading characters to tape over any cracks or gaps they find in their apartments. This hidden eye is chilling in its inexplicable nature and for the fact that there is very little the victims can do to avoid being harassed by it. For the most part the film avoids straight-up gore or violence, with only a few instances of bloody deaths, and one character gouging their eyes out. These restrained uses of special effects work to the film’s advantage. Like much horror of this genre, part of the fun is the unravelling of the central mystery: of who the spirit is, why they are upset, and how they might be appeased. Ex-AKB idol Tomomi Itano does a good job in the central role of horror heroine.

“The Stare” is a fairly by-the-numbers horror with solid direction from Miki Koichiro and a unique antagonist. Japan has a wealth of folkloric monsters to pick from, so its always interesting to see a ghost with a unique angle to their kills, and this is about as unique as they come.