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.

Highschool of the Dead (2010-11)

Following the outbreak of a zombie virus, high school student Takashi Komuro (Junichi Suwabe) is forced to fight against the hordes of the living dead. Joining him are fellow survivors including his former girlfriend Rei Miyamoto (Marina Inoue), an intelligent, rich-kid Saya Takagi (Eri Kitamura), martial arts expert Saeko Busujima (Miyuki Sawashiro), portly geek Kota Hirano (Nobuyuki Hiyama), and teacher Shizuka Marikawa (Yukari Fukui). The group must work together, putting aside any former differences to escape from the school and find their way in this post-zombie apocalypse.

“Highschool of the Dead” is based on the manga by Daisuke Sato with illustration by Shoji Sato. Sato’s previous work was mainly self-published and this was his first non-“adult” project. The show borrows heavily from the exploitation genre, with graphic violence, blood splattering everywhere as they take out zombies in often darkly-humorous ways. The female protagonists are all endowed with improbably large bosoms and the camera rarely misses an opportunity for a shot of jiggling breasts or exposed panties. The male characters, Takashi and Kota, who presumably act as the surrogates for the intended audience, find themselves in the unusual position of being at once surrounded by beautiful young women, and simultaneously threatened with a gory death at the hands of rampaging zombies. There are serious tonal shifts throughout from horror to comedy, and it often has the feel of a show entirely put together by people who had no higher objective than to bring to the screen exactly what their audience would want to see. Although there are any number of zombie shows, this one does keep things fresh and fast-paced, with constant changes of environment and new challenges for the group. The introduction half-way through the series of a young girl and a dog to the group further alters the dynamic. The animation utilises several techniques, with comic inserts, frenetic CG enhanced action sequences, and the art-work on the zombies is especially good. The rock soundtrack keeps up the energy, and I enjoyed that the credits for each episode are accompanied by a different track.

A simple zombie survival tale that will appeal to anyone who is a fan of sexploitation cinema and gory horror. At times the show rises above the ridiculous and there are some moving sequences when it seems that the enormity of their situation finally catches up with the characters, but these are usually followed by more outrageous action or sex-jokes to lighten the mood. I would highly recommend it as one of the standout examples of the genre, with excellent animation work and character design and a story that keep throwing up unique and exciting scenarios.

Big Tits Zombie (2010) by Takao Nakano

When a film has a title like that you are really only watching it for two reasons. Written and directed by Takao Nakano, “Big Tits Zombie” is based on the manga by Rei Mikamoto and stars several adult film stars in what is a low-budget comedy horror romp. Beginning in media res we see two of our heroines (Sora Aoi and Yumi Yoshiyuki) surrounded by zombies, hacking their way through with a katana and a chainsaw. Lena (Aoi) then kindly offers in voiceover to take us back to where this all began. Having just returned from Mexico, Lena is looking for work and finds it in the “Paradise Theatre” stripclub. Working alongside her are Ginko (Yoshiyuki), Maria (Mari Sakurai) who has a goth-loli style and love of Shakespeare, Nene (Tamayo) who is into reading tarot, and Darna (Io Aikawa) from south Asia who is raising money for her family back home. With few customers the women are bored. They are then farmed out to the local onsen spot to entertain the patrons there with female wrestling and other games. Following a fight in their dressing room, they discover a hidden passage behind a wall that leads down to an underground chamber. The chamber contains many occult books and a portal to hell. Because why not? When Maria begins reading an incantation from one book she unwittingly summons the dead back to life.

The film is as ridiculous as the title suggests and doubtless nobody involved was expecting a masterpiece. The manga “Big Tits Dragon” by Rei Mikamoto on which the film is based no doubt gave more weight to the film through giving each character some sense of personality. There is an attempt to give Lena some backstory and character development, even if it largely involves her getting drunk and having regrettable sexual encounters. The others are likewise all given a peculiar character quirk. Darna’s love of money and Maria’s gothic obsession are traits that do tie into the story in interesting ways, and it is more than you might have expected for anything to make sense in this film. One of the oddest moments of the film is a flashback involving Ginko, where she explains how she previously killed one of the zombies after he broke into her home and killed her younger sister. This subplot doesn’t really come back in any major way, which is a missed opportunity.

Speaking of missed opportunities, while there are plenty of zombies in the film the titular breasts make relatively few appearances. The sequence near the end where they have breasts sprayed with arterial spurt from slain zombies one would imagine would be a common occurrence in the film, but it plays as though it is intended as a scene inserted simply to justify the title. This wouldn’t be an issue were it not for the fact that the filmmakers rarely seem to make use of their biggest assets, that being the great cast of actresses he has. The script has several decent jokes, but too few to really class this as an out and out comedy. When they meet a blue ogre from hell who is in middle-management and complaining about the number of souls he is having to contend with, a little like an overpopulated prison as he remarks, the scene feels underplayed. Likewise, there are many creative moments, such as a woman having her organs eaten in the style of ‘body sushi’, playing ping pong with an eyeball, and a woman whose organs flail around like tentacles, that suffer through poor effects work. The last of these is severely damaged as you can see the strings holding up the puppetry. The flame-throwing vagina was one moment that absolutely caught the tone of the film, somewhere between horror and comedy, but it needed to push the envelope in this vein more often.

Sadly, the film falls between two stools. Neither raunchy or terrifying enough to be a standout of the ‘ero-guro’ genre, nor funny enough to be a great comedy. It’s short runtime means it is sure to find an audience looking for some B-movie goodness, but again the filmmakers really missed a trick in not going all out either in terms of the sexploitation or horror to make this truly memorable. It is to their credit that they attempt a modicum of plot and character and there is enough to keep you entertained, but it could have been so much more.

Tag (2015) by Sion Sono

It is hard to give a synopsis of this film without spoiling what is the most fun part of watching it: the constant unexpected shocks, gross-out moments, and bursts of ultra-violence. The film follows three main characters, Miyuki (Reina Triendl), a high-school student, Keiko (Mariko Shinoda), a reluctant bride, and finally Izumi (Erina Mano), a marathon runner, whose sections blend into one another to give the impression that this is one personality represented as three individuals. The film has a dream-like sensibility to it, flowing from scene to scene, mixing nightmarish fantasy with reality.

The film begins with a unique scene of carnage, almost as ridiculous as it is terrifying, and doesn’t really let up from there. It could best be described as an absurdist horror, which will surprise, amuse and disgust you (sometimes in the same scene). It becomes apparent early on that what you are watching is not intended to be realistic, but read as a metaphor for something else. Writer and director Sion Sono is known for grotesque and sexualised imagery and here we have both. It makes a mockery of cheap exploitation almost while exemplifying the genre itself, think schoolgirl underwear peeked under short skirts and extreme carnage that seems to come out of nowhere. “Tag” does not scrimp on the horror with some genuinely disturbing moments. It keeps you on edge in a way that plays into the themes of the film. There is an ever present threat that is heightened by the surreal nature of what is unfolding. The acting from the three leads is fantastic and they do a great job of expressing the terror of what is happening. Supporting performances from Yuki Sakurai, Aki Hiraoka and Ami Tomite are enjoyable and the cast all have good chemistry together as friends. It is clear that the director intended this to be more than a simple horror-action film, and the direction does a good job of creating a sense that there are social themes under the surface. An early sequence of Miyuki by the river, with corpses and clothing strewn about, has a peculiar beauty to it, and throughout there are moments that are unforgettable for a variety of reasons.

“Tag” is grotesque, exploitative, and sensationalist, but also with a strong message against misogyny. The fears faced by Miyuki and Keiko, around school and marriage, are exaggerations of typical anxieties faced by girls and women. The use of the white feathers exemplify this notion of a perceived feminine purity that becomes tainted throughout life and the fear this engenders. This is twinned with the paranoia of the opening sequences which see Miyuki switch uniforms (moving up in school years). She is constantly buffeted by forces she cannot control, perhaps representative of puberty, and forced to keep moving forward. Later in the film the white feather comes to symbolise freedom. We see it at the end of the film when the characters seem to have finally broken free of their constraints. Miyuki’s friend tells her to remember that the world is surreal and there is no predetermined path. This idea, that you should not allow yourself to be defeated by the world, but keep your own sense of yourself alive is important. The final scenes drive home this message about a patriarchal society that treats women as playthings, becoming almost a critique of the film itself and the way it treats its main characters. The film is a cry for individualism in a world where women are forced into particular roles. We constantly see characters running from some unseen force, or pushed and pulled by other characters into situations they are not sure about, or don’t fully understand. The real conflict here is between the women and society itself. It is also a film about free will versus determinism, albeit told in its own bizarre, blood-spattered way. I would recommend this film to any fans of gory exploitation cinema with a twisted sense of humour and an unexpected message.

Premonition (2004) by Norio Tsurata

Hideki Satomi on the way back from a family trip with his wife, Ayaka, and daughter, Nana, stops to make a call at a payphone on a rural road. He catches sight of a burnt shred of newspaper with an article that seems to predict the imminent death of his daughter. Turning around he is too late to help as a truck, the driver having suffered a seizure, plows into his car which then sets on fire. Three years later, Hideki and his wife have separated. He is still working as a teacher, unable to forgive himself for not saving his daughter. His wife is exploring the phenomenon of premonitions, hoping to find some evidence of her ex-husbands experience.

Written and directed by Norio Tsurata and loosely based on the comic book “Newspaper of Terror” by Jiro Tsunoda, “Premonition” is a straightforward horror that shies away from its most interesting elements. Hiroshi Mikami gives a great performance as a grieving father still struggling to come to terms with what has happened. He hates newspapers, lives a solitary existence, and cannot cope with the trauma of his experience. In contrast, his wife (played by Noriko Sakai) is working to uncover the truth of what happened. The film has its share of spooky moments, however some of the tension is taken away by creating a sense of inevitability. It is hard to feel invested when the premise is that these events cannot be avoided. The strongest section of the film comes in the final third, where it shifts to a psychological horror mode and we have a look at the impact of events on Hideki’s life. This shows a creativity that is lacking in the early sections.

Clairvoyants are a staple of horror, creating instant tension with the inevitable deaths they foresee. However, this comes at the cost of losing a sense of interest. The audience is simply forced to watch what is happening. In taking power from the characters, it also removes the natural empathy we might feel towards the characters. In part this could be put down to personal beliefs. The film’s stronger themes relate to Hideki’s feelings of guilt over his daughters death and sense of impotence to help in tragic circumstances. The film’s ending does do something interesting with the genre, that goes some way towards ameliorating the weaknesses in plot earlier. However, it also throws up a major problem in rewriting much of what has happened. Overall, “Premonition” is a missed opportunity, that could have been much bolder in its ideas and focussed more on the characters than the mystery.