Demon Slayer: Mugen Train (2020) by Haruo Sotozaki

While it is possible to enjoy this film without having seen the Demon Slayer anime, I would advise watching the series first. The film picks up directly from the end of the last episode of the show, with Tanjiro (Natsuki Hanae), Zenitsu (Hiro Shimono) and Inosuke (Yoshitsugu Matsuoka) boarding the titular Mugen Train (or “Infinity Train”). There they find the Flame Hashira, Rengoku Kyojuro (Satoshi Hino), who is on a misson to defeat a powerful demon. It is not long before the demon makes their presence known, putting our heroes to sleep in hopes of killing them while they are vulnerable. This gives us a look into the psyche of the characters through various dream sequences which they must escape from.

Essentially an extended episode, “Demon Slayer: Mugen Train” is an action-packed continuation of the set-up that ended the series, featuring gory demonic fights and slapstick comedy. It is great to see the characters back in action again after the training they have undergone. We don’t get too many answers to the questions raised at the end of the show, such as the mystery surrounding Tanjiro’s father, or any nearer a cure for Nezuko (Akari Kito), as this story is intended to bridge the two series. However, there are plenty of twists and surprises in store and it builds expectation for series two with a thrilling climactic battle that pushes the story forward in a dramatic way. The blend of animation styles, featuring 2D and 3D animation, the garishly juxtaposed comedy, dark themes and subtext, explosive action, powerful soundtrack, and moving storylines, will be familiar to fans of the show and the film delivers everything you have come to expect from “Demon Slayer”. This is hardly surprising as the film has the same director as the series, and the same incredible music from Yuki Kajiura and Go Shiina creating that epic feel.

In having a demon who uses the power of dreams to entrap their victims, the film allows us to look at the characters inner-lives, Tanjiro’s underlying trauma; Zenitsu’s infatuation with Nezuko; and Inosuke’s animalistic desire to fight are highlighted as key drivers in their behaviours. The decision to set the film almost entirely aboard a train means that the filmmakers are able to expand this inner-world without the distraction of too many new elements. Instead we have again creative antagonists, using unknown Blood Demon Arts, and the chemistry of the protagonists as they do what they do best. A must-watch for fans, the film has already become a box-office smash due to the popularity of the show and is sure to provide a springboard for viewers to get excited before the release of the second series.

Demon Slayer (2019)

When Tanjiro Kamado’s (Natsuki Hanae) family are brutally murdered by a demon, he is set on a path to become a demon slayer, an elite of warriors tasked with protecting the world from these creatures.  His mission is complicated by his sister, Nezuko (Akari Kito), who has been transformed into a demon. Unlike most demons, Nezuko is able to restrain herself from devouring humans, and Tanjiro hopes that his journey may lead him to a cure for her eventually. The two are joined by fellow fighters, Zenitsu (Hiro Shimono), a boy constanly on the lookout for love, and Inosuke (Yoshitsugu Matsuoka), a reckless swordsman who wears a boar’s head mask. Together they take on various demons, in the hopes of one day catching up with their leader Kibutsuji (Toshihiko Seki).

Based on the manga by Koyoharu Gotouge, “Demon Slayer” follows in the tradition of stories such as “Dragonball” and “One Piece”, with it’s young male protagonists on a journey of self-discovery, battling monsters, and growing stronger with each encounter. From the off the story begins with several great hooks, the murder of Tanjiro’s family, a mystery surrounding his father, and his sister’s transformation, all of which beg for resolution. As with many fantasy shows there is a lot of world-building, with the various fighting styles, Blood Demon Arts, and mythology surrounding the demons and demon slayers. Each demon they encounter comes with a unique style of fighting, which helps keep the episodes fresh as more is uncovered about their abilities. There is an often unusual blend of tones and styles throughout, with the show shifting gears rapidly from the comedic eccentricities of Zenitsu and Inosuke, to the sombre and often poignant backstories of Tanjiro and many of the demonic characters. These more wacky moments work to lighten the tone, which would be relentlessly downbeat and disturbing if we only had the melancholic quest for revenge of our protagonist, but often seem aimed at a younger audience than the show would be suitable for. This is certainly not a show for children, with brutal fights that do not hold back on the blood and gore; decapitations and dismemberment are common occurances in the life of a demon slayer.

“Demon Slayer” is set in the Taisho period and does a good job of depicting the dress and lifestyle of the time. The art and animation, in keeping with the story, consists of several styles, with stunning backgrounds and weather effects, and more cartoonishly exagerated character moments. The character designs are very much in keeping with the manga style, large eyes and expressive features, and are used to give everything a sense of energy. Despite being packed with melodramatic moments (many characters are prone to wailing and howling in anguish), the show does manage to be genuinely moving. This is helped by the epic score by Yuki Kajiura and Go Shiina. Alongside the incredible animation, the soundtrack helps build a sense of scale and tension.

“Demon Slayer” is a film about light and dark, life and death. With the transformation of Nezuko early on in the show, we are left with a difficult moral choice (familiar to fans of zombie movies): she is a demon, a flesh-eating monster, but also family. Tanjiro believes in her absolutely and will do anything to protect her, while other demon slayers want to destroy her. Throughout the show we are presented with this kind of moral dilemma, with many of the demons having tragic backstories.Tanjiro’s aversion to killing is understandable and makes him more human than many action protagonists who jump willingly into slaughter. Theological themes around the notion of good and evil abound in the show, and it is this on top of the action that makes an entertaining watch. Zenitsu and Inosuke, and later the elite Hashira demon slayers, are also good examples of flawed characters. Although they are ostensibly the heroes, they often behave irrationally, selfishly, or stupidly, creating a further sense that perhaps demons and humans are not so different after all. An incredible adventure story with dark themes, action-packed moments and a compelling cast of characters.

Over Your Dead Body (2014) by Takashi Miike

Dreams and reality begin to merge during preparations for a stage production of a popular ghost story. Miyuki (Ko Shibasaki) and Kosuke (Ebizo Ichikawa) are playing the lead roles of Iwa and Iemon in a production of “Yotsuya Kwaidan”, one of Japan’s most famous ghost stories. The story is one of infidelity and revenge which seems to have a peculiar resonance with Kosuke’s own life as he begins an affair with another actress. He starts to experience strange visions as Miyuki’s behaviour becomes more erratic.

“Over Your Dead Body”, written by Kikumi Yamagishi and directed by Takashi Miike, focusses on the central story of “Yotsuya Kwaidan”. While the story is famous in Japan, it may not have the same resonance in other parts of the world. The film assumes a certain degree of knowledge of this tale, showing large parts of the play they are performing and scenes that are not always explained or run consecutively, which can make little sense if you don’t know who the protagonists are or what is happening. The sequences of the performance are so beautifully shot on exquisite sets that you could quite happily have watched the play itself without the modern take on it. “Yotsuya Kwaidan” features a vengeful female spirit who seeks justice for her untimely death on her former lover. This film takes that premise and mixes in the idea that the actors are going through the same story as the characters, again in the expectation that you are aware of the original. The music by Koji Endo features traditional instrumentation of string and percussion that creates that eerie ghost story feel. It is rarely excessively gory instead relying more on creepy moments such as the slow realisation of a figure standing in the dark, or unnatural occurrences.

Life imitating art is an interesting theme, but unfortunately the film doesn’t make the most of its premise. In utilising so much of the stage performance of “Yotsuya Kwaidan”, while also telling the story of Kosuke and Miyuki we end up not really getting a satisfactory version of each, too little of the performance for it to make sense and too little of the actors to feel fully attached to their plight. Early on we see the various production staff watching the stage, but the film seems to offer little commentary on much of what is happening. That is not to say that it is not entertaining, there is plenty here to thrill fans of sinister ghost stories, and it is a unique way to tell the story, but it fails to go deeper than pure entertainment.

Dead Sushi (2012) by Noboru Iguchi

The sushi bites back in this horror comedy from writer-director Noboru Iguchi. Keiko (Rina Takeda) is dismissed from her father’s sushi restaurant after failing to meet his high standards. She finds employment at an inn where she finds it hard to adapt, making few friends beside the janitor Sawada (Shigeru Matsuzaki). A large group from a pharmaceutical company arrive to stay at the inn, with the hostess Yumi (Asami Sugiura) and her husband (Takashi Nishina) keen to please. Things don’t go to plan however when a homeless man who previously worked at the same pharmaceutical company, Yamada (Kentaro Shimazu), is infected with a dangerous virus from some sushi he found in the rubbish. This virus turns the sushi into living, flesh-eating, parasites. The whole inn must fight to save themselves from the monstrous undead sushi that now threatens to destroy them.

“Dead Sushi” is a film that revels in the ridiculous from premise to execution, throwing in anything and everything that might be entertaining: karate (courtesy of the supremely talented Rina Takeda), zombie-esque horror, gory CG-enhanced effects, nudity, fart jokes and slapstick. It is definitely one that requires you leave your brain at the door and simply enjoy it for what it is. Those familiar with Iguchi’s oevre (films such as “The Machine Girl” and “Mutant Girls Squad”) will recognize the blend of splatter horror and black comedy, although here it is played mostly for laughs, toning down some of the more stomach-churning elements of the grotesque horror. There is something almost quaint about the movie, with the central conceit being so laughable that it could easily have worked as a film for a younger audience, with some of the puerile humour and moments such as the singing sushi playing well with all ages. The decapitations, blood-letting and nudity later on almost appear added in to make the film more violent and ‘adult’ (in contrast to most films that desire a broader audience). The cast all give excellent comedic performances, especially Sugiura as Yumi, whose contorted expressions are in keeping with the cartoonish violence. Rina Takeda ais also fantastic, showing off her martial arts and acting skills in the role. The special effects, including work from long-time collaborator Yoshihiro Nishimura, are fun, though the practical work far outdoes the computer generated moments providing the charming, handmade feel of their early work. The sound design of the film also heightens the enjoyment factor, furthering the sense of a live-action anime with martial arts effects.

An outrageous takedown of several Japanese holy cows, with both sushi, corporate culture and deference for customers in the firing line. The moments when members of the pharmaceutical company are pretending a high level of sophistication and knowledge of sushi, while the hostesses of the inn look on admiringly is one example of the satirical undertones to the wacky plot. To have the sushi turn on the customers, and even one person turn into a killer tuna fish, punctures notions of respect for culture and tradition, laughing at something that is often seen as serious. Keiko’s relationship with her strict, overbearing father, again plays on this idea of youth being liberated from  their staid and conservative forebears. The film parodies horror films as it draws out a global cultural obsession with zombies to an absurd point, by having something that is so dead it can’t possibly return to life come back. “Dead Sushi” is a silly diversion, a tongue-in-cheek horror comedy that does all it can with the idea of sushi as its primary antagonist.

Homunculus (2021) by Takashi Shimizu

Susumu Nakoshi (Go Ayano) is suffering from amnesia, homeless and living out of his car, when a strange man named Ito Manabu Ito (Ryo Narita) taps on his window. Ito asks Nakoshi for seven days in which to change his life and give him something to live for. Nakoshi goes along with Ito, who tells him his plan to conduct an experiment: to drill a small hole in the front of his skull and see if he experiences any supernatural abilities. Nakoshi agrees to the trepanation and soon finds himself able to see the inner form of people, their deepest traumas. These take the form of a homunculus, which can appear in any shape relative to the trauma the person has experienced, from bizarre monster-lie figures, to more abstract manifestations. Nakoshi sets out with his newfound ability and manages to help some individuals, but things take a dark turn when he is forced to confront a trauma from his own past.

“Homunculus” is based on a manga by Hideo Yamamoto (Ichi the Killer) and directed by Takashi Shimizu (Reincarnation). A dark fantasy, toying with elements of psychological horror and traditional monsters in the form of the homunculus, it is an intriguing premise and the scenes where Nakoshi wanders the streets of Kabukicho seeing the various representations of inner turmoil, with some very inventive designs, is fun to watch. It would have been great to delve into more character’s psyches, but with the constraints of a film’s running time we are limited to only a handful of problems for Nakoshi to solve. The special effects on the homunculi are mostly good, showcasing a variety of creative designs. The homunculus comprised entirely of an ever shifting torrent of jewellery charms was particularly unique. The film touches on a number of dark issues, in particular violence and sexual violence. It is a film that also has a number of uncomfortable moments that will no doubt spark debate or contemplation, mostly concerning the schoolgirl character, where the film leaves perhaps a little too much unsaid about the intended message. The acting by Ayano and Narita is exceptional, giving themselves over to the weirdness of the premise and making it as believable as it can be. Shimizu’s stylish modern direction, using text message overlays for example, brings us right into the story in  visually interesting way.

The film offers a unique look at psychological trauma, by turning it into something tangible in order to tackle it. We see that behaviours are conditioned by past actions and how these inner sufferings are often hidden from the rest of the world. While it deals with difficult subjects of mental health, sexual abuse, violence, neglect, suicide, miscarriage, death, and other issues, it smuggles these things in to a story that on the surface is a straightforward supernatural mystery. The blend of supernatural and psychological is an interesting one, drawing comparisons between ancient belief systems of spirits and modern science around neuropathy. The film touches also on ideas of ethics in science. A fun adventure drawing on mythology and psychology to deliver a fascinating look at the inner-workings of the human mind.