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.

EXTE: Hair Extensions (2007) by Sion Sono

Yuko (Chiaki Kuriyama) stars as a wannabe hair stylist sweeping floors at a salon. When her wayward half-sister Kiyomi (Tsugumi) leaves her young daughter Mami (Miku Sato) with Yuko, she discovers that the child has been badly abused and neglected by her sister and decides to look after her. Meanwhile, Yamazaki (Ren Osugi), a man with a serious hair fetish, steals a corpse from the mortuary where he is working, cutting off the endlessly growing hair for use as hair extensions, which he provides for use at salons. The hair still retains the tortured soul of the deceased, the victim of an organ harvesting gang, and is soon causing havoc, killing indiscriminately. It is not long before Yuko’s own salon is given this questionable hair and she must fight to protect Mami.

“EXTE” is directed by Sion Sono, a master of the bizarre and ridiculous. The film mocks the common trope of ghost stories where long black hair is a defining feature of their characters. It is a satirical look at the banality of much of the genre. This is evidenced early in the film with the risible dialogue between the dock workers in the opening, and Yuko narrating her own introduction, drawing attention to how predictable and uninspired the film’s set-up is while also being a clever way of getting through what would be dull exposition, character names and quick personality checklists. The film repeatedly undermines itself in this way, creating a tone that is self-referential comedy horror. There are moments of terror in the film, whether the flashbacks of the young woman’s torture at the hands of organ harvesters, or the more commonplace horrors of child abuse that Mami suffers at the hands of her mother. In this way the film almost lures you in with the promise of something throwaway while subverting expectations by actually delving into some genuinely dark themes. Chiaki Kuriyama is likeable as Yuko and does a good job with the various tones that the film attempts, from lighthearted drama, to scenes of emotional distress. Tsugumi is deeply unlikeable as her sister, and Ren Osugi brings a scenery-chewing eccentricity to the creepy, hair-obsessed recluse Yamazaki. Sono again shows his skill with direction, pushing the special effects too far at times to create an over-the-top aesthetic that never takes itself too seriously. The use of a Christmas jingle is one example of this unorthodox style, another the impromptu song performed by Yamazaki, that is irreverent and inappropriate yet entirely in keeping with the rest of the film.

Sion Sono is having fun with J-Horror tropes with EXTE, creating a humorous deconstruction of typical ghost stories that have dominated the genre. The decision to set a fantastical supernatural evil against the genuinely terrifying sublot of Mami’s abuse at the hands of her mother, is potent. Perhaps the film’s way of saying that typical horror audience’s focus on ridiculous or unlikely horrors leads them to overlook everyday traumas. Yamazaki can also be seen both as a caricature of the sinister lurking figure common in horror films, but also as a much darker stereotype. His fetish and objectification of the corpse could be a commentary on the beauty industry and male perversions more widely. He does not care about women, only about the hair. The hollowness at the heart of “EXTE” is symbolic of the lack of meaning or significance in much of the horror genre or society more widely. Everything is superficial and fake (in the same way that the hair extensions are taking reality and making it something frivolous and unnecessary). A satirical side-swipe at the whole horror genre, that revels in its irreverent tone and delights in subverting expectations.

Vampire Clay (2017) by Soichi Umezawa

A group of art students begin to notice strange occurrences at their rural studio. After working with sculpting clay dug up nearby they begin to be attacked by the clay, which takes on various forms. It seems to have a craving for blood grows stronger with each victim it devours.

“Vampire Clay” has a small cast and is set almost entirely in the single location of the art studio. The lack of complexity in the story is more than made up for with the creativity of the concept and the numerous opportunities it affords for shocking body horror moments. The use of physical effects, sculpted monsters, blood and gore, are well done. The film is tongue-in-cheek and unlikely to prove scary to those familiar with the genre, although there are a couple of moments that are either creepy or unpleasant enough to send a shiver down your spine. The film is helped enormously by some expert direction by Soichi Umezawa. There is a clear understanding of horror tropes, with lingering shots managing to build tension despite showing very little. The film tips over from creeping terror into outrageous special-effects-led monster movie at times, before going completely overboard in its final moments, and it is fun to see a creative team that clearly did not feel restrained by their budget. The cast are a mixed bag, but the central performances are engaging. With any film of this type, you are aware early on you are going to lose a high percentage of them by the end. The story is well told when we finally reach the exposition scenes intended to explain away the phenomenon. It gives just enough information to tie things together without burdening the film with an unnecessarily complex reasoning. The score is effective in setting the tone, with everything from operatic vocal wailing to an industrial soundtrack of synthesizers and clanging pipes. Not to mention the occasional jazz style songs that play somewhat unexpectedly at times.

A fairly standard supernatural horror story that is far better than it has any right to be. Great use of practical effects, editing and music, combine to produce something that is highly entertaining. The film actually finds time for character moments and there is a subplot running throughout regarding the artist’s endeavors to get into prestigious art schools. This theme of jealous revenge is not fully expanded on but it doesn’t really matter. A silly B-movie horror that showcases the creativity of the team behind it.

Demon City Shinjuku (1988) by Yoshiaki Kawajiri

Following a cataclysmic battle with the demon Rebi Ra (Kiyoshi Kobayashi), warrior Genichiro (Banjo Ginga) is defeated and an earthquake separates Shinjuku from the rest of the world. It becomes a place infested with monsters, abandoned by humans, and largely forgotten. Ten years later, Genichiro’s son, Kyoya Izayoi (Hideyuki Hori) is called upon to challenge the demon. The President of the Federation’s daughter Sayaka Rama (Hiromi Tsuru) enters the city and the two must fight their way to the heart of it, meeting friends and foes along the way.

“Demon City Shinjuku” is based on a 1982 novel by Hideyuki Kikuchi. The film, directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri, is replete with monsters and martial arts, while the story is a typical fantasy narrative. Our main character is a wise-cracking playboy prompted to his quest by a spirit guide, he falls for the beautiful princess and they set out to defeat a dark lord. The story is rarely surprising, but on the plus side it is never pretentious. The designs of the demons are good for the most part and the horror elements are well done. Likewise, the deserted city of Shinjuku is atmospheric. The soundtrack is packed with amped up electronica to compliment the action and the headache inducing strobe lighting effects similarly are in keeping with the frenetic pace of the film.

The film ends with a reference to the myth of Pandora’s Box but this is as deep as the film gets. The character of Sayaka overcomes several obstacles through love and purity, in contrast to the horrors of the monster world. An interesting subtext, but one that the film never expands upon. Despite a lack of character depth or surprises in the story, the film works as a cheesy action flick with a couple of good one-liners, some exciting fight scenes, interesting monster design work and solid animation. If you’re feeling nostalgic for the 1980’s or looking for something that is engaging without being overly taxing, then this could be the film for you.