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.

Spiral (2000) by Higuchinsky

As Kirie (Eriko Hatsune) is on her way to school she notices her friend Shuichi’s father apparently fixated on the spiral pattern of a snail shell. The man’s interest in spirals soon becomes an obsession and Kirie begins to see other occurrences of this phenomenon. At first thinking it a ridiculous oddity, she soon becomes worried and terror begins to set in when several people die in gruesome circumstances related to the spiral pattern.

“Spiral” is based on the manga “Uzumaki” by horror master Junji Ito, with a screenplay by Takao Niita. Director Higuchinsky creates a strange and disturbing experience that blends several genres, from blackly comic thrills to grotesque body horror, to the psychological terror of avant-garde arthouse films. The cinematography by Gen Kobayashi is in a washed out tone that heightens the sense of unreality. The film feels staged or dated in a way that is unsettling, almost as though it is happening in a parallel world where everything is ever so slightly off-kilter. The story is compelling, despite the unbelievable premise, and the grotesque nature of the deaths is genuinely shocking. The script is simple yet effective in showing everything but explaining nothing, leaving the meaning entirely up to the imagination of the viewer. Eriko Hatsune as Kirie and Fhi Fan as Shuichi, are charismatic and do a great job with the material, playing things completely straight throughout increasingly bizarre occurrences. Keiichi Suzuki and Tetsuro Kashibuchi create a score that complements the odd, dreamlike sensibilities of the story, limping from comic accompaniment to dark oppressive tones.

The film’s strength lies in never fully explaining what is happening, or why, with several possible interpretations swirling around. The spirals provoke a dangerous obsession in those who are afflicted and this is the most simplistic reading of the plot: as a straightforward morality tale on the dangers of obsession causing people to lose sight of their lives and become so consumed that it finally kills them. There is also a darker reading related to mental health issues, particularly depression and anxiety leading to a decent into an increasingly troubling, pessimistic, and all-consuming world view. The idea of the spiral, particularly a downward spiral, bring to mind primal fears such as these, and for this reason the film grows more unsettling when picking apart the potential themes. This will appeal to fans of over-the-top horror and psychological horror alike, with a unique story that draws you in to contemplating the significance of the spirals along with the characters.