964 Pinnochio (1991) by Shozin Fukui

A nightmarish near-future cyberpunk with a heady mix of sex and violence. An underground organization throw out one of the sex slaves they have created due to his inability to perform. Stripped of his memory, ability to communicate, and any sense of purpose, this man (Haji Suzuki) wanders aimless until he is picked up by a young woman, Himiko (Onn-chan). She is creating maps of the city for those who have lost their memories to allow people to live without their memories. Himiko takes in this unfortunate creation, whom she names Pinnochio (964 being a reference to his product number). Realising that Pinnochio is not dead as they had expected, those who created him set out to recover their product. Meanwhile, Himiko and Pinnochio both seem to be experiencing psychotic episodes as their realities collapse into a twisted maelstrom of torture.

Written and directed by Shozin Fukui, “964 Pinnochio” is a work that draws on horror, surreal arthouse moments, and earlier science-fiction tropes. Naming the creation Pinnochio is no coincidence as this is a man who has been cut loose from his narrowly defined role and left to find his own way. He is also reminiscent of Frankenstein’s monster as an abominable creation who nevertheless has some semblance of spirit that is trying to find release from his bodily prison. A fantastic example of the cyberpunk genre, with strobe lighting, stop motion, speeded up footage and extreme close-ups provoking that physical response that the best horror does. The film seems intent on making the audience squirm, with an extended sequence of vomiting, gory closeups that blur the line between eroticism and horror, and moments such as a character drooling into a bowl of cherries, all intended to cause revulsion. The film’s contemporary or near future setting, with little to visually distinguish it as in any way technologically advanced, nevertheless does a great job of making the familiar unfamiliar. The backdrop of industrial decay, bleak urban landscapes of concrete and smoke, creates an oppressive atmosphere that draws out the themes of dehumanisation. The sound design of buzzing strip lights and the hollow echo of these cold spaces similarly creates a feeling of anxiety and isolation; of the living characters being trapped in a world of uncaring technology and the slow yet inevitable entropy around them. The film will not be for everyone and while there is a lot to recommend it there are certainly moments that drag it down. Several scenes go on far longer than is necessary to get the point across. In particular the vomiting and a running sequence near the end of the film feel overlong. There is also a subplot involving an employee of the company adopting a child, and later kidnapping a young girl. This is given little time in the film and seems like an idea that would have been interesting to develop, in relation to Himiko and Pinnochio’s relationship, and ideas of care and control.

The film is rough around the edges which adds to its charm. The central story of a creation being cast out and finding out about itself and the world is a solid hook on which to hang the outrageous and provocative creativity of the director. While “964 Pinnochio” is full of shocking moments, this poignant journey of the protagonist is enough to keep the audience engaged and rooting for him. There is an interesting detail later in the film with Pinnochio chained to a large pyramidal object, perhaps representing something like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and his search for self-actualisation above and beyond the base function of his programming; it also may be a metaphor for the psychological burden that he is dragging around with him. The scene in the scrapyard between Himiko and Pinnochio is an evocative moment, with the two characters literally thrown out from normal society. Like all good cyberpunk “964 Pinnochio” champions the underdog, the dregs of society, the apparently worthless and unloved. A prime example of the cyberpunk genre that hauls you through hell to deliver a deeper message on human suffering and the treatment of the lowest in society.

Reincarnation (2005) by Takashi Shimizu

Nagisa Sugiura (Yuka) is auditioning for a role in a film adaptation of a real-life murder story. Many years before a man killed eleven people at a hotel in Gunma, including his own son and daughter. Nagisa is cast to play the young 10-year old daughter who was murdered, but things soon take a sinister turn when she begins to see visions of this girl and starts to wonder if there is something supernatural going on. Another actress, Yuka (Marika Matsumoto), a firm believer in reincarnation tells her this could be a possible explanation, something hinted at throughout. As work begins on the film the director Matsumura (Kippei Shiina) takes the cast and crew to the hotel where this horrific incident took place and Nagisa begins to spiral into a nightmare somewhere between memory and hallucination.

Directed by Takashi Shimizu (The Grudge, Marebito) from a screenplay by Shimizu and Masaki Adachi. “Reincarnation” is a chilling experience, mixing a haunted hotel mystery with psychological horror. By setting up the film within a film, the writers create doubt about what is going on that continues until the final moments. We are never sure how much of what we are seeing is real, or whether Nagisa is hallucinating. This sense of unease is pervasive, particularly later in the film, as it is not only the characters but the audience themselves whose sense of reality is being toyed with. Whereas many horror films offer an easy escape, the villain of this piece is not easily identifiable, and so impossible to counter. This sense of an unstable reality is heightened with great use of practical effects, such as the appearance of the young girl who was murdered at various moments. The editing also plays with the sense of space, by having the camera move from the real world of Nagisa, into her imagination, through the memories and old footage of the incident, and the constructed set of the film. This perfectly captures her increasingly warped psyche as she tries to establish what is happening to her. The music by Kenji Kawai (Dark Water) creates a dark atmosphere with echoing strings and synth providing an ominous backdrop to the action. The use of creaks and knocks and later the whirring of an old-fashioned camera help to build a soundscape that is terrifying without the need for bombast. The film builds a quiet dread throughout, rarely relying on gore or shock moments, but a creeping terror that draws you in and has you on the edge of your seat. The simplest of effects are done with finesse, such as the child’s doll that comes to life, or the sudden traumatic flashes of murder victims that assault Nagisa when they visit the hotel. Much of this imagery gets under the skin and troubles you long after it has passed, creating that feeling of an ineffable darkness waiting beyond this world. The terror of the unknown is brought to the fore. There are moments that don’t make strict logical sense, such as Nagisa’s casting as a 10-year old girl. However, this matters very little in the overall scheme of things, as we get the full psychological and emotional weight of what Nagisa is going through in a way that may have been diluted if everything was neatly explained. Yuka gives a great performance as the haunted and terrified Nagisa, capturing her descent into fear and panic as she struggles to untangle the strange web of unfamiliar memories she is caught in.

“Reincarnation” relies on familiar tropes, such as restless spirits and revenge, but does everything so well that it is a model of how these stories should be told. The idea of ghosts returning to life to seek vengeance plays on the primal fear of the unknown. Death is the great boundary that people can only cross in one direction and the thought that there may be two-way traffic is disturbing. It also ties into notions of guilt and shame about tragic events that have happened and the inability of people to change them. Nagisa is deeply troubled by the events of the past. We also witness her feelings being dismissed or disbelieved by those around her, again offering a deeper layer of horror to events. Not only is she beginning to lose any solid foundation for her reality, she increasingly has nobody to turn to for reassurance. “Reincarnation” is an excellent example of a film with great scares born of the concept and characters, truly terrifying in parts, with a dark twist.

Cursed (2004) by Yoshihiro Hoshino

On their way back from school, two girls stop outside a convenience store. One of them seems terrified of the store and refuses to enter. As she walks backwards, cowering in fear, she is struck by a passing lorry in a gory  explosion. It is a bold opening for a film that plays heavily on shock and unexpected moments. The story revolves around this convenience store which seems to be cursed, with strange occurrences happening to those connected to it and several customers. The story begins with the owner of another chain of stores, Ryoko Kagami (Kyoko Akiba), arriving to discuss with the owners the joining of their store with the Cosmo Mart franchise. The two owners are peculiar, spending the majority of their time gazing into the security camera feed as they spy on their part-time cashier Nao Shingaki (Hiroko Sato). A disturbing figure in a hooded coat, whose face is permanently in darkness, lingers around the store; and customers whose purchases total 666 or 999 are the victims of terrible and inexplicable happenings.

Based on a short story by Yumeaki Hirayama, “Cursed” is the directorial debut of Yoshihiro Hoshino, who also wrote the screenplay. This low-budget horror uses simple yet effective techniques to create an uncomfortable atmosphere and many moments of spine-tingling terror. A great example of this is a character who sees a white ball bouncing out of a darkened passageway, while a voice tempts him to come forward. These inexplicable moments help establish an eerie tone that keeps the audience on edge. The director uses framing and camera-work to equally brilliant effect, with the horrors often left to the audience’s imagination off screen. This feeling of dread that the film conveys helps the film makers skirt around the need for a larger budget. The film is not particularly gory, despite the sight of blood on occasion, but leans more heavily on the chills of the weird and ambiguous kind. It doesn’t always avoid the drawbacks of budget, with some of the tremendous work in building tension occasionally punctured by less polished effects. The film is packed with ideas; rather than relying on a single apparition it fills the run-time with doppelgangers, ghosts, curses, psychological traumas and more visceral scares. The actors do a good job with their characters. The shop owners are terrifying in their dead-eyed expressions, and Kyoko Akiba and Hiroko Sato do a good job as the protagonists attempting to figure out what is happening.

“Cursed” never offers a full answer as to what is happening at the store. While Ryoko and Nao do eventually hear a story that may explain the supernatural occurrences, it is the subtext of the film and the secondary explanation that is more interesting. It appears that Ryoko and Nao are able to see strange things that others cannot. This second-sight is easily read as some kind of sixth sense, but perhaps its significance is in having perception or empathy for those around them. The scene following this exposition sees a sequence that is largely incomprehensible without this reading, when Nao sets out to save her co-worker, Komori (Takaaki Iwao) from this apparent curse. Nao is able to see the horrors of everyday life and the impact they have on others, whether trauma or emotional suffering, suicide, death, or even murder. The focus on a convenience store also lends itself to this reading, as does the overplaying of news stories of crime that accompany part of the film. Horror is something that is almost banal in our society, we are everyday confronted by things that should terrify us yet we are able to compartmentalise them or shrug them off as unavoidable. People think nothing of going into a convenience store, unthinking consumerism is an opiate that means we never fully engage with the world around us and often ignore terrible things that happen to others. The film’s strength is in not fully explaining itself but leaving itself open to interpretation. Worth a watch if you are looking for some inspired low-budget horror.

Black Rat (2010) by Kenta Fukasaku

A low budget slasher flick set in a high school, “Black Rat” begins with a scene that will shock and delight fans of the genre. The agonized groans of a boy, stripped to his underwear and covered in blood reverberate around the empty high-school corridors. The reason for his distress: a figure with a large rat head mask carrying a metal pole who is stalking him with murderous intent. As this figure reaches his victim the credits roll, overlaid by a legend about 7 rats, all of whom had various characteristics, that ends with an enigmatic message asking: “who is the last rat?”. We then see a girl dancing on the school roof, black rat mask before her, before jumping to her death. The suicide of this girl, Asuka (Rina Saito), is followed months later by her classmates receiving a message telling them all to come to the school that night. Our unhappy group include Misato (Misaki Yonemura), Asuka’s best friend, Kengo, Ryota (Hiroya Matsumoto), Saki and Kaneko, all of whom have some connection to Asuka. As they arrive at the school they are met by a female in a school uniform wearing the bloodied black rat mask. She tells them she is there for revenge and one by one they will be killed.

Written by Futoshi Fujita and directed by Kenta Fukasaku (Battle Royale 2), “Black Rat” follows a fairly predictable slasher narrative with a group of unlucky individuals brought together to be bumped off in innovative ways. Flashbacks give us a little detail on them and their relationship with their deceased classmate. The plot’s major weakness is in the reveal of the killer’s motivation. Each flashback  provokes no great feeling of dawning realisation but a shrug. It seems unlikely that their minor indiscretions, being slightly uncaring about Asuka’s end of term project, or cheating on her, would provoke the bloody slaughter they are subjected too. Twists later in the film go some way to explaining what is happening, but again it doesn’t tie together in an entirely logical way. The audience is left to wonder why the students aren’t able to overwhelm their adversary, or run from her. The tenuous plot does not necessarily harm the film, depending on what you are looking for there are still moments to enjoy.

While clearly filmed on a low budget, using a single location and small cast, the film excels in making the most of what it has. The abandoned school at night offers the perfect spot for horror, with deep pools of shadow in every room, the impenetrable darkness gathering in each corner, creating a chilling atmosphere. The eerie silence of the building sets up the tension perfectly in the early portion of the film and as things move into action mode later we see colour shifts through green and red to highlight the change of tone. There is also gothic imagery used to good effect, with the dissected animals of the biology class and the uniformed schoolgirl with a rat’s head creates an instantly unpleasant and iconic antagonist.

While it is generic and the plot leaves something to be desired, “Black Rat” is an entertaining diversion. From the very beginning you know exactly the type of film you are going to get and it delivers that. The concept of a masked killer and a high-school grudge is hardly new to the genre, but the film knows this and wastes little extraneous time attempting to be anything other than a cheap slasher flick. The art direction makes it worth a watch and it is clear that much of it is intended to be tongue-in-cheek fun.

Rubber’s Lover (1996) Shozin Fukui

In a secret laboratory a team of scientists are experimenting on humans in an attempt to produce psychic abilities. Their experiments take the form of a Digital Direct Drive, a machine that plugs directly into the brain, and uses ‘ether’ to provoke a psychological response. Given the unreliability of their current operations their experiments are often more a form of torture leading to death than viable scientific enquiry. Motomiya (Sosuke Saito) injects his rival scientist Shimika (Yota Kawase) with ether in an attempt to steal his research. He is helped by another scientist Hitotsubashi (Norimizu Ameya) and lab assistant Akari (Mika Kunihiro). Kiku (Nao), who is auditing the company’s books, comes downstairs to see what is happening and is raped by Motomiya, who seems to have gone insane. Motomiya soon regrets his decision as it seems the high dose of ether given to Shimika and his connection with the machine have created a monster that he cannot control.

“Rubber’s Lover”, written and directed by Shozin Fukui, is a prime example of the cyberpunk and splatter-horror genres. Drawing heavily on traditional horror – the mad scientist working on a creature – and melding it with an industrial aesthetic, it creates a nightmarish world of flesh and metal that is emblematic of the wider movement. Shot on 16mm, the black and white square aspect ratio induces a sense of claustrophobia with the chiaroscuro lighting obscuring and enhancing the special effects by helping to inflame the imagination. The film uses shots of industrial buildings, inexplicable metallic constructs looming against a pale sky, to create an atmosphere of harsh modernity. The sets are dressed to create a confused technophobic tangle of wires and screens, with the addition of some interesting ideas, such as the monitors showing close-ups of eyeballs, or the giant equipment for injecting ether (akin to a pneumatic drill). Shozin Fukui’s direction shows a flair for the genre, with camera angles carefully chosen to create a sense of unease, or to keep things fresh and engaging. There is also a clear desire to create backgrounds with a sense of movement or mesmerizing imagery, either by including flickering monitors, animals, or the large post-modern artworks on the wall of Kiku’s office. The soundtrack to the film, provided by Tanizaki Tetora, is a mix of industrial scrapes and echoes, seeming to evolve naturally from the visuals of pipes and machinery. Later it also includes tribal drums that serve as a reminder of the atavistic nature of humanity, despite technological advancement.

The plot of “Rubber’s Lover” includes many interesting elements. Firstly, the concept of human experimentation, something that is a mainstay of horror cinema, and may have dark echoes of Japan’s own past in relation to war time atrocities. The film leans heavily on the notion of experimentation as torture, going so far as to have one victim’s head explode after being pumped with ether. The film also has themes of drug-use and abuse, with Shimika becoming addicted to the ether as it appears to expand his mental capacity. Such discussions around drugs are far from the mainstream, but absolutely in keeping with the anti-conservative agenda of the film. This is a film that emphasises the ‘punk’ in cyberpunk, outrageous in its depictions and brutal in its conclusions about corruption and where society is heading.