Hiruko the Goblin (1991) by Shinya Tsukamoto

An archaeologist and a schoolboy must fight a subterranean terror in this B-movie fantasy horror. While investigating an underground cave, Professor Yabe (Naoto Takenaka) and schoolgirl Tsukishima (Megumi Ueno) unwittingly awaken an ancient monster, which decapitates its victims, using their heads as part of its form. Yabe’s friend Professor Hieda (Kenji Sawada) and his son Masao (Masaki Kudo) find themselves battling against this monster, which now has the face of Masao’s former crush Tsukishima. The two are in a race against time to destory the creature and seal the site under the school before there is a mass invasion of them.

Director Shinya Tsukamoto, who rose to fame with his cyberpunk body-horror cult favourite “Tetsuo”, takes on a more traditional horror fare in “Hiruko the Goblin”, based on the “Yokai Hunter” manga by Daijiro Morohashi. The plot is wafer thin, with heroes fighting an inexplicable supernatural threat, but enlivened with some fun side-characters such as Watanabe the janitor (Hideo Murota) who is tasked with defending the school, and the way in which the monsters steal the heads of their victims, creating a sense of terror when Masao and Hieda are forced to face former friends (now transformed into hideous creatures). The film’s practical special effects, including stop-motion, lends the film a hand-made B-movie feel that is in keeping with the shaky plot. The monster design is unique, with arachnid style legs scuttling around with human faces, and their speed and agility is quite horrifying to witness. The film also features some interesting elements with the creatures’ ability to influence the thoughts of its prey, forcing them to reveal information or commit suicide. For the most part a straightforward horror, the film also leans heavily into its fantasy elements, with prophecies, ancient rites, and a quest for a crown in the goblin lair. The soundtrack also straddles both horror and fantasy genres, with ominous notes and a light, plaintive melody sung by the Tsukishima monster suggestive of the Siren song of Greek mythology.

A fun, fantasy horror with a unique monster terrrorizing the protagonists. “Hiruko the Goblin” doesn’t shy away from shock moments but with a fast-paced action style. Fans of low-budget horror special effects will find much to enjoy here too.

Doppelganger (2003) by Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Engineer Hayasaki (Koji Yakusho) is working on a robotic chair that allows paralysed people to operate artificial limbs through a connection with the brain. One day he comes home to find a doppelganger who attempts to help him push the project on, while also causing havoc through his aggressive behaviour. Meanwhile, a young woman Yuka (Hiromi Nagasaku) is disturbed to hear of her brother’s suicide, while his doppelganger sits at home working on a novel. Hayasaki’s double hires an assistant called Kimishima (Yusuke Santamaria) to help with the chair; continuing their work in an abandoned warehouse even after Hayasaki is fired from the medical company that had funded his research.

“Doppelganger” is a mix of horror, classic science-fiction, and mystery, with a tone that shifts from dark to humorous. The uncomfortable atmosphere is compounded by a plot that becomes increasingly wild as it reaches a dramatic climax, even abandoning the doppelgangers towards the end. Writer-director Kiyoshi Kurosawa expects the audience to engage with the film, rarely explaining things, or even explicitly revealing what is happening. Instead we experience Hayasaki’s bizarre situation first hand and are asked to make our own minds up about what is real or unreal, and the significance of the doppelgangers. This is even more keenly felt in the story of Yuka’s brother, Takeshi, a disturbing situation that appears and is resolved without any apparent connection to Hayasaki’s own problem. Kiyoshi excels at creating uncomfortable moments, using space and framing that suggests unseen or unknown horrors. Even the smallest moments take on a sinister aspect and we are left anxiously awaiting some new terrible revelation. However, the film also balances this darkness with a blackly comic tone, with Hayasaki’s unhinged behaviour not quite tipping over into something more pitiful. Koji Yakusho does a fantastic job with the two Hayasakis, who have distinct personalities and approaches to work and life. The film utilises simple yet effective techniques to show the two of them together and we can feel that they are two different people who happen to look identical. The use of split screen is also a great addition, adding to the uncertainty about whether this is Hayasaki’s delusion or a manifestation of Hayasaki’s darker nature. The score by Yusuke Hayashi captures this strange blend of horror, comedy and science-fiction, with ominous chords and jaunty melodies.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s “Doppelganger” explores the duality of its protagonist Hayasaki and that of humanity in general. Hayasaki is a man who has devoted his life to his work, neglecting any kind of social or romantic pursuits. His doppelganger, more assertive, aggressive, and decisive, represents those elements of himself he has kept hidden, agressively pursuing Yuka. Hayasaki’s dislike of his double shows how much he wants to distance himself from these elements of his own psyche. Takeshi’s case is more tragic, suggesting the choice that lies before many people, with his ‘real’ self committing sucide while his doppelganger pursues his creative tendencies.It is the Id-like doppelgangers that seem to know what is truly important to the individuals, while the true self of the Ego is forced into a life controlled by others. The film’s upbeat ending sees things resolved in a positive if unconventional way, but one that chimes with the underlying message of self-awareness and self-discovery.

The Stare (2016) by Miki Koichiro

After witnessing a bizarre death, Ayano Mishima (Tomomi Itano), who works at a television production company, is drawn into an historic mystery and comes face to face with an ancient curse. Individuals are being troubled by disembodied eyes that peer at them from gaps in furniture, vents, or between curtains, their paranoia spiralling until they are eventually killed by an unseen force. After seeing this Mishima sets out to discover the cause, leading her to the mysterious 9 mountain pass where an ancient village has been submerged beneath a reservoir. Mishima’s boyfriend is admitted to an institution when he too begins to see the mysterious presence, forcing Mishima to find a solution to the curse.

Based on a novel by Shinzo Mitsuda, “The Stare” (Japanese title: Nozokime) is a good old fashioned ghost story, with a fun folkloric ghoul as the primary antagonist. Whereas usually horror will focus on fear, here the spectre provokes paranoia, leading characters to tape over any cracks or gaps they find in their apartments. This hidden eye is chilling in its inexplicable nature and for the fact that there is very little the victims can do to avoid being harassed by it. For the most part the film avoids straight-up gore or violence, with only a few instances of bloody deaths, and one character gouging their eyes out. These restrained uses of special effects work to the film’s advantage. Like much horror of this genre, part of the fun is the unravelling of the central mystery: of who the spirit is, why they are upset, and how they might be appeased. Ex-AKB idol Tomomi Itano does a good job in the central role of horror heroine.

“The Stare” is a fairly by-the-numbers horror with solid direction from Miki Koichiro and a unique antagonist. Japan has a wealth of folkloric monsters to pick from, so its always interesting to see a ghost with a unique angle to their kills, and this is about as unique as they come.

Zom 100: Bucket List of the Dead (2023) by Yusuke Ishida

After landing his dream job, Akira (Eiji Akaso) finds that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Overworked and increasingly pressured by his agressive boss, Akira is overjoyed a year later when a virus outbreak sees Tokyo devastated by rampaging zombies. Realising that he no longer has to go to work, Akira begins making a bucket list of things he wants to do before turning into a zombie himself. He teams up with fellow survivor, Shizuka (Mai Shiraishi), a no-nonsense woman who is at first skeptical of Akira’s happy-go-lucky complacency; and also finds and rescues his University friend Kencho (Shuntaro Yanagi). The three of them set out to find an aquarium in Ibaraki that may be the last refuge of the living in this new world.

This horror comedy, based on the manga by Haro Aso and directed by Yusuke Ishida, moves at a good pace, setting up Akira’s disillusionment with his job and the familiar quotidian pressures of captialist societies. Much of the humour comes from the juxtaposition of the everyday with the grotesque horror elements. The zombie make-up is delightfully gory, with bulging veins and black blood pouring from their mouths. It is a thrill to see the zombie infested streets of Shinjuku and the Kabuki-cho district; and the characters taking refuge in the Don Quixote department store, with its array of cosplay and novelty goods. It has a similar feel to the “Alice in Borderland” sequel, particularly in its use of recognizable Tokyo environs twisted by the bizarre sitiuation. For the most part the film does a great job of balancing the horror with the comedy. In the final action-packed sequence it does tip into complete farce as they face off against one of the most unique CG monsters ever seen in a zobie movie. The zombies here appear to be animated by some evil spirit, contorting themselves as if they were puppets on unseen strings, rather than the shambling, easily avoided wrecks of yore. There is a perfunctory explanation for the outbreak, but for the most part the zombies are simply a narrative trigger for the protagonists who are more concerned with surviving than understanding the situation.

As with most zombie films, the survivors are forced to work together to escape the rampaging hordes, with themes of friendship and co-operation winning out over selfish individualism. But running throughout “Zom 100” is a striking critique of capitalism. It is hardly new to the genre, being a major part of George A. Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead”, but here transposed to Japan, where death from overwork has been recognized as a serious problem, this theme has plenty of bite. The depiction of Akira’s company will be familiar to some degree to many people working for large businesses, with its uncaring attitude towards staff and unthinking push towards working people ever harder. Akira’s determination to do what he wants to do is compelling and will appeal to many, although it is depressing that it takes almost the entire population being turned into zombies to allow the remaining humans to live with such freedom. When he finally meets up with other survivors, he discovers that they have ordered themselves in a manner similar to what he believed they had just escaped. The humans have willingly sacrificed their own freedoms to become part of the operation run by Akira’s former boss Kosugi (Kazuki Kitamura), who has happily taken on the role of dictator. There is a distressing sense that humankind is doomed to this destructive way of living, the weak dominated by the strong and personal freedom being subjugated by the will of the rich and powerful. A fun horror comedy that offers a glimpse of freedom in a society overrun by mindless zombies.

The Black House (1999) by Yoshimitsu Morita

An investigation into potential insurance fraud turns into something far more sinister in this crime thriller. Wakatsuki (Seiyo Uchino), working at an insurance firm, receives a call from a woman named Sachiko (Shinobu Otake) asking if she would receive a payout in the case of suicide. When he goes to the house he finds her strange husband, Shigeru (Masahiko Nishimura), and discovers their son, Kazuya, hanging in the next room. Shocked by the discovery the firm begin an investigation into the family, with Wakatsuki suspecting foul play. Things turn deadly as bodies start to pile up and suspicion falls on Sachiko, who seems surrounded by cases of disability and death leading to insurance claims.

“The Black House” is based on the book of the same name by Yusuke Kishi and directed by Yoshimitsu Morita. The film starts off in a seemingly casual manner, soft jazz score and the somewhat mundane day-to-day work of Wakatsuki’s insurance company. The mild-mannered investigators and bright settings, makes the reveal of Kazuya’s body in a shockingly matter-of-fact manner, all the more terrifying. As the film goes on it plays with this discrepancy in tone; the horror influences becoming more apparent as Wakatsuki’s investigation proceeds. It is hard to know if the tonal inconsistencies are entirely intentional, with the film varying wildly in style and atmosphere. Perhaps the most egregious example is the scene in a girl’s bar with a scantily clad dancer accompanied by rave music, fitting uncomfortably with everything before and after. The film’s genteel investigation is constantly being disrupted by harsh, graphic violence more reminiscent of a gritty crime thriller; the run-of-the-mill daytime soap-opera tone of the investigation providing a counterbalance and stark relief to the horror. That being said, once the main investigation into Sachiko’s family gets underway it keeps up a pace with twists and turns in the plot and this lurking dread that something monstrous is about to be uncovered. The use of colour, in particular Sachiko’s yellow clothing, the flashing coloured lights of the investigation room, and the gaudy single-colour cuts between some scenes, reflects the psychological element of the film, and the film-maker’s seem to play with the audiences expectations and experience in other ways, such as the aforementioned tonal shifts, the wild swings in the score from melodic to harsh screeches or dark industrial resonance.

“The Black House” does a great job at building up its horror incrementally, at first only hinting at the sinister, nihilistic outlook of its central villain, before racing towards a blood-soaked finale. Through the characters of psychiatrist Kaneishi (Kenichi Katsura) and Wakatsuki’s girlfriend Megumi (Misato Tanaka), we are treated to discussions of Jungian dream analysis and descriptions of psychopathic traits. While the antagonists are clearly unhinged, their behaviour is not so unbelievable as to not be chilling. With its blend of crime drama and horror, “The Black House” has something for fans of either genre, with a strong story and idiosyncratic style making for a gripping watch.