The Vanished (2006) by Makoto Tanaka

A journalist travels to a remote village to investigate supernatural happenings in this suspenseful horror. Sota (Soko Wada) works at a magazine specialising in extreme content. While he wants to expose the truth about the stories he covers, his boss is more interested in selling exciting stories to increase sales. His boss suggests Sota take on a case involving a drowning victim who was discovered without any internal organs. While sceptical at first, Sota takes the job, travelling to meet the mortician who performed the autopsy, who informs him that the child appears to have never had organs. When this body then returns to life and flees, Sota travels to the remote village of Hinoemura to look into the circumstances surrounding a previous mystery. Years earlier a group of children disappeared on a school trip in the area; but it seems that some of them still roam the woods nearby. Whether ghosts or something more sinister, Sota has no choice but to follow the trail of clues, finding an elderly couple who remained behind in the village along with their son Sadohiro, and who are repeatedly visited by the vanished children.

Based on a short story by Hideyuki Kikuchi, director Makoto Tanaka, who also wrote the screenplay, develops an intriguing horror mystery. In the opening scenes we see an old man mourning his wife’s death when the figure of a child begins tapping on the opaque glass of the door asking to be admitted. It draws in the audience to question exactly what is going on, layering the mystery with the disappearance of the group of children; the body without organs; the existence of unaging children; and a figure who seems to want to kill these children, melding the best of the detective and horror genres. The film falls off significantly after the revelation of what is actually happening, the special effects and rush to the ending not doing justice to the slow build and quietly suggestive horror of the preceding investigation. Soko Wada’s Sota is a likeable protagonist, a typical skeptic drawn into a world of unnatural terrors, although there are hints of a paranoia that are not fully developed. Similarly, the film largely leave the characters as shallow archetypes, instead focussing on creating an eerie atmosphere. When it is at its best, in the dread-filled silences and disturbing peculiarities of Sota’s investigation, it does create a suitable unsettling tone. This is aided by Koji Endo’s score of low strings and ghostly woodwind.

“The Vanished” plays on several tropes of traditional horror: vanished children and supernatural forces. Rather than the usual child ghosts, this film takes on post-mortem demonic posession, with the children being used as bait to lure out others. We also see the difficulty of the bereaved adults to let go of their children, or accept that they are gone. This underlying tragedy provides a degree of emotionality to the standard supernatural monsters, but the film shies away from making this more of a central theme. Sota also feels like a character that should have been more developed. We see briefly following the conclusion of the mystery that he is suffering from a sort of paranoia and visions of his own. It almost feels as if this is an idea that should have been developed in a sequel, as the skeptic suffering doubts about the nature of his reality, but instead it is thrown away as a cheap topper to the main story. Overall, “The Vanished” offers a fun mystery-horror that builds tension and an intriguing story, but is let down by a resolution that fails to tie together the various ideas suggested by the premise.

Hell Girl (2019) by Koji Shiraishi

In 1965 a girl gets revenge on the school bully by calling on Hell Girl (Tina Tamashiro), an infernal avenger, and her fellow demons to take her to hell. These demons demand a terrible price however, as anyone who calls on them will also be taken to hell when they die. In 2019, the now elderly woman’s son, photo-journalist Jin Kudo (Kazuki Namioka), is asking to use this story for an article. The woman dies shortly after and the demons come to take her. When an idol, Sanae Mikuriya, (Mina Oba) is attacked by a crazed fan, leaving her with facial scarring, she also calls on Hell Girl (who is now contactable through a website; although only at midnight, and only by those holding a serious grudge). And later when Miho’s (Nana Mori) friend, Haruka (Sawa Nimura) falls victim to a dangerous black metal singer Maki (Tom Fujita), Hell Girl finds herself with another young woman willing to take this demonic bargain.

“Hell Girl” is based on the anime by Takahiro Omori, with the live action film being written and directed by Koji Shiraishi (Carved: The Slit Mouthed Woman). The film’s central premise, of an infernal ‘deal with the devil’ in the form of the revenge service offered by ‘Hell Girl’ is pretty solid horror fare, but unfortunately the film fails to capitalize on it. We rarely see the hellish tortures the victims are subjected too, with only a minimal look at one character being eaten by worms. This means that for the most part the threats of eternal damnation are not particularly terrifying. The tone is often more dark fantasy, with supernatural anti-heroes in the shape of Hell Girl and her band of demons. The film perhaps relies on some fore-knowledge of the manga, with none of these hellish characters fleshed out much, and even Hell Girl herself rarely making an appearance. Later in the film they seem to appear even when not summoned, and they seem to take little joy in their work, simply taking any soul they are asked to. This lack of characterisation is also apparent in the human protagonists, who either have no meaningful motivation or are unlikeable enough that their characters’ fates are no great cause for sadness. The seemingly tit-for-tat, and thoughtless nature of them calling up Hell Girl for revenge, becomes almost risible, requiring no effort and with too few obvious consequence shown to the audience. The film gives us brief glimpses of a psychedelic hell, a teen-friendly Teruo Ishii fairground that is always careful not to be too extreme, limiting itself mostly to decapitation, and where the demons conform to comfortable horror tropes (scars, dark clothes).

“Hell Girl” is a by-product of a successful anime and manga franchise, which doesn’t move much beyond its premise. The demons go through the motions of taking people to hell in a way that give the audience little cause for concern about its protagonists. With more character work and creative depictions of hell it could have worked, but unfortunately it fails to entertain.

Bloody Chainsaw Girl (2016) by Hiroki Yamaguchi

Rio Uchida stars as a chainsaw-wielding teenage delinquent in this slice of silly splatter comedy. Giko Nokomura (Uchida) is a rebellious high-schooler, who inexplicably totes around a chainsaw (telling her teachers it’s due to her family’s construction business). On her way to school to take a make-up test she is waylaid by a group of classmates who have been transformed into cyborgs by Nero Aoi (Mari Yamachi), a troubled fellow student. Amongst them is Sayuri Bakutani (Seira Sato), whose post-human upgrades include the ability to fire rockets from her crotch. As well as these cyborg students, Giko also has to deal with members of the ninja club, led by Hanzo (Yuki Tamaki), a transgender student whose ninja skills are also bolstered by Nero’s experimental cyborgization.

“Bloody Chainsaw Girl” is a tongue-in-cheek splatter comedy, fully aware of its own ridiculousness. Director Hiroki Yamaguchi includes everything that you might expect from the genre: low budget special effects, unnecessary upskirt angles and unexpected nudity, hyper-energetic performances, gory dismemberments, and plot-holes galore. The film’s humour does provide a few puerile laughs and gets by on the sheer audacity of the film-maker’s intentions. Much of what happens seems like an attempt to test out various special-effects, utilising CG and practical effects, with the flimsiest of plots stringing these things together. The film is based on the manga by Rei Mikamoto, and the direction shows this influence in its unrestrained use of dutch-angles and frantic camerawork, as well as the music video-like credits sequence that is straight out of an anime. The score by Masahiko Horikura is emotional and solid. As with the direction, it shows a competence that sometimes seems wasted on this particular story. The film makes great use of its locations. Although the abandoned school and rooftop are staples of the low-budget genre, the underground industrial facility makes a superb villain’s lair.

The cast do a great job with their characters, treating them with largely undeserved reverence. Uchida’s Giko is a no-nonsense, unwilling heroine, more concerned with the results of her test than the bizarre cyborg invasion happening around her; while Mari Yamachi goes all-out super-villain with her over-the-top performances as Nero. At around 80-minutes, the film gets straight into the action and is a clear run to the final showdown. An entertaining splatter film that leans into its silliness. There is a message here, about how loners can choose between two paths, of revenge or acceptance of who they are, as well as references to sexism and bullying; but to be honest the plot and themes are largely iirrelevant. Simply switch off your brain and enjoy the gory spectacle of a high-school girl tearing through cyborgs with a chainsaw.

Cellular Girlfriend (2011) by Mari Asato

A deadly mobile phone dating game begins to claim the lives of players and other victims in this follow up to Keitai Kareshi. The mysterious game from the “i-Scream” company appears on young men’s phones. They must text a digital young woman (Seika Taketomi) and keep her happy in order to increase the “Love Gauge”. The final command of Erika (the young woman in the game) is to kill, which they happily oblige before dying themselves, while those who fail the game die immediately. Meanwhile, Takashi (Toru Baba) is searching for his young sister who he believes is the spirit trapped in the game. He comes across another high-school girl, also called Erika (Airi Suzuki), who it seems has a special connection with his sister, as this other Erika is troubled by visions of a brutal murder.

The film is written by Yoichi Minamikawa and director Mari Asato. With its risible plot and melodramatic acting, “Keitai Kanojo” is unlikely to thrill hardcore horror fans. The best moments in the film concern the two Erika’s psychological connection, using simple effects such as rapidly fading light and shifting locations to create a sense of subtle threat. The film opens with a man completing “Keitai Kanojo” by murdering an unsuspecting stranger, but this is something that the film moves away from as it progresses to focus more on the supernatural elements. It finds itself not really working as a psychological horror or a gory thriller as for the most part there is scant build-up to what is happening, as if the film itself is racing through plot points to reach the conclusion. There is little creativity in the murders and the deaths caused by the game itself involve the person simply collapsing with a groan.

The idea of mixing the supernatural with modern technology is common in contemporary horror (Ring, One Missed Call) and the film’s premise is not unpromising. The idea of addiction to mobile phones, gaming and social media, and how this might drive individuals to violence by warping their sense of value is one that the film could have explored, but spends little time on. Similarly, there is potential for the film to delve into the social isolation engendered by this technology with the men choosing to play this virtual girlfriend game rather than engaging with real women. It is a shame because these would have been more interesting aspects to explore than the ideas of a cursed phone that the film spends the majority of its time on.

Battle Girl The Living Dead in Tokyo Bay (1991) by Kazuo Komizu

After a meteor lands in Tokyo Bay, the chemical reaction causes parts of the population to turn into zombies. A blockade is placed round the area and the ground defence force take control of the city. While they scramble to create an antidote, Keiko (Cutie Suzuki), the daughter of an army colonel, is brought in to help rescue any survivors. She later comes face to face with the Fujioka (Kenji Otsuki), the leader of the ground defence force, and his sinister plans.

Written by Hitoshi Matsuyama and directed by Kazuo Komizu, “Battle Girl” is classic B-movie fare, with an outlandish premise and predictable plot that serves only to move the characters from one action scene to another. The film is self-aware enough to realise its inherent silliness, often leaning into it, for example having Keiko lift a man by the neck upside down, or a zombie that is diced up into pieces. Cutie Suzuki, a pro-wrestler before starring in this film, has a great presence, clearly familiar with portraying a tough character. It is perhaps surprising that the use of her skills as a fighter is quite limited, with only a few moments showing off wrestling moves. For the most part she is a generic action heroine. Despite the predictable plot, the film throws in enough elements to keep things engaging, such as the ‘Battle Kids’, a group of young survivors who have teamed up to try and escape the city, and the ‘Monsters’, a group of thugs charged with preventing Keiko discovering Fujioka’s secrets. The action scenes are engaging, again benefitting from having a wrestler in the lead role, and the decapitations, explosions, and gun fights ensure there is rarely a dull moment. There are a few laughably poor special effects, understandable given the small budget, using obvious dummies; but for the most part the gore is good. Where the film does excel is in creating an eerie post-apocalyptic environment, with sparsely furnished industrial settings giving a sense of desolation and decay. The ambient score likewise emphasises this threat-laden atmosphere. There are a couple of strong visuals and scenes in the film too, particularly when Keiko confronts a group of zombies, and the plot builds to two fantastic large scale sequences of zombie assaults on the survivors.

On the whole, “Battle Girl” is a fun, fast-paced, action-horror, with an entertaining turn from star Cutie Suzuki. The themes of corrupt officials and military personnel, the dangers of radiation and scientific arrogance are familiar to the genre and the plot will not surprise fans of this type of story. However, there is some genuine artistry here in the stylish direction, soundscape and set design that make it worth a watch.