Toshimaen: Haunted Park (2019) by Hiroshi Takahashi

Saki (Rie Kitahara) and a group of her school-friends visit the cursed Toshimaen theme park. The curse is said to visit those who knock on the old door of the theme-park mansion, or look into their own reflection in the hall of mirrors. Those who succumb to the curse, which can only be broken by riding the merry-go-round, disappear to some unknown place. As Saki’s friends are taken one by one she begins to wonder if these happenings are related to the earlier disappearance of her friend Yuka (Arisa Komiya). “Toshimaen: Haunted Park” is written and directed by Hiroshi Takahashi, who also worked on the “Ring” series.

The colander-like plot is par for the course for this kind of teen thriller, but occasionally becomes distracting in just how convenient certain elements are. The curse is less scary when there is a clear and simple way to stop it given along with the instructions for causing it. The story itself creates more confusion by making Yuka a villainous vengeful spirit. It makes sense in this story, but begs the question of what happens to others who are taken by the curse such as the three film-makers at the beginning. The entire story only functions with these particular characters and a very particular set-up. This would be fine if the film isn’t also suggesting that the curse is something that pre-exists them. The acting is serviceable, with teenage schoolgirl dialogue and on-the-nose exposition delivered believably enough. In the latter third the film begins to show promise, creating a suitably spooky atmosphere as we reach the typical ‘final girl’ scenario. The haunted theme-park, and a race to restart the electrical circuits for the rides, create tension that is missing from the rest of the film. That being said the brief glimpse of more supernatural elements, as the girls face a looming chasm preventing them leaving the park, only emphasise what opportunities were missed with this premise. Ideas such as a ghost house that is genuinely haunted, or the house of mirrors, feel underused.

A by-the-numbers horror about a haunted theme-park and a ghoul with a grudge. “Toshimaen: Haunted Park” suffers from a large number of plot holes and underwhelming action that fails to capitalise on the premise. The final third introduction of more supernatural elements is where it seems to finally find it’s purpose, but it is too little, too late. A low-budget thriller that may find an audience with younger viewers but is unlikely to provide effective scares for an older audience.

Jigoku (1960) by Nobuo Nakagawa

Shiro Shimizu (Shigeru Amachi) is due to marry Yukiko Yajima (Utako Mitsuya), but their happiness is cut short by a fatal accident. While in a car with his friend Tamura (Yoichi Numata), Sora is involved in a fatal hit-and-run. Tamura doesn’t believe they should go to the police, realising that the man they killed is a lowly gangster. Things go from bad to worse for Shiro when Yukiko is killed as they are on their way to the police station in a taxi. Sora escapes to a rural old people’s home where his parents are living. This offers little reprieve as he discovers his mother is dying; his father has taken a mistress; there is a nurse who looks uncannily like Yukiko (also played by Utako Mitsuya); and when Tamura, Yukiko’s parents, and the crash victim’s mother and former lover turn up looking for revenge, it seems that Sora will never escape the consequences of his actions.

With a screenplay by director Nobuo Nakakawa and Ichiro Miyagawa,”Jigoku” is a film that is divided quite neatly into two parts. It begins as a crime thriller involving Sora and Tamura’s hit-and-run incident and the fallout from this and Yukiko’s subsequent death. In the latter half of the film, the characters find themselves in hell, with Sora attempting to rescue his unborn daughter Harumi. This is the point at which the film becomes a straight horror, with gruesome depictions of people wallowing in rivers of blood and filth; being flayed alive or sawn into pieces. The fantastical depictions of hell, the Sanzu river, and the King of Hell who oversees these punishments, stand in stark contrast to the human drama that precedes it, with the film’s dissection of guilt and morality suddenly ramped up by the carnage that awaits the sinners. The cinematography by Mamoru Morita creates an atmopshere of dread from the beginning, with characters often isolated by deep shadows in dimly lit environments. The effects in hell are well done, often relying on simply techniques, or juxtaposition of imagery to create a disquieting feeling of tormented souls. The flayed bodies, piercing by spikes, sawing, are interspersed with sombre moments of lost children piling stones, suggest an underworld that is both a place of despair and torture depending on what landed you there.

Part crime thriller, part dark fantasy, with an element of tragic romance thrown in for good measure, “Jigoku” is a highly entertaining moral drama. The film’s outlook is bleak, with almost every character eventually ending up in the infernal realm regardless of the nature or severity of their sin. Shiro is a sympathetic protagonist: largely swept along by others, when he does attempt to make things right it always ends up making matters worse. In this sense, along with the seemingly indiscriminate way punishments are handed out in hell, the film makes us question the nature of this afterlife. Early in the film a professor delivers a lecture on the various perceptions of hell in religions throughout history and across the world. “Hell” as a concept has reappeared in almost every major religion. As “Jigoku” demostrates, it is an idea that is fantastical and often only loosely connected to a genuine attempt to punish sinners, more often simply a vicarious imaginary pleasure for survivors or those who believe they are morally superior. Here there are few who escape the tortures of Hell, whether they are fully deserving or not. This depiction, with its excesses and horrors, asks us to re-evaluate our own morality and ask what our conception of hell tells us about our desire for revenge.

Tokyo Living Dead Idol (2018) by Yuki Kumagai

When the lead singer of a popular idol group, Tokyo 27-ku, is bitten by a zombie, she has 72 hours to find a cure before the virus transforms her. Miku (Nana Asakawa) comes off stage with her bandmates, Moe (Yumeri Abe) and Yuri (Runa Ozawa), arguing about their performance. After starting as underground idols the trio are beginning to gain popularity. However, this is put on hold when a zombie takes a bite out of Miku’s arm. Miku flees, with police sent out to search for her, and teams up with a small-time detective (Shogen). The two of them set out to find Dr. Kumozawa (Koichi Takamatsu) and Alicia (Chisato Koizumi), whose blood is rumoured to be a cure for the zombie virus. They must also evade the attentions of the Zombie Hunters, who roam the streets of Tokyo.

“Tokyo Living Dead Idol”, written and directed by Yuki Kumagai, brings a few new elements to the zombie mythology. In this tale the zombie infection takes three days before beginning to rot the brain core and turn people into the flesh-eating monsters we all know. This gives an impetus to the story as Miku races to find a solution to her problem before it is too late. For this low-budget film it also means they can largely avoid having to do large crowd shots of rampaging zombies, with the populace here appearing largely unphased by the occasional infection. The film does feature a few entertaining, anime-inspired, fight sequences, with katana-weilding zombie hunters; and the inclusion of parkour zombies is another fun addition. The plot is workmanlike, establishing several threads and tying them all together neatly, albeit sometimes without much fanfare (as in the case of Miku’s reunion wiht her bandmates at the end of the film). The comedy is largely in the dialogue and situations, with some of the best moments coming through off-hand remarks. Not all of the jokes land and the horror is sometimes undermined by overuse of CG blood rather than practical effects, but the final third provides an action-packed and emotionally fulfilling climax.

The blend of two popular subcultures, idols and zombies, is unique and entertaining. Miku is not a typical heroine, being portrayed as arrogant and disrespectful to her bandmates early on we are nevertheless sympathetic when she is bitten. Miku, Moe and Yuri are played by members of the Idol Group Super*Girls, which lends some believability to their performances. The film comments on government corruption, with the man developing the zombie viruses in kahoots with the department responsible for controlling them; the cure being withheld from the population until such time as it is financially beneficial for the government to release it. “Tokyo Living Dead Idol”, with its unique protagonist, also includes characters such as the two idol fans who want to protect Miku. These are contrasted later with a group of zombies who fetishise her, interested only in her sex appeal. It is an interesting concept, the positive and negative aspects of fan culture, also emphasised by one of the Zombie Hunters who turns out to be a huge fan of Tokyo 27-ku. This theme is never fully developed, but it provides an interesting angle to the traditional zombie story. The ‘mindless’ nature of much of the entertainment industry and fandom. “Tokyo Living Dead Idol” is a unique take on zombie lore, with the inclusion of idols and a countdown to becoming a zombie creating a fast-paced, horror-comedy for fans of B-movie action.

Wicked City (1987) by Yoshiaki Kawajiri

Renzaburo Taki (Yusaku Yara) works part-time as a Black Guard, protecting humanity from the demons who inabhit a parallel world. With a peace accord due to be signed between the humans and demons, he is assigned to protect a 200-year old demon named Giuseppe Mayart (Ichiro Nagai), a key player in the process. Alongside Renzaburo, a demon woman named Makie (Toshiko Fujita) is also tasked with ensuring Mayart’s safety. Demons unhappy with the peace accord soon appear to disrupt their plans and Renzaburo and Makie must fight for their own survival.

An exploitation film packed with violent action, nudity, and grotesque creatures, “Wicked City” is a lot of fun from start to finish, rarely letting up in its fast paced, often tongue-in-cheek, plot that takes a number of twists to a thrilling finale. Directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri from a screenplay by Norio Osada, “Wicked City” is a gothic fantasy with dark themes of sexual violence and gruesome action. The film’s plot is relatively straightforward, allowing for some incredible set-pieces. The blend of crime thriller and dark fantasy is hinted at in the opening sequences that talk of a shadowy underworld beneath the city of iron and concrete. The character designs feature elements familiar to students of demonology, with the spider-woman being a particular highlight. The film does an incredible job of creating an eerie atmopshere, with nightscapes and bleak underworld locales befitting the grim tone. Sex features heavily in the film and although partially relevant to the plot the film clearly plays on the exploitation genre, with copious nudity and a depraved sequence of rape also depicted. Sex is something both beautiful and dangerous, erotic and terrifying at the same time. This ties into one of the key themes of the film, that of balancing light and darkness in the human heart and society.

The darkness and demons of the otherworld are suggestive of humanities own struggle with the nature of evil. Although the world has modernised, and societies have built glistening skyscrapers, we are still beset by these ancient urges and horrors that lurk just out of sight. In the relationship between Renzaburo and Makie the film suggests that confronting and even forming a relationship with our darker natures may be not only inevitable but desirable. Mayart’s crude suggestion that sex with demons is better than anything that can be experienced with humans may also point to this idea that what humanity is striving for is a form of self-actualisation, to truly know ourselves, both light and dark. A film that is sure to please fans of exploitation horror and over-the-top 80’s action.

Hellevator (2004) by Hiroki Yamaguchi

A motley group of individuals find themselves trapped together in an elevator in this dystopian horror. Luchino Fujisaki is an orphaned schoolgirl living in an underground society. She has powers allowing her to communicate telepathically and read other people’s thoughts. After unsuspectingly causing a large fire on a lower floor with a discarded cigarrette she boards an elevator heading up. When they reach floor 99, two criminals, a rapist and terrorist bomber, are brought into the elevator with their guard. Things soon turn violent when the criminals manage to free themselves and kill the guard. Along with the other passengers, Luchino tries to stay alive, while also battling her own traumas.

“Hellevator” is a self-contained horror tale with some fun world-building. We never discover why the people are living underground, or how the authoritarian overseers came to power, but these things offer an interesting backdrop to the drama. Similarly, Luchino is a character whose background we see only brief glimpses of through her own flashbacks. The film remains focussed on creating a claustrophobic atmopshere as the individuals, Luchino, a mother with a pram, a biologist, and a young man, clash with one another. This is a grimy world, dimly lit tunnels, clanking machinery and fascistic overtones. There is a tangible sense of threat throughout, with the gory violence coming as little surprise when tensions finally bubble over. The score features a jazz like bass and percussion, imitating the ramshackle technology and bizarre mix of recognizable motifs (sailor uniforms, salarymen) and the peculiar, such as a pet that appears to be a brain in a jar, or telepathy. While the majority of the film takes place inside the elevator, the story occasionally breaks out with the framing device of a police interrogation that is investigating the events of the film; and the troubled memories of Luchino.

A simple yet effective horror that builds a terrifying vision of the future. The fact that we learn so little about the world makes it all the more unsettling as we consider what other terrors might lurk in the darkness. Luchino is an enjoyable protagonist, playing on the rebellious teen image. There is a theme of anti-authoritarianism and political satire, but the film doesn’t let this stand in the way of the gory action and tightly scripted drama.