9 Souls (2003) by Toshiaki Toyoda

A rag-tag band of prison escapees set out to help each other realise their final wishes before they are re-captured or killed. After murdering his father, shut-in Michiru (Ryuhei Matsuda), finds himself locked up with a group of violent offenders. A short time into his sentence they manage a miraculous escape, deciding to stay together, travelling around in a campervan as they re-visit important places and people from their pasts. The film features an all star cast including Jun Kunimura, Kiyohiko Shibukawa and Yoshio Harada.

Writer and director Toshiaki Toyoda had long wanted to make a prison break film, beliving them to be one of the most exciting genres. Partly based on a true news story of escaped convicts travelling around together, “9 Souls”, brings together an incredible cast and motley collective of criminals who act almost as a surrogate family to each other. Toyoda clearly put a lot of work into the characters, each of whose crimes are briefly written on screen, and the outstanding cast manage to portray these disparate individuals without going into unnecessary exposition or flashbacks of their lives. In fact we only see one crime comitted by the group pre-arrest (even then it is off-screen), the murder of Michiru’s father, with the others only referencing their offences. This helps us empathise with the group, whose murderous pasts would make them quite irredeemable. Instead we are treated to a comic road-trip as the group attempt to evade capture, dressing as women or having to avoid old acquaintances. The direction is first-rate, with the characters framed to show their physical and emotional proximity and several incredible shots of the surrounding scenery as they travel. The ruddy sunlight of the film suggests a melancholic realisation that these men may be on their final journey. The soft-rock score, slowly ramping while going nowhere captures the sense of frustrated ambition.

“9 Souls” leans into a metaphysical reading with moments that seem particularly unreal. Director Toyoda has stated that films allow us to blend reality and imagination, and that is evidenced here. The group’s escape is one egregious example of a miraculous occurence that defies belief (they see a mouse, realise it must have a hole somewhere, and the next moment they are running free of the prison). Another example is in one escapee’s discovery of a peep-show that appears like a mirage, which sees him complete his own journey. Each of the men seems to be searching for something to bring themselves peace and it could be said that in some sense they are already dead, simply lost souls attempting to justify themselves before they pass on (either to incarceration or the long sleep of death). Whether they are seeking redepmtion for their crimes, attempting to right the wrongs of the past, or prove to themselves that there is some good in their hearts, they are brought together by the hope that this is true. The final moments of the film, which again rely on this blurring of reality, drives home this point that it is hope that keeps people alive. A fantastic prison break film that touches on the ideas of what is truly lost when people commit crime and questions the notion that humans can be entirely bad.

Yakuza Apocalypse (2015) by Takashi Miike

Yakuza, vampires and martial arts collide in this wacky action comedy from Takeshi Miike. Kageyama (Hayato Ichihara) is a young gang member whose sensitive skin and inability to get a tattoo sets him apart from his fellow mobsters. He is however fiercely loyal to the boss (played by Lily Franky). When the boss, who happens to be a vampire, is killed, he manages to confer his powers on Kageyama with his dying breath. Kageyama then sets out to get revenge on the group who killed him, including traitor Aratetsu (Kiyohiko Shibukawa), mysterious English-speaking vampire hunter (Ryushin Tei), a martial artist (Yayan Ruhian), and a kappa (a mythical water creature). Kageyama is aided by Hogan (Denden), a bartender who knows the vampire secret, and a swelling army of new bloodsucking demons created by Kageyama. He also hopes to protect a young woman named Kyoko (Riko Narumi) who he has feelings for.

“Yakuza Apocalypse”, directed by Takashi Miike from a screenplay by Yoshitaka Yamaguchi, is a bizarre action-comedy that attempts to juggle several distinct elements. Whether you are a fan of martial arts films, violent exploitation cinema, surrealist humour, or modern takes on the vampire mythos, there is something for you to enjoy here, though the plot and editing can be a disjointed at times. It seems to jump from scene to scene in a frenetic way, often failing to set up key emotional threads such as Kageyama and Kyoko’s relationship, or background on who characters are or their motivations. For the most part you can ignore this, and simply enjoy the excellent direction, fight choreography and blend of childish comedy and gory action. However, the discrepancy in tone does a disservice to some elements that could have worked better either as a more straightforward fantasy yakuza film or out-and-out comedy. It often comes across as a collection of inventively violent moments, such as a man having his head twisted off, or inexplicable characters such as a frog-costumed pugilist (Masanori Mimoto) and a disturbing kappa, that seem to be from completely separate films.

The film’s comparison of vampires and yakuza, both bloodsucking parasites leeching off hard-working citizens is entertaining and the splicing of the two genres works well, allowing for the unholy union of these gruesome mythologies that have built up both around gangsters and nosferatu. When it works the satire is excellent, but all too often it misses the mark by attempting to balance the relationship between Kageyama and Kyoko, or even Kageyama and the boss, with the absurdist metaphor of the main plot. While there are a lot of enjoyable moments, over the top comedy and brutal, rollicking action sequences, “Yakuza Apocalypse” seems wayward and unfocussed, with an interesting satire buried under an abundance of eccentric characters and non sequitur.

Shrieking in the Rain (2021) by Eiji Uchida

A first-time female director battles studio executives, chauvanistic crew members, and the ratings board, as she tries to bring her vision to life in this comedy-drama from Eiji Uchida. Hanako (Marika Matsumoto) is directing her debut film, an erotic thriller about love and betrayal. Lacking the confidence to stand up to her overbearing crew, consisting of older male lighting and camera operators, she feels as if she is losing control of the production as she navigates various vested interests such as the producer’s desire that it not be slapped with a restricted rating that will damage their box office takings. Hanako is far from the only member of the cast and crew struggling with the film. Older actress Kaede (Maeko Oyama) sees the film as her last chance to prove her acting ability, willing to go all the way in the final sex scene to show that she is a true artist; and Yoshie (Serena Motola), an aspiring camera woman, is facing the same sexism as Hanako.

“Shrieking in the Rain” is a comedy-drama film with an uplifting atmosphere reminiscent of a less cynical world. Set in 1988 it shows a film industry that is a very male-dominated environment, one in which Hanako’s ostensible power as a director is continually undermined by her lack of authority as a women with the men around her. Things perhaps haven’t changed enough in the industry to this day, but the choice of setting does allow the film-makers to push some of the behaviour, with women being smacked round the head or shouted at in front of the entire studio, to an extreme perhaps consigned to history. Most of the film takes place in the single film set or the nearby studio buildings. It has a behind-the-scenes feel as we watch what happens on the other side of the camera, with this motley crew working to capture the pivotal scenes of their movie. The cinematography by Kenji Noguchi, has a beautiful sunset feel of late-eighties nostalgia.

We often see Hanako surrounded by her crew and actors, visually establishing the power dynamics and the sense of pressure she feels from all sides. The three women who provide the backbone of the story, Hanako, Yoshie and Kaede, are all enjoyable characters with actors Marika Matsumoto, Serena Motola and Maeko Oyama giving powerful performances as women beset by an inhospitable world of entrenched sexism and self-important men. “Shrieking in the Rain” tackles these issues with a light touch, providing plenty of comedy to ensure that it never feels like a sermon on the wrongs of the film industry. This lighthearted approach to the drama is emphasized by the sentimental score, often indistinguishable from the melodrama of the film within a film. It is a testament ot the film’s whimsicality that the final sequence, an all-out song and dance number performed by the crew, does not seem out of place beside the more serious themes, not to mention the nudity and sex of the production they are filming.

The film recreates in the microcosm of this single film studio a sense of what many women in the workplace have to contend with. Hanako is far from incompetent, even though she is a newcomer to directing, but she is constantly chastised for her decisions, being asked why she needs another take or why she cannot simply change her plans for certain scenes to make them suitable for a general audience. It can be hard to understand why Hanako persists and it seems even she has her doubts about whether she is in the right job. A particular traumatic memory from her past seems to drive her creativity and determination to finish this film and this past trauma seems to chime particularly the other women on the production, although their own pasts remain unknown. Hanako’s relationship with Yoshie, who looks up to her as a female role model is touching and you find yourself willing them to succeed against the ignorant behaviour of the male crew. However, the film is far from a polemic against chauvanism, with many other aspects and subplots to enjoy. The foremost amongst them is the power of film itself to transport people, as the experienced actor Kazuto (Yuma Yamoto) explains to pop-idol Shinji (Kenta Suga), to another world. The introduction of a character working for the film classification board allows for some ridiculing of the often nonsensical rules defining lewdness or inappropriate behaviour in film. And Kaede’s character depicts the difficulties of aging in an industry obsessed with youth. A fantastic cast in a film packed with interesting characters, each showing an aspect of the film-making process or problems associated with it, “Shrieking in the Rain” is sure to entertain film fans looking for a lighthearted take on the industry.

Lowlife Love (2016) by Eiji Uchida

Tetsuo (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) is an amateur film director. After having a small independent hit a few years before, he has decided to make this his career despite making almost no money and having little recognition. Instead, he uses his limited fame, and his acting school, to attract vulnerable women who are desperate to be cast in his films. His life is a string of cigarettes and loveless sex. A talented screenwriter named Ken (Shugo Oshinari), with dreams of big-screen success, comes to him with a script that Tetsuo is sure will provide the basis for the film that will finally see him leave his underdog existence behind. After charging him 20,000 yen for the privilege of joining his film group, Tetsuo agrees to work with him. At the same time, a naive young woman named Minami (Maya Okano) turns up at Tetsuo’s acting class to audition for him. The washed-up director, far from nurturing this young talent, attempts to take advantage of her. Minami refuses his advances, stating she is in love with Ken. Eventually, Minami manages to escape this band of struggling artists and become a successful actor (albeit by sleeping with a more famous director), leaving Tetsuo and Ken behind. The film is populated with a huge cast of enjoyable characters, such as Tetsuo’s sister Akina (Nanami Kawakami), the talentless actress Kyoko (Chika Uchida) who resorts to sleeping with directors to get roles; a successful director named Kano (Kanji Furutachi) who we learn is no less perverse and immoral than Tetsuo; Mamoru (Yoshida Hosoda), a friend of Tetsuo who makes a living selling low-budget softcore porn; and the stingy producer Kida (DenDen) who keeps recommending they add nudity to their films to make them sell.

Written and directed by Eiji Uchida, “Lowlife Love” features some stunning performances and a heady blend of love, sex and a blackly humorous commentary on the world of film-makers. Tetsuo is hardly a likeable protagonist, however relatable or sympathetic he may be in his attempts to make it as a director, as we see him sleeping around, taking advantage of people constantly, and lacking motivation. However, it is precisely this complexity that makes the film so irresistible, like a horrific car-crash that you can’t look away from, despite how traumatic it might be to witness the endless failures of this man, both in life and as a filmmaker, or the way that Minami is treated. None of the characters are particularly good or bad, they are just doing what it takes to survive in this harsh world. There is a sequence late in the film, when Minami, who has gone from powerless to completely in control breaks down in tears as she realises what she has become. You can feel her sense of frustration and upset at the complicity in the harsh system that this entails. In this heartbreaking scene we run the full gamut of emotions from lust, to anger, and despondency. Kiyohiko Shibukawa’s disreputable Tetsuo is an immoral womanizer, but we are swept along with his constantly frustrated attempts to make something of himself. Maya Okano gives a truly spellbinding performance as Minami, at first naive but gaining in confidence as she realises her own ability. The supporting cast all give great comedic performances as the seedy, disreputable sorts that seem to be commonplace in this industry. The cinematography by Kenji Noguchi is great throughout, with a few stylistic flourishes that show that unlike the protagonists they are depicting the makers of this film are at the top of their game.

Writer and director, Eiji Uchida, has created a complex tale of imperfect humans struggling with what they are doing with their lives. The emphasis on sex throughout the film is not incidental. It is these primal biological urges that seem to be the only constant driver of the characters’ behaviour. Early in the film a character comments that Tetsuo does nothing but sleep around and as the film progresses it asks the difficult question of whether there is really any more to life than that, whether all life is simply a hedonistic free-for-all, or if people are driven by more than sexual desire. It is made clear that sexual attraction, lust and jealousy are inextricably linked with people’s behaviours and even their success or failure. This is made clear in the characters of Tetsuo and Kano, who seem different only because of their varying degree of success as a filmmaker, while we discover they are both equally perverse and self-absorbed. The film also provides a stark commentary on the manipulation and exploitation, particularly of women, that seems to be prevalent in the film industry. When DenDen says there is no difference between pornography and other films, his words might be more true than he realises, as we see women treated merely as objects to satisfy men, lacking any agency of their own. Even Minami’s own success is dependent on her lowering herself to being used by directors.

In contrast to the almost relentless negative portrayal of the film industry, and perhaps the “Love” the title is referring to, we have filmmaking itself. It seems the only thing that Tetsuo is genuinely passionate about, and perhaps speaks to the ideal that through cinema and the arts we can attain something more real than reality, both an escape and at the same time an absolute truth. Film is the thing that keeps him going, despite his failures, it symbolises something that is human and at the same time beyond the seedy, everyday humanity we are forced to endure. Of course, the film’s ironic take on the industry often undermines this naïve belief, but nevertheless there is something pure in even the most despicable characters. In the end, the fact that they hold on to these dreams, of being a movie star, or creating a popular film, is what makes them poignant, believable and sympathetic.

Ichi the Killer (2001) by Takashi Miike

A masochistic mobster and a sadistic assassin are pitted against one another in this gory crime story from Takashi Miike. When a yakuza boss goes missing, his chief enforcer Kakihara (Tadanobu Asano) goes in search of clues. Kakihara has violent sado-masochistic tendencies, as we can see from the numerous scars across his face, his mouth being a wide slit held together with piercings. Kakihara comes to learn that the killer of his boss was one Ichi (Nao Omori), a man who has been brainwashed into being a heartless killer, with sadistic inclinations. As they draw closer to a confrontation, we are given a series of gruesome, violent, stomach churning scenes in one of the finest examples of Japanese exploitation cinema.

Not a film for the faint-hearted or those easily repulsed by gory special effects, the director Takashi Miike blends cartoonish violence, horror, pitch black comedy, along with realism in an unsettling portrayal of the darker drivers of human behaviour. The film is based on a manga by Hideo Yamamoto and the characters feel very much like comic book heroes and villains that have landed in a gritty, crime-infested Tokyo familiar from many yakuza films. This sense of the fantastical is emphasised in the use of colour, Ichi’s superhero-like costume, and helps make the content more palatable. The direction moves from fast paced action to more sedate scenes of character interaction. There is definitely a chaotic punk feel early on, with jarring cuts and music, and a handheld camera racing through the neon-washed streets swarming with people. We also see high-angled framing and off-kilter action that brings out the comic-book feel and helps bring the audience into this anarchic world where anything goes and the only certainty is pain and violence. The film pushes the boundaries of good taste at times, with infamous scenes involving a severed tongue, reference to rape, domestic abuse, and scenes of torture. However, the film holds together as a solid crime drama, with the central narrative being easy to follow. A fantastic supporting cast includes Alien Sun, a Chinese prostitute; Shinya Tsukamoto as Ichi’s mysterious handler Jijii, and various gang members played by Sabu, Shun Sugata, Kiyohiko Shibukawa, and Suzuki Matsuo who plays twins Jiro and Saburo.

It would be easy to dismiss this film as a violent, gory thriller, made with the intention of pushing the audience to the limit of what is acceptable. For those willing to examine the film carefully, there are deeper meanings here. Ichi could almost be considered the Id, driven solely by violent and sexual urges, confused, struggling to establish some kind of morality in his disordered existence. Kakihara also appears as a metaphor for human desire for violence and suffering; he is a comment on viewers of this film, who wish to sit through something so uncomfortable, to be shown the absolute lowest, most grotesque imagery, in order for some kind of spiritual gratification. There are also numerous allusions to the relationship between violence and sex, familial relationships and the abuse of power that can occur within them. Both Ichi and Kakihara are products of their environment, deeply disturbed individuals who typify the dog-eat-dog mentality of society. Worth watching for the creative scenes of carnage, but also worthy of consideration at a deeper level.