Bounce Ko Gal (1997) by Masato Harada

A group of teenage girls spend a wild, dangerous night on the streets of Tokyo, earning money through the seedy world of ‘compensated dating’. Maru (Shin Yazawa), who has recently had an abortion for an unwanted pregnancy, goes to meet a male client. The man (Koji Yakusho) turns out to be a Yakuza and takes her ID and phone, telling her he’ll give them back when she pays him. Her friend, Jonko (Hitomi Sato), heads to the Yakuza to negotiate getting Maru’s phone and ID back. Meanwhile, Risa (Yukiko Okamoto), is hoping to make enough money to set herself up in New York, with her flight leaving in less than 48 hours. After selling her underwear and being directed to a softcore porn shoot, she meets up with Raku (Yasue Sato) and the two form a friendship. Risa has also captured the attentions of Sap (Jun Murakami) who works as a scout for young girls.

“Bounce Ko Gals”, written and directed by Masato Harada, does an incredible job of capturing the fashions and trends of the period, while shining a light on the dark underbelly of society. The early scenes with the schoolgirls, with their famous roll-down white socks, fake-tan, and relatable obsessions, set the scene for a film that, despite an apparently exploitative story, firmly establishes things from their perspective. The cast all do a great job with a script that exudes believability, with coarse, unguarded conversations alongside moments of emotional candour between the friends. They are smart, funny, worldly wise and cynical, while also being victims of a society that sees female value only in terms of appearance and sex. The camera wends its way through crowds, plunging us right into the throngs of people, creating a palpable sense of energy and movement. Told across a single day, scenes often cross-over, with the camera following one group then catching sight of another protagonist and switching to them. This all goes to help the sense of a living, breathing city and real characters.

The film is an incredible social document, offering a window to this specific period in time, the world of ‘compensated dating’ and the sexualisation of young girls. We see various aspects of this, including girls selling their underwear and school uniforms; ‘talent’ scouts picking up girls on the street to sell to hostess clubs or pornography companies; and older men paying for dates with teen girls, usually with a sexual motive. The film steers clear of moralising, but rather questions the type of society where these behaviours are prevalent and, to an extent, normalised. It is a society where women and girls are considered second-class and existing only for the amusement of men. Also one where youth is fetishized. As the teens state at one point, high-schoolers (Japan has middle and high school), are already considered old ladies. However, this film empowers its protagonists, showing them as savvy and self-sufficient in the warped economy where money rules all and girls can be easily exploited. It shows the dangers of what they are doing too, with brief indications of brutal violence, but also there is a sense of fun and camaraderie between the girls that shines through. One important moment near the end of the film sees the trio of Risa, Raku and Jonko conversing while a group of priestesses perform their rituals nearby. It gives agency to them, and suggests that the choices women make are entirely their own and that it is possible to find strength through companionship in a world that seems determined to keep them down.

The Third Murder (2017) by Hirokazu Koreeda

When lawyer Tomoaki Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama) is brought in to defend Misumi (Koji Yakusho) on a charge of murder, it appears to be an open and shut case. Misumi confesses to the crime and appears remorseless. However, as Shigemori delves into his past and the details surrounding the crime a different story begins to emerge.

Writer-director Hirokazu Koreeda has made his name as an incredible film-maker with a string of family-focussed stories (“Our Little Sister”, “Like Father, Like Son”). With “The Third Murder” he brings his careful observations of human behaviour to the courtroom drama. The plot of the story is straightforward, with a lawyer defending a man he believes is guilty, but the world is packed with characters and moments that make deeper connections to universal themes. It is a dialogue- heavy film with characters spending a lot of time discussing the case details. This can make for a dry experience at times, but is made enjoyable in two main ways. Firstly, by turning the film into something more akin to a detective drama, with Shigemori interviewing various individuals and cross-examining the suspect, Misumi. In fact, the film shies away from courtroom scenes until its final third. Secondly, the performances, particularly from Masaharu Fukuyama and Koji Yakusho are exceptional, showing their experience and charisma on screen. Most of the standout scenes are featuring only the two of them conversing through a plexiglass screen. Mikiya Takimoto’s cinematography is slick and has a sombre tone that is fitting for the story.

“The Third Murder” investigates the very notion of truth. The lawyers are shown to be individuals for whom the truth is of relatively little importance. Their job is to have their clients acquitted, whether they are guilty or not. In fact, this very point is raised at one point by the prosecution attorney. It also looks at the notion of crime and guilt in relation to provocation, by contextualising the murder. Crime is a subject that provokes strong emotions but is rarely black and white. This film does a good job of explaining the potential pitfalls in jumping to conclusions.

Warm Water Under a Red Bridge (2001) by Shohei Imamura

Koji Yakusho stars as Yosuke Sasano, a man who has recently lost his job at a large company. After speaking to a homeless man, he learns of a treasure that was left behind when the man left another town some years before. The treasure is to be found in a house by a red bridge. Yosuke sets off to find the treasure for the man, being told that if he finds it he can sell it and keep the profits (the man only wants to know what happened to the treasure). When he arrives, he meets Saeko Aizawa, played by Misa Shimizu. The woman suffers from a peculiar condition which means that she feels herself filling with water. The only way to alleviate her discomfort is by shoplifting, or having sex, which causes the water to leak or gush out of her like a geyser. Soon Yosuke’s mission to find the treasure is forgotten as he becomes enamoured of Saeko, deciding to remain in the town, beginning a new life with her, and taking up a role aboard a fishing vessel.

Shohei Imamura won plaudits for his film “The Eel”, and “Warm Water under a Red Bridge” sees the writer-director again ploughing his own unique furrow. The film is a curious mix, with mystery, romantic drama and sex comedy thrown in. This sense of wrong-footing the audience pervades everything, and you are never sure whether you are watching farce or philosophy. Koji Yakusho and Misa Shimizu navigate their way through the genres, crafting believable characters in unbelievable situations. The film centres on sex and is humorously explicit while never being obscene in its depiction. The fountains of water spraying everywhere comically undercut the drama and create a sense of joy through humour that captures the emotion of love in a way that few films manage. Other characters, the three fishermen at the bridge, the marathon runner, and Koji’s workmates help to fill out a world that seems to be full of quirky individuals. The musical accompaniment by Shinichiro Ikebe is full of odd percussion and synthesisers, slipping from unnerving as Koji explores the unusual town, to comical as he gets entangled in ever more bizarre situations.

Trying to understand “Warm Water under a Red Bridge” is quite a challenge. It is a film that subverts expectations again and again, drifting from serious to ridiculous (often in the space of a single scene). It is a film that discusses the relationship between lust, sex and love. Yosuke is a man who is smitten with Saeko. Their passionate relationship is built around the sex, but the film asks what lies beneath this and what love is. Yosuke is also given good advice by his friend who tells him to stop overthinking things and to basically do whatever makes you feel good. This idea of seeking after personal satisfaction is one that pervades the film. Saeko is likewise a woman who is struggling to satiate her desires, and fills the emotional emptiness by stealing. The marathon runner, the fishermen, everyone is either waiting for something, searching or working towards some goal that is of the utmost importance to them. Yosuke is at first on the hunt for money, treasure, financial reward, and his journey of self-discovery is one that will lead him to the answer of what he is truly searching for.

The Eel (1997)

After murdering his wife following the discovery of her affair, Takuro Yamashita (Koji Yakusho) hands himself into the police. Eight years later he is released from jail on probation, with a monk and his wife agreeing to be his person of contact. Yamashita starts on his journey to rebuild his life, setting up a barber shop. He has a pet eel, that he was allowed to keep in the jail and whom is the only creature he feels able to confide in. Despite attempts to stay out of trouble, he soon bumps into Keiko Hattori (Misa Shimizu) who has attempted to end her life. She is also trying to escape from her past and joins Yamashita as assistant at his barber shop. Yamashita is also surrounded by a selection of other unusual characters, fellow ex-convicts, flashy businessmen, and a young man who is attempting to communicate with UFOs.

“The Eel” opens with a shocking murder. Yamashita finds his wife engaged with her lover and the bloody slaying is a startling sequence that intentionally provokes strong feelings. What follows is a strikingly tame drama,as we watch Yamashita, now released from jail come to terms with what he has done. The story is based on a novel by Akira Yoshimura with a screenplay by Daisuke Tengan, Motofumi Tomikawa, and director Shohei Imamura. Imamura gives us a warts-and-all portrait of Japan, with untidy streets and run-down buildings. This clear-eyed worldview continues in his portrayal of the characters. Takuro Yamashita and Keiko Hattori are both flawed individuals, having made bad decisions, however understandable, and the film underscores both positive and negative aspects of humanity. The film includes a number of more off-beat moments, such as the character hoping to attract UFOs, that add an unusual flavour to the foreground crime drama. The score by Shinichiro Ikebe is a great compliment to the drama, an oddly lilting tune that plays throughout,sometimes as a sinister dirge, at other times a more darkly comic riff. This is in keeping with the film itself that balances the brutal realism of the opening, with exquisitely shot sequences of characters drifting down stream in the early morning, and also with the more mundane every day sequences of work.It is a world that is full of contradictions and populated with brilliant performances by the main cast and great supporting roles including Tomorowo Taguchi and Show Aikawa.

“The Eel” deals with trust, jealousy, forgiveness, regret and redemption. Following the explosive opening sequences the plot settles down into a contemplative mood and we are brought along with Yamashita as he tries to piece together his life following his sentence. The normalcy of his life post-release sits in stark contrast to the murder and begs the question of whether it is possible to fully move on from such a crime. The film also has the feel of a modern fable, with the eel being representative of Yamashita,first in being trapped in its tank, and later in the peculiar life-cycle coming to represent his own situation.

Cure (1997) by Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Detective Takage (Koji Yakusho) is investigating a mysterious string of murders. Despite the killers having no personal connection to one another, each crime displays an eerie similarity. The murderers all claim personal responsibility, but are unable to answer questioning about the circumstances of the incidents. All cut an X into their victims throat. Takage soon comes face to face with a former psychology student known as Mamiya (Masato Hagiwara) who seems to be hypnotising these individuals into committing murder. Mamiya is unable or unwilling to answer questions, apparently suffering from amnesia, and instead insists on questioning his interrogators. Takage’s wife (Anna Nakagawa) is suffering from a form of dementia and his frustrations with his wife’s illness seem to spill over into anger at Mamiya’s crimes.

“Cure” styles itself as a detective drama with strong horror elements, though never quite gives itself over entirely to the tropes of genre cinema. Writer director Kiyoshi Kurosawa does a fantastic job of creating tension and much of the horror remains psychological, with no clear motivation established for Mamiya’s actions. The settings of decrepit hospital buildings and crumbling city streets help to build the sense that everything is falling apart, mirroring Takage’s mental deterioration. A flickering light in an underpass, abandoned buildings, and suburban decay augment the imperfections of humanity that the film explores. Kurosawa weaves together the story of the killer and the detective in an interesting way, with Takage’s suffering and quest for understanding becoming an unjust mockery when compared to Mamiya’s cold detachment and lack of responsibility. Kurosawa manages to give the audience enough hints to keep the mystery engaging while never fully letting us into its most tempting secrets. In the final scenes of the film this lack of a complete picture makes for a uniquely terrifying experience. Koji Yakusho plays Takage as the world-weary detective, weighed down by personal struggle as well as the seriousness of his professional duty. Masato Hagiwara engenders feelings of hatred and anger, with Mamiya’s lack of social grace, impertinence and dead-eyed psychopathy getting under the skin in a way that is irritating and makes Takage sympathetic. Tsuyoshi Ujiki plays Takage’s psychologist friend Sakuma and is a good balance to Takage’s seriousness. Likewise, Anna Nakagawa’s role is small but pivotal in understanding Takage, and she gives a sympathetic portrayal of a character with their own mental health issues.

The horror of “Cure” is not in the violence of the murders, which are shown as terrifyingly commonplace, nor gory effects, which are used sparingly, but in allowing us to confront our own lack of comprehension when it comes to such things. Detective Takage states early on that he wants to find the words to describe what is happening. His ultimate realisation that some things are inexplicable is more horrifying than a serial killer with a well-documented backstory. The film’s ending leave both Takage and Mamiya’s thoughts and morality ambiguous. The credits, with partially broken and missing names, give a hint that this ambiguity is intentional. Life is imperfect, humanity is imperfect, and attempts to create meaning may be futile. Death and madness are natural, and by contrast rationalising such things may prove to be ironically irrational. Throughout the film explanations for the murders range from demonic possession to hypnotism and psychosis, but the film leaves the audience with this fundamental questions unanswered. We are left to speculate on the causes of crime and the reason for suffering in the world, and led to an increasingly distressing conclusion. “Cure” is a thrilling drama that will appeal to any fans of thought-provoking horror or detective dramas with a psychological twist.