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)

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.

The World of Kanako (2014)

The World of Kanako (2014)

Akikazu Fujishima (Koji Yakusho) is an ex-police detective carrying a lot of psychological baggage. His estranged wife calls to tell him that their daughter Kanako (Nana Komatsu) has gone missing. He interrogates several of her former classmates and discovers that his daughter, who he has not seen for many years, is not at all the angelic figure of his imagination. Through flashbacks we are given the story of a high-school classmate of Kanako who is being bullied, played by Hiroya Shimizu. Kanako befriends him, using her influence with a powerful gang to protect him, but he is soon also to learn that she is not entirely as she seems. As Fujishima’s investigation continues he is drawn into a world of drugs, teenage prostitution, and gang violence as things threaten to spiral out of control. Far from a paragon of virtue himself, his quest comes to be an expression of his own guilt and death drive as much as a desire to find his daughter.

“The World of Kanako” is a film with two distinct flavours. One the one hand it is a look at the darker corners of the human psyche, with its damaged characters suffering from psychological issues, either natural or drug-induced, hints of alcohol abuse, drug and sexual abuse, much of which is tough to stomach (especially particular scenes of rape and torture). However, there are strong hints that this is no more than a tongue-in-cheek exploitation flick. The flashy title sequence, occasional music stings, the often casual approach to violence, are cause for confusion when set aside the seriousness of more harrowing scenes. The most positive reading of this is that it is representative of both Fujishima and Kanako’s mental state, being completely cold to what is happening, and looking on occasionally in horror, but more often in a darkly voyeuristic way. Director Tetsuya Nakashima won praise for his previous film “Confessions”, another adaptation from the novel by Kanae Minato. This film, based on the novel by Akio Fukamachi, is far more brutal than that, both in its story, and in the way it is told. Uncomfortable close-ups and high-octane editing, along with the films restless time-hopping structure, give the audience the feeling of being dragged along on this exciting yet disturbing ride. The central performance by Koji Yakusho is supremely bold and it is a testament to the strength of his portrayal of Fujishima Snr. that we are able to stay with him despite his often despicable actions. To say Fujishima fits the archetype of the tough, no nonsense cop operating outside the law really doesn’t do it justice. The film does not shy away from depicting the worst possible antihero. We increasingly come to realise that he is not imbued with any real positive traits. Nana Komatsu is great as Kanako, though we are never able to fully understand her, she again does a superb job of an antihero who seems to posses the same nihilistic spirit as her father. There are great supporting performances from a stellar cast that includes Joe Odagiri, Fumi Nikaido and Ai Hashimoto. The music is a blend of classical and electronic dance music that typifies the competing aspects of the film, on the one hand brash and offensive and on the other stylish and contemplative.

The film is a dark examination of the father-daughter relationship and deals with several issues that people may find disturbing. In some ways the cocktail of drugs, gangs, violence, paedophilia, bullying and everything else the film throws in come to represent a sort of obscene representation of the absolute worst of humanity. It is against this background that our characters are operating. They have no choice when it comes to living in this world, they can either embrace it or try to ignore it, but these things will continue happening. Kanako herself seems to harness amorality as a survival instinct, using her lack of empathy to navigate a horrific world of violence and abuse. Fujishima is very similar. He has no qualms about abusing, even raping women, and is irredeemably self-centred. The main difference is that he feels he has found a purpose. Both characters understand the world to be a meaningless place, with power the only real dynamic worth worrying about. Kanako’s notion of freedom, including the freedom to destroy others, is one that is a terrifying prospect. The film sets out to shock and it does so time and again, not only with its visuals but on the level of the ideas it presents. Highly recommended for fans of transgressive cinema that pulls no punches. A bold and brutal take on the detective genre.

13 Assassins (2010)

 

The sadistic lord Naritsugu tortures and terrifies his subjects with impunity. One of his retinue Sir Doi decides to attempt a coup by recruiting a band of assassins led by his friend Shinzaemon. As the king returns from Edo the assassins wait in a village along the route to block his path.

A simple fight against the odds tale against a merciless lord. The film never looks less than stunning, with stylistic framing and actions. The final fight scenes employ hand-held cinematography to great effect. The opening scenes of the lords cruelty highlight an unhinged villain and the camaraderie of the assassins is also well-done. Although this kind of story has been done numerous times Miike adds his trademark off-beat humour and sensibilities to it. Occasionally the film seems undecided on whether to be a straight-faced historical drama, or a tongue-in-cheek action film. However inconsistent it is it remains very entertaining.

The focus is largely on the plight of the assassins against the vicious Naritsugu. The lords privileged, out-of-touch take on the world is highlighted later in the film when he remarks how fun it must have been to live in feudal, war-torn, Japan. Meanwhile, the assassins are left to muse on their fates as they face almost certain death. A fun action film with a fair mix of comedy and tradgedy.