Luxurious Bone (2001) by Isao Yukisada

Miyako (Kumiko Aso) works as a call-girl, living with her friend Sakiko (Tsugumi Otake) with whom she shares a bond that hovers over the border of sisterhood and life partners. After encountering a client, Shintani (Masatoshi Nagase), with whom Miyako experiences sexual pleasure for the first time in her life, the two women begin to drift apart. Miyako suggests that Shintani should sleep with Sakiko, an event that draws the three into a love triangle in which their various flaws and anxieties are reflected.

“Luxurious Bone” begins with poetic sentiments being recited over the credits, followed by bones being removed from a crematorium furnace. This proves to be an apt set up for a film that is both artistic, meaning glimpsed through fragments of character and story, and with an underlying melancholy. Written by director Isao Yukisada and screenwriter Shoichi Masahiko, the story is relatively straightforward, revolving around the three main characters and their complicated relationship, and the film expects the audience to be familiar with these archetypes, rarely delving too deeply into their backgrounds. Many things are left unsaid, or rather left to viewer interpretation, with direction, lighting and cinematography often standing in for dialogue. Sakiko’s broken leg, the phantom bone that seems permanently lodged in Mayuko’s throat, or the three goldfish confined to a blender, are all clues to what is happening internally with the characters. The performances of Aso, Otake and Nagase are exceptional, with very few supporting characters they manage to keep the audience’s attention with their portrayals of these complex characters. Miyako has resigned herself to a life of prostitution to support Sakiko, while longing for something more. Shintani is perhaps the most mysterious, perhaps intended simply as a catalyst between Miyako and Sakiko, but with shocking moments that indicate a more conflicted character. Sakiko is the most sympathetic and we learn most about her, but many things are never satisfactorily resolved, a common theme across the film.

The film asks a lot of its audience, rarely stating its intentions clearly. It is for the viewer to piece together what is happening with the characters through a fore-knowledge of typical romantic stories, and the various visual clues presented. There are themes of the relationship between sex and love, with a clear distinction between Miyako’s work as a call-girl, which gives her no pleasure either physically or emotionally, and her relationship with Sakiko, which operates on a deeper level. There is also the peculiar idea that Miyako wants to reach Sakiko, to create a bond with her, through Shintani, using a surrogate lover to connect the two women. The film’s occassional graphic eroticism and brief flash of fish-based gore, may seem out of place in a film that appears quite tame on the surface, but that would be to misunderstand the depth of feeling that is raging behind the characters. A curious romantic drama that plays on themes of human connection and the difficulty in expressing our feelings clearly.

Grasshopper (2015) by Tomoyuki Takimoto

Following the death of his girlfriend a man becomes entangled in a dark, underground world of drug gangs and assassins. On Halloween night in Shibuya a car ploughs into the crowd killing a young woman named Yuriko (Haru). Distraught at her untimely death, her boyfriend Suzuki (Toma Ikuta) goes undercover with a pharmeceutical company that is a front for a malicious gang run by Terahara (Renji Ishibashi). Suzuki’s boss, Sumire (Kumiko Aso) is a sadistic femme fatale who soon becomes suspicious of Suzuki’s intentions. Meanwhile, hired killer Kujira (Tadanobu Asano) who forces people to commit suicide for Terahara is troubled by the sins of his past. Becoming a liability to the gang he is targetted by fellow assassins Iwanishi (Jun Murakami) and Semi (Ryosuke Yamada).

Based on the novel by Kotaro Isaka, “Grasshopper” is a noir thriller that sets up several great characters. We are sympathetic to Suzuki’s quest for revenge and his complete inadequacy in going up against hardened killers and gangsters. Saccharine flashbacks of him and Yuriko often feel at odds with the violent tone of the film, but do create a clear distinction between the world he has lost and the one he finds himself thrust into. Tadanobu Asano’s Kujira has perhaps the most intriguing backstory, troubled by the ghosts of his victims who appear before him; it is a similar tale with Semi, who suffers a ringing in his ears that is only calmed when he is killing. There is a slight imbalance in tone and story that runs through the film, with the characters jostling for the position of protagonist and it lurches from the brutal fight sequences and grim life of Kujira to the more incompetent amateur detective antics of Suzuki. Suzuki remains the protagonist, but the film sets up these two interesting assassins that feel as thought they deserve their own film. The film also introduces fantasy elements that are creative, but never fully developed as an integral part of the story. These shifts in tone are also present in the eclectic score, with a mix of operatic, hard rock and soft piano. However, despite these inconsistencies the film creates some incredible moments, particularly in the fight sequences and chase through the streets. Director Tomoyuki Takimoto crafts a stylish crime drama and the noir tone is handled expertly with rain drenched, neon lit streets, and dark alleyways.

A hugely entertaining noir thriller with great visuals and a collection of fantastic characters. Suzuki is an everyman hero whose search for revenge is charming and understandable. There is contrast between Suzuki who is desperate for revenge but unable to attain it and Kujira and Semi (the only other characters whose names appear on screen), hardened killers who are made to question their profession. Suzuki’s unsuitability as a killer is a weakness in the world he finds himself in, but is also what makes him a decent man. He is a relatable protagonist preciscely because he is unable to imagine himself killing anyone. The fates of Kujira and Semi offer an oddly moralistic but understandable ending when considering the rights and wrongs of the characters. At times it feels like these three characters should not exist in the same film, but that creates a fantastic tension that builds to a stunning conclusion.

Fly me to the Saitama (2019) by Hideki Takeuchi)

Manami (Haruka Shimazaki) is on her way from Saitama to Tokyo for her wedding. Her parents (Brother Tom and Kumiko Aso) turn on the radio in the car for the long journey and are tuned into a radio drama telling the urban legend of the history of Saitama and Tokyo’s long struggles. The radio play takes us back to a time when Saitamese were subjected to various mistreatments and discriminations at the hands of the Tokyoites, discriminating against those from other prefectures. Rei (Gackt) attempts to fight this injustice and create an equal society where Saitamese are treated the same as people from Tokyo, while the head of a prestigious Tokyo University, Momomi (Fumi Nikaido) is determined to maintain the status quo. The fight for acceptance will also lead the people of Saitama into conflict with their other major rival, the citizens of Chiba Prefecture.

“Fly me to the Saitama” is an outrageous comedy based on the ridiculous premise of a fantasy war between Saitama and Tokyo. It throws so much at this surreal story, including influences from various genres. We see everything from Tokyo university students dressed in renaissance period clothing, science-fiction dressed police officers with rayguns, Edo-period costumes, even dinosaurs. The film will do just about anything for a joke, with funny costumes, scenarios, wordplay, and visual gags. Much of the comedy relies heavily on local stereotypes, though the comedy is so broad that almost all audiences will find something to enjoy, the more people know about these places, the more funny they are likely to find it. The actors do a great job, with Fumi Nikaido and Gackt playing their roles perfectly straight-faced despite the madness around them. The film is directed by Hideki Takeuchi, based on the manga by Mineo Maya, and with a screenplay by Yuichi Tokunaga. The script and performances are ironically a celebration of the creativity and good humour of everyone involved, showing an ability to laugh at themselves.

The film is a broad comedy, taking themes of discrimination and prejudice and showing them to be utterly ridiculous. It allows people to laugh at local stereotypes in the confidence that they are so outrageous that they are never cruel. The finale of the film has a simple yet poignant message of bridging divides between people and not allowing ourselves to be separated by self-imposed borders. A hugely enjoyable film that puts everything into finding the humour in how people look at each other and themselves.

Pulse (2001) by Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Ryosuke Kawashima (Haruhiko Kato) has recently bought a computer to get connected to the Internet. When he turns it on he is taken to a peculiar and disturbing website that seems to show people sitting alone in rooms and a message asking if he would like to see a ghost. He asks at the university computer department if they have any idea what is happening. Computing teacher Harue Karasawa (Koyuki) attempts to help him. Another student tells him that there is a theory that the spirits of the dead, having becoming too numerous, have begun to pass over into the world of the living. In a parallel story, Michi (Kumiko Aso), an employee at a flower shop, is also made aware of this unusual phenomenon when she goes to find their co-worker who has been missing for several days. The appearance of these figures, both on computers screens, and in the world, grow increasingly frequent and events threaten to overwhelm those involved.

Written and directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, “Pulse” takes inspiration from traditional ghost stories. Many of the scares in the film revolve around eerie happenings, such as dark figures appearing or disappearing suddenly. The music by Takefumi Haketa is disturbing, representing the howls of disturbed spirits. The sets used also give the impression of an old-fashioned ghost story, with abandoned buildings, and even a laboratory packed with various leads and devices. “Pulse” transposes these elements onto the modern world of computers and the internet, using techniques such as image manipulation and the idea that the screen may not be as much of a barrier as people think.

The film underscores its ghost story thrills with a deeply disturbing sub-strata of existential angst and fear of isolation. The concept of the Internet as a tool to connect individuals, but which will actually result in them becoming ever more distant from one another is interesting. Throughout the film there is a clear separation between the living and the dead. Kawashima is a young man who utterly rejects the notion of ghosts. He is forced through these occurrences to confront his fear of death. The character of Harue fears being left alone. The finale of the film is unexpected, bringing the story full circle to the opening narration, and making us question our assumptions of what has gone before. There is discussion in the film about the difference between life and death, about the imperceptible line between the two. Enough space is left for interpretation although as with much of the film it seems to be more about thematic exploration that any literal interpretation of events.

Instant Swamp (2009)

In a frenetic opening monologue, Haname Jinchoge (Kumiko Aso) introduces us to her life and philosophies. She goes through her daily routine as a chore, enjoys a sludge of ten spoons of coffee in milk each morning, and lives with her mother (Keiko Matsuzaka), her father has left for a more wealthy woman. Haname loses her job at failing women’s magazine publication and her mother takes ill resulting in a coma. They manage to fish a letter out of a sunken post-box that tells Haname that her real father is not who she thought, but is instead a bohemian figure called Light Bulb (Morio Kazama), who is now running a bric-a-brac store. The eternally upbeat Haname sets out to meet him, hoping that her discovery of her mother’s former partner might return her to consciousness.

“Instant Swamp” has a bizarre and convoluted plot that is perfectly in keeping with its protagonist and her eccentric behaviour. The film is an off-beat comedy that relies heavily on slapstick humour and unusual scenarios. It often delights in subverting expectations with ridiculous reveals. Much of the dialogue is clearly designed more for laughs than realism and it plays like a series of sketches that happen to involve the same characters. Not all of the jokes work, but there are enough of them that this does not matter. In the same way, the plot moves along at such a pace that there is always something else to be invested in, albeit temporarily, like a wild treasure hunt that is constantly throwing up more hints to follow. The jokes are helped, even when the material is weak, by some great comedic performances. Kumiko Aso is very charismatic in the lead role and really sells every gag. Morio Kazama as Light Bulb gives a good performance as the humorous yet untrustworthy shop owner. The supporting actors, Eri Fuse as Haname’s co-worker Ichinose, and Ryo Kase as a punk electrician named Gas, are also excellent in their roles. The film is written and directed by Satoshi Miki, whose fertile imagination shows in every scene.

“Instant Swamp” is a peculiar film about the magic of everyday life. In an early scene, Haname’s mother tells her there is a kappa in the garden. Haname refuses to be drawn in, believing this to be a silly delusion. Similarly, when she is tasked with writing an article on ghosts for her magazine she is highly sceptical, despite her co-workers’ belief in the supernatural. However, by the end of the scene Haname has experienced her own transcendental moment of magic, finally converted to the idea that the world is a wide and wonderful place where anything can happen. The film is not attempting to suggest scepticism is wrong, but that most people spend their lives in narrow channels and often miss out on the opportunities that may be surrounding them for experiencing “magic”. This idea is also emphasised in the use of antiques dealing as a central plot point. Haname’s meeting with Light Bulb proves to be important as she learns that the value of an object is not necessarily in its price, but in its emotional weight. She learns to value things based not solely on their use. Again, this is shown in her own attachment to a bent nail, the importance of which is lost on almost everyone she shows it to. The theme of luck plays throughout the film in parallel with this idea. Haname believes that throwing away a lucky black cat statue in her youth has led to her streak of misfortune. However, when she is tricked into buying something that is seemingly useless at the end of the film, she has grown enough to appreciate the potential in even the lowliest of things. Life, she realises, is not based on luck, but instead on making the most of what you have and in seeing opportunity in every new day.