Talking Head (1992) by Mamoru Oshii

A new director is charged with completing an in-production animated feature titled “Talking Head” in this meta-fictional thriller. When the director of their film goes missing, producer Handawara, turns to a another director (Shigeru Chiba) to finish the project. The new director meets the staff on the project one by one, learning about their views on film-making, the history of cinema, and the importance of the medium. He brings on board his assistant Tamiko (Tomoko Ishimura) in an attempt to get a grip on the project that is spiralling out of control. He soon realises something unusual is happening as those involved with the project begin to die in mysterious circumstances.

“Talking Head” is a post-modernist deconstruction of cinema as a medium. The straightforward plot is complicated by the entire film being a meta-fiction analysing and critiquing elements of the film industry. Throughout there is fourth-wall breaking and alienation of the audience via obviously staged sets, and surrealist elements such as the Yasuda twins (Kei Mayama and Kujira), colourists who are small enough to be drowned in mini-paint pots. This constant juxtaposition of real and fake adds to the self-reflexive narrative asking the viewer not only to consider who is killing the staff on the project, but what the revelation of the culprit signifies for the meta-narrative. The film’s idiosyncratic elements: animated sequences; characters being physical representations of their jobs; the action taking place on theatre-like sets, and a bleeding of reality and artifice with overt special effects, all help to make it an enjoyable collage-like experience that constantly suprises with each new scene. It is a film that revels in creativity, showing what film is capable of through the alchemy of colour, effects, narrative, acting and editing working together to create something that is endlessly entertaining and intriguing. The film also has a tongue-in-cheek sense of humour, referencing “Kerberos” (another Oshii project), Rei Maruwa (a pseudonym Oshii has used), Ken Kawai (Shinichi Ishihara) the composer (a reference to Oshii’s longtime collaborator Kenji Kawaii who also provides the score for this film) and others. It is clever and silly in equal measure, managing to create tension despite indicating repeatedly that nothing that is happening is ‘real’ in a conventional sense. The most mysterious element of the film is the woman in black (Mako Hyodo) who appears throughout and seems to represent one element of the project that is never made explicit.

Being a meta-fictional take on a traditional serial killer narrative, “Talking Head” lends itself to numerous interpretations, as an examination of the psychology of both the characters and the film industry as a whole; a satire on various practices and trends; and a look at what film is and could be. The film’s central message concerns the power of narrative and film as a medium to transmit meaning. The film itself suggests that no two viewers ever see exactly the same film and that is especially true here, with many things left to interpretation. Some of the most powerful moments are those that defy description or analysis, with the strength of singular images lending themselves to myriad possible readings. If you are a fan of this kind of art-house, meta-fiction that forgoes a more traditional narrative in favour of something that is uniquely bizarre and exciting, then this film has that in spades.

Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade (1999) by Hiroyuki Okiura

In the years following the Second World War Japan suffers a series of economic and social crises. With violence on the streets the government establishes an elite Capitol Police, heavily armed and armoured to counter the threats from various terrorist groups. Among these groups the most dangerous are the Sect, a band of revolutionaries. Kazuki Fuse (Yoshikatsu Fujiki), a member of the Capitol Police, runs down a young girl with a bomb yet refuses to shoot her. The girl detonates the bomb, killing herself and injuring Fuse. As he recovers after this narrow escape, Fuse’s superiors question him about the incident and force him to re-train. Fuse later meets Kei (Sumi Muto) at the grave of the young woman, who tells him that she is the girl’s sister. Kei and Fuse’s relationship develops, with both harbouring secrets that if revealed could jeopardize their safety.

“Jin-Roh” is part of a larger franchise including films, radio plays, and manga, devised by writer Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell). An exposition heavy preamble means that those unfamiliar with the rest of the series will easily follow the story, and “Jin-Roh” can be enjoyed as a stand-alone film. It takes place in an alternate history, one in which the Third Reich won the Second World War and occupied Japan. This is evident in the authoritarian designs and naming of the Panzer Corps. The film does a great job of depicting this alternative 1950’s, with a bleak cityscape infused with post-war noir aesthetics. The grimy streets and subdued colour palette create a sense of deprivation drawing on real-world environments but with anachronistic twists, such as the black, science-fiction inspired design of the Kerberous division. While Oshii clearly delights in world-building, and includes background about the political and judicial organization of this society, the central plot is a strikingly human affair. The relationship between Fuse and Kei is motivated by genuine emotion and believable threats based on their beliefs. There are occasional bursts of bloody violence, with bullets tearing through people, and the militarised police raiding terrorist hideouts, but for the most part it is a quiet, contemplative drama focussed on the turmoil that our protagonist is going through.

“Jin-Roh” questions the morality of its characters, putting their actions under the microscope and asking the audience to consider carefully their own notions of right and wrong. There is no black and white in the Capitol Police and the terrorists, and the film deliberately blurs the lines between their actions, with plotting on both sides. The second strand of the film concerns human nature, in particular the character of Fuse. Fuse’s vision of wolves viciously tearing a person apart seems to be an echo of his underlying nature, a violent individual further dehumanised in this dog-eat-dog society. The film’s bleak assessment is that he is not able to shake this predatory inclination. Whether it is society that has made him a monster, or simply that the society finds value in these latent atavistic tendencies, it makes for a uniquely interesting lead. A fantastic alternate history noir thriller with genuine depth of character and theme.