Dead Sushi (2012) by Noboru Iguchi

The sushi bites back in this horror comedy from writer-director Noboru Iguchi. Keiko (Rina Takeda) is dismissed from her father’s sushi restaurant after failing to meet his high standards. She finds employment at an inn where she finds it hard to adapt, making few friends beside the janitor Sawada (Shigeru Matsuzaki). A large group from a pharmaceutical company arrive to stay at the inn, with the hostess Yumi (Asami Sugiura) and her husband (Takashi Nishina) keen to please. Things don’t go to plan however when a homeless man who previously worked at the same pharmaceutical company, Yamada (Kentaro Shimazu), is infected with a dangerous virus from some sushi he found in the rubbish. This virus turns the sushi into living, flesh-eating, parasites. The whole inn must fight to save themselves from the monstrous undead sushi that now threatens to destroy them.

“Dead Sushi” is a film that revels in the ridiculous from premise to execution, throwing in anything and everything that might be entertaining: karate (courtesy of the supremely talented Rina Takeda), zombie-esque horror, gory CG-enhanced effects, nudity, fart jokes and slapstick. It is definitely one that requires you leave your brain at the door and simply enjoy it for what it is. Those familiar with Iguchi’s oevre (films such as “The Machine Girl” and “Mutant Girls Squad”) will recognize the blend of splatter horror and black comedy, although here it is played mostly for laughs, toning down some of the more stomach-churning elements of the grotesque horror. There is something almost quaint about the movie, with the central conceit being so laughable that it could easily have worked as a film for a younger audience, with some of the puerile humour and moments such as the singing sushi playing well with all ages. The decapitations, blood-letting and nudity later on almost appear added in to make the film more violent and ‘adult’ (in contrast to most films that desire a broader audience). The cast all give excellent comedic performances, especially Sugiura as Yumi, whose contorted expressions are in keeping with the cartoonish violence. Rina Takeda ais also fantastic, showing off her martial arts and acting skills in the role. The special effects, including work from long-time collaborator Yoshihiro Nishimura, are fun, though the practical work far outdoes the computer generated moments providing the charming, handmade feel of their early work. The sound design of the film also heightens the enjoyment factor, furthering the sense of a live-action anime with martial arts effects.

An outrageous takedown of several Japanese holy cows, with both sushi, corporate culture and deference for customers in the firing line. The moments when members of the pharmaceutical company are pretending a high level of sophistication and knowledge of sushi, while the hostesses of the inn look on admiringly is one example of the satirical undertones to the wacky plot. To have the sushi turn on the customers, and even one person turn into a killer tuna fish, punctures notions of respect for culture and tradition, laughing at something that is often seen as serious. Keiko’s relationship with her strict, overbearing father, again plays on this idea of youth being liberated from  their staid and conservative forebears. The film parodies horror films as it draws out a global cultural obsession with zombies to an absurd point, by having something that is so dead it can’t possibly return to life come back. “Dead Sushi” is a silly diversion, a tongue-in-cheek horror comedy that does all it can with the idea of sushi as its primary antagonist.

High Kick Girl (2009) by Fuyuhiko Nishi

Karate black belt Rina Takeda stars in her first film, giving her a chance to show off her martial arts prowess. Kei Tsuchiya (Takeda) is a brown belt karate student who desperately wants to obtain a black belt. She starts fights with a number of black belts, trouncing them easily with her superior abilities. Despite this her sensei Matsumura (fellow karate master Tatsuya Naka) will not acquiesce to raise her to a higher level. When her friend Ryosuke (Ryuki Takahashi) is kidnapped by a group of criminal martial artists known as the Destroyers, a group Kei had previously wanted to join, she is drawn into a long-standing grudge between the group and her sensei, who embarrassed their leader by defeating him 15 years before.

“High Kick Girl” is a film in the loosest sense of the word. The story is paper thin and full of holes, exisiting only to give the most tenuous of reasons for these characters to fight one another. There is little in the way of tension or emotional connection to anything going on. The microbudget is evidenced in everything from the title sequences, with fairly rote drone footage of the city, to the small number of locations and limited costumes or set dressing. With the negatives out of the way, there are still things to enjoy in this martial arts flick for fans of karate and top notch fight choreography. Rina Takeda and Ryuki Takahashi are incredibly skilled practitioners of their styles and the film also features a number of other talented performers who put their all into making the fights thrilling and believable. The choreography is incredibly well done and, unlike other action films, the direction allows us to appreciate every movement. Shot simply with handheld cameras that do not cut away, the actors do not pull their punches (or kicks), which leads to some surprising moments that make you wonder what health and safety they had on set. The stunt work, with moments such as Rei being pummeled through a table, make it easy to forgive the lack of plot. The film will often have a slow motion replay of such stunts or particular moments of the fight sequences, which give the whole thing the feel of a clip reel to show off what they can do rather than attempting to build a believable story. Many of these moments are again repeated during the end credits, which seems unnecessary as that is the third or fourth time you will have seen some of them.

The weak plot and characterisations are perhaps forgiveable in a film where the focus will understandably be on the incredible stunts and fight work. However, there should be a few points deducted even taking the film on its own terms. Firstly, the character of Kei becomes sidelined in the second half, as focus shifts to Matsumura. While it is great to see Naka’s fight work, it detracts from the title character and the little plot that has been developed up until then. Secondly, it would have been interesting to see more varied locations and more distinction between the fighting styles, perhaps even some situational advantages. One of the best scenes takes place in a more cluttered room where we do see them interact more with the environment. While we do get nunchucks, knives, staffs and chains, the character of Shurei (played by MMA kickboxer Hisae Watanabe) feels underused. For the casual viewer it may be hard to see any significant difference between all the punching and kicking going on, but no doubt those with some knowledge will find more enjoyment in watching. “High Kick Girl” will appeal to fans of martial arts and fight scenes, with undeniably incredible action sequences helped by genuinely talented fighters, but there is little here in the way of a compelling story or characters.

Demon City Shinjuku (1988) by Yoshiaki Kawajiri

Following a cataclysmic battle with the demon Rebi Ra (Kiyoshi Kobayashi), warrior Genichiro (Banjo Ginga) is defeated and an earthquake separates Shinjuku from the rest of the world. It becomes a place infested with monsters, abandoned by humans, and largely forgotten. Ten years later, Genichiro’s son, Kyoya Izayoi (Hideyuki Hori) is called upon to challenge the demon. The President of the Federation’s daughter Sayaka Rama (Hiromi Tsuru) enters the city and the two must fight their way to the heart of it, meeting friends and foes along the way.

“Demon City Shinjuku” is based on a 1982 novel by Hideyuki Kikuchi. The film, directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri, is replete with monsters and martial arts, while the story is a typical fantasy narrative. Our main character is a wise-cracking playboy prompted to his quest by a spirit guide, he falls for the beautiful princess and they set out to defeat a dark lord. The story is rarely surprising, but on the plus side it is never pretentious. The designs of the demons are good for the most part and the horror elements are well done. Likewise, the deserted city of Shinjuku is atmospheric. The soundtrack is packed with amped up electronica to compliment the action and the headache inducing strobe lighting effects similarly are in keeping with the frenetic pace of the film.

The film ends with a reference to the myth of Pandora’s Box but this is as deep as the film gets. The character of Sayaka overcomes several obstacles through love and purity, in contrast to the horrors of the monster world. An interesting subtext, but one that the film never expands upon. Despite a lack of character depth or surprises in the story, the film works as a cheesy action flick with a couple of good one-liners, some exciting fight scenes, interesting monster design work and solid animation. If you’re feeling nostalgic for the 1980’s or looking for something that is engaging without being overly taxing, then this could be the film for you.

Versus (2000)

Two recently escaped convicts meet up with a group of gangsters who are taking them to safety. After a disagreement regarding a female hostage of the group, one of the men decides to make a run for it, through the woods to freedom. However, these are no ordinary woods. The “Forest of Resurrection”  has the power to bring the dead back to life. What follows is a fight for survival between the convict and his female companion and the men chasing them. In a later twist the man realises that there is a reason why he has been brought back to this particular forest as an ancient adversary returns.

Written by Ryuhei Kitamura and Yudai Yamaguchi the script is a ridiculous blend of Yakuza and Zombie film tropes. The majority of the runtime is dedicated to the action sequences that are the film’s major strength. Essentially a series of fights that are loosely contrived through various characters happening upon one another, there is enough variety to keep them fresh, especially with the zombie element thrown in. The film doesn’t shy away from violence and fans of gore will not be disappointed with the bucket loads of blood, and practical effects for gunshots and other injuries. Decapitation, dismemberment, punching a hole straight through a zombie: all of these are commonplace in a film that doesn’t take itself too seriously. There are moments of intentional slapstick and black humour that lighten the tone. The main issue with the film is that it never quite manages to draw you in on an emotional level, for the most part being surface action and violence. Kitamura’s direction does keep things entertaining, with stylish 360-degree shots, lively editing and some fantastic framing that elevates the film above its basic story. The actors are all well cast and bring their eccentric characters to life, doing a great job with the fight choreography as well as the comedic beats.

“Versus” will appeal to fans of zombie films and the more bizarre yakuza movies, complete with jokes about missing hands, liberal use of violence, increasingly ridiculous guns employed to blast characters out of situations. The film’s own self-awareness of the silliness of its premise along with skilful and stylish direction make this worth a watch for fans of the genre. While there is very little to appeal on a dramatic or story level, the action scenes, with great choreography and practical effects, make for a fun distraction.

Re:Born (2016)

From the opening scene of a special forces team being taken out by a mysterious figure, to the final climactic showdown, “Re:Born” is a martial-arts action film that pulls no punches. Early on in the film we meet Toshiro, who lives a fairly mundane life managing a convenience store and taking care of his niece Sachi. We soon discover that Toshiro has a dark past, possibly in the military, as he tells his psychologist that he has recurring dreams of killing. Soon Toshiro’s peaceful existence is brought to an end when a team of assassins is sent to kill him. We learn that Toshiro, codenamed “Ghost”, used to be a member of this group before splitting with its leader “Phantom”. Now he must fight against his former boss in order to save himself and his niece.

This is a film that knows exactly what it is setting out to do and attacks it with gusto. Director Yuji Shimomura worked previously as a stunt coordinator on a number of films and it shows here with some impressive action and fight sequences. It reminded me of Metal Gear Solid in parts, with the legendary protagonist fighting his way through a group with codenames such as “Newt”, “Fox” and “Abyss Walker”. Early in the film we are given an introduction to the character of Sachi as she carries a dead cat along the road to a beach to bury it, along with some sombre shots and a voice-over discussing the horrors of war. This may lead you to think that this will be a more contemplative film that it turns out to be. In fact, this set-up is only a pre-amble to the main feature which is a string of fight sequences held together with the slim plot of “super soldier getting revenge on former boss”. I didn’t find this too much of a problem, although I would have liked more of the character stuff we see early in the film to carry on through it. However, I can’t complain when they have a sequence of a man taking out a team of soldier with a shovel. Worth noting at this point that the sound design of the film was great, with whistling throwing stars, the metallic clang of aforementioned shovel as it strikes a face, and the usual selection of martial arts weapon noises. Kenji Kawai provides an energetic score that also has its thoughtful moments. There are some great performances by Tak Sakaguchi as Toshiro, the legendary super soldier, Akio Otsuka as Phantom, the leader of this band of mercenaries, and the young Yura Kondo as Sachi. Mariko Shinoda also appears as one of the team sent to kill Toshiro, further expanding her range after her role in Sion Sono’s “Tag”.

Ultimately, the film intends to be nothing more than a solid action film and throws most of its energy into the fight sequences. While the middle part of the film suffers a little, leaving behind characters and plot for the sake of an extended action scene, it cannot be denied that the fantastic choreography, and innovative fighting styles utilising guns, knives and hand-to-hand, does make for an entertaining watch. The film does attempt some message about heroism, but to be honest it is not worth troubling too much about the meaning here. Instead just sit back and enjoy this fun, well-directed, violent martial-arts thriller.