Death at an Old Mansion (1975) by Yoichi Takabayashi

Famed detective Kousuke Kindaichi faces an intellectually challenging mystery in this locked-room crime thriller based on the book “The Honjin Murders” by Seishi Yokomizo. On the wedding night of Kenzo Ichiyanagi (Takahiro Tamura) with his beautiful bride Katsuko (Yuki Mizuhara) they are found dead in a locked outside room, a bloodied katana stuck in the ground outside and a bloody trail of finger marks down one wall. Inspector Isogawa (Eishin Tono) arrives and soon concludes that the killer may be a three-fingered vagrant who appears to bear a grudge against Kenzo. When a friend of the family, Kosuke Kindaichi (Akira Nakao), arrives he turns his attention to the case and soon finds a series of peculiar clues that lead him to a shocking conclusion.

Director Yoichi Takabayashi creates a respectful cinematic version of Seishi Yokomizo’s classic mystery tale. The film follows the traditional whodunnit pattern, and the plot of the novel, with a large cast of characters, including Kenzo’s sister Suzuko (Junko Takazawa) and brother Saburo (Akira Nitta); and Katsuko’s uncle Ginzo (Kunio Kaga). The early scenes of the wedding feast are packed with intrigue, with suspicious glances and tensions bubbling beneath the surface. Takabayashi does a great job with misdirecting the viewer with red herrings before revealing the ingenious, if somewhat improbable, solution to the case. The film leans into the gruesomeness of the crime, with a gory murder scene and brutal slaying. It also relies on flashbacks to the slaying and recreations of what the characters imagined happens. These sepia-toned segments, shorn of dialogue, are a fun way to show the various theories surrounding the deaths of Kenzo and Katsuko.

“Death at an Old Mansion” will appeal to fans of old-school detective tales, with a fun combination of Isogawa’s well-meaning inspector and Kindaichi’s unconventional approach to solving the mystery. The performance by Akira Nakao as the improbable genious detective shows us an ever-active mind, focus trained on minor details that always turn out to be the key to some new revelation. There is also a dark, morbid undertone to the story, which largely keeps the spotlight on the particulars of solving the case. This is achieved through the creative elements such as the occasional shots of the two koto strings ringing in the rain; and also Junko Takazawa’s characterisation of Suzuko, whose fey and childlike character seems to be somehow tenuously balanced between the worlds of the living and the dead. The film does a great job of sticking to the original story, while also embossing it with creative direction, use of colour and artistic elements that evoke a deeper emotional connection to the victims.

Inakunare Gunjo (2019) by Akina Yanagi

Former schoolfriends Nanakusa (Ryusei Yokohama) and Yu Manabe (Marie Iitoyo) find themselves reunited on a mysterious island, not sure how they got there. The island is for people who have been thrown away and the only way to leave is by finding the thing they have lost. This curious mantra is all the inhabitants understand of their bizarre liminal world. The island is perfectly normal in most respects, with everyday services in operation: a school for the students; dormitories for housekeepers. There is even a postal system. Certain fantastical elements include an eternal staircase which supposedly leads to a witch on the mountain who is able to answer any question. Unlike the others who are happy to remain there, Yu wants to leave the island and soon recruits her fellow students in a plan to escape.

“Inakunare, Gunjo” (English: “Go Away, Ultramarine”), written by Minato Takano, from a novel by Yutaka Kono, and directed by Akina Yanagi, offers an interesting twist on the standard high-school romance drama. The mystery of the island is intriguing, inviting speculation as to why these people are there and whether and how escape might be possible. The complete normality of their surroundings gives things a familiar feel despite the odd situation, a subtly disturbing undertone to the typical high-school setting. The story is chaptered, layering the mystery with each new twist, as they try to uncover the nature of the island. The secret is resolved towards the end in an unambiguous but suitably ambivalent way, offering a complete explanation but one which some may find unsatisfactory. The film occasionally seems trapped by its high-school romance plot and fails to develop the more interesting concepts suggested by its premise. The films location offers the perfect backdrop, a quaint seaside town with the endless stretch of ocean nearby isolating the characters in this small community, while showing the unreachable horizons, and ragged natural beauty that surrounds them. The actors all do a good job with their characters, leads Ryusei Yokohama and Marie Iitoyo have good chemistry and their relationship is relatable.

The central mystery of this film is well disguised and I would suggest watching the film before reading this to avoid spoilers. We discover at the end of the film that the island is not inhabited by real people, but instead by the parts of people’s personalities they have thrown away. With a change in circumstances, maturing, or willfully, people may discard parts of themselves they no longer need. This fascinating psychological idea, of an island inhabited by the unwanted psychological baggage of individuals, is not developed to its full potential in the film. Confusing the issue further it is hard to see exactly what is wrong with most people on the island, making you wonder why this would be the part of their personality they would abandon. The film is engaging as a romantic drama, but it would have been interesting to see these deeper psychological themes developed. Well worth a watch if you are looking for something a little different.

A Girl Missing (2019) by Koji Fukada

A woman is tortured by regrets in this mysterious thriller from Harmonium director Koji Fukada. Ichiko Shirakawa (Mariko Tsutsui) works as a home care nurse. As well as looking after the elderly Toko Oishi (Hisako Okata) she also tutors her two grandchildren, Motoko (Mikako Ichikawa) and Saki (Miyu Ozawa). When Saki is kidnapped and later returns, Ichiko is shocked to learn that the kidnapper was somebody close to her. Deciding not to tell Saki’s mother, she later comes to regret the secrets she has kept as she is harassed by the media, forcing her out of her job. Ichiko later begins a relationship with a man named Yoneda (Sosuke Ikematsu) who may also have a connection to the Oishi family.

Writer and director Koji Fukada (Harmonium) again creates a unique crime drama in which the focus is not on the crime itself, but on the lives it impacts. We learn little about the kidnapping, the motivation behind it, or exactly what happened to Saki. Ichiko is drawn into the emotional vortex caused by the incident, a scapegoat for everyone’s anger and confusion; and it is her struggle that we bear witness too. The film begins with Ichiko having changed her appearance and beginning a friendship with a Yoneda, who works as a hairdresser. As the story moves back and forth between the present and the past, the mystery is built up layer on layer, with more unanswered questions arising with each twist. It seems that we are always just on the cusp of some major revelation that remains out of reach. The film is understated, creating a slow burn tension as we see the characters spark off each other. Fukada is a writer who is comfortable to let things go unsaid or wrap them in metaphor and mystery. “A Girl Missing” pulls the rug out from under us by providing a crime set-up and then turning the camera away from the facts surrounding the case to instead focus on a character who has little direct involvement with the crime. This may prove frustrating to some, but works beautifully as a complex character study. The excellent performances, especially from Mariko Tsutsui and Mikako Ichikawa help to bring the film to life, both giving engaging performances as women dealing with difficult situations. Tsutsui shows us the slow deterioration of a woman who feels resentful at being unfairly targeted by those looking for someone to blame. Mikako Ichikawa is a sphinx-like in her portrayal of Motoko, harbouring her own secrets and shame. Fukada’s direction manages to create drama from a film that is largely comprised of dialogues. There are several stylish touches, such as the smoke rising early in the film, or the empty house towards the end, that show a knack for visual storytelling, capturing tone and theme simply yet effectively. While the film is largely realist, the occasional moments of avante garde expressionism fit perfectly in this world that seems slightly out of the ordinary, like looking at our society through a distorted mirror.

“A Girl Missing” is an unsettling watch, detailing the descent into paranoia and anxiety of an innocent woman beset by feelings of unnecessary guilt. It speaks to a society where shame and opprobrium are often levelled at those least deserving. The discussion between Ichiko and Motoko, sharing their tales of covert sexual behaviour provides perhaps the clearest key to understanding what the film is about. Society tells people to hide their shame regarding sex, causing later subconscious traumas for those who repress their feelings and instincts. There is discussion of the possible rape of Saki which highlights the dangers associated with a society where these behaviours are rarely discussed. Saki is unwilling to share what happened to her and this fear of speaking out, often through shame, is just one danger of a society which rarely wants to confront its own nature. The film shows us a media who are desperate for an easy answer, to wrap the case up, perhaps unaware that there is genuine suffering and emotional pain that cannot be so easily dealt with. The film’s major strength is that we never learn what happened to Saki; and we never learn the truth about Ichiko’s story. It leaves us with the uncomfortable realisation that humans will continue to mistreat one another; and that we will never fully understand each other or human psychology unless we are truly open to examining it without prejudice. The focus on the details of these cases blind us to the truth that we are all capable of causing pain. The immaterial specifics often distract us from dealing with our own sense of shame, guilt, and fear that drives these harmful behaviours.

Gantz: Perfect Answer (2011) by Shinsuke Sato

Following on from the first Gantz film, we pick up the story of Kei Kurono (Kazunari Ninomiya) as he continues fighting aliens, trying to collect enough points to resurrect his friend Masaru Kato (Kenichi Matsuyama. This film adds more mystery to the central plot, with a girl carrying a small Gantz-like orb that tells her to kill various people (referring to them as keys), a group of black-suited men attempting to track down Gantz, and a detective also attempting to unravel the secrets of the various incidents occurring around the city.

If you enjoyed the first Gantz movie, this one offers more of the same. The new additions to the story are good for the most part, further pulling the rug from under your feet if you thought you had a handle on what was happening in the first movie. There are some fantastic action sequences here too, with long fight scenes on a train and in the city streets taking up a large chunk of the run-time. I felt that these suffered from being a little over-long, and not having the same sense of fun or originality as the first film (an onion alien is a much funnier and unique concept than men in black suits). We see a little more of Kurono and his girlfriend Tae Kojima here, and also learn more about Kato. I didn’t feel entirely satisfied with the ending to this film. It brings things to a conclusion, but in a way that still leaves many things unanswered.

This film plays more on the interpersonal relationships of the protagonists, there are some great moments of sacrifice, team-work, and the ending is a nice way to round off the series with the idea that even ordinary people can achieve extra-ordinary things if they try. A fun “part two” to the first film, and I would definitely recommend it as an action packed science fiction film with a great sense of style.

Gantz (2010) by Shinsuke Sato

On his way to a job interview university student Kei Kurono (Kazunari Ninomiya) sees an old school friend, Masaru Kato (Kenichi Matsuyama), attempting to rescue a man who has fallen onto the subway tracks. After attempting to pull his friend back up onto the platform the two of them are hit by a train and killed, but instead of everything going dark, they wake up in a bright apartment room with a view of Tokyo Tower. There are several other people in the room, as well as a mysterious black orb. The orb, known as Gantz, tells them that they are dead, and their lives are now his to command. He orders them on various missions to kill aliens, handing out weapons and suits that give them super-human strength and speed. Kurono and Kato, alongside a girl named Kishimoto (Natsuna), and the others who have found themselves in the room are sent to various locations to destroy the aliens, and awarded points for their performances. Prizes are awarded for certain amounts of points, the most sought after being the chance to return to life.

Based on the popular manga by Hiroya Oku, “Gantz” is a great example of a beautifully simple mystery. Everything that is happening is made explicit, but without ever really explaining why it is happening. The central conceit, that the protagonists are dead already, leads to a surprising amount of tension, as you root for them to be returned to their lives, or discover what is going on with Gantz and the room. Excellent costume design and special effects make this an enjoyable watch and the action scenes are highly entertaining spectacles. The main criticisms I would have of the film is that it leaves a lot for the audience to piece together on very little information. Either you will learn to accept that what is going on is intended to be a fun, enjoyable action film, with an inexplicable plot; or it will seem as though the writer didn’t know how to tie up this fantastic mystery he had set up. There are huge amounts of gore and violence in the film, with bodies exploding, and deaths aplenty. The film is the first of two-parts, so you could see this more as a set-up explaining the basics of the world, and get you hooked into the bizarre world of Gantz.

There are some interesting ideas at play here. The first time you see the players transported to the Gantz room, it is intriguing enough to carry almost the entire film, as you keep watching to find out how they explain such an odd occurrence. The notion that there are hidden aliens, and the constant niggling suspicions around who or what the aliens are, whether the players are really alive or dead, are engaging. One of the most interesting ideas presented, though not particularly dwelt upon, is the notion that perhaps the aliens are not the bad guys after all, and the players are being tricked into killing innocent beings. Overall an enjoyable watch, though it spends more time on the action scenes and less on the philosophy or morality of what’s happening.