Paranoia Agent (2004)

A series of interconnected stories tied together by the sinister figure of a roller-blading, bat-wielding assailant known as “Lil’ Slugger” (Daisuke Sakaguchi). The series begins with Tsukiko Sagi (Mamiko Noto), who designs a popular character named Maromi (Haruko Momoi), a pink cartoon dog; a mascot who becomes something of a talisman for her company and their most popular character. She is soon under pressure to create another success on that level, and while walking home is attacked by an shadowy figure wearing golden rollerblades and swinging a golden bat. As she recovers in the hospital, two detectives, Keiichi Ikari (Shozo Iizuka) and Mitsuhiro Maniwa (Toshihiko Seki) are put on the case, tracking down the young boy believed to be responsible for the assault. Throughout the series we are introduced to various characters, each of which suffer some kind of trauma, paranoia, fear, or stress, and all of whom are targeted by the mysterious figure of Lil’ Slugger.

Directed and co-written by Satoshi Kon (Perfect Blue, Tokyo Godfathers), the film has a dark tone throughout, dealing with themes of violence, suicide, abuse, and having realistic and unsympathetic characters. Black humour is often used to alleviate some of the tension, but the overwhelming sensation while watching will be one of confusion. The stories often seem to break down into dream-sequences or other surreal moments, feature characters whose fragile psyches seem to be collapsing as the plot progresses. It becomes clear early on that this is not a straightforward mystery, and that there may be a supernatural or psychological element to the story. I was concerned that the ending would be a let-down, considering the fantastic premise and set-up, but I was not disappointed. There is a sense of fulfilment at the end of the story, a sort of catharsis for the characters, and the whole thing ties together thematically, if not strictly logically. The script is excellent, building up a sense of real characters, living in surreal circumstances, with great voice acting by the whole cast. Some episodes in particular are inspired, such as the episode centred on an animation studio and the various jobs that entails. Emphasising the dualistic nature of the series, the score by Susumu Hirasawa is likewise ominous and cheery by turns. It is best to go into this show not knowing too much about it, as there are some great twists and turns.

The series deals with some very serious themes, depression, anxiety, suicide, mental disorders, as well as painting a picture of a dysfunctional society. The character of Lil’ Slugger is left somewhat open to interpretation, as a psychological phenomenon conjured from the fevered imaginings of the protagonists, or as an elemental force that descends on people who are feeling life is too much for them. I would highly recommend this series to anyone who enjoys psychological horror, mystery, and something that will have you scratching your head throughout attempting to figure out the significance of it all.

Spiral (2000) by Higuchinsky

As Kirie (Eriko Hatsune) is on her way to school she notices her friend Shuichi’s father apparently fixated on the spiral pattern of a snail shell. The man’s interest in spirals soon becomes an obsession and Kirie begins to see other occurrences of this phenomenon. At first thinking it a ridiculous oddity, she soon becomes worried and terror begins to set in when several people die in gruesome circumstances related to the spiral pattern.

“Spiral” is based on the manga “Uzumaki” by horror master Junji Ito, with a screenplay by Takao Niita. Director Higuchinsky creates a strange and disturbing experience that blends several genres, from blackly comic thrills to grotesque body horror, to the psychological terror of avant-garde arthouse films. The cinematography by Gen Kobayashi is in a washed out tone that heightens the sense of unreality. The film feels staged or dated in a way that is unsettling, almost as though it is happening in a parallel world where everything is ever so slightly off-kilter. The story is compelling, despite the unbelievable premise, and the grotesque nature of the deaths is genuinely shocking. The script is simple yet effective in showing everything but explaining nothing, leaving the meaning entirely up to the imagination of the viewer. Eriko Hatsune as Kirie and Fhi Fan as Shuichi, are charismatic and do a great job with the material, playing things completely straight throughout increasingly bizarre occurrences. Keiichi Suzuki and Tetsuro Kashibuchi create a score that complements the odd, dreamlike sensibilities of the story, limping from comic accompaniment to dark oppressive tones.

The film’s strength lies in never fully explaining what is happening, or why, with several possible interpretations swirling around. The spirals provoke a dangerous obsession in those who are afflicted and this is the most simplistic reading of the plot: as a straightforward morality tale on the dangers of obsession causing people to lose sight of their lives and become so consumed that it finally kills them. There is also a darker reading related to mental health issues, particularly depression and anxiety leading to a decent into an increasingly troubling, pessimistic, and all-consuming world view. The idea of the spiral, particularly a downward spiral, bring to mind primal fears such as these, and for this reason the film grows more unsettling when picking apart the potential themes. This will appeal to fans of over-the-top horror and psychological horror alike, with a unique story that draws you in to contemplating the significance of the spirals along with the characters.

Cold Fish (2010) by Sion Sono

Nobuyuki Shamoto (Mitsuru Fukikoshi) is the owner of a small fish store. Together with his wife, Taeko (Megumi Kagurazaka), and wayward daughter, Mitsuko (Hikari Kajiwara), they maintain a fairly unimpressive existence. When his daughter is caught stealing from a supermarket, she is helped out by Yukio Murata (Denden), a rival fish store owner who offers her a job at his store. Murata is comical, arrogant, outgoing, everything Shamoto is not. But soon things take a turn for the worse when Shamoto discovers that Murata’s jolly façade hides a much darker, violent character.

The film is well written with the mysteries surrounding Murata and the psychological and physical violence building to a screaming crescendo in the final act. It is far from an easy watch, with scenes of rape, abuse and very graphic scenes of dismemberment, but with director Sion Sono’s trademark black humour running through it. The main actors are fantastic. Fukikoshi does a great job of portraying the timid, disgusted Shamoto, and he does an incredible job of making this unimaginable transformation believable. The unhinged couple of Murata and his wife, a delightfully unhinged performance from Asuka Kurosawa, are also genuinely chilling with sudden changes from bright humour to dark violent moods. The film is long but almost every scene, whether the visceral, violent murders or the sharp dialogue are riveting. Shiya Kimura’s cinematography is stunning and the film almost revels in creating something beautiful out of a subject matter that is dark and nihilistic. The music by Tomohide Harada helps increase the sense of danger and draw you into the film.

“Cold Fish” may appeal to lovers of gore and exploitation cinema, and there is no shortage of shocking scenes, but, the film also expresses an underlying philosophy of alienation and nihilism that means the violence is far from gratuitous. The dissociative, sadomasochistic characters act in a world where the violence serves to puncture a sense of ennui which plagues them otherwise. The film offers no easy answers with the finale being an increasingly sickening display of human psychopathy. If you are a fan of this genre of blackly comedic, hyper-violent thrillers, then this is definitely a recommended watch. Enjoyably disturbing film.

Creepy (2016)

A retired police officer, Koichi Takakura (Hidetoshi Nishijima) working as a lecturer is brought back into his old job when he learns of a mysterious unsolved crime. The crime involves the disappearance of three members of a family, leaving only a young daughter. Takakura has recently moved into a new house with his wife Yasuko (Yuko Takeuchi) and their dog. When the couple make a courtesy visit to their neighbour they meet the unusual figure of Masayuki Nishino (Teruyuki Kagawa). The man seems unusual, but the two ignore it. However, his behaviour soon leads Takakura to suspect that Nishino may not be all that he seems.

The film is based on a book by Yutaka Maekawa with a screenplay by director Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Chihiro Ikeda. The plot begins as a simple crime mystery but morphs into a psychological horror. It is clear early on in the film that Nishino is a suspicious character, and this is made explicit before too long. From there the film becomes a nightmarish situation for Takakura as he faces his greatest fear: of being helpless or unable to stop terrible things happening. Kurosawa creates a tension throughout the film using uncomfortable scenarios, particularly between Nishino and Yasuko. The blend of traditional detective drama and horror is subtle yet engaging with an unexpected twist partway through. Hidetoshi Nishijima and Yuko Takeuchi are believable as a couple with relationship troubles bubbling under the surface. Teruyuki Kagawa is impressively sinister as Nishino, often needing no more than a look or a word to give off a sense of uncertainty about his motivations.

“Creepy” transforms a typical detective story into something that plays on primal fears in a way that is unique and highly unnerving. In the opening scenes of the film Takakura allows a man under interrogation to escape and he subsequently commits a murder. This failure haunts him throughout the film. It is a feeling of powerlessness that is terrifying. The film manipulates many events to this end which may lead to accusations of plot holes and unbelievable scenarios. Understanding that the film’s focus is not on the surface level investigation, but on exploring Takakura’s own psyche is key to fully comprehending what is happening. When Nishino begins hitting on Yasuko and invites her to his house, it is representative of the atavistic fear of Takakura that he may lose his wife. This dynamic is brought back again later in the film when she is asked to choose between the two men. The film essentially becomes a struggle for dominance and control. One man appears to be losing his power to control his life and events surrounding him, while the other seems able to commit almost any act without consequence. There is also a dark undercurrent of inexplicable evil, reminiscent of other Kurosawa films such as “Cure”. Takakura tells his students that there are several kinds of killer; and that sometimes there is no explanation for their crimes. This is the most horrifying thought of all: that there are things out there that we cannot understand and therefore cannot control. An interesting take on the detective thriller genre with more going on just under the surface.

Bilocation (2013)

Bilocation is the supernatural phenomenon whereby an individual appears in two places at the same time. Artist Shinobu (Asami Mizukawa) is hard at work trying to finish a painting of the view from her balcony when the doorbell to her apartment rings. The man at the door is Masaru (Yosuke Asari), a blind man who has just moved into her block. After meeting Shinobu the two get married. It is at this point Shinobu’s life changes course, she explains, and we are soon to find out that is in more ways than one. On a trip to the supermarket she is brought up by the check-out staff who tell her that not only was she there 10 minutes prior, but is attempting to use an identical bank note to pay. Suspecting fraud they call in the police. The policeman turns out to be part of a group investigating bilocation and invites Shinobu to their group. Each member is suffering the same problem with a mysterious double appearing at intervals and interfering with their lives. These doppelgangers grow increasingly dangerous as the group works to understand them and then to stop them.

“Bilocation” is based on a novel by Haruka Hojo, with a screenplay by director Mari Asato. It is an intriguing concept on which to base a supernatural horror, with the eerie sense of being followed and the secondary fear of having another being living out your life providing ample chills. The film blends the best elements of creepy ghost stories and mystery dramas, relying heavily on a sense of foreboding and the occasional shock tactics as one of the bilocations appears suddenly. There are several plot turns layered so that even if one is obvious it is unlikely audiences will fully unravel the mystery until the end. There are a few moments that require some suspension of disbelief in order to sustain the conceit, but the film’s greatest strength is in using the central idea of bilocation to explore more primal fears and take a look at the psychology of the individuals affected. Asami Mizukawa gives a great central performance as Shinobu, whose journey from baffled to worried to outraged gives the audience much to enjoy. The film in a similar way shifts gears from suspense to action, constantly wrongfooting the audience. The camerawork in the film shows a deep understanding of horror conventions. A particularly standout scene comes early in the film when the camera drifts from Shinobu to an empty hallway, the importance of this shot only becoming clear later.

The phenomenon of bilocation almost predetermines themes of identity and duality. For Shinobu the true horror of having this double is her loss of self. She becomes increasingly annoyed at the thought of someone else taking her place. There is a deeper significance to this, made apparent by the use of reflections in mirrors and pools of water, which is the notion of self as a constructed reality. What Shinobu sees in the mirror is what everyone around her sees and recognizes as “Shinobu”, but that is far from a complete picture of who she is as a person. There is a horror of the loss of individuality and the idea that you could be easily replaced that will resonate with most people. Through the side characters other themes are explored that hinge on this. The mother whose double takes her sickly child from the hospital, or the man whose bilocation assaults a co-worker losing him his job. This plays to a fear of loss on a more tangible level than Shinobu’s loss of self-image, but helps to emphasise the significance of what is happening. A secondary reading of the film is that the bilocations are representative of something that is kept hidden within the individual. This is most apparent in the police officer Kano (Kenichi Takito), whose double seems to be an expression of his ego, or base instincts, lashing out indiscriminately. Beneath the veneer of civilised society there are atavistic ulterior characters lurking in everyone. A simple yet brilliant concept that lends itself to various psychological interpretations.