My World (2021) by Murantin.

A man (Yoshitaka Ishizuka) wakes up naked in a park. Gathering his clothes from nearby he wanders the streets of an eerie uninhabited world. He seems drawn to a library and when he leaves he looks up at the night sky to see planet earth above him. Later he meets a schoolgirl (Yuka Funahashi) who takes him back to her home. She treats him kindly, feeding him and playing Othello with him, but handcuffs him up in the basement when her boyfriend is coming round. Later the man sees another woman (Misato Akizawa) in a red dress at the library, which stirs memories that threaten to expose dark secrets and unravel the mysteries of this strange world.

“My World” is much like seeing the scattered pieces of a puzzle and being asked to reconstruct the narrative from them. It sets up several intriguing mysteries, adding a few more as things progress. Why is he waking up naked in the park? Why is the world apparently uninhabited besides him and a couple of other people? Who are the girl and the woman in the red dress? All of these questions are answered throughout the film, but it requires concentration to put it all together. On occasion the film slips into more abstract, art-house territory, a visceral, emotional jolt that keys us in to the fact that things perhaps aren’t meant to be taken literally. The film plays with space and time, creating this liminal dimension where we are as disoriented as the protagonist, not sure whether he is alive or dead, awake or dreaming. The soundtrack by Hisayuki Ishikura captures the bizarre, otherworldy tone perfectly, a blend of industrial electronica, and percussion that could almost be the protagonists psyche leaking into the score, at times a scramble of freestyle drumming and at others a sinister metronomic click-clock. The actors do a good job with their characters who remain mysterious but with enough depth to make them engaging.

The film is a fantastic mystery-box for those who enjoy analysing and picking apart clues in the visuals and dialogue. While much of the puzzle is explained, not explicitly but with enough information to grasp what is happening, it does leave a number of things open to speculation. There is a psychological element to the film, with the ‘world’ that the man finds himself in being partly of his own construction. As a short film, just over an hour, it is an entertaining watch, moving along briskly enough that there is always something new to concentrate on. There are also many memorable moments, almost dreamlike in their effect, such as the image of earth hanging silently in the night sky, and the more arthouse moments with the protagonist in a stark white space. Definitely worth checking out if you are a fan of this kind of surreal, arthouse mystery.

Kyoshin (2021) by Keiichi Higuchi

Takehiko (Akihiro Yamamoto) is an incredibly sensitive empath: a man capable of physically experiencing the pain others are suffering. Following a traumatic incident in which Takehiko and a friend (Keisuke Soma) were witness to a violent rape, he finds himself unable to masturbate without severe physical pain. He decides to participate in an experimental therapy. The therapist Shiori (Mitsuki Moriyama) is also an empath, with a traumatic history of her own, and the two of them work together through a series of sessions, often erotically charged, in an attempt to separate Takehiko’s own feelings from those of others. Shiori has been helped by her boss (Kimika Yoshino) with whom she is also romantically involved.  Meanwhile, Takehiko’s elder brother (Daichi Yamaguchi) is struggling to please his boss who sees his attempts to help his brother as unecessary coddling of him.

Written and directed by Keiichi Higuchi, “Kyoshin” is a psychological thriller with dark themes of depression, rape, sucide and trauma. Early in the film Takehiko references the 27 club, a group of famous singers who all died at that age. Being 26 himself he wonders if he will make it through his next year. The world of “Kyoshin” is a disturbing one, filled with suffering, death, sexual abuse, and one that someone who can feel the physical pain of others would find hard to live in. The film does a good job of making the concept of this kind of empath believable, even when Takeru is able to feel the physical pain of objects such as a can being crushed. The clinical setting of Shiori and Takehiko’s sessions somehow heightens the eroticism and sense of threat, magnifying the intensity of the emotions by placing them in such a cold, institutional space. The story is unconventional and often experimental in style, drifting into sequences that appear to be set inside Takehiko’s psych. There are a number of things in the film that are left ambiguous and it offers few easy answers to either what is happening or any possible solution. The whole cast do an incredible job in creating believable characters, in the case of Yamamoto and Moriyama they manage to convey a palpable frisson of sexual tension and also pain in their scenes together. Daichi Yamaguchi also excels as Takehiko’s elder brother, whose miserable existence, being constantly harrassed by his boss, and his love for his brother makes him a hugely sympathetic character. In a film that is all about interpersonal relationships and the distance between people, Higuchi’s direction, the framing of scenes and blocking of actors, manages to convey these things subtly and without drawing too much attention to them. Again, particularly in the scenes with Takehiko and Shiori where we see her moving behind him, or circling around him, there is a sense of their relationship developing.

Many films take as their theme the modern fascination with alienation, people who have lost all connection to the world or ability to feel anything. “Kyoshin” looks at things from the other angle and asks what would happen if someone were able to feel too much. With a protagonist who suffers all the evils and harms of the world as if they were happening to him. While the empathic condition depicted may be an exaggeration it is nevertheless a perfect representation of conditions such as anxiety or post-traumatic stress, which may cause similar feelings of distress when being confronted with dangerous situations. The complete disregard and lack of understanding his elder brother’s boss shows to this situation is also a sad indictment of much of societies apathy to mental health issues and sufferers. Takehiko is largely left to suffer alone. The subject matter, including sexual assault and suicide mean it is not always an easy watch, but they are handled delicately in a powerful film that has an important message about mental health.

Over Your Dead Body (2014) by Takashi Miike

Dreams and reality begin to merge during preparations for a stage production of a popular ghost story. Miyuki (Ko Shibasaki) and Kosuke (Ebizo Ichikawa) are playing the lead roles of Iwa and Iemon in a production of “Yotsuya Kwaidan”, one of Japan’s most famous ghost stories. The story is one of infidelity and revenge which seems to have a peculiar resonance with Kosuke’s own life as he begins an affair with another actress. He starts to experience strange visions as Miyuki’s behaviour becomes more erratic.

“Over Your Dead Body”, written by Kikumi Yamagishi and directed by Takashi Miike, focusses on the central story of “Yotsuya Kwaidan”. While the story is famous in Japan, it may not have the same resonance in other parts of the world. The film assumes a certain degree of knowledge of this tale, showing large parts of the play they are performing and scenes that are not always explained or run consecutively, which can make little sense if you don’t know who the protagonists are or what is happening. The sequences of the performance are so beautifully shot on exquisite sets that you could quite happily have watched the play itself without the modern take on it. “Yotsuya Kwaidan” features a vengeful female spirit who seeks justice for her untimely death on her former lover. This film takes that premise and mixes in the idea that the actors are going through the same story as the characters, again in the expectation that you are aware of the original. The music by Koji Endo features traditional instrumentation of string and percussion that creates that eerie ghost story feel. It is rarely excessively gory instead relying more on creepy moments such as the slow realisation of a figure standing in the dark, or unnatural occurrences.

Life imitating art is an interesting theme, but unfortunately the film doesn’t make the most of its premise. In utilising so much of the stage performance of “Yotsuya Kwaidan”, while also telling the story of Kosuke and Miyuki we end up not really getting a satisfactory version of each, too little of the performance for it to make sense and too little of the actors to feel fully attached to their plight. Early on we see the various production staff watching the stage, but the film seems to offer little commentary on much of what is happening. That is not to say that it is not entertaining, there is plenty here to thrill fans of sinister ghost stories, and it is a unique way to tell the story, but it fails to go deeper than pure entertainment.

Homunculus (2021) by Takashi Shimizu

Susumu Nakoshi (Go Ayano) is suffering from amnesia, homeless and living out of his car, when a strange man named Ito Manabu Ito (Ryo Narita) taps on his window. Ito asks Nakoshi for seven days in which to change his life and give him something to live for. Nakoshi goes along with Ito, who tells him his plan to conduct an experiment: to drill a small hole in the front of his skull and see if he experiences any supernatural abilities. Nakoshi agrees to the trepanation and soon finds himself able to see the inner form of people, their deepest traumas. These take the form of a homunculus, which can appear in any shape relative to the trauma the person has experienced, from bizarre monster-lie figures, to more abstract manifestations. Nakoshi sets out with his newfound ability and manages to help some individuals, but things take a dark turn when he is forced to confront a trauma from his own past.

“Homunculus” is based on a manga by Hideo Yamamoto (Ichi the Killer) and directed by Takashi Shimizu (Reincarnation). A dark fantasy, toying with elements of psychological horror and traditional monsters in the form of the homunculus, it is an intriguing premise and the scenes where Nakoshi wanders the streets of Kabukicho seeing the various representations of inner turmoil, with some very inventive designs, is fun to watch. It would have been great to delve into more character’s psyches, but with the constraints of a film’s running time we are limited to only a handful of problems for Nakoshi to solve. The special effects on the homunculi are mostly good, showcasing a variety of creative designs. The homunculus comprised entirely of an ever shifting torrent of jewellery charms was particularly unique. The film touches on a number of dark issues, in particular violence and sexual violence. It is a film that also has a number of uncomfortable moments that will no doubt spark debate or contemplation, mostly concerning the schoolgirl character, where the film leaves perhaps a little too much unsaid about the intended message. The acting by Ayano and Narita is exceptional, giving themselves over to the weirdness of the premise and making it as believable as it can be. Shimizu’s stylish modern direction, using text message overlays for example, brings us right into the story in  visually interesting way.

The film offers a unique look at psychological trauma, by turning it into something tangible in order to tackle it. We see that behaviours are conditioned by past actions and how these inner sufferings are often hidden from the rest of the world. While it deals with difficult subjects of mental health, sexual abuse, violence, neglect, suicide, miscarriage, death, and other issues, it smuggles these things in to a story that on the surface is a straightforward supernatural mystery. The blend of supernatural and psychological is an interesting one, drawing comparisons between ancient belief systems of spirits and modern science around neuropathy. The film touches also on ideas of ethics in science. A fun adventure drawing on mythology and psychology to deliver a fascinating look at the inner-workings of the human mind.

964 Pinnochio (1991) by Shozin Fukui

A nightmarish near-future cyberpunk with a heady mix of sex and violence. An underground organization throw out one of the sex slaves they have created due to his inability to perform. Stripped of his memory, ability to communicate, and any sense of purpose, this man (Haji Suzuki) wanders aimless until he is picked up by a young woman, Himiko (Onn-chan). She is creating maps of the city for those who have lost their memories to allow people to live without their memories. Himiko takes in this unfortunate creation, whom she names Pinnochio (964 being a reference to his product number). Realising that Pinnochio is not dead as they had expected, those who created him set out to recover their product. Meanwhile, Himiko and Pinnochio both seem to be experiencing psychotic episodes as their realities collapse into a twisted maelstrom of torture.

Written and directed by Shozin Fukui, “964 Pinnochio” is a work that draws on horror, surreal arthouse moments, and earlier science-fiction tropes. Naming the creation Pinnochio is no coincidence as this is a man who has been cut loose from his narrowly defined role and left to find his own way. He is also reminiscent of Frankenstein’s monster as an abominable creation who nevertheless has some semblance of spirit that is trying to find release from his bodily prison. A fantastic example of the cyberpunk genre, with strobe lighting, stop motion, speeded up footage and extreme close-ups provoking that physical response that the best horror does. The film seems intent on making the audience squirm, with an extended sequence of vomiting, gory closeups that blur the line between eroticism and horror, and moments such as a character drooling into a bowl of cherries, all intended to cause revulsion. The film’s contemporary or near future setting, with little to visually distinguish it as in any way technologically advanced, nevertheless does a great job of making the familiar unfamiliar. The backdrop of industrial decay, bleak urban landscapes of concrete and smoke, creates an oppressive atmosphere that draws out the themes of dehumanisation. The sound design of buzzing strip lights and the hollow echo of these cold spaces similarly creates a feeling of anxiety and isolation; of the living characters being trapped in a world of uncaring technology and the slow yet inevitable entropy around them. The film will not be for everyone and while there is a lot to recommend it there are certainly moments that drag it down. Several scenes go on far longer than is necessary to get the point across. In particular the vomiting and a running sequence near the end of the film feel overlong. There is also a subplot involving an employee of the company adopting a child, and later kidnapping a young girl. This is given little time in the film and seems like an idea that would have been interesting to develop, in relation to Himiko and Pinnochio’s relationship, and ideas of care and control.

The film is rough around the edges which adds to its charm. The central story of a creation being cast out and finding out about itself and the world is a solid hook on which to hang the outrageous and provocative creativity of the director. While “964 Pinnochio” is full of shocking moments, this poignant journey of the protagonist is enough to keep the audience engaged and rooting for him. There is an interesting detail later in the film with Pinnochio chained to a large pyramidal object, perhaps representing something like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and his search for self-actualisation above and beyond the base function of his programming; it also may be a metaphor for the psychological burden that he is dragging around with him. The scene in the scrapyard between Himiko and Pinnochio is an evocative moment, with the two characters literally thrown out from normal society. Like all good cyberpunk “964 Pinnochio” champions the underdog, the dregs of society, the apparently worthless and unloved. A prime example of the cyberpunk genre that hauls you through hell to deliver a deeper message on human suffering and the treatment of the lowest in society.