Bitter Honey (2016) by Gakuryu Ishii

An aging writer (Ren Osugi) finds solace in his pet goldfish, anthropomorphised as a beautiful and flighty young woman in red (played by Fumi Nikaido). The two of them enjoy a curious relationship, with a frisson of sexual tension, and the goldfish, named Akako, also begins to explore the world on her own. Akako comes across a woman in white, named Lady Tamura (Yoko Maki), who she believes to be the ghost of a former lover of her master. The writer is also visited by the late author Ryunosuke Akutagawa (Kora Kengo), his literary rival. The writer’s flights of fancy slowly begin to consume him, perhaps as an escape from his recent terminal diagnosis as he nears his last days.

Based on a 1959 novel by Muro Saisei, with a screenplay by Takehiko Minato, “Bitter Honey” is a bizarre magical realist fable that draws no line between the real world and that of the imagination. The opening scene shows the writer and the woman in red together, he writing, her lounging, and aside from a few subtle hints in the score and dialogue it does not become clear that she is in fact a goldfish until the end of the scene. The film continues in this illogical, dream-like manner, treating Akako as a human, even to the point of her having conversations with others, while we know that she is a fish. The anthropomorphic nature of her character is incredibly powerful as the audience comes to care about Akako, her desires, her frustrations with the writer, and her relationship with other non-existent (in a real sense) people, such as Lady Tamura. Of course rationally both her and Lady Tamura can only exist in the imagination of the writer, something he alludes to later in the film, but it is still enjoyable to watch Nikaido’s performance as the bouncy, youthful goldfish, and it raises the question of free will and control in an interesting twist on a common trope in relationship dramas. The dance that Akako performs throughout is perfect in capturing the character of a goldfish, billowing tail and flowing movements. Ishii’s direction is excellent, staging the drama beautifully and, along with Norimichi Kasamatsu’s luxuriant cinematography, stunning set design and use of colour, emphasizing the sense of being lost in a fantastical dreamworld. Toshiyuki Mori’s score and the sound design perfectly compliment this stylish direction, humourous, melancholic, and with effects sounding like water droplets when Akako is on screen.

“Bitter Honey” has a surreal, folkloric atmopshere that is enjoyable to watch, helped by excellent performances by Ren Osugi and Fumi Nikaido. The plot is relatively thin and, much like in a dream, there are elements that don’t always connect perfectly with one another. The most obvious reading of what is happening is that the author, realising he does not have long left, is working on a story about his pet goldfish, imagining her as a young woman; while at the same time he reminisces about his relationship with fellow author Akutagawa and the mysterious Lady Tamura. The lines between reality and fiction are blurred by having Akako act independently, becoming a player in the drama in her own right. The relationship between the writer and Akako is genuinely moving, and the strongest element of the film, suggesting a lack of distinction between the real and the fantastical, or at least diminishing the importance of such a distinction. The film also comments on the struggles of the author, who always felt second best against the acclaimed Akutagawa, but for the most part it remains almost light-hearted as he enjoys an imaginary relationship with Akako. An entertaining magical-realist tale about an old man and his cherished pet goldfish.

The Guard from Underground (1992) by Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Akiko Narushima (Makiko Kuno) is on her way to a new job as an art appraiser at a large company. At the same time another new employee appears, the mysterious Fujimaru (Yutaka Matsuhige), to join the security guard team in the building. The towering, terrifying figure of Fujimaru soon begins a murderous rampage, killing off a fellow security guard and members of staff. Akiko finds herself in a fight for survival agains this killer on the loose and also battling the unwanted advances of her superior, Kurume (Ren Osugi), in this satirical slasher.

“The Guard from Underground”, directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa and written by Kurosawa with Kunihiro Tomioka, is a typical horror film, with a satirical self-awareness of its inherent silliness. There is no explanation given for Fujimaru’s actions, other than a rather cryptic proclamation by him late in the film. Instead we have all the elements familiar to old-fashioned monster movies but with a modern twist. Instead of a monster we have the figure of Fujimaru, distorting the image of the helpful security man to a figure of terror and danger; the damsel-in-distress trope is similarly subverted in the resourceful Akiko, who proves more than a match for the men around her. Makiko Kuno is perfectly cast as the modern woman taking on not only sexism, but the hulking figure of a killer stalking the building. The ensemble cast do a great job with straight-faced performances providing just enough believability to the outrageous premise to maintain tension. Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s skill is evidenced here in the creation of shadowy, claustrophobic locales, transforming the familiarity of an office into something terrifying, with danger lurking around every corner. The music by Yuichi Kishino and Midori Funakoshi creates a sense of dread that seems purposefully to test the limits of parody, over-emphasising each scare. That is not to say that the film doesn’t have some great gory moments, such as a man being crushed to death in a locker, but they are made so outrageous as to be clearly intended to entertain rather than shock.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s “The Guard from Underground” is on the surface a slightly silly slasher film, but just under the surface there is a clever deconstruction of office politics. The film draws a direct comparision between the idea of a murderer on a killing spree with the far more common dangers faced by women in the workplace, sexism and sexual harrasment. The similtanous arrival of Akiko and Fujimaru speaks to this sense of certain threats being inescapable, or sadly just something she has to deal with as part of her job. A fun slasher film that displays the directors skill at creating atmosphere, “Guard from the Underground” bolsters its somewhat ridiculous premise with a thematic depth discussing sexual politics and more everyday dangers faced by working women.

EXTE: Hair Extensions (2007) by Sion Sono

Yuko (Chiaki Kuriyama) stars as a wannabe hair stylist sweeping floors at a salon. When her wayward half-sister Kiyomi (Tsugumi) leaves her young daughter Mami (Miku Sato) with Yuko, she discovers that the child has been badly abused and neglected by her sister and decides to look after her. Meanwhile, Yamazaki (Ren Osugi), a man with a serious hair fetish, steals a corpse from the mortuary where he is working, cutting off the endlessly growing hair for use as hair extensions, which he provides for use at salons. The hair still retains the tortured soul of the deceased, the victim of an organ harvesting gang, and is soon causing havoc, killing indiscriminately. It is not long before Yuko’s own salon is given this questionable hair and she must fight to protect Mami.

“EXTE” is directed by Sion Sono, a master of the bizarre and ridiculous. The film mocks the common trope of ghost stories where long black hair is a defining feature of their characters. It is a satirical look at the banality of much of the genre. This is evidenced early in the film with the risible dialogue between the dock workers in the opening, and Yuko narrating her own introduction, drawing attention to how predictable and uninspired the film’s set-up is while also being a clever way of getting through what would be dull exposition, character names and quick personality checklists. The film repeatedly undermines itself in this way, creating a tone that is self-referential comedy horror. There are moments of terror in the film, whether the flashbacks of the young woman’s torture at the hands of organ harvesters, or the more commonplace horrors of child abuse that Mami suffers at the hands of her mother. In this way the film almost lures you in with the promise of something throwaway while subverting expectations by actually delving into some genuinely dark themes. Chiaki Kuriyama is likeable as Yuko and does a good job with the various tones that the film attempts, from lighthearted drama, to scenes of emotional distress. Tsugumi is deeply unlikeable as her sister, and Ren Osugi brings a scenery-chewing eccentricity to the creepy, hair-obsessed recluse Yamazaki. Sono again shows his skill with direction, pushing the special effects too far at times to create an over-the-top aesthetic that never takes itself too seriously. The use of a Christmas jingle is one example of this unorthodox style, another the impromptu song performed by Yamazaki, that is irreverent and inappropriate yet entirely in keeping with the rest of the film.

Sion Sono is having fun with J-Horror tropes with EXTE, creating a humorous deconstruction of typical ghost stories that have dominated the genre. The decision to set a fantastical supernatural evil against the genuinely terrifying sublot of Mami’s abuse at the hands of her mother, is potent. Perhaps the film’s way of saying that typical horror audience’s focus on ridiculous or unlikely horrors leads them to overlook everyday traumas. Yamazaki can also be seen both as a caricature of the sinister lurking figure common in horror films, but also as a much darker stereotype. His fetish and objectification of the corpse could be a commentary on the beauty industry and male perversions more widely. He does not care about women, only about the hair. The hollowness at the heart of “EXTE” is symbolic of the lack of meaning or significance in much of the horror genre or society more widely. Everything is superficial and fake (in the same way that the hair extensions are taking reality and making it something frivolous and unnecessary). A satirical side-swipe at the whole horror genre, that revels in its irreverent tone and delights in subverting expectations.