Memories (1995)

“Magnetic Rose” by Koji Morimoto

The 4-man crew of salvage space ship Corona receive an SOS call from an uninhabited region and set out to investigate. On finding a large, seemingly desolate vessel broken into pieces, two of the crew, Heinz and Miguel board it to investigate, leaving their crewmates Ivanov and Aoshima behind. While searching through the wreckage of the abandoned ship they come across holographic representations of opulent halls and find evidence of a singer named Eva Friedl. The ghost of Eva seems to haunt the ship, pining for her lost love Carlos, and she attempts to trap Miguel with her for eternity. Heinz is also confronted by a past tragedy of his own concerning his daughter Emily.

Directed by Koji Morimoto, with a script by Satoshi Kon (based on Katsuhiro Otomo’s original story), “Magnetic Rose” is a fantasic blend of science-fiction, horror and psychological thriller. With a relatively simple story, with a crew investigating an SOS call and finding more than they bargained for, the film really excels in world-building. The design of the spaceships, suits, and various technologies such as the holograms all ground the film with a sense of believability. The scale of the vast corrupted internals of the abandoned ship, the terrifying and wondrous infinity of space, and the dense tangles of wires in the Corona, are meticulously depicted. The operatic classical score underlines this sense of scale, connecting the vast reaches of outer space with the unknown depths of the human psyche. The script does a good job of defining these four characters and setting up what happens to them in relation to their particular traits or anxieties.

“Magnetic Rose” is an existential drama about memory and regret. The four crew members coccooned in their vessel, adrift in space, set the scene perfectly for contemplations about humanity’s purpose. The story of Eva is made more tragic knowing that she is long deceased; an idea that is mirrored with Heinz’s own reminiscences. Memories can draw us in and fixate us on the past which can be both comforting and dangerous.

“Stink Bomb” by Tensui Okamura

Nobuo Tanaka works at the Nishibashi Pharma laboratories Yamanashi. When he takes a new experimental drug hoping to cure his flu symptoms, he accidentally sets in train something that may threaten the future of the country. After taking the drug, Tanaka falls asleep and awakens to find his entire company unconscious. The drug he has taken turns out to be a new bio-weapon that, when processed through him, turns Tanaka into a potent threat. Those who come within sight of him succumb to a pungent chemical, released through his sweat, that causes them to collapse. The oblivious Tanaka, commanded by a higher-up from Tokyo, sets out for the capital, devastation in his wake.

Directed by Tensui Okamura, with a script by Katsuhiro Otomo, “Stink Bomb” has a more comedic tone than “Magnetic Rose”, with the unwitting protagonist soon the centre of media attention and military intervention as he heads for Tokyo. A far-fetched tale that nevertheless touches on interesting ideas about the danger of chemical weapons. The film also includes some political intrigue with American military involvement in the development of the weapon and attempts to secure rather than destroy this threat. This light-hearted affair ends with a fittingly amusing punchline to the increasingly unbelievable tale.

“Cannon Fodder” by Katsuhiro Otomo

The shortest of the three stories, “Cannon Fodder” takes place in a steam-punk, hyper militarised city reminiscent of European conflicts of the past (jackboots, pith-helmets and gas-masks being commonplace). Written and directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, the film shows a young child who is enamoured of the idea of war, saluting a poster of a general each morning, while his father works at the nearby large cannon, which is loaded and fired regularly. The entire industry of the city appears to be centred on the war, with munitions factories and cannons being the only evident employers. Despite it’s brevity this short film manages to slip in several themes about the dangers of militarism: hints that the factories are using poisonous chemicals (all the characters appear sickly with black rings around their eyes and missing teeth) and a pertinent question from the son regarding who they are fighting. This question the father does not answers, stating that he will know when he is old enough, suggesting that nobody is quite sure. The war is being continued for economic and social reasons rather than any meaningful resolution being sought.

“Cannon Fodder” is visually distinct from the previous two films, with a pop-up story book look, traditional hand-drawn animation with plates stacked to give an impression of depth, and the use of CGI allowing for interesting scene transitions. The film has no real plot to speak of and ends abruptly, being more of a window onto this odd, yet frighteningly relatable, world in which the citizenry are no more than cogs in the machinery of war.

Shin Kamen Rider (2023) by Hideaki Anno

The Kamen (or “Masked”) Rider character is a long-standing Japanese superhero who needs little introduction to the domestic audience having appeared in popular manga and television series. Hidaki Anno’s reboot does a great job of introducing the character to those less familiar with him. An insect-human hybrid (or “Aug” as they are known in this world), our protagonist Takeshi Hongo (Sosuke Ikematsu) has had his DNA fused with that of a grasshopper, gaining that insect’s incredible agility and other abilities. Hongo is given a brief run-down of his new powers by Doctor Midorikawa (Shinya Tsukamoto) who worked on the program that created him, before Hongo sets off with the doctor’s daughter, Ruriko (Minami Hamabe) to fight the other animal human hybrids (including a bat, scorpion, and wasp) before taking on the ultimate danger: the Butterfly Aug, Ruriko’s brother Ichiro, who is determined to steal the life energy from every living thing on earth. Hongo is also joined by a second Masked Rider in the form of Hayato Ichimonji (Tasuku Emoto), who is at first reluctant to fight alongside him.

Director Hideaki Anno (best known for the “Evangelion” franchise) was brought up on shows such as Kamen (“Masked”) Rider, with their mix of bizarre Sci-Fi action and genre bending plots. His love of the series shines through here (Anno co-wrote the film with Shotaro Ishinomori who worked on the series) as “Shin Kamen Rider” doesn’t attempt to modernise or update the original, instead retaining the feel of an older, serialized drama. The costumes may have been slightly modified, but are still recognizably those of the original. Everything from the wacky plots, the fight-sequences that take place in abandoned industrial sites, to the melodramatic score by Taku Iwasaki, it all feels nostalgic for a different era of superheroes. The higher budget is evidenced in a couple of stand-out fight sequences: the anime-inspired duel with Wasp-Aug (Nanase Nishino), and the superhero-esque battle involving Tasuku Emoto’s second masked rider. The film’s action sequences are decidedly brutal, with copious amounts of blood spattered around and the choreography is fun, again reminicent of older martial arts films. Anno’s direction is a great fit for this film, with his use of creative camera angles and willingness to utilise a variety of styles, moving from simple one-on-one battles to special effects laden sequences, creating that manic tone befitting the live-action comic action. Fans of the original series will no doubt enjoy this new take on the character, familiar but with a modern polish, while those new to Kamen Rider will enjoy the retro-action.

Perhaps surprisingly for a series based on the premise that motorbikes and insects are cool, “Shin Kamen Rider” has a surprising thematic and emotional depth. The central idea running throughout is humanity’s search for happiness, something both protagonists and antagonists continually refer to. The villains wish to either control everyone, thereby destroying free will and the potential for negative emotions; or simply remove their souls, again with the same effect. The protagonists on the other hand, realise that this is not an ideal solution and instead wonder if it is possible to find happiness while maintaining a sense of individual identity. Other ideas thrown into the mix are themes of transhumanism and the potential advances in genomic science, and Artificial Intelligence; and no retro-science fiction would be complete without a sinister capitalist corporation exploiting science for military application and profit. “Shin Kamen Rider” in many ways is an antidote to the recent slew of reboots and remakes which attempt to modernise their properties or make them more in keeping with modern sensibilities. Instead the film revels in nostalgia, with its off-beat explanations of the various elements that were perhaps never intended to be explained, and brings us right back to the feeling original audiences must have felt sitting in front of the television waiting expectantly for the next instalment. A fun, nostalgic superhero film that is sure to bring new audiences to the franchise.

Andromedia (1998) by Takashi Miike

A recently deceased teen is brought back as an Artificial Intelligence in this cheesy science-fiction action film. “Andromedia” begins like a typical high-school romantic drama, with young couple Mai (Hiroko Shimabukuro) and Yuu (Kenji Harada) dating and hanging out with their friends. On her way back from one of their dates, Mai is hit by a truck and killed. Her father, a computer programmer, has developed a system allowing him to use Mai’s memories to reconstruct and artifical computer model of her, which is named Ai (or A.I.). This incredible breakthrough in Artificial Intelligence is sought after by Mai’s half-brother Satoshi (Ryo Karato) and a shadowy American businessman (Christopher Doyle), who sends hitmen out to retreive the programme. Mai reaches out to Yuu and her friends to help her evade their attempts to seize her.

“Andromedia” stars members of girl-group ‘Speed’ and boy band ‘DaPump’, essentially a vehicle for these teenage pop-stars to flex their acting skills. The story is filled with plot-holes and illogical moments, slapstick comedy and melodramatic teen romance. The strongest element of the plot is the love story between Yuu and Mai as they try to navigate what their relationship is now one is no longer physically present. Both Hiroko Shimabukuro and Kenji Harada do a good job with these characters. Being band-members the cast have a good chemistry together as the group of friends, their relationships being the most believable part of the eccentric story around them. The story of a dangerous organization attempting to steal a powerful computer programme is somewhat generic, again based on the most tenuous premise, and often seems to be from a completley different film to the teen hijinks that comprise the rest of the action. The most striking example of this film being more of a platform for the cast rather than an attempt at serious drama comes part-way through when, after having survived an outrageous car chase, we are treated to a song and dance number that appears unrelated to anything before or after. If you can handle the cheap special effects, illogical science-fiction plot, and overly sentimental romance, “Andromedia” keeps up a strong pace, rarely pausing for you to consider exactly why anything is happening. The juxtaposition of teen drama with assassinations, car chases, and some fun cyberpunk elements later on, make for an entertaining if unserious film.

Buried under the trite romance and science-fiction tropes, the film touches on a number of interesting ideas. Mai’s rebirth as an Artificial Intelligence lends itself to exploration of the distinctions and limitations between machine intelligences and humans. In some of the most powerful moments we see Ai’s desire to smell the sea or touch Yuu, something that a computer will never be able to experience. In one brief but impactful scene we see Satoshi becoming one with a machine he has built, suspended Christ-like amongst the wires. Themes of transhumanism, the religious significance of our increasing reliance on machines, and potential progress towards further integration with them, suggest unexplored depths beneath the film’s surface narrative. Overall, the film feels like a strong science-fiction concept hindered by having to accommodate the stars of these two pop-groups, meaning a watering down of the harder elements and an inability to truly develop some of its more interesting ideas.

Alice in Borderland Series 2 (2022)

Series 2 picks up right where we left off, with Arisu (Kento Yamazaki) and his new friends taking on the face card challenges in the hopes of finding their way out of the bizarre other world they are trapped in. Episode one begins with a burst of violence as the King of Spades guns people down mercilessly in a much-changed Shibuya, showing that nobody is safe. This proves to be true as the deaths pile up throughout the series, including several shocks. We see several more games this time around, all ultra-violent twists on old classics, such as a guessing game where the losers are doused in corrosive acid, or a high-octane game of tag that sees contestants running around a giant industrial structure. The large budget is evident on screen in the fantastic sets and special effects, particularly bringing to life an abandoned Tokyo overgrown with weeds, and the swooping, wide-angle shots that make the unreal seem believable. There are elements of disaster movie, action, romance, and science-fiction that are all underscored with the central emotional drama of the main cast. Most are returning characters, with the inclusion of newcomer Yuri Tsunematsu as a no-nonsense high-school girl. The central mystery is not unravelled until the final episode, and then with a couple of entertaining misdirections (referencing two other popular ‘death game’ series, “Kaiji” and “Gantz”). Wrapping things up is a big task and the solution may prove unsatisfactory for some viewers who were hoping for a different explanation as to what happened, but it does a solid job of bringing together the themes of the show in a way that feels fitting.

The ‘Death Game’ genre lives or dies on its characters. “Alice in Borderland” remains opaque enough throughout that viewers are free to interpret its message as they like. It works as a socio-political satire with the unseen forces of the world putting its citizens through a meat grinder. The arbitrariness of death, the senseless nature of the games, the unbeatable odds, all lend themselves to interpretation, either philosophical or political. The series’ intent is to shock its viewers into living life rather than losing hope. It shouts at us that we need to keep fighting, to keep trying, however hard or futile things seem, and that in the end the only thing that matters is life. Throughout Arisu is searching for an answer, a meaning to his life, or an explanation to this world, and the series continues to deny this to him, and by extension the audience. In the instance that the truth is revealed we are almost beyond the point where the answer has any meaning to us. Instead the underlying message of the series is that of human solidarity in the face of adversity, confronting our mortality, and the idea of simply living as an end in itself.

Hard-Core (2018) by Nobuhiro Yamashita

Two men working a meaningless job find a high-tech AI robot in this existential comedy-drama. Unlike his younger brother Sakon (Takeru Sato) who is a high-flying professional, Ukon (Takayuki Yamada) is stuck in a rut. Along with his simple-minded friend Ushiyama (Yoshiyoshi Arakawa), he finds work with an elderly man who is part of some right-wing political group. This man and his assistant Mizunami (Suon Kan) have the two digging in a tunnel for gold that may or may not exist. One night Ushiyama finds a robot under the abandoned factory where he is sleeping that may provide a solution to their current troubles, but at the same time brings difficulties of its own.

Directed by Nobuhiro Yamashita, with a screenplay by Kosuke Mukai, this manga adaptation is a film that includes many disparate elements that never quite come together in a satisfactory way. The lowbrow comedy, such as Ukon’s attempts to help the naïve Ushiyama lose his virginity; or their attempts to hide the robot from prying eyes are amusing; but the film also seems to be striving to be more than a simple knockabout comedy, undermining the potential for more serious discussions with the more outrageous moments. Ukon and Ushiyama’s relationship is touching, being almost surrogate siblings to one another. Takayuki Yamada and Yoshiyoshi Arakawa are perfectly cast as this odd couple, Yamada as a dissatisfied individual who is striving to find some purpose in life, and Arakawa as the childlike, semi-mute, vulnerable Ushiyama. The film begins to find its feet after the discovery of the robot, giving the characters a unique situation to deal with, but at the same time it is unclear what the science-fiction element adds to the narrative.

“Hard-Core” is at its best when focussed on the relationship between the two protagonists, and the comparisons between them and their robotic companion. There is a lingering sense of existential angst in the film, with the shot of a dead cicada bringing home this idea that life is fragile and transient. There is also a strong desire in the character of Ukon to find meaning in his life. At the beginning of the film we see he is a man who is disgusted by humanity, lashing out at people enjoying themselves while he drinks himself into a stupor. Both Ushiyama and the robot, in contrast, are blissfully ignorant of the world around them, rarely troubled by concerns beyond the here and now. As Ukon’s brother explains to him, the robot has no will or desires, it does what it does because it is told to. It is the tragedy of humans that they are searching for meaning in a meaningless world. In the same way that they are digging for gold and Mizunuma’s daughter Taeko (Kei Ishibashi) is searching for physical pleasure, to the exclusion of all else. “Hard-Core” is an unusual film because it attempts to juggle so many genres, action, romance, existential drama, comedy, and science-fiction, and often seems to drift aimlessly from one to the other. Much like the journey of the protagonist, it is often hard to discern a deeper meaning amidst the madness.