Paprika (2006) by Satoshi Kon

A new technology allowing people to enter another’s dreams has been developed at a research facility. The head of the research department, Atsuko Chiba, is using it to help a detective, Konakawa, with anxiety dreams he’s suffering. When the head of the department undergoes some kind of breakdown they realise that one of the devices, named the DCMini, which allow people to enter dreams has been stolen and is being used illegally. What follows is a chase through the dream world and reality to attempt to discover who the culprit is and how to stop them.

Based on a book by Yasutaka Tsutsui, director Satoshi Kon (Perfect Blue) creates a mind-bending psychological drama, that blurs the lines between reality and imagination in a way that is perfectly suited to animation. Every scene is full of colour and vitality and there is so much room for invention on offer with the central premise that is used to brilliant effect. The sequences of the giant procession through the dreams is a particular marvel for the sheer amount of stuff on screen. The film may require multiple viewings to appreciate every nuance and background detail. Susumu Hirasawa’s score is a hyperactive blend of instrumentation and digitised noise that encapsulates a sense of floating in through a chaotic world.

Concerning itself with dreams gives the film the scope to analyse many tenets of human experience in the world. It looks at the link between dreams and reality, ideas of freedom, madness, alter-egos and more. Definitely a recommended watch for those who enjoy stunningly animated philosophical or psychological science-fiction.

Meatball Machine (2005) by Yudai Yamaguchi and Junichi Yamamoto

Yoji Muranishi (Issei Takahashi) works as a machinist in a factory. Cutting something of a lonely figure, he spends his lunchbreak looking over the fence from the factor at a woman, Sachiko (Aoba Kawai), who lives next to the factory, and spends time with his friend Doi. Something strange is going on in the city, with a mysterious creature appearing from the river and killing a young boy before transforming him into a grotesque conglomeration of metal, flesh and tentacles. A parasitical alien is taking over humans and turning them into necroborgs, forcing them to fight, with the victor devouring the weaker combatants. When Muranishi stumbles across Sachiko being sexually assaulted by his boss he steps in to help and the two head back to his house. Sachiko is taken over by one of the aliens and becomes a mass of metal. Muranishi is told by a man familiar with these beings that his best hope of saving her is to kill her. Muranishi heads out to attempt to rescue the woman he loves while escaping the same fate himself.

Directed by Yudai Yamaguchi and Junichi Yamamoto “Meatball Machine” is a splatter horror comedy that revels in disgusting and extreme imagery. The special effects work by Yoshihiro Nishimura is incredible and there are some truly stomach-churning creations. In particular the design of the creatures that infest the humans will thrill anyone who is into body-horror, somewhere between a tumour and hideous embryonic predator. Despite having no identifiable human features, these beings are completely understandable. One of the film’s strengths is that the explanations for what is happening are largely left unsaid until later in the movie, yet from the first instance of a human being taken over, and the sight of this small parasitical entity, it is entirely clear.

The plot is almost a twisted love story buried beneath a flood of science-fiction and horror elements. The central thread is Muranishi’s quest for Sachiko, but it proves to be a thin line on which to hang the talents and creativity of the special effects department. The directors show a firm knowledge of horror and do a great job at creating atmosphere, with off-kilter camera angles and strobe lighting effects. The majority of the film is shot in a muddy half-light, with the greys and browns of the industrial district emphasising a feel of decay, both economic and social. It doesn’t shy away from showing the uglier side of the city, with trash, weeds, iron railings and unappealing architecture.

It seems like the kind of film that the filmmakers had a lot of fun making and there are many moments that will raise a smile despite the horrific imagery. These include one of the necroborgs having a windscreen wiper to clear off blood after he has savagely dispatched a rival; and even the parasitical creatures in their fleshy command-stations have a definite comedic tone once the initial revulsion has passed. Worth a watch for fans of the bizarre and grotesque, “Meatball Machine” hangs by the slenderest of plot threads but fills its runtime with creative and excessive moments.

Yamamoto Eri Becomes Recoverability Zero (2015) by Yuki Kuwarazuru

The film begins with a radio announcement stating that Kyoto has been hit with some form of attack in an ongoing unspecified war and the city is now quarantined. Soga (Kota Nakano) and Miyabe (Kosuke Komura), investigators from the health department, are searching for Eri Yamamoto, who has been missing since her last check-up three months ago. Her physician has no idea where she might be. It becomes clear that certain members of the population are suffering from a rare condition known as mad man disease, that leads to them harming others. The two detectives come across Eri’s sister Yui (Yui Mikami) and her boyfriend (Minoru Takanaka), who are feeding and taking care of the infected Eri (Miyuki Osaki) in their basement. They slowly close in on Eri’s whereabouts and condition, uncovering the mystery of her disappearance. Written and directed by Yuki Kuwazuru ((Not) Perfect Human), the film is an exploration of several themes concerning compassion for illness and mental health.

A bizarre art-house detective story with elements of body horror, “Yamamoto Eri Becomes Recoverability Zero” is a curious experience with a few unexpected scares. The plot is set-up very briefly and what follows is an exploration of some dark societal issues. In the dialogues between Soga and Miyabe we hear the various concerns of the general population around people with this unknown virus. Certain of the characters believe that the only way to deal with victims is by killing them. Soga goes armed to cases and is fully prepared to shoot them rather than risk being attacked himself, while Miyabe is more compassionate to sufferers. The performances of Kota Nakano and Kosuke Komura are good in the role of detectives, especially when they have scenes together discussing the ethics of their profession. Likewise, Yui Mikami and Minoru Takanaka make a good pair as they struggle with whether to help Eri or not. Mikami also has several flashback moments with Miyuki Osaki’s Eri where we get to see the two of them before the tragic events leading to the quarantining of certain individuals.

A low-budget is polished by creative direction, with plenty of hand-held camera work and scenes that have a fluidity and sense of purpose. The large number close-ups don’t always flatter the acting and there are a number of scenes that feel a little stretched, but a short runtime mean that there is not the central concept remains intriguing throughout. The story is chaptered and plays with its chronology by having each of the three chapters run as flashbacks leading up to the beginning of the preceding chapter. In this way we are brought into the investigation of Eri’s disappearance, through the horror of her condition, and finally onto an understanding of her tragic situation. Filmed largely in indoor locations gives the sense that the city’s population has significantly dwindled, but more could have been made of this in external scenes where we see a few people around in the streets. The film uses the distinction between quiet conversational scenes and sudden flashes of extreme body horror to great effect. One of these terrifying moments involves Yui’s boyfriend becoming completely traumatised after seeing Eri in the garage. She is completely ravaged by the disease and we realise why they are shunned. After Eri attacks him, Yui’s boyfriend stumbles into the street and appears to be in some sort of mania, perhaps representative of the madness that has spread from Eri to him, or perhaps his own paranoia at the thought of being infected.

This sequence leans into one of the central themes of the film: fear of infection. The cause of the mad man disease is never specified. It could be due to radiation from the bomb falling on Kyoto; it could be representative of Eri’s psychological trauma following her husband’s death; or it could be related to her pregnancy, which comes to play a central role later in the film. The characters appear to be terrified by the idea of catching mad man disease, and reticent to approach those with the condition. They go as far as suggesting that they should exterminate them. This is a dark reflection on humanity’s lack of sympathy with afflicted individuals; the shunning of those with mental and physical illnesses. We see the love of Yui for her sister, which leads to her overcoming this fear or disgust and taking care of her. The final moments of the film leave us with a stomach-churning moment that is sure to stick with the viewer, and leads to something of a re-examination of the earlier portion of the film. While shocking, the film is clearly intended as a metaphorical examination of cultural norms and the treatment of the sick. This final moment is perhaps intended to shock the audience into contemplating the various characters and situations and coming to some understanding of what is to be done if people are to move forward with more compassion.

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.