Girl’s Blood (2014) by Koichi Sakamoto

An all-female martial arts troupe is thrown into disarray with the arrival of a new member. “Girl’s Blood” are a group of women who battle it out in front of exuberant spectators in a cross between the fighting style of MMA (bouts taking place in an octagon with few apparent rules) and the extravagant costumes and characters of pro-wrestling (including a dominatrix, a nurse, and a police woman). One of their top fighters, Satsuki (Yuria Haga), is troubled when new member Chinatsu (Asami Tada) joins their group. Not only does Chinatsu not pull her punches in the arena, she also threatens to expose Satsuki’s hidden sexuality. The two soon begin a romantic affair; one that is jeapordized with the reappearance of Chinatsu’s husband who runs a rival martial arts group.

Based on the novel “Aka x Pink” by Kazuki Sakuraba, “Girl’s Blood” is an erotic action film, with a heady blend of fight scenes and gratuitous sex and nudity. Despite its low-brow exploitation trappings the film tells a surprisingly romantic story, with Satsuki and Chinatsu’s relationship providing a strong central plot around which the more extreme elements revolve. A majority of the film’s lengthy run time (a little over 2 hours) is taken up either with fighting or the women undressing, showering, or making love. The fight choreography is strong and entertaining, with the over the top theatrics of the in-ring tussles, or the street-fights that propel the plot forward. While the sex in the equation may be gratutious it doesn’t feel particularly egregious, with the lesbian romance at least lending a degree of respectability. One sour note is the sexual assault and rape that takes place later in the film, that feels unecessarily violent and out of place. The cast all do a good job with the action and bring their distinct, if rather unbelievable, characters to life. Yuna Haga’s Satuski hides her vulnerability behind a facade of gruff aggression; while Asami Tada’s Chinatsu goes through a series of transformations that see her both despised and pitied. The supporting cast, particularly Ayami Misaki as Miko and Rina Koike as Mayu, are also engaging with small side-plots that tie into the larger themes. Oddly, all the players in “Girl’s Blood” are introduced with anime-style openings, but aside from these four the others remain as stereotypical background. It would have been great to see a series with each of these getting a chance to shine.

At the heart of “Girl’s Blood” is a story about female empowerment, acceptance of sexuality, and overcoming trauma. We learn at the beginning of the film that Satsuki is estranged from her parents, a situation that seems to be commonplace amongst several of the characters. Miko was also thrown out of home while Mayu ran away. These women’s relationships with their mothers are strained at best, utterly shattered at worst. It is an interesting element to their characters with their profession as fighters, and their unique characters, a physical representation of their different yet comparable struggles. It is this lack of maternal affection that seems to shape and drive them and provides the film with it’s most interesting thematic through-line. The latter half plot involving a fight between “Girl’s Blood” and the rival “Ando Ichimon” club is almost nonsensical; as are numerous minor details such as the oddly varied crowd at the women’s events and whether they are intended to be martial artists or pro-wrestlers (two distinct professions). However, many of the more ridiculous elements can be forgiven with the entertaining performances and heartfelt message about overcoming your past and following your heart.

Blind Beast (1969) by Yasuzo Masumura

A kidnapping victim begins to sympathise with her captor in this tale of moral degeneracy and sado-masochistic lust. Aki Shima (Mako Midori) is a model who has recently found fame as the subject of an exhibition of erotic photography and sculpture by a famous artist. While visiting the gallery she sees a blind man running his hands over the statue of her, an eerie sight that causes to her to flee. She is later abducted by this man, Michio (Eiji Funakoshi) and his mother (Noriko Sengoku), and taken to a remote warehouse. This warehouse is Michio’s studio, where he sculpts body parts. Born without sight, he intends to use Aki as a model for a new work of art, one born of the sense of touch. After a few failed escape attempts, Aki finally gives in to Michio and the two later begin a sado-masochistic physical relationship that grows increasingly violent as they attempt to push the boundaries of pleasure and pain.

Based on a story by the master of skin-crawling horror Edogawa Rampo, “Blind Beast” is a film that confronts the audience with a creepy, and subtly terrifying scenario. When we see Michio caressing the statue, and later Aki herself, there is something unseemly about it, making real the metaphorical objectification of the female form. The story is pared back to provide a simple yet effective horror tale, featuring only three actors and largely taking place in the same large warehouse studio. Mako Midori’s Aki Shima is a sympathetic heroine, making attempts to flee, wilful and yet drawn irresistably into the moral void of Micho’s world. Eiji Funakoshi is a sinister villain, playing the unassuming psychopath role with unnerving charm. The main setting of the film, the warehouse-cum-studio is an almost fantastical space, the walls hung with large sculpted noses, eyes, and limbs, and the floor taken up with a giant model of a naked woman. This focus on the body and human form makes us aware of every itch and tingle, every spine-chilling or toe-curling moment emphasised by the fact we are trapped in Michio’s world of physical touch. This is helped by the excellent direction of Yasuzo Masumura, utilising shifts into deep black to depict both Michio’s blindness and depravity. Hikaru Hayashi’s score is features strangely romantic melodies that make us question what is happening between the protagonists as they sink into debauchery and violence. “Blind Beast” avoids graphic depictions of what is happening, cutting away from the worst moments, while at the same time blending the emotional and the physical to the extent that the audience has no choice but to feel each cut as they begin their journey of sado-masochistic excess.

Michio is a typical horror villain, sexual repression leading to deviancy, his Oedipal relationship with his mother, and apparently preternatural abilities to hunt his quarry by smell and sound. However, Michio can also be seen as a stand-in for male lust and moral degeneracy in general. His single minded pursuit of Aki, his attempts to capture her and reproduce her form, to contain her, provide metaphorical potential for those looking to draw societal messages from the film. Likewise, Aki is a symbol of female emancipation, turning her body to her own financial gain, strong-willed, independent, and cautious, she is far from a helpless heroine. In its final third the film begins to delve into far more Freudian territory, moving fully away from a sense of realism as Aki loses her sight and becomes a counterpart to Michio, engaging in acts of hedonistic abandon and mutual destruction. “Blind Beast” questions human desire and posits an inevitable tendency towards violence and death, drawing out timeless themes of Eros and Thanatos in a film that creates a powerful atmosphere through stunning acting and direction. There is something mythological about the horrifying finale that will stay with you long after the film is over.

Luxurious Bone (2001) by Isao Yukisada

Miyako (Kumiko Aso) works as a call-girl, living with her friend Sakiko (Tsugumi Otake) with whom she shares a bond that hovers over the border of sisterhood and life partners. After encountering a client, Shintani (Masatoshi Nagase), with whom Miyako experiences sexual pleasure for the first time in her life, the two women begin to drift apart. Miyako suggests that Shintani should sleep with Sakiko, an event that draws the three into a love triangle in which their various flaws and anxieties are reflected.

“Luxurious Bone” begins with poetic sentiments being recited over the credits, followed by bones being removed from a crematorium furnace. This proves to be an apt set up for a film that is both artistic, meaning glimpsed through fragments of character and story, and with an underlying melancholy. Written by director Isao Yukisada and screenwriter Shoichi Masahiko, the story is relatively straightforward, revolving around the three main characters and their complicated relationship, and the film expects the audience to be familiar with these archetypes, rarely delving too deeply into their backgrounds. Many things are left unsaid, or rather left to viewer interpretation, with direction, lighting and cinematography often standing in for dialogue. Sakiko’s broken leg, the phantom bone that seems permanently lodged in Mayuko’s throat, or the three goldfish confined to a blender, are all clues to what is happening internally with the characters. The performances of Aso, Otake and Nagase are exceptional, with very few supporting characters they manage to keep the audience’s attention with their portrayals of these complex characters. Miyako has resigned herself to a life of prostitution to support Sakiko, while longing for something more. Shintani is perhaps the most mysterious, perhaps intended simply as a catalyst between Miyako and Sakiko, but with shocking moments that indicate a more conflicted character. Sakiko is the most sympathetic and we learn most about her, but many things are never satisfactorily resolved, a common theme across the film.

The film asks a lot of its audience, rarely stating its intentions clearly. It is for the viewer to piece together what is happening with the characters through a fore-knowledge of typical romantic stories, and the various visual clues presented. There are themes of the relationship between sex and love, with a clear distinction between Miyako’s work as a call-girl, which gives her no pleasure either physically or emotionally, and her relationship with Sakiko, which operates on a deeper level. There is also the peculiar idea that Miyako wants to reach Sakiko, to create a bond with her, through Shintani, using a surrogate lover to connect the two women. The film’s occassional graphic eroticism and brief flash of fish-based gore, may seem out of place in a film that appears quite tame on the surface, but that would be to misunderstand the depth of feeling that is raging behind the characters. A curious romantic drama that plays on themes of human connection and the difficulty in expressing our feelings clearly.

Shrieking in the Rain (2021) by Eiji Uchida

A first-time female director battles studio executives, chauvanistic crew members, and the ratings board, as she tries to bring her vision to life in this comedy-drama from Eiji Uchida. Hanako (Marika Matsumoto) is directing her debut film, an erotic thriller about love and betrayal. Lacking the confidence to stand up to her overbearing crew, consisting of older male lighting and camera operators, she feels as if she is losing control of the production as she navigates various vested interests such as the producer’s desire that it not be slapped with a restricted rating that will damage their box office takings. Hanako is far from the only member of the cast and crew struggling with the film. Older actress Kaede (Maeko Oyama) sees the film as her last chance to prove her acting ability, willing to go all the way in the final sex scene to show that she is a true artist; and Yoshie (Serena Motola), an aspiring camera woman, is facing the same sexism as Hanako.

“Shrieking in the Rain” is a comedy-drama film with an uplifting atmosphere reminiscent of a less cynical world. Set in 1988 it shows a film industry that is a very male-dominated environment, one in which Hanako’s ostensible power as a director is continually undermined by her lack of authority as a women with the men around her. Things perhaps haven’t changed enough in the industry to this day, but the choice of setting does allow the film-makers to push some of the behaviour, with women being smacked round the head or shouted at in front of the entire studio, to an extreme perhaps consigned to history. Most of the film takes place in the single film set or the nearby studio buildings. It has a behind-the-scenes feel as we watch what happens on the other side of the camera, with this motley crew working to capture the pivotal scenes of their movie. The cinematography by Kenji Noguchi, has a beautiful sunset feel of late-eighties nostalgia.

We often see Hanako surrounded by her crew and actors, visually establishing the power dynamics and the sense of pressure she feels from all sides. The three women who provide the backbone of the story, Hanako, Yoshie and Kaede, are all enjoyable characters with actors Marika Matsumoto, Serena Motola and Maeko Oyama giving powerful performances as women beset by an inhospitable world of entrenched sexism and self-important men. “Shrieking in the Rain” tackles these issues with a light touch, providing plenty of comedy to ensure that it never feels like a sermon on the wrongs of the film industry. This lighthearted approach to the drama is emphasized by the sentimental score, often indistinguishable from the melodrama of the film within a film. It is a testament ot the film’s whimsicality that the final sequence, an all-out song and dance number performed by the crew, does not seem out of place beside the more serious themes, not to mention the nudity and sex of the production they are filming.

The film recreates in the microcosm of this single film studio a sense of what many women in the workplace have to contend with. Hanako is far from incompetent, even though she is a newcomer to directing, but she is constantly chastised for her decisions, being asked why she needs another take or why she cannot simply change her plans for certain scenes to make them suitable for a general audience. It can be hard to understand why Hanako persists and it seems even she has her doubts about whether she is in the right job. A particular traumatic memory from her past seems to drive her creativity and determination to finish this film and this past trauma seems to chime particularly the other women on the production, although their own pasts remain unknown. Hanako’s relationship with Yoshie, who looks up to her as a female role model is touching and you find yourself willing them to succeed against the ignorant behaviour of the male crew. However, the film is far from a polemic against chauvanism, with many other aspects and subplots to enjoy. The foremost amongst them is the power of film itself to transport people, as the experienced actor Kazuto (Yuma Yamoto) explains to pop-idol Shinji (Kenta Suga), to another world. The introduction of a character working for the film classification board allows for some ridiculing of the often nonsensical rules defining lewdness or inappropriate behaviour in film. And Kaede’s character depicts the difficulties of aging in an industry obsessed with youth. A fantastic cast in a film packed with interesting characters, each showing an aspect of the film-making process or problems associated with it, “Shrieking in the Rain” is sure to entertain film fans looking for a lighthearted take on the industry.

An Adolescent (2001) by Eiji Okuda

A middle-aged policeman and a teenage schoolgirl begin a relationship in this drama based on a short story. Tomokawa (Eiji Okuda) works as a police officer, largely abusing his position of authority as seen early in the film when he sleeps with a woman whose missing cat he is returning. He is later propositioned by a high-school girl named Yoko (Mayu Ozawa) out of the blue while at a cafe. They go to a hotel and spend time together, but the girl later refuses payment from him. The two later begin a sexual relationship which is complicated not least by the girl’s age as Tomokawa discovers that she is only 15. Yoko is also the sister of Tomokawa’s young friend Sukemasa (Akira Shoji), a mentally handicapped young man. Yoko and Sukemasa’s father was a suicide and their mother (Mari Natsuki) no longer lives with them. Instead they are taken care of by their grandfather, Shozo (Hideo Murota). It transpires that Yoko’s grandfather created the large tattoo of a single male bird on Tomokawa’s back, while Yoko’s mother (Tomokawa’s former lover) left him after promising she would have the female counterpart tattoo drawn on her own back.

Based on a short story by Mikihiko Renjo, with a script by Katsuhiko Manabe and Izuru Narushima, the difficult subject matter of “An Adolescent”, will no doubt deter some from watching and it is certainly a film that should be appreciated as a work of fiction. Mention is made of Tomokawa’s perversion in chasing after a teenage girl, but for many this acknowledgement may be insufficient explanation to what happens. If you can get beyond that the film is an intriguing look at adolescence, aging, and relationships. The performances, especially from Mayu Ozawa as Yoko, whose behaviour may not always be understandable but are always believable. It is a nuanced portrayal of a girl who has suffered various tragedies, such as the death of her father and abandonment by her mother, but maintains a determination to follow her desires. Okuda’s Tomokawa appears to be a boy trapped in a man’s body, slowly coming to accept the responsibility of adulthood. Intimate handheld camerawork helps us connect with the characters and the use of background details and staging helps enliven the action. Towards the end of the film Ozawa has two incredible moments with Yoko’s mother and Tomokawa, delivering passionate dialogues that speak to the maelstrom of emotions she is experiencing. Despite the subject matter, there is a lot of humour in the film, with Tomokawa being a ridiculous man-child figure, working as a policeman but at heart still very much a good-for-nothing tearaway. The score by Shigeru Umebayashi features sombre strings that lend weight to the drama, framing it as a timeless love story as opposed to something more seedy. The film features sex and nudity, but it works in the context of the film, showing the eroticisation of Yoko by Tomokawa and also in parts, such as bathing sequences, making it something commonplace adding to a sense of realism.

One of the central themes of “An Adolescent” is that of aging and regret. Tomokawa is a man who wears the respectable uniform of a police officer, but underneath is still marked as a delinquent by his tattoo. Yoko could perhaps be seen as the inverse, whose school uniform is concealing her desire to be considered an adult. We learn later in the film that Sukemasa’s intellectual disability was due to witnessing his mother having sex, following his father’s suicide. This link between carnal knowledge and maturity is interesting and ties in to the relationship between Tomokawa and Yoko. The significance of the tattoos is something that harks back to ancient legends, suggesting that there is something transcendent about the couples’ relationship, that it is not simply about the physical world. They are lost souls searching for one another across time. The film is telling the story of Tomokawa and Yoko attempting to grow up, their relationship seemingly being the missing piece that allows them to move forward. An interesting film with some great performances if you can get over the subject matter.