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.

Gemini (1999) by Shinya Tsukamoto

Doctor Yukio (Masahiro Motoki) has recently returned from treating soldiers at the front. His parnter Rin (Ryo) is a woman who appears to be suffering amnesia, with Yukio reminding her she was rescued from a fire that destroyed her home. Yukio begins to sense a strange shadowy personage following him and the house, where he is living with his parents, is troubled by an unpleasant smell. This dark figure reveals itself as a man who appears to be the double of Yukio. After a struggle this sinister doppelganger supplants the doctor who looks on helpless as this man, Sutekichi (also Masahiro Motoki), rekindles a romantic relationship with Rin.

The story is loosely based on an Edogawa Ranpo story, and on the surface, Shinya Tsukamoto’s “Gemini” follows a traditional gothic horror narrative. The double who appears to first haunt its victim and later take over his life, speaks to a primeval fear and is referenced in works throughout history. However, Tsukamoto is not a writer or director to be satisfied with such a straightforward tale, infusing the story with psychological terror and social satire. Interestingly, this is Tsukamoto’s first film to have a historical setting. There are brief flahses here of the grotesque imagery that characterises much of Tsukamoto early work (Testuo, Tokyo Fist, Bullet Ballet), with the film’s shock opening of a maggot-riddled feline corpse attended by rats providing an unsettling image, the horror of which remains in the subconscious, infecting the following narrative with horrific undertones.. As we witness Yukio seeing patients we need little reminder of the terrifying, gruesome realities of the natural world, of suffering, death and violence. Throughout Tsukamoto switches between quiet scenes of eerie dialogue and cacophanous, chaotic action, the vivid violence resonating through the haunted silences. This technique works perfectly to create a sense of unease, tension and shock, helped by the incredible work of long-time collaborator composer Chu Ishikawa, whose score captures the ever-changing qualities of the film, from hellish chants, to melancholic dirges.

Tsukamoto packs a number of themes and ideas into “Gemini”. The three protagonists may represent a typical love triangle, but their characters and performances are all reflective of deeper, more significant themes, referencing class struggle and societal causes of suffering. Yukio criticises the lower classes as little more than animals, unaware that Rin is herself comes from a lowly position, as a thief. This defect in his character, his inability to feel compassion for those less fortunate, makes his fate less sympathetic and his character more nuanced than an unfortunate victim. Sutekichi’s upbringing as part of an acting troupe also speaks to this notion that people only play the roles they are given and that class is a matter of luck as opposed to ability. We see this most clearly in the ease with which Sutekichi attains and maintains his new position as Yukio’s replacement. There is talk of disease in the film, again the fault of which is laid at the door of the lower classes. This along with the dead cat at the beginning are a stark reminder of the fragility of human life that can be snatched away in an instant. It is a dog-eat-dog, or rat-eat-cat, world in which people attain positions through violence rather than skill or ability. We see Yukio’s parents who will not accept Rin as they don’t know where she is from. A dark horror that touches on themes of class and identity with Tsukamoto’s typical visual flair.

Tokyo Fist (1995) by Shinya Tsukamoto

Tsuda (Shinya Tsukomoto) works as an insurance salesmen, living a comfortable, if monotonous life, with his girlfirend Hizuru (Kahori Fujii). Their relationship is jeapordized with the reappearance of Tsuda’s old schoolfriend, Kojima (played by Tsukamoto’s own brother Koji Tsukamoto), a small-time boxer, who soon makes a move on Hizuru. The three of them are plunged into a world of emotional and physical violence as Tsuda takes up boxing in an attempt to revenge himself on Kojima and win back Hizuru.

“Tokyo Fist” is an unconventional boxing film, the action flowing from the emotions of the characters instead of vice versa. What begins as a simple narrative about a jilted lover on a mission of revenge soon becomes a much deeper analysis of societal violence and human psychology. Writer-director Tsukamoto infuses the film with sequences that draw a direct comparison between the physical and the emotional, tipping into art-house and horror with its visceral, abstract visuals. The use of colour shows a director who is at ease using the full range of cinematic techniques to tell his story. It is very much a film that requires thought and attention, noting the shifts from blue to red, the frenetic hand-held camerawork and framing, the flashes of extreme bloodletting, all of these things are not simply done to keep things visually interesting, but are an integral part of the storytelling. The film provokes its audience, drawing you in to sweat-drenched close-ups and flinch-inducing sequences of body modification, causing you to experience the pain and suffering of the characters along with them. Tsukamoto gives an excellent performance in the lead role as Tsuda, a man who is forced to forsake his comfortable life for one of violence and struggle, buffeted by his own emotions and the actions of others. Kahori Fujii’s Hizuru is far more than a supporting role with a narrative all of her own, a parallel to the struggle of the two men she is involved with and a reflection of the themes of suffering as a form of release. Her relationship with pain comes to be one of the most intriguing aspects of the film, seemingly reinventing herself as her situation changes. Koji Tsukamoto’s Kojima is likewise a complex character, particularly after his backstory is revealed, who reflects the same paranoia, deep-seated anger, and sense of helplessness expressed by Tsuda.

Shinya Tsukamoto returns to a common theme in his work, that of violence and pain. The use of boxing here gives a perfect story on which to hang many of these themes, acting as a conduit for the passion, suffering, physical and mental pain, that pervades society. As the film progresses the central story of Tsuda, Hizuru and Kojima, becomes less important, instead overwhelmed by the enormity of the forces that seem to be guiding them. Jealousy, lust, anger, hatred, revenge, many of the worst human impulses are characterised in these three individuals. Their individuality becomes blurred as they increasingly reflect each other in their rush towards suffering, perhaps they are simply becoming conduits for an ever present aggression in the world itself. There is an interesting scene with the moon that suggests inescapable natural urges are driving them. The film also shows how their environments, the grim, urban decay of the city’s streets and underpasses, inform and emphasise their emotions. A thought-provoking film that demands deeper consideration. Excellent central performances and a director at the top of his game in creating a work that captivates, dragging you through the suffering of its characters in the hopes that you come out with a deeper understanding of the forces that drive human interaction.

Ichi the Killer (2001) by Takashi Miike

A masochistic mobster and a sadistic assassin are pitted against one another in this gory crime story from Takashi Miike. When a yakuza boss goes missing, his chief enforcer Kakihara (Tadanobu Asano) goes in search of clues. Kakihara has violent sado-masochistic tendencies, as we can see from the numerous scars across his face, his mouth being a wide slit held together with piercings. Kakihara comes to learn that the killer of his boss was one Ichi (Nao Omori), a man who has been brainwashed into being a heartless killer, with sadistic inclinations. As they draw closer to a confrontation, we are given a series of gruesome, violent, stomach churning scenes in one of the finest examples of Japanese exploitation cinema.

Not a film for the faint-hearted or those easily repulsed by gory special effects, the director Takashi Miike blends cartoonish violence, horror, pitch black comedy, along with realism in an unsettling portrayal of the darker drivers of human behaviour. The film is based on a manga by Hideo Yamamoto and the characters feel very much like comic book heroes and villains that have landed in a gritty, crime-infested Tokyo familiar from many yakuza films. This sense of the fantastical is emphasised in the use of colour, Ichi’s superhero-like costume, and helps make the content more palatable. The direction moves from fast paced action to more sedate scenes of character interaction. There is definitely a chaotic punk feel early on, with jarring cuts and music, and a handheld camera racing through the neon-washed streets swarming with people. We also see high-angled framing and off-kilter action that brings out the comic-book feel and helps bring the audience into this anarchic world where anything goes and the only certainty is pain and violence. The film pushes the boundaries of good taste at times, with infamous scenes involving a severed tongue, reference to rape, domestic abuse, and scenes of torture. However, the film holds together as a solid crime drama, with the central narrative being easy to follow. A fantastic supporting cast includes Alien Sun, a Chinese prostitute; Shinya Tsukamoto as Ichi’s mysterious handler Jijii, and various gang members played by Sabu, Shun Sugata, Kiyohiko Shibukawa, and Suzuki Matsuo who plays twins Jiro and Saburo.

It would be easy to dismiss this film as a violent, gory thriller, made with the intention of pushing the audience to the limit of what is acceptable. For those willing to examine the film carefully, there are deeper meanings here. Ichi could almost be considered the Id, driven solely by violent and sexual urges, confused, struggling to establish some kind of morality in his disordered existence. Kakihara also appears as a metaphor for human desire for violence and suffering; he is a comment on viewers of this film, who wish to sit through something so uncomfortable, to be shown the absolute lowest, most grotesque imagery, in order for some kind of spiritual gratification. There are also numerous allusions to the relationship between violence and sex, familial relationships and the abuse of power that can occur within them. Both Ichi and Kakihara are products of their environment, deeply disturbed individuals who typify the dog-eat-dog mentality of society. Worth watching for the creative scenes of carnage, but also worthy of consideration at a deeper level.

Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989) by Shinya Tsukamoto

We begin with a man (Shinya Tsukamoto) inserting an iron bar into his leg in a gruesome and inexplicable scene. The man, after seeing maggots crawling around this, runs down the street where he is hit by a car. The film then cuts to a young office worker (Tomorowo Taguchi) who is experiencing hellish nightmares of twisted metal. When he awakes he finds a piece of metal sticking out of his face. This man later returns to his apartment, where he makes love to his girlfriend (Kei Fujiwara). However, a giant drill emerges from his groin and his transformation into the “Iron Man” of the title accelerates. We later learn that this man and his girlfriend were the ones who hit the first man in their car, later disposing of the body and having sex nearby where they dumped it.

“Tetsuo” has a surreal nightmarish quality heightened by use of non-linear storytelling, bursts of stop-frame animation, even the stark chiaroscuro photography. The visuals are stunning and horrific and there are genuine moments of terror as the film plays a lot with claustrophobic close-ups and angles. Shinya Tsukamoto both wrote and directed and it is clearly a singular vison that is being presented here, although drawing on many cyberpunk ideas such as transhumanism and the fetishization of machines. The music by Chu Ishikawa also captures this terrifying tone, with dark, metallic clanging beats really exaggerating the sense of dread and unreality. The overall sound design also goes a long way towards creating a nightmarish vision of a future overrun by the machines.

This film is definitely an experience more so than a story. The make-up and special effects are incredible, capturing the tangled filth of the industrialised world, and a great example of body horror. It can be a difficult watch at times, and will certainly not be for everyone, the frenetic editing can make it tough to follow. There are hints of social commentary, a critique of industrialisation and man’s relationship with machines, alongside themes of psychoses, paranoia, shame, abuse and sexual violence. A unique and terrifying industrial body-horror that is worth a watch for fans of the genre.