Angel Dust (1994) by Sogo Ishii

A forensic psychologist is brought in to help investigators with a serial murder case involving women being injected with a poison on the Yamanote line and surroundings. Setsuko Suma (Kaho Minami) is a forensic psychologist called in by the police, assigned to work alongside two detectives. The killer seems to strike every Monday at 6pm with a similar modus operandi. Suma’s unconventional style involves her attempting to become one with the killer to better understand their psychologist and pre-empt their attacks. One of the victims is a former patient of Re-Freezing Psychorium, an institute that offered to reprogram cult members, run by Suma’s former lover Rei Aku (Takeshi Wakamatsu). As the investigation continues, Suma seems to be increasingly caught between her own past traumas and the world of the killer.

Directed by Sogo Ishii, with a screenplay by Ishii and Yorozu Ikuta, “Angel Dust” is a psychological thriller that takes us on a dark journey through the subconscious. Early in the film we have claustrophobic hand-held camera work on a packed rush-hour train, with disorienting quick-cuts to the weary passengers. This is followed up by a dream sequence of Suma and her partner Tomo spelunking. The majority of the investigation scenes are shot with clinical fixed angles or minimal movement and a grey colour pallette. Norimichi Kasamatsu’s cinematography thus provides an excellent contrast with the cold, logic of the case and the writhing human emotions underneath. The sequences where we see rapid photo slides flicker across the screen is particularly effecting, moving too fast to really gain much information from them they are not only visual exciting but also slightly unsettling, suggesting Suma’s own state of mind and loosening grip on rationality as the audience attempt to make sense of this subliminal imagery. Kaho Minami gives an incredible performance as Suma, a hard-headed woman whose dark past and own psychological issues threaten to overwhelm her composure. Takeshi Wakamatsu’s Rei Aku is the perfect villainous foil, a man with a deeply disturbing philosophy and criminal past who gives off an air of rationality that makes Suma question herself. The excellent direction and cinematography, that is as much a part of the storytelling as the script and performances here, is complemented with Hiroyuki Nagashima’s subtly disturbing score of trance-like sound loops of percussive electronica.

Sogo Ishii’s “Angel Dust” is a film that lures you in with a murder mystery and becomes something more disturbing as we begin to experience the same sense of unease as the protagonist. The who and how are mysteries that are easily resolved, and largely insignificant to Suma herself, leaving the more troubling question of why. The sense of Suma grasping for meaning in this world is heightened by the various clues the film throws up: the connection of the date Monday with the phases of the moon; the repeated tune that is whistled before the murders; mentions of Nietzche, Dazai, and fairy tales suggesting a literary link with the killer. All of these things in the end are significant only to the extent that they represent the various subconscious elements that act on our conscious actions. When Suma speaks with Aku we see in the background Mount Fuji, the white top and dark below a perfect representation of the vast, ineffable Freudian subconcious. The film is experiential in places, with the aforementioned photo-slide moments being discomforting and other surreal elements appearing throughout to make the audience unsure of their own conclusions about what is happening.

There is a strong theme of control present in the film, not least in the idea of people being brainwashed, and it questions how much free will people really have. Again the focus is not on solving the crime, but investigating why the killer is doing this, what drives them, and whether it is possible to truly understand people’s motivations. A fascinating psychological thriller that asks the audience to psychoanalyse the protagonist as much as the killer.

Labyrinth of Dreams (1997) by Sogo Ishii

Tomiko (Rena Komine) starts work as a bus conducter after the death of her friend Tsuyako (Tomoka Kurotani) who dies while working the same job. Tomiko is soon assigned as conductor alongside driver Niitaka (Tadanobu Asano), Tsuyako’s former boyfriend. Tomiko’s friend and fellow conductor Chieko (Kotomo Kyono) tells her that there is a rumour that Niitaka was responsible for Tsuyako’s death and the deaths of several other women. These suspicions are partially confirmed by a letter from Tsuyako delivered after her death that suggests Niitaka may be dangerous. Despite these warnings Tomiko begins a relationship with Niitaka.

Directed by Sogo Ishii and based on the novel by Kyuusaku Yumeno, “Labyrinth of Dreams” is a contemplative film that luxuriates in beautiful cinematography couresy of Norimichi Kasamatsu and subtle performances from its small cast. The character remain slightly out of reach of the viewer, appearing often as tragic archetypes. Rena Komine’s Tomiko is a young woman yearning for excitement, firm yet feminine, with hints that some darker thoughts may lie beneath the placid surface. Likewise, Tadanobu Asano’s Niitaka is something of a puzzle, seemingly caring for Tomiko, while at the same time teasing her, and with the lingering doubts about his past behaviour casting a dark shadow. The film offers few answers but the central riddle of Niitaka’s past and Tomiko’s fate is enough to keep you engaged. The film also includes abundent symbolism and subtext, with the train and bus taking on metaphorical importance, frequent shots of flowers, the sea, moths, dark tunnels and the appearance of buddhist monks and statues, all giving an indication that something momentous is being depicted, above and beyond the everyday relationship of the protagonist. The soundtrack by Hiroyuki Onogawa of resonant chimes creates an eerie atmosphere, speaking to the impending doom that is foreshadowed at the beginning of the film. The filmmakers also use silence to chilling effect, the sounds suddenly vanishing to leave the audience stranded in a world that is full of ambiguity and threat.

The film’s central relationship between Tomiko and Niitaka is thrilling to watch, and we are never quite sure what each has in their minds. Tomiko’s apparent lack of caution can be seen as a morality tale, but there is perhaps a more existential reading of the film with the buses symbolising the journey of life and the inevitability of death, also suggested by the appearance of buddhist monks and the dark tunnel with the oncoming light representing their end. Tomiko’s decision to begin a relationship with Niitaka is as unavoidable as her fate. The dangers for women in a male-dominated world are writ large in the film, but shown as something universal and unavoidable, asking questions about how much control we really have over our fate.

Burst City (1982) by Sogo Ishii

A wild joyride through the heart of the punk subculture of the early 1980’s, “Burst City” offers a snapshot of the rebellious spirit of a generation. The film revolves around a number of punk gangs and their struggles against the police, each other, and the development of a new nuclear power plant. Every night these leather-clad young men and women gather to rock out to punk bands, take drugs and drag race. Meanwhile, two vigilantes on a motorbike and side-car, drive around looking for revenge for an earlier murder; and a man pimps out a young woman to wealthy businessmen.

“Burst City” plunges us into the heart of the riotous, chaotic heart of the punk movement, capturing and embodying the essence of anarchism, youthful exuberance, violence, and excess that typified it. The plot, such as it is, takes a back seat to a montage of exciting moments, whether it is people engaging in racing their tooled-up cars or the musical performances of several popular punk bands such as The Roosters, The Rockers, and The Stalin. It feels at times much more like a documentary than a film, a collage of characters and scenes that come together to present a complete picture of the period. Sogo Ishii’s direction embraces the spirit of the punk subculture, with a dizzyingly active camera often fighting its way through the action, flashing lights, speeded up footage, and raw energy and creativity mirroring the energy of the subjects. The punk aesthetic exudes from every frame and the rough way the plot and scenes hang together only adds to its charm. The music provided by the punk bands involved also offers a raucous, passionate rage to the film.

As a cultural documentary, “Burst City” offers us a look at a startling and era-defining time. Anti-authoritarian youth sub-cultures found their most strident voices in the punk movement. The shadow of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still hung over post-war Japan, morphing into the activism against nuclear power and nuclear weapons through subsequent decades. Ishii’s film does not delve too deeply into the values and politics of its protagonists. Though we see them fighting with the power plant developers and the police, this seems to be largely down to them being seen as natural enemies, rather than an in-depth discussion of the rights and wrongs of their position. In one amusing scene we see a group of punks asking each other what day it is and what they should be doing, their supreme goal to bring down the goverment and authority forgotten in a haze of alcohol and fatigue from nightly revels. The film seems to both promote their values, while also criticizing their lack of meaningful contribution to society. Likewise, we see this moral ambiguity in the treatment of women. While the young woman forced into prostitution is raped and abused by the businessmen. her horrifying ordeal stands in stark contrast to the mixed-sex congregations of the punk band audiences, and the genderfluidity of their fashion and make-up choices. We also see the drug use affecting the scene, with people lost to the needle, while others enjoy more harmless pursuits. The punk scene is shown as one full of contradictions, with violence and agression sitting alongisde youthful joie de vivre and a search for fun and community. If you want to understand what the punk movement was about and what it meant to those who lived through it, this film offers a warts-and-all portrayal of the scene.

Electric Dragon 80,000 V (2001) by Sogo Ishii

A blend of cyberpunk and superhero movie, “Electric Dragon 80,000 V” follows Dragon Eye Morrison (Tadanobu Asano), a guitar-playing, reptile loving man with an unusual talent: following electro-shock therapy for violent behaviour as a child, Morrison is now able to conduct electricity, and refocus its energy. City lights flicker as he saps the power from around him. He has a job as an animal detective, looking for reptiles, in particular an iguana that has gone missing. He also plays guitar, able to focus his chaotic abilities into music. Things turn nasty when another man with electric powers, Thunderbolt Buddha (Masatoshi Nagase), appears on the scene; with an unspecified vendetta against Morrison he will go to any lengths to ensure a highly-charged showdown with our hero.

“Electric Dragon 80,000 v” is a tongue-in-cheek cyberpunk superhero story. It strips away philosophical concerns regarding humanity’s future and their place in the universe, evolution  and the coming machine world or digital singularity. Instead it plays with many of the tropes of the genre in an entertaining way. The plot is wafer thin, essentially the build-up of two challengers culminating in a final glorious showdown, but at under an hour in length the premise does not have time to outstay it’s welcome. Everything in the film revolves either around Morrison or Thunderbolt, there are no subplots or side-characters to distract from the frenetic energy and punk style. Tadanobu Asano and Masatoshi Nagase give great performances. Although there is little dialogue shared between them for the majority, they embrace the wild, raucous tone of the film.

 Shot in black and white, with high contrast between the flashing lights of the city and the dark shadows, the film has a sleek aesthetic while also capturing the chaos of a world overrun with pylons, cables, and urban sprawl. The story’s comic book feel, with a hero and villain narrative, is heightened by the use of narration, flashes of electric-style font, and close-ups or cutaway inserts. Cyberpunk has always been a genre in which directors can show off their skills, and here is no different. Sogo Ishii uses everything from speeded up sequences, overlays, digital and practical effects, and shots from almost every angle to establish a tone that grips the audience from the beginning with its frenzied energy. The rock-metal soundtrack by Ishii’s group MACH-1.67 does a superb job of conveying a sense of pent-up aggression and the surging electric currents that symbolise it.

At times the film feels like a simple homage to earlier cyberpunk works, using many of the same techniques and even borrowing more than a few ideas, such as the machine-man duality and the idea that technology, in this case electricity is both a great and terrible force. However, the film rarely labours these themes, presenting them visually without the need for further explanation, perhaps in understanding that they are well worn ideas. It simplifies its message to the point that it stands as both an prime example and celebration of many things the movement as a whole tries to convey. The idea that Morrison was a troubled youth and given electro-shock therapy harks back to notions of government control, rebellious youth and the limits of personal freedom; while the concept of electricity coursing through his veins represents themes of potential, either for good or bad. Morrison directs his energy towards playing guitar, while Thunderbolt uses his powers for evil. This dichotomy is starkly drawn here and the film builds up both characters and their final confrontation in an entertaining way. Morrison’s love for animals, alongside his love of music, also shows he has a connection to the physical world unlike his counterpart who appears to be allowing the machine to take over.

Mirrored Mind (2004) Sogo Ishii

The film begins with abstract images of golden triangles intercut with scenes of a bustling city as we hear a soundtrack of resonant and meditative bells. Narration then tells us that this story is based on the experiences of the director’s ex-girlfriend. We see a young woman crossing the Shibuya scramble junction outside the station. She is then sitting beside a window as she recounts recent troubles she is having distinguishing reality from fiction. The man she is talking to seems unsympathetic, telling her to find a job so she is distracted from her psychological issues. We then find that this is actually a scene from a film that is being shot, which the young woman wrote. She tells the director that she doesn’t feel it is really conveying what she wants to. He is also less than helpful, reminding her that they already spent a lot of money and that due to her past actions it is difficult for her to get films funded. On her way home she stops by a travel agent and while looking into the window a mysterious young woman appears at her shoulder. She returns to her untidy apartment and pours herself a large drink. We then see her wandering through a series of beautiful vistas in this location, eventually meeting the young woman from the city on the beach.

Written and directed by Sogo Ishii, “Mirrored Mind” is based on a short. The film does feel stretched, even at an hour in length, with relatively little going on. Instead the film luxuriates in its hypnotic imagery and dream-like visuals. The soundtrack of discordant bells has something of a religious aura, reverberating with strangely eerie tones. The sound design also fades down background noise at times to highlight a sense of disconnect from the city and other people. The story does have a twist at the end which is well set-up and paid off although there is a lot to sit through before getting to this moment. The acting by Miwako Ichikawa in the lead role is exceptional, really capturing the character of a woman who is lost and suffering from stress, loneliness and an inability to realise her own will.

More of an art-house experiment than a movie, focussing heavily on the psychology of the protagonist. The film uses sound and imagery to tell its story. Vast ocean vistas are shown as a symbol of the ineffable, the eternal and incomprehensible other that humanity seems doomed to search for without ever finding it. The film also subtly intimates ideas of a separation between the machine and the natural world. The scenes of the city are contrasted starkly with those of the peaceful natural otherworld that our protagonist escapes to. The end of the film suggests that a connection with nature is important to humans and something that many are missing. The film’s central philosophy, reflected in the title, is that the world is a mirror of internal psychology. An interesting concept and one that again the film allows the audience to make up their own minds about. “Mirrored Mind” is a ponderous affair but nevertheless with some stunning cinematography and sound design. If you are looking for something soothingly contemplative to watch then it is worth checking out.