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.

Distance (2001) by Hirokazu Koreeda

“Distance” begins as the anniversary of a terrorist attack poisoning Tokyo’s water supply is approaching. The attack, which killed hundreds and injured thousands, ended with the cult members responsible committing suicide. Four individuals, partners and relations of the cult members, make a pilgrimage on this anniversary to the lake where they died. Kiyoka (Yui Natsukawa), a teacher whose husband joined, meets up with Minoru (Susumu Terajima), whose wife also left him to become a member. Along with Atsushi (Arata Iura) and Masaru (Yusuke Iseya), whose brother and sister respectively took part in the incident, the four of them head to the lake, driving deep into the forest. While there they meet Sakata (Tadanobu Asano), a former member of the cult who fled before the others went through with their plan. When they return to their car they find it has been stolen, along with Sakata’s bike, and the five are forced to take refuge in a nearby house that was used by the cult.

Writer and director Hirokazu Koreeda excels at bringing the best out of his actors. Within a few short scenes or snatches of dialogue we are completely invested in their characters. Whether it is Atsushi with his girlfriend, or the scenes in which the four meet up, they are able to capture the essence of who they are with a shorthand and chemistry that make their relationships believable and engaging. All of the central performances are pitched perfectly as they deal with the layers of guilt, loss and regret, all while attempting to continue with their lives. Koreeda’s realist approach to can be seen in the dialogue which feels natural, getting across information without feeling weighed down by exposition. There are several long takes, such as Kiyoka with her husband and Minoru with his wife, in flashback, where we see the advantage of giving characters room to breathe. In Minoru’s scene in particular there is a sense of helplessness to his situation that is emphasised by the extended scene. Where others may cut away when the central message has been communicated, that his wife is leaving to join the cult, we are put right in his shoes as he rages confusedly about this, unable to walk away from the situation as the scene becomes increasingly uncomfortable for both him and the audience. Koreeda also uses hand-held camerawork to take us inside their world, stripping away the artificial nature of film to create something more documentary-like in style. The film also features interview segments with most of the protagonists, with them being questioned by the police after the events, that stand in stark contrast to the scenes in the forest, from  a static angle with the characters dead centre. This helps get across the message of life as messy and at odds with the world of law and order as typified by the police.

The film is loosely inspired by real-world events in which cults have committed terrorist acts. Rather than going for an obvious critique of such groups, Koreeda instead focusses on those surrounding the members. The film asks difficult questions about why people join such cults, but also whether their friends, partners and family should or are able to stop them. The responsibility for these acts must ultimately reside with the individual, but we see through the story of Atsushi that there may be warning signs that are missed and that catastrophe might be averted. It investigates the notion of societal as opposed to personal responsibility. The film is infused with this melancholy and sense of regret that nothing was done to stop them. It is also interesting to note that the central characters are not victims of the attacks, but relatives of the perpetrators, and in the case of Sakata someone actively involved in the cult. It is a film that provokes thought on these subjects without offering any easy answers. We see in the character of Minoru that his ignorance, perhaps lack of care, about his wife may have contributed to her joining the cult. Similarly, Atsushi is shown to be distant from his brother. At heart “Distance” is a film about dealing with tragedy and seeking understanding and redemption. The title also suggests a sense that people remain isolated from one another, even those who they believe they are closest to, and ponders whether it is ever possible to really know somebody. The interview scenes are reminiscent of “Rashomon” and the film can be read as an investigation of the nature of truth, with the police representing the supposed objective reality and the characters experiences and reminiscences a more subjective understanding of who these individuals were. A beautifully crafted film with incredible acting that takes the audience on a journey into the dark and unexplored regions of human psychology.

Harmonium (2016) by Koji Fukada

Toshio (Kanji Furutachi) is a man living a comfortable life with his wife Akie (Mariko Tsutsui) and young daughter Hotaru (Momone Shinokawa). He has a workshop at home where he manufactures parts. Out of the blue and old friend, Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano), turns up and enquires how he is doing. Yasaka is recently out of an 11 year jail term and Toshio agrees that he can work with him and stay with his family. Akie is not comfortable with this at first, but Yasaka soon shows himself to be a kind individual, teaching Hotaru the harmonium which she is practicing for an upcoming recital. Akie’s acceptance of Yasaka, and their own friendship, sees him confess to the murder that put him in jail for 11 years. Akie’s Protestantism means that she is keen to forgive him and believes that god is looking out for him.

The following synopsis contains spoilers.

“Harmonium” is a film of two halves. The first is a slow character study of Toshio, his family, and Yasaka. At almost exactly the halfway point we are hit with three sudden and shocking moments that come like a gut-punch and leave the audience reeling. None are entirely unexpected, but the nature of what happens colours the entire second act and makes us reassess everything that went before. Firstly, while on a family outing Yasaka moves to kiss Akie, their relationship has become closer, and the two begin an affair behind Toshio’s back. The second shock comes after a scene in which Yasaka is rejected by Akie. We see him leave the house and he spots Hotaru on her way home. In the next moment we find Yasaka over Hotaru’s body, blood seeping from her head. Toshio and Akie find their daughter and Yasaka walks away. As if this moment were not shocking enough, the film then cuts to 8 years later. Toshio and Akie are still living and working as before, Toshio has now taken on a new apprentice, Takashi (Taiga). We learn that Hotaru was not killed in the incident, but paralysed and left in a wheelchair and barely able to communicate. This tragic occurrence leads to soul-searching from both Akie and Toshio, who eventually reveals his own role in the murder Yasaka committed.

Written and directed by Koji Fukada, “Harmonium” is a film that relies on an excellent script, superb performances from the main cast and direction that leads the audience through the subtle build up and crushing twists without being overly ostentatious. It is a character driven narrative that looks at a brutal and tragic occurrence and the impact it has on people. It can be hard to comprehend exactly what the message of the film is on first watch, but it is something that will stay with you. There are two dialogues early in the film that may shed some light on the underlying themes of the film. The first is when Hotaru is discussing a spider she heard about whose prodigy eat their mother. She asks whether the mother will go to heaven. The father asks later whether the children will go to hell for eating her, finally reasoning that they will all go to hell because even the mother must have eaten her mother and so on. This notion of heaven and hell is raised in conjunction with Akie’s protestant faith and the film is in part an exploration of notions of sin and redemption. Both Toshio and Yasaka have sinned, but the film asks pointedly whether either can be redeemed. Religion is raised again in a conversation between Akie and Yasaka, when he asks her whether she is like the kitten or the monkey when it comes to god. The kitten, he explains, is carried along by the scruff of its neck, while baby monkeys cling to their mother themselves. He believes she is like the cat, carried along by god partly unwillingly, while she disagrees, stating she clings to god more like the monkey.

Every performance in the film is praiseworthy, especially that of Mariko Tsutsui as Akie, a woman who is struggling through the most difficult circumstances and in danger of losing her faith. Kanji Furutachi gives an excellent performance as Toshio, who we learn is an atheist. He appears to have completely shut himself off from the world, including his wife and child to a certain extent, perhaps through guilt or an attempt to suppress his personality. Tadanobu Asano is also excellent as Yakasa, whose mannerisms appear unnatural, but in a way that is hard to fully define. There are moments that can be genuinely chilling, as when he sees Hotaru for the first time, but always played subtly so you are never quite sure if you are just imagining it. In a way the film is provoking the audience into making judgements on him, in the same way many in society would when confronted with an ex-convict.

Fukada’s direction helps to tell the story, further strengthening the script and performances into something that is completely engrossing. As mentioned, the film is one of two halves in terms of the narrative structure. There also appears to be a shift in direction following the incident. Early in the film there are many static shots, and framing is largely flat, with characters facing one another across a table for instance. As the film moves to the second half we see a more active camera, off-kilter shots and the momentum seems to suggest a couple that is falling apart. Colour is also used to great effect, whether the white overalls of Yakasa, or the apparent switch in clothing of Akie and her daughter during a dream sequence later in the film. The minimalist score, that really only begins late in the film, helps to emphasise the final dramatic moments.

“Harmonium” is a difficult film to watch, with very dark themes about the most horrific of incidents. It is a film about how the past can come back to haunt you, and how people learn to live with their mistakes. We never discover what happened with Yasaka and Hotaru. Unlike a conventional crime story, the film is unconcerned about the details of the crime, but more interested in the impact it has on the survivors. The feelings of anguish suffered by Toshio and Akie come crashing together with their own feelings of guilt over what happened. The Japanese title of the film “Standing in the Abyss”, probably captures this sense of utter devastation and loss the best. They are two people who are living, but unable to move on or climb out of their personal hell. A film that is definitely worth the watch for the fantastic performances and heart-wrenching story.

Tokyo Zombie (2005)

Mitsuo (Show Aikawa) and Fujio (Tadanobu Asano) are employed at a fire extinguisher factory nearby “Black Fuji”, a giant rubbish tip that has grown to gargantuan size. The two friends spend their breaks, and most of their work time, practising jujitsu together. When their boss dies the two travel to “Black Fuji” to dispose of the corpse. The mountain, full of everything people wish to dispose of, appears to be resurrecting the dead and soon there are zombies roaming the streets. After several narrow scrapes, during which Mitsuo is bitten, the story jumps forwards in time five years. Tokyo is now a post-apocalyptic society, with the rich living in palatial towers while those less fortunate are left with the zombies on the lower levels. In honour of his mentor, Fujio earns money as a fighter in an arena where the poor and zombies are forced to fight for the entertainment of wealthy Tokyoites.

Based on a manga by Yusaku Hankuma with a screenplay by director Sakichi Sato (who also produced the screenplays for Takashi Miike’s “Ichi the Killer” and “Gozu”), “Tokyo Zombie” is a black zombie comedy that is sadly lacking in enough humour or gore to make it truly exceptional. Tadanobu Asano and Show Aikawa give decent performances in the lead roles, but there is little for them to do except clowning around. They are cast as dim slackers that find themselves unexpectedly in the worst of all possible situations. There are a couple of character moments, but for the most part their interactions consist of low brow slapstick and crass humour. This would not be a problem if the material was stronger. The film has a couple of fun moments, both blackly comic (with gruesome deaths) and more farcical (when the pair realise they have been driving south instead of north away from the disaster), but many of the gags fall flat and there is a recurring joke that is overused (despite being unfunny the first time around). It is a film that comes up short in every department, neither wacky enough to satisfy comedy fans, or gory enough to satisfy horror fans. There are flashes of what could have been throughout, such as in the animated segment, but these are overwhelmed by the long stretches of drama that offer little in the way of entertainment.

“Tokyo Zombie” is a disappointing film for a number of reasons. Firstly, the two leads are both fine actors and they are not without talent in comedic roles, they are simply underused with cheap material and a lack of character. Secondly, the film feels almost restrained at times. For something with this premise, and no real requirement for realism or sincerity, it could have really pushed the boundaries in terms of surrealism or taste. It often seems like it is playing things safe, with fairly standard comedy fare, and needlessly so since the premise is so ridiculous it has nothing to lose from going for a more extreme tone. The film touches on several issues, that while not exactly unique in the genre, could have been utilised better to create a more satisfying experience. Unfortunately, ideas of societal inequality, environmental issues, and the central theme of loyalty and friendship, never really see their potential realised with any kind of payoff later in the film.

Vital (2004)

Tadanobu Asano stars in this tense thriller about love, loss and dissection. After waking up from a car crash suffering severe amnesia Hiroshi Takagi (Asano) restarts his medical training, something which he had given up on. He takes to the subject with a great degree of dedication and skill. When the class begin on dissecting corpses, he is surprised to see that the body they are working on is that of his former girlfriend, killed in the same car crash that resulted in his memory loss. As Hiroshi dissects the body, he has recurring dreams in which he sees the woman, Ryoko, spending time with her in that otherworld beyond life.

Directed by Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo: The Iron Man), this film is more accessible than his earlier work. Despite its seemingly macabre and gruesome plot, it is a surprisingly charming film, largely concerned with themes of grief and human relationships, albeit told in an unconventional fashion. The direction uses a number of tricks to disorient the viewer, jumping from real-world and dream-sequences to create a sense of unreality to everything you are seeing, and including seemingly unrelated scenes of factory chimneys that cause you to ponder their significance. One of the most effective shots in the film, for me, was the image of elevator doors sliding up and down beside each other, a simple but chilling effect that puts you in mind of left-right brain dichotomy, and is subtly troubling. Tadanobu Asano does a good job at portraying the lead, who is not only suffering memory loss, a sense of isolation and alienation from the world following his girlfriend’s death, but is also a studious person who is keen to analyse his own psyche as he examines the corpse on the table before him. If there was problem for me with the film it was in some of the more experimental shots, such as a car crash filmed in negative or the aforementioned inserts of smoking chimneys, but these can be forgiven when experiencing a singular vision such as this. The film is far from generic, so some eccentricity is to be expected in the direction.

A fantastic analysis of the relationship between the conscious and subconscious worlds, and how people are able to deal with grief and loss. I would definitely recommend this film to fans of more bizarre stories. There are a few scenes of autopsy that might not be for the faint-hearted, but overall the film does not rely on shock horror allowing you to get involved in what is essentially a tragic love story.