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.

Labyrinth of Cinema (2019) by Nobuhiko Obayashi

At a seaside cinema, local residents gather for the final night of their closing down film festival to watch a showing of several war films. Among the patrons are three young men, film fanatic Mario (Takuro Atsuki), history buff Hosuke (Takahito Hosoyamada), and a young gang member Shigeru (Yoshihiko Hosoda), as well as a mysterious young girl name Noriko (Rei Yoshida). Also present is a man who has recently arrived from a spaceship, Fanta G. (Yukihiro Takahashi) (You didn’t think an Obayashi film would be that straightforward, did you?). When a lightning storm strikes, the three young men find themselves transported into the films with Noriko, who they swear to protect from the violence raging around them. What follows is a journey through Japanese military and literary history as they travel from old black-and-white samurai films through the action-packed Second World War epics, and later to that fateful day in 1945 when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.

From the off it is clear that Obayashi (House, Hanagatami) intends to create something that is not so much a film as a monument to the past, a celebration of cinema, and a stirring political screed. Fanta G. sets the tone early on as he tells us about certain historical events from his objective fourth-wall breaking perspective. Throughout the film text appears on screen to give historical details, and at times “Labyrinth of Cinema” feels more like a history lesson or documentary than a conventional narrative. That is not to say that it is boring. By having the three young men travel into the films we are given not only the filmic version of historical events, but their modern take on them, along with explanations of the real history. Obayashi employs his familiar collage approach to film-making, with abundant use of blue screen, frenetic camera direction, brightly coloured scenes, and this hand-made, stitched together look gives everything a unique charm. The framing device of the three men being drawn into the films gives some sense of structure, but for the most part it is a more experiential approach. It can be confusing, with the characters jumping back and forth through time periods, in and out of the films they are watching, and at a certain point you have to give up attempting to make logical sense of it and just let it wash over you like a mesmeric psychedelic phantasmagoria. The film can be moving when it needs to be, particularly as it moves towards the tragedy of Hiroshima, building tension through the cumulation of these various historical tragedies. The main cast do a great job with the unconventional material, charismatic enough to hold their own against the frenetic camerawork and colourful visuals. The large supporting cast includes film directors Isshin Inudo and Makoto Tezuka, and Tadanobu Asano among others, again giving the film a collaborative feel that draws you in with the enthusiasm all involved clearly have for cinema.

Obayashi is a lifelong anti-war auteur and film fanatic and “Labyrinth of Cinema” is a poignant tribute to war films, highlighting the virtues expressed in them, and the joy of gung-ho action, whilst condemning the terrible atrocities that were committed. Film lovers can luxuriate in this three-hour epic which captures that experience of being completely enraptured in a film. Obayashi’s love of cinema shines through, as well as his conviction that art has the power to change the world. The character of Noriko at first seems like a heroine that these brave men are trying to rescue. However, as things progress and we see her in each time period, we learn that she signifies much more. Her name, it is explained, means “Child of Hope”, and it is this hope that the protagonists are trying to protect; they are fighting to maintain their own innocence in the face of centuries of war and horrors. The hope that the next generation of children will not fall prey to the same violent tendencies that marred the past. The film is also strewn with the poems of Chuya Nakashima, further emphasising the contrast between the beauty of creation through art, with the terrible destructive consequences of war. The length and arthouse style typical of Obayashi’s oeuvre are here used to deliver a powerful experience that sheds light on the history of film, warfare and humanity’s contradictory nature in its propensity towards both violence and hope.

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.

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.