Ikigami (2008) by Tomoyuki Takimoto

An authoritarian state maintains order by systematically killing one in every thousand individuals in this satirical, dystopian drama. At the age of six, children are injected with a vaccine with a 0.1% chance of killing them at a specified time between the ages of 18 and 24. The people who are due to die receive 24 hours warning in the form of an Ikigami (or death notice); they are given access to free food, accommodation and transportation, as well as a pension for their surviving relatives, but if they commit a crime this money will go to pay their victims. Kengo Fujimoto (Shota Matsuda) works for the government office responsible for delivering these notices, little by little beginning to question his work as he sees the human impact of this policy. The first person he contacts is Tsubasa Tanabe (Yuta Kanai), who receives notification of his impending death on the eve of a major breakthrough as a singer. The second is shut-in Naoki Takazawa (Kazuma Sano), the son of a politician (Jun Fubuki), whose Ikigami stirs him out of his apathy and depression to violent action. And finally Satoshi (Takayuki Yamada) who is caring for his blinded sister Sakura (Riko Narumi) after the two of them were orphaned.

Ikigami” presents an fascinatingly subtle dystopian future, that could even be set in the modern day if not for this minor addition of the law mandating the death of a percentage of the population. The film’s opening sequence, where we see a man attempting to take revenge on his school bully, is something of a misdirection, leading us to think we are about to witness an action-packed anti-establishment thriller. The film soon settles into a more sombre, downbeat tone, with almost monochromatic offices where the government officials deal with the death notices, and sentimental moments as the characters contend with their premature ends. This is intentional, with director Tomoyuki Takimoto and the crew drawing a distinction between the cold corporatism of this inhuman policy, with the deep emotionality of the humans it affects. The score by Hibiki Inamoto, of heart-wrenching strings, is used sparingly, often allowing the performances to speak for themselves. The sizeable cast do a great job, with what is effectively three separate storylines, of Tsubasa, Satoshi and Sakura, and Naoki. Importantly, we sense the connection or lack of with these characters and those around them, buying into their sense of regret at things left unfinished, or deep sorrow at what they will miss out on. In the direction, with scenes shot through surveillance cameras, or the repeated shots of monorails, the film provides visual shorthand for many of the themes and ideas, such as mortality and the seemingly impossible struggle against faceless authoritarianism.

“Ikigami” is based on the novel by Motoro Mase, who also worked on the screenplay, and establishes a simple yet compelling premise. The given reason for this seemingly cruel act is that it provokes a respect for life in the citizenship, and that their fear of death keeps them subservient. We learn that crime rates have fallen and people’s gratitude for life makes them work hard and not step out of line. The film’s subtle authoritarianism, reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984 with its references to thought-crime and the coldly bureaucratic nature of state violence, is a dystopia that only slightly exaggerates a lot of common societal problems and a government’s attitude towards controlling their population. Japan is a society very much built around ideas of conformity and the film satirises this perfectly, with parents willingly allowing their children to be injected with a potentially fatal capsule; politicians actively cheering on the death of individuals for the greater good; and the matter-of-fact way this horrific law has become a part of everyday life. There are suggestions throughout that people are fighting back against the system, but they are shut down quickly, with people being hauled off for re-education or punishment. And despite the senselessness of what is happening, most of those affected accept their fate without considering taking action against the state. In this way the film is perhaps more powerful, or gives a better idea of how insidious totalitarian ideology can be, as there is no impending revolution, only a fragile hope for a better tomorrow, and a population with no way to organise or fight back against a fatal, technocratic evil.

While the film might most easily described as a satire, there are also elements that seem jarringly sentimental and life-affirming. Tsubasa’s reconciliation with his old friend, and Satoshi and Sakura’s relationship almost seem to be proving the government’s argument that the system works to create a respect for life. These moments, packed with emotionality, stand in stark contrast to the world of Fujimoto, of workers carrying out orders without ever truly contemplating the effects of their actions. In a sense the film is providing propaganda for the totalitarian regime, while trusting that the audience are wily enough not to fall for it. A striking dystopian drama that shows the true horror of totalitarianism and the dangers of an overly passive society.

Monsterz (2014) by Hideo Nakata

A man (Tatsuya Fujiwara) with the power to control other people’s actions comes up against his greatest adversary when he meets someone who is impervious to his abilities. After a traumatic childhood, Fujiwara’s sinister protagonist turns to a life of crime, using his abilities to freeze people in time and manipulate them to his will. He is shocked to discover that a young removal man, Shuichi (Takayuki Yamada) is unaffected by this and sets out to destroy him. Shuichi also seems to have peculiar qualities of his own, recovering exceptionally quickly from accidents that would be fatal to others.

Hideo Nakata (The Ring) directs this film in what is a departure from the straight horror fare he is best known for. “Monzters” is a remake of an earlier Korean film “Haunters” written by Min-suk Kim, with the Japanese script here by Yusuke Watanabe. It is a dark superhero narrative, with a villain and hero fated to do battle, leaning more towards action that suspense. There are a few moments of horror, such as the opening sequences and scenes in which people are forced to snap their own necks, but the tone remains fairly light throughout. The story is hard to take seriously and there are moments that tip over into pure farce, such as the two boxers being controlled to come and beat up Shuichi, or the scene in which he saves a baby by diving over a railing. Part of the problem with the film is a lack of significant characterisation. There are ideas here that are never fully developed Fujiwara and Yamada do a decent job with relatively little to work with. Fujiwara is suitably unlikeable as the villain, evoking a degree of sympathy with a tragic backstory, an outcast who has turned against the world; while Yamada’s Shuichi is a likeable protagonist. The supporting cast include Ochiai Motoki and Nakano Taiga as Shuichi’s friends, and Satomi Ishihara. Kenji Kawai’s score is one of the highlights of the film, lending some much needed emotionality and tension, with a poignant undertone to the drama and sinister clanking industrial soundtrack supporting Nakata’s darker visuals.

While for the most part “Monsterz” is a fairly formulaic superhero action film, there is an interesting concept at work in the Fujiwara character. The question of whether criminals, or ‘monsters’ as he is described in the film, are born or made is one that has been discussed in many works of film and literature. The film unfortunately relies on the trope of disability as an indication of evil, Fujiwara’s limp becoming a symbol of his sinister nature as with Richard III’s hump-back and disfigurement. Similarly, there is little grey area in the portrayal of Fujiwara and Yamada. The villain has certain sympathetic motives, hated and abused by his father, cast out from society, but these points are again brushed over, and we mostly see him only as the ‘monster’ he is seen as by others. A more nuanced take on both him and Shuichi may have benefitted the film, adding a little more nuance to the depictions of good and evil. Overall, a fairly entertaining dark superhero narrative, but it feels as though Nakata was restrained by the material, a crowd-pleasing action film, and unable to deliver something truly thrilling.

The Naked Director Series 2 (2021)

Toru Muranishi (Takayuki Yamada) is on top of the world, with Sapphire Productions making money hand over fist, his staff and stars, including Rugby (Takenori Goto), Junko (Sairi Ito), Naoko (Ami Tomite), and manager Kawada (Tetsuji Tamayama), are all happy with how things are going. But Muranishi is dreaming bigger; after finding out about the new technology of satellite television he dreams of having his videos distributed to every home, seeing a vision of porn ‘raining down from the sky’. Meanwhile, Detective Takei (Lily Franky) is still playing both sides of the yakuza while unfortunate Toshi (Shinnosuke Mitsushima) acts as a lackey under boss Furuya (Jun Kunimura). Kaoru Kuroki (Misato Morita) is coming to terms with her fame as Japan’s premier adult actress and the company is taking on a slew of new talent.

“The Naked Director Series 2” has the same energy and outrageous comedy moments as the first series, but also delves more into the darker side of the industry. We see Muranishi’s arrogant, overbearing persona both in a positive and negative light as it wins him contracts, but alienates those around him. Most poignant are the stories of Kaoru Kuroki, and to a lesser extent Naoko, who are figuring out what it means to be a porn actress and whether they can ever leave the industry. New characters include Yuri Tsunematsu’s Miyuki, whose wide-eyed innocence hides a determination to succeed, but also finds that being a porn actress may not be as glamourous as it seems. The large and impressive ensemble cast, most returning from the first series, fully embody their characters, their quirks and personalities shining through even when they are only briefly on screen. While the series again mostly sticks with Muranishi’s story, there are plenty of moments for the rest of the cast to shine.

Series 2 is directed by Masaharu Take, lead director on the first series, and Kotaro Goto.  The show is stylish from start to finish with the camera becoming a part of the action and constant creativity on display. The series also features a couple of fantasy sequences which add a little comedy to things, with Muranishi floating in space to the strains of The Carpenter’s “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft”. The soundtrack throughout the series features some great tracks, often used ironically. The score is not always limited to songs of the 1990’s, but the songs are generally well-selected and give the series a youthful energy. The recreation of the time period through costumes and set-design is impressive, recreating the 1990’s with as much gusto as series one did the 1980’s, a nostalgic look back at a lost era of fashion.

Much of the series is about regret and making mistakes. Gone is the naivety of their early careers; the characters now fully enmeshed in the ‘business’ side of the porn industry. This sense of being jaded is highlighted perfectly by having the pornography often playing as background noise. Things which are there to excite the general public are mere wallpaper to the protagonists. As money worries, relationship issues, business deals, and more consume Muranishi and the other characters, the shimmer of the glamourous image of their business is peeled away to reveal a world as soul-crushing and difficult as any other. An incredible second act to the first series, this time around revealing many of the failings of the characters and the difficulties they go through to maintain their sense of self.

The Naked Director (2019)

Toru Muranishi is a famous name in the world of Japanese porn, prominent from the heyday of the industry in the 1980’s as one of the most prolific directors of adult videos. Based on real events, this television drama takes us back to the formative years of his directorial career and the numerous revolutions that typified the era. The first episode begins with Muranishi (Takayuki Yamada) standing in nothing but his white underwear with a large camera on one shoulder as he holds forth about the importance of his profession. We are then taken back to Muranishi working as a salesman for English encyclopaedias. He has a talent for sales, convincing his customers that they absolutely need these encyclopaedias to improve their personal and professional lives.

When he comes home to find his wife, and the mother of his two children, having an affair with his co-worker, his world is thrown into turmoil. While out drinking he meets Toshi (Shinnosuke Mitsushima), a young man who is flogging illicit audio recordings of couples from a nearby love hotel. The two strike up an unlikely partnership with Muranishi’s talents making a huge success of their business. Together they get into producing their own magazines together with a third partner Kawada (Tetsuji Tamayama). As times change, so do they, setting up adult stores and later getting into making pornographic videos. Along the way they are beset by the puritanical Japanese police and their strict censorship laws; the yakuza who have a hand in the largely underground industry; and their rival porn studio run by wealthy boss Ikezawa (Ryo Ishibashi).

In parallel with Muranishi’s story is that of Megumi (Misato Morita), later to become the porn actress Kaoru Kuroki, one of the industry’s biggest stars and a symbol of sexual liberation. Beginning as a student, Megumi lives at home with her austere mother, but slowly she experiences a sexual awakening and decides to break out of the traditional role ascribed to her and become a porn actress.

The series is hugely enjoyable. While Muranishi and Kuroki are real and this is based on a true story, it is unclear precisely how much of this is dramatized. Whatever the case may be, it is packed with action, with Muranishi on the run from the police or shooting pornographic films, and also a lot of drama, especially in Kuroki’s relationship with her mother that forms the heart of her story. There is a lot of sex and nudity in almost every episode and it doesn’t hold back from a graphic depiction of its subject matter. Some may complain that the series smooths off some of the edges of the porn industry, and of the characters. Later in the series things do take a dark turn as we see the introduction of drugs, in the form of meth, being used to trap young women into performing. However, the majority of the series takes the tone of a light-hearted romp with comical moments and the stakes are largely confined to financial troubles or the company struggling to survive in a competitive industry. The story is full of twists and turns with each episode either bringing a new triumph or disaster to Muranishi and his rag tag gang of employees. This gives the series a sense of forward momentum and you are never quite sure what is going to happen next.

The cast is exceptional. As well as the main cast, the series stars Lily Franky as the police officer who is constantly investigating their activities; Takenori Goto as “Rugby” and Sairi Ito as Junko, Muranishi’s hard-working assistants; Ami Tomite and Nanami Kawakami also feature, and Koyuki gives a great performance as Megumi’s mother Kayo.

The series is based on the book “Zenra Kantoku Muranishi Toru Den” (The Legend of Muranishi Toru, the Naked Director) by Nobuhiro Motohashi, and is directed by Masaharu Take, Eiji Uchida and Hayato Kawai. All three are experienced directors having worked in television or film for a number of years and it shows in the style of the series. Largely set in the eighties, they manage to capture the period feel with costumes and set-design. The soundtrack is an interesting selection of instantly recognizable and catchy western songs.

Despite being the central character, Muranishi remains something of a mystery throughout. We see only briefly the effect his wife’s affair had on him and it is hard to get a sense of what is really driving him to do what he does. In contrast, Kaoru Kuroki is much more of an open book as we see her actions as an expression of personal freedom. The pornographic industry provides an interesting focal point for discussions of personal liberty, exploitation, lust, sex, capitalism, and many other things. The series constantly shows that pornography is a business designed to make money, this is the driving motivation behind almost all of the characters. It also shows how the adult industry is often driven underground in what is a largely conservative society; the strict censorship laws and prohibitions are in stark contrast to the obvious popularity of these materials. The rights and wrongs of government interference are barely touched on. Kaoru Kuroki’s philosophy of sexual emancipation is given more time, but still more could have been done with the character.

“The Naked Director” is a fun show that smooths off most of the rough edges of its protagonist in favour of giving the audience and enjoyable comedy-drama. Excellent direction and design along with an amazing cast make for a hugely enjoyable watch.

Crows Zero (2007)

Suzuran High School, violent and out of control, is occupied by factions formed among the students. New student Genji, backed by his uncle in the Yakuza, attempts to wrest control from the most powerful faction leader: Selizawa. the film has many comedic moments and a stylized design make it feel like a live-action manga should.

From the opening scene of a Yakuza gangster shooting a man, to the final rain drenched battle, the director strings together a number of powerful set pieces. The fight scenes are well-done, though gleefully cartoonish in the levels of violence. The rock soundtrack also gives the film drive. While it might easily have been a meaningless array of fights, the scenes between the two leads and Genji and his uncle help give an emotional edge to the film.

The characters are largely arrogant, impetuous high-school kids and the film to some extent glorifies fighting. The pugilistic lifestyle does however allow for reflections on the power of family, loyalty and honour. An exhausting but ultimately fulfilling experience.

Based on a manga by Hiroshi Takahashi.