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.

Rurouni Kenshin 3: The Legend Ends (2014) by Keishi Otomo

The final part of the Rurouni Kenshin trilogy tells the story of the legendary swordsman Kenshin Himura (Takeru Sato) as he battles against Shishio (Tatsuya Fujiwara), a fellow former assassin who has turned to a life of crime. This film picks up where the last one ended, with Kenshin training with his former master, Seijuro Hiko (Masaharu Fukuyama) and asking him to learn the ultimate technique of his “High Heaven” style.

The biggest fault with this film comes from the fact that, after an incredible build-up in the previous film “Kyoto Inferno”, we return to Kenshin training to take on Shishio again. This almost seems like a backwards from where we were in the story, but it is understandable that they cannot rush straight to the climactic battle scene. The film has a much slower pace, and more time for character development, in many ways a more sedate affair than the previous films. While it is a little frustrating to have to wait for the climactic duel, this does allow us to see a different side of Kenshin, a more vulnerable, mortal, human than the unbeatable hero that he had become. When the film does reach the final fight it is as spectacular as anything that has gone before, and you can appreciate the build-up as it adds a definite weight to their struggle to defeat Shishio, and Shishio’s own hatred of the government. Again there are certain characters in the ensemble who fall by the wayside, receiving only a short amount of screen time, but the film is told with such assuredness of direction that it is easy to forgive its flaws. Having the same director and cast ensures that each film is of comparable quality, and they do their best to introduce new elements to each story. The score, by Naoki Sato, emphasizes the sense of scale and it is hard not to feel emotionally engaged when various themes begin, familiar from previous films.

This is really a part two with “Kyoto Inferno” bringing to a close a trilogy of fantastic historical action epics, probably one of the best live-action adaptations of a manga out there, which respects its characters enough to spend significant time developing them and also takes its story seriously. The consistency in quality, with the same cast and crew, mean that if you enjoyed the earlier films, you are very likely to enjoy this final instalment, which brings things to a satisfying conclusion.

Rurouni Kenshin 2: Kyoto Inferno (2014) by Keishi Otomo

The film opens with an atmospheric sequence in which we see police chief Hajime Saito (Yosuke Eguchi) tracking down the dangerous gang-boss Makoto Shishio (Tatsuya Fujiwara), a figure who was believed to have been killed at the battle of Toba-Fushimi, which brought about the new age of peace in Japan. This opening sequence establishes Shishio as a dangerous villain, intent on exacting revenge on the world. We pick up the story of Himura Kenshin (Takeru Sato), and his friends Sanosuke (Muneta Aoki), Kaoru (Emi Takei), Megumi (Yu Aoi) and others from the first film, when he is asked to travel to Kyoto to find Shishio and kill him. Kenshin reluctantly  agrees, setting up a series of thrilling encounters with Shishio’s gang.

With the same cast and director as the first Rurouni Kenshin film, this includes much of what made that film great. The action sequences are exciting, well-choreographed, both one-on-one duels and fights against larger numbers. The film introduces a few new characters, including Sojiro Seta (Ryunosuke Miura), who has one of the best fights in the film with Kenshin. The story has a darker tone than the first, with a much more intimidating villain. Shishio appears wrapped in bandages after being betrayed and burnt in his last battle, and is believed to be equal in strength, speed, and skill to the semi-legendary Kenshin himself. The imagery of fire and hell in the beginning is a fantastic introduction to this character and sets the scene for an epic showdown. The film does a reasonable job of distinguishing itself, although the basic elements remain unchanged. Once again the film benefits from Takuro Ishizaka’s incredible cinematography and an epic score by Naoki Sato.

A fine sequel to the first film, with everything that was enjoyable about it reproduced here. The film-makers succeed in upping the tension with a darker, more violent villain and some incredible action set-pieces. The film is the first part of a two-part story, meaning that the end of the film builds to a climax that doesn’t arrive. However, it does an great job of setting up that confrontation for the next film.

Snakes and Earrings (2008) by Yukio Ninagawa

A young woman becomes fascinated by the idea of body modification after a chance encounter at a club. Lui (Yuriko Yoshitaka) meets Ama (Kengo Kora) at a nightclub and is immediately intrigued by his punk style, dyed hair, piercings, tattoos, but most of all his split tongue. He offers to take her to his friend Shiba (Arata Iura) who runs a tattoo and piercing parlour. Lui decides that she will get her tongue pierced, with the intention of achieving a split tongue (a painful process involving increasingly large tongue studs), and also a tattoo. On their first meeting, Shiba tells her that her innocent appearance turns him on as he is slightly sadistic. Lui says that she is masochistic and it is not long before the two are involved in a sexual affair that they keep secret from Ama. Things are further complicated when Ama beats up a gangster who harasses them in the street and Lui decides to protect him from the law.

Based on the novel by Hitomi Kanehara, with a  screenplay by Takuya Miyawaki and director Yukio Ninagawa, “Snakes and Earrings” gives us a look at disaffected youth in Tokyo and the subculture of those who enjoy body modification. The plot takes a back seat to the emotional themes, that of a young woman trying to find some meaning in her life. Yuriko Yoshitaka’s Lui is a woman who seems completely numb to the world around her, distant from her parents and with few friends, lost in a sea of banal corporate culture. Kengo Kora’s Ama is easily the most sympathetic character, his rough punk appearance hiding a kind-hearted soul. Arata Iura’s mysterious Shiba appears as the agent of chaos between the two, seen largely in his denlike studio where he is the master of his domain. The small supporting cast features an appearance from Tatsuya Fujiwara as the yakuza, but the focus is on the three leads and their tortuous love triangle. The film’s guerrilla style filmmaking, shot on the streets of Shibuya help give the sense of a living world, pulling us in to the bustling city teeming with life. The majority of the story takes place in a limited number of sets, including the tattoo parlour and Ama’s apartment, which helps to keep the story focussed. There is not much of a plot, but the relationships between the three leads are intriguing and exciting enough, the sex scenes are not explicit but get across the power relationship and mix of brutality and sensualism in their lovemaking. The melancholic score of piano and strings resonates with this downbeat, nihilistic atmosphere.

“Snakes and Earrings” begins and ends with Lui in Shibuya, the camera whirling around to look at the various billboards and company logos, all the while in absolute silence. It is the perfect way to express her complete disillusionment with the world. This is a young woman who has completely checked out, nothing excites or motivates her. The sado-masochism and body piercing is the perfect metaphor for that desire to simply feel something, anything in the world, even if it is painful. The pain she experiences helps her to connect with people for the first time in a long time. We learn that she is not in contact with her family and her relationship with her friend seems superficial.  Not all of the film is as easy to analyse as the central theme of finding a sense of self expression and fulfilment in a meaningless culture that strips us of our humanity. There are themes of sex and violence, as you may expect, but also ideas of death that are harder to reconcile with Lui’s story. It is a downbeat story with a compelling portrayal of someone who seems to have hit rock bottom attempting to feel something for the first time in a long time.

Death Note (2006)

When a number of criminals begin to die unexpectedly, many people are pleased, seeing it as representative of divine retribution. The police determine to establish the cause. To this end they employ the assistance of “L”, a shadowy figure, but undoubted genius-detective, who offers to find the person he believes is responsible. The killer is none other than the police chief’s own son, “Light”, whose sense of injustice becomes deadly when he discovers the “Death Note”, a notebook of the demons which will cause the death of any person whose name is written in it. He is accompanied by Ryuk, the demon whose book he has taken possession of.

The film is well-paced with many twists as Light and L play their cat-and-mouse game. The effects on the demon are not flawless, but for the most part the gripping story makes this a minor issue. Shusuke Kaneko’s direction creates the right balance of realism and fantasy. The atmosphere is tense, with an anything-can-happen feel. Tatsuya Fujiwara brings real emotion to the character of Light and Kenichi Matsuyama is suitably oddball in his portrayal of the mysterious investigator L.

The film’s story is the main attraction here, with controversial issues such as justice and criminality played upon heavily (at one point Light can be seen reading Nietzche’s “Beyond Good and Evil”). An exciting action film with atypical philosophical underpinnings.

Based on the Manga by Takeshi Obata.