Blind Beast (1969) by Yasuzo Masumura

A kidnapping victim begins to sympathise with her captor in this tale of moral degeneracy and sado-masochistic lust. Aki Shima (Mako Midori) is a model who has recently found fame as the subject of an exhibition of erotic photography and sculpture by a famous artist. While visiting the gallery she sees a blind man running his hands over the statue of her, an eerie sight that causes to her to flee. She is later abducted by this man, Michio (Eiji Funakoshi) and his mother (Noriko Sengoku), and taken to a remote warehouse. This warehouse is Michio’s studio, where he sculpts body parts. Born without sight, he intends to use Aki as a model for a new work of art, one born of the sense of touch. After a few failed escape attempts, Aki finally gives in to Michio and the two later begin a sado-masochistic physical relationship that grows increasingly violent as they attempt to push the boundaries of pleasure and pain.

Based on a story by the master of skin-crawling horror Edogawa Rampo, “Blind Beast” is a film that confronts the audience with a creepy, and subtly terrifying scenario. When we see Michio caressing the statue, and later Aki herself, there is something unseemly about it, making real the metaphorical objectification of the female form. The story is pared back to provide a simple yet effective horror tale, featuring only three actors and largely taking place in the same large warehouse studio. Mako Midori’s Aki Shima is a sympathetic heroine, making attempts to flee, wilful and yet drawn irresistably into the moral void of Micho’s world. Eiji Funakoshi is a sinister villain, playing the unassuming psychopath role with unnerving charm. The main setting of the film, the warehouse-cum-studio is an almost fantastical space, the walls hung with large sculpted noses, eyes, and limbs, and the floor taken up with a giant model of a naked woman. This focus on the body and human form makes us aware of every itch and tingle, every spine-chilling or toe-curling moment emphasised by the fact we are trapped in Michio’s world of physical touch. This is helped by the excellent direction of Yasuzo Masumura, utilising shifts into deep black to depict both Michio’s blindness and depravity. Hikaru Hayashi’s score is features strangely romantic melodies that make us question what is happening between the protagonists as they sink into debauchery and violence. “Blind Beast” avoids graphic depictions of what is happening, cutting away from the worst moments, while at the same time blending the emotional and the physical to the extent that the audience has no choice but to feel each cut as they begin their journey of sado-masochistic excess.

Michio is a typical horror villain, sexual repression leading to deviancy, his Oedipal relationship with his mother, and apparently preternatural abilities to hunt his quarry by smell and sound. However, Michio can also be seen as a stand-in for male lust and moral degeneracy in general. His single minded pursuit of Aki, his attempts to capture her and reproduce her form, to contain her, provide metaphorical potential for those looking to draw societal messages from the film. Likewise, Aki is a symbol of female emancipation, turning her body to her own financial gain, strong-willed, independent, and cautious, she is far from a helpless heroine. In its final third the film begins to delve into far more Freudian territory, moving fully away from a sense of realism as Aki loses her sight and becomes a counterpart to Michio, engaging in acts of hedonistic abandon and mutual destruction. “Blind Beast” questions human desire and posits an inevitable tendency towards violence and death, drawing out timeless themes of Eros and Thanatos in a film that creates a powerful atmosphere through stunning acting and direction. There is something mythological about the horrifying finale that will stay with you long after the film is over.

Grasshopper (2015) by Tomoyuki Takimoto

Following the death of his girlfriend a man becomes entangled in a dark, underground world of drug gangs and assassins. On Halloween night in Shibuya a car ploughs into the crowd killing a young woman named Yuriko (Haru). Distraught at her untimely death, her boyfriend Suzuki (Toma Ikuta) goes undercover with a pharmeceutical company that is a front for a malicious gang run by Terahara (Renji Ishibashi). Suzuki’s boss, Sumire (Kumiko Aso) is a sadistic femme fatale who soon becomes suspicious of Suzuki’s intentions. Meanwhile, hired killer Kujira (Tadanobu Asano) who forces people to commit suicide for Terahara is troubled by the sins of his past. Becoming a liability to the gang he is targetted by fellow assassins Iwanishi (Jun Murakami) and Semi (Ryosuke Yamada).

Based on the novel by Kotaro Isaka, “Grasshopper” is a noir thriller that sets up several great characters. We are sympathetic to Suzuki’s quest for revenge and his complete inadequacy in going up against hardened killers and gangsters. Saccharine flashbacks of him and Yuriko often feel at odds with the violent tone of the film, but do create a clear distinction between the world he has lost and the one he finds himself thrust into. Tadanobu Asano’s Kujira has perhaps the most intriguing backstory, troubled by the ghosts of his victims who appear before him; it is a similar tale with Semi, who suffers a ringing in his ears that is only calmed when he is killing. There is a slight imbalance in tone and story that runs through the film, with the characters jostling for the position of protagonist and it lurches from the brutal fight sequences and grim life of Kujira to the more incompetent amateur detective antics of Suzuki. Suzuki remains the protagonist, but the film sets up these two interesting assassins that feel as thought they deserve their own film. The film also introduces fantasy elements that are creative, but never fully developed as an integral part of the story. These shifts in tone are also present in the eclectic score, with a mix of operatic, hard rock and soft piano. However, despite these inconsistencies the film creates some incredible moments, particularly in the fight sequences and chase through the streets. Director Tomoyuki Takimoto crafts a stylish crime drama and the noir tone is handled expertly with rain drenched, neon lit streets, and dark alleyways.

A hugely entertaining noir thriller with great visuals and a collection of fantastic characters. Suzuki is an everyman hero whose search for revenge is charming and understandable. There is contrast between Suzuki who is desperate for revenge but unable to attain it and Kujira and Semi (the only other characters whose names appear on screen), hardened killers who are made to question their profession. Suzuki’s unsuitability as a killer is a weakness in the world he finds himself in, but is also what makes him a decent man. He is a relatable protagonist preciscely because he is unable to imagine himself killing anyone. The fates of Kujira and Semi offer an oddly moralistic but understandable ending when considering the rights and wrongs of the characters. At times it feels like these three characters should not exist in the same film, but that creates a fantastic tension that builds to a stunning conclusion.

Chaos (2000) by Hideo Nakata

It is hard to describe the plot of “Chaos” without giving away the twists and turns that enliven the plot. The film revolves around Komiyama (Ken Mitsuishi), a company president, his wife Saori, his mistress Satomi (Miki Nakatani), and a handyman (Masato Hagiwara) who is believed to have kidnapped Komiyama’s wife. On returning to his office after a lunch with his wife, Komiyama receives a call from Kuroda (Masato Hagiwara), to say his wife is being held hostage and he wants money for her release. All is not as it seems however and the film constantly wrong-foots the audience by showing that many of the players involved in this plot know far more than they are letting on.

The film is directed by Hideo Nakata, who is best known for his horror fare and who brings that same sense of creeping dread to this crime thriller. “Chaos” features a relatives small cast, largely consisting of the three central protagonists and two police officers who are called in to investigate the disappearance of Komiyama’s wife. The performances, particularly of Masato Hagiwara and Miki Nakatani are excellent, playing roles within roles as they deceive others around them, with double-crosses and backstabbings the order of the day. Satomi and Kuroda’s relationship remains in question until the end of the film. The story by Hisashi Saito (who also worked on Shinya Tsukamoto’s “Tokyo Fist”) perfects the crime genre, with the tightly wound plot unravelling slowly with each new revelation. There is also some fantastic foreshadowing that comes in to play later, laying out clues for the audience, but always leaving them one step behind the characters. The film plays the same trick several times: setting up a scenario then showing either one or other of the protagonists to be lying about their actions or motivations, but it works each time and lulls the audience into an acceptance of expectation rather than closure, with each new piece of the puzzle rasing more questions. The peculiar score by Kenji Kawai is a mix of percussion and chime, slightly lilting and off-kilter suggestive of the notion that not everything is as it seems in the story.

“Chaos” is a film about control and manipulation. This is best represented in the scene in which Kuroda binds his captive, a frisson of sexual tension passing between them as she gives herself over to him. The narrative builds on a series of turns in which it is revealed that the people we thought were powerless are in fact playing the other characters; the people presumed to be victims turn out to be perpetrators. An enjoyable crime thriller that maintains tension throughout by slowly untangling a web of lies surrounding the protagonists.

Masked Ward (2020) by Hisashi Kimura

Junior doctor Hayami (Kentaro Sakaguchi) is brought in by his senior Kosakai (Ryohei Otani) for a night-shift at a former psychiatric hospital, vestiges of which include the disused and padlocked operating theatre and iron bars that can be used to close off the upper floors, making them inaccessible other than via the elevator. Hayami is met by nurses Higashino (Noriko Eguchi) and Sasaki (Rio Uchida) and doctor Tadokoro (Masanobu Takashima). Not long into his shift a man in a clown mask who recently held up a convenience store arrives with his hostage, a woman named Hitomi Kawasaki (Mei Nagano). Hayami’s night is made worse through macabre discoveries about the goings-on at this hospital and his own feelings of guilt about the recent death of his girlfriend Yoko (Izumi Fujimoto), Kosakai’s sister.

If it sounds like a convoluted plot, that is part of the appeal of this unsettling thriller. Based on a novel by Mikito Chinen, who worked on the screenplay alongside director Hisashi Kimura, “Masked Ward” traps a small cast of characters in the environs of the hospital and maintains the tension by steadily revealing a series of dark secrets that piece together in horrifying ways. Many of these mysteries and disparate elements seem irrelevant or incompatible until the end when they are drawn together. The film spends a lot of time setting up this complex plot and struggles to give its characters significant depth. Hayami and Kawasaki’s relationship is developed through shared experiences of trauma and Kentaro Sakaguchi and Mei Nagano give solid performances as people trapped in a difficult situation. The film plays with chronology, beginning with a single unseen survivor from the events that go on to form the majority of the plot. This sets up a tense atmosphere as you know early on not everyone will get out of the hospital alive. It also works to throw you off the scent, offering unreliable information that the audience must attempt to sift through. The script and direction work to keep this sense of mystery, and the film is at its best when the characters are confined to the hospital, with fear and suspicion ever present. The film occasionally utilises unecessary flashbacks that often add little to the plot, for example in showing the audience what has happened previously after a character has just explained the same thing. This tendency to show too much also applies to the crash sequence depicting the accident that led to Yoko’s death, which would have been more impactful with suggestive editing rather than showing what is a fairly underwhelming stunt.

For the most part “Masked Ward“is a solid pared back thriller, setting up a small cast in a single location with the viewers anxious to see who will survive the night. Later the film transitions into a morality tale about unscrupulous medical practices and revenge. The need to maintain the mystery early on means that many of the themes remain obscure for a long time which leaves the third act feeling like a different part of the story. Hayami’s guilt over Yoko’s death is largely abandoned in favour of Kawasaki’s story, which is interesting, but again suffers from a sudden shift in tone. The film may have been better focussing on the hosipital and treatment of patients early on to let the audience in on the secret prior to it becoming the central focus. The film works well as a tense crime thriller, with the fugitive armed-robber and his hostage holing up in the hospital; and the third act moral drama about what has been happening at the hospital is also interesting, but somewhat hamstrung by the film having that mystery element and inability to tell the audience that that is where we are heading. The film moves at a fast pace, with lots of great reveals, but feels a little disjointed, both in the script and editing, perhaps suffering slightly under the amount of plot threads and ideas it attempts to bring together.

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.