Ride or Die (2021) by Ryuichi Hiroki

Two women go on the run in this stylish romanctic thriller. Rei (Kiko Mizuhara) has had a crush on her former highschool classmate Nanae (Honami Sato) for years. When Nanae turns up out of the blue and reveals that she is in an abusive relationship, Rei takes matters into her own hands. After killing Nanae’s violent husband, Rei goes on the run from the police. Deciding she can’t let her go alone, Nanae joins her and the two make their escape from the city. While attempting to outrun the inevitable, the two women reassess their relationship.

Based on the manga “Gunjo” by Ching Nakamura and directed by Ryuichi Hiroki from a screenplay by Nami Sakawa, “Ride or Die” has all the elements of an exciting crime drama, sex, murder and two troubled protagonists. What begins as a stylish thriller soon morphs into a romantic road trip movie, with the two leads cruising around Japan, largely unphased by what has happened. The inciting incident of the crime is merely a means to get these two characters back together after a long separation; with the main focus being on Rei’s attempt to win Nanae’s heart. The direction, with many long hand held takes, demands the best of its actors and both Mizuhara and Sato deliver in their performances with many emotionally charged moments between them. Both are struggling with their sense of self, their worth and identities, which they hide beneath an outwardly upbeat persona. Their chemistry together is believable and you can sense the halting confusion of two people who are working out exactly what their relationship is. One of the weaker elements of the story is the relationship of Rei and her girlfriend Maki which is broken off unceremoniously and undermines some of the sympathy we might have for Rei. The cinematography and aforementioned style of long takes draws us in to the drama completely, as the omnipresent camera follows them through environments smoothly, allowing the action to unfold in a naturalistic way. Occasionally, the film can be a little indulgent with its long tracking shots of cars, but they always look stunning. The film shifts gears several times from being a stylish crime thriller and an light-hearted romantic drama, with explicit sex scenes and unflinching violence on the one hand, and on the other a pop soundtrack as the two women laugh and enjoy each other’s company.

“Ride or Die” is about two women rediscovering who they are, unrequited love, domestic violence and the trap of not being able to express yourself. Rei’s infatuation with the girl from her highschool is a passionate love that pushes her to the extremes of behaviour. She is tragic in her one-sided passion for Nanae. The two are separated not only by their sexuality, but by their wealth and status, with Nanae feeling indebted to Rei. We feel this tension throughout, the tugging of various impulses and obligations that drive the two characters. One of the most heartbreaking moments in the film is reserved for Maki, a supporting character, whose relationship with Rei touches on themes of one-sided love and being comfortable with your sexuality. The domestic violence faced by Nanae is depicted starkly, her body covered in bruises, and the catharsis of her husband’s death is something the audience will sympathise with. However, issues of male violence are brushed over to allow for the flourishing of Rei and Nanae’s relationship on their own terms. A film that occasionally obscures its more meaningful themes with its stylish veneer, it nevertheless is an exciting romantic crime adventure with two outstanding performances from its leads.

A Girl Missing (2019) by Koji Fukada

A woman is tortured by regrets in this mysterious thriller from Harmonium director Koji Fukada. Ichiko Shirakawa (Mariko Tsutsui) works as a home care nurse. As well as looking after the elderly Toko Oishi (Hisako Okata) she also tutors her two grandchildren, Motoko (Mikako Ichikawa) and Saki (Miyu Ozawa). When Saki is kidnapped and later returns, Ichiko is shocked to learn that the kidnapper was somebody close to her. Deciding not to tell Saki’s mother, she later comes to regret the secrets she has kept as she is harassed by the media, forcing her out of her job. Ichiko later begins a relationship with a man named Yoneda (Sosuke Ikematsu) who may also have a connection to the Oishi family.

Writer and director Koji Fukada (Harmonium) again creates a unique crime drama in which the focus is not on the crime itself, but on the lives it impacts. We learn little about the kidnapping, the motivation behind it, or exactly what happened to Saki. Ichiko is drawn into the emotional vortex caused by the incident, a scapegoat for everyone’s anger and confusion; and it is her struggle that we bear witness too. The film begins with Ichiko having changed her appearance and beginning a friendship with a Yoneda, who works as a hairdresser. As the story moves back and forth between the present and the past, the mystery is built up layer on layer, with more unanswered questions arising with each twist. It seems that we are always just on the cusp of some major revelation that remains out of reach. The film is understated, creating a slow burn tension as we see the characters spark off each other. Fukada is a writer who is comfortable to let things go unsaid or wrap them in metaphor and mystery. “A Girl Missing” pulls the rug out from under us by providing a crime set-up and then turning the camera away from the facts surrounding the case to instead focus on a character who has little direct involvement with the crime. This may prove frustrating to some, but works beautifully as a complex character study. The excellent performances, especially from Mariko Tsutsui and Mikako Ichikawa help to bring the film to life, both giving engaging performances as women dealing with difficult situations. Tsutsui shows us the slow deterioration of a woman who feels resentful at being unfairly targeted by those looking for someone to blame. Mikako Ichikawa is a sphinx-like in her portrayal of Motoko, harbouring her own secrets and shame. Fukada’s direction manages to create drama from a film that is largely comprised of dialogues. There are several stylish touches, such as the smoke rising early in the film, or the empty house towards the end, that show a knack for visual storytelling, capturing tone and theme simply yet effectively. While the film is largely realist, the occasional moments of avante garde expressionism fit perfectly in this world that seems slightly out of the ordinary, like looking at our society through a distorted mirror.

“A Girl Missing” is an unsettling watch, detailing the descent into paranoia and anxiety of an innocent woman beset by feelings of unnecessary guilt. It speaks to a society where shame and opprobrium are often levelled at those least deserving. The discussion between Ichiko and Motoko, sharing their tales of covert sexual behaviour provides perhaps the clearest key to understanding what the film is about. Society tells people to hide their shame regarding sex, causing later subconscious traumas for those who repress their feelings and instincts. There is discussion of the possible rape of Saki which highlights the dangers associated with a society where these behaviours are rarely discussed. Saki is unwilling to share what happened to her and this fear of speaking out, often through shame, is just one danger of a society which rarely wants to confront its own nature. The film shows us a media who are desperate for an easy answer, to wrap the case up, perhaps unaware that there is genuine suffering and emotional pain that cannot be so easily dealt with. The film’s major strength is that we never learn what happened to Saki; and we never learn the truth about Ichiko’s story. It leaves us with the uncomfortable realisation that humans will continue to mistreat one another; and that we will never fully understand each other or human psychology unless we are truly open to examining it without prejudice. The focus on the details of these cases blind us to the truth that we are all capable of causing pain. The immaterial specifics often distract us from dealing with our own sense of shame, guilt, and fear that drives these harmful behaviours.

Lesson of Evil (2012) by Takashi Miike

            Takashi Miike gives us a violent crime thriller following a deranged psychopath in this gory film adaptation of Yusuke Kishi’s novel. The film begins with a scene in which two parents anxiously discuss their problematic son, right before he murders both of them with a knife. We then move forward in time to find Hasumi (Hideaki Ito) working as a high-school English teacher. He is charismatic and well-liked by his students. Following incidents of cheating at the school, Hasumi suggests perhaps interrupting the signal from their mobile phones during tests, which would be illegal but would also prohibit such cheating. Cheating is far from the only problem at the school, with one teacher sexually harassing a female student, and another involved in an affair with a male pupil. Hasumi also soon reveals himself to be far from the ideal mentor his students imagine, himself using his knowledge of the sexually harassed student to first scare away her abuser, and then to begin an affair with her himself. Hasumi comes under suspicion by another teacher, Tsurii (Mitsuru Fukikoshi), and several students, who believe he may have been involved in a rash of suicides at a previous school he worked for.

            The first half of the film plays out as a high-school drama, with elements of a murder mystery, as we delve deeper into the character of Hasumi and discover more of his secrets.  Just as you are beginning to piece together a semblance of what might be termed normality in this world, the film completely throws this plot out of the window and turns into an almost comedic rampage of death and destruction, as Hasumi begins to dispatch the students of the school one by one with a shotgun. Ito gives a great performance as evil incarnate who is able to mask his sadistic tendencies with a veneer of respectability. The film also features a great cast of young actors as the school. Shota Sometani and Fumi Nikaido, who worked together previously in Himizu, KENTA and Elina Mizuno all bring a vitality to their roles as believable high-schoolers trapped in an incredibly dangerous situation.

The film is beautifully shot, with some fantastically atmospheric images and the direction holds your attention throughout. There are striking visuals that add a depth to the film beyond what is in the script. Examples of this include the contrast between the permanently grey shadowy look of Hasumi’s house, and the brightly lit school scenes during the day. Later in the film there is a great tonal discrepancy that emphasises the film’s dark satire, as Hasumi rampages around a school colourfully adorned with balloons and handmade ornaments, often cast in red light.

“Lesson of Evil” can be enjoyed as a straight-forward slasher film, with an evil monster brutally dispatching innocent teenagers. However, the film demands consideration in its use of folkloric and theological allusion. Hasumi is troubled by the appearance of two ravens, we later see him researching Odins corvid companions Munnin (memory) and Huginn (thought). Hasumi kills the raven he names Huginn, but continues to dwell on the presence of Munnin. This is perhaps some reference to Hasumi’s lack of compassion and his senseless crimes, albeit with his past sins being inescapable. While it is easy to see the film as pure exploitation cinema, it plays both sides of the aisle, indulging in this while also offering a perfect satire and critique of our obsession with violence. The high-school massacre at the end of the film goes on so long that you are forced to consider your reaction to it. Ito’s crimes transform from being blackly comic with the first unexpected killing, through terror when you realise that he is not going to stop, and finally a sort of numb sense of inevitability that you are going to witness the slaughter of every innocent child at the school. The film is unflinching in its portrayal of violence, creating a sense of uneasiness as it flips between moments of humour (such as Hasumi being temporarily deafened by the sound of his gun), to horror as we see students cowering in fear. We see several moments in the film that may be a direct attack on American gun culture and the tragedies stemming from it: these include Hasumi’s own past as a Harvard graduate, his use of English, and later in the film a scene in which he trips over an American flag as part of a moon landing display. In fact this entire sequence of slaughter is rich with background details that speak to the waste of talent and creativity that such killings result in. We are also left to ruminate as the title of the film suggests on what we mean by evil, whether and how it can be defeated. A number of characters plead with Hasumi for an explanation of his actions, but none is forthcoming. At the end we are left only with the horrific aftermath and no clearly picture of what caused it. Again, this may be an attempt to poke fun at the notion that killing and violence can be understood rationally or that crimes such as this can be ameliorated by context.

As with many of Miike’s films, “Lesson of Evil” blends a number of genres, making you unsure what to make of it at times. In the end you are left to reflect on your own experience and impressions of the film, and perhaps come to a deeper understanding of yourself through it. As the killer says to the police in the film, it is not his job to explain why he has done what he has done, that is for them to do. The same might be said of the audience. It is not necessarily the artist’s job to explain themselves clearly, it is your job, as the viewer, to consider what you have seen and your reactions to it and see what that tells you about society and yourself.

Confessions (2010) by Tetsuya Nakashima

A stylish psychological thriller that exposes the ever-present darkness as the heart of humanity, “Confessions” tells the story of a school teacher Yuko Moriguchi (Takako Matsu), whose 4 year old daughter Manami (Mana Ashida) is found dead in a swimming pool. While the police verdict is accidental drowning, Moriguchi knows that two of her own students bear responsibility for Minami’s death. Shuya Watanabe (Yukito Nishii) is a talented student who has a nihilistic outlook on life. Abandoned by his mother at a young age, he is narcissistic and lives only to prove his superior intelligence in the hopes of winning his absent mother’s attention and affection. He recruits his classmate, the underachieving and unsuspecting Naoki Shimomura (Kaoru Fujiwara), in hopes that the two of them will commit a crime that will finally gain him the respect he feels he deserves. Moriguchi tells the class that she will leave her job and, as her students are unable to be punished for crimes as minors, she has taken it upon herself to get revenge for the murder of her daughter. The film begins with Moriguchi’s story and moves onto the lives of the two boys responsible for her daughter’s death, as well as a third classmate, the enigmatic introvert Mizuki (Ai Hashimoto), both before and after the incident. Each new perspective draws us deeper into this twisted story of murder and revenge.

The film is based on the book by Kanae Minato with a script by director Tetsuya Nakashima. The story is divided into distinct sections, each narrated in part by a different character, occasionally achronological with overlapping moments from different perspectives. The opening monologue delivered by Takako Matsu’s experience acting in theatrical productions shows as she builds tension with her delivery of a long opening monologue. This scene, which takes up a large portion of the first half of the film is a fantastic introduction, setting up the dynamics of the characters and their personalities, the central themes, and a lot of exposition in an entertaining way. The young actors who play the three leads do an incredible job with difficult material. Yukito Nishii embodies the fears of parents and teachers everywhere as the irredeemably sadistic Shuya. Kaoru Fujiwara is sympathetic as the helpless accessory to murder who later reveals a darker side to his character. Ai Hashimoto does a good job with a relatively small role as Mizuki, a confused adolescent; and Yoshiteru Terada  offers some light relief as the oblivious replacement teacher Yoshiteru “Werther” Terada, attempting to raise the spirits of the class following Moriguchi’s departure. The film is shot in a highly stylized way with liberal use of slow motion and the plot unfolds at a crawl that further accentuates the feeling of dread, allowing characters to languish in their suffering or feelings of regret. A subdued colour palette and melancholy score echo this bleak tone. Almost each scene plays out in a half light that reflects the nihilistic worldview of the characters; with neither light nor dark, but a hopeless Sisyphean grind of life unfolding day by interminable day. With a strong original story, the cinematography and direction are used to create an artistic impression of what is unfolding, with striking visuals that enhance the force of the narrative; such as Shuya’s construction of a clock that runs backwards, or the cat and kitten outside his apartment.

“Confessions” is a film that deals with several difficult themes. The death of a small child will draw instant sympathy from the audience. It is a wrong that demands to be righted in any just world. A verdict of accidental death removes any hope of retribution for the crime, forcing Moriguchi to revenge herself upon her two students. By showing the story of Shuya and Naoki, the film asks us to consider their own right to life and what led them to this crime; also how blame is to be apportioned and what punishment may be justified. Mizuki’s character highlights the turmoil of conflicting adolescent emotions, her character sympathising with a schoolgirl who killed her family. Throughout the characters ask themselves what life is truly worth, each of them so lost in their own subjective realities and borne along by feelings of hurt and hate that they are unable to see that they are causing more suffering through their actions. Although the film muddies the morality of its characters, throughout it retains a strong message on the importance of human life. While it is almost unbearably bleak in its outlook, there are faint rays of hope that shine through; hints that things could be different, that ideals such as forgiveness and redemption are not unattainable.

Shady (2012) by Ryohei Watanabe

Misa (Aya Banjo) is a loner at her high-school, bullied because of her looks and given the nickname Pooh (after Winnie the Pooh), her only solace is in the biology club of which she is the sole member and where she looks after a goldfish called Kintaro. That is until Izumi (Izumi Okamura) comes into her life. Izumi seems so unlike Misa, being cute and outgoing, but she is also alienated from the class, as the other popular girls are jealous of her looks. The two form a firm friendship built on their outsider status. The mystery of their missing classmate, Aya (Ayumi Seko), who along with Marina (Reo Saionji) is one of the class bullies, looms large as Misa and Izumi become more closely connected and things take a horrifying turn as Misa realises her new friend may be hiding a dark secret.

Writer-director Ryohei Watanabe’s debut feature, “Shady” is a taut thriller that builds tension throughout. It is a story that builds on strong characters and the everyday anxieties and paranoias of high-schoolers, expertly weaving in darker threads. Aya Banjo gives an incredible performance as Misa, shy and awkward yet with a resilience earned through years of torment. We are drawn into her world, her suffering, and her joy at finding a friend and her insecurities are always bubbling just below the surface. Izumi Okamura is also exceptional in her role, a bold and brash teenager but with a chip on her shoulder at how she is ostracized from her classmates. Izumi undergoes a transformation as the film progresses and we see character traits develop from troubling to terrifying. This is the first acting role for both; Aya Banjo is best known as a singer (under the name Minpi*b) and Izumi Okamura was working as a model when cast. The director picked both for their look and wrote characters that closely resembled his image of them. Their chemistry is believable and their conversations capture perfectly a tentative high-school friendship. The direction works well for the film and shows off the best of the actresses. What begins as a high-school friendship drama soon turns into a psychological thriller and the angled camera and use of long uncomfortable takes helps draw out the unpleasant yet inescapable nature of the situations Misa finds herself in. The film touches on a number of themes, many that are not explicitly stated but glint out in moments of ambiguity. One such scene is when Izumi paints Misa’s toenails, an act of girlish bonding that is given almost erotic overtones as Izumi slips beneath the covers and Misa moans as she blows softly on her feet. As with much of the horror in the film suggestion proves to be more powerful than straightforward attempts to shock.

“Shady” builds on many thriller themes and plot points, with its strength being in the two fantastic lead performances that draw you in emotionally before introducing the darker tone of the latter scenes. It is a film about friendship, loneliness, loyalty and bullying among other things. The relationship between the two girls is conventional in many ways, thrown together by chance despite their differences, and the two actresses do a great job in creating a sense of normality while hinting at something more worrying. The film takes what are everyday fears or emotions and turns them into something darker. The final third of the film is packed with several twists and moments that make you reconsider what you have seen previously. The girl’s feelings of rejection, acceptance, anger, helplessness, are all expertly portrayed and help create rounded characters. A subtly affecting thriller about teenage anxiety and the joys and dangers of friendship.