Parallel (2021) by Daiki Tanaka

A gory, shocking, stylised crime drama with themes of revenge and abuse. The film begins with a young girl, Mai, being abused by her parents, putting out cigarrettes on her, locking her in a cupboard, and hints of sexual molestation. The girl is saved from this despicable situation by a cross-dressing murderer who breaks into their apartment and slays her parents. Years later Mai (Momona Naraha) is working as an escort with her friend Kana (Koyuki Sugasawa), when she meets Mikio (Sojiro Yoshimura), who unbeknownst to her is the notorious ‘cosplay killer’ responsible for several murders. Mikio is a reclusive figure, whose shy demeanour gives no indication of his criminal activities. He is also the anonymous author of a popular anime show, which is a colourful metaphor for his crimes and an attempt to reconcile the evil in the world and his own past traumas.

Written and directed by Daiki Tanaka, “Parallel” combines a superhero narrative of a young girl rescued from depraved parents and a man fighting to redress the balance of good and bad in society, with a gory exploitation flick, with lashings of blood and brutal slayings. The film’s stylish cinematography and use of colourful lighting creates an oddly joyous atmosphere, distancing the audience from the horror of many of the killings. Along with the techno soundtrack, an excellent score provided by Kenji Kato, they become more entertaining than disturbing. This strange contrast is also seen in Mikio’s wearing a cutesy character mask and wig during the crimes, offsetting the violence with an unsuitably cheery aesthetic. Momona Naraha and Sojiro Yoshimura do a great job with their characters, both struggling with bitter memories from their past, deeply broken individuals who nevertheless have hopes and dreams of a better tomorrow. The scenes between the two of them are a thrilling mix of danger, vulnerability, romance, and youthful uncertainty.

On the surface the film has an exploitation feel, with many of the killings being extremely gory and over the top. However, this contrasts with Mai’s story, which is deeply upsetting and the film does not hold back with its depictions of violence and the psychological distress that follows. The opening sequence is hard to watch as they feature a young girl being tormented, but it sets up perfectly Mai’s later difficulties in coming to terms with what happened and who she is. Her path, becoming an escort, turning inwards, is vastly different to Mikio, who sets about killing those he considers a negative influence in society. Both of these individuals see their suffering as external, something to be shied away from or attacked, rather than accepting their own vulnerabilities and attempting to change themselves from within. The film discusses transformation as an important part of the process of recovering, moving beyond defining yourself solely as a victim, and it is this capacity for change that both are attempting to discover. “Parallel” also discusses the role of media in constructing stereotypes or escapist fantasies to deal with difficult situations. Mikio’s anime is a thinly veiled allegory for real world events, even using the transvestite killer as one of the characters. In one scene we see Mikio dancing with the television, capturing his desire to escape into that world, and his crimes are also reflective of a revenge fantasy. In this regard the film has its cake and eats it, being both a contemplative discussion of victims recovering from abuse, and media as an unhelpful distraction, while also being a gory revenge thriller that sees bad people get their comeuppance. Highly entertaining, “Parallel” will appeal to those who enjoy gory crime films, but be warned that the subject matter can be distressing.

Yakuza and the Family (2020) by Michihito Fujii

A poignant story of a young man’s involvement in a crime family told over two decades. In 1999, Kenji Yamamoto (Go Ayano) attends the funeral of his father, who died through drug abuse. Shortly after he finds a surrogate parent in the figure of Hiroshi Shibazaki (Hiroshi Tachi), who recruits him into his yakuza organization. 6 years later Kenji has risen to be one of the most respected members of the gang, and a personal favourite of the boss. He falls for a club hostess named Yuka (Machiko Ono) and looks out for the son of a murdered yakuza member, Tsubasa. Following a lengthy jail sentence for murder, Ken returns to the outside world in 2019 to find things much changed for those around him, discovering that Tsubasa (Hayato Isomura) has become tangentially involved in the same world as his father.

Writer-Director Michihito Fujii creates a stylish crime thriller in “Yakuza and the Family”, an emotional character-driven drama punctuated by flashes of violence. Languid shots of sunsets and cityscapes give way to creative handheld camerawork as we are plunged into the viscerally brutal realities of gang life. The sleek visuals of Keisuke Imamura’s cinematography don’t overpower the drama, but allow the story to slip in and out of the romanticised aesthetic of the Yakuza genre. Taro Iwashiro’s score also compliments the story perfectly, capturing the harsh exterior and underlying fragility of the characters. The large and impressive cast give a captivating ensemble performance. Go Ayano’s “Ken” is a deeply vulnerable and conflicted character, circumstance having driven him into a life of crime. There is a childlike aspect to him to, most obvious in his faltering relationship with Machiko Ono’s Yuka. Ono gives a powerful performance as Yuka, dragged into the orbit of the yakuza largely against her will, defined by her relationships with Ken and her daughter, but with a strong sense of self preservation and steely resolve. Ryutaro Ninomiya (director of “Sweating the Small Stuff”) also features in a small yet important role as Ohara. Hayato Isomura, as the older Tsubasa, is one of the most sympathetic characters, as we see him falling into the same trap as Ken while searching for a father figure.

“Yakuza and the Family” is a film about the paternal and fraternal bonds of organized crime families, but also about the need of young men for father figures. Both Ken and Tsubasa both appear as drifting, directionless, characters, lacking a role model or figure to turn to for support or comfort. Their search for acceptance, perhaps even love, drives them to the overemphasis of their masculine aggression and pride, Ken through becoming a vicious Yakuza member, and Tsubasa becoming a fighter. The yakuza are often referred to as a ‘family’, but we see here that it is a twisted, house-of-mirrors version of family, providing the members with only a poor simulacrum of a genuine parent-child relationship. The film ends on a bittersweet note, highlighting both the dark side of crime, yet also the importance of kindness and charity and the impact it can have on others. A superb character-driven Yakuza drama with an excellent cast that is well worth a watch.

Tokyo Fist (1995) by Shinya Tsukamoto

Tsuda (Shinya Tsukomoto) works as an insurance salesmen, living a comfortable, if monotonous life, with his girlfirend Hizuru (Kahori Fujii). Their relationship is jeapordized with the reappearance of Tsuda’s old schoolfriend, Kojima (played by Tsukamoto’s own brother Koji Tsukamoto), a small-time boxer, who soon makes a move on Hizuru. The three of them are plunged into a world of emotional and physical violence as Tsuda takes up boxing in an attempt to revenge himself on Kojima and win back Hizuru.

“Tokyo Fist” is an unconventional boxing film, the action flowing from the emotions of the characters instead of vice versa. What begins as a simple narrative about a jilted lover on a mission of revenge soon becomes a much deeper analysis of societal violence and human psychology. Writer-director Tsukamoto infuses the film with sequences that draw a direct comparison between the physical and the emotional, tipping into art-house and horror with its visceral, abstract visuals. The use of colour shows a director who is at ease using the full range of cinematic techniques to tell his story. It is very much a film that requires thought and attention, noting the shifts from blue to red, the frenetic hand-held camerawork and framing, the flashes of extreme bloodletting, all of these things are not simply done to keep things visually interesting, but are an integral part of the storytelling. The film provokes its audience, drawing you in to sweat-drenched close-ups and flinch-inducing sequences of body modification, causing you to experience the pain and suffering of the characters along with them. Tsukamoto gives an excellent performance in the lead role as Tsuda, a man who is forced to forsake his comfortable life for one of violence and struggle, buffeted by his own emotions and the actions of others. Kahori Fujii’s Hizuru is far more than a supporting role with a narrative all of her own, a parallel to the struggle of the two men she is involved with and a reflection of the themes of suffering as a form of release. Her relationship with pain comes to be one of the most intriguing aspects of the film, seemingly reinventing herself as her situation changes. Koji Tsukamoto’s Kojima is likewise a complex character, particularly after his backstory is revealed, who reflects the same paranoia, deep-seated anger, and sense of helplessness expressed by Tsuda.

Shinya Tsukamoto returns to a common theme in his work, that of violence and pain. The use of boxing here gives a perfect story on which to hang many of these themes, acting as a conduit for the passion, suffering, physical and mental pain, that pervades society. As the film progresses the central story of Tsuda, Hizuru and Kojima, becomes less important, instead overwhelmed by the enormity of the forces that seem to be guiding them. Jealousy, lust, anger, hatred, revenge, many of the worst human impulses are characterised in these three individuals. Their individuality becomes blurred as they increasingly reflect each other in their rush towards suffering, perhaps they are simply becoming conduits for an ever present aggression in the world itself. There is an interesting scene with the moon that suggests inescapable natural urges are driving them. The film also shows how their environments, the grim, urban decay of the city’s streets and underpasses, inform and emphasise their emotions. A thought-provoking film that demands deeper consideration. Excellent central performances and a director at the top of his game in creating a work that captivates, dragging you through the suffering of its characters in the hopes that you come out with a deeper understanding of the forces that drive human interaction.

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.

Tokyo Tribe (2014) by Sion Sono

A hip-hop musical action comedy with lashings of ultra-violence, drawing on martial arts, gangster and exploitation cinema. “Tokyo Tribe” begins by introducing us to a fantastical fictionalized Tokyo run by gangs who have carved the megalopolis up into various districts. These include the Bukuro Wu-Ronz, Nerimathafuckers, the Gira Gira Girls in Kabukicho, and the laid-back Musashino gang. The leader of the Bukuro gang is Mera (Ryohei Suzuki), a sadistic gangster who answers only to Buppa (Riki Takeuchi), a crazy crime-boss with a reputation for violence. Mera has a grudge against Kai (Young Dais) from the Musashino group and plans to lure him into a conflict. Kai manages to call on the other gang leaders to back him up in his fight against Mera and Buppa. A young woman known as Sunmi (Nana Seino) who is kidnapped by Buppa’s gang later turns out to be the daughter of an important ally from Wong Kong, who sends his kung-fu enforcers to bring her back.  

With a relatively straightforward plot the film is able to spend most of its time on the cartoonish violence and creating a vibrant, chaotic alternate Tokyo; everything from the sets and costumes to the acting is dialled right up to deliver a sensory assault in keeping with the aggressive and anarchic tone.

Sion Sono is a director who is not afraid of creating works that are both shocking and humorous, seeming to relish the juxtaposition of various genres and elements. This film is no exception. You are never quite sure what to expect as things only get more extreme as they proceed, with the ending being a spectacular rap musical fight sequence that caps the increasing tension building to it. It is certainly unusual to see a hip-hop musical, but by leaning in to the wildness and comedy Sono makes it work. The music is enjoyable and there are a few great hooks and bars throughout.  Many of the cast are rappers so are able to sell the lyrics and bring their own swagger to the roles. Together with the non-rapper actors, including Shota Sometani who acts as a participant narrator, they do a great job of bringing this colourful world to life, playing outrageous stereotypes of ‘gangster rappers’ with a sense of fun. Sono has an incredible eye for visuals and the set design and costumes gives him a chance to really push the boat out, drawing inspiration from various places. With the white-painted human statues reminiscent of the Korova Milk Bar in “A Clockwork Orange”; references to Bruce Lee’s yellow tracksuit as seen on Uma Thurman in “Kill Bill”; the set dressing, pink and red balloons and wallpapers, in various rooms of the red-light district of Saga town are all highly suggestive, using the environment to full effect in creating tone. Slightly less overt are Erika’s virginal white underwear underwear and the seemingly bizarre phallic ornament that Buppa both displays and uses as a substitute for his own member at times; both of which have subtextual significance. All of the gangs have a unique style that make them instantly recognizable and say a lot about them without needing to explain it.

“Tokyo Tribe” is an unusual film, both in its blend of genres and in its themes. It is a film that seems to indulge absolutely male fantasies of sex and violence; with sadistic and chauvinistic criminals, pimps and prostitutes, powerful kung-fu masters, all wrapped in gangster rap bravado. However, the film largely seems to be poking fun at many of these things. There is a distancing effect to having the film be a musical, including Shota Sometani’s role as MC Show. This fourth-wall breaking helps to recast the misogynistic overtones as a criticism of misogyny and male-violence. While the stakes are high, the over-the-top performances from Riki Takeuchi in particular, mean it is hard to take any of it too seriously. In this sense the film can be seen as an attempt to puncture the grandiosity and violent posturing of hip-hop, with an unsubtle dig at the male fixation on sex and violence. We later discover that Mera has an unhealthy obsession with penis size as a measure of a man’s worth and this is the source of his envy and hatred for Kai. The film is essentially ridiculing popular ideas of what masculinity is. The character of Erika, who has come to Tokyo to escape being a virgin sacrifice for her father, further shows the horrors of a male-dominated world. In the Musashino crew we have a group who from the beginning espouse a philosophy of love and peace, and it is this that finally wins the day, against the meaningless violence that seems to characterise the other gangs in Tokyo.

Drawing on various influences, from hip-hop to gangster films, Hong Kong action cinema, the outrageous villains of Japanese teen manga, the filmmakers and actors create a fun alternate reality, with amusing caricatures and a great soundtrack, that can be enjoyed as a tongue-in-cheek dig at much of the culture.