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.

From Miyamoto to You (2019) by Tetsuya Mariko

Hiroshi Miyamoto (Sosuke Ikematsu) falls in love with Yasuko Nakano (Yu Aoi) at first sight. Compassionate and caring to a fault, Miyamoto is even undeterred by Yasuko’s former boyfriend barging into her apartment while he is there. Their relationship soon hits rocky waters however when Yasuko is raped by the son of Miyamoto’s boss, Takuma (Wataru Ichinose), a tough rugby player whose charisma earns him an invite to sleep over at Miyamoto and Yasuko’s apartment following a drinking session. Following the attack, Miyamoto decides to go all out to hunt down Takuma and punish him, but finds it difficult given his physical weakness. This frustration at his inability to protect Yasuko and harm Takuma sends him spiralling into a rage for revenge. Things are further complicated when Yasuko discovers that she is pregnant.

Director Tetsuya Mariko (Destruction Babies) continues his fascination with male violence in this adaptation from the manga by Hideki Arai. The film is achronological in structure, beginning with a sequence showing Miyamoto bloodied from a fight and apologising to his boss for a recent fracas. We then see Yasuko, who is pregnant, and Miyamoto at their soon-to-be parent’s in laws, explaining that they are to be married. It makes for a bold opening, raising questions about what Miyamoto was fighting for, how this couple, who may have secrets they are keeping from their parents met, and exactly what is going on. Sosuke Ikematsu and Yu Aoi are excellent in the lead roles, able to shift in an instant from cosy, likeable couple, to screaming fury or howling grief. It is a change that is required as the sucker punch that comes in the form of Takuma, played perfectly with charmingly concealed malice by Wataru Ichinose, shifts the film from a simple drama into something more akin to a theatrical tragedy. From the realism of these early conversations we are suddenly given their souls laid bare, the pain and suffering evident in their faces, tears streaming, snot flying, beet-red contorted physiognomies leaving nothing to be expressed. The latter half of the film sees Miyamoto on what might be described as a legendary quest to slay the monster who has perpetrated this evil on his princess. He sets out with grim determination, the low chance of success driving him to increasing anger. “From Miyamoto to You” is a film that plays with expectations in more ways than one, with the structure offering us a puzzle to piece together once all the evidence is gathered, and a strange concatenation of tonally divergent moments. This is evidenced early on with the appearance of Yasuko’s former lover, which is at once alarming, suggestions of infidelity and perhaps domestic abuse, and amusing, with his unhinged rambling and bizarre behaviour. Later in the film we are given an even starker example in the fight between Miyamoto and Takuma, which runs the gamut from horror to slapstick and back as they trade blows.

The framing of Miyamoto is incredible, with Mariko showing a flair for staging the actors for maximum impact. The contemplative moments, with individual characters or couples framed by the environs of their apartments, are captured with a clever use of camera and minimal movement; while the latter explosive emotional outbursts are captured with an eager and energetic camera that pulls us into the action.

“Miyamoto” is a film about male potency and how men see themselves, both personally and in terms of their relationships. The rape in the film is truly shocking and unexpected and the uncomfortable feeling of being violated remains with the audience throughout. In the past films have dealt with the consequences of rape for the victims, but here the focus is on the partner of the victim and how he comes to terms with both what has happened and his inability to prevent it. The film deals with primal fears and emotions, with the protagonist battling his own inadequacy along with the injustice that has been perpetrated. The fantastic performances by Ikematsu and Aoi as this loving couple who are torn apart by tragedy help to draw us into a narrative that offers a glimpse of humanity at its most brutal and atavistic. Despite the violence, the film nevertheless has moments of hope, with Miyamoto’s quixotic quest bringing out his best qualities as well as his worst.

964 Pinnochio (1991) by Shozin Fukui

A nightmarish near-future cyberpunk with a heady mix of sex and violence. An underground organization throw out one of the sex slaves they have created due to his inability to perform. Stripped of his memory, ability to communicate, and any sense of purpose, this man (Haji Suzuki) wanders aimless until he is picked up by a young woman, Himiko (Onn-chan). She is creating maps of the city for those who have lost their memories to allow people to live without their memories. Himiko takes in this unfortunate creation, whom she names Pinnochio (964 being a reference to his product number). Realising that Pinnochio is not dead as they had expected, those who created him set out to recover their product. Meanwhile, Himiko and Pinnochio both seem to be experiencing psychotic episodes as their realities collapse into a twisted maelstrom of torture.

Written and directed by Shozin Fukui, “964 Pinnochio” is a work that draws on horror, surreal arthouse moments, and earlier science-fiction tropes. Naming the creation Pinnochio is no coincidence as this is a man who has been cut loose from his narrowly defined role and left to find his own way. He is also reminiscent of Frankenstein’s monster as an abominable creation who nevertheless has some semblance of spirit that is trying to find release from his bodily prison. A fantastic example of the cyberpunk genre, with strobe lighting, stop motion, speeded up footage and extreme close-ups provoking that physical response that the best horror does. The film seems intent on making the audience squirm, with an extended sequence of vomiting, gory closeups that blur the line between eroticism and horror, and moments such as a character drooling into a bowl of cherries, all intended to cause revulsion. The film’s contemporary or near future setting, with little to visually distinguish it as in any way technologically advanced, nevertheless does a great job of making the familiar unfamiliar. The backdrop of industrial decay, bleak urban landscapes of concrete and smoke, creates an oppressive atmosphere that draws out the themes of dehumanisation. The sound design of buzzing strip lights and the hollow echo of these cold spaces similarly creates a feeling of anxiety and isolation; of the living characters being trapped in a world of uncaring technology and the slow yet inevitable entropy around them. The film will not be for everyone and while there is a lot to recommend it there are certainly moments that drag it down. Several scenes go on far longer than is necessary to get the point across. In particular the vomiting and a running sequence near the end of the film feel overlong. There is also a subplot involving an employee of the company adopting a child, and later kidnapping a young girl. This is given little time in the film and seems like an idea that would have been interesting to develop, in relation to Himiko and Pinnochio’s relationship, and ideas of care and control.

The film is rough around the edges which adds to its charm. The central story of a creation being cast out and finding out about itself and the world is a solid hook on which to hang the outrageous and provocative creativity of the director. While “964 Pinnochio” is full of shocking moments, this poignant journey of the protagonist is enough to keep the audience engaged and rooting for him. There is an interesting detail later in the film with Pinnochio chained to a large pyramidal object, perhaps representing something like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and his search for self-actualisation above and beyond the base function of his programming; it also may be a metaphor for the psychological burden that he is dragging around with him. The scene in the scrapyard between Himiko and Pinnochio is an evocative moment, with the two characters literally thrown out from normal society. Like all good cyberpunk “964 Pinnochio” champions the underdog, the dregs of society, the apparently worthless and unloved. A prime example of the cyberpunk genre that hauls you through hell to deliver a deeper message on human suffering and the treatment of the lowest in society.

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.

Alice in Borderland (2020)

A series of violent games tests the wits and courage of young Tokyoites as they work to find out who is behind them. Arisu (Kento Yamazaki) is a jobless gamer, berated by his elder brother for not helping out. Leaving home he meets up with his best friends: barman Karube (Keita Machida) and office worker Chota (Yuki Morinaga). After hiding out from the police in Shibuya, they emerge into an empty city. It appears that the entire population besides them has instantly vanished, leaving everything behind. Game arenas begin to appear with across the city, all managed by some unseen force. Completing these dangerous challenges rewards them with more time to live; failing means death. Arisu and his friends find themselves fighting for their survival, meeting other characters such as the athletic Usagi (Tao Tsuchiya), who is trapped in this otherworld with them, trying to return home.

“Alice in Borderland” is based on the manga by Haro Aso and does a good job of converting the frenetic energy and pace of that format to a live-action drama. The opening episodes set up the characters with minimal effort, introducing us to the three friends and immediately establishing their rapport. Kento Yamazaki is likeable as Arisu, a failure in life who suddenly finds his talents an indispensable asset in the world of the games. Keita Machida and Yuki Morinaga give off a warmth as his friends and the three have a great chemistry and dynamic. As the series progresses, this pattern is repeated, with instantly relatable characters introduced with a short backstory in flashback that lends motivation or personality to their role. Later in the series, the characters join a larger group who are working together under the leadership of Hatter (Nobuaki Kaneko) to escape back to the normal world. These characters live in a hotel complex renamed “The Beach”, where they spend their days lounging in swimwear, and their nights competing in the games to earn playing cards for the leader (believed to be the only way to return to the normal world). There is a definite slowing of pace at this point. While the first three episodes are almost non-stop action, we move into more character study and contemplation of the situation. That is not a bad thing as many of the new characters are equally, if not more, intriguing than the old characters, such as Hikari Kuina (Aya Asahina) and Chishiya (Nijiro Murakami), whose story becomes one of the most exciting. Direction and cinematography give the whole series a sleek look, particularly during the action moments. The CGI is far better than most live-action manga adaptations and used sparingly enough that it does not detract from the story.

Japan is no stranger to the ‘death game’ genre, from “Battle Royale” to “Gantz” there are several examples of this type of story. “Alice in Borderland” follows these with a few fresh twists on the format. We have a mysterious presence who is running the games, forcing the humans into conflict and struggle; a hero who believes that there is a better way than killing to escape the game; and a series of deadly scenarios. As the title suggests, the series makes several references to “Alice in Wonderland”, with playing cards used to determine the type and difficulty of the games, characters named “Usagi” (Rabbit) and “Hatter”. Rather than fighting each other, or an alien force (as in the other examples of this genre given), here they are challenged with puzzles, tests of strength, and tests of honour or loyalty. Much like those other series, the sense that this is a chaotic new world is replaced by the realisation that in fact this is the real world stripped back to its most essential and atavistic elements. Later in the series the references to authoritarian government and the role of the military in supporting oppressive regimes are unavoidable. The Beach is a darkly satirical reflection of a society that is happy to accept horrific things so long as they can enjoy themselves. The people there show no desire to find out who is behind the games (that kill large numbers of them); nor do they make any attempt to change a hierarchy that sees them as expendable tools in the acquisition of power for the leaders. When they are forced into playing a “Witch Hunt” game, the sight of them throwing dead bodies onto a fire will recall for many the horrors of fascist dictatorships. “Alice in Borderland” draws clear parallels between the behaviour of individuals in this new world, and society in general. The games act as a test not only of their intelligence and strength, but their moral character. For fans of this genre, there is a lot to enjoy, great action sequences, likeable characters, and an curious mystery at its heart. What it says about humanity may be disturbing but is also a poignant reminder of our many weaknesses as well as our capacity for courage and triumph against the odds.