Hard-Core (2018) by Nobuhiro Yamashita

Two men working a meaningless job find a high-tech AI robot in this existential comedy-drama. Unlike his younger brother Sakon (Takeru Sato) who is a high-flying professional, Ukon (Takayuki Yamada) is stuck in a rut. Along with his simple-minded friend Ushiyama (Yoshiyoshi Arakawa), he finds work with an elderly man who is part of some right-wing political group. This man and his assistant Mizunami (Suon Kan) have the two digging in a tunnel for gold that may or may not exist. One night Ushiyama finds a robot under the abandoned factory where he is sleeping that may provide a solution to their current troubles, but at the same time brings difficulties of its own.

Directed by Nobuhiro Yamashita, with a screenplay by Kosuke Mukai, this manga adaptation is a film that includes many disparate elements that never quite come together in a satisfactory way. The lowbrow comedy, such as Ukon’s attempts to help the naïve Ushiyama lose his virginity; or their attempts to hide the robot from prying eyes are amusing; but the film also seems to be striving to be more than a simple knockabout comedy, undermining the potential for more serious discussions with the more outrageous moments. Ukon and Ushiyama’s relationship is touching, being almost surrogate siblings to one another. Takayuki Yamada and Yoshiyoshi Arakawa are perfectly cast as this odd couple, Yamada as a dissatisfied individual who is striving to find some purpose in life, and Arakawa as the childlike, semi-mute, vulnerable Ushiyama. The film begins to find its feet after the discovery of the robot, giving the characters a unique situation to deal with, but at the same time it is unclear what the science-fiction element adds to the narrative.

“Hard-Core” is at its best when focussed on the relationship between the two protagonists, and the comparisons between them and their robotic companion. There is a lingering sense of existential angst in the film, with the shot of a dead cicada bringing home this idea that life is fragile and transient. There is also a strong desire in the character of Ukon to find meaning in his life. At the beginning of the film we see he is a man who is disgusted by humanity, lashing out at people enjoying themselves while he drinks himself into a stupor. Both Ushiyama and the robot, in contrast, are blissfully ignorant of the world around them, rarely troubled by concerns beyond the here and now. As Ukon’s brother explains to him, the robot has no will or desires, it does what it does because it is told to. It is the tragedy of humans that they are searching for meaning in a meaningless world. In the same way that they are digging for gold and Mizunuma’s daughter Taeko (Kei Ishibashi) is searching for physical pleasure, to the exclusion of all else. “Hard-Core” is an unusual film because it attempts to juggle so many genres, action, romance, existential drama, comedy, and science-fiction, and often seems to drift aimlessly from one to the other. Much like the journey of the protagonist, it is often hard to discern a deeper meaning amidst the madness.

Ju-On Origins (2020)

Since its release “Ju-On” (Takashi Shimizu, 2001) has established itself as a classic horror, spawning sequels, remakes and a crossover with “Ring” (Sadako vs. Kiyoko, Koji Shiraishi, 2016). This mini-drama, six half-hour episodes, first takes us back to 1988. Yasuo Odajima (Yoshiyoshi Arakawa) is a paranormal investigator who is introduced to the story of the mysterious house by a co-presenter, Haruka Honjo (Yuina Kuroshima), whose partner recently visited the place while house hunting. Certain spirits that inhabit the house haunt many people who come into contact with it, often terrifying them to death or causing some violent or fatal misfortune. Around the same time a schoolgirl, Kiyomi (Ririka), is tricked by her classmates into visiting the house and there subjected to sexual abuse. The series then moves forward, to 1995 and 1998, as occurences at the house and in the lives of people connected with it become more gruesome and bizarre.

Written by Hiroshi Takahashi and Takashige Ichise, and directed by Sho Miyake, “Ju-On Origins” creates several interwoven stories that all converge on this same ill-fated residence. The short half-hour episodes and multiple narratives mean it is fast-paced, moving swiftly from one story to another, often more of a detective drama that straight horror. The mystery of what is happening in the house twinned with genuine concern for the characters makes it gripping from start to finish. For fans of the original films there is also interest in seeing these new characters and revisiting the cursed residence. The scares are a mixture of bloody body horror, more visceral and shocking than anything in the original films, and the more familiar creepy moments. These subtler moments are often more effective, creating an uncomfortable atmosphere from often simple things: mewling cats, ringing telephones, small details in the background. However, when it does go for more disturbingly graphic scares, it hits the mark, reinventing and exploring the more gruesome aspects of the “Ju-On” myth, including spousal and child murder, and sexual assault. The direction uses some of the techniques of the original film, off-kilter angles, holding on a scene until the audience realises there’s a figure in the background, but also features great use of light and colour, with scenes shifting from light to dark. There are more special effects involved in this series, which can be hit and miss, but are nevertheless audaciously extreme. The cast all do a great job in bringing the curse of the house to life, creating real characters in an unreal situation. In particular Yoshiyoshi Arakawa in a rare serious role, and Ririka whose complex character is one of the most intriguing.

One of the things that makes “Juon Origins” interesting is the meta reading of the film. In several episodes we hear or see news reports of real-life crimes and tragedies, two very high-profile murders, the Sarin Gas Attack, and the Kobe Earthquake. These add a disturbing aspect to the film, almost drawing horror from these true crimes into the narrative, providing an uncomfortable reminder that horror and evil exist in our own world. Odajima, one of the first characters we are introduced to and one whose story is intricately linked with the house, is asked on a number of occasions why he is writing a book on the paranormal; and this question could also be asked not only of this film, but horror films in general. The question of human fascination with evil, whether real-world or supernatural, is a pertinent one, especially considering the inclusion of the genuine stories mentioned above. The idea of the cursed house, spirits calling for revenge, unsatisfied rage, anger, despair, are things that are seen as resulting from the violence and abuse that took place there. In part, the series is not questioning the origin of this cursed house, but the origin of the film “Ju-On”, and indirectly all horror. That is, why do writers, artists, and film-makers, make disturbing works. It does not spring from some imagined fear, but from the horrors they see in the world. Whether this is a form of escapism or an attempt to explain our relationship with evil is up for debate. “Ju-On: Origins” is a series that takes it’s subject matter seriously, creating a potent dread that is as much to do with our own fears as the supernatural horror.

Fine, Totally Fine (2008) by Yosuke Fujita

A quirky drama about an unlikely group of friends. Akari Kinoshita (Yoshino Kimura) is a hopelessly accident-prone woman, who is hired by Hisanobu Komori (Yoshinori Okada) to work at a hospital. She spends her free time down by the river watching a homeless woman collect detritus with which she makes garbage-sculptures, whom Akari decorates her own house with drawings of. Komori’s friend Teruo Toyama (YoshiYoshi Arakawa) works as a civic groundskeeper, helping out at his father’s second hand bookstore part time. He is a horror fanatic with dreams of one day creating the scariest horror house in existence. Teruo’s father, Eitaro (Keizo Kanie), seems to have fallen into a semi-comatose slump, sitting behind his desk all day at the bookstore barely communicative with a glazed expression. After seeing a travel show on television he sets off to find some kind of respite from the daily monotony. Akari quits her hospital job and Komori recommends working at Teruo’s bookshop. Teruo and Komori’s fondness for Akari soon turns to feelings of love, but Akari has already met another man, Yuhara (Naoki Tanaka), who shows an interest in her drawings.

Written and directed by Yosuke Fujita, “Fine, Totally Fine” is an unconventional film, in that there are no great revelations or moments of triumph or disaster for the characters. There is an easy vibe and relaxing air to the film; things happen, characters talk, but there is little in the way of plot. The drama is enlivened by moments of comedy, mostly involving Teruo’s obsession with horror, such as his experience at a haunted apartment, or his various pranks on his friends. YoshiYoshi is a skilled comic actor, perfectly capturing the hapless everyman Teruo with his casual delivery and expressive features. Yoshino Kimura is also charming and amusing as Akari in a slapstick role, constantly bumbling in her attempts to seal a box, or wrap a lewd magazine for a customer. The story meanders from one scenario to the next with little momentum; instead each scene serves to highlight some example of the character’s peculiar faults or interests.

The characters all have hopes and dreams, searching for fame, fortune, or love, with varying results. The film’s themes are delicately expressed, often requiring some concentration from the viewer to piece together exactly what it is trying to say. Moments that in any other film would be paid off in the final act are here casually passed over without further comment, such as Teruo’s attempts to start a business, or Akari’s fascination with the homeless woman that begins the film. There are moments that suggest a depth to the film, with the “film within a film” that Teruo’s friends are making imitating life in unusual ways; ideas of the relationship between art and reality prominent in Akari’s drawings also; Yuhara’s job of fixing broken objects perhaps suggesting a parallel with the characters who are all missing pieces of themselves. Many of the characters seem to be trapped in situations that are not what they want to be doing; but it would be hard to describe them as suffering. There are certainly things to enjoy here: excellent performances, and a couple of genuinely funny moments; but the languid pace, absent plot, and vague gesturing towards a central theme may put off viewers who are looking for something more conventional.