Category: Japanese Film Reviews

Kurosawa Kiyoshi should be considered his own genre. While primarily known for his horror films in the West, he got his start with pinku eiga movies (like many other Japanese directors) then moved into yakuza territory before making the switch to horror. Highly skilled, Kurosawa can successfully move between genres but every film he has made is distinctly and undeniably his. He uses unorthodox techniques and favors convoluted storylines with intense thematic complexity. He likes playing with experimental techniques; in his work you will find everything from disorienting shot placement, to musical numbers, to short silent films. There are a few things, however, that he uses with regularity and have become part of his style – ambiguous narratives, the use of both static and tracking cameras that form exceedingly long takes, the tendency to film his characters from a distance, the use of reflection and light, illogical editing, extremely deliberate pacing. He also has very important things to say about Japanese society – social alienation, the gap between generations, the modern family and workplace, morality. But what makes his films so special is that he does these things while scaring the hell out of the audience.

RETRIBUTION (2006, Japanese title Sakebi, ‘scream’) isn’t the best Kurosawa movie and it isn’t the scariest, but it is a great example of what Kurosawa does. The film opens with a static shot of a murder, viewed from Kurosawa’s recognizably distant vantage point. A man in a black trench coat is holding a woman in a blazingly red dress face down in a muddy puddle. The scene is completely silent; when the man finishes his task he walks away. Detective Yoshioka (played by Kurosawa’s cinematic alter-ego Yakusho Koji) is tasked with investigating the murder. However, he begins to wonder if he is the murderer, as he uncovers evidence that seems to point to him and is haunted by images of the ghost in red. As he attempts to discover her identity, a series of similar killings take place in the area – seemingly random people are all drowning loved ones in seawater.

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ADRENALINE DRIVE is one of the first movies I watched when I was initially getting into Japanese film. Back in 2000, VHS still reigned supreme and it was pretty difficult to get your hands on Japanese movies in Colorado. Upon realizing that I had exhausted most of the sci-fi movie selection at the local Hollywood Video (remember when people used to RENT movies from STORES???), I stumbled upon a VHS copy of ADRENALINE DRIVE. Up to that point, I had really only watched jidai-geki style samurai movies, so my 12 year old brain was pretty interested in seeing a ‘normal’ Japanese movie. Though I bought it on a whim, ADRENALINE DRIVE turned out to be a ridiculously fun parody of yakuza caper films.
The movie opens with Suzuki (Ando Masanobu), a spineless rental car clerk, accidentally rear ending a car full of yakuza. Always ready to exploit the situation, the yakuza force Suzuki to visit their office and settle the debt. After an uncomfortable moment with the yakuza leader Kuroiwa (Matsushige Yutaka), Suzuki is let off the hook when a gas explosion destroys the office. Hearing the blast, an off-duty nurse Shizuko (Ishida Hikari) rushes into the building to help. Seeing the dead yakuza, Suzuki and Shizuko leave with a case full of blood-soaked cash. However, a badly injured Kuroiwa knows their identities and, now bed-ridden in the hospital, sends a group of low-level chinpira after them to retrieve the stolen money. Now on the run from the yakuza, ADRENALINE DRIVE is about the bizarre misadventures the unlikely pair experience.

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Horror is typically regarded as the least feminist genre of film; a genre that routinely objectifies, sexualizes, tortures, rapes and murders women and girls. However, if viewed from a different angle, horror films often feature story lines that grant wronged women the power and agency (in death) to respond to the injustices done to them in life.

‘Dead wet girls’ is a term coined by David Kalat in his book J-Horror to describe the unique female ghosts who are so iconic in Japanese horror. While popular Japanese films like RING and JU-ON have made this figure recognizable to Western audience, the wronged woman has been a prominent figure in Japanese ghost stories and mythology for centuries. Of course, the interpretation of these stories is fairly ambivalent; often the presence of malignant ghosts and spirits is connected back to the failure of mothers and wives to perform their womanly duties. In many Japanese folktales, female spirits are connected back to the savage and unpredictable natural world.


KWAIDAN (1964)

The best example of this connection to nature is the Yuki-onna (snow woman), famously depicted in Kobayashi Masaki’s KWAIDAN (1964). The Yuki-onna is a beautiful woman with long black hair, who typically appears before travelers lost in snow. The Yuki-onna typically kills the unfortunate travelers she meets, though she may also take unsuspecting men as lovers in a succubus-like fashion. She is essentially the manifestation of winter; beautiful and serene yet capable of ruthlessly killing those who are ill-prepared. She is also a reminder of a woman’s fury – like nature, no woman can ever be fully trusted. Kobayashi Masaki’s depiction of the Yuki-onna is captivatingly surreal. Starring Nakadai Tatsuya, the entire segment was filmed in an obviously artificial indoor set with swirling painted backgrounds (featuring an ominous eye).

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Based upon the novel by Otsuichi, GOTH is about two morbid high school students who share a fascination with murder. Kamiyama (Hongo Kanata) is an outwardly friendly and popular boy who hides his potentially sociopathic nature with a carefree, happy attitude. Loner Morino (Takanashi Rin), on the other hand, does little to hide her strange nature; she never smiles, doesn’t interact with her classmates, and wears a long-sleeved, black school uniform even during the middle of summer. While these two seem to share little in common and do not interact with each other in front of their peers, their shared interest in death and murder has turned them into an unusual duo. Initially happy to exchange books on morbid subjects, a series of recent murders spark their interest and they begin investigating the killer. This serial killer has a fondness for cheerful young women and, after severing their left hand as a trophy, displays their dead bodies in public locations to be discovered. After Morino discovers the killer’s notebook in a local café, the two use it to see the corpses for themselves before discovery and attempt to discern his identity. Obviously, the closer they get to discovering him, the more danger they are in.

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Yamada Yoji does not make action-packed Hollywood blockbusters. Stemming from the branch of Japanese filmmakers taught by Ozu and Mizoguchi, Yamada’s films usually take a more introspective, down-to-earth direction. While Kabei: Our Mother marks his 80th film, it was only in the early 2000s that Yamada gained the recognition of Western audiences. The films of his samurai trilogy (The Twilight Samurai, The Hidden Blade, and Love and Honor) are all more interested in the internal conflicts of the characters and potent characterizations of the decaying Edo era than in epic, choreographed swordfights. The effect is either lost on the audience or whole-heartedly embraced. In terms of samurai films, Ninja Scroll is a bowl of gyuudon and The Twilight Samurai is kaiseki ryori. Both are delicious, but both are eaten with distinctly different intentions. Additionally, Yamada has built most of his career around depicting two specific eras of Japanese history; the late-Edo (ending in 1867) and Showa (1925-1989). Both of these periods marked times of tremendous change in Japan; the forcible ‘opening’ of Japan to Western trade and end of bakufu (Shogunate) rule (shortly followed by the dissolution of the samurai class) and Japan’s ill-fated foray into imperialism.

Like Yamada’s samurai trilogy, Kabei is not a run-of-the-mill World War II film. The story follows Nogami Kayo (AKA Kabei, played by Yoshinaga Sayuri), a mother who must care for her two daughters after her husband, a professor, is arrested and jailed for expressing opinions contrary to the Imperial war effort. Forced to cope with the difficulties of being a single mother and her own reservations about the rising nationalism in Japan, Kabei raises her daughters with the help of her lovely sister-in-law, a rowdy uncle, and the clumsy and good-hearted Yamasaki. Uninterested in action, Yamada devotes the film’s energy to the portrayal of the characters’ experiences. Uninterested in romanticizing the past, Yamada also places his typical emphasis on historical accuracy and goes to considerable effort to accurately capture the look and atmosphere of Showa era Japan.

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I’m a big fan of Asian Extreme cinema (Patrick Galloway’s Asia Shock is a great introduction). Like most nerds, I’ll watch all movies that fall into this category…even if I only end up liking 50% of them. Unfortunately this was the case with Kaji Kengo’s Samurai Princess (2009). Sporting the talents of Nishimura Yoshihiro (the man responsible for the effects in Tokyo Gore Police), this movie had a lot of promise to be another flick full of nonsense, gore, and gory nonsense. Unfortunately, it fails to deliver on every level.

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Perfect Blue

Already before Perfect Blue I wrote a script for another director [Katsuhiro Otomo], an episode of the omnibus film Memories called Magnetic Rose. It was also a story of confusion between memory and the real world. Because I didn’t direct it myself I was a bit concerned about how it was turning out. On many occasions I thought I would have done things differently. I got my chance to realize those thoughts with Perfect Blue. So I already had an interest in that kind of plot, to consciously compose the story in such a manner… To be honest, I care very little about the idea of the stalker in Perfect Blue. The storytelling aspects interest me much more. Looking at things objectively or subjectively gives two very different images. For an outsider, the dreams and the film within a film are easy to separate from the real world. But for the person who is experiencing them, everything is real. I wanted to describe that kind of situation, so I applied it in Perfect Blue. [Kon Satoshi, Midnight Eye Interview]

While all of Kon Satoshi’s work explores similar themes, the thematic line that runs through Magnetic Rose, Perfect Blue, and Millennium Actress (his first three works) is the strongest and easiest to identify. All three films are stories about the confusion between reality and fantasy, the subjective nature of perception and memory, and the identity of the female performer. While Kon explored many of these themes within the script for Magnetic Rose (which I discussed in the previous post), he was finally able to take the helm as director in the 1998 Perfect Blue. The result is an astounding cinematic tour de force. In her essay “‘Excuse Me, Who Are You?’: Performance, the Gaze and the Female in the Works of Kon Satoshi” from Cinema Anime, Susan Napier elaborates, “I use the term tour de force because the film’s brilliant use of animation and unreality creates a unique viewing experience, forcing the viewer to question not only the protagonist’s perceptions but his or her own as he/she follows the protagonist into a surreal world of madness and illusion” (33). For this essay, I would like to examine the themes Kon addresses within Perfect Blue as well as the formal and narrative techniques that he employs to express them. Finally, I will conclude with a discussion of the film’s ending and interpretations.

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I think one thing that nearly every Japanese film buff can agree on is that commercialization is never a good thing in the modern Japanese film industry (I am purposely overlooking the golden age of Japanese cinema here, it’s a different animal entirely). Particularly for Japan’s horror industry, which became explosively popular internationally off the accomplishments of a few decidedly low-budget works. Since the success of films like The Ring and Ju-On: The Grudge, the Japanese horror genre has become increasingly decayed; focusing entirely on exploitation and losing the atmospheric horror of the earlier works or just being plain boring. Shimizu Takashi’s Shock Labyrinth 3D is another example of this commercialization; taking an internationally-known filmmaker famous for his work in the horror genre and producing a film that uses the latest in 3D technology as an effective gimmick to draw audiences into theaters.

Shock Labyrinth 3D follows four teenagers through the Shock Labyrinth amusement part, the same park where one went missing years earlier. Filmed at the Labyrinth of Horrors in Fuji-Q Highland theme park (Fujiyoshida), the only positive thing I can say about the film is that it makes me want to go visit that damn haunted house. Shimizu does his best creating the atmospheric horror recognizable from his earlier works but his skills as a filmmaker really can’t compensate for the abysmal story and acting. It is fairly surprising that a film starring several well-known Japanese actors – Maeda Ai (Battle Royale 2) and Yagira Yuya (Nobody Knows) – would be so flat and lifeless, but I think it’s safe to assume they happily collected their salaries and mentally checked-out during filming. Make no mistake, this is a studio-driven money-making scheme and raised expectations are just foolish here.

The 3D is one of the best features of the film (even viewed through the glasses included in the DVD) and is used, for the most part, subtly and wisely. While directors typically chose to shove 3D effects right in your face (haha), I think it’s most effective when employed in an unobtrusive, naturalistic style (Tron Legacy, for example). However, 3D is a troublesome match for horror films, which typically make use of shocking rapid cuts and close-ups (accompanied with a blaring soundtrack). 3D, in contrast, works best with long-takes and wide-angle lenses which highlight the depth of the third dimension. In this sense, Shimizu’s style of filmmaking is a good match for 3D; his wide-angle scenes are slow-moving and minimalist, allowing the viewers to absorb the entire scene and notice the uncanny elements within, without any hand-holding from the director. The third dimension is a welcome enhancement to Shimizu’s style; creepy monsters can now move within the environment, without the assistance of edits, revealing and obscuring themselves from the audience. Bodies are dragged backwards into gloom and female ghosts can descend upon us from above.

Thematically, Shimizu again chooses to play with the divide between reality and hallucination. The plot itself remains fairly mysterious through most of the film; is everyone already dead? Is this a nightmare? The character of Rin (Maeda Ai) also represents the limitations of vision and our ability to effectively perceive reality. Despite her blindness, she is typically more perceptive than her comrades and can more effectively navigate the labyrinth with the use of her other senses.

In Shock Labyrinth 3D, Shimizu has shown that he can fairly effectively employ 3D filmmaking in the horror genre and this integration creates a refreshing break of the standard horror movie tropes. However the film ultimately remains crippled by its flat characterization and a narrative that degenerates into a lot of running down corridors while chased by the ghosts of wronged women. If anything, Shock Labyrinth 3D may be proof that the box-office appeal of pale, ghostly women with bad grooming habits has finally died… Until the next sequel, of course.

Magnetic Rose (a rather loose translation of 彼女の想いで, “her memories”) is the first of three episodes based on the manga short stories of Otomo Katsuhiro (the genius behind Akira). Directed by Morimoto Koji, Magnetic Rose does not offer any insight into Kon Satoshi’s work as a director. However, he wrote the adaption of Otomo’s original manga story and the episode contains many of the key themes that Kon explores in his later work. Specifically, Magnetic Rose explores the boundary between reality and illusion, the role of perception and memory, and femininity.

Drawing inspiration from the story and music of Madame Butterfly and 2001: A Space Odyssey, Magnetic Rose follows the members of the deep space salvage vessel Corona. While performing a salvage mission, the crew encounters an odd distress signal emanating from the Sargasso region, ominously nicknamed ‘the graveyard of space.’ Each man has their own reasons for working in deep space, namely to ‘build houses in California.’ Specifically, Miguel is looking forward to being united with one of his beautiful girlfriends and Heinz longs to return to his family.

The crew discovers a destroyed space station and Heinz and Miguel are sent in to investigate. Once onboard, Heinz and Miguel are lured deeper into the baroque interior of the space station, following various holographic images of the beautiful Eva Friedel. A famous opera singer, Eva fell from grace after she lost her voice and disappeared completely after the murder of her fiancée, Carlo. As the two men venture deeper into the ship, the holograms begin to reflect their own dreams and memories and the difference between illusion and reality become increasingly difficult to distinguish.

Though the narrative is about the two men, the story actually revolves around the feminine presence. It is the figures of Eva Friedel and Heintz’s daughter Emily who stand, in the words of Susan Napier, “at the nexus point between real and unreal, ultimately beckoning the men towards death” [1]. The recurring images of roses and the haunting strains of Madame Butterfly are very powerful feminine symbols. Simultaneously alluring and sinister, Eva seduces Miguel into believing he is her fiancée. However, it turns out that it was actually Eva who murdered Carlo because he broke off their engagement. According to Eva, “Carlo lives forever. With me, in my memories…In my memories he will never change his mind.” This is, in fact, Eva’s own attempt to manipulate her own memory into reality.

Meanwhile, Eva similarly attempts to seduce Heinz with the image of his daughter Emily. At the beginning of the episode, the viewer is led to believe that Heinz is waiting to return home to his family. However, we ultimately discover that his daughter is dead and the photograph in his wallet only a memory. Though Heinz refuses to accept the hologram as reality, proclaiming “Memories aren’t an escape!”, this realization comes too late. The Corona and its crew are destroyed in the blast generated to break away from Eva’s ship and Heinz is sucked out into space. In the final frame of the film, Heinz is drifting away from the rose-shaped wreckage, holographic rose petals floating in his helmet.

Throughout Magnetic Rose, both men are motivated by their desires – for Miguel, the desire for the mysterious Eva, and for Heinz the desire to be reunited with his daughter. Because both desires only lead to destruction, the viewer is left with ‘a sense of the emptiness of desire’ [2]. Furthermore, the fact that both of these desires are impossible to attain – both Eva and Heinz’s daughter are dead – speak to the inherent danger of memory and nostalgia.

Magnetic Rose contains several themes that Kon Satoshi moves on to explore in his later work; reality and illusion, as represented by the holograms, and memory and nostalgia, as represented by Heinz’s daughter. However, the character of Eva Friedel contains the clearest link between Magnetic Rose and Kon’s later work. More than an embittered woman, Eva herself was a victim. An opera singer, Eva lost everything – the admiration of her fans and the love of her fiancée – when she lost her voice. His murder and Eva’s subsequent retreat into the space station represent both an act of vengeance and an attempt to preserve the memory of her former glory. In particular, the numerous images of Eva that cover the interior of the ship, old news clippings, and the holographic representations of her fans have a strong connection to Kon’s next project Perfect Blue.

Ah, this dinner is zehr gut, could you pass the ketchup?

For me, Magnetic Rose does fall prey to one of the more amusing characteristics of anime. The names and characterization of the characters are quite ridiculous. The name of the ship, Corona, makes me think of the beer and the characters sport names like Ivanov and Miguel (you know, to represent how international the crew is). Heinz is the best example of this. His blonde hair, blue eyes, and hulky build identify him as foreign. When we are transported into his memory of home, German music plays in the background. Clearly, with a name like Heinz, he must be German (or a member of the ketchup dynasty).

Joking aside, Magnetic Rose alone represents a strong addition to the anime genre. The animation and mecha designs are top notch and the story is absolutely fantastic. It is also a short and easy introduction to Kon Satoshi. Highly recommended.

Coming up next is Perfect Blue.

Works Cited

Napier, Susan J. “‘Excuse Me, Who Are You?’: Performance, the Gaze, and the Female in the Works of Kon Satoshi,” Cinema Anime: Critical Engagements With Japanese Animation. Ed. Steven T. Brown. New York: Palgrave Macmillian, 2006.

Wild Zero follows the three band members of Guitar Wolf; Guitar Wolf (vocals and guitar), Bass Wolf (bass), and Drum Wolf (you guessed it, drums). This trio are the hottest musicians in rural Asahi-cho and only believe in three things; love, justice, and Rock’n’Roll. Tired of the dirty ways of their evil yakuza business manager, the Captain (played by Inamiya Makoto in a variety of wigs), Guitar Wolf decides to quit and continue their career as independent musicians. Thanks to some accidental help from Ace (Endo Masashi), a young rockabilly and avid Guitar Wolf fan, the band members manage to escape the Captain, but not before robbing him and shooting off two of his fingers. Recognizing that Ace lives by the same Rock’n’Roll code of honor, Guitar Wolf makes him his blood brother and gives him a whistle with instructions to ‘blow it if you ever need help.’ Sure enough, Ace and his love interest Tobio (Shitichai Kwancharu) soon need help from the leather-clad rock stars to battle off a horde of zombies and save Earth from some nasty extraterrestrial invaders.

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