Unusual Japanese Films
We all know that anime is some of the strangest stuff to come out of Japan, but there are a host of real films with real actors that are equally undecipherable. We have been finding these Japanese films on VCD and DVD from Asian websites. Occasionally you'll find a Japanese movie for rent or in the library, but all in all, they are seldom physically or mentally accessible to North American and European audiences. We doubt we can change that, but here are some Japanese movies that we have tracked down and in most cases watched through to their end.
In Marebito, Masuoka is a man obsessed with images, and he lives half in the real world and half through the viewfinder of a video camera. He constantly replays his footage of a man who killed himself in a subway station. The man's look of terror fascinates Masuoka, and he longs to experience that same emotion. While randomly wandering and filming around Tokyo, he discovers a maze of tunnels beneath the city. The first inhabitants he finds are homeless and afraid. Then he encounter Muriko, the suicide victim from his video. Muriko explains the dangers of the Deros--short for detrimental Robots (See Richard Shaver's 1921 scifi classic) who are blood sucking inhabitants of this underground city. Further exploration brings him to an open canyon where he discovers a beautiful girl chained in a cavern. He brings her home only to find that although she appears human she is actually a Dero. Naming her "F" ,he taps his own blood supply to keep her fed, but before long he needs to supplement her diet. His ex-wife comes around looking for their daughter, and she becomes the first five liter donor. He enjoys the fear of his donors/victims, and, of course, it all goes into his video collection. F is grateful for the baby bottles filled with blood. All in all it's a happy arrangement. But the plot of Marebito, which was written and directed by Takashi Shimizu of Ju-On fame, is far more twisted and visually disturbing than you'd anticipate. The director of Tetsuo-The Iron Man, Shinya Tsukamoto plays the lead part of the nerdy and perhaps insane cameraman. Just one more instance of sophisticated, adult scary Japanese horror films that are often copied but never duplicated. The stiffs in Hollywood do not have the balls to make movies this good, but don't get me started. 2005. Japanese. 91 minutes.
"Merely killing one hundred bandits will not save this nation," advises the master. Ten orphans, trained in secret, have grown into ruthless assassins. They set out with their master to change the course of Japanese history. First they are whittled down to a team of five. Their first mission is to put a cap in some warlord's ass. Of course, as samurai, they actually use swords, but you get the idea. Following the assassin's motto "There are many evil people in the world. Someone has to kill them." they then attack a second, more cunning, warlord. They only succeed in killing his double, which allows him to plot his revenge. He releases Bijomaru, the murderous drag queen, from prison, and s/he deftly dispatches one of the team. Another assassin falls victim to the nasty ninja trick of poisoning their swords. Azumi, the only female member of the group then gets turfed out by their master for being too soft. The remaining two killer orphans and their master storm the palace in a futile attempt to get their target, but immortality eludes them too, leaving only Azumi to finish the task. We won't spoil the ending, but Azumi is a great tale of war and peace. At times, the stylized violence resembles a Nintendo game, but overall the film should manage to hold your interest. Think of it as a Japanese version of Gunfight at the OK Corral. Very very bloody and kinda cool. Expect a sequel.
The Bird People of China
It is awfully hard to classify the work of Japanese director Takashi Miike. In The Bird People of China, a young businessman is commandeered to travel up to northern Hunan in search of a rumored jade mine. En route, he realizes there is a yakuza on his tail, and perhaps there's more to this mine than his boss let on. As the trip becomes more arduous, the two team up just to survive, until they eventually reach their destination. Along the way, they hear rumors of people who can fly, and when they arrive, there is a great deal of evidence to support the stories. After slowing to the rural pace, the two men become less concerned with the jade and more interested in the rich village life. When the time comes to return to civilization, they must face the dilemma of bringing modernization to the last unspoiled place in China. Japanese.
Japanese director Takashi Shimizu (who gave us Ringu) has perfected the haunting movie where an appearance of normalcy lures you in and deceives you into thinking there's nothing seriously wrong. But. there is an undefined weirdness that takes over so slowly that you can deny its existence only until you are starting to vibrate with fear. This subtle form of horror has been emulated but never equaled in American remakes and copies like The Ring or The Sixth Sense. Anyway, Ju-On: The Grudge begins with a social worker visiting the home of a badly abused little boy. In the next scene, new tenants have moved into the same house, and they have a few minor technical glitches and some odd noises, but no Chucky dolls, just some eerie music and a black cat and that thing in the attic. The third scene has a high school girl finding a cell phone. Then she sees a little kid running past and the phone rings. There is a cat on the other end. The little boy reappears, and in the next scene she's stumbling up to her bedroom in the same house with only half a face. Obviously, the house is cursed, but why are cats harbingers of horror? There are lengthy silent scenes punctuated by resonant string music and seemingly meaningless acts, but it all mounts in a steady and stealthy fear. Ju-On: The Grudge will scare you senseless, and you'd be hard pressed to explain why. Flashbacks to the social worker's visit slowly fill in the origin of the boy's vengeful ghost. This Japanese horror film makes you realize just how deep and scary this genre can get. Watch Ju-On: The Grudge, and perhaps you'll appreciate the possibilities of an adult horror film. Inexplicably good. 2003. 120 minutes. Rated R.
A beautifully stylish psycho horror thriller set in a lush Japanese village dominated by the Bonomiya clan. Miki is a lovely single woman who runs the clans paper making business. The new classics teacher in town catches her eye, but there are spirits to be assuaged. Miki carries the Inugami curse of the Dog Gods, which is not something you can ignore. Like so many Japanese stories, the motivation of the characters is elusive, but the imagery and photography alone make Inugami an appealing film. As a bonus you'll learn how to make your own paper. 2001. 102 minutes. Japanese w/subtitles.
High and Low aka Heaven and Hell
This Akira Kurasowa mystery stars Toshiro Mifune as Gondo, a tough industrialist in the shoe industry. Just when he is about to take over his company, it appears as if his son has been kidnapped, and the ransom will break him. In actuality, the kidnappers have taken the wrong kid. It's actually one of his employee's kids. He has a dilemma. He was prepared to lose his deal for his own son, but will he offer up his cash for a loyal assistant's son? The kidnappers realize their mistake, but still threaten to kill the child if the ransom goes unpaid. The story was taken from the Ed McBain novel King's Ransom.142 minutes. B&W. Japanese w/subtitles.
A detective thriller centered around an alpine climbing team whose members keep showing up dead with ice ax holes in their heads. The story was indecipherable so we made up our own to accompany the violent and sexually graphic film. In our version, an inmate of an asylum is quartered with a sexually predatory member of this climbing club. On his release he goes around killing the members in the alphabetical sequence in MARKS order. Japanese w/subtitles.
Dr. Nagashimi forgot his anniversary because he was so involved in his biological research. When his wife Kiyomi dies in a car crash, he is so distraught that he starts culturing her liver cells. The cell culture become a modern day blob that is actually a sentient mitochondrial organism. Parasite Eve is pseudoscience at its best, and there are some good spontaneous human combustion scenes. Will love conquer the mitochondrial takeover? You'll have to watch Paraiste Eve for yourself, because we’re not going give it away. Japanese w/subtitles.
The Yakuza are a Japanese criminal hybrid of Mafiosi and Samurai traditions and have spawned their own sub-class of Japanese gangster cinema. Director Takeshi Kitano breaks out of the yakuza film stereotype in Brother, tale of a Tokyo mobster who is forced to flee to Los Angeles. After a few days in a seedy hotel, Yamamoto makes contact with his low rent brother and by the end of the week, they have wrestled control the local drug distribution from some bad boy Mexicans. By the end of the next week, they have eradicated the competition and control a chunk of the city. This boy is ruthless, even by American thug standards. With a little difficulty, they merge with the reigning Japantown crime lord to become a force to reckon with. Drawing attention from the Italians, they are asked for a 50% kick back to the Mob. That's a bit too much for Yamamoto, and before long they "go to the mattresses" in an all out war. Brother is both a brutal and and stylish confrontation, but you sense that for Yamamoto, it is a form of ritual suicide. Brother is a very good film and recommended, especially if you like gangster stuff. Japanese & English w/subtitles. 90 minutes.
Kauru is looking for her missing brother, Izumi. He vanished without a word to his family. After searching his apartment, she finds an address in the countryside and sets out to investigate. The small village is in the midst of some type of harvest festival, and they do not welcome the nosey stranger. Her prodding only takes her somewhere she does not want to go, kind of like a Japanese Children of the Corn/Wickerman story. Direct to video and a trifle confusing. 2001. Japanese w/subtitles.
It's a toss up. Abnormal Family may be a soft core porn movie posing as a social comedy, or just the reverse. The subtle difference is lost in the translation. Abnormal Family's main character has married into a family that is not as unusual as the title suggests. The father yearns for his dead wife and sees her resemblance in a barmaid and his new daughter in law. The eldest son is having an affair with this barmaid and enjoys tying up his new bride. The younger son likes to watch them and also gets to sleeps with his brother's wife. The daughter takes a job in a sex parlor and her first customer is her brother. The director Hentai Kozuku has two other titles Shall We Dance and the intriguing Sumo Do, Sumo Don't, which must be a joke, don't you think? 65 minutes. Japanese w/subtitles.
There seems to be an abundance of movies that combine large bags of money and high speed car chases. Adrenaline Drive is a Japanese entry for this new Oscar category. Suzuki has a boring life, no lovelife, and a crappy job with a boss that constantly brow beats him. This all ends when he rear ends a car owned by a yakuza (Japanese mobster). To repay his debt, Suzuki is pressed in to service by the mob, and his life will never be the same. Adrenaline Drive is mainly a love story, but it would take longer to explain than if you just watched it. Directed by Shinobu Yaguchi. 1998. Japanese with English subtitles.
Think Japanese Lord of The Flies with lethal weapons. Battle Royale is the final film of director Kinju Fukasaku, and it met with a frosty reception in Japan, where it was deemed too critical of the current political/social situation in the country. Perhaps Battle Royale is also a bit too violent. After all, it did garner a III rating (18 and over), which is usually reserved for porn films. Anyway, compulsory education is eradicated in Japan, and a few adults feel the kids are out of control. As part of a social experiment, a whole high school class is flown to a deserted island and given three days to kill one another. There can only be one survivor or everyone dies. A deadly reality show. The kids soon turn feral, and after day one the 42 students are whittled down to 30. Each kid has a different weapon, from a pot lid to an M16, and you get to accrue weapons as you murder your classmates. Sound like fun, maybe Fox will pick up the rights for next season. Rated III. Japanese w/subtitles. 2001. 90 minutes.
La Blue Girl
This anime series is technically about Miko Mido, an 18 year old ninja trainee who heads up a female ninja clan. Classified as 'Anime 18", La Blue Girl is a sexually explicit cartoon in which voluptuous animated girls are forcibly disrobed and raped by sexual predatory monsters. La Blue Girl leaves you wondering what sort of sexual predatory monsters produce this crap. If an hour of this is not enough, there are 8 episodes in this ridiculous series. 1992. Japanese w/English dubbing or sub-titles.
The Ring 2
Everyone who sees the video tape dies. Two psychics, a woman, and Yoishi, a little boy, all know something about it. But they're not telling the police. Sadako's body was found in a well, and it must have something to do with the first film. Honestly, this was really hard to follow, so maybe we have to see The Ring before we can decipher it. Japanese w/bad subtitles.
St. John's Wort
A Japanese haunted house tale that is a technically updated version of the traditional high school thriller. Naomi inherits a house, and she goes to visit it with her ex-boyfriend, only to find out her real father was a famous painter. They get trapped in the house during a storm which blocks the road. Sound familiar? They discover his hidden secret, that he kidnapped and painted children and their mummified corpses fill the basement. Japanese w/subtitles. 2001.
This is a Japanese mobster movie of the Yakuza genre directed by Kitano Takeshi. Sonatine might be more aptly titled "Yakuza On Holiday", as the story is about a Tokyo posse that go to Okinawa to help out a related clan involved in a gang war. They travel to Okinawa and decide to hide out at the seashore as their in-town hideaway was recently bombed. These hard core gang members frolic in the sand, take showers in the rain, have fireworks fights, play Russian roulette, and just plain have a grand vacation. Occasionally, they meet rival gang members, and they face one another and blast away. It's so weird that nobody runs for cover or ducks behind anything during the gunfights. Eventually, these skirmishes take their toll, and the boss, Mr. Murakawa, has to machine gun the whole other gang to even the score. Then he commits suicide. I can't figure out why, it must be some Samurai warrior thing , not at all like The Sopranos. 94 minutes. Japanese w/subtitles. 1993.
Vengeance Is Mine
Vengeance Is Mine is a strange Japanese serial killer movie that is quite unlike any other Japanese movie on this list. If there weren't so many corpses, you wouldn't know this was a wholesale slaughter film. Something definitely gets lost in the translation, and you'll never know what it was. A mild mannered guy, Enokizu, goes around killing women in otherwise peaceful surroundings. The murders are graphic and disturbing, even though the main character is not. I was more confused than anything else. Directed by Imamura Shohei, Vengeance Is Mine is considered a classic by most Japan filmophiles. Japanese w/subtitles. 120 minutes. 1969. Unrated.
Tetsou: The Iron Man
This short freaky Japanese film is a blend of Eraserhead, Le Chien Andalou, and Robot Wars. The hero of this unusual film has a serious metal fetish. He goes to abandoned factories and collects chunks of scrap metal that he surgically inserts in his flesh. He makes all you body piercing fans look like wimps. After getting hit by a car, he mutates, and chunks of metal start popping out all over his face. His girlfriend gets into it at first, but it soon proves fatal to her. Tetsou: The Iron Man is extremely brutal and degrades to an incomprehensible robo-mush towards the end, but if you enjoy shocking black and white footage, go for it. You know there may be a small contingent of you body alteration freaks that might actually draw some inspiration from this one. Hey, don't overlook the sequel, Tetsuo II: Body Hammer. 1989. 67 minutes. B&W Japanese, with useless English subtitles.
Tetsuo II: Body Hammer
More of an adaptation than a sequel to The Iron Man, Tetsuo II is far slicker and slightly more comprehensible. If we got it right, Tomoo Tanaguchi and his brother were made into robo-human weapons as kids. They killed their creator/father and grew up weird. When Tomoo gets pissed off, guns sprout from his chest. He makes the Terminator look tame. This is really too frigging strange for 98% of us, me included. 1992. 82 minutes. Japanese w/subtitles.
Tokyo Drifter (Tokyo Nagaremona)
A Japanese mobster, Tetsuo, has decided to give up 'the life' and retire from Kuratsu's crew. His last job is to disentangle his boss from a tricky lease on a legitimate real estate deal. If he could do that, Tokyo Drifter would end, and we'd miss out on all the cool gangsters driving around in big US cars and doing hard to fathom Japanese mob stuff and hearing Kuzo Sushi sing the title song. Directed by Seijur Suzuki. 1966. 83 minutes.
A teenage girl, Tsukiko, undergoes hypnosis to overcome some traumatic experience that she refuses to recall. It involves a beheading of a girl named Tomie, perhaps in a car accident. Some guy has a head in a bag that whines and refuses to eat. It might all coalesce if you understand Japanese, cause the subtitles are no help, whatsoever. There are some cool gory shots, but mostly, Tomie left us dumbfounded.1998. Japanese w/subtitles.
Cruel Story of Youth
Director Nagisa Oshima's Japanese juvenile delinquent movie is an Asian offshoot of the James Dean genre. Mayo has fun hitching rides with business men and shaking them down when they hit on her. She and her boyfriend make it into a nice business until the police intervene. Love does not prevail in this Romeo and Juliet update, and they must pay for their social indiscretions. The photography is good ,but the social pressures and taboos seem a bit obscure. 1960. Color. Japanese with English subtitles. Unrated.
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