‘Goth’ (2008): Gen Takahashi’s Ode to Death and Beauty

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Like most adaptations from novel to film, Gen Takahashi’s Goth (2008) is more of an interpretation of Otsuichi’s 2003 award-winning story than a literal representation.  Rather, I should have said stories, as the original novel was more of an anthology of morbid tales than a single narrative, in spite of the recurring presence of its two main characters, namely “Yoru Morino” (played by Rin Takanashi) and “Itsuki Kamiyama” (played by Kanata Hongô).

As such, whereas Otsuichi’s novel recalls a number of gruesome murders that occurred throughout the area in which Morino and Kamiyama live and go to school, replete with the sordid details and an exploration of the killers’ minds, Takahashi’s film focuses more on the relationship between the two main characters.  However, by “relationship” I do not mean anything the least bit romantic.  On the contrary, Morino and Kamiyama are drawn together by their mutual fascination with the horrific aftermaths of killings, a perverse “hobby” that ineluctably leads them onto the trail of a serial killer.

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Even more compelling, though, than solving these crimes is solving the mystery of Morino. She is the antithesis of the cute and exuberantly cheerful Japanese school girl. She is consistently sullen, yet alluringly beautiful in her Black Lolita-style school uniform. As for her relationship with Kamiyama, as mentioned above, it is not romantic, nor is it much of a friendship.  Probably the best way to describe their union is that it is commiserating—they understand each other’s attraction to death.  Consequently, because Kamiyama understands Morino in a way that others before him did not, he becomes the conduit between Morino and her darkest secret.  Indeed, as the story proceeds, even after the serial killer’s identity is revealed, Kamiyama continues to lead the viewer further into what’s hidden behind Morino’s black, melancholy eyes.

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‘Strange Circus’ (2005): Sion Sono and the Horror of a Normal Family

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What’s worse than murder or betrayal?  In Sion Sono’s 2005 film Strange Circus the ultimate taboo is violated, disclosing more than the demons dwelling within the heart of a middle-aged man as he preys for his daughter.  As we follow the emotional turmoil of “Mitsuko Ozawa” (Masumi Miyazaki/Rie Kuwana/Mai Takahashi) and her mother “Sayuri” (Masumi Miyazaki), who are both forced to endure the sexual torment of father and husband “Gozo Ozawa” (Hiroshi Oguchi), a poignant critique of polite society emerges, in particular for the way in which it forces victims of abuse to hide in the shadows with their suffering.

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Gozo is the principal at Mitsuko’s school, where he’s regarded as a respectable figure.  At home, though, he’s a monster who subjects his wife and daughter to his heinous sexual desires.  What results as the abuse continues is that Sayuri begins taking out her shame, anger, and jealousy on Mitsuko.  Out of this cruel chaos “Taeko” (Masumi Miyazaki) emerges, an emotionally unstable and wheelchair-bound novelist who writes erotica about “Mitsuko” and lives in a baroquely decorated house, complete with a secret room, where the truth of Mitsuko dwells.

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Because of the popularity of her work, Taeko has a number of assistants, among whom a new face has joined in her employ, “Yûji Tamiya” (Issei Ishida), who identifies himself as a “great fan” of Taeko’s work, and who eventually takes on the assignment of discovering the story behind Taeko’s handicap and the inspiration for Mitsuko.  In addition to being another chapter in Sono’s exploration of the darker aspects of the human psyche, as occurred in Suicide Club (2001), or the hidden needs of the marginalized, as seen in Noriko’s Dinner Table (2005), Strange Circus unleashes a damning criticism of the patriarchy that still pervades Japanese society, which disempowers women, and normalizes male abuses of gender inequity.  And in the case of Mitsuko there’s nothing more disturbing and traumatic than to see the face of the man who’s supposed to protect her turn into an expression of lust.

Does Hell Exist? It Does If You Believe It, It Doesn’t If You Don’t: Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s ‘Séance’ (2000)

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Inspired by Mark McShane’s 1961 novel Séance on a Wet Afternoon, Kurosawa Kiyoshi, director of Cure (1997) and Pulse (2002), among other classic dark cinema features, ventures into the realm of made-for-television movies. As such, it may be easy for J-Horror aficionados to overlook this little gem in Kurosawa’s oeuvre. Kurosawa’s previous works for television, a series of Yakuza stories, have not distinguished themselves. To put it simply, the kind of death and horror that Kurosawa would soon display in Pulse is de-emphasized for the sake of a more general television audience. Nevertheless, Kurosawa does not curtail his talent for telling a story that is driven by well-rounded characters, complete with the inner-turmoil and failings that are often a part of life, and which compel his characters to given in to their fears.

“Sato Koji” (Yakusho Koji) and “Sato Junco” (Fubuki Jun) are an ostensibly ordinary couple living in a country house. Seemingly happy, Koji works as a sound technician for an unnamed company while his wife Junco stays at home. However, Junco is not exactly a typical housewife. She has a gift for contacting the dead—she is a medium. It is also a power that has attracted the attention of a psychology graduate student “Hayasaka” (Kusanagi Tsuyoshi) who is interested in studying her psychic abilities. From the perspective of science, Junco’s capacity for communicating with the deceased is something that ought to be validated through research. On the other hand, from Junco’s point-of-view, her connection with the spirit world is both a gift and a curse, which becomes evident when she takes a job as a waitress at a local restaurant and her proclivity for seeing ghosts becomes an issue.  In between Junco and Hayasaka is Koji, who obviously knows the burden that his wife carries and does his best to be supportive.

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Fate soon appears in the form of an anonymous little girl (Isobe Shiori) who is kidnapped by a deranged former policeman, only to escape unknowingly into the hands of Koji, who happens to be out on an assignment at Mt Fuji, where he is recording wind blowing through the trees. At first shocked at finding the kidnapped girl on their property, Koji and Junco initially decide to call the authorities. However, Junco has sudden doubts about how things will look, given that this child is the victim of a much-publicized kidnapping. Consequently, instead of calling for help, Junco comes up with a plan for what she thinks will spare them any accusations from the police. Junco will feign using her psychic ability to “help” the police locate this girl. In fact, because of Junco’s relation to Hayasaka, she has already been introduced to a detective (Kitarô) as a possible resource for finding this little girl. In light of which, Junco will use the trust she has earned from Hayasaka and convince him that, whereas before she could not be of help, now she can, a ploy that will also inspire a desire for fame in Junco’s heart.

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Eventually, tragedy occurs and the once ordinary couple of Koji and Junco find themselves in extraordinary circumstances, the forces of which are becoming much more than either of them can control. One of the more memorable scenes is a conversion between Koji and the Shinto priest (Aikawa Shô) that he has asked to purify his home. Upon completing the purification ritual, Koji asks the priest what he should do, now that his house has been purified. The priest, after hesitating at the question, counsels Koji and his wife, who is not present, to be honest and live ordinary, which are two things that the couple has ceased to do. Two other noteworthy scenes are a symbolic encounter between Koji and his doppelganger, along with a nod to Nakata Hideo’s Ringu involving the little girl. Speaking of nods to other films, in the clip provided below, Kurosawa references a character that he will later develop in Retribution (2006).  Lastly, for anyone familiar with Bryan Forbes 1964 adaptation of McShane’s novel, one will quickly notice that the two films have very little in common. Forbes’ version is noted as being more faithful to the book, while Kurosawa’s film is more faithful to the world he created in Cure and further developed in Pulse, which themselves are respectful of the Japanese ghost story tradition.

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“Ghosts and People Are the Same”: The Cyber-Limbo of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s ‘Pulse’ (2001)

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Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse (2001) is an important part of a wave of dark films that began appearing during the late 1990s and into the early 2000s, which collectively set Japanese Horror (or J-Horror) apart in world cinema. The trend began with Kurosawa’s earlier film Cure (1997), then continued with Hideo Nakata’s Ringu (1998), Sion Sono’s Suicide Club (2001), and Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-On (2002). J-Horror is distinct from the kind of shock films created during the same period by the likes of Kinji Fukusaka (Battle Royale, 2000) and Takashi Miike (Ichi the Killer, 2001). Unlike the latter two films, which rely on extreme violence, J-Horror depends mostly on the paranormal for inspiration.

In one respect, Kurosawa’s Pulse (titled Kairo, “Chaos,” in Japan) is a modern example of the Japanese tradition of ghost stories or Kaidan-shū, which go all the way back to the earliest stages of the Edo Period (17th century). In terms of cinema, Pulse is preceded by such superlative films as Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu (1953) and Kaneto Shindô’s Onibaba (1964). In another respect, Pulse is reflective of Japanese society at the end of the 20th century, which is affected less by westernized notions of the millennium and more by its own “Lost Decade” or Ushinawareta Jūnen. In the case of the parallel stories of “Michi Kudo” (Kumiko Asô) and “Ryosuke Kawashima” (Haruhiko Katô) they are confronted with a shadowy world of lonely spirits, who have found a portal into this world through the internet. Indeed, what appears at first to be isolated events turns into a global crisis.

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What is most startling about the world of the dead that is occupying various computer screens is that each case is the result of a suicide, whose ghostly aftermath leaves them in a “forbidden room” from which they plead for help. Most terrifying of all is the fact that the world of the dead is beginning to infect and transform the world of the living. Once exposed to the forces contained in the forbidden room, victims soon lose their will to live, either killing themselves or just as often turning into blackened silhouettes painted into the walls and floors where they were last seen alive. In spite of efforts to warn people away from the forbidden rooms by sealing the doors with red tape, the attractive force of that world continues to lure people into it, even causing one unnamed woman to plummet to her death in one of the more disturbing, not to mention memorable, scenes in cinematic history.

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The effectiveness of Kurosawa’s film is that it refrains from either becoming preachy about the ills of society  or explaining too much about what is happening. In fact, very little is explained at all beyond the speculation of some of the characters, all of whom are ultimately at a loss about what to do.  For Michi and Ryosuke, all they can do is worry about their friends, be they “Toshio Yabe” (Masatoshi Matsuo) and “Junko Sasano” (Kurume Arisaka) for Michi or “Harue Karasawa” (Koyuki) for Ryosuke, trying however they can to save them from a force that is overtaking all of existence—like a web of darkness.

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When the Sins of the Sons Exceed Those of the Father: Adam Windgard’s ‘You’re Next’ (2013)

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Which came first, the plot or the action? In the case of Adam Windgard’s 2013 action-horror film You’re Next, the action scenes in which “Erin” (Sharni Vinson) displays her Jason Bourne-like survivor skills clearly were the prime mover for this film. While the back story of the characters needed some more development in order to better explain the motivation for the characters’ actions, particularly at the crucial plot twist toward the denouement when characters’ true colors are revealed, nonetheless the movie succeeds at generating a genuine sense of peril. The premise of the story is straightforward enough, adult sons, “Crispian” (A J Bowen), “Drake” (Joe Swanberg), “Felix” (Nicholas Tucci), sister “Aimee” (Amy Seimetz), and their various partners gather at the parents’ “Rob” (Rob Moran) and “Aubrey” (Barbara Crampton) country estate.

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During dinner, as wine and sibling rivalry begin to mix, complete mayhem erupts when this little family affair is suddenly assaulted by a gang of masked men, who do not waste time at making their violent intentions known. Why are they doing this? Is it because for the family’s conspicuous wealth? Or does it have to do with Rob’s history of working for a major defense contractor? Or do these men just enjoy the terror they are inflicting? Whatever the case may be, neither the family inside cowering nor the attackers outside ready to force their way in could anticipate Erin’s reaction. Initially as shocked as others, Erin soon reveals a side to herself that suggests she has been through this type of situation before. Plot holes and one-dimensional characters notwithstanding, You’re Next is an entertaining mix of Roger Avary’s Killing Zoe (1993) and John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978).

‘This Is England!’: Shane Meadows’ Pre-Brexit Story of a Depressed British Isles

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Spurred by recent events in the UK, including the British pound’s abrupt decline to its lowest value since the mid-80s and David Cameron’s embarrassing attempt at quoting The Smiths’ “Cemetery Gates,” I felt a compulsion to watch Shane Meadows’ This Is England. Released in 2006, the story takes place in 1983, in the aftermath of the Falklands War.

As This Is England begins we are introduced to “Shaun” (Thomas Turgoose), whose father was killed in action, leaving him and his mother, “Cynthia” (Jo Hartley), to fend for themselves in their working class seaside town. They live in a flat next door to a Church of Christ bearing the graffito “Maggie is a TWAT!” on its front. Feeling alone and grieving for his dad, Shaun, a sullen twelve-year-old, is also the target of bullies. Things seemingly change for the better, though, when Shaun happens upon some drifters under a bridge, who decide to befriend him. “Woody” (Joseph Gilgun), the leader of the gang, takes a particular liking to Shaun, becoming a kind of big brother. As Shaun finds acceptance among his new mates he soon takes on the attire his adopted post-punk skinhead life, complete with “Lol” (Vicky McClure) shaving his head.

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However, things take a dramatic change when “Combo” (Stephen Graham) returns from prison, having done three-and-a-half years on Woody’s behalf for an unexplained offense. What becomes apparent as Combo reclaims his place among friends is that he’s assumed a political awareness based on race and class, but especially race, which, according to Woody, wasn’t like him before. This Is England is ultimately about how vitriolic racism disguising itself as patriotism, ie the National Front, feeds on the listless and uneducated; people who are in desperate need of someone to tell them that their depressed and impoverished lives are not their fault. It’s the London establishment and immigrants who are ruining the country, or so the blood and soil rhetoric of nationalism goes.

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Which ones will follow Combo and which ones won’t? A once tightly-knit group of friends suddenly starts to fray. As for Shaun, he misses his dad terribly. So, he unfortunately thinks that following Combo will enable him to redeem his dad’s death in a pointless war over the last remnant of a fallen British empire. The story of Shaun, along with Combo, Woody, and Lol, not to mention “Milky” (Andrew Shim), the lone person of color in this debacle of grassroots hate-mongering, is the story of a Britain that has long struggled to define itself amidst the shards of a former colonial glory. This is England then. Yes. This is England now.

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Don’t Be a Draag! René Laloux’s ‘Fantastic Planet’ (1973)

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I still remember feeling mesmerized by the trailer for Fantastic Planet as it played late at night on television. Even as a mere ten-year-old boy, I sensed something special in the images of blue red-eyed people with fins for ears and the caveman-like beings that populated a landscape that reminded me of the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine. What were those vicious creatures that those two men were fighting with? What was this movie really about? I wanted to see!

What I don’t recall is when I finally got to see the Franco-Czech production. However, when I did it was like seeing the pages of Metal Hurlant or listening to Tangerine Dream for the first time. A previously unknown and, I thought, very European world opened up and I eagerly dove in to look around. What I saw, more specifically, was a world, Ygam, in which the Draag dominated a race of tiny Om. Ostensibly an advanced society, the Draag are an androgynous race who place much value on meditation and learning, complete with a highly developed technology. Yet, they treat the Om alternately as pets and pests, revealing a dark side to their otherwise philosophical nature.

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Fantastic Planet, more to the point, is told through the voice of Terr, an Om whose mother was killed by Tiwa, a Draag girl who was carelessly playing with the mother and child. After taking the infant Om and making him a pet, complete with a collar with which she could control him at will, the story moves slowly—perhaps meditatively is the more generous term—through the years, until Terr becomes a young man. As Tiwa grows into young womanhood, she has lost interest.  No longer a little girl, her childhood pet is less interesting than the new knowledge she is gaining as part of her education.

When Terr escapes, he takes a headset that Tiwa had been using to acquire her learning, which will later become a valuable resource for the Om he encounters. Wary of his connection with the Draag, Terr is forced to prove himself to his new community, which lives in fear and loathing of the Draag. However, because of the access that Terr has provided the Om to Draag knowledge, through Tiwa’s headset, the Om learn to their dismay that the Draag are planning to exterminate them. Ultimately, Fantastic Planet is about Terr’s leadership role in the Om rebellion, as they fight to save themselves, eventually finding a way to bring the Draag to their knees and sue for peace.

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As an allegory, Fantastic Planet avails itself to a variety of interpretations. Because of its release date, December 1, 1973, some have seen the Om-Draag rivalry in terms of the Cold War.  Others may find the movie to be about oppressed peoples everywhere, who are tormented by a supposedly sophisticated civilization.  Still others may find the Om-Draag relationship to be two halves of the same person, symbolizing the wild and civilized parts of the human psyche. At least when I was kid, the story of Terr and the travails of the Om under Draag control was a source of escape, not symbolism, no more meaningful than watching Don Chaffey’s One Million Years BC (1966) or Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running (1972). More than allegories, movies like Fantastic Planet stimulated the expansion of my imaginative world, in which the mundane gave way to the extraordinary, forever altering my sense of the possible.