Jigoku (1960) Many films about hell make promises about what you might see, but few deliver. Jigoku is a rare exception that doesn’t pull its punches in its sordid depictions of the Buddhist underworld. Shirô (Shigeru Amachi) is a young college student, engaged to marry the daughter of one of his professors. One night, while driving home from her house, he hits a drunken man who wandered into the road. Instead of stopping to help, he drives away, leaving the man to perish. Soon afterward, one tragedy after another befalls Shirô. All the while, he’s plagued by Tamura (Yôichi Numata), a strange man who represents his conscience.
Director/co-writer Nobuo Nakagawa creates a dizzying experience, full of symbolism throughout to depict Shirô’s inexorable descent. The film features inventive set design and art direction, which illustrate the numerous torments of Buddhist hell. As Shirô navigates the horrific, gory landscape, he visits different levels where justice is meted out in a manner commensurate with each crime. It’s an unforgettable, unsettling trip.
Rating: ****. Available on DVD
Haruko’s Paranormal Laboratory (2015) I really wasn’t expecting much from Haruko’s Paranormal Laboratory, which appears to have been shot for less than $500, but ended up pleasantly surprised. This charming comedy/fantasy from writer/director Lisa Takeba focuses on Haruko (Moeka Nozaki), a lonely young woman who becomes so involved with her television shows that her TV turns into a man (Aoi Nakamura). Haruko ponders her new dilemma, as she pursues an unconventional romance with her new boyfriend. Takeba’s film is an absurd commentary about how the lives of people on television become more real to us than the outside world (the TV brand is “Videodrome”). Much like the films of Mamoru Kawasaki, you get used to the fact that there’s a guy with a TV head, and move on. There’s also a freak show, space aliens and a Jason cosplayer. How does it all fit in? You’ll just have to wait and see.
Rating: ****. Available on Amazon Video
Paprika (2006) The late, great director Satoshi Kon had far too few feature films to his credit, but left a lasting impression on the anime world. Paprika concerns a revolutionary invention, the DC Mini, a headset that enables someone to enter another’s dreams. The device is intended for psychological research and therapy, but after one of the headsets goes missing, it’s clear that it can be twisted into something that can harm. A psychological researcher (assisted by her alter-ego, “Paprika”), a police investigator, and the childlike genius who invented the DC Mini combine forces to locate the errant device. Meanwhile, the dream world and reality collide with increasing frequency. Filled with mind-bending images and a thoughtful story, Paprika is a feast for the eyes, best experienced, rather than described
Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray and DVD
Belladonna of Sadness (1973) Eiichi Yamamoto’s visually stunning, tragic tale is unlike any other anime film I’ve seen. The film lives up to its title, depicting the story of a young woman who’s raped by a sadistic king on her wedding night, and continues to experience a cascade of tragic events. She finds a way to climb up in status, only to be shunned by the kingdom and her fellow villagers. She’s seduced by the devil, who promises her prestige and the power to heal, but at a terrible price. Yamamoto incorporates multiple styles to illustrate the heroine’s personal journey, as she explores her sexuality, and uses sex as her only leveraging tool. It’s a meditation on gender inequality and social injustice that seems more relevant than ever.
Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Video
Pitfall (1962) Director Hiroshi Tehigahara’s (The Face of Another, Woman in the Dunes) debut feature film paints a bleak portrait of industrial Japan, and the human cost associated with prosperity. An itinerant coal mine worker is mistaken for the leader of a labor union, and murdered by a strange man in white. The ghost of the murdered man wanders the countryside, trying to learn more about the man who killed him. The local police conduct a fruitless investigation, while the sole witness to the murder misleads them for her own gain. Pitfall is visually compelling, with a neo-noir feel and a supernatural twist. While I was captivated by the cinematography and themes, I felt distanced by the characters. It’s fascinating to watch, but difficult to feel emotionally engaged.
Rating: ***½. Available on DVD
Welcome to the Space Show (2010) This beautifully animated film is a joy to look at, but the story is a little weak, with its predictable “be yourself” and “follow your dreams” messages. A group of kids in a rural town befriend a dog-like alien, who takes them on a trip to the far side of the moon and beyond. The film works best when it showcases the imagination of the animators – they really went above and beyond to depict a broad spectrum of alien creatures. It’s also effective in some of the quietest moments, when the characters have a moment to take a breath and contemplate their surroundings. Too bad the climax is a standard overblown action sequence, with a clichéd fight between good and evil. If you’re looking for something the whole family can watch, however, you could do much worse. It’s still light years ahead of most of the animated claptrap that comes out of Hollywood.
Rating: ***½. Available on DVD and Amazon Video
Big Man Japan (2007) This unconventional mockumentary by director/co-writer Hitoshi Matsumoto chronicles the everyday, often humdrum life of superhero Masaru Daisatô (also played by Matsumoto). Nothing seems to go right for Daisatô, who’s 6th in a line of superheroes, and faces sagging TV ratings, almost universal public scorn, and a marriage on the skids. He becomes super-sized, thanks to a jolt of electricity, and fights an increasingly bizarre lineup of monsters (including a kaiju with a comb-over hairdo) that threaten the peace of Japan’s major cities. Matsumoto approaches his character with pathos, and never makes the mistake of pandering for laughs. Most of the film works so well that it’s disappointing when things fall apart at the end. Instead of bringing some sort of resolution to Daisatô’s story, we’re treated to an Ultraman-style parody that seems tacked on. Caveats aside, the dubious conclusion shouldn’t stop you from checking out a truly one-of-a-kind experience.
Rating: ***. Available on DVD
Twilight Syndrome: Dead Go Round (aka: Twilight Syndrome: Deadly Theme Park) (2008) I was playing streaming roulette one night, and happened upon this silly fantasy/horror film based on a video game series in Japan. A group of players are transported to a deserted amusement park, and are forced to take part in a winner-take-all competition. A weird clown (who looks like the love child of Ronald McDonald and Ryuk from Death Note) presides over the action, and serves as judge, jury and executioner. Each participant must complete a goal in order to reach the next level, with death the penalty for failure. The players are stereotypical archetypes (the obese geek, the brooding loner, the fashionista, etc…). It all adds up to a conclusion that doesn’t make a lot of sense, but conveniently sets things up for a sequel. While Dead Go Round might not be the biggest waste of time, you’d be better off watching Battle Royale instead.
Rating: **½. Available on DVD and Amazon Video