After Sadako: Women in
“Everybody betrays me” (Miki Sakai, “Tomie
Re-Birth: Another Face”)
“EM Embalming” (1999)
In Shinji Aoyama’s examination of how not only
personal roles but also individual physical realities may be socially constructed,
Reiko Takashima (“Black Angel;” “Gang Wives: Flame of Love”) plays
“Miyako Murakami,” an embalmer. Her handling and presentation of
the dead represent a historically abject occupation – violating an old
but powerful cultural boundary. “Miyako’s” discovery of a needle
in the body of a young man who apparently fell from a roof raises the possibility
of murder. When the corpse’s head goes missing, “Miyako’s” fearless
investigation leads her to a ghoulish organ harvester who might be her
missing father, and to the politically corrupt leader of a powerful religious
sect who appears to sacrifice his own children in the organ trade.
Horror heroine Hitomi Miwa turns in another solid
performance as “Rika Shinohara,” the dead boy’s sister. “Rika” appears
as one of four multiple personalities, and also appears to have had an
incestuous relationship with her brother. “Rika” not only steals
his head but also murders another brother and “Miyako’s” assistant (played
by Seijun Suzuki) before being shot by a police detective (Yukata Matsushige).
Aoyama’s film is essentially concerned with the
illusory nature of appearance – endlessly recapitulated in both the theme
of embalming bodies and in the abuse of power by the rich and powerful.
In her search for some larger meaning in embalming, “Miyako’s” skill presages
a kind of existential collapse in which every boundary of role, even extending
to the physical integrity of the body and the distinction between life
and death, are erased. In the end, only the moment truly remains
– a culturally important reference in the search for both meaning and beauty.
“Boogiepop and Others” (2000)
Despite its frivolous title, this manga-inspired
story of a middle school girl “Toka Miyashita” (Sayaka Yoshino) who becomes
“Boogiepop” – a Shinigami – in order to defeat the ancient evil spirit
of “Manticore,” is both subtle and well crafted. Director Ryu Kaneda
interweaves the stories of four adolescent relationships in such a manner
that their separate resolutions only make sense within the larger context
of the entire narrative. Asumi Miwa stars in one story, while Ayana
Sakai plays the beautiful “Minako Yurihara” whose body becomes possessed
by “Manticore” so that she can kill others by a lightning fast strike of
the hand and then suck the victim’s life energy. Sakai’s sensual
caress of her deceased character’s body includes licking the corpse’s eyeballs.
Both “Boogiepop” and “Manticore” are monstrous
figures that can kill with a single blow and immobilize (or seduce) others
with a word or even a glance. In addition to the apparent symbolism
of emergent sexuality, the film’s characters parade a fascinating range
of emotions and behaviors ranging from selfless kindness to callous brutality.
There is even an element of action in several adequately choreographed
fight sequences that feature “Nagi Kirima” played by Maya Kurosu (“Persona”)
as a tough, leather-clad delinquent who is on a search for personal vengeance.
Her courage and self-sacrifice eventually create the opportunity for “Boogiepop”
to defeat “Manticore.”
Consistent with many manga, female characters
are both consistently foregrounded and have heroic roles – exemplifying
both personal integrity and physical courage. The male figures are
mostly either venal or dependent and, unlike so many teen films, are of
only incidental romantic interest.
“Battle Royale” (2000)
Kinji Fukusaku’s sprawling, controversial actioner
may have been intended as satire but impresses as horror. The high
school class formerly of teacher “Kitano” (Takeshi Kitano) is selected
by lottery to undergo a bizarre three-day field trip to an uninhabited
island from which only one student may emerge alive. Remotely controlled
explosive neck collars and sensors allow “Kitano” and his military assistants
to prod the young people to engage in mortal combat with a wide range of
The film’s most chilling moment may be the relentlessly
upbeat kawaii “Videotape Training Girl” (Yuko Miyamura) who briefs the
shocked students on the manner and means of their impending deaths by cheerfully
demonstrating use of an ax while describing the rules of the game. What
ensues is a series of parallel and occasionally interwoven narratives tracing
the pointless struggles and deaths of the various students in the class.
Weapons are wielded with lethal gusto by both male and female students
in a brutal critique of the tension between individualistic social Darwinism,
collaboration, and the rule-governed order, punctuated by flashbacks to
the casual cruelties of high school as well as earlier and worse childhood
“Girl #13” “Chigusa Takako” (Chiaki Kuriyama)
is wicked with a switchblade, while “Girl #11” “Mitsuko Souma” (Kou Shibisaki)
prefers the kama. Only “Girl #15” “Noriko Nakagawa” (Aki Maeda) refuses
to fight, and it is she who ultimately finds a way out. Fukusaku’s
epic is both violent and poignant – sometimes at the same moment.
The manner of the students’ deaths summarizes the individually defining
themes of their lives – concerns for regard, appearance, being valued or
desired, rejection, suspicion, cynicism. “Battle Royale’s” core message
is thus both deeply critical and enduringly humane.
“Frame, The” (2000)
Hitchcock might well have recognized Satoshi
Isaka’s dark thriller “The Frame” in which Hitomi Kuroki plays a television
news editor whose life is disparagingly summarized in the script as, “Endo
Yoko, 34, divorced, son living with father, fighting her lonely battle
. . . against a misogynist and patriarchal society . . . with instinct
and technical skill.” This film offers a compelling instance of looking
at looking – the voyeuristic essence of horror – as the female reporter
reviews her videotapes.
When a videotape “Yoko” has edited airs on an
investigative news show, the career of a senior government bureaucrat is
ruined. Seemingly deranged, he begins to stalk her. When ignoring
fails and “Yoko” seems increasingly at risk, she attempts to entrap him
with her own video surveillance. After a confrontation they scuffle
and “Yoko” accidentally kills her nemesis by pushing him over a railing.
“Yoko” realizes too late that her callous ex-husband
may have framed both of them, and used her son to secretly film her crime.
Despite thrusting ambition, self-possession and considerable courage, “Yoko”
is completely defeated by a seemingly unshakeable wall of male privilege