Selected Reviews

After Sadako:  Women in J-Horror

“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 weapons.

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 abuses.
“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 and power.