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Good Japanese Movies (1985-90): Violence!
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Good Japanese Movies (1985-90): Violence!

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GJ Cole itcherThe late 80s was a fearsome time to be a character in a Japanese movie! Whether they wound up the unintended victim of a stray yakuza bullet or the gored wife of a malfunctioning robo-man, there seemed to be nowhere safe to stand. In the hands of the crazed but brilliant directors, violence became something as beautiful as it was repulsive, as creative as it was destructive, and as thought-provoking as it was visceral. Buckle down! ~ GJ Cole

By Fist, Gun, or Cyborg Drill

From gangsters with guns to the bare-fists of disgruntled army veterans, it was difficult to sit through five minutes of Japanese cinema without witnessing a brutal assault.

This was the age that ushered in the directorial debut of Takeshi Kitano, whose first film – ‘Violent Cop’ – gives some idea what was to come. Below, however, we’ll look at ‘Boiling Point’, the first film that he wrote and directed, and which has a far more nuanced and intelligently stylized approach to crime and killing.

There are few directors who have explored violence and masculinity with such rampant enthusiasm as Shinya Tsukamoto, whose breakthrough 1989 movie ‘Tetsuo’ armed its unwilling protagonist with a power drill for a penis. Back off, mister!

Action-packed manga and war-themed documentaries also came with a violent impact, and legendary artist-filmmaker Toshio Matsumoto bowed out of film-making with a surreal psychodrama that built a history of perverted violence into the very genes of its poor anti-hero.

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Violent Japanese Movie Recommendations

‘Akira’ (Katsuhiro Otomo, 1988)

Enough! Open up your eyes and look at the big picture; You’re all puppets of corrupt politicians and capitalists. Don’t you understand, it’s utterly pointless to fight each other…

Many have heard of ‘Akira’, but mostly manga fans and sci-fi geeks have actually seen it. Still, anyone who enjoys having their imagination tickled and inspired can get (happily) lost in its epic narrative of a detailed futuristic Tokyo and its cyberpunk post-humans with paranormal powers.

2019: three decades after a psychic explosion tore Tokyo apart, gang law rules the street. When Tetsuo inadvertently runs his motorcycle into an esper (a psychic being) an urban war is kickstarted between terrorists, gangsters and the armed authorities.

Brought to life with unprecedented animation quality and overseen by the proud author of the original manga, ‘Akira’ remains a landmark achievement both of animation and of science-fiction in general. Smarter, more nuanced animes were to follow, but for pure cinematic thrills and mind-spinning invention, ‘Akira’ remains tough to beat.

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‘Yuki Yukite Shingun’ / ‘The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On’ (Kazuo Hara, 1988)

You guys are robots! You aren’t human! None of you are! Just like the Emperor Hirohito!

One of the truly great documentaries that’s often overlooked due to its rawness and the difficulty of its subject, ‘The Emperor’s Naked Army’ is an absurd, compelling, and ultimately moving piece of filmmaking.

Documentarian Kazuo Hara accompanies his subject, 62-year-old Kenzo Okuzaki, as the latter attempts to uncover the truth behind the deaths of two of his fellow soldiers in New Guinea at the end of the Second World War.

Okuzaki is a fascinating but troubling character on the trail of justice, standing up for the weak – yet willing to use physical force on peers that have not stood the test of time so well. His mercurial disposition that zips between furious, dogged investigator, and weeping, tragic PTSD survivor adds to the profundity of his task – to speak up for the victims and try to clarify why they died, apparently at the hands of their own comrades.

While the truth remains murky, a disturbing portrait of the desperate, ugly behaviour of the Japanese military leadership in the atrocious conditions of wartime New Guinea emerges, as Okuzaki’s quest draws to its shocking conclusion.

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‘Dogura magura’ / ‘Dogra Magra’ (Toshio Matsumoto, 1988)

l don’t remember anything. Not even my name…

Matsumoto’s final feature film saw the experimental filmmaker go out with a bang. An extreme and surreal fantasy, ‘Dogra Magra’ has a meticulous framing and some bizarre visual motifs that are used to slowly unfold a complex tale of madness and murder.

The story is of a young man who wakes up in an asylum with no memory of how he came to be there. Connecting his condition with the fate of the man’s murderous ancestor, two doctors slowly build a disturbing image of how the amnesiac came to be there – an image that may indeed be no more than the projections of their own sick minds.

Despite the richness of the surreal imagery on show, ‘Dogra Magra’ is largely dialogue-driven, making it infuriatingly slow at times, although the effort is ultimately rewarding. It is a whole-hearted and unique signature to the long and varied career of a true Japanese visionary.

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‘Tetsuo’ / ‘Tetsuo: The Iron Man’ (Shinya Tsukamoto, 1989)

Together, we can turn this fucking world to rust!

Tsukamoto’s breakthrough movie remains a cult classic today. The imprecision of the grainy 16mm black-and-white film perfectly evokes the dread and confusion of the main character, a salaryman who, following a car accident, is infected with a kind of metal machine disease, which slowly mutates his body into an erotic cyborg blend of man and power tool.

Understandably, his girlfriend is also perturbed. Following her swift exit from the scenario, the salaryman begins a new relationship with the progenitor of the disease – a metal fetishist with ambitions of turning the whole world into steel.

Raw, grisly, shocking and utterly original, this is the best incidence of Tsukamoto – a wildly creative director – matching form and content, creating an underground gem that feels like the work of a 12-year-old genius Cronenberg (in a good way).

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‘San tai Yon ekkusu Jugatsu’ / ‘Boiling Point’ (Takeshi Kitano, 1990)

Opening and closing in the wooden portaloo of a suburban baseball field, Kitano’s first film as writer-director invites us to question whether the action that snowballs in between was a dream, nightmare, or violent fantasy of Ono, a disaffected but customarily ineffective car valet-cum-sports loser.

When a small-time yakuza roughs up Ono’s baseball coach, it proves bad timing for everyone as the young chap is just about to reach his limit of the daily belittling and frustrations of being a nobody. His revenge mission involves his deadpan descent into the world of guns and gangsters – chiefly Kitano himself, as a sadistic yakuza outcast who takes Ono under his wing.

Kitano – originally a stand-up comic – laces the film with troubling humour, which is never far removed from themes of abuse of strength and power in everyday scenarios, structured organizations, and relationships between men and women. It’s a clever strategy that may alienate some (the humour could be deemed offensive) but which in fact wisely posits cruelty and abuse as part of the thicker web of human nature.

Less ‘Goodfellas’ than ‘Bottle Rocket’, ‘Boiling Point’ is an unassuming debut for Kitano-as-auteur and remains one of his most complete and original works.

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Aftershock

As we return to the DVD player ,bruised but not discouraged, for yet another slice of highly-inventive hyper-violence we might question what it is about violence that makes it so compelling. Some of these directors like to thrill with the kinetic joy and visceral punch of brutality, for sure – but what sets them apart from their trashier counterparts is the manner in which violence is used to explore the chaos of the universe and the cruelty of the human animal.

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