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Good Japanese Movies (1990-95): Mind Games

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GJ Cole itcherPsychological tricks and psychiatric weirdness take the foreground in these five special movies from the early nineties. Whether they approach the brain as a computer that needs reprogramming or a frustratingly unknowable squidgy organ, the movies include compelling plots about the mysteries of consciousness and of human behaviour that force us to confront our moral responsibility as thinking machines. ~ GJ Cole

The Nuthouse

Modern anime classic ‘Ghost in the Shell’ is famous for exploring the mysteries of consciousness with more rigour and imagination than most live-action features have, and it seems to reflect a time when psychology and the materiality of the human beast were vying for attention regarding the essence of our nature.

In Takeshi Kitano’s ‘Sonatine’ and Hirokazu Koreeda’s ‘Maborosi’, the mechanics of fear and grief are explored through meticulously crafted scenarios and meaningful visual composition.

Meanwhile, ‘Tokyo Fist’ and ‘Angel Dust’ form a complementary pair of ultra-modern neon noirs with creepy villains hellbent on manipulation and cruelty.

Be warned: I cannot guarantee whether you’ll end up with an improved understanding of human behaviour, or just terrified of the bizarre variety of perversions that our grey matter can cook up.


Psychological Japanese Movie Recommendations

‘Sonachine’ / ‘Sonatine’ (Takeshi Kitano, 1993)

When you’re scared all the time, you reach a point when you wish you were dead…

Witness some of the most awful Hawaiian shirts in Japanese cinema history, as gangster Kitano takes his most loyal men to the beach to hide out from a feared ambush.

The filmmaker’s second movie as writer-director-star doesn’t have the subtlety or intelligence of the first, but it’s a solid yakuza picture with more nuance than most. Guns become toys in the hands of those that carry them everyday, with a complete moral meltdown and slaughter by assault rifle needed to bring things to the boil.

Trademark deadpan performances, brief, blunt spurts of violence, and cruel humour, see Kitano further establish his cinematic toolkit ahead of more ambitious works such as ‘Hana-bi’ (1995) and ‘Dolls’ (2002). If at moments it gets a bit silly, this brutal ‘yakuza on holiday’ flick is still a highly original gangster movie that earns its place in the canon.

‘Enjeru dasuto’ / ‘Angel Dust’ (Sogo Ishii, 1994)

Credited with being a key figure in the development of Japanese cyberpunk culture, Sogo Ishii further explored low-rent neon aesthetics with ‘Angel Dust’, even if the story itself is not quite in the cyberpunk genre.

Every Monday at 6pm, a young girl is murdered on the subway via lethal injection, and the detective in charge of the case aims to use her psychiatric training to trace the elusive killer. When she teams up with her creepy ex-boyfriend to crack the case, his work in the de-conditioning of former cult members begins to suggest a dangerously seductive solution.

‘Angel Dust’ is a truly underrated modern noir with a highly stylized look and disorienting sound design. It’s strange that Ishii’s work is not well known outside of Japan as Kitano or Shinya Tsukamoto, but if you’re unfamiliar with his work then this is a good place to start.

‘Tokyo Fist’ (Shinya Tsukamoto, 1995)

At least I don’t have any problems staying awake anymore…

Maybe boxing movies aren’t your thing per se, but if you’re looking for a romantic triangle drama that is expressed through the medium of gore-filled, face-ripping hyper-violence this could be the picture for you.

Segueing seamlessly from the elemental black and white of his science-fiction body horror movie ‘Tetsuo’ to an expressionist use of primary colours that weirdify the relatively ‘straight’ world of ‘Tokyo Fist’, here Tsukamoto is more explicitly interested in man/woman-man/man power dynamics. The director stars as an apparently average man drawn into a world of violence and one-upmanship when an old school-friend-turned-boxer makes moves on his fiancée.

The audience’s sense of control slips away along with that of the would-be hero, as the scenario degenerates into round after round of visceral violence, verbal belittling, and bone-crunching effects. ‘Tokyo Fist’ is an uncompromising vision of masculinity(s) and an ingeniously crafted piece of filmmaking.

‘KŌkaku KidŌtai GŌsuto In Za Sheru’ / ‘Ghost in the Shell’ (Mamoru Oshii, 1995)

We have been subordinate to our limitations until now. The time has come to cast aside these bonds and to elevate our consciousness to a higher plane. It is time to become a part of all things…

Forcing itself to the heart of contemporary issues such as personhood, identity and gender in the digital age, ‘Ghost in the Shell’ is a world apart from most live action movies for the density and relevance of the ideas packed into its mere 82 minutes. (‘Ghost’-inspired ‘The Matrix’ is relatively puerile in its philosophical speculation, and anyway gave way to the ‘chosen one’ myth and tired action flick thrills by the time of its sequels).

In a world in which human consciousness can be uploaded into cybernetic bodies, a simulated consciousness strives to become more human – at any cost. Enter cyborg detectives, SWAT teams and programmers to try and thwart him.

The thrills are wholly connected to the big thinks behind ‘Ghost in the Shell’, and the movie’s intelligence and playful speculation are still ahead of the game, ensuring it a true classic status as well as establishing itself as a go-to reference for academics and filmmakers alike.

‘Maboroshi no Hikari’ / ‘Maborosi’ (Hirokazu Koreeda, 1995)

Why did he kill himself? Why was he walking along the tracks? It just goes around and around in my head. Why do you think he did it?

Koreeda’s tender elegy is a masterly study in sadness. Yumiko and Ikuo are happily married and making the most of the trials of caring for their newborn son. Their relationship is convincingly portrayed with intimacy, affectionate teasing and devotion.

When Ikuo is hit by a train – possibly in an unexplained suicide – Yumiko (and the audience) is bereft. Jumping forward a few years, we see Yumiko remarry, more for convenience than love. But her mourning process – and that of her widowed husband – has a long way to go.

The film’s long, wide, mostly static shots, force attention onto the emotional value of the characters’ surroundings and achieving a painterly effect with its unity of palette.

Early images of trains passing – and Ikuo’s fascination with them – take on an eerie significance in retrospect, and the long establishing shots that focus on details of the characters’ world without their presence make for a ghostly feel even as the story remains palpably true to life.

‘Maborosi’ is a meaningful meditation on life and death from a true craftsman.


Sleep Tight

They say that the brain is the seat of consciousness, but in exploring the psychology of their characters through such visual and physical means, the present filmmakers shine a curious light on the essence of what it is to be human, to think and to feel.

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