Snake Woman’s Curse (怪談蛇女, Nobuo Nakagawa, 1968)

The landed gentry find themselves haunted by the feudal legacy in Nobuo Nakagawa’s Meiji-era ghost story, Snake Woman’s Curse (怪談蛇女, Kaidan Hebi-onna). Though the figure of the vengeful ghost is rightly feared, they are rarely directly dangerous pushing their targets to damn themselves as they rail against the manifestation of their deeply buried guilt, yet the guilt here is perhaps buried deeper still as those who once had power find themselves floundering in the death throws of feudalism. 

As the opening voice over explains, the screen oppressively letterboxed to an extreme degree, the tale takes place in Onuma, a small village yet to be Westernised where the ruling family brutally exploit the tenant farmers still regarded as part of their fief. Old Yasuke (Ko Nishimura) chases after the local lord Onuma (Seizaburo Kawazu) and begs him not to kick him off his land, vowing that even if he has to eat dirt he will repay his debts. Onuma pays him no attention and Yasuke is soon thrown by the wayside after trying to catch hold of his cart. Concussed, all he can do is repeat his pleas not to lose the farm, and though he seems to recover passes away some days later leaving his wife Sue (Chiaki Tsukioka) and daughter Asa (Yukiko Kuwahara) alone. Heartless, Onuma evicts the women and knocks the house down to plant mulberry trees in its place while offering them “jobs” in his household for which they will not be paid for at least 10 years while they work off Yasuke’s debts. 

In addition to terrorising the peasants on the land, we discover that the Onumas are also running a sweatshop, a sign on the wall of Asa’s new place of employment reading that she must rise at 4am and be at work by 5 where she must stay until 9pm. There is to be no talking between the women in the workplace. Sue meanwhile is enlisted as a maid, but Onuma’s wife Masae (Akemi Negishi) immediately takes against her while she is continually sexually harassed by Onuma. Like father like son, the young master Takeo (Shingo Yamashiro) has also taken a fancy to Asa, though he is soon to be married to the daughter of the local mayor (Yukie Kagawa), a match all seem to regard as auspicious. 

Immediately after his soul vacates his body, Yasuke fetches up to haunt Onuma who is perhaps more affected by his guilt than his feudal upbringing would allow him to admit. Questioned later, he likens the peasants on his land to worms in the earth claiming that the deaths of one or two are no real matter and in any case nothing at all to do with him. “You people can survive drinking water and eating anything” he cruelly snaps back seconds after exclaiming he will fire the entire weaving staff as if that would put an end to the curse, paying little consideration to the fact he’s likely just condemned them to starvation. An exploitative landlord, he cares nothing for his feudal responsibility and all for his privileges. He and his son reserve the right to do as they please, regarding peasant women as theirs to be taken and having no real right to refuse. They do not believe there are any consequences for their actions because they are in a sense above the law of the land. 

Yet modernity is coming. We see our first uniformed policemen descend on the village after Sutematsu (Kunio Murai), Asa’s intended before her virtual enslavement through debt bondage, creates a scene at Takeo’s wedding in protest of the family’s treatment of Asa. Onuma’s attempts to reject the authority of the police in refusing their summons, describing it as “rude”, roundly fail, as do his attempts to leverage his feudal privilege in threatening to have the police chief fired in order to avoid answering his questions. His grip on authority is weakening as power necessarily reverts to the mechanisms of the state rendering him in some senses equal with those who till the soil. 

Even so, it’s spiritual rather than Earthly justice which will eventually do for him. The ghosts, such as they are, are mere echoes of time repeating the essential messages of the moments in which they died. Yasuke pleads for his land, he does not harm Onuma directly but causes Onuma to harm himself as he thrashes around trying in vain to vanquish a ghost with his gentleman’s cane. The family is, essentially, crushed under the weight of their feudal injustices as their noble house collapses all around them with modernity knocking on the door. Shooting in unusually lush colour, Nakagawa makes the most of his famously effective ghostly apparitions, finally drenching the screen itself in blood, but closes with an image of serenity in which justice of a kind at least has been served leaving the wronged to walk peacefully towards salvation while their tormentors will perhaps be travelling in another direction condemned not only for their own heartless venality but for that of the system that allowed them so ruthlessly to exploit those they ought to have protected. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Tokyo Ghoul S (東京喰種 トーキョーグール【S】, Kazuhiko Hiramaki & Takuya Kawasaki, 2019)

tg2_poster_3校B_ol_6In Tokyo Ghoul, regular university student Ken Kaneki (Masataka Kubota) had to learn to accept the parts of himself he didn’t like in order to become the kind of man he wanted to be. Of course, the situation was more complicated than that faced by most young men because Ken Kaneki’s darkness was born of being seduced by a beautiful woman who turned out to be a “ghoul” – a supernatural being craving human flesh, something he later became himself when they were both injured in a freak accident after which he got some of her organs. The sequel, Tokyo Ghoul S (東京喰種 トーキョーグール【S】) finds him in a more centred place, having accepted his new nature as neither human nor ghoul but a bridge between the two. Now he has a series of different questions to face in trying help others accept themselves in the same way as they too wonder if there are some parts of themselves so dark that if they revealed them they could never be loved.

While Ken goes about his regular student life working part-time at ethical ghoul cafe Anteiku, a ghoul serial killer known as “The Gourmet” (Shota Matsuda) has been making the news after targeting a high profile model (Maggy) whom he stalked and killed simply to taste her heterochromatic eyes. Tsukiyama, as we later learn his name to be, is a dandyish fopp living in a Western-style country house complete with servants who serve him only the finest meals well presented to hide their dark genesis. On catching a whiff of Ken’s unique human/ghoul scent, he knows he must taste him and puts a nefarious plan in motion in order to lure him to a mysterious ghoul-only restaurant where humans are butchered live for show while the clientele salivate over scenes of intense cruelty.

That’s all too much for poor Ken. He can’t understand how anybody could act with so little regard for life. The cafe owner pointedly asks him if he feels pity when looking at the butchered flesh of an animal, which he of course does not. The ghouls feel much the same, humans are their prey – they can’t help what they are, but living under the intense fear of discovery in an obviously hostile world has made them cruel and resentful to the extent that they no longer understand the value of life. The ghouls that Ken knows, the ones which frequent Anteiku, are different. They have resolved to live ethically and respect lives both human and ghoul equally.

Ken’s friend and colleague Touka (Maika Yamamoto), however, is beginning to have her doubts. In the first film we saw her pursue a touching friendship with classmate Yoriko (Nana Mori) whose cooking she made a point of eating solely as a means of connection despite the fact that human food makes her ill. Now she fears she’s doing the wrong thing, that it will only hurt more if her friend finds out her secret and rejects her, or worse that she may put her in danger. Therefore, she counsels Ken to distance himself from his overly cheerful friend Hide (Kai Ogasawara) and the human world in general, threatening that she herself will kill Hide if he discovers that Ken is a ghoul. As expected, Ken ignores her advice but is mildly shaken by it. Deciding to intervene when his sometime enemy Nishiki (Shunya Shiraishi) is being beaten up in the street, he discovers a better future on learning that Nishiki is living with a human woman who knows he is a ghoul, but loves him anyway.

Though Kimi’s (Mai Kiryu) justifications that she can live with the fact her boyfriend kills people and eats them so long as he leaves her friends and family alone is a little worrying, it is a touching example of the film’s positive message that there is no secret so terrible that it means someone can’t be loved. Kimi accepts Nishiki’s nature as a ghoul, aware of the fact he can’t help what he is and that if she had been born a ghoul she would be the same. Touka fears rejection, but on catching sight of her bright red wings Kimi utters the single word “beautiful”, seeing only goodness without fear or hate.

Tsukiyama meanwhile seems to have gone in the opposite direction, pursuing his desires to the point of obsession in a quest for ever greater sensation. He stalks and murders the model to devour her eyes in an especial piece of irony, while his pursuit of Ken takes on an intensely homoerotic quality. Using the same tactics as Tokyo Ghoul‘s Rize, Tsukiyama picks Ken up through bonding over books, invites him to “dinner” and later sends him an invitation accompanied by a single red rose. Despite the romanticism, however, he soon reverts to type in blaming Ken for his actions. “You’re making me this way”, he insists, “take responsibility”, like every abuser ever simultaneously accepting that his behaviour is inappropriate and justifying it as a consequence of someone else’s actions. In the end, Tsukiyama’s illicit desires consume him, while Ken’s act of self-sacrifice once again allows him to be the human/ghoul bridge combatting Tsukiyama’s rapacious cruelty with an open-hearted generosity which pushes Touka to the fore so that she too can learn that peaceful co-existence is possible when there is trust and understanding on both sides.

Nishiki tells Ken his problem is that he’s too nice, but that’s not a bad thing to be because he just might “save somebody someday”. Niceness as a superpower might be an odd message for a movie about flesh eating monsters almost indistinguishable from regular humans, but perhaps that’s what will save us in the end, a generosity of spirit that makes it possible for us each to accept each other’s darkness in acknowledgement of our own. Less stylistically interesting than the first instalment, Tokyo Ghoul S may be a kind of bridge movie in a possible trilogy (a sequel is teased in a brief mid-credits sequence featuring a mysterious character who makes several unexplained appearances throughout the film), but nevertheless does its best to further the Tokyo Ghoul mythology as its hero finds his strength in difference and mutual understanding.


Tokyo Ghoul S screens in the US for three nights only on Sept. 16/18/20 courtesy of Funimation. Check the official website to find out where it’s playing near you!

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Tokyo Ghoul (東京喰種, Kentaro Hagiwara, 2017)

Tokyo Ghoul posterThough the idea has never been far away, Japanese cinema has largely steered clear of the enemy within. Recently however the “they walk among us” phenomenon seems to have gained traction from the horror-leaning Parasyte to the contemplative Before We Vanish. Parasyte would seem to be an appropriate point of departure for Kentaro Hagiwara’s debut feature, an adaptation of Sui Ishida’s hugely popular manga Tokyo Ghoul (東京喰種). Like Hitoshi Iwaaki’s ‘80s take on Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Tokyo Ghoul creates for itself a subsection of “humanity” which is not quite human yet apparently lives alongside “us” keeping its true nature and identity a secret in order to avoid detection. Unlike Parasyte, however, the intentions of the Ghouls are not so much destruction or colonisation as simple survival.

Ken Kaneki (Masataka Kubota), a shy bookworm with only one real friend, is trying to pluck up the courage to talk to another shy bookworm he often notices reading the kind of books he likes in a cafe they both seem to enjoy going to. It would seem that they have quite a lot in common already, but when Ken ends up on a successful date with Rize (Yu Aoi) he gets a little more than he bargained for. Far from the shy and mousy creature of his dreams, Rize is a raging Ghoul hungry for flesh rather than love. Luckily, Rize is killed in a freak accident just as she’s about devour poor Ken. Ken, however, survives but only thanks to a transplant of Rize’s organs meaning he is now part-Ghoul and can only live on human meat.

Neither one thing nor another, Ken struggles to accept his new nature as he craves flesh and has strange visions in which he imagines himself as Rize the crazed and ravenous Ghoul. Starving and alone he finally finds his way to the Anteiku cafe where he first met Rize and now finds a support network led by ethical Ghouls who sustain themselves on ethically sourced meat and high end coffee. These Ghouls do not want to kill, they simply want to survive which also means keeping one step ahead of the CCG which exists specifically in order to hunt down Ghouls with extreme prejudice.

In many a sci-fi tome, the CCG would be the good guys – protecting regular humans from a monstrous threat lurking in the shadows. After all, who would defend a substratum of cannibal serial killers who think nothing of devouring human flesh in front of its horrified offspring, but the CCG have perhaps begun to take too much pleasure in their work. Cold and calculating detective Amon (Nobuyuki Suzuki) has an idea that the world is “wrong” and it’s his job to put it right by exterminating the Ghouls, whereas creepy silver-haired detective Mado (Yo Oizumi) enjoys toying with his prey as much as Rize did and has even begun to harvest the various “Kagune” protuberances with which the Ghouls are endowed to use in his quest to defeat them.

The CCG may be justified in their fear in but in their methods they are little different than their quarry. The Ghouls too have a right to survive and are, after all, only being what they are. CCG might be better off working with Anteiku to minimise the Ghoul threat rather than engaging in a pointless and internecine war that guarantees only a continuation of violence and fear on both sides.

Having posited such interesting ideas it’s a shame that Tokyo Ghoul reverts to the classic super hero formula of resolving everything through a climactic battle in which Ken is forced to confront himself whilst battling CCG. Neither Ghoul nor human, Ken sees faults on both sides but perhaps learns to come into himself, no longer a diffident young man but one committed to protecting his friends even if it’s themselves they need protecting from.

Hagiwara opts for an artier approach than might expected though his noble intentions are often undercut by poor quality CGI and the inescapably outrageous quality of the source material. Nevertheless he gets impressive performances from his young cast even if some fan favourite characters are relegated to little more than background decoration and others scarcely written at all. Perhaps biting off more than it can chew, Tokyo Ghoul is an uneven experience but one that does its best to find heroism in villainy and villainy in heroism, negating the good/evil dichotomy of superhero morality for something altogether more complex.


Tokyo Ghoul was screened for one night only across the UK and will be released by Anime Limited later in the year.

UK release trailer (English subtitles)

Like Grains of Sand (渚のシンドバッド, Ryosuke Hashiguchi, 1995)

Like grains of sand posterAdolescent romance is complicated enough at the best of times but the barriers are ever higher if you happen to be gay in a less than tolerant society. Ryosuke Hashiguchi’s second feature Like Grains of Sand (渚のシンドバッド, Nagisa no Sinbad) takes a slight step back in time from A Touch of Fever but retains its very ordinary world as a collection of boys and girls embark on a process of self discovery whilst also locked into the unbreakable straightjacket of the high school world.

Ito (Yoshinori Okada) is an ordinary high school boy with a crush on his oblivious best friend, Yoshida (Kouta Kusano). Though Yoshida defends him from the homophobic bullies in his class, he seems confused about his true feelings, at once stating that what he feels for Ito is more that friendship but also unwilling to address what that “more” may mean. After Ito’s father intercepts a reply to a personal ad he placed hoping to meet older men, Ito ends up at a psychiatrist’s office where his father hopes he might be “cured” though the doctor is quick to point out that they no longer view homosexuality as a medical matter.

Whilst at the clinic, Ito strikes a up a friendship with another girl from his class, Aihara (Ayumi Hamasaki) – a recent transfer student, who, we learn, has experienced a traumatic event which is also the reason she had to leave her previous place of education. Aihara is the only person with whom Ito can discuss his sexuality honestly though he’s also sure to “protect” Yoshida by claiming he rejected his advances outright rather than explaining the confusing series of events as they actually occurred. When Aihara and Ito accidentally end up on an awkward double date with Yoshida and his girlfriend Shimizu (Kumi Takada), Yoshida also begins to develop an (unreturned) attraction to Aihara which only further complicates the delicate nature of the growing emotional ties among this small group of young people.

A real step up from the promising yet flawed A Touch of Fever, Like Grains of Sand proves Hashiguchi’s skill in building an extremely natural environment filled with believable well rounded characters. The high school world is a cruel one populated by unsteady teenagers, each by times rebellious and insecure. Aihara, as a recent transfer student, is already an outsider but finds herself excluded even further thanks to her direct and aloof character. Early on in the film two of the other girls, evidently the popular set, begin running a bizarre extortion scam in which they claim a friend of theirs has fallen pregnant and needs to get an abortion right away so they’re collecting money to help her. Shimizu doesn’t seem to buy their explanation but is bamboozled into paying up to not cause offence. Aihara, however, brands the pair “sympathy fascists” and abruptly walks away.

Ito is also an outsider, though partially a self-exile, longing yet fearful. At the beginning of the film he’s overwhelmed watching the unexpectedly sensual action of Yoshida pouring a bag of sand into a container destined for the sports field. After they’ve finished, Ito faints right in front of his fellow schoolmates, though at least the convenient hot weather might prove his ally. When the other boys draw a lewd drawing on the blackboard and start teasing Ito, Yoshida comes to his rescue even though he knows that’s likely to cause trouble for himself. Reassuring his friend that it would be OK even if it was true, Yoshida continues to act in a non committal manner. Ito confesses, Yoshida accepts the confession but at the same time is uncertain permitting both a kiss and an embrace before pushing his friend away and leaving as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

After an impromptu hug on a rooftop, Shimizu makes attempt to ask Aihara is she’s gay with no particular judgement attached except a slight reticence in terms of language. Aihara seems slightly confused, replying only that Shimizu is preoccupied with the wrong questions. Later, Ito ends up escorting the smitten Yoshida to Aihara’s childhood home where things come to a climax during an intense finale on a secluded beach. Night is falling and Ito has put on Aihara’s white dress and hat while she goes for a swim just as Yoshida returns for a second stab at confessions. Hiding behind a rock while Yoshida thinks Ito is her, Aihara continues to conduct a philosophically based dissection of Yoshida’s approach to sexuality. She asks him, would you still love me if I were a man, and if not, is it more that what you want is a woman and not really “me” at all, along with other questions designed to prompt a response as to the importance of gender when it comes to love. That all this happens as a kind of Cyrano de Bergerac-like three way sequence with Ito dressed as Aihara, and Yoshida talking to Aihara through someone else only lends to the surreal, increasingly symbolic atmosphere.

Gentle and softly nuanced, Like Grains of Sand is a delicate exploration of ordinary young people caught in a confusing storm of emotions as they each address their burgeoning sexuality. Rich with complexity yet also effortlessly straightforward, Hashiguchi has created a beautifully naturalistic portrait of adolescence in flux which is filled with empathy and acceptance for each of its angst ridden teens and even for their less forgiving friends and relatives. A noticeable progression from Touch of Fever, Like Grains of Sand further proves Hashiguchi’s skill for character drama and marks him as one of the most incisive writer/directors working today.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Japanese title of the film, Nagisa no Sinbad, is also the title of a hit single by 1970s super duo Pink Lady! (Beware – extremely catchy)