School in The Crosshairs (ねらわれた学園, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1981)

Still most closely associated with his debut feature Hausu – a psychedelic haunted house musical, Nobuhiko Obayashi’s affinity for youthful subjects made him a great fit for the burgeoning Kadokawa idol phenomenon. Maintaining his idiosyncratic style, Obayashi worked extensively in the idol arena eventually producing such well known films as The Little Girl Who Conquered Time (starring Kadokawa idol Tomoyo Harada) and the comparatively less well known Miss Lonely and His Motorbike Her Island (starring a very young and extremely skinny Riki Takeuchi). 1981’s School in the Crosshairs (ねらわれた学園, Nerawareta Gakuen) marks his first foray into into the world of idol cinema but it also stars one of Kadokawa’s most prominent idols in Hiroko Yakushimaru appearing just a few months before her star making role in Shinji Somai’s Sailor Suit and Machine Gun.

Set once again in a high school, School in the Crosshairs is the ultimate teen movie for any student who’s ever suspected their place of education has been infiltrated by fascists but no one else has noticed. Top student Yuka (Hiroko Yakushimaru) is the archetypal Obayashi/idol movie heroine in that she’s not only bright and plucky but essentially good hearted and keen to help out both her friends and anyone else in trouble. Her life changes when walking home from school one day with her kendo obsessed friend Koji (Ryoichi Takayanagi) as the pair notice a little kid about to ride his tricycle into the path of a great big truck. Yuka, horrified but not quite knowing what to do, shouts for the little boy to go back only it’s time itself which rewinds and moves the boy out of harm’s way. Very confused and thinking she’s had some kind of episode, Yuka tests her new psychic powers out by using them to help Koji finally win a kendo match but when a strange looking man who claims to be “a friend”  (Toru Minegishi) arrives along with icy transfer student Takamizawa (Masami Hasegawa), Yuka finds herself at the centre of an intergalactic invasion plot.

Many things have changed since 1981, sadly “examination hell” is not one of them. Yuka and Koji still have a few years of high school left meaning that it’s not all that serious just yet but still, their parents and teachers have their eyes firmly on the final grades. Yuka is the top student in her class, much to the chagrin of her rival, Arikawa (Macoto Tezuka), who surpasses her in maths and English but has lost the top spot thanks to his lack of sporting ability. Koji is among the mass of students in the middle with poor academic grades but showing athletic promise even if his kendo career is not going as well as hoped.

Given everyone’s obsession with academic success, the aliens have hit on a sure thing by infiltrating a chain of cram schools promising impressive results. Grades aside, parents are largely laissez-faire or absent, content to let their kids do as they please as long as their academic life proceeds along the desired route. Koji’s parents eventually hire Yuka as a private teacher to help him improve only for her to help him skip out to kendo practice. Her parents, by contrast, are proud of their daughter and attentive enough to notice something’s not right but attribute her recent preoccupation to a very ordinary adolescent problem – they think she’s fallen in love and they should probably leave her alone to figure things out her own way. A strange present of an empty picture frame may suggest they intend to give her “blank canvas” and allow her to decide the course of her own life, but she has, in a sense, earned this privilege through proving her responsible nature and excelling in the all important academic arena.

School is a battlefield in more ways than one. Intent on brainwashing the teenagers of Japan, “mysterious transfer student” Takamizawa has her sights firmly set on taking over the student council only she needs to get past Yuka to do it. Takamizawa has her own set of abilities including an icy stare which seems to make it impossible to refuse her orders and so she’s quickly instigated a kind of “morality” patrol for the campus to enforce all those hated school rules like skirt lengths, smoking, and running in the halls. Before long her mini militia has its own uniforms and creepy face paint but her bid for world domination hits a serious snag when Yuka refuses to cross over to the dark side and join the coming revolution. Asking god to grant her strength Yuka stands up to the aliens all on her own, avowing that she likes the world as it and is willing to sacrifice her own life for that of her friends. Accused of “wasting” her powers, Yuka asks how saving people could ever be “wasteful” and berates the invaders for their lack of human feeling. Faced with the cold atmosphere of exam stress and about to be railroaded into adulthood, Yuka dreams of a better, kinder world founded on friendship and basic human goodness.

Beginning with a lengthy psychedelic sequence giving way to a classic science fiction on screen text introduction Obayashi signals his free floating intentions with Yuka’s desaturated bedroom floating over the snowcapped mountains. Pushing his distinctive analogue effects to the limit, Obayashi creates a world which is at once real and surreal as Yuka finds herself at a very ordinary crossroads whilst faced with extraordinary events. Courted by the universe, Yuka is unmoved. Unlike many a teenage heroine, she realises that she’s pretty happy with the way things are. She likes her life (exam stress and all), she loves her friends, she’ll be OK. Standing up for the rights of the individual, but also for collective responsibility, Yuka claims her right to self determination but is determined not to leave any of her friends behind.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Midori: The Camellia Girl (少女椿, TORICO, 2016)

camelia-girlPicking up on the well entrenched penny dreadful trope of the tragic flower seller the Shoujo Tsubaki or “Camellia Girl” became a stock character in the early Showa era rival of the Kamishibai street theatre movement. Like her European equivalent, the Shoujo Tsubaki was typically a lower class innocent who finds herself first thrown into the degrading profession of selling flowers on the street and then cast down even further by being sold to a travelling freakshow revue. This particular version of the story is best known thanks to the infamous 1984 ero-guro manga by Suehiro Maruo, Mr. Arashi’s Amazing Freak Show. Very definitely living up to its name, Maruo’s manga is beautifully drawn evocation of its 1930s counterculture genesis – something which the creator of the book’s anime adaptation took to heart when screening his indie animation. Midori, an indie animation project by Hiroshi Harada, was screened only as part of a wider avant-garde event encompassing a freak show circus and cabaret revue worthy of any ‘30s underground scene.

The 2016 live action adaptation from fashion designer TORICO, Midori: The Camellia Girl (少女椿, Shojo Tsubaki) doesn’t quite take things so far but does its best to put a modern spin on the original work’s decidedly Weimar aesthetic. Fourteen year old Midori (Risa Nakamura) narrates the tale as she suffers at the hands of the freaks and performers who form the community she has become a less than willing member of. After her father ran off and her mother died, Midori’s activities as a seller of paper camellias came to an end when she joined a circus troupe but rather than a warm community of outcasts Midori finds herself amongst a bitchy collection of kinky sex obsessed perverts who force her to become their personal domestic servant. Enduring cruel and frightening behaviour culminating in a rape by a performer with a bandaged face, Midori has begun to consider suicide as her only means of escape but when the circus receives a new employee in the form of “Western” style magician Mr. Wonder (Shunsuke Kazama), Midori’s fortunes begin to brighten.

Thankfully, given some of the things she’s forced to endure, Midori is played by 27 year old model Risa Nakamura in her first film role. The world of the freak show is undoubtedly a hellish one as Midori’s compatriots view her as the company kicking bag. Her biggest problem is the effeminate gay showman, Kanabun (Takeru), who actively enjoys tormenting her even going so far as to kick her pet puppies to death and feed them to her in a stew. This being a fairly incestuous environment, everyone is having sex with everyone else all the time which is not an ideal environment for a dreamy and sheltered fourteen year old. After witnessing a number of strange sexual practices including eyeball licking and an odd ménage à trois, Midori is unceremoniously raped by the bandaged man whose wrappings wind up around her own face. Mr. Wonder is the only one to show her any kind of kindness and perhaps begins to earn her love but his attentions have a possessive and controlling dimension which make this far from an uncomplicated romance even aside from Midori’s relative youth.

TORICO takes a page from Mina Ninagawa’s book in painting her tale in bright, kaleidoscopic colours. Not a naturalistic recreation of early Showa decadence, Midori: The Camelia Girl evokes the spirit of the period with its surreal atmosphere and outlandish costuming. Midori dresses in the bright and innocent clothes of a little girl making her look something like a cartoon heroine though her sunniness contrasts nicely with the sometimes muted dinginess of the street performer world. Accompanied by jaunty, accordion led gypsy jazz, TORICO also makes use of animated sequences and occasional effects to capture the bizarre goings on at the heart of the story and Midori’s frequent retreats into fantasy to escape them. Every bit as strange and surreal as might be hoped, Midori: The Cameila Girl only infrequently allows the encroaching darkness of militarism to penetrate its kitschy world but the threat is ever present as this collection of misfits attempts to survive outside of the mainstream, even if their attempts to do so reject the idea of community in favour of a constant series of betrayals and manipulations.


Original trailer (no subtitles, NSFW)

Black Kiss (ブラックキス, Macoto Tezuka, 2006)

Black KissThe somewhat salaciously titled Black Kiss (ブラックキス) comes appropriately steeped in giallo-esque nastiness but its ambitions lean towards the classic Hollywood crime thriller as much as they do to gothic European horror. Directed by the son of the legendary father of manga Osamu Tezuka (not immune to a little strange violence of his own) Macoto Tezuka, Black Kiss is a noir inspired tale of Tokyo after dark where a series of bizarre staged murders are continuing to puzzle the police.

We witness the first of them as a sleazy producer type takes a prospective new sign out for a night on the town. He promises to make her a star but predictably the evening ends in a fairly grim love hotel. This early episode is brought to an abrupt halt as the man is conked on the head in the bathroom only to wake up tied to the bed for a spot of vivisection.

However, it turns out there is an unexpected witness to the crime in the form of aspiring model, Asuka, who we now meet by hopping back week as she moves into the flat opposite with the rather sullen and reluctant street punk Kasumi. The pair then get involved with the police as well as with a local paparazzo but what does Kasumi’s missing former roommate have to do with all of this and why does all the evidence keep pointing back to her? The reason may surprise you.

Black Kiss is playing with several genres during its running time but it certainly packs in its fair share of red herrings. Far too many, in fact, leaving its ultimate explanation feeling oddly hollow. Given this amount of build up and a careful arrangement of clues, Tezuka’s decision to end as a standard slasher leaves the viewer feeling cheated as our intrepid heroines make an admittedly exciting final run for it across the rooftops of Kabuki-cho. After throwing so many possible solutions on the screen, the one that is finally offered seems extremely dull in comparison and makes little to no internal sense.

That said, Black Kiss is actually quite good at painting its shady world with an appropriate layer of detail. Tezuka returns to the ideas of duality which play into his Vertigo homage, casting his two leading ladies as alike in some senses – both having been involved in the fashion industry, both half Japanese, both adrift in terms of their lives and ambitions, but is also careful place them on opposing sides as Asuka dresses in light colours to bring out her sweetness and innocence whereas Kasumi is all punk/goth darkness and aggression borne of self loathing. Though originally reluctant roommates, Asuka and Kasumi eventually bond though it’s another weakness of the film that aspects of their relationship appear curiously unresolved adding yet another layer of ambiguity to the already hard to pin down central narrative.

What Tezuka really seems to want to do is use the central mystery to explore notions of genre rather than actually follow or even blend them. He quotes Hitchcock both overtly onscreen with the oddly named “Bats Motel” and Vertigo night club as well as in his Rear Window and Dial M for Murder plot elements but then he veers widely off course into the world of giallo with his semi-explicit sex scene and leather clad avenging murderess. As an exercise in style, Black Kiss is frequently impressive with its innovative cinematography and unusual composition but dramatically it can’t unify its underlying concerns in a way which makes both visual and narrative sense.

A noble failure, there is much to admire in Black Kiss which is only let down by its non-sensical finale. Deliberately or otherwise, Tezuka constantly undercuts himself and pulls his punches just when it seems as if he may be about to move into a more interesting area. The final mystery makes no sense at all and, in what may be Tezuka’s biggest failed ambition, leaves the murders themselves as an odd kind of McGuffin. Quite a big ask in what is, essentially a serial killer movie with a significant lean towards giallo inflected horror. Nevertheless, though Black Kiss fails on many levels it does prove intriguing enough to maintain interest even if it ultimately loses all of the good will it accrues with its dramatically unsatisfying slide into slasher territory in the final quarter.


Unsubbed trailer: