10 Provocative Japanese Films That Are Worth Your Time

6. Girl Boss Guerilla (1972)

Girl Boss Guerilla (1972)

The sound of a revving motorbike engine over the Toei studio logo cuts to a girl biker gang and a seventies funk track. The red helmet gang, led by Miki, are tough-talking, tattooed babes who use their bodies and fists to get what they want. They quickly run into trouble with a rival girl gang and the yakuza and turn to Nami (played by star Reiko Ike) for help.

Pinky-violence, as it is known, is a form of Japanese exploitation film popular in the seventies and targeted at a youth and male audience through its overtly sleazy combination of nudity, soft-sex and violence. Originally these films were produced by independent studios but the majors, like Toei, soon realised and exploited the potential for profit in the explosive but relatively short-lived genre.

Girl Boss Guerilla is classic of its type. These girls talk dirty, steal, blackmail, sleep around and fight. One of them even seduces a priest who turns out to have and STD. Yes, it’s all high-brow stuff. The fights typically result in their flimsy tops being ripped off exposing their boobs. The film features a very cool soundtrack, some lewd laughs and is surprisingly well shot for what is ultimately a cash-in production. These films were never intended to be classics but this definitely deserves the label of cult.


7. Confessions (2010)

Confessions (2010)

Revenge has become one of the most exhausted themes with contemporary Asian cinema and yet, in Confessions, Tetsuya Nakashima manages to deliver something fresh and compelling. A high school teacher , Moriguchi, seeks revenge on the students responsible for the death of her daughter and sets about it clinically and coldly. What she discovers is that cruelty and despair is at the heart of even the most innocent of lives.

The film looks gorgeous, like the director’s earlier Memories of Matsuko, and uses composition and light to wonderful effect and slow motion to emphasis pivotal scenes and evoke beauty even within such a darkly thematic film. This helps raise the film above its exploitation-revenge picture roots.

The film is unrelentingly dark and yet never quite crosses over into the sort of visceral territory of films such as Oldboy. It is more psychological and depicts the mental anguish and breakdowns of characters with blood used sparingly and effectively. Once again, the victims here are school children (there is a pattern emerging) but as a spectator you feel little sympathy once you find out what they have done.


8. The Wind Rises (2013)

the wind rises

Who would have thought that an animated film directed by the revered filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki would be provoking responses such as “morally repugnant” from mainstream publications? The film tells the story of Jiro Horikoshi, a man who designed Japanese fighter planes.

It is ultimately a film about a man with a dream who wants to create something beautiful. The problem is, these are the planes that bombed and killed American’s during World War 2 and there is no admission of this in the film or any sense of moral responsibility for the shared atrocities. It was a risky move to tackle a war-related theme and story and to choose to over-look the consequences of the war itself.

That said, the film is lovely to look at and beautifully made with a dream-like quality. The earthquake sequence in particular is fantastically rendered and the characters are vividly drawn and full of emotion. The film is about the realization of a dream and it is a love story but the wider implications are hard to ignore. If this is to be Miyazaki’s last feature then it is certainly a contentious and remarkable one.


9. Lesson of Evil (2011)

Lesson of Evil (2011)

Maverick director Takashi Miike is no stranger to controversy and Lesson of Evil continues a long trend within his diverse body of films for blending black humour, stylised and wacky visuals and extreme violence. A handsome school teacher with a dark secret, Tetsuro, becomes a popular figure amongst the students until his murderous impulses resurface and his respectable facade starts to unravel.

Miike Takashi made Ichi The Killer, Audition and Visitor Q, amongst others, so there is nothing surprising here. What is different about Lesson of Evil is the depiction of sustained violence against school children. The film builds slowly with a malevolent undertone. The ravens that perch outside Tetsuro’s home seem to be waiting for him to reveal his true nature and they do indeed feature as symbols.

Tetsuro starts having sex with a student and blackmails another teacher having a homosexual relationship with a student. He is utterly manipulative and perfectly happy to kill to cover his tracks and identity. The final third of the film is where the tone changes and the spectator is presented with a prolonged climatic massacre in which Miike shows dozens of students relentlessly mown down by a rampant, rain-coat wearing Tetsuro with a shotgun which, in his twisted mind, is a burned human limb with an eyeball.


10. Strange Circus (2005)

Strange Circus

You would be hard pushed to find a film more provocative and disturbing than Shion Sono’s Strange Circus. The film is ostensibly about how childhood trauma and sexual abuse moulds an individual and dictates their personality and behaviour in the most extreme way.

A wheel-chair bound writer of erotic fiction (Mitsuko) writes a novel about childhood trauma and her assistant sets out to uncover the truth which is weirder and worse than she could have possibly imagined. As a twelve-year old we witness Mitsuko being forced inside a cello case and watching through a hole as her monstrous father has sex with her mother. Later, mother and daughter swap places although Matsuko imagines herself to be her mother (probably to get round the censors).

Incredibly, the mother is actually jealous of this incestuous relationship and Mitsuko’s life becomes a living hell. The film has a very striking aesthetic which is carnivalesque and surreal. The colour red is used vividly. The spectator is never sure what is fiction and what actually happened. Needless to say that the revelation at the ending is suitably shocking. This is a film that stays in the memory for quite some time.