For better or worse, Japan has gained a reputation for pumping out “weird” cinema. For a country that has produced filmmakers like Yasujirô Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi, it’s an unfair label. However, Japan’s difficult history and relative isolation from the rest of the world has certainly led to a unique and varied crop of filmmakers throughout its decades of film production. From kaijū cinema to slapstick comedy, each genre has produced particularly eccentric efforts.
With so many films not making the trip outside Japan or being lost in the sea of Yakuza gore and Godzilla sequels, it’s not surprising that many wonderful and strange films have found themselves forgotten or ignored.
The films below have little in common thematically. They are from different decades. They are in different genres — sometimes they aren’t even in a specific definable genre. Some are directed by very recognisable names, others aren’t.
They have three things in common: they are mostly forgotten or rarely seen, they are exceptionally weird, and they are worth your time.
12. School in the Crosshairs (a.k.a. The Aimed School) (1981)
Nobuhiko Ôbayashi is responsible for what could perhaps be considered the definitive “weird” Japanese film: Hausu. Hausu is an incredible achievement—an all-out visual and aural assault—but Ôbayashi’s back catalogue has more to offer than paintings of Persian cats spewing out blood.
Featuring similarly cartoonish visuals, but a more conventional narrative, School in the Crosshairs is a deliriously wild, high school action-drama. Its hero, a girl (Hiroko Yakushimaru) with super powers, must battle against a new, similarly powered student (Masami Hasegawa), who is attempting to turn their high school into a fascist dictatorship.
While the plot is not all that different from a slew of mainstream manga and anime series, Ôbayashi’s stylistic execution is fantastically mad. Like Hausu, he douses the film with dollops of colour, frantic animation, pulsating lights, and rear projection effects. It is not nearly as relentless as Hausu (what is?), but it’s still an experience that only Ôbayashi could create.
11. Daigoro vs. Goliath (1971)
Godzilla vs. Hedorah should have been the strangest kaijū film of 1971, but it had Daigoro vs. Goliath with which to contend. Daigoro vs. Goliath is not merely the strangest kaijū film of 1971; it may well be the strangest kaijū film in existence. It holds the honour of being the only kaijū film to end with its titular giant monster successfully using an oversized outdoor toilet. Toilet training is an important aspect of this film, taking precedence over giant monsters punching each other.
Produced by Tsuburaya Productions, the production company behind the original Ultraman series, Daigoro vs. Goliath was originally supposed to be a Godzilla film. Somewhere down the line, it morphed into a bizarre mess of a film about an orphaned baby kaijū who is a bane on the Japanese economy. Featuring enormously silly fights, goofball side characters, and a monster that looks like an overgrown hippopotamus, Daigoro vs. Goliath is a must-see oddity for fans of the genre.
10. Shangri-La (2002)
With over eighty films to his name, it’s not surprising that some of Takashi Miike’s past efforts have been lost in the ether. Known primarily for shockingly sick, but brilliant films, Miike’s oeuvre extends far beyond blood and guts. Made during his most productive and artistically successful period, Shangri-La is one of the best examples of a gentler, but still odd Miike.
With an anti-conformist and anti-salaryman lifestyle plot, Shangri-La focuses on a group of altruistic homeless men and women who help a suicidal man with his money troubles. A wild looking Shô Aikawa who dons a ludicrous wig and sunglasses leads them in their mission.
Shangri-La at first seems hopelessly farcical, but its excellent cast and strange unexpected plot turns assist it in becoming a genuinely heart-warming and a borderline tearjerker. Aikawa manages to overcome the limitations of his absurd costume and gives perhaps the best performance he has ever given Miike. This is not the best film Miike made in the early 2000s (it has about twenty films which with to contend), but it is an enjoyably mad little film, which proves his diversity.
9. Jigoku (a.k.a. Japanese Hell) (1999)
Teruo Ishii is something of an exploitation movie god, earning the name “King of Cult” in his native Japan. While known mostly for sleazy classics like Horrors of Malformed Men, Female Yakuza Tale, and Shogun’s Joys of Torture, the late great Ishii has over ninety directorial credits to his name and a career that spanned four decades.
It was towards the end of his career, that he directed one of the strangest films in his back catalogue: the sometimes maligned and mostly ignored Jigoku, known in the West as Japanese Hell. Jigoku is not to be confused with the 1960 classic. Although it is often said to be a remake, it has very little to do with it outside of its title and cinematic representations of hell.
Ishii’s film centres on Rika (Kinako Satô), a seemingly unremarkable girl who is taken to hell for the grand tour. Ishii’s film takes a comical and ludicrous approach to its visions of hell, reminiscent of a Coffin Joe film. Hell looks like a highly budgeted high school play. The scenes of tortures are hysterical as limbs fly through the air, and overbearing sound effects boom over the score (the score appears to be stolen from Hellraiser, by the way).
After a brief look around hell, Rika is forced to watch a vision of her own past. Here the film takes a bizarre turn. It drops the hell routine and becomes a rather accurate retelling of Aum Shinrikyo — the cult responsible for the horrific sarin gas attacks in Tokyo and Nagano in the 90s.
After Rika’s lengthy story wraps up, we return jarringly to hell for more outrageous and glitzy torture scenes and a very funny cameo from the legendary Tetsurô Tanba. The mix of surreal slapstick violence and real life tragedy is confusing and somewhat offensive, but it’s also oddly enthralling.
8. Executive Koala (2005)
With titles like Calamari Wrestler and Crab Goalkeeper in his resume, it’s clear that director Minoru Kawasaki has little self-control in his absurdist leanings. Even his earlier adult video efforts, like Super Erotic Business Man, are completely ridiculous. Still, beneath the silly exterior of Kawasaki’s work, there’s something more at play. Like many Japanese satirists, he likes to poke fun at the “salaryman.” This is most clearly seen in the very funny Executive Koala.
Executive Koala centres on Tamura. Tamura is an average businessman. He works hard. He has a girlfriend. He dresses well. He’s also a koala. Oh, and his boss is a rabbit. What begins as a gentle comedy soon becomes a murder mystery as Tamura is accused of killing his girlfriend, Yoko.
Executive Koala is not particularly well made, and its performances are excruciatingly loud, but Kawasaki’s enthusiasm is infectious. The joy of seeing a gigantic koala businessman never wears off. Executive Koala is worth a viewing for the joyous absurdity of its concept.
7. The Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch (1968)
Kazuo Umezz is more than just a manga writer and artist. He is a larger than life character who seems to have slowly morphed from a human being into a character from one of his mangas. At seventy-eight, he still dresses in his signature red and white striped top and even has a house with a paint job to match.
Umezz is responsible for some of Japan’s best horror comics, but shockingly, there are hardly any worthwhile cinematic adaptations of his work. Thankfully, there will always be The Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch, a film that perfectly captures the pure unadulterated lunacy of an Umezz comic.
The Snake Girl follows a young girl (Yachie Matsui) who is reunited with her real family after spending many years in an orphanage. All seems to go well, until she meets her sister (played by a fabulously well cast and incredibly creepy Mayumi Takahashi), who happens to be part-snake.
Throw in a meddling witch who appears halfway through the film, a vat of acid, and a series of mind-melting dream sequences, and the result is a film that is perfectly in tune with Umezz’s sensibilities. There is a childlike madness to The Snake Girl as it tumbles from family friendly horror to gruesome and terrifying scenes of death. This is the sort of oddball horror you could only find in 1960s Japan.