6. Himiko (1974)
HImiko presents the story of a shaman queen of ancient Japan: Himiko, its titular character and a controversial figure in history, presented here as a sun goddess. One does not need to be familiar with Himiko’s multiple back-stories to enjoy this brutally underrated 1974 masterpiece. The story it presents is full of Shakespearean backstabbing, politics, religion, and love turned to violence.
Himiko is the religious figurehead of a powerful cult. Her rule is thrown into turmoil when she falls in love with her half-brother. Love is seen as an impossibility for a god, and her followers question her shamanistic abilities.
Harsh reds, blinding whites, Himiko’s colour palette is a thing of beauty. Director Masahiro Shinoda mixes genuine, hazy landscapes with meticulously crafted sets, which have little basis in reality. Elements of Butoh and Kabuki theatrics are woven into costumes to incredible effect. Himiko is not concerned with realism, dipping its toes into the surreal on occasion, but its world still manages to feel entirely complete and tangible.
This is more than just eye candy; Himiko is a sad demonstration of the cyclical nature of the world. Shinoda ends the film with a shocking symbolic reveal that is many years ahead of its time. Himiko is like nothing else and really deserves to be more widely seen.
5. Adventures of Electric Rod Boy (1987)
Tetsuo: The Iron Man gave Japanese cinema the shot in the arm it so desperately needed two and a half decades ago. In many ways, it has become the poster child for Japanese cinema—chaotic, cluttered madness spinning through reels of celluloid at a hundred miles per hour. It is well deserving of its reputation, but unfortunately, it has cast a shadow over director Shinya Tsukamoto’s career, which followed.
Tsukamoto was not a one-trick pony. He followed Tetsuo with a steady stream of excellent, highly personal independent films, including the masterful Tokyo Fist and the sombre A Snake in June. Even before Tetsuo, Tsukamoto had already given the world a brilliant preview of his unique brand of psychosis with Adventures of Electric Rod Boy.
Made the year after Phantom of Regular Size (the Tetsuo prototype), Adventures of Electric Rod Boy is an enormous step up in quality and hints at a blossoming genius. Running at an awkward fifty minutes, Adventures of Electric Rod Boy follows Hikari, a fairly typical victim of bullying if you discount the electric rod sticking out of his back. Hikari travels in time to a dark future where he fights a gang of vampires (one is played by Tsukamoto himself, another by Tetsuo star and J-punk legend, Tomorowo Taguchi).
This is perhaps Tsukamoto’s most gleefully childish film. Filled with blinding lighting effects, screaming dialogue, and tons of fog, Tsukamoto assaults his unsuspecting audience with an overload of visual and aural information.
With its colourful Super-8 photography, it is set apart from the stark black and white of Tetsuo, but it maintains the same energy that made its follow-up the hit that it was. Tsukamoto would make much better films in the proceeding decades, but it’s always fascinating to explore a director’s beginnings.
4. Funky Forest: The First Contact (2005)
Funky Forest: The First Contact is arguably a little too widely seen to be part of this list. Being comprised of sketches, segments of Funky Forest have found their way onto the internet and received countless views.
Nevertheless, sitting through Funky Forest in its two and a half hour entirety and seeing these choice moments in their proper context is an entirely different and rather dizzying experience. Funky Forest has its fair share of detractors who label it as weird-for-weirdness’s-sake. It is weird—very, very weird—but it also features stunning comic timing from both its performances and its editing.
While its short sketches can easily be watched on their own, Funky Forest intertwines its bizarre mini-stories. There are several hysterical recurring skits, which evolve throughout the running time. There’s “Guitar Brother,” which stars three brothers—played by megastar Tadanobu Asano, the prolific Susumu Terajima, and a hilariously out of place Andrew Alfieri—who are struggling to find love and attempt several different methods to impress girls.
It climaxes in a tragic “Singles Picnic.” Then there’s “Homeroom,” a series of sketches in which a teacher allows his students to madly speak their mind in front of the class. Best of all, is a series of sketches featuring three sales clerks practicing their storytelling skills at a hot spring. While these sketches may sound conventional, their presentation, ripe with inane dialogue and jump cuts, is anything but.
Amongst the (relativity) grounded comedy, the film’s trio of directors throw in bizarre science-fiction elements. Funky Forest is filled with gooey Naked Lunch-esque creatures, some who are used as musical instruments and others who are more sinister and find their ways into the bellybuttons and armpits of schoolgirls. Funky Forest would be almost unbearably insane if it weren’t for the fact that it is genuinely funny and intelligently put together.
3. Belladonna of Sadness (1973)
Anime is a fascinating and diverse art form, but sadly many of its most interesting and unique efforts don’t make it outside of Japan. Belladonna of Sadness is so far from any other anime produced that it seems strange to even label it as one. Belladonna is the third and final film in Mushi Production’s Animerama trilogy—a series of adult-orientated animated films.
It was made on the brink of their bankruptcy and saw the end of the company. Although the legendary Osamu Tezuka conceived the Animerama trilogy and directed the previous entries, he had already left Mushi Productions when work began on Belladonna.
Consisting of beautifully painted, still images with the occasional burst of manic animation, Belladonna begins where most romance films end. A beautiful woman, Jeanne, marries a handsome man, Jean. They are deeply in love, but their lives are thrown into turmoil on their wedding night, when the local baron rapes Jeanne as part of an accepted ritual deflowering. Jeanne, downtrodden and humiliated, seeks revenge with the help of a strange, phallic devil creature.
With its endless psychedelic imagery and a sexy, jazzy score from Masahiko Satō, Belladonna is certainly a product of its time but dazzling nonetheless. Freeze any moment of the film and you’d have a great album cover. The animation is minimal, but the artwork is sensuous. Tonally, it is all over the place. It’s sometimes even disturbing. The film’s sex scenes are filled with flashes of red and mad metaphors, rather than graphic imagery.
For one sequence, the restrained animation style is thrown aside, and in its place, an utterly out of control and jarring collage of images are regurgitated onto the screen. It’s like something you’d expect to see on MTV in the early ‘90s, only this was made two decades earlier.
Belladonna will infuriate some viewers with its lack of animation, its messy tone, and slow-paced storytelling, but there is no denying its artistry and beauty, nor the fact that there are no other Japanese animated film like this.
2. Turtles Are Surprisingly Fast Swimmers (2005)
Satoshi Miki is not the most consistent of directors, but his early effort, Turtles Are Surprisingly Fast Swimmers, is most certainly a worthwhile little oddity.
A comedy centring on a bored housewife, Suzume (Juri Ueno), who is left to babysit a turtle while her husband is indefinitely overseas, Turtles quickly spirals into slapstick weirdness when Suzume answers an advertisement to join a spy agency. Enter husband and wife spy duo, Shizuo (Ryô Iwamatsu) and Etsuko (Eri Fuse), two “sleeper” spies who must lead a boring normal life until they are called into action.
On paper, Turtles reads like an innocently quirky comedy caper, and, for the most part, it is. Still, it is not without an enormous dollop of off-the-wall humour unique to Japan. Miki takes several unexpected comedic tangents—a “hag” who feeds ants in the park; an inexplicable scene where two middle-aged men play with a bowl of slimy lubricant; and a toilet so utterly clogged, it shocks a hardened plumber to his core.
Turtles is most definitely not a film for everyone. Some (most) will find it infuriatingly inane; a few will find themselves in uncontrollable hysterics.
1. Dogra Magra (1988)
There are few Japanese directors as interesting as Toshio Matsumoto. Matsumoto is most famous for directing Funeral Parade of Roses.
A stylistic reference point to Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, Funeral Parade of Roses is pure experimental joy as it mashes together pseudo-documentary footage, drug-hazed cinematography, and violence, which brings to mind the sexploitation trash of Michael and Roberta Findlay. Like the aforementioned Tsukamoto and Ôbayashi, Matsumoto is a director with a single film looming over his entire career, despite having much more to offer.
Dogra Magra is Matsumoto’s last film. The shock value of Funeral Parade of Roses is long since forgotten. In place of the ballsy presentation of gay culture and obnoxious sped-up footage is a strange, slow-paced mystery. A young man, Ichiro (Yôji Matsuda), wakes up in an asylum. He has forgotten everything.
Two doctors—the clownish, but sinister Masaki (Shijaku Katsura) and the seemingly kind-hearted Wakabayashi (Hideo Murota)—appear to be helping Ichiro regain his memories. It is not long before darker intentions bubble to the surface, and we catch glimpses of violent crimes that may or may not have been committed by Ichiro. Nothing we see can be defined as the ultimate truth. The plot twists and tangles itself until nothing appears real.
Matsumoto directs Dogra Magra with a steady hand. Colours are important with unpleasant greens washing out the scenes at the asylum and reds bathing the film’s more fantastical moments. This is a film that requires patience. Matsumoto keeps the pace slow. Its story can become frustrating in the way that the truth is forever concealed, but that is Matsumoto’s point. Ichiro jumps around within scenes in space and time.
Some moments are represented in a non-naturalistic theatrical manner; at one point even a puppet takes the place of the leading actor. There is no method to separate dream from fact. Matsumoto’s careful pacing allows the film’s finale to be a true shock as the film explodes with colour and brutality. Dogra Magra is most certainly a powerful and sadly overlooked effort from Matsumoto.
Author Bio: Dave Jackson is a filmmaker and writer based in Melbourne, Australia. He is the main contributor and editor for exploitation movie blog, Mondo Exploito. He is currently directing his first feature film.