Japanese cinema has a reputation for embracing the baffling and bizarre so choosing the Top 10 mind-scramblers was no easy task. The criteria* here demand more than just a few WTF moments and head-scratcher plotlines. These are the films that send your mind careening out of control, down the road to madness. Park your rational brain outside as you roll along with some of the most mind-bending films Japanese cinema has to offer.
I’ve seen horror films where people are killed by many things – monsters, depression, disease, or storms – but never an entire town destroyed by obsession with a geometric shape. In Japanese, Uzumaki means spiral and for the unlucky village of Kurozu, spirals possess the inhabitants, one by one. Their “infection” results in some pretty spectacular death scenes including that of a girl whose hair grows into larger and larger spirals that eventually overcome her and a boy who deliberately twists his body until it spirals around itself. The atypical plot and seriously bizarre visuals combine to make Uzumaki possibly the single most creative horror movie around.
Imagine the diabolical havoc you could wreak on your enemies if you could control their subconscious minds through dreams. In Paprika, dreams and reality collide when an evil-minded thief steals the DC Mini, a machine that does just that. Using her avatar PAPRIKA, inventor Dr. Atsuko Chiba travels through a patient’s dreamscape as a psychoanalyst. Now she must go into the victim’s dreams to derail potential harm while seeking answers to the thief’s identity. Insanely colorful dream sequences turn hallucinatory as heads explode into butterflies, a girl inhales a smoke monster then instantly grows into a woman, and that’s just for starters. Satoshi Kon keeps this kind of thing going for the entire feature. A carnivalesque dream parade winds its way through Tokyo, becoming intensely detailed as more and more dreams are added to it. Backed by a Vocaloid soundtrack that pumps up the hyper-surreal feeling, the parade gives you the suffocating sense of not being able to wake from a really annoying nightmare. Loaded with symbolism, Paprika confounds the mind as it rewards the eyes with scene after scene of fantastic imagery.
Half existentialist art film, half lowbrow comedy, Symbol is best approached with a Zen, let-it-happen attitude. The film’s two story lines converge into a finale that ends with a mind-explosion of Kubrickian proportions. In the first, Japanese comedian Matsumoto, dressed in polka dot pajamas, wakes up in a white room without windows or doors, and no explanation for how he got there, why, or how to leave. On the wall tiny, musical penises deliver “useful” objects when their balls are tickled. They sometimes turn into giggling cherubs that fly around, and then quickly melt back into the wall. Matsumoto realizes they can deliver anything he needs including a way out, but figuring out the logic of musical penises is frustrating indeed. Over in Mexico, a luchador named Escargot Man calmly awaits his next wrestling match. How these plotlines relate to each other is the point at issue as the film heads towards a final scene that will have you running off to film school to write that thesis.
When compiling this Top Ten, I initially rejected all gore films simply because they represent a special category of weirdness that justifies its own list. But after re-watching Tokyo Gore Police, I had to relent and add it. Nishamura’s vision of Tokyo in the near future is a demented place where cute, trendy girls sell wrist-cutting devices on TV and genetically enhanced super-criminals grow weapons from out of their wounds. The Tokyo Police Corporation is created to fight these so-called “Engineers.” This highly corrupt, privatized force wields its seemingly unlimited power to take down anyone suspected of being an Engineer. Their top hunter Ruka (played by Audition’s Eihi Shiina,) is sent out to take down the worst offenders. Blood sprays hose-like from severed body parts in every fight scene, disemboweled guts, chunks of brains and limbs cover the floors in a gory, red carpet.
So far, Tokyo Gore Police seems a typical cyber-gore film with an interesting plot but it is the nightmarishly bizarre, pinky violent tone of TPG that made the list. Topping the lineup of exotic imagery are the “sex-pet” Engineer dressed in S&M attire, with swords sprouting from his dismembered forearms and lower legs, a vagina dentata, mermaid creature whose lower half is a gaping jaw filled with teeth, and a woman in the sex club freak show who has been flattened and stretched like a painting on canvas. List criteria satisfied.
In Gozu, yakuza hitman Minami receives an order to kill his beloved senior partner whose recent strange behavior has made him a liability to the boss. He calls in to report the deed done but within the few seconds it takes to make the call, the corpse has vanished. So begins the journey of a highly confused gangster through a suburban hell populated by nothing but weirdoes. As the film goes on, Minami’s experiences become homo-erotically tinged manifestations of his confusion and guilt, culminating in a slimy face lick by a goat-headed man. This ball of lunacy rolls slowly at first, then takes off gathering speed until it crashes abruptly into the film’s ending with a big bang of an explosion in your head, propelling particles of what’s left of your brain all over your living room.
Anyone who has ever listened to a child’s outrageous explanations of their fantasies will recognize the same deliriously abstract storytelling qualities in Hausu. The film was in fact, inspired by the dreams of director Nobuhiko Obayashi’s eleven-year-old daughter. In typical gothic style, the plot involves a girl who visits the creepy home of an eccentric aunt with several of her friends. Murder and mayhem quickly ensue but the killer is the house itself. Hausu, made in 1977 uses campy analog effects that are simultaneously brilliant, psycho, and very, very funny. Only released in the US in 2009, Hausu has quickly become a classic in B horror cult cinema right alongside anything by done Dario Argento; the death scenes by piano and lampshade are legend now. Visually flamboyant throughout, the film’s garishly colored objects and backgrounds add to the insanity of this fun trip into the craziest haunted house ever, where “good furniture goes bad.“
As the creator of Tatami Galaxy and co-creator of Cat Soup, Masaaki Yuasa has a body of work that could have populated half of this list. Mind Game, his 2004 debut, has been compared to everything from trippy standards like Fantasia and Yellow Submarine to the more recent Waking Life. With its frequent changes in animation style, morphing imagery and moments of live action, Mind Game is an anime oddity that defies any attempts to categorize or explain it. It is the story of Nishi, a timid loser who suffers a cowardly death but is given a second chance to get it right after God lets him escape from heaven. On his journey toward redemption, Nishi and his two female companions escape from a killer yakuza in an outrageous, high speed car chase that ends when they drive straight into the mouth of a whale. Inside its belly they meet up with an old man whose “home” is equipped with things the whale has swallowed, mainly fish and sex toys. The acid trip kicks in hard now with some psychedelic animation sequences leading up to the frenetic escape from the whale. The last 10 minutes of the film is an animation tour-de-force that fills the screen with shapes, cars, plants, noise, buildings, people, color, movement, speed, quiet, death – life.
Of all the films that made the list, Visitor Q is the most provocative. Nearly impossible to review, explain, or categorize, its offensive subject matter pulls such strong reactions from viewers that recommending the film becomes problematic to say the least. Defying all genres, Visitor Q is at once the most profoundly disgusting movie you’ll ever see, a wickedly funny, black comedy, a cinematic experiment that tests the limits of its audience, a surrealistically told art film loaded with bizarre imagery, and a social commentary on the state of the family.
A mysterious stranger comes to stay with a family that is messed up beyond belief. Incest, drug addiction, prostitution, and domestic violence are all in a day at the Yamazaki house. Somehow the Visitor’s presence empowers them to find their bliss and come together as a family again. Sweet. Except the way to unification includes multiple murders, necrophilia in a greenhouse, and copious amounts of bodily fluids. I don’t want to spoil the fun by giving things away but here is an image to leave you with. Mama Yamazaki is standing in the center of the kitchen groaning with pleasure as she kneads her lactating nipples. Close by, the Visitor sits grinning serenely under an umbrella as the milk rains over him, flooding the room.
Most people can define a pivotal event that divides their lives into everything that came before and all that comes after. I was just another undergrad in a video store looking for something different when I found the movie that changed everything. Tetsuo: The Iron Man was my gateway drug, an introduction to the weirdly wonderful world of contemporary Japanese cinema that would come to obsess every bit of my free time from that point on.
There really isn’t much of a plot – a man’s body begins sprouting metal parts that eventually transform him into a machine. Shot in black and white using technology that was state of the art in 1932, Tetsuo is only about an hour long. Yet in that hour I was blasted with a frenetic montage of psychosexual insanity delivered in an ever accelerating, stop motion style powered by a grating industrial soundtrack. It’s a bumpy ride watching this film. With the hyper-hallucinatory, non-linear way the story is presented, Iron Man jerks along at break-neck speed crushing everything in its path. I had never seen its like. The graphic metamorphosis from man to machine is unbelievably painful and violent as Tetsuo the man, is ripped from his humanity. This film left me with an undeniable urge to wash its residue from me. At its conclusion, the film had stripped my brain of every conceivable thought and left me with an undeniable urge to wash myself of its residue. You never forget your first time.
You may or may not agree with the preceding list, but anyone who has seen Funky Forest: The First Contact will not argue with it receiving the number one spot. This bewildering movie is actually a compilation of set pieces very loosely connected by recurring characters. You still won’t get what’s going on but it helps to know that much going in. Western critics see shades of Cronenberg, Lynch, Matthew Barney, and Monty Python in FFFC. If you need something to serve as a frame of reference, these will work, but all in all this is a very Japanese film, with comedic moments appealing to a very Japanese sense of humor. It’s best to forget about it and just have fun. The directors certainly did.
Katsuhito Ishii, Hajime Ishimine, and Shunichiro broke out all manner of random silliness when they collaborated on this film. Two men pull a miniature sushi chef from out of a giant anal sphincter in a box; a pink, animated woman dances on the beach before turning into a soccer ball; a cluster of man-headed fetuses hangs from the ceiling; a manzai comedy routine is performed to an audience made up of themselves; an incident occurs involving two boys, a parasitic alien, tentacles, and a rectum. It goes on like this for 2 1/2 hours. Oh, and there are musical aliens, lots of dancing, and people wearing furry suits…