Skull Full of Kisses by Michael West: A Short Story Stradivarius

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Skull Full of Kisses is a ten story collection of Michael West’s short fiction. I can tell you know, that if you go to read this collection, you will find no two stories alike. Each and every one is different, unique and damned scary.

There is a short story in there for everyone.

Interested in Japanese culture? Fascinated by the Yakuza and Japanese Demons? Well Jiki will be right up your alley or basement, in this case.

West gives us glimpses of the horrific haven of Harmony, Indiana and a look at the Lovecraftian village of Colonial Bay; where you definitely don’t want to ask the question – What’s a nice girl like you, doing in a place like this?

There’s a great little place that’s just out of reach in the desert unless you take Einstein’s Slingshot; a one-way ride into the realm of nightmares and things that like human flesh.

If you ever dreamed of being an astronaut, you’ll want to avoid the story To Know How To See, which feels like a Twilight Zone episode with tinges of The Outer Limits.

While I’d love to set here and give little “teasing” clues about what is in the book and the themes of each story, I won’t.

What I will do is urge you to read these…quickly…while with friends…and in the daylight. If you attempt to read these alone, slowly, or at night, you might just have bad dreams. Or more correctly nightmares.

When Michael West tells a scary storynothing can be considered safe. Not even your loving girlfriend who never wants to let you go (For Her).

At the beginning of this post, I said that all the stories were scary. I will hold my hand up and  admit that this is a lie. I will not divulge the title of this particular tale. I’ll let you stumble upon as I did, by reading this collection. It is, I think, my favourite and no, it is not scary in the traditional sense, but is it very good.

West has a little “afterward” in his collection where he talks about what gave him the idea for each story and when it was originally published. It is a fascinating look into the mind of a horror writer. He warns about not reading this section before you read the stories as there could be spoilers hidden there.

I would listen to him. If you skip to the back, he might find out. And, I don’t know, you could wind up in one of his stories.

Now where I might find that entertaining (there’s nothing worse than one of those people who jump to the back of the book) if you are one of those people, I cannot think of a better punishment. Because as much as I love being scared by West’s scary denizens in his stories, I’d hate to have to deal with them.

Another great addition to the Michael West collection I already own and I will now wait (not so) patiently for his next offering of terror.

A real 5 out of 5 for creative and non-repetitive horror. If this collection was a musical instrument, it would be the Stradivarius of its peers; playing with a deeper and more resonant sound than other stories in the genre.

Read it.

Author Michael West and a fan.
Author Michael West and a fan.

Tokyo Hostess by Clare Campbell: Deviant Death

When I picked this book up at my local Library, I did so because the title rang a bell. Not the Tokyo Hostess part alone  but the prefacing statement above the title: The Shocking True Story… bit. It rang a bell because it was not too long ago that a young English girl who had gone to Japan as an English teacher had been discovered murdered in a tub of sand on an apartment balcony. *In fact it was March 2007* When the news reported this event they mentioned that this was not the first time that this had happened. They also mentioned a name, Lucie Blackman in connection with this “current” event.

Lucie Blackman (September 1, 1978 – July 1, 2000)

This also sparked a bit of recognition. Not because of her disappearance and death, but because of the controversy of her father taking money from her killer; one Joji Obara, a rich Korean immigrant son whose family fortune allowed him to offer huge sums of money to his victims and their families.

Intrigued, I checked the book out and brought it home.

Tokyo Hostess is Clare Campbell’s coverage not only of the events leading up to the deaths of Carita Ridgway and Lucie Blackman but it also contains an in-depth look at the “hostess” trade in Japan and its role in replacing the geisha in modern times but with much more of a risk.

Carita Ridgway murdered in 1992.

The book looks at the promises made by the Hostess trade to prospective employees and how they emphasise how safe it is and how easy it is. They repeatedly assure the young gaijin (non-Japanese) women that sex is not part of the job. They are not prostitutes. Some Hostess’s in the past have had sex with their clients, but, it is a money losing proposition.

The whole Hostess mythos works on the Japanese male’s sense of harmless fantasy. The men (mostly salary workers and mostly married) will come into a Hostess club for the female company of a pretty girl who waits on him exclusively. Pouring his drinks; lighting his cigarettes; laughing at his jokes and appearing to hang on his every word, the hostess gives the promise of this becoming a love affair. But it is a love affair that cannot happen, because once reality hits (in the form of sex) the fantasy is over and the male will move on to another hostess at another club.

But on the fantasy side of this little “harmless” arrangement, the men are all fixated on gaijin women; the curvier the better.

Clare Campbell takes us into the sordid underbelly of Japan’s “entertainment” districts. She shows us the hierarchy of the Hostess trade and its first cousin the sex trade. She interviews “retired” and current hostesses to find out how the whole thing works and what the rules are.

She also tells Lucie and Carita’s stories and the events that led to their deaths. She spoke to the families; the survivors of the horrible phone call, the inept police enquiry and the subsequent trial and publicity. She has also documented the Japanese legal authority’s xenophobic attitude towards gaijin crime (unless it is a gaijin who has done something to a Japanese citizen) and how political pressure was needed to resolve the problems of moving the case forward.

Carita Ridgway; Joji Obara; Lucie Blackman

The fact that Joji Obara had been abducting and raping girls for years (not just gaijin) was well documented by the thousands of videos he’d made and had stored at his various homes. This is the only area that the book has not been able to go into any depth. Obara is still a mystery figure. He was the Japanese born son of Korean immigrants who were fabulously wealthy. A spoiled but popular young man who apparently could not have sex “normally” with a body that could move or feel anything; a fact that caused his weird sexual fantasies to spiral out of control. Aided by his money, he then began his ‘Play’ as he called it, only getting caught when he killed Lucie Blackman.

This book is an interesting read made more so because it gives the reader an insight into the Japanese social culture and their conception of foreign (gaijin) visitors to their shores. It also takes a look at the sexual mores of the country and how “harmless” fantasy is accepted as an everyday staple of life. I would recommend reading this book if you want to see how the judicial system works in Japan on a sophomoric level; if you want something more in-depth you’ll have to look elsewhere.

But Clare Campbell has done an excellent job of showing how “international” crime works and affects different people’s lives and just how difficult it can be to find justice in a country that is not your own.

Author Clare Campbell.

Suicide Club/Suicide Circle (2001): Subtle Messages?

Suicide club (or Suicide Circle as it was known in Japan) was directed and written by Shion Sono and released in 2001. It stars Ryo Ishibashi (Audition, Brother, The Grudge) as a detective trying to find out the common thread between a wave of suicides that is sweeping across Japan. With leads provided by a female hacker called “the Bat” the police try to track down who is responsible for all the deaths.

The film opened with a large amount of notoriety and controversy due to its subject and the amount of gore depicted on-screen. It quickly became a cult favourite and spawned a sequel called Noriko’s Dinner Table which shows events prior to and after the first film. The film takes place over a six-day period starting on May 27th.

The film starts in the Shinjuku train station at platform 8. Being in the Japan the platforms are packed with people. The camera focuses on a large group of school girls all talking animatedly and entering the platform via the stairs. The girls are wearing a variety of school uniforms that indicates they are not all from the same school.

As the Express train’s approach is announced on the loud speakers on the platform, the girls stop talking and laughing and all line up on the edge of the platform. Watching the Express train as it pulls up to the station the girls link hands and chant, “A-one, and a- two, and a three!” On three they all jump en masse in front of the speeding train.

A Lawrence Welk count down… A one and a two…

In true Takashi Miike style there are gallons of blood and body parts a plenty. The train and the waiting passengers are covered in blood and it runs across the platform in a small wave. When I first saw that scene I felt that Sono was paying a sort of homage to Takashi Miike who is well-known for his over-abundant use of blood and gore in his films.

This opening scene still shocks, even though I’ve seen the film at least three times now. It is one helluva opening to a film that both mesmerises you and continually shocks you as the movie plays out.

The next suicide takes place in a quiet hospital where two young nurses are working late. After they both kill themselves, the security guard finds a white satchel with a “roll” of human skin that has been stitched together. Oddly enough the exact same thing was found at the train station. The police have found their first thread.

Running through the entire film is the popularity of songs and music videos by a group of pre-teen (12 and a half years-old according to the detectives daughter) girls who promiscuously dance and sing about love and (it seems) death. When Detective Kuroda (Ishibashi) comes home, he calls a family meeting in the dining room. As his pre-teen son and daughter come into the room, his daughter turns on the television and the pre-teen music group instantly take the point of focus with the two kids.

Ryo Ishibashi as Detective Kuroda

The group is called Dessert (although throughout the film the name changes repeatedly to Dessart and Desert, part of the problem when dealing with an Independent film company) and the group’s biggest hit at the start of the film is called Mail me. A song about love via the internet with the lyric, “If you don’t mail me, I’ll just die.”

As the film progresses, the group’s hit song changes to Jigsaw Puzzle where the girls sing that “their piece doesn’t fit anyone.” Erotic suggestion aside, the song points out that if they cannot find someone to “fit” their piece, they’ll have to go away forever.

Of course the viewer is immediately suspicious (at least this viewer was) of this little Lolita group (in the westernized sense versus the eastern sense where Lolita’s dress in pinafores and ruffles as a sort of role play) and we begin to wonder if their songs and videos are transmitting subliminal messages telling kids to kill themselves.

Pop group Dessert or Desert or Dessart…adolescent death?

The body count begins to escalate. There are a few more “group” suicides but there are also single suicides. Like the mother who chops her fingers off while cutting what looks like a bread roll. Or the chap who throws himself off a building only to hit his girlfriend accidently, injuring her before he expires on the pavement. Of course this incident becomes a plot point that will crop up later.

While the computer hacker, the Bat, is trying to find out more information about who is behind the suicides, she and her sister are taken forcefully by a group of young men who make her to tell the police that she has been kidnapped by the “Suicide Club.” The Bat was the person who discovered a website that appeared to predict how many suicides were going to occur. White dots were girls and red dots were boys. When the 54 girls threw themselves under the train at the beginning of the film, there were 54 white dots. This was the information that she passed on at the beginning of the film.

The Bat, whose real name is Kiyoko (Yôko Kamon) and her sister are taken to what appears to be a small bowling alley that is full of live things tied up in sheets. The sheets are all moving and the smaller ones are making noises like animals in distress. Kiyoko and sis meet Genesis (J-pop performer Rolly) who looks like a cross between a Glam-rocker and a visual Kei performer. He informs the girls that this is his house of pleasure and kills a couple of the smaller covered objects by stamping on them.

He then serenades the girls with a song about “death shining” and has one of his minions rape and kill a girl in another sheet. Genesis wants to be famous and wants to take the credit for motivating all the suicides in Japan. After allowing Kiyoko to start emailing the police about where she actually is, Genesis knocks her away from the keyboard so he can tell the police himself where he is.

Rolly as Genesis…Gackt as Gary Glitter?

The police arrest Genesis, but find that he is not the perpetrator behind the suicides. Detective Kuroda loses the plot and then everything else. The film ends quite ambiguously and does not answer any real questions about what has been going on.

Watching the film for the third time tonight, I could not decide if Sono was inferring that the internet was dangerous to our children or if idolizing pre-teen girl bands was bad for you.

Considering the Japanese’s predilection of fancying the pants (literally) off of school girls it doesn’t seem too far-fetched an idea. Take into account that the internet was just starting to come into its own in 2001, it also makes sense that the people in charge would distrust its wide open access; especially now that the US government alone is pushing for world-wide internet control equal to that of suppressed countries like China and Iraq.

My final analysis, if it can be called that, is that Sono wanted to show how dehumanized people have become. Whether it is through increased use of the internet or the worship of “sexualized” urchins who writhe suggestively and wink knowingly while singing about love and ending it all, Sono appears to be saying that we need to not only wake up and smell the coffee, but, we need to get in touch with ourselves as well.

Not to mention the sub-message about craving fame so much that you perform inhuman acts to attain it. Is this yet another form of de-humanization? Is Sono also warning us of the deadly lure of fame? It could well be, Suicide Club seems full of messages both subtle and not so subtle and this is above the actual message the the film seems to be relating to its characters, or the “plot message.”

Where the plot’s message appears to be that death will get you back in touch with everything and that  it is only through this finality that you are able to really live. With my interest piqued even more after a third viewing, I have put the sequel, Noriko’s Dinner Table on my wish list; just to see if it adds anything to the mix that might clarify the film’s overall message, or messages.

A definite 5 star film that should not be missed and a perfect example of just how good independent J-horror can be, check it out. Just for the record, I watched the “uncut” version which has quite a bit of added gore.

Both prequel and sequel…

Battle Royale by Koushun Takami: Still Crazy After all These Years

Paperback version of the book.

Originally published in 1999 amid a flurry of controversy that would rise to a cacophony when a film one year later was adapted from the novel, Battle Royale still packs one hell of a punch. The story of a group of Junior High School students who are made to kill each other off until only one remains, still shocks and astounds 13 years after its first appearance in bookstores and libraries across the world.

After reading the book and watching the film of The Hunger Games written by Suzanne Collins, I still find it hard to believe that she never heard of either the original story or film (made by the iconic Japanese director Kinji Fukasaku). I am sure that she is telling the truth as there are enough instances of the two stories (although Collins has spread the Hunger Games stories over three separate books) being vastly different. There are, however quite a few circumstances where the two stories share a lot of things; the contestants being chosen by “lottery” or the packs that each contestant picks up before the battle commences are just two such instantances.

Of course both books are set in “the future” Hunger Games in a post apocalyptic America and Battle Royale in a future Japan that has outstripped America as a world power through the appointment of a dictator and an economy that has reduced the USA to third world country status. Japan’s isolationism has allowed them to indulge in practises that would be frowned upon by other countries.

It is part of this isolated countries culture that random Junior High School classes are picked (by computer) and “kidnapped” by authorities. These 14 and 15-year-old children are then transported to a secret location where they will be armed (some better than others) and set out to kill each other off.

The whole exercise is to show just how equal everyone is in this new Japan. No one is exempt. But like every government that is part of a dictatorship, it is corrupt and unfair, despite the propaganda that tells the masses otherwise. We meet the main players in the Battle and are given enough information that we not only bond with some of the kids, but we can see why the other children act the way they do.

Shuya Nanahara and Noriko Nakagawa are the boy and girl who wind up together because Shuya’s best friend (who dies before the games even start) had a crush on Noriko and she, in turn, has a crush on Shuya; along with most of the girls in their class.

Shuya is an orphan who loves the state banned American Rock and Roll and has learned to play the electric guitar. He is good at sports and is an all round “good egg.” If anything, he is a bit too good. Noriko and Shuya team up with the older transfer student Shogo Kawada (who has actually played and won a previous Battle Royale). Together they form an alliance to stay alive while facing the murderous psychopath Kazuo Kiriyama and his female counterpart Mitsuko Souma and the other children who are fighting to stay alive till the end of the three day game.

The book is much more political in nature than Collins’ Hunger Games (although she does pay a sort of “lip service” to dictatorships in the books) and it is, despite its xenophobic setting, of a larger scale of international intent. In Takami’s verse the survivors of the games want to run away to the third world country that America has become. It brings to mind that perhaps they will meet Katniss Everdeen when they arrive.

When the film was adapted for the screen by Kinji Fukasaku’s son, it has to be one of the best screenplays ever written. Even though the film did not copy the book page by page, the casting of “unknown” child actors and the iconic Beat Takeshi and the feeling that the director was able to infuse the film with made the movie a run-a-way hit. The film is a cult favourite and is set up to get the “Hollywood” remake treatment.

This is a book that, whether you’ve seen the film or not, is one hell of a ride. You suffer with the kids as they have to kill off their friends and find out who they can trust. The two psychos of the book are truly terrifying and will scare you with their cold-blooded will to survive. There was also a Manga of the book release in several volumes, difficult to find in the UK, but well worth the effort. These Manga’s were almost as entertaining as the book and the film.

My final verdict is a full 5 stars out of 5. Once you pick this book up, you will not want to put it down. And although it’s a little too close to Christmas to come up with ideas of “stocking stuffers” you could do a lot worse than getting a copy of this brilliant book shoved in your stocking.

The equally controversial film with Beat Takeshi

Hana-bi (1997) Takeshi Kitano’s Bittersweet Romance

Apart from Battle Royale (released in 2000 and directed by Kinji Fukasaku) Takeshi Kitano aka Beat Takeshi has never been better. Written, directed and edited by Beat hana-bi (translates as fireworks) is another facet of his view on crime and the penalty it exacts from its participants.

Hana-bi is a slow ballad of a film. It has a relentless rhythm from the very first frame. I have titled my review a “Bittersweet Romance” but in terms of the overall film, it really is more of a romantic tragedy. Either way you want to describe the film would fit, but I’ve always felt that romance was the ruling factor of the film.

With Beat Takeshi’s character, Nishi and his wife Myuki (Kayoko Kishimoto) their double tragedy [the death of their 5-year-old daughter and Myuki’s dying from leukaemia] is not enough to defeat the obvious love that they have for one another. Their humour has managed to survive the battering that their life has taken. Late in the film, Nishi sets up a camera on the side of their car to take a timed picture. Just as the camera takes their photo another car drives in between them and it. Their laughter over the incident feels infectious and genuine.

The vast majority of the film is a mixture of flash backs and “present day” which works very well. You do have to pay attention though or you can get a bit lost. But regardless of the “to-ing and fro-ing” of the sequences the rhythm of the film is still relentless.

And relentless describes Nishi’s life perfectly. He has so many plates spinning at once that it’s easy to see why his character rarely says anything; but having said that, it is a trait of Beat Takeshi characters in almost all of his films. His taciturn and stoic face with its tics and mannerisms says more in repose than he could ever say literally.

Nishi’s boss and best friend Horibe (played by Takeshi regular Ren Ohsugi) is shot and paralysed when he does Nishi’s stake-out duty so Nishi can visit his wife in hospital. Noribe then has a difficult time dealing with life in a wheel chair and takes up art as a therapy measure.

Nishi and Horibe on the way to the stake-out.

When Nishi and two detectives catch the villain who shot Horibe, Nishi is punched repeatedly in the face and thrown off the suspect. Kudoh and Nakamura (played by another Takeshi regular Susumu Terajima) jump on the yakuza to restrain him. The yakuza then shoots both Kudoh and Nakamura. Nakamura is wounded but Kudoh dies on the scene. Nishi takes his service revolver out and shoots the yakuza in the head.

He then goes over to the dead yakuza and empties his revolver into the dead man’s head. This results in Nishi getting fired from the force. Already in debt to a local yakuza gang because of loans he took out for his wife’s hospital bills and their daughter’s death, Nishi decides to rob a bank to set everything right. He takes his dying wife on a holiday, pays for Horibe’s painting supplies and gives Kudoh’s widow a huge sum of money.

Since the pervading mood of the film is its relentless nature, we know that Nishi is going to pay dearly for his generosity and his guilt.

Most of Beat Takeshi’s films feature a lone character that doesn’t conform or sets himself away from other’s. His characters always have a nasty end or at the very least a short violent one. His message seems to be that it is alright to live to your own rules and ideals, but it will cost you in the end.

All of Takeshi’s films feature a lot of shots of the sea. Hana-bi features a lot of scenes by the sea and focuses on the waves beating against the shore or the tide coming in. This again points the film’s theme toward relentlessness and he appears to be drawing a parallel between the never-ending waves and the theme of the film.

The art that Horibe paints and draws in the film were all done by Beat Takeshi himself. Some of the most emotional scenes come from Horibe studying flowers in a shop and “seeing” the pictures that he will draw in his mind. Dogs with sunflowers for heads are just some of the funny, and odd, images he creates.

If ever any one man could be deemed an institution Takeshi Kitano is that man. The running joke in Japan’s entertainment industry is that Beat Takeshi is on television 8 days a week. Takeshi does have several television shows, writes articles for many different publications and writes, directs, and edits his own films. There seems to be no end to this man’s talent pool.

In August of 1994 Kitano was in an accident while riding his moped. The crash almost killed him and left his face partially paralysed. As part of his therapy he took up painting and poetry.  By 1995 he was back to  work full-time.

Beat Takeshi is an amazing individual who rose from humble beginnings to become an institution and an icon of Japanese culture. In the England people watch Takeshi’s Castle a Japanese game show that Beat shows up for at the end of each program to “fight off” winning contestants to keep them from winning the ultimate prize. Most of the viewers (and apparently the producers and the narrator of the show) have no idea who Takeshi is.

Hana-bi is always mentioned as the last in a trilogy that Takeshi helmed for himself. Violent Cop (1989), Sonatine (1993) and Hana-bi (1997) all feature a character who marches to the “beat” of his own drum and is more than happy to pay the price required to do so.

If I could equate Beat Takeshi’s acting style to anyone from the western world of cinema, I’d say he is the Japanese  Spencer Tracy. But that would be in the area of acting alone, I honestly don’t think there is anyone in the industry who equates 100 percent to Takeshi Kitano.

If you can stand to sit through the subtitles, watch this film. The translated title of Fireworks might be easier to find, but whatever title it’s being sold or rented as, it’s worth watching.

Takeshi Kitano aka Beat Takeshi