Third Window Films invites you to take a peep at Katsuhito Ishii.

*Disclaimer: Elements of Madness received check-discs of this product, and as such this review will not cover any box art, packaging, or included literary materials that are included with the product.*

Katsuhito Ishii, Japan’s Robert Rodriquez, rebel V-Cinema wave filmmaker, and Quentin Tarantino collaborator, is getting a new limited-edition box set from Third Window Films, available through vendors such as Arrow and Terracotta. Gathering his earliest and later works in one collection creates a journey from flashy maximalism to underplayed naturalism with some films never before distributed on physical media anywhere, let alone in the U.S. and U.K..

Starting his career as a commercial director in Japan’s booming advertising industry, Ishii’s 1995 short film, A Promise of August, was shot as a summer vacation project with co-workers and friends. It brought him acclaim after winning the Japanese Film Grand Prix in the Fantastic Video Section of the 1995 Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival. Needing to come up with something to tell a reporter he was working on next, Ishii stated he wanted to adapt a manga he was reading, never intending to follow through. Little did he know, his employer, which also had a direct-to-video “V-Cinema” division, was in negotiations with that manga’s creator to purchase the adaption rights. And so, Ishii once again accidentally found himself the director of an acclaimed film, this time the box office smash hit Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl (1998). Oozing style and a rad ‘tude, it’s a grimy, loud yakuza crime drama starring Shie Kohinata (Cutie Honey, Trava: Fist Planet) as Toshiko, a young adult woman on the run from her sexually abusive uncle. While racing down the road, she accidentally saves Kuroo, played by the legendary Tadanobu Asano (Labyrinth of Cinema, Thor, Silence, Ichi the Killer), a yakuza member who stole his boss’s money and is being pursued by his old friends. The film is full of strong characterization, humanizing and shaping each member of this giant ensemble. Ishii is, at his heart, an animator, famous for writing Redline (2009), directing Trava: Fist Planet (2003), and leading the animated sequence in Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003). He’s made a side career as a character designer alongside his feature and commercial directing careers and it shines in all his films, particularly Sharkskin Man and Peach Hip Girl.

L-R: Ittoku Kishibe as Tanuki Fukuda, Shingoro Yamada as Taniguchi, Hitoshi Kuyokawa as Maruo, Daigaku Sekine as Sakaguchi, Koh Takasugi as Sorimachi, and Shingo Tsurumi as Mitsuru Fukuda in Katsuhito Ishii’s yakuza crime drama, SHARK SKIN MAN AND PEACH HIP GIRL (1998). Image courtesy of Third Window Films.

Today we’re flooded with terrible live-action anime story adaptions on the cheap, while Michael B. Jordan’s Creed 3 (2023) stands as a recent example of bringing the filmmaking of anime to a realistic world, but Ishii excels at bringing the shared design language of anime and manga to live-action, bringing this gang of yakuza to life. Directly translating some, redesigning several, and inventing a few, this cast of living drawings is beautifully constrained to static frames by a low budget, a feast for the eyes as performers and as designed objects.

Reminiscent in tone to Tarantino’s early works like Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994), it’s no surprise that it’s this film that brought Ishii to his attention. Invoking Godard in editing, the film is a subversively snappy, well-paced romp through the mountains, both fun and challenging. The crown jewel of the box set.

Yoshio Harada stars as Captain Banana in Katsuhito Ishii’s surrealist comedy, PARTY 7 (2000). Image courtesy of Third Window Films.

Across all of the films in this box set, Ishii explores numerous forms of “deviant” or “non-hetero monogamous” sexuality through contrast, from voyeurism and pedophilia to cross-dressing and transgenderism. Particularly in his older works, his vocabulary is unrefined on LGBTQIA+ issues, but he seems to be exploring the line between what is culturally unaccepted and what must remain morally unacceptable, what is oppressed and what is oppression painting itself as victim. From women who’ve been with every man in the room to heroes who are introduced mid-threesome, a hot young teacher using her student’s crush on her to motivate them, a pedophile wearing his victim’s underwear Buffalo-Bill style, a family tradition of peeping, college-aged dance nerds trying to lose their virginity, cross-dressing biker gangs, and a 30-year-old virgin who accidentally falls in love with a trans woman but insists that they are both cis and he is straight, and yet believes it was real, true love — these are not easy contrasts to depict or discuss on screen. Yet Ishii succeeds more than he fails, exploring the vulnerability and insecurity of unwelcome sexuality without delving into eroticism, instead using those traits to drive comedy, drama, and plot. He’s an artist worth wrestling with, who knows what he’s saying even when he doesn’t know how to say it, and he’s rarely saying more than in the box set’s other centerpiece, Party 7 (2000).

A Peeping Tom’s Paradise

Ishii’s first original film script, Party 7, stars seven characters, all designed by him for both live-action and the insanely gorgeous animated title sequence, who find themselves in and around the same hotel room. More of an outright comedy that Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl, Party 7 signals the direction Ishii really wanted to go in and signaled to Japanese studios that maybe he was too weird. When Miki (Masatoshi Nagase (Paterson, Mystery Train)) steals a suitcase of money from his yakuza boss (yes, again), he hides out in a hotel where he’ll be found by his ex-girlfriend and focus of the film’s provocative poster, Kana, played by Gravure idol Akemi Kobayashi (Drive, Angel). They’re quickly joined by her new fiancé Todohiro (Yoshiniori Okada (Tekkonkinkreet, I Am a Hero)) and Miki’s best friend and yakuza enforcer, Sonada (Keisuke Horibe (Love Exposure, Postman Blues). Unbeknownst to them, on the other side of a one-way glass newly orphaned Okita (Tadanobu Asano back again) sits with the peeping-tom, Captain Harlock-esque “superhero,” the masked Captain Banana, played by the legendary Yoshio Harada (Still Walking, Zigeunerweisen). Entirely a surreal situation comedy, the film parodies yakuza and other shlocky crime films to good effect with great design and prop comedy, all wrapped up in a framing device centered around whether or not a turd fell from the sky or not. The phrase “…real shit” is a constantly changing refrain within the film.

L-R: The animated title sequence version of Captain Banana, Okita, Sonada, Miki, Kana, Todahira, and Wakagashi in Katsuhito Ishii’s surrealist comedy, PARTY 7 (2000). Image courtesy of Third Window Films.

These two films round out Ishii’s early period, with his middle period being defined by work on animated films like the aforementioned Trava: Fist Planet and Redline, and surreal comedies like The Taste of Tea (2004) and Funky Forest: The First Contact (2005), which are both collected elsewhere in the Third Window Films product line. Instead, the box set fast forwards to his late period, with Sorasoi (2008), Hello Junichi (2014), and the short film Norioka Workshop (2022), his most recent work. Both feature films are co-directed works and feel disconnected from the rest of his oeuvre unless you watch the new Skarskin Man and Peach Hip Girl director’s commentary included in this set, where Ishii discusses, at length, his hate of so-called “TV acting,” and his career-long journey towards naturalism. This hate of TV acting is then made text in Norioka Workshop, which involves a sketchy acting workshop. This short really rounds out the set, letting the viewer chart the evolution of one of Japan’s most creative directors over 20 years.

…and thanks to the God of cinema. There is one.

Included in the box are the following:


  • Skarskin Man and Peach Hip Girl (1998), 4.5/5 stars
    • A crisp and excellent transfer, gloriously seedy.
  • A recent Director’s commentary with Katsuhito Ishii, where he dished on his inability to remember names, how he met Quentin Tarantino, raves about David Lynch, rants about TV acting, and gives lectures to new filmmakers about making your first film. Splits the difference between a highly educational commentary like on a Criterion box set and a drunken actor commentary like Val Kilmer’s legendary Spartan (2004) DVD commentary.
  • A new, exclusive, and extended interview with Ishii that covers his early career and slumps, his film friends like Hideaki Anno (Shin Godzilla), and announces a new manga dramatizing the canceled plot of another Funky Forest film, as well as his desire to return to low-budget short and feature filmmaking after several years of working only on commercials.
  • A video essay by Robert Edwards on V-Cinema, Ishii’s storyboards, economy of movement, and character designs.
  • Promise of August (1995), 4/5 stars
    • Shot on borrowed commercial-grade film stock on a summer vacation to the mountains, this transfer has stunningly glorious color. A strong comedy with a script awkwardly but fiercely exploring all of Ishii’s later themes. The Rosetta stone to his career.


  • Party 7 (2000), 5/5 stars
    • A good transfer with great sound, a funny chamber comedy with memorable visuals.
  • Audio Commentary by video director Arne Venema and actor/casting director Mike Leeder (Fearless, Ip Man 4: The Finale), largely focussed on discussing V-Cinema and Japanese culture as a whole from two white filmmakers based in Hong Kong who often work in Japan. Extensive discussion on what makes a Gravure idol different from a porn star as the West would define it, why V-Cinema’s home video market was different from the US’s Direct-to-Video market, and the Yakuza as a cultural concept and genre.

NOTE: This disc opens with a warning apologizing for the visual quality of some of the extras included on the disc, citing the technology of the era. This warning applies to the following extras:

  • The Storyboard version of Party 7, 2/5 stars.
    • With temp dialogue and edits, this 40-minute-shorter version of Party 7 shows off Ishii’s infamous storyboards, mixing abstracted cartooning with hyper-detailed close-ups, Ren and Stimpy-style. A great learning tool for anyone interested in the relationship between pre-production and production.
  • A wisely cut alternate ending that redefines the entire film in an unnecessary way. A great insight into how a film can be improved in editing.
  • An archival making-of documentary comprised of on-set footage shot on an SD digital camera. This doc is focused on Ishii as an auteur, mixing on-set questions about him to the cast with on-set improv and vfx process shots.
  • The original teaser and trailer, featuring declarations that Party 7 was “A New Kind of Movie,” and “Common Sense No Longer Applies.” These advertisements paint Party 7, while successful at the box office, as a larger cultural titan than it would prove.
  • An Archival interview with Katsuhito Ishii. Discussing Party 7’s origins as a failed, second vacation film, Ishii talks about his creative process while an actor wearing the Captain Banana suit changes location around the set between questions. This interview is a fascinating document, freezing in time a vulnerable artist who is beginning to suspect that he is not as at home in his film industry as he thought he was.


NOTE: The menu for this disc places the 3 films out of chronological order for some reason.

  • Hello Junichi! (2014), 5/5 stars.
    • If you were to give this an American analog, it’d be School of Rock (2003), though the film doesn’t come close to that height. Hello Junichi! is a children’s film centering around a misfit gang of 11-12 year olds and their new, hot young student teacher Anna, played by Hikari Mitsushima (Death Note, Mary and the Witch’s Flower). The film is sweet and clearly everyone is having a great time making it, but it struggles to meet its own ambition, especially visually. Co-directed by Kanoko Kawaguchi (The Warped Forest, Sorasoi) and Atsushi Yoshioka (The Warped Forest, Sorasoi)
  • Sorasoi (2008), 3/5 stars.
    • Often over-exposed and desaturated by what could be a poor understanding of s-log or some other digital codec, pre-color grading correction, Sorasoi is less entertaining, but more interesting and compelling than Hello Junichi. With a cast made of many of Ishii’s acting school students, the film is a comedic showcase of the understated performance Ishii loves to contrast with TV acting. While roughly paced, this comedy about a troubled young woman who encounters a collegiate dance troupe staying at a beachside hostel brings a surprising amount of heart to difficult themes. A film that basically didn’t exist before this physical release, its digital footprint being almost exclusive a few festival reviews in 2008, Sorasoi is a fine coming-of-age story and a seemingly crucial transitional work for Ishii.
  • Norioka Workshop (2022), 4/5 stars.
    • Shot in one location, this short heralds a return to strong, quirky comedy for Ishii, as well as technical prowess. Both funny and clever, the film follows a B-list actor attempting to teach an acting workshop to two mysterious young women, Ishii explores the relationship between lying, acting, and scamming while pontificating on that oh-so-beloved topic: TV acting.

Third Window Films is known for its excellent box sets of East Asian directors, such as their two Nobuhiko Obayashi box sets, but Katsuhito Ishii’s participation in this box set feels special, an attempt by an artist to sew the seeds for a reclamation and return to form. He wants to come back, and before he does, this box set gives you an excellent, definitive path to catching up with where he’s been and where he’s at. Recommended

Region B box set from Third Window Films, limited to 2000 copies, shipping July 17th, 2023 through Arrow and Terracotta Films.

This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.

Categories: Films To Watch, Home Release, Home Video, Recommendation, Reviews

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