Last week I watched my 10th Shusuke Kaneko film. Believe it or not, I hardly had a clue who he was at that time. And it's not because Kaneko lacks a clear personal style or because he acts as a director for hire. On the contrary, his body of work is quite cohesive and looking back at the films he made there are some rather memorable entries, even the ones I didn't end up liking.
It's probably because Kaneko is mostly active in fringe niches of the horror genre. He directs the kind of films that are very characteristic for Japanse cinema, but never manage to impress me that much. His kaiju films in particular are a fun distraction, but I find them quite hard to keep apart and I never seem to be able to remember the directors who made them.
Kaneko started directing in the early 80s, but I'm completely unfamiliar with the films he directed back then. While quickly scanning through the genres and plot summaries it seems to be mostly comedies with otaku-like influences, which goes a long way to explain why those films haven't enjoyed broader international interest. His first big breakthrough came about in '93, when he was asked to direct one part of the Lovecraft-inspired Necronomicon anthology where he went head to head with Brian Yuzna and Christophe Gans.
In '95 Kaneko's career took an interesting turn when he directed the first entry in the 90s Gamera reboot. If you don't know who or what Gamera is, just think Gojira, only with a flying turtle. Kaneko proved quite capable at directing kaiju cinema and he returned to work on the second and third installment in the series. Fun stuff, but if you're not really sure what kaiju is it's probably better to sample some Gojira films first. In 2001 Kaneko made the switch to Gamera's big brother and directed Gojira, Mosura, Kingu Gidora: Daikaiju Sokogeki [Giant Monsters All-Out Attack], one of the more memorable entries in the long-running Gojira series.
When Kaneko wasn't busy directing kaiju films he explored other horror niches, but to no avail. Kami no Hidarite Akuma no Migite [God's Left Hand, Devil's Right Hand] had an interesting premise but was bogged down by poor execution, Kurosufaia [Cross Fire] was an even bigger letdown and still stands as one of the worst Japanese films I've seen to date. Even when he was given popular franchises (Death Note and Azumi) Kaneko failed to truly engage.
In the latter part of the '00s he turned his back on horror cinema and tried his hand on some drama films. And just like that the little international interest there was in his work dropped off completely. It wasn't until last year, when he released Shojo wa Isekai de Tatakatta [Danger Dolls], that Kaneko popped back up on the radar. Sadly the film is hardly worth the effort.
It's hard to pin down exactly what constitutes a typical Kaneko film, but at some base level there's a connection that binds his films together. Sadly the mediocre quality of his work is part of that connection. Personally I prefer Kaneko's kaiju films, but it's hard to recommend those to people unfamiliar with the genre. His horror films, while not all that bad on a conceptual level, suffer from poor execution and lifeless direction. As for his comedy and drama work, I really can't say as I haven't seen any. It's not an easy director to recommend and since he hasn't directed any essential films you might just as easily pass him by completely (even when showing great interest in Japanese film), but to say that he isn't worth your time would be unfair. Just don't expect too much and you might end up with some decent filler.
Best film: Gamera 3: Iris Kakusei [Gamera 3: The Awakening of Iris] (3.5*)
Worst film: Kurosufaia [Cross Fire] (0.5*)
Average rating: 2.20 (out of 5)