Saturday, 19 December 2009

Red Lion

Samurai satire, set in 19th century Japan, during the period of transition from Shogunate rule to the inception of the Meiji Restoration.

Legendary actor Toshiro Mifune plays the well-meaning but dim-witted hero, a farmer's son who returns to his home village to prepare the way for the forces of the Imperial Restoration. He wears the red lion headdress in an attempt to deceive the villagers into thinking he is a commander with the Imperial army.

Mifune is impressive in the lead role, not playing Gonzo purely for laughs, but also hinting at the dignity of the man in the face of his tragic fate. But the film as a whole doesn't quite work either as a comedy or a drama: as a comedy it sits awkwardly with Okamoto's socialist agenda (the injustice of the peasant's lot under any regime) and it's difficult to take seriously as a drama when it's so clearly a satire of past films' treatment of the Meiji Restoration.

Dir. Kihachi Okamoto, 1969

Sunday, 6 December 2009

9 Souls

Could be called 9 Lost Souls as this is really what this film is about. The basic plot involves nine convicts escaping from jail, hitting the road, and leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. The 'escape' is dealt with in the first 5 minutes; the rest of the film is about lost dreams and the inescapability of the past, a kind of darkly comic road movie.

To base a film around nine lead characters is a hard trick to pull off, and unsurpisingly Toyoda doesn't really manage it. Despite being generally well-acted, and having some imaginative, artfully shot set pieces, the film as a whole just doesn't hang together. The narrative is disjointed and the pacing choppy.

9 Souls seems to be making the point that the convicts can escape from jail but ultimately can't escape from themselves; from their past and their paranoia. At the same time, it suggests that peoples' fates are in their own hands, as symbolized by Yamamoto's key. There is an awkward juxtaposition of symbolism and realism throughout the film, typified by the final scene: having literally painted himself into a corner with his brother's blood, Machiro figuratively unlocks his future in a flash of light.

There's a good film in there somewhere, but you'll need a map to find it.

ナイン ソウルズ

Dir. Toshiaki Toyoda, 2003

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Visitor Q

Well... where do you start? Not just with this film, but Takashi Miike generally. This is our starting point on the blog for Miike and it's a hell of a weird one to kick off with. But in a way, it's perfectly representative of the work of one of Japan's most prolific and imaginative directors.

"How am I supposed to feel?!" yells the father of the household, wild-eyed, filming fireworks crashing through the windows of his house on a handheld. It's the question you're asking yourself while watching Visitor Q and the question Miike refuses to answer - you watch the film by turns revulsved, amused, shocked, touched. There are no easy answers with Miike films - he wants to make you think
. On one level, that's what Visitor Q is: a reaction to the disingenuous and emotionally manipulative doctrine of so-called "reality" TV. From the first scene, which you later learn is incest between father and daughter, the artifice of the film is laid bare: a film crew filming actors filming each other. Somewhere, the reality of what's being filmed gets lost. And if reality and fantasy can be so easily blurred, what's the point of morality? Where do you draw the line?

On another level it's the simple heartwarming story of how a benificent stranger helps a dysfunctional family to bond through murder, necrophilia and lactation. You get the feeling that Miike, like Lynch or Bunuel, or any true artist, revels in breaking taboos and challenging expectations. I'm not going to say any more, just watch it. More than once.

ビジタ Q
Dir. Takashi Miike, 2001

Friday, 27 November 2009

Violent Cop

"Beat" Takeshi Kitano's directorial debut, in which our hero stomps around town like a bear with a sore head, bitch-slapping everyone in sight.

Violent Cop was originally conceived as a comedy, before Kitano re-wrote it as a drama, fearing an international audience would miss the subtlety of his comedy acting. I'm not convinced it was completely re-written though - Kitano, accompanied by a theme tune that sounds like something out of Laurel and Hardy, deadpans his way through acts of casual violence, defying you to take it seriously. From head-butting a teenager in his bedroom, to repeatedly slapping a drug dealer in the toilets of a bar, to kicking the shit out of his own sidekick, the violence is unnecessary to the point of farce.

The film's plot is thin at best. Kitano plays Azuma, a poor man's Dirty Harry; a renegade cop dragged into a low-level corruption case involving a small-time dealer called Nito, whose supply line leads back to the police. The case, like Azuma's job, is incidental and he becomes embroiled in a personal vendetta with Nito's henchman, an equally sociopathic nutjob. The film plays out as a classic revenge tragedy, amassing an impressive body count along the way. The characters are little more than cut-outs; a backdrop for the exposition of Azuma's psychosis.

While it's far from Kitano's best work - probably his worst in fact - the seeds of his unique visual style are sown in Violent Cop. But the still, lingering shots, interspersed with explosive violence, which would be used to such devastating effect in later films, are largely farcical here.


Dir. Takeshi Kitano, 1989

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Ring 2

Truly chilling this is not. Nakata's follow up to his modern masterpiece is a damp squib. It has a constant feeling of the morning after the party - a jumbled and unnecessary backstory to the original Ring that seems like it was assembled out of scraps from the cutting room floor.

It starts out promisingly enough, with a palpable air of dread hanging over proceedings, but it never kicks on; a washed out, glacially paced narrative is punctuated with moments of horror that are little more than shadows of the original film - tension is built before a payoff which is neither original nor particularly frightening.

The film culminates in a faintly ludicrous last act in which an odd assortment of characters including Mai, Sadako's father and a local professor attempt to syphon Sadako into a swimming pool using Reiko's son Yoichi as a conduit. Then things get really weird and Mai finds herself inside the infamous well, Yoichi on her back, scrambling to get away from a dodgy animatronic Sadako that looks like something from Jason and the Argonauts (complete with Homeric warning not to look back upon the underworld). A-ha! I thought, so this is how the well-dwelling Sadako survived for 30 years - she feeds on poor unfortunates who fall into her lair through holes in reality that she engineers - anticipating some grisly grand finale now. Disappointingly though, as she reaches Mai, we just get a cut to her sad papier mache face intoning the line 'Why are you the only one to be saved'? before falling back into the murky depths. Which is kind of a vignette of the whole film.

リング 2
Dir. Hideo Nakata, 1999

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Bright Future

Bright Future is the kind of film that bugs me. It's the kind of film that gets credited with distilling vague notions like 'the alienation of modern society' or 'the dangerous ennui of youth' but in reality, it's a bit of a mess. It lacks coherent narrative and structure, and tries too hard to be different.

The plot, such as it is, centres around two young men, Mamoru, an intense, reflective individual, and Nomura, a kind of wordless idiot savant. The two work at a local factory producing warm moist towels for restaurants. Apparently inspired by his pet venom jellyfish, Mamoru hatches a plan to kill his boss's family, carries it out, and is sentenced to death. Meanwhile, Nomura releases the jellyfish into Tokyo's water system to threaten the city's population (the hows and whys are absent). Cue a semiotic free for all. Read into it what you will.

Visually, it's a cut above - Kurosawa clearly knows how to film beautiful imagery. Beyond that, it's pretentious, meandering and about as exciting as a warm moist towel.


Dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2003

Wednesday, 7 October 2009


It's hard to overstate the impact this film had on modern horror and Japanese cinema in general. I think it would be fair to say Ring reinvigorated horror at a time when the increasingly tedious poststructural agenda of self-awareness had it gripped by the throat. Ring was a bolt out the blue, a back to basics horror that re-affirmed the original principles that make it such an enduring genre. It's almost unbearably tense, creepy and downright terrifying.

Ring spawned an industry within Japan but also brought J-Horror (dim lighting, grubby kids, face-obscuring hair, bloody-minded weirdness) to the attention of Hollywood, becoming the first in a string of films to inspire American remakes.

But what the remakes lack is what Ring has in spades - otherness; a kind of indefinable and intrinsically unsettling Japanese-ness that is the DNA of the film and makes it what it is, certainly for Western audiences. Ring is really a modern take on ancient fears - contagion, in the form of video, and the fundamentally terrifying prospect of the supernatural becoming flesh and blood, dissolving the comfortable boundary between the real world and the imagined, through the medium of the television screen. Literally.

The best human-shaped screens since Videodrome - it'll leave you scared of your TV for weeks.


Dir. Hideo Nakata, 1998

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade

Quite simply one of the best anime I've seen outside of Studio Ghibli. Maybe not so surprising when you consider it's written by Ghost In the Shell creator Mamoru Oshii, at a point when he was still on fine form, before the pompous excesses of Avalon and Ghost In the Shell 2.

Jin-Roh is a poignant, poetic anime set in a future Japan where militarized state control is a day-to-day reality. The film centres around a terrorist cell, suicide bombers, known as Red Riding Hoods, and their attempts to destabilize the military regime. Gritty action melds with dream sequences, drawing on imagery from the Grimm fairy tale (the proper, savage version of the tale), and follows the life and doomed romance of "Fuse" to its bitter conclusion. As with Ghost In the Shell, Oshii's writing is full of subtlety and sub-plots making this quite a complex, involving watch.

The animation is excellent and the soundtrack understated yet evocative, in sync with the downbeat tone of the film. This is a grim and at times depressing piece of work, punctuated with moments of beauty - If you're a fan of anime it's one you don't want to miss.

Dir. Hiroyuki Okiura, 1998

Friday, 25 September 2009

Ai City

Pretty old as anime goes, and unfortunately it shows. Thematically, it's a forerunner to Akira, but where the former is genuinely mysterious and prophetic, Ai City comes off like a bad B-movie, scored by some seriously cheesy 80s J-Pop.

Sample dialogue (admittedly something may be lost in translation):

"Not to be presumptuous sir, but Lai-Lo Ching may be behind this."
"Lai-Lo Ching?! Are you certain of this?"
"83% certain sir"

Ai City's visual style is clunky and dated, especially by today's standards, using rudimentary paint tricks for special effects. Only good for a laugh really.

Dir. Kôichi Mashimo, 1986

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Bubblegum Crisis

This could be a spoof of dumb, puerile anime if it wasn't so painfully obvious that it's the epitome of dumb, puerile anime.

It's well-drawn, but that's pretty much a given. What you get is a finely drawn vomiting forth of bug-eyed bimbos, leading double lives as international pop idols and crime-fighting superbabes, generic anime mechs and a plot so thin it could give you a paper cut.

Save yourself the trouble of watching this and lose a pack of Hubba Bubba down the back of your sofa instead.

Dir. Various, 1987

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Street of Joy

A day in the life of a pleasure house on the eve of a law being passed to outlaw brothels in Japan.

Although it is usually classed as erotica, Street of Joy is largely character-driven, with some nice performances. It is a gently reflective, almost nostalgic film, showing the liaisons of prostitutes and clients with compassion. It holds back from judging the central characters and focuses instead on their individual drives and passions.

Kumashiro's camera work, which creates a voyeuristic feel to the film, placing the viewer in dark spaces with a keyhole view of the intimate scenes unfolding in the rooms of the brothel, gives a bit of an edge to the film, but it's ultimately quite slight.

赤線玉の井 ぬけられます

Dir. Tatsumi Kumashiro, 1974

The Assassination

Surprisingly nihilistic samurai film following the brief life of Hachiro Kiyokawa, a blade for hire, in a time of political upheaval in 19th Century Japan. The film charts the descent of honourable samurai to mercenary rōnin and assassins, for sale to the highest bidder.

Kiyokawa shifts between both factions - the Tokugawa Shogunate and the Emperor - to further his own ends. He embodies an amoral, mercenary attitude to life - mediating peace in the face of civil war only to realize his own ambitions of power.

Beautifully shot in black and white CinemaScope with a haunting, atmospheric score. Worth checking.

Dir. Masahiro Shinoda, 1964

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

964 Pinocchio

The confused friendship of a lobotomized cyborg sex slave and a criminally insane homeless girl on the run from The Man.

One long scream of a movie - the visuals scream, the soundtrack screams, all the characters scream. It sucks you in and spits you out, and consequently feels more like an endurance test than a film.

Not bad, as weird, low-budget cyberpunk splatterfests go but that's about as much as you can say. 2/5 for sheer adrenaline.

Dir. Shozin Fukui, 1991