Monday, 20 December 2010

Seven Samurai

I'll say from the off that I have mixed feelings about Seven Samurai. On the one hand, you'd have to be a fool not to appreciate the sublime craft of Kurosawa's direction - the impeccable (and groundbreaking) cinematography, each scene's meticulous attention to detail and the deft handling of action sequences - but on the other hand, I found the film too slow-paced at times and ultimately, over-long. The content doesn't really seem to justify the 3 1/2 hour running time.

The story is actually very simple: in 16th Century Japan, bandits are rife and regularly raid villages to steal their produce. One village resolves to take a stand against the bandits and hits on the idea of recruiting samurai to protect it. The first half of the film, which deals with the assembling of the seven samurai - the prelude to battle - is absorbing, but excruciatingly slow-paced. The second half, which is more focused on the actual conflict between samurai and bandits is, for me, the more engaging. Throughout the film though, the various relationships between key characters (high/low caste, master/apprentice, wise man/fool) are intriguingly developed. Despite being quite a big ensemble piece, there are some memorable performances - in particular, Takashi Shimura, charismatic leader and master samurai to Katsuhiro's raw apprentice, and Toshiro Mifune, who hams it up as the irascible clown of the group.

The film touches on a lot of big themes - the class divide (encompassing both illicit love and the injustice of the peasant's lot within the feudal system), rebellion, war, honour, duplicity. But like the role of Mifune's character, Kikuchiyo, a lot of the themes in Seven Samurai seem quaintly archaic - signposts to forgotten places. It's a film, I think, that will always enthuse movie lovers based on the brilliance of its execution and storytelling, its evocation of a lost time, rather than in the enduring substance of its message.

Dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1954

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Juon 2

Well, that explains the gaze... sort of. At the end of Juon, Koyoko catches the eye of the new owner of the Saeki house, Mrs Kitada, and being the psychic type, immediately clocks her as being in possession of a dead woman's soul. It first becomes apparent to the viewer that Mrs Kitada is not herself when she brains her husband with a frying pan for complaining about his egg yolk. Even if you put this piece of slapstick brutality down to her getting out of bed on the wrong side, you're left in no doubt when she literally transforms into Kayako in front of Tatsuya Suzuki, who has ill-advisedly gone to check up on the property. Possession is the theme of Juon 2 - various people who come into contact with the house end up being possessed by Kayako and Toshio.

I'm assuming that this isn't a sequel to Juon, so much as a second DVD containing some material that would originally have been broadcast at the same time as the stuff on the first DVD. That's the only way I can explain why the first two chapters of Juon 2 duplicate the last two chapters of Juon and why the last two chapters of Juon 2 are both about 5 minutes long and are, basically, Shimizu taking the piss. Why not have a hundred Kayakos, all creaking in unison and hunting in packs? Why not have a couple of people tasting the sake that Kyoko left in the Saeki house (despite the fact the Kitadas would surely either have consumed or binned said liquor)? The only thing this installment really serves to do is to flesh out the story of the Suzukis - Tatsuya and his sister Kyoko - but in doing that, it still provides a few choice moments of ghastliness.

呪怨 2
Dir. Takashi Shimizu, 2000

Saturday, 11 December 2010


OK, so this really is the first film in The Grudge franchise - the made for TV movie, Juon. I don't know whether it's because I saw the theatrical release first and had an inkling of what to expect, but Juon was nowhere near as hard to follow. In terms of chronology, it's not linear, but mercifully, neither does it jump around like a frog on a hot plate. Instead, you get six distinct stories - or chapters - each centered around one character and their, usually fatal, experience of the curse. These function nicely as a series of vignettes, putting me in mind of a short story collection like Creep Show, where each episode ratchets up the tension before the pay-off.

I like the fact that more time was spent on the Toshio character as well - the back story of Toshio and Kayako is hinted at in the theatrical release, but details like the neglect of Toshio, Kayako's obsession with Toshio's teacher and her husband's jealousy of him does help to establish more of a context for subsequent events.

Naturally, being a TV movie, the budget is considerably lower and it does occasionally show - but mostly just in terms of flat lighting and slightly cheap-looking sets (interestingly though, the same set is used for the Saeki house as in the theatrical release). Special effects are used judiciously, to create some great moments - the first reveal of Kayako in the attic is very creepy and there's pure schlock horror fun to be had in the scene where a bloodied Kanna ascends a staircase in laboured steps, then slowly turns around to gape jawless at her stricken mother. The ending of the film, which uses no more special effects than a mutual gaze, has to be one of the best WTF moments in recent memory.

Dir. Takashi Shimizu, 2000

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Drunken Angel

Kurosawa's first collaboration with actor Toshiro Mifune, is a Film Noir set in a Tokyo slum. The Drunken Angel of the piece is an alcoholic doctor who is drawn to young yakuza hood Matsunaga - subsequently diagnosed to be suffering from the advanced stages of tuberculosis. When Matsunaga's old boss, Okada, returns from a stint in jail, he pretends to fall back in with Matsunaga but is secretly preying on his weakened condition in a bid to take his territory for himself.

I can imagine this being too slow-paced for some, but I found it to be an engaging insight into a bygone era of dapper gangsters and smoke-wreathed speakeasies, a curious melange of East and West, symptomatic perhaps of the American occupation of Japan at the time of the film's production. The main intrigue lies in the relationship of the doctor and Matsunaga; the way he sees his own failings magnified through his patient's plight and feels compelled to help him despite (largely hypocritical) misgivings about his lifestyle. In a sure sign of the times, the blame for Matsunaga's condition - and the ills of society in general - is laid squarely at the door of the demon drink. No-one, including a man dying of tuberculosis, gives a second thought to chain smoking their way through every scene.

Once again the bleakness of the film and its central theme of Man's inherent vampirism of spirit is mitigated somewhat by a slightly jarring, upbeat ending - although the fact it feels jarring might have more to do with my own taste for dysphoria, typical of the modern viewer, than it does with an excess of sentimentality on Kurosawa's part. That said, American Noir of the same era tends to be darker and more uncompromising.

Dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1948

Friday, 3 December 2010


The second of six films shown at The Barbican as part of their mini Kurosawa retrospective - and the first of three that I plan to see there.

According to the ordinance of the film criti-rati, I should probably be telling you how this is an unimpeachable masterwork, perfect in every respect, but at risk of being labelled a philistine, I have to say, in my view, it isn't. Yes, technically, in cinematographic terms, Rashomon is a cut above. Its distinctive visual style, as well as groundbreaking storytelling techniques have no doubt been very influential on subsequent generations of filmmakers, but thematically I found it to be somewhat unsatisfying.

The basic premise goes thus: three men take refuge from a storm in a temple and relate the story of a bandit's murder of a nobleman and rape of his mistress. The story is told four ways: from the perspective of each protagonist and also from the perspective of one of the three men in the temple, who claimed to witness the event. Everyones' story is different, filtered through the gauze of self-interest, which leads the 'honest rogue' among the three to the conclusion that human beings are incapable of absolute truth and all basically absurd and untrustworthy. A fact which, in Beckettian style, he takes great delight in. This idea might have been new to cinema - in the way it's told, visually - but writers had been employing similar devices for centuries. The fundamental problem with Rashomon though, is that the protagonists are reduced to archetypes - the bandit, the nobleman, the priest, are functions of philosophy rather than fully-realized characters. Now, before I'm accused of blatant hypocrisy at this point by certain parties (you know who you are!), I confess that in a recent debate on Tarkovsky's Stalker, these same observations were made about that film and I poo-pooed them. So yes, I'm a hypocrite.

The ending to Rashomon is also slightly disappointing - it was, dare I say it, a bit of a cop out: having exposed the moral relativism lurking at the heart of humanity, Kurosawa allows sentimentality to creep in, suggesting that the redeeming factor for mankind lies in its continual rebirth and the possibility to evolve beyond a self-serving existence. Compassion, in other words, will be our saving grace. To me, that seems a little trite.

Dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1950

Thursday, 2 December 2010

A Snake of June

From one rain-soaked film to another. As with Dark Water, the torrents that rage beyond soundless, sterile interiors are indicative of a public/private, inner/outer dichotomy which seems to obsess many Japanese filmmakers. In Dark Water, the 'inner' was repressed memory, in A Snake of June, repressed sexuality.

It's not as experimental or extreme as I would have expected from Tsukamoto - the film actually has a fairly linear narrative. A couple, locked in a loveless marriage, are stalked by and drawn into the dark, fetishistic world of a slightly unhinged individual, played by Tsukamoto himself. Despite its restraint (this could easily have gone down the sleazy, exploitative route) and its almost myopic focus on the emotional responses of three characters, it's also a richly symbolic film. Naturally, the symbols are all about sex and death, but then Tsukamoto is a Surrealist at heart.

The fact the stalker/photographer is played by the director suggests that he, and by implication, the audience, are complicit in an act of voyeurism and ultimately A Snake of June is the kind of film that leaves you feeling slightly unclean. It's hard to love - I don't see myself revisiting it for quite some time - but a fascinating slice of Japanese art house nonetheless. With directors like Tsukamoto, Miike, Sono, Kitano and Sabu all consistently producing unique, thought-provoking films of the highest quality, you'd have to say contemporary Japanese cinema is in very rude health indeed.

Dir. Shinya Tsukamoto, 2002

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Dark Water

As is so often the case with tag lines for movies, "the most shocking film yet" is a misleading entry point into Dark Water. While it is undeniably a horror, it's not the scream-a-minute shocker you might be led to expect, but rather a sustained mood piece in the tradition of classic horror like The Haunting. You can tell Nakata is a cineaste: there are direct references here to The Haunting (the sudden, unnatural bulging of the surface of the water tank) and The Shining (liquid cascading through open lift doors), but the main thing he has assimilated from both films is the brilliantly sinister evocation of the supernatural; as a rarely glimpsed but ever-present menace.

Dark Water is almost literally saturated - outside, it's always raining; inside, the grey, dank, mournful interiors threaten to buckle under the weight of turbid water. There's a sense of creeping dread, building drip by drip to an inexorable cascade.

The story centres around Yoshimi Matsubara, at first as a small child waiting forlornly to be picked up from nursery, then as a young woman, sitting in a solicitors' waiting room, before being ushered in to discuss divorce proceedings. This is a nice cut sequence that lays the groundwork succinctly for the film's recurrent themes of neglect, fear of abandonment and loss. We learn Yoshimi now has a child of her own, Ikuko, whom she is fighting for custody of; together, Yoshimi and Ikuko move into an old apartment block and into the world of Mitsuko Kawai. Darkness, inevitably, follows.

Something that did strike me, as when reading The Amityville Horror was - why didn't they just leave? Sure, there are impediments - Yoshimi being embroiled in a custody battle and trying to hold down a day job, not wanting to unsettle Ikuko again - but there are more than enough warnings early on that this is not a good place to be. The question is facile though; obviously Yoshimi can't leave, a/ because it would ruin the film and b/ because she is subconsciously drawn to the apartment block - she needs to find some kind of resolution for the ghosts of her own past. Ultimately that comes through Mitsuko and not her own child Ikuko. On a logical level, Yoshimi's wilful transition to the astral plane is a bit of a stretch, but taken another way, it's symbolic of a reconciliation with the spectre of her own past - not an altogether uncommon trope in tales of the supernatural.

One small detail remains puzzling - I'm sure I remember a scene in the theatrical release with the ghost of an old man in the lift. This doesn't feature in the DVD release though... it leaves me wondering whether it was simply cut or if I'm making up ghosts of my own.

Dir. Hideo Nakata, 2002

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Sansho the Bailiff

It's a real privilege to watch a film like Sansho on the big screen; to soak up the rich atmosphere of Mizoguchi's epic story in the way it was intended.

Remarkably for a film almost half a century old, it's dated very little. By today's standards of course, the characters are somewhat archetypal and the transformations they undergo a little jarring, but the acting is still of a high quality; measured and poignant. The cinematography is a revelation, evoking the haunted, mystical landscape of rural Japan with a quiet mastery.

Set in medieval times, Sansho is essentially a morality tale about a governor who takes a stand against the moral bankruptcy of feudal lords and their exploitation of the peasant classes. For his beliefs he is exiled, and his wife and children, Zushio and Anju, set off on a journey to find sanctuary in another province. When they are brutally separated, the children are sold into slavery and Sansho, a merciless landowner and tax collector, becomes their master. After a decade of captivity, at the prompting of his sister, Zushio resolves to escape and follow in his father's footsteps: to attain a position of power and right social injustice through the abolition of slavery, exerting his revenge on Sansho in the process.

There are certain thematic parallels with A Man For All Seasons but for me, this is much the better film. While displaying the same conviction, Zushio and his father are possessed of a more human, less obtuse nature than Thomas More. Sansho encompasses human tragedy on a grand scale rather than in the intriguing but ultimately hollow clash of Church and State. Given that it's dealing with heavy emotional material, Mizoguchi's film is strikingly unsentimental; he doesn't shy away from depicting the brutality of Sansho's house or the cruel ironies of fate to which all characters are hostage.


Dir. Kenji Mizoguchi, 1954

Sunday, 31 October 2010

The Grudge

Halloween occasions the watching of a scary film and this year it was the turn of Takashi Shimizu's Grudge - the original. Now I'm not exactly up to speed when it comes to The Grudge franchise; I know it extends to about a dozen movies, but this was my first experience of the creaking woman and elusive boy who may or may not be a cat.

Was it scary? Hell yeah! As scary as Ring? Well... no, not really. That's partly because there are some familiar motifs, essentially lifted from Ring: mutated faces in photographs, television pictures breaking up freakily, apparitions getting up close and personal on screen, lank haired dead women, the corporeal supernatural, even the curse itself. That creaking though... jesus.

My problem with the film is actually nothing to do with its originality or lack thereof, it's that it doesn't really seem to make a lot of sense. Apparently anyone who goes into the Saeki house is afflicted with a curse and will be haunted and ultimately killed by the ghosts of his murdered wife Kayako and son Toshio. Anyone who hasn't been into the house can't see them (as the scene in the restaurant with Rika and Mariko shows). That being the case though, how and why is the security guard in the social service office killed by Kayako? By the logic of the film, he shouldn't be able to her see her. Is it that anyone who comes into contact with anyone who's been in the house is also affected? Maybe. But then what about the people they come into contact with? Are they OK? Other things that had me scratching my head: Izumi ages about 5 years in no time at all. Her friends suddenly turn into zombies. Mariko is inexplicably relocated to the house, calling for Toshio... The fact the chronology is constantly shifting around doesn't help - it makes it very hard to keep track of what's going on and causes character arcs to become a tad disjointed and confused. The end sequence is puzzling too - it seems to be suggesting Rika is somehow a reincarnation of Kayako, but it's not clear why.

To a greater or lesser extent you can chalk any inconsistencies in plot up to general weirdness; it's quite possible that it's an intentionally disorientating ambiguity on Shimizu's part - drawing on that peculiar kind of twisted dream logic that informs much J-Horror. The real acid test of a good horror film is how effective it is at scaring you and on that level The Grudge definitely succeeds. It maintains a nail-biting level of tension throughout and has plenty of genuine scares, that stay with you after the end credits roll. In a world where horror can all too often be corny and predictable, that's no mean feat.

Dir. Takashi Shimizu, 2002

Friday, 29 October 2010

The Big Tits Zombie 3D

Second up at The Barbican was The Big Tits Zombie 3D and what a steaming pile of shite it was.

Now you could say "what do you expect from a film called The Big Tits Zombie 3D" and you'd be right, but even so, this plumbed new depths of cinematic incompetence. Not only was the 3D intermittent, meaning you had to fiddle about with your stupid 3D glasses every 5 minutes, but when you did don the hallowed specs the 3D didn't even work - it simply revealed a murky triple-imaged version of the same drivel you'd just been watching.

I accept that Nakano, whose previous 10 films have been straight to video pinkies, was probably working with less than a shoe string budget here, but there's still no excuse for actors who would struggle to act their way out of a shampoo advert delivering turgid dialogue on sets lit less atmospherically than your average supermarket aisle. Frankly I've seen in-game cut scenes with more going for them than this movie.

Dir. Takao Nakano, 2010


The first film I've seen - the first of several that will feature here over the next couple of months - in The Barbican's Aspects of Japanese Cinema festival, kindly pointed out to me by Al.

It was pretty much what I was expecting: a low-budget, comic book-style knockabout starring bionic geisha girls and gallons of fake blood. Robo-Geisha made me smile (occasionally) but never entered the realm of laugh-out-loud funny that it did for some of my fellow cinema-goers in the back row (although I think they'd had so much booze you could have shown them a documentary on Hiroshima and they would have pissed themselves).

It may seem like a strange thing to say about a film featuring girls with hinged heads, rotating saw blade mouths and eyes with optical zoom, but the dialogue and slapstick humour are rather conventional; a bit Americanized even - it put me in mind of films like The Naked Gun at times and made me think that Iguchi has one eye on DVD sales overseas. Basically, Robo-Geisha is not very good, but it offers a bit of harmless fun if you're into this sort of thing.

Dir. Noburu Iguchi, 2009

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Cold Fish

My enjoyment of Shion Sono's remarkable new film was soured slightly by being physically assaulted in a McDonalds afterwards. This incident confirms what I've long suspected about Leicester Square; despite outward appearances, it truly is the armpit of London. Still, bruised rib aside, I've lived to tell the tale.

So on with the review. Shion Sono's Cold Fish is the only Japanese film I managed to get tickets for in this year's London Film Festival. Naturally I wanted to see Miike's 13 Assassins, but it sold out faster than a whippet on a travelator. As it happens, I don't think I got the short straw: Sono will have enhanced his reputation no end with this highly unusual thriller come gorefest, based (loosely you would have to think) on a true story about a serial killer. The film charts the descent into madness and brutality of the meek family man, tropical fish shop owner and eponymous cold fish of the piece, Mr Shamoto. Miike himself would have been proud of this; in fact, in many ways, it's not a million miles away from Visitor Q. A solid 4.5 film to my mind, but since I'm feeling generous I'll give it a 5.

As he proved with Suicide Club, Sono has a deft touch, both visually and in terms of plotting, but with Cold Fish, he's switched it up a gear. The film never drags - even though it is slightly lop-sided and will undoubtedly be too over the top for many - it's cleverly edited and chock full of inventive, unpredictable dialogue, with an attention to detail that warms my heart. Be warned though, this is not for the weak-stomached nor the easily offended; the last act has scenes of butchery that would make a an abattoir blush. But there's more to Cold Fish than savage black humour. After drawing you in with some nicely acted exchanges, outlining his protagonists' motivations, and allowing you to think you understand what will turn out to be their redeeming qualities, Sono gradually lets the reins of sanity slip. The characters' arcs are pushed to their extreme conclusions, seemingly in the face of logic. In so doing, he tears into the assumptions underlying a shared notion of 'humanity' and points to the beast, barely tamed, lurking just below the surface in all of us.
Dir. Shion Sono, 2010

Sunday, 3 October 2010

The Dark Myth

Piss poor anime about the arcane - an unnecessarily complex and stultifyingly dull account of the rebirth of ancient gods of darkness in modern Japan.

There is one thing worth seeing this for though and that's the potted history of the Kikuchi clan, which sounds like some kind of bizarre tongue twister...

Watch the full splendid minute right here.

"The present head of the Kikuchi clan, Kazuhiku Kikuchi is the 73rd Kikuchiko in the dynasty." Easy for you to say mate.

Dir. Takashi Anno, 1990

Wednesday, 22 September 2010


A collection of three short films curated by Katsuhiro Otomo. To say it's a mixed bag might give the impression that it contained a gem amongst the straw but ironically, the closest thing to luster here is Stink Bomb - a somewhat amusing take on biological warfare, with a lowly research employee wreaking havoc across Japan by literally becoming a human dirty bomb. The sight of a gormless idiot on a scooter trailing a cloud of toxic fumes behind him whilst being torpedoed by an armada of jet fighters, all set to a bebop jazz soundtrack is actually pretty awesome. However, the short does end with a forehead-slap-worthy punch line straight out of 100 Greatest Biohazard Jokes.

Not too much to say about the others. Surprisingly, Otomo's is the worst of the three - deploying a primitive style of animation more reminiscent of Monty Python than Akira and again, giving range to his obsession with an antiquated future world full of cogs and pistons and steam (see Steamboy) that leaves me cold. It's probably trying to say something about the futility of war... but who isn't? Finally we have what is really the centerpiece of Memories; Magnetic Rose - a dull and vaguely pretentious ghost story needlessly set in space, which rips off variously 2001, Alien, The Matrix and any haunted house movie you care to name.

In a word then, no.


Dir. Koji Morimoto / Tensai Okamura / Katsuhiro Otomo, 1995

Saturday, 18 September 2010

The Happiness of the Katakuris

I first saw The Happiness of the Katakuris at Frightfest in London, back in 2002. It's fair to say I wasn't quite so gobsmacked on this viewing, but that's mainly because I knew what to expect the second time around. I was still grinning like a fool for the duration of this feel-good surrealist horror musical pastiche - a berth it doesn't share with too many other bedfellows.

It takes a lot for me to enjoy a musical of any kind. I hate musicals with a passion, but here it just works. It's full of imaginative whimsy and distinctively Miikean touches (with a nod to Jan Svankmajer) - like the opening sequence with the small fellow being forked out of a bowl of soup and stealing the diner's uvula - inspired! In a nutshell, Katakuris is about a family's quest to find happiness in their new life together and the struggle to attract guests to their idyllic, but remote guesthouse in the lea of a volcano. The few guests who do manage to find the place are invariably dysfunctional and have a hard time making it through the night.

This is a slight film for Miike, a comedy farce essentially, but a uniquely enjoyable one nonetheless. He also hits on an ingenious way to save money on expensive special effects - cut to clay!

Dir. Takashi Miike, 2001

Thursday, 9 September 2010


Mind-blowing, jaw-dropping anime that set the benchmark almost
20 years ago and remains the jewel in the crown. Adapted from his original manga and directed by Katsuhiro Otomo.

Quality seeps through every pore of Akira. The visuals are stunning - from cataclysmic explosions to the infinitesimal detailing of smoke wreaths and ghost flares from bike lights - everything rendered with style and precision. The score is eerie and atmospheric, but never obtrusive. The scale is epic; Tetsuo's transformation at the end of the film and the subsequent fallout is a wonder to behold.

Thematically, it's in a league of its own: you could write pages on
the meaning of Akira... an imagining of the future evolution of Man, in the vein of 2001, as much as it is a reflection of Man's nuclear past; about the mysterious, transformative power of the atom as much as its potential for destruction. Akira is a film that retains its enigma and fascination through repeated viewings.

Perhaps the greatest thing about it though, and something that merely good anime like Ghost In the Shell lack somewhat, is that kinetic energy and drive - never a dull moment, or any sense of expository overload. It's the kind of film that reminds you why anime, at its best, is unique. When it's done as well as this, with a seriousness of intent you'd normally only find in feature films outside of Japan (especially at the time of its release), it tells you a lot about the way comics and animation are deeply embedded in Japanese culture - seen as a valid, mainstream medium, not just the flickering-light basement preserve of geeks and misfits.

Dir. Katsuhiro Otomo, 1991

Monday, 30 August 2010

Assemble Insert

OK, I think it's about time I reviewed the anime that gave its name to this blog. Truth is, I probably like the name more than the movie, but this parody of anime staples (idols, mecha, pop culture) is not without its charms.

The story centres around Maron Namikaze, a 13-year old girl with superhuman strength. Improbably, she is recruited by the Tokyo police department in their fight against a criminal gang called Demon Seed and in true generic anime style, holds down a day job as a super-famous pop idol, while moonlighting as a crime-fighting superhero.

It's hardly jagged-edged satire, but it does a decent job of spoofing the actual thing, and if you ask me, that needed doing. I've seen a lot of anime in my time, but I wouldn't call myself a fan. The good films are few and far between; for the most part it's inane bollocks - a waste of animating talent and viewing time.

Dir. Ayumi Chibuki, 1985

Friday, 27 August 2010

Battle Royale

One of the landmark films of modern Japanese cinema, bringing together social satire, video game aesthetics, and ultra-violent, coming-of-age drama in a perfectly paced, completely enthralling couple of hours of mayhem and carnage.

Set in a near future Japan, Battle Royale is a deadly reality game, devised by the government to make an example of a Youth out of control. 40 school kids are thrown onto a remote island and forced to battle to the death with a diverse array of weaponry, from pick axes to sub-machine guns - the spoils for the winner: survival. The game poses the question "would you kill your best friend to survive?" Each pupil answers it in their own way, choosing variously to rebel, fight, collaborate, run, hide, or die.

The fact that it's an often laugh-out-loud funny splatterfest (a pupil's decapitated head tossed into a building with a grenade in its mouth is particularly choice) doesn't entirely detract from the serious questions raised by the film's 'Battle Royale Millenium Act': Is this the extreme conclusion of social engineering? Society's fear of Youth given license to express itself in a murderous display of power. Is Battle Royale the reality game show the adult world secretly craves?

There are obvious parallels with Lord of the Flies and A Clockwork Orange, but veteran filmmaker Kinji Fukasuku succeeds in updating these ideas for the new Millenium. Takeshi Kitano stars once again, playing the world-weary teacher and ringmaster of his gruesome circus with maniacal glee. If you haven't seen the movie, this is going to sound very wrong, but the moment when he hurls a knife into a pupil's forehead from halfway across the room is priceless.

Dir. Kinji Fukasuku, 2000

Sunday, 22 August 2010


Possibly the most inaccessible of Kitano's films for a Western audience, Dolls draws on the traditional Japanese theatre of Bunraku for its look as well as its core themes. Kitano was inspired by the idea of lovers' suicide in the work of Chikamatsu Monzaemon, Japan's answer to Shakespeare. He takes the central preoccupations of classical tragedy - love and death - and refracts them through a modern medium.

Dolls is unconventional, by normal cinematic standards; it doesn't follow a three act structure and more closely resembles a stage play in many ways, as a series of interwoven vignettes. It's philosophical, but economical with it; there is very little in the way of exposition - the film is ripe with symbolism, but Kitano allows the viewer to make their own connections. A lot of the symbolism of Dolls is uniquely Japanese - the four distinct seasons, cherry blossoms and falling leaves denoting fragility (of the lives and the sanity of the protagonists), the red cord that ties the 'bound beggars' a reference to a Japanese saying about married couples being bound at the fingertips by red string. There are also invisible strings - tying together the tragic fates of disparate characters, guiding their actions and chance meetings - strings pulled deftly by Kitano, as director and puppet master.

Not an easy film - slow-paced and somewhat disjointed - I can well imagine it being dismissed as pretentious or a mere exercise in aesthetics (the cinematography is exquisite throughout), but as a piece of magical realism, a very personal take on traditional Japanese theatre and philosophy, Dolls is unique. It adds to Kitano's impressive oeuvre, underscoring his growing range as a filmmaker.

Dir. Takeshi Kitano, 2002

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Dead Leaves

During a pre-screening Q&A at the Tokyo International Fantastic Film Festival, the interviewer describes watching Dead Leaves as like eating raw meat in the morning - I don't think I can come up with a better analogy.

The film grabs you by the balls and doesn't put you down again for its 50 minutes duration. There's zero depth - no time to think, barely time to draw breath - just time to let your senses be pummelled by some of the most insane, frenetic animation ever committed to screen.

Harsh, but watchable.

デッド リーブス
Dir. Hiroyuki Imaishi, 2004

Saturday, 31 July 2010

Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence

An appropriate blog follow-on from Brother in a number of ways - this was Takeshi Kitano's first real break from his "Beat" Takeshi persona and his emergence as a serious actor, starring here as Sergeant Hara. It's also another cinematic miscegenation - East meets West - and Nagisa Oshima's first crossover picture. It's clear that Kitano's involvement was a formative experience in his own career as a director, picking up his rapid, economic way of working from Oshima, as well as an interest in exploring cultural differences. As with Brother, Merry Christmas exposes a seemingly impassable gulf in value sets, that lead the Japanese to prefer death to shame and Westerners to privilege survival over everything.

Ostensibly, Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence is a POW film, set in Japanese-occupied Indonesia, towards the end of WWII. Unlike many previous efforts, having a Japanese director at the helm makes for an intriguing take on an established genre. For a POW film, it's not especially violent: there are sporadic bursts of violence, often cleverly alluded to rather than graphically paraded by Oshima, but Merry Christmas is a essentially a subtle, character-driven movie, full of atmosphere, which is embellished by Ryuichi Sakamoto's brilliant score.

Oshima made the bold move of casting pop icons David Bowie and Sakamoto in the key roles of Jack Celliers and Captain Yonoi. Despite powerful performances from all the main players, it's Bowie's strange, christ-like Celliers who steals the show. The tension between Celliers and the camp, repressed, savagely cruel Yonoi is palpable. And
while their relationship is about irreconcilable differences, the relationship between Lawrence and Hara suggests that the shared humanity of the Japanese and the British, arbitrarily cast in opposing roles, could lead to a deeper understanding, and the possibility of friendship in spite of circumstance.

Dir. Nagisa Oshima, 1983

Thursday, 22 July 2010


The tag line, "The Yakuza Takes On The Mafia" promises great things, and Brother very nearly delivers greatness.

The film starts with exiled Yakuza boss, Yamamoto (played by Kitano), ariving at LAX and heading off to find his kid brother. Yamamoto is referred to throughout the film as 'Aniki' (big brother), which assumes a literal and figurative value. Apart from being a damn good gangster film with an impressively high body count, Brother is also a film about fraternity; in particular, its ability to transcend cultural differences. Actions, after all, speak louder than words. This is something Aniki knows from long experience, and even as a stranger in a strange land he is unfazed as he sets about creating a new dynasty. His unflinching brutality and obvious gangster credentials evaporate the misgivings of his younger brother's hood friends instantly, earning Aniki their respect and establishing his place at the head of the new family.

Brother is a multi-faceted gangster film, drawing on all of Kitano's directorial trademarks; stillness counterpointed with explosive action, subtle flashbacks, artful, unusual shot composition, and his ability to show the lighter side of human nature as well as the brutal - even finding time for a bit of pissing about on a beach (a sure sign that characters are taking time out from the grind of existence in a Kitano movie). Thematically, the film explores loyalty and shame as the key precepts in Japanese hierarchical society, each taking on a meaning greater than life itself. In some ways, Aniki is playing out the shame of his disgraced status from the moment he lands in the US - following a violent path to its logical conclusion. Although he takes his exile in good part for the sake of his sworn brother in Japan, he seems to arrive in L.A. with a death wish.

If there's anything to detract from this enthralling film it's that the non-Japanese characters are too thinly drawn, being little more than ciphers for the most part. You could put that down to Kitano's difficulties with English dialogue, but if you were being more generous you'd say it was designed to give an impression of Aniki's world, the way he sees it.

Dir. Takeshi Kitano, 2000

Saturday, 17 July 2010


It looks awesome, it sounds awesome, but what the hell is it all about? The meaning of Shigenori Takechi's scerenplay is elusive to say the least. Miike's direction is typically eccentric, imaginative, beautiful - all the things I've come to expect from one of the greatest auteurs working in cinema today, not just in Japan, but internationally.

If you're looking for a straightforward narrative, or structured character development, then this film is bound to disappoint. If it's important to look for meaning, and I'm not at all sure it is, one line from the 'bard''s commentary may be a clue. To paraphrase, it goes something along the lines of "it's all very well to be anti-war, but what about being anti-human". In a way, that seems to enapsulate the mood of the film.

Izo is like a cleansing fist, crashing through layers of human ignorance-made-flesh at random; as random, in fact, as existence itself. To call this an anti-war film or a meditation on human history as the history of violence is, I think, too reductive. It simply isn't that one-dimensional and resists such a banal interpretation. This is pure surrealism, at it's most random and brutal. It's serious, but then again, ridiculous and, at times, laugh-out-loud funny. It's nihilistic, but it's also about rebirth and the endless hope of renewal. It thrives on contradictions, which is what surrealism is all about.

But if we put all this semantic hand-wringing to one side, what we have is a movie that is fundamentally a BLAST to watch - at least once; the relentless violence might start to become a little tedious on repeat viewings. Taken at face value, it's a demonic undead wandering samurai, who happens to be able to traverse time and space at will (possibly not his own will, judging by his constant state of confusion), putting to the sword whomever should appear in his path, whether it's a class full of school children or an improbably muscular ringer for a Gamorrean Guard. It's a pan-dimensional beat 'em up, where each new character is mid-level fodder or a formidable end-of-level boss, all to be served up and annihilated for the sheer hell of it.

Dir. Takashi Miike, 2004

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Porco Rosso

Certainly an improvement over the confused Nausicaa and the vapid Ponyo, both of which it's hard to imagine anyone over the age of 5 enjoying. The animation in Porco Rosso is of a wonderfully high standard, consistently wowing you with its incredible attention to detail and the way the screen is always teeming with life and movement - making a lot of anime look static by comparison.

This makes it worth the price of admission alone. But add to that a perfectly coherent (if rather simplistic) story and you have an enjoyable anime. My problem with Ghibli remains that a lot of their films are just so damn childish. I know that's the point - I know that Miyazaki, by and large, makes anime for children, but I can only dream of what he could achieve with such a talented animation team if he made a film purely for adults.

Dir. Hayao Miyazaki, 1992

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

I'd read this was an early Miyazaki masterpiece - I didn't find it to be that exactly. The animation is stunning, especially when you consider the year of the film's creation; 1984. The fluidity of movement and attention to detail is light years ahead of any other anime I've seen from this period. The mood too, especially in the forest scenes, distills a quiet magic, as spores float through shafts of sunlight and strange creatures amble around. It's almost enough to make up for the cringe-worthy synth cheese that passes for score.

But then we come to the plot, and that's where Nausicaa falls down for me. In short, I couldn't make head nor tail of it! Ostensibly, it's an eco parable about man's pollution of the Earth and how the Earth fights back, threatening the existence of mankind. Now I'm not against an environmental message (although Nausicaa actually hugs a tree at one point for crissakes!), but the specifics of the plot are such that I couldn't tell you at any given moment what the hell was going on. Nausicaa herself is a kind of elemental horse whisperer (except the horses are giant insects), there's a wasteland which is encroaching on human territory, propagating through 'bad spores' or 'bad soil' or some shit, there's a petrified forest under the wasteland,
there are giant, many-eyed trilobites called Ohmu, there are rival human factions, neither of whose aims are at all clear... for the first half hour or so I found myself frustrated at not being able to get my head around what was happening or why, then resigned myself to the fact nothing was going to make sense and just enjoyed the visuals. Which are very nice.

Dir. Hayao Miyazaki, 1984

Monday, 17 May 2010

Dead Or Alive

One, Two, Three, Four... GAAAHHHHHHH!!! Dead Or Alive kicks off in a blaze of sex, violence and gastronomic obscenity, tongue firmly in cheek.

By all accounts, DOA was made as a reaction to the studio, who presented the director with two bankable leads, a vehicle for a commercial franchise and told him to drive it wherever he wanted. A dangerous thing to do when your director is Takashi Miike. Miike, being the enfant terrible he is, has made a grotesque parody of a gangland drama, gleefully outdoing himself scene after scene. One pungently corporeal scene, where a girl is drowned in a pool of her own shit and a yakuza boss stamps down on her lifeless body proclaiming "I've done it again!" smacks of wry self-mockery on Miike's part.

Sure it's over the top, scarcely believable and lacking the complexity you find in his best work, but it's a hell of a ride! DOA gives us a turf war between a gang of street punks, led by Chinese immigrant Ryuichi, and a Triad/Yakuza syndicate. It's ultraviolent to the point of lunacy, bodies stacking up like a Jenga tower, and the all-consuming rivalry between Ryuichi and Jojima plays out like a wittier, smarter version of Violent Cop.

And then there's the ending. In typically post-modern style, Ryuichi murmurs "Here comes the last scene", before all hell breaks loose. Without giving the game away, let's just say there's a slight change of, well, reality. It's guaranteed to leave you with your jaw on the floor when the credits roll, in much the same way as the opening sequence does.

Dir. Takashi Miike, 1999

Kai Doh Maru

Whilst it makes a nice change to see an anime set in ancient Japan rather than some mech-infested near future, it's unfortunate that this particular anime is so stultifyingly dull. The makers of Blood: The Last Vampire have created a finished film with Kai Doh Maru, but at least with Blood you could imagine what might have been.

The washed-out visuals, a stylistic choice presumably intended to endow a kind of far-off mysticism on the film, only adds to the general torpor that sets in from the get go. The fact that the plot, supposedly based on Japanese folklore, is somewhat contrived borders on irrelevance as you will have long since been comatised by characters with less charm and guile than a bag of spanners.

Kanji Wakabayashi, 2003

Monday, 3 May 2010

Boiling Point

This was, I think, the first Kitano film to feature his trademark technique of interspersing the action with still shots - both 'after the event' type shots showing the consequence of some previous event and surreal stills, like Uehara wearing the crown of flowers or the the three diners smiling with squid ink on their teeth. Along with his deadpan black humour, these kind of directorial flourishes have served to mark Kitano out from the crowd.

Basically a blueprint for Sonatine, Boiling Point follows a couple of days in the life of Masaki, a garage worker and amateur baseball player who gets caught up in a fracas with the local mob. It's about the choices he makes and the downward spiral those choices take him on: after going to Okinawa to get hold of a gun and witnessing Uehara's own run-ins with the mob, he ultimately takes his revenge on the Otomo clan in Tokyo.

Structually, Boiling Point is very similar to Sonatine - local trouble, pilgrimage to Okinawa, kicking about a bit (on a beach), returning home, exacting revenge in a blaze of violence. Thematically too; the baseball game that bookends the film is a metaphor for life - the randomness of the game mirroring Masaki's existence with its arbitrary sequence of hits and strikes. It's just that it was all done a little bit better in Sonatine.

Dir. Takeshi Kitano, 1990

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Blues Harp

I'm starting to think Takashi Miike doesn't make bad films. Even when he's telling a straightforward story, with traditional Yakuza elements and none of his trademark weirdness, Miike does it with considerable panache.

Blues Harp follows the fortunes of a young half-black, half-Japanese bar-worker and blues harp player called Chuji, and his tragic entanglement with ambitious junior Yakuza boss, Kenji. Miike weaves the characters' stories together with a deft touch, counterpointing unflinching violence and tenderness without falling into cliche or sentimentality. Despite its relatively short running time, the characters are nicely developed; the acting is of a high quality, always believable, and some of the cinematography is gorgeous. All in all, a fine little film.

Dir. Takashi Miike, 1998

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Bloody Territories

The story of a rogue clan's last stand following the dissolution of its parent association, incorporating the usual yakuza motifs of turf war and clan politics.

Bloody Territories was made towards the end of the era of 'ninkyo eiga', or 'chivalrous cinema', a style of yakuza movie that has more in common with the samurai films produced by studios like Toei in the 40s and 50s than with modern gangster movies. These films were made in part to appease a nostalgia for a bygone age of honour and loyalty, preferring escapism over realism. The gangsters never use guns, always knives in samurai-style bamboo sheaths, and there is a strong emphasis on rival clans' codes of honour.

It's difficult now to put the film into context. From a modern standpoint it feels curiously anachronistic and isn't helped by the soundtrack, which places it firmly in the 60s. Reminiscent of the music from the Batman series or an episode of Dragnet, it's intrusive and works against the gravity the actors bring to their parts, particularly Akira Kobayashi, who shines as the headstrong young yakuza lieutenant, Yuji.

Daft score and artifice aside, the film packs in a couple of plot twists and some nice cinematography, but it won't live long in the memory.

Dir. Yasuharu Hasebe, 1969

Tuesday, 2 March 2010


From the sublime to, if not the ridiculous, the deeply mediocre. Think Spongebob Squarepants without the laughs. OK, maybe that's a bit harsh given that the intended audience for this film probably isn't embittered 30-somethings.

I don't know, but I would guess that even children would find Ponyo less than engaging. The story just isn't there - instead you get some half-baked stuff about the moon, a baddie who isn't very bad at all and a little girl (Ponyo) with more than a touch of The Innsmouth Look about her. It doesn't add up to a whole lot.

As you'd expect from a Ghibli production, the animation has its moments. The storm, and the torrential rain lashing the island is particularly well-drawn. Overall though, the style is sketchier and more naive than other Miyazaki films I've seen. The cuteness and innocence of Ponyo is rarely contrived, but does wear thin in the absence of any coherent plot or original message. As a friend remarked, it leaves you wanting to go home and watch something debauched.

Dir. Hayao Miyazaki, 2008

Monday, 1 March 2010

Spirited Away

Crap. One of the most overrated films in the history of anime. Sorry. No, this is of course one of the finest pieces of animation you're ever likely to see. There's almost certainly nothing I can say about Spirited Away that hasn't been said already, but it hasn't been regurgitated on here yet, so...

For me, this film represents the pinnacle of the genre; a timeless, mystical, subtle, naive, profound piece of animated magic. The incredibly detailed hand-drawn animation is vibrant and fluid, the soundtrack dovetails perfectly with the mood of the film, as the Zen-like story, at once epic and infinitesimal in scope, gradually unfolds.

Whilst not groundbreaking in the same way Disney's Fantasia was, Spirited Away set a new benchmark for traditional animation that has yet to be surpassed.

Dir. Hayao Miyazaki, 2001

Monday, 22 February 2010

Perfect Blue

If Hitchcock had done animation... it might have been something like this. It's unusual to find anime as intelligent and multi-layered as Perfect Blue, even if its ambition sometimes outstrips its execution. It charts the descent of a pop idol-turned-actress into madness. Mima's life spirals out of control, as she is plunged into a nightmare world of murder, exploitation and paranoid delusion.

This is the debut picture from writer-director Satoshi Kon, and it's a decent first effort. It has a lot of the motifs you find in his excellent OAV, Paranoia Agent; the effortless intertwining of fantasy and reality, touches of surrealism and a Lynch-like resistance to easy interpretation, crediting the viewer with the intelligence to solve its puzzles for themselves. Kon also got in early with the phenomenon of cyber-stalking: although it's less extreme and its themes are manifestly different, Cham brings to mind Dessart, and Mima's Room the spooky fan site in Suicide Club.

On the downside, the animation isn't going to blow any minds - it's solid enough, but done without a great deal of panache. The ending (and we're talking literally the last few moments here) is butt-clenchingly cheesy and strangely at odds with the dark mood of the film.

Dir. Satoshi Kon, 1998

Monday, 8 February 2010

Interstella 5555

Or Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem to give it its full title. There's a fine line between cheesiness and magic, and depending on your view of Daft Punk's Discovery, you'll probably have a view one way or the other on this movie too.

Personally I love Discovery, and this film, featuring animation overseen by legendary Japanese animator Leiji Matsumoto, really brought the album alive for me (no pun intended). The plot is obviously very simple - blue aliens are abducted by humans, brought to earth (nice twist on the old alien abduction), de-alienized, and turned into mass market pop star automatons. Aliens are rescued, evil corporation mogul is vanquished, aliens are returned to their home planet, everyone lives happily ever after in a universe of perfect human-alien bilateral harmony inside the mind of a sleeping child.

But then again, simplicity of plot is what you want from a good music video. Yes, there's a big fat moral here, but it's served up with such a light touch that you hardly notice. Daft Punk just want to teach the world to sing and you can't fault them for that, can you?

Dir. Kazuhisa Takenochi, 2003

Saturday, 6 February 2010


The fourth outing as director for Takeshi Kitano marks a growing maturity and a further evolution of his visual style. Sonatine is a relentlessly nihilistic film, about how a man can lose his humanity, even his will to live, through constant exposure to violence and killing.

Kitano is Murakawa, a successful Yakuza boss who is persuaded to leave his patch in Tokyo to go to the aid of a gang in Okinawa engaged in a turf war with a rival clan, only to find he's been duped. After a shoot-out in a bar, Murakawa and his crew hole up in a beach hide out, which comprises the second third of the film. The pace slows to a crawl, and what started out as a gangster film becomes an obliquely humorous exercise in killing time.

It's unusual for sure, and more thoughtful than your average Yakuza flick, but at the same time, impenetrably cold. Murakawa has a certain jaded charisma, but on more than one occasion, when the camera lingers on his emotionless face and the faces of other yakuza, you realize you're watching a film about gruesome banality; hollow men, past the point of no return. And if that's the intention, then you would have to say Sonatine is a success.

Dir. Takeshi Kitano, 1993

Sunday, 31 January 2010

Unlucky Monkey

Sabu AKA Hiroyuki Tanaka gives us a true slice of Japanese cinema with Unlucky Monkey; the good and the bad. The good: dark humour, outrageous genre crossover, weirdness in spades (and reanimating corpses). The bad: messy, disjointed, unevenly paced.

The film veers from B-movie yakuza action to existential psycho-drama and back again. Then back again. It's got 3 endings, each one a variation on the same theme: the futility and randomness of life - eliciting a howl of rage, a dejected trudge or a blithe shrug of the shoulders. Sabu gives us them all. You gotta love this guy's sense of humour - there are some deliciously absurd moments of blackness here.

アンラッキー モンキー
Dir. Sabu, 1998

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

In the Realm of Passion

There's a lot to be said for a simple story told well. In the Realm of Passion is a classic ghost story from a master of the genre, Nagisa Oshima.

It doesn't rank among Oshima's best works, but it's enjoyable nonetheless. For a Japanese film made in the late Seventies, it's surprisingly Film Noir. The characterization - the femme fatale and jealous lover plotting to kill the unsuspecting husband - the cinematography - the wonderfully dark, bleak world Seki and Toyoji inhabit - In the Realm of Passion comes from the pages of hard boiled pulp fiction, relocated to Nineteenth century Japan.

But it's also in the tradition of Japanese ghost stories - hence the familiar archetypes of the vengeful spirit and the well; a symbol of repressed fear. The way the action is framed by narration gives a slightly unreal, allegorical feel to the film; a welcome respite from the relentless realism of modern cinema.

Dir. Nagisa Oshima, 1978