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