Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Dead Or Alive 2

I can think of few other directors who would go so far out of their way to make as contrary a sequel as Dead Or Alive 2. It's a mark of Miike's rebelliousness and his distaste for the diminishing creative returns of the franchise model that the second film in the DOA trilogy bears almost no resemblance to the original. It's also a mark of his continual need to push the film-making envelope, defying audience expectation in the process.

DOA 2 stars the same two leads as DOA, Sho Aikawa and Riki Takeuchi, but they don't reprise their roles from that film (how could they?!). Instead, they play a pair of hit men, working independtly of one another, who end up targeting the same mark. Sawada beats Okamoto to the kill, but Okamoto decides to take his clients' money anyway and run. They both flee to the same small island, where it transpires they grew up together; childhood friends. The second act of the movie sees a reawakening of their friendship and leads to the formation of a plan - to work together and put their ill-gotten gains to good use, reinvesting hit money in foreign aid. Nothing is ever quite so black and white with Miike though - redemption for his characters comes at a heavy cost.

Although it doesn't quite deliver the compulsive viewing of its predecessor, DOA 2 is nevertheless an intriguing movie. By turns humourous, contemplative and surprisingly poignant, it's full of unexpected scenes, like the childrens' play Sawada and Okamoto decide to stage. The intrusion of adult themes into the play echo what is arguably the main theme of DOA 2 - loss of innocence, or rather, the gradual dissolution of childhood; the indefinable transition from what we were into what we become. This is framed throughout by the question "where are you?"; addressed, perhaps, to the viewer's inner child. In many ways, the film is reminiscent of Kitano Takeshi's style; extreme violence counterpointing a quiet reflection on the human condition; on friendship, memory and shared experience.

犯罪者 2
Dir. Takashi Miike, 2000

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time

Another anime based on older source material; in this case, Yasutaka Tsutui's 1967 novel of the same name.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is an undeniably charming piece of animation, with a deceptively simplistic visual style. Deceptive because your first impression is of how clean and uncluttered it feels, almost minimalistic, but then you gradually become aware of subtle layers of detail, which never compete for your eye's attention but are there if you allow your gaze to drift around the frame.

The plot, concerning a high school girl, Makoto, who discovers the ability to leap backwards through time, is quirkily entertaining, if slight. It's got a kind of 80s feel to it - the sort of movie you could easily imagine getting made back then, when literally everyone was leaping around time in Air Jordans and drainpipe jeans - sort of like Quantum Leap meets Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Temporal back flips and metaphysical wizardry aside, it does basically boil down to a teen romance played out across time, space, death and reality (to lift a phrase). But that's no bad thing - even though it verges on schmaltzy when I might have preferred it to verge on edgy, and suffers from the same gaping plot holes that beleaguer any film concerning time travel, it's still a thoroughly entertaining watch.

From the point of view of someone who appreciates great artwork in anime, the story is a distant second to the enchantment of the hand-drawn animation; a triumph of understatement.


Dir. Mamoru Hosoda, 2006

Monday, 10 October 2011


Metropolis is based on Osamu Tezuka's unfinished manga from 1949, itself inspired by Fritz Lang's 1927 silent film of the same name. The central theme of both manga and anime is the hubris of Man and his inevitable downfall, symbolised by the fall of the Tower of Babel, as it is in Lang's film.

There are also character analogues - Duke Red could be John Fredersen, Dr. Loughton echoes Rotwang, the mad professor, and Tima, created at the behest of Metropolis's ruler, the robot Maria. Beyond this though, any similarities in plot are superficial at best; Rintaro's Metropolis is about a militarized Ziggurat, Duke Red's own Babylonian tower, through which he plans to consolidate his power base. The Ziggurat is designed to be the ultimate weapon, realized by its integration with Tima - a robotic super-human; the tower's 'brain'. This is where the hand of screenwriter and Akira creator Katsuhiro Otomo really shows itself: Tima, only human in outward appearance, carries within her a potential for transformation that is far more destructive and all-encompassing than her creators could have imagined.

Despite being relatively multi-faceted, however, the story is hardly original, riffing on eveything from Tezuka's original Metropolis, Akira, Ghost in the Shell... through to Ghostbusters even (the old Gozerian paradigm). Behind this furious hotchpotch of narrative elements, the film is scored by a strangely ill-fitting Swing Jazz soundtrack (which morphs alarmingly at one point into what can only be described as Jazz Trance). But then there's the visuals - and what visuals they are. A combination of beautifully modelled CGI and hand-drawn cell animation, that reach an apex of immaculate, fluid detail in the destruction of Duke Red's tower; the symbolic liberation of Metropolis. It's a credit to Rintaro that he perceives digital animation as merely another tool in his armoury and does not, as other directors have done, abandon his artistic principles for technology fetishism.

One for the eyes this; send your brain on vacation.

Dir. Rintaro, 2001

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Night & Fog in Japan

An unsteady zoom shot finds us at the centre of a wedding reception. The opening scene, and the focal point of the action throughout the film, is a peculiarly joyless union of two former student activists, Nozawa and Reiko. Instead of being a celebratory occasion, it turns into a moral inquisition as various wedding guests and associates come forward to tell their story. In so doing, they gradually poison the atmosphere with accusations of political and personal infidelity.

Oshima's contempt for the ineffectiveness, as well as the hypocritical, bourgeois tendencies of the leftist Zengakuren movement is plain to see. As the history of Nozawa's faction unfolds, revealed through a series of flashbacks, their collective will is shown to be fatally undermined by internal power struggles. The demonstration against the US-Japan AMPO Treaty, a key battleground in the Zengakuren struggle, is lost. Characters like Nakayama, the group's vainglorious and didactic leader, are more interested in feathering their own nests than putting into practice the Marxist ideology they espouse.

In some ways, this austere, serious film about the generation gap (symbolized by Reiko, Nozawa and their professor at the bridal table) and the failure of matrimony and fraternity to bridge that gap, could be viewed as a triumph for Oshima; it was daring for its time, not just politically but also in a filmic sense - the expressionistic use of shots and overt theatricality are bold choices. But they are also bad choices, to my mind. The unrelenting dryness of the subject matter, the dark lighting, spatial constraints and humourlessness of everyone involved induces a grim ennui (it took me 4 separate attempts to get through it!). Likewise, the staginess of the production doesn't lend itself naturally to film. The AMPO demonstration, for instance, is given a symbolic treatment - pitching the set into darkness and spotlighting key protagonists in static postures of insurrection, like paintings of war in a dark, silent gallery. Your imagination is supposed to fill in the blanks. It's the kind of thing that works well on stage, but transplanted to the screen, just seems lifeless and self-consciously stylized.

In truth, this is a film that has become stratified in time. Taken out of the context of its very specific historical locus, stripped of its political relevance, it serves only to document a darkly remembered undercurrent of Japanese post-war history. On a narrative and dramatic level, it simply fails to engage.

Dir. Nagisha Oshima, 1960

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Black Rose Mansion

Out of the blue, mysterious chanteuse Ryuko starts frequenting Kyohei's private club, Black Rose Mansion, serenading its members (mostly middle-aged men) with romantic ballads. The whys are wherefores are never made clear but quickly she takes on an almost mythical aspect in the club, captivating everyone who lays eyes on her - not least of all Kyohei himself. In a grand romantic gesture, Kyohei renovates the mansion for Ryuko to live in in a bid to ensnare her affections. His plans are laid to waste though by the return of his prodigal son Wataru who, predictably, also falls in love with Ryuko. She duly betrays Kyohei for his son and ultimately Wataru is forced to choose between her and his father. Throughout the film, Ryuko carries a black rose, which she says will turn red when she finds her true love. As Kyohei predicts, it finally turns red through Wataru's spilt blood.

As I'm finding to be the case quite consistently with Fukasaku, the plot is essentially hokum and the narrative chock full of clunky devices - most obviously the eponymous black rose in this case - but all is not lost. Whilst still infused with the same 60s psychedelia, it doesn't feel as painfully modish as Blackmail Is My Life. It basically boils down a rather old-fashioned cautionary tale about the dangers of acceding to impetuosity; of confusing lust with love. And at its heart is the classic femme fatale in the shape of Ryuko. Except that she's not exactly a classic: in fact, a big dollop of suspended desbelief is required to buy into the idea that she is some kind of irresistable temptress. Her looks are unconventional to say the least, and her singing voice is deeper than an Arctic borehole. So it wasn't a complete shock to learn that she was played by famous female impersonator of the day, Akihiro Miwa. A strange casting choice, but in a way it just adds to the film's already unreal air - a curious melange of Buñuel, The Mod Squad and Hammer Horror, at its hammiest.

There's some ropey dialogue to be sure, and the visual effects leave a bit to be desired - the red poster paint makes another appearance, along with a proliferation of rather heavy-handed flashbacks, shot through a lurid scarlet filter - but I can't say I had a bad old time.

Dir. Kinji Fukasaku, 1969

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Blackmail Is My Life

Hokey 60s crime drama which sees a proto-Hustle team extort and blackmail their way through a series of a small jobs before landing the big one - and getting in over their heads; caught in the crossfire between a corrupt politician and a powerful loan shark.

Not much to recommend this really; the story is risible, the acting ligneous, and it's dated horribly - from the grating, jangly soundtrack to the painfully stylized camera work. Fukasaku doesn't deploy the freeze frame technique once or twice, he uses it throughout the entire movie as short-hand for flashbacks, or sometimes, just for the sheer hell of it. Coupled with wobbly pull back shots and randomly interspersed black and white segments, it's enough to make the viewer feel ill.

It also has some of the most laughable death sequences I've seen. Zero summons up the strength to throw three punches at thin air before collapsing theatrically, then, in the film's final sequence, Shun spills several buckets of red paint over a zebra crossing before uttering the priceless closing line; "what a stupid way to go". I couldn't agree more.

Dir. Kinji Fukasaku, 1968

Friday, 8 July 2011

Tokyo Decadence

After my previous foray into pink cinema turned out to be more rewarding than expected, I thought I'd give this one a spin, especially since Ryu Murakami wrote the novel on which Miike's Audition was based.

Now, Rotten Tomatoes, among others, would have you believe that this is a savage indictment on Japan's sex industry and the hypocrisy of society at large. I can believe that may have been Murakami's intention, but the end result is a bit of a mess.
At a couple of points it threatens to take an interesting turn; the claustrophobia of low-lit hotel rooms and shadowy, sadistic salarymen inviting seedy revelation, but proceeds instead to stumble through a series of rather tame, and deeply unerotic S&M scenes. The closest we get to a coherent, if less than subtle, social agenda is in the scene at the dominatrix's apartment, where she says something like "Japan is a wealthy country, ill at ease with its wealth; this breeds anxiety and masochistic tendencies, which I exploit for money". But ironically, she herself is dominated by a crack addiction. See the bigger picture? Nudge, nudge.

Our heroine, in a constant state of trepidation and desperately in need of a personality transplant, is Ai (Japanese for 'love'), played by Miho Nikaido. Ai is very much the submissive type, and I think we're supposed to feel for her and the debasement she is forced to endure. The trouble is I don't - I just find myself thinking, you've chosen to work for this agency, you keep going to the jobs... the only one that proves too much for her is being asked to recreate the murder and rape of a woman at the foot of Mount Fuji by a necrophiliac screening an image of said mountain onto the wall of his hotel room. The movie basically implodes in the final act - a seemingly stoned Ai wanders around the suburbs looking for her ex-lover (now married) in a white smock and a pair of yellow high heels. She lets fireworks off on someone's drive way, she falls off a ladder, she is serenaded by a mad old dame in a playground and hallucinates her tormentors. Then she goes back to work.

Dir. Ryu Murakami, 1992

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Bodyguard Kiba

Even the most ardent Miike fan would struggle to salvage anything praiseworthy from this low-budget thriller come karate flick, hamstrung as it is by a muddy colour palette and poor production values. It may appeal to fans of martial arts, but personally I have no love for that genre.

The story is pretty cliched: small-time player Junpei betrays his Yakuza clan, the Soryu Group, and stashes away ¥500m before being arrested and doing 5 years in jail. After he is released, he aims to pick up where he left off with his old flame and recoup his ill-gotten gains, but realizing his former boss will be out for blood, he hires Dojo master Kiba to protect him. On returning to Tokyo, the Soryu Group's apparent kidnapping of his girlfriend leads him on a rescue mission that isn't quite all that it seems...

Any Yakuza film that features virtually no guns, where scores are settled by hand-to-hand combat, is pushing the bounds of credibility. That the villains then line up, one by one, to be round-housed into unconsciousness, just adds insult to injury. The film also has a very 80s feel to it, consummated in the faintly ridiculous final sequence, when the score bursts into a saxophone solo as the end credits roll.

Dir. Takashi Miike, 1993

Monday, 20 June 2011

Nobody Knows

Another graduate of the Cannes circuit, Nobody Knows is based on a real life event from the late Eighties where four children were abandoned by their mother and left to fend for themselves in their Tokyo apartment, with tragic consequences.

What I like about this film is its lightness of touch - it's a modern morality tale that resists melodrama, sentimentality and judgementalism almost entirely (the score too, generally eschews emotional manipulation), in lieu of an intimate portrait of the everyday existence of the four abandoned kids. The children all act very well, especially Yuya Yagira as 12-year old Akira, who impresses as the nominal head of the household, struggling to come to terms with his mother's neglect; forced to deal with an inner conflict between wanting a childhood for himself and assuming responsibility for his younger siblings. In the end, naivety engenders a slow descent into unpaid bills, squalor and malnutrition. When I say 'slow descent' though, it's painfully slow and that's really the film's Achilles' heel. It gives you time to really get to know the characters, but not much actually happens (until the bleak finale) - and with a running time of 2 hours 20 minutes, that means it frequently drags.

So despite being commendably realistic and refreshingly subtle in its execution, it's not a film I can imagine wanting to revisit any time soon.

Dir. Koreeda Hirokazu, 2004

Sunday, 12 June 2011

The Taste of Tea

Not exactly what I was expecting. From the title, and the fact it did the rounds at Cannes, I was expecting an Ozu rerun for modern times, but it's actually more akin to a Japanese version of Round the Twist - that gently surreal Antipodean kids show from the early 90s. The story, if it can properly be called a story, centres around an eccentric family in rural Japan; their individual lives and dreams, but also their place in the family unit.

It's not without its charms, and it probably does hit (hit is too strong, gently tap would be more apposite) on some basic truths about human nature, but ultimately Ishii's self-consciously wacky approach to direction left me feeling more irritated than heart-warmed. There's the zany grandpa with his preposterous barnet and bushy unibrow, the zany young girl, Sachiko, with her giant doppleganger (a sort of metaphorical guardian spirit perhaps), the zany boy, Hajime, and his awkward forays into romance. Maybe it's just the cynic me, but there's only so much good-natued zaniness I can take in one film.

Dir. Katsuhito Ishii, 2004

Sunday, 15 May 2011


Kiri... kiri... kiri...

Or in English, 'cut... cut... cut...', is the mantra for this groundbreaking psychological horror that brought Takashi Miike to the world's attention.

Of all the Miike films I've seen to date (and I have plenty still to see!), Audition remains my favourite - a great premise, complimented by unique imagery and set pieces which have now taken their rightful place in the horror hall of fame - the sack in the bare room with a ringing phone; the hypodermic needle, poised for unspeakableness... In traditional cinematic terms, it might be argued that it's a flawed film; with an overlong setup and confusing narrative, but I don't think traditional cinematic terms are applicable here. The three act structure, whilst just about discernible, seems redundant given that the whole latter half of the film, from the point where Aoyama first kisses Asami, is a brilliantly disorienting fusion of dream and reality; an exercise in cognitive dissonance.

From one of the earliest scenes, where Aoyama is seen reeling in the big catch, through to the final image of a mutilated man lying prone and helpless on the floor, the transition from hunter to hunted is expertly handled by Miike. I actually think the long setup - the audition process, Aoyama's courtship of Asami, his relationship with his family and co-workers - is a vital component in making his subsequent descent into darkness as effective as it is. It almost goes without saying that the cinematography is gorgeous throughout - typified by the judicious use of colour; from the flat tones of Aoyama's home and workplace through to the vivid colour filters used for the dream-like sequences at the abandoned dancing school and the Stone Fish bar in Ginza.

Audition is more disturbing than it is scary, but there are a couple of great jumps, both involving the sack in Asami's unkempt apartment. In Asami, Miike has created a modern day succubus - outward beauty concealing demonic rage; a creature of indeterminate age, identity, corporeality... some kind of sadistic shape-shifting automaton perhaps (surely impossible, but disconcertingly hinted at), with a stock set of lines and gestures she uses to reel in her prey. According to modern psychology, legends of succubi may be ascribed to the hallucinations brought on by sleep paralysis. In the denouement, Asami inflicts a literal paralysis on Aoyama, but he seems to have been sleep-walking into his fate from the moment he laid eyes on her photo, ignoring the warnings of his friend, Yoshikawa. Audition taps perfectly into the primal fear of The Uncanny; the horrible realization that something so familiar can be so strange. Truly insidious.

Dir. Takashi Miike, 1999

Saturday, 23 April 2011


Three short films set in Tokyo, linked by a current of surrealism, and also by the fact that none of the directors are Japanese; a sense of being on the outside, looking in.

First up is a typically whimsical piece from Michel Gondry about a woman who transforms into a chair. It starts off quite slowly, with rather a mundane, albeit nicely acted setup - then throws you the curve ball you were expecting (it's Gondry!), before ending on an upbeat note. Slight, but I enjoyed it.

Carax's segment, Merde, is less successful. For all of it's superficial oddness, it fails to engage - the court sequence is particularly tedious. Carax's shock tactics aren't justified by what's on offer - it's not very funny and too lightweight for social satire. Capital punishment and xenophobia in Japan are contentious subjects and potentially interesting material for a film, but their treatment here is heavy-handed - not helped any by the less than subtle imagery of religious martyrdom.

This is counterpointed by an understated, gently satirical film from Joon-ho Bong, further underlining his status as one of the up and coming directors from South East Asia. Bong takes a sideways look at the peculiarly Japanese phenomenon of hikikomori (acute social withdrawal; the act of voluntarily excluding oneself from the outside world). The absurdity of the 'condition' - and on a wider level, Japan's social fragmentation - is highlighted by one man's earth-moving experience with a pizza delivery girl, following 10 years of solitary confinement in his apartment. A little gem.

Dir. Michel Gondry / Leos Carax / Joon-ho Bong, 2008

Tuesday, 5 April 2011


This probably doesn't have any place being on here as it's largely a film in English, but it's got a Japanese director and that's good enough for me! I'm not sure, but I suspect Virus was Fukasaku's attempt to make the transition into Hollywood. This rather cheap-looking B movie was never likely to make his name with a mainstream Western audience though. It's true to say that the intervening thirty years have not been kind to the film, but on top of that, it feels like a throwback to the Sixties, both in terms of its style and its themes.

The eponymous virus is really just a pretext for making a cold war movie; a cold war movie whose plot is frankly beyond laughable. After a global pandemic has destroyed most of the world's population, a small band of survivors gather in a scientific base in the Antarctic (the virus is dormant in cold conditions). Yoshizumi, an unassuming Japanese seismologist - and hero of the piece, somewhat predictably - warns that off-shore oil drilling and the weight of the sea has triggered tectonic movement, which will result in a massive earthquake off the east coast of the US. The magnitude of the earthquake will cause it to be registered by the ARS (Automatic Response System) as a nuclear attack (possibly a slight design flaw) and it will retaliate in kind - against the Soviets. The Soviets have a similar system in place, which, ironically, as well as targeting the US, is targeting the base in the Antarctic the survivors are stationed. Apparently oblivious to the fact that an earthquake measuring 9 on the richter scale would probably see the building housing the ARS and everything in its vicinity washed away in a tsunami of biblical proportions, Yoshizumi sets off with Major Carter on a mission to Washington to shut down the ARS before it's too late. But it is too late! The warheads have been launched. So the ultimate irony is that the 863 people who survive a virus responsible for wiping out the world's population are themselves wiped out by good old M.A.D.

If he had left it there, and let the credits roll amidst the billowing mushroom clouds, Virus might have garnered 2/5 for ridiculously audacious plot contrivance and for having some balls. As it is, Fukasaku tacks on a gooily sentimental epilogue, set 4 years into the future, which sees Yoshizumi, hobbling along, Christ-like, somehow having made it from Washington DC to Outer Mongolia, then having the further good fortune (a billion to one shot maybe) to chance upon the last enclave of humanity and be reunited with his long lost love. What a load of ARS.

Dir. Kinji Fukasaku, 1980

Thursday, 31 March 2011

Battle Royale II: Requiem

Another in a long line of sequels that spectacularly fail to live up to the standards set by the original. To say Battle Royale II is a poor film though, doesn't nearly do justice to the massive levels of incompetence on display here. Where Battle Royale brilliantly walks the tightrope between the twin towers of bombast and credibility, BRII plunges headlong into the abyss, pulling the towers down with it. Ultra-violent, yet cloyingly sentimental, it appears to justify its over-long run time by presenting itself as a war epic with a powerful message about humanity at its core. It's the text book definition of overreaching.

The basic premise is that the original BR act passed by the government has led to youth-based terrorist activity. The only way to quell this unrest is to pass a new act, BRII, allowing the evil grown-ups to kidnap another bus-load of wide-eyed urchins and send them off to do battle with the terrorists. Cue a drawn out re-hash of the first film with none of the wit or originality. Aside from a tedious amount of self-referencing, there are a variety of cringe-worthy references to other films as well; from Shuya and Taku's last stand (Butch Cassidy) to the beach landing, shot on patented Shaky-Cam - a Fisher Price re-enactment of Saving Private Ryan's incredible opening sequence.

Riki Takeuchi, who was so good as the enigmatic Ryuichi in Miike's Dead Or Alive, is plain horrible here - hamming it up like pork was going out of fashion. Shuya, who cut a sympathetic figure in the first film, has got to be one of the least convincing terrorists in cinematic history; with his daft robes and airbrushed anime face, he looks like he'd be more at home doing Final Fantasy Cosplay than saving the world. In fact, the whole 'Wild Seven' group (now why does that make me crave a certain brand of Japanese cigarette I wonder) are laughable. Who funds them? Other kids? Where do they get their RPGs and assault rifles? Where do they learn to effect global computer hacks by pressing Ctrl-Alt-Delete on their Combat Edition iPads?

The idea that the government would send in ground troops to take out a small terrorist faction conveniently holed up on an island also defies belief. But when they do finally go in, we're supposed to believe that a rag-tag bunch of kids with no training could take on Japan's military elite and win. What really sticks in the craw though, is not the foolish simplicity of the film's Peter Pan With Guns ideology, or even its muddled, infantile grasp of politics; it's the glamorization of terrorism (typified by Shuya's gushing about the AK-47 being the universal symbol of resistance as if he were talking about a Pokemon card); it's the staggeringly patronizing attitude it takes to the unnamed Middle Eastern country where Shuya and his gang end up. Even in a country that has suffered war for 20 years, we're told (for the second time), the grass is still green in Spring and the childrens' eyes still shine with dewy optimism. As long as there's hope, everything's gonna be just fine.

バトル・ロワイアル II
Dir. Kenta Fukasaku / Kinji Fukasaku, 2003

Thursday, 24 March 2011


More often that not, a low rating on IMDb is a sure sign that a film is a turkey, but once in a while it's a sign that a lot of people just haven't got it. I think Raigyo falls into this second camp.

It's sold as 'Pinku Eiga' ('Pink Cinema' - Japan's surprisingly creative take on Erotica) but there's not a lot of sex, and virtually no eroticism to justify the tag. Instead we get a bleak, but engaging journey into mental illness, disconnection and psychopathy. If I'm honest, after watching the yawn-fest that was Kokkuri, I didn't expect much from Zeze, but here he proves himself to be a filmmaker of some skill. Raigyo perfectly captures a sense of desolate liminality - the action taking place in a part-marshland, part-industrial hinterland. The characters too, hover somewhere between intrigue and inscrutability; misfits, like the snake-headed fish of the film's title.

Given its short run time (75 mins), Raigyo, is, if anything, a little too opaque for its own good. The violence is explicit - and shocking in its banality - but the protagonists' motivations and back stories are barely fleshed out at all. We're plunged right into the here and now, and, like the police in the film, left to fill in the blanks. The final CCTV tracking shot brings this point home, as Yanai and his strange companion disappear into the crowd. In a way though, its refusal to explain is a large part of the film's appeal.

Dir. Takahisa Zeze, 1997

Sunday, 20 February 2011

One Missed Call

Miike phoning it in.

Sorry, couldn't resist. As it happens, it's only partly true - One Missed Call is a slickly effective J-Horror with scares in all the right places. The basic premise is that people receive a call on their mobile phone, apparently from their own number, which leaves an eerie voicemail message foretelling of their imminent death. As one person is killed, another number is called from the victim's phone and so the 'virus' propagates.

In a post-production interview, Miike reveals that he doesn't particularly like straight-up horror films; that he wants a bit more from his ¥1800 cinema ticket than a few scares. Nevertheless, a straight-up horror is pretty much what he delivers - yes, there is a decent back story, centering around child abuse (the abused becoming the abuser) and Munchausen's Syndrome by Proxy, but not in the kind of depth that would elevate it into another genre.

Essentially, One Missed Call is derivative of the best J-Horror: if you put Ring, The Grudge and Dark Water into a blender and pressed Go, this is pretty much what you'd expect. Except that with most directors what you'd end up with is a grey sludge, rather than the smooth, vivid cocktail of elements that is One Missed Call: the acting is good, the sets and lighting immaculate (it's hard to imagine a creepier setting than an abandoned hospital), the story coherent, and the script taut. It's also a lesson in manipulating atmosphere - for all the (very effective) supernatural goings on, I think the scene that made me jump highest out of my seat involved a couple of crows banging into the window of a gloomy apartment block. Miike is a hugely accomplished filmmaker, capable of so much more than this, but as J-Horror goes, it's probably still in the top 10%.

Dir. Takashi Miike, 2004

Tuesday, 1 February 2011


Hana-Bi (Fireworks) didn't have quite the impression it had on me when I first saw it at the cinema some 13 odd years ago, but then I've seen a lot of films in those 13 years, not to mention most of Kitano's back catalogue. It's not quite the existential odyssey I remembered it to be, but its quality still shines through.

Hana-Bi is a bridge between Kitano's earlier yakuza films like Boiling Point and Sonatine and artier fare like Dolls. It still has moments of explicit violence but is essentially a subtler, more meditative film - albeit a less focused one. Once again, Kitano is lead actor as well as director, here playing Nishi; a cop who leaves his job to go away on a road trip with his dying wife, Miyuki. Running parallel to this is the story of Horibe - his old partner on the force, who was shot in the line of duty and is now semi-paralyzed; wheelchair-bound and alone. Horibe tries to find new meaning in life through painting, taking a different path across the wilderness to Nishi but ultimately arriving at the same bleak point.

In the scenes with Nishi and his wife, there's a convincing sense of long-abiding intimacy, but little dialogue between them - perhaps because there's nothing left to be said at this point in their lives. The comfortable silences and Nishi's compassion (made all the more striking by his violent run ins with the yakuza loan sharks who haunt his final days) have an emotional resonance that doesn't really need any exposition. Hisaishi's elegiac score has its own pull on the heart strings as well.

As is always the case with Kitano, the imagery of the film is deliberate and meticulous. The lingering stills of his own paintings are mysterious signifiers. What exactly do the stamen-headed creatures symbolize? The painting of fireworks, echoing the bittersweet sentiment of the film's title, seems to be about the lives of the protagonists - transient, vibrant, exploding into oblivion.

Dir. Takeshi Kitano, 1997

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Brave Story

It's obvious a lot of time and effort has been invested in Brave Story to make a new Sprited Away. In terms of the visuals, it's not a bad effort - slickly animated, impeccably well-drawn with some nice 3D modelling. In terms of the story though, it's a million miles away. Despite drawing liberally on a Miyazakian pallette of temporal loopholes and funny wee beasties, the magic ingredient just isn't there.

What starts out as a (massively implausible and sketchy) story about a boy whose parents have separated and who is looking for a fantasy world in which to take refuge, quickly morphs into a typical dumb quest anime.

Dir. Koichi Chigira, 2006

Sunday, 16 January 2011


A relentless stream of bollocks.

Really, I'd like to leave it there, but since I've set a precedent on this blog of more verbose reviews, I will, reluctantly, elaborate.

The DVD copy I have has a quote on the cover which claims the movie is "better than both sequels to The Matrix put together", or in other words, it's better than shit squared - which it really isn't.

Allegedly set in 21st Century 'Eurasia', under the rule of The Great Eastern Empire, Casshern opens with Professor Azuma addressing a room full of the great and good to announce that he has 'discovered' 'neo-cells'. We're then treated to some vaguely scientific bollocks where he explains how these miraculous self-replicating cells are the answer to death (still a problem for mankind even in the late 21st Century).

Azuma and his crew of weird scientists set up shop in army HQ under the auspices of a preening knob called Naito and proceed to fill several enormous pools with red dye and prosthetic body parts. He also makes sure to turn on every available smoke machine and ensures the lighting is set to maximum pretentiousness. After a year of peering through microscopes and farting about with charts, it looks like the professor's experiment has failed. But suddenly the alarm is sounded as the body parts begin to cohere into men! Men whom the army gun down but who escape unharmed through the sewer system, trek across the Arctic Circle and miraculously chance upon an unoccupied super fortress. The leader of this bunch of hacks, who looks like a kind of Japanese Eddie Izzard in battle gear, proclaims them to be Neoroids and declares war on his creators, the humans. As is if on queue, Third Reich-style Neoroid banners are unfurled from nowhere and an evil robot production factory is discovered. Off screen, Rammstein decide this would be the ideal time to start bashing out a few power chords. A few minutes later, the Neoroids' army of several million robots is ready to go. Go get the humans! Go!! Fortunately, Prof Azuma's son, who was killed in a pointless war, has been reborn in one of the re-birthing pools and naturally sets to work against the Neoroid army in his new capacity as ass-kicker in chief, lining them up and knocking them down like so many dominoes. All scored by a ludicrous pop-metal soundtrack.

Unlike some other sci-fis with plots written by 12 year olds, Casshern is not even a visual feast - yes it clearly has a sizeable budget behind it; it's vast in scale, but appears to be going for the Terry Gilliam look, falling well short, and ending up instead with an upmarket, oversized version of Knightmare. There's no-one as charismatic as Tregard in Casshern though, and the CG is ridiculously intrusive, dovetailing with the live action like a fifty foot top hat dovetails with a child's head. Given that this film was clearly not made on a shoestring, in contrast to, say, Big Tits Zombie, I would have to rate it as the worst thing I've reviewed on here to date.

Temporal disruption ends...

Dir. Kazuaki Kiriya, 2004

Thursday, 13 January 2011


Kokkuri is essentially the Japanese equivalent of Ouija; a hand-drawn board, consisting of a circle of hirigana characters, over which participants move a coin at the behest of an unseen spirit - Kokkuri-san - to spell out the answers to their questions.

Not that you need to know this in order to watch the film Kokkuri because it has virtually nothing to do with it. The closest we come to the spirit world is a lace curtain rustling in the breeze. As it transpires, the game of Kokkuri is merely the clunkiest of pretexts for a mind-numbingly dull psychodrama. Despite being slower paced than a dead tortoise and having approximately nothing happen in its 90 minutes or so run time Kokkuri still manages to be convoluted, confusing and illogical. Quite a feat I'd say.

I won't even bore you with the details of the shit plot, suffice it to say that it's a blatant rip off of Dark Water. The camera-work is amateurish, the acting ponderous, the script derisory. Zeze doesn't even have the good grace to bring the simmering lesbian undercurrents to the boil. Note to director: when making a horror movie, at least one scare is a good rule of thumb. Sudden cut shots to small moody-looking Japanese girls are not always the answer, however dim the lighting and however many rusty wind chimes are clanking in the background.

Dir. Takahisa Zeze, 1997