Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Place Promised in Our Early Days

(2004) Written and directed by Makoto Shinkai; Starring: Hidetaka Yoshioka, Masato Hagiwara and Yuka Nanri; Available on DVD.

Rating: ***

Does the universe dream?  Writer/director Makoto Shinkai raises this intriguing premise in the beautifully animated, but ultimately hollow exercise, The Place Promised in Our Early Days.  This tale of love, war and parallel universes is better summarized than executed – a near miss that left me on the fence. 

The Place Promised in Our Early Days is set in an alternate Japan divided into two factions: the Union in the north, and the United States-controlled south.  Just within the Union border, in the prefecture of Hokkaido, stands an impossibly tall tower.  The enigmatic structure, whose purpose remains unknown, could be the focal point of a war between both sides, but could also spell the destruction of reality as we know it.  The tower becomes an object of fascination for childhood pals Hiroki Fujisawa and Takuya Shirakawa (voiced by Hidetaka Yoshioka and Masato Hagiwara, respectively), who are building an aircraft with the hope of exploring it close up.  Their dynamic is changed forever when fellow classmate Sayuri Sawatari (voiced by Yuka Nanri) enters the mix.  Hiroki and Sayuri make a promise to visit the tower together – a promise that gets indefinitely sidetracked when she mysteriously disappears. The story shifts ahead three years, as we discover that Sayuri has been in a coma.

Sayuri and her comatose state are somehow linked to the rhythms of the tower, and her awakening could mean disaster for Japan.  The tower, which stretches endlessly to the sky, is the best part of the film.  It represents the great unknown; a vast enigmatic monolith that could be the key to new worlds or the path to our own demise.  We can only deduce that it’s some sort of experiment, weapon, or both, as it opens doors to multiple universes.  Its effects elicit a metaphysical quandary: are these other universes simply the “dreams” of our own universe?  If Shinkai had chosen to linger on this question rather than focus on the more prosaic dramatic elements of the story, we would have been left with an existential meditation on the nature of our existence instead of a film that retreats to familiar territory.

There’s a fine line between maintaining a deliberate pace and just being slow.  The relatively brief running time belies the perception that it’s a much longer film.  While I can appreciate that Shinkai probably wanted to establish a more leisurely pace, it’s hard to dispel the notion that we’re looking at a short film stretched to feature length.  The love story, which is supposed to be the center of the film, is the weakest link, with lead characters that seem somnambulistic. Contributing to this general impression of lifelessness is the virtual absence of humor.

Despite all of my misgivings about The Place Promised in Our Early Days, I didn’t dislike it.  However, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it could have been so much more.  On the surface, the film has all the classic elements that would make it a timeless masterpiece: haunting visuals, universal themes of adolescent love, and a unique science fiction premise.  Unfortunately, none of these pieces quite gel together (Compare to Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausica in the Valley of the Wind or Castle in the Sky, which cover similar ground, but are full of a sense of joie de vivre that’s conspicuously absent in this film).  Shinkai is clearly a talented filmmaker, and if this film is any indication, he has the potential to turn out a truly great film someday, rather than this somewhat underdone, overrated effort.  The Place Promised in Our Early Days is recommended for its stunning visuals and ambitious concept, if you can overlook the bland characterizations and languid pace.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Late Spring (aka: Banshun)

(1949) Directed by Yasujirô Ozu; Written by Yasujirô Ozu and Kôgo Noda;  Based on the novel Chichi to musume by Kazuo Hirotsu; Starring: Chishû Ryû, Setsuko Hara and Yumeji Tsukioka; 
Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Rating: **** ½

How many choices are truly our own, and how many are contingent on the expectations (whether explicit or implied) of others?  This dilemma is at the heart of Late Spring, a film that feels at once universal and uniquely Japanese.  Director/co-writer Yasujirô Ozu set his poignant postwar family drama in Kamakura, a suburb of Tokyo.  While the setting and traditions might appear somewhat alien to western audiences, the themes of meddling friends and family are quite familiar.  

Setsuko Hara is captivating as the 27-year-old Noriko, who’s content to care for her aging, widowed father (Chishû Ryû), and views the institution of marriage with suspicion and disdain.  She’s in no hurry to change her living arrangement, which has been a great source of happiness for her.  But the other people in Noriko’s circle are concerned that life is passing her by, and are determined to upset the balance, confirming the age-old axiom that change is the only constant in life.  Hara displays enormous range in her character, as she progresses through a spectrum of emotions from childlike elation, to rage, and finally arriving at begrudging acceptance.  In one of the film’s key scenes, we observe her attending a noh play with her father, as she sneaks furtive glances at Mrs. Miwa (Kuniko Miyake) sitting in the audience, the woman she thinks will displace her as her father’s caretaker.  In this dialogue-free scene, accompanied only by the mournful song of the play, we can feel her inner turmoil as she warily regards the rival for her father’s affections.  Noriko is a portrait of quiet grace bursting under pressure, imposed by her well-intentioned family, friends and societal expectations.   

Noriko’s father, Shukichi Somiya, is the other key player in this family drama.  His calm exterior and soft-spoken, amiable nature masks his conflicted interior.  He outwardly dismisses the fact that Noriko has already found her happiness at home with him, but he’s ambivalent about letting her go.  He’s also aware that he won’t always be around for her, and cognizant that her finding a mate will inevitably break up their dyadic relationship.  One of Somiya’s challenges is convincing Noriko that marriage isn’t an end, but a beginning.  He observes, “Somehow she got the idea in her head that marriage is life’s graveyard.”  After observing her spending time with her male friend Hattori (Jun Usami), Somiya deduces (much to Noriko’s chagrin) that Hattori would be the perfect husband for her.  He’s surprised to learn that Hattori is already engaged to marry someone else, but this seems to be the catalyst that sets in motion Somiya’s determination to help Noriko in spite of herself.  At this point, he schemes with her aunt to find a suitable husband.

Apparently joining in this conspiracy is Noriko’s best friend, Aya (Yumeji Tsukioka) a modern woman in a rapidly changing Japan.  Divorced, and living alone as a stenographer, Aya reflects the changing roles of women in Japanese society.  She isn’t in a hurry to enter a relationship with another man, but paradoxically encourages Noriko to “…hurry up and get married.”

Late Spring reflects Ozu’s fascination with marriage, which was often a recurring theme in his films.  Ironically, in his own life, Ozu’s never married, and chose to live with his mother until her death.  Another recurring conceit is that Ozu never spells out the answers for us about Noriko’s inevitable decision to marry, nor are we privy to all the details and signposts other filmmakers normally include.  We never actually see her fiancé Satake, but his physical presence is irrelevant to the story, because the audience already senses his influence and what he represents for Noriko.  Late Spring’s story unfolds without obvious protagonists or antagonists.  The decisions made in the film are not clearly right or wrong.  They simply acknowledge that life is often messy, with no easy choices.

Fatalism is another theme, woven throughout the film.  By the time her wedding occurs (which never appears onscreen), the atmosphere seems more appropriate for a wake.  A death of another kind has occurred.  Noriko is resigned to her fate, rather than excited about her life transition.  When prompted by Somiya, her enthusiasm seems forced and disingenuous.  Their final trip together as father and daughter is bittersweet.  As they go to sleep, Ozu’s lens lingers on a large vase, apparently the source of much debate among film scholars.  If I had to venture a guess about its significance, perhaps the vase signifies she has made peace with her decision to marry Satake, and it exists as a symbolic vessel to isolate her misgivings.

The final scene suggests a zero-sum solution, in which no one really benefits.  Noriko has gained a husband but lost the special relationship with her father.  Somiya managed to marry off his only daughter, but at the price of his loneliness.  In the end, we’re left to wonder if she’s truly better off.   There are no simple answers.  Late Spring is an enduring classic because Ozu trusts the audience’s intelligence to cope with ambiguity and fill in the blanks.  Its themes of life transition, social obligations and compromising ideals at the service of others span geographic and cultural barriers.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Japan-uary II Quick Picks and Pans

After Life (1998) Writer/director Hirokazu Koreeda’s quietly reflective near-masterpiece delivers effortlessly on a simple premise: when people die, they enter a way station of sorts where they must choose a favorite memory that will be interpreted into a film.  This film will serve as the only memory they will take to the great beyond.  Koreeda, who directed several documentaries, adds a similar touch to After Life, with many scenes consisting of interviews with the recently deceased recollecting episodes from their past lives.  Some of the dead seem content, such as an 80-something woman (Hisako Hara) perpetually stuck in a 9-year-old’s world, while others seem agitated, such as a 21-year-old (Yûsuke Iseya, in his first film role) who refuses to single out one memory.  While many of the memories are relatively banal on the surface, they’re sublimely captivating because they remind us that it’s often the quiet moments that hold the most resonance. 

As we observe the counselors that help prompt the dead with their memories, we’re left to ponder who they are exactly, and why they’re stuck here in a seemingly infinite limbo.  The answer, which I wouldn’t dare reveal here, is appropriate and ambiguous.  After Life takes the time to allow us to process the memories that have been revealed and feel the joy as they’re subsequently duplicated in a movie studio.  It’s an unforgettable viewing experience that’s simultaneously melancholic and life-affirming.

Rating: ****.  Available on DVD.

Dororo (2007) Director Akihiko Shiota brings Osamu Tezuka’s manga to life in this tale about a despotic samurai lord Kagemitsu Daigo (Kiichi Nakai) who pledged 48 body parts from his unborn son to demons, in exchange for absolute rule.  The action picks up 20 years later, following young warrior Hyakkimaru’s (Satoshi Tsumabuki) quest to reclaim his body parts and vanquish the demons that took them.  He’s joined by a plucky female thief (Kô Shibasaki) who adopts the name Dororo.  Along the way, they fight a variety of imaginative foes, some of which are traditional yokai.  While the CGI effects are inconsistent, it’s still an entertaining romp, thanks to the lively performances of the lead actors, and stunning location shots (filmed in New Zealand).  The ending sets up sequels Dororo 2 and 3, which, sadly, were planned but never filmed.

Rating: *** ½.  Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming.

The Calamari Wrestler (aka: Ika resuraa) (2005) A new wrestling champion is crowned, only to see his title challenged by an unlikely contender.  None of this sounds too unusual, until you realize that his adversary is a squid.  Minoru Kawasaki keeps his tongue firmly planted in his cheek, in a story that follows a predictable Rocky-like trajectory, but manages to be original with its bizarre title character.  Efforts to defame the Calamari Wrestler (and ban him from the sport) backfire when he becomes an unconventional hero of the people.  One of his key proponents, paradoxically, is the disgraced champion, who vows revenge against the upstart mollusk (who also took his girlfriend away from him), but wants to defeat him in the ring.  Amidst this underdog story is commentary about contemporary Japan and modern hero worship, but you really shouldn’t strain yourself trying to read too much into this.

Rating: *** ½.  Available on DVD.

Karate-Robo Zaborgar (2011) Writer/director Noboru Iguchi’s unabashedly goofy remake (or re-imagining?) of the 70s TV series Denjin Zaborger follows a crime-fighting duo consisting of policeman/karate expert Daimon (played by Yasuhisa Furuhara and Itsuji Itao, as younger and older versions) along with his robot sidekick that can transform into a motorcycle (who also happens to be his brother – don’t ask!).  At nearly two hours, it’s a trifle overlong, but that can be forgiven, considering all of the craziness that ensues.  The humor never rises above middle school level, with a lady cyborg that fires brassiere missiles and a robot with caustic diarrhea, but it’s impossible to dismiss the film’s demented exuberance.  These are merely some of the wonders that await when you dive into the world of Karate-Robo Zaborgar.

Rating: ***.  Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming

Gorath (1962) This obscure end-of-the-world flick from director Ishirô Honda deserves to be better known.  The story, for those familiar with When Worlds Collide (1951) or Warning from Space (1956), won’t seem particularly original (the star Gorath, half the size of Earth but with a mass several thousand times larger, is hurtling through space on a collision course with our home planet), but Honda keeps things engaging nonetheless.  Set in the future of 1979, the governments of the world pool their resources to stop it.  The human race is left with two options: destroy Gorath or move the Earth.  After determining that wiping out the errant star is unfeasible, the United Nations opts for plan B, and constructs a giant Antarctic installation with multiple giant rockets to nudge the Earth out of harm’s way.  While I can’t vouch for the authenticity of the science on display in Gorath (It’s doubtful that the Earth’s orbit could be significantly altered without catastrophic global consequences), I enjoyed the film’s hopeful message about worldwide cooperation, and it’s always fun to watch the impressive miniature effects, thanks to Eiji Tsuburaya.  For some reason, the American version omitted a walrus kaiju that attacks the Antarctic base (walruses reside in the opposite pole, but no matter), but there’s still a healthy dose of eye candy without the monster.  Worth a look… If you can find it, of course.

Rating: ***.  Currently unavailable on DVD.

Boys on the Run (2010) Toshiyuki Tanishi (Kazunobu Mineta) is a socially inept salesman for a company that makes plastic bubble novelty toys.  His pathetic efforts to find a girlfriend are continually thwarted, thanks to his self-defeating behavior. It’s painful to watch Tanishi as he continually takes one misstep after another in his attempts to win over his co-worker Chiharu (Mei Kurokawa), then spends the rest of the movie trying to win her back.   It’s hard not to feel ambivalent about Tanishi, as we simultaneously root for him and wish he’d just grow up and move on with his life. 

It isn’t easy to pigeonhole Boys on the Run into one genre. It’s not really funny enough to be a comedy, and it’s a little too lightweight as a drama.  As a result, we’re left with something in between that seems a bit underdone.  While the end product isn’t entirely successful, it’s still worth a look, to observe Mineta’s bold performance as a complete loser.  Without giving too much away (minor spoiler alert), it’s clear to see that things are not going to end well for our protagonist (In a nod to Taxi Driver, he tries to emulate Travis Bickle, leading to disastrous consequences). 

Rating: ***.  Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming.

Kibakichi (aka: Kibakichi: Bakko-yokaiden) (2005) It’s a shame that Kibakichi fails to live up to its modest ambitions, showcasing a mysterious traveling warrior who does battle with supernatural creatures known as yokai.  While the war between yokai and humans is outlined in only the sketchiest of terms, one of the film’s biggest faults is that we never care about the title character (Ryûji Harada), who remains an enigma.  Maybe the filmmakers were trying for a “man with no name” vibe, but most of his actions (or inactions) seem far from heroic.  He fails to do anything for most of the film’s length, and when he finally does, most of the good guys are already dead. 

The film does little to transcend its low-budget origins, confining the action to a few murky sets, and depicting the yokai only sparingly.  In an obvious effort to keep makeup costs down, the creatures conveniently disguise themselves as humans.  If you want to see yokai in action, you’d be much better off watching the superior Yokai Monsters: Spook Warfare (1968) or The Great Yokai War (2005).

Rating: **.  Available on DVD.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Once Over Twice: Destroy All Monsters

(1968) Directed by Ishirô Honda; Written by Ishirô Honda and Takeshi Kimura; Starring: Akira Kubo, Jun Tazaki and Yukiko Kobayashi; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: *** ½

Movies can serve to lift the spirit or hold a magnifying glass to our world’s ills.  We can marvel at the wonders of nature or cry at the scourge of our environment.  Motion pictures are the perfect medium to convey in metaphor our most grandiose desires and deepest fears.  Sometimes, however, we just want to see buildings get smashed and stuff get blown up.  Destroy All Monsters is tailor-made for that 10-year-old in all of us who would rather be entertained than sermonized. 

Toho Pictures’ bigger-budget follow-up to Son of Godzilla (aka: Kaijûtô no kessen: Gojira no musuko) was released as Kaijû sôshingeki (translated as March of the Monsters), but American International Pictures adopted the flashier title, Destroy All Monsters for the U.S. release.  The film went through a number of name changes over the years, including a re-release in Japan under the curious moniker Godzilla Electric Battle Masterpiece.  Whatever you choose to call it, Destroy All Monsters was a landmark film for Toho and the Shōwa era Godzilla flicks, when kaiju movies were experiencing a decline, losing ground to cheaper television productions.

According to the Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski’s informative DVD commentary, Honda was getting bored with being typecast as a monster movie director, and was becoming increasingly frustrated by Toho’s refusal to finance his other, non-kaiju projects.  Unlike his masterpiece Gojira, Honda didn’t attempt to infuse Destroy All Monsters with social commentary about our inherent destructive impulses, or ponder Japan’s role in the late 60s as an emerging global economic powerhouse.  Instead, he set out to showcase a veritable who’s who of giant monsters creating mass havoc. 

Destroy All Monsters is set in the future year of 1999(!), when humankind has established a permanent presence on the surface of the moon and the bottom of the ocean.  Peace on Earth is maintained, thanks to the world’s monsters being confined to an inescapable remote South Pacific island.  Of course, it would be rather dull if the monsters simply stayed on the island for the duration of the film, so we’re introduced to a malevolent alien race to mix things up.  The Kilaak want to create a utopian society on Earth, but they figure you can’t break an omelet without breaking a few eggs.  They decide to release the monsters from their island prison and lay waste to the world’s major cities in the process.   It should be no surprise that Honda chooses to focus on the destruction in Tokyo, while other cities get the short end of the stick (we have to take an announcer’s word that London was devastated, rather than actually see it.).

With a budget of roughly $500,000 in U.S. dollars, Honda had to get a lot of bang for the buck (or Yen, in this case), using limited resources.  Several readily familiar kaiju, along with a few more obscure monsters, appeared in the film, with most having been literally recycled from earlier Toho flicks.  While a new Godzilla costume was created for Destroy All Monsters, the filmmakers had to make do with monster props that were in varying states of disrepair.  Probably the most obvious (and disappointing) concession to a dwindling budget was Mothra, who only appeared in larval form, since the original winged prop was too damaged to use in the production.  Despite the cost-cutting woes, we’re treated to several welcome guests, including the serpentine Manda from Atragon, who makes short work of an elevated train track, and King Ghidorah, who arrives just in time for the climactic kaiju-filled smack-down.

 While the monsters are the star attraction, several human contributors are worth noting.  The stirring music by Akira Ifukube, borrowing many themes from his Gojira score,  pushes the right buttons, and provides a certain dignity to the proceedings, no matter how silly the on-screen action becomes.  The leads are also suitably appealing in their somewhat two-dimensional roles.  Akira Kubo makes a convincing leading man as Captain Katsuo Yamabe, who leads his crew on a desperate fight against seemingly indestructible aliens.  Yukiko Kobayashi appears to be having fun in her role as Kyoko Manabe, a human pawn under the influence of the Kilaak. Eiji Tsuburaya, who also worked on Gojira, deserves praise for his inventive miniature effects work.

There’s been some debate about where Destroy All Monsters stands in the pantheon of Godzilla flicks.  Some have held on to their fond childhood memories of the film, while others take a revisionist tact, citing it as an overrated entry in the series.  Although both camps’ skewed opinions certainly have merit, I can’t help but side with the former.  Destroy All Monsters won’t win any awards for originality or attempts at profundity, but it ultimately delivers the goods.  Even if Honda’s efforts at this point were more perfunctory than enthusiastic, his movie lived up to its premise, with its Toho monster dream team.  In terms of sheer quantity of kaiju (with only a couple notable exceptions), it has most of the competition beat.  It’s best watched with your inner 10-year-old in tow, free from the encumbrances of over-analyzing what unfolds on screen.  Sit down, shut up, and strap yourself in for the ride.