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.