I was Born, But… (1932) This silent comedy from director Yasujirô Ozu provides a rare glimpse into Japan’s pre-war past. A meek accountant (Tatsuo Saitô) moves his family to a home in the suburbs, and his sons (Tomio Aoki and Hideo Sugawara) must adjust to a new school and battle neighborhood bullies. The scenes with the kids playing hooky from school and contending with their peers are reminiscent of Hal Roach’s Our Gang shorts, but Ozu’s film digs deeper with poignant social commentary about a burgeoning middle class. For most of us, our parents appear larger than life, and it’s sobering to see them as they really are. For the young boys in the film, they must come to terms with their father’s obsequious relationship with his boss. The film achieves a perfect balance that never seems too light or too dour – the perfect antidote for those who prefer their humor with a touch of vitriol.
Rating: ****. Available on DVD.
Vibrator (2003) This was the biggest surprise of my month-long exploration of Japanese cinema. The title suggests something more lurid than the reality of this touching relationship drama from director Ryuichi Hiroki and writer Haruhiko Arai, based on a novel by Mari Akasaka. Shinobu Terajima is to be commended for her bold portrayal of Rei, a 31-year-old bulimic woman who grapples with her sense of inadequacy and ambivalence about interacting with other people. We first meet Rei as she hooks up with a truck driver Takatoshi (Nao Ômori) at a convenience store. What could have been a one-night stand turns into a road trip, as she accompanies him on his route.
Rei narrates the film with her tormented inner monologue, revealing her approach-avoid tendencies. One of the film’s best scenes involves Takatoshi instructing Rei on the rules of communicating via CB radio. The CB and the radio waves bouncing around in the darkness become a metaphor for the long, lonely nights on the road and the people who reach out to each other to connect. Hitting the road enables Rei to escape her troubles, if only for a short time. By the film’s end we’re not sure if she’s any better off than when she started, but it’s all about living in the moment.
Rating: ****. Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming.
Wild Zero (1999) Venerable punk band Guitar Wolf takes center stage in this unholy offspring of Night of the Living Dead and Rock ‘n Roll High School. The story clips along at a frenetic pace as we follow several different scenarios: the band travels around town playing various gigs, flying saucers turn people into zombies, Guitar Wolf wannabe Ace tries to protect the woman he loves, an arms dealer does her best to stave off the undead, and a trio of bickering ne’er do wells wander the road. Eventually, all of these disparate elements converge. Not that any of it makes much sense, but who cares? It’s virtually impossible not to succumb to Wild Zero’s chaotic charms. Guitar Wolf lead singer Guitar Wolf sums everything up: “There are no boundaries in rock ‘n roll. Believe in rock ‘n roll.” Words to live by, indeed.
Rating: *** ½. Available on DVD.
Princess from the Moon (1987) (aka: Taketori Monogatari) This charming fantasy was based on the ancient Japanese folk story The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, which also inspired Isao Takahata’s recent Studio Ghibli film with the same name. A grief-stricken bamboo cutter (Toshirô Mifune) and his wife (Ayako Wakao), reeling from the loss of their 5-year-old daughter Kaya, discover a baby in the forest and raise her as their own. The baby, who resembles Kaya, clutches a crystal ball that holds the key to her celestial origins. The adult Kaya (Yasuko Sawaguchi) is courted by three noblemen who go off on quests to prove their sincerity. With its lush cinematography and epic sweep, director Kon Ichikawa’s film is amusing, magical and affecting. It’s a shame Princess from the Moon falters with a disappointing ending that rips off Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but let’s just pretend the last ten minutes never happened, okay?
Rating: *** ½. Available on DVD and Hulu Streaming.
Charisma (1999) Writer/director Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s contemplative, abstruse genre-defying film stars Kôji Yakusho as cop Goro Yabuike. After a botched hostage rescue, Goro goes on leave from his job, and wanders off to a remote wooded area to find himself. He winds up in the middle of a bizarre struggle between the locals concerning a tree known as Charisma. Should they kill the tree and save the forest, or save the tree and let the forest die? Kurosawa provides no explanations or easy solutions. While Charisma isn’t entirely successful (it’s slow moving and the characters are difficult to like), I kept thinking about it for days afterward, wondering what it all really meant.
Rating: ***. Available on DVD.
Gappa, the Triphibian Monster (aka: Daikyojû Gappa) (1967) Nikkatsu studio’s first and only kaiju eiga flick is dismissed by many enthusiasts as a lesser knock-off of giant monster movies from Toho and Daiei. They’d be mostly right, but that’s overlooking the more enjoyable aspects. The film features a Walt Disney-esque mogul who envisions a huge theme park populated with animals, and sends a team of researchers to the South Pacific to collect specimens for the project. Despite the protests of a “native” boy in blackface (“Gappa angry!”), a baby reptilian creature is whisked away from its South Pacific island home by overeager scientists. Its mom and dad follow him to Japan, where they proceed to stomp everything in their path. Standard monster mayhem ensues, but (SPOILER ALERT) it’s worth it for the inevitable reunion between parents and child. There won’t be a dry eye in the house (well, on the screen anyway). Seriously, even the monsters cry.
Rating: ***. Available on DVD.