Saturday, January 31, 2015

Japan-uary IV Quick Picks and Pans

Wolf Children (aka: Ookami Kodomo No Ame To Yuki) (2012) Director Mamoru Hosoda (Summer Wars, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time) brings us another winner, with this beautifully animated, affecting tale. In Hosoda’s capable hands, bitter and sweet come in equal doses, with the lighter moments balanced by tragic interludes. College student Hana strikes up a doomed relationship with a mysterious wolf man. Their two children, Yuki and Ame, possess properties of both parents, resulting in some unexpected consequences. Hana takes her family to the country to start a new life, far away from the prying eyes of the city. In the ensuing years, she faces the prospect that her son and daughter are steadily growing apart, and choosing separate paths. Parents will find much to relate to in the allegorical aspects of this multi-layered story. Wolf Children illustrates the sacrifices we make for our children, finding the strength to let go when it’s time to make their own decisions.

Rating: **** ½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD.

The Face of Another (1966) This meditation on identity and deception from director Hiroshi Teshigahara and writer Kôbô Abe (based on his novel) explores the ramifications of the literal and figurative masks people wear. After suffering an accident that disfigured his face, businessman Okuyama (Tatsuya Nakadai) becomes cold and embittered, distancing himself from his wife (Machiko Kyô) and co-workers. He becomes the willing guinea pig for a psychiatrist’s (Mikijirô Hira) social experiment, setting up a separate identity with his artificial face. The Face of Another illustrates how much we are judged by our appearance. It also proves, to paraphrase the old adage, you can fool some people some of the time, but others will always see through our elaborate disguises. We may wear different masks, but they ultimately fail to conceal the person within. 

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

Love Exposure (aka: Ai No Mukidashi) (2008) Don’t let this film’s four-hour running time deter you – it may be the quickest four hours you’ll ever spend. Any synopsis would not do Love Exposure justice, which is comprised of three different stories occurring simultaneously. After the death of his mother, Yû’s (Takahiro Nishijima) father turns to the priesthood for solace. Clean cut Yû soon discovers that the only way to get his father’s attention is through sinning. As a result, he begins associating with a group of reprobates, and becomes a master of upskirt photography (yeah, apparently it’s a thing in Japan). Meanwhile, on the quest to find his true soulmate, and fulfill a promise to his mother, he pursues the girl of his dreams, Yôko (Hikari Mitsushima). The only trouble is she despises him. He’s also followed by members of a religious cult, the Zero Church, led by the devious Koike (Sakura Andô). When Yû eventually tires of his new hobby, he becomes a pervert priest of sorts, to absolve the sins of fellow sexual deviants. Writer/director Shion Sono’s epic love story is a crazed, mini-masterpiece, contrasting sacred and profane themes with equal skill. Do yourself a favor, and set aside some time to watch this true original.

Rating: ****. Available on DVD.

The Rug Cop (aka: Zura Deka) (2006) Absurd comedy specialist Minoru Kawasaki (Citizen Koala, The Calamari Wrestler) returns with a parody of Japanese cop shows, and leaves no stone unturned to skewer the usual clichés and stereotypes. Moto Fuyuki plays our hero, Zura Deka (aka: Rug Cop ), a follicle-ly challenged police detective with a checkered past who’s mastered the art of using his toupee as a weapon. He’s accompanied by a rag-tag bunch, possessing…talents: when sufficiently aroused, one cop wields his freakishly large member like a lightsaber; another one has a wicked penchant for telling stale dad jokes; while another charms women into submission with his rugged good looks. Kawasaki keeps things fun throughout, including a karaoke sing-along, but never quite tops the great opening scene where a ventriloquist’s dummy takes a bank hostage. Recommended for those who prefer their silliness straight, with no chaser.  

Rating: *** ½. Available on DVD

Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989) For this entry in the Heisei series, the big G squares off against a giant plant hybrid. A brilliant genetic researcher (Is there any other kind in these flicks?) combines Godzilla’s DNA and his deceased daughter’s essence, along with a rose, to create a new form of life. As anyone with a pulse could imagine, it doesn’t turn out well. Maybe it was because of the bad taste in my mouth from a recent viewing of the bloated 2014 American re-imagining/reboot/whatever, but I had fun with this enjoyable, if unremarkable entry in the series, replete with cartoonish human villains, ineffective army weapons and monster mayhem. If nothing else, Biollante is certainly one of the most unique foes the big reptile has faced to date.

Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Tokyo Zombie (2005) Tadanobu Asano and Shô Aikawa star as two losers, Fujio and Mitsuo, who bumble through a zombie apocalypse. Prepare for many, many bald jokes at Mitsuo’s expense (Yeah movie, we get it. He’s bald.), contrasted by Fujio’s giant afro. Writer/director Sakichi Satô tries to strike a balance between horror, broad humor and social satire but doesn’t really succeed in any of these areas. The zombie makeup is mediocre at best, most of the comic moments fall flat, and the film squanders opportunities for social commentary. The story, based on a manga by Yûsaku Hanakuma, is divided into two parts: the present day, and five years later, when zombies have more or less taken over and the rich have set up fortress-like enclaves. It seems as if the filmmakers were attempting something, but like its slacker protagonists, missed the mark.  

Rating: **. Available on DVD.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Gamera Trilogy (1995-1999)

“I asked the actors to move in an inhuman way. Because they are kaiju, you know… So they must move like kaiju. Another thing I requested from the actors was, since the two monsters hate each other, I wanted the fights to be very fierce.” – Shinji Higuchi (Special Effects Director)

Daiei Film’s Gamera has commonly enjoyed lesser status, compared to rival studio Toho’s Godzilla (Pepsi versus Coke, if you will). Gamera’s reputation as a sloppy second to his more popular counterpart was only reinforced by Mystery Science Theater 3000’s skewering of his ‘60s and early ‘70s adventures. To be fair, Joel and his robotic companions took a couple potshots at Godzilla too, but the prevailing message was always that Gamera was little more than an inferior knock-off. After Godzilla himself fell on hard times in the ‘70s, he experienced a re-birth in the ‘80s and ‘90s, emerging bigger, meaner and more dynamic than ever. Now with Toho handling the distribution, the giant turtle underwent a similar makeover, thus entering a new era. So, how does this modern reboot of Gamera stack up? Read on…

Gamera: Guardian of the Universe (aka: Gamera Daikaijû Kuchu Kessen)(1995) Directed by: Shûsuke Kaneko; Written by: Kazunori Itô; Starring: Tsuyoshi Ihara, Akira Onodera, Shinobu Nakayama and Ayako Fujitani

Rating: *** ½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

All of the usual ingredients are present: men in rubber suits bumping into each other and knocking down miniature buildings, Tokyo Tower* is destroyed once more, and people flee in terror, but that’s selling the movie short. Akin to comparing your favorite local eatery to a homogenous chain restaurant, it’s all about how they combine things to freshen up a familiar recipe. Director Shûsuke Kaneko (who directed all three movies, and would go on to helm the fine Godzilla film, Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack) and writer Kazunori Itô create a rich backstory and mythos about the origins of the giant turtle as the product of a long- extinct, advanced civilization. The first film in the trilogy also revives one of Gamera’s classic foes, Gyaos, a giant, birdlike creature with a hunger for human flesh.

* Considering all the times that iconic landmark has suffered kaiju-related calamity, you’d think they’d just give up or change locations, but I suppose that says something for the indomitable Japanese spirit.

Released just a couple of years after Jurassic Park, which represented a quantum leap for creature effects, the special effects in Gamera: Guardian of the Universe have a quaint throwback charm. Direct comparisons are unfair, since Japanese films tend to downplay creating realistic environments, and favor suspension of disbelief. By any standard, the effects are certainly passable, with detailed miniature cityscapes, compared to the crude models in earlier Gamera films. The new, improved Gamera is superior in every way to the previous Daiei efforts, comparing favorably to and even surpassing the Godzilla films from the same era. Among the film’s many strengths are the strong female characters. Instead of passively sitting on the sidelines or cowering in fear, the heroines take on an active role: Shinobu Nakayama as an ornithologist who studies Gyaos and Asagi (Ayako Fujitani**), a teenage girl with a psychic link to Gamera who can also feel his injuries. Presented at a breakneck pace, the monster action is virtually non-stop, and sets the stage for further adventures of Japan’s favorite giant turtle. Sure, if you stop to think about it, it’s all fairly silly, but it doesn’t matter when you’re having so much fun.
** Fun fact: Fujitani is martial artist/nominal actor Steven Seagal’s real-life daughter.

Gamera 2: Attack of the Legion (aka: Gamera 2: Region Shurai)(1996) Directed by: Shûsuke Kaneko; Written by: Kazunori Itô; Starring: Toshiyuki Nagashima, Miki Mizuno, Tamotsu Ishibashi and Ayako Fujitani
Rating:  *** ½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD.

The second entry in the Gamera trilogy pits our shelled hero against a new, powerful adversary from the depths of space. Once more, a seemingly unstoppable foe descends on Japan to wreak havoc with humanity. This potent enemy, dubbed Legion, consists of hordes of smaller, insect-like baddies controlled by one giant creature, and is one of the more unique kaiju enemies to emerge in recent years. The smaller creatures create their own oxygen-rich, high pressure environment in the Tokyo subway, and target anyone carrying personal electronics (we’d all likely be doomed today), with messy results.

The pacing, similar to the first film, is refreshingly brisk. Overwhelmed by Legion’s onslaught, Gamera’s down, but not out for the count. Asagi returns from the first film, assisted by plucky journalist Midori Honami (Miki Mizuno). Gamera 2: Attack of the Legion clarifies Gamera’s role as more than just the “friend of all children” as in the originals, but a savior for humanity. Compared to Godzilla’s, he’s not simply the result of human meddling, but the protector of life on Earth, waging war against all who would dare threaten it. A conversation during the film’s conclusion raises the question, with our continual destruction of the environment will we eventually end up on Gamera’s bad side?

Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris (aka: Gamera 2: Region Shurai)(1996) Directed by: Shûsuke Kaneko; Written by: Kazunori Itô and Shûsuke Kaneko; Starring: Shinobu Nakayama, Ai Maeda, Yukijirô Hotaru and Ayako Fujitani

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Gamera might be the savior of humanity, but that doesn’t mean everyone appreciates his presence. Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris goes where few kaiju films ever tread, exploring the human loss associated with the wholesale devastation of cities. Teenager Ayana Hirasaka (Ai Maeda) harbors a deep hatred for the giant turtle, blaming him for the death of her parents. In a flashback to the first film, we learn that she witnessed the destruction of her childhood home, collateral damage from the scuffle between Gamera and Gyaos. She vows revenge against Gamera, befriending a mysterious baby creature, Iris, she encounters in a sealed cavern. But Iris is the sort of friend who takes more than he gives, sapping her energy, and attempting to incorporate her into his body.

We don’t see as much of Gamera in this move as the previous entries, which in the hands of less capable filmmakers would be a fatal misstep, but his absence creates tension and mystery, not resentment. In the opening scene, a discovery on the ocean floor provides tantalizing insight about Gamera’s apparent invincibility. The movie’s conclusion, which some might argue is a little too open ended, leaves Gamera facing the renewed menace of Gyaos, mutated into a new form. Although Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris ends before it’s completely resolved, from another perspective it re-affirms Gamera’s ongoing commitment to fighting the good fight, protecting Earth from outside forces.

Gamera returned several years later for a reportedly inferior semi-sequel, which regressed to his dubious roots as kiddie matinee material. Rumors abound that he will make another return sometime this year, in conjunction with his 50th anniversary, but hopefully any future filmmakers will forget about the latest detour, and refer to the 90s trilogy as a template. It would be even better if they somehow tied it into Toho’s pending revival of Godzilla, with a match-up between the two titans, although that might be taking things a bit too far.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Happiness of the Katakuris (aka: Katakuri-ke No Kôfuku)

(2001) Directed by Takashi Miike; Written by Kikumi Yamagishi; Starring: Kenji Sawada, Keiko Matsuaka, Shinki Takeda, Naomi Nishida, Tetsurô Tanba and Kiyoshirô Imawano; Available on DVD

Rating: **** ½

Note: This is an expanded version of a capsule review that originally appeared in August 2011.

“Aside from the bad stuff they’re doing, the family has started to work together towards a single goal. So, the family’s bond is kind of bound to tragedy…” – Takashi Miike (from DVD commentary for The Happiness of the Katakuris)

Have you ever had one of those times when you couldn’t decide between a comedy, absurdist family drama, horror, or a musical? Thanks to extraordinarily prolific, genre-crossing director Takashi Miike, now you don’t have to choose. The Happiness of the Katakuris Miike deftly blends all of these elements like ingredients in an elaborate recipe, to create a potent, profoundly entertaining stew. Based on the excellent dark Korean comedy The Quiet Family,* The Happiness of the Katakuris uses that film as a departure point, before veering off into unexpected directions. From the opening scene, with its trippy stop-motion animated sequence, you can tell anything can and probably will happen.

* In the DVD commentary, Miike recalled meeting the original film’s writer/director, Kim Jee-woon, in Korea. When asked how he liked Miike’s version, he responded that he didn’t hate it.

Former shoe salesman Masao Katakuri (Kenji Sawada) envisions a better life for his family, and opens a charming little inn in the country. The trouble is, business isn’t exactly booming. The Katakuris finally get their first customer, a depressed middle-aged man (played by film critic Tokitoshi Shiota), who subsequently kills himself. Instead of calling the police, and potentially letting bad publicity leak out, they decide to bury the body on the premises. Things go from bad to worse when a Sumo wrestler and his petite girlfriend stay the night, and due to (ahem) compatibility issues, meet an untimely end. For the Katakuris, every silver lining has a cloud, with impending doom lurking just around the corner. To reinforce the metaphor of their ominous predicament, a volcano looms ominously above the bucolic landscape, threatening to blow its top at any moment.

The rest of the Katakuris endure the ups and downs, with varying degrees of success. Veteran actor Tetsurô Tanba plays patriarch Ojîsan Jinpei Katakuri, who has little tolerance for fools (and crows, apparently), and does everything within his power to protect the family’s honor. Terue (Keiko Matsuzaka) just rolls with the punches as Masao’s ever-supportive wife (her daughter comments that she could feed Masao poison, and he’d willingly eat it). Shizue (Naomi Nishida) is Masao and Terue’s unlucky in love daughter. She falls for con man “Richard” Sagawa (Kiyoshirô Imawano), who contends he’s an officer in the British Royal Navy and the son of a Japanese father and Queen Elizabeth’s half-sister. Shinji Takeda rounds out the cast as Shizue’s brother, and Katakuri black sheep, Masayuki. Recently released from jail, he strives to win the family’s trust, while pretending not to care what they think.

Amidst all of this insanity, there’s an underlying purpose to The Happiness of the Katakuris. At its core, it’s an uplifting story about family cohesiveness, resilience and the value of life. Like the disparate elements of the film, it seems impossible that the Katakuris could ever work together as a family unit, yet somehow they do. It’s a testament to their strength that they stay together. No matter what life throws at them, they thrive in the face of adversity. Along with the familial bond themes, Kikumi Yamagishi’s script weaves together an overarching message about the inseparable relationship between life and death. This relationship is best summed up in a line spoken by Jinpei: “How you die is down to how you live.” Death is an inevitable part of life, not to be feared but accepted. Because life is finite, it should be savored, not squandered.  

The Happiness of the Katakuris achieves the nearly impossible by improving on the original film, and adding depth to the basic story. Takashi Miike, equally comfortable with multiple genres, ranging from horror, to yakuza drama, to samurai action and supernatural fantasy, applies his “anything goes” aesthetic to great effect. He employs every trick in the book to keep things visually and aurally engaging, incorporating wacky animation, catchy songs, gallows humor and colorful characters, all capped by a surprisingly touching finale. Miike is a master chef who revels in crafting a perfect recipe, cobbled together from the most unlikely ingredients. The Happiness of the Katakuris is among the director’s best efforts, and easily one of his most enjoyable films. If this movie doesn’t leave you smiling at the end, there’s something wrong with you.

Sunday, January 11, 2015


(1970) Directed by Akira Kurosawa; Written by: Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni; Based on the novel The Town Without Seasons (aka: Kisetsu No Nai Machi) by Shûgorô Yamamoto; Starring: Yoshitaka Zushi, Kin Sugai, Toshiyuki Tonomura, Tatsuo Matsumura, Tomoko Yamazaki and Shinsuke Minami; Available on DVD.

Rating: **** ½

“I can’t stand working with total seriousness; I’ve never been able to even function that way. I said to my staff, ‘I want to make this one sunny, cheerful, light-hearted, and charmingly pretty.’” – Akira Kurosawa (Excerpt from 1972 interview with Yoshi Shirai, from Akira Kurosawa Interviews, edited by Bert Cardullo)

Bring up Akira Kurosawa’s name, and most individuals will likely associate the filmmaker with his samurai epics such as Seven Samurai, The Hidden Fortress and Ran, while some might think of his smaller scope dramas, such as Ikiru. Although he gained his notoriety largely on the basis of the films in the first category, his output in the latter category proved he was equally adept at telling more intimate stories. 1970’s Dodes'ka-den is another example of Kurosawa working on a smaller scale, depicting characters that the bulk of society would rather ignore. He once again collaborated with writing partners Hideo Oguni and Shinobu Hashimoto to create the multi-faceted script, which deftly balances the stories of several residents in a slum near Tokyo.

Dodes'ka-den is Japanese onomatopoeia for the sound a train makes, rolling down the tracks. The word also serves as a mantra, spoken by Roku-chan (Yoshitaka Zushi), a mentally ill teenage boy obsessed with trolley cars. He imagines himself to be a conductor, running the train on its daily route through the slum, amidst ramshackle homes and heaps of garbage. He continues his unwavering route night and day, oblivious to local children’s taunts of “trolley freak.” Like a trolley stopping briefly at a station, the film pauses to showcase the daily lives of people residing in the slum. There is no solitary protagonist. While the characters’ lives occasionally intersect, the focus is on their individual stories, rather than how they converge.

As my wife is fond of saying, the rich and poor share many of the same family conflicts, but unlike their wealthier counterparts, impoverished people’s problems are inordinately out in the open for everyone to see. Kurosawa doesn’t depict the slum’s resident’s as exceptionally virtuous, full of quiet nobility, but a flawed community of desperate people, eking out a meager existence the best they can. It’s a vantage point refreshingly free of frothy sentiment or idealism. It’s not all drudgery and bleakness, however. Life can have its bright spots, amidst the bad times. The community gossips sit in the middle of what passes for the town square, commenting on the residents’ sordid lives like a Greek chorus. In one sweet moment, a father (Shinsuke Minami) with a philandering wife sits down to dinner with his five children (all presumably from different fathers), and reassures them, despite harsh accusations from the neighbors. He hides his pain, instead of taking it out on the children, and embraces them as his own. In another story, two inebriated friends, discontented with their respective wives, swap spouses only to discover that the grass isn’t always greener.

One of the saddest stories concerns a vagrant (Noboru Mitani) and his son (Hiroyuki Kawase), who live in an abandoned car, and beg at city restaurants for food. While they live off the scraps that others throw away, the father envisions an ostentatious mansion for them to live in, creating it room by room. In another story, a loathsome man (Tatsuo Matsumura) subjects his niece Katsuko (Tomoko Yamazaki) to emotional and sexual abuse. Yamazaki is memorable and heartbreaking as Katsuko, who remains reticent in the face of terrible mistreatment. She walks with her head bowed, as if expecting the worst to happen at any moment. In one of the film’s greater ironies, she finally lashes out with violence, but at the only person who shows her kindness.

Kurosawa described Dodes'ka-den “as a trial run for using color,” (from the documentary It is Wonderful to Create) and it shows. Kurosawa painted each scene before it was filmed, and ensured that the cinematographers, Takao Saito and Yasumichi Fukuza reflected that aesthetic. Watching the bold hues splash across the screen made me feel as if I were seeing a color film for the first time.

Whenever Kurosawa’s career is discussed, Dodes'ka-den usually gets relegated to footnote status, mainly because of the unfortunate events that surrounded it. The film didn’t receive a warm reception from audiences at the time of its release, and Kurosawa fell into a deep depression, ultimately attempting suicide. Thankfully for everyone, he survived to continue making films that reflected his personal vision. Dodes'ka-den affirms that greatness can not only be found in the broad strokes, but the fine details, I hesitate to call Dodes'ka-den a “slice of life” film. Rather, I’d call it life itself. There is no conventional “payoff” in the stories. No one experiences an epiphany about their condition. Life and death will go on, as it always does in the slum. To some viewers nothing will seem to have been resolved, but life is messy, and the lives of the characters only reflect that. Dodes'ka-den is a beautiful, sometimes painful to watch film that deserves more attention from Kurosawa enthusiasts and casual film fans alike.