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.

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