Sunday, January 31, 2016

Japan-uary V Quick Picks and Pans

When Marnie Was There (Omoide no Mânî) (2014) Probably because it wasn’t a Takahata or Miyazaki Studio Ghibli film, When Marnie Was There arrived and departed with little fanfare. But this film only proved the veteran animators aren’t the only formidable talents at the studio. Director Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s (The Secret World of Arrietty) film, based on a novel by Joan G. Robinson, is an emotionally gripping tale, filled with beautiful, richly detailed animation. The story focuses on Anna, a smart, but antisocial and emotionally detached 12-year-old girl. When her foster mother sends her to live with relatives she befriends a mysterious young girl named Marnie, who lives in a decrepit old mansion.

The film displays a level of complexity rarely seen in American animated films. Although it’s clearly aimed at pre-teen girls, anyone can relate to its themes of loss, abandonment and emotional isolation. When Marnie Was There takes a refreshing approach to its troubled protagonist, because it doesn’t force the issue of her trauma or social anxiety, but lets her story play out naturally. Rather than tell her what she should do, the adult characters allow Anna to work things out on her own terms. This is wonderful, thoughtful entertainment for smart kids (and adults), which declares there’s life in Studio Ghibli yet.  

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

Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell (aka: Kyuketsuki Gokemidoro) (1968) Director  Hajime Satô’s fascinating film takes a dim view of humanity and our propensity for evil. After a hijacked airliner crashes in a remote area, the survivors must struggle to stay alive until help arrives. The passengers and crew represent a microcosm of society, representing our capacity for altruism, greed, selfishness and lust (I wonder if anyone’s ever done a thesis, comparing the various passengers to the seven deadly sins?). As hope of rescue begins to dissolve, the passengers begin to squabble under the watchful eye of an alien spacecraft, which appears to be orchestrating their actions. The film features some suitably disturbing imagery, as humans are turned into bloodthirsty zombies, and fear and paranoia become the survivors’ primary motivation. In spite of the supernatural occurrences, however, it’s evident we don’t require outside intervention to do ourselves in.

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

Sayonara, Jupiter (aka: Bye Bye Jupiter) (1983) I can’t really say this film was good, but what it lacks in quality, it makes up in sheer entertainment value. Co-directors Koji Hashimoto and Sakyo Komatsu (working from a novel by Komatsu) want Sayonara, Jupiter to be 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it’s more like The Black Hole, thanks to a pervasive combination of silliness and pseudo-science. I won’t profess to make sense of it all, with its multiple plot threads and story elements, but there’s enough material for several movies. Researchers hatch a project to turn Jupiter into a second sun, to provide solar power for the colonies in the outer planets. A hippie cult that worships a dolphin named Jupiter threatens to bring a halt to the plans. Meanwhile, there’s evidence of ancient aliens on the surface of Mars and drifting in Jupiter’s atmosphere. And things get even more complicated when a black hole threatens to engulf the earth. It’s a glorious mess that must be seen to be believed, if your brain can stand it (Oh, did I mention there’s a floating sex scene?).

Rating: **½. Available on DVD  

Genocide (aka: War of the Insects) (1968) With its anti-war message, Genocide shares some common themes with Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell, but it’s clumsily told. When an American bomber has a disastrous run-in with a swarm of insects, the crew bail out on a remote Japanese island, and their H-bomb payload goes missing. The U.S. Air Force, local police, and some shady folks race to find the bomb, but their efforts are hindered by a murder investigation and some nasty bugs. The film’s primary concept, regarding an evil plan to breed a new deadly species of insect, is intriguing but it’s derailed by the subplots. The antagonist’s motivation is also highly suspect, as well as the shaky scientific explanations. The end result is something that seems half-baked and unsatisfying.   

Rating: **½. Available on DVD and Hulu

Monster X Strikes Back: Attack the G8 Summit (2008) Writer/director Minoru Kawasaki’s comic semi-sequel to the 1968 flick The X from Outer Space is a real disappointment. His kaiju farce has some fleeting moments, but it’s mostly full of missed opportunities. The star monster, Guilala, has too little screen time, and too much time is spent with the titular summit. The bickering and juvenile posturing of the characters provides nothing new in the way of satire, and brings the film to a screeching halt. Some of the best scenes involved a wacky Guilala cult, which should have been the focus, rather than a subplot. The normally reliable Kawasaki has done much better (try the superior Executive Koala, The Calamari Wrestler, or The Rug Cop).

Rating: **½. Available on DVD

R100 (2014) A disappointing sex comedy that’s not particularly sexy or funny. Director Hitoshi Matsumoto never strikes the right tone, vacillating between serious family drama and slapstick. R100 follows a meager middle-aged salesman (Mao Daichi) who cares for his young son as his wife lies in a coma in the hospital. He decides to take a walk on the wild side, and signs a contract with a BDSM firm. One of the stipulations of the contract is that he could be visited anytime or anywhere by a dominatrix under their employment. This becomes a running gag, in which he becomes increasingly aroused with each bizarre sexual encounter. While some of these scenes are sporadically amusing, they quickly become repetitive, and the comic effects have diminishing returns. Ultimately, the biggest factor that undermines the film is the main character, whose sexual appetite, in light of his situation, makes him appear selfish and unlikeable.

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

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