Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Japan-uary VII Quick Picks and Pans

Creepy (2016) Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s thriller is a film that lives up to its title. Hidetoshi Nishijima stars as Takakura, a former police profiler now working as a professor at a university, where he teaches criminal psychology. He finds himself drawn back into his old profession when a detective consults with him about an unsolved case regarding a missing family, and he meets the one remaining family member who could shed some light on the mystery.

Meanwhile, Takakura and his wife Yasuko (Yûko Takeuchi) have relocated to a new neighborhood, where they encounter a chilly reception. Teruyuki Kagawa is suitably disturbing as their reclusive neighbor Nishino, who might be more than he seems, as he gradually becomes entwined in their lives. Creepy works its way under your skin with relentless precision. You may never look at your neighbors the same way again.

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Video

5 Centimeters Per Second (2007) The title of writer/director Makoto Shinkai’s (Your Name) heartfelt coming of age story refers to the velocity that cherry blossoms fall from a tree, which serves as a fitting description for the main characters’ dissolving relationship. Childhood friends Takaki Tohno and Akari Shinohara meet in elementary school, and drift apart as time and distance intervene. The story, told in three chapters, chronicles Takaki and Akari’s lives as they follow separate trajectories. In the most affecting segment, a snowstorm threatens to keep the two friends apart. As the film progresses, we feel their sadness and longing, as forces beyond their control conspire against them. Shinkai captures the ephemeral nature of childhood friendship, contrasted with adult ennui, teaching us the bitter lesson that love doesn’t necessarily conquer all.  

Rating: ****. Available on DVD

The Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch (1968) 1968 was a banner year for Japanese supernatural films, with Kuroneko, The Great Yokai War, and this fine example from director Noriaki Yuasa (best known for the original Gamera movies) and Daiei Studios. Sayuri (Yachie Matsui) is adopted from an orphanage and brought home to live with a family in a mysterious house. While her adoptive father travels to Africa to study snakes, she must contend with a belligerent older sister, a mother who might not be altogether sane, and a stern housekeeper. Before long, Sayuri discovers that the family is under the influence of a sinister spell. But who or what is responsible? Filled with surreal imagery, hallucinogenic dream sequences, and thick with gothic atmosphere, the film recalls Hammer in its heyday, or an early ‘60s Corman production. Filled with twists and suspense at every turn, it’s a great dark fantasy for kids of all ages.

Rating: ***½. Available on Amazon Video

Visitor Q (2001) Takashi Miike has been equated with a number of different directors over the years, but John Waters? In one of his most unrestrained films, Miike takes us into the twisted world of the Yamazaki family (calling them dysfunctional would be a massive understatement). Kiyoshi (Ken'ichi Endô) is a disgraced television reporter, looking for the next big scoop that can save his career. He features his own son, Takuya (Jun Mutô), in an exposé of bullying, documenting every minute as he gets mercilessly beaten by his classmates. Kiyoshi’s wife Keiko (Shungiku Uchida) works as a heroin-addicted prostitute, while trying to evade Takuya’s abuse. Miike and writer Itaru Era pile layer upon layer of maladaptive family behavior, hitting all the right (and wrong) buttons, leaving no stone unturned to evoke a reaction. And just when you think it can’t possibly go any further, Miike pushes his movie over the edge. It’s a recipe that’s bound to be a polarizing experience for fans of Miike’s work. I’m not sure if I should applaud his chutzpah or condemn him, but if nothing else, Visitor Q doesn’t evoke apathy.

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD

Underwater Love (2011) A lonely, socially awkward 35-year-old woman falls in love with a magical amphibious creature. At the time of this film’s release, the premise seemed more outlandish, but The Shape of Water changed that notion forever. Of course, since it’s a pinku musical after all, Underwater Love has a few different tricks up its proverbial sleeve.

Asuka (Sawa Masaki) works at a fish processing plant, where she’s engaged to the facility’s manager (Mutsuo Yoshioka). One day, she encounters her long-dead high school classmate, who’s been reincarnated as a kappa (a sort of half-man, half turtle yokai), and their relationship rekindles. Naturally, there’s the requisite pinky sex, but oh there’s so much more, including song and dance sequences (with music provided by the German group Stereo Total) ranging from passable to surprisingly catchy. It’s an amusing, albeit uneven mix of elements, but Underwater Love deserves an award for sheer audacity. Give it a try if you can find it.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD (Region 2)

The World of Kanako (2014) Kôji Yakusho stars as Akikazu Fujishima, a former cop who was fired from the police force due to mental health issues and alcohol abuse. After he receives a frantic call from his estranged wife that their daughter Kanako (Nana Komatsu) has been missing for several days, he attempts to find out what happened to her. His quest leads him down a trail of sex, drugs and gang activity. The film jumps back and forth between the present and three years in the past, to recount the exploits of Kanako and her classmates. The World of Kanako features some strong performances, and it’s well made, but something seems to be lacking in its odd mixture of conflicting tones. At times, it seems like two different movies, competing for our attention: on one side, it’s a Tarantino-esque, style-conscious action fest. On the other side, it’s a serious family drama. Director Tetsuya Nakashima never quite reconciles these abrupt shifts. The end result is a film that’s as empty as it is unpleasant to watch.

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


  1. For some reason, I really want to see Underwater Love!

    1. You should. It's a fun flick, with a unique spin. I sort of agonized about giving it an extra 1/2 star, just because.