Monday, February 1, 2021

Japan-uary X Quick Picks and Pans


Ugetsu Poster

Ugetsu (aka: Ugetsu monogatari) (1953) Director Kenji Mizoguchi’s Feudal-era yurei (ghost) story resonates with the viewer long after it’s over. Genjurô (Masayuki Mori), a poor pottery maker dreams of making a fortune selling his wares in the big city. After evading roving samurai and thieves, he leaves his wife and young son behind, with his business partner in tow. Genjurô’s pottery catches the eye of a widowed noblewoman, Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyô), and becomes smitten by her formidable charms. He soon finds a taste for his newly gained prosperity, but (as these stories often go) he learns that she may not be all she seems. Mizoguchi relies on the strength of its performances in place of special effects to convey this sad tale of greed, loyalty and loss.

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

Tokyo Drifter Poster

Tokyo Drifter (1966) Seijun Suzuki’s ultra-stylish crime drama is a bold exercise in transforming a familiar story into something brand new. “Phoenix Tetsu” Hondo (Tetsuya Watari) is a former Yakuza enforcer working for his old boss’ company. He gets in hot water when he foils the plans of rival boss Otsuka (Eimei Esumi) to sabotage his employer. Deciding enough’s enough, he sets out on his own, and now both sides want him dead. Hondo discovers an unlikely friend in former rival, Tatsuzo, The Viper (Tamio Kawaji). Tokyo Drifter continually surprises with its unconventional main character (How many times have you heard a protagonist sing his own theme song?), expressionistic flourishes, and eye for stunning visuals. And thanks to Criterion’s recent transfer, the colors simply pop.

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

Departures Poster

Departures (2008) Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki), a professional cellist, finds himself unemployed after his orchestra goes broke, and is forced to move home and find a new occupation. He answers an ad for a job opening, unaware that “departures” refers to preparing the dead for burial, rather than a travel agency. Kobayashi reluctantly accepts the position, at the urging of his new boss Ikuei Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki), but struggles with self-doubt, public scorn and his wife Mika’s (Ryôko Hirosue) disapproval. Eventually, however, he begins to appreciate the work on its own terms, treating the deceased and their families with dignity. Yôjirô Takita’s thoughtful film (enhanced by Joe Hisaishi’s affecting music score) takes its time introducing us to an elaborate funeral ritual that seems to be largely unknown in Western culture. It’s not only a poignant commentary about how society keeps death at arm’s length, but also finding yourself and your calling.  

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

Black Test Car Poster

Black Test Car (1962) Yasuzô Masumura’s neo-noir plunges us into the high-risk world of industrial espionage between two competing car firms, Tiger Motors and Yamoto. Jirô Tamiya stars as up-and-coming executive Yutaka Asahina, who’s been tasked by his employer (Tiger) to spy on their competitor. Asahina and his team using any means necessary (including intimidation, blackmail, and sexual favors) to extract information about Yamoto’s new sports car design. In the process, he learns the true cost of climbing the corporate ladder. Black Test Car provides a scathing, deeply cynical glimpse into human nature, viewing business competition as a Darwinian struggle.  

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


Vital Poster

Vital (2004) Writer/director Shin'ya Tsukamoto’s (Tetsuo: The Iron Man) meditative film about the fickle properties of memory and mourning will likely haunt you for days. A young man awakens from a coma after suffering a fatal car crash that claimed the life of his girlfriend. Along with his recovery comes the renewed desire to attend medical school. In a cruel (or fortuitous, depending on your point of view) twist of fate, the cadaver on his dissecting table is his former girlfriend Ryôko (Nami Tsukamoto). What would have been the twist ending from a less skilled filmmaker becomes merely a beginning for Hiroshi’s self-discovery, as his memories gradually return. The unrelentingly morbid themes and convincing (but never exploitive) makeup effects make this a difficult but engrossing watch.

Rating: ***½. Available on Kanopy

The Vampire Doll Poster

The Vampire Doll (1970) A man (Atsuo Nakamura) returns from business abroad to discover that his girlfriend Yûko (Yukiko Kobayashi) has died. He soon discovers, however, that she might not be quite as dead as he’s been led to believe. After he goes missing, his sister Keiko and her boyfriend Hiroshi (Kayo Matsuo and Akira Nakao, respectively) investigate the strange goings on at Yûko’s secluded ancestral home. The first in a trilogy of vampire films from director Michio Yamamoto (followed by Lake of Dracula and Evil of Dracula), moves at a leisurely pace, but makes up for any deficits with a macabre, brooding tone and set designs that wouldn’t be out of place in a Hammer production.* While it may be the weakest of the trilogy, it’s well worth seeing for oodles of gothic atmosphere and some genuinely creepy moments.

* Fun Fact: A Toho/Hammer co-production, Nessie (about the elusive cryptid), was planned in the mid-70s, but sadly never reached fruition.

Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray and Amazon Prime 

Junkers Come Here Poster

Junkers Come Here (1995) This pleasant albeit slight anime film chronicles the adventures of 11-year-old Hiromi and her talking schnauzer Junkers. The film contains some charming scenes between the girl and her dog, while juggling some serious themes about absentee parents and divorce. The film never quite strikes the right balance between the more fantastical elements (Junkers grants Hiromi three wishes), and the reality of Hiromi’s life. Ultimately, Junkers Come Here glosses over the more unsavory aspects of Hiromi being stuck in a tug-of-war between her emotionally neglectful parents, leading to a (Spoiler Alert!) climactic sort-of reconciliation between the parents that rings hollow. It’s not quite at the level of Studio Ghibli story-wise or artistically, but it’s a pleasant enough film (if you don’t think too long about the implications of the trite ending) for most of its running time, and should at least spark some discussion from families that may watch this together.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD and Tubi

Kidan - Piece of Darkness Poster

Kidan: Piece of Darkness (2016) Most anthology horror movies are a mixed bag, and this one is no exception. But even if not all 10 stories (confined to a brisk running time of 100 minutes) are winners, you don’t have to wait very long for the next segment to come along. Some favorite stories include: a shadowy visitor that terrifies a middle-aged woman; a schoolteacher who’s tormented by his former lover; and a young woman who inadvertently finds a novel way of getting rid of excess baggage. Although Kidan relies on some tired tropes (Creepy long-haired woman? Check.), there’s enough to recommend this for a few well-placed thrills.

Rating: ***. Available on Amazon Prime

Terra Formars Poster

Terra Formars (2016) Takashi Miike’s live-action adaptation of the popular manga/anime show is entertaining in spots, but mostly exhausting. In the year 2499, Mars has been terraformed, but the cockroaches that were brought from Earth have mutated and evolved into powerful (and deadly) humanoid creatures. A group of convicted criminals are sent to the red planet to rid the landscape of the creatures, opening the door for human colonization. The non-stop pace doesn’t leave time for strong characterizations or a lot of dialogue beyond the expository variety. While there are few surprises, one fun conceit is that each of the human crew has been modified with insect DNA (yep, one has inherited the properties of the Japanese Giant “Murder” hornet) to combat the bipedal bugs. There’s some good effects work, but the action is far too repetitive, and the film’s gaping plot holes are never addressed (i.e., If they were supposed to be expendable, why were they given the means to return to Earth?). It may be worth a look, if you’re in an undemanding mood.   

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

Nezulla the Rat Monster Poster

Nezulla: The Rat Monster (2002) In their efforts to create soldiers resistant to biochemical warfare, U.S. Army scientists accidentally unleash a hideous rat creature, along with a deadly virus. A crack team of “American” soldiers and one Japanese officer are sent in to destroy the monster and obtain a sample to create an antivirus. There’s a fine line between low budget and cheap, which this movie crosses. Most of the action is confined to an abandoned industrial building, and the barely mobile titular creature fails to evoke anything beyond sympathy for the poor schmoe who had to wear the costume. Skip it.

Rating: **. Available on DVD


  1. Lots of interesting movies, Berry! 👍
    For me, departures and the vampire Doll really stand out as films I would enjoy.

    1. Thanks, John! I think there's something for everyone in this list. Departures is such a lovely film, and Vampire Doll is fun. I was impressed by Tokyo Drifter, and its use of color and composition.