Thursday, January 30, 2014

From Up on Poppy Hill

(2011) Directed by Goro Miyazaki; Written by Hayao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa; Based on a manga by: Chizuru Takahashi and Tetsurô Sayama; Starring: Masami Nagasawa, Jun'ichi Okada and Keiko Takeshita; Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Rating: ****

"You have the terrible period of World War II, and that was followed by chaos. The period we're talking about here is right before economic growth, and that was the brief moment in Japan when people were able to enjoy a relative time of peace and calmness." – Goro Miyazaki (excerpt from Los Angeles Times article, Goro Miyazaki Sets His Own Path in Animation, By Rebecca Keegan)

With the great Hayao Miyazaki announcing his retirement last year for perhaps the last time, what does the future of Studio Ghibli look like?  If I had to base my judgment solely on his son Goro’s previous effort, the ambitious but joyless Tales from Earthsea (yes, I realize I gave it three stars, but mostly for the animation and the attempt.), I would say Ghibli’s prospects weren’t too rosy.   The younger Miyazaki more than redeemed himself, however, with his nostalgic sophomore effort, From Up on Poppy Hill (aka: Kokuriko-Zaka Kara).  The focus is on drama instead of fantasy, taken at a slower pace (think Whisper of the Heart), where characterization prevails over action.  

The story (written in part by Hayao Miyazaki) follows two high school students, Umi Matsuzaki (Masami Nagasawa) and Shun Kazama (Jun'ichi Okada) as they work together to save their fellow students’ clubhouse, the friendship that develops between them in the process. It’s set amidst the backdrop of 1963-era Japan, when the country was still reeling from the devastation of World War II, and preparing for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.  One of the recurring themes throughout the film is the concept of “out with the old, and in with the new.”  There’s a sense of cautious optimism, as Japan is teetering on the edge of a cultural and economic transformation.  Goro shares his father’s meticulous attention to detail with richly animated sequences, which make this portrait of a society in transition spring to life.  

Umi is the embodiment of resilience and selflessness in the face of uncertainty.  Her mother, who works as an MD, is traveling in America.  She lives in her grandmother’s seaside house with two siblings and several boarders.  Every morning, she carries on the ritual of raising signal flags; a symbolic gesture honoring her father, whose ship was lost at sea when she was a little girl.  She finds a distraction from her household chores when she becomes involved with an effort by some fellow students to save their school’s beloved clubhouse from demolition.  Although she has a shaky beginning with Shun, one of the organizers, they gradually develop a friendship that evolves into something more. As Umi and Shun explore their past, they discover a link between their families that threatens to tear their budding romance apart.   

The third main character of the film is the clubhouse, providing many of the film’s lighter moments. Dusty, splintered and ramshackle, the clubhouse represents old Japan, which most of the students, and paradoxically the older generation, are eager to distance themselves from.  It’s a piece of history, which many are in a hurry to erase, in favor of a new building.  It’s no coincidence that the clubhouse’s most ardent supporters are a dedicated bunch of high school students who were born after World War II.  They represent a reluctance to sublimate the past and let it fade away, a drive to restore balance and harmony by allowing it to co-exist with the present.

Goro Miyazaki spins his tale with warmth and earnestness.  He’s not afraid to slow things down in service of the story – rewarding subsequent viewings with wonderful visual details and character nuances.  After stumbling with Tales from Earthsea, he found his voice with From Up on Poppy Hill, indicating his relative strengths lie in the little dramas, not epic adventures.  We shouldn’t grieve for the elder Miyazaki and his works, but welcome Goro as another worthy director in the acclaimed Studio Ghibli stable.  The future of Ghibli is in good hands.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Kamikaze Girls (aka: Shimotsuma Monogatari)

(2004) Written and directed by Tetsuya Nakashima; Based on the novel and manga by: Nobara Takemoto; Starring: Kyôko Fukada, Anna Tsuchiya, Hiroyuki Miyasako and Sadao Abe; Available on DVD.

Rating: ****

“Humans are cowards in the face of happiness. You need courage to hold on to happiness.” – Momoko Ryugasaki (Kyôko Fukada)

An oft-repeated Japanese adage proclaims, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.”  In a collectivistic culture where harmony in the group is favored over individuality, attempts to do your own thing are discouraged.  Even when such cultural mores are in place, there will always be people who survive and thrive, bucking society’s trends.  Writer/director Tetsuya Nakashima’s endearing comedy (based on a novel/manga by Nobara Takemoto) Kamikaze Girls, chronicles the unlikely friendship between two counter-culture high school girls who share a common disdain for the establishment.

Momoko (Kyôko Fukada) is a “Lolita,” modeling her look after the fashion of the 18th-century French Rococo era.  Ostentatious dress, replete with frilly outfits and matching parasols, is de rigueur for the Lolita lifestyle.  Momoko embodies the Rococo period, which (according to her interpretation) was steeped in hedonism, long walks and needlepoint.  She’s content to immerse herself in the fashion aspects, minus the hedonism, resolute in the assertion that she was born, and will die alone.  She takes solace in spending her father’s ill-earned money, and frequenting the chic Tokyo shop Baby, The Stars Shine Bright, which caters to the Lolita crowd.  Her life is about to change, however, when she encounters another girl with a similar, but divergent, disdain for her mainstream peers.

At first glance, Ichigo (Anna Tsuchiya) is the polar opposite of Momoko, with her frumpy outfit (purchased at JUSCO, Japan’s answer to Walmart) and pugnacious demeanor.  She’s a “Yanki,”* typified by crude, brash behavior and a tendency to spit.  She rides a souped-up scooter and hangs around with an all-girls biker group, The Ponytails.  Beneath her tough girl façade, lurks a fragile interior, desperately trying to sublimate her origins as a meek, nerdy schoolgirl. 

* There are conflicting views about the word’s origin, and whether or not “Yanki” is a bastardization of the American “Yankee.”  You can find out more about Yankis, Lolitas, and a few other select Japanese subcultures here.

Similar to their assumed identities, Momoko and Ichigo’s family backgrounds couldn’t be more different.  Abandoned by her adulterous mother at the age of six, Momoko was raised by her small-time hood father.  After he’s chased out of Tokyo by yakuza, they relocate 60 miles away, to rural Shimotsuma.  They survive on his meager earnings from selling cheap Versace knock-offs.  By contrast, Ichigo’s home life is more prosaic, stemming from an average suburban nuclear family.  In theory, both girls should hate each other, but each fills a void left by the other.  Perhaps embodying the aphorism, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” they find friendship in a world that has no use for them.  Ichigo’s comment, “You may be in a frilly dress, but you do have guts,” sums up their relationship, acknowledging that Momoko’s dainty exterior belies her courageous heart.  Ichigo’s rough-and-tumble shell hides a vulnerable adolescent girl who wants to be loved and accepted. 

Kamikaze Girls boasts a cast of colorful supporting characters, including Hiroyuki Miyasako as Momoko’s (in her words) “useless” father.  He’s constantly looking for the next big score, but only manages to shamble from one pathetic scheme to another.  Another small-time criminal, Ryuji “the Unicorn,” (Sadao Abe, who plays a dual role as the gynecologist who delivers baby Momoko), haunts the pachinko parlors and wears his hair in a freakishly long, phallic pompadour (insert Freudian interpretation here).  Yoshinori Okada plays the gaudily dressed owner/resident fashion designer at Baby, The Stars Shine Bright, and takes a shine to Momoko’s gift for embroidery.

Kamikaze Girls is a story of love and friendship, told with wit and heart.  Nakashima uses a broad pastiche of styles for his palette, including an animated sequence in the middle, to keep things lively.  He displays genuine affection for Momoko and Ichigo by refusing to dwell on their outsider status.  Instead, he channels the film’s energies into showing the protagonists establishing their respective sense of self.  I hesitate to call this a “coming of age” story – that would be too marginalizing. The themes presented here are applicable to anyone who has ever experienced an identity crisis.  It’s about being comfortable in one’s own skin, and having the freedom and strength of conviction to be who you are.  One of the gifts of experiencing a meaningful friendship is being able to let your guard down, and reveal who you truly are.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Japan-uary III Quick Picks and Pans

I was Born, But… (1932) This silent comedy from director Yasujirô Ozu provides a rare glimpse into Japan’s pre-war past.  A meek accountant (Tatsuo Saitô) moves his family to a home in the suburbs, and his sons (Tomio Aoki and Hideo Sugawara) must adjust to a new school and battle neighborhood bullies.  The scenes with the kids playing hooky from school and contending with their peers are reminiscent of Hal Roach’s Our Gang shorts, but Ozu’s film digs deeper with poignant social commentary about a burgeoning middle class.  For most of us, our parents appear larger than life, and it’s sobering to see them as they really are.  For the young boys in the film, they must come to terms with their father’s obsequious relationship with his boss.  The film achieves a perfect balance that never seems too light or too dour – the perfect antidote for those who prefer their humor with a touch of vitriol.

Rating: ****.  Available on DVD.

Vibrator (2003) This was the biggest surprise of my month-long exploration of Japanese cinema.  The title suggests something more lurid than the reality of this touching relationship drama from director Ryuichi Hiroki and writer Haruhiko Arai, based on a novel by Mari Akasaka.  Shinobu Terajima is to be commended for her bold portrayal of Rei, a 31-year-old bulimic woman who grapples with her sense of inadequacy and ambivalence about interacting with other people.  We first meet Rei as she hooks up with a truck driver Takatoshi (Nao Ômori) at a convenience store.  What could have been a one-night stand turns into a road trip, as she accompanies him on his route.

Rei narrates the film with her tormented inner monologue, revealing her approach-avoid tendencies.  One of the film’s best scenes involves Takatoshi instructing Rei on the rules of communicating via CB radio.  The CB and the radio waves bouncing around in the darkness become a metaphor for the long, lonely nights on the road and the people who reach out to each other to connect.  Hitting the road enables Rei to escape her troubles, if only for a short time.  By the film’s end we’re not sure if she’s any better off than when she started, but it’s all about living in the moment.

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

Wild Zero (1999) Venerable punk band Guitar Wolf takes center stage in this unholy offspring of Night of the Living Dead and Rock ‘n Roll High School.  The story clips along at a frenetic pace as we follow several different scenarios: the band travels around town playing various gigs, flying saucers turn people into zombies, Guitar Wolf wannabe Ace tries to protect the woman he loves, an arms dealer does her best to stave off the undead, and a trio of bickering ne’er do wells wander the road.  Eventually, all of these disparate elements converge.  Not that any of it makes much sense, but who cares?  It’s virtually impossible not to succumb to Wild Zero’s chaotic charms.  Guitar Wolf lead singer Guitar Wolf sums everything up: “There are no boundaries in rock ‘n roll.  Believe in rock ‘n roll.” Words to live by, indeed.

Rating: *** ½.  Available on DVD.

Princess from the Moon (1987) (aka: Taketori Monogatari) This charming fantasy was based on the ancient Japanese folk story The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, which also inspired Isao Takahata’s recent Studio Ghibli film with the same name. A grief-stricken bamboo cutter (Toshirô Mifune) and his wife (Ayako Wakao), reeling from the loss of their 5-year-old daughter Kaya, discover a baby in the forest and raise her as their own.  The baby, who resembles Kaya, clutches a crystal ball that holds the key to her celestial origins.  The adult Kaya (Yasuko Sawaguchi) is courted by three noblemen who go off on quests to prove their sincerity.  With its lush cinematography and epic sweep, director Kon Ichikawa’s film is amusing, magical and affecting.  It’s a shame Princess from the Moon falters with a disappointing ending that rips off Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but let’s just pretend the last ten minutes never happened, okay?

Rating: *** ½.  Available on DVD and Hulu Streaming.

Charisma (1999) Writer/director Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s contemplative, abstruse genre-defying film stars Kôji Yakusho as cop Goro Yabuike.  After a botched hostage rescue, Goro goes on leave from his job, and wanders off to a remote wooded area to find himself.  He winds up in the middle of a bizarre struggle between the locals concerning a tree known as Charisma.  Should they kill the tree and save the forest, or save the tree and let the forest die?  Kurosawa provides no explanations or easy solutions.  While Charisma isn’t entirely successful (it’s slow moving and the characters are difficult to like), I kept thinking about it for days afterward, wondering what it all really meant.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD.

 Gappa, the Triphibian Monster (aka: Daikyojû Gappa) (1967) Nikkatsu studio’s first and only kaiju eiga flick is dismissed by many enthusiasts as a lesser knock-off of giant monster movies from Toho and Daiei.  They’d be mostly right, but that’s overlooking   the more enjoyable aspects.  The film features a Walt Disney-esque mogul who envisions a huge theme park populated with animals, and sends a team of researchers to the South Pacific to collect specimens for the project.  Despite the protests of a “native” boy in blackface (“Gappa angry!”), a baby reptilian creature is whisked away from its South Pacific island home by overeager scientists.  Its mom and dad follow him to Japan, where they proceed to stomp everything in their path.  Standard monster mayhem ensues, but (SPOILER ALERT) it’s worth it for the inevitable reunion between parents and child.  There won’t be a dry eye in the house (well, on the screen anyway).  Seriously, even the monsters cry.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Once Over Twice: Big Monster War (aka: Yôkai Daisensô)

(1968) Directed by Yoshiyuki Kuroda; Written by Tetsurô Yoshida; Starring: Yoshihiko Aoyama, Hideki Hanamura, Chikara Hashimoto; Available on DVD

Rating: *** ½

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

“Learn about Yokai and you will understand a critical piece of the puzzle that Japanese culture often presents to outsiders.” (from Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide, by Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt)

 My first major introduction to the strange and wonderful world of yokai was a few years back, thanks to Big Monster War (aka: Yôkai Daisensô), or Yokai Monsters: Spook Warfare as it’s known in the States.  Whatever you choose to call it, Big Monster War is a fun lesson in Japanese spirits.  According to Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt’s indispensable reference, Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide, yokai are the stuff of folklore: things that go bump in the night, spectral manifestations of forces of nature, and the unexplainable.  Hundreds of different types populate the land, in urban and rural settings.

* While Big Monster War was first in a series of three Yokai Monsters DVDs, it was actually the second film in a trilogy, following 100 Monsters (aka: Yôkai Hyaku Monogatari) and preceding  Along with Ghosts (aka: Tôkaidô Obake Dôchû) (Traditional Monster Imagery in Manga, Anime and Japanese Cinema, Zilia Papp)

The story begins in a Middle Eastern archaeological site, where the malevolent Babylonian creature Daimon (Chikara Hashimoto) is unearthed and awakened from his multi-millennia beauty slumber.  Daimon travels to feudal Japan, kills local magistrate Hyogo Isobe (Takashi Kanda), and assumes his identity.  He creates a private army by drinking the blood of officials of Izu Magisterial Palace and converting them into mindless slaves that carry out his bidding.  Palace denizens Lady Chie (Akane Kawasaki) and samurai Shinhachiro (Yoshihiko Aoyama) see through Daimon’s disguise, as the once kindly magistrate has become power hungry and cruel.  With a title like Big Monster War, however, it’s a safe bet the human characters are not the main attraction.

Daimon is opposed by an eclectic bunch of spirits.  Some are comical in appearance, such as the Kara-kasa (my personal favorite), which appears as an enchanted umbrella, while others are disturbing, exemplified by Rokuro Kubi (Ikuko Môri), a woman with an impossibly long, twisty neck.  The group’s nominal leader, the manic water sprite Kappa (Gen Kuroki), resembles a cross between a human, turtle and duck.  Another yokai, Ungaikyo, sports a huge, distended belly that displays images like a TV (the original Teletubby?). 

While some yokai are fearsome and some are deadly, most of the spirits present in the film are relatively benign.  Nevertheless, when they decide to band together, they comprise a formidable opposition to the evil outsider Daimon. Beings that normally lurk in the fog-shrouded corners, step out to face their common enemy. As suggested by Zilia Papp (cited previously), the film takes on nationalistic overtones as the spirits conspire to    rid the land of the foreign demon.  The yokai, as presented here, are the champions of Japanese society, and by extension, Japan. 

Although it’s hard to dismiss the author’s assertion, Big Monster War is more than a Japan-centric diatribe masked in historical fantasy.  It provides a delightful glimpse into Japan’s colorful past, where myth and history commingle in one tasty confection.  The yokai represent a link to Japan’s illustrious heritage through storytelling.  Even if they never existed, except in the collective imagination, you’ll wish they did.  Several decades later, Japanese filmmakers continue to incorporate these beloved and feared spirits into new tales.  Takashi Miike successfully adapted the story for his modern-day remake, The Great Yokai War.  The original film is the perfect family flick, if you’re tired of the usual suspects from Disney and Dreamworks.  A little creepy, a little silly, but always captivating, it’s become a family favorite, at least in my household.