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.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Uzumaki (aka: Spiral)

(2000) Directed by: Higuchinsky; Written by: Kengo Kaji, Takao Nitta and Chika Yasuo; Based on the manga by: Junji Ito; Starring: Eriko Hatsune, Fhi Fan, Hinako Saeki, Keiko Takahashi and Ren Ôsugi; Available on DVD.

Rating: ****

“…to those of you who felt lost while watching this movie, and to those of you who felt the ending was not satisfying, I ask you, is there really an ending to this film?”
 – Higuchinsky (from the DVD commentary)

“One makes one’s own uzumaki.” – Toshio Saito (Ren Ôsugi)

One of the joys of doing a theme month is having the luxury to focus on one specific genre or category (e.g., Japanese cinema), and finding something really special in the process. Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t have a methodical way of choosing which movies I review, or defer to one or two “definitive” authorities. More often than not, I’ll just throw out some titles and see what sticks. As a matter of course, it’s the films I’m not counting on that end up making the biggest impression. This time around, it’s the bizarre, darkly comic head trip Uzumaki, directed by Higuchinsky (aka: Akihiro Higuchi).

Higuchinsky described his film, based on a manga by Junji Ito, as a “kaiki” (meaning mysterious and eerie), rather than a straight horror story. It’s a subtle distinction that perhaps sets the best framework from which to appreciate Uzumaki. While the movie certainly has its visceral shock moments, the overall effect is an underlying sense of dread, which motivates the characters’ actions and reactions. The crux of the creepy mystery is one small town’s* obsession with spirals. As the obsession grows like a virus among the residents, it begins to consume (and transform) them. Higuchinsky plays with the concept of the spiral shape, exploiting it at every angle. He leaves no stone unturned, incorporating spirals throughout, including an electric barber shop sign, fish cake slices, pottery, cloud patterns and fingerprints. Recurring images of snails and snail shells reinforce the spiral shape, prefiguring some of the denizens’ literal transformation into the slimy gastropods (Hey, I told you this movie was weird, didn’t I?).

* Fun fact: Uzumaki was shot in Ueda-shi, in Nagano Prefecture. Higuchinsky selected the location because the sleepy town resembled his mother’s birthplace, and represented a throwback to earlier, simpler times.

Kirie (Eriko Hatsune), the film’s nominal protagonist, introduces us to the unusual occurrences in her town. She’s accompanied by her unflappable childhood friend Shuichi (Fhi Fan, in his only film credit to date), who stands as her protector and safe harbor when everything begins to fall apart. He’s the first to realize there’s a curse on the town, as he watches his father, Toshio (Ren Ôsugi) succumb to the spiral-induced madness, followed by his mother Yukie (Keiko Takahashi). Unlike her husband’s infatuation, however, Yukie’s obsession manifests itself as a phobia toward anything spiral-shaped. Despite Shuichi’s insistence that she leave while she can, Kirie keeps getting sucked back, as if there’s an invisible, inescapable vortex.

What’s the greater significance of all of this spiral mumbo jumbo? It’s open to a number of interpretations, but Higuchinsky, indicates in his DVD commentary that he left a trail of clues for filmgoers.* One of the more intriguing clues is uncovered by a newspaper reporter, who finds an image of a snake, recalling (at least on a subliminal level), the Greek Ouroboros legend, depicting a snake eating its own tail. It suggests the cyclical, unending nature of the spiral curse, as well as the inherent fatalism of the situation. Another theme is transformation as a means of social relevance. As one of Kirie’s high school classmates observes, “If you’re not noticed, it’s like you’re not alive.” Most of the film is displayed from a subjective point of view, cast in sickly greenish hue.  The only time the colors appear somewhat normal (objective) is when we see a news report through a television monitor, describing the unusual goings-on. The film is divided into three chapters, which provide a general framework: “Premonition,” “Erosion,” and “Visitation.” How it all adds up, though, is left to you.

* He revealed what was possibly the most tantalizing clue, suggesting that film itself, by nature, is one big spiral (I think my brain is melting).

It would be a massive understatement to say there’s nothing else quite like Uzumaki. It’s   unique, creepy, and strangely elegant in its exploration of the spiral, but don’t expect life’s mysteries to be revealed. It’s probably not healthy to dwell too long on the deeper meaning, unless you wish to suffer a similar fate to the film’s characters. While Uzumaki is not to everyone’s taste, it’s refreshing to watch something that’s not a product by committee. It’s probably a foregone conclusion this one isn’t on the long slate of Hollywood remakes, and that’s a comforting thing.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016


(1964) Written and directed by Kaneto Shindô; Starring: Nobuko Otowa, Jitsuko Yoshimura, Kei Satô; Available on DVD

Rating: *** ½

“The smallness of human existence within the world is explored. Though we are small, we have to live, so how we survive when faced with difficulty is the basis of this story about two women.” – Kaneto Shindô (excerpt from 2003 interview)

Japanese horror films, compared to their western counterparts, are often slower burning, more interested in allowing the macabre story to gradually unfold, rather than resorting to quick jump scares or elaborate special effects. Some of the more effective examples (Kuroneko, Kwaidan, etc…) have relied on tales from ancient legends, where history, culture and the darker side of human nature intersect. Onibaba, which is best described as a drama with horrific elements, follows in this tradition. The film takes its name from a legendary yokai that started out as a normal human, but became a demon after suffering an unbearable tragedy (source: Yokai Attack! by Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt).

Writer/director Kaneto Shindô set his film during Japan’s Sengoku (or “Warring States”) period, when skirmishes between two houses have left the country devastated. A middle-aged peasant woman known only as “Kichi’s Mother” (Nobuko Otowa), and her daughter in law, “Kichi’s Wife” (Jitsuko Yoshimura), are the focal point of the story. Food is scarce, and crops fail to thrive. The two women eke out a meager existence, killing passing samurai and taking their possessions. In turn, they exchange the samurai armor and swords for bags of millet. Meanwhile the daughter in law anxiously awaits the return of her husband, who left their village to help fight in the pointless war.

Kichi’s friend Hachi (Kei Satô) returns home, only to report that his comrade has been killed in battle. Judging by Hachi’s apparent lack of remorse, we’re never sure if he’s telling the truth about Kichi’s death, or if he was an accessory to the murder. But it doesn’t take long before his intentions for Kichi’s wife become clear. Her initial disgust turns to lust, as his advances intensify. There’s a raw, primal energy to their sexuality, which is presented in a frank manner, but never seems gratuitous or exploitative. In the bleak scenario they face, sex is a natural response to the monotony of daily survival. On the other hand, Kichi’s mother is far more reluctant to accept this interloper, and views him as a threat to their livelihood. As the rift grows between mother and daughter-in law, the elder woman plots to get Hachi out of the picture permanently. She plants the seeds of demonic retribution for her daughter in law’s perceived impropriety, appropriating a fearsome mask from a murdered samurai. By virtue of impersonating a demon, the mask becomes her true face.  

At its heart, Onibaba is about the ongoing human struggle for life amidst a harsh, unforgiving environment. The unflinching depiction of the drudgery and monotony of the characters’ daily lives is the film’s strength and weakness. Shindô’s tale eschews most of the supernatural elements, in favor of depicting more earthly horrors. The expansive field of reeds (susuki) figures prominently throughout the film, enveloping the region like a death shroud, and serving as the characters’ prison. The field’s movement in the wind also signifies the inexorable ebb and flow of things. The floor of a pit is strewn with the bones of past victims, representing a boundary between the living and dead; but life above the pit is just as grim, and just as ephemeral.

Onibaba is exceptionally well made, featuring gorgeous black and white cinematography and believable performances. Because of the film’s glacial pace, however, a second watch doesn’t make it any easier to sit through. I admire Onibaba for its artistry, but the film overstays its welcome, long before the disturbing climax. Misgivings aside, it’s impossible to overlook the film’s chilling, all-too-real horror, based on peasant life under the constraints of feudal Japan. Its true power resides in the indelible imagery that sticks with you, long after you’ve watched the film.  

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Robot Carnival (aka: Robotto Kânibaru)

(1987) Written and directed by Atsuko Fukushima and Katsuhiro Ôtomo (“Coming Soon” and “See You Again”), Hiroyuki Kitakubo (“A Tale of Two Robots”), Hiroyuki Kitazume (“Starlight Angel”), Kôji Morimoto (“Franken’s Gears”), Takashi Nakamura (“Nightmare”), Yasuomi Umetsu (“Presence”), Mao Lamdo (aka: Manabu Ôhashi) (“Cloud”), Hidetoshi Ômori (“Deprive”); Starring: Kôji Moritsugu, Yayoi Maki, Keiko Hanagata; Available on DVD

Rating: ****

“You believe that you know your desires and dreams better than anyone? Why shouldn’t I believe the same thing? You didn’t create yourself any more than I did.” – The Girl (from the segment “Presence”)

After watching Akira, My Neighbor Totoro and Robot Carnival in the early ‘90s, I was never the same again. This trio of films re-defined my views of anime, reinforcing the medium’s limitless potential as an art form. The marriage of compelling themes, complex characters and dynamic artwork had no parallel with animation from the States. The feeling that I was watching something familiar, yet unfamiliar, has kept me coming back for more for the past 25 years. For those unaccustomed to the odd, sometimes bewildering world of anime, I can’t think of a better place to start, than with the aforementioned titles. Of the three movies, Robot Carnival might be the best “sampler” for the uninitiated, showcasing many of the good, bad and questionable elements of Japanese animation.

Robot Carnival is an omnibus of nine stories, reflecting wildly different animation styles and themes. The introductory and end segments, “Coming Soon” and “See You Again,” co-directed by Katsuhiro Ôtomo (Akira) and Atsuko Fukushima, bracket the other stories. The film opens on an audacious note. The title, envisioned as a mechanized juggernaut, flattens a village and leaves a wake of destruction in its path.  The end segment picks up where the beginning left off, providing a fitting, nihilistic conclusion to the proceedings.
Isaku Fujita, Joe Hisaishi (of Studio Ghibli fame) and Masahisa Takeichi provide the memorable score. Mirroring the rest of the film, the score is an eclectic mix of musical styles, incorporating ’80s synth with lush symphonic sounds.  

“Franken’s Gears,” directed by Kôji Morimoto, tells an atmospheric, Frankenstein-esque tale about an elderly absent-minded inventor who brings his gargantuan robot to life through electricity. As you can likely ascertain by the title, things don’t end well for the creator or his creation. The visual style presents a contrast between meticulously rendered scenes and intentionally rough, unfinished-looking sequences.

The best segment, “Presence,” directed by Yasuomi Umetsu, is set in a richly imagined steampunk universe and packs an emotional punch. The contemplative, heartbreaking story concerns an inventor who creates a female android companion, and becomes haunted by the ghost of regret. Umetsu prompts us to consider the nature of what makes us or (by extension) our creations human, while compelling us to reach our own conclusions. It’s heady stuff, which could easily have been expanded into a distinct feature film. It’s almost unfortunate that “Presence” is so good, because the other stories never quite reach the same level of brilliance.

Another standout, “A Tale of Two Robots,” (aka: “Meiji-Era Civilization Machine Saga”) is mostly played for laughs, with its lively animation, amusing characters, and quaint technology. Meiji-era Japan provides the backdrop for a clash between two enormous turn-of-the-century mechas. A brash, maniacal American invader attempts to single-handedly conquer Japan with his mechanized creation, but a ragtag bunch of villagers (and their giant robot) stand to oppose his imperialistic ambitions. The story can be enjoyed on different levels. At the surface, it’s a fun little romp. On another level it could be seen as a metaphor for Japanese society’s struggle between isolation and openness, or a culture clash between individualism and collectivism. Whichever interpretation you choose to subscribe to, there’s something undeniably cathartic about watching two giant robots beat the crap out of each other.

The penultimate story, “Nightmare” (aka: “Chicken Man and Red Neck”) recalls the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence in Fantasia. Instead of demons, a scourge of robotic monstrosities terrorizes a modern metropolis. One timid citizen, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Ichabod Crane in Disney’s The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad*, makes a hasty retreat via scooter (instead of escaping on horseback).

* According to Anime News Network’s trivia page, this was a deliberate choice.

On the negative side, a few segments never quite mesh. When some people think of anime, the scenario in “Deprive” might be the first to spring to mind, with its stereotypical super-powered cyborg hero who fights alien oppressors. Another segment, “Starlight Angel,” tells a saccharine story of teen love and angst, set in an amusement park that IN NO WAY RESEMBLES Disneyland.* While this puff piece is far from essential viewing, fans of Akira (which appeared the following year) might want to watch for a couple of blink-and-you-miss-it cameos of characters from that seminal film. One near miss is “Cloud,” a bold piece by Mao Lamdo (aka: Manabu Ôhashi). It’s lovely to look at, with its abstract depiction of a childlike robot undergoing a Pinocchio-like transformation, but a bit dull.

* If you overlook the general park layout, castle in the center, Space Mountain-like coaster, rocket ride… Okay, who am I fooling? I’m sure the filmmakers just narrowly avoided a lawsuit.

While one film couldn’t possibly encompass the breadth and diversity of anime, Robot Carnival is a good start for those unfamiliar with the art form. Even if a few of the segments miss their mark, open-minded film fans should find much to like in this multi-faceted approach to old sci-fi tropes, which rewards on repeat viewings. It’s an excellent overview of Japanese animation that connoisseurs and novices (or anyone in between) can appreciate.