Thursday, January 26, 2017

Japan-uary VI Quick Picks and Pans

Jigoku (1960) Many films about hell make promises about what you might see, but few deliver. Jigoku is a rare exception that doesn’t pull its punches in its sordid depictions of the Buddhist underworld. Shirô (Shigeru Amachi) is a young college student, engaged to marry the daughter of one of his professors. One night, while driving home from her house, he hits a drunken man who wandered into the road. Instead of stopping to help, he drives away, leaving the man to perish. Soon afterward, one tragedy after another befalls Shirô. All the while, he’s plagued by Tamura (Yôichi Numata), a strange man who represents his conscience.

Director/co-writer Nobuo Nakagawa creates a dizzying experience, full of symbolism throughout to depict Shirô’s inexorable descent. The film features inventive set design and art direction, which illustrate the numerous torments of Buddhist hell. As Shirô navigates the horrific, gory landscape, he visits different levels where justice is meted out in a manner commensurate with each crime. It’s an unforgettable, unsettling trip.

Rating: ****. Available on DVD

Haruko’s Paranormal Laboratory (2015) I really wasn’t expecting much from Haruko’s Paranormal Laboratory, which appears to have been shot for less than $500, but ended up pleasantly surprised. This charming comedy/fantasy from writer/director Lisa Takeba focuses on Haruko (Moeka Nozaki), a lonely young woman who becomes so involved with her television shows that her TV turns into a man (Aoi Nakamura). Haruko ponders her new dilemma, as she pursues an unconventional romance with her new boyfriend. Takeba’s film is an absurd commentary about how the lives of people on television become more real to us than the outside world (the TV brand is “Videodrome”). Much like the films of Mamoru Kawasaki, you get used to the fact that there’s a guy with a TV head, and move on. There’s also a freak show, space aliens and a Jason cosplayer. How does it all fit in? You’ll just have to wait and see.

Rating: ****. Available on Amazon Video

Paprika (2006) The late, great director Satoshi Kon had far too few feature films to his credit, but left a lasting impression on the anime world. Paprika concerns a revolutionary invention, the DC Mini, a headset that enables someone to enter another’s dreams. The device is intended for psychological research and therapy, but after one of the headsets goes missing, it’s clear that it can be twisted into something that can harm. A psychological researcher (assisted by her alter-ego, “Paprika”), a police investigator, and the childlike genius who invented the DC Mini combine forces to locate the errant device. Meanwhile, the dream world and reality collide with increasing frequency. Filled with mind-bending images and a thoughtful story, Paprika is a feast for the eyes, best experienced, rather than described

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

Belladonna of Sadness (1973) Eiichi Yamamoto’s visually stunning, tragic tale is unlike any other anime film I’ve seen. The film lives up to its title, depicting the story of a young woman who’s raped by a sadistic king on her wedding night, and continues to experience a cascade of tragic events. She finds a way to climb up in status, only to be shunned by the kingdom and her fellow villagers. She’s seduced by the devil, who promises her prestige and the power to heal, but at a terrible price. Yamamoto incorporates multiple styles to illustrate the heroine’s personal journey, as she explores her sexuality, and uses sex as her only leveraging tool. It’s a meditation on gender inequality and social injustice that seems more relevant than ever.

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

Pitfall (1962) Director Hiroshi Tehigahara’s (The Face of Another, Woman in the Dunes) debut feature film paints a bleak portrait of industrial Japan, and the human cost associated with prosperity. An itinerant coal mine worker is mistaken for the leader of a labor union, and murdered by a strange man in white. The ghost of the murdered man wanders the countryside, trying to learn more about the man who killed him. The local police conduct a fruitless investigation, while the sole witness to the murder misleads them for her own gain. Pitfall is visually compelling, with a neo-noir feel and a supernatural twist. While I was captivated by the cinematography and themes, I felt distanced by the characters. It’s fascinating to watch, but difficult to feel emotionally engaged.

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD

Welcome to the Space Show (2010) This beautifully animated film is a joy to look at, but the story is a little weak, with its predictable “be yourself” and “follow your dreams” messages. A group of kids in a rural town befriend a dog-like alien, who takes them on a trip to the far side of the moon and beyond. The film works best when it showcases the imagination of the animators – they really went above and beyond to depict a broad spectrum of alien creatures. It’s also effective in some of the quietest moments, when the characters have a moment to take a breath and contemplate their surroundings. Too bad the climax is a standard overblown action sequence, with a clichéd fight between good and evil. If you’re looking for something the whole family can watch, however, you could do much worse. It’s still light years ahead of most of the animated claptrap that comes out of Hollywood.

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD and Amazon Video

Big Man Japan (2007) This unconventional mockumentary by director/co-writer Hitoshi Matsumoto chronicles the everyday, often humdrum life of superhero Masaru Daisatô (also played by Matsumoto). Nothing seems to go right for Daisatô, who’s 6th in a line of superheroes, and faces sagging TV ratings, almost universal public scorn, and a marriage on the skids. He becomes super-sized, thanks to a jolt of electricity, and fights an increasingly bizarre lineup of monsters (including a kaiju with a comb-over hairdo) that threaten the peace of Japan’s major cities. Matsumoto approaches his character with pathos, and never makes the mistake of pandering for laughs. Most of the film works so well that it’s disappointing when things fall apart at the end. Instead of bringing some sort of resolution to Daisatô’s story, we’re treated to an Ultraman-style parody that seems tacked on. Caveats aside, the dubious conclusion shouldn’t stop you from checking out a truly one-of-a-kind experience.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD 

Twilight Syndrome: Dead Go Round (aka: Twilight Syndrome: Deadly Theme Park) (2008) I was playing streaming roulette one night, and happened upon this silly fantasy/horror film based on a video game series in Japan. A group of players are transported to a deserted amusement park, and are forced to take part in a winner-take-all competition. A weird clown (who looks like the love child of Ronald McDonald and Ryuk from Death Note) presides over the action, and serves as judge, jury and executioner. Each participant must complete a goal in order to reach the next level, with death the penalty for failure. The players are stereotypical archetypes (the obese geek, the brooding loner, the fashionista, etc…). It all adds up to a conclusion that doesn’t make a lot of sense, but conveniently sets things up for a sequel. While Dead Go Round might not be the biggest waste of time, you’d be better off watching Battle Royale instead.

Rating: **½. Available on DVD and Amazon Video

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Matango (aka: Attack of the Mushroom People)

(1963) Directed by Ishirô Honda; Written by Takeshi Kimura; Adaptation by Shin'ichi Hoshi and Masami Fukushima; Based on the story “The Voice in the Night,” by William Hope Hodgson; Starring: Akira Kubo, Kumi Mizuno, Hiroshi Koizumi, Kenji Sahara and Hiroshi Tachikawa; Available on DVD (Out of Print)

Rating: ****

“Normally in a kaiju or a Godzilla film the kaiju is the main character and we act around it. But in this one, we’re on a creepy shipwrecked boat with a group of seven people, all with different personalities.” – Akira Kubo (from DVD commentary)

Ishirô Honda has becomes so synonymous with Toho’s kaiju flicks that it’s easy to forget his other films and contributions to cinema.* Not to denigrate his association with his depictions of giant monsters causing mass destruction, but Honda proved his versatility telling a variety of stories with science fiction as his canvas. One such example is Matango, released in the U.S. under the title Attack of the Mushroom People. In fact, it was that sensationalistic title (and one-star TV page listings) that scared me away from watching it for years. When I finally rented the DVD decades later, I was surprised by the atmosphere, depth and brooding tone of this underappreciated film.  

* Over the years, Honda collaborated with Akira Kurosawa as assistant or second unit director on several of his films, including Ran and Dreams.

Matango is often lauded for its “Lovecraftian” vibe, but the source material actually pre-dates most of H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction. The film was based on William Hope Hodgson’s 1907 short story, “The Voice in the Night,” which in turn was adapted by Masami Fukushima and Shin'ichi Hoshi for their story “Matango,” and Takeshi Kimura’s subsequent screenplay. Honda filmed Matango on the islands of Izu Ōshima and Hachijō-jima to simulate the remote tropical locale in the story.

Imagine Gilligan’s Island if the focus was on distrust, discord and paranoia among the castaways, all governed by some hideous malevolent force. The film opens with college professor Kenji Murai (Akira Kubo) in a hospital, recounting his experiences as the sole survivor of a doomed pleasure cruise. Seven individuals, including an egotistical corporate president (Yoshio Tsuchiya), a virtuous college professor (Kubo), a flirty singer (Kumi Mizuno), naïve college student (Akiko Sôma) and a self-centered mystery writer (Etsurô Yoshida) embark on a cruise aboard a new yacht. Everyone’s having a good time - Mami (Mizuno) takes a moment to serenade the crew with an impromptu song (Well, nominally a song, if you consider “La, la, la la” a valid substitute for lyrics). Not unlike the aforementioned classic television comedy, however, the weather gets rough, and before you know it the passengers and crew are lost at sea. Eventually, they become stranded on a remote South Pacific island. When they discover an abandoned research vessel, they attempt to unravel the mystery about what happened to the ship’s crew. Before long, as tension mounts, their fate seems to be headed in a similar direction. They soon face starvation after they plunder the ship’s meager rations and forage for the scarce food sources on the island. Suddenly the prospect of eating the strange, but abundant mushrooms that proliferate around the island doesn’t sound bad, compared to the alternative.

Shigekazu Ikuno and Akira Watanabe deserve kudos for their excellent production and art design, which contribute immensely to the atmosphere. The derelict ship exteriors and interiors are particularly convincing. The passageways are encrusted with fungal growth, suggesting the ship has become a living thing. A colorful forest of mushrooms takes on an otherworldly appearance. The effects crew experimented with chemicals to make mushrooms that grew on demand, and created rice pastry mushrooms for the cast to eat when their respective characters had the onscreen munchies. The unique makeup effects depict people in various states of transformation, as they undergo a metamorphosis into something not quite human, nor quite mushroom.

Matango explores the darker side of the human soul, brought to the surface by isolation and suppressed urges. As the film progresses and things become more desperate, the castaways become more inhuman in their behavior – or is it their true human nature, brought to the surface? Eating the mushrooms result in a loss of inhibitions, as violent and/or sexual urges break free, as exemplified by Mami’s seductive behavior toward the male castaways. The mushrooms themselves, and their phallic shapes, suggest the physicality of lust and desire. But what lies underneath the final, terrifying distorted human forms and twisted behaviors are nothing new. The monsters are us, reinforced by Kenji’s final, sobering monologue.

Honda and company do an admirable job capturing the overwhelming feeling of dread that permeates Hodgson’s original story. For anyone who might have doubted Honda’s mettle as a multifaceted director, I present Matango as a rebuttal. This thoughtful mood piece deserves more acclaim as a genre high point. Sadly, the excellent DVD from Tokyo Shock is out of print, so it might take some tracking down, but it’s well worth the investment.

Sunday, January 1, 2017


(2003) Directed by Takashi Miike; Written by Sakichi Satô; Starring: Yûta Sone, Shô Aikawa, Kimika Yoshino, Shôhei Hino, Keiko Tomita, Harumi Sone and Renji Ishibashi; Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Instant

Rating: ***

“…When I was a child the world was more interesting and magical; riding a bike to the next town, you turn a corner, see a place you’ve never seen before… Gozu is how a child sees the world, wandering around.” – Takashi Miike (excerpt from interview with Wade Major)

Once again, my readers have spoken. In the recent Twitter poll about my first review for Japan-uary VI, it was a close race between three titles, and Gozu prevailed. As a fan of director Takashi Miike’s films, I eagerly anticipated watching this title, with the expectation that I didn’t know what I was getting into. I wasn’t disappointed. This movie more than solidified Miike’s reputation as an unpredictable filmmaker, with its bizarre assortment of characters and imagery burned into my neurons. Yet, if I were to recommend a Miike film to someone who had never seen one of his movies, this wouldn’t be the one. The Miike neophyte might consider getting his or her feet wet with Happiness of the Katakuris (2001), 13 Assassins (2010), or even Ichi the Killer (2001) before plunging into the deep end with Gozu.  

In Gozu, as with many other Miike films, nothing is entirely what it seems. It starts out with familiar themes for Miike, as a yakuza drama, but abruptly runs off the rails, veering into uncharted territory. After his older brother Ozaki (Shô Aikawa) is pegged as a liability to the organization, Minami (Yûta Sone) is charged with transporting him to a junkyard in Nagoya for disposal. Along the way, Minami loses Ozaki’s body, and must deal with some less than cooperative townspeople to retrieve it. What follows is a hallucinatory, darkly comic odyssey that seems to have been penned by Franz Kafka and rendered by David Lynch’s paintbrush. The title itself translates roughly as “cow’s head.” According to Miike, Gozu is a Buddhist figure, who stands as a “gatekeeper for both sides,” between our world and hell.

The opening scene should come with a warning attached if you’re a pet lover; even if you’ve already been indoctrinated into the cult of Miike, it might be jarring. In Miike’s defense, it’s presented in a cartoonish fashion, so it should probably be regarded as such. Don’t worry, if you decide to skip ahead five minutes, or look away, you shouldn’t miss much. There’s plenty more weirdness where that came from. And if you’re not disturbed by the scene,* you’re bound to find something else that will set you on edge.

* I probably don’t want to know you if you enjoyed it.

Minami’s reluctant guide in Nagoya is Nose (Shôhei Hino) a man with half of his face painted white (which he tries to pass off as a congenital defect). He spends an awkward night in a motel run by a middle aged woman (Keiko Tomita) and her brother (Harumi Sone, Yûta’s real-life father), which seems to be a portal to hell. As Minami explores the town, searching for his brother’s missing body, danger and uncertainty lurk in every corner. At one point, Miike breaks the fourth wall featuring a scene with an American character reading broken Japanese from cue cards taped to the wall. When he finally catches up to Ozaki, he’s alive and well, but in a woman’s body (Kimika Yoshino).

Gozu really doesn’t belong in the horror category, although it contains scenes that would be at home in any horror film. Depending on your perspective, it’s a dark comedy or a twisted drama, shrouded in a cloud of existential dread. Of course, it wouldn’t feel like a Miike film without at least one nauseating scene, and Gozu is no exception, with several sequences that are almost guaranteed to test your intestinal fortitude. If you drink milk or eat milk products, you’ll probably never be the same again after Gozu’s take on lactation (yes, you read that right). There’s also a scene with a yakuza boss (Renji Ishibashi) and a soup ladle that’s better left to the imagination, or not.

It’s hard to think of another modern filmmaker who could be as consistently prolific and versatile as Miike, but with such a varied resume, Gozu stands alone. Unlike some of his more accessible films, it’s not as driven by story or plot as mood. It’s a film that needs to be experienced rather than described. On the negative side, I wasn’t as drawn to the characters as some of Miike’s other efforts, but I anticipate Gozu will reward on subsequent viewings. It’s not for the faint of heart, nor is it for film-goers who demand everything wrapped up in a neat little bow. For those intrepid viewers who tire of seeing films that swim in familiar waters, and don’t mind a polarizing experience, here’s something that shouldn’t disappoint.