Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Black Butler

(2014) Directed by Kentarô Ohtani and Kei'ichi Sato; Written by Tsutomu Kuroiwa; Based on the manga by Yana Toboso; Starring: Hiro Mizushima, Ayame Gôriki, Yûka, Mizuki Yamamoto and Masatô Ibu; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ***

“Humans are incapable of sharing sorrow as a group. They choose their own survival, even if it means damning others. Behold: this is a microcosm of society.” – Shinpei Kujo (Masatô Ibu)

The translation from manga to anime show to live action feature can be tricky. Witness Mushishi  – despite its stellar origins, the live action film version never quite captured the depth or subtlety of the source material. In all fairness, it’s tough to condense something that was multiple volumes and multiple episodes into one coherent two-hour film. Superficial traits and thumbnail sketches substitute for depth, until the finished product plays like a “greatest hits” compilation. Also, after we’ve grown accustomed to the animated characters, attempts to duplicate them in live action invariably resemble cosplay. With this in mind, I kept my expectations in check, but remained hopeful. Considering the manga and excellent anime series, Yana Toboso’s story about a young aristocrat and his demonic butler was a deep well to draw upon.

Black Butler veers off on a different tangent from previous versions, including a gender reversal on one of the principal characters. Instead of Victorian England as the backdrop, the story takes place in a near-future alternate reality, where the sun never set on the British Empire. The location is never specified, other than “An Eastern Nation,” which we assume is ostensibly Japan. Kiyoharu* (Ayame Gôriki) is heir to the considerable Genpo family fortune, and the 17-year-old head of the Funtom toy company (sadly, we never see the fruits of the company’s labors). He also serves a secret role as “The Queen’s Guard Dog,” spying for the British government. Kiyoharu has his own guard dog, so to speak, in his trusty guardian Sebastian, known for the signature tagline, “I’m simply one hell of a butler” (Wink, wink, nudge, nudge). He’s a demon in human form, bound to protect his master from harm and assist him in his quest for vengeance against the individuals responsible for the death of his parents. Sebastian is clear, however, that his loyal service comes at a price, as he vows to consume Kiyoharu’s soul upon his death.

* In the anime series, he’s “Ciel.”

In an early scene, Sebastian makes short work of some yakuza thugs, breaking up a human trafficking ring, which proves to be only the tip of the iceberg for a greater mystery. Kiyoharu is ordered by the Queen to investigate the gruesome deaths of several high-ranking dignitaries, in which the victims undergo a sort of instant mummification. Digging deeper, the clues lead to Epsilon Pharmaceuticals, where its unscrupulous CEO Shinpei Kujo (Masatô Ibu) has produced a powerful drug with some unfortunate side effects. In one scene, he unleashes the drug on a group of wealthy, unwitting test subjects, with bloody results. Besides suffering from a conspicuous case of affluenza, these upper crust twits reveal their poor vocabulary – I imagine most folks would suspect Kujo was up to no good with a drug called “Necrosis.”

The best performance belongs to Hiro Mizushima for his depiction of the unflappable butler Sebastian. Mizushima plays the part with restraint and dry wit. His suave demeanor belies a sadistic streak worthy of his demonic lineage. He’s not above toying with his prey or taunting his master. Gôriki is good, if not exceptional as Kiyoharu, single-minded in his pursuit of vengeance. He harbors a secret of his own, which I won’t reveal here. Other characters, such as Genpo family steward Tanaka (Tarô Shigaki) and the undertaker (Louis Kurihara) are glossed over. By comparison, Rin (Mizuki Yamamoto), the klutzy maid with an ace up her sleeve, fares much better. She gets to have her moment in the sun in one improbable action-packed scene.

Black Butler suffers from a weak third act, which coasts on the good will of the previous two acts. The plot devolves into familiar action movie territory, with a race against the clock to stop a bomb (equipped with the de rigueur LED counter). What was once fresh in Goldfinger has been copied ad nauseum, to the point where we know exactly how this is going to turn out. Another tired element is the drug, and its deleterious effects. Exposure to Necrosis varies, depending on how important the character is to the plot. The drug either kills within minutes or lingers long enough for the duration of a protracted scene (or two). On the plus side, the filmmakers wisely chose to tone down the CGI effects. While CGI is employed for backgrounds and to stretch the physics in the action scenes, the film never seems bloated with spectacle. There are a few notable scenes that benefitted from an eye for visual flair (especially the colorful gardens surrounding Genpo Manor), although it would have been nice to see more such flourishes.

Black Butler confirmed and denied my suspicions about live action versions of popular anime series. It never quite escapes the shadow of the admittedly superior source material, but that’s not to say the film doesn’t possess its own charms. It’s best to go in with an open mind and expectations that are lowered a notch or two. Black Butler might not change your perception of a manga/anime adaptation, but it works well enough. To someone who’s uninitiated to the Black Butler universe, it’s possible many of the quibbles won’t matter. And if it encourages rather than discourages digging deeper to read the manga or see the anime series, that’s not a bad thing, indeed.

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

Friday, January 12, 2018

Only Yesterday

(1991) Written and directed by Isao Takahata; Based on the manga by Hotaru Okamoto and Yuuko Tone; Starring: Miki Imai, Toshirô Yanagiba, Yoko Honna and Mayumi Izuka; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ****

“To be a butterfly, a caterpillar has to become a chrysalis first, even if it never for a moment wanted to become one. Was I remembering these days so clearly because I needed to become a chrysalis again?” – Taeko (Mimi Imai)

“Live action films are so commonplace these days, they’ve become part of reality. I don’t think audiences ‘watch’ live action features carefully. But in animation, they’re forced to because it’s drawn out. It reflects more solid reality than what actually is. That’s what we do! It makes people realize. I believe animation provides such opportunities.” – Isao Takahata (from making of documentary)

Only Yesterday was released back in 1991, but didn’t see a release in the U.S. until a couple of years ago. Without commenting on the quality (okay, it’s an exceptional film), it’s easy to see why this introspective drama didn’t make it to our shores sooner. There’s nothing flashy or fantastical about the subject matter or the film’s protagonist. It’s about an ordinary person in a mundane existence, on a quest for meaning and fulfillment. Her primary conflict doesn’t exist with other characters but within herself. Hayao Miyazaki initially considered creating a film based on the manga by Hotaru Okamoto and Yuuko Tone, but felt he couldn’t quite bring it to life. Miyazaki decided to produce the film version instead, offering his colleague/business partner/rival Isao Takahata the opportunity to direct. It’s a simple story, told with a level of complexity and care that few animators could handle as deftly.

After breaking off her engagement, Taeko decides to take a vacation in the country, far from the pressures of her big city life. She returns to the same sort of bucolic setting that’s brought her comfort in the past, working on a farm. This time around, she arrives in Yamagata Prefecture to work on a safflower farm. But is farm work nothing but a lark, a mere diversion from her humdrum urban existence, or what she was meant to do?

The story shifts back and forth between the past and present, as 27-year-old Taeko unwittingly takes her 10-year-old self along for the trip. Even if the ramifications aren’t entirely clear, it’s apparent that 1966 was a pivotal year for her. Like turning pages in a book, the scenes gradually reveal a little bit more. Taeko questions why she keeps revisiting her past, but it becomes apparent her younger self is there to call attention to something that’s eluded her. Amidst heartbreak and disappointment, we live with our past selves. Our early experiences, positive and negative, shape whom we were and define the person we will become. Takahata encapsulates how the disapproval of an adult can be devastating to a child. As children, we place tremendous weight on what our role models say and do (i.e., her parents failing to recognize her unique talents, or her teacher’s indignation because she ad-libbed in a classroom play). The film also captures the arbitrary nature of parents’ decisions, and their hurtful consequences, as experienced through the eyes of a child. Viewed via the perspective of her younger self, Taeko experiences her checkered history with boys, and how her fear of connection closed off opportunities for meaningful relationships. Her experiences carry over to her present-day fear of having a romantic relationship with Toshio, a young farmer. Until the final scene, we’re not sure how this is going to play out. Is she doomed to be a prisoner of her fears, or will she benefit from the lessons of her past?

Why did Takahata choose to animate* such a seemingly ordinary story? Animation affords filmmakers unprecedented freedom to express their unique stories with a virtually boundless canvas. There is a crystalized intentionality in animated films that’s difficult, if impossible to duplicate in live action films. One thing I remind myself when I watch animated films, is that everything onscreen exists because someone wanted it there. There is nothing extraneous in Only Yesterday. Everything has a place and a purpose. We feel the immediacy of Taeko’s dilemma, and for that reason, we’re more invested in the outcome. There’s a hyper-realism in the details, as in the film’s depiction of the painstaking process of harvesting the flowers, allowing the petals to ferment, and extracting the dye, which is used for fabric and rouge. Seemingly insignificant moments have a serene, contemplative quality, rendered with meticulous attention to detail, such as a tiny frog hopping among the safflowers.

* Fun Fact: According to the making-of documentary, the animators used 370 different colors of pigment for the film, 10 times the amount typically used in television anime productions.

Only Yesterday caters to Takahata’s strengths, as a master of balancing bittersweet elements in equal measures – depictions of family life that was neither oppressive, nor idyllic, capturing the sadness and joy of youth. The film takes its good old time telling the story, but it’s never dull. There’s so much life in every frame that engages our intellect and our emotions. Takahata encourages us to work with his film, not as a passive observer but as an active participant. As Taeko confronts her memories of her 10-year-old self, you might be prompted to re-examine your own childhood experiences. Only Yesterday lives in the quiet, reflective moments. In many ways it’s the antithesis to the big, bombastic American tradition of animated films of the past few decades. There are no crazy action scenes, wildly eccentric characters, goofy sidekicks, or non-sequitur musical interludes. Only Yesterday represents animation as a meditative experience, not a thrill ride. Fidgety audiences accustomed to having their senses overloaded in every scene need not apply.