Monday, January 27, 2020

Short Take: Mr. Thank You (aka: Arigatô-san)

(1936) Written and directed by Hiroshi Shimizu; Based on a short story by Yasunari Kawabata; Starring: Ken Uehara, Michiko Kuwano, Mayumi Tsukiji, Kaoru Futaba, Ryuji Ishiyama, Einosuke Naka and
Available on DVD

Rating: ****

“So far this fall, I’ve seen eight girls cross this pass, headed for paper factories and cotton mills, and who knows what else. Sometimes I think I’d be better off driving a hearse.”
– Ken Uehara (Mr. Thank You)

Who among us who ride (or have ever utilized) public transportation, hasn’t speculated about the lives of our fellow passengers? We cast furtive glances and pick up snippets of conversations, hoping to glean tidbits of information that will add up to a coherent composite. Hiroshi Shimizu’s Mr. Thank You (aka: Arigatô-san) explores this simple premise, following a bus driver and his passengers on a typical route. Due to the long (in relative terms) route and cramped confines of the petite bus, we get a more intimate profile of the passengers.

The opening montage introduces us to our protagonist, a mild-mannered bus driver (Ken Uehara),* as he makes his daily rounds. We learn how he earned his nickname as “Mr. Thank You,” traveling the narrow, dusty roads, calling out a friendly “Arigato” (“Thank you”) to everyone he encounters, as they clear a path for his bus. He’s very popular with the women he encounters along the way, but there’s no time for romance beyond brief flirtatious exchanges. He does his best to help the people that come and go along his route, whether they can afford a bus ticket or not. In some cases, help might consist of conveying goods (such as the latest hit record), or simply relaying information. Despite the daily hardships he witnesses, he takes everything in stride, with grace and a smile.

* Fun Fact: If Uehara looks familiar, he’s appeared in many films over the next several decades, including a few from Ishirô Honda, typically as a distinguished elderly scientist/official (Mothra, Gorath, Atragon).

In its gentle, understated way, Mr. Thank You provides ample commentary about the sorry state of affairs in 1930s Japan, reminding us that the Great Depression was very much a global phenomenon. A doctor on his way to visit an expectant mother comments, “Every village is producing lots of babies… And when they grow up, the boys become vagrants, and the girls are sold cheap by the dozen.” Work is scarce, and those who manage to find something often face uncertainty and peril. Mr. Thank You, casually assesses the grim reality of the situation, observing, “The girls who cross these passes rarely make it back.” He stops briefly to chat with one itinerant worker, cognizant of the fact that she can’t afford to ride on the roads that she helps to build.  

Among a series of hard luck stories, the saddest tale belongs to a 17-year-old and her mother (Mayumi Tsukiji and Kaoru Futaba), who board the bus, headed for a train station. The girl is destined to suffer the fate of many young women in rural towns who have not yet married, sold off to a Tokyo brothel. In one scene, she admonishes her mother, “I’m ashamed to tell people the truth. From now on, just say I’m going to visit relatives in Tokyo” Her mournful story is contrasted with a happy father and daughter returning from Tokyo, who have just finalized the daughter’s wedding plans. For them, it’s a time of celebration and happy memories – a sharp, heart-rending contrast to the awful future that awaits Futaba’s character.  

Another key character is the young (unnamed, as are her fellow passengers) woman who sits behind the driver (Michiko Kuwano). She’s only a few years older than the girl, but has experienced much more in those years, traveling from town to town to find work (what sort of work is never mentioned, but we can only speculate). She compares herself to a migratory bird, and like a bird, takes the girl under her wing during their journey. Kuwano enjoys some of the film’s best comic moments, as she shelters the girl from a lecherous, middle-aged businessman with less than honorable intentions.  

The film’s gentle comedic sequences, accompanied by Keizô Horiuchi’s jaunty score, bely the serious undertones throughout. It’s the comedy, however, that makes it easier to digest the more unsavory bits, so Shimizu’s film never seems heavy-handed or preachy. Isamu Aoki’s hair-raising cinematography perfectly illustrates the dizzying heights Mr. Thank You’s bus traverses, navigating treacherous switchbacks, and narrowly averting the precarious cliff edges. Mr. Thank You provides a fascinating glimpse into another time and place, when the world seemed much larger, and a 20-mile stretch of road was a vast expanse.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020


(1961) Directed by Ishirô Honda; Written by Shin'ichi Sekizawa; Based on the novel The Luminous Fairies and Mothra, by Shin'ichirô Nakamura, Takehiko Fukunaga and Yoshie Hotta; Starring: Furankî “Frankie” Sakai, Hiroshi Koizumi, Kyôko Kagawa, Yumi Itô, Emi Itô and Jerry Itô; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating ***½

“We wanted to do something that was new, for the whole family, like a Disney or Hollywood type of picture. We wanted it to be brighter, nicer.” – Ishirô Honda (from Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, From Godzilla to Kurosawa, by Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski, with Yuuko Honda-Yun)

When you create one of the most distinctive, fearsome giant monsters of all time, how do you top it? To start with, you don’t. Seven years after Gojira made its debut, producer Tomoyuki Tanaka and Toho went back to the drawing board. Instead of creating a bigger, meaner rival to the super-sized reptile, they devised a whole new class of kaiju. The resulting movie, Mothra, is a different beast from Gojira. The titular creature, along with its origin, is less menacing, and more fanciful. While there’s plenty of room for social commentary, the overall tone is lighter, with an emphasis on fantasy over widespread devastation (although the film doesn’t skimp in that department).

After four shipwreck survivors are found alive and well on remote Infant Island (thought uninhabitable, due to atomic testing), a scientific expedition is launched to gather more facts. Although it’s a Japanese vessel and crew, the expedition is bankrolled by foreign tycoon Clark Nelson (played with great, sneering panache by Jerry Itô, billed as “Jelly” Itô in the American version), whose motivations go beyond simple intellectual curiosity. Sensing a story, intrepid reporter Senichiro “Zen” Fukuda (Furankî “Frankie” Sakai) stows away on the ship. When they reach the South Pacific isle, they discover a lush jungle and native population, including a pair of tiny twin fairies* (played by twin sisters Yumi and Emi Itô, aka, singing group, “The Peanuts”). Sensing an opportunity to make a quick buck (or equivalent), Nelson abducts the twins, transplanting them to Japan to star in his new revue, “The Secret Fairies Show.” Nelson learns too late that one of their seemingly innocuous songs is a distress call, which carries a telepathic link. They soon awaken an ancient creature on Infant Island, driven by an unrelenting compulsion to bring them back home. Unfortunately for Tokyo and anything else that’s in the way, it can only mean untold property damage and displaced citizens.  

* Fun Fact #1: According to the informative Mill Creek Blu-ray commentary by Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski, the original story called for four 60-cm fairies, instead of the two 30-cm women that appear in the film.   

If some of the above description sounds familiar (minus the fairies), it’s not by accident, but design that the basic plot in Mothra parallels King Kong (1933). Director Ishirô Honda admitted to the many similarities, but with one principal difference: unlike the film with the big ape, his oversized moth* wasn’t destined for a tragic end. Otherwise, it’s easy to see how many elements are similar: the expedition, an isolated island populated by natives who worship a giant creature, an unscrupulous promoter, a squadron of fighter jets, and a towering city landmark that becomes a centerpiece for a key scene.

* Fun Fact #2: According to the disc commentary, Mothra’s caterpillar stage was the largest costume ever created by Toho, measuring approximately seven meters in length, and requiring five to six people to operate it.

Compared to King Kong, however, Mothra is more socio-politically conscious, reflecting some of the controversies of the time. As originally envisioned by Honda and the writers, the film would have been more political, but many of those elements were trimmed in favor of entertainment. Even with the necessary compromises, the finished product still leaves much for contemporary audiences to consider. The specter of the fictional country of Rolisica (a thinly veiled melding of the United States and Russia) looms over the story, with its militaristic society, imperialistic intentions, and (paralleling U.S. nuclear testing in the South Pacific) casual attitudes toward displacing indigenous cultures. On the other hand, Mothra dilutes its message a bit when the Infant Island “natives” are depicted by Japanese actors in brown-face. Cultural insensitivities aside, it’s easy to agree that the unconscionable entrepreneur Nelson (who’s backed by the Rolisican government), is the embodiment of all the negative aspects of outsiders, rolled into one. In his quest to obtain the fairies for his own gain, he thinks nothing of mowing down a group of unarmed natives with rifles. When he finally has his prize, Nelson’s dismissive attitude is laid bare as he comments, “Those fairies aren’t human. They’re merchandise.” *

* Not So Fun Fact: Sadly, Nelson’s abhorrent behavior is not without precedent. His treatment of the fairies recalls human zoos, which flourished in the late 1800s, lasting well into the mid-1900s.

In addition to Jerry Itô’s scene-stealing turn, Mothra boasts some fine performances by the other cast members, especially Frankie Sakai as tenacious reporter Zen, who likens himself to a snapping turtle (a bulldog in the American version). Comic actor Sakai keeps things from getting too serious, with some well-placed moments of schtick. Zen’s counterpart, plucky photographer Michi Hanamura (played by veteran actress Kyôko Kagawa, in her only kaiju film), lends balance to his scenes, keeping everything from going too far over the top. Also watch for a blink-and-you-miss-it appearance of Honda regular Kenji Sahara as a helicopter pilot. Arguably, the true stars of Mothra, outside of the giant insect itself, are pop duo The Peanuts, who convey a childlike innocence and grace under adversity. Their signature song needs no introduction, as it’s become firmly entrenched in pop culture.   

Eiji Tsuburaya and his effects crew put their all into the film, to make the star attraction,* in its final form, a truly memorable creation. Somewhat more refined versions of Mothra would appear in later movies, but the basic design owes much to this early version. Other standout effects sequences include a bursting dam, and a detailed replica of Tokyo Tower, where the juvenile Mothra, aka: The Very Angry Caterpillar (my apologies to Eric Carle for the cheap shot) undergoes a metamorphosis. The film’s climax,** which takes place in the Rolisican capitol, dubiously named New Kirk City (an amalgamation of New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles), provides another chance for Tsubaraya to showcase his signature brand of wholesale destruction.  

* Fun Fact #3: There were three Mothra models used for the film: 1) a small version, used only for long shots, 2) a medium version, with flexible wings; and 3) a large version with a 2.5-meter wingspan, with more rigid wings and illuminated eyes.

** Fun Fact #4: A different ending was originally shot, which has been presumed lost (although still frames exist). The original cost-conscious ending, featuring a confrontation between Nelson and Mothra was nixed by Columbia, in favor of the conclusion in an urban setting (New Kirk City).

Some might argue there’s an awful lot of build-up before we see the star attraction, in all its glory. The big “M” doesn’t appear, in its final form at least, until well into the third act. Before that, we’re treated to some shenanigans with Nelson, The Fairies, and Zen. When Mothra finally shows up, our patience is rewarded. Minor quibbles aside, it’s a solid debut for one of Toho’s most inspired, enduring, and yes, beautiful, creations. It’s the big bug movie to end all big bug movies (Okay, that distinction belongs to Them, but do you know what? Mothra is a close second.). The enduring kaiju would live to fight another day, facing off against Godzilla in 1964’s Mothra vs. Godzilla, and appear in numerous sequels. I anxiously await Mothra’s inevitable return.

Sources for this review: Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, From Godzilla to Kurosawa, by Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski, with Yuuko Honda-Yun; and Mothra Blu-ray commentary by Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Summer Wars

(2009) Directed by Mamoru Hosoda; Written by Satoko Okudera: Original story by Mamoru Hosoda; Starring: Ryûnosuke Kamiki, Nanami Sakuraba, Mitsuki Tanimura, and Sumiko Fuji; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ****

“This particular film revolves around one family, and the issues I think that family has to deal with are probably relatable to issues that face real families all over the world. That’s at the core of it; we started out telling the story of a family.” – Mamoru Hosoda

There’s something about a summery setting in movies that gets us (especially in the thick of winter, as of this writing) wistful about long hot days, short nights, and sipping our favorite cool beverage while lazing about. The reality, of course, is when we’re actually in the thick of it, it’s often too hot and sweaty to endure, and (at least from my perspective), it just makes me yearn for the reprieve that autumn brings. With Summer Wars, filmmaker Mamoru Hosoda (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, The Wolf Children) recalls the idealized summer in our minds, with celebrations, good food and great company, accompanied by the ubiquitous sound of cicadas* in the countryside. Oh, and there’s this pesky AI that threatens the fate of the world…

* Fun Fact #1: If there’s one sound that’s synonymous with summer in Japan, it’s the humble cicada. There are 35 known species in Japan, each with its unique call. You can find out more here (including sound clips).

Popular college student Natsuki Shinohara (Kazuma Ikezawa) offers nerdy high schooler Kenji Koiso a unique opportunity to accompany her to her house over the summer, in exchange for some easy money. Unfortunately for Kenji, she doesn’t reveal the whole story. He learns, much to his horror, that she wants him to pretend to be her boyfriend/fiancé. They arrive at her ancestral home, to celebrate the 90th birthday of family matriarch Sakae Jin'nôchi (Sumiko Fuji). In the first of many trials that await him, Kenji must convince her grandmother and numerous family members that he’s the only one for her. Soon, he has much bigger fish to fry when his identity is hijacked, and he unwittingly enables the AI program “Love Machine” to take control of OZ, a vast virtual complex. On the one hand, OZ is a social network and gaming mecca, but it also controls worldwide commerce, finance and infrastructure. Suddenly, Kenji is accused of being a criminal mastermind, and to add icing to the cake, Natsuki’s ruse is revealed. An annoying prank becomes a dire harbinger of doom when Love Machine takes control of a wayward space probe, potentially targeting one of the world’s nuclear power plants. Now, he’s presented with a two-fold dilemma: patching things up with Natsuki’s family and saving the Earth.

One of the joys of Summer Wars is its meticulous depiction of Natsuki’s family.* While many of them would be little more than window dressing in another film, Hosoda takes the time to introduce us to the various members (30 individuals, according to Hosoda) and their idiosyncrasies. Sakae is the heart and soul of the Jin'nôchi clan, strong-willed, passionate, and above all, service-minded, with a strong sense of duty to her community. Even after Kenji’s bluff is called, she sees something in him the others don’t see, as a worthy companion for her granddaughter. Another key player is, Natsuki’s uncle, Wabisuke Jin'nôchi (Ayumu Saitô), brash, impulsive, impudent, and the brilliant creator of Love Machine. In his fight to help regain control of OZ, Kenji finds an unlikely ally in Natsuki’s young cousin, Kazuma Ikezawa (Mitsuki Tanimura), who leads a second virtual life under the avatar King Kazma, a badass martial arts rabbit. Even the family’s beloved Shiba Inu, Hayate, gets his moment in the sun. Hosoda somehow manages to keep the disparate elements of the family drama and looming cyber-threat up in the air without crashing to the ground. The overarching theme of loyalty under adversity defines how the family deals with its inner conflicts and how they face the global crisis. Beside the positive aspects of family, Hosoda masterfully captures the less than savory dynamics that many of us can likely relate to, with cliques, shaky alliances, and petty animosities.

* Fun Fact #2: If you’re a trifle confused (and who wouldn’t be?) about who’s who in the Jin'nôchi clan, there’s a handy fan wiki page, which attempts to set the record straight.

Kenji, by far, demonstrates the most growth among the myriad characters in the movie. When he arrives at the Jin'nôchi residence, he’s a fish out of water, unable to measure up to the imaginary boyfriend that Natsuki fabricated (based on her prototypical idol, Wabisuke). Poor Kenji, by contrast, is timid and soft-spoken, and has never dated before. He’s far from helpless, however; his superpower of sorts is his head for numbers, which enables him to decode long sequences. It’s gratifying to watch him find his place, as he discovers his own voice, teaming up with Natsuki’s family to battle a seemingly unstoppable enemy. 

The virtual world of OZ is colorful, immersive and bewildering, unrestricted by the boundaries of the physical world. It’s easy to see how someone could become lost in this alternate reality, where your avatar can be an idealized version of yourself, and you can live out your fantasies. On the flip side, Summer Wars illustrates the perils of such an online arena, where we blindly put our trust out in the ether, taking for granted our identities and information will be safe. As intriguing as OZ’s online universe is, the film remains firmly rooted in the real world (another movie from a lesser filmmaker might have made Oz the primary focus). The family drama is front and center, so we can appreciate how high the stakes are when they’re sucked into the mix. Visual spectacle is something quite a few filmmakers can do well, but the ability to incorporate believable characters you care about is in short supply. Managing to handle both deftly is a talent few can match. Filled with stunning imagery and an abundance of heart, Summer Wars is another winner to add to Mamoru Hosoda’s impressive resume.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Documentary December Quick Picks and Pans

Marwencol (2010) Jeff Malmberg’s brilliant documentary is a fascinating profile of one man’s search for inner peace and meaning amidst chaos. After suffering a horrific beating which left him physically and mentally damaged, Mark Hogancamp took a novel approach on his long road to recovery. His coping mechanism: creating an intricately detailed miniature village, populated by the people (represented by dolls) who live in his real-life town of Kingston, New York. In the fictitious village of Marwencol, Belgium, set in a perpetual WWII, Mark spins ongoing scenarios, where the residents contend with wartime violence, love triangles and intrigue. The central character is a grizzled American G.I., representing Mark’s idealistic vision of himself. Often sad, sporadically bittersweet, Marwencol is an engrossing exploration of an imperfect battle to find happiness and healing (even if he can’t control much of his situation, Mark can control this tiny part of the world).

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

In the Realms of the Unreal (2004) Meet Joseph Darger (or more accurately, his work), a reclusive hospital janitor who created an epic 15,000-page story over the course of his lifetime. Director Jessica Yu brings his story to life with narration by Dakota Fanning and Larry Pine (who recites selections from Darger’s writings), accompanied by animated versions of his unique illustrations. The narration is supplemented by interviews with the few individuals who knew him. Through these various means, we gain a rough composite of an intelligent, isolated man who had trouble fitting into the world or relating to other people. Through his voluminous story, he created a rich fantasy world, depicting an ongoing battle between good and evil, featuring young girls as his protagonists. It’s an intriguing, occasionally disturbing look at the hidden world one man fashioned, away from prying eyes.    

Rating: ****. Available on DVD

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (2017) Writer/director Alexandra Dean introduces us to the Hollywood actress we thought we knew. You get the usual celebrity biographical elements, which chronicle the Austrian-Jewish émigré’s ups and downs in Hollywood, controversies, failed marriages, etc., but with an important twist. Through pictures, film clips, and interviews with friends, family and admirers, we learn about her first love – inventing. In 1942 she developed a method of secured communication, called “frequency hopping” which ultimately became the basis for today’s common technologies, including Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Unfortunately, due to sexism and short-sightedness, she failed to receive the credit (and monetary compensation) she was due. Bombshell is a cautionary tale about a book being judged by its cover – a story that sadly needs to be repeated in today’s less than enlightened age.

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

Motel (1989) Filmmaker Christian Blackwood travels throughout the American Southwest, to uncover the stories behind the anonymous budget lodgings we often take for granted along the road. The film is primarily structured around three profiles (a fourth profile, about a motel next to a drive-in, seems to have been cut short). In the first segment, we visit a slightly run-down motel in Santa Fe, New Mexico run by three independent middle-aged women. In one humorous scene, they re-enact a botched robbery attempt. The film continues with the Blue Mist motel in Florence, Arizona, situated across the street from a state penitentiary, featuring interviews with the wives of a few of the inmates, along with the motel’s gruesome history. In the concluding segment, we’re introduced to Marta Becket, a former professional dancer and proprietor of the 1920s-era Amargosa Opera House and Hotel, in Death Valley, California, where she runs a one-woman stage show. After watching Motel, you’ll likely wonder how many stories about these overlooked bits of Americana remain untold. You may never look at your town’s Motel 6 the same way again.

Note: It might take some digging to find this film. I was fortunate enough to find a copy at my local video store (the DVD-ROM, appeared to have been sourced from a VHS recording).

Rating: ****. Available on: N/A

Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist (1997) Kirby Dick’s warts-and-all documentary about Bob Flanagan, BDSM performance artist and lifelong sufferer of cystic fibrosis, is not for the squeamish, but surprisingly life (and death) affirming. Flanagan is candid about his losing battle with the debilitating disease, leaving no stone unturned to describe the ravages to his body (In one scene, he uses a plastic model to illustrate the effects on his system). Sick is unflinching and unsentimental in its depiction of Flanagan’s performances, which involve inflicting pain and pleasure in equal doses. To many viewers it might seem that he’s only exacerbating his suffering, but how he manipulates his body is his way of exercising control, even when he can’t change the progression of the very thing that’s slowly killing him. It’s also an unconventional love story, as we hear from his wife, Sheree Rose, who chronicles his life and death, and is an active participant in his performances.

Rating: ****. Available on DVD

Vampira and Me (2012) R.H. Greene’s affectionate documentary covers the short rise and long fall of actress/model Maila Nurmi, better known as Vampira. Built around a lengthy interview that the director conducted with Nurmi for another project, the film augments her recollections with vintage photos and the few surviving minutes of footage from her landmark 1950s TV show. Through these piecemeal elements, Greene provides a good composite of Vampira (based, in part, on Charles Addams’ character Morticia), and her pioneering show, which challenged the repressive norms of the era. The film also briefly illustrates Nurmi’s unsuccessful lawsuit against the producers of Elvira’s Movie Macabre (the parallels are too close to ignore). Despite the career setbacks and missed opportunities, Nurmi is surprisingly animated and upbeat in her interview segments, suggesting a strength and resilience that transcends her bitterness. Vampira and Me is a heartbreaking profile of someone who tasted fame, and deserved better than to be cast aside as a footnote in television history.  

Rating: ***½ stars. Available on Amazon Prime and Kanopy

The Search for Weng Weng (2007) Australian filmmaker/video store owner Andrew Leavold traveled to the Philippines to find out what happened to diminutive movie star Weng Weng (aka: Ernesto de la Cruz), who appeared in a handful of movies (including the cult James Bond parody, For Y’ur Height Only), and suddenly vanished. Through his quest, Leavold meets a few of the actors and film crew who worked with Weng Weng. His search eventually leads him to an interview with the notorious Imelda Marcos (who has fond recollections of hosting the performer at some of her movie industry parties). Unfortunately, many of the interviews seem based on hearsay, with sometimes contradictory information, and we never get to hear from the husband/wife producers who exploited Weng Weng. As a result, we’re left with a flawed profile of the actor, who faced discrimination and limited opportunities due to his 2-foot, 9-inch stature. At this point, however, this is probably the best biography we’re likely to get.  

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD

Bad Reputation (2018) This fun, albeit superficial profile of one of rock’s pioneering female singers starts out strong and fizzles in the second half. It’s at its best discussing Joan Jett’s early days in The Runaways (although bandmate Lita Ford is conspicuously absent from interviews), including sexism, poor critical reception and her DIY approach to marketing. It’s too bad the film loses its way somewhere around the midpoint, spending a little too much time with her manager, and not nearly enough time discussing the songwriting process. Bad Reputation suffers from a haphazard, unfocused structure, hopping around as if topics were added at the last minute. Some of the choices for interviewees are also less than inspired, as if the filmmakers just chose whomever was available that day. It’s less than it could have been, but Jett’s fans might want to give it a look.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD and Hulu