Sunday, February 2, 2020

Japan-uary IX Quick Picks and Pans

Harakiri (1962) Hanshiro Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai), a disgraced samurai, arrives at the gates of a rival clan, requesting the right to commit ritual suicide. The leaders are skeptical about the veracity of his intentions, based on the actions of former visitors, who made similar claims but were only looking for a handout. Director Masaki Kobayashi (working from a script by Shinobu Hashimoto, which was based on a novel by Yasuhiko Takiguchi) tells much of the story through flashbacks, gradually revealing how Tsugumo reached this pathetic state. Nakadai’s intense performance anchors the film, playing his role like a man possessed. Harakiri expertly illustrates how concepts such as honor and reputation are built on shaky ground, and how the truth (which serves as the foundation) can be malleable.

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

A Letter to Momo (2011) Writer/director Hiroyuki Okiura spins a bittersweet, beautifully animated tale that employs gentle comic moments to balance the serious themes. After her father’s untimely death, Momo, a young girl, and her mother move from Tokyo to the remote island community of Shio. Adjusting to island life proves to be a challenge, as Momo contends with her grief, and ambivalence about forming new friendships. Her problems multiply when she encounters three mischievous (and very hungry) goblins, who seem reluctant to leave her alone. Momo’s evolving relationship with the goblins (from animosity to acceptance) opens the door for her to gradually experience new friendships and begin the healing process. A Letter to Momo provides a touching portrait of the many faces of grief, and how one girl learns to literally and metaphorically overcome her demons.

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

Shoplifters (2018) Five unrelated individuals living on the fringe of society form a loose family unit, finding love and belonging in each other. The “mother” (Sakura Andô) and “father” (Lily Franky) subsist off odd jobs, while the elderly “matriarch” of the group (Kirin Kiki), earns money through a grifting scheme. The quintet grows to six after an abused five-year-old girl (Miyu Sasaki) enters their lives. At every turn, they skirt the law, and societal norms, so they can maintain some semblance of livability. All the while, we know it’s a lifestyle (which includes casual shoplifting to supplement their meager existence) that can’t be sustained, which leads to an inevitable, heartbreaking conclusion. Writer/director Hirokazu Koreeda illustrates how the concept of family is a construct – it’s not blood, but the emotional connections between individuals that matter.

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray (Region B) and DVD             

Zoo (2005) Like most anthology films, the genre-spanning Zoo is a bit of a mixed bag, but its five segments, based on stories by author Otsuichi, are distinctive and frequently unsettling. In the tense, unnerving, “Seven Rooms,” directed by Masaki Adachi, seven women and one small boy are trapped in seven cells for some unknown purpose. In the emotionally charged “So Far,” a boy is torn between a mother and father who no longer see each other, a novel representation of how children process estrangement. Junpei Mizusaki’s “The Poem of Collected Sunlight” (similar in theme to “Presence” from Robot Carnival), the sole animated segment, features an android woman who learns about life and death from her creator. In “Kazari and Yoko,” an abused high school girl finds companionship and purpose after she’s befriended by an elderly woman. Hiroshi Ando’s title segment is uneven but has some genuinely disturbing moments. With a story to fit every mood, Zoo is recommended viewing.

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD

The Living Skeleton (1968) Hiroki Matsuno spins a tale of ghostly revenge, anchored by a mesmerizing, moody performance by Kikko Matsuoka, in a dual role as twin sisters. A ship re-surfaces from its watery grave, with its dead occupants returning to exact retribution against the group of thugs who hijacked their vessel and murdered them. The Living Skeleton has an abundance of memorable visuals on a tight budget, with atmospheric, black-and-white widescreen cinematography by Masayuki Katô and creepy, low-key effects by Tarô Fukuda and Keiji Kawakami. Likewise, the macabre story is full of creepy surprises.

Rating: ***½ . Available on DVD (part of the Criterion Eclipse Series 37: When Horror Came to Shochiku)

Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion (1972) This first in a series of three films, directed by Shun'ya Itô stars Meiko Kaji as Nami Matsushima, a woman imprisoned for attacking the corrupt police detective (Natsuyagi Isao) who set her up. She endures the jeers and abuse by sadistic prison guards and other prisoners who want to kill her. This stylish exercise, with expressionistic flourishes includes some standout scenes: a shower fight with a broken bottle and a sequence in which Matsushima is forced to dig a pit, while her fellow inmates are ordered to bury her alive. Brash, violent, and unabashedly exploitive, this movie hits all the right buttons.

Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray, DVD, Amazon Prime and Shudder

Yatterman (2009) Takashi Miike tackled virtually every genre, so it was only a matter of time before he tried his hand at this (mostly) family friendly sci-fi/fantasy adventure, based on the 1977 anime series Yattāman. The story (such as it is), concerns the exploits of boyfriend/girlfriend team (Shô Sakurai and Saki Fukuda) and their giant robotic wolf defending the world from evil. Their archnemesis, shapely villain Doronjo (Kyoko Fukada) is assisted by her goofy henchmen, rat-like Boyacky (Katsuhisa Namase) and the pig-like Tonzuraa (Kendô Kobayashi). The silly, cartoonish action (packed with sexual innuendos) seems to take place on an alternate universe Earth. There’s a ton of action, colorful designs and some nutty throwaway gags, but something seems to be missing from the mix. If you’re a Miike fan or just like mindless fun, it might be worth a look. Just don’t look for much else.

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

Tokyo 10+01 (2003) Set in the near future, this sporadically entertaining sci-fi comedy pits eleven contestants in a competition. The prize: a large cash bonus and a pardon from their crimes (Shaky alliances and double-crosses ensue.). Unfortunately, it’s hampered by cut-rate production values and cheap effects. Also, the 70-minute running time somehow seems to be stretched thin. The characters are reduced to two-dimensional stereotypes (the nerd, the man-hating temptress, a fast-talking con man, twin acrobats, etc...), and after the premise is set up, it doesn’t know where to go. Writer/director Higuchinsky has done much better (Uzumaki, Long Dream). Do yourself a favor and see Battle Royale or The Running Man instead.  

Rating: **½. Available on DVD

Ghost Squad (aka: Gôsuto sukuwaddo) (2018) If you’re familiar with prolific writer/director Noboru Iguchi’s previous work (The Machine Girl, RoboGeisha), then you already have an idea what to expect: scantily clad heroines, copious amounts of gore (although not as much as in earlier films), and slapstick comedy. A socially awkward young woman with thoughts of suicide is visited by the ghosts of three young women who were murdered. She assists them in their quest for vengeance against their killers, and in turn, they help her tackle her problems (abusive father, demeaning boss). It’s a fun premise, with a few funny bits scattered throughout, but it’s ultimately undermined by uneven pacing, paper-thin characters, and a slipshod story.

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

Lupin the Third: Strange Psychokinetic Strategy (1974) This live action adaptation of Monkey Punch’s venerable creation about a gentleman thief misses something in the translation from manga to the big screen. As presented here, our nominal protagonist (Yûki Meguro) is loutish and insufferable, taking too many moments to wink at the camera. The plot meanders, and the cartoon-style sequences (accompanied by slide-whistle sound effects) and unfunny gags are only there to underscore Lupin’s insatiable libido. Instead of the irascible rogue depicted in his anime incarnation, he comes across as a borderline sex offender. Aside from an unlikable protagonist, the film could have benefited from a proper nemesis for Lupin. As presented here, police inspector Zenigata (Shirô Itô), is a bumbling fool. My suggestion: skip it, and watch Lupin III’s animated adventures in The Castle of Cagliostro instead.   

Rating: *½. Available on DVD


  1. An eclectic collection of great reviews, Barry!
    Shoplifters and the living skeleton really stand out for me.
    I would keep an eye peeled for them, but non-english films are difficult for me now it is.

    1. Thanks so much, John! Both are worthy films, but of the two you might have an easier time with The Living Skeleton. It's quite dreamlike in parts, and not as heavy on dialogue.

  2. I will have to catch many of these, but I do highly recommend Harakiri. It is a triumph of story-telling, acting, direction and cinematography. Highly recommended!

    1. Harakiri is a true classic. I just regret waiting so long to see it!

      I unreservedly recommend any of the first six movies on my list. :)

      Thanks for stopping by!