Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Summer Days with Coo (aka: Kappa no Kû to Natsuyasumi)


Summer Days with Coo Poster

(2007) Written and directed by Keiichi Hara; Story by Yuichi Watanabe and Masao Kogure; Based on the stories "Kappa Daisawagi" and "Kappa’s Surprise Journey," by Masao Kogure; Starring: Kazato Tomizawa, Takahiro Yokokawa, Naoki Tanaka, Naomi Nishida, Tamaki Matsumoto and Natsuki Uematsu

Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ****

“For anime, the topic of family… That topic is not very appropriate for anime, that’s what many people think. But I’m more interested in that than in fantasy or science fiction. I want to depict the family, human beings, human drama (ningen drama).”

– Keiichi Hara (from 2011 interview with Nippon Connection TV)

Many thanks to Gill of Realweegiemidget Reviews and Rebecca of Taking Up Room for hosting the Home Sweet Home Blogathon, focusing on all things related to home and family. Be sure to check out all the excellent contributions. Today’s selection focuses on a rather unique addition to one family…

Kôichi and Coo

Anyone who follows this blog probably already knows about my fondness for everything yokai (mythical creatures that reside throughout Japan). There have been many depictions of yokai in Japanese popular culture over the centuries, but perhaps none have appeared as extensively as the elusive water sprite known as kappa.*/** Descriptions vary somewhat, but some constant features include a bipedal, vaguely human shape, with a beaklike mouth, a dish on top of their head (which must continually remain wet for the creature to keep its strength up), and a turtle shell on their back. Some notable depictions in film include 1968’s Big Monster War (aka: Yôkai Daisensô) and its 2005 remake, The Great Yokai War (aka: Yôkai Daisensô), along with the more adult-oriented, Underwater Love (2011). Writer/director Keiichi Hara’s fantasy family drama Summer Days with Coo, was based on two stories by children’s author Masao Kogure.

 * Fun Fact: The town of Tono, located in Iwate Prefecture, is generally regarded as the capital for Japan’s famous water sprite, with statues and tourist attractions dedicated to kappa.

 ** Another Fun Fact: For more about kappa and their numerous yokai brethren, I highly recommend the book Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide, by Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt.


Kôichi and stone

Kôichi Uehara is an ordinary grade-school boy whose life take an extraordinary turn when he finds an unusual stone by a river that runs through his neighborhood. Trapped inside the large rock is a shriveled, almost reptilian creature. After taking his prize home, he runs the stone underwater to clean it off, inadvertently reviving the creature. Kôichi names him “Coo,” after the first sound he makes. Kôichi’s parents soon conclude that the creature is a young kappa,* and the family members conspire to keep the kappa secret from the outside world. But a secret this big can only be kept so long. Much to their dismay, Coo becomes a reluctant star, creating a media circus around the Uehara household.

Fun Fact #3: Summer Days with Coo is like a class in Kappa 101, delving into many aspects of these fascinating yokai, including a fondness for sumo-style wrestling, eating cucumbers, and their flatulent nature (yes, it’s a kappa thing).

Coo Wrestling

At its core, the film illustrates how everyone fits into the family unit, no matter how disparate the separate elements might seem. One of the more surprising things (at least for anyone accustomed to more formulaic fare) is how readily the parents accept the surprise addition. In most lesser stories there would be contrived friction between the family members, but they are truly a team when they meet adversity. Among the most believable aspect is the initial resistance from Kôichi’s little sister Hitomi. Unlike the rest of her family, she takes an instant dislike to Coo, viewing him as an interloper who’s only there to steal her thunder. Her animosity comes to a head when Coo is given her old baby chair to sit at the dinner table, which looks an awful lot (at least to a preschooler) like replacement. When Coo finally does win her over, it’s a hard-fought battle, with a small but meaningful gesture of kindness. The family dog Ossan (meaning “Old Man”),* completes the family, fitting into the greater scheme of things, guiding Coo with wisdom from his world-weary canine perspective.

* One caveat: The brief flashback scene concerning Ossan’s former abusive owner was difficult for me to watch, and I suspect many may find this disturbing. Although the scene provides context for Ossan’s worldview, it seems to downplay the behavior of the abuser, which might warrant further discussion if watching with more impressionable family members.

Kôichi and Sayoko

 Our emotions are earned rather than manipulated, because we gradually get to know the characters on their own terms. As he’s introduced to us, Kôichi isn’t especially likable, but as we spend more time with him, we get to understand his perspective, and come to like him as his character experiences growth. For more than half the film’s duration, Kôichi is aloof with fellow classmate Sayoko, keeping her at arm’s length, but they have more in common than he initially realizes. Both are loners, introspective and sensitive. Sayoko seems to understand Coo more than he does. It takes him a while to catch on that they’re two of a kind, and that Coo, himself, is a loner. His fellow kappa have vanished, and he’s lost in a world where his kind are regarded as myth.

Coo and Father's Arm

Summer Days with Coo is all about contrasts, including cruelty versus kindness, life versus death, and selfishness versus selflessness. The kindness of Kôichi’s parents is contrasted with the cruelty of the boys that mercilessly taunt Kôichi and Sayoko. Eventually, Kôichi finds a way to confront the bullies’ ringleader, recalling Coo’s admonition (during one of their wrestling matches) that “Strength alone isn’t good.” The film proves repeatedly how Coo’s inherent distrust in humanity instilled by his father is well-founded. In the opening scene, set hundreds of years ago in the Edo period, he witnesses his father’s murder at the hands of a paranoid samurai. When he appears on a television program, an historian (a direct descendent of the samurai) displays his father’s severed arm as a treasured heirloom, which only serves to reinforce Coo’s trauma of witnessing his father’s unwarranted death. The historian’s denial that the arm has any connection with Coo’s past is a grim reminder that history is told by the victors, rather than the vanquished. Another recurring theme is life out of balance. Recalling words his father once told him, Coo observes how humans have taken the natural world from the kappa, “…But in return they lose their souls.” Coo fears losing his way in the world and his identity.

Coo and Uehara Family

Director Keiichi Hara has created something truly special with Summer Days with Coo, tugging at our heartstrings without resorting to saccharine levels of sentimentality. His film reminds us the world may be cruel at times, but there are wondrous things as well. Unlike some popular (particularly American) animated films aimed at families, it doesn’t sugarcoat the more unsavory aspects of life, presenting serious topics in a frank manner. At a length of 138 minutes, it takes its time allowing us to know the characters, but doesn’t waste a moment. It’s time well spent, as we become invested in the Uehara family and Coo. Summer Days with Coo stresses the importance of unconditional love, preserving our traditions, and gratitude to those who have shown us kindness, but above all, being true to yourself.


Sources for this article: Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide, by Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt; 2011 Keiichi Hara interview with Nippon Connection TV; “On the Hunt for Tono's Mythical Water Trolls,” by Louise George Kittaka, The Japan Times, July 26, 2014 

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Fish Story


Fish Story Poster

(2009) Directed by: Yoshihiro Nakamura; Written by Tamio Hayashi; Based on the novel by Kôtarô Isaka; Starring: Atsushi Itô, Kiyohiko Shibukawa, Noriko Eguchi, Hidekazu Mashima, Gaku Hamada, Mikako Tabe, Mirai Moriyama, and Kengo Kôra; Available on Blu-ray (Region B) and DVD.

Rating: ****½ 

“We thought of getting all the songs to be performed by someone else, but after two months, the band grew together and became very close; something you can’t recreate. They go drinking together like normal friends in a band, and that’s a really good thing.” – Yoshihiro Nakamura (on the film’s fictional band, Gekirin)

 “We failed to reach people of this generation. But our song goes beyond time. Something like that could happen. Isn’t it the way the world turns? ‘Fish Story’ will one day save the world.” – Okazaki (Nao Ômori)

Fish Story Album

Note: This is an expanded version of a capsule review from 2012.  Also note: I’ve upped my original rating by ½ star (Did I mention that I hate rating movies?).

Can an obscure punk rock song save the world? Yoshihiro Nakamura’s endlessly inventive film Fish Story (based on a novel by Kôtarô Isaka) has the answer. The aptly named movie title carries a double meaning, referring to a tall tale (which this certainly is), as well as a fictional book, which becomes the basis for a song. In tune with its unique subject matter, Fish Story shuns a conventional narrative, in favor of a more unorthodox path. Thus, begins a chain of events spanning 37 years (and then some), assembling a puzzle that can’t be fully deciphered until all the pieces have fallen into place. Like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five, the audience members become unstuck in time, as we jump from one year to another.


The opening segment, set in a record store in 2012, mere hours before a comet is slated to strike the Earth, sets the tone for the rest of the film. In the impending wake of the collision, the population of Japan is about to be wiped out by a 100-meter tidal wave, and the streets are deserted as citizens flee for higher ground. It’s business as usual inside the record shop, as the unflappable store owner (Omori Nao) introduces his lone customer to a rare record from a band that never made it big. There’s something about this album, however, that provides a shred of hope. Even though things look woefully bleak, he believes “Champions of Justice will save humanity.”

1982 Sequence

The story abruptly shifts to 1982, focusing on nerdy Masashi (Gaku Hamada), who’s little more than a punching bag for his obnoxious friends. He’s about to have a date with destiny when he meets Haruko (Seiko Iwaido), a young woman in a restaurant with a strange prophecy. Their chance encounter leads to a fateful night on a lonely stretch of road. In a theme that repeats throughout the film, Masashi is forced to stand up for himself and rise up against adversity. Hamada creates one of the film’s standout performances (in a movie full of exceptional performances), by credibly conveying someone with a mixture of self-loathing and low self-esteem. His transformation from zero to hero is satisfying, while never seeming contrived or perfunctory.  


Panasonic’s slogan, “Just Slightly Ahead of Our Time,” could easily apply to the punk band Gekirin (roughly translated as “Wrath”). We find them playing in a cocktail lounge in 1973, to a reception ranging from apathetic to belligerent. But one person in the crowd, Okazaki (Nao Ômori), hears their potential, offering to be their manager. He recognizes their music as more than just sound and fury; it’s an ethos – a backlash to mass-marketed, polished sound, coupled with a DIY aesthetic. Skip forward a couple of years, when things are finally looking up for the band, until the record company gets cold feet, pulling the plug on their contract. Subsequently, their first album is destined to become their only album. In desperation, leader Shigeki (Atsushi Itô) chooses a poorly translated book for the basis of the album’s title track., “Fish Story.” Despite their best efforts, Gekirin remains unappreciated in their time, relegated to the dust bin of history – or so we thought. Like the music it represents, “Fish Story” is more than a song. It’s the thread that weaves throughout the film, with its potent combination of high-energy riffs and ambiguous lyrics. The minute-long silent passage in the middle of the song only adds to the fun, prompting speculation by music fans about its significance. 

* Fun Fact: According to the “Making of” featurette, only half of the members had prior musical experience: Kiyohiko Shibukawa, who plays the band’s drummer, and Toshimitsu Okawauchi (member of the band “Drive Far”), who plays guitarist Ryoji.

2009 Sequence

Another pivotal moment takes place in 2009, onboard a ferry bound for Hokkaido. Asami (Mikako Tabe), an astute but absent-minded high school science major, misses her stop after she falls asleep. The despondent young student meets a mild-mannered ferry snack bar employee (Mirai Moriyama) with a bold claim. She humors him, with his story about training all his life to become a “Champion of Justice” (“It’s a vague ambition when you think about it. It’s not like wanting to be a lawyer or a soccer player.”), but it’s hard not to feel captivated by the tale. He soon gets his moment of truth when armed religious zealots hijack the ship, and he takes it upon himself to stop them. Will he succeed? I wouldn’t dare spoil it.

Champion of Justice

One of the many charms of Fish Story is that you never quite know what to expect from one moment to the next (watch for some fun little nods to Armageddon and The Karate Kid). The infectious title song is another highlight – it’s easy to believe it holds some greater meaning for the characters. Watching the seemingly haphazard string of coincidences add up is a thing of beauty. Only when the events are told in a non-linear fashion can the big picture be fully appreciated. After all, it’s not about whether or not the world is saved, it’s about the journey. One viewing isn’t enough to appreciate the plot’s ingenuously intricate construction. Fish Story was released with little fanfare in the States, and seems to have vanished into obscurity, not unlike Gekirin’s album. It’s long overdue for re-discovery by a new generation of film fans.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Perfect Blue


Perfect Blue Poster

(1997) Directed by Satoshi Kon; Written by Sadayuki Murai; Based on the novel Perfect Blue: Complete Metamorphosis, by Yoshikazu Takeuchi; Starring: Junko Iwao, Rica Matsumoto, Shinpachi Tsuji and Masaaki Ôkura; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ****

“I don’t think that it’s too confusing or difficult to understand. Actually, we originally planned to make it easier for the audience to understand what was going on, and then we decided to keep them guessing a little, to draw their own conclusions using their own imaginations. In the end, I think we were right in keeping the audience guessing and leaving them to use their imaginations rather than spelling everything out for them.” – Satoshi Kon

“But maybe she is more like me than myself. My other self that I buried deep within my heart. What if that other personality suddenly started acting on its own?” – Mima Kirigoe (Junko Iwao)

Note: This is an expanded version of a capsule review from August, 2018. 

Perfect Blue - CHAM

Although Satoshi Kon’s career was cut tragically short, he left behind a body of work that inscribed an indelible mark on the anime world. His films engaged the brain as well as the eyes, with characters that appeared fully fleshed out, and stories that frequently questioned reality. His debut feature, Perfect Blue, is no exception, with its mind-bending exploration of the dark side of fame and the perils of living under the constant scrutiny of the public eye.

Perfect Blue - Mima's Room

In the opening scene, we’re introduced to Mimarin “Mima” Kirigoe, part of the pop trio, CHAM. It’s Mima’s final concert before she embarks on her acting career, joining the cast of a popular psychological crime drama Double Bind. As we soon learn, it’s not so easy to leave her pop idol past behind. Her recent career decisions, including a revealing magazine photo spread, don’t sit well with some of her more ardent fans, as well as her skeptical agent, Rumi. The line between the fictional world of her television show and real life blurs when people involved with the production end up brutally murdered, and her life begins to spiral out of control.

Perfect Blue

Perfect Blue plays with the theme of identity, particularly the persona fabricated by fans versus the real person. The notion that Mima could stray from her wholesome stage persona is too much for one obsessive fan to bear. At first, she’s flattered to learn about “Mima’s Room,” a website devoted to her. Things get creepy in a hurry, however, when she finds whoever is responsible for the site seems to know more about Mima than she knows about herself. She discovers the minutiae of her daily life chronicled in detail, from her thoughts about a recent flubbed performance, to which foot she uses first to step off a commuter train, or what’s her favorite brand of milk. The superfan, Me-Mania, the mastermind behind “Mima’s Room,” takes it upon himself to manufacture her online identity. He views her post-CHAM work as tarnished, endeavoring to preserve an idealized, virginal image. It’s interesting to note that he’s depicted as a socially awkward individual with pronounced facial deformities, implying that these aspects contribute to his antisocial activities. In light of his actions, however, his physical appearance seems to be an unnecessary exaggeration. On the other hand, his appearance serves to deceive the audience about the extent to which he’s impacted Mima, or how far he would go to maintain an illusion. Satoshi Kon plays coy with the degree that Me-Mania intrudes on Mima’s life outside the online world, leading us to speculate if he could also be behind the killings.

Perfect Blue - Mima

A common thread in Perfect Blue (and much of Satoshi Kon’s work) is the ambiguity of the characters. As we’re puzzling over who’s doing what, we encounter some red herrings to keep us off the trail. Instead of being in control of her own destiny, Mima is a pawn in a larger game, with someone else manipulating the events in her life. But her unstable actions are just enough to consider the possibility that she’s suffered a mental schism, and split into two different Mimas, shifting between someone who’s non-threatening and one who could plausibly be complicit in the murders. Her character’s line from the show, “Who are you?” becomes two-fold, reflecting the ambivalence of her TV show character, but also one of personal identity. Are we truly seeing what we’re seeing, or is it a manufactured reality created by Mima’s brain? As a manifestation of her inner struggles, she’s taunted by another Mima, an idealized version of herself, locked in time from her pop idol days. As the new Mima attempts to break free of the bonds of her former self, she’s trapped in a perpetual cycle of doubt and self-loathing.

Rumi and Mima

 The other key player in this drama is Mima’s agent, Rumi. Much like Me-Mania, it’s questionable whether she has her client’s best interests in mind. As a former pop idol herself, she identifies with Mima’s struggles, but secretly envies Mima’s efforts to go beyond CHAM. She’s personally invested in ensuring Mima isn’t exploited, going head-to-head with the show’s producer about her character in the show. Against her wishes, Mima agrees to do a scene in which her character is raped in a strip bar. When shooting commences, it almost seems worse for Rumi, watching the violent scene unfold on a studio monitor.

Perfect Blue - Mima

Perfect Blue underscores the unrealistic expectations for people thrust in the public eye. Celebrities are expected to stay in their lane with regard to their artistic endeavors, adhering to the specific expectations (no matter how realistic or unrealistic) of fans. If they stray too far, they suffer the consequences. Perfect Blue will continue to enthrall and challenge viewers for many years to come, inviting repeat viewings. While it might be somewhat easier to piece the events together, Mima’s distorted perceptions of reality keep an air of ambiguity about the story, and we can walk away with a slightly different interpretation every time. 

Friday, January 1, 2021

Disaster December Quick Picks and Pans


The Wave Poster

The Wave (aka: Bølgen) (2015) No, it’s not about the ubiquitous stadium crowd activity, but a killer tidal wave that strikes the touristy Norwegian village of Geiranger. After accepting a new job in the big city, Kristian (Kristoffer Joner) can’t seem to let go of his old position as a geologist monitoring local seismic activity. He notices a shift in sensor readings around the surrounding mountainside, which indicate an impending calamity about to be unleashed on the nearby village. The worst-case scenario becomes a reality as a wall of rock collapses into the fjord, creating a massive tidal wave. One of the big reasons why The Wave is so effective is that it focuses on the little things first, namely Kristian and his family. Ane Dahl Torp is very good as his wife, Idun, who works as a hotel manager. The filmmakers remember that if we’re not invested in the characters, no amount of spectacle will make up the deficit. Although the film contains the familiar elements we’ve come to expect in this sort of genre, there’s an abundance of heart throughout. It’s well worth checking out.

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

The Last Voyage Poster

The Last Voyage (1960) This exciting maritime disaster movie gets a shot of realism, thanks to writer/director Andrew L. Stone filming onboard the scrapped ocean liner SS Île de France (re-named the SS Claridon for the purposes of the movie). George Sanders stars as the pigheaded Captain Adams, who’s about to follow in the footsteps of the captain of another infamous doomed ship. Robert Stack plays Cliff Henderson, a passenger determined to save his wife Laurie (Dorothy Malone), who’s trapped under a bulkhead. The Last Voyage features several strong supporting performances, including Woody Strode as Hank Lawson, a selfless crewmember, who stays by Cliff’s side when things take a turn for the worse. Stone keeps the mood tense throughout, helped immeasurably by the authentic shipboard setting. The film’s only deficit is an unnecessary voiceover, telling us about stuff we already know (yes, we can see the ship is sinking). Clocking in at a brief 91 minutes, this one doesn’t waste any time plunging us into the action (unlike another well-known sinking ship movie). Why isn’t this on Blu-ray already?

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD

Zero Hour! Poster

Zero Hour! (1957) Anyone acquainted with the 1980 aviation disaster parody to end all aviation disaster parodies, Airplane! (1980), will find the plot of this movie oddly familiar. Former World War II fighter pilot Ted Stryker (Dana Andrews) is still reliving the war, a dozen years later. His frustrated wife Ellen (Linda Darnell) leaves him, with their young son in tow. Somehow, he finds the plane they’ve boarded, purchasing a last-minute ticket in the hope of patching things up. Their relationship woes are moved to the back burner, however, when the pilot and co-pilot, along with several passengers (including his son) succumb to food poisoning. Suddenly, Stryker (who hasn’t been in a cockpit since the war) becomes their last hope. He’s forced to confront his inner demons and contempt for his old commanding officer Capt. Martin Treleaven (Sterling Hayden), while trying to fly an unfamiliar aircraft. It’s hard not to laugh at much of the corny, deadpan dialogue (some of which was lifted word-for-word for Airplane), but it’s mostly offset by some tense scenes, which make this worth checking out.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD

Earthquake Poster

Earthquake (1974) This bloated all-star disaster extravaganza set in Hollywood, is headed by Charlton Heston in the sort of hero role he does best, and George Kennedy as an unconventional cop. Ava Gardner plays Heston’s estranged wife, while Lorne Greene, who was only seven years her senior, plays her father. Genevieve Bujold is his girlfriend, and Richard Roundtree plays a daredevil motorcycle stunt rider, looking for his big break.  Walter Matthau chews the scenery as an inebriated pimp, providing some unfunny comic relief. The script by George Fox and Mario Puzo attempts to weave too many stories together, but its biggest flaw is that most of the characters aren’t very interesting. Earthquake’s biggest claim to fame was being the first movie presented in Universal’s auditory gimmick, Sensurround. Without it, it’s just a bore. It might be worth seeing once, for the wholesale devastation, although you’ll probably wish you watched something else.

Rating: **½. Available on DVD

Around the World Under the Sea Poster

Around the World Under the Sea (1966) Dr. Doug Standish (Lloyd Bridges) leads a crack team of scientists on a one-month submarine expedition. Their goal: to plant a network of sensors on the ocean floor for an experimental global early warning system. The cast is rounded out by Keenan Wynn as a cantankerous misanthrope, David McCallum as a computer genius, and Shirley Eaton as a marine biologist (despite her credentials, she’s viewed as a “distraction” by the sexist crew). Although the movie establishes the premise that there’s a worldwide crisis of multiple calamities to international coastlines, the story chooses to focus on the crew’s repetitive mission and the soap opera-worthy love interest story. Perhaps a better title would have been 20,000 Yawns Under the Sea.

Rating: **½. Available on DVD

The Core Poster

The Core (2003) This big-budget Earth-in-peril movie banks on the perceived ignorance of its audience, although you don’t have to have a PhD in Geophysics to realize there’s something amiss. When the Earth’s core stops rotating, a team of researchers, led by college professor Josh Keyes (Aaron Eckhart) and ex-space shuttle commander Beck Childs (Hilary Swank) look for a way to give it a jump-start, to avoid the end of all life as we know it. Delroy Lindo plays the scientist who develops their vehicle (he only has three months to build something that’s supposed to take ten years), which can burrow into the Earth’s center. None of the characters are more than cardboard cutouts, reduced to one trait apiece, and the CGI effects are downright shoddy. My recommendation: see Crack in the World (1965), which covers similar ground (on a fraction of the budget, and with better special effects), instead.  

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