Monday, January 31, 2022

Japan-uary XI Quick Picks and Pans

The Night is Short, Walk On Girl Poster

The Night is Short. Walk On, Girl (2017) Masaaki Yuasa’s delightful animated film (based on the novel by Tomihiko Morimi) is a surefire cure for what ails you. Over the course of one night, we follow the exploits of unflappable coed Kōhai (meaning “Junior”), as she enters a drinking competition with a group of retirees, foils a middle-aged pervert, and searches for a cherished lost book from her childhood. Throughout the night, she’s pursued by Senpai (an upperclassmen), who hopes to win her affections. The film’s style is as colorful and fanciful as its ebullient protagonist, possessing an irresistible energy. Don’t look for any profound messages, except perhaps to refute George Bernard Shaw’s proclamation that youth was wasted on the young. It’s nothing more or less than a celebration of the joys of being alive – something we could all use right now. 

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

Wool 100% Poster

Wool 100% (2006) Writer/director Mai Tominaga’s modern fairy tale concerns two elderly sisters, Ume and Kame (played by Kyōko Kishida and Kazuko Yoshiyuki, respectively) who live alone in a big house, filled with junk. Ume and Kame collect more junk on their daily rounds, meticulously cataloguing their discoveries in scrapbooks. Their life takes an odd turn when a strange young girl (Ayu Kitaura) with a compulsion for knitting red yarn appears in their home. Tominaga’s often whimsical, visually playful film (complemented by a wonderfully eclectic score) examines the prisons we construct for ourselves, through the comfort and trap of ritual. 

Rating: ****. Available on DVD.

Blind Beast Poster

Blind Beast (1969) With the help of his mother (Noriko Sengoku), blind sculptor Michio (Eiji Funakoshi) kidnaps an artist’s model Aki (Mako Midori), so he can create his latest form of expression. As Aki descends into Michio’s world, she begins to come around to his way of thinking, where pleasure and pain are intertwined. It’s frequently difficult to watch, but more difficult to look away from this twisted tale of obsession by director Yasuzô Masumura’s (Giants and Toys, Black Test Car), based on a story by Rampo Edogawa. One of the highlights is Michio’s studio, populated with oversized sculptures, representing various parts of the human anatomy. The unforgettable conclusion is at once inevitable and tragic.    

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

Intimidation Poster

Intimidation (1960) Two childhood friends, Matakichi and Kyosuke (Kô Nishimura and Nobuio Kaneko), work for the same bank, but their careers have followed divergent paths. While the clever, sweet-talking Kyosuke has followed an upward trajectory, with a promotion to assistant director, his meek colleague has languished as a lowly clerk (much to the ire of his sister, who was dumped by Kyosuke). All is not as rosy as it seems for Kyosuke, who owes a small fortune from fraudulent loans (he must pay a would-be blackmailer 3 million yen, or suffer the consequences). This briskly paced neo-noir from director Koreyoshi Kurahara packs a lot in 65 minutes, with excellent performances by the leads, and a series of surprising plot twists. 

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD (part of the Criterion Eclipse Series The Warped World of Koreyoshi Kurahara)

Seance Poster

Séance (2000) Director/co-writer Kiyushi Kurosawa’s (no relation to Akira) slow-burn supernatural thriller (based on Mark McShane’s novel, Séance on a Wet Afternoon) creeps under your skin, with its meditation on the nature of guilt. Kôji Yakusho and Jun Fubuki play emotionally distant married couple Sato and Junko. When a little girl disappears, Junko views this as a perfect opportunity to apply her clairvoyant skills. When their plans go awry, Sato and Junko conspire to retain a semblance of normalcy, but the truth gnaws away at their conscience. Séance is a sobering look at the darkest depths of the human soul, painfully illustrating the disastrous consequences of compromising responsibility for selfishness.   

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD

Cruel Gun Story Poster

Cruel Gun Story (1964) Takumi Furukawa’s fast-paced noir thriller features Jô Shisido as Joji Togawa, a career criminal freshly sprung from prison. Against his better judgment, he accepts a challenge to lead a small team to rob an armored car carrying 120 million yen. When he’s betrayed by the mob boss who hired him, he plots his revenge. Joji approaches his work with ice-cold precision, but has a soft spot for his disabled sister. Shisido is perfect as a criminal with a strict code of honor, maintaining his integrity in a world typified by double crosses and other dirty dealings. 

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD (part of the Criterion Eclipse series Nikkatsu Noir)

Gamera the Brave Poster

Gamera the Brave (2005) The latest Gamera flick to date might irritate some hardcore fans accustomed to the exceptional ‘90s trilogy, but I enjoyed this intentionally lower-key, kid-friendly outing. Instead of picking up where the trilogy left off, it’s a reboot of sorts harkening back, in spirit, to the original series of films with the giant turtle, when he was the friend of all children. A young boy, Toru (Ryô Tomioka) discovers an egg sitting atop a glowing red crystal, and takes it home (you can probably guess the rest). This version of Gamera is a smaller, gentler (And dare I say, cuter?) version of the eponymous kaiju hero. It’s somewhat of a letdown that he fights a rather generic enemy, but the human characters (particularly Toru’s father, Kousuke) are fairly well fleshed out. While it’s not exactly the sequel most of us wanted, it’s diverting enough.           

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

Dead Sushi Poster

Dead Sushi (2012) Keiko (Rina Takeda), a budding young sushi chef, runs away from home after she tires of her father’s criticism. She takes a job as a server at an inn, which is hosting a company retreat. Unbeknownst to Keiko, the deposed company founder, seeking revenge against his former teammates, turns his experimental serum on their sushi, with deadly consequences. Writer/director Noboru Iguchi keeps everything suitably over the top (if you’re familiar with some of his other work, including Machine Girl and Robogeisha, then you likely know what you’re in for). Expect lots of tasteless sight gags (with an occasionally clever joke thrown in, for good measure) and a surprising amount of heart. You might never look at sashimi the same way again. 

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

Monster Seafood Wars Poster

Monster Seafood Wars (2020) A young biochemist develops a substance that will make animals grow to gargantuan proportions, resulting in an ordinary octopus, squid and crab transforming into kaiju. While they threaten the population of Japan, they have an unintended side effect – they’re also delicious. Writer/director Minoru Kawasaki’s (The Calamari Wrestler, Executive Koala) applies his signature goofy, no-budget approach to his kaiju tale. It’s a couple of notches below his best, but it’s not without its moments. It never takes itself too seriously, gently poking fun at tokusatsu movies, while embracing them. The pacing, however is inconsistent, and the story (which is probably a bit too deadpan for its own good) could have used a few more jokes. 

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


Saturday, January 22, 2022

Giants and Toys

Giants and Toys Poster

(1958) Directed by Yasuzô Masumura; Written by Yoshio Shirasaka; Based on the novel by Takeshi Kaikô; Starring: Hiroshi Kawaguchi, Hitomi Nozoe, Hideo Takamatsu, Michiko Ono; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: **** 

“You’re behind the times. You don’t understand the age of media. Listen, modern people are worse than babies. Worse than dogs. Why? Because they don’t think. They work like slaves in the day, get drunk and play pachinko at night. Or they listen to the radio, or watch TV. When do they have time to think? Their heads are empty. That’s where we come in. We’ll hammer our message into their heads over and over again, ‘Delicious caramel, World Caramel. World, World, World!’ Then every time they see a pack, they’ll automatically buy it. Do you get it now? We can control them with radio, TV and movies. We can make the masses think and feel whatever we want. The media is the dictator, the emperor of the modern age!” – Ryûji Gôda (Hideo Takamatsu)

Kids and candy

When most people think of the most significant and influential names in Japanese cinema, the usual suspects are bandied about. One overlooked filmmaker who merits more attention is Yasuzô Masumura.* Despite his prolific creative output throughout the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, many of his films (with a few notable exceptions) remain unseen in the West. Masumura established himself as a formidable creative force with his vicious satire, Giants and Toys (aka: Kyojin to Gangu), skewering Japan’s changing landscape in the realm of business, and as an emerging economic superpower. 

* Fun Fact #1: Masumura’s educational background in Law, Literature and Philosophy informed his unique vision. He further honed his craft, studying film in Italy at the prestigious Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia.

Masami and Nishi

Eager young college graduate Yôsuke Nishi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi) lands a publicity job for World Confectionary, which is embroiled in a fierce competition between rivals Giant Chocolate and Apollo Drops.* He wants to impress his boss Ryûji Gôda (Hideo Takamatsu) at any cost, which includes grooming a young, rough-around-the-edges woman to be the company’s new spokesmodel. Meanwhile, he takes a romantic interest in Masami Kurahashi (Michiko Ono), who works for Apollo, but his intentions are less than sincere. Likewise, Masami proves to be just as capricious as her boyfriend. Between whispering sweet nothings, they press each other for details about the latest marketing campaigns in their respective companies. The rivalry carries over to his friendship with college buddy Tadao Yokoyama (Kôichi Fujiyama), who shills confections for Giant. 

* Fun Fact #2: In Takeshi Kaikô’s original story, the company names were, respectively: Samson, Hercules, and Apollo.

Goda and Nishi

At the age of 38, Gôda (Hideo Takamatsu) is an ambitious, upwardly mobile executive, who’s old before his time. He runs himself ragged, neglecting sleep in favor of his work, and popping pills to keep himself going. He neglects his wife Suzue (Hiroko Machida), the daughter of his superior, whom he married for strategic reasons, rather than matters of the heart. As his career continues its upward trajectory, his health spirals down to the point where he coughs up blood on his promotion letter. He purveys an ethos of success at any cost, which trickles down to his subordinate, Nishi.


Hitomi Nozoe plays the bubbly ingenue Kyôko Shima, who seems an unlikely poster girl for a candy company, with her rotten teeth. Her cute, unpolished exuberance catches the eye of Gôda, however, who sees her potential. Thus begins her Pygmalion-like transformation, as she quickly becomes an overnight celebrity. Along with her rapid ascension in the public’s consciousness, her entire tone changes, as she transitions from an amiable, unpretentious girl from the slums, to a self-absorbed, quasi-sophisticate. Nishi doesn’t buy her instant celebrity status, aware of the half-life of a fickle public and the ephemeral nature of fame. He tells Nozoe it’s only a matter of time before someone takes her place, but she’s self-aware, enjoying the ride while it lasts (“So what? I don’t mind being a puppet or a toy. As long as I’m having fun, that’s enough.”). 

* Fun Fact #3: While their onscreen characters shared a contentious relationship, co-stars Kawaguchi and Nozoe married in 1960.


Giants and Toys playfully equates modern business to feudal Japan. One sequence hammers home the metaphor, with shots of the three candy company banners waving high. Their employees go into battle, developing strategies of attack and defense, with spies around every corner. When the main factory of a rival company burns down, an older World executive calls for bushido, the ancient samurai spirit of honor among adversaries. He’s summarily dismissed by his colleagues as naïve and old fashioned. No one in the film is entirely trustworthy or above compromising their integrity. Honesty only brings you so far, everyone has an ulterior motive, and no one is above selling out. Lies, betrayal, and subterfuge are simply part of the game. Gôda’s speech about how easily the general public are manipulated is downright prophetic. Advertising is all about creating a need for something that didn’t exist before, doing the thinking for people. Choice is an illusion. Giants and Toys also takes a cynical stance toward relationships in the context of the film, which appear solely transactional in nature – rather than what you can do for someone else, it’s about what you can get from them.


Cinematographer Hiroshi Murai’s candy-colored presentation is only appropriate for a story about rival confectionary companies. The garish, saturated colors underscore the exaggerated onscreen antics. Amidst the humor, Giants and Toys has a serious message about the new disposable culture. In Kyôko’s case, she’s nothing more than the flavor of the month, pre-packaged and rammed down the public’s collective throat, like the candy her company sells – sweet on the surface, and just as insubstantial. Cutthroat business tactics are an accepted fact. Masumura applied similar themes, adopting a darker tone with his Black Test Car (1962). Compared to the later film, Giants and Toys tells its story in broader, breezier strokes, making the themes more accessible (not to mention a lot more fun). With its breakneck pace and rapid-fire dialogue, Giants and Toys deserves to be re-discovered. The film’s strikingly contemporary commentary on fame, consumer culture and business remains as relevant today as it was in 1958, making this a true classic. 


Sources for this article: Arrow Blu-ray commentary by Irene González-López; “In the Realm of the Publicists,” video essay by Earl Jackson, Jr.; Yasuzô Masumura biography on Fantomas Blind Beast DVD, by Earl Jackson, Jr.

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

The H-Man

The H-Man Poster

(1958) Directed by Ishirô Honda; Written by Takeshi Kimura; Story by Hideo Unagami; Starring: Yumi Shirakawa, Kenji Sahara, Akihiko Hirata, Eitarô Ozawa Koreya Senda and Makoto Satô; Available on Blu-ray and DVD 

Rating ***½  

“Take a look at this logbook from the ship Ryujinmaru. First, six men on deck fell victim to the radiation. The remaining men on the ship fell, hopelessly, before their transformed shipmates. If any of the victim’s psyches are preserved, it’s very possible that they tried to come to Tokyo. A liquid organism created by an H-bomb test with the mind of a human. I suppose you could call it an H-Man.” – Dr. Maki (Koreya Senda)


Although most film fans likely associate Ishirô Honda with his Showa era kaiju flicks, there’s a number of stand-alone titles in his filmography worthy of your attention. Upon its release in the U.S., The H-Man was unfairly maligned as a rip-off of The Blob. While both films debuted in 1958, Honda’s film actually predated the American movie by several months, and beyond some superficial similarities, differs widely in story and tone. Honda skillfully blends two strange bedfellows, film noir and science fiction, to create a unique experience.* Following the heels of Gojira (1954), The H-Man continues exploring the deleterious effects of radiation on humankind. Only 13 years after the catastrophic events in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and with American atomic testing in the South Pacific in full swing, the threat of nuclear annihilation was fresh on the minds of the Japanese public. 

* Fun Fact #1: the realistic street sets were recycled from Akira Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel (1948)

Tominaga and Masada

When small-time criminal Misaki (Hisaya Itô) vanishes in the middle of a drug deal, he leaves behind a pile of empty clothes and a big mystery. While police inspector Tominaga (played by Akihiko Hirata, who appeared as Dr. Serizawa in Gojira) takes a prosaic approach to the evidence, professor Masada (Kenji Sahara) pursues a more fantastical explanation for the disappearance. Both men are at odds with each other, as the eager young Masada and the skeptical police official butt heads. Masada suspects that there could be a link between Misaki and a fishing vessel that strayed into a nuclear testing zone in the South Pacific. Tominaga and Masada seek out Misaki’s girlfriend, nightclub singer Chikako Arai (Yumi Shirakawa), who might hold the key to solving the puzzle.


Chikako serves as the film’s nominal femme fatale, although her character seems to promise more smolder than she delivers. She performs two English-language numbers at the nightclub, frequented by cops and criminals alike, but spends most of the movie badgered by the police, slapped around by two-bit hoods, or at the mercy of Masada and his lab team. Other times, she’s reduced to fainting at the appropriate moments (four times, by my count), although one could argue it’s a physiological reaction to radiation exposure. Chikako doesn’t share a lot of chemistry with Masada (okay, pun intentional), and Masada doesn’t really seem to be her type, but we’ll just take it on faith that their attraction transcends any preconceptions of compatibility.   

Sailors Onboard Derelict Vessel

Honda’s secret weapon in The H-Man was lighting technician Tsuruzô Nishikawa, whose bold lighting solutions contributed to the moody, shadow-filled look of the film. In the film’s best scene, told in flashback, a pair of hospitalized sailors recall their experience, exploring a seemingly abandoned fishing vessel. As they probe the eerie darkened corridors, illuminated by a solitary lantern, it gradually dawns on them that they’re not quite as alone as they once thought. The filmmakers are careful not to reveal too much all at once, letting our minds fill in the blanks about what lurks in the shadows. We’re left with one of the most memorable images, as the sailors gaze upon the decks of the derelict ship one last time, with its remaining occupants emitting a spectral green glow.

Victim of the H-Man

The H-Man is eye-opening in several respects, offering more for the viewer’s senses, compared to the rather chaste American genre output of the time. This is especially evident in the nightclub scenes, where dancers in skimpy outfits gyrate to jazz riffs. The film includes some suitably icky Grand Guignol flourishes, graphically depicting the unfortunate humans that come into contact with liquid entities. The effects are simple but effective, as bodies crumple and dissolve while they’re absorbed by green goo.* Another brief scene features a gunshot victim, replete with visible bloody bullet holes. 

* Fun Fact #2: To create the goopy green slime, the filmmakers employed a compound that was commonly used for cosmetic applications, made from blue-green seaweed.

Dancer Victim

The H-Man* is best appreciated as an exercise in mood and style, rather than a full-blown crime movie. The mechanics of the plot prove to be little more than a red herring, designed to distract us from the film’s radioactive menace. The theme of body transformation and concept of an abandoned ship concealing a terrible secret would be explored (and arguably improved upon) several years later, with 1963’s Matango (also written by Takeshi Kimura), but H-Man’s slimy glowing adversaries stand out as a unique addition to the Toho sci-fi canon. 

* Random thought: Considering the film’s drug-trafficking subplot, I suppose “H-Man” could also refer to heroin. 

Source for this review: Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, From Godzilla to Kurosawa, by Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski, with Yuuko Honda-Yun