Sugiyama is a glum, poker-faced office drone who drags himself home every night on the train feeling like he’s accomplished absolutely nothing. His wife and daughter barely see him — in fact, his co-workers barely see him, either — and there isn’t anything in his life aside from his job and his meager contact with his family. One night he’s peering out the train window at one of the stops when he sees a woman standing in the window of a ballroom dance studio, and just like that he’s hit with the mad urge to find out more about her.
Her name is Mai, and she is one of the three dance instructors at the ballroom, the other two being a grandmotherly type and a stout and somewhat sarcastic veteran. Sugiyama isn’t even sure he’s interested in learning how to dance per se, but at this point in his life he’s so desiccated by boredom it takes very little temptation to get him interested. And soon he’s stopping off one night a week to learn how to rumba, foxtrot, tango and cha-cha, putting a spark into his step that everyone around him can’t help but notice. Is he having an affair, or is he just really living for the first time?Read more
Sengoku Jietai (a.k.a. G.I. Samurai) starts with an interesting premise: What if a squadron of modern-day Japanese soldiers, complete with their weapons and vehicles, were somehow transported back in time to Japan’s feudal past? What we get, however, is an uneasy mix of war movie and cheesy ‘70s kitsch, courtesy of legendary (sometimes for all the wrong reasons) producer Haruki Kadokawa, who also gave us Satomi Hakkenden and Heaven and Earth. The good parts of Sengoku are really good, and the action is amazing, but the bad parts are dreadful — trust me, nothing clears a room faster than syrupy Japanese rock ballads, and here’s proof.
Like most war movies of any variety, Sengoku opens with a quick run-through of the soldiers in the unit: one of them’s got a fiancée waiting, another’s a bit of a coward, etc. Their leader, Lt. Iba (none other than Sonny Chiba), has long been frustrated by the fact that while Japan outfits and trains an army, it doesn’t go through the extra trouble of actually giving them a war to fight. One afternoon while they’re on the beach, a strange cosmic phenomenon sweeps over them, and they’re sucked back in time, along with a helicopter and a patrol boat. They’re confused, but they figure out their conundrum in fairly short order (maybe a little too fast, if you ask me, but what the heck).Read more
If you’re into beheadings, lurid sex, warrior monks that vomit yellow slime and ninja tricks galore, look no further. Ninja Wars (Iga Ninpo-cho) has all of the above, and then some. It’s one of a long line of commercially successful action/adventure/fantasy pulp projects that came out in Japan in the late Seventies and early Eighties, starting with Makai Tenshō and including Satomi hakkenden. Of all of them, Ninja Wars is my least favorite, but it’s got a heady mix of ingredients to keep most fans of this stuff quite happy.
Like Makai Tenshō, Ninja Wars was a production of the Kadokawa company, who also published the books both films were both based on. Said novels were penned by bestselling author Fūtaro (sometimes Kazetaro) Yamada, who wrote something like thirty novels in the same sort of shared universe, each involving magic, ninjas, sex, and samurai intrigue. Makai Tenshō had a Christian martyr returning from the great beyond to lead an army of the undead against the Shogunate, and Ninja Wars has … well, ninja wars. What you see is most definitely what you get.Read more
The lines in Jackie Chan’s face stand out all through New Police Story, and there are scenes where he sits hollow-cheeked and cold-eyed, staring at a point somewhere far off-camera. These moments hint at the “new” Jackie Chan we’ve been hearing about on and off for some time — a Jackie who eschews stuntwork, pratfalls and general tomfoolery for more serious acting. But Jackie will always be Jackie, and New Police Story is about 50 percent “new” Jackie and 50 percent “old” Jackie — you know, the guy who could scramble up a sheer brick face like a squirrel and do it so fast you could barely see how he did it.
Jackie Chan turned fifty last year. The fact that he has survived as long as he has, given the kind of work he chooses to do, is nothing short of a miracle. He should be dead six times over, so any new movie with him in it I consider to be a kind of a gift. New Police Story shows him dealing with age by modulating his stuntwork with actual acting, and the remarkable thing is that even though he’s at the mercy of middlebrow material, there are scenes which work so well and in such an understated way that I suddenly wanted to see more of that, and the movie’s plot and setup seemed all the more like an afterthought. It’s still a fun movie, don’t get me wrong — like I said, any new Jackie Chan movie is worth savoring in some way — but it’s most intriguing for what it suggests as being legitimately possible for Jackie in the future outside of his usual chase-and-slap productions.Read more
The Cat Returns is a surreal and charming product from Studio Ghibli, Hayao Miyazaki’s production company, even if it isn’t quite on the level of the best work from that company. It was in fact not directed by Miyazaki, but one of his production assistants, Hiroyuki Morita (he worked on Kiki’s Delivery Service and Perfect Blue); consequently, the animation is enchanting, even when the story doesn’t quite soar to the same heights as its Ghibli stable-mates. I’ve said before that even a “minor” movie with major talent is still worth seeing, and this is no exception.
Haru is a young girl having a hard time of it: she’s perpetually late for school, always in trouble, and unlucky in both love and many other things. The only decent thing that’s happened to her lately is when she managed to use her friend’s lacrosse stick to save a cat from being run over by a truck — only to mistakenly smash the stick against a phone pole. Then the cat she just saved stands on its hind legs, thanks her graciously, and walks off. Naturally, no one believes her. Read more
Tokyo: The Last Megalopolis is absolutely ridiculous from beginning to end, but don’t take that as a recommendation. It’s a big-budget (for Japan) supernatural fantasy / horror epic with just about everything you could think of stuffed into its two-plus-hour running time: It has slumbering demons, stop-motion monsters, cute priestesses, nerdy scientists, robots (yes, robots), and a massive network of underground supernatural power lines that fuel the evil lying dormant within early 20th-century Tokyo. All that’s missing is a story — or, rather, a story that makes any degree of sense and isn’t simply a way to get from one scene to the next. But if you just like to ogle the action, climb aboard.
Megalopolis opens with a grim, graying spiritualist making dire predictions about Tokyo’s fate. Dark forces are conspiring to unseal Masakado, a villain of a thousand years hence, who will unleash untold destruction. Kato, a rogue spiritualist (who affects the dress of a Taisho-era army officer), has set his sights on breaking the seals on Masakado’s tomb and allowing the dead man’s spirit to reincarnate through him. “Tokyo will become a giant graveyard,” the medium warns, which turns out to be more or less what Kato wants. Humanity has polluted the land, and he wants to return it to a pristine state of nature with a grand cleansing. Read more