We’ve been lucky enough to see Ringu, Audition and many of the best of the recent spate of Japanese horror movies, but we’ve seen amazingly little of the four decades of Japanese horror films that predate and influence them all. Jigoku was and remains one of the best and most influential, not just for its frightful story but its stylized, surreal approach that’s still striking today. And yet the only way to see it as of this writing is in an import DVD edition (which, thankfully, has English subtitles and is in pristine shape), which is a large part of the reason why I’m writing this review. It’s more reminiscent of classic British horror productions — the Hammer Studios films, or the Ealing releases — than the dump-the-guts-on-the-floor movies that passes for horror today, and its sense of genuine dread and inevitability lingers with you long after it’s over.
Jigoku is the Japanese word for hell, and the Buddhist sutras that describe the sufferings that await sinners in the underworld are hair-raising stuff that would give Dante himself pause. One of Japan’s national artistic treasures is a series of illustrated scrolls that graphically depict many of hell’s tortures — everything from the burning of the body with red-hot irons to being drowned in a river of filth (and those are the softer tortures, trust me). Jigoku the movie, however, focuses less on hell itself at first than how the sins committed here on earth lead to the torments in the hereafter. Hell remains almost completely unseen until about the final third of the movie, but that is only because the movie is wisely building a case for just how horrible hell really is. Read more
In the year 2000, the incredibly talented animation team Production I.G released a 48-minute film that rocked the socks off everyone from James Cameron on down: Blood: The Last Vampire. The story was simple enough: Saya, a vampire hunter who only looks like a teenage girl, goes undercover at an air force base in Japan to destroy demons lurking there and finds a great deal more than she bargained for. It looks and sounds terrific, has become a perennial best seller on home video, and a live-action version directed by Hong Kong veteran Ronny Yu is imminent.
And now we have a novel — Blood: The Last Vampire: Night of the Beasts, a sequel of sorts to the events in the film, as penned by none other than Mamoru Oshii. He is the man who directed the original movie iteration of Ghost in the Shell (and its sometimes difficult-to-follow sequel, Innocence), the dazzling Avalon, the mournful Angel’s Egg, and a number of striking live-action movies as well. His film credits are beyond reproach, and I admire his work even when some feel it borders on tedium — but I sincerely hope this book was ghostwritten, because it does more than border on tedium. It’s tedium incarnate.Read more
There are months that go by when I don't read a single novel or work of fiction in any form, if only because I find my attention captured by a nonfiction book that makes all the fiction I could have picked up during that time look like ... well, fiction. That was the case back in April of 2005, when I spent most of the month reading and re-reading Richard Rhodes's Why They Kill: The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist. This was, and is, one of those rare books that provides you with a perspective-shattering point of view on a previously well-worn subject: Why are some people violent and remorseless monsters and not others?
Rhodes approaches his subject by examining the life and work of Lonnie Athens, a criminologist / sociologist who managed to survive an unbelievably violent childhood and adolescence that should have left him dead five times over. Out of that experience he was compelled to ask hard, direct questions about why people did violence to one another. What was the real reason? Not the theory, but the practice — because if there was anything wrong with the sociological or psychological theories about the motives for violence, it was simply that they didn't explain anything. They were post facto explanations that revolved around existing formulas, and they seemed to have little or no predictive value.Read more
I remember reading a number of science-fiction novels, most of them published in the Seventies, which showed civilization coming to an end not through nuclear war or disease, but simple fatigue: Things fall apart, the center cannot hold. Such stories are usually used as a demonstration of a bleak survival-of-the-fittest social philosophy — institutions are arbitrary creations, men are ultimately animals, etc. — and even if the insights aren’t exactly new, they’re usually cast in a way that makes them at least riveting as drama.
Temps du Loup is a film made more or less in that vein, about a time ostensibly not so far from now, when things have indeed fallen apart; it’s, as they say, every man for himself and God against all. But it is not about a disease that has a miracle cure, or a heroic trek to restore the protagonist with his family; it follows a group of survivors doing nothing more than the best they can to survive, and ends on a deliberately inconclusive note. The process is more important than the outcome here.
Loup opens with Anne (Isabelle Huppert), her two children and her husband arriving at a country summer home. Right away we can tell they are not here on vacation: their tones are flat and urgent, their faces tense. Someone else has broken into the house before them, and he shoots Anne’s husband dead before they can even figure out if he wants anything. Anne and the kids flee, and eventually end up in the company of a group of others who are squatting in the switch room of a train station, waiting for … answers? Rescue? Trains come through every now and then, but pass coldly on by without stopping, and there are vague plans to blockade the tracks and force them to stop. Read more
I once got into an argument with someone about a certain record — I think it was possibly one of the early Merzbow discs, believe it or not — because he didn’t believe that I would really want to listen to such rubbish, let alone savor it or enjoy it. He seemed to be of the opinion that most of the records people say they like are simply records that they want to impress other people with having known about, and that their own enjoyment comes second. I found that paranoid in the extreme, and I know that in my case I don’t believe that for a second. Sure, there are many records that are important and influential and name-droppable that I could toss around as being among my favorites, but I don’t listen to them. I have better things to do, like listen to things I enjoy and enjoy them.
Maybe it’s a matter of mere taste, and taste can often be impenetrable — which is why I wouldn’t try to explain why I would listen to any Merzbow disc instead of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. Sure, the latter album may have been the “original,” and it may have been “influential” and “important”, but that doesn’t mean it’s worth more than a casual survey of a listen because it consists of one idea beaten to death for four sides. One theory was that Reed recorded it to get out of his RCA contract, and only after other people (like Lester Bangs, who [insanely enough] loved the record) started championing it did he go back and claim that he had had importance and artistic integrity in mind all along. Right. As far as Merzbow goes, you could pick any dozen of his records that are as minimally assembled as MMM, and any one of them would be more interesting.Read more
Whenever you put two artists of strong temperament together, you either get genius or dissonance. Most of us probably still remember the supergroups of the Seventies — generally ill-fated attempts to forcibly engineer a rock band by taking the brightest stars from various outfits and sticking them in a studio together. Sometimes the offspring from such a crossbreeding had a decently long life — Blind Faith, for instance, is still a pretty decent record even if nothing truly spectacular — but most of the results didn’t merit more than a paragraph in the All-Music Guide. Who here remembers bands like GTR? (Who wants to?)
This sort of thing hasn’t died out entirely, but evolved a bit and become less a mark of something to avoid at all costs as being a sign of sheer marketing greed. Consider Pigface, drummer Martyn Atkin’s revolving pick-up band that consists of him and whoever else happens to be in the studio that week. This approach has produced a few excellent and listenable tracks and a lot of dross, but even the dross is interesting thanks to the caliber of the people involved: Shonen Knife, Michael Gira, Jello Biafra, the Einstürzende Neubauten gang, and on and on.Read more
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The Last Unicorn is another of the great “lost” animated productions, and for so many reasons that a description threatens to turn into a catalog. It was a lavish adaptation of one of the most beloved of fantasy novels, mentioned in the same breath along with the Narnia books and Tolkien’s Ring cycle; its failure at the box office sent it into a limbo from which it still has yet to emerge completely from and which has caused both its author and its audience much grief; and it features an array of talent from many countries, including what would eventually become the nucleus of one of the most prestigious animation studios on the world.
It’s also quite simply a wonderful movie, literate and intelligent, and that in itself is reason enough to see it even if it had no cult following. It deals with, as the title might imply, the last unicorn (Mia Farrow) — a creature living in a timeless forest where it is always spring, and where nothing ever changes except the outside world. The Unicorn has grown restless and curious, and has come to wonder if there are any others like her. Her fellow animals tell her of the Red Bull, a monstrous creature who herded all of the other unicorns to the end of the earth for reasons unknown. Find this beast, she reasons, and I shall find the others like me — and so she sets off to do exactly that.Read more
Burst City more than lives up to its title — it’s a gloriously out-of-control mess of a film that has more going on per frame than any five other movies that come to mind. Part punk rock concert film, part teen / youth exploitation picture, part gangster-violence drama, part biker-gang story and part underground / indie moviemaking monstrosity, it’s been one of Japan’s best-kept movie secrets for decades, and is only now finally available in an edition that shows off why it’s commanded such a reputation for so long. Love it or hate it, it’s unique: it spends every moment of its running time doing its damndest to scour your senses flat, and you have to admit it does that in a way no other movie can remotely match.
The film is set in a shantytown occupied by human refuse of all kinds: criminals, drug addicts, madmen, prostitutes and pimps, creeps and thugs — but especially punk rockers like the Roosters (and their in-film competition, the Rockers and the Stalin), who gather every night and play ear-searing concerts to audiences that are even crazier than they are. They drag-race with competing crews, get high, get drunk, get wild; they’re mostly party animals whose worst crime is not being able to see anything outside of their little circle of pleasures. They’re contrasted vividly with a local yakuza outfit, hired muscle who are being brought in to ensure that a nuclear power plant gets built nearby and goes online, on schedule. Read more
Whenever I review anything that has a legacy behind it, I try to put the legacy aside and look at the thing in itself. It’s only fair, after all — there are many people reading this who have never heard of Vampire Hunter D, who know nothing of the massive fanbase it has on all sides of the Pacific, and wouldn’t know Yoshitaka Amano or Hideyuki Kikuchi from anyone they’d brushed shoulders with on the subway. For their sake, and for my own, I approached D as a friendly stranger, someone unfamiliar with the territory but curious enough to learn it. I hope I don’t sound ungrateful when I say the first of Kikuchi’s D books left me wondering, to a degree, what all the screaming has been about.
D’s escapades have filled over a dozen full-length novels, with more on the way, and have been adapted into two feature-length animated movies. The books themselves have only now begun to be published in English, as part of the growing interest in Japanese cultural products in general in this country: first live-action films, then anime, then manga, and now finally popular fiction. Kōji Suzuki’s bestselling Ring[u] novels were among the first in that category, and now the D books are following suit. That’s, in a way, what makes the books culturally important: the fact that they’re being published here ought to kick open the doors for better things in the future.Read more