The Hidden Blade is not about a secret sword technique that saves a hero in the face of terrible evil. If anything, it is exactly the opposite: it gives us a samurai, Munezo (Masatoshi Nagase) who has never drawn a weapon to kill, is more mild-mannered and unassuming than anything else, and is unhappy that his job consists of learning, badly, how to use the new weapons of war that Japan has just imported from the West. He would like nothing better than to simply put all this stuff away and live without it, but his life demands otherwise of him.
Blade is in a sense a sequel, or maybe a companion, to Yoji Yamada’s The Twilight Samurai. That movie was set in the same time period — the 1860s, when Japan was opening up to Western influences in a precarious and turbulent way — deals with many of the same social implications, and even has a parallel plot device which I will go into later. For me, though, Blade is a better movie in some ways: it uses some of the same ideas but extrapolates on them further, and examines them with less preachy sentiment. It also features one of my current favorite Japanese actors: Nagase was in Gojoe, the Maiku Hama movies and many others I’ve looked at here that I’ve taken close to heart. Here, he plays a somewhat glum Everysamurai for whom the samurai code and its attendant honor and glory seem more like distasteful burdens than ideals to aspire to. Read more
UltraViolet is a CGI / live-action / vampire / horror / fantasy / action / adventure / sci-fi / thriller kreplach that is even more horrible than such a mish-mash description could possibly imply. If you took a New York strip steak, French fries, Caesar salad and vanilla pudding, and put them all into a blender, you wouldn’t have anything remotely approaching an edible meal, let alone an appetizing one. And yet that’s exactly what they’ve done here: they’ve taken ten different kinds of movie, all of them bad, and combined them in a way that they don’t collectively add up to even one mediocre one.
There are bad movies that people sit through for the express purpose of mocking, or getting a kind of sangfroid pleasure out of. I used to do that until I realized life was too short, and with all the genuinely good movies out there that have gone unseen, why waste my time? But UV came out, and friends of mine saw it and told me they had seen bargain-basement porn that was more interesting than this, and my response was: Surely they can’t be right. Even if I didn’t like Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, it had a cult following, and at least that was explicable. This movie, however, deserves no cult following, merely an angry mob of people chasing after it with pitchforks and torches. Read more
Now we’re getting somewhere. Tale of the Dead Town, fourth in the Vampire Hunter D novel series, is a big step up (and forward) from the going-through-the-motions of the previous book, Demon Deathchase. This time around, Kikuchi mixes things up in some new and enjoyable ways: he gives us a nifty new corner of D’s world to explore, he pairs him up with both rivals and potential allies who are also that much more interesting, and gets most everything else right. Kikuchi even gives us a glimpse of what makes D tick as a person, something we se so little of throughout the series that any bit of that we end up with is welcome.
Rather than set the action somewhere in the frontier that spans most of the ruined, danger-ridden world of the D novels, Dead Town takes us into the City — a floating arcology a couple of miles across, carrying a population that lives free of the fear that plagues most of the frontier settlements. D comes across this oddity while in the company of two other people: Lori, a young woman who has fallen victim to a case of radiation poisoning, and Lori’s erstwhile savior, a character with the most wonderfully outlandish name I’ve seen used with a straight face in fiction yet: “John M. Brasselli Pluto VII.”Read more
Spheres is somewhere between mesmerizing and frustrating, not least of all because it’s not the record that was originally made. This is a severely edited-down version of a much larger work, Hymns/Spheres, an album which spanned two LPs when originally released in 1976, but did not appear on CD until 1997 or so. When it finally did turn up, it was shorn of all but four of its tracks, with a fifth one turning up on another disc and the rest still only on vinyl. Maybe, in a strange way, it was for the best, since Spheres is one of Keith Jarrett’s most distinctive but least accessible records, and might have benefited from some careful editing. I just don’t know that this was it.
Spheres compiles a series of improvisations recorded on the gigantic Karl Joseph Riepp Trinity Baroque pipe organ at the Benedictine Abbey in Ottobeuren, Germany. Those familiar with Jarrett through the warmth and intimacy of his piano improvisations will be shocked at how positively alien this record sounds, not only because of Jarrett’s atypical playing but the sound of the organ itself. It brings to mind Tangerine Dream’s very early Virgin-era records, which consisted not only of electronic instruments but conventional ones that had been heavily processed with studio effects and tape manipulations. Here, no effects or transformations have been applied; what you hear is exactly what it sounded like the moment it was performed. Most of the peculiar “vocalizations” accomplished with the organ were done by opening and closing some of the stops partway, an effect that almost all pipe organs have had since their creation. Read more
Nobody today objects to the idea that you’re still making art if you create a painting or a sculpture that doesn’t represent anything “real”, so why do we still assume that the only things we can safely call “music” are akin to what we hear on the radio in four-minute bursts? John Cage tackled that problem head-on during his career, and reached a kind of compromise with his critics: you didn’t have to call what he did “music” if the term shocked them. But Cage was working within the relatively formal confines of a composer, even if his music reached and influenced a great many people who were outside of those circles — Todd Rundgren and Frank Zappa, for instance.
Over the last thirty years a lot of that has changed, as artists who work in more commercial formats and venues work to redefine music. They’re lumped in with popular music as a whole, even if they don’t sell to one-one-thousandth of an audience that size — probably because they appeal most directly to their respective audiences by making and selling records instead of more “traditional” venues like creating works on commission for galleries or orchestras. Not to say that they don’t do such things, but most of how they’re recognized by an audience comes from producing and selling recordings, and touring and performing in the same manner as more mainstream artists. The end result of this is a very broad, very active but extremely cluttered underground of experimental music, and the weight of decades has slowly weeded out anyone who’s not actually bringing anything original or creative to the table. Read more
After the samurai-honor-meets-B-boy-attitude of Samurai Champloo, I backtracked to its immediate predecessor, the jazz-riffs-on-Wild-West-in-space of Cowboy Bebop. Describing a show this influential, this aesthetically solid and this fun is like talking about a sunset over the phone: it might be better to watch it first, get bitten by the bug, and then come back here to talk it over. It is probably no exaggeration to call it one of the best anime ever made, but why it works and works so well is not a question of genre or attitude. The show succeeds because it stars some of the most irresistible and unforgettable characters around, gives them the freedom to speak their minds and do their thing, and puts them in a story that makes us care deeply about what happens. We don’t want to just watch them, but climb up in there and jam with them, and when it’s over — with, quite literally, a bang — it’s like good friends have left us.
The story is set in an only slightly-romanticized version of a far future, where mankind has spread out through the whole of the solar system but many of the same problems remain: terrorism, crime, stupidity, greed and plain old boredom. Spike Spiegel and Jet Black are old hands at dealing with almost all of the above — they’re freelance bounty hunters, knocking around the solar system in the Bebop, a tattered crate of a ship that was probably already heavily used when they bought it. Most of their big leads come in over the TV (in an amusing future variant of America’s Most Wanted that panders explicitly to bounty hunters), but they also know how to twist a few arms and prod the right people to find out who’s worth bringing in.Read more
The opening shots — or shot, rather — of Caché goes on for so long that it calls attention to the fact that we’re staring. This is exactly the idea, because Caché is all about the feeling that someone is watching us, taking notes, preparing to observe our downfall. We see a house, on a quiet city street somewhere in France, and we hear the words of the couple inside — as if we were parked across the street, staring, listening in on a wiretap. Before long the image we see fast-forwards with a blur. We’re looking at a few minutes of a videotape, a two-hour Warhol-like take of the house that was filmed and then left on their porch in a plastic bag.
Why? “Someone’s idea of a joke?” hypothesizes the husband, Georges (Daniel Auteuil). His wife, Anne (Juliette Binoche), is faintly dismissive of the whole thing: there are more important things to worry about. They have a son, Pierrot, and Georges has a steady job as the host of a weekly TV talk show, so maybe one of George’s “fans” has decided to pull a prank. It doesn’t seem that important. Then another tape shows up, this one shot at night and wrapped in a disturbing-looking child’s drawing, and Georges begins to act in a way that suggests far more than just being unnerved. He seems to be remembering something which he would rather leave buried, because as we find out, that is how he chooses to deal with his problems: he ignores them, and hopes they vanish. Read more
The shame of V for Vendetta is that it has a lot more on its mind than it knows how to handle. Here we have a film that is a stylized visual fantasy about the Individual vs. the State, a la The Matrix — courtesy of the same writers and executive producer — and that should resonate deeply with the spirit of the times, but instead it feels smug and obvious. Ostensibly the filmmakers wanted to provoke thought about one man’s terrorist being another man’s freedom fighter, but the movie stacks the deck all wrong. The end result is brazenly confused, invoking a great many things — the Holocaust, the War on Terror, etc. — without ever really building on them.
V is an adaptation of Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s graphic novel of the same name, and one of the odd things about the film is that its own distinct flaws further illuminate the problems I had with the original story to begin with. Moore is a visionary and an artist, but no great shakes as a political thinker, and so his story was essentially a fever dream in which a fascist and inhumane Britain gets its comeuppance thanks to a lone jester with a mask. The story’s most credible insight is that ideas are bigger than individuals, and that you can blow out a candle but not a brush fire, etc., but the movie takes even these few notions and trivializes them. The Wachowski Brothers seem to be consistently fascinated with the idea of the individual transcending the collective, but each time they’ve made a movie about it the results have been messy, to put it politely.Read more
I can think of two things that most immediately piqued my interest in Japan: their movies and their popular fiction. My first “Akira” was Kurosawa, not the Akira of Neo-Tokyo, so when I finally did come to anime and manga — the most common forms of Japanese popular culture that non-Japanese encounter — I’d already had some education into what fascinated the Japanese natively. It’s been said many times before that most of their own popular culture wasn’t intended to be appreciated by any other audience, which makes it all the more surprising for them when it does happen.
And happen it has, in little ways as well as big. It’s not just the fact that anime is a big sell for TV networks now, but publishing companies like Vertical have brought popular authors like Kōji Suzuki (of Ring infamy) and Randy Taguchi into the English language with good results. But there still remain broad swathes of the Japanese popular-culture landscape largely unexplored by the non-Japanese. Among them are bestselling works derived from Japan’s own turbulent past, of which I can think of only one offhand that has achieved anything like commercial success here: Eiji Yoshikawa’s Musashi, a novelization (shilling for romanticizing) of the life of the legendary swordsman. Some are only known to culture buffs, like Futaro Yamada — the man essentially responsible for the modern-day ninja mythology as we know it — and some are only known to scholars, like Bakin Takizawa’s retellings of Chinese epics. Few, if any, are in English. Read more
After the monumental disappointment of Mamoru Oshii’s attempt to revisit and extend on the story of Blood: the Last Vampire, I went back and dug out the original animated production, and was reminded all the more of how badly it deserved to be expanded on. The movie itself is barely 45 minutes long, a tiny fragment of what we are certain is a larger and more complex story, but those 45 minutes contain more promise and explosive visual innovation than many feature-length films. Even if B:TLV is nothing more than a demo-reel, a way of showcasing how computer graphics and conventional hand-drawn animation could not just be fused but used to augment each other, it’s one of the best such productions yet made.
Blood takes place in Japan in 1966, the Vietnam War bringing with it the deeply divisive the question of whether American army bases belong on Japanese soil. One night in an isolated subway car rattling through the tunnels under Tokyo, there’s a sudden, shocking murder: a young girl slides a katana out of its carrying case and tears apart an old man who seemed to be doing no one any harm. The girl’s name is Saya (voiced by Youki Kudoh), and there are strong hints that she is absolutely not what she seems to be: she has the strength of several men, she handles herself with the determination of a seasoned fighter — and she’s on the end of a leash held by two American officials who are growing weary of her mad-dog attack style.Read more