The Stuff of Dreams is yet another bit of the map in the atlas of the Vampire Hunter D universe, one where we see the first real test of the strength of D’s spirit instead of just his sword. The book gives us a new facet of the D mythology and explore it through a character we’ve come to know well — even if the sum total of D’s reactions to things is still stolid indifference. He’s more a mirror of his surroundings than an active hero, anyway, a catalyst for things to go wrong. He disturbs the equilibrium of evil more than he righteously seeks out the good. And while I’d rather see a character who’s more proactive than that, Hideyuki Kikuchi wraps enough goings-on around him to make him interesting by proxy. Read more
Sogo Ishii has said that the images for his films seem to well up from somewhere deep inside him, without connection to anything earthly. That certainly explains Dead End Run, which seems to come from literally nowhere but ends up going nowhere as well. By “connections”, I don’t mean links to Ishii’s other movies — although there’s the visual kinetics of Electric Dragon 80.000 V and Gojoe, and some of the crazed song-and-dance of Burst City, etc. — but connections to anything other than whatever the director was thinking about filming one day. It’s an arbitrary collection of images and thematic ideas that have nothing in common other than the fact that they’re sharing running time (pun unintended) in the same film, and they’re never developed into anything other than cheesy little outtakes.
Run is not even a full-length movie, but three interlinked shorts that runs a total of just under one hour, including credits. Ishii himself is a fitfully brilliant filmmaker: Gojoe was the best samurai movie I’d seen from Japan in decades, and Dragon and Burst City are more than worth checking out. Many of the folks involved — Tadanobu Asano and Masatoshi Nagase, most notably — have been staple figures in Ishii’s recent productions, so there’s some level of pedigree to the production. But Run is like an anthology of vague ideas that Ishii didn’t want to let go of, and so he recycled them into this lumpen form. The only thing the three movies have in common is the image of someone running, or on the run, or being pursued, but it’s a lame way to link together the stories when they aren’t terribly interesting to begin with. Read more
The most frustrating thing about The Legend of Kamui is how we know there is so much more, but you won’t find it here. Sanpei Shirato’s Kamui ran in Japan for dozens of volumes, but all we can see of it here in English is the first two volumes from its sequel series, as translated and presented by Viz, back when their manga business was entirely trade paperback volumes that cost $15 or more a pop. Now, like most everyone else in the industry, they have dropped back to grocery-sized paperback volumes that run about $8 each — a move I consider one of the key factors for the manga explosion in the United States, aside from a number of other clever marketing and promotional gimmicks. Kamui¸ however, has not been reissued, probably due to Viz no longer having a license on the title, and so these first two books are all we are likely to ever get. And as far as I know, no one has ever bothered to license the original, although if Dark Horse’s work with Path of the Assassin and Samurai Executioner and Lone Wolf and Cub are any hint, it might only be a matter of time.
It’s terribly frustrating, because what I’ve seen of Kamui both in and out of English has convinced me that it’s one of the finest manga of its kind — a ninja fantasy that draws its plot and themes from human behavior and need rather than politics or historical details. Shirato was responsible for a whole slew of historical samurai and ninja titles, but of them Kamui probably remains the most direct and compelling. It deals with a few single, strongly identifiable and empathic characters instead of a galaxy of interrelated power-strugglers, and its themes — the place of an individual in society, the justifications for having a society of any kind at all — are as universal as you’re likely to get. Read more
The Japanese term for a freelancer, no matter what the occupation, is the English-derived prefix free-, and that’s how the two main characters of Vibrator introduce themselves to each other. They’re “free”, in the sense that they have no real obligations to family or friends, no connections with even the society that sustains them, however casually. They’re free to float around like unpaired oxygen atoms in the void, which explains why they bond so violently when they meet. They have nothing better to do.
Her name is Rei (Shinobu Terashima), and she’s a freelance magazine writer; his name is Okabe (Nao Omori) and he’s a former gangster hanger-on, now a truckdriver. They run into each other at a convenience store where Rei is looking for the right kind of wine to drown out the self-hating roar in her head. Nothing in her life seems real outside of the feelings she keeps bottled up inside — and in a country like Japan, where so much depends on the face you present to people, who wants to know you’re an emotional wreck? But she’s drawn to Okabe, with his dyed skullcap of blond hair and his easygoing manners, and she walks out into the parking lot where his truck’s idling to find him waiting for her. He had looked at her and felt the same electricity she did, and with that she climbs up into the cab and roars off with him into the night.Read more
Tadanobu Asano is an actor I will gladly see in most any movie, even ones where his brooding charisma can’t redeem the rest of the project. Asano has been compared favorably to a Japanese version of Brad Pitt or Johnny Depp, and like both of those actors he can make a serious misfire of a film into something marginally endurable. I stuck it out through Dead End Run because of both him and another actor I have the same sort of affection for (Masatoshi Nagase), and I sat through Neji-shiki for the same reasons. Even with him, what we have here is a curiosity whose appeal to anyone outside of its cult audience is probably going to fall flat on its face.
The cultishness surrounding Neji-shiki comes from the fact that it’s an adaptation of a short manga by Tsuge Yoshiharu, a man whose impact on comics inside and outside of Japan is deep but not broadly known. Yoshiharu had a turbulent life, to put it mildly, and that turbulence was channeled back into his work. According to Peter Van Huffel’s MangaGuide, he was raised by his mother after his father ran disappeared, and when he was fourteen he tried stowing away on a cargo ship for the United States but was caught and brought back. His first forays into manga were dedicated products for rental libraries (places where people pay by the hour to browse) — something like the comics equivalent of the direct-to-video movie market, and about as much of a ghetto for a talented man. When that market dried up in the Sixties, he plummeted into poverty, sold blood to put food on the table, and eventually attempted suicide. But he survived, and in 1965 went to work for the underground/avant-garde comic magazine Garo, home to other luminaries such as Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Sanpei Shirato and guro master Suehiro Maruo (whose Mr. Arashi’s Amazing Freak Show has also been adapted into a film that apparently didn’t get much of a release). Read more
Film and TV soundtracks are often the bastard children of popular music. The best composers in the field, like Jerry Goldsmith or John Williams, are regarded as hacks by the classical community — a rather short-sighted view, given that many of their own favorite composers did many of their best pieces as for-pay hackwork in their time. Fans of more conventional popular music may recognize the names, but rarely seek out the music on its own. The closest most people get to this sort of thing is showtunes, which are fine but terribly limited in scope: it’s a little like narrowing all of rock’n’roll down to only what came from England (or the USA itself).
The choices become all the more esoteric when you leave the United States, or English-speaking territory altogether. Japan has long had one of the most vibrant music scenes of any country, and within the narrow-sounding field of soundtracks for their live-action and animated TV / movie productions there’s a striking amount of activity going on. In that field, one name comes to the fore more than almost any other: Yoko Kanno. Put aside the fact that she’s a woman (even if she’s working in a field that as far as I can tell is predominantly male — in itself no small thing in Japan); put aside the fact that her main forte is soundtracks for animated productions like Cowboy Bebop, Wolf’s Rain, Arjuna, Macross Plus, the anthology film Memories, and many others. The one fact that matters: out of all the other musicians in this space, she is the only one I could describe as a genius without flinching. Her work so comfortably spans so many styles and modes of expression, and so well, that I’m not sure any other word will fit. Read more
Once upon a time, a record company was a brand of distinction — you could pick up a Motown record and know to a high degree that you were going to get not just a certain kind of sound (or soul), but you’d be picking up something that was highly reflective of a given person’s taste. Motown is now part of Arista, which is now part of BMG, and likewise many other former “labels of distinction” have been absorbed into the same collective whole and rendered fairly faceless. A great many indies have similarly followed suit — Wax Trax! is now nothing but a marketing logo used by TVT (itself part of Time/Warner) — and the end result has been a lot of extremely bland music with no particular purpose.
There are still a few holdouts, though, and it probably isn’t surprising to hear that at least one of the most important ones is not in the United States. P.S.F. / Modern Music is headquartered in Setagaya, Tokyo, and after having listened to a fair smattering of their catalog over the past decade I don’t flinch when I hear people describe them as “the most aesthetically perfect record label in the world” (Forced Exposure). They’ve earned the label by sheer dint of selecting, publishing and curating one remarkable artist after another, and as a result every time I’ve picked up a P.S.F. disc — even one of their compilation albums — I’ve been at the very least impressed. Typically I’m left speechless. Read more
How quietly and starkly this film tells a story that still has such horrible immediacy. Without politics, without cant or hypocrisy, and without even much fanfare, this film shows us a dramatization of a scarifying incident from real life and gives it meaning and focus. When trailers for the film first appeared and audiences (and pundits, and critics) shouted “Too soon!”, I had to ask: Since when do they need your permission to proceed? An artist that does not provoke is nothing more than a sycophant.
And as it turned out, director Paul Greengrass (Bloody Sunday) had already gotten permission from the people who were most in the position to give it: the relatives of those who had died onboard United Airlines Flight 93, hijacked by terrorists who ostensibly planned to fly it into a building in Washington, D.C. From everything that has been reconstructed about that event, they died so that others on September 11, 2001, might live. To wait for the “right moment” to tell such a story is simply asinine. The right moment is always now, and some day there will be people who were not alive at the moment and will need to remember what the moment was like.Read more