There's little that's more frustrating than a great idea badly executed.The great idea in this case is to take two tales of horror and mystery by Japan's venerable author Edogawa Rampo and fuse them into one film: Blind Beast andKiller Dwarf. The former was actually made into a film of its own, a staple bit of excess from one of the masters of same, director Yasuzo Masumura. His film was gloriously perverse and over-the-top, and reveled in its bizarre set designs and lurid camera angles. Now we have another Japanese director that is synonymous with excess and luridness, Teruo Ishii, taking a crack at some of the same material, and adding in another of Rampo's stories apparently just for jolly since there's little other visible reason to do so.
Ishii is mostly famous for his gore and torture epics from the Sixties and Seventies, which pushed the onscreen boundaries for what was either permissible or desirable. Unfortunately, a lot of the rest of his work falls way short of the mark. Japanese Hell was a wretched, "socially relevant" reworking of the original proto-J-horror masterpiece Jigoku; Screwed was an ambitious but flawed filming of an adult manga that needed more than just being translated so literally to the screen. Now, sadly, add Blind Beast vs. Killer Dwarf to the "flawed" list as well — and it'll be the last item on that list, since it was Ishii's last feature film before he died. Read more
Now here’s something I would never have expected: Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, the animated movie version of one of the lesser novels in the Vampire Hunter D series, is not only better than the original book but in some ways better than many of the novels in the series as a whole. The novel in question, Demon Deathchase, was a flashy but fairly thin vehicle for its main character — a half-human, half-vampire hunter of the undead in a vaguely Mad Max-ian far-flung post-collapse future. It was no great shakes as a story, but it wasn’t hard to see how it could lend itself easily to a terrific action film.
That it did. Bloodlust does as expected and for most of its running time uses the book as a springboard for one inspired and eye-popping action sequence after another. Then, at about the three-quarter mark, it surpasses the source material and delivers a surprisingly emotional conclusion — exactly what was missing from the book in the first place. The fact that I didn’t expect them to even try to add such things only made all the more pleasant a surprise; I went in expecting something fairly mindless and got one-upped bigtime. Read more
I’m not sure whether to review a movie like this or explain it. Yaji and Kita: The Midnight Pilgrims, an outré genre-busting comedy from Japan, gets most of its yuks by turning samurai movie conventions upside-down and inside-out, and then painting them in garish colors. Take Samurai Hip, Sailor-Fuku Chic and Yakuza Cool, dump them into a blender, throw it at a movie screen, and you’d end up with something (vaguely) like this. It ought to have been a work of goony genius, but instead it’s a tiresome hodgepodge that goes on far too long after it’s worn out its welcome.
Even if it was a better movie, it wouldn’t be the sort of thing I could recommend without many caveats. For one, if you’re don’t already have some experience with samurai flicks — to say nothing of the dozen or so other Japanese movie / pop-culture tropes that get strip-mined in this film — most of the jokes are going to sail right over your head at thirty thousand feet. The movie spends at least as much time channel-surfing and gleefully smashing clichés together as it does telling a story, and eventually it runs out of real story and just starts throwing things on the screen and chasing its tail. It falls down about as badly as Samurai Fiction did, another movie which was funnier in theory than it was in practice.Read more
When Kōji Suzuki’s novel Ring, the basis for whole franchises of movies on both side of the Pacific, was published in English not long ago, I commented to a friend that English-speaking audiences are now finally seeing the literary side of Japan that the Japanese themselves experience and not simply the literature they offer up to the rest of the world. There’s more to this than simply “trying to understand the Japanese psyche”, or some equally stilted pseudo-psychological explanation. The reason people want to read such things and see them translated into English — myself included — is because there’s a lot of really good work to be read there. Dozens of authors, whole genres of work, are as-yet-untapped. Translating all of that into English increases the size of its potential audience by at least an order of magnitude.
Edogawa Rampo is a case in point. For decades he was probably the most famous and influential mystery author in Japan, a country which had devoured mystery novels in translation from English but had few creators of its own. Rampo (a pen name coined from a Nipponification of Edgar Allan Poe) changed all that. He wrote grotesque psychological mysteries that were something of a genre unto themselves, and which are not only appreciated today but have been revisited endlessly as movies — Rampo Noir and Gemini, just to name two recent examples. After the Second World War and the difficulties he encountered with censorship, he actually broadened his approach instead of narrowing it; he wrote works for younger audiences, became an influential critic and exponent of mystery and detective fiction, and even managed to personally oversee a translation of a meager selection of his works into English through the venerable Charles S. Tuttle publishing house. That one volume, Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination, has been about all anyone has ever read of Rampo’s work in English until now. Read more
Pilgrimage of the Sacred and Profane is the Vampire Hunter D novel I was hoping to read since this series got started. It takes all the best elements of the series as a whole — the otherworldly / futuristic setting, the grotesques and hardscrabble survivors that inhabit it, the menaces that boil up from inside it, and of course D himself — and puts them into a story that has real heart, real weight and real payoff. In the previous books — especially Raiser of Gales and The Stuff of Dreams — we got tantalizing hints about the main character that at most confined themselves to the background of the story. Here, they’re woven into its substance and made essential to how things play out. For most of the book it’s a fun ride (as all the D books are meant to be), and then at the end Kikuchi lobs a bomb of startling emotional impact right into our laps. Read more
Slowly, although probably a good deal more slowly than I’d like, a good deal of genuinely excellent Japanese popular music is making headway outside of Japan. This doesn’t just include “J-prefix” (i.e., J-rock, J-pop) talents like T.M. Revolution and Puffy AmiYumi, but folks just outside the mainstream who nevertheless have terrific cult appeal that could conceivably spread to other countries. This also includes people spread on the fringes — everyone Keiji Haino to Kazuki Tomokawa, definitely not what you’d call “commercial” artists but people unquestionably possessed of vision and talent and who deserve to spread it far and wide.
Closer to the center, though, is a whole galaxy of artists riding just below the waterline: people whose talents and inclinations would seem to make them shoo-ins for broader acceptance, but for whatever reason haven’t yet had a spotlight shone on them. DJ Krush is one among those many, and that’s a shame: he makes music that is so polished, assured and compelling that he doesn’t deserve to just be called a DJ, or a hip-hop artist, or even a-musician-from-Japan. One of his few brief moments in the public eye here in the West was actually how I found out about him in the first place: his track “Dig This Vibe”, from the Blade soundtrack, was one of the very best things on that whole record. I followed up on him and found he had a whole slew of recordings that were just as good, if not better, and which deserve to be heard outside of the circles of people who’d normally seek them out. Read more
More than anyone else I could name, Futaro Yamada is responsible for the fantasy mythology of the ninja as expressed in popular culture. Certainly more than anyone else who has yet been translated into English, and now that The Kouga Ninja Scrolls is at last available in a finely-wrought, officially sanctioned translation, it’s possible to see at least some of how all of this got started. Scrolls was the basis for the live-action movie Shinobi and the anime and manga Basilisk, but it preceded both of them by many decades, and in that intervening time the number of other things influenced by it — and most of the rest of Yamada’s popular fiction to boot — could be compiled into a catalog.
I’ve written before, with great enthusiasm, about the material derived from Yamada’s other works. The mythology of the ninja has been fodder for any number of books and stories, but Yamada gave it the form we have come most to know it in today — codified it, popularized it, and identified himself with it. His Makai Tenshō was the basis for a 1981 Sonny Chiba movie, a 2003 remake, an incomplete OAV, a direct-to-video pair of feature-length films so awful I could not bear to review them, and endless imitations and parodies. Scrolls, like Tensho, draws on both existing Japanese history and extant mythology to create a violent, wildly stylized fantasy. He was also known as a thriller/mystery novelist and cast plenty of influences right there; his novel Etsuraku (Pleasures of the Flesh) was filmed by Ream of the Senses director Nagisa Oshima and compares favorably to many of today’s non-linear thrillers. Read more
A man who builds himself a chair inside which he hides, the better to seduce a woman without her ever knowing it; a man who commits the “perfect” crime and discovers all too late he’s been a little too perfect about it; a man who builds a mirrored prison for himself and in it discovers madness or ecstasy — you decide; a wife who discovers her own fetish for cruelty when her husband returns home from the war with his body a ruined lump of flesh. Among the most remarkable things about these stories is not that they are from a Japanese author, nor even how striking and powerful they are, but that they were written many decades ago by a man now recognized as that country’s grand master of mystery and horrific fantasy: Edogawa Rampo, he who chose for his pen name a Nipponification of Edgar Allan Poe and remains one of the most criminally underpublished writers in any major genre. Read more