Shuji Terayama is one of many Japanese filmmakers who remains almost wholly unrepresented in the West, much to our detriment. He created both experimental and “mainstream” cinema, the former best known through movies like Throw Away Your Books, Let’s Go Out into the Streets and the scandalous Emperor Tomato Ketchup. Most of his work was done under the auspices of the avant-garde Art Theatre Guild, and in doing so he collaborated with many staple countercultural figures from Japan’s Sixties and Seventies. But he’s never had much of his work issued domestically. When his movies are seen at all, they’re usually in the form of blurry bootlegs or tattered prints screened at private showings. To that end, whenever any of his movies show up in English-language editions at all, it’s something to celebrate.
Grass Labyrinth might qualify as one of his most widely-seen films, since it was released both on its own and as part of the anthology production Private Collections. That film also contained shorts by Just Jaeckin (he of Gwendoline and Emmanuelle infamy) and Walerian (The Beast) Borowczyk, which is why it is linked to this review in lieu of a standalone edition. And since the U.S. DVD of that film is the only decent way to see Labyrinth I was initially inclined to review all three at once — but Terayama’s movie so far overshadowed the others, I decided a review of Labyrinth alone would be more than worth it. Read more
Funny how the most passing, inconsequential mention of a band can inspire the most ferocious curiosity on my part. In 1991 I’d picked up the then-new CD reissue of the first two Suicide albums, and after not being able to listen to anything else for weeks on end decided to play a game: Whenever someone else mentioned Suicide and another band in the same breath, I’d go find out what that other band was. It didn’t take long before someone mentioned “Suicide and Chrome”, and within the week I had Touch ‘n Go’s CD reissue of Chrome’s Half Machine Lip Moves / Alien Soundtracks in my hands.
Actually, the sight of the album alone would probably have prompted me to buy it: its funky hand-lettered cover, vaguely sci-fi photography (I’ve wondered for a long time where that inset photograph on the front is from), and explicitly sci-fi song titles like “March of the Chrome Police”, “Nova Feedback”, “Chromosome Damage” and “All Data Lost” lured me right in. Then I spun the CD up and out came this KKKKKKKKKKRRRRRRRRRRRR of a guitar skronk that sounded like ZZ Top succumbing to Leatherface’s chainsaw massacre. It didn’t take long to understand why Suicide were mentioned in the same breath: like Suicide, they played the most blisteringly crude music I’d ever heard. At a time when “lo-fi” was not a term of musical endearment, they put out records that not only sounded like they had been miked directly into a cheap boombox but would make everything else that you played on your stereo sound like that, too. Read more
John Sayles’s Limbo begins in a place that for many people would be the middle of nowhere — Port Henry, Alaska — and ends as literally as possible in the middle of nowhere, the better to live up to its themes. If you have seen Sayles’s other movies, you’ll probably walk into this one thinking it’s another of his smart meditations on the politics of a local community, like Lone Star or Sunshine State. It does indeed give off that vibe at first, but after a while the movie’s real intentions step forward. The place is just a backdrop, and the real drama is initially invisible.
Limbo gives us three people — Joe (David Straithairn), a handyman and ex-fisherman; Donna (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), a nowhere nightclub singer; and Donna’s daughter Noelle (Vanessa Martinez). The three of them cross paths at a locally-catered wedding, and almost without realizing it Joe gives Mary a ride home. She’s in the process of breaking up with yet another of the men she has had the bad taste to shack up with, something which her daughter has become disgusted enough with to take out on herself when no one’s looking. Joe and Donna like each other, and for a while the movie seems to be about the two of them moving closer together while the rest of the folks in the township (a good many of whom have just been laid off from the local canning factory) grouse about them into their beer. Read more
Moon over Tao is one of those movies where the idea should have yielded something really awesome, but what they ended up with was only okay. It’s one of a very small number of “hybrid fantasy” movies from Japan, where they take a typical samurai/ninja adventure story and fuse it with something else. A great example of this would probably be Zipang, which was just so unhinged and off-the-wall that I couldn’t resist it. Tao mixes and matches a samurai adventure with a sci-fi fantasy, but it plods for too much of its running time instead of really cutting loose. I hate to think that until Zipang is issued domestically we’ll have to settle for mediocre stuff like this.
Tao kicks off with two characters who are staples of samurai action films: a taciturn samurai, Hayate (Hiroshi Abe, also of Baian the Assassin) and a liquor-swilling, magic-spell-slinging monk, Suikyou (Toshiyuki Nagashima), himself formerly an army general. The two of the have teamed back up at the behest of a local lord to investigate a series of strange happenings. Apparently a meteorite has fallen from heaven and a priest with delusions of grandeur has forged swords from the alien ores contained within — swords that his goons are now using to wreak havoc up and down the countryside. Read more
In the fifteen or so years that I’ve been reading literature from Japan, there are maybe two or three books from that whole oeuvre that I’ve come back to again and again and discovered more in each time. One was Kenzaburo Oe’s The Silent Cry; another, most likely the one I have come back to the most, is Osamu Dazai’s No Longer Human. The two books could not be more dissimilar. Oe’s story is epic in detail and unabashedly literary in its language and imagery, while Dazai’s novel is barely two hundred pages and constructed out of language so simple and spare there seems to be no room for further reduction. And yet I’ve come back to that short space again and again, and each time I do, I find something else that simply did not seem to be there before. I know I’m the one that’s changing, of course, and I suspect the day I sit down to read No Longer Human and find nothing in it any longer will be the day I no longer see any of myself in it. I hope that will be a happy day. Read more
There was once a movie called The Wild Bunch, a Western that did what no other Western before it had done: it made the West look like a horrible and violent place, not a breeding ground for heroes or men of honor. In Roger Ebert’s words, the movie “cleared away the moralistic oatmeal” of the Western and left behind something a lot less romantic, but a whole lot more realistic and thought-provoking. This wasn’t the West we wanted, but it might well have been the West we deserved.
In the same way, Berserk clears away the moralistic oatmeal of the fantasy genre. It takes the epic-adventure that we see in something like The Lord of the Rings and strips out all of the assumptions we bring to it: that the bad guys will lose, that the good guys will win (and that they deserve to), and that violence doesn’t just strike like lightning and kill whoever happens to be standing there. What is left behind is one of the darkest and bleakest stories you’ll ever read, but once you get started you won’t be able to pry yourself loose. If you have a strong stomach you owe it to yourself to discover what may be one of the most horrifically violent, philosophically desolate, and yet also flat-out best manga out there. The first volume is only a taster of what it’s all about — the beginning of a story that has already been unfolding for years and will continue to unfold across over thirty published volumes of manga in Japan (and eighteen or so in English, as of this writing).Read more
Tie-ins — comics created as an adjunct to a video game or a movie — are typically for fans only. One such example: The King of Fighters 2003: The Comic is absolutely and unabashedly for the fans of the game — a vehicle for SNK’s characters where they can use the thinnest possible excuse for a story to justify having them smash each other through walls, into parked cars, and (as in the climax of the fight at the start of the book) bury them under a landslide, all in splashy full-color. If this sounds like fun — trust me, you don’t need this review; you’ve probably already got $14 burning a hole in your pocket as I speak.
Everyone else, however, doesn’t need to rush out and blow that kind of dough. Right from the start it’s clear you’re in fan-only territory: the plot summary at the start of the book doesn’t explain much of anything to the uninitiated. With even less preamble we’re thrown into a showdown in the wilderness between two key characters in the game’s mythology: Kyo Kusanagi and K’ (read: “K-prime” or "K-Dash"), a fighter infused with Kyo’s genetic material to grant him many of the other man’s powers. The brawl ends with K’ burying his opponent under half a mountain and walking away, but Kusanagi doesn’t stay dead. In steps the priestess Chizuru Kagura, who brings Kusanagi back from the dead as a puppet under her control … and out step the two of them for the rest of the volume, presumably to return in a future installment.Read more
How is it that a gigantic hoard of Buddhist literature came to be concealed in the Thousand Buddha Caves near Tun-Huang, in the northwest of China, and remained undiscovered for almost a thousand years? The explanation provided by Tun-Huang is of course fiction, but it’s fiction backed up by a good deal of careful research and thought about its time and place — a corner of the Chinese empire that was in constant conflict and under the perpetual threat of invasion or insurrection. That’s more than enough exotica to draw my attention, but there’s more: the author is Yasushi Inoue, author of The Samurai Banner of Furin Kazan, one of Japan’s most highly-lauded novelists next to Musashi author Eiji Yoshikawa.
Like Yoshikawa, Inoue is criminally undertranslated. Furin Kazan only appeared in English last year, and his other major works under the Kodansha label — Tun-Huang and Lou-Lan, a short-story collection — are both out of print. I wonder if part of the reason why his work has not been embraced as avidly as others is because he doesn’t try to artificially pump up what he’s writing about. For a story that takes place in an exotic time and a faraway place (even to a Japanese author!), Inoue adopts a very straightforward, unpretentious, unadorned style, and the book itself is not very long — barely 200 pages. Musashi was nearly a thousand pages and had to be broken across five paperback volumes, but only because it was dealing with the span of a man’s life; the language in it was equally direct. Read more
The premise for The Edukators made me cringe, I admit it: Three young anti-globalist agitators make a name for themselves by breaking into rich people’s houses, rearranging the furniture, and leaving notes like “YOUR DAYS OF PLENTY ARE NUMBERED.” Exactly the kind of self-indulgent stunts masquerading as political theater that went out of fashion decades ago. Worse, the filmmakers probably thought these insufferable prats were the good guys.
I was happy to be proven wrong. The Edukators is a smart movie, far smarter than I ever expected it to be — and more importantly, a deeply compassionate one. It has great empathy not only for its young would-be revolutionaries, but also for one of the people they are allegedly rebelling against, and what looks at first like a case of scoring easy points against a wicked system turns into something a lot more nuanced and subtle. It’s not even a movie about the politics, but about the way politics — any political stance, really — is shaped by the dimensions of a person’s life. You always embody your beliefs, even if you’re not aware of how you do it. Read more