When I talk about a movie being “Kitanoesque,” that probably brings to mind a slew of associations familiar to people who’ve seen a number of Takeshi Kitano’s movies: the static takes, the deadpan treatment of the subject matter, the stories that usually involve a life of crime gone sour. Another Lonely Hitman is indeed Kitanoesque, but it’s also unmistakeably its own creature. It ought to be, since it was one of the many films directed by Rokuro Mochizuki — a director with a pedigree at least as long and accomplished as Kitano’s but who has until now remained relatively unknown outside of Japan.
Until recently most Japanese gangster dramas — to say nothing of most movies produced in Japan for a primarily Japanese audience — had only the most cultish recognition outside of their home country. The prevalent belief was that such films weren’t really going to be interesting to other people anyway, and so no concessions were made to make them exportable. Now all of that has changed, and everyone from Mochizuki to the more broadly-recognizable Kinji Fukasaku (also responsible for some of that country’s best gangster cinema) are getting English-language DVD editions of their best films.Read more
If Kurosawa made samurai cinema for Japan and the rest of the world to boot, Rōnin-gai is the kind of samurai cinema that the Japanese made exclusively for themselves: gritty, violent, and unapologetic, but also keen on character and insight. It harkens back to the grittier rough’n’tumble samurai cinema of the Sixties and Seventies, very much the antithesis of Kurosawa’s more polished morality tales. Such films were designed to bring in audiences and cater to their love of swordplay, heroic struggle and bloodshed, and not to spark larger questions the meanings of such things. What’s interesting about Rōnin-gai is that it comments on its own material as much as it savors it.
Rōnin-gai is set in Japan’s mid-1800s, when feudalism was on the wane and samurai found themselves increasingly disenfranchised. Most of the action takes place in a brothel where many such ronin end up — the violent, wild-haired Aramaki (Yoshio Harada), or the bouncer, “Bull” (Shintaro [Zatoichi] Katsu), or the cool-eyed Gonbei (Renji Ishibashi). Right from the beginning we get an interesting hint as to how their minds, and their pride, operate. Aramaki gets into a boozy fracas with Bull; Bull challenges him to a fight right in the courtyard; Gonbei looks on amusedly and guesses the odds. Then they all realize that the only thing better than seeing who can beat whom up is wallowing in their mutual miseries, and they go off to get drunk together.Read more
In Man against Myth, philosopher Barrows Dunham explained that one of the problems with tyranny is that you have no choice but to be a tyrant. If you want all the goodies that go with being a conqueror, you have to actually do the conquering, and the damage done to you as a person is irreversible. “The gains hardly seem worth the degeneracy,” he wrote, and he could have been talking about anyone from Mussolini (who inspired a good deal of the essay in question) to the warlords of ancient Japan.
Samurai Banners asks almost exactly the same question: What is the point of trying to become a “great man”, whether a conqueror or a uniter, if the cost involved is so great to you that there’s not much left to be called great? It deals with a chapter out of Japan’s own feudal history, when a number of different warlords were battling each other fiercely to control all of Japan; the rhetoric each of them used for this was that by ruling Japan under one banner, they could have peace. Yes, and in fact they were able to have that under the Tokugawa from the 1600s on, but there’s no small irony in that they had to kill so many of themselves (and each other) to get there.Read more
Rokuro Mochizuki’s Onibi: The Fire Within comes from the same director as Another Lonely Hitman, and is a refinement of that earlier film in many senses of the word. The similarities between the two movies are no accident: Onibi was conceived as a sequel-of-sorts by its producers, with Mochizuki using details gleaned from the life of a real hitman to inspire this outing. Onibi follows the same basic story—a yakuza thug fresh out of prison tries to redeem himself—but to very different ends, and the resulting movie is better in every way than its predecessor.
The film stars gangster- and samurai-movie staple Yoshio Harada (Ronin-gai, and the lamentable The Hunted) as Kunihiro, a hitman who has spent more time in prison than out of it, and who as the film opens has been released from a fifteen-year stint for killing another man. His comrades, like Tanigawa (Sho Aikawa, of the Dead or Alive series and Gozu), still think highly of him, and do not understand that he no longer thinks very highly of himself. It took prison to remind him that there were other things in life besides murder and money—like classical music, or photography. Most poignant is when he takes a renewed interest in those books he read in high school that he thought were boring then but which he now realizes are in fact fascinating. Read more
For a long time after watching On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate I couldn’t put into words what it was about the film that was so special, except for the simple fact that it refused to leave my mind. That in itself told me there was something really special at work here, a director who’d found his own way of telling a story that didn’t resort to references to other movies or shopworn storytelling clichés, and that I needed to adjust myself to the movie and not the other way around.
Turning Gate is the fourth of the only six or so films directed by South Korean filmmaker Sang-soo Hong, and the first of his that I’ve seen so far. Based on what I’ve seen, I want to see more. It is a fine example of the sort of filmmaking that I savor the most, the kind where a quiet surface masks immense emotional depths, and while there is not a lot of outward action there is in fact a great deal going on that deserves our attention. Rebels of the Neon God, the outstanding A Time to Live and a Time to Die, and most of Takeshi Kitano’s films had this feeling about them. After a summer full of brain-dead nonsense in which people do their best to blow up the scenery and each other, this is like filmmaking from a saner alternate universe.Read more
And now, for the space of this review, I shall geek out, as I have a hard time describing Mind Game without collapsing into blathering fandom. So be it. It is certainly one of the greatest animated films I’ve ever seen — it tells a story that is life-affirming and inspiring, and uses animation in an absolutely unparalleled way to do it. It’s cosmic, comic, manic, slapstick and tragic — sometimes all at once — and never stumbles even as it dances from one feeling to the next. I don’t think I’ve ever consciously described a film as a “feel-good experience,” but Mind Game earns the label. It rejuvenated me.
Many people do not seem to be interested in animated films that aren’t by Disney, Pixar or Dreamworks. They think of animation as a genre, not a mode of expression, which is a mistake. Animation lets you do things that aren’t possible in live action — not simply physically, which is obvious enough, but also in terms of what kinds of feelings and reactions you can evoke from the audience. Mind Game wants to do exactly that, and in a way that’s full of real wonder and joy. People who make a steady diet of glum, ironic entertainment will probably hate it — but if they do, I pity them. They’re missing out.Read more