Finally, a live-action fantasy from Japan that doesn’t look better on the back of the DVD box than it does on the screen! That was the problem with Shinobi and Azumi, which looked great in theory but were terribly leaden in practice. Now comes Ashura, which sounds like it ought to have been even worse than both of them, but it has something neither of those movies had: a sense of humor, directed mostly at itself. Ashura knows it’s absurd in the extreme and everyone on screen looks like they know it, too. It’s a romp and a half, and it doesn’t wear out its welcome too soon.
The movie’s a period setpiece in Japan’s Edo (the old-school version of Tokyo), which as of late is suffering from a rather nasty incursion of demons. Izumo (Somegoro Ichikawa, also of the hilarious Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald), one of the duly-appointed Demon Slayers, tears into his work with gusto, and enjoys the company of his equally bloodthirsty comrades; they’re like a cross between a supernatural police force and a murderous dance troupe. Then Izumo is tricked into killing a little girl, takes off his black Demon Slayer armor, and puts on the more garish colors of an actor and dissolute playboy. He’s able to fill packed houses with cheering fans when he performs the roles written for him by his playwright boss Nanboku, but he’s still inwardly despondent even if he hides it behind a mask of rakish indifference. Read more
The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On belongs in the same category as movies like Gates of Heaven and The Thin Blue Line — a true story that is so staggering in its details that you would never be believed if you had presented it as fiction. Its subject is a mild-mannered looking Japanese fellow in his fifties named Kenzo Okuzaki. He doesn’t look like the kind of man who would have spent ten years in prison for murder and two more years for acts of civil disobedience against the Emperor. He has good reasons for all of those things, though, which he is happy to explain to you in the form of a massive sign erected on his shop front and on angry placards mounted on top of his car. Face-to-face, he’s polite, almost self-effacing, but then he switches on his bullhorn microphone and rails against the injustices his own country has doled out to him, and everyone within earshot ducks.
Okuzaki probably does have good reason to be angry. He was a member of the 36th Regiment in New Guinea in WWII, and after what he endured for the sake of the Emperor and his own country (in that order, some would argue), he’s not afraid of a little jail time for his trouble-making. His crusade in life is to draw attention to what happened to him and his starving comrades at the time — sufferings that he is convinced were neither necessary nor noble. The only of his comrades that got a proper burial did so at the hands of his fellow soldiers. In the scene where Okuzaki explains this to the man’s mother he pours the whole story out in a single breath and then simply collapses in grief. “He died, and he was the luckiest one.” Read more
“My son Campbell would love that T-shirt,” says the Ugandan military dictator to the Scottish doctor. So begins as unlikely relationship as any that could be dreamed up between Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), a young and whey-faced fellow who came to Africa to “make a difference”, and none other than Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker). It’s told with the brightly-lit, full-frontal gusto of an A-list Hollywood production, but it’s got the wit and insight of a smaller, nominally more character-driven film. That’s as it should be, because a story like this is best told as something taking place between people and not an epic of armies colliding.
Nicholas ended up in Uganda more or less at random, to get out from under the thumb of his father. Before bumping into Amin, he was sweating it out at a village clinic shoulder-to-shoulder with fellow physician Sarah Merrit (Gillian Anderson) , who has few of Nicholas’s idealistic delusions. She’s singularly unimpressed when Amin comes to town to stump for the success of his coup; she’s seen dictators come and go. Nicholas has not, and that at least partly explains his attraction to the man. There is also the suggestion that Nicholas is all too willing to embrace the kind of justifications that Amin uses in his line of work — as when he takes Amin’s pistol and shoots a dying cow in the head. Read more
Here is another of Japan’s loveliest and most sorrowful of films, restored to life and freed from the patina of decades of damage that hid its beauty. Sansho the Bailiff was one of the first Japanese movies I rented as part of my cinematic education about Japan, a process which started with a theatrical screening of Kurosawa’s Ran back in 1985 and has persisted to this day. Like director Kenji Mizoguchi’s equally-saddening Ugetsu (another movie I saw at the same time, possibly back-to-back with it), the only copies available were VHS transfers; I was unlucky enough to rent a copy of Sansho that sported nasty creases in the tape for the first five minutes. The luminous beauty of the movie still showed through despite all that, and I longed for a day when I could see it again without multiple generations of print damage and analog tape artifacts obscuring it. Here we are at last. Read more