My current prevailing theory about pop-culture success in Japan is that it gets you adapted. Novel, manga, live-action TV series, live-action movie, animated series, animated movie, drama CD, cellphone story — if you create any one of the above and it’s a hit, odds are it’ll be cross-adapted into every single other medium on that list, too. That doesn’t guarantee any of the results will be readable or watchable; just that you’ll receive that much exposure.
Enter Otsuichi, one of the more recent J-culture superstars to do the Crossover Shuffle. His short-story collection Zoo has shown up as a manga, and now been turned into a five-feature anthology film along the lines of Natsume Sōseki’s Ten Nights of Dreams. That compilation sometimes departed heavily from its source material, for the same reason Richard III was fun to stage in a proto-fascist WWII England and Kurosawa made grand, bold images out of staging King Lear and Macbeth as samurai dramas. Zoo sticks closely to its inspiration for the most part, and deviates from it when it helps. Read more
Somehow in between drawing enough manga to fill an entire bookshelf — and that’s no figure of speech — Osamu Tezuka also found the time to create animated films. What’s probably most surprising to learn is that they were not adaptations of his manga work; he left that job to other people. On his own, he created animated work that was as eclectic and experimental as the manga he created for his own left-field magazine COM. The man was large; he contained multitudes.
Few people outside of Japan or the film-festival circuit have ever seen those films, but Tezuka has become a more familiar name in English over the past decade, and so there’s now a market for a DVD anthology of that work. The Astonishing Work of Tezuka Osamu (last name first in the title, as per Japan’s naming conventions) compiles thirteen of Tezuka’s short animated productions (total time, two and a half hours) along with a half-hour interview with Tezuka itself. Even fans of Tezuka’s work in all its breadth might not recognize most of this as his product if his name wasn’t on it. Read more
Cult cinema is a continual game of one-upsmanship of the bizarre. Just when you think you’ve seen the Weirdest Thing Possible, something else comes along and flings a wrecking ball through it. Let me introduce you to the new wrecking ball.
Crazy Lips has the form, but not the content, of any number of J-horror/J-thriller productions. Or maybe it’s the other way around — form, but not content. Something like that, anyway. Included within are psychic powers, sexual perversity, bloodshed, violent revenge, government cover-ups — it’s all been mashed together in a way that would be easy to dismiss as incoherent if I was not also certain that was precisely the idea. It’s a satire on everything from Crossfire to Ringu, with deliberately hammy acting and over-the-top music stings to underscore the fundamental silliness of everything going on. Even if you go in with some inkling of how deranged this thing is, you’re still likely to never lose one iota of the disbelief that forces your jaw to hang wide open. Read more
Samurai Princess is the latest pustule of throbbing madness to pop off the same Japanese cinematic assembly lines as Machine Girl, Tokyo Gore Police, RoboGeisha, et whacked-out cetera. For less money than what most movies spend on promotional gewgaws, you get a torrent of gory, high-energy weirdness and hilarity. Gory is a mild word: the movie’s obsession with body parts and guts is so heedless of good taste, so patently absurd, it’s not just grindhouse cinema, it’s grindcore cinema.
Princess is set in one of those dirt-cheap versions of the future, where the world has been reduced to rusted industrial machinery and empty office buildings. Black market surgeons make big bank by building illegal mecha, but they don’t visit the scrap metal dealers for spare parts: their machines are cobbled together from the bodies of the freshly deceased. One such surgeon offers a second life to a girl who’s the sole survivor when an entire outing of friends is massacred by murdering thugs. He doesn’t just rebuild her better/faster/stronger, either; he places the souls of the other eleven dead girls into the same body, too. (Brings new meaning to the term “coffin hotel”.) Read more
Here is a movie which doesn’t really work as a whole, but is oddly fascinating if you take each piece by itself. The Black House was marketed as a thriller, but it’s really closer to one of Takashi Miike’s “thrillers”, where the workings of the plot take a backseat to outré examples of bizarre human behavior. I’m not sure I liked it, exactly, but I was never bored by it, and it earns a few extra points for being based on a novel by Yusuke Kishi (of The Crimson Labyrinth). The movie’s bizarre and striking enough to make you curious about the book, even if you’re not inspired to see the film itself more than once.
Most thrillers rarely have heroes — only victims or perpetrators. Wakatsuki, the protagonist of House, works in a small Kyoto life-insurance company but right from the start has VICTIM stamped on his forehead. He’s mousy, reticent, intimidated and twitchy. The only things in life that give him real peace are swimming and his girlfriend — when he’s in the water, and when he’s next to her, he’s a different man. He also knows his job well, and despite his meekness has a good nose for the fraud and double-dealing that are rampant. Things could be worse. Read more
Behind one of the odder titles in recent memory lies a very good show, if not quite a great one. Pumpkin Scissors has a flawed final stretch and some elements that don’t quite work, but put those aside and what’s left is really original and endearing. It’s not about ludicrous magic powers or giant war ‘bots; it’s rooted in something resembling our world, and so there’s that much less distance between you and what’s going on.
The setup: The “Royal Empire” (an allegorical variant of post-war Germany, or maybe post-war Japan itself) has lost a war to one of its neighbors, the Republic of Frost. The shooting has stopped, but the Empire is still a wreck. Jobs are nowhere to be found. Hunger and despair are on every face, black markets are legion, and what’s left of the native army has lost its morale. To fight this grim picture, the army has established a special public-relations unit, the “Pumpkin Scissors” — but they’re widely regarded as a cheap publicity stunt, not an effective military unit.Read more
How long has it been since we’ve seen a really good animated samurai epic? Not a series, but a feature film? Apart from Ninja Scroll (which wasn’t to my taste), the animated Musashi (not yet seen by me) the middling Blade of the Phantom Master and a couple of other things that don’t even come immediately to mind, this is the first such production in ages. I had little doubt from the trailers and stills that it looked good, but it’s heartening to know the creators also gave us a story worth seeing through to the end. It’s not just a demo reel.
Stranger is set in a windy coastal stretch of feudal Japan, where peasants eke out hardscrabble existences by the seaside and wind-blown mountains. If you were a samurai, the best way to advance in the ranks as was to either a) kill as many of the other guys as possible or b) kill your own lord and declare yourself his replacement. It’s no country for old men — or young ones, for that matter. Small wonder the urchin Kotaro and his dog Tobimaru have turned to theft to survive, after the monastery where they were sheltered burned down. One day they find a visitor of sorts in the abandoned temple where they’ve been squatting: a handsome fellow, sporting both a sword — tied shut in its scabbard — and a rather diffident attitude. He’s not interested in robbing the kid; he just wants a roof over his head for a night so he isn’t sleeping in the rain. Read more
Now this wasn’t what I signed up for. I went into X-Cross thinking it would be a gory throwaway, and instead got something closer to Sam Raimi’s gleeful everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach. We start off in conventional horror/thriller territory, then roll on through action-comedy, black humor, cyber-thriller, and even girl-girl relationship flicks. Five movies for the price of one.
This could have been a ghastly mess, but instead it’s goofy fun. The whole thing’s been adapted from a novel (not yet in English) written by Nobuyuki Jōkō, with director Kenta Fukasaku (Yo-Yo Girl Cop, son of Kinji) at the helm. I’d been tempted to write him off as a featherweight before — his first movie was, sort of, Battle Royale II, which he took over when his father died and which stunk for reasons unrelated to who was at the helm. (I blame whoever was behind the typewriter.) X-Cross is no Battle Royale, but it’s definitely no Battle Royale II. It’s got absurd, offbeat energy oozing from every pore. Read more
Sometimes you’re better off dumping all pretenses of being a critic and just coming out and saying you like something a whole lot. So it goes with Shonen Onmyouji, because, well, guilty as charged: it has a bunch of things in it which I like a whole lot. It’s set in ancient Japan, with elegance and mystery to spare; it has courtly intrigue and diabolical magic aplenty; and it moves at a decent pace and actually feels like it goes places with its story. Triple play.
Much like the little beastie that sits on the hero’s shoulder throughout this series, there’s been this devilish whisper in my ear the whole time I’ve been pounding out this review. Sucker! You’re only saying nice things about it ‘cos you’re a pushover for historical fantasy, hissed that voice. Fine, smart guy, have it your way. I pushed right over for Otogi-Zoshi, even though technically that was only half a period piece. It was also, and more importantly, a killer show that I would gladly watch again any day of the week.
I also pushed over for Hakkenden, and Moribito, and Requiem from the Darkness, and Blade of the Immortal — although I’d opine those are all good-to-great shows by most any standard. Onmyouji’s a bit closer to the middle of the road — it’s definitely not as thought-provoking as Moribito or as atmospherically lush as Otogi-Zoshi — but I walked in skeptical and in the end was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Read more