Well, you can’t say I didn’t try. After seeing director Masato Tsujioka’s first feature Lost By Dead and writing it off as a dog’s breakfast, I found he had made another movie, Divide. From the trailer, it looked like it had a better budget and more competence behind the camera. Oh, why not, I thought; it would be nice to see a director maturing and growing in front of my eyes. And so into my queue it went.
Yes, Divide is better than Lost By Dead. Very, very slightly better, as it sports incrementally improved production values and a more compact running time (it clocks in at exactly one hour). But that’s like saying a head cold is a step up from a case of smallpox. What few good ideas there are swimming around in this porridge of a movie are so incoherent and underdeveloped I almost wish they hadn’t bothered. In some ways, it’s easier to deal with a movie that makes no pretense of making sense than one which tries and bellyflops into the shallow end of the pool. Read more
Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) was — was — a cellist for a symphony orchestra. One day, after a performance to a mostly-empty concert hall, his boss fumblingly tells everyone “The orchestra is dissolved.” Not You’re fired, which would at least have some ring of honesty to it, but dissolved. So much for years of practice and discipline which started when he was a young boy. But life’s like that, and what matters is not that you fall but how you pick yourself back up again.
He has a plan, sort of. He and his wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue, Collage of Our Life) will move back to his childhood village at the seaside, and live rent-free in the house (actually, a converted coffeeshop) that his departed mother and estranged father left for them. His search for work turns up an ad for “assisting departures” with a company named “NK Agency”. It’s not a travel firm, though: NK is an abbreviation for nokan — “encoffining”, the art and ritual of dressing the dead for being placed into their coffin before burial or cremation. The boss of NK Agency, crusty Mr. Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki), is annoyed at the typo in the ad: “It’s not departures, it’s departed,” he snarls. But he takes one look at Kobayashi, senses someone who just needs something good in his life right now, and hires him on the spot. Read more
It’s a rare and wonderful thing when you see a film by a first-time director, made by people with no money and no moviemaking experience — and yet the passion they feel for what they do makes those limitations meaningless. The movie becomes both a receptacle and a transmitter for their energy, and you in turn become a receptacle for that energy as well.
I am not, however, talking about Lost by Dead, which leaves you feeling like a receptacle for something you flush away. It’s one shade off from being a full-blown spoof of bad indie filmmaking, but no: the director, Masato Tsujioka, was dead serious and completely earnest about making a gritty, downbeat noir in Tokyo’s underworld using a minimal budget. What he ended up with better resembles one of those dismal things on YouTube people Twitter about to each other with subject lines like Amateur Night in Japan? Read more
The opening scenes of Ichi, and indeed most of the first hour of the film, are so well-assembled the film itself seems to be holding its breath. A woman swathed in heavy furs stumbles her way through falling snow thick enough to drown in. She stumbles, and loses her cane, and from the way she gropes for it we can see that cane is her lifeline — not just in this storm, but every other time as well. She’s blind.
Next shot. She stands at the door of a house — an inn, maybe. She plays her shamisen, waiting for someone inside to hear. They open the door. They squint at her. Shoo her off. Slam the door in her face. She stands there for another long moment before dragging herself off into the snow again. This movie, I thought, is in no hurry: it’s willing to linger and make us feel what this woman feels.
And so the first half or so of Ichi unfolds, with the care and patience of a great samurai-era character study like Kurosawa’s Red Beard or Takashi Miike’s Sabu. Everything, from the elegiac and beautiful score by former Dead Can Dance singer Lisa Gerrard to even the abrupt bursts of violence (they’re the punctuation, not the sentences themselves), seems just right. Maybe this would turn out to be the samurai story that they never quite seem to be able to make as of late. Then the movie begins to walk backwards in its own steps, to retreat from being really great and settling instead for being merely pretty good. But hey, that’s a lot more than we end up with most of the time. Read more
sa·mu·rai n. 1: military nobility of feudal Japan; from verb meaning to wait upon or accompany a person in the upper ranks of society
cham·ploo n. 1: Okinawan term for “something mixed”
Attitude. Amazing how so much meaning can be soaked up into a single word. When someone says samurai attitude, or hip-hop attitude, you know what they mean. The former is Forty-Seven Ronin and Rising Sun and Shining Steel. The latter is Jump Around Y’All and Up In This Beeyotch and Cash Rules Everything Around Me. The two barely belong in the same sentence, let alone the same show. Well, here they are. Deal.
Samurai Champloo is all about how attitudes collide, how cultures and sensibilities mix and create something new. It is itself a whole great big jumble of things: a road movie, an anti-romantic triangle (most of the main characters can’t stand each other, hilariously so), an experiment in combining past and present aesthetic sensibilities, a period samurai adventure, a comedy, a drama, a stone cold classic. And it gets all the better each time you come back to it — deeper, smarter, and funnier. It’s not just a gimmick showcase.
Watch a DJ at work: he drops the needle seemingly at random, backs up, overlays beats from two records you’d never think to play on top of each other. The same thing happens here right from the first episode, where we start with an execution in progress and then jump back 300 years — er, 24 hours — to see How It All Got Started. And it starts almost like a setup for a joke: These two guys walk into a bar … Read more
Note:This movie is not related to the manga Ōoku.
When I talk to other fans of movies from Asia, they praise the ambition and fearlessness of the best such films — how they aim higher and shoot farther than their pusillanimous Hollywood counterparts. Ōoku, however, is proof that filmmaking in Japan can be just as middlebrow and unambitious as, oh, the last four Russell Crowe movies you sat through.
It’s a crowd-pleasing soap opera adapted from an equally soapy TV series, and it’s been filmed with orders of magnitude more attention to the costuming and authenticity of the props than to the psychology of the characters. And it’s frustrating, enormously so, because a far more interesting story lurks under the skin of this sleeve-wringing tear-jerker. To bring that out would have required a screenwriter and a director with some tangible curiosity about human nature. The director here, Toru Hayashi, came straight out of television — and boy, does it ever show. Read more
Jun is a young man in his twenties who runs a bar near the airport, a tiny cube plopped down in the middle of a desolate stretch of land where the only things growing are the weeds in the cracks of the asphalt. He has a girlfriend, Keiko, a playful young woman who works for him in the bar and has a dreamy, off-center manner about her that could be simplemindedness, or calculated seduction.
Jun’s parents are convinced it’s seduction. They run a truck-tire repair shop in another part of town, and have nothing but suspicion for Keiko. Jun’s father, in particular, is most opposed to anything between them. He has his reasons: he hired a private detective to look into Keiko’s past, and found sordidness that he wants no one in his family, especially not his son, to be involved with. Jun resents the intrusion, but Dad’s holding the strings: he owns the bar, and he can dismiss Jun just as easily as he would any other employee. There is far more resentment smoldering inside Jun’s skin than we’re allowed to see immediately, but we get our first big clue about that when the next shot after the argument with his father is Jun standing over the other man’s corpse with a blood-stained knife. Read more
There are few things in this job better than starting a series you know nothing about, and quickly realizing it’s a winner. So it went with The Story of Saiunkoku’s first set, and so it has gone with the full nine-disc coffer of the first season, courtesy of the good folks at FUNimation. What might seem from the ad copy and the design work to be pure romantic fluff is anything but. It has the depth and complexity of an epic novel: it keeps you absorbed all the way through, and when it’s done you want more. (Anime: Drugs Would Be Cheaper.)
Set in a fictitious country patterned mainly after Imperial China at its most colorful and turbulent, Saiunkoku’s main character isn’t a warrior or a king — rather, it’s the daughter of a once-great family that has since fallen on hard times and disfavor. Her name is Shurei Hong, and she’s been put into the difficult position of having to keep the domestic wheels turning in lieu of her hapless father. Money is tight, opportunities scarce, and options limited — especially for a woman in a society largely dominated and steered by men. Small wonder that when she’s offered a chance to better herself, she leaps for it, and ends up vaulting clear over the rooftops. Read more
“Prawns,” we call them. They’re a horde of aliens, a couple of million strong, half-starved and left for dead in a giant mothership that floated to a stop just over Johannesburg. That was twenty years ago, and since then they’ve been dumped into a shantytown and segregated at gunpoint from the rest of humanity. Not that the rest of humanity wants anything to do with them except goggle at these spindly, tentacle-faced monsters from behind loops of razor wire. Their welfare has since been relegated to the MNU Corporation, who seem more interested in the aliens’ biologically-enhanced weapons than in letting them live in anything more hospitable than a slum.
It all sounds like a slightly grittier retake on Alien Nation, the not-very-good movie (but surprisingly good TV series) which started with roughly the same idea and then quickly ditched it for a formula cops-and-drugs story. District 9 doesn’t make that mistake. It is daring and intelligent and reckless all the way through. It also pulls off a neat trick with all that ambition: its best and smartest ideas are wrapped up inside the kind of audience-pleasing action that all too often become substitutes for those things. I was wondering when we’d get another movie that would sit comfortably in the same company as other maverick SF / social commentary films like Battle Royale, and here we are. Read more