This is the Bond movie they should have made all along. Casino Royale brings the James Bond franchise to where it always needed to be; it's to Bond what Batman Begins (or perhaps Batman: Year One) was to that comic-book hero. If they never make another Batman movie I will not be unhappy, and if they never make another Bond film I will always have this one. Harlan Ellison once lavished praise on one of Philip Jose Farmer's stories in his Dangerous Visions collection by saying that it was "the best — no, make that the finest story in this book." That degree of praise was tailor-made for this film, as it's both the best and the finest of the Bonds thus far.
Nobody needs to be convinced of the diminishing returns of the last several Bond movies; they were typically big movers at the box office, but they were also tilting into self-parody. I didn't even bother with Die Another Day, and was on the verge of tuning the franchise out entirely when the Bond-merchants announced the next film would be Casino Royale. That and the new Bond was going to be Daniel Craig, who I had admired enormously in Layer Cake; he had the gritty, sober realism that the series badly needed a stiff shot of. I defended him as Bond sight unseen, and now that I have seen the film I don't regret it one bit. Royale was one of the first Bonds in many respects — the first one Ian Fleming wrote, and the first to be to be brought to the screen (in 1954, for TV's Climax Mystery Theater) — and so it makes conceptual sense to reboot the series by coming full circle in many ways. Read more
Before there was Otogi-zoshi, there was Kaidohmaru, a 50-minute feature that is to the longer series what Kurosawa’s Kagemusha was to his later Ran: a “dress rehearsal” of sorts. Both Otogi-zoshi and Kaidohmaru hail from the same animation house (the immensely accomplished Production I.G) and both sport the same gorgeous period-fantasy look, an admixture of CGI and hand-drawn animation that complement each other wonderfully. In fact, it’s essentially a prelude to the longer show, with details about how many of the characters ended up where they were at the beginning. If you like the shorter feature, seek out the longer one by all means.
Kaidohmaru (怪童丸, or strong youth) opens in the late 900s in the old capital of Kyoto, where pestilence and unrest have become unmanageable. The decadent lords who are little more than masters of ceremony are growing nervous, and armed gangs are roving the countryside. Among the nobles is little Kintoki, whom the others call “Kaidohmaru” — a girl raised as a boy with all of the training of a warrior to go with such a lifestyle. S/he doesn’t seem to miss being a woman — “Writing letters all day long doesn’t sound like my kind of life!” — and is simply happy to be near her lord and master, Minamoto Raiko, while protecting the capitol against incursions. Read more
There is a moment near the end of When a Woman Ascends the Stairs when the main character, Keiko (Hideko Takamine), a Tokyo bar hostess, is asked if she loves someone, and her response is: “I neither love him nor hate him.” Keiko has spent so much of her time and strength purging herself of emotion that when real love is finally offered to her, she has no idea what to do with it. For most of her adult life she has perched on barstools next to middle-aged men of all stripes — bankers and office-workers and industrialists — and poured their drinks and pretended to be more wifely to them than their actual wives. She has done this for years out of the hope that maybe she’ll be able to sock away enough money to open up her own bar — which, aside from marriage, is about the most a woman in her situation could expect to find. And, she reasons, who would want to marry her? Surely no one who is entirely honest with themselves.
Not as if Keiko presents a terribly appealing object of affection for any man, either. For years she’s worked this wretched job, pretending to be all things to all people (especially men), only to end up hopelessly in revolving debt. What money she’s been able to glean from it has not gone into saving up for her own place; it’s gone back into flashier kimonos, taxi rides home for her more loyal customers, a swank apartment (that is, swank by postwar Tokyo rabbit-hutch standards), and an apportion of cash sent back home to her mother and her brother. The latter faces prison time if Keiko can’t come up with even more cash to pay for a decent lawyer, and has a polio-crippled son in need of surgery and physical therapy. Keiko spends a month in their house after being hospitalized for an ulcer, but despite the bitterness and recrimination that flows freely between them she ends up covering their needs. If you end up back in debt, there’s always the chance you can work your way out of it; but to burn bridges with family in Japan is anathema. Read more
Baian the Assassin is an above-average example of the sort of TV fare that’s popular in Japan but not an animated production, which is what most American audiences are used to as far as such Japanese imports go. It’s something to file next to stuff like the Zatōichi movies or TV series, and it’s directly reminiscent of it in many ways: A man of a certain social status dispenses his own brand of justice in feudal Japan and makes sure the wicked come to a sticky end. In this case, the hero’s no a blind masseur, but a doctor, Baian-sensei (Ken Watanabe, whom most of us will know from The Last Samurai), whose clinic is always crowded with those in need of his aid. His other job is that of an assassin, where he uses his acupuncturist’s needles to inflict a death blow to those who have ground the innocent and helpless underfoot.
The fun thing about Baian (which, again, like Zatōichi, was adapted from a series of novels) is how it depicts its main character and relishes the little details of its setting just as much as the big ones. Baian gets all of his assignments through a go-between, the motojime, who pays him piles of money and describes his targets to him. If he doesn’t take the job, he can always give it to his friend Hikojiro, the toothpick maker — another assassin-by-night, whose killing specialty is a blowgun dart to the eye. Most of those marked for death are haughty samurai, but there are more than a few greedy merchants — both male and female — who get marked for one of Baian’s needles in the back of the neck.Read more