Tokyo Rampage is an example of a movie that’s not very good but remains interesting despite itself. It’s set in modern-day Tokyo and deals with one of the perennial subjects of filmmakers there: disaffected youth and sociopathic Tokyo criminals. The director in question, Toshiaki Toyoda, has made at least one other truly outstanding movie about that first subject — Blue Spring — but this time around he’s dealing with a story that’s a good deal more arid and far harder to make interesting to an outside audience. He does give it his college best, though, and what he ends up with is enough to hold our attention for its running time but not much more than that.
Rampage opens with Arano (Kōji Chihara), a sullen young man wandering around Tokyo, sunken down in his overcoat and lugging around an airline bag full of weapons. He has some strange, undefined hatred of yakuza, so severe and deeply ingrained that he stabs one to death for the grand crime of scalping theater tickets. The dead gangster’s associate is Kamiju (Onimaru), a long-haired punk only slightly older than Arano himself but with a small crew of hangers-on. Kamiju’s not exactly living large, though: most of his work consists of enforcing collections for his pimp boss, and he spends a good deal of time and effort ducking calls from his mother. Arano is wilder than him or any of his buddies, and they find that downright intimidating where they haven’t found much of anything intimidating before. Read more
Funny, touching, enthralling, horrifying, and finally heartbreaking, Face is precisely the kind of movie I love most to encounter and then tell others about. No category will encompass it succinctly; it’s an original. One critic called it the greatest Japanese film of the last decade or more, and it’s not hard to see why. It tells a story of great ambition in such a modest, careful, understated — and often hilarious — way that its greatest shocks and most powerful moments sneak up on you from behind and stay with you for a long time.
I wonder if some of Face’s sheer bite and sassy vigor comes from the fact that it’s based, however loosely, on a true story: a bar hostess murdered a co-worker, fled, and hid out for years on end before finally being caught. But that seems unfair to director Junji Sakamoto and his lead performer, a stage actress named Naomi Fujiyama. Sakamoto brings a strange combination of quirky black humor and blunt pathos to this story, and Fujiyama’s performance is so unaffected and natural that we forget a camera is watching. Read more
After Hideo Nakata and the Killer Videotape of Ring, we now get Kiyoshi Kurosawa (of Cure) with a Killer Web Site. Actually, Kairo (or Circuit, as it has been rendered into English) is much smarter and maybe even a little deeper than such a gimmicky description would lead you believe. It doesn't completely work, though — its bag of ideas is so eclectic that it borders on being schizoid, and by the time the movie is over we're not only not sure what was really going on, but why it would have mattered one way or the other. That said, Kairo is an interesting attempt to make a thinking person's horror movie, and it does pack a few jolts.
A small flower company has subcontracted for some computer work, which is badly overdue. When the employees enter the guy's apartment to find out what's wrong, they find only a strange black stain on the wall — roughly in the form of a man — and a floppy disk with an even weirder image on it. It's a picture of the guy, apparently snapped by a webcam, facing his computer, on which is ... the same picture? Asking for coherency from this movie is probably a fool's errand, though. Read more
Yuji and Mamoru work in a hand-towel factory, a futureless job that seems perfectly suited to two such futureless people. Yuji (Jō Odagiri) is impulsive and confused: he needs someone to guide him in life, and Mamoru (Tadanobu Asano), his calculating and somehow sinister buddy, has taken that role. Mamoru’s one big hobby outside of work is keeping a live a pet jellyfish, slowly acclimating it to fresh water so that it might survive somewhere other than the ocean. Yuji has no such hobbies or interests, and bounds from one distraction to the other. Then Mamoru engineers a tragedy that almost ensnares Yuji as well, gets sent to prison, and entrusts the other man with his “project.”
This is the setup for Bright Future, director Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s most recent film [as of 2005], and after having seen several of his movies I think I am beginning to find a pattern in his work. His movies all concern themselves with somewhat antisocial characters, all trying to undertake an ambitious project of some kind which usually ends in disaster either for all concerned (or the world as a whole). Read more
The best movies seem effortless, and Charisma embodies its intentions so effortlessly it almost seems like an accident. Here is a movie about a struggle over a tree, of all things, and yet somehow the director and the cast have managed to invest it with a fascination and an urgency that most movies never reach. It’s not a simpleminded environmentalist’s sermon, but a deep and troubling movie about the place of the individual in society, among many other things.
Charisma opens with a policeman, Yabuike (Kōji Yakusho) being brought into a hostage situation. The whole thing goes horribly wrong, with both the hostage (an MP) and the captor being shot dead, and Yabuike is suspended from the force. Instead of heading home, however, he wanders into a forest and becomes quite lost. There, he comes across a single gnarled tree in a clearing, the object of study by a nature survey team.
The tree is an object of controversy. The nature team is convinced the tree’s root system is destroying the forest around it. There is also an apparently deranged young man who violently shoos everyone else away from the tree and cares for it, in a kind of guerilla-environmentalist fashion. He also cares for an old, senile woman, the widow of a sanitarium that has since fallen into disrepair and which he is using as his squat. Other figures show up, including the cheerful young Mitsuko, a botanist, and her slightly dizzy younger sister Chizuru, all of whom provide Yabuike either with help or a sounding board of sorts for his understanding of the situation. Read more
There have been many stories about people encountering an exact double of themselves, but my favorite approach to this situation is the social one: we’re never quite so weird as when we’re seeing ourselves in a mirror. Polish author Stanisław Lem had great fun with this idea many times in various guises — he had his heroes bumping into himself (himselves?) due to botched time travel systems or other cosmic mishaps. Doppleganger, a movie by the intriguing Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, uses the social approach: we’re never so much an ass as when we’re trying to one-up ourselves.
Doppelganger opens with a scene that’s like something out of an X-Files episode teaser. A young woman sees someone who looks like her brother on the way home, and then finds him already waiting for her when she gets there. Not long after, she gets a phone call: Apparently her brother killed himself by jumping in front of a train. Who, then, is the fellow in her brother’s room, typing merrily away on his computer? His double, or doppelganger? Read more
For the first three-fourths of Retribution, I thought Kiyoshi Kurosawa had given us the best film of his career apart from Cure. Then, in the last fifteen to twenty minutes of the film, he managed to completely undo that feeling. The conclusion to this film is so drawn-out and messy and tacked-on, it feels like a different writer and director took over to finish the job.
It’s all the more annoying because everything before that is quite solid and suspenseful, and provokes the kind of wonder and unease that the director’s other, better films all did. It’s just that after a certain point, Kurosawa starts falling back on tropes he’s used elsewhere to different effect, and they don’t belong here.Read more
Cure conjures up the kind of primal dread that I thought the movies had forgotten about. Its shocks and scares are like sleight-of-hand: the real effects of the movie are only felt long after it is over. I have spoken to other people who have seen it and come to the same conclusions, and the first things they all said after it was over were not “Wow!” but “Wait, I think I need to see that again…” I have watched the movie four times since I first ran across it almost ten years ago and I’m still puzzling it out, but that’s not a bad thing.
The abstract for Cure reads like the plotline of any number of overheated serial-killer movies that have come and gone in the wake of SE7EN and Silence of the Lambs. Takabe, a detective (Kōji Yakusho), has been assigned to a case involving a series of murders, each committed by completely disparate people but each with the exact same methodology: the victims have a large X-like mark cut into their necks. Even stranger, the killers seem to have had no rage or particular incentive for the crime: it simply happened, like “the work of the devil”, in the words of the detective’s partner. A young schoolteacher kills his wife, a policeman shoots his partner in the back of the head — all without motive, or even much in the way of caring.Read more
Eraserhead is best seen, not described. And yet, in the fifteen years since first seeing David Lynch’s first feature film, thanks to a tape from a local rental place, I’ve tried to do just that over and over again for the sake of all those who haven’t yet seen it. The fact that it was so difficult to just find the film in the first place only made it all the more frustrating; a prospective audience could hear my words, but not learn for themselves what I meant. The VHS was hopelessly out of print, a rare Japanese LaserDisc pressing changed hands for ungodly sums of money, and the movie itself was so dark and low-contrast that even first-generation bootlegs were unwatchable. The only way to really see the movie was to go watch it in a theater, whenever a local cinema had a print of it. My father and I were lucky enough to catch it in a downtown New York art-house that has since closed due to spiraling rents and declining audiences. The battered and splicy condition of the print — and the puddles of water on the theater floor — made the film all the more eerie.
Now that Eraserhead has been finally reissued in director-sanctioned DVD and Blu-ray Disc editions, I don’t feel bad about urging people to see a movie that has been a massive cultural influence for the better part of three decades. Almost every horror/fantasy film of ambition made since the 1980s — Pi; The Shining; Begotten; Clean, Shaven — has been influenced by Eraserhead, and not in terms of its plot or themes but in terms of its feel. As many other people have said, it’s the closest thing anyone has yet achieved to putting a nightmare on film — not just in terms of the darkness and the sensations of dread, but also the disconnected logic and leaps of fantasy that govern dreams as a whole. Most horror films scare us with images of corpses or innards; Eraserhead gives us nothing short of the void itself.Read more
For the first third or so of its running time, Sway leads us astray so well that by the time it closes around its real subject, we don’t mind. It’s only towards the end that we realize it was never digressing. It begins as a drama about distances between family members — like a Japanese version of The Ice Storm, maybe — and then turns with startling single-mindedness into a Rashōmon-like story of murder and guilt. And even that’s not the real story, either.
The first act, again, is all setup, but of character and not for plot. We see two brothers, Takeru (Jō Odagiri) and Minoru (Teruyuki Kagawa). Handsome Takeru has a career as a photographer, tools around in a vintage car, wears red leather pants, and affects an air of gentle detachment everywhere. Minoru, homely and reticent, is far more “conventional” — bowing, smiling, slaving away at the crummy little gas station he’s been running in their hometown for years, still living at home with his father. Read more