I didn’t expect a movie named Samurai Chicks to be much good, and I was right. That said, it does have the benefit of being cheap and oddball, which is better than being expensive and boring, I suppose. It does not have any samurai in it, strictly speaking, although there are chicks — albeit ones who act more like ninja than samurai. I don’t know if that classifies as false advertising, but just so you know.
What’s genuinely interesting about the movie — or rather, what is more interesting than what happens in the movie — is how it was put together as a political allegory and a statement of identity for its director, Mari Asato. On coming to Tokyo from her native Okinawa, she saw Namie Amuro dancing on the big screen in Shibuya, and shook her head at all the Amuro clones in the vicinity — as if Amuro was sending her a message only she could decipher. Read more
Well, at least I can say Ninja Assassin does something I’ve never seen before: It makes ninja boring. It’s to 2009 what The Hunted was to 1995, without the saving graces of Yoko Shimada or Yoshio Harada. When it’s not boring it’s annoying, and when it’s not annoying it’s downright incurious — which makes it boring all over again.
The ninja assassin of the title is, I assume, Raizo (Korean pop star Rain), one of a secret network of assassins that has existed for centuries Their master, Ozunu (Eighties martial-arts star Shō Kosugi) recruits orphans into the family, trains them into soulless killers, then hires them out for the fixed cost of 100 pounds of gold per kill. The training is what you’d expect: a brutal master teaching his students in total seclusion, hardships galore, one trial by fire after another (sometimes literally), heartbreak, and finally Raizo striking out on his own. When Europol agent Mika Coretti (Naomie Harris) discovers the network, she becomes their next target. Raizo, the apostate, steps in to protect her from his own former clan brothers, and the digital blood spews. Read more
High Kick Girl! is what happens when great martial arts meets mediocre filmmaking. The “High Kick Girl” in question, real-life karate champ Rina Takeda, deserved to have a movie made that featured her talents. I just wish it hadn’t been this movie, which features even less plot than Ong-Bak, has all the personality of an industrial film, and becomes the one thing a movie like this should never become: Boring as hell.
Takeda plays a teen martial-arts wunderkind named Kei, chafing under the strict tutelage of her master. She has a predilection for finding trouble: in one of the first scenes, she casually strolls into a class full of black belts and takes them all down with her trademark boot to the face. When she’s invited to join a gang of underground martial artists named the Destroyers, with promises of good money, she naively accepts. She doesn’t realize it’s all a trap to help flush her sensei out into the open, and soon it’s her and her master against the Destroyers. One wonders why they didn’t simply, you know, follow her to class to find him, but most people watching this will have nodded off long before they come up with such complaints. Read more
What a charming movie this is, and at the same time a deep and thoughtful one. Stormy Night adapts a children’s book from Japan into an animated film of remarkable intelligence and keen wit, in much the same way Kiki’s Delivery Service was brought to the screen. It’s a perfect example of how a movie can be for all ages without being a “kid’s film”, and for that reason it’s a shame it’s never been released domestically.
The story: Somewhere out in the wilderness, two animals take refuge in a decrepit old barn to sit out a thunderstorm. One is Mei (Hiroki Narimaya), a young goat with a gentle, naïve attitude towards life. The other is the wolf Gav (Shido Nakamura, the voice for Ryuuk in Death Note), a bit of a buffoon, always thinking with his stomach, a bit of a coward. Both are terrified of the storm, and out of fear they talk to each other. In the dark, all they can hear is the other one’s voice, providing reassurance and company. They’re more similar than different: they have the same fears, the same hopes, the same fond nostalgia of one kind or another. They promise to meet again, and use the passphrase “Stormy Night” to recognize each other. Then comes the day of their meeting, in broad daylight, and both of them are flabbergasted. This is the guy I was talking to? Read more
How can I not take to heart a film this gleefully bonkers? Battle Heater is about a man-eating radiator, a description which all by itself could well tell you whether or not you want to see it. It’s the sort of movie where a small budget and limited resources are made up for with loving attention to detail and a sense of humor — the spiritual godfather to current stuff like Machine Girl and Tokyo Gore Police, although it’s far less gratuitously nasty than either of those films. (Yes, for some people, that is a bonus.)
The “heater” in question is actually a kotatsu, a table-shaped space heater outfitted with a cloth to cover one’s legs. It’s a common fixture in Japanese homes, as much a symbol of comfort there as a bowl of chicken soup or a cup of hot chocolate is here. A junk collector and handyman (veteran Akira Emoto, who’s been in many movies reviewed here) stumbles across a kotatsu that seems destined for the scrapheap, and takes it home to repair it. He’s one of those folks who can’t bear to throw anything away, and so his apartment makes Fibber’s closet look downright tidy. Read more
It’s a little difficult to convey the disappointment that landed like bricks dropped on the heads of many moviegoers after William Friedkin’s Sorcerer appeared in 1977. The director of The French Connection and The Exorcist had spent something like $20 million and three years on a movie that for its first half an hour didn’t even have any dialogue in English; a film which was (to most of them) a murk of existential dread and grimy Third World naturalism, not cheery escape; and which disappeared from theaters with barely a murmur to make room for Star Wars and Smokey and the Bandit.
Thirty years later, Sorcerer has held up so well the date on the film almost seems wrong. Then again, it was a product of a moment in the studio system when films of remarkable grit and cynicism (Exorcist and Connection among them) were routinely greenlit as a way to provide audiences with things they couldn’t get on TV. Its globe-hopping storyline and middle-of-nowhere terrain make it feel that much more timeless: it could have been set in any of the past forty to fifty years without needing to change many details. And it features easily the most nerve-wracking second half of any film ever made, although the hour that comes before it is no slouch either. Read more
Snot Rocket and Super Detective. I’m going to just sit here for a moment and say that title out loud a few times. Snot Rocket and Super Detective. No, the original Japanese title probably doesn’t have that lovely alliteration to it, but I am savoring the way the words mash together. Kinda like half-eaten cereal falling out of a baby’s mouth.
Snot Rocket and Super Detective (that’s the last time I type that title, honest) actually provides us with the answer to what I imagine is an oft-asked question: What were Tak Sakaguchi and Yudai Yamaguchi up to before firing bullets at each other head-on in Versus and commandeering UFOs in the live-action Cromartie High School? Among other things, this … thing, which looks like it was filmed with a camera found in a box of cereal and probably cost about as much as a box of cereal. It’s crude (not just technically but aesthetically as well, as if the Snot Rocket in the title wasn’t a tipoff), juvenile, haphazard, random, inexplicable, and often quite funny. Read more
We are now, I think, well into the post-modern phase of superhero stories, where making such a thing automatically counts as commentary on the very genre it inhabits. These things have been done straight so many times there’s almost no choice left but to throw the audience a screwball. Good, I say.
Big Man Japan lobs a screwball that’s a parody of a superhero genre peculiar to Japan, but which has enjoyed overseas success at least in part for its camp value. I speak of sentai, those shows where people transform spontaneously into fifty-foot-high dispensers of justice, wrestle with guys wearing foam-rubber lobster costumes, and knock over miniature scale models of Tokyo on backlot sets. Here, the parody is nothing more than taking everything that happens on these shows to their cruelest and most logical extreme. If we did have such superheroes, wouldn’t they be getting slapped with massive lawsuits every time they went to town on the Monster of the Week? Read more
This past week I watched two movies that could not be more diametrically opposed. One was The Hurt Locker, which reminded me that computer graphics and spastic millisecond edits are no substitute for standbys like strong characterization and fascinating subject matter. The other was Battle Girl Vs. The Living Dead In Tokyo Bay, the title alone of which tells you what’s up. Just typing that title alone put a stupid smile on my face.
Battle Girl came out of an odd moment in the Japanese film industry, when the video market was booming and production companies were slapping together movies that jumped on every bandwagon that had wheels, all to fill shelf space at rental stores. For indie filmmakers it was good news: they could often find money for films that might not otherwise have seen the light of day, and a lot of really wild stuff — Death Powder, or the Evil Dead Trap flicks — made it to the screen because of all that. Battle Girl is a the lower end of the spectrum: it’s notable mostly for female pro wrestler Cutey Suzuki in the lead role, and for being out of print for decades. You’ve heard of B pictures; here’s a B rental. Read more
What sort of film do you think would be made from the story of a Catholic priest who discovers he’s been turned into a vampire? Given that the director is Chan-wook Park, he who gave us Oldboy and Sympathy for Mr. / Lady Vengeance, the answer is not “a horror film” or even “a blackly comic love story”, although you could use either label easily enough. Even calling this a vampire movie is a mistake, even if the main character does indeed drink blood to survive and has to stay out of the sun lest he roast.
Thirst is closest in spirit to stuff like some of David Cronenberg’s films (say, The Fly), where the gore and violence are paired up with cynical social commentary and insights into human nature. For about two-thirds of its running time, it’s brilliant. Then it begins to run long, to grow aimless and undisciplined, to substitute an audacious original idea with a bunch of progressively less-interesting replacements, and for the first time with a Chan-wook Park film I felt myself growing impatient. Read more
There are two ways to talk about Astro-Boy, each a little incomplete, so I must speak of both. Way #1 is as an Osamu Tezuka fan, seeing his work adapted for the big screen for a primarily English-speaking audience. Way #2 is to just see it as something created for and marketed to younger viewers. The first way, for me, lies disappointment. The second way … well, it’s a little harder to say since I’m not seven anymore.
And yet I can see kids in the single digits enjoying this immensely, while their parents at least don’t feel like they need to nap with their eyes open. It has energy and spirit and its heart in the right place, although I know I’m forever doomed to see it as a gateway to the main event: the original comics, and of course everything else Tezuka did. It’s not like we could expect them to make Ode to Kirihito, but it’s also not like choosing Astro-Boy means they settled for lesser source material. Read more