I know I’m not alone in saying Memoirs of a Geisha annoyed the living daylights out of me. It was humorless, overwritten, fly-blown Hollywood schmaltz — half tinselly soap opera and half bogus exoticism, right down to the oh-so-sad shakuhachi flutes on the soundtrack. Talented people were involved both in front of and behind the camera, but starpower only goes so far, and Geisha’s stunt Asian casting only showed up the project all the more for being empty chintz. What did it say that none of the major female roles are played by actual Japanese, while just about all the major male roles are? That Michelle Yeoh and Ziyi Zhang and Li Gong outsell any Japanese actress you could name? Or that Hollywood still thinks actors (especially women) can still be generically and interchangeably “Asian” — which may not have been their intention, but sure feels like the end result?*
I fulminate about all this now because Sakuran is the anti-Geisha — a movie as brazen, hilarious, rollicking, on-target and emotionally honest as that other movie was incapable of being. It’s far from being forensically accurate — I seriously doubt Yoshiwara red-light houses had paper doors designed like stained-glass windows — but it’s spot-on in all the ways that matter. The best part of all is that it’s fun, in the sense that we’re seeing talented people sink their teeth into the material and play it up like they’re all getting away with something. Read more
It’s a cliché of movie criticism to say that a given film needs to be seen more than once. Yes, Shutter Island deserves multiple viewings, but not because the final stretch reveals that everything you think you know is wrong. Plenty of films do that without deserving a second take: after the jig is up, there’s nothing worth going back to. In the words of a metaphor I like quoting often, it’s like the boy who cuts his drum open to see what made it go bang. This one, you cut it open and there’s a whole new drum in there.
The top level of Shutter Island, the part that most people will watch on a basic entertainment level, has been adapted more or less directly from Dennis Lehane’s novel. The levels below that, which reveal themselves the second (third, fourth, etc.) time out, grow from things the film apparently treated only as background or additional color: the mindsets of post-WWII America; the U.S. as the moral victor of the war; and most of all the Pollyannaish positivism certainty of the psychology of the period, which was convinced broken minds could be repaired with a mere mechanical effort. Each level is shot through with the main character’s burning need to find the truth of himself and his world — both of them being (oh, irony) the very last things he wants to know. Read more
Is it wrong of me to want a movie like Suicide Manual to be more interesting, compelling, or (god help us) controversial than it actually is? It’s the sort of film where the story behind the film is more interesting than anything in it, and it’s all too clear the filmmakers were not bringing to the table much of their own insight or daring.
Back in 1993 there was a major stir in Japan when a fellow named Wataru Tsurumi published a book named The Complete Manual of Suicide, which was exactly what you’d think a book with that title would be: it listed a blunt assessment of the various suicide methods and their effectiveness. Many people were ostensibly worried that it might contribute to suicide in a country that has one of the highest rates for same throughout the industrialized world. The noise died down, though, but ten years later director Fukutani Osamu was allegedly inspired by the book to make an anti-suicide movie. The film has that much going for it: it’s against suicide, but without being much of anything else. Read more
I’m used to Takashi Miike working on multiple levels by now. He did this before with Great Yokai War, which was a kiddy movie in the guise of a satire of same … or maybe the other way around, depending on how old you are and how conscious you are of the wink-wink approach to such material.
Tatsunoko must have liked Yokai, ‘cos they put Miike in the driver’s seat for a live-action remake of their show Yatterman and gave him a budget that was probably the GNP of several small countries. What he gave them back was a mostly straight-up adaptation of the original, with physical gags galore and terrific set / costume / prop design — but with his trademark nudges-in-the-audience’s-ribs dialed down a bit. It’s just subversive enough to be funny, but not quite transcendent in the way the best of Miike’s movies seem to reach by not only poking fun at the goings-on but squeezing them until they popped. Read more