Tag: japan

Movie Review: Hoshi o ou kodomo (Children Who Chase Lost Voices) (2011)

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Seen: On blu-ray on our projector set-up.

I realize I’ve never actually reviewed any of his films on here, but know that I really love and respect the films of Makoto Shinkai. He’s a terrific animator and visionary artist, and I like how his works are all kind of sad and tinged with longing. It gets to me. His latest feature, Children Who Chase Lost Voices (aka Journey to Agartha) is a bit of a change for him in that it is mostly high fantasy, and works much more in the Miyazaki vein than his other films, but it still retains some of his signature as a storyteller and artist. The plot revolves around Asuna, a hardworking preteen loner who briefly befriends a mysterious stranger. She discovers he is from a mythical land known as Agartha, a kind of underworld where all the old gods fled after people stopped believing in them, along with some human groups who followed them. Asuna unintentionally breaks into their world with her grieving teacher, who hopes to resurrect his dead wife with the land’s power. He and Asuna move through Agartha, generally unwelcome among the locals but managing to pick up a couple of friends (and several terrifying enemies). Asuna is unsure of her ultimate goal, but feels it is important that she somehow find closure for both recent and long-ago losses.

It can’t be avoided: this movie feels derivative of Miyazaki. Its imagery, its setting, its overall story and characters- they can all be easily related back to the influential Ghibli director. And I’ll admit that was a little frustrating, coming from a filmmaker like Shinkai whom I associate with individuality and experimentation. It is also, however, in keeping with his general themes and mood, though aimed at a younger audience than his earlier films. Amidst the fantastical visuals and mythological creatures, the film dwells thoughtfully on issues of mortality and loss, and it is clear that Shinkai is using this somewhat over-familiar concept and unreal setting to underscore the realities of his characters. Their situation is unreal, but their resolution born out of grief feels true. Moving along at an easygoing pace, Shinkai develops their stories gradually while peppering in action sequences and memorably surreal surprises. For the most part, though, I think he just really wanted to paint the sky. There are a lot of lingering shots of breathtakingly gorgeous day- and night-time vistas here, and it just blows my mind how beautiful it all is and how soft and inviting and detailed Shinkai makes his worlds. It’s the kind of film you can drink up and keep within you for a bit, instead of just watch.

Admittedly I didn’t all-out love this film, it’s overlong and just didn’t have the spark of originality I was hoping for. I’ve seen some people calling it a rip-off, but I don’t think that’s fair. It’s more just influenced by Miyazaki and they are both pulling from similar mythological/cultural sources. Overall it is a beautiful film, but the plotting is a little clunky at parts and a few narrative points didn’t quite come together (like, where did Asuna’s dad get the crystal key thing?). I do think it’s an interesting addition to Shinkai’s filmography, mostly because with Miyazaki’s retirement there’s some question as to how that void in critically-acclaimed, family-friendly fantasy anime will be filled, and I hadn’t really considered him a candidate for that area. But he can obviously do it, and still add his own adult themes and visual flair. I’m definitely interested to see how his work advances, and will be revisiting his earlier films soon.

4/5

Pair This Movie With: A like-minded Miyazaki would be good, especially Princess Mononoke, Castle in the Sky, or Nausicaa. Alternatively there’s always room for more Shinkai, like The Place as Promised in Our Early Days or 5 Centimeters Per Second.

Movie Review: Wild Zero (1999)

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Seen: On dvd on our projector set-up, rented from Hollywood Express in Cambridge.

I know a movie is cool when the dudes at my local rental place Hollywood Express aren’t familiar with it, I felt pretty cool myself for stumping them. I know they must have been really impressed and will probably want to be my best friend now. Yup. Commissioned by my friend Ben to make a gig poster for Guitar Wolf, the band starring in Wild Zero, I was keen to see this film as soon as possible both for inspiration and because it sounded fucking RAD. Basically invading aliens are causing the human dead to rise (Plan 9-style) and it’s up to punk band Guitar Wolf, their biggest fan Ace (Masashi Endô), and badass arms dealer Yamazaki (Haruka Nakajo) to take down this unexpected zombie army. It’s all in the name of love, as Ace meets sweet and shy Tobio (Kwancharu Shitichai) right before the attack, and fights to save her if he can. Meanwhile Guitar Wolf’s vengeful ex-manager the Captain (Makoto Inamiya) is tracking the group down with a buttload of weapons, totally unaware of the whole zombie thing.

Between the zombies, the rock and roll, the aliens, the frenetic storytelling, the hyper-stylization, the impressive attention to hair care, and the high body count, Wild Zero definitely excels in the “ridiculous” category. It’s a loopy, loopy movie and you know that’s just the kind of thing I like. The story itself is all over the place, with characters running back and forth between various locations and half-forgotten subplots, and audiences are likely to forget there’s even an alien invasion forthcoming until UFO’s are hovering directly above our heroes’ heads. The script is hilarious, juggling over the top dialogue with earnest characters and a bit of a heartfelt message thrown in there. I loved the low budget effects, totally unexpected weaponization of musical instruments, and frequent outbursts of ROCK N ROLLLLLLL. I also appreciated the overall weirdness, because honestly what even is happening here? I have no idea. And that’s great.

With Guitar Wolf’s members oozing cool, Ace making goofy faces all the time, Captain sporting a range of hot pants, I found most of the characters extremely entertaining. To no one’s surprise, Yamazaki was my favorite, because she was a take-no-shit lady who happened to hold a huge cache of weapons AND ALSO wore a super ludicrous outfit the whole time. So she was badass while making me laugh, what a neat lady. I also have to say (and spoiler alert here, I guess, if you care about the film’s plot?), I thought it was cool that a trans* character became a central romantic plot point. At first when Ace learns that his new love Tobio has a penis, he freaks out and I was like “Aw man, can we not have this turn into a transphobic joke?” but then Guitar Wolf pops up to act as Ace’s spiritual guide, and yells at him because love knows no borders, nationalities, or genders! Ace realizes he loves Tobio no matter what, and spends the rest of the movie trying to save her from zombies, and they end up happily ever after! It’s like, the trans* thing becomes a non-issue once Ace just accepts it. A totally unexpected but definitely welcome part of this movie, I’d say.

Anyway, great job, Wild Zero. You’ve got rock and roll and zombies and magic and once in a while aliens, plus lots of jokes. And a guitar that’s secretly a katana. There is that too.

4.5/5

Pair This Movie With: More weird movies! At various points I thought of Repo Man, Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare, and Gregg Araki films. I also think a fun pairing would be Rock n’ Roll High School, since Guitar Wolf is definitely channeling The Ramones a bit here.

PS It must be said, FUCK all of the transphobic, misogynist, sexist assholes who have written about this movie online. I was trying to find Yamazaki’s character name because I couldn’t remember it but I wanted to talk about her, and I found myself wading through a shit ton of awful reviews of this movie (none of which named her, by the way) that were laden with so much prejudiced and offensive commentary, it made me want to cry. Everyone is awful.

Movie Review: Kakushi-toride no san-akunin (The Hidden Fortress) (1958)

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Seen: On dvd on my tv, rented from netflix.

So I’ve been working in a museum shop where we have a Japanese exhibit going, so we have some Miyazaki and Kurosawa DVDs for sale, and I’ve had The Hidden Fortress playing on silent on the tv behind me for a while which constantly reminds me I’ve never seen it. That, and the number of customers who sidle up to me to drop the “Did you know this movie is the basis for Star Wars?!” as if that bit of well-known trivia will impress me. Hah! Anyway, Kurosawa’s adventure tale follows the experience of two bumbling peasants (Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara) returning from a war, who stumble upon a famous general (Toshiro Mifune) and his mysterious charge (Misa Uehara) while in the mountains. They team up to transport a large cache of gold found there, moving through enemy territory to make it back to their own province. But vicious enemies, mistrust, secrets, and most of all greed will make their destination that much more difficult to reach.

Kurosawa’s earnest attempt at a straight-up adventure film, The Hidden Fortress is a fun, fairly light slice of storytelling that aims for comedy but excels more with its exciting plot and likable characters. The central pair of Tahei and Matashichi (the proto-C-3PO and R2-D2) offers the narrative a point of view, but their comedic relief function becomes somewhat tired as the film progresses. They’re nothing more than caricatures, basically just idiots motivated by greed and self-interest, and their over the top physical humor wears thin eventually. Luckily the actual heroes are really interesting and this is mostly their story once things get going. I loved Mifune as the hardened General Rokurata Makabe, with those wild eyes and passionate exclamations. And of course I loved the fierce-as-fuck Misa Uehara as Princess Yuki. When she’s not standing authoritatively with legs spread and a whipping cane in her hands, she’s yelling every single one of her lines and it is excellent. I wish she didn’t have to pretend to be mute for part of the movie but then it does lead to some funny, intriguing scenes with Tahei and Matashichi.

The script is complex but entertaining, the action moves steadily, the settings are fantastic, and of course the visuals are thoughtful and compelling. For me the only failing is the unnecessary focus on comedy in the peasant characters, who spend a lot of time stumbling around a war zone and making doofy faces in the first half hour or so. They’re funny guys and I didn’t mind their presence in general, but there is far too much time devoted to their less-than-gripping exploits. It’s a strong enough story that we don’t need all the humorous asides to keep things upbeat. Plus they kind of sucked as people and all their small-mindedness and greed and lighthearted considerations of rape didn’t exactly endear them to me.

4/5

Pair This Movie With: I mean, it’s obviously gonna be Star Wars, right?

Movie Review: Onibaba (1964)

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Seen: On dvd on our projector set-up, rented from netflix.

So a thing about my summer job is that we have Japanese movies showing without sound on a tv, so I’m like always in the mood to watch Japanese movies now. I bumped Onibaba up my netflix queue since it fulfilled those needs plus it’s a horror movie I’ve been meaning to see for a while. Set during a civil war in the fourteenth century, the film delves into the lives of those left behind when all able-bodied men were drafted into feudal armies. A mother (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) have taken to slaughtering wayward soldiers who tread through their wetland community’s tall grasses, and selling off their armor and weaponry in exchange for food. They are hardened and cold-hearted, but they get by together. When male neighbor Hachi (Kei Satô) returns from the front claiming their man is dead, their dynamic gradually shifts. Hachi aims to seduce the daughter, and she is amenable to re-awakening her own sexual pursuits and perhaps gaining some independence from her overbearing mother-in-law. Desperate to hold on to her one remaining family member, the mother dons a dead samurai’s demon mask in an effort to frighten the girl away from Hachi.

Though billed as a horror movie and advertised with horrific demon imagery, Onibaba isn’t so much about the supernatural. It focuses more on the horrors of wartime scarcity and despair, of the desperation suffered by soldiers and citizens alike. The unnamed mother and daughter are introduced as vicious killers, silently and systematically attacking unsuspecting soldiers and dragging their stripped-down bodies to a mysterious bottomless pit. They hunt, they kill, they steal, and then they gorge themselves animalistically on a pot of rice before collapsing in a shared bed within their straw hut, sweaty and exhausted from their wordless escapade. Like, what a fucking fantastic opening. I couldn’t even deal with all the feral misandry being thrown at me. In 1964! And then the rest of the movie is basically an exploration of the sexual and emotional needs of these women and how they are grasping wildly for self-sustenance and self-realization.

Writer/director Kaneto Shindô takes his time building up to the all-out scares, quietly establishing an eerie, unknowable setting in the marshlands, with tall waving grasses that seem to knowingly observe the actions of the human players. The jazz/taiko drum combination score adds to the uncanny feel of the place, as does the use of slow-motion and shot repetition. It’s a gorgeous film visually, eventually employing memorably creepy imagery that settles in perfectly with the already-unsettling locations. What really makes Onibaba scary is how universal it felt despite its very Japanese origins and iconography. These women could exist in any war-torn country, abandoned by their man and scrounging for survival. Their codependent relationship grown out of need is understandable, just exaggerated through an added supernatural element.

Ok, it’s a horror movie, sure, but also… not really? It excels as a character study, with Nobuko Otowa standing out especially as the mother. Her hard, cold stare and brazen sexuality are matched only by her honest affection for her daughter-in-law, whose maturation into womanhood pulls at their frayed familial bond. I loved how open and non-judgmental the film is about female sexuality, like these ladies want to have sex and who gives a damn? The mother tries to shame her daughter-in-law, but that was only to hold on to her, not out of any actual puritan feelings about sex. Onibaba was certainly not what I expected, but I think that made it better. An eerie, compelling tale of desperate women and the lengths they’ll go to for fulfillment, even when surrounded by death and destruction.

4.5/5

Pair This Movie With: I’m sure there are a lot of thematically similar movies that I’m just not familiar with, so you can probably do your own thing. But I thought of The Exorcist since Friedkin drew some of his own demonic imagery from this movie.

Movie Review: Evangerion shin gekijôban: Ha (Evangelion 2.0: You Can [Not] Advance) (2009)

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Seen: On our projector set-up, streamed from Miles’s harddrive.

About two years ago we decided to finally get into Neon Genesis Evangelion. As an anime fan it’s hard not to hear about it all the time because it’s one of the bigger series. We started with the new(ish) movie, part one of a tetralogy that condenses and somewhat re-writes the whole series. Then we started watching the actual show, but it turns out it’s just ok and we got bored with the super annoying main character. AND SO we decided to just watch the movies. Whatever, you guys. Whatever. The second film in the tetralogy, Evangelion 2.0: You Can (Not) Advance, continues this inscrutable story of whiny teenagers who pilot huge semi-organic mechs in a fight against “Angels”, who are huge monster things that attack Earth all the time. Everything is confusing but it’s really pretty. And my favorite character arrives! Well, second-favorite, after the penguin roommate obviously.

Seriously, I never know what the fuck is going on in this series but that’s part of what makes it so interesting. The greater world is weird and broken and complicated, and the larger story is only hinted at as the pieces gradually come together. The combination of Christian religious imagery and surreal military technology is bizarre but effective, and I really do love watching these robots fight. The animation is lovely, with bright colors and truly creative design, though the exploitative ladyparts factor is as high as most other anime that isn’t made by Studio Ghibli. I also liked seeing the scope and general ramifications of this future expanded upon, since the films’ overall narrative approach is more personal and at first there wasn’t much focus on the politics surrounding the Eva pilots. The greater story slowly builds on itself and now I’m actually pretty excited for the next movie since it looks like it will have to be much grander in its storytelling.

As usual, protagonist Shinji is an annoying crybaby who doesn’t really have much going on, personality-wise, but luckily he’s surrounded by characters who are actually interesting. Rei continues to be a weird blank space and basically someone’s sexy daydream, but she shows some guts toward the end. And Misato is still funny and cool and (mostly) in command. The best part is obviously newcomer Asuka, an extremely confident prodigy who doesn’t really know how to interact with people. She’s funny in her bluntness but also sympathetic in her lack of social understanding or experience. She’s mean, but I like her as a character. Plus she’s a really good pilot!

I don’t have much else to say, I guess, and I know this is impossible for anyone who doesn’t already know about Neon Genesis Evangelion. But yeah pretty good movie, definitely an improvement on the first one, and I look forward to the third film where the stakes are higher and different subplots will hopefully come together in a way that makes some kind of sense. Maybe?

4/5

Pair This Movie With: I mean it’s part of a series so it kind of has to be the first one or the third one (which just came out in the US).