Sunday, December 28, 2008

High and Low (Akira Kurosawa, 1963)

Toshiro Mifune as Kingo Gondo in Akira Kurosawa's High And Low (1963).

Akira Kurosawa's High and Low is a great kidnap thriller starring Toshiro Mifune as Kingo Gondo, a shoe manufacturer who is staking everything he owns on a deal to take over the company he works for when a kidnapper calls and demands a huge sum of money for Gondo's son. The thing is though, it isn't Gondo's son that is kidnapped but Gondo's driver's son.

High and Low in some ways reminded me of The Bad Sleep Well in that it deals with the corruption among company leaders, or rather, the ruthlessness of company leaders. It's not as central as in The Bad.. but it's there. High and Low's main focus is on the differences between rich and poor, those who live at the top of society and those who live at the bottom.

Gondo lives in a house up on the hills above the city. His house is big and airy with big windows and open spaces and it is visible to everyone who lives in the hot, crowded city down below, where the kidnapper is calling from. One day, Gondo is approached by the other directors of the shoe manufacturing company to take over the company together with them and start mass producing cheap shoes that won't last, but he refuses. Not only because of the reason he gives the directors, that he wants to keep making quality shoes, but also because he has his own long going plans to take it over all by himself. All he has left to do is to send his assistant over with a check for 50 million yen and the company is his. But then the kidnapper calls.

The kidnapper demands 30 million yen as ransom for Gondo's son, Jun. Gondo immediately agrees to pay the sum even though it will ruin him. Soon after, Jun comes into the room and everyone is relieved but it soon dawns on them that Jun's friend Shinichi, who he was just playing with, is missing. Shinichi is the son of Gondo's driver, and soon the kidnapper calls again having realised his mistake but he still demands that Gondo pays the ransom. This time, Gondo refuses and calls the police instead. Who would want to ruin himself and his family for someone else's child? That is what Gondo has to wrestle with while the police, headed by Tokura (Tatsuya Nakadai) is trying to catch the kidnapper. Gondo's wife and Aoki, the driver, is begging him to pay, but he refuses, saying that since his wife was born wealthy, she doesn't know to appreciate what they would have to sacrifice.

When the police are unable to catch the kidnapper within the time limit he has given, Gondo agrees to pay and the child is released. This makes Gondo a national hero, but the creditors who he owes money doesn't care, Gondo is ruined. While all of Gondo's possesions are being repo'd, the chase for the kidnapper goes on.

Tatsuya Nakadai in pursuit of the kidnapper, Tsutomu Yamazaki.

After it has turned out that the kidnapper is a medical student who lives in a tiny apartment below Gondo's house, and that his motive seemingly is simple jealosy it brings the film down a little at the very end. Even if the reason is to show that hard work pays off and that some things are worth sacrificing for, as in the case of Gondo working himself to the top and paying off the ransom, and that chosing the easy way of crime will always leave you at the bottom, it feels a bit too simple. But up until that point, which is at the very end of the film, High and Low is a phenomal thriller. With the first half being Gondo's personal struggle with his morals and conscience and the second being the cops chasing the kidnapper, the tension is high through the entire film and never lets up.

I'm not sure, though, what Kurosawa really wanted to say. The character of Takeuchi is a medical student, who should be able to become something, or is he envisioning the rest of his life as taking place in the tiny apartment below Gondo's house. Gondo is also someone who has worked his way to the top, so why hate him? Or is it just because he built a house that everyone could see, is he rubbing his hard earned wealth in people's faces and deserves to be robbed of what he has? When Takeuchi is arrested and confronted with Gondo, it turns out that after his arrest, he tried to commit suicide, not wanting to take responsibilty for his actions. He is entirely weak and probably insane, yet Gondo's face is superimposed on Takeuchi's. Are they the same or is it as a contrast? At the same time as the ending feels like the weakest part of the film, it also gives the most to think about.

Blues Harp (Takashi Miike, 1998)

Seiichi Tanabe in Takashi Miike's Blues Harp (1998).

Maybe watching films while being completely worn out from work and falling asleep every five minutes isn't ideal. Especially when it comes to films where plot is second to characters and atmosphere and you can't just jump right into it.

Watching Takashi Miike's Blues Harp like this just made it feel like nothing really happened in it. Maybe it's just a bad film, even though it is one of his most praised "kind of rare but still not too hard to get a hold of" films. It seems like typical Miike. A few people getting involved by chance with eachother and trying to build lives together, but due to their involvment in crime, no matter if they are full blown yakuza or only living on the sidelines, everything always comes crashing down.

Chuji works in a bar and sells drugs for a yakuza group. He also becomes the member of a band which is being scouted by an agent at the bar, getting close to a record deal. Kenji is a gangster who wants to move up and is sleeping with his boss' wife. Together with a member of a rival gang they conspire to kill Kenji's boss and alter his testament to make Kenji the next boss. The only problem is that Kenji is gay. When Chuji saves Kenji's life when he's being chased by other yakuza, Kenji takes an interest in Chuji, which makes Kaneko, Kenji's right hand man, jealous. This, toghether with the boss' wife seeing Kenji frantically brush his teeth and vomiting in the shower after every time they have had sex, spells trouble for both Kenji's and Chuji's plans to move up in society.

If this had been one of the first films by Miike that I had watched instead of number 50 something (and if I hadn't been so tired) I probably would have gotten into it more. But as it was, it just was too predictable. This doesn't really lessen the actual film as much as it does my experience of it. The actors all do a fine job in making their characters seem real and while Miike focuses on them, the plot moves along at a slow pace towards the inevitable end that comes to all (most) of Miike's characters.

The predictability of a story doesn't necessarily have to be a bad thing if the characters are interesting enough, but here I didn't really feel like I could connect despite the good performances. All I felt was "Please, get it over with, I know what's going to happen". I really should give Blues Harp another chance.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Bad Sleep Well (Akira Kurosawa, 1960)

Toshiro Mifune in Akira Kurosawa's The Bad Sleep Well (1960).

It's hard to say anything about The Bad Sleep Well without giving away too much of the story, so beware of spoilers in this post.

Toshiro Mifune stars as Nishi, a man bent on exacting vengeance on the corporate executives that convinced his father to commit suicide out of loyalty to them. Together they were all involved in a scam to hire a company and pay them more than what was really needed, and then recieve personal kickbacks from the company. When Nishi's father grew a conscience, they talked him into killing himself and when Nishi found out, he took on a fake identity and gained employment as the vice president's secretary.

While it is clear from the beginning who "The Bad" of the title are, it is a bit more complicated. All of the men behind the corruption, one of them described as non-human by another character, wrestles with their guilt and one is even driven insane by it when he's subjected to Nishi's plan. Nishi himself, who expresses frustration over not being able to be as ruthless as his enemies, hesitates when he finds himself in love with Yoshiko, the daughter of the vice president, who he just married to advance faster in the company. But his and his enemies humanity is what drives them all towards defeat. Only the vice president himself, who manages to hide his own humanity until the very end, and the nameless voice on the phone who gives him orders, are the ones to come out as winners.

Darker than the other Kurosawa films I've seen, The Bad Sleep Well shows a world where only the completely heartless win and the rest are losers.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Seven Days (Won Sin-Yeon, 2007)

Kim Jun-Yin as the lawyer trying to save her daughter in Won Sin-Yeon's Seven Days (2007).

Lately, I've been lucky with the Korean films I watch. Usually I expect to be disappointed, and most of the time I am, especially when it comes to thrillers. Seven Days did not disappoint though.

The story is about a successful lawyer, Yu Ji-Yeon, who is also a single mother. One day while participating in a race at her daughter's school, her daughter disappears. Soon enough, Ji-Yeon is contacted by someone who is demanding money for her daughter's return. Later, it turns out that the real ransom is arranging the release of a killer facing the death penalty. Ji-Yeon takes the case and along with her corrupted detective friend she starts to uncover the truth about the murder that put the man she is trying to free on death row. But they only have seven days until the trial.

The plot has a lot of twists and turns, but basically it's kept simple, which is what makes the film so successful. Leaving out romance and overly sentimental drama that is so common in Korean films makes the focus stay on the chase against time. It does come close to slowing down too much a few times during the second half, and the jury is still out on the ending, which works in some ways but just seems a bit too contrieved. Overall though, it is a thrilling ride.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Executive Koala (Minoru Kawasaki, 2005)

Minoru Kawasaki's Executive Koala (2005).

Keiichi Tamura works for a pickle distribution company. His career is moving along well and he's just about to make a deal with a Korean kimchi company when two detectives come looking for him at work. Tamura's girlfriend Yoko has been found dead and since his wife disappeared three years ago, he's the prime suspect. When the Korean businessman is visiting Japan he reveals himself to be the former lover of Tamura's wife, and that she used to write him about how Tamura was mistreating her. The problem is that Tamura can't remember a thing about what happened three years ago, and he's also a man-sized koala.

Director Minoru Kawasaki starts off by playing it straight, Tamura is popular with the women at work and even though some of them thinks he's a bit too furry, no one really seems to care that he's a koala. But what can you expect in a company where the president is a bunny. Then it turns into a bloody slasher/psycho thriller when Tamura, with the help of his psychiatrist, is trying to find out what really happened. After that, it just gets crazier and funnier.

Go, go Executive Koala!

I was a bit worried that I wouldn't like Executive Koala. When I watched Kawasaki's previous film, The Calamari Wrestler (2004), about a giant squid wrestler, I thought that while it was a great idea, the movie was just too slow and didn't have enough humor. The insanity of a squid fighting for a wrestling championship and his girlfriend just wasn't enough. There are no such problems in Executive Koala. Between the weirdness of a koala being an office worker, his bunny boss, the convenience store frog, a musical interlude and an interspecific martial arts fight, Executive Koala leaves no room for boredom, just bewildered amazment.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Dachimawa Lee (Ryoo Seung-Wan, 2008)

Lim Won-Hie as Dachimawa Lee (2008).

Originally a short made by Ryoo Seung-Wan in 1998 and released on the internet, this new full length version, also by Ryoo, is a spoof of spy films like the James Bond franchise and Korean action films from the 60's and 70's (I wouldn't know, I haven't seen any). Dachimawa Lee is an enormously handsome spy, master of martial arts and all around great guy. If you believe the other characters in the film. Slightly overweight and less handsome than average, Dachimawa Lee does get all the ladies and instills fear in the bad guys.

The story is set in the 1940's and involves a golden Buddha statue that contains the names of all Korean spies in the world. Some Manchurian bandits are trying to get hold of it to sell it to the Japanese and, of course, it's up to Dachimawa Lee to stop them.

I'm not going to try to act like I picked up on every joke in the film. Since I don't speak either Korean, Japanese or Chinese, most of the "language jokes" and references were lost on me. What is in there though, when it comes to the over acting, all the physical humor and crazy antics (and there is a lot!) is no less than hilarious, and it's non stop until the end. Some have critisized it for being too much, but I'm grateful that it never takes the same route as most Korean comedies, which switches gears for a, usually unbearably boring, slower third act. Dachimawa Lee entertains all the way.

The Man in White (Takashi Miike, 2003)

Kazuki Kitamura, Tatsuya Fuji, Masaya Kato, Renji Ishibashi and Ryosuke Miki in Takashi Miike's The Man in White (2003).

When Azusa (Masaya Kato) is a kid he sees his father being murdered by his older stepbrother, Serita (Tatsuya Fuji). Now, as a yakuza, Azusa has another run in with his brother when Serita shows up and kills Azusa's boss, his new father, leaving Azusa as the only one alive. Azusa throws all sense of loyalty to the wind and goes off to avenge his boss and hunt down Serita and anyone involved in the conspiracy to kill his boss.

While the story is simple, it's Miike's execution that sets it apart from other films in the same genre. His characters are yakuza and live by the code, but only as long as it really suits them. The Man in White is filled with over the top characters but they have human feelings which make them seem more real than the more traditional yakuza characters you see in a lot of films. They are criminals, and there are no excuses, Azusa is the film's main character, but he is a killer, and his actions sets off a lot of unnecessary killings just so that he can get his will done. He is no hero even if his cause might seem noble. The same goes for his friend, Mizutani (Kazuki Kitamura), who's along for the ride. Serita and his buddy, the drug addicted alcoholic Sakazaki (Renji Ishibashi) are purely in it for their own gain, loyalty and honor are nothing more than words for them.

The darkness in Miike's characters put them closer, in my opinion, to those of Rokuro Mochizuki's films, where yakuzas often are crazy drug addicts who have trouble staying within the bounds of the yakuza code, simply because they are human. There probably are other filmmakers who also make their yakuza films like this (I'd like to say Fukasaku in Graveyard of Honor (1975), but it's been so long since I watched it), but I haven't seen anyone yet who does it as convincing as Miike. In The Man in White he constructs a world where everything the characters do is believable. Or maybe it's just easier to relate and believe in someone going crazy because of emotions and human weakness than going on a killing spree out of principle. This is one of Miike's finest yakuza efforts.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Hidden Fortress (Akira Kurosawa, 1958)

Misa Uehara, Toshiro Mifune, Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara in The Hidden Fortress (1958).

Just finished watching another Kurosawa film, this time it was The Hidden Fortress, made in 1958. The film follows Matakishi and Tahei, two peasants who was late for a war and forced to dig graves by the winning side. After escaping from labor they find a stick of wood with gold hidden inside it, soon after they run into a stranger who is a general on the losing side of the war. It turns out that he knows where the rest of the gold is hidden and he is also, unbeknownst to the peasants, transporting a princess to safety. To cover up her status, she is appearing as a mute peasant. They decide to team up when the general uses Matakishi's and Tahei's greed to get them to help carry the gold. The rest of the film shows their journey through enemy territory.

Visually, The Hidden Fortress is the most impressive film of Kurosawa's that I've seen so far. This was his first film using the 2,35:1 format and he makes the most of it. As for the characters, they seem more one dimensional than what I'm used to from Kurosawa. The only one who really changes, even if just a little, is the princess who has to live like a peasant and learns a thing or too about humbleness and sacrifice. It's not a drawback, though, since all the characters are good fits for an action/adventure comedy, especially Matakishi and Tahei who are as dumb and cowardly as they are greedy. The Hidden Fortress is not my favorite Kurosawa film so far, but as an entertaining adventure, not many films beat it, old or new.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Madame O (Seiichi Fukuda, 1967)

Michiko Aoyama preying on her next victim in Madame O (1967).

Madame O is an independently produced, pre-pink, eroduction film, made in 1967 and directed by Seiichi Fukuda. Most of these early, pre-pink, sex films seem to be lost and unavailable even in Japan. The reason for Synapse Films being able to release Madame O is that it was sold to Audubon Films in the US and preserved by them, and that is why it's only available with an english dub.

Seiko (Michiko Aoyama) is the Madame O of the title, she works as a doctor and runs her own practice. When she was younger she was raped by three man who left her pregnant and infected with syphilis. The event has left her emotionally empty, except for wanting to take revenge on all men. She does that by walking the streets at night to pick up men and transfer the disease to them. One day she hires a male doctor and ends up falling in love for the first time in her life after he finds her passed out after performing an abortion on herself. When he also becomes a witness of Seiko killing and dismembering one of her late night pick-ups who tried to extort her, and doesn't report it, they soon get married. To no one's surprise though, it turns out that the good doctor may have a hidden agenda of his own.

For being described as a film that will "paralyze audiences with gore, nudity and shocking violence" as it is on the cover for the dvd, the film is very tame. Expecting any of the three will make the viewer come up short. Also, even at 81 minutes in length the film feels overlong and gets frustratingly boring, making the ending come as a relief rather than an intense finale. The most interesting things in the film are the cinematography, it does look good, and the actors who, even while being dubbed, come off as doing solid work. I'm still not sure on whether the decision to make some sequences in the film in color, while the main bulk of it is in black and white, was good or not. It seems like the scenes shot in color are mainly the ones with nudity or blood in them, or both, and it just makes it feel more exploitive instead of artistic.

While I appreciate that Synapse has given this film a dvd release and making it available, I also wish distributors would put the same effort into releasing better films from the early eroduction and pink film era. It feels like Madame O got the attention more because of it being available than anything else.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Eye for an Eye (Kwak Kyung-Taek, Ahn Kwon Tae, 2008)

Han Suk-Kyu and Cha Seung-Won as cop and robber in Eye for an Eye (2008).

I watched another Korean film today, Eye for an Eye, directed by Kwak Kyung-Taek and Ahn Kwon-Tae. Why they replaced Ahn with Kwak after finishing half the film I don't know, maybe it was just co-directed, but parts of the film are confusing and hard to follow. Maybe Ahn was having trouble getting it straight. It's basically a heist film with Cha playing the mastermind behind it and Han playing the cop trying to catch him and at the same time it has a story about Han's detective trying to catch a powerful business man who is also a crime boss, in style with Public Enemy (2002). Knowing more about the plot beforehand would spoil the film, so I'll leave it at that.

I wouldn't call the film a masterpiece, but it is a great piece of entertainment, mostly thanks to Han Suk-Kyu and Cha Seung-Won in the lead roles. Han seems to be moving away from the regular lead roles, like in Christmas in August (Hur Jin-Ho, 1998), Shiri (Kang Je-Gyu, 1999) and Tell Me Something (Chang Yoon-Hyun, 1999), that I'm used to seeing him in and portrays a slightly more bizarre character here.

With Eye for an Eye my interest in Korean cinema keeps on growing after having been put to rest a couple of years ago. It may not be the greatest film ever made in Korea but it's up there with the better of their crime films.


Apparently, Eye for an Eye was a co-writing and co-directorial effort between Kwak Kyung-Taek and Ahn Kwon-Tae. Ahn, the director of My Brother (2004), was not replaced by the more experienced Kwak whose earlier films include Friend (2001), Champion (2002), Mutt Boy (2003) and Typhoon (2005).

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Unlucky Monkey (Sabu, 1998)

Shinichi Tsutsumi in Sabu's Unlucky Monkey (1998).

While watching Unlucky Monkey, directed by Hiroyuki Tanaka aka Sabu, I thought "Is it just me or has every Japanese film I've watched lately dealt with individuality and individual responsibility?" Unlucky Monkey travels the same path, kind of, but the main theme here is guilt.

When Yamazaki (Shinichi Tsutsumi) and his buddy (Sabu) is ready to enter a bank to rob it, another robber comes running out and is hit by a car. His bag of loot comes flying through the air and lands in the arms of Yamazaki who takes off running with the bag and a knife in his hand. Turning a corner he accidentaly bumps into a young woman and stabs her. He flees the scene and buries the money in a field before taking off again.

Simultaneously, two yakuza are in a meeting with a boss from another gang, applying to join since their own boss is in prison. When their third friend barges in the boss from the rival gang is accidentaly killed. Afraid of the consequences, the three yakuza hides the body, but soon they are being pursued by killers from the other gang.

Both of these storylines are basically the same, except that while Yamazaki struggles with his conscience, being overwhelmed by guilt when he finds out that the woman he stabbed didn't make it, the yakuza are only concerned with saving their own skins. At first Yamazaki tries to but the blame on the victim, maybe she ran into him on purpose, maybe she was suicidal, but in the end he has to fess up and take responsibility and he is willing to give up both the money and his life. When all the characters crosses paths in the end, I think the ability to feel guilt and take responsibility is what seals their fates.

Unlucky Monkey is a great film, it doesn't matter if you watch it to try to find a message in it or just go along for the ride. There are other films like this, where a bunch of characters' fates are just loosely intertwined but where they all play important parts for each other through chance encounters, but not many makes them as great as Sabu.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Chanbara Beauty (Yohei Fukuda, 2008)

Yohei Fukuda's Chanbara Beauty aka OneChanbara (2008).

What did I expect? I guess that ever since watching Ryuhei Kitamura's Versus (2000), I've been waiting for the next low-budget, stylish, gory action film that will actually be good. Kitamura himself hasn't managed to top it yet and it doesn't seem like anyone else will either, at least not anytime soon. The closest I've seen to the spirit of Versus is Yudai Yamaguchi's Battlefield Baseball (2003), even though it's a comedy and not really an action film, and the Media Blasters production Death Trance (2005), directed by Yuji Shimomura, the action director on Versus. Chanbara Beauty, however, doesn't even come close.

Based on a video game, the story is kind of thin. A scientist (Taro Suwa) is experimenting on corpses to resurrect them but, of course, they turn into zombies. To succeed he needs the blood from a pair of sisters who's from a special bloodline, one of which he has already captured. The older sister is wandering a futuristic Japan ridden with living dead, killing every zombie that she meets while looking for her abducted sister. It's not much, but it should be enough for an entertaining zombie slashing film.

Unfortunately, the fight scenes are so fast that a lot of times it is hard to see what is going on, there's just a bunch of CG blood flying around the screen. For some reason (unless there's a problem with the dvd that I watched) they have decided to not use sound effects for parts of the action and it makes it feel disconnected and even harder to enjoy. Or maybe I'm just not getting it.

To me, the action scenes is the biggest flaw in the film. If it doesn't deliver the action, what point is there to it? Other than that, I don't have much to say. Complaining about the story or the acting in a film like this seems kind of redundant, it's point is the action and that is where it fails. Not even Taro Suwa, talking about the meaning of life and being God, while pulling gory bits out of a severed head can save this one.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Drunken Angel (Akira Kurosawa, 1948)

Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune in Drunken Angel (1948).

Akira Kurosawa's and Toshiro Mifune's first collaboration is set at the end of the Second World War and revolves around a doctor (Takashi Shimura) and his yakuza tuberculosis patient (Toshiro Mifune). The doctor, Sanada, is a drunk who can't even stay away from his medical alcohol and his practice is located near the shore of a toxic swamp. On the other side of the swamp is the black market, the turf of Matsunaga, a violent criminal. When Matsunaga visits Sanada in the middle of the night to have a bullet removed from his hand, Sanada discovers that the yakuza has tuberculosis. Matsunaga refuses to believe him but later comes back with an x-ray that shows a hole in his lung. At the same time, Okada, Matsunaga's former boss, is released from prison and comes back to the neighborhood to reclaim his turf. This just makes Matsunaga's fight against his illness, while trying to keep his appearance of strength, even harder.

Drunken Angel seems to be about the morals and codes of the yakuza and all the violence they bring. Sanada questions everything Matsunaga does because of his yakuza code, and insists that he tries to get well instead. Feudalism is out of style. In the booklet that comes with the Criterion dvd of the film, Kurosawa talks about falling out with the co-writer, Keinosuke Uegusa, over their different views on the yakuza and the role that society plays in shaping these individuals. Basically, he's saying that, while society has some influence, it's up to the individual to decide what kind of person to be. After all there are a lot of poor and weak people who doesn't resort to a life of crime to get ahead. The same reasoning that I got from his Stray Dog (1949), made one year after Drunken Angel.

Toshiro Mifune as the tuberculosis-ridden Matsunaga.

From what I've read, Stray Dog is considered to be Kurosawa's first masterpiece, and while Drunken Angel might not be a masterpiece, it's a big step towards creating one. The acting is great all around, and even though Mifune seems a bit unpolished compared to his later work with Kurosawa, he still gives a haunting performance as Matsunaga. While being a very good film, Drunken Angel does seem a bit simpler than Kurosawa's later films when it comes to technique, that doesn't mean that it's bad in any way though, just that Kurosawa evolved as a filmmaker. Drunken Angel is the earliest of his films that I have seen, so I don't know how big the difference is between this and the films that came before, but I look forward to finding out.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Sad Vacation (Shinji Aoyama, 2007)

Tadanobu Asano and Jo Odagiri in Shinji Aoyama's Sad Vacation (2007).

I'm not sure what Aoyama is trying to say with Sad Vacation, I'm not even sure Aoyama knows exactly what he is trying to say. The only thing I'm sure about is that it's a film about family, being abandoned by your family and trying to forgive them or take revenge. It might also be about how different experiences and environments forces you to be the person you are, even if you try to become something else.

All of this is best described in the character of Kenji Shiraishi, the young delinquent in Aoyama's early film Helpless (1996) who took part in some murders along with his yakuza friend, Yasuo, after his father commits suicide. Something that Kenji blames his mother for, since she abandoned both him and his father. Following the murders, Kenji and Yuri, Yasuo's traumatzed sister, have been on the run for the last ten years or so. While working in human trafficking, Kenji, knowing what it's like to be all alone, decides to take care of a Chinese boy who's father died during the boat ride over. Later, while working as a designated driver for drunk business men and bar hostesses, Kenji drives a man home only to find that he is married to his eloped mother, Chiyoko. Kenji goes to see her and finds that she is nothing but happy to have him back in her life, but his own feelings may not be the same.

Kenji moves in with Chiyoko and her new family, consisting of her new husband, Mamiya, their teenage son, Yusuke, and the employees of their transporting company who are all drifters with nowhere else to go. One of the drifters is Kozue, the girl who survived the bus hijacking in Eureka (2000). She was looking for her runaway mother when she was taken in and offered a job by Mamiya.

After Kenji has moved in, he plans to get revenge on Chiyoko to cause her the same feelings of abandonment that he had to live with since she left him and his father, but when he thinks that he is finally done with her and has rid himself of the influence she has had on his life, she comes back, with a stronger hold on him than ever. It doesn't matter that Kenji is basically a good person, the experiences he's had has left a mark on him and his hate forces him into bad cycles. The only thing his mother can do is try to understand and forgive. Chiyoko, now wanting to be the mother she never was, can't get through to her other son and, not by leaving him, but by maybe not trying hard enough, abandons him too. Her previous life has left her too in a bad cycle.

The film does seem kind of confused, taking stands both for and against parents being needed, "real" families vs. surrogate families and whether it's right or not to forgive just about anything.
Maybe it's not the point of the film to come to some kind of conclusion, but just to make room for thoughts on the subjects that it brings up. After all the ending is just a big splash.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Samurai Spy (Masahiro Shinoda, 1965)

Fighting in the fog in Masahiro Shinoda's Samurai Spy (1965).

Masahiro Shinoda's anti-war samurai film is set in 1614, and seems to be an allegory for the Cold War and the relations between the US and Soviet in the 1960's. The beginning is quite confusing when all the different clans and characters are introduced, all with different loyalties and motives. After a while though, it's easier to make sense of it all. I felt like the first time I watched Kinji Fukasaku's The Yakuza Papers (1973-1974) films.

I won't go into the details of the story more than that it's about a spy named Sasuke, working for a neutral clan, who is trying to find out the truth about two murders he is accused of committing. Of course, it brings him into conflict with with two other clans and double-crossing spies.

Samurai Spy is more of a spy film than it is a regular samurai film, focussing more on the frail peace of the time in which the film is set, where war may break out at any time, and the spies working with and against each other, than on samurai honor. The spies are also more like ninjas with supernatural powers than samurai. The action in the film is quite bloody but a lot of times it is obscured by objects in the foreground, fog or edits. I don't know if it's just a stylistic choice or part of the films anti-war message.

Samurai Spy is a good looking and sometimes confusing film, but even if it is hard to follow in parts, it is still entertaining enough. It's not as good as most other samurai films I've seen, but it doesn't feel like it's really trying to achieve the same things anyway.

Tetsuro Tanba and Koji Takahashi.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Gosha Double Feature: Sword of the Beast (1965) and The Wolves (1971)

Mikijiro Hira in Hideo Gosha's Sword of the Beast (1965).

Hideo Gosha is apparently considered one of the masters of the samurai film. Tonight I watched Sword of the Beast, directed by Gosha in 1965. While I did like the film a lot, it seemed to be very conventional, following the standards of the genre, and Gosha seems somewhat heavy handed compared to Kurosawa and Kobayashi (the only other two that I have really seen any samurai films from). It's the same feeling that I got from The Wolves, a yakuza film made in 1971, and the only one of Gosha's other films that I have seen.

The Wolves and Sword of the Beast also share some of the same themes, they are both about where the line is drawn between being loyal to one's gang or to oneself and the main characters of both films are betrayed by the ones they trust. The yakuza (Tatsuya Nakadai) in The Wolves who after being released early from prison realises that his former boss' death might not have happened the way it is told, and his new boss, his sworn brother, may not be so innocent. And the samurai (Mikijiro Hira) in Sword of the Beast who is told he will get a faster rise to the top if he kills a counselor but realises after it is done that he has been used and is now a fugitive.

All of this is apparent from the first frame in both films, in The Wolves the main character has to be convinced that this is the case by other characters, and in Sword of the Beast it feels like you're being beaten over the head with it as no less than four characters other than the samurai realises that the fate of the samurai is also their own. This doesn't lessen the enjoyment of watching Sword of the Beast though, it still is a beautifully shot chambara with great performances from Mikijiro Hira, Go Kata, Shima Iwashita and the Gosha and Kinji Fukasaku regular Kunie Tanaka. The same cannot be said of The Wolves, which is much too slow and unengaging, and with a performance by Tatsuya Nakadai that can best be described as sleepwalking. He is far outshined here by Noboru Ando and the aforementioned Kunie Tanaka. How this would be considered the best, or one of the best, yakuza films ever made is beyond me.

Tatsuya Nakadai on the cover of Animeigo's dvd release of The Wolves (1971).

I read a description of Hideo Gosha's films as being emotional like Kurosawa's and containing the politics of Kobayashi's, and judging by these two films the description is correct, Gosha's films are just more standardized and less refined. As a period sword fighting film, Sword of the Beast is great though and enough to make me want to see more of his samurai films. As for 1970's yakuza cinema, I still have some more Fukasaku to explore.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Public Enemy Returns (Kang Woo-Suk, 2008)

Kang Woo-Suk's Public Enemy Returns (2008).

In Kang Woo-Suk's third part of the Public Enemy trilogy, Sol Kyung-Gu once again plays the character of Kang Cheol-Jung, the corrupted, ill-tempered police officer from the first film who grew a conscience when a company executive killed his parents over money. This time he's less corrupted but with the same bad temper when he goes after a crime boss who uses teenagers to do his dirty work and to take the blame when the police get too close.

Compared to the previous films, Public Enemy Returns is a lot closer in tone to the first film, it has the same slapstick humor and excessive violence. It doesn't build much suspense, similar to just about every other Korean thriller, but the story is still engaging enough not to get tired and the acting by Sol Kyung-Gu and Jeong Jae-Yeong and supporting actors like Lee Mun-Sik and Kang Sin-Il, keeps the film entertaining through out.

Public Enemy (2002) was one of the first Korean films that I really liked and Public Enemy Returns could have been made at the same time between 2000 and 2004, before Korean cinema got into a slump. There still are some good films being made in South Korea and maybe Public Enemy Returns and films like The Chaser (Na Hong-Jin, 2008) and Big Bang (Park Jeong-Woo, 2007) are the beginning of a return to form, I know I'm not the only one waiting for that to happen.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Assault! Jack the Ripper (Yasuharu Hasebe, 1976)

Assault! Jack the Ripper (1976), directed by Yasuharu Hasebe.

Assault! Jack the Ripper (1976) is about a man who works as a baker at a café. One day, one of the waitresses asks him to give her a ride home. He agrees, but on the way they pick up a hitchhiker who happens to be a suicidal maniac. When they kick her out on the road again they have an accident and the hitchhiker dies. Instead of going to the police they dump the body at an old junkyard. Afterwards, having arrived at the waitress' apartment, they realise that the accident, and the disposal of the body, has made them aroused and they have sex.

They keep on using murder as an aphrodisiac, killing just about every young woman they see, but the man seems less and less interested in his partner in crime and more so in his knife and victims. He starts killing the women by stabbing them in their genitals and soon enough he's "cheating" by killing on his own. It's pretty obvious where the film is going, but when the killer starts hiding his knife in the front of his pants, and a woman that he is cutting open starts enjoying it, it changes from being a pretty boring exploitation slasher into being just plain stupid.

I have no problem with the blood and gore, or the sex, but the film fails to entertain, I think that is usually the difference between good and bad exploitation. A film is never pointless as long as it entertains in some way, but when all it does is make you yawn and think "Why am I watching this?" it feels pretty pointless to me. It doesn't help though that I'm getting tired of the whole roman porno/pink/pinky violence craze that is going on. While there are some really well made and thought provoking films in this area, they seem to be the exceptions to the genre. Assault!.. feels like just another one of those films to be hyped up because of its rarity, and when it finally shows up, it fails to do anything but disappoint. It may have been extreme in the 1970s, but now, it feels as impotent as the main character seems to be without his knife.


I can add that I just finished watching Mondo Macabro's other recent Nikkatsu release, Noboru Tanaka's Watcher in the Attic (1976), based on stories by horror/mystery writer Edogawa Rampo. It's very different from Assault! Jack the Ripper, it's more of a drama about a rich man's wife, her lovers and the watcher from the title. It soons turns into a story about sexual perversions and murder, but compared to other Rampo adaptations like Teruo Ishii's Horror of Malformed Men (1969), Shinya Tsukamoto's Gemini (1999) and horror omnibus Rampo Noir (Akio Jissoji, Atsushi Kaneko, Hisayasu Sato, Suguru Takeuchi, 2005), Tanaka fails to inject the story with the kind of creepy atmosphere that the other films have. Watcher in the Attic has sex and murder, but it never turns into a mystery worth solving.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Face of Another (Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1966)

Tatsuya Nakadai and Mikijiro Hira in Hiroshi Teshigahara's The Face of Another (1966).

Mr. Okuyama's (Tatsuya Nakadai) face is horribly disfigured in an accident at work. He spends his days at home with his entire head covered in bandages and it's making him feel as if he is losing his identity. His wife (Machiko Kyo) pretends that she is not bothered by his new appearance but it is obvious to Okuyama, who even fantasizes about scarring her face in a similar way to make her less uneasy around him. Being on leave from his job after the accident, he wants to come back as long as he won't have to deal with people as much as before. His boss says it's no problem but Okuyama can tell that his boss finds it exhausting just to be in the same room as him. While this is all going on, Okuyama is seeing a psychiatrist (Mikijiro Hira) to get help with his identity crisis. The psychiatrist offers to give Okuyama a new face, in the form of a life-like mask, as an experiment, on the condition that Okuyama tells him about everything he does and feels while wearing the mask.

While waiting for the mask to be completed, Okuyama and the psychiatrist discuss what he will do once it is finished. Okuyama seems to be focused on re-seducing his wife, making her cheat on him with himself. The psychiatrist warns him that it may be dangerous. When the mask is finished and Okuyama is trying it out, the psychiatrist is talking about the freedom it must bring, to not be recognized by anyone, being able to do anything, almost as if you were invisible, but Okuyama soon learns that it's not that simple. Being recognized by a mentally challenged girl who has only seen him once before wearing bandages, and who is described by Okuyama as an idiot, makes him wonder if the mask really makes him unrecognizable. To find out he goes to see his boss once again, and is greeted by his secretary in a very different manner than before, since she clearly doesn't recognize him. This gives him confidence to seduce his wife or as he puts it "take back what is mine". The obvious danger would be that if he succeeds, why would he want to be with a woman who would cheat on him, wouldn't it make him feel even worse about himself? But the outcome is something different. Instead it is his wife, who has recognized Okuyama and played along, who is offended when she finds out that they weren't roleplaying and that he wasn't wearing the mask to make it easier on her, but to trick her into "cheating" on him. She sees the mask as wearing make-up, in the same way that women wears make-up to better their appearance. This drives Okuyama to use the freedom that he thinks the mask gives him as he tries to rape a woman on the street and is arrested.

Nothing that he and the psychiatrist imagined would be gained from wearing the mask happens. There is no freedom, what Okuyama gains is not a new identity but a distorted version of his old self that still wants the same thing that he wanted earlier, he wants to be accepted by his wife. His appearance isn't changed enough for him to be totally unrecognizable either, and he is still sensitive to how others react to his appearance, and their reactions decides how he feels, what he becomes. The supposed freedom doesn't exist. You may be able to be more confident while hiding behind a mask, but you're still the same person and responsible for your actions.

Tatsuya Nakadai (left) wearing his mask and Mikijiro Hira (right).

I guess that your identity partially comes from how others perceive and react to you, by being part of how you see yourself, but appearances can also be decieving, as with the "idiot" girl. When Okuyama is robbed of his appearance he is also robbed of his identity, or his feel of identity, but his new appearance doesn't give him a new "real" identity. His boss would be willing to give him his job back without him wearing a mask, and his wife wants him for who he is, but wants him to wear make-up to make it easier when they have sex. Okuyama fails to see this because his mask is, like the prosthetic finger in the opening scene of the film, an inferiority complex in the shape of a face.

These are just my thoughts immediately after watching the film so I might edit this post later. I feel that there is more to the film than this but reading some reviews, I noticed they mainly consisted of a plot description and praise of Hiroshi Teshigahara, the director. I agree with everything positive about the film, the acting, the music and the way it looks, but what I found most interesting was the way that appearances and the way the may have an effect on how you see yourself are handled in the film, so that's what I wanted to write about. Now I look forward to watching Teshigahara's other films.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950)

Toshiro Mifune and Machiko Kyo in Rashomon (1950).

After watching Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950), and being somewhat underwhelmed by it, I decided to read some reviews of the film. There seems to be a few different opinions about what the film is really about. Is it concerned only with the Japanese or can the characters' actions be applied to people from anywhere in the world and does the film care about what really happened, the real truth, or does it only care about the way people will change the truth to make themself seem better? I think it falls somewhere in between these different views.

The story is about a rape and murder that takes place out in the woods. It involves a bandit, Tajomaru, and a samurai and his wife. There is also a woodcutter who finds the corpse. They all get to tell their story about what happened after Tajomaru is caught and brought to trial.

The thing that, to me, sticks out the most as exlusively Japanese is that all the characters except the woodcutter, in their version of the what happened, claim to be the killer. If they had been western characters they probably would have claimed their innocence instead. Still, no matter if it is to make their actions seem more honorable, or if it is to make it seem like they had no part in it, both Japanese and western characters would be lying to avoid judgment. No matter the differences of what it means to take responsibility and saving face between the cultures, what it results in is the same for all humans. So, at the same time as it is very Japanese, it is also universal.

Also, as the woodcutters story is the one that seems to be the most truthful, him being the closest thing to an objective observer, even though it is compromised by him having stolen a dagger that may or may not have been the murder weapon. The film does present the viewer with one version that is portrayed as being more accurate than the others, while it also shows that even good men, like the woodcutter, are susceptible to corruption. Basically, it is a film about human nature.

Just as with my take on Kurosawa's Stray Dog (1949), I feel that Rashomon is more about human nature than it is a commentary on a specific society, and that Kurosawa was an emotional filmmaker more than a political one. I think this is also the reason why I was underwhelmed by the film. It didn't bring any new feelings to me, the way it was shot and edited wasn't as spectacular as in the few other films I have seen of his, and its comments on human behaviour didn't feel very original. That is not Rashomon's fault though, it has just been covered a lot since 1950, and it is easy to see how it came to be considered a masterpiece when it was released.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Beat Takeshi vs. Takeshi Kitano (Casio Abe, 2005) / Kitano Takeshi (Aaron Gerow, 2007)

Takeshi Kitano in Hana-Bi (1997).

Recently I have read two books about Takeshi Kitano, the first one being Casio Abe's Beat Takeshi vs. Takeshi Kitano and the second one being Aaron Gerow's Kitano Takeshi. I preferred Gerow's take on Kitano's work as an actor and director, probably because Abe's writing was too academic for me. But another aspect that really annoyed me with Abe's book was the way that he seemed to have one main theory that he forced onto every one of Kitano's films, even when it didn't really fit.

Gerow uses some of the same themes and theories as Abe, such as Takeshi Kitano's struggle to separate himself from his tv-persona of 'Beat' Takeshi and his obsession with his own death, but seems to be more adaptable to the differences in Kitano's films. It makes his book seem less forced and his analyzing of the films becomes more rewarding since it isn't so narrow.

Both books are interesting reads in their own right, but I felt that Gerow gives a wider analysis of Kitano as a person and of his films, while Abe goes deeper into the conflict between 'Beat Takeshi' and Takeshi Kitano and tv versus cinema. I must say, though, that judging by these two books, Kitano's films are more compelling to watch than to read about.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Stray Dog (Akira Kurosawa, 1949)

Toshiro Mifune and Keiko Awaji in Stray Dog (1949).

I'm not sure why it has taken me this long, but I just recently started watching the films of Akira Kurosawa. I think one reason may be him constantly being praised as one of the greatest filmmakers ever, and me not wanting to be disappointed. Another reason is that I have been more interested in recent films and it's not like there has been a shortage of films and directors to explore. After having seen four of his films, ranging from 1949's Stray Dog to 1962's Sanjuro, I realise that there was no reason to be worried about being disappointed and Kurosawa's films appear to be more modern than most that I have seen from the same time period.

Stray Dog is about a rookie homicide detective (Toshiro Mifune) who gets his gun stolen on a crowded train. When his gun is later used in a robbery, the detective hands in his resignation but is instead put on the case. Helping him catch the criminal and retrieve his gun is an older inspector (Takashi Shimura) who is an expert at catching pickpockets.

Most of what I've read about Stray Dog focuses on its depiction of the immediate post-war era and the presence of the American occupational forces and society's part in the fate of the characters in the film. I don't feel that I have enough knowledge of the times to comment on the depiction of post-war Japan but to me the film was mostly about morals and the individual's choices on how to live life in a society that won't take care of you.

While Mifune's detective and Isao Kimura's criminal share the same past as soldiers, who upon their return got their knapsacks stolen on the train taking them home, they did not make the same choices in how to go from there. The detective admits to getting ideas of stealing and taking the "easy" road of crime but realising it is not the way to go, he gets a job instead. Kimura's character instead chooses a life of crime. They are the same on the outside, living in the same society, but it is what's on the inside that sets them apart. I don't agree with the take that society forced the criminal's choices, even if it did play a large part. I think the film ultimately shows that it is up to the individual to make his or her own choices, which is also shown in the way that every character the policemen stumble upon during their investigation knows exactly what they have done right or wrong, it is what they chose and they know the consequences.

The biggest differences between the detectives and the criminals is the feeling of responsibility. Toshiro Mifune feels responsible for the crimes that are carried out using his gun, even though it is not his fault, they would have happened anyway using another gun. The pickpockets and gunrunners they encounter have no such feelings, not because society forced them into it, but because the lack of feeling responsible is a requirement for a lot of criminals. One thing that exemplifies that it is about individual choices, I think, is the young girl (Keiko Awaji) who is a childhood friend of the criminal. She recieves an expensive dress from him but, suspecting that it's been procured through wrongdoing, she doesn't wear it.

Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura and Keiko Awaji.

Even if I'm totally wrong on this, it is still a masterful film, with great performances from everyone involved, especially the three leads in Mifune, Shimura and Awaji. The way it is shot and the editing gives it a feel of being made much later than the late 1940's, something I think is common with a lot of Kurosawa's films. After having seen Yojimbo (1961), Sanjuro (1962) and Seven Samurai (1954), Stray Dog makes me think even higher of Kurosawa and I will be seeing the rest of his films.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Bashing (Masahiro Kobayashi, 2005)

Fusako Urabe as Yuko in Bashing (2005).

Masahiro Kobayashi's Bashing is a fictional story based on the real events of Japanese people being taken as hostages in Iraq in 2004 and, upon release, not being very welcome back in their home country, with even the prime minister at the time, Junichiro Koizumi, condemning them for travelling to a war zone. According to articles about the subject, the former hostages were accused of causing the Japanese government trouble and embarrassing the country of Japan and its people. The general opinion was one of "It's your own fault" and that it was a matter of personal responsibility. The articles also says that the Japanese government charged them for their plane tickets home, and said that they should cover at least part of the cost for freeing them.

The film is about a woman, Yuko, who volunteered to go to Iraq as an aid-worker. After being taken hostage and then released, Yuko has returned to Japan where she is harrassed wherever she goes and her and her family are recieving threatening phone calls. When she is fired from her job for causing a bad mood among her co-workers just by being there, and her father is fired from the company where he has worked for 30 years because they want to protect their image, she decides to go back to Iraq.

While most reviews have mentioned Kobayashi's art house filmmaking and that the film is condemning the Japanese for the way they treated the ex-hostages, I think it also portrays Yuko as a not entirely sympathetic person. While clearly being the victim, the film also shows her as being a selfish person, something that Yuko herself acknowledges in the film. It does not make her a bad person, it just makes her human, and to me, Bashing is more about the right to be human than anything else. It's about having the right to do what you want, even if what you want sometimes is selfish. Of course, that doesn't justify anything that Yuko and her family has to endure but the film gives you more to think about than if it had just been pointing fingers and looking to blame someone the same way that some people did to the freed hostages.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Good Morning (Yasujiro Ozu, 1959)

Yasujiro Ozu's Good Morning (1959).

Last night I watched my first film by Yasujiro Ozu, Good Morning. I have heard a lot about Ozu ever since I first started following Asian cinema but still I didn't really know what to expect. Usually, people say that they love his films but then only talk about the technical aspects of his filmmaking, the editing and the way he shoots his films. I was prepared to be entertained or bored to tears and I ended up somewhere in between, closer to the positive side.

Good Morning's main story, if you can call it that, is about the children of a few families who are neighbors. The kids usually go over to a younger couple to watch sumo wrestling on tv, but when their parents orders them not to, and then scold them for asking too much about getting a tv-set of their own, the kids go on a silence strike as a protest to the adults' meaningless polite chit-chat.

The unnecessary chatter of the adults is shown in a side story about the wives, where the unfounded rumors of one of them buying a washing machine for their collective money begin spreading in the neighborhood, and also in the way two people who may be in love just engage in empty conversation. Perhaps it is necessary though, to make interacting with others easier.

The way the film is shot, with a mostly static camera, and the editing, always showing the person talking head on, almost calls attention to itself by being so straight forward, but after a while I got used to it. It actually helps in making the events of daily life in the film seem more real, which I think is one of the films strongest points, one of the others being humor. A lot of the events in the film are depicted with a lot of humor, especially those of the children, and that also helps in making the characters seem more alive.

All in all, Good Morning turned out to be an enjoyable film and a lot funnier than I had expected. I look forward to seeing more of Ozu's films.