Tag Archives: Japanese

260. AKIRA KUROSAWA’S DREAMS (1990)

Yume; Dreams

“I dream my paintings, then I paint my dreams.”–Vincent Van Gogh

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Akira Kurosawa

FEATURING: Akira Terao

PLOT: Legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa lenses eight short films inspired by his own dreams. The main character, played by two child actors and one adult, is simply credited as “I.” The dreams involve a fox wedding, living doll spirits, a snow witch, a platoon of dead soldiers, Vincent van Gogh, the explosion of Mt. Fuji, a weeping demon, and a happy funeral.

Still from Akira Kurosawa's Dreams (1990)

BACKGROUND:

  • One of the most awarded filmmakers in cinema history, Akira Kurosawa made Dreams at the age of 80. He had not made a movie since 1985’s Ran. He completed two features after Dreams before finally retiring in 1993 and dying in 1998.
  • Late in his life, Kurosawa had difficulty raising money in Japan because, despite winning awards overseas, his movies did not make a lot of money in his home country. After reading the script for Dreams, Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas convinced Warner Brothers to fund the film. Spielberg served as executive producer and Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic provided the visual effects.
  • Ishiro Honda (Godzilla) served as “creative consultant” and is said to have directed some sequences uncredited, as well as supplying the inspiration for “The Tunnel” segment (which was similar to a story Honda had written but never filmed),
  • Kurosawa personally chose to play Vincent Van Gogh because the director’s energy matched his conception of Van Gogh’s passionate nature.
  • A final ninth dream, which would have involved an outbreak of world peace, was scrapped because Kurosawa envisioned legions of extras and it would have been too expensive to film.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: “I” wandering through a series of Van Gogh paintings, crossing over painted bridges and stepping around painted trees.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Dancing dolls; Martin Van Gogh; demon under a dandelion

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: When one of the world’s greatest filmmakers deigns to tell us of his dreams, we should sit quietly and listen. If we do, we will be privileged to witness ghostly spirit pageants, movie screens transformed into impressionist canvases splotched by gobs of paint, giant dandelions, and horned demons weeping beside pools of blood.  We have much to learn.


Original trailer for Dreams

COMMENTS: The title is a lie. The visions here are not literal recreations of Akira Kurosawa’s dreams. Although each segment grows Continue reading 260. AKIRA KUROSAWA’S DREAMS (1990)

CAPSULE: MURDER UNINCORPORATED [DAI NIPPON KOROSHI-YA-DEN] (1965)

DIRECTED BY: Haruyasu Nogushi

FEATURING: , Kon Ômura, Hiroshi Hijikata, Bontarô Taira

PLOT: A cartel of crime bosses, their lives threatened by the infamous Joe of Spades, hires a collective of assassins of dubious skill to protect them and to root out their enemy.

Still from Murder Unicorporated (1965)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Even by slapstick standards, the collection of oddballs assembled here is pretty strange, and a subplot involving the only character in the film playing it straight adds a surprising layer of seriousness to a story that is almost entirely absurd. But the overall goal is sustained silliness, rather than true head-scratching weirdness, and the final product wouldn’t be out of place alongside more recent genre-twisting comedies featuring Adam Sandler or his cohorts.

COMMENTS: Viewers know what they’re getting from Murder Unincorporated in the first 20 seconds: a man looks directly at us and warns us that if we do not laugh, he will shoot us. So we have ourselves a comedy, albeit one with the perpetual threat of violence. For whatever else this film tries to accomplish, this much is an unqualified success.

In a city so rife with illegal activity that the top crime bosses divide their efforts by specific illicit enterprises, even crime bosses must turn to the titular corporation when their lives are threatened by a vengeful assassin. The response is a motley collection of aspiring hired guns, including a lovesick poet bearing a volume of Heinrich Heine verse, a baseball fanatic who refuses to work while the Yomiuri Giants are playing, a chef who is terrified to slice fish, and even a hard-drinking, cigar-smoking dwarf who professes to be the grandson of Al Capone. But first and foremost is a wannabe Jerry Lewis armed with an abacus, who is escaping an apprenticeship where his boss yanks hairs out of his head. In short, they’re all incompetent and certifiably crazy.

And yet the absurdity can hardly be blamed entirely on these goofballs. The whole town is quite insane. A rival gang hires its own killers to take out the rented assassins, including a pair of brothers who dress like the protagonists of “Spy vs. Spy” and a chiseled European identified only as “006…007’s boss.” Even the killings themselves are aggressively wacky: when one of the crime bosses is gunned down, he and his bodyguards roll around like acrobats before finally expiring. With determined madness, undercranked chase scenes, and a relentlessly sunny disposition, Murder Unincorporated plays like a -helmed episode of “The Benny Hill Show.”

All this absurdity is punctuated by the constant presence of guns. They can be found everywhere—embedded in a briefcase, a baseball bat, a book of poetry—and are used for every purpose, from dialing telephones to changing TV channels. It’s tempting to view the film as a satirical commentary on violence, but given the way they are so integral to the movie’s brand of comedy, it’s far more appropriate to think of guns as an updated version of vaudevillian cream pies, thrown in a flurry and landing where they may.

There is one exception to all of this nonsense. Early on, the Jerry Lewis-analogue meets up with a chill motorcyclist who quickly establishes himself as the only normal person in the film. Even a viewer unfamiliar with leading man Joe Shishido will be completely unspoiled by the revelation that this is Joe of Spades. He will slowly unveil his true identity and abilities, even as the gang of peculiar assassins obliviously pursues him.

Shishido seems flown in from another movie, and in a way, he is. Murder Unincorporated is a product of the Nikkatsu studio, which exploited its onscreen talent by showcasing it in films where directors and writers were given a freer reign to push genre boundaries. (The film is showcased Arrow Films’ “Nikkatsu Diamond Guys” DVD/Blu-Ray set alongside two of the studio’s other films, Tokyo Mighty Guy and Danger Paws, that are offbeat or unusual in their own way, although not reaching the heights of zaniness seen here.) In this case, the studio seems to have tried to leaven the craziness with the cool violence of a proven star who just happened to be under contract. It doesn’t not work, but the two styles never fully gel.

After the final showdown, the movie pulls out one more trick and goes all meta on us; someone observes, “The police are coming for the first time in this movie.” It’s a funny line, and the film as a whole is fairly amusing; when you throw so many jokes at the screen, a decent number are bound to land. But after a while, the frantic reach for laughs is equal parts entertaining and exhausting. There’s not much like Murder Unincorporated, which turns out to be kind of a relief.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… a completely insane black comedy with a ridiculous body count that plays like a drug-addled mash up of The Assassination Bureau, Frank Tashlin, and Mad magazine… More like a string of bizarre comedy sketches than a normal narrative… but it’s a fascinating and very entertaining comedy if you’re in the right frame of mind.”–Nathaniel Thompson, Mondo Digital (DVD box set)

254. THE FACE OF ANOTHER (1966)

Recommended

他人の顔; Tanin no kao

“The world in which Abe, Teshigahara, and Takemitsu came of age as expressive artists was not one for which they had been prepared by their forebears or by any social legacy. The values of prewar Japan had been utterly discredited by their nation’s defeat, the society emasculated by foreign occupiers for the first time in Japanese history. The so-called democracy that was being layered onto the Japanese body politic by temporary American rulers seemed ill fitted to a culture that had never valued individualism or freedom of expression. They wandered forth into a strange new world that had no identity of its own and was distorted by poverty and foreign occupation. Everywhere were symptoms of an existential dilemma on a vast national scale. In retrospect, it seems hardly surprising that the compelling themes of Japanese artists of the day were those of alienation, the search for identity, and the struggle for survival in a wasted landscape…”–Peter Grilli, writing for the Criterion Collection

“Yield to the mask.” —The Face of Another

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Mikijirô Hira, Machiko Kyô, Miki Irie

PLOT: Left with a disfigured face after an industrial accident, Okuyama spends his days in bandages while complaining to his wife. Hatching a scheme of questionable ethics with his psychiatrist-surgeon, things change for Okuyama after a cunningly designed mask is crafted to allow him, at least part of the time, to be “normal.” However, the doctor’s warnings of personality shift come true as Okuyama attempts to seduce his own wife to wreak emotional revenge.

Stoll from The Face of Another (1966)

BACKGROUND:

  • Like 1962’s Pitfall and 1964’s Woman in the Dunes (also Certified Weird), The Face of Another was based on the work of novelist Kôbô Abe. While the psychiatrist appears only passingly in Abe’s book, his role was greatly expanded in the film to allow for a more tangible counterpart to Okuyama.
  • Director Hiroshi Teshigaraha stuck with the classic “academy ratio” and black and white film one last time with this movie, despite the then-current popularity of color and CinemaScope. He surrendered to modernizing pressures with his next movie, The Man Without a Map.
  • The incongruous waltz playing in the opening credits (as well as the German night-club song at the biergarten) was written by Teshigahara’s and Abe’s collaborator, composer Tôru Takemitsu, whose score was also instrumental in Pitfall and Woman in the Dunes.
  • Despite being commercially and critically well-received in its home country, The Face of Another met with a tepid audience beyond Japan’s borders. A number of critics, it seemed, had had just about enough of the intellectualist, art-house cinema that had been bombarding the movie scene for some years by then.
  • Another of Teshigahara’s art buddies — Arata Isozaki — stepped up to the plate, designing the psychiatrist’s morphing, glass-filled office. An architect by vocation, Isozaki went on to design numerous famous buildings, including the MOCA in Los Angeles and the stadium for the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Though any shot with Okuyama bandaged sticks in the mind, the most jarring scene occurs when he’s fully disguised as a normal person. Having just been released into the custody of his psychiatrist after an arrest for assault, Okuyama and the doctor face a swarm of sack-clay masked citizens descending upon the streets. The doctor looks unnerved by the sight; his patient less so. Before their dramatic “goodbye”, they are utterly enveloped in a sea of faceless faces.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Ever-mutating doctor’s office; sunbeam cooks incestuous brother; the faceless masses

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The Face of Another  is essentially a Japanese New Wave art-house musing on the nature of identity. But cranking things into the realm of bizarre is a series of sets and scenes—the doctor’s uncannily undefinable office space, mirrored mirrors, and so forth—as well as strange veering between philosophical and vengeful tones. Throw in a second (and even an obliquely referenced third) story line, a German biergarten in downtown Japan, and the occasional symbolist image (among them a Doorway to Whirling Hair and spontaneous transfiguration to slaughtered livestock), and, well, you could say you’re facing something pretty weird.

Trailer for The Face of Another

COMMENTS: The meaninglessness of personal identity is a troublesome thing to ponder. The interchangeability of any given cog in society’s wheel flies in the face of notions of individuality and the Continue reading 254. THE FACE OF ANOTHER (1966)

LIST CANDIDATE: A SNAKE OF JUNE (2002)

Rokugatsu No Hebi

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Asuka Kurosawa, Shinya Tsukamoto, Yûji Kôtari

PLOT: A sexually repressed woman is blackmailed into living out her erotic fantasies by a stalker.

Still from A Snake of June (2002)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Done in a sleazier and more straightforward style, the script’s voyeuristic hook might have led us into “erotic thriller” territory, resulting in a film destined to play “Cinemax After Dark” at 2:30 AM. But Snake is a fever dream of outsider auteur Shinya Tsukamoto, who turns it into Belle de Jour by way of Tetsuo: The Iron Man. It’s sometimes a little frustrating totry to  follow, but there is no doubt Tsukamoto’s getting freaky, and not just in the bedroom.

COMMENTS: The first half of A Snake of June is fairly conventional (at least, by our standards). Mousy Rinko answers calls at a suicide hotline. Her husband, the older Shigehiko, is a salaryman with a cleaning fetish and little time for romance. Iguchi is a depressed photographer who only takes pictures of household objects: blenders, or waffle irons. When Iguchi calls Rinko and she talks him down off the metaphorical ledge, he decides to reward her by forcing her to live out her sexual fantasies: he stalks her, takes pictures of her masturbating, and then threatens to make them public if she doesn’t dress up in a microskirt with no underwear and wander through a busy marketplace. Although the scenario seems skeevy, it shows character development on Iguchi’s part—he’s shifted his interest  from inert objects to people. He is stalking and manipulating the woman but he is not treating Rinko as an object—he fully acknowledges her humanity as he puts her through erotic exercises he genuinely believes will make her into the happier person she deserves to be.

The first half of the film is told from the perspective of Rinko, and, unlikely as the setup might be, it is presented in a straightforward fashion. Halfway through, the point-of-view shifts to hubby Shigehiko. The stalker arranges to have the neurotic husband drugged, and when he awakens he’s shown (or more likely hallucinates) an sado-erotic snuff cabaret exhibition where the performers are sealed inside tanks which slowly fill up with water, while a cone is strapped to his face, restricting his field of vision. That’s just the beginning of the new strangeness; in a third perspective shift, the narrative begins to focus on Iguchi, and we are treated to a brazen masturbation scene from Rinko (in the neverending Japanese rain, natch) and a violent confrontation between Iguchi and Shigehiko that includes an assault by a slithering phallic piece of corrugated PVC pipe (this comes from the director of Tetsuo, after all). In the end, wife and husband share a meal and make love as if none of the aforementioned weirdness ever happened. It probably never did.

Although we have tagged this movie with “black and white,” it should be noted that it the film is actually tinted a shade of blue-gray that suggests the perpetually overcast skies of Snake‘s rain-soaked Tokyo streets. Dividing the movie into a nearly conventional first half and a surreal second hemisphere that both advances and reconfigures the narrative is an interesting gambit. A Snake of June drags at times, and confuses frequently, but few who see it will forget it, or accuse it of playing it safe.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This vision includes some freakishly surreal moments… The results, while uneven, do represent a journey for the audience – exhilarating, worthwhile and memorable after the event – even if, along the way, we’re never sure exactly where we’re going to end up.”–Neil Young, Neil Young’s Film Lounge (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE CURSE [NOROI] (2005)

DIRECTED BY: Kōji Shiraishi

FEATURING: Jin Muraki, Rio Canno, Tomono Kuga, Marika Matsumoto

PLOT: A paranormal investigator discovers a connection between a succession of mysterious phenomena.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Though innovative and solidly crafted, the film remains too structurally close to a standard horror to be considered genuinely weird. Noroi stretched for—and, to a great degree, attained—innovation and uniqueness as a work of horror. But there’s little sense that it was ever aiming to be genuinely weird, at least not as this site defines the word. There’s an atmosphere of unreality brought about by the persistent otherworldly presence that wafts throughout the film, but nonetheless, the world in which it manifests is a sane and recognizable one, presented in the plain, organic style that befits the better-crafted sort of found footage film.

COMMENTS: The roots of the found footage style can be traced back as far as 1980’s infamous piece of cannibalsploitation nastiness, Cannibal Holocaust. Found footage, in its early days, represented a promising breath of fresh air for horror. After the genre had spent the last few decades building itself up on a foundation of excess, The Blair Witch Project and its imitators introduced a fresh appreciation for minimalism, implication, and the power of atmosphere in horror—as well as a new way to stretch a budget.

As was inevitable, however, the ugly side-effects of popularity began to kick in; and, as exemplified in the latter films in the Paranormal Activity franchise, the style become an overused parody of itself, completely abandoning the subtleties that gave it its appeal and intrigue for the sake of greater marketability. The “in-universe camera” aspect became little more than an excuse to underpay the cinematographer.

Fortunately for Noroi, it hopped on the found footage bandwagon before Hollywood had fully awoken to its exploitability. Or, put another way, it came out four years before Paranormal Activity, when found footage was still mildly novel.

And, though there’s far more to Noroi than its handheld camera style, this is undeniably a defining aspect of the movie. Noroi is, in short, a horror film that, though distinctly Eastern in general content, is presented in a cinematic style invented and grown almost entirely in the Western world of cinema. Put simply, it’s perhaps one of the most literal cases of J-Horror through a Westernised lens.

Noroi’s director, Kōji Shiraishi, while perhaps not enjoying ‘s levels of cult recognition in the West, has nonetheless solidly established himself as one of Japan’s more prominent 21st century horror directors. Citing both local directors and several of Hollywood’s classic horror masters (, Raimi , et. al.) among his influences, his affinity for experimentation within the genre shows clearly in the broad and diverse body of his work.

Noroi, perhaps his most recognized work in the West, is striking for its slick and effective blend of the familiar and the unexpected. In many ways, his cinematic telling of this particular tale of horror does not shy away from indulging in well-worn genre standards. The J-Horror aficionado will immediately recognize the ominous shrines and the stringy-haired ghost girl in a billowing white gown; the found-footage enthusiast will recognize the journalist protagonist whose relentless drive to document the truth serves as the reason the in-universe camera is always on; and more or less anyone with a taste for horror in any form will recognize the disquieting little girl with the less-than-enviable bonds to the world of the paranormal, or the curse that stubbornly hangs around after centuries.

And yet, in many other ways, Noroi distinguishes itself, particularly in its portrayal of its main horror.

It’s long been established that, in horror, vagueness is often the key to effective chills. From the beginning, it’s clear that Noroi understands this well. It’s not an excessively subtle film, by any stretch of the imagination—the psychic, with his hyperactive paranoia and affinity for tin foil, couldn’t be anything but comedic in any context—but in its presentation of its central threat, Noroi is strikingly effective. The film’s unfortunate protagonists are plagued by a demonic presence that makes itself known in a far more underhanded way that the petty, poltergeist-like antics of the Paranormal Activity ghost and its ilk. At the same time, however, the threat it presents is never undermined; its presence lurks throughout the film, mercilessly persistent, and all the more haunting for its vagueness.

Of course, like any horror scenario built on vagueness, the payoff needs to be meticulously crafted. Personally, I found Noroi‘s conclusion, perfectly functional as it was, to be rather mediocre in comparison with the rest of it. Still, Noroi is a solidly founded work of J-Horror, and, moreover, one of the sadly overlooked examples of the found footage style as it ought to be implemented (most of the others, incidentally, being zero-budget webseries uploaded to YouTube). It is not, however, an example of “weird” cinema to any significant degree. It’s unique, original, and evokes an excellently crafted atmosphere; but pretending that those elements are synonymous with being “weird” only cheapens the art of cinematic absurdity we’re so fond of around here.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…overstays its welcome with an unnecessarily complicated and increasingly absurd final act…”–Neil Young, Neil Young’s Film Lodge (festival screening)

247. WOMAN IN THE DUNES (1964)

Suna no onna

“TO see a World in a grain of sand,
And a Heaven in a wild flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour…”

–William Blake, Auguries of Innocence

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Eiji Okada, Kyôko Kishida

PLOT: An schoolteacher and amateur entomologist’s search for an elusive beetle takes him to a remote seaside village. Needing a place to stay, he asks the townspeople for lodging and is offered shelter with an odd young widow who lives in a shack at the bottom of a pit. The next morning, as he prepares to leave, he finds that the villagers have tricked him and he is trapped in the pit, forced to shovel sand in return for food and water, presumably for the remainder of his days.

Still from Woman in the Dunes (1964)

BACKGROUND:

  • Kōbō Abe wrote the novel “The Woman in the Dunes” in 1962 and was in the rare and enviable position of adapting it for the screen himself two years later. Abe wrote a total of four screenplays for director Hiroshi Teshigahara, all of which were scored by legendary composer Tôru Takemitsu.
  • Takemitsu’s score was recorded by a string ensemble, then electronically distorted.
  • The film was cut by  about twenty minutes during its original release. The full length film runs about two and a half hours.
  • Woman in the Dunes was nominated for a Best Foreign Language film Oscar, and, more impressively for a Hollywood outsider, Teshigahara was nominated for Best Director. Dunes lost in 1965 to Italy’s Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow, while Teshigahara was personally nominated for the 1966 awards instead (losing to Robert Wise for The Sound of Music).
  • The nudity and sex in the film were daring by 1964 standards, causing the import to be marketed in the U.S. with the tagline “The most provocative picture ever made.”
  • Teshigahara retired from filmmaking in 1979 to enter the family business—flower arranging!

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Sand, endless sand. Shifting sand, cascading sand, crumbling walls of sand, grains of sand stuck between toes. But to narrow it down, the dream sequences where the entomologist sees women superimposed over the sand, once with the sand ripples mimicking strands of hair, and once with a dune tracing the curve of a hip.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Feminine mirages; rotting sand; voyeur drum circle

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The plot of Woman in the Dunes—a man trapped into slavery in a remote village, forced to labor to earn his keep—is almost plausible, allowing the unimaginative to view it as a dull version of an escape movie. The hypnotic pace, bleakly beautiful cinematography, and Toru Takemitsu’s unnerving score inform this fable’s weird construction, however, creating a sense of strangeness that slowly gets under your skin like beach sand gets under your swimsuit.


Original Japanese trailer for Woman in the Dunes

COMMENTS: A man, a woman, sand: those are the triangular borders of Woman in the Dunes. Within this minimal landscape, the Continue reading 247. WOMAN IN THE DUNES (1964)

246. BELLADONNA OF SADNESS (1973)

Kanashimi no Beradonna

“With all of this splendid weirdness—Michelet’s occult/feminist novel, Fukai’s ravishingly beautiful, X-rated illustrations, and Satoh’s brain-shredding score—what could possibly go wrong? Everything, according to director Yamomoto.”–Dennis Bartok, explaining Belladonna of Sadness‘s commercial failure at the time of its release in the liner notes to the Cinelicious Blu-ray release.

Recommended

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Eiichi Yamamoto

FEATURING: Voices of Chinatsu Nakayama, Aiko Nagayama, , Katsuyuki Itô, Masaya Takahashi

PLOT: In medieval Europe, peasants Jean and Jeanne go to their local Lord to bless their unconsummated marriage, but the royals gang-rape the bride instead because Jean cannot afford the outrageous matrimonial tax. Later, Jeanne is visited by a demon who promises to give her power to oppose the Lord’s might and get revenge. At first she resists, but as the Lord’s outrages mount, she finally gives herself to Satan fully and becomes a powerful witch.

Still from Belladonna of Sadness (1973)

BACKGROUND:

  • This film was the third part of a trilogy of adult animation features on Western themes commissioned by legendary anime pioneer Osama Tezuka (famous for the television manga adaptations “Astro Boy” and “Kimba the White Lion”) and his Mushi studio. The first in the series was 1969’s erotic version of “The Arabian Tales,” A Thousand & One Nights (also directed by Yamamoto). Nights was a commercial hit (although it remains unavailable on home video), so the studio went ahead with Cleopatra in 1970 (which Yamamoto co-directed with Tezuka). Cleopatra was a commercial and artistic flop, but the studio went ahead with Belladonna of Sadness anyway. Tezuka left Mushi before the final film was completed, and Belladonna bombed even more than Cleopatra. Mushi went bankrupt soon after. Belladonna was exhibited in only a handful of lower echelon theaters in Japan and only lightly released outside of that country until 2015’s rediscovery and reappraisal.
  • The unlikely source material for Belladonna of Sadness was Jules Michelet’s 1862 non-fiction book “Le sorciere” (AKA “Satanism and Witchcraft“), a sympathetic treatment which cast the practice of witchcraft as a protest against the feudal system and the power of the Church.
  • “Belladonna” literally means “beautiful woman” in Italian, but it is also the name of a toxic hallucinogenic plant thought to have been used in ancient witchcraft rituals.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Without a doubt, the initial rape scene. Although the movie contains shocking, unforgettable, wild and weird imagery throughout, the expressionistic violation of Jeanne, showing her being split in twain like a wishbone as her crotch emits a bloody geyser that morphs into crimson bats who fly away, was the only one that made me mutter out loud “wow”!

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Bloody rape bats; Satan is a dick; surrealist daisy chain orgy

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Belladonna of Sadness is like watching Saturday morning cartoons mixed with high art mixed with hentai, laced with acid. It’s some damned thing that you’ve never seen before.


U.S. release trailer for Belladonna of Sadness

COMMENTS: We a huge debt of gratitude to whoever’s idea it was Continue reading 246. BELLADONNA OF SADNESS (1973)

244. WHY DON’T YOU PLAY IN HELL? (2013)

Jigoku de naze warui

“We’re in reality, and they’re in the fantastic. Reality is going to lose!”–Ikegami, Why Don’t You Play in Hell?

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Hiroki Hasegawa, Fumi Nikaidou, Jun Kunimura, , Gen Hoshiro, , Tomochika

PLOT: Director Hirata leads a group of anarchic filmmakers who dub themselves “the Fuck Bombers”; he wants to make one great movie in his life, or die trying. Meanwhile, the Muto clan is at war with a rival bunch of yazkuza, and Boss Muto’s daughter, Mitsuko, is starting her career as a child actress with a popular toothpaste commercial. Ten years later these two plotlines collide when, through a string of coincidences, Boss Muto hires Hirata to film his raid on rival Ikegami’s headquarters, in hopes that the footage will be used in a movie that will make Mitsuko a star.

Still from Why Don't You Play in Hell? (2013)

BACKGROUND:

  • Shion Sono belonged to an amateur filmmaking group in high school and drew on those experiences for writing the script. (Future director was also a member of the group). The character of Hirata is based on an acquaintance, however, not on Sono himself. (Sono relates that he was cast in the “Bruce Lee” role in their amateur productions).
  • Sono wrote the script about fifteen years before it was produced.
  • Many viewers incorrectly assume that the yellow tracksuit Tak Sagaguchi wears is a reference to ‘s outfit in Kill Bill. In fact, both and Sono are referencing Bruce Lee’s costume from Game of Death. Sono was so irritated by the constant misidentification that he included an explicit reference to it in his next feature, Tokyo Tribe (2014).
  • Why Don’t You Play in Hell? was the winner of this site’s 6th Readers’ Choice poll.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: It’s a close call between the scene of a darling little Mitsuko singing a toothpaste commercial jingle while standing ankle deep in a pool of blood in her living room, or the rainbow-colored jets of blood that stream from yakuza hearts punctured by adult Mitsuko’s katana as she stabs her way through a field of flowers. Take your pick.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Singing in the blood, vomiting on a prayer, rainbow arterial spray

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Up until the final thirty minutes, Hell appears only mildly unusual; the characters and situations are exaggerated, but besides one bloody hallucinatory memory and a broken-bottle French kiss, not too much happens that you couldn’t see in a Japanese version of Get Shorty. When it comes time for the movie-within-a-movie to roll, things change: decapitated heads fly about like bats and stylish machismo flows as freely as blood as logic flees the scene in abject terror.


U.S. release trailer for Why Don’t You Play in Hell?

COMMENTS: Ambitious high-school director Hirata addresses the Continue reading 244. WHY DON’T YOU PLAY IN HELL? (2013)

LIST CANDIDATE: ANGEL’S EGG (1985)

Tenshi no Tamago

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Mako Hyôdô, Jinpachi Nezu, Kei’ichi Noda

PLOT: In a desolate city, an angelic young girl cherishes an egg.

Still from Angel's Egg (1985)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: This haunting animation more or less entirely forgoes dialogue and narrative for a large helping of theistic symbolism and rich visuals.

COMMENTS: It’s often said that we anime fans fetishize the “otherness” of anime—or, put less pretentiously, it’s often said we like stuff simply because it’s Japanese.

To be honest, there’s some accuracy to that. But can you blame us? As one of the only non-Western entertainment mediums to gain measurable popularity here, anime represents, for many of us, the one substantial deviation from our entertainment norms. Hell, for many people, it’s more or less the only reminder that a norm even exists.

Of course, it’d be obscenely simplistic to say that’s what makes a work like Angel’s Egg so deeply engaging—but it’s definitely a factor.

Released in 1985, this 71-minute OVA (non-theatrical video feature) is the brainchild of director Mamuro Oshii (best known, at least around here, for his sci-fi philosophy-fest Ghost in the Shell) in collaboration with artist Yoshitaka Amano. One of the earlier efforts—and his second OVA—on Oshii’s extensive resume, Egg showcases that familiar blend of surrealism, introspection, and distinctly grit-flavored sci-fi that defines not only Oshii’s own work, but also a great deal of anime’s other “weird” offerings (End of Evangelion and “Serial Experiments Lain” come to mind).

Like so many of the movies featured here, Angel’s Egg largely supplants narrative with hefty symbolism and visual indulgence. Set in a grey and empty city of desolate Victorian/Gothic architecture—every single frame of it rendered with almost dizzying artistic excellence—the film follows a young girl who ekes out a lonely existence scavenging among the ruins and, for reasons known only to her, collecting hundreds of glass bottles of water. The girl tends to a large egg, carrying with her everywhere, believing that it holds a beautiful bird within it.

One day, a young man wielding a cross-shaped staff intrudes on the girl’s lifeless world, following her to her lonely abode. Other stuff happens, but really, to try and describe any aspect of this film with words is to sell it short.

Angel’s Egg is—again, like so many of the List’s films—a work of cinema defined by more than what happens on screen. It is defined by its atmosphere; a heavy, heavy atmosphere. The Gothic elements of this animation extend well beyond the architecture. Every frame of this film oozes ghostliness and desolation. The girl and the young man exist in a world of crumbling greyness and deafening silence, and every moment of the film’s striking visuals, ominous choral soundtrack, and heavy, lingering shots ensures that the viewer shares in every bit of the characters’ haunting isolation. Some may Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: ANGEL’S EGG (1985)

LIST CANDIDATE: SYMBOL (2009)

Shinboru

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Hitoshi Matsumoto, David Quintero, Luis Accinelli

PLOT: A Japanese man wakes up in an enormous white chamber whose walls and floor are littered with cherubic phalluses; meanwhile a Mexican luchador, “Escargot Man,” prepares for a wrestling match.

Still from Symbol (2009)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The main narrative, following the action in the white room, is so absolutely removed from reality it demands a place on the List, while the Mexican wrestling scenes remain incongruous and weirdly exotic throughout.

COMMENTS: It’s difficult to talk about why Symbol is so arresting and oddly rewarding without spoiling details of the story or the reveals near the film’s end. Suffice to say the two seemingly unrelated narratives come together in a most unexpected and ridiculous way, and the torture experienced by the Japanese protagonist in the white room leads to a truly transcendent revelation by the film’s end.

The film is structured under three headings: “Learning, Practice and Future.” Learning refers to the rough education the Japanese man receives in the white room from the mischievous owners of the Cherubic phalluses, while the particulars of Practice and Future I’ll leave viewers to discover on their own.

Much of the early joy of the film involves watching Matsumoto interact with the white room and the objects released therein, seeing his mounting frustration at the “bait and switch” as the Cherubs deliver alternately helpful or useless items. They give him an endless stream of sushi rolls, but no soy sauce until after he’s eaten the very last one; 3D glasses direct him to press a particular button, only to have an enormous Cherub behind break wind on him. Another scene sees him releasing an endless pile of chopsticks before he finally presses a different phallus, sending an office trolley careening into his shin. This comedic torment in the vein of silent film comics like or Harold Lloyd continues until Matsumoto recognizes a means of escape…only to be led to earth-shattering alternatives.

There is very little to fault in this film; from its production values to its execution it is equally unique, vibrant and visually arresting. The pacing is surprisingly jaunty for an episodic film, and it actually rewards a re-watch to see how all the various threads build towards the film’s close. Some viewers may find the ridiculous payoffs a little too surreal to be satisfying; to them I can only recommend the consolation to be found in the philosophical treatise “In Praise of Silly,” the book never written by comedian Mike Myers’s father, who believed silliness “was our natural state, and we only get serious to get to silly.” Symbol contains moments of textbook Japanese cinematic weirdness.

A possible weak element of the film (other than two unnecessary moments of flatulence humor) could be identified in Matsumoto’s performance; while his timing is excellent and he works as a hapless, unassuming everyman, his constant screaming is often irritating. A more skilled slapstick performer like , Lee Evans or Rowan Atkinson could have made the physical comedy transcendent and ballet-like rather than merely solid and amusing. This is a rare case where I would not mind a U.S. remake.

I know little about director and star Matsumoto, other than he is one half of a comic duo—the boke or “funny man” of a team called “Downtown”—on Japanese television, just like his contemporary Takeshi “Beat” Kitano (Hana-bi, Violent Cop) was at the beginning of his career. The comparison to Kitano is apt due to the similar career trajectory the two men have followed, although Matsumoto only has four feature film directorial credits to his name and none of the Kitano’s international recognition—at least for the time being. Also, from a cursory YouTube glance, Matsumoto’s TV persona appears to be that of a histrionic, put-upon weed (the character he develops here follows a similar vein) whereas Kitano’s comedy always came from his role as bully.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…one of the most bizarre, impenetrable films of the year. That doesn’t mean it is not funny, intriguing and visually impressive, just don’t expect to come out being anything less than baffled.”–Owen Van Spall, “Eye for Film” (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by many people, but “Roy” was first when he advised us in 2010 “You gotta check out this flick ‘Symbol’ by the director of Big Man Japan.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)