Tag Archives: Japanese

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, Tatsuya Nakadai, 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.)

CAPSULE: CUTIE HONEY (2004)

AKA Cutie Honey: Live Action

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Eriko Satô, Mikako Ichikawa, Jun Murakami, Eisuke Sakai; voices of Carrie Keranen, Eva Kaminsky, Vinnie Penna, Madeleine Blaustein (English dub)

PLOT: A naive, upbeat female superhero battles the alien organization “Panther Claw” after they abduct her professor uncle, while simultaneously trying to keep her temp job and find a true friend.

Still from Cutie Honey (2004)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It is weird, in that Japanese pop way, but it’s also extremely lightweight, and we have to draw the line somewhere.

COMMENTS: “She’s that trendy girl/The one with the teeny butt… She’s that popular girl, the one with the bouncy boobs.” So goes Cutie Honey‘s theme song, which omits any reference to her crimefighting abilities. Our first view of Honey is of her soapy legs and feet in the bubble bath. She gets a phone call in the tub, learns her uncle is abducted, and has to rush to the scene of the crime—only she has no clothes available, so she runs through the street in her underwear, partially covered by a trash bag that doesn’t conceal much. Her regular crimefighting costume features skintight black pants and a heart-shaped cutout for her cleavage; during her off hours she favors midriff-baring mini-skirts and stiletto heels. Somehow, the camera always finds that the upskirt angle best captures the energy of the fight sequences. But, even though Cutie’s body is relentlessly sexualized—virtually fetishized—the story never compromises the innocence of her character. Cutie herself has no sexuality; she seeks only harmless friendship, and any impure thoughts others might have about her stem strictly from their own corruption. (The bosses clearly get an erotic charge out of battling her, especially Cobalt Claw, the vampire dominatrix Honey defeats with a searing embrace). Japanese movies have a way of pulling off this innocent fanservice without making it seem too skeevy, and director Hideaki Anno’s background in anime clearly served him well in the endeavor.

Former swimsuit model Eriko Satô’s considerable physical appeal aside—and to be fair, she does do a nice job rounding out her character between all the cheesecake shots, locating Honey’s legitimate grrl power—Cutie Honey is a wild, electric affair, one of the best live-action translations of anime style. Anno even splices in some brief, stylized animation at times, such as when Honey dodges Gold Claw’s missiles in the sky or hurls Scarlet Calw’s energy beam back at the villainous supergeisha. Of course, reality is a distant cousin to the characters of this world, and they’re not really on speaking terms. Panther Claw’s human henchmen dress in snazzy black Zorro-inspired uniforms, carry golden guns, and generally act like disposable buffoons from Adam West’s “Batman.”  The big baddie—Sister Jill—is some sort of tree goddess who eats virgins, and her tuxedo-clad butler wears eyeliner and a very fake mustache. There’s also a giant holographic uncle. And what would a weird Asian movie be without out-of-place musical numbers, including some drunken karaoke from the three principals, plus a quartet of henchmen playing violins as Black Claw croons a jazzy mid-tempo challenge (your toe will tap as he sings “for the sake of my own happiness, please wither away beautifully, baby.”) Cutie Honey is like an extended sugar-rush episode of “Power Rangers,” if the solo Ranger was played by a teenage pop star who dresses like a hooker.

The “Cutie Honey” franchise began life as an ecchi manga, then became a more innocent animated children’s TV series in the 1970s, followed by various video and television revivals of varying degrees of naughtiness. This feature version was followed by a live-action TV series, with a new live-action feature film scheduled for release in October 2016. Hideaki Anno, of course, is best known around here for directing two separate “Evangelion” anime series; we’re still awaiting the final installment of the second series, which seems to have stalled since Evangelion 3.0: You Can (Not) Redo rolled out in 2012.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…those who like their films with a distinctly Western sensibility should be warned – Cutie Honey is loaded with trademark Japanese kookiness, and is at times just plain weird.”–Craig Villinger, “Digital Retribution” (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by a reader whose comment was lost in a server crash years ago. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

239. TEKKONKINKREET (2006)

“It was a strange time in Japan: just after the Kobe earthquake and in the midst of Aum’s sarin attacks. Helicopters flying overhead at all hours, police on the streets, yakuza killing cult members on television. Weird with a big W. But my friend had a good manga collection and I was getting bored, so I asked him for a recommendation. And, without stopping to think, he handed me the just-released books of Tekkon… that was it. Hooked. Even the first illustration of Black and White looking over the city – it just felt so real, felt like what I was doing, staring from above at the construction in our neighborhood, listening to helicopters at night, searching for something solid to hold on to in those pre-apocalyptic days.”–Michael Arias on why he decided to adapt Tekkonkinkreet for the screen

DIRECTED BY: Michael Arias

FEATURING: Voices of Kazunari Nimomiya, Yu Aoi (Japanese); Scott Menville, Kamali Minter (English dub)

PLOT: Black, a master fighter despite his young age, and White, a naïve smaller boy given to prophetic pronouncements, live unsupervised on the streets of an urban district nicknamed “Treasure Town.” A gang of yakuza move into the area with the intent of tearing down much of the district to create an amusement park, which requires them to get rid of the powerful Black. As he consolidates his power, the leader of the yakuza sends three superhuman assassins to kill the two boys; but when White is placed under protective police custody, can Black survive without him?

Still from Tekkonkinkreet (2006)

BACKGROUND:

  • The story was adapted from a manga (comic) by Taiyô Matsumoto.
  • The title is a mispronunciation (presumably by White) of the Japanese phrase “Tekkin Konkurito” (steel and concrete). The phrase also evokes the Japanese word for “muscle.”
  • Director Michael Arias is an American, the first non-Japanese director to ever helm a major anime film. The screenplay adaptation was also written by an American, Anthony Weintraub. The graphics were done almost exclusively by Japanese artists.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Although we chose Black’s fall to Earth from the climactic cosmic battle as our illustrative still, the most striking imagery in Tekkonkinkreet are the baroque urban backgrounds. When you think back on the film, what arises in your mind is some non-specific impression of the phantasmagorical cityscape of Treasure Town, like the raven’s-eye view we get of the district in the opening credits. Treasure Town is a lived-in home town neighborhood in a larger megalopolis, a maze of alleyways cluttered with neon signage. It’s a multicultural never-never land where a peek around the next corner is as likely to reveal a shrine to Ganesha or Betty Boop graffiti as a Shinto pagoda or a noodle stall.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Eyeball-wallpapered saloon; the Minotaur; fall to Earth

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Anime, which often takes place in obsessively invented fantasy worlds built from the ground up, is an almost inherently weird genre. It takes a lot to impress us, both in terms of imagination and in terms of quality. Tekkonkinkreet may not offer much in the way of philosophical depth, but it more than makes up for it with eye candy. If you’re looking for superhero-type action in an unreal world, and you value weirdness over cameos by Hollywood stars and comic book moguls, don’t turn to the costumed mutants of the Marvel Universe; come to Treasure Town, where orphans battle yakuza real estate developers and their alien assassins. No half-baked origin stories here, just teenagers battling Minotaurs in space, with their psyches hanging in the balance.


U.S. release trailer for Tekkonkinkreet

COMMENTS: Tekkonkinkreet is as thematically simple as it is visually Continue reading 239. TEKKONKINKREET (2006)

233. DEATH BY HANGING (1968)

Koshikei

“You mustn’t think our film is just labored theorizing. The officials’ attempts to convince R that he is R are amusing and bizarre. I think it’s a spot-on depiction of all us Japanese in all our amusing bizarreness.”–Nagisa Ôshima

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Yung-Do Yun, Fumio Watanabe, , Akiko Koyama

PLOT: After the failed execution of a Japanese-Korean double murderer, various state functionaries are at a loss as how to proceed when the criminal’s body refuses to die. Going to increasingly outlandish lengths to remind the convict of why he is there and condemned, the prison’s officials inadvertently explore the nature of crime, nationality, and culpability. Eventually a young woman is introduced to the group, and the captors decide to get drunk.

Still from Death by Hanging (1968)

BACKGROUND:

  • The criminal in Death By Hanging is based on Ri Chin’u, who also murdered two Japanese school girls. In addition to his crimes, Ri Chin’u gained a degree of fame for his extensive writings while in prison.
  • Much of the dialogue between R and his “sister” is taken from actual correspondences between Ri Chin’u and a Korean journalist.
  • Death by Hanging came during Ôshima‘s most experimental period, made back-to-back with the Certified Weird satire Japanese Summer: Double Suicide. Like most of Ôshima‘s mid-to-late 1960s work, Hanging was initially ignored in America, not even screening for the first time until 1974 and not officially reaching home video until 2016.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The movie is stuffed to the gills with claustrophobic shots of slapstick fused with philosophy, none more so than the penultimate scene: an unlikely combination of prison officials getting hammered around a “table” while the convict “R” and his (probably imaginary) sister discussing the nature of guilt. The drinkers take turns discussing how they came to this kind of work while R, reclining with the young woman beneath a Japanese flag, comes to the conclusion that though he committed his crimes, he is not responsible for them.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Stubborn corpse; rape re-enactment; hallucination participation

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Death By Hanging starts with a very traditional documentary approach, including narration reeling off statistics and some expository shots of a nondescript execution facility in a prison compound. Quickly, however, the aura of formality disintegrates as the hapless officials endeavor in vain to make sense of the film’s central conceit: a young convict refusing to die. Their efforts to restore his memory and edge him toward accountability grow desperate and extreme until a point is reached where everyone involved in the process begins to believe in the unreal.


Original trailer for Death by Hanging

COMMENTS: While most leftist directors merely point a shotgun at Continue reading 233. DEATH BY HANGING (1968)