Tag Archives: Japanese

CAPSULE: BUSHIDO MAN (2013)

Bushido Man: Seven Deadly Battles

DIRECTED BY: Takanori Tsujimoto

FEATURING: Mitsuki Koga, Yoshiyuki Yamaguchi

PLOT: A martial arts master eats meals based on the diet of his next opponent so he can better understand and defeat them.

Still from Bushido Man (2013)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The fights are good, but it’s annoying that the movie has no hunger to pursue its kung foodie premise, giving us instead six courses of contextless seriocomic battles and a meaningless final boss for desert.

COMMENTS: “Plot” is too strong a word to describe Bushido Man‘s story. The film is just a series of incidents connected by the thinnest noodle of a premise, almost an anthology of fight scenes. The bouts themselves are energetic mini-stories that should entertain fight fans. The comedy, not so much—although the campy English dubbing adds a level of humor that would not be present in the original, and I did like the gag with the Master’s obviously fake mustache. Toramaru, our putative hero, is touring Japan, battling the paragons of six different martial styles: kung fu, stick fighting, nunchaku, swordfighting, yakuza knife fighting, and pistol. According to the movie’s premise, before each battle he eats a meal to better understand his enemy, but this unsustainable idea quickly breaks down: by the second battle, the meal is already nothing but an excuse a dumb pun (munching on cheesesticks = upcoming stick fight). Why we should care about this unofficial tournament is anyone’s guess; the movie is disinterested in exploring characters’ motivations or generating sympathy for them.

Each of the fights, on the other hand, offers an extra tidbit of interest, whether it’s an interloping turtle or a Zatoichi tribute. Things get weirder after the hero defeats the pistol master (who dresses as a Hollywood cowboy) and a side plot develops. Toramaru decides to go after a legendary weapon: wristbands rigged to fire bullets when you throw a punch. The original footage with the fist-guns, featuring a female fighter who is not one of Toramaru’s opponents, looks like it was taken from a different (unfinished?) movie. Koga wears a Van Dyke in the scenes before and after this one, but he’s mysteriously clean-shaven when he watches her dispatch a gang of generic badies. His customary facial hair returns for the rest of the movie. That’s an indication of the careless way Bushido Man is assembled from leftovers, which might strike you either as insultingly shoddy, or endearingly unpretentious, depending on your mood. The acquisition of these pugilistic firearms sets up a truly crazy, bloody finale, however, which “ends” with a closing credits gag that’s sure to catch you off guard.

Bushido Man lured me in with the promise that it would mix food porn with classic kung fu fights, sort of “Iron Chef” meets The Man with the Iron Fists. The actual experience was more like watching MMA bouts interrupted by Ramen noodle commercials.  Of course, sometimes you’re in the mood for junk food entertainment, and Bushido is heavily salted with absurdity. Just expect that you’ll be hungry for something a little more substantial a few hours after downing this one.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the film as a whole tosses in enough ‘off the wall’ ideas that stick, producing a rousing good time. Inventiveness,  even when the concepts are at their most absurd, add a lot of character to the picture and keeps the viewers constantly guessing what might happen next.”–Edgar Chaput, Sound on Sight (festival screening)

CAPSULE: GHOST IN THE SHELL (1995)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Mamoru Oshii

FEATURING: Voices of Atsuko Tanaka, Akio Ōtsuka, Iemasa Kayumi (original Japanese); Mimi Woods, Richard George, Abe Lasser (English dub)

PLOT: In 2029, a government cyborg tracks down a terrorist hacker nicknamed “the Puppet Master,” who has the ability to “ghost-hack” to possess cyborgs and brainwash humans.

Still from Ghost in the Shell (1995)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The plot is so intricately confusing that it approaches the surreal, and the visionary animation occasionally verges on the hallucinatory; but once you really dive into it, you’ll find that at bottom Ghost is nothing especially weird: just good, hardcore science fiction. Director Oshii has done weirder.

COMMENTS: Ghost in the Shell begins with a political assassination of an accused terrorist hacker after police who have just stormed the building under the direction of a secretive government agency are held off by a diplomat asserting political asylum. The naked female cyborg dangling tumbling past the skyscraper window blasts his head off so good that we catch sight of the victim’s spinal cord sticking out of his headless body. That’s the kind of story we have here: a complex plot punctuated by bursts of graphic sex and violence. (Smooth Barbie-doll cyborg crotches get around Japanese taboos against depicting pubic hair or genitalia, although its never quite clear why female agents need to do so much of their jobs in the buff). The mix of fantasy and fanservice are très anime, although to its credit, Ghost is less exploitative and far more thoughtful than most of its kin. In between firefights and car chases, conflicted heroine Major Motoko Kusanagi delves into questions of what it means to be human—or cyborg; whether, for example, resigning from Section 9, which would involve decommissioning her titanium-reinforced skeleton and augmented brain, would change who she was, or return her to who she is.

The plot involves diplomatic intrigues between countries that don’t yet exist, turf wars between underground intelligence agencies we don’t know (“don’t forget, we’re Section 9″ says one helpful Section 9 agent to another), and speculative cybernetic technology the viewer is largely required to figure out on his own. By design, the movie never directly explains the central concept of a “ghost” to us—is it a natural human brain, an “augmented” cybernetic brain, or a pure artificial intelligence? Or is it simply whatever inhabits and motivates a body (the “shell”)? Despite this obtuseness, the plot is ultimately comprehensible, with a couple of watch-throughs and a study of either the original manga (which contained thirty pages of footnotes explaining Ghost‘s sociopolitical and technological background) or an online wiki set up for this purpose.

Despite not explaining too much, Ghost keeps our attention. For some, it will simply be the beautifully drawn scenery, trippy Akira-inspired synthetic tribal soundtrack, and ample action breaks that enable them to float by without wholly grasping the plot. Others will be thrilled by the challenge to engage intellectually with the story and to deduce the nuances of a data-obsessed future setting that becomes more and more believable with each passing year. Regardless which camp you fall into, Ghost in the Shell is an invigorating animation for the mind and eye.

Ghost in the Shell has gone through numerous home video iterations, most of which failed to satisfy its picky fanbase. A “2.0” version released in 2008 updated some of the graphics and the soundtrack with the latest digital effects (and predictably alienated purists, which anime fans tend to be). The 2014 “25th Anniversary Edition” (questionable arithmetic there) Blu-ray release comes from Anchor Bay; the video remastering is praised, but there are naturally complaints about the complete lack of on-disc extras (it does contain a nice booklet with several essays). The 1998 Manga Video DVD release contained numerous extra features, but the picture was not as clear. Interested parties may want to shop around for the version that best meets their needs.

Dreamworks Studios has plans for a live-action adaptation of the original manga in the works, with Rupert (Snow White and the Huntsman) Sanders to direct.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…for sheer mind-expanding sci-fi strangeness this is hard to beat.”–Tom Huddleston, Time Out London (2014 re-release)

LIST CANDIDATE: YOKAI MONSTERS: SPOOK WARFARE (1968)

AKA Big Monster War; Yokai Monsters Vol. 1

DIRECTED BY: Yoshiyuki Kuroda

FEATURING: Chikara Hashimoto, Yoshihiko Aoyama, Akane Kawasaki

PLOT: Japanese folk spirits (yokai) unite to fight off an ancient Babylonian vampire who has assumed the form of a local human magistrate.

Still from Yokai Monsters: Spook Warfare (1968)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: If Spook Warfare makes the List it will be for the bizarre monster designs (including a floating umbrella with a lolling foam rubber tongue) and for the way it tosses in random genres so that it ends up like the work of a Japanese filming a Hammer horror script in the style of a samurai flick. One thing that’s holding it back from making the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies, however, is that it’s part of a series of three films, and we haven’t considered its two siblings yet. (A clip from the second movie, 100 Monsters, made it into Sans Soleil, which seems like it should earn that installment bonus points).

COMMENTS: After a scary, serious opening involving the accidental disinterment of an ancient evil from a Babylonian ruin, Yokai Monsters seems primed to turn into a children’s movie when fifteen minutes in we meet Kappa, a delightfully Muppet-esque duck-turtle hybrid clown with darting ping-pong-ball eyes and a lillypad head. But as the film continues, we get truly frightening images of vampires feeding on victims with gouts of flowing blood, dog assassinations, pantsless children chased by armed guards intent on feeding them to demons, and arrows to eyeballs. Interrupting those bloody sequences are the uncanny/cute yokai (mischievous supernatural creatures who roughly analogous to Western fairies or goblins) doing slapstick gags and paraphrasing scenes from Abbot & Costello Meet Frankenstein. Japanese children must have been terrified and enthralled by the spectacle; American kids, who didn’t know yokai from yogurt or Buddha from Buddy Hackett, could add bewildered to that list of adjectives.

The pastiche of tones and styles on display here results in memorable moments ranging from the deliberately delightful to the completely WTF. The cinematography is very good, whether we’re dealing with a storm at sea or quiet shots of Edo-era tea ceremonies. The special effects involving colored lights and kaleidoscope lenses are psychedelic-era standard and date the movie in a delightful way. Of course, since each yokai is uniquely conceived, the film’s most noteworthy feature are the dozens of monsters; here, the designers’ creativity exceeds the production’s ability to realize it. The monsters slide from the heights of imagination down a budgetary slope into the uncanny valley. The stiff rubber masks used for most of the creatures allow no expressiveness; the yokai’s leader, a heavy-lidded, football-headed green gnome, is incapable of blinking. The yoaki end up looking otherworldly, but that other world isn’t a spirit realm so much as it is a bizarro-world of discarded  first drafts.

Although the production values are generally high, many of the film’s other features verge on earning a so-bad-it’s-weird designation. The demonic antagonist’s entire plan, after slumbering for millennia, seems to amount to little more than a scheme to eat a few Japanese children (though in his defense, perhaps to him a province full of kids is just part of a healthy breakfast before embarking on his real mission of world domination). The yokai’s motivation for saving humanity from the Babylonian interloper, on the other hand, is blatantly jingoistic: “If we leave the likes of him alone, shame will be brought on Japanese apparitions!” The strange plot machinations also result in some unusual dialogue that clashes against Western notions of sense: “you suck, Buddha!” cries a yokai imprisoned in a vase. The dizzying dialectic between good and bad filmmaking, disturbing horror and childish comedy, and Eastern and Western notions of storytelling give Spook Warfare the weird vitality to make it worth your viewing time.

In 2005, Spook Warfare was loosely remade with modern CGI as The Great Yokai War, in a rare family-friendly offering from Mr. “Ichi the Killer” himself, . That film is somewhat entertaining, but lacks the gonzo madness of the original.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a weird combination of bloody horror and comic kiddie movie.”–Hollywood Gothique (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by Eric Gabbard, who said he was “blown away by its insanity.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

Still from Serial Experiments Lain (1998)

TV CAPSULE: SERIAL EXPERIMENTS LAIN (1998)

NOTE: The pilot episode to “Serial Experiments Lain” is embedded for viewing (as of date of publication) at the bottom of the post. (May not be available in all countries).

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Ryūtarō Nakamura

FEATURING: Kaori Shimizu, Bridget Hoffman (English dub)

PLOT: Timid junior high school student Lain receives an email from her schoolmate Chisa, who has recently committed suicide. Chisa states that she is not dead but that she has only abandoned her physical body, ending her email with the words “God is here.” After this event Lain develops an interest in, even an obsession with, “the Wired,” a worldwide communications network similar to the Internet. She discovers that there may be another Lain, identical to her in appearance but with a very different personality, inside the Wired, and that the boundary between the virtual and the real world may not be as sharp as it is thought to be.

Still from Serial Experiments Lain (1998)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Set in a world where a global communications network is almost like a spirit realm, “Serial Experiments Lain” is undeniably weird and surreal, and it is also quite interesting and entertaining to watch. However, it is a (short) TV series, not a movie, and as such an exception would have to be made in order for it to make the List of the Weirdest Movies ever made. The competition is very strong, with true classics such as Stalker and Nosferatu already on the List, and in this company “Serial Experiments Lain” is just not quite outstanding enough to warrant such an exception.

COMMENTS: Mind-bending and confusing plots are not uncommon in anime. A few of the more well-known examples are “Neon Genesis Evangelion,” “Paranoia Agent,” “Rahxephon,” Paprika, and the anime series considered in this review: “Serial Experiments Lain.” What all of these have in common is that they have mysterious plots that leave you wondering “What did it all mean?,” and in fact you can find many Internet debates about the meaning of “Lain.” But does “Lain” really have a true “meaning of it all”? I believe, based on some of his other writings, and his interest in the work of the well-known writer of weird horror , that series’ writer Chiaki Konaka is a weirdophile. It is likely that he chose to make some scenes weird-for-weirdness’-own-sake without having any particular interpretation in mind. In other words, “Lain” is among other things a work of surrealism. It does not necessarily always make complete sense and it does not need to. That said, it contains interesting philosophical and psychological themes that are well worth discussing.

“Lain” is not really attempting to be serious science fiction in the sense of trying to be, to any extent, scientifically accurate. It does, however, very loosely base elements of its story on real scientific theories, although only on theories that have been rejected by mainstream science. We could say that “Lain” takes place in an alternate world where fringe theories of some of the scientists contributing to the early development of Internet technology have turned out to be true. One of the episodes is largely dedicated to presenting excerpts from the scientific history behind the Internet while also presenting discredited theories of the same scientists, seamlessly mixing the fake and real ideas. This episode appears fairly late in the series and can perhaps to some extent be seen as a deus ex machina, but it does have the positive effect that the technology used in the series and some of the characters’ special abilities gain the appearance of having a scientific explanation within the fictional world. However, these explanations do not survive Continue reading

READER RECOMMENDATION: HELLEVATOR (2004)

Reader recommendation by James Harben

Gusha no bindume; AKA Hellevator: The Bottled Fools

DIRECTED BY: Hiroki Yamaguchi

FEATURING: Luchino Fujisaki, Yoshiichi Kawada, Ryôsuke Koshiba

PLOT: A dystopian future civilization lives in a vast underground complex where each floor represents a different part of society, from housing and schooling up to more sinister departments, culminating in the mysterious and never visited “top floor” that is implied to be both above-ground and possibly mythical. A schoolgirl (it’s Japanese after all) with psychic powers (it’s Japanese after all) tries to flee aboard an elevator, but in a world that seems to consist entirely of either up or down, where can she escape to?

Still from Hellevator (2004)
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Hellevator is a quite effective ‘trapped-in-a-room’ style movie, one that plays with the conventions of the genre. Working on the theory that what you are shown has far greater effect than what you are told, Hiroki Yamaguchi provides the viewer little direct knowledge or understanding of what this world might be. Clearly subterranean, it’s grimy and oppressively lit. The camera rarely leaves the elevator. The movie is populated by a cast of relatable stereotypes from current and past cultures: the police look like the SS, the attendant is a dedicated servant in a fetishized uniform, not to mention the standard quota of moody and sullen antiheroes wearing sunglasses indoors and the heroic schoolgirl protagonist. Imagine a Japanese  working on a budget.

COMMENTS: Hellevator never gives you the full details of what’s going on in the story, but there is enough suitably engaging exposition that the viewer is never left so confused that they become disconnected from the narrative. What is essentially a straight journey, up, is complicated by the arrival of prisoners from the penal colony floor, who have plans of their own re: their continued incarceration. Each of the characters have their own unfolding back story and a part to play in the greater continuity. A little online research finds comparisons to Cube and Brazil, and whereas the latter certainly applies—‘s dystopia is clearly an influence in both Hellevator‘s visuals and in its depiction of a society collapsing into the last stages of decline—the Cube comparison is misleading. This film doesn’t focus on the fact that people are trapped in an elevator, but instead uses it for a framing device: in flashback, we do see other parts of the complex.

Characterization is the key here, and against the main backdrop of the elevator and its confines we see a wide range of people and observe how they try to make their lives work in such an oppressive environment. The near silent elevator steward delivers an amazing performance as someone totally dedicated to his job, and to his place within the societal order. The convicts are both spectacular despite being quite different personas with differing motivations.

Ultimately, Hellevator leaves the viewer with as many questions as it does answers, but with no lack of satisfaction regarding the narrative. The performances are largely excellent; though quite over the top, they fit well with the dense, claustrophobic aesthetic of the film. There is enough linearity to the events that, as much as the viewer might want to know more about what they have seen, the time spent viewing is a satisfying ride that captures the imagination and attention without ever feeling staid or predictable.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a stylish and inventive mix of delirium that surpasses most multi-million dollar efforts.. Picture Hitchcock’s Lifeboat through the eyes of Terry Gilliam with the visceral mean streak of Takashi Miike.”–Dread Central (DVD)

READER RECOMMENDATION: WOMAN IN THE DUNES (1964)

Reader Recommendation by Fredrik Allenmark

DIRECTED BY: Hiroshi Teshigahara

FEATURING: Eiji Okada, Kyôko Kishida

PLOT: An entomologist ends up trapped together with a woman in a house at the bottom of a sand pit in the desert, where they are forced to spend their nights shoveling sand.

Still from Woman in the Dunes (1964)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Freud introduced the concept of the uncanny (“Unheimlich” in German) for the particular, often uncomfortable, Continue reading

158. AKIRA (1988)

“Otomo, who wrote and directed the movie, has told interviewers that he set out to ‘make a film that would be a jumble of images, instead of just showing the highlights of each scene’, and on that score, he succeeded.”–The Los Angeles Times, in a dismissive review entitled “High-Tech Hokum From Japan”

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Katsuhiro Ohtomo

FEATURING: Voices of Mitsuo Iwata, Nozomu Sasaki, Mami Koyama (original Japanese); Cam Clarke, Jan Rabson, Lara Cody (1988 English dub); Johnny Yong Bosh, Joshua Seth, Wendee Lee (2001 English dub)

PLOT: Tetsuo, a delinquent and member of a motorcycle gang in Neo-Tokyo, crashes his bike after seeing a strange child; black helicopters sweep onto the scene and armed men seize the boy and the injured Tetsuo. Doctors in the military hospital discover that Tetsuo has strong latent psychic powers and begin performing experiments on him, but he proves more adept than they could have imagined. Using his incredible newfound telekinetic abilities, Tetsuo escapes confinement and ventures out into Neo-Tokyo searching for the secret of Akira, the original subject of the military’s experiment, which he believes will grant him ultimate power.

Still from Akira (1988)

BACKGROUND:

  • Akira was an adaptation of the director’s own six-volume manga (serialized comic) of the same name, begun in 1982. Ohtomo did not complete the written work until 1990, and it has a different conclusion than the movie.
  • Akira cost a reported 1.1 billion yen (or about 8-10 million dollars) to produce, making it the most expensive animated Japanese film made up to that time.
  • After becoming a cult hit on video, Pioneer Entertainment restored Akira and commissioned a new (widely considered superior) English language dub of the film, re-releasing it to theaters in 2001.
  • Voted #440 on Empire’s List of the 500 Greatest Films of All Time and 51 on their list of the Greatest Non-English Language Films, number 15 on Time Out’s 50 Greatest Animated Films list, and number five on Total Film’s 50 Greatest Animated Movies.
  • Warner Brothers acquired the rights to the film in 2002 and have been planning a live action remake of Akira; at various times , the Hughes brothers, and others have been attached to the project, which has reportedly been shut down and restarted four times.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: It’s tempting to select what may be Akira‘s weirdest moment, a bizarre hallucination where a teddy bear and a toy rabbit grow and threaten bedridden Tetsuo—while inexplicably leaking milk from their faces. Tetsuo’s transformation into a giant roiling blob of limbs, tissues, tentacles and malformed organs, however, probably tops all of the psychedelic imagery that has come before. He becomes a Nameless Thing out of an H.P. Lovecraft story; it’s a grandiose vision that could only be brought to us in animation.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: In 1988, Western eyes had never seen anything like Akira: violent, profane, mystical, and a cartoon. It was a foreign assault on the eyes, ears, sensibilities, and the part of the brain that processes plot. With its pallid middle-aged psychic kids, psychotic toy box hallucinations and mutating telekinetic antihero ripping apart futuristic Neo-Tokyo, Akira still packs one hell of a punch today. The Japanese have been trying to recapture Akira‘s cyberpunk spirit for twenty-five years now, but they have yet to devise a hallucination delivery device to top Ohtomo’s original animated masterpiece.


25th Anniversary DVD/Blu-ray trailer for Akira

COMMENTS: Watching Akira again for the first time in over twenty years, it occurred to me that the plot was even more disjointed than I Continue reading

CAPSULE: SUMMER WARS (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Mamoru Hosoda

FEATURING: Voices of Ryûnosuke Kamiki, Nanami Sakuraba

PLOT: Math and computer whiz Kenji battles a rogue artificial intelligence who is wrecking the virtual world of Oz and seizing corporate and government computer accounts, while simultaneously posing as the boyfriend of a classmate he has a crush on during her family celebration.

Still from Summer Wars (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s only during the cyberdream scenes set in the disintegrating virtual world of pixelated mandalas that Summer Wars approaches the fantastical. The light show there inside the Matrix is worth checking out, though.

COMMENTS: The virtual world of “Oz” that makes up the backbone of Summer Wars‘ plot is not that far off. Essentially, it’s the Web 3.0, a 3-D, candy-colored virtual reality mashup of Facebook and Amazon, where everyone gets a cute avatar and all your banking and credit card accounts are merged under one convenient password. (If that sounds like a recipe for disaster to you, just consider what would happen to world commerce if the entire Internet went down for a week). Because Oz was designed by the Japanese, it looks like a constellation of spinning cloud/animal hybrids orbited by blue and pink planetary blobs, with virtual whales floating through the cyberether spouting fireworks from their blowholes. Corporations and government agencies have set up branch offices in Oz, and some folks even work via their avatars at virtual workstations, including our protagonist, high school math whiz Kenji, who has a part-time job as a “code monkey” doing routine programming. Visually, the sequences set in Oz are so psychedelic and startling—including a finale featuring a CGI cousin of the demon from Fantasia‘s “Night on Bald Mountain”—that the regular anime style used to illustrate reality seems thin and weak by comparison. That optical scenario is reminiscent of the Kansas/Oz dichotomy in The Wizard of Oz, and Summer Wars sports a similar “no place like home” moral; Hosoda’s story values the human above the technological, and champions the organic community of families sitting down to dinner together over the virtual community of atomic individuals connecting via keyboards. The movie is intensely conservative in its reverence for traditional Japanese family values. Kenji, an orphan, finds a sense of purpose when he is unofficially adopted into the Jinnouchi clan after posing as his crush Natsuki’s fiance. The clan proudly traces its lineage back to the feudal period, even keeping ceremonial swords from the period; they revere their elders (represented by matriarch Sakae) and band together to defeat the artificial intelligence’s assault on Oz, with dozens of characters each contributing to the effort according to their own skills and resources. They even enlist other local families into the struggle by reminding them of the historical ties between their clans. The emphasis on the family is so strong, in fact, with great-grandma delivering a heavy-handed inspirational speech on the importance of dining together before the final battle set online, that the movie might be accused of being Luddite in its implicit anti-social media stance. Still, much like L. Frank Baum’s Oz, the virtual Oz is so much more stimulating, fun and dangerous than either Kansas or Japan that the praising the virtues of home become a bit of a hard sell. The sentient program wrecking Oz is given a weakness for gaming, which gives Hosoda an excuse to animate sequences of human-manned avatars facing off against the rogue A.I. (who incarnates first as a grinning Hindu demon, then as a gigantic shadow composed of millions of hacked accounts) in a series of virtual duels. Of course, this is completely ridiculous, but this action conceit is a lot more watchable than looking at a couple of guys on keyboards searching for backdoors in the code or trying to crack hashed passwords; these epic spectacles are the most thrilling and memorable parts of the film. The social media/videogaming demographic for Summer Wars skews young, but the movie is thoughtful enough about the interplay of technology and tradition, and the potential disaster of a massive cyber-terrorist strike, that it can suck adults into its scenario as well.

Summer Wars was picked up and distributed by Warner Brothers in Japan, but failed to become a mainstream crossover anime hit, earning less than $100,000 in US theaters. Despite strong marketing and generally good reviews, even in Japan it disappointed, ending 2009 as only the 38th best performer at the box office.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“An enjoyably trippy Japanese animated feature…”–Stephen Rea, The Philadelphia Inquirer (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO (1988)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING, (Disney dubbed version)

PLOT: Two young girls befriend a forest spirit who lives in a tree near their new country house.

Still from My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: My Neighbor Totoro is somewhat strange, like being dropped into the unfiltered imagination of a six-year old girl. Its kidlike oddness is not sustained enough to thrill adult weirdophiles, however.

COMMENTS: In My Neighbor Totoro, Hayao Miyazaki takes yōkai, Japanese traditional folk monsters, and literalizes them in the only way possible: by making them into real spiritual phenomenon that are only visible to children. None of the adults in the movie, even Satsuki and Mei’s university professor father, doubt the real existence of the yōkai; a grandmotherly character confesses that she could see them when she was young, but lost the ability with age. This strategy creates a pleasant truce between kids and adults as to the reality of these fairy creatures. Grownups can’t see or interact with Totoro or his friends, but they don’t denigrate or patronize kids for believing in them. The girls’ first encounter with the mythical creatures is in the form of “soot sprites” who huddle in the dark corners of the long-vacant country home. Later, Mei, the younger of the girls, will encounter a couple of miniature troll-creatures (these mini-Totoro’s are never explained); following them leads her inside a hollow camphor tree, where she finds the massive plush Totoro slumbering, and immediately befriends him. Later, at a rainy bus stop, Satsuki meets Totoro, too. Impressed by her offer of an umbrella, he introduces her to the film’s strangest invention, the Catbus: literally, a fuzzy bus with a tail and a Cheshire cat grin. Catbus is a fusion of the organic and the mechanical, a newfangled yōkai for the 20th century. Although there are magical nights when the girls soar above the treetops with Totoro and friends, not a lot of the movie’s running time is actually devoted to fantastical encounters with yōkai. Most of the time, we are engaged in the girls’ domestic life with their doting dad, and in observing the bucolic vistas of a Japanese country village. There is a distant stressor in the girls’ sick mom, but for the most part their days are spent happily, exploring the countryside and doing cartwheels among the flowers. Although some adults may find the lack of expected tension and conflict in the story perplexing and unfamiliar, Miyazaki’s technique strikes a chord with young children across cultures. What four- to eight-year-old girl wouldn’t want to have a huge, friendly, protective teddy bear like Totoro as a friend to recline and rely on? Totoro doesn’t have bad guys or moments of serious jeopardy because its ultimate message to kids is that they don’t have to be scared by life’s challenges and changes; the unknown isn’t a threat, it’s an opportunity.

Although Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli has long been intimately associated with its current distributor, Walt Disney, in the English speaking world, the fact is that Totoro‘s first American distributor was none other than the low-budget exploitationeers . The scant negative reviews for the film that can be found almost all relate to the Troma theatrical release. It’s not clear whether this is because Troma’s dub job detracted from Miyazaki’s magic, or whether Disney’s seal of approval predisposed critics to approve of the effort. Disney acquired the rights to this early feature in 2006 and re-dubbed the film with a better-known vocal cast. Meanwhile, Totoro himself became so popular that he was incorporated into Studio Ghibli’s logo, becoming Japan’s equivalent of Mickey Mouse.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the film evinces a disorienting combination of cultures that produces a nowhere land more confused than fascinating.”–Leonard Klady, Variety (Troma theatrical version)

CAPSULE: TORMENTED (2011)

Rabitto Horâ 3D 

DIRECTED BY: Takashi Shimizu

FEATURING: , Takeru Shibuya, 

PLOT: A young boy has nightmares about a giant bunny after he euthanizes a wounded rabbit on the playground; his mute older sister tries to keep him from being sucked into another world.

Still from Tormented (2011)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Tormented is a strange little psychologically twisted J-horror, but it doesn’t exceed the limits of its genre quite enough to rank as one of the weirdest of all time.

COMMENTS: Leporiphobes beware: Tormented (literal title: Rabbit Horror) features the creepiest extra-dimensional cuddly-wuddly bunny since Frank from Donnie Darko. Two of them, actually, since there is the life-sized theme park rodent, and the identical miniaturized ragdoll bunny that floats off the screen of another movie and into young Daigo’s backpack. Mute Kiriko, Daigo’s protective older sister and mother figure, can’t get rid of that second floppy bunny, even when she tries to throw it in the incinerator; it just keeps haunting the pair, dragging both of them down a rabbit hole into a nightmare world of carousels, hospital corridors, spiral staircases, and people dressed as animals performing disturbing acts. Meanwhile, Kiriko and Daigo’s father, a bereaved children’s book illustrator, is trapped in a fantasy world of his own, appearing indifferent to his offspring’s torment. Even though there is little question of what is happening in the dream world and what is going on in reality, the multiple hallucinations and rabbit-initiated flashbacks are disorienting. The movie is also confusing in ways that may not have been  intended; it can be hard to keep track of what’s happening to which character—and sometimes characters even seem to disappear from the action, sometimes even during the same scene. For the patient and observant, however, the basics eventually sort themselves out. There is a consistent psychological symbology running through the delusions—we figure out what both the giant rabbit and the little bunny doll represent—and it all leads to an effective twist two-thirds of the way through the movie. The problem with that is that most twists are revealed at the end of the movie; here, the story seems to end on a satisfactory note, yet there’s still a half an hour to go. The entire third act feels like a wrong turn, an unnecessary coda that ditches the psychological angles in favor of horror movie clichés about super-resilient supernatural adversaries. Still, the movie arguably ends on a further twist, although this one is so ambiguous that you might think you dreamed it. In the end, however, Tormented sports more pluses than minuses, with creepy atmosphere, psychological depth, and spooky bunny suits making up for the occasional storytelling misstep.

As you might guess thanks to scenes of dandelion fluff that conspicuously floats in front of the wide-eyed marveling characters, Tormented was originally shot in 3-D. Less obvious is the fact that it was lensed by celebrated cinematographer . The movie that Kiriko and Daigo watch in the theater is Shimizu’s previous effort, Shock Labyrinth.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a psychedelic meta-J-horror that is part ghost story, part Freudian merry-go-round, and utterly in your face.”–Anton Bitel, Little White Lies (festival screening)