Tag Archives: Japanese

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: MAREBITO (2004)

DIRECTED BY

FEATURING: , Tomomi Miyashita, Kazuhiro Nakahara

PLOT: A reclusive photographer obsessed with fear discovers a network of underground tunnels beneath Tokyo, where he finds a mute young woman who feeds on blood.

Still from Marebito (2004)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: This slow-burn horror almost entirely eschews conventional horror narrative structure to serve as a character study of its eccentric, delusional protagonist.

COMMENTS: I still remember the J-Horror craze of the early 2000s—though, living in a mostly third-world country, I had to largely settle for experiencing them through their American remakes.

Thinking back, it really was a perfect way to bring Asian media to the Western world: films like Ringu or Ju-On or One Missed Call, with their foreign settings and basis in regional mythology, were “exotic” enough to feel different from the standard Hollywood fare, but not so overly different or extreme as to feel alienating. Even some of the genre’s more extreme offerings, like Audition, tended to join Cannibal Holocaust and A Serbian Film among the ranks of “extreme films that everyone’s heard about.”

(Of course, that probably renders all those remakes pretty much pointless, but that’s a whole other matter.)

One exception to this was Marebito. Despite coming from the creator of the Ju-On series, as well as its highly successful American remake, Marebito made little impact in the West—perhaps best reflected by the fact that it never got a remake.

And viewing Marebito, it’s not hard to see why: even among the standards of J-Horror (which, around the time, usually went for the slow burn), Marebito takes its time. Many shots simply follow the protagonist as he absently wanders the streets, or stares obsessively at his collection of recordings; and the vampiric young woman at the center of the plot doesn’t even show up until the half-hour mark.

Good for atmosphere, and consistent with Shimizu’s usual approach, certainly; but not very marketable.

Nonetheless, for those who appreciate a horror film with character, Marebito has a fair amount to offer. It’s made clear relatively quickly that the focus of the film is not its fantastical elements, but the eccentric mind of its protagonist. Masuoka (played by Shinya Tsukamoto, best known around here as the director of Tetsuo: The Iron Man) is a withdrawn and disenchanted individual with dark obsessions who is ever hidden behind his camera, relating to the world far better when seeing it through his viewfinder. And all of this is made sharply clear in the first few minutes of the movie, when we see him obsessively watching and re-watching footage that he shot of a public suicide on a subway, trying to discern what the dead man might have seen in his last few moments.

Masuoka is obsessed with the concept of fear, and seeks to uncover Continue reading APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: MAREBITO (2004)

364. NEON GENESIS EVANGELION: THE END OF EVANGELION (1997)

“…for who would lose,
Though full of pain, this intellectual being,
Those thoughts that wander through eternity,
To perish rather, swallowed up and lost
In the wide womb of uncreated Night,
Devoid of sense and motion?”–John Milton, Paradise Lost

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of , , ; , , (English dub)

PLOT: Neon Genesis Evangelion: The End of Evangelion picks up where Neon Genesis Evangelion: Death and Rebirth ended, with NERV under attack by the JSSDF and Asuka unconscious in the hospital. NERV mastermind Gendo frees a Rei clone which merges with the body of Adam. The resulting entity then initiates the “Third Impact,” which might bring about the end of the world, but leaves the final decision to angsty teen Shenji.

Still from Neon Genesis Evangelion: End of Evangelion (1997)

BACKGROUND:

  • The “Neon Genesis Evangelion” franchise began as a television series (and concurrent manga) in 1995. The final two episodes of the series were abrupt, abstract, psychological, and generally impenetrable and unsatisfactory to many fans. Creator Hideaki Anno received a stream of hate mail from fans after this polarizing ending, including at least one death threat. In response, The End of Evangelion was conceived as an alternate ending. Before it was released, the studio produced the feature Neon Genesis Evangelion: Death and Rebirth, which recapped the series and began the new ending which concludes in End of Evangelion.
  • Anno was severely depressed when he conceived the “Evangelion” series, and some interpretations often suggest the entire work is a form of self-psychoanalysis.
  • In 2007 Anno began a complete feature film reboot of the series, beginning with Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone in 2007. To date the reboot has produced three movies, with the conclusion to the planned tetralogy due in 2020.
  • “Time Out” ranked The End of Evangelion #65 on its 2016 list of the best animated movies.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The poster features a picture of goddess Rei’s giant white head rising from a blank landscape. That glowing face, with its sharp anime nose, is indeed iconic, but we’ll go instead for the moment when Rei’s head is floating in the upper atmosphere, a vagina-shaped third eye suddenly opens in the middle of her forehead, and a phallic cross drops into it, suturing it shut. But yeah, just about anything from the movie’s last half hour could qualify.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Shenji the strangler; 1,000 permutations of a giant Rei head; sandbox stagelights

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: End of Evangelion is like a Jungian treatment of the Kabbalah performed by giant anime robots. You need to just float along on the occult imagery of the last half. Don’t try to understand it; like its Western cousin “Revelation,” it becomes disappointing when reduced to a literal meaning.


DVD release trailer for Neon Genesis Evangelion: The End of Evangelion

COMMENTS: You can’t possibly understand anything in The End of Continue reading 364. NEON GENESIS EVANGELION: THE END OF EVANGELION (1997)

NUTCRACKER FANTASY (1979)

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky despised his own “Nutcracker Fantasy.” Forced into being a populist composer when careers in music were extremely rare in Russia, Tchaikovsky hated much of his own music, which masked a much darker personality: a self-loathing gay (it’s likely that he committed suicide) and a manic depressive. Yet behind that veneer of populism is an unorthodoxy. Leonard Bernstein found a soulmate in Tchaikovsky, conducting his music as if it was Mahler. When conductor Thomas Beecham arrived for orchestra rehearsal, he asked what was on the schedule. When someone answered “Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique,” Beecham quipped, “Let’s do what we can to cheer it up.”

When it comes to films with a Tchaikovskian theme, two come to mind in unmasking the dark-hued musician that classical fundamentalists prefer whited out. One is the infamous Black Swan (2010). The other is 1979’s criminally forgotten Japanese animated Nutcracker Fantasy (directed by Takeo Nakamura), which bypasses sugar plum fairies in favor of something spawned from a combination of , , and L. Frank Baum, along with slivers of Tchaikovsky and E.T.A. Hoffmann.  The result is authentic bizarreness amplified by considerable beauty (and vice versa).

Young Clara (Melissa Gilbert) is visiting her Aunt Gerda (Lurene Tuuttle) and Uncle Drosselmeyer (), a clock maker and doll maker. Clara falls in love with uncle’s Nutcracker doll and requests it as a gift. Reluctantly, with his wife’s prompting, Drosselmeyer gives Clara the doll. We soon discover the reason for his reticence.

Still from Nutcracker Fantasy (1979)An army of rats prize the doll and steal it from Clara. Chasing the thieving rodents, Clara comes to blows with two-headed rat queen Morphia (Jo Anne Worley). Although the nutcracker comes to life to protect Clara, she still loses the battle and wakes up with a fever. She dreams again, entering the kingdom of the dolls by passing through Drosselmeyer’s grandfather clock; it is hardly a peasant trip, as the dolls are at war with Morphia.

The nutcracker is now Franz (), the captain of the guard, and he’s trying to restore the princess (who looks like Clara) back to her old self. The King’s wise men try to break Morphia’s curse, but they suck. So, Clara tracks down the Queen of Time (Eva Gabor) for assistance in breaking the evil spell.  No problem, just destroy the “nut of darkness,” AKA Morphia’s heart. How the hell do you destroy a nut of darkness? With a pearl sword, of course, which Queenie happens to have handy.

A war breaks out, the enemy mice are slaughtered and, it turns out, they were children kidnapped by the creepy Ragman. A tad angry, the captain kills Morphia, but she curses him before croaking, turning him back into a nutcracker. Morphia’s rat son sets out for revenge, but Clara sacrifices herself, saving her nutcracker and thus breaking the evil spell.

That is as good as a synopsis as I can give, because if it sounds like a hodgepodge, it absolutely is. Characters like the Ragman are built up and dropped, and there are loopholes and inconsistencies aplenty. But who the hell watches something like this for coherency anyway? Yes, there are dull stretches, but you will not give hoot or a holler one, because the three-dimensional characterization of Clara, animation, music (which bizarrely includes animated ballerinas morphing into live action ballerinas and then disappearing), and superb voice acting across the board are dazzlingly impressive. Gilbert, Worley, and Gabor give what may be their most impressive performances, and Christopher Lee gets to sing (he actually voices several characters), sounding damned fine.

By, the way, I suppose I should add that it’s weird as hell, and far preferable to all the saccharine Nutcracker productions we’ve all been sadistically subjected to. Why would anyone ever want to watch another Nutcracker in the place of this one? I’d like to think Pyotr finally had his revenge.

CAPSULE: NIGHT IS SHORT, WALK ON GIRL (2017)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Kana Hanazawa,

PLOT: A shy, lovestruck senior follows a peppy junior (“the Girl with Black Hair”) from afar over an almost endless surreal night that includes philosophical drinking contests, an encounter with the God of Used Books, a peripatetic musical theater, and a cold epidemic.

Still from Night Is Short, Walk on Girl (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: At this writing, there are only five slots remaining on the List. If not for that shortage, Walk on Girl might have a shot. Fortunately, we already have a slightly more famous, slightly better movie to represent Masaaki Yuasa on the List—but if he keeps making anime this weird, we may have to reconsider that hard 366 cap.

COMMENTS: A cross-dresser, a man who has vowed not to change his underwear, and a love-besotted student walk into a bar… Well, actually it’s a wedding reception, not a bar, and Night Is Short, Walk on Girl is not a joke, although it is a comedy. Nevertheless, that is the opening setup for a yarn that will quickly unfurl into a surrealistic nocturnal journey. The object of the student’s affections is the Girl, who starts with her own romance-free agenda: she wants to experience adulthood, and figures the best way to do this is through a night of heavy drinking. As she meets perverts, sophists and fellow drinkers, the evening develops into a quest for a mysterious liquor known as Imitation Denki Bran, climaxing in a drinking contest against an elderly pessimist. Meanwhile, her admirer has his underwear stolen and discovers his friend leads a secret team of electronically-omniscient high school hackers. And all that’s just in the first 20-30 minutes; the not-so-short night has many more wonders to unfurl, including another competition (this time involving lava-eating), musical numbers from “The Codger of Monte Cristo” (with meta-lyrics referring to both the main plot and subplots), and a flying fever dream finale.

The look of the film is bright and clean, with a mild retro feel: space age graphics and clean modernism, with bold use of color and geometric motifs—especially flower petals, which go drifting through the canvases like blossoms falling off invisible psychedelic cherry trees. There are plenty of abstract sequences, split screens, hallucinations, and other animated digressions, but the transition between styles flows smoothly, not chaotically as in Yuasa’s previous Mind Game. The story glides along from incident to incident in a similarly fluid fashion. Episodes are packed inside four major chapters: bar hopping, the used book fair, the play, and the cold that lays the entire neighborhood low. It’s a pleasant structure to organize the anything-can-happen action and keep us from getting totally lost in the film’s hubbub.

Night Is Short, Walk on Girl is weird, but light. The title character’s girlish optimism sets a sprightly, happy tone. While her pursuer’s actions sometimes verge on the stalkerish, we never doubt the purity of his affection, and we naturally root for the two to get together. Girl‘s dream logic is totally blissed-out; someone must have spiked the imitation brandy with mescaline. It’s a night well spent; you may even wish it was longer.

Night Is Short, Walk on Girl played theaters in a limited engagement over the past summer. It’s scheduled to appear on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD in January 2019.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a weird, very bemusing and sometimes wonderful anime…”–Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: VAMPIRE CLAY (2017)

Chi o sû nendo

DIRECTED BY: Sôichi Umezawa

FEATURING: , Shinoda Ryo, Tsuda Kanji

PLOT: Students in a rural Japanese clay workshop accidentally awaken a possessed being crafted by a failed sculptor who died under mysterious circumstances.

Still from Vampire Clay (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Sôichi Umezawa gets a tip of the 366 Weird Hat for his creative directorial debut, but its Cronenberg-in-clay trappings are firmly in the realm of a (somewhat) standard scary movie.

COMMENTS: “Understated” and “body-horror” rarely sit side-by-side as descriptors, but Sôichi Umezawa pulls off this fairly impressive parlor trick with aplomb in his directorial debut. Primarily known for his make-up effects (and best known to us for his work on The ABCs of Death 2), Umezawa spins us a yarn set in an unlikely place (a rural clay-sculpting academy) about an unlikely antagonist (a creepy-cute blood golem thing). The action, such as it is, fits into that Horror Genre Standard Time of under ninety minutes. The result? A fairly memorable outing that won’t burn your entire evening.

Sensei Yuri Aina (Kurosawa Asuka) runs a very small school for aspiring sculptors somewhere in not-Tokyo, Japan. When she is forced to set up shop in an abandoned painter’s studio after finding her own workshop damaged by an earthquake, she unearths a bag of dried powder while digging in the studio’s garden. Thinking nothing of it, she places it in her school. Young up-and-comer Kaori (Shinoda Ryo), fresh from a stint at art school in totally-Tokyo, Japan, is one of Aina’s pupils. Kaori’s bucket of clay is used by another student, which prompts Kaori to re-hydrate the powdery remnants that Aina had put aside. Life returns to the cursed clay at the first spritz of water, and soon the students fall prey to a malevolent, inhuman force.

All told, there are just eight characters in this melodrama about rejection, competition, and the evils of industrial waste. The back-story of the evil clay beast is sufficiently over-the-top without slipping into giggle territory; I actually found myself rather moved by the tale of the failed sculptor who literally put his lifeblood into “Kakame”, the smiling vampire golem. The attacks on the students (who comprise five of the film’s eight characters) are all clever—think Cronenberg in high school art class. I imagine creativity and patience were Umezawa’s watchwords, as the budget for this movie must have been on the very low side. In one particularly unsettling bit, Kaori’s chief rival gets enveloped by the clay monster and tries to communicate to the other students the next day from within a sculpture. (I was reminded of the creepy short, Alma.) Other bits of violence—both gruesome and creative—are found throughout. The end veers heavily into the “Apocalypse-as-Revenge” genre, in perhaps a personal attack by the director on those who may have doubted his talents in the past.

Now that Sôichi Umezawa has proven he can maintain a feature-length narrative as well as scare his audience, I’m hopeful he’ll move on to some more challenging material. Vampire Clay takes you on a quick journey into one of the few remaining unexplored corners of the Gotta-Have-Blood monster genre while laying the ground-work for what will hopefully be a fuller career in weirdo-creepy motion pictures.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The notion of Vampire Clay is a fun thought experiment, and Umezawa seems to intend it that way, too, embracing both the utter ridiculousness of sentient hunks of plasticine and its endless creative applications…  the film has a better chance taking root in the imagination than in theaters, because the idea of vampire clay is so much more potent than actually watching it in action. Nothing this absurd should be this boring.”–Scott Tobias, Variety

CAPSULE: TOKYO VAMPIRE HOTEL (2017)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Kaho, Shinnosuke Mitsushima, Megumi Kagurazaka

PLOT: A clan of vampires forced to live in hiding attempt to tip the scales of power by capturing a group of humans in their hotel fortress and turning them into a generational supply of food; however, their perennial aboveground enemies have conspired to birth an avenger during a cosmic convergence, and now that she has come of age, the final battle between the two warring forces is at hand.

Still from Tokyo Vampire Hotel (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Aside from being a TV miniseries, and therefore technically beyond our purview, “Tokyo Vampire Hotel” has a difficult time figuring out what it wants to be. Although it is built upon a foundation of gore and slapstick and features elaborate and sometimes confusing worldbuilding, the story works best at a character level, focusing on the motivations of its complicated leads. At its best, the weirdness tends to be more window dressing than of a true mission of the series.

COMMENTS: Following my lengthy discourse on the cinematic genre of vampires, as well as my brief sojourn into the vault of the Nikkatsu film studio, watching this 9-part bloodsucker miniseries felt a bit like old home week. Fortunately, that’s not to say it was boring to watch Sion Sono’s take on the legend. Far from it; as much as he may be cherry-picking his favorite parts of the mythos, what he has created is anything but a retread.

If anything, Tokyo Vampire Hotel has way too much going on. The very first episode opens with a deeply uncomfortable mass shooting, which serves as a springboard for the kind of violence-chase set pieces that would be completely at home in an 80s Hollywood action movie. But this quickly fractures into a character study of our two heroines: Manami, an orphan raised under trying circumstances to become the vanquisher of an entire race of vampires, and K, the underground defender whose unrequited love is consistently co-opted for the violent means of others. When not delving into their backstories, Sono is creating the candy-colored, blood-drenched world of the titular hotel, populated by eccentric characters that include a vampire queen who keeps shrinking into nothingness, a wildly attired, dreadlocked hepcat whose own father sold him to vampires as a baby in exchange for becoming Japan’s prime minister, and a maternal figure who may be housing the entire hotel within her nether regions. Add into that a ballroom full of lovelorn humans who have been lured into the hotel (and for whom seemingly every one is provided a rich backstory), a cult of hippie-like Romanians who are connected to Tokyo by tunnel, and a late-series jump forward in time that almost completely restarts the story, and the effect is downright dizzying. It’s legitimately weird, but after a while, it becomes a “Mad Lib” kind of weird: oddness courtesy of dissonance.

Which only makes it all the more astonishing that Sono then carved Continue reading CAPSULE: TOKYO VAMPIRE HOTEL (2017)

CAPSULE: ICHI THE KILLER (2001)

Koroshiya 1

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING, ,

PLOT: A sadomasochistic Yakuza relishes being hunted by a mysterious hitman named Ichi, hoping the killer will bring him to undreamed of heights of pain.

Still from Ichi the Killer (2001)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Ichi is strange, for sure, but as important as it was in developing Takashi Miike’s cult and bringing his work before more round-eyes, it values gruesomeness and shock value over pure weirdness.

COMMENTS: Ichi is notorious for its violence and sadism, and rightfully so; but, as a Takashi Miike joint, it bears an undeniable brand of quality and style. Also, as is typical with Miike, it’s uneven, almost by design, changing from yakuza intrigue to gross-out torture fest to campy black comedy at the crack of the director’s whip. The complicated plot echoes both Yojimbo (in the way one character pits rival crime factions against one another) and Memento (in the way a vulnerable man’s memories are manipulated to make him a tool of vengeance). Tadanobu Asano gives a cool, cult star-making performance as Kakihara, the ruthlessly sadomasochistic villain with dyed blonde hair and unexplained facial scars that have carved his face into a perma-Joker grin. As with every Miike movie, it contains a few moments of transcendent gonzo poetry—my personal favorite being when Jijii (played by Tetsuo director Shinya Tsukamoto) strips off his shirt to reveal an improbably jacked physique.

Still, even Miike’s best movies tend to have troughs along with its peaks, and Ichi has a number of problems that prevent it from rising very far above its nihilistic base. The ostensible protagonist—Ichi of the title—is not at all believable as a legendary assassin; in fact, his prowess at killing is completely absurd in a way that doesn’t match, or serve, the serious and frightening tone of the Kakihara’s segments. Nor does the performance of otherwise fine actor Nao Ohmori fully exploit the sympathy one might have for the character, had he been portrayed in a less cartoonish manner.

Even more problematic is the film’s violence—not its extent so much as Miike’s inconsistent attitude to depicting it. At times, torture and cruelty are depicted with a realism that makes one cringe and empathize with the victim, while at other times it’s treated with a insouciance (as when a shocked face is detached from its head and shown sliding down a bloody wall). Sometimes these inconsistent tones coexist in the same scene: Ichi witnesses a brutal rape, with the victim’s face painfully swollen from a merciless beating, then dispatches the assailant by splitting him vertically from head to toe with his razor shoe. In some sense, alternating the absurd and realistic approaches to violence makes the scene more nightmarish, keeping the audience off-balance by mixing fearful anticipation with an unexpected result. I can appreciate this effect, to some extent, without actually enjoying or approving of it. The problem is that it’s more authentically sadistic to treat suffering as a joke than to face it head-on; Ichi too often takes on the sadist’s attitude that others’ pain is entertainment. Although torture and gore is pervasive and extreme throughout Ichi—including a man hanging suspended from hooks dug into his skin, among other atrocities—the violence in Miike’s previous Audition is far more harrowing and meaningful, because a fleshed-out human beings whom we can care about suffer (and inflict) it, instead of the pain being just a revolting exhibition occurring between two caricatures.

Ichi the Killer is one of those canonical cult movies (like Donnie Darko) that is constantly being restored, tinkered with and reissued in new home video editions. The latest on offer is the 2018 Blu-ray from Well Go USA, which bills itself as the “definitive remastered edition.” While it is reportedly an improvement on the 2010 Blu from Tokyo Shock, it lacks any significant supplemental features aside from the decade-old commentary track from Miike and original manga writer Hideo Yamamoto recycled from an old DVD release. In any release, it should go without saying to beware the English-language dub.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the kind of deeply horrible and bizarre movie that really can only be viewed from between your fingers, or behind the sofa, for most of its two-hours-plus running time.”–Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Caleb Moss, who called it “Pretty weird, more leaning on subtle absurdity, but when [Miike] goes for it, he can deliver some really great black comic intellect…” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)