Tag Archives: Japanese

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.)

354. URUSEI YATSURA 2: BEAUTIFUL DREAMER (1984)

“It’s no use, Mr. James — it’s turtles all the way down.”–J. R. Ross, “Constraints on Variables in Syntax”

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Toshio Furukawa, Fumi Hirano, Machiko Washio, Akira Kamiya, Takuya Fujioka; Wayne Grayson (as Vinnie Penna), Roxanne Beck, Marnie Head, Draidyl Roberts (English dub)

PLOT: Students in the town of Tomobiki prepare for a fair the following day. One of the teachers, suffering from exhaustion, develops a strange feeling of déjà vu, finds his apartment covered in dust and mushrooms, and hypothesizes that the entire town is living the same day over and over. As the school nurse launches an investigation, people gradually begin disappearing from the town until only she and a small group of high schoolers are left.

Still from Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer (1984)

BACKGROUND:

  • “Urusei Yatsura” began as a manga (by Rumiko Takahashi) in 1978 and was adapted as a long-running animated television show in Japan starting in 1981 and ending in 1986. It was also known as “Lum, the Invader Girl,”  titled after its main character, when it played on the BBC. The series incorporated a wide variety of influences and was especially known for mixing science fiction with Japanese folklore. It had an “anything can happen” quality to it; eating mysterious candy might make hearts appear over your head, or one of the characters might find a camera that sent those it photographed to alternate dimensions. Even so, Beautiful Dreamer was a radical departure from the series’ comic formula.
  • Mamoru Oshii worked on 106 episodes of the “Urusei Yatsura” television series and was credited as lead director on two. He is also the credited director on the first Urusei Yatsura movie, For You, but was only brought in after a previous director quit, and considered his work on that film a “rush job.”
  • This excursion departs from the series’ usual focus on Lum and aliens, but is partly inspired by a previous episode of the series, “Wake up to a Nightmare.”
  • Beautiful Dreamer contains many references to the Japanese folk tale Urashima Tarō, about a fisherman who marries a spirit princess and spends what seems like a few years in her kingdom, but returns to his village to find that centuries have passed. This is an old and recurring theme in folk tales, which Washington Irving took as the basis for America’s “Rip Van Winkle.” In Urashima Tarō’s story the fisherman is originally rewarded for rescuing a turtle, which is why there are so many references to turtles in the movie.
  • Beautiful Dreamer also references the baku, a mythological monster who eats dreams and nightmares. It has no Western equivalent.
  • Beautiful Dreamer was Eric Young‘s staff pick for a Certified Weird movie.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The main characters briefly escape Tomobiki on a Harrier jet, only to look back and see that their city rides on a turtle’s back, à la Hindu cosmology.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Nazi tea shop; copyrighted piglet; town on a turtle

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Beautiful Dreamer co-stars an amorous flying turquoise-haired alien in a tiger-striped bikini. Not only is that not the weirdest thing in the movie, it’s the touchstone of normality in a film that drops the romantic slapstick conventions of the TV series it was adapted from in favor of a mind-bending trip, bearing its characters into dreamlike worlds on the back of a cosmic turtle.


Original trailer for Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer

COMMENTS: What would happen if you took a beloved Japanese Continue reading 354. URUSEI YATSURA 2: BEAUTIFUL DREAMER (1984)

349. MIND GAME (2004)

“Your life is a result of your own decisions.”–text message briefly glimpsed in the opening scenes of Mind Game

“There’s a lot of randomness in the decisions people make.”–Daniel Kahneman, psychologist

Recommended

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Kôji Imada, Sayaka Maeda, Takashi Fujii, Seiko Takuma

PLOT: Aspiring manga artist Nishi meets his schoolboy crush Myon on the subway and realizes he still loves her. They go to eat at her family’s noodle shop, but two yakuza break in, demanding repayment of loans, and in the ensuing scuffle kill the cowardly Nishi. In the afterlife, Nishi meets God, but decides he’s not done living and returns to earth, where he becomes a hero by rescuing Myon and her sister, then is swallowed by a whale and shacks up with the old hermit who lives in its belly.

Still from Mind Game (2004)

BACKGROUND:

  • Based on a manga by Robin Nishi.
  • This was Masaaki Yuasa‘s feature film debut as a director. He had worked as an animator since 1990. He also had a big role in producing the Certified Weird short feature Cat Soup (2001), working as co-writer, co-producer and animation director.
  • Animation director Kôji Morimoto’s credits as an animator include Akira (1988) and Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989).
  • Mind Game won the equivalent of Best Animated Feature at Japan’s Media Arts Festival (placing ahead of Howl’s Moving Castle) and was named Best Film at the 2004 Fantasia Festival (narrowly beating out Survive Style 5+).
  • Despite its accolades, Mind Game never had an official U.S. premier or home video release until 2018. It nevertheless developed a cult following with the few people who managed to see it, and told their friends.
  • Mind Game was the winner of 366 Weird Movies’ final readers’ choice poll.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: God, the cigarette smoking fish. Seriously, how many movies dare to literally depict God on-screen? Now, subtract the ones that show Him as a bearded old white guy or George Burns, and ask yourself the question again.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: God’s many cartoon faces; gay ex-yakuza in a whale; external translucent womb

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Mind Game is trippy and surreal—the plot and the animation style both change every few minutes—but a sense of mystical wonder and an elusive wisdom underlies the whole crazy game. Put your seat belt on, this is going to be a bumpy ride.


US release trailer for Mind Game

COMMENTS: Mind Game begins with a stakeout in the rain; a man Continue reading 349. MIND GAME (2004)

CAPSULE: DEVILMAN CRYBABY (2018)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Griffin Burns,  Kyle McCarley, Cristina Vee, Cherami Leigh (English dub)

PLOT: High schoolers are being eaten by demons bent on conquering the world; crybaby Akira is convinced to merge with a devil in order to become a superhero and oppose them.

Still from Devilman Crybaby (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: We could rule it out simply due to format (TV miniseries rather than feature film). Even if we considered it as a longform movie, however, Devilman only distinguishes itself from other anime in its exceptional, often trippy, visuals. It’s simply not that weird, especially by the elevated standards of its baseline-strange genre.

COMMENTS: “Devilman Crybaby” begins with an androgynous blonde in a cosmic ball dropping onto earth, like an egg fertilizing a larger egg, then segues into protagonist Akira’s childhood flashback, where the young crybaby bawls over the fate of a wounded rat while his friend Ryo tries to euthanize it with a wicked box cutter. Years later, Ryo is a machine-pistol toting prodigy anthropology professor investigating a demon infestation who convinces Akira to serve as an experimental subject: he takes him to a “sabbath” party (basically, the world’s tightest rave) so the mild-mannered teen can be deliberately possessed by a demon. Director/animator Yuasa goes nuts at the orgy, giving us huge glowing wire sculptures, topless high school chicks lit in aqua gyrating like strippers on ecstasy, another topless girl passing out pills to everyone who enters the party, and in-the-open pansexual couplings everywhere. Then, things get weird: Ryo starts slashing random dancers with a broken champagne bottle because the party’s “too tame” and devils “love the smell of blood.” This somehow leads a (topless) girl to urinate (while keeping her panties on) while her boobs turn into a head-chomping tentacles, giant bugs and spikes burst out of other copulating teens, and Akira to turn into Baal as teenybopper heads and limbs fly around a party that suddenly looks like a high school massacre set in a neon cathedral. The last time you want to get possessed by a devil is when you’re peaking on acid at the club.

The orgiastic scenes and various mutant devil designs—including one who incorporates the lamenting heads of his victims into his torso—are the best part of “Devilman.” During breaks in the battles between Devilman and the monsters, Akira fantasizes (in explicit fanservice detail) over his surrogate sister (they grew up together in the same household, but are not related by blood). We also follow a subplot involving rapping teenagers. At times, “Devilman” alternates so much between awesome tentacle battles and Akira using his Devilman x-ray vision to check out pseudo-sis’ undies that it almost seems like a parody of anime conventions. You won’t be surprised at all by the identity of the main villain, but you might be a bit confused about how the Devilmen fit into the scheme.

Besides the standard angsty superhero tropes, there’s also a bit of genuinely weird stuff, some of it intentional (a bug-eating coach) and some of it unintentional (they expect us to buy that regional high school track and field meets are so popular in Japan that they pack Olympic stadiums for them?) The anime genre works according to its own internal conventions, and requires a heightened ability to suspend disbelief from its audience. In general, however, I thought the storyline (a reboot of a popular anime series by the legendary Go Nagai) was juvenile (in theme and form, not in its not-for-kids sex and violence) and beneath Yuasa’s talent. The characters are predictable types, if affectionately drawn, and the theme of human empathy is not particularly deep. It’s Yuasa’s next-level visuals, best displayed in the bacchanalia of Episode 1 and the apocalypse of Episode 10, that raise “Devilman” above its brethren. Even some of the minor sequences, like a minimalist nighttime drive in Ryo’s white sports car, with streetlights lights strobing by like regiment of precise fireflies in the side view mirror and windshield, are of superior design compared to the industry standard. Yuasa borrows a good deal of “exotic” Christian imagery, particularly the cross, horned devils, and a mangled eschatology (which has been a thing in anime ever since and pioneered it in the 1980s). The final episode features an twelve-winged “angel” riding a seven-headed dragon, weaponized rainbows, and other stuff that got left out of the Book of Revelation but would have looked really cool on an Iron Maiden album cover. Devotees of the style looking for action-oriented psychedelic thrills with a little teenage drama on the side will groove to it, but it’s not the best pool of anime goo for a newbie to dip his or her toe into.

“Devilman Crybaby” made a small splash as Netflix’s “first original anime” when it debuted in January 2018. Actually, it was only the first of twelve new original anime series (of a planned thirty) to roll out.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…for as grotesque as it regularly gets, Devilman Crybaby is bizarrely easy to love… a peak example of director Yuasa’s brand of balancing surrealist art and a real love for young people.”–Allegra Frank, Polygon

(This series was nominated for review by Benjamin Rubin, who asked “where else are you going to get psychosexual imagery, a mid-air fight scene that is also a sex scene, the end of the world, and of course, a gay hermaphroditic Satan who causes said end of the world, yet still remains a (slightly) sympathetic antagonist”? Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)