Tag Archives: Japanese

CAPSULE: GENIUS PARTY (2007)

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DIRECTED BY: Hideki Futamura, Yuji Fukuyama, Shoji Kawamori, Shinji Kimura, , Masaaki Yuasa

FEATURING: Various voice actors

PLOT: Six short animated films from different directors associated with Japan’s Studio 4ºC.

COMMENTS: There’s no better way to enjoy the Christmas/Saint Stephen’s/Saint John’s/Holy Innocent’s holiday run than to nestle back with coffee and cartoons, so I kicked up my heels and dove deep into a very fine collection of anime wonderments (as well as a mixed metaphor). Each entry in this 2007 anthology gets its own paragraph.

“Shanghai Dragon” – dir. by Shoji Kawamori

Somehow the fate of humanity rests in the snot-covered hands of 5-year-old Gonglong when a mysterious, magical piece of chalk is crash-delivered to his schoolyard. “Shanghai Dragon” playfully riffs on the Terminator premise, showcasing the likely whimsicality if mankind’s savior were a very, very young boy. Kawamori’s short is, in a way, straight-up action anime, including a cybernetically enhanced, cigar-smoking badass; killer robots; hundreds of explosions; and a giant AI-controlled dog robot. But it’s also one of the cutest cartoons I have ever seen.

“Deathtic 4” – dir.  Shinji Kimura

Four young school friends plot to save a (live) frog that was somehow transported to their (zombie) planet by the hazardous Uzu-Uzu weather event. While “Shanghai Dragon” was cute, “Deathtic 4” (presumably the planet’s name) is one of the ickier cartoons I’ve seen—but it still immolated me in a fire-wall of charm. The quartet inhabits a sicklier variant of ‘s “Halloween Town“, and are all losers (despite three of them claiming “super powers”). The Zombie Police discover the living froggy, they sound the alarm–via a detachable siren nose that turns out to be one of those “moooo” canisters. The lads then flee toward the MASSIVE cyclone, Uzu-Uzu, with a plan ripped from a Garbage Pail Kids’ E.T.

“Doorbell” – dir. by Yuji Fukuyama

Fukuyama’s short is by far and away the most cryptic of the bunch, but that isn’t what made it my least favorite—or maybe it is. My suspicion is the director is attempting a philosophical exercise concerning infinite realities, all variants centered around one focal point: in “Doorbell”s case, that of a young man whose versions of himself keep splitting off and cutting him off from future paths. Neat, and pleasantly understated—and as such, feels a little out of place here.

“Limit Cycle” – dir. by Hideki Futamura

Playing like a cyber-theological TED talk, Futamura’s short lacks narrative and characters, but is the most fascinating entry. Its layered visuals, which combine classic animation, computer animation along with symbolic numbers, images, and math, are lush and hypnotic—prompting me to sorely regret my lack of fluency in Japanese, as my eyes had to stay anchored to the persistent subtitles to have any grasp of what was going on. Beautiful to behold while raising many profound philosophical points.

“Happy Machine” – dir. by Masaaki Yuasa

Humanistic allegory meets wacky animation in this short. The story begins with a happy infant (whimsical mobile above his bed, toys lining shelves, loving mother approaching to feed him) whose reality is sucked away, forcing him on a strange journey through a wasteland. Animation itself is deconstructed as its artifice collapses along with the infant’s home—and that’s just one of the dozen or so dissections of life, etc., that Yuasa performs with his singular ‘tooning style.

“Baby Blue” – dir. by Shinichiro Watanabe

Boy is going to be moving away from his school–and his girl-crush–and so suggests that he and she cut class and head out. To anywhere. Those seeking a melancholic musing on maturation may find this quite satisfying. While it lacks the temporal/scientific/divine themes of its fellow entries, I wasn’t unhappy about its inclusion, particularly the scene where the boy busts out a grenade (acquired, against the odds, in a wholly believable manner) to fend off a gaggle of ’50s throwback goons.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the average level of quality is staggeringly high… If you have any love for animation as a medium of art, I cannot recommend this collection enough.”–Ard Vijn, Screen Anarchy (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Wormhead,” who described it as “pretty weird. It’s a series of mind-blowing anime shorts, specially the short ‘Happy Machine.'” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

 

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: NAUSICAÄ OF THE VALLEY OF THE WIND (1984)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Sumi Shimamoto, Gorô Naya, Mahito Tsujimura, Hisako Kyôda (Japanese); , , Mark Silverman, James Taylor, (English dub)

PLOT: In a post-apocalyptic earth plagued by toxic jungles and giant bugs, opposing factions clash in a struggle to survive and eradicate the pestilence.

Still from Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: This beautiful dream of a movie is right on the borderline of true weirdness. On the one hand, it is glaringly original in its inventiveness, while on the other its universe is so meticulously constructed and populated that it seems more real than reality. In a league with The City of Lost Children or Fantastic Planet, Nausicaä earns its weird wings through the vividness of its vision.

COMMENTS: Imagine coming to Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind cold, and all you know is that it’s a post-apocalyptic sci-fi where Earth has been taken over by giant bugs. The movie you just imagined, possibly inspired by Bert I. Gordon, is the exact opposite of what you actually get. Or how about being told that the true danger of this world is an invasive jungle that spews poisonous spores into the wind, and everyone has to wear masks? Evocative as this is of the current COVID-19 pandemic, that still doesn’t convey the story you’re about to see. The title character is both a kick-ass pilot and a friend to all beasts, but this only suggests an amalgam of Amelia Earhart and Pocahontas. Nausicaä (Sumi Shimamoto) carries traits of both those legendary women, but there is much more to her character.

If we’re talking about an impossibly plucky young female lead in a fantasy universe that is the equal of Oz or Middle Earth, then we must be talking about a  Hayao Miyazaki movie. This was the first of such films, the model on which Miyazaki soon founded the mighty Studio Ghibli anime empire. The world of this Earth, a thousand years in the future, is far from a grim Mad Max Thunderdome. It’s a lived-in world of new wonders and exotic peril, beset by an impending environmental crisis and a looming world war—because, of course, those rotten humans never change. As the princess of the valley, Nausicaä leaves no doubt that she is in charge, barking orders at the villagers as soon as any action starts. When war comes to the village’s doorstep, she greets it with a swinging sword. And when there’s an emergency, she’s the first to think of a solution.

Sadly, it turns out that Nausicaä is going to meet problems without easy solutions. The environmental dilemmas of Earth and of the people struggling to live on its last inhabitable bits come down to—big surprise—jingoistic nationalism vs. science and reason. Guess who has the floor? A complex plot of conflicting kingdoms and slippery alliances unfolds, far beyond Nausicaä’s immediate political power to fix. The salvation of this story is that each character has a “why,” and not even the heroes are right about everything. You’ve seen this story before, but never told with such clarity. At the same time, it’s a hardcore science fiction story with a larger-than-life world and flights of adventure, so you have mind-boggling scenery if the political allegory doesn’t hold your attention.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is such a seminal cultural artifact that declaring it the Citizen Kane of anime would not be far off the mark. It influenced movies that followed, such as Neon Genesis Evangelion; it’s legacy can also be seen in  the works of video game studio Square-Enix, evident in titles from the “Final Fantasy” franchise to “Secret of Mana” and “Illusion of Gaia.”

What can I add to this awe-inspiring classic whose reputation is cemented in anime culture? A couple of crumbs of fair criticism, as always. The Aesop-style morals are hammered in a bit too heavily. The pacing is at the same time too fast and too slow; it takes a while for the plot to get moving, while we would prefer learning more about the setting. Our title princess is a bit too stereotypical as a Big Damn Hero, complete with Messianic Prophecy. But these minor quirks are the inevitable baggage that comes with political stories and environmental themes. This masterpiece, with its fully realized fever dream of a world, has more than enough license to preach to us. It’s not like we’re going to learn something from it and improve or anything.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“What a weird movie. Seriously, it’s just so strange. But that is definitely not a criticism!” — Jonathan North, Rotoscopers

CAPSULE: KOTOKO (2011)

コトコ

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DIRECTED BY: Shinya Tsukamoto

FEATURING: Cocco, Shinya Tsukamoto

PLOT: A young mother suffering from violent hallucinations loses custody of her son before a mild-mannered novelist enters her life.

COMMENTS: As my trip through Shinya Tsukamoto’s back-catalogue continues, my appreciation for his genius grows. Kotoko manages to be the most straightforward of his films while also being the most disturbing. There is no metal grafting, no superhuman violence, and, despite the narrator’s unreliability, the action is grounded in the mundane. The dark, harrowing side of the mundane. Perhaps not “weird” for our purposes (though it comes close), Kotoko stands out among the auteur’s typical work—and proves that Tuskamoto’s toolkit of perturbation extends far beyond his “typical” mechano-nihilistic visions.

We first meet Kotoko (J-Pop star “Cocco”) as she narrates how she sees “double”. At any moment Kotoko, may witness someone doing one thing—reading along with a toddler, say—only to see that person’s double as well, typically acting as a raging, violent id. She is aware of her condition, an affliction she can only ward off through song. Her sole motivation for enduring is her infant son. After a dramatic breakdown spurred by a child’s screams and spilled stir-fry, the boy is taken into her sister’s custody. Kotoko’s latent self-destructive tendencies worsen until she meets a quiet writer (Shinya Tuskamoto), who overhears her singing on a bus and decides to stalk her.

The first act is unsettling, the third act is nigh-on devastating. But the second—that’s where Kotoko is most bizarre. “What madness ensues?,” you ask. Amazingly, none. The film’s middle tranche is the “romantic comedy” filling of an otherwise dispiriting donut of a story. Cocco and Tsukamoto have a magical, socially inept chemistry. As a shy and somewhat bumbling literary celebrity, Tuskamoto adds “awkward romantic interest” to his acting arsenal (previously limited to “metal fetishist” and “emotionally benumbed salaryman”). During one of his stalking-visits, he fears the worst when Kotoko doesn’t answer her door, so he breaks in and finds her bleeding on her bathroom floor. Kotoko reaches almost mad-cap levels of silly dialogue and physical comedy as he charges back and forth between the bathroom and the place where she keeps the towels, always grabbing the wrong piece of fabric, while Kotoko patiently and bleedingly gestures and corrects him.

Had this continued, Kotoko would deserve a place amongst our esteemed, weird titles. That it does not isn’t a failure in filmmaking, of course, but a testament to the versatility of Tsukamoto. Instead, the rom-com provides the audience a much-needed breather between the setting up and knocking down of the titular heroine. Kotoko is something of a vanity project for the famous J-Pop star, but it is one of the oddest celebrity vehicles I’ve ever seen. Whether teary-eyed, widely smiling, writhing, singing, or dancing, Cocco exhibits a violent vulnerability not typically associated with mega-stars. With Tsukamoto, she finds the perfect technician to bring her vision to life; with Cocco, Tsukamoto gets to prove that whatever the story is, he can tell it–even if there aren’t any gears, cogs, or drill-bits.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…few films can claim to give such an uncompromising view of what it must be like to be crazy, as seen from the inside. Cronenberg’s ‘Videodrome’ comes to mind, or Polanski’s ‘Repulsion.’ Both of these films are not the easiest to watch, especially when seen for the first time, and ‘Kotoko’ is a lot like that.” -Ard Vijn, Screen Anarchy (festival screening)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: TOKYO FIST (1995)

東京フィスト

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DIRECTED BY: Shinya Tsukamoto

FEATURING: Shinya Tsukamoto, Kahori Fujii, Kôji Tsukamoto

PLOT: Tsuda Yoshiharu is a mild-mannered salaryman whose engagement winds up on the rocks after an old high school friend suddenly reappears in his life.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: Tsukamoto’s take on the boxing melodrama is, for the most part, “only” as strange as one might expect from the auteur of body-mechanics. However, the explosive triple-climax of sports violence, body horror, and metallo-spiritual fervor wrenches Tokyo Fist from the realm of the merely eccentric and slams it squarely into the pulsing weird sensors of the viewer’s brainpan.

COMMENTS: With its jerky camera work and dissonant soundscape, Tetsuo: the Iron Man would seem like lightning captured in a bottle—a one-time occurrence. Heaven knows its spiritual sequel never quite managed to capture the frenetic discomfort of Tsukamoto’s paean to corporeal mechanization. Perhaps it was filming in color, perhaps it was the attempt to graft an actual story on to the madness—whatever it was, Tetsuo II: Body Hammer feels like a softer cousin of the original man of iron. In Tokyo Fist, Tuskamoto reclaims that lightning he captured that first time around, somehow harnessing its electricity to transform a simple tale of romantic betrayal and depression into a jolting and exhausting treatise on violence and revenge.

Tsuda Yoshiharu (Shinya Tsukamoto) represents any black-tied, white-shirted salaryman in greater Tokyo. He sells insurance packages. He apologizes obsequiously. And he’s constantly worn out and perspiring. It’s been so long since he’s had sex with his fiancée Hizuru (Kahoro Fujii) that neither can remember when they last thus exerted themselves. A colleague browbeats him into passing along a “gift” of cash to professional boxer Kojima (Kôji Tsukamoto, Shinya’s real-life brother). As fate would have it, Kojima is an old high school buddy of Tsuda’s. It’s no happy reunion, though, when the boxer starts showing up uninvited, and seduces the good salaryman’s lady.

So what happens next? Tsuda joins the boxing club that Kojima belongs to—pursuing a more traditional variety of “body alteration” than in Tetsuo—and things get violent. This is all to be expected in a boxing/romance/revenge/redemption movie. However, each of those four genre flag-posts is subverted here. Starting with redemption: Tsuda’s quest to buff up and out box his rival turns into something on the spiritual side of suicidal. His revenge becomes moot when Hizuru shows strange signs of her own personal change: what begins with a tattoo escalates to the self-installation of increasingly large piercings in increasingly deep chunks of her flesh. The romance between Tsuda and Hizuru seems almost non-existent, just a cutesy momentum that is instantly derailed by the intrusion of the (occasionally feral) Kojima.

And then there’s the boxing. It’s worth mentioning the “reality” of Tokyo Fist and how it’s captured before elaborating. At the start, everything’s traditionally lit: the “salaryman introduction” drives home a hyper-normality. Increasingly, though, Tsukamoto takes his lighting cues from silent films. Nighttime is always a lush blue tone; the daytime becomes harsh. Eventually the only realism appears during boxing matches. And as expected, Tsukamoto doesn’t shy away from jarring sound. There’s always the risk of an earful of grinding rivets to ruin one’s complacency as the training room montages begin writhing staccato-style on top of each other. Slam editing, slam sound, slamming faces, slamming flesh, culminating in a mystical blood spout finale. This ain’t no Rocky.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This is a film about sex and violence, and viewed as such it approaches the level of a masterpiece, albeit a distinctly surreal one.”–Marv Savlov, Austin Chronicle (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: SUKIYAKI WESTERN DJANGO (2007)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Hideaki Itô, Yūsuke Iseya, Kōichi Satō, Kaori Momoi, Yoshino Kimura, Masanobu Andô,

PLOT: A nameless gunman rides into a town where two rival gangs of samurai scheme to find and seize a hidden cache of gold.

Still from Sukiyaki Western Django (2007)

COMMENTS: A hawk grabs a snake in its talons and flies off into a painted sunset. A man wrapped in a Navajo blanket (Quentin Tarantino) rolls onto his back, shoots the bird out of the sky, catches the snake as it falls, and in one swift motion uses a knife to slit the body and remove a bloody egg from the serpent’s neck. While he’s absorbed in that operation, three Japanese gunslingers get the drop on him. Tarantino, using a fake Western accent, then describes a rivalry between the red Heike and the white Genji clans, as he slips into an even weirder take on a cowpoke with a southern drawl mimicking a Japanese accent. Not surprisingly, the nameless man turns the tables on the three interlopers and kills them all, without breaking the egg.

This opening suggests a level of stylized surrealism that Sukiyaki Western Django doesn’t quite maintain. Tarantino’s character is not the non sequitur narrator he initially appears to be, and the rest of the movie generally takes a more straightforward tone. Essentially, it’s a series of spaghetti Western archetypes, clichés, and homages—a Man with No Name, a hidden cache of treasure, a weapon stashed in a coffin—wrapped in a gimmick: the action all takes place in a mythical version of feudal Japan where desperadoes pack both six-shooters and katanas. In the strangest directorial decision, the Japanese cast delivers their cowboy dialogue (“you gonna come at me… or whistle ‘Dixie’?”) entirely in heavily accented English (learned phonetically, in most cases).  Because the actors’ English pronunciation ranges from passable to difficult to understand to nearly incomprehensible, this odd, distancing choice will be an insurmountable barrier for some.

If you can clear the dialogue bar, the rest of Sukiyaki‘s recipe will be familiar to Miike fans: fast-paced action, absurd comic violence, heavy doses of morphing style, and throwaway bits of surrealism. Holes are blown through torsos, through which crossbow bolts are then fired; bright flashback scenes are graded toward the extreme yellow and green ends of the spectrum; babies are found curled up in hybridized roses. We also learn that, in old West saloons, samurai were fond of interpretive dance performances scored to didgeridoos. All this nonsense leads to a heart-pounding, if hackneyed, finale that proves the old maxim that the more important a character is to the plot, the more bullets they can take without dying. After the gunsmoke clears from the village-sized battlefield, a silly closing epilogue will make Spaghetti Western fans groan.

Tarantino’s involvement in Sukiyaki is a testament to the mutual admiration between he and Miike, and it’s noteworthy that his role here comes five years before his own revisionist take on Spaghetti Westerns in 2012’s Django Unchained. As for Miike, in some ways Sukiyaki marks the beginning of the winding down of his weird movie period; his next major work seen in the West was the excellent but entirely realistic Thirteen Assassins (2010), and since 2015 has been spending more time on Japanese television series aimed at elementary school girls than on making weird cinema.

In 2020, MVD visual released Sukiyaki Western Django on Blu-ray for the first time (in the North American market). All of the extras—a 50-minute “making of” featurette, six minutes of deleted scenes, and a series of clips and promos—are also found on the 2008 DVD. The one thing that makes this release special is the inclusion of the extended cut that played at the Venice Film Festival and in Japanese theaters. The box cover claims this extended cut is 159:57 minutes long—a typo for 1:59:57, as the cut clocks in at almost exactly two hours. There are no significant differences between the two versions; Miike simply snipped away insignificant bits from many once-longer scenes, resulting in a shorter, faster-paced, and improved film. (A detalied list of the differences can be found at the always-excellent movie-censorship.com).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…utterly deranged homage to westerns all’italia… dialogue is delivered in phonetic English so weirdly cadenced that self-conciously cliched lines like ‘a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do’ approach surreal poetry.”–Maitland McDonagh, TV Guide

9*. GEMINI (1999)

Sôseiji

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Masahiro Motoki, Ryô

PLOT: Yukio is a successful doctor, decorated for his service in the war. His wife Rin is an amnesiac. Yukio discovers he has an identical twin from whom he was separated at birth—a resentful and savage twin, bent on revenge.

Still from Gemini (1999)

BACKGROUND:

  • Tsukamoto adapted the story from a 1924 short story by Edogawa Rampo (“the Japanese Edgar Allan Poe”).
  • In an unusual move, fellow director assembled a 15-minute “making of” featurette to accompany the film on DVD.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Our first glimpse of the twin in the shadows. He looks just like Yukio, but wears ragged robes and a bizarre fur earmuff that covers half of his face. He shakes like he’s having a fit, then approaches the camera by doing cartwheels. It’s scary enough to give someone a heart attack.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Eyebrowless clan; somersaulting doppelganger

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Pulling back from the unbridled mania of Tetsuo: The Iron Man and similar body-horror experiments, Shinya Tsukamoto proves that he can generate cold sweats with a more subtle, purely psychological approach. With its deep shadows and determined pace, Gemini generates an uncanny horror that seeps into your bones.

The opening minutes of “The Making of Gemini

COMMENTS: Gemini begins with an abstract, ominous prologue. It Continue reading 9*. GEMINI (1999)