Tag Archives: Japanese

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: TO SLEEP SO AS TO DREAM (1986)

夢みるように眠りたい

Yumemiru yôni nemuritai

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DIRECTED BY: Kaizô Hayashi

FEATURING: Shirô Sano, Koji Otake, Fujiko Fukamizu, Yoshio Yoshida

PLOT: A retired film star hires Uotsuka and Kobayashi, a pair of down-on-their-luck detectives, to track down her daughter Bellflower, who was kidnapped by riddle-loving criminals.

Still from To Sleep so as to Dream (1986)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: The detective genre is turned on its head and spell-bound to slumber in Kaizô Hayashi’s silent film debut. This playful noir is fueled by dream logic, pantomime capering, and a nostalgia more full-throated than ‘s—as well as hundreds of hard-boiled eggs.

COMMENTS: In the market for the best P.I. in town? Then look no further than the Uotsuka Detective Agency. Sure, his schedule may be empty—so much so that his chalkboard agenda has nothing more than a doodled face on it. And he may not have the best assistant—Kobayashi idles away his time riding a pneumatic horse. But Uotsuka is as hard-boiled as they come, as proven by his in-office hen and his egg-only diet. Fine, fine, he may not be the best for everyone, but for an aging silent film star whose daughter has disappeared, his knack for riddles and protein-fueled energy fits the bill perfectly.

Kaizô Hayashi places his love of nigh-lost cinema squarely in the foreground in To Sleep So As To Dream, his directorial (and screenwriting and producing) debut. He presents the film in the Academy ratio, records in black-and-white, and, in his clever way, makes a “silent” film. Audio effects (knocked doors, clinked metal, thumped guns) are sprinkled in judiciously, but there is no spoken dialogue from the on-screen characters, who communicate through facial expressions, gestures, and often-novel intertitle cards. (As the detective obsesses over the clue “General Tower,” those words completely fill the screen.) Two circumstances break this silence: whenever a recording is played—invariably from the kidnappers, whose love of money is matched only by their love of riddling—and in the presence of a benshi.

Another throw-back to classic Japanese cinema, the benshi was the live narrator of a silent film, telling the story and interpreting the on-screen action as a film is projected. This aural eccentricity underpins the embellished performances, making for a self-aware, but never parodying, silent-style experience. The combination of off-kilter and heightened reality makes To Sleep a creditable facsimile for a dream, and Kaizô is well aware of what he’s up to. Pursuing a trio of gyroscope-peddling magicians (a “chase” sequence I can only describe as “goofily suspenseful”), Uotsoka has a nasty run-in with a handful of goons and loses two million yen. After awakening from his wallop, he meets up with his client to reassure her, “…Bellflower and the money will be found—if the whole thing isn’t just a dream.”

Kaizô Hayashi is a film nostalgist, bringing to that embryonic genre his impressive visual sense and deft sound engineering to craft an experience both innovative and sentimental. (If To Sleep So As To Dream wasn’t an inspiration to Maddin, I’d be much surprised. ) Our experience of Uotsuka’s and Kobayashi’s serpentine meanderings through theme parks, carnivals, dreamscape movie theaters—and even a memory-warping film shoot—is what movies are all about: the bending of technique to vision so as to create storytelling art.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Cinema is of course a medium of dreams, and this metacinematic film about the belated, backward-looking pursuit of something as elusive as lost youth or a bygone medium certainly comes packed with elements of an oneiric nature. Not since Giulio Questi’s similarly surreal Death Laid An Egg, from 1968, had there been a film so singularly obsessed with chickens and eggs…”–Anton Bitel, Little White Lies (Blu-ray)

CAPSULE: ROBOT CARNIVAL (1987)

Robotto kânibaru

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DIRECTED BY: , Atsuko Fukushima, Kôji Morimoto, Hiroyuki Kitazume, Manabu Ôhashi, Hidetoshi Ômori, Yasuomi Umetsu, Hiroyuki Kitakubo, Takashi Nakamura

FEATURING: N/A

PLOT: Robot-themed animated shorts are assembled under the banner of a traveling “Robot Carnival.”

COMMENTS:

What do you call a robot made out of all kinds of things?

A Smörgåsborg!

It’s a dark day when the “Robot Carnival” comes to town. In a windswept desert, a young boy finds the torn remains of a poster. Who can say what the year is? All that is on display is a little village peopled by survivors: survivors who immediately suss the danger of the coming attraction. They flee to their homes, nail jagged bits of wood across doors and windows, and wait out the menace. The menace is in the form a gargantuan machine chuffing its way to the center of town; chuffing and crushing, leveling half the homes before the true fireworks begin. Yes, the Robot Carnival is here: featuring a full band, with rocket trombones; bomb-dropping ballerina-droids; and a fireworks display that will leave you flattened.

This dark whimsicality is Robot Carnival‘s opening salvo. Among the collection’s attractions is the nebulous “Clouds” segment (dir. Manabu Ôhashi), the most non-traditional of the spectacles. A series of old-photograph sections come to life, as a robot boy travels ever leftwards with meditative, and possibly mythic, imagery playing in the background. “Presence” (dir. Yasuomi Umetsu) is the longest of the bunch, and starts off with a gang of hooligans severing the head of a passing toff to use as a football; rest assured, the decapitated automaton minces no words about his displeasure at being kicked around by these young jackanapes. The tone shifts to tell the story of a steampunk toy maker who crafts a robotic companion, and who then makes an immediately regrettable decision which haunts him the rest of his days.

The crème-de-la-crème (or whatever a robot-preferred dessert substance may be) is “Nightmare” (dir. Takashi Nakamura), a beautifully eerie fantasia with a cartoonishly comic undercurrent. A strange ‘bot astride a hovering mono-cycle travels the night, zapping power transformers, vehicles—anything electrical—to summon therefrom smiling prowlers. (The sight of dozens of jaggedly lithe metal gremlins springing from an earth-mover will happily haunt my memory for years to come.) This eldritch summoner, whose manner and appearance suggest the fabled Pied Piper, is interrupted by a drunk, who espies the massing mechanical monsters and tries to hie to safety on his scooter—only to zip headlong into the massive puppet-master-bot for a sequence worthy of “Merry Melodies.”

As with any mixture, the quality varies from section to section. However, considering these anime shorts were produced by the director/animator team behind Akira, there is much comfort—and much robot—to be taken in the fact that they are one talented team among many involved in this cavalcade of clankinous and creepy contraptions . Across the seven short films, flanked by Katsuhiro Ôtomo and Atsuko Fukushima’s paired intro and outro, Robot Carnival clatters along at an occasionally uneven, but never dull, shambling of hisses, humor, gears, and grandeur.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If you’re a core anime fan, these shorts may be a little too alien and unfamiliar, but if you have a soft spot for creative animation then there’s plenty to love here… The animation is exemplary, the art styles wildly original and the stories support the madness.” -Niels Matthijs, Onderhond

CAPSULE: PYSCHO GOTHIC LOLITA (2010)

Gothic & Lolita Psycho

Gosurori shokeinin

ゴスロリ処刑人

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DIRECTED BY: Gô Ohara

FEATURING: Rina Akiyama, Yûrei Yanagi, Misaki Momose, Ruito Aoyagi

PLOT: After the brutal murder of her mother, Yuki exacts revenge on the killers using a variety of deadly umbrellas.

COMMENTS: This movie was pretty stupid. Too stupid, alas, to nominate as Apocryphally Weird. But not too stupid (or, I suppose, stupid enough) to warrant my time. Having cut his teeth on the genre with Geisha Assassin, Gô Ohara leans into his strengths as a spinner of blood-spurty dreams with Psycho Gothic Lolita, an over-the-top vengeance tale of a young woman assassinating a series of criminals. (His third feature, An Assassin, forgoes any flowery title in favor of getting to the crux of what this guy seems to be about.) Blood spouts from severed limbs and heads; bad line deliveries spout from heads, too—sometimes even after they’ve been severed.

Yuki is on a rampage. On her birthday, she witnessed the gory and oddly ceremonial murder of her mother and the crippling of her father. Her father becomes wheelchair-bound; he also becomes (or, perhaps, was already) some sort of Christian priest. This covenant with piety and forgiveness does not stop him from putting together all manner of umbrellae for his daughter to employ in her crusade against the five nasties who did her mother in. Also, she trades her virginal-white, prim attire for an aesthetic of black lace and leather Victorian bondage gear.

Anyhow, Psycho Gothic Lolita. Er… Gothic & Psycho Lolita… Whatever this is, it’s strangely entertaining. Yuki’s battle with the second target involves levitation and a martial-arts mop. Right on the heels of that chuckle-fest, she picks a random fight with a gang beating up some beleaguered salaryman. How do we know they are beating him up? First, we see that they are doing so; and then we hear one of the goons threaten, “We’ll beat you up!”—twice. They are… very much beating him up. She throws a pair of bike handlebars to the ground near the fray, prompting one to turn and lament “My bike! That was expensive!”—twice. I briefly wondered if she was making a foray into vigilantism, but no: the salaryman was one of the Five, a safe-cracker hired to open the door to Yuki’s home. It’s after she dispatches (very non-compassionately) this rather apologetic lock-pick that she first encounters Elle. Ahhh, to be young, psychotic, and in love with firearms. Elle shoots appallingly badly, but revels in the joy of firing her bladed, twin-barreled twin guns.

Gô Ohara finishes in style with an ending that not only suggests that Yuki’s mom may have had it coming, but also that there may be more adventures for Yuki—especially now that she has discovered the full extent of her powers. A tip of the hat must be given to Ruito Aoyagi; not only for the longest villainous-laugh endurance test I’ve ever seen, but for playing a character dubbed “Viscous Man.” Let me assure you: he’s got a looooong reach with his electro-fist. When I reached the end of the film, I could not quite believe it; having now reached the end of the review, I still don’t.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The repulsive noodle-slurping has no real connection to the story’s plot. It’s a random touch, which feels more like a surreal art film flourish than like a genre exploitation trope. But that’s the reason to love genre exploitation crap... Freed from the tyranny of coherent plot or character construction, a lowest common denominator gore fest is committed to nothing but the next spectacularly vile gimmick.”–Noah Berlatsky, Splice Today

(This movie was nominated for review by Martin Canine. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CHANNEL 366: WONDER EGG PRIORITY (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: Shin Wakabayashi, Yūta Yamazaki, Yūki Yonemori, Yūichirō Komuro, Shinichirō Ushijima, Yūsuke Yamamoto, Maiko Kobayashi, Eita Higashikubo, Mitsuru Hagi

FEATURING: Voices of Kanata Aikawa, Tomori Kusunoki,  Shuka Saitō, Hinaki Yano, Yūya Uchida,  Hiroki Takahashi; Mikaela Krantz,  Dawn M. Bennett, Anairis Quiñones, Michelle Rojas, Brendan Blaber, Ian Sinclair (English dub)

PLOT: Four teenage girls buy eggs from mannequins in hopes of bringing suicides back to life.

Still from Wonder egg priority (2021)

COMMENTS: Episode 1 (“The Domain of Children”) is a promising start. We meet Ai Ohto, a hikikomori heroine with heterochromia, already inside of a dream. Following a brief orientation in Ai’s waking reality (a hermit existence with only her mother and a visiting teacher to relieve the self-imposed loneliness), we go into the following night’s dream, which brings schoolgirls with blurred faces, a talking toilet paper roll, grinning eyeless balls called “see-no-evils” (who will be recurring adversaries), a flashback inside the dream, a crying statue, and a resurrected firefly who offers Ai an egg that contains, he claims, the thing she really wants—a friend. It ends with the firefly revealed to be, in reality, a crash-test-dummy mannequin in a tuxedo who hangs out, along with a more casual mannequin wearing his baseball cap backwards, in a garden where the two sell teenage girls Wonder Eggs out of a vending machine. Each egg leads into a dream where the buyer must save a former female suicide from a metaphorical monster; succeed in enough of these missions, it’s hinted, and Ai will get her dead friend back.

Thrown into this scenario, the introduction is charmingly disorienting, although enough clues are supplied that, by episode 2, the outlines of the plot are comprehensible (aside from the overriding issue of how and why this oddly conceived suicide egg economy exists in the first place.) The series then falls into a “monster of the week” groove; in the second episode, Ai fights a demonic coach to save a gymnast worked into suicide, and in each of the next four installments a new Wonder Egg devotee comes on board, until we have a girl gang of four dream warriors. Each of the characters has a distinctive design and a nice character hook: Neiru is an pretty but emotionally-stunted girl genius, Rika is a peppy and mischievous former junior idol, and Momoe is an androgynous outcast. The missions the girls go on allow the creators to address an array of topics of interest to the target audience: bullying, unrealistic expectations, self-acceptance, molestation, gender identification, obsessive fandom, and, most prominently, suicide. In between battles, the girls bond, and a couple of subplots—Ai’s teacher and his relationships to much of the female cast, hints of Neiru’s backstory—start developing. A few new elements are also added, Continue reading CHANNEL 366: WONDER EGG PRIORITY (2021)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: INU-OH (2021)

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犬王

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DIRECTED BY: Masaaki Yuasa

FEATURING: Voices of Avu-chan, Mirai Moriyama

PLOT: A blind itinerant priest crosses paths with “the King of Dogs”, a vivacious and deformed creature with a talent for dancing; through the priest’s music and the dancer’s storytelling, they attempt to lay the lost souls of the Heike clan to rest.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: I have come to the conclusion that perhaps everything in Masaaki Yuasa’s œuvre should get canonized, particularly as we now have the elbow room to do so. (Night is Short, Walk on Girl was shortchanged due to numeric constraints.) Inu-oh brings an unlikely legend to bombastic life, fusing rock opera, ballet, pyrotechnics, spirits, curses, gender self-discovery, physical transformation; it’s a 21st-century story about a 14th-century performance troupe unearthing the secrets of an 12th-century war.

COMMENTS: It tickles me that Inu-Oh is Masaaki going “commercial.” This stems to a great extent, of course, from the fact that here in the United States, film norms are sickeningly normal: we are reigning kings of the lowest white bread denominator (so much so that it was controversial when Disney took a belated and modest stand against overtly bigoted legislation in its home state). Among the many themes explored in Inu-Oh, gender identity is near the fore, along with the nuances of parental acceptance of someone’s true self.

But let me stop that vein of thought for the moment. This is film for, and about, entertainment. It’s about musical revolution, and the delineation of the esteemed Noh tradition, which harkens back to the middle of last millennium. Inu-Oh follows Noh’s traditional story arc, lacing it with modern rock sensibilities. (Well, maybe not “modern” rock, but certainly strains of Buddy Holly through Jimmie Hendrix and Freddie Mercury.) The titular character is a born performer, despite—or because of—the fact he is a born monstrosity: an unnamed son of a proto-Noh performer, a boy of ambiguous shape, deformed face, and a long, strong arm. He embraces his outcast status, at one point referring to himself as “the Horrible Gourd” in honor of his misshapen mask. But as the son of a dance troupe leader, it comes as no surprise that Inu-Oh was born to jump and jive.

Tomona, the biwa priest, has a comparatively subtler trajectory. The son of a salvage diver, he is blinded at a young age when he and his father retrieved cursed regalia. Masaaki’s visual treatment of this unseeing musician is a treat, as total darkness gains rough outline of form with each sound Tomona hears. Being unable to see, the priest-musician (a biwa is never without his four-string shamisen and bachi) does not fear Inu-Oh, and is so able to help the mutant through his journey. Tomona’s personal journey is also about transformation as he evolves into an increasingly feminine entity, adopting the name Tomaori by the film’s end. The morphing of their name allows them to grow into their true form, but plays havoc with the spirit world, and with their ancestors—as one’s given, or accepted, name is what allows Tomona/Tomaori’s father to maintain contact from the afterlife.

While the first half of Inu-Oh is “merely” steeped in music, song, and dance, the second half is one long string of hand-clapping, foot-stomping musical numbers showcasing the monumental talents Tomona and Inu-Oh share as natural performers. They give the forgotten fate of the Heike spirits full-throated treatment, with Inu-Oh performing transgressively non-traditional storytelling through song and dance, while Tomona positively shreds it on their shamisen. Contemporary shogunate politics play a role in the story as well, as does the concurrent, tragic tale of Inu-Oh’s fame-obsessed father. Masaaki Yuasa never settles for half measures, and every theme—friendship, salvation, transformation, politics, and music—ties together in an animated vortex of vivacity and sonic rollercoaster of rocking melody.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This anachronistic rock musical promises a return to the playful, literary surrealism of ‘The Tatami Galaxy’ (2010) and its 2017 spin-off, ‘Night Is Short, Walk On Girl,’ but comes up short… There are individual sequences that reach the psychedelic heights of Yuasa’s best work. But too often, this tale of the liberating power of art is about as mind-expanding as an early-afternoon set at Fuji Rock Festival.”–James Hadfield, Japan Times (contemporaneous)

26*. THE WARPED FOREST (2011)

Asatte no Mori

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“…an ‘idiot’ or a ‘comedy’ The Thing….”–director  describing his stylistic aspirations for The Warped Forest

DIRECTED BY: Shunichiro Miki

FEATURING: , , Yoji Tanaka,

PLOT: Nine people are vacationing at a Japanese hot springs resort; some of them have disappeared for three days and reappeared without explanation. In an alternate universe, these nine pursue an existence in a village inside magical forest of sexualized fruit, miniature people, and brothels stocked with nipple-sucking creatures. The alter-egos supplicate before a monolith in the forest, seeking for a way to warp their dreams and find a happier existence.

Still from The Warped Forest (2011)

BACKGROUND:

  •  Funky Forest: The First Contact (2005) was a surreal anthology film from three directors ( , Aniki, and ) with no real plot, although it was themed around the idea of alien contact. This spiritual sequel was made by , whose monstrous, -on-laughing-gas creature designs were arguably the most memorable part of the original.
  • Although Miki has a segment in another anthology film and some TV episodes to his credit, this is his sole solo feature. He mostly directs commercials; he saved the money he made over the years and spent his entire life savings to fund this film himself.
  • The Warped Forest only had a short festival run and was never released to cinemas in Japan or elsewhere. In 2022 it was released as the co-feature in the Funky Forest Blu-ray set.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Cute-as-a-button Fumi Nikaidô holding an ornately carved rifle, which charges up with an advancing series of lights and a crescendo of whirs when she grasps it and, when fully operational, flips the compartment in the barrel to reveal… a tiny wiener, which emits a thin stream of white fluid.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Hypertech jizz gun; genital fruit

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Shunichiro Miki melds the weirdly organic and the comically absurd into a singular pocket of dreamspace, presenting a completely personal and unduplicatable vision that is simultaneously shocking, angularly erotic, and heartwarming.


Original trailer for The Warped Forest (2011)

COMMENTS: In 2011, Shunichiro Miki released a short trailer for Continue reading 26*. THE WARPED FOREST (2011)