Tag Archives: Japanese

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)

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020 CAPSULE: TEZUKA’S BARBARA (2019)

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Screening online for Canadians at 2020’s online Fantasia Film Festival

DIRECTED BY: Macoto Tezuka

FEATURING: Gorô Inagaki, Fumi Nikaidô

PLOT: Yosuke Mikura, a popular writer facing a creative lull, meets Barbara and develops an obsession with her.

COMMENTS: Damn it, Barbara, you were so very close. Your devil-may-care manic-pixie-dream-girl self was crafted by one of Japan’s most renowned manga artists. You were brought to life in a ragged city milieu, spouting poetry. You toyed so mischievously with the mind of a famous young writer. Your mother constantly wore a helmet-hat made out of cherry cordials. You knocked back 50-year-old single malt Scotch like the pro I always wanted to be. And you just up and dropped the frickin’ ball—right on my eyeball.

It is only because I want to give Osamu Tezuka a fair shake in the future that I won’t hold Tezuka’s Barbara against him. His work might someday actually achieve the weirdness I was looking for, instead of just shamelessly flirting with it. Yosuke is a dull cipher of a protagonist, but that’s fine; all the better to provide the viewer a lens through which to witness the following: frantic lovemaking to a living mannequin cut short by a deft, head-removing smack from a liquor bottle; unsettling voodoo-doll machinations targeted against Barbara’s romantic rival; sociopolitical commentary in the form of Yosuke’s scheming fiancée’s scheming-er father; an all-nude “old religion,” hyper-ritualized with body-oiling wedding ceremony; and promises of necrophilia followed by a cannibalistic snack. But everything collapses into gauzy, melodramatic mush.

If you hear bitterness in my tone, I can assure you it’s there. I had the Apocrypha Candidate review all lined up in my head as I watched Barbara. I was going to compare it to Naked Lunch, due to the films’ shared urban filth and dissonant jazz score. I was going to quip that “Barbara is exactly the girl that Céline and Julie would have met and eaten strange candies with during their Junior year abroad.” Now, I won’t be able to revel in the clever observations about how Barbara captured low-literary romance with high production values.

Instead, I found myself on tenterhooks waiting for the movie’s half-dozen-plus weird ingredients to turn the corner; “weirdus interruptus” doesn’t even begin to describe the disappointment. This is a review written out of spite, and I wouldn’t blame management for not posting it. However, as Yosuke needed to get Barbara out of his system, I desperately needed to get Barbara out of mine.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… an exceedingly bizarre love story that is too distanced to be moving, but still has its visual and other pleasures..” -Deborah Young, The Hollywood Reporter (festival screening)

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020: LABYRINTH OF CINEMA (2019)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Takuro Atsuki, Rei Yoshida, Yukihiro Takahashi, Takato Hosoyamada, Yoshihiko Hosoda,

PLOT: Japanese teenagers find themselves thrown into the movies screening at a cinema on the last night before it closes.

Still from Labyrinth of Cinema (2019)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: Nobuhiko Obayashi’s final movie, completed only months before his death, is an exuberant, monumental, poetic and surreal ode to the power of cinema.

COMMENTS: I’d advise letting yourself get lost inside Nobuhiko Obayashi‘s Labyrinth of Cinema. Due to the way it hops around between eras and genres, the story may be easier to follow for those familiar with pre-WWII Japanese cinema; but given that the movie begins by introducing one Fanta G, a time-traveler who arrives in modern-day Onomichi, Japan, in a spaceship with goldfish floating inside it, it’s fair to say that narrative logic is not uppermost on Obayashi’s mind. This is a movie with atmosphere to absorb and imagery to intoxicate.

“Movies are a cutting edge time machine,” Fanta G tells us. “You’ll experience time lags in this movie.” You have been fairly warned. After he lands his spacecraft in the harbor and makes his way to Onomichi’s only cinema for the all-night war movie marathon, we’re introduced to the rest of the main characters. Noriko is a 13-year old schoolgirl from a nearby island who almost always appears onscreen bathed in an idyllic blue light. Teenage film buff “Mario Baba” is smitten with her; he sits in the audience with two companions, a nerdy aspiring historian and the son of a monk who intends to become a yakuza. As the first feature begins, Noriko climbs onstage and begins tap dancing in front of the screen; when she hops into the film itself, no one in the audience bats an eye. The three boys soon find themselves mysteriously absorbed into the screen, as well. But the movie keeps changing, and the trio find themselves involved in musicals, samurai films, and wartime adventures, playing out various scenarios, but always pursuing Noriko, who serves both as damsel in distress and an ever-receding symbol of the epiphanic power of cinema itself. The skipping-through-film-history format plays out like a live action variation on Millennium Actress, but with an even more dislocated plot.

Most long movies are slow-paced, languorously stretching out to fill the available time, but Labyrinth of Cinema jets like a rocket through its three-hour tour of Japanese cinema. This makes it exhilarating, but also a little exhausting. Besides the constantly shifting plots—the teenage trio find themselves in new roles, facing new adversaries, every five minutes or so—Obayashi constantly switches styles. He recreates traditional genres, but also throws his own immersion-breaking visual trickery onscreen: vertical wipes, big blocks of primary color, actors enclosed in circular irises that resemble the Japanese flag, blazing computer-generated sunsets, and sidebar text commenting on the action (when one character first appears, he shows us a legend cheekily explaining “we don’t know his name yet”). Along the way we get plenty of the surreal touches we’d expect from the mind that gave us Hausu, including a piano tune played by bullets, and an emotional death scene with a woman who just happens to be sporting a Hitler mustache. Many such surprises lurk inside this maze of movies.

The pace slows a bit after intermission as the story makes its way towards its climax at Hiroshima. A strong and consistently humanist anti-war theme runs through the entire film, but the main focus is always on the cinematic form itself. Labyrinth of Cinema is an ode to the ways in which movies both distort and inform reality; it’s Obayashi‘s love letter to the art to which he devoted his life, shown as much from the perspective of a fan as of a craftsman. While doubtlessly the epic could have been edited down for clarity—and might have been, had Obayashi survived to tinker with it further—much of the movie’s ramshackle extravagance would have been lost. I’m not sure we would want to lose a single second of Obayashi’s last gift to the world.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…bursting with energy, passion and dreamlike invention… the border between reality and fantasy dissolves into a colorful alternative universe that is uniquely Obayashi’s.”–Mark Schilling, Japan Times (contemporaneous)

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020 CAPSULE: MONSTER SEAFOOD WARS (2020)

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Screening online for Canadians at 2020’s online Fantasia Film Festival

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Keisuke Ueda, Ayano Christie Yoshida

PLOT: Someone steals Yuta’s temple offering of a squid, an octopus, and a crab, and soon giant versions of these three creatures begin terrorizing Japan; an anti-squid squad is formed to combat the menace.

Still from Monster Seafood Wars (2020)

COMMENTS: If you’re looking for a light kaiju appetizer that won’t ruin your appetite for more substantial fare, Monster Seafood Wars may be your dish. Minoru Kawasaki’s spoof follows a sushi delivery boy/genetic engineering prodigy Yuta as his stolen seafood goes bad in unanticipated ways. Along the way he joins a monster-fighting squad, attempts to woo his love interest away from a rival, and tries out a mouthwatering array of kaiju sushi dishes.

Unfortunately, the film is poorly paced, with too much exposition and too few battles stuffed into in the first thirty minutes. Monster Seafood Wars drops in a number of documentary-style retrospective interviews throughout its runtime, which, while not too intrusive, rarely add much beyond a bit of unnecessary pseudoscientific explication. They feel mostly like padding. When monster tentacles are sliced off during a battle—and are subsequently found to be delicious—the film’s middle section takes a long foodie detour as kaiju cuisine mania grips Japan. These segments may be parodies of actual Japanese cooking shows, but they’re mildly amusing at best, and again play like padding. The main plot is utterly ridiculous, and at times inconsistent: the monsters can’t seem to decide whether they’re teammates or adversaries. This lack of coherence isn’t a bug so much as a feature, but I wanted to see wackier characters enacting this stupidity—more like the mystical video game maven who blindfolds himself to awaken his “fifth personality” (and to set record high scores) would have been welcome.

The lightly comic plot is the starchy rice to complement the main dish—the amphibious kaiju and their awkward attempts to wreak havoc. Kawasaki goes back to basics: guys in rubber suits plodding around on miniature sets, trying to wave their heavy unarticulated limbs in as a much of a semblance of unwieldy menace as humanly (monsterly?) possible. Anatomical accuracy is not a concern: the lobster-red octopus not only has very human-looking eyes, but also a nose, and crab pincers. These giant sea creatures are all surprisingly bipedal, to boot. But like the rest of the movie, the battles are cheap. The monsters perform behind a Lego skyline, while PAs sitting just offscreen toss handfuls of Styrofoam rubble into the frame. The budget apparently didn’t allow them to actually destroy those Lego buildings, so Tokyo is not actually stomped here; no scale models were damaged, and could be returned to the hobby store after usage for a full refund. The producers couldn’t afford to risk ripping holes in those rubber suits, either; when tentacles are lopped off, it happens offscreen, then we see the giant piece of newly-cut sushi sailing through the air in a separate shot. There’s also some cheesy CGI to further season the spectacle. In other words, Big Man Japan this is not, although Monster Seafood Wars revels in its own recipe for Japanese corn. Although the costumes are goofy parodies of classic kaiju, the sound effects are quite authentic to the 1960s monster movie era Seafood is spoofing; the synthesizer shrieks and echo-chamber collisions might have been lifted from a vintage Gamera film. And the final showdown is fun, bringing in an appropriate new giant to do battle with the seafood trio.

If silly monster battles are your thing, Monster Seafood Wars will satisfy you well enough. But it seems like the kind of ground others have trod before, and I’m confident that Minoru Kawasaki is still capable of more imaginative moviemaking than this.

Kawasaki based Monster Seafood Wars on an unproduced screenplay by Eiji Tsuburaya about a giant octopus eventually defeated by a vinegar gun. If it had gone into production, that unmade project would have pre-dated Godzilla.

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020 CAPSULE: CRAZY SAMURAI MUSASHI (2020)

Screening online for Canadians at 2020’s online Fantasia Film Festival

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DIRECTED BY: Yûji Shimomura

FEATURING:

PLOT: The titular character kills 588 samurai and mercenaries because he’s Crazy Samurai Musashi.

COMMENTS: Yûji Shimomura’s third feature film, Crazy Samurai Musashi, is basically a master’s thesis in fight choreography. It isn’t weird, unless you consider a seventy-seven-minute, uninterrupted cut of a swordsman uninterruptedly cutting up his foes to be weird. And it could be argued it isn’t really even a movie, because no semblance of “story arc” exists, as highlighted by the epilogue in which the older (and still crazy) samurai Musashi slashes his way through a fresh batch of goons because That’s Just What He Does. So what is this thing?

This thing begins with a fairly traditional prologue involving novel cinematic practices like “zooms”, “cuts”, “editing”, and dialogue. A clan of samurai want vengeance against Musashi for killing two of their leaders. They’ve gathered the whole gang together, as well as three-hundred mercenaries, so as to make sure that the job gets done. As the men gather their courage, a small boy, the scion of the clan’s elder, is distracted by a butterfly. Musashi’s arrival is advertised by his daring leap from a nearby tree–during which he slices the butterfly in twain and kills the young boy. The long take starts right after Musashi commands, “Let’s get this started!”

Having read up a little on Yûji Shimomura, I am not surprised by the fighting: his main contribution to cinema has been stunt and fight coordination. What caught my eye is that Sion Sono was involved (he wrote this thing). Sono is an oddball among oddballs, with an eye for excess and strange humor.

The excess is covered by Shimomura—nearly six hundred deaths occur on screen. The humor crops up in the occasional interludes between sword fights. Musashi always finds water canteens during lulls in the combat, almost like video game power-ups. He has an amusingly civil exchange with a young woman in a wood shed, and is miffed when she breaks her promise to keep quiet as he’s catching his breath. He shows obvious confusion when he tries tallying his kills halfway through the massacre. And then there’s my favorite: Musashi increasingly busts out the “Bring it!” gesture at the remaining fighters as the body count rises.

Watching Tak Sakaguchi exhaust himself was itself an exhausting experience. He’s a credit to combat actors: even as he grows more and more breathless, he maintains a steely look and a flair for body language. Crazy Samurai Musashi doesn’t quite work as a movie, but it’s a must-see for anyone making a combat film. Too often fight scenes, large and small, are impossible to follow. If one director can do it for seventy-seven minutes straight, others with more editing leeway and bigger budgets have zero excuse.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an impressive feat of fight choreography and of physical stamina on both sides of the camera, not least from its indefatigable star Tak Sakaguchi.”–Allan Hunter, Screen Daily (festival screening)