Tag Archives: Japanese

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.)

CAPSULE: MISHIMA: A LIFE IN FOUR CHAPTERS (1985)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Paul Schrader

CAST: Ken Ogata, Yasosuke Bando, Masayuki Shionoya, Toshiyuki Nagashima

PLOT: The life and works of celebrated Japanese writer Yukio Mishima are portrayed through a triptych of styles: events from his past life are in black and white, his last day is in color, and renditions of segments of three of his novels—The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Kyoko’s House and Runaway Horses—are staged like plays on elaborate studio sets.

Still from Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While the film’s narrative doesn’t strictly follow the conventions of a biopic, it’s not very strange either. The eccentric novel adaptations provide most of the weirdness, but their context is a rational exploration of the writer’s imaginarium and the subjects that most haunted him.

COMMENTS: In Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, Paul Schrader is resolutely not interested in crafting a conventional biographical film; instead, he attempts to capture the essence of Yukio Mishima. This is the most distinctive and notable aspect of the movie. The black and white segments, which come closest to traditional biopic, follow Mishima’s course from his childhood as an alienated and sickly boy to his rigorous bodybuilding habit and the formation of his traditionalist private army. These scenes are succinct and concise, because they are complemented by the other sections. One is a similarly realistic account of Mishima’s last act on his final day with his militia, a coup d’état where he famously committed seppuku in the tradition of the samurai class of feudal Japan. The others are dreamy interpretations of passages from three of his books brought to life by vivid colors and operatic flair.

The approach is like a guided tour through Mishima’s mind. Each section’s themes interlock and complement each other so that a coherent picture of the author’s beliefs, desires, preoccupations and identity emerge from the whole. Such a method, while unconventional, provides an infinitely more personal exploration of its equally unique and unorthodox subject, and is so fluid and logical that it actually feels like the most natural way of portraying him. There is a sense that each scene, with its implications and images later mirrored by other segments, is meant as a meaningful contribution to the kaleidoscopic portrait of Mishima and thus, no moment gives the impression of being an obligatory stop in a stroll through the author’s life; the film is simply too dedicated to its subject for that sort of pedestrian storytelling.

Yukio Mishima was one of the most acclaimed writers of post-war Japan, nominated three times for the Nobel Prize in Literature. But he was also a very controversial figure, especially from the 1950’s on, where he started to fanatically espouse a traditionalist worldview that worshiped and fetishized the ways and aesthetics of feudal Japan, the strict code of honor of the samurai class and its devotion to the Emperor. It’s crucial to note that in post-war Japan, at the height of western influence, his nationalist and conservative leanings were more contrarian to the mentality of his countrymen than ever. The first scene shows an apprehensive but determined Mishima waking up in the morning, preparing himself for the act that he has been working on, not only as a political statement but as the culmination of his life, his most dedicated work of art. Throughout these early moments, as well as most of this section, Ken Ogata confers an ever-present austerity to his Mishima, and the other sections dealing with his formative years and artistic work, could be seen as peeling off this rigid exterior to explore the sensibility behind such an idiosyncratic figure.

The dramatizations of the novels are the most dreamlike of the styles: wonderfully beautiful and theatrical, with artificial set design and an extremely bright color pallet, they give the film a great visual richness and an oneiric aura. Mishima’s work was full of neurotic ruminations and anxieties, often communicated by troubled characters meditating on themes such as the nature of beauty, the Self, and, of course (and particularly in his later work), nationalism and the decadence of modern Japanese society with a wistful, melancholic longing for the glorious past. All of these preoccupations are present in the film; the writer’s relationship to them, and how they shape his life, takes center stage.

As such, the film is accessible to those unfamiliar with Mishima (although, naturally, more rewarding to readers), while encouraging further exploration. It potentially serves as a good starting point to hos work. As a fan of Mishima (which may give me a slight bias towards Schrader’s film), I couldn’t be more satisfied by such a devoted and organic portrait.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… a dreamy, hypnotic meditation on the tragic intersection of Mishima’s oeuvre and existence that takes place as much in its subject’s fevered imagination as the outside world.”–Nathan Rabin, The A.V. Club (Blu-ray)

343. THE TASTE OF TEA (2004)

Cha no aji

UNCLE: It’s a pretty good story, right?

HAJIME: Yeah, weird… but cool.

The Taste of Tea

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Takahiro Satô, Satomi Tezuka, , Maya Banno, Tatsuya Gashûin, Tomokazu Miura, Ikki Todoroki, Anna Tsuchiya

PLOT: A Taste of Tea follows the Haruno family living in rural Japan. The young son has his first crush; the young daughter has a giant doppelganger only she can see; the mother is attempting a comeback in her career as an anime artist; the father is a hypnotist who sends his subjects on psychedelic trips; and a visiting uncle is still melancholy from a romance that ended years ago. A grandfather with a thick gray unibrow and a permanent cowlick watches over the clan while practicing strange poses and singing nonsense songs.

Still from A Taste of Tea (2004)

BACKGROUND:

  • The title may come from a quote by the ancient Chinese poet Lu Tong, who said, “I care not a jot for immortal life, but only for the taste of tea.”
  • (of “Neon Genesis” series fame) appears in a cameo as the anime director.
  • This was Katsuhito Ishii‘s third feature film, but the first to attract much attention outside Japan. It played at Cannes and won awards at smaller festivals. Ishii had just come off directing the animated sequences for ‘s Kill Bill. His next project, 2004’s Funky Forest, was even weirder and more random than Tea.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Little Sachicko’s giant double, who silently and mysteriously watches her as she goes about her daily routine.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Forehead train; giant doppelganger; egg-head yakuza

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Katsuhito Ishii revamps the least weird genre of cinema, the familial drama, with gently surreal CGI and a narrative that wanders off into mildly scatological yakuza ghost stories, psychedelic hypnotism, and in-progress anime rushes, all watched over by a giant mute schoolgirl.


Clip from The Taste of Tea (2004)

COMMENTS: The family in The Taste of Tea do drink tea, occasionally, but they never comment on its taste. The film itself, however, Continue reading 343. THE TASTE OF TEA (2004)

LIST CANDIDATE: VIOLENCE VOYAGER (2018)

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Ujicha

FEATURING: Voices of Saki Fujita, Shigeo Takahashi, Naoki Tanaka, Naoki, Aoi Yûki

PLOT: Two young friends investigate a mysterious adventure park only to find that the friendly owner wants them for some particularly icky science.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The cartoon style alone, though not new, is singularly discombobulating. Unlike more typical examples (whether drawn or computer generated), the whole movie’s “animation” is more akin to a picture book with pop-ups and pull-tabs, with occasional doses of squirted liquids and couple of fiery scenes. Then there’s the story, pulled out from some terrible organic-horror closet, in which the young “park” visitors face violence and mutations that were made somehow more distressing by the color picture cardboard cut-outs that they’re made up of.

COMMENTS: My right-hand neighbor was at a loss for words after the screening; my left-hand neighbor immediately wanted to confirm just what it was he had seen. Me, I spent the better part of Violence Voyager with what might have appeared to be a quirky-quizzical expression. Ujicha’s “cartoon” is something that, somewhere inside my mind, I enjoyed, while at the same time leaving me at a total loss as to whom I might possibly recommend it. Before the screening I had had the forethought to write the review out-line. Now, stuck with the Comments to flesh out, I shall try to muddle on.

Bobby and Akkun are school chums who have a penchant for adventuring in the woods and mountains near their small Japanese village. Bobby, whose father is American, is out-going, eager to help, and always curious; Akkun is a local lad who might otherwise be a loner, and is quite loyal to Bobby. When the two come across a theme park—the titular “Violence Voyager”—Bobby is keen and Akkun is apprehensive. They are given an orientation video and suit up for what is pitched as a harmless adventure. But some way into their escapade, they encounter an unconscious girl, who upon awakening tells them she’s been stuck in the park for days. Further exploration leads them to a “Robot Graveyard” and other children. Eventually, a bird-beaked cyborg (?) creature subdues them and they are dragged to a subterranean lab.

It took some getting used to, but eventually the moving cardboard pseudo-animation seemed somehow real. It’s akin to how an imaginative child looking at story-book pictures might see them move. So there’s this simplicity and innocence established at the beginning, but then things start going Horribly Wrong. Disintegrating paper kids, icky ooze guns, and perhaps the most disgusting “mother” character I’ve ever seen utterly warp the naïve sentiments embodied in the visual style. Further hitting the viewer upside the head is the never-say-die chirpiness of Bobby, who is unflinching when faced with the array of mad scientist evil, robot-boy creepiness, and, again, whatever the heck that “mother” thing is supposed to be. As a bonus, the narrator intones at the end that Bobby’s struggles are just beginning, before assuring him, “Be strong, Bobby! You can do it, Bobby!”

Then the credits began to roll and I took at peek at my neighbors. Ultimately, the question has to be asked, did this work as a movie? Somehow, it did. However, the follow-up question is a tougher one: is this a movie that deserves to be seen? For that, I’m at a loss. Obviously I’ve seen it, others at Fantasia have. There was even laughter at the numerous, strangely comical bits. And it’s apparent a lot of work, thought, and artistry went into it. I mentioned earlier that I couldn’t think of anyone that I might recommend Violence Voyager to; there is one fellow, but he’s an odd one. So to anyone who feels that she or he might be an odd one, I dedicate this review and say: “Go ahead. Give it a look. (I practically dare you.)”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…one hell of a trip into the mind of a madman… there is never a stretch of more than a few minutes where the audience isn’t confronted by something wholly original that they’ve never seen before.”–J Hurtado, Screen Anarchy

BATMAN NINJA (2018)

Batman Ninja (2018, directed by Junpei Mizusaki) is an utterly bizarre hoot; the most refreshing take on the Batman character since 2014’s The Lego Movie. It’s about time that the Dark Knight got a face lift. Reportedly, fanboys are heading to drugstores by the busload, buying out all the Preparation H. From the reactions I scanned on IMDB, the general consensus is “Batman can’t be in Feudal Japan!” Uh, boys, do you remember the day mummy told you that the Jolly Green Giant wasn’t real? Ditto.

However, it’s more than concept alone that makes Batman Ninja a thoroughly enjoyable, off-kilter adventure. It’s also one of the most visually dazzling animation efforts I’ve seen (famed anime designer Takashi Okazaki practically has a kaleidoscopic, calligraphic watercolor orgasm onscreen, and its gorgeous). Additionally, Batman Ninja takes a nothing-is-sacred approach, which undoubtedly is the inspiration for the sound of exploding, angst-ridden batfundie heads heard all over social media.

Batman and Catwoman are having a  bit of a tiff with Gorilla Grodd (the old Flash nemesis) who has a time-teleporting thingamajig . Lo and behold; Batman is in feudal Japan. The film is hyper-kinetically paced. Within seconds, he is dueling with a small gang of Joker-faced samurai, which of course leads him to Lord Joker himself as well as Harley Quinn.

Catwoman arrives, too. She is a geisha with a kitty puppet, and she makes Dolly Parton look like an A cup. Oh, and she bought Alfred (not me, Bruce Wayne’s butler), too, and the Batmobile. Smartly, Misuski and company resist the boring temptations of Batman traditions. They get a new use out of the Batcycle, turning it into a suit of armor. When the battle begins, Batman has an arsenal of batninjas backing him up. Grodd, the Penguin, Poison Ivy, Two-Face, Deathstroke, and sumo wrestler Bane (!) all exist in feudal Japan; each has his or her own territory, and they are fighting for control—a bit like the mafia in Godfather.

Batman needs all the help he can get, so several Robins come to save the day, including a red Robin, and one with a green mohawk who has a chimpanzee for a sidekick! Robin himself is no longer Robin: he’s lost his primary colors and become a gray clad-ninja called Nightwing.

The battles come fast and furious, including one in Joker’s castle, one at sea with a Joker clipper ship, metallic simians, magic bats, and Bane mantling George “Watch Out for That Tree” of the Jungle.

In addition to the anime style (which suits Batman well), Batman Ninja has its tongue-firmly-in cheek with purple dialogue: “I am no longer the Batman. I will be what the bat clan calls me. I will be their prophecy. I will be Sengoku Batman.” Batman as a samurai isn’t even half of it. He disguises himself as a monk and gets a tonsure hairdo—in the shape of the bat signal. Harley Quinn and Catwoman engine in pseudo-lesbian combat (busty lesbians, with groan-inducing dialogue, of course). In-jokes are aplenty, with wacky nods to Transformers, Planet of the Apes, War of the Gargantuas, For a Few Dollars More, Legend of the Seven Golden VampiresPower Rangers, and The Empire Strikes Back, to name a few.

This is the opposite of ‘s white trash take on super people, and of all the Freudian Batmans we’ve been inundated with since Frank Miller. Thankfully,  unnecessary character development  and formulaic writing go the way of the dinosaur, and with all that out of the way, Batman Ninja is a creative and surreal romp. After seeing a 70-year-old plus character go from camp to dystopian, and to just plain godawful, Mizusaki actually does something new with it. Sure, Hamburger Helper-variety batfans will probably keel over from seeing their pedestaled funny paper deity put through the wringer and their formula diet challenged, but the rest of us can invite our weirdest friends over for one helluva extra anchovy pizza party and Batman Ninja.

P.S.  Stay put for the credits.