Tag Archives: Japanese

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE MAD FOX (1962)

Koiya koi nasuna koi; AKA Love, Thy Name Be Sorrow

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DIRECTED BY: Tomu Uchida

FEATURING: Michiko Saga, Hashizô Ôkawa

PLOT: An apprentice astrologer, betrayed and driven mad, flees to the countryside where he meets both the twin sister of his lost beloved and fox spirits.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA: The Mad Fox opens as a medieval Japanese epic with a  folkloric spin and then suddenly goes mad, turning into kabuki theater and ending on a flying flame.

COMMENTS: The Mad Fox begins on a grandiose note when a “white rainbow” portentously appears in the sky. The Emperor summons the court astrologer, who predicts doom for the kingdom. Before the sage can divulge a remedy suggested by the astrological scroll that holds the answers to future, he is slain by bandits. Only his chosen successor can read the scroll, but the astrologer died without officially choosing between his two disciples. Much scheming and intrigue follows, and the first act ends with Yasuna, the good and faithful disciple, fleeing to the countryside after the death of Sakaki, his beloved and the astrologer’s adopted daughter.

This first section of the film is a sumptuous Technicolor spectacle that plays out on lavish courtyard sets with characters kneeling about in embroidered silk robes, a mise-en-scene that wouldn’t be out of place period piece. Things shift precipitously towards the abstract once Yasuna’s insanity hits, however. The exiled apprentice finds himself in a sea of glowing sunflowers while butterflies on visible strings flit by and a traditional Japanese singer warbles a warning to “never fall in love.” After this Expressionist interlude, act two begins when he stumbles upon Sakaki’s twin sister and, in his madness, believes her to be his lost love. Things get further complicated when the noble Yasuna rescues a wounded fox, transformed into human shape. The fox spirit’s granddaughter falls in love with him and when Yasuna is later wounded, she assumes the likeness of Sakaki and appears to him and licks his wounds clean. It’s a shade of Vertigo, but with the madman desperately falling for two separate specters of his lost love. As Yasuna and the fox build an illusory family, the final act leaves realism even farther behind, turning into a kabuki performance played out on an obvious stage set.

For some reason, synopses and reviews often stress that the movie is “hard to follow.” Although a few details of Tokugawa era society might be unfamiliar to Western audiences, this concern is greatly overblown; I had no more trouble following this than I would a Shakespeare play. The more common complaint among the movie’s rare detractors is that the stylistic transitions Uchida employs are jarring, which I consider to be an asset rather than a liability. The second half of the film, when we follow Yasuna into his delusions, are consistently more engaging and moving than the realist set up–at least, for those of us who value deep imagination over shallow authenticity.

Though respected in his native Japan, Tomu Uchida never broke through to international audiences, for reasons that probably have more to do with bad luck than anything else. The Mad Fox was seldom exhibited outside Japan. Arrow Academy rediscovered and restored this minor classic in 2020 and released it on Blu-ray, where it can now be experienced by the adventurous cinephile with moderately deep pockets.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… there reaches a point at which the movie just goes off the rails in terms of strangeness; Uchida throws anything even resembling logic out the window and begins offering up increasingly oddball elements – including musical numbers and animated sequences – before the entire thing transforms into a filmed play (literally!) that even Max Fischer would find overwrought.”–David Nusair, Reel Film Reviews

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: WE ARE LITTLE ZOMBIES (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Makoto Nagahisa

FEATURING: Keita Ninomiya, Sena Nakajima, Satoshi Mizuno, Mondo Okumura

PLOT: After meeting at a funeral parlor, four emotionless orphaned children run away and form a pop band.

Still from We Are Little Zombies (2019)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA: Carnivalesque pop-psychedelics enliven Nagahisa’s genre-bending tale of four emotion-deprived orphans wending their way through modern Japan. The final act, which sees the quartet piloting a stolen garbage truck into a black and white ocean of giant amoebas and pulsating anenomes before emerging for a (posthumous?) coda, gives it a chance of crashing our supplemental list of weird cinema.

COMMENTS: We Are Little Zombies takes its aesthetic inspiration from Nintendo NES video game systems: a chiptune-based theme song, 8-bit credits and bumpers. It’s structured as a series of challenges, with four orphans collecting four quest items (in four flashbacks), and with grief as the final boss. It wrings a surprising amount of depth from its short attention span style, and a surprising amount of empathy from its tale of children whose defining characteristic is that they have no emotions.

Little Zombies bursts with energy and ideas that vibrantly contrast with the enervated performances of its living dead heroes. Surreal touches sprout through the early reels, including a giant goldfish swimming outside an apartment window, a hobo orchestra, and a talk show hosted by a lime green centaur and co-hosted by an enthusiastic eyeball. The film features multiple, mostly upbeat musical numbers: not just the “Little Zombies” performances, but also improvised drunken karaoke lyrics about the comparative intellectual capacities of an octopus and a three-year-old. The luminous images and digressive fantasies imply a sense of wonder about life—one that the children are incapable of seeing and appreciating, even as it envelops them.

There is an open question of whether the kids are really emotional zombies, or whether they’re just temporarily numbed as a way to cope with tragedy. Before being accidentally emancipated, main character Hikari was a hōchigo, literally “left-alone child,” the Japanese analog to America’s “latchkey kid.” From his perspective, at least, mom and dad were more concerned with their careers and affairs than with raising their offspring. Brash kleptomaniac Ikuko was physically abused by his father and brother. Overweight Takemura, whose parents owned a restaurant, comes from a relatively normal background. Ishi, the only female in the quartet, has the most complex backstory: her mother calls her a femme fatale, and she draws creepy attention from older men. She’s victimized more by her sex than anything. There doesn’t appear to be much of a common thread generating the zombies’ juvenile anomie; and yet, it feels like Nagahisa is onto a real social issue, something he can diagnose but not cure. The only prescription he can offer is this rebellious declaration: “despair is uncool.”

We Are Little Zombies will be coming to select theaters (and online theaters) July 10. More details (and a Little Zombies digital coloring book) can be found at American distributor Oscilloscope’s official site. Seek it out when you have the chance.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a bizarre quasi-existential adventure about loss and grieving… a visual funhouse, full of surrealistic images…”–Monica Castillo, RogerEbert.com (festival screening)

8*. BIG MAN JAPAN (2007)

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Dai-Nihonjin

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Hitoshi Matsumoto, Tomoji Hasegawa, Taichi Yazaki

PLOT: An offscreen interviewer asks questions of middle-aged Masaru Daisatô, who grows into the giant “Big Man Japan” to fight various monsters who plague the country, as part of a documentary on the superhero’s fading popularity. Far from being honored for protecting the nation from kaiju attacks, Masaru is suffering from low ratings in his late-night time slot, is going through a divorce, and his house is covered in graffiti and vandalized whenever he causes collateral damage. When he flees from one particularly tough monster, his reputation is further damaged, and his retired grandfather (a previous Big Man Japan) leaves the nursing home to take on the kaiju himself.

Still from Big Man Japan (2007)

BACKGROUND:

  • Previously known in Japan as a comedian, Big Man Japan was Hitoshi Matsumoto’s first feature film.
  • The film spent five years in development and took a year to shoot.
  • Big Man Japan has frequently been suggested/recommended by readers over the years. Most recently, it was runner-up in our 2020 Apocrypha tournament.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The endlessly inventive giant monsters—with creepy human faces pasted on them via the black magic of CGI—are Big Man Japan‘s key visual motif. The Stink Monster, who looks like a cross between a squid and a fleshy flower petal, doesn’t seem like the weirdest kaiju in the stable, until a second Stink Monster shows up to do a wild mating dance that makes him look like a spastic ballerina on speed trying to get lucky at the disco on Saturday night.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Combover kaiju; Stink Monster mating dance

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It plays like a genetically modified experiment in corssbreeding Spinal Tap with a late-era Godzilla monster mash, which is strange enough; Big Man Japan is not satisfied with it’s own oddness yet, however, so it takes another unanticipated turn into lunacy in the final act.


U.S. release trailer for Big Man Japan

COMMENTS: Thoroughly committed to its absurd premise, with Continue reading 8*. BIG MAN JAPAN (2007)

CAPSULE: “BOOGIEPOP AND OTHERS” (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Yōsuke Hatta, Park Myung Hwan, Norikazu Ishigōoka, Mami Kawano, Hiromichi Matano, Masato Nakazono, Shingo Natsume, Kazuo Nogami, Keiichirō Saitō, Katsuya Shigehara

FEATURING: , Saori Oonishi (original Japanese); Michelle Roja, Morgan Garret (English dub)

PLOT: The spirit known as Boogiepop fights a succession of “enemies of this world.”

Still from Boogiepop and Others (2019)

COMMENTS: If you enjoyed the enigmas of “Boogiepop Phantom” and want to dip deeper into the lore, “Boogiepop and Others” will scratch that itch. You’ll learn more about the Towa Organization, the Manticore, Nagi Kirima, and Boogiepop herself. If you’re looking for an introduction to Boogiepop, however, I’d recommend starting with “Phantom”; the darker and more mysterious presentation in the 2000 series plunges deeper into the franchise’s dark psyche.

Compared to “Phantom,” “Others” is more conventionally structured, although it still hops about in time in a way calculated to disorient newcomers. This eighteen-episode series is split into four separate arcs, with Boogiepop facing off against the Manticore, the Imaginator, rogue psychiatrist Dr. Kisugi, and the King of Distortion.  (Not to mention sub-boss “Spooky E,” who at least has his DJ name already picked out for when he retires from his job manipulating mankind’s evolution for the Towa Organization). This structure gives the series a kind of “villain of the week” quality. The stories mostly center around one particular antagonist’s effects on regular high school students; we also get a sort-of origin story for the series’ namesake in the “Boogiepop at Dawn” arc. “Others” spends time explicitly spelling out mysteries that were left to the viewer to decipher in “Phantom.” Boogiepop is depicted more as a superhero than an enigmatic interloper from some netherworld. There’s a deus ex machina feel to each arc’s resolution, with Boogie hanging in the background, swooping in at the climax to banish another “enemy of this world.” In at least one episode, our shinigami could be accused of kill stealing.

The simplified narrative is, perhaps, an understandable concession, but more disappointing is the fact that the visual look here is completely ordinary. Gone are “Phantom”‘s dark, muted palettes, replaced by sunny skies and colorful toons with big eyes. Boogiepop, once a brooding presence, now has a bright, almost Hanna-Barbera quality to go with her increased verbosity.  (On the plus side, “The King of Distortion” episodes do feature a patchwork kaiju birthed from a kid’s dream, which is a delight.) The immersively strange sound design of “Phantom” is also nowhere to be found.

While it’s difficult to describe a television show as complicated as “Boogiepop” as “dumbed-down,” there can be no doubt that Madhouse’s followup series is less ambitious and artistically inferior to their first take on the character, aimed at an audience more interested in the series’ plot mechanics than its otherworldly mood. Nevertheless, fans of “Phantom” may want to investigate this alternate take for the way it expands your understanding of the universe and the overall plot. There’s still plenty of strangeness to chew on.

Funimation released the entire “Others” series to Blu-ray in 2020. Currently, the entire run of “Boogiepop and Others” is available for online viewing for free at crunchyroll.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Enigmatic, confusing and weird.”–Marianne R., Manga Tokyo (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: “BOOGIEPOP PHANTOM” (2000)

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DIRECTED BY: Takashi Watanabe

FEATURING: Voices of Yuu Asakawa, , Rakuto Tochihara (original); Rachael Lillis, Debora Rabbai,  Jessica Calvello (English dub)

PLOT: A Japanese high school is the epicenter of odd events involving a pillar of light, a series of serial killings, and whispers of sightings of the mysterious spirit known as Boogiepop.

Still from "Boogiepop Phantom" (2000)

COMMENTS: Certain features of “Boogiepop Phantom” remind me of “: the limited setting (this time, a Japanese school rather than an insular Northwestern U.S. town); the dark, sometimes soapy melodramatic subplots from a large cast of interconnected characters; possession by supernatural entities that are actually allegorical renderings of psychological traumas. The world of “Boogiepop” is more logical and tightly connected to its fantastical central conceits, however; it lacks the free-floating surrealism and quirky humor of its American cousin. There’s still plenty of weirdness to soak in, though, and enough confusion to keep your mind whirling for a while, trying to sort it all out.

Plotwise, “Boogiepop Phantom” deals with a plague of strange “evolutions” or mutations in Japanese teenagers, including a boy who sees bugs in people’s hearts (and eats them), and another who dresses like a kiddie Pied Piper and causes vulnerable people to disappear by convincing them to revert to childhood. Is “Boogiepop,” an apparition who appears in a  dark billowing cape, tall Cossack hat, and a bizarre starched collar fastened with a yin-yang pin, responsible? Each episode focuses on a different character who plays a part in the saga; each installment jumps about in time, sometimes within the same episode.  The same event may appear in different character’s storylines, and the second occurrence may shed light on the first.

Visually, “Boogiepop”‘s palette is muted, deliberately drab, although frequently filled with bright glowing objects like cellphone screens or magical butterflies. The action is also enclosed in a circular iris that dims into darkness around the edges. This effect makes each episode feel like a faltering memory. Even more notable than the visuals is the sound design: distorted background static and electronic glitches, mysterious chimes, Gregorian chant, with the main theme from “Der Meistersinger von Nürnberg,” Boogiepop’s signature tune, floating through the entire series. At the end of each episode, a cacophony of overlapping dialogue from the next installment whets your appetite (and furthers your bewilderment).

One time through the series may not be enough to understand what’s going on. I watched the entire thing without ever grasping who “Boogiepop Phantom” was (the name kept appearing in the closing credits as a separate character from Boogiepop herself). It’s particularly challenging to keep track of the large cast of characters, and to figure out how each fits into the whole. If you’re also confused, you may want to supplement your viewing with a quick peek at Wikipedia or other online guides. Or, you could just watch the series a second time, taking notes. This kind of elaborate worldbuilding tends to create a devoted fanbase of decoders, and such is the case with the “Boogiepop” franchise. With its theme of alienated teenagers neglected and betrayed by their parents’ generation, “Boogiepop Phantom” is aimed at bright juveniles, but the artistry of the presentation will draw in adventurous older viewers, as well.

“Boogiepop Phantom” was adapted from a series of light novels by  Kouhei Kadono (the series has fourteen entries; “Phantom” is an original story, but relies om established characters and events from the novels). It was written by Sadayuki Murai (who also wrote the screenplay for Perfect Blue) and produced by Madhouse, who animated all four of ‘s movies, along with many other classic anime series and films.

The Nozomi English-language Blu-ray release features the series’ entire 12-episode run. It includes numerous small extras, like the “clean” openings and closings beloved of anime fans, and, more substantially, an English-language commentary track from a couple of Americans who worked on the dubbed version. (Recommendation: as always, turn off the English dub and listen to the Japanese with subtitles. The English voice acting is uneven.)

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“I am not going to lie, Boogiepop Phantom is a weird experience… the anime might be dark, atmospheric, strange, and confusing but when you reach the final episode, you end up understanding everything and feel some kind of achievement…”–Marianne R., Manga Tokyo (DVD)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: YUMEJI (1991)

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Tomoko Mariya, , Masumi Miyazaki, Reona Hirota

PLOT: A bohemian poet and painter travels to Kanagawa to wait for his ailing girlfriend, only to fall for an alluring widow while he’s there.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Seijun Suzuki, a defiantly unconventional filmmaker with a career’s worth of bizarre films already under his belt, threw himself into Yumeji like he was making his magnum opus of weirdness. There’s blood painted on to the screen, life coming alive as art, and opaque references to slaughterhouses and blood—the last of which would seem to have little to do with the film’s subject. For an artfully bizarre take on an era filled with strange contradictions and perversions, who better than Seijun Suzuki to take you there?

COMMENTS: Takehisa Yumeji was a real-life painter, whose individualist lifestyle and era-defining paintings made him an icon of Japan’s Taisho era (1914-26). The name Yumeji contains the Japanese word for “dream,” so it’s fitting that Yumeji begins with a dream sequence in tribute to its namesake. But if you were expecting Seijun Suzuki to make a conventional biopic, think again. Suzuki used the names of some of the real women in Yumeji’s life, including Hikono (Masumi Miyazaki) and Oyo (Reona Hirota), who seem to have been portrayed in keeping with their real-life counterparts. Apart from these details, Suzuki paid more attention to Yumeji’s artistic side, imagining his romantic escapades and artistic concepts manifested as life.

As in Kagero-za, Suzuki centers the film on an adulterous love triangle, with a mysteriously powerful husband constantly plotting the protagonist’s murder, even though he never gets around to actually carrying it out. However, not one to repeat himself, Suzuki upped the ante here by adding a second adulterous love triangle, wherein the cuckolded husband is said to have killed his rival by throwing him down the drainage pipe at the local slaughterhouse. The killer then hides out in the mountains, evading a relentless police search and creeping around with a scythe in a none too subtle evocation of the Grim Reaper. 

Always one to dabble in surrealism, Suzuki gave in to his urges completely in Yumeji, throwing in enough hallucinatory imagery to eclipse any other film in his storied career. Paintings appear on wooden posts when tapped, a woman is cooked in a huge soup kettle by a group of singing women, and a blond madman proposes a duel while standing next to a hedge made of bloody animal carcasses, later emerging from a lake covered in blood himself. Yumeji (Kenji Sawada) also suffers from a clash of personalities which eventually lead to an identity crisis reminiscent of The Blood of a Poet: he is confronted by multiple versions of himself, all of whom accuse him of being a fraud. His morbid paranoia, his womanizing lust, his poetic thought process—all come together to inform the mood of the film and create something which feels much more like a waking dream than a biographical story.

The two previous films in Suzuki’s Taisho Trilogy (Zigeunerweisen and Kagero-za) each have their fair share of beautiful imagery, but Yumeji is overflowing with countless compositions that are framed to mimic Japanese paintings of the past. At numerous points throughout, paint is even overlaid onto the frame, including a notable scene in which a bright yellow boat nearly capsizes in a torrent of cow’s blood that is dabbed in red blobs along the bottom of the frame. Yumeji is also more erotically-charged than its predecessors, with an earthy sense of sexuality and framings that look like they could have been pin-ups from1920s Tokyo, together with levels of nudity and lewd behavior that contradict the popular image of historical films as stuffy and mannered visions of the past.

It’s fitting that as Seijun Suzuki’s career progressed, his work became more artistically-focused and surreal. His early films, with their painterly attention to color and visual design, bear the marks of an unconventional artist who just happened to be tasked with making B-movies about thugs and prostitutes. In the Taisho Trilogy, Suzuki finally had free reign to make movies that eschewed storytelling and audience expectations in favor of surreal imagery, irreverent reflections on Japanese culture and history, and fractured narratives that often featured elements of the supernatural. Curiously, Yumeji is the least supernatural of the three films, yet the weirdest overall. Like the pornographic kimono that features in its nightmarish finale, it’s a period piece that represents the culture of its era while also adding surrealism, eroticism and mystery into its historical framework. Thanks to Arrow Films, these three little known films by one of the great Japanese surrealist masters are now ripe to be rediscovered in all of their bizarre, experimental glory.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“By the time the film was completed, the gonzo filmmaker had so thoroughly dispensed with narrative sanity and even basic filmic grammar that whether or not the subtitles are on becomes irrelevant.” – Fernando F. Croce, Slant Magazine

CAPSULE: KAGERO-ZA (1981)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Yusaku Matsuda, , Katsuo Nakamura, , Eriko Kusuda

PLOT: A playwright gets caught up with a rich industrialist’s two wives, putting both his life and soul in mortal danger.

COMMENTS: After the success of Zigeunerweisen, Seijun Suzuki returned to the Taisho era for another morbid tale with supernatural undertones. Zigeunerweisen was often unfocused and difficult to follow, but Kagero-za is even more loosely structured, borderline incomprehensible at times. Its title refers to a haze seen on particularly hot days, which can play tricks on the eyes and create illusions. In keeping with this title, the film moves with the slow, languid pace of a dream. It’s never certain if what’s being seen is real or illusion.

The film begins, fittingly, with an illusion seen in a heat haze. Or was it an illusion? A young man (Yusaku Matsuda) meets a mysterious married woman, Shinako (Michiyo Okusu), who asks him to escort her to a nearby hospital, for fear of an old woman she saw selling bladder cherries at high prices—and also advertising them as women’s souls. When they investigate, the old woman seems to have vanished into the vapors that she came from, and the married woman ends up giving the man her soul instead. From this point onward, the man is repeatedly drawn to her, seduced by circumstance and seemingly doomed to commit double suicide with her when her rich husband (Katsuo Nakamura) finds out about the affair.

But all is not what it seems. The woman’s husband has another wife, Ine (Eriko Kusuda), who may or may not be dead. In the film’s most explicit commentary on the effects of Westernization in the Taisho era, the husband is said to have met Ine while studying abroad in Germany, captivated by her blond hair but also determined to make a Japanese woman out of her. The fact he studied abroad in Europe suggests that he is either an industrialist or a member of the new class of elites which led the charge of modernization in Japan at this time. Shinako, the other wife, is relegated to the shadows, barely noticed by her husband. However, she serves as a reminder of Japanese tradition in its purest form, repeatedly coming back to haunt her husband and her lover in an unending cycle which torments all involved.

Halfway through the film, Shinako portentously muses that “If dreams didn’t end, they wouldn’t be dreams anymore.” With this in mind, it might be best to take the world of Kagero-za as a dream which becomes its own reality. What begins as a fairly simple love triangle with Gothic undertones becomes progressively stranger in its second half, going off on feverish tangents which range from freemasons exchanging dolls with intricately carved sex organs hidden inside to a children’s kabuki theater which ominously reenacts the film’s central love triangles, while an unseen playwright gives directions from on high and the real-life characters look on with expressions of frozen alarm.

Of course, none of this makes much sense, but it wouldn’t be a Seijun Suzuki film if it did. It’s a dream journey not unlike ’s Eyes Wide Shut, except that it involves a man’s affair with a married woman and his subsequent internal and external crises, rather than a man struggling to come to terms with his wife’s real or imagined infidelities. Still, the pacing is interminably slow and the particulars of the central affair (which is more imagined than real to begin with) are rehashed to the point that they lose all sense of meaning or tension. It’s worth watching for its stunning cinematography and surreal depiction of cultural corruption in pre-WW2 Japan, but it’s a pretentious and muddled step down from the chilling and subtly supernatural Zigeunerweisen.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the wantonly eccentric narrative is set in 1926 Tokyo, though, given Suzuki’s contempt for coherence, it might as well take place in another planet… [T]here’s no denying Suzuki’s knack for ravishing disorientation even if you take one character’s description of ‘a too complicated game to enjoy’ to apply for the film.” – Fernando F. Croce, Slant Magazine (DVD)