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Comment: The State of Japanese Cinema

April 12, 2014

For quite a few years already it’s been popular pastime among Japanese film commentators to complain about the state modern Japanese cinema. In fact, some devoted souls seem to do little else. Yet, I would dare to somewhat disagree with them.

Certainly, Japanese cinema today isn’t what it was back in the 70’s, 60’s, or whichever is your favourite decade. It isn’t even what it was a bit over 10 years ago, when Asian cinema in general was enjoying a boom.

Yet, with the amount of interesting new films that have played in theatres / festivals during the past year or so in Japan – much less so anywhere else – I wouldn’t call the situation a catastrophe, not even close.

Not when there are films like The Tale of Iya (2013) – a breathtaking 169 min epic gorgeously filmed on 35mm and echoing masters like Shohei Imamura and Kaneto Shindo, butt adding its own magic – in theatres. Not when the most stylish Japanese film in years, Daisuke Miura’s 18-rated psychological drama Love’s Whirlpool (2014) (Ai no uzu) just opened a month ago. These are but two examples of excellent films that are in Japanese cinemas right now.

The year 2013 was panned by many Japan-critics, yet it saw the release of some tremendously original films, such as GFP Bunny (2012), which takes the true story of a schoolgirl who poisoned her mother, and turns it into a punk study on body modification, plastic surgery, bullying, biotechnology, surveillance technology, and more.

Even more memorable was the gekimation animation The Burning Buddha Man (2013), in which a Buddhist monk saves an orphan girl and then introduced her to a bizarre hidden world of mutants, monsters, terrorists and Buddhist alternative reality in which time runs at different speed. Another debut film worth attention is Junk Head 1 (2013): a slightly flawed but tremendously impressive 30 min cyberpunk stop motion animation set in the distant future where humans send an adroid to spy on clones living in an underground coplex. The film is even spoken in multiple fictional languages.

Japanese animation produced some other noteworthy pictures as well. While international attention went to Miayzaki’s final film, it was Isao Takahata’s The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013) that was praised as the true masterpiece. Unfortunately I failed to catch the film in theatres, and I’m still waiting for it to hit the home video. Makoto Shinkai’s breathtakingly beautiful Garden of Words (2013), which further cements his position as Japan’s best animation director still in business, has already reached foreign shores.

Quite surprisingly, indie favourite Hiroshi Ishikawa’s (Tokyo . Sora, Su-ki-da) meditative return to big screen went almost unnoticed by many. Petal Dance (2013) shows Ishikawa in top form with mesmerizing visuals and one of the best acted and most natural scenes (a five minute single shot scene in a car) I have ever seen.

Japanese slacker cinema, which was made popular by directors such as Nobuhiro Yamashita and Yuya Ishii, is still producing some great films. The wonderfully titled Fuck Me to the Moon (2013) adds a fresh twist to the genre by integrating music and cinema. The film follows two miserable yet lovable amateur musicians trying to charm a sexy woman who moves in with them by composing music. Nobuhiro Yamashita also had a highly enjoyable new film, Tamako in Moratorium (2013), released last year.

Japanese genre and exploitation films have admittedly suffered greatly from the shift to bargain basement digital cinematography and ever shrinking budgets, resulting in some visually unappealing works. However, if one manages to look beyond the rough looks, there have been some highly enjoyable films on offer. The latest one is Kurando Mitsutake’s ultra-violent and superbly stylized B-action film Gun Woman (2014), which is a major step up from his earlier movie Samurai Avenger. Takanori Tsujimoto’s Bushido Man (2013), while no visual feast, takes a Heroes of the East -esque premise and unloads a long series of brilliantly choreographed action as Mitsuki Koga duels with the masters of kung fu, samurai sword, knife, and several other martial arts.

If we stretch the inspection period a little bit further to films that actually premiered in 2012 but still played in Japanese theatres in 2013 we should certainly mention The Kirishima Thing (2012) – a poignant and very stylish high school film released to mainstream audiences but directed with the finesse of a fine indie film. The film was no success in multiplexes, but later had a second theatrical run in arthouses. Japan’s most interesting documentary filmmaker Tetsuaki Matsue’s Flashback Memories 3D (2013) is also worth seeing, although I prefer his Live Tape (2009) and the terrific Tokyo Drifter (2011), both of which follow musician Kenta Maeno singing and wondering around Tokyo.

Finally, Audio Erotica has to be mentioned. This highly Tsukamoto-esque 40 minute film of a woman who becomes addicted to her boyfriend’s voice – much less so the man himself – immediately made its director, a young female named Kimi Yawata, a name to remember. Another interesting young female director is Nagisa Isogai, whose flawed but interesting schoolgirls-hunting-molesters film The Lust of Angels (2014) is almost like a modern feminist upgrade of the girl gang films of the 70’s.

Of course, there were also many promising films that I missed, like Let’s Make the Teacher Have a Miscarriage (2011) director Eisuke Naito’s Puzzle (2014), Hisayasu Sato’s Hana-Dama (2014), Kazuyoshi Kumakiri’s The End of Summer (2013), Shinji Aoyama’s Backwater (2013), Hirokazu Koreeda’s Like Father, Like Son (2013), Kazuya Shiraishi’s The Devil’s Path (2013), Kenji Murakami’s Sound Hunting (2013), and Junichi Inoue’s A Woman and War (2013).

The future seems decently interesting as well. Kumakiri’s new film My Man (2014) stars Tadanobu Asano and the extremely talented Fumi Nikaido. Splatter director Yoshihiro Nishimura recently wrapped the filming of his new ninja movie Ninja Torakage (2014) on location in Iga. Yukihiro Toda, whose 2013 Yubari winner Extend Hands from Darkness (2013) is also worth seeing, is working on a new sex crime film Anata mo mata mushi de aru (2014). Nobuhiko Obayashi’s latest, Seven Weeks (2014), already played in Yubari to a great acclaim. Sion Sono, who hasn’t done a good film since 2010, is also of potential interest with his Tokyo Tribes (2014) being released in August.

With movies like this I certainly don’t feel there’s a huge lack of interesting stuff to see. The problem, then, probably has more to do with how well these films (do not) travel abroad and domestically. Even in Japan indie productions can be difficult to see outside major cities and/or festivals.

It is absolutely true that Japanese mainstream cinema is getting less and less interesting while the good films often come from interesting newcomers. Unfortunately the attention is not shifting: film festivals abroad are still focusing on the (more or less) tired stuff by Miike, Kitano, Sono etc. instead of looking for new talents. Criticism on the state of the industry in this sense is fully justified; however, to say good films are not being made in Japan anymore doesn’t seem like a very strong argument to me. It’s more like the good films are no longer being discovered and discussed about.

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Yoshihiro Nishimura Early Works

March 27, 2014

Long before Tokyo Gore Police…

The Face (1985)
The Saints Come Marching In (Seija ga machi ni yatte kita) (1986)
Fake Country (Nise kuni) (1987)

In 2014 Yoshihiro Nishimura screened his excellent early horror film Paradox (1984) in Yubari (see my review here). The screening was essentially a continuation of the previous year’s event in Yubari, which saw the screenings of three mid 80’s Nishimura films, all shot on 8mm and running 40-50 min each.

Nishimura’s university era works The Face (1985), The Saints Come Marching In (1986) and Fake Country (1987) offer a fascinating look into the director’s development towards cyberpunk and gore. The Face, just like in Paradox (1984), clearly displays Nishimura’s love for hand-made special effects. The odd 40 minute film follows a student who gets involved in a murder mystery when a murdered detective’s face mysteriously mutates into his stomach and guides him to seek justice for the dead soul.

The buddy film is quite restrained compared to Nishimura’s more recent works, or even Paradox, but quite entertaining. It’s characterized by a strong 1980’s indie / student film vibe. Instead of blood and gore the focus is on romantic encounters and city footage, which are set against an energetic pop score. Were it not for the mutated face on the main character’s stomach, the film would be almost conventional. The first gore effects are only featured during the closing credits, where Nishimura is credited as Crazy Pierrot – a pseudonym Nishimura was using during the early years of his career.

The Saints Come Marching In (1986) opens very much in the same style as The Face. For the first 20 minutes it’s a bright and easy going student drama. After that, however, the film moves to the nightmare territory. The main character gets chased by masked strangers, and the film gets more and more surreal. Gore effects are introduced as well, though they are still relatively few. Nishimura’s skill in synchronising images and music is again clearly visible.

The Saints Come Marching In is also a real curiosity for its casting. The main character is played by Tokuma, who later became a well known singer and a politician who ran for the governor of Tokyo in 2012. Female lead Renho Murata likewise is a popular and even more successful politician. They both attended the same university as Nishimura. No doubt there couldn’t have been a better start for their careers; unfortunately, in their current positions they may prefer their past kept hidden in Nishimura’s vaults.

Nishimura’s third student film, Fake Country (1987) is a full metamorphosis into the cyberpunk he is known for. The ambitious sci-fi film is set during WWIII, in which Japan is fighting the war with human missiles – an upgrade from human torpedoes which Japan used in WWII. One soldier, however, decides not to throw his life away and makes a run for it, only to find himself chased by the government troops.

Even at less than one hour Fake Country is a heavy experience to digest. Gone are all the light and pop music from Nishimura’s earlier films. Every single scene is set during the night. It’s an impressive vision by a young director, and ought to have made Nishimura a well known name. Nishimura did, in fact, submit the film to Japan’s famed indie film fest PIA Film Festival, but for some reason it was rejected. However, Nishimura says he later received a letter from Akira Hoshino, who was a member of the jury, saying he personally thought the film was awesome. He was right, the film is pretty awesome.

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Paradox

March 26, 2014

Long before Tokyo Gore Police…

Paradox (1984)

Yoshihiro Nishimura’s directorial career is often mistakenly believed to have begun in 2008 with Tokyo Gore Police. In fact Tokyo Gore Police was a remake of his terrific 1995 cyber punk film Anatomic Extinction, which remains criminally non-distributed anywhere in the world. Nishimura’s career, however, goes all the way to the mid 1980’s.

In 2013 Nishimura screened his mid-80’s horror and fantasy films The Face (1985), The Saints Come Marching In (1986) and Fake Country (1987) at the Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival. Each of those films were shot on 8mm, clocked 40-50 minutes, and were quite good. This year the festival digged even deeper into the history by screening Paradox, an 40 minute horror/splatter movie Nishimura directed in 1984. The film further confirms that Nishimura created some of his best work in the 1980’s and 1990’s.

Paradox opens much like an early Sogo Ishii film, though with very obvious influences from Walter Hill’s The Warriors (1979). The opening scenes are nostalgic punk cinema with street gangs fighting and racing on the streets – all skilfully synced to 1980’s rock music. An unexpected turn takes place just 10 minutes in when the main character is killed and a new title screen hits the screen. Paradox turns out to be an episode film.

The obscure second story, fittingly titled “God Damn”, sees youngsters driven to extreme acts by the voice of God (which echoes from radio). Even more bizarre is the third story “Meat” in which killer meats stored in fridge come alive. The young Nishimura gets to show his talent with special effects with a head split in two, and brains coming out through eye holes. The episode’s soundtrack is an obvious variation of John Carpenter’s Halloween theme music.

Paradox closes with “Thriller”, in which Nishimura plays his own vision of Michael Jackson’s classic music video. In Nishimura’s atmospheric version a Japanese woman is trying to escape zombies in a town filled with walking corpses. The episode is in many ways just as cool as John Landis’ famous music video.

Paradox is a well made and fascinating punk/fantasy/horror/splatter film. It is almost impossible to believe it was directed by a director who was still in high school. The special effects are impressive by any standard, and Nishimura’s audio-visual delivery is comparable to early Sogo Ishii films. Somewhat ironically – for being shot on film – Paradox actually looks somewhat more cinematic than Nishimura’s hyper active splatter films from the 2000’s.

The filmmakers’ slight lack of experience shows mainly in small technical hiccups – a few off-focus shots and dialogue that isn’t always easy to hear – and little confusion storytelling. These factors, however, only add to the scratchy film’s surrealism and atmosphere. A remarkable achievement by Nishimura who was only 16 years old at the time of filming.

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Kept

March 25, 2014

Abduction drama by an interesting debut director

Ra (2014)

”The world’s cutest movie director” Maki Mizui is quite an interesting person. In her youth she was kidnapped by a sex criminal. She managed to talk herself out of it unharmed, but the experience clearly left deep emotional scars. After it turned out the man’s other victims were not as lucky she wondered if she could have saved them had she convinced the police to look for the man. Mizui later drifted to adult videos – possibly while she was still underage – and gained reputation as Lolita princess. She also started cutting her wrists.

There’s a brighter side to her story as well. About 10 years ago Mizui was taken under the wings of splatter director / special effects artist Yoshihiro Nishimura. She worked as his assistant in both Nishimura’s own films and those of many other directors, such as Sion Sono. Mizui eventually caught the eye of many genre film fans before anyone even knew her by name: she was the sweet girl with glasses assisting Nishimura with gore effects at the sets of The Machine Girl ; she was a model in publicity photos for Tokyo Gore Police ; she was the narrator for Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl making of documentary, and so on. Wherever Nishimura went, you’d probably find Mizui there working as his assistant. Not a bad job for a pretty teenage girl, I though.

This year Mizui was once again at the Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival, but not only in her usual role as Nishimura’s assistant, but also as a first time director. Her debut film Kept (Ra), which was based on her own experiences as a kidnapping victim, was nominated for the festival’s main prize. Nishimura served as producer, adviser, and co-editor. When the film didn’t win at Yubari, Mizui walked on the stage and asked the president of the jury Kichitaro Negishi why? There were tears in her eyes all evening.

Needless to say it’s a highly personal film. In her official statement in the festival catalogue Mizui wishes all sex offenders would go to hell.

Mizui has crafted an extremely dark abduction drama based on her own experiences. The film first focuses on Mayumi (ex-AKB 48 member Kayano) – a character clearly based on Mizui herself – who is kidnapped by a criminal (Ken Koba). After she manages to free herself the focus shifts to other victims who receive a far more brutal treatment.

The film hammers the audience quite effectively. It’s a powerful film with a magnificent score by Kou Nakagawa (Tokyo Gore Police), based on Alex Proyas’ film Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds (1989). Cheap emotionality is avoided, and at only 70 minutes it’s an intense ride without a dead spot along the way.

That being said, as a storyteller Mizui sometimes cuts corners. While the reality-base of the events is unquestioned, Mayumi’s character development from a terrified victim to a determined young woman trying to escape comes perhaps a bit too fast. Some of the symbolism with green forests and an owl-like creature, as well as some of the acting, also don’t quite hit the target. On the other hand, once Mayumi starts cutting her arms, the audience only knows too well how real it all is. The same cutting marks can be seen in Mizui’s own arms.

With its brutally dark vision and compact length Kept is a surprisingly strong film despite some shortcomings. It’s going to be interesting to see how Mizui’s career continues. Unlike the usual fairytale heroines, she’s neither embarrassed by nor denying by her past as Lolita idol or in some other raunchy movie roles. Rather the contrary, she continues provocative performances as an actress and entertainer, while at the same time showing a very different side of herself as a movie director. Audiences have something to digest.

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Gun Woman

March 13, 2014

Trashy action gem is loads of fun.

Gun Woman (2014)

Kurando Mitsutake’s previous genre film, Samurai Avenger: The Blind Wolf (2009) was a moderately fun film, but had some obvious issues with excessive use of flashbacks and genre film homage overkill. Now Mitsutake returns with a far superior b-action gem Gun Woman.

The ultra-violent action thriller has a structure roughly similar to many kung fu films. The storyline follows a drug addict hooker (Asami) who is sold on the human market. The new owner (Kairi Narita) forces her to go through a hellish physical and mental training to become an assassin. She must acquire the skills to take down a heavily guarded, monstrous Japanese gangster (Noriaki Kamata) who has a taste for necrophilia. Failure would mean death.

Though shot on a very modest budget and not looking all that hot, the film is actually quite a stylish affair. Like Samurai Avenger, Gun Woman is packed with cool camerawork. The soundtrack by Dean Harada (who also scored Samurai Avenger) is downright terrific. AV actress gone genre film star Asami gives her career best performance is a role that doesn’t feature a single line of dialogue. Her fearlessness in front of camera also comes much in need, as the role features her in full nude action scenes while covered in blood. She’s obviously gone through some fight training as well.

The film is incredibly brutal, borderline tasteless even by splatter film standards, all thanks to Noriaki Kamata’s ruthless villain. The mix of ultra-violence, action and sex somewhat resembles the excellent but flawed Troma film Father’s Day (2011). Gun Woman, however, lacks all the stupid post-modernism and cheap humour that hurt Father’s Day. Amazingly enough, screen legend Tatsuya Nakadai (The Human Condition, 1959 ; Harakiri, 1962) appears briefly as the villain’s father. The mere thought of Nakadai in a film like this is mind-boggling.

Though the film’s storyline doesn’t always make full sense, it is nevertheless remarkably badass, especially the final infiltration plan which goes directly to the b-cinema Hall of Fame. As a small flaw Harada’s otherwise excellent soundtrack gets a bit too melancholic during the action packed climax, which is good to know in advance to avoid slight disappointment.

Gun Woman is easily one of the best action films to come out of Japan in years together with Takanori Tsujimoto’s films (Bushido Man, Hard Revenge Milly: Bloody Battle).

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Idol is Dead (2012) + Idol is Dead: Non-chan’s Great Propaganda War (2014)

February 18, 2014

A brand new blood soaked idol society

Idol is Dead (2012)
Idol is Dead: Non-chan no propaganda daisenso (2014)

It is always a pleasure when the latest idol film, seemingly made to promote an up and coming sweet girl band, turns out a splatter movie!

Idol is Dead doesn’t quite follow the usual idol film format. The film kicks off with its protagonists accidentally killing an amateur idol group. To hide their crimes, the girls bury the bodies and steal their identities by becoming idols. They name themselves BiS: Brand New Idol Society. Music and more bloodshed ensue as the girls soon find themselves in an idol event where few walk out alive.

Director Yukihiro Kato’s film shows promise! It’s messy, clumsy, and all-around cheap, but it’s also got something most of his competitors lack: a vision. Unlike much of the new Japanese genre cinema, Kato seems to constructing a world of his own. This involves not only lengthy music performances filmed with the unashamed dedication of a true fan, but cyberpunk –style mutants and severed heads that fill the rest of the film. Effects are old school as well – no CGI. Self-irony is wisely kept understated; the audiences worshipping the idols are like a mixture of zombie army and Japanese otaku.

The 60 minute film hugely benefits from swift spacing which detracts from many of the flaws, such as frequently horrible acting from some of the supporting cast. The leading girls – consisting of members of the real life band BiS – are as energetic as ever. In fact, their name “Brand New Idol Society” would also make perfect title for this trashy vision of idol world gone mad.

The film premiered in 2012. Those who follow the music biz probably knew BiS already enjoyed a reputation as the punk rebel among idol groups. In late 2012 they teamed up with the noise band Hijokaidan to form BiS Kaidan (though they also continue performing as BiS). Reportedly it didn’t take long until one could see the sweet girls screaming and throwing severed chicken heads to the audience on their new gigs.

Fast forward to 2014 and BiS are back on the silver screen with a 90 minute sequel: Idol Is Dead 2: Non-chan’s Great Propaganda War, which sees the girls facing a challenger: Electric Kiss.

Unfortunately the film is a disappointment.

BiS’s new direction with Hijokaidan is hardly visible in the film, save for the loud and very catchy opening scene aside. The film turns out, instead, a far more restrained band product than its predecessor. The frantic pacing of the original is gone, with scenes now running too long and lacking punch. The sequel also tones down the splatter and replaces it with Noboru Iguchi -style wacky comedy, including a bulimia side-plot, and corporate conspiracies. Electric Kiss doesn’t make much of a memorable opponent either.

On the positive side, tech credits are now much better, with solid camerawork and even a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Strangely enough, dialogue occasionally sounds very muted.

The film only redeems itself with a fantastic final performance, in which both BiS and filmmakers get to shine. It’s a nice payoff, but one can’t help but to wonder what happened with the rest of the film? Director Kato managed to overcome most of the original film’s problems, but also introduced a whole load of new ones and lost much of the energy in the process.

That being said, he’s certainly a name to keep an eye on.

It should be mentioned as fun trivia that before Hijokaidan found their new partner in BiS, the noise band considered teaming up with Momoiro Clover – a sweet teen girl band know for their cinematic accomplishments in fake horror doc Shirome (2010) and arthouse film Ninifuni (2011)! All of a sudden idol film industry seems more interesting than in a long time!

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Ninifuni

January 21, 2014

Ninifuni – Full Volume Version (2011/2012)

Smash hit teen girl band stars in a minimalist arthouse film.

Director Tetsuya Mariko, who broke into film festival fame with Yellow Kid in 2009, is one of the more interesting young talents in Japanese cinema. Ninifuni is a metaphoric 42 minute meditation on depression and death. The film follows a criminal (Masaru Miyazaki) who runs from the police and eventually ends up on the same beach where the pop band Momoiro Clover is shooting a new music video.

Mariko mixes art and pop, resulting in an original, though not entirely successful film. The film’s first half consists of waiting and wandering, and is almost completely void of dialogue. The storyline is actually based on a real life tragedy, but this could easily pass unnoticed by the viewer until the ending. Those viewers who fail recognize the film’s roots, and to get a hold of the protagonist’s mindset, may be left rather clueless for most of the film.

In the film’s second half Mariko constructs a somewhat clumsy but effective contrast between the lively teen girl business machinery performing on the beach and the human wreck hiding behind the trees. Surprisingly enough, and for better or worse, Mariko restrains himself and never lets the film into a a full pop music bloom, but instead opts for low-fi documentary style means.

For Momoiro Clover Ninifuni marks already the second fascinating and highly unexpected cinematic appearance. The band was previously seen in Koji Shiraishi’s hilarious faux-documentary experiment Shirome, in which (it was claimed) the girls performed without knowing they were in a fictional movie. Whoever is the girls’ agent deserves a big glass of beer.

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