Nikkatsu Action / Buichi Saito

August 8, 2014

Diamonds of the Andes (Sekido o kakeru otoko) (1968)

Buichi Saito directed one of the best Lone Wolf and Cub films: Babycart in Peril (1972). His 1960’s films can be quite different, as showcased by this Nikkatsu movie filmed entirely in Brazil.

Akira Kobayashi stars as a former criminal now living new life in South America, but haunted by old enemies. He’s still being chased down by a Japanese detective (Tetsuro Tamba) and a former partner in crime (Eiji Go) whom he betrayed several years ago.

It’s a stylishly filmed movie with beautiful landscapes and Kobayashi playing guitar at sunset in Rio de Janeiro, but not nearly as great as a story. Most of the film consists of routine love drama after Kobayashi’s former girlfriend returns to his life and competes with the new lady. The cast in almost entirely Japanese and there’s also the compulsory carnival footage which feels especially tourist-like.

Landscapes aside, small bits of solid action at the beginning and end are the most exciting thing about the film, but clearly not its focus. It’s a nice curiosity, but not a very good film.

The Elder Sister (Anego) (1969)

Nikkatsu director Toshio Masuda once said in an interview that audiences went to Toei’s yakuza films for the action, and came to Nikkatsu’s crime films for the stories. The statement wasn’t entirely true, but it nevertheless springs to mind when watching Buichi Saito’s Anego (Elder Sister), a feminine yakuza drama with very little action in it.

The film follows the struggles of a yakuza wife after his husband gets hurt in a knife fight. Unfortunately it’s not a very memorable story, nor is there anything special about the execution. It’s merely a slow moving yakuza drama. Ironically it closes with a Toei style showdown, which is probably the most exciting part of the film. Akira Kobayashi pops up a number of times to save the day, always just on time.

IMDb lists English aka The Woman Gambler for this film, but that’s likely to be a mistake. The film has no connection to gambler movies, which were a popular genre at both Toei and Nikkatsu in the 1960’s.


The World of Kanako

July 14, 2014

Kawaki (2014)

Director Tetsuya Nakashima made himself name with hyperactive music video style comedies ala Kamikaze Girls and Memories of Matsuko. Then, in 2010, he had a change of pace with Confessions: a controversial hit about a high school teacher who avenges her child’s death to her students – with half of the film played in slow motion.

The World of Kanako features Nakashima back to his old habits, only this time the genre is violent thriller. Alcoholic ex-cop (Koji Yakusho) goes on a rampage to find his missing daughter, only to discover she wasn’t quite the pure angel he though she was. In fact, the entire school seems to be populated with 16 year old monsters, which raises amusing questions about director Nakashima possible vendetta for high school kids.

To keep it fair, the father is not much better; beating and raping people left and right on his quest to uncover the mystery. “Shock Therapy Entertainment”, as the film’s advertising slogan states.

The film is ridiculously over the top, but decidedly so, and extremely violent in places. It doesn’t quite pack the punch it wishes it would, and it gets a little tiresome after a while. Few cuts last longer than half second, the film goes from music video aesthetics to animated shots, and there’s constant shifting in time between present and past. Still, some scenes hit the nail with a sledge hammer and bring a maniac grin to the audience’s face.

Koji Yakusho is rather excellent in the lead role, despite the frenetic editor serving his performance in one second shots. Nana Komatsu does sufficient job driving everyone mad as the titular character. Fumi Nikaido appears briefly as a bad girl, nearly unrecognizable with blond hair.

The film caused a bit of stir in Japan when the distributor marketed it to young people by giving students an extra discount. The film is rated 15, but some of the content is 18-level by most countries’ standards and guaranteed to upset moralists. Perhaps Nakashima wanted to tell the kids to behave better or they’ll have a psychopath Koji Yakusho after them.


High Kick Angels

June 17, 2014

New low for schoolgirl karate – but with one highlight!

High Kick Angels (2014)

Martials arts fanatic and school girl lover Fuyuhiko Nishi has been working hard in the recent years combining the two into action entertainment. High Kick Girl (2009) launched Rina Takeda’s career despite not being all that solid of a film, and K.G. (2011) continued on the same path with more success and unintentional amusement. Now the school girls have been officially promoted as angels – unfortunately the film is no heaven.

The storyline, written by Nishi and brought to screen by Kazuhiro Yokoyama, is about a bunch on high school girls (Kanon Miyahara, Mayu Kawamoto, Nagashima Hirona, Kaede Aono, Risako Ito) filming their own martial arts movie in an empty school building. Then all of a sudden a group of bad guys appear, looking for money hidden in the building, and not quite expecting the corridors to be filled with karate-skilled school girls. The girls decide to fight their way out and film it.

First things first: Mayu Kawamoto! Remember that name. This 20 year old Kyokushin karate black belt (the world’s toughest karate variation, and Sonny Chiba’s primary art) is great. It was her promo videos released prior to the film that were the most impressive, and she does the same in the film. Her fights are real action goodness: attacks, blocks, counter-moves, dodges, fast moving; in other words, intelligent, interactive and exiting fighting! It’s a shame she’s not the main character, but a supporting one.

Then comes the bad, which is practically everything else. The story is dull beyond belief. The music is horrible. The directing and almost all of the acting is incredibly childish and over-done, especially by the adult villains (Chisato Morishita, Shingo Koyasu). It’s hard to say who are more irritating: the girls imitating Bruce Lee’s battle cries (+ borrowing looks and lines from Hiroko Yakushimaru and Meiko Kaji) or the adults sporting the corniest possible villain looks. Kanon Miyahara and Kaede Ayano are the top billed school girls, and while both surely have some ability, most of their action looks way too much like a kicking demonstrations: the bad guys wait in line to be kicked or hit, and never even try to block.

As wonderful as Mayu Kawamoto is, it’s hard to recommend the entire 90 minute film just for her. High Kick Angels has none of the slick (and partly unintentional) amusement of K.G, and it’s not even on par with High Kick Girl. It might work as a children’s movie, but that’s it. Wait for DVD and fast forward to Kawamoto’s scenes is the best that can be said about it.

As a side note, it must be said it’s amusing the school girls are now officially referred as angels. Yet, the film is about as unexploitative on the subject as it can be, even if it still probably makes some of the more insecure Western viewers feel uncomfortable.


Love’s Whirlpool

June 7, 2014

The most stylish 18 rated film of the year

Ai no uzu (2014)

One room. Four men. Four Women.

Daisuke Miura is one of the most interesting Japanese filmmakers right now. Miura earned his fame with uncompromising, largely improvised theatre plays that have been described “live documentaries” and which drove some of the performers on the verge of nervous breakdown. Somewhat surprisingly against this background, Miura’s cinema breakthrough was the romantic comedy Boys on the Run (2010). The manga adaptation was a mainstream production, but nevertheless full of punk, sex and otaku mentality.

Now Miura is back to his own material. Love’s Whirlpool is based on his own theatre play about a group of strangers who gather together in luxury apartment in Tokyo to have sex. The film hit the theatres with the relatively rare R18+ rating, and it was well know long before its release that the cast would spend only 18 minutes of the film’s running time fully clothed.

Sex, however, is more of a psychological than physical theme in Love’s Whirlpool. The attendees get together to have sex without the need for the usual social interaction and dating routines. Yet, once their host leaves them alone the first reaction is a long uncomfortable silence. Sex only comes in a good bit later. Then, it doesn’t take long until anonymity, pretending, and true feelings begin to mix the psyche in unexpected ways.

It takes remarkable skill to handle such a minimal premise that essentially takes place in one room. Thankfully the execution is excellent. The superbly stylish introduction alone sets the expectations high. The technical execution is top notch from framing to lighting. The visuals are nevertheless secondary to Miura’s interesting and darkly humoristic study on emotions, group behaviour, and sex.

Miura has created quite a good selection of characters. The attendees include a businessman, an office lady, a factory worker, a kindergarten teacher, an unemployed man, a freelancer, a student and a regular customer. Although a few of them function primarily as tools for group dynamism, all of them are relatively believable and fleshed out characters. The actual storyline focuses on an unemployed man who develops a dangerously close relationship with another attendee.

Although the casting process was reportedly difficult due to the sexually explicit nature of the film, Miura hasn’t gone for the second grade adult video stars but instead talented and fearless actors such as Hirofumi Arai. The biggest surprise, however, is the rising young female star Mugi Kadowaki (Schoolgirl Complex, 2013), who defies the usual career path of young Japanese actresses by playing the film’s sexually most aggressive role – and does it pretty well despite slight overdoing.

Miura does several other things against expectations as well. In real life we usually get to know people through their public fronts, which include pretending, wearing suits, and hiding under makeup – and only learn about their real personalities much later, if ever. In Love’s Whirlpool Miura undresses all his characters before we know anything about them. We then learn to know a whole lot about them before we know what they are pretending in their normal lives. When Miura finally shows them fully clothed again in the film’s final act, the effect is very interesting.

It is somewhat surprising that the film’s biggest flaw is actually its occasional softening of characters. Miura doesn’t take the realism as far as would be expected, but instead builds a couple of slightly naïve and audience-pleasing drama structures.

Of course, a film with a cast as good looking as this wouldn’t quite match the reality in any case, although it’s actually not too much of a stretch. Commercial sex has become very mainstream and accepted in Japan, starting from sexy clubs that play an important part in Japanese after-work socializing even with the young and handsome. At the same time many youngsters choose not to engage in relationships but lead independent life instead. Keeping these issues in mind, Love’s Whirlpool doesn’t really stretch the believability too much. Miura also shows welcome mature attitude towards the topic by refraining from cheap moralizing.

Despite its small flaws, Love’s Whirlpool is easily the most interesting adult drama in a long time, and it also looks stylish as hell. Thankfully, it has become a major indie hit in Japan. After opening in a just a few theatres nationwide in March, it went to play in more than 60 theatres with some small theatres playing it 13 weeks non-stop. In Tokyo as well, it opened in only one theatre, but seven weeks later it was playing on five screens at the same time. Not bad for an 18 rated film.


Japan Cinema .net and the Art of Plagiarism

May 5, 2014

It was about three weeks ago that I was reading a review on Japan Cinema (japancinema.net) and said to myself “wow, this review really echoes my own opinions”. A moment later I realized exactly why it was so. Their reviewer, called Benjamin, had copied about 50% of his text from my review on my blog. As for the remaining 50%… let’s just say you could clearly see the reviewer has never seen the movie.

The review in question was Gun Woman, for which he copied his headline, first sentence, positives and negatives, and the entire last third of the review from my blog.

After realizing this, I sent Japan Cinema feedback. I assumed it had been the work of one unethical reviewer whose conduct had passed through their quality control. Two weeks later I had not received a reply, but instead Benjamin had posted another review, this time for the American movie Precious Find. That review was a compilation of bits and pieces from reviews by A.V. Club and several IMDb users.

I still believed it was just Mr. Benjamin who likes stealing other people’s reviews, until today I ran into their Profound Desires of the Gods review, posted four years ago by Japan Cinema’s top reviewer Marcello. This review was created by stealing from Electric Sheep Magazine, Cine Outsider, Game FAQ’s forum, and probably some other sources as well.

A few weeks ago the same guy, Marcello, reviewed the Hong Kong movie The White Storm.I don’t think even need to tell you how it was created by editing together several different IMDb user reviews.

On Japan Cinema’s About page they describe themselves as an engagingly written life style project. Engagingly written perhaps, but by who?

Of course I never received reply to the two emails I sent or the two review comments I left.

Well done Japan Cinema, well done.


35mm Greatness in Tokyo

April 25, 2014

Anyone who loves seeing movies from 35 mm film prints is in for an epic treat in Tokyo in May (2014). As a result of an unbelievable amount of coincidences, there’s an incredible set of Japanese classics and cult films screening in different theatres around the same time (though without subtitles of course). Most of them play in large retrospectives, so you if you stay for longer time you can catch tons of movies.

However, even if you were like me and could only drop by for one extended weekend, you’ve still got more Japanese 40 classics to choose from in a dozen theaters. May 15th – May 18 (Friday-Sunday) especially is good time. I’ve listed below only what’s playing during that time.


Laputa (Day Show): Screenwriter Koji Tanada Retrospective

The Defensive Power of Aikido (Shigero Ozawa, 1975) (35mm)

Silk Hat Boss (Norifumi Suzuki, 1970) (35mm)

Ikasama bakuchi (Shigero Ozawa, 1968) (35mm)

Shimaizaka (Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1985) (35mm)

Onimasa (Hideo Gosha, 1982) (35mm)

Otoko no shobu: niou no irezumi (Norifumi Suzuki, 1967) (35mm)


Laputa (Morning Show): Ishiro Honda Drama Retrospective

- People of Tokyo, Goodbye (Ishiro Honda, 1956) (35mm)

- An Echo Calls You (Ishiro Honda, 1959) (35mm)


Laputa (Late Show): Meika Seri Retrospective

Wet Lust: 21 Strippers (Tatsumi Kumashiro, 1974) (35mm)

Man and Woman Behind the Fusuma Screen: Enduring Skin (Tatsumi Kumashiro, 1974) (35mm)


Pole Pole: Special Screening

Woods are Wet: Woman Hell (Tatsumi Kumashiro, 1973) (35mm)

The Embryo Hunts in Secret (Koji Wakamatsu, 1966) (35mm) (Guest: Masao Adachi)


Kineka Omori (Normal Distribution)

No. 10 Blues – Goodbye Saigon (1975) (format unknown)

Cinema Vera: Director Yoshitaro Nomura Retrospective

Tokyo Bay (Yoshitaro Nomura, 1962) (35mm)

Hakuchû dodo (Yoshitaro Nomura, 1968) (35mm)


Cinema Vera: Actor Shin Kishida Retrospective

Utamaro’s World (Akio Jissoji, 1977) (35mm)

Demon Spies (Takashi Tsuboshima, 1974) (35mm)


Theater Shinjuku: Pia Film Festival Presents

Japanese 8mm 16mm Films from 1970’s & 1980’s (format unknown)


Cine Qualite: Karikore 2014

- Horrors of Malformed Men (Teruo Ishii, 1969) (35mm)


National Film Center: The Birth and Development of Japanese Color Film

Yuhi to kenju (Kiyoshi Saeki, 1956) (35mm)

Hokkaido no hanran (Kunio Watanabe, 1956) (35mm)

Bridge of Japan (Kon Ichikawa, 1956) (35mm)

The Taira Clan (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1955) (35mm)

Hadashi no seishun (Senkichi Taniguchi, 1956) (35mm)

River of the Night (Kôzaburô Yoshimura, 1956) (35mm)

Meguro Cinema: Shunji Iwai Series

Love Letter (Shunji Iwai, 1995) (35mm)

Swallowtail Butterfly (Shunji Iwai, 1996) (35mm)

All About Lily Chou Chou (Shunji Iwai, 2001) (35mm)

Hana and Alice (Shunji Iwai, 2004) (35mm)


Shin Bungeiza: Yuzo Kawashima retrospective

Ojosan shacho (Yuzo Kawashima, 1953) (35mm)

Burden of Love (Yuzo Kawashima, 1955) (35mm)

Suzaki Paradise Red Light (Yuzo Kawashima, 1956) (35mm)

Noren (Yuzo Kawashima, 1958) (35mm)

Onna wa nido umareru (Yuzo Kawashima, 1961) (35mm)

The Graceful Brute (Yuzo Kawashima, 1962) (35mm)


Jinbocho: Screen Beauties Retrospective

Mukashi no uta (Tamizo Ishida, 1939) (35mm)

Sincerity (Mikio Naruse, 1939) (35mm)

Hideko, the Bus Conductor (Mikio Naruse, 1941) (35mm)

A Broken Drum (Keinosuke Kinoshita, 1949) (35mm)

Till We Meet Again(Tadashi Imai, 1950) (35mm)

Aijo (Kiyoshi Horiike, 1956) (35mm)

Garasu no naka no shôjo (Mitsuo Wakasugi, 1960) (35mm)

Tears on the Lion’s Mane (Masahiro Shinoda, 1962) (35mm)


Of course, if you come earlier or stay longer there’s dozens of more films playing in the same retrospectives, like many Kinji Fukasaku yakuza films, more roman pornos, more Ishiro Honda films, Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House, many Sogo Ishii films, or this Keizo Kanie set that closes on May 15th.


Shimbashi Bunka: Keizo Kanie Memorial Screenings

- Tattoeed Flower Vase (Masaru Konuma, 1976) (35mm)

- Rape (Yasuraru Hasebe, 1976) (35mm)

- Angel Guts: Red Classroom (Chusei Sone, 1979) (35mm)


Some day in the future I’ll try to write something about the coolest cinemas in Tokyo. I’m not based in Tokyo so my experience is limited, but I can immediately recommend Laputa Asagaya, which is the most atmosheric small theater playing nothing but retrospectives, and with certain reservations, Shimbashi Bunka’s Roman Gekijo, which plays a lot of Nikkatsu pink in triple features and gives you the old school pink cinema exprerience with all its dirtiness. You’ll feel like taking a shower after you leave the theater, and that’s not even related to what was going on on the screen…!


For an excellent resource on cinemas in Tokyo area that show non-mainstream films and old movies, see this great Japanese website.


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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