Archive for the ‘Action (new)’ Category

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Sonny Chiba A Go Go (Part 7)

September 20, 2014

Sonny Chiba Festival Day 7: July 4th (Friday)

Memoir of Japanese Assassins (Nihon ansatsu hiroku) (Sadao Nakajima, 1969)

Sadao Nakajima was one of Toei’s seminal genre film directors. He worked in almost any genre that was popular at the time, and delivered competent films that ranged from ninja adventures to sexploitation and yakuza movies. He had, however, also an urge to deliver something more ambitious, as evidenced by his surprising 1973 visit to Art Theatre Guild where he directed the gangster drama Aesthetics of a Bullet. Memoir of Japanese Assassins is another odd beast is his filmography. This all star political slaughter fest chronicles murders committed by assassins in different eras, all based on reality. Stars like Ken Takakura, Tomisaburo Wakayama and Bunta Sugawara pop up for their 5 minute episodes only to cut someone’s head off, stab someone to death or blow someone into pieces with a hand grenade.

The seemingly endless cavalcade of ultra-violent kills finally comes to an end about 25 minutes into the film. This is when the film finds its main story: an impressive tale of a young man slowly transforming into a political assassin. Sonny Chiba portrays this character; a youngster living in the middle of never ending poverty and misery. He eventually finds new home with a revolutionary group, which begins his long road to becoming a political assassin. This episode takes no less than 90 minutes of the film’s 142 minute running time, features almost no action or bloodshed, and gives Chiba more screen time than all the other stars combined.

Chiba is quite good in the leading role, despite slightly overdoing his most emotional scenes. He actually won an acting award for his performance at the Kyoto Citizen Film Festival (Kyoto shimin eiga sai), where Hideo Gosha’s Hitokiri was also awarded the same year. Yakuza film queen Junko Fuji also appears in a seminal supporting role in this episode. Once their story concludes, the film still continues with two more short episodes (one of them featuring stock footage from the earlier Chiba film The Escape, 1962). As a whole the film is a bit uneven, but it’s nevertheless a fascinating and occasionally epic (partly thanks to composer Isao Tomita, whose score plays on repeat) movie. Easily recommended!


 

Tokyo Daijishin Magnitude 8.1 (Kiyoshi Nishimura, 1980)

The second film for Friday was a real rarity: the 1980 special effects extravaganza Tokyo Daijishin Magnitude 8.1 (literally Tokyo Great Earthquake Magnitude 8.1). This generously budgeted TV film premiered on Nihon TV in 1980, and completely disappeared from the face of earth until it was screened in a special event in Tokyo last year. That screening was reportedly so popular that only a fraction of the willing customers were able to obtain a ticket. Cinema Vera gave the film no less than three screening days, during which it was seen from a relatively worn out 16 mm print, which would of course be the original format.

As the title suggests, it’s a disaster movie based on the premise of a giant earthquake hitting in Tokyo. This fear stems from real life: Tokyo has been destroyed by earthquakes several times, most recently in 1923 when more than 140 000 people died and over 400 000 buildings were destroyed. When it comes to Japanese cinema the genre may not seen very common – a couple of exceptions aside there aren’t many Japanese disaster movies – however, it closely relates to monster movies and other tokusatsu epics that have long traditions in Japan. It was a short way from giant monsters stamping Tokyo to a natural disasters creating similar cinematic destruction.

Indeed, a couple of shots in Tokyo Daijishin Magnitude 8.1 seem so familiar that they just might be old Godzilla sets put into new use. That wouldn’t be surprising considering many of the filmmakers, including producer Tomoyuki Tanaka and special effects director Koichi Kawakita, and co-production company Toho, had their background in Godzilla films. The fine, even if obvious, miniature work is actually the best thing about the film. There are a couple of especially memorable scenes, like a passenger plane flying over Tokyo that has turned into a giant inferno, and dawn in the destroyed metropolis.

As a character drama Tokyo Daijishin Magnitude 8.1 falls flat. All the usual clichés from helpless grandmother to dumb children and even animals escaping at the wrong moment are included, not to mention characters discussing how terrible it would be if an earthquake hit Tokyo just a few hours before it really happens. That is quite disappointing considering the film was directed by Kiyoshi Nishimura, who had helmed interesting thrillers and existential action films like The Creature Called Man (1970) and Hairpin Circus (1972) for Toho in the 1970s. Perhaps he just couldn’t help the screenplay.

Sonny Chiba plays the starring role; however, he doesn’t have much else to do than run back and forth in the special effects shots, and worry about supporting characters constantly getting in trouble. It’s not an especially physical role since most of the effects are make-believe. His most memorable scene involves blowing up a door while taking cover inside a safe. Yutaka Nakajima, who appeared in some earlier Chiba films like The Executioner (1974), plays the female lead, but her role is very forgettable as well. There are a few other supporting actors as well, but amusingly a great lack of extras. It seems the entire budget went to special effects since there are only a handful of people in Tokyo and they miraculously run into each other throughout the film.

Because of its rarity Tokyo Daijishin Magnitude 8.1 will remain to be sought after movie. It’s a decent special effects show that probably deserves to be seen by genre fans, especially for its nostalgia value, but it’s hardly a great movie. For fans of Chiba it’s passable viewing, but not among his most memorable roles.

As a side note; the film’s budget was 150 million yen, which was five times higher than the episode budget for the famous cop-action series Seibu Keisatsu (which is still fondly remembered for its insane action scenes full of car wrecking and explosions) that was screening on TV around the same time. By the 1980s many of the former actions stars, like Yujiro Ishihara, Tetsuya Watari, and Chiba himself were mostly working on TV. Chiba had already starred in hundred of TV episodes in various different shows since the 1960s, like Key Hunter (1967-1973) and The Bodyguard (1974). In the 1980s television became his primary employer as well. It was a great era of epic small screen action entertainment that often rivalled, and sometimes surpassed, the theatrical films. Nothing like it exists on Japanese TV anymore.

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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.

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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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Why Don’t You Play in Hell

October 9, 2013

Sono’s cinema tribute is fun until it becomes a childish CGI fest

Jigoku de naze warui (2013)

Sion Sono has spent the last few years directing uneven dramas. Why Don’t You Play in Hell marks a return to energetic pop cinema. The film, based on a 17 year old screenplay, is a madcap celebration of cinema, until the ending goes down the sewer in a CGI packed finale that contributes to the destruction of real action cinema.

The 130 minute film packs a rather thrilling selection of characters, including yakuza boss keen on making her daughter a film star, and a passionate amateur film crew The Fuck Bombers who take on the challenge to film an all time action film with yakuzas whacking each other off for real in front of camera.

Why Don’t You Play in Hell best compares to Love Exposure in Sono’s filmography. The first half is a blast. The director throws in violence, romance, yakuzas, and samples a thrilling music selection like Tarantino in his best days. Casting features some standouts as well. The recently retired action star Tak Sakaguchi is spot on as a Japanese Bruce Lee wanna-be, and Himizu star Fumi Nikaido steals the show as a yakuza daughter tough girl.

Sono fans will also recognize the fictional movie-within-the-movie “The Blood of the Wolves” as Sono and Sakaguchi’s real life attempt at creating an ultimate samurai action movie. The film was in production for years, and parts of it were apparently filmed in 2012, but it seems unlikely the film will be competed anytime soon, if ever.

Why Don’t You Play in Hell, unfortunately, won’t make Sono and Sakaguchi’s dream project. Sono’s masterpieces Suicide Club (2001), Hazard (2005), Noriko’s Dinner Table (2005) and Love Exposure (2008) all mix wild entertainment, poetic cinema and poignant commentary, making relatively harmonic films. Not so with Why Don’t You Play in Hell, which certainly is loud, but eventually lacks meaning and heart. Some of the music is also recycled from old Sono films, and the pacing goes off before half-way.

The real deal breaker is the climax – an all out massacre executed mostly in awful video game CGI. The computer gore is despicable anti-cinema that ought to entertain 12 year olds – a statement seemingly agreed by Japan’s film censorship office Eirin who rated the film pg-12.

Sono has described his (digitally shot) film as a love letter to the disappearing 35 mm film. In the film’s nostalgic movie theatre scene an old projectionist (the ever so charismatic Mickey Curtis) plays Sono’s 1992 film The Room and introduces the kids to the magic genuine celluloid cinema. It’s a shame 60 minutes later Sono goes crazy with video game CGI – the second death knell to real cinema – and all his prior statements are in vain.

Truth be told, the catastrophic ending (which could also be edited better) aside Why Don’t You Play in Hell is mostly an entertaining, at times even exhilarating, ride. Mainstream audiences ought to like it.

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Sengoku Bloody Agent

March 28, 2013

Sloppy action fest would do better in rental markets

Sengoku Bloody Agent (2012)

Kung fu vs. sword. Tonfa vs. knife. Japanese sword vs. Chinese sword. 2013 already saw one excellent mixture of martial arts in Takanori Tsujimoto’s Bushido Man. Bruce Lee fanatic Naoki Takeda attempts a somewhat similar concept in his own film. The difference between the two action films is that while Bushido Man starred martial arts expert Mitsuki Koga, Sengoku Bloody Agent stars former bikini model Ayumi Kinoshita. That, unfortunately, is just about all that needs to be said about Sengoku Bloody Agent.

Takeda, who was one of the crew members bringing Bruce Lee’s original Game of Death footage back to life in Bruce Lee in G.O.D. (2000), has been making career in action films ever since. Sengoku Bloody Agent throws a bunch of rogue fighters, motivated by random childhood traumas, against the yakuza. Action is plentiful and shot without CGI or wires, but any inspiration is utterly lacking and the casting is wrong to begin with.

Sengoku Bloody Agent is a typical direct-to-video style action film with slightly higher production values. Storyline and characters are non-existent, and action fills the majority of the running time. Style and punch is lacking. The characters are played by a mixture of idols and b-movie actors. The outcome is like a bad episode in the TV series Alias, and should mainly please the fans of Kinoshita.

Supporting roles offer a couple of competent faces, mainly yakuza film regular Yoshiyuki Yamaguchi. Otherwise the only source of amusement is the closing credits. The ending suggest of a sequel, perhaps a series of them, though that would depend entirely on the film’s performance in rental stores. In cinema environment it’s hard to imagine much success of Sengoku Bloody Agent, when even good action films struggle to find audience at the Japanese box office.

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Bushido Man

March 5, 2013

An old fashioned fighting movie to delight genre fans

Bushido Man (2013)

It’s been ages since Japan produced anything as manly as Bushido Man. Seven warriors, seven battles! There’s almost nothing else to be found in the film. The casting alone is ace. Mitsuki Koga (Evil Ninja, 2010), Masanori Mimoto (Alien vs. Ninja, 2010), Kensuke Sonomura (Hard Revenge Milly), Kazuki Tsujimoto (Hard Revenge Milly: Bloody Battle)… Nothing but martial artists, stuntmen, action directors and yakuza film b-actors! Pretty face idols that have been terrorizing Japanese action cinema since the 80’s are nowhere to be found!

Violence director Takanori Tsujimoto has established his name as the most promising talent in his field. Tsujimoto’s early shorts lefts something to be desired, but his Hard Revenge Milly: Bloody Battle holds as the most intense Japanese action film of the 2000’s so far. Bushido Man sparked interest ever since the clever advertising campaign, which revealed Koga’s opponents one by one in teaser posters released during a 6 month time span.

In Bushido Man Tsujimoto tones down the violence in favor of martial arts. The concept is like an amusing variation of the Shaw Brothers film Heroes of the East. The protagonist (Mitsuki Koga) pilgrims around Japan looking for masters of martial arts to challenge. In each fight he has to adapt a new fighting style or weapon. The opponents are kung fu master, stick fighter, nunchaku expert, blind samurai, knife specialist, revolver man, and a woman with special weapon. In preparation the hero always heads to a restaurant first. “Learn about your opponent through his diet”.

Today’s Japan is an extremely difficult environment for action filmmakers. The genre simply doesn’t have domestic demand. In Bushido Man the budget has been cut down to the minimum. The cheap visuals look, where especially outdoor scenes tend to look less than natural, is not much to write home about. Thankfully the rest of the film turns out pure 1980’s madcap Hong Kong action. The opening fight alone, in which Koga meets the film’s action choreographer Kensuke Sonomura, is among the best hand-to-hand battles seen in Japanese cinema.

A lot has been invested in the amount of fights. Well over half of the running time is spent fighting. The rest of the time Koga wanders around Japan looking for opponents and eating their favorite foods. The fun concept freshens the movie, though feels slightly underutilized. A few additional scenes would not have hurt. Even then, Bushido Man took more days to shoot than most other Japanese genre films of recent, and the production was delayed by more than half a year.

The philosophical aspects of bushido are brought up both between and during the fights. The self obvious wisdoms and old fashioned gentleman gestures are heartwarming, even if decidedly silly. After each fight the protagonist develops as a fighter and a human being, and learns from the opponent’s strengths. Such moments, as well as the sheer amount of fighting, make Bushido Man feel like an old fashioned martial arts movie in the best way.

Towards the end the film loses its track a bit. Metaphysical references and scenes of comedy are more embarrassing than clever. The fighting spirit of the first half suffers a bit, and action choreography takes a few steps back with more emphasis on firearms. Even then, the final fight reaches such levels of pure, again 80’s Hong Kong style, madness, that entertainment is guaranteed.

Despite a few flaws during the second half, Bushido Man is easily one of the best attempts in Japanese martial arts cinema in ages. In a time when bikini models and pop stars dominate most of the genre, a mentally insane fight circus such as Bushido Man is welcomed with open arms. Japan’s most famous active screen fighter Tak Sakaguchi would better come up with new tricks as Koga just stole the game!

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Quick Takes #4

January 28, 2013

I’m Flash (2012)

Toshiaki Toyoda’s second theatrical release for 2012, in the heels of the art house affair Monsters Club, is a more mainstream oriented gangster tale. Death Note’s pretty boy Tatsuya Fujiwara stars as a young cult leader who escapes political scandal to his Okinawa base, protected by three bored bodyguards lead by Ryuhei Matsuda.

I’m Flash is somewhat a return to roots for Toyoda, with stylized visuals and rock score, yet it is a disappointment. For what was intended as trendy genre pic, it is neither stylish enough nor especially original. The setting echoes of Kitano’s Sonatine, but without the laconic humor. Fujiwara falls short of charisma, Matsuda has little to do until the final reel, and the religious cult theme is underutilized.

The mediocre film only comes to life during the final 15 minutes, which is a blazing showdown of violent old school Toyoda. Had the entire film been as good, it would be small gem.

Lesson of (the) Evil (Aku no kyoten, 2012)

One for the high school teachers! Students need not be tolerated, they can be executed! Takashi Miike’s violent thriller sets a school load of teenager on the line of fire when the beloved English teacher decides to go postal.

Miike’s film is lacking in clever satire, especially when compared to Battle Royale which keeps creeping to mind more often than once. Yet, the bloodbath is strikingly stylish. Bodies keep piling up and Die Moritat von Mackie Messer (1928) builds tension on the soundtrack.

Hidaki Ito, with the charisma and looks of The Bold and the Beautiful’s Ronn Moss, is a standout as the charming but murderous teacher. His victims are little more than an excuse for the bloodshed, but the young cast is solid enough to keep the film together during the long build-up.

The film should mark Miike’s commercial return after a few misses, grossing in one month more than the new Batman did in all year at the domestic box office! In the light of the recent real life events, though, all US screenings seems destined to be cancelled.

Giant God Warrior Appears in Tokyo: Movie Version (Kyoshinhei Tokyo ni arawaru, 2012)

The end of the world by Hideaki Anno. Tokyo is destroyed to the last building in this poetic, jaw dropping tokusatsu tribute shot entirely in live action. No CGI effects were used, but rather miniatures and trick shots.

With razor sharp images that look magnificent on a 20 meter screen, narration by Neon Genesis Evangelion’s Megumi Hayashibara, and villain appearance by the giant monster from Miyazaki’s Nausicaä, it would make a perfect opening sequence for an Evangelion movie. Indeed, the movie edition, the slightly extended from the original 9 minute tokusatsu museum form, was attached to Evangelion 3.0 as a pre-movie.

It’s a shame Anno’s brilliant attempts at live action Evangelion sequences never seem to come closer to reality than pre-movies, trailers or deleted scenes. Giant God Warrior Appears in Tokyo, which was produced written and produced by him, and directed by Evangelion director Shinji Higuchi, is the most impressive so far. The production house behind the film is none other than Studio Ghibli.