Archive for the ‘Action (new)’ Category

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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.

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Ai to Makoto (For Love’s Sake)

June 21, 2012

A tired pop-cult mess by Miike.

Ai to Makoto (2012)

It would be stating the obvious to say Takashi Miike is hit and miss. But there was a time when even a miss-Miike was an interesting Miike. Having abandoned cult arena and become a trusted studio director, Miike has become a much bigger gable for the audience, though good films also frequent. Unfortunately Ai to Makoto (For Love’s Sake) is not one of them.

An adaptation of the 1973 manga, previously turned three several live action films (1974-1976) and one TV show (1974-1975), Ai to Makoto seems like an ideal playground for the new, mainstream friendly Miike. His wacky superhero pic Yatterman was a delight, and the high school violence duo of Crows Zero produced at least one good film (the 2nd). These are the two closest comparisons to Ai to Makoto, which tells the love story of a hard fisted hooligan Makoto (Satoshi Tsumabuki) and a sweet good girl Ai (Emi Takei). All set in the 1972 Tokyo, complete with eight musical numbers!

While unfolding its load of gang wars, sukeban girls, and desperately in love nerds (Ace Attorney’s Takumi Saito, looking distractingly similar here) Ai to Makoto makes an attempt at being an audiovisual feast, but none of it comes through very successful. The colorful but supercharged visual look, with its blown out whites and distracting lack of shadow detail, make it look very much a modern film even when the attempt is at paying tribute to the old era.

The soundtrack fares a little better, but even then goes to insert a modern sappy theme song by Yo Hitoto in the middle of a showa era (1926–1989) hit parade. Is there so little to be trusted in the modern audiences that one cannot even close a 1974 set movie without a modern relief? Don’t worry kids, showa is gone and Ayumi Hamasaki still in the record store (uhm, iTunes store, or something…)

For its defense, Ai to Makoto does gather some nice set of showa classics forthe audiences to enjoy – though there’s hardly a person in the film’s native country who hasn’t already heard Kiyoshi Ozawa’s all time classic Mata au hi made too many times. Indeed, it might be better sticking with one’s CD collection as Ai to Makoto’s half-arsed musical scenes are effectively brought down by the lack of lip sync that soon becomes a major distraction. It’s something the film could’ve gotten away with had it been done on purpose, but Miike gets stuck somewhere between professionalism and kitsch, with no satisfactory balance.

The final death knell is the equation of 134 minute running time and a screenplay that achieves very little. Aside a glorious amount of justified self defense violence towards women, the film’s decision to keep Makoto an unlikable, romance avoiding brute serves very little purpose. As odd as it sounds, Ai to Makoto is a 2+ hour romance film with no romance whatsoever to be found. That being said, it’s also a fighting film without fighting worth mentioning. That’s a bit of an under-achievement, considering Miike’s previous idol-parade Crow’s Zero 2 managed the action with solid grades.

For its modest merits – a few amusing performances (especially Love Exposure’s Sakura Ando as a sukeban girl) and gags, and an inventive flashback sequence staging a character’s past in cardboard theater sets – Ai to Makoto doesn’t pay off. It’s a tiresome effort by Miike.

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Red Tears

May 20, 2012

Uneven monster mayhem to celebrate an action legend

Red Rears – Kôrui (aka Monster Killer aka Sword of Blood) (2011)

Violence director Takanori Tsujimoto (Hard Revenge Milly: Bloody Battle, 2009) teams up with action legend Yasuaki Kurata. Add vampires and Yoshihiro Nishimura gore effects to complete a horror/martial arts hybrid that celebrates Kurata’s 100th screen work!

Red Tears, produced by Kurata himself, is perhaps an attempt from the star to enter the Stallone league. The 66 year old actor shows no signs of giving up, but instead got himself the most promising new talent of Japanese ultra-violence-action to direct him in a horror martial arts mixture aimed at semi-size markets (the film spread to 14 cinemas around Japan during its first five weeks, which is a decent number for a genre movie in today’s sterilized Japan).

The dream team doesn’t quite live up to the expectations, though. Kurata places himself in a supporting role as a badass lone wolf detective hunting down a seemingly supernatural killer. The main police work is left to a younger colleague (Yuma Ishigaki), plagued with poor comedian skills and an unexpected romance storyline (with Natsuki Kato) that eventually doesn’t lead anywhere. Kurata himself steps in like a rotten Wong Fei Hung whenever a stuntman is in a need of a beating.

While Red Tears has its share of merits from skillful, CGI-free gore work (once again courtesy of Nishimura) to the charismatic Kurata, it feels oddly lifeless and TV-production –like in places. This is despite the production values being a notch above the typical genre standards, with cinematography especially looking solid. Yet, for director Tsujimoto Red Tears marks a step back in terms of style and energy. The film’s strong focus on (flat) romance and comedy comes most puzzling as neither Tsujimoto nor Kurata have much to contribute to it.

The action scenes, choreographed by Kurata promotions’ own talent Hiroki Asai, come with heavy wire use and hectic camerawork. The issue is not as bad as anticipated by the film’s trailer, though real highlights are limited to the final katana match at the end of the film. Kurata himself is not quite up to his younger days, but his gray charisma and ruthless methods compensate for the shortcomings.

The film also takes a shot at the creature feature genre with slightly amusing old school monster mask work by Nishimura. Red Tears’ monsters are not strictly vampires, but oddities blessed with characteristics of blood sucking freaks, werewolves, even the looks of a beaver! Best of all: almost everything in the film is handmade from monster masks to almost amusingly painful (though slightly restrained) gore effects – something that cannot be credited to Kurata, who according to his own words, would have painted the entire film with CGI had the budget given in to it.

Red Tears is an uneven genre cocktail that doesn’t truly find its pace until the brutal and action packed final 30 minutes. For the followers of Kurata as well as fans of Tsujimoto’s superb work in the action diamond Hard Revenge Milly: Bloody Battle it’s both a bit of a disappointment and yet a wholly passable time killer. Watched with modest expectations it should provide an acceptable 90 minutes of genre mixing entertainment.

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Sushi Typhoon – Part 9: Yakuza Weapon

January 18, 2012

Yakuza mayhem misses the genre’s appeal

Gokudo heiki (Japan, 2011)

“Real yakuza fears no nuke”

Taku kills again! It’s been an 11 year world tour for mini-budget Japanese action cinema. Ryuhei Kitamura’s Versus (2000) rocked the world more than a decade ago, but as some have noted, Kitamura-san hasn’t been able to come up with anything comparable since. The rest of the gang – screenwriter Yudai Yamaguchi, action choreographer Yuji Shimomura, and street fighter Tak(u) Sakaguchi – however, are here again! Was the wrong man credited for the Versus success?

Good theory, perhaps true even, but it doesn’t make Yakuza Weapon a good film. Not even thought it just may be the most fucked up production in the Sushi-catalogue. Co-directors Tak Sakaguchi and Yudai Yamaguchi set to adapt Ken Ishikawa’s 1996 manga into a Versus beater. Not forgetting the manga’s Battles Without Honor and Humanity yakuza parodies, Taku mastered Hiroshima accent and went full-on Bunta Sugawara! Sadly, style was forgotten.

Shozo Iwaki (Sakaguchi) wants to be the world’s toughest yakuza. The task is easy: he already is the world’s toughest yakuza. But there’s room for improvement. Returning from the Vietnam jungles (don’t ask) he discovers his asshole father (Akaji Maro) has been murdered, and the family’s honor stained. Now Iwaki is also the world’s most pissed off yakuza.

Add to the insult, a pervert in a big building shoots him with a bazooka. Broken but alive, Iwaki is left in the hands of Japan’s best, and returned to action with a machine gun arm and rocket launcher leg. Groovy!

Yakuza Weapon is a festival of Sakaguchi – a charming badass not best known for his modesty. Iwaki kills and smokes, usually at the same time. He disguises himself in battle, not to take the enemy by surprise, but to look cooler. Most of the dialogue consists of random insults, and all of them at yelled. Shozo Iwaki is Tak Sakaguchi!

– “I’m the best swordsman in Japan. And in the world.” – Tak Sakaguchi
– “He’s an idiot.” – Yudai Yamaguchi

The catch couldn’t be more obvious – Tak battles his way through an action comedy where almost every scene is taken over-the-top with dedication. Heads come off, buildings explode, and occasionally something so obscure (literally) falls from the sky that one can’t help but to warm up to it. But the joke is stretched too long, and the monotonic revenge / brotherhood drama becomes a drag. The worst misstep however, is the extensive use of (very poor) CGI.

Like the Yamaguchi helmed Deadball, Yakuza Weapon is effectively pushing the J-splatter genre ever deeper into the dark ditch of CGI. It’s hard to imagine true horror or cult film fan warming up to these digital gore fests. There is no concrete creativity in such. Casual viewers may not care, but then again, casual viewers also don’t see the difference between George Lucas green-screen action and mind blowing 1980’s Jackie Chan stunts. Splatter is no different art.

Some light is brought into the darkness by Sakaguchi and Yuji Shimomura’s action choreography. Taku is at his best in down and dirty street fighting mode – the man is no artist, but can kick ass and rip off some heads while at it. The highlight is a 4½ minute single take action scene that was completed with one hour rehearsal – and broken neck, as Taku took damage already during the first minute, but refused to give in! Tom Yum Goong’s similar scene took several months!

Another contender for a standout is a Sushi-favorite Cay Izumi’s brief visit as “naked weapon” – a scene made to be a cult favorite, but sadly drowned in CGI. The same problem plagues all of Taku’s gatling gun and rocket launcher action, making several action bits less than exiting. Most underwhelming is the encounter with deadly nurses, again watered down with digital gore.

Yakuza Weapon once again raises the question: where goes the line between creative insanity, and overly self-aware “manufactured cult cinema” that effectively misses the true coolness. The line is not easy to draw. Yoshihiro Nishimura, for example, intentionally pushes the audience’s limit, but the man is genuinely nuts and directs films with a great heart.

Yakuza Weapon, on the other hand, over-does it concept to comical lengths just to prove people it doesn’t take itself seriously. But that is exactly the problem. Such splatterific genre films, even when played straight, automatically posses certain darkly humoristic undertone. Yakuza Weapon is essentially explaining a joke to an audience that otherwise wouldn’t get it – and will probably find success among such viewers that would normally feel insulted by “terrible sadistic splatter films”.

In all fairness, though, Yakuza Weapon is not an entirely poor film. Sakaguchi’s nutty yakuza satire / self irony is fun to a certain point, and his hand-to-hand fights rarely cease to entertain. Sakaguchi and Yamaguchi are both nice guys, but with all the CGI and comic over-statement Yakuza Weapon is a misfire. In Sushi Typhoon’s entertaining seven film catalogue it’s the weakest contender.

It is my sincere wish Sushi Typhoon will be back later in 2012 with a vengeance – and without CGI. Unleash the true creativity these Japanese nuclear reactors (also known as “filmmakers”) posses and bring back the days of Tokyo Gore Police and The Machine Girl!