Archive for the ‘Comedy’ Category

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Himalayan Wanderer

April 2, 2017

Himalayan Wanderer (Himalaya no mushuku: Shinzo yaburi no yaro domo) (1961)

A very loose sequel to the wonderfully nutty The Big Gamblers of The Amazon. Unfortunately this one is not half as much fun. It has the same lead cast, including Chiezo Kataoka, but that’s where the similarities end. In this film Kataoka (not a gambler this time) finds a yeti in the Himalaya and brings him to Japan. Not much interesting happens since bringing a yeti out to the public is no easy task and we end up spending too much time with a fake-yeti (Eitaro Shindo). Reporters and gangster businessmen alike are after the real yeti, who spends most of his time sleeping in Kataoka’s bathtub. A poor man’s King Kong with a lot of filler material between the relatively good opening and closing parts.

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The Big Gamblers of the Amazon

August 23, 2015

The Big Gamblers of the Amazon (Amazon mushuku: Seiki no daimaoh) (1961)

New York, 1961. A worldwide gambling committee gathers. The industry is in recession. Japan is seen as the most promising new market. Enter Amazon Kenji (Chiezo Kataoka), a homeless gunman and master gambler (mostly because he cheats) from the jungle, wearing poncho and a huge Mexican hat, who introduces himself by shooting a cigar from a random guy’s hand. He’s going to be the first one to sink his teeth in the new market. But before he gets there, but he’s joined by an Americanized bastard Gold Rush Kumakichi and Jack the Ace, the son of a Japanese geisha on Paris. Once in Japan, the trio is hired by a Chinese gambling lord who is also running a drug business.

This is an insane action comedy gem by Shigero Ozawa, the director of The Street Fighter (1974). It’s also a fascinating mix of new and old; the type of colourful film sets and costumes from Toei’s lavish Kyoto productions combined with mad energy that was running wild at Toei’s contemporary Tokyo studios. The film also includes strong western influences and a climatic shoot out where the hero guns down at least 60 bad guys. It only makes sense that halfway into the storyline the protagonist is actually locked up in a mental hospital. It is a little bit bizarre to see veteran actor Kataoka, who starred in countless samurai films since the 1920s, in such a madcap role.

For a film packed with foreign supporting characters (most of whom get killed in the final shoot-out) it’s of course a bit ridiculous that everyone is speaking Japanese! The film fully acknowledges this and even makes fun of it. In one of the better jokes we have French characters, who were speaking nothing but Japanese until then, suddenly switch to French language to plot a sneaky plan. When the French speaking Jack the Ace overhears them, one of the French characters shouts out “dammit, he understood us” – in Japanese! And this is how the language switches back to Japanese.

It’s a shame this film has never been released on DVD anywhere in the world. I was lucky enough to catch it in 35mm in a Toei Tokyo retrospective in Tokyo. Amazon Kenji is a lost 1960s cult hero waiting to be discovered by the world! A sequel, in which Kataoka stars as a homeless gambler from The Himalayas, was released later in 1961. Apparently the sequel also contains a yeti!

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Yubari 2015: Use the Eyeballs + Kim

August 22, 2015

Use the Eyeballs! (Hana Medama Kotaro no Koi) (2015)

2015 was the 4th year in the row Naoya Tashiro has had his new film screened in Yubari. Most of his earlier works (e.g. Naked Sister, 2013) were amusing short movies. Use the Eyeballs is his first movie to be shown in the competition series. It’s also his first not to feature any kind of horror or splatter elements. In fact, it’s a bizarre love comedy about a bullied schoolboy Kotaro. His problem is the eyeballs – not the normal pair, but the additional pair that pops up from his nose whenever he gets nervous. Needless to say, girls usually run away screaming.

Tashiro is a fanboy director whose films are full of references (e.g. Kotaro gets self-confidence by watching The Toxic Avenger on VHS) and insider jokes. There’s also an amazing cameo at the end of the film. It’s by no means great cinema, and some of the jokes miss the target (e.g. Tokyo Tribe parody), but it’s pretty fun and oddly sympathetic overall. Supporting roles are full of familiar faces like Eihi Shiina (mom) and Asami (evil office ninja) as well as small cameos by people like actor Demo Tanaka and photographer/filmmaker Norman England.

Kim (Fuzakerun ja neyo) (2014)

A terrific, hard hitting and intelligent medium-length film (approx 40 min) by film school student Shunpei Shimizu, who proves to be a more competent director than most mainstream professionals. The film follows an injured boxer who hates Zainichi Koreans, whom he feels are exploiting the Japanese society and giving him a bad name – even though he’s the worst type of Zainichi himself. Unable to fight in the ring, he vents his frustration on the streets by beating people and burns his social welfare money on a housewife-gone-part-time-prostitute who is dreaming of better life.

It’s a thought provoking, technically competent, and uncompromising film. Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tokyo Fist comes to mind a few times; however, Shimizu refuses the over-the-top antics of Tsukamoto and goes for utter, yet intelligent, bleakness. There is neither happy ending nor epic downfall waiting for its sad anti-hero. The film’s Japanese title, Fuzakerun ja neyo, comes from a 1970s rock song by the band Brain Police, effectively used as theme song here.

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Moratorium Tamako

January 17, 2014

The unlikely pairing of a slacker director and idol makes tranquil, charming cinema

Moratorium Tamako (2013)

Nobuhiro Yamashita started his career with minimalist, pitch perfect slacker films such as Ramblers (2003). He later entered mainstream cinema, but never quite lost his indie qualities. Moratorium Tamako is a nice example of Yamashita helming a somewhat mainstream project in his own, recognizable style.

Yamashita’s latest is a very simple film. With a running time of only 78 minutes (lovely!), and most of which is dedicated to the leading girl Atsuko Maeda lying on the floor, playing Playstation, or sleeping, there truly isn’t much melodrama going on. But small details and quiet humour have always been Yamashita’s strength. Moratorium Tamako is no exception.

Yamashita’s love and sympathy for his unlucky protagonists is once again evident in Moratorium Tamako. This is what sets Yamashita apart from some of his rivals, such as the more mean spirited Yuya Ishii, or even Aki Kaurismäki. Yamashita smiles at his characters, but never makes cruel fun of them. He can identify and sympathise with, say, a girl who failed finding a job and now spends her days reading manga and lying on the floor, as in Moratorium Tamako.

With his last two films, Yamashita has found his new heroine in Atsuko Maeda. The unlikely pairing of a slacker director and former AKB 48 idol is actually quite functional. Maeda is surprisingly natural as a lazy, not-into-anything Yamashita heroine, yet retaining her cute looks and easy-going mainstream appeal that just might be what Yamashita needs to get his films financed.

It is, in fact, quite unusual for a Yamashita film to center so strongly around one character (instead of a duo or trio of ill-lucked protagonists). It is perhaps because of this that Moratorium Tamako is an even quieter film than Yamashita’s films in general. That being said, there are two important supporting characters; Tamako’s single father, and a quiet elementary school boy who is an especially Yamashitan character.

Of course, Moratorium Tamako is by no means a match to Yamashita’s unparalleled Osaka era films (Hazy Life, No One’s Ark, Ramblers), but it’s a pleasurable small film. Like all of Yamashita’s films (and unlike most small scale Japanese films these days) the film also looks solid. It was shot on digital, but it has a pleasing, roughly film-like look to it.

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Quick Takes #8

September 6, 2013

Winter’s Alpaca (Fuyu no arupaka, 2012)

Japanese culture worships anything cute and sweet. It is no wonder Alpaca, the bad smelling mixture of sheep and camel, has become a local favourite. The South American animal is a rare but adored sight in Japan. Yuji Harada’s black comedy Winter’s Alpaca casts alpacas in supporting role.

The half-hour short film roughly resembles the early comedies of Nobuhiro Yamashita. The protagonist is an unattractive young woman in dept for the yakuza. To save her alpaca farm she sets out to collect the money before the deadline – any way possible.

The small budgeted film plays its cards well. Drama is well made and humour unexpectedly dark, cleaning the floor with the audiences sympathies. Acting and tech credits are good enough to raise the film above amateur productions. The city of Yamakoshi in the Niigata prefecture, which serves as the setting, obtained the alpacas as an international gift after an earthquake that struck the area the area.

From Here to Nowhere (Gokushiteki runaway, 2013)

23 year old director Ken Kawai’s road movie From Here to Nowhere is a humoristic coming of age story where no one really comes of age. The film follows a good-for-nothing boy who meets an eccentric prostitute in Tokyo and decide to run away with her – with no apparent destination.

Kawai was the youngest director at this year’s Yubari Fanta competition series. His good meaning film has its moments, but it hardly breaks any new grounds. The Japanese slacker movie genre has already been mastered by directors such as Nobuhiro Yamashita and Yuya Ishii. Kawai’s dry humour and quiet, ill-lucked characters feel derivative in comparison, although a graphic sex scene comes as a surprise.

Among low budget indies, the film looks quite acceptable visually. Acting is occasionally stiff, however, and some of the jokes lose their effect because of the lack of originality. Nevertheless, Kawai and his 24 year old main actors put their hearts into the film and don’t try to fish laughs with loud and childish slapstick. From Here to Nowhere isn’t a terribly good movie, but it’s a good try from a young director. Perhaps next time Kawai will find a more original approach to the material.

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Quick Takes #7

August 20, 2013

About the Pink Sky (Momoiro sora o, 2011)

Keiichi Kobayashi’s Tokyo International Film Festival winner is an empty affair. The youth film follows a high school girl who finds a wallet on the street. This leads to a series of encounters with various characters, most importantly the wallet’s owner.

Storyline is secondary to Kobayashi, who is more interested in looking into the psyche of a high school girl. It is for the audience to decide how fascinating of a protagonist a frequently screaming, idiosyncratic and selfish teen girl makes.

Rather than atmospheric and existential, the film is loud and scripted. Comparisons to such masters as Shinji Somai or Shunji Iwai are a far cry from reality – Yuya Ishii’s awkward comedies would be a closer match.

On the positive side, the film’s B&W cinematography is gorgeous and effectively hides some of the shortcomings of digital video

Zero Man vs. the Half Virgin (Hanbun shojo to zero otoko, 2011)

Takashi Miike screenwriter Sakichi Sato’s (Gozu, Ichi the Killer) trendy romance /drama / comedy / fantasy. A policeman wakes up with no memory, but instead a new skill. He can see the number of other people’s past sex partners as the figure appears on their foreheads.

Raunchy concept makes for relatively innocent comedy romance. Sex is limited strictly to one scene where the titular semi-virgin (pink star Shijimi) comes out of her shell. Characterization is decent enough to hold the film together.

Sato makes most out of his limited budget, utilizing wonderful pop/rock soundtrack and some visually mesmerizing scenes. The film is 20 minutes too long, but the energy and innovative camera angles keep the film running.

Performances are solid, including a standout stand-out supporting performance by film translator Don Brown as a 55-hit gaijin. Nobuhiro Yamashita regular Hiroshi Yamamoto co-stars.

The amusing little film is unlikely to be discovered by larger audiences, but possesses potential for minor cult classic. Among mini-budgeted J-obscurities, this is certainly a small discovery. Part of the second season of Artport’s Seishun H films.

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Quick Takes #3

January 12, 2013

The End of Puberty (Koi ni itaru yamai, 2011)

Perky high school girl (Miwako Wagatsuma) and a shy teacher (Yôichirô Saitô) change genitals in Shoko Kimura’s dull fantasy/comedy/drama.

The PIA Film Festival financed indie film is visually pleasing enough, but lacks any memorable moments. Character development is non-existent, wacky ideas underutilized, and energy lacking. Audiences mislead by the catchy theatrical trailer are in for a disappointment.

Kimura seems to have something to say of a world where men have lost their balls and women are unable to take the lead – indeed, interviews have confirmed her conservative views – but the topic eventually leads nowhere.
Perhaps most interesting is the film’s soundtrack that plays like an old Nintendo game, but like the rest of the film, it remains a curiosity that never really catches fire. The film is a far cry from Nobuhiko Obayashi’s similarly themed 1982 classic Transfer Student.

The Samurai That Night (Sono yoru no samurai, 2012)

Actor and stage director Masaaki Akahori’s directorial debut is a long revenge drama lacking in revenge. The star studded but low key arthouse drama follows a widowed, obsessed man stalking the hit-and-run crook that killed his wife after the release from prison.

Opting for strong realism, rather than fantastic revenge fantasy, the film has its moments but doesn’t eventually find very much depth. Little happens within its two hour running time, and some scenes come out “made-art” rather than natural storytelling. Characters feel distant, though Masato Sakai is not bad in the lead, and heart knob Takayuki Yamada makes a surprisingly believable killer. Mitsuki Tanimura, Tomorowo Taguchi, Hirofumi Arai, Go Ayano, Sakura Ando and Denden co-star.

The Drudgery Train (Kueki ressha, 2012)

Fan favorite Nobuhiro Yamashita’s welcome return to slow paced, rather non-commercial cinema. With a 19 year old protagonist who burns his money on booze and strippers, and whose father is a sex criminal, it’s certainly a film of old school Yamashita ingredients.

The minimal and slightly overlong film is, however, neither quite like nor as good as Yamashita’s early slacker masterpieces. Perhaps because of the source material – an autobiographical novel by Kenta Nishimura, adapted into screenplay by pink maestro Shinji Imaoka – Yamashita opts for slightly darker tones than expected. The recognizable Yamashita moments of quiet comedy are still to be found, though.

The start studded cast fare reasonably well, especially Mirai Moriyama who takes a minor gamble with his career. AKB48’s only acting capable member Atsuko Maeda is passable as well, though the whole cast suffers in comparison to Yamashita’s early works and their stars.

Flawed but pleasing, Kueki ressha may have a bit of difficulties finding its audience despite the puzzling Toei multiplex distribution that feels almost like a twisted joke by itself.