Archive for the ‘Cult & Exploit. (vint.)’ Category

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Sonny Chiba A Go Go (Part 6)

September 20, 2014

Sonny Chiba Festival Day 6: July 3rd (Thursday)

It had been almost two weeks since my last visit to Tokyo. I missed the screenings of Gambler Tales of Hasshu: A Man’s Pledge (1963), Karate Warriors (1975), Swords of Vengeance (1978) and Message from Space (1978). The rest of the screenings during my absence were second or third screening days for films I had already caught before.

This day did not start so well. I did all I could to be there on time, including taking an early flight to a closer airport than usual. Little by little everything started to fall apart. First, the flight was 20 minutes late. Next, there was no rapid train from the airport for whatever reason. Finally, when I got to Tokyo there had been a train accident, which resulted in about a 20 minute delay. The 45 minutes of extra time I had scheduled for getting from the airport to the theatre eventually shrank to 14 seconds! Yes, after defying death by running through Shibuya like a crazy person, and silently cursing everyone on my way down to hell, I got there 14 second before the film started and spent the opening credits trying to catch my breath.

Abashiri Prison: Northern Seacoast Story (Abashiri bangaichi: Hokkai hen) (Teruo Ishii, 1965)

The film I successfully caught was the 4th film in the long running Abashiri Prison series (1965-1972), which cemented Ken Takakura’s status as the most popular Japanese actor of the 1960s. The series started in 1965 with the original classic, which saw Takakura as a tough guy sent to the Abashiri Prison. It wasn’t necessarily the greatest movie ever made, but it brought together many of Toei’s best yakuza film actors and benefitted from the snowy landscapes of Hokkaido. As the series advanced, many of the sequels departed from the original setting and didn’t necessarily even include prison scenes. Northern Seacoast Story brought the series back to the Abashiri setting after a couple of entries set in warmer locations.

Northern Seacoast Story stars Takakura in his usual tough guy role. The film takes a while to kick off because it dedicates most of the opening act for tiresome comedy routines about two gay inmates. Things get more exiting once Takakura is set free and he takes a job to drive a certain truck through Hokkaido. This is when the film becomes a variation of the John Ford classic Stagecoach (1939), with Takakura’s truck packing an unusual cargo: a runaway teenager (Reiko Ohara), a mother accompanied by sick child, and two ruthless criminals (Tooru Abe and Takashi Fujiki).

There are few surprises to be encountered, but the presence of ever reliable genre actors, winter landscapes, and groovy jazz score make it a passable time waster. Sonny Chiba appears in a pretty small supporting role as an inmate with health problems. His character actually kicks off the storyline, however, he is only seen in the early scenes. Chiba later returned for another supporting role in the 6th film: Duel in the South (1966), which was a slightly bigger part, but nevertheless quite forgettable.


The Street Fighter (Gekitotsu: Satsujin ken) (Shigero Ozawa, 1974)

This was the film that started the golden age of Japanese karate entertainment. Two important factors should be considered when we discuss the film: timing and talent. Although Chiba had been making action movies since the early 1960s, including a couple of full-fledged martial arts films, Japanese karate films had never really taken off. For years Chiba had to deal with producers and directors who had little interest in the fighting aspect. Matters were made even worse by tight filming schedules. Things finally begun to change Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon was released in Japanese theatres in December 1973 and proved a major hit. All of a sudden there was a genuine demand for martial arts films. The producers naturally went for Chiba. The Street Fighter was Toei’s response to Lee’s success, produced at lightning fast schedule to hit the theatres less than two months after Enter the Dragon.

The timing was perfect also because the other vital requisite for a good martial arts movie, the necessary action talent, had just been discovered a few months earlier. Chiba’s earlier action films had suffered from the lack physically capable supporting actors who could make good opponents for Chiba. Most of Toei’s action film stars were yakuza film actors who looked fine with a gun or sword, but made pretty poor karate fighters. This finally changed when Chiba discovered Masashi Ishibashi, who was cast as a villain in Chiba’s previous movie Bodyguard Kiba 2 (1973). Ishibashi was a real life karate master and Chiba’s senior, who had been acting in movies for a good while already but hadn’t done much on-screen action before. With Ishibashi on board Chiba had finally found an actor who could keep up with the choreographies even when films had to be completed at lighting fast pace.

The action scenes in The Street Fighter were co-designed by Chiba and Ishibashi, who played the film’s famous villain and returned for countless other Chiba films like Karate Bullfighter. There were other real life martial artists involved as well, like Masafumi Suzuki, who plays the martial arts master Chiba challenges in the dojo scene. Chiba’s brother Jiro, who later went on to star in The Defensive Power of Aikido (1975), and Chiba’s protégé Etsuko Shihomi, who would become the biggest Japanese female martial arts star of all time, were also featured in minor roles.

The Street Fighter also became an unforgettable showcase of Chiba’s anti-hero charm and ultra-violence. Chiba was given relatively free hands at creating the main character, who was a badass mercenary called Takuma Tsurugi. Chiba drew influences from the psychotic yakuza villain he had played in Kinji Fukasaku’s yakuza film Deadly Battle in Hiroshima (1973), but made the character a little les evil this time round. What resulted was 90 minutes of cinematic badassness that remains one of the most enjoyable action films of the 1970s.

For better or worse, The Street Fighter has characterized Chiba’s reputation since then and made him a cult hero all around the world. However, his best work as an on-screen martial artist was still to come. The Street Fighter was still a contemporary action film where, for the most part, gunplay had merely been replaced with martial arts. It wasn’t until the next year when Chiba’s martial movies found their purest form in films like The Killing Machine, Karate Bearfighter and The Defensive Power of Aikido, all of which were biopics of real life martial artists.

As a side note, there is some confusion regarding Chiba’s side-kick character calling him “darling” throughout the film in the Japanese language version. This is quite amusing indeed, especially considering he even cooks Chiba’s meals, however, it’s a misunderstanding. The word is not “darling”, it’s “talen” which is Chinese for “master”. This makes perfect sense since the character is supposed to be Chinese or Singaporean, whose life was saved by Chiba. The Japanese mispronunciation of the term has, however, even fooled Japanese audiences.

The evening was characterized by beaten up prints. Abashiri Prison had essentially turned into a “pink film” if you know what I mean. The Street Fighter, too, had little of the original colours remaining, and frames were missing in several points throughout the film. In fact, the famous bit of ultra-violence where Chiba sticks his fingers into the opponent’s eyes was completely missing due to print damage. Even in this condition the film still kicked major ass and it was a pleasure seeing it on 35mm. Although these two prints were in poor condition, most of the films at the festival screened from very good, sometimes near-pristine prints.

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Sonny Chiba A Go Go (Part 5)

September 19, 2014

Sonny Chiba Festival Day 5: June 22nd (Sunday)

Game of Chance (aka Samurai’s Lullaby) (Rokyoku komori-uta) (Ryuichi Takamori, 1966)

In the 1960s ninkyo yakuza films became Toei’s most successful genre. These old school yakuza films inspected the themes of honour, loyalty and brotherhood in a historical setting. The heroes in these films may have been yakuza, but they were honourable men who followed the codes of honour and never exploited the innocent. These movies would usually start with the hero arriving to a town where a good gang he belongs to is being pitched against a dishonourable gang that exploits the innocent. There would also be a seminal supporting character that the hero meets and becomes friends. We would later discover that that man is actually working for the enemy, but only because of some kind of blood relation or obligation that he cannot escape. The film’s climax would see the two men forces, and the supporting character redeeming himself with a heroic death.

There are a couple of different variations of this ninkyo formula, but the basics remain the same: honourable men put in difficult situations where obligations, personal feelings and the morals would conflict. The genre was a huge hit among the audiences and made actors like Ken Takakura and Koji Tsuruta the biggest stars of their time. It was therefore no surprise that Toei also had Sonny Chiba star in a couple of old school yakuza films, although he never became a star in the genre. Game of Chance is an interesting off-note ninkyo yakuza film in which Chiba stars as a swindler who has to escape with his 5 year son (Hiroyuki Sanada in his first role) after being caught cheating in a card game.

Game of Change is an odd film because it’s constructed very much like the typical Toei ninkyo film except that the protagonist commits some slightly dishonourable acts you wouldn’t usually see in the genre. In fact, the hero in Game of Chance is very much like the seminal supporting character in numerous other Toei ninkyo films. It’s also an unusual film because of its heavy dosing of family drama, which gives the typically very masculine genre a feminine spin. These elements make it an interesting movie, although it never really finds the perfect alignment nor perfects its art. Some of this may be actually because of the utterly mediocre director Ryuichi Takamori not knowing what he was doing. Nevertheless, it’s an entertaining yakuza drama with only a few minor action scenes. It was followed by two sequels, both starring Chiba, and shot in colour, unlike the first film which is black and white.


Wolfguy: Enraged Lycanthrope (Wolfguy: Moero ôkami-otoko) (Kuzuhiko Yamaguchi, 1975)

This incredibly entertaining action film stars Sonny Chiba as a karate skilled crime reporter who also happens to be a werewolf. He keeps his true nature hidden from the mortal world and lives among normal people as one them. As the film opens, he begins investigating a series of ultra-brutal murders in which members of a rock band have been slaughtered by a woman with supernatural powers. Her skills are demonstrated in the opening scene, in which one of the rockers (Rikiya Yasuoka) bumps into Chiba’s car and pretty much explodes into pieces a moment later on a side alley.

Wolfguy just may be the most outrageous Sonny Chiba ever made! The film goes from psychedelic city noir to science fiction set in mysterious research labs, and eventually mythical action as Wolfguy returns to his birthplace in the mountains. It’s packed with unbelievable scenarios such as werewolf vs. werewolf karate fight, werewolf shooting people with machine gun and Chiba pulling off the prison bars with his bare hands. The film also features ultra-gory murders straight out of a splatter movie, super funky soundtrack, great action, frequent female nudity, and odd mother syndrome with Chiba rubbing his nose between pinky violence star Yayoi Watanabe’s breasts because she resembles him of his mother!

What is most surprising about Wolfguy is how it makes shockingly much sense structure-wise. Unlike many other Chiba films where the main difference between the beginning and ending was the number of opponents, Wolfguy really comes a long way storywise. It also manages to retain a sufficient level of continuity, despite being a combination of several ‘Adult Wolfguy’ graphic novels by Kazumasa Hirai. Hirai also published the similarly titled but more youthful ‘Wolfguy’ manga that Toho had already adapted into a film in 1973, but Toei wanted to fill their movie with non-stop sex and violence so they went for the adult version.

The film was expertly handled by director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi (Sister Street Fighter, Karate Bearfighter). The shaky cam style that hurt some of his other movies is virtually absent here, resulting in several excellent action scenes that vary from martial arts to gunplay. There’s even a tank in one scene, though it never enters the frame! Overall Wolfguy is one of those rare cult movies that not only live up to their outrageous premise, but exceed it. The fact that there is no DVD or even video release anywhere in the world is a crime against humanity!

It says something about the film that I watched it three times during the same day. It was the first film I saw that day, followed by Game of Chance, after which I simply decided not to give away my seat. After the insanely enjoyable second viewing I initially left the theatre and headed for Laputa Asagaya for Co-ed Report: Yuko’s White Breasts (1971), but it turned out the screening was sold out and I couldn’t get a ticket. With nothing better to do I went back to Cinema Vera for one more go at Wolfguy, and I didn’t regret one bit!

Wolfguy was certainly a hit with the audience. In the last screening one poor Japanese fella became mentally insane! He sit quiet during the film, but as soon as the film ended he burst into uncontrollable laughter and couldn’t stop. He left the theatre laughing like a madman. His maniac laughter echoed in the theatre for several minutes, essentially turning the whole place into a madhouse. The film’s greatness must have been too much for him to handle.

This was the end of my second Tokyo stay, but I was only halfway through the festival. Stay tuned for more reviews!

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Sonny Chiba A Go Go

September 16, 2014

Sonny Chiba A Go Go
Cinema Vera, Tokyo
June 14th – July 11

Although 2014 has been a fantastic year for film retrospectives in Tokyo (such as Art Theatre Guild and Norifumi Suzuki retrospectives), the highlight of the summer was no doubt Sonny Chiba film festival which played in Shibuya’s Cinema Vera. Cinema Vera had dedicated Chiba a 24 film retrospective which covered the first three decades of his career.

During the festival Cinema Vera played nothing but Chiba films for four weeks straight. Each day two films were screened back to back all day from 11 am to around 11 pm. Each of the films would also play again on a later date in case you missed the first day, meaning each film would have a total of 7- 10 screenings. All movies played from original 35mm prints, except for the TV production Tokyo Daijishin Magnitude 8.1 (1980), which screened from the original 16mm film.

Return of the Street Fighter (1974), Karate Bullfighter (1975), Karate Warriors (1976)

The festival programme included not only popular classics like The Street Fighter (1974), but also rare gems like the superb action/noir Army Intelligence 33 (1968) and Wolfguy: Enraged Lycanthrope (1975), which is probably Chiba’s best and most outrageous movie of all time (I watched it three times during the same day!). The selection demonstrated the diversity of Chiba’s career, which started already in the early 1960’s, and included not only action and martial arts films, but also samurai films, war movies, crime films and many other genres. In fact, as an actor Chiba might have been at his best in the early 1960’s when he played mainly good guy roles and demonstrated some amazing energy.

The theatre in which the films screened, Cinema Vera, focuses on film retrospectives (past series include Teruo Ishii, Masao Adachi, Yasuharu Hasebe and Noboru Nakamura). One of the coolest aspects is that they always do fantastic job decorating the lobby with original posters from the movies. Every week there were new posters on display, including Wolfguy: Enraged Lycanthrope (1975), Karate Bullfighter (1975), Message from Space (1978), Okinawa 10 Year War (1978), Samurai Reincarnation (1981) and many more.

Bodyguard Kiba (1973) (top) and Yakuza Deka: Poison Gas Affair (1971) (bottom)

The real highlight of the festival was, of course, Chiba himself. The 75 year old actor attended the festival during its first day in the afternoon. Some fans had arrived three screenings in advance. This meant that they would be watching G.I. Samurai – one of the two films screening that day – twice just to keep their seat. That’s possible since the theatre is not emptied between the screenings. Once you’re in, you’re expected to watch two films and leave, but no one’s going to kick you out if you stayed longer.

I went in two screenings in advance, and by that time it was already challenging to get a good seat. When Chiba walked on stage, every single seat (144) was taken and additional people were sitting on the floor. The wait was well worth it. The legendary action star is 75 years old now, but he’s still full of energy and acts like 15 years younger than his age. During the 40 minute talk event Chiba recalled his career and joked about how in the early 1960’s Ken Takakura, Koji Tsuruta and Tetsuro Tanba were always the producers’ first choice to any Toei film, and he could only get the role when they were busy. Chiba also regretted the state of modern Japanese action cinema that relies too much on CGI, unlike back in his days when they did real action.

Chiba knew what he was talking about. He made his first martial arts films in the early 1960’s, established his own film school Japan Action Club to train physically capable action stars such as Hiroyuki Sanada and Etsuko Shihomi, and was even a well known star in Hong Kong due to his TV show Key Hunter (1967-1972). Both Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan were impressed by Chiba, the latter especially. Jackie was such a big fan of Chiba that he even travelled to Japan to meet him – and of course repeated and improved upon many of his stunts (e.g. the helicopter scene from the 1976 film Jail Breakers, which Jackie managed to beat in Police Story 3 in 1993).

Chiba was also a real life martial arts master who practiced Kyokushin Karate under its founder Masutatsu Oyama since the late 1950’s. Chiba fought in Oyama’s team in the international fighting tournament in Hawaii in 1977, where Chiba defeated the former east coast champion Greg Kauffman with a knock-out in the second round. Chiba also acquired black belts in more than half dozen martial arts, including Kyokushin Karate, Ninjutsu, and Shorinji Kempo.

In addition, Chiba was never just an action star or martial artists. His rich career, especially in the 1960’s, features comedies, dramas, war films, science fiction, noir, crime movies and super hero flicks. In some respects, he was at his best as an actor in the 1960’s when he was bursting with youthful energy and charm and often played good hearted heroes. During the 1960’s alone, Chiba appeared in more than 60 movies, many of them starring roles. These roles were quite different from the 1970’s action movies that his international fans best know him for.

None of those accomplishments reflected in his behaviour at the Chiba festival. After the talk event Chiba answered questions in a Q&A (sometimes spending more time asking his fans questions and opinions than talking about himself) and greeted fans after the event in the theatre lobby. I’m glad to report Chiba was an absolute gentleman without a smallest sign of arrogance. He talked with fans, asked for their opinions, gave autographs, and took photos with them. My best memory is probably how (after already having asked Chiba a question during the Q&A and taken a photo with him) he came to me on his way out, shook hands and thanked me for coming to the event. All in all, the man came out as a very modest, polite and energetic gentleman.

Samurai Reincarnation (1981)

I was also glad to see the festival was obviously a success. Although old school theatres are closing one after another these days Chiba festival seemed to attract many people. A lot of people showed up and there were many viewers even during weekday mornings. I spent a total of 10 days (three extended weekends) at the festival and caught 20 of the 24 films that played. I’ll be reporting day by day, although the report may change its form a little bit as it goes on.

List of Films Screened at the Festival:
Hepcat in the Funky Hat (Kinji Fukasaku, 1961)
The Escape (Niniroku Jiken Dasshutsu) (Tsuneo Kobayashi, 1962)
Gambler Tales of Hasshu: A Man’s Pledge (Masahiro Makino, 1963)
Abashiri Prison 4: Northern Seacost Story (Teruo Ishii, 1965)
Kamikaze Man: Duel at Noon (Kinji Fukasaku, 1966)
Game of Chance (Samurai’s Lullaby) (Ryuchi Takamori, 1966)
Army Intelligence 33 (Tsuneo Kobayashi, 1968)
Memoir of Japanese Assassins (Sadao Nakajima, 1969)
Bodyguard Kiba (Ryuichi Takamori, 1973)
The Street Fighter (Shigero Ozawa, 1974)
The Executioner 2: Karate Inferno (Teruo Ishii, 1974)
Wolfguy: Enraged Lycanthrope (Kazuhiko Yamaguchi, 1975)
Bullet Train (Junya Sato, 1975)
Karate Bullfighter (Kazuhiko Yamaguchi, 1975)
Karate Warriors (Kazuhiko Yamaguchi, 1976)
Jail Breakers (Dasso Yugi) (Kosaku Yamashita, 1976)
Okinawa Yakuza War (Sadao Nakajima, 1976)
Karate for Life (Kazuhiko Yamaguchi, 1977)
Message From Space (Kinji Fukasaku, 1978)
Okinawa 10 Year War (Akinori Matsuo, 1978)
Swords of Vengeance (Kinji Fukasaku, 1978)
G.I. Samurai (Kôsei Saitô, 1979)
Tokyo Daijishin Magnitude 8.1 (Kiyoshi Nishimura, 1980)
Samurai Reincarnation (Kinji Fukasaku, 1981)

Karate Warriors (1976) (left) and Wolfguy: Enraged Lycanthrope (1975)

Karate Bullfighter (1975)

Karate for Life (1977)

Message from Space (1978)

Bullet Train (1975)

Bullet Train (1975)

Top Middle: Bodyguard Kiba (1973) and The Escape (1962)

Two posters for The Fall of Ako Clan Castle

Hepcat in the Funky Hat (1961) and Army Intelligence 33

Memoir of Japanese Assassins (1969), Karate Warriors (1976) and Message from Space (1978)

Memoir of Japanese Assassins (1969), Karate Bullfighter (1975) and Jail Breakers (1976)

Okinawa Yakuza War (1976) and Okinawa 10 Year War (1978)

Kamikaze Man (1966) and Okinawa 10 Year War (1978)

Bullet Train (1975) and Jail Breakers (1976)

G.I. Samurai (1979)

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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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Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House

November 14, 2009

There’s a small number of popular directors in Japan whose output has been rather one sidedly presented outside their native country. Cult director Nobuhiko Obayashi falls to this group. To a large extent his international reputation lies on the film House (1977) – somewhat ironic considering how little seen it is outside Japan. But House’s (also commonly known as “Hausu”, as fan circuits have adopted the Japanese katakana spelling for international use as well) reputation has preceded it for years, and now Criterion / Janus Films have picked it for theatrical and home video distribution in the US. For better or worse, next year this time equals mark can be drawn between Obayashi’s name and the film’s title globally.

House is the kind of movie cult film enthusiastics are looking for. Best described as Evil Dead 2 with kawaii factors, Obayashi’s film is a wacky comic book come alive. A group of junior high school students – all girls of course – travel to countryside to spend a weekend in an old house. It just happens to be that this specific house is more or less alive, and its visitors quite a bit dead after soon. If the ghost don’t get them, the piano will eat `em. But it’s not a very gory vision, unlike Raimi’s splatter films. A seminal element is Obayashi’s films has always been the visuals. House comes with more color-combinations and unreal images than the beloved early 70’s visual experimentalists of Japanese cinema, such as Shunya Ito (Jailhouse 41), could ever have dreamed of. But this is also House’s problem. The first 15 minutes may be a jaw dropper, but an over-dose in inevitable. When Obayashi goes overboard, it’s no longer a matter of style over substance; it’s the matter of style over the substance of style.

The reason for bringing up the matter of one sides presentations is that Obayashi’s true talent is indeed in substance. His masterpieces, such as Tenkousei (1982), are balanced, character driven dramas that work on a whole different level than the superficial roller coaster ride that is House. But it would be wrong to consider Obayashi the victim of his own cult film; House is no less genuine Obayashi than Girl Boss Blues is genuine Norifumi Suzuki. There is another side to these directors, but that remains to be discovered by large international audiences. That being said, House is by no means a bad movie. Its cult film reputation is fully justified, the masterpiece tag a bit less so. If a young kung fu skilled girl (called Kung Fu) in her underwear fighting ghosts and getting bit in the butt by a severed head sounds like your cup of tea, you’ve chosen the right film to watch. There’s enough good laughs and inventiveness on offer to keep one entertained even after the visuals lose their brightest shine. The film’s soundtrack, while sometimes repetitive, is also very pleasing.

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Terrifying Girls’ High School series

October 29, 2009

The Terrifying Girls’ High School series (1972-1973)

Hitting the Toei theaters in the midst of their second Pinky Violence wave (preceded by Teruo Ishii’s period movies in the late 1960’s) Terrifying Girls’ High School movies were basically a high school variation of the Sukeban girl gang movies which ran from 1971 to 1974. The main difference was that the girl bosses would now wear school uniform, and the villains would include corrupt high corrupt school officials rather than just ordinary yakuza. The opening installment, Violent Women’s Classroom (1972), stars Miki Sugimoto as a heroine who must fight Ema Ryoko’s ruthless girls for the supremacy of the school. Reiko Ike co-stars as a sukeban who has not yet decided her side. This was the basic casting also in most of the Sukeban films, where Ike and Sugimoto would take turns playing the heroine / guest star. Poor Ema Ryoko was destined for villain roles and fight scenes where her shirt gets ripped for life.

Violent Women’s Classroom features little if any deviations from the genre conventions. It’s an enjoyable, fast paced exploitation film full of violent girls beating each other and making fools of their senile teachers. Typical to Suzuki, there’s a lot of humor included, and none of it can be described as very sophisticated. Nudity is plenty as well, but thankfully there are no long sex scenes interrupting the minimal storyline – something director Norifumi Suzuki has been found guilty of a few times before. Technical execution is of relatively high standard, as expected from a Toei production. The stylish theme song is performed by supporting actress Rika Sudo, and was re-used in the superior sequel, Lynch Law Classroom.

Lynch Law Classroom (1973), Norifumi Suzuki’s second attempt with the Terrifying Girls’ High School series, counts as one of the high points of the genre. Compared to its predecessor the follow up is a much darker film. Occasional silly comedy now walks in hand to hand with torture scenes that make reference to the Vietnam War! At the same time the film manages to be wildly entertaining (Reiko Ike’s introduction scene with a motorcycle is a small genre benchmark) and even beautifully shot at times. Dull moments are almost entirely missing for the film. The primary casting is the same as before (Sugimoto as heroine, Ike as guest star, Ryoko as villain), with Tsunehiko Watase’s sunglass wearing lone wolf yakuza being the most notable addition. The film’s most satisfying scene by far is the ending, which is high school anarchism at its best.

After Lynch Law Classroom the series lost two important talents; actress Miki Sugimoto and director Norifumi Suzuki. In Delinquent Convulsion Group (1973) Reiko Ike carries the lead role, leaving the film without a strong guest star. Probably standing out most (and not due to their acting talents) are the American actors who play evil drug dealers and rapists. Yes, this is yet another film that does not improve cross cultural understanding. Director Masahiro Shimura is no first timer in the field of exploitation cinema. He worked as an assistant director in the previous two films, and was also involved in screenwriting several Toei action films such as The Street Fighter (1974). His directorial filmography is short, but perhaps for a reason. While not a bad movie, Delinquent Convulsion Group is not among the genre’s best films, and this would appear to be largely Shimura’s fault. His direction is a bit sloppy, lacking the intensity and visual style of Suzuki’s best movies. Delinquent Convulsion Group is mainly saved some memorable scenes such as the sailor suit and machine gun finale.

The Terrifying Girls’ High School series ends with another Shimura effort. Unfortunately Animal Courage (1973) is the weakest of the four films. It suffers from similar problems as the previous film; Shimura directing features no sharp edges, and there are no strong supporting characters (although lead star Reiko Ike almost becomes one). The storyline is all over the place, and gives more room to sex scenes than action. There are visual highlights, but they tend to be inconsistent, and often the follow up doesn’t live up to build up. The soundtrack is somewhat restrained but does feature one rather stylish spaghetti western tune. Another ear pleaser is the language mix on offer; you’ll get to hear the girls speak French and English on language lessons. Yes, we are trying hard to find positives here…

Somewhat interestingly the film spends a considerable amount of time mocking Christianity (Yankee Mark Darling returning as a dirty priest), immediately making one suspect Suzuki had his fingers involved with the screenplay. Another cast member one might recognize is Harumi Tajima, who later made a rather memorable beach run in the final Sukeban movie (1974). Finally, and literally so, the film’s very last scene is quite excellent. Animal Courage may not have been the best way to end the series, but the last 30 seconds couldn’t have been better (rviewer note: it’s been approximately 2 months since I viewed this film and wrote this review, and I can no longer remember how the film ends).

Verdict:

Violent Women’s Classroom (Japan, 1972) – 3.5/5
Lynch Law Classroom (Japan, 1973) – 4/5
Delinquent Convulsion Group (Japan, 1973) – 2.5/5
Animal Courage (Japan, 1973) – 2/5