Archive for the ‘Drama’ Category

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Africa’s Light

April 2, 2017

Africa’s Light (Africa no hikari) (1975)

This a bit of a slow burner for nothing much happens in the film. However, you’ll be surprised by how it grows on you. The film is about two semi-slackers (Kenichi Hasegawa and Kunie Tanaka) with an ultra-intimate friendship (wait for the scene where sick Tanaka pees in his pants, and Hasegawa then dries him with a towel) working, slacking and drinking in a freezing Hokkaido town. For a modern comparison point, imagine an early 2000s Nobuhiro Yamashita film with less humour and more 70s grit. Cinematography by Shinsaku Himeda is solid, and the film’s minimal score is quite lovely. The film was a Toho production, one of the many mainstream films by Roman Porno master Tatsumi Kumashiro. His other mainstream film, Failed Youth (1974), is often considered one of the best Japanese films of all time.

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Minato no Yoko, Yohohama, Yokosuka

April 2, 2017

Minato no Yoko, Yohohama, Yokosuka (1975)

This crazy disco dance youth film plays out like a Japanese Saturday Night Fever with a murder suspect plot. A young girl (16 year old Ai Saotome) is looking for her runaway sister (Yumi Takigawa) and ends up finding new life at a night club. Expect psychedelic discos, dance-till-you-drop (literally) all night dance marathon competitions and Downtown Boogie Woogie Band, whose awesome song gave the film its title and plot, and who appear in the ultra-funky intro scene. What a discovery! It’s a shame this has never been released on video or dvd.

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Nowhere Girl + Wonderful World End

August 22, 2015

Nowhere Girl (Tokyo mukokuseki shojo) (2015)

A flawed but fascinating psychological drama by Mamoru Oshii. Nana Seino (from Tokyo Tribe) stars as an art school student who suffers from post traumatic stress disorder. She’s being bullied by other students, her teachers are growing sick of the situation, and she seems to be going crazy. But there’s more than meets the eye, and she’s more than a little dangerous, as proved by a certain ultra-violent sequence near the end.

Nowhere Girl is an extremely slow paced movie bound to drive some viewers crazy, but it’s also quite an interesting and rewarding film. Seino is fine in the lead role, and the slow pace works when she’s in the frame. When the film focuses on supporting characters, the slow pacing begins to feel a bit too pretentious. Some unfortunate CGI blood weakens the film’s impact, although Seino’s physical competence compensates for it.

Director Oshii, much like Hideaki Anno, is one of those anime masters whose live action filmography is vastly under-rated (especially the excellent, existential road movie Stray Dogs), with his own fans usually being his harshest critics. Nowhere Girl is unlikely to change that situation.

 

Wonderful World End (2015)

A quiet 13 year old runaway goth-loli girl (Jun Aonami) falls in love with her idol, a 19 year old schoolgirl model / small time idol (Ai Hashimoto) who is running her own webcast from home. After a slight misunderstanding her boyfriend invites the young fan to their home to stay, which starts eating out their relationship. This film somewhat resembles another similarly themed – and also music driven – movie: The End of the World and the Cat’s Disappearance. Wonderful World End, however, is a more intimate, quiet and realistic film, minus the ending which goes to Takashi Miike territory. Ai Hashimoto is pretty good in the lead as a girl who is mainly interested in her own looks, and the film makes some good points about youth, social media and idol culture, despite not being quite exceptional in any way.

Director Daigo Matsui is a name to keep an eye on, especially for the excellent schoolgirl drama Luv Ya Hun (to be released later in 2015). This one isn’t as good, but it’s still decent. The film is based on two highly cinematic music videos by Seiko Ohmori, both directed by Matsui, both starring the film’s cast, and both released in 2013. Some of that that footage is also used in the film, plus Ohmori appears in the film as herself in a concert scene.

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Yubari 2015: Luv Ya Hun

August 22, 2015

Luv Ya Hun! (Watashitachi no haa haa) (2015)

Daigo Matsui’s latest film Luv Ya Hun was easily the best movie in Yubari this year! The film follows four high school girls who run away from home in Kitakyushu to attend their favourite artist’s concert on the other side of the country in Tokyo. Their plan is to ride bicycle all the way to Tokyo and sleep under the summer sky; however, that only gets them till Hiroshima. That’s where the reality starts hits and they need to figure out how to manage – and finance – the remaining 800 kilometres. As expected, they soon realize that there are always some ways for girls in school uniform to earn money in Japan. They also film everything on video camera and upload videos on the internet in real time.

This is a wonderful film seen entirely from the youth’s point of view. That’s something you don’t really see in Western youth movies. Western youth films tend to be somewhat conservative, even the great ones like Boyhood or Blue is the Warmest Colour, in that they feel like a grown up director looking back at childhood and telling a tale that has some kind of a lesson to teach. They may be gritty, but at the end the characters have always grown up and learned from their mistakes. This wisdom is then passed on the audience.

Luv Ya Hun, and some other Asian films, dare a different approach. They’re basically coming of age films without all that much of the coming of age part. Director Matsui, apart from some strong criticism on the music industry, doesn’t judge his young protagonists, even though the stunt they’re trying to pull is obviously insane. Instead he shares their excitement with the viewer. The moral lesson is left almost entirely for the viewer to pick up – and some probably won’t. You might consider the film a bit dangerous in that sense, but for an intelligent viewer it’s a refreshing treat.

The film also benefits from an excellent young cast and solid cinematography, about half of which is POV. This actually works so well that one almost wishes the entire movie had been POV. Highly recommended for fans of Japanese youth films, such as All About Lily Chou Chou and Love & Pop (two of the three best Japanese youth films ever made, the third being Taifu Club). Those who enjoy Luv Ya Hun may also wish to try Schoolgirl’s Gestation (2014), which is about a group of high school girls deciding to get pregnant together in a small seaside town. While not as good a film as Luv Ya Hun, it shares the same non-moralizing and energetic approach to the topic.

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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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Yubari 2015: Haman + Makeup Room

August 22, 2015

Haman (2015)

A high school girl’s first sexual experience comes to an abrupt end when the teeth in her vagina bite the boyfriend’s penis off. It’s not exactly a sophisticated premise, but debut director Tetsuya Okabe (former AD for Takashi Miike and Yoshihiro Nishimura) has a few surprises in his back pocket. Not only is the film pretty well acted, it is actually a moody, melancholic horror drama about a lonely girl who cannot control her body and knows she can never fall in love without endangering other people’s lives. The film never falls for idiotic post modernism or humour, nor does it contain any kind of vengeance / slasher element. On the minus side, the film’s CGI blood is absolutely atrocious. Amusingly enough, the film won the Hokkaido Governor’s Award, who happens to be a woman in her 60s (that that there’s anything wrong with that).

Makeup Room (Make Room) (2015)

This year’s Yubari Grand Prix went to AV veteran Kei Morikawa, whose resume contains more than a 1000 porn films. Makeup Room, one of his first mainstream releases, is an utterly hilarious look behind the scenes of a porn shoot. The movie, which takes place entirely in one room, follows a makeup artist who is trying to prepare the female stars on time for the shoot that is taking place in the next room. However, the day escalates into an apocalyptic farce when everything imaginable goes wrong. Lead star Aki Morita (Henge) aside, the cast is made up of real AV stars.

It’s a very funny, well made film that gets funnier scene by scene. And yes, there’s nudity, although no on-screen sex since the camera never leaves the makeup room. From the typically cynical Western perspective, however, it is surprising how the AV industry is presented in a very positive light: chaotic shoots aside, people are nice and working is rather fun.

While in Yubari, Director Morikawa said he never even dreamed of winning the main price, let alone international recognition. That’s exactly what the film is now heading for with UK’s Third Window Films prepping it for UK release and pushing it to international film festivals. He and his stars have already presented the film at foreign festivals for example in Italy, and received a good bit of publicity in local medias.

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Love’s Whirlpool

June 7, 2014

The most stylish 18 rated film of the year

Ai no uzu (2014)

One room. Four men. Four Women.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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