Archive for the ‘Drama’ Category

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Shogoro Nishimura Early Films

January 25, 2018

Director Shogoro Nishimura was best known for his Roman Porno films, which have always enjoyed immense commercial popularity despite their modest cinematic merits. However, before Nishimura became a Roman Porno vending machine, he was a yakuza and youth film director at Nikkatsu. Those early films, which account to 14 in total, made between 1963 and 1970, reveal a far more interesting filmmaker than the gun-for-hire that most people know him as.

Nishimura passed away in August 2017. In January 2018 Cinema Vera in Tokyo held a commemorative 14 film Nishimura retrospective, titled “Re-Evaluating Shogoro Nishimura”, which included eight of his Roman Porno films as well as six early features from his mainstream years. The latter remain difficult to see as hardly any of them have been released on DVD. Let’s take a closer look at the films screened in the retrospective.

Nishimura’s directorial debut was the 1963 film The Gambling Monk (Keirin shônin gyôjyôki / 競輪上人行状記), based on a screenplay by Shohei Imamura and Nobuyuki Onishi. The film is a biting black comedy/drama about a mischievous middle school teacher (Shoichi Ozawa) who becomes a gambling addicted monk following his brother’s death. He tries to take care of his family temple business, but gets mixed up in bicycle betting, alcohol and desperate women.

Although not a film tailored for my personal tastes, fans of Imamura and Japanese 60s new wave ought to be in for a threat. The mix of dark drama, comedy and social satire aiming to spark some controversy is especially reminiscent of Imamura’s films. It is then perhaps not surprising that, despite being adored by critics, the film bombed in theatres upon its release and brought Nishimura’s career to an instant end for three years. It remains a forgotten film waiting to be discovered.

Nishimura got his second chance at directing in 1966 with the excellent Sun Tribe film Kaettekita ookami (帰ってきた狼). The story kicks off when a mixed blood, misunderstood loner (Ken Yamauchi) drifts back into a small seaside town where he slew a man years ago. Around the same time a super hot yacht girl Rika, who is a bit of a spoiled brat, sails to the shores. She has instant hot for him, and her bloated self ego takes a hit when he says he just digs her yacht. Then there is the film’s actual protagonist (Junichi Kagiyama), a cowardish but decent guy and the only rational one of the bunch, as well as some local teen hoods giving everyone trouble.

Kaettekita ookami is almost everything a good Sun Tribe film should be: yachts, motor boats, guitars, fights and burning teen passion, all packed into 78 minutes. The characters are excellent, there’s a constant aura of energy to Nishimura’s direction, and most importantly the Taiwanese-Japanese actress Judy Ongg is just amazingly hot and badass as Rika. When director Nishimura, in an unrelated interview, expressed his regret that much of the Roman Porno genre that later employed him may be problematic from a female perspective, I wondered if he truly cared. But seeing movies like this, with show stealing female characters, I can believe he really meant what he said. Fantastic film!

Note: I cannot find an English title for Kaettekita ookami anywhere. The Japanese title translates as “Return of the Wolf”, referring to the character played by Ken Yamauchi.

Following Kaettekita ookami, Nishimura helmed a number of other films I have not had the pleasure of seeing. However, his 1967 effort Burning Nature (Hana wo kuu mushi / 花を喰う蟲) offers further evidence that Nishimura is indeed remembered for the wrong films. This one starts out as a breezy youth film but soon morphs into a study of greed and moral corruption as a wildcat girl (Taichi Kiwako) runs into a manipulative “businessman” (Hideaki Nitani) who promises her a career as a model. She finds success due to her good looks, but also learns that that is exactly her worth the in the modern world.

It’s a stylish film and features a terrific leading performance by Taichi Kiwako. Eiji Go, an actor best known for portraying crazed yakuza, is also very good as a young man in love with the protagonist. Meiko Kaji has a small supporting role. The film’s only problem is that it can’t quite keep the wonderful momentum it establishes during the superb first half till the very end.

It’s also worth mentioning as a piece of trivia that Burning Nature opened as a double feature with Seijun Suzuki’s Branded to Kill (1967), a film that ended Suzuki’s career at Nikkatsu.

Not all early Nishimura films were great, though. Tokyo Streetfighting (Tokyo Shigai sen / 東京市街戦) (1967) is a case in point. Tetsuya Watari’s theme song is the only good thing about this half-arsed Nikkatsu yakuza action film. It’s yet another tale of people coping in the ruins of Tokyo in the post WW2 Japan, with a couple of good men (Watari, Joe Shishido) standing against the exploitative Korean gangsters. Toei also made several films like this, some of them good (True Account of Ginza Tortures, 1973), some as bad as this (Third Generation Boss, 1974; Kobe International Gang, 1975).

With its uninspired performances, routine execution and a programmer storyline aiming to connect with the more sentimental and nationalistically minded viewers (there even an orphan boy and his blind sister suffering in the slums!), Tokyo Streetfighting offers little to be impressed about. Even the final street war / machinegun massacre fails to thrill, despite its unbelievable body count. A thoroughly underwhelming effort by Nishimura.

Another example of lesser efforts in Nishimura’s filmography is Biographies of Killers (Shikakû rêtsuden / 刺客列伝) (1967). Nikkatsu was in general best known for their contemporary films, however, they also produced scores of period yakuza films. I am far from well educated in Nikkatsu’s yakuza output, but compared to Toei’s ninkyo films, this movie at least is somewhat grittier in philosophy (as suggested by the title), leaving less room for chivalry, stoic pathos and manly bonding than you’d find in your average Ken Takakura or Koji Tsuruta film.

Sentimental drama is not avoided though: the film features Nikkatsu’s regular wallflower Chieko Matsubara as a young woman with a missing brother and a sick kid to take care of.

Hideki Takahashi is the main character in Biographies of Killers, a yakuza joining a gang of killers to make some money. He later runs into Matsubara, who doesn’t know he’s a yakuza and indirectly related to his missing brother who has been killed. There’s also a common yakuza film theme with poor workers being targeted by the yakuza. The storyline isn’t especially interesting and the lack of a strong plot hurts, but Nishimura’s direction is pretty good, often vitalizing quiet scenes with emotional tension.

Nishimura had a far more interesting screenplay to work with in Yakuza Native Ground (Yakuza bangaichi / やくざ番外地) (1969), which is a very good modern day set transitional era (ninkyo/jitsuroku) yakuza film. Tetsuro Tamba stars as a businessman-like gangster who builds his gang of youngsters willing to do the dirty work for him, including a psychotic hothead Jiro Okazaki. Tamba is pals with Kei Sato, a slightly more righteous boss in a rival gang, likewise leaving the quarrels to the youngsters while trying remain friends with Tamba.

Yakuza Native Ground takes a while to get going with some seemingly random side plots, which however all come together big time when Tamba’s sister falls in love with a young man associated with the rival gang, and then all hell starts breaking loose, leading to a well orchestrated final massacre. There’s also an interesting mix of ninkyo-like honour themes and jitsuroku shades of gray, especially evident in Tamba’s well written character. Nishimura’s character direction is effective and it’s always a pleasure to see Tamba in starring roles.

Films like Yakuza Native Ground and Kaettekita ookami make one wonder what other cool films are still waiting to be discovered in Nishimura’s 1960s filmography. There’s hoping that one day all of them will be available for viewing. It might be a bit of a stretch to declare Nishimura a as forgotten master, but he was certainly an interesting filmmaker capable of delivering enjoyable, even exhilarating pictures when given a good screenplay.

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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, Yokohama, Yokosuka

April 2, 2017

Minato no Yoko, Yokohama, 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.