Archive for the ‘High School’ Category


Haru and Aki in Nekoyado + Summer of Angels

January 17, 2014

Idols, cinematography, and SFX by Yuichi Kondo

Nekoyado no Haru to Aki (2012) and Sora kara kita tenkousei (2013)

Director Yuichi Kondo always wanted to make giant monster movies. Fate did not favour him and he ended up making idol films about teenage girls – with small special effects.

Kondo’s been a regular name on short film festivals for about a decade now, mostly producing films via his special effects company GirafFilm, but had his first exposure to wider theatrical distribution in 2013 when his films Haru and Aki in Nekoyado (15 min) and Summer of Angels (49 min) played as a double feature nationwide.

Haru and Aki in Nekoyado is a rather charming if unremarkable small fantasy about two girls and two small teddy bears. The girls used to be best friends until falling in love with the same boy. Now the girls are brought back together to save two teddy bears (who are in love with each other) from being separated.

The film’s real stars are the two CGI generated teddy bears. Japanese cinema, especially low budget films, is not known for high quality CGI – rather the opposite – but Kondo is an exception. He has wisely limited the amount of special effects shots to a minimum and invested all his skill into them. The result is a pair of photorealistic teddies who are cute enough to bring Takashi Miike’s The Great Yokai War and its Sunekosuri creatures to mind.

The film stars a pair of young idols; Megumi Mizoguchi and Rika Hoshina, both manufactured by idol factory Itoh Company. Mizoguchi is the more competent of the two. She’s not only sweet and cute, but can also play her character in a believable way. Rika Hoshina, on the other hand, is more suitable for being a model. This is actually exactly what Kondo did with her in a video camera demo shot around the same time as the film.

The latter is what is most interesting about Kondo. Being a technically oriented filmmaker, he has insights into cinematography. His films look much better than most Japanese low budget films. He uses light quite well. In Haru and Aki in Nekoyado he does, however, weaken the visual impact a bit with an odd smooth cam effect that makes the image softer.

Cinematography is what stands out most in Kondo’s second film Summer of Angels. The fantasy film follows a schoolgirl angel who comes down to earth in search of a missing person. The film is very nicely shot; especially the colours are a standout. Few Japanese low budget films look half as good as this does. Unfortunately the visuals are the only good thing that can be said about the film.

Summer of Angels stars Megumi Mizoguchi and Rika Hoshina again, but this time in reverse order. This turns out a fatal decision as the girl with acting talent is pushed to a supporting role while Hoshina struggles to carry the lead role. The supporting cast too, which is made mostly of Itoh Company reserve, seem to be competing who can deliver the most wooden performance in the film.

Director Kondo is equally to be blamed for. His clumsy script is full of dialogue that never sounds natural. The director’s attempt at poetic and playful storytelling falls flat, being a mere shadow of his obvious role models such as the films of Shunji Iwai / Noboru Shinoda (Hana and Alice especially).

Kondo is a semi-interesting name for his talent behind the camera, as well as with special effects, but he might serve cinema better by focusing on his strengths. It’s a shame other directors have not spotted his talent as a cinematographer. Nevertheless, his brand new follow up to Haru and Aki in Nekoyado (the name, btw, refers refers to a small shopping street in director Kondo’s hometown in Tochigi prefecture), Tenen no chisai koi (2013, 17 min) sounds intriguing. Admittedly, he’s also very good and filming pretty girls and idols in harmless fantasy tales that make some of the sweeter products in the idol market.


Schoolgirl Complex

January 17, 2014

Surprising, but ultimately disappointing photo book adaptation.

Schoolgirl Complex: Hôsôbu-hen (2013)

Yuki Aoyama’s hugely popular Schoolgirl Complex photo book has finally been turned into a movie. There is both irony and admiration to director Yuichi Onuma’s take on the franchise, which somewhat turns the material upside down.

Unlike Aoyama’s book, which drooled all over high school girls in expertly framed photos that never revealed their faces, Onuma goes for a realistic coming-of-age drama where his protagonists look more real, perhaps less beautiful, than the actresses playing them normally do. It is quite ironic that this appears in a Schoolgirl Complex adaptation, while any average Japanese youth film would draw a more romanticized / fetishized image of high schoolgirls. Opening credits aside Onuma’s camera focus, too, is on the girls’ faces rather than on their bodies or uniforms.

Unfortunately the film never manages to dig that deep into its characters, despite solid acting by Mugi Kadowaki and Aoi Morikawa. Onuma takes a no-hurry approach to his love triangle set in an all girls’ high school, but comes out with little psychological depth. A quiet girl secretly in love with a classmate, who in turn receives little response from the class’s newcomer she has a crush on, is hardly an original character set up either.

One problem is also the film’s rough low-budget looks. With all the blown out whites and exceedingly digital looking images the film is hardly a pleasure to the eye. Perhaps, with more appealing visuals and more captivating camerawork the film’s character focus would also reveal more depth.

All complaints aside, Schoolgirl Complex is not actually a bad movie. It is, in fact, a somewhat functional character drama with some good acting. It also lacks the flashiness and silly melodrama found in most high school films. At the same time, however, it feels like a missed opportunity on several fronts. Those who saw Onuma’s earlier work Nude (2010) – an interesting take on AV industry – no doubt expected more from the promising director.


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.


The Kirishima Thing

January 15, 2013

Sleeper hit is one of the 2012 highlights

Kirishima bukatsu yamerutteyo (2012)

Japanese high school community turns upside down when one student unexpectedly quits the club. Daihachi Yoshida’s excellent film is one of the best Japanese movies of 2012. The film examines Japanese societal roles and hierarchy which almost no one is expected to escape. One student’s unexpected move triggers a chain reaction which touches half dozen main characters, some of whom are only loosely linked.

Though almost lacking any storyline, Yoshida pulls it off admirably with stylish filmmaking and strong cast. The film looks gorgeous on 35mm film – a format getting ever rarer in Japanese cinema these days. Yoshida has the patience to let scenes run long and often without music or loud acting getting in the way.

The film’s commentary on Japanese society, which despite appearing ever more individualist in global media, still builds on concervative structures, is spot on. A high class student’s sudden resignation from a club becomes a factor of anger, shame and frustration for his friends who can not understand such behavior.

The recent news of an Osaka high school student who took his own life under the pressure and physical violence by his sports club, make the film even timelier. It comes as no big surprise the author of the source novel for Kirishima was also a student (of Waseda University in Tokyo) at the time of publication.

Yet, Yoshida’s films is eventually hopeful and not all that heavy. The small bits of storyline, secondary they may be, are pure mainstream cinema. The well acting cast is made of young and beautiful stars. It is the film’s major strength it brings the qualities of a good indie film into an easily approachable, wider appeal production.

The titular student Kirishima is the film’s driving factor, though no one has seen him, not even the viewer. In the end, it doesn’t matter. Yoshida’s focus is on other characters whose stories are cross-cut in a way that makes the somewhat episodic structure disappear. Unlike most “made-clever” films these days, The Kirishima Thing does not even attempt to tie all loose strings.

The movie theater encounter between Ai Hashimoto and film club leader Ryonosuke Kamiki serves as a romantic highlight. The film playing on the screen in Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo – The Iron Man (1989).

The film was not a major success upon its August 2012 release, but has slowly turned into a sleeper hit. 5 months after its initial release date, staff in a small Sapporo theater were carrying chairs into the theater to allow all viewers fit in.


Let’s Make the Teacher Have a Miscarriage Club

July 2, 2012

Little devils in an effective exploitation drama

Sensei wo ryûzan saseru-kai (2011)

Let’s Make the Teacher Have a Miscarriage Club was just another piece of new j-trash until it had its world premiere at the 2011 Nippon Connection. Rumors of a small, but mean film that exceeds the expectations started to circulate. More than a year later the attention seeking film is finally released domestically – hopefully to be followed by a wide festival tour.

The mini budget psycho drama, somewhat based on true story, follows a bunch of adorable high school girls whose casual pastime includes throwing small animals in the air – and not catching them on the way down. The leader of the sweethearts is Mizuki (Kaori Kobayashi), who loses whatever traces of sense she might have possessed when her teacher turns up knocked up (getting pregnant = having sex = yuk!). The girls form a “miscarriage club” to kill the unborn baby in order to show the insolent adult who calls the shots.

Silly, but unexpectedly effective, Miscarriage Club serves its shocks with rather straight face. The game is clear from the start: the dead rabbit of the opening scene is followed by the girls walking the countryside with instrumental rock score setting the tone. Director Naito, despite his pretty words on serious themes, comes out more of a rock star than moralist. His little devils steal the screen – and all the better for it.

While the film is dark enough to borderline the horror genre, it never dives into the splatter pool. The mean-factor is based on repulsive theme, intense audio-visual delivery, and cheap dramatic tricks that make the viewer’s blood boil. Slight relief is provided in form of pitch black (and seemingly intentional) humor, served in small doses. These moments ought to earn a few laughs among foreign audiences – in Japan viewers would hesitate to even smile at such un-understated jokes.

The general clumsiness of the drama is part of the pack – by no means does Miscarriage Club come out less a genre movie than, say, The Class of 1984. What counts here is the audio-visual drive and good pace in serving money shots. Naito succeeds for the most part: editing resembles a movie, visual outlook is above your typical low budget J-filth, and the heavy soundtrack is the biggest strength.

Let’s Make the Teacher Have a Miscarriage Club won’t make a coherent youth drama or social commentary, but there no need for it. At just 60 minutes the film makes an effective exploitation drama. Though, director Naito himself insists his film is about dealing with important themes and what is important in life. So be it – though his methods are the same as Sylvester Stallone’s in Rambo. Intentional or not, Japanese school girl cinema’s got its balls back!