Archive for the ‘Music / Pop Cinema’ Category


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.


The World of Kanako

July 14, 2014

Kawaki (2014)

Director Tetsuya Nakashima made himself name with hyperactive music video style comedies ala Kamikaze Girls and Memories of Matsuko. Then, in 2010, he had a change of pace with Confessions: a controversial hit about a high school teacher who avenges her child’s death to her students – with half of the film played in slow motion.

The World of Kanako features Nakashima back to his old habits, only this time the genre is violent thriller. Alcoholic ex-cop (Koji Yakusho) goes on a rampage to find his missing daughter, only to discover she wasn’t quite the pure angel he though she was. In fact, the entire school seems to be populated with 16 year old monsters, which raises amusing questions about director Nakashima possible vendetta for high school kids.

To keep it fair, the father is not much better; beating and raping people left and right on his quest to uncover the mystery. “Shock Therapy Entertainment”, as the film’s advertising slogan states.

The film is ridiculously over the top, but decidedly so, and extremely violent in places. It doesn’t quite pack the punch it wishes it would, and it gets a little tiresome after a while. Few cuts last longer than half second, the film goes from music video aesthetics to animated shots, and there’s constant shifting in time between present and past. Still, some scenes hit the nail with a sledge hammer and bring a maniac grin to the audience’s face.

Koji Yakusho is rather excellent in the lead role, despite the frenetic editor serving his performance in one second shots. Nana Komatsu does sufficient job driving everyone mad as the titular character. Fumi Nikaido appears briefly as a bad girl, nearly unrecognizable with blond hair.

The film caused a bit of stir in Japan when the distributor marketed it to young people by giving students an extra discount. The film is rated 15, but some of the content is 18-level by most countries’ standards and guaranteed to upset moralists. Perhaps Nakashima wanted to tell the kids to behave better or they’ll have a psychopath Koji Yakusho after them.


Tokyo Drifter

July 4, 2012

Another superb Tokyo film by Matsue & Maeno

Tokyo Drifter (2011)

2010/05/27, Tokyo.

Night falls in the rainy metropolis. Fukushima has exploded, Tokyo’s trademark neon lights have been turned off, and the rain falling from the sky is potentially radioactive. But one man and a small crew following him refuse to give in to the darkness. Their aim: a love song for Tokyo and the feel good film no. 1 of the year!

Documentarian Tetsuaki Matsue and folk-wonder Kenta Maeno became an indie phenomenon in 2009, when their Live Tape debuted on film festivals around the world. The inspiring little film, shot entirely with a single take, followed Maeno walking the streets of Tokyo and performing his music. Two years later the duo has a new film in the theaters. Time will show whether this stylistic re-issue will live up to the success of its predecessor.

Tokyo Drifter, which was shot during a single rainy night, is a music film and a street document. No one is interviewed and there is not a word of dialogue to be heard. Maeno, armed with guitar and sunglasses, wanders around Tokyo performing an album worth of great music about life, love, and other things. Director Matsue faithfully follows in his footsteps – though this time editing his film into separate, long take sequences.

Tokyo Drifter is above all a film for the fans of Maeno. Yet, at the same time it’s something more. As the slightly un-stylish but cool in his own way hero wanders around we start to grasp something of the insecure atmosphere that was present in the post-Fukushima streets of Tokyo. The need to save energy had finally brought the night into the city that is normally light even at night by the gigantic neon lights. In Maeno’s film Tokyo finally appears like a normal city – the most unusual state for Japan’s capital.

Director Matsue was not depressed by the change – he saw something beautiful and appealing, but unusual in it. For documenting it his choice of medium was a cheap video camera off the store shelf. Its grainy and inconsistent output, plagued with errors caused by auto-focus, reminded the director of those YouTube videos that he and millions of others had relied on as an important news source during the early hours and days of the disaster. Sound quality was, however, not to be compromised – Tokyo Drifter is a music film after all.

The real star of the show, however, is Maeno. The irresistibly energetic musician is never brought down even by the nightmarish combination of dark, rainy night, and trademark sunglasses that remain on throughout the film. He is left without audience in every location he travels (in the film), but in the comfort of cinema his show is one not to be missed. As the night finally turns into a day, one cannot help but to wish morning had not come yet. At 70 minutes Matsue turns off the lights, leaving Maeno’s Tokyo Drifter theme song playing against black screen. Good morning, Tokyo.

Side note 1: In the Sapporo premiere Matsue, who was touring the country with guitar and film reels in his hand, held a 4 song mini-concert as appetizers for the following day’s main event. The theater staff had notable difficulties believing their ears as Matsue requested to play his final song in complete darkness.

Side note 2: Nicholas Vroman’s highly informative Matsue interview, excessively referred in this review, can be found at his site a page of madness



January 4, 2012

Indie-esque mainstream pleaser falls short.

Abraxas no matsuri (Japan, 2010)

Ear-tearing noise-rock may not be the most usual way to open a movie about zen monks. Then again, Japanese monks aren’t the most usual bunch, ranging from ex-boxer bartenders (Pirjo Honkasalo’s documentary film Ito: A Diary of an Urban Priest, 2009) to rock stars, as found in Naoki Kato’s Abraxas. It’s a story based on 2011 novel by famous Japanese monk Sokyu Genyu.

The opening is quite something indeed – Jonen is a noise-rocker who defies decibel regulations and trashes half of the stage as part of his regular performance. Clothes have hard time staying on, too…

Enter adulthood + burnout. Monastery proves the solution and zen for the soul. But, can Jonen take all the harmony, or will his rocker explode from the lack on noise?

In director Kato’s hands, and perhaps because of the source material, too, a promising idea is given only a half-satisfying take. Despite an original and perhaps “indie-esque” premise, the film is aimed at mainstream audiences. It ends up softening much of its core with sappy family drama and moral message.

Still, there is a target audience for the film out there – mainstream critics and adventurous semi-mainstream audiences – and for them it may indeed prove a hit as the film’s festival success would suggest). But for all its potential there’s a constant feel of compromise in order not to alienate certain audiences.

Real life rocker Suneohair aka Kenji Watanabe is the film’s major ace. He’s quite an interesting sight in his portrait of Jonen, and carries the film over some lesser moments. His adventures would’ve deserved more spark. Dropping some of the more conventional drama and opting for HD digital cinematography to give it a more documentaristic spin (as was successfully done in the similarly balanced semi-mainstream film The Rise and Fall of the Unparalleled Band) might have worked.

In it’s current form the film feels – and looks, with it’s technically competent and colorful 35mm look – very safe. An exception to this safety comes in form of a few hard rock performances that are bound to have some of the audience holding their ears!

Disappointments aside, Abraxas is ultimately an entertaining if under-performing drama with strong lead, and no doubt plenty to enjoy for those who come looking something safe yet more original than your average multiplex offering. Oh, and the beautiful landscapes seen in the film are found in Japan’s now “notorious” Fukushima prefecture. And no, life did not end there in March 2011, despite what the media might have had you believe.


Milocrorze – A Love Story

January 3, 2012

Semi succesfull kitsch fest gives birth to a cult hero.

Milocrorze (Japan, 2011)

The latest offering in the J-kitsch cannon, helmed by Vermilion Pleasure Night creator Yoshimasa Ishibashi and starring heartthrob Takayuki Yamada in no less than three different roles! Sketchy comedy in four episodes.

The four-part love story collection opens with a pastel colored flashback sequence merely fishing laughs with its main character’s unusual name, Ovreneli Vreneligare (pronounces with your expected heavy katakana-accent). The follow-up, an insane 70’s disco parade with Yamada portraying an overly aggressive relationship counselor Besson Kumagai makes the film.

Somewhat a contrast for the previous story, the third episode takes a turn to slow paced melodrama and action, with Yamada returning as a vengeful samurai. The pic finally closes with adult Vreneligare (Yamada one more time) seeking for his lost childhood love.

Strangely uneven with its mixture of striking musical bits, comedy, and slow paced story pieces, the film does eventually come out better than many of its lackluster competitors (Survive Style 5+, Memories of Matsuko, etc.). That’s not to say especially much, though – while Besson Kumagai is an instant cult hero complete with sexy dancers who follow him anywhere he goes, most other characters are instantly forgettable, including Seijun Suzuki’s (isn’t he dead already?!) senile tattoo artist. Any attempts at “serious” storytelling, which are surprisingly plenty here, merely end up as failed harakiri.

For manga aesthetics appreciation Milocrorze does, nevertheless, have quite a bit to offer, from ultra-colorful visual design to a dull slow motion fight scene posing as a one shot wonder. Had the film been released some 7 years ago, it might have gained considerable gaijin popularity.


Underwater Love

January 2, 2012

Delighting pop-art piece from a pink director.

Onna no kappa: Underwater Love (Japan/Germany, 2011)

Being a film that is barely Japanese, Underwater Love must be the most unlikely yet strongest candidate for the official “made-in-Japan” product of 2011! Pink director Shinji Imaoka has gathered an unbelievable gang: Wong Kar Wai’s former cinematographer Christopher Doyle, Germany’s pop-duo Stereo Total, and Japan’s splatter-madman Yoshihiro Nishimura. The genre is soft-core kappa musical!

The kappa are Japanese folklore creatures – mischievous frog-men and troublemakers who give people hard time. Underwater Love’s kappa is a lesser evil –he rises from the sea to chase a long lost love. The kappa, before his death and turning into a cucumber chewing, water run greenie, was in love with a now middle aged woman.

Billed as “the world’s first pink musical” Underwater Love isn’t actually that much of a pink fair. Director Imaoka has gone an extra mile to bargain from the genre requirements – there’s more singing and dancing than sex in the film.

At 85 minutes Underwater Love also exceeds the typical genre specs by good 20 minutes. This is entirely rare, though: the genre’s most valued directors (Noboru Tanaka, Tatsumi Kumashiro, etc.) have always been granted some extra freedom. And why not; Imaoka’s pic is a film well suited for festival distribution, perhaps even limited theatrical run in selected countries!

Imaoka is the most interesting of Japan’s active pink directors. A former apprentice of the genre’s notorious devil Hisayasu Sato, Imaoka now follows his own, much more romantic path. His clever senior-pinks Uncle’s Paradise (2006) and Tasogare – The Tender Throbbing Twilight (2008) were international festival favorites, and the 2005 Frog Song was widely distributed on DVD. Frog Song also ended with a delighting frog musical of an ending.

Underwater Love came to be when the Germany’s moneymen suggested Imaoka a co-production. The team was supplemented with (probably) the world’s most famous cinematographer Christopher Doyle, Berlin based German-French pop-duo Stereo Total, gore-nuts sfx-artist Yoshihiro Nishimura, and even Midnight Eye’s film critic Tom Mes. The whole film was shot in five days – an unusually long schedule for a pink film.

The outcome is an excellent film. Imaoka directs with love for silly cinema, Doyle raises the visual bar far above the genre’s modern standards, Nishimura’s simple kappa masks do the job, and most of Stereo Total’s Japangrish language kitsch songs unexpectedly catchy. Humor adds to the already light tone, but without underlining the silliness of it all too much. A hipster pic it is not, although bound to be slated as one by less educated audiences.

For a pink film there is a relatively few sex scenes – only four – and thankfully so (sex is pretty much the most boring invention in the history of cinema). What is found in the film is fun and romantic – as is the rest of the film. While not a kid’s film due adult themes and graphic sexuality, Underwater Love is indeed quite an innocent and charming fantasy for adult audiences – something much less stressing than your average pg-13 action film.

The 36-year old lead actress Sawa Masaki is worth an extra mention. Pink films often stumble with their less-than-talented pink cast, but the TV/mainstream actress Masaki is no genre regular. Her endlessly energetic performance doesn’t always hit the target, but no one can blame her for lack of trying. Yoshiro Umezawa, mostly hidden under the kappa mask, is even better in his voice-acting driven role.

While minibudget Nippon-insanity’s become a curse word for some, Underwater Love strikes back and proves limited resources can produce not only charming, but also technically competent “cult cinema”. Multiply the budget by 100 and it probably wouldn’t have made it a any better movie – well, maybe the lip sync would’ve improved, and they would’ve had enough time and film to complete the final scene (rather than use freeze frame). However, the fact that retakes could not be afforded, and time to practice simply wasn’t there, merely comes out in bursting positive energy.

Even though it lacks any deeper content, Underwater Love is one of most enjoyable films of 2011 – and for a closer reference, beats Yoshimasa Ishibashi’s bigger budgeted but slightly similar pop-explosion Milocrorze (2011) hands down.

DVD note: Third Window Film’s UK release is well worth picking up, being native pal for once, and featuring the original soundtrack on CD (limited to 2000 copies)


The Rise and Fall of the Unparalleled Band

June 10, 2011

Aosugita Guilty (Japan, 2010)

More or less successful band films keep merging from Japan on a regular basis. The genre is favored by mainstream audiences for understandable reasons: it enables bringing handsome idols and hit music to the screen. The results have often been less than admirable, but every now and then someone hits the target, like Nobuhiro Yamashita did with his crowd pleaser Linda Linda Linda (2005). Unknown director Wataru Hiranami tries something different. He has made an indie film about indie band.

The Guilties are a legend! They don’t actually exist, but that hasn’t kept Hiranami from making a semi-authentic movie about them. The unknown cult favorites are introduced to the viewer by a Nepalese narrator (the director’s friend who was in a need of work!) as if they were a real band. The documentary introductions do, however, soon take a back seat as the fictional film kicks off. Following the birth of the band’s sole album, the storyline is divided into chapters named after songs found on that record.

There are various good thing about The Rise and Fall of the Unparalleled Band, most importantly, its structure. Ignoring the most traditional story narrative, Hiranami presents the band’s history in short, 5-10 minute fragments centering on particular fun or remarkable events. The film takes a form that is something between sketch collection and story film, effectively allowing the viewers to do some thinking on their own. It’s a good example of how disjointed form can actually add something to a relatively standard storyline.

Director – writer Hiranami has come up with some excellent characters. The definite highlight is the guitarist, Tanaka (Kento Hosoda), on the run from ‘That 70’s Show’ and given up on verbal communication for “unspecified reasons”. He does all his communication by his guitar. His fellow musicians don’t pale in comparison either, although the party does go downhill towards the end when new characters are introduced. Hiranami has not fully understood that not every storyline has to follow established dramatic conventions – not even if the film was called The Rise and Fall of the Unparalleled Band.

Despite some overly familiar story twists during its second half The Rise and Fall of the Unparalleled Band never ceases to entertain. Some credit has to be given to the slightly harsh and grainy digital cinematography that, perhaps almost accidentally, breaths fresh air into the movie. With an additional layer of visual realism and intimacy even the more cliché character drama comes out a tiny bit more innovative. This is more than welcome, as overly polished disco-band films have been seen excessive amounts already. Hiranami here walks the quieter path – his band never even enters the stage!

The Rise and Fall of the Unparalleled Band is not a remarkable movie by any means, but for its narrative and visual outlook alone a pleasing new contender in its genre. Good characters, various fun scenes, and breezy visuals easily compensate for some of its less inspired drama. There isn’t much music to be heard, but the nice little band has received a nice little movie to tell their story. Even if they don’t really exist.