Archive for the ‘Thriller & Crime’ Category

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Car 33 Doesn’t Answer

September 3, 2015

Car 33 Doesn’t Answer (33 gosha otonashi) (1955)

Terrific, gritty crime film follows two policemen (Ryo Ikebe & Takashi Shimura) on a very long Christmas night as they pick up drunks, hookers, junkies and killers. They finally run into professional criminals who highjack their patrol car and take them as hostage.

This is a realistic, atmospheric film that beautifully captures the post-war streets of Tokyo on film while also telling a good story with excellent characters. It’s also a surprisingly dark film for its era, for example featuring children shooting drugs and policemen discovering a drunken man has slaughtered his entire family, children included.

Akira Kurosawa’s crime film masterpiece High & Low (1963) makes for a good comparison; however, it’s remarkable how much time director Senkichi Taniguchi spends documenting the policemen’s everyday work and encounters with random people before turning on the plot gear. The film’s only weakness is some under cranking at the end, which seems a little dated from modern perspective. A rarely seen gem entirely worthy of a Criterion release. Unfortunately the film has never been released on DVD even in Japan.

Here’s some publicity materials displayed in Laputa Asagaya, where the film screened as a part of actor Ryo Ikebe retrospective in summer 2015.

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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.

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Kept

March 25, 2014

Abduction drama by an interesting debut director

Ra (2014)

”The world’s cutest movie director” Maki Mizui is quite an interesting person. In her youth she was kidnapped by a sex criminal. She managed to talk herself out of it unharmed, but the experience clearly left deep emotional scars. After it turned out the man’s other victims were not as lucky she wondered if she could have saved them had she convinced the police to look for the man. Mizui later drifted to adult videos – possibly while she was still underage – and gained reputation as Lolita princess. She also started cutting her wrists.

There’s a brighter side to her story as well. About 10 years ago Mizui was taken under the wings of splatter director / special effects artist Yoshihiro Nishimura. She worked as his assistant in both Nishimura’s own films and those of many other directors, such as Sion Sono. Mizui eventually caught the eye of many genre film fans before anyone even knew her by name: she was the sweet girl with glasses assisting Nishimura with gore effects at the sets of The Machine Girl ; she was a model in publicity photos for Tokyo Gore Police ; she was the narrator for Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl making of documentary, and so on. Wherever Nishimura went, you’d probably find Mizui there working as his assistant. Not a bad job for a pretty teenage girl, I though.

This year Mizui was once again at the Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival, but not only in her usual role as Nishimura’s assistant, but also as a first time director. Her debut film Kept (Ra), which was based on her own experiences as a kidnapping victim, was nominated for the festival’s main prize. Nishimura served as producer, adviser, and co-editor. When the film didn’t win at Yubari, Mizui walked on the stage and asked the president of the jury Kichitaro Negishi why? There were tears in her eyes all evening.

Needless to say it’s a highly personal film. In her official statement in the festival catalogue Mizui wishes all sex offenders would go to hell.

Mizui has crafted an extremely dark abduction drama based on her own experiences. The film first focuses on Mayumi (ex-AKB 48 member Kayano) – a character clearly based on Mizui herself – who is kidnapped by a criminal (Ken Koba). After she manages to free herself the focus shifts to other victims who receive a far more brutal treatment.

The film hammers the audience quite effectively. It’s a powerful film with a magnificent score by Kou Nakagawa (Tokyo Gore Police), based on Alex Proyas’ film Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds (1989). Cheap emotionality is avoided, and at only 70 minutes it’s an intense ride without a dead spot along the way.

That being said, as a storyteller Mizui sometimes cuts corners. While the reality-base of the events is unquestioned, Mayumi’s character development from a terrified victim to a determined young woman trying to escape comes perhaps a bit too fast. Some of the symbolism with green forests and an owl-like creature, as well as some of the acting, also don’t quite hit the target. On the other hand, once Mayumi starts cutting her arms, the audience only knows too well how real it all is. The same cutting marks can be seen in Mizui’s own arms.

With its brutally dark vision and compact length Kept is a surprisingly strong film despite some shortcomings. It’s going to be interesting to see how Mizui’s career continues. Unlike the usual fairytale heroines, she’s neither embarrassed by nor denying by her past as Lolita idol or in some other raunchy movie roles. Rather the contrary, she continues provocative performances as an actress and entertainer, while at the same time showing a very different side of herself as a movie director. Audiences have something to digest.

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A Night in Nude: Salvation (DC)

July 23, 2011

Nûdo no yoru: Ai wa oshiminaku ubau (Japan, 2010)

Takashi Ishii, mostly stuck with low budgets S&M films these days, was once Japan’s most interesting noir director. His early 90’s films such as A Night in Nude (1993) and Alone in the Night (1994) beautifully brought his trademark neon-lit visuals to 35 mm film. A Night in Nude was the most interesting of those neo noir films, not only visually, but also because of a fantastic starring performance by Japan’s ignored gem of an actor, Naoto Takenaka. A Night in Nude: Salvation brings the duo back to limelight, although with a digital flavor this time.

A Night in Nude: Salvation is a follow-up to the original, although not directly related in terms of storyline. But in terms of theme and context, it’s old school Ishii to a pleasing extent. Takenaka is back as Muraki, a private entrepreneur promising to tackle all assignments within legal limits. Mostly, his work consists of substituting gigs – attending memorials in place of others, or even taking dogs out for a piss. But the ill-lucked noir hero attracts trouble – last time he fell to a yakuza woman. This time he’s offered a seemingly harmless task: to regain a gold watch that was lost when a deceased man’s ashes were scattered in forest.

Hired by an innocent looking young woman, little does Muraki know the dead man didn’t turn into ashes the normal way: he was, in fact, killed by three women who accidentally lost the vital piece of evidence while getting rid of body parts (in a scene highly reminiscent of Sion Sono’s Cold Fish, 2010). Murakami soon finds himself in a situation reflecting the past events (from the original movie). He’s somewhere between the merciless yakuza and the women who might still have hope of being pulled off from this dark world. It’s his change for salvation; to correct the old mistakes and finally do something good.

A Night in Nude: Salvation looks and feels what Ishii fans have been hoping for even since he stopped making crime and yakuza-eiga. Ishii’s neo-Tokyo in Salvation is instantly recognizable with its neon lights, strip clubs, and mental case yakuza running the night life. Murakami’s quests for answers drive him ever deeper into the night. There, he walks across Nikkatsu legend Joe Shishido, probably assumed dead by most viewers by now. Ishii shows little respect to the screen legend: he is made portray the biggest sleazebag in the entire film.

One area where Salvation falls slightly short is the technical side. Ishii knows how to use digital to a decent effect, but it’s nevertheless a mismatch to his slightly romanticized neo-noir style. The original film looked more colorful and was visually more detailed, no doubt because Ishii was able to draw bigger budgets back then. Salvations does, nevertheless, look good – just not quite as good as it could in a better world.

As screenwriter Ishii has always excelled (for his grade bravura see Shinji Somai’s haunting Love Hotel, 1985). Salvation fares quite well in this respect for its first three quarters. Despite the violently and sexually graphic images Salvation is very much a story film – and a strong one at that. It’s only towards the end that Ishii steps into a psychological landmine. It’s also to be mentioned that some of Muraki’s motivations and naivety towards the end may not fully open to viewers unfamiliar with the character’s past misadventures.

Most negatives are compensated by strong casting. For the Takenaka fans Salvation is indeed a salvation: the man has been found in too many Noboru Iguchi film cameos in the recent years. His screen opponent, played by the 30 year younger Hiroko Sato, is quite a sight. Aside her looks, the stunning gravure idol actually manages her acting duties rather well, despite challenging role. Less can be said about the supporting female bunch, all of whom have been written as cinematic pains in the ass.

A Night in Nude: Salvation was released in two versions. The original theatrical version cut tons of graphic footage to secure an R-15 rating. The second theatrical print restored these shots and more, adding almost 20 minutes to the running time. While adding quite a decent bit to the characters, as well as showing full frontal Hiroko Sato nudity at every other turn, the extended version does probably over-explain and lengthen the already long-enough noir pic. Without having seen the original 126 minute version, one might assume the shorther version to be slightly superior of the two cuts. Nevertheless, Salvation is by far the most interesting Ishii film in at least 10 years, regardless of version viewed. Finally strong Japanese neo-noir is back on silver screen!

Note: the version screened at Nippon Connection was, against all announcements and catalogue information, the longer Director’s Cut running approximately 145 minutes.

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Sushi Typhoon – Part 5: Cold Fish

April 20, 2011

Tsumetai nettaigyo (Japan, 2010)

“He will make you pick up the pieces!”

Sion Sono is a strange man. He went from poets to suicide pop, and eventually to his grand work, the 4 hour up-skirt love-story Love Exposure (2008). Then, he delivered a slow moving hospital drama (Be Sure to Share, 2009) – a genre disliked even by the director himself.

Love Exposure and Be Sure to Share marked double dose of love and tears. Personal therapy was needed next. Hook up with some old buddies, kill everyone on screen, and have Sushi Typhoon finance the mess!

Sono’s serial killer film Cold Fish is a bit of a strange fish. Although produced by an exploitation studio, it’s not as splattery as Sushi Typhoon’s standard output (Mutant Girls Squad, Helldriver). Instead Cold Fish is reaching towards mainstream audiences, with domestic and overseas theatrical distribution already in process. And, quite deservedly so, as Cold Fish is one of the best Japanese serial killer films since Vengeance is Mine (1979).

Sono and his scripting partner Yoshiki Takahashi drew inspiration for Cold Fish from the 1993 Saitama murder case. Later sentenced to death for their crimes, the dog breeder couple Gen Sekine and Hiroko Kasama were found guilty of killing four people. Several others around them had gone missing and never found. The bodies were dismembered, burnt, and ashes scattered in forest.

Sono and Takahashi (who is also the graphic designer for Sushi Typhoon) have borrowed several characters and killing methods from real life, but the backgrounds have been re-written. Dog kennel has been turned into a tropical fish store, and much of the focus is on family unit falling apart.

The protagonist is Shamoto (Mitsuru Fukikoshi), whose troubled daughter is caught shoplifting. Fellow fish dealer Murata (Denden) comes to rescue. He offers Shamoto’s daughter a respectable job, and consoles Shamoto’s young wife. Little by little, he seems to be stealing Shamoto’s entire family.

Sono plays with the opposites of Japanese society here. Murata is the wicked showman and leader persona. Shamoto portrays the humble worker. In a society built on hierarchical status and obligation networks, Shamoto is bound by the honne-tatemae philosophy. He shows gratefulness (the public front, tatemae) to his savior, and hides his real feelings (honne). But there’s a limit to everything, and Shamoto isn’t the strongest man around. It’s only a matter of time when he will break and start developing balls.

Sono throws punches at the Japanese, but the foreigners aren’t safe either. The traditional Japanese status society is not entirely different from certain aspects of Western religious life. For fans of the director it comes as no surprise that when the killings begin, Christian references find their way into the film. In Love Exposure the church stood as an example of institutional authority that sometimes overlooks the individual and common sense. In Cold Fish the references are less obvious, but present. Were Sono a Christian, his films would be easy to interpret as collective accounting on the sins of our fathers.

In Cold Fish the primary criticism would be, however, aimed at the Japanese societal structures. The Christian references are not out of the wind, though. Sono has had his own adventures with cults, and screenwriter Takahashi mentioned borrowing from the Jesus Arch case of the early 1980’s. The notorious cult was reported “seducing” lost Japanese souls into their house of God. The members, of course, were accommodated in a dormitory. In Cold Fish, Murata has a dormitory full of troubled young women he has taken under his wings.

There’s a whole variety of other recognizable Sono moments, too. The drum heavy opening could be from Love Exposure. The family unit falling apart is a regular Sono theme as well. But even then, Cold Fish feels different from most of the director’s films. Compared to his most typical high-atmosphere and somewhat freely structured films, Cold Fish puts notable focus on telling a specific storyline.

Sono’s skill has always been in creating atmosphere and images. Despite thematical and graphic extremes, his films are usually harmonic. In Cold Fish, however, Sono takes the characters to emotional extremes. Denden’s acting is brilliant, but it’s also one step away from over-kill. Sometimes the film crosses the line. There’s too much shouting. The ending would be better were it not so loud. But it comes from Sono’s heart. Cold Fish was his cinematic punching bag for a bad day.

Cold Fish is a heavy piece of cinematic nihilism. It’s also a thoroughly captivating serial killer film – a competent piece by any standards despite small harshness here and there. As typical to Sono, it’s a long movie (144 min) but the length is justified. It’s a character study, and would easily lose important bits were it any shorter.

That is not to say Sono doesn’t play with various pop elements from shock gore to black humor and Megumi Kagurazaka. The famous gravure idol put a countdown to end her former career by appearing in nude photos. A clever man Sono is, he naturally took advantage of this by including a shower scene. These “lighter” bits, however, do little to alter the film’s pitch black spirit.

“You will be victimized!”

(note: I will take a bit of break from posting reviews now. Next week I’m off to Frankfurt / Nippon Connection. When I’m back, I’ll try to wrap up the Sushi Typhoon series with Helldriver and Karate Robo-Zaborgar reviews. じゃな!)

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Perfect Education: Maid, for you 3D

January 28, 2011

Kanzen naru shiiku: Maid, for you (Japan 2010)

Moe Moe Special Beam!

Japan’s maid cafes are an otaku culture offspring fighting for its share of the mainstream kawaii cake enjoyed not just by male nerds but ordinary citizens and normal girls alike.

In Maid, for you the ‘always two steps behind the trends’ master filmmaker Kenta Fukasaku provides his essay on the subject, enhanced with 3D sex scenes.

Maid, for you a ridiculous entertaining affair, accurately missing almost every intellectual point, and most likely not on purpose. Of course, in reality, maid cafes are silly let loose entertainment for most customers, and employ a very much entirely sane staff.

None of that would go well with Fukasaku’s nerd-maid kidnap romance but nor does it have to. The reality is out there, this is a movie. Grab a beer and enjoy the ride, filled with cinematic wft-moments, cute maids, occasionally quite beautiful digital cinematography, and gravure idol gone nude Ayano’s 3D assets that home technology does no justice.

 

NOTES

Perfect Education

– A series of 7 movies (so far).

– The premise is always the same: a man kidnaps a woman and tries to educate her into a loving partner.

– The series is highly uneven, with entries varying from Masaki Kobayashi’s art house drama (the 5th film) to the more serious minded kidnap film (the 2nd film), and post-modern semi-parody (the 1st film).

– The third film is a Hong Kong co-production, shot in HK, and starring a multinational cast.

– Naoto Takenaka stars in the first film, and plays a supporting role in all others, except the 6th entry.

– Other notable supporting stars and guests include Shinya Tsukamoto (1st film), Lam Suet (3rd film), and Ken’ichi Matsuyama (4th film).

– The female stars are as follows: Hijiri Kojima (1st film), Rie Fukami (2nd film), Kana Ito (3rd film), Hisako Shirata (4th fim), Keiko Oginome (5th film), Mika Ito (6th film), and Ayano (7th film). All of them appear topless in the films.

– Hisako Shirata (the female star of the 4th film, released in 2003) was Japan’s selection for the 2006 Miss International Contest. It caused a small scandal when it was afterwards discovered she had starred in a movie where se does nude and sex scenes. The judges were completely unaware of her past career.

Fukasaku’s film

– Exploitation is the purest form. See an innocent maid brutally kidnapped! Witness a forbidden romance between an otaku and maid! Watch a pure girl turn into a sexy beast!

– Uses every otaku-cliche found in the book.

– Was not a big release in Japan. It only played in a couple of major cities, skipping many cities like Sapporo (population: 1.9 million).

3D

– There are only 4 or 5 scenes in 3D. These include 2 sex scenes, 1 dance scene, and possibly something else (I watched the film in July or August so I can’t remember so well).

– The Japanese DVD release comes with two pairs of red&blue 3D glasses. With casual TV set at least, you can hardly get any 3D effect, just distorted colors.

Maid cafe

– Cute Japanese girls dressed as French maids, serving over-priced coffee and chocolate cake, and occasionally singing and dancing a bit (depends of the cafe). Photographs at premium price.

– Customer is referred as goshujin (master)

– Has its roots in Japanese otaku (geek) culture, but is effectively making its way to mainstream as silly and harmless “let loose entertainment.

– The phenomena is not sexual in nature, but instead a part of Japanese kawaii (cuteness culture). Innocence is the key word. Still, a maid cafe secretly offering sexual favors (probably run by the yakuza) was discovered by the police in Akihabara.

– Originating from Tokyo’s Akiba (Akihabara) district – the official geek block full of Anime and IT shops – but spreading to other cities (saw one in Sapporo, too) and even foreign countries. In Akiba you can find them easily – just grab a map from a street maid.

– Some maid cafe’s have Engrish speaking maids.

– Increasingly popular among female customers, especially university age girls.

– Variations exists, most notoriously, zombie cafe!

Ayano

– Ayano is a former gravure idol. Her current “gravure status” is arguable, as she has topless scenes in the film, and has appeared in nude photos before. Gravure idols are typically swimsuit etc. models who tease but never show real skin.

– Ayano’s full name is Ayano Oami.

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Mermaid Legend

January 26, 2011

Rest in peace, Toshiharu Ikeda.

The news just came in today: the famed cult director’s body had been found in the sea. Apparently it was suicide by drowning. In memory of Ikeda-san, I shall take a look at one his several interesting movies.

Ningyo densetsu (Japan, 1984) – 3/5

Toshiharu Ikeda’s career went from visually aggressive pink films to the cult slasher Evil Dead Trap (1988). He left his former employer Nikkatsu in the early 80’s due to censorship disagreements – only to direct an equally graphic and censorship ridden art house film at his new one-time home, Art Theatre Guild.

A fascinating yet flawed film, Mermaid Legend follows pearl diver Migiwa (Mari Shirato), whose husband is murdered by crooks hired by businessmen. The villagers, symbolizing the traditional Japanese way of life, stood on the way of rotten industrialization.

Ikeda’s real focus, however, is on a revenge tale that comes with moments of magic but eventually drifts beyond all believability. The film doesn’t quite find the balance between realism and fantasy, art house and exploitation, ending up being a little bit of everything and not too much of anything.

The sudden shifts from drama to graphic violence and sex are made all the more jarring by fogging censorship. If you can’t beat the system, then less revealing choreography ought to be the way to go.

Even then, Ikeda’s unbalanced genre blending is captivating and comes with grand moments. The somewhat over-used theme music is beautiful, only topped by even more breathtaking cinematography.

And yes, Ikeda did eventually beat the system in 1997 with The Key, which became the first Japanese mainstream film to feature (visible) full frontal nudity.

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