Archive for the ‘Thriller & Crime’ Category


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!)


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.



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).


– 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 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.



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.



Gelatin Silver, Love

January 20, 2011

Gelatin Silver, Love (Japan, 2009)

A middle aged man moves to a rundown building. His aim is to videotape every move of a woman living next door. Little is explained, or said – the first lines of dialogue come 25 minutes into the movie.

Photographer turned movie director Kazumi Kurigami’s fascinating arthouse thriller is painted in black & blue, with razor sharp focus on detail and atmosphere. It’s a photographic mystery disguised as thriller, a mystery where the challenge is to find the mystery itself.

Another Sakuran this is not. Fashion photographer Mika Nishikawa’s film debut from a few years back was a lackluster pastel color explosion with Ringo Shiina’s punk-pop soundtrack. Kurigami’s film is anti-Sakuran.

Masatoshi Nagase stars. The target of his camera, Rie Miyazawa, has been in the focus before – the popular idol wrecked her career in the early 90’s by appearing in nude photos, but has made an impressive comeback in the 2000’s.

Less attention could be given to Miazawa’s half-boiled egg obsession. But Kurigami’s dark view of beauty is not for everyone. Nor is the sedate pace that alone will eliminate the non-qualified viewers.

The soundtrack comes with questionable but not all that bad guitar riffs. Yousui Inoue’s melancholic Love Lila is a different story. It’s the most fitting ending song in ages – one that indentifies the entire film.

Also props for director Kurigami for making his movie debut – at the age of 72.



The Chasing World 2

August 8, 2010

Real onigokko 2 (Japan, 2010)

The Chasing World aka Real onigokko (2008) was an effective small budget thriller where Tsubasa Sato, blacklisted due to his surname, ran for his life in a parallel world. The chasers were masked criminals, hired to capture or execute all persons named Sato, in a deadly game played by the government. As the rules of parallel worlds go, when a person dies in one world, all clones in the others are immediately wiped out from the books of the living. The sequel reruns the same concept in such straightforward honesty that it’s difficult not to be impressed and amazed at the same time. The same game is now being played in yet another parallel world where an evil Shogun is targeting all poor Sato’s, leaving Tsubasa and his sister (Naoko Watanabe in a role inherited from Mitsuki Tanimura) with one option only: run like hell.

As its predecessor, The Chasing World 2 is not a showcase for high quality acting or screenwriting. Stumbling is less this time around, entirely due to simplified storyline. The outline is clear from the beginning: Sato runs, and the camera team try keep up with him. Renewals are few. Most remarkably Sato is now chased by mechanical killing machines instead of masked criminals. Most of the time the protagonist has only a few metal bastards on his tail, but in return each one of them is a near unstoppable killing machine.

The second reworking in the sequel is related to the parallel worlds. Rather than consisting of innocent victims, the Sato-tribe in the new world has now half-militarized into armed resistance. It’s a nice idea executed in mediocre fashion, changing the mix a little without really improving it. Originality has also gone down as a result: the sequel shows its debt to other movies. The iron fisted phantoms are obvious Terminator (1984) descendents, the war in the parallel world borrows from Aliens (1986), and from the amount of iron-hand-approaches-the-victim’s-face it’s safe to say Richard Stanley’s Hardware (1990) has been studied as well.

A lazy sequel The Chasing World 2 is not, however. The sheer energy of it outdoes the original film – and most other movies playing in theaters right now. The film’s strength is the action scenes which are plenty and often long – sometimes more than 10 minutes non-stop. The panic-escape scene around halfway into the film is virtuoso popcorn entertainment. The biggest thanks goes to the special effects – or rather, the lack of them. Computer graphics are only seen in the backgrounds and in one explosion, and the use of wires is minimal as well. The protagonist, escaping his faith with the help of amateur parkour, is also no superman or even professional athlete, which in turn may have been the thing that convinced the filmmakers to leave out dull Matrix-tricks.

The intensity of the chase scenes is also raised a few notched by changing the enemy’s artillery. Instead of strangling their victims like before, the villains now have an electrified arm that activates with a few second load time. With a brief gentle touch being enough for game over, the characters – and the viewer – and constantly have to be on their toes. The twist proved its practical effect in the movie theatre: the Tokyo school girls sitting behind me nearly ripped off their seats from the floor as they were dodging the iron claws reaching for the handsome hero’s ass on the screen (exactly how much the girls’ own metro and train traumas had to do with the sympathy they felt of the hero remains unclear to me).

A fluent mix of genre cliché, The Chasing World 2 is delivers what it promises. In terms of storyline the film in dumb, and some of the acting performances can’t be analyzed with common sense. As a small scale adrenaline grenade the film is, however, highly enjoyable. One must nevertheless wish the filmmakers will not continue the series from the end of the second film. The final scene, following the story climax, is so dumb it could be considered offensive if the clever ending credits image and decent theme song didn’t compensate. One must also feel amusement when the ending credits reveal the theme song to be courtesy of a band called High Speed Boys…