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Oh Wonderful Utamaro

April 2, 2017

Oh Wonderful Utamaro (Shikijo Toruko Nikki) (1974).

Director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi was best known for martial arts (Karate Bull Fighter) and Pinky Violence (Delinquent Girl Boss) films but he also directed a couple of erotic films in the mid 70s. This one is a mildly amusing sex comedy mainly remembered for starring American actress Sharon Kelly aka Colleen Brennan.

Kelly plays an American nymphomaniac who literally falls off the sky (with a parachute). She’s supposed to be picked up by a local yakuza gang, but “Porno Broker” Tatsuo Umemiya and his pal Gajiro Sato gets to her first. Umemiya then makes her work in his Turkish bath, which she doesn’t mind at all. In fact, she does eight men on her first night and comes asking for more. Poor Umemiya has trouble “getting it up” (or to be more precise, it usually gets up on the wrong moment, e.g. when bad guys are trying to kill him) and can’t help.

Kelly is obviously the main attraction here, whether you mean it literally or as a cinematic curiosity. It was not entirely rare to see foreign stars in Japanese sexploitation films in the 70’s though. Toei also imported Sandra Julien (Modern Porno Tale, 1971; Tokugawa Sex Ban, 1972) from France, Christina Lindberg (Sex and Fury, 1973; Journey to Japan, 1973) from Sweden, and even Harry Reems (Harry and the Geisha Girl, 1978) from USA. Nikkatsu even commissioned some Roman Porno films to be shot in Sweden by Japanese filmmakers utilizing fully Swedish casts.

Oh Wonderful Utamaro was Kelly’s only Japanese film. She was already a familiar face for Japanese audiences thanks to Teenage Bride (1970), A Scream in the Streets (1973) and The Dirty Mind of Young Sally (1973), which had been released in Japan in 1973-1974. She had also been covered in TV variety show called 11 PM quite a few times.

The film itself is a pretty ridiculous affair with hippies, yakuzas, lots of (boring) sex, silly comedy, Kelly, and a bit of extremely mediocre action at the end. It’s somewhat less fun than it sounds like. The best supporting character is an English speaking hippie dad taking care of a baby and having sex (at the same time) with Pinky Violence co-star Harumi Tajima who was probably more famous for her large breasts than her acting skills. Speaking of English, Kelly reads her lines in her native tongue with few sentences of (understandable) Japanese here and there. The rest of the cast speaks Japanese with a few sentences of (understandable) English here and there. Nice.

A fun curiosity, but don’t kill yourself if you never get to see it.

I saw the film at a Kazuhiko Yamaguchi retrospective in Tokyo in 2015. The screening was preceded by a video greeting from Kelly. She recalled the ridiculous costumes, the language barrier thanks to which she had no idea who she was supposed to be shooting at when they put a machine gun in her hands, and the fact that she found director Yamaguchi more attractive than her co-star Umemiya. Umemiya famously disagreed and claimed in an old interview that he and Kelly got along so well they were having real sex in the film. The claim most likely has no base in reality.

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A Haunted Turkish Bathhouse

April 2, 2017

A Haunted Turkish Bathhouse (Bakeneko Toruko furo) (1975)

Director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi (Sister Street Fighter, Delinquent Girl Boss) was widely considered one of the least talented Toei directors of his time. He’s been ridiculed by critics, audiences and theatres alike. When Laputa Asagaya ran a retrospective of Yamaguchi’s films in Tokyo in 2015, the catch copy was “Message? Theme? What are those?”  Yet, the man helmed some of the most outrageous films of the 70s. Here is one of them, a 1975 cursed cat erotic horror flick loosely based on Edgar Allan Poe!

A Haunted Turkish Bathhouse stars Nikkatsu starlet Naomi Tani as an abused wife sold to a brothel to cover her husband’s (Hideo Murota) debts. The deceitful husband is actually behind it all, and in cahoots with the brothel owner who is his lover. Tani discovers the truth and gets whipped to death (terribly ironic considering she survived all her Roman Porno SM flicks alive). However, the dead woman’s soul won’t overlook the injustice.

If that sounded like a spoiler, I’ve only described the film’s beginning. Once Tani is out of the picture, the character’s less charismatic younger sister (Misa Ohara) enters the storyline. She will be the film’s focus from here on, although there’s less fun to be had about her detective story than Hideo Murota occasional sleaze bag antics.

A Haunted Turkish Bathhouse is a real Frankenstein job. Masahiro Kakefuda (Horrors of Malformed Men, 1969) and Nobuaki Nakajima’s (Tokyo Deep Throat, 1975) script steals ideas from Poe’s The Black Cat. The film takes place in a Turkish Bathhouse, a popular topic for Toei’s erotic films and documentaries at the time. The bathhouse, populated by bare breasted girls, doesn’t look too different from the Shogun’s palace seen in Teruo Ishii and Norifumi Suzuki’s films. Star Naomi Tani was of course borrowed from Nikkatsu and together with her came the SM film elements.

A Haunted Turkish Bathhouse also launched director Yamaguchi’s unrelated series of animal themed films. In this film Tani’s vengeful soul finds a new body in a black cat that begins terrorizing the evil doers. Yamaguchi later directed Karate Bull Fighter (1975), Karate Bear Fighter (1975), Wolfguy: Enraged Lycanthrope (1975), and Which is Stronger: Karate or the Tiger (1976), all of which were martial arts films where man fought the fore-mentioned beasts. Bizarrely awesome.

A Haunted Turkish Bathhouse is at its best, and weakest, in the long finale where the vengeful cat flies around slaughtering her enemies and eventually turns into a runway cast member of the Cats musical. It’s all positively insane, but any real horror is long gone by this point. The poor cat, which is being thrown around the room by the crew, doesn’t look even remotely menacing. The ending also pales in comparison to Yamaguchi’s later movie Wolfguy, which was even more insane and benefitted from a better technical execution. Indeed, despite being a movie of different genre, A Haunted Turkish Bathhouse feels something of a dress rehearsal for Wolfguy, only with less violence and no karate.

A Haunted Turkish Bathhouse  is 90 minutes of boobs, violence, supernatural horror that isn’t scary, funky score, occasional apocalyptic sunsets, and bloody cat attacks. It’s a fun film and never boring, but it isn’t quite as far-out as one would wish, especially when compared to the amazing Wolfguy. Consider it Yamaguchi’s House-lite, Toei Porno style.

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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 Big Gamblers of the Amazon

August 23, 2015

The Big Gamblers of the Amazon (Amazon mushuku: Seiki no daimaoh) (1961)

New York, 1961. A worldwide gambling committee gathers. The industry is in recession. Japan is seen as the most promising new market. Enter Amazon Kenji (Chiezo Kataoka), a homeless gunman and master gambler (mostly because he cheats) from the jungle, wearing poncho and a huge Mexican hat, who introduces himself by shooting a cigar from a random guy’s hand. He’s going to be the first one to sink his teeth in the new market. But before he gets there, but he’s joined by an Americanized bastard Gold Rush Kumakichi and Jack the Ace, the son of a Japanese geisha on Paris. Once in Japan, the trio is hired by a Chinese gambling lord who is also running a drug business.

This is an insane action comedy gem by Shigero Ozawa, the director of The Street Fighter (1974). It’s also a fascinating mix of new and old; the type of colourful film sets and costumes from Toei’s lavish Kyoto productions combined with mad energy that was running wild at Toei’s contemporary Tokyo studios. The film also includes strong western influences and a climatic shoot out where the hero guns down at least 60 bad guys. It only makes sense that halfway into the storyline the protagonist is actually locked up in a mental hospital. It is a little bit bizarre to see veteran actor Kataoka, who starred in countless samurai films since the 1920s, in such a madcap role.

For a film packed with foreign supporting characters (most of whom get killed in the final shoot-out) it’s of course a bit ridiculous that everyone is speaking Japanese! The film fully acknowledges this and even makes fun of it. In one of the better jokes we have French characters, who were speaking nothing but Japanese until then, suddenly switch to French language to plot a sneaky plan. When the French speaking Jack the Ace overhears them, one of the French characters shouts out “dammit, he understood us” – in Japanese! And this is how the language switches back to Japanese.

It’s a shame this film has never been released on DVD anywhere in the world. I was lucky enough to catch it in 35mm in a Toei Tokyo retrospective in Tokyo. Amazon Kenji is a lost 1960s cult hero waiting to be discovered by the world! A sequel, in which Kataoka stars as a homeless gambler from The Himalayas, was released later in 1961. Apparently the sequel also contains a yeti!

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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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Tag

August 22, 2015

Tag (Real onigokko) (2015)

Sion Sono kills more high school girls than a medium size natural disaster in this often energetic and amusingly over-the-top, but uneven horror film. The story is loosely based on the popular manhunt franchise by Yusuke Yamada (already adapted into 5 other movies and two series), in which a man named Sato finds himself a parallel universe where all people named Sato have been ordered to be captured or executed on spot by killers hired by the government. Sono, however, goes his own way with not a single Sato to be found in the film, and brings the film closer to his own Suicide Club and certain David Lynch twists than Yamada’s straight-forward dystopias. In Sono’s film Japanese high school girls find themselves targeted by someone – or something – that starts slaughtered them in epic fashion.

Tag is bound to anger the more sensitive viewers with its endless schoolgirl splatter, although it also offers quite an interesting commentary and criticism on the Japanese schoolgirl phenomena. In one of the key lines the protagonist utters “stop playing with us [high school girls]” which is clearly aimed at not only characters but viewers as well. Indeed, a notable part of Japanese entertainment industry from family movies to music industry and adult videos is built on the popularity of school girls. That being said, most of the criticism here is probably more comparable with the anti-violence message in Death Wish 3 than anything else, and even the amount of panty shots Sono inserts in the film roughly equals to the number of punks killed by Charles Bronson in Death Wish 3.

The all female cast – there isn’t even a single male seen during the first 70 minutes – is solid as well. Sono is consistently good with young actresses, bringing the best out of them in nearly every film he makes. The handsome heart knob Takumi Saito appears in the film’s only notable male role – a nice shock aimed his Japanese female fans who know nothing about his involvement in racy pictures like this; and indeed, he’s not even credited in the advertising materials or in the end credits.

Like many recent Sono films, Tag suffers from some lame and distracting CGI effects. However, the film also features some nice practical gore courtesy of Yoshihiro Nishimura, and fantastic camerawork with lots of aerial shots done with drones. There’s also a pretty atmospheric score by composed by Takaakira Goto, the lead guitarist for the instrumental rock band MONO. The film’s official “image song” by Glim Spanky doesn’t seem to be in the film at all – and all the better for it. It was used for na on-demand mini-series released online around the same time as the film, featuring three episodes directed by Hajime Ohata (Henge), Eisuke Naito (Let’s Make the Teacher Have a Miscarriage Club) and Kayoko Asakura (It’s a Beautiful Day).

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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.