Sakurada Gate Incident (2010)

 

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19th  Century Japan. The European powers are carving up Asia, with their sights set next on Japan. Tetsunosuke and like-minded samurai opposed to the opening of Japan and union with America determine to assassinate the lord of their province who sides with the invaders. The film tells the true story of that fateful incident in 1860, the events leading up to it and its aftermath.

The film looks and feels like a historical dramatization with many dialogue heavy scenes. The incident of the title is shown early on and the film proceeds with flashbacks explaining the character’s motivations. The film does a good job of explaining the characters situation, but again lacks the impact of a more emotionally driven story. The samurai are portrayed favourably, with the main Tetsunosuke’s wife and son offering much of the heart of the film. However, the direction is competent and the acting strong, helping to carry the bare story, which is stretched at over two hours.

Patriotism and protecting traditional values are at the core of this story. As an engaging film it feels lacking. However, for those with an interest in this period, this is worth watching as it is perhaps one of the most famous incidents in Japanese history.

Based on the novel “Sakuradamongai no Hen” by Akira Yoshimura.

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Cyborg She (2008)

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When hapless loner Jiro is met by a beautiful young woman on his birthday he cannot believe his luck. After a night of hijinks, the mysterious stranger tells him that she has travelled from the future and must now leave. A year later, the same woman walks back into his life and he discovers that she is a cyborg, sent back by his future self to protect him.

The premise is about as silly as they come, but the film-makers manage to weave an emotional story between the more outrageous comedy. As you might expect there are plenty of slapstick moments involving the robot, such as her malfunctioning after drinking alcohol, or slamming various men into walls when they try to touch her. Haruka Ayase gives a great central performance as the cyborg, perfectly capturing the robotic motions while managing to exude a degree of charm and humour. Along with Keisuke Koide, who plays the bumbling geek Jiro, they are a good comic partnership, with his ineptitude matched by her cold confidence and attempts to learn how to be a human. There are moments that go beyond ridiculous such as the cyborg running at impossible speeds, and as usual the time-travel paradoxes are best not to think about too hard. I was most surprised by the films tender moments, especially the scene where Jiro is taken back to his childhood. The film almost stops while we explore this past world and the music and direction create a poignant vignette of childhood memories. The main issue here is that the tone swings wildly from slapstick to sentimental, occasionally such a drastic change as to feel like a separate film. Writer and director Kwak Jae-yong  has cobbled together something bizarre and abstract, heavily influenced by science-fiction and romantic comedies that have gone before, that nevertheless is strangely enchanting. There are scenes reminiscent of Terminator and Star Wars, and the entire plot is a sort of mix-tape of greatest hits moments from other love stories. Some great special effects work, stunts and larger scale action sequences, make this an enjoyable watch. But throughout there is a clear focus on characters and story that is heartfelt.

This film surprised me with its quality as from the title (Japanese: My Girlfriend is a Cyborg) and premise, you might expect a cheap knockabout comedy, with gags about her not fitting in. While this is partly true, there are some genuinely amusing scenes and a real warmth to what they are attempting here. I feel as though the film was misnamed because at its heart it is a film about the past, rediscovering lost memories, love and loneliness, and a whole collection of things that aren’t quite captured in the comedy title. A good romantic comedy with science-fiction elements that is unexpectedly impactful in emotional content.

Casshern (2004)

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Casshern is a sci-fi action film with some great ideas, but which sadly get lost amongst an overly convoluted plot. The film is set in a future world where the countries of Asia have merged into a huge empire which has crushed the European Union. This totalitarian superstate is engaged in a war with outlying rebels. A young man, Tetsuya, disobeys his family’s wishes and goes off to fight. Meanwhile his father, Dr. Azuma, is working on developing ‘new cells’ which mean that limbs can be regrown and the dead brought back to life. When Kazuma’s experiment results in an army of undead breaking out from the laboratory, being violently gunned down and vowing revenge it sparks a war between the recently re-animated corpses and the government forces.

The film has a number of problems, but first I’ll list a few positives. This is a science-fiction film which does bring up some interesting ideas, with the new lifeforms wishing for acceptance from their creators, before turning on them because of their violent ways. It also has a strong anti-war message and there are some moving scenes towards the end when the naïve young soldier realises he was misguided in believing that joining the war would end it. On the downside many of these ideas and philosophies are lost amongst the myriad competing plots and subplots, some of which are mentioned once and never again, others only skimmed over. Often plots are re-introduced which you have forgotten about and have no interest in. It would have been better to focus on one story, either the ‘new human”s or Tetsuya’s fall and redemption.

The film is based on an anime series from 1973 and it certainly felt at points as though it rushed parts of the story or didn’t explain them. It seemed like there was too much story to tell. An example of this is the fifteen minutes in which the new lifeforms escape, flee to a mountain castle, build a robot army and attack the city again. The film changes tracks between story arcs with no attempt to tie them together until the final scenes, by which time you are not sure what film you are watching.

The set design and some of the effects work is impressive on what is evidently a limited budget. There is a steampunk feel to the visuals, and as with many Japanese films heavy metaphorical hints with sunsets and flowering gardens indicating the fall of empire or the flourishing or dying of family ties. There is an odd mix of black and white photography, pure CG and more natural shots which don’t really blend well. I think the film would have benefited from being less ambitious, focussing on fewer characters and telling the story through action without long exposition scenes, or scenes laying out the themes of the film.

Honestly, when I think back on the movie I’m inclined to forgive its sins as a noble effort at a thoughtful science-fiction epic, but I feel that the script and some of the directing decisions killed off what chances this had of being a great film. There were a few scenes where it was not clear whether this was a comedy or drama and more than one occasion when I hoped that it would soon be over.

April Story (1998)

 

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Nireno Uzuki travels from Hokkaido to Tokyo to begin university. A lonely, confusing time for the young girl as she moves into her apartment, makes new friends, and learns to live by herself. Towards the end of the film we see her reason for travelling to a university so far from home. A boy who she is in love with is also attending that university.

The film is short and largely without major incidence. The director uses a lot of handheld shots and the acting is naturalistic, often seeming more like a documentary than a film. The score is similarly understated soft piano music, but the whole is a pleasant experience. It captures the feeling of being alone in a new place. Each of the scenes has something to say about the experrience of living alone, fears, dangers, melancholy, but also the joy.

A film more about feeling than action. Not a traditional love story, in fact we only find out about her romantic interest late in the film, but definitely worth a watch.

Norwegian Wood (2010)

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At University, Watanabe begins a tumultuous relationship with Naoko, whose ex-, and Watanabe’s friend, unexpectedly committed suicide while the three were at high-school. After Naoko withdraws to a spiritual retreat in the mountains, suffering some unknown psychological affliction, Watanabe embarks, haltingly, on another relationship with fellow student Midori. A poignant tale which touches on both the terror of pre-destination and the oft-times confused relationship between romantic and physical love.

The film depicts Watanabe’s journey to adulthood thoughtfully, lingering over a word or a look in silence. The use of metaphor is striking, with weather, from rushing winds to frozen winters, giving scenes a power beyond words. The acting too is passionate and sincere.

Capturing the feeling of helplessness, that time is moving unerringly forward and our fate’s dependence on others, that love and sex are sometimes incomparable forces, the film exudes a tragic beauty, being at once a warning to, and celebration of adolescence.
Based on a novel by Haruki Murakami.

Villain (2010)

 

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The film begins with a bright young university student, who is unexpectedly killed early on. From there we follow the aftermath of this tragedy and the consequences it has on her family and her killer. The man responsible for her death, Yuichi, begins a relationship with another girl, and decides to flee to attempt some semblance of a normal life, knowing that he is entirely culpable for the murder.

The film is beautifully shot and, excepting a few over-the-top scenes, the acting is also good. The film is very much a character piece, with the focus being on the impact of the young girls death on those around her, and is generally well-done. Occasionally, scenes seem to have no bearing on the main thrust of the plot and sometimes it seems overlong, but when it focuses on the leads it is quite powerful, particularly towards the end.

The film rests on a central premise: can a killer ever be forgiven or find redemption for an inexcusable act, although the ending is as shocking as the opening death with an entirely unexpected denouement. It also looks at themes of culpability and revenge, with another character indirectly responsible for the girls death, and the boys grandmother receiving similar vitriol to the killer.

Kitaro (2007)

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After the heart stone is stolen from the evil Fox by the bumbling, flatulent Ratboy, it finds it’s way into the hands of a young boy, Kenta. First Kenta’s father and then Kitaro and his motley band of monsters are accused of stealing the stone, as the Fox fights to have it returned. This sparks a chain of confrontations as the parties fight to find the stone(which Kenta is keeping hidden after promising his father). The seemingly convoluted plot, involving quite a cast of characters and numerous twists and turns, is told straightforwardly and moves quickly from scene to scene. And despite it’s flimsy nature the plot is relatively gripping.
The special effects vary between low-budget costumes and make-up and digital effects. While nothing special, they don’t detract from the innovative characters, of the likes of Catgirl, The Sand-Hag, Ratboy, and Uncle Eyeball The style of the film is light considering the subject is ghouls and monsters, having the feel of a children’s Halloween party, rather than a more sinister atmosphere as in some of the manga.

The film is aimed squarely at children and contains enough physical humour and excitement to keep them entertained. At it’s heart it’s a film about the bond between a father and his son, and the transitions between the comedic moments and family drama, in particular a moving scene towards the end involving Kenta and his father, are done well.

Based on the Manga and subsequent Anime series by Shigeru Mizuki.

 

One Piece: Strong World (2009)

 

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The Mugiwara pirates are tricked by the powerful Shiki (The Gold Lion) and dropped on an archipelago of floating islands where the fauna has mutated to incredible size and strength. Captain Luffy and his crew must race against time to uncover and foil Shiki’s terrible scheme. A simple story, but well-paced and with ample interactions and confrontations between the hero’s and villains.

With the characters taken from the popular, long-running manga and anime series, the film wastes no time with introductions. But the plot is tangential to the main narrative arc so first time viewers can follow along with ease. The colourful characters, such as Shiki’s henchmen Indigo and Scarlet are amusing and the plot moves swiftly between characters. The film looks fantastic, especially the sunset and snowfall scenes, with crisp animation and a definite filmic quality to the framing of shots and stylish set-pieces.

The story touches on themes of environmentalism and the destruction of nature. The camaraderie of the crew is well-done and the emphasis on friendship, bravery and overcoming great odds to protect the helpless will not be unfamiliar to fans of the series. An enjoyable film for newcomers and aficionados alike.

 

Make-up Room (2015)

Based on a stage production, the film takes you behind the scenes at a the filming of a pornographic film. Far from what you might expect, the film is surprisingly emotional and packed with some hilarious moments. We begin with the arrival of Tsuzuki (Aki Morita) who is working on make-up for the film. The day’s shooting will involve several actresses. We pretty much stay with Tsuzuki throughout as the rest of the cast come and go, exiting through the door to set or appearing in the make-up room, these include all the female cast, the director, the runner, director of the agency that is providing one of the girls, and at one point the entire filming crew. There is really not much point in describing a plot as there is not much of one. Through their various scenes and conversations we learn a little about each of the characters and about the job they are doing. The more experiences actresses are joined by a novice, who they take under their wing.

The film really belongs to the cast, comprised of both film, stage and AV actresses. Everybody delivers an amazingly real performance. Aki Morita is fantastic as the make-up artist, who remains calm while there is a great amount of insanity going on around her. She is sort of the stand-in for the audience as she offers somebody for the more eccentric cast to play off. The origins of “Make-up Room” as a stage play are evident in the limited set (comprising of the single room), and the focus on dialogue driven action. There are many laugh out loud moments, such as one actress falling asleep in the chair and having her make-up applied on the floor and the whole film functions well as an elaborate farce, with cast rushing in and out and things becoming more ridiculous as it progresses. Another example is when they are attempting to film and interview and are constantly interrupted by ambulances, helicopters and a man selling hot dogs outside. Director Kei Morikawa, who has had a long career directing adult videos, does a great job with the cast, bringing out the best in their performances.

As well as the humour the film also strives for a serious dramatic edge at times. There is a moving scene when one woman is told that she is not needed for the cover shot for the DVD they are producing, telling Tsuzuki that she is too ugly for any mainstream role. There is also throughout a sort of melancholy, with characters referring to their struggles finding work, even the manager of the promotion company complaining that it is an increasingly difficult genre to work in. In its more reflective moments the film is highly effective and deals with some serious issues concerning work, loneliness, career worries, and more, albeit in an unconventional environment. It shows you the pornography industry as just another job, one with all the same worries and problems as any other. Unconventional comedy with occasionally heartfelt messages.

The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu

 

Genji is born to the Japanese Emperor and his mistress. Being an illegitimate child, young Genji is not allowed to accede to the throne and is instead created head of his own ‘family’, and accorded the title Prince. The story follows the life and numerous romantic adventures of Prince Genji . Believed to be the world’s first novel, and one of the oldest existing examples of Japanese literature, this story is full of many interesting details pertaining to courtly life in the period described in the narrative. The story was written by Murasaki Shikibu, who was a member of the court of Empress Akiko. Vaunted, even in her own day, as a great writer, Shikibu has crafted here a timeless tale of romance and courtship. Prince Genji is very much a product of his time and station, as we see his neglect of his wife, and subsequent wooing of various ladies, essentially shrugged off as quite natural (after all Genji himself is a product of an affair). The book is surprisingly relevant in its discussions of what makes an ideal romantic partner, the potential pitfalls of being too jealous, too zealous, or too unfeeling in a relationship. The writer dissects human relationships and examines them with an anthropologist’s eye for detail, and proceeds to describe them with a poet’s sense of wonder.

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The book is not an easy read, and this is due to a number of factors. Due to the age and setting of the story, people unfamiliar with Japan and the Heian Period, might struggle with the various names, of places and royal and military ranks that pepper the story. Murasaki Shikibu was evidently writing this for people at the courts she served at, and that is evident in the easy way she relates events. The narrative is replete with numerous references to ancient Japanese and Chinese history, legends and proverbs. There are a few cultural differences that may confuse a modern reader. The book certainly doesn’t read like a dusty ‘history’ book, but there are points which might require some explanation or further study to fully appreciate. Once you understand what is happening though, there is a fun adventure story underneath.

I would definitely recommend this book to scholars of Japanese literature, as it offers an impressively detailed look at the life of the nobility of the period. To the casual reader, I would recommend it for the beautiful writing – including the numerous waza (short poems) throughout – and also for the story. This was written as entertainment, and the book certainly has enough intrigue in it to hold your interest. The episodic nature of the text also helps in this regard, as each romantic encounter can be enjoyed as its own story, tying in to the greater narrative of Genji’s life.

I read the abridged version of this story, rather than the lengthy 54 volume original. This version ends with Genji’s retirement, whereas I understand that the full text continues with the adventures of his son. One day, I might embark on that journey.