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A meandering, grandiose, confusing and ultimately boring mess...
31 December 2012
Warning: Spoilers
Hashimoto Shinobu's "Maboroshi No Mizuumi AKA Lake of Illusion" has often been given the dubious distinction of being called one of the worst Japanese films ever. While that might be a bit unfair, "Maboroshi No Mizuumi" is never-the-less a confusing mess. With its story about a part-time escort in pursuit of the elusive murderer of her beloved dog Shiro, one might expect the director to be a unseasoned amateur or a third-rate exploitation film hack like Ed Woods.

However this film was written, produced and directed by acclaimed and legendary screenwriter Hashimoto Shinobu who had written the screenplays to some of Kurosawa Akira's most beloved and brilliant works - "Ikiru", "Shichinin No Samurai AKA Seven Samurai", "Kumonosu-Jou AKA Throne of Blood" as well as other notable movies like "Nippon Chinbotsu AKA Tidal Wave", "Nihon No Ichiban Nagai Hi AKA Japan's Longest Day" and "Dai-Bosatsu Toge AKA Sword of Doom". With such an impressive resume of work, it is no wonder why Toho had put so much trust in Hashimoto going so far as to give him unprecedented carte blanche to make this film, even planning to have the film launch its "50 Year" Celebration for 1982 sight unseen.

When the film eventually premiered in early September after having been delayed from its original Summer release, it was a disaster. With its long-winded 2 Hr 44 minute runtime and confusing, almost surreal narrative, audiences didn't quite know what to think of it. Was it satire? Was it an experimental film? The fallout from the film's failure hit its director hard and Hashimoto retired from filmmaking for a number of years until resurfacing in 2008, adapting one of his early works "Watashi Wa Kai Ni Naritai AKA I Want To Be A Shellfish" (which he had originally made into a film in 1959).

"Maboroshi No Mizuumi" also failed to launch the career of its newbie star Nanjo Reiko, who Toho had plucked from obscurity from a pool of over 1627 hopefuls with the hope of making her a movie idol in the image of Matsuda Seiko, Yamaguchi Momoe, Yakushimaru Hiroko and Harada Tomoyo. Although tall, athletic and cute Nanjo unfortunately didn't have the magnetic star qualities of other idols and her inexperience was glaringly obvious on screen.

"Maboroshi No Mizuumi" seems almost like three different movies in one. The first part is a idol/romance film featuring Nanjo Reiko as heroine Osaka Michiko (Nanjo Reiko) who works as a hostess at a "Turkish Bath/Soap Land" establishment in the Ogoto Springs area of Shigaken in Otsu Prefecture just east of Kyoto. While at work, Michiko is known by the name "Oichi", her namesake being Oda Oichi (the younger sister of famed Japanese general/Shogun Oda Nobunaga) who was renowned for her great beauty and resolve. An avid long distance runner, Michiko/Oichi trains along the shores of Japan's largest lake - Biwa. She has an almost inseparable, spiritual bond with her dog Shiro, a white Labrador Retriever stray who she encountered when she first moved to Otsu. Highly intelligent and instinctive, Shiro often leads the way for Michiko/Oichi on her running trips. Michiko/Oichi's best friend at work is "gaijin" hostess Ann Ridgeway AKA "Rosa" (gorgeous American model Debbie Kamuda) who is secretly an undercover Intelligence Officer with an unnamed U.S. Government agency (the CIA?) While currently not involved romantically within anyone in particular, Michiko/Oichi is very close to handsome Kurata Osamu (Hasegawa Hatsunori), an Account Manager with a local bank that Michiko/Oichi has her personal savings account with.

Michiko/Oichi's idyllic life soon turns to tragedy when her beloved Shiro is found dead along Lake Biwa, stabbed to death with a large kitchen knife. Distraught and livid, Michiko/Oichi vows to find Shiro's killer. Thus begins the second part of the movie, a murder-mystery where Michiko/Oichi tracks down the elusive killer who turns out to be a famed Record Producer Hinatsu Keisuke (Mitsuda Masahiro) who plans on releasing a song inspired by the tragic death of Mitsu, a young lady attendant of Oda Oichi who is supposedly buried deep within Lake Biwa. Michiko/Oichi is determined to not only best Hinatsu (who is also an avid and skilled marathon runner) by outlasting him in a running match but also kill him by using the same knife he used to kill Shiro.

This leads us to the third part of the movie, a flashback story told by Nagao Masanobu (Ryu Daisuke), a Japanese Fue (flute) player who so happens to be a NASA Astronaut candidate and possibly the reincarnated lover of Mitsu, a samurai warrior by the name of Yoshiyasu who had taught Mitsu how to play the fue before she was convicted of treason and executed by Oda Nobunaga.

It seems that Hashimoto was trying to create his own fantasy opus comparable to Stanley Kubrick's influential masterpiece "2001 - A Space Odyssey" by incorporating element from Joe Camp's "Benji" and John Schlesinger's "Marathon Man" but with disastrous results.

The story is terribly dull and makes little sense. Why would Hinatsu kill Shiro in the first place?

The only part of the film that was actually any good was the flashback story regarding Mitsu.

Nanjo's Michiko/Oichi is a rather dull and uninteresting character. I would have rather had the movie focus on beautiful American Spy "Rosa" as she seems to be a much more interesting character (What was her undercover mission in Japan?) Debbie Kamuda easily stole the show from Nanjo in all their scenes together.

Until very recently "Maboroshi No Mizuumi" was almost impossible to find as it was not released widely to VHS tape or DVD let alone was it played on Japanese TV. It gained somewhat of a cult status as a curio piece of bad Japanese films along with such other botched film projects like Mizuno Haruo's (AKA Mike Mizuno) World War II farce "Siberia Chotokkyu AKA Siberian Express" and Sato Jyunya's "Quest For Fire" retread "Peking Genjin - Who Are You".
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Sawajiri is at her career best in Ninagawa's dark & grand opus on Objectification...
24 December 2012
Warning: Spoilers
After almost a five year break from film making since her stunning film debut "Sakuran", film auteur Ninagawa Mika triumphantly returns in top form with the controversial live action film adaptation of "Helter Skelter". Based on Okazaki Kyoko's popular manga currently running in the serialized comic magazine "Feel Good", "Helter Skelter" is a visually gorgeous and impressive looking film lush with vibrant color and striking imagery but like its troubled character LiLiCo, its outer beauty hides a convoluted and sometimes overly dark and twisted fairy tale whose sanctimonious message against vanity and sexual objectification seems a bit heavy handed.

The manga/film takes its name from the Beatles' iconic song "Helter Skelter". The term not only means "in disorderly haste or confusion" but also refers to the name of a spiraling amusement park slide that ascends and then sharply descends in a violent wave. While it is unfortunate that the name has become so closely associated with the Tate-LaBianca murders by the Charles Manson family, its original meaning seems aptly appropriate here.

"Helter Skelter" tells the tragic story of LiLiCo (the magnetic Sawajiri Erika), the reigning "It Girl" in Japan whose flawless face prominently graces the cover of every fashion magazine and is the idol of thousands of impressionable young girls. Yet despite her incredible beauty, LiLiCo's inner vanity has made her a demanding and pompous diva whose arrogance seems to know no limits as she surrounds herself in grand and gaudy opulence while leading a decadent and selfish lifestyle.

She frequently belittles and mistreats her meek manager Hada Michiko (Terajima Shinobu), a 30-something plain-jane who idolizes LiLiCo despite all the humiliation she endures at her hands. While LiLiCo is set to marry her rich vapid boyfriend Nanbu Takao (Kuboutsuka Yosuke) she still shamelessly seduces other rich individuals for favors and high profile modeling contracts).

LiLiCo's hedonistic world comes crashing down as she discovers a small discolored blemish on her perfect face. She tells her Modeling/Talent Agent and den mother, Tada Hiroko (Momoi Kaori) about the problem and they go to visit controversial Plastic Surgeon Wachi Hisako (Harada Mieko) whose unconventional and radical surgical techniques originally transformed LiLiCo from the chubby, homely country bumpkin she was originally into the perfect model she is now.

Unbeknownst to LiLiCo, Dr. Wachi is currently under investigation by crusading Prosecutor Asada Makoto (Omori Nao) who is looking into the deaths of dozens of Dr. Wachi's clients who have developed similar discolored blotches and out of shame have committed suicide.

Dr. Wachi performs additional painful surgery on LiLiCo to correct the problem and also gives her experimental anti-rejection medicine to help speed up her recovery. These unfortunately do little to help and as LiLiCo faces competition from a young rising star, the pure spirited and natural beauty Yoshikawa Kozue (Eurasian model turned actress Mizuhara Kiko) the stresses of sustaining the illusion of being perfect slowly drive LiLiCo deeper and deeper into all-consuming madness.

Comparisons to Darren Aronofsky's brilliant film 2010 "Black Swan" are unavoidable as both films share a very similar story featuring a young morally ambiguous heroine whose quest for absolute perfection and fame lead them on a path of self-destruction and madness.

Kaneko Arisa ("Densha Otoko", "Okaeri Hayabusa") does a good job of adapting Okazaki's original manga and crafts a screenplay that is quite true in spirit to the source material, complete with all the dark overtones and unfortunately the flaws as well. The themes of society's obsession with artificial beauty and the psychological consequences of self-objectification are nobly confronted in the film but are delivered with such heavy-handed reproach that it seems almost preachy.

Ninagawa's style of direction and visual flair are very much reminiscent if not inspired by Ridley Scott, Darren Aronofsky and especially Kathryn Bigelow.

"Helter Skelter" marks not only Ninagawa's long awaited return to film but also a return to form for its star Sawajiri Erika ("1 Litre No Namida" TV Series, "Shinobi", "Closed Note") who took a brief hiatus in her career after some high profile public missteps and her growing reputation as a "bad girl" nearly ended her career. While many may see Sawajiri's performance as nothing but "art imitating life" it is nothing short of spectacular and memorable. Sawajiri should be commended for taking on such a shallow and troubled character like LiLiCo and approaches the role with much fearless abandon. As unlikeable a character as LiLiCo is, Sawajiri still manages to somehow make the audience feel sympathy for her. Sawajiri never looked better in this film and sports a body to die for.

The stellar supporting cast is equally good with special mention going to Terajima Shinobu who portrays LiLiCo's exploited manager Hada. The normally attractive Terajima really dumbs down her look to portray plain Hada and brings a strong sense of vulnerability with her portrayal.

Momoi Kaori ("Swallowtail Butterfly", "Ai Futatabi", "Kagemusha") excels in her role as Tada, a former model who tries to recapture fame by literally creating the perfect "living doll" model in LiLiCo. Momoi's subtle and balanced performance is in nice contrast to Sawajiri's wild portrayal.

Alluring beauty Mizuhara Kiko ("Norwegian Wood") is absolutely enchanting as angelic Yoshikawa Kozue. The American/Korean mixed model does a good job in this her first major speaking role and helps to define Kozue as an ethereal, virtuous foil to LiLiCo's self-absorbed bitch.

The finale seems a bit sensationalized and gratuitous but this seems more a fault of the source material than with the film itself. The surprise "twist ending" suggests a sequel to which I am all for.

"Helter Skelter" is a beautiful film but not perfect. Yet its overall enjoyable cautionary tale about objectification seems so timely in a world where the "Cults of Personality" for Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, Rola, Kim Kardashian, Paris Hilton and countless other fashion models have dramatically influenced pop culture with their illusions of perfection.
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River (I) (2011)
A mellow and meditative film on tragedy and how people cope with loss...
11 December 2012
Warning: Spoilers
Hiroki Ryuichi's "River" is a quiet and somber film reflecting on two recent Japanese tragedies and their lingering impacts on those who were directly effected by them.

When asking foreign tourists where they would most like to visit while in Tokyo, along with Roppongi, Harajuku and Shinjuku, most people would invariably mention "Electric Town" Akihabara, a small district near Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward. Akihabara or simply "Akihaba" is well known as being the hub for Japanese pop culture and budget electronic brand goods and "Otaku"(specialized) fandom. A haven for Anime, manga, video-game and electronic "maniacs/geeks" Akihaba was a place fan-boys could proudly call their own. That fun image of a modern day dreamland was forever shattered one Sunday, June 8, 2008 when disgruntled ex-auto mechanic and social outcast Tomohiro Kato drove a truck into the crowded intersection of Kanda Myojin and Chuo streets fronting the Sofmap electronics store and proceeded to randomly stab innocent bystanders caught in the resulting chaos. In total seven people were killed by Kato with an additional 10 injured. This senseless attack shocked the nation of Japan and shook public confidence in what was traditionally considered a society safe from violent crimes of this type.

Hiroki's film takes a fictionalized look at the impact this event had on the life of a young woman Hikari (Renbutsu Misako), whose boyfriend Kenji was murdered in the attack. After shutting herself off from the world for months, Hikari has only recently started to recover from the shock of his death. She has even found the courage to visit the intersection in Akihaba where he died. During her weekly visits to Akihaba she encounters a number of interesting individuals among them a street photographer (Nakamura Mami), a sidewalk performer (Quinka,with a Yawn), a Maid Cafe owner and his top maid (Taguchi Tomorrow and Nahami) and a electronic parts street peddler (Kobayashi Yuto). She forms a strong bond with the street peddler in particular as he is also recovering from the impact the 2011 Tohoku Tsunami and Earthquake had on his hometown in Fukushima. Through these random encounters Hikari finally finds the strength to move on and takes a symbolic ride on the Kanda River to mark this point in her life while saying goodbye to Kenji.

Hiroki's "River" is a somewhat more subdued film than his previous works such as "Vibrator" and "Tokyo Trash Baby" and has a very quiet, reserved almost tranquil tone about it. Shot in a somewhat documentary style, "River" relies heavily on dialog to move its story narrative and there's a lot of character self-reflection in the film. Hiroki's deliberate slow pacing of the film may test the patience of some audience members as will the long tracking shots of Renbutsu's Hikari character aimlessly walking the streets of Akihaba.

Renbutsu is cute in her role as Hikari and has a likable charm. Oddly, she doesn't have that much dialog in the film as most of the time Renbutsu's character is merely reacting to those around her or quietly making observations about life in Akihaba. Her one notable lengthy dialog about questioning 'the reality of life' does come off as a bit heavy-handed but connects with the overall theme of the film - life goes on even amid tragedy.

"River" ends with Quinka,with a Yawn's A cappella cover of Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer's iconic "Moon River" made famous by Audrey Heburn in "Breakfast at Tiffany's". Its inclusion here is appropriate enough both symbolically and thematically. As Hikari rides down the Kanda River (a promise she made to do with Kenji while he was still alive), she longs for a more carefree future, one in which she can realize her dreams and live life to its fullest again as the lyrics go "There's such a lot of world to see/We're after the same rainbow's end".
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Konkurîto (2004)
A disturbing and distasteful dramatization of a shocking and sad real life murder
27 November 2012
Warning: Spoilers
Nakamura Hiromu's controversial and unsettling 2004 film "Concrete" is a difficult film to watch especially given the fact that it was based on a real life grisly murder case, one of the most infamous and horrific cases of abduction and murder in the annals of Japanese crime, a case sensationalized in the press as the "Concrete-Encased High School Girl Murder". Based on Atsumi Joji's book on the case "Jyunana Sai, Aku No Rirekishou" (Age 17, Chronicle of Evil), the movie dramatizes the murder of 17-year-old Junko Furuta, a pretty high school student who in late November 1988 while returning home from her part-time job, was abducted by four juvenile delinquents in Saitama Prefecture, Tokyo and imprisoned in a house in the district of Adachi where she was subjected to 44 days of relentless sadistic torture. Sadomised, repeatedly sexually and physically assaulted, mutilated and eventually murdered in cold blood, her body was shamelessly discarded in a steel drum can which was then filled with concrete and then abandoned in an empty tract of land in Koto, Tokyo. While the four assailants were caught, tried and eventually convicted of her murder, due to their juvenile status, the prison terms given were ridiculously light and the four have since subsequently served out their sentences and released back into society.

The Junko Furuta case sparked heated debate and criticism about the effectiveness of the Japanese judicial system especially when concerning juvenile criminals. The sheer brutality, unspeakable savageness and disgustingly vile nature of the crime has been the stuff of urban legend. Junko's harrowing ordeal and death has been recounted (in sometimes chilling and graphic detail) on numerous web pages and blogs across the world and tribute videos and pages on Facebook have been uploaded in honor of her memory.

At least three books including Atsumi's have been written on the case. In addition a lurid manga/comic retelling of the event by Uziga Waita was also released.

Invariably a film adaptation was soon to follow with the first one being 1995's "Joshikosei Concrete-zume Satsujin-Jiken" (The Concrete-Encased High School Girl Murder Case) a nasty low budget, exploitation film by Matsumura Katsuya whose own grim and revolting "All Night Long" series eerily mirrored the Furuta Junko case.

This was followed by Kawasaki Gunji's equally unpleasant film "Shonen No Hanzai" AKA "Juvenile Crime" in 1997.

Nakamura's "Concrete" is the third film to depict this case and was immediately reviled upon its release.

Although Nakamura's film tried to distance itself from the actual case of Furuta Junko by changing some of the particulars of the case including making the assailants adults (high school dropouts and Yakuza affiliated criminals) and using fictitious names (the abducted girl is named Misaki and the main assailant is named Oosugi Tatsuo), this did little to deflect the criticisms.

It had been scheduled to play at some select small theaters but was almost immediately pulled from release amid a wave of angry outcry and protest from various parent and watchdog groups who rightfully claimed that the film exploited the tragedy and sensationalized Junko's death.

Allegedly, members of the Yakuza also made threats against the production company and distributor of the film as it insinuated their involvement with the crime.

It is hard to fathom what Nakamura's motive for the film was. Was it to portray the depths and pure evilness of man similar to Pier Paolo Pasolini's infamous "Salo AKA 100 Days of Sodom"?

The first half of the film focuses on Oosugi Tatsuo (Takaoka Sosuke - "Crows Zero", "Battle Royale") and his gang of thugs including friends Ozaki Hiroaki (Kobayashi Katsuya - "Kamen Rider Kabuto - God Speed Love", "Linda Linda Linda"), Ikeda Tomomi (Tsuge Ryoji - "Nagisa", "Dare Mo Shireinai AKA Nobody Knows") and Matsumoto Takaoh (Mano Kesuke) who form the "Ryujin Kai" (Dragon God Society). Their days are spent with acts of mischief, trouble-making and random violence.

One fateful night they abduct a young high school student Misaki (Former AV Actress Komori Miki) who was heading home after finishing her part-time job.

The film becomes almost unwatchable from this point forward with Tatsuo and his gang committing ever more gruesome and depraved acts of violence on Misaki (some of the scenes are shot in point-of-view perspective).

Although the film depicts Misaki's abduction and torture as an act of unbelievable cruelty and a senseless murder by four contemptible men, the lead assailant is bizarrely portrayed in a sympathetic light with the final shot (a dream?) being of an incarcerated Tatsuo cradling a wounded dove while sobbing (out of remorse?).

Nakamura and screenwriter Kanno Hiroshi (who also penned the equally controversial film series "Jisatsu Manual" AKA Suicide Manual) have crafted a truly morbid and revolting film. While not as gory or bloody as other more repellent films like the notorious "A Serbian Film" or the infamous "Guinea Pig: Devil's Experiment", "Concrete" is just as depraved.

Takaoka does what he can in a truly distasteful role as Tatsuo. Komori Miki also tries her best in a thankless role as the victimized Misaki.

Rather than produce a film that exploits this heinous crime, it would have been more meaningful if the producers had explored the life of Furuta Junko and how the Japanese Justice System had failed her family from finding true justice.

If any one good thing has come about this film is that it has further helped to spread the story of Furuta Junko to a sympathetic world and has kept her memory alive (even if in an unfortunately morbid way). I only hope that she and other crime victims like Masuno Yurika (a Japanese Exchange Student who was brutally assaulted and killed in Romania earlier this year) somehow can find peace in knowing that their memories are alive on the net and that their stories have resonated in the heart of others.
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Gâru (2012)
Japanese "Chick Flick" full of sappy romance and familiar melodrama
23 November 2012
Warning: Spoilers
"It's not easy being a woman" or at least that seems to be message of Fukugawa Yoshihiro's overly sentimental, too cute, "chick flick" comedy-drama "Girl" (AKA Girls for Keeps). Based on Okuda Hideo's popular female-centric omnibus novel, the film centers on four very different contemporary women in Tokyo, Japan as they try to balance their often dramatic personal and professional lives. The four friends represent an interesting cross section of the young, modern Japanese woman. First there's the bubbly and fashionable 29-year-old Takigawa Yukiko(Karina), a Marketing Associate for an upscale department store who refuses to "grow up" despite the fact that she's almost thirty. Then there's 34-year-old Takeda Seiko (Aso Kumiko), a Supervising Manager at a Real Estate Development Firm who has just been promoted to head a major urban renewal project much to the disdain of her colleague and rival Imai Tetsuo (Kaname Jun). Next there's 34-year-old Kosaka Yoko (Kichise Michiko), a still single Stationary Company Sales Representative who develops a secret crush for her pretty-boy assistant Wada Shintaro (Hayashi Kento) who's twelve years her junior. Lastly, there's 36-year-old single-mother Hirai Takako (Itaya Yuka) a Luxary Car Sales Agent, struggling to raise her 6-year-old son alone after an amicable divorce.

What unfolds is a by-the-number string of J-Dorama clichés and melodramatic contrivances that tests the viewer's tolerance levels for sappy romanticized drama. Tears are shed, various personal obstacles are overcome, hugs are exchanged, heartfelt love is declared and the trendiest of fashion is worn. This is the glamorized and idealized world of "Girl" where every woman is beautiful inside and out, all the men are gorgeous "ikemen" (pretty boys) and everyone wears fabulous stylish clothes.

Director Fukugawa surprises with this his most mainstream project as his previous works such as "60 Sai No Love Letter", "Kamisama No Karute" and "Byakuyako" were more human dramas and intimate independent films. While I found screenwriter Shinozaki Eriko's adaptation of Okuda Hideo's original story a bit too maudlin for my tastes, Fukugawa's direction made the film engaging enough on the whole. This film is very attractive indeed and rich with lush and vibrant color. The high energy music soundtrack complements the film greatly and creates a very hip tone throughout the film. The unapologetic product placement in the film is overwhelming (the ending credits read like a swank and modish "who's who" of fashion apparel, trendy brand names and elitist swag).

The comely and perky cast is highlighted by a "Fab Four" of talented actresses. Model turned actress Karina ("Ashita No Joe", "Koizora") is absolutely adorable as cute fashion trend-setter Yukiko. She gives Yukiko just the right enough amount of sassiness and girlish charm to make the character so likable. Aso Kumiko ("Uchu Kyodai", "Casshern", "Hasami Otoko") is fetching as the tough businesswoman Seiko. Aso successfully captures Seiko's strong business savvy in the workplace as well as touch upon her softer feminine side among her friends. Kichise Michiko, who portrays Elize in the "Nodame Cantabile" TV series and movies, is wonderful as the somewhat shy Yoko. Her scenes dealing with the stigma of being over 30 and unmarried/single are touchingly poignant. We want to root for her as she tries to win the heart of handsome Wada. Itaya Yuka ("Hotaru No Hikari", "Outrage") is lovely as single mother and MILF Takako. Of the foursome, she is the one who seems the most grounded in reality as a young mother and working professional. She represents the "every woman" trying to make ends meet while doing the best she can to raise her young son. We feel for her as she tries her best to not to have her son miss out on experiences like doing flips on the high bar or playing catch ball in the park.

"Girl" also features a talented ensemble cast that includes Dan Rei ("Ace Attorney") as Mitsuyama Harumi, Yukiko's free spirited, coquettish boss who also shares the same love and flair for fashion and life; Kato Rosa ("Unfair: The Movie", "Smile - Seiya No Kiseki" and "Detroit Metal City") as uptight Anzai Hiroko, Yukiko's co-worker who hides her beauty behind frumpy clothes and glasses and Kaname Jun ("K-20", "Wild 7", "Goemon", "Casshern") as darkly handsome Imai Tetsuo, Seiko's arrogant workplace rival and colleague. Kaname really does a terrific job of making Imai the total douche-bag we liked to hate.

Osamu Mukai ("Paradise Kiss", "Honey and Clover"), Kamiji Yusuke ("Rookies", "Crows Zero", "Drop") and Hayashi Kento ("Aku No Kyoten", "Kôshônin: The Movie") play the various love interests for the girls but they have very little to do aside from look cute and act as emotional support.

One could perhaps discount "Girl" as just a Japanese clone of "Sex and he City" as the similarities between the two are pretty close but I wouldn't say that "Girl" is that bad of a film. "Girl" has a definite "female empowerment" message that speaks to its target audience of which I, as a nonchalant, average, straight guy, am definitely not. Women will probably have more insight into this film than I can and may even find it relevant, touching and sentimental in a way that I can't.

The film ends with a lot of unanswered questions - Will Sota and Yukiko finally take the plunge and marry? What does the future hold for Seiko and Hiroki? Will Yoko win the heart of Shintaro? Can Takako continue to be both a mother and father to her young son? I guess we will have to wait and find out in the eventual sequel.
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Ai to makoto (2012)
An interesting musical adaptation of a manga classic...
21 November 2012
Warning: Spoilers
Miike Takashi's "Ai To Makoto" (Love and Truth/Sincerity AKA "For Love's Sake") is an ambitious romantic drama whose novel movie musical approach may leave some audiences scratching their heads but is none-the-less an entertaining and enjoyable film if somewhat goofy at times. This isn't the first film adaptation of prolific manga writer Kajikawa Ikki's ("Ashita No Joe", "Tiger Mask") classic 1974 "seishun" (youth) love story series. Shochiku Studios released a three-part film series from 1974-1976 featuring 70s Japanese pop singing star Saijo Hideki as the heroic Taiga Makoto (in the later films Nanjou Koji and Kano Ryu would take over the role) and in a somewhat shameless gimmick an actress actually named Saotome Ai" portraying the series heroine of the same name. About that same time a TV drama series was also produced featuring Natsu Yusuke and Ikegami Kimiko in the title roles. Both adaptations did a good job at bringing writer Kajikawa and artist Nagayasu Takumi's landmark manga series to life. The tragic love story between a bad-boy rebel and a privileged and naive rich girl was rich in melodrama, teen angst and 70s anti-establishment rebelliousness which resonated much among young readers. Although not as groundbreaking as his "Ashita No Joe" (which was also recently adapted into a feature film), "Ai To Makoto" still earned a devoted fan following over the years since.

Which brings us to Miike's latest adaptation of the manga series which is quite a departure from his usual eclectic work. Although Miike is often known for his dark, twisted, bloody, "grindhouse-like" earlier works like "Ichi The Killer", "Audition" and "Gozu", he has in recent years shown much range and diversity by branching out into a wide variety of different projects with more mainstream appeal like "Ace Attorney", "Crows Zero", "Yatterman" and "13 Assassins". "Ai To Makoto" is not Miike's only foray into the movie musical genre as he delivered a fairly interesting example with his "Katakuri-ke no kôfuku AKA The Happiness of the Katakuris" (2001) which could only be described as a "murder musical" along the lines of Tim Burton's "Sweeney Todd". "Ai No Makoto" is a pretty unique film as offhand, I can't really recall any recent examples of Japanese film Musicals equivalent to "Mama Mia", "Slumdog Millionaire" or "Moulin Rouge".

Miike's "Ai To Makoto" seems to be inspired a lot by Baz Luhrmann's "Romeo + Juliet" (1996). Not only do they share a similar look and feel but they also oddly enough share a similar "star-crossed lovers" type of storyline as well.

Like that film, the musical numbers include a number of familiar songs which are covered by the cast. Unless you lived in Japan during the 70s or are a fan of "kayokyoku" (Japanese Pop and folk music), foreign audiences may not really identify with the "Ai To Makoto's" soundtrack which reads like a play list for 70s Japan. While we don't get any iconic songs from Pink Lady, Yamaguchi Momoe or Candies, we do get some minor classics like Nishikino Akira's "Sora No Taiyo Ga Aru Kagari", Kawashima Eigo's "Sake To Namida To Ottoko To Onna" and the late Ozaki Kiyohiko's "Mata Au Hi Made" (my personal favorite). By the way, the song that another reviewer mentioned sounds similar to Kaji Mieko's "Urami Bushi" is Sono Mari's "Yume Wa Yoru Hiraku" (1966), a song that was covered by a number of artists in the 70s including Fuji Keiko (JPop singing star Utada Hikaru's mom).

Miike along with screenwriter Takuma Takayuki have taken some liberties with Kajikawa's original story for the interest of plot development and time. A number of major villains in the series including the sadistic whip wielding thug Sado Shun and Gonta's Yakuza crime-lord father Zaoh Yohei are also missing unfortunately.

Miike's direction is consistently great. He has a wonderful stylistic flair and definitely puts it to good use in the film. The cast is superb. Tsumabuki Satoshi ("Villain") impresses once again with yet another very challenging role. With his pretty boy good looks and rebel attitude, Tsumabuki does a good job of bringing to life the somewhat unlikeable character of Makoto. Although he only has one major song/dance sequence, Tsumabuki does showoff some good singing skills with his rendition of Saijo Hideki's "Hageshi Koi", the film's eye-opening beginning number. Takei Emi whose credits include mostly TV dramas like "W no Higeki" and "Liar Game" is also fantastic in this her first feature film. She brings just the right amount of girlish charm and naiveté to her role and she is absolutely fetching as the appropriately named character of "Ai" (love). While her rendition of Kitayama Masashi/Kato kazuhiko's "No Subarashi Ai O Mo Ichido" seemed a bit off-key, Takei's overall performance in the rest of the film was pretty good. The rest of the supporting cast was also exceptional including Saito Takumi ("Uchusenkan Yamato") who portrays Ai's classmate, the academically brilliant but hopelessly awkward Iwashima Hiroshi, who secretly longs for her; fashion model turned actress Ito Ono, who portrays the beautiful but emotionally cold Takahara Yuki, leader of the "Hana Zone Sukeban Girls Gang" whose deadly skill with throwing knives is to be feared; and Ihara Tsuyoshi ("NINJA", "JINGI") who portrays the hulking basher Zaoh Gonta. His rendition of the theme song to the 60's anime series "Okami Shonen Ken" is hilarious. Ando Sakura ("Lifeline", "Torso") is a standout as the wacky "Gum-Ko", a Sukeban with a heart.

Who would have thought Miike could craft a nostalgic and sentimental love story. Those who think Miike has mellowed out and softened however should take comfort in knowing that he returns to his darker side with the just recently released "Aku No Kyoten" (AKA Lessons of Evil) an adaptation of Kishi Yusuke's violent thriller.
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Lost Paradise (1997)
A haunting and tragic look at infidelity and the power of love...
20 November 2012
Warning: Spoilers
Morita Yoshimitsu's "Shitsurakuen" (Paradise Lost) is a somber and haunting love story whose tragic tale of two "Star-crossed lovers" will certainly strike an emotional chord with audiences. Based on the popular 1997 bestselling novel by Watanabe Junichi, the story focuses on a doomed romance between a middle-aged family man, Kuki Shoichiro (the wonderful Yakusho Koji) and a beautiful calligraphy instructor, Matsubara Rinko (the alluring Kuroki Hitomi).

Their chance encounter begins innocently enough but soon escalates into a torrid and all-consuming secret love affair. As their perfect romance intensifies, it soon takes its toll on both their personal and professional lives with disastrous results. With their individual worlds shattering around them can they still find a way to stay together?

Given the salacious subject matter of the original novel it is to director Morita's credit that he resists the urge and temptation to turn the film into a exploitative sex film but rather crafted an effectively brilliant yet bittersweet love story about two lonely individuals who have finally experienced true love at mid-life. While many have remarked at the film's erotic content, I don't think the film is particularly graphic or overly explicit. The purposely suggestive nature of the film's love scenes are in fact even more effective in conveying the intense nature of the romance.

Screenwriter Morinaga Kyoko does a nice job of steam-lining Watanabe's original novel and focuses on the key elements which made the novel so poignant to readers. Morita's masterful direction is enhanced by Cinematographer Takase Hiroshi's wonderful camera work which uses various interesting fades as scene transition effects that add to the dreamy nature of the whole film.

The film's emotional strength however relies heavily on the excellent performances of its leads Yakusho and Kuroki. Yakusho plays a somewhat similar character here as he did in the masterful "Shall We Dance", an "every man" who is in mid-life crisis and desperately trying to recapture the passion of his youth. Yakusho successfully paints Shoichiro as not just a man obsessed and blinded by lust but rather as a man who has found solace and fulfillment through Rinko as his soul-mate and emotional anchor. Kuroki, who would later go on to portray the controversial character of Sada Abe (another woman involved in a scandalous adulterous affair) in Obayashi Nobuhiko's film "Sada" (1998) delivers a brave performance as the refined and reserved Rinko, a woman whose arranged marriage early in life was more a matter of convenience than love and who longs to escape from the passionless and suffocating life she leads. Kuroki's Rinko character could have been portrayed as just an adulterous vixen but through Kuroki's subtle performance paints her more sympathetically as just a lonely character who experiences with Shoichiro a sexual freedom that is both liberating and intoxicating.

Morita's "Paradise Lost" seeks not to condemned nor excuse adulterous affairs but simply tries to explain some of the reasons they might occur. While it may be an extreme and morbid example of an affair gone wrong, the love story at the core of the story is truly touching and the haunting ending will definitely leave its mark on audiences.

As a side note, "Shitsurakuen" was also adapted into a thirteen episode Japanese Drama series the same year (1997) and starred gruff character actor Furuya Ikko as Shoichiro and former 80s singing star Kawashima Naomi as Rinko. While the overall story was similar, the drama delved even deeper into the troubled pasts of the two characters. It was also surprisingly even more explicit in its depiction of the love scenes between the two characters and pushed the limits of Japanese TV censorship laws. Kawashima went against-type to portray Rinko and certainly must have shocked audiences with her raw and very sexual performance especially to those who like myself fondly remembered her as the sweet celebrity co-host of "Owarai Manga Dojo", a game show that catered to younger audiences. Sadly, although "Shitsurakuen" the series was a moderate hit and was well watched (more out of audience curiosity than quality) it has not been released to DVD or Blu-ray yet (only VHS copies exist). Hopefully this series will be released to DVD/Blu-Ray soon as it will serve as an interesting companion and counterpoint to Morita's much more superior version.
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Yamazaki "Yamato" is visually stunning but short on story
27 June 2011
Warning: Spoilers
Yamazaki Takashi's long awaited live action adaptation "Uchuu Senkan Yamato" tries hard to live up to the timeless "Uchuu Senkan Yamato" ("Starblazers" for Western Audiences) anime saga but doesn't quite capture all the human elements which resonated so well with audiences back in the 70s and 80s. With a much more starker and darker storyline than its source material, "Yamato" seems to try to ape the successful J.J. Abrams "Star Trek" reboot as well as the recent TV series "Battlestar Galactica" by trying to reinterpret itself for modern audiences but in doing so sheds too much of the "Space Opera" style that worked so well in the original anime series.

Screenwriter Sato Shimako (most familiar to viewers as the creative force behind the "Unfair" JDorama TV series) does an admirable job trying to condense and streamline Nishizaki Yoshinobu and Matsumoto Leiji's epic 26-episode TV series and highlight as much of the notable events that occurred in the series as possible but this seemed at the expense of any real character development. Characters are paraded through the movie at such a breakneck pace that it doesn't leave much time to "get to know" all the characters outside of a few notables.

Kimura Takuya (Hero; Pride; Long Vacation) is perfectly cast as iconic hero Kodai Susumu and successfully captures the character's rebel attitude. Kimura's boyish charms and star charisma only help to make Susumu more likable and identifiable. Okinawan J-Pop idol and beauty Kuroki Meisa also successfully realizes the character of love interest Mori Yuki, but rather than play her as an ethereal and delicate beauty, as in the anime series she is portrayed as a brash hotshot, "Cosmo Tiger" pilot which is one of the more clever changes made at updating the character. Their romantic scenes are good but do not really capture the same tender and playful romance of the original. Ikeuchi Hiroyuki (the brutal Miura in Wilson Yip's "Ip Man") is a standout with his gruff portrayal of "Space Marine" , Saito Hajime (who was actually a prominent character in the "Yamato 2" series). His passionate and raw portrayal of Saito was very memorable. Yanagiba Toshiro (Bayside Shakedown) was also well cast as Science Officer Sanada Shiro. There are also a number of familiar veteran stars rounding out the cast including Yamazaki Tsutomu (Departures) who plays Captain Okita, Nishida Toshiyuki (Tsuribaka Nisshi series) who plays Chief Engineer Tokugawa, Takashima Reiko (Railways) who portrays Dr. Sado and Hashizume Isao (A Taxing Woman; Nada Sou Sou) who portrays Earth Defense Commander Todou. They are all very good but their screen times are so far and few in-between. They might as well have been cameos.

As with his previous films such as "Returner", "Juvenile" and "Always San Chou Me No Yuhi" Yamazaki's visual flair and style worked well with the material. Yamazaki and his SFX team do an absolutely outstanding and brilliant job of realizing Matsumoto Leiji's Yamato star cruiser design. The same can't be said of the Gamilus/Gamilon Aliens who seem to be cut of the same cloth as the aliens from so many other alien invasion films of Hollywood. Those expecting to see the regal head of villainous Dessler/Dessloc may be disappointed at seeing his movie counterpart who is uninteresting to say the least.

Fans may also be somewhat confused and ambivalent about the major storyline changes that were done. While it did seem a very radical and interesting take I can't say that it was a right choice for the story.

All in all fans will certainly enjoy this big budgeted, SFX heavy, popcorn movie but those expecting to be emotional moved by the story will be somewhat disappointed .
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Tokyo Night is a tepid and lackluster sequel...
3 April 2011
Warning: Spoilers
Nagae Toshikazu's Japanese-made sequel to the American horror sensation "Paranormal Activity" (2009) is a tedious and somewhat confusing film that tries to go for the pseudo-documentary/found footage style look of the original but soon degenerates to a by-the-numbers shock film. Its over-the-top finale is self-indulgent and shatters any realism that the film had hoped to accomplish.

"Paranormal Activity 2: Tokyo Nights" supposedly takes place after the events of "Paranormal Activity"(Tokyo Night was released at around the same time as the American-made sequel "Paranormal Activity 2"). Pretty college student Yamano Haruka (Aoyama Noriko) has returned to Tokyo after getting involved in a severe car accident in San Diego, California where she was studying. She broke both of her legs in the car crash and is now recuperating at her younger brother Koichi's (Nakamura Aoi) house in Tokyo.

No sooner after settling into the two-story house, does strange and unsettling occurrences begin to happen - weird thumping noises are heard in the night, glasses break without explanation, doors open and close by themselves etc. Believing the house to be possessed by evil spirits they call upon a Shinto Priest to do a traditional blessing of the house but to no avail. Soon the poltergeist effects escalate and intensify. Haruka later reveals that the person that she struck with her car in California was none-other-than Katie from the first movie. Haruka surmises that the supposed demon that possessed Katie has now latched on to her.

Nagae Toshikazu is no stranger to the ghost/horror genre having directed "Ghost System" and "Gakko No Kaidan" but as with those films, his tendency to overplay the fear factor does do a disservice to the audience. The pacing and tone of "Tokyo Night" was also a bit weak.

Some of the scenes seem forced and scripted and did not seem to attempt to go for any sense of realism. It was also unconvincing how "conveniently" Koichi was able to capture all these paranormal events on his camera at the precise moment of their occurrence. There didn't seem to be any battery-time limitations to his camera and they seemed to always be on even during the most mundane of sequences.

Aoyama Noriko and Nakayama Aoi do decent work as the haunted siblings but their acting shifts wildly from good to over-the-top.

While Tod Williams' "Paranormal Activity 2" was also a disappointment compared to Oren Peli's original, it still tried to distinguish itself from the original (the use of night-vision technology, expanding on the back story of the original movie etc.) Nagae seems to want to go the other way and draw as much inspiration from the original as he can even going so far as borrowing the same sequences from the original. "Tokyo Night's" only distinction seems to the the setting (Tokyo) and the fact that Haruka is unable to walk (which they don't seem to play up as much as they should have).

It would have been much more interesting if Nagae could have been more inventive with the story (have the setting in an apartment complex or have Koichi broadcast the events to YouTube etc.) It was interesting to see the Shinto blessing/exorcism rituals and I wish they would have played that up more.

In the end, "Paranormal Activity 2: Tokyo Night" seemed to be more like a "one-trick pony". A shameless tie-in and gimmick movie that piggy backs on the success of a much better film.
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13 Assissins is Miike's Magnum Opus...a crowd pleasing tour de force
2 April 2011
Warning: Spoilers
Miike's remake of Kudo Eiichi's "Jyu-Shichinin No Shikaku" (13 Assassins) is a masterpiece of samurai fiction. While resemblances to Kurosawa Akira's landmark "Seven Samurai" as well as Zack Snyder's "300" may be unavoidable, Miike's newest film is his most mature work and accomplished work to date and shows that he is indeed capable of crafting films outside of the bizarre, horrific and avant-guarde films he is most know for such as "Audition" and "Ichi The Killer".

"13 Assassins" is set in the final years of Japanese feudalistic society before the Meiji Restoration. Gone are the days of an idealistic nobility and Samurai virtue and in it's place is a decadent and opportunistic age where those born of class abuse their lineage and show unmerciful cruelty on the lower class.

Such is the case with Lord Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira (portrayed by SMAP idol Inagaki Goro against type), a pompous and sadistic young nobleman who by virtue of his class ascends to his current position of power as second only to his brother the Shogun. Lord Naritsugu's brutality (he callously rapes one nobleman's wife and goes so far as to create a limbless living "husk" of another), causes one senior Government Official to commit ritualistic "Seppuku" in protest.

Sir Doi (Hira Mikijiro) considers this the last straws and secretly plots Lord Naritsugu's assassination. He recruits a former Samurai Officer, the virtuous Shimada Shinzaemon (played by the wonderful character actor Yakusho Kôji)to lead the team against the evil Lord.

Shinzaemon knows that he cannot go up against such a foe alone and thus recruits a small army of former Samurai and Ronin to assist him including his gambling nephew Shinrouko (Japanese movie heartthrob Yamada Takayuki), the majestic Ronin Hirayama (Ihara Tsuyoshi)and his young pupil Ogura (Kubota Masataka), Sahara (Furuta Arata) who demands money for his skills as a expert spearman and fellow Samurai officer and loyal friend Kuranaga (the great Matsutaka Hiroki)who also brings with him five loyalists to the cause.

The twelve plan their attack on Lord Naritsugu by entrapping him in the small town Ochiai along the route from Edo to his home province. Yet the assassins have to deal with Shinzaemon's friend and rival Hanbei Kitou (Ichimura Masachika)an Ashikawa loyalist and Lord Naritsugu's loyal vassal who despite detesting his Lord's evil must obey him without question.

Along the way they also meet the Koyata Kiga (Iseya Yusuke) a wandering bandit who made the unfortunate mistake of falling for his boss' wife. Together can they defeat Lord Naritsugu's 200 man army?

At just over two hours,"13 Assassins" is an engrossing and entertaining film that is never boring. Miike wisely plays is simple and straight with the story and the film's brisk pacing is definitely much appreciated. Much of that probably is credited to screenwriter Tengan Daisuke who does a very good job adapting Ikegami Kaneo's original story.

Miike's unique visual style is still very much a strong point with this film and he does very well with keeping the film interesting visually. As noted this is Miike's most conventional, mainstream film to date and Miike definitely delivers a great looking film without the excessive aspects of some of his earlier films (one scene however does hark back to his horror roots).

Much has been mentioned about the elaborate and violent climax of the film. Some comparisons may be made to the finale of Kitamura Ryûhei's "Azumi" or even Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai" but I felt it made very exciting cinema and definitely was a crowd-pleaser albeit a bloody one.

The talented all-star cast was remarkable and featured a refreshing mix of both current hot talents as well as some very good character actors from the past (I guess this is where Miike and Quentin Tarantino excel at). Inagaki Goro surprised me the most with his villainous portrayal of Lord Naritsugu and he was very effective in his sadistic role. Yakusho Kôji and Matsutaka Hiroki have always been favorites of mine and they do not disappoint here as well bringing a sense of nobleness to their roles. Yamada Takayuki shows that he is definitely a star in the making as he delivers another great performance.

"13 Assassins" in an epic masterpiece and hopefully Miike Takeshi will catch Hollywood's eye more now. This film proves that Miike Takeshi is not just a fanboy film maker but a true artist who can make films for the general public not just only in Japan but the world as well.
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