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My Top 100 Japanese films: http://www.imdb.com/list/ls062171164/
My Bottom 10 (features only):
10. Izo (2004) 9. Sakuran (2006) 8. Kamikaze Girls (2004) 7. Urotsukidôji I: Legend of the Overfiend (1989) 6. Three Resurrected Drunkards (1968) 5. Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (1969) 4. A.K.A. Serial Killer (1969) 3. Tokyo Gore Police (2008) 2. Death Powder (1986) 1. Noroi: The Curse (2005)
The following films are not listed on IMDb:
The Midnight Parasites (1972) Phantom (1975) Madonna (2005) Kijû Yoshida - Qu'est-ce qu'un cinéaste? (2008) Shunga (2009)
Some of these films are sadly very hard to find, so if you're having trouble finding one or more titles, PM me and I'll do my best to help.
Top 5 favorite actors:
5. Toshirô Mifune 4. Kei Satô 3. Rentarô Mikuni 2. Shintarô Katsu 1. Tatsuya Nakadai
Top 5 favorite actresses:
5. Machiko Kyô 4. Sachiko Hidari 3. Hideko Takamine 2. Mariko Okada 1. Meiko Kaji
Top 5 short films:
5. White Hole (1979) 4. Laura (1974) 3. The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (1975) 2. Emotion (1966) 1. The Demon (1972)
Yoshiwara enjô (1987)
A great period film that happens to be sadly overlooked
Tokyo Bordello was apparently director Hideo Gosha's last big box office success in Japan, but nowadays it's rarely mentioned, even when this particular filmmaker's best films are discussed. I've just finished watching it and I'd rank it as one of his best.
It depicts the final few years of the famous Yoshiwara pleasure district and can be categorized as one of the many films from the "life of Japanese prostitutes" sub-genre, the type of film that certain directors (like Kenji Mizoguchi) built almost their entire career over. The story in Tokyo Bordello isn't really original, but Hideo Gosha makes it all work because the style of the film is enough to carry it for two hours.
The sets are pretty lavish and colorful, but it's all done in moderation, unlike the migraine-inducing kitschy visuals from, for example, Sakuran (2006), another (much worse) film from the "life of Japanese prostitutes" sub-genre. Gosha's film has a slower pace than his other works, but there's always something happening and the performances are just unusual enough to be interesting and subdued enough not to be annoying overacting. The music is quite great, and the climactic scene is pretty hectic and well-directed. This movie should be better known.
Ningyo densetsu (1984)
Yet another beautiful and criminally underrated ATG film
(This review contains massive spoilers. I'd actually advise going into this film without knowing anything about it, including the basic plot outline)
As I write this review, there are only 51 IMDb user ratings for this movie. It's sad to find out that this film, one of the final outings from Art Theatre Guild (ATG), is as under-seen as their other productions, most of which I thought were amazing. This particular film is directed by Toshiharu Ikeda, and it plays itself out as a Tarantino- esque revenge blood-fest with an air of seaside melancholy and mellow atmosphere.
Reading some of the reviews, I can't help but feel that some people here miss the point. Criticisms saying that the climactic scene is unrealistic and too over-the-top and that the ending is a Deus-Ex- Machina contrivance are baffling to me. It's obvious that this film is a violent allegory about the industrial oppression of "the little man" and how the impoverished, yet hard-working people strike back against the capitalists. The exhilarating climactic scene, where our vengeful heroine turns a nuclear power plant opening celebration into a bloodbath is a fierce unleashing of the working class' pent up anger in full force. The ending, when she literally gets saved by Buddha himself, is hardly a Deus-Ex-Machina (because she was seen praying to him beforehand for the exact same thing, you don't feel it comes out of nowhere) but is nevertheless unexpected and, in a way, beautiful. There's something oddly satisfying about it too; perhaps it's the filmmaker's sign that the gods are on the common (wo)man's side, that hope is not yet lost.
This movie has such a wonderful atmosphere, utilizing isolated stormy island aesthetics and a beautiful soundtrack by Toshiyuki Honda to get under your skin. And then of course, it gets intense as all hell and the final thirty minutes are so satisfying and brutal. This is an astoundingly under-seen film that I would actually rate as one of the 100 best Japanese films I've ever seen. I came into it expecting nothing and got blown away.
Weak film salvaged by its finale
Teruo Ishii's sequel to Norifumi Suzuki's outrageously entertaining Sex and Fury unfortunately isn't anything to write home about, as it is weaker than its predecessor in almost any way. Reiko Ike returns as Ocho Inoshika, and the film starts with an obligatory sequence where she slaughters some thugs while naked, but that's pretty much all these two films have in common.
Female Yakuza Tale suffers from a boring, convoluted plot with pointless characters and awful dialogues. Even though the story is about a Yakuza clan that uses a gang of female thieves for them to smuggle drugs in their vaginas, the film fails to properly execute that bizarre concept. There's also Osho's backstory, which sees her getting saved from having to cut off a finger by a Yakuza kingpin, who then gets murdered by the current boss, who also kidnaps his daughter and puts her in a mental hospital with kabuki-practicing mimes. As ridiculous as it all sounds, the film is quite boring and it feels like it lasts much longer than 85 minutes.
There's also a supporting character, this guy who, despite throwing bullets into people's nostrils and glasses and shooting their moustache off, is not charismatic at all. He's helped by a female prisoner Scorpion lookalike, some Christian assassin who "prays before she kills", who barely contributes anything and about whom we learn nothing. The visual style is almost ordinary compared to Sex and Fury, the comical scenes mostly miss their mark, and the soundtrack is some kind of a mix between '70s funky music, bouncing springs and Ocho's theme song (?) sung by Reiko Ike in the final scene where she walks off into the Sun (not a sunset, just the sun).
The action is scarce and the sex scenes are numerous but poorly executed, except for the one where Ocho has sex with the boss. It's all just an unfocused mess, where you're never sure if the sex scenes are here to serve as filler to the plot or the plot is just jumbled together to string the sex scenes together (okay, it's definitely the second one). However, the climax of the film is so outrageous and hilarious that it makes up for the rest of the film. The gang of naked female thieves fights against the clothed male gangsters in an epic display of playing card blades, bullets, knives, swords, píss, bottles of cocaine, fists and frantic editing. Has to be seen to be believed.
Joshuu sasori: Kemono-beya (1973)
Somewhat weaker than the first two
Actress Meiko Kaji returns once more in the third installment of the FPS series, Beast Stable, the last FPS film directed by Shunya Ito and the second-to-last film in the original series overall. Based on the manga by Toru Shinohara, it's the seminal Women in Prison movie franchise, although you wouldn't immediately guess the sub-genre based on this third film alone.
Unlike the first film, an entertaining exploitation sleaze-fest, or the second, the quasi-feminist trippy road film, the third one is a lot more serious and quite darker than the first two. The pacing is much slower, the colors much dimmer, and the setting is mostly urban, except for the final 10 minutes which do take place in prison.
Once again, Meiko Kaji barely says anything (on her request, because she felt that her character in the first film was too obscene), but still has a great screen presence. The story is, unfortunately, not that memorable. Aside from exploitative elements such as a prostitute pregnant with her retarded brother's child, the entire film just feels like it packs lesser of a punch than the first two did. There's an interesting sub-plot where a guy blackmails Matsu into being his girlfriend or else he'll turn her in, but that gets resolved way too quickly. The main villain is fine, but the other one, the ex-inmate turned brothel owner and a Cruella DeVille lookalike, is so ridiculous and annoying. She also keeps a huge cage of crows for some reason (which later gives way for a short but bad visual effect of a flying crow), maybe to resemble a comic book villain, but that feels out of place.
The surreal elements are also fewer. Even though the abortion scene set in a white room with blood splattering all over is very good, the others consist of applying lazy filters to the image, or focusing on the motif of matches being struck and thrown, which I admittedly don't get. Unfortunately, Meiko Kaji doesn't sing a second theme song here (like she did in the previous film) and overall the movie just feels uneventful, despite the strong beginning and a stylish ending scene. Great cover art, though.
A decent sequel to the first Scorpion film
Meiko Kaji returns as Nami Matsushima aka Scorpion, this time singing two theme songs (one of them being the classic "Urami bushi") and saying only two lines of dialogue, continuing to suffer abuse and humiliation only to slaughter everybody with her knife. Jailhouse 41 is the second film in the Scorpion series, way more surreal than the first one (also directed by Shunya Ito).
This film has far less nudity and seemingly lower production values than the first one, but it's a bit more violent in comparison. The story takes place mostly outside the prison but it isn't anything special. Matsu escapes with six more convicts and is trailed by the vengeful warden whose eye she has stabbed in the first film. The dialogues could've been better, and I really don't understand why the other inmates hate her in this film. The surreal sequences are hit-or- miss. Some of them, like the waterfalls in a national park (?) turning red after a corpse is thrown into the water, are pretty memorable, while others, like the part where they come across an old woman who sings their backstories in the "He Had It Comin'" from the movie "Chicago" fashion, before dying, making Autumn come prematurely and getting buried with leaves, are just baffling.
Some of the supporting characters include the two guards from the first film, the slightly Mexican one and the slightly nerdy one, who serve as second-to-final bosses. There's also a busful of rapey tourists, some of them being WWII veterans who brag about having raped women in Manchuria, which makes this one of the rare films to mention Japanese war crimes in Manchuria. The final scene has one of the coolest screen transitions I've seen; Matsu simply slices the screen in half and moves to a different location.
The story to this film is a lot weaker than the one in the first film, and there is some awkward editing, but it's still entertaining and worth a watch.
Joshû 701-gô: Sasori (1972)
The Seminal WiP Film
The Women in Prison exploitation sub-genre, like many others, found its way to Japan in the '70s, resulting in probably the most well made prisonsploitation series of films to ever grace the screen. It's the Female Prisoner Scorpion series, a pinky violence extravaganza starring the badass Meiko Kaji as the stoic vengeful lady who can't keep herself from getting imprisoned. Kaji signed with the Toei studio in order to avoid having to do pinku films for Nikkatsu, but in this film she nevertheless appears naked, while her character suffers some heavy abuse so I imagine filming some of these scenes must have been a bit stressful.
This is essentially a revenge tale peppered with gore, heavy nudity and some almost surreal moments which showcase the high production value this film had going for it. All kinds of weird colors and gruesome deaths find their way into this film, with Meiko Kaji's awesome theme song "Urami bushi" playing on top of it all. This is a highly imaginative and entertaining WiP film and one of the best Japanese exploitation films.
Bohachi Bushido: Code of the Forgotten Eight
This film, also known as Bohachi Bushido: Porno Period Piece, is one of many wacky achievements by schlock-meister Teruo Ishii (based on a short manga by LWaC creator Kazuo Koike). Outrageously cheesy and sleazy, it never disappoints in delivering what it's set out to: lots of tits, lots of blood.
Tetsuro Tanba plays a stone-faced nihilist ronin who joins an extremely immoral clan which turns women into prostitutes through rape and torture, only to rule over the local prostitution industry. It's never clear what the nihilist aspect of his character actually adds to the story, so that was kinda disappointing. Then again, this probably isn't the type of film where you can expect fully fleshed out characters.
Unsurprisingly, there's a lot of swordfights and nudity. Naked women being tortured, naked women raping nuns, naked women engaging in swordfights, naked women casually walking around, the protagonist slaughtering everyone while on opium, entertaining sleaze all around. The dialogue is sometimes didactic ("He stabs himself to get rid of opium's effects": Okay, thanks, I understood it fine), but who cares, really.
Definitely check this out if you're into the pinky violence subgenre.
Ryoma ansatsu (1974)
The Assassination of Ryoma
What to make of this unusual 1974 biopic of legendary Japanese historical figure Ryoma Sakamoto, directed by New Wave filmmaker Kazuo Kuroki? They certainly don't make them like they used to (unless they're on lots of drugs). The main question to arise from watching this, however, is: how can something be so "out there" and yet so boring?
Ryoma Sakamoto was a social activist and imperial loyalist who thought that he could bring down the bakufu government and the Shogunate by uniting the warring Choshu and Satsuma clans. Obviously, things didn't work out well for him because he was assassinated, along with his companion Shintaro Nakaoka, in a Kyoto inn. That's the historical basis for the film, and I advise you to read up on the subject before watching because otherwise the film will seem like complete gibberish to you. Even if you have background knowledge, the movie will still confuse you because of its lack of any background, its similar characters, and a total bumf*ck of a narrative and pacing.
Ryoma is portrayed both as a bumbling goof and an authoritarian madman, though that's not saying much because every other male character behaves exactly the same, except for one. Tongue-in-cheek jokes and ironic intertitles poking fun at the samurai class are plentiful, so you can also call this a morbid artsy comedy if you want to. There are also many sex/nudity scenes to satisfy the pinku quota, not to mention lots of unintelligible yelling all around, making this one of the most hysteria-stricken films I've seen.
Most of the time though, there's no reason to care for anything that's going on and the movie is quite uneventful, sometimes really boring. A few interesting scenes here and there, combined with trippy music and an unique but hard-to-pin-down atmosphere are the film's strongest points, along with the cinematography. The grainy, rough and moody hard chiaro-scuro visuals combined with the non- existent budget do leave an impression. It's like somebody is making a samurai movie in their backyard, but skillfully so (as far as technique and form go). I don't know.
EDIT/UPDATE: It seems to me now that this movie is better than I gave it credit for, but I'll have to re-watch it to be sure. I probably underrated it when writing this review, so I gave it a slightly higher mark for now.
Kaette kita yopparai (1968)
Three Resurrected Drunkards, aka A Sinner in Paradise, stars the 1960s Japanese boy band The Folk Crusaders, and is in fact based on their hit song "Kaette kita yopparai". I guess the literate translation of that title would be "A Sinner in Paradise" (the chipmunk-pitched, kitschy song played in the intro has lyrics that could be aptly described by this title), because the three main characters aren't drunkards (but they do get resurrected... in a way), so, I don't know what's up with that title.
Anyway, director Nagisa Oshima uses some of his most obnoxious cinematic elements borrowed from Godard to tell the relatively simple tale of three Japanese students mistaken for Koreans. Oshima made several films about the treatment of Korean minorities in Japan, arguing that Koreans and Japanese are the same nation, scientifically speaking. This is expressed in a short scene where random people on the street are interviewed and asked about their nationality (I swear one of them looks exactly like Oshima, maybe it was him). However, the political message in this film isn't laid out in a thought-provoking way, but instead in the most confusing and round-about of fashions. There's also a statement on Vietnam, with the repeated use of the iconic photo of a soldier shooting a man in the head.
Despite being a comedy, the movie isn't humorous in the slightest and The Folk Crusaders have zero screen charisma, making them one of the most boring film protagonists I've ever seen. The story isn't interesting at all, and the supporting characters have potential, but they get lost in this chaos too easily. The film infamously restarts itself at halfway point (hence "Resurrected") and repeats the initial ten minutes (just skip this, it's a chore to watch again), but the characters remain aware of what happened before, so now they're free to make new choices (this isn't as interesting as it sounds, trust me). Despite having only 80 minutes, the film feels like an eternity and it's no surprise that Oshima's worst, most unwatchably artsy movie, Diary of a Shinjuku Thief, was released right after this one. Must've been a bad year for him.
After a stroke which almost paralyzed him, controversial director Nagisa Oshima managed to direct his final film (and one of his most provocative ones) - Gohatto, also known under the translation Taboo, which is sort of correct, but then leads you to expect something else. Despite this being a film about gay samurai, the "taboo" from the title isn't due to the fact they're homosexual, as it was apparently accepted in their ranks back then, but because love and romantic/sexual relationships between Shinsengumi (special elite samurai force) members threaten to disrupt the orderly code of the institution. Oshima usually portrayed sexuality and love as means to escape a repressive society, but here, the very same society is actively threatened by passion.
Based on Ryotaro Shiba's novel Shinsengumi Keppuroku (Records of Shinsengumi Bloodshed), the film has an interesting premise but it lost me at the midway point and it's probably one of those films that need a second viewing to fully appreciate (though Ryuichi Sakamoto's majestic soundtrack asserts its magnificence on first listen). The film stars 16- year-old Ryuhei Matsuda as the only character in the movie (apart from the guy he executes early on) not to be based on an actual historical person, while the rest of the cast is populated by some familiar faces (Takeshi Kitano, Tanadobu Asano). It's an interesting film with a dreamy atmosphere, notable for the fact that it doesn't feel exploitative one bit despite its subject matter.