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I've deleted most of my ratings (pretty much the only films I've retained are my favorites) because I don't feel comfortable with IMDb's 1-10 star system. Here's my Letterboxd profile: https://letterboxd.com/golubgluhan/
Zatoichi's Conspiracy (1973)
After two and a half years, I've finally been able to complete the original Zatoichi saga! Zatoichi's Conspiracy (he doesn't actually partake in the conspiracy here), directed by Kimiyoshi Yasuda, is the final movie of the original Zatoichi theatrical run (but not the final Zatoichi film with Shintaro Katsu). His adventures continued in the form of a television series, which I'm not interested in so I'm going to skip on that.
The plot here is, as you'd expect, similar to other entries. Zatoichi goes to a town and fights criminals. In this film, however, the place he visits is his home town and we get to find out a bit or two about his past. It's one of the more elegant and melancholic films of the series, partly because the music returns to the orchestral form after the funky experimentations in the earlier few films. One interesting thing is that, despite saying he hasn't been in his home town for 20 years, he already visited his home town and the old lady who raised him back in the third movie, so either his memory is fuzzy or the Zatoichi series aren't meant to be too consistent in canon, and are more like tall tales whose details are lost in re-telling (to borrow the theory from The Jidai-Geki Knights).
Also, this is one of my favorites of the saga. The fights are very well done and the final ten minutes are very exciting, for sure one of the best Zatoichi finales. The coffee palette color scheme that Kimiyoshi Yasuda's Zatoichi films are known for is improved by most of the scenes here being shrouded in darkness, and the story is pretty interesting to follow. The fact that the enemies here aren't just the yakuza thugs but pretty much the establishment itself also makes it stand out. However, some of the characters here just aren't necessary; the obligatory black- clad mystery ronin (who barely even appears here), and a small band of thugs whom the film could've done without.
Highlight of the film: the final battle, in this case.
Zatoichi in Desperation (1972)
Lead actor Shintaro Katsu sits in the director's chair for the penultimate movie of the original Zatoichi saga. Despite being the 24th in the franchise (you'd expect them to get worse over time), Zatoichi in Desperation is easily one of the best installments of the series.
The story itself is nothing new. Zatoichi tries to help people and gets into trouble with the local thugs. However, this movie is much darker than any other in the original series. Not only does Zatoichi accidentally cause an old woman's death by falling off of the bridge in the intro, but the remainder of the plot is unusually bleak for the series. There's not much humor either, besides one cum shot gag. One interesting thing about this movie (besides the uncharacteristically silent and black intro credits scene) is that Zatoichi doesn't get to be a savior of the situation at one point, leading to unsettling deaths, which is a cool little piece of subversion. There's also more sex than usual, giving the movie a rougher, exploitation vibe that I can't help but like.
The other thing that sticks out about this movie is how pleasing it is to look at. Not only is the setting a melancholic sandy beach town (not really a typical Zatoichi location), but the camera-work is so over the top and brings to mind some of the techniques from the Japanese New Wave. Sudden zoom-ins and outs, out-of-focus shots, free-wheeling shot composition, obstructions in the foreground, wacky color combos, crane shots, floor shots, silhouettes and dynamic editing. It surprisingly doesn't come across as a pretentious overkill that swallows the story; instead, it makes it a lot more interesting to watch than its predecessors just because it's so unlike the rest of them. The soundtrack has also been replaced by funk music, which oddly fits the movie.
Highlight of the film: Zatoichi gets his hands stabbed, so he ties his sword to his hand so he can fight.
Technically well made and historically significant, but not my cup of tea
I'm writing this review since no one else has done so yet (and there are almost no reviews of this movie elsewhere on the internet), which is a shame because I think Koji Wakamatsu's films are criminally under-seen. He's one of the most interesting directors of political and erotic films, so it sucks that he doesn't get talked about much outside of his native country.
This particular movie, Sex Jack, is not my favorite of his but is worth looking at. I'll be the first to say that I have no clue what the title is trying to say. Is the word "jack" used here meaning "a device for lifting heavy objects" or is it like in the words hijack, carjack, etc.? Either way, I'm baffled.
Anyway, the movie is about one of the favorite subjects of several Japanese directors of the '60s (Wakamatsu, Oshima, Adachi) - student demonstrations and revolutionary movements. More specifically, the film illustrates Wakamatsu's own disillusionment with such movements. His perspective is rather cynical, saying that he wanted to show how the revolutionary movements are always infiltrated by the moles working for the government. There is little hope for any sort of collective political struggle in this film. There's also probably a lot of subtext in this movie that flew over my head. It's definitely a product of its time, and you're not expected to watch it knowing nothing about it beforehand.
There's a lot to admire in Sex Jack. The atmosphere is very well done and easily transports you to the gloomy time period. The industrial, urban setting's ugliness is beautifully depicted and the B&W visuals in general are expressive. The climactic action sequence is fairly good. But overall, this movie failed to grab me. The plot is mind-numbingly repetitive. Watching naive student radicals repeatedly have sex with the girl in their group and have vague political discussions over and over doesn't quite fill the the runtime satisfyingly, even though the film is rather short. It features a lot of staples of Wakamatsu's work (politics, lots of sex, cynicism, some blood, the plot unfolding on very few locations and there being one or two sudden transitions to color), but it's not as emotionally resounding or poetic as in some of his other work.
Yûhi ni akai ore no kao (1961)
A contrary opinion is needed here
This is a very polarizing film and currently the only review of it on this site is a negative one, so here's a different take on this wacky 1961 early work by Masahiro Shinoda, a versatile director who has dipped his toe in many genres over the course of his career. This one, for instance, is a fast-paced, surreal blunt spoof of film noir.
It was scripted by Shûji Terayama, one of the most prolific Japanese artists from the 20th century, but it's not really characteristic of his style. Well, there are horse races in this film, and Terayama loved horse racing, but apart from that, you'd never tell. It's a straight- forward story, utterly typical for a crime film, given a different spin by Shinoda's outrageous stylistic choices.
The upbeat jazzy music throughout the film is awesome and very catchy, and the pop-art opening sequence is very zany and enjoyable. There also some creative color combos and some peculiar montage techniques. Also, the entire thing really does play out like the campy Batman TV-show from the '60s, except this pre-dates it. The comic book villains, corny shootouts and all. It can be quite wild.
The movie is far from perfect in my eyes, though. Despite the brisk runtime, the joke does get stale at a few points where dry conversations take over the stylistic exercise, and it's not a polished film at all. At times it feels like a bunch of ideas thrown in for the sake of being different, without filtering some stuff out. The final product is therefore uneven in its execution, but I quite liked it. It has lots of charm and it sure is entertaining.
Zatôichi goyô-tabi (1972)
Zatoichi at Large (1972)
After the previous installment, which was the least formulaic so far, the franchise sadly takes another turn to the generic with Kazuo Mori's Zatoichi at Large. The truth is, this would be a pretty good movie if it was one of the earliest ones, but as #23 of the series, it comes across as a bland pastiche of all too familiar tropes and elements from the other films.
Apparently, the Zatoichi films would rarely get shown again, so directors would get comfortable with re-using themes. This one begins with the same baby plot as Fight, Zatoichi, Fight (#8) but soon turns into another "town terrorized by gangsters" deal. The final boss here is played by Rentaro Mikuni (his second appearance in the series), but doesn't get to do much that others before him didn't already. An interesting thing about this film is that the first half is utterly goofy while the second is dead serious, but aside from that, this is typical Zatoichi stuff. Of course the mystery ronin appears too, but the battle between them is remarkably lazy, like the filmmakers just said: "yeah, let's get this over with already".
The visuals are a bit above average, with a recurring color scheme of black and blue (there's a very pretty scene where Zatoichi converses with a lady in front of a sparkling creek). The intro song just lists off common Zatoichi situations, as if it's making fun of the repetitiveness of several motives of the series. Speaking of that, some ideas here were downright lifted from previous outings, like Zatoichi breastfeeding a baby (from #8), Zatoichi being mistaken for a murderer (from #22), getting trapped in a ring of fire (from #21) and fighting while on fire (from #8 again). I guess the only unique thing here is that he gets tortured by villains.
Highlight of the film: a comic relief scene where an entertainer does a show with his monkey.
Mistérios de Lisboa (2010)
Unbearable 4-hour long soap-opera
Mysteries of Lisbon is one of the final films directed by Raul Ruiz, who took the 1854 novel of the same name by Camilo Castelo Branco and turned it into a film, which also ran as a mini-series. This is essentially a historical costume drama with a complicated story. Its flashbacks- within-flashbacks structure with multiple narrators, as well as its apparent aim of celebrating the invention of storytelling, is heavily reminding of Wojciech Has' 1965 film The Saragossa Manuscript, but it's not a rip-off or anything, just a film that, perhaps coincidentally, shares the unique shape its plot takes with Has' movie.
Unfortunately, this movie is an utter chore to get through. I've thought a bit about why I just couldn't get into the goings-on here no matter how hard I tried (it's a bad sign enough that I actually have to try to get into a film), and I think it's because of the dull-as-dirt characters. It's truly amazing how none of the characters here feels like an actual, existing person. There is zero charisma from any of the actors, no stand-out performances, nothing worthy of attention in regards to how these people talk, behave and sound. And this is the hardest part to explain because you just have to feel it. It felt as if every person in this film was a wooden plank with different lines of dialogue scribbled on them. Nothing here felt organic, absolutely nothing.
What makes things worse is that the way the plot is set up absolutely requires interesting or memorable characters in order to work at all. But I just couldn't care about any of them. And the plot is so complex that you have to pay attention literally all the time so that you don't miss something in the conversations. The so-called "golden rule" of cinema saying: "show, don't tell" is far from an universal guiding point and there are many films which are great despite breaking the "rule", but I think Mysteries of Lisbon is a great example of a film where applying the rule would've made for an engaging view. Absolutely everything here is conveyed through dialogue which is not only delivered by bland players, but also often unnecessarily prolonged by runabout stallings and even interruptions, such as in the scene where two characters exchange a conversation, only for one of them to repeatedly walk to his servants way in the background and return before continuing the dialogue, thus prolonging the scene for far longer than needed. Moments like these don't contribute tension or anything in this context, they're just absolutely baffling.
I might also add that I'm not overly impressed with the story itself. Yes, it's very complicated, but I can't see why that's a feat. Anyone can write a long and convoluted story about human relations, but that simply isn't impressive unless you can make the movie feel vibrant, interesting or engaging. Mysteries of Lisbon fails to do so, and becomes a stunningly dull, un-cinematic soap opera with a disgustingly bloated run-time and nothing to back it up.
The last thing to comment on is the filming style. Some reviewers like to compare the visual feel here to films like The Leopard (1963) and Barry Lyndon (1975), and honestly, I can't see why. Mysteries of Lisbon feels like a TV-production in comparison. Unlike the other two films, it doesn't really recreate the feel of the times found in old paintings (unless Portuguese painters were much more restrained). The camera movement and placement is quite bland for the most part. It does contain some unusual choices, like having the actors in close-up while the rest of the cast is placed in the far background, or some short surrealist touches here and there. But these additions honestly feel out of place. It's as if the movie tries to counter its generic outlook by occasionally forcing an unusually framed shot. Needless to say, it doesn't work.
Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman (1971)
It's rare to see that the 22nd installment of a franchise gets to be its finest. I'm still not exactly sure if Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman is my exact favorite so far, but it's definitely up there. In the review for the last film I said that that it'll be hard to make the series interesting or fresh for the final few outings, but #22 does it by not following the plot formula that the previous films established and by putting Zatoichi against a charismatic, capable rival.
It's a crossover with the One-Armed Swordsman films starring Jimmy Wang Yu, the third Zatoichi crossover in a row. The Mifune one was utterly meh, and the Nakadai one was barely even a crossover in how he was used in a small side-plot, so it's easy to say this one surpasses them with ease. Zatoichi and the One-Armed Swordsman cannot understand each other because of the language barrier, which sets in motion a very interesting story, but also stands as a simple, but oddly effective metaphor for the cultural differences and conflicts between China and Japan.
To add to this, the final duel in this film definitely doesn't have a predictable outcome like the Zatoichi vs Yojimbo one had. I was actually surprised at it. Also, the sword-fighting scenes are just excellent all throughout the film. The only real weakness is lack of an unique visual style, but that really goes for any Zatoichi film directed by Kimiyoshi Yasuda.
Highlight of the film: a thug getting his arm chopped off by Zatoichi and not even realizing it until he sees it in front of himself.
Hokusai manga (1981)
Hokusai deserves better
This is a biography of the famous Japanese woodblock print-maker Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), one of the most well-renowned Ukiyo-e artists. The Japanese title of the movie, Hokusai Manga, is actually the name of the 13-volume sketchbook he published cca. 1814. The sketchbook contains a number of shunga drawings (erotic pictures), which the film decides to focus on as far as Hokusai's work is concerned.
The people from Hokusai's life are all here; his daughter who spent her entire life with him, his friend and Japan's first professional writer, Kyokutei Bakin, an alluring model called Onae (who was, as it seems, invented for the film because there's no mention of her online at least), and even his contemporary Utamaro Kitagawa, another famous woodblock artist.
But really, the film fails to do anything memorable with this ensemble, instead turning into a generic biopic without any eccentricity or artistic vision. The movie feels very drawn out and boring at certain times. There are also some attempts at humor which completely miss their mark in the movie's first half. The second half, where everyone is much older, is a tiny bit more entertaining and the scene where Hokusai paints his famous tentacle porn drawing "The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife" is pretty hilarious and reminds me of Ed Wood. By the way, the old person make-up is pretty bad.
This is pretty disappointing, especially coming from a great director such as Kaneto Shindo and with a notable cast (Ken Ogata, Jo Shishido, Nobuko Otowa). A bland biography with a very cheap budget. Usually that's not a bad thing in and of itself, but this truly comes off as a cheap TV-production. Campy acting, bad effects and an unappealing visual style where everything is set in like two or three rooms which all look the same in their watery brown-ish hues. There is some nudity in the movie which makes it less boring, but it doesn't save it much. The music isn't bad but sounds like it belongs to an adventure/action movie a la Indiana Jones (take a listen during the end credits).
Zatôichi abare-himatsuri (1970)
Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival (1970)
Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival (he doesn't actually, there's some poetic freedom in that title) is the 21st film in the series, and by this point, things have gotten beyond stale. This is actually one of the least formulaic entries in the series (it's co-written by the star Shintaro Katsu), but by now, I just don't really care that much for the stories here. It all seems like something we've already seen before.
The cast in ZGttFF is comprised of several well-known faces. The mystery ronin here is played by the brooding Tatsuya Nakadai, who, as expected, gives the best performance. Peter (the transvestite from Ran and Funeral Parade of Roses) appears as a flamboyant wannabe yakuza thug. Masayuki Mori plays the diabolical blind yakuza lord who may be the most wicked villain so far, with Ko Nishimura (once more) as his henchman.
But really, this entry completely failed to draw me in, and I fear that the remaining few films won't have much new to offer either. The film suffers from severe tonal dis-balance, due to which it never really finds a solid footing. There are so many sub-plots here that the main string is hard to find. Nakadai's plot is the most interesting in its depiction of a troubled, violent ronin eaten by jealousy, and there are nifty surreal flashbacks to his past. Mori's sub-plot is kind of similar in tone, but is too talky and filled with too much dead air at times, which ruins the action flick pace a bit. Then, the film takes a pseudo-romantic turn, with a young woman (who's actually a spy for the blind lord) going for Zatoichi, which I didn't care for in the least. Then there's the needless sub-plot with Peter, filled with homoerotic undertones. Then the odd touches of comedy, particularly a baffling bath-house swords-fighting scene where Zatoichi slaughters a bunch of thugs to Oriental surf music and comically struggles to cover up his junk in the process.
There are quite a few good individual scenes in the movie (and I'm glad Zatoichi has hair again because the bald look really doesn't fit him), particularly the amusing fight between a bickering village couple randomly thrown into the film, but all in all this just didn't do anything for me. Not as generic as some of the other ones, but didn't feel like anything new either. As a useless side-note, this may or may not (I don't exactly remember) be the first Zatoichi film where (female, duh) boobs are shown.
Highlight of the film: the bickering married couple in the village, of course.
Bande à part (1964)
Not really a fan
Once again I don't know what do with a Godard film. Not really compelling, but not really awful, not too innovative, but not too formulaic, certainly not entertaining but not completely tedious. A Band of Outsiders is a crime romance flick that just baffles me, but not in a thought-provoking way or any other way of titillating my interest. Ultimately I dislike it. There is some really good stuff in here, but most of it seems to be probing the borders of boredom.
As a New Wave film, it's expected that this one too would part ways with conventional storytelling and filming style, but it's caught in that awkward middle way where it's not over the top enough to be really memorable and inspired and it's not conventional enough to tell an entertaining crime story. Godard's typical tricks are here on display too; sudden deadpan narration, sudden diversions, sudden sound mixing and editing jokes, but most of those miss their mark here. The plot moves unbearably slow and the characters here are far from magnetic or charismatic, besides Anna Karina, but that's probably just because she's pretty to look at. I didn't care for these characters' fates at all.
The film isn't completely bland. There's some really good stuff here. The dance scene is very cute, the music all throughout the film is charming, the camera occasionally captures a great snapshot of 1960s Paris. But really, for every good scene here there are 10 tedious ones, and it just doesn't click with me overall.
Mikreh Isha (1969)
Great Israeli avant-garde film that needs a lot more attention
A Woman's Case, the only feature film directed by Jacques Katmor, a prominent member of the Tel Aviv artist collective Third Eye Group, is an avant-garde condemnation of the dehumanizing side effects of modern life.
It's a simple story of a woman hooking up with an advertising executive and being found dead, the underlying theme of which seems to be a portrait of the times when materialism started to take off in popular culture and people, specifically models, being treated as disposable faces and bodies, without much individuality and with almost masochistic compliance to the society's whims. The message thankfully isn't preachy, and since Helit Katmor, the leading actress, is beyond beautiful, the movie is a really easy watch. She later became known for her translations of Proust into Hebrew while Jacques Katmor sadly became a tragic figure over time, sinking into alcohol and drug addiction.
The grainy B&W visuals are typical for the '60s counter-culture aesthetic but still very lovely - melancholic and playful at the same time. There are many vignettes in this film set to excellent psychedelic rock (more precisely, the song "Open Up Your Eyes (Take a Look Around You)" by The Churchills, recorded for the film) and containing mostly of surreal imagery, dance scenes, depictions of women being bound or choked, as well as countless pop-art pictures, comic book panels, naked photos, all portraying the female body in one or another way. Naturally, the visual appeal of these erotic images is lost very quickly because of how numerous and repetitive they are, but that seems to be the point.
This is an excellent and criminally neglected art film, somewhat stylistically reminiscent of the Japanese New Wave films by Toshio Matsumoto and Susumu Hani, made in the exact same time as this one was. Highly recommended.
There's also a funny little hourglass joke/anecdote towards the end of the film, which I'll definitely be stealing.
Zatôichi to Yôjinbô (1970)
Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo (1970)
After a year-long hiatus, I return to the Zatoichi saga. There's not many movies left in the original run, and this one in particular is interesting because, as the title indicates, it's a crossover between Zatoichi (Shintaro Katsu) and Yojimbo (Toshiro Mifune).
Now, I don't really know if this is even the same Yojimbo (bodyguard) character as in the two Kurosawa films, but if he is, then he's under a different name here. Anyway, not only is Toshiro Mifune present, but the film happens to be directed by Kihachi Okamoto (who made The Sword of Doom) and there's also a role by Ayako Wakao, the notable actress from many a Yasuzo Masumura New Wave film.
Unfortunately, this movie isn't anything to write home about. It utilizes every single trope of the Zatoichi franchise. Really, every single one. There's a town that got taken over by bad guys, there's an old flame of Zatoichi's (just how many towns across Japan does he have an ex-lover in?), there's Zatoichi briefly ruminating on his violent ways, there's a mysterious thug wearing a black kimono, there's a Chō- Han gambling game again, some comical moments, and finally a duel.
The one thing that sets this apart from the rest (besides Mifune) is the 2-hour long runtime. Certainly excessive for a Zatoichi film, especially when the plot is so convoluted such as in this one. Visually, there's the dull gray + brown palette again, but there are some nice shots, especially during the final duel which is quite atmospheric despite the outcome being obvious. The music is pretty good in this one, too.
Highlight of the film: the duel between Zatoichi and Yojimbo, naturally.
Getsuyôbi no Yuka (1964)
A fun New Wave oddity
Ko Nakahira's Yuka on Mondays (alternatively Only on Mondays) is one of those films best described as time capsules. What this is is an interesting little peek into 1960s Yokohama, the mood of the time, the people of the time.
Mariko Kaga is cute as the main character, a ditsy prostitute in a rocky relationship with her pimp, lovers and family. The language mix is cute. The dance sequences are cute. The magic act scene is cute. Really, it's surprising how endearing this film is for essentially being a downer of a story, a feminist tragedy whose final 15 or so minutes were kinda unsettling. The film is very slow-paced at times, but somehow this approach works just fine here, mixed with cool music, certain New Wave tricks and techniques and a mildly comical atmosphere.
Quite interesting, worth checking out!
A great storyline watered down by the suffocating style
A 7-hour long, slow-paced, Hungarian black-and-gray art-film about a decaying village community and its naive occupants left without any authority to lead them, be it an authority of the otherworldly sort or the earthbound sort. The narrative is structured in 12 segments, like tango (six steps forward, six backward) and the same events are often portrayed from the viewpoints of different characters.
The story here is actually quite interesting with some neat symbolism. Like in Tarr's previous film (Damnation), the telling introductory shot, where a herd of cows aimlessly wanders around a barren farm and gets lost in the fog, has more substance than the majority of the movie. The film deals with the themes of hopelessness, transience and ruined dignity.
The most fully fleshed out character here is Irimias (played by composer Mihaly Vig), a Christ-like person who returns to the village (even though the other inhabitants thought he was dead) and takes advantage of a recent tragedy to swindle the villagers. The tragedy in question is that of a neglected little girl poisoning herself after a cruel prank/theft (reminiscent of the one in Carlo Collodi's Pinnocchio) by her own brother shatters her childhood innocence. Irimias then promises the villagers a new, prosperous life outside of the village, much like Moses leading his folk to the Promised Land. Irimias' plans for them turn out to be a scam, which gives the film an underlying message: that of the absence of a concrete figure of authority in the villagers' cold, cruel world. Irimias can therefore be interpreted both as the failed experiment of Communism in Hungary and as a religious figure which can only let its followers down. The villagers are helpless against both the world and Irimias, both of whom kick them around as they please.
The film's title comes alive in the scene where the villagers indulge in joyous tango as they're expecting Irimias to come, but after they fall asleep, the tavern's spiders, through their own, Satanic tango, cover them in cobwebs, foreshadowing the actual tango being danced here, the true nature of Irimias.
So, the plot line is for the most part well thought-out, but it's strange to praise the film for this because it's apparently an exact adaptation of the novel by Laszlo Hrasznahorkai. There are some shortcomings here, though. Despite the huge running time, plenty of characters are almost ignored, primarily Petrina, Irimias' sidekick who doesn't get to do or say much. Also, there are a lot of scenes that are either unnecessary or unnecessarily prolonged (the part of the plot which focuses on the girl, for example). To add to all of this, I'm not sure how the "same-events- told-through-different-characters'-eyes" element here complements either the plot of its themes. It's not executed in a particularly memorable fashion.
The shots are long, very very long, which instead of building an immersive, imposing world, completely diminishes the power of the story and often, the power of the images themselves! Most of the imagery here completely loses its poetic resonance after a certain point. This film is like a tasty beverage that got watered down. The slow takes do work wonders in certain scenes, such as the two segments where we follow an aging, fat doctor and his monotone daily routine, every step he makes being a struggle for him. The weariness of his body, the monotony of his life is conveyed in a convincing, beautiful and engaging fashion.
But the fact that every type of event in this film is portrayed in the exact same style hurts the film immensely. It hurts the poetic atmosphere, the natural progression of the plot and turns the entire viewing experience into a wishy-washy, watered down concoction that ends up being entirely forgettable. Tarr explains the choice as his way of portraying the characters' lives, but it just doesn't feel true to life or natural, it just felt very calculated here. I often hear the "It's meant to be dull to portray the dullness of life!" argument, which I hate because it means you don't need to have any talent to make a passable film, because anyone can just point the camera at something dull and call it a day. Besides, tediousness can be illustrated without the film itself having to be tedious. When you inflict the tediousness on the audience instead of illustrating it, it doesn't make the movie more powerful. If anything, it makes it forgettable and bland.
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.
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.
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 suicidally depressed 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 depression 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.
Ai no bôrei (1978)
Empire of Passion
Nagisa Oshima's second co-production with France, Empire of Passion (based on the manuscript of Itoko Nakamura's then-unpublished novel), is often falsely considered to be a sequel to his previous film, In the Realm of the Senses. However, despite featuring the same lead actor (Tatsuya Fuji), the two films are only loosely connected by some of the similar themes they share, making them a diptych of sorts.
Empire of Passion is set in the Meiji era and, like the previous film, focuses on the nature of passionate love, or the consummation of sexuality and how it can offer an escape from the repressive outside world. However, the two protagonists in this film are doomed from the start because of this, as the fleeting sensations lead them to irreparable life choices which then take a heavy toll on their psyche. The film is much less sexually explicit than Realm, but is more disturbing and overall it's a much darker tale, with some kaidan (ghost story) elements. The appearance of a traditional Japanese depiction of a ghost fits into the whole "folktale" mood of the film, complete with a narrator voice of a creepy old lady.
Unlike Realm, Empire is set in the natural world. Thus, the film is defined by seasonal shifts (it actually goes in reverse, Winter-Autumn- Summer-Spring) and the two main characters are left in mercy of the chaotic, indifferent world of nature. Some of the most beautiful shots from the movie are in fact landscapes, or seen from under a well. Toru Takemitsu's soundtrack is quite good as usual.
Unfortunately, the film seemed to meander a bit, and some of the ghost scenes are pretty cheesy. The theatrical acting was a bit too much in several parts (lead actress Kazuko Yoshiyuki is beyond cute here, though) and overall, the film didn't quite click with me.
Muri shinjû: Nihon no natsu (1967)
Japanese Summer: Double Suicide (1967)
Nagisa Oshima's Japanese Summer: Double Suicide (1967) takes place in near-future (the seventies?). It's unclear what happened prior to that, but it left the streets desolate and there's a group of members of a secret army planning to overthrow the government or something. It's an absurd, nihilistic, a bit confusing but always captivating film with the usual political ideas, characteristic of Oshima's work. The youth is aimless and violent, the soldiers are disillusioned, and everyone is obsessed with death and violence, talking about guns all the time while a 18-year old nymphomaniac girl wanting to have sex with each character is constantly ignored, only to become a means of salvation at the end.
The movie is shot exceptionally well - the B&W photography is especially creative in the opening 20 or so minutes, but it stays strong all throughout, with its elaborate lighting schemes, precise actor placement, rapid pans and unusual angles. The entire film is somewhat funny, yet somehow unnerving at the same time. It's totally "artsy", but also straight-forward and entertaining. Hard to describe, but worth a watch.
Nihon shunka-kô (1967)
Sing a Song of Sex (1967)
It's interesting to me how basically each Nagisa Oshima film is so stylistically different even though most if not all deal with the topics of sex, violence and politics. Sing a Song of Sex (aka A Treatise on Japanese Bawdy Songs), based on an essay by Tomomichi Soeda, is a strange hybrid of a transgressive teenage angst film, a political manifesto, an off-beat musical, an indictment of society and a hallucinative art film.
The movie follows four students whose teacher (played by Tampopo director Juzo Itami) delivers long drunken speeches about bawdy folk songs and how they were invented as a sexual outlet by and for the oppressed people. The students take in a different message and go on with their weird rape fantasies, mostly hanging around and singing bawdy songs. The film is a bizarre portrayal of the aimless youth of the time, but it also criticizes the Japanese intolerance towards Korean minorities (a theme later explored in two other Oshima films). Beyond that though, the movie is a bit too strange to make a head or tail out of it. It oscillates between light confusion and uncomfortable strangeness, always faithful to the red-black color palette (which I really dig) and its soundtrack composed of bawdy folk songs and American evergreens. A recommendation, maybe.