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Miracle Didn't Happen Here
8.5 average user ratings on 37 votes? I Wish people would stop voting based on director's prestige. "I Wish" is a bland mainstream movie that would've been unnoticed without the marketing power of Koreeda Hirokazu and its A-list actors as the supporting cast.
"I Wish", Japanese title "Kiseki (Miracle)", is sort of a road movie about a bunch of kids going to see the new Kyuushuu Bullet Trains crossing. Majority of the film follows the lives of the two brothers: One in Kagoshima; the other in Fukuoka. They reunite after their parents broke up 6 months ago. One day, the older brother Kouki hears the urban legend that witnesses of the new bullet trains crossing will have their wishes granted, much like seeing shooting stars. The brothers and their friends begin collecting money for the trip to have their wishes granted.
I did like how the bullet trains connecting to the Southwestern Japan marks a new era in the region. Perhaps that is the reason kids, the next generation, were the main focus of the story. It was also interesting that Tower of the Sun, the symbol of Osaka Expo '70, was torn down in Kouki's dream to further signify coming of a new era.
However, over three-quarters of the film was about getting ready for the trip, and the ending seemed very rushed despite the movie spending so much time with the plot getting nowhere. While "process is more important than result" is a common theme in Japanese films and certainly present in this film, the actual process (the trip to the destination) was cut too short as a series of convenient events, and the preparation stage was simply introduction of each kids and their problems in the most obvious ways imaginable. Furthermore, "I Wish" completely fails to build up for the climax (didn't have a climax?), making it an extremely bland movie... and this is NOT because it's one of those subtlety Japanese film in any way. "Koko ni Irukoto" (2001) is a subtle film, "Tennen Kokekko" (2007) is a subtle film, yet both of them (and many other Japanese films of its type) managed to be far more heartwarming than this generic road movie.
The leading actors, dubbed "MaedaMaeda" by the marketing team for being real brothers with the last name "Maeda" (also happens to be homophone with "forward" in Japanese), delivered very underwhelming performances. In fact, none of the child actors' acting can be truly called "acting". While this kind of performance works for the documentary style of Koreeda, it is a total disaster for a movie with such tightly written script, also making it feel extremely uneven with the supporting adult actors.
"I Wish" has THE biggest waste of acting talent I have ever seen. Odagiri Joe had about 10-minute screen time. Abe Hiroshi, Nagasawa Masami, and Natsukawa Yui... all of whom capable of leading in their own films, in addition to many veteran supporting actors, were reduced to cameo-like 3-minute appearances in this movie. Nagasawa Masami in particular was not even recognizable. With exception of Ootsuka Nene, none of the cast had to be the big-names since they had nothing to work with. They were there solely for marketing purposes.
Unlike Miike Takashi who also sold out to the mainstream in last year's TIFF participant "13 Assassins" (2010), Koreeda Hirokazu failed to create something extraordinary for the general audience and failed to draw out the best out of his talented cast. This film had nothing that hundreds of other Japanese directors couldn't have made.
"I Wish" is an average quality Japanese film made to glorify the new Kyuushuu Bullet Train and PR for the local businesses. Like in the movie, miracle didn't happen here.
Please laugh if you're not sure.
"Please laugh if you're not sure whether it's disturbing or funny," says director Ishii Kazuhiro at TIFF.
"Smuggler" is based on a single-volume manga about a failed actor who becomes an underground mover to pay back $30,000 (non-inflated exchange rate) in fraudulent debt to a Chinese gang. This is the type of movies where the plot is driven by quirky dark humor rather than logic, as the protagonist Kinuta gets deeper and deeper into trouble in the most unlikely turn of events imaginable.
It was the two "legendary assassins" Vertebrae (Andou Masanobu) and Viscera (Teiryuushin) who stole the spotlight though. There's quite a bit of action scenes throughout the film by those two in the most wacky form of violence. Vertebrae in particular was among the coolest, baddest villain ever. "Smuggler" is in no way for the faint of heart though. The lengthy torture scenes reminded me of Ichi the Killer (2001). In fact, it would've been an even more gory nerve wracking film if it wasn't for the camera angle censoring out the torture.
Matsuyuki Yasuko (beautiful as ever) also delivers a strong performance, though Tsumabuki Satoshi as the protagonist was quite a miscast as he never seemed convincing in his role. Mitsushima Hikari who was decent in Shion Sono's "Love Exposure" (2008) was comically bad, almost reading the script the whole time.
Despite the shortcomings by part of the cast, "Smuggler" is an entertaining dark comedy / action as long as you don't think too much and just enjoy the ride. And of course, don't forget to have the "teehee, his face got smacked by nunchucks" type of mindset when watching this film.
Momo e no tegami (2011)
7 years have not gone to waste
"A Letter to Momo" had reportedly taken the director Okiura Hiroyuki 7 years to produce. Allow me to be the first to say, the time and effort spent on perfecting this film have not gone to waste.
The art/animation in this movie is top-notch. Production I.G. with assistance from P.A. Works, Studio Pierrot, and CG by Dandelion resulted in stunning visual quality down to the tiniest details. What I especially liked, was the amount of attention paid to body language and gestures. There's so much information to be gleaned from subtleties of the visuals alone, and that's what I find most interesting about Japanese films. There was also this action sequence near the end that just blew me away. I don't want to spoil, but I have not seen such breathtaking hand-drawn animation since watching "Tonari no Totoro" in the late '80s.
The story begins with the protagonist, Momo, moving to a small fictional island named Shiojima with her mother. Their new house appears to be haunted, and she feels absolutely miserable about moving out of Tokyo. Being a city girl that she is, Momo struggles to adjust to the country life. Instead of playing with the local kids, she eventually befriends three Youkai in her house - Iwa, Kawa, and Mame. Momo begins to appreciate the life on the island, and come to realize the meaning of his late father's unfinished letter to her.
The character development in this movie is absolutely phenomenal. It begins with a light comedy, but through numerous adventures and mishaps on the island, we slowly learn about her past. The transition from comedy to drama is seamless, and it really makes you to care about the protagonist by the end... This film has what I call magic, something Ghibli films of late desperately lack. Although the local kids were severely underused in this movie, the three Youkai were the true supporting cast. Their chemistry with the protagonist was excellent, and the humor just comes naturally. Mame's character was especially funny in a quirky way. One can easily tell how much thought and planning has been put into this film just by watching the impeccable timing at which Mame's character was used as comedic relief every single time.
Every piece of music appears to be fully orchestrated, especially the violins stood out to build tension in action scenes. Momo's voice acting by child actress and seiyuu Miyama Karen was a perfect fit, as well as the three Youkai.
"A Letter to Momo" is almost like a homage to Studio Ghibli's kids movies - "My Neighbor Totoro", "Spirited Away", and "Ponyo". It sticks to the tried and tested formula of supernatural spirits that only interacts with kids, and somewhat predictable plot development. However, the producers have managed to merge various elements from all those films into an exciting original story. "A Letter to Momo" is a magical crowd-pleaser with great pacing and a heartwarming story. It's a solid movie that anime and movie fans should not miss.
Powerful film that came off a bit too pretentious.
As box offices are flooded by blockbusters and comic/novel adaptations produced for pure entertainment and money, here is a film that calls to bring back art in films. Despite the title of this review, "Cut" is not a "pretentious film". It's just that the way it was delivered seemed too snobbish to a casual viewer like me.
"Cut" follows an independent filmmaker's quest to repay $140,000 (non- inflated rate, 100yen = $1) in just 2 weeks when he was told by a yakuza group that his brother, who was working as a member, was killed when he was caught selling the group's turf to a Chinese gang in order to repay the debt he borrowed to fund the protagonist's films.
Shuuji, the protagonist is an avid activist who takes his megaphone to preach for a change, screaming things like "film is dead" and "film is not a whore". He also holds his own screenings of the classic movies.
With no hope for repayment, he resorts to earning back the money from yakuza themselves by becoming a human punching bag, charging anywhere between $50 to $600 a hit. Perhaps as a method of self-torture to atone for his sins towards his brother, Shuuji insists that the beatings occur at the restroom where his brother was killed. The protagonist is true to his belief that films are meant to be works of art rather than just for entertainment, and continues his routine film activities even during the 2 weeks of physical abuse.
It was a provocation from a relatively high-ranking yakuza member that started it all. The man told Shuuji to hold a gun to his mouth and pull the trigger for $1,400. It's remarkable what people are willing to do when they're desperate, as is the case here.
People usually cling on to religion at hard times. Shuuji, on the other hand, goes to the graves of deceased Japanese film master directors such as Kurosawa, Ozu, and Mizoguchi for salvation. Film is his religion, and he basks on projections of classic films every night to heal his inner wounds. His anger toward so-called "shit movies" also drives him to stay alive and change the film industry.
Nishijima Hidetoshi's performance was solid in the film, although I could no longer recognize his face by the end of the movie. It was Tokiwa Takako who blew me away, though. She's still as beautiful as she was in her '20s despite approaching 40 now. I usually see her playing the role of a fragile or innocent girl, but she convincingly portrayed yakuza office's tough yet caring bartender.
Too many Japanese B-movies these days seem to use violence simply as a shock effect, but the violence had a meaning in this movie. "It's not about money," he says, perfectly reflecting his belief in movie production. Each blow to his stomach or face only seems to strengthen his belief.
However, "100 movies in 100 punches" was where it got too far. I already felt there were far too many footages from classic "masterpieces" throughout this film that I have never seen, but this is when my patience ran out. I understand it's the director's movie and he can do whatever he wants to, but seriously, this is not the place for blogging. I did like the way each film mentioned builds up the suspense, but the same effect can be done with the protagonist just muttering those titles. I even asked Amir Naderi during the Q&A, and as I had suspected, it was his personal list plus "the Japanese tastes", which I will assume as inputs from his assistant directors and staff. This kind of narcissistic presentation further alienates the intended audience (if this film if it really was meant to change the film industry), which is the mainstream viewers.
Admittedly, I'm not an old film fan so I may be missing the point here, but I do enjoy "meaningful", even artsy films. The problem is, it's not the industry nor the multiplexes (I found it ironic that this movie was aired in AMC) preventing people from watching "pure films". The industry makes them because people want to watch movies for entertainment in this days and age, plus not all blockbusters are "shit movies". Ultimately, the main character came off too pretentious for the mainstream tastes.
A film does not have to be artsy to be "good", and film is still very much alive. With events like TIFF where I saw this film, there are still opportunities for aspiring filmmakers. I found this movie to be very enjoyable and I support the cause, but I feel the wrong approach was taken to "save" the art in movies.
On a side note, the subtitle for this film was among the worst film festival subtitles (or official R2 DVDs with English subtitles) I've ever encountered in Japanese films. I don't know what kind of amateur would translate 「無」 on Ozu's grave as "nothing" in context when it should clearly be "nothingness", "void", or "emptiness". Also, it translated "true film" in one scene as "classic film". Non-Japanese speakers should be wary of what you read.
The earthquake that struck Northeast Japan in March 2011 forever changed the lives of millions, and we all knew it would eventually be reflected in Japanese films. I just didn't expect it to happen so quickly, much less by Sono Shion of all directors making such an inspirational film that encourages the Japanese youth to never give up. "Himizu" was an adaptation of the manga, but Sono Shion had reportedly reworked the script after the earthquake.
The title "Himizu" is a mole species in Japan. The movie is set in a boat rental shack by the lake, and the protagonist was repeatedly covered in mud due to external forces, yet stands up each time. I think in addition to the gloomy darkness seen from a person's perspective, the title also reflects Sono's message that one should advance forward no matter how muddy and hopeless the outlook may be.
The first third of this film portrays the despair facing today's youth using extreme examples: Having the perception that they are in the way of their parents' happiness; having an "ordinary life" as a goal rather than having a big dream due to the disappointing job market; and the urge to release anger by physical violence, even murder or suicide. The story paints a bleak picture of today's youth with a touch of quirky comedy while introducing the main characters.
The Shion-esque bizarre plot twist goes on full throttle in the second third as the film as characters succumb to their dark desires and go on a rampage, from theft, "Death Note"-like vigilante justice, and finally murder. There is quite a bit of art house scenes and corny WTF lines tossed around. This may make "Himizu" a difficult watch for some, but I thought it really depicted the deranged minds kids may have, and adds the Sono Shion flavor to this movie.
The final third is where the drama occurs, and all the loose ends tied up. It shows that even today, there is kindness around you by the "last supper" scene. Followed by the epiphany of what it means to be a "responsible adult". Finally topped off by a cheer to Japanese citizen to never give up and dream big. The presentation was incredibly powerful, and it left me in tears. "Himizu" begins and ends with a jog. The final scene could not have been any more dramatic and inspirational.
Repetitive use of Mozart's "Requiem" in this movie was especially memorable. The same passage was played in many occasions throughout the film. While it sounded like jovial comedic support at first, it appeared to raise a sense of urgency in the "second third" as the story progressed, before fully turning into a sombre yet peaceful requiem in the end. Such powerful use of BGM is pretty rare from my experience.
Casting for this movie is incredible. The lead couple Sometani Shouta and Nikaidou Fumi delivered performances worthy of their newcomers award at the 68th Venice International Festival. Nikaidou Fumi as the stalker girl Chazawa especially stood out, resembling Miyazaki Aoi in every aspect, from her cute looks, the ability to handle quirky comedy, to dramatic performance (she shed tear in 6 different scenes in this film by my count). She's definitely the actress to watch out for. Kubozuka Yousuke, who also appeared in TIFF's "Monsters Club" (2011), was actually given the opportunity to shine. Remainder of the cast seemed to be directly taken out of Sono's "Cold Fish" (2010). Many directors reuse their "favorite actors", but it was really fitting in this case since their chemistry was excellent. The strengths of each actor were definitely drawn out to the fullest by the director.
"Himizu" is a powerful film that has everything you might expect from a Japanese flick: Quirky comedy, angst, despair, yakuza, violence, horror, search for self identity, bitter-sweet adolescence, romance, drama, inspiration, and the art house treatment. Not only is it entertaining, it also manages to be provocative and deep.
It's a shame that some foreign film critics didn't seem to understand that the reference to 2011 earthquake was not meant to drive the plot nor intended to be the reason these characters are in despair. It's a movie that screams "You are one and only flower in the world" (Sekai ni Hitotsu dake no Hana), as the title of the popular boy band group SMAP's song referenced in this film, which is often used to inspire people in Japan when they're feeling down. This movie is meant to call out a clear-cut message for the devastated Japan to never give up, that one should dare to dream, and that there's hope. It delivered.
I thoroughly enjoyed this film, and it easily ranks in my all-time top 5 list of Japanese films. Highly recommended for Sono Shion fans and non- fans alike.
Monsutâzu kurabu (2011)
Underwhelming Angst Film
According to the executive producer present at TIFF, 'Monsters Club' was first conceived by Toyoda Hideyoshi when he read the manifesto "Industrial Society and Its Future" by mail bomber and mathematician Ted Kaczynski. That Toyoda saw the resemblance of the dysfunctional social system to that of Japan's, and decided to make a movie about it.
I had thoroughly enjoyed Toyoda's previous feature films 'Blue Spring' and 'Hanging Garden', so I thought this movie had the potential to become a psychological masterpiece after seeing the trailer in spite of its suspiciously short 72 minute screen time. Unfortunately, it tuned out to be a very underwhelming angst film.
The story revolves around Ryouichi played by Eita, a man living in seclusion at a snowy mountain's cabin. A few pessimistic views on society were raised as introduction. That the working man is a slave to the system, that opportunities were provided only by the system, and that no one bound by rules of society is truly free. This leads to why he decided to attain freedom by detaching himself from the system to live a "self-sufficient" life. However, he's a hypocrite as he's not self-sufficient at all, and he's obsessed with trying to change the world by sending out mail bombs of his own.
One quote that I found particularly intriguing was: "Freedom is power. The power to control your own life." Unfortunately, this concept and just about every other views introduced earlier, were never fully addressed in the remainder of the film.
The protagonist suffers from mental breakdowns due to self-induced solitary confinement, and starts seeing dead brothers who question the point of living in despair. Even his sister who came to bring him back says death should be chosen when you feel like you're a slave in society. While we learn more about the protagonist's past and why he became the way he is now, none of those reasons were convincing nor empathetic. I admit that it may be impossible for an ordinary person to understand the motivations of a suicidal sociopath to begin with, but after a while, the protagonist started to seem like a bitter guy who just couldn't cope with the sadness of the loss of his family.
The cinematography was decent, and surprisingly, the pacing didn't feel to be too slow despite so few things being said (that I didn't really connect with). Eita delivers an acceptable performance, but once again, it appears like he's not cut out for a leading role, just like in 'April Bride' and 'Dear Doctor'. I was very disappointed in Kubozuka Yousuke, one of my favorite actor's performance in this movie. It simply appears he was typecast as a "weird guy" who failed to make a lasting impression. It is apparent that the director had failed to draw out the most out of his cast.
'Monsters Club' was nowhere as provocative or thought-provoking as it could've been. It made me feel empty inside, and I don't think that was desired response given the way its story progressed, and the anticlimactic attempted climax at the end. This movie will probably be remembered only for its weird acrylic sealant(?) mask and costume.
Force of Nature (2010)
Poorly Directed Biopic for a TV Star
It is difficult for a reviewer to criticize an environmental effort, especially a high profile activist like David Suzuki. I will probably be flamed by his fans for this review, but since it IS a movie, I will review it the way I would for any other film.
'Force of Nature: The David Suzuki Movie' was shown at a special earthquake benefit screening at JCCC. As a Canadian citizen, I obviously have heard of David Suzuki, but I never really watched any of his shows because I had dismissed him as just another eco-nut on TV. Of course it's an unfair bias toward a person I don't even know, so I decided to take this opportunity to learn about this "Canadian Icon".
The film had a very solid start with a long aerial view of Pacific Ocean and a glimpse of city of Vancouver, effectively symbolizing Earth being ruled for aeons by the Force of Nature, and the recent emergence of the Force of Mankind, as David Suzuki suggested in his Legacy Lecture. Then something happened... we're taken back to his childhood and the internment of Japanese Canadians in the era of WWII. I was expecting an environmental film like 'An Inconvenient Truth', but apparently it's a biopic. Even worse, what actually happened was the back and forth jump from his preach for environmental change to personal history. The implication of this is that the argument is too fragmented and superficial to be fully persuasive, and it's impossible to connect or empathize with David Suzuki because we keep getting interrupted by his Legacy Lecture. Having the most emotional scenes, or climax, in the first half of the movie certainly did not help.
The second half of the movie was a very difficult watch. It simply did not have the ability to keep the viewer interested with the film having climaxed in the first half, and due to mediocre pacing. This is reflected by people checking their cell phone around me, and some of them even stood up and left in middle of the movie! I watched this movie in a Japanese culture center, in a benefit event, in Canada... I can't imagine a more favorable audience, but there it was. The constant zoom-ins were also extremely annoying. It was used to emphasize the impact of David Suzuki's words for about 30 times. Something a novice filmmaker rather than an Oscar-nominated director would do.
This movie also calls David Suzuki's character into question. He preaches for all these environmental changes to save nature, but he does not seem to practice what he preaches. He is shown driving around is gas-guzzling cars and riding helicopter. Of course, these things had to be done for the production of a film, but such careless display sends a conflicted message.
Another scene where he criticizes fishermen in the iconic Tsukiji Fish Market (I couldn't help but laugh in this scene, I'm sure none of the Japanese fisherman knew he was rebuking their hard work to make a living... right in their home turf!), then the following scene shows the first time he appreciated great nature when he caught (and killed) a fish in a lake when he was young. He even caught two fishes for the making of this film, and handed them over to Natives who sliced them up into pieces, tossing them around like fishermen in Tsukiji as David Suzuki watched them in approval. It's wrong to catch them for general consumption, but it's fine to catch them for private consumption? Funny thing is, the event programmer said in the beginning of the movie that all proceeds from sushi sold at the event would be donated to earthquake relief in Japan. I wonder what David Suzuki has to say about that? It seems even the people who had picked this film was not convinced of environmental impact of mass fishing.
The most confusing scene was near the end, when he buried the picture of his father near a lake. I'm pretty sure that stuff is not bio-degradable.
I also found it pathetic that he does not speak Japanese. So his parents are second-generation Japanese, and he's the third-generation. That does not excuse him from abandoning his heritage, especially when he preaches the value of culture and family. I don't see the Natives dancing to English lyrics in the movie even though they've been "Canadian" for far more generations than David Suzuki. Understandably, his family was not isolated like the Natives, but as a direct Japanese descent (and as a star who represents Japanese-Canadians), he has no excuse for speaking worse Japanese than the Caucasian event programmer at JCCC.
There were other times when he just made no sense in the movie. "We are air"? "Particle attraction is love"? "Human beings are like maggots"? Such blabbering only diminishes his authenticity as a scientist and make him seem like the eco-nut that I thought he was. He was presented as a whining hypocrite and an idealist who made no effort to provide a viable solution to what he claims is an urgent situation. I have to admit though, he is an extremely charismatic speaker, and this documentary does show his passion toward his cause, however misguided it may be.
The director Sturla Gunnarsson at the event commented that David Suzuki originally wanted to do an environmental film while he wanted to do a biography. I'm not surprised. 'Force of Nature' could've been either a powerful statement of the current state of Earth and call for action like Al Gore's 'An Inconvenient Truth', or an inspirational biopic to David Suzuki's accomplishment through hardship of childhood. Unfortunately, it tried to do both, and ended up accomplishing nothing but shallow glorification of a TV star.
Vigilante Justice and Education
A surprise box office hit in Japan, 'Confessions' made its way to the Toronto International Film Festival, and also chosen as Japan's entry to the Oscars. However, it's a very Japanese movie I can only recommend to viewers who have seen over 50 Japanese films or prior experience with violent Japanese films. For everyone else, I would recommend less graphic Japanese value-of-life school films such as 'The Blue Bird' (2008) and 'School Days with a Pig' (2008).
Although there is a lot of blood spilled in the movie, it's still a mainstream picture with violence that's nothing compared to films directed by pre-2003 Miike Takashi, pre-2001 Kitano Takeshi, or most Japanese B-movies. What makes 'Confessions' a truly disturbing film, is that the horrifying acts of violence are done by teens, and adults' reactions toward them.
'Confessions' is the first non-comedy film directed by Nakashima Tetsuya, who is known for award-winning comedy films 'Kamikaze Girls', 'Memories of Matsuko', and 'Paco and the Magical Book'. The story is based on 2008 award-winning novel of same title, which tells the story of a teacher's revenge on two students who killed her daughter. The movie is thought-provoking as well as emotionally draining, and takes the saying "kids can be cruel" to a whole new level.
The Japanese term for teacher is "sensei", a title given not only to teachers, but also as suffix to other honorable occupations in society like doctors, writers, politicians, and lawyers. Teachers in Japan have traditionally been a highly respected occupation because they guide students not only in the subjects they teach, but also supposed to be mentors in life. In essence, a sensei performs the tasks of both teacher and student councilor for his/her class. The occupation has been glorified and beautified in abundance of modern literature with modern school dramas such as '3-B Kinpachi-sensei', 'GTO', 'Gokusen', and 'Rookies', where teachers connect with delinquent students by relentless trust and hard work. In 'Confessions', however, the teacher played by Matsu Takako is depicted as an emotionless and cruel individual who sets out to take the matter into her own hands by teaching the value of life through horrifying revenge. It even pokes fun at the glorified teacher's image in media with lines like "I don't trust any of you, you're all talented liars", and the absurdity of the passionate teacher who was totally unaware of the situation. The student violence and coldness of the teacher is very reminiscent of 'Battle Royale' (2000).
Acting and casting in this movie were superb. I have been a Matsu Takako fan for a long time, but it was by far her best performance ever, and handled her unlikely dark role surprisingly well. Her control of emotion was right on in the first half as a ruthless teacher who suffers from tremendous pain, but hides her feelings in front of her students. In the second half, her character break down a couple of times, and it wasn't very hard for me to sympathize with the character despite the horrible things she did. Kimura Yoshino, and Okada Masaki both played their parts brilliantly in supporting roles. The casting was ridiculously well-done because all the characters felt so real, which brings a chill down my spine because it seemed like such frightening events can actually happen in real life. The child actors also performed very well, depicting the ill state some of the classrooms in Japan, and the twisted thoughts juvenile minds can have. Teen model Hashimoto Ai, who played Student A's girlfriend especially shined. She definitely will have a great career ahead if she can continue to perform at this level.
The story is unveiled through confessions of various characters in the movie, sometimes repeating the same event from different perspectives. Everyone expresses their own hopes and despair, sadness and hatred. The fast narratives combined with hauntingly beautiful slow motion imagery and mesmerizing background music gave this film an eerie, gloomy atmosphere that complimented the story, as well as an exceedingly engaging flow of plot development. My only complaint is that the movie is slightly overproduced with excessive use of slow-motion throughout the film that offset the climax scene, which used high-speed camera and CG. But overall, extremely well-directed and bold art house human horror mystery.
The movie addresses common social issues in Japan, such as bullying, abuse of child protection act, discrimination, and suicide from a whole new angle. 'Confessions', like many fine traditional Japanese films, is very emotionally draining, but keeps up the suspense throughout the film.
By taking lives so lightly and easily in the film, the director conveyed the true value of one's life.
Jûsan-nin no shikaku (2010)
Mainstream Film-Making at its Very Best
Director Miike Takashi was once a cult film phenomenon in Japan with controversial films such as 'Audition', 'Dead or Alive' series, and 'Koroshiya Ichi'. Recently, however, his works are getting more mainstream-friendly with high-budgeted films such as "Crows ZERO" series, 'Ryuu ga Gotoku', and 'Yatterman'. Sure, there's still plenty of violence, but nowhere near as shocking nor horrifying as his earlier films. Is he a sellout? Perhaps. But how can we blame him? You'll be approached by major studios once you attain certain level of fame, and higher budget means it must appeal to more people in order to get the investment back. '13 Assassins' delivers exactly that despite being a Japanese period piece, which traditionally appealed only to the older generation and film buffs. The movie was screened at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival under 'Masters' category, "Films made by the most influential directors living today", and Miike Takashi lives up to expectations.
'13 Assassins' is supposedly a remake of 1963 jidaigeki (Japanese period piece) of same title. Let me tell you this, the movie is not a true jidaigeki. Miike Takashi has transformed it into a 126 minutes of pure fun and excitement.
The story is about an assassination attempt of a tyrant lord by 13 'true' samurais who are believers in justice and uprising on behalf of the People in the year 1844. The original film was famous for its 30 minutes of continuous battle sequence, and the remake's may be even longer. Long story short, it's action-packed, and more people got slashed than in the 'Azumi' series in this movie.
As a service to Miike's cult following, the movie is far more violent than typical jidaigeki, with plenty of gut-exploding, head-rolling action and some grotesque scenes involving a woman with separated limbs (who created a plot device that ultimately became one of the most dramatic scenes in the movie). Unlike other Japanese war epics, the movie also has a modern sense of humor with plenty of comedic reliefs, astonishingly beautiful cinematography in the forest, and advanced battle tactics. What's surprising, is that none of it felt unnatural and corny like every other modern jidaigeki films that attempted and failed miserably to modernize period pieces, such as "Tsukigami" and "Sakuran".
The cast is truly star galore with some of the biggest names in Japanese acting, and experienced supporting actors. About half of them are actors with extremely unique or modern faces that I would've never expected to see in a period piece, but none of the characters seemed out of place even though their faces are still very much identifiable. The biggest surprise was the choice of boy band SMAP member, Inagaki Gorou as the twisted villainous lord. Not only did he hold his own among far more talented full-time actors, he was vital in much of the humor that made this film a success. Truly talented directors are capable of drawing the most out of his cast, and Miike had done just that.
'13 Assassins' is a movie destined to become a blockbuster. Time just flies by when you're having fun, and the audience at the TIFF screening were applauding in every cool and dramatic scenes, and eventually turned into a standing ovation as the credits started rolling.
Remakes are all about translating an outdated (or foreign culture) piece into a work that appeals to the modern (or local) audience. '13 Assassins' does both with universal language of comedy and violence which transformed a classic period piece into a thriller for the modern taste that anyone over the age of 12 (or whatever age restrictions this film will get in your country) can enjoy despite being a jidaigeki. I would recommend this movie to just about everyone. In fact, you don't even need to be a Japanese movie buff to appreciate it. Mainstream film-making at its very best.
Noruwei no mori (2010)
Poor script, great direction
"Norwegian Wood" was a hot ticket at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival. Based on 1987 hit novel of the same title.
I haven't had the opportunity to read the original novel, but if I had to guess, it was a very poor adaptation. The movie was plagued by lackluster character development and puzzling character motivations. It seemed like the characters went out and did their things because that's what happened in the book. The characters also didn't seem real, as more than half of what they were talking about were about sex - NOT Japanese behavior! - even for horny students. It kind of got repetitive after a while, like "here we go, nonchalantly talking about sex in public again." Probably should've gotten a Japanese scriptwriter and not repeat as many notable lines from the novel. The pacing was relatively slow, but it was probably appropriate since films like this rely on connecting with the characters. Unfortunately, it never happened for me for reasons listed earlier.
Acting and the technicals, on the other hand, was top-notch. Especially Kikuchi Rinko and Tamayama Tetsuji owned their roles, leaving major impression in this film despite limited screen time. Matsuyama Kenichi, who I considered to be a weak actor, played surprising well as the protagonist in complex relationships with two women. The only problem was Mizuhara Kiko as Midori. A model in her first acting gig, her performance was average, but stood out as the weakest link amid the highly talented and motivated cast.
Dramatic scenes are beautifully depicted, with intoxicating music by Jonny Greenwood, enhancing every critical moment of the film. Visuals were breathtakingly beautiful despite HD format, though a bit too much noise in dark scenes. The '60s atmosphere was really great, everyone looked the part from hair to clothing, all the way to details in the background (though I think it would've looked even better with 35mm).
As a stand-alone film (for someone with first encounter with "Norwegian Wood"), it was exceedingly well-directed and acted movie with a very weak story. It was somewhat of an enjoyable viewing experience, but felt much longer than it actually was, and probably didn't do justice for a novel that held the Japanese sales record for a decade and half.