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Caution: Stay Away If You Are Fond Of Films From Disney, Think Marvel's Monthly Release Schedule Features Cool Acting, Look Forward To The Next Fifteen Star Wars 'Franchise' Flicks Or Count Adam Sandler, Scarlet Johansson, Jeff Goldblum Et Al As Having Merit.
These films should mostly focus on the 'sale' rather than are about salesperson's lives and other endeavours, but included are films that at least delivered a good line or two.
Now don't go watching these! Instead, get out there and sell something.
The World's Most Humble President
Atheist, socialist, florist, husband, former guerrilla, Senator and President José Alberto Mujica Cordano of Uruguay gave a speech to the United Nations' Rio +20 summit, which was attended by heads of state and other delegates, on the 20th of June 2012 in which he declared, "... we do not come into this planet simply to develop.... We come into this planet to be happy."
Mujica was the President Of Uruguay from 2010 and 2015 and lead a stable socialist democracy with one of the highest GDPs of any South American country. He donated around 90% of his salary to charities benefitting poor people and went around in a 1987 Volkswagen, which he one year declared as his sole possession. In fact, he did not move into the presidential palace upon winning the election and remained in the modest house and farm belonging to his wife herself a former leftist guerrilla-turned-politician in the country.
The speech, scenes of which are included in Hosé! José Mujica! -Just Keep Walking, was not heard or noticed by many, but someone in Japan heard it and was inspired enough to turn it into a children's picture book called The World's Poorest President Speaks Out. It was subsequently translated into English. The visionary president and unassuming politician gained something of a fan base in Japan and beyond and so it was that a reporter flew to meet the simple, but radical man in his home country. The reporter did not have an appointment, but managed to meet the president who was visiting a housing project being built by and for homeless people through a donation from his presidential salary. The initial friendly conversation with the head of state, who was simply getting into his car as the reporter approached him, turned into an interview, a subsequent second flight and meeting and, in turn, an invitation for the now-former president to visit Japan. Mujica and his wife flew to Japan, were met with fans at the Tokyo airport, spoke to university students and visited Hiroshima Peace Memorial, the site remembering the atomic bombing of the city by the Americans.
What started as a speech became a multi-year project for the reporter - who would name his own first-born son Hose - and the documentary Hosé! José Mujica! - Just Keep Walking. Narrated by actress Ando Sakura (100 Yen Love and Love Exposure) the documentary interviews the farsighted man who in the course of several conversations, speeches and even a simple comment in the Peace memorial's guestbook reveals himself to be extremely smart, sage and kind and delivers the story of a man most folks surely have missed. It is quite a sight to see the president of a country in his beat-up old car or having to come down a tractor to sit down for an interview. It is also coincidental for the reporter and the director that the man admires Japan and happened to grow up with Japanese emigrants (this is a true story - not a Norwegian Wood reference) near his humble home. The former president is well read and insightful and has many things to say. One of these is that the Japanese have "lost their soul." Another is that, "The most important thing in life is not success. The most important thing in life is to just keep walking." The man is endlessly quotable. It is disappointing then that the documentary does not have the time to delve deeper into many of Mujica's accomplishments like environmental improvements, organic farming, LGBT rights, poverty alleviation and more. It is there to whet the viewer's appetite. The man was also instrumental in the USA/Cuba rapprochement under US President Obama, although the benefits of that to the Cuban people are questionable.
Hosé! José Mujica! -Just Keep Walking is not only a documentary covering an uncommon or novel Uruguayan subject matter, but also indirectly addresses globalization, sustainability, Westernization and criticism by the usual hordes on the Internet who ignorantly conflate Socialism with dictatorship.
Jose Mujica: "Becoming president is like putting on new tight fitting shoes. Stepping down is like kicking them off."
Dai Kome Soudou (2021)
What? They Married Rice?
When buying mutual funds one is always warned that "past performance is not a guarantee of future results" and the adage could easily be applied to films and the entertainment industry. Having enjoyed the director Motoki Katsuhide's handiwork in 2019's Iwane: Sword Of Serenity and even more so in 2018's Recall - not to mention the whimsical and funny Drugstore Girl - Angry Rice Wives with its premise of a historical look at Japan's Rice Riots of 1918 through the eyes of the women of the time and the place seemed like a promising proposition. The riots began in Toyama in Western Japan and spread to other areas of the country. Female stevedores were integral to the protests against the doubling of the price of rice in a short period of time owing to wartime inflation and greedy speculation. As such, these protests took on an anti-war characteristic, which made the film even more tantalizing.
Unfortunately, Angry Rice Wives was disappointing. While it would be a stretch to call it a bad film, a combination of poor acting, superficial treatment by the script and inconsistencies made for an indifferent watch. Moreover, having seen the star Inoue Mao in The Eternal Zero one would be forgiven for expecting more from her. While she was largely side-lined in that film, there was no indication her acting is as one-dimensional as her skin deep expression and monotonous gaze in this film.
Motoki and Inoue have also worked together before and should know what to expect from one another.
Given the period and the social class the film zooms in on the actresses who are largely transformed and unrecognizable. Their faces are sunburnt, haggard and unhappy, their backs hunched and their lives pitiful and desperate as they seek to stave off hunger and feed their families. Yet, much of it is not as fiery as one would expect and their expressions, endeavours and circumstances simply not believable. Men are off to Hokkaido or Karafuto to fish in the off-season and the women are left behind to toil, take care of the household and survive. Our heroine Ito has a house, three children and a mother to handle while she carries bale after bale from the warehouse to the boats. The first time the women march with anger and indignation no one spares them a glance. For some reason the second time the group marches everyone in town stops, stares and looks flabbergasted. It is inconsistent. Indeed, one or two of the women rushing a boat in a beach scene looked like they are laughing and are bemused instead of angry and determined. The police arriving within twenty seconds does not help with the scene's credibility either. Neither does the obviously fake ship off the coast nor the dejected reporter who wanted to change the world (by reporting on this incident).
These are poor people, but when a woman brings a free fish it falls on the ground and no one picks it up. Then there is obviously enough kelp for a poor woman to hand out for free. These are destitute people, but generally look too plump and healthy and carry their bales with too much conviction to truly be impoverished. The streets and the folks' clothes are too neat and clean. The feminism, which in a special video recording the director notes is important to his film, too is ham-fisted. There is a little girl who declares she hates the police as an older man touches and ogles her. A teen girl declares she is done with letting men control her life and, in order to not depend on men any longer, has decided to shuffle off and work as a geisha! Hey, as long as it is not this reviewer who has to explain to her what the job description of a geisha includes. Never mind that the prerequisite for such a vocation is years of training. It is fine as a feminist credo to improve one's lot in life, but instances like this make the film look cheap.
Indeed, and as mentioned, this film is not bad and it was an amusing watch given the subject matter, inclusive of the collusion of the merchant class with the warmongering government, setting and original idea, but a few questions did come to my mind. Why are the human mules needed in the first place? Even if no beasts of burden are available, could the townspeople, merchants and government not build or procure carts at least? Why the presence of the occasional visible narrator who intermittently talks to the screen or nobody in particular? Perhaps the director wanted to introduce the concept of a Benshi, which was popular in Japan during the riots' period, but then why do it only here and there? Finally, the film's original title is 'The Great Rice Riots.' Somehow someone in translation decided that the script, including several overt monologues (and even a pertinent speech against the system by a man on a soapbox) is insufficient feminism and the film's title became Angry Rice Wives in Canada.
Weird Adults... Not Really
The main protagonist, a male high school student with pink hair, calls his cram school teacher "a weird adult." It is uncalled for. There is barely anything different about her as she criss-crosses life and, in fact, does her best to be as middle-of-the-road as possible. She is 33, teaching at a cram school while living with her parents, hanging out with her friends and doing her best to turn away any and all situations that are not considered normal and conventional by her parents, friends or work.
Not weird at all.
Cram schools are notoriously popular for high school students in Japan. Top cram schools are impossible to get into and cost an arm and a leg too. There are many more applicants for top universities in Japan than there are spots and so it is not unusual to attend such preparatory institutions both weeknights and weekends for the more ambitious students. By now, A Story To Read When You First Fall In Love sounds like it could be a cross between Flying Colours, Meet Me After School/Chuggakuei Nikki (both featuring Arimura Kasumi) and Gokusen and you would be correct were you to think so.
Where the events take a turn for more thought-provoking and irregular is the potential for romance emanating from three men in the teacher's life. In the course of ten episodes the 33-year-old Harumi Junko (played by a 37-year-old Fukada Kyoko known for the fabulous Shimotsuma Monogatarai and the depressing Dolls) takes on the mission of teaching the cool-ish 17-year-old urchin Kyohei Yuri (played by the 23-year-old Yokohama Ryusei) in order to get him admitted to the elite Tokyo University. He falls in love with her and is adamant. Complicating matters is how she is being pursued by her cousin and former school-mate and another class-mate from the old days. This is where the serial shines. The story makes no apologies for the unconventional relationships and, aside from Junko's own trepidations, family and friends are by and large supportive and well-wishing. It is nice to see. Who needs another mainstream same-old same-old just because you, I or the majority may act haughty? In any event, at different paces and in different manners the old friend, the cousin and the student pursue Junko as she painstakingly slowly comes to grips with the reality of being coveted. Worth noting: Junko is walking around all day wondering why she cannot find a man. Also worth noting: she has no sensual bone in her body. See the cover and her legs? Strictly limited to the DVD cover and poster.
Trouble starts, and the episodes lose points, owing to the male actors and female characters. Two of the lead actresses Fukada and Takanashi Rin (she of the enigmatic Like Someone In Love) are difficult to imagine as lonely spinsters hopeless in love and desperately trying to not remain single. Tastes and opinions vary of course, but casting sex symbols as lonely old maids praying to the Shinto gods for a man to spare them a glance is just bizarre. That is the weird part one supposes! Then again viewers saw the exact same situations in Kekkon Aite Wa Chusen De featuring Takanashi and Damena Watashi Ni Koishite Kudasai featuring Fukada recently among others. 2017's Tôkyô Tarareba Musume and 2016's Hapimari followed the same trajectory. What is up with these casting choices? They seem to be normalized on Japanese large and small screens. On the male character front, the jarring age unbelievability aside, Masashi (played by Nagayama Kento) was barely believable as a hard-nosed and successful businessman and negotiator - after all he could not profess his love to a woman for 20 years - while Yamashita (played by Nakamura Tomoya) somehow went from a low-level crappy school teacher-cum-former ne'er-do-well to a three-piece suit on the fast track to electoral success. Blinking was a mistake presumably. Finally, and this is a pet peeve, like many many other Japanese series and movies of more recent years characters run into one another at astronomically astonishing rates. This is lazy writing and annoying and happens all the time and all over the place and this particular story being based on a manga does nothing to explain this recurrence. Either that or this Japan place is the size of a village and the fifty people who live there cannot help, but run into everybody else consistently.
She does choose one of the love interests at the end. Which one? You would either have to watch the series or fast forward to the end of the final episode.
Between The Devil And Deep Blue Sea
The Sanriku area of Japan was devastated by a triple disaster combination of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown on March 11th, 2011. Many lives were washed away and many more hopes were washed out.
Japan's national broadcaster NHK produced this fictional television movie for the tenth anniversary of the disaster. Featuring several well-known actors and actresses like Kunimura Jun, Yoshida Yoo (as Akari) and Kusanagi Tsuyoshi (as Kiyoshi), as well as lesser-known ones, the sorrow-filled tale begins pointing in one direction before throwing the viewer for a loop and a surprise ending.
Kiyoshi was a chef and aspiring restaurateur from the Pacific Coast of Tohoku in north-eastern Japan learning how to cook in Tokyo. He had met the Tokyoite Akari, whom he marries, in the capital city and the two move north to Tohoku to start their life together. Kiyoshi opens his own restaurant when disaster hits and the business is drowned in the deluge that follows. Ten years have passed and through a myriad of flashbacks we find Kiyoshi and Akari at a temporary housing unit built for the victims of the disaster. Their lives intermingle with acquaintances new and old. Addicted to alcohol and subsequently regaining control, Kiyoshi has saved, borrowed and been granted enough money to (re)open his Italian restaurant albeit at a new location facing the water. There he invites all those who have been a part of his life and contributed to it since the fateful day, and who have helped him scrounge the will and purpose to start over, to an exclusive dinner event at the rechristened Peperoncino. Luckily, everyone invited makes it and has the occasion to also be introduced to one another as well.
The twist here is cruel and sad, but oh so appropriate. The story yanks the joy and sense of achievement back in the most painful manner and at the worst time. The revelation may not be the most original, but the emotional payoff it yields is more than worth it. This is a recommended quick watch that while short is by no means conventionally sweet.
A Fantasy Come True Movie Or A Two-Hour Long Product Placement?
Well, one supposes this movie could be a parable for ambition or energy or determination, but let us face it: this is a commercial for the Mazinger Z (a.k.a. Mazinger Z Super Robot) anime series that ran on Japan's Fuji TV from 1972 to 1974 which, like most successful Japanese anime, was based on a manga and would also go on to spawn multiple sequels and offshoots. They even mention Toei Animation, whose parent company Toei has a notable history in Japan with films like Battle Royale. Like most Mecha Anime, which it heavily influenced, Mazinger Z is reliant on Japanese technology, nationalism and the battles between good and evil and could become insanely complicated and technical. Knowing nothing about the manga or animation - one character in the film even confuses Mazinger with Gundam - one will still come away figuring out quite a bit about the story and its context and even pick up quite a few implicit and explicit references (hint: city beneath surface, Mount Fuji's sediments and geology and water pressure) from this movie.
The story begins at Maeda Corporation, which is an engineering firm. The PR team is stunned when its manager comes up with the idea of a project that has nothing to do with their competency or its current projects. It is to build a Mazinger Z hangar on paper fashioned after the one in the cartoons. It would surely impress clients who would be impressed by the firm's engineering prowess and realistic design capability of a fantasy concept.
So to repeat:
This story demands that the viewer be interested in a public relations department in Japan working on an anime-based project,
That is focused on engineering, excavation and project management,
That is not actually building a thing, but a plan for the company's website,
That is nonetheless based on a 1970s' anime,
That is not centred on the robot itself (someone else can take care of that!), but the hangar for it.
Anyone still reading? No? Didn't think so. I can write anything I want to...
The level of geekdom is gigantic and soon enough the reluctant PR professionals in the department are converted from voluntolds to enthusiastic participants who have to transpose a fantasy story into scientific territory. They are all nerds in suits and dresses soon enough having received a crash course in Mazinger Z alongside the movie's audience. The mecha robot is eighteen metres high and six metres wide and its hangar is no small marvel. Moreover, it has to be launched from it while concealed underwater to shield it from view by the minions of Doctor Hell. Thank goodness it is made from Japanium and can withstand crashing through the hangar's cover and tons of water every time! The crew have loads of help from the animation and the footage they (we) watch culled from the DVD sets they get their hands on. To their credit they come across as quite serious in their assigned endeavour and after multiple site visits, mock-ups, consultations and revisions it not only seems earnest, but one also comes away feeling more knowledgeable about engineering. Lucky for them there are many undercover Otakus working in plain sight in Japan and the PR team has help. Indeed the team goes to extreme measures to make the plans realistic including measuring underwater pressure, requirements for a vertical take-off and metallic resistance. After all, the company's image, acumen and reputation are at stake.
The film introduces a rather forced and brief hint of a romance and for some reason has multiple germane conversations occur in the men's washroom at the urinals. No idea. Perhaps a Mazinger fan could tell us? Is it all entertaining? Up to a point. Most of these guys are not engineers and yet are all animated about an anime-related project. Surely, having a boss and oddball project like that at work cannot be such a bad thing.
Isoppu no Omou Tsubo (2019)
The Events Depicted In This Film Are Not A Game
In the ancient Greek fables attributed to Aesop the turtle beats the hare through ingenuity and doggedness. It is a depiction of coming from behind and winning. The metaphor, come to think of it, relates to my experience watching this film of double and triple-crosses in two ways. Firstly, there is Miwa who as the film opens is falling behind her class-mates in everything. Will she catch up with the prettier Saori? Secondly - and this one is not directly associated with the film's content - despite watching the film at the Cinemax US cinema in Inzai a week after its opening it was in a theatre with a grand total of two people. There was no one in the theatre even with Wednesdays being Ladies' Day and tickets being almost half price for women. To catch up with its titular reference word of mouth for the film must be to such an extent that it goes from playing in empty theatres to becoming a blockbuster in a week or its is game over for the Aesopian turtle. Now mind you, my experience was at a single showing at a single cinema, but how different could the attendance numbers be elsewhere? Presumably everyone was watching The Lion King in theatres 1, 2, 3, 4 and you get the picture.
The continuously overexposed film begins predictably enough. New professor walks into the classroom and immediately has two students fall head over heels and want to be taken on a date by him. One is the shorthaired, quiet and mousy Miwa. The other is the taller, long-haired Saori who wears pretty dresses. Next scene: professor and Saori are on a date. Things take a quick turn, however, where amidst turtle and hare-related music Miwa goes home and after feeding her pet turtle receives a pep talk about the desirability of finding friends and dating from her mother. Enter the leggy Koyuzu who along with her father is involved in a catalogue of dirty deeds banned in 47 prefectures, two metropolitan cities and one territory. The lives of the three girls soon intermingle and there is a flurry of twists and revelations that comes fast because the film lasts only 87 minutes, which is some thirty minutes shorter than the average Japanese film. Remember the aforementioned professor, the father and family members? Good, because they are all involved.
Aesop's Game is thick with bizarre entertainment, intrigue and style and at times even hints at deriving influence from Tarantino. A turtle falling from the sky and hitting a man on the head is the least of it. There is animation within the film, yakuza, a gun or two, reality television, more than one illicit affair, a perverse entertainment banquet and all the while it is also hurtling towards the final reveal and to boot let us throw in the name Agatha Christie in there as well. None of this is to take away from the film's originality. It is just that much has to develop in a short length of time, and one swears it is a watershed moment in the history of Japanese films, when one wonders why the film was not... longer.
Chiri tsubaki (2018)
A Sword From The Heart
As far as jidaigeki (Japanese period drama) goes Samurai's Promise is more akin to Yamada Yoji's trilogy of Love And Honour, The Hidden Blade and The Twilight Samurai than 13 Assassins or Miyamoto Musashi. That is, the film has an emphasis on human relationships, feelings and settings than action sequences. Indeed, the original title for the film, Chiri Tsubaki, refers to the scattered blossoms of the Japanese camellia flower, which are present in the garden of a family in the film. The swordplay and swordsmanship of the protagonist, and those associated with him, is both depicted and impressive, but that is not where the crux of this movie lies. Director Kimura Daisaku had worked with Kurosawa Akira multiple times as a cinematographer and holds his grip on the latter role here to beautiful effect.
Lead by Okada Junichi, the all-star cast features Nishijima Hidetoshi as his friend-cum-rival, Aso Kumiko as his wife and Kuroki Haru as his sister-in-law and these, among others, probably comprise the most in-demand actors and actresses in Japan today. It is quite an ensemble and they put in an impressive performance. Exiled for his sense of justice and unwanted meddling, samurai Shimbei and his wife are outcasts until upon the latter's death he proceeds to fulfill his final promise to her to protect a friend and former colleague in their home fiefdom. His return is unwelcome by both the seat of power and former friends who see the man as a traitor, murderer and potentially both. It is only his sense of justice and faithfulness to his wife and the promise he made to her that keeps the former samurai steady and resolved to remain and do right. His sister-in-law - played progressively by Kuroki - believes she harbours the spirit of her dead sister and anchors the man's turbulence. It ensues that the intrigue runs deeper than anyone had thought and to cover up the betrayal and maintain wealth and power death, deception and destruction are tools used with abandon.
The story of the man and his clan politics is heavy on the melodramatic and the deployment of beautiful scenery whether mountains, rivers, the titular falling petals, the rain, the passage of time and seasons or even swordsmen practicing in the snow by Kimura is occasionally too obvious and even heavy-handed. It becomes an obvious ploy soon enough, but that the cinematography is beautiful is evident and quite a sight to behold regardless. Shot on location at Hikone castle and Nagano Prefecture the western-style music score is reminiscent of Love Story and almost dissonant given Samurai's Promise's setting of Japan in the eighteenth century. It is obvious that the director deliberately set out to make a handsome movie. Indeed, the program manager introducing the film called it "a deeply moving movie." Elsewhere, the title in English bears a fallacy. Having been driven from the fiefdom and no longer in the employment of the lord of the domain, by definition the man is not a samurai, but a ronin. When the need for action arises, or the backstory is unfurled, bushido and action fans will find a lot to enjoy. The swift movements and slayings are impressive and the director is not shy about letting blood flow either, but those elements are in sharp contrast to where the heart of the novel-turned-movie resides. At its core A Samurai's Promise is a dignified romance first and samurai film second.
Herutâ sukerutâ (2012)
"Being Forgotten Is Like Dying"
Wisdom as applies to this film is twofold. Firstly, fame is fleeting. Secondly, in the fashion and modelling worlds one needs to consistently remain up-to-date and flawless. There is no room for slacking or letting up. The world would otherwise pass one by.
Helter Skelter, the second feature film by fashion photographer Ninagawa Mika, is a fascinating and fast-paced look inside the world of style, models, egos and icons, yes, but more fundamentally consumerism and the cult of capitalism. Setting aside documentaries like No Logo or The Corporation one can only think of movies like American Psycho, Captain Fantastic or They Live which have been so entertaining yet so critical of materialism and modernism at the same time. It is a live action adaptation of the manga of the same name. Those who have watched the director's previous film Sakuran should have an inkling what to expect in terms of approach and explosion of colour and vibrancy. It is quite a sight to behold. With that said, nothing will prepare the viewer for the depiction of design, sound and thematic wallop that is Helter Skelter. This film is true to its name, uncompromising and downright scary.
Liliko (Sawajiri Erika) is Japan's most beautiful, most adulated, sexiest and ubiquitous super model. Her body, legs, face, lips, nose, hair, nails and clothes are iconic. She is perfect. Her likeness is everywhere and sells everything. Everyone wants to be her, see her or use her image. Unbeknownst to her legion of fans - a plot device that is hard to swallow - she harbours a secret however. Liliko is the product of a myriad of plastic surgeries. Except for her "eyeballs, ears, fingernails and pussy" she is as manufactured as a human being could be. The model looks stunning even when crawling on the floor due to exhaustion or knocked to the ground in a haze of pills. It takes strength and determination to maintain her existence - she tells her chubby younger sister to become beautiful because "beauty makes you strong" - and she, alongside a dedicated team comprised of a manager, an assistant and others, is up for it. Unfortunately for them, however, her procedures are not permanent and require constant touch-up and regeneration. The more she gets work done, the more follow-ups she requires. As such, she is as much a hostage to her plastic surgeon's table and tablets as she is to the hordes of fans loving and idolizing her. At one point someone references Michael Jackson in the film. Setting aside Liliko's picture-perfect appearance Joan Rivers would have done as a cautionary example of extreme plastic surgery as well. In trying to maintain her beauty, and thus her popularity, things get out of hand. To make matters worse Liliko's position atop of her industry does not exempt her from envy and rage. She is jealous of new face Kiko (Yoshikawa Kozue) with whom she is told to work. What is worse, Kiko is under contract by the same agency. Liliko understands the fleeting nature of her existence as a product and makes sure to safeguard her position and disrupt her competition. While nature may have given Sawajiri improbable beauty her talent as an actress is also palpable. Her portrayal is extreme and chilling as hell. Liliko is the paragon of perfection, but is ruthless and self-aware knowing what she needs to do for her position and fan base. That may be true, but no one comes out looking good here. This is not a tale of a good girl victimized. Her enablers are as ruthless - if not more so - and do not suffer much of a moral dilemma either. As such it is as much a horror movie as it is brilliant and magnetic and often a difficult watch. Keep one eye out for proof that this assertion is correct. The film perhaps takes the exaggeration one step too far however.
Ninagawa eschews the easy way of contrasting the good guys from the bad guys and crafts a film that instead shows neither mercy nor sympathy. It is a compendium of amorality and consumerist society's corruption that throws in everything from misandry, misogyny and manipulation to misuse and malfeasance. As it attacks mass culture and consumerism to a loud and omnipresent soundtrack and cornucopia of breathtakingly vivid colours it is no accident that the cool fashionable girls of Shibuya are seen and heard scrolling away on their smart phones at McDonalds. The constant dramatic music heightens the effect and evokes Clockwork Orange with its incongruous use of Classical music, the action is a whirlwind of dizziness and the glamourous scenes could only have come courtesy of a photographer who has first-hand experience with the subject matter at hand and is undeterred at mocking it. She is surely biting the hand that feeds. Given the courage and in this context, Ninagawa is fortunate to have procured such a talented actress making her return to the front of the camera. Not for one second does one feel that Sawajiri is merely acting or not fully inhabiting her character. She plays the shallowness and skin deep representation of the pinnacle of beauty with a full-body depth and from sex to modelling scenes and from visiting with her younger sister to NTR makes the viewer feel every situation.
Several items are worth noting. It is not only Sawajiri's real-life experience as a model, actress and manager and Ninagawa's photography and years of relationship with models and celebrities that renders the film positively, but there are several other real-life parallels lurking throughout Helter Skelter. For starters Sawajiri married a producer in real-life. The film features Suzuki Anne, an actress who rumour had it was b-listed in Japan for gaining weight. In the meanwhile, the director's previous movie was called Sakuran, a title whose meaning is not that far off from this film's. Helter Skelter is a film that repeatedly reminded me of a personal belief that the more popular a thing or person the more inferior it is. The movie attacks the triumph of form over substance and, furthermore, seems to act as a reminder that it usually ends badly.
No Good Deed Goes Unpunished
Japanese actor Odagiri Jo visited Toronto directly after completing filming Ernesto in 2017. He was sporting a Che Guevara scarf and told the fans about the movie he had just completed. The Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre decided to procure the film for a screening.
The release coincides with the fiftieth anniversary of the killings of both Ernesto "Che" Guevara the famous Argentinian doctor, motorcycle wanderer, Communist revolutionary and freedom fighter and Freddy "Ernesto" Maymura Hurtado the obscure Japanese-Bolivian who fought alongside him and was killed by the CIA-backed military dictatorship in Bolivia. Freddy is a second generation Japanese-Bolivian whose father has migrated to the South American country from Kagoshima. Aiming to study medicine he travels to Cuba and becomes involved with the famous Ernesto 'Che' Guevara. With most of the film's dialogue being in Spanish it is left to Japanese star Odagiri to not only mouth his lines in Spanish, but also to recite them with a Bolivian accent. He does so, but this writer cannot tell with which degree of success in regards to the correct accent and enunciation. It is entertaining seeing Odagiri's trademark mannerisms manifest in the character of a second-generation half-Japanese in Cuba whatever the amount of success. The actor has also undergone a transformation for the film with a haircut befitting the time period and geography and gotten a bronze tan here as well.
This film is Freddy's story.
Ernesto begins with footage from the Cuban revolution. One of the revolutionaries on the side of Fidel Castro is the legendary Che who shortly thereafter visits Japan in the name of Cuban-Japanese relations and promoting trade between the countries and makes time to visit Hiroshima in order to pay his respects to the victims of the American atomic bomb which was dropped on the city in 1945. The Japanese may have seen 200,000 of their countrymen incinerated, yet they are unhappy with the visit and worry about their relationship with the USA. A sole reporter proceeds to cover the visit and interview Che. Che has his own questions for the Japanese. "Why aren't you angry at the Americans?" and referring to the Hiroshima memorial plaque "why doesn't it say who committed the mistake? US could have ended the war without the bomb." The Cubans and their revolutionary comrades compare the American attack on Cuba at the Bay Of Pigs with Pearl Harbor and ask how one could be called unjustified while the other is rationalized by the Americans At the same time,Freddy and his compatriots land in Cuba to study medicine as the young man wants to become a physician for all the right reasons. He wants to help, do something humanitarian with the skill and provide medicine and care to the poor of Latin America. He is studious and serious, but also kind and active. The nuclear crisis and threat of an American invasion change things and turn the students into volunteer guerillas. Worse, while in Cuba Freddy's homeland has been the subject of a CIA-assisted military coup. With their school temporarily transformed into makeshift barracks Freddy and friends take up arms. When a Cuban remarks that beginning that day the sky is their ceiling he has no idea how prophetic he is being. The sky is indeed the ceiling and earth is his bed when the man progresses from manning an AA gun on the lookout for American war planes in Cuba to fighting as a guerilla in the jungles of Bolivia. He leaves behind a career as a physician, a love interest and admiring and loyal friends to fight for liberty back in his homeland. For his idealism and integrity he is rewarded with an ambush, a betrayal and more.
The biopic is special for telling the story of the hitherto unknown Freddy. It becomes even more interesting because it chronicles the man rubbing shoulders with Che - who gives him his own name Ernesto as a nom de guerre - and Fidel Castro. The rare Japanese-Cuban co-production also offers the viewer shots of buildings, facades, streets and nature in Cuba. It is a rare combination of cinema.
"... cannot say sit back, be comfortable, enjoy; this is not that kind of a film"
This quotation was offered by Setsuko Thurlow, a Hiroshima atomic bomb survivor herself who is a Nobel peace prize recipient and disarmament educator now, who was present at the film's screening in Toronto. She was there to speak of her first-hand experiences regarding the subject-matter and answer audience's questions. She endorsed the film and called it well-researched and correct. The only exception she offered searching her memories of the aftermath of the nuclear explosion was how Hiroshima was eerily quiet after the atomic-bomb was dropped destroying the city and maiming and massacring its citizens. The film has its stunned silent moments, but also features citizens wailing as the soundtrack to suffering.
In her talk she remarked that upon being invited to the screening she had not recognized the film at first. This is because the film's title has changed since she first saw it some fifty five years ago. Having soon recognized it she was happy to speak to the audience in addition to endorsing it. She told the audience how she was just over a kilometer away when the atomic bomb dropped and would subsequently watch her sister, niece, nephew and many others either perish away or die outright. She spoke of the American "political oppression" that followed and was critical of the occupying forces that took Japan over. She recalled how dismayed she was upon discovering that the survivors' treatment centres the Americans set up were just research laboratories, with the 'patients' as research subjects, and no treatment was offered for the affected, the burnt, scarred and cancer-ridden. She spoke of the censorship the American forces brought. One Japanese newspaper was shut down for mentioning human suffering. Haiku poetry and correspondence were confiscated and all the while there were 140,000 dead and wounded.
Hiroshima, the movie, is based on a book called Children Of Atomic Bomb, which is a collection of stories by child survivors of the attack. Ninety thousand Hiroshima residents, many of them hibakusha (a term referring to the survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki), labour unions and a head of university volunteered to help the pro-peace and pacifist movie to be made as no commercial entity and studio would help or touch it. The Japanese teachers' Union financed the film to promote peace. The film is now restored as best as possible following its rediscovery. It depicts the period during World War II prior to and during the atomic bombing and the physical and societal aftermath
The focus of the film is the children, in particular students from a school, one of whom we learn right away has something typical of the post-war period namely leukemia which she, her fellow students and teachers call 'atomic bomb illness.' She confesses to her friends that she doesn't want to die. The students are studious, but also in varying forms of denial, shock and ignorance. They read of the American hypocrisy of howling when Germany uses poison gas, but then itself drops atomic bombs on Japanese cities. Today's Japanese know little about the dates and details of the atomic bombs over their country, but ironically even the children of the 1950s had little factual information about what had happened. Indeed the contemporary conservative Japanese government of 2017 voted against the abolition of nuclear weapons at the United Nations. Back to the children and during the war they knew American 'B' bombers by sight and sound, yet and obviously no one expected the atomic bomb given how the technology was new and never used prior. The aftermath was unbelievable. After thinking for some time the best description of the depiction in the film is none other than 'hell.' What the viewer sees is hell. Man and woman, old and young, civilian and military are in an actual hell and no grainy sixty-year-old footage can distort, diminish or mask it. The film demonstrates the hell other films try to portray: dark, smoky, grim; devastation, rubble, piles of forlorn bodies suffering or dead everywhere with no respite or safety as black rain pours from the sky on the charred and burnt bodies and the living alike. The children are young, but injured or dying at worst and orphaned, sick, suffering, in gangs and separated from family and alone at best. In contrast, we see shots of Japanese harlots hand-in-hand with American soldiers after the war walking around in dresses or sitting and dancing with them at dance clubs. A student succumbs to cancer following her blood poisoning due to radiation in a barebones hospital. It is depressing beyond belief. The film is even-handed - if one could call anything the flip side of civilians incinerating as an atomic bomb drops from the sky fair - and the audience sees Japanese working and mobilizing during the war, practicing and child labour in the name of emperor. The Japanese army dishes out propaganda continuously and even once the atomic bomb is dropped a general is seen demanding a civilian salute him. Yet, no soldier helps the civilian rescue his trapped wife. Then the Japanese officers are seen sitting around plotting to further lie to the citizens and discussing the best way to kill the "rumours" as opposed to helping the citizens or confronting the reality on the ground.
As the world turns some things never change. Both the American war criminals and the Japanese elites - like the emperor - are in another world comfortable with full stomachs and never missing a meal as hell unfolded.
Happî awâ (2015)
Four Women In Irony
There are various films whose run-times are much longer than what is considered normal. Lawrence Of Arabia clocked in at 397 minutes. The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King was over 200 minutes long. More recently Blade Runner 2049 clocked in at a 'mere' 164 minutes. Japanese cinema has had its share of longer movies too. The epic Seven Samurai was 207 minutes long, while Love Exposure stopped looking up just shy of the four-hour mark. Happy Hour, ironically given the title, clocks in at five hours and seventeen minutes. Even more irony is supplied courtesy of the 'happy' aspect of things. More on that later.
What the five hours length offers the viewer is a film that has the space, at what seems like the natural tempo of life, to dwell on the details, subtleties, nuances; delve into the minutiae and the corners of lives of the four female characters. They comprise the portrayals director Hamaguchi Ryûsuke intends his film, and its novice actresses, to deliver. The film is set in Kobe, Japan and makes all women look seamlessly bad. The director sets out to show not one woman as honourable or decent. When the four women run into other females the latter too end up accusatory, suspicious, corrupt and rotten. That over five hours was needed is in part because so much realism is portrayed and in part because the film aims to not be a mere movie, but to act like an unglamorous eye on the perfidy of the modern woman abusing her freedom with abandon. The realism is accentuated because the actresses are all from the director's acting workshops - none of them have any other acting credit to her name - which means their relative amateurism and occasional awkwardness makes their corruption come across as even more genuine. Even on the unintentionally rare occasion that the camera is out of focus and blurry or a fly spontaneously lands and re-lands on a character's head it ends up giving the movie even more authenticity as it helps the proceedings appear true-to-life. The same, one imagines, is true with the film going on for so long that the actors forget they are on film, forget the camera and just relax and become themselves.
A segment of contemporary Japanese films (Kamome Shokodu, Megane, Petaru Dansu, Tokyo Sora as examples) has garnered accusations of catering to the desexualisation of Japanese women who are accorded a distant and sometimes demented quality. In films like these men are incidental and, when present at all, merely there as inane plot device creatures who help the women and immediately revert to disposability. These women's newfound independence has not enhanced them with love, understanding, happiness or contentment, but unleashed a beast that is morally rudderless, yet unwilling to assume ownership. In these films, the woman is deliberately indifferent to everything except her declared impossible standards. Happy Hour takes the concept to the next level. Men are not incidental. Men are victimized and suffering at the hands of not indifferent, but outright cruel and unhinged malicious female characters who not only not see it that way, they actually believe the opposite is true. Of the four females, one is married, one is divorcing, one is already divorced and the other in flux. Each is in turn abusive towards her man to the extent that in the second half of the film the viewer is treated to evidence of despicable and duplicitous deeds by women whose selfishness is projected through extraordinary demands, insults, psychological demasculinization and actions. Not only the women behave as such, but worse they imagine themselves as the victims. Ironically, they are more accommodating to men who are not physically or psychologically protective of them. One's family, vows, norms - even female friends - and propriety be damned. These women are uniformly hostile and self-absorbed jerks to such an extent that in comparison a fifth woman who characterizes her father's protectiveness towards her as a child as the work of a serial liar and a sixth woman who expresses her love and lust to a married man - right after a dinner with the said man's wife - are the more decent ones. There has been some thought given recently that in contrast to conventional wisdom Japan is a matriarchy. This is not the place for that debate, but in Happy Hour the demanding four use accusatory language to reveal surreal selfishness. It is unfathomable how they do not communicate their outlandish wants, yet demand understanding. They receive love, loyalty, patience and material goods, yet none of it helps tether them to husband or child, feeling or logic. It is a straight road to wanton matrimonial and societal hell.
Irony has come up a few times in this text. In addition, it is ironic that there is little 'happy' (the title stems from a lengthy and revealing café scene after a workshop where the characters are encouraged to find their centres and communicate, the latter of which the viewer must by this point in this text know is useless) in this film other than the brief times the four women find themselves away from home, responsibility or committed male companionship. What the viewer gets in lieu, however, is something original, something curious, something novel, but never uplifting or inspiring.
During one seemingly throw-away shot we are treated to a view of the city from the above inclusive of its streets, alleys, houses and yards. We come away wondering at the misery that lies within especially now that we know all the normal tools of human affection, logic or persuasion have lost their efficacy.
Unrequited Love For Miss Aoi
Lucky Number Eight? The number 8 is a symbol and harbinger of prosperity in Japan, but the film begins with Towako in her tight and cluttered apartment rudely arguing, and probably fibbing, over the phone with a shop about a $350 watch, "I may sound like a bitch," she says. Towako lost her boyfriend Shunichi and drifted into a relationship with Jinya eight years ago. She is dissatisfied – with the money, current boyfriend's rough demeanour, looks, the sex, the whole thing – but stays put for sustenance and a roof over her head, out of lack of alternatives, out of inertia. Her old boyfriend was not the best to say the least, but surely it was better than what she has now, she fancies reminiscing about the material goods. The compliant and docile fool of a current boyfriend shows a modicum of maleness and bite when he senses a man getting close to her. In tandem she draws closer when he becomes more of a force. As she does he becomes murkier and murkier. She is emotionally vulnerable, damaged and portrayed as a gold digger - interested more in a man's life insurance than his life for instance – and describes her man as a "room-mate" to others. Suffice to say one does not form a high opinion of either of them. As much as she is despicable her openness to and a visitor's beeline for her so fast is unusual and rather unrealistic. He felt "duty-bound" though and this suddenness is matched by her old boyfriend's direct "have my baby" line on the phone. Then there is the matter of her being left alone with an older character introduced later and the same man's ability to spill much of the beans, but has not. Either way, things are about to be shaken up when Towako meets Makoto who is charming, a manager and soon bestows her gifts including sex. It is finally something different from the haggard, desperate and kind current boyfriend for the cold-to-the-touch girl. Things are looking up – and never mind that the newest man is married – until a detective shows up at the door and the number of years passed is suddenly not such a portender of luck and fortune. The woman is slowly compelled to confront her past and it is not pretty.
The latest film with acclaimed actress Aoi Yu is Kanojo Ga Sono Mei Wo Shiranai Toritachi ('The Birds She Never Knew') and is based on a 2006 novel that has sold 200,000 copies in Japan. The novel and its author Mahokaru Numata are part of a sub-genre, which inelegantly are called 'eww mystery.' They depict mysteries that make the reader, or in this case the viewer, exclaim 'eww' scene after scene and that quality is intact here. The unappealing sides of humans are on display. Pity, loathing, distaste and repulsion are adjectives that come to mind and are almost equally shared across the characters. The generally better-regarded adjectives are here too, but the tension eclipses them. The 'iyamisu' sub-genre translates well to film here and it is a credit to the actors and director that they make the audience feel it. At this stage of her career it is rare that Aoi appears in a film where she has not co-starred with any of her other leading actors. Such is this film, with only Yutaka Takenouchi having worked in 2007's Best Wishes For Tomorrow alongside Aoi ten years ago, but both the chemistry and the scripted lack thereof are believable. One theme here, it was said, is that what is important is sometimes right beside one. Shot in Osaka, Japan the domestic drama is soon a mystery and the question becomes did one person kill another. If so was it out of jealousy? How much does Towako know and what does she suspect? Is she in danger herself? There are big surprises in the story and no, I do not mean the oddball suggestion to buy a chimpanzee in lieu of having a child, which a character suggests.
The film opens in Japan on 28.10.2017, but had its world premiere in Toronto as part of The Toronto International Film Festival in mid-September. A TIFF moderator introduced the film calling it "Bird Without Name" twice single-handedly dropping the plural. The subtitles also contained a couple of grammatical mistakes. The TIFF staffer also added that it is the director's first time in Toronto. Kazuya Shiraishi, who was at the premiere, climbed the stage and mentioned that participating at TIFF was a dream of his. He cautioned that the film "to start, will be a little bit hard to take, but for me (it is) the most beautiful ever so enjoy it." Who could at least not be curious given such a lofty description? He also thought the Buddhist references (here is one I reckon: eating meat goes with murder) and Japanese cultural symbolisms may be a little bit hard to take for the Canadian audience. After the film and during the Q&A the director was quite open, which was a breath of fresh air in contrast to the directors who are cagey and leave things to the audience, and mentioned the precarious and mean domestic situation of the film reflects his own back in Japan. He also noted that his having worked on Roman porno films has given him a level of improvisation and ability to do things on the cheap.
Watching Birds Without Names was a treat as is watching most things with Yu Aoi in them. The film originating from Japan implies a limited audience, being in Japanese and sub-titled do the same. Audiences would do well to make those factors notwithstanding. This is a worthy and complex film with flashbacks and back and forth splices, which is a cut above, and Yu Aoi is one of the exceptional actors who can pull it off.
Love makes us do things contrary to loveliness.
Ôbâ fensu (2016)
Is Everybody Crazy?
May I level with you? This writer has a soft spot for Aoi Yu and a fondness for Odagiri Joe. Aoi is a talented actress who has as many memorable films as she has appearances. There are too many to name, but from the remarkable ballet scene in Hana To Arisu, to the tragedy and tenderness in Ototo and the infamous Riri Shushu No Subete she has been the definition of touching and extraordinary. Even flying in the shadow of Tokyo Story's pixie dust in Tokyo Kazoku ('Tokyo Family') she was a sympathetic, tender and pure Noriko. Then there is her incredible role in Shokuzai ('Penance'), but enough said. Odagiri Joe, on the other hand, is in my other Japanese favourite film, Tenten. With all that said, Oba Fensu ('Over The Fence') features both actor and actress. Does one plus one equal two or more?
In this final chapter of the so-called Hakodate Trilogy of novelist Sato Yasushi, which also includes Sketches Of Kaitan City (2010) and The Light Shines Only There (2014), two uncommon characters fall for each other in Northern Japan. Shiraiwa is divorced and in many ways forging a new path in life. He is in a new place, learning new skills, making new friends and the being introduced to new opportunities. He apparently lives in the same dingy room as he did in the film Tenten. Enter Satoshi who by all rights is exactly what annoys men about women. She is erratic, artsy, dramatic, needy of attention or just needy, out-of-control, littering and embarrassing. She is literally cuckoo beginning with the first scene she is in. Well, perhaps those are good things or perhaps they are good things when portrayed so seamlessly by Aoi. She is wonderfully persuasive – yet again – and substantial in her roles. The pair's official first meeting is at a hostess club where she works and entertains - as persuasively as she performed in Hura Garu and Hana To Arisu - and where he is a customer one night. Which night club hires a bird impersonator? Expressive dances are the stuff of drama school and feminist hideout stages, not hostess clubs where the owner is trying to attract men to drink. This is one of the several problems with the film. From here on the story is uneven and hardly the stuff of universal truths. For one thing he has broken free from a crazy woman to now join with another out-of-control female, but when the romance develops and takes tentative flight by the two superficially contrasting people the force of the actors' talent makes for the entertainment of curiosity. One is immersed in the story and wants to know more. Yet, is it really reasonable that having broken free from the clutches of a criminally insane woman one would find comfort with another who at a whim throws a mug at the glass and deliberately breaks the window from the inside? Then there is the matter of being with a woman who constantly makes fowl impressions and swirls as if crazed. Then there is the woman who casually attempted infanticide, yet is back in polite society and not only all is cool, but in fact it is she who condemns others. In this film, however, they are not the only two who are 'over the fence.' This is where the man, the main female character and the rest of them all go over the fence. Why these people fall for one another is inexplicable except for the fact that every one of them is crazy. It applies to all of them. Over The Fence was premiered in Canada as part of the Toronto Japanese Film Festival, an event that has taken wings to such an extent that Japanese super star Odagiri himself was present at the screening. Incidentally, thanks to the very excited and obvious groupie who made the Q&A and night more memorable.
A few points are remarkable enough to conclude the review. The sound of Hakodate in the film is a creepy marine music. Is that really the supposed ambient sound of the city? The baseball subplot ends up serving a purpose, which for a while was not obvious, but one recalls that baseball scenes and stories were forced on Japanese cinema by the US occupation forces after World War II as a form of cultural manipulation and imposition. Interestingly, Odagiri was wearing a Che Guevara shawl for the screening in Toronto and admitted his fondness for the man and his achievements. Finally, and particularly to this feature and also generally, where one cannot maintain a soft spot is how so many Japanese films like this one must skirt local language titles and go with an English bastardization instead. These are Japanese in Japan telling local stories. Is it difficult for Japanese cinema, and culture in general, to dispense with the forced foreign vernacular?
Action That Clicks
Tabloids and pulp gossip magazines are to journalism what circulars and flyers are to literature. No one admits to reading tabloids, but somehow someone somewhere must be or they wouldn't be so prevalent. "We're lower than street vermin," says the paparazzo which rings true even as the magazine for which he is a contractor nonetheless measures readership in the tens of thousands. Working for such a publication cannot be pleasant and so as the film begins Shizuka Miyakonojo is not a happy camper working for Scoop magazine to begin with, but things become nominally worse when the degraded paparazzi is forced to take on a trainee partly to ensnare subjects and partly, well, to train someone. Why the editor is so insistent about putting the two in this position is never clear however. The photographer is crude, like his employment, and she is green. Namekawa Nobi is attractive and the circumstances naturally become involved between the man and the woman with a twenty five-year age difference. That is, of course, not a problem and age is just a number, except to footnote that when we last saw Fumi Nikaido it was in 2016's Mitsu No Aware ('Bitter Honey') where she was sleeping with someone her grandfather's age, which itself was a couple of years after her appearance in Jigoku De Naze Warui ('Why Don't You Play In Hell') where, if you recall, her father's yakuza rival was head over heels for her. Incidentally, if you do not recall and have no idea what those films are it is not too late for a remediation. Back to the present day however and the film that premiered in North America at this screening. What is the low-down on this film, which reportedly was inspired by an obscure 1985 film by writer/director Masato Harada called Tosha ('Candid Shot')? On the rare occasion real-world pulp magazines hit on something actual and worthwhile and Namekawa and Shizuka are several times on the verge of their own big break. It takes a lot of toil, sweat and perseverance of course, but for them the hardest part is yet to come. Somewhere around here is where the audience oscillates between trying to figure out whether the film is a tragedy, a serious riff on contemporary society or a simple mockery of a comedy. This is a weakness because we are either supposed to laugh at the circumstance or consider the issue seriously and both won't simultaneously do when the topic and stakes are high. The surprise ending makes matters more clear. Either way, this is a somewhat original film with a premise that rolls well and shows sincerely and realistically. Could it partly be because the actors are playing roles they are familiar with? After all, gossip magazines and paparazzi are likely a fact of life for them in the real world.
The silly tape labels on screen at the beginning up to the middle of the film soon disappear. On the flip side, the aerial shots of Tokyo at night are incredibly beautiful and dazzling. As is not uncommon with Japanese actors the ensemble overacts. Especially guilty is Nobi as the rookie. Almost as overdone is editor Sadako who is so care-free and open-minded and Shizuka who can't care less and gets away with it. Lily Frankie, who in 2016's My Dad And Mr. Ito was the model for patience and understanding, is more overblown than the rest of them combined. Incidentally, in that film the man was twenty years older than the woman too, her parent was grumbling and she was not letting it bother her.
Scoop! is certainly a fun film to watch whichever way one looks at it. From physical action to a car chase, from celebrity spotting to exposing illicit affairs, from showing skin to booze and crimes the film has it all. Most of all, the audience revels with the characters in their dedication to their mission. Having said that, when one really thinks about it there neither is a core message nor a bigger concept at play here. It is curiously riveting to watch, but that is it and, as such and in my books, Scoop! remains good, but not great.
Dainippon koroshiya den (1965)
"If you don't laugh when you see this movie I am going to execute you"
Yes, it is that kind of a film.
In the late 1950s and 1960s Japan's oldest film studio Nikkatsu issued a number of alternately yakuza action crime-cum-romantic features starring several of its famous in-house, i.e. contract, actors. These included Akira Kobayashi, Yûjirô Ishihara and Jô Shishido, the last man would famously appear in those eccentric Seijun Suzuki films like Youth Of The Beast and Branded To Kill. This is worth mentioning because as much as Dainippon Koroshiya Den - approximately 'Greater Japan Killers' Place Story' – is a screwball comedy it matches those later films in its eccentricity.
The action happens in a 'city famous for murder' in Japan. Five crime lords in the city are targeted by a mysterious assassin with a literal calling card. To hammer his point home the assassin shoots the head of the cartel. All the targets know about the killer is that he has a mole on one of his feet and so they get to work flushing him out for elimination. Turns out the neighbouring town's boss is also in on the game and hiring his own assorted guns-for-hire. What follows is the biggest collection of goofball loser counter-assassins – hired from a temp agency for hit men and killers - that make a masquerade look conventional in comparison. There are sons and daughters, a native Indian, a cowboy, Al Capone's Japanese grandson, from when he visited Japan and shagged a dwarf apparently, and more. This film presages and is reminiscent of Inspector Gadget, Spy Who Shagged Me, James Bond, the Three Stooges, Benny Hill and even Thomson and Thompson of Tintin fame. Japanese cinema has quite a few zany films ranging from the excellent Tenten to the disconcerting Tokyo Sonata, incredulous Katakuri-ke No Kôfuku and the terrible Maikohaaaan!!. Murder Unincorporated is not only something else, but also a departure from the other entries in the Nikkatsu Diamond series and its crime-addled action features. Do not try to make sense out of this film. Switch off the brain and enjoy the absurdity.
Favourite part? The precision shooting duel changing the dial and TV channel.
Fuchi ni tatsu (2016)
The Consequences Of Violence
Cross-referencing the name Tadanobu Asano, while walking into the theatre at TIFF to watch his latest, tells me that his films and I have crossed paths fifteen times. He is hardly my favourite Japanese actor with names like Hara Setsuko, Chishu Ryu, Sugimura Haruko, Yu Aoi, Kase Ryo, Ayase Haruka and Mifune Toshiro taking precedence, but he is arguably the best-known Japanese actor in Canada, and elsewhere outside Japan, given his role in the Thor movies and the nonsensical American version of 47 Ronin. He is a good actor nonetheless whose impassive mannerism is likely his trademark by now. These facts are coincidental given how he starred in another premier at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2015 in a film called Journey To The Shore and that he is again strong and impassive at another premier at TIFF in 2016 with Harmonium (Fuchi Ni Tatsu in Japanese or 'Standing On The Edge' a name which has a literal meaning here). This is why the above is interesting because he fits his role here quite well.
The film germinated in the writer/director's mind in 2006 and began to become reality three years ago. Whereas in Journey To The Shore Asano intruded upon his own family, this year in Fukada Koji's North American premier the actor does the same to a friend's family. The said man, with whom he shares a past, the attention-starved clueless and Christian wife and their daughter are average and unwanting until the arrival of the impassive new character sows the seeds of change and shatters the still. As audience members we are primed for a surprise of course and it does arrive, albeit clocking at two hours and being characteristically Japanese of a film the turn is not upon us ever too swiftly or completely.
Shot mainly in Tokyo, Harmonium - which won some kind of an award at Cannes if anyone cares - is as eccentric a family drama as the bedlam that is Tokyo Sonata and, given all its coincidences, as unlikely as the aforementioned Journey To The Shore, but still leaves one interested in the here and now for itself and for other works by Fukada in the future.
Before the film began rolling the director was on stage hoping the audience would still be there once the movie had ended and he would be back on stage again for Q&A and deservedly his wish came true. Nonetheless, he is Japanese and those looking for definitive conclusions may be disappointed - not to mention how the director himself claimed to be unaware of the solution to the intriguing ending.
Mitsu no aware (2016)
Fishing For A Dream
Director Gakuryû Ishii's Mitsu No Aware would literally be translated to 'Honey's Pity,' but since that sounds odd the English title has become Bitter Honey. The film is new in 2016, but is based on a novel by Japanese writer and poet Saisei Muro whose work is not adapted for film for the first time here. No less than director Mikio Naruse, for instance, had more than once used the author's literature for film. Model and actress Fumi Nikaidô is not well-known, outside Japanese TV drama circles, although her 2014 film My Man with Tadanobu Asano made a splash in Japan. Ren Ôsugi is perhaps known for Audition or Twilight Samurai and was also in the excellent Dolls. One could say he is almost everywhere.
Has anyone here watched either Journey To The Shore or The Girl Who Leapt Through Time? Japanese films - and the actors who inhabit them - have a habit of coming face-to-face with surreal and incredulous occurrences and barely batting an eye. Such is the story of a man and his goldfish 'kingyo' and other lovers here. A more relevant comparison perhaps is to the film Sakuran. After all there are the women, the sex, the refreshing and living colour palate and the goldfish within a gorgeous film. Nikaido must have trained for ballet if her nimbleness is any indication and speaking of which, the movie is like Classical music. It can alternately be up, down, angry, happy, soft, rancourous and generally emotional. While we are juxtaposing films and justifying analogies another pertinence is the older man/younger woman motif of films like Lolita of course, American Beauty and Beautiful Girls. In other words, it is too bad this Bitter Honey is Japanese for it could have been watched more widely - whether or not said younger lady is a fish or not.
Bitter Honey is not only the literary work of a poet and author adapted for the screen, but it is also about a poet and author and his fantastic and surreal relationship with a beautiful and coquettish girl who is erotic, supple, naive, occasionally brash and mysterious. Life is a series of experiences. We invent them if our reality does not match our expectation. The affair renders as complicated as a growing woman's coming of age if one does not want to use the phrase 'like a fish out of water' that is. Affectionately addressing her lover ojisama ('uncle') and herself atai (a cutesy 'I') the girl comes of age intellectually and emotionally ("daddy, let me be your lover") in parallel to the fiction of the writer. One might think the writer is an ichthyomaniac, but in fact we hear a voice, which we take to be the man's wife and encounter both his past and current other lovers. In the film there is also an appearance by the character of perhaps Japan's most famous writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa, which actually makes this film one written by a twentieth century writer about a writer featuring yet another writer. With me still?
The visuals and acting in Bitter Honey are convincing, attractive and amusing. Less successful are the story arch and the sound effects. We interpret the former as the correlation of a man striving for maturity and acceptance of his literature with the feelings and projections of a similarly fantastical young woman looking to find her way and gain satisfaction. The latter's effects quickly lose their novelty. As unsuccessful is the accompanying music of Bitter Honey. At its core, Bitter Honey is a film that demands its audience suspend disbelief and instead marvel at the novelty, capriciousness and the superior acting in and of itself.
Hai kikku enjerusu (2014)
These High School Girls Are High Kick Angels!
At one point in Hai Kikku Enjerusu one of the girls cries, "I am not Bruce Lee!" and next "I am not Jackie Chan!" It is easy to be indignant or sarcastic when hearing these words from the mouth of a 11th grade Japanese girl in school uniform. By then though, it would not be an exaggeration to say that what one assumes would be an artificially sweetened exercise in Japanese teen romp has actually begun to convince the viewer with its martial arts action.
Picture a Japanese high school and its film club. Half a dozen cute girls have their teacher's permission to use the unused facility for their one-camera action-fantasy featuring the heroine Dragon May. The teacher, who also plays something resembling a zombie, has other ideas, the students are getting in character and the director is looking too earnest when trouble befalls and a band of underworld thugs swarms in looking for cash that has been stashed on the premise. The confrontation that ensues should by all rights be cheesy and candy-coated - what with two dozen yankis with metal bars and batons against high school otakus - but gradually the action sequences in general, and the high kicks and punches in particular, begin to come across as convincing. How is that possible in a film with more pantie shots than three Sion Sono films put together? Someone once said, "talk about beauty and the beast, she's both." Kanon Miyohara (the heroine 'Sakura' - more recently in Sion Sono's high school girls' science fiction film, Tag) is a karate champion and has been practicing martial arts since the second grade. Japanese-American actress Mayu Kawamoto (Asuka) is a karate black belt with a championship trophy from a Russian competition to her name. Hyogo-born Kaede Aono (Maki), again, is a black belt and also a model in Japan. She started training in karate in the first grade and subsequently obtained her black belt at age 12. This explains why the action seems as realistic and pain inflicting as it does. Less successful is model and singer Nana Shirai's facial and presentation approximation of Chiaki Kuriyama as Gogo Yubari in Kill Bill. There are several behind-the-scene clips as the end credits roll if anyone needs more convincing of the girls' martial arts.
The premise is hard to believe, but with Highkick Zombie on Vine and 2009's High Kick Girl (or 'Hai Kikku Gâru') enjoying some success the convincing blows, punches and kicks could only add further legitimacy to the collection.
Kishibe no tabi (2015)
Regrets And Lost Moments In Time
Japanese films are often criticized by domestic audiences there, and many others, for being sad, gloomy or harrowing and there is much of that here. Kishibe No Tabi or Journey To The Shore, director Kiyoshi Kurosawa's newest film, had its North American premier this past Wednesday in Canada as part of the Toronto International Film Festival. It ran under the Contemporary World Cinema banner. The film, which is categorized as 'romance,' drew me in for its intriguing plot, presence of Tadanobu Asano (Café Lumière, Thor, Vital, etc.) and the always superlative Yu Aoi (Hana & Alice, cult film Riri Shushu No Subete, One Million Yen Girl, etc.) who has a bit role and not to mention director Kurosawa's resume which includes the funny and weird Tokyo Sonata among other films.
The story revolves around a woman whose presumed dead and lost-at-sea husband returns home after three years and the 'journey' that ensues. She is played by the plain Eri Fukatsu whose only previous work of fifty odd films this reviewer had watched was the fun Sutekina Kanashibari. It is worth noting this because that drama also featured Tadanobu Asano who plays the role of the husband. This film features quite a few well-known Japanese screen cast and crew members.
How is it? Given the plot, it is clear that Journey To The Shore is not a simple romantic flick. Yet, let us not drift too far from the category either. While the spirituality and fantasy aspects obviously exist, given what ensues the movie is indulgent. There are a few splendid shots of Japanese scenery; alas there are not enough of them. This is one of the film's failings. There are others however. To start, Fukatsu is almost stoic for a wife who is witnessing the return of her missing husband. She lets out a small gasp, he asks, "did I surprise you?" and we are off. It is reminiscent of the scene In The Girl Who Leapt Through Time when the male friend finds out Akari is from the future and essentially shrugs and goes with it. More likely, the director may have been inspired by the Japanese art-house film Empire Of Passion, which sees a deceased husband return home. Asano can apparently do and recall everything he once did including having sex and getting motion sickness, etc. save a mundane thing like remembering to take his shoes off before entering the house. Only a few subsequent questions ensue. The audience does soon question whether it is the husband who has returned or the wife merely believes it however. The film is patient and as contemplatively slow as the next Japanese film, but the core mushy middle is overplayed.
The wife is content now that she is on a voyage with her returned husband, but the loneliness and isolation remain even after the couple hit the road. We do understand more as the journey progresses. One of my pet peeves about Asian cinema is on full parade, namely no explanation is offered as to the mechanics of the 'what' or the 'how' of all this. The 'why' is the most clear of the elements. The film talks to the need for closure and tying loose ends, but makes no attempt to do so in its own scheme. Still, this is a couple's excursion unlike any other.
Hiso hiso boshi (2015)
A Feeling Of Pervading Loneliness
Could it be lonely if you do not feel it? Is learning meaningful if it is too late? What about thinking? Could you understand that fragments of memories or objects could be worthless to one person and mean the world to someone else?
Writer-cum-director Sion Sono's Tokyo Tribe premiered last year at the Toronto International Film Festival and was rather promoted by the organizers over the other Japanese entries at the festival. He is also a previous 'Midnight Madness' award winner at TIFF. Sono was back this year with a black and white film which appeals more to the palate of people not inclined to crowds, intensity or urban dancing. For one, The Whispering Star promised to be, unlike Tokyo Tribe, hip hop free. For another, the film is whisper quiet. Admittedly, the director's films are usually challenging, unconventional and adventurous. Moreover, having appreciated his films like Suicide Club or Cold Fish (also starring Megumi Kagurazaka whom I last saw in the impressive Jûsan-Nin No Shikaku and which was edited by Junichi Ito - both part of The Whispering Star) it was an easy matter to anticipate Sono's latest which had its world premiere the night of September fourteenth in Toronto. A TIFF programmer came on stage and described the film as "quiet science fiction," which it is when it is not in fact completely silent. Any words uttered are 'whispered.' Incidentally, the former Gravure Idol Kagurazaka is the wife of Sion Sono.
The curious premise is that of a 'feminine' android flying through space all alone, save for a computer, delivering packages for scattered humans. This is a metaphor for the mistakes of humanity and the plight of the former residents of Fukushima, Japan, which took the brunt of an earthquake, tsunami and subsequent nuclear reactor leak in 2010. The notion of one alone with her (its) thoughts is intriguing, but before elaborating on this it is worth mentioning the feeling that we have already seen a lone space traveller with a tape player in a little flick last year called... Guardians Of The Galaxy. The reels are not the only anachronistic mismatch. Our beautiful cyborg is powered by household batteries and reliant on vacuum tube computing, which comes with electricity plugs and an Edison bulb. It is all very Captain Protonish. Humans are scattered across the galaxy and 80% of beings are AI after humans committed a "mistake." Most interestingly, the spaceship is shaped like Japanese 'ie' or house. It is the consequence of humanity's destructive ways that the android has the job she has, but there is hardly anything organic to be found here. The android's loneliness during her voyages leads to philosophizing about its employers which is more than most humans can say about themselves. Having said that, as engaging as Hiso Hiso Boshi is it is barely science fiction in the same echelon as Blade Runner where the question of what constitutes alive or not is dissected. Comparing any film to Blade Runner is almost unfair. On its own, this film's downfall is clearly its ultra-slow pace. Even the spaceship seems to crawl forward in space. Couple that with the aforementioned murmuring tones, as well as deliberately sullen acting, lack of plot developments or colour, a dripping faucet and the director has indeed created a choking ambiance. Sure, The Whispering Star is contemplative, interesting and different and its analogy to names like BR, Guardians , Hitchhiker Guide To The Galaxy or 2001 are only broadly genre-related and visual and that the director's focus on and signature Japanese flourishes are strong here even though on-stage he denied a direct Fukushima analogy and explained that the film is about human history. Speaking of which, the director and actress were on stage before and after the film for an introduction and to take questions from the audience. When asked by me whether this film suggests they have consciously or subconsciously matured all the director would say is that he is doing what he feels like doing. Someone asked about the sole splash of colour and the director offered that it represents a moment of nostalgia.
To depict parts of his fictional galaxy – and carry his human folly message - Sion Sono shot much of the film in the Fukushima nuclear disaster area of eastern Japan and perhaps, not coincidentally, the area is the subject matter of his next project. He may be preoccupied with the disaster and the area as he also had a 2012 film on the topic called Kibo No Kuni ('Country Of Hope'). It is a measure of his devotion and unconventionality that he not only employed local non-actors to be on camera, but also filmed The Whispering Star in an evacuated disaster area. The film is mostly one of a solitary actress however. Ironically, the director claims to have had the outline of the script since 1990 - interestingly an early Sion film from this period called Keiko Desu Kedo featured a lone isolated female character - and has funded it entirely himself. Watch this film because it is certainly different. You either like the minimalistic motif or likely for the first and last time ever have the chance to see a Japanese-style house fly in space!
Petaru dansu (2013)
Four Women In The Wind
This is what happened: I began watching Petaru Dansu and observed four women specifically, women predominantly occupying the space in front of the camera generally while creating a life of their own replete with a blue hue to the point of almost coming across as monochromatic, the chain of events linking the women, lots of contemplative silence and open spaces free of businesses all yielding breathing room for the senses. The only identified business closes down. The voice-over narrations amplified the introspective effect.
All of this was so reminiscent of a film called tokyo.sora. Stop Petaru Dansu, go back to check and notice that the film is written and directed by Hiroshi Ishikawa whose earlier work is none other than the aforementioned Tokyo.Sora. The coincidence of the name in charge was a surprise, but it all began to make sense now. The women here were creating their own worlds - as they were in Tokyo.Sora - in a commercial-free a setting as imaginable. Even the cover for the DVD is similar to Tokyo.Sora's. There four women are observing the vista before them. Interesting, but even more so when one recalls how Ishikawa's day job is directing commercials.
In Japanese 'mai' is the word for traditional Japanese dances, while 'dansu' is used generally and for more modern dance. The film, translated as 'Petal Dance' in English, is the story of four modern Japanese women coming to grips with existence and reality and becoming comfortable dancing to life's tune. There is not a shame in bending to one's surroundings and the prevailing winds. It is actually natural to quit resisting.
There is Motoko (played by Sakura Ando) who has borrowed her ex-husband's car. Like all men in the film the husband is a side-note, largely irrelevant and consigned to the incidentals. Even when using a man's car, the owner is left behind. In fact, there are very few men even seen on camera. One could remark, complain or speculate that this is part of a societal pattern in Japan asexualizing relationships or the sexes. There is Jinko (played by Aoi Miyazaki) who has a borderline boyfriend and, in a would-be rescue attempt, recruits Haraki (played by Shiori Kutsuna), as driver to go see their hospitalized friend Miki (played by Kazue Fukiishi). Miyazaki's boyfriend (perhaps now an ex) calls and wills to have his girlfriend back. Miki, and her quest for freedom, should be the focal point and is, but is overshadowed due to her late appearance. By far, the biggest impression is made by Haraki who is sympathetic, kind and not the least bit because to a large extent she reminds one of Aoi Yu. Although there is a physical resemblance, like Yu Haraki impresses by being expressive while being impassive and sympathetic. Just watching Kutsuna in Petaru Dansu prompted me to go back and watch the scene in Hana & Alice in which Yu receives a call from her agent regarding a job.
Back in this film, the women have little to do physically. The script gives them obvious freedom, but perhaps that is the hardest task of all: to be serene, pensive and natural on camera... or as the Japanese would say simply 'ga.' Finally, a couple of notes. The movie implies the companions drive north much, but most of the film was shot in Chiba near Tokyo. A glider is often seen flying overhead riding the wind. Does anyone recall the helicopter often overhead in the movie Grand Canyon, which was always there for no stated reason? Still on a side note I find the concept of a shop called Nekorai tender. An owner who does not like cats has named his shop Nekorai. Neko ('cat') plus Rai (Kanji for 'come') is so named to suggest that even cats are welcome at the shop despite the owner's aversion.
There you have it. It is a living breathing film quintessentially Ishikawa. He also has a third film to his credit, namely Sukida. As such and since the director makes a film every seven to eight years viewers should expect a new one from him circa 2020 or so.
From Tokyo To Edo And Back With Love
Jin could be just another Japanese TV drama with all the corniness that goes with it. However, Jin stands out thanks to an original story, several decent actors and the period's setting. The story is so because the serial combines medical criminal and jidaigeki period drama, historical elements, romance, bushido, science fiction and a good dosage of soap. Too many cooks usually spoil the broth, but for the aforementioned reasons Jin's recipe works.
It is the Tokugawa period in Japan and change is afoot. A young doctor – accomplished but due to recent events unsure of himself – has literally fallen back in time after interacting with a patient in modern Tokyo. He has left a life and love behind. His contemporary medical skills are astounding and valuable in Edo, which is where he has landed. From there the drama moves quickly and never gets bogged down. While basically a soap opera, the many innovative elements, period pieces, action and love propel the multi-genre series to a higher plane. The serial also teaches the viewer a thing or two. Otherwise, Jin is a treat for admirers of Edo of the period and Japanese culture.
Jin explores consequences of one's actions. For my personal tastes, there is one too many mentions of God, spirituality and the oddity of a school of medicine, which implausibly is more advanced in breast cancer and surgery than the doctor. The implicit love of the lead female character for the sensei is not a surprise, but his ignorance of it is. In fact, the attractive and dedicated Saki (played by Ayase Haruka) spends a lot of time soul-searching while being inquisitive and longing for love – perhaps not a surprise given how she has just met someone from another time – while Minakata Jin (played by Osawa Takao) looks confounded and confused. Speaking of Saki-san's attractiveness could Doctor Jin be stalking her? After all, aside from sharing the screen in Jin the two were leads in Ichi one year before Jin. They were both in one of the Jam Films' segments, albeit not together. Facetiousness aside, it is not until episode ten of Season One that the good doctor catches on regarding Saki-san's love.
TBS (Tokyo Broadcasting System) offered eleven episodes for Season One of Jin including an extended season finale. Due to the series' success a second season with eleven episodes appeared two years later and a Korean version was also filmed.
Beauty Always Comes With Dark Acts
The Toronto International Film Festival guide describes Takashi Miike as a "madly prolific auteur." He indeed is prolific noting his record of 100 films over the years. Auteur refers to his vision given the director's unbridled, unflinching and unconventional terror - although he has gone afield as well. Madly might be an image he cultivates but is perhaps most apropos given his explicit films such as the two I have watched, Audition (Odishon) and 13 Assassins (Usannin No Shikaku). These DVDs' astounding stories and actors motivated me to attend the premiere of Over Your Dead Body or Kuime (although an exact translation is unlikely given the invented and made-up word, 'kuime' translates somewhat into 'the woman who devours flesh like an animal or in a bestial manner') in Japanese. The Canadian premiere screened subtitled at 6:00 PM at the Ryerson Theatre on September 11th as part of the festival's Vanguard films presentation. Read a few words about the premiere's attendees at the bottom of this review.
A theatre troupe is rehearsing a folklore Japanese play of murder and vengeance from afterlife when life begins to imitate art and, more than that, life and art begin to merge. The play being rehearsed, Yotsuya Kaidan ('Ghost Story Of Yotsuya'), is a traditional story of Japan, one of that country's more prevalent ghost stories and not coincidentally was itself written in 1825 by Tsuruya Nanboku as a kabuki theatre play. It is not the first time the tale has been filmed or influenced a work of art. The tale even inspired the villainess of the Ring movie.
Two questions are relevant when discussing a Miike film. One is specific and one is general.
Was the film violent, shocking or eccentric? You see he is subversive and baits the mainstream as Negisa Oshima once did. The answer is an unreserved 'yes.' The film is perfectly haunting. It is scary, macabre and violent right from the start. It is difficult to imagine that anyone could match old Japanese supernatural films, like Kaidan or Ugetsu Monogatari, in terms of chills and scares. Takashi Miike is the master and manages to do so. One scene, in particular, defies you to keep watching.
Was the film good? This question is perhaps especially relevant due to an existing benchmark given how the subject has already been filmed for the small and big screen in Japan. The answer is again 'yes.' The film is dark and tense, but simultaneously beautiful and stylish. The mixture of the modern and the traditional set, which matches the film itself, is dazzling and stylish. The chouchin lanterns, the kimono, the landscape, the entire set are frightening and attractive at the same time. The eerie music is chilling. The slow camera movement perfectly suits the ambiance. "You have already been in hell," exclaims the female lead and she might have been speaking to the viewers. Parenthetically fans of Japanese history and cinema will marvel at the appearance of a blind masseur reminiscent of Zatoichi. Moreover, the director has in recent past taken time to orchestrate at least two plays on stage in Japan with one being related to Zatoichi.
Miike stages much of the film appropriately on a Kabuki stage as a device - which might take one back to Kinoshita's 1958 drama Ballad Of Narayama - and to remove any suspense, yes, the blood does eventually flow. The original tale of a supposedly honour-bound ronin perpetrating such foul deeds makes one wish there were in fact spirits which would come back and haunt such guilty individuals.
As much as it is an opportunity to be screened at TIFF Over My Dead Body was overshadowed by the push given to Tokyo Tribe (also featuring actress Hitomi Katayama), which was given Midnight Madness categorization and extra promotion by the festival. Not having seen that film it would be impossible for me to render a verdict on TIFF's judgment, but Over Your Dead Body at the very least does not include hip hop thank goodness (see above... non-mainstream). Being in line to attend the premiere a man next to me was soon joined by two friends for whom he was waiting. When the first friend arrived he asked the person already in line what the name of the film was. His friend did not know, mumbled and pulled out their tickets to find out. The second friend soon joined and asked a similar question. He wanted to know what the film was, who was in it and moreover what it was about. None of them was really sure. However upon finding out the new guy asserted that: "It is Miiike, eh?" The kicker: the original guy who did not know the name of the film he was attending started talking about "Miiike" too and how great he is and how the director's film already has his vote for the People's Choice Award. It probably says something about the mindset of the festival's attendees. The three brothers-in-arms were near the head of the line too and, per later conversation, turned out to logically be fans of the oh so great mayor of Toronto as well. Enough said. Hi guys hope you enjoyed the film and the work of "Miiiike!"
Do I Sound Gay? (2014)
Yes, But Does It Matter?
In order to get it out of the way I should first begin with a declaration. David Thorpe is a distant relative which is how I got directed to Do I Sound Gay? The film, by the first-time director, premiered yesterday at the Toronto International Film Festival as part of its Mavericks program. It was scheduled for the coveted first weekend which is indicative of TIFF's high opinion of the feature. The film was funded via a Kickstarter campaign as recently as this spring.
Following a break-up with his boyfriend, David Thorpe loses some self-confidence, which translates into worrying more about sounding gay. Was this one of the causes of the breakup? We do not know. In the course of some ninety minutes he recruits voice coaches, linguists, class-mates, celebrities, family and even gay passers-by to both explore the topic and perhaps find assurance and solace in the experience of others. The film is half autobiography half documentary. It explores the gay vocal sound in the context of society in general and the entertainment industry in particular.
Incidentally, as far as documentaries go Do I Sound Gay? is more Roger & Me and less The Grace Lee Project. The director is on camera for most of the film as opposed to behind it.
The subject matter is clearly more upsetting to the writer-director than he cares to explicitly admit. This is inferred amidst the abundant comedy, jovial remarks and celebrity interviews. Nevertheless, there are quite a few moments of hilarity and laugh-out-loud scenes peppered throughout the film. One sees Thorpe's cats, Bruno (oh, come on!) and Rocket, Hello Kitty merchandise in his apartment and stereotyped gay humour displayed. Then there are classic Hollywood vignettes depicted as not so subtle gay scenes. Family members and old friends recall a young David and their impressions before we find out that Thorpe had a liberating coming out during his first year of college. There are many funny or heartwarming bits; alas by necessity serious instances are also present as with the teenager who was bullied and beaten up at school for sounding and being gay.
As mentioned the subject matter was prompted following a breakup with a boyfriend, but does the film provide for a seamless or convincing segue from this point unto the theme's exploration? Not really, as the subject takes a valid and independent life of its own. The breakup and the boyfriend may be personally relevant to the film maker, but not so content or audience-wise. How it translates to attention to the gay voice is personal to the man. Being single and alone in his 40s manifests as piling onto an existing feeling of inferiority. With the opening assumption being the notion that a "gay voice" is negative and contributes to the existing self-conscious nature of the man, Thorpe begins meeting with and practicing with coaches and recordings to become less gay sounding identified as accentuated s's, higher pitches, elongated enunciations, et cetra. At some point one coach offers that leaders go high with the first syllable of a word before dropping lower. Thorpe is seen exercising his voice throughout the film all the while discussing the same with the aforementioned. Speaking of which, celebrities such as comedienne Margaret Cho, CNN reporter and anchor Don Lemon, columnist Dan Savage and actor-cum-activist George Takei are several of the names on camera. In the subsequent Q&A at the premiere someone wondered if there were gay celebrities who were contacted and did not respond. CNN's Anderson Cooper was brought up as an enquiry before Dan Savage light-heartedly interjected with a "Tom Cruise never called you back," which had the audience laughing. For the record, Thorpe was polite/adamant that he does not remember anyone being non-responsive, but assumes anyone who might not have called him back was probably too busy or likely had not received his message.
So, per Do I Sound Gay?, is there a gay voice? Yes and no. It is not an absolute indicator and exceptions and extremes exist. The film does not deny its existence. However, as Thorpe and the film progress in their exploration they conclude that the voice, sound and enunciation should not be matters for anxiety. With the increased self-confidence comes the message that the sound comes from within. One is who he is and one's body is he as well. Why be uncomfortable with it? The point was emphasized at the panel as well. In fact, Thorpe plainly called the title a political slogan. The gay voice is not a negative! The hunt and the laughter in the film made for an entertaining and simultaneously informative viewing.
Several personal points may be of interest. First, it is good to live in a world where homophobia (this word or the words 'homosexual' and 'heterosexual' are curiously shut out from the film) has been pushed back to some extent and film makers can move on to more nuanced topics and considerations. The world (here anyway) has somewhat moved forward from closeted difficulty. Secondly, and personally, it is hoped that gay voices rise to defend and support other oppressed or suppressed minorities. We are all devalued when we only care inwardly. Gay voices for Palestine, Aboriginals supporting Ukraine, Muslims for LGBT, ALS spouses for cancer patients, et cetra et cetra et cetra are mere examples of how we would build a beautiful world. These may require teaming up with members of the affected communities to give them voices and leverage their intimate knowledge of the subject, but it is even more precious when communities with no personal stake stand up for others.
Ai no korîda (1976)
You Will Feel Unease Whether You Appreciate The Film Or Not
Of all the categories of film ones depicting open sex are the most controversial. Trick people, steal their identities, wealth or children, make war, drop bombs or annihilate planets and it is all fine. Show two humans have sex for pleasure and millions will revolt. Although few deny that sex is exciting many assert it is not proper or art. Making the audience feel unsettled, uncomfortable and flinch is part of the intention here. Written and directed by Japan's Nagisa Ôshima's, 1976's In The Realm of Senses (Ai No Korida or 'love's/lover's bullfight') clinches the title as a risqué and explicit art film conceived to break taboos. Here is a film with full sexuality, nudity, penetration, S&M and more whose mission, for starters, is to push the boundaries, promote free speech and deconstruct obscenity. It is pornographic, but directed to be the opposite. Given the imagery and subject matter the film could easily be labelled pornography; however, the presence of respectable/mainstream/traditional cast, crew, studio and production values - not to mention anti-pornographic (pink eiga) film techniques - renders it enough of a something else to confuse most and push the boundary well back. Nagisa Ôshima saw obscenity and censorship as anathema to progress and indeed believed Japan has taken many steps backwards since the days of pleasure quarters, open prostitution in brothels, openness and individuality. His distaste for what he saw as the society's backward march, group-think and suppression of free speech is the driving force behind the feature. Indeed the old geisha who at one point entertains the main characters of this film, when the younger ones ended up refusing to return, proclaims "that's natural for a woman" to constantly have sex with a man. Oshima's statement in this regard sheds light on his intent. "The concept of "obscenity" is tested when we dare to look at something that we desire to see but have forbidden ourselves to look at. When we feel that everything has been revealed, "obscenity" disappears" He needed his powers of articulation because - and not for the first time - he would land in court in Japan defending his art. He would live to tell the tale, but to this day the film is only seen in Japan cut, censored and pixelated. The film unequivocally depicts one X-rated sexual act and thought after another. On a mission to make "obscenity disappear" one sees complete nudity, sex, an extramarital affair, S&M inclusive of pain inflicted with or without foreign objects (Kichizo: "it hurts but feels good"), exhibitionism, ingestion, prostitution, promiscuity/free sex, exposure of children and sex with the elderly. Having scratched items off its list the viewer is still ill prepared for the mutilation that follows. Such is the conviction of the writer/director and the ensemble around him. The film does not stop there. Caught in its crosshairs are Japan's pre-World War II militarization, Japanese traditional respect for one's seniors and tradition, male dominance in sex and pornography and crucially man's greater sexual appetite compared to a woman's. Any and all of these concepts would horrify the busybodies that constitute any society anywhere, but even more so in the Japan of 1976 with its induced promotion of group harmony and conformity. Based on a real story dating back to 1936 In The Realm Of Senses retells the story of Sada Abe (played by newcomer Eiko Matsuda) who bedded with her master (Kichizo Ishida played by Tatsuya Fuji) with their ending up stealing away from their lives in a Tokyo inn in Nakano while abandoning his wife. Scandal ensues when their indulgence intensifies amidst everything described above and more. The lovers completely give of themselves. Coincidentally, I had recently watched Akarui Mirai with Tatsuya Fuji who has had an acting career in Japan before and after this feature. It is worth noting this because In The Realm Of Senses features a range of established Japanese talent. Anywhere else in the world and this movie would not have attracted any takers. Apparently, many women had come to audition for a cinematic role, which involves full penetration. The same could not be said about the male talent. The director recounts many were worried about their phallus size or being able to perform on camera. Nonetheless, first there is Oshima's wife, the actress Akiko Koyama. She had volunteered to play Sada, although some speculate it was done to spur other actresses. She plays a geisha here. The old geisha is Kanae Kobayashi. She plays her actual real-life age. She was an established actress notable for the Zatoichi films. The old vagabond is Taiji Tonoyama whose over 200 credits include the brilliant Ningen No Joken (The Human Condition I). The innkeeper is played by established actress Aoi Nakajima herself the daughter of Masayuki Mori known for classics of cinema like Ugetsu or Rashomon. The crew was also an established team working in Kyoto on the set of many a Mizoguchi or Kurosawa film. It is an extraordinarily uninhibited and ground-breaking film. Yet, there are beautiful images of old-style Japanese rooms and decor, traditional outfits, melodies of the shamisen and muted but vivid colours throughout the film which is largely restricted to the indoors. The fox (kitsune) masks of the festival, the kites of the Children's festival and the bird dancer (mimicking the actual bird of earlier) colour the film Japanese further. Nonetheless, these are mere interludes amidst the subversive and often difficult viewing. Amazingly Oshima had sought out the real-life Sada Abe (Sada meaning 'chaste' in Japanese - although her name and the adjective have different Kanji) and obtained her permission to film In The Realm Of Senses. By this time she was ensconced in a Buddhist monastery. Whether one enjoys In The Realm Of Senses or not one has to tip his hat at the courageous and spirited Argos Films, the cast, crew, director, producer and Criterion video.