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4/10
A meandering, grandiose, confusing and ultimately boring mess...
31 December 2012
Warning: Spoilers
Hashimoto Shinobu's "Maboroshi No Mizuumi AKA Lake of Illusion" has often been given the dubious distinction of being called one of the worst Japanese films ever. While that might be a bit unfair, "Maboroshi No Mizuumi" is never-the-less a confusing mess. With its story about a part-time escort in pursuit of the elusive murderer of her beloved dog Shiro, one might expect the director to be a unseasoned amateur or a third-rate exploitation film hack like Ed Woods.

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

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in 2008, adapting one of his early works "Watashi Wa Kai Ni Naritai AKA I Want To Be A Shellfish" (which he had originally made into a film in 1959).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until very recently "Maboroshi No Mizuumi" was almost impossible to find as it was not released widely to VHS tape or DVD let alone was it played on Japanese TV. It gained somewhat of a cult status as a curio piece of bad Japanese films along with such other botched film projects like Mizuno Haruo's (AKA Mike Mizuno) World War II farce "Siberia Chotokkyu AKA Siberian Express" and Sato Jyunya's "Quest For Fire" retread "Peking Genjin - Who Are You".
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7/10
Sawajiri is at her career best in Ninagawa's dark & grand opus on Objectification...
24 December 2012
Warning: Spoilers
After almost a five year break from film making since her stunning film debut "Sakuran", film auteur Ninagawa Mika triumphantly returns in top form with the controversial live action film adaptation of "Helter Skelter". Based on Okazaki Kyoko's popular manga currently running in the serialized comic magazine "Feel Good", "Helter Skelter" is a visually gorgeous and impressive looking film lush with vibrant color and striking imagery but like its troubled character LiLiCo, its outer beauty hides a convoluted and sometimes overly dark and twisted fairy tale whose sanctimonious message against vanity and sexual objectification seems a bit heavy handed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Helter Skelter" is a beautiful film but not perfect. Yet its overall enjoyable cautionary tale about objectification seems so timely in a world where the "Cults of Personality" for Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, Rola, Kim Kardashian, Paris Hilton and countless other fashion models have dramatically influenced pop culture with their illusions of perfection.
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River (I) (2011)
6/10
A mellow and meditative film on tragedy and how people cope with loss...
11 December 2012
Warning: Spoilers
Hiroki Ryuichi's "River" is a quiet and somber film reflecting on two recent Japanese tragedies and their lingering impacts on those who were directly effected by them.

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

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

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

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

"River" ends with Quinka,with a Yawn's A cappella cover of Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer's iconic "Moon River" made famous by Audrey Heburn in "Breakfast at Tiffany's". Its inclusion here is appropriate enough both symbolically and thematically. As Hikari rides down the Kanda River (a promise she made to do with Kenji while he was still alive), she longs for a more carefree future, one in which she can realize her dreams and live life to its fullest again as the lyrics go "There's such a lot of world to see/We're after the same rainbow's end".
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Konkurîto (2004)
5/10
A disturbing and distasteful dramatization of a shocking and sad real life murder
27 November 2012
Warning: Spoilers
Nakamura Hiromu's controversial and unsettling 2004 film "Concrete" is a difficult film to watch especially given the fact that it was based on a real life grisly murder case, one of the most infamous and horrific cases of abduction and murder in the annals of Japanese crime, a case sensationalized in the press as the "Concrete-Encased High School Girl Murder". Based on Atsumi Joji's book on the case "Jyunana Sai, Aku No Rirekishou" (Age 17, Chronicle of Evil), the movie dramatizes the murder of 17-year-old Junko Furuta, a pretty high school student who in late November 1988 while returning home from her part-time job, was abducted by four juvenile delinquents in Saitama Prefecture, Tokyo and imprisoned in a house in the district of Adachi where she was subjected to 44 days of relentless sadistic torture. Sadomised, repeatedly sexually and physically assaulted, mutilated and eventually murdered in cold blood, her body was shamelessly discarded in a steel drum can which was then filled with concrete and then abandoned in an empty tract of land in Koto, Tokyo. While the four assailants were caught, tried and eventually convicted of her murder, due to their juvenile status, the prison terms given were ridiculously light and the four have since subsequently served out their sentences and released back into society.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If any one good thing has come about this film is that it has further helped to spread the story of Furuta Junko to a sympathetic world and has kept her memory alive (even if in an unfortunately morbid way). I only hope that she and other crime victims like Masuno Yurika (a Japanese Exchange Student who was brutally assaulted and killed in Romania earlier this year) somehow can find peace in knowing that their memories are alive on the net and that their stories have resonated in the heart of others.
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7/10
Japanese "Chick Flick" full of sappy romance and familiar melodrama
23 November 2012
Warning: Spoilers
"It's not easy being a woman" or at least that seems to be message of Fukugawa Yoshihiro's overly sentimental, too cute, "chick flick" comedy-drama "Girl" (AKA Girls for Keeps). Based on Okuda Hideo's popular female-centric omnibus novel, the film centers on four very different contemporary women in Tokyo, Japan as they try to balance their often dramatic personal and professional lives. The four friends represent an interesting cross section of the young, modern Japanese woman. First there's the bubbly and fashionable 29-year-old Takigawa Yukiko(Karina), a Marketing Associate for an upscale department store who refuses to "grow up" despite the fact that she's almost thirty. Then there's 34-year-old Takeda Seiko (Aso Kumiko), a Supervising Manager at a Real Estate Development Firm who has just been promoted to head a major urban renewal project much to the disdain of her colleague and rival Imai Tetsuo (Kaname Jun). Next there's 34-year-old Kosaka Yoko (Kichise Michiko), a still single Stationary Company Sales Representative who develops a secret crush for her pretty-boy assistant Wada Shintaro (Hayashi Kento) who's twelve years her junior. Lastly, there's 36-year-old single-mother Hirai Takako (Itaya Yuka) a Luxary Car Sales Agent, struggling to raise her 6-year-old son alone after an amicable divorce.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The film ends with a lot of unanswered questions - Will Sota and Yukiko finally take the plunge and marry? What does the future hold for Seiko and Hiroki? Will Yoko win the heart of Shintaro? Can Takako continue to be both a mother and father to her young son? I guess we will have to wait and find out in the eventual sequel.
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7/10
An interesting musical adaptation of a manga classic...
21 November 2012
Warning: Spoilers
Miike Takashi's "Ai To Makoto" (Love and Truth/Sincerity AKA "For Love's Sake") is an ambitious romantic drama whose novel movie musical approach may leave some audiences scratching their heads but is none-the-less an entertaining and enjoyable film if somewhat goofy at times. This isn't the first film adaptation of prolific manga writer Kajikawa Ikki's ("Ashita No Joe", "Tiger Mask") classic 1974 "seishun" (youth) love story series. Shochiku Studios released a three-part film series from 1974-1976 featuring 70s Japanese pop singing star Saijo Hideki as the heroic Taiga Makoto (in the later films Nanjou Koji and Kano Ryu would take over the role) and in a somewhat shameless gimmick an actress actually named Saotome Ai" portraying the series heroine of the same name. About that same time a TV drama series was also produced featuring Natsu Yusuke and Ikegami Kimiko in the title roles. Both adaptations did a good job at bringing writer Kajikawa and artist Nagayasu Takumi's landmark manga series to life. The tragic love story between a bad-boy rebel and a privileged and naive rich girl was rich in melodrama, teen angst and 70s anti-establishment rebelliousness which resonated much among young readers. Although not as groundbreaking as his "Ashita No Joe" (which was also recently adapted into a feature film), "Ai To Makoto" still earned a devoted fan following over the years since.

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

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

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

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

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

Who would have thought Miike could craft a nostalgic and sentimental love story. Those who think Miike has mellowed out and softened however should take comfort in knowing that he returns to his darker side with the just recently released "Aku No Kyoten" (AKA Lessons of Evil) an adaptation of Kishi Yusuke's violent thriller.
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Lost Paradise (1997)
7/10
A haunting and tragic look at infidelity and the power of love...
20 November 2012
Warning: Spoilers
Morita Yoshimitsu's "Shitsurakuen" (Paradise Lost) is a somber and haunting love story whose tragic tale of two "Star-crossed lovers" will certainly strike an emotional chord with audiences. Based on the popular 1997 bestselling novel by Watanabe Junichi, the story focuses on a doomed romance between a middle-aged family man, Kuki Shoichiro (the wonderful Yakusho Koji) and a beautiful calligraphy instructor, Matsubara Rinko (the alluring Kuroki Hitomi).

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

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

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

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

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

As a side note, "Shitsurakuen" was also adapted into a thirteen episode Japanese Drama series the same year (1997) and starred gruff character actor Furuya Ikko as Shoichiro and former 80s singing star Kawashima Naomi as Rinko. While the overall story was similar, the drama delved even deeper into the troubled pasts of the two characters. It was also surprisingly even more explicit in its depiction of the love scenes between the two characters and pushed the limits of Japanese TV censorship laws. Kawashima went against-type to portray Rinko and certainly must have shocked audiences with her raw and very sexual performance especially to those who like myself fondly remembered her as the sweet celebrity co-host of "Owarai Manga Dojo", a game show that catered to younger audiences. Sadly, although "Shitsurakuen" the series was a moderate hit and was well watched (more out of audience curiosity than quality) it has not been released to DVD or Blu-ray yet (only VHS copies exist). Hopefully this series will be released to DVD/Blu-Ray soon as it will serve as an interesting companion and counterpoint to Morita's much more superior version.
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8/10
Yamazaki "Yamato" is visually stunning but short on story
27 June 2011
Warning: Spoilers
Yamazaki Takashi's long awaited live action adaptation "Uchuu Senkan Yamato" tries hard to live up to the timeless "Uchuu Senkan Yamato" ("Starblazers" for Western Audiences) anime saga but doesn't quite capture all the human elements which resonated so well with audiences back in the 70s and 80s. With a much more starker and darker storyline than its source material, "Yamato" seems to try to ape the successful J.J. Abrams "Star Trek" reboot as well as the recent TV series "Battlestar Galactica" by trying to reinterpret itself for modern audiences but in doing so sheds too much of the "Space Opera" style that worked so well in the original anime series.

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

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

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

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

All in all fans will certainly enjoy this big budgeted, SFX heavy, popcorn movie but those expecting to be emotional moved by the story will be somewhat disappointed .
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5/10
Tokyo Night is a tepid and lackluster sequel...
3 April 2011
Warning: Spoilers
Nagae Toshikazu's Japanese-made sequel to the American horror sensation "Paranormal Activity" (2009) is a tedious and somewhat confusing film that tries to go for the pseudo-documentary/found footage style look of the original but soon degenerates to a by-the-numbers shock film. Its over-the-top finale is self-indulgent and shatters any realism that the film had hoped to accomplish.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the end, "Paranormal Activity 2: Tokyo Night" seemed to be more like a "one-trick pony". A shameless tie-in and gimmick movie that piggy backs on the success of a much better film.
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13 Assassins (2010)
8/10
13 Assissins is Miike's Magnum Opus...a crowd pleasing tour de force
2 April 2011
Warning: Spoilers
Miike's remake of Kudo Eiichi's "Jyu-Shichinin No Shikaku" (13 Assassins) is a masterpiece of samurai fiction. While resemblances to Kurosawa Akira's landmark "Seven Samurai" as well as Zack Snyder's "300" may be unavoidable, Miike's newest film is his most mature work and accomplished work to date and shows that he is indeed capable of crafting films outside of the bizarre, horrific and avant-guarde films he is most know for such as "Audition" and "Ichi The Killer".

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"13 Assassins" in an epic masterpiece and hopefully Miike Takeshi will catch Hollywood's eye more now. This film proves that Miike Takeshi is not just a fanboy film maker but a true artist who can make films for the general public not just only in Japan but the world as well.
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Villain (2010)
6/10
Sang-il Lee's "Villain" is a somber look at the human condition...
13 March 2011
Warning: Spoilers
Sang-il Lee's "Akunin" (Villain) is a sobering look at human relationships and manages to challenge audience perceptions of good and evil. The true "villain" are the ones that we think.

Shimizu Ryuichi (portrayed by the wonderful Tsumabuki Satoshi) is a shy and lonely day laborer looking for love. He aimlessly spends time corresponding with girls via telephone dating services and going on random encounters with girls looking for spending cash.

His world is shattered one day when he is involved in the murder of one of his former encounters, the sweet-faced Ishibashi Yoshino (pretty Mistushima Hikari)who after being jilted by playboy Masuo Keijo (Okada Masuo playing against type)berates and mocks the troubled loner.

Yoshino's family is devastated by the death and Yoshino's father Yoshio (portrayed by the brilliant Eimoto Akira)in particular takes the death particularly hard vowing to find those responsible for her death.

Fleeing his hometown of Nagasaki, Ryuichi encounters a kindred-spirit in fellow loner and plain-jane Magome Mitsuyo (the beautiful Fukatsu Eri) who is works as a sales clerk in the neighboring town of Saga. Falling in love the couple decide to hideout in a local lighthouse but Ryuichi's increasing emotional instability and guilt soon overcomes him and endangers his newfound happiness with Mitsuyo.

From the opening "Psycho-like" sequence to Hisaichi Jo's "Vertigo" like music rifts, it is clear that Lee wanted to make a thriller with Hitchcockian overtones. Lee's deliberate pacing of the film and story plot twists also invoke those of the master the end result is a bit too familiar to other stories about convicts on the run.

While the screenplay based on Yoshida Jyuichi's popular novel is faithful to the source material, the film tries a bit too hard to be social commentary and a mirror to the prejudices and bias of audiences.

The true "villain" of the film is not Ryuichi but rather other sub-plot characters whose are the stereotyped heartless scum we love to despise like Masuo Keijo, a self-absorbed pretty whose vanity is vomit inducing; Tsutsumishita (Masuo Suzuki), a smooth-talking con-man and Yakuza affiliate who specializes in manipulating elderly woman out of their money, Shimizu Yoriko (Yo Kimiko), Ryuichi's negligent mother who leaves Ryuichi in the care of his kind but elderly grandmother (portrayed by the always outstanding Kiki Kirin) and the Japanese Tabloid Media whose relentless coverage of the murder destroys the lives of three families. It's overly familiar territory.

Yet "Akunin" still succeeds on the strength of Lee;s masterful direction and presentation. While "Hula Girls" is definitely the better film, Lee does bring the same type of energy and human drama to this film. Cinematographer Kasamatsu Norimichi's beautifully captures the rough landscape of the South, with wonderful backdrops of Nagasaki, Saga and Fukoka.

With his good looks and powerful presence Tsumabuki Satoshi delivers another energetic performance and portrayal of the emotionally fragile Ryuichi. The chemistry between his character and Fukamatsu Eri's Mitsyo is very convincing and the two make a wonderful odd couple. Kiki Kirin is the other standout as Ryuichi's kindly grandmother who befalls financial tragedy as the victim of a cruel conman. Eimoto Akira is also another highlight of the film. His tearful portrayal of a grieving father is very effective and tugs at the heartstrings. Okada Masuo's Keijo makes a great "villain" although he certainly is not one for subtle performances. His Keijo screams out "douchebag".

Lee's film is a very conventional film and is not overly ambitious or original but it does what it set out to do and make audience think.
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Gantz (2010)
7/10
Sato Shinsuke's entertaining sci-fi film "Gantz" is one big tease...
13 February 2011
Warning: Spoilers
Sato Shinsuke's highly anticipated big-budget, live-action adaptation of Oku Hiroya's hugely popular Japanese comic/manga series "Gantz" is an engaging, glossy and outstanding high-octane, popcorn action movie with imaginative and stellar visual effects. While fanboys will appreciate Sato's faithful interpretation of the manga, Toho does a great disservice by only releasing a disappointingly dubbed version outside of Japan. The dry, disengaging and monotone voice acting dampens an otherwise terrific movie experience.

As mentioned "Gantz" is a currently on-going comic series in the weekly publication "Young Jump" by talented artist/writer Oku Hiroya. Oku's story takes elements from a variety of sources including the seminal Japanese "jidaigeki" drama "Hissatsu Shigotonin" (AKA Sure Death), movies such as "Men In Black" and "Alien" and Takami Koshun's landmark novel "Battle Royale" among others to give us perhaps one of the most interesting sci-fi stories to come out in a while.

"Gantz" begins with the tragic deaths of childhood friends Kurono Kei (played by JPop boyband "Arashi" member Ninomiya Kazunari)and Kato Masaru (played by "Death Notes" star Matsuyama Kenichi) who die trying to save a passenger who had fallen onto some subway rail tracks.

Although they get hit by an express subway train, they find themselves miraculously alive in a mysterious Tokyo apartment room amidst other strangers who had befallen similar tragic and accidental deaths. In the center of the room is a gigantic metallic sphere with a digital screen display and various compartments which house an assortment of advanced and hi-tech weaponry.

Among the other "contestants" in the room include the mysterious and sadistic High School senior Nishi Joichiro (played by Prince of Tennis/Nana 2's Hongo Kanata), the buxom and pixie-haired Kishimoto Kei (portrayed by the gorgeous Natsuna) who had committed suicide after breaking up with her cheating boyfriend, and recently laid-off "salary man/office worker" Suzuki Yoshikazu (portrayed by Tetsuro and Kamen Rider The Next star Taguchi 'Tomorrow').

The metallic sphere (who calls itself Gantz) informs the assembled contestants that they need to hunt down various alien invaders (disguised either as humans or other objects) in order to earn points. Once 100 points are accumulated and won by any individual contestant, they may choose to either (1) erase their memory and return to normal life or (2) resurrect any of the other contestants who had previously died in a "mission".

Thus begins the epic adventure of these individuals as they play the game to win their freedom and to resurrect their fallen comrades in arms.

Oku's fascinating world of Gantz is recreated in loving detail by Sato's amazing direction and vision. It helps that Screenwriter Watanabe Yûsuke does an admirable job of condensing and streamlining Oku's original multi-volume story to give us a good introduction and look at the primary characters that are involved. While there are some sub-plots that don't quite work, for instance the budding relationship between Kurono and his college classmate, manga Otaku Kojima Tae (played by cute Yoshitaka Yuriko) I thought it was a bit much and didn't really add to the character development (although in the manga it is better done). "Gantz's" strength however is definitely in the superb visual effects which are eye-catching and nicely done. In particular, the various weapons used by the contestants (the Gantz powersuits, X-Guns etc.) look amazing and the alien effects are spectacular.

It's hard to really critique the original character acting as the English dubbing actors really sour the performances. I'm not sure if there was a general disinterest in the material or perhaps not a clear understanding of the story but one can tell just from the monotone and often lethargic voice-overs that the actors were probably just reading lines.

As good as "Gantz" was, ultimately it was merely a big tease for the sequel which is scheduled for later in the year. As with the recent trilogy "21st Century Boys" or even the final chapter of "Harry Potter", "Gantz" felt like an elaborate setup for the next film which promises to be even better than this film.

I wish some of the other elements of the manga could be brought into the movie as in the manga we get quite a spectrum of interesting alien "hordes" that get hunted (some of the aliens disguise themselves as various mythological entities and deities). It does get touched upon somewhat in this film (particularly at the end).

While wishful thinking, I hope that Hollywood does not remake this film as Sato has delivered a perfectly good movie that could probably do well abroad in a subtitled version. Yet, knowing the arrogance of Hollywood producers it's probably only a matter of time before an eventual "American" version comes out. Let's just hope they at least they give due credit to Oku for delivering one of the most exciting sci-fi comics in a long while and to Sato for capturing that excitement in this film. Let's also hope that Toho does not dub the 2nd film as I believe "Gantz" and the performances of its principal cast (Ninomiya, Matsuyama, Natsuna, Hongo) deserve better treatment.
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Confessions (2010)
7/10
Nakashima's latest film is an absolutely stunning and dark drama that challenges the notions of morality
16 January 2011
Warning: Spoilers
Nakashima's visually stunning "Kokuhaku" is a tour de force of emotionally charged drama and engrossing visuals. Its thought-provoking and often times controversial storyline will haunt one's senses and challenge your notions of morality.

In fact the story's ambiguity is cleverly represented in its title "Kokuhaku" which in Japanese can be defined in two ways - not only to confess one's sins but also to confess one's love.

The story inventively starts in the middle with pretty Middle School teacher, Moriguchi Yuko (wonderfully realized by J-Dorama favorite Matsu Takako) announcing to her homeroom class that she is retiring. Of course, her apathetic and unruly students snidely celebrate her departure with laughter and high-fives. Yuko proceeds to then tell the students of the reason of her departure. In flashback we see the devastating and tragic loss of her five-year old daughter Manami (cute Ashida Mana), who drowned in the school's pool one night. While authorities label the death as an accidental drowning, Yuko discovers to her shock a more sinister explanation. Her daughter was intentionally drowned by two of her own students - the emotionally troubled "mama's boy" Shiomura Naoki (Fujiwara Kaoru) and the emotionally distant yet intellectually gifted Murakawa Shinya (Amami Juri), whom she just calls "Boy B" and "Boy A" respectively. Knowing that the authorities will not take any serious action given the fact that the two are just 13 year old minors, Yuko nonchalantly explains that she has already taken her revenge on the two by tainting their lunch milk with a syringe containing blood from her ex-husband who has HIV (she is also HIV Positive). Thus begins the story proper which examines the shattered lives of these two students as well as the tragic aftermath of this "confession" and of the cruel horrors that transpire from it. Like "Pandora's Box" Yuko's revenge unleashes an evil more darker than she could have ever imagined.

"Kokuhaku", based on the best selling 2008 Japanese novel of the same name by author Minato Kanae, is a blunt indignation of Japanese society and takes particular critical aim at its increasingly apathetic and narcissistic youth. Nakashima's screenplay drives this hard portrayal in by showing us that despite the unspeakable crime committed by the two students, the true evil lies in the resultant bullying and social ostracizing that results at the hands of their classmates. Despite all the information that has been distributed by the media on AIDS and how it is contracted, the ignorance and social stigma shown by the students is truly horrifying.

"Kokuhaku" is not a standard revenge movie and Nakashima masterfully deviates from the norm by focusing not on Yuko's rage but rather on the "monsters" that Yuko holds responsible for her daughter's death. As the movie unfolds, I unexpectedly found myself actually pitying these two poor souls as they were more-or-less victims themselves of unfortunate childhood traumas. While it doesn't excuse them of their crime, it does go far at explaining their motives and forces audiences to feel sympathy towards their plight.

The story's emotional impact is very much due to its extraordinary cast headed by the wonderful Matsu Takako (Long Vacation, Hero). I can understand now why Nakashima insisted on only having Matsu Takako portraying the part of the vengeful Yuko as she brings both a sense of tragic sadness and darkness to her role. Her quiet and understated portrayal is very effective (almost similar to Kaji Mieko's "Jyoshu Sasori" character) and if fact makes her character even more effective in a sense as it's almost like a slow, seething anger. Fujiwara Kaoru and Amami Juri are also quite good as the two juveniles. While Fujiwara tends to overplay his of part Naoki to the point of hysterics, Amami is the one who stands out as the intellectually brilliant Shin whose anti-social persona is just an affront to hide his need for his scientist mother's love and approval. Amami plays Shin as both a tragic and frightening character study. Hashimoto Ai is also great as Kitahara Mitsuki, Shin's only friend and kindred spirit who develops a compassion for the troubled youth and who foolishly believes that her love alone can change him. She is absolutely beautiful and is a definite star in the making. Kimura Yoshino is also wonderful as Naoki's devoted mother. Her performance is very unnerving and showed the unyielding love that her character had for her troubled son (a nice mirror to Matsu Takako's devotion to her character's daughter). Likable actor Okada Masami gives a good performance as the hopelessly optimistic and naive substitute teacher Yoshiteru Terada who attempts to reach out to both Naoki and Shin but whose general concern and good intentions soon become another destructive instrument in Yuko's revenge scheme. While only a small role Yamada Kinera's portrayal of Shin's estranged scientist mother was touching.

The cinematography compliments of Nakashima regular Ato Masakazu and Ozawa Atsushi are breathtaking and beautiful. They add to the emotional impact of the story and are absolutely stunning. Even the gory bits were beautifully rendered and shot (which seems almost strangely ironic).

"Kokuhaku" shatters the perpetual foreign stereotype of Japanese students as polite, docile, overly respectful and timid children and shows us that like in any other countries, some of today's youth have succumbed to the stresses of peer pressure, sense of self worth and purpose and have become selfish and disillusioned. The film is a cautionary tale of those dangers and also challenges the audience's notion and senses of morality. Are Yuko's a actions justified or has she become even more despicable, irresponsible and reckless as the students she holds response for her daughter's death? Does the ends really justify the means or does society really create its own monsters?
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8/10
Taniguchi's "Tokikake" film is yet another great adaptation to a classic love story...
6 November 2010
Warning: Spoilers
Taniguchi Masaaki's "Toki O Kakeru Shojo" (AKA Time Traveler) is an entertaining and enjoyable time-spanning romance that while doesn't particularly differ that greatly from its predecessors in its approach, still manages to be an engaging and not-at-all too redundant film.

"Toki O Kakeru Shojo" (or Tokikake) is probably the most adapted modern short story in Japanese Literature. As of date, there have been eight different versions of the Tsutsui Yasutaka story in both TV and movies -- the NHK drama "Time Traveler ('72) with Shimada Junko; the '83 movie with Harada Tomoyo; the Fuji TV Drama special ('84) with Minamino Yoko; the Fuji TV Drama special ('94) with Uchida Yuki; the '97 movie with Nakamoto Nana; the TBS TV special ('02) with Abe Natsumi, Hosoda Mamoru's fan-favorite anime movie ('06) and most recently Yatate Hajime's anime TV series ('09).

With this many variations, remakes and reiterations of the story, you'd think how much more different could this movie be especially after Hosoda made what seemed like the definitive version. Yet "Time Traveler" successfully distinguishes itself by introducing some clever time-travel twists and using references from the other versions in its story.

Adorably cute Naka Riisa (who voiced Konno Makoto in the "Toki O Kakeru Shojou/The Girl Who Leapt Through Time" anime) portrays Yoshiyama Akari, a bubbly Japanese high school student who has just passed her exams to go to college. Her mother is Kazuko (80s J-Dorama idol Yasuda Narumi) who is a chemist and pharmaceutical researcher who is obsessed with the year 1972(Showa Year 47) and has been working on a time-traveling elixir made from rare Lavender extracts.

When local liquor vendor Asagura Gorou (Tatsumura Masanobu) shows Kazuko an old photo of her with another classmate, a flood of memories comes back to her and in a moment of distraction, she is involved in a traffic accident and is left in a coma. During a brief gain of consciousness, she tells Akari to use her test elixir to go the specific date (4/6/1972), the year she was in Junior High and find Fukamachi Kazuo(Kanji Ishimaru), the classmate in the photo and relate a message to him.

Taking one of the Lavender elixirs, Akari focuses on the date that her mother gave her however, when Akari wakes up she finds herself instead in 2/6/1974 (she had mixed up the date). Frantic, she tries to find the whereabouts of both her mother (now a high student in Yokohama and portrayed by Ishibashi Anna) and get more information from her. With the help of 70s sci-fi movie "Otaku" Fuzoroki Ryota (J-Dorama Rookies' Nakao Akiyoshi) and his hippie cameraman "Gotetsu" AKA Hasegawa Masamichi (Aoki Munetaka), who may or may not be one of Kazuko's high school lovers, Akari tries to contact Fukamachi, who we learn to be a fellow time traveler from the year 2060 who had gotten stuck in the year 1972.

Yet things get complicated when Akari and Ryota begin to fall in love and Akria learns that Ryota is destined to die in a bus accident in the same year.

The strength of the film definitely falls with versatile Naka Riisa, who has made quite a splash since her "Tokikake" Seiyuu/voice work days having starred in a number of TV J-Doramas and films including Tominaga Masanori's "Pandora's Box" and portraying the sexy Lady Gaga-type villain "Zebra Queen" in Miike Takashi's "Zebraman 2: Attack on Zebra City". Naka is very charming on screen and her Akari is such a delightfully sweet and fun character.

Nakao Akiyoshi is also no stranger to remakes having starred in the 2006 TV series adaptation of the 1981 Kadokawa film "Sailor Fuku and Kikanjyu" and here he has a much more substantive role as the likable character of Ryota, an amateur filmmaker whose dream project is a love story set in 2010 and features some of the items that Akari showed him (like a cellphone). There is definitely romantic chemistry between his Ryota and Naka's Akari characters and I liked how director Taniguchi made it very poignant and tender. I like how their romance was mirrored by the time-spanning love between Kazuko and her enigmatic lover Fukamachi.

What I most liked about Taniguchi and screenwriter Kanno Tomoe's adaptation is that they used a lot of references to the other "Tokikake" films (more so than any other version) especially with regards to the titular 1983 Kadokawa version with Harada Tomoyo. We finally get an updated version of that film's title song compliments of hit J-Pop group Ikimonogakari which is just as good (and perhaps even better) than Harada's original. We also get a lot of references to the other film adaptations such as having Akari be a Japanese Archery student (similar to the 1983 version) and the use of the 1972 year reference (which was the year that the first "Tokiokake" film debuted which coincidentally was also titled "Time Traveler"). Even Yasuda Narumi's character Kazuko is alluded to as being possibly the same character as the one Nakamoto Nana portrayed in the 1997 version.

This is Taniguchi's first feature film debut after helping as an assistant director on such films such as "GTO" and "Pachigi! Love & Peace" and he does a great job of creating a surprisingly moving, romantic film. His recreation of Tokyo in the year 1974 is pretty impressive and he definitely captures the look, fashion and atmosphere of that year. While the time-traveling sequence in the beginning is a bit goofy (similar to the 1983 film) it still was a nice bit of SFX (almost "Alice In Wonderland" like).

Although it would have been great to have original "Tokikake" heroine Harada Tomoyo make a cameo appearance in this version, I was quite pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed the film. Hopefully this will be the last of the "Tokikake" films as I'm not sure how much more variance you can put to the story.
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Solanin (2010)
8/10
Miyazaki Aoi's winning performance saves Miki Takahiro's mediocre film
20 October 2010
Warning: Spoilers
Miki Takahiro's youth oriented film "Solanin" (Sky People) is a trite melodrama that is wrought with tired cliché but is elevated from mediocre status by the sheer power of Miyazaki Aoi's touching performance. Miyazaki proves once again that she is one of the most gifted and talented of Japan's young acting elite.

Adapted from Asano Inio's acclaimed and popular Shogakukan's Weekly Young Sunday manga of the same name, the film follows the uncertain future of its young protagonist, Inoue Meiko (Miyazaki Aoi) who is a twenty-something "OL" (Office Lady) working in the urban jungle of Tokyo. She has been living in Tokyo since moving from the countryside to attend university. She is currently in a long-term, serious relationship with college sweetheart Taneda Naruo (Kora Kengo), a tall and lanky fellow country bumpkin who has come to Tokyo with dreams of starting a band and making it big. Together with college buddies drummer Yamada Jiro AKA "Billie" (Kiritani Kenta) and bassist Kato Kenichi AKA "Debu" (real life J-Rock "SampoMaster's" band member Kondo Yoichi), they have been playing small clubs for a number of years.

Growing increasingly frustrated with the boredom at work, Meiko makes a fateful decision to quit her steady job to try and find a more meaningful opportunity in life much to Taneda's chagrin. Up-to-now Taneda has been relying on Meiko's income to help pay the bills (aside from his infrequent band gigs, Taneda's sole source of income comes from his "freeter"/part-time job as a graphic artist at a small publishing company). Taneda decides to take his music more seriously and makes a push at getting his band discovered and getting a music contract.

Taneda produces a single called "Solanin", a weepy, rock ballad that he hopes will get his band noticed (the name is a play off of the word "Sora"(Sky) and "Nin"(People) and is interpreted as those who "reach for the sky" i.e. go after their dreams).

Out of the dozen record companies that they solicited only one responds back to their demo submission. Yet when Taneda, Billie and Meiko go meet with the record producer, they are told that they only want them to sign up as a backup band for one of their up-and-coming pop idols.

His confidence shattered, Taneda falls into a deep depression. He ends his relationship with Meiko and disappears for a month. After one last phone call to Meiko, Taneda commits suicide by running his moped past a red light and getting into a deadly traffic accident.

Devastated by Taneda's death, Meiko also falls into a deep depression but thanks to the comfort and support of college friend Kotani Ai (the beautiful Ito Ayumi), Meiko is inspired to learn to play the guitar and continue Taneda's goal. Along with Billie and Kato, Meiko sets off to make Taneda's dream a reality.

Takahiro's film follows a number of other similar "chase a dream" music themed movies including Otani Kentaro's "Nana"(2005), Honda Ryuichi's "GS Wonderland" (2008) and most recently Kobayashi Takeshi's "Bandage" (2010) to name only a few but unfortunately doesn't quite really set itself apart from these films let alone match their brilliance. Screenwriter Takahashi Izumi's adaptation of Asano Inio's original story may be a good interpretation of the source material but the film itself covers much of the same ground as other better films and unfortunately comes off as yet another tired, overly sentimental and melodramatic teen drama.

As mentioned, Miyazaki Aoi (Gaichu, Nana, Su-Ki-Da) is great as Meiko and does a commendable job of elevating the material from boring romance to heartwarming and inspiring drama. Miyazaki not only does a good job of making Meiko a real person but also a credible musician (Miyazaki actually learned to play guitar and sing for this role).

The supporting cast is also very likable and charming. Kora Kengo (Bandage, Sad Vacation) seems to enjoy playing the "tortured soul" part and excels at it here. Kiritani Kenta (Crows Zero Series, Rookies, 69) also is type-casted again as a tough but lovable punk. Musician Kondo Yoichi is pretty charming in his role as jovial Kato and his comedy bits are hilarious. Gorgeous Ito Ayumi (Bandage, Swallowtail Butterfly)is again given a nice supporting role but I wish she would be given the chance to headline a film for once as she is a decent actress.

The music is another highlight especially the main "Solanin" theme (performed by J-Rock band Asian Kung-Fu Generation).

While the film itself is pretty disappointing from a story standpoint, the only other saving grace about the film (aside from Miyazaki Aoi's acting) is the beautiful and stunning cinematography by Kondo Ryuto. His deep long shots of the Tokyo skyline awash in blue sky are simply magnificent and breathtaking.

Miyazaki is definitely a true talent and hopefully she will get more of the recognition she deserves for her work and maybe we will even get to see her in Hollywood as I see her as being just as talented if not more so than either Kikuchi Rinko(Babel)or Kuriyama Chiaki (Battle Royale, Exte, Kill Bill Vol. 1).
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5/10
Mediocre thriller that will make you appreciate the anime's better take...
13 September 2010
Warning: Spoilers
Sato Toshiki's "Yume Nara Samete..." is a dull and mediocre psychological thriller that fails to live up to Kon Satoshi's brilliant anime adaptation of Yoshikazu Takeuchi's "Perfect Blue" novel. This live action version is lifeless and boring, lacking any of the passion or emotion that was in the anime.

As mentioned this film is the second adaptation of Yoshikazu Takeuchi's novel "Perfect Blue" and unlike Kon Satoshi's anime version, is said to be more closer to the original source material. Asuka Ai (Maeda Ayaka) is a fledgling model who has only a couple of "Gavure" (swimsuit) photo shoots to her credit so far. Her handler/manager is the kindly Bando (Masahiro Toda) who is determined to make Ai a major singing idol and has been grooming her for stardom. He is extremely protective of her as eight years earlier he had overseen the career of another potential idol only to see her murdered by an unknown assailant who has never been caught. Asuka tells Bando that she would like to use the song of a friend as her debut song. The song "Yume Nara Samete/To Awaken From A Dream" was written by Ai's friend Kawai Hiromi(Shimizu Yumi), a fellow classmate who went to the same talent school as Ai and who had committed suicide in front of her in humiliation over a taboo love relationship with a married teacher. While Hiromi had wanted to use the song to further her own idol aspirations, she tells Ai that she will give the song to her.

As Ai prepares to make her singing debut using Hiromi's song, she meets up with timid Convenience Store Clerk Horibe Toshihiko (Omori Nao) who is Ai's biggest fan. Having grown up in the same country prefecture as Ai, he has developed an abnormal obsession for her and freely admits that he "is living her life" and goes so far as to make his room an identical copy of Ai's former studio apartment. Horibe also suffers from another biological abnormality in which his body manufactures too much Estrogen(female hormones). The results soon become physically obvious as Horibe slowly metamorphosizes into a doppleganger of Ai.

Horibe confronts Ai and tells her that he will replace her as he feels "she is not the true Ai" and that he will be the true star that she could never become. However before Horibe can go through with his plans, he is killed in a knife attack. The assailant is none other than Bando's "plain jane" wife (Watanabe Makiko) who had become jealous of his constant mentoring of Ai (it is implied that she was also the one who killed Bando's previous idol client).

While screenwriters Imaoka Shinji and Kobayashi Masahiro's loopy script does stay faithful to the original novel, it may not have been a good thing (to their credit Kon and screenwriter Sadayuki Murai are said to have had reservations on doing a straight adaptation of the novel and asked for permission to deviate from the story).

Fans of the anime may be sad to see that many of the elements that were found in that version did not make the transfer to the live action film. Not only is the story very much different (in the anime, lead heroine Kirigoe Mima is already a successful Jpop idol with a "Perfume" like group called CHAM, before she decides to quit singing to branch out into a career in acting, whereby she not only incurs the wrath of a crazed internet fan (Uchida AKA Me-Mania) but also her deranged manager Rumi, a former idol singer herself who develops a split-personality thinking that she is the true Mima) but the tone is very much more subdued and dark.

Of course what brings the entire film down are the performances, particularly Maeda Ayaka(Jisatsu Manual; Strawberry Shortcakes) as Ai. While she is cute and very much looks the part of an fledgling idol, her disinterested and almost lethargic performance is a low point and she doesn't really elicit sympathy for her character. Her rendition of Hiromi's torch song (which is supposed to be her final profession of love to her unrequited lover) is painfully off-key and pitchy. While the song itself is haunting upon first exposure, it is relentlessly repeated throughout the movie almost Ad nauseam.

Omori Nao (Ichi in "Ichi The Killer") portrays yet another in a long line of odd-ball and wacky characters but does so well. His Horibe is a true sad-sack character who has hopelessly lost reality in his obsession with Ai and as a result not only gives up is own identity but his own sexual identity as well(quite different from the crazed Me-Mania and demented Rumi but equally sick in the head).

Sato's direction style is very methodical and slow paced and it drags the movie down and while the film itself is relatively short at 103 minutes it seems much longer.

"Yume Nara Samete.." could have been an interesting "Hitchcockian" thriller if it had been done right or made similar to the anime but in Sato's hands becomes a below average thriller which tries for twisted "medical/biological horror" shocks (like David Cronenberg) but fails. Lead actress Maeda's amateurish acting and singing don't help either and further makes one appreciate the late Kon Satoshi's dynamic anime even that much more.
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4/10
Mediocre action film that is both conventional and predictable...
14 August 2010
Warning: Spoilers
Moon Lee's 1989 "Girls N Guns" action film "Killer Angels" (AKA "Extreme Vengeance" and in some references "Megaforce")is a passable entry in the HK action film genre but is somewhat silly at times and fails to match up with Moon Lee's other films. It certainly is not Moon Lee's best but she does look good and the action scenes are quite good despite the relatively low budget.

Moon Lee and Kingdom Yuen King-Tan are two rough-and-tumble girls that are part of a private investigation team known only as the "Blue Angels". Their handlers Chan Pooi-Kei and Tony Liu Jun-Guk send them on a mission to protect a former member of a Chinese Triad group known only as the "Shadow Gangsters". Suave gangster Jacky Chen ( Lau Siu-Gwan ) offers to give them a complete list of members of that crime syndicate in exchange for personal protection. However when the Shadow Gangsters learn of this betrayal. Their sadistic boss, played by perennial HK bad-guy Leung Kar-Yan decides to take matters in his own hands and sends a mysterious mob enforcer named Michael (played by legendary martial artist and star of "Master Killer" Gordon Liu Chia-Hui) after him. However when Michael unexpectedly sides with the Blue Angels, he sends a team of other henchmen after the Blue Angels including Michael's shotgun happy sometime lover (played by Takajo Fujimi), imposing Shing Fui-On and foreign fighters Mark Houghton and Wayne Archer.

While director Chin-Ku Lu (Holy Flame of the Martial World; Lady Assassin; The Death of Bruce Lee) does keep things interesting, the overall movie has a definite cheapness about it and ultimately disappoints with a somewhat confusing and conventional storyline with the atypical crime drama twists and turns. Even though the action scenes are pretty good, they don't really match up with Moon Lee's much better "Angel" films. "Killer Angels" is entertaining enough but definitely only for Moon Lee fans. I really got a kick out of Moon Lee's 80s pop singing scene and while I can't tell if she does her own singing or not, it definitely shows another side of her that I wish she had displayed more in other movies.
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4/10
A cheesy and juvenile "Pink Lady" vanity film...
12 August 2010
Warning: Spoilers
Cheesy and juvenile, "Pink Lady No Katsudou Dai Shashin" (Lit. The Pink Lady's Big Picture) attempts to be fun and irreverent (shades of the Beatles "HELP!" or the Monkey's "Head" but it doesn't work. Stars Mi and Kei are likable enough but their charms can't save a film riddled with unfunny skits, cheap and campy sci-fi effects and "Sid and Marty Krofft"-styled high-jinks. It's a pure vanity project that falls flat in its efforts to make the Pink Lady more than just Jpop 70s idols.

During the late 70s, the Japanese Pop duo of tall, short-haired Nemoto Mitsuyo(Mi)and long-haired Masuda Keiko (Kei) otherwise known as the "Pink Lady" were the reigning princesses of the Japanese music scene.

With their good looks, disco-inspired dance choreography, catchy-ABBA inspired songs they dominated much of the Oricon Japanese Top 40 charts from 1976-1979 and gained a dedicated legion of fans (the so-called "Chameleon Army" named after one of their songs).

They were Japan's first true idol group sensation and influenced generations of future JPop singers, imitators and groups such as Wink, BaBe, W (Double), Onyanko Club, Morning Musume, AKB48, Halcali etc. Their bubbly, beat-oriented, fluffy music was in sharp contrast to the somber, folk-song styled, adult rock/Kayokyoku songs of contemporaries like Yamaguchi Momoe.

Their hit song such as "S.O.S.", "Peppa Keibu", "UFO", "Wanted", "Monster", "Tomei Ningen" and "Nagisa No Sinbad" are nostalgic Japanese Karaoke standards and have been covered by other Japanese artists.

Pink Lady were one of only two Japanese artists to have reached the American Billboard Top 40, hitting #37 with the single "Kiss in the Dark" (the other being Kyu Sakamoto with song "Ue O Muite Aruko/Look Up and Move Forward" AKA Sukiyaki).

The Pink Lady may be familiar to some American audiences from their disastrous short-lived 1980 NBC TV variety show "Pink Lady & Jeff", which was co-produced by Sid & Marty Krofft (the men behind such 70s kiddie shows as "H.R. Pufnstuf", "Lidsville", "Land of the Lost" and "Lost Saucer" among many others). With their giddy girlish mannerisms, broken English and amateur acting, awkward renditions of American 70s disco songs, the show was painful to watch and thankfully ended after only a couple of episodes.

1978 is seen as their "miracle year" as they were at the peak of their pop stardom and also saw the release of this their only theatrical film.

This Toho movie boasted a stellar cast featuring many recognizable Japanese film stars such as Ishidate Tetsuro, Tanaka Kunie, Tanaka Ken, Nabe Osami and Sato Gajiro. It was also written by talented screenwriter "James" Miki who would later go on and write a number of well known NHK dramas like "Mio-Tsukushi", "Dokuganryu Masamune" and "Aoi Tokugawa Sandai".

Yet with such talent on board it is surprising how awful the film is. A complete mess no thanks to director Kotani Tsugunobu (The Last Dinosaur) who tries unsuccessfully to craft a movie along the lines of Michael Schultz's equally terrible Bee Gees vanity film "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" (also 1978) which weaves a silly story around the featured musical scores (and sometimes even literally re-interpreting the songs).

The main "Pink Lady" story involves Ishidate Tetsuro as a hyper-active producer and Tanaka Kunie as a bumbling film director trying to come up with the "ultimate movie" for the Pink Lady (who play themselves). Ishidate and Tanaka come up with a trilogy of stories which they try to pitch to the Pink Lady over the phone (the stories are re-enacted for the benefit of the audience).

The first story is a sappy romance drama which has Mi and Kei as rivals for the affection of a handsome businessman, the second story is a wacky sci-fi spoof which has the Pink Lady encountering a pink baby monster at a traveling circus and trying to help the little monster go back to his UFO to return back to his homeland while protecting him from a trio of dumb villains (a spiteful clown, a short stature trainer and a "Gaijin" ringmaster). Along the way, the Pink Lady get stuck aboard the monster's UFO and get turned into "Tomei Ningen" (invisible girls) in which they use these powers to play silly pranks on unsuspecting lecherous guys.

The third story features Mi and Kei as Can-Can girls in a small western town who must team up with a clumsy sheriff to fight off a group of outlaws.

Intertwined amidst the stories are concert footage of Pink Lady singing all their hit songs on stage in front of screaming crowds.

While it pre-dates Olivia Newton-John's "Xanadu" by a couple of years, it's just as awful at trying to incorporate the Pink Lady's song and dance act into a dramatic storyline. What we get is one long boring music video (and not a very good one either). Kotani must have had the Monkees TV show in mind as this film seems like it belong to there. It's also ironic how some of the film resembles a Sid & Marty Krofft show too as three years later they would team up with the duo.

This film is primarily a curio piece for Jpop fans and bad-film aficionados and will test the patience of everyone else with its hopelessly loopy story and terrible overacting.
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Bandage (2010)
7/10
Enjoyable and enlightening drama about the Japanese Music Industry...
1 August 2010
Warning: Spoilers
Kobayashi Takeshi's "Bandage" is a well made and very sobering drama that takes an unglamorous look at the Japanese music scene and shows us the hardships faced by a group of musicians as they struggle with balancing creative independence with the pressures of satisfying business and sales expectations. With its somewhat documentary film style, it is an entertaining and engaging movie that surprises audiences with its candor and straightforward approach.

Based on the novel "Good Dreams" by Chika Kan (which was later adapted into a radio drama), the story revolved around the exploits of a fictional Japanese indie rock band called "Lands" and their quest for stardom during the fall of Japan's "Bubble Keiki" during the 90s.

Asako (gravure idol Kitano Kii) is an average Japanese high school student who wonders what to do with her life as her best friend, Miharu (model Anne, daughter of Japanese actor Watanabe Ken) tells her that she is dropping out of school to find her own destiny. Miharu tells Asako that she finds the courage to pursue her dreams from the lyrics of a song by an indie band called "Lands". She hands Asako one of their CDs to listen to and goes off to work at a local CD/DVD shop. A few months later Miharu invites Asako to come with her to go see Lands at one of their live concerts. After their concert, the two sneak backstage with the hopes of meeting the band in person. When Asako loses her contact lenses, she literally bumps into charismatic lead singer Natsu Takasugi (KAT-TUN's Akanishi Jin) who instantly falls for the overly polite and shy girl. Natsu invites Asako to the band's studio to watch them rehearse. There she meets the rest of the band which includes brooding keyboardist Ayumi (Shimamoto Yuki, daughter of actor Shima Toshio), talented guitarist Yukiya (Kora Kengo), fey bassist Kenji (Kasahara Hideyuki) and easy-going drummer Ryuji (real life musician and former RIZE member Kaneko Nobuaki). This unfortunately doesn't sit well with their stern manager Yukari, herself a former rock band drummer (the stunning actress and musician Ito Ayumi) who threatens to quit after Natsu refuses to focus his complete attention on getting their next single out. Asako voluntarily agrees not to see Natsu again but when Yukari suddenly falls ill due to the stress of trying to meet the recording deadlines, Natsu calls on Asako to help Yukari manage their group. Further conflicts arise when professional musicians Ayumi and Yukiya grow discontent with the direction of the band's music and complain about Natsu's narcissistic attitude towards the band's music. When Natsu's increasing disillusionment and self-doubt about his talents threaten to end Land's career at the height of their successful first No. 1 Oricon single achievement, can Asako help him to find his way back?

Kobayashi's former background as a Music Producer definitely helps him with keeping the film realistic and grounding the storyline. Iwai Shunji's (Hana & Alice; All About Lily Chou-Chou; Swallowtail & Butterfly) screenplay adapts Chika's story quite well and it feels less like a melodramatic movie and more like a reality show.

The title could be seen as a play on words "Band Age" playing upon the 90s decade in Japan as being a time in which many indie bands dominated the music scene in the hopes of being the Japanese "Nirvana". The title could also be literal as Akanishi's Natsu character uses music as a "bandage" to heal his feelings of worthlessness and failure.

The cast is great with Akanishi Jin's performance as a big surprise. I was never a big fan of JPop boy-band KAT-TUN so I wasn't expecting much from him but he definitely has a screen presence that is engaging. Kitano Kii (Gegege No Kitarô: Sennen Noroi Uta; the Fuji TV series Life) is adorably cute in this film. Her Asako character is somewhat annoyingly polite but she definitely shows a vulnerability and girlish charm. The gorgeous Ito Ayumi (Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children; Swallowtail & Butterfly) is wonderful as hard-nosed manager Yukari. She makes for a stern, controlled and confident manager and is a nice balance to Kitano's meek character. Anne also is very engaging as Asako's friend Miharu and does a pretty good job of singing in the film as well.

The music for the film, comprising of original songs by Akanishi, director Kobayashi are very catchy and add to the atmosphere and feel of the film.

There have been several similar films which covered similar ground such as "GS Wonderland", "Linda Linda Linda" and especially "Nana" but "Bandage" is the most somber of the bunch. This is not to say that the film ends on a depressing or sad note but rather takes a more nonchalant approach to ending the story. The films tells us that it is okay to fail so as long as we are true to ourselves and live life with no regrets.
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4/10
Disappointing follow up to one of anime's most beloved series...
30 July 2010
Warning: Spoilers
Nishizaki Yoshinobu's "Uchuu Senkan Yamato Fukkatsu Hen" is an ambitious yet ultimately disappointing entry into the "Uchuu Senkan Yamato" anime saga. While the impressive CGI and improved animation may be attractively eye-catching, it can't save the film from a confusing story with uninteresting characters and none of the heart that made the earlier "Yamato" movies work.

Producer Nishizaki and acclaimed manga artist Matsumoto Leiji's 1974 "Yamato" TV series set the golden standard for anime series with its emotionally poignant and melodramatic "space opera" story. Matsumoto's signature animation style incorporating complex and highly detailed mecha, ethereal characters and sophisticated design work influenced a generation of animators/artists and helped usher in a renaissance of Japanese Sci-Fi fantasy and space drama films and series during the 70s. This achievement is even more amazing as "Yamato" predates George Lucas' "Star Wars" by a good three years.

The 26-episode series was condensed into a 130-minute-long movie by combining elements from a few key episodes and debuted in 1978, successfully competing against "Star Wars": A New Hope's" in Japan.

The success of both the TV series and abridged movie spawned a second and third TV series (1978 and 1980 respectively) and also generated four sequel movies (Saraba Uchuu Senkan Yamato/Farewell Yamato; Uchuu Senkan Yamato Ataranaru Tabidachi/Yamato The New Voyage; Yamato To Towa Ni/Be Forever Yamato and Uchuu Senkan Yamato Kanketsu Hen/Final Yamato).

The dubbed version by Westchester/Claster, known as "Star Blazers" was considered by many one of the best adaptations of a Japanese anime series ever and is still fondly remembered by American fanboys who grew up at that time.

While Nishizaki attempted to try and re-capture the "lightening in a bottle" success of "Yamato" with other similar nautically themed projects, most notably "Odin - Kôshi Hobune Starlight" (1986) and "Uchu Kubo Blue Noah" AKA Thundersub (1979), they were met with lukewarm results. Even, the much hyped "Yamato 2520" which had the gimmick of using new ship designs by famed "Blade Runner" designer and futurist Syn Mead was as a failure.

Nishizaki's "Fukatsu Hen" (Resurrection) goes back to basics by making it a direct sequel to the fourth film "Final Yamato".

17 years after the events of "Final Yamato", Earth is threatened again with total destruction this time in the form of a "black hole" funnel of energy which is destroying everything in its path (similar to the "Comet Empire" saga). Earth's united defense force under the leadership of former Yamato science officer Sanada Shiro (Aono Takeshi) make plans to evacuate Earth's population to a distant world called Amal (arabic for Hope). However Amal and its sister planet belong to a coalition of Alien planets that are part of the SUS and the SUS refuses to allow the Earth refuges to colonize there and sends coalition forces to attack the first of Earth's convoys to Amal. Kodai/Mori Yuki (Yume Noriko)Captain of one of the escort battleships is "lost" in the battle while trying to escape in a warp maneuver. Captain Kodai Susumu (Yamadera Kôichi) is called back from deep space exploration and is tasked to lead Earth's next convoy to Amal. Sanada tells Kodai that he and his technicians have rebuilt the Yamato (last seen destroyed in remnants of the Aquarius water planet in the events of "Final Yamato"). The new Yamato is retrofitted with a new engine that bolsters the "Wave Motion" engine and also enables the Yamato to fire consecutive blasts of Wave Motion energy.

Captain Kodai takes command of the Yamato and brings aboard a new crew of young recruits including hotshot pilot/helmsman Kobayashi Atsushi (Namikawa Daisuke), Nagivation Specialist Orihara Maho (Yuzuki Ryōka), Artillery specialist Goda Minoru(Takase Akimitsu), Chief Medical Officer and Cosmo Tiger pilot Sasaki Miharu (Fuyuka Ōura) and twin Engineers Sho and So Tenma (Sakaguchi Daisuke ). Estranged daughter and nurse Kodai Miyuki (Fujimura Ayumi) refuses to join her father opting to stay on Earth with Dr. Sakezo Sado (Nagai Ichirô) and faithful companion Analyzer (Ogata Kenichi).

Together they guide Earth's second wave of refugees to Amal but can they withstand the onslaught of the SUS lead by Admiral Metzlar(Yanaka Hiroshi)and Commander-in-Chief Balzman (Iizuka Shōzō).

The story by Ishihara Shintarô (elder brother of actor/singer Ishihara Yujiro and former Governor of Tokyo)focuses a lot on socio-political issues relating to immigration, sovereign rights and also hints at the current situation in Iraq but fails to really capture the emotional power of the earlier Yamato films particularly the first film. The SUS are a generic enemy and lack any of the interesting aspects of the Gamalus/Gamilon Empire. Metzler and Balzman are boring villains and I long for the days in which the charismatic Dessler/Desslock made for a worthy and noble opponent.

Nishizaki's direction is competent but again lacks the thrill of early installment and he takes a "paint by numbers" approach at telling his story. There is little surprise and in fact the battle scenes are quite boring when compared to other films. Fanboys will be happy at seeing some neat references to other series.

The revised theme song by JPop band The Alfee is terrible and makes one long for the original Sasaki Isao version.

While some comparisons have been made to the "Star Trek" series, I think "Yamato Fukatsu Hen" shares more in common with the recent "Battlestar: Galactica" than anything else especially in that both films deal with humanities struggle to survive and endure amidst terrible circumstances and the threat of total annihilation by an alien empire. Of course, it's a "chicken and the egg" causality dilemma as one wonders who inspired who.

Die-hard fans may find "Fukatsu Hen" enjoyable on a purely nostalgic level but for others it is an anti-climatic and unsatisfying footnote to an otherwise epic saga. The film leaves room for possible sequel ("The Search For Yuki"?) but this fan would rather just rewatch the first two movies and TV series and just leave it at that.
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Skull Soldier (1992)
5/10
Passable Japanese superhero film that tries too hard to emulate Tim Burton's "Batman"
18 July 2010
Warning: Spoilers
Kyomoto Masaki's vanity project "Skull Soldier" is a mediocre superhero direct-to-video action film with some interesting concepts but ultimately is just another "Batman" ripoff.

Kyomoto Masaki is a man of many talents, a Renaissance Man of sorts. He was a former guitarist/musician (scouted by the famed Johnny's Jimusho talent agency) who became an actor and starred in a number of notable projects such as "Hissatsu Shigotonin V" and the Kadokawa film "Satomi Hakkenden". With his trademark full head of hair and boyish, pretty boy looks he was an idol of many adorning female fans.

It was during this time that he also got his first exposure to the world of Tokusatsu (Sci-Fi Live Action) and adventure TV. He made guest appearances on the "Kamen Rider-Black" TV series as well as played the main villain in the "Sukeban Deka Kazama San-shimai No Gyakushû" film. I guess these experiences made quite an impression on him as he produced, wrote and directed "Skull Man" as his own semi-Tokusatsu themed movie.

Combining elements of the aforementioned "Kamen Rider" series, "Sukeban Deka" and especially 1989's "Batman" movie, Kyomoto crafts a movie that tries hard to be a dark, adult-oriented superhero film but the results are a mixed bag.

Kyomoto portrays former detective Narumi Tatsuya, a somewhat happy-go-lucky loner who is always looking for quick money-making schemes. His companion is the strange hook-nosed misfit "Gaja " (portrayed by the wonderful character actor Ushio Kenji) who is mute.

Tatsuya is still reeling from the death of his adored younger sister, Shoko who was killed by mysterious assailants a number of months back.

In flashback, we see Tatsuya, consumed with revenge, quitting the police force to track down the murderers whom he finds connected with a clandestine research facility, Gokurikyu Labs, which is owned by the wealthy industrialist Hakuga Genko. Tatsuya confronts Genko, who tells him that his sister (an accomplished athlete) was killed in order to extract her DNA which would be used in manufacturing a special hormone (nicknamed "S or Skull Hormone") that would be used to create "super soldiers" with increased human speed, endurance and strength. Tatsuya tries to escape the facility but is stopped by Genko who throws Tatsuya into a chemical vat where all the discarded athletes whom they have abducted are left to die and decay. On the verge of death, Tatsuya is rescued by Gaja, who at the time was the "igor-like" assistant to a brilliant scientist (Original Ultraman Kurobe Susumu) who is working on the "Skull Soldier Project". He injects Tatsuya with a sample of the S-Hormone. Tatsuya's life is saved but must take regular injections of the hormone every 16 hours or else his body's enhanced physiology will turn on itself and kill him.

Using his enhanced powers, he creates body armor and a masked identity to seek out those responsible for the "Skull Soldier Project" and kill them.

As mentioned, Kyomoto was probably influenced heavily by Tim Burton's "Batman" film and he tries his best to match the dark humor, atmosphere and look of that film. Kyomoto's character is not very much like Bruce Wayne and instead could be seen as more like Clark Kent, with a somewhat nebbish, milquetoast persona but at the same time cool and confident among women.

The "Skull Soldier" character doesn't look very much like Batman but does look have a sort of Gothic inspired vibe (almost like a ghostly samurai) and his powers derive from various hidden weapons on his uniform (guns in his gloves; swords and knives hidden on his body; wires and other flying darts). His powers could be said to be more like Marvel Comic's Captain America and Wolverine.

There's a lot of trivia regarding this film that many Tokusatsu fans will probably appreciate in a geeky way -- Ushio Kenji's Gaja bears a striking resemblance to his famous "Akuma-Kun" character Mephisto. The costume design of "Skull Soldier" was done by none-other-than popular Tokusatsu illustrator/designer Amamiya Keita (who also did the "Zeiram" designs). The action director was Takakura Eiji, whose credits include "Silver Kamen", "Super Robot Red Baron" and "Iron King".

Kyomoto makes for a great hero and does have charm in his role.

Character actor Nakado Hiroyuki plays another signature veteran police character role and does so with little fanfare. It's a familiar role and he is as always good playing the role of a cop mentor to Kyomoto.

The rest of the cast which includes a number of cameo appearances from the likes of Morita Kensaku, Yokoyama "Knock", Ryoko, Umezu Sakaya, "Dump" Matsumoto, "Guts" Ishimatsu, Kaneko Mitsunobu and Kitamachi Yoshiro and they play just amusing misfits whom Kyomoto runs into in his adventures. Their scenes are funny at times but don't really add much.

Fellow "Hissatsu Shigotonin V" cast mate Honda Hirotaro (Gamera 3, Who's Cadamus Anyway)is shockingly over-the-top as villain Genko. I'm not sure if Kyomoto had Jack Nicholson's Joker in mind when creating this character but Honda's performance is absolutely terrible and he just comes off and totally silly. Genko, is supposed to be the main villain but his antics and crazed behavior make him out to be a lunatic. He is neither menacing or comical and Honda just derails the film every time he appears.

Pretty Hamada Julie is okay as Genko's abused younger sister whom Genko has an unhealthy romantic love for but doesn't bring anything special to her role. She plays the atypical damsel in distress.

On the whole, "Skull Soldier" has an interesting plot and Kyomoto's direction style is engaging but the overall film is nothing special and while Amamiya's "Skull Soldier" design is good, it can't really overcome the cheap, direct-to-video B-movie feel of the film and Honda's manic villain portrayal.
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3/10
A disappointing and lackluster action film "loosely" based on "Crying Freeman"
11 July 2010
Warning: Spoilers
Lam Ang Hang's low-budget action/thriller "Story of Freemen" has a good premise and idea unfortunately its confusing story, wooden cast and slow pacing make this a real disappointment especially for those wanting to see another variation of the "Crying Freeman" manga story.

"Crying Freem" was originally a multi-volume Japanese manga/comic series that ran in Shogakukan's Weekly Big Comic Spirits comic 1986 – 1988 and was the brainchild of the prolific writer Kazuo Koike (whose "Kozure Okami" is a comic classic) and famed illustrator Ikegami Ryoichi who has influenced numerous American and HK artists including the equally talented Ma Wing-shing). It told the tragic story of a gifted Japanese potter, Hinomura Ryo/Yo who is kidnapped by a powerful Chinese secret cabal known only as the "108 Dragons". While in their custody, he is hypnotized and trained to become one of their assassins. To drive the point that he is their's forever, he is branded/marked with an elaborately ornate full body dragon tattoo. He earns the codename "Crying Freeman" because he sheds tears whenever he kills a victim (a sign of his remorse/guilt at being forced to kill). During one of his assignments he is witnessed by a shy and reserved Japanese artist Hino Emu (a possible Japanese wordplay for Heroine). Yo is told he must kill Emu as she saw his face but Yo can not kill her and in fact eventually falls in love with the beautiful but withdrawn woman. She aids Yo in his adventures and eventually even becomes his wife as they takeover the organization that enslaved him.

With its intriguing and complex 70s inspired exploitation story, beautifully drawn illustrations and detailed graphic sex and bloody violence it was an instant hit among manga fans and inspired many others (Luc Besson's "La Femme Nikita" shares many similarities in the story).

It was just a matter of time before a film adaption was made. While the graphic nature of the story makes a literal translation almost near impossible, various "loosely based" films did try to adapt the basic storyline (sans the sex) including Clarence Fok Yiu-leung "Dragon From Russia" (1990) and Phillip Ko's "Killer's Romance" (also in 1990). Perhaps the closest adaptations of the story were the Toei Anime OVA series "Crying Freeman" (1988) and Christophe Gans' Canadian/French co-production "Crying Freeman" (1995).

Which leads us to Lam Ang Hang's 2001 oddity "Story of Freeman", which doesn't credit itself as based on the Koike/Ikegami manga but for all-intense-and-purposes could be seen as a variation. Of course the story is heavily modified and in fact is an interesting and inventive role-reversal in characters.

Tae (played by Thai/Chinese singer and actor TAE AKA Sattawat Sethakorn) is an award winning photo journalist specializing in war conflict photos. He is a loner and seems content on living a somewhat hermit existence. During one of his assignments he witnesses the assassination of the "Sea Tiger" syndicates' boss. The assassin is a beautiful woman dressed all in white. Later that night, the assassin who calls herself "Dream" (the beautiful Joey Maan) comes to his apartment with the intention of killing him but can't and in fact falls in love with the photographer. We later find that Dream is the daughter of a powerful Yakuza boss (Nishikawa Takakazu) who leads the quasi-Chinese triad group called "Dragon Society" and is in a gang war with the Sea Tigers in Thailand. Dream is conflicted with her devotion to the group and her desire to lead a normal life. Along the way hot shot cop Loon (Siu-Wong Fan) is trying to catch Dream and prevent further escalation of bloodshed as the war between Dragon and Tiger takes more casualties.

What a missed opportunity for Lam Ang Hang as he could have really expanded upon and crafted an interesting variation of the "Crying Freeman" story. However, lazy film work, a confusing and jumbled storyline and formulaic and boring action scenes derail the film. I think most of the fault lies with stars Joey Maan and Tae. Joey Maan's disinterest in the character and wooden acting are very much apparent. Joey Maan is gorgeous but her looks are the only thing interesting about "Dream" and she does little to create any sympathy for her character. Of course it doesn't help that most of the interesting aspects of the "Crying Freeman" character are no where to be found in this film including the body tattoos or the "remorseful killer's tears". TAE is also just a pretty boy here and he brings nothing to his character other than being the love interest. Oddly, while the movie is supposed to be about Dream and Tae, Siu-Wong Fan's Loon character seems to get the lion's share of the screen time. Perhaps it's because he's the only one who can perform his own martial arts stunt work convincingly.

The film definitely shouts out low-budget as most of the action happens in either secluded locales in Thailand or dark closed sets. The film could easily have been cut down in run time if it weren't for all the needless scenes of Dream driving around in her black convertible or the numerous minute long "stare downs" between opponents.

"The Story of Freeman" does however have a unconventional ending but it does little to save a boring film that could have easily have been much better if only the actors were a bit more engaging or if the story had been more closer to the source.
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7/10
A silly yet surprisingly entertaining horror-comedy...
3 July 2010
Warning: Spoilers
Cheung-Yan Yuen's name may not be all too familiar to Western audiences but his brother Woo-ping Yuen is instantly recognizable as the go-to Wushu Stunt Director in Hollywood and the action coordinator behind such films like "Kung-Fu Hustle", "Kill Bill", "The Matrix Trilogy", "Black Mask", "Drunken Master" and "Fist of Legend" among countless others.

While Cheung-Yan Yuen's resume may not be as impressive, he has still contributed to films both as a stuntman and as an action coordinator (he helped coordinate the martial arts action scenes in "Charlie's Angels" reboot and its sequel).

"Wizard's Curse" one of Yuen's few forays as a director but it is certainly an entertaining one. A madcap, B-movie film that is both hilariously funny (in a silly way) and definitely unique.

Ching-Ying Lam portrays another Taoist Priest battling supernatural monsters but this time instead of vampires (as in the Mr. Vampire series), Lam is fighting a Thai "Terrific Vampire/Monster" that is actually a Black-Magic creation spawned from the "sperm of 99 satyrs and the blood collected from the menstrual flow of 99 bitches" and taking the form of a Hermaphodite comprised of two recently killed occultists (frequent 80s HK bad guy Billy Chow and fetching Man Wah Tsui). Dressed in a fashion similar to Arnold Schwartzenegger's iconic "Terminator" character, the Terrific Vampire goes on a killing spree trying to track down Lam's Taoist Priest. Seemingly invincible to both physical attacks and Taoist magic, Lam discovers that the only way to stop the creature is to get his Westernized Medical Doctor daughter (the beautiful Ellen Chan), a virgin born on a certain Celestial holy day to mate with another virgin born on the same date. That virgin so happens to be bumbling HK Detective (Kwok Keung Cheung) whom she can't stand. Aided by the priest's chubby estranged wife (the hilarious Mimi Zhu) also a power Taoist, they try to get the virgins to mate before all hope is lost.

"Wizard's Curse" is an early work by prolific HK screenwriter Jing Wong and is another example of his signature way of combining various genre elements to come up with interesting stories. His unique blending of exploitation, fantasy and action was proved very appealing and helped in his works like "Crocodile Hunter", "Casino Raiders" and which he would continue to mature and develop in his later scripts for "Naked Killer", "Raped By An Angel", "Her Name Is Cat", "High Risk" and more recently with "Future X-Cops" and "Black Ransom".

While "Wizard's Curse" is far from Jing Wong's best work, it's zany and outrageously loopy story is quite enjoyable in a grindhouse sort of way. I was reminded of Sam Raimi's "Evil Dead" series or some of the other 80s horror films. In fact I was a bit surprised that the film was made in the 90s as the animation effects and low budget splatter horror seem to recall the 80s.

Canadian Kickboxer turned Billy Chow turns in another villainous performance here as he has done in films like "Robotrix", "Fist of Legend" and "High Risk". He is really good at being a bad ass. Man Wah Tsui also is very menacing as the Terrific Vampire's female half. While her thankless part basically involved sticking out of Billy Chow's stomach or wielding a glowing tentacle shaped male private part, she did do it with much zest.

Ching-Ying Lam again steals the film as his trademark Taoist Priest and his scenes are absolutely hilarious and fun to watch. Whether its shooting mystic bolts from his hands or reciting ancient supernatural chants, he just makes the film that much more enjoyable.

Ellen Chan is more or less eye candy for the audience and while she does have some funny moments in the film (such as the parts where she is charmed and intoxicated by lust), she is just okay in her role. Kwok Keung Cheung plays the atypical comedic cop that seemed to dominate 80s and 90s HK cinema at the time (maybe it was inspired by Eddie Murphy's "Beverly Hills Cop" routine). I was frankly a bit irritated by his character and his antics.

Mimi Zhu was funny in her role as Lam's equally adapt Taoist Priest wife but her role too was a bit too over-the-top but I enjoyed her scenes and thought she was a great foil for Lam.

I actually enjoyed "Wizard's Curse" a lot more than expected and thought it was better than some of Lam's other Thaoist Priest films like "Magic Cop" and "Vampire vs. Vampire".

Too bad Cheung-Yan Yuen hasn't made that many films as he does have a great directorial style (albeit a bit frantic and choppy in the editing).
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5/10
Over-the-top climax is gratuitous but some may find story interesting...
18 June 2010
Warning: Spoilers
Ikeda Toshiharu's "Ningyo Densetsu" (Mermaid Legend) is an over-the-top female revenge film whose gratuitous violence may please "70s Pinky Violence" fans but which is ultimately a convoluted and contrived mess. The "deus ex machina" climax is totally ridiculous and is really a stretch even by movie standards.

Ikeda is probably most familiar to movie fans as the director behind two Japanese cult films, the very bleak and gory horror masterpiece "Shiryô No Wana AKA Evil Dead Trap" and the visually stylish but hopelessly sadistic, "Tenshi no Harawata: Akai Inga AKA Angel Guts: Red Porno". "Ningyo Densetsu" was produced between these two extremes but has elements of both in it. It is a film that has outrageous elements of violence and mayhem and yet is eerily erotic and visually mesmerizing.

The film revolves around young couple Keisuke and Migiwa Saeki who fish for abalone in a small coastal hamlet in Southern Japan. Shirato Mari portrays Migiwa, the shellfish diver or "Ama" who is married to the straight laced and stubborn Keisuke (Eto Jun) who runs a small family fishing boat. They are the last holdouts to a piece of coastal property that is being marked for a major development and amusement/aquarium park project by greedy industrialist Miyamoto Terumasa (Aoki Yoshio). Miyamoto's henchmen try to force Keisuke to sign over the land but when he refuses, Miyamoto's henchmen take more deadlier tactics which result in Keisuke's brutal death. Grief stricken, Migiwa confides in her childhood friend and professional photographer Shouhei (Shimizu Kentarô) but the playboy (who also happens to be the son of Miyamoto) takes advantage of Migiwa's vulnerable state to seduce her. Migiwa's psychology shattered, she soon sets out to extract revenge against Miyamoto and his henchmen. The path of revenge leads to an all-out, bloody assault on the opening day celebrations of Miyamoto's amusement/aquarium park where Migiwa kills dozens of attendees including Shouhei.

While comparisons have been made to the notorious woman's revenge film "I Spit On Your Grave", I think it's more along the lines of some of the "Zatoichi" films, where an otherwise peaceful individual is pushed to the limits of tolerance and goes on a sword-wielding attack on evil. While Migiwa is certainly not blind or disabled in anyway, her idyllic life is shattered beyond repair and that causes her to become a deadly harbinger of death against all those who wronged her.

The climax in particular is hard to swallow with Migiwa blindly murdering dozens of people in attendance at Miyamoto's gala event with no seeming remorse or concern whether or not they had anything to do with Keisuke's death. Also the aforementioned "deus ex machina" moment when a raging storm appears out of nowhere to save Migiwa from the hordes of police surrounding her is absolutely absurd (although it is hinted that it was brought on by a Buddhist totem/Kami that Migiwa had prayed to often).

Shirato Mari (a peculiar stage name) is very easy on the eyes and seems to have no shyness about full frontal nudity and stripping down and showing her ample assets. Her underwater scenes are very erotic and cinematographer Maeda Yonezo takes full advantage of photographing Mari in all her glory. Mari does a good job at making Migiwa a sympathetic character. Aoki Yoshio's Miyamoto Terumasa is certainly a scoundrel and Aoki relishes in the villainous portrayal. Shimizu Kentarô is also pretty good in his role as Shouhei and it was hard to figure him out, whether he was a villain or hero.

"Ningyo Densetsu" isn't a great film even in a grind-house exploitation film sense and has a lot of hard-to-take storyline contrivances but is an interesting curio revenge film may strike some as surprisingly bloody.
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5/10
Shihomi's dramatic (non action) showcase can't save this boring mess..
18 June 2010
Warning: Spoilers
Those expecting a gritty, violent and bloody film with Shihomi Etsuko fighting off dozens of martial arts combatants are in for quite a shock and disappointment as Izutsu Kazuyuki's 1985 film "Nidaime No Christian" is a more of a loopy, contrived and somewhat boring drama which flip-flops from goofy comedy, to Yakuza drama and sitcom romance. The only saving grace is Shihomi Etsuko's likable performance which is surprisingly well played and controlled and gives audiences a different side to her ass-kicking film persona.

When Shihomi Etsuko first took to the screens as a supporting player to mentor and fellow Japan Action Club (JAC) founder Chiba "Sonny" Shinichi, she was quite different from any other Japanese action heroine. With her athletic tone and legs, spunky attitude, and pretty face she seemed like Japan's version of Angela Mao, Pei Pei Cheng and the other 70s Shaw Brothers heroines of Hong Kong Cinema rather than the "Pinky Violence" sukebans like Sugimoto Miki or Ike Reiko. While Shihomi's Karate-based fighting style wasn't as flamboyant as her HK counterparts, she made up for it with her sheer presence, screen charisma and raw fighting form (it is little wonder why the guys as Capcom modeled their iconic character Chun-Li after her character in the "Sister Streetfighter/Onna Hissatsu Ken" series).

After making dozens of super violent Toei action films like "Karei-naru Tsuiseki/The Great Chase" and "Wakai Kizoku-Tachi: 13-Kaidan no Maki/13 Steps" throughout the 70s, Shihomi was eager to get out of the typecast of "woman warrior" and branch out into more dramatic roles.

Thus we come to "Ni Daime No Christian" (Reborn Christian) which was based off of a novel by Korean-Japanese Tsuka Kohei and adapted by prolific 80s movie producer Kadokawa Haruki whose production company adapted other novels into movies like "Sailor Fuku To Kikanjyu", "Satomi Hakken Den" and "W No Higeki".

"Ni Daime No Christian" followed the story of beautiful Christian Nun/Sister, Kyoko (Shihomi) who was the object of affection of two very different men - one the happy-go-lucky Yakuza gangster, Haruhiko (Iwaki Kouchi) who was the next-in-line to takeover the ragtag "Tenryu Gumi" gang and the other bumbling Police Detective Kumashiro (Emoto Akira). The Tenryu Gumi is a collection of misfits and other troublemakers but were relatively peaceful due to their Christian beliefs. Their bitter rivals were the more traditional "Kuroiwa Gumi", a much more sadistic and violent group led by godfather Kuroiwa (Murota Hideo).

After much drama and silly exchanges, Kyoko finally decides to marry Haruhiko but Haruhiko is shot dead on the day of their wedding by jealous Yuri (Katase Rino), Haruhiko's former lover who was manipulated into killing him by the Kuroiwa Gumi. Despite this Kyoko harbors no hatred towards her and even befriends her once she finds out that the Kuroiwa Gumi was behind Haruhiko's death. Yet, Kyoko's Christian patience reaches a boiling point when the Kuroiwa Gumi attack her church killing a number of Kyoko's friends including Yuri. Reluctantly taking a Japanese Sword in hand, she and Kumashiro go to get vengeance against the Kuroiwa Gumi.

While the premise does sound intriguing, those expecting a "nunsploitation" film along the lines of "Sei Jyu No Gakuen/School of the Holy Beast" with naked nuns/Sisters and flagellation will be very much disappointed. Even Shihomi Etsuko fans may find themselves a bit saddened that Shihomi doesn't really do much action in this movie even at the climatic end. Yet Shihomi oddly seems the most beautiful in this movie and director Izutsu doesn't miss a chance at featuring Shihomi in various flattering closeups. I'm so used to Shihomi "the action heroine" that I forget how good of an actress she is and if there is one saving grace for this film is that it gives Shihomi an opportunity to showoff her dramatic acting skills which she would later use in various Japanese TV Dramas she starred in the late 80s.

That however can't save this film which is very much a letdown both dramatically and visually. While Izutsu and Kadokawa tried to replicate the success with "Sailor Fuku To Kikanjyu" another drama that dealt with sympathetic Yakuza, it didn't really work here and in the end what we get is a boring and confusing story that can't make up its mind to be a drama or comedy.
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