Tuesday, February 10, 2015

20th Century Boys 1: Beginning of the End

I’m a big fan of manga movies. I’ve reviewed a bunch of them in my books, calling them out as among the most outrageous and deliriously enjoyable films you’re likely to encounter in the remarkable world of Asian (particularly Japanese) cinema.

However, sometimes the manga in question is so monumental and beloved, the film adaptation turns out leaden and lugubrious by comparison (see Watchmen). So intimidated is the filmmaker by the original work, so eager is he to please the fans that he becomes preoccupied with the authenticity of his rendering. He forgets that while comics are uniquely suited to film adaptation (hey, it’s a fucking storyboard), still, there are considerations to be made in regards to the medium of film. You can’t shoot every friggin’ frame! You’re better off running the risk of pissing off the purists for the sake of a good movie (see The Lord of the Rings trilogy).

So it is with 20th Century Boys, a manga by Naoki Urasawa that ran from 1999 to 2006 (later published in 22 bound volumes). It’s about a gang of snot-nosed kids who get a notebook and fill it with a fanciful story about the end of the world. Flash forward 30 years and somebody is causing the story to come true. The somebody is Friend, a mysterious cult leader who appears to have a childhood connection with the original group. The whole premise is a little half-baked if you ask me, but what do I know. The thing was huge in Japan.

The resulting film trilogy (7+ hours) met with mixed reviews but nevertheless made heaps of yen. Unfortunately, the first installment, 20th Century Boys 1: Beginning of the End (2008), didn’t really do it for me. It was quite slow to get going, only developing a decent head of steam about an hour in. The pace reminded me quite a lot of Watchmen, but I happened to have read that epic tale of post-superhero intrigue and angst, so it was far more enjoyable. For those unfamiliar with the original of either film, the experience is much diminished.

I’ve got the second film here, 20th Century Boys 2: The Last Hope (both films courtesy of my friend and fellow Asian film fanatic Dr. Stan Glick) and I’ll watch it, as I’m somewhat invested at this point. But unless things pick up dramatically, I doubt I’ll pursue the third film; that would involve a cash outlay, and I’ve got so many flicks in the to-watch pile, it’s better I just move on to the next one. Looks to be  something called Chambara Striptease

Friday, February 6, 2015

Tokyo Sonata

Kiyoshi Kurosawa is known primarily in the West for his horror films. Tokyo Sonata (2008) represents a departure; ghosts and serial killers give way to the domestic horror of the shit-canned salaryman. Seems the company is moving his division to China, so our man Ryu Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa) does the usual thing: He keeps putting on the suit and pretends to go to work every day. Really, he heads down to the park where the homeless guys hang out and lines up for a bowl of bad rice porridge. How long can he keep up the charade?

Tokyo Sonata revolves around a familiar theme in contemporary Japanese cinema, that of the disintegrating family. And very often, the family is seen as a microcosm of the country. The sense that the society is falling apart at the seams is palpable in this film, it’s ultimate representative being the inept housebreaker played by Kiyoshi Kurosawa mainstay Koji Yakusho. Elsewhere, Sasakis’ teenage son, who wants to join the U.S. military, is another example of a lost soul; to the Japanese, such a life choice would be considered extremely bizarre. Throw in a disillusioned mom and a troubled yet musically gifted son, and we’re off on our harrowing downward spiral toward redemption.

Tokyo Sonata isn’t a particularly profound film; frankly, it starts to lose its way around the 1:10 point. But the subject matter, characters and quality of filmmaking keep you involved to the end, and for anyone who likes films set in the gritty, unflattering reality of Tokyo, it’s more than satisfying.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015


Way back in 1985, German filmmaker Wim Wenders made a pilgrimage to Tokyo in search of Ozu. Not the physical personage, mind you (Yasujiro Ozu died in 1963) but rather some element of the master still extant in the great city in which his films were set. Were the trains still running? Were any of the old cast/crew still kicking around? Yes on both counts, it turns out, and the resulting film is a delightful blend of documentary and arthouse meditation.

This being Wenders, you’ll experience long, lingering takes and soft-spoken narration. Dial back your immediate expectations and just let the imagery wash over you. After all, this is Tokyo in the 80s; the sheer density of information in each extended, dreamy shot is worth a good, long look.

Interspersed between the moving portraiture are segments featuring unique aspects of Tokyo culture, such as life in a pachinko parlor or Asakusa craftsmen making display case replicas of restaurant food out of wax. In city parks we find old ladies laughing, children at play and cherry blossom viewing parties with lots of beer and sake all around. At one point we meet up with Werner Herzog at the top of the Tokyo Tower. A splendid time is guaranteed for all.

The real gems of the film, however, are the interviews with two Ozu fixtures, actor Chishu Ryu and cinematographer Yuharu Atsuta. Both men open up about their experiences with, and feelings for, the great man, Atsuta to a degree uncommon for Japanese men of his generation (moved by his recollections, he breaks down and cannot continue). Ryu is predictably self-effacing, and gives all credit for his career and achievements to Ozu. Atsuta hauls out the original equipment, including the 50mm camera and tripods he used on all those films, and demonstrates Ozu’s unique, low-level “tatami shot.” It’s a real treat for aspiring filmmakers and fans alike.

Tokyo-ga is one of those how-the-hell-am-I-just-hearing-about-this-now pictures, like Teshigahara’s documentary about Gaudi (at least in my case — I’m sure there are plenty of far hipper film folks who’ve long known of both). Needless to say, I’d heartily recommend Tokyo-ga to anyone interested in Ozu, Wenders, and/or Tokyo itself. And seeing how they make that phony food is a major bonus!

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Pat's Picks: Samurai on hulu

Here are some fabulous samurai films I was surprised to find on hulu plus (most, if not all, are reviewed in my books):

Shinsengumi Chronicles
Excellent, warts-and-all portrayal of the notorious pro-shogunate ronin militia and their bloody hijinks during the Bakumatsu period.

Samurai Saga
Toshiro Mifune doing Cyrano. A classic.

The Secret of the Urn
Great Gosha treatment of crazy one-eyed, one-armed ronin Tange Sazen (wonderfully portrayed by Kinnosuke Nakamura).

Samurai Vendetta
Shintaro Katsu and Raizo Ichikawa’s first on-screen teaming. (During filming, the studio sent a car for Raizo; Katsu had to take the bus … )

Hunter in the Dark
My favorite 70s era Gosha, a decade in which he made a number of awesome yakuza epics. This is the best of the bunch.

Bandits vs. Samurai Squadron
Another one, not the best (a couple of flaws, which I mention in Warring Clans) but still pretty awesome. Keep the book handy — this one may require some help keeping up!

Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees
Tomisaburo Wakayama chops off heads for his lady love in this shocker from Japanese new wave enfant terrible Masahiro Shinoda.

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Ghost of Yotsuya

For Halloween this year, I’m going to be a dick and suggest a film that is not readily available (although it should be — the rights are owned by a going DVD concern). It ran on TCM a couple of weeks ago, and apparently you can see it on hulu plus according to this. It’s The Ghost of Yotsuya directed by Nobuo Nakagawa (for a more fulsome review, see my book Asia Shock).

The Ghost of Yotsuya
(Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan, 1959) is a film every J-horror fan must see, as you get the prototypical vengeful lady ghost in all her glory (including a horribly disfigured face, a feature often obscured in more recent incarnations … ). This was originally a kabuki play penned by the great Namboku Tsuruya IV back in 1825. Tsuruya specialized in a particularly dark and depraved genre of kabuki drama known as kizewamono, concerned with a host of unsavory characters; thieves, murderers, desperate ronin and the like, all up to some variety of juicy jiggery pokery.

In our case, it’s skeevy ronin Iemon (the scintillatingly sinister Shigeru Amachi), and his scheming buddy Naosuke (Shuntaro Emi). Between them, they knock off more than half a dozen people, most significantly Iemon’s wife Iwa (Katsuko Wakasugi). She’s not taking her murder lying down (although she’s since been nailed to a board and dumped in the river). When Iemon re-marries into a rich family, Iwa appears to him in strategic positions, hovering before his new family members; as the terrified villain lunges at the ghost with sword and spear, he winds up killing his new kin!

The 1959 Ghost of Yotsuya is far from the only film adaptation of this dark fable. I mention a couple of others in my book, including versions starring Tomisaburo Wakayama and Tatsuya Nakadai. If you haven’t obtained Asia Shock by now, you really should.

As I mentioned earlier, this wonderfully wicked film ought to be out on disk by now, as Criterion Collection has the rights. They’ve released director Nakagawa’s other great work, Jigoku (1960), so why not this one? I realize it’s tough times for DVD/Blu-ray manufacturers just now, but if there were ever a dark, rare gem of a film deserving to be seen, it is Nobuo Nakagawa’s The Ghost of Yotsuya.

UPDATE: I just subscribed to hulu plus, and while I have great misgivings re: the commercials, I'm pleased to see the wealth of samurai cinema, including the film above. Guess everything comes at a price ... 

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Best War Film You’ve Never Seen

One of the leading lights of South Korean cinema in the 1960s was a guy named Lee Man-hee. Lee was an extraordinary filmmaker who could work in various genres (thriller, action, melodrama), but his particular specialty was the war film. Like Japanese counterparts Masaki Kobayashi and Kihachi Okamoto, Lee was a veteran, having fought in the Korean War. He also had a particular affinity for soldiers, claiming that if he hadn’t become a filmmaker, he would probably have been a professional soldier. However, Lee was no propaganda-spewing ideologue; in common with his Japanese cohorts, his experience of the brutal calamity of large-scale warfare affected him deeply, and his war films are, in fact, anti-war films. 

The film that put Lee on the map, both critically and box office-wise, was 1963’s The Marines Who Never Returned. The story concerns the experience of a largely doomed (hence the title) regiment of South Korean marines and their experiences at the battle of Incheon in 1950.

The film fairly explodes off the screen in the opening battle sequence, shot purely from the POV of the marines as they attempt to infiltrate a factory held by the North Koreans. A mother and small daughter attempt to escape through the crossfire and the mother is struck down. The soldiers save the little girl, Yeong-hui, and she becomes their collective little sister and mascot. Yeong-hui is so sweet and lovable, at first you worry something terrible is going to happen to her in the service of melodrama. However, Lee is better than that; he doesn’t need to rely on such cheap tricks to elicit a strong emotional response from the audience. Depictions of the realities of battle provide all the gut-wrenching drama he requires.

The impact of the battle sequences is truly remarkable when one considers the period. Hollywood movies didn’t get this gritty and realistic until decades later, with the likes of The Thin Red Line and Saving Private Ryan. Lee was clearly drawing on his experiences in war to direct the way men moved when shot, or how bombs and mortars could disrupt a trench line.

The grim realities of war are balanced by the sequences with Yeong-hui and the comedy gags provided by popular comedian Koo Bong-seo, here playing the joker of the regiment. Whether he’s spotting spies while taking a dump by the side of the road or conning U.S. soldiers out of beer and supplies, he never fails to get a laugh. Others in the squad include the usual assortment of types; the timid one, the cocky one, the pretty boy, the passionate vengeance-seeker, the gruff-yet-benign squad leader. Lee takes these stock elements and, through his unique treatment, makes us care.

I got a hold of this film as part of a Lee Man-hee box set available here (and elsewhere). It’s region 3, so you’ll need a region-free DVD player (you can get one here). Otherwise, I noticed  it’s on youtube here. Any way you want to play it, I heartily suggest this picture. It will change the way you think about the Korean war, Korean film, and war films in general.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Oldboy 2013

*Here there be spoilers*

How do you remake a film like Oldboy? As I noted in Asia Shock in 2006, it was already a plan in Hollywood back then. It took awhile, but it finally got made, albeit to little fanfare and critical ambivalence. What do I think? Well I’ll tell you …

In preparation for my own review, I re-watched Park Chan-wook’s original Oldboy (2003), before screening Spike Lee’s 2013 reboot. I have to give props to Lee, he was fairly faithful to the original. He knows good filmmaking when he sees it, and although there was the usual re-jiggering for a Western audience (less ambiguity, more over-the-topness), he had the good sense to keep the really important stuff (the dumplings, the one-on-dozens fight sequence, the incest); details that got left out at least received a cameo (the squid, the angel wings, the severed tongue).

As someone noted here, I predicted a square-jawed Hollywood name would play the role made immortal by the great Choi Min-sik, and I was right. You could do a lot worse than Josh Brolin, but he still didn’t deliver the manic energy of my personal casting choice, Gary Oldman (ironically, now too much of an old man for which there is no place, unlike Brolin … or something). The great Sharlto Copley effectively conveys the vengeful villain of the piece, although to an unnecessarily affected degree. Michael Imperioli of Sopranos fame is the unfortunate friend, and Lee’s homey Samuel L. Jackson is memorable (as always) as the guy who runs the private prison in which Brolin has been confined for 20 years (up from 15 in the original). Jackson gets a much different, and decidedly less brutal, torture scene than his Korean predecessor ...

The two biggest weaknesses of the 2013 Oldboy are 1) the ending, and 2) the absence of dark humor. Go back and watch the original; there’s a certain ironic smirk underlying the proceedings that is wholly lacking here. As for the ending, once again with a Hollywood adaptation of an extreme Asian title, there can be no ambiguity. In the original, we wonder whether a now-tongueless Oh dae-su can make it work with his lover/daughter; in the remake, Joe sends his lover/daughter a “forget me” letter and checks himself back into the private prison, ostensibly forever. The former ending conveys an existential meditation on love, loss and, albeit creepy, redemption; the latter is simply a guilt-ridden, Judeo-Christian cop-out (“I must do penance for my terrible sin!”).

But at this point I can see both sides of the coin. I realize most of my fellow Americans aren’t going to get these Asian films like I do, and so do the folks in Hollywood. So they soften and contour them in their remakes, make them less spicy and thus more palatable to meat-and-potatoes Americans. In any case, I found this one to be far better than the others, owing to the directorial prowess of Spike Lee and a great cast. Worth a look.