Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Holiday Harangue

While I'm not really into the spirit, I wouldn't say I hate the holidays per se. I get it: People bum out in the Winter time and look around for something to get excited about. They have festivals, perform rituals, drink a lot of booze, whatever it takes to get them through the long, dark nights. However, there are certain things about the American holiday scene that I find truly repulsive. Like Christmas carols. I loathe Christmas carols. All that crap about snow and bells and "do you hear what I hear" -- it's saccharine and phony and each year it bugs me a little more. The other day, standing in a long line at Borders, I finally got a break -- no fucking Xmas carols on the sound system. However, a middle-aged woman behind me insisted on whistling a number of them (off key, of course). I finally lost it and burst out singing to her wonky accompaniment: "Walking in my winter under-wear!" Everyone in line laughed and it seemed to shut her up.

The other thing that vexes me is the consumer panic. You can't just go about your business at the holidays, you're bound to get sucked up into the shopping frenzy of others. Why must I be inconvenienced by someone else's religious mania and/or deadline-driven flight of false consciousness? God forbid I go to Costco for some toilet paper and coffee -- I'll be trampled by the harried hordes with their gift baskets and giant bottles of hooch! Happy holidays my ass, the only people that are happy at the holidays are kids. Media-programmed, conformist little id monsters who must be appeased at all costs. They're the main reason adults are lined up outside big box stores before dawn the day after Thanksgiving, bleary-eyed and ready to duke it out with whoever stands in the way of them and the shit their stupid kids want. Kids. Who needs 'em? As some wag put it, "They're needy, boring and they can't hold their liquor." 'Nuff said.

So instead of some Hallmark sentiment, I'll just wish you health and some measure of peace of mind. These are things we could all use, no matter the season.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Quick-Draw Okatsu


I've been waiting for years to see this flick, ever since I saw a production still in Alain Silver's The Samurai Film. Oh how happy I am that Synapse has finally released it in all its gruesome glory. It's part of their Legends of the Poinsonous Seductress series. This film, and it's sequel, Okatsu the Fugitive, were directed by Japanese horror legend Nobuo Nakagawa. The old boy proves he can dish out cruelty-laden exploitation fare as well if not better than his Toei contemporaries. I'll be writing more about this film in my upcoming book, Stray Dogs & Lone Wolves 2: Deeper Into Samurai Film. For now, all I can say is check it out!

Friday, October 12, 2007

Piece in Rue Morgue

I wrote a one-pager for the big 10th Anniversary Halloween issue of Rue Morgue Magazine (October, 2007) reviewing Teruo Ishii's Horrors of Malformed Men and Nobuo Nakagawa's Snake Woman's Curse, both recently released by Synapse. It's on page 100. So run down to your local well-stocked kiosk or big box bookstore and get your copy today!

Friday, September 28, 2007

Ebola Syndrome

Back when I was researching films for Asia Shock, I screened a couple of Category III classics by Hong Kong shockmeister Herman Yau, The Untold Story and Ebola Syndrome. I wrote about the former, but not the latter, as I felt it was too similar. (In fact, due to the success of The Untold Story, a horrendous tale of a psychotic restaurateur selling human meat roast pork buns, the producers of Ebola Syndrome insisted the same gimmick be inserted into the script.) I'm happy to report that Diskotek has released the definitive DVD version of Ebola Syndrome (the Hong Kong disk I got left something to be desired transfer-wise and had no extras). So for all of you out there who enjoyed the lurid pleasures of The Untold Story, not only will you get more cannibalism schtick, but the great Anthony Wong is back and up to his heinous old tricks, robbing, killing and spreading Ebola everywhere he goes (he caught it when he raped a sick African villager). Of course he winds up in Hong Kong, gets a couple of hookers and soon all hell breaks loose -- cops in hazmat suits all around. Pretty outrageous flick, not for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach. Check it out, Sid.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

MovieMaker Magazine digs Asia Shock

There's a nice review of Asia Shock in MovieMaker Magazine Issue #70. They don't put that stuff online, so you have to just go buy the mag.

EDIT: OK, I scanned the review for virtual posterity. BTW, while I appreciate the praise, I disagree that the films reviewed were merely the usual suspects. Take a look at this list and decide for yourself.

Monday, August 6, 2007

The H-Man


Finally got to see this gem of Toho weirdness from 1958. Once again, nuclear fallout has done nasty things, this time turning people into slime that can reconstitute into ghostly, green, glowing glob-men. Intermixed with the horror/sci-fi is a police procedural involving a yakuza gang, one of whose members is a very young Makoto Sato (above, right) in his film debut. The cops include kaiju/samurai regulars Akihiko Hirata and Yoshio Tsuchiya. Great flick, with all the creeping, existential dread of Matango (aka Attack of the Mushroom People) and dialog like this: "The high voltage discharge unit, once deployed, will stop liquid human infiltration upstream at these checkpoints." Unfortunately, dear reader, you will not be able to see The H-Man (aka Beauty and the Liquid Man) unless you're hooked into the Japanese film bootleg underground -- it's not available commercially, at least not yet. Shame that, as it's an absolute must-see for Toho fantasy film enthusiasts. Fortunately this blog is read by all the industry bigwigs, so I'm sure within weeks of this post Criterion, Image, Media Blasters, AnimEigo or some other outfit will be rushing this baby into production. Yeah, right after I turn to slime and drip down the walls of their corporate headquarters ...

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Zatoichi '89

I recently screened Zatoichi (1989), the last film in the franchise, and I must say for all its flaws, it's still a great piece of matatabi-eiga entertainment. It's also a gory one. Good lord the blood flows in this film! In one sequence, a wicked yakuza boss is skewered by a dozen attackers and gives forth bursts of crimson gore to rival the mother of all blood spurts at the end of Kurosawa's Sanjuro (1962). Shintaro Katsu was in his late 50's when he made Zatoichi, but he's still got the moves, lopping off heads, arms, even noses with his flashing cane sword. There are also plenty of nods to past installments, the film providing a veritable checklist of series tropes and gags. Regrettably, you have to give your money to Tokyo Shock, but just hold your nose as you fork over the dough, knowing that you've got a solid piece of samurai entertainment that you can enjoy over and over again.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Two Reviews in Asian Reporter

Both of these film reviews were published in the June 12 Asian Reporter:

Satoshi Kon’s Paprika is an anime dream come true

Ping Pong — A manga movie with bounce

Ping Pong actually came out in 2002, but it's going to be playing at a theater in Portland, so they asked me to write it up. Fun manga flick.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Hanzo the manga

Those of you who've read my Stray Dogs & Lone Wolves: The Samurai Film Handbook may be familiar with the ourtragous Hanzo the Razor trilogy (1972 - 4). This trio of period exploitation films starring Shintaro Katsu follow the crime-fighing adventures of Itami Hanzo, the most well-endowed copy in Edo, who doesn't hesitate to use his massive member in the service of justice! The films were adapted from a manga by Kazuo Koike (creator of Lone Wolf and Cub and Lady Snowblood).

Anyhow, a friend in Australia recently sent me these images from the Kamisori Hanzo manga and I thought I'd share:



Friday, May 25, 2007

Yoshiko Kuga

This is a photograph of the divine Yoshiko Kuga, taken by Shotaro Akiyama. Ms. Kuga is noteworthy for having appeared in films by all three of The Big Three. I recently enjoyed her performances in The Idiot (1951, Akira Kurosawa), New Tales of the Taira Clan (1955, Kenji Mizoguchi) and Good Morning (1959, Yasujiro Ozu). Her striking beauty and natural talent make her memorable in any part, large or small. Even in the Mizoguchi film, where her lines are few and the camera never gets closer than a two-shot, her poised grace and strong, feminine presence create a fully three-dimensional character.

She was married to actor Akihiko Hirata, himself a Japanese film veteran who starred in kaiju eiga (Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan) as well as samurai films (Musashi Miyamoto II, Samurai Saga, Sanjuro), until his untimely death in 1984. Hirata and Kuga both appeared in Hiroshi Inagaki's Whirlwind (1964) and Samurai Banners (1969).

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Capsule Reviews from SFIFF

Here's the piece I wrote on the 50th Annual San Francisco International Film Festival for the Asian Reporter:

SFIFF shows vitality, variety of Asian film

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Ceiling at Utsunomiya

If you're into Japanese horror, or if you've read Asia Shock (or, hopefully, both), you may have an awareness of Nobuo Nakagawa, Japan's first master of horror (Jigoku, Ghost of Yotsuya, Mansion of the Ghost Cat). I recently enjoyed one of his lesser-known films, The Ceiling at Utsunomiya (1956), a supernatural samurai film that stands as perhaps the first serious entry in Nakagawa's 50's horror ouvre. Great flick, with lots of sword work, plenty of engaging characters, a plot to assassinate the shogun, a bit of foul murder, a vengeful ghost, and the inevitable Tetsuro Tamba. You can get a copy at Super Happy Fun (along with a bunch of other great Nakagawa films).

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

50th Annual SFIFF


I could only stay for the first week of the San Francisco International Film Festival, but I was determined to see as many Asian films as possible. Here are the films I saw:

Ad Lib Night
After This Our Exile
Aria
Ghost Train
Hana
The Heavenly Kings
Mukhsin
The Old Garden
Paprika
Pather Panjali
Singapore Dreaming
Stories from the North
Tuli
Vanaja

I encourage you to follow the links above and check out the trailers. Most of these films were fantastic, a few fairly snoozable. I wrote a piece for the Portland-based Asian Reporter, showcasing what I felt were the standout films. I'll put a link here once that article is online. (BTW, I also caught All in This Tea, a likable Les Blank doc about Chinese tea, and Black Sheep, kind of a remake of Peter Jackson's Dead Alive, only with sheep.)

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Ghost Train


I'm currently attending the 50th Annual San Francisco International Film Festival, seeing a lot of Asian films, and since this blog is called Asia Shock, I really must say a few words about Ghost Train. The film was directed by Takeshi Furusawa, former assistant director to existential horror auteur Kiyoshi Kurosawa. This innovative shocker concerning a haunted subway station in Tokyo and the vortex of evil that lies down one of its connecting tunnels, utilizes a combination of unnerving sound design, memorable facial prosthetics, and a subtle yet definite (for those hip to such things) H.P. Lovecraft influence. The cumulative effect is one of amped-up J-horror that pushes the fright factor to the next level. Released in 2006, Ghost Train is already available on DVD in Asia; since ADV Films is releasing it to the SFIFF, a domestic ADV DVD release should follow soon. Don't miss it!

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Naruse


Many a great Japanese director was a miserable bastard. One long-neglected master is Mikio Naruse, whose films are finally starting to get released outside Japan (Repast, Flowing, and Sound of the Mountain from UK distributor Eureka and a recent Criterion release, When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, in the US). Great films, very low-key, somewhere between Ozu and Mizoguchi; you've got the home drama aspects of the former and the long-suffering female protagonists of the latter. But while Ozu offered resignation and Mizoguchi transcendence at the end of their respective films, Naruse offers neither, leaving his female protagonists to twist in the wind. It is only their Japanese fighting spirit that keeps them going, facing out the long days of desolation dangling over the abyss of depression and meaningless existence. Unwatchable? No fear, the films have a subtlety and realism that diffuses any direct slit-your-wrists vibe, but there's no doubt the director was channeling a lot of his own downheartedness into his films. By all accounts, Naruse was the most miserable and depressed director in Japanese film history. Nicknamed "Yaruse Nakio" (which I'm told translates as "Mr. Disconsolate"), at Toho, his one hobby was drinking alone. His only social interaction was with the women who served him his drinks at cheap eateries, one of whom fell in love with him and subsequently committed suicide when he failed to respond to her letters (an event that further clouded his personal reputation). But his films are superb in their way, stark and moving. When you watch them, you realize that here is an auteur with an ouvre who's been standing alongside the greats all this time, his work shamefully overlooked. I urge everyone to see at least one film by this fine filmmaker.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Bambi vs. Godzilla

BTW, I'm heartily enjoying David Mamet's latest book, Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose, and Practice of the Movie Business. Packed with anecdotes and obscure classical/religious/historical references, the book is, at turns (sometimes sentence by sentence) pithy, withering, heartfelt, political, castigating, wise and arrogant (in a good way).

Cry of the Lame

I'm such a lame blogger. I should be here every minute, pouring out my impressions and insights, but what do I do instead? Read books, watch films, drink sake, write books ...

But I am a web veteran -- I was a webmaster back in '97 and landed my first dot-com job in '98. Worked 'til the crash. So I'm no technophobe. Maybe it's just a personal backlash. I'm also not a terribly consistent poster on the two message boards I frequent, Ninja Dojo and Samurai Archives Citadel. Oh well.

I'm heading down to San Francisco this week for the San Francsico International Film Festival. I'll be posting stuff about that, as well as writing a piece on it for the Asian Reporter. Watch this space.

In the meantime, here are some interesting things that have drifted through my transom of late:

Cherry Blossom Eiga - Very cool Japanese cult film site.
Nikko Edo Mura - The samurai theme park I must visit next time I'm in Japan.
Hiroyuki Sanada Enthusiast - All things Hiroyuki Sanada including clips from Danny Boyle's Sunshine, which features this coolest of cool Japanese actors.
Voice of Gojira: Remembering Akira Ifukube - Good piece on one of the most prolific film composers of all time.
Asia Shock review - Gratifying piece courtesy of the good people at The Thunder Child.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Assorted capsule reviews

I'm hard at it, writing the follow-up volume to Stray Dogs & Lone Wolves, my samurai film book, so I'm behind on my blogging. Here are some films I've seen recently. Bare with me ...

Broken Lance
Edward Dmyrtyk borrows from King Lear, but not nearly enough to make this horse opera rise above the level of, well, horse opera. Spencer Tracy's hot-headed cattle baron and his sons (male versions of Regan, Goneril and Cordelia plus Earl Holliman as a superfluous, dimwitted fourth brother) remain flat western stock characters throughout and the film falls in upon itself from the sheer weight of its mundane MGM melodrama.

The Battle of Algiers
This electrifying cinema verite-style depiction of the struggle against French colonialism in 1950s Algiers is an eye-opening experience for anyone trying to make sense of headlines coming out of Iraq, Afghanistan or Israel -- and it was released 40 years ago! A virtual textbook on revolution, insurrectionary violence, and police state retaliation, Battle of Algiers is shockingly frank in its depiction of shootings, bombings and torture (on both sides), taking a cold, hard look at foreign occupation and what happens when the occupied decide enough is enough.

Modesty Blaise
Monica Vitti, Terrence Stamp, Dirk Bogarde, psychedelic 60s style and decor, exciting European locations and camped-up crime capers -- a home run, right? At first yes, but Joseph Losey is a bit out of his depth here, and the demands of a demented action romp/comic book adaptation begin to seriously tax his abilities in the third act, by which time the energy has all but dissipated and the film limps through what should have been a thrilling climax (a la Danger Diabolik). Perhaps Losey should have stuck to low-key psychodramas and left this one to Mario Bava?

Festival of Swordsmen
Samurai action and melodrama blend in this 1961 Toei offering featuring Ryutaro Otomo and Tomisaburo Wakayama as rivals who compete with swords as well as their hearts -- they're both in love with (and loved by) the same woman. There's also a tough jujitsu babe/cross-dressing princess that's got her eye on Otomo plus a whole slew of martial artists converging on Tokyo for a big competition before the Shogun. Everyone wears a ton of makeup and there's a general MGM feel, compared with the more gritty Daiei chambara of the same period (think Warners). Conventional yet solid samurai entertainment.

G.I. Samurai
It's a sprawling Sonny Chiba/Haruki Kadokawa thing, very big, very epic (142 minutes). Basically you've got The Chiba and his men going up against Sengoku-jidai warlords like Shingen Takeda with a tank, an APC and a bunch of guns, grenades and mortars. Of course he gets his ASS KICKED by his kickass forebears. Not bad, but the whole thing is awash in horrendous 70's sensitive singer-songwriter-type music: Lots of inappropriate ballads pouring like honey over scenes of carnage, that sort of thing. But over all, quite entertaining, and an interesting cultural take on Japan's martial history.

Friday, March 2, 2007

30th Portland Intl. Film Festival Pt. 2

While I enjoyed The Host (2006) for the most part, it was thin on the ground, story-wise. For a film like this, you need more characters, need to get some sub-plots to cross-cut to. Going back and forth between the vigilant family (widowed dad, loser son, estranged son, plucky Olympic archer daughter) and the girl in the monster's lair just got tedious after awhile. Why not add something like, I don't know, an intrepid father and son team on their own mission to save the girl? Old dad is a scientist friend of the other dad, the son a heroic love interest for the girl's archer aunt, played by Bae Doo-na (South Korea's Meg Ryan -- she was in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance). Or you could always have a team of commandos who get picked off one by one in the tunnels; tired, yes, but I bet a Korean director could get a lot more mileage out of such a well-worn trope and find some new and hideous ways to dispatch the obnoxious yet hapless team of macho jerkoffs. Anyway, you see what I'm saying -- the film needed to have more going on. But I read an interview with the director and he said the film was first and foremost a family drama, so I guess he wanted to keep the focus on them. And the monster is fantastic.

Always great to see Song Kang-ho, and he did a great job as usual. His specialty seems to be lovable losers. I just got the DVD and it was better the second time around, so perhaps you should disregard everything I've said ...

Thursday, February 15, 2007

30th Portland Intl. Film Festival Pt. 1

So I thought I'd keep an open mind and catch a Hong Kong musical. Unfortunately Perhaps Love (2005) wasn't my cup of tea. The first act features all the big production numbers; the second and third acts telescope in to the boy meets/looses/gets/discards girl love story. Ho hum. I liked some of the song lyrics, classically Asian musings on eternal verities like the unity of opposites and the impermanence of material things, all set in an otherwise very Western tradition of song 'n dance, but after awhile there was nothing to get my teeth into. No murder, no sex, no revenge, nobody hefting a body into the trunk of a car, none of the things I like!

South Korean historical romp King and the Clown (2005) made for heartier fare, but it started to sag halfway through, losing sight of its most interesting character for the sake of a dreary affair between a kooky king and his ladyboy lover. Woman on the Beach, another South Korean entry from 2006, provided some well-rounded characters and funny moments, but was ultimately an arthouse nonevent about some people eating, drinking and screwing in a small seaside town. Here's hoping things look up next weekend. Should do; at the very least I'll get to see The Host!

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Human Condition

It's a crying shame that one of the great films of world cinema, Masaki Kobayashi's immortal World War II saga The Human Condition (1959 - 61, Shochiku Studios) is unavailable on DVD. US-based Image Entertainment had previously offered this epic nine-hour, three-film opus but has shamefully let it drop from their catalog. Film enthusiasts worldwide are the poorer for it.

The Human Condition trilogy follows the trials and tribulations of pacifist and conscientious objector Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai) as he struggles to preserve his dignity and sanity amid the various horrors of enlisted service during World War II. In the first film, No Greater Love, Kaji is sent by his company to Japanese-controlled Manchuria where he witnesses the deplorable living conditions and suffering of Chinese slave laborers put under his charge. His attempts to treat these men with respect result in his being tortured, charged with conspiracy and sent to active duty. Part two, Road to Eternity, follows Kaji as he endures active duty (and the cruelty of his fellow officers) in the Imperial Japanese Army. In part three, A Soldier's Prayer, Kaji is captured and interned in a Siberian POW camp, eventually to escape into the frozen white wasteland ...

The character of Kaji is a stand-in for director Kobayashi, himself drafted in January of 1942. Unlike directors who would later become his contemporaries (like Akria Kurosawa), Kobayashi spent four years as a soldier in the hell that was WW II. The Human Condition is his passionate castigation of war and martial culture, and a revelation for anyone who thought the Japanese people supported the war en masse. Tatsuya Nakadai is devastating as Kaji, his large, soulful eyes communicating the earnest decency of his character, caught as he is in an impossible situation. Nakadai was discovered by Kobayashi, and the role of Kaji brought him to the world's attention for the stellar talent he is -- his performance is simply shattering.

The Human Condition is one of those films that should be seen by everyone. What a pity then, that it is unavailable on DVD to be seen by anyone.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Nice piece in the SF Chronicle

I grew up in San Francisco, and the SF Chronicle was always the paper in the house. So this article is particularly gratifying. I should be at my favorite SF watering hole with a bunch of friends, celebrating my good press. Meanwhile I'm buried under a snowdrift 500 miles north in Eugene, Oregon. What's wrong with this picture? When I was down in SF last month it was sunny and in the mid-50s every day. Hmm ...

Friday, January 5, 2007

Rue Morgue digs Asia Shock!

I was overjoyed to open the Jan/Feb 2007 issue of Rue Morgue Magazine and find Asia Shock in a sidebar of the feature article. I put a scan here.

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Violent Cop

I watched "Beat" Takeshi Kitano's directorial debut Violent Cop (1989) again after many years, and was amazed by how much better it was than I'd remembered. The first Beat Takeshi film I ever saw was Sonatine (1993), and I, along with many an unfortunate yakuza in that film, was completely blown away. I saw Violent Cop soon afterward, and the difference in style caused me to regard it an inferior early work; indeed, in contradistinction to the refinement, the existential stillness and Kubrickian pacing of Sonatine, Violent Cop seemed somehow tawdry and base. But I was hasty in my judgment. Now, after years and hundreds of Japanese films (including a few more from Kitano), I can say that Violent Cop is a terrific film that stands on its own merits. It is also a tribute to Kitano's abilities as a fledgling director, stepping in as he did when the original director, Kinji Fukasaku, stepped out due to scheduling conflicts (the two finally worked together a decade later on the mind-bendingly bloody ballet that is Battle Royale).

Returning to Violent Cop was like finding the source of a river; from here would flow and expand various themes and recurring imagery in subsequent features, such as the long take on the stone face, the sudden, unexpected bursts of punishing brutality, and Kitano's enigmatic film presence itself -- stoic, unpredictable, and immovable as a mountain. After Fukasaku's departure, Takeshi extensively rewrote the shooting script for Violent Cop, making it his own. For example, he added long sequences of himself walking (another recurring image in his films), his hurried, bowl-legged stride somehow menacing when colored by his character's explosive physical assaultiveness. When an interviewer later asked about the prevalence of walking sequences in his films, Kitano reportedly joked, "Because that's part of the TV cop show formula." Really, it's a way of communicating the energy of the central character; compare the walking shots of Lee Marvin as Walker in John Boorman's Point Blank (1967). Other recurring Kitano film elements include the aforementioned existential calm at the heart of the maelstrom and the appearance of a gay character, not exactly a commonplace in Japanese film.

Now I think I'll move forward from Violent Cop through the rest of Takeshi Kitano's filmography, in chronological order, to follow the development of his filmmaking style through the 90s to the point when his films start to falter in the early 2000s.