Friday, September 28, 2012

Outrage

A couple of years ago "Beat" Takeshi Kitano returned to the yakuza genre, writing, directing and editing Outrage. I have to admit I was excited; Violent Cop, Boiling Point, Sonatine, Fireworks -- the guy's made some fantastic yakuza pictures. I also have to admit that I was a little disappointed with Outrage.

To its credit, the cinematography and production design are immaculate. Outrage is a gorgeous film to look at. However, the old vibe is gone. Kitano's 90s films had a trademark Zen calm, punctuated with short, sharp shocks of ultra-violence. Here, the former has been dialed way down and the latter way up. Don't get me wrong, I have no problem with ultra-violence, when it's called for. However, the Grand Guignol portions on offer here seem a bit overdone, as if the old outrager had become unsure of his game -- after so many years of being outrageous, he appears to have lost his balance, his deft touch gone all ham-fisted.

The story involves an internecine squabble between two yakuza groups that spirals out of control, causing lost pinkies, dental torture and, ultimately, mass carnage. Poor old Renji Ishibashi (Ronin-gai, Audition, Crest of Betrayal, Dora-heita, tons more) gets the worst of it, having the misfortune to be in the dentist's chair at the wrong moment. Beat Takeshi's character is the loyal lieutenant manipulated by his boss and higher ups into essentially destroying himself (by way of destroying others). You could say he was only following orders, but that's turned out to be not such a good defense …

Don't get me wrong, Outrage is not a bad movie. In fact, compared to most of the crap coming out these days, it's damn good. I'm only comparing it to it's predecessors. Beat Takeshi set such a high bar that his toughest competition is himself. No artist wants to admit it, but they all have an arc; they reach the peak of their creative potential and come back down. Rarely do they get a second one. Outrage is a Beat Takeshi film on the downside of the arc. Far from the bottom of the chart, I should add.

So should you see it? If you're a Takeshi Kitano fan, I'd say definitely. It's good to see the old boy again, slapping people around, shooting them and generally causing mayhem. If you like Japanese film and want to see Tokyo in all its gorgeousness, another reason for a look see. For those more sensitive souls (who probably aren't reading a blog like this), I'd advise a pass. Outrage is a brutal film about brutal men doing brutality. On the other hand, if that's your thing, tuck in!

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Warped Ones

Meet Akira (Tamio Kawaji). He's young, handsome and a total scumbag. For one thing, he's a thief. Good lord, there's nothing this kid won't steal! He'll pick your pocket, hot wire your car, even your morning milk and newspaper aren't safe. He'll also rape your girl …

And yet somehow you can't take your eyes off him and, inexplicably, help but be squarely in his corner. Such is the jazzy, delirious charm of Koreyoshi Kurahara's The Warped Ones (1960). It's like Oshima's Cruel Story of Youth (of the same year), yet grittier and more slick at the same time. It's a 75 minute thrill ride through the mean streets of Tokyo that will leave you breathless, exhilarated, and perhaps a little ashamed at having enjoyed yourself this much.

These days Seijun Suzuki gets the lion's share of 60s Nikkatsu cult cred, but Koreyoshi Kurahara, while lesser known in the West, is right up there, a vital, visceral powerhouse of a director (and a not inconsiderable seat-filler in his day). He came up in the 50s working on taiyozoku-eiga (sun tribe films). He was the AD on the most excellent Crazed Fruit (1956), starring white hot husband-and-wife team Yujiro Ishihara and Mie Kitahara, and made his directorial debut with the same couple in the compelling noir I Am Waiting (1957). Kurahara went on to span multiple genres and find success throughout the remainder of the 20th century (watch this space for more reviews of his work).

If for no other reason, I encourage you to see this film for the performance of Tamio Kawaji. For one thing, you'll never see this much mugging in your life. Man, what a mobile face! This guy gets off more puckers, fleers and grimaces in five seconds than most people do all day. And his body language is just as expressive; it's as if the director wanted him to embody the whole of post-war Japanese youth angst -- and he does! Kawaji's performance is a seething, writhing, febrile exercise in total chaos not to be missed!

I don't know if it's worth mentioning, but Koreyoshi Kurahara's brother also worked for Nikkatsu, albeit after the changeover to Roman Porno in the 70s. I reviewed one of his films, Eros High School: Feels So Good, on this blog (hey, what can I say, they send me these things).

What is worth mentioning is that you can get The Warped Ones, along with a number of other Koreyoshi Kurahara films, in a box from Criterion (Eclipse Series #28). I always advise acquiring such things, because when the grid goes down, only us lucky devils with a a solar panel and lots of disks will be sitting back, enjoying Japanese film! Step off you zombies, I've got a katana!!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Moss

Here's a classic example of the WTF? Where is this going?-type Korean film that nevertheless sucks you in. And once you figure out what's going on, it completely sucks you in. Not without it's problems, it's the kind of film where you only realize the problems later, as you're digesting this nearly three-hour mini-epic of corruption, redemption, Christian violence and revenge.

Moss (2010) is based on a remarkably cinematic online Korean manga by Yoon Tae-ho, parts of which you can see here. Flicking through it, you realize how faithfully the film follows the frames (although there are several major alterations). That's why so many comic books and graphic novels are adapted to film: Everything is storyboarded out. Makes things really easy for the filmmakers.

In broad strokes, the story is an allegory of how corruption co-opts religion. Of particular interest to me was the fact that it was set in a rural village far from Seoul -- dark doings are always so much darker in the lush greenery of the countryside. Anyway, an elderly, Christ-like man dies of mysterious circumstances, and subsequently his prodigal son shows up in the village to get to the bottom of things. And boy is there a lot to get to the bottom of! The backstory spans 25 years and includes generous portions of depravity, arson, rape, mass murder, police corruption and, of course, lots of stabbing. I don't mean that in a bad way …

As I mentioned, there are problems. The denouement goes on a bit, and some issues are never made quite clear (but I suppose you get that when adapting a ridiculously rich and complex story). And there are the implausible moments that work better in a manga than on film, like when the young protagonist is repeatedly brutally stabbed in the belly and manages to run around the woods, eluding and even dispatching his attacker, all with a hand holding in his guts. Yeah right! But then this is a Korean film, with all the visceral grip we've come to know and love.

I'd definitely recommend Moss to anyone interested in Korean cinema. There are some really brutal scenes at the outset, but don't let that turn you off. By the time the final credits roll, you'll feel like you've been through something. Something major. That's what I love about Korean films of this genre: They put you through the fucking ringer. Total catharsis! Film can't do much more than that.

My thanks to Dr. Stan Glick for turning me on to this film.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Pat in NYC


Not so shocking, but certainly Asian-themed was my recent visit to New York City (over Labor Day weekend). Friday night I had dinner with this maniac, Ric Menello (left). He directed rap videos for Rick Rubin back in the 80s (Fight for Your Right to Party, Goin' Back to Cali, and others); more recently he's writing screenplays (co-wrote Two Lovers, a James Gray film starring Joachin Phoenix). And of course he's a Japanese film fanatic. He contacted me after my first book came out in 2005, and we became fast e-pals. In more recent years, I've had a couple of opportunities to get together with him in NYC.


We had a great time at Kenka, a funky, atmospheric Japanese joint in the East Village. Insanely huge menu that occasionally went to extremes (anyone for bull penis? No? How about turkey testicles?). We were joined by my lovely wife Shirley and Ric's best friend Mel Neuhaus (both of those guys are walking film encyclopedias, so you can imagine it was a food and film orgy extraordinaire!).

What I particularly appreciated about Kenka was its Japanese film theme. There are old samurai film posters everywhere, big head shots on the wall by the bathroom (while you wait, see how many stars you can identify!). And the piece de resistance is the striking Ken Takakura mural on the back wall. Talk about my kind of place!  

Then on Saturday I had lunch with world famous Asian film expert Dr. Stan Glick. We ate at New Wonjo, an excellent Korean joint on the bit of W. 32nd Street known as Koreatown (between 5th and 6th Avenue). Stan and I had bibimbap and assorted appetizers (fish pancakes, veggie egg rolls, etc.) and I drank a lot of sake (go figure). Forgot to take pictures, but remembered at the last minute in front of a Nathan's where we utilized the advertising for our own corny purposes.


Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Lone Wolf & Cub on blu-ray

The one thing I've always pointed out about the Lone Wolf & Cub films, beyond the mind-bending martial arts and geysers of blood, is the fact that they are exceptionally well made films, capturing and utilizing the natural beauty of a wide variety of Japanese landscapes; forest, desert, ocean, grove -- the color and clarity of the nature imagery contrasts and enhances the dark doings of the human dimension.

So you can imagine my excitement at AnimEigo's release of the entire six-film series in a two-disk blu-ray pack. Man, those colors just POP! If any film series could be improved by a blu-ray release, this is it.

Now I hear you saying, "Aw jeez, times are tough, and I already have these films on DVD. Do I really need 'em on blu-ray too?" Yes. Yes you do. I'm telling you, I've probably seen these films more than you, but they have a timeless quality -- they never get old. So if you're going to be watching them for the rest of your life, don't you want the best looking copies available? Plus you get the industry standard AnimEigo features: Excellent subtitles, subtitle gloss to help you understand Edo-period terminology, as well as comprehensive film notes featuring a wealth of historical background. With this collection and my books, you'll be in samurai hog heaven!