Tuesday, December 18, 2012

K-20: The Fiend with Twenty Faces

I'm not a big fan of superhero movies. Avengers, X-Men, Batman -- to hell with 'em. Can't use 'em. Vapid pap, as thin and two-dimensional as the paper they were originally printed on. But leave it to the Japanese to make something work better. I'm talking about a movie called K-20: The Fiend with Twenty Faces (aka K-20: Legend of the Mask -- the K is for "kaijin," fiend.). This engaging thrill ride from 2008 is jam-packed with acrobatics, parkour, wire-fu, period costumes and special effects plus real character development and one hell of a twist ending. Good shit, Maynard!

Anybody who knows what ero-guro means will be familiar with the king of this particular literary genre, one Edogawa Rampo (I've written about him many times). And if you know anything about Edogawa Rampo, you'll know that he wrote scads of mystery novels featuring his detective, Kogoro Akechi. Now Akechi's arch rival was this guy, the Fiend with Twenty Faces (see where we're going with this?) but there's a twist: This film is a re-imagining of these two characters, one in which Akechi isn't quite the heroic figure of Rampo's novels. K-20 is based on 1989 novel The Story of Nijumenso (literally "twenty faces") by So Kitamura. The author took some liberties with the beloved characters, giving us a nicer Nijumenso and a less honorable Akechi. How much you take offense to such tampering will no doubt affect how much you enjoy this picture.

The film is set in an alternate 1949, one in which Japan has avoided WW II and Nikola Tesla technology is being actively pursued. However, a rigid two-class system is enforced by the government and there's an awful lot of very poor people. Akechi is engaged to a duchess (Takako Matsu) and is after a circus performer (Takeshi Kaneshiro) whom he thinks is Nijumenso. Along the way we meet thieves and orphans, cops and soldiers, oh yeah, and that guy with all the faces.

So I'm just here to say I had a blast, really enjoyed the flick. Nice to have some fun for a change! (Thanks to Dr. Stan Glick for the disk.)

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Sars Wars

I'm not a big zombie guy. Of all the monster genres, I've always found this one, for all its chaos and gore, to be the most jejune. Plus it's been done to death; zombie is the new vampire, with shows like The Walking Dead flogging it to its last drop of congealed blood. The only way to make zombies palatable to me is to present them in a humorous context; Return of the Living Dead, Dead Alive, Shaun of the Dead, that sort of thing. And to this end I give you Sars Wars (2004). Here is a Thai zombie comedy so deliriously goofy and ridiculously gruesome, it gave me a new appreciation for zombie movies.

First off, the title: As some of you may remember, about a decade ago, there was an outbreak of a virus called SARS in East Asia. (I went to Japan in 2003 and I recall it was a big deal; lots of warning signs at the airport.) Anyhow, filmmaker Taweewat Wantha got the idea to make a film about a mutated version of SARS that … wait for it … turns people into zombies! Then he manga-ized things, adding ninja-like superheroes and animated sequences to heighten the crazy action factor. Not to be stopped, he went on to sex things up with a slinky, fishnet-clad lady scientist and a hot, kick-ass high school girl. The latter character is kidnapped by a band of inept thugs holed up in an apartment building that just happens to be ground zero for the new super SARS outbreak. Soon enough everything erupts into a goretastic zombie-palooza.

In a nutshell: You've gotta see this movie. The playfulness and overall sense of fun I've found in Thai culture makes for an immensely enjoyable film. I burst out laughing a number of times, and any film that can do that is an instant classic in my book. (Speaking of "my book," I regret not getting this flick into Asia Shock -- oh well). The characters have a tendency to make jokes about the movie on the fly like, "This is the most ridiculous moment yet" "I know, but you've watched it this far!" There are also nice twists, like a zombie cockroach, a zombie baby and a snake that eats a zombie cat and becomes a giant zombie cat-snake. And let's not forget the ugliest transsexual in the world … and his/her sex scene!

Upping the ante on the horror front is a touch of the ferocious, folkloric Thai ghost. If you know anything about traditional ghosts in Thailand, you'll be familiar with a strain that doesn't just haunt you -- they'll eat your fucking liver! At least one female zombie in this film is of this sort -- a fanged, feral thing far more local than anything out of Hollywood.

So if it's a mind-bending melange of the goofy, gory, sexy and sentimental you're after, you can't ask for more than Sars Wars (aka Sars Wars: Bangkok Zombie Crisis). That is all.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Dream Home

As you can imagine, Hong Kong high-rise apartments tend to be rather spendy. We're talking millions of HK dollars for a few hundred square feet. A luxury flat is to die for, and in the case of Dream Home, that's literally the case.

Man oh man, I have not seen a film with this level of graphic violence in quite awhile. Folks are shot, stabbed, strangled, bludgeoned, impaled, dismembered, disemboweled, suffocated (one chick is even dispatched via toilet bowl), all with a stylistic verve and pace that makes you squirm with a kind of sick fascination (or is it just me?). Here is ultraviolence done right; timing, camera angle, special effects -- everything comes together in a kind of gruesome harmony. A blood-spattered tour de force!

The story is somewhat less well-executed. It's told in flashbacks, intercut with the real-time killing spree of one woman, pretty Sheung Cheng-lai (Josie Ho). The flashbacks jump back and forth to scenes throughout Cheng's life, from her childhood living in a rundown apartment building (from which she and her family are eventually driven out to make way for high-rise construction) to the present. As a child, little Cheng had a grandpa who always wanted a place by the harbor, and the girl vows to make that happen some day. This promise becomes an obsession throughout her life and, when thwarted, turns her into a homicidal maelstrom of creative, tool belt-oriented violence in the very apartment she'd tried so hard to acquire. 

Here's the rub: The indignities Cheng has suffered don't quite compensate, story-wise, for her rampage. Look, I get it; Cheng represents the oppressed working class, taking sweet revenge on those privileged bastards in the towers: the golf club-toting business man, the drug-addled libertines, the spoiled housewives. Perhaps if Cheng had been shown being personally victimized and violated by such types, the story would have worked better; traditionally, in films of this sort, she would have had far more heinous things done to her to bring about such a transformation. As it is, we spend so much time with her in the flashbacks, seeing her as a nice, normal person, that the sudden shift into special ops-style killing machine -- well, it's a bit of a *clank*.

Don't get me wrong, this doesn't ruin the film or anything -- just a weakness which may or may not be my own personal niggle. Other than that, it's a great picture that offers much more than just a lot of blood and entrails and a guy getting killed with a bong (you'll see). There is a dark humor that runs through the piece, as well as social commentary and topical relevance (the film came out in 2010 and is very aware of it's moment in light of the then-recent global economic downturn).

Star Josie Ho was also a producer on the film, her first outing as such. She was reportedly interested in doing a horror picture (as it is the perennial cash cow of film genres). She took one look at the legendary The Story of Rikki (see my review in Asia Shock) and decided that was the direction she wanted to go in. The influence is not undetectable …

Dream Home is one of those films that's been sitting in my to-watch pile for some time -- the kind you finally screen and slap yourself for not watching sooner. And don't think I've spoiled it for you; there's lot's of stuff I've (deliberately) not mentioned, and a lovely twist ending I'm sure you'll enjoy. So put on your best blood-resistant raincoat, get some popcorn, and get ready to get your gore on! 

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Eleven Samurai

Eichi Kudo's Eleven Samurai rounds out his we're-gonna-get-that-motherfucker samurai trilogy quite nicely. If you liked The Thirteen Assassins and/or The Great Killing, you're gonna love this. Everything is tightened up; where Thirteen Assassins was a bit process-driven and Great Killing somewhat chaotic, here he's got it just right. Pace, tension, carnage -- everything is in perfect balance.

As with the previous films, this is an affair of vengeance. A heinous personage in a position of power has done something awful, and it's down to a small group of highly skilled individuals to make it right. In this case, the culprit is the shogun's brother, a fella named Lord Nariatsu (the irrepressible Kantaro Suga, also the baddie in Thirteen Assassins). Jesus, is this guy wicked (one hapless lord takes an arrow in the eyeball for his trouble). Any chance Nariatsu will lose his head at the end of 100 minutes?

I should pause to praise the look of this film. The B&W cinematography is truly awesome. Something about the Japanese architectural aesthetic blends so perfectly with black-and-white photography -- oh go read In Praise of Shadows already ...

But the cast! To die for. Clearly word was getting around about this Kudo guy. Kotaro Satomi, the main young dude of the other two films, is back, albeit in a tiny role. Also returning is Toei chambara stalwart Ryutaro Otomo (he was the bad guy in Great Killing, but here he's the standup samurai retainer who, because of bushido, has to defend his scumbag lord to the bitter end).

The central revenger, Hayato Sengoku, is portrayed by one of my favorite Japanese actors, Isao Natsuyagi. With his downturned crescent mouth and huge ears, you wonder, "What's this guy gonna give me?" but the sheer presence of the man puts him over the top, makes him a star. I've written about him before (please buy and read my books!). Samurai Wolf, Shogun's Samurai, Bandits vs Samurai Squadron, go check him out, the guy rocks.

And then there's Ko Nishimura, reprising his role in Thirteen Assassins, as a badass master swordsman. Nishimura appeared with Isao Natsuyagi in Samurai Wolf 2, don't you know (don't get me started on Ko Nishimura -- I could go all day). And let's not forget Junko "Quick-Draw Okatsu" Miyazono who was also the blind woman in Samurai Wolf.

Oh, and Kei Sato!

Look, if you're reading this and you haven't seen this picture, you owe it to yourself. It's really quite an excellent samurai film. There was a time I thought Eichi Kudo overrated; I came around. And this, as far as I'm concerned, is his magnum opus. But don't trust me -- just ask Paghat the Ratgirl.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Wakeful Nights

I don't normally review comedies here, because, well you know, the whole Asia Shock thing -- comedies by and large aren't all that shocking. But this one is! Wakeful Nights (Nezu no ban aka A Hardest Night, 2005) features, among other things, the filthiest song I've ever heard in my life (and that's saying something). It has all the elements I like: Black comedy, bawdy gags, a great cast, lovely scenic locations and rakugo.

In case you didn't hit the link on rakugo, it's a traditional Japanese theatrical form that goes back with kabuki and bunraku. It's essentially a comedic monologue, very stripped down (the performer has two props, a folding fan and a hand towel, which he uses to represent a wide range of objects). In Wakeful Nights, rakugo stays mainly in the background; an old master of the art dies, and the members of his troupe hold a wake. This is followed by more wakes, as other members of the group proceed to expire (hence the pun on "wakeful" in the title).

Hats off to my friend David Rowe-Caplan who translated this (and many another) film for Animeigo. He's the guy who comes up with all that onscreen gloss to explicate linguistic difficulties in the subtitles. He sure had his hands full on this project. He told me it was the hardest subtitling job he's ever had to do because of all the Japanese puns he had to explain. Add to that the fact that the puns are mostly obscene, and you begin to understand his conundrum; it's hard enough to get across subtle shades of meaning, but how do you subtly explain a pussy joke?

And there's a ton of pussy jokes on offer. And dick jokes. And shit jokes. The stuff people say in this film is as outrageous as the stuff they do. Be warned, however, it starts off a little slow with an extended death bed scene (albeit brightened by a last request for one final gander at a "honey pot" … ).

The ensemble cast is pitch-perfect. If you've seen a lot of Beat Takeshi films, you'll recognize baggy-eyed Ittoku Kishibe as the son of the rakugo master (nice to see him in something other than a dour, underworld persona). Then there's Kiichi Nakai -- he was the country bumpkin ronin who somehow wins the battle of Toba-Fushimi single-handedly in When the Last Sword is Drawn (2003, see my review in Warring Clans, Flashing Blades). Then of course there's Hiroyuki Nagato who plays the old master. He's been kicking around since the 50s, appearing in films like The Warped Ones, Pigs and Battleships, The Insect Woman, Bandits vs. Samurai Squadron and over 100 more.

Wakeful Nights is also notable for being the directorial debut of Masahiko Tsugawa, grandson of legendary silent film director Masahiro Makino and prolific actor in his own right. He got his start in sun tribe films like Crazed Fruit and The Sun's Burial and has been working consistently ever since (he played Shingen Takeda in samurai epic Heaven and Earth -- see my review in Stray Dogs & Lone Wolves).

So my advice to you is absolutely check out Wakeful Nights. If you're like me and have a somewhat sick sense of humor I guarantee by the end you'll be howling!

Friday, September 28, 2012


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


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!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Sick Nurses

Wonderfully weird Thai-flavored J-horror from 2007. I didn't know what to think, from title to first minutes, but something told me "stick with it, it'll be worth it." I wasn't wrong.

Dark films set in hospitals are usually quite demented (The Hospital, Horror Hospital, The Kingdom, Britannia Hospital, Infection), and Sick Nurses is no exception. There are no patients to speak of, but it really doesn't matter -- the thoughtful character development and vengeful ghost plot line are so engrossing (and deliriously surreal) that you quickly forget about such pesky elements of continuity. Who needs sick people when you've got a bevy of Thai hotties being butchered in demonically inventive ways by a lady ghost with pitch black skin and blond highlights?

I've been to Bangkok. There's a palpable sense of, well, sensuality about the place. And as claustrophobic as this picture is, that sensual sensibility comes through. Each of the wicked nurses (who collaboratively murder one of their own at the outset) has a physical hangup: One is an exercise obsessive; one covets jewelry to the point of cutting out images from magazines and wearing them; one has an eating disorder; one pair of twins are so vain, they can't help but take pictures of each other and engage in inappropriate affection. And then there's the murdered girl's fiancé who was having it off with her sister (yet another nurse). Needless to say, when our enraged ghost starts in, she has a wealth of themes with which to wreak her revenge. Scalpels and bone saws fit so easily into her diabolical scheme …

I wasn't in the mood for an unpleasant film. But after a couple of dodgy minutes, I was hooked. You gotta be into Asian film and horror to dig it, but if that's the case, brother, you will be pleased.

Friday, July 27, 2012

The President's Last Bang

Excellent Korean flick from 2004 about the assassination of President Park Chung-hee in 1979. Park took control of South Korea following a coup d'état in 1961. After 18 years of despotic political repression, many Koreans had had enough. One such Korean was Kim Jae-kyu, a man who just happened to be the head of Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA). I won't go into specifics -- the film covers the event in fascinating detail, taking you inside the blood-spattered halls of the presidential palace known as the Blue House for the gruesome event and the inevitable political fallout that follows.

The President's Last Bang
features Han Seok-kyu (Green Fish, Shiri, Tell Me Something, A Bloody Aria) as Chief Ju, one of Kim's loyal lieutenants who aids in the assassination. President Park is played by the venerable Song Jae-ho (Memories of Murder, Tidal Wave). And starring as Kim is Baek Yoon-sik (Save the Green Planet, Jeon Woo Chi: The Taoist Wizard).

If you appreciate suspense and political intrigue delivered in a powerful, no-nonsense approach, you'll definitely want to see this gripping film.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Samurai Film Star Trading Cards

Today I received a lovely gift from my friend Lonny in Tokyo: Eight samurai film star trading cards from the 1950s (see above, click for enlargement). Being the obsessive nerd that I am, I've been trying to identify them, going by their facial features and what I can decipher of the kanji that make up their names. So far, numbering them 1 - 8 from left to right, I've determined that #1 is Utaemon Ichikawa, #4 is Chiezo Kataoka, #5 is Tsumasaburo Bando and #7 is Denjiro Okochi. (#8 doesn't show a name and he's wearing a disguise, but his name is on the back.)

Here's where you come in: If you're also an obsessive samurai film nerd, or perhaps just fluent in Japanese, maybe you can help me identify the remaining four guys (#2, #3, #6 and #8). I'll continue to research these guys as well, and together, we can crack this mystery! Just leave a comment, contact me via twitter (@pat_galloway), or send email to samurai[at]cyberpat.com.

Also of interest, on the back of the cards you'll notice (again, click to enlarge), in addition to the name of the actor, a little hand forming the sign for either rock, paper or scissors, thus making these gaming cards (whoever wins gets the other guy's card, I would imagine). Don't get any ideas, though -- I'm not gambling these babies away! (Note: In the image above, the actor names are now reversed because the cards are all of a piece. So #8 is now #1, #7 is now #2, etc.)

UPDATE: My twitter pal jimmymcwicked identifies #3 as Kazuo Hasegawa and #6 as Susumu Fujita. Thanks, jimmymcwicked!

UPDATE: This just in -- #8 is Kanjuro Arashi. Thanks again to the amazing jimmymcwicked.

UPDATE: Alright, #2 is confirmed: Ryunosuke Tsukigata. Props to jimmymcwicked for this one as well. He'd called it initially, but I pointed out the kanji didn't match his name as listed on Wikipedia and elsewhere. However, Aizu Shingo from Tokyo emailed me that the name on the card is indeed an alternate spelling of the actor's name. So there you have it. Thanks guys!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Last Samurai

It is a time for rejoicing, my friends. One of the finest samurai films ever made has been released on DVD (courtesy of Neptune Media): Kenji Misumi's magnum opus, The Last Samurai (1974). And no, Tom Cruise is nowhere in sight -- this is a completely different (and utterly superior) film. You may be familiar with Kenji Misumi from his wonderful 60s chambara work at Daiei (Zatoichi, Sleepy Eyes of Death), or his early 70s Lone Wolf & Cub films. If so, you've got to see this, his final, and finest, film. (I review it at length in my book, Warring Clans, Flashing Blades, so you'll want to get that as well … )

The Last Samurai is a sprawling saga of the Bakumatsu period, that dark and treacherous time in the mid-19th century that saw the bloody dissolution of the Tokugawa shogunate. Faction fought faction, plots and assassinations played out daily, and everywhere the clank of steel on steel filled the air! Into this maelstrom of violence and deception steps our protagonist, played by tall, dark and handsome Hideki Takahashi. He's fictional, but his friends and the events of the day are all right out of the pages of history. I should mention that his friends are all legendary swordsmen on differing sides of the conflict. You can bet things are going to get much worse before they get any better. Who will survive to see the restoration of the Emperor and the new days of peace, modernization and progress? Probably not many …

Shout out to my NYC bro John Gainfort for sending me the disk, and for all his help over the years. He authored the DVD and was one of the producers, so of course it looks and sounds awesome. This is quality product, from screen to disk to you. Thanks, John!

Honestly, this film is epic, absolutely in my top ten. Whether you're a collector or just want to have a couple of top-notch Japanese films around the house, this is a must-have/must-watch-again-and-again. You know me, I don't get paid to say this (god how I don't get paid) -- this is from the heart. So in short: Good shit, Maynard!

Monday, July 9, 2012

Directory of World Cinema: Japan 2

It occurred to me that I never blogged about this book, to which I contributed five reviews. I suppose it's because the pieces I submitted were pared down versions of reviews that have already appeared in my own books -- nothing new for my readers (both of you) to get excited about. However, it's worth mentioning that the book (along with its predecessor) is full of wonderful reviews and essays covering myriad genres of Japanese film, a fact I confess I overlooked for the sake of my own myopic concerns.

So, for the record, if you have any interest in Japanese film and wish to broaden your horizons, absolutely get this book. And I suggest you get it in print, as it's full of full color production stills which may or may not come with the e-book version.

I understand a third installment is in the works (my friend Dr. Stan Glick will be contributing), so if you find you enjoy the books in this series, there's something to look forward to. Always nice to have something to look forward to.

So run, don't walk, etc.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Great Killing

Eichi Kudo's follow-up to his The Thirteen Assassins (1963) finds a rag-tag band of conspirators plotting the downfall of a particularly nasty government official (downplayed wonderfully by the great Ryutaro Otomo) in mid-17th century Japan. Getting wind of the plot, the government comes down hard, with a brutal "round up the usual suspects" effort that involves quite a lot of traditional Japanese torture of prisoners involving bamboo and boiling water (for starters … ). The eventual blood-letting of the title provides the film's big ending, although it's a much more chaotic affair than that of Thirteen Assassins. Kudo abandons the highly structured, meticulously planned samurai assault of the previous film for an utterly desperate and unruly free-for-all.

The Great Killing (aka The Great Duel) is a somewhat stranger animal than its predecessor. There's a certain angularity, a kind of cinematic alienation to the proceedings. Long, enigmatic shots from odd angles and frequent use of hand-held camera provide an unconventional air; this is certainly not your typical Toei chambara of the period. Character development is kept to a minimum, so the central characters' motivations are unclear (at first), as is the nature of their relationships to one another. Kotaro Satomi, who you'll remember as the handsome young wastrel of the previous film, is back as innocent samurai bystander Jimbo, who gets sucked into the fray with no choice but to join the conspiracy; the lovely Nami Munakata (in her screen debut) plays the mysterious Miss Miyi, whom everyone wants to sleep with (she is a stunner); Mikijiro Hira, star of Three Outlaw Samurai and Sword of the Beast, plays his standard dissipated cynic; and seasoned character actor Toru Abe is on board as the military strategist behind the Big Killing itself.

As usual, Animeigo offers their top-flight subtitles with interstitial gloss to help you through the more abstruse aspects of Tokugawa-era politics and social etiquette. Animeigo is to samurai films what the Arden editions are to Shakespeare. You're in good hands, never fear. Shimpai gomyo!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Eros High School: Feels So Good

My contact at Synapse sent me a couple more films from their Impulse label's Nikkatsu Erotic Films Collection (a series of 70s and 80s softcore porn flicks originally known by the industry term Roman Porno). Synapse plans to release 15 of these titles, and seeing as how I feel obligated to review films people send me, I'm going to have to ask them to stop sending them, as I don't want to come off like a total pervert. That's the Phantom of Pulp's job!

Don't get me wrong, I enjoy a sexy Japanese movie every now and then, and while these films never show full frontal nudity, much less actual penetration, nevertheless they're incredibly filthy. With the exception of international warfare, the Japanese invariably master whatever they set their minds to, and in the realm of softcore porn, the Japanese "pink film" is nonpareil.

Looking at the packaging,  you can pretty much guess what's on the table here: At least one Japanese high school girl gets the business from a guy in a straw hat (while holding a track shoe no less! No, not really ...). Turns out the guy is the self-styled Ryu the Rapist (Shohei Murakuni), a geta clog-wearing punk with a pet pig who goes back and forth between reform school and standard high school because he rapes women and girls wherever he goes. He's set his sights on pretty track star Misa (Asami Ogawa), but he's going to plow through all of her friends and a number of other girls first. The rapes start off violent, but of course the girls start to love it soon enough (an unsavory sentiment, the merest hint of which got Sam Peckinpah in hot water over his 1971 film Straw Dogs). What's truly bizarre is that the film is largely played for laughs. It's that queasy mixture of goofy and disturbing I noticed in so many Category III Hong Kong films (reviewed for your reading pleasure in Asia Shock).

I was also sent #4 in the series, Zoom Up: The Beaver Book Girl, an intriguing title from 1981. This one will likely be a bit more deviant, for as time wore on, the Roman Porno film franchise felt the need to up the ante as it were. I anticipate more wall-to-wall sex and less prurient hijinks than Eros High School.

I should mention that the disks feature informative essays by pink film expert Jasper Sharp, so if you want to pretend you're not just perving out but really doing legitimate film history research, here's your chance. In any case, if you're a heterosexual male with a pulse, you're sure to get turned on by this terrifically titillating film fare. (These films hit the street June 12, 2012.)

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

13 Assassins

A year ago I reviewed this film in conjunction with the Miike remake that had then recently come out. My reference print was a high quality bootleg, but since AnimEigo has released their own version, I have to endorse it in accordance with my long-standing relationship with them (and the fact that they totally rock). Where else do you get on-the-fly, color-coded subtitle gloss? You don't get any closer to a scholarly reading of a samurai film than AnimEigo, forget about it.

So yeah, read my review, buy this disk, and shut the fuck up (oops, did I type that or only think it?). Standards are eroding all over the place -- like Frank Zappa once said, "Either you get it or you don't." Here's hoping you do. More on the AnimEigo release here.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Nikkatsu Erotic FIlms Collection Vol. 1 & 2

The folks over at Synapse Films/Impulse Pictures are celebrating Nikkatsu Studios' 100th anniversary by releasing what they are calling The Nikkatsu Erotic Films Collection. They were nice enough to send me the first two volumes, Debauchery (1983) and True Story of a Woman in Jail: Sex Hell (1975). As some of my readers may know, Nikkatsu, Japan's oldest movie studio, made a business decision in 1971 to all but abandon traditional filmmaking for what they speculated would be a much more lucrative proposition: softcore pornography. They called it Romantic Pornography (Roman Porno for short), and, as planned, it was a big hit, despite a total lack of visible genitalia or even pubic hair. This is down to Japanese filmmakers' endless creativity when it came to depicting sexual activity -- it's amazing how hot a sex scene can be without ever seeing anyone's privates! Plus an effort was made to class things up with compelling storylines, decent acting and high production values.

Debauchery is the more intense of the two films on offer, due in part to when it was released; the advent of VHS and availability of more explicit fare meant Nikkatsu had to raise its game, content-wise. The film runs just 70 minutes, and 69 of them are sex scenes (well, that's an exaggeration, but not by much ... ). The premise looks to be taken from the Luis Bunuel film Belle de Jour (1967), in which a bored, affluent housewife decides to work part time as a prostitute. In the case of Debauchery, the woman in question (played by the lovely Ryoko Watanabe) gets way more than she bargained for, particularly in the realm of kink -- B&D, S&M, whips, belts, beads, the humiliation and degradation mounts until she's finally walked on all fours on a leash down an alley, only to be given over to a bunch of dirty bums. Distasteful? Yeah. But well made, enough so to hold my interest. If kinky Japanese sex hijinks is your thing, you can't go far wrong here.

As for Sex Hell, as you can guess by the extended title, it's a Women in Prison picture, and fairly decent as far as this genre goes. There's a lot more story and character development here as well as plenty of lurid sex. Unfortunately most of the women aren't very good looking, plus I'm not a real big fan of WIP flicks (with the exception of the Female Convict Scorpion series starring Meiko Kaji). That said, if you are, you'll probably enjoy this entry in the genre.

These two films street on April 10 and hopefully more will be released before the eventual demise of the DVD format (get those disks while you can, collectors!). Actually, I just checked and there's a third title (more info here). With all the garbage coming out of Hollywood these days, a nice Roman Porno could be an exciting change of pace. If you've never seen one, now's your chance!

Friday, March 9, 2012

Triad Trilogy

Lam Suet, Nick Cheung, Simon Yam, Louis Koo, Eddie Cheung, Gordon Lam
This DVD contains three films: Election, Triad Election, and Triad Underworld. Trilogies are popular, so I understand Palisades Tartan's marketing strategy here. Add the whole triad thing, and it's oh so very clever. However, while this disk offers much and is a great value for the price, it's not a proper trilogy. You get two great Johnnie To films and one not-so-great gangster flick whose title sounds like a Johnnie To film. So, in fact, with all the talk of triads and trilogies, three ain't the magic number here. We're talking twofer.

Let's dispatch the bad egg first. Director Wong Ching-po is no Johnnie To, and Triad Underworld (2004) is far from being in the same league as the other two films on offer here. Underworld wants for subtlety or style, the music is awful, the cinematography is grainy (looks like they shot it in 16 mm and blew it up) and the narrative tone moves queasily between sappy sentimentalism and ham-fisted violence. It's not that Wong doesn't try; there's a tense scene between two gangsters that employs the old Vertigo-style dolly zoom to enhance the tension (probably picked up from that scene in Goodfellas), and the twist ending is somewhat creative (but ultimately unnecessary -- it plays like a whimsical afterthought).

Underworld Triad's greatest strength is its cast. The great Andy Lau (Infernal Affairs, House of Flying Daggers) plays triad kingpin Hung with his usual easy good looks and easy manner; Jacky Cheung is his loyal (?) lieutenant Lefty (lost a hand in service to his bro); Edison Chen and Shawn Yue play Turbo and Yik, two handsome young losers desperate to become gangland up-and-comers; HK film stalwarts Norman Chu and Eric Tsang appear in small roles as rival gang bosses; we even get XXL character actor Lam Suet in a tiny role as an abusive cop (his roles would grow throughout the 2000s).

Election (2005) is a completely different animal, an excellent film that won scads of awards (four Hong Kong Film Awards, 2 Golden Horse Awards, 2 Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards, etc.) placing Johnnie To squarely in the big leagues. It stars Simon Yam (Dr. Lamb, Triangle, PTU, Exiled) and Tony Leung (not the Tony Leung from Infernal Affairs -- that's Tony Leung Chiu Wai -- this is Tony Leung Ka Fai) as two gangsters vying for the coveted position of chairman of the Wo Sing triad. Lok (Lam) is even-tempered, serene almost, but Big D (Leung) is a violent hothead. So when Lam is elected chairman, Leung doesn't take it well and threatens a gang war. A desperate scramble ensues to secure the 100-year-old baton that symbolizes the power of the chairman -- whoever gets a hold of it can claim the post. The hunt for the baton is something of a MacGuffin quest and goes on a bit -- the only weakness of the film. Otherwise Election is an intense, engrossing crime flick from beginning to end. The ending is a jaw-dropper, to be sure. Also starring super-cool Louis Koo (Connected, Accident, Triangle), Nick Cheung (Exiled, The Beast Stalker, Connected) and Lam Suet (Exiled, Accident, PTU -- yeah, I know, there's a lot of overlap).

Triad Election (2006, aka Election 2) picks up the story two years later, just in time for another election. Our man Lok doesn't want to give up the position and is prepared to kill to keep it (more than prepared, in fact … ). However the favorite is his lieutenant Jimmy (Louis Koo), although Jimmy himself wants out -- he's keen to be a businessman in China. But get this: In order to secure the rights to do business in China, he has to be a triad chairman (go figure). Now he's forced to do all sorts of nasty shit to get to the top of the heap, the last thing he really wants. At one point, in order to intimidate a group of rival henchmen, he kills one, chops him up, grinds the meat and feeds it to vicious dogs in front of them. Talk about commitment!

Triad Election raises the stakes in terms of action, violence and treachery. Johnnie To was clearly trying to top Election, and its successor is definitely the stronger and tighter of the two films. I saw Triad Election years ago but hadn't seen its predecessor, so many moments of dramatic irony were lost on me. Seeing it again, and hard upon Election, improved my film experience immeasurably. Viewing the two films back to back is the best, and a good reason to get this disk. Nevermind Underworld Triad, you can skip it -- or, if you've got 82 minutes to kill and nothing better to do, check it out. But it's the To films that are really the gems here, and not to be missed!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Love Will Tear Us Apart

Next week the Japan Society is presenting the 6th Globus Film Series of edgy Asian film irresistibly titled Love Will Tear Us Apart (no, nothing to do with New Order). Runs from March 2 to 18, showing 22 feature films and 2 shorts. The Japan Society describes the offering as "a series of twisted, obsessive, heart-blazing love stories from Japan and Korea." Be sure to catch Shinya Tsukamoto's latest, Kotoko (2011) as well as his A Snake of June (2003) and Vital (2004). Also featured are Hirokazu Kore-eda's Air Doll (2009), Kim Ki-duk's Bad Guy (2002), Hideo Nakata's Chaos (2000) and Nagisa Oshima's castration classic In the Realm of the Senses (1976), all highly recommended.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Sword of Desperation

Animeigo sent me a very cool contemporary samurai film, Sword of Desperation (2010). It plays like a combo of old school and new -- think Twilight Samurai (2003) meets Destiny's Son (1962); all the gentle realism of the former fused with the genre conventions and deep Zen of the latter. Quite a heady mix, really.

Meet Sanzaemon Kanemi. He's a samurai retainer who kicks things off by running his wakizashi through the heart of his lord's favorite consort. Now normally that would be it for our Sanzaemon, but for some reason the lord spares his life, letting him off with a year's house arrest and a reduction in his annual rice stipend. Why did Sanzaemon do it? And why was he left with his head still fastened to his neck? All will be revealed, but slowly, delicately, oh so gradually, like the unfolding of a lotus blossom.

I mentioned that Sword of Desperation reminded me of Twilight Samurai. This is probably due to the fact that the novel its based on was penned by the same author, Shohei Fujisawa. Like the other films in the Yoji Yamada-directed sorta-trilogy, the central character here is a decent man, expert swordsman (of course), and is eventually placed in an impossible position with only his sword to help him. What I appreciated about this picture above the Yamada films was the blood; the arterial spray in Sword of Desperation is truly awesome. Think vintage Gosha meets that unforgettable scene in Sanjuro. The film takes such pains to present immaculate tatami interiors that when the blood finally starts flowing, the contrast is truly shocking. (I've often thought the Japanese must have a meticulous, time-honored technique for cleaning blood stains, what with all the sword-weilding that used to go on.)

So there you have it, another great samurai film, rich and rare and oh so very steeped in bushido. Savor it.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Coast Guard

I can definitely say this film was not what I was expecting. This is due in part to the fact that, as you can see below, the box art features fighter planes and an exploding battle ship, none of which appears in the film. What I got instead, however, was much more interesting than your standard war film. I got a WTF? Where is this going-type affair that nevertheless held me gripped all the way to the end credits. Then I remembered it was a Kim Ki-duk film, and everything fell into place.

Jang Dong-gun (Friend, Tae Guk Gi, and, more recently The Warrior's Way and My Way), plays Kang Han-chul, a gung-ho 1st private stationed at a South Korean army base assigned to watching the coastline near the 38th parallel. Private Kang is clearly wrapped too tight and a little too eager to shoot that North Korean spy he's sure will be showing up on the beach any night now. When he mistakenly blows away a townie in flagrante, it sets off a chain reaction of escalating events that lead to murder, scandal, insanity and revenge.

Jang Dong-gun is excellent as the ever-more unhinged Private Kang. It's an amazing performance, probably the most intense I've ever seen from him. Perhaps Kim Ki-duk brought it out, or maybe it was the material. In any case, you owe it to yourself to see this picture if you have any interest in either superstar Jang or cult king Kim (or, if you're like me, both). You can read more about Kim Ki-duk in my book Asia Shock.

As film scholar Rowena Santos Aquino points out in this great profile of Kim, Private Kang is less a character than a force of nature not unlike the enigmatic bait & tackle vendor/prostitute Hee-jin in The Isle (2000) or the bad guy pimp Han-ki in Bad Guy (2001). Also in common with The Isle is a certain measure of fish abuse (although not as bad).

Kim made The Coast Guard back in 2002, so it's been a long time coming to disk here in the States. It streets today, in fact, released by Palisades Tartan in a handy blu-ray/DVD combo pack. Like most of Kim's work, it's a powerful picture whose impact continues long after the final frame. One for the collection, I'd say.