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!