Suicide Club

After I first got into J-Horror, and Asian Cinema in general, I began to compile lists of all the must see movies. Buying those lovely Tartan Asia Extreme DVDs by the basket load helped, as each came with a bunch of trailers for related films or ‘titles coming soon’. Suicide Club grabbed my eye fairly early on – how could it not, what with its amusingly macabre premise, trailer and synopsis? Who wouldn’t want to watch a film which opens with a bunch of school-girls throwing themselves under the wheels of a train? Idiots, that’s who!

The film uses shock value to get punters into seats and to appease the sort of weirdos like me who would choose to watch something like this, but shock value is not at the centre of the story. There’s a lot more to Suicide Club, but it struggles to fit in any niche. While the film does begin with some out of place music playing over the scenes of the train approaching, the girls holding hands, and the girls jumping, the hilarious blood effects are over the top enough to make you assume it’s some ridiculous comedy. Then it becomes a detective mystery. Then it becomes a horror. Then it becomes a satire before finally going completely off the rails (pardon the pun). It’s a film which I can only imagine doesn’t know what it wants to be, and none of the things it tries to be are pulled off very well. There is little weight put onto the subject of suicide, the satire directed at the subject of cults isn’t particularly pointed, and the mystery is so convoluted as to never be adequately understood. If anything it’s the early moments which work best – before you really know anything and your imagination is left to fill in the blanks. These take place in some sort of hospital where the tension is racked admirably high thanks to an open window, a couple of nurses, and a night watchman. It was in these moments that the slow pace and bizarre twists conspired to make me believe that a long-haired ghost was going to pop out.

Unfortunately these scenes soon give way as we meet the cops tasked with working out what the hell is going on and why all these people are killing themselves. What’s tying the victims together? Are they even victims in the first place? Who’s the creepy kid who keeps phoning the cops and offering philosophical vagueries? What’s with the sports bag left at the scenes of death? Is the pop group significant? Who is going to be next? You’ll be asking yourself these questions as much as the characters are – Sion Sono seems to finding his feet as a director as much as anything – playing with expectation but in the end abandoning a coherent story with involving characters for a spattering of themes and violence which only loosely ties together. The film will certainly stay with you, and may be more rewarding with a second viewing, but the director has since gone on to make vastly more essential films.

Let us know in the comments what you thought of Suicide Club!

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Visitor Q

*Review from 2004

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This must rank with Dead or Alive (1-3), and The Happiness of the Katakuris as one of Miike’s most weird, and along with Audition as one of his best. Thanks to the Tartan DVD distributors once again, as no-one else would have the bravery or intelligence to release such fantastic films as these.

The thinking behind Visitor Q involved a company called CineRocket who made 6 films with the COMBINED budget of under £400,000! Miike’s Visitor Q is the final part of the non-connecting series, and according to critic Chris Campion the only rules he had to follow were ‘that it had to be shot on digital video and deal with the theme of pure love’. It is probably true that most viewers of this film will find it sickening, insane, and depraved while having no involvement of love, pure or otherwise. However, it is the lactation of the mother which, in a way brings the family together in love for each other, while before there had only been coldness and isolation. Apparently the act of breast-feeding releases oxytocin in the body, an addictive hormone sometimes called the ‘hormone of love’ (Campion again). Therefore Miike shows love in its purest form.

The film, like so many other Miike features deals with the family, both looking at it as a whole, and looking at the individuals within it. The father is a reporter, shamed by one of his past pieces of work which saw him anally abused by a group of kids. He is searching for a way to boost ratings, to keep his mistress happy, and perhaps redeem himself. He decides to make a film about the youth of Japan and when he decides to get a young prostitute to interview he is surprised to find that it is his daughter who recently ran away from home. One thing leads to another, and almost the first 10 minutes of the film involves Kiyoshi and his daughter in a bed. Questions are asked- ‘Have you ever slept with your daughter? Have you ever been hit on the head? Have you ever hit your mother?’ Kiyoshi is struck on the head by a mysterious young man who then ends up in Kiyoshi’s house. We meet his wife, a heroine addict who is constantly physically abused by their son, who is constantly bullied by other kids. The mysterious Visitor begins to get involved with the family, and when Kiyoshi decides to make a film about the bullying of a son (his) from a father’s perspective, the visitor helps, doing some of the camera-work. He does not seem moved in any way by the violence around him, but he manages to teach each member a lesson which brings them together, apparently against the world. He shows the mother how to lactate which proves to her that she is a normal woman, which completely rejuvenates her. Kiyoshi continues to make his film – we see more violence, death, rape, drugs, necrophilia etc etc. It all becomes completely absurd and hilarious, but the narrative never falls apart and by the end we have been completely sucked in.

Filmed on digital, Miike proves to be a master of the format even with his first attempt. If you get past the first 15 or 20 minutes the film will become less revolting, but no less shocking, and you will find yourself laughing uncontrollably with everything happening. Every scene breaks a taboo or shows something new. The story is interesting throughout, each performance is excellent considering the amount of nudity and the content, the scenes of violence, drugs, and sex all look flawlessly real, and we cannot look away. Of course, most people in the West will never see this film, and many that do may switch off before getting to the end because it is extreme. If you cannot handle extreme films, then stay away. Also, Koji Endo provides another excellent score, the final song-‘Bubble of Water’ by Real Time is perfect for the conclusion ensuring that those final scenes will stick in your head for a long time. If you are a fan of Miike, Japanese film, or extreme movies in general, put this at the top of your list. Unmissable.

Let us know in the comments if you have seen Visitor Q or any other Miike films and what you thought!

Ju On – White Ghost

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It has been quite some time since I first watched The Grudge and loved every second of it. Since then I watched the original Japanese TV movies (which The Grudge is a sequel of even though it seems like a remake) and the director Takashi Shimizu’s own US remake. I haven’t actually watched the US The Grudge 2 (also directed by Shimizu) and US The Grudge 3 (not Shimizu) partly due to bad reviews and partly due to Part 3 sounding like a straight to video mess. And of course partly because I was burned out on J Horror by that time. Black Ghost and White Ghost had been popping up on my Amazon Prime Viewer for quite some time but I’d avoided them as they sounded like even worse straight to video cash ins, but I finally relented and gave them a shot. Made to honour the 10th Anniversary of the series, these are two stories which deviate from the main plot of the main series, but are they any good!?

White Ghost, like it’s partner and predecessors has a labyrinthine plot which unravels in a deliberately non-linear fashion – events at the start of the film may happen weeks or months after events shown at the end, and vice versa, and more than that there appear to be certain elements which transcend time – echos of events which have not yet occurred. The story follows a group of characters who come into contact with a curse – a man murders his family, an old friend investigates, and several randomers are drawn into the pit. As I said in my review for Black Ghost, it is definitely worth watching each movie twice to appreciate the finer points and attempt to bring together a timeline in your head. Ironically, I fond this plot even more dense than Black Ghost but it appears to be handled more professionally. There is a lot of leaping about from time to time to character to place and back again, but it is engrossing.

There is some fairly dark stuff at work here – the murders and the curse of course, but an unsettling lump of incest, pedophilia, and suicide, none of which are shied away from. It’s unusual for a film in the Ju On universe to dwell much on the events which kicked everything off – mostly it’s shown in brief flashbacks, but here we are front row witnesses to the slaughter. This one is less atmospheric than Black Ghost, but still has plenty of tension and has more jump scares. The actual character of the White Ghost is not on par with Kayako, but her appearances rarely fail to scare to the point that you are dreading her next pop up. A few of these moments don’t quite work, and end up being almost funny, but for the most part the scares are particularly effective. That strange shimmering effect I mentioned in the other review is present here too. Again the performances are good, the soundtrack works well, and there is a grimy worn out look to proceedings. I watched Black Ghost first, but the stories don’t link together in any way so feel free to pick whichever you wish. BG has the atmosphere, WG has the bulk of the scares, but both are well worth a go for J-Horror fans.

So, who would I recommend this to? Grudge fans obviously, first and foremost. This doesn’t fill in any gaps from the main series or provide any resolution, rather it seems to be a similar story set in the same universe. There isn’t enough time to form much attachment to the characters, the plot is convoluted and non-linear, and the scares don’t offer anything new. With all that said, I enjoyed it, I was a little scared in places, and the idea still intrigues me as much as the execution. You won’t lose much by sacrificing an hour – so if you find this on streaming, give it a shot.

Let us know in the comments what you thought of White Ghost and how it compares to Black Ghost and the other movies in The Grudge franchise.

Ju On: Black Ghost

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It has been quite some time since I first watched The Grudge and loved every second of it. Since then I watched the original Japanese TV movies (which The Grudge is a sequel of even though it seems like a remake) and the director Takashi Shimizu’s own US remake. I haven’t actually watched the US The Grudge 2 (also directed by Shimizu) and US The Grudge 3 (not Shimizu) partly due to bad reviews and partly due to Part 3 sounding like a straight to video mess. And of course partly because I was burned out on J Horror by that time. Black Ghost and White Ghost had been popping up on my Amazon Prime Viewer for quite some time but I’d avoided them as they sounded like even worse straight to video cash ins, but I finally relented and gave them a shot. Made to honour the 10th Anniversary of the series, these are two stories which deviate from the main plot of the main series, but are they any good!?

Black Ghost focuses on a young girl who has some sort of seizure and ends up in hospital. Her mum and dad have marital problems and the nurse looking after the girl begins to see, hear, and experience spooky things. In the grand Ju On tradition, this is only one piece of the puzzle and the film is split into interweaving chapters centering on a specific character. Each chapter may only be a few minutes long, generally less than 10, and as the movie progresses the overlapping becomes more pronounced. What does and will continue to put viewers off the series is its unwillingness to assist the viewer through the non-linear narrative; there is no Present Day marker, followed by 2 Months Earlier or any indication of date – the story jumps around and the clock keeps ticking, leaving it up to the viewer to work out the true sequence of events. Indeed, there may not be one true sequence as we have seen in the main stream of films that time itself is a loose notion and the sound of a dying character may be heard an investigated by that same character hours, days, or weeks before it actually happens. This lends a certain replay value to the movies – it is confusing and disorienting first time around, but a second watch smooths a lot of the edges while also serving to immerse you even more fully in a plot which doesn’t try or need to make sense – death is coming and there is no escape.

Discussion of plot aside, most will want to know if the film is scary. This sort of thing is subjective, but if you were creeped out by the originals then I don’t see why you wouldn’t at the least find unsettling moments here. The series has always relied on jump scares and atmosphere and we get both of these in the opening moments thanks to a school kid and a window. Black Ghost is more atmosphere heavy than laden with jump scares – cameras straining at some shadow just around the corner, something moving under a blanket or behind a curtain, and of course a soundtrack of gurgles, cries, and death rattles. The old familiar sound returns and while it still chills the bones, it doesn’t have the same impact without Kayako clawing her way towards the screen. In essence it is a retreading of the same old scares, but they are still effective especially if you are susceptible to such things, as I am. Adding to this atmosphere are a couple of notable additions – the performances are all strong, real, which is important given the actors don’t have a lot of screen time, though an argument could be made for there being too many characters for such a short running time. Finally there is a strange effect or glitch on screen in certain scenes; I assume this was not a fault of my streaming but a deliberate choice similar to the film glitches in The Ring. In some scenes there was a weird wavering around the edges of the frame akin to a mirage or some atmospheric refraction. That’s the best way I can describe unfortunately, a shaking around the edges as if something was trying to break through into our reality – there wasn’t any consistency which I could pick out – I assume it was added to make things more ominous or warn of an upcoming scare, but sometimes it happened when two characters were talking – no scare or sense of tension. oh yes, there is one truly excellent make-up/special effect towards the end.

So, who would I recommend this to? Grudge fans obviously, first and foremost. This doesn’t fill in any gaps from the main series or provide any resolution, rather it seems to be a similar story set in the same universe. There isn’t enough time to form much attachment to the characters, the plot is convoluted and non-linear, and the scares don’t offer anything new. With all that said, I enjoyed it, I was a little scared in places, and the idea still intrigues me as much as the execution. You won’t lose much by sacrificing an hour – so if you find this on streaming, give it a shot.

Outrage

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There can be little argument against Kitano being one of the finest Japanese directors since the 1980s, having made a number of genuine classics. With Outrage he’s back on familiar territory, telling a story of jealous, tired Yakuza, and the lengths they will go to to remain in power, if not retain their honour.

Lets get the good stuff out of the way – Kitano knows how to shoot a film, he has his own cinematic style, and he has a penchant for explosive violence. Outrage was supposed to be a return to a more familiar style for Kitano and an attempt to regain some of his greatest successes, but it falls short. The story is one we have seen too many times and there is nothing unique in the plot or action. Kitano himself is not the central character, but rather one of several Yakuza main men who are dealing with the needlessly complex developments in what is essentially a simple story. Kitano as a performer is even more laid back than usual, the rest of the cast are fine without having any standouts. The film was well enough received to inspire a sequel which I have not yet seen, along with plans for a third.

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I would recommend this to fans of Kitano, but as a starting place for anyone interested in his work I would say that you should leave this one until you are more familiar with his earlier movies. As an introduction to Yakuza movies you could give it a shot, but it may be too dense and distant to fully understand the genre.

Let us know in the comments where you rank Outrage along with Kitano’s other movies!

Sukiyaki Western Django

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A muddled and often confused Miike effort, this nevertheless entertains and freaks out in equal measures. With admirable action pieces, plenty of humour, some decent cameos, the film is never subtle, is always excessive in every sense, and is about twenty minutes too long.

Featuring an almost all-Japanese cast speaking almost entirely in English, this feels like another experiment by Miike but unlike those which have succeeded this one is a bit of a stretch. The film does look great, and sound great, seeking to emulate and reverently spoof Spaghetti Westerns and Martial Arts epics. This is supposedly loosely based on historic events, but the plot feels an awful lot like Yojimbo, with a lone gunman riding into a solitary town broken by two warring clans. As the film progresses we learn more about the gunman’s reasons for being there, and learn a little of the history and hatred between the clans, but the central relationship is between the gunman, Ruriko, and her mute grandson. They provide the film’s emotional core and while the characters always feel distant and are never fully realised, there is a surprising amount of emotion in the movie once the killings start. There are laughs caused by outlandish action and violence, plenty of unintentional humour, and a Quentin Tarantino cameo.

I would struggle to recommend this one to anyone who isn’t a Miike fan – maybe uber-Tarantino fans will get a kick out of it, but from an action perspective there isn’t anything here you won’t have seen. The plot is needlessly complicated, there are perhaps too many characters, and it all has that Miike charm which you will either love or hate. It is stylish, looks a treat, and is a unique package. Still, I enjoyed it more than I expected and if you don’t mind a trip down a very weird avenue you might too.

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Have you seen Sukiyaki Western Django? Do you think it is one of Miike’s best? Let us know in the comments!

Still Walking

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Like many others, I am an Otaku horror nerd; I love everything horror, and I love everything Japan, and have for as long as I can remember. Between bouts of decapitation and and viscera I like to slow things, and if there is a people who know a thing or two about slow paced dramas, it’s the Japanese. Still Walking, even in its title, suggests a leisurely pace and features all of the poignant, emotive, and thought-provoking moments I look for to cleanse myself of the darkness which I have bore witness to.

Directed by Hirokazu Koreeda, one of Japan’s most famous and respected directors of his generation, Still Walking is a ruminating drama on family, aging, life, and death. The story is set almost entirely in a single house over the course of roughly 24 hours as three generations of a family meet to commemorate the death of one of their own, fifteen years earlier. I was expecting the film to center on one character or specific set, but Koreeda avoids this and instead shows how each person present has coped over the time since the death and how their lives have been changed.

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The parents of the son who died are symbolic of how Westerners would view some elements of Japanese society – they don’t show their emotions often and instead prefer to withdraw from discussions about grief and possible arguments. It is particularly the father, played by Yoshio Harada, who clearly harbors ill feelings and guilt but cannot vocalize them while his wife (Kirin Kiki) seems more keen to remember the good times. Their remaining son (Hiroshi Abe) has unresolved feelings of anger as he feels he has always been rated second best versus the brother, both when he was alive and even more now he is dead – he didn’t follow in his father’s footsteps and become a local doctor. He dreads attending these events as he doesn’t want to be there and feels his parents resent the fact that he lived when his brother died – and the drama is increased by the fact that he has married a widow (who has her own son). Naturally, this causes tension for the mother and father. On the flip side we have the sister (played by You – Ehika Yukiko and her extraordinary voice) and her husband and children who offer a comedic and neutral ground. Throughout all this the metaphor of walking and progression is prevalent – the father always walks round the town every day, even though he is getting slower and more reluctant, the mother always takes the long and brutally steep walk to her son’s grave, and the other characters continue to carry and cope with their respective burdens – what else can you do?

This isn’t the easiest film to review as I can either give more paragraphs outlining plot, yet there isn’t much to say of the plot aside from what is given above. The performances all feel genuine and the direction veers between claustrophobic and freeing when necessary – we get both interior and exterior shots of the cramped conditions the family live and talk in, and there is a visual and tonal difference between the conversations about the negative and harsh stuff versus those more pleasant, happy, or sad memories – the tense speeches usually in a car or a cramped room, and escaping or resolving those by stepping out into the world. The film doesn’t sound exciting on paper, but it does weave an unusual spell over the viewer – perhaps it’s because all of us have encountered feelings or situations like this in the past, or on a regular basis, perhaps it’s a combination of the performances, Koreeda’s skill, and how lovely the film looks. If you are familiar with the director’s work or have been looking for a place to start, if you are at all interested in Japanese film or culture, or if you simply want a break from action, gore, convoluted plots, and gritty blockbusters, give Still Walking a chance.

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Have you seen Still Walking – how does it rate alongside Koreeda’s other work? Let us know in the comments!

Frommers – Japan Day By Day

*Review originally written in 2012 based on a free copy provided by Amazon – Buy it here
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If you’ve ever owned or browsed a Frommer’s Day By Day guide before (or indeed any of the similar publications from Lonely Planet, Time Out et al) then you’ll know what to expect here- an informative, highly detailed, highly useful guide split into a myriad of sections with plenty of imaginative tips, photographs and ideas for any type of traveler from conservative to seasoned, from expensive to cheap. As to expected from a guide like this, the writing can hardly be called entertaining, but is fluid and usable for when you decide or need to dip in to any particular topic. What does stand out though is the focus on local knowledge translated over for those who need to know- the writers obviously know Japan and have a good idea about what the reader/user may want.
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Content-wise we have the usual introduction and sections on accommodation, tourist hotspots, dining, museums, travel tips etc etc, as well as some more unusual selections, but what has always been the highlight of the Frommer’s Day by Day series are the Day By Day areas- ready-made plans for either those travelers who (critically) don’t want to think outside the box or (realistically) want to see as much as possible in one particular day. These are well thought out and are the focal point of the guide rather than something tacked on like many other guides and range from ‘Best Of Japan in 1 (or 2 weeks)’ to ‘Best of Tokyo in 1 (or 2, 3) day (s)’. There are also chapters on the major towns, sights, culture and most of these come with a single page map showcasing the area and the nearest subway station. In addition to this we get an extremely handy (though hardly comprehensive) pull-out map of Japan, with the central areas of Tokyo and Kyoto on the other side. I would advise bringing a map of any area you plan on visiting before getting there if possible because although Japan is fairly easy to get around, it can be very overwhelming.
Thanks to a friendly layout, high budget glossy finish, and the knowledge of the writers this is arguably the best guide on Japan on the market though some may find it too large to carry around all day or off-putting due to the scale of content. My advice would be to use this is a guide to create your own ideas and plans, scribble some notes, leave this at the hotel, and take off on your own!

TTT – Akira Kurosawa

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Greetings, Glancers! It’s been a while since my last Top Ten Tuesday list, so why not kick it off once more by looking at my 10 favourite films by The Master. Akira Kurosawa is frequently cited by anyone with even a passing interest in cinema as one of the greates directors of all time. His influence is seen in most movies today, from a technical point of view, from a storytelling standpoint, and simply because his sheer bulk of work made the likes of Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese, Fellini etc start making movies. His working has a lasting impact on Japanese Cinema and Western movie makers have taken his ideas and either remade them or added their own touches. There will be quite a few films not making this list as the quality and breadth of his work is stunning, but this is as good a place to start if you are interested in getting into Kurosawa.

10. Kagemusha

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We start with a latter day Kurosawa epic charting the downfall of one particular clan and their attempts to trick those they are warring with by replacing their dead leader with a thief who happens to look like him. Amidst the massive battle scenes we have the old questions of loyalty and honour coming back again again as the thief first only cares about himself but over time sees himself as a de facto leader and member of the clan. It’s that blending of the personal drama offset against the massive scope of warring armies all shot with Kurosawa’s flawless eye for detail which sets Kagemusha apart from the lay man’s epic.

9. Ran

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Continuing with the epic, perhaps Kurosawa’s biggest and most ambitious film, Ran may be the most beautifully shot piece the director created. In many ways it feels more like a Western movie than any other one Kurosawa shot, with a memorable score, vibrant colours, and a bleak and depressing outlook. A gorgeous film to look at, it is a tough watch due to the fact that almost every character is either ruthlessly self-interested or doomed to a needless death. It’s sad to note that at his age at the time of filming Kurosawa was viewing the world with such futility and fatalism, especially considering the heroism and hope in his previous works.

8. The Hidden Fortress

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A rip-roaring old school action movie with samurai fights, scheming, and plenty of laughs. You have the group journey of four characters, each individually has their own plot and life, and they additionally can be split into groups of two – a road movie without cars or spaceships where the quest for gold and honour clash and combine. Like other films on the list, this is a good one to surprise people with when they believe that old black and white or foreign movies can’t possibly be entertaining.

7. Stray Dog

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On the cusp of greater success, both Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune made this noir detective thriller which stands out for most people as their finest non-Samurai work. Both borrowing from the US hard-boiled works of the 1940s and in turn adding a style which would be later adopted by the West, it is notable for the great rapport and performances of Mifune and Shimura. Both leads basically invent a thousand tropes as the hotshot rookie and weary veteran team up to chase Mifune’s missing gun around Tokyo as it continues to be used in increasingly barbaric crimes. Another wonderfully shot and well-paced movie

6. Sanjuro

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The partner to Yojimbo is perhaps the more entertaining film due its overall lightness. Mifune returns as the ‘unnamed’ Ronin who has a knack for appearing in the right/wrong place and the wrong/right time and using his wiles and considerable sword skills to sort out the rights/wrongs of a town. There is plenty of violent action here and a surprising amount of laughs, at least for me.

5. Rashomon

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The first true masterwork of Kurosawa’s career, this is a small piece utilizing the immense skill of a talented cast and crew. Most of the crew lived together throughout the shoot to create a sense of family and a one direction purpose to make something as good as it could possibly be. With experimental shots and storytelling techniques, an ambiguous plot, superb performances, rain, silence, light, Rashomon is one which continues to impress and is one of those films which all students of film should watch to vastly increase their knowledge and appreciation.

4. Ikiru

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A motivating tale, one of hope and laughs, of the difference between youth and old age and the impact one can have on the other, also a satire of the working life, of bureacracy, and a discussion on the anonymity and powerlessness we can feel being a cog in the wheel – all topped off with the message that we can each make a difference and overcome the odds and the uncaring world.

3. Yojimbo

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The more influential and more fondly remembered partner of Sanjuro sees Kurosawa and Mifune create an action hero archetype which remains to this day – the nameless wanderer, the anti-hero, the loner in search for person glory, the mysterious stranger. Forming the basis for Leone’s A Fistful Of Dollars, Mifune is masterful as the wily, fearless, and skilled unnamed ronin who visits a town under the thrall of two warring clans. He conspires with each group, turning them against each other for his own ends and to rid the innocents caught in the midst of the struggle of these gangsters. Even though Kurosawa was influenced by Western Literature in crafting the story, it is the style, tone, and look of his film which had Western filmmakers trying to emulate – the wide shots featuring a lone warrior in the distance, the wry humour, the lack of dialogue from the main character, the violence both on screen and implied – the dog carrying the severed hands in the opening moments telling us the town’s history without needing to hear about it.

2. Throne Of Blood

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One of Kurosawa’s lesser known films, and one of his most direct adaptations, this retelling of Macbeth remains the creepiest version yet committed to film and is perhaps still the closest at getting to the root of the lust for power and the stain of madness which ruins anyone who comes into contact with it. Again Toshiro Mifune leads the way with perhaps his finest performance as the tortured Taketoki Washizu, together with an absolutely terrifying Izuzu Yamada as his Lady Macbeth. We follow the loose plot of a mysterious force whispering honeyed prophecies into the ear of an ambitious warrior, a scheming wife eager for glory and power coaxing a husband into doing what must never be done, and the inevitable downfall – that sense of inevitability pervades every shot, with fog closing in, with shadows growing and becoming denser, until a rain of arrows courses down. The use of Noh imagery is suitable for the plot and adds another layer of mystery and unease for Western audiences, destined to be haunted by the vision of Yamada’s grinning death-mask like face. The climax is still among the most thrilling in movie history and that last arrow is still brutal and shocking.

1. The Seven Samurai.

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I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I believe that the best films of all time must be a mixture of immediate and long-lasting critical and commercial success, be classed clearly as both entertainment and art, be influential on a number of levels both technical and otherwise, and retain ‘watchability’ for a wide audience over the decades. I’ve said before that I believe the best four films of all time which fit this criteria are Vertigo, The Godfather, Star Wars Episode IV, and The Seven Samurai. Its influence on multiple genres from action to drama is clear and it’s as entertaining and engaging today as when I first saw it – presumably it’s just as good as it was upon release. Its influence on filmmakers cannot be understated. It is Kurosawa’s signature film and whether or not you feel it is his best is a testament to his skills. At almost three and a half hours it is Kurosawa’s longest movie, but it flies by like a 90 minute movie. With a large cast we somehow manage to feel empathy and sympathy for all of them, we engage with them and love them, and feel a sense of loss when they fall. The plot on the surface is simple – a village abused by bandits recruits seven warriors to protect them, but the interactions between characters gives a snapshot of life like few films come close to achieving. Modern viewers should not be put off by the length, or the age, or the subtitles – if you watch it for the first time today, you won’t see anything better this year.

What are your favourite Kurosawa films – which ones are missing from my list? How do you convince friends to watch a fifty year old Japanese film? Let us know in the comments!

Sh*t I Watch – 35-sai no Koukousei (35歳の高校生) Back To School At 35

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Greetings, Glancers! It’s time for something a little different in the Sh*t I Watch/Used To Watch series as I talk about my love for the first J-Drama I’ve ever really watched. No Dropping Out – Back To School At 35 is as literal a title as you could imagine, as we follow a 35 year old woman who goes back to high school. Her reasons for doing this are briefly explored in the first episode, but her motives and her history are shrouded in mystery and it is only with each subsequent episode that we get a few tantalizing glimpses into why she does the things she does.

But before all that, why did I (and why should you) decide to watch this? As with anything, we’ll need to wander back down memory lane to my childhood. I’ve always had a fascination with Japan, but really this came about thanks to an earlier love of China. In my youth I was a big martial arts fan, and would watch any movie with nunchucks, fly-kicks, Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and so on. When we went to the video store every week or so, my parents seemed pretty liberal about what we would select (as long as it didn’t seem like it would destroy us), which meant a lot of action movies, and whatever had a bad-ass cover. Man punching fist through wall? I’ll take that. Ninjas leaping around some high-tech fortress? Yoink. Anything that suggested a bloody tournament, fight to the death, or noble quest for vengeance? Mine, thank you. While all this led to plenty of ‘Don’t Try This At Home (until Mum and Dad aren’t looking)’ activities, it also gave me an appreciation for other cultures, and I was soon reading through my encyclopedias for sections about China, Hong-Kong, Japan and so on. Later I was introduced to Nintendo with my very first NES (then Gameboy, SNES etc) and I further realized that the world outside of my usual haunts, and of what I saw on terrestrial TV was much wider. Watching cartoons on TV I saw that most of the animators were Japanese. My favourite video games were Japanese. It made me wonder what else those guys could do – movies, books, TV, music. Flash-forward a decade and I was teaching myself Japanese, putting pics of the cutest Japanese actresses onto all of my DJ/CD carry cases alongside horror and heavy metal icons, and enrolling in a Japanese course at University to go alongside my major in English Literature.

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So, as briefly as possible, I’ve always had a love for Japan – starting off with entertainment and veering off into language and culture. I quickly found a number of like-minded souls who had varying degrees of appreciation for the same stuff I was into – some people loved the movies, some were obsessed with anime and/or manga, others with EVERYTHING. While I would still say that movies are my favourite, with books closely behind, I never really watched a lot of Japanese Television, animated or otherwise. It seemed too difficult to find, and too time-consuming, plus there are still a lot of misconceptions and raised eyebrows when people admit in their 20s and 30s and beyond to watching Japanese cartoons (where I’m from it’s hard enough convincing people you’re not a rampaging pervert for watching ‘foreign films’ or that you’re some sort of weird flag-burning anarchist for daring to expose yourself to something outside the cultural norm). Mostly I’m good with people thinking whatever they like of me, and I’ve never had a problem being the weirdo, but still Japanese TV seemed a step too far when there was still so much in the West I wanted to watch.

The temptation is always there though, isn’t it? Some of my favourite actors and actresses are Japanese, but for many of them there was a large gap in my knowledge of them because they appeared on TV as well as movies. More and more I saw rave reviews about certain shows and they sounded exactly like the sort of thing I’d love. I kept seeing pop-ups for Crunchyroll on various pages I visited. One day, not too long ago, I gave in and decided to visit the site as it claimed I could watch for free. I began searching at random for shows I’d seen, some I’d heard of, and then for some of those actors and actresses. Lo and behold, results pages came back full. I selected a random episode and it began to play in full HD glory with subtitles. Converted. Hallelujah.

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Now, with so many shows out there I was a little overwhelmed. If you’re a regular reader here you’ll know or assume that I love lists. Before I do pretty much anything, I make a list. I started googling for best anime, best Japanese TV shows, best Japanese horror TV etc etc. While I was doing this, I happened to catch one show while randomly scrolling through TV shows – a screenshot of your typical Westerner’s expectation – a hot Japanese woman in a school uniform. Being a fan of lurid fantasy, I naturally clicked on the screenshot and read the blurb:

Heads turn and jaws drop as gorgeous 35-year-old Ayako Baba (Ryoko Yonekura) suddenly appears on the first day of Kunikida High. Her fabulous clothes and stunning figure set off a firestorm of speculation. Is she another one of those diva moms!? Or is she a new teacher!? Everyone is shocked beyond belief when they find out that Ayako is in fact a new student!

Before I (finally) talk about the show itself, that blurb did resonate particularly strongly with me (even though it is by no means a good description of the show). I may not be a 35 year old Japanese woman (yet) but I do have a recurring dream where I have to go back to school. I’m aware that this is your typical stress related dream – the more common one is of people dreaming that they have a big exam or test and that they’ve forgotten to study for it (even though they left school decades earlier). In mine I’m roughly my current age and for some reason me, and everyone who was in my year in school, have to return for one final year. It’s totally bizarre, yet uncommonly real – we all wear our uniforms, we all follow the same morning routine. It’s always the first day in my dream, and nothing different really happens – I saunter into the building via the side entrance I always took (I don’t even think that entrance exists anymore as the school had a massive redevelopment shortly after I left), and I always stand at the radiator near the canteen and wait for others to arrive, just like I did every morning in reality. Friends I don’t see anymore, and some that I do, slowly come in and join me and the usual chatter ensues. The dream rarely goes beyond this point, but when it does it always gets further stress related as the bell rings and I’ve no idea which class I’m supposed to go too. It’s interesting because I didn’t ever worry about stuff like that when I was in school, so why should it feature so heavily when I sleep? I’m not even sure I have anything in my life to be stressed about. Also, my sleeping mind does seem aware that time has passed and (even though I haven’t been back to school since leaving) it attempts to imagine the new rooms and corridors which have been built since the redevelopment. Discuss.

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Just another day at my former school

The show stars Ryoko Yonekura as the titular mature student. I don’t recall seeing her in anything else, but she does a damn good job here as both the weary focal point for bullies and incompetent staff, and as a sympathetic shoulder to cry on. The story opens with what appears to be the suicide of a teacher, then we get an intro which highlights the troubles of Japanese schools:

Modern high schools are degenerating into lawless wastelands. Vicious bullying. Absenteeism. Depression. Their lives completely at the mercy of the dreaded school caste system. Everyone is driven to exhaustion by playing their assigned role. These apply not only to students, but parents and teachers too. Perhaps, even to school pets in extreme cases. A cloud of darkness, impenetrable by hope. That may be the case, but that’s why we wonder what will a 35-year-old student experience in that endless void?

Ayako Baba is enlisted by a superintendent to infiltrate the school for vague and unmentioned reasons, aside from that she should see what life is really like for kids and staff in school. ‘Students these days have it really tough’ is a recurring phrase. As expected, the school members all think this is bizarre but take it in their stride and soon Baba-chan is doing her schoolwork and trying to make friends just like everyone else.

I haven’t completed the series yet (I’m over half-way), but each episode follows a roughly generic formula – something bad or unusual happens involving one of the students or teachers, and Ayako tries to resolve the problem. In doing this she makes a friends with some, makes enemies with others, and is seen as a nuisance by the faculty. Interspersed are scenes where she meets with the superintendent who appears to be giving her missions and requesting updates, as well as scenes of Ayako sitting alone in a small room, looknig through what seems to be a box of memories. For some reason these scenes make me uneasy and remind me of Audition. I don’t think that is intended – they are meant to be mysterious, but reflective.

So far the show has had some genuinely touching moments, especially when dealing with issues such as bullying and suicide. The show also has plenty of humour and lots of bizarre near breaking of the 4th wall. Certain characters are only there for exposition purposes, but it’s done in a knowing manner with nods and winks which are quite funny. I don’t know yet if this sort of thing is exclusive to the show, or a common feature of dramas. There has not been any romance yet – which is something I had used as an excuse to not watch Japanese TV – I’d heard of so many shows which seemed to just be awkward boy meets awkward girl and awkwardness ensues. If I wanted that I’d just close my eyes and remember my own past. I’ve also no idea how much of what is explored is accurate and how much is over the top. Bullying, peer pressure, cliques etc are always a part of school and suicide is something which is a serious problem in Japan and is disastrously common in my home country too. The cliques in the show are more clearly, obsessively defined than anything I personally encountered. There are three classes – top, middle, bottom basically, with each student assigned a ranking (and staff too). Those at the top are the rich and entitled, and appear to be in charge of the rankings. They essentially do what they want, make everyone else’s lives miserable, and have the teachers jumping through hoops. The middle kids are the generally regular kids just trying to do their work and get through each day, with a few aiming to please to get into the top class, and a few close to slipping further down. The lower class are the ones that everyone picks on. Somewhere however, there appears to be a headphone wearing person pulling all the strings, and they are not pleased with Ayako’s meddling.

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I have to say that I am enjoying the show so far. Maybe it’s because it’s my first, or maybe it’s because I can relate to it, but it is a well acted, generally well written, and entertaining (for me) show. I appreciate that only a little of the over-arcing story is drip fed in each episode, and I do feel like I am getting to know the characters in a short space of time. The upper class bunch seem like a sinister group of wasters, their only fun derived from inflecting suffering on others, while the other students have endearing qualities. Nana Katase is good as the gossiping teacher, while her real life (maybe) boyfriend Junpei Mizobata plays a bumbling, weak-willed but good-natured new teacher. There aren’t any bad or annoying performances.

I don’t have much more to add so far (I like the music), but from what I understand there is only 1 Season of the show, so it won’t take me long to get through the remaining episodes. It does feel like something which may get samey over a short space of time, but at the moment it’s pretty addictive. I’d recommend it if anyone is looking for a not too offbeat, not too serious look at high school life from a different perspective. If anything I’ve written sounds like it would interest you, then give it a shot – it’s on Crunchyroll and it’s free! Let us know in the comments if you’ve seen it, or if you think you’ll watch it in the future. And of course, if you have any suggestions for good TV shows, modern, old, Japanese, or otherwise, let me know!