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!

Survive Style 5+

(mal)function
(mal)function

As a big Japanese and Asian movie fan in general, this movie had been on my radar for a while. I wasn’t familiar with Gen Sekiguchi but knew most of the cast and was used to other recent directors with a flair for surrealism. The reports I’d heard were innacurate as I was told this was a fairly straight movie, albeit with humour and sprinkles of madness- clearly those reporters never watched the film. More similar in style to something like Save The Green Planet than Pulp Fiction, Survival Style loosely weaves a series of vignettes with more tricks than a monkey in a box. We have a group of inept but oddly gracious thieves, a family torn apart when the father is hypnotised into thinking he is a chicken, and the strangely tragic story of a man who repeatedly kills his wife until she returns from the dead as his ‘perfect version’. These stories and more are linked by Vinnie Jones’s character- an assassin brought into Japan for his specific skills. Jones will never be a great actor but he is
usually effective in whataver role he is given. Here he plays the typical tough guy with a twist, asking his victims and people he meets what their function in life is- most of the answers send him into a murderous rage. Sekiguchi struggles to make a coherent narrative and bring it to completion, though anyone would struggle with such tales and coherence was never of great importance. Unfortunately some of the characters aren’t interesting enough to engage for the long running time, and there is too much jumping around between stories. His style is unquestionably interesting but needs to be honed a great deal before being compared with the greats. Most of the actors give strong performances, particularly from Tadanobu Asano and Japanese Oscar winner Ittoku Kishibe. The soundtrack has pumping beats and J-Punk screams with the ocassional tender moment, while most though and time seems to have gone into the sets, wardrobe, and cinematography. Praise should be given in the end for the fact that some life affirming feelings and hope are gained from these such wacky and seemingly pointless stories, and with a little more skill the director should be one to watch out for in the future.

Overall this is a decent film, not quite worthy in my opinion of four stars though a few reviewers here clearly love it. I think that with a slightly shorter running time and less frenetic plot skipping this could have been better, but I would still recommend it to fans of Asian movies, and those looking for something a little less ordinary.

(Originally written in 2010)

Favourite Japanese Films Of The Decade

Konnichi wa. Firstly, yes, I know it’s a little late, but you know what else is late? YOUR FACE.

You know, it actually took me some time to choose a film which I loved as much as the other 9 films on this list. Sure, there were some Studio Gibli flicks I could have picked, and any number of other horror films, but I wanted the films here to be more than just mere entertainment; they had to be films which affected me on a deeper level, and be the sort of film I would kill and eat your grandmother for if I thought that would help in getting another person to see it.

Enjoy your meal granny - it will be your last
Enjoy your meal, granny – it will be your last

I restricted myself to having only one film per director here, otherwise the list would have been saturated by Miike and Sono. On top of that,  as even though I watched a lot of Japanese films this decade, their early burst of quality was eventually usurped by films from other Asian countries, particularly South Korea. I may do a Top 10 Asian films Of The Decade soon, but don’t hold your breath. Seriously, you’ll probably die.

It's A Me - Dy-ing!
It’s A Me – Dy-ing!

So, without further Apu, I present my list. As always, feel free to leave your comments in the section below. Labelled COMMENTS.

10. Fish Story

Something Fishy This Way Comes
Something Fishy This Way Comes

So many Japanese filmmakers saw the success of directors like Miike and thought that they could simply make wacky, bizarre adventures and have a hit on their hands. While some of these undoubtedly succeeded, most were embarrassing and the only thing weird or quirky about them is how everyone involved didn’t do a Suicide Club train leap when they were completed. Fish Story has a funny name, sure, and you’d be forgiven for thinking this is just another zany trip into Otaku paradise. Before watching that’s pretty much what I thought. There is weirdness sure, but it all feels normal, and is played fairly straight throughout. The main strangeness comes from the unusual structure of the film – it leaps around in time, throwing you into the middle of things with a new bunch of characters without warning, tells you a quick story, and then moves on sharply. With all this leaping you would think the pacing would suffer or you would get frustrated, but astonishingly, quite the opposite is true; The movie is evenly paced, and while it revs up and slows down at points (as all films must) this all feels organic. If you pay attention throughout you can make most of the connections between characters and scenes, and the final payoff reveals all in a wonderful way, even if it isn’t necessarily surprising.

There are several standout scenes here which alone should warrant you watching it and saving your grandmother from an imminent, cannibalistic end – the punk band playing through Fish Story in the recording studio, one character channeling Neo on board a Cruise Ship, and of course, the ending which ties up the tale. The film has action, romance, great music, and those scenes at the start for some reason were creepy to me and put me on edge as I thought I had been misled and that it was, in fact, a horror movie.

9. The Twilight Samurai

It Says 'If You Read Off This Parchment, You Will Die In 7 Days'
It Says ‘If You Read Off This Parchment, You Will Die In 7 Days’

The Samurai movie hadn’t been big business for quite some time, and although the two are only distantly related, I credit the surprise success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon with causing the resurgence in Samurai movies. Directors now saw that martial arts movies could have a decent, credible plot now, which led to a host of smarter sword fighting movies, historical epics with some sword fighting thrown in to balance the drama, and eventually to films similar to The Twilight Samurai. Yamada’s quiet, introspective film has moments of beauty and humour, tragedy and warmth, telling a simple story of a reluctant, low ranking Samurai who cares more about the welfare of his senile mother and young daughters than his own appearance, stature, wealth, or self. The film is engaging thanks to a carefully thought out script, gorgeous cinematography, endearing characters, and top-notch acting. Despite a raft of awards and nominations, including being the first Japanese film in over twenty years to be nominated for a Best Foreign Film Academy Award, it’s not one that many people talk about or appear to have seen.

8. Noroi

Nope nope nope
Nope nope nope

As you will all be aware, ever since Paranormal Activity and Cloverfield, there has been a ridiculous influx of POV/documentary style horror movies. Once again, some of these have been very good (Troll Hunter) while others have not (Unmentionable low budget POV rip off#3). Noroi is interesting in two ways – first because it appeared 3 years before Cloverfield, 2 before Paranormal Activity, and second, because it appeared arguably after the J-Horror bubble had burst. That explains why no-one has seen it then. Koji Shiraishi is a vetran of the found footage genre, and with Noroi he merges deftly typical J-Horror tropes, reality TV escapades, and psychological terror to create something deeply unsettling. This is like Cannibal Holocaust for the 21st Century, but without all the raping and tortoise massacre. This has a complex structure for its sub-genre, dealing with various timeframes and people and places, all to give the impression of a true documentary or police report, although like most horror films it is a series of low burning scares leading to the terrifying conclusion.

I don’t want to give much of the story away for those of you who haven’t seen it, but it’s basically the story of a paranormal investigator who has gone missing, and what we see are his last whereabouts – a collection of tapes and interviews concerning a curse. This is a slow burner, but it’s intriguing enough, realistic enough, and punctuated by enough freaky moments to keep you watching until shit gets unreal at the end.

7. Zatoichi

He's gonna get it in the gunnells.
He’s gonna get it in the gunnells.

Takeshi Kitano has long been an icon in Japan and beyond, his films often lyrical, yet violent glimpses into modern man. With Zatoichi he goes back to the past and delivers an epic re-telling of the blind Samurai legend, and what is probably his best film. Zatoichi has all the trademarks of Kitano – madcap humour, slapstick, existentialism, quiet scenes destroyed by sharp, explosive violence, characters who say more with their actions than their words, but there is so much more to enjoy here – the strange musical moments where the background cast act out the soundtrack whilst going around their daily business, the turning-on-their-head of various tropes and expectations, and of course, Kitano’s excellent performance as the lead. This has healthy doses of action but like Kitano’s best work, it is the way he draws us into the story with his loveable loser characters which is the heart of the movie, and which keeps the audience returning for more.

6. Departures

Have A Pebble. Merry Christmas, dear
Have A Pebble. Merry Christmas, dear

For what was seen by some fools as ‘a shock’, Departures became the first film since Twilight Samurai to get an Oscar nomination and gave Japan its first official Oscar win for Best Foreign Film. A glorious film, it is a simple drama about one man’s life, a man who takes a job performing funeral rites (dressing and preparing bodies) and the repercussions he experiences (the job is seen as an ugly, low-caste, relic of the past, similar to being a talent show judge). What is most surprising is the film’s ability to suck you completely into its world and have you smiling, crying, laughing effortlessly. It’s difficult to point out what it is precisely that pulls us in, but you can take your pick from the performances, the wonderful soundtrack from Joe Hisaishi, the unexpected humour, the reflections from the story you will inevitably see in your own life. It is a poignant, old-fashioned drama with enough emotional content to charm even the most heartless viewer.

5. Ju-On: The Grudge

9, 10, never sleep again
9, 10, never sleep again

At the height of my Japan obsession, Ju-On: The Grudge was released, and I was hooked. Having grown up on horror films and feeling like I had seen it all, it was a moment of epiphany when I first saw Ringu. The Grudge took J-Horror to the next level, merging all the quiet moments of Ringu and its ilk, with the all-out, played for shocks stylings of Hollywood Horror’s best. The Grudge was not interested in hanging around and building tension for 80 minutes before unleashing its big scare, but instead, it goes for the jugular from the opening minutes, providing scare after scare, thrill after thrill, and still manages to save the best till last. Ostensibly the third in the Ju-On series, this can be taken as the real starting point as it was the first cinema release. Relating its tale in segments, with overlapping time frames and characters, you get the uneasy feeling that no-one is safe, everyone’s fate is inevitable, and worse – that this film is only a tiny part of the overall terror spreading. Shimizu does an immense job with a limited budget, mixing old school scares with some ultra-inventive and original moments, using make-up and effects to perfection, and like Carpenter with Halloween, employing every trick in the book to pack in as many scares as possible. The sound effects are chilling, the performances all have a ghostly coldness to them, and the ending is not Hollywood. Arguably the peak of J-Horror before the genre began to wind down.

4. Visitor Q

A child-friendly image
A child-friendly image

It’s not easy to pick your favourite Miike film, because he is like the entire history of cinema rolled up into one chaotic collapse. He has touched on so many genres, he makes a million movies a year, and he has had so many great films that picking a favourite is as unenviable a task as overhearing a Twilight versus 50 Shades discussion. Visitor Q gets my vote because it was the first Miike film which really pushed all of the boundaries he had previously flung himself at. From violence to incest to sadomasochism to necrophilia, all wrapped up with the blackest of humour, and under the guise of a family’s return to love and redemption, it is his anti-commercial masterpiece. The documentary quality versus the ridiculous goings-on is interesting and never feels like a gimmick, each performance is first-rate, it doesn’t suffer from the deliberately, often confusing bizarre business that some of Miike’s other work has, but rather seems like a hyper-real depiction of a fucked-up family. It’s incredibly funny, and in the end, ultimately heartwarming, even if it does makes you question why you would watch such a film. That song over the end credits is great too.

There are plenty of memorable moments, such as the- well, I don’t want to spoil anything for the uninitiated, but every time I watch that firework scene my jaw drops – and it’s not even that important a scene in the movie.

3. Ringu 0

Oh lord, now you've done it...
Oh lord, now you’ve done it…

The Ring series gets a lot of hate outside of the original (and don’t get me started on the remake), but I think the sequels are terrific films in their own right. Ring 2 ups the number of scares from the original, but gets bogged down in explanation. Ringu 0 mostly gets back to basics, telling the story of Sadako’s origins in a tragic, haunting, horrific way, and it is the prettiest to look at, and most emotive film of the first three films. Norio Tsuruta echoes Nakata’s style, but instead lets us draw more feeling from the characters. We learn, in a Carrie-esque way about Sadako’s upbringing – she is a quiet outsider trying to make her way as an actress but due to jealousy from others and a series of strange events, she is led down her gripping path to her inevitable demise. As a worshipping fan of Ringu this is like a gift from the Gods – not only is it a genuinely brilliant follow-up to that classic, but it works well as a standalone film. There are many standout performances here, particularly from Yukie Nakama, and the scares are effective. Rather than the threatening presence from the previous films, here the evil Sadako is in full-on Terminator mode, and even at times seems gleeful in her victim stalking – this rings (sorry) true as this is the moment where she is first set free.

There are a couple of excellent moments here which truly raise the film into the best of the best ranks – the entire chase through the forest when Sadako gives herself over to her evil twin, the screen saturates, all life and colour draining, and the final, horrific, horrible, twist scene which is at once brilliant, and tear-jerkingly awful.

2. Love Exposure

Six hours!?
Six hours!?

Love Exposure, for me at least, came blasting out of nowhere – it had been some time since a Japanese movie had truly grabbed me and not let go, but when Sion Sono’s epic popped up it was like my original love of Japanese movies had been uncovered all over again, like a virgin, touched for the very first time, again. Like Miike, you never know what you are going to get with Sono, from a genre and style perspective, but you know that you will be interested and generally in for a good time. This is a tale of love between father and son, son and pants, son and girl, girl and cult, cult and something, director and movies, audience and movies, director and music, and exposes these loves and relationships in no uncertain terms. It’s difficult to put into words how much I love this film, and again it is one which seems to have a magnetic power over anyone who comes within its radius.

There is a glorious soundtrack, a music video quality at times which doesn’t take away from the substance (unlike say, Confessions), the performances are uniformly of the highest quality, especially from Nishijima, it is funny, heart-breaking, hair-pullingly awkward, and not nearly long enough at 4 hours. I need to see the 6 hour version. As you will see from the site’s wallpaper, I like this movie….

1. Battle Royale

These games are filling me with... hunger...
These games are filling me with… hunger…

Honestly, it couldn’t really be anything else, could it? The best film of the decade, regardless of country, genre, or anything else Battle Royale is also the most important film of the decade. This is a film which all children should watch in school, a film which all film students should study, a film which deserves to be revered in the same breath as any film on those Best Ever lists. If you’re reading this list, I’ll assume you’ve seen it, so there’s no sense in discussing it any further. As perfect as film as any film could be, do all grannies a favour and force their grandchildren to watch. Now.

And once you’re done with the watching, you can let me know your thoughts in the comments below, as mentioned above and have a go at the poll.

Ichi

(Originally written 2009)

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As a lover of all things Japanese, originating from a childhood love of martial arts and monster movies, I am perhaps slightly biased when it comes to reviewing the latest Samurai movie. There have been quite a few good samurai movies in recent years, and tonnes of bad ones but possibly the best was Takeshi Kitano’s Zatoichi- the latest in a long line of films based on the legend of the blind samurai. With Kitano’s trademark style of soft contemplation followed by sudden quick blasts of violence and his unique and quirky take on the character, it was a big hit. With Ichi, the legend continues, albeit from a different branch on the story tree. Instead of the silent man of legend we have a vibrant young lady (perhaps having more in common with the Crimson Bat series) taking over the walking stick, continuing the recent trend of female-led sword movies- Shinobi, Shadowless Sword, even Kill Bill. Our heroine is no less deadly though and she soon cuts her way through the cast with beautiful precision.

After an exiting introduction we are treated to the stunning scenery, period clothing and sets, and slow pace we would expect from this type of film. Those unfamiliar and expecting an all out action film may be soon disappointed. There is plenty of character building and story to squeeze in around the action, and there is none of the gore of Lady Snowblood, none of the fancy string-work of Hero. If you’re a fan of The Hidden Blade, Twilight Samurai etc you’ll be right at home here. Ayase’s Ichi is torn by horrible past events and she conveys both the sadness and violent eruptions of her character well, without resorting to sentiment or over the top shrieking. Takao Osawa also does well as Toma, the bumbling Samurai Ichi bumps into and travels with. The rest of the cast is fine, either bad guys there to be killed or higher grade bad guys ready to exploit. Ichi wants to find the man who trained her, but reluctantly gets drawn into a Yojimbo style war between two gangs. Can she find the man she is searching for, and will it help her move on from her past?

The film lacks the high budget of some other films and doesn’t quite have the technical quality that such financial backing brings. This is largely irrelevant though as the Director makes admirable use of what he has. It is an interesting take on an age-old story and packs more of an emotional punch than more recent versions.

Suicide Club- Just an ambulance at the bottom of a cliff

This funny Chinese film is a biography considering a special club that many teens have begun prescribing to. As the name suggests it is a Suicide Club- the only thing is that if you want to become a member you have to kill yourself first. Once you do that you get entry to the inner circle where you can drink tea and discuss the songs by famous South African band The Cure. We follow a group of friends as they struggle to gain acceptance by the existing members of the club- try as they might our heroes keep failing to kill themselves. This results in many humorous scenes involving bleeding arms (not deep enough!) hangings with weak rope (not strong enough!), jumping in front of trains but bouncing off them back onto the platform etc (not trainy enough!). It is actually quite touching as these kids just want to be part of something, but family life, school etc has forced them to become brooding outsiders filled with hate and despair. They only want to belong, so it is a pity that they must crawl into the grave to get friends. It seems there are millions of members world wide, and the numbers are growing all the time. Maybe we should listen to them once in a while instead of turning away.
Best Scene: When the guy with the funky hair keeps trying to drown himself in his bath but his little brother keeps pulling the plug out and disturbing him. He then pees in the bath and the funky guy has to jump out- ‘Uurgh, Jimmy, that’s gross!’

Another Failed Attempt

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time

The award winning The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is ‘a feast for the eyes as well as the heart’, as the DVD blurb claims. Wonderful animation, brilliantly drawn characters and backdrops, time travel, action, lots of touching and funny parts- what’s not to like?

Makoto is a school girl who, after an accident, discovers that she can travel in time. The first part of the film deals with her discovery of this and using it to her own gain- correcting minor mistakes and mishaps in her past. She never comes close to joining the dark side with such power, but finds that her changes however small can have a greater and harmful effect for the future/present and her friends. However, there is another leaper and her leaps are limited, and soon her choices become extremely important.

This much adapted version of the Japanese novel (there has been other series and movies since the novel was written in the sixties) is one of the best, perfectly suited to the medium and today’s generation. There are questions raised about power, friendship, choice, and love, but the film never becomes preachy or sentimental. One of the best anime of the year.

As Always, feel free to leave your comments on the movie- where does it rank in your recent anime list?

Amazon Freebies- 15th December 2011

I just went for one DVD this time- the rest of the list consisted of books which didn’t interest me. There was another DVD, but it was a sequel and I hadn’t seen the first.

So, I went for Redline- an anime set in the near future about some sort of car racing. I’m not the biggest anime fan but I like to keep an eye on some of the bigger releases and prettier films.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Redline-DVD-Takuya-Kimura/dp/B004WDZR1S/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1324396085&sr=8-3

Don’t forget to check out all the other wonderful free stuff I’ve been given in the Amazon Vine section.

Amazon Vine Freebies: August 25th 2011

Jeepers! Busy times with life getting in the way of The Spac Hole. Hopefully things will even out soon and I should have internets finally in the new house. So, last week I had to wait until Friday morning before I could check my Amazon freebies from the night before. Obviously that means I missed the most expensive stuff (that’s what everyone goes for first, regardless of what it is or if the person can use it) and I was left with 7 or 8 pages of software and books. Not too many of the books grabbed my interest so I just went for one: Villain, by Shuichi Yoshida and Philip Gabriel. It’s a crime thriller based in Japan so I have high hopes given that I love everything Japanese and I went through a Crime Fiction phase a few years back. Here’s the synposis:

A gripping thriller about the dark heart of Japan. Now a major motion picture.

A young woman is brutally murdered on a remote mountain road. A young construction worker, Yuichi, is on the run – but is he guilty?

This is the dark heart of Japan; a world of seedy sex hotels and decaying seaside towns; a world of loneliness, violence and desperation.

As the police close in on Yuichi and his new lover, the stories of the victim, the murderer and their families are uncovered. But these men and women are never what they appear to be…