The Meiji Restoration was an extraordinary era in Japanese history, when the country shook off its feudal past to embrace an uncertain future. YAE NO SAKURA dramatizes the story of Nijima Yae, a tomboy who grows into a beautiful young woman - and becomes something of an expert in gunnery in the process. At the same time, her home clan - the Aizu - is asked to protect the Shogun and his court from rebels from Choshu.
YAE NO SAKURA won an international Emmy award in 2014 for best drama series, and it's easy to tell why. Production values and special effects are frequently outstanding, and the story itself has a dramatic intensity that recalls the U.S. Civil war; both wars occurred in the same decade.
The Jidaeki series stars the affable and beautiful Haruka Ayase in the leading role. She's a good choice. This year-long series offers insight into a time in Japanese history that was embroiled in controversy; after several hundred years of relative peace under the ruling Toyotomi clan, a change in power left much of the country in a political limbo.
Yeoung-Min (Jung-suk Jo) isn't thirty yet, but is already having doubts about his relationship with his opinionated wife, Mi-yeong (Min-a Shin). MY LOVE, MY BRIDE captures a series of episodes in their lives when temptation, compromise, and selfishness seem to be eroding their young relationship.
The "plot" hinges on everyday small dramas that threaten to become uncontrollable - until love and common sense put their lives in proper perspective. Yeong-Min works in public welfare, but hopes to be a writer; Mi-yeong feels he's being taken for granted.
Min-a Shin is especially appealing as the young, under-appreciated wife who's only known one love, but you wish the film could have had more payoff during the individual episodes. The Yeoung-Min segments in particular would have been more appealing if the characters had more detailed characterizations.
With THE STRANGE LITTLE CAT, it's not a matter of reducing your expectations; it's more trying to change your expectations.
Over the course of a day in a cramped Berlin apartment, a busy family deals with the usual mundane details: eating breakfast, fixing a washing machine, watching unwashed plates pile up, watching a hacky-sack fly through the window. Some characters tell in-jokes that almost seem surreal at times. And there's also a dog and cat, who watch the activity with curiosity.
THE STRANGE LITTLE CAT not a documentary, but an almost verite family comedy. The whole film is shot at about kitchen counter level - the level where the film's "strange" cat wanders through the rooms. Once you get into the rhythm of the film, it's engrossing and frequently funny; it suggests that everyday life, as trivial as it might seem, has great value and interest, even when you might be tempted to think otherwise.
The original, animated version of Kiki's Delivery Service is so pitch-perfect that it doesn't seem possible that they'd dare come out with a live-action version.
Only rarely does a live-action version of an anime equal the original. With live-action, it's almost like trying to translate from one language to another; some of the actors are good (and others ordinary), and the story conveys only some of the wide- eyed wonder of the original. Fuka Koshiba has a petulant optimism (and a little brattiness) the fills out the title character; JiJi, the talking black cat could have played a bigger part of the movie. Fans of Japanese film will notice a few interesting casting choices - like Asano Tadanobu and Rie Miyazawa.
Ultimately, changing this to a live-action film makes it seem more suited for children (as opposed to the anime version, which is ageless).
That said, I enjoyed much of the film. It's a minor miracle that it's as good as it is.
This story is one of the more memorable footnotes to World War II - the tale of Joan Pujol Garcia, a man who ends up being a double-agent during a pivotal moment in history. And his appearance on the world stage couldn't be more important: his counterintelligence was designed to undermine the D-Day invasion.
It's obviously not a big-budget documentary, but uses a variety of talkies and newsreel footage to round out the story. The cast of interviewees is relatively small; and the inclusion of inappropriate (or confusing) sound effects and garbled film editing makes for a less than compelling story. The story itself was the most memorable segment in Ben Macintre's Operation Zigzag, and the film's running length of 88 minutes suggests that the filmmaker had run out of material. If only he'd read Macintire's book first.
Director Hitoshi Matsumoto (best noted for his bizarrely funny debut, BIG MAN JAPAN) has a filmmaking approach strongly influenced by Japanese television; if film relates to his output, it's primarily through TV skits and parody. It's to our benefit that we can enjoy a film like SCABBARD SAMURAI - the story of a buffoon with coke-bottle glasses on the lam from the clan. He's forced to endure a strange punishment: he will win clemency from a local lord - if he can make his forlorn son smile.
The set-up is far-fetched, spiced up with stock characters from familiar Japanese genre films. The remainder of the film, and the scabbard samurai's life, is spent trying to come up with increasingly elaborate gags, which capture the imagination of the populace. The gags are funny in a desperate, straight faced sort of way - not unlike a Japanese Buster Keaton - making for classic physical comedy.
Matsumoto doesn't act in SCABBARD SAMURAI; instead, he relies on visual narrative and an appealing cast of supporting actors to tell its story. Some might prefer BIG MAN JAPAN with its insane special effects, but SCABBARD SAMURAI captures Matsumoto's comic talents in a plot that's engrossing and genuinely amusing.
Goaded on by curiosity, I saw SATANTANGO at the Pacific Film Archive several years ago. Critics gushed that SATANTANGO was without parallel - but two hours into the movie, I was less than impressed. Very little plot. Black and gray photography. Segments that went on seemingly forever, with no clear point. Much of the audience filed out early, and I left early, too. Was the director, Bela Tarr, trying to make the film an endurance contest?
More recently, I consulted the Internet Movie Database to see what was written about SATANTANGO. The cumulative rating of 8.5 of 10 was impressive, as were the write-ups. "A stunning experience," says one viewer. "Biggest cinematic experience in history," says another. The kudos go on and on. But if you scroll down the database, you'll also find the negative reviews. "Self- indulgent, annoying," one writer says. One of the more measured responses is, "I do not regret that I saw this movie, but I certainly to not think it was a day well-spent" - after giving the film a 1 of 10 rating.
So, I decided to see the film again - this time on DVD - to determine if my initial dismissal at the PFA was warranted. And I learned how to appreciate a different kind of movie - and even come to enjoy it. My hints to a naive viewer:
Calibrate your attention span. The individual takes of SATANTANGO are unusually long; the first scene, set outside a pen for steers and chickens, lasts over eight minutes, with no cuts. Just a single tracking shot. This happens through the entire film; in fact, the long takes and slow tracking shots give the film its rhythm and style. If you go into SATANTANGO expecting a film paced to contemporary standards, you'll be disappointed. If you can, take a few breaks between segments - and ask questions.
Learn about recent European history. It's possible to enjoy SATANTANGO on its own merits, but understanding recent history helps greatly. The film dramatizes the economic depression that gripped the break-up of the Soviet blok, and things gone very bad, indeed. There's crumbling infrastructure everywhere. People struggle to get by, just barely, by depending on agricultural collectives (like the one depicted in SATANTANGO). This gray, depressing worldview would eventually engulf the region.
Structure, structure, structure. The key to appreciating SATANTANGO lies in understanding the film's structure. Another reviewer here aptly mentioned Akira Kurosawa's RASHOMON, wherein the film's narrative is defined by a single event - told in entirely different ways by the main characters. SATANTANGO uses a similar technique; several characters experience the same segment of time from different points of view. The eight-minute "preface" introduces us to the collective itself - where the barebones infrastructure is shown. From here, each segment of the film is separated by an inter-title; when a new segment starts, we see the same action - from a new character's POV. But nearly every segment involves leaving this wet, cold, impoverished piece of hell - or try to exploit it.
Dance "the Satantango." The musical segments can open the way to appreciating and even enjoying SATANTANGO. Music is important for Tarr, and the repeating figures of dance are a metaphor. The tango is a repeating dance that abides by the rule, "one step forward, two steps back." It's reflected in the lives of the characters, who take one step forward in their lives, but always end up two steps back. The "chapters" of the film don't move forward like a typical narrative work; it repeats the same segment of time, over and over again. If you're frustrated by the fact that the movie seems static - that's the point. SATANTANGO is a story that can't move forward; it repeats the same familiar song, over and over - until a development determines a new course of action for the characters.
I didn't enjoy SATANTANGO when I saw it the first time, but I've since become a fan. The investment of time may seem extreme to some, but it's more than worthwhile.
In 1992, Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki directed LA VIE DE BOHEME, where he transplanted to Paris for a story of impoverished, failed artists on the cusp of society. A funny, sad film about art, love, and loss. Nearly twenty years later, Kaurismaki returns to France in LE HAVRE; while some of the humor remains, its story of the impoverished and dispossessed is even more affecting.
LA VIE... showed a painterly visual sense, all the more amazing that it was filmed in black and white. LE HAVRE boasts an equally striking visual sense, with scenes that seem to glow. That said, other elements of the production are less convincing - and at times. almost embarrassing. (For example, a group of black refugees are locked in a container crate for almost a week; when it's opened, no one's hungry or even concerned, and several are freshly shaved.)
LE HAVRE sets up the camera in a stationary spot - much like an old silent - giving the film a real resonance. But this affection for older filmmaking will be familiar for Kaurismaki fans; his silent, black and white JUHA uses the same minimalistic approach, with good results.
If you're willing to forgive certain production details and the dependence on melodrama, LE HAVRE is a feel-good story of how those of modest means can help those in desperate straits. (LE HAVRE itself was directed under low budget.) The film's humanism is its saving grace. While the filmmaking is occasionally awkward, there's still a lot to be admired here.
A boy dreams repeatedly of a beautiful woman by a lake in a Japan of the remote past; but after falling asleep under a legendary oak tree, he finds himself in the Tengoku period. He meets woman from his dreams, Princess Ren (Yui Aragaki), and a loyal samurai and childhood friend (Tsuyoshi Kusanagi) - and find themselves party to a battle so common in the period of warring states. What results is a story of love, war, and courage set spanning two time periods.
The tale is quite engaging, even if the time-shifting plot isn't particularly credible. But remember, this is a children's story - though there's enough acceptable period detail to appeal on the level of a parable. It's not particularly funny, aside from an unaffected humor, nor is it as thrilling as you might expect (despite some battle scenes). BALLAD has an appealing visual sense, with attractive photography and neat but rustic set decoration; the film has an unusually effective use of light and shadow. And once you're willing to forgive the inconsistencies of the time-shifting plot, the simple story is captivating enough. I was not as forgiving about the plot's time problems, as the boy goes from modern time to ancient Japan by conveniently falling asleep.
I saw CURE at the San Francisco Film Festival in around 1998, and like many, I found the concept and craftsmanship arresting. A number of audience members stayed around afterwards to discuss it - it's a psychologically complex tale of hypnotism and the seductions of altered consciousness. Koji Yakusho (DORA HEITA, 13 ASSSASSINS, etc.) is at his acting peak as a detective who tries to solve a series of murders that don't seem to relate to common logic.
Recently, I saw the DVD version of the film - and it's clear that the film had been cut severely. Most viewers have only seen the US DVD version, so they're not even aware of the problem. A few of the more graphic sequences were cut, important portions of the narrative set in an old sanatorium were excised, and the violent finish was excised entirely. (The US DVD concludes with the suggestion of a further killing; the theatrical Japanese version is more powerful and unambiguous.) In some cases, a later, recut version may be better than the original; however, that's not the case here.
There's scant online text relating to the differences between the two versions.
It speaks well for director Kiyoshi Kurosawa that he took a low-budget police procedural and made an innovative thriller out of it. Most of the scenes are under-edited and shot at a distance, to extract the most from the hypnotic storyline; the longer, hypnotic sequences are several minutes long, with no edits. Because the film uses medium-distance shots to give a sense of hypnotic disassociation, viewers with larger screens will gain an advantage.
I strongly recommend seeing it - but would suggest you seek out the original, uncut theatrical print if you can. The differences are striking. I'd rate the original print as 10/10; the cut/domestic DVD is maybe 7/10. This film would profit from a Criterion reissue, but that doesn't seem to be in the works.
A fourteen-year old girl is sexually abused by her father - but in response to this, she builds up a newfound resilience. Some day, her internal dramas would give her the resources to emerge victorious from abuse. THE GIRL OF SILENCE is a plaintive but affecting drama, based on the manga, "Father Fu----", that's easily enough to grab your attention. The film itself describes the central character's efforts to rise above her situation and achieve success in the unforgiving world of manga.
(Interestingly, the manga "Father Fu----" - while raw and borderline-exploitative - is compelling and funny in its own way.)
The narrative is grim and seemingly hopeless. The girl attempts to transcend her family situation, which is marred by incest, violence, alcoholism, and a realization that she has no way out. The movie does a good job fleshing out the story using the language of manga, but the basic material could be more inventive. Instead of relying on a "happy" ending, it would be have been far more interesting to see how the characters resolve their problems.
FLOWERS is a skillful family drama spanning several generations, jumping between eras like flipping pages of a book. In 1936, Rin is young, about to enter into an arranged marriage, but uncertain if she has any other options in life. In 2009, the family observes her funeral, but a number of changes have altered the face of Japanese society. More than anything, it's a study of women over the years; some mores have changed, but most remain substantially the same.
FLOWERS is quite accomplished from a cinematic point of view. The time periods of the film are defined by the seasons. The springlike 30s are photographed in appealing black and white, the the expected sprays of cherry blossoms; the segments in the fifties and sixties favor Fuji-color reds and flowers in full bloom; and the 90s are set in winter snow, with a more somber color scheme.
Ultimately, the film is a portrait of a generation through the lives of its women, plotted in a genial, thoughtful pace that rarely flags for interest. Its only glaring failure is in the culminating montage, presented over a cloying version of "Have You Ever Been Mellow?" (sans Olivia Newton John). If you're going to see FLOWERS - and I recommend you do - you might want to reduce the volume until the montage finishes.
The key actresses provide appealing performances. Fans of Yukie Nakama, Ryoko Hirosue, Yu Aoi, Yuko Takeuchi, and Rena Tanaka (in by far her best role yet) will be pleased by the drama.
Ko San Ping (Anita Yuen, perennially cute) can't find a job. But her luck turns a corner when she finds three magic pearls in an antique store; she gets three wishes from a scantily clad genie named Bolobolo (Michael Wong). Ko's biggest wish is to meet her long-estranged conductor/director sister Pearl Ko (ultra-cute Christy Chung). They both end up chasing after the studly genie, a god-in-training who doesn't have "a dicky." The plot is okay, but the film parodies are what make this one roll: included is a famous satire of SPEED (with Yuen as Sandra Bullock), Chinese TORTURE CHAMBER STORY (with Yuen getting tortured with office supplies [!?]) and Christy Chung's clunker MERMAID GOT MARRIED; but HK art-film director Wong Kar Wai gets the worst of it -- his ASHES OF TIME is recast with a hideous female impersonator playing Brigitte Lin's role (!), and CHUNGKING EXPRESS gets some nasty jibes, too.
Miho (Maho) is a modern Tokyo school girl who contemplates being a science fiction writer. Miyata (Kazuma Sano), too, is a frustrated would-be writer - in 1912. After an earthquake, Miho accidentally drops her cellphone, which falls into a wormhole, bending the normal rules of time and space. By further twisting the rules of physics and telecommunications, the two can talk to one another over time. It appears that that the two have quite a bit in common despite their considerable differences.
But TOKYO GIRL makes more sense as a way to manage story conventions, a way to fictionally link people from different times. (The same device was recently used, as you might recall, in Jin and Jin 2.) But once you get past the awkward set-up (which you probably shouldn't think about too long), the story evolves into a charming love story of sorts, about two time-crossed would-be lovers. But love will be replaced by melancholy, since their time together can't last forever. (Even the laws of physics can't solve problems with lithium cell phone batteries.)
TOKYO GIRL tries to overcome basic plot problems with a sentimental story about two young people separated by time. The period detail is competent enough to be convincing, and Kaho is always likable and believable.
Nodame Cantabile is less about the realities of classical music than its romance, but it's firmly rooted in its manga roots - and it's more enjoyable for this. Although it takes place in Europe, the film playfully apologizes for the fact that nearly all of the non-Japanese dialog will be dubbed. The film still manages to work.
A handsome young conductor (Hiroshi Tamaki) and cute pianist girlfriend (Juri Ueno) live in Paris, and personal dramas take precedence in their daily lives. The conductor finds he's stuck trying to revive a dying orchestra with disinterested members; and his girlfriend is torn between loving her boyfriend and love for music. Of course, there's considerable room for jealousy and over-ambitiousness to poison their relationship, too.
There are picture-perfect vistas of stately locales, beefed up with a sweeping soundtrack of classical war-horses (1812 Overture, etc.). How interesting it is that the film's standout moments come with its CGI-inspired overstatement; Nodame, always in love with love, floats over the rooftops with an army of teddy bears, or blushes crimson with love or ire (depending on the context). This movie is light romance dressed with classical touches for credibility, but the charm shines through.
With this, part one, we watch as a conductor tries to revive a sputtering orchestra that has seen its best days; part two concentrates on Nodame's career as a pianist - and her hope to further her dream of being part of a "golden couple." To the film's credit, long musical sequences are included, largely uncut, without losing the narrative thread.
After directing his most characteristic and famous later films (Early Morning, Late Afternoon, Tokyo Story) - which addressed the same theme with remarkable differences in tone - GOOD MORNING is a pleasing palate freshener. This family drama is also a witty comedy dealing with the miscommunications that complicate modern life.
This was Ozu's second color film (after Equinox Flower), but the cheerful music and bright colors make for different effects. GOOD MORNING'S "gas" jokes are gentle and clever (the young boys fart on command, a minor character works for the gas company, while a husband farts in one room, and a wife answers, etc.) The film's famous static shots center around a gleaming refinery. One of the film's delights comes from watching the visual and thematic elements weave together, and so effortlessly that it's thrilling to see it develop.
This is my personal favorite Ozu film, if only because it perfectly balances drama and comedy, metaphor and visuals. GOOD MORNING is the kind of movie you can see repeatedly, as there are always new things to discover. It certainly doesn't hurt that it's also a technically refined work, up to Ozu's highest standards.
After an devastating earthquake reduces a prosperous town to rubble, a young sister and brother are torn apart - and it takes another disaster to resolve the situation.
This is melodrama, no question, and it's appropriate that the initial earthquake would cause so much grief and terror. The quake seems to take over two minutes, causing such complete destruction that not a single structure remains standing - but that's part of what makes TANGSHAN DADIZHEN such an emotionally taxing film. The digital effects are competent if overdone, and but the drama itself attempts to transcend many of the typical pitfalls of the genre, and mostly succeeds with its grand scale and intimate stories. It takes a while for the plot to coalesce, with grave seriousness (and not a hint of humor) - and I expected a wider range of emotions.
Nagisha Oshima directed this atypical 1962 film covering Christian persecution in Japan - and the response of the tragic hero, Shiro Amakusa. From the standpoint of filmmaking, the shots are mostly static (some several minutes, minimal camera movement), with simple black and white photography. The film shows particular care for the beleaguered Christians, who are forced into poverty (and worse) for their religion.
Obviously, the subject matter doesn't place for humor; the narrative dark and reflective, showing little hope for the characters. Oshima has always excelled at provocative filmmaking, provoking more thought than filmmaking fireworks.
KILLER VIRGIN ROAD was adapted from the black comic manga, and features an aggressively gag-filled plot. Hiroko IJuri Ueno) is due to be married within the day to the current man of her dreams, but he accidentally ends up stabbing a would-be boyfriend in the back. Later, in the forest, she meets a failed suicide (Yoshno Kimura), whose singular talent is that she's death- proof.
The film is sprinkled with comic production numbers, with colorful visuals and wacky editing, giving this the spirit of its manga roots. Ueno made her mark with musically diverse projects like Swing Girls and Nodame Cantabile, but this film's sentiments are appropriately poppy. Perhaps this lacks the directorial finesse as, say, Kamikaze Girls, but there's enough invention and humor to make this a diverting and unpredictable feature.
A schoolgirl and a WWII sub veteran meet to uncover a story of sacrifice, tragedy, and redemption; the vet, now gray, tells about the final mission during the last days of the Pacific war. While the story is, at times, predictable and too metaphorical for its own good, its portrait of undersea strategy makes for fascinating viewing. Unlike most films in this genre, the protagonists wage war to live, not to die. and the ironies of violence and death balance with the all too human need to survive.
The WWII plot is more compelling, but there's a pleasing balance in this drama.
This film argues that udon is truly the Japanese soul food (or maybe Japan's ubiquitous fast food). Founded on that premise, UDON ties together the lives and passions of characters who are changed when a local udon fad that sweeps over Japan. When Yosuke Santamaria (Yosuke Matsui), a failed stand up comedian, meets a harried local journalist (Konishi Manami), their chemistry helps fuel a food phenomenon.
The film's basic subject matter is inherently interesting. Eating udon; making udon; salivating over udon. This singlehanded focus captures the fascination for one of Japan's most popular foods. Co-star Konishi Manami adds comic tempo to the mix; she's proved, time and again, to be a compulsively watchable film presence.
The prologue in New York is almost embarrassingly trite, and some of the comic antics are forced - like a fantasy sequence with Yosuke as a masked udon crime-fighter. (Some other sequences are as predictable and hackneyed as it comes.) But as long as udon is being served or eaten, there's magic here.
Or maybe the magic of editing might have done wonders.
IKURAMAIZU HAI (or climber's high) tells the story of a newspaper editor (Shin'ichi Tsutsumi) who finds himself in the grip of that's likely to be the greatest story of his life: the tragic crash of a JAL passenger jet. It turns into an international story. But the tragedy happens in his own prefecture. At the same time, he must confront certain realities of his own - a fastidious attention to fact-checking, a short fuse, the uncertainty of his own past. This plays out in the charged environment of a newsroom with fewer resources than, say, the big circulation Tokyo papers.
Intercut with this, we experience Tsutsumi's present-day story as he attempts to scale two personal issues: both of which may help resolve his past.
The details of production capture the time and setting quite smartly, and not to mention the protagonists' personal agendas and politics. The present-day plot tries to incorporate the film's main theme - that the events of life offer their own challenges, and demand time to heal. While the editing of the two plot elements may seem initially confusing, and perhaps contrived at times, it all fits together in a handsome entertainment.
You could justifiably criticize WINGS lesser moments: the naive, "gee-whiz" dialog...the less than comedic "champagne" sequence in Paris...any of the romantic scenes...the idealized view of military life.... But as light entertainment, WINGS manages to hold its own, despite the passage of years. The battle scenes, easily the highlight of the film, may not have the intensity of later films, but the narrative is clear and precise. And this was not meant to be the last word in documentary accuracy: it's an adventure film tinged with romance, with engaging aerial fight scenes that capture your attention whenever they occur.
And personally, I felt that the music from the Wurlitzer organ tied together the film's various themes, musical and narrative, quite tidily.
Generally regarded by some fans as one of the best, if not the best Japanese drama ever made, this is almost a template for the successful projects that would come later - highlighted by the likes of SAKURAN. What happens when a delinquent turned high school teacher must reform a dysfunctional class of unruly students? The result is very funny, tense, and highlighted by engaging performances all around.
But unlike other series' of its ilk, the bravado of the main characters is flavored with a sense of realism, so it's easy to enjoy as comedy and drama. This would be followed by a special and a feature film, but it would be hard to surpass the novelty of the original.
You can't fault the acting talent, and certainly not helmsmanship of veteran director Kon Ichikawa - his final film in a strong output. But this whodunit, which concentrates on family fortune and revenge, is also a surprisingly awkward film, lacking the finesse of even a modest work like, say, the engaging DORA HEITA. The timing and editing seems slightly (and sometimes not so slightly) off, with sequences framed in a way that defeats the film's subtly comic edge.
The acting talent is, overall, quite strong, highlighted by the lovely Nanako Matsushima (THE RING, GTO) and commanding Sumiko Fuji (of the celebrated Peony Gambler series). And once the film gets going, the mystery becomes more perplexing and comes into its own. But it's certainly not one of Ichikawa's more assured works.