15 December 2017

Hana (Japan, 2006)

In 1702, set against the backdrop of a long-delayed and insatiable revenge, a reserved samurai, Aoki Sozaemon, leaves his hometown in Matsumoto to come to bustling Edo in search of his father's killer. Unaccomplished as a swordsman, with his funds quickly drying up, Sozaemon must honour his clan's demand to avenge a disgraceful death, however, when he finally finds his target, he will have to make a difficult decision before a crushing dilemma. Is the way of the samurai stronger than the way of the heart?

Turns out one of my favorite directors, Hirokazu Kore-eda (Nobody Knows, Air Doll), has also made a jidaigeki film, full of samurai and plots of revenge. What Kore-eda does though, is removing the action and replacing it with what he does the best, drama with emotional impact. Sozaemon meets a bunch of people who all effects his life in one way or another. Quite a bit of humor also sneaks its way in here, with quirky characters and funny events. Not one of Kore-eda's best films, but it was great to see him do a kind of low-key samurai film. 

Genre: Comedy/Drama

14 December 2017

Tokyo Decadence (Japan, 1992)

A submissive hooker goes about her trade, suffering abuse at the hands of Japanese salarymen and Yakuza types. She's unhappy about her work, and is apparently trying to find some sort of appeasement for the fact that her lover has married.

I get the feeling that Tokyo Decadence (a.k.a. Topaz) is like an adult version of 50 Shades of Grey (2015), a little more dark and disturbing and a little less aimed at horny teens. It's a tad long, and has lengthy erotic scenes, but in my opinion it never ventures into sleazy softcore porn (which it has been classified as at some other websites). The underlying sadness and morally twisted characters elevates it to something else, and the melancholy score covers the whole film in a bleak veil. Not a whole lot of enjoyment for our precious characters, but I often like these sort of dark films. Worth mentioning is that the film is based on a book written by Ryu Murakami who also wrote Audition, which also got a film adaptation by Takashi Miike. 

Genre: Drama

7 December 2017

Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (Japan/UK, 1983)

In 1942 British soldier Jack Celliers comes to a Japanese prison camp. The camp is run by Yonoi, who has a firm belief in discipline, honor and glory. In his view, the allied prisoners are cowards when they chose to surrender instead of committing suicide. One of the prisoners, interpreter John Lawrence, tries to explain the Japanese way of thinking, but is considered a traitor.

I'm a bit ashamed to admit I had no idea that it existed a movie where Takeshi Kitano plays against David Bowie. In another big role we have Ryuichi Sakamoto, a huge rockstar/composer who also wrote the soundtrack, so there's two big name musicians in the lead roles. Directed by Nagisa Oshima, who's behind fantastic films such as In the Realm of the Senses (1976) and Gohatto (1999), he uses his actors to the fullest. Bowie has an incredible presence, and Kitano shines as always, I could never get tired of that man. The actor who played Mr. Lawrence speaks a lot of Japanese in the film, but didn't understand a word of it, instead learning it all phonetically. That's a very fun bit of trivia to know beforehand. Anyhow, Mr. Lawrence is a great film dealing with POW's  without it being just another prison escape rehash. 

Genre: Drama/War

5 December 2017

Digital Devil Story (Japan, 1987)

A programming student utilizes occult magic and computer technology to summon a demon into the physical world.

In the mood for some cheesy/awesome anime? Digital Devil Story should satisfy your need for that morning cartoon-show, cool and stylish but also Sailor Moon-silliness. I read somewhere that the makers were inspired by how computers were getting more and more popular and they feared a time when technology would more or less topple mankind. I guess you could say they had legit reasons to be afraid, though it seems slightly excessive to have the Norse God Loki stepping out of your computer screen wanting to slaughter everyone.

As I've stated, the film almost has the feel of a cheesy morning cartoon with an M-rating, but sometimes that's exactly how I like my 80's anime.

Genre: Animation/Action/Fantasy

30 November 2017

Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald (Japan, 1997)

A radio play is going to go on air at a Tokyo radio station. It is a weepy melodrama written by housewife Miyako, who is the winner of the competition run by the station. Suddenly, the hot-tempered lead actress Nokko decides she wants the name of her character to be Mary Jane and not Ritsuko. That leads to the chain of events which changes the play completely.

Here's a film with a very simple and concentrated story; a group of voice actors are trying to put together a radio drama. Though, not much goes according to plan as one could guess. So many laugh-out-loud moments in this film, the characters are all very funny and likeable, even the "mean" ones. I haven't seen this film being mentioned at all on a lot of film sites and that's no less than a gigantic mistake. It's an excellent film that leaves you in a great mood and should be considered an hidden classic. 

Genre: Comedy

28 November 2017

A Letter to Momo(Japan, 2011)

Clinging to an unfinished letter written by her recently deceased father, young Momo moves with her mother from bustling Tokyo to the remote Japanese island of Shio. However, it's not long before several bizarre occurrences crop up around the previously tranquil island. Momo hears strange mumblings coming from the attic of their home. Annoyed by these creepy goings-on and her mother's refusal to believe them, Momo embarks on a strange and supernatural adventure to discover the source of the mischief, which leads her to a trio of troublesome imps.

I'm so glad I don't have a gang of yokai hanging around, they can be quite something to deal with it turns out. A Letter to Momo uses a very realistic animation style, not unlike the works of Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira), and it looks amazing throughout the film. It's full of Japanese culture and customs, not to mention all the folklore coming to life. The three yokai really is what steals the show with all their antics and outbursts. Momo does a great job of balancing a very mature, sad story with quirky and fun characters, and it's a wonderful film that exceeds were many live-action movies only has tried to tell a similar story of loss and finding happiness again afterwards. 

Genre: Animation/Drama

27 November 2017

Sakuran (Japan, 2006)

A young girl is sold into a red-light district brothel and tries to adapt to life as an oiran (courtesan).

Sakuran isn't your typical stale geisha drama, but more like the rebellious sister of period films. A modern, rock-influenced soundtrack go hand in hand with a story that's usually accompanied by lonely koto melodies. The beautiful set designs makes me think of huge theatre productions, and there's a ton of gorgeous shots with cherry trees by moonlight and the colorful environment we're spending our time with. 

Being the directorial debut by Mika Ninagawa, who's famous for her extremely colorful and vivid photography, we're really being treated to her skillful ways of making the picture look like a dazzling, fascinating world. The film is adapted from a manga, so there's plenty of source material to take in. The perfect film to see if you want a stylish geisha film that's not littered with historical inaccuracies like Memoirs of a Geisha (2005). 

Genre: Drama/History

22 November 2017

Harmonium (Japan, 2016)

Toshio hires Yasaka in his workshop. This old acquaintance, who has just been released from prison, begins to meddle in Toshio's family life.

It always amazes me how radically a film can make me feel about it in just a short period of time. In the beginning of Harmonium I didn't have the highest of all hopes, but after a while it delivered the goods without hesitation. Heartbreaking yes, but the film honestly earns it by having such a captivating story and believable characters. Also, fans of actor Tadanobu Asano should really give it a watch because here he plays a sinister man that gets under your skin, and someone you love to hate.

Genre: Drama

21 November 2017

Sweet Bean (Japan, 2015)

The manager of a pancake stall finds himself confronted with an odd but sympathetic elderly woman looking for work. A taste of her homemade bean jelly convinces him to hire her, which starts a relationship that is about much more than just street food.

Sweet Bean is a warm film full of joy. Well, at least it begins that way. Even the sun has its spots, just like this lovely drama has its fair share of darkness. It's a wonderful testament to how tragedies can be defeated by our shared interests like food, like new relationships and like the perfect sweet bean paste. 

Genre: Drama

20 November 2017

Belladonna of Sadness (Japan, 1973)

After being banished from her village, a peasant woman makes a pact with the devil to gain magical ability.

Belladonna has that genuine 70's vibe, and I can easily picture The Beatles suddenly starting to play during its lively watercolor imagery. There's lots of still images which are meant to speak for themselves, and they really do convey every bit of horrifying and erotic fantasies dwelling underneath the paint. It gets extremely surreal at times, and often it feels like you're on a jazz-infused acid-trip. 

It may be hard to fully grasp the story, but the amount of crazy things practically spewing out at the viewer makes it very re-watch friendly. Truly a visual treat. Not exactly for viewers without patience, but a stunning film if you allow yourself to be drawn into its fairytale-like world. 

Genre: Animation/Drama/Fantasy

14 November 2017

Midori (Japan, 1992)

Midori, is a young, and vibrant girl who enjoys her school and classes, but after her mother became very ill, and their dad evaded contact with her, her mom dies from her ailments. Midori is then tricked by a circus producer to enter his funfair, where she is consistently raped and abused by the circus folk, but when she is on the edge of giving up hope, she is acquainted by a dwarf, and her whole world changes.

The whole story of how this film even got made could be its own stand-alone article. It got banned pretty much everywhere, even in Japan, due to the graphic violence and sexual abuse. The director, Hiroshi Harada, had to animate it all by himself because no one wanted to come near it. After its release, people did their best to destroy every copy of the film, which is why it's so obscure these days. Well, how bad could it be, you ask?   

The trailer says it all, really: "the ultimate antidote to mainstream anime". If you've grown tired of everything Japanese animation has to offer, this is your last stop. It has a staggering shock factor and could be seen as a more juvenile version of Freaks (1932). Had Midori been live-action, it would have been one of the most disturbing films ever made, but as an animated feature it reaches half-way and "only" leaves you deeply disturbed afterwords. Precisely the kind of film that would have been passed around as a rumoured bootleg back in the 90's. A stern warning must be issued though, due to the heavy themes of rape, abuse and animal violence taking place during its rather short runtime (56 min). Adult audiences only

Genre: Animation/Drama/Horror