Re:Born (2016)

From the opening scene of a special forces team being taken out by a mysterious figure, to the final climactic showdown, “Re:Born” is a martial-arts action film that pulls no punches. Early on in the film we meet Toshiro, who lives a fairly mundane life managing a convenience store and taking care of his niece Sachi. We soon discover that Toshiro has a dark past, possibly in the military, as he tells his psychologist that he has recurring dreams of killing. Soon Toshiro’s peaceful existence is brought to an end when a team of assassins is sent to kill him. We learn that Toshiro, codenamed “Ghost”, used to be a member of this group before splitting with its leader “Phantom”. Now he must fight against his former boss in order to save himself and his niece.

This is a film that knows exactly what it is setting out to do and attacks it with gusto. Director Yuji Shimomura worked previously as a stunt coordinator on a number of films and it shows here with some impressive action and fight sequences. It reminded me of Metal Gear Solid in parts, with the legendary protagonist fighting his way through a group with codenames such as “Newt”, “Fox” and “Abyss Walker”. Early in the film we are given an introduction to the character of Sachi as she carries a dead cat along the road to a beach to bury it, along with some sombre shots and a voice-over discussing the horrors of war. This may lead you to think that this will be a more contemplative film that it turns out to be. In fact, this set-up is only a pre-amble to the main feature which is a string of fight sequences held together with the slim plot of “super soldier getting revenge on former boss”. I didn’t find this too much of a problem, although I would have liked more of the character stuff we see early in the film to carry on through it. However, I can’t complain when they have a sequence of a man taking out a team of soldier with a shovel. Worth noting at this point that the sound design of the film was great, with whistling throwing stars, the metallic clang of aforementioned shovel as it strikes a face, and the usual selection of martial arts weapon noises. Kenji Kawai provides an energetic score that also has its thoughtful moments. There are some great performances by Tak Sakaguchi as Toshiro, the legendary super soldier, Akio Otsuka as Phantom, the leader of this band of mercenaries, and the young Yura Kondo as Sachi. Mariko Shinoda also appears as one of the team sent to kill Toshiro, further expanding her range after her role in Sion Sono’s “Tag”.

Ultimately, the film intends to be nothing more than a solid action film and throws most of its energy into the fight sequences. While the middle part of the film suffers a little, leaving behind characters and plot for the sake of an extended action scene, it cannot be denied that the fantastic choreography, and innovative fighting styles utilising guns, knives and hand-to-hand, does make for an entertaining watch. The film does attempt some message about heroism, but to be honest it is not worth troubling too much about the meaning here. Instead just sit back and enjoy this fun, well-directed, violent martial-arts thriller.

Appleseed (1988)

Based on the manga by Masamune Shirow, Appleseed takes place in a future world ravaged by a Third World War. Humanity has constructed a utopian society called Olympus, ruled over by computers and bioroids (an elite of cybernetic individuals). Our protagonists are SWAT-team members Deunan Knute and Briareos, who has a fully cybernetic body. When life in Olympus is threatened by  a terrorist plot led by humans who have become disaffected living under the rule of robots, Deunan and Briareos must work to stop it.

We are thrown straight into the action with the film beginning with a suicide and a hostage situation that SWAT are dealing with. Throughout the script is incredibly efficient. Within a run-time of a little over sixty minutes it manages to establish the world, the idea of Olympus, bioroids and GAIA (the computer system that controls the city), set up several themes and ideas, and develop its protagonists. We discover that Deunan and Briarios are romantically involved as well as being partners, and while the film rarely dwells on this it is nice that they did not choose to omit complexity despite being a short movie. The film is much more humorous than later installments in the franchise, perhaps heavily influenced by the decade in which it was released. You can certainly sense the 1980’s buddy-cop vibe. It is hard not to draw the comparison with those films, which use a lot of the same material and expand upon Shirows creation. Writer and director Kazuyoshi Katayama does a good job in crafting an enjoyable science-fiction action film. Although the animation has dated a little it is still great to see this more light-hearted interpretation of the characters.

The film deals with a number of issues relating to the interplay between robots and humans in the future, something that with each passing decade becomes more and more pertinent. While most humans have learned to accept their roles in a world with superior beings, many still insist on fighting for their individuality, or belief in human dominance. There is a sub-plot involving a discussion of the rights of bioroids and also a hint towards possible psychological issues involved with an increasingly technocratic society, such as the characters feeling they are trapped in a prison, rather than having any real control over their lives. Overall, this is a great watch for Appleseed fans as it shows the first attempt to bring the characters to the screen and also features many elements that will be recognizable from later films.

Woman in the Dunes (1964)

woman in the dunes

Woman in the Dunes, based on the novel of the same title by Kobo Abe, is a peculiar tale, part mystery, part social commentary. The film begins with an entomologist searching for insects in a vast sandy terrain beside the sea. After wandering for some time collecting specimens he is approached by a group of men who ask him if he has somewhere to stay that night. They inform him that their village is poor but that there is a shack nearby where he might find shelter. They lead him to a rickety house in a large hole in the dunes that he descends to via rope ladder. In the hut at the bottom of the pit there is a woman with whom he shares a pleasant enough evening meal. By night the woman has to haul sand away from the house, which is then winched up by the men above, to prevent it being buried beneath the ever tumbling sandfall from above. She makes a comment to the man that she doesn’t expect him to work “on the first night”. The man soon discovers that their offer of shelter was a ruse and he has been trapped down in this pit with no hope of return to the world above. The men take away the rope ladder at night, leaving both him and the woman captive. As the days go by, the man’s relationship with the woman deepens and develops as he plots his escape.

From the opening scenes it is clear that director Hiroshi Teshigahara has a clear and unique vision. He uses the artform to its utmost to create a compelling work. The shots of dunes in the opening perfectly captures the sense of somebody who is emotionally lost without ever having to explain this to us. Extreme close-ups of insects show the entemologist’s obsession with seemingly insignificant minutia that perhaps lead him into the deception, as he is unable to see what is going on around him. Also worth mentioning are the passionate scenes between him and the woman, that manage a sensuality and eroticism through almost abstract close-ups. This is true throughout with an intensity to much of the film that is seemingly conjured out of very little, instead due to the incredible interplay between unique imagery and an affecting soundscape. The score by Toru Takemitsu, with strained violins and undercurrent of dread, compliments the direction and acting to create a powerful piece of cinema. Both of the main actors, Eiji Okada and Kyoko Kishida, do a great job with this script. It could easily have been a stage play as the majority of the action simply involves two people in or around a cabin. It is great to see two well drawn characters, expertly acted, develop in unison, each learning from or being inspired by the other.

The films premise is deceptively simple, essentially a man is trapped in a hole with a woman, but through this the film manages to explore a number of interesting themes. It is a rumination on freedom and enslavement and whether there is much of a difference between them. It can be seen as a gloomy satire on work and society, with the interminable and pointless venture of clearing sand away from the house being a perfect metaphor for life and humanities attempts to delay the inevitable. There is also an emotional relationship between the two leads, an exploration of lust and sexuality, and often difficult questions raised regarding this. Much like shifting sands the film can be interpreted as any number of things depending on what you want to see there. A unique premise that lends itself to several allegorical interpretations. A must watch classic for those who enjoy complex character studies with socio-political overtones.

Sakuran (2006)

Kiyoha is a popular young prostitute and much envied in the brothel. After being taken in there as a child she at first resists her fate and hopes to escape. However, she soon realises she must embrace her position in the brothel whatever that may entail. As well as struggling against the jealous matriarch she begins a relationship with a client with whom she forms an attachment.

The film is directed by Mika Ninagawa and her visual style is evident her with bright vivid colours and well established shots. Her weakness as a director is in any lack of evocative movement or awareness of using the camera other than to frame shots. At times the film would benefit from a more dynamic style. This coupled with the complete lack of plot leave this film feeling hollow despite a number of attempts to grab attention with dramatic turns of event. The music is provided by Shina Ringo and suits the modern-slant of this historical drama. The film attempts some heavy-handed, and as it turns out entirely inconsequential, metaphor and it’s clear from the lingering shots of the lead that this was intended to have a serious side. The problem is that you feel almost no sympathy for the character’s struggles as they rarely express any desire to do anything. While the film is set in a brothel it is rather tame, particularly Tsuchiya Anna’s scenes and excepting the scenes of the women bathing.

The film is an examination of sex and love and of being stuck in a life with little purpose or chance of salvation. You can view it either as a successfully depressing look at life in a brothel where nothing ever really changes and the soulless objectified women are servile to a ruling class of similarly cretinous men. Or as a failure that set aesthetic values above storytelling, so interested in the concept of a prostitute as heroine that the filmmakers forgot to write a compelling script.

Based on the manga by Moyoko Anno.

Three Outlaw Samurai (1964)

three outlaw samurai

A ronin happens across a village suffering at the hands of a greedy governor. Finding a house of three farmers who have kidnapped the governor’s daughter as a bargaining chip he decides to help. One farmer’s daughter has also been taken by the governor, leading to a stalemate. The ronin is joined by two rogue samurai from the governors guard. Various conflicts ensue as the situation becomes increasingly violent.

The film is based on a long running T.V. series and as such is packed with incident as the characters struggle and scheme against each other. As such the film moves rapidly from one set-piece to another, feeling like a round-up of a series rather than a story which has time to breath. It’s well-shot, in black and white, with plenty of sword-fighting and not a little melodrama. Occasionally it feels cheap compared to other films of the period. Not for the faint-hearted, the film actually  gets surprisingly violent and the treatment of the daughters is fairly shocking.

Violence begets violence is the moral at the heart of this film. The ronin character is played as a hero rescuing the villagers, but their treatment of the daughter is of cause for concern. To what extent should conflict be allowed to escalate. A fast-paced action story with a few powerful scenes which you will remember.

Ping Pong (2002)

Ping Pong tells the story of two friends and their struggles to succeed at ping pong in inter-school championships. The child-like “Peco” Hoshino and his ever serious friend Tsukimoto (nicknamed “Smile” as he rarely smiles) have been friends for a long time. They are the top two player in the Katase High ping pong club and unassailable until a new chinese player arrives and solidly beats Hoshino in a friendly match, and Hoshino is then beaten by Sakuma, a student from rival Kaio school. Hoshino, at first so distressed he gives up training, then decides to stage a comeback at the next tournament. Meanwhile, his friend “Smile” who only plays to kill time and often lets people win despite his superiority also decides to try hard at the competition.

The film is well paced with plenty of character driven jokes. At first Hoshino is a little annoying as his character, incredibly over-the-top immaturity, but this mellows somewhat later in the film. Although the story is pretty basic, the cast of the two leads, their rivals and their trainers, all with very distinct personalities and styles make the film enjoyable. It’s also very well shot, utilising camera angles and shots to liven up the story, and only occasionally straying into manga-esque CG trickery.

The movie revolves around the philosophies of ping pong, the determination needed to win and the fierce rivalries. Although it’s a comedy, the parts which are meant to be serious are done well enough to evoke the desired emotions. In the end it’s a story of friendship and striving for something that you believe in, made interesting by superb directing and acting. One of the better Japanese sports films.

Based on the manga by Taiyo Matsumoto.

One Piece Z (2012)

Monkey D. Luffy and his Mugiwara pirate crew face yet another serious battle, this time with the ex-Marine Zed. After becoming disillusioned with the Marines ability to tackle the pirate threat Zed turned his back on the organisation, taking with him his former friends, including Ai and Bins (both with special powers), and swearing to take out every pirate in the world himself, while warring with his former allies in the Marines. As they follow Zed around the world they soon discover his terrible plan to use explosives in three major volcanoes to cause untold devastation to the world.

The plot of One Piece Z is nothing special, taking elements which will be familiar to those who have seen any of the previous film. Villain established, the film revolves around a number of set piece fight sequences. There is little at stake for any of the characters as this film runs alongside the established franchise, thereby removing any tension or sense of threat. The animation is frenetic and for the most part the film is well-directed and feels “cinematic”. There are plenty of jokes and even some evocative and emotional scenes which play out well.

If you can get past the problem that the film is predictable and overly reliant on fight scenes than character development, then it definitely has it’s enjoyable moment. I think the main problem here is that this is a franchise which ran out of original ideas some time ago and for long-term fans this is very much more of the same.

Mondai no nai Watashitachi (2004)


The film revolves around Miyo, the leader of a group of bullies, who are picking on another girl Maria. When a new girl Mika joins the class and becomes the new class leader and targets Miyo, Miyo realises the error of her ways and attempts to stop the cycle of bullying. Having solved bullying once and for al at their schooll, Miyo is presented with another dilemma. After catching her teacher stealing from a convenience store she becomes targeted by her own class teacher.

This film is one of the worst I have ever seen. Ridiculous story and amateurish direction mean there is almost no tension throughout. The conflict established in the opening scenes is solved by the halfway point meaning the film feels like two short stories welded together. The solution to their problems can be worked out by the audience a long time before the characters realise the best course of action. Add to this the increasingly unbelievable scenarios, glaring plot holes and illogical actions and reactions and you have this disaster of a film. The acting is as patchy as the story and adds to the feeling of watching a poorly scripted television drama.

This could have been good as the problem of bullying is a serious one, but the film underplays the severity of it to such a degree you feel no sympathy for characters and little understanding of the problem beyond clichéd back stories. The only reason you might watch this film is to see how not to write a compelling drama. The moral is that bullying is bad, something which doesn’t require a film to propound and heavy-handed, inept storytelling such as this does nothing to warrant it’s tackling such a subject.

Based on the novel by Maki Ushida.

Destruction Babies (2016)

destruction babies film

Destruction Babies begins in a port town where Shota (Nijiro Murakami) sees his brother Taira (Yuya Yagira) involved in a fight with a large gang. Needless to say the outnumbered Taira is being badly beaten before the gang are forced to run by the arrival of another villager. Shortly after, Taira leaves town and begins a journey of violence, attacking random passers-by in the street on a seemingly pointless personal quest to disrupt his environment. His antics soon attract the attention of another youth Yuya Kitahara (Masaki Suda) who joins him on this mission to violently assault strangers. They also kidnap a hostess named Nana (Nana Komatsu) who also becomes involved in their activities.

Directed by Tetsuya Mariko and written by him together with Kohei Kiyasu, the film is clearly designed to shock. Occasionally you will be subjected to musical accompaniment that sounds like someone threw a drum kit and an electric guitar into an industrial shredder. Hidenori Mukai’s score is purposefully offensive, and in keeping with the tone of the film. The film constantly pricks your conscience by letting you inside the life of this disturbed individual. The camera follows Taira around the streets, searching for victims, making it clear that you cannot escape him, while at the same time making no attempt to explain him. While the story of Taira is fascinating, the tale of his brother is less so and there is an uneasy sense that there was a message there that never quite became clear. Despite its plot and reputation (described as “extreme”), the film is actually a surprisingly polished drama. With beautiful cinematography and a score that is perfectly chaotic, though veers just to the right side of listenable. The acting is good throughout. Yuya Yagira gives a quite disturbing performance as Taira. You are never quite sure if he’s suffering some sort of mental health issue, or just enjoys scrapping and being badly injured. Masaki Suda is extremely unlikeable as an outrageous stereotypical teenage boy, obsessed with sex and violence. Nana Komatsu also gives a heartfelt performance as the shoplifting hostess who gets swept up in their world.

The marketing for the film describes it as extreme, but I feel as though this may have been an in-joke. The fight sequences are undoubtedly brutal as we hear the wet clatter of fists on increasingly bloodied physiognomies, but to see this simply as another violent film would be to miss the point. It is actually a commentary on violence and societies reaction to it. It is a difficult watch, not because of the various scenes of people being pulverised, but because of the apparent pointlessness of it all. It’s hard to describe the plot of Destruction Babies as there seems very little purpose to anything that is going on. But on reflection this is exactly the point. One character later on comes to this realisation, a little too late for him, that what they are doing is meaningless, and that perhaps people should take a step back and consider their actions. The violence gives them some form of escape, of self-expression, but in the end he can’t see what he is trying to do. Not an easy watch, but there are some enjoyable moments. It is a film that will perhaps be unfairly dismissed as another purposelessly bloody film about teenage tearaways. It may also be criticised for not going far enough in its punk sensibilities and being more disturbing or outrageous. Personally, I found it a difficult watch, a little overlong, but one that certainly demands consideration. It won’t be for everyone, but if you like violent films with a satirical edge, this is just the ticket.

Swing Girls (2004)

A remedial maths class tries to get out of studying over the summer vacation by offering to take lunch to the brass band (who are playing at a school baseball game). The girls manage to hospitalise the entire band (with the lunch) and are then forced to replace them. When the band recovers, some of the girls still want to play and decide to start a rival jazz group. The plot is very formulaic, with a few sub-plots and side-stories to fill out the running time. Basically, the hopeless girls must come together to beat the odds and take on the other bands in a competition at the end of the movie.

While the story is very simple and there are few surprises, there are some good jokes spread throughout and genuinely amusing situations. The main problem I had with the movie was with the writing, as some of the dialogue seemed forced and the girls’ speech sounds unnatural. The second problem is that the leads are not presented sympathetically from the beginning and you have to do a lot of work to figure out why you should be rooting for them. A few of the jokes do fall flat for these reasons, and others are so predictable that they provoke little laughter. That said there are a lot of positives; the direction is good and the girls jazz performances are fantastic.

The film works as a feel-good comedy, albeit overly similar to other films in the genre, such as “Waterboys” (by the same director) or “Oppai Volleyball”. A celebration of hard-work and enthusiasm, and the power of music to inspire a lazy, ill-disciplined generation. Probably one of the better examples of the genre, but it occasionally feels almost too cynically put together, lacking a real emotional core.