Dead or Alive (1999)

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The film’s opening sequence knocks you over the head with its rebellious attitude. Intercutting between a strip-show, cocaine snorting gangsters, a shoot-out, and an apparent suicide, are coming at you so thick and fast that it is overwhelming. Once the narrative proper starts there is a clear intent to shock, with bestiality porn shoots, a horrific death involving an enema, and several other alternately horrific and hilarious set-pieces. The central story involves a feud between gangster Ryuichi (Riki Takeuchi) and police detective Jojima (Show Aikawa), though it is hard to say that is what the film is truly about. Rather that rather staid plot is used as a canvas for director Takashi Miike to create a work that is troubling and humorous in equal measure.

Director Takashi Miike’s “Black Society Trilogy” established his reputation as a talented film-maker, with an exciting, politically conscious take on the Yakuza genre. With Dead or Alive, Miike again tackles many of the same issues, but there is something different in “Dead or Alive” a punk aesthetic that is typified in the extreme opening and closing sequences of the film. It almost feels as though Miike is attempting to sabotage his own work, although it might be politer to suggest he is creating a post-modernist masterpiece. There are a number of fantastic scenes here, building character and back story, and Takeuchi and Aikawa give incredible performances throughout. During the interrogation scene there is an almost unbearable tension between the two leads. Watching a Miike film you are aware that he is fully in control. If he wants you to feel panic, dread, to laugh or be shocked or even upset, he can, casually confounding your expectations throughout. The film is such an eclectic mix of slapstick and gross out humour wrapped around a core of serious crime drama that it shouldn’t work, but somehow it does. Miike almost seems to be suggesting that he could make a great Yakuza epic if he wanted, but is constantly distracted by some wild or hilarious idea with which to toy with the audience, or perhaps it is all a commentary on the film industry, or whatever else occurred to him that day.

Miike delights in taking well-worn stories about cops and gangsters and turning them on their heads. There is social commentary here, on crime, the treatment of women, immigration and more, but it feels as though the whole thing has been through a blender. It is a kaleidoscope of ludicrous over-the-top moments, sombre family drama and scatological humour. Obscene, bizarre, satirical, at times emotionally raw, it is a film that pulls no punches.

Oppai Volleyball (2009)

5 Junior High School boys share the same dream. Of touching, or even seeing a pair of breasts. When a new young female teacher, Mikako Terashima, is put in charge of their volleyball team they make her a deal: If they win a game in the upcoming tournament she will show them her breasts. The only problem is that they’re hopeless at volleyball,  having never played or even trained before. But with this fantastic reward ahead of them the boys suddenly find a renewed will to train hard and persevere. The film also looks at the life of their teacher and her reasons for moving to a new school and her passion for education.

The film works well as a light high-school comedy. Plenty of jokes and a good summer soundtrack. Mikako’s story is intended to add a sense of drama to the story with her contemplations on her career. This does add an element of gravitas to the largely frivolous story, but at times seems an unusual contrast. The film captures the youthful spirit and the jokes are funny, albeit mostly on the same theme. The acting is also solid from Ayase Haruka, as the overwhelmed teacher, and the boys, who deliver their lines with real zeal.

Oppai Volleyball (or Boob Volleyball) great feel-good summer sports film with an unusual MacGuffin (or pair of MacGuffins) providing a look at the humorous side of adolescence and education. Teaching us, in a roundabout way, that working hard for a goal you believe in is a noble thing.

Based on a novel by Mizuno Munenori.

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.

The Machine Girl (2008)

Ami is an ordinary high-school girl. She and her younger brother are orphaned. When her brother, Yu, is bullied and killed by a local gang, whose leader, Sho Kimura, is the son of a violent Ninja/Yakuza boss, Ami vows to take revenge. She begins killing the bullies responsible for her brothers death. When her arm is cut off after being caught by Sho’s father, she approaches Miki, a mother grieving the loss of her own son at the hands of Sho’s gang. Miki, a mechanic, makes a machine-gun arm for the girl and the two of them set of together for revenge.

The film is an over-the-top splatter comedy and shouldn’t be taken seriously at all as any form of high art. The plot is paper thin and characters are painted very broadly and show little development. But the villains are suitably repulsive and the heroine suitable likeable. The violence is extreme, blood fountaining from arteries, severed heads, limbs and other gruesome spectacles abound. The direction is pretty good at capturing that frenetic comic-book style and there are many cruel jokes that cross the bad taste line in staggering style. In places the film lacks a certain sheen and looks very amateurish, but it is low-brow in the enjoyably inventive sense and never lacks pace even if it lacks a coherent narrative.

Not for the squeamish or those looking to be intellectually challenged, but if you’re a fan of gore and violent spectacle and can appreciate the tongue-in-cheek black humour this might be for you.

Waterboys (2001)

Suzuki, the sole member of his high-school swimming team, is joined by many more when a new young teacher joins as coach. When she decides to form a synchronised swimming team she whittles these recruits down to an awkward group of five who are willing to carry on her dream, even when she leaves to have a baby. As the boys train they gain in confidence and ability as the move towards the end of term event where they will perform.

The film moves at a quick fire pace and continually wrong-foots the audience with minor plot twists and unexpected jokes. The acting and camaraderie of the leads is heart-warming as this odd quintet pursue their unusual dream. A fantastic feel good summer film which, despite a tenuous  premise, fills the running time admirably with plenty of laughs. The direction is similarly beautiful and the synchronised swimming is surprisingly good when it does happen.

A film about friendship and the sense of achievement which comes of seeing something through to the end despite people’s raised eyebrows the film is a triumphant celebration of that end-of-high-school feeling. Definitely a recommended watch if you want a solid summer comedy.

Make-up Room (2015)

Based on a stage production, the film takes you behind the scenes at a the filming of a pornographic film. Far from what you might expect, the film is surprisingly emotional and packed with some hilarious moments. We begin with the arrival of Tsuzuki (Aki Morita) who is working on make-up for the film. The day’s shooting will involve several actresses. We pretty much stay with Tsuzuki throughout as the rest of the cast come and go, exiting through the door to set or appearing in the make-up room, these include all the female cast, the director, the runner, director of the agency that is providing one of the girls, and at one point the entire filming crew. There is really not much point in describing a plot as there is not much of one. Through their various scenes and conversations we learn a little about each of the characters and about the job they are doing. The more experiences actresses are joined by a novice, who they take under their wing.

The film really belongs to the cast, comprised of both film, stage and AV actresses. Everybody delivers an amazingly real performance. Aki Morita is fantastic as the make-up artist, who remains calm while there is a great amount of insanity going on around her. She is sort of the stand-in for the audience as she offers somebody for the more eccentric cast to play off. The origins of “Make-up Room” as a stage play are evident in the limited set (comprising of the single room), and the focus on dialogue driven action. There are many laugh out loud moments, such as one actress falling asleep in the chair and having her make-up applied on the floor and the whole film functions well as an elaborate farce, with cast rushing in and out and things becoming more ridiculous as it progresses. Another example is when they are attempting to film and interview and are constantly interrupted by ambulances, helicopters and a man selling hot dogs outside. Director Kei Morikawa, who has had a long career directing adult videos, does a great job with the cast, bringing out the best in their performances.

As well as the humour the film also strives for a serious dramatic edge at times. There is a moving scene when one woman is told that she is not needed for the cover shot for the DVD they are producing, telling Tsuzuki that she is too ugly for any mainstream role. There is also throughout a sort of melancholy, with characters referring to their struggles finding work, even the manager of the promotion company complaining that it is an increasingly difficult genre to work in. In its more reflective moments the film is highly effective and deals with some serious issues concerning work, loneliness, career worries, and more, albeit in an unconventional environment. It shows you the pornography industry as just another job, one with all the same worries and problems as any other. Unconventional comedy with occasionally heartfelt messages.

Linda, Linda, Linda (2005)

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Three friends, Kyoko, Kei and Nozomi, decide, after problems with other members leaving, to keep their band together and perform at the closing concert of their high school cultural festival. Wanting a clean break from the songs they have performed before, they choose to cover The Blue Hearts, a popular punk band of the late eighties/ early nineties. The only problem is that they don’t have a lead singer. They recruit a Korean exchange student, Son, who they hope will be able to learn Japanese in time for their performance. The film focuses on the girls’ friendship with each other, as well as their relationships with friends and family.

The plot of this film will be familiar if you have seen any films set in a high school: a group of friends practice for a final competition, or performance. This film almost seems to know that this plot is a cliché, and it never attempts to draw any drama from suggesting that they might not succeed, or that there are any problems to overcome (other than learning the songs). Instead the film takes almost a back seat as we watch their journey. Aided by great direction, which brings this above many similar movies in the genre, it always seems as though we are looking in on their lives. The romantic, if they could be called that, subplots, go nowhere, with one girl turning down her admirer, and another unable to confess her affection for a classmate. There are several scenes involving the girls’ families, or friends, which have no significance to the plot, or don’t reach any sort of resolution. Instead, the film seems to be giving us a snapshot of their lives. This might be frustrating for some, but I found that it made for an interesting film, rather than being an overly dramatised portrayal of high school life. The four lead actresses do a fantastic job, playing their different roles well, and are all likeable. Most of the humour derives from Bae Doona’s Son, who struggles with Japanese and Japanese culture, leading to many scenes of confusion (such as when she attempts to book out a Karaoke booth to practice singing, only to be told that you need to order a drink to be allowed to sing).

The film does a good job of showing a realistic group of friends, with a lot of humour and great direction. The peculiar strength of the film is in its subtlety. While many films of this type would be trying hard to make you sympathise with the characters, using either an unexpected tragedy, or some serious issue, this film seems entirely unaware of your presence, offering only a candid look at the protagonists’ lives. Rather than making you feel distant, this instead makes you want to learn more about these characters, and cheer for them. The film leaves many things unsaid, again unusual in this genre, which usually ties up every subplot neatly. I would recommend this film to anyone who is a fan of this type of high-school film, as it does attempt to do things in a different way, has a lot of humour, and a great soundtrack ending with two fantastic renditions of Blue Hearts classics.