Dead or Alive 2: Birds (2000)

Two assassins meet unexpectedly when they are both contracted to kill the same man. After realising that they were actually childhood friends, they decide to escape from the city and return to the island where they were brought up, visiting a third friend who is now living there with his pregnant wife. After their respite the two decide to return to the metropolis and use their skills as professional killers to benefit orphans in the third world, by sending the money they make overseas. This soon brings them back into contact with the violent gangs they had previously escaped.

After the grotesque comedy of the first Dead or Alive film, this is a much more sedate affair. There is still puerile humour, sex, violence, and quirky storytelling with bizarre plot twists, but throughout is a strong central theme helped along by fantastic performances by Show Aikawa and Riki Takeuchi. The two actors this time play the assassins returning to their hometown, reliving former traumas and triumphs along with their old friend. Both are charismatic and it is good to see them getting more screen time together. The story meanders its way through their reminiscences and may not appeal to those fond of the more frenetic pace of the earlier film, but it does a much better job of creating likeable characters. Takashi Miike brings a visual flair and intelligence to the directing that keep things interesting. There are moments of pure cinema, such as when the characters sprout wings, one black, one white, or when we see feathers falling from nowhere after a murder, or when the characters transform into their childhood selves.

It may seem out of place to have a school play half-way through a film about hit-men, especially one that is juxtaposed with a sex scene and gangland murders in another part of the country, but it typifies what makes this movie great. By creating a powerful contrast between the placid life of the small island community with the horrors of inner-city crime we get a picture of divided characters, contract killers who still retain their basic humanity. The film is essentially about a loss of innocence as we see what these young boys have become, and their attempt to regain that through travelling back to their old town. The plot involving the two killers helping young children out with money through the proceeds of murder is a fairly pointed commentary on what is wrong with society, and done in a way that makes it seem like common sense (why not kill bad guys and give the money to helpless orphans?). It is great to see a film that has the confidence to tell its audience uncomfortable truths, while at the same time not being overly moralistic.

Vital (2004)

Tadanobu Asano stars in this tense thriller about love, loss and dissection. After waking up from a car crash suffering severe amnesia Hiroshi Takagi (Asano) restarts his medical training, something which he had given up on. He takes to the subject with a great degree of dedication and skill. When the class begin on dissecting corpses, he is surprised to see that the body they are working on is that of his former girlfriend, killed in the same car crash that resulted in his memory loss. As Hiroshi dissects the body, he has recurring dreams in which he sees the woman, Ryoko, spending time with her in that otherworld beyond life.

Directed by Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo: The Iron Man), this film is more accessible than his earlier work. Despite its seemingly macabre and gruesome plot, it is a surprisingly charming film, largely concerned with themes of grief and human relationships, albeit told in an unconventional fashion. The direction uses a number of tricks to disorient the viewer, jumping from real-world and dream-sequences to create a sense of unreality to everything you are seeing, and including seemingly unrelated scenes of factory chimneys that cause you to ponder their significance. One of the most effective shots in the film, for me, was the image of elevator doors sliding up and down beside each other, a simple but chilling effect that puts you in mind of left-right brain dichotomy, and is subtly troubling. Tadanobu Asano does a good job at portraying the lead, who is not only suffering memory loss, a sense of isolation and alienation from the world following his girlfriend’s death, but is also a studious person who is keen to analyse his own psyche as he examines the corpse on the table before him. If there was problem for me with the film it was in some of the more experimental shots, such as a car crash filmed in negative or the aforementioned inserts of smoking chimneys, but these can be forgiven when experiencing a singular vision such as this. The film is far from generic, so some eccentricity is to be expected in the direction.

A fantastic analysis of the relationship between the conscious and subconscious worlds, and how people are able to deal with grief and loss. I would definitely recommend this film to fans of more bizarre stories. There are a few scenes of autopsy that might not be for the faint-hearted, but overall the film does not rely on shock horror allowing you to get involved in what is essentially a tragic love story.

Dead or Alive (1999)

deadoralive

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.

In this Corner of the World (2017)

In this Corner of the World follows the story of Suzu, an absent-minded young girl, constantly daydreaming, and drifting through life quite contentedly for the most part. Born and brought up in Hiroshima in the 1930’s, she is fond of drawing and spends her days making up entertaining stories for her younger sister. When she comes of age, Suzu is married by arrangement to a man from Kure, a nearby town and moves in with his parents. As the Second World War begins to have an increasing impact on their lives, Suzu must navigate the various relationships and trials that she encounters.

Directed by Sunao Katabuchi, the world of “In this Corner of the World” is a contemplative film about how ordinary lives are disrupted by war. Suzu is a likeable and sympathetic protagonist whom you can happily spend time with. Her daydreaming and escapes from reality are relatable and come to have a powerful significance later in the story. There is a gentle humour to proceedings, some subtle (such as her pondering the notion that caramel might soon cost 100 yen) which keeps the first half of the film quite light and enjoyable. While a story set during the war will never be entirely without tragedy, the film takes an interesting approach to the war. It looks at the everyday activities of a family that are interrupted by the war intermittently, a dark blemish on their rural idyll. There is the traditional Japanese focus on the passage of seasons, cooking, family life, and the entire film is infused with a melancholy for a lost world and that recognizable philosophy of trying to find happiness in an apparently mundane life. The animation style is gentle with pastel shades, though incredible detail in the natural world. There is an almost picture-book quality to some of the artwork, especially in scenes when the story drifts between the “realism” of what is happening and the “brush strokes” of Suzu’s imagination. There are also a couple of impressionistic techniques employed, with a shockingly effective black on white sketch-style employed during one dramatic scene. The voice cast do a great job of bringing these characters to life. The relationships between Suzu and her in-law family form several great subplots along with that of the relationship with an old school friend and even a chance encounter with another young woman in the nearby town. While introducing many characters and plots, the film is well-paced, with many short scenes strung together to give the impression of a full and vibrant world. This is especially effective when we see Suzu doing household chores and time passing. There are references to time throughout the film that take on a terrifying significance as the plot draws closer to the atomic bomb falling on Hiroshima, something of which the characters are blissfully unaware, with the periods of time growing closer together as the inevitable tragedy approaches.

The film takes an interesting approach to its story. Ostensibly about the atomic bomb and the experience of ordinary Japanese citizens during the war, it is largely about memory and loss and is effective often for what it does not show, more than what it does. The war and the impending atomic catastrophe are things that are always on the periphery and being largely ignored by the characters. Suzu is a established early on as a daydreamer, whose understanding of the world is coloured not only by experience but her interpretation of it. This theme is later emphasised when she imagines the bursting artillery fire over the town as splashes of paint. This is a more relatable way of looking at the world than an overly melodramatic approach, and becomes more effective when thinking back over the film as you realise you have almost experienced the war as many at the time would have, without the foreknowledge of what is about to happen. The horrific consequences of the atomic bomb are something that are hard to imagine and the film instead focuses upon what led up to it, so that people can understand what had been lost when the world moved into a post-atomic bomb era. A truly great war-time epic focussing on the lives of an ordinary family living through extraordinary circumstances.

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.

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.

Rebirth (2011)

 

 

The film begins with a woman being tried for the abduction of a baby four years earlier whom she has until this point raised lovingly as her own. The real mother of the child is distraught but the woman, Kiwako, seems to show no remorse for her actions. Jumping forward to her early twenties, the young child, named Erina, is continuing normally with her life when she is befriended by Chigusa, a young woman of a similar age who seems to know a lot about her. The film moves back and forth to tell the story of Kiwako and the child she abducted, renamed Kaoru by her, and the adult Erina who is trying to find her own way in life.

This film is expertly plotted with a lot of well-thought out characters which resonate with each other, particularly the figures of Erina’s father and her much older lover. Similarly a contrast seems to be drawn between the real mother Ritsuko and Kiwako. The story is driven by a number of twists and reveals and relies on some powerful acting by the main cast which really helps show their thought processes. The music is light and fits well with the films quiet contemplative mood and the cinematography is first rate. The scenic shots in particular are fantastic.

This film is an interesting watch and throws up many ideas about relationships, in particular maternal affection. Covering everything from loss, infidelity and abortion this film is careful not to be overly bombastic but to portray things fairly realistically which in turn makes it more powerful. Deserves the praise it was lauded with on release this is an incredibly gripping drama.

Based on the novel by Mitsuyo Kakuta.

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (2011)

Hara Kiri Death of a Samurai
The age of the samurai is drawing to a close with many having fallen on hard times. For a struggling ronin there is a risky, but potentially profitable, gambit that might be attempted: approach a wealthy lord and request to commit ritual suicide in his presence. If all goes well the lord will decide to take you on, or at the very least give you some money and send you on your way, rather than see blood spilt in his hall. This so-called “suicide bluff” is what we see attempted in this film by the samurai Tsukumo Hanshiro. However, following his request to commit ritual disembowelment the guards inform him that another recently appeared there attempting the same thing, and rather than being offered money they had forced him to carry out his proposed course of action. We learn that Tsukumo was aware of this and in fact good friends with the young samurai, who is in fact his son-in-law. We then hear the sorry tale that led him to that juncture, taken in by Tsukumo after his own father perished, and married to his daughter with a young child. Through various circumstances he was driven to the rash course of action that ultimately ended in tragedy. Tsukumo is now here for his revenge.

Takashi Miike is usually known for outrageous spectacle, violence, and even extreme horror. With this film, a remake of the 1962 classic, he takes a much more restrained approach. The tone is sombre, the drama slowly revealed and delicately considered. There is a certain theatrical feel to proceedings, particularly the sequences in the lord’s palace. Everything is driven by dialogue rather than action and this could easily work as a stage play. In fact there are perhaps only two sequence of swordplay coming late in the film. The cinematography by Nobuyasu Kita is incredible, perfectly captures the period, the palaces, feudal era streets and homes. The score by Ryuichi Sakamoto is likewise a gorgeous accompaniment to the drama. There is a lot to recommend the film, both cinematography and music, fantastic acting and a stirring central plot. It is a little overlong and lacking in the sort of frenetic action you may expect in a samurai film. It takes its time, relishing each moment and scene, and it rewards patience.

The film features a great look at the code of honour prevalent in the feudal period. It may seem peculiar that anyone would think to attempt this “suicide bluff”, but it allows us a look at both the relationship and reaction to death of this harsher social climate. There are a few hints to a more biting satire here, such as the shots of a white cat perched atop a pillow in the noble palace starkly compared to the feline corpse lying in the dirt in the lower home of the ronin. This is a world where the caste system rules and the line between rich and poor is clearly drawn. It is also a film about duty, both to your family and superiors, and whether it is possible to be good in such a rigid hierarchy, asking what it means to be an honourable person in such a world.

Nobody Knows (2004)

nobody knows

A young single mother, Keiko, moves into a new apartment with her four children, Akira, Kyoko, Shigeru and Yuki, transporting the younger children in suitcases and letting Kyoko take the train so they won’t be discovered (as they were evicted from their last apartment for being noisy). The children are all of different fathers and Keiko is looking for a new boyfriend who will pay for them all. One day Keiko abandons the children with an envelope of Akira, only 12 years old, to take care of the others indefinitely. The film shows the children’s life after their mother leaves and what happens to them.

The film is very well directed and the four young actors, who carry the weight of the film, are exceptional. You really feel for them as their situation goes from bad to unbearable. The main criticism of the film would be that the pacing is very slow, perhaps intentionally to build a feeling of helplessness and grinding tedium the kids are experiencing cooped up in the apartment, but lacking any real goal or direction means the audience is required to have a great deal of patience to see the film through to the end. The other problem with the film is that it doesn’t show the full horror of their predicament. This film is based on a famous 1988 case of abandoned children, the details of which are more harrowing and disturbing than they are portrayed in the film. The music, which seems at times to be almost whimsical and light hearted, along with a few scenes of the children playing and having fun, almost undermine the horrific premise of the film.

Hopefully this film succeeds in raising awareness of this case so similar can be prevented in the future. As a narrative I found there were a few too many lulls to keep it engaging throughout, although the direction and acting were great. The issues it raises about child neglect, abandonment, the problem of the loss of the nuclear family, the plight of single mothers and perhaps the failure of government to fund prevention of these cases are all important. And while it is a noble effort I felt that the film would have benefited from a more shocking, realistic telling of the tale to really affect people.

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.