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.

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.

April Story (1998)

Nireno Uzuki travels from Hokkaido to Tokyo to begin university. A lonely, confusing time for the young girl as she moves into her apartment, makes new friends, and learns to live by herself. Towards the end of the film we see her reason for travelling to a university so far from home. A boy who she is in love with is also attending that university.

The film is short and largely without major incidence. The director uses a lot of handheld shots and the acting is naturalistic, often seeming more like a documentary than a film. The score is similarly understated soft piano music, but the whole is a pleasant experience. It captures the feeling of being alone in a new place. Each of the scenes has something to say about the experrience of living alone, fears, dangers, melancholy, but also the joy.

A film more about feeling than action. Not a traditional love story, in fact we only find out about her romantic interest late in the film, but definitely worth a watch.

Cyborg She (2008)

When hapless loner Jiro is met by a beautiful young woman on his birthday he cannot believe his luck. After a night of hijinks, the mysterious stranger tells him that she has travelled from the future and must now leave. A year later, the same woman walks back into his life and he discovers that she is a cyborg, sent back by his future self to protect him.

The premise is about as silly as they come, but the film-makers manage to weave an emotional story between the more outrageous comedy. As you might expect there are plenty of slapstick moments involving the robot, such as her malfunctioning after drinking alcohol, or slamming various men into walls when they try to touch her. Haruka Ayase gives a great central performance as the cyborg, perfectly capturing the robotic motions while managing to exude a degree of charm and humour. Along with Keisuke Koide, who plays the bumbling geek Jiro, they are a good comic partnership, with his ineptitude matched by her cold confidence and attempts to learn how to be a human. There are moments that go beyond ridiculous such as the cyborg running at impossible speeds, and as usual the time-travel paradoxes are best not to think about too hard. I was most surprised by the films tender moments, especially the scene where Jiro is taken back to his childhood. The film almost stops while we explore this past world and the music and direction create a poignant vignette of childhood memories. The main issue here is that the tone swings wildly from slapstick to sentimental, occasionally such a drastic change as to feel like a separate film. Writer and director Kwak Jae-yong  has cobbled together something bizarre and abstract, heavily influenced by science-fiction and romantic comedies that have gone before, that nevertheless is strangely enchanting. There are scenes reminiscent of Terminator and Star Wars, and the entire plot is a sort of mix-tape of greatest hits moments from other love stories. Some great special effects work, stunts and larger scale action sequences, make this an enjoyable watch. But throughout there is a clear focus on characters and story that is heartfelt.

This film surprised me with its quality as from the title (Japanese: My Girlfriend is a Cyborg) and premise, you might expect a cheap knockabout comedy, with gags about her not fitting in. While this is partly true, there are some genuinely amusing scenes and a real warmth to what they are attempting here. I feel as though the film was misnamed because at its heart it is a film about the past, rediscovering lost memories, love and loneliness, and a whole collection of things that aren’t quite captured in the comedy title. A good romantic comedy with science-fiction elements that is unexpectedly impactful in emotional content.

Norwegian Wood (2010)

At University, Watanabe begins a tumultuous relationship with Naoko, whose ex-, and Watanabe’s friend, unexpectedly committed suicide while the three were at high-school. After Naoko withdraws to a spiritual retreat in the mountains, suffering some unknown psychological affliction, Watanabe embarks, haltingly, on another relationship with fellow student Midori. A poignant tale which touches on both the terror of pre-destination and the oft-times confused relationship between romantic and physical love.

The film depicts Watanabe’s journey to adulthood thoughtfully, lingering over a word or a look in silence. The use of metaphor is striking, with weather, from rushing winds to frozen winters, giving scenes a power beyond words. The acting too is passionate and sincere.

Capturing the feeling of helplessness, that time is moving unerringly forward and our fate’s dependence on others, that love and sex are sometimes incomparable forces, the film exudes a tragic beauty, being at once a warning to, and celebration of adolescence.

Based on a novel by Haruki Murakami.

Villain (2010)

 

Villain, Japanese, Crime, Film

The film begins with a bright young university student, who is unexpectedly killed early on. From there we follow the aftermath of this tragedy and the consequences it has on her family and her killer. The man responsible for her death, Yuichi, begins a relationship with another girl, and decides to flee to attempt some semblance of a normal life, knowing that he is entirely culpable for the murder.

The film is beautifully shot and, excepting a few over-the-top scenes, the acting is also good. The film is very much a character piece, with the focus being on the impact of the young girls death on those around her, and is generally well-done. Occasionally, scenes seem to have no bearing on the main thrust of the plot and sometimes it seems overlong, but when it focuses on the leads it is quite powerful, particularly towards the end.

The film rests on a central premise: can a killer ever be forgiven or find redemption for an inexcusable act, although the ending is as shocking as the opening death with an entirely unexpected denouement. It also looks at themes of culpability and revenge, with another character indirectly responsible for the girls death, and the boys grandmother receiving similar vitriol to the killer.

Linda, Linda, Linda (2005)

linda

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.