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Archive for the ‘Film Reviews’ Category

Kurosawa Kiyoshi should be considered his own genre. While primarily known for his horror films in the West, he got his start with pinku eiga movies (like many other Japanese directors) then moved into yakuza territory before making the switch to horror. Highly skilled, Kurosawa can successfully move between genres but every film he has made is distinctly and undeniably his. He uses unorthodox techniques and favors convoluted storylines with intense thematic complexity. He likes playing with experimental techniques; in his work you will find everything from disorienting shot placement, to musical numbers, to short silent films. There are a few things, however, that he uses with regularity and have become part of his style – ambiguous narratives, the use of both static and tracking cameras that form exceedingly long takes, the tendency to film his characters from a distance, the use of reflection and light, illogical editing, extremely deliberate pacing. He also has very important things to say about Japanese society – social alienation, the gap between generations, the modern family and workplace, morality. But what makes his films so special is that he does these things while scaring the hell out of the audience.

RETRIBUTION (2006, Japanese title Sakebi, ‘scream’) isn’t the best Kurosawa movie and it isn’t the scariest, but it is a great example of what Kurosawa does. The film opens with a static shot of a murder, viewed from Kurosawa’s recognizably distant vantage point. A man in a black trench coat is holding a woman in a blazingly red dress face down in a muddy puddle. The scene is completely silent; when the man finishes his task he walks away. Detective Yoshioka (played by Kurosawa’s cinematic alter-ego Yakusho Koji) is tasked with investigating the murder. However, he begins to wonder if he is the murderer, as he uncovers evidence that seems to point to him and is haunted by images of the ghost in red. As he attempts to discover her identity, a series of similar killings take place in the area – seemingly random people are all drowning loved ones in seawater.

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ADRENALINE DRIVE is one of the first movies I watched when I was initially getting into Japanese film. Back in 2000, VHS still reigned supreme and it was pretty difficult to get your hands on Japanese movies in Colorado. Upon realizing that I had exhausted most of the sci-fi movie selection at the local Hollywood Video (remember when people used to RENT movies from STORES???), I stumbled upon a VHS copy of ADRENALINE DRIVE. Up to that point, I had really only watched jidai-geki style samurai movies, so my 12 year old brain was pretty interested in seeing a ‘normal’ Japanese movie. Though I bought it on a whim, ADRENALINE DRIVE turned out to be a ridiculously fun parody of yakuza caper films.
The movie opens with Suzuki (Ando Masanobu), a spineless rental car clerk, accidentally rear ending a car full of yakuza. Always ready to exploit the situation, the yakuza force Suzuki to visit their office and settle the debt. After an uncomfortable moment with the yakuza leader Kuroiwa (Matsushige Yutaka), Suzuki is let off the hook when a gas explosion destroys the office. Hearing the blast, an off-duty nurse Shizuko (Ishida Hikari) rushes into the building to help. Seeing the dead yakuza, Suzuki and Shizuko leave with a case full of blood-soaked cash. However, a badly injured Kuroiwa knows their identities and, now bed-ridden in the hospital, sends a group of low-level chinpira after them to retrieve the stolen money. Now on the run from the yakuza, ADRENALINE DRIVE is about the bizarre misadventures the unlikely pair experience.

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Horror is typically regarded as the least feminist genre of film; a genre that routinely objectifies, sexualizes, tortures, rapes and murders women and girls. However, if viewed from a different angle, horror films often feature story lines that grant wronged women the power and agency (in death) to respond to the injustices done to them in life.

‘Dead wet girls’ is a term coined by David Kalat in his book J-Horror to describe the unique female ghosts who are so iconic in Japanese horror. While popular Japanese films like RING and JU-ON have made this figure recognizable to Western audience, the wronged woman has been a prominent figure in Japanese ghost stories and mythology for centuries. Of course, the interpretation of these stories is fairly ambivalent; often the presence of malignant ghosts and spirits is connected back to the failure of mothers and wives to perform their womanly duties. In many Japanese folktales, female spirits are connected back to the savage and unpredictable natural world.

 TRADITIONAL JAPANESE GHOST TALES

KWAIDAN (1964)

The best example of this connection to nature is the Yuki-onna (snow woman), famously depicted in Kobayashi Masaki’s KWAIDAN (1964). The Yuki-onna is a beautiful woman with long black hair, who typically appears before travelers lost in snow. The Yuki-onna typically kills the unfortunate travelers she meets, though she may also take unsuspecting men as lovers in a succubus-like fashion. She is essentially the manifestation of winter; beautiful and serene yet capable of ruthlessly killing those who are ill-prepared. She is also a reminder of a woman’s fury – like nature, no woman can ever be fully trusted. Kobayashi Masaki’s depiction of the Yuki-onna is captivatingly surreal. Starring Nakadai Tatsuya, the entire segment was filmed in an obviously artificial indoor set with swirling painted backgrounds (featuring an ominous eye).

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Based upon the novel by Otsuichi, GOTH is about two morbid high school students who share a fascination with murder. Kamiyama (Hongo Kanata) is an outwardly friendly and popular boy who hides his potentially sociopathic nature with a carefree, happy attitude. Loner Morino (Takanashi Rin), on the other hand, does little to hide her strange nature; she never smiles, doesn’t interact with her classmates, and wears a long-sleeved, black school uniform even during the middle of summer. While these two seem to share little in common and do not interact with each other in front of their peers, their shared interest in death and murder has turned them into an unusual duo. Initially happy to exchange books on morbid subjects, a series of recent murders spark their interest and they begin investigating the killer. This serial killer has a fondness for cheerful young women and, after severing their left hand as a trophy, displays their dead bodies in public locations to be discovered. After Morino discovers the killer’s notebook in a local café, the two use it to see the corpses for themselves before discovery and attempt to discern his identity. Obviously, the closer they get to discovering him, the more danger they are in.

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Yamada Yoji does not make action-packed Hollywood blockbusters. Stemming from the branch of Japanese filmmakers taught by Ozu and Mizoguchi, Yamada’s films usually take a more introspective, down-to-earth direction. While Kabei: Our Mother marks his 80th film, it was only in the early 2000s that Yamada gained the recognition of Western audiences. The films of his samurai trilogy (The Twilight Samurai, The Hidden Blade, and Love and Honor) are all more interested in the internal conflicts of the characters and potent characterizations of the decaying Edo era than in epic, choreographed swordfights. The effect is either lost on the audience or whole-heartedly embraced. In terms of samurai films, Ninja Scroll is a bowl of gyuudon and The Twilight Samurai is kaiseki ryori. Both are delicious, but both are eaten with distinctly different intentions. Additionally, Yamada has built most of his career around depicting two specific eras of Japanese history; the late-Edo (ending in 1867) and Showa (1925-1989). Both of these periods marked times of tremendous change in Japan; the forcible ‘opening’ of Japan to Western trade and end of bakufu (Shogunate) rule (shortly followed by the dissolution of the samurai class) and Japan’s ill-fated foray into imperialism.

Like Yamada’s samurai trilogy, Kabei is not a run-of-the-mill World War II film. The story follows Nogami Kayo (AKA Kabei, played by Yoshinaga Sayuri), a mother who must care for her two daughters after her husband, a professor, is arrested and jailed for expressing opinions contrary to the Imperial war effort. Forced to cope with the difficulties of being a single mother and her own reservations about the rising nationalism in Japan, Kabei raises her daughters with the help of her lovely sister-in-law, a rowdy uncle, and the clumsy and good-hearted Yamasaki. Uninterested in action, Yamada devotes the film’s energy to the portrayal of the characters’ experiences. Uninterested in romanticizing the past, Yamada also places his typical emphasis on historical accuracy and goes to considerable effort to accurately capture the look and atmosphere of Showa era Japan.

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This is one of the best movies you will see all year and everyone should watch it. Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil is the funniest, smartest, and most lighthearted satire of horror movie tropes to be released since Shaun of the Dead. Playing with some of the most tiresome and common clichés of slasher movies, this film manages to cast the entire horror genre in an original and refreshingly light.

 Opening on what appears to be a southern Appalachian forest and mimicking a shot made infamous in Deliverance (and echoed in The Descent), the film introduces us to a band of unwitting and mostly dull-witted ‘college kids,’ who we all know will meet a gruesome end by the film’s conclusion. Headed off on a Memorial Day camping trip (why would anyone ever go camping in the South? Seriously, only bad things happen there), they have a brief encounter with Tucker (Alan Tudyk, Firefly) and Dale (Tyler Labine), two well-intentioned rednecks off to fix up their dream vacation home. Unsurprisingly, they completely misinterpret Dale’s attempt to make small talk with the lovely Allison (Katrina Bowden of 30 Rock)…perhaps partially because he brings along a scythe to casually lean-on as he bumbles through an introduction.

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I’m a big fan of Asian Extreme cinema (Patrick Galloway’s Asia Shock is a great introduction). Like most nerds, I’ll watch all movies that fall into this category…even if I only end up liking 50% of them. Unfortunately this was the case with Kaji Kengo’s Samurai Princess (2009). Sporting the talents of Nishimura Yoshihiro (the man responsible for the effects in Tokyo Gore Police), this movie had a lot of promise to be another flick full of nonsense, gore, and gory nonsense. Unfortunately, it fails to deliver on every level.

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