3.5, Japan

The Kirishima Thing

New York Asian Film FestivalAlt Citizen Magazine2012 / Yoshida Daihachi > In many ways, Gus Van Sant’s Elephant is the best satirical parable about teenage high school life ever put on film. It worked because it was intensely believable even when it went overboard because the tiny details surrounding the giant “laughs” were real, based on experience.  However, the fact that it had to utilize the Columbine Massacre was an unfortunate side effect of what it took to get the point across. (( If you want a more literal (and serious) depiction of a similar topic, you can’t go wrong with Denis Villeneuve’s Polytechnique.))

In The Kirishima Thing, winner of the Japanese Academy Award for Best Picture, it seems a lot simpler: The captain of the high school’s volleyball team suddenly decides to quit. And all hell ensues.

It may strike the average viewer as an event of irrelevance, but in the microcosm of a small school, consider them losing LeBron James to not even free agency but boredom.  Cleveland burned jerseys, but these kids are about to chow down on effigies. Someone symbolic to the culture of a world so miniature leaves and a hole is discovered inside that needs to be filled.  But can it be filled?  Who will fill it?  And how will it affect the balance of that world?

People who follow a person like this, regardless of form and function—are they worthy of one’s attention? Are they, maybe, possibly, the contemporary definition of a zombie? Interestingly enough, that’s what our director is getting at. It may ultimately be a fairly shallow statement, but the so-called losers of this world know one simple thing: This is the world they have to live in. Talented people, such as our MacGuffin Kirishima, believe there is a way out of whatever hellhole they are stuck in. But others need to accept and move on. And often, it just so happens, that comes in the form of fiction—through literature or film or song—a solution outside reality that people insist on.

Those who feel predestined due to their beauty, athletics or traditional intelligence are the ones who are stuck. Those who know no other path are content in finding a way under the radar.  It works not only as an analysis of high school social hierarchies but also class subcultures throughout the world.  Like the boys and girls of mumblecore who whine about their middle class existence (( Best experienced in Joe Swanberg’s Hannah Takes the Stairs. )) while still succeeding in life beyond the average Joe, it’s always the people who have options to rise up or fall who find themselves in states of jealousy or at odds with their paths.  Those who have nowhere to go but up know the direction they must take.

3.0, Japan

Guilty of Romance

2011 / Sion Sono > With Suicide Club and its mass schoolgirl suicides ((Watch the brilliant intro to Suicide Club.)), Sono exploded onto the international scene.  But the problem that plagued that film has continued to persist: A potentially grand concept that don’t translate into a satisfactory cinematic experience.  It’s not surprising that Cold Fish, my favorite of Sono’s, is less conceptual and more focused while still taking advantage of his directorial prowess.  In contrast, Guilty of Romance is a desert of mediocrity with some oases of wonders sprinkled about.

At its gut, the film is trying to tell us something about the private nature of sexuality, and it starts off spectacularly with detectives discovering a murder victim whose body parts have alternatively been replaced by those of a life-size doll.  Setting into motion character studies of three women, Guilty shines the most when we follow the path of a quiet housewife of a respected poet as she begins her road to self-discovery.  Played by the gorgeous Megumi Kagurazaka ((Kagurazaka is now married to Sono.)), her transformation is what will resonate the most with most viewers.  The details of her everyday routine, its minor shifts followed by a scene of masterwork in front of a mirror sadly shows the film peaking in the first act.  As often happens in Sono’s films, things derail in a manner that some would consider abstractly brilliant while others like myself just find frustrating to no end. Guilty of Romance’s triptych of female sexuality descends into a kind of madness that makes the analysis moot at the expense of a near-rudimentary thriller finale.

3.0, Japan

Norwegian Wood

2010 / Anh Hung Tran > In Norwegian Wood, Haruki Murakami crafted the college years of Holden Caulfield—a spirit of universal self-identification that made the novel a cult favorite for those who felt something was missing in their lives. It broke through traditional boundaries and expectations of love and set many of us upon a quest to find our own Midori. But I’ve not found her in Tran’s adaptation. In her portrayal, Kiko Mizuhara is too sweet. The bite that gave Midori her allure just isn’t here. And that, in itself, is a failure that I cannot look past.

Those who haven’t read the novel may like—and even love—Norwegian Wood. With elegant, graceful panning shots, the cinematography is exquisitely done by In the Mood for Love’s Mark Li. The score, by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, is haunting but lovely and works in-step with Li’s cameras. And Anh Hung Tran is still, by consensus, considered the best director to ever come out of Vietnam. The attention to detail Tran brought to the project is evident in nearly all aspects of the film, but ultimately, the issue is one of (mis)interpretation.

This is where it falls apart for those who cherish the book. The film simply fails to capture the wonder of Toru Watanabe, the way he’s an everyman. There’s simply too much focus on his relationship with Naoko wherein I’ve always considered his relationships with Midori as well as Nagasawa—who effectively works as a foil—to be more important. Lost amidst this is the most beautiful and tragic character of all: Hatsumi. What I’ve always considered my favorite passage (includes minor spoilers) is a passing narration. For some, this won’t matter, but for me, this was the ultimate dealbreaker. As far as I’m concerned, no adaptation of Norwegian Wood can succeed without Hatsumi’s poignance.

All in all, Norwegian Wood can be affecting, but it’s more of a rumination upon the book: A lot of set pieces and lingering looks while lacking the work’s full, transformative power. But for obsessive Murakami fans, it’s also possible that this is the best adaptation we’ll ever get.

5.0, Japan


Life as Fiction (Through Time)

Tekkonkinkreet by Michael Arias is the yearly favorite from 2006 as listed in Life as Fiction (Through Time): An Exercise in the Clockwork and Constriction of Cinematic History, a project to chronicle my favorite film from each year since 1921.

2006 / Michael Arias > Tekkonkinkreet paints a portrait of adolescence with the right pigments and shades, with beauty and sorrow, loneliness and anger all packed into tight spaces that refuse to go away once the credits roll. Arias and Studio 4°C’s inventive style fits the bill perfectly, with its depiction of the fictional Treasure Town’s grimy streets and the two youthful protagonists’ parkour-style street running. But it’s not just about how pretty it all is. The writing is superb, capturing brotherhood in a way that’s neither sensationalist nor ideal. Violence and loyalty are two thematic elements that carry the film from beginning to end: The former as a medium by which to prove the latter. It’s got the kind of gutsiness that can provoke the imagination as well as the heart.

Originally posted on October 6, 2008.

4.5, Japan

Vengeance is Mine

Life as Fiction (Through Time)

Vengeance is Mine by Shohei Imamura is the yearly favorite from 1979 as listed in Life as Fiction (Through Time): An Exercise in the Clockwork and Constriction of Cinematic History, a project to chronicle my favorite film from each year since 1921.

1979 / Shohei Imamura > For all the serial killer stories that have ever been put on the silver screen, none have approached the subject in a manner as blankly as this. Vengeance is Mine is a story about love—not that of a man and a woman, but about a human being vs. society. The way the dominoes fall don’t often go as planned, and sometimes killing a stranger and sticking his cold, dead body in the closet is necessary. For Iwao Enokizu, this is neither good nor bad. It is an action that complements his strategy for survival. There is no premeditation besides the obvious need to grow older, but in his eyes, one has a hard time seeing a rationale for even living. Ken Ogata’s performance as Iwao, for whom Japan led a 78-day manhunt in 1963, is chilling in its exactness as it captures the kind of stoic judgment the killer makes at will. His value of life is a mystery, but his existence is the kind of evil that myths are built around. He begs, over and over, a simple question to the viewer: Is it possible that there are those who cannot possibly be loved?

Originally posted on April 1, 2010 before inclusion into (Through Time).

4.0, Japan

Boys on the Run

#10: Boys on the Run by Daisuke Miura. In the ten days leading up to the 83rd Annual Academy Awards, I listed my ten favorite films of 2010, each accompanied by a custom Criterion Collection cover inspired by Sam Smith’s Top 10 of 2010 Poster Project.

New York Asian Film Festival2010 / Daisuke Miura > The paradox of the Twitter generation is its ability to be virtually social while being a physical recluse. This is life as we’ve come to accept it, but sadly clicking the “Like” button and posting on a girl’s Facebook wall doesn’t actually equate to understanding someone. And Japan, with its social hierarchy only moderately stretched by a few ostentatious rebels, excels in the most amusing of social phenomena—such as a telekura (short for “telephone club”) where men set up “dates” with women who usually have more to offer. With such conveniences, it’s no wonder that a telekura is where we find our lead character Tanishi, a virgin, on his 29th birthday.

Based on a manga by Kengo Hanazawa, Boys on the Run is effectively a delayed coming of age story. Mislabeled as a sex comedy, its laughs are more out of pity than joy. But it works wonderfully because there’s a bit of us in all of Tanishi’s misdirected actions. The way in which we see him mature is believable; it’s more reminiscent of Rocky than The Mighty Ducks. Played straight by Kazunobu Mineta, who in real life is a punk rocker with a penchant for getting naked during shows, Tanishi’s hope for sexual satisfaction provide the crux of the story. A lot can go wrong with such a simple goal, but unlike campy sex comedies, the finalities here are less conventional. It’s not about shock or warmth, but the reality of aging. In some ways, the film is for everyone who’s missing a piece of themselves, and it yells to the viewer that it’s never too late to fight, even if you’re going to lose, to make yourself feel whole again.

4.0, Europe, Japan

Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence

1983 / Nagisa Oshima > Oshima’s take on love and sexuality in In the Realm of the Senses is equally as unforgettable as what he does with war in Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence. The nuances of conflict have been touched upon in multiple ways, but there is something truly intimate here that doesn’t really strike you until the very last second. It’s easy to show the superficial nature of friendship for those on opposing sides, but Oshima manages to capture the whole gamut—from jealousy and hatred to love and respect—through rich cultural subtext and pointed camerawork. His exploration of the differences in mentality between the British prisoners and their Japanese captors is superlative to more heralded attempts such as The Bridge on the River Kwai.

Ryuichi Sakamoto’s soundtrack is haunting, though its electronic sensibilities can feel a bit dated at times. Still, the title track remains one of my favorite instrumentals ever. Trickiest, no doubt, is Sakamoto’s overacting which may have been caused by his mediocre grasp of English. (Sakamoto himself found his performance cringe-worthy.) On the other end, David Bowie picks up quite a bit of the slack opposite an incredible performance by Takeshi Kitano. In a film filled with memorable scenes, his last one takes the cake. It makes everything click at the end and confirms that you’ve seen something special.

3.5, Japan

Giants and Toys

1958 > Yasuzo Masumura > Several times during Giants and Toys, I checked when the film was made. Kept on thinking late 70s, maybe mid-60s. But no, this was the prescient work of Masumura back in 1958, before the world of AMC’s Mad Men and a far cry from the salarymen lifestyle we see now in Japanese cinema. This is as biting a morality tale as Sweet Smell of Success but with a lot more color, a girl with terrible teeth and pop culture satire undermining the apparent comedy. No wonder Park Chan-wook considers this man one of his great influences.

2.0, Europe, Hong Kong/China, Japan

Blood: The Last Vampire

2009 / Chris Nahon > Tragically boring. When you’ve got the confluence of vampires, live-action anime and Korean megastar Jeon Ji-Hyun’s English-language debut, you expect at least something. Not necessarily storytelling or character development, but at least lots of awesome fights and maybe some skin. But there too, Blood fails. What a terrible intro to Gianna Jun (as she’ll be known stateside), who gained much of her fame through her hard-knock, lovable lead in the rom-com sensation My Sassy Girl. The lack of adequate roles for well-known Asian actresses continue to leapfrog their abilities, and unless you count Gong Li’s serviceable turn as a half-Chinese, half-Cuban drug-mama in Miami Vice, the category continues to remain empty and shameful.

2.0, Japan

20th Century Boys 2: The Last Hope

New York Asian Film Festival2009 / Yukihiko Tsutsumi > We’ve established that Japan’s incapable of making a proper blockbuster by looking at the treatment the first chapter received, and now that the second chapter’s here, there’s no need to beat that dead rabbit again. But there’s another dead rabbit worth beating, however: Some comics, mangas and books are theoretically unfilmable. They’re considered so because most minds can’t grasp how such works should be portrayed on the screen. In these cases, the director needs to have an innate understanding of not only the work in question, but also the intent of the author as well as a personal vision and style that doesn’t deviate from the aforementioned intent. And that doesn’t happen often, otherwise we wouldn’t be hellbent on panning so many adaptations that’ve peeped through Hollywood’s budget books over the years. But two examples that pop-up instantly in my mind are Michael Winterbottom’s Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story and Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Both utilize different angles of approaching classic works in transforming them into something magical. You could make the argument in each case it was not necessarily the technology that was lacking, but the imaginations. To add further fuel to the fire, consider the creativity that went into Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, a grand gesture of the cinematic medium even before sound arrived!

Tsutsumi just hasn’t done that. Chapter Two is confusing, with terrible pacing and mediocre acting. Even the few dubbed dialogues in Thai aren’t synced properly! The show’s a bloody mess, and really, what more can you expect from a manga that jumbles back and forth, each time letting small pieces of information flow through the storyline. Another thing that’s missing is the sense of scope that the manga provided. Compared to the dystopian vision that Naoki Urasawa intended, the recreation here is childish and almost laughable to the point where the whole plot seems ridiculous. But the manga finds ways to make you believe, and that, above all, leads the movie into a realm of failure. All of this, sadly, I still attribute to terrible production value. In the right hands, this is a masterpiece. But here, it’s just box office fodder.