November 30, 2007

The HAUNTED SCHOOL (2007) - annoying Hong Kong horror

(Hong Kong, 2007, Hau mo chu)

Region 3 Hong Kong NTSC DVD (Joy Sales)

A meaningless barrage of screams, spooky noise and a muddle of images under the title sequence indicate where the film is going from the start.

Someone or other dies and curses the school (all these hangings keep reminding me of Lucio Fulci's City of the Living Dead, which kicks off with a priest sinning by suicide - now there's a horror film) with a curse that's even simpler and sillier than Friday the 13th - basically 'don't fall in love'. Guess what, the school's just gone co-ed. Four young men arrive in an all girl's school, with the teachers, and an angry ghost trying to keep them apart.

Shot on video, with very electronic special effects isn't the problem, though the ease of electronic editing is overused. My main complaint is really the lack of storytelling. Too often we see meaningless parade of exterior shots, spooky sounds, all while the story's going nowhere.

Volume is blasted up for no reason other than to scare, because the story isn't scary. I mean, it could have easily been called the Haunted Toilet, so much of the 'action' takes place in there!

Producer Andrew Lau (director of the
Internal Affairs trilogy and Initial D - The Movie) has obviously the technology to make endless low budget movies - but he's short of scripts and scary horror isn't easy. Using the tested ploy of recruiting a cute cast, and designing a cool poster, plus slapping his name on the credits as a clincher. It worked on me, and I bought the DVD - but I won't be stung twice. If I'd known it was actually a film by the director of Devil Eye I'd have kept my HK dollars...

Granted there are a couple of inventive, but unscary ghost scenes, involving, surprise, a long haired ghost, and some laptop computer fx.

The English subs are OK, and there's an anamorphic picture, and DTS sound. But little within to actually entertain.

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November 29, 2007

MADCHEN IN UNIFORM (1958) - remake of the classic

Germany, 1958

German region 2 PAL DVD (Galileo)

I was searching for DVDs of the 1931 version of Madchen in Uniform (recently reviewed here), when I discovered this colour remake was already out. The 1931 adaption of this rather brave German novel was about the relationship between a teacher and a student at a girl’s boarding school. It dealt with lesbian characters in a matter-of-fact way that’s commendable even today. Though the 1958 version appears to be slightly cagier about the relationship. It's still a very early example of the sympathetic portrayal of lesbian characters.

It tells almost the same story, but the characters are less innocent about the matter, and recognise that a same-sex relationship means unheard of scandal. Everyone senses that lesbian love is dangerous to admit to, and panics accordingly. The original film was less judgemental because it was skirting the issue more, and became more romantic as a result. In black and white, it also looked more beautiful. The colour version has a tough time making the boarding school look drab, dressing the sets and all the girls in grey.

There’s a better sense that everyone is trapped in the school, within high walls, iron gates and bars on the windows. The headmistress is made of iron too, iron willed, unrelenting in her quest for discipline as the ‘be all and end all’ to the country’s problems (set at the turn of the century). Her tough stance, set against the schoolteacher’s progressive, ‘firm but fair’ attitude is the story’s strength, and the conflict is more energetically debated and dramatically dealt with, than the earlier film.

The romantic relationship seems less scandalous between teacher and student because there is less ambiguity about it. The girl, Manuela, is besotted with her teacher, and definitely in love with a woman. But her teacher, Elisabeth, has been misunderstood, and has more of a motherly love for all her pupils. This dodges the issue somewhat, but clarifies the teacher’s character. The scandal however remains and leads to an exciting, but not necessarily fulfilling, climax.

It’s interesting to contrast the two films, but I still need to read the novel before assessing if either film has been faithful. The 1958 version is very accessible and still looks like a modern production. The cast is superb, with Therese Giehse especially fearsome as the headmistress.

Lllli Palmer, as the teacher, is always good at playing strong characters, and has acted in German and English. Born in Prussia, she appeared in British films as early as 1936 (after fleeing the Nazis early on), but later returned to live in Germany before finally settling in the US. She notably appeared as an overtly lesbian schoolteacher in The House That Screamed (La Residencia), a marvellous Spanish horror film that I’ve already written about. It appears to be a ‘riff’ on her role in Madchen. You might also have seen her in The Boys From Brazil (1978).

But it’s Romy Schneider who shines here, and is still mourned in Germany as one of their most beloved actresses. She passed away at the age of 45, ironically even before Lilli Palmer. Her roles are so full of life, even in the English language comedy, What’s New Pussycat? (1965), a sexy romp (scripted by Woody Allen) where she is trying to marry Peter O’ Toole and tear him away from his busy life of bachelorhood.

This German DVD (pictured at top) marks almost fifty years since the film was made. The print was obviously in fairly poor shape, as a lot of electronic restoration has made the picture a little smeary in places. But the bright colours compensate and the soundtrack is very clear. The picture aspect is an acceptable 4:3 and the English subtitles are very readable, but don’t always translate visible text. The only extras are five other, quite racy trailers for Romy Schneider films that are also available on DVD. is a good place to find all of them.

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November 27, 2007

Cult movies already available in High Definition

While the latest blockbusters and flavours of the month are being pedalled hard on HD-DVD and BLU-RAY High Definition formats, it's good to see that some older films of interest, and cult Asian products are also joining the "High-Def" catalogue.

Some releases are shorter on extras than their DVD counterparts, but these formats mean that, on the right home video equipment, you can enjoy these films in better quality than they were ever seen in the cinema, with sharper pictures and cleaner sound. A far cry from the grainy scratchy prints we get in the UK (after they've played a dozen cinemas in the US) and the old monophonic sound systems of pre-multiplex cinemas where you couldn't even make out the dialogue (I still don't know the plot of the original Gone In Sixty Seconds...).

I'd love to cover these films at length when I watch them again, but for now, here's a quick look around. The 1980's are being better represented than the 1970's so far, but some of my favourite 80's films are already out there...

THE THING (1982)

John Carpenter's remake of The Thing from Another World (1951) is a must-see - certainly his most shocking film, featuring the bizarre and imaginative mutating alien creature. Carpenter's original Halloween is also out on Blu-Ray, and The Fog is out on HD-DVD.


My favourite Max movie, featured a more modest Mel Gibson as the hero of this trendsetting, post-apocalyptic epic. Called Mad Max 2 in the UK and Australia, but The Road Warrior in the US (where the first Mad Max had made less of an impression). Classic cinematic storytelling, gruelling stunt-heavy action, and one of the Coen Brothers' favourites too, as influential as The Evil Dead on their bonkers comedy Raising Arizona. Mad Max director George Miller has since found far easier and lucrative films to make... about talking, dancing animals... aargh!

HD DVD 'Combo' (also plays on DVD decks)

John Landis also peaked with this film, a no holds barred horror, that also works as comedy and a snapshot of life in Thatcher's Britain. Again the intricate special effects were achieved on set (like most of The Thing), meaning that there are no ultra-grainy opticals for HD to highlight.


This compendium sci-fi fantasy remake of sixties TV episodes has thus far been missing from even DVD. Again the special effects are largely staged on set, thanks to Rob Bottin's creations and make-ups. Each segment had a different director: John Landis made the ill-fated role-reversal opener. Joe Dante remade the episode 'It's A Good Life' with mad cartoony monsters, in-jokes and a pre-Bart Simpson Nancy Cartwright. Steven Spielberg submits the dullest and most schmaltzy segment, then George Miller saves the day with the barnstorming remake of 'Nightmare at 20,000 Feet'.


Thanks no doubt to the third filming of Richard Matheson's I Am Legend hitting cinema screens, it's good to see my favourite adaption so far get a release. Starring Charlton Heston as Robert Neville in a deserted L.A., this adaption strays from the novel, but in an interesting direction. It also had a poster declaiming that "The last man alive... is not alone". Credit due...


The most famous example of Bruce Lee on film has a very James Bond plot. It'll be a pleasure to see this given a quality presentation.

The high cost of producing High Definition discs currently prohibit many smaller cult films getting out on HD, and may prohibit titles from the far east getting re-released in the west. There are exceptions, and thankfully, some Asian HD releases already have English subtitles.

THE HOST (2006)

This has had a release in the UK and US, and the movie was very carefully mastered with HD in mind. This monster should stand up to very close scrutiny! How many other South Korean films make it to HD is another matter, though D-War has been announced for January.

FREEDOM 1 (2007)
HD-DVD / DVD twin standard

A groundbreaking release for the US is this new anime series. In Japan, OVA (original video animation) gets released chapter by chapter, the DVD sales funding the project while it's still being produced. It may look like a cheat to get only one 25 minute episode per disc, but they're still animating! The first episode of the Freedom project was specially released in the US before Japan.

The hardware and character designs in this futuristic adventure are by Katsuhiro Otomo, the director of Akira, no less. If you want to wait a few years, you will get eventually see all six episodes in one boxset - personally, I'm not going to wait.
The director, Morita Shuhei, previously made the fascinating short film Kakurenbo - Hide and Seek.

PAPRIKA (2006)

Satoshi Kon's (Paranoia Agent, Millennium Actress) new feature is out on Blu-Ray in the US. I'll wager that more anime films get released than any live-action from Japan and the
Far East. Tekkonkinkreet is also newly out on Blu-Ray in the US.

Blu-Rays released in Japan

Meanwhile, in Japan, both Ghost in the Shell feature films are out on Blu-Ray with English subtitles. The discs aren't cheap, but they're out there. If only a few Japanese films get a US HD release, hopefully their Japanese releases will still cater for English audiences this way. Getting the information about whether Asian discs have English subtitles on them is difficult though. For instance,
CD Japan hasn't been as reliable as usual about listing this information, so it's worth checking several sites. They do however have a special HD section mostly full of films from the US.

Another major consideration in this information minefield is the new region-coding map for Blu-Ray, which is NOT the same as the old DVD regions. America is now compatible with SE Asia, including Korea and Japan (but not China). Early releases didn't have this coding, but new discs won't play in your Blu-Ray player if the code is different. HD-DVD discs don't have any region coding.

In Hong Kong, the big budget, high-flying, swordplay costume dramas, like House of the Flying Daggers, are obvious choices for HD, but we didn't even see any HD players for sale in Hong Kong in July! So it's a pleasant surprise that
Initial D - The Movie (2005) is getting a Blu-Ray release. But is that a Region A or Region B disc though? I guess they count as China now. Like I said, international shopping continues to be a bit of a minefield.

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November 26, 2007


(Japan, 2006, Kuchisake-onna)

Region 1 NTSC DVD (Tartan Asia Extreme)

I was looking forward to this one – I didn’t think such a strong urban legend could possibly fail to frighten. A murderer with her face slashed open (echoes of The Man Who Laughs and Mr Sardonicus) with a huge pair of scissors to inflict a similar fate on her victims.

But instead of gory fun, we get a series of rather realistic child beatings. I’d imagined that any children in the story were just going to be frightened by her hideous appearance, but never actually harmed. It’s not very gory, but the suffering of the adults is far less fearsome than the extent of the child cruelty.

This makes the film nasty rather than entertaining – the issue of child abuse is worth exploring and explaining, but not in a horror film, where the problem is shown without any realistic resolution.

Similarly, the plot is very weak. A kidnap victim suddenly spots some broken glass to cut their bonds with, after it's been sitting in front of them for days. The heroes accidentally murder someone without any trouble from the police. The neighbourhood children have an endless supply of accurate information about the slit-mouthed woman, while the police don't. Even the mystery of the monster is wrapped up more simply than a Scooby Doo episode, with the viewers at least half an hour ahead.

The movie's strong point is the monster’s appearance, but this is revealed early on, and many shots are so close, that you can see exactly how the effects have been done – there’s no mystery, no subtlety, no scares - just shocks. The director could have learned something from some of the poster art, that at least has her face defocussed behind the scissors in the foreground.

The monster also has an array of powers, far more complicated than necessary, and mostly unexplained. The flashback story is rather feeble, explaining little more than the way she's dressed. Such a fearsome character deserves a sequel, with a better origin story and more adult victims, please.

So, too much kicking and stabbing of helpless victims, and not enough plot. It’s watchable enough for the performances and the bizarre title character, but I wanted it to have been so much better.

Director Koji Shiraishi has previously delivered Jurei – The Uncanny (which was OK) and Noroi - The Curse.

Eriko Sato, the mischievous star of the recent live-action Cutie Honey movie, is unrecognisable as a harassed, mousey schoolteacher.

The DVD subtitles are a little awkward in places, and the American title of Carved is a misleading one, making the film sound more like a Hostel/Saw/Hatchet job, rather than a yokai story.

I fear this film might be too much for a release in the UK. I wouldn’t be surprised if the British censor only passed this with extensive cuts, particularly with so much child murder in the headlines at the moment.

November 22, 2007

Finally on DVD...

My list of movies that never had DVD releases has got slightly shorter in recent months. But I still have plenty more still to report. In the meantime, here's the good news. (The current list that remain Not-On-DVD can always be found in the sidebar).


My favourite short-story horror film from Amicus studios is finally on DVD. It's joined the MGM Midnite Movies collection in the US, on a double-bill with Vault of Horror, which is sadly in it's censored version (though the region 2 release is reportedly uncut). Much more on Tales From The Crypt here. Very good news and apparently Crypt looks fantastic. Long overdue.


Another long-missing Amicus 'portmanteau' horror film is one of the best, with creepy tales pitching Ian Ogilvy (the star of Witchfinder General) against a phantom door, David Warner (Tron, Time Bandits) against a muderous mirror, and Ian Bannen against Donald Pleasence and his creepy daughter. Now available in the UK and US.


Also in the 'Twisted Terror' range, is this early thriller from John Carpenter. A revision of Hitchcock's Rear Window, but set in two facing apartment tower blocks. This was originally made for TV (like his biography of Elvis, starring Kurt Russell) but remains one of the director's more effective movies. It stars Lauren Hutton and co-stars Adrienne Barbeau, before she appeared in The Fog.


Another MGM Midnite Movie double-bill sees Terence Fisher's low budget sci-fi invasion teamed with Chosen Survivors - also a post-apocalyptic tale of survival. I moaned that this effective b-movie was missing from shop shelves only in June, and now it's out - coincidence or not??? OK, it's a coincidence. Much more on The Earth Dies Screaming here.


Three taught horror thrillers that were hard to see, includes one that I still haven't seen. John Brahms' remake of The Lodger, a fictional tale of Jack the Ripper, first filmed by Alfred Hitchock in 1927! The remake stars the ill-fated Laird Cregar, and was such a hit that he headlined as a similar psycho in Hangover Square. The third film is a rare werewolf film, based on a British horor novel penned before Hollywood (well, Curt Siodmak) scripted The Wolfman. This moody trilogy are the kind of 'noir' suspense films much heralded in Scarlet Street magazine, whose coverage and interviews helped me love these movies even more.


Witchfinder General
is a movie that horror books and websites spend plenty of time talking about. I try and write about the films that don't get talked about as much. But I have to mention this release because it's been missing in America for so long. This uncensored version with the original musical score is the best way to appreciate this gritty classic. From what I've read, this is the best restoration of the film so far, better even than the UK release.

MUSHI-SHI (2005) - Volume 1

This entrancing and unusual anime series is now available in the UK and US. The US releases have beautiful postcards of the original promotional art, as well as an interesting and well-produced brochure inside. Read more about Mushi-shi here. I'm more than ready to watch the series all over again.

SHUTTER (2004)

This scary ghost horror kick-started Thailand's horror boom, but has been absent from western DVD until now. No doubt prompted by it's impending Hollywood remake, the original is now out in the US and imminent in the UK. They've missed the boat slightly, especially since the long black-haired ghost woman is now a genre cliche. But this film is one of the best in the genre.


The 'Ghost School Trilogy' boxset contains the first three films in the Korean 'Whispering Corridors' series, which I reviewed recently, here, here and here.

The fourth film Voice (2005) is also available in South Korea with a 5.1 audio track, available here. The Thai DVD that I reviewed only had stereo on it.


This year's live-action movie of the long-running anime is out in Japan in three different versions, all with English subtitles. They are relatively pricey, but no cheaper releases have so far emerged.

GEGEGE NO KITAROU 'The Movies' Boxset

In support of the feature film publicity, every season of Gegege No Kitarou has now been released on DVD in gigantic boxsets. This one collects all the animated movies that were shown in Japanese cinemas. Some are only half hour long, but are richer in action and have more expensive animation than the series. The movies boxset has no English subtitles though, like all of the Kitarou series sets. My forty years of the Kitarou anime series overview is still here.


Until recently, this was only available full-frame pan-and-scanned in Scandinavia. A new region 2 release in the UK is 2.35 widescreen. More on Fear Is The Key here. It's a killer thriller with a killer car chase - pure seventies cinema.

if…. (1968)

(Note: lower-case 'i', with four full stops). A classic of British counter-culture cinema has been missing from DVD for too long. Now suddenly it's released on both sides of the Atlantic. In the US it even has a Criterion DVD release, though the UK version seems substantially the same. Malcolm McDowell was cast in A Clockwork Orange after Kubrick saw him in this. He later starred in two more films for director Lindsay Anderson, appearing as the same character, the hapless Mick Travis. Oh Lucky Man and Britannia Hospital are also now finally out on DVD.


On a tackier note, the last version of The Lost World to reach DVD is also the first version I ever saw. This DVD will be the first opportunity fo me to see it in 2.35 widescreen. The dinosaurs are played by lizards with frills stuck on, Claude Rains plays the shortest ever Professor Challenger, and this is the only version of the classic novel to heavily feature a poodle. Director Irwin Allen was about to enjoy a successful decade of classic children's TV, starting with Lost In Space and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, before having a disastrous decade of movies with The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno. For all their weaknesses (usually in the acting and realism departments), I can't get enough of his work.

Strangely, an alternate restoration (to any previous release) of the original silent movie version of The Lost World (1925) is also included. This movie is worth a look because it's essentially a dry run for the 1933 King Kong - the pioneering special effects were by Ray Harryhausen's mentor, Willis O' Brien on both projects.


This is a pleasant surprise - the live-action Tintin films have been released in Australia (PAL system, region 4 DVDs). They are missing their English language dub, but are the first releases to have English subtitles. I reported the non-subtitled French DVDs here. The picture quality is apparently unrestored, but for those itching to see these charming and faithful Tintin films, now is your chance.

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November 19, 2007

THE GREAT HORROR FAMILY (2004) Takashi Shimizu's TV sitcom

(Japan, 2004)

Ghostly comedy series, inspired by The Grudge

Region 1 US NTSC DVD series boxset - 13 x 25 minute episodes (Bandai Entertainment)

The cartoon cover art for this DVD set is very misleading, because this is actually a live-action series, a comedy horror show from the creator of The Grudge movies, Takashi Shimizu. He thought up the series and directed the three closing episodes.

This is also one of the few Japanese live-action tv series, (besides the tokusatsu Ultraman and Power Rangers) to be released on DVD in the west. It’s a typical example of Japanese TV shows – low budget, and shot on video. It’s also a curious choice, compared to many other more impressive TV shows.

Besides wanting to be known for something other than chillers, Shimizu started getting ideas about what could be funny about haunted houses, while he was making his horror films. This is most obvious in the early episodes, which contain many references to The Grudge, particularly the long black-haired ghost and her creaking joints. Toshio, the little ghost boy makes a fleeting appearance too.

Kiyoshi and his living dead girlfriend

But the story is of a family moving into an extremely haunted house. Grandpa can sense the spirits immediately, but unfortunately joins them when he too passes away. He awakens the power of psychic awareness in his grandson Kiyoshi, whose job it becomes to protect the family from the many spirits living and arriving at the house. One running joke is that the traditionally wise head of the family, grandpa, is forgetful and keeps losing his train of thought.

Kiyoshi’s dad wants to believe in spirits and UFOs but has no psychic ability at all. His mother, grandmother and sister are all slightly psychic but are so preoccupied that they keep missing the various hauntings. The dog is just there to look cute.

The comedy is broad, the horror is fairly limited, but there are plenty of ghosts and (cheap) yokai monsters. Obviously I missed out on many of the in-jokes, but I enjoyed Kiyoshi’s bumbling character and his kitchen-obsessed mother.

Issei Takahashi as the hapless Kiyoshi

The special fx are pretty basic, occasionally impressive, but usually plain silly.

I was more impressed with the less comedic episodes. The scenario had dramatic possibilities that I thought worked better than the comedic ones. Episodes 5, 6 and 7 had some grim touches as well as touching moments, of the living interacting with the dead. Grandad meets the ghost of a lost love, a gothic schoolgirl is desperate for friendship, and the best story, a zombie bar where the living can have fun with the dead, was an original and nightmarish concept.

The final episodes of the series bring the storyline to a climax, with an over-ambitious time-travel ending where the regular cast members play impressive dual roles.

The series is more interesting than enthralling, and sometimes even funny. But I wished that it had been lighter on the broad comedy.

The generous DVD extras are overlong, but the interviews with Shimizu, and the other three directors, remind us that we don’t often get to hear from him, despite his huge recent horror output. If his English was better, we’d be sick of him pushing his movies on talk shows.

The programme was made 4:3, and is subtitled in English. The boxset contains all 13 episodes from the series.

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KIDAN (2005) - hell on Earth

(Japan, 2005)

A Japanese horror mystery drenched in Christianity

Region 3 Hong Kong DVD (from Geneon) - no English subtitles

The international title for Kidan is Inferno, which makes it sound like a firefighter action movie. But perhaps 'Hellfire' would be a better translation.

I saw the surprising trailer for this two years ago in a Twitchfilm news item, and have been itching to see it ever since. (Having seen the film, I must warn you that this trailer is full of spoilers).

Tired of waiting for a subtitled edition to get released, I bought the Hong Kong DVD which only has Chinese subs, and therefore my plot description is only very approximate.

It starts like a very traditional Japanese mystery movie. A shy research student, Satomi (Ema Fujisawa), travels north into the mountains on the trail of ancient Christian relics that may have ended up hidden in Japanese soil.

The mystery leads her to a small village in Hokkaido, where centuries ago the precious relics are supposed to have triggered a massacre. Far more recently, there was another strange occurence which begins to interest her - a case where two children went missing, a little boy and his sister, but only the little girl was was found.

Satomi meets another investigator (Hiroshi Abe), in a small church where the priest is the expert on the village's history. They also seek the help of two locals, who strongly resemble the characters of Hell Girl and her grandma.

Then a murdered man is found crucified on a nearby mountain, his eyes pecked out. But the village has been cut off by a landslide. Before his body can be studied, it disappears...

The eventual climax reminded me a little of Phantasm, rather than actual religious events - it has a creepy old lady with her grand-daughter, dwarf acolytes, and a gateway to another dimension...

Director Takashi Komatsu (Persona) builds the atmosphere in the village up very nicely, but the staging of the climax is rather literal and the setting unimaginative, saved only by the startling special effects.

The trailer had given most of the surprises away for me, but it missed out on the atmosphere, the shocks and the gore.

The cast are earnest but likeable, if a little underwhelmed by events. Wide-eyed Hiroshi Abe seems to get called into films whenever the unbelievable needs more realism. I've enjoyed him in many fantasy films, particularly in the recent comedy Bubble Fiction, and yelling out Godzilla's name in the trailers for Godzilla 2000.

The story, based on a supposedly unfilmable manga, offers a different angle on the meaning of Christianity. I'd love to see this subtitled, to find out exactly what the story infers. But it looks about as close to The Omen genre that I've seen in a Japanese film.

As an aside, I've seen many other crucifixion scenes in Japanese TV - it's obviously a fascinating image there. For example, there have been several TV episodes through the decades where Ultraman gets crucified.

Kidan has so far not been picked up for release in the west, despite being produced by the prolific horror producer Takashige Ichise, who normally manages to get international interest in his projects. Unfortunately, there are no English subtitles on the Japanese or Hong Kong DVD releases.

The soundtrack by Kenji Kawai was released on CD in Japan. Though only the closing theme makes a lasting impression.

For the curious, the trailer still resides way down in the addictive Gomorrahy Trailer Park... but remember that I said SPOILER ALERT!

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November 18, 2007

MISHIMA: A LIFE IN FOUR CHAPTERS (1985) a film from two countries

(USA, 1985)

The story of the controversial Japanese author, filmed in Japan by an American director

This is an excellent introduction to the prolific poet, author, film actor, Yukio Mishima. A Japanese writer who dared to stir up debate about homosexuality in a country which still doesn’t widely acknowledge the subject.

Besides becoming widely acclaimed and read internationally, the themes in his writings became his obsessions. Beauty, ageing, Japanese traditions, masculinity, suicide… all collided in his lifestyle as he took up body-building with a vengeance, and started his own private military army dedicated to the Emperor of Japan. His life's work ended in an attempt to incite a military coup, which climaxed in ritual suicide in 1970.

Ken Ogata as Yukio Mishima, in this recreation of an actual photo, as
used in the French film poster

A character this complex makes the dramatic reconstruction of his story, starring Ken Ogata as Mishima, as interesting as the dramatisations of three of his fictional works. Watching it compels me to seek out a biography, as well as translations of his novels. But so much of his work is veiled in metaphors, which takes me back to my days struggling in English literature classes – I might not be very good at deciphering them. I'd rather read interviews, and learn how he lived his life, than attempt to discover meaning through his writings. Like Jean Genet's work, the books baffle me, but his life was fascinating.

The film uses Mishima’s last day as the backbone of the film – as he assembles four of his cadets to visit an Army Headquarters in Tokyo. Black and white flashbacks begin intercutting with these events, to tell his life story. Through wartime, through his early works in novels and plays, up to his time of celebrity which enabled him to even appear in movies. On top of that, three of his most famous stories are interspersed, recreated in vibrant colour in stylised, theatrical sets, in contrast to the realism of the biographical scenes.

This is complex, with two timelines of reality cross-cutting, and blending with his fiction, but it’s easy to follow. His life-story is shot on Japanese locations, while his stories are recreated in beautifully constructed and painted sets, filmed at Toho Studios. The production designer was Eiko Ishioka, who also designed the elaborate costumes in Bram Stoker’s Dracula and The Cell.

The film is classified as an American one, notably Francis Coppola and George Lucas executive produced. According
to Wikipedia, the film was never officially released in Japan, so presumably the project couldn’t have been made with Japanese money. A full-frontal nude shot of an actress belies the fact that this isn’t a Japanese film, and Philip Glass’s omnipresent soundtrack also reminds the viewer.

But the music is entirely suitable, stirring the film into a compelling and emotional experience. If you haven’t an aversion to his music, that is. Having seen this many years ago, I was later shocked to hear the iconic theme tune crop up halfway through The Truman Show for no good reason. At least when Tarantino poaches film music, it’s for a referential reason.

Directed and co-scripted by Paul Schrader, this is the last good film of his that I’ve seen. He made his name as a scriptwriter with Taxi Driver (1976), and as a director with American Gigolo (1980). But when he followed his successes with a remake of Cat People (1982), the audience he’d found started to flounder. Mishima might very well have finished them off.

Compelled by his hits, I keep dipping into his work, but have been disappointed since the 1980’s. I recently saw the rather flat Auto Focus and the flawed Exorcist: Dominion. His scripts are usually more successful, but only if he doesn’t direct them, like Obsession (1976) or Raging Bull (1980), for example. But with Mishima I’d say everything works, and apparently it’s his favourite directed work as well.

I found it beautiful, compelling and shocking. There is much in his reasoning that I completely disagree with, but to witness such dedication and obsession became a fascinating and emotional experience. Perhaps it's my enthusiasm for Philip Glass - Koyaanisqatsi, Candyman and Kundun are also favourite films of mine.

The last DVD release of Mishima was in 2001 in the US, with an optional American narration. But the dialogue is always in Japanese. I watched the film totally in Japanese – preferring to hear Ken Ogata voice Mishima thoughts, as he reminisces about his life and quotes his works.

The real Yukio Mishima, during his famous last stand

This is an unusual project, proof that a film can work without a foreign cast speaking in pigeon English, like in Memoirs of a Geisha. With Letters from Iwo Jima, and Kundun, it’s also a film that blurs international boundaries or ownership to tell an extraordinary story.

UPDATE, JULY 2008 - Mishima has been released as part of the Criterion Collection, with both the US and Japanese voiceover versions, and bonus doumentaries.

November 17, 2007

KURAU: PHANTOM MEMORY (2004) an energising anime

(Japan, 2004)

You'll believe a woman can fly

24 episodes on region 1 DVD (from ADV)

This colourful anime grabbed my attention from the first fast-moving opening episode. In the near-future, an experiment on the moon, trying to harness a new alien energy source, goes terribly wrong. The accident tears a young girl from her father.

Ten years later, this 'rynax' energy has given Kurau unique powers, perfect for her work as a freelance special agent. On a typical mission, she can pass through walls, combat security robots without even getting bruised and, most usefully, fly unaided from the scene.

This first episode gets the series to a flying start. But Kurau's ideal is a normal life, to work occasionally and keep a low profile. But, the government are already using detectives to track down the isolated reports of a flying girl...

The action in the series is realistically depicted. Recently, I've seen too many anime series with magical superheroes who fly so fast that you can barely follow their actions. With Kurau, she can only fly for so long before she gets tired. She has limits. Her fighting is also defensive rather than destructive.

It's not all action though, and the drippy opening theme tune also signifies that this sci-fi action drama is aimed towards female viewers. I guess the remit for the series was for something like Ghost in the Shell, but with less intricate technology, more humane characters, and no women with huge breasts. Subsequently there are more female characters than male in Kurau, and the central character has super powers that are more organic than cybertronic.

It’s a very emotional series at times and refreshingly different for it. But it's not giggly, bright colours and cute animal sidekicks like most 'girl's anime'. I think this is a sci-fi story for everyone, that aims for a better balance of viewers than many anime series.

The future looks far friendlier in Kurau than in Ghost in the Shell, almost utopian. There are fields, trees, countryside, and not trapped in a dark, broody, technologically over-run metropolis. There are still cool flying cars, police ‘mecha’ robots, and an extensive city on the moon. The architecture and technolgy are carefully and elegantly designed to look like they might actually exist in a few years time.

Kurau's relationship with her family, both human and alien, provide the heart of the stories, and held my interest throughout the 24 episodes. I've not seen many anime series that avoid formulaic repetition, or keep up the momentum of their storylines.

The series is available on DVD in the UK and US. I'm guessing it was produced full-frame 4:3 as it's only been available this way.

The enjoyable and melodic soundtrack composed by Yukari Katsuki, is also available on 2 CDs from CD Japan.

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