June 28, 2009

THE KEEP (1983) on the big screen in London

Michael Mann needs little introduction, but seeing this, his second feature is ridiculously hard. The Keep, is to get two rare screenings at London's BFI South Bank in August. It's a horror film set in World War 2, and pits a troop of Nazis against an ancient evil in a Transylvanian castle...

Mixing gothic horror with science fiction, using synthesiser band Tangerine Dream on a period film, and an extensive last-minute re-edit all lead to disfavour with critics and audiences alike. An unusual cast included Jurgen Prochnow (Das Boot, Judge Dredd), Scott Glenn (The Right Stuff) and an early film role for Ian McKellen (Lord of the Rings). But the rocky locations, gigantic sets and extensive special effects keep this unique film suspenseful, atmospheric and repeatedly eye-opening.

I saw it first time around on a limited UK cinema release, and expected it would always be around on home video. But the 2.35 widescreen cinematography (a Michael Mann trademark) has only been seen on the laserdisc release. Hopefully, one day, he'll have to time to remaster this for DVD. But in the meantime...

There will be two screenings in NFT3 on August 4th and 9th. For more details, keep your eyes peeled on the BFI website. I'll do a full Black
Hole review after seeing it again.

For a heap more info on The Keep, there's this extensive fansite, which is still promoting the aborted London screening of January 2008, which was hoped would prompt a debut on DVD.

There's more here on the Michael Mann fansite, Manhunter.net.

Here's a very cramped-looking full-frame trailer...

June 27, 2009

LOVEDEATH (2006) action comedy from VERSUS director

(2006, Japan)

Very disappointed by this. I like director Ryuhei Kitamura, because of Azumi and Godzilla Final Wars. He also directed Versus and Midnight Meat Train. So I was looking forward to this. The trailer for LoveDeath makes it look very exciting, sexy and fun, but the movie simply wasn't.

It looks good, great cast, sexy leading couple, but... humour I didn't get and not much action up to the director's usual standards. It has a meandering and underplotted story. The characters, mostly comedy yakuza, are chasing a suitcase of money. Not very hard to follow, but also not very rewarding for an epic 2 1/2 hours running time. Like, I couldn't understand why if the yakuza boss wants his money (and his woman) back so desperately, why not send his own men rather than a corrupt policeman he's only just met? I guess it was another gag I didn't get.

Logic is repeatedly ignored in favour of rather simple humour. Mostly people getting shot accidentally.There's also a few recurring dick jokes and a lot of talk about sex. But despite a nicely-designed vibrator/pistol getting waved around (a lot) and the very sexy runaway couple, there's actually no nudity and little or no sex. So, lots going on but not very engaging. Possibly aimed at a crowd who'd find the sight of a vibrator-gun funny. Granted, it almost steals the film...

After years of waiting, I've only just found this subtitled on a Taiwanese DVD (pictured here). Good translation, but the subs are way too big. 2.35 widescreen, anamorphic.

Now it makes more sense why this hasn't been picked up for DVD in the US. It's not worth it, which is a great shame.

Still, a great trailer...

June 26, 2009

HELL GIRL (2005) - the equalizer from the underworld

(2005, Japan, Jigoku Shoujo)
An updated guide to the girl with the internet site who's hooked up to hell
Jigoku (hell) Shoujo (girl). I got into the Hell Girl anime series, but not the Death Note movies. Though the themes are very similar, there's been a lot of noise about one but not the other. It's been a while since I last talked about this dark and addictive anime. So here's an update...

Her name is Ai Enma. She lives with her grandmother in a nice little house by the river, bathed red from the eternal twilight. All very picturesque, but... her little house is IN HELL. She has a COMPUTER FROM HELL and a MOBILE PHONE FROM HELL. Her father is Enma, LORD OF HELL (a figure in Buddhist writings). I don't know what that makes her creepy grandmother, but it can't be good.
She waits for e-mails from the land of the living. Her Hotline To Hell website only appears at midnight to desperate souls with a grievance. All they have to do is enter a name. Hell Girl answers their call by taking revenge for them, by whisking the nominee straight down to hell. But if you summon Hell Girl, you have pay her terrible price... with your soul.

Each episode tells a different story of human cruelty. In the first episode it's a really bad case of bullying at school. As the bullies get more and more creative in their victimisation of one girl, she cracks and seeks revenge the only way possible. She thought that the schoolyard gossip about Hell Girl was just an urban myth, until she checks out the internet... Hell Girl appears, lays out some apt hellish justice, and the girl is bullied no more. But now she bears Hell Girl's mark, guaranteeing that she too will be going to hell when her time eventually comes.

The first series started off with a repetitive string of inhumanity, with Hell Girl's brand of instant justice sorting it out. Each episode ends with her victim being quietly sailed down the river Styx through the gate to hell. While formulaic, it was certainly, strangely satisfying. Not until halfway through the series does an actual story arc appear, when a young journalist starts investigating the truth behind this urban legend...

It's hard to believe that so many would use this solution, considering the price. But it's satisfying to see bad karma going around so quickly. As the series progresses, the stories of revenge get less clear cut, ethically. The anime could even be read as a discussion about capital punishment! Or you could just relax and enjoy its dark charms.

The music is beautiful and eerie (a CD soundtrack has been released for all three anime series), the atmosphere is creepy and the punishments nightmarish. The layouts are colourful and dynamically framed, conjuring up an otherworldly feel.

The anime was quickly remade as a live-action series, using some of the same stories in faithful recreations. There were twelve episodes in all, more frightening than the anime, but retaining the atmosphere and even the same musical themes. This is one of the best Japanese horror TV series I've seen, considering how many awful low-budget 'short story' compendium programmes have been released on DVD in the US. Sayuri Iwata played Ai Enma (pictured above).
Hell Girl's popularity also lead to a second anime series, Jigoku Shoujo Futakomori (2006) which is also 26 episodes long. This time, she's joined by a younger girl, possibly Ai's little sister. But while Ai is quite moral, Kikuri is a playful infant, with an evil sense of mischief. At one point she tries to touch grandma's spinning wheel - the sense of impending disaster is subtle, but you almost don't want to find out what would happen if it ever stopped...

Hell Girl Futakomori explores the lives of Ai's three followers, their backstories, and how they first met Ai. There are also some more difficult cases where Hell Girl's rules are stretched to their limits, not helped by Kikuri getting involved. Again, the series ends with a tense, continuing story over the final episodes, where a young (living) boy gets blamed for Hell Girl's abductions.

In 2008, a third anime series Jigoku Shoujo Mitsugane reached another 26 episodes. The world of Hell Girl is really starting to pass us by. While the first series is out on DVD in the UK and US, the bad news is that nothing else is. No series two or three, or the live-action series.

There are of course Japanese DVDs of all of these, but none have English subtitles. Presumably the stumbling block is the huge expense of dubbing each batch of 26 episodes into English. Annoying for those who just want to watch with subtitles. In Malaysia, I did see a Hong Kong DVD release of the live-action series (pictured above). Meanwhile volumes of a Hell Girl manga (inspired by the anime) continue to get translated. Hopefully, the saga will continue on DVD as well.

Hell Girl overview here on Wikipedia.

Hell Girl season 1 is available as a box set from Amazon and from their Video On Demand service (US only).

June 24, 2009

KIMERA - a South Korean diva turns opera into disco

(1985, music promo video)

I promise not to do this too often.

I think I have a pretty good taste in music (doesn't everybody?). But I also really enjoy really bad music. Enjoyably bad, that is. So, at the risk of worsening diplomatic relations between the UK and South Korea, here's a pop video that has tickled me since first seeing it around 1985...

Kimera calls her music popera, a musical style combining her astounding operatic voice, a full symphony orchestra and disco... (note that Malcolm McClaren had chart success around the same time, when he artfully combined opera and pop music on the album Fans, mostly a reworking of the main themes from Puccini's Madame Butterfly. I'd also recommend this album, but for very different reasons).

The rage for disco medleys was a brief and painful fad lead by dutch group Stars on 45 in 1981. Sidestepping copyright problems, they recreated many classic pop songs and segued them together to a plodding disco beat. Both catchy and annoying, it's difficult to tell their clips from the original recordings. This tiny musical genre is haunting me at the moment and I can find very little Stars on 45 anywhere to reassess it. For some reason, the London Philharmonic Orchestra also jumped on the bandwagon with Hooked on Classics, mashing classical hits together, to a disco backbeat. The last straw was the music of The Portsmouth Sinfonia, who played similar medleys of classical music but very, very badly.

In 1984, Kimera belatedly used this Stars on 45 approach for a medley of opera hits. Kimera and her Operaiders released her first album, single and this colourful pop promo (in 1985) that seemed to land from outer space. I didn't know what planet it was from but I liked it, for the wrong reasons. Not a fan of opera, I enjoyed the eardrum-piercing genre getting a disco assassination. The music was authentically sung, the music catchy, but all entirely undermined by a drum machine and crass editing which reduced the history of opera to one pop song. The promo video looked expensive but deliriously OTT. Made in France, I think.

On YouTube, the music doesn't stay entirely in synch with the video (why is that?), but you'll get the idea...

For the climax of The Lost Opera promo, Kimera appears in darkness but is made up with luminous paint. A startling effect, undermined by the rest of the video, a car crash of live editing, colour effects, a blue-screen trip around the world, and an oriental garden set, with small birds being thrown past the camera. A stuffed tiger floats past close to the camera, as if being moved on a large turntable. It seems to be smiling. Why is it there? I'd like to know. She seems to be enjoying herself though.

So now I eventually learn that Kimera is the stage name for Hong Hee Kim, a South Korean who discovered her voice could range over four octaves. She moved to Europe, and recorded her first album with the esteemed London Symphony Orchestra. The same London-based orchestra that John Williams conducted for the Star Wars soundtracks. Serious money, but for pop. While Kimera may not have had a hit in the UK, she's successful somewhere, having cut 12 albums.

At the time, I could only find this album on cassette (pictured at top). Now, in a spate of updating my music to digital, I've found MP3 downloads of six of her albums from CD Baby, including The Lost Opera. It's also available on CD from France, like at Amazon.fr. Ah, internet shopping. All those years browsing through record shops, wasted.

Now living in Spain, Kimera's website is here and includes video clips, and press cuttings.

Just thought I'd share that.

June 23, 2009

RUSSIAN ROULETTE (1975) - not on DVD

(1975, Canada/UK)

George Segal plays a disgraced policeman caught between the KGB and CIA during a Canadian visit by the Russian premiere. What starts off as a simple undercover operation grows into a very messy assassination plot. Being a mid-budget mid-seventies thriller, there's naturally helicopter action, a car chase and stunts galore. In fact, so much is going on in the finale that it starts getting ridiculous.

Russian Roulette isn't a must-see, but there's plenty to recommend. It played well on TV for a while and I've yet to tire of it. Having first seen it in the cinema on a double-bill with Diamonds in early 1976, I've tracked the whereabouts of both films ever since. Diamonds, starring Robert Shaw and Richard Roundtree, has earned a DVD release as well as a CD of Roy Budd's soundtrack.

George Segal is now better known for comedy, particularly the TV show Just Shoot Me. But in the 1970s he mixed humorous roles (The Hot Rock, the original Fun With Dick and Jane) and tough guy leads (The Terminal Man, Rollercoaster). In Russian Roulette, it's a happy medium.

Co-star Cristina Raines is the token female sidekick, though she has a standout moment in her fight scene... Her movie work peaked in the seventies when she was going out with Keith Carradine. Which I'm assuming had something to do with her roles in Robert Altman's Nashville and Ridley Scott's first feature The Duellists. In 1977, she starred in the poor taste Michael Winner horror The Sentinel.

In contrast, Louise Fletcher (Brainstorm, Exorcist II, Invaders From Mars) has little more than a bit part, as a switchboard operator for the mounties! This was the same year as her Academy Award-winning Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest!

Being a UK/Canadian co-production, the rest of the cast is unconvincingly swarming with British actors. Nigel Stock (a convincing Dr Watson to Peter Cushing's TV incarnation of Sherlock Holmes) sports a very poor American accent. Gordon Jackson plays a senior policeman, pre-dating his famous role in cult TV series The Professionals (1977-1983), Brian Clemens' popular follow-up to The New Avengers.

Best of all, Denholm Elliott (Vault of Horror, The House That Dripped Blood, To The Devil... A Daughter) plays a consistently seedy CIA operative. When he's not nicking cigarettes and blagging drinks, he's lying through his teeth with the two-faced smile he does so well.

Director Lou Lombardo indulges the cast to throw in improvised dialogue to add to the realistic feel. The best example is a scene where Segal tries to get an old lady to remember a really important message. The worst is his throwaway line to a traumatised Raines in the middle of a car chase, "How do you feel, killing a man?". Sometimes his comedy touch makes the film a little lighter than the subject deserves.

It looks mostly, if not entirely, shot on location in Vancouver. The grand Hotel Vancouver takes the centre stage for the climax, with some excitingly shot low-flying helicopter action. Ah, the seventies...
The music sounds a little like Roy Budd (Get Carter, Fear Is The Key) but it's Michael J Lewis (Theatre of Blood, 11 Harrowhouse, The Legacy). Instead of Budd's trademark sax, Lewis favours electric 'wacca wacca' guitar to ramp up the car chase excitement. Extensive reworkings of the Soviet national anthem form the majority of the score, but it's still a soundtrack I'd happily buy.

While other, less exciting Canadian thrillers of this period get DVD releases (yes you, The Kidnapping of the President), Russian Roulette is still trapped on VHS. Germany has a full-frame DVD (with rather generic cover art) but no English subtitles or soundtrack - that's dubbed German audio only. Not good enough to keep it off my not-on-DVD list!

There's another positive review on the Permission To Kill spy movie site. Hopefully proof that it's not just my
nostalgia talking.

Oh, and no-one actually plays russian roulette in the story, in case you were expecting it...

June 19, 2009

My top ten favourite Japanese movies so far...

The Japanese Blogathon demands lists, but seems a little short on anime, horror, and giant monsters. I've only been watching movies from Japan for less than ten years, but here are my very favourites so far, good for those who prefer the cult, the weird and the bloody. Bring on the comments...


OK, I'm cheating with this first one. It wasn't produced in Japan, but it was my first taste of the country, and a rare example of an international movie filmed extensively on location there. For years, this was the a rare glimpse of the Japanese, that wasn't a war film.

The fifth James Bond film, 007 goes to Japan to prevent an evil genius (who inspired the look of Dr Evil) from starting World War III. His plan is to kidnap US and Russian space capsules, while they're still in space! Bond (Sean Connery) teams up with the Japanese secret service (and their army of ninjas!), shooting up Tokyo, fighting killer helicopters, and descending into an extinct volcano (one of the largest working sets ever built - with a full-sized space rocket, helicopter landing pad and even a monorail).

You Only Live Twice doubles as a travelogue, including a Shinto wedding, a Buddhist funeral procession, a fishing village, sumo wrestling, the neon lights of Tokyo, and the spectacular landscape of southern Japan. A great introduction to the country, although not everything in this travel guide is to be believed. "In Japan, men come first, women come second!" Lots more Japanese Bond here.


I love movie monsters, but started to get tired of the same old legends getting rehashed. I was then delighted to find a whole new parade of monsters, ghosts and demons in Japanese folklore, where they're more famous than our Dracula, Frankenstein, Jason and Freddy. On TV these weird yokai monsters populate the anime of Gegege No Kitaro. In film, they famously appeared in three movies in the sixties, the best of which was this one.

A battle unites all the yokai monsters in Japan against a common foe - a powerful ancient Egyptian shape-shifting vampire! The historical setting is influenced by the gothic atmosphere of Hammer Horror films. Yokai Daisenso (1968) was released on DVD in the US as Yokai Monsters: Spook Warfare. It's not to be confused with the equally entertaining modern
Yokai Daisenso, released on DVD as The Great Yokai War (2005), and directed by the maverick Takashi Miike (Audition, Ichi The Killer).


Entertaining, daft, and a perfect example of a summer holiday TV spin-off. A Japanese schoolgirl faces an army of baddies (and a helicopter gunship) armed only with a steel yo-yo... The Japanese can't compete with big-budget action movies, so they invent nutty stuff like this. Schoolgirls preventing a coup d'etat. You'll believe a yo-yo can kill.

Like anyone, once they find a format that works, they milk it. Time and again, I watch a Japanese movie and find it's actually part of a phenomenon. Sukeban Deka lead me to the movie sequel, the anime, and three TV series...


Japan is world famous for giant monsters, kaiju movies. Yes, it's a man in a suit, but they've perfected the technique. Also, Gamera being a giant turtle, really doesn't look like a man in a suit. Neither does his main adversary here, the beetley crab-type-thing, Legion. Gamera 2 has a solid story for the non-monster action, together with bloody, realistic fights, huge explosions, city-wide destruction and marvellous miniature special effects. Cleverly directed to give the mayhem a human point of view. It's like Cloverfield without the camera-shy monster.

As a Godzilla fan, I feel traitorous for recommending this rival of the monster that started it all, but it's still the best all-round Japanese giant monster movie. Of course, if you like it, try a load more, and the (28) Godzilla films are a great way to see how Japanese entertainment has changed trough the years, stretching from 1954 to 2004. If you're up for it, here's
my big Godzilla DVD guide.

RING (1998)

Predictable choice, but I can't not include this, even though it's a slow-burner. Ring defined Asian horror films for years and even if it doesn't shock you, it'll certainly explain a lot about what happened next in the world of horror. With a string of novels, a series of film and TV adaptions, there's a lot to the Ring mythos even before you even start taking in the US remakes. Start with the first Ring, but if you want more, here's my guide to this Japanese phenomenon.


I reviewed this earlier in the week. Please don't miss out just because you don't like subtitled films. You'd watch it on TV if it was called When Schoolkids Attack. To recap - 42 teenagers are trapped on an island and told that the only way off is to kill all the others...

UZUMAKI (2000)

If Tim Burton adapted a horror manga on acid, it would look like this. Based on Junji Ito's horrifying manga classic, the stylised look and creepy story build to a series of genuine shocks. Set in a small village that's increasingly obsessed with spirals, Uzumaki is an excellent example of how Japanese cinema makes the most of more limited budgets. Though one day I hope Ito's epic manga will get a bigger budget, to tell the whole epic story of the village of Uzumaki.


While Ring gave me a scare, Takeshi Shimizu's Grudge series continually and repeatedly creeped me out. Not for nothing that he's still making these today. If you like them, make sure you don't miss out on his scariest film, Reincarnation (Rinne, 2005). I'm almost offended that it hasn't been remade in America...


Another way animation is changing with the times is by mixing 2D with 3D animation. The integration between the two styles struggles a little here, but the result is spectacular. The CGI recreation of the contents of a corner shop (for a slow-motion shootout) is mind-boggling. The airborne approach to the abandoned city at twilight, and the Chinese festival, are animation milestones. Beautiful, colourful, feasts for the eyes, as wel as a detective story with killer cyborgs and psycho-villains.

You won't understand everything in the story without having seen Ghost In The Shell (1998), but watch this just to travel twenty years into future.

PAPRIKA (2006)

Adult animation, from another giant of the art, Satoshi Kon. The plot, a machine that can make dreams a reality goes wrong, and starts leaking into our world. Only when the inventors make contact with their alter-ego dream-selves can they attempt to correct the problem. Eye-bending, mind-altering visuals, to the music of regular collaborator Susumu Hirasawa. Kon is the director of Millennium Actress and the superior anime series Paranoia Agent. A fuller review here.

June 17, 2009

BIG MAN JAPAN / DAI-NIPPONJIN (2007) - surreal superhero satire

Here's another review for the WildGrounds Blog-a-thon. From the land of giant monsters comes a new kind of giant superhero movie...

(2007, Japan, Dai-Nipponjin)

I love Japanese monster movies, can't get enough of them. So I'm indebted to Japan for repeatedly breathing new life into the genre, here as a mock documentary. Big Man Japan starts slowly with a series of interviews with Daisato - an average guy, slightly eccentric, complaining about his life. He's not earning enough money, he's estranged from his wife and daughter, his grandfather is a shadow of his former self... He lives alone with his cat, so why is he being interviewed?

Daisato happens to be one of Japan's last superheros. He can grow as tall as a skyscraper if enough electricity is poured through his body. The government need him to rid the country of pesky huge monsters who arrive, unpredictably, like bad weather. But he's not just a loser as a civilian, he's also a loser as a giant hero. After a series of (rather large) accidents, public opinion is fast turning against Big Man Japan...

This is a comedy. A very weird comedy that's also a monster movie, that looks like a documentary, assuredly shot with adventurous long takes. Non-Japanese like myself might not understand all the humour. It helps if you know that the writer/director/star of Big Man Japan is Hitoshi Matsumoto, a very popular comedian. His stupid-looking wig, which just looked gently eccentric to me, should have clued me in earlier. But after a few minutes, I started to get it, as the movie shifted into another dimension for his first gigantic fight...

I'm glad I've seen a lot of Ultraman episodes, because he's also a famous superhero in Japan who grows from man size to giant size. But unlike the many TV series, Big Man Japan doesn't stand around tiny models, but actual buildings cleverly composited with CGI creatures. They look humanoid, but their limbs are all out of proportion, and they retain the faces of the actors. His first adversary has a long wobbly neck, a single joined-up arm, and an unsuccessful comb-over. 'Squeezy Baddy' made my jaw drop. Hilarious, inventive, yet realistically presented.

Big Man Japan wears only big purple underpants, his only super-weapon appears to be a small stick. After the first fight, the parade of creatures is increasinly creepy, funny, and sexual in appearance. As Big Man Japan gets into deeper and deeper trouble with his family, the public and his sponsors...

The biggest stumbling block of the film is the finale, which is something of a leftfield surprise. But bearing in mind the central joke of the film, it should be easy to bear. Either it'll spoil the end, or you'll get the gag, but find out for yourself.

Impressive, unique and highly recommended, but watch a couple of Ultraman epsiodes (from any series) beforehand.

The Hong Kong DVD (pictured) is not recommended though because of the barely legible subtitles. The translation is good enough but the thin typeface and uneven black edging make it very hard to read. A second DVD is full of production diaries covering the making and launching of the film, but is completely without subtitles or any translation.

So, please look forward to the US DVD release in July, from Magnolia Home Entertainment.

For another review and more images, try this review from Comic Book Resources.

AKIRA (1988) - Blu-Ray release of the anime that started it all

Couldn't let the new release of this classic not get a mention in the blog-a-thon...

(1988, Japan)

The movie that woke the world up to anime

For those of who haven't seen it, Akira is set after a third world war, when a new Tokyo has been rebuilt over the ruins of the old. It's a towering, over-populated city similar to the dysfunctional metropolis of Blade Runner. Kaneda and Tetsuo are a couple of young punks in a motorbike gang. When they challenge rivals to a messy high-speed race, their lives change forever. Amidst citywide rioting, Tetsuo swerves to avoid a child in the road. An army helicopter swoops in and picks them both up. His friend Kaneda then has to find why the military don't return Tetsuo from their hospital... From a random street fight, the scale of the story grows alarmingly into a sci-fi story of epic proportions.

Seeing this back in 1991, when Akira was first shown in London's ICA cinema (which is still very dedicated to Asian cinema), I was new to all things Japan. I was floundering among the cultural references, attitudes to feminism, religion and the police, (the anime film Jin-Roh also begins with widespread rioting, making me wonder what it was really like in Japan). But the scale of the story, the humour, the imagination and the animation made it unforgettable.

The heavyweight science fiction story, and the adult content in Akira drew older audiences back to animation. International interest in Japanese anime exploded and never looked back. The same way Ring (1998) ignited worldwide interest in Japanese horror.

Nearly twenty years later, I've not been very cost-effective with my favourite movies. I don't like to watch them too much and 'wear them out'. By the time I'm ready to see them again, they're usually out on a new format. I bought Akira on VHS, laserdisc, DVD, and now fully remastered on Blu-Ray. Returning to Neo-Tokyo was almost like watching it again for the first time.

I'd forgotten the nightmarish shock moments, the network of characters, the uncanny animation of smoke, the use of silence during jaw-dropping plot twists, the amount of blood... It looks and sounds amazing.

Akira was a concerted effort to show that anime wasn't just for kids, and demonstrated that the medium was (then) the only possible way to tell certain stories. Even today, it'll take a huge budget to visualise. The latest news is that a American live-action remake has stalled.

I was also trying to second-guess what it's like for a new audience to see Akira nowadays. The limited use of computer-generated animation in the film (used for one simple, recurring effect) might date the film. But at times it's hard to believe it was made using multi-planed hand-painted cel animation.

Here's a good, technical review of the new release on Blu-Ray.com. Interesting to learn that the capacity of this Blu-Ray release has nearly been filled up by the movie alone, with little room for extras. Good to see that they're dedicated to delivering quality.

The writer of the original manga and director of Akira is Katsuhiro Otomo. Although he hasn't directed as many films as fans would like (Steamboy and the live-action Mushi-shi are his most recent), Otomo's name on anything instantly generates keen interest, like his design work on Freedom Project.

June 15, 2009

BATTLE ROYALE (2000) - If you only ever see one Japanese movie...

If you haven't been here before, the Black Hole blog recommends all sorts of movies, old and new, from around the world. But half the films are from Japan. I'm so impressed by the quality and freedom of the film-making, the style and imagination and, well, they come up with stuff that no one else does. Sometimes impeccably tasteful, other times, not so. A case in point...

(2000, Japan)

If you only ever see one Japanese movie...
...make sure it's this one!

In the near future, 42 schoolkids are abducted and taken to a remote island. They are given a weapon each and told that only one of them will be allowed to leave the island. They have three days to kill all their classmates...

An outrageous scenario with brutal violence that veers between tragedy and black humour. Not visually extreme by today's standards, but repeatedly shocking. It could easily be TV from the near future - as each teenager dies, a scorecard comes up of how many survivors are left. I first watched it in a state of continuous astonishment, and it's the best movie I can think of which would change someone's mind over watching a subtitled movie.

There's a grim introduction, as we see the winner of last year's tournament (clutching a teddy bear) and then the new batch of kids are all too easily kidnapped. We're then clued in to the film's dark humour with the tongue-in-cheek, chirpy video guide to the rules of the game. Their randomly allocated weapons range from machine-guns to kitchen utensils. Oh, and look out for that handheld rice sickle, guys.

As the slaying begins, the young contestants pick their initial victims based on schoolyard jealousies, or by bringing down the bullies. But this certainly isn't The Running Man. Not everyone instantly turns into motivated killing machines. The teenagers react realistically - some panic, some crack under stress, some can't face killing their friends.

The only flaw in this almost perfect cult movie, is the under-explained history of the game. There's a huge media frenzy around the winner of the previous game, but no good explanation of why there is a game. Televising it all would have made more sense, but there's no hint that it is. This would also repeat the themes of other legalised murder-sports moves, such as The 10th Victim, Rollerball and Death Race 2000.

After first seeing Battle Royale, I looked up the director's other credits, assuming it was a young film-maker wanting to cause a controversial splash. I was surprised to learn that Kinji Fukasaku was a seasoned veteran with a filmography packed with cult goodies such as The Green Slime and Black Lizard (both from 1968). Remembering his childhood in World War II, Fukasaku had intended Battle Royale to be a reminder of how adults can turn teenagers into killers in times of war. After a fascinating career, this proved to be his last complete film (he'd just started shooting Battle Royale II: Requiem when he passed away).

The hugely respected film star and director, Takeshi Kitano, heads the cast as the sinister supervisor of the tournament. Many of the huge, young cast have since sustained acting careers. Leading man, Tatsuya Fujiwara recently starred in the live-action version of the phenomenon that is Death Note. Actress Chiaki Kuriyama went on to steal her only scene from Uma Thurman, as the schoolgirl assassin in Tarantino's Kill Bill: Vol. 1
There are two versions of the film, the original and The Director's Cut - a revised version where Fukasaku added a little more blood to the film. There's an important additional scene that shows the class playing basketball together before they're abducted. It's the only opportunity to see them in a normal situation before the havoc begins.

But see either version. Whichever way, you won't forget Battle Royale in a hurry.

Check out more from the Japanese Blog-a-thon at Wild Grounds.

Here in the Black Hole, there are lists of links to Japanese horror films, anime, monster movies and TV... down the sidebar...

June 08, 2009


(2008, Japan, GeGeGe no Kitaro 2: Sennen Noroi Uta)

The first live-action spin-off from the long-running anime series did so well that this sequel immediately followed. But while I love the characters and the stories, the live-action films are disappointing. Even though my expectations were pretty low for this sequel, as an adult, I was barely entertained. My main consolation is that least these films are raising awareness about Gegege No Kitaro, and the character has finally made a debut on English subtitled DVDs.

I can't get enough of Kitaro's many anime series. They first appeared on Japanese TV in 1968. But to do Shigeru Mizuki's stories justice in a live-action movie requires a considerable budget, which this sequel lacks. I got the same vibe off Saiyuki: Monkey Magic, made in Japan the same year. It's good fun for kids, but lacking the intrigue and sophisticated special effects to please adult audiences.

The Millennium Curse begins with a typical scare as young women are menaced by ancient spirits. During the title sequence we get a flashback of Kitaro's origin (also seen in the impressive anime OVA Hakaba Kitaro) as baby Kitaro crawls out of his mother's grave, guided by all that's left of his dad (the walking eyeball). Kitaro, Rat Man, Cat Girl and the gang now have to unravel the mystery of a series of disappearances, all linked to an ancient curse lingering after a great injustice, many centuries ago.

While the plot is solid, it generates little intrigue or excitement, even in fight scenes. Kitaro's primary weapons are his flying wooden sandals and needle hair - these are made to look dynamic and interesting in the anime but fall flat when rendered realistically.

On the upside there's the late Ken Ogata (The Hidden Blade, Mishima), in his final film role as Kitaro's nemesis Nurarihyon. But this arch-villain doesn't fully emerge until the climax. The finale is especially impressive for a well-animated giant skeleton piling on the jeopardy.

But mostly the yokai monster make-ups of supporting characters are either obviously CGI or use completely static masks. Two busy monster scenes in the yokai library and the forest simply look like a bunch of dancers in masks. I'd rather yokai monsters be done properly or not at all. The effects in these scenes reminded me of similar techniques used in the 1960s yokai film trilogy. For instance, there's nothing on the scale of the flying demon attack on Kitaro's house in the first film.

The main cast are good, all returning from the first film. Once again Yo Oizumi makes the most of the treacherous, hypocritical, smelly Rat Man. The baddies include Yasha, who's a terrifying yokai in the anime who hypnotises victims with his music and steals their souls. But here the character looks like a failed rock star who only uses his guitar like a machine-gun rather than for anything supernatural.

I might have enjoyed the story less because of the poor English subtitles on this Malay DVD, available here from HKFlix. But really, the 2007 anime series would provide more action and scares than this - that's what I'd prefer to see on DVD.

My review of the first Gegege No Kitaro film is here.

My guide to the Gegege No Kitaro anime series is here.

Here's a Japanese-only trailer for Kitaro and the Millennium Curse on YouTube...

... and there's an English subtitled trailer on this page in the AsianMediaWiki.

Much more background info, pictures and a plot summary on
SciFi Japan, and Sarudama.

June 04, 2009

YAJI & KITA: THE MIDNIGHT PILGRIMS (2005) - a surreal road trip

(2005, Japan, Mayonaka no Yaji-san Kita-san)

Not a gay comedy. It's much, much more.

Some Japanese comedies
like Swing Girls and Waterboys aim at international audiences with accessible 'universal' humour. The more offbeat comedies are primarily for a Japanese audience, full of cultural references, cameos and in-jokes. I assumed that Yaji & Kita was the latter, and was surprised that it was released on DVD in the US, especially with an upfront gay storyline. But this is a unique movie, that defies simple assumptions or categorisations.

It begins as a freewheeling comedy, with singing transvestites, a comedy baddie (Riki Takeuchi of Battle Royale II), and a gang of housewives who think they're watching a TV show. But then it turns darker and beautifully philosopical for a dramatic and very rewarding second half.

It begins with
two samurai back in the Edo period (though they don't have swords). A surreal video-game dream and a ride on a motorbike soon shatter the period feel. Kita is a drug-addict with a loose grip on reality, so these anachronisms could all be in his head. But anything goes, as they embark on a journey across Japan to reach a temple where Kita hopes to kick his habit. Along the way, the more people they meet, the harder their quest gets, especially when both Yaji and Kita are holding back huge secrets from each other...

Early on, it's very episodic as they meet bizarre new characters in each town. I settled into just letting it all wash over me and assumed I was missing out on the in-jokes. But I did recognise Kazuo Umezu and Sadao Abe (Uzumaki, The Great Yokai War) acting more bizarrely than usual. But then the seemingly random events started to make more sense and a solid storyline started to emerge. It's ambitious and complex, and I appreciated one of the characters saying "I'm lost" during the climax.

The gay couple are central to the plot, but it's not at all intended for a gay audience. It's more like a running gag, aimed at a straight male audience, like the gay-themed plots and characters of South Park. Yaji & Kita are gay because it's a subversion of old Yaji & Kita films and stories. The script is an adaption of a
cult manga, which in turn is based on an 18th century comic novel, previously adapted as a comedy in the 1920's and 30's.

The lead actors look a little uncomforatable with their intimate moments, a couple of scenes of mouth-on-mouth kissing (shown in the behind-the-scenes extras). But for the rest of the film it could just as easily be a buddy movie. While the gay relationship is initially played for laughs, it's never offensive, and the plot matures as it progresses. It's rebelling against the norm, along with plenty of irreverent nudity, swearing and even some punky rock. There's an early homage to Easy Rider as they jump on a familiar-looking motorbike.

It's misleading that Kita (Shichinosuke Nakamura, also seen in The Last Samurai) has been made to look so weird in the poster. I was almost put off, thinking he was going to be a stereotypical gay comedy character. He's sleightly built but not effeminate. His character is primarily a junkie. Effortlessly handsome Tomoya Nagase (TOKIO band member, also seen in Ring: The Final Chapter) expertly plays the good-humoured Yaji. Japanese pop stars-turned-actors seem to be far better at acting than the ones in the west.

I was surprised at how well the central characters are handled. But this is due to a hugely imaginative film-maker, Kankuro Kudo, a first-time director whose talents mature even during the film (which was shot in sequence). He's also a successful scriptwriter, responsible for the wondeful Zebraman and Maiko Haaaan! (also starring Sadao Abe).

Another surprise were the special effects, many of which are wild and eye-poppingly good, when they're detectable. According to the extras, post-production was done over two years, plenty of time to perfect them. Many scenes don't depend on effects but on inventive sets (like the seemingly endless house of shuttered doors) and expert lighting so carefully controlled that two people on the same set appear to be in different time zones.

Hard to categorise or define, I'm very glad that I've seen this, and look forward to more from the director.

Here's the Japanese trailer...

Media Blasters rightfully thought they had a cult classic on their hands and gave this a deluxe two-disc treatment. The US DVD is anamorphic widescreen, the English subtitles are carefully and humorously translated, and the extras disc includes an astonishingly honest 'Making Of' documentary, very different from the Hollywood style. It's are to see a director looking tired and distraught while watching a scene being filmed.

There are also enthusiastic reviews on FilmBrain and Twitch.