Posts Tagged ‘japan’

Movies about time travel are a tricky thing to get right; there are endless possibilities of things getting too confusing, too convoluted, too full of plot holes and fridge logic. But when done right, there are just as many endless possibilities for contemplation, cleverness, and fantastic stories. The animation wonder team at Madhouse gets it right with The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. Taking the form of an almost too typical anime high school romance, director Mamoru Hosoda doesn’t really look to break the mold on stories about first love, but the characters are fun and interesting, and the story feels like a genuine peek at an ordinary girl surrounded by extraordinary circumstances. Like many other Japanese love stories, it’s cute and sweet and ends on a completely ambiguous but hopeful note.


While my favorite film by Hayao Miyazaki will likely always be Princess Mononoke, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is absolutely a worthy addition to my library. Beautifully drawn and animated, the only thing holding it back is the monumental amount of source material that they tried to put into the film. For better or worse, I was introduced to Nausicaa through the original comic, which is five volumes long and astounding in scope. To try and fit such an epic tale into a two hour movie, even a three hour movie, sounds impossible. Regardless, the key moments are there, and everything still works just fine, even if I wished they had the chance to spend more time with minor characters. It certainly feels like a predecessor to Princess Mononoke, touching on similar themes of the complicated morality of war and the need to protect the natural environment. While many of the Studio Ghibli films also use explore these themes, Mononoke and Nausicaa stick out to me because of their similarities. Both feature a hero of royalty caught in the middle of a war they want no part of, but will intervene at great risk to themselves to try and stop anyway. But where Mononoke deals more with a war against nature itself, Nausicaa is much more interested in the wars between people, even in the aftermath of a war devastating enough to remake the world. Seeing the characters and cultures that survive in this post-apocalypse is definitely one of my favorite parts of the mythos, so I highly encourage you to find the original comic if you can. The film is still beautiful on its own, but the comic presents such a deeper and more involved narrative with the characters, it’s hard not to gravitate towards the source material.

MAD 01: Ghost in the Shell

Posted: December 27, 2012 in Movie-A-Day
Tags: , , ,

Deeply philosophical and full of unanswered questions, the original Ghost in the Shell is a testament to what hard science fiction can really achieve. It defies conventional genres of “action” or “thriller,” and although it incorporates elements of both, I doubt that it was meant to represent either. The dialogue is dense and the pacing is slow; it would be an understatement to say that this is not for popular consumption. It is difficult to say exactly what sort of audience it was intended for, or if it was ever intended for a specific audience at all. Rather, it feels much more like an exploration of the original author Masamune Shirow’s thoughts on self and consciousness; endless musings and possibilities without a firm answer. And it is because of those unanswered questions that the real beauty and genius of the story is revealed. We as viewers should be left to stew with our own opinions and inspirations, fuel for the hours of dialogue that must surely follow a film such as this. It is a welcome change to see a movie that doesn’t dumb itself down for its audience, one that actually challenges us to re-evaluate our own preconceived notions of identity.

With a script that really pulls no punches, the film is only aided by the beautiful hand-drawn animation of the bygone age. Combining traditional animation techniques and CGI may seem dated to us in 2012, but the art stands the test of time surprisingly well. It helps that Production IG always kept the focus on the far stronger hand-drawn elements, using CGI only as support to help flesh out the futuristic world presented.

Ghost in the Shell was a pioneer in the animation industry for both technical and creative reasons. It showed us that the potential for animated films was and continues to be far above any limits we’ve placed on it, that it is truly only limited by the scope of our imaginations. And it showed us that animated films could be just as deep and thought-provoking as any live action piece, that animated films absolutely shouldn’t be synonymous with children’s films. I would say that it’s definitely not for everyone, but it is definitely something that everyone should see. In other words, even if you end up not liking the film, I can at least say that your life will be enriched from watching it.

I went through the series in about a week, most of it today lying sick in bed. I was first tipped off to it for the bad ass spear fights, but it’s not really about that. It’s not an action or a martial arts series; it’s more like… I guess I would describe it as a political/fantasy drama with some action elements. On a whole, the story is pretty cerebral, dealing a lot with politics, culture clash, class differences, and so forth. The pitch is for a master bodyguard to protect this prince from his own father, who’s bent on assassinating him for the good of the kingdom. You could see that going in a pretty clear direction with just that, an unparalleled martial artist who needs to drag along this kid through all sorts of crazy dangerous adventures, living on the road like ruffians, all while pursued by an elite team of ninjas tracking them every step of the way. Wouldn’t that be a pretty cool show to watch? Maybe that’s a bit too typical, but I guess that’s what I thought I was getting into.

No, they decide to go a very different route than that. I can’t speak for the original fantasy novel series that the anime is based on, but the cartoon is definitely not the Samurai Champloo-style action dramedy i was hoping for. Don’t get me wrong, the series is very very good; just don’t expect it to be any kind of typical show. it’s really quite slice-of-life-y, most of the series dealing with the prince’s adaptation to commoner life, with a healthy helping of aforementioned elite team of ninjas and master martial artist trying to out-think each other tactically, and a couple of side-quests thrown in for good measure.

It’s a bit difficult to get a good sense of consistent tone throughout the series, which is one of the reasons I’m putting all my thoughts down here. The characters are mostly interesting, if a bit on the dry side, so it’s probably intended for older audiences. There are only a few brief scenes of real fighting, so probably not meant for the young male action crowd either. There’s only the barest hints of romance and complicated emotional relationships, so you can count the soap opera and love-seekers out as well. Honestly, I’m a bit at a loss as to who the story is really meant for. On paper, it’s supposed to be a story about the foster-mother/-son relationship between the bodyguard and the prince, and how that grows over time, allowing the boy to grow up into a strong young man ready to face his destiny, and allowing the bodyguard to soften her heart a little after following through for her dead mentor. Stretched over the course of 26 episodes, I don’t know who would really want to invest the time for something that, at first glance, seems incredibly slow and dull.

But if you couldn’t already tell from all this, it’s really good, and definitely worth watching. It’s a beautifully crafted character drama, with any number of different things going on at the same time, always leaving you guessing as to what’s really going on or how things are going to turn out. The ending feels a bit lackluster, but I feel like that’s usually the case with adaptations from literature. The characters are pretty deep and complex, and there’s never any black and white position on who’s good or evil. Like life, everyone is a rich blend of both, resulting in a million different shades of gray. The conflict isn’t against some big antagonist; it’s against destiny itself, a race against time and the hands of fate, pitting what we think we know about the world against the silent abyss of the unknown. The action scenes that are there are done wonderfully, with great choreography and impressive animation.

If you fancy yourself any sort of connoisseur of interesting stories, I highly recommend you check this one out. It’s not a fast and furious thrill ride done to a kickin’ soundtrack; this is a long pensive look at how we live our lives among others, both foreign and domestic. While I can’t say this is something everyone will enjoy, I think the ones who do enjoy it will do so with gusto.

Crows Zero 2
Japan, 2009
Genre: Action, Gangster, High School
133 minutes

At the brink of fully conquering Suzuran All Boys High School, Genji accidently breaches a non-aggression pact with the rival Hosen Academy, leading to all-out war.

Picking up right where the first film left off, director Takashi Miike raises the stakes in every conceivable way for the further adventures at the school of crows. With a full returning cast and some new faces, Crows Zero 2 does everything a sequel is supposed to and then some. Old character relationships are explored deeper and re-evaluated in the light of the new characters and dynamics. Shun Oguri’s Genji is an uncomfortable leader, and it shows through the strain it puts on him and his lieutenants. Takayuki Yamada’s Serizawa makes for a good rival, although I wish that they’d spent a bit more time with him. The same could be said for many of the Suzuran students, who are generally relegated to one-note character roles. The villains at the Hosen Academy have some surprising depth, a major plus for a movie that glorifies comic book violence. The themes of brotherhood and duty are just as apparent as Miike’s other films, and there’s definitely more than a few bro moments. The script is pretty sharp and, while the story is a little loose, it all comes together in the end.

Miike’s eye as a director comes through once again here, with wonderful camera work and photography. A huge step up from its predecessor, Miike manages to create order out of chaos, due in part to the stark contrast in costumes between the rival schools and a distinctive sense of environment. There are a few spots of special effects for humor or scope, and like his other films, it’s not particularly top notch work. It’s not so bad or noticeable that it takes you out of the movie, but it is there. Japanese punk band The Street Beats returns to add a fun soundtrack, one fitting to the Yanki culture and aesthetic of the Crows universe. The rest of the score is pretty forgettable, but it keeps the action moving and sets a strong tone for the whole film.

The fights feel leaps and bounds ahead of the first movie. Close enough to stay in the middle of the action, yet cutting back far enough to get a clear view of the choreography, there’s a good balance between frenzy and flash in every scene. The fights are rough and ugly, yet there’s a strong sense of individuality between characters. There isn’t a need to fall back on a generic street fighting style, even if everyone is indeed a street fighter. Miike rises above and beyond the call of duty with Crows Zero 2, taking what could have been just another action sequel and turning it into a phenomenally fun, inspiring, and altogether impressive piece of film.

Jusan-nin no Shikaku
“13 Assassins”
Japan, 2010
Genre: Action, War, Historical
141 minutes

An aged samurai must lead a small team on a covert mission to assassinate the shogun’s vile stepbrother.

Cult favorite Takashi Miike directs this phenomenal period epic of feudal Japan, a retelling of the legendary battle of a band of warriors facing overwhelming odds. One of Miike’s best works in an already extensive filmography, 13 Assassins is quite possibly the greatest samurai film since the works of the late Akira Kurosawa. Filled with an ensemble cast of brilliant performers, the movie delivers a powerful story with amazing characters. The actors all nail their respective parts, although the readings can be a bit hammed up at times. Still, the striking drama of their relationships and roles within feudal society is stunning, bringing genuine human emotion to a world dictated by social obligations. Miike’s classic combination of deep suspense and perfectly timed levity is in full effect, maintaining an uncanny balance of dread, awe, and laughter. The first act might be a bit too Japanese for some, exploring the depths of old politics and cultural customs. However, once past this segment showing the limitations of the established social order, the story and character chemistry really begins to shine.

His first foray into the historical genre, Miike spared no expense to get everything just right for the film. The sets and costumes are simply amazing, even better with all the subtle etiquette details employed by the actors when necessary. Combined with the backdrop of Japan’s lush forests and natural beauty, and the illusion of feudal Japan seems just about perfect. Kenji Yamashita’s editing is superb, slowly building up the suspense in the first half and then smoothly picking up the pace as the final battle approaches. Everything is beautifully shot and scored, whether capturing serene picturesque landscapes or bloody murder. On the downside, Miike’s choice to include select moments of CGI is understandable, but quite obviously not at the same level of quality as other aspects of production. This lapse aside, however, this is one gorgeous piece of work.

Miike is well known for his work in the horror industry, and isn’t afraid to bring the gore. It’s done rather tastefully when it’s needed, but be prepared for some cringe-inducing moments. The actual swordplay is the best I’ve seen in the genre, benefiting from modern choreography experience and pacing while still retaining a distinct Japanese style of combat. If you couldn’t guess by now, 13 Assassins is the absolute must-see movie of the summer. Whether you’re a history buff, a swashbuckling enthusiast, or Miike cult follower, find a screening near you and make sure you watch this film.

Fight Film Friday: Versus

Posted: October 29, 2010 in fight film friday
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Japan, 2000

Genre: Action, Comedy, Gangster, Supernatural

119 minutes

An escaped convict is dragged into a bizarre mobster plot involving the Forest of Resurrection, a place where the dead can return to life.

Although billed as a horror film due to the presence of zombies, Versus is clearly a tongue-in-cheek comedy poking fun at multiple genre conventions. I don’t think there was ever a moment in the whole movie where some kind of action or horror cliché wasn’t being used to comedic effect. The sheer amount of fake blood and gore is fantastic, and is much more of an obvious attempt at appearing cheesy than other films like The Expendables or Machete, which used far more realistic fake blood. The movie itself seems like it was shot with an extremely limited budget, judging from the quality of the film stock and the campiness of the make-up and special effects. The photography was impressive for the look of the rest of the film, but is clearly one of the earlier works of cinematographer Takumi Furuya’s career. The number of handheld shots and strange angles (combined with the lower budget film-making) made it seem like a student film at times. Still, the sort of aesthetic they used definitely has a certain appeal to it, and the end result is incredibly entertaining.

The story takes some time to hit its stride, and this makes the first half extremely difficult to sit through. One of the interesting decisions that director Ryuhei Kitamura made was that no one ever addresses each other by name, making for a very strange viewing experience where you must wholly rely on the actors’ characterization to understand who relates to what. The acting makes it work, but don’t expect Oscar winning readings from anyone. The performances are either cartoonish or wooden, making it particularly difficult to cheer for the hero’s complete lack of charisma or charm. However, the villains of the film do make up a cast of fun characters, adding a great sense of style and comedy to what otherwise is a fairly bland plot.

The one thing that Versus really did well has got to be the action. The choreography is amazing, definitely the best I’ve seen from Japan in a long time. Lots of pretty obvious wire work, but the fights are fun and use a variety of distinct styles. It feels very comic book inspired, as if it was lifted from the pages of a martial arts manga. Unfortunately, the filming doesn’t do the action justice, and is often awkward or shaky during key moments of suspense. But if you can manage to get past that, there is a lot of very entertaining and humorous fights to be had during the movie’s considerable length. Despite a low budget and some experimental film-making, Versus is a diamond in the rough for fight film fans, and is definitely worth a viewing if you can find a copy.