Tag Archives: Japanese Film

Cinema-Manaic: Voice Without a Shadow (1958)

Regardless of the medium, mystery/pot boilers centered stories I don’t check out frequently. When I think of a mystery story I think about someone trying to solve a crime, or find answer to an unexplained incident. For me, they all feel like they play out the same in the general way; main characters attempt to look for answers, eventually hit a dead end until finding the one clue that brings everything together, and finally explaining to the viewer how it worked out. Usually having me forget about its characters the next day.  Movies like these I get the appeal, but if I’m not going to get engaging characters than everything else surrounding them has to make up for it. Voice Without A Shadow does exactly that, even if it’s nothing outstanding by the end of it.

Still 06
Reporter Notes: There was a murder at the crime scene, and someone is responsible.

Voice Without A Shadow starts out unconventional before becoming formulaic with its storytelling. You’re introduce to Asako Takahashi (Yoko Minamida), a telephone operator who who dials the wrong number one night, and hears the voice of a murderer. You would be wrong to assume that Asako would be the focus, and the rest of the movie would be her trying to help the police find the killer with her unmatched hearing. Stated in the movie to be able to differentiate, and recognize hundreds of different voices like no other person. The initial setup is fascinating using sound in a technical aspect to enhance put us in the same position as Asako. Making certain everyday activity sound louder to Asako, and in turn the audience watching. Unfortunately there is a time skip to three years later where we’re told the case has gone cold. This occurs in the first few minutes where it eventually takes another turn to where Asako does little in the effort to prove her husband’s innocence in a murder that transpired.

 

Within the first act of the movie, twice it does away with the initial setup before falling in the familiar territory of a pot boiler mystery. Towards the end of the first act newspaper journalist Hiroshi Ishikawa (Hideaki Nitani) who might as well be a detective since that his purpose in the movie. Putting the actual police force to shame when he’s able to put clues together that the police force overlooked. Something as simple like a bag being dry on the day it was found when the day before it was raining is one of many simple details the police force don’t think about. There is one detail in particular that is outrageous that the police force didn’t even considered. Without spoiling the actual movie, it would basically be the equivalent of someone filming a murder scene, and the police having to be told by someone outside the force the camera can record things, and therefore must have recorded the murder. This movie does the Japanese police force no favors in making them out to look incompetent at their jobs.

Shifting the focus to Ishikawa means you get the familiar routine of him interviewing people on the night of the crime, being at his wits end trying to solve the murder, having a near death encounter the closer he gets to solving the crime, and getting the one clue he needs to piece everything together. When in this state the movie plays out mechanically safe to fall into your expectations. Doing so by sharing a understanding why a familiar formula is so effective even after hundreds of usage. It’s biggest bright spot in this routine are the dead ends Ishikawa comes across during the case. They’re presented in a logical way with some detail that makes the case itself more complicated than it appears. Every time Ishikawa believes he got a lead there’s something that pushes him back further from finding any answers. Leading to many good head scratcher moments when attempting to solve the case alongside Ishikawa.

Still 01
Even in a still image, Jo Shishido character is still hateable

My biggest issue with the movie is the lack of depth to the characters. They’re treated more like plot devices which means generally delivering expository dialogue after expository dialogue. Showing very little personality in its writing. At it best, the character writing is great when characters are talking about their past, and the rare comments about love. Ishikawa is the most interesting of the cast of characters with a colleague of his wondering why he’s solving a mystery for woman he knows won’t love him back. These moments when the characters don’t talk about the murder case are a highlight since they don’t happen often. Ishikawa gets delved into a fair amount showing his dedication to journalism, and seeking the truth. Being the only one in the cast to come out unscathed from the writing other issues.

 

There’s a good attempt to present some complexity to some of the suspects, but it sadly goes into the “we’re bad” category of writing eventually. A shame too since the movie does a good job not making the suspects obvious to Ishikawa even though the audience knows a bit more than he does. Asako side of the story attempts to create some paranoia through the usage of sound whenever she’s relevant. It doesn’t quite work like the writing intended because at random points it’ll switch characters perspective. Leaving little time for any paranoia to creep in. Once it finally comes together at the end the viewing experience is made worthwhile. What few character arcs it actually have reach satisfying conclusions. The answers to the mystery itself are mostly logical, and seeing the case itself being solved it a high point itself. Executing the familiar elements of a mystery just right to leave a positive impression.

Still 03
(Not) Very subtle with the devil mask

Taking the charge for most of the movie is Hideaki Nitani. His biggest hurdle is the dialogue he’s given. Being unable to make it sound natural, but he does a decent delivery job delivering it. Nitani best moments of acting are surprisingly the sparse instances where the camera closes up on his face, and is able to express an array of emotions within his character. These more quieter moments displays greater potential in his acting abilities. Yoko Minamida is the standout in the cast. Despite the film minimizing her role the longer it goes she elevates whatever scene she’s in. Perfectly getting across the fear, and turmoil her character struggles through. Jo Shishido makes an appearance in a small role as a sleazy businessman. Give whatever character you want to Jo Shishido, and he’ll find a way to play the character naturally. Suitably obnoxious, and hateable he eases his way in a simple role. He ain’t in the film for much of it, but he will leave an impression. Toshio Takahara is mostly made out to be pathetic, but sympathetic at the same time. Sadly, he’s not given much to do beside look worried. The actors who play the suspects are good in their small roles with some able to make an impression.

 

Director Seijun Suzuki doesn’t spice things up in terms of writing, but on the technical side shows restraint in his style, and eagerness to make the most out of a scene visuals. One of these includes having an entire flashback sequence being entirely filmed in dutch angles. Creating a distorted look to the film in this sequence. Another stylistic choice are involves moments when it’s in first person, and appearing as if the characters are talking directly into the camera. It also briefly uses some tracking shots as well to set the mood accordingly. In one scene, Suzuki faintly has a shot of Yoko Minamida trying to sleep, and faintly faded visuals of her co-stars playing mahjong in the scene, and playing around with the audio to make the noticeable noise of mahjong moving around be become loud. Stylistic choices like these prevent the movie from being visually mundane.  Music is fine, but nothing memorable. It sounds like a dozen other pot boiler mystery movie score.

Voice Without A Shadow represents the general appeal of a pot boiler mystery, and also the lack of investment towards the characters involved. It might play things safe for a majority of its run time, but there is effort to make something good out of it. It succeeds more than it fails playing into your expectations. 

Rating: 7/10

Cinema-Maniac: Blood Heat (2002)

From my little experience in Japanese cinema away from their Samurai, and Yakuza movies. Japan film industry gives a general impression they have a disinterest in producing action movies. The closest Japan gets to producing their equivalent to action blockbuster is either a live action anime/manga adaptation, or their monster/Kaiju movies. I don’t know the reasoning behind this, but I do know for certain that Blood Heat (aka Muscle Heat US Title) wanted to hang with the best in the action genre, and be influential in its country. Obviously that didn’t happen because it barely left a mark even as a footnote in action cinema history.

4rrygk
Left kick missed!

Blood Heat is set in the futuristic year of 2009 following court martial ex-Navy Seal Joe Jinno (Kane Kosugi) in his assignment to put an end to the circulation of super steroid drug Blood Heat. When the movie started I was mostly on board with the story. Things were to easy follow, and were developing nicely. It was focus, and contained itself in it simplicity for thirty minutes. After those first thirty minutes the film issues of convoluted plot points, thin characters, and by the number storytelling deteriorate a passable action movie into a chore. Choosing to grasp more than it can actually achieve burying anything it actually does well in terms of writing. This is primarily due to the fact that it sets up  plot points, but doesn’t expand on them. Plot points like Joe protecting a little girl, the underground people calling themselves “sewer rats” starting a revolution, and Joe seeking vengeance remain flat in the overarching story. This wouldn’t be an issue if Joe Jinno desire to take vengeance was fleshed out at all. Joe gets the entirety of one scene showing Joe, and his partner bond before Joe’s partner bites the dust. Before that, the only scene Joe, and his partner share is Joe getting recruited into his current assignment. Just simply stating through dialogue Joe, and his partner have become good friends won’t generate investment like the movie think it will.

The drug itself, Blood Heat, main function is basically acting like a super steroid. Established in a newsreel it is revealed Blood Heat can increase the physical capacity of the user five times over the normal limit, and the user becomes depended on it after a single dose. You might think that user would be able to punch a hole in a person face with that much boost in physical strength, but it doesn’t. Blood Heat, the drug, is mostly used for blood combat in the Muscle Dome (a death combat arena), and its effects are pretty lame when in sight. This also creates a numerous amount of logical gap within the film establish universe; like why doesn’t the film villain provide Blood Heat for all his henchman if it can enhance their physical abilities. Since the film doesn’t clearly get across much negative side effects in using Blood Heat it’s questionable why the villain doesn’t do this. Another issue would be the lack of impact the drug is shown to have in civilians. It’s stated that Blood Heat is spreading rapidly, but hardly shown being consumed when the film’s villain isn’t around.

vlcsnap-2018-06-11-21h45m29s389
So this is how a Japan in over two decades of depression looks like. Kinda nice.

Biggest faults of the writing comes from director Ten Shimoyama inability to hide his budgetary shortcomings. It’s established in the first five minutes that Japan had been in a depression for over two decades, yet decides to show aerial shot of a nice looking Japan. Adding to the disservice he does to the writing is not displaying a more economically broken Japan. in its set designs There’s not much dirt on the actors playing the Sewer Rats gangs, and is too nice looking in the environments to visually get across a economically depressed Japan. Simply making the background a little ugly, or filled a little trash isn’t too much to get the setting correct. There’s also his overblown direction at times to scenes that don’t need it. When actor Kane Kusogi sees his partner getting killed, instead of letting the sight of Kane Kusogi being depressed in the rain do its job. Here comes Ten Shimoyama choosing to insert a cheesy Spanish guitar, and violins instrumental to the sequence. A simple moment of seeing Kane Kusogi down in the rain is made cheesy by the inclusion of music. Creating a unintentional cheesy nature during the film’s most serious moments. Especially the crucifixion of actor Show Aikawa was pretty heavy handed in the many contrived monologues trying to make itself appear deeper than it actually is.  Adding onto the list of issue is Shimoyama pacing. Portions of the movie felt longer than they actually were, while portions that should have been longer feel to short. Resulting in a movie, and story that feels underwhelming on all front. There’s no raising action in narrative to make things feel like they’re escalating, and without engaging characters you’re left with what eventually becomes a chore to watch after the first thirty minutes. 

The biggest surprise in the movie is a good chunk of the dialogue in Blood Heat is spoken in English, Japanese, Cantonese, and a little bit of Korean in the film just for added measure. More surprising is the acting in the movie is pretty solid. Kane Kosugi is the film leading action star. Doing all his own stunt he more than has the physical abilities to carry a movie. Looking proficient in his fight sequences, and being able to perform his fight scenes with ease like many famous onscreen martial artists. His commitment on the action makes it a shame he hasn’t gotten many opportunities to take the leading role. Although, that could be do to his middling acting abilities. He’s able to make awkwardly written English dialogue sound when he delivers it, and his Japanese dialogue he’s able to put a bit anger in his delivery. He simply lacks range in his acting ability always looking angry in nearly all of his scene. Kane Kusogi also lacks charisma explaining his lack of comedy scene, or long takes during dramatic portions past a certain point in the movie.

Most disappointing performance is easily from Show Aikawa who can’t do anything in his role because of his limited time. Best he could provide for his character is simply putting on sunglasses, and looking cool. Caring about him, or his character he’s unable to do anything on that front. Same with Misato Tachibana who who plays Show Aikawa sister isn’t in the film much either. Both of these actors lack of screen time make is made very evident in sequence that meant to be the dramatic height of those two character arcs, but nothing emotion is gained from it. Masaya Kato is enjoyable over the top as the film’s main villain. His line delivery are simply blissful when spouting out ridiculous English dialogue you simply can’t take him seriously. When speaking in their native language the Japanese actors are okay to mediocre, but when speaking English it’s pretty rough at times. Although, some of it is to blame on the awkward, and at times grammatically incorrect English dialogue.

qyedr7
Not even the glass is spared in this fight sequence.

The fight choreography is handled by Jackie Chan’s stunt team regular Ming-Sing Wong. Creating Hong Kong style action with the look of Japanese cinema. For the first half of the movie, the action sequences are on par with Hong Kong action cinema. Choreography is creative in its limited setting, typically in tight corridors with little room for error. Kane Kusogi fighting a dozen men in a hallway is the obvious highlight with slight usage of wire work. This fight sequence is tight being able to actors in the background waiting for their que to attack. Hiding the background actors expertly as the choreography has Kane tossing henchman like rag dolls to the people in the hallways. When someone attacks Kane, the cinematography keeps anyone in the background out of frame placing the focus on Kane, and the single person he’s fighting in that moment. This is one smooth, and seamless looking action sequence.

Making it a shame the remainder of the action sequences are lame. The cinematography isn’t as tight with Kane fight against Joe Lee is the sleepiest fight in the movie. Having some sparse shots where contact isn’t made when trading blows. Joe, and Kane Kusogi fight in the Muscle Dome suffers from one sided nature. At first Kane Kusogi is pummeling Joe Lee, but than the reverse happens once Blood Heat kicks than Kane Kusogi gets beaten without using any counter maneuvers. This is a boring fight since both actors are clearly capable of doing complex choreography, but the baffling decision to not show Joe Lee, and Kane Kusogi on some kind of even ground makes the long fight sequence dull. Then comes the climax which is also disappointing, and the slowest fight sequence in the movie. All to this point all the previous action sequences had actors performing them at normal speed. In the climax, Kane Kusogi, and actor Masaya Kato fight with sledgehammer, and it’s slow moving. Revealing the setback of having two actors fight with sledgehammer as both simply trade blows, and dodge without doing anything impressive in the matter. Once both actors drop the sledgehammers, both knee cap each other before throwing a single flying kick ending the fight. You don’t get to see the final blow in the fight as it cuts to black! Talk about anti-climatic.

vpdlpz
And one last gif of Kane Kosugi doing something cool. His own stunts.

Blood Heat is the definition of brainless action cinema, and on some level it can be enjoyable on that front. It’s tries it hardest to be a Hollywood level action blockbuster, but without the budget it falls more in line of B-movie with some competent production values, some competent action sequences, and a competent enough lead in Kane Kusogi to carry the film. Bad aspects are obviously the poor writing unable to develop anything engaging, and bad direction that’s unable to visually tell its story, nor pace it properly. If you’re ever in the mood for brainless entertainment that’s somewhat watchable Blood Heat is not a bad choice, but otherwise you ain’t missing much in this little film that couldn’t cut it for the big leagues.

Rating: 4/10

Cinema-Maniac: Massacre Gun (1967)

Massacre Gun follows Kuroda (Jô Shishido) a mob hitman who turns on his employers after being forced to execute his lover. Telling a lightweight story with little to grasp onto. This film is barebones in covering the essentials for competent storytelling; partial characterization, half baked exploration into the themes of brotherhood & the Yakuza code of honor, and proper escalation of story events. At it core it should be a crime thriller, but moves at a leisurely pace it becomes soothing to watch. Unfortunately, it is also attempting to tell a story about Kuroda friendship falling apart because of the ways of the Yakuza. Kuroda, and his best friend both being bound to violently resolve their war through their violent encounters, even if it against their personal intentions. This lays the groundwork for possible in depth characters who remain about the same when they are introduced sadly. Resulting in a storyline that should carry weight to it, but does not due to how little it does to create sympathy for anyone involve. A shame too since the film provide plentiful instances where expansion on character are hinted at. They are simple characters, and remain that way just like the film’s story.

Massacre Gun Still 03
Getting cool shots even if in context it doesn’t make sense.

Familiarity is also an issue with the film, but only if you’re familiar with Yakuza movies. If you’re not, than the film is a good introduction into Nikkatsu’s Yakuza films. Covering the familiar of loyalty, blood brotherhood, unrequited love, not following the same wrong path, loosing oneself, and yep that’s about it. Character archetypes are here make the cast of characters; from the age old veteran wanting who is bound to his boss, the best friend in a rival gang beholden to loyalty over friendship, the partner thinking of calling it quits, and the upcoming youngest member desiring his chance to join the Yakuza. Those familiar with Nikkatsu’s Yakuza films will know what to expect, and Massacre Gun is more than comfortable with itself on that front. For newcomers into this kind of films it’ll serve a good introduction to get familiarize with the basics of Yakuza films in a more grounded state.

The only aspect of the writing that shines is the character of Saburo (Jiro Okazaki). He’s given a history, a dream, and conflict that gets expanded on as the film progresses. It initially starts a story about him being unable to become a boxer, and grows into Saburo finding himself again in life. Unlike the main storyline, Saburo has more to him that the film is more than happy to flesh out leading to him being the most engaging part of the movie. Unfortunately, his part is superfluous in the overarching narrative with his biggest contribution in the movie is having to be rescued twice in order to escalate events. Being a missed opportunity to add something more to the simplistic, and lightweight film.

massacre-gun-still-01.png
Another cool shot, but why the burning ships in the background I got no clue.

One aspect that is unquestionable about the film is that it has class to it. Without question, this has to be the classiest presented Yakuza movie I’ve seen unrivaled by any other. Helmed by director Yasuharu Hasebe he surprisingly shows no sign of inexperience despite it being his second directorial effort in his career. Giving the film the qualities of a cinematic experience that enhances what could have a basic film. Through his eye for visuals he is able to create a beautiful looking movie from the first frame. Do except the questionable visuals choices at times; like one where there are burning ships in the background for no reason, but thankfully odd visuals touches like that are sparse in the film.

What isn’t sparse is his careful attention to framing. Several sequences in the movie he’s able to perfectly show turmoil without dialogue. An example of this is during a wide shot scene when Jiro Okazaki is depressed, sitting down at a bar looking down at his bandage hand, and hearing jazz music being played. The elegant usage of lighting in crisp black and white, and atmosphere further empathizes the mood meant to be convey in this scene. Subtle touches like these to convey characters make the sillier moments, like a bomb being strapped to a dead body, be easily overlooked. Another highlight of the film is a sequence where a major character seemingly escapes a hit, and tricking the viewer that he has made a getaway only to realize that he’s trapped up against a wall surrounded by men with gun. Yes, it takes an absurd amounts of bullets before the man is down, but it’s a great sequence that gives cinematic quality to simplistic writing.

When the film numerous actors aren’t wearing suits to class things up the soundtrack composed of Jazz keep things classy. With numerous musical interludes, and (somewhat) erotic dancing splice during the movie makes it come across as elegant. From a technical standpoint, the music used shouldn’t work, but it does. On the violence side there’s not much of it. Same with the body count not being close what a person would consider a massacre, but the action sequences are fine being carried by smart direction. Except for one that takes place on a ship; the sequence is finely crafted, and confined until the two major characters escape from a trap. The characters are corner on all direction, and there seems no way out. This action sequence ends when one of the two major characters shoots the light, and then cuts to the two running out of the ship. Due to how it was framed it’s impossible to tell how exactly they escape a constant barrage of gunfire when surrounded. Aside from this slip up, the old fashion action sequences are pretty well done.

Massacre Gun Still 04
No one here likes the what the future holds for Nikkatsu studio

The only actor in the film who I felt shine was Jiro Okazaki. It helps that he has the most fleshed out characters, but even without that his screen presence is simply attention grabbing without being commanding. He has all the charm to pull off his character with ease, and the dramatic chops to subtly act out the inner separation of his character. He’s a delight to see on screen, even if his supporting role ensures he’s not given the center attention.

Jo Shishido stars in the film, and delivers a solid performance. His botox cheeks gives him a recognizable look, but in terms of acting here he isn’t allowed much range. Always being bound to restraint any emotion to just being collected. Tatsuya Fiji is a bit more loosed, but has the same problem with the material being too limited. Also, a moment in the film has him slapping a woman several, and having sex with her which the woman complies with. It was a different era, but luckily the direction prevents that moment from being worse than it could have been.

Massacre Gun Still 06
Got to say it again, film is beautifully shot

Hideaki Nitani is the second standout in the film playing Jo Shishido friend in a rival gang. Emoting his characters complex emotions with ease. Takashi Kanda portrayal as a Yakuza boss is simple; just come off as evil, and over controlling which he does. Aside from that, the other remaining in the cast from Yoko Yamamoto, Tamaki Sawa, and the rest of the actress simply act concerned over their men. They don’t get much to do either, much like Ken Sanders who plays the jazz player Chico, but make the most with what they can.

Massacre Gun is an above average movie whose only stand out is Jiro Okazaki performance, and its classy direction from Yasuharu Hasebe elevating what could have been a mediocre Yakuza movie. It’s a evident case of style over substance that for those familiar with Yakuza movies make it worth looking into a little. While for newcomers it serves as a good introduction into Yakuza films having all the traits other Yakuza movie past, and future would retain. It might not offer anything unique besides it’s style, but it still makes for a solid viewing experience.

Rating: 6/10

Cinema-Maniac: Kamikaze Taxi (1995)

Today’s film is three things; an arthouse film, a leisurely pace film at nearly three hours long, and very mindful of the heavy theme it touches on. On paper, arthouse is typically something I ignore as some will typically sacrifice narrative worth for alluring visuals. Depending on the film the abstract accompany by pleasant visuals can add to something, and other times just feel like a complete waste of time. The lack of any middle ground in terms of quality, from my experience, prevents me from checking more arthouse films. However, Kamikaze Taxi is an exception in both areas; it’s exactly what I expected out of a arthouse film, but exceeded everything I thought it could possibly be. I am willing to go as far as to say this film might just be an underappreciated classic.

186686
“No need to fear. We’re just going to kill you.”

KamiKaze Taxi follows a revenge-seeking man, and his foolish friends plan to rob a yakuza gang. Despite that simple synopsis, the film covers much broader subjects beside vengeance. It touches on violence in many perspective from the conceived honorable sacrifice of a Kamikaze to the senseless nature of war. You might even be surprise for a film that has plenty to say about violence there’s hardly any of it to be found within the actual film. Instead, you’re treated to a cast of fleshed out characters with some level of depths to them. Tackling heavier subject matters, especially for the Japanese audience, on a nuance level.

The film begins in a pseudo-documentary style, commenting on the presence of Japanese with foreign upbringing, and how they are not looked upon as “true Japanese”. Further illustrating this is the first sequence where young Yakuza Tatsuo Minami (Kazuya Takahashi) is introduced to Senator Domon whom comments he hopes Tatsuo is a full blooded Japanese from his Korean sounding name. It’s not just a one off comment that makes up Senator Domon character, but several scenes throughout the film where he freely share his racist remarks, even on live television. Later receiving characterization on his likes for Jazz music, and perceiving himself as a true Kamikaze with his boastful nationalistic pride. All the major characters in the film receive this level of characterization.

Slow moving as it might be in its pacing it uses that to have secondary character to provide humanizing moments amidst the aftermath of a violent sequence. One such example of this occurred early on in the movie; Tatsuo job is to set up Senator Domon with women to sleep with, and after a bad night (which occurs offscreen) he has a lengthy conversation with the women involved. Being unable to view them the same way his Yakuza brothers do, and it’s many moments like these that elevate Kamikaze Taxi into something special. What short bursts of violence it contains become layer with meaning for the participants, and for the viewer weaves an engaging narrative sharing a intimate understanding on it complex issues.

vod00031
“Bite on this while I kill you gently”

Kamikaze Taxi starts with Tatsuo Minami story of desiring vengeance is just the beginning of the movie before transitioning into the meditative phase of a road movie an hour in. It is right here where an already good movie with a great foundation becomes even better. On the other corner we have the other major character of Kantake (Koji Yakusho). The unlikely bond, and connection Tatsuo, and Kantake form elevates the preceding events of simple ideas, but broad introductions, and give them depth here. Themes such as what is truly consider Japanese, the long term effects of violence on a person, what defines a Kamikaze or Yakuza, moving from past prejudice, and other subjects fully develop.

One of Kamikaze Taxi noteworthy scene requires the characters to reflect on their life choices through a seminar of sort. Encompassing the comedic, and the dark nature of its characters into a single sequence. Scenes like these are a dime of dozen in Kamikaze Taxi allowing even minor characters to influence the larger narrative in the end.

Not bound to just tackling contemporary issues specifically pertaining to Japanese culture it also delves into more universal themes. The already mention viewpoints of violence, pride, love, freedom, and ultimately forgiveness. Much like its characters, the story leisurely makes several stop during its journey. Either to build the bond between its lead through something simple like navigating a map of Japan, or taking a breather from the harrowing situation with a drink. Characters aren’t afraid to discuss the harsher aspects of life the closer they get to their journey’s destination, even contemplating simply escaping from their dangerous endeavors. Through their many exchanges, understanding these characters along with developing the fictional backdrop tackling real issues become easier to grasp.

b9a1dce767fc241b0a6bb86ea59056d4_640
What better way to end a fun party than telling everyone about my tragic past.

The journey this film will take you on isn’t all smooth. For an ambitious film with a desire to tackle a number of themes it is riddle with some issues. One of these being the complete disappearance of the pseudo-documentary framing device from the narrative. It’s disappearance isn’t harmful to the movie since it setups all the working pieces that later pay off once they get fleshed out. What is potentially harmful to the viewing experience is the circling around of established information. Kantake in the movie expresses his issues finding work in a country because of his ethnicity, but the documentary portion of the movie already set that up in its opening minutes. In context, Kantake explaining his situation makes sense, but within the narrative it’s just reiterating information with nothing adding on to it. They also eventually disappear from the movie making it have narrative inconsistency in its execution.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle for viewer in this movie is the way it ponders. There’s a lengthy sequence at some hotel where the characters are enjoying downtime from their journey. What occurs is a series of goofy antics before getting into the characters reflecting on their choices that led them to this moments. These halts in the movie can take several minutes before offering anything that could progress the story. Naturally being all over the place when it shifts gear into being a meditative road movie. These issues might detract from the experience for some viewers, and to a greater extent hurt the viewing experience since the film delve into many subjects.

By the end of the film, it’s obvious by how much I gushed about the writing I simply was in awe from such a thought provoking piece of cinema. Rarely does a film for me ever reaches the narrative heights Kamikaze Taxi accomplishes in virtually all aspects. I was never bored watching Kamikaze Taxi thanks to its engaging characters whom I grew to like a lot on their journey. Spending so much time leisurely developing, and fleshing out everything it tackle created an rich experience not offered to me in many films. Its shortcomings aren’t things I’ll excuse, but they are weaknesses I can forgive for everything I feel it excels in creating.

o0500027512172841995
In its natural habitat, the third wheel.

Director Masato Harada helms the film with ease. Visually arresting with it neon nights city, flute center score, and a dreamlike mood that make it an absorbing viewing. The Peruvian flute like music in particular grew on me over time giving the film a unique soundtrack that I can’t recall other Yakuza movie ever having. With the exception of a few scenes requiring over acting, Masato Harada is able to keep the film realism in tact. Providing the film a grounded touch that it needed, especially during the more solemn scenes when characters are opening up about themselves. Rarely ever using music to influence the audience what they should think during an important character building scene. He also isn’t afraid to inject a bit of humor to prevent the film from becoming overly moody. One sequence where his direction is a bit of a misfired is when Koji Yakusho, and Taketoshi Naito (Senator Domon) only scene together involves an over the top outside inference in their encounter. It’s pretty odd witnessing something over the top happen in the movie when everything else is somewhat grounded.

Standout actor here is obviously Koji Yakusho as Kantake who provides the film most grounded performance. Carefully able to hide the inner turmoil of his character without making him come across as emotionless towards those around him. Without question, his shining moment of acting is when during an long take he reveals his tragic past to the other actors. It’s a scene that is perfectly solemn, and delivered with the right amount of emotion. Overshadowing his co-star Kazuya Takahashi who plays Tatsuo. Takashi isn’t bad in his role either; displaying his character insecurity to fully be a Yakuza with such a sensitive side to him. As the film progresses, Kazuya portrayal of Tatsuo slowly matures into a deep thinking young man by the end. Embodying the puzzling mindset of Tatsuo perfectly. When together, Koji Yakusho, and Kazuya Takahashi are simply wonderful together.

87914fd44ad5a0443d3b0cc3706d1da1_640
Those wounds are nothing compare to what I went through in Battle Royale.

Taketoshi Naito who plays the racist, and at times misogynistic Senator Domon does a great job in his performance. By choosing to not over act his character feels more humanize, and detestable for it. Benefiting the film by giving it a more realistic depiction of this film’s version of a villain without actually being one. Mickey Curtis who makes sporadic appearances in the film is a treat to watch. His laid back attitude as a Yakuza underling rightfully gets across his character experience. When needed too, he definitely display his tougher side. Finally, Reiko Kataoka who just like Koji Yakusho later becomes a mainstain in the story. She also deliver a great performance on the level of Koji Yakusho, and Kazuya Takahashi. These onscreen chemistry is simply perfect able to make you believe they have created a great bond together despite the small amount of time they spent together.

Kamikaze Taxi is my kind of art film; slow moving, but visually alluring, loosely meditative narrative, and handling of several subject matter gracefully. It’s a film that was a more than pleasant discovery during my viewing, and giving me far more than I could have ever expected from it. I expected, from the trailer, a lengthy Yakuza epic with violence throughout, but instead what I got is a far more ambition, humanizing film that not provides frank criticism on Japan’s culture, but also a film that never bored me, and serves as a personal reminder the profound power arthouse cinema can have.

Rating: 10/10

Cinema-Maniac: Outlaw: Gangster VIP 2 (1968) Review

The first Outlaw: Gangster VIP film was a very pleasant surprise the first time I saw it. I’ve never heard anything about it, nor ever seen any promotional material going into it. It’s this blind viewing experience that made me discover quite the hidden gem of a Yakuza film. Now, considering the fact I knew this was a franchise, and the ambiguous ending for the first movie I still consider the first entry a great standalone feature film. It was open enough where a debate towards the outcome of it conclusion could be considered valid. This sequel had a tall order to follow, and for the first act at least, it was doing a good job building on the foundation the original film laid out. However, after the first act was done it reverted back to the same familiar structure, and plot points that could be found in the original, just less potent this time around.

OGVIP 2 Still 10
I’m here to audition for the one arm swordsman role.

Outlaw: Gangster VIP 2 continues the story of Goro (Tetsuya Watari) who wants to put his dark past behind, and live an honest man’s life. This is a direct sequel so knowing what happens in the first film is a blessing, and a curse. A blessing in the since Goro is a developed character could be even more fleshed out. Seeing him interact with people in this film holds greater significance with a better understanding of Goro from the previous movie. For the first act, this sequel serves up being a good extension to the franchise. Seeing Goro for the first time in his life attempting to be an honest man, and seeing him struggling through that is compelling. The same also applies to him attempting to stay committed to his new lifestyle no matter the difficulty given to him. It’s also the best part of the movie since Goro is shown tackling, and failing to overcome new challenges as a straight man. If the film expanded further on this than the foreseeable events later on in the story would have packed some kind of a punch.

Another positive to the film is the subplot revolving around Goro, and Yukiko (Chieko Matsubara) attempting to make money to take care of fatally ill friend Yumeko (Kayo Matsuo) is potent. Unlike the other plot threads within the sequel, this feels the most potent in its effort to tell another good story in Goro life. It’s not a rethread of something that happened in a previous movie, and it offers some kind of continuity that when the subplot ends it is actually meaningful. This subplot also leads to the best dramatic scene in the film, but unfortunately saying more than that would require spoiling it.

There is one area where this sequel somewhat does better than the original, and that’s fleshing out Yukiko. She still isn’t given much to do, but her contribution to the story adds something to the story. Without Yukiko, certain scenes discussing love wouldn’t work. So yes, by simply having Yukiko exist, and be the love interest the film discussion on love doesn’t come off as phoned in. Other than that, expect the same song, and dance for the rest of the material.

OGVIP 2 Still 01
Goro: “Finally, someone who doesn’t put their arm through sleeves like me!”

The negative side of this being a direct sequel is a bigger of suspension of disbelief when viewing the film. Asking the viewer to overlook the fact that Goro met the same type of people, and similar events happened around him is quite a stretch. Another drawback is the inevitable boredom of that you’ve seen these same exact scenes, and same exact outcome in the previous film. Offering little surprises in the direction the story. Once you determine what exactly this sequel is going to rethread you’ll have less of a reason to be invested in it.

Perhaps the biggest drawback is the ending of the movie. Unlike the original film where its ambiguous nature could be debated in spite of there being sequels. Here, the ending comes off as more conclusive as you’ll see a bloodied Goro finally stopped moving, and lay down on the floor. The first time when I saw this kind of ending it left a good impression. I was willing to overlook the fact in the original Outlaw: Gangster VIP there was an entire franchise, but here, I simply can’t for the reasons stated earlier. It rethread too much material so expecting me to leave the movie with the same kind of meaningful experience is not earned.

OGVIP 2 Still 15
Finally, Goro the Wise finally learned to properly put on a jacket.

Tetsuya Watari once again takes the leading role as Goro, and he does another good job in the film. It’s largely feels like a repeat of his performance of the first movie, but his portrayal is nonetheless still effective. His line delivery is commanding, and sincere at a moment notice. He’s convincing in the action sequences he performs with the psychical appearance to boot too. Yes, Tetsuya Watari still refuses to put his arms into his jackets just like the first movie in a good amount of scenes which is going to be mentioned as long as he does. Just like in the previous movie, his chemistry with the cast is on point again in this sequel.

Returning actors like Chieko Matsubara who plays Yukiko, and Shoki Fukae both whom play new character named Mori are dependable again. However, seeing them play their respective characters with little new to offer makes them easily fade into the background. Unlike Tetsuya Watari whose in the front, and center of not only the dramatic scenes, but also the action sequences allowing him to shine despite the rethread. Both Matsubara, and Fukae aren’t granted that luxury since they did little in the first movie, and here it’s no different.

New actors whom do appear in the movie have the drawback of playing similar characters already portrayed in the first film. Making any new actor who plays a similar character from the previous film seem like an imitation. The only bright side of the new cast is obviously Kunie Tanaka who plays Katsuji Nemoto, an underachieving yakuza with a grudge against Goro. His character is sympathetic without crossing into over acting. Unlike Goro whom once again fallen back into the Yakuza lifestyle, Tanaka plays a more dynamic character that is allow to mix it up how he interacts with Watari. While it’s unfortunate Tanaka didn’t receive more screen time in the film, he makes the most of what he is given. Everyone else though, I could hardly remember to be honest.

OGVIP 2 Still 08
Now that I about it, nearly every time Goro puts his arms through his jackets sleeves he gets into a fight. Symbolic?

Following from the first movie, the technical aspect as still top notch, but not of the same quality. This time, Keiichi Ozawa takes over for the rest of the franchise. Like his actors, Ozawa feels too much like he’s impersonating Toshio Masuda (the first Outlaw: Gangster VIP director) style, tone, and just about everything. The one thing Ozawa maintains as his own is his lack subtlety in the drama department. Going as far in one scene to have a ray of light shine down on a dying character, and in another scene showing footage of an raging avalanche once Goro decides to go back to working in the Yakuza. You know, visual allegory to help hammer in the point of the scene you’re watching. The action sequences are once again good to witness. Some setpieces feel like a rehash of the original, but again, for a late 60s film the action sequences hold up pretty well. Music isn’t as memorable as in the first film, but is serviceable working favor of the movie. Though the climax lacks the impactful score found that made the first film end on a high note.

Outlaw: Gangster VIP 2 is more of the same. The same characters, the same story, and the same themes. However, the acting, the action, and some of the new story beats are just as good, even if crossing into familiar territory diminishes their impact. I do feel this sequel while sadly a downgrade from the first entry is still not bad a movie. It’s positives overweighs the negatives, but viewing it for yourself is another story. For me, I was enthusiastic going into the film anticipating where the next chapter of Goro life would take him, and it wasn’t much different from the first movie. It left me disappointed by the time the ending title card came up, but one thing I was not was angry, nor did I felt like my time was wasted. Outlaw: Gangster VIP 2 has a specific goal of capturing the same magic of the original film, and it was a decent attempt at it. Succeeding in what it aimed to do, even if it wasn’t the homerun it was expected it to be.

Rating: 7/10

Cinema-Maniac: Outlaw: Gangster VIP (1968) Crime Movie Review

Crime cinema is one of the most interesting genres for me, but typically also one I spend the least amount of time exploring in my area of interests. Quality films in the the crime genre are abundant so that’s not a issue for me. What is are usually the kind of stories that can be told in this genre, and how typically I don’t find myself caring much about these crime stories leading characters. I find the amount of memorable character, for me, even harder to find as after a single film I never seen them again. However, as I venture more in depth into foreign (outside of the US for me) cinema I learn there take on the subject I find a bit more interesting. Hence, my venture into the first of six (one of five films to come out in 1968) in the Outlaw: Gangster VIP franchise.

Still 02
Hey, did you know 2 out 3 Japanese men don’t know how to wear the sleeves in their clothing. Crazy right?

Outlaw: Gangster VIP follows Yakuza Goro Fujikawa (played by Tetsuya Watari) becomes disenchanted with his lifestyle after serving three years in prison, and seeing a changed Japan. Starting off strong, Outlaw: Gangster VIP shows a glimpse of Goro rough life as a child during the opening credit sequence, and the film never loosen its dramatic grip on you. Establishing early on in the film characters history, motivation, and displaying Goro contrast of his rough exterior compare to his inner kindness. At 90 minutes, Outlaw: Gangster VIP is very bold, and ambition in narrative storytelling is quite a successful accomplishment. Nearly everything in the film from a writing perspective works better than the film probably intend it too.

For example, throughout the film snippets of certain characters are given to the viewers at different points in the story. These snippets are later expanded on as the film progresses into discussing it themes on violence, loyalty, and moving forward through a slow pace. In particular, the character Takeo Tsujikawa (played by Mitsuo Hamada) embodies all these themes greatly. Serving somewhat as a surrogate of the new youth idolizing the life of the Yakuza while Goro Fujikawa is the wise old veteran trying to set him on the right path. Several scenes in the film illustrate why Goro wants to set Takeo on the right path, and as well facing the consequences that comes from his misguided view on the Yakuza lifestyle. It’s a classic dynamic you’ve seen in many films, and here it works all the same.

Continuing on, another aspect of the film that greatly serves it narrative are the characters, and the interactions they have with one another. A no brainer of course, but the dialogue, and the discussion among the characters in the film feel so natural. It doesn’t come across as if the film itself is dictating how these character talk. Rather, it’s the characters themselves moving the story forward, and their storied history. The way the character speak to each other, and how they react to an individual does as much to convey character traits as much as the spoken words.

Still 03
What’s with that look? I swear we didn’t have the dog for dinner last week.

If there’s any area Outlaw: Gangster VIP falters in is the romantic subplot involving Goro, and Yukiko Hashimoto (played by Cheiko Matsubara) is only half convincing. From Yukiko point of view her romantic feelings for Goro is sensible with what’s reveal about her in the film. However, from Goro perspective his romantic feelings for Yukiko don’t add up entirely. It simply comes off as a facade to get out of a uncomfortable situation. It’s a spoilerific scene that makes Goro yearn for Yukiko be questionable. Aside from that small drawback, the film plays out without a hitch. The seemingly large cast of characters never become too much to keep track off. It balances the small human aspects of it story without it losing itself with this Yakuza gang war that develops in the background. In spite of its many theme, and relatively short length at 90 minutes there’s always something important in occuring in the film. Finally, thematic exploration especially since by the end of the film you end up with a film that’s a lot thoughtful than the name would imply into a nice package.

Tetsuya Watari plays Goro Fujikawa (a character based on a real ex-gangster) in the first of many ventures. Watari excels in this portrayal of the Goro in both the physical, and emotional aspect required of him. His exterior, much like the character, is rough, and his line delivery shows no hint of a gentle soul. However, his eyes tell a different story whenever the camera focuses on him. Goro is a layered, and therefore Watari switching between contrasting personality for the same character feels natural. You will believe that Tetsuya Watari can defend himself against a  against an entire gang of knife wielding Yakuza by himself relatively well because of his commanding on screen presence. Simply put, Watari creates an quite an iconic character for the crime genre, even if the series as a whole is relatively unknown as of this writing.

Another noteworthy performance is by Mitsuo Hamada who plays Takeo Tsujikawa. He’s given more ranging material compare to Watari, but given a less layered character to portray. However, is able to hold his own much like Tetsuya Watari. Tsujikawa portrayal is more expressive of his overall turmoil, and happiness that his character faces. Relying less on body language, but doesn’t take away anything from his scenes. Whenever Tetsuya Watari ain’t the main focus Mitsuo Hamada is a fantastic choice to share the spotlight with. His scenes often relies on his comedic timing, and dramatic chop to make scenes. It’s a delicate balance that if done incorrectly a scene would have easily appeared too comedic, or too dramatic. Understanding this delicate balance, Hamda knows exactly how to deliver his lines in every scene. Plus, the times he shares the screen with Watari makes for some splendid bit of acting, as well as make for some of the best moments in the film in terms of writing.

Still 07
Trust me, no stills from the film’s action sequences can do them rightful justice.

In terms of supporting cast members, besides Mitsuo Hamada, there’s Kyosuke Machida whom in spite in being in the film as much as Hamada, but he gets to shine in some heavily dramatic scenes. Tatsuya Fuji also gets a small part as Suzuki, but unfortunately his role is also brief ending before making much of an impression. Same thing for Yoshiro Aoki, although he’s more of the lacking variety sort since he’s villain of the film, and has to appear more scummy regardless of the scene he’s in. Yet, in spite of the small roles the supporting cast receives they all turn in good performances with what little they’re given. Finally, there’s Chieko Matsubara, and Kayo Matsuo whom are the only ladies of any noteworthy roles. They play the supportive ladies which tended to be common in films in general during the 60s, and earlier. Both actress do fine in the role, but only in her final scene does Chieko Matsubara get to deliver a good scene. However, her co-star Kayo Matsuo despite appearing less leaves a bigger impression. Helps with the fact her scenes in the film tend to be other topics instead of constantly delivering dialogue on how much she wants to stick with her man.

Finally, this review (and any other on this film for that matter) would do a huge injustice if not mentioning action coordinator Kakuo Watai, and cinematographer Kurataro Takamura. Firstly, Kurataro Takamura eye for visuals gives the film plenty of classic wide shots, and long takes to absorb late 1960 Japan. Making the film look very beautiful throughout many points in the film. I would even say thanks to the visual choices made it visuals have gotten better with time. There’s also the action sequence by Kakuo Watai which surprisingly are impressive considering the year it was made in. Granted, like with action sequences during this era of filmmaking there’s the usual suspects of spotting actors standing waiting for their cue to perform in the sequence. All the film’s set pieces have these issues made easier to spot thanks to the long takes, and white shots, but they don’t diminished the elaborate (for the time at least) set pieces. Being an obvious highlight of the movie, even if they’re more over the top in comparison to the rest of the film. The execution of them, and staging of these action sequences ensures it warrant a viewing from any viewer. Lastly, the score by Harumi Ibe is pretty good. Fitting tonally whenever it’s used, and sometimes adding more impact to a scene.

Outlaw: Gangster VIP is a slow drama thick with great storytelling, and a fantastic cast of characters. Director Toshio Masuda crafted a film that age extremely well visually, and narratively. Many of the themes in the film are given careful thought in how they’re explored while also never forgetting about its characters. Balancing the large scope gang war with the human element thrown in you have a film huge in its scope that succeeds in what it sets out to do. That’s also including the technical achievement of the film which at times, along with everything else working in great cohesion with each other, will make you forget you’re watching a 50 plus year old film.

9/10

Anime-Breakdown: Ajin Part 1: Shoudou (2015) Recap Movie Review

Polygon Pictures is the name of the studio behind this film, and the anime series Sidonia no Kishi/Knights of Sidonia. I bring them up because despite only having seen one completed series from Polygon Pictures (at the time of this review being posted) it was enough for me to make them my most hated anime studio. This hatred is derived from Knights of Sidonia, or as I refer to it Sci-Fi: The Anime since it’s biggest piece of sci-fi trite I have ever seen in any form of media. Every single plot point was predictable, it didn’t put a new spin on any established sci-fi formula nor strayed from any common modern anime writing conventions, and it’s also the only piece of science fiction, and animation to ever put me to sleep. So before even starting the film, and Ajin anime series there was already the hurdle of low expectations. The only way Ajin couldn’t meet those low expectation would be if it turned out worse than Knights of Sidonia. Ajin went so below the bar of low expectations I could make a top ten list of the worst Ajin episodes in great detail by how much incompetence there is in each individual episode.

This film is basically a recap splicing together the first six episodes of the anime series Ajin. You might be wondering what’s the purpose of this recap movie if there’s no noticeable alteration between the anime series, and film. Both use the same footage with the same dialogue rendering it rather pointless to seek out the other product depending on what you decide to check out. As negative as I was towards the recap movie, Sword Art Online: Extra Edition, A1 Pictures did the logical in creating new material exclusive to it. Ajin Part 1: Shoudou only major difference with the anime series are scenes not having Izumi Shimomura (Tosaki’s secretary) cheeks turning red when blushing in two episodes of the anime series. I would like to point out this film came out in late November of 2015, and between that time all the way to mid January of 2016 when the anime aired. Someone, or several individuals at Polygon Pictures felt it was important to slightly alter moments of embarrassment by having Izumi cheeks turn red when she’s blushing instead bumping up the framerate to not make the animation look like it is always lagging. Just like the anime series, this recap film purpose is to simply be dead air. The metaphorical coaster of anime so to say.

1452943929937
Sup! I’m Porcupine.

Ajin takes the classic premise of the “Human Parasite” (as I call it) trope where the focus is on a main character who becomes something he/she, or the world hates. If you read, or seen Invasion of the Body Snatchers (my go to association with this premise) you know for a fact this premise under right hands holds infinite possibilities. Especially horror since it could thrive on creating psychological fear of these creatures that easily blend into our world. However, Ajin doesn’t understand the basics of storytelling so when it tried to reach higher than possible never once does it bother to set up the building blocks for a stable story.

First issue for the film is simple; bad world building combine with bad context for exposition. In Ajin, it’s establish the entire world know the existence of Ajins, yet in a later scene in the movie a police officer is surprise there’s an Non Lethal Drug Gun specifically design to capture Ajins. Before you could be bother to ask what sense does it make that this weapon isn’t mandatory for all policemen to have in case of an emergency it throws another bad plot point at you. One being how high school students managed to find a leaked video of a Ajin being experimented on, and there being no mention of it in any news media outlet. The flimsy excuse of a student saying it could be fake cannot be assumed to apply to everyone else in the world which requires higher suspension of disbelief that does not come with the premise. In the anime series, the news media eventually discover this leaked video, but in the film the news media does not. Creating more plot holes that in sequel films Polygon Pictures will have to cover up instead of focusing on telling a story (not a good one at that).

We also have the Elephant in the room to address in that paranoia, hatred, disgust, or any feelings towards the public views on Ajin goes without setup. Aside from the first discover Ajin being a gun for hire in Africa, and if Ajin are turned in you’ll be rewarded there is nothing much to grasp from the Ajins presence in this world. The film even brings up the fact other Ajins were discovered, but mentions nothing if the other Ajins are commonly violent toward humans. If that was the case, than it would make sense for Kei Nagai (our teenage protagonist) not to trust anyone in his surroundings. However, if the story didn’t establish the public mindset on Ajins existence than the idea of them being turned in for a reward could still be a reasonable source of distrust for Kei Nagai. A simple, and not hard to shoe in solution for this issue is someone mentioning an Ajin who got betrayed by his friends for money. If this was done than you could have a less inferior reason for Kei Nagai not to trust his friends in the beginning of the film. It’s even brought up the reward could be just a rumor, but even if the reward is just a rumor than Kei Nagai fearing being betrayed by his friends from a story he heard would make a bit more sense. My solution sucks, but it could hold itself together much better compared to betrayal for rumored reward Kei Nagai just recently discovered imply by the film.

Reason number two this film is bad is because of main character Kei Nagai. I personally refer to him as Sam Blanderton since he has no personality, the writing pretends he’s a smart character, and has the plot armor of immortality. His younger sister describes Kei Nagai as a cold person so Vanilla Ice is also a suitable nickname for the protagonist. Jokes aside, you would also find Kei Nagai in that piles of jokes. Despite being told he’s a smart character, and studying to be a doctor he’s no smarter than the rest of the cast in Ajin that can’t phantom the idea of multiple people wearing hats. Having never gone to medical school I can tell you it is possible to knock someone out unconsciously with your fists. I bring this up since Kei Nagai can summon a Black Ghost which are basically an invisible humanlike manifestation Ajins can use. For some reason, when Kei is being tortured about an hour into the film, Kei seems to have forgotten everything he learned. This is a character who the audience is told wants to be a doctor. In a scene where Kei is being tortured he is also pressured into killing scientists, which you would expect someone who has been studying to be a doctor to do the logical, and knock out whoever is torturing him in order to intimidate anyone who wants to torture him in the future. Not wanting to kill is one thing, but if you have the power to knock someone out unconsciously like Kei Nagai has with his Black Ghost where’s the conflict in the situation. Kei doesn’t have to kill anyone when he’s being tortured, yet he seems content that he could only kill despite the fact he’s been studying to become a doctor. Good to know that knowledge goes to waste.

Kei Nagai acts however the plot demands him to without a consistent personality trait. In the film, Kei meets face to face with an old man who kidnapped his sister, but is okay with it since she wasn’t harm. (Tear out hair in anger). Yet, he is more concern with the idea of this same old man wanting to kill scientists who have been torturing him (Kei) for days none of whom he knows. Showing concern for their very livelihood despite torturing him. Just, huh? What makes this infuriating for me is Kei Nagai brings up the idea to handicapped those scientists while begging for them not to be murdered. So the series (along with this film) is telling me Kei Nagai gives a rat ass his sister got kidnapped who he known for basically his entire life, and shows more concern for saving people who tortured him for several days  to the point he’ll bargain to handicapped them to make sure they live. However, this completely goes against the established trait of Kei Nagai being a cold, but intelligent character which does not go well when you see this same intelligent character wear nothing to hide his face when out in public. This is never an issue since Polygon Pictures is too lazy to have background characters which is why there is hardly ever crowds of people in the film. What this means is that Kei Nagai is not a cold character since he bother saving random strangers who tortured him several days, and is not intelligent since he doesn’t use his medical knowledge in his situations to protect himself. There’s no moment of competency from this character since Kei Nagai either gets lucky by discovering a new ability to save himself when convenient, or needs to be save by another person.

ajin20-200220-20large20preview2002
Glasses guy takes his groping seriously.

Finally, the reason the film is terrible, and the anime series itself is also terrible is pretty much everything else. Characters are one dimensional in the film with the only character using his head is Satou who is presented as the villain. Satou is refer by others as The Man in the Hat (even in the English dub for who knows why) because he wears a hat. Apparently, in Ajin, Satou is the only person in the entire world who wears a hat. This is proven whenever Satou is brought up simply mentioning someone is wearing a hat. Characters will immediately bring up Satou. Details like this makes it impossible to take Ajin seriously. What it tells me is a race of immortal beings is easily accepted in this world, but multiple people wearing hats is an entirely alien to concept those same people. Satou character also suffers the same issue, in this film, of having little character development, but compare to every other character he’s written the best. Satou is the only character who has a goal, and a motivation for what he does to a certain character. As you can assume, one character who’s passable doesn’t excuse an entire cast that’s disposable. Kei Nagai does virtually nothing to advance the plot, Kaito/Porcupine (Kei’s best friend) disappears after the second act without explanation, Eriko Nagai (Kei’s sister) is practically pointless contributing nothing to the narrative, and a slew of other unimportant characters amount to either explaining things characters in the world should already know, or just disappear after a while.

Pacing is a mess rushing through everything. This issue applies to the anime series too, but in movie format it’s boils down to throwing set pieces at the audience face without substance. There’s nothing of value to gain from constantly seeing the main characters in danger if there is no reason to care for them. No tension, no stakes, and no investment in the characters will have you constantly looking at the time wondering how long this train wreck is going to last.

On a technical level Polygon Pictures 3D animation is dated, even by 1990s 3D television standards. It’s embarrassing that the Donkey Kong Country 3D animated series from the late 90s has more expressive facial animation, and a better framerate. Donkey Kong Country can make the simple action of Gorillas walking, and dancing for that matter move smoothly. In Ajin Part 1: Shoudou, in the beginning of the film, Polygon Picture can not make the simple action of walking move smoothly. Through the film (and the anime series) it seems like characters are moving in slow motion. Polygon Pictures is capable of fixing of this, but are too lazy to do anything about it. There are two sequences in the film where two Black Ghosts are fighting against each other using the technique of slowing things down briefly then speeding things up. This simple demonstration of being able to change the speed of motion freely should also apply to the frame rate. It’s done deliberately so Polygon Picture have the technology not make to their anime series, and films look like they’re lagging at all times. Polygon Picture is so lazy the film closing credits is the opening sequence to the anime series with just longer credits. Bravo Polygon Picture.

Ajin Part 1: Shoudou needed to be story boarded, and drafted at least once before ever entering production. If this was done than Polygon Pictures would have realize they have no motivation for people to hate Ajins which would have save them from a number of issues if it was addressed. However, even if Ajin did give a good reason for why Ajins are hated it wouldn’t do away with the idiotic plot filled with shallow characters, and a very lazy production. You could find better looking 3D animation from the late 90s than this film which came out in 2015 which is embarrassing. Whatever way you view Ajin in either film, or tv format it is an embarrassment display of Japanese animation, an embarrassment to 3D animation, and an embarrassment to storytelling.

1/10

Cinema-Maniac: Rurouni Kenshin (2012) Movie Review

Adaptations of any sort of property can be tricky. Besides appealing to the original source material fanbase (if there is any) comes with the decision of how exactly to adapt the source material into a new medium. If it’s made specifically for fans like the 2005 Joss Whedon’s film Serenity than newcomers probably won’t get much out of it like fans would. Especially when the best counter-argument against it not standing as its own creation is checking out supplementary material (which happened in my case). Regardless if the film adaptation was preceded by a TV Series, comic-book, or other sources the adaptation in a different medium should be able to stand on its own. Coming from someone who has never read a single chapter of the manga, or seen a single episode of the anime series related to Rurouni Kenshin this live action film adaptation can be enjoyed as its own creation. It’s a great film adaptation, and an equally engaging samurai film.

original
I can relate. This is typical reaction when I talk to a woman.

 

Rurouni Kenshin follows former legendary assassin Kenshin Himura (played by Takeru Satoh) who has now become a wandering pacifist samurai with his new beliefs being challenged in Tokyo. From the opening action sequence right to the end Rurouni Kenshin always feels confident in where it’s heading. Expertly knowing how to setup the social climate of Tokyo where the story takes place. Distinguishing through some characters their struggles to find a new purpose in an era that seemingly in no need of Samurai’s. One moment in the beginning of the film shows villain Kanryu Takeda (Teruyuki Kagawa) ringing a bell singling former Samurai warriors it’s time for dinner. Small details like these help get across the idea of how difficult it could be for a Samurai to adapt to an new era of living. When the story jumps from it subplots including one of an assassin killing using Battosai name it does not feel overwhelming to keep track off. This theme of finding a purpose is explored heavily keeping its main story focus as it introduces more characters in the story while continuing other story threads.

1212280405
You will come to the dark side Kenshin.

Kenshin leads the overall narrative with his main conflict attempting to live a new life away from his former assassin ways. One aspect on writing characters that generally isn’t understood is every action you have your main character perform can develop them. In this film, writers Kiyomi Fuji, and Keishi Ohtomo understood this using Kenshin playful attitude to highlight his struggling ordeal. In some scenes Kenshin has a good time talking to other characters, but in others scenes he get thrown back into his Samurai fighting instincts. As the film progresses the line between famed assassin Hitokiri Battosai, and Kenshin Himura grow closer together. His backblade katana named the Sakbato Kageuchi, for instance, demonstrates Kenshin practicing his beliefs. The way Kenshin fights with careful calculation with a Sakbato Kaeuchi is different from the brief moments when Kenshin is shown fighting with a regular blade instinctively with ease. This builds upon Kenshin as a protagonist as it’s a trait that is treated as part of his character instead of a plot device.

Characters in the film will challenge Kenshin as he attempt to maintain his pacifism. The film takes it time exploring Kenshin motivation for his new ways becoming an engaging lead character as well as an entertaining one. By the end of the film, there’s still room left over for Kenshin to grow as a character while not downplaying his battles to maintain his ideals. This is accomplished by having Kanryu Takeda (Teruyuki Kagawa) be a unsubtle villain. Upon the first time Kanryu Takeda appears on screen there’s no misleading the viewer that he’s clearly evil, and seek to only make money. Kenshin constant refusal to become battosai no matter who asks him attributes to Kenshin growth as well display the need of capable fighters. Supporting characters don’t receive the same degree of exploration, but are given specific roles such as comedy relief with Sanosuke Sagara (Munetaka Aoki), eventual damsel in distress Megumi Takani (Yu Aoi), adversary with Jine Udo (Koji Kikkawa), and even just plain badass bad guy with Gein (Gou Ayano). The ones that do recieved development are Kaoru Kamiya (Emi Takei), and Saito Hajime (Yosuke Eguchi) both of whom are moving on from a turning point event of their past. While both pursue different goals they can relate to Kenshin the most either offering playful banter, or some dialogue on adapting to change.

trim
Come on kid. Give us your lunch money.

Contributing to the film’s biggest problem is obviously having too many characters. It’s villain, Kanryu Takeda, appears infrequently in the film, and when he does appear it’s usually accompanied by music. When Takeda executes his evil plan it comes out of nowhere without proper build up aside from one scene that establish he sells drug, and one brief scene where he explicitly says to poison the water. That’s not good buildup since this eventually leads to the film largest set piece. However, this issue isn’t as harmful as it could have been. Every character serves a purpose at some point in the story with varying degree of significance. Be it to help Kenshin fight off a dozen of Kanryu goons, or to arrest one of the main villains. Each character at some point in the film contribute to a larger story by being given simple character arcs, but treated as characters instead of plot devices that only serve to progress the story. One aspects of the film that can’t be overlooked is Jine Udo supernatural ability in the film. Jine has the ability to cast a spell that can paralyze his opponent lungs. This ability is out of place with the film world which makes itself grounded for a majority of the film. At most, you get human performing superhuman feats like outrunning bullets that could come across as far fetched as Jine’s ability. Those moments aren’t out of place since they’re being performed by people whereas Jine Udo paralyzation ability comes across as plain magic.

samurai-x-feature
The film has an awesome cast, and cool to look separating it from other Samurai films.

Taking charge as Kenshin Himura is leading star Takeru Satoh. Performance in the film is very good portraying different sides of Kenshin. Satoh perfectly fits his character as he neither looks like an assassin, nor like a man with a tormented past. His looks are deceiving, but when it comes to displaying Kenshin true nature he balances the torments, and playfulness of Kenshin. Takeru Satoh shows restraint in his delivery which contributes to his character change. Koji Kikkawa delivers the second best performance in the film. Much like his character, Koji delivers a menacing performance as Jine Udo. He’s goes more for power in his line delivery while subduing his physical expressions. Giving the impression that he could you at any moment, even if in plain sight. Emi Takei plays Kaoru Kamiya who does a good job in the film. While limited in depth, Emi Takei gets a couple of scenes to show off range. What best about her performance is despite being the love interest she shows her affection in subtle ways. Munetaka Aoki plays the strong goofball Sanosuke Sagara in the film. For the whole the film he neither the actor, nor the character linger into a serious subject for long. Whenever on screen they are light hearted. Munetaka despite lacking range in the film does deliver on his comedy delivering especially in a action scene that incorporates humor in the middle of it.

Yu Aoi plays  Megumi Tanaki to her effect. She’s dramatic, provide some playful banter, and eases when displaying her characters different emotions. It’s a good performance, though unlike her male co-stars isn’t given a memorable scene. Teruyuki Kagawa plays Kanryuu who’s given little screen time. Whenever Teruyuki Kagawa is on screen he’s simply meant to come across as rude. He’s cynical, but not over the top in his portrayal with the exception of a single scene. Kagawa is subdue in his portrayal of a clear villain making him as grounded as possible. While the character is not memorable due to how one dimensional the character is written Teruyuki Kagawa performance at least makes it enjoyable to see. Other actors whom are also lacking in screen time are Taketo Tanaka who plays Yahiko Myojin, and Gou Ayano who plays Gein. Gou Ayano doesn’t get to display his acting chops, but does to be involved in an excellent action in the film. While not much, it does allow Ayano to shin as a performer. Taketo Tanaka receives more scenes than Ayano does, but does get a scene to highlight his talent. Tanaka does a good job in his role regardless having good chemistry with his older co-stars, especially with Emi Takei.

1212280407(1)
Also, the film contains great cinematography, and cool shots.

One aspect of the live action adaptation of Rurouni Kenshin that’ll distinguished it among Samurai films is the action choreography by Kenhi Tanigaki who worked on famous martial art films Saat Po Long (Killzone in English), and Flash Point. In this film, Kenhi Tanigaki goes from rapid fist fights to elaborate sword fights. There’s two action scenes in the film where Kenshin goes up against large number of fighters that the choreography sells the fights convincingly. The first of these fights is in a dojo where Kenshin fights against a group of thugs. What the choreography in this scene focuses on is Kenshin speed. Another aspect in this fight that is used are the actors in the background are given something to do. In the beginning of this particular action scene Kenshin first knocks his opponents down with defensive maneuvers with rapid punches. This causes the thugs slowly fearing Kenshin as he keeps on dodging thugs sword strikes whom begin to swing wildly at Kenshin. A tiny detail like Kenshin using maneuvers that hits an opponent behind him makes the implausible scenario reliable as well as being a action scene. Of course, the cinematography is also worth complimenting since in this action scene it’s close enough to see the hits, but not to far to show inactive actors in the background waiting for their cue to perform their specific move in the sequence. It’s filmed, and edited in a way where it’s easy to decipher what is going on in the scene.

Then the second of these action scenes is the in the third act that once again has Kenshin along with Sanosuke fight against a large number of Samurai. Like the previous large scale action scene, the quick performances in the choreography, the way it shot, and edited makes it convincing. Sanosuke uses a different fighting style swinging around his giant sword to hand to hand combat. A majority of the action sequences in the film are one on one bouts all which are well done. All the action sequences make use of the characters abilities, and the environment around them. A standout in the movie is Kenshin fight with Gein which starts out with Kenshin taking the evasive approach dodging bullets inching his way closer to Gein as he keeps taking Gein ability to fight. It’s an exciting fight scene that also shows while limited, the execellent work in the film.

Aesthetically the film simply looks like high budget Japanese Samurai film which is to it credit. Everything from the costumes, the sets, the actors, and everything else looks cinematic. Nothing about it gives off the impression it’s an adaptation as even some of the more outlandish elements (characters dodging bullets for from a minigun) seemed grounded. Another aspect to the live action film is the music composed by Naoki Sato which is excellent. Ranging from fairly modern techno beats with tribal vocals to standard orchestral with the usage of the Shamisen. Sato score is easily of high quality succeeding in strengthening a scene. It’s best usage are definitely in the action sequences as it creates more excitement when viewing them. One overused of Naoki Sato music definitely when Teruyuki Kagawa is on screen having the track Kanryuu Teikoku – Gashuu No Take play in the background. Aside from that track, the music is well utilized in the film. Some listeners of Japanese rock music will be surprised by the unexpected song “The Beginning” by band One Ok Rock to be heard.

Rurouni Kenshin is an excellent adaptation that can stand on its own as a film. Anyone who has no familiarity with the series can easily view the film without feeling like they missed anything. As far faithfulness to the source material I can’t comment on it since I’ve yet to read a single page of the manga, or see a single episode of the anime series. However, I would say for anyone who enjoy Samurai films will find the familiar, but well executed story has enough to distinguishes itself to make it worth viewing.

9/10

Cinema-Maniac: Blue Exorcist The Movie (2013) Movie Review

My previous ventures into a film adaptation based on a anime series were usually first exposures to certain properties. Blue Exorcist is a different story with me actually taking time to see the anime series. Overall I thought the show was decent and anyone wanting to know why I say that there’s a link to a blog on my thoughts on the anime series at the end of this review. However, unlike the anime series Blue Exorcist The Movie is strictly for fans with little characterization, explanation on its world, and clumsy plotting will leave newcomer in the dust.

Blue Exorcist The Movie is about Rin coming across a seemingly innocent child demon with no memories and soon realizes what the boy really is and later understands why he was sealed ages ago. Understanding the simplistic story doesn’t require any level of knowledge on the source material. By removing itself from the anime series it could be view as its own creation following no continuity. However, what isn’t as accessible is basically everything else. It doesn’t bother to tell newcomers needed information about the world. You’ll wonder why some exorcists carry guns while other don’t will seem nonsensical. In the series it’s explained there are several advantages and disadvantages to combat a demon something the film sheds no light on. Another issue are the large cast characters that go wasted. Some characters make pointless appearances in the films that chew up screw time. Aside from the protagonist Rin and the demon child he takes care off characterization is left as is. Fans will have an understanding of the familiar cast of characters, but newcomers on the other hand will be given virtually nothing on why they should care for these characters.

When it comes to story Blue Exorcist has never been an expert on that front. It’s plot formula is given in the form of a children story in the beginning if done right would have been foreshadowing events and nothing else. Unfortunately the story reiterates the children story several times eliminating any mystery and making itself predictable. This is the first time I’ve seen a movie literally spoiling the plot itself. Blue Exorcist problematic writing unfortunately is a trait that is retained too. Much like the series, the film excels in building up to a big fight by slowly escalating the stakes. Like the series, the film has a disappointing resolution to its conflict and lazy writing in pivotal moments. For example, Rin Okumura and others attempt to exorcise a phantom train. Whenever it appears on screen it is proven difficult to defeat. That is until lazy writing pops up with Rin Okumura demonic powers serving as an easy getaway when things get rough. What is done properly are the personality of the characters. They’re down to Earth and easily relatable. The relationship are earnest and so are how they interact with one another. Most of the highlights come from the cast comedic antics often deliver laughs. Comedy relief is far superior to the film dramatic elements, but gets it across it points without any emotional gain for newcomers. Ending in a way that guarantees to adds nothing for either side as the ending made sure it leaves no impact on the series or the film itself.

This is an often gorgeous looking animated film, one with incredibly detailed backgrounds (some of the urban settings are really and scenes at the festival are spectacular looking in the film), as well as well done characters. Colors are very intense at times, running the gamut from bright, vivid primaries to more subdued pastels. Line detail is very sharp and consistent throughout this presentation. Exceeding in taking you into another world. Action sequences come in short supply, but it does offer satisfy. The few action scenes sports plenty of visuals flare whenever the combatant attacks be it with guns, demonic blue flames, and a simple strike display considerable amount of damage to their surroundings. Hiroyuki Sawano score is cinematically excellent. His score sells the somber moments of the drama and the lighthearted tone of the comedy. Perfectly pacing itself with the events of the story and exceeding the film writing in strengthening the tone of scenes where the writing does no justice. Simply hearing UVERworld track “Reversi” brought greater sense of emotional closure than the film ending. Voice acting is all around solid maintaining the same charisma that could be found in the anime as well. These performances aren’t movie level, but work because they stay in line with the anime series representation of the characters.

Blue Exorcist The Movie certainly could have been better if its writing was on the same level as its technical aspects. Animation is smooth and the world design is intricate, voice acting is solid, and the soundtrack is absolutely perfect enveloping you into the mood. It’s story is easily accessible for newcomers, but it’s clearly a film just for fans of the anime series or manga. Unlike the anime, Blue Exorcist isn’t given enough time to fix any of its shortcomings leaving everything introduce as is.

5/10

Cinema-Maniac: 47 Ronin (2013) Movie Review

In films there are usually certain characteristics that help decide what seen regardless how it turns and one of those is the Samurai. In work of fictions or based around true events Samurai films have provided some of my personal favorite characters and stories. Alongside with an interest in Samurai culture in films “47 Ronin” was inevitable to be seen. Unfortunately this interpretation of the classic story butchered everything that made the original story timeless.

47 Ronin tells the story of a band of samurai set out to avenge the death and dishonor of their master at the hands of a ruthless shogun. The first and immediate problem with the film is the departure from the source material which is based on true events. It was emblematic of the loyalty, sacrifice, persistence, and honor that people should preserve in their daily lives especially during a time where the Samurai class was struggling to maintain a sense of itself – warriors with no war, a social class without a function. Important details like that turned an epic story of revenge into an influential story of the importance of self worth and honor. This adaptation is a literal trainwreck in every sense of the word. Taking an established story and giving a Western touch that severely damages it identity. Understanding of the Samurai code is nonexistent as it leaves audiences in the dust. Unless you have minimal understanding of Samurai culture and their code of honor none of what the Samurai expresses come across with any meaning. Down to the basic details such as explaining the significance behind the title of a Ronin (a masterless Samurai/someone who is without a home) aren’t touched upon. Without getting across the bare essentials it’s doom upon arrival. Since the writers don’t know how to implement Eastern culture into the film both sides are left unsatisfied. Those unfamiliar with the story will misinterpret its intention and those familiar with the story will be infuriated by not only the liberties that were taken, but how ignorant it is to what made the “47 Ronin” legendary.

If it were be taken as pure fiction it has all sign of life stripped away. Fantasy elements that were meant to be exuberant are lifeless. Dry dialogue tells us of an Japan that is home to dangerous monsters, witches, and fearless warriors. Main problem being hardly implementing fantasy elements in a story that clearly didn’t need any of it. Every time an element of fantasy is introduced they are blatant metaphors that hammered their point across. An important scene in the Tengu (a legendary creature depicted with both human and avian characteristics) Temple where the ronin go to gain swords serves as the creation of the film’s black hole. Our non-Japanese protagonist immediately tells the leader how to pass the test given to him defeating the whole purpose of testing his leader loyalty to his men. Not only that, but it’s also introduces the non-Japanese protagonist to a supernatural abilities which he uses only once later on in the film. Everything portrayed is meant to hammer a single point further establishing the one dimensionality of every single thing in its writing.

Obviously a two hour film can’t developed 47 individual characters into three dimensional characters, but without a single worthwhile character ensures emptiness. Kai, the protagonist (a work of fiction) is simply a tool in the film. He’s not a white man who leads Japanese to reclaim their honor. No, Kai is a man who’s constantly told to annoying extremes that he’s not a Samurai and a half bread. Beating the protagonist down with secondary characters has two effects; the first being it makes Kai unlikable because he’s given little reason to stick with his fellow ronin who constantly show no respect and the second being it makes our heroes as equally dislikable as the villain. Speaking of which we’re only told through the ronin words he’s a terrible man and yet never once do we see any reason to hate him. Given how poorly it establishes how deeply Japan values honor the heroes motivation is just as easily missable. Romance is severely half baked. Since most of the film is spend on the ronin preparation to avenge their master what little time it spends to establish a romance early on in the film is fades away and reappears later carrying no weight to the overall story. Detracting from Kai journey to save her seeing his love interest is simply a flat plot device.

Keanu Reeves performance is wooden. His character is written in a way that he shows little emotion as possible in which Reeves delivers on his front. Always looking broody and down on his feet when interacting with the rest of the cast. Reeves here comes into focus in action mode making him appear cool as his dialogue is among the simplest of the cast. The Japanese actors have trouble saying their lines in English. It’s made very evident (five minutes in no less) that the Japanese actors aren’t comfortable speaking in English. Their line delivery is awkward and sometimes difficult to comprehend. Only sounding natural when speaking in their native language. Action scenes are a dull affair utilizing the best in random swinging. Sword techniques are fluid requiring careful reading of your opponent movement and speed; something not made evident in the film sword fights. Our ronin simply strike without planning resulting in a stalemate of pointlessly clashing swords. More characters are killed by projectile than a slash of a blade lessening the effect of the main weapon in most of the action scenes. All of this with editing that has a tendency to exist scenes abruptly. I appreciate the editor wanting to make the film end more quickly, but doing so did more harm than good to the way the film plays out. Just about the only compliment that could be given to “47 Ronin” is it cinematography. It’s varied in location and has some good looking scenes (especially ones involving fire). Nice visuals can’t make for bad acting, unimaginative action, horrid editing, and a plot that has sign of life to be found.

47 Ronin is a misinterpretation of an Eastern story told by Westerners that don’t understand it. Combining Japanese folktale, American empty set pieces, Japan Samurai culture, and American lazy writing creates a fusion of a culturally unsatisfying film. It’s more than a bad adaptation, it’s more than a awful movie, and more than a generic blockbuster, but it’s a complete butchering representing the worst in Eastern and Western filmmaking.

1/10