Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The "Twenty-Four Eyes" phenomena

by Chris MaGee

I was really happy when Criterion released Keisuke Kinoshita's 1954 film "Twenty-Four Eyes" on DVD in August. While I had seen the film before on a beaten up old VHS copy I borrowed from the library it was only fitting that the folks at Criterion finally got around to giving it the loving attention to one of the most popular films in Japanese cinema history. That phrase gets bandied around quite a bit when "Twenty-Four Eyes" is discussed, but even I wasn't fully aware of just what a huge phenomena the film was in Japan until I did some research online.

The original sets for "Twenty-Four Eyes", including the school house, school bus and 18 houses decorated with period furniture, have been turned into the Nijū-shi no Hitomi Eigamura, the "Twenty-Four Eyes" Film Park in Uchinomi-cho on Shodoshima Island. You can find out info about the park in English here and in Japanese here. Such a good job has been done with preserving these sets that the 1987 remake of "Twenty-Four Eyes" was shot here. Yes, you heard me right... a remake. Not only did Yoshitaka Asama, the screenwriter behind several of the Tora-san films as well as Yoji Yamada's "The Twilight Samurai" and "The Hidden Blade" helm this remake starring Yûko Tanaka as Miss Oishi, but "Twenty-Four Eyes" was adapted by Akio Jisshoji into an animated FujiTV special in 1980.

A theme park, two remakes, but it doesn't end there. Not one, but two commemorative statues have been erected on Shodoshima Island (see one above) and there's even a website, 24hitomi.com that sells everything from DVDs, CDs of the film's soundtrack and books to "Twenty-Four Eyes" themed candy, soy sauce and olive oil, the latter being made on Shodoshima, Japan's largest domestic olive producer.

See? I told you the film was popular. Check out my review for "Twenty-Four Eyes" here, and if you haven't had a chance to see the film yet then do so. It's a real classic.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Mamoru Oshii at Nuit Blanche

by Chris MaGee

That's right all you, Torontonians... Not only are you going to be treated to works by Canadian and International artists during this year's Nuit Blanche October 4th, but fans of Japanese cinema have something special to look forward to in the line-up. The Japan Foundation Toronto will be hosting an all night screening of the Mamoru Oshii experimental film project "Tokyo Scanner". The film, co-ordinated by the "Ghost in the Shell" and "Sky Crawlers" director is an 18-minute tour of the Japanese capital as captured by state of the art satellite photography and then artfully superimposed and enhanced with with computer graphics. Originally conceived as a companion piece to the 11-minute 2003 live-action documentary "Tokyo Jyoumyaku (Tokyo Vein)" directed by Makoto Noda, "Tokyo Scanner, directed by Hiroaki Matsu under the supervision of Oshii, is going to be one of the highlights of this all night expo of the arts.

"Tokyo Scanner" will be screened at the Japan Foundation Toronto, 131 Bloor Street West, Suite 213 starting at 6:52 pm on Saturday October 4th and going until sunrise on October 5th and trhe best part is, like all the other Nuit Blanche events, it's free.

For more info on "Tokyo Scanner" as part of Nuit Blanche check here and here.

NYTFGP taking place in New York this week

by Chris MaGee

Just a heads up to all our New York City area readers that the New York - Tokyo Film Grand Prix Festival 2008 is taking place this week at the NYU Cantor, Tribeca Cinemas and Anthology Archives in Manhattan. The line-up they have is fantastic including Izuru Kumasaka's "Asyl: Park and Love Hotel" which won the Best First Feature Film at this year's Berlin International Film Festival, Taro Hyugaji's live-action remake of "Grave of the Fireflies", Studio 4.C's "Genius Party" and so much more. Check out the full line-up at the official NYTFGP site here.

Hard Gay to star in stage version of "Samurai 7"

by Chris MaGee

Razor Ramon, better known as his latex-wearing alter-ego Hard Gay, had a phenomenal run in the Japanese media a few years ago, but now his hip thrusting homophobic schtick has joined the "Where's the Beef?" lady and M.C. Hammer in that great big pop culture graveyard, so what's a former Japanese pro wrestler to do? Take to the stage of course! In this case in the theatrical adaptation of anime series "Samurai 7", which in turn was a futuristic take on the 1954 Akira Kurosawa classic "The Seven Samurai".

Ramon will star as the robotic samurai Kikuchiyo who is the rough equivalent to the iconic Toshiro Mifune role in the original film. The rest of the seven samurai for hire will be portrayed by Masaya Kato, Masataka Nakagauchi, Hijiri Shinotani, Ryuji Sainei, Tsuyoshi Kida, Hiroki Takahashi.

I can't be nearly as upset by this adapation as I was about the shot-for-shot remake fo "The Seven Samurai" made by director Hiroyuki Nakano for use in pachinko machines, in fact the concept of a rag tag group of mercenaries taking on a noble cause has become part of our cultural vocabulary since Kurosawa's film, so more power to them. Plus Razor Ramon needs to eat.

"Samurai 7" will run at the Shinjuku Koma Stadium from November 14th to 24th. Thanks to Tokyograph for the story.

Studio Ghibli designs their first video game

by Chris MaGee

I can't say that I'm much a of video game enthusiast, but this is news that definitely has crossover potential for me and a lot of you Japanese film fans. Ghibli World has got the scoop on the video game "Ni no Kuni: The Another World" that has Studio Ghibli has designed in conjunction with game company Level-5 to commemorate their 10th anniversary. The game takes a young boy through a series of adventures in a magical world and Ghibli World and Japanese site Kotaku.com have scored a gallery of screencaps from it. Looks impressive, but gamers will have to wait until next year before giving this one a try.

Japanese Weekend Box Office, September 27th to September 28th

1. Iron Man (SPE)
2. Wanted (Toho Towa)
3. Paco and the Magical Picture Book* (Toho)
4. Okuribito (Departures)* (Shochiku)
5. Twentieth Century Boys* (Toho)
6. Ikigami: The Ultimate Limit* (Toho)
7. Ponyo On The Cliff By The Sea* (Toho)
8. Nights in Rodanthe (Warner)
9. Superior Ultraman 8 Brothers* (Shochiku)
10. Hancock (SPE)

* Japanese film

Saturday, September 27, 2008

CONTEST: Win free passes to see "Tokyo Gore Police" from Toronto After Dark and the J-Film Pow-Wow

This week Adam Lopez and the crew of the 3rd Annual Toronto After Dark Film Festival released their full line-up of eight full nights (October 17-24) of the best horror, action and genre films.

Now, as we'd reported at the end of last month The Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow will be the community co-sponsor of the Toronto Premiere of Yoshihiro Nishimura's splatterfest "Tokyo Gore Police" at After Dark on October 23rd at 7:00 pm at The Bloor Cinema. So, to celebrate the announcement of this year's line-up we have 2 FREE DOUBLE PASSES to give away to the screening.

Here's what you have to do to win: Just head on over to The Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow Facebook group and write the answer to this absolutely dead easy question on the wall of the group: "Tokyo Gore Police" star Eihi Shiina got her start in which horrific Takashi Miike film? See? It's so easy it's criminal! You have until October 1st at 11:00pm to enter at which time two lucky winners will be drawn at random.

Please note that only entrants in Canada are eligible to win. If you have won a prize from the J-Film Pow-Wow in the past 30 days you are not eligible to win.

Good luck, Everyone! And make sure to check out all the details on the Toronto After Dark Film Festival here.

Funimation to release "Mushi-shi" live-action film in North America

by Chris MaGee

Here's good news for fans of both Katsuhiro Ôtomo and Jo Odagiri. Distributor Funimation, the same people who brought Hirokazu Kore-eda's foray into period drama "Hana" to Region 1 DVD, will be doing the same with the director of "Akira" and "Steamboy's" 2006 live-action fantasy adventure "Mushi-shi". Starring Jo Odagiri, Yû Aoi and Nao Omori and based on the popular manga by Yuki Urushibara it follows the adventures of the Mushi-shi or "Bug Master" a man who is investigating the spread of supernatural creatures called "mushi". Funimation plans to roll out the DVD sometime next year.

Thanks to Anime News Network for the story.

Friday, September 26, 2008

REVIEW: Chanbara Beauty - Yohei Fukuda (2008)

Reviewed by Matthew Hardstaff

Video games as source material for films don’t generally have a good track record. With a few notable exceptions, such as Final Fantasy: Advent Children and a few Street Fighter anime films, we’re left with a festering pile of crap. Mortal Kombat is only tolerable during the Scorpion/Johnny Cage and Reptile/Liu Kang fights. Van Damme’s Street Fighter is awful. Cory Yuen’s attempt at DOA is a complete failure. Hitman was incredibly bland. Double Dragon, Super Mario Brothers, the entire Tomb Raider series, Doom, House of the Dead, Alone in the Dark, Resident Evil: all terrible, terrible films. So what made Yohei Fukuda think he could do better? Well, by making Onechanbara into a film! And what is Onechanbara exactly? It’s a videogame series featuring a sexy, samurai assassin who wears only a bikini, high heels and a cowboy hat and fights zombies! Who couldn’t make that into an amazing film?

Onechanbara, or Chanbara Beauty as its known internationally, takes place in a chaotic, apocalyptic world. Dr. Sugita (played by Machine Girl’s Taro Suwa) has unleashed a zombie plague, leaving what remains of humankind fighting for survival. Aya (Eri Otoguro from the US remake of Shutter), the bikini clad samurai, travels this zombie filled wasteland, in search of her sister. Not because she wants to be re-united with her, but because she wants to kill her. It seems their father was the head of a great samurai family and taught his skills to Aya. Saki, the younger sister, became jealous and helped bring about his death. Now Aya wants blood! She travels with a fat bumbling sidekick, Katsuji, and a gun slinging leather clad babe Reiko. Together they slay zombies and search for Dr. Sugita and Saki, who is incidentally dressed like a Japanese school girl.

The plot sounds simple enough: Zombies, samurai swords, revenge. And that’s exactly how the film plays out: Introduction of zombies, introduction of characters, characters fight zombies, again, and again, and again. On the one hand, the film has a lot going for it. Zombies are usually popular. Hot Japanese girls wearing bikinis, tight leather outfits or school girl uniforms is always a plus. And the last third of the film is over the top and utterly ridiculous. It’s not just the endless hoards of zombies our team of heroes has to fight, but the final battle between Saki and Aya itself. It plays out more like an anime than a video game, and becomes so ridiculous, that you won’t even be able to contain yourself. Unfortunately however the film has a lot going against it, too. Up until that amazing final act, the film is pretty derivative. As a zombie film it’s pretty uninspired; it suffers from a lack of budget, and a lack of martial arts ability on Eri Otoguro’s part, and it shows cinematically. Most of the fight scenes in the early half leave much to be desired. You can tell Fukuda had a lot of lofty ideas that just couldn’t be met by the resources at hand. The film also doesn’t achieve the same level of audacity that films like Evil Dead or Machine Girl or even the trash-tastic Girls Rebel Force of Competitive Swimmers reaches. While it is amusing at times, it does quickly become repetitive, and redundant.

In the end, Chanbara Beauty is probably on par with Mortal Kombat. As a whole, it’s not a good movie. Its not very well made or well thought out, and for the most part completely unoriginal. But there is, in the end, a moment of genius, which in this case comes a little too late.

Read more by Matthew Hardstaff at his blog.

Nobuhiro Yamashita included in "Music Videos by Asian Directors" programme at Pusan

by Chris MaGee

This weekend the 13th Annual Pusan International Film Festival kicks off in South Korea and amongst this year's impressive roster of Asian and international films they've put together a special programme "Music Videos by Asian Directors." There are videos by Hong Kong director/ producer Daniel Yu Wai-Kwok and Thai director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, but Japanese film buffs will be excited to see that Nobuhiro Yamashita, the man behind the 2005 crowd-pleaser "Linda, Linda, Linda" as well as "The Matsugane Potshot Affair" and "A Gentle Breeze in the Village" is included in the line-up.

Back in 2002 he helmed the video for Japanese indie rock band Anatakikou's (above) first single "Lilly リリー" and not only is the video quintessential Yamashita, but the song is pretty catchy... actually very catchy. I had it going through my head all last night, so now I pass the song onto you. Either you'll thank me or want to kill me. Happy Friday!

Weekly Trailers

Fish Story - Yoshihiro Nakamura (2009)

Based on Kotaro Isaka's novel "Fish Story" tells the story of a one hit wonder punk band from 1975 and the snowballing success of that one hit through the decades. Who knew that come the year 2012 the song will play a key role in saving the world?

The Funeral - Juzo Itami (1984)

The first feature film from "Tampopo" and "A Taxing Woman" director Juzo Itami follows the Amamiya's as they prepare a funeral ceremony to honour the family's recently deceased patriarch. Both hilarious and deeply touching Itami's satirical look at the business of death appeals to audiences regardless of culture or religion. Winner of Best Film, Best Director and Best Screenplay at the 1984 Japanese Academy Awards.

REVIEW: Orochi (The Serpent) - Buntaro Futagawa (1925)

Reviewed by Chris MaGee

Tsumasaburo Bando (1901-1953) can easily be described as Japanese cinema's first action superstar. From the time he debuted in Buntaro Futagawa's 1924 film "Gyakuryû (Backward Flow)" the actor set himself apart from other jidai-geki actors that had proceeded him. While previous motion picture samurai relied heavily on theatrical techniques taken directly from kabuki theatre (exaggerated facial expressions, striking stilted poses during sword fights, etc.) Bando brought a new naturalness and fierceness to Japanese cinema, plus a highly individual and much more realistic fighting style. Not only did Bando change the onscreen representation of the samurai, but he also revolutionized the role of the actor behind the scenes as well. He created Japanese cinema history when in 1925 he founded the first independent production company, Bantsuma Productions, and played an active role in creating his own onscreen persona.

The most revolutionary of Bando's films was the second produced by Bantsuma and directed again by Buntaro Futagawa, 1925's "Orochi (The Serpent)." Not only was Bando's performance much more true to life, but the story, written by Bando's longtime collaborator Rokuhei Susukita, was groundbreaking in its pessimistic world view.

Heizaburo Kuritomi (Bando) is everything that a samurai should be and had been in Japanese cinema up to that point: skilled in combat, trustworthy, noble and of course loyal. Loyal to the code of bushido, loyal to his master Eizan, the calligrapher and loyal to his one true love, the virginal maiden, Namie; but it's his unbreakable loyalty combined with his naivete and quick temper that will ultimately lead to his downfall.When we first meet Heizaburo he is a valued samurai in service to Eizan, but when he feels that he has been treated dishonourably during an argument at a party by Namioka, a samurai of noble birth, things escalate into an all out brawl, but when Eizan comes in to break things up who do you think he's going to believe? The snarling Heizaburo or Namioka, the spoiled rich kid? Warned that if he causes any more trouble that he shall be severely punished Heizaburo is sent on on his way, but trouble seems to have a way of finding him. He overhears a group of three samurai spreading rumours that Namie isn't as virginal as she lets on, and the noble Heizaburo just can't let it slide. Swords are drawn and before you know it Eizan follows through on his promise and our hero is cast out to become a lowly ronin and thus begins the downward spiral of our hero.

Although he has done nothing but uphold his honour as a samurai Heizaburo is unable to control his temper and in adventure after adventure he sinks lower and lower even landing in prison where he falls in with the famed Japanese thief Jirokichi, The Rat. Now known as "Heizaburo the Outlaw" he just can't seem to see past the smiles of these lowlifes which gets him into even more trouble. It isn't until he joins the household of Jirozo, an outwardly noble and well off man who secretly traffics women for prostitution, that Heizaburo finally comes to. One night his long lost love Namie and her ill husband arrive at Jirozo's estate seeking shelter, but Namie is quickly captured and it's up to Heizaburo to rescue her.

While I've been used to seeing many a Japanese film that have chronicled women falling from grace I think that this was the first time that I saw such a story use a man, a samurai no less, to illustrate its point that in a corrupt world it's often the most noble and well-intentioned who suffer the most; and that brings us back to why "Orochi" was such a revolutionary film. Up until that point onscreen samurai were heroes, pure and simple. They stood on moral high ground throughout a film, they vanquished their evil enemies and once the credits rolled there would be a happy ending. That simply doesn't happen in "Orochi". Not only does Heizaburo spend the majority of the film as an outlaw, but his brief redemption/ vindication at the end of the film is cut short when after one of the most spectacular sword fight sequences in Japanese cinema he is captured and carted off by Jirozo's men.

While "Orochi" isn't an easy film to track down it is one, that if you are given the opportunity to see it, you should not pass up. In it you have the first seeds of the modern cinematic samurai as exemplified by the roles of Toshiro Mifune, Shintaro Katsu and Tatsuya Nakadai.

"Hikikomori" as viewed by filmmakers Francesco Jodice and Kal Karman

by Chris MaGee

A couple weeks ago we had reported on the Camera Japan Festival touring The Netherlands and Brussels and Belgium. I was so impressed with the line-up that I spent some time poking around online researching the films and through that search I found the shortest film in the bunch online, Francesco Jodice and Kal Karman's 22 minute look at urban Japanese shut-ins "Hikikomori."

Artist, architect, photographer and filmmaker Jodice, who hails from Naples, Italy and San Francisco documentary filmmaker Kal Karman formed the directing duo Otakulab in 2004 using a quote from Mark Twain as their artistic manifesto, "Truth is stranger than fiction, because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth on the other hand isn't." Camera in hand they headed to Tokyo in November of that year and filmed young adults in and around Akihabara about the phenomena of otaku and hikikomori in contemporary Japanese society. Many of you out there will recognize the terminology: "otaku" as people with a specific obsession (manga, anime... or Japanese films) and "hikikomori" as people who have difficulty interacting socially and thus lock themselves away at home.

The people that Jodice and Karman speak to present a very interesting take on these social phenomena, seeing them as almost the flipside of the coin to each other with the key difference being that otaku have that one obsessive interest that keeps them connected with society at large while hikikomori lack that key component and end up imploding.

As I said before "Hikikomori" is available online at VideoArtWorld.com, an online initiative to make work of video artists online, but you have to register with them first. Good news is that it's free.

Scarlett Johansson gets angry and wrestles bears in "The Nanny Diaries"

by Chris MaGee

Who the what now??? What do Scarlett Johansson, her film "The Nanny Diaries" and bear wrestling have to do with Japanese cinema? Well, not a lot, but the folks at Gaijin Heart have a really interesting article about how Japanese film distributors often have to change a U.S. film's title to either make them more appealing to Japanese audiences or to help bridge the cultural gap between East and West. In this case the 2007 comedy "The Nanny Diaries", being released in Japan on October 11th, has to have its name changed due the the fact that "nanny" sounds too much like "onanie" a word referring to masturbation so "The Nanny Diaries" becomes "'私がクマにキレた理由(Watashi ga kuma ni kireta riyuu)" which roughly translates to "The Reason I Get Mad at the Bear". Confused as to how a bear gets into the title? Me too.

To be totally fair this goes both ways. North American distributors have been changing the titles of Japanese films for years. The first example that jumps into my head being Kihachi Okamoto's 1966 jidai-geki film "大菩薩峠, Dai-bosatsu tōge". Translated it should have been "The Pass of the Great Buddha." Japanese audiences would have recognized the title from the famous novels of Kaizan Nakazato on which the film was based, but those of us in the rest of the world would have been left scratching our heads, thus it was retitled "The Sword of Doom".

So, Scarlett may not be bear wrestling but in a weird kind of way I wish she was. At least then I would have some desire to see this film... but that's bear wrestling! Not bare wrestling! Get your head out of the gutter!

Thanks to Japan Probe for pointing the way to this story.

REVIEW: Sleepless Town - Chi-Ngai Lee (1998)

Reviewed by Bob Turnbull

"I'm not Chinese or Japanese. Some call me a bat. Flying around in the dark using my radar to survive."

That's how Kenichi Ryuu lives day to day in Kabukicho - an area populated by shady underworld characters of mixed origins. Chinese, Japanese and Koreans all mingle in this maze of back alleys, twisting-turning passages and hidden rooms that make up this section of Tokyo. Since Ryuu's considered a mongrel (half-Chinese, half-Japanese), he gets no respect or consideration from the other dwellers and gang members. So he plays them all against each other.

Over the few days time span of the film, he's caught in between several different groups with conflicting requests, family obligations and a new woman in his life. As we follow his progress (with helpful reminders on the screen as to what time and day it is), he wrestles with being true to an old partner while also trying to stay alive. He's been tasked by gang boss Mr. Yuan to find and hand over his old friend Fu-chun. Sighted back in town, Fu-chun had previously killed Mr. Yuan's brother and Ryuu will be held responsible unless he can cough up the guilty party. Meanwhile, Ryuu receives an offer from Natsumi Sato - an unknown woman who has heard that Ryuu will buy anything (except for children's organs). Her offer? She wants to sell him Fu-chun's location.

The story follows these twists and turns and double crosses with aplomb and though there are plenty of additional characters (including a wordless cameo by the great director Seijun Suzuki), it never becomes overly confusing or dull. Ryuu is played skillfully by Takeshi Kaneshiro - star of films by Wong Kar-wai and Zhang Yimou, teen idol for many young Chinese girls and considered Asia's answer to Johnny Depp. Though his character is a pretty conflicted guy throughout the film, you never doubt that he would indeed buy and sell just about anything.

The film moves ahead with a good steady rhythm while the different plot lines provide added syncopation to keep the viewer just a smidge off guard yet constantly engaged. And if the story doesn't work for you, the cinematography by itself is sure to keep you glued to the screen - colours come pouring out of the nooks and crannies of the night time scenes and match the diversity of the characters found there. Near the opening of the film there's a great 3-4 minute single take shot following Ryuu up and down staircases and through the streets and clubs of Kabukicho. By the end of it you've got the lay of the land - it's indeed a town that doesn't sleep and Ryuu shows us how to navigate through it.

Read more from Bob Turnbull at his blog.

October DVD Releases

Harakiri: Boobs and Blood Box Set - Yuuri Sunohara (1990)
Unearthed Films/ Release Date: October 7th

Revenge of a Kabuki Actor - Kon Ichikawa (1963)
AnimEigo/ Release Date: October 14th

Ten Nights of Dreams - various (2006)
Cinema Epoch/ Release Date: October 14th

Shogun Assassin: 5 Film Collector's Set
AnimEigo/ Release Date: October 14th

Kenji Mizoguchi's Fallen Women: 4 Disc Set
Criterion/ Eclipse/ Release Date: October 21st

Ninja Vixens: Movies 1-5 Box Set
Funimation/ Release Date: October 21st

Nija Vixens: Movies 6-10 Box Set
Funimation/ Release Date: October 21st

Kitaro (Blu-ray) - Katsuhide Motoki (2007)
BCI Eclipse/ Release Date: October 28th

Assault! Jack the Ripper - Yasuharu Hasebe (1976)
Mondo Macabro/ Release Date: October 28th

Sway - Miwa Nishikawa (2006)
Kino Video/ Release Date: October 28th

Sukeban Boy - Noboru Iguchi (2006)
Eastern Star/ Release Date: October 28th

The Watcher in the Attic - Noboru Tanaka (1976)
Mondo Macabro/ Release Date: October 28th

The Bird People in China (Blu-ray) - Takashi Miike (1998)
Artsmagic US/ Release Date: October 28th

Malice @ Doll (Blu-ray) - Keitarou Motonaga (2000)
Artsmagic US/ Release Date: October 28th

REVIEW: Black Angel: Vol. 1 - Takashi Ishii (1997)

Reviewed by Chris MaGee

Even though I am a big fan of Japanese bad boy director Seijun Suzuki, let me play devil's advocate here for a second. It could be easily argued that his landmark films "Tokyo Drifter" and "Branded to Kill" amongst others were strictly a case of style over substance, that he took cookie cutter yakuza eiga scripts and prettied them up with creative editing, surreal imagery and, in the case of the latter, elaborate colour coding of scenes to heighten emotional impact. Then all of a sudden "Voilà!" we have instant classic by an important cinematic auteur. At their heart though these films were still built around pat, formulaic scripts and thus in the end idiosyncratic, but empty films. "Ouch!" you must be saying, "Chris, you said you were a big fan. Isn't that too harsh?" If you stick with me to the end of this review for the first film in Takashi Ishii's two part "Black Angel" (1997) you'll understand. Trust me.

The saga of Ikko, a little girl taken from her mother at birth to be raised by the head of a yakuza family starts out as anything but a formulaic script. Once Ikko's adoptive yakuza parents are assassinated by Nogi (Jinpachi Nezu), a young rival gangster and Chiaki (Miyuki Ono), the embittered daughter of the murdered elder yakuza boss the six-year-old Ikko is entrusted to a female gun-for-hire, Mayo (Reiko Takashima), the "Black Angel" of the title. The combination of a veteran killer and a cute kid has definitely been done before, but Ishii, who also wrote the script, doesn't milk this duo for long. After a truly iconic scene in which Mayo blows away a group of thugs sent to kill little Ikko the "Black Angel" takes the girl to the airport and sends her off to Los Angeles where she will be safe. End of story... for the moment.

Fast forward 14 years and a 20-year-old Ikko, now played by Riona Hazuki (Parasite Eve, Retribution) steps off a plane from L.A. accompanied by her boyfriend with only one thing on their minds: to find Nogi and avenge the murder of her parents, but she finds the world of her childhood bears little resemblance to what she remembers. Nogi is now the head of a powerful yakuza clan and Chiaki is right there by his side. What's most shocking is that Mayo, Ikko's childhood protector, has been hooked on drugs by Nogi's gang and is a pathetic junkie running a seedy night club. Ikko is forced to take on the persona of the Black Angel as she makes her way through the criminal underworld to Nogi and revenge.

Now that sounds good, doesn't it? On paper it certainly does, but I found "Black Angel: Vol. 1" to be flat, somewhat cheap and worst of all dull, and that brings us back around to Suzauki-san, as well as his contemporaries Yasuharu Hasebe and Shunya Ito. I couldn't help thinking of these maverick filmmakers as I sat through "Black Angel: Vol. 1" As much as the script borders on truly classic tragedy especially when we discover *SPOILER* that Chiaki is in fact Ikko long lost birth mother I just felt that Ishii didn't bring enough... hell, he didn't bring any... flare to this film.

Again, one could argue conversely that Ishii's aesthetic is entirely different from Suzuki, et al. That he goes for a grittier, underplayed realism. Fair enough, but if the audience is bored, which I found myself being, then there's a flaw in that plan. During the scenes where Ikko and her boyfriend break into an impromptu dance number in their hotel room, or she is chased through an abandoned warehouse by Nogi's men that a voice inside me was screaming for the intervention of a mad genius like Suzuki. It was his gift to take sub-par scripts or film concepts and turn them into gold with his skewed viewpoint. "Black Angel: Vol. 1" had the potential to be something as precious. It could have even have been the genesis of the contemporary equivalent of such legenedary female heroes as Lady Snowblood or Sasori, the Female Convict Scorpion, but without any creative flare it falls far too short of its potential.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

From the creators of "The Machine Girl" comes "The Drill Bra Sisters" (?!?!)

by Chris MaGee

I remember showing my girlfriend the trailer for Noboru Iguchi's "The Machine Girl" when it came out. A huge genre film and TIFF Midnight Madness fan she obviously went nuts, but what really sent her over the top was the clip of of AV star Honoka wearing that famous drill bra. "I need one of those NOW!!!!" I remember her screaming.

Well, this news story isn't that the patented "Machine Girl" drill bra is finally hitting the market, but it's the next best thing. Todd Brown over at Twitch had a chance to speak with "Tokyo Gore Police" helmer Yoshihiro Nishimura about the possibility of him taking over the "Ju-On" series, but conversation turned to everyone's favorite one-armed high school girl. Nishimura, who worked as the special effects supervisor for "The Machine Girl", says that the whole crew including Noboru Iguchi will be getting back together for a semi-sequel to the action-comedy hit... and the proposed title says it all: "The Drill Bra Sisters".

Apparently the script is still being completed, but it definitely seems that all you fans of high tensile steel, carbide tipped breasts will have something to look forward to.

Jasper Sharp's "Behind the Pink Curtain" launches at Fantastic Fest

by Chris MaGee

It's times like this when I feel like a fat kid on the sidelines at the big high school football game (Ouch! Flashbacks to my youth there.) As all of you know this year's Fantastic Fest is slowly winding down today having brought the best in genre cinema to film fans in Austin, Texas. Not only did Asian film fans get to feast their eyes on Ji-woon Kim's "The Good, The Bad and The Weird" and Gô Shibata’s "Late Bloomer," but they also got to attend the launch of Jasper Sharp's new book "Behind the Pink Curtian" and the accompanying programme of four rare pinku eiga films. Jasper (above center) was on hand to sign books with Fab Press editor and chief Harvey Fenton (above right) as well as to introduce the films in the programme.

Twitch has had boots on the ground in Austin and have been posting reviews of "Blue Film Woman", "Gushing Prayer", "A Lonely Cow Weeps at Dawn" and "S&M Hunter," and series co-programmer Marc Walkow seems to be very pleased with the reception these films have been getting. I guess we'll have to keep our fingers crossed to see if these get picked up for some kind of North American distribution.

Those of us who weren't lucky enough to be at Fantastic Fest this year will have to wait until November when "Behind the Pink Curtain: The Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema" hits bookstores across the U.S. and Canada.

Thanks to Blake Ethridge of CinemaisDope.com for the pic.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Haruki Kadokawa returns to directing after an 11 year absence

by Chris MaGee

One of the most flamboyant characters in Japanese cinema, super producer Haruki Kadokawa (above right), will be stepping behind the camera for his seventh directorial effort, "The Laughing Cop", his first time helming a feature film in 11 years.

Before his three year prison sentence for smuggling cocaine Kadokawa was best known for being the producer of such box office hits as Kinji Fukasaku's "The Fall Guy" and Junya Sato's "Yamato," as well as directing the lavish 1990 period epic "Heaven and Earth," but with his Takashi Miike project "God's Puzzle" bombing at the box office and his own outrageous statements in the Japanese press (they really are outrageous... check them out) his reputation has taken a bit of a beating.

With "The Laughing Cop", a police thriller starring Nao Omori, Kadokawa hgas learned from past mistakes to move forward with his filmmaking ambitions. ""I tasted every kind of human hardship when I was in prison," he told Japanese newspaper The Sankei Sports recently, "which gave me the confidence, for the first time, to make a human drama."

"The Laughing Cop" will be released by Toei in the fall of 2009. Thanks to Variety Asia Online for the deatils on this story and Sanspo.com for the above image.

"Tokyo Sonata" comes to America courtesy of Regent Releasing

by Chris MaGee

During TIFF there was the news that Maximum Films was going to be distributing Kiysohi Kurosawa's critically acclaimed film "Tokyo Sonata" in Canada. Now today word has come from Regent Releasing. With a roster that includes such hidden gems as "The Burial" Society" as well as films that should best remain hidden like the Paris Hilton starring "The Hottie and the Nottie" it's hard to say how much exposure "Tokyo Sonata" will get in theatres and on video store shelves, but any exposure is better than none.

Want to wear Tadanobu Asano's socks?

by Chris MaGee

That's right. You could be wearing Tadanobu Asano's socks, or well, at least socks designed by the "Ichi the Killer" and "Mongol" star. Not just socks though. Jackets, pants, shirts, in fact an entire wardrobe because Asano has released his own line of men's fashions under the brand name Jean Diadem with items ranging in price from ¥2,940 to ¥58,800. And of course with Asano being the artsy fellow that he is you can also buy postcards and prints of his artwork, plus CDs of his music. All you have to do is check out the official Jean Diadem website.

If for any reason you don't want to order things online (you want to try them on first, you're afraid of identity theft, you're a Mennonite) and you live in New York or Los Angeles you can head to one of two Opening Ceremony stores, the exclusive retailers for the Jean Diadem line in North America. You'll have to get in line because apparently Lindsay Lohan, Kanye West and Melanie Griffith are regular patrons and they most likely have more money than you.

Thanks to Variety Japan for the story.

Top Ten Most Controversial Japanese Films

Everyone loves a top ten list, not only so they can find out about new films, but also so they can argue with the people who compiled the list in the first place. “I can’t believe that was only at number five!!!” etc, etc. So with that in mind The Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow is launching our monthly Top Ten List. On the last Wednesday of each month we’ll be counting down not only the top ten films in various genres (yakuza eiga, samurai), but also our favorite actors, actresses and much more.

To immediately court controversy we thought we’d go right for the Japanese films that have shocked, outraged and disgusted audiences all over the world. That's right: The top ten most controversial films in Japanese cinema.

10. Ichi the Killer – Takashi Miike (2001)

We start of our list with a film that needs no introduction. When Takashi Miike’s 2001 ultra-violent adaptation of Hideo Yamamoto’s ultra-violent yakuza manga premiered as part of the Toronto International Film Festival’s Midnight Madness programme the audience was issued vomit bags. No word as to whether any of them were actually used (I’d imagine they are either treasured keepsakes or hot items on eBay now), but the promotion makes absolute sense. Miike’s treatment of the story of sado-masochistic yakuza Kakihara’s (Tadanobu Asano) search through the seedy under belly of Kabucki-cho for the killer of his boss and S&M master is filled with scenes of people being boiled by oil, impaled, disemboweled, sliced in half, decapitated and de-faced… literally. If there was any film that can say that it popularized the genre of “Japanese extreme cinema” then “Ichi the Killer” is it. But despite its cult status among fans the film initially suffered cuts due to its graphic depictions of violence against women, specifically the torture of a prostitute during which her nipples are sliced off. It was this scene and five other minutes of gore that British censors trimmed off the film, while Hong Kong censors cut nearly half an hour off the full 129 minute run time. Of course fans of “Ichi the Killer” know that Miike’s director’s cut was widely released in 2003. CM

9. The Horrors of Malformed Men – Teruo Ishii (1969)

Up until last year when Teruo Ishii’s 1969 Edogawa Rampo adaptation “The Horrors of Malformed Men” got released on DVD through Synapse Films it had been virtually impossible to see. Ishii and his screenwriter Masahiro Kakefuda assembled some of the most provocative elements of Rampo’s writings to tell the Island of Dr. Moreau-esque story of a mad scientist who has created an island of mutated humans. The casting of Tatsumi Hijikata, the founder of the avant-garde butoh movement of modern dance, as the scientist plus Ishii’s usual bent sensibilities created a queasy, psychedelic side show torture, sexuality and human experimentation the likes of which Japanese cinema hadn’t experienced before. None of this had to do with the self-imposed ban that the execs at Toei put on the film after its initial release though. The controversy surrounding the film came from its Japanese title, “Edogawa Rampo Taizen: Kyofu Kikei Ningen”. The term used in the title to describe deformed people “kyofu kikei ningen” is highly offensive in Japan , being roughly translatable to “disgusting deformed humans”. Not wanting to offend people with physical deformities and disabilities Toei locked the film away for nearly 30 years, thus creating its notorious reputation. CM

8. Prophecies of Nostradamus – Toshio Masuda (1974)

Like “The Horrors of Malformed Men”, Toshio Masuda’s science fiction film “Prophecies of Nostradamus” suffered its own self-imposed ban by its producers at Toho. Based on the famous prophecies made by 16th-century French seer Nostradamus the film Dr. Nishiyama, played by Tetsuro Tamba, who watches helplessly as the world is subjected to plagues of giant bats, slugs and human mutations caused by the over-reaching grasp of modern science. Flash forwards to the future show the apocalyptic results of these scientific missteps: nations devastated by war and humans who have been transformed into deformed cannibals by radiation. This last part is what got the film into trouble. The hibakusha, the survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, found this depiction utterly offensive and after continued protests to either make cuts to or ban the film entirely Toho voluntarily pulled the film from circulation in 1980. Later that decade Toho was blocked from releasing “Prophecies of Nostradamus” on video cassette by organizations representing the hibakusha. While unavailable in Japan the film did make its way to home video in the U.S. under the title “The Last Days of Planet Earth”. CM

7. For Those We Love – Taku Shinjo (2007)

Japan’s war time past has been a hot button issue both nationally and internationally, but in recent years Japanese moviegoers have been treated to a number of right-wing leaning dramas that it can be argued either tried to honour the sacrifice of individuals during WW2 or present a revisionist glorification of Japanese war of aggression in the Pacific. No other fictionalized account of this period has drawn more protests than Taku Shinjo’s 2007 film “For Those We Love.” Written by Shintarô Ishihara, the right-wing governor of Tokyo, whose book “The Japan That Can Say No” (co-written with Sony founder Akio Morita) gained him international attention for its critical view of U.S.- Japanese relations, the film presents a glossy, patriotic take on Japan ’s infamous kamikaze pilots. Nobody’s getting high on crystal meth before crashing into a battleship here. Told from the point of view of a mama-san who runs a Kyushu restaurant the film follows the lives of the fresh-faced young Japanese pilots who volunteered to end their lives in aerial suicide missions against the allied forces. Voices of protest were raised against the film both within Japan and from abroad calling it “fascistic,” and “alarming.” What can you expect from a politician who says that the atrocities inflicted on the citizens of Nanking in 1937 never happened? CM

6. The Whispering of the Gods - Tatsushi Ômori (2005)

Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by “outlaw writer” Mangetsu Hanamura “The Whispering of the Gods” is a blistering attack on the Catholic Church as told from the viewpoint of Rou (Hiroumi Arai), a young man seeking asylum for murder in a church run community in the Japanese countryside. Rou gets his asylum, but only if he agrees to provide sexual favours to the head priest, Father Kamiya (Kei Sato) and the other members of the clergy. Explicit in its depiction of sexual abuse, humiliation and animal cruelty it’s a miracle that “The Whispering of the Gods” got screened in Japan at all, and if it wasn’t for producer Genjiro Arato it probably wouldn’t have. Arato worked as the producer on Seijun Suzuki’s 1980 return to the cinematic fold “Zigeunerweisen” which he showed in its own tent theatre as a way to circumvent the Japanese theatres who were wary of screening such a surreal film. Arato chose the same tactic for Ômori’s film not because it was strange, but because it would never get cleared through the Japanese censors to release in a regular theatre. While not reaching the same level of success as “Zigeunerweisen” Ômori’s grim, unforgiving look at how faith can be used to manipulate did have an extended run in its tent in Ueno Park and garnered a nomination for the Tokyo Grand Prix. CM

5. Night and Fog in Japan – Nagisa Oshima (1960)

Nagisa Oshima’s contribution to the Shochiku-Ofuna New Wave initiative to highlight young filmmakers “Night and Fog in Japan” was the center of controversy almost immediately after it was released. The plot of the film centers around the wedding of Nozawa and Reiko, a young couple with a politically radical past. When the guests at the wedding start to question the political integrity of the bride and groom Oshima uses flashback to show the audience the couple’s involvement in protests against the AMPO Treaty that outlined security relations between United States and Japan . With the film being released only four short months after the Treaty was signed Shochiku was concerned that its bold political message might inflame a still delicate situation; and after the assassination of Socialist politician Inejiro Asanuma by a right-wing student the studio yanked “Night and Fog in Japan” from theatres. Oshima was understandably furious and proclaimed publicly that, “my film is the weapon of the people's struggle.” Despite the film being pulled from theatres it still ranked in the top ten of Kinema Junpo’s picks for best films of 1960, and after having left Shochiku in protest Oshima went on to found his own independent production company called Sozosha (Creation) through which he released his next dozen films. CM

4. In the Realm of the Senses – Nagisa Oshima (1976)

The second of Oshima’s films on this list and probably one of if not the best known film by the director. While the final castration scene in this film based on the actual case of Japanese murderess Sada Abe who in 1936 killed her lover during a session of erotic asphyxiation and then cut off his genitals as a souvenir was obviously fake, that’s about all that was. Oshima made the choice of having his actors, Eiko Matsuda as Sada and Tatsuya Fuji as her lover Kichizo, engage in actual sexual intercourse throughout the film. It was this decision that forced Oshima to dodge the Japanese censors, smuggle the undeveloped footage out of Japan to France and dub it a French co-production in order to complete the film. Upon its release in 1976 “In the Realm of the Senses” was either banned or severely censored in the U.S., Canada, Germany and Japan, and it was only in the early 90s that the complete “In the Realm of the Senses” was screened and released on DVD. It is still banned in the Republic of Ireland. To this day “In the Realm of the Senses” is viewed as one of the most controversial films in cinema history, but also one of the most groundbreaking, paving the way for other sexually explicit films like John Cameron Mitchell’s “Shortbus” and Michael Winterbottom’s “9 Songs.” CM

3. Guinea Pig: Flower of Flesh and Blood - Jyunko Okamoto (1986)

“Guinea Pig: Flower of Flesh and Blood” has got a pedigree that most horror films would (excuse the pun) kill for. It’s an urban legend now that actor Charlie Sheen handed over this film to the FBI after he’d viewed it at a party and thought he’d discovered an actual snuff film. If that wasn’t grisly enough for you try this. When police searched the home of Japanese child killer Tsutomu Miyazaki they discovered a copy of “Flower of Flesh and Blood” amongst his collection of sadistic manga and porn. It’s mostly for the latter reason that the entire “Guinea Pig” series has been made illegal in Japan. This is truly rough stuff. The film consists of 42 minutes of the slow, graphic and disturbingly convincing dismemberment of a woman by a man dressed in traditional samurai garb, and that’s it. This one peddles to the lowest common denominator and I guarantee you that whoever has seen even a clip of this grandfather of the “torture porn” genre won’t soon forget it… and not because it’s a fun film. Trust me. CM

2. Emperor Tomato Ketchup – Shuji Terayama (1970)

No, this is not an album by Stereolab… Well, it is, but the London-based post-rock band took the name of its 1996 album “Emperor Tomato Ketchup” from the 1970 film by Japanese poet, playwright and filmmaker Shuji Terayama. The founder of the Tenjō Sajiki experimental theatre company and over 200 written works Terayama is thought of as the leading voice of the 60s and 70s avant-garde in Japan, an artist whose output was consistently provocative and taboo-breaking. Nothing sums this up better than “Emperor Tomatoe Ketchup,” a surreal, dream-like film that portrays a world where children have revolted and turned the social order upside down, “condemn[ing] their parents to death for depriving them of self-expression and sexual freedom.” While the parallels to the 60s youth-centered counterculture is evident it’s the last part of that quote from Amos Vogel’s "Film as a Subversive Art" that has gotten the film in so much trouble. Interspersed with scenes of adults being bound and humiliated by their new rulers are scenes of nudity and simulated sex involving children. While Terayama continued to maintain that this was not done for pornographic intent, but as a symbolic tool to explore issues of oppression the full 75-minute version of “Emperor Tomato Ketchup” has been frequently banned. This happened most recently in 2004 when the plug got pulled on a planned screening of the film in Austin, Texas during which it was to be synched with Stereolab’s album. CM

1. Yasukuni – Ying Li (2007)

No film in Japanese cinema history has seen the kind of controversy that Tokyo-based filmmaker Ying Li’s documentary “Yasukuni” has. 10 years in the making the film takes 90-year-old swordsmith Naoji Kariya as its center piece, exploring the history not only of the Yasukuni swords, katana that were forged and sent to the front line troops on the Asian mainland during WW2, but also the history of the nearly 150-year-old shrine that houses the “kami” of 2,466,000 men and women who died defending the honour of the Emperor. Yasukuni Shrine and the yearly visits paid to it by high-ranking officials in the ruling LDP government depicted in the film have become a symbol of Japan’s unrepentant stance to the atrocities that the Imperial Army committed during the war as 1,068 of the soldiers enshrined there are convicted war criminals. While Li does his best to present a neutral view of the shrine and its history the reactions by Japanese audiences has been anything but. Screenings of the film in Japan have been met with denouncements, boycotts and protests from right-wing nationalists. In July a theatre in Kochi that had booked a screening of the film even received bomb threats. At the height of the controversy in April of this year representatives from the shrine and Kariya the swordsmith both requested to have extensive cuts made to the film, in Kariya’s case because he claimed that he did not know what type of film Li was making. Speculation was that key lawmakers in the LDP Party were working behind the scenes of these requests, but producers for “Yasukuni” refused. Thankfully the doc has been able to screen without major incident at festival throughout the rest of the world and even snagged a nomination for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. CM

Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Gaga Communications to take "Halfway" around the world

by Chris MaGee

I just realized how odd that headline sounds. Let me explain. Back in the early days of the Pow-Wow blog it was announced that Shunji Iwai would be producing a film called "Halfway". We were in our infancy and we missed it, so... so take this as a bit of back tracking.

Variety Asia Online is reporting today that the international sales for the film will be handled by Gaga Communications, the same people who will be bringing us "MW" and the Tadanobu Asano starring "Don-ju", as well as the people who have brought films like "Blindness", "Sex and the City" and "Rambo" to Japan.

"Halfway" stars Kie Kitano and Masaki Okada as a young teen couple whose relationship is complicated as they approach their high school graduation. The film marks the directorial debut of Eriko Kitagawa, the screenwriter for such popular Japanese TV shows as "Long Vacation" and "Beautiful Life."

"Halfway" is set for release in Japan next year.

Geez! This is creepy!

by Chris MaGee

Okay, not necessarily a Japanese cinema news item, but something you can waste time with at the office... and creepy yourself out with in the process. The Japanese company Motion Portrait has patented their own computer graphics software that can animate a photo of a person, anime character, pet, or even a picture of you. Sounds cool? Well, reserve judgment until you click the link below and see the woman above in action. I find this really creepy... plus she could really use a couple of drops of Visine!

Click here to be watched.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Now this is taking remakes a little bit too far

by Chris MaGee

Why, you may ask, have I posted a painting of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse on the Pow-Wow blog? The answer to that is that besides them, rivers turning into blood and harlots riding beasts with 666 heads there's another key sign that the end of the world is nigh. That would be a remake of Akira Kurosawa's "Rashomon".

You heard that right. According to a report posted at Variety Asia Online today U.S. and Japanese producers are joining forces to hurry along the Apocalypse with plans to have an English language remake of the 1950 classic in theatres by 2010 to commemorate (or desecrate) the 100th anniversary of Kurosawa's birth.

In other news Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane" will be remade by Brett Ratner starring Jacki Chan and French architects will be disassembling and then reassembling the Eiffel Tower because they have nothing better to do with their time.

REVIEW: Tony Takitani - Jun Ichikawa (2004)

Reviewed by Chris MaGee

Haruki Murakami is one of, if not the, most lauded of the postwar Japanese authors on the contemporary literary scene. His quirky and surreal take on modern day Japan are peopled with passive heroes unknowingly wandering into mysteries involving psychic sheep, missing cats, and shadowy right-wing figures that come out of a dream. It’s these touchstones of his style that have made him wildly popular, but also seemingly impossible to adapt to the big screen. How can such unique visions driven often by just internal monologues be turned into a movie? Jun Ichikawa (no relation to Kon Ichikawa) the director of such modern Japanese classics as “Dying at a Hospital” and “Osaka Story” deciding to take one of Murakami’s short stories to answer that very question. The result, 2004’s “Tony Takitani” is both an astounding success and a bitter failure.

The story begins during the war; Shozaburo Takitani is a devil-may-care jazz horn player who barely survives a Chinese prison camp before returning to Japan during the American occupation. He marries a cousin and has a baby his wife dies only a few days later. Their boy, Tony Takitani, (stage actor Issei Ogata playing both Shozaburo and Tony), is a typical isolated and idiosyncratic Murakami character; a man who’s formative years have been made even more isolated by having been saddled with a Western name by his father on the advice of an American army major. Despite being ostracized by his peers Tony has one extraordinary talent: the ability to make hyper-realistic drawings of objects, drawings “…realer than the real thing.” With this talent Tony becomes a very successful, very lonely technical illustrator. All this changes when he meets a young publisher, Eiko (Rie Miyazawa), a woman of great beauty, but harboring a secret shopping addiction, one that in the end will entirely change Tony’s life.

It sounds like a slim story, and it is. The original is only just over 6,000 words, and Ichikawa stays faithful to the source material by keeping Tony’s story of loneliness and search for love short as well, only 76 minutes. Issei Ogata’s superb performance makes the running time seem even shorter. Emotions bottled up, Ogata’s Tony is just as fascinating and cold as one of his drawings, a joy for life only peeking out when he meets Eiko. For his performance as Shozaburo Ogata is even more enigmatic, in fact I wasn’t even aware of the dual performance until I was researching this review. Not only Ogata deserves praise though; Miyazawa, who has her own dual performance, is exquisite and achingly sad.

So with all this praise heaped on it so far how could I categorize “Tony Takitani” as a bitter failure? To answer that I have to again point to Ichikawa’s desire to stay as faithful to the original story as possible. I don’t mind voice over in a film. I don’t think it’s a failure by the filmmaker and screenwriter to properly utilize the medium of film to tell a story, in fact in a literary adaptation of a Murakami work it might be necessary, but the lengths to which this is taken in the film are a tad ridiculous. The text from the original story is used as voice over almost verbatim throughout the film and while Ichikawa chooses an interesting technique whereby what starts out as voice over becomes dialogue the failure to truly adapt the story as opposed to just “filming” it is a real disappointment, especially when the faithfulness is betrayed during the last moments when a happy ending is tacked on. In the end see this film for yourself and make your final judgment.

Yoji Yamada brings his dream project to Japanese audiences

by Chris MaGee

"Tora-san" and "Twlight Samurai" director Yoji Yamada has finally been able to fulfill his long held artistic dream: to bring the full scope and majesty of the kabuki theatre to the movie screen. Yamada, actress Yuki Uchida, and famed kabuki actor Kanzaburo Nakamura made the announcement of Yamada's latest project "Cinema Kabuki" at a press conference held at the Sony Building in Ginza on Sunday.

Using the latest high-performance HD and surround sound technology Yamada personally directed and filmed a performance of the popular kabuki play "The Tale of Bunshichi (Ninjôbanashi Bunshichi Mottoi)" about a craftsman weighed down by gambling debts and his daughter who works as a prostitute in a local brothel.

Yamada's "The Tale of Bunshichi" already received its world premiere at the 2008 Skip City festival that took place in Saitama this Summer, but Yamada revealed at yesterday's press conference that the film would be getting a wide release in Japan later this year.

Otsuichi's "Goth" comes to the big screen

by Chris MaGee

Horror and mystery author Otsuichi, best known to North American audiences for having his work adapted into the 2005 omnibus film "Zoo" will be getting another big screen treatment this December with Gen Takahashi's "Goth". Based on the author's 2003 Honkaku Mystery Prize-winning novel of the same name the film will star Kanata Hongo (left) and Rin Takanashi (right) as a pair of morbid teens with a nearly all consuming fascination with suicide and murder. "Goth" has already been adapted into a manga by artist Kendi Oiwa which was released in an English translation from TokyoPop earlier this year.

Thanks to Tokyograph for the story.

Japanese Weekend Box Office, September 20th to September 21st

1. Wanted (Toho Towa)
2. Paco And The Magical Book* (Toho)
3. Twentieth Century Boys* (Toho)
4. Okuribito (Departures)* (Shochiku)
5. Ponyo On The Cliff By The Sea* (Toho)
6. Superior Ultraman 8 Brothers* (Toho)
7. Hancock (SPE)
8. Detroit Metal City* (Toho)
9. Samurai Gangsters* (Kadokawa)
10. Sex and the City (GAGA)

* Japanese film

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Hawaii International Film Fest to feature new film from Katsuhito Ishii

by Chris MaGee

Here's another piece of great news care of Kevin Ouellette at Nippon Cinema. The line-up for the Hawaii International Film Festival and there's a ton of Japanese films represented; Keisuke Yoshida's "Cafe Isobe", Junji Sakamoto's "Children of the Dark" and Kaysuhito Ishii's "Yama no Anata (Darling of the Mountains)" being some of the most notable. The surprise of the fest is that "Yama no Anata" won't be the only offering from Ishii. The director of such zany comedies as "Party 7" and "Funky Forest: The First Contact" will be premiering his new film "Sorasoi" on October 14.

"Sorasoi" follows a group of young men and women who attend a beach front dance academy to rehearse for an upcoming competition. The film shot over the summer in Izu and in Hawaii, but besides the screenings at HIFF there has been no announcement (yet) of a wider release.

To check out more stills from the film like the one above head over to Ishii's Nice Rainbow site here.

Masahiro Kobayashi returns with "Koufuku Shiawase"

by Chris MaGee

Here's a film that's got me excited. First off, I bowled over by Masahiro Kobayashi's 2005 film "Bashing" that starred Fusako Urabe as a Japanese woman who had been taken hostage in the Middle East only to return to face a hostile reception from her fellow Japanese. Second off, I have been bowled over for years by the performances of Ryo Ishibashi, particularly in Rokuro Mochizuki's "Another Lonely Hitman", Takeshi Kitano's "Kids Return" and Daisuke Tengan's "The Most Beautiful Night in the World". So to see that both were in attendance at a press conference at the Shinemato Theatre in Roppongi on Saturday to announce the completion of a new film is going to get my heart racing a bit.

The film in question is "Koufuku Shiawase (The Happiness)", the story of a vagrant (Ishibashi) who arrives in a town in Hokkaido. With only a threadbare suit, an old pair of sneakers and a bag containing all his worldly possessions the proprietors of a local convenince store (played by Jun Murakami and Akemi Sakurai) taske pity on the man and bring him in. It's this chance encounter that leads to a budding romance between Ishibashi's vagrant and Sakurai's clerk, a romance that draws us deeper into the history of these two individuals.

During the press conference that took place before the screening Kobayashi explained how it was hard to find financing for the project and even when that was accomplished and the film was made it still took three years to get a theatrical release. Well, here's to small miracles and to the hope that North American audiences will get a chance to see the result of this collaboration between to great talents.

Check out the official website for "Koufuku Shiawase (The Happiness)" here.

Director of "Hebi ni Piasu" stages Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" in London

by Chris MaGee

Yukio Ninagawa (above right) has been a fixture on the theatre scene for years bringing his own hybrid of traditional Japanese kabuki and noh drama and the canon of Western plays by Shakespeare and Sophocles to audiences in Japan and around the world. He's even worked with some of the Japanese movie industry's brightest stars. For his 2004 production of "Romeo and Juliet" he cast "Death Note's" Tatsuya Fujiwara and "Returner's" Ann Suzuki as the doomed young lovers, but he really didn't come to the attention of Japanese film fans until this year when he made his feature film directorial debut with his adaptation of Hitomi Kanehara's novel "Hebi ni Piasu (Snakes and Earrings)".

Now according to The Japan Times Online Ninagawa is returning to his day job as theatrical producer by bringing his Shakespeare-meets-kabuki production of "Twelfth Night" to London. The production had already been mounted in Japan in 2005 and 2007, but to mark 150 years of relations between England and Japan Ninagawa's Japanese language take on the famed comedy will hit the London stage in March.

In an interview with Times Ninagawa, who has cast the father and son kabuki duo of Onoe Kikugoro and Onoe Kikunosuke (above left) in the lead roles, explained his traditional Japanese take on the play. "If I likened this 'Twelfth Night' to a plate of sashimi," he explained, "the raw fish would be the young actors in the main roles, such as Kikunosuke, and for example, Kikugoro would be the wasabi, the added, extra-special taste. In the end, I think I am just the yellow, plastic flower decoration."

Saturday, September 20, 2008

First look at Sakichi Sato's "Heibon Ponch"

by Chris MaGee

At the end of July it was announced that "Tokyo Zombie" director and "Gozu" screenwriter was going to take another foray into the land of the strange and zany both directing and starring in a big screen adaptation of George Asakuras' manga "Heibon Ponch". The manga is the odd couple road trip story of Aki Mishima, an overweight film director with a phobia about busty women and Mika Wanibuchi, an aspiring actress who thinks her floundering career will be saved by a pair of big boobs. The two have to go on the run after Mika kills a rival actress and the adventure that follows has Aki transforming into a handsome alter-ego and the search for the mythical "Town of Big Breasts."

At the time of the announcement of "Heibon Ponch" there were a handful of promotional shots showing Sato and actress Rina Akiyama in character, but now Japanese movie site Eiga.com has got a full gallery of stills from the film, and it looks like Sato's bent sensibilities mesh perfectly with Asakuras' quirky story.

"Heibon Ponch" is set for release later this year.

Akira Kurosawa's final script to be made into an animated film

by Chris MaGee

This is intriguing. Anime News Network has news today about how legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa's last script is slated to be used as the basis of an animated feature film. Apparently at the time of his death in 1998 Kurosawa had co-written a script with his frequent collaborator Masato Ide titled "The Masque of the Black Death," based on the Edgar Allan Poe story "The Masque of the Red Death." As the colour change in the title indicates Kurosawa and Ide took some liberties with the story of a prince (played above by Lon Chaney in the 1925 adaptation) who is holding a masquerade ball during a deadly plague and transplanted it to the Russian Revolution of 1917-1918. Quite an interesting choice as not only were the Tsarist autocracy under siege by the Bolshevik revolutionaries, but in 1918 the deadly Spanish Flu pandemic was sweeping the globe.

Kurosawa never planned to direct "The Masque of the Black Death," in fact his son Hisao was looking for funding and a director for the project at the time of his father's death, but obviously the project was shelved... until now. A Japanese/ American and Singaporean animated co-production of "The Masque of the Black Death" will be released in 2010 to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Akira Kurosawa's birth. No director has been announced yet, but one's imagination could run wild with who might fit with this type of project. Hiroyuki Kitakubo? Makoto Shinkai? Shinichiro Watanabe? The possibilities are endless, but I guess we'll just have to wait and see.

Get creeped out by the official site for Hitoshi Iwamoto's "MW"

by Chris MaGee

Not much has leaked out about Hitoshi Iwamoto's film adaptation of Osamu Tezuka's dark manga "MW". I just realized what I said there, and for a story about the aftermath of an accidental leak of a poisonous gas and the revenge sought by its only surviving victims I could have phrased that a bit differently. Oh well...

So, there hasn't been that much news online (that's better) about the film except the initial announcement of the project in June and a couple of spoiler images of stars Hiroshi Tamaki and Takayuki Yamada as the psychopathic young man who wants to unleash the killer MW gas on an unsuspecting world and his Catholic priest accomplice.

And the news today is that there's not that much more news, but the official website has been jazzed up with some very creepy flash animation. It looks like they're really going for a grim disaster movie feel for this. Steep yourself in doom and gloom by clicking here.

Studio Ghibli to take on the works of Yoshie Hotta?

by Chris MaGee

Okay, I hear you now, "Yoshie who???" I'm with you on this one, folks, that's why I didn't write something up about this sooner. A couple of days ago when I read the speculation over at Ghibli World about whether or not Studio Ghibli and Goro Miyazaki were going to tackle the works of Japanese novelist Yoshie Hotta I had to do a bit of research. Currently the home studio of Hayao and son Goro Miyazaki are involved in running an exhibition marking the tenth anniversary of the death of prize-winning author at the Kanagawa Museum of Modern Literature in Yokohama called "Yoshie Hotta: Troubled Times Drawn by Ghibli," which is what got all these rumours started... but who's Yoshie Hotta?

While he may not be a household name in North America like a Haruki Murakami, Yukio Mishima or even Yasunari Kawabata, Hatto (1918-1998) is one of the most respected voices of the 20th century in his home country. He was the recipient of the Akutagawa Prize, the most prestigious literary award in Japan and his 1963 novel "Judgment", the story of the friendship between a guilt-ridden American pilot who took part in the bombing of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki and a Japanese soldier responsible for atrocities in Manchuria, was translated into many languages, including English. Hayao Miyazaki has been quoted as saying that, "Hotta was like a rock towering in the ocean for me. When I was drifted by tide and lost my location, I was saved by him many times."

The exhibit at the Kanagawa Museum of Modern Literature features drawings both by Hayao and Goro Miyazaki, the latter having considered adapting Hatto's stories "Hojoki Shiki" and "Teika Meigetsuki Shisho" into an animated feature (the drawing above by Goro gives us an idea of what this might look like), but again he's just considered this. It's a bit premature to say that this will be a new project for Studio Ghibli.

Just as an interesting aside, fans of kaiju monster films may have heard the name Yoshie Hotta before. Along with authors Shinichiro Nakamura and Takehiko Fukunaga he co-wrote a serialized novel titled "The Luminous Fairies and Mothra" that appeared in Weekly Asahi magazine in 1961. That novel went on to be adapted by director Ishiro Honda into... you've got it... "Mothra".

Friday, September 19, 2008

Jun Ichikawa, director of "Tony Takitani", 1948-2008

by Chris MaGee

Jun Ichikawa, best known in North America for his 2004 Haruki Murakami screen adaptaion starring Issei Ogata and Rie Miyazawa, has died. He was 59 years old.

After collapsing at a dinner in Tokyo on Friday evening he was rushed by ambulance to hospital where he passed away. No word yet on cause of death.

Ichikawa began his career as a filmmaker in the 70s, directing award-winning commercials, but it wasn't until 1987 and the release of "BU*SU" starring Yasuko Tomita that he moved into feature filmmaking.

Besides the success of "Tony Takitani", which was honoured with the Special Jury Prize, Youth Jury Prize and FIPRESCI Prize at the Locarno International Film Festival, Ichikawa also received acclaim in Japan for his films "Tsugumi" (1991) and "Dying at a Hospital" (1994).

At the time of his death Ichikawa was editing the short film "buy a suit" which had been programmed as part of the upcoming Tokyo International Film Festival.

Thanks to Variety Asia Online for the details.

REVIEW: The Mystery of Rampo - Rintaro Mayuzumi/ Kazuyoshi Okuyama (1994)

Reviewed by Bob Turnbull

Edogawa Rampo wrote many mystery stories between the mid-20s and mid-50s and is widely considered to be Japan 's answer to Edgar Allen Poe. Comparisons of that variety tend to be dangerous as they can easily short change the artistic relevance of the person being compared, but Rampo was himself a big fan of the elder Poe and chose his pen name to sound similar to how Japanese people pronounce it. The late 60s (after Rampo's death) saw several films based on his stories - Kinji Fukasaku's "Black Lizard", Teruo Ishii's "Horrors Of Malformed Men" and Yasuzo Masumura's "Blind Beast" are all examples that are readily available on DVD - and his influence continues to this day with Shinya Tsukamoto's 1999 film "Gemini" and Barbet Schroeder's 2008 "Inju: La Bete Dans L'Ombre" (showing at this year's Toronto International Filmfest) also coming from his pen. So when I stumbled across "The Mystery Of Rampo", it didn't take much convincing to give it a try with no other knowledge about the film.

Focusing far less on plot, story and character development, Rintaro Mayuzumi and Kazuyoshi Okuyama's 1994 film (which was simply titled "Rampo" outside of North America ) seems to exist solely to give the viewer the feeling of what it must be like to exist within one of Edogawa Rampo's stories.

Near the beginning of the film, we see an animated telling of the story of a woman, her frail husband and a nagamochi chest (a personal treasure chest). The animation is used to excellent effect here in foreshadowing the dark turn the story will take. And when it makes that turn, the moment is captured absolutely perfectly. It turns out that the story we are watching is actually being read by a member of the censor board and as it finishes, we cut to him stamping it "Not Approved (detrimental to public morale)". As Rampo and his agent sit there, the censor also states that his older stories will not be reissued and that there will be restrictions on any new work. If this isn't bad enough, Rampo must now attend a wrap party of the filming of one of his more straightforward stories and mingle with show business people. The short speech he delivers to an uncaring crowd feels like it could be a horror story in itself.

There are further "plot" elements - particularly Rampo hearing of a woman whose situation is uncannily close to that of the unpublished banned story we heard earlier - but the film is all about mood. The different styles and techniques used throughout, the lighting effects and the editing all help towards giving the viewer this sense of what living through one of his stories might be like. It can be quite disorienting as we start to wonder if Rampo's stories are somehow affecting reality or if perhaps they are even controlling his own actions.

Things further complicate and fold over themselves as halfway through the film, we begin to follow Rampo's other self - his own character creation detective Kogoro Akechi. We see recurring characters from both the real and imagined stories, doubled events, films within films, layered images, mirrors, ghosts, dreams and the same people playing different characters all the way up to the point when things literally shatter in a frenetically edited climax. Both stories contain a main female character who states "If I could live in a dream of a person I love, how happy I would be" and that seems to capture the idea of an idealized existence (especially given the time period of the action - the beginning of the Showa Era and rise of ultra-nationalism in the mid-20s) that several of the characters seem to be chasing.

By the end of the film, if you haven't completely followed the specifics of what has happened and perhaps feel slightly shaken, then it would appear that the filmmakers have succeeded in getting across their intention - to feel the same as a character in an Edogawa Rampo story.

Read more from Bob Turnbull at his blog.