Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Our Top Ten Favorite Films based on Manga

For this month’s Top Ten list we at the Pow-Wow wanted to share our favorites from an extensive genre in Japanese cinema: films based on manga. This wasn’t the easiest list to put together as none of us on staff are manga aficionados and it’s very possible we’ve missed some key adaptations, but if that’s the case… tough. While we definitely have tried to take into account the popularity, influence or in some cases uniqueness of the manga that these films are based on in the end we had to judge these ten on their merits as films; and (at least we think) these are the best of the bunch.

10. White Collar Worker Kintaro – Takashi Miike (1999)

Japanese office workers don’t need the Kamen Rider or kids piloting giant robots or a time-traveling cat like Doraemon. Japanese office workers need to see that their own overworked and underpaid lives are somehow heroic and that’s where “Salaryman Kintaro” comes in. Created by Hiroshi Motomiya in 1994 and serialized in Weekly Young Jump Magazine off and on ever since the manga follows former bōsōzoku Kintarō Yajima who, after the death of his girlfriend, has left his motorcycle riding and hell raising in the past and now works for as a sales agent for the Yamato Construction Co. and cares for his young son, Ryōta. The manga proved so popular that Toho tagged none other than Takashi Miike to adapt it to the big screen. The result was “White Collar Worker Kintarō” starring Katsunori Takahashi as the titular office worker hero, who in the film must battle a corrupt senator and a rival development company in order to secure a lucrative public works contract and save Yamamoto Construction. Although he’s supposed to be aiding Kintarō in his fight grizzled business veteran Yozo Igo (played by Tsutomu Yamazaki) would rather lounge around and play mahjong than work, but seeing Kintarō’s fire for making sure that justice and right prevails reminds him of the kind of salaryman he used to be. “White Collar Worker Kintarō” was made the same year as Miike’s seminal film “Audition”, but don’t expect blood and gore in this one. A reunion of Kintarō’s old bike gang is as close as you’ll get to “Asian Extreme” in this campy and entertaining film that makes fun of the stereotypical salaryman while at the same time sings his praises. CM

9. Death Note – Shusuke Kaneko (2006)

Every so often, something comes along that seems to tap into the psyche of the general populous, creating an army of devoted followers. “Death Note” is one of these pop culture phenomenons. The manga was originally published in Weekly Shonen Jump, and became an instant hit, quickly creating a huge fan base with Japanese youth. The two films each jumped to number one in the box office, and became insanely popular all through Asia . The first film also had a small theatrical release here in North America , something few Japanese films are privileged enough to get, let alone an adaptation of a manga. You can’t step into an anime store anywhere in North America without seeing some “Death Note” memorabilia. The plot is original, filled with enough twists and turns to keep even the savviest viewer guessing. It’s also dark, filled with moral ambiguity and an equally complex anti-hero as the main character. The films manage to accomplish what most manga adaptations have failed to do. Retain the manga’s tone, moral complexity and thematic elements, condense a whopping 108 chapters into two 2 hours films, and still, with several drastic changes from the manga, please fans the world over. And while it was made for a younger audience, it transcends the generational gap, partly because the films, as well as the manga, never really judge anyone for the decisions they make. It tries to remain objective about what could essentially be a metaphor for capital punishment, and instead is more concerned with entertaining its audience. And entertain it does. MH

8. Screwed – Teruo Ishii (1998)

Yoshiharu Tsuge could be described as Japan ’s Robert Crumb or Harvey Pekar, a highly idiosyncratic artist who uses his comics as a way dealing with his seemingly uneventful and lonely life. The big difference between Tsuge and his American counterparts, though, is the surreal imagery and dream logic used in his stories. There’s no better example of this than his story “Neji-shiki” or “Screwed Style” that was published in Garo Magazine in 1968, but to call “Neji-shiki” a story is a bit of a misnomer. In it a young man who’s bleeding from a jellyfish sting on his arm wanders through various nightmarish scenarios before receiving treatment (and sexual favours) from a woman gynecologist who installs a small screw and valve on the vein exposed by the sting. Nightmarish imagery and strong sexual content; now who might fit the bill for an adaptation of a manga like this? Ero-guro master Teruo Ishii of course, the man behind such mind-benders as “The Horrors of Malformed Men” and “Female Yakuza Tale: Inquisition and Torture”. Re-titled “Screwed” for the North American DVD Ishii takes aspects of Tsuge’s life and work to tell the story of an unemployed manga artist (played by Tadanobu Asano) whose girlfriend leaves him for another man. Reeling from the break up he wanders into the countryside and experiences erotic encounters with a series of women that grow increasingly strange until the film is capped off by the events in “Neji-shiki”. Oh, and you can’t talk about “Screwed” without mentioning the insane beginning and ending credit sequences. They’re something you have to experience first hand, but let me just say that I never knew naked women, modern dance and clown make-up could be so damn frightening. CM

7. Doing Time – Yoichi Sai (2002)

If you heard of a prison film based on a manga what would you expect? Yakuza? Sure, you might expect some yakuza. Maybe even a gang war behind prison walls or something sufficiently dark and twisty. Oh, and of course you’d expect lots of violence. What would you think if I said that Yoichi Sai’s 2002 film “Doing Time” based on the autobiographical manga by Kazuichi Hanawa had none of the above? “Aren’t manga supposed to be crazy and violent?” Well, not necessarily, but certainly not in this case. The original manga chronicled Hanawa’s three year sentence for illegal weapons possession after he was arrested with a working replica of Dirty Harry’s .44 Magnum, but the dehumanization of being locked up doesn’t come from repeated beatings and rapes, but from having every minute, every detail of Hanawa’s and the other prisoner’s lives regulated and monitored from how long they keep their sideburns to when and for how long they can use the toilet. Instead of “Doing Time”being a bleak story of subjagation, though, Sai uses a top notch ensemble cast headed up by Tsutomu Yamazaki (Tampopo) to bring an immense amount of humour and humanity to the film. In the end we almost get a feeling like we’re watching monks living in a Buddhist monastery than men serving time in prison and for turning our preconceptions of what a prison film and a manga adaptation is “Doing Time” definitely deserves a spot on this list. CM

6. Ichi the Killer – Takashi Miike (2001)

The manga was shocking, brutal and will probably never be released in North America . Takashi Miike’s rendition is equally as shocking and brutal, but like many of his films, he uses this extremism to drive home the films underlying message. And like a plethora of his films, it deals with masculinity and violence. “Ichi the Killer” not only captures the essence of the manga, but it’s the outrageous nature of the violence and the sometimes bizarre, usually over the top performances of the actors, especially Asano Tadanobu, that gives the film a comic book type quality. It also functions as the perfect satire of the yakuza film, something Miike knows a lot about, and something he is perfectly suited to explore. Miike’s ability to switch from near slapstick like humour to uncompromising acts of violence may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s this ability that brings a refreshing, if unsettling edge, to the yakuza film. It creates a bizarre mix of suspense and curiosity, never giving you a moment to catch your breathe, and never letting you know what will be thrown at you next. Maybe it will be blood and severed limbs, maybe a little S&M, or maybe buckets full of semen. One thing is for sure, this manga adaptation will stay lingering in your mind for weeks to come. MH

5. Cromartie High: The Movie – Yudai Yamaguchi (2005)

Any good adaptation should not only capture the essence of the original source material, it should also try and bring something new to the table. The manga for “Cromartie High” was a parody of juvenile delinquent manga popular in the 70’s and 80’s that not only played with that specific manga genre, but also with other pop culture phenomena. It is absolutely hilarious, brilliant and at the same time visually inventive and striking. The anime version took the same, short, episodic structure of the manga and adapted it perfectly to the small screen. It not only maintained the heart and soul of the manga, but it also parodied the style of anime itself, with bizarre, ever changing, psychedelic backgrounds, and Hayashida’s perpetually moving hair. The film takes it a step further. It still retains some of the episodic nature, condensing it yet again into one 85 minute film, but it plays with medium of film and the juvenile delinquent film genre. It also, unlike the anime, plays with the original jokes and plots far more, shortening some of the jokes, and ending in a manner the anime could have only dreamed. And it makes almost no sense at all to the uninitiated, which, in essence, is part of the charm of the film. Not that the original made a lot of sense, but it does have a few small, and not so subtle references to characters and/or plots from the manga and anime. But part of the genius of the film is that even if you haven’t read the manga or seen the anime, these small parts are still utterly hilarious, because the whole damn film is so utterly insane and hilarious, it all makes sense in the grand scheme of things. MH

4. Lady Snowblood – Toshiya Fujita (1973)

Best known in North America as one of the main inspirations for "Kill Bill", Toshiya Fujita's 1973 film "Lady Snowblood" was itself inspired by Kazuo Koike's early 70s manga of the same name. Yuki is born to her imprisoned mother for one reason only: to seek revenge on the gang members who raped her mother and killed the rest of the family she never met. Her mother dies in childbirth, but she is raised by other prisoners and learns early on what her duty in life will be and of the training she must follow. As a grown woman (played by the beautiful Meiko Kaji), she travels through the countryside in search of those remaining criminals in order to avenge her mother. Though I've never seen any of the manga the film was based on, I would guess that the hand drawn panels used in the film to tell some of the history and back story may have been from the original manga. You can almost visualize how some of the scenes would have been drawn out from the stylized fight-to-the-death scenes and sprays of very red blood which lend a very strong comic book feel to the proceedings. Kaji is completely spellbinding in this role (and the 1974 sequel) - her devastating stare says more than any line of dialogue could. BT

3. Uzumaki – Higuchinsky (2000)

Not your typical Asian horror film by any stretch...The residents of a small village are becoming obsessed with spirals - in their food, in their homes, in artwork - so much so that some of them can't think of anything else. People turn into snails, fixate on the inner twsiting motion of washing machines, die gruesome deaths by trying to get closer to various spirals, die gruesome deaths trying to get away from various spirals, etc. The luckier ones simply go slowly insane. The title of the film apparently translates closest to "vortex" which is appropriate since the residents can't seem to leave. The film ties in its manga roots better than many others by including little spirals in subtle ways just about everywhere (especially in corners of the frame like little squiggles on the ground as a character walks by or wisps of them in the clouds). With these and other visual tricks along the way, you're left with a unique, disturbing and strangely entertaining journey. It's based on Junji Ito's 3 volume manga of the same name and while it shares with it a high usage of the colour green it differs in how it ends - the film was actually shot before the manga series was finished. BT

2. Detroit Metal City – Toshio Lee (2008)

Of all the people that I’ve spoken to who caught Toshio Lee’s big screen adaptation of Kiminori Wakasugi’s manga “Detroit Metal City” at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival I have yet to find any of them who didn’t love it. And what’s not to love? Lee has taken a wildly popular manga, with over 2 million copies sold in Japan, and made a film that charms the audience while at the same time rocks hard… really hard! The main reason for the adaptation’s success is the hilariously fractured performance given by Ken’ichi Matsuyama as Sōichi, a puppy dog of a kid who just wants to fulfill his dreams of singing his own brand of sickly sweet pop music, but who hates his day job. We can all relate to that, even if Sōichi’s day job happens to be fronting Japan ’s most successful death metal band, Detroit Metal City as the demonic Johannes Krauser II. Watching poor Sōichi juggle his real life and onstage persona is a really clever play on the tried and true comic book formula of the mild-mannered nerd who by night is a crime fighting super hero… or in Sōichi’s case a spandex-wearing guitarist who howls about killing his entire family. Same difference. “Detroit Metal City” has not only been a huge box office success in Japan where it’s expanded on the already enormous popularity of the manga, but it will also hopefully bring that D.M.C. fever to North America; and in the end isn’t that what a good adaptation does? Takes the original source material to a whole new level and to a whole new audience? CM

1. Lone Wolf and Cub Series – Kenji Misumi/ Buichi Saito/ Yoshiyuki Kuroda (1972-1974)

This series of films hardly needs no justification as to why its one of the best manga adaptations of all time, because it simply is one of the best. It bridged the gap between art house and grind house, and remains one of the most popular series of films not only in Japan , but the world over. It’s influenced countless film makers, musicians and comic books artists alike. The epic story telling is immersed deep in historic context, featuring deep, philosophical underpinnings that not only deal with revenge (because lets face it, this is the ultimate tale of revenge), but also redemption, honour (or lack there of it) and the nature or mu, or no-mind. The mammoth 28 volumes that make up the manga series are beautifully woven together. Of course, with Kazuo Koike, who penned the manga, writing the screenplay, it’s hard for it not to. The manga has a definite cinematic feel to it. The framing of each panel and the movement between them simulates the movement of a camera. The images appear to move. It screams to be adapted for the screen (and not only was it adapted into this series of films, but also plays and TV shows). And then there’s Tomisaburo Wakayama portrayal of the stoic Ogami Itto. He fills the screen with an intensity and presence that with just a look, he could probably kill a man. His incarnation of Itto, along with the graphic, outrageous violence, the cinematic beauty within each frame, and the mythic storytelling make this the ultimate manga adaptation. MH

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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