Film #291: Girl Goned (2017)

directors: Yukiro Dravarious & Duncan Whom
language: English, some Japanese, couple of sentences of German and French
length: actually not sure but about 2 hours
watched on: 4 May 2017

This is that rare review which I know will be read by the creators, since they’re my friends making an amateur project last year. I’ll try to be nice…

I got a sneak preview from Duncan about a month before watching this, and then went to the second screening on the premiere night – in a BDSM dungeon, of all places, with cages and strange-looking seats. (By the way, I just grabbed this image from a google search, as I usually do, managing to somehow filter out images from Gone Girl – I think it’s from Remiko’s blog. If you’d like me not to use the image, or have a better thumbnail image, please let me know)

The movie is set in Tokyo’s underground drag scene, so it features a few people I know from going to their shows. The plot, insofar as there is one, follows an American private detective who travels to Japan in search of a missing girl, somehow involved in the drag scene. Meanwhile, the drag queens conspire to set about armageddon. Or something. The film deliberately eschews plot at many moments, but it was more coherent than I’d expected from the previews I’d had. It has a deliberate B-movie aesthetic, and a lot of ridiculous gore, with fake blood spattered everywhere.

The main problem with it is that it’s probably incomprehensible to people outside our social group – I think there are too many in-jokes. A lot of the drag queen characters especially weren’t fully introduced. Also, it does have a bit of an episodic feel, and might be too ambitious. But I enjoyed it, and I think it’d stand a second viewing, to help me better understand it.

The other thing, although I think this is part of the aesthetic of amateur B-movies, and not necessarily a big problem, is that the sound and image were sometimes unbalanced. But I think this could be fixed.

It was long-awaited by all, so it was great to finally see it, and I enjoyed the sensation of recognizing quite a lot of the cameos. Thumbs up!

Book #128: Fear and Trembling (1999)

fntaka: Stupeur et tremblements
author: Amélie Nothomb
language: English translated from French
length: 132 pages
finished on: 19 Feb 2017

My coworker gave me this novella when he’d finished with it. It’s a memoir about working in a Japanese company, written by a Belgian girl who came over to work here for a year. It’s the story of what happened to her at work.

It’s very critical of the Japanese work culture, and the attitudes towards foreigners, depicted as pretty horrible. I didn’t quite buy some of it – I have to wonder how much of it is true, basically, and how much is fanciful embellishment. I’m not sure her attitude towards her Japanese coworkers is all that great either. Some parts I just scoffed.

However, I don’t feel like I work at a “real” Japanese company, since I’m teaching English. So I guess this might be more relatable to those working in Japanese offices. Also, it’s about her experiences in the 90s, and stuff has changed since then. Gradually. The biggest scandal now in Japan is about overworking employees – a girl in a major company committed suicide a year ago, and I think some of the parts described in this book match that stereotype pretty well.

I did enjoy the author’s way of describing things – it’s all very floral language, and she takes care over what she says in the book. The tone is also consistent throughout, which helps. I enjoyed hearing the story of a girl who spent some of her early years in Japan, only to come back and be disillusioned. I enjoyed hearing about the female supervisor who she has a crush on, who sees her as an upstart, calls her stupid, and sabotages her career.

Basically I enjoyed reading it, and it didn’t take long – I’m just not sure about her opinions.

Film #259: Your Name (2016)

kiminonawaaka: 君の名は。(Kimi no na wa)
director: Makoto Shinkai
language: Japanese
length: 106 minutes
watched on: 6 Jan 2017 (plane 2/3)

This movie has now become the highest-grossing Japanese film of all time, I heard. I actually missed it last year when it came out because it was still sold out when we tried to go. It’s still on in cinemas now, even. I heard the English-subtitled version is now on in Shinjuku (finally). I finally watched it on the plane, after Jason Bourne, and while I’d been looking forward to that film too, this was the one I really wanted to watch.

I’m kind of glad I managed to watch it with subtitles. I watched When Marnie Was There without them a couple of years back, and while I was able to understand most of the story, there were a few important details I missed out on. So this time I could understand everything.

The basic story is an unexplained body-swap that happens between two teenagers on opposite sides of the country – one boy in Tokyo (Taki) and a girl in the countryside somewhere (Mitsuha). The beginning of the film shows the two of them working out what’s happening and then rolling with it as if it’s normal. Body-swapping is nothing new, of course. This movie plays it for comedy a bit – initially Taki as a girl grabs her breasts and then acts very aggressively at school, while Mitsuha as a boy can’t work out which pronoun to use (a joke that is very hard to translate).

What people have been quite good at hiding is that there’s a twist about halfway through when we suddenly realize that (spoilers!) there’s also a time-travel element to the story, and the second act is very different from the first as a result. The plot takes on a much more layered and nuanced element from that point. I think to truly appreciate the many strands I’d have to rewatch it.

Recently when I watch movies, I’ve been scribbling notes about them (on a pad or on the notes app on my phone) as they go, kind of like liveblogging. For the last two movies it was mainly because I like to categorize the location, and Snowden and Bourne loved to travel constantly, and for a lot of the others, it’s to make the transition to this review smoother. But when I watched this film, I was so entranced I forgot to do it entirely, and as an afterthought, just wrote “wow” as my single note for the film. I think that fairly sums up my thoughts about the film.

Just to flesh out that opinion, though, I think the main thing I loved was the animation, especially the art design. It’s a lush film, to put it bluntly. The backgrounds are so detailed and colourful, and they’re incredibly realistic, too. The scenes in Tokyo are mostly set around Shinanomachi and Yotsuya, and I kept having that eery familiar feeling when I recognized the locations. I think the only other animation I know that’s been able to do that is Ghibli – I think it’s Only Yesterday (Edit: it’s actually Ocean Waves) that opens on the platform in Kichijoji station, where I lived for three years, which gave me a similar shock.

I’m quite glad I went with the crowd on this one. I was half-expecting some kind of hokey romance, especially when I first heard about it. So often the crowd in Japan just does what it’s told, and so much of the movies produced for the local market here are terrible, so to see something genuinely great is annoyingly rare. I’m trying to think of things I didn’t like about this film, actually, and coming up short. I guess the soundtrack is fairly uninspiring J-Rock… but I still liked the songs and want to try them at karaoke.

But anyway, this film is good and those who haven’t seen it yet should go out and see it. And if you have seen it… what did you think? Anything you’d like to add?

Film #245: The Lady of Musashino (1951)

musashinodirector: Kenji Mizoguchi
language: Japanese
length: 84 minutes
watched on: 25 November 2016

My friend and I were going through some DVDs that I had in my little collection – I think this one originated with my sister. It’s been a while since I’ve watched any classic/old Japanese cinema – I’ve found that I’ve tended to avoid going to the cinema to watch Japanese movies in Japan (the lack of subtitles doesn’t encourage me, basically). So it’s probably been since Seven Samurai, one of the first movies I reviewed on here – and ironically, it was on in my local cinema recently. But that’s by the by.

This movie is about postwar Japan, and it depicts a rich family living in a traditional style house, just outside Tokyo in Musashino… which is now just part of Tokyo and pretty much where I used to live. It’s now completely built up, never mind the Japanese people who still lazily characterize it as “countryside”.

By today’s standards it’s totally PG and doesn’t depict any kissing, but by the standards of the day I’m guessing it was a bit risqué – the main plot is basically a sex comedy, as the main characters’ allegiances shift from one person to the next, and the titular “Lady of Musashino” has an affair with her cousin. At the same time, her husband is preaching in his university classes that adultery should be morally allowed within society, and acts accordingly, sleeping with the other main female character, but has rather the opposite reaction when he finds out his wife has also reacted in kind.

I found it difficult to follow at times – the setup is almost lightning fast, as a dying mother and father in one scene are completely gone after a quick fade-out. At other times too, scenes and plot points were set up with one sentence, meaning that I had to keep paying attention. There are also too many characters at the beginning, pared down to five main players by the end, once I’d got the hang of who was who.

Anyway, after a while the distracted looks of despair started to grate on me. I’d like to say this is a trope of older Japanese drama, but it’s still alive and kicking in modern drama, which in this aspect at least take its cue from theatre – characters look away from each other a lot when they want to be melodramatic. The other thing was the overly formal language, even to lovers, which I found (in the modern context at least) was unrealistic.

Anyway, the film seems to dislike all its protagonists, and it seems to be an attack and lament on the state of post-war morals in Japan. Basically the main character has to kill herself honorably so that she can one-up her husband in the war of attrition (he’s trying to swindle her out of property). At some point I became annoyed by this too, and I didn’t agree with the message that the director was apparently trying to put across about the morals. I wasn’t around then, yes, but this situation also doesn’t ring true to life. There’s also the very final shot of the movie, in which we see that development of the city is encroaching on Musashino, obviously also lamenting that the poor morals of the inner city are corrupting the minds of the country folk.

I’d like to find out where that shot, and the shots of the lake featured in the movie a few times, were filmed. Were they Inokashira park, Jindaiji, or somewhere like that? In which case they’d be familiar to me, yet completely changed. It’s very interesting to me how that kind of stuff has changed into the modern day.

Anyway, the film wasn’t what we’d expected at all from an older Japanese movie, what with all the sex comedy and the melodramatic intrigue, but we got emotionally invested in it, and started cursing out certain characters near the end. So in that sense it was a fun romp and set out to do what it wanted. But I don’t agree with the underlying message.

Film #227: Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011)

jdosdirector: David Gelb
language: Japanese
length: 82 minutes
watched on: 14 September 2016

I watched this at a friend’s house – we’d bought snacks from the Japanese discount store Don Quijote, and were going to put it on as background noise, but ended up getting engrossed in it. It’s a documentary about Jiro, the sushi chef in Ginza who was awarded with three Michelin stars a few years back. Ultimately, it’s food porn, especially the middle section, which is voices talking over images of perfect little bitesize nigiri-zushi being prepared. And there we were with our junk food sitting in front of a TV.

About halfway through the movie, I came to the sudden epiphany that this movie is the reason I “know” anything about Michelin star restaurants in Japan, anything about professional sushi chefs, in fact even going so far as the Japanese work ethic (at least before I came to Japan; my thoughts are more nuanced in some ways now) – I think a lot of what Westerners know about Japanese food culture come directly from this movie. And people like to generalize.

Some things I’ve heard include that all Michelin star restaurants are tiny little stores that are impossible to book, and where the master of the shop doesn’t have a menu, he’ll just serve you food in the way he sees fit, in the perfect order. I’m sure some other Michelin star restaurants do this too… but I’m not convinced that’s the norm. Or that sushi chefs must take a ten year apprenticeship – I’m now realizing that this is probably only the case with Jiro, as it would be an untenable industry if this were the case generally. Or that sons always inherit the family business in Japan. Or that Japanese people always have an extreme live-to-work attitude like Jiro… I could go on.

Jiro’s restaurant is undoubtedly in a dingy location, downstairs, tucked in a corner of Ginza metro station. But Ginza is very upmarket. His son’s almost-identical restaurant is in Roppongi Hills or somewhere nicer.

Certainly his food looks absolutely delicious. Not only the fish sushi, but also stuff like the tamago-yaki, which does not look like omelette, more like a cake. Apparently this is the thing that takes the apprentices the longest to learn. Even the rice looks more delicious than usual, and a whole section of the film was devoted to waxing lyrical about the rice.

But that’s what a lot of the film was: waxing lyrical. Not a critical word is offered to Jiro. It’s only positive words that we hear. He’s the best, he’s such an amazing chef, and so on. Never mind that he doesn’t seem to be very friendly, or that his children’s upbringing was less than satisfactory, or that his work ethic is positively toxic – it sounds like they’ve been forced into taking on the family business, after their father was absent most of their childhood working early morning until after midnight. A big part of what is wrong with Japan, the overworking culture here – although I’ve largely managed to avoid overworking per se, I do work unsociable hours, weekends and late evenings – is going to tip me over some kind of edge eventually (if it hasn’t already), and I’m going to want out.

I got bored of this, and started to switch off towards the last third of the film, when I felt the point had been laboured enough. They did go to Tsukiji fish market, too, which was interesting, as I’ve never been there. It’s a nice-looking movie, and the food porn sections are really well-made in particular… just take it with a pinch of salt. And if you’ve got this far, be sure to leave a comment! What’s the best sushi you’ve ever had? Mine is probably in Kichijoji with the really long eel (part of a cheap lunch set).

Book #108: The Devotion of Suspect X (2005)

suspectxaka: Yougisha X no kenshin (容疑者Xの検診)
author: Higashino Keigo (東野 圭吾)
language: English translated from Japanese
length: 440 pages
finished on: 16 July 2016

I had a busy day that day in July, having watched two movies and then finishing this book on the train on the way back home. Higashino seems to be an entry-level Japanese mystery novel writer, and one of the few who’s been translated into English too. The Devotion of Suspect X is a title that comes up repeatedly when searching for Higashino’s books. And it’s pretty cheap to buy second-hand, so I gave it a shot.

The book is about a woman who kills her abusive ex-husband, which is depicted at the beginning of the novel. Then she and her enigmatic neighbour try to cover up the murder, all the while being investigated by some Japanese Taggart. The neighbour is an introverted mathematician with a crush on the woman. I’m sorry I’m still no good at remembering character names, by the way! There’s a twist at the end, of course, when we find out what exactly really happened. There’s a certain level of unreliable narrator.

The book’s cover proudly proclaims Higashino to be the “Japanese Stieg Larsson”, which I think is a bit presumptuous. The Millennium trilogy was a tour de force in a way that this book just isn’t, but more importantly, Larsson more directly tackles themes such as misogyny and violence – hell, the first book (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) is literally called “Men Who Hate Women” in Swedish. None of that here – in fact, the mathematician guy has some of the creepiest inner thoughts about the woman (possessiveness just being the start) that I’ve ever seen put to paper, although we’re not necessarily encouraged to agree with him. The murder victim himself had elements of being abusive towards his wife, but it wasn’t explored in as much detail. This book isn’t anything bad, but I think this comparison is too lazy.

However, the story is easy to read, gripping, and I can see why it’s so popular. But it marks a break from what I’ve come to know as the detective story formula, popularized originally by Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. In that, the identity of the killer is usually kept as a surprise, and Holmes or Poirot finally piece together the information right at the end. But in this one, the identity of the killer is known from the start, and that removed a lot of the tension. Instead, the nature of the mystery is a bit more esoteric. The detectives don’t know the identity of the killer, but I think the audience should be able to view the world through their eyes. In this we’re kind of omnipotent. This does allow us to see the thoughts of the “villains”, however, asking the alternative question, how will the two sides outsmart each other?

I did really enjoy the setting in Tokyo, as it was more immediately familiar to me than reading something set in America, or even the UK, which sometimes feels distant. Even so, the characters belong to a world I don’t, and it was a look at a side of Tokyo I wouldn’t normally see.

I think Higashino seems to be a very competent and eloquent author, and as I mentioned, the book was light and easy to read, although I think I was slightly disappointed with the story. Higashino was scuppered a bit by bad translation, however. Japanese is full of set phrases for greetings and so on, and the translators struggled to find appropriate ways to keep the English fresh-sounding. I kept wondering what the Japanese version would say – I don’t think I’d be able to read the whole thing, though. It’s a pretty difficult language to read, even after about five years. That aside, I think I will recommend this book overall, and perhaps seek out more Japanese mystery literature to see how it compares.

Film #189: The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)

kaguyahimeaka: かぐや姫の物語 (Kaguya-hime no monogatari)
director: Isao Takahata
language: Japanese
length: 137 minutes
watched on: 7 June 2016

This actually came out quite a while ago, and I realized only recently that I’d missed it. My standard thing to do with Ghibli movies is to wait until they come out on DVD anyway, and I watched the previous movie, The Wind Rises in a more timely fashion back in 2014, after it was released on DVD – actually only a few months before this one. Oops – this movie is actually better than that one.

The animation style isn’t what I usually associate with Ghibli, in that it’s not Miyazaki’s style, and uses paint and broad brush strokes to create a very different kind of scene. It’s most similar to My Neighbours the Yamadas, which I only now realize was Takahata’s last movie before this one. A fourteen year hiatus is pretty long, but it’s good to see Takahata back on the Ghibli scene (even if the two directors have now called an indefinite hiatus on Ghibli productions…).

The style is at times basic, and at times allows the director to create really lush landscapes, such as the one pictured above, but it always feels like a bit of a dream, especially as the background often wasn’t filled in fully. Another scene in the middle of the movie in which the main character gets angry was more obviously different from the ones around it – the colours were much more vivid, and the animation filled the whole screen. It was around that point that the animation style really came into its own.

The story is based on a Japanese fairy tale, and involves a magical girl discovered in the forest by an old woodcutter, who takes her into his home, instead of running away in fear and panic as I think I would. They’re also showered with gold and riches, and the woodcutter and his wife, who simply call her “Princess”, decide to make good on the name and take her to live in the capital to become a literal princess – she is initially a fish out of water and desperate to head back to her idyllic life in the countryside. The main part of the story is the princess having to take suitors, but setting them some impossible tasks as a prerequisite – they all pretend to succeed but actually fail. The ending is a bit strange and kind of unexpected.

One thing I was confused about in the story was the passage of time – the princess grows up very fast in the first act, literally getting bigger hour by hour and day by day. Later she shows a propensity to learn very fast and without effort. There are four seasons depicted over the course of the movie, strongly implying that the total time span of the movie was barely a year – but the other characters all grow beyond that, implying it’s longer than that and the seasons were merely symbolic.

But aside from that, the animation was beautiful, the story simple and at times heart-wrenching, and the characters were as realistic as they could be in a fantasy tale. It’s way better than The Wind Rises, and there’s basically nothing in here that could possibly offend. I wholeheartedly recommend it – whoever you are!

Film #176: Attack on Titan (2015)

attackontitanaka: Shingeki no kyojin (進撃の巨人)
Director: Shinji Higuchi
Language: Japanese
Length: 98 minutes
Watched on: 28 December 2015 (plane 2/4)

OK, I’d been warned about this movie before I watched it – live action adaptations of Japanese comics don’t have a good reputation, and this is supposed to be a pretty bad example.

The plot seems to be that the Titans, big brainless zombie-giants, are attacking humanity from all angles, and have boxed humanity in to a fenced off area (reminiscent of the central part of ”The Maze Runner” for me). The movie follows some young army recruits who are sent to destroy the virtually-indestructible beasts, as it turns out they can kill them by stabbing them in the neck or something. And for some reason they have to use Spidermanesque jet-packs. Who are these Titans, anyhow? Are they magic? Questions like that were left unanswered – presumably they’re explored in the comic, which the filmmakers assume we’ve all read.

I didn’t really get what was going on for most of the movie, and my disbelief was thoroughly unsuspended by the three teenage leads’ lack of acting skill, and the fact that their hair stays in a perfect emo swish for the entire movie despite being dirty and grubby elsewhere. When the battle scenes come later in the movie, what they were actually doing escaped me, and I didn’t get why they had to use jet-packs (surely they could have just blown the things up). There are a few twists and reveals, but they were clumsy and unexplained.

I also wasn’t expecting these giant sexless naked monsters, too, and the CGI was really awkward (the faces didn’t sit well on the bodies). The actors playing the Titans seemed to be enjoying themselves too much, again cutting through suspension of disbelief.

I guess if I want to actually find out more about this work I’ll have to read the manga. I think I can live without it. It’s a shame really – the comic and anime are supposed to be good, but this film really wasn’t.

Film #156: A Stitch of Life (2015)

stitchaka: 繕い裁つ人 (Tsukuroi tatsu hito)
Director: Yukiko Mishima
Language: Japanese
Length: 104 minutes
Watched on: 14 July 2015 (3 of 4 on my flight back to Japan)

My flight dragged on, and I sat back down to doggedly watch the third movie in my selection. Having loyally consumed some French cinema and having had mixed results, I thought a Japanese movie for balance might be a good idea. I’d never heard of this movie, but it was the only Japanese movie on offer, and it’s a good opportunity for me to watch movies with subtitles (I have been to the cinema without them before, but I have to psych myself up for it a lot and usually don’t bother).

Probably the reason that I hadn’t heard of it was the boring subject matter: it’s about a dressmaker and the importance of perfect dressmaking… or something. It’s kind of told from the eyes of an awkward mid-20s reporter, whose acting is so wooden I forgot that I wasn’t watching a tree. For some reason he’s obsessed with finding out the secret to the perefct dressmaking technique, that the woman swore on her mother’s deathbed never to reveal – or something. The details escape me, frankly, as the movie only just managed to hold my attention.

What I remember of the movie is a strong adherence to protocol – bowing and greeting guests with the correct keigo at all times. It’s not really true to life here in my experience, although I know that’s not the point. Seeing that stuff committed to film bores me.

It’s sad that I come away from this movie and am tempted to tar all Japanese movies with the same brush – the movie just reminds me of the scant snippets of bad drama that I’ve occasionally accidentally caught on TV here. I was surprised to read later that it’s based on a manga (although I don’t know why, given the breadth of that genre here), presumably meaning that the unnatural stiltedness of all the characters is in-built from the beginning.

Basically, if you do happen to come across it, I don’t think it’s worth it. By the way, that director has a bit of an unfortunate name!

Film #145: Nobody Knows (2004)

nobodyknowsaka: 誰も知らない (Dare mo shiranai)
Director: Koreeda Hirokazu
Language: Japanese
Length: 140 minutes
Watched on: March 28 2015

Along with the previous Japanese movie I watched, I picked this up in the UK with my Christmas money. The director, Koreeda, seems to be one of the more well-known Japanese directors abroad, and this is often considered his tour de force. I knew a few scant facts about the movie before I watched it: it’s based on a true story of parental abandonment in Tokyo, and the movie predominantly features child actors.

In the movie, the central family moves into a new apartment at the beginning, but it’s obvious that they’re sneaking around and trying to hide something – presumably that they’re trying to squeeze four children and their mother into a one room apartment, the setting of which gives the film a very claustrophobic atmosphere. Only the oldest child, 12 years old, is allowed to leave the apartment and run errands. Then the mother takes off with a new boyfriend, and only returns once before never being seen again. The film then depicts the slow decline into squalor of the other children.

Despite being grisly at times and ultimately heartbreaking, the film seems optimistic about its protagonists’ fates – most of them, anyway. Seasons are used effectively throughout, as the film shows the summer heating up to unbearable levels. It is preoccupied with the oldest child, socially isolated while he is unable to attend school, and he seems to be the main character of the work, if any.

Much has been said of Koreeda’s method of directing the children. He essentially left them to their own devices and captured the best of their reactions. It seems implied that no plot details were planned out in advance. I thought this was the most effective part of the whole story: I remember looking at the younger, boisterous boy in particular and thinking that he was acting very similar to the kids I used to teach in my last job.

In any case, because I had the passing familiarity with the real case – which, incidentally, is a lot more gruesome than the movie’s story as it involves an element of sexual abuse and features an infant corpse – I was expecting the children to be taken into custody at some point. And actually, that didn’t happen. The landlord discovers them living in squalor when she comes around to collect rent, but she seems to be from Ebisu or Shirogane, with a tiny toy dog in her handbag – the Japanese equivalent of a bimbo. She appears briefly in one scene, then stumbles away never to be heard from again. That kind of thing is what makes me think the whole thing is ultimately kinder on the children than real life was.

Overall, it’s a very affecting movie, and I was left thinking about it for days afterward. Considering its subject matter, it’s not for the faint of heart, but I’d certainly recommend it.