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!

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).

TV: World’s Busiest Train Station (2013)

World'sBusiest_TrainStation_2Language: English and dubbed-over Japanese
Length: 45 minutes
Watched on: 28 April 2014

My friend wrote about this Channel 5 documentary recently (you can find his more detailed account of the program here). Basically Japan has all of the busiest railway stations in the world, and Shinjuku tops the list.

The documentary basically follows a day in the life of Shinjuku station, starting with the night-time cleaning, then the employees getting up out of special capsule hotels within the station complex at 4am in order to get the station operational in time for the first trains. It follows one employee around, a guy called Tomoaki, whose name the narrator consistently gets wrong (he keeps saying Tomoki or Tomaki) – I should have thought they could have at least done enough basic research to get him to say it properly. His pronunciation of Shinjuku also sounds strange, but to be fair, is better than the attempts made by many foreigners who actually live here.

There were certain details that I would have done differently – for example, it’s not adequately explained that part of the reason that Shinjuku is the busiest station is because it’s the terminus of two major private commuter lines as well as JR. It does at least mention the subway, although it falsely paints Shinjuku as a “hub” of the metro lines, which I wouldn’t say is quite true. It also seems to imply that Shinjuku’s employees work inhumane 20-hour days and never go home. I’m sure dramatization factored in at some point, since they wanted to keep the same guy to follow round the station from morning to night…

There were a few things I didn’t know already, such as the morning ritual of reciting the company motto, or the gas attack that happened in the 90s, which I’d only vaguely heard about before. There was also a segment about the earthquake of three years back, which was mildly interesting given that I wasn’t here at the time.

An interesting way to waste 45 minutes.

Film #92: The Wolverine (2013)

The Wolverinedirector: James Mangold
language: English and some Japanese
length: 126 minutes
watched on: 25 September 2013
aka: “Wolverine Samurai” in Japan

A perfectly passable action movie about Wolverine (although I thought we already had one of those). I went there with a friend last month, but we didn’t realise that the film would be set in Japan until we got in there. Unfortunately for the film, this in effect meant that we laughed at the inconsistencies, and various things that didn’t match with our version of reality. Spoiler alert: it wasn’t good enough for these things to be minor.

Basically the film played like a tourist’s guidebook to Japan, and not necessarily a particularly favorable one. Like tourist versions of Paris that include the Eiffel Tower in every shot, Tokyo Tower was included in every shot as the only internationally recognized Tokyo landmark (which makes me wonder why they haven’t heard of the Skytree or the Rainbow Bridge). A lot of the scenes were actually shot in Sydney – not so obvious at first, but some scenes looked inexplicably off in the details. One major early scene was shot in a mixture of the Zojoji temple near Tokyo Tower and a similar landmark in Sydney.

Geography was thus rather a mess: I counted the characters running from there to a briefly-glimpsed on-location shot in Takadanobaba (at least 7 kilometres) to Ueno station (another 6-7 km) in barely 2 minutes. It’s like, movies are allowed to cut out extraneous time, but it was too quick. Later in the movie they drive back into Tokyo over a mountain and get a very clear view of the city with Tokyo Tower taking prominence over any other landmarks – anyone who’s seen the city can tell you it’s much more spread out than that, and if you drive over the mountains to enter the city, the skyline, mostly of Shinjuku, is barely a blip on the horizon, if you can even see it through the haze, and Tokyo Tower is surrounded by other skyscrapers, which is what necessitated building the Skytree in the first place.

Many of the unrealistic parts came in the form of the way the Japanese characters talk in the movie: many of them are obsessed with the idea of honour and their fluency in English is slightly too perfect to be realistic. The family structure, albeit one of a high ranking criminal family, didn’t seem familiar, and their house was a huge antiquated building of the kind that precious few live in in Tokyo. Yeah they’re meant to be rich, and Wolverine needs space to have a fight scene, but it’s still jarring.

The Shinkansen scene was also a point of contention for me: Wolverine manages to get on the train without a ticket, or without knowing where it’s going, and calls it the Bullet Train to reinforce the tourist guide book impression. Then he manages to get onto the roof of the train to fight some yakuza (somehow the girl doesn’t believe him when he says they’re yakuza – like “how did you know they were yakuza?” Well duh.), somehow not falling off in the process, but the weirdest thing here is that the entire train ride is through a claustrophobic cityscape, with buildings at close quarters on either side, and the train doesn’t go through any tunnels or anything. Moments later they’re getting off at Osaka without any sense that they had gone between two cities.

So I should probably leave aside the Japan parts because I could rant all day about that without getting anywhere. In terms of the film’s X-Men roots, it refers back to the death of Wolverine’s girlfriend a lot – she appears in his dreams to chastise him a lot. It took me a while to figure out where in the saga it fits, because his earlier film was a prequel, but this follows on from the 3rd movie. He’s one of only about three mutants in the movie, though. One Japanese girl can apparently tell when or how people will die, and there’s an evil girl called Viper or something who acts like a snake and spits poison in people’s eyes. I kinda felt it didn’t take enough opportunities to make use of the mutant gimmick. It’d be nice to see how mutants are treated in Japan, for instance. Instead, Wolverine is treated fairly normally, except by his enemies who try and sap his power.

One of the problems that I think a film about Wolverine will always face is that Wolverine is essentially immortal and very difficult to harm due to an unbreakable skeleton and superhuman healing power. The power-sapping in this film was an attempt to remedy that, so that he’s temporarily mortal – but somehow you knew all along that he would bounce back and regain his strength. Predictable.

I enjoyed it overall, as an action movie whose premise of “Wolverine beats people up” was fulfilled, but the inconsistencies distracted me, the plot was meaningless and confusing, and the characters didn’t develop at all during the course of the movie, at least as I can see. Wolverine remains a stoic and disinterested hunk of muscle. Of course, that was the other saving grace of the film: Hugh Jackman spends most of it with his top off.

Film #74: Wolf Children (2012)

07__aka: おおかみこどもの雨と雪 (Ōkami kodomo no Ame to Yuki)
directed by: Hosoda Mamoru (細田守)
length: 117 minutes
language: Japanese
watched on: 23 December 2012

This film was something I watched on a whim on the plane back to the UK. It seems that planes are often the only time when I have access to recent Japanese films with English subtitles, so I took advantage of that. This film was by the same group as “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time”, a film I watched a couple of years ago, which was a splinter from Studio Ghibli, and the artistic style is certainly informed by that of Miyazaki.

In the story, the main character, the mother, falls in love with a werewolf, who is later killed. The two children, named Ame and Yuki, ie. Rain and Snow after the weather during which they were born, are also half-wolf. The mother decides to move to the country after she finds it unbearable to hide their wolf status from the general public, and they end up in a remote old-style Japanese farmhouse. Then the children grow up.

Although nominally the film is about the wolf children, it very much focuses on the mother. We see how the children’s characters diverge over the course of the movie, but we are made to care about the mother more than them, through the way she reacts to all the changes going on around her, and we see her strengthening her own character as time goes by.

The scenery is fantastic, and it makes me almost want to go and live in the country, but for the fact that I’d have no job and wouldn’t be able to afford it. The children’s characters are very simplistic; the girl is the precocious, excitable one, and the boy is the quiet, timid one, and this sort of changes throughout the movie – because the girl is more influenced by her peers and enjoys social interaction, she becomes beaten down by peer pressure, while the boy becomes more independent and flighty (can you guess which one will stay a wolf and which will stay a human?). To some extent they reminded me of my own siblings (my sister and I are somewhat like the girl while the boy is very much like my brother), and it was that kind of personal connection that made me like the movie.

I don’t know when or if it’s going to come out in the west, but if you’re looking for an alternative to Studio Ghibli, this film is a good example of something you could try.

Film #66: Ocean Waves (1993)

aka: 海がきこえる (Umi ga kikoeru), I Can Hear the Sea
directed by: Tomomi Mochizuki
length: 72 minutes
language: Japanese
watched on: 18 September 2012

When I reviewed “Whispers of the Heart”, another Studio Ghibli title, back in January 2011, I remarked at the time that the film, however wonderful it was and however beautifully it portrayed its setting, lost a lot of magic simply by being set in the real world rather than in a fantasy world. The same is very much true of this film, although to be honest, it wasn’t that inspiring a story at all. It was in fact a TV movie, never released in cinemas, and completed on a smaller budget (that overran) compared to other Ghibli titles. In English, confusingly, it has two titles, although I will be using “Ocean Waves” here just because I think that’s the one they use in the UK.

The film does happen to have the rare distinction among Ghibli films of having a male protagonist, which doesn’t happen very often. It’s set somewhere rural, perhaps Shikoku island, and it follows the story of a boy who falls in love with a girl while they’re on holiday in Hawaii; later they travel to Tokyo together because she wants to go back and see her father, but it doesn’t work out for some reason. To be honest, I’ve forgotten, since the film and plot really weren’t that interesting.

I guess the main thing that interested me about this film was the opening shot. It’s in a train station, and it took me only a few seconds to realise that it was a realistic and eerily familiar depiction of the JR Kichijoji station, which is very near my apartment, and which I’ve used quite a lot. My apartment’s actually closer to the next line to the north, but I can cycle a lot. I was even in Kichijoji today, and yesterday, and tomorrow I’ll be cycling past it to get to work in Mitaka (a city which hosts the Ghibli museum, right enough). So it’s very strange for me to notice things like that, which are now very recognisable for me. Similarly, there were a few depictions of the rest of Tokyo later on which looked reminiscent, although generally it’s more of a look into a past version of Tokyo, because almost 20 years have passed since the film was made.

So anyway, the film wasn’t that great. It’s not without merit (as with all Ghibli films, it has beautiful set pieces and nice music), but it’s not typical Ghibli output, perhaps because it wasn’t by Miyazaki.

Film #25: Arrietty (2010)

aka: 借りぐらしのアリエッティ (Kari-gurashi no Arietti)
director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
language: Japanese
length: 94 minutes
watched on: 13 Aug

Studio Ghibli’s latest is an adaptation of the children’s story The Borrowers, which I think I read as a child, but I have no recollection of its story or really anything specific about it other than the fact that it’s about a family of tiny Lilliputians who hide out under the floorboards. I can no longer remember the specifics, but the main character Arrietty is accidentally spotted by a boy living in their house, who she ends up making friends with.

It’s pretty much standard Ghibli fare. It’s got all the basic archetypes: strong, independent female lead, male love interest, evil witch-like character. There’s very little I can really criticise it on other than this fact; it’s just not that original in terms of the other stories that Ghibli has produced. I think this was Yonebayashi’s first bash at being a director, so it’s quite possible that he was given something relatively typical of the kinds of films Ghibli produces, in order to ease him into the work or something.

Basically, I enjoyed it, but I much prefer some of Ghibli’s earlier work. But whenever I see the title, I start mentally singing the French (well, apparently it’s Quebecois, but it’s certainly in French) song Alouette, gentil alouette, perhaps with the heroine’s name substituted for the word ‘alouette’ (skylark, I believe). For that alone I find it annoying. It was a good film, however; I shouldn’t let my weird malapropisms put me off so.

Anyway, it’s come to my attention that I’m getting hits because people are doing a google search for “tintin” and coming across the very first post on this blog about the 1960s live action film (but with a rant thrown in about my negative anticipation of the new film). I’ve just watched the film today… so I should probably have a blog post up about it in, oh, two months or so. It should be a good impetus to get through my backlog, really.

Book #2: A Wild Sheep Chase (1982)

aka: 羊をめぐる冒険 (Hitsuji wo meguru bōken)
language: Japanese translated to English
author: Haruki Murakami
length: 300 pages, nearabout
finished on: 13/1/11

book cover

Again, I’m sort of going through a trying-to-read-stuff-from-Japan phase, so I picked this book up the other week, since I’d been recommended Murakami as a Good Author by someone. And I think that’s not a bad label to put on him, overall. The book was a fun read, and when I was in the right mood for it it became a real page-turner.

It’s set in Tokyo and Hokkaido (which sounds cold!), talks about the state of postwar Japan a bit, somewhat similar to Drunken Angel, and most importantly, is often about loneliness and boredom, two themes that I’m quite receptive to in current times. So I liked it for those reasons.

I didn’t like, however, the way it got a bit incomprehensible towards the end, where weird shit starts happening. People in the world of this story seem to have magical powers for some reason, and the titular sheep, which doesn’t show up in the end (if you hadn’t seen the spoiler warning at the top of the page already, sucks to be you doesn’t it…?), seems to be more of a metaphor. To me that sounds contrived. To put it another way, I was a bit dissatisfied with the ending… he’s been told to do whatever by these mysterious agents of “the Boss”, but it seems like they’re trying to tell him something about himself rather than trying him to get them to do something for them, because he doesn’t manage it in the end. Oh I don’t know. I was more just feeling sorry for myself by that point because I was lonely like he was.

There’s also a strange aversion to names in the book, which is lampshaded at a couple of points, so I imagine it’s something idiosyncratic to the book rather than Murakami, but again I’m not sure. I suppose he’s trying to make some kind of point, but I’m not really in the mood to try and decipher all that, frankly. I just found it funny that the only character that got a name was the cat – very vividly described, might I add, as old and decrepit in a fine example of the author’s prowess. So yes, I liked it, and I liked the author’s style, but I’m aware that there were a couple of extra levels to the book that I don’t want to bother trying to understand, and I’m (therefore?) not sure I liked it when it got surreal.

Film: Drunken Angel (1948)

aka: 酔いどれ天使 (Yoidore tenshi)
language: Japanese
director: Akira Kurosawa
length: 94 minutes

film still

I’m working myself up to Seven Samurai at the moment (it’s three hours long!) – I’m going through somewhat of a Japanese phase at the moment given that I’m trying to apply for JET and all that, and I want to know as much as I can about Japanese films and culture so that I can impress the interviewers… well, that, and I put down Kurosawa as one of my influences for liking Japan and wanting to go there to teach English, so I’d better reacquaint myself with his œuvre… My book on the go is by Haruki Murakami, incidentally, but I’ll post about that when I’m finished it. I also started a Japanese course today, for pretty much the same goal.

Anyway, I have seen Seven Samurai before, but not this, which is an earlier feature of Kurosawa’s. According to the blurb on the back of the DVD, it was his 8th feature and the first that was commercially successful. Fair enough. I’m always quite interested when I read that kind of phraseology what came before the first successful film (if I’m allowed to rant about Tintin again briefly, Hergé’s first two albums were so unsuccessful that they’ve only been published in the UK recently as collectors’ items… I find that quite funny. And Murakami apparently has two books that have only been published in English in Japan itself – but again, I’ll come back to him in a later post. It’s comments like this that make me wonder how bad they could have been). It’s also Kurosawa’s first collaboration with the actor Toshiro Mifune, who went on to be, if I remember correctly, the comic relief character in Seven Samurai. But I digress…

This film is a post-war flick about the slums of Tokyo, disease, alcoholism and gangsters. Fun. Fortunately, it also delves heartily into the liquorice jar that is black comedy… well, either that, or I find it unnaturally easy to laugh at people in horrible situations. Sometimes you just can’t quite tell, you know? That said, one of the later scenes involves two men, one terminally ill, having to fight and getting covered in white paint, suddenly slipping around unable to get a foothold on anything, so maybe I’m not so off in that judgement.

Kurosawa really lays on the social commentary thick; inamongst the bits like the above that are obviously comedic, there were bits that you really couldn’t find funny unless you’re some sort of psychopath. Now, this isn’t bad, of course, and I felt that 90% of the time in this film, it worked, but sometimes I find that blatant style a bit crass.

As with many other Japanese films that I’ve seen – many of them, indeed, by Kurosawa – the rest of the film was basically filled with Japanese men barking at each other. It’s like they can’t control their emotions or something…. You know, I’m sure they’re not like that, but you can hardly blame me for building that impression of them when that’s the only way they’re ever portrayed. But perhaps it’s as much to do with the era as anything else.

The characters are quite a delight, too; while a lot of the extra characters are a bit one-dimensional, the two main characters – the doctor and his gangster patient – are both fundamentally flawed, mainly with alcoholism. The doctor – the drunken angel of the title – can’t leave drink alone, which leads to several comic moments, but also to some of the film’s central conflicts, since at the same time he’s trying to tell the gangster not to drink. Watching Mifune’s character descend into madness as his TB develops and the world around him, until now unquestioningly under his thumb, starts to reject him out of hand is rather enthralling. And it also makes for good viewing when the two blow up at each other whenever they come into contact because neither of them can accept the other’s flaws and the patient can’t accept that he’s got this disease.

All in all, it was a good film, but I know I’ve seen better from Kurosawa. And now I’m going to have to find out what came before this and discover what made it the first successful film…