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Tokyo Sonata

Genre: Personal, Familial and Social Crises in Contemporary Japan

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When a Tokyo salaryman loses his job, his personal identity and family stability are suddenly forced to the point of implosion. Hiding his shameful predicament from his family, he leaves the house daily as if going to the office, only to spend his hours in food lines and the unemployment agency. Despite his every effort to keep things intact, his family's cohesion slowly disintegrates as forces internal and external come to a head. This is the latest film by director Kiyoshi Kurosawa and marks an intentional break from his previous work in psycho-horror.



Takeshis'

Genre: Introspective Deconstruction

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In his latest film, director/actor Kitano "Beat" Takeshi literally deconstructs himself in a simultaneously sad and bizarre spiral of reality, dream and dark possibility. Due to an almost chaotic dissonance, this film will certainly not appeal to everyone, but for those who are familiar with Kitano's history and willing to absorb his introspective imagination, this comes across quite powerfully.



Blood and Bones
[Chi to Hone]

Genre: Proto-Yakuza Korean Immigrant Drama

review in one breath

This amazingly gritty saga of the formidable rise and demise of Kin Shunpei, a Korean immigrant to Osaka, Japan in the 1920's depicts not only the struggles and victories of the early Korean immigrant communities within Japan but also the almost unwitting emergence of a highly entrenched (Korean-immigrant-based) Yakuza presence which (it is said) exists to this day. Chi to Hone offers the Japanese version of a far more brutal and far less idealized Godfather. This is undoubtedly one to see.



Woman in the Dunes
[Suna na Onna]

Genre: Existential Drama

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Here is a visually fascinating tale providing commentary on the meaning and meaninglessness of the human condition. The imagery is realistic and tactile throughout, and leads to a sense of amazement at the bizarre trap our main character suddenly finds himself in. This trap becomes a metaphor for the often meaningless social rituals contemporary souls find themselves locked into.



Twilight Samurai
[Tasogare Seibei]

Genre: Historical Samurai Drama

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Japanese actor Sanada Hiroyuki is becoming widely recognized as Japan's most prominent contemporary action hero. Though given a moderately visible role as Uijo in the lamentably caucasian-centric Last Samurai (2003) (he's the angry samurai who gives Tom Cruise a well-deserved thrashing), Sanada has appeared in numerous leading roles throughout a great number of popular Japanese films. Readers of my reviews will be most familiar with his role as Ryuichi in Ringu (and thereby also Rasen and Ringu 2).



Stereo Future

Genre: Utopian Love Story

review in one breath

First off, this is a love story. And if you're familiar with the type of films I prefer to review, you'll have noticed that the only love stories dealt with here involve unfortunate demises, tragic karmic fates, or general spousal "conflict" leading to the psychotic haunting of one by the other. Thus my reviewing Stereo Future here might suggest to some of you the possible presence of formidable malice or weapons of mass destruction. But, I would like you all to know, I have a much softer side which is able to enjoy cuddling on the sofa basking in the warm glow of a romance..... heh.



Shizuka na Seikatsu
[The Quiet Life]

Genre: Autobiographical Family Drama and Coming of Age

review in one breath

This is not the type of movie I generally include among my reviews. (Just look at the "zero strangeness" score below!) But I've decided to list it here due to what might be worthy characteristics, namely the level of accomplishment by the writer and the fact that this is based on his own family's experience. Here I have only provided a brief overview of the film and some relevant information for those who have seen the film or wish to learn morn about it.



Sabu

Genre: Loyalty Drama [Edo Era: 1603-1867 AD]

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Sabu is directed by Miike Takashi and is based on the classic novel by Yamamoto Shugoro. It provides an impressive exploration of the depths and complexities of friendship and loyalty between two childhood friends who mature into harsher realities. Director Miike Takashi is undoubtedly notorious for a certain genre of film, but his direction of the much more traditional Sabu is flawless. The film was intended as a commemorative broadcast for the 40th anniversary of Nagoya Television. The project pulled in significant talent for both the production and cast, and the final result is nothing short of a compelling film which in no way resembles a made-for-television production.



Red Shadow
[Akakage]

Genre: Ninja Drama (Comedic)

review in one breath

Here is a light-hearted ninja adventure filled with techno music, strobe lights and acrobatics. The title Akakage refers to the name of the lead character who, along with his childhood companions Aokage and Asuka, fight myriad evil forces threatening Japan. Our dynamic ninja trio consists of two often goofy guys and one always sexy gal. The name Akakage means Red Shadow and Aokage means "Blue Shadow". Asuka, the name of the ninjess means, well, nothing. From a very early age, all three have been strictly trained in the Kage (Shadow) School of Ninja-ry under the auspices of the Master Ninja Shirokage ("White Shadow"). Now as young adults, both their friendship and skills are strong but (both) will soon be tested.



Angel Guts: Red Porno
[Tenshi no Harawata: Akai Inga]

Genre: Libidinous Morality Tale

review in one breath

The Angel Guts series consists of five films based on the 1970's Japanese "horror" manga by Ishii Takashi. After an initial failure to successfully break into cinema, Ishii poured his creative energy into a manga series entitled Tenshi no Harawata (Angel Guts). Ishii's horrific manga was much more popular than his initial cinematic endeavor, and yet came full circle when its popularity resulted in the production of five films, the fifth of which Ishii himself directed. Most of the five films in the Angel Guts series is directed by a different director and each thematically involves the rape of a young woman named Nami.



Angel Guts: Red Classroom
[Tenshi no Harawata: Akai Kyoushitsu]

Genre: Morality Tale Exploring Irrevocable Demise and Depravity

review in one breath

The Angel Guts series consists of five films based on the 1970's Japanese "horror" manga by Ishii Takashi. After an initial failure to successfully break into cinema, Ishii poured his creative energy into a manga series entitled Tenshi no Harawata (Angel Guts). Ishii's horrific manga was much more popular than his initial cinematic endeavor, and yet came full circle when its popularity resulted in the production of five films, the fifth of which Ishii himself directed. Most of the five films in the Angel Guts series is directed by a different director and each thematically involves the rape of a young woman named Nami.



The Pornographers
[Jinruigaku nyumon / Introduction to Anthropology]

Genre: Existential Quest for Fulfillment

review in one breath

The Japanese title of this film is simply "Introduction to Anthropology". Only in the West was the prefix "The Pornographers" (or "The Amorists") added. The concise Japanese title is a much more accurate reflection of the content and message of this movie by Shohei Imamura. Although the story's three main characters are in the business of producing and selling underground pornography, their occupation merely sets the backdrop for an exploration of the larger human themes of love, money and fulfillment in life. This was actually a rather complex story which probably needs to be seen more than once to adequately unpack.



Onmyoji 2

Genre: Quasi-historical Supernatural Drama

review in one breath

Abe no Seimei, Japan's greatest Yin Yang Master is back! And this time he must battle the evil reincarnation of one of Shinto's most primordial deities!



9 Souls
[Nine Souls]

Genre: Escaped Convict Coming Home Road Trip

review in one breath

In 2002 Sai Yoichi directed the well-received Keimusha no Naka ("Doing Time") focusing on the hopes and hopelessness of five prisoners all sharing the same cell. The backdrop of Sai's exploration is the thoroughly structured yet near-meaningless daily regimen imposed upon prisoners as a form of discipline and rehabilitation. Through this grueling yet mundane daily routine, each prisoner either gradually comes to terms with himself or mentally/physically collapses under the strain. Keimusha no Naka is drawn in thoroughly traditional strokes, focusing on a classic humanitarianism and casting the highly popular talent of Yamazaki Tsutomu in the lead role.



Daibyonin
[The Last Dance]

Genre: Death and Dying (in Dignity) Drama

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Director Itami Juzo is well known for tackling rather serious social ills, wrapping them in a narrative populated with interesting characters, and then presenting it back to audiences with hint of humor mixed in. Since his films skillfully deal with mainstream, real-life situations in a slightly comedic fashion, which simultaneously highlights the problem while also defusing it, Japanese audiences find within them not only entertainment, but also a means to better understand and deal with the social issues observed. His films became widely popular and many have been available in subtitled version throughout the West for many years.



Charisma
[Karisuma]

Genre: Psychological Action

review in one breath

Heaven and Earth are not humane.
They regard all things as straw toys.
Therefore the wise man is not humane.
He regards all people as straw toys.

(~ Tao Te Ching)

Goro Yabuike (Koji Yakusho) is a Tokyo precinct detective who is called in for the difficult cases. His entire waking life consists of crazed lunatics and senselelss murders. Somehow he has found himself in the position where he is the soul who stands between the lunacy and civilized society, sometimes as translator, sometimes as the sole person who will decide a tragic situation's outcome. We are introduced to the sleep-deprived Yabuike as he is called to intervene in a hostage situation whose demands are simply "To restore the rules of the world". Reading this demand, he gives up any hope of resolution and as he leaves the presence of the gunman, the entire hostage situation goes to hell. His recurring preoccupation with this scene underscores his growing disdain for the chaotic social order in which he is steeped.



Bullet Ballet

Genre: Nihilistic Plunge Into Existential Self-Discovery

review in one breath

Director Tsukamoto Shinya's more well-known film, Tetsuo (1988) explored through vivd imagery an individual's violent metamorphosis, both physically and psychologically, due to the overwhelming influence of dehumanized modernity. So drastic was this influence in Tsukamoto's vision that the main character himself gradually becomes machine through an agonizing process. In many ways Tsukamoto's later Bullet Ballet (1998) explores this same theme, though here the film's main character Goda (played by Tsukamoto himself) finds himself gradually drowning in a dehumanized underbelly of society which deals in extreme violence and nihilism.



Bright Future
[Akarui Mirai]

Genre: Contemporary Urban/Existential Drama

review in one breath

A characteristic exploration within the films of director Kurosawa Kiyoshi has to do with the fluidity of "individuality" within the ever-changing environment of his characters' worlds. In Cure (1997) the main character, forced to confront and consider the absolute amoral attitude of the antagonist, undergoes a radical transformation regarding his own moral conscience and action. In Charisma (1999), the seemingly nihilistic main character flees the chaotic moral morass of urbanized civilization into a more "natural" environment, where, after observing the lessons of an even starker reality, returns to the city morally emboldened. In Kourei (2000), through misfortunate happenstance, the naive and humble lives of the two main characters are plunged, first into moral ambiguiuty, and finally into the collapse of character.



Ageman
[Tales of a Golden Geisha]

Genre: Love and Power Politics (Slightly Comedic)

review in one breath

In Japan (and undoubtedly in other Asian societies) there are the well established notions of sageman and ageman. The term sageman derives from the Japanese verb sageru (???), which means "to lower", and refers to a person who has the undesireable characteristic of absorbing others' good luck. Ageman on the other hand refers to someone who has the tendency to bring good luck to others. (Ageman comes from the verb ageru (???), which means "to raise").



Afterlife
[Wonderful Life / Wandafuru raifu]

Genre: Supernatural Drama

review in one breath

This film, written and directed by Hirokazu Koreeda, gets an "A" (in my book) for conceptual creativity. Afterlife (also known as Wandafuru raifu or "Wonderful Life") truly challenges its audience (as well as its characters) to ponder deeply the meaning of life and death. The story is set in what one might call "limbo", although here this consists of an entire world which looks, feels and is populated exactly as the real world. The characters, however, are all deceased and we accompany them through their first seven days of this "limbo" during which they must decide on only one memory from their life with which they will spend the rest of eternity. While the many characters wrestle with isolating a single significant memory from among many, or from among none, we in the audience will inevitably begin thinking along these same lines, searching for criteria whereby some past moments are deemed more valuable than others. Should a "fun" moment be prioritized above a "serene" moment? Or how about the moment of sexual ecstacy or the moment of secure love?



Ai no corrida

In the Realm of the Senses

Genre: Death Spiral of Obsessive Love

review in one breath

This movie by Oshima Nagisa contains scenes that go well beyond the allowances of the Japanese film industry censors and was thus produced in France. This could easily be (and has been) considered a form of pornography, but is seldom declared such due to perhaps the historical background of the story and Oshima's determination to have this produced as an artistic revolt against Japan's unwillingness to allow anything of this sort (at a time when Western film was producing pornography). That said, those watching this movie are in for some very graphic sex scenes which leave little or nothing to the imagination.



Drunken Angel [Yoidore Tenshi]

Genre: Quasi-historical Yakuza Drama [Post-war Japan: 1948]

review in one breath

Quote: "Will power can cure all human ailments."

Here is the first time Toshiro Mifune appears in a movie by Akira Kurosawa!

This very early post-war film is set in a squalor, yakuza-ridden slum of 1948 Tokyo. In the heart of this neighborhood is a large, bubbling cess pool into which residents have heaped garbage and waste. This cess pool, as our main character, Dr Sanada, warns, is brimming with typhus. The pool is intended by Director Akira Kurosawa as a symbol for the moral decay and corruption permeating post-war Tokyo. In this new world, traditional social values and honor have not survived the war. In their stead have emerged selfish opportunism, greed, and the yakuza, flamboyantly embodied in Matsunaga (Mifune), the suave yet unruly young and upcoming mob leader. While his boss Okada has sat in prison for four years due to a brutal knifing, Matsunaga has risen in power and control. Now, however, with Okada's release from prison, Matsunaga finds himself in a desperate and violent power struggle. And yet Matsunaga's ultimate opponent is not Okada, but the tuberculosis which has gradually eaten away at him through years of unrestrained living.



Stray Dog
[Nora Inu]

Genre: Post War Crime Thriller

review in one breath

When homicide detective Murakami's pistol is stolen, a rash of murderous crimes begins. Plagued with the knowledge that his own weapon is causing the harm, Murakami is driven to extreme lengths to track down the killer and recover his gun. But the closer Murakami gets to the killer, the more he realizes how much they have in common. This is a great film filled with early Kurosawa social commentary on the condition of postwar Japan.



The Hidden Blade
[Kakushi-ken: oni no tsume]

Genre: Existential Samurai Drama

review in one breath

Faced with declining social status in a quickly changing world, the samurai Katagiri gradually realizes that his personal purpose and meaning are slipping away. Although he tries to create for himself a situation of happiness, social expectations regarding the samurai class force him to abandon even that. Then, when Katagiri's contemplations are at their deepest, his superiors call on him to assassinate a political rebel, his closest friend.



Moon Child

Genre: Friendship Drama Involving Guns and Vampires

review in one breath

The year is 2014 and a young orphan in a squalid urban wasteland befriends a vampire! As the years go by, the young boy grows into a formidable ruffian capable of causing problems for the local yakuza thugs. Their violent lifestyle, however, puts their friendship to the test when ultimate decisions will need to be made. Starring pop rock stars Gackt and Hyde, this intentionally cute and weepy tale undoubtedly has mass appeal to high school girls throughout Japan.



Totsunyu seyo! Asama sanso jiken
[The Choice of Hercules]

Genre: Fact-based Police Drama

review in one breath

When student revolutionaries of the Red Army held a woman hostage in the remote and snowy mountains of Karuizawa, Nagano, the National Tokyo Police were called in to oversee the incident despite the objection of the local Nagano Police force. This film recounts the true events surrounding the 1972 Asama Sanso Incident and is based on the published memoirs of Sassa Atsuyuki, the Tokyo Police commander in charge of the hostage's rescue.



Wild Life

Genre: Good Tough Guy Meets Bad Tough Guys

review in one breath

Ex-boxer Sakai now lives a normal life fixing pachinko machines under the friendly eye of his aging boss Tsumura. When their long lost mutual friend Mizuguchi suddenly shows up, their placid routine is soon overrun with yakuza gangs and corrupt police officials, all of whom become increasingly hostile to Sakai and Tsumura. Believing Mizuguchi passed along "the package" to Sakai, they abduct the elderly Tsumura and attempt to blackmail and physically harass Sakai. Things look pretty bleak indeed until Sakai begins re-evaluating his pachinko-mending ways.



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