Hausu/ハウス

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Hausu, 1977

Nobuhiko Obayashi might not be one of the most readily recognised names outside of Japan; his films have rarely enjoyed international fame past festival screenings, but he’s a man who early on in his career helped to define a new movement in experimental film making, subsequently leading him to becoming one of the country’s most successful commercial directors.

It was during the fifties and sixties that the twenty-something student began making short 8mm and 16mm films, whereby he earned local recognition for his candid portrayals of everyday Japanese life: pseudo-documentaries such as Onomichi (1961) and Confession (1968), for example, proved to be nice tributes to the quiet Hiroshima town he grew up in and predominantly made all of his shorts, but much of the decade was spent in finding new ways to tackle various genres through his keenness to take his camera to its very limits. Drifting between fantasy, horror, documentaries and romance, Obayashi churned out some fascinating experimental pieces: he would hark back to the silent era with the reflective insertions of 1960’s The Girl in the Picture; dabble with numerous filters in the satirical Complexe; unnerve with The Eaten Person’s seemingly literal commentary on consumption; and even present his own take on the vampire tale with Emotion, the film that would eventually catch the eye of Toho Pictures. All of these were accompanied by self-composed piano ditties and varying editing styles and would often acknowledge his European influences and appreciation through his fond use of slapping ‘Un film de’ introductions on their opening title cards and throwing in homage’s to various cinematic greats.

By the seventies he found himself working in the field of television, primarily directing commercials for popular brand products; his unbridled approach would attract the attention of major Hollywood stars: one such fellow by the name of Charles Bronson would bestow the moniker of “OB” upon Obayashi, due to initial pronunciation difficulties, but it became an affectionate nickname which would serve the director well throughout his subsequent years as he traveled between countries. Obayashi’s approach to commercials would continue to be as unique as his previous home movies, showing him as a director with a distinctive voice worth hearing. By 1976 that was enough for Toho to approach him. The director was now entering his forties and Japanese cinema was in decline, with little revenue coming in from domestic releases. He was offered an opportunity to direct his first studio feature under conditions that not even he could afford to pass up. He would be allowed to defy the conventions that Toho itself had become so tired of, given absolute free reign and a respectable budget – anything he wanted in order to get audiences back into theatres. He would ultimately leave his unforgettable mark on cinema with what would become his most fascinating feature.

It’s close to Summer vacation, and Oshare (Kimiko Ikegami) is excited to be spending some quality time with her beloved father (Saho Sasazawa). That is until her hopes are shattered when one day he introduces her to his new girlfriend, Ryoko (Haruko Wanibuchi). Despite Ryoko’s sincere efforts, Oshare can’t bring herself to accept this potential family member, and soon begins to reminisce about her deceased mother. She recalls her auntie, who has lived out in the countryside all her life, and feels that it’s about time she went out for a visit after an impromptu visit from a mysterious white cat.

Oshare decides to invite her closest friends along:  Fanta (Kumiko Oba), Sweet (Masayo Miyako), Gari (Ai Matsubara), Mac (Meiko Sato), Melody (Eriko Tanaka) and Kung-Fu (Miki Jinbo) – each of whom hasn’t experienced life outside of the big city. After a fun train journey and short trek through the woods, they reach their destination and are readily greeted by Oshare’s aunt (Yoko Minamida), who invites them into her huge estate. Little do the girls know, however, that auntie isn’t all she appears to be, and that very soon their lives will be extinguished for a seemingly greater good.

Though widely regarded as a horror feature, House is very much a deceptive piece of work; the first of many from Obayashi that would retain whimsical fantasy elements and sentimental drama, set to an assortment of unorthodox visual aids which eschew traditional genre practices. The film’s opening act is a bit of pot-boiler, predominantly constructed of pure angst-ridden melodrama and social satire, with the latter showing the director for his deftness in enlivening a sparse narrative through a clever and serenely executed dismantling of a decade’s worth of commercialism. There’s very little subtlety to it all. For instance, our first introduction to Oshare’s father’s new woman immediately sets alarm bells ringing: mirroring some cheesy perfume advertisement, it comes replete with slow wispy garments and flowing locks of hair, set to the cawing of invisible seagulls on a warm summer’s breeze.

Elsewhere, idyllic sunsets permeate almost every frame and sickly sweet conversations are shared between a cacophony of naïve, giggling schoolgirls. Our introduction to the sisterly seven is swift, with their idiosyncratic nicknames telling us all we need to know before the director places them on that fateful train journey; itself taking shots at the tourism industry as a cartoon-ish skit sees the young ladies transplanted into a welcoming countryside of animated rainbows and pastel fields. It’s here that OB goes some way to revisit the rural encapsulation of his earlier – and more intimate short – Nakasendo. Obayashi’s overtly direct attitude is refreshing in that he uses humour to great effect in illustrating his point: the hilariously oversized countryside signboards (which even appear over the backdrop of a matted rural landscape) provide the neat juxtaposition of modern tastes ebbing away at traditional values. At the same time his fascinating homage to silent cinema, which sees the girl’s provide an excitable commentary on their journey over sepia-toned wartime imagery, fuels the imagination with recurring fairytale fantasizing.

Indeed, for its absurdly sprightly presentation it’s not without a spot of cynicism, which even goes so far as to extend to a key figure. Just as Obayashi could be considered a rebellious force, so too is his lead protagonist, Oshare. There’s a slight flaw in her character, however, in that she’s rarely ever likeable. It’s a curious move on the director’s part because by rights if you’re gonna place young innocents in harms way then you should probably make an effort to get the viewer on their side. Most of his cast, despite their one-dimensional and archetypical personalities, at least have an air of charisma about them, yet this one individual almost burdens the entire feature. Her name – literally translating to ‘fashionable’ – is all too apt, and it’s practically from the moment she arrives home after school in the opening ten minutes that she’s painted no less than a heavily spoiled and selfish individual, who decides to rebel against her father’s best wishes by rejecting Ryoko and running off to her dear auntie’s house in the countryside, where she can continue being the centre of attention to her friends, whilst seeking solace in a more desirable surrogate.

Within this somewhat shallow characterization though is a clear delving into parental/child relationships, with underlying themes of sexuality, romantic idealism and superficiality lending fair credence to a tale based around teen adolescence. All of which leads to an oddly poignant catharsis by the time the film reaches its dire ultimatum, which is further compounded by our auntie’s desire to meet her own needs as well. House was Obayashi’s first feature film and granted he would go on to make more successful emotionally-driven pieces, which further explored the coming of one’s age, yet the tremulous depictions of his debut feature’s cast remains largely unrivaled on account that there seems to be a point to their thinly drawn persona’s in its overall eschewing of audience preconceptions, despite its embracing of well worn clichés.

Because at this point all he’s done is create an artificial sense of hope in showing us an absolute perfect world inhabited by promising young lives –  a world that without much warning he then chooses to systematically tear apart before our eyes. The director’s twisting of the knife occurs once the girls arrive at the malevolent house, whereby all of the cutesy preamble and social commentary soon dissolves into a string of wild and sadistically humorous set-pieces, which sees his deconstruction of conventional melodrama and horror staples come to full fruition; a mélange of bizarre and wonderful trickery, showing the feature for it being a wild amalgamation of all that he had taught himself throughout his experimental beginnings, along the way knowingly referencing and re-inventing key moments from several of those productions. Obayashi’s ultimate playfulness in disfiguring House’s framework is the very thing which has undoubtedly earned it the recognition it now readily enjoys. Its defiance as it sets about cruelly bumping off its protagonists one-by-one remains largely unrivalled by today’s standards, thanks to the sheer originality on display. It’s not the typical stalk and slash affair which has become so ingrained in contemporary cinema, but an entirely different beast altogether, born from the mind of the director’s then 11 year-old daughter, Chigumi, who found there to be nothing scarier than a house which consumed its inhabitants in many nefarious ways.

What was once envisioned to be a new breed of monster movie in a bid to rival overseas success stories such as JAWS, eventually became a rare thing of ingenuity over what was a gestation period of two years. An entire house to himself, Obayashi finds no shortage of wicked ways to antagonise his girls, from an ominous white cat named Snowy, to killer lampshades, possessed smothering pillows and a carnivorous piano which has to be seen to be believed. Sure, there’s a hokeyness to House; it’s the kind of feature that wouldn’t ordinarily be made today given advances in technology and changes in audience tastes (about as close is Gil Kenan’s more recent Monster House, which perhaps can be directly attributed to it), but that’s all part of its charm and a testament to Obayashi’s distinct personal ideals. It’s raw film making at its best, pulling no punches as the auteur lets himself loose in the editing suite like a child in a candy store. Each and every scene is punctuated by some kind of stylized trait as he opts to illustrate various mood changes through the use of literally dozens of varying cinematic techniques, created both in-camera and some off, with the help of blue-screen. Double exposures; numerous colour filters; super-impositions; frequent dissolves; heavy cranking; under cranking; animation and matt paintings; vignettes, diffused focuses; dreamy lighting; abrupt scene shifts – the list goes on. Obayashi often heeds to repetition, as a means it seems to disorient the viewer as the girls are pulled deeper into the ghostly chasm of despair. Running in tandem is a ridiculously catchy score, surreal in its equally repetitive, though chirpy pop playfulness. Asei Kobayashi (watch for his cameo as the watermelon man) and Godeigo’s Mickie Yoshino – who would later go on to provide further memorable melodies with NHK’s Saiyuki (a.k.a. Monkey!) and Galaxy Express 999 – adopts a romanticised approach of predominantly piano-led ditties, some of which are assigned to particular characters in maintaining welcomed emotional undercurrents, while at other times they go all-out-silly, with one of the most amusing recurring themes belonging to Kung-Fu: a catchy action tune that heightens whenever she finds an opportunistic moment to kick down parts of the abode with total abandonment.

In all Nobuhiko Obayashi is all too aware of his environment and House perfectly sums up the kind of man he is: a cunning and methodical thinker, who defies convention to the best of his abilities, while simultaneously laughing in its face. His debut film – although harbouring some perfectly deep sentiments and clever satire – is ultimately one of enormous fun. It’s an event movie that you want to kick back with amongst friends and reel over its sheer unperturbed madness. I think at the end of the day that’s all Obayashi wants as well.

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Hana & Alice/花とアリス

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Hana to Arisu, 2004

Over the past few years director Shunji Iwai has attained quite a following, amidst several of his short stories and four feature length films (discounting the recent Kon Ichikawa Story). Following on from Love Letter, Swallowtail Butterfly, April Story (’98 short) and All About Lily Chou-Chou, Hana & Alice continues to thematically link the director’s ideals of young love, family and friendship and the trials of simply growing up and learning through experience. However, Hana & Alice might never have come about had it not been for Iwai’s fortunate advertising streak with Nestle. In 2003 he was hired to write and direct a short series of films to promote “Kit-Kat” chocolate bars, which subsequently made their way onto Nestlé’s website. Due to the popularity of these shorts, which featured best friends Hana and Alice, Iwai was given the green-light to produce a fully fledged film.

The story follows best friends Hana (Anne Suzuki) and Alice (Yu Aoi) as they go through adolescence. One day, while taking their regular train journey to school, Alice – an aspiring actress – points out a Japanese-American boy she’s attracted to. Next to him is a much shorter, younger man who they assume is his half-brother. From there they start taking photographs and looking out for the pair every day on the train. Some time passes and the foreigner who Alice once admired from afar is no longer around. She soon forgets about him, but Hana can’t stop thinking about the younger bookworm who always stood beside him.

Soon it’s back to high-school and Hana discovers that the boy she likes belongs to the Rakugo club. His name is Masashi Miyamoto (Tomohiro Kaku) bearing an amusing similarity to a famous swordsman. She joins his class in the hopes of getting close to him and it works, to a certain extent. She also gets into the habit of discreetly following him wherever he goes. On one such occasion she witnesses him banging his head on a half-closed shutter, whilst reciting some lines for the upcoming school festival. As he lies on the road in a daze she hurries over to see if everything is alright. He seems fine, except he can’t recall who Hana is. On impulse she decides to tell him that she’s his girlfriend, which sets into motion a series of not-so-innocent deceptions which Hana thinks is all too perfect. Only it isn’t as easy as she thought. She soon asks of her friend Alice to act as an accomplice in her efforts to win the heart of the confused Miyamoto, to which Alice agrees. But the more Alice enjoys her role of being Miyamoto’s love, the more she enjoys making up more lies in order to appear authentic. Soon Miyamoto finds himself drawn to Alice, which soon creates friction between the close friends, who appear to be now heading their separate ways.

It would be simple enough to pick apart Hana & Alice for employing a narrative device that’s not exactly original; after all it makes itself quite an easy target by taking a well-worn premise such as a conflicting love triangle and letting it stew for two and a quarter hours. But then anyone who knows anything about Shunji Iwai knows that he never does anything by halves; rather than indulge himself with a conventional narrative and have it play out in a routine manner, his films seek to deliver a myriad of existential emotions through the use of poignant and realistic dialogue, gorgeous framing devices and mellowing concertos which compliment his likeable characters. True to good form, then, Hana & Alice has all of the redeeming qualities that makes Iwai’s work so memorable and yet it also goes that little step further by injecting a hefty dose of light humour. While the latter statement might suggest it as being gimmicky by nature, the truth is that overall it’s far too well realised to allow itself to become a silly experimental exercise.

Hana & Alice isn’t your typical quirky comedy, however, deriving its humour from serious situations and playing out its scenes with genuine sincerity. Much of this stems from the fact that our female protagonists create their own complicated situations from the get-go, which inadvertently but inevitably threatens to destroy their close-knit bond over something as normal as the infatuation over a boy. Their romantic naivety contributes to the deepening hole which they’ve begun to dig for themselves, thus evoking a sense of impending tragedy, however restrained it ultimately feels. Iwai never greatly oversteps his mark; said tragedy is one which can be readily fixed before it escalates into a saddening mess, and as such the film manages to balance itself nicely enough thanks to some well timed exchanges. Sure, the director toys with the obligatory cliché, which might suggest a parting of ways for Hana and Alice, but there’s a sense that deep down even they know that something such as this is merely trivial when weighed next to the meaningfulness of their love for one another. It’s no great surprise then to see the director throw in a suitably fluffy denouement to warm our cockles.

Seeing as Hana & Alice resists the temptation to stray into hardened melodrama to remain a charming comedic tale, the story finds itself lacking a grandiose emotional pull. In actuality this works to the film’s benefit, as we’re drawn to the leads without being force-fed sappy sentiments, and in exploring the household lives of Hana and Alice, Iwai truly impresses in a wonderfully understated way. He never examines his subjects too closely, but frankly speaking he doesn’t have to, allowing for the smaller moments that creep in to resonate on a more sympatheitc scale. We have Alice’s somewhat distant relationship from her mother who runs a tip of a house and tries to keep her daughter out of the way of her new boyfriend (Abe Hiroshi in a small cameo), and then there’s Alice’s somewhat estranged but heartening meeting with her father, which is wonderfully handled. Iwai skilfully establishes the essence of the characters and exactly what they mean to each other, while also signifying communication breakdowns between families.

Of course this all happens in-between the main drive of the story, but Iwai does remarkably well in dividing his time between both Hana and Alice, allowing them to live out their individual lives at a distance, whilst also keeping their bond firmly secured. Hana studies a Rakugo monologue for the upcoming school festival, in addition to hounding the boy she likes, while Alice goes from audition to audition, just hoping for her first big break. And we want them to succeed. Despite Hana’s dubious lies we want her to be happy, just as we tire of seeing Alice fail time after time and being teased because of her rather simple nature. The strength of Hana and Alice’s relationship and how it’s portrayed through two marvellous performers such as Anne Suzuki and Yu Aoi (returning after Iwai’s Lily Chou-Chou) is enough to ensure that any other characters who come and go can be dismissed with little fuss made on their part, such as the object of affection himself, Miyamoto (Tomohiro Kaku also returning after Lily Chou-Chou): a typical, despondent male caricature worthy of any Japanese melodrama. Sure enough, as with almost everything Shunji Iwai, it’s the female contingent which warrants our attention.

In trying to illustrate and highlight the affection that these girls share for one another, Iwai adopts an almost documentarian-like study on friendship, family and school life. From the film’s opening montage we get the feeling of an outsider’s approach to the material, as the camera wavers and often lingers during single takes, capturing perfectly innocent moments in time, which can be as simple as one getting on a train, admiring a person from afar or taking dainty walks. He creates a majesty of images, accompanied by a wonderfully self-composed score consisting mainly of piano and violin solos. But Hana & Alice is as much indebted to regular Iwai cinematographer Noboru Shinoda, who sadly passed away shortly after the film’s completion. Iwai’s aforementioned score and Shinoda’s compelling attention to details work in perfect unison, demonstrating firm adherence with regards to the inner struggles and personal feelings of the characters they support. On occasion Iwai does let his images get in the way, to the point that they become almost distractingly beguiling, but these occasions are often rare and easily overlooked in favour of scenes of utmost beauty, some of which cannot be fully expressed without having seen them play out: when Alice performs a ballet routine for an audition, Shunji Iwai’s music and Yu Aoi’s heart-stopping talents create an emotional impact which words needn’t express. Hana & Alice probably shouldn’t have worked quite so well, but in the hands of such an assured and confident director even the simplest of tales can be deceptively rewarding.

Despite an initially daunting run time and a concept that might have been thought up in five minutes, Hana & Alice proves to be another triumph for the consistently entertaining Shunji Iwai. Playing to his strengths of being able to deliver pleasing compositions and allowing his two female leads to bounce off of each other with sheer elegance, his latest story manages to rise above cliché and still come away with plenty of warmth and sincerity in relation to the sometimes unpredictable nature of the human heart.

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Blind Love/わいせつステージ 何度もつっこんで

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Waisetsu steeji nando mo tsukkonde, 2005

It’s a bit of shame that Daisuke Goto hasn’t broken out into greater mainstream success. For the past twenty years he’s been dabbling in and out of the pink film scene; he briefly interrupted his stint at the end of the 90s in trying to strengthen the Zero Woman and Sasori/Prisoner Scorpion franchises, but to very little fanfare. Upon returning to his niche field he’s received plenty of adoration for his work, which has seen him go on to win several awards throughout the present decade. The reason I lament this is because here’s a director who harbours a strong sense of compassion toward his subjects. His films might be laced with the same amounts of copious nudity seen in the majority of pink output, but his flawed characters and clear interest toward his homeland’s current climate have an undeniable weight to them. He comes across as a man who genuinely seems to have something say, who, if given the right tools and opportunities, could no doubt go on to became a much stronger force within the Japanese film industry.

2005’s Blind Love follows the life of Kato Daisuke (Shota Kotaki): a struggling ventriloquist who, at odds with his own short demeanour, plays out desperate jokes with his dummy, much to his audiences’ bewilderment. However, he has managed to amass one fan. Her name is Hikari (Konatsu), a blind girl, who having fallen for Daisuke through his voice, advances him in the hopes of getting a date. But bad luck befalls Daisuke when Hikari mistakes his much taller assistant, Yoichi (Yota Kawase) for him. Knowing only the touch of Yoichi and the voice of Daisuke presents a major problem for the two men, who agree to both escort the young lady around town, Daisuke being a mere observer and conversationalist. But he finds it increasingly difficult to keep up the ruse as he watches his only friend in the business take advantage of the situation.

Two years after A Lonely Cow Weeps at Dawn, Goto continues to explore familiar issues with a tightly-knit group of individuals who each suffer from certain personal inadequacies. Regardless of the disabilities or insecurities portrayed, the message here is succinct: that in life we are forced to make many important decisions, but we can also be so complacent as to continue going around in circles and not seize our opportunities. The characters here represent realistic human attributes, with Goto dispersing amongst them various states of emotional conflict, such as selfishness, loneliness and cowardice, which in turn presents some naturally empathetic themes. The director also shows a tad more cynicism this time around, as he imprisons his leads within an environment that demands more from them; traditional values are put into question as Daisuke struggles to keep a dying art form in the public eye, while in contrast Hikari’s young friend, Luna, casually gets by on servicing one-note businessmen. These disparate elements make for interesting subject matter, taking their relevant place within the ever-changing face of society, but as admirable as Goto’s intentions might be there is a mixed air about his presentation.

Blind Love just doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. By handing us one of the most awkward love triangles we’re ever likely to see, it attempts to counter scenes of poignancy with moments of humour, only the latter is far less subtle; its generally pitiable, far-fetched and occasionally naïve nature making for some frankly questionable scenes. It’s almost impossible to buy into the notion of Hikari never realizing that Daisuke is always in her presence for the majority of time, as Yoichi takes her out for drinks and has sex with her later; while the general bumbling about on the part of Daisuke is often strange rather than infectious, leaving us with the feeling that what we have here is comedy introduced for the sake of it, rather than being a wholly organic product. And the same goes for the sex. An obvious given, it only serves as a detriment in that these lengthy encounters strip our central trio of some much needed development time. Worse still is that one or two are quite ill-conceived and overstep the mark: an impromptu rape which is all too quickly skirted around for a happy ending of sorts, leaves behind a somewhat bitter taste in placing an unnecessary amount of pain upon a protagonist who has already gone through enough shit as it is. Despite some strong themes being examined, Goto can only achieve so much within the restrictions of what the genre affords, and unfortunately, while the film might look nice enough and the acting is certainly admirable, his narrative comes across a little more disjointed than with his earlier Lonely Cow…, struggling to maintain individual character arcs as they share moments with lesser-standing support characters.

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Ashura/阿修羅城の瞳

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Ashura-jo no Hitomi, 2005

Kabuki isn’t something that you simply put up on the big screen; it just isn’t done. It’s a format in which entertainment is derived from specifically nuanced and eccentric performances. Everything in its delivery, from men wearing female attire to oddly abstract drama, dancing and quirky humour makes it an experience suited primarily for the stage. So it’s interesting that one such play, Ashura-jo no Hitomi (Eyes of Ashura Castle), which debuted in Japan in 1987, was seen fit to adapt for cinema goers. In hindsight the idea isn’t so ridiculous as much as it is ambitious. Ashura-jo no Hitomi spawned from a theatre company known as the Gekidan Shinkansen, which since the mid-eighties has performed tales based upon famous Japanese legends with a style and gusto that has earned it immense popularity. Director Hidenori Inoue and playwright Kazuki Nakashima created what is known as Kabuki Inoue – action productions filled with stunning displays of lighting and ambience; a grand style, but with exuberantly executed storylines that are fitting enough for generally wider audiences.

The story here concerns the efforts of an evil nun known as Bizan (Kanako Higuchi) who wishes to bring back to life the demon monarch Ashura, so that the Oni may rule the world. But that’s not an easy task with the Demon Wardens scouring the land and taking care of demons who have taken on human form. Five years ago, Izumo Wakuraba (Somegoro Ichikawa) served as a Demon Warden lieutenant alongside his chief, Kuninari (Takashi Naito) and the slightly mental Jaku Abe (Atsuro Watabe). Since then he’s retired and has been enjoying success as a lead actor for the Nakamura Kabuki troupe, led by playwright Nanboku Tsuruya IV (Fumio Kohinata), while his former colleagues continue to fight the good fight.

Elsewhere, the police authorities have been struggling to capture the thief known as “The Night Camellia”. Little do they know that her name is Tsubaki (Rie Miyazawa) and that she belongs to a troupe of street performing acrobats. When Tsubaki barely manages to flee from the police during a chase she crosses paths with Izumo, who promises not to tell on her, in exchange for being able to see her again. Sure enough they draw closer, but as they do Tsubaki’s shoulder begins to display a strange marking. Unbeknownst to her it’s the mark of Ashura, which bears a significant impact on a past she’s long since forgotten. But Bizan knows who she is and how to find her. By corrupting the mind of Jaku she turns him into a loyal servant and he sets out to bring back Tsubaki and take care of his old friend Izumo.

Having made Onmyoji and its sequel between 2001 and 2003, while also fitting in his acclaimed Mibu Gishi Den (When the Last Sword is Drawn), director Yojiro Takita began work on yet another fantasy swordplay feature, this time set in 19th century Edo. Ashura is a big and noisy film, that had it not been based upon a kabuki play would seem as ordinary as any other recent Japanese fantasy flick. What makes it somewhat unique is that it does indeed try hard to capture the essence of the original source material, more specifically here by containing several references to the world of Kabuki, with focus placed on language, song and dance. Although it depicts actual persons of interest, such as pioneering playwright Nanboku Tsuruya IV (1755-1829), famed for creating plays of demonic standing, it remains a bizarre melding of fantasy and reality on account of taking liberties with such historical figures, which we know too well isn’t uncommon within the industry. However, given Nanboku’s prominent role in Kabuki’s rich history, it seems quite fitting than he should appear in such a tribute as he becomes inspired to write a play based on the battles waged between good and evil. Throughout the picture Nanboku (played energetically by Fumio Kohinata) and Izumo work on creating the Nakamura Theatre’s next masterpiece, while mystical events naturally unfold to lend the basis for inspiration. And sure enough the moments in which Izumo entertains on stage are amongst the most interesting, being laced with humour and cross-eyed elegance. Much to its favour Ashura never takes itself too seriously; while it deals with common themes of romance and Japanese legends, it sticks to its Kabuki roots with displays of silly acting and outlandish set pieces.

When dealing with the bulk of the storyline Ashura does become an FX-laden feast, filled with an assortment of over-the-top computer imagery and tangible sets, which although appear quite obvious and far removed from traditional stage aesthetics are nonetheless effective in complimenting the wild narrative. At two hours in length, the feature relies on a manner of trickery, from corkscrew camerawork, sword fights with green-blooded demons and Yoko Kanno’s hypnotic scoring; it’s all very exciting, but there’s a general feeling is that it struggles to control an uneven pace. Central to the story is its theme of forbidden love, set against a dark and foreboding atmosphere, unfolding much like a mystery thriller, with twists and turns aplomb; but while Takita evidently wishes to use the romantic element as the sole focus of the picture, it remains a little too routine throughout and lacks a solid emotional impact, thanks to portions of Izumo and Tsubaki’s relationship being hurried along. However, thanks to its dedicated cast the picture rarely succumbs to tedium and they do their best with the material on offer. Somegoro Ichikawa returns to reprise the role he took on during Ashura-jo no Hitomi’s 2003 stage run and laps up the chance to ham things up, while Atsuro Watabe steals the show as the perpetually gurning Jaku, leaving Rie Miyazawa to take on the more serious duties of her complex character.

While it was never going to truly capture the tone of Kabuki, Ashura is nontheless a valiant attempt at injecting new life into the fantasy genre. It might not be the best Japanese fantasy film ever made but its own self-awareness and largely fun performances prevents it from sinking into complete obscurity.

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New Tokyo Decadence – The Slave/奴隷

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Dorei, 2007

By day Rina Wakayama (Rinako Hirasawa) does what most normal folk do: sit in an office and shuffle papers. By night she lets go of her inhibitions and ‘entertains’ pervy men as a dominatrix, whilst finding time to satisfy most of her own sexual needs. But when she learns that her employer (Kikujiro Honda) also happens to share an interest in S&M, she all too eagerly agrees to become his personal slave. As their games deepen, so too does Rina’s emotions. Soon she begins to question whether or not she loves her boss, and indeed if love truly does exist.

Otherwise simply known as Dorei [Slave] in Japan, New Tokyo Decadence – The Slave, shouldn’t in any way be looked upon as being a direct sequel to Ryu Murakami’s exquisite Topaz; a film itself which was unfortunate enough to be lumbered with a naff international title and incidentally had an unsuccessful follower in Banmei Takahashi’s Ai No Shinsekai (a.k.a. Tokyo Decadence 2: A New Love in Tokyo, 1994). However, while Slave may be a bit more direct in its labelling, it also shares some familiar traits, presenting itself as a mild character study as it delves into the world of sadomasochism.

Directed by Osamu Sato, Slave is in fact based upon the real-life experiences of porn actress Rinako Hirasawa, who takes centre stage here. Told via an ongoing narration, Rina talks of her experiences in finding a form of solace through masochism (making sure to differentiate it from sadism of course); her first introduction, thanks to her maths teacher, sees her trying to express herself with certain sexual practises, which ends up challenging her ideals of love and promptly leaves her to question her position in life. As such Slave is quite an intimate and personal production, which, like Topaz, does go to some length in its attempts to find meaning beneath a series of mildly titillating sequences: the backdrop itself set against an economic recession as office workers go about their daily duties, unbeknownst to many that one or two happen to have slightly edgier tastes. While Topaz explored detachment and told of hanging onto hope with a central figure who didn’t really want to be in the place she was in, Slave has Rina embracing her lifestyle without shame, but finding her chosen path an uncertain one on account of her own inquisitive nature. Masochism, then, might be way of filling a void in one’s existence; it’s a part of the feature that Rina doesn’t go to any great lengths in explaining away and Osamu Sato is all to keen to keep such curiosities as simply that. Still, it leads us toward several sexual encounters, which throws in a spot of lesbianism and bondage along the way. In terms of aiding the overall narrative in exploring such moments, Sato’s picture remains a tightly edited piece and one of experimental interest as he imbues several scenes with lingering, though memorable imagery, via the use of various mediums as the daily office grind and outdoor excursions are neatly contrasted with that of a sleazier underbelly.

Just how much Slave reflects the real life of Rinako Hirasawa isn’t all that clear then, with surreal imagery which blurs the lines of fantasy and reality, although the actress is quite happy to refer to herself as a pervert at the very least. One thing she most certainly is is a very capable young actress, who’s been afforded some pleasant little roles – not counting all the times in which she’s had lots of sex for video distribution. She made her pink film debut outside of the A/V industry in 2005 with Shinji Imaoka’s Enjo-Kôsai Monogatari: Shitagaru Onna-Tachi, otherwise known as Frog Song, and it proved to be a welcoming tale of a friendship between two women, with just a few absurdist qualities chucked in for good measure. Hirasawa (who picked up ‘Best Actress’ for her performance at the Pink Grand Prix) is a natural on screen, comfortable with what is being expected of her, given that she’s essentially playing herself. There are very few moments when she isn’t in our sight and her strong presence, coupled with a nice chemistry between she and her prolific pink actor co-star Kikujiro Honda, sees the picture deliver a welcome balance of debauchery and poigancy.

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Panda, Go Panda!/パンダ・コパンダ

pandakopanda

Panda Kopanda, 1972

After working as a key animator on Toei features such as Prince of the Sun (Taiyō no Ōji Horusu no Daibōken, 1968), Puss ’n Boots (Nagagutsu o Haita Neko, 1969) and Animal Treasure Island (Dōbutsu Takarajima, 1971), as well as directing select episodes for Lupin III at the beginning of the seventies, a then 30 year-old Hayao Miyazaki was given the opportunity to create something unique of his own. With panda fever having hit Japan hard, thanks to China opening up further relations, he touched upon the rather simple idea of bringing humans and animals together once more with a short feature aimed toward children, simply entitled Panda KoPanda [Panda, Baby Panda]. Miyazaki not only adapted his tale into a screenplay, but he also took on art and scenic design duties, providing key animation for several segments. Directing duties went to fellow collaborator Isao Takahata, who had worked with Miyazaki previously throughout the sixties with Toei Doga on various films and shows. They would later continue to work hand-in-hand, most famously for Studio Ghibli, which the pair had co-founded alongside producer Toshio Suzuki during the mid-eighties.

1972’s Panda KoPanda – re-titled in English as Panda, Go Panda! The Panda Family – tells of a young orphan girl named Mimiko, whose grandmother must leave her alone while she heads to Nagasaki to attend a service. When arriving home after school one evening, Mimiko happens upon quite the little mess, which eventually leads her to discover a baby panda named Pan-chan sitting on the porch. Taking the panda inside, she quickly makes friends with Pan-chan, but it’s not long before the father turns up. PaPanda, however, is quite laid back, expressing far more interest in the bamboo grove which shelters Mimiko’s home. Sure enough they get on good terms with one another, and Mimiko takes it upon herself to adopt Pan-chan as her own child, while looking upon PaPanda as being the father she never had. But with the local zoo trying to track down the pandas, the family bond is soon threatened.

Panda Kopanda – Amefuri Saakasu no Maki, or Rainy Day Circus, followed a year later and this time the rather understanding zoo has allowed PaPanda and his son to continue visiting Mimiko. One day, two strangers belonging to the circus enter Mimiko’s home in the search for a runaway baby tiger, but leave in haste when they sense the presence of something monstrous nearby. Of course it’s only PaPanda. Mimiko, excited by the prospects of meeting what she thought were burglars, soon notices some strange goings-on: somebody has been eating the curry she prepared for dinner, while also using Pan-chan’s personal items. Well, Pan-chan goes to his room rather upset, but he soon stumbles upon something in his bed. Indeed it’s a baby tiger and it’s not long before Mimiko affords it the name of Tora-chan. But she knows that Tora-chan must be returned home and after delivering him to his mother a huge flood breaks out, threatening the existence of all its furry inhabitants.

There’s certainly something charming in the wide-eyed innocence, or naivety if you will, in work of Miyazaki and Takahata here. Panda, Go Panda! readily enjoys the notion that all creatures should live in harmony, no matter their placement within the eco-system; it fantasises about the kind of things we used to as children, capturing youth in its purest form and presenting its ensuing events in a rather surreal fashion. The storytelling itself isn’t too wrapped up in handing out moral sentiment; its simplicity is gratifying and its curious ideals lend enough scope to see the animators envision some ripe situational comedy, set against the backdrop of a unelaborate landscape and the wonderfully sweet music of Masahiko Satou.

And it’s sure enough interesting from a historical viewpoint, which will no doubt go some way toward pleasing Ghibli purists. Clearly a couple of shorts very close to the heart of its creator, it no less proves its worth as a template for several Ghibli productions to come. Both Miyazaki and Takahata have since referenced and re-visited key scenes in their own feature-length productions; it’s certainly a joy to watch My Neighbour Totoro (directly inspired by Miyazaki’s first kids feature here), and being able to point out some of the in-jokes and visual cues.  A delightful little production which tested the waters for far greater things to come.

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Topaz/トパーズ

topaz

Topazu, 1992

Taking its title from author Ryu Murakami’s 1988 short story collection entitled ‘Topaz’, which focuses on the observations of young prostitutes working in the S&M trade, Topaz – of which Murakami also directs – explores a cruel and jaded society, in which a young woman named Ai (Miho Nikaido) hopes to one day escape from her job at a popular S&M establishment and become a social worker. One day she visits a fortune teller, who advises her to purchase a pink diamond and turn it into a ring, so that she may enjoy a happy future. Persuaded by this, Ai is recommended a topaz gem by a jeweller and upon placing the new ring on her finger she indeed wishes for that good life. But good things never seem to come for Ai; she’s still sad over her break-up with her boyfriend, who has since gone on to become a television celeb, while she drifts daily from customer to customer, never quite sure what her next job offer will entail. Along the way she meets people, who, in their own way, teach her about the world around her. But Ai needs to follow her own path in life, no matter where it might lead her. As long as she has that little piece of topaz on her finger, perhaps everything will be alright in the end.

Topaz, a.k.a. Tokyo Decadence in the west, might appear to have the allure of a soft-core porn movie, but underneath it’s one of the most poignant and intricate films made on the subject of emotional detachment. Ryu Murakami’s film is a slow-burning deconstruction of one individual working in a thriving sex industry during a time of economic distress. There’s never a sense that Murakami feels the desire to truly exploit his characters for the sake of obvious means, not meant to titillate in a manner of which its posters might suggest. It is all very cynical, of course; you couldn’t accuse Ryu Murakami of being anything less than such, although he’s certainly not devoid of wry humour, as he demonstrates a couple of times throughout his scathing commentary.

Ai: “You must be very wealthy?”

Saki: “Not necessarily. It’s this country that’s wealthy, but it’s not proud of its riches. It drives its men into masochism out of anxiety. As a result, I earn my money exploiting their anxieties…and I’m proud of that.”

Primarily, Topaz focuses on the central disillusionment of a woman lost within a system filled with its own sense of perfect ideals, be that related to the entertainment and education industries or otherwise, which can chew up and spit out its inhabitants as easily as one clicks their own finger. The sad thing is that in the case of Ai she is looked upon almost as being some sort of dredge on society, and yet she has more to offer the world despite insisting that she has no other talent to get by in life, relying on the only thing that she knows will safeguard her an income. But she is a well-spirited human being, studying sign language and teaching young children as a part-time social worker. Although we don’t really get to see this side of her much – only in passing conversation and brief interludes of her studies – these are the times when she’s truly happy and alive. If there’s a moral encompass to all of this, aside from simply telling that we should hang onto hope, it’s in reaching out to help others move forward and live out their lives to the best of their abilities, which in turn will make your own all the better.

The film is an intelligent piece of work, which naturally bares the sting of a frustrated mind. Ryu Murakami often writes about characters who seek to find some kind of catharsis from their routine lives, while also addressing unhealthy social obsessions and the lack of individuality amongst the masses. In the past he’s pessimistically explored youth culture, entailing drug abuse (ecstasy manifesting itself again here) and stories of teen prostitution (later tackled in Love & Pop by director Hideaki Anno). Topaz would appear to be an amalgam of several previous forays: the vicious and sad cycle of self abuse; sexual perversion and media consumption – all of which the director depicts with almost utter contempt, making his point all the more known by drawing out scenes to considerable length, in turn seeing Topaz’s sexual content become a numbing entity. There is no glorification here. S&M and self abuse is used in a repetitive fashion, in order to illustrate humiliation, loneliness, depression and a sense of loss in a rapidly growing culture filled with plenty of moral ambiguities. Each point serves to underline the reasons as to why the central character of Ai wishes to escape her mundane life, as we watch worrying depictions of topics which have long been overshadowed by their very tabboo nature in Japan. At the same time, Murakami reaches out and shows us that those who choose to follow a more unsavoury path do so by way of trying to sooth their own pain – a sorry state of affairs which allows for some truly effective moments. In terms of lensing the picture itself, Murakami couldn’t be any more nonchalent if he tried, as his camera unceramoniously lingers on people carrying out their daily duties. Nonetheless it’s strangely mesmerising to watch Ai wander throughout her little world, with a narrative that doesn’t strictly hinge itself on dialogue to tell her tale. Not only is this because of Murakami’s self awareness in not adhering to conventional rule, whereby the camera serves as an ever-voyeuristic eye for the audience in order to help us understand Ai, but also largely thanks to Miho Nikaido’s stunning portrayal of the film’s centrepiece. Moreover, composer Ryuichi Sakamoto’s understated piano score does well to match the emotional tone.

And Nikaido might just be the key for most to enjoy Topaz’s lengthy run time. She imbues Ai with a charming sense of hope and innocence, despite her obviously demanding and very adult job. Importantly we feel for her plight and Nikaido lulls us with seemingly little effort on her part. The search for an ex-lover; the attempts at salvation through a little topaz ring she holds so dearly; and the humility of doing the dirty deeds that wealthy gangsters, talkative dullards and drug-addicted crazies pay her for are all beautifully handled by the actress, who ends up eliciting a perfect melancholic sadness and leaves one to wonder if Topaz could ever hope to be as good without her.

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