Ashura/阿修羅城の瞳

ashura.jpg

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

New Tokyo Decadence – The Slave/奴隷

slave

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 on the real-life experiences of porn actress Rinako Hirasawa, who takes center 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 practices, 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 a 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 too 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. Most certainly, she 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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Yellow Fangs/リメインズ 美しき勇者たち

yellowfangs

Rimeinzu: Utsukushiki Yusha- tachi, 1990

It’s ironic that the very film which commemorated the 20th anniversary of Shinichi “Sonny” Chiba’s JAC (Japan Action Club) stunt team was the same one that financially ruined the man and forced him to sell up. Chiba’s directorial debut, Rimeinzu: Utsukushiki Yusha- tachi [Remains: The Beautiful Heroes], hit Japanese theatres in 1990, failing miserably, despite having a well respected man behind the lens, a solid cast and some remarkably high production values. Chiba’s self-funded project, in which he collaborated with Kinji Fukasaku, was based upon a real-life event which took place in 1915 Hokkaido, which became known as the ‘Tomamae Incident’. Reportedly, a bear weighing in at almost 750 lbs, took to exclusively mauling women and children over the course of two nights, before it was eventually subdued and slaughtered by local villagers.

That’s about as far as Chiba goes for historical accuracy, taking great dramatic licence to flesh out the remainder of the narrative with reflective musings and token melodrama. Yellow Fangs, as it’s known in the west, follows five hunters: highly skilled in bear-culling, who set out to kill the fabled beast whom they’ve come to nickname ‘Red Spots’. When they think they’ve found the elusive Mr. Spots high up on a mountain trail, a rival hunter interrupts and kills it without hesitation, not realising that they got the wrong bear. Before the mystery person has a chance to run off he’s spotted by one of the hunters, Eiji (Hiroyuki Sanada), who realises that it isn’t a man after all, but in fact a young woman from his past named Yuki (Mika Muramatsu). As she scarpers, Eiji stops and recollects the first moment he ever laid eyes on her, while the reason for her new guise becomes all-too-apparent over time.

It’s a shame that Yellow Fangs became known more for cursing ol’ Sonny with bad luck rather than being the respectable film it is. The most immediately grabbing thing is of course the beautiful, snowy landscape of rural Hokkaido, which equally looks as unwelcoming as the reportedly difficult and expensive shoot attests to. The search for the bear is trepid in itself, with constant elemental threats all around. Chiba does a wonderful job of generating a steady amount of tension, thanks to some skilled framing devices, by utilising first-person perspectives to heighten panic, whether it be from the rampaging bear itself or the scared townsfolk scrambling to safety; quite impressive given the natural constraints of not being able to capture the required footage quite so authentically. Lead actor Hiroyuki Sanada also shows his combined talent for music, chiming in with a suitable score; though at times the impromptu guitar-synth cues feels as if they belong in a Rocky montage, Sanada throws in some haunting pipes and percussion to underpin emotions and help maintain a certain amount of uncertainty throughout. Such understanding of visual and audio aids do wonders for what otherwise remains a story of sparse dialogue, particularly during its first act.

It’s after this that the initial excitement of the picture wears off, as the mid-way point presents its share of pacing issues; flitting back and forth from flashbacks to present day for the best part of an hour, it tries its best in paving the way for an onslaught of sentimentality and few decent chase sequences. Central to all of this is of course the relationship shared between Eiji and the aptly named Yuki. Chiba gives us two sympathetic figures but it’s all played out fairly routinely, with the predictable nature of the pairing – and some hopeless wailing on Mika Muramatsu’s part – slowing down proceedings. In-between several semi-romantic bouts we’re also treated to popular spiritual beliefs and male posturing. Our bear-culling heroes come equipped with not just spears and rifles, but well chosen words as they lament the foreseeable end of days by stressing how their selfless acts of heroism lead to one becoming a true man. Such philosophies are rife throughout various cultures, yet despite the very real nature of how bear hunters seem to look at the world around them, you can’t help but think just how utterly ridiculous it is to brave walking up to a bear and trying to stare it down (apparently just killing it from far away won’t do). During these lengthy rounds of exposition, before the film “re-encounters” for the final stretch, the director also finds time to tap into social fears. Not only is the bear itself a symbol of terror – and a god-like beast we later learn – but so too is humankind under the inevitable threat of change. Chiba does well to work in his eco-commentary, which warns of man destroying nature through his own greed via a subplot involving mining, just as he does in touching upon the inequalities of men and women in the work force, but frankly it’s nothing that hasn’t been spoken of before, better or otherwise, despite how admirably his cast take to the serious challenge.

All interest in the film returns once it gets back down to serious business, and by that I mean bear fighting! The final fifteen minutes is terrifically staged, as Eiji and Yuki are pitted against their grizzly foe in a small, abandoned house. Chiba and cinematographer Saburo Fujiwara’s camerawork is astonishingly good in lending an epic feel to such an intimate setting. The pacing is fierce as the tension ratchets, seeing the beast attack from all angles as the walls collapse around our protagonists. It’s pure survival horror by this point, and coupled with Muramatsu’s half-nakedness (though momentarily amusing choreography) and Koichi Sonoi’s remarkable editing – which does its best to hide the fact that the bear is in fact a man in a suit – it makes for a truly memorable piece of cinema. A great shame indeed that a man of Chiba’s talent wasn’t afforded many more chances to show just how capable he is in the hot seat.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Yo-Yo Girl Cop/スケバン刑事 コードネーム=麻宮サキ

yoyogirlcop

Sukeban deka: Kôdo nêmu = Asamiya Saki, 2006

Sukeban Deka – roughly translated from slang as “Delinquent Girl Detective” – is based on yet another popular manga series, this time taking its cue from Shinji Wada’s 1976-1982 run, as featured in Flowers & Dreams publications [Hana to Yume]. The success of Wada’s comics paved the way for a television series in 1985, which lasted for three years and originally starred teen idol Yuki Saito as the title’s lead heroine, Saki Asamiya (look out for Saito playing Saki’s mother in this 2006 update). In fact part of Sukeban Deka’s legacy on film is that it has used teen idols (primarily singers) of the time to take on the role of its central protagonist. One year into the television series’ run, actress/singer Yoko Minamino replaced Miss Saito and thus helped to steer Sukeban Deka’s second series into movie territory in 1987, with the simply titled Sukeban Deka: The Movie. By the time that the television series had headed into its third year, Yui Asaka had been placed in a central role, not as Saki Asamiya this time, but Yui Kazama. Its continued popularity with Asaka saw it spawn a second film with Sukeban Deka the Movie II: Revenge of the Three Kazama Sisters. Things dramatically slowed down after this and Shinji Wada’s teenaged figure of justice only saw a two-part OAV from Toei, released 1990-91. Then the series disappeared for thirteen years, before the original manga stories saw a reprint back home.

However, with once famed comic creations enjoying a renaissance in recent years, such as Cutey Honey, Tetsujin 28, Astro Boy, Zero Woman and even Shigeru Mizuki’s Yokai monsters, it seemed appropriate, or rather inevitable, that Toei would revisit another one of its hot properties, now on the verge of facing its thirty year anniversary. Sukeban Deka: Code Name = Asamiya Saki, then, is the latest attempt at bringing Shinji Wada’s work to life for a new generation. Labelled internationally as the catchy Yo-Yo Girl Cop, it stars Hello! Project alumni Aya Matsuura as the sailor-suit clad, yo-yo swinging super-detective high school student!

Organization K is an elite sect which specially trains underage agents in order for them to infiltrate high schools and get the low-down on any dubious activities taking place on the grounds. Their previous agent (played by Masae Ohtani from Hello! Project’s Melon Kinenbi) was killed in action whilst investigating a mysterious viral website known as ‘Enola Gay’, which purports to supply information ranging from bomb-making to suicides. The head of Organization K is Kira Kazutoshi (Riki Takeuchi), who must now find a replacement – and fast. When a former agent of his ends up facing a prison term for breaking immigration laws, he finds the perfect opportunity to exploit the situation. Enter a young woman (Aya Matsuura), also known only as K, arrested on the streets of New York and personally delivered by the police to Kira’s base. Kira presents the case to the girl, who is herself facing charges of violent assault. It turns out that the woman being held in police custody is her mother (Yuki Saito), who is to stand trial in three days. If her daughter wishes to see her free then she’s going to have to accept Kira’s mission: to enter a high school under the name of Saki Asamiya and weed out the masterminds behind Enola Gay. Begrudgingly she accepts.

Upon arrival Saki manages to have a run-in with the popular snobby girl Reika (Rika Ishikawa), befriend a bullied girl by the name of Tae (Yui Okada) and learn of some strange goings on with regards to the school chemistry club. Rather conveniently it’s a race against time, with a 72 hour countdown taking place on the Enola Gay website. Who is behind this mysterious campaign and why are they so hell-bent on making bombs? Only Saki Asamiya, armed with her trusty yo-yo can save the day….which we all know she will of course.

Yo-yo Girl Cop: now there’s a title that says “Hey! Let’s have fun watching schoolgirls get dirty with yo-yos for 90 minutes”. To an extent we do get a little of that: two attractive, dressed down – so to speak – J-pop artists (Rika Ishikawa also belonging to the Hello! Project) locking limbs and exchanging blows. Yo-Yo Girl Cop doesn’t remotely shy away from offering a little fan service, then, but its achilles heel is that it takes some of the fun elements from its precursors and places them into a narrative that’s perhaps played a little too seriously for its own good.

Kenta Fukasaku has been something of a one-hit wonder, leaving his mark only with a good screenplay in 2000’s Battle Royale. After his father Kenji Fukasaku passed away in 2003 he took over the directing reigns and finished its sequel Battle Royale: Requiem (for which he also wrote), to much critical disdain, proving that there can indeed be too much of a good thing. 2005 saw him tackle a straighter drama with Under the Same Moon, but again it looked to be a fruitless endeavour. Yo-Yo Girl Cop has Fukasaku go back to what he presumes he knows best and as such his offering is one of relevant concern. Much like the Battle Royale films, Yo-Yo Girl Cop harbours a cynical streak, whereby it examins the lives of dejected high-school teens belonging to a system governed by adults who can’t possibly understand what they’re going through – or so we’re led to believe. Suicide and bullying go hand-in-hand without vigilant watch and the younger generation feel that only they can solve their immediate problems by themselves, while their peers carry on with their business in total oblivion or out of sheer ignorance. Indeed it’s all rather worrying and even here the events of WWII Hiroshima is once again dug up to counterpoint our criminals’ perfect ideals, that violence is the only way to bring attention to the world. While the intent is to pitch a tale of anti-violence in general, Yo-Yo Girl Cop is nonetheless one which sees the goodies take out the baddies by playing them at their own game. Surely though we just want brainless entertainment here?

The Sukeban Deka series rarely deviates from its initial premise. The idea behind it is that Saki Asamiya stays undercover at a school so that she can filter out the ruffians. In some respects Western fans may be able to relate similarly to the early nineties Johnny Depp series 21 Jump Street, whereby youthful looking officers were sent undercover for similar tasks, with the emphasis being that they could therefore infiltrate and relate to the victims with minimum fuss. Indeed, the storyline here is rather grand and blown totally out of proportion, which is befitting of most action comics, anime or films in general. If only it actually offered a lot more bang for buck, though. With a sleek run time of 100 minutes, Fukasaku finds himself doing a lot of juggling throughout, addressing obvious social concerns, while trying to flesh out his characters in an appropriate enough manner – and that’s before he even really tackles the action side of things. Yo-Yo Girl Cop’s action sequences are sporadically staged and are kept brief, employing Michael Bay school-of-editing techniques and featuring a minutiae of comical gestures.

More disappointedly is that for a franchise which rides on such a whacky gimmick, there isn’t a great deal of yo-yo fighting on display. Saki is set up here as being useless with a yo-yo, which certainly pays off in terms of the aforementioned humour strewn throughout various intervals, but it gives little leeway toward us seeing any memorable turns of event; employing CG effects on a number of occasions leaves few desired moments, as there’s a shockingly short supply of imagination on display, despite such technical freedom. Moreover, the fact that Takahiko Hasegawa – a two-time national champion – provided his talents as an instructor for Matsuura and Ishikawa, makes us wonder just what on earth was going on behind the set. Granted, both girls are not trained fighters, nor yo-yo masters for that matter, but you’d expect a bit more under the given circumstances, especially seeing that Tarantino delivered a masterful sequence featuring an equally unskilled Chiaki Kuriyama in a similar vein for Kill Bill – Vol.1, which leaves us to ponder how Fukasaku’s film might have benefited had he a more intense action choreographer and relied less on covering up his stars’ lack of fighting prowess via other means. That said, both girls do a remarkable enough job of getting physically involved throughout the various setpieces, but of the two Ishikawa most certainly comes off the better as the villain of the piece, showing at least some sort of knack for what she’s doing. The final act, though derivative in its own right, is handled nicely enough however: we’ve a huge warehouse showdown, complete with teens brandishing automatic weapons, while two now skimpy-clad schoolgirls (the general rule being applied that our heroes and villains must dress in figure-revealing costumes for the ultimate showdown) go at it hell for leather. That alone saves Yo-Yo Girl Cop from being an almost pointless exercise.

But you’ve got to hand it to the stars; they acquit themselves very well. You can sense that Riki Takeuchi understands the silliness of it all, what with his usual over-the-top, larger than life manner, as he drags his leg around, whilst keeping the gurning slightly toned down for a change. To be fair though his character is an essential part of the plot and he manages to handle the fatherly figure of Kazutoshi with enough empathy and charm for us to buy into, which at least strays somewhat from his familiar gangster types. The star though, Aya Matsuura, is particularly impressive given the range of emotions she must deal with. Saki is every bit as much a victim as the students she sets out to protect and Matsuura does well to balance this, alongside her violent streak and piercing stare. And yes, of course she scrubs up nicely in her biker/sailor suit as well. As does fellow singer Rika Ishikawa (Hello! Project’s v-u-den), whose role in the film is ridiculously signposted, but she carries the role out with aplomb and relishes the opportunity to threaten Matsuura’s character, before kitting herself out with fetishist PVC garments. Shunsuke Kobozuka makes for an average villain, being fairly underused in playing a character with an underdeveloped motive, while Yui Okada (also from v-u-den) is effective enough as Saki’s tormented friend Tae, although she has to be one of the most ridiculously naïve people on the planet when it comes to the final act. And while I’m at it, just what the hell is it with the bloody Hello! Project’s involvement here anyway? Even v-u-den’s Erika Miyoshi has a part. That accounts for the entire group!

For the curious amongst you, the Hello! Project is some Japanese pop-music creation bent on world domination. Harvesting girls from all over Japan, from pre-pubescent teens to adults who can’t quite make it as solo artists, it’s collectively amassed no fewer than thirty sub-groups, which includes those that are currently inactive. Many of its artists have since gone on to successful solo singing careers and some have dropped into relative obscurity. Personally I don’t mind a bit of Morning Musume with my “Morning Coffee” though.

It’s perhaps not the finest compliment to say that Kenta Fukasaku’s Yo-Yo Girl Cop is his best feature to date. After all it’s fairly consistent at checking off the usual boxes, while being a bit haphazard and a little more demanding than it should be. In addition it almost feels like an advertisement for the Hello! Project, so make of that what you will; at least you know you are getting attractive girls who sometimes fight in short skirts, but then you also get a few who mope about and do sod all. Given that it goes some way toward fleshing out its characters with some workable twists and fine performances, while offering some entertaining action in spots, it deserves a little praise, and I certainly wouldn’t scoff at a sequel under the guidance of a far more assured director. Should Fukasaku return I can only urge him to dial it down a notch and dispense with the self-importance and remember that films starring yo-yo-swinging girl cops should above all ese be fun.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Chanbara Striptease/おっぱいチャンバラ

chanbarastriptease.jpg

Oppai Chanbara, 2008

Take three hot AV Idols, throw them in period attire and have them flash their boobies in the heat of battle, and you pretty much have the recipe for Chanbara Striptease, from the producers of zombie bore-fest Chanbara Beauty. Actually I lied, Sasa Handa in tertiary support doesn’t even get her kit off here, which kind of brings into question what she’s doing in the film in the first place. It’s not for her acting!

Akira Hirose’s Chanbara Striptease (a.k.a. the more direct Oppai Chanbara) is a fairly pedestrian motion picture, in which a young woman (played by Ryo Akanishi) is transported 300 years into the past, only to discover the origins of the martial art that her mother had handed down to her shortly before passing away. At 65 minutes in length it does its job: we’ve a melodramatic fish out of water scenario centred on a lovelorn young man and a perky heroine; some over-the-top ninja antics led by a sultry Ruru Anoa, and unintentionally humorous sex scenes. Oh, and to reiterate, the frequently gratuitous bearing of magical breasts. That’s all you lot care about anyway isn’t it? Tits.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Blind Woman’s Curse/怪談昇り竜

blindwomanscurse

Kaidan nobori ryû, 1970

At the end of the sixties, during which time Daiei and Nikkatsu studios were facing somewhat financial difficulties, thanks to poor box office attendance, Teruo Ishii was enjoying freelance reign after a string of hits with Toei. As Nikkatsu moved ever-closer to focusing primarily on Roman Porno flicks, they sought Ishii’s services in the hopes that he’d direct their ‘Rising Dragon’ series, which belonged to the female yakuza sub-genre. Unpreventable commitments elsewhere meant that Ishii could only devote time to two of the three features, the first two of which starred Hiroko Ogi: he would direct The Rising Dragon’s Iron Flesh (Nobori ryu Tekkahada, 1969), while assistant director to Seijun Suzuki, Masami Kuzuo, helmed its follow-up The Rising Dragon’s Skin Exposed (Nobori ryu yawa hada Kaicho). By the time that Rising Dragon Ghost Story (or Blind Woman’s Curse as its become synonymously known in the west) came around, Ogi had moved on to another venture. Nikkatsu and Daiei were beginning to form new strategies, in a bid to secure the box office once again, which happened to involve pooling their resources in looking for promising new acting talent. Enter Meiko Kaji, whose distinctive looks and physicality earned her her first major film role. Teruo Ishii, armed with Miss Kaji, a script co-written by soon-to-be Roman Porno extraordinaire Chusei Sone and the eager blessing of their studio, thus developed what was to be one of the most unusual melding of genres ever seen: a ghostly macabre yakuza tale, which has since gone on to become a cult classic.

The film follows Akemi Tachibana (Meiko Kaji), who is second in line to take over the Tachibana clan. One rainy night, Akemi and her men are involved in a fierce battle with a rival gang, during which time a young woman intervenes, but whose face meets the tip of Akemi’s blade. As the woman lies on the ground in agony a black cat proceeds to lick her wounded eyes, signifying the beginning of a karmic haunting for young Akemi. Soon after the street brawl Akemi is sentenced to three years in prison and upon finishing her term she re-enters the world with a new philosophy on life. Joining up with her clan she learns that it too has re-evaluated its standing, with its elder Ojiki even wanted to disband it and live out the rest of his years running a small restaurant.

With the Tachibana clan now in a much humbled state a gang boss by the name of Dobashi (Toru Abe) seeks to exploit their weaknesses. It turns out that he has a mole placed in the Tachibana clan, whose job it is to make sure that the Tachibana’s go to war with another rival gang, led by Aozora (Ryuhei Uchida). Once these two go head to head Dobashi can clean up the pieces and rule the town for himself. But Akemi no longer wishes to fight, and hopes that she can mediate in a more effective manner, making Dobashi’s plan all the more desperate. When a travelling circus comes into town things soon turn upside down with the arrival of a mysterious blind woman and the deaths of Akemi’s loyal friends. A series of spooky encounters draws Akemi ever closer to facing her fears and dealing with past sins in Teruo Ishii’s bizarre tale of revenge and redemption.

Blind Woman’s Curse initially bares all the hallmarks of a fairly formulaic ninkyo yakuza tale, with director Ishii moving as usual at a quick pace, establishing our characters swiftly and then formulating a plot filled with false loyalties and seedy orchestrators. Indeed, most of the first half of the film is an assured splicing of quirky humour and melodrama, with glorified battles of honour, as well as exchanges of disparaging dialogue between rival clans, who seek to usurp one another. As the film passes the thirty minute mark, however, it becomes something else entirely; quite literally Teruo Ishii turns it into a freakish house of horrors, whereby a crazy athletic hunchback (played by Tatsumi Hijikata, who one year prior starred in Ishii’s Horror of the Malformed Men) leads the film into a far more decadent territory of sex and murderous intrigue. Ishii ushers in a series of incredibly cheesy, though fun special effects, which, along with his stylised compositions, allows proceedings to take on the surreal form that he was always so fondly remembered for. Seeking to weave a thread of uncertain horror, peppered with light scares, the film’s symbolic notion of inevitable retribution wrapped in a little Bakeneko superstition carries it through a deliberately paced and foreboding middle act, as it builds toward its inevitable crescendo: a strikingly staged showdown within a desolate town between Akemi and the eponymous woman of the title.

Despite the sheer predictability of the central storyline, in which the heavily signposted arrival of the title’s mystery blind woman (Hoki Tokuda) signals a strong tie with Akemi – and Ishii’s futile efforts to try and conceal the big twist for as long as possible – Blind Woman’s Curse is elevated further thanks to its commendably strong cast. Kaji, making her debut appearance is quite impressive. Granted she’s no show-stopper, but as a precursor to the kinds of laid back and quieter characters she’d take on at Toei in the early seventies, her presence is a curious one for completeists alone. There are, however, lengthy durations in which Miss Kaji is absent, making way for a host of wonderfully colourful and over-the-top tertiary support, who happily prance around the intimate and surreally-lit environment of quaint houses and opium dens, complete with their obligatory fill of naked ladies and more-than-corrupt gang bosses. When paired with Ishii’s trademark bouts of fitting humour as well, it’s enough to ensure that Blind Woman’s Curse remains as ridiculously fun as it is totally absurd, right through to its very end.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Battle Girl/バトルガール

battlegirl

Batoru Garu, 1991

When a meteor crashes into Japan, creating an unexplainable force field within the heart of Tokyo, the Ground Self-Defence Force, led by Captain Fujioka (Pink Eiga veteran Shiro Shimomoto) places a blockade around the city as they declare martial law. Shrouded in darkness, its citizens have little place to go, nor viable means to survive, with the immediate closure of all services and an escalation in violent crime. Unfortunately the meteor’s landing seems to have brought even bigger issues: a virus capable of raising the dead and turning them into dim-witted cannibals.

Enter K-Ko (Cutie Suzuki): a young woman working for a vague organization, which has asked her to help find survivors and fend off the zombie horde because she’s the best of the best of the best – in whatever it is she does. Armed only with the latest in battle-suit technology, K-Ko must save Tokyo and take down a very bad man with only one goal in mind. I’ll leave you to guess what that is.

Kazuo Komizu began his career at the tail-end of the 1960s as a screenwriter for the rising Pink Cinema scene, making his debut as a co-author on Koji Wakamatsu’s Go Go, Second Time Virgin. It was one of very few films in Komizu’s career which would make it onto DVD in the west in an official capacity over a decade ago: a dark coming-of-age tale of sexual exploration and abuse. Komizu and Wakamatsu would continue working together for a couple more features, allowing Komizu to explore other avenues as an Assistant Director. He would subsequently go on to work with other esteemed directors, such as Pink Cinema greats Masaru Konuma and Mamoru Watanabe; experiences that would prove especially fruitful throughout the eighties with Komizu gaining more immediate recognition thanks to a number of self-penned “erotic” horrors (“erotic” being applied very loosely I might add). Shortly after the notorious Female Market he made his directorial debut with Guts of a Virgin in 1986. Like many others that featured his involvement, it was bootlegged for quite some time, until U.S. label Synapse issued it and one of its two follow-ups several years ago. Continuing to show its appreciation for the director’s work, the company put forth his 1991 V-Cinema outing: Battle Girl.

It’s a slight departure for Kazuo Komizu. Nowhere near as violently graphic, nor sexually depraved as his earlier features, the director takes a different step in his career with a feature that despite its unrated certificate here, is largely an inoffensive and lightweight affair, with not a great deal to even warrant parents shielding it from young prying eyes. It’s the director at his most sedate, helming a science fiction horror with all the enthusiasm of a cat on its way to the vet.

It’s not long before Battle Girl’s influences start to seem apparent, coming across as a bit of a pastiche of U.S. cult action/SF cinema and Japanese comics. From George Romero and John Carpenter to Mamoru Oshii, Komizu’s feature, with its representations of social decay, comfortably nestles itself within the Cyberpunk genre; its dystopian visions and socio-political commentary lending themselves to a rather typical scenario involving national isolation and the fight for independency. Having a considerably lower budget and lacking the necessary visual flair, however, Komizu doesn’t exactly reach any remarkable highs. Instead the film is overly content in rallying off bouts of convoluted techno-babble to make as much use of its sci-fi trappings as possible, much to the distilling of an already short run time and the opening of a few plot concerns as the narrative forgoes more of the important characterization that it alludes to early on.

But throughout these 74 minutes Battle Girl does have its moments and at least shows it for being just as ridiculous as Komizu’s earlier efforts behind the lens. While its fairly invariable appearance doesn’t make for any real excitement, it tends to deliver the goods in an unintentionally humorous manner, both in the acting and action departments. The fight sequences, largely carried out by Cutie Suzuki – wearing a non-flattering bin liner of a battle suit – and fellow pro-wrestlers Devil Masami, Eagle Sawai and Shinobu Kandori, are rather surprisingly poorly choreographed: nothing more than slowly performed exchanges of blows, accompanied by cartoon sound effects, which do well to raise a few smiles, albeit at the expense of stripping away any tension that the director is trying to build. With its added explosions, perpetual smoke and unusual smatterings of green blood, Battle Girl isn’t particularly original by any means, but it’s nonetheless a functional time-waster for those who may yet to tire of, well, cute chicks fighting zombies.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Robo-geisha/ロボゲイシャ

robogeisha.jpg

Robo-geisha, 2009

“A new type of girls movie, with tears and laughter!”, announces the trailer, which then promptly goes on to boast 70,000 Youtube viewings for the original teaser.

You see, Noboru Iguchi has been afforded quite a luxury; his movies don’t require obscene amounts of money pumped into their advertising campaigns – The Machine Girl having earned him instant cult status amongst internet crowds, and with it the assumption that everything he touches must subsequently turn to gold. That doesn’t guarantee huge box-office success, however, as back home they tend to receive very limited theatrical runs and live or die by their DVD sales. Western Asian cinema fans have certainly taken quite a shine to the works of both he and his visual effects partner Yoshihiro Nishimura over the past couple of years, and time will only tell just how long they’ll continue to ride the bloody wave of success.

Robo-Geisha tells the story of orphaned sisters Yoshie (Aya Kiguchi) and Kikue (Hitomi Hasebe). Kikue is in the throws of Maiko training, while her younger sister and general dogsbody can only dream of attaining such a rank. Day in and day out Yoshie is bullied by her sister, until one day a client of Kikue’s takes a shine to her. He just so happens to be Hikaru Kageno (Takumi Saitoh), who with his father (Taro Shigaki), runs super military weapons manufacturer ‘Kageno Steel’.

Whisking the pair away to a big ol’ castle, it is soon revealed that Kageno Steel has been hatching a dastardly plot to kidnap young trainee Geishas, weaponizing their bodies and brainwashing them into becoming the ultimate assassins. In the eyes of Hikaru, Yoshie shows the most potential, but she’s soon forced to make a difficult decision; one which will affect her better moral judgement and forever change her life.

Robo-geisha enjoys a distinctly snazzier appearance over that of its elder sister; shot in lush Hi-definition and bursting with colour and exaggerated performances, one can’t help but be reminded of the many manga-like J-Dramas currently doing the rounds. In fact the story itself is so befitting of any number of Japanese social melodramas that in some respects Iguchi’s script could be touted as lazy. However, like The Machine Girl, his film appears to have an intent of lampooning the conventions readily associated within the genre. At the heart of Robo-geisha therein lies a simple tale of a sibling rivalry, replete with an excess of overripe sentiments through which an epic struggle between two girls seeking acceptance unfolds. Much of the feature’s first half deals with domestic violence and unspoken affection in the run up to our protagonist’s transformation; Yoshie is a rather doughy-eyed figure, dressed down so as not to greatly reveal her all-too-evident beauty and portrayed thusly as the caring underdog of the piece, while her elder sister stands as the epitome of superficiality and selfishness.

The contrasting personalities of the two girls makes for an interesting dynamic set against the backdrop of a Geisha house and thanks to a few bouts of role-reversing Iguchi manages to bypass some otherwise predictable routes, even if it does happen to offset the pacing somewhat. The director also finds a moment to take a stab at mass corporate consumption, with his antagonistic suits vying for world domination, while the little people suffer by its hands. Enter an elderly band of disgruntled parental figures – led by a sorely wasted Naoto Takenaka – and the battle between two generations isn’t entirely without relevancy when we begin to see the communication barriers between families and foes take rise.  However, any intended satire this time around lacks the necessary bite, with many of the gags that creep in amidst some lengthy dialogue failing to even raise a smirk, thus inevitability setting an uneven tone for a film of such mixed emotions.

Lifting it out of the doldrums and combating such genre conventions is the overblown CG aesthetics, which, like The Machine Girl, aren’t so much jaw-dropping in their technical prowess as they are absurd and vividly imaginative. As the feature hits its stride midway, Iguchi aggressively culls from obvious sources and allows his work to open up and take on a new lease of life. Yes the Robocop references are here, right down to a homage of the film’s central theme tune, while nods to Kaiju cinema are as hokey as to be expected. The blood-letting is mild, with many practical effects sidelined in favour of animated sprays, overall giving effects guru Yoshihiro Nishimura – who even makes a spirited cameo appearance – few chances to leave a mark. Up-skirt shots, some interesting prosthetic gags – including yet more death-by-food obsessions – and an assortment of weapons strategically placed in various orifices sees Iguchi and Nishimura as the men-children they obviously are: hopelessly immature but uncompromising in their own personal amusement nonetheless.

And, as with the gentlemen’s previous features, Robo-Geisha is not only filled with familiar supporting faces, but also places stars from the adult entertainment world at its forefront. Iguchi, who originally carved a career out of producing AV features, casts Gravure idol Aya Kiguchi in the starring role, alongside a devilishly fun Hitomi Hasebe, with what looks to be Hasebe’s swan song, given her recent announcement that she’s to quit the industry. AV Idol Asami Sugiura and Cay Izumi (head of Gothic-Lolita pole-dancing troupe ‘Tokyo Delores’) make up the curious duo of the Tengun sisters, which certainly leaves no shortage of curves and jiggles to get us through some of the lesser moments.

Give him his dues, Noboru Iguchi’s Robo-geisha is an often visual treat, but a compromised one at that, eschewing much of the rampant gore that its predecessor lapped up, all at the behest of a studio this time hoping to appeal to the pre-teen market and above. Don’t let the UK 18 certificate fool you too much; while the skimpy outfits, lactating acid breasts and occasional CG blood-letting might leave cause for concern – even for its own country, more often tolerant of fantasy violence – this is ultimately a light affair, offering little by way of innovation in comparison to the film which made Iguchi’s name.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment