The Blood of Wolves (Korô no chi)


Sometimes you can’t tell the cops from the criminals.

(2018) Crime Drama (Toei) Kôji Yakusho, Tôri Matsuzaka, Gorô Ibuki, Yoko Maki, Yôsuke Eguchi, Hajime Inoue, Megumi, Tarô Suruga, Renji Ishibashi, Takuma Otoo, Kyûsaku Shimada, Junko Abe, Marie Machida, Takahiro Kuroishi, Eiji Takigawa, Pierre Taki, Shun Nakayama, Joey Iwanaga, Tomorô Taguchi, Ken’Ichi Takitô, Tomoya Nakamura, Katsuya, Issei Okihara. Directed by Kazuya Shiraishi

In movies there are actual touchstones; Hitchcock for thrillers, Chaplin for comedies, Ford for Westerns and Scorsese for gangster movies. Scorsese himself was influenced in turn by Asian crime dramas which in its own way is somewhat ironic and circular.

Shiraishi says that the 1973-74 five part series Battles Without Honor and Humanity was his main influence for his work but that in turn was influenced by some of Scorsese’s earlier work such as Mean Streets. This film, based on the novel of the same Japanese name, is set in Hiroshima in 1988 at the height of a gang war. The Odani-gumi Yakuza gang have been in control for 14 years; the Machiavellian leader of the Irako-kai gang (Ishibashi) has cut a deal with the volatile leader (Shimada) of the Kakomura-gumi to retake the territory the Irako-kai had lost – and then some.

Trying to stave off what would be another bloody gang war is a cop as rumpled as the packs of cigarettes he smokes incessantly Shogo Ogami (Yakusho) who has just been saddled with a naive straight arrow partner named Shuichi Hioka (Matsuzaka). They are investigating the disappearance of an accountant from a financial institution that is actually a Yakuza money laundering front. As tensions between rival gangs grow, Ogami – who never met a rule he wasn’t willing to break – utilizes informants including his best friend Ginji Takii (Taki) who is a low-level guy for the Odani-gumi to get closer to the rival gangs. Soon Hioka suspects that Ogami is protecting the Ogami as well as himself – there are rumors that the last gang war ended because Ogami, then a uniformed officer, murdered a top man for the Irako-kai. That has been neither forgotten nor forgiven.

In between chasing down sadistic Yakuza and indifferent bureaucrats, Ogami and Hioka hang out in a bar administered by the beautiful but volatile Rikako (Maki) whose past is key to the last gang war and what is leading to the next. Sake will flow and blood will spill – sometimes in buckets – in this brutal, bloody Yakuza film.

Very often during a movie there will be periods where my interest wanes and my attention will wander a little bit. Not so with The Blood of Wolves – there wasn’t a moment that my attention wasn’t focused to the goings-on onscreen. While there is a fairly large cast of characters and many are essentially disposable Yakuza foot soldiers and cops, the main characters are well-developed and especially veteran actor Yakusho deliver some marvelous performances.

As here in America, the gangster film has fallen on hard times in Japan. Once a staple of their film industry, in recent years the Yakuza film has been relegated to the periphery. This particular one is old school and has that epic quality that the best films of such genre greats as Scorsese and Coppola possessed. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t some good examples of the genre still being made in the Land of the Rising Sun and this is an example of it. It has already screened at the New York Asian Film Festival this year but as the powerhouse Toei studio is behind it there is a pretty good chance further American audiences will get a chance to see it and this is absolutely worth seeing; it is one of the highlights of the Festival this year.

REASONS TO GO: The comparisons to Scorsese are unavoidable in a good way. The story keeps you riveted to the screen. Yakusho gives a compelling performance.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the violence may be too much for the squeamish.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a ton of brutal violence and some over-the-top gore; there is also plenty of profanity, some nudity, sexual situations and references and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is based on a novel that is itself a fictionalized version of a  actual gang war that took place in Hiroshima and the neighboring suburb of Kure.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/9/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Gangster’s Daughter
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Rock in the Red Zone

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Message From Hiroshima


It's the devastation you can't see that will move you.

It’s the devastation you can’t see that will move you.

(2015) Documentary (Cinema Libre) George Takei (voice), Kazuo Fukushima, Akinori Ueda, Ryoga Suwa, Hisako Miyake, Kinue Nakamitsu, Chieko Fujiki, Yoshie Oka, Junko Ohta, Kyoko Nakamura, Noboru Hirabayashi, Sumiko Uesugi, Takuji Enami, Akia Nakazawa, Tsuneo Kasai, Nenkai Aoyama, Haruto Oda, Isao Toi, Yoshie Nakatani, Masako Nishida, Sadako Imada. Directed by Masaaki Tanabe

The American attitude towards the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is essentially, “Well, they brought it on themselves, and it saved millions of American lives in the process.” For the most part, Americans believe that these bombings were justified.

Message From Hiroshima may change all that. Director Masaaki Tanabe was seven years old and a resident of the Nakajima district in central Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Fears of American bombings of a more conventional nature had led his parents to send him to stay with his grandmother 32 miles away when the bomb hit. His mother and brother were killed in the blast; his father died two weeks later from the burns he sustained. To say that this is a personal project for him would be an understatement.

The film mostly consists of anecdotal accounts of life in Hiroshima before the bomb, the devastation caused by the bomb and the effects on the community afterwards. The domed Industrial Promotion Hall – once the pride of the city where exhibits on exports from the town were regularly given and where government offices were located – which was reduced to a shell (seen in the photo above) and is the only building in the district (if you can call it a building anymore) that remains as a stark reminder of the devastation. Across the river where Nakajima was located, a peace park full of monuments to the fallen (a burial mound of remains of unknown citizens is also located here) that is both beautiful and sad.

Jocelyn Cervenka created computer graphic re-creations of the Nakajima based on photographs and survivor descriptions that are used to great effect here. They display a vibrant city center, full of shops and restaurants as well as residences. In the background, the river flows, the heart of the city. George Takei from Star Trek who has his own horror stories from the war, narrates wonderfully and describes how the citizens of Hiroshima were once very in tune with the river; bathing, swimming, diving from the various bridges and fishing were regular parts of the lives of the citizens of Hiroshima. One of the casualties of the war is that, according to Takei, that is no longer the case. I would love to see her graphics made available online so that people can take an interactive tour of Nakashima. It would not only be instructive but a lovely way to preserve that lost world forever.

The accounts of the survivors are incredibly moving and to see how raw the wounds continue to be for these now elderly people, youngsters when the bomb was dropped, still are 70 years after the fact. Watching them break down into tears as they describe seeing the devastation, of waiting for parents who never came to claim them, of not even finding bones of their loved ones for them to bury (those close enough to ground zero, which was essentially where Nakajima was, were vaporized by the heat of the blast). Listening to these accounts makes me wonder how Japan was able to move on from this kind of wound.

But this isn’t an anti-United States film. What it is mostly is a means of preserving a way of life that is now a distant memory for elderly citizens of a city that was beautiful in 1945 and continues to be today, but has been indelibly changed by the experience. The movie is only 52 minutes long and I suspect it couldn’t be any longer because as human beings, we couldn’t handle the deep emotions for much more than the time we are given here.

I will admit that I’m one of those Americans who looked on the nuclear annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as necessary evils. I no longer think that’s the case after viewing this movie. Anyone who thinks that detonating a nuclear device is a solution to anything should be made to watch this movie. Should we have foregone the nuclear option and instead mounted a conventional invasion of Japan that would have cost millions of lives both American and Japanese? Honestly, that’s the kind of dilemma that makes me glad I’m not President; Truman must have grappled with this for years after the fact. I don’t know that what happened to the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are worth the lives that were saved, I honestly don’t. I will say that for me at least, Hiroshima is no longer just a few paragraphs in a history book. The meaning is far more intense and personal to me now. I urge anyone who can see this film. It’s a life changer.

While the movie is making the rounds in one-off exhibitions usually sponsored by churches or peace organizations, it is also available on Amazon and can be viewed free for Amazon Prime subscribers. If you’re interested, you can view it here. I strongly urge that you do.

REASONS TO GO: Emotionally devastating. Short anecdotes of survivor accounts effective. Computer graphics work nicely. May change your mind about the nuclear option.
REASONS TO STAY: May be too disturbing for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Disturbing images, graphic descriptions of carnage and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There is nothing trivial about this.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/11/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fog of War
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Best of Enemies

Mr. Holmes


Even the most beautiful garden path can be the road to Hell.

Even the most beautiful garden path can be the road to Hell.

(2015) Drama (Miramax/Roadside Attractions) Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Milo Parker, Hiroyuki Sanada, Hattie Morahan, Patrick Kennedy, Roger Allam, Philip Davis, Frances de la Tour, Charles Maddox, Takako Akashi, Zak Shukor, John Sessions, Michael Culkin, David Foxxe, Oliver Devoti, Mike Burnside, Nicholas Rowe, Sam Coulson, Frances Barber. Directed by Bill Condon

The difference between reality and fiction can often be the mere stroke of a pen. Often we are presented with an image, one that in time becomes as reality. What happens to the real person then, when the fictional image becomes more powerful than the real person who inspired it?

In a sleepy seaside town on the east coast of England lives a cantankerous old man in an old cottage overlooking white chalk cliffs. He spends his days pottering around, caring for his bees and chatting with Roger (Parker), the son of his housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Linney). It is nigh on impossible to believe that once upon a time, this old man was the most famous and honored detective in Great Britain, for he is Sherlock Holmes (McKellen), now 93 years old and living in retirement in post-war England.

It is 1947 and he has just returned from Japan on a visit with Umezaki (Sanada), with whom he has been corresponding about the nature of prickly ash, which is said to have restorative powers for those afflicted by senility. Holmes witnesses first-hand the horrors of Hiroshima only two years after it was annihilated by the Americans and their atomic bomb; for a man who has lived through two world wars, this visual representation of man’s inhumanity to man is almost more than he can take.

Holmes’ great mental facilities and his memory has become suspect and the 93-year-old man is trapped by his fading intellect. He is trying to recall his last case, one which caused him to retire to the seaside, but he can’t remember it, or what about it caused him to put down his magnifying glass for good. He feels like he needs to recall this; everyone he knows is dead save for the two living with him now who didn’t know him when these events transpired. All he knows is the case involved a distraught husband (Kennedy), a mysterious wife (Morahan) and a music teacher (de la Tour) who was also something of a spiritualist. As the case unravels, so does Holmes. Can he remember the details of the case and find peace, or will he join his colleagues in the Choir Invisible first?

This is the Bill Condon of Gods and Monsters, not the one who directed the two installments of the Twilight saga. Other reviewers have described this movie as elegiac and that’s nearly the perfect description; there is an air of melancholy, of lost lives and overwhelming regret and loneliness. Much of the movie is told through flashbacks as the elderly Holmes recalls shards of memory and starts to assemble them into a cohesive whole. There is an amazing scene where a middle-aged Holmes speaks to one of the main players in the mystery he is revisiting in his old age and describes that he has consciously made the choice to be lonely, but somewhat ironically follows up that having the great intellect is reward enough. As he nears the end of his life, Holmes no longer has the comfort of that intellect, although germs of it remain.

&We forget that McKellan is one of the great actors of our time; we tend to associate him with Gandalf and Magneto and need to remember that this man has a Shakespearean background and has some of the most honored performances in the history of the English stage,. His gruff exterior hides inner pain, as he for perhaps for the first time in his life feels fear; fear that the thing most of value to him is being slowly stripped away from him. For someone like Sherlock Holmes, dementia and senility are the absolute worst calamities that might befall him. We see the uncertainty of a man used to relying on the powers of his mind suddenly unable to trust those powers any longer. It’s a bravura performance that not only humanizes the great detective who is often seen these days as something of a caricature but also makes him relatable. In the past, Holmes always seemed above the rest of us; we could admire his skills while finding him cold and unapproachable. Befriending Sherlock Holmes would be something like befriending an iPad; it can be done but it wouldn’t be very satisfying if you did.

I haven’t read the novel this is based on but I’m going to make a point of finding it. There is a marvelous backstory as we discover that for the sake of making the chronicles of Sherlock Holmes’ career more enticing to the reading public his dear friend Dr. Watson has taken a few liberties with the truth. For example, Holmes tells us in a somewhat bemused tone, that he never wore a deerstalker cap (which was actually an invention of illustrators Sidney Paget and Frederic Dorr Steele, who assumed the deerstalker was the chapeau of choice due to Arthur Conan Doyle’s descriptions of his headgear, although the author never expressly stated that Holmes wore a deerstalker) nor did he smoke a pipe – he tended to prefer cigars. We get the sense that Holmes is somewhat amused by Watson’s inventions regarding his life but is to a large extent also trapped by them.

Purists of the Holmes canon will probably have a bit of a meltdown regarding some of this, but I personally think (not being a Sherlock Holmes expert in any sense) that the author and filmmakers do honor the spirit of the character here. We get a sense of what a real human being would be like if possessed of the same mental acuity as Sherlock Holmes. It would be a marvelous life indeed – and a lonely one as well.

In some ways this is likely to get lost amid the bombast of the summer’s louder and more well-heeled blockbusters, but this is as entertaining as any of them – and more than most of them, for that matter. I thoroughly enjoyed this visit to the great detective’s final years and found it believable and enjoyable, and that is all you can really ask of a summer movie indeed.

REASONS TO GO: Tremendous performance by McKellan. Terrific backstory.
REASONS TO STAY: Not for purists.
FAMILY VALUES: Some of the concepts here are pretty adult; there are a couple of images that are disturbing as well.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The actor playing Holmes in the movie that the “real” Holmes goes to see is played by Nicholas Rowe, who starred in the title role of Young Sherlock Holmes.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/28/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Seven Per-Cent Solution
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Little Death