Shoplifters (Manbiki kazoku)


Going for that five-fingered discount.

(2018) Drama (Magnolia) Lily Franky, Sakura Andō, Kirin Kiki, Mayu Matsuoka, Jyo Kairi, Miyu Sasaki, Sōsuke Ikematsu, Yûki Yamada, Moemi Katayama, Daisuke Kuroda, Kazuaki Shimizu, Izumi Matsuoka, Katsuya Maiguma, Hajime Inoue, Aju Makita, Akira Emoto, Haruna Hori, Momoko Miyauchi, Mami Hashimto, Nobu Morimoto, Mana Mikami. Directed by Hirokazu Koreeda

 

The family unit is the backbone of most human cultures. Woe be unto those who mess with the family; communist regimes in Russia and China tried it without success. But what is it about families that make them so necessary? Can we teach our children morality if we ourselves are less-than-moral? Can we have a loving family in non-traditional groupings?

The Shibata family is what you would call the working poor. Father Osamu (Franky) is a day laborer; mother Nobuyo (Andō) works in an industrial laundry. Auntie Aki (Matsuoka) is a hostess in a peep show, dressing like a school girl and performing sexual acts for lonely men watching behind two-way mirrors. Grandmother Hatsue (Kiki) chips in with her pension check and their son Shota (Kairi) helps out in the family business. What is the family business? Shoplifting.

Osamu and Shota go to local supermarkets and pick up what necessities the family needs via the five-fingered discount. The family can’t afford to put enough food on the table, so they supplement their income as best they can. On the way home from such a trip, Osamu and Shota come upon a little girl named Yuri (Sasaki) hiding under a balcony in a neighboring apartment building. It is an insanely cold night and the girl, already hungry and scared, will certainly not survive the night if left out there. Good-hearted Osamu brings the girl home. Hatsue discovers evidence of abuse on the little girl, but Nobuyo is adamant that the girl be returned to her parents. When they arrive, Osamu and Nobuyo hear a violent fight going on between the parents. Nobuyo at last relents and the girl is brought home, unofficially adopted by the Shibata clan.

It’s not kidnapping, explains Osamu, because they aren’t demanding a ransom. Besides, the little girl has found herself in a loving family that takes care of one another and despite their financial straits, they still manage to enjoy life to the fullest. Shota even deigns to teach the newest Shibata the family trade. However, the idyllic situation can’t last long; things begin to unravel and the secrets at the core of the Shibata family are revealed at last.

The last half hour of the film is a total tonal shift from the first hour and a half, and quite frankly, it was a bit too much for my taste, although I am aware that a lot of critics found that shift to be the best thing about the film. As they say, your mileage may vary.

But this is a very good film, a look at how the working poor survive day t day in Japan, how the bond within a family is maintained even when the grey areas are a bit more widespread than normal. Despite the fact that they steal and scam, the Shibata family to a man (and woman) are good-hearted people who genuinely care for one another. There is almost no judgement going on, which is rare in a family. They accept each other and love each other for who they are. A lot of morally straight families could benefit from instruction from the Shibata family.

Good performances throughout are at the forefront; there are some truly heartbreaking moments and some truly joyous ones as well. Cinematographer Ryûto Kondō makes good use of every shot; there is a lot happening in every frame which means that additional viewings of the film will yield more treasure.

This is very much one of the best films from 2018 and would have gotten a higher rating from me had I liked the ending more. I will say that it is imaginative and will come at you from out of nowhere, which is what I think some folks like about it. I suspect that I will like this movie more the next time I watch it. If so, that’s the mark of a truly great film experience.

REASONS TO SEE: Thought-provoking on the nature of families. Moral dilemma isn’t an easy one to dismiss..
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is a bit of a letdown.
FAMILY VALUES: There is sexuality and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Won the Palme d’Or at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, the first Japanese film to do so since 1997.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, FlixFling, Google Play, Hoopla, Hulu, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/21/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews, Metacritic: 93/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Our Little Sister
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Tombstone Rashomon

Liverleaf (Misumisô)


The phrase “pure as the driven snow” doesn’t apply here.

(2018) Horror (T-Joy) Anna Yomada, Hiroya Shimizu, Rinka Ôtani, Rena Ôtsuka, Kenshin Endô, Masato Endô, Kazuki Ōtomo, Masahiro Toda, Seina Nakata, Minori Terada, Ayaka Konno, Arisa Sakura, Reiko Kataoka, Aki Morita, Sena Tamayori. Directed by Eisuke Naitô

Bullying is sadly not an unusual thing, whether in American  high schools or Japanese ones. There always seems to be a human urge for the strong to prey on the weak.

Haruka Nozaki (Yomada) falls into the latter category. A transfer into a small rural middle school from a larger city, she doesn’t fit in and is preyed upon mercilessly by a gaggle of girls led by the diffident Queen Bee Taeko (Ôtani) who for a short while was friends with Nozaki. Now, she gives tacit approval to her followers in making the life of Nozaki a living hell.

Things start off typically; knocking her book bag out of her hands, throwing her shoes in a mud pit, knocking her into the mud-type things. Then things begin to escalate; a dead crow is put in her locker and she is jabbed with needles. Her mother (Kataoka) and father (Toda) have a meeting with Nozaki’s teacher (Morita) who is strangely cowed by the other students; they call her “vomit teacher” because she throws up when the misbehaving gets extreme. In any case, the teacher informs the parents that the school is closing at the end of the term and there’s no sense in opening up a can of worms. Nozaki’s parents take the extraordinary step of keeping their daughter home from school.

Infuriated, the bullies send Rumi (Ôtsuka) – a girl with a stammer who would be next on the list to get their full attention – to get Nozaki back to school but Nozaki knows all too well that things will end badly for her if she goes to school, so she declines. Rumi, wanting to fit in with the ugly bully crowd, professes that she wants Nozaki to die. Some of the boys in the group decide to see how serious she is. In the meantime, Nozaki has a friend in Aiba (Shimizu) who is more than a little interested in photography and is, like Nozaki, a transfer student. He lives, for some unexplained reason, with his grandmother.

But Nozaki’s refusal causes things to spin completely out of control from there as the bullies go way, way, way over the line. Tragedy results and Nozaki is left a shell of herself, a ghost floating in the winter snow. Even then the bullies won’t leave well enough alone and Nozaki finally stands up for herself – and she’s holding a knife when she does.

The film, based on an ultraviolent manga, is the latest teen bully horror film from Naitô who has already directed a couple of movies with comparable themes. Some critics have labeled this a revenge film and I’m not really sure if that’s accurate; certainly Nozaki’s actions later in the film could be construed as seeking vengeance but I get more of a sense that it is self-preservation she’s after. She’s pushed to a wall and like any cornered animal, fights her way out.

Yomada is excellent as the timid, cringing wallflower turned psycho killer. Her change from one extreme to the other is totally believable and while the gore and mayhem may be somewhat over-the-top, it is a comic book adaptation folks and one would expect an exaggerated amount of violence and bloodshed in that situation. In fact, some of the most brutal scenes in the movie are so beautifully photographed by cinematographer Hidetoshi Shinomiya that you almost feel guilty enjoying the images he captures.

The movie could have used some judicious editing; the climax is a long time coming and when it arrives it’s almost a relief. I was left wishing it had come sooner but again, like most Americans I have the attention span of a loaf of bread. It felt like Naitô was taking a bloody long time to get to where he was going. I haven’t read the manga so I’m not entirely sure how faithful the film is to it but it feels like there was some fat that could have been trimmed.

As scary movies go this is more visceral than spooky. The scares are mainly in the gore and violence, not so much from any build-up from tension; think of it as a slasher movie in a Japanese school girl uniform (you know, the Sailor Moon outfit) and there you have Liverleaf, which is a local flower that blooms to usher in spring and is a big deal to Nozaki’s photographer friend, her only friend and maybe more than that. This isn’t going to scare the bejeezus out of you but then again, not every horror film has to.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the scenes of brutality are filmed in a strangely beautiful manner. Anna Yomada delivers a killer performance (literally).
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is way too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and disturbing images, gore, profanity and scenes of brutal bullying.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is based on the Misumisô manga by Rensuke Oshikiri.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/16/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Heathers
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
1/1

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

The Scythian Lamb (Hitsuji no ki)


….but the seafood is GREAT!!!

(2017) Drama (Asmik Ace) Ryo Nishikido, Fumino Kimura, Ryuhei Matsuda, Kazuki Kitamura, Yuka, Mikako Ichikawa, Shingo Mizusawa, Min Tanaka, Yuji Nakamura, Tamae Ando, Yoshihiko Hosoda, Toshiyuki Kitami, Miyako Yamaguchi, Shinsuke Suzuki, Sansho Shinsui, Yota Kawase, Masatoshi Kihara, Tsuyoshi Nakano, Daihi, Noa Miyake. Directed by Daihachi Yoshida

The rehabilitation of criminals can be a tricky thing. After all, there are all sorts of criminals; those who commit crimes by being in the wrong place at the wrong time; those who have a compulsion; those who fall in to the wrong crowd and some who just plain like being bad.

Like many other rural towns in Japan, Uobuka is having difficulties maintaining their population as many Japanese citizens are emigrating from the countryside to the big cities. The mayor of Uobuka has struck a deal with the Japanese prison system which is dealing with overcrowding to house six criminals who are considered low-risk; they are to be paroled early and send to Uobuka to live provided they stay there at least ten years.

A minor civic functionary, the handsome and somewhat enthusiastic nebbish Hajime Tsukisue (Nishikido) is assigned to get all six of the new residents settled. He greets all of them enthusiastically, remarking that Uobuka is a nice place…with nice people…and great seafood.

The first arrival, Hiroki Fukimoto (Mizusawa) seems rather nervous and when treated to dinner, eats like he had been lost in the wilderness without food or water for days. He is given a job at the local barber shop. My first instinct upon seeing him was “who in their right mind would trust this guy with scissors?”

Next comes the beautiful and sexy Reiko Ota (Yuka) who gets work at the local senior center. Hajime likes her just fine…until she strikes up a romance with his own dad! Shigeru Ono (Tanaka) is ex-Yakuza and wants to stay that way, reacting violently to a recruiting visit by his ex-colleagues.

Kiyomi Kurimoto (Ichikawa) seems rather tightly wound; she has an affinity for cleaning…and burying things in the garden. Katsushi Sugiyama (Kitamura) looks to be the bad boy of the bunch; he is unrepentant and with his shark-like grin gets bored almost the instant he gets into town and starts looking for trouble.

The one exception to the bunch seems to be Ichiro Miyakoshi (Matsuda) who comes off as gentle and friendly. After being placed in a delivery courier position (in a distinctive blue and yellow van no less), he and Hajime become friends which isn’t a bad thing; after all, Hajime has a bit of a double life, going from respectable city functionary to being part of a garage rock band on weekends. When Ichiro shows up wanting to learn how to play guitar, Hajime is fine with it. When he starts hitting on Aya (Kimura) who was the high school crush of Hajime (and lead guitarist in his band), things get a little awkward.

They get even more awkward when Hajime discovers that all six were convicted of murder and when someone shows up murdered…well, the fish guts are about to hit the fan, particularly when another functionary finds out their secret and enlists them all to participate in the Nororo festival, a tribute to an ancient sea creature who once terrorized the town, leading to a tradition of two people being thrown off the cliffs into the sea; Nororo would take one, leaving the other to survive.

Yoshida has rafted a wonderfully off-kilter movie that although ostensibly a drama has elements of noir, black comedy and slice-of-life coming of age film all woven in. The Uobuka looks like a pretty nice place to live which although the running joke of Hajime’s exhortations about the quality of life may get old they are nonetheless dead on which is part of the joke.

The performances here are really rather good. Each of the various parolees has a distinct personality and they each get their own moments to shine. Nishikido, known more for his music career than his acting, shows that he has the chops to make it in the movies on both sides of the Pacific. He doesn’t do a lot of singing even in the garage band sequences but he has plenty of presence nonetheless. Oddly, most of the score is less pop or rock oriented but is a kind of discordant minimalism that actually works better in getting across the “something is not quite right” vibe that this film brings to life wonderfully.

While the New York Asian Film Festival screening has already come and gone, this is a good bet to pick up some sort of American distribution. Sure it’s a bit strange but not so much that American audiences won’t connect with it. Hopefully those of you not in the New York area will get a chance to see it sooner rather than later.

REASONS TO GO: The humor is pitch black and the tone just off-kilter enough to be fascinating. Life in Uobuka looks pretty nice to me.
REASONS TO STAY: The score is minimalist and discordant.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of sexuality, some mild profanity and a disturbing scene of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Nishikido is a major pop star in Japan.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/6/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The World According to Garp
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Whitney

Ramen Heads


(


The deliciousness that is ramen.

(2017) Documentary (FilmBuff/Gunpowder & Sky) Osamu Tomita, Shôta Iida, Kumiko Ishida, Katsuya Kobayashi, Yûki Ohnishi, Tom Takahashi, Touka, Hayama, Inoue. Directed by Koki Shigeno

Most of us in the United States know ramen as something that comes pre-packaged and can be made at home in just a few minutes. In Japan, ramen has been around for a long while as a kind of working man’s lunch that was easy and inexpensive that took off in a post-World War II Japan. In recent years there has been a dedicated sub-culture as ramen has been gentrified to a certain extent. Fanatics of the dish have their favorite chefs, each of whom have their own recipe for the broth.

The film concentrates mainly o Osamu Tomita who has been voted the best ramen chef in Japan for four years running. We get to see how obsessed he is with the quality of his ingredients, with boiling the broth for just the right amount of time to get the full range of flavors just right. Shigeno goes into loving detail – maybe a bit too lunch for non-aficionados. Certainly true ramen heads will eat this all up, literally but there may be those who find it a bit too much of a love letter.

The film covers other chefs as well although not in as great detail and things end up with a celebration of the tenth anniversary of Tomita’s restaurant, which has only ten tables, is located in a fairly less-traveled part of Japan and yet lines have already formed by 7am when the restaurant takes reservations for the day. It is necessary because the reservations generally sell out early; it is one of the hardest tables to get in all of Japan.

We then are shown the dizzying array of ramen types, many of which are virtually unknown outside of Japan. I never knew that there were so many; I was aware of tonkatsu but the others? It was to be honest, mind-blowing. I think anyone with an interest in food, especially Japanese cuisine and particularly ramen will find a lot to learn in this doc.

This is very much a man’s world; I didn’t see a single female ramen chef and even the servers were male. I also got the sense that most diehard ramen fans are also men, but this is something not really explored in the film. It should have at least have been mentioned. The fact that this is a Japanese film intended for a Japanese audience leads to them not mentioning that ramen has begun exploding over here in the States, with small ramen shops like the ones depicted here opening up all over the country.

However, there is almost a fawning feel and the voice over narration is a bit florid. Clearly the director is completely enamored of ramen which is all right  but he ascribes to it an almost mystic quality to it, equating it to the first blush of young love. It’s only noodle soup, dude.

REASONS TO GO: These chefs are truly badass! The film lets us into a world of obsession that westerners rarely get to see and are unfamiliar with.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a bit long and may be too detailed for those who aren’t into ramen.
FAMILY VALUES: This is suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Metastasized breast cancer is incurable and usually fatal; it also only gets about 8% of research funding despite causing the lion’s share of fatalities among breast cancer patients.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/28/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 57% positive reviews: Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jiro Dreams of Sushi
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Coming to My Senses

Harmonium (Fuchi ni tatsu)


A family portrait on the beach.

(2016) Drama (Film Movement) Mariko Tsutsui, Tadanobu Asano, Kanji Furutachi, Momone Shinokawa, Kana Mahiro, Taiga, Takahiro Miura. Directed by Kôji Fukada

Family dynamics are ever changing, evolving things. What appears to be on the outside may not necessarily be what circumstances are behind closed doors. The whole thing about happy families is that they are in reality a myth for the most part – they are even rarer than a unicorn.

On the surface, Toshio (Furutachi) has a good life. He and his family live quietly in apartments above the machine shop he runs and inherited from his father. If he seems a bit distracted at the breakfast table, he nonetheless provides for his family as best he can. His wife Akie (Tsutsui) is a good Christian woman and a doting mother on their daughter Hotaru (Shinokawa). She is sweet and high-spirited in the way of some children; she is also learning to play the harmonium with indifferent success.

Into the mix comes Yasaka (Asano), an old friend of Toshio. It is apparent he has just been released from prison and Toshio offers him a job and a place to live on the spot. This surprises Akie who knows that the business is struggling but being the polite Japanese wife that she is she says nothing. As the days go by she gets to know Yasaka a little better and her initial reservations seem to be abating and when he shares with her details of his crime she does not recoil. Rather, she is turned on or at least isn’t turned off by the idea of having an affair with him. When they do get physical it’s difficult to know who’s seducing who.

But a tragedy occurs that devastates the family and Yasaka disappears. Eight years later the family is still recovering, if you can call it that. Akie has lost much of her faith and Toshio has become fixated on finding Yasaka, the architect of his sorrow. A new worker joins the family – Takashi (Taiga) – who is eager to help the family heal, but when karma comes to roost it may completely destroy what little unity the family has left.

The movie is presented in two distinct sections; the first is dominated by Yasaka who is like a time bomb waiting to explode; the second is the aftermath eight years later in which the parents are trying to pick up the pieces and cope. It’s quite a bit harder to watch the second half as the emotions in it are so raw and almost overwhelming. What goes on in the first is more of a prelude, a dance around the underlying issues. The second is the after-effect, when the bomb has exploded on the dance floor.

The performances are very measured in the first part. Yasaka is stiff as a board and generally clad in white; Toshio always seems distracted and lost in his own world. Akie has the smile and the charm that she shows to the world but when she is at home she knows her marriage has crumbled into ashes and she tastes the bitterness of them in her mouth.

In the second half Akie and Toshio are still closed off to an extent but the pretenses are gone. Toshio smolders with a desire for vengeance; Akie is protective of what’s left of her family and feels her own share of guilt as to what happened. I won’t say the performances are night and day because they are not – what they are is what you’d expect how people would react to a life-changing tragedy eight years afterwards.

Fukada is one of Japan’s most promising directorial talents and this is the kind of film that shows why many think he may eventually revolutionize Japanese cinema. He has a reputation for being an outside-the-box kind of guy and while it might be difficult for those of us watching with Western eyes, he is truly turning Japanese culture inside out in this film. In its own way it is much like Luis Brunel slicing open an eyeball in Un Chien Andalou.

This is a  truly strong effort that is going to be riding the festival circuit for a short time until it gets a limited release in June (as of this writing). It would be worth seeking out at your local art house, film festival or eventually on whatever streaming service this winds up on. This is a look at changing family dynamics in Japan and what lies beneath the surface of even the happiest of families. It’s absolutely unforgettable and even if it is a little bit on the long side (particularly during the first portion of the film) you won’t be sorry you sought it out.

REASONS TO GO: There is an underlying tension that starts off quietly and slowly builds to a crescendo. The end mirrors the beginning in an unsettling way.
REASONS TO STAY: Another movie that’s too long for its own good.
FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of sensuality as well as some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the Jury Prize winner at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/7/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Guest
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Are We Not Cats?

Our Little Sister (Umimachi Diary)


These four delightful Japanese girls create sparks.

These four delightful Japanese girls create sparks.

(2015) Drama (Sony Classics) Haruka Ayase, Masami Nagasawa, Kaho, Suzu Hirose, Ryȏ Kase, Ryȏhei Suzuki, Takafumi Ikeda, Kentarȏ Sakaguchi, Ohshirȏ Maeda, Midoriko Kimura, Yȗko Nakamura, Jun Fubuki, Kazuaki Shimizu, Kaoru Hirata, Shin’ichi Tsutsumi, Masumi Nomura, Shinobu Ohtake, Fight Seki, Saya Mikami, Saya Mikami. Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda

 

The Japanese realize that life is contradiction; the hectic, non-stop pace of Tokyo and the fragile beauty of cherry blossoms coexist in their culture. While it sometimes feels like Tokyo is winning the war within Japan’s culture (although I would prefer characterizing it as more of an animated argument), films like this one are proof that the cherry blossom is still strong.

In an old wooden house near the ocean in the seaside city of Kamakura (about an hour south of Tokyo by train) live three sisters who inherited the house from their grandmother. The oldest is Sachi (Ayase), a nurse who raised her other two sisters after their father left for another woman and their mother, devastated, abandoned them. She is bitter towards both her parents, and in a bit of irony is carrying on an affair with a married doctor (Suzuki) that works in the same hospital.

The middle child, Yoshino (Nagasawa) is a bit of a party animal, getting involved with a conga line of bad relationships and drinking much too much. She works in a bank and doesn’t take life seriously and she is constantly arguing with her elder sister. Finally there is Chika (Kaho), a teen just out of high school who works in a retail store and is perpetually smiling and happy. Her boyfriend may look slovenly but he has a good heart.

One day they are notified that their father has passed away. Sachi has no interest in attending the funeral, especially since it is in a rural village far away but Yoshino and Chika go mainly out of politeness. They don’t have many memories of their dad. They arrive at the funeral and meet Suzu (Hirose), the 14-year-old daughter that their father had by his mistress (and later his wife) who had also since passed away. She was now living with her father’s third wife who seemed uninterested in Suzu and her future, although she was pleased that her step-daughters had attended the funeral – including Sachi who showed up unexpectedly.

It became clear to the three Koda sisters that their half-sister was in a bad situation and that she seemed to be a really genuine person – and it turned out that it wasn’t the wife who nursed their father through his final illness but Suzu. Sachi, moved by a sense of responsibility, asks Suzu if she would like to move in with them and Suzu is absolutely thrilled to say yes. When the three sisters leave on the train, the fourth sister sees them off with absolute joy.

When Suzu moves in, she is adored by those who know the sisters. She joins a local club soccer team and excels. She makes new friends at her new school. The owner of a local café is charmed by Suzu who in turn adores her whitefish bait toast. As for the sisters, they are overjoyed to have her in the house and even though all of their lives are changing, there is more love in the house than ever.

Yoshino gets assigned to assist a loan officer who goes to various businesses to arrange loans and finds herself becoming more responsible and less flighty. Sachi, who has assumed the mother role in the family since she was a teen is beginning to see that she can have a life beyond her sisters if she chooses – and that she can do things just for herself. She is also learning the value of forgiveness.  And Suzu is discovering what having a support system means. In the year from Suzu’s arrival the lot of the sisters changes immeasurably.

Kore-eda is one of Japan’s most promising directors and he has put together a string of impressive films to his credit. Many of them are like this one, which is incidentally based on a popular Japanese manga. He tends to put together movies whose plots on paper look unremarkable, but when experienced on the screen become powerful indeed. This is the kind of movie that makes you feel better when it ends than you felt when it started.

It is also a slice of Japan on celluloid. We get a look how the average Japanese family lives from day to day, be it paying homage to their ancestors, delivering gifts to family, funeral rites and courtship, all of which is a little different than we Westerners are used to, although in many ways the cultural differences between East and West are shrinking.

The cinematography is occasionally breathtaking as we see both the rural villages and the small cities (Kamakura has a population of about 174,000 people at present). The film is presented through four different seasons, so we get a sense of the ebb and flow of life for the sisters. Their old house is a little run down but still beautiful in a similar fashion to a beautiful woman who hasn’t taken as good care of herself as she could but remains in her twilight years still a beauty by any standard.

The four actresses who play the sisters all do standout work here which isn’t surprising considering the reputation Kore-eda has for being an actor’s director. Most of the attention is going to Ayase and Hirose for their work as Sachi and Suzu but the other two have nuanced performances in smaller roles. I might have liked a little more attention paid to the two remaining sisters but the movie is fairly long as it is.

This is not a movie that demands your attention. Instead, it presents itself quietly, without fanfare or fuss and just lets you get sucked under its beguiling spell. Honestly, I had thought I might like this movie when I saw the trailer but how much I liked it was a complete and pleasant surprise. Kore-eda creates a beautiful, sweet and melancholy world that you want to dwell in long after the lights come up and he didn’t need a ton of special effects and CGI to do it. If only people realized that you don’t have to see a Star Wars movie to find a new and exciting world to spend time in.

REASONS TO GO: A nice look at Japanese culture and daily life. All four of the sisters have their own personalities and foibles. There’s a mixture of optimism and melancholy that is nicely balanced.
REASONS TO STAY: May lean a little bit too much to the feminine side for some male moviegoers.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a small amount of profanity and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All four actresses who played the sisters were nominated for the Japanese Academy Award of which Hirose was the lone winner.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/8/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mustang
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: As I Open My Eyes

Twisted Justice (Nihon de ichiban warui yatsura)


Cops and guns.

Cops and guns.

(2016) True Crime Drama (Toei) Gȏ Ayano, Shidȏ Nakamura, Pierre Taki, Munetaka Aoki, Haruna Yabuki, Young Dais, Kumi Takiuchi, Katsuya, Takayuki Kinoshita, Tomoya Nakamura, Ryȗzȏ Tanaka, Ayumu Saitȏ, Takuma Otoo, Yukio Ueno, Minosuke, Ito Shiraishi. Directed by Kazuya Shiraishi

NYAFF

Certain things translate across cultural lines; that innocence can tarnished until it has rusted away solid and that power corrupts even the purest of souls. A fall from grace is a tragedy in any language.

Moroboshi (Ayano) is a jujitsu wrestler and a pretty good one and has the cauliflower ear to prove it. So good, in fact, that the Hokkaido prefecture police give him a job not because of his criminologist skills but because they hope that he will lead their jujitsu team to respectability, which he does. However, the police detectives in the precinct in the capitol of Sapporo are less enthused about his presence. He is used primarily as a gopher and a clerk.

But veteran detective Murai (Taki) sees something in the young man and takes him under his wing. Murai is at this time a fine police officer and one of the most respected in the department, but the department has this odd points system, in which certain types of busts were worth points while others were worth more points – and others less.

From Murai he learns to play the game of informants – called “Spies,” or just “S” in Japan. Moroboshi uses them to find out information that gets some of the feared Yakuza busted, which pushes up Moroboshi up the ladder at work. As the 70s wear on, Murai commits a cardinal sin and is forced to leave in disgrace, leaving Murai to pick up his informants and his status. Soon, as Japan enters a phase in which the police have become obsessed with taking illegal guns off the street, he has begun using his own Yakuza connections to import guns, then turn them in for financial gain (cops are being paid cash bonuses for each gun they turn in) as well as departmental glory.

But as Moroboshi uses his friends and mistresses, he begins to lose control of his little empire. Fueled on cocaine and high on sex, Moroboshi goes from the young and naïve wrestler and rookie patrol officer to a bitter and jaded veteran cop who sees the abyss rushing towards him. Can he avoid his fate?

The film is based on actual events that made up the biggest police scandal in Japan’s history to date. There is a Scorsese-esque feel here, especially in terms of The Departed, itself based on an Asian film. There are also elements of the Japanese yakuza film, such as the work of the great Kinji Fukasaku, very apparent here. Fans of the crime genre worldwide should sit up and take notice of this film. American audiences might also see the crime dramas of John Woo in between the frames here.

A bravura performance by Ayano has already gotten him notice as a rising star in Japan; he does some unforgettable work as both the young and puppy-like Moroboshi until he becomes the lethal and amoral cop that he eventually becomes. We watch Moroboshi slowly lose the endearing qualities that made him delightful at the beginning but by the movie’s end, the character is utterly corrupt and beyond redemption.

Shiraishi initially sets the movie in the ’70s (it covers a time span of more than three decades) and in each era that the movie checks in with Moroboshi, the film really looks like a movie from that era. For example, the 70s portion looks a lot like an American TV cop show – with boobs. And yes, there are plenty of those; prostitutes play a vital role in the movie.

There are moments of what I suppose are comedy relief that are almost surreal and absurd, but they are rather jarring next to the grim tone of the rest of the film. I think it’s more of a cultural thing that I don’t appreciate them as much; I’ve noticed that Japanese yakuza films often have those moments that are almost bizarre so I suppose that is something that Japanese audiences understand more than I do.

This has yet to acquire U.S. distribution as of this writing and quite frankly is more likely to hit the festival circuit first although someone like Magnet or Well Go USA might take a long look at this and send it out into the American market one of these days. If you see it playing anywhere near you if that occurs, don’t hesitate to go check it out – this is one of the good ones.

REASONS TO GO: The look of the film fits nicely the period it is set in. A cross between Scorsese and Woo on a budget.
REASONS TO STAY: There are moments of surreal absurdity that jar with the overall gritty tone.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence and profanity, along with a surfeit of smoking and some sexual content and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Will make its American debut as the opening night film at the New York Asian Film Festival on June 22, 2016.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/21/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Departed
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Apocalypse Child

Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no haka)


Moments of delight amidst the horrors of war.

Moments of delight amidst the horrors of war.

(1988) Animated Feature (GKIDS) Starring the voices of Tsutomu Tatsumi, Ayano Shiraishi, Yoshiko Shinohara, Akemi Yamaguchi, J. Robert Spencer (English version), Corinne Orr (English version), Amy Jones (English version), Veronica Taylor (English version), Crispin Freeman (English version), Nick Sullivan (English version), Dan Green (English version), George Leaver (English version), Shannon Conley (English version). Directed by Isao Takahata

Offshoring

The horrors of war don’t begin and end on the battlefield. War effects everyone, not just the combatants. Sometimes the worst aspects of war are felt at home.

In the waning days of World War II Seita (Tatsumi/Spencer), a teenage boy and his four-year-old sister Setsuko (Shiraishi/Orr) live in the port town of Kobe in Japan. American bombers are a common sight and when they come to Kobe, they come bearing napalm. The city, mostly built of paper and timber, burns like a firecracker. Their mother (Shinohara/Taylor) is badly burned and eventually succumbs to her grievous injuries. They go to live with their aunt (Yamaguchi/Jones).

However, as food shortages become acute, their aunt becomes more and more indifferent to their plight, raging against their inability to “earn” what she cooks and after they sell their mother’s kimono and buy rice with it, keeps the lion’s share of the rice for herself. Seita and Setsuko decide to strike out on their own and find a nice hillside cave to take shelter in.

Although Seita has some money from his mother, enough to buy food, there is no food to be bought and he is reduced to thieving and scrounging. As the children slowly starve however, they manage to find moments of delight – a gaggle of fireflies that light up the cave one night, or playing with air bubbles in a local river. But the need for food to survive trumps all and the children are in dire straits. Can Seita find a way to keep them both alive?

The answer to that question comes at the very beginning of the movie. I won’t spoil it for you here but most of the movie takes place as an extended flashback, and the viewer’s knowledge of the fate of the children colors the entire film. Grave of the Fireflies is one of the most powerful emotional experiences that has ever been committed to celluloid, something that stays with you and haunts you long after the film ends. Many critics, as jaded moviegoers as can possibly be, who see the movie speak of being moved to tears and being unable to watch it a second time, although they are near universal with their praise.

The animation here is beautiful and occasionally delightful even though the subject is grim (having a child watch his mother’s burned, maggoty corpse being carted away is something Pixar is unlikely to ever display) it is startlingly breathtaking looking at the bombs, flying down from the sky trailing cloth streamers, or the fireflies dancing in the cave, or the children making play food out of mud.

It has been described as maybe the ultimate anti-war movie and while the director has objected strenuously to that depiction, referring to it as more of a relationship film between the brother and sister, the effect is nonetheless very much about the stark and brutal realities of war regardless of the director’s intentions. You cannot watch the plight of these children and be unmoved.

The reason for that is because both Seita and Setsuko are more than just cartoon characters in a literal sense; they are given personalities that make the tragedy all the more awful. While some complain about Japanese anime as being too cutesy (a charge that isn’t without merit), despite the gigantic eyes and tiny mouths that is characteristic of the art form, these children remain unforgettable, indelible images that will haunt you weeks after you see it.

Some may be hesitant to see this movie because I’m making it sound like an endurance test in watching it and that’s not the case, not really. Certainly it will tap into powerful emotions and some may find that to be uncomfortable. However, it is certainly a film that is experienced rather than watched; you cannot simply passively sit on your couch and dismiss the movie half an hour after it’s over. It demands your immediate and intimate involvement and no matter who you are, it draws you in and forces you to feel. The catharsis of a movie like this is incalculable.

Some movies simply transcend the genres that are ascribed to them and become something different, something more – a human movie. Possibly because this was based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Nosaka Akiyuki whose sister did die of starvation during the war, and whose death has haunted him the rest of his life. His anguish is palpable in the novel and Takahata has managed to transcribe that anguish to the screen. This is a movie everyone should experience at some time in their lives.

NOTE: It should be noted that the movie is currently out of print on both DVD editions although it is still available for sale on Amazon both in new and used formats. While the Blu-Ray was out of stock as of this writing, hopefully it will soon be back on the shelves and available for purchase.

WHY RENT THIS: Will create an emotional response in everyone. Beautifully crafted and animated. Powerful themes and thought-provoking concepts.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Dark themes may be too intense for some children.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult themes; may be too dark and intense for some children.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the only film adaptation of her work that Agatha Christie was ever truly satisfied with. She attended the premiere in 1974 and would die 14 months later in 1976.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Collector’s Edition DVD includes an interview with the late Roger Ebert on how the film succeeds where other films fail, as well as a round table discussion of the historical perspective of the war in 1945, the portrayal of the war in the film and how it reflected the facts of the times, and a look at the locations portrayed in the film and how they looked both then and now. The more remastered DVD edition doesn’t include these features but the overall look of the film is far superior, so make your choice accordingly.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (Not currently available but will shortly be re-released), Amazon (not available), Vudu (buy/rent),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (not available), Target Ticket (not available)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wind Rises
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Far From the Madding Crowd

The Wind Rises (Kaze tachinu)


Jiro dreams of airplanes.

Jiro dreams of airplanes.

(2013) Animated Feature (Touchstone/Studio Ghibli) Starring the voices of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, John Krasinski, Emily Blunt, Martin Short, Stanley Tucci, Mandy Patinkin, Mae Whitman, Werner Hertzog, Jennifer Grey, William H. Macy, Zach Callison, Madeleine Rose Yen, Eva Bella, Edie Mirman, Elijah Wood, Darren Criss. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki

The French poet Paul Valery wrote in 1922 “The wind is rising, we must try to live.” As with most symbolist poems, the concept can be taken in a lot of different ways.

Jiro Horikoshi (Gordon-Levitt) is a young man who has dreamed of airplanes ever since he was a schoolboy (Callison). He had dreams in which his idol, Italian aeronautical engineer Count Giovanni Caproni (Tucci) shows him fantastic creations filled with family and friends, floating above endless sunlit grassy plains and meadows. In this dream kingdom shared by Caproni and Jiro, the wind blows ceaselessly. In fact, that wind blows through Jiro’s life events both tragic and wonderful.

As Jiro is travelling to university in Tokyo from a visit back home, the train he is riding in is stopped short when the Kanto earthquake of 1923 devastates Tokyo. He meets a young girl named Naoko (Blunt) who is travelling with her maid. Her maid breaks her leg in the incident and Jiro carries her back to Naoko’s home, along with Naoko. He leaves without giving the grateful family his name. When he goes back to inquire about the two girls, he discovers their home has burned to the ground in the fiery aftermath of the earthquake.

After graduating, Jiro gets a job at Mitsubishi along with his close friend Honjo (Krasinski). They work on a design for a plane commissioned by the Japanese Navy. The project is overseen by Kurokawa (Short), an unpleasant and energetic height-challenged person who turns out to be a pretty decent guy. Overseeing Kurokawa is the more kindly-natured Hattori (Patinkin).

The project ends up in failure but his superiors recognize that Jiro is a budding innovator and sends him to Germany to study their impressive efforts. Jiro, accompanied by Honjo, is disturbed by the increasing militarism of Germany and frustrated by their unwillingness to share anything but the most basic information. Jiro recognizes some of the same militarism emerging in his own country.

Once back Jiro is given another Navy plane project but on its test flight the plane crashes. Disheartened and exhausted, Jiro is sent by his concerned employers to recover at a mountain resort. In a bit of serendipity, it turns out  that the hotel is owned by Satomi (Macy), the father of Naoko who Jiro falls deeply in love with. However, she has contracted tuberculosis, a disease that also killed her mother. The outlook for Naoko looks bleak but in an effort to fight off the disease and get healthy, she agrees to go to an alpine clinic to get better.

In the meantime Jiro has resumed working on a radical new design that will make his planes lighter, more maneuverable and faster. However, his conversations with a German pacifist (Herzog) at the resort have attracted the attention of Japan’s secret police who want to take Jiro away – so Mitsubishi hides him at the home of Kurokawa and his wife (Grey). Naoko realizes she’s not getting any better so she decides to go to Jiro and marry him, spending whatever time she has left with the man she loves. While Jiro is realizing his dream to create beautiful aircraft, he is troubled by the eventual use of his planes, knowing that this militarism will eventually destroy his own country. However, he labors on, trying to get the most of his time with Naoko who encourages him even as she weakens.

First of all, this is a gorgeous movie with beautiful curved lines nearly everywhere. The aircraft portrayed in the movie are largely fantastic. Adding a bit of whimsy to the proceedings, nearly all of the mechanical sounds are made by humans, from the roar of the earthquake to the sputter of engines turning over. It’s a marvelous touch that is delightful to both young and old.

Unlike Ponyo which was aimed squarely at the very young, this is most certainly a movie for older audiences. It moves at a stately, majestic pace which the younger crowd will be far too restless to tolerate. In fact, some older audiences may have the same problem – the middle third of the movie is almost glacial as it moves from the terrifying earthquake/fire sequence to the love story.

There are those who are criticizing Miyazaki and the film because Jiro is designing a fighter plane that would be used to take lives (I thought mistakenly that it was the Zero that he was working on and while he did eventually design that plane, the one shown in the film is its predecessor the A5M. The movie does to an extent gloss over the carnage Jiro’s creations unleashed on the Allied forces in World War II. Left-leaners have tended to opine that Miyazaki should have at least criticized the militaristic nationalist leanings of Japan and questioned whether someone who designed weapons should be glorified with a feature film. Ironically, conservatives in Japan have labeled the movie “anti-Japanese.” What’s a venerable animator to do?

I find the criticism to be invalid. Miyazaki damns the militarism by showing its affects on Japanese society without making comment on it. He allows people to draw their own conclusion – the success of which can be inferred by the many differing opinions about the movie’s message. I have to admit that as an American I was very aware that the “beautiful machines” that Jiro was designing would be used to take American lives and that felt a little strange to me. I also found myself able to put that part of me aside and take the movie as a whole without allowing my prejudices to influence my ultimate opinion. War is a terrible thing, as some of the images near the end of the movie show – but Miyazaki recognizes that it is also the catalyst for technological advance.

The imagery is gorgeous, flowing and sweeping across the screen. The early scenes of early 20th century Japan are bucolic and lovely, the earthquake sequence terrifying and beautiful and the scenes at the resort pastoral and also lovely. The colors are bright and harmonize beautifully together and the score enhances the movie subtly. It is not Miyazaki’s best – I still think The Princess Mononoke is and Spirited Away and Kiki’s Delivery Service are both superior to this, but it is definitely up in their category. While I did like Frozen when I saw it late last year, this should have won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. Period.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeously rendered. Innovative and clever. Wonderful love story at the center of the film; Jiro is an amazing character.

REASONS TO STAY: Runs a little bit too long. Drags in the middle third a bit. Somewhat low-key.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some disturbing images of fantasy and war.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The 72-year-old Miyazaki initially announced that this would be his final animated feature but on December 31, 2013 he withdrew his retirement during an interview on a Japanese radio program. It is said he is considering a sequel to Ponyo as his next project.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/8/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Aviator

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: 3 Days to Kill