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Japanese Movie Mini Reviews

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Random films. Contributions, comments, etc. welcome.

To give it a proper kick off I'll start the topic with a couple of bigger bunches of reviews covering some of the more interesting stuff I've watched during the past 6 months.

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Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion (Japan, 1972) – 4/5

Possibly the best women in prison film of all time, director Shunya Ito’s debut movie is a rare clash of exploitation and exceptional audio-visual skill. It comes with all the genre raunchiness from sadistic over-acting guards (classic pinky violence trio Fumio Watanabe, Hideo Murora & Shinzo Hotta) to graphic violence, gratuitous shower scenes, and the longest hole digging episode in the history of cinema. It also comes with stunning surreal visuals (a long, theatrical flashback scene where sets are build “on the fly” being the standout), terrific soundtrack, and an excellent leading performance by Meiko Kaji – an actress who is way above the genre standards. As her role is almost dialogue free – reportedly because she felt the manga source material was too obscene and ridiculous – she acts with her eyes. The film was followed by 5 sequels, Kaji returning to the first three of them.

Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (1972) – 4.5/5

Shunya Ito’s more grown up follow up to Female Prisoner Scorpion – a state of art exploitation film and one of the most artistically impressive Japanese movies of all time. The misleadingly titled film is, in fact, a surreal road movie with 7 prisoners escaping from the prison. Ito loads the film with non-stop visual feast and provocative images: rivers turn into blood, scenes are played against theater sets, Japan’s war crimes are brought up, and Meiko Kaji carries a cross like Jesus Christ. The stunningly beautiful Kaji, once again acting with her eyes (she only has two lines of dialogue), contributes several songs to the soundtrack. All in all, one of the best movies of the 1970’s.

The Killing Machine (Japan, 1975) 4/5

Only months before portraying his real life master Masutatsu Oyama in the Karate Trilogy, Chiba starred as Oyama’s rival Doshin So, the founder of Shaolin Karate, in yet another historically “accurate” biopic. Helmed yakuza/pinky violence director Norifumi Suzuki just prior to his major mainstream streak with Truck Yaro (1975-1979), it’s one Chiba’s most story driven karate films. Set in the slums of post WWII Japan, the film is quite heavy on drama and “social commentary”, including crying children and ill fated women (the relatively talent free Yutaka Nakajima in a risky dramatic role). Chiba himself, as expected, overcomes hardships by breaking skulls and sending evil doers to hell. Strong action scenes, solid storyline, and Chiba’s charisma – this time with a few more acting moments than usual – make it one of Chiba’s best karate films.

Dragon Princess (Japan, 1976) – 4/5

Toei’s 1976 genre-star Yutaka Kohira (karate, biker gang, and WIP all in one year) takes Chiba protégé Etsuko Shihomi under his direction in an ultra-entertaining karate actioner. Blessed with top notch girl action and groovy soundtrack its one of the best showcases for the ever so sweet Shihomi whose persona and willingness to perform all the own stunts and action compensate for the slight slowness in some of her moves. Supporting cast is absolute gold with yakuza legend Bin Amatsu (evil karate instructor), forever-evil Masashi Ishibashi (blind assassin), cult machine Yasuaki Kurata (mysterious man), little bro Jiro Chiba (family man), and of course the eye patched Sonny Chiba himself. The fast moving storyline was slightly altered in the original US version, which added a random sex scene in the middle of the film, among other changes.

The Man Who Stole the Sun (Japan, 1979) – 4.5/5

Misfit junior high school teacher steals plutonium from a nuclear power plant and starts building his own A-bomb. Legendary director Kazuhiko Hasegawa’s cult satire, scripted by Paul Schrader’s brother Leonard Schrader, is one of the most interesting movies of the 1970’s. Pop star Kenji Sawada stars as a teacher who threatens to destroy Tokyo if the government doesn’t invite The Rolling Stones to Japan. Tough guy Bunta Sugawara is sent to chase him down. While the action packed ending could perhaps do with less exaggeration, the film is unforgettable. The soundtrack is amazing and there's a chunk of iconic scenes, including the ones with Sawada walking the streets of Tokyo with a ticking A-bomb in his bag.

L’Ilya (Japan, 2001) – 2/5

Everybody wants to die in Tomoya Sato’s semi-documentaristic short film. The 40 minute movie tries an interesting spin on the topic, adapting the view of a cinematographer turning suicides into disco-entertainment and video art. Shot harsh and grainy the pic looks pleasing but doesn’t have the courage to go to the satirical pop-dimensions of Sion Sono Suicide Club. Sato’s film is, in the end, a far more conventional offering with dramatic soundtrack and preachy message. It’s unable to bring anything of its own to the topic, mainly aiming at drawing affirmative audience reactions such as “yes, it’s a sad world indeed“. It soon becomes more frustrating than poignant.

Blue (Japan, 2002) – 3.5/5

Hiroshi Ando’s slow burner film takes a little while to get into. The manga adapted story of two high school girls lacks any melodrama and cinematic fireworks: no comic reliefs, no flashy club scenes, and no pop music, in fact, almost no background music at all. Instead Ando plays it very low key and often uses very long takes with only the two leading actresses in the frame. Admittedly, Manami Konoshi’s one-dimensional character is little more than story catalyst for the protagonist played by the wonderful Mikako Ichikawa. Her terrific performance as an introverted high school girl is much like the film itself: the longer it runs, the more fascinating it becomes. A beautiful movie.

Sky High (Japan, 2003) – 1/5

The guardian of the Heaven’s Gate (=CGI shack) battles with supernatural killer in Ryuhei Kitamura’s beyond-embarrassing fantasy film. Adapted from a TV show, the film looks like z-grade TV film blessed with a screenplay that has difficulties holding interest even for 5 minutes. Action choreography – poor as camel’s ass – consists of laughable poses and stage fighting with zero illusion of people actually trying to hit each other. Over-length (2h+) doesn’t make the suffering any easier. The only positive about the pic is the stunning black dress worn by Yumiko Shaku and Eihi Shiina. Gonna get one for kanojo when I get back to Japan if it doesn’t cost fortunes.

Lonely Cow Weeps at Dawn (Japan, 2003) – 1.5/5

Pink director Daisuke Goto deserves credit for being a storyteller. This was evident in his near excellent romantic comedy Blind Love that just happened to be a pink production. His earlier film, Lonely Cow Weeps at Dawn, is less successful. Playing its story with poker face, it follows senile old man mistaking his dead son’s widow as “cow”, hence milking her every morning. It doesn’t come out as ridiculous as it sounds, however, the pic is dragged with dull sex scenes. Worse more, its storyline and characters aren’t nearly well enough crafted to engage the viewer. Despite Goto’s best attempts to tell an unusual love story, Lonely Cow Weeps at Dawn is, in the end, a rather conventional film.

Kimi to aruita michi (Japan, 2005) – 3/5

Based on the song ”Thank You” by Shogo Hamada. One of the more unusual film projects, director Naoki Hashimoto set to make a double feature inspired by the works of singer / songwriter Shogo Hamada. The first film, Catch Ball was a poorly executed drama-comedy featuring two noisy kids (or chubby elementary school comedians, if you will) travelling to see their father. Kimi to aruita michi, a junior high school film, is the far superior of the two. Beautifully shot with strong colors, slight grain and bright image, its visual appearance is slightly reminiscent of Iwai, Yamashita, and Ishikawa. Hashimoto is not in the same league, though. His impressive images are coupled with songs that don’t quite blend in, and narration that sometimes brings it to the verge of accidental genre parody. Furthermore, the last five minutes is puzzlingly (and amusingly) bad in its uneven trendiness. But then again, taking a little less critical view on what came before it’s is actually rather nice little movie and certainly easy on the eye. Some might criticize it as bad film, but I’d be tempted to call it a good one.

Frog Song (Japan, 2005) – 3/5

Shinji Imaoka’s slice of life pink, with two troubled girls making friends and sharing passion in manga and frog suits. Somewhat poorly acted (despite primary lead Konatsu’s solid performance in the same year’s Blind Love) and 30 minutes too short for its own good, it still somehow manages to be more pleasing and natural character drama than 90% of mainstream productions. Imaoka blends in the sex scenes with decent success, has relatively interesting characters to play with, and plenty of nice scenes between the two leads. And oh yes, dancing and singing to the Frog Song (Kaeru no uta, the original title which can also possess dual meaning as a “song for returning home”). No wonder Imaoka’s upcoming Underwater Love will be a full-fledged pink musical shot by Christopher Doyle and scored by Germany’s Stereo Total.

Strange Circus (Japan, 2005) – 3/5

Sion Sono goes ero-guro with a mixture of psychology, pedophilia, splatter, and cinema poetry. It certainly makes for a wild ride, but proves relatively little depth in closer inspection. Being a far more staged movie than most of Sono’s works, Strange Circus is missing the freshness of Sono’s best pop and guerilla films. That does, however, line with the strong horror shocks that were deservedly granted an R-18 rating. Masumi Miyazaki’s strong performance in multiple roles stands out in the middle of carnage and madness.

Teketeke (Japan, 2009) – 2/5

Koji Shiraishi’s standard horror film released in theaters as double feature. This first half is an idol driven film follows high school girls attacked by a supernatural killer who lost her legs in an accident. Shot cheap and quick, with some CG-enhanced SFX and gore, there’s little on offer that hasn’t been done better before. Considering Shiraishi’s recent track record it’s certainly a lazy effort.

A Night in Nude: Salvation (DC) (Japan, 2010) – 3.5/5

Takashi Ishii, now mostly stuck with low budgets S&M films, was once Japan’s most interesting noir director. A Night in Nude: Salvation marks his long awaited return to the genre. The film continues from where Ishii’s original neo-noir bravura A Night in Nude (1993) left off, with a private detective/entrepreneur Maraki once again getting caught between yakuza and femme fatales. While not looking as refined as the original film, Salvation is instantly recognizable Ishii with its neon-lit Tokyo and mental case yakuza running the night life. It does step into a psychological landmine towards the end – even more so in the extended Director’s Cut version, but strong screenplay and excellent performances compensate. Takenaka is excellent as usual, supported by the stunning (and surprisingly well acting) gravure idol Hiroko Sato, and Nikkatsu legend Joe Shishido as the film’s biggest sleazebag.

Sketches of Kaitan City (Japan, 2010) – 4/5

Kazuyoshi Kumakiri has come a long way since his ultra-violent political splatter Kichiku: Banquet of the Beasts that sent him into world wide fame in 1997. In his latest film Sketches of Kaitan City he doesn’t have anyone brutally killed. Based on an unfinished novel by Yasushi Sato, Kumakiri has picked five stories set in the fictional Kaitan City (portrayed by Hokkaido’s breezy port town Hakodate), all connected by a common theme: the fear or losing something. Bravely distancing the film from any easy entertainment, Kumakiri shows small pieces of life from Kaitan City, often starting storylines from the middle, and moving on before the conclusion has been reached. Kumakiri’s directorial touch is passive and coldish, if slightly hopeful, supported by steady tech credits, excellent performances, and former US-rocker Jim O'Rourke’s (United Red Army, 2007) impressive soundtrack. Very much a slow burner with characters that can’t be interpreted in 10 minutes, Kaitan City is no doubt one of the strong films of 2010.

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Red Army/PFLP: Declaration of World War (Japan, 1971) – 2.5/5

“This is a news film for the construction of the world Red Army.”

Pink rebel Koji Wakamatsu and his screenwriter partner Masao Adachi were on their way back from Cannes when they decided to take their film radicalism to the next level. The two men found themselves in Palestine, shooting a propaganda film of PFLP for the Japanese extreme leftist group The Red Army. Wakamatsu himself was closely connected to some members, and also directed a film (United Red Army, 2007) of the movement three decades later. Red Army/PFLP comes with some rare and valuable footage of the early 70’s Palestine and the PFLP fighters, but it’s also quite a frightening piece with its pro-violence message. It’s no wonder Wakamatsu got black listed by the US government because of this film. Subtitled prints were produced, although dubbing would’ve been preferable in this case. In subtitled form the dry but attention requiring monologue floods distract from the visual offering.

Lone Wolf and Cub: Babycart in Peril (Japan, 1973) – 4.5/5

The 4th installment in the all time greatest samurai saga sets Ogami Itto against tattooed (and topless) female assassin. Of course, evil forces shall not rest either, with the traitorous Shadow Yaguy clan constantly sending new ninja assassins after Itto. The ambush at the shire remains one of the most brutal ninja-slaughters ever – still shockingly violent 40 years it was shot. Yet, in the midst of all bloodshed the film is almost beautiful – and packed with nostalgic movie magic as Itto travels through the country sides of ancient Japan. 1970’s rock-samurai cinema at its best.

The Street Fighter (Japan, 1974) – 4.5/5

The most motherfucker movie ever made! Sonny Chiba’s legendary grindhouse film takes the action star’s brute-karate and pairs it with his earlier yakuza villain characters to come up with the meanest anti-hero in the history of action cinema. The bloodthirsty gun-for-hire portrayed by Chiba is approached by the Chinese mafia, but rather than taking the kidnap gig he decides get himself hired by the enemy side (after first beating the shit out of a karate army just to show how badass he is). Produced in the aftermath of Bruce Lee fever, The Street Fighter turned out a whole different animal with its ultimate badass factor and non-stop ultra-violence that earned it the X-rating for violence as the first movie ever. In addition to exhilarating non-stop action and unforgettable performance by Chiba the film packs a puzzlingly homoerotic comic sidekick (who keeps referring to Chiba’s character as “darling”) and a grand acting moment (!) by female lead Yutaka Nakajima when she’s told her father just died yesterday.

Return of the Street Fighter (Japan, 1974) – 3/5

Anti-racism à la Sonny Chiba: kick everyone’s ass regardless of race, sex, or religious beliefs. The follow up to The Street Fighter sets Chiba against mafia with a full variety of multi-cultural crooks. Chiba’s still got his charm, plus a set of overwhelmingly dirty moves, but the production seems rushed. The storyline takes half an hour to find any form, flashbacks are over-used to the extent we get to witness a flashback of a flashback, and the charming Yoko Ichiji is somewhat drowned under an over-dine Pippi Långstrump look. Chiba himself shows a bit more human side than would be appropriate for Takuma Tsurugi. That’s not to say the film isn’t solid genre fun, though, nor does it mean Chiba doesn’t break arms, gulp an opponent’s eyes out, and stab people with a pistol after running out of ammo.

Crazy Thunder Road (Japan, 1980) – 4/5

"Dedicated to all the crazy bikers!"Former punk rocker Sogo Ishii’s (now Gakuryu Ishii) film school graduation project Crazy Thunder Road marked his final break through – the 16 mm celebration on freedom, punk, and rock music was bought by Toei and blown to 35 mm film for theatrical distribution, despite Eirin’s protest against its “gang violence sympathies”. While technically a bit rough, the film deservedly became the all time Japanese punk film classic with attitude and an amazing soundtrack. The latter was much thanks to the 23 year old director’s close connections to Japan’s top punk and rock bands. The film’s finale alone – an all out street war between lone punk warrior and fascist army – is an action set piece to put almost any Japanese 1970/1980’s studio produced action film into shame. Seriously, who the hell does student films like this?

Takeshis’ (Japan, 2005) – 1.5/5

The creative destruction of Kitano’s career: part one. Kitano (and all other leads) star in double roles as fancy movie stars, and miserable low lives. The egoist party runs heavy overtime with film references and self-irony losing their edge before the film has reached halfway.

Blind Love (Japan, 2005) – 3.5/5

Japan cinematic strashyard, the pink cinema, keeps producting unexpected small gems that by no logic should be there. Blind Love is a romantic comedy, the most charmingly cute one in ages. The storyline follows blind girl who falls in love with a ventriloquist – and his partner, as she mistakes the two men as one. With the voice and body of her love inretest belonging to two different people, the men have to stick together throughout the romance and pretend they are one. Being a pink production, there is an abundance of sex of course, some serving no purpose but to please producers and bore audiences. The sex scene involving the blind Hikari, however, is genuinely sweet and hearwarming. While the storyline does have its more conventional twists, the film really redeems itself with strong screenplay and excellent characters. For those open minded audiences who don’t see sex as the Satan’s filth, Blind Love pretty much deserves full recommendation as a romantic comedy next to any mainstream production.

Cream Lemon: Mata no hi no Ami (Japan, 2006) – 2/5

The 4th film in the manga-adaptation series dealing with forbidden love between brother and sister does not live up to its beautiful trailer. Like Nobuhiro Yamashita’s terrific opening installment it not much of a pink film, although perhaps advertised as one. The problem is that the characters and storyline are both relatively dull. Director Shinya Nishimura aims at darker drama but merely comes out with dislikable characters. There are some nice images, though, as well as stylish theme music, and Yuria Hidaka. The amazingly cute AV star (is that a contradiction? I think it is!) is blessed with a face that makes look like an 11 year old in the official artwork – thankfully more like 17 in the film. In fact, she was 23 at the time of making. Her face is nice to look at, but it’s quite obvious why she hasn’t been hailed as character actress.

The Machine Girl (Japan, 2008) – 2.5/5

Funny man Noboru Iguchi was hired to deliver a tailor made film for the Americans, and came to start a trend, despite The Machine Girl being one of the weaker films in the genre. Nishimura’s special effects aside tech credits suck balls in the wrong way, but there’s enough fun ideas to keep the mix passable. Cast stands out, including the always embarrassingly bad but ridiculously cute Noriko Kiijima, and AV star gone cult actress Asami, for once limiting her over-acting routines a bit.

Coming Future (Japan, 2010) – 3.5/5

Director Kyuya Nakagawa’s look into the state of Japanese independent cinema, and modern day Tokyo. Ignoring traditional documentary narrative Nakagawa doesn’t go exploring dying cinemas, but instead invites his filmmaker pals - Tetsuaki Matsue, Koji Shiraishi, Satoko Yokohama, Nobuhiro Yamashita, etc. – for a walk. It’s Christmas Eve, with Japan’s most interesting young filmmakers discussing their profession freestyle on the streets of neon filled Shibuya. The outcome is interesting and manages to surprise the viewer on a few occasions. Nakagawa runs into pole dancer Cay Izumi (Sushi Typhoon regular) running guerilla show on the streets, and departs from his main topic a few times. This is the strength of independent cinema: not being bound by commercial rules. It’s a tough business, though. No one ever got laid by making independent cinema, Nakagawa complained! Good luck to Mr. Nakagawa for finding a girlfriend!

The Rise and Fall of the Unparalleled Band (Japan, 2010) – 3.5/5

The Guilties are a legend! They don’t actually exist, but that hasn’t kept indie director Wataru Hiranami from making a semi-documentaristic movie about them. Divided into chapters named after songs on the sole Guilties album, the film ignores the most traditional story narrative and presents the band’s history in short, 5-10 minute fragments. Falling somewhere between sketch collection and story film in terms of form, it effectively allows viewers to do some thinking on their own. Storyline itself takes a few overly familiar tuns towards the end, but the pleasingly grainy digital cinematography adds a nice layer of realism into the movie. Characters are mostly excellent, with guitarist Tanaka (Kento Hosoda), on the run from ‘That 70’s Show’ and given up on verbal communication for “unspecified reasons”, being the highlight. All in all, a nice little movie in a genre overpopulated by plastic disco-band films.

Kyojima 3rd St., Sumida City (Japan, 2010) – 4.5/5

First things first, Kyojima 3rd St., Sumida City is the best film of 2010. Here director Kota Yoshida delivers a simple 30 minute story, made of four scenes, of a high school girl in Tokyo’s Sumida City district. She tries shoplifting a cosmetics product, but is caught. The film not original in terms of structure or storyline, but relies on non-dramatic screenwriting, and perfect casting, and brilliant cinematography. The elegant long takes both indoors and on the cozy small streets are supported by a sparsely used but excellent soundtrack by Arakajime kimerareta koibitotachi e. Kyojima 3rd St., Sumida City is a wonderful example of the treasures found in the Japanese indie film scene, and unfortunately, rarely see the light of day on DVD even in their native country.

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Karate Bullfighter (Japan, 1975) – 3.5/5

Sonny Chiba’s badass biopic of his real life master, Kyokushin Karate founder Masutatsu Oyama. Adapted from popular manga comics the film received Oyama’s blessing despite a few questionable twists, such as displaying him as rapist! Proceeding from fight to fight every 15 minutes, including the famous Chiba vs. bull duel lifted from Oyama’s real life resume, it’s certainly rough on the edges but never dull. While slightly weakened by hectic camera work – the cinematographer appears to be dodging kicks while capturing them on film – the pic comes with such raw energy and brutality that it wipes the floor with most over-choreographed martial arts ballets.

Karate Bearfighter (Japan, 1975) – 4/5

Chiba and director Yamaguchi are back to claim more asses in the second Oyama karate installment, marking one of Chiba’s career highlights. Kicked out from the respectable karate circles, this time our anti-hero finds himself as a yakuza bodyguard – no better excuse to dress in white and wear sunglasses while beating the hell out of bad guys. Improved camerawork, slightly more coherent storyline, and superb action scenes make for a superior sequel, even though hard core bullfighting has made way for man-in-teddy-bear-suit brawling. The new positive is the lack of moral dilemma – no more sympathizing the poor animal (bull/bear) in the hands of the true beast (Chiba).

Karate for Life (Japan, 1977) – 3.5/5

- "You’ll have to fight my students, all 100 of them!"

- "That suits me just fine, as long as you’ll be number 101!"

Could a film open any better? Hell no! The final installment in the Oyama trilogy features some of the best Sonny Chiba mayhem in its lengthy opening scene. The film itself is the weakest in the trio – but not weak. Oyama is set against the most terrifying of all bests – US wrestlers, in fixed matches. Only he can’t lose! The somewhat lesser storyline doesn’t let Chiba lose on gangster ass as often as it should, but Hideo Murota (as “Great Yamashita”) makes one hellava cool fella, and Chiba is his usual charismatic self. Wrestling matches, while no match to karate fighting, provide solid camp fun. True fighting does comeback in the film’s finale, which provides perhaps the best Chiba vs. Ishibashi duel of all time. "There’s no end to my way of karate!". Perhaps so, but Karate for Life was the last of Chiba’s pure karate films. It was the end of a glorious era of action entertainment.

Kokkuri (Japan, 1997) – 1.5/5

Takahisa Zeze’s mainstream debut is a horror film with some similarities to Sogo Ishii’s new age masterpiece August in the Water (1995) and Hideo Nakata’s horror hit Ringu (1998) from the following year. Zeze manages occasional impressive visuals, but the screenplay is dumb as duck, and any attempt at serious horror come short. The long haired little girls are an even more embarrassing sight here than usual.

Love & Pop (Japan, 1998) – 4.5/5

Hideaki Anno’s best film is a strikingly shot enjo kousai docudrama. Anno places the Japanese pop culture and its diseases, such as compensated dating, under a critical eye, but plays the game by its own rules. He follows the ordinary lives of Tokyo schoolgirls in Japan’s pervasive pop-culture environment without easy explanations or cheap drama. The unique camerawork relies on multiple aspect ratios and formats, mainly digital miniature cameras. 35mm film is used in the amazing 6 minute tracking shot that concludes the film. The storyline continues in the pre-advertising campaign that shows what happened after the film. Pure ingeniousness

Tokyo X Erotica (Japan, 2001) – 3/5

Sex. Tiananmen Massacre. Human rabbits. Tokyo Subway Attack. Superman. Takahisa Zeze’s avant garde pink film is a complete crossfire mindfuck. It goes from criminally dull zero-worth pink dirtie to the most jaw droppingly beautiful punk film ending. God, life, sex, death, birth. Shot on digi-video, appallingly ugly in places, breathtakingly spot on in others. How many people is Takahisa Zeze exactly?

All About Lily Chou Chou (Japan, 2001) – 5/5

Iwai’s pioneer work in digital cinematography – and one of the best movies of the 2000’s. The unusual production started from Faye Wong inspiration, went through real time Internet novel phase where Iwai communicated with readers online, and eventually found cinematic form that combined all this. Built on an excellent and challenging screenplay that requires attention from the viewer as it unfolds the story in non-chronological order and changes main character a few times, supported by a terrific soundtrack by Takeshi Kobayashi and the fictional singer Lily Chou Chou (Salyu), it’s also one of the visually best looking movies of all time. Noboru Shinoda’s cinematography is at its best when handheld – these parts best demonstrate the advantages of digital over film in removing the “cinematic lens” between the audience and the characters. The cast features Hayato Ichihara before he became known as the worst actor in Japan, Yu Aoi before she became known as one of the best actresses in Japan, and many others, including Ayumi Ito and the stunning Miwako Ichikawa (Mikako Ichikawa’s sister) in the Okinawa episode, which is the most amazing part in the film.

Dog Star (Japan, 2002) – 1.5/5

Etsushi Toyokawa turns into a dog and goes sniffing trees. Or rather the other way round: a dog is killed in car accident and then reborn as Etsushi Toyokawa. And then the trees. And trying to convince the original owner that a man is a dog (or a dog is a man?) Takahisa Zeze’s meritless meritless film is a TV level fantasy-romance, suffering from overlength (125 min) on top of other things. The director’s personal touch is nowhere to be found, which is common in Zeze’s mainstream films. At least the dog man’s love interest Haruka Igawa is a pretty girl. A couple of semi-cool dudes co-star.

Shinobi – Heart Under Blade (Japan, 2005) – 1.5/5

Epic Hollywood score is the strongest element in Ten Shimoyama’s piece of shit ninja romance. The boring story of two ninja villages competing in love and war is further brought down my meritless action scenes where the only brawling-skilled troublemaker (Tak Sakaguchi) is wasted in CG-clown role. The same plagues the entire film, with even the supposedly breathtaking views of canyons, mountains, and ninjas in them, all being done in CG – badly, I might add. Joe Odagiri is handsome as ever, though. Would be well worth asking for a coffee, I bet.

Reincarnation (Japan, 2005) – 1.5/5

Takashi Shimizu continues in the vein of his terrible Ju-on movies, although with slightly more success. This time the silly ghosts are haunting filmmakers trying to reimagine a famous hotel murder case. As usual with Shimizu’s films, characterization is seriously lacking and he relies heavily on the audience being afraid of the supernatural. It may work for some, but for others constant images of ghosts and creepy kids only work against the film’s psychological aspects. The puzzling thing is, how did Shimizu manage to direct a genuinely good and original film (the beautifully shot Marebito, which build a psychological story from physical ingredients) just one year before?

God’s Puzzle (Japan, 2008) – 2/5

Hikikomori girl and a pussy chasing good-for-nothing team up to create a new universe in Takashi Miike’s sci-fi-teen-comedy. Starting fast and fun it unfortunately runs 45 minutes too long, and towards the end raises a burning question: who is dumb here, me or the screenplay. The latter would be a strong guess. There isn’t anything to wrong with the ever charming Mitsuki Tanimura, though (other than the film surrounding her). Male lead Hayato Ichihara is performing on a level of his own, yet his genius hasn’t convived everyone. MidnightEye named him as the worst screen actor in Japan. What’s next? Criticizing Nic Cage?

Mole’s Festival (Japan, 2009) – 2/5

Kishu Izuchi’s collaboration with the students of Film School of Tokyo is a 50 minute amateur detective / countryside movie. Launched under his Eiga Ikki –indie cinema movement, it’s essentially a uninsprired student work, despite the director’s steady experience as both director and screenwriter (Kokkuri, Hysteric). The storyline, loosely inspired by real events, follows three young women solving a mystery involving missing child and private detective who turned out to be a conman. While techically competent enough, Muddy Planet comes out with little more than predictable storyline and one-dimensional characters.

Muddy Planet (Japan, 2010) – 3/5

Kishu Izuchi x Japan Academy of Moving Images. This time collaborating with the students of Japan Academy of Moving Images, Izuchi delivers a solid 53 minute high school drama about ordinary students – without any major drama bigger than a random crush. The charcters are seen in their everyday activities – one spending her nights looking at the sky, the other practicing trumpet, and a whole bunch scrabbling in mud as a part of their agriculture studies. Based on a screenplay by Daisuke Tengan (The Most Beautiful Night in the World) it’s a pleasing little film, slightly reminiscent of Shunji Iwai’s more easy going effort. For its young actors it should make a very decent business card, and a nice viewing for everyone else.

Shirome (Japan, 2010) – 4/5

Horror x J-Pop. Notorious horror director Koji Shiraishi (Grotesque) teamed up with Stardust Agency’s latest pop idol group, Momoiro Clover, to make an idol documentary. The girls, all aged 13-16 and still mastering their kawaii skills, were to visit a haunted house and wish luck for the upcoming song competition that would be on TV on New Year’s Eve. Only that Shiraishi didn’t tell the poor girls that he was actually directing horror film, all the people around them were hired actors, and there was a special effects team doing live work around them. Morally questionable and damned funny, Shirome is one of the best things to happen to J-horror since Sion Sono.

Heaven’s Story (Japan, 2010) – 4/5

Takahisa Zeze started his career with infamous sex films clocking around 65 minutes. Now he has made a near 5 hour drama that was awarded at the 2011 Berlin International Film Festival. Heaven’s Story is a revenge tale - in some ways a more impressive one than any other film in the genre. Taking full use of the 278 minute running time Zeze digs in unbelievably deep into the topic of revenge to show its effects in full, brutal glory. With nearly dozen main characters the focus may seem a bit lost at times, but eventually the piece come together and forms something bigger than the sum of its parts – a theme fully explored. Occasional weaker parts, such as a few bits of cheap melodrama, are compensated with some majestic visuals, mesmerizing sequences and fantastic final 90 minutes. All in all, Heaven’s Story is long, flawed, and, quite frankly, rather magnificent. The most unforgettable film of 2010 by a mile.

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Thanks for the capsule reviews. My strength in Japanese cinema is really 1950s and earlier (Criterion, Eclipse) so I'm a big Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu fan. I have a few long winded essays and reviews on some films, not too many mini-reviews though. The last Japanese film I saw this month was Flunky Work Hard (1931: Mikio Naruse)

Here's the last capsule I have done.

The Loyal 47 Ronin (1958: Kunio Watanabe) Japan aka Chushingura

A surprisingly good film I saw over the weekend was The Loyal 47 Ronin (1958: Kunio Watanabe). While other versions of the same story are more famous like the 1941 release directed by Kenji Mizoguchi and the 1962 release directed by Hiroshi Inagaki (I need to see both), this one really surprised me on how good the cinematography (Takashi Watanabe) and how great the costumes were (Shima Yoshimi who also did Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff).

Apparently it was a box office hit for Daiei Studios. I have heard the story called “The Gone With The Wind” of Japan. But to compare it to Hamlet or a Shakespearean play makes more sense. Chûshingura roots are in bunraku and then kabuki and has been adapted many times to different forms of media from television to movies (and like Hamlet it has been done many times for both).

The story itself is the most well known from Japan and based on a true story. The core of it is quite simple. It is the tale of a high ranking official Asano who assaults another ranking official Kira in the shogun’s palace because of Kira’s taunting and bad advice given to embarrass the younger daimyo. Asano is force to commit seppuku while Kira is not given any sentence. This outrages many of the former samurai (now ronin) who were retained under Asano especially the head Oishi Kuranosuke. But to take revenge right away could mean failure. As they take their time so Kira’s defenses come down they find a populace that is angry that they haven’t taken revenge or killed themselves.

The Animego release is excellent and I'm surprised by how little talk about the film is out there (no reviews at all on IMDB, three small ones on Amazon). There are so many subtitle options from choosing yellow versus white to having additional information display whenever they figure that certain words used like different types of titles might get lost in translation. Sometimes the story is a bit hard to follow because of the massive amount of characters (probably not as much on a second watching; but it is about 166 minutes long).

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Female Yakuza Tale (Japan, 1973) - 4/5

Reiko Ike reprises her role as a female gambler in the unrelated sequel to Sex & Fury, this time courtesy of madman Teruo Ishii. The bad boy director fills the film with enormous amounts or boresome T&A - and an escape scene that goes on forever - but also staggerinly outrageous storyline and an epic action finale that has to be seen to be believed. In typical mid-70's Toei style the film is colorful as a nuclear radiating rainbow - although not as classy as its predecessor.

Roaring Fire (Japan, 1981) - 4/5

"The Golden Age of Japanese Cinema is back!". Norifumi Suzuki's mentally insane turbo-entertainer mixes lowbrow comedy, great stunts, HK style martial arts choreography, nazi bitches, boobs, and all star cast. Hiroyuki Sanada stars as a Japanese-American cowboy (!) who travels to Japan with his monkey Peter (!) to kick some neo-nazi (!) ass. The film is entertaining beyond belief but has little depth - the few times the action stops the interest curve also does crash landing. Top supporting cast compensates: Sonny Chiba, Etsuko Shihomi, Mikio Narita, Tatsuo Endo, Abdullah the Butcher, and Masashi Ishibashi in perhaps the only good guy role in his career. Jackie Chan took notes from this film!

Love Letter (Japan, 1995) – 4/5

Iwai’s break through is a thoroughly pleasing if unexceptional movie set in the snowy Hokkaido. The 80’s idol Miho Nakayama (Rebellion League of Girls in Sailor Uniform) proves her acting talent by portraying two characters – a young widow, and another girl, who both knew the same man. The film, although not on par with Iwai’s later masterpieces, comes with the expected quality, partly thanks to Iwai’s regular cinematographer (Noboru Shinoda) and composter (Remedios), but also the beautiful northern landscapes. Set in the small town of Otaru, the film also scores personal nostalgia points – I have lived in the same town for one year.

Kichiku dai enkai (Japan, 1997) – 1.5/5

Current top director Kazuyoshi Kumakiri ultra-violent breakthrough toured festivals and eventually made it to UK and US DVD distribution – quite an achievement from a student film. Its popularity may lie more on its extreme depiction of sickeningly violent acts rather than full understanding on the social and political commentary – Kumakiri draw inspiration from the Japanese extreme left student movement of the 70’s, which has also been the topic in various Koji Wakamatsu movies. The excessive bloodletting in Kichiku, however, tends to bury the social and political commentary and leave the viewer numb. Kumakiri has certainly come a long way since, with terrific character films such as Volatile Woman and Sketches of Kaitain City in his more recent filmography.

Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla (Japan, 2002) – 3/5

Solid Gojira entry that does most of its action old school, despite some CGI here and there. Miniature models are destroyed with passion, and the use of Mechagodzilla reminds of Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991), which isn’t a bad thing either. Passable storyline, with the (now forgotten) early 2000’s idol Yumiko Shaku in the lead role.

13 Assassins (Japan, 2010) – 3/5

Takashi Miike goes chanbara in a solid but underwritten reimagining of the 1963 Eiichi Kudo classics. The fittingly dark storyline takes its time to build up for the 45 minute non-stop action finale, but falls a bit short as soon as swords start clashing. The massive battle scene is impressive, but relies too much on kamikaze-techniques at the expense of inventiveness. Furthermore, with 13 main characters even 90 minutes is not enough to establish truly memorable characters – only a handful of them come out with recognizable personalities. Nevertheless, the film is an entertaining and well made samurai romp that pushes the Japanese pg-12 rating to the edge with its violent action. “Miike factor” is kept to a minimum, although a few notable touches surface. Koji Yakusho, Takayuki Yamada and Hiroki Matsukata lead the quality cast.

Kunoichi (Japan, 2011) – 2/5

B-action specialist Seiji Chiba helms yet another low budget ninja pic, this time with far less success than his recent sci-fi crowd pleaser Alien vs. Ninja. The 65 minute action film is remarkably low on action – only the final fight between karate girl Rina Takeda and Chiba regular Mitsuki Koga is worthwhile. The screenplay is non-existent, mainly consisting of meaningless dialogue scenes in the forest. Tech credits are modest even by genre standards, and the locations have been used to death in the director’s past works. Yet, with familiar cast and ninja theme it’s hard not to be at least a tiny bit entertained by Chiba’s passionate but sadly underperforming genre work. Lead girl Takeda ought to look for higher profile productions – her previous film K.G. was a step to the right direction.

Milocrorze – A Love Story (Japan, 2011) – 3/5

The latest offering in the J-kitsch cannon, helmed by Vermilion Pleasure Night creator Yoshimasa Ishibashi and starring heartthrob Takayuki Yamada in three different roles. The love story collection opens with a pastel colored flashback sequence merely fishing laughs with its main character’s name, Ovreneli Vreneligare. The follow-up, an insane 70’s disco parade with Yamada portraying an overly aggressive relationship counselor Besson Kumagai, makes the film. The third episode takes a turn to melodrama and action, with Yamada returning as a vengeful samurai. The pic finally closes with adult Vreneligare (Yamada one more time) seeking for his lost childhood love. Strangely uneven with its mixture of striking musical bits, comedy, and slow paced story pieces, the film does eventually come out better than many of its competitors (Survive Style 5+, Memories of Matsuko, etc.). For manga aesthetics appreciation it has a lot to offer, from careful color design to dull slow motion fight scene posing as a one shot wonder.

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Takuma, have you seen Hausu (1977) aka House yet (and if so what is your opinion on it)?

It's over-rated, but not without charm. A visual overkill, but the piano soundtrack is nice and the girls are lovely. Evil Dead 2 with kawaii factors, basically. Nowhere near Nobuhiko Obayashi's best films, though.

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It's over-rated, but not without charm. A visual overkill, but the piano soundtrack is nice and the girls are lovely. Evil Dead 2 with kawaii factors, basically. Nowhere near Nobuhiko Obayashi's best films, though.

I was curious, of course, since I saw it this weekend on the Criterion R1 release. Some of the reviews and comments I have read had so much hyperbole that I felt a little let down by the film (while liking scenes more than the whole). I didn't find it the most oddball film ever (possibly because of all the cinema I have seen) like many of the reviews stated.

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I was curious, of course, since I saw it this weekend on the Criterion R1 release. Some of the reviews and comments I have read had so much hyperbole that I felt a little let down by the film (while liking scenes more than the whole). I didn't find it the most oddball film ever (possibly because of all the cinema I have seen) like many of the reviews stated.

The first time I saw it I was quite disappointed with it, but then when I watched it for the second time and knew what was coming I actually enjoyed it more. It's a bit ironic that Nobuhiko Oybayashi is (only) known for his oddball crazy stuff outside Japan, but actually his best films are relatively subtle drama-comedies (occasionally with a fantasy twist) like Tenkousei (1982). I've also got Futari and Sabishinbou on dvd, but I haven't watched them yet.

Nerawareta gakuen (The Aimed School) is somewhat in the same alley as Hausu (I wonder how come Hausu became the film's international calling name*)... flawed, but visually absolutely gorgeous (more subtle than Hausu)... and not only because it stars Hiroko Yakushimaru at her most kawaii :tongue:

JPkirei2.jpg

* for those with no Japanese proficiency: "House" is the film's original title (they used an English title). However, since the Japanese katana writing system is not entirely compatible with roman alphabets (it's "missing" characters, consist mostly of syllables, etc), the title spells as "Hausu" when written in Japanese. But "Hausu" itself is no Japanese word - it's an English word "misspelled" with Japanese characters. For the same reason Outrage becomes Autoreeji, Death Note becomes Desu nooto, and Love Letter becomes Rabu retaa when written in Japanese, but all those film titles are originally in English...

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The Executioner (Japan, 1974) – 3.5/5

Teruo Ishii was a born maniac, and a downright terrorist when forced to take directing gigs against his will. The Executioner falls into the latter category. Toei Studios wanted another karate actioner in the vein of The Street Fighter, Ishii delivered a mentally insane mercenary action comedy. It’s not one of Chiba’s action highlights (especially with Yasuaki Kurata stealing the spotlight), but it is one of his ugliest, most brutal and downright offending movies. The heroes are sadists and perverts, and the bad guys... well, the same but even worse. Humor is plenty and constantly sexist, body parts are ripped off, and most cast members are ugly enough to be modern art masterpieces. A nice movie despite some restless camerawork - and so popular Toei had Ishii direct a sequel, too.

Karate Inferno: The Executioner 2 (Japan, 1974) – 4/5

The rat pack is back in an unbeatable heist pic / mental insanity celebration. Forced to deliver another karate film against his wishes, director Teruo Ishii filled the sequel with anarchist gags and slapstick comedy. The classic scene where Chiba saves a burning man’s life by pissing on him may not even be the dirtiest joke in the film. It’s not much of a martial arts film (although the final fight blows first film’s fight choreography out of the water), but the perfect casting guarantees a top grade ride. Sonny Chiba (prick ninja), Eiji Go (pervert karate man) and Makoto Sato (Frankenstein monster look-a-like) are joined by guest stars Etsuko Shihomi and Tetsuro Tamba, plus half of the once-killed villains from the original film. Yakuza film legend Kanjuro Arashi does a cameo at the end – too bad western audiences are likely to miss the joke.

Spoiler: at the end of the film the gang is sentenced to Abashiri Prison, where they are greeted by an old prisoner played by Kanjuro Arashi. Abashiri Prison was a hugely popular yakuza film series helmed by Teruo Ishii (all 10 installments) in the 1960’s. Kanjuro Arashi was one of the series’ regular actors. Sonny Chib also appeared in the 6h film.

Carmen 1945 (Japan, 1988) – 2/5

Underwhelming Gate of Flesh adaptation, directed by the late Hideo Gosha during his women-cinema period. It’s a solid effort in technical terms, but struggles to differentiate from the various other adaptations, including the magnificent 1964 Seijun Suzuki film. Gosha’s main input is the more realistic, bitchy female characters that don’t necessarily serve the cinematic aspect of the pic, but ought to please a few realism seeking viewers nevertheless. Yakuza stars Tsunehiko Watase and Jinpachi Nezu co-star.

Tokyo Fist (Japan, 1995) - 4/5

Tetsuo director Shinya Tsukamoto's body horror pic is essentially cyber punk without cyber. Tsukamoto himself stars as a Tokyo salesman ascending into madness as his school buddy turned boxer (Tsukamoto's brother Koji Tsukamoto) shows up and tries to steal his woman. Aside mixing hard rock cinema and extremely moody pieces the film is also well written, with three main characters going through very different transformation processes. Small human and humoristic details give the characters more depth, although towards the end there is also some repetition in the screenplay that could have been cut out. The film has, however, only gotten better over the years. Tsukamoto's Tokyo photography is some of the best found in any movie, and really nails anxiety in the post-bubble concrete hell that was the mid-90’s Tokyo.

Life Can Be So Wonderful (Japan, 2007) – 2/5

Five short stories with gorgeus 8mm style visuals. Beautifully shot, but fails to reach a more personal level, mainly offering cinema poetry with cardboard characters and voiceover thoughts on life. The third episode, with Hiromi Katayama, shot almost entirely in one room, is the only one with real depth. Another somewhat successful episode is the last one, with the wonderful Mikako Ichikawa in the lead. The film maybe play better with middle aged audiences it appears to be aimed at.

One Million Yen Girl (Japan, 2008) – 2.5/5

Yuki Tanada missteps into mainstream with a poorly constructed screenplay, however, the pic is semi-saved by the brilliant Yu Aoi. Opting for an episodic structure the film follows a troubled 21-year old girl (Aoi) who travels from one city to another, always settling down for a short period of time, and then packing her bags once she has saved 1 million yen to ensure a smooth start in the next location. It has several good moments and some wonderful images, but the structure is frustrating – every time the ground up work is done, the process will reset. A conventional side plot featuring a bullied little brother has also been attached to the pic. That being said, the stunningly beautiful and equally talented Yu Aoi shines at every turn the screenplay allows her to.

Helldriver (Japan, 2010) - 4/5

+ Helldriver dokata (Japan, 2011) - 2/5

+ Catch Me if You Can (Japan, 2011) - 1.5/5

+ Bailout (Japan, 2011) - 3.5/5

- http://sketchesofcinema.wordpress.com/2011/12/20/sushi-typhoon-part-6x-helldriver-again/

Rubbers ou onna (Japan, 2010) - 4/5

A few years ago adult video girl Aino Kishi made an attempt at “mainstream acting” in the splatter fest Samurai Princess. Her performance wasn’t very good even for a racy genre film. Now she’s back with a romantic semi-pink rubber fetish film – and both her performance and the film are among the best of 2010. Up and coming director Takafumi Watanabe helms a lovely low-key romance of a nerdy young man (the always brilliant Hiroshi Yamamoto) and tokusatsu loving rubber fetish girl (Kishi). While perhaps intentionally moe, Kishi is fantastic in her role, underplaying the sexual aspects and coming out sweet and adorable (contrary to the film’s sexy marketing campaign). The screenplay could’ve been slightly improved, but the film leaves a wide smile to anyone’s face. A small gem unlikely to be discovered by wider audiences.

- in more detail: http://sketchesofcinema.wordpress.com/2011/12/24/rubbers-ou-onna/

Deadball (Japan, 2011) – 2.5/5.

A no holds barred upgrade of the 2003 film Battlefield Baseball, star Tak Sakaguchi and director Yudai Yamaguchi are back to play ball. With more blood, more Nazis, and one Klaus Nomi lookalike! The trashy comedy hits an initial homerun as it begins as an outrageous prison film set to John Carpenter esque score. Unfortunately the lengthy game portion is style free CGI splatter with few laughs – with practical effects it could’ve been insanely inventive, now it’s mainly anticlimactic. Lead star Tak Sakaguchi is the single best asset the messy film has– his performance as a silent, chain smoking, poncho wearing anti-hero shows the man in a whole new – would I even dare to say charismatic – light.

- in more detail: http://sketchesofcinema.wordpress.com/2011/11/21/sushi-typhoon-part-8-deadball/

Keibetsu (Japan, 2011) – 3/5

Ryuichi Hiroki returns to gritty slice of life cinema – with sweetheart Anne Suzuki (Hana & Alice) starring! But the attempt is only half successful. Adapted from an original story by Kenji Nakagami ‘the lovers on the run’ (gambler punk and pole dancer) tale spends too much time on countryside themes – not the area of excellence for urban loneliness director Hiroki. He fares much better in the film’s neon-lit Tokyo segments. The cinematography, while impressive at times, also doesn’t gain the level of intimacy that is found in some of the director’s best movies. Anne Suzuki, however, is quite excellent – she has improved notably since her teen years and handles a 10 minutes single shot drama sequence without difficulties. Oh, and she goes topless quite a few times. Should be mentioned.

- in more detail: http://sketchesofcinema.wordpress.com/2011/12/08/keibetsu/

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Drunken Angel (Japan, 1948) – 3.5/5

Solid post-war noir with Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura as young yakuza and drunken doctor, both troubled men with big ego, but brought together by chance. While not as good as many of Kurosawa’s later films, Drunken Angel remains interesting throughout. The film was produced during the era of American censorship in Japan, however, Kurosawa managed to include various “blacklisted” themes such as prostitution, war destruction, and black market. The strongest western influence was, ironically, found in the way his gangsters dress.

Stray Dog (Japan, 1949) – 3.5/5

Slightly uneven but impressive noir by Kurosawa. The young Toshiro Mifune is excellent as a guilt ridden policeman whose gun has been stolen by a pickpocket. He joins the investigation of his own “case” with an older detective (Takashi Shimura). The film has some pacing issues during the first half, but the second hour is excellent. Mifune and Shimura make a terrific duo – the scene where the two sit down and share their differing views on “bad people” is a specific highlight. Such scenes make one wish more modern cop films managed something even remotely comparable, as opposed to pairing Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker...

Tokyo Story (Japan, 1953) – 2/5

The “Anti-Christ’s” most famous work – the archetype of dry and classy Japanese family movie that, as Sion Sono put it, inspired Japanese cinema to become more boring. Has its moments, though, the onsen sequence is quite captivating. Voted by Kinema Junpo as the best Japanese film of all time.

The Human Condition (Japan, 1959-1961) – 4.5/5

Masaki Kobayashi’s 9.5 hour war film is quite possibly the most epic movie ever made. Released as three films, the story follows the young and idealistic Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai) who tries to bring some sense and humanity to a wartime labor camp he works at – until he’s drafted and sent to front line. While a little longer than it needs to be (certain points are unnecessarily repeated) the film is an extremely strong pacifist statement Nakadai is amazing in the lead role, the film’s scope is exceptional, and the beautiful cinematography even resembles Terrence Malick’s films in places. The film’s battle scenes, especially in the second film, are also among the best ever shot. Were they made today, they’ve be filled with CGI. The Human Condition, despite its small flaws, is one of the strongest movie experiences one can ever have!

Take Aim at the Police Van (Japan, 1960) – 3/5

Early 60’s Seijun Suzuki film displays some of the style he would later become world famous for, but never reaches the heights of his later output. At 79 minutes it is, nevertheless, an entertaining crime film with a wonderful title and some shocking (for the era) violence.

Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards! (Japan, 1963) – 4/5

Private detective infiltrates yakuza gang in Seijun Suzuki’s super-hip gangster movie. The jazz-tuned film mixes strong colors, femme fatales, sports cars and men with machine guns to a maximum pop cinema effect. Joe Shishido and the ridiculously beautiful Reiko Sasamori star. Pure coolness on film!

Cruel Gun Story (Japan, 1964) – 3.5/5

A highly stylized Nikkatsu action / gangster film starring Mr. Cool Joe Shishido as an ex-con getting back to bad habits. He and three other men are to rob an armored van. Cool to the bone, the film manages to raise bets until the heist scene. From then on things take an overly conventional if entertaining and action packed turn. Very much a genre film.

Red Beard (Japan, 1965) - 4.5/5

Kurosawa’s grand humanist film set in a poor hospital in the 19th century. A young cocky doctor is sent to serve under a living legend (Toshiro Mifune in his last Kurosawa collaboration) who is more interested in treating patients than making money. A few clumsy moments (including the character of a young boy) aside, Kurosawa’s brutal realism is shocking even today. Topics such as child abuse are openly discussed, and the bone crunching violence could be straight out of a Steven Seagal film. Unusual for Kurosawa, there is also a bit of (blood splattered) female nudity in the film. A hugely impressive film that makes three hours feel like 90 minutes.

A Colt is My Passport (Japan, 1967) – 4/5

Super stylish spaghetti noir with Joe Shishido as a professional killer betrayed by his own boss. A simple story where characters are defined by the color of their suits and the model of their pistol. The influences are obvious: American noir, Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, and Japanese yakuza films. Cool soundtrack, stylish action scenes, fantastic cinematography capturing both the noirish alleys and wide spaghetti western shots, and as expected, very little room for female roles. Deserves a mention in the same breath as Seijun Suzuki’s best films.

Dodeskaden (Japan, 1970) – 1.5/5

Kurosawa hugely personal, but overly self-indulgent arthouse pic understandably formed into a commercial flop. The 140 minute slice of slum life comes with minimal entertainment value, despite Kurosawa usually being first and foremost an entertainer (something that is often forgotten due to his critical acclaim). Dodeskaden may prove rewarding for those with a very specific taste for artistic misery cinema (or additionally blind admiration for arthouse / Kurosawa cinema) - for others, it has little to offer.

Dersu Uzala (Soviet Union, 1975) – 3/5

An over-long, but mostly effective adventure film (once again) proves Kurosawa was one of the best action/thriller directors in the world. The river scene is a terrific example: man vs. nature, without any dumb turbo-packing that makes most action and adventure films these days so silly.

Rhapsody in August (Japan, 1991) – 3/5

Kurosawa’s second last film – he was 81 years old. An admirable effort, although not one of his best works. The Nagasaki set film deals with the nuclear tragedy as well as generation gap between pre- and post war generations. The outcome is a bit clumsy and pretentious, occasionally naïve, too (especially regarding the child characters). Yet, it’s also a good meaning and heartwarming film. The strongest part is the 20 minute section with Richard Gere as an American-Japanese relative. It’s wonderful to see Gere in a Kurosawa film, even if he speaks fluent Japanese like person who's never spoken Japanese before... (duh).

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Sailor Suit and Machine Gun (Japan, 1981) – 4/5

Hiroko Yakushimaru stars in the all time greatest idol film, directed by the soon-to-become best Japanese director of the 80’s, Shinji Somai. Hiroko plays an ordinary high school girl who, due to a terrible coincidence, inherits a small but reckless yakuza gang. One of Somai’s first movies, it shows some roughness around the edges, especially during the second half, but also comes with a load of magnificent scenes (the five minute tracking shot being nearly legendary) almost “too good for an idol film”. Yakushimaru is at her best here – not a flawless performance, but a very fresh and lively one. Her theme song deservedly became a huge hit. The film’s 1982 Complete Version restores some 20 minutes of footage, making it longer but not remarkably better. Additional Hiroko drying her hair footage is always a good thing, though.

Sangatsu no lion (Japan, 1991) - 3/5

An interesting film by Hitoshi Yazaki, produced during Japan’s “lost decade”. With its yellow colored images and sleepy atmosphere, it indeed captures some of the mindset of the era. Buildings are being torn down, people wander aimlessly, and even Tokyo’s streets appear strangely quiet. The two main characters are a man suffering from amnesia, and a woman who claims to him to be his sweetheart, but in reality is his sister.

It’s a beautiful movie with atmospheric music, some truly beautiful images, and the excessively adorable Yoshiko Yura. Yet, it’s also a film that very much requires the interest and mindset for something that is heavily downplayed both story and character wise. It lacks aggressive social bite as well as sharp and rewarding character/psychological focus.

Hazard (Japan, 2002/2005) – 4.5/5

Sion Sono’s utterly fantastic New York film is the archetype of a movie the Japanese Government prays no one would make. Sono went to New York to find the dirtiest streets to let his Japanese punks on the loose. Shot mostly guerilla style, with hugely energetic camerawork and amazing performances, it’s probably the best Japanese gang film since Kinji Fukasaku’s best days in the 1970’s. A super grainy yet beautiful film that, like Dirty Harry might say, slanders all nationalities and races evenly. Jai West’s insanely energetic performance as a Japanese-English mixing punk is the film’s brightest highlight. Fun fact: Sono originally went to NY to shoot a flashback for his Tokyo S&M murder case film. When he came back, he had a NY film in his pocket, and no Tokyo film was ever shot. Then the producer took off with the money gansta style and the release was delayed by years!

Battlefield Baseball (Japan, 2003) – 3.5/5

Asian sports movies are a breed of their own – and this original baseball violence musical still holds the honor as the genre high (=low) point. Director Yudai Yamaguchi had to tone down the splatter down in order to ensure the pg-12 rating (which did not, however, prevent uzi-massacres, chainsaw attacks, and a truckload of body parts) but compensated the loss with a steady delivery of low-brow gags. The outcome blurs the line between genius and retard. Best enjoyed under the influence of intoxicating beverages. And the film’s best part? Tak sings!

Japanese Wife Next Door (Japan, 2004) – 2/5

Director/actor Yutaka Ikejima (Blind Love’s main character) over-praised pink comedy stretches the limits of softcore. The sex filled, near hardcore comedy does have its share of hilarious humor and surprisingly competent comedy performances, but overdoses the sex and manages little else. At 60 minutes it loses its interest before the epic climax.

Izo (Japan, 2004) – 3/5

Takashi Miike goes political. A “follow up” to Hideo Gosha’s Hitokiri (1969), Miike’s film is an insane, non-compromising arthouse massacre with no mercy for the viewer. Izo is a restless spirit of a killed samurai who travels through time and kills everything that stands in his way: men, women, children, students, teachers, commandos, politicians, anything. The only thing he doesn’t kill is himself. Endlessly repetitive but strangely fascinating, strongly political, filled with major movie stars, and set to a brilliant folk-score by Kazuki Tomokawa. Izo is the most hard-core Miike film out there. Strongly not recommended for ordinary viewers.

Death Trance (Japan, 2005) – 4.5/5

Back on the radar with the underwhelming Yakuza Weapon, it’s a good time to revisit Tak Sakaguchi’s best film, Death Trance. A brief look at the character list says it all: Grave, Mountain Bandit, Capoeira User, Fallen Angel, Ninja B, Flying Vampire, Goddess of Destruction... Directed by Japan’s most interesting action choreographer Yuji Shimomura, it’s a nuclear reactor of Japanese martial arts films. Fans of high flying Hong Kong action or gory and ultra-stylised posing will be disappointed, though – even despite its various fantasy elements Death Trance is a more realistic, hard core fighting film than most genre pics. Stylish forest-punk, the lack of comedy and CGI in action (the overtly sexual final fight aside), and Sakaguchi’s slightly Chiba esque performance add to the action fest. A Versus beater? Yes!

Oh! Invisible Man (Japan, 2010) – 2/5

A teenage boy discovers a way to become invisible – and heads towards the girls’ changing room. A slightly amusing manga / anime adaptation that runs out of steam before halfway. The joke is too simple even for a 60 minute movie, though amazing special effects and cute supporting idols (especially Maika Suzuki) compensate. Nudity is left for second grade shower-idols rather than the main cast. Still, God bless Japan for producing such non-pretentious otaku entertainment.

Norwegian Wood (Japan, 2010) – 4/5

An unexpectedly great, somewhat Wong Kar Wai esque adaptation from Mukakami’s famous novel. The film comes out a mesmerizing zeitgeist with terrific soundtrack, strong performances, and a refreshingly natural and beautiful approach to love and sex. The classy and old fashioned look, which slightly pushes the focus from the actors, is compensated by having most of the important scenes played in single long takes. In these scenes newcomer Kiko Mizuhara, the better-than-his-reputation Ken’ichi Matsuyama, and especially Rinko Kikuchi, are all terrific. The cinematography (by Lee Ping Bin, who did stunning work in Koreeda’s Air Doll) is thoroughly good and manages several jaw dropping shots towards the end. Interestingly, and quite successfully, the film only uses the 1960’s political turmoil as distanced background. Many of the younger viewers will probably miss some of this context.

Underwater Love (Japan, 2011) – 4/5

A pink musical shot by the world’s most famous cinematographer, scored by a German-French pop-duo, and decorated with special effects by Japan’s most celebrated make-up/splatter maestro, isn’t quite the most usual sight. Of course, Underwater Love isn’t that much of a real pink film, but a German co-financed oddity that brings together Shinji Imaoka, Christopher Doyle, Stereo Total, and Yoshihiro Nishimura. The outcome is unexpectedly successful – an honest love letter to silly cinema, and a lovely fantasy romance with catchy musical numbers. Energetic performances and stylish visuals add to the film that was shot in only four days. A small gem of j-kitsch, but not a hipster product, although bound to be mislabeled as such by the less educated audiences.

Yakuza Weapon (Japan, 2011) – 2/5

Cult-house Sushi Typhoon misfires with an attempted Versus beater. The old gang is back, minus director Kitamura, but times have changed. Loaded with CGI and over-the-top humor, the film ridicules itself to the point of boredom. Unlike true trash classics that retain a certain level of pseudo-seriousness, Yakuza Weapon is an on-your-face action comedy made for audiences that normally wouldn’t get the joke. The saving grace is occasional strong action bits choreographed by Yuji Shimomura, and Tak Sakaguchi’s nutty yakuza performance that entertains despite being “all wrong”.

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Battles Without Honor and Humanity: Deadly Battle in Hiroshima (Japan, 1973) – 4/5

Fukasaku’s hard boiled follow up to Battles Without Honor and Humanity, with Bunta Sugawara turned into a minor supporting character and new goon Seizô Fukumoto in the spotlight. The second billed Sonny Chiba gives a manic performance as ultra-violent, psychotic yakuza who tries to take over Hiroshima. A very convincing, cold and epic yakuza film with Fukasaku’s docu-drama filmmaking in full swing.

Yakuza Graveyard (Japan, 1976) – 4/5

Another nihilist crime film from Fukasaku, this time from a policeman’s point of view. Tetsuya Watari stars as a hard-boiled detective who begins to lose his sense of justice as he drifts ever deeper into the yakuza world. Not quite as impressive as Fukasaku’s best yakuza films, but comes with a load of terrific scenes and expectedly strong supporting performance by Meiko Kaji. For Fukasaku beginners Yakuza Graveyard is perhaps an easier starting point than some of his other films for being rather straight forward and focused on one character rather than complicated yakuza politics.

The Heartbreak Yakuza (Japan, 1987) – 2/5

A rightfully forgotten film by Masato Harada, made in the era when yakuza films were at their sappy low point. With more emphasis on romantic storytelling and good looking lead than brutal energy, The Heartbreak Yakuza comes out like a cheap novel for women. Strong 1980’s aesthetics do not help either. Director Harada would later helm far more interesting sociopolitical films such as Kamikaze Taxi and Bounce Ko Gals.

Yabanjin no youni (Japan, 1985) – 1.5/5

Ryuji director Tooru Kawashima misfires with an incomprehensible trend film. Hiroko Yakushimaru stars as happy-go-lucky novelist who bumps into a yakuza on the run. What follows is a romance without romance, and an action thriller without action or thrills. Very much a product of its time, the film is flooded with 1980’s cliché, but reaches none of the style that was demonstrated in the theatrical teaser trailer (largely composed of footage not used in the film). The screenplay is instantly forgettable, and Yakushimaru, who could be very good under the correct circumstances, merely manages to look pretty. Her theme song remains the only saving grace in a disjointed and thrill-free film.

Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989) – Movie: 4/5, Cinema Experience: 5/5

No need for further comments on Tsukamoto’s beloved cyber punk classic! Instead, I gotta thank my amazing luck. I missed Tetsuo two years ago when I was living in Japan – caught high fever just when the Tsukamoto retro kicked off and had to skip the early works. Now, a few weeks after returning to Japan there’s a Tetsuo / A Snake of June double feature in Kineka Omori. I’ve only got enough time for the first movie but that’s not such a huge bummer because I already watched Snake in cinema two years ago after surviving the fever! The puzzle comes together - though the construction worker who gave me the wrong directions did his best to wreck my plans!

Futari (Japan, 1991) – 4.5/5

A junior high school girl communicates with her dead sister in Nobuhiko Obayashi stunning fantasy drama. The 2½ hour film hits the essence of adorable, yet manages strong character drama and heavy topics at the same. Idol Hikari Ishida is terrific in the lead role, in terms of both acting and coming up with one of the cutest performances ever seen in Japanese cinema. Joe Hisaishi’s score, which sounds like lifted from Studio Ghibli movie, completes the package. Indeed, Futari is very much a live action Hayao Miazaki film if there ever was one – and every bit as great as Miyazaki’s best movies. It’s almost a shame director Obayashi is internationally known only for his lesser (though classic) movies like House.

Bounce ko gals (Japan, 1997) – 4.5/5

Masato Harada’s enjo kosai film with an odd balance between fresh, naturalistic expression and heavy socio-politics. The latter could trash the entire film, with half of the dialogue feeling more like spoken for the audience than natural interaction between characters. The method is taken far enough to become an acceptable stylistic choice and give some scenes a documentary feel – and a strong sense of a director who has something to say. Balancing the table is a load of very natural and lively scenes and fantastic Tokyo night imagery. The outcome is more accessible than Hideaki Anno's experimental but (at least) equally impressive Love & Pop, which essentially told the same storyline but without any of Harada's underlining and explanations.

Barren Illusions (Japan, 1999) – 3/5

Here is a challenging film by Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Unlike the yakuza and horror films he is best known for Barren Illusion omits the mainstream catch (scares, yakuzas, storyline) and goes for a social commentary. With a near future setting, where people experiment a new medicine against an epidemic, it’s essentially a sci-fi film but without sci-fi imagery. Even the hallucinations caused by the medicine are so discreet they are likely to pass unnoticed by the less observant viewers. It’s an interesting film, but somewhat unrewarding for those looking for a character focus. Kurosawa’s characters and minimalist filmmaking are merely tools for observing the society rather than individual characters.

A Closing Day (Japan, 2000) – 2/5

A pretentious entry into the Love Cinema series, by the wildly uneven drama director Isao Yukisada. The budget exercise, cheaply shot in digital, follows a brother and sister in an incestuous relationship. Any character depth is limited to what is explicitly displayed on screen via flashbacks, and with much of the drama falling under the “pretentious arthouse” banner with idiosyncratic characters banging their heads to the wall. Masatoshi Nagase in a woman’s underwear must be the peak of ridiculousness. That being said, the film’s soundtrack is excellent, with Asami Fujita’s theme song Seinaru ashi used to a mesmerizing effect.

Luxurious Bone (Japan, 2001) – 3.5/5

Yukisada’s fourth feature film, following his silly and unsuccessful Love Cinema entry, A Closing Day, marks a notable improvement. The decidedly low key character drama follows two young women and a sex date (Masatoshi Nagase) who turns out to be an alright guy. Yukisada has the skill to turn non-action into catchy cinema, with enough room for the viewer to breathe and interpret the characters. Solid performances, strong soundtrack, and stylish visuals with excellent use of light and grainy 16 mm film. Still, 20 minutes could’ve been lost easily – a simple mood / slice of life film without story merits to mention does not need to run 105 minutes.

Life (Japan, 2006) – 2.5/5

Pretty boy candle artist (Gou Ayano) leaves the countryside to go to Tokyo for one day to meet a handful of people. Shin Sasaki’s indie film tries to be semi-existential urban mood piece, somewhat in the lines of Hiroshi Ishikawa or even Ryuichi Hiroki, but falls short. Its characters are too forgettable, and its actors unable to communicate unwritten content. There’s also clumsy flirting with arthouse. Yet, the film isn’t without points of interest. Even in their emptiness the grainy night images of our hero wandering in Tokyo with a high school girl, and Sasaki’s no-storyline leaning approach, are something to be appreciated. In the end, though, merits remain modest. Ayano’s pop star haircut and the title “Life” probably ought to have been enough to tell this isn’t a fully mature work despite placing itself in a challenging subgenre.

Monsters Club (Japan, 2011) - 3/5

A Japanese take on the Unabomber theme, by punk-art director Toshiyaki Toyoda who was one of the most promising Japanese directors before his drug bust in 2004. Monsters Club pushes the balance further towards art house, coming out somewhat more pretentious than the director’s early, energetic and violent yet poetic films. Set in a cabin in the middle of a snowy forest with a young man (Eita) fighting the society by posting explosive mail, it’s an occasionally beautiful though dialogue/monologue heavy film. Indeed, Monster’s Club suggest of a slightly new kind of, though still easily recognizable Toyoda. His past rock soundtracks have made way to more classical tunes, and raging yakuzas have stepped down in favor of voices inside the protagonist’s head. There’s a more artistic and perhaps theatrical feel to it – which doesn’t always work but comes out clumsy in places. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting work from a director who has his own voice.

Donzumari benki (Japan, 2012) - 2.5/5

Another gritty indie from a Japanese female director (who, a bit ironically, have a tendency to leave the sappy girl-cinema to their male colleagues). The psycho-sexual film follows a mentally disturbed girl (Nanaha, from Zeze’s Heaven’s Story) and her brother (Kuniaki Nakamura) trying to get along under the same roof. The girl’s only aim in life, however, seems to infect everyone around her with her misery. Occasionally intriguing and sometimes shocking indie fare comes out a little bit staged – an issue not eased by the instantly recognizable digital look of it. Acting is good, but cannot fully undone the common issue of traumatized characters not being all that interesting due to their obsessive behavior. Despite the large amount of sex featured in the film there is no bare skin on display – an artistic (?) choice that doesn’t feel quite natural in the context. The film marks feature length debut for the 27 year old director Haruhi Oguri.

Henge (Japan, 2011) – 4.5/5

Here’s a title to memorize. Henge (Metamorphosis) marks the most impressive horror movie to come out of Asia in decades. The Cronenbergian body horror drama builds on strong character focus, stunning atmosphere, and old school make up effects. Director Hajime Ohata manages a seamless fusion of drama and horror as he follows a married couple’s struggle when the husband’s nightmarish visions begin to take physical and increasingly violent forms. While slightly weakened by (sparsely used) CG-blood, as opposed to hand-made effects that make 95% of the film’s SFX, the ending alone is stunning enough to leave the audience in a need of medical treatment! This film you will be hearing about again – a lot!

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nice, many thx for all these reviews. i think i`ve never spotted this thread before.

perfect info fodder for the likes of me. since my base in asian cinema are hk outputs, i`ve never gotten around to delve deeper into the japanese market, albeit owning hundreds of j-cinema flicks by now.

since theres way more jap releases not quite up my alley than there are interesting ones, i guess i`ll never make it a j-movie insider. problem is, theres still a lot of great stuff and i`d be mildly crushed if too many goodies pass me by unnoticed, so- big up to u & keep em coming (especially the new releases). cheers

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Inferno of Torture (Japan, 1969) – 4/5

Teruo Ishii’s quality exploitation with beautiful cinematography, various atmospheric moments and plenty of eye candy in form of Toei’s attractive young female stars. Occasional violence shocks are included, though the real focus is on epic tattoo competition between Ishii regulars Teruo Yoshida and Asao Koike, and frankly ridiculous romance melodrama. Comic relieves and sloppy structure that makes one wonder whether the reels were played in the right order add their spice to the soup.

Seeing the film on 35mm in Tokyo’s most atmospheric movie theater (Laputa Asagaya, a charming 47 seat retro theater run by two lovely ladies who play old Toei soundtracks non-stop in the waiting room / mini-café) was a treat, though, even if the film did not receive such a boost from cinema presentation as some other exploitation movie do.

Genocide (Japan, 1968) – 2/5

Cheap B-horror movie with insects attacking people while the Americans and Japanese argue who or what killed American pilots and what happened to the A-bomb they were carrying. Aside from its modest b-charm, the film is quite a poor effort with lazy special effects and slow moving storyline that steals the attention from killer insects.

Under the Flag of the Rising Sun (Japan, 1972) – 4.5/5

Kinji Fukasaku’s criminally ignored war film deserves a mention among the classics. Opening almost like a sappy nationalistic war tale, it soon becomes clear the opening frames are little more than cruel sarcasm. Fukasaku’s vision of Japanese soldiers in New Guinea is disturbing and visceral enough to make his famed yakuza films pale in comparison. With a mixture of Rashomon style storytelling, real photographic evidence, and present day footage and flashbacks, Fukasaku draws a gripping pacifist statement and an image of the industrial 1970’s Japan where pre- and post war generations clash. A hugely important film that puts much of Fukasaku’s yakuza filmography into a perspective.

Live Tape (Japan, 2009) – 4/5

Tetsuaki Matsue’s one take wonder proves "all it takes to make a movie is a singer, a guitar, and sunglasses". Shot with a single 72 minute take, Matsue follows musician Kenta Maeno as he wanders the streets of Tokyo on a new year’s day and performs music. From a brilliant opening to good music and bits & pieces of something real captured on camera it’s an inspiring film that deservedly made it to almost every J-Film top-10 list of 2009 and 2010. Followed by an even more interesting Tokyo Drifter, which throws Matsue and Maeno on the streets of the post-Fukushima Tokyo, in 2011.

Ringing in Their Ears (Japan, 2010) – 3/5

Saitama rapper Yu Irie reaches towards bigger audiences. Ringing in Their Ears takes the same semi-fiction formula as Custom Made 10.30 (2005), but replaces Tamio Okuda with Shinsei kamatte-chan as the real-life center of a fictional story. The film plays several, fragment-like storylines simultaneously before climaxing with Shinsei kamatte-chan live gig at Tokyo’s Shibuya AX. It’s an entertaining ride, even if not as energetic as Irie’s earlier works, with some parts coming out a bit preachy. The gig footage, however, is great, ex-AV-star Kurumi Morishita gives a decent performance in her big screen debut, and the closing is just lovely. For a film of this type one could do much worse.

Red Tears (Japan, 2011) – 2.5/5

Action legend Yasuaki Kurata celebrates his 100th screen work with a self financed vampire / horror / martial arts hybrid. Violence director Takanori Tsujimoto makes a fitting pairing, though the outcome doesn’t live up to the expectations. The film spends too much time flirting with flat romance and comedy, lacking the visceral style of Tsujimoto’s earlier action diamond Hard Revenge Milly: Bloody Battle (2009). Yoshihiro Nishimura’s monster masks and CGI-free gore work are pleasing though, and action scenes have a bit of kick, especially towards the end. Kurata himself plays a (major) supporting role and owns the film with his badass charisma. For fans of the star and director, Red Tears makes a rather passable viewing.

Zombie Ass (Japan, 2011) – 2/5

Ass fetishist Noboru Iguchi returns to his roots with a lackluster crap-comedy. With an Evil Dead esque premise the film sets a group of teens against crap-covered zombies with sharp teeth not only in their mouth, but also in their asses. Add parasites, a cabin, and a shotgun, and you’ve got a movie. Unfortunately Iguchi, back on his bad humoristic habits, ignores the opportunity to play it outrageously straight. Zombie Ass, while high on bad taste, is neither very funny nor truly offensive. Yoshihiro Nishimura’s skillful gore work, though marred with less than delighting CG effects, and basic exploitation value, provide modest entertainment in a movie that is far more in the Robo-Geisha alley than anything resembling a genuinely mean splatter piece.

Kotoko (Japan, 2011) – 3.5/5

Bullet man Shinya Tsukamoto refuses to settle down. While the new film Kotoko is another addition to his expanding sub-catalogue of psychological films, it’s also a movie loud enough to escape full critical acclaim. The drama of a single mother falling into madness is covered with touches of cyberpunk Tsukamoto, from gory make up effects (the Japanese pg-12 rating is a sick joke) to hectic camerawork. Yet, it’s the emotional impact and strong performance by singer / debut actress Cocco that makes Kotoko a such a hard viewing. In contrast, the digital HD cinematography comes through beautifully. What separated the film from Tsukamoto’s best works is the slightly conflicting mix of psychological themes and overtly aggressive filmmaking techniques.

Ai to Makoto (For Love’s Sake) (Japan, 2012) – 1.5/5

The latest by the wildly uneven mainstream talent Miike is colorful pop-culture mess. An adaptation from a popular manga, Ai to Makoto unfolds the street fighting filled non-romance of a hooligan boy Makoto (Satoshi Tsumabuki) and sweet girl Ai (Emi Takei). Set in 1972 and complete with 8 musical numbers, the pseudo-tribute unfortunately comes with modern, supercharged visuals and showa era soundtrack marred with sappy modern trash to make the kids feel more at home. At 134 minutes the film is terribly overlong with a screenplay that achieves very little. Occasional clever gags and an amusing supporting performance by Sakura Ando do not redeem the film. It’s a tiresome effort by Miike.

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Which is Stronger: Karate or the Tiger (Japan, 1976) [DVD] –3.5/5

Standard karate actioner brings little new to the genre other than the tiger, but works fine as a solid genre film. It doesn’t quite reach the level of director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi’s earlier beast flicks (Karate Bullfighter, Karate Bearfighter), but the choreography is well done, Yasuaki Kurata makes a strong Bruce Lee imitation, and the soundtrack swings like a tiger. Only the final cat fight comes out slightly clumsy but that’s forgivable as it’s no teddy bear but a real cat Kurata is wrestling with.

Yokohama BJ Blues (Japan, 1981) [DVD] – 2/5

Superstar Yusaku Matsuda stars in a passable Yokohama thriller. Director Eichi Kudo, better known for samurai classics such as 13 Assassins, delivers a visually stylish, but endlessly bleak film. His 1980’s Yokohama is always cold and depressing, complete with grainy, blue-toned images, and lonely bars with few customers. Matsuda’s charisma and singing charms, but the screenplay is a lazy effort. Like many early 80’s Toei Central productions, the film takes it granted the audience has patience to finish a near two hour drama that lacks intriguing plot and memorable characters.

Tracked (Japan, 1985) [DVD] – 3.5/5

Ken Ogata shines as a real life killer on the run in Hideo Gosha’s best 1980’s film. As typical for late Gosha, the director takes an observing role rather than unloading energetic visions similar to his 60’s and 70’s masterworks. For Tracked this approach is a fine fit, enhancing the realism and showing the “normal” life of a killer who avoided being caught for years. Kills and chases come very infrequent, and chronology is broken effectively in a storyline that covers several years.

Blowback 2: Love & Death (Japan, 1991) [DVD] – 3/5

One of V-cinema’s better directors, Atsushi Muroga, was a clever man. With Japan in recession, he frequently took his crew to the Philippines, where dynamite was cheap and stuntmen even more affordable. Here the outcome was a low budget actioner full of pyrotechnics, loud weapons, and actors giving their best low-tone yakuza accents. Save for a decent story, only bare skin is missing. Riki Takeuchi, full of youthful energy, plays his lead role like a homemade Elvis or Chow Yun Fat. Shun Shugata gives excellent support. For the simple yet action packed b-movie it is, Muroga’s film is quite a solid effort. They don't make em like this anymore.

Guilty of Romance (Japan, 2011) [blu-Ray, Japanese Cut] – 2/5

Sion Sono recycles his trademarks in this long psycho-sexual drama. Solid performances (even from the former gravure idol Megumi Kagurazaka) and some stylish visuals can’t overcome the fact that Sono has done too many movies in the similar vein before, although with less drama emphasis. At nearly 2½ hours the films comes out a drawn-out arthouse-exploitation effort with occasional violence and frequent full frontal nudity from each of the three female protagonists.

Himizu (Japan, 2011) [blu-Ray] - 3/5

Bad boy Sion Sono goes ever more schizophrenic with yet another foray into Japanese national madness. Set in the disaster ridden Miyagi prefecture, the devastation merely provides the background for Sono's raging social commentary on child beaters, random killings, and neo nazis. Incoherent and borderline ridiculous, the film nevertheless builds extremely strong scenes and comes out rather impressive. In a way, it's a great relief Sono has not fallen into sappy melodrama that could be expected from a Japanese film dealing with a real life tragedy. Cartoonish comic touches and the over-use of Cold Fish cast could've been done without, though.

Rabbit Horror (2D) (Japan, 2011) [DVD] – 1.5/5

Takashi Shimizu has only directed one good film (Marebito) on his career. Rabbit Horror does little to change this situation. The bunny horror packs potential, with occasional beautiful images and the ridiculously fascinating idea of giant fake rabbit tormenting its characters, but results are typically underwhelming. As usual, Shimizu opts for z-grade psychology, using a traumatized child and an equally disturbed young adult (Hikari Mitsushima) as his characters to minimize any real psychological depth. The screenplay is a J-horror cliché collection that ought to have been filmed 10 years ago, if even then. Only if Shimizu would ever again find the same directorial touch that have birth to the genuinely original and stylish Marebito.

The End of Puberty (Japan, 2011) [Cinema] – 1.5/5

Perky high school girl and a shy teacher change genitals in Shoko Kimura’s dull fantasy/comedy/drama. The indie film is visually decent enough, but lacks any memorable moments. Character development is non-existent, wacky ideas underutilized, and energy lacking. Kimura seems to have something to say of a world where men have lost their balls and women are unable to take the lead – indeed, interviews have confirmed her conservative views – but the topic eventually leads nowhere. Perhaps most interesting is the film’s soundtrack that plays like an old Nintendo game, but like the rest of the film, it remains a curiosity that never really catches fire. The film is a far cry from Nobuhiko Obayashi’s similarly themed 1982 classic Transfer Student.

Tokyo Drifter (Japan, 2011) [Cinema] – 4/5

After the inspiring one shot wonder, Live Tape (2009), Tetsuaki Matsue and folk musician Kenta Maeno are back on the streets of the post Fukushima Tokyo. Shot in a single rainy night, Maeno walks the darkened streets of the once so colorful metropolis and performs an album full of great music. The irresistibly energetic musician is never brought down even by the nightmarish combination of dark, rainy night, and his trademark sunglasses that remain on throughout the film. He is left without audience in every location he travels (in the film), but in the comfort of cinema his show is one not to be missed.

- full review: http://sketchesofcinema.wordpress.com/2012/07/04/tokyo-drifter/

Let's Make the Teacher Have a Miscarriage Club (Japan, 2011) [Cinema] – 3.5/5

Japanese school girls go nasty in Eisuke Naito’s cheap and attention seeking, but effective exploitation drama. Based on true events, the film pretends a social commentary, but comes out ballsy genre cinema that celebrates its little devils in school uniforms. Tech credits are above average J-trash, and the heavy soundtrack is used to a great effect. Gore is missing, but the topic and dealing alone push the film to borderline horror. Bits of pitch black humor provide minor relief. Clumsy drama comes as part of the package, as goes with the genre.

- full review: http://sketchesofcinema.wordpress.com/2012/07/02/lets-make-the-teacher-have-a-miscarriage-club/

Rurouni Kenshin (Japan, 2012) [airplane] – 3/5

Another manga adaptation starring pretty face idols, surprisingly not the teenage pose/romance disaster is was expected to be. A rather decent effort in its genre, the film captutes the old Japan with decent production values and a feel of a pop film, unlike most period films these days. Action scenes are the biggest surprise – sweetheart Takeru Sato exceeds expectations in the stylishy choregraphed katana fights. Other merits are few, though, with flat storyline and characters making the film nothing but a solid one time time passer. Though days of Ogami Itto are long gone, the new (teenage) cinema of Japan frequently does worse than this.

Salvage Mice (Japan, 2012) [DVD] – 1.5/5

Mitsuki Tanimura in a karate movie! Well, that sounded too good to work out. Tokusatsu veteran Ryuta Tasaki’s masked hero movie is a lazy effort, with sloppy technical execution leaving it several notches behind last year’s effective cheese karate burger K.G. The villain of the latter, Richard Heselton, dubbed in English here, is the film’s only convincing fighter. Newcomer Julia Nagano has potential, but the sound and visual department fail to insert enough iron into her little fists. Storyline and action choreography are second grade with no redeeming b-qualities, and the catchy Momoiro Clover song Contradiction, used in the film’s stylish trailer, is not found in the film.

The Samurai That Night (Japan, 2012) [Cinema] – 2/5

Actor and stage director Masaaki Akahori’s directorial debut is a long revenge drama lacking in revenge. The star studded but low key arthouse drama follows a widowed, obsessed man stalking the hit-and-run crook that killed his wife after the release from prison. Opting for strong realism, rather than fantastic revenge fantasy, the film has its moments but doesn’t eventually find very much depth. Little happens within its two hour running time, and some scenes come out “made-art” rather than natural storytelling. Characters feel distant, though Masato Sakai is not bad in the lead, and heart knob Takayuki Yamada makes a surprisingly believable killer.

The Drudgery Train (Japan, 2012) [Cinema] – 3.5/5

Fan favorite Nobuhiro Yamashita's welcome return to slow paced, rather non-commercial cinema. With a 19 year old protagonist who burns his money on booze and strippers, and whose father is a sex criminal, it's certainly a film of old school Yamashita ingredients. Yet, the minimal and slightly overlong film is neither as good nor quite like his early slacker masterpieces. Perhaps because of the source material - an autobiographical novel by Kenta Nishimura, adapted into screenplay by pink maestro Shinji Imaoka - Yamashita's approach favors darker tones and drama over the charming humor that filled his highly personal early works. That being said, the recognizable elements are all here, just with modified emphasis. The start studded cast fare reasonably well, especially Mirai Moriyama who takes a gamble with his career here. Flawed but pleasing, Kueki ressha may have a bit of difficulties finding its audience despite the puzzling Toei multiplex distribution that feels almost like a twisted joke by itself.

Lesson of the Evil (Japan, 2012) [Cinema] – 3.5/5

A film for for high school teachers: students need not be tolerated, they can be killed! The violent thriller packs a school load of teenage superstars for one man Battle Royale when the beloved English teacher decides to go postal. Satire is lacking, but the film is strikingly stylish as the bodies pile up and the song Die Moritat von Mackie Messer (1928) builds tension. Hidaki Ito, with the charisma and looks of The Bold and the Beautiful’s Ronn Moss, is a standout as the charming but murderous teacher. The film should also mark director Takashi Miike’s commercial return after a few misses, grossing in one month more than the new Batman in all year at the domestic box office! In the light of the recent real life events, though, all US screenings seems destined to be cancelled.

I’m Flash (Japan, 2012) [Cinema] – 2.5/5

Toshiaki Toyoda’s second theatrical release for the year, in the heels of the arthouse fair Monsters Club, is a more mainstream oriented gangster tale. Death Note’s pretty boy Tatsuya Fujiwara stars as a young cult leader who escapes political scandal to his Okinawa base, protected by three bored bodyguards lead by Ryuhei Matsuda. It’s somewhat a return to roots for Toyoda, with stylized visuals and rock score, yet a disappointment. For what was intended as trendy genre pic, it is neither intense enough nor especially original. The setting echoes of Kitano’s Sonatine, but without the laconic humor. Fujiwara falls short of charisma, Matsuda has little to do until the final reel, and the religious cult theme is underutilized. The mediocre film only comes to life during the final 15 minutes, which is a blazing showdown of violent old school Toyoda.

The Kirishima Thing (Japan, 2012) [Cinema] – 4/5

Japanese high school community is turned upside down when one student unexpectedly quits the club. Daihachi Yoshida’s excellent film is one of the Japanese highlights of 2012. The film examines Japanese societal roles and hierarchy from which no one is expected to escape. One student’s unexpected move triggers a chain reaction through half dozen main characters that are only loosely linked. There is hardly any storyline, but Yoshida pulls it off admirably with stylish filmmaking and strong cast. The titular student Kirishima is the film’s driving factor, though no one has seen him, not even the viewer. In the end, it doesn’t matter. The film was not a major hit upon its release, but turned into a sleeper hit, still circulating Japanese cinemas 5 months after.

- in more detail: http://sketchesofcinema.wordpress.com/2013/01/15/the-kirishima-thing/

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Shinjuku Outlaw: Buttobase (Japan, 1970) [35mm] – 2/5

Toshiya Fujita, who is criminally underrated outside his native country, was one of the seminal new wave director’s of the 70’s Japan. Shinjuku Outlaw does not rank among his best films, though. The film takes its leaf from the 1960’s Nikkatsu action movies, but underplays action without compensating it with a strong story. The film is too silly to be convincing despite occasional strong scenes. The cast is the biggest attraction: Yoshio Harada, Tetsuya Watari, Meiko Kaji, and future Toei yakuza regular Mikio Narita.

Modern Porno Tale (Japan, 1971) [DVD] – 1.5/5

A dated and thoroughly un-shocking exploitation drama, providing modest nostalgia values for genre devouts. The usual suspects are plenty, from Reiko Ike’s wildly unconvincing good girl protagonist to Miki Sugimoto’s lesbian cameo, but it’s the French import Sandra Julien the film will be remembered for – if for anything. Expect an interracial shower scene briefly followed by a gang rape by tattooed gangsters. It all smells like a routine effort by director Norifumi Suzuki who could be a master of exploitation when he felt like it.

Tokugawa Sex Ban: Lustful Lord (Japan, 1972) [DVD] – 1.5/5

Sandra Julien’s Nippon holiday part II, with kimono (un)attached. Norifumi Suzuki’s modest period pinku is a historical comedy with good production values, but few laughs. Julien provides the film’s main curiosity, sharing the top billing with Miki Sugimoto. Action is non-existent, but there are a few violent bits, including the most ridiculously cheesy-romantic harakiri scene of all time, and a few Teruo Ishii / Joys of Torture esque bits of female punishment.

Lustful Shogun and his 21 Lovers (Japan, 1972) [DVD] – 2/5

A classy yet unexciting period pinku by Norifumi Suzuki, this time with Reiko Ike as a ninja! Her supporting role provides a few brief action scenes – including a Red Peony Gambler replica fight – to a film that isn't such a bad effort in its genre. If nothing else, it’s a reminder from the era when exploitation was still a studio genre with impressive production values. Plus kudos to miss Ike’s hair stylist.

Yakuza War: The Japanese Godfather (Japan, 1977) – 3/5

A grand yakuza epic from the final years of Toei genre cinema glory, helmed by the studio’s trusted multi talent Sadao Nakajima. It’s a 130 minutes of crime politics with gratuitous violence, sex, and pop. In short, an ambitious storyline mixed with scenes of enraged Sonny Chiba pulling a dead corpse from the chest after unloading his six shooter to the poor man’s body. Nakajima’s direction, however, lacks the burning energy and originality that made Kinji Fukasaku the no. 1 man in the genre. Perhaps anticipating the end of an era, Toei collect all their tough guys, including some from previous decades, together for The Japanese Godfather. The film packs Koji Tsuruta, Bunta Sugawara, Tsunehiko Watase, Mikio Narita, Sonny Chiba, Hiroki Matsukata, Asao Koike, and many more. Even the film’s tagline was “30 years of Toei men!”

Path of the Beast (Japan, 1980) [DVD] – 3/5

In critic-favorite Tatsumi Kumashiro’s over-rated pink-filmography this is one of the better ones. A slice of life piece as could be expected from the director, Path of the Beast excels with terrific cinematography and stylish long takes. Acting is poor, though, and characters lack depth despite the potential. Sex scenes blend in better than average, but still stand out. The use of music is effective, as nearly always in Kumashiro movies.

River (Japan, 2011) [DVD] – 2.5/5

Ryuichi Hiroki references several recent tragedies with this indie drama. The film is set in the post 3/11 Japan, with a main character who lost her boyfriend in the 2008 Akihabara massacre. It is Hiroki’s return to less commercial cinema after a couple of mainstream efforts. However, Hiroki who is known for brutally beautiful urban character films isn’t at his best here. The cheap digital video does no favors to the cinematography, which already suffers from technical issues. Long tracking shots occasionally come at the cost of shaky handheld camerawork, reflection errors, and by passers staring into the camera. Character drama mostly functional, but lacks the naked honesty of Hiroki’s early 2000’s movies. The film's most memorable part is the ending which is set in the disaster struck areas. The sheer power of the images is devastating, but it's more due to the real life tragedy than Hiroki's filmmaking.

Isn’t Anyone Alive? (Japan, 2012) [DVD] – 3/5

Sogo Ishii reborn. The legendary punk director changed his name to Gakuryu Ishii and announced he now believes in dialogue. The absurdist end-of-the-world theater play adaptation follows this new philosophy in filling its 113 minute running time with endless student talk. Yet at the same time Ishii’s skills as an audiovisual storyteller are evident, from stylish cinematography to effective use of music. The film is often surreal, even in terms of dialogue, and darkly funny, but runs 20 minutes too long. The ending is nevertheless a satisfying, giving a punchy conclusion to an original film that has been bashed by many foreign viewers. In Japan, the film seems to be doing better, with relatively wide theatrical run followed by home video release that turned into a small hit in rental stores.

Evangelion 3.0: You Can (Not) Redo (Japan, 2012) [Cinema] – 3.5/5

The third “remake” film walks its own path with almost nothing lifted from the original television series. Unlike the over-packed predecessors You Can (Not) Redo considerably slowers the pace aside from the typically messy and loud opening and closing scenes. The main chunk, however, is made of atmospheric and psychological cinema set in the abandoned, post-apocalyptic NERV headquarters, with Shinji and Kaworu’s friendship reaching near homosexual levels. As typical for Hideaki Anno productions, the film will divide audiences, with some blown away by the action but cursing the midlle part, and others taking the exact opposite stand.

Giant God Warrior Appears in Tokyo: Movie Version (Japan, 2012) [Cinema] – 5/5

The end of the world by Hideaki Anno. Tokyo is destroyed to the last building in this poetic, jaw dropping tokusatsu tribute shot entirely in live action with no CGI effects whatsoever. With razor sharp images, narration by Evangelion’s Megumi Hayashibara, and the giant monster from Miyazaki’s Nausicaä, it would make a perfect opening sequence for an Evangelion movie. Indeed, the movie edition, the slightly extended from the original 9 minute tokusatsu museum form, was attached to Evangelion 3.0 as a pre-movie. It’s a shame Anno’s brilliant attempts at live action Evangelion sequences never seem to come closer to reality than pre-movies, trailers or deleted scenes.

Sengoku Bloody Agent (Japan, 2012) [Yubari Fanta] – 1.5/5

Bruce Lee fanatic Naoki Takeda’s martial arts mixture had its premiere at the same time as Takanori Tsujimoto’s similarly themed Bushido Man. While the latter starred martial arts expert Mitsuki Koga, Sengoku Bloody Agent stars former bikini model Ayumi Kinoshita. That, unfortunately, is just about all that needs to be said about Sengoku Bloody Agent. Takeda films action without wires or CGI, but inspiration is lacking and casting is wrong to begin with. The storyline of rogue fighters vs. yakuza makes little to no sense. The outcome feels like a bad episode in the TV series Alias, and should mainly please the fans of Kinoshita and c-grade direct to video action.

Bushido Man (Japan, 2013) [Yubari Fanta] – 4/5

Seven warriors, seven battles. It’s been a while since Japan produced anything this pure and manly in the martial arts genre. Bushido Man, which stars Mitsuki Koga and an army of action choreographers, stunt men, and martial artists, is an all out martial arts fest. Koga wanders around Japan challenging masters of different martial arts – sword, knife, kung fu, nunchaku, and so on. With next to zero domestic demand for action films, director Takanori Tsujimoto (Hard Revenge Milly) has to do with minimal budget and rough looks. What is lost in aesthetics, though, is taken back in exhilarating action choreography that echoes 1980’s Hong Kong movies. Humoristic metaphysics and cameos towards the end hurt the film a bit, though.

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Oxen Split Torturing (aka Shogun’s Sadism) (Japan, 1976) [DVD] – 2/5

Yuji Makiguchi’s semi follow up to Teruo Ishii’s torture epics is a mean, empty affair. The film earned itself a reputation for being one of the most stomach churning movies of the 70’s, with all gory sadism (cutting off body parts, burning alive etc.) amped up by Toei Studio’s first class production values. Indeed, the film looks as good as most historical studio productions of the era. But style and bite is missing. While Ishii’s 60’s works were wicked films with superb visual style, Makiguchi’s movie has very little besides the impressive special effects. Storyline, characters and cinematography fall flat. Curiosity value remains, nevertheless.

Golgo 13 (Japan, 1983) [DVD] – 4/5

Golgo 13 kills in a classic violence-anime. Plenty of graphic assassination, sex, and cool music, though 93 minutes is a bit much for the storyline. Toei’s live action adaptations starring Ken Takakura and Sonny Chiba (of the same manga) pale in comparison.

About the Pink Sky (Japan, 2011) [Cinema] – 2/5

Keiichi Kobayashi’s gorgeously shot youth film is an empty affair. The film follows a high school girl who finds a wallet on the street. This leads to a series of encounters and interactions with various characters. The storyline, however, is secondary to Kobayashi’s portrayal on a high school girl’s life. Unfortunately, a frequently screaming, idiosyncratic high school girl isn’t all that fascinating of a protagonist. Rather than atmospheric and existential, the film comes out loud and scripted. Comparisons to such masters as Shinji Somai or Shunji Iwai are a far cry from reality – Yuya Ishii would be a closer match. On the positive side, the film sports very stylish B&W cinematography which effectively hides some of the digital video’s technical shortcomings.

Zero Man vs. the Half Virgin (Japan, 2011) [DVD] - 3.5/5

Miike screenwriter Sakichi Sato's (Gozu, Ichi the Killer) trendy romance/drama/comedy/fantasy. A policeman wakes up with no memory but instead a skill to see the number of everyone's past sex partners. Rauchy idea makes relatively innocent comedy and romance, with stand-out supporting performance by film translator Don Brown as 55-hit gaijin. Sato makes most out of his limited budget; wonderful pop/rock soundtrack, and some visually mesmerizing scenes. The film runs 20 minutes too long, but is certainly a nice small discovery. Hiroshi Yamamoto co-stars. Part of the second season of Seishun H films.

Birthright (Japan, 2011) [DVD] - 3.5/5

An impressive slow burner of a revenge movie. Imagine an early Kiyoshi Kurosawa revenge drama with melancholic gray visuals and and nothing but female characters. Long 10 to 15 minute sequences with no dialogue, music used very sparingly. It's an endurance test to many, especially the long captivity sequence, but with impressive performances and a truly powerful ending. Director Naoki Hashimoto is better known as producer for Jun Ichikawa and Shunji Iwai, and which is where his directorial influences are. Lead actresses Sayoko Oho and Miyu Yagyu give their all, performing days with almost no water or food during the captivity scenes.

Outrage Beyond (Japan, 2012) [DVD ]– 3.5/5

Kitano’s sequel to his mean and lean yakuza film invests more on plotting and talk. Quality wise it’s a notch below the original, but still a solid genre effort. Though, like its predecessor, Outrage Beyond should not be compared to Kitano’s masterful 1990’s films – the new Kitano is a straight forwards mix of nasty violence, laconic humor, and crime politics, wrapped in a stylish package and making more money at the box office that ever before.

Flashback Memories 3D (Japan, 2012) [Cinema] – 3.5/5

Perhaps the first film with meaningful use of 3D, courtesy of genius documentary filmmaker Tetsuaki Matsue. A fitting follow up to his superb Tokyo films Live Tape (2009) and Tokyo Drifter (2011), Matsue focuses on musician Goma who lost his memory some year back. Utilizing 3D technology, Matsue sets a live concert in the front, and re-creates Goma’s past in the background in 2D. Talking heads are nowhere to be found as Matsue uses archival footage, personal interpretations, and even animation. In the end, the viewer is not quite sure whether he witnessed a documentary or a live concert – or both. An original and successful film, though the visual information flood can be a bit much and Goma’s music is not for everyone.

Wandering Alien Detective Robin (Japan, 2012) [VoD] – 3.5/5

A modern film noir inspired by Sting’s alienation song Englishman in New York. A lonely private detective in a big city – only he happens to be a big headed alien from outer space. The odd but amusing film does not make a number of its peculiarity. Director Lisa Takeba plays tribute to the genre with stylish B&W cinematography and jazzy soundtrack. Aliens live on earth next to humans, and being a minority, they are often discriminated. The alien mask hides some relatively well known faces: Alien vs. Ninja’s Masanori Mimoto and Sushi Typhoon man Marc Walcow, who doubles for the New York scenes – it was cheaper to fly just the mask than the cast.

Voyeur (Nozoki) (Japan, 2013) [VoD] – 3/5

An odd and slightly clumsy, but fun enough short movie opens with a woman making love to an octopus. She’s being photographed by a sleazy one eyed man, who is the film’s “hero”. The film follows the man’s encounters with models – and a strange little boy who stars stalking him. Though it is unclear whether the film is supposed to be a parody or just a sloppily made movie, it’s hard not to be entertained by a film that is so perverted a cartoon octopus had to be used as official artwork. The director is Stephen Slade, who shot the film in Japan.

Extend Hands From Darkness (Japan, 2013) [Cinema] - 3.5/5

A film about delivery health (basically home delivery prostitution) girl serving disabled customers. An interesting topic, shot is semi-documentaristic fashion with relatively modest tech credits. Director lacks distict style, but also avoids preaching and biggest cliche for the most part. Characters feel real, as so some moody street scenes. At 66 minutes it's at the length of a pink film, but there's no nudity due to lead girl Maya Koizumi being a gravure idol. She acts alright, but hiding strategic bits feels a bit pretentious in a film with many sex scenes.

Audio Erotica (Iro koe) (Japan, 2012) [VoD] – 4.5/5

A man’s voice becomes fuel for erotic desire and despair in an urban Tokyo film resembling Shinya Tsukamoto’s films. The outcome is one of the most unique and stylish takes on sexual psychology. The well acted and written film is supported by superb cinematography and harrowing audio. The scenes with the protagonist wandering in Shibuya’s neon light jungle, filled with warm colors and low sounds, are the most impressive. The storyline eventually descends to a Tsukamotoan hell, but even then the film suggest of a birth of a new talent rather than a tribute. A stunningly promising movie by the young (female) director Kimi Yawata, and one of the most interesting discoveries of 2012.

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Tokyo Story (Japan, 1953) – 2/5

The “Anti-Christ’s” most famous work – the archetype of dry and classy Japanese family movie that, as Sion Sono put it, inspired Japanese cinema to become more boring. Has its moments, though, the onsen sequence is quite captivating. Voted by Kinema Junpo as the best Japanese film of all time.

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Yeah, I found it very interesting and intelligent but it's just so uncinematic. It literally just sits there.

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Yeah, I found it very interesting and intelligent but it's just so uncinematic. It literally just sits there.

All his later films feature the "tatami shot" where he positions the camera about a foot and a half above the ground to three feet (it technically is not always set*) and lets the drama/comedy unfold within that set. He still was very meticulous about what went on in the frame. Now his earlier work showed more movement and occasionally you would see a dolly shot or pan in his last decade, but it became fewer and fewer.

I'm a huge fan of Ozu's work. I have all the R1 releases. But I'm also a fan of Setsuko Hara and her work with Ozu is among the premiere duos in cinematic history. I would also include the pairing of Ozu and Chishû Ryû as well. For me, I liked the way Ozu draws his characters and conflicts especially dealing with filial relationships.

* The idea that it is shot from a height of a person sitting on a tatami mat is actually wrong as it is often lower than that. Ozu's visuals are quite idiosyncratic, though certainly not for everyone.

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Great topic, many reviews made me want to check out the movies (for laughs like Zombie Ass or because they sound nice like Which is Stronger: Karate or the Tiger) - though Japanese films usually aren't very easy to find in France. :sad:

Could you please review 2/Duo (2/デュオ) by Nobuhiro Suwa ?

I saw it in a theater last fall (came out in France in late 2012 while it's from 1997) and I found it average, the characters were enjoyable but the story (I found) dragged and felt repetitive at times.

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Haven't seen 2/Duo. If I see it, I will review it, but it's not at the top of my viewing list. The be honest, these days I lack time to watch (and review) as many movies as I'd like to...

btw, this topic is open for everyone, so anyone is free to contribute reviews / mini-reviews, or just comment...

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As far as 2/Duo goes, it's very artsy and I figured I would mention it after finding a reference to the artsy direction taken by Japanese cinema in the mid-to-late 1990s. Wondered if this film would be a good example of that trend.

The last Japanese movie I saw was Shokuzai, directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa. It's originally a TV movie in 5 parts that has been edited into 2 movies - kinda what happened to the 6 Swedish Millenium TV movies that became a movie trilogy in 2009/2010.

The first film runs for 2 hours and can be divided into 3 parts: the first part sees a new family arriving in a small town. The focus is on the family's daughter named Emily as well as her mother and 4 of her classmates. Everything goes fine until the day Emily is murdered. However, while they clearly saw the murderer, her 4 friends can't remember anything and thus can't help the police. The mother invites them home and warns them that they will carry that weight all their life and if they can't help with the investigation, they'll have to pay back in some way (Shokuzai is Japanese for penance, fitting title we may say). More on this part along with credits can be found here: http://asianwiki.com/Penance_-_Shokuzai

From this part on, we start the episodes which take place 15 years later. Each "episode" is focused on one character and what happens to her.

Episode 1 is focused on one of the girls who never sexually matured.

Episode 2 is focused on a girl who took martial arts classes and is now a teacher.

The first movie ends with Episode 2.

The second movie runs for 2 hours and a half and contains the other 3 "episodes":

Episode 3 is focused on a girl who is reclused and who sees her brother (who used to be like her) has become a business man and is now married. He also has a young girl the age of Emily.

Episode 4 is focused on the last of the 4 girls and this one has grown a peculiar attraction to policemen after the murder of Emily. She finds out however her sister married one...

Episode 5 (the last one) is focused on Emily's mother and her hesitations as she now knows who the murderer is (won't tell how she finds out).

The movies are rather dark overall, the atmosphere goes from merry to spooky (and even disturbing). Very intense, it won't leave you alone until the end. I must say that I found the parts rather uneven:

- first part (childhood): very cute and then, goes really dark quite suddenly. Enjoyable, despite the little girl being murdered.

- Episode 1: probably the weirdest part (courtesy of the main male character). One can enjoy this one but the guy is really creepy.

- Episode 2: nice Kendo but the story is very predictable. Okay at best.

- Episode 3: a recluse character traumatized by an event in her childhood could offer a good ground for a story. Here... Not really. The character becomes predicable by the middle of the "episode".

- Episode 4: the last girl offers an interesting alternative to the other 3. She seems to have managed to get over the incident and leads a nice life of her own. Enjoyable episode though that girl is one freaking bitch.

- Episode 5: the longest part apparently. Found it the most interesting and the most suspensful. The character of the mother who is the only one appearing in all of the parts is actually the less developped one. This last episode clearly makes up for it. We also finally see the tough rigid character she has appeared as since Emily's murder break.

Concerning cinematography, though the movie can look pretty good at times, you can tell at points it was made for TV and not for the big screen.

Basically, I could recommend it. It's hard to discuss the films heavily without giving too much away. Be warned though that the first movie is much weaker than the second one - well, IMO.

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