Tag Archives: Japanese

Movie Review: ‘Ninja Assassin’ masters the art of gore

25 Nov

November 25th, 2009–

American Ninja, where art though? Pray for Death, you have gone…never to return. Even Ninja III: Domination moved away and forgot to write. The over-the-top kill happy martial-arts fantasies of the mid 1980s have all abandoned us, and nothing ever came to take their place. With the exception of a occassional, errant nugget like 1995’s The Hunted (yea, it sucked…surprise) a genre I so loved as a child has all dried up.

Yes, I’m talking about the ninja film. Sure, Japan produced a few half-hearted attempts over the years, including the recent Shinobi:Heart Under Blade, but it had a decidedly wuxia feel to its ninjary (TM), and it played like a feverish video game. Then, hope briefly surfaced in the form of an announcement; the brothers Wachowski were making a big budget ninja film with their acolyte James McTeigue (V for Vendetta) behind the camera and Korean pop star Rain in front of it. Now that it’s here, Ninja Assassin turns out to be one more glittering chunk of fool’s gold. Outside of a killer opening sequence and a rather lively final battle, this one proves a tedious disappointment. Continue reading

Now Playing: ‘Ponyo’ swims the dazzling sea of Miyazaki’s imagination

13 Aug

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Ponyo(Ponyo on a Cliff by the Sea) (G) 100 min. Directed and Written by: Hayao Miyazaki.  Featuring the voice-work of: (English version) Ponyo: Noah Lindsey Cyrus, Sosuke: Frankie Jonas, Koichi: Matt Damon, Lisa: Tina Fey, Gran Mamere: Cate Blanchette, Fujimoto: Liam Neeson. With Betty White, Cloris Leachman and Lily Tomlin. Art Direction: Noboru Yoshida. Cinematography: Atsushi Okoi. Chief Animator: Katsuya Kondô. Original music by: Joe Hisaishi.

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 Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo is a welcome breath of fresh air for the world of animated film. For starters, the Japanese master’s latest is a delightful throwback to a not-so-distant time; the era of hand-drawn 2-dimensional, cell-animated films. While it’s true that cell animation is still a viable means of expression internationally, American theaters have not seen such product  in quite awhile. Thankfully, Walt Disney, prompted byPixar head John Lasseter, is attempting to reverse that. Tomorrow, Ponyo will be given a wide-release in theaters (the largest a Miyazaki film has had here in the West) and in November, the mouse-house will release The Princess and the Frog,  its first traditionally animated film(I’m not counting the opening of Enchanted or all of those DTV cheapies) since 2002’s  pathetic Home on the Range.

Ponyo offers all audiences, both the newcomer and the Miyazaki faithful, something both artistically beautiful and conceptually original. Created in a simple, elegant style with water-color pastels, this fantasy is driven by its vibrant, otherworldly visuals and by its creator’s keen sense of child-like wonder and knack for off-kilter, human details. Skewing to a younger audience than some of Miyazaki’s other animated ventures, like Princess Mononoke or  Howl’s Moving Castle, Ponyo is an honest-to-goodness family film; it isn’t just appropriate for all ages, it has the potential to entertain all ages. Continue reading

Bartleby Abroad: Teen love with a ‘Chainsaw Edge’

1 Jun

 

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Negative Happy Chainsaw Edge isn’t quite the movie the title or the trailer suggests it will be. After witnessing flashy snippets of a young, female warrior doing battle with a hulking behemoth that looks like Andre the Giant wearing a holocaust cloak and lugging a massive chainsaw, I expected we were in for some zany, hyperactive silliness like Machine Girl or Tokyo Gore Police. As it turns out, NHCE isn’t remotely in the same genre as either of those movies; instead, it’s a teenage romantic comedy.

Huh? You mean it’s got a love story shoehorned into the battles with the giant chainsaw man? No, I mean it’s primarily a teen love story with the chainsaw man providing the film’s metaphorical layer and a few choice action scenes. Yea, if John Hughes moved to Japan and replaced the smug, arrogant boyfriend or the unresponsive, overbearing parent with a gigantic reaper wielding a gas-powered weapon for a hand, it would more or less look exactly like Negative Happy Chainsaw Edge.

 

  Young schoolboy Yosuke has been having a rather rough time of things ever since his friend Noto died in a motor-bike accident. Always living in his dead friend’s shadow and staging reckless stunts, Yosuke is just haphazardly cruising through life when he runs into the bewitching but somber Eri. Yosuke knows Eri has issues right off the bat, because her issues try to grind his face off the first time he meets her. See, Eri’s afterschool activities consist of essentially only one thing: dueling with a phantasmal giant with the titular chainsaw attached where his right arm should be. She employs a host of weapons in this crusade, and the giant’s attacks are always telegraphed by an unnatural snow-fall, even indoors. If Eri can withstand the monster’s assault and impale his heart, he flies away and returns, seemingly, to the moon. Yea, the moon.

 Yosuke is obviously a bit daunted by that initially, but he sees it as an opportunity to once again challenge the echoing words of his lost friend, who had a habit of calling him gutless. Eri is brooding and lonely, but she welcomes Yosuke’s presence, even if it is grudgingly at first. And then, the romance begins. What follows isn’t a polished, trite teen romp or a frenzied action pic, racing past the courtship to get to the chainsaw battles. Instead, it’s a light, and occasionally delicate teen drama about dealing with grief, loss and mortality and putting it all in a perspective that still allows one to live with joy. In fact, the chainsaw battles are an integral part of the central courtship. Yosuke and Eri ride around on Yosuke’s bike, get coffee, talk, go to the amusement park and dance around their obvious feelings for each other like any other reluctant teen movie couple. But death lurks at the center of both of their lives, even if it’s haunting Yosuke’s past and dominating Eri’s present. So, every night when Eri goes off to fight Chainsaw Man and Yosuke scurries behind to protect her, it’s really the dark aspects of their individual lives they are confronting.

Sometimes the epic battles aren’t even depicted on screen. We see Eri charging into the fray with a golf club or an umbrella, and then we see the two kids sitting in the aftermath of victory, glancing nervously at one another. It’s a nice touch in a film that plays everything light as a feather. The battles that do appear on screen are visualized with an energetic camera style that isn’t aggressive but rather playful, and the special effects create a world that is just real enough without taking away the manga-esque elements of the action sequences. Best yet, Hayato Ichihara and Megumi Seki have a quirky chemistry with each other; he manages to make bumbling look charming and she gives defensive melancholy a fetching sheen. It’s odd, but it works. And, in his own way, so does the chainsaw man.

 

It’s rather a shame that a lifeless and dull exercise like Twilight is garnering the attention of teenagers while this film, which tackles a similar theme, premise and audience will most likely never be seen by any of the vamp pic’s fans. NHCE is a strange and curious movie, and its success isn’t a massive triumph but rather a small victory. It’s entertaining and engaging and it will likely ensnare even the viewers who come to it expecting something gorier, ghastlier and more twisted. But its real strength and it’s real story will work best for those in their teenage years. Word to whoever might have the power to get this thing an American distribution. If you get it out there on dvd, I will personally promise to recommend it to every teenager I know.

 

Now Playing: Oscar winning ‘Departures’ embraces life and honors the dead

1 Jun

 

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Okuribito (Departures) (2008) rated: PG-13 for thematic material. 130 min. Japanese with english subtitles.  directed by: Yojiro Takita. written by: Kundo Koyama. starring: Masahiro Motoki, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Ryoko Hirosue, Kazuko Yoshiyuki. cinematography by: Takeshi Hamada. Original music by: Joe Hisaishi.

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The wanted ad says the position will help others find ‘peaceful journeys.’

Freshly unemployed 30-something cellist Daigo didn’t just lose a job when the orchestra he was playing for disbanded, he lost a direction and a purpose. When he comes across the ad during his job hunt, he thinks it describes the work of a travel agent. That will do, especially if it pays well. He has sold his cello and is ready for something new–but maybe not this. His prospective employer is eager to have him and explains that the ad was misprinted; the proper translation should be ‘departures’. Daigo is offered a substantial salary and encouraged to give this job a try, even if its different than what he expected.

The actual position is that of a nokanshi, or ‘encoffining master’ who works in tandem with the funeral homes to prepare dead bodies for burial in ceremonies that take place in front of the deceased’s family. Daigo didn’t plan to sign on for this, but he and his wife Mika, have just moved out into his family home (his mother is dead and his father abandoned him when he was young) and he has promised her a fresh start. He takes the job, but keeps its nature a secret from her. And thus begins Yojira Takata’s Departures, a japanese film that won the Oscar for best foreign language film at the 2009 Academy Awards. 

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Departures is a surprisingly moving film that combines poetry and humor with a rich sense of cultural awareness. That may sound stuffy but it isn’t. To this westerner’s eyes, the process of ‘encoffining’ seems sterile, detached and perhaps a bit morbid; the family sits in front of the nokanshi as he bathes, cleans and prepares the body and then gently but expertly wraps it for its final journey. The entire process plays out like a somber dance, one final waltz whose purpose is clearly intended to benefit not the deceased but the living. The film is helpful in drawing out and exploring the assumed stigma that Japanese culture has towards death.

What Takita and his screenwriter Kundo Kayama do is instructively draw the lines between an aversion to death and a respect for the transition between life and death. If Departures were merely a study into the process of encoffining and an observation of its intimate details that would in and of itself make for a compelling film. The uncommon strength of Departures is that it manages to be so much more than just an explanation of a ceremony; it’s a warm and thoughtful exhaltation of the joy to be found in living and the catharsis that comes from properly acknowledging grief.

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Motoki as Daigo narrates the film but never gets carried away with it. He is the neophyte into this world and through his eyes we see his own progression; not simply from a cellist to a nokanshi, but from a man without a purpose to an artist embracing a passion and a talent he never would have guessed he had. Daigo isn’t sure about the job at first and a few days are rough, like a visit to an elderly shut-in whose body has been in the house for over two weeks. But the first time he watches his boss, played by veteran Tsutomo Yamazaki, perform an encoffining ritual he is intrigued and enraptured.

There is an artistry to it, like playing the cello, and a strange thing happens to the family present. They move from inconsolable grief to a mournful but visible peace. It isn’t complete and sudden, but it does happen and in one instance, a man even credits Daigo and the job he has done with helping him accept his son as the person he was. The purpose that Daigo latches onto isn’t related to the aesthetic and precise nature of the work but to the people who attend the ceremonies. He, the typically despised nokanshi, becomes a guide of sorts, not ushering the passed away into the land of death, but leading the grieving to a place of closure and acceptance.

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Its hard to describe exactly how Departures ends up being as great as it is. A large share of the credit goes to the excellent cast who embody their characters so perfectly that they convey their essence mostly through action and only occasionally with dialogue. In a film like this that spends so much of its time immersed in imagery, custom and tradition, long conversation scenes explaining processes and protocol would be tedious and besides the point. Motoko, who has had a long career as a Japanese pop star, is excellent here as a sensitive young man searching for his purpose and struggling with the memory of the father who abandoned him. Instead of just playing as a footnote in Daigo’s painful youth, the film expands and internalizes that conflict. Motoko makes it a large part of who the character is and how his new-found profession is bringing that pain back to surface and eventually calls it to be dealt with.

Yamazaki as the old boss does top-notch work and provides much of the comic relief without really saying much. Usually a film like this would revere the old pro and give him plenty of wisdom and perhaps even make him a father figure to Daigo. None of that ever happens, explicitly. Yamazaki’s master is a professional and a man who has organized a philosopy and lifestyle around what he does;he is completely at peace with it. Being in such close proximity to the dead amplifies everything in life and he models this for Daigo; the boss and his employees eating chicken with a discernable fervor right after an encoffining is a scene both odd and insightful.

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The remainder of the cast do their jobs wonderfully and I honestly couldn’t find a single poor performance. So well crafted is Departures that even the dead have been chosen with care and the family members at the deathbed have some of the juiciest roles. The film takes it time and has a natural flow and rythym which is good for a story that tends toward the melodramatic. Instead of being mawkish, it’s moving and wise in the way it visualizes its narrative. The cinematography and score are two of the strongest elements and they are the backbone of the film; they don’t simply accentuate the story, they give it the power it has. I was reminded of the way a master like Akira Kurosawa would construct deep and meaningful structures out of simple quiet life moments. The  encoffining ceremonies are numerous and each one is presented in almost its entirety. This would almost assuredly be boring if it weren’t for the fact that when each one happens it means something different and the characters are learning and growing during them.

Not unlike Kurosawa’s Ikiru, Departures is a masterpiece of Japanese cinema and though it might be grudgingly recieved over here as solid but overly sentimental, it deals with mortality in a mature and expressive way. This is not a story of  grief but a call for embracing every facet that life has to offer, each in its own time and in its own way. We shouldn’t be surprised when it turns out that Departures is not a tear-jerker but a triumphant, humorous and satisfying drama that inspires us to consider the joys available to us that are all too often taken for granted.

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Departures is one of the very best films I have seen this year and I encourage you to check it out. It’s completely wonderful and hearkens back to the work of the Japanese masters of the 50s and 60s while embracing the same kind of big-hearted entertainment that made 1996’s Shall We Dance? such a delight.