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So I was watching this movie, aka Invasion of Astro-Monster, aka Godzilla vs. Monster Zero last night. Yes, it's a Godzilla movie, but the interest to me was that it was mid-'60s science fiction with cool '60s alien outfits and flying saucers and the usual great Toho miniatures and special effects. You see, there's another planet, called Planet X, lurking behind Jupiter, and the aliens who live there want to conquer Earth, but they tell us they are our friends, they want to help us cure cancer. When it got to the point where these clearly evil aliens (just look at them!) were professing their friendship to Earth, I immediately thought of Tim Burton's science fiction comedy, Mars Attacks! (1996). Croaking in an evil alien voice, "We come in peace. We are your friends," is a favorite past-time of mine. But check this out, the aliens from Planet X are of course technologically superior to Earth people, and when they finally stoop to conquer, what is it that finally defeats them? SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS: An irritating noise developed by a nerd inventor who thinks it will be useful as a personal alarm for women in trouble. This idea is treated as a laughingstock by everybody but his loyal girlfriend throughout the movie, but when the noise is played in the vicinity of the evil aliens, they shriek and fall to the ground writhing in agonizing pain! This is clearly where Burton got his idea for using Slim Whitman's "Indian Love Call" as a weapon against the aliens in his movie. Why, Wikipedia even reminds me that there's a scene in Mars Attacks! where the Martians are watching a Godzilla movie as they orbit Earth. QED.

Anyway, this important matter of influence aside, I was rather proud of myself when I saw the Japanese title of this movie on IMDb last night and recognized that the English title has nothing to do with it. I'd previously seen "daisenso" in the movie title, Yôkai daisensô, which is translated as The Great Yokai War. So this one would be something like The Great Kaiju War, which would make sense, since it features three kaiju (or monsters), Godzilla, Rodan, and King Ghidorah in a two-on-one battle. And sure enough, one of the alternate titles listed on IMDb is The Great Monster War. You see, Godzilla is teaching me Japanese!
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Also known as The Mystery of Rampo, this Japanese movie is based on the life and work of the mystery-horror writer Edogawa Rampo, who took his pseudonym from the Japanese pronunciation of Edgar Allen Poe. The film is a collage, although it does tell a story. It begins with an anime version of one of Rampo's stories, about a man who climbs into an old chest and is locked into it by his wife. It then turns to a live action scene set in the '20s in which Rampo's novel is censored by the government for "aberrant moral content." Rampo burns the manuscript, but soon thereafter the events of the novel begin to show up in real life -- a newspaper story about a woman whose husband died of suffocation in an old chest. Rampo seeks out the woman, but when he becomes unable to deal with her conflicted needs (or perhaps his own), he starts to write a novel about her. At that point the movie transforms into a romantic (if also sadomasochistic) adventure story starring his famous detective character, Kogoro Akechi, who follows the mysterious woman to the seacoast mansion of the mother-fixated, cross-dressing Duke Ogawara.

I picked up this movie because I'd watched Kinji Fukasaku's adaptation of Rampo's Kogoro Akechi story, Black Lizard (1968), and the perverse, florid, though only loosely-related, follow-up, Black Rose Mansion (1969). I loved their decadence and formalism. I was fascinated by what I read about Rampo, and this movie is a mesmerizing exploration of the imagination and the creative process. As with so many movies that I find compelling, the narrative is convoluted and hard to follow, while the imagery and symbolism and music are very beautiful. The collage of different kinds of film -- which also includes stock footage from the silent era, scenes from a '50s serial adaptation of one of Rampo's novels, and some kind of stag film that is projected onto the body of a naked woman in a vivid, sexy scene -- creates a house of mirrors atmosphere. There's a special effects sequence at the very end that is a little too reminiscent of the finale of 2001 and relies a little too much on early computer graphics, but it still manages to express a sense of creative rapture and release and dissolution that fits very well into the story.

I recognized the actor playing Duke Ogawara from seeing him play another monstrous aristocrat in Princess Raccoon (2005) and the actor playing Kogoro Akechi from seeing him in The Bird People in China (1998), where he was the bland, handsome salaryman. Those are two of my very favorite Japanese movies of recent years. This one probably isn't quite as good, but I need to watch it again. Jasper Sharp at Midnight Eye has an excellent review with a lot of information about Edogawa Rampo and the complicated production of this film.
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Well, Mind Game is a head trip, there's no doubt about it. It's only available on a Japanese DVD, but as Ed Halter says in the Village Voice, "undoubtedly there are American otakus popping this one into multi-region DVD players right now amid the glorbeling of bong hits." You looking at me, Ed? I ain't no otaku, man!

The movie is based on the manga by Robin Nishi, which also happens to be the name of the protagonist, and there's an air of the confessional about some aspects of the story. I actually find the semi-autobiographical portrait of the artist as a young man aspects a bit tedious. The first half hour falls into the genre of the fantasy of excruciating humiliation, never one of my favorites. Still, there's enough clever perspective to keep things rolling, and the second half of the movie is an amazing fantasia. Opening and ending the movie are two montages of scattered imagery that are connected to the main story, but after two viewings I'm still not sure how or if it all fits together. Not sure the story is supposed to make logical sense, for that matter. It's another adventure into dreamland, like Paprika.

The plot (SPOILERS ho!), such as it is, involves a twenty-year-old otaku and manga-artist-wannabe who pines uselessly for his beautiful, breasty childhood girlfriend. An encounter with two yakuza in a restaurant ends with him getting killed (in an extremely humiliating fashion), confronting G-O-D in the afterworld, and then apparently returning to life for a second try. This is where the movie really takes off, as Robin, his beloved, and her sister embark on a wild chase that leads them into the belly of a whale and a remarkable inner world.

Whether anything in the latter part of the film is real or not is hard to say and probably beside the point. The philosophy exhorted is basically "seize the day," which is banal enough in its own way, but the sheer vital exuberance of the visual creativity on display is a winning embodiment of the idea. As in FLCL (2000) -- to which this film may well be a response -- the animation style is all over the place, changing rapidly from scene to scene and even within scenes. There is a brilliant sex scene in which the bodies turn into abstract rivers of flowing, gushing paint, intercut with shots of a cheerful cartoon train busting through barrier after barrier on the way up a mountainside. The sequence inside the whale seems to be all about the creative process, and we get the feeling that we are exploring the pre-rational depths of the artist's mind, that it is exploding onto the screen in front of us, unleashed, primal, protean, but at the same time delicate, earthy, sweet, and funny.

The main problem with the movie is that Robin is not a very interesting character to hang this all on, and the philosophy of life he develops is not very profound. But the fountain of brilliant, playful imagery and the sense of creative possibility at the core of the film more than make up for it. If I were a true otaku, I'd probably go through the final montage frame by frame to try to figure out how each image connects to the main story. Hm, that's not a bad idea ...
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Yesterday I saw the Japanese movie The Taste of Tea (Cha No Aji, 2004) at the Grand Illusion. It's playing today and tomorrow, and then I think that's it. The Tom Mes' review that I've linked to is a great summary of what the movie is up to and of its strengths and weaknesses. It's about a middle class family and their eccentric, whimsical lives. It borders on the surreal and the magical, and it's all about the characters and not about a plot. It's visually beautiful. A few of the episodes are less effective than others, but in the end it left a very poignant, nostalgic feeling of paradise lost. A very sweet, good-natured, meandering, oddball movie. Worth checking out, if you have the chance.
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[livejournal.com profile] holyoutlaw came over again last night and we ordered a Basic Greek from Mad Pizza and watched Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx, which is the second in the series of six samurai movies based on the manga. Apparently it's pretty widely considered the best in the series.

I confess that I was frequently reminded of Monty Python's Peckinpah parody "Salad Days," with all the body parts being lopped off and spraying geysers of blood. It all looks very fake, thank god, but it's still pretty mind-numbing after a while, here a foot, there a nose, and yonder a split cabeza. Japanese vampires must have it easy: just wait around with your mouth wide open until a samurai wanders by and creates a blood fountain.

Throughout this carnage, however, are some very interesting bits of characterization and ambiguous narrative. The love of the ronin protagonist for his infant son is very tender, and yet he does not let it become a means of leverage against him. (The reference in the title is actually to a river -- the Sanzu -- in the Japanese afterworld, and it isn't visited literally, although it is an important reference point in the story.) The character of the female assassin, Sayaka, is in many ways the most compelling in this movie, and once again, as with the sex scene in the first movie, there's a scene that is both exploitive (nekkid chick!) and amazingly, unexpectedly sweet, which manages to hint at depths to her character without getting sentimental. The very end -- a final encounter between her and the lone wolf and cub -- is also strange and open to interpretation.

Very odd movies. A little bit too much on the gory side for me to just love, but full of fascinating details. More please!
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[livejournal.com profile] holyoutlaw came over last night with the DVD of Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance, and we ordered a large Agog from Pagliacci and sat back to watch the carnage. I can see that the image of a samurai pushing a pram has a built in frisson. The bit where he has to have sex with the prostitute to save her life was a masterstroke of something or another. Not wish-fulfillment exactly -- or perhaps it is that exactly, but it's so odd and unexpected. I mean, did Clint Eastwood ever have to do that? The movie is full of odd little details like that, amidst the more formulaic business of vengeance and limb-lopping. I enjoyed it. And I immediately started thinking about which exploitation samurai film I should shower on Luke in return. I'm thinking Samurai Reincarnation, which features a Yagyu in a different role. (The Yagyu Clan are the bad guys in Lone Wolf and Cub.)

Sol food

Oct. 23rd, 2006 03:33 pm
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Well, another weekend when I had too much to do, although of course I managed to fit in a lot of goofing off nonetheless.

Much ado about mundane pleasures ... )
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Continuing a mini-exploration of Japanese Pop-Art films of the '60s (I also watched Seijun Suzuki's Tokyo Drifter (1966) again), I return to this minor gem of cool style and killer female ninjas, Black Tight Killers. I've watched it two-and-a-half times now, and I still don't really know what the plot is. A war photographer named Hondo gets involved with a stewardess and all hell breaks loose when she's kidnapped by the female ninjas, who are the titular black tight killers. This movie just explodes with artificial color and crazy camera angles and go go dancing. The theme song is a corker. These '60s Pop-Art movies always have the greatest theme songs and credit sequences (see also Mario Bava's Danger: Diabolik (1968).) Everything is about the style, with swank furniture and cars with fins and, oooh, the colors! There's a great dream sequence where the female lead is chased by the ninjas through lurid colorscapes that keep tearing away like a paper backdrop and revealing a new saturated colorscape behind. Everything looks extremely artificial, like it's all an off-shoot of the "Broadway Melody Ballet" from Singin' in the Rain (1952). To the extent that there's a plot, it seems to be yet another spoof on the spy craze of the era, with various agents and counteragents chasing after some lost Okinawan gold or something.

The director, Yasuharu Hasebe, worked with Seijun Suzuki, and the cinematographer, Kazue Nagatsuka, also worked on a number of Suzuki's films, so that could be why it feels similar to something like Tokyo Drifter, although this movie is even campier in its spoofing. Hasebe went on to make violent sexual exploitation movies in the '70s, which isn't my cuppa, but the Stray Cat Rock series sounds interesting. The one that's available on Region 1 DVD, Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter apparently also involves a girl gang and explores racial issues. I'm very curious about the latter, as Kinji Fukasaku also touches on the issue, particularly in the semi-Pop-Art Blackmail Is My Life (1968), which features a character whose father was a Black American soldier. The same actor plays a tragic mulatto of sorts in Fukasaku's Black Rose Mansion. Seems that Japanese cinema was beginning to delve into the troubled waters of Japanese racial attitudes around this time.

Well, I'm certainly developing a taste for '60s Pop-Art films. I like the heavily stylized lysergic hyper-artificiality of them. More please! (Just ordered the Stray Cat Rock DVD.)
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This movie is often referred to as a sequel to Black Lizard (Kurotokage, 1968), but it isn't a sequel, really. It was made because Black Lizard was a hit, and it features the same star, the female impersonator Akihiro Maruyama, so it is definitely a follow-up of sorts, but not a direct sequel. Various sources stress a connection with Kabuki, possibly because it has a man playing a woman, although the director Kinji Fukasaku also mentions in an interview that he tried to keep introducing interesting, sharply drawn characters as the story progresses and says he took this from Kabuki. The story is a high camp melodrama about a beautiful nightclub singer (Maruyama) who carries a black rose that she believes will turn red when she finally meets her true love. She is irresistable to men, and the plot, such as it is, revolves around the conflicts between the various men who have fallen madly in love with her. There is more than a hint of sadomasochism involved in these affairs. If I were to compare it to anything else it would be to the movies that Josef von Sternberg made with Marlene Dietrich about love and power and humiliation.

There is a bit of Pop Art psychedelia thrown into the fairly European mix (Mozart's Clarinet Quintet is heard frequently, and Maruyama sings several cabaret songs). The Black Rose mansion is a private men's club decorated in marble busts and wood paneling. Men in dinner jackets smoke cigars and drink martinis. It's all highly stylized and symbolized, perhaps another influence of Kabuki. I kept thinking that it was Brechtian in the way that you are constantly but subtly reminded of the artificialty of the production, especially via the mere presence of Maruyama and his glamor drag. The story drips with obsession and fatalism. It drags (ho ho) at times, especially in the middle as a father and son are both reunited and riven by their mutual love for "that woman." But it has a fever dream beauty throughout the working out of its inexorable logic. True love is an ever-receding horizon drawing us toward a beautiful death.

Kinji Fukasaku is a fascinating figure in Japanese film-making whose work I've started to explore. (Thanks to Craig Smith and AP McQuiddy for helping me on this project.) He is most famous for his violent yakuza films, particularly the five-part Battles Without Honor or Humanity (1973-1974) and Graveyard of Honor (1975) (he apparently had no use for the romantic concept of the honorable gangster), but he also made campy science fiction films (Green Slime (1968) and Message from Space (1978)), samurai fantasies (Samurai Reincarnation (1981) and Legend of the Eight Samurai (1983)), romantic comedies (The Fall Guy (1982)), these strange Pop Art tales of amour fou (Black Lizard (1968) and Black Rose Mansion (1969)), and I don't know what else. Oh yeah, he directed the Japanese parts of Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970). His last film was the apocalyptic science fiction movie Battle Royale (2000), which he made at age 73 and which was so controversial that it has never been released in the US. I'm looking forward to further exploration.
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Yesterday I joined about a dozen of my neighbors in landscaping the two new traffic circles on 36th Street. These concrete, dirt-filled circles in the middle of intersections are intended to slow down the traffic, and hanging out in the middle of them certainly teaches one how much traffic there is in this neighborhood these days! So I got to meet some of my neighbors, and we planted a bunch of native plants, including a Western Red Cedar in the big circle in Woodland Park Avenue at the base of the hill. I worked for about three hours, including some pretty heavy physical labor, and my legs are sore today, although not as bad as I thought they might be. Thankfully, my back is fine despite much bending and some gang-lifting of heavy trees.

Then I watched the University of Oregon lose to the University of Oklahoma at football, boo hiss argh! Well, except that after I gave up on the game when Oregon went down by 13 points in the fourth quarter, they apparently managed some kind of miracle comeback in the last minute and won 34-33 when Oklahoma missed a field goal as time ran out. Don't think my heart could have stood the excitement, so it's probably just as well that I gave up.

Instead, I watched a very odd Japanese movie called Black Lizard [Kurotokage] (1968), directed by Kinji Fukasaku and based on Yukio Mishima's stage adaptation of a novel by the Father of the Japanese Detective Story, Edogawa Rampo. It stars the apparently renowned female impersonator Akihiro Miwa as the decadent jewel thief, Black Lizard, and the bizarre, florid-and-yet-formal romanticism of the movie seems very fin de siècle and Frrrrrrrrrrrench, but transposed to the psychedelic Pop Art '60s. Not as camp as I expected it to be, but very stylized and almost cold. Quite entertaining, and Mishima also plays a statue in an important cameo. Now I can watch the "sequel", Black Rose Mansion (1969), again and try to figure out if there really is any connection.

Then to crown a very rich day, [livejournal.com profile] holyoutlaw and [livejournal.com profile] juliebata hosted a birthday party for Art Widner, who turned 89 yesterday and had come to town to see his new great grandson -- his sixth great grandchild. People have gotten the idea that Art has a taste for single malt whisky, so there was a large variety on hand. I brought Bunnahabhain, but [livejournal.com profile] akirlu and [livejournal.com profile] libertango brought an interesting Irish single malt, and the best one I tasted was an 18 year old Glenlivet. I of course roomed with Art at Worldcon, and he told me that I was the best roommate he'd ever had because I was so damned mellow. Maybe that's because he kept pouring single malt into me and telling stories about Francis Towner Laney.

Great day all around, even if I'm feeling pretty beat this morning. Think I'll be skipping the dim sum at 11am, but I hope y'all had fun without me.

Hana bye

Sep. 5th, 2006 08:34 am
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For those who are interested in sending John Hertz to the 2007 Worldcon in Japan, [livejournal.com profile] mm_fijagh has set up an LJ to promote the fund at [livejournal.com profile] sjhtn2007. At this year's Worldcon, a sign advertised the fund under a new acronym, HANA, which stands for Hertz Across to Nippon Alliance, if I recall correctly. "Hana" is Japanese for "flower". Which reminds me that Takeshi Kitano's terrific crime drama Hana-bi (1997) is called Fireworks in English, and that the Japanese term literally means "fire flowers." I've always liked that.

Wabi-Sabi

Jul. 2nd, 2006 10:26 am
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When I was in college, my girlfriend, Molly, told me about the Japanese concept of "wabi," as she called it. I think she learned about it in a class, but she might have learned it on her own since she had an interest in things Japanese and covered our bedroom floor in tatami mats and wanted to learn how to do the tea ceremony. In any event, what I brought away from our conversations about wabi is that it was a technique of purposefully introducing an imperfection into a work of art as a way of accentuating the beauty of the whole. I was fascinated by the thought that imperfections could be beautiful.

It turns out that my understanding was incomplete ... )
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Third time's a charmer.

Chûgoku no chôjin/The Bird People in China is the third Takashi Miike movie I've seen. Whereas Zebraman (2004) and Yôkai daisensô/The Great Yokai War (2005) are both hommages/parodies and overtly, sometimes manically, fantastical, Bird People, while no less magical, is more oblique, ambiguous, and naturalistic in its approach. It's about a Japanese salaryman who is sent by his company to a remote village in mountainous China to investigate rumors of a vein of high quality jade. He is joined on the journey by a yakuza thug who has been sent to collect the debt the company owes his mob family.

It is a journey from hectic civilization to a quiet bucolic paradise that is ripe for exploitation. It is a journey of the soul for both the salaryman and the yakuza. There is a legend in the village that the people there used to be able to fly, and there is a young woman who is trying to teach the children to fly with wings made of wood ribbing and cloth. The yakuza becomes fascinated by the idea, and the salaryman becomes fascinated by the young woman and the Scottish ballad that she learned from her dead grandfather, who fell into the village out of the sky.

It's very funny and sweet and moving. While the image on the Artmagic DVD is not of the highest quality, the imagery of the film is still very beautiful, with many shots of mist-shrouded crags and lush green hillsides and swollen brown rivers. It is very much a character study of the handsome, blank, restrained salaryman and the tormented, fierce, playful yakuza, and the acting is excellent. The ending and the final image are perfect, reminiscent in some ways of the bittersweet nostalgic finale of The Great Yokai War.

This Miike guy really is good. I'm still tiptoeing around the hyperviolent stuff, but it looks like there's more to explore. I just ordered Rainy Dog (1997) and The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001). The latter is described by one commenter on IMDb as "the best horror/comedy/musical/clay-mation/live action/drama/romance/anti-romance/thriller I have yet to come by." Okay!
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Oh, okay, maybe this isn't a fricking brilliant movie, but it is funny (sometimes howlingly so), sweet, clever, and silly, with a spicy touch or two of the surreal, the grotesque, and the postmodern. It's an uplifting kid's movie with many knowing winks to the adults in the crowd, and it even has something interesting to say about heroism.

Much ado about Zebraman ... )
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I really need to watch Zebraman (2004) again before writing about it, but I do want to say that by the end I was laughing hysterically and crying shamelessly at the same time. A commenter at IMDb said they were in a similar state. This Takashi Miike guy knows how to make a postmodern pisstake with genuine heart. If you are a fan of the costumed superhero genre, you should see this movie. If you are a teenager, you should see this movie. If you are me, you should watch it again, as soon as possible.
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I don't think I can even begin to approach the level of Robert Keser's review at Bright Lights Film Journal, so I encourage everyone to read it. I only wish he'd talked a bit more about the mythical and/or literary roots of the story. Is this based on a famous story or play? All Keser says is it's "the oft-filmed tale of a tanuki — a raccoon-like creature known for its shapeshifting — who assumes the human form of a beauteous princess who loves an exiled prince."

This is an amazing film. I finally got all the way through to the end last night after being interrupted in two previous viewings (once right before the end, as it turns out) and showing the first half hour to friends twice as well. I've seen two other Seijun Suzuki movies, Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill, and while I liked the candy-colored surrealism of the former, I found both of these gangster films a bit too abstract and frenetic to connect to. Princess Raccoon is still fairly abstract, but somehow more generous of humanity -- even raccoon humanity. It goes even further than Moulin Rouge down the road of the postmodern musical, although it skips insouciantly through the tragic heartbreak and into a calm, even comic, view of death. But it plays similarly with the artificiality of the stage/screen and with the pop music mash up.

There are levels other than story-origin that I think I'm missing, particularly the way it plays with kabuki forms. I don't know much about kabuki. But the thing is, it plays with everything. The playfulness of the visuals, the music, the acting, the editing, the sound effects, the staging, the production design, etc., etc. is just delightful. It's all lighter than air. There is such a sense of joy that it gives me hope for my own old age. If Suzuki can make something like this at age 82, there is something right with the world.

Also, Zhang Ziyi is building a very strong case for being the biggest international star of the day. Nicole Kidman is the only other star I can think of offhand who is so determinedly working with every great director she can. Maybe Johnny Depp is another.

As a final note, IMDb only has this under its Japanese title. Pretty sparse entry, with two out of three of the user comments being idiotic.
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This is the first film by Takashi Miike that I've seen. While I've been intrigued by what sounded like a pretty crazy sense of humor, he has mostly worked a horrific, grotesque vein that doesn't interest me whatsoever. ([livejournal.com profile] sneerpout's description of Audition was enough to send me scrabbling under my bed to hide amongst the dust bunnies for weeks.) But this movie was described as HR Pufnstuf on acid, which sounded like exactly my kind of thing. The friend who described it thus burned a DVD-R from what was, knowing him, probably a bootleg, so the image isn't the greatest, but I enjoyed the movie so much that I'll be getting it on commercial DVD. Probably from Hong Kong, considering how the modern film market seems to work.

Cute, but at least vaguely creepy -- possible spoilers )

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