Movie Review – The Assassin

EXPECTATIONS: A martial arts film that 100% represents Hou’s film-making style. And Shu Qi!

REVIEW: This movie was a long time coming. It was in gestation/pre-production for 25 years and 5 years in production and now it has finally arrived. A movie similar in the long-awaited hype and genre would be The Grandmaster, directed by Wong Kar-Wai. They both have an acclaimed director that rarely explore mainstream genres, the films both have long production phases and the directors both place their distinct styles into the films (Hou’s style is naturalistic while Wai’s style is romanticized). And now we have The Assassin, starring Hou’s muse and collaborator, Shu Qi and Chang Chen. Is the film worth the wait? For Hou’s fans of his style, it is heaven, but for martial arts fans, it is very questionable. In my view, I very much enjoyed The Assassin, and I am so glad to have watched the film in the Sydney Film Festival 2015.

In the background of a settled conflict between the Imperial Court and the powerful Weibo military province, Shu Qi stars as Nie Yinniang, the titular assassin who is trained under Master Jiaxing (Sheu Fang-Yi) when she was a young age.. Yinniang goes on various missions to take down corrupt government officials until one day, she fails to kill the son of the target. She is then punished by taking on a new mission, which involves going back to her hometown where she was taken in, reuniting with her family and to kill a man whom she was set to marry, Governor Tian Ji’an (Hou veteran, Chang Chen). Will she be able to carry on the mission or will she fight back?

First off, let’s talk about the technical values of the film. Um, whoa! The film looked spectacular on the big screen. Using real locations, with saturated colours and the authentic costumes worn by the characters, there is no lack of effort apparent in the look of the film. The opening of the film is in black-and-white and the cinematography still looks fantastic, and when the title screen shows up, the colours explode into place. There’s a scene in the film when Yinniang storms the palace and the use of smoke in the shot looks incredibly nightmarish, almost as if a ghost came after the character. There are many scenes in the film that you just have to witness on screen. As for the costumes of the characters, some of it evokes the look of wuxia films back in the 70’s and 80’s, and yet, they don’t call attention to itself as it doesn’t look exaggerated to the point that it could only come from film. There’s a fight scene in a forest between Yinniang and another character that reminded me of A Touch of Zen, and that’s a compliment.

Speaking of the fight scenes, those who are looking for thrills and action set-pieces in their films, do not watch this film. The fight scenes here are quick, efficient, done without remorse and are over before they even start, which makes perfect sense since Yinniang is portrayed to be the best of her kind. Silent but deadly, like the character. The actors also lend their skills to the material and suit the tone that director Hou is going for. Shu Qi, although she is too old for her role, is fantastic as Nie Yinniang. Her understated acting pays off with surprisingly emotional dividends like in a scene where she is nursed of her wounds and she handles her fight scenes professionally, which is kind of surprising since I thought she was struggling a lot in her 2002 action film, So Close. Funnily enough, her actual age lends a sort of maturity to the role that never would have been shown is she had played the role at 23 (the character’s age). Chang Chen, who has played the love interest of Shu Qi many times, looks the part and brings the practiced chemistry with her, but doesn’t really add much more to the role. Supporting roles are better (particularly with the females) with Sheu Fang-Yi excelling as the master of Yinniang, with plenty of opportunities to convey her cold-hearted nature (she also plays Princess Jiacheng) and Zhou Yun as Tian Ji’an’s wife, who convincingly suppresses her anger over the situation.

As for the storytelling, the pacing is really slow, almost glacial. But fortunately, the story is a wuxia template, with all of its tropes cut down to its pure and bare essentials. There’s a mention of Yinniang’s training at a young age that could pay off in crowd-pleasing ways, but it is never shown. Fight scenes are never sprawling or long-winded. There’s very little use of wire-work in the fight scenes. In fact, nothing about the story is sprawling at all, which unlike the look of the film, the story is all kept at a bare minimum. Even the aspect ratio of the film is done in 4:3, which keeps a tight focus on the film at hand. Like many wuxia stories, the characters and story may be a bit hard to follow but Hou makes this approach definitively and uniquely his, as it is more about his naturalistic approach than it is about convoluted storytelling. Any veneer in the story or characters that show flaws or cracks in its appearance, it pays off emotionally, but you have to look out for it, which can be hard when you are gazing at the film more than you are looking. This approach to storytelling may not always work (Hou’s earlier film, The Flowers of Shanghai really bored me to sleep), but the bigger budget and the change in genre bring a refreshing feel to those familiar to Hou’s work as well as those willing to step out of the martial arts norm.

Much like Wong Kar Wai’s film, The Grandmaster, Hou Hsiao-Hsien has made a martial arts film that is more of a personal statement than a genre film and his filmmaking style suits the genre surprisingly well. It will definitely split people’s opinions of martial arts fans (as it did for The Grandmaster) but The Assassin definitely makes its mark in martial arts cinema and I hope more acclaimed directors make their mark in martial arts films.

P.S – Now imagine if director Fruit Chan or Pang Ho-Cheung made a martial arts film. Now that is something I will be very hyped up for!

Quickie Review

PROS

Cinematography, music and settings look astoundingly beautiful

Shu Qi gives the character more substance than what is shown

The supporting cast give fine performances

Wuxia tropes are refreshingly cut down to the bare essentials and are shown without any postmodern touch

CONS

Pacing can be very slow

Emotions can be too inert

SCORE: 8/10

Cast: Shu Qi, Chang Chen, Tsumabuki Satoshi, Zhou Yun, Juan Ching-tian, Hsieh Hsin-ying, Sheu Fang-yi
Director: Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Screenwriters: Chu Tien-wen, Hou Hsiao-Hsien

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Movie Review – Knock Knock

EXPECTATIONS: A home invasion flick with some dark comedy and plenty of Keanu Reeves memes.

REVIEW: Chocolate with sprinkles! Wow. That’s my reaction when I first saw the trailer for this film. When I saw Keanu Reeves’ performance in the trailer, I was a bit puzzled; thinking that this was a thriller, and not a comedy. I was laughing at the content yet there was serious, suspenseful music in the background. I was wondering if the trailer was really meant to give an actual impression of the film, but unfortunately, people will feel mislead, thinking that it is a film in the vein of Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct or Funny Games. But what I was surprised to see what Knock Knock actually is, a dark comedy. To be honest, it is the funniest film I’ve seen so far this year. And I absolutely swear that it is intentional, as the actors are all in on it.

Keanu Reeves stars as Evan Webber, a former DJ, now a happily married architect with two children. They all live in a house that he designed and his wife (Ignacia Allamand) surrounds it with all of her artwork, which is getting ready to be shown in museums, with the help of family friend, Louis (Aaron Burns). The film is set on Father’s Day and Evan has to stay at home while the rest of the family are on a trip. On that rainy night, two strange (and wet!) women, Genesis and Bel (Lorenza Izzo and Ana De Armas) come knocking on Evan’s door for his help and he obliges. The women indulge into his life story and inch in closer to him, but he shies away. But as they seduce him and offer to entice his unsatisfied urges, he gives in, resulting in a night full of stuff that would make Penthouse Forum howl with delight. The next morning, he wakes up and unfortunately still sees the women at his home and he tells them to leave, but the two become sinister and hostile to the point where it could become deadly for Evan.

Let’s talk Keanu Reeves. I am surprised that he would attempt to be in a movie like this, and this was when I thought this film was a sexy thriller. So imagine my surprise when I found out this was a dark comedy that Keanu would act in. Holy shit, his performance in this film. It was goddamn hilarious to witness and I never thought he had it in him to act the way he did. Usually, his performances are subdued to the point of being wooden and he would often rely on body language to give a convincing performance, but in Knock Knock, most of the film he is tied up and he just overacts immensely. There is a monologue in the middle of the film where his character just blows up and lets his anger out towards the women, while equating his act as obtaining free pizza, and it is a hell of a sight to behold. The only time he is shown to be genuine is when he is shy towards Genesis and Bel, and we can easily believe him when he does the musical chairs act. Comparisons have been made to Nicolas Cage, especially in the ending, but Keanu Reeves entertained the shit out of me, and I’m thankful. Was his performance intentional? I honestly believe it was, and the actresses kept up with him in style.

Let’s talk about the free pizza, I mean, the actresses. Lorenza Izzo is great as the lively and psychotic Genesis and Ana De Armas is playful as the cutie-pie Bel. They both switch from excitable to menacing with ease and it is a delight to see them play with Keanu Reeves. They too are in on the joke, but it is Ana De Armas that hints that there is something under the surface that could be seen as a bit tragic. The two actresses are great together, whether it is seducing Evan or reenacting a kaiju battle over Lego, the two are great to watch and it is easy to see why Evan would pursue them before he ended up in the mess he went in. The rest of the limited cast are fine, although Aaron Burns has the most stupidest moment in the film that can be seen as comedic or detrimental to its thriller aspects. I saw it as the former and it was totally worth it. The game of monkey-in-the-middle had never looked so much fun.

If you are looking for thrills in this film, you’re not going to find any. The motivations for the women are not convincing, the commentary on men and women is more perfunctory than a true priority (although the “free pizza” monologue makes a point), the times that Evan tries to escape are repetitive and the psychological horror scenes of torture are laughable at best and annoying at worst. And the ending of the film concludes with a joke, not with a revelation or a thrill. But the film is well-shot within its budget, the score is good at elevating the mood of the film and the set (the house) is used quite well.

The film was entertaining and the cast were great with the material but it is expectations that can make the film. Those who expect a sexy thriller will be disappointed, if not downright infuriated. Those who expect a dark comedy will be delighted, if not greet the film with uproarious applause.

Quickie Review

PROS

The cast are really entertaining in their roles (Keanu Reeves is a laugh riot)

The film is hilarious in its execution, seeing it as a dark comedy

Well-made and well-shot

CONS

The film is hilariously bad in its execution, seeing it as a thriller

Mixed messages and themes

SCORE: ~ 7/10

Cast: Keanu Reeves, Lorenza Izzo, Ana De Armas, Ignacia Allamand, Aaron Burns, Colleen Camp

Director: Eli Roth

Screenwriters: Eli Roth, Nicolas Lopez, Guillermo Amoedo

Movie Review – The World of Kanako

EXPECTATIONS: Something incredibly exhilarating and exhausting at the same time. And Fumi Nikaido!

REVIEW: For those who don’t know, director Tetsuya Nakashima is one hell of a visual stylist on film. This may seem like a point of criticism, implying that he aims for style over substance. But my goodness, he’s got style. His films have been critically acclaimed for this reason and he is very fortunate that he always has the right script to formulate his style into. Some people compare him to Tim Burton (similarities come from the fantasy film Paco and the Picture Book and the musical drama Memories of Matsuko) or Jean-Pierre Jeunet (his friendship comedy Kamikaze Girls has a very similar style to Amelie). But in his 2010 film, Confessions, he infuses his visual style to a much darker story and again, received critical acclaim to the point that the film was submitted to the shortlist of Best Foreign Film at the Oscars. After that, he was given a role to direct the new Attack on Titan film. I was completely gobsmacked despite the fact that I knew nothing of the source material other than some pictures and the premise. But that shattered and now we have the apparently disastrous film(s) we have now. So now we have The World of Kanako, a film you get when you cross Bad Lieutenant, Twin Peaks and Alice in Wonderland, and yes, it is as crazy as it sounds, and more.

Koji Yakusho stars as Akihiro Fujishima, a former detective who has just discovered that his daughter, Kanako (Nana Komatsu) is missing. Having to go back through his incredibly troubled past as well as his daughter’s tumultuous life through meeting his ex-wife (Asuka Kurosawa) and other various bizarre characters, he gradually discovers that his daughter is a lot different than what he imagined. Concurrently, we are told Kanako’s story proceeding to her disappearance through the eyes of a student (Hiroya Shimizu) known as Boku (known as “I” in Japanese), a timid and unsociable bullying victim who has a crush on Kanako. As he is lured into her life, he too falls into a rabbit hole of toxicity, lust and depravity that could leave a person insane.

Before I go into the story, I have to talk about the wonderful cast director Tetsuya Nakashima had assembled. From the acting veterans to rising stars to the new talent, they all deliver fantastic performances that were either surprising, professional, promising for future careers or career-best. And rightfully enough, Koji Yakusho (who has worked in Paco and the Picture Book, also directed by Nakashima) delivers a performance that is the latter. As Fujishima, he delivers a performance that is ruthlessly monstrous yet surprisingly human. He will do things that will make you hate him but you can’t help but go along with his character because he really is trying to find his daughter, which to him, is the only good thing he’s ever had in his life, and it is spectacular to see Yakusho deliver. On the surprising note, Nana Komatsu gives a great debut performance that makes her character vastly easy to believe that she can play a saint or a sinner. I thought it was strange to see three more experienced young actresses in the film yet Nakashima chose Komatsu in the title role, but in an interview, it was said that he made that decision because he didn’t want an actress that would dwell much into the character because it was meant to be a visual presence for the audience to decide and Komatsu portrayed that well.

As for the supporting cast, it was a hoot to see Satoshi Tsumabuki play a oily scumbag ageist cop who is hot on Fujishima’s trail while Joe Odigari  Jun Kunimura and Miki Nakatani turn in their usual professional performances. As for the young talent, Ai Hashimoto was refreshingly filled with angst as Emi, a classmate of Kanako, and proved a great foil for Yakusho’s character as they have some great argumentative scenes that can be either disturbing or amusing. Fumi Nikaido (a FilmMomatic favourite) shows a rebellious side as Nami (though not as evil as her performance in Brain Man), and she was good in her performance (her coloured hair certainly helped), while Aoi Morikawa (whom I liked in the horror film, Fatal Frame) is memorable in her limited screen-time as the troubled Tomoko. Hiroya Shimizu as “Boku” (whom I’ve seen in the two-parter Solomon’s Perjury) is sympathetic and his change from victim to pursuer is portrayed convincingly, especially when he confronts his fellow students.

If you’ve seen the trailer for this film, you’ll notice its striking sense of style. And yes, the film is that stylish. The story is actually quite simple when you cut it down to its bare essentials but it is the style that makes it memorable. Everything from colours, uses of music, animated interludes, odd uses of camerawork, musical montages are all used here and are applied to great effect. There is a scene that uses a Dean Martin song that really gives a haunting feel that would stay with you for days. Songs of J-Pop and classical music and rigorous pacing would drown you and immerse you into the hyper-realistic world and much like the younger characters, you get the feeling that you should not witness this but you can’t look away, and Nakashima sells that. He also sells the mix of genres that range from horror to dark comedy to murder mystery and I swear I some some elements of Giallo in the film. All of it is mixed together great and it makes for one hell of a ride. What I also liked is the fact that no one really knows who Kanako is and it plays off with great themes such as nature vs. nurture or the commentary on teen socialism or even how far does love for a loved one go?

I was so thrilled, shocked and blindsided by this film, I had to take a shower afterwards. And that’s not a criticism. Speaking of criticisms, the style can be very overwhelming at times, which can result in tonal whiplash, and it can be hard to relate to any of the characters, therefore lacking a human touch, despite Yakusho’s best efforts. Also the violence can border beyond extreme, especially with its female characters. But overall, The World of Kanako is one hell of an experience that daring viewers should all experience.

Quickie Review

PROS

Koji Yakusho gives a frighteningly monstrous, yet devastatingly human performance as Fujishima (a fantastic second collaboration between him and director Nakashima)
Nakashima’s direction is spectacularly without restraint (with great uses of animated interludes, jump-cuts, strobes, lens flares, camera angles/shots etc.; many references to 60’s and 70’s exploitation flicks and Nikkatsu crime films i.e the opening credit sequence; elements of horror, dark comedy, teen angst, murder mystery, I swear I saw some Giallo in there too)
The supporting cast give their roles zest (Nana Komatsu gives a fantastic debut as Kanako, who may be just as monstrous as her father; Satomi Tsumabaki is a pure delightful scumbag in his performance; Joe Odagiri is superb in his main scene…I could go on and on.)
The pacing is relentless and breakneck (alongside the tonal shifts and the pop-art style, this is a pure rollercoaster ride)

CONS

The stylistic choices are exhausting at times and will not be for everyone (it is definitely cartoony at times, repulsive the next)
None of the characters are truly likable
Misogynistic attitudes abound

SCORE: 9/10 (Tetsuya Nakashima is at his most unhinged and shocking, combining his distinctive pop-art style of Kamikaze Girls with the playful imagination of Paco and the Magical Picture Book with the dark storytelling of Confessions.)

Cast: Koji Yakusho, Nana Komatsu, Jun Kunimura, Miki Nakatani, Satoshi Tsumabuki, Asuka Kurosawa, Hiroya Shimizu, Fumi Nikaido, Ai Hashimoto, Aoi Morikawa, Munetaka Aoki

Director: Tetsuya Nakashima

Screenwriters: Tetsuya Nakashima, Nobuhiro Momma, Miako Tadano (Based on the novel by Akio Fukamachi)

Movie Review – The Furthest End Awaits (Japanese Film Festival 2015)

EXPECTATIONS: A very soothing drama along the lines of a Hsiao Hou-Hsien film.

REVIEW: Coffee is incredibly prominent in the world. Like Jerry Seinfeld says in his stand-up routine, coffee is more than just a drink; it’s related to everything from technology, kitchen appliances, computer programs (i.e Java) and there are some types of coffee we have to call Mister. Yes, I said that joke. But there are numerous coffee places to just relax, which I find ironic since coffee is meant to perk people up. So when I started to watch this film, I was afraid that I might fall asleep due to its film-making style (i.e meditative pacing, languid shots, lack of momentum etc.), but when I saw that coffee was a factor in the story, it somehow perked me up and when you see the coffee shop that the character runs, it really is quite a metaphor for the film itself. Warm, inviting and lovely to be around, The Furthest End Awaits is a journey worth exploring.

Hiromi Nagasaku stars as Misaki, who had just heard that her father, who disappeared in a boating accident, is legally declared dead. Willing to be filial and devoted to him, she accepts his debts and his one asset, a boathouse in a small town at a peninsula, where she was born. She moves her coffee shop there, clinging to her hopes to see her father again. At the town, we see Eriko (Nozomi Sasaki), a hardworking single mother of two, older daughter Arisa (Hiyori Sakurada) and younger son Shota (Kaisei Katomori), who is a neighbour of Misaki. She has an alcoholic boyfriend (Masatoshi Nagase) who comes and goes, freeloading off her money and livelihood, particularly her children. When Misaki and Eriko meet for the first time, their interaction is heated and awkward at first, but through time, they gradually form a strong bond that could lead to a friendship.

What I took notice about this film was the fact that this was directed by Taiwanese director, Chang Hsiu-Chuing. Directing her first Japanese film with a full Japanese crew, Chang adopts her skills to the Japanese norm surprisingly well, that recalls the work of Yasujiro Ozu, especially when it shows the workings of family life in the country (i.e Tokyo Story). But Chang also retains a bit of her Taiwanese film heritage in here, as some scenes recall Hsiao Hou-Hsien like scenes that linger on for a long take to elicit a feeling of realism or astounding beauty. There is a scene later in the film when Misaki finds out about her missing father that lingers in a wide shot for a long time, and it is used very effectively as it highlights the covert emotions of Misaki. I also liked that there is no music in the film until the end credits and it makes its emotional moments and revelations feel earned instead of perfunctory or obviously screen-written.

The actors certainly help out and lend a lot of heart to the film. Hiromi Nagasaku, in her past films, usually plays liberated women or daring characters that revolve around sexuality (with some comedic characters) but in The Furthest End Awaits, she is incredibly effective as Misaki. Her character is quite enigmatic through the first hour, only showing hints of paternal love and commitment to her work, but in the final act, her emotions and character development are more prevalent and she conveys it very well. Nozomi Sasaki, known more for her modelling than her acting, is also quite good as Eriko. Although her emotive dramatic chops still need some work, especially after the bond is created between her character and Misaki, Sasaki conveys her character’s unpleasant and frankly, childish behaviour convincingly and her transformation from sisterly-babysitter to fully-fledged mother is believable. Special credit goes to the children, who play their roles that feel genuine and not in the fake precocious fashion that you see in Hollywood films. The scenes with them and Misaki are the most amusing, warm and inviting in the film, as they bond over the process of making coffee. And they also have good dramatic chops when their lives are shown to be less than perfect, especially when they react to their mother’s neglect, that reminds me of a mild version of Hirokazu Koreeda’s Nobody Knows.

But there are some problems that take the film down a notch. First, there’s the boyfriend character played by Masatoshi Nagase. His performance isn’t the problem, but his incredibly stereotypical appearance is. With an eye-patch, his drunk behaviour and his excessive chain-smoking, anyone with a brain stem could see that his character is up to no good. His character is incredibly jarring compared to the rest of the film that it took me out a couple of times. It’s a shame since it creates a black hole compared to the rest of the understated and realistic tone of the film. Also, the running time of the film is too long. With a story like this, particularly one with very little plot, long takes that elicit beauty and mood can only take you so far, and the film needs a more urgent pace to keep the plot going.

Fortunately, the climax and the ending of the film work, as the bond between the characters is very convincing, that you really start to see them as a true family. It is also when the music finally plays in the film and it pulls off the much-needed cathartic feel that makes the ending a winner. The Furthest End Awaits is a great, optimistic, heartwarming film that is as satisfying as a well-brewed cup of coffee.

Quickie Review

PROS

Good understated performances from the cast

Convincing direction that earns the film’s dramatic moments

The film is beautifully realized, with its great cinematography

CONS

Masatoshi Nagase’s character

The running time is too long

SCORE: 8/10

Readers in Australia want to watch the film? Book tickets for it at Japanese Film Festival 2015! Press the logo below for more details!

Cast: Hiromi Nagasaku, Nozomi Sasaki, Hiyori Sakurada, Kaisei Hatomori, Asami Usuda, Masatoshi Nagase, Jun Murakami, Miyoko Asada, Issey Ogata, Tomoworo Taguchi

Director: Chiang Hsiu-chiung

Screenwriter: Nako Kakinoki

Movie Review – Tag (Japanese Film Festival 2015)

EXPECTATIONS: Director Sion Sono and schoolgirls can only mean one thing. Fun exploitation, for better or worse.

REVIEW: Tag, you’re it! Now we have another Sion Sono film to review and that’s one out of six in 2015 alone! Only this time, he’s venturing into the genre of teen survival once again since Suicide Club and Noriko’s Dinner Table. Over the years since Love Exposure, Sion Sono has been accused of misogyny due to the many sexual references and portrayals of women in his films. And in 2015, he doesn’t appear to stop restraining himself from doing so, which is quite evident in his other 2015 film, The Virgin Psychics. But in Tag, he does something incredibly transcendent that makes this film so much more than expertly made exploitation that just goes to show that Sono is one of the most daring filmmakers today.

Reina Triendl stars as Mitsuko, a timid girl who resides in her own shell and who writes poems. One day, she is on a bus with all her female classmates on their way to summer camp but a cataclysmic event occurs and changes the lives of Mitsuko and others forever. Surreal and strange things happen to the point where the rules of living have been bent, shocking bouts of violence are brought about in a sudden fashion and this all occurs exclusively with all females. What is it that Mitsuko got herself into? What is it that females got themselves into? Can all of the girls get out of it?

I realize that the synopsis that I wrote is incredibly ambiguous but I sincerely do not want to provide any spoilers since the film should be best experienced without any prior knowledge. I also loved the fact that the theatrical trailer does not spoil any of the film’s events. Having said that, the story is simply outlandish. Although it is based on a manga, Sion Sono apparently has never read the source material and only used the premise as a entry point to his own creation. And boy, was it a creation. The film is essentially a chase movie not much unlike Mad Max: Fury Road and it could’ve easily be seen as an exercise in gory exploitation no different than a grindhouse film, but Sono adds themes and elements that vilify the idea of female glorification. And this is a surprise considering that Sono is very guilty of the glorifying himself. Everything from the Japanese schoolgirl culture (or JK, as it is referred to in Japan) to video games to films, Sono takes them down and tears them a new one in funny and thought-provoking ways. Funnily enough, there is no male actor in sight until the third act, but even then, the only male actor that is seen before then, his face is covered with something, for a lack of a better word, bovine. All of the seemingly random events coalesce into an ending that borders out of this world.

Special mention goes to the cast, who add life to their supposed archetypes. Reina Triendl is a dynamo as Mitsuko and she really sells fear and shock that easily engenders the audience’s sympathy. There’s a scene in the climax where she questions her identity and her self-being that almost made me want to hug her. Mariko Shinoda is as Keiko, a woman who is a bride-to-be, veering towards the edge of anger and insanity. She has one of the best moments in the film when she has to fight her way out of her own wedding and the special makeup effects in this scene by gorehound Yoshihiro Nishimura is spectacular to behold. Erina Mano (who is Sono’s new muse, appearing in FOUR of his films this year alone) is great as Izumi, a marathon runner who has more intentions than just running to win. Their roles are great enough but what is amazing is the fact that they are technically relaying the same role through different parts of the film, and they are all in sync of the the character’s development. They are all running away from something not only is a genuine threat but it could be something that metaphorically reflects an event in a person’s life that recalls the path from a teenage life to adulthood, and to witness themes like this in a film as bizarre as this is what makes Sono such a great filmmaker.

The supporting cast are also great in their roles but the biggest standout is Yuki Sakurai as Aki. Working with Sono for the second time after the Minna Esper Dayo TV series, she exudes loyalty and courtesy as well as strength to do anything to protect what is dearest to her and when she starts to fight back against the evil forces, it is a hilarious, shocking and fist-pumping delight. She adds heart alongside Triendl that I bet you that everyone would want a best friend like her. What I also admired and enjoyed was the cinematography, which was done by drones. The aerial shots wring tension and always give a sense of dread, implying that something is always following the characters. The music is also great with its use of rock music and it adds to the almost hypnotic proceedings, especially when the film starts to feel nostalgic or eerie.

After watching this film, I wondered if this is the movie that director Zack Snyder tried to make with Sucker Punch, since it shares the same agenda of vilifying female glorification in the media. But unlike Sucker Punch, the world of Tag is much more haunting, immersive and downright gutsy in its execution. This is by far the best Japanese film I’ve seen this year. A film about a girl’s journey for survival that consistently surprises, shocks, thrills, ridicules and provokes all at once all in a scant running time of 85 minutes.

P.S – If you didn’t believe me about the predominantly female cast, look at the picture below.

Quickie Review

PROS

The actresses are incredibly game in their roles (Reina Triendl is a acting dynamo as the fearful Mitsuko)

So jam-packed with ideas, thought-provoking themes, ultraviolent action and hard-hitting satire in its slim, fast-paced 85 minutes

The ending is surreal and surprisingly ambiguous, yet satisfying

The production values are striking (with its fantastic cinematography done by drones and great gore effects by Yoshihiro Nishimura)

CONS

Some bad CGI

SCORE: 9/10

Readers in Australia want to watch the film? Book tickets for it at Japanese Film Festival 2015! Press the logo below for more details!

Cast: Reina Triendl, Mariko Shinoda, Erina Mano, Yuki Sakurai, Maryjun Takahashi, Sayaka Isoyama, Takumi Saito, Cyborg Kaori, Ami Tomite, Izumi, Hiroko Yashiki

Director: Sion Sono

Screenwriter: Sion Sono, based on a novel “Riaru Onigokko” by Yusuke Yamada

Movie Review – The Ninja War of Torakage (Japanese Film Festival 2015)

EXPECTATIONS: A more serious and straightforward film by gore-hound director, Yoshihiro Nishimura.

REVIEW: It has been a while since I have seen a new film by Yoshihiro Nishimura. Ever since the entertainingly excessive Helldriver, he’s been off my radar despite his new ventures like Zombie TV and his entry in The ABCs of Death. I have always enjoyed his special make-up and prosthetic work ever since I watched the cult-classic The Machine Girl and in recent times, the schoolgirl splatter/condemnation of glorification of women flick, Tag, by Sion Sono and his work on the infamous Attack on Titan films. Now, we have his latest film, The Ninja War of Torakage, a ninja film that seems to hint that Nishimura has gone in a different direction after his revered gore flicks. But as it turns out, The Ninja War of Torakage is different to his previous films in many ways but it still retains his signature for bizarre humour and some scenes of blood and gore. But does different translate as good?

Takumi Saito stars as Torakage, a legendary ninja of the Homura clan, who is currently retired and living peacefully in the countryside, with his wife, Tsukikage (Yuria Haga) and son. Happily bonding together with numerous poop jokes and playing out in the fields, the time of peace comes under fire when Shinonome (Eihi Shiina), a former master of Torakage, takes their son hostage and forces him and Tsukikage on a mission to steal the Golden Scroll from the cult leader of Yagen, Rikuri (Kanji Tsuda). So Torakage and Tsukikage once again done their ninja gear but during their mission, Tsukikage gets captured by the Yagen cult. What’s a ninja to do?

The expectation of ninjas in a Yoshihiro Nishimura film would be expected as a gorefest, but surprisingly, there’s very little gore (in Nishimura standards) that it feels kind of strange to witness. Sure, the film starts off with a ninja battle with blood squirting out of their necks (per usual for a Nishimura film), but after that scene, there’s very little blood in sight. But fortunately, it was a great choice since one of the main themes of the film is family. Surprisingly, the bond between Torakage, Tsukikage and son is funny, warm and poignant at times. Even the poop jokes the family exchange are more amusing than annoying and the son’s reaction to the jokes is priceless. Nishimura ably compensates for the lack of gore with his unique brand of bizarre humour and boundless creativity and his storytelling has improved since the pacing is faster, the storytelling is amusingly told with an European narrator called Francisco, who provides backstory on ninja culture that tears and honours the ninja genre.

Speaking of creativity, the action scenes in Torakage at first, typical for ninja fare. Ninja stars, use of trampolines for high jumps and flips, fake deaths, blood spurts and so on. But when the main plot starts, the action scenes are massively insane in scope and hilarious (intentionally) in execution. There is a minor, yet understandable criticism in Nishimura films that shows that his action scenes mainly consist of back and forth hitting, with very little to no actual choreography. But in Torakage, Nishimura makes up for lack of choreography and imagination saves the day. There is an action scene involving Pachinko that must be seen to be believed and an action scene in reference to Iron Man that had me laughing my ass off. There’s also an action scene that involves surfing on a long village street, using coffins as surfboards and another scene that involves an unorthodox use of a ninja star. Yes, it’s as uproarious as it sounds. Sure, there is bad CGI to be seen but since the film is not to be taken seriously, the attempts of humour (implied sexuality included, courtesy of Yuria Haga) comes off as hilarious.

Speaking of the cast, some of the cast members surprised me while others played to their strengths. First is Takumi Saito. When I first saw him in movies like the teen vampire grindhouse romance Vampire Girl vs Frankenstein Girl, I thought he was just a pretty boy with no personality to draw me in. But then I saw the low-fi robot flick RoboGeisha, where he was more engaging and having fun as the villain. Then I saw the romantic comedy musical For Love’s Sake, and I thought he was hilarious in that film as the dopey third wheel and the same went for the video-game adaptation Ace Attorney. But in Torakage, he showed convincing courage in his action scenes and his fatherly love in the bonding scenes worked. Having a little bit of heart and emotion in a film like this is incredibly rare and this film achieves it. It may not be a lot, but it’s something that the audience can latch on to. Yuria Haga (last seen in my guilty pleasure of 2014, Girl’s Blood) is fine as Tsukikage and her action scenes are good, particularly when she’s game for the more risque humour. Eihi Shiina, like her villainous role in Helldriver, not only chews the screen, she devours it with one mouthful and it is again so spectacular to behold that not even Kanji Tsuda (from Vampire Girl vs Frankenstein Girl and other cult films) can keep up. Masanori Mimoto is great as the tough renegade and rival of Torakage and Nana Seino is hamming it up as Mimoto’s partner with her metal claw as her weapon. The two have a good fight scene together in the climax as they take down ninjas all in a single take. Nishimura’s cronies (Maki Mazui, Hiroko Tashiki and a cameo from director Takeshi Shimizu) are all amusing in their small roles.

The Ninja War of Torakage was a very enjoyable experience that made me think that Yoshihiro Nishimura is more than just a person who specializes in gore and the film ends with a great “To Be Continued” tag, which I will eagerly wait for a sequel.

Quickie Review

PROS

The cast are good in their parts

The storytelling is much better than in usual Nishimura efforts, resulting in a shorter running time

The action scenes are insanely enjoyable to witness

Themes of family add a little bit of heart and poignancy to the film

CONS

Bad CGI

Those expecting the film to be more straight and narrow according to the trailer, will be disappointed

SCORE: 8/10

Readers in Australia want to watch the film? Book tickets for it at Japanese Film Festival 2015! Press the logo below for more details!

Cast: Takumi Saito, Yuria Haga, Eihi Shiina, Kanji Tsuda, Miyuki Torii, Kentaro Shimazu, Masanori Mimoto, Nana Seino, Maki Mazui, Hiroko Yashiki, Mao Mita, Takashi Nishina, Seminosuke Murasagi
Director: Yoshihiro Nishimura
Screenwriters: Yoshihiro Nishimura, Jun Tsugita

Movie Review – Library Wars: The Last Mission (Japanese Film Festival 2015) [EXCLUSIVE]

EXPECTATIONS: An entertaining action film with just enough cheekiness to make it charming.

REVIEW:  Now many stories in Japan have many premises that are realistic (earthquake disaster film) to inventive (a murder mystery revolving around social media) to just downright nuts (Yakuza and vampires together). But the premise of Library Wars: The Last Mission is surprisingly ridiculous and relevant. Quite an oxymoron, if you ask me. The premise of censorship and free speech used in totalitarian environment that involves literally burning books like the Nazis set in Japan is quite timely, especially considering the recent events of manga being banned in Japanese cities like Barefoot Gen (http://cbldf.org/2014/03/barefoot-gen-banned-in-japanese-city/). But mixing this within a romantic comedy, a war story, an underdog tale and a social commentary about the dangers of censorship, you got yourself an oddly entertaining and satisfying blockbuster. Now comes the highly awaited sequel, but does it deliver? Read on!

Set within dystopian Tokyo, the government has decided to propose The Media Betterment Act, which is to enforce stronger forces to side along censorship and banning freedoms of speech, run by the Betterment Corps. On the opposing side is the Library Defense Force (LDF), which resists all of what The Betterment act stands for by advocating the many freedoms of expression. Within the Library Defense is Kasahara (Nana Eikura), a rookie turned trooper who has deep feelings for his superior officer Dojo (Junichi Okada), who is her inspiration for her to join the LDF in the first place. They both know each other due to an event involving Dojo saving Kasahara from the Censorship Agency Troops in a bookstore. They are still in awkward terms in developing a rapport and while on a routine mission to guard a last known copy of “The Handbook of Library Law”, a book symbolizing freedom, it is later shown to be a trap and the Betterment Troops establish a blitzkrieg against the LDF and the biggest battle begins. Will Kasahara and Dojo work together in sync to survive? Will they get together at all?

What I really need to state is that you do not have to have seen the first Library Wars film to enjoy this one, since it establishes the relationship between Kasahara and Dojo whilst going off in its own story. Their awkward yet charming chemistry is still present and still delights. Nana Eikura is more confident and assured this time around and is more believable as a trooper. Her dramatic moments with Okada are the best moments in the film, particularly in the climax where it calls back to their earlier past in a touching manner. Junichi Okada is still the gruff, stern, short yet likable officer who becomes quite funny when he actually opens up about his feelings (if you could call it opening). His handling of the hand-to-hand fight scenes are still the best parts in the action scenes (as well as in the first film), that I couldn’t help but be disappointed because there weren’t more. The supporting cast still charm and delight with returning stars Chiaki Kuriyama, Sota Fukushi and Kei Tanaka. Newcomer Tori Matsuzaka also makes a good impression within his limited screen-time as the brother of Sota Fukushi’s character who starts off The Media Betterment Act. A scene between Nana Eikura and Matsuzaka is a highlight, as he commands the screen with his presence.

As for the themes present in the first film as well as this one, again, they are not the main thrust of the film. People unaccustomed with the light novel the film(s) are based on, the story is essentially an action-packed love story set within a dystopian backdrop and environments similar to Fahrenheit 451 or V For Vendetta. And on those terms, the film succeeds. I just wish that the film (as well as the previous one) could dwell in its themes a little bit more, like in terms of social commentary, so it can add some food-for-thought to the audience. As for the storytelling, the first half of the film establishes the plot, the relationships, the characters and how they fit into the plot whereas the second half is the “last mission” itself, filled with lots of gun-play and hand-to-hand combat. Though the storytelling approach could bore some people and the story could also be tightened up, it does give the second half (which is essentially, the climax) some much-needed punch. Most of the action scenes are thrilling to watch but some of it suffers from bad lighting, making it hard to see which characters are getting shot at or are firing at.

Fortunately, director Shinsuke Sato (director of Gantz films, The Princess Blade and All-Round Appraiser Q) again delivers an assured hand at mixing the many genres to good entertainment and retains the heart of what made the leads likable in the first place. If you’re wondering that this film is really the “Last Mission”, there is no sequel-bait ending so it definitely is the last one and it was quite a good conclusion.

Quickie Review

PROS

The cast still charms and delights

The action scenes thrill and entertain

The dramatic scenes pay off, making the audience care for the characters

CONS

Doesn’t go into its themes deep enough

The pacing can drag quite a bit

A few action scenes are badly lit, making it hard to see

SCORE: 7/10

Readers in Australia want to watch the film? Book tickets for it at Japanese Film Festival 2015! Press the logo below for more details!

Cast: Junichi Okada, Nana Eikura, Kei Tanaka, Sota Fukushi, Tao Tsuchiya, Tori Matsuzaka, Chiaki Kuriyama, Aoi Nakamura, Naomi Nishida, Jun Hashimoto, Koji Ishizaka
Director: Shinsuke Sato
Screenwriters: Akiko Nogi (based on the light novel “Toshokan Senso” by Hiro Arikawa)

Movie Review – Prophecy (Japanese Film Festival 2015)

EXPECTATIONS: A thriller/drama similar to the vein of “The Snow White Murder Case”.

REVIEW: Yoshihiro Nakamura is a filmmaker that always surprises me. The stories he tells are never what they seem to be on the surface and his attention to character always amazes me. I remember watching my first Yoshihiro Nakamura film, Golden Slumber (2010), thinking that it was going to be a “man-on-the-run” film, similar to The Fugitive (1994) or The Bourne Identity (2002). But it turned out to be so much more, with many elements of nostalgia, lost love, friendship, distinctively human characters and a heartwarming climax that I never thought would be possible for a genre such as this. But next I watched Fish Story (2009), thinking that it was a comedy, but again, it turned to be so much more, with elements of thriller elements, sci-fi touches, scenes of martial arts and fantastic characters. After the two films, I realized that Nakamura is fantastic at mixing genres to his own style and his focus on character really gives his films punch. And after watching his earlier film, The Snow White Murder Case (2014), I knew that his films had themes that resonate to the audience, like in the latter, it references the evils of social media, enduring friendships and celebrity fandom. Now comes Prophecy, a thriller that is based on a manga, which is a first for Nakamura (most of his films are based on novels). Does the film still retain his distinct filmmaking style or does it suffer the problem of all manga adaptations that comes from condensing vast source material?

Toma Ikuta stars as “The Newspaper Man” or “Gates”, in reference to Microsoft creator Bill Gates, an online terrorist leader who starts a major crime wave, involving violent acts meant to punish and denigrate those who prey on the weak. After each attack, he posts videos of his crimes on the Internet in order to expose the people of their wrongdoings. It catches the attention of Inspector Eriko Yoshino (Erika Toda), a cyber-crime police detective, who starts an investigation that culminates into a thrilling cat-and-mouse chase.

Reading the synopsis, it seems to be a typical chase thriller similar to films like Law-Abiding Citizen (2009) or Se7en (1995), but like all Nakamura films, it ends up being a lot more. There are some thrills to be had in Prophecy, but they are more subversive than you think. For example, there is a chase scene between Gates and Yoshino through the neighbourhood streets, with fast-paced music accompanying the action, but in a strange move, the music stops completely yet the chase is still going. Oddly enough, it pays off in an unexpected way that, without revealing anything, just goes to show that Nakamura handles character extremely well. But for those who are looking for actual thrills and all the tropes that are associated with a thriller would probably leave disappointed.

Like Nakamura’s other films, there are many themes that add to the message of the film, and one theme that is also present in The Show White Murder Case (2014) is the use of social media. In Prophecy, it is used by Japanese society as a modern scales of justice to convey whether The Newspaper Man’s actions are defined as right or wrong. Leading to another theme, it is revealed that it is society itself that makes The Newspaper Man the way he is and the wrongdoers who they are so what is it about society that corrupts people so? Or is it that the people themselves are weak-willed that they are not self-sufficient enough to succeed on their own will? It is in the social commentary in the film that provides the dramatic backbone that makes the storytelling so immersive. Everything from unemployment, workplace bullying, poverty and suicide are integrated into the story with subtlety and it engenders sympathy towards the characters.

Speaking of the characters, the movie would not have been as effective if it weren’t for the acting. Toma Ikuta, whom I assumed was just an idol cashing in on acting, has impressed me lately with his range from the action-thriller Brain Man (2013) to the wacky yakuza comedy The Mole Song (2014) and in Prophecy, he continues his winning streak. Portraying his character’s vulnerabilities in the earlier stages of the film as well as his anger in the later stages, Ikuta succeeds in making you care about Gates. As for Erika Toda, she has come a long way since her role as Misa Amane in Death Note (2006). She was very awkward and overly cutesy on-screen and it carried over to other films as well, but in recent years, as well as in Prophecy, she seems more confident, which was crucial in portraying her character. Not once did her awkwardness or her cutesy type of acting come into play, nor did she seem petulant or acting overly tough to seem superior, she portrays Inspector Yoshino as a great foil to Gates. In the later stages of the film, her character backstory is gradually revealed and it is a compelling and poignant moment to witness and it develops the unspoken relationship between herself and Gates well, even if it is at a visually murky distance.

The supporting roles are small and archetypal, but the actors give more life than the script provides. Yoshiyoshi Arakawa is amusing as Metabol (short for metabolic) while Ryohei Suzuki is charismatic as the world-weary, good-natured Kansai who helps Gates when he is down on his luck. Gaku Hamada, a frequent collaborator of Nakamura, does well as the shy Nobita (a reference to Doraemon) that he could’ve played him in his sleep. Kohei Fukuyama elicits plenty of sympathy as the Filipino refugee who really is the heart of the group of workers that Gates befriends.

Despite the film’s sprawling storytelling, it does have some snags, especially in the third act. There are a few plot twists too many and it makes the ending overlong, diluting the emotional and thematic impact quite a bit. What is also lacking is Nakamura’s use of quirky humour that was prominent in his earlier films. Although there is some present (like during an interrogation between Yoshino and a victim of Gates), the film could use some more to offset the depressing nature of the story a bit. The postscript is also a bit corny, but I have to admit, I was caught up by it since I really cared about the characters. A similar case goes for the climax, which can be polarizing for audiences in terms of the intentions of Gates.

Overall, I thought Prophecy was a great watch that still shows that Yoshihiro Nakamura is a brilliant storyteller and I can’t wait for his next film project.

Quickie Review

PROS

Nakamura’s brilliant storytelling pays off in fantastically cathartic ways

The acting is great from all around

Plenty of food-for-thought in terms of the story’s themes

CONS

Overlong running time

Those expecting actual thrills will be disappointed

SCORE: 8/10

Readers in Australia want to watch the film? Book tickets for it at Japanese Film Festival 2015! Press the logo below for more details!

Cast: Toma Ikuta, Erika Toda, Ryohei Suzuki, Gaku Hamada, Yoshiyoshi Arakawa
Director: Yoshihiro Nakamura
Screenwriter: Tamio Hayashi, based on the manga by Tetsuya Tsutsui

Movie Review – Princess Jellyfish (Japanese Film Festival 2015)

EXPECTATIONS: An insufferable experience of too much whimsy and too much overacting.

REVIEW: I’m not usually a fan of romantic comedies, especially the increasingly formulaic ones coming out of Hollywood. So when I hear of romantic comedies revolving around worlds of fantasy and/or whimsy, I’m even more skeptical. There are many films that work like The Princess Bride, Stardust, Ghost and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World but when those types of films fail, they fail miserably. Films like the annoying Alex and Emma, the horrifically terrible Safe Haven and the excessive Mood Indigo (although I like it) are insufferable to many so when I started to watch Princess Jellyfish, I was nervous thinking that I would hate it. And watching the trailer did nothing to sway my expectations. So what did I really think of Princess Jellyfish? Does it exceed my expectations? Does it transcend from the abysmal norm of the romantic comedy?

Rena Nounen is the titular character, Tsukimi Kirishima, a female otaku, meaning a person with incredibly obsessive interests to the point that it is detrimental to her social and romantic life. And her interests happen to be about jellyfish. She’s also an aspiring manga artist who just hangs around at home, which happens to be a boarding house filled with many girls who are incredibly similar to Tsukimi. Although, she goes out on occasion to buy jellyfish, one day, she shows some backbone when arguing with a pet store owner about the environments jellyfish should live in. During said argument, a woman butts in and supports her, but it is later revealed that he is a man, Kuranosuke Koibuchi (Masaki Suda), who happens to be the son of the incredibly pushy mayor (Sei Hiraizumi). Kuranosuke develops an interest in Tsukimi and starts hanging out with her at her place and the two make a deal. She helps him keep his secret and he will help her with her appearance. Kuranosuke’s father then sets off the plot about the boarding house being scheduled for destruction from a building developer and her laughably bitchy aide (Nana Katase), while Tsukimi’s physical change sets off a love triangle as her appearance also catches the interest of Kuranosuke’s half-brother, Shu (Hiroki Hasegawa), who may be just as shy as Tsukimi. Can Tsukimi find her one true love to finally become a supposed princess as well as save her home from being destroyed?

As you may have guessed, the plot is incredibly silly and the characters could only come from a manga. So the only way the audience can really get into the film is to find something that is relatable and grounded to hold on to. Fortunately, the two leads are well-portrayed, likable and thankfully, genuine. Rena Nounen and Masaki Suda have great chemistry together as friends as well as lovers as their personalities mesh together like peanut butter and jelly(fish?). But they also work individually, particularly Nounen. Her character could have easily been incredibly annoying in her precociousness, and she is at times, but Nounen provides a perfect balance between obliviousness and cuteness that makes her quite charming. It’s just a shame that when she changes her appearance, she comes off as a little boring. It’s more the fault of the script and it happens in other romantic comedies as well like She’s All That or the Chinese sci-fi/fantasy film A Chinese Tall Story. Suda is also good as Kuranosuke, who plays his personalities of puppy love, determination and hesitance (of his father) quite well, and quite frankly, he’s probably the best thing in the movie.

As for the supporting cast, the women of the house are all amusing in their own ways like Rina Ohta as Mayaya, and it was a hoot to see Chizuru Ikewaki, last appearing in the hard-hitting drama The Light Shines Over There, being unrecognizable with an Afro as Banba. Another standout is Nana Katase as Shoko. Her portrayal of bitchiness and downright cruelty is hilarious to watch and it is perfectly obvious that she’s having a lot of fun in the role, and the same goes for Hayami Mokomichi as Yoshio, the chauffeur of the Koibuchi family. Unfortunately, the actor who gets the short end of the stick is Hiroki Hasegawa. Although he has a great seduction scene with Katase, he gets stuck with an underwritten and downright boring role as the timid, kind third wheel and he sinks along with it. Other than Hasegawa, the cast are given good roles to play with and make the most of them.

Another thing I give the film credit for is the costume design and cinematography. Recently, Japanese films have adopted a washed-out look that may give verisimilitude but most of the time it makes the film look cheap. But in the case of Princess Jellyfish, the film looks bubbly and warm and the costumes are very enjoyable to look at, whether it is homely clothing or strikingly bold colourful yukata. The pacing is frenetic at times, but it makes the jokes more enjoyably to take since it doesn’t rely on forcing punchlines on the audience. Although there are some jokes that get repetitive at times, like how Tsukimi gets literally “petrified”. The pacing is also detrimental to the film because of the film’s relentless on whimsy, it can become tiring by the film’s end. It doesn’t help that the film is over 2 hours long, which is too long for any romantic comedy. It may come from the fact that this film is adapted from a source material that spans through many volumes of manga. It gives the film a rushed feel as it leaves some characters underdeveloped (like the character of Shu), but the filmmakers want to cram everything to appease fans.

It’s a double-sword approach that adaptations still need to work on to this day, but Princess Jellyfish succeeds on that front because it works on its own levels. The characters are likable and mostly humane, the film looks and sounds great and the story, while completely silly, is executed without a sense of irony that it makes it easier for the audience to get into. It’s like Amelie meets The Castle in Japan.

Quickie Review

PROS

The cast give the roles all their worth

The film has a distinct and colorful look that conveys the manga feel

The story is executed amusingly straight, with plenty of fun jokes

CONS

Overlong running time

The pacing is sometimes to relentless as it shows too much whimsy and fantasy for one to take

The story feels rushed at times

SCORE: 7/10

Readers in Australia want to watch the film? Book tickets for it at Japanese Film Festival 2015! Press the logo below for more details!

Cast: Rena Nounen, Masaki Suda, Hiroki Hasegawa, Chizuru Ikewaki, Rina Ohta, Azusa Babazono, Tomoe Shinohara, Nana Katase, Mokomichi Hayami, Sei Hiraizumi, Tomoya Nakamura, Kenta Uchino
Director: Yasuhiro Kawamura
Screenwriter: Akiko Hagishimura (manga), Toshiya Ono

Movie Review – Love and Peace (Japanese Film Festival 2015)

EXPECTATIONS: Absolutely no idea. Which is what every Sion Sono film should elicit. Feelings of obliviousness and curiosity.

REVIEW: Believe it or not, this is apparently one of SIX films Sion Sono has planned for release this year alone. And one of them is still not disclosed yet. And I’ve only seen two of them! I remember viewing my first Sion Sono film (Suicide Club) and it was one hell of an experience. The blood and gore, the pitch-black satire, the hyper-realistic world, the dark tone in contrast to the surreal J-Pop musical interludes, it was pure euphoria. I’ve been following his work ever since and now Sono is on his way of surpassing Takashi Miike to become Japan’s fully-fledged maverick filmmaker. His films have ranged from a wide array of genres (often mixing them all at once) and, like Miike, is more popular overseas than in his native country. And like I said before, he has SIX films in 2015. One of them is a teen sex comedy, one of them is a gangster crime film, one of them is an arthouse sci-fi drama, one of them is a teen horror film, one of them has not been disclosed yet and the one I’m reviewing is a family film that just happens to have rock’n’roll, kaiju, cute puppets and city-wide destruction. This film is Love and Peace. A film I never would have expected from Sion Sono and I gotta say, it was a terrific surprise.

Hiroki Hasegawa stars as Ryoichi, a timid salaryman at a musical parts company, who dreams of being a rockstar. He constantly gets bullied at work by everyone except for Yuko (Kumiko Aso), a woman he has a crush on. To pass through the dull ennui and everyday minutiae of his life, he breaks routine, buys a baby turtle and names it Pikadon, which is amusingly defined as a nuclear disaster. Bonding with Pikadon as a friend as well as an outlet of his frustrations, dreams and wants (using a homemade board game), he decides to bring Pikadon to work, but Pikadon shows itself to the entire staff and Ryoichi gets ridiculed much harsher than usual. Having enough of this abuse, he lets his anger out on Pikadon but in a tragic fashion, he accidentally flushes it down the toilet, which leads it in the sewer. As Ryoichi cries over the loss of his one true friend, Pikadon discovers something in the sewer after being brought in by a homeless man (Toshiyuki Nishida) that can only be described as magical; so magical that it will change the lives of Ryoichi and everyone else in Japan forever.

There’s much more I can go through with the synopsis, but the film is best left unspoiled. But what I can tell you that this film is very reminiscent of director Tim Burton’s work and seeing it come to life was a pure delight. Unfortunately the film does not start that well. The overacting from the cast to the assaultive editing and meandering storytelling makes you wonder what the point of the film is, but once the film introduces Pikadon, the film improves immensely. The film doesn’t even try to be realistic to the point that that the fantasy world Sono is trying to portray is achieved with very little CGI and intentionally low-fi practical effects. Characters in the sewer ranging from discarded pets and toys (aside from Nishida) are all puppetry (with strings shown) and they are all adorable to look at and lovable, from the tragic doll Maria (voiced by Shoko Nakagawa) who was left behind by her infant owner; to a smart-aleck cat Sulky (voiced by Shinji Miyadai) who despises humans and an antique toy robot, PC-300 (voiced by Gen Hoshino), unaware of the world outside the sewers. The musical score is also reminiscent of Danny Elfman’s scores from Tim Burton films, although Sono does reuse musical tracks from his previous films like Love Exposure and Himizu. He also uses excerpts of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (the same excerpts used in A Clockwork Orange), which add to the maniacal world. Oh, did I mention Pikadon itself? I can say, without doubt, that this is the cutest turtle ever portrayed on film. The huge eyes, the way it walks and the fantastic vocals from Ikue Otani (who voices Pikachu in the Pokemon series) just engenders sympathy from the audience so quickly, it’s irresistible.

As for many of Sono’s films, there is a bit of social commentary within the proceedings, and in the case of Love and Peace, it is the theme of consumerism. All the toys and animals were discarded and it is a commentary about what the Japanese people take for granted and how much they are spoiled with new trends of shopping. Sono also adds satirical barbs around the music industry and celebrity stardom that surprisingly fits into the movie well, with its terms around Ryoichi’s character development and what it means for celebrity fans to show love instead of excessive fandom.

As for the human characters, they all give good performances. Hiroki Hasegawa, who is on a roll with his versatility lately (hyperactive film director in Why Don’t You Play in Hell, vocal teacher in Lady Maiko, warrior soldier in Attack on Titan films, suitor in Princess Jellyfish) and his role as Ryoichi is played really well and I was surprised at how believable he was a rockstar. His singing skills are great and the songs themselves (particularly the title song) are incredibly catchy. There’s even a song that is a reference to Why Don’t You Play in Hell that had me laughing. The character growth from timid salaryman to egotistical rockstar is sometimes hard to watch due to how selfish Ryoichi can be, yet it is easy to believe and to sympathize and it is a testament to Hasegawa. Toshiyuki Nishida, whom I know from the TV series Monkey, gives a great performance as Pa, the homeless man who lives in the sewer. He shows the perfect balance of tenderness and grumpiness to become endearing and once a reveal happens later in the film, it will surprise you at first, but then you realize it fits perfectly with his character, thanks to Nishida’s performance. The only unfortunate liability in the cast is Kumiko Aso. There is no fault in her performance itself as she does soulful and pathetic quite well (it was amusing to see her wear such homely clothes), but her role is incredibly underwritten that it hinders the emotional climax quite a bit.

Speaking of the climax, the last 20 minutes are spectacular to behold. Pikadon takes center stage of the film (and in the film, literally) and the whole city is awestruck by it despite “the destruction spread by its love”. The way it calls back to Ryoichi with his frustrations and dreams is genius in its comedic effect as well as its emotional catharsis. Aside from its flaws, Love and Peace is a film I never thought Sono would make, but not only I’m glad that he did, but I hope he does more films like this.

Quickie Review

PROS

The cast give great performances

The special effects exude magic and wonder to the story

Nice integration of social commentary and satire into the main story

The songs are catchy and memorable

CONS

The film does not start well

Kumiko Aso is quite underused

Those expecting Sion Sono’s edgy touch will be disappointed

SCORE: 8/10 (Definitely Sion Sono’s most light-hearted and heartwarming film he’s ever made)

Readers in Australia want to watch the film? Book tickets for it at Japanese Film Festival 2015! Press the logo below for more details!

Cast: Hiroki Hasegawa, Kumiko Aso, Toshiyuki Nishida, Kiyohiko Shibukawa, Eita Okuno, Makita Sports, Motoki Fukami, Toru Tezuka, Izumi, Soichiro Tahara, Hakase Suidobashi, Shinji Miyadai, Kenichiro Mogi, Daisuke Tsuda, Erina Mano, Megumi Kagurazaka, Miyuki Matsuda, Aki Hiraoka, Shoko Nakagawa
Director: Sion Sono
Screenwriter: Sion Sono