Movie Review – Birds Without Names

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EXPECTATIONS: A compelling dramatic mystery filled with grit. And also, YU AOI!!!!!!!!

REVIEW: Director Kazuya Shiraishi is a filmmaker that has gone of a bit a rise these past few years. Since his breakout hit with the 2013 crime drama The Devil’s Path, from 2016, he’s made five films and they have all revolved or worked alongside on one specific type of genre: the crime film.

Whether he makes a comedy like Twisted Justice, or an erotic drama like Dawn of the Felines, or in the case of this review, a romantic drama, Shiraishi is bound to add a certain amount of grit to make his work stand out.

And now we have Birds Without Names, a romantic drama that revolves around a murder mystery based on a novel by Mahokaru Numata, with a fantastic cast and actress extraordinaire Yu Aoi in the lead role. Will the film stand out and become another stellar entry into Shiraishi’s filmography?

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Yu Aoi stars as the 33-year-old Towako, a woman who has been scrounging off room and board off her live-in-boyfriend, Jinji (Sadao Abe). Jinji is a timid 48-year-old construction worker who keeps Towako fed and clothed while basically not being the boyfriend of the year due to his lack of cleanliness and at one point in the film, his lack of finesse on how to use the toilet.

Towako doesn’t give really care about Jinji, to the point where she verbally abuses him repeatedly. Nevertheless, she needs him to survive. Jinji is submissive and endures the humiliation to keep Towako, while Towako still pines for her ex-lover Shunichi (Yutaka Takenouchi), who broke up with her 8 years ago in a monstrously ugly fashion.

Towako has a weakness for sophisticated looking men, and when Jinji is not around, she sneaks off to love hotels with her current lover, Makoto (Tori Matsuzaka), a married man, who is of course in a designer suit. All of these relationships will coalesce when it is reported to Towako that Shunichi has gone missing.

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Does the film live up to Shiraishi’s stellar filmography? Not only does it accomplish that feat, it might actually be his best film yet. Birds Without Names is based on a novel of the same name by Mahokaru Numata, the famous female author who specializes in crime stories that feature manipulative men, brutal women and complicated relationships; basically the dark side of human nature.

Which makes it the perfect source material for Shiraishi to adapt and expand his directorial range. To manage a story like this, a good director would apply an understated approach to the storytelling and thankfully, Shiraishi is up to the task. Learning from his mistakes with his heavy-handed storytelling in The Devil’s Path, he manages to tell the story at a measured pace which effectively brings out a gradual sense of tension; by ably showing reliance on visual storytelling (for the most part) that compels and most of all, being able to milk great performances out of the committed cast.

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Yu Aoi gives one of the best performances of her career as Towako, a depressed and gradually unstable woman who has not moved on from her past boyfriend, who had treated her monstrously. She never tries to make her character sympathetic and delves into the poisonous flaws of her character with aplomb. There’s a point in the film where she really looks like she is about to burst with emotions and it’s a wonder to behold.

Sadao Abe is equally as good, playing a character who’s hangdog behaviour and naivety make him become the glue of the film that holds it together. He may be the most sympathetic character by default, but he also does irredeemable actions that make him flawed, just like Towako. The supporting cast are no slouches, with Yutaka Takenouchi lending credibility and nuance to an incredibly despicable character and Tori Matsuzaka who capably shows shades of his character being more than what his facade conveys.

As for the flaws, there is a through-line of casual misogyny that will definitely put off some viewers. Especially in the case of Towako’s behaviour, where she basically allows the bad behaviour of the male characters to happen and even gets in on it to harm other women i.e. Shunichi’s wife.

But there is the ending to consider, which is quite touching and compelling to the point where it will make audiences re-evaluate what they thought of the characters prior to the climax.

Overall, Birds Without Names is a great piece of work from Kazuya Shiraishi, that not only succeeds as a great romantic drama but as an actors showcase for all involved, especially Yu Aoi.

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Quickie Review

PROS

The cast all give fantastic performances, with a career-best from Yu Aoi

Measured, nuanced storytelling

Never shies away nor pulls any punches from the dark nature of the story

CONS

Moments of misogyny

Polarizing ending

SCORE: 8/10

Cast: Yu Aoi, Sadao Abe, Tori Matsuzaka, Yutaka Takenouchi, Eri Murakawa, Masaaki Akahori, Muck Akazawa, Shu Nakajima
Director: Kazuya Shiraishi
Screenwriters: Taeko Asano, based on the novel of the same name by Mahokaru Numata

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Movie Review – The Magnificent Nine (JAPAN CUTS 2016)

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EXPECTATIONS: A riotous comedy with a lot more character and emotional resonance than expected.

REVIEW: The ensemble film trope has always been a favourite of mine and has been a fantastic staple for films, ever since the first ensemble action film; 1954’s action masterpiece Seven Samurai. With many opportunities to gather up an all-star cast, a story involving teamwork that everyone can relate to, a lively vibe enhanced by scenes of camaraderie; films with this much potential can be a hell of a lot of fun to watch. We also have director Yoshihiro Nakamura, famous for his character-led storytelling and his versatility with thrillers, horrors, dramas and comedies; sometimes happening all at once. So when I heard that he was doing an ensemble comedy with an all-star cast with the likes of Sadao Abe, Eita, Yuko Takeuchi and others, I was psyched. Will the film live up to its title or will it fail magnificently?

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Set in 18th century Japan, the residents of a town, Yoshioka, are living in hard times, due to the state of poverty and the high expenses of land taxes and logistics. Not to mention that the Lord Date is financially strapped. But an ingeniously simple idea from a simple tea grower (Eita) gets everyone talking that could bring the whole town out of their misfortunes. Nine of the wealthiest (including Sadao Abe, Satoshi Tsumabaki and others) of the town will pool all of their resources to sell and anonymously loan their earnings to their Lord, therefore collecting the interest earned and distribute it to the townspeople. That is of course unless they caught and the price for that is death by beheading. So yeah, no big deal.

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So what did I think of this film? Unfortunately, this was a massive disappointment on almost every level. Never have I thought to see a comedy about an inspirational true story be so underwhelming. The story itself had so much potential, but it never gets realized and some of the major flaws are the pacing and the plot. The running time of the film is 129 minutes, which is way too long for a story like this already, but with the plot involving 80% of the film involving people essentially begging people to give money, it drags for an eternity to actually gets to its goal.

What makes it worse is that there are so many characters to make track of, making the film needlessly convoluted. The majority of them do not have enough of a personality to make them stand out, making them interchangeable from each other. The tone of the film is also confusing, as if Nakamura wasn’t sure to make this film a comedy or a drama. The trailer of the film certainly markets the film as a comedy, but apart from the first five minutes and a certain actor’s performance, I just didn’t see much of an attempt to make this film funny. I struggled to follow the plot and even remember the character’s names, and what’s worse is that I just didn’t care. When the film reaches its ending, I did feel some kind of relief but I’m sure that it was from the fact that it ended, rather than the journey of the characters.

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The actors try valiantly to stand out, but they fail to add much life their cardboard cutouts. Sadao Abe does make his downtrodden character quite sympathetic while Eita does OK with his character, showing a youthful side as well as an authoritative side that is well-realized. The rest of the supporting cast don’t make much of an impression, with the big exception of Yuko Takeuchi, who is a delight in every second of her screen-time. Adding some mirth and vitality to the proceedings, Takeuchi woke me up every time I saw her, and I wished she was in the movie more often.

The film is well made though, with production designs and the cinematography evoking the time period really well. I can’t really say the same about the music, which is annoyingly repetitive, especially during scenes when plans upon plans are sketched out by the characters.

An experience of boredom in a film is something I can’t forgive, and this film is riddled with it. This is one of Nakamura’s films coming out in 2016. The other is The Inerasable, a horror/thriller starring Yuko Takeuchi as the lead and I hope that it will compensate for this letdown.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Some good acting (particularly Yuko Takeuchi)

Good production values

CONS

The story is dreadfully boring

Tonal issues

Too many underdeveloped and interchangeable characters

The plot is needlessly convoluted

Possible mis-marketing

SCORE: 4/10

Cast: Sadao Abe, Eita, Satoshi Tsumabuki, Yuko Takeuchi , Ryuhei Matsuda, Yuzuru Hanyu, Karen Iwata, Maiko Yamamoto, Tsutomu Yamazaki
Director: Yoshihiro Nakamura
Screenwriters: Yoshihiro Nakamura, Kenichi Suzuki, Based on the novel “Mushi no Nihonjin” by Michifumi Isoda

Movie Review – A Farewell to Jinu

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EXPECTATIONS: A off-kilter comedy with a heartwarming side. Plus, FUMI NIKAIDO!

REVIEW: Suzuki Matsuo is a very talented man that not only is he a film director, but he is also a director of theater, novelist, actor and even a screenwriter. But unfortunately, I can only judge him from his work on film. His previous films (consisting only of three) were strikingly unconventional pieces of work (the energetically bizarre romantic comedy Otakus in Love; and the compellingly schizophrenic Welcome to the Quiet Room) and I hoped that A Farewell to Jinu (Jinu means money) would be like the latter, especially with the talented cast on display. Fortunately, it is exactly what people would expect of Matsuo’s work in terms of a bizarre premise, weird yet hilarious characters and a spirited sense of humour. But unfortunately, it still has his weaknesses on display, which is a bit of a disappointment.

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The slice-of-life (or to be accurate, hysteria) story begins with Ryuhei Matsuda as Takeharu, a bank clerk who has a strange allergy to money due to a traumatic incident at the bank. Because of his allergy, he decides to move to a village called Kamuroba, Tokyo, living in a shack. He is welcomed with open arms due to his youthful looks, considering the town is mostly populated with pensioners. The characters consist of Yosaburo (the manic Sadao Abe), the mayor of Kamuroba, his wife Akiko (the sweet Takako Matsu), teenager Aoba (the sassy Fumi Nikaido), god Nakanussan (the imposing Toshiyuki Nishida who really plays a god) and many others.  Insisting that he will work for food instead of money, he works at Akiko’s grocery store. Soon, the town learns of Takeharu’s allergy and begin to see him in a different light. To make matters worse, the town also learns that Takeharu is quite wealthy (with 6 million yen, approximating around $50000 US), so Aoba, who is working alongside a gangster with laughably bad fashion and style (the amusing YosiYosi Arakawa), tries to seduce the money out of him. From there, Takeharu goes on a wild ride all to avoid his fear. Will be run away or will he fight back?

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First off, let’s talk about the bad. In all of Matsuo’s films, there is a major flaw that brings the quality down, which is the storytelling. The majority of the film feels like a bunch of skits joined together to make a feature-length film and it shows. Very little of the storytelling feels organic and it can be jarring or even overbearing at times. Speaking of overbearing, the film contains too many subplots that it drags the running time to 2 hours, which is not really suitable for a comedy. Plus, the subplots are so plentiful; it threatens to overcome the character of Takeharu of his leading man status (similar to the main character of The Raid 2). It doesn’t help that the tone of the film changes in the second half of the film, which becomes a bit too serious, losing some of the film’s humour.

But despite of all those flaws, A Farewell to Jinu is still an entertaining ride, thanks to its surrealistic sense of humour, the wonderfully game cast/characters and some surprising pathos. How can you not be the least bit amused when you discover a premise about a man who becomes allergic to money? Working with director Matsuo for the second time, Ryuhei Matsuda puts his acting skills to good use as Takehara. In other words, his understated acting provides giggles and surprising sympathy to the role, who could have easily been seen as a bit of a dull dolt. The physical comedy that Matsuda pulls off is very funny, considering he’s the comedic straight man out of the cast. Sadao Abe handles his role really well, especially when his character reveals his true side. Takako Matsu plays the nice wife role effectively although she could’ve played the role in her sleep and Fumi Nikaido is sexy and funny as Aoba, who has an odd relationship with Takehara that is more like double-crossers than love interests. But the biggest standout is Toshiyuki Nishida (who I’ve nostalgically enjoyed in the TV series, Monkey), whose character is hilariously worshiped by the townspeople as a god. Even the small supporting roles are ably played, with Hairi Katagiri and YosiYosi Arakawa standing out with their peculiar characters.

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The humour of the film is delivered from many types, from the dialogue (a character’s crack about Hairi Katagiri’s appearance had me laughing), the physical (Matsuda’s allergy bouts are hilarious) to raunchy (thanks to Fumi Nikaido) the meta (director Koki Mitani gets referenced) or just plain strange (Aoba’s “serious” injury), but surprisingly, not only are the gags are very funny, but they are all organic to the situation at hand, if not to the actual story. But from such a ridiculous premise, there are some surprising moments that ring true to the audience, particularly Japanese viewers. It’s no secret that Japan has gone through tough times over the years like the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, (which is often reference in films like Himizu and The Land of Hope), but in A Farewell to Jinu, there is a positive message about the use of money in the world that rings true and is delivered with enough subtlety, without coming off as didactic or cheap. And despite the flaws in the storytelling and the many subplots, the ending, while a bit overlong, does complete all the story threads in a satisfying fashion, especially when it comes to the character of Nakanussan.

A Farewell to Jinu is a weird yet highly amusing comedy that is, disappointingly, on the same level as Matsuo’s previous films, but the talented cast, the sense of humour and the premise makes the film worth watching.

Quickie Review

PROS

The cast all give great performances

The film’s sense of humour brings lots of laughs

Some surprising elements

CONS

Inconsistent storytelling

Overlong running time

Changes in tone hinder the film’s humour

SCORE: 7/10

Cast: Ryuhei Matsuda, Sadao Abe, Takako Matsu, Fumi Nikaido, Toshiyuki Nishida, Hairi Katagiri, YoshiYoshi Arakawa, Suzuki Matsuo
Director: Suzuki Matsuo
Screenwriter: Suzuki Matsuo, based on the manga by Mikio Igarashi