Movie Review – Birds Without Names

她不知道名字的那些鸟儿BD高清中字

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?

IMG_5300

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.

Birds-Without-Names-3

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.

Birds-Without-Names-2

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.

Birds-Without-Names-4

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

Advertisements

Movie Review – The Top Secret: Murder in Mind (Japanese Film Festival 2016)

1860141_1

EXPECTATIONS: An intriguing sci-fi mystery that overstays its welcome.

REVIEW: Director Keishi Otomo is perhaps well-known in the West as the director of the acclaimed Rurouni Kenshin trilogy. And while I enjoyed the majority of the trilogy (the end was quite anti-climactic in my opinion), his stand-alone works were quite disappointing.

The sci-fi thriller Platinum Data had a laughable story with inconsistent acting and The Vulture was a sloppily extended TV episode, with all the trimmings. So when I heard that Otomo is doing another sci-fi thriller, I was hesitant. But the intriguing premise and the capable cast were too good to pass up. Will the film upend my low expectations?

movie_016044_192793

Ikko Aoki (Masaki Okada) is a young, talented, rookie crime investigator who is recognized for his skills by the distant and cold Tsuyoshi Maki (Toma Ikuta), the head of Department Nine, a special unit of the Metropolitan Police. What makes the department special is its use of nanotechnology, monitored and implemented by Yukio Miyoshi (Chiaki Kuriyama), to extract memories from the dead.

Never as clear-cut as it is claimed to be, it has its consequences like strong psychological harm to those who undergo the procedure; as well as the ethical complications. Aoki’s first case is to probe into the mind of a man who murdered his entire family. The memories of the man could hold the key to the location of his missing daughter who was absent from the murders but what Aoki discovers is that something more sinister and more evil is out there.

movie_016044_192801

The Top Secret: Murder in Mind, while interesting at times, is unfortunately another disappointing film for director Otomo. To start off, the film certainly looks great and makes the most out of its budget. The production values like its cinematography and the musical score give the film a haunting vibe that all bets are off with the fates of the characters and it works really well.

What is also effective and surprising is Otomo’s lack of restraint towards the execution of violence. The first-person POV’s that the film utilizes is really effective, as it allows the audience the understand the high stakes of the plot as well as giving them a strong sense of chilling foreboding.

movie_016044_192792

The actors try their best with the characters they got and some of them do quite well. Masaki Okada, who hasn’t really impressed me with his acting, is quite good as Aoki; conveying the naivety and commitment of his character convincingly. Toma Ikuta still continues his acting streak after The Mole Song, Prophecy and The Brain Man, as he steals the show as Maki. Ikuta manages to exude a magnetic, yet imposing presence despite his laughable look and make-up.

Nao Omori (Ichi the Killer) has a good role as the down-on-his-luck cop but the film does not give him enough opportunities to him. Lily Franky does really well in a small role as a depraved psychiatrist while Tori Matsuzaka also has a striking and integral cameo.

movie_016044_192791

Like in Otomo’s previous films, the female roles usually get the short end of the stick and unfortunately, that trend continues. Chiaki Kuriyama, who is extremely talented in roles like Exte – Hair Extensions, Kill Bill and others, is utterly wasted as the brain surgeon/former love interest to one of the characters.

Lisa Oda’s performance is wildly inconsistent as she appears to be restrained under the cliched role she inhabits; as well as her unrefined acting chops. She has solid presence and improves over the course of the film, but some of her line delivery does appear annoyingly petulant at times, when it should have more oomph into it.

movie_016044_192799

But what really lets the film down is the storytelling and the script. Mixing too many plot-lines (and not well, I might add), the film ends up being a bit of a mess. The main plot, which is solving the case of the missing daughter/the murders is often interrupted (when it should be smoothly integrated) by another plot-line involving Maki’s tortured past, which involves a dead partner and survivor’s guilt.

It also doesn’t help that it develops potentially compelling themes, like the effects of exposure to on-screen violence and the blurred line between imagination and reality; but ends up being discarded without further insight. Which is quite strange, considering the film’s extended running time. Even some of the motivations of the characters are thrown to the wayside soon after they are mentioned (like Aoki’s motivation for taking the case).

movie_016044_192804

The Top Secret: Murder in Mind could have been a great thriller, due to its interesting premise, production values and nice touches the director implements. But the unfocused script, the extended running time and the inconsistent characterizations/acting lets it down to the point that it becomes another missed opportunity for Keishi Otomo.

movie_016044_192798

Quickie Review

PROS

Some good performances

Surprising lack of restraint towards violence

Intriguing premise

Top-notch production values

CONS

Overlong running time

Inconsistent characterizations

Messy storytelling

Underused supporting cast

SCORE: 6/10

Readers in Australia want to watch the film? Book tickets for it at Japanese Film Festival 2016! Press the logo below for more details!

Cast: Toma Ikuta, Masaki Okada, Koji Kikkawa, Tori Matsuzaka, Chiaki Kuriyama, Lisa Oda, Lily Franky, Kippei Shiina, Nao Omori
Director: Keishi Otomo
Screenwriters: Izumi Takahashi, Keishi Otomo, Lee Sork Jun, Kim Sun Mee; original story by Reiko Shimizu

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)