Video roundup: Japan (plus one from China)

by Dave Maier

I am a big fan of Japanese cinema, and in the past year I've seen some really great stuff. These are neither the most famous nor the most obscure films out there, just some I saw and liked. I generally try to avoid spoilers, plus my memory of a couple of these films is a ltttle foggy, so I will be light on plot details here. Many of these films are available through the Criterion Collection, and there are trailers there, so check 'em out.

House Jigoku Kuronekobox

Let's start with the horror. Not “J-Horror”, exactly, which term I associate more with films like Ringu (Ring) and Ju-on (The Grudge) and their descendants. First we have:

House (Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1977)

I expected this one to be weird, and it certainly is, but not in the way I thought. According to Chuck Stephens,

What Toho Studios was hoping for when it hired Obayashi [who had been in advertising for several years at the time] was a homegrown Jaws: a locally produced summer movie roller coaster sufficiently thrill-chocked to at least partially deflect the ongoing onslaught of Tokyo-box-office-topping New Hollywood hits from Messrs. Spielberg and Lucas—something fast and loud, with tons of fun packed between screams.

What they got was “a modern masterpiece of le cinéma du WTF?! […] a film that must be seen to be believed, and then seen again to believe that you really did see what you think you saw.” It's too dizzying to be as fun as it relentlessly presents itself as being, but for some of you (you know who you are), a must-see, if only for the scene where Melody, the musician among the seven appropriately named teen houseguests, is devoured by a grand piano.

Jigoku (Nobuo Nakagawa, 1960)

Jigoku means “Hell”, and here the term is meant literally (unlike in films like L'Enfer or, I don't know, Tarnation). In fact a good deal of the action takes place there. I saw this at about the same time as House, and the goofiness of that makes a striking contrast with the darkness of this. It's unrelentingly condemning – unlike in House, all of its characters richly deserve their horrible fates – but also unrelentingly watchable. Here's Chuck Stephens again:

Fusing the goriest details of thirteenth-century jigoku-zoshi (hell scroll paintings) with Tsukioka Yoshitoshi’s nineteenth-century ukiyo-e illustrations of innocence disemboweled—and climaxing in a centrifugal final blast of berserk, quasi-Butoh theatrics that seems to anticipate the lysergic gyrations of the 1960s’ Living Theatre as much as the flesh-hungry flailings of Night of the Living DeadJigoku’s dazzlingly art-directed and emotionally devastating evocation of unstaunchable dread continues to leave even the most stoic of modern moviegoers in a state of stunned dismay.

It's not actually as headache-inducing as that sounds, and is even quite beautiful in spots. Still, it is hell all right, so be warned.

Kuroneko (Kaneto Shindo, 1968)

“Kuroneko” means “black cat,” and in Japan that means pretty much what it does here: bad news. Luckily (after those other two) this film is gorgeously lyrical, shot, as was the director's equally chilling Onibaba (1964), by cinematographer Kiyomi Kuroda in sumptuous black-and-white. Here too the victims – arrogant, murderous samurai – deserve what they get, as the film's graphic opening makes clear. But will our hero suffer the same fate?


Next, the yakuza film.

Youth of the Beast (Seijun Suzuki, 1963)

Pale Flower (Masahiro Shinoda, 1964)

The Wolves (Hideo Gosha, 1971)

The first two of these are very new wave, as their dates suggest, but are very different otherwise. Youth of the Beast explodes off the screen in manic bursts of color-saturated violence. Commentator Howard Hampton:

Two qualities stand out: the sense of a director hitting his stride, full of devil-may-care assurance and try-anything imagination, coupled with an uneasy, palpable boredom with the stale trappings (in the most literal sense of the term) of the cops’n’yakuza form. […] [one shot] suggests Ozu if an action imp spiked his green tea with acid.

Pale Flower is as cool and brooding as Youth is hot and bothered. Here we have more sleek black-and-white cinematography, in support of an enigmatic tale of a gangster newly released from prison and unsure what to make of this unfamiliar state. He spends a lot of time gambling with the pale flower of the film's title, a stylish but unreadable new wave chicklet, and is inevitably drawn into – well, I won't spoil it for you. As our man Stephens says of an earlier Shinoda film: “roll over, Ozu, tell Mizoguchi the news.”

Pale flower

The Gosha film is more of a traditional gangster epic, with an overstuffed plot which is sometimes hard to follow. The ubiquitious Tatsuya Nakadai stars as yet another yakuza fresh out of prison, whose divided loyalties and middle-aged world-weariness are naturally reminiscent of our first two mobsters, but the tone is of another type still. Here we have much more of the gang-as-not-even-that-abnormally-dysfunctional-family thing. Good stuff though, definitely in line with Youth, and Nakadai sells it well.

Only two samurai films this time – I ran through most of the readily available ones a few years ago.

13 Assassins (Eiichi Kudo, 1963)

13 Assassins (Takashi Miike, 2010)

This is a gripping tale of honor, bravery, and taking one for the team: a suicide mission to assassinate the entirely unworthy heir to the shogunate while on his way home for (or from, I can't remember) the summer. The remake is surprisingly faithful, especially in the first half (shot for shot in stretches), and Koji Yakusho is the perfect choice for Shinzaemon, the leader of the assassin gang. He even looks like the original actor, and he has attained gravitas while retaining most of his leading-man looks – he was in everything under the sun a while back, from Cure (my fave J-horror film, truly creepy) to Shall We Dance?. Unfortunately the last third of the film, when the trap is sprung, works less well. It's not that it's too graphic and bloody – although it is that, not surprisingly given the director's other output, e.g. Ichi the Killer – but instead that it's a confusing blur where the original was seemingly more carefully choreographed (if also somewhat hard to follow).

Similarly, the remake's climactic showdown disappoints, as the conflict seems merely tactical rather than the settling of moral and philosophical accounts we witness in the earlier film. So, start with that one, but if you like Koji as much as I do you will want to check out the remake too.

Bulletballet Snakejune
Bullet Ballet (Shinya Tsukamoto, 1998)

A Snake of June (Shinya Tsukamoto, 2002)

Shinya Tsukamoto is one weird dude, and both of these films are intensely over-the-top in a characteristically Japanese way. I expected Bullet Ballet to be a John Woo-style shoot-em-up, but it's not that at all. As I understand it, handguns are very hard to come by in Japan – unless you're a mobster, I suppose, which our hero is not. Tsukamoto, who plays the gun-obsessed lead, is as unnerving an actor as he is a visual stylist, and while quite disturbing and intense, I don't remember it as being that violent (although, yes, some people do get shot). A Snake of June, whose title remains obscure to me, is a seriously kinky tale of exhibitionism, voyeurism, and high-tech stalking. Here Tsukamoto plays the stalker, who manipulates his not-exactly-unwilling victim into higher and higher heights of what I guess we should call depravity. I make this sound all too common and tawdry, but as with the preceding film, the execution is riveting, with a unique visual style.

Assembly (Feng Xiaogang, 2007)

The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On (Kazuo Hara, 1987)

Here's an oddly appropriate pairing which justifies a departure from the home islands. Assembly is a Chinese (HK) film in the stirring Spielberg mode, a biopic of Captain Gu Zidi, the sole survivor of a particularly bloody battle in the Chinese Civil War in 1948. The story moves back and forth from the battle and the heroic deeds of Gu and his men to the equally demanding struggle Gu faces in trying to win official recognition for their sacrifice after the war is over. A Chinese reviewer at imdb tells us, “By the end of the story, when 47 heroes finally received the medals and salute that belong to them, tears break out from the eyes of every audience. That is the real glory of a Chinese soldier, the real spirit of Chinese people!” Even if this doesn't sound like your cup of orange pekoe, you may still want to check it out for the unforgettable performance of the terrific lead actor.

In stark contrast, the documentary The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On evokes not Spielberg but Michael Moore (a blurb from whom adorns the DVD cover). Like Gu, Kenzo Okuzaki is an emotionally scarred veteran of a brutal war, obsessed with the past and determined to win justice for his fallen comrades. But the chilling details make all the difference, and the implacable Okuzaki makes no effort to win us over, instead continuously impressing on his helpless adversaries his refusal to shut up and go away. Remarkable and bizarre, but ultimately moving despite itself.

Love Exposure (Sion Sono, 2008)

Bizarrely, among the six films listed under imdb's “People who liked this also liked …” feature for Love Exposure are The Graduate, Love Actually, and I'm a Cyborg But That's OK. More to the point, I would have to say, is a user-created list of 137 films called Depraved Movies You Shouldn't Be Watching. I can't really claim that you will either love or hate this film; it's more like you will either hate it or find it amusing enough to watch all four hours (which I did). imdb users rated it at 8.0, which is very good, but among the comment threads on the first page are two headed “This film is RUBBISH” and “worst movie ever”.

I feel your pain, haters, really I do. At first it seems as if the director thinks that simply going over the top – which this film does, in spades – suffices for the right to our attention (as opposed to, say, nuance or technique). But I was won over by its unflagging energy and desire to be liked – and, yes, the brazen use of the near entirety of Ravel's Bolero in a long sequence dedicated to the celebration of innovative and acrobatic techniques for (supposedly) surreptitious up-the-skirt photography. I really can't say anything more about this film.

Twenty-Four Eyes (Kinosuke Kinoshita, 1954)

Finally something wholesome! Although relatively unknown here, this film is a revered classic in Japan. The eyes in question belong to the twelve students of the beloved Miss Pebble, a schoolteacher in jaw-droppingly scenic Shodoshima, an island in the Inland Sea. Unbearably moving in spots, leavened with just the right amount of wry humor, the film was “consciously” modeled after Renoir's The River, which Kinoshita “was convinced […] was the pinnacle of moviemaking: 'A good director has to regard everything in a coldly detached way, but I still can't shake my tendency to lapse into sentimentality [that is, occasionally, as in the case sparking this observation, the shot of the wave in the boat scene, which he regretted later for this reason]. Yet if I tried to counter that by designing a tighter script, my films would lose some of their emotional flavor, and the audience might no longer be able to feel the spontaneous flashes of inspiration. That's the kind of film I love, where those flashes are still visible but where all artifice has been strictly eliminated. I want to make exactly that sort of film, but it's harder than it looks!'” [interview from the Criterion DVD booklet]


The Book of the Dead (Kihachiro Kawamoto, 2005)

Heaven's Lost Property (TV series)

B Gata H Kei (TV series)

The Japanese are of course also well known for their love of animation. I haven't seen the latest Studio Ghibli release, so these will have to do. The first is of the stop-motion variety, and it is amazing how the animator conveys so many different expressions with dolls whose seemingly single expression is after all simply painted on. (There's a lesson there somewhere.) The story is a bit obscure, but the film is absolutely stunning.


The other two are, ahem, somewhat different. They are ecchi anime, most assuredly not to be confused with hentai (a place we will not be going today, or ever – even this Wikipedia link on the subject is decidedly NSFW). According to this informative and much more SFW entry, ecchi is Japanese for the English letter H, which stands for the same Japanese word (“pervert”) that now, i.e. somewhat later than at first, denotes that place where I just indicated we will not be going. In fact, although indeed dirty-minded, ecchi anime is surprisingly tame, not even as smutty as prime-time sitcoms on American TV (as I remember them).

It sounds totally stupid when you describe it: plots often revolve around the visibility of panties and/or the humongousness of cartoon boobs. And I bet most of it is indeed stupid, making me rather lucky that the only two series I've seen (most of) are so charming. Heaven's Lost Property has a fantasy element, as the main humongously-boobed character is an alien robot or something, designed, for reasons yet unknown, to cater to its master's desires. As its master is a horny teen, these desires often involve panties, and that sure does sound stupid; yet after one wild adventure in this vein, the episode ends with a gorgeous, lovingly detailed sequence showing a flock of magically obtained panties flying around the world, in formation, like migrating geese.

B Gata H Kei skips the alien robots and centers directly on the horny teens. Here, possibly unusually, not that I would know, it is the horny girl teen who is the primum mobile for the action. Yamada, who according to anime convention is prototypically Japanese in everything but her looks – she mostly resembles the freckly Irish/Italian redhead I had a crush on in 9th grade – is determined, she tells us early on, to amass as soon as possible a troop of no less than 100 f*ckbuddies (or, as the subtitles occasionally call them, “sex friends”). To that end, she decides to warm up, as it were, with the low-hanging fruit (the virginal Kosuda, our male hero). However, as you can imagine, she messes up the seduction each time, sending the poor Kosuda wildly mixed messages about her intent, and even more inconveniently, develops feelings for him as well. It's all very sweet, and Sue – I mean, Yamada! – is adorably single-minded and seriously cute. And, except for the conventionally huge anime eyes, appropriately drawn: the B in the title refers at least obliquely, and possibly literally, to her cup size – a fact of no small concern to her, as she often reminds us. Warning: the impossibly catchy theme song, like that of Heaven's Lost Property, will get stuck in your head.

That should keep you all busy for a while. See you at the movies!