Getting Any? (みんな~やってるか!, Takeshi Kitano, 1995)

getting any? posterDespite his reputation for violent gangster dramas and melancholy arthouse pieces, Takeshi Kitano is one of Japan’s most successful comedians and began his career as half of an irreverent and anarchic “manzai” comedy double act. 1995’s Getting Any? (みんな~やってるか!Minna – yatteruka!) is his first big screen comedy and loosely takes the form of a series of variety-style skits in which a lonely, hapless middle-aged man tries on various different personas in the pursuit of his goal but remains an isolated bystander in the surreal events which eventually engulf him. Part bawdy, sleazy sex comedy and satire on the death of materialism in the post-bubble world, Getting Any? is a cineliterate journey through Showa era pop culture peppered with gratuitous nudity and absurd running jokes.

After watching a very 1980s “aspirational” movie in which a good looking, wealthy young salaryman type gives a young lady a lift in his flashy convertible in which they later end up having sex, Asao (Dankan), watching at home in his pants with his grandpa sitting behind him, decides the reason he hasn’t got any luck with women is that he doesn’t have a car. So, he goes and gets one from a very strange salesman but as he doesn’t have much money the car he gets is, well, it’s unlikely to get stolen, and he still isn’t getting anywhere. He tries a convertible too but that’s no good. Then he starts fantasising about air hostesses, decides to become an actor, gets mistaken for a top yakuza hitman, and comes into contact with a pair of mad scientists who want to turn him invisible.

Asao has only one goal – to have sex with a lady (preferably in a car), but he never stops to think of his potential partners as anything more than a receptacle for his desires. Consequently, he refuses to look at himself or consider the ways he might be getting in the way of his own needs, but constantly chases a quick fix thinking that the reason women don’t want him is because of something material that he lacks. He thinks the path to sexual success lies in cars, money, status, and finally technology, but none of these things really matter while Asao remains Asao.

As part of his journey, passive as it is, Asao does not always remain Asao, or at least the Asao he was for very long. Having failed to be the sort of man who can woo with car, he tries acting – literally playing a part, at which he seems quite good except for going “overboard”. An incident on an aeroplane sees him mistaken for a top yakuza which he is less good at but every mistake only ever works out in his favour. Thanks to his involvement with the mad scientists whom he allows to experiment on him so that he can go peeping in the women’s baths, Asao will finally become another kind of creature entirely, literally reduced to feeding off the excrement his nation has recently produced.

Kitano works in just about every element of almost “retro” pop-culture he can think of from the amusing soundtrack of Showa era hits and references to famous unsolved crimes to a hitman named “Joe Shishido” (star of Branded to Kill), the Zatoichi series, a Lone Wolf and Cub ventriloquist dummy duo, the Invisible Man, Ghostbusters, The Fly, and finally Toho’s tokusatsu classics culminating a lengthy skit inspired by Mothra including the iconic Mothra song given new lyrics and the same old dance performed by two full-sized ladies. Though most viewers will be able to spot the joke even without quite understanding it, some knowledge of Japanese pop-culture from the ‘70s and ‘80s will undoubtedly help.

The central joke revolves around Asao’s fecklessness as he repeatedly fails at each of his schemes, only occasionally succeeding and then by accident, and not for very long. A charmless literalist who lacks the imagination to achieve his goals in a more natural way, Asao fails to learn anything at all, engulfed by one surreal situation after another. It does however give Kitano the excuse to indulge Asao’s flights of fancy as his sexual frustration sends him off into a series of bizarre reveries involving topless women desperate to make love to the suave male stand-in Asao has imagined. Filled with silly slapstick humour and frequent nudity, Kitano’s subtle satire may get lost but even if the joke begins to wear thin just as “flyman” finally lands on his object of desire, there is plenty of amusement on offer for fans of lowbrow humour.


Getting Any? is released on blu-ray by Third Window Films on 16th October, 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Shinjuku Triad Society (新宿黒社会 チャイナ・マフィア戦争, Takashi Miike, 1995)

shinjuku-triad-societyThese days Takashi Miike is known as something of an enfant terrible whose rate of production is almost impossible to keep up with and regularly defies classification. Pressed to offer some kind of explanation to the uninitiated, most will point to the unsettling horror of Audition or the audacity of the controversial Ichi the Killer whilst looking askance at the totally unexpected craziness of Yatterman or the child friendly Ninja Kids!!!. Before he was the gleefully unpredictable festival favourite, Miike, like many of his contemporaries, had made a name for himself in V-cinema, often with violent tales of modern day yakuza. Shinjuku Triad Society (新宿黒社会 チャイナ・マフィア戦争, Shinjuku Kuroshakai: China Mafia Senso) was Miike’s first venture into the mainstream theatrical world but retains his V-cinema focus with additional intent.

Set in the shady, sleazy, noir-tinted world of ‘90s Shinjuku, Shinjuku Triad Society opens with a voice-over from one of its central players telling us that this is a love story – sickening and sweet, as real love is. The action kicks off with this same character, a rent boy, Zhou, attempting to evade a police raid, slitting the throat of a regular street cop on his way out. Zhou is the lover of an unpredictable member of the Taiwanese mafia, Wang (Tomorowo Taguchi), who is creating several problems in the underground crime world both within Triad circles and with the local yakuza. Half Chinese policeman, Tatsuhito Kiriya (Kippei Shina), has been landed with the case but things begin to get personal when he discovers that his younger brother, Yoshihito, has been hired as a junior lawyer working directly for Wang’s gang.

Yakuza films often have a very strong homosocial atmosphere, emphasising the fraternal bonds between men but Shinjuku Triad Society is especially notable for its inclusion of explicit male homosexuality within the gangster underworld. If yakuza films are family dramas with funerals instead of weddings, Miike uses this intense male bonding as a comment on the wider nature of the family with an added focus on the place of the foreign in Japanese society. Wang and Tatsuhito are not so far removed in their desire to rebuild their own family unit, partly as a kind of protective measure against the world around them in which their Chinese heritage becomes a perpetual barrier. Wang has done this as the head of his own clan and with his lover Zhou at his side whereas Tatsuhito is intent on restoring his birth family by “rescuing” his brother from the clutches of the “Dragon’s Claw”.

Tatsuhito’s brother is, of course, a grown man who has the right to become a member of the underworld family, rejecting the blood ties to his policeman brother and doting parents if that is what he wants no matter what his brother might feel about it. Tatsuhito is disturbed to discover that Yoshihito has become Wang’s lover, even if he claims to be using him in order to progress his career. Both brothers threaten each other at gun point with Yoshihito exclaiming “if you don’t like the way I am, just kill me” which Tatsuhito refuses to do though it remains unclear if his brother’s sexuality is objectionable to him or merely a facet of his rejection of the values Tatsuhito holds dear.

Sexuality becomes a weapon as Zhou manoeuvres and manipulates through provoking and satisfying sexual desire. These are, however, consensual relationships even if a part of a wider, transactional game whereas anal rape is actively being employed as a police interrogation tactic (with a somewhat surprising spin). Even Tatsuhito, whose partner mocks him for a supposed dedication to being a “regular” cop, unwilling to take bribes or give in to corruption, himself engages in this behaviour anally raping a female prostitute from whom he wishes to extract information. Playing into the film’s darker themes of the interplay between sex, violence, and transaction, the prostitute instantly falls in love with him. Tatsuhito is clearly no saint even at the film’s beginning, but even so he continues to fall still further, seemingly outraged on discovering the true purpose of Wang’s “philanthropy” in his Taiwanese homeland, but doing relatively little about it other than adding it to the growing list of reasons why Wang must die. Eventually crossing the line from law enforcer to law breaker in the most taboo of ways, Tatsuhito finds himself rewarded even if his boss seems to be aware and in approval of what he’s done.

Tatsuhito may succeed in some of his aims, even if he has to exile himself from the family he was trying repair in the process though the closing voice over makes clear that he gains little in the long run and becomes nothing more than marginalia in the long, sad history of Shinjuku’s violent backstreets. Starting as he means to go on, Miike is entirely unafraid to step into some very uncomfortable areas, not least the way non-Japanese and those with partial Japanese heritage are regarded in the society of the time as well as the way these attitudes are filtered through recent Japanese history. Tatsuhito finds himself conflicted, choosing Japan in choosing the police but finding that it often fails to recognise him as its own son, whereas Yoshihito, in a sense, chooses China in associating himself with the Taiwanese gangsters. This central opposition of order and criminality is itself uncomfortable, but then undermined by the unorthodox nature of the local yakuza. Often strange and eerie, Shinjuku Triad Society takes place in a noirish world where there is no guiding morality – one to which Miike would often return though perhaps never with so much biting irony, where the absence of hope continues to imply its possibility.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Goodbye for Tomorrow (あした, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1995)

goodbye for tomorrowAfter completing his first “Onomichi Trilogy” in the 1980s, Obayashi returned a decade later for round two with another three films using his picturesque home town as a backdrop. Goodbye For Tomorrow (あした, Ashita) is the second of these, but unlike Chizuko’s Younger Sister or One Summer’s Day which both return to Obayashi’s concern with youth, Goodbye For Tomorrow casts its net a little wider as it explores the grief stricken inertia of a group of people from all ages and backgrounds left behind when a routine ferry journey turns into an unexpected tragedy.

Three months after nine people were drowned when a local ferry sank in the harbour, friends and relatives of the dead begin to receive messages signed by their loved ones instructing them to be at a small island at midnight. Cruel joke or not, each of the still grieving recipients makes their way to the boathouse, clutching the desperate hope that the dead will really return to them. Sure enough, on the stroke of midnight the ghostly boat rises from the ocean floor bringing a collection of lost souls with it, but its stay is a temporary one – just long enough to say goodbye.

Obayashi once again begins the film with an intertile-style message to the effect that sometimes meetings are arranged just to say goodbye. He then includes two brief “prequel” sequences to the contemporary set main narrative. The first of these takes place ten years previously in which a boy called Mitsugu throws a message wrapped around a rock into a school room where his friend Noriko is studying. We then flash forward to three months before the main action, around the time of the boat accident, where an assassination attempt is made on the life of a local gangster in a barber shop. At first the connection between these events is unclear as messages begin to arrive in innovative ways in the film’s “present”. After a while we begin to realise that the recipients of the messages are so shocked to receive them because they believe the senders to be dead.

At three months since the sinking, the grief is still raw and each of our protagonists has found themselves trapped in a kind of inertia, left alone so suddenly without the chance to say goodbye. The left behind range from a teenager whose young love story has been severed by tragedy, a middle aged man who lost a wife and daughter and now regrets spending so much time on something as trivial as work, a middle aged trophy wife and the colleague who both loved a successful businessman, two swimmers with unresolved romances, and the yakuza boss who lost his wife and grandson. For some the desire is to join their loved ones wherever it is that they’re going, others feel they need to live on with double the passion in the name of the dead but they are all brought together by a need to meet the past head on and come to terms with it so that they can emerge from a living limbo and decide which side of the divide they need to be on.

Aside from the temporary transparency of the border between the mortal world and that of the dead, the living make an intrusion in the form of the ongoing yakuza gang war. The Noriko (Kaori Takahashi) from the film’s prequel sequence also ends up at the meeting point through sheer chance, as does the Mitsugu (Yasufumi Hayashi), now a gangster and charged with the unpleasant task of offing the old man despite his longstanding debt of loyalty to him. These are the only two still living souls brought together by an unresolved message bringing the events full circle as they achieve a kind of closure (with the hope of a new beginning) on their frustrated childhood romance.

The other two hangers on, an ambitious yakuza with a toothache played by frequent Obayashi collaborator Ittoku Kishibe, and a lunatic wildcat sociopath played by the ubiquitous Tomorowo Taguchi, are more or less comic relief as they hide out in the forrest confused by the massing group of unexpected visitors who’ve completely ruined their plot to assassinate the old yakuza boss and assume control of the clan. However, they too are also forced to face the relationship problems which bought them to this point and receive unexpected support from the boss’ retuned spouse who points out that this situation is partly his own fault for failing to appreciate the skills of each of his men individually. The boss decides to make a sacrifice in favour of the younger generation but his final acts are those of forgiveness and a plea for those staying behind to forget their differences and work together.

Revisiting Obayashi’s frequent themes of loss and the need to keep living after tragedy strikes, Goodbye For Tomorrow is a melancholy character study of the effects of grief when loved ones are taken without the chance for goodbyes. Aside from the earliest sepia tinged sequence, Obayashi plays with colour less than in his other films but manages to make the improbable sight of the sunken boat rising from the bottom of the sea genuinely unsettling. The supernatural mixes with the natural in unexplained ways and Obayashi even makes room for The Little Girl Who Conquered Time’s Tomoyo Harada as a mysterious spirit of loneliness, as well as a cameo for ‘80s leading man Toshinori Omi. The Japanese title of the film simply means “tomorrow” which gives a hint as to the broadly positive sense of forward motion in the film though the importance “goodbye” is also paramount. The slight awkwardness of the English title is therefore explained – saying goodbye to yesterday is a painful act but necessary for tomorrow’s sake.


 

Bad Film (Sion Sono, 1995/2012)

Bad_FilmThe recently prolific Sion Sono actually has a more sporadic film career dating back to the early 1980s though most would judge his real breakthrough to 2001’s Suicide Club. Back in the ‘90s Sono was most active as the leader of anarchic performance art troupe Tokyo Gagaga. Taking inspiration from the avant-garde theatre scene of the 1960s, Tokyo Gagaga took to the streets for flag waving protests and impressive, guerrilla stunts. Bad Film is the result of one of their projects – shot intermittently over a year using the then newly accessible Hi8 video rather the traditionally underground 8 or 16mm, Bad Film is near future set street story centring on gang warfare between the Chinese community and xenophobic Japanese petty gangsters with a side line in shifiting sexual politics.

Momentous things were at play in 1997, not least amongst them the looming handover of Hong Kong when it would cease to operate under British rule and embark upon the “one country, two systems” era with ultimate authority passing to Beijing. Fascism has bloomed in Tokyo with intense anti-foreigner activity targeting all non-Japanese including those from other areas of Asia. By 1997, the yakuza have infiltrated the fascist infrastructure and amped up gang violence between the Chinese community and the ultra-nationalist Japanese.

Fast forward a little and the Chinese and Japanese groups have managed to iron out some of their differences largely thanks to a different kind of divide which ultimately proves a unifying factor – many of the men and women on either side are gay and are sick of the prevailing “hetero hegemony”. Eventually the gay contingent manages to assume control of their respective factions and enact the gay alliance. This is very successful and brings peace and love to the city but unfortunately two members of opposing factions just can’t get over their cultural differences and are prepared to go to great lengths to restart the Japan/China gang war.

Sono shot the entirety of the movie back in 1995 ending up with around 150 hours before abandoning the project for financial reasons. In 2012 Sono re-edited his existing footage into something resembling a feature length film. The project was designed to make use of the entire Tokyo Gagaga company (over 2000 people took part) and was shot guerrilla style with no permits or warnings (you can see at least one face blurred out during their city centre protests). This goes someway to explaining why the narrative diverges unexpectedly at random junctures and the voiceover is there largely to corral the footage into some kind of coherent structure aided by the occasional on screen text. It’s a “Bad Film” in that it’s not quite a film at all but an activist’s poetic documentation of his artistic street warfare even including going so far as to include a justification for the visibility of the cameraman.

Hi8 was what it was – a convenient low-res format for the domestic market. Bad Film is not a pretty film, it looks rough and low rent though that often works in its favour and the film takes on a considered aesthetic that is never concerned with trying to be more than it is. Consequently, it makes the most of its roughness to bring out the grungy, time capsule-esque atmosphere that it’s looking looking for. Sono also experiments with fish eye lenses, odd angles and hand held multi-camera chaos to bring the streets to life. His world is weird, and it’s filmed weird, but it always makes sense in terms of its own particular look.

The action turns on the unexpected love story between two women – one Japanese, and one Chinese, and despite all of the resulting chaos and carnage, the final image we’re left with is one of love. The forces of destruction are those who cannot abandon their hate to live in harmony, subverting this very force for peace and using it to wreak vengeance. Sono launches into absurd mode at full throttle and, as per usual, it’s hard to tell when he’s in earnest and when just being facetious. Bad Film is, loosely speaking, an anti-prejudice themed performance art piece documenting the passion and commitment of the Tokyo Gagaga collective. An interesting case of a belated “director’s cut” Bad Film is necessarily an imperfect beast, but perhaps all the more interesting for it.


Opening sequence (no subtitles)

Like Grains of Sand (渚のシンドバッド, Ryosuke Hashiguchi, 1995)

Like grains of sand posterAdolescent romance is complicated enough at the best of times but the barriers are ever higher if you happen to be gay in a less than tolerant society. Ryosuke Hashiguchi’s second feature Like Grains of Sand (渚のシンドバッド, Nagisa no Sinbad) takes a slight step back in time from A Touch of Fever but retains its very ordinary world as a collection of boys and girls embark on a process of self discovery whilst also locked into the unbreakable straightjacket of the high school world.

Ito (Yoshinori Okada) is an ordinary high school boy with a crush on his oblivious best friend, Yoshida (Kouta Kusano). Though Yoshida defends him from the homophobic bullies in his class, he seems confused about his true feelings, at once stating that what he feels for Ito is more that friendship but also unwilling to address what that “more” may mean. After Ito’s father intercepts a reply to a personal ad he placed hoping to meet older men, Ito ends up at a psychiatrist’s office where his father hopes he might be “cured” though the doctor is quick to point out that they no longer view homosexuality as a medical matter.

Whilst at the clinic, Ito strikes a up a friendship with another girl from his class, Aihara (Ayumi Hamasaki) – a recent transfer student, who, we learn, has experienced a traumatic event which is also the reason she had to leave her previous place of education. Aihara is the only person with whom Ito can discuss his sexuality honestly though he’s also sure to “protect” Yoshida by claiming he rejected his advances outright rather than explaining the confusing series of events as they actually occurred. When Aihara and Ito accidentally end up on an awkward double date with Yoshida and his girlfriend Shimizu (Kumi Takada), Yoshida also begins to develop an (unreturned) attraction to Aihara which only further complicates the delicate nature of the growing emotional ties among this small group of young people.

A real step up from the promising yet flawed A Touch of Fever, Like Grains of Sand proves Hashiguchi’s skill in building an extremely natural environment filled with believable well rounded characters. The high school world is a cruel one populated by unsteady teenagers, each by times rebellious and insecure. Aihara, as a recent transfer student, is already an outsider but finds herself excluded even further thanks to her direct and aloof character. Early on in the film two of the other girls, evidently the popular set, begin running a bizarre extortion scam in which they claim a friend of theirs has fallen pregnant and needs to get an abortion right away so they’re collecting money to help her. Shimizu doesn’t seem to buy their explanation but is bamboozled into paying up to not cause offence. Aihara, however, brands the pair “sympathy fascists” and abruptly walks away.

Ito is also an outsider, though partially a self-exile, longing yet fearful. At the beginning of the film he’s overwhelmed watching the unexpectedly sensual action of Yoshida pouring a bag of sand into a container destined for the sports field. After they’ve finished, Ito faints right in front of his fellow schoolmates, though at least the convenient hot weather might prove his ally. When the other boys draw a lewd drawing on the blackboard and start teasing Ito, Yoshida comes to his rescue even though he knows that’s likely to cause trouble for himself. Reassuring his friend that it would be OK even if it was true, Yoshida continues to act in a non committal manner. Ito confesses, Yoshida accepts the confession but at the same time is uncertain permitting both a kiss and an embrace before pushing his friend away and leaving as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

After an impromptu hug on a rooftop, Shimizu makes attempt to ask Aihara is she’s gay with no particular judgement attached except a slight reticence in terms of language. Aihara seems slightly confused, replying only that Shimizu is preoccupied with the wrong questions. Later, Ito ends up escorting the smitten Yoshida to Aihara’s childhood home where things come to a climax during an intense finale on a secluded beach. Night is falling and Ito has put on Aihara’s white dress and hat while she goes for a swim just as Yoshida returns for a second stab at confessions. Hiding behind a rock while Yoshida thinks Ito is her, Aihara continues to conduct a philosophically based dissection of Yoshida’s approach to sexuality. She asks him, would you still love me if I were a man, and if not, is it more that what you want is a woman and not really “me” at all, along with other questions designed to prompt a response as to the importance of gender when it comes to love. That all this happens as a kind of Cyrano de Bergerac-like three way sequence with Ito dressed as Aihara, and Yoshida talking to Aihara through someone else only lends to the surreal, increasingly symbolic atmosphere.

Gentle and softly nuanced, Like Grains of Sand is a delicate exploration of ordinary young people caught in a confusing storm of emotions as they each address their burgeoning sexuality. Rich with complexity yet also effortlessly straightforward, Hashiguchi has created a beautifully naturalistic portrait of adolescence in flux which is filled with empathy and acceptance for each of its angst ridden teens and even for their less forgiving friends and relatives. A noticeable progression from Touch of Fever, Like Grains of Sand further proves Hashiguchi’s skill for character drama and marks him as one of the most incisive writer/directors working today.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Japanese title of the film, Nagisa no Sinbad, is also the title of a hit single by 1970s super duo Pink Lady! (Beware – extremely catchy)

Sharaku (写楽, Masahiro Shinoda, 1995)

SharakuEvery once in a while an artist emerges whose work is so far ahead of its time that the audience of the day is unwilling to accept but generations to come will finally recognise for the achievement it represents. So it is for Sharaku – a young man whose abilities and ambitions are ruthlessly manipulated by those around him for their own gain. Brought to the screen by veteran new wave director Masahiro Shinoda, Sharaku (写楽) is an attempt to throw some light on the life of this mysterious historical figure who comes to symbolise, in many ways, the turbulence of his era.

The Edo of 1791 is a world of extreme austerity. All art is suspect and all “pornography” outlawed. Any sign of extravagance is frowned on, including the “frivolous” arts leading to a decline in the world of classic entertainment as kabuki artists struggle to survive. Tombo (Hiroyuki Sanada) was one such kabuki performer but after an onstage accident leaves him with a damaged foot he joins a rag tag group of street performers. Whilst there he begins drawing bringing him to the attention of an art seller, Tsutaya (Frankie Sakai), who has an idea to create prints of famous actors as a way of promoting local theatre shows.

Rechristened with the artist’s name of Sharaku, Tombo’s artwork creates a sensation with its never seen before style which places a new emphasis on realism rather than flattery. Popularity brings its own problems as Sharaku finds himself a virtual prisoner of Tsutaya whose demands are ever expanding, as well as facing the intense opposition of Tsutaya’s former cash cow – renowned artist Utamaro, who is prepared to go to great lengths to ensure his traditional painting style is the one that wins out.

This is a time of extreme conservatism and Sharaku’s work is a risky proposition as it rejects accepted stylisation in favour of undoctored reality. Dynamically posed, his portraits of kabuki actors display no pandering but reflect all of the subject’s less flattering qualities. Striking and unusual, Sharaku’s insistence on capturing internal truth is entirely at odds with the need for compliance with the “truths” handed down by the government. The public aren’t ready for such radically honest art and even champions of a more naturalistic style such as the universally lauded Utamaro also reject it (though largely out of fear and self interest).

Sharaku is, of course, an artist’s name and not a man’s and therefore is easily manipulated. Held a virtual prisoner by Tsutaya, Tombo begins to resent his new life of exploitation by his master who wants him to work in a more commercial fashion yet took him on precisely because of the novel, aggressive nature of his untrained drawing. Sharaku’s commitment to artistry over conformity is at odds with the era which is entirely founded on everyone obeying the accepted order of things. The times are changing, but not fast enough for Sharaku.

Shinoda paints an exciting vision of Edo era Tokyo filled with colour and energy despite the supposed austerity of the times. He brings kabuki out into the streets with beautifully balletic street brawls and strange acrobatic feats that appear extremely incongruous in the off stage world. However, Sharaku attempts to juggle a number of themes and subplots which never manage to coalesce into something whole. The side story of a depressed geisha and her star crossed love for Tombo even whilst she finds herself the favourite misteress of Utamaro is the most interesting but is never satisfactorily resolved.

After beginning with some oddly old fashioned on screen graphics, Shinoda opts for a stately directing style though makes frequent use of freeze frames and dissolves. The film takes on an appropriately etherial quality with sudden interruptions of theatre and the rhythms of classical drama yet even the free floating dream-like atmosphere can’t quite makeup for its central lack of coherence. Tombo himself, as played by Hiroyuki Sanada, is too much of a cypher to lead the picture yet the attempt to branch out into an ensemble drama doesn’t take hold either. A late, flawed effort from an old master, Sharaku has a lot to say about the nature of art, about artists, about reception and legacy, and also about its era but much of the message is lost in the faded paper on which it is painted.


Unsubbed trailer:

East Meets West (イースト・ミーツ・ウエスト, Kihachi Okamoto, 1995)

East_Meets_WestEast has been meeting West in the movies from time immemorial and though it’s often assumed that the traffic is only running in one direction, in reality the river runs both ways. Kihachi Okamoto was always fairly open about his love of Hollywood westerns, particularly those of John Ford, and even mixed a fair amount of wild west style action to his 1959 Manchurian war movie, Desperado Outpost. Returning to the theme almost 40 years later in East Meets West (イースト・ミーツ・ウエスト), Okamoto retains his wry, ironic eye but adopts a tone much more in keeping with the slightly silly exploitation cowboy movies of the ‘70s.

The tale begins with an American voiceover explaining the intricacies of the time period. It’s 1860 and America has been putting pressure on the recently opened Japan to agree to a trade deal. A delegation of two ships is shortly to arrive in San Fransisco which has also undergone many changes in the last few years after the influx of hopefuls during the 1848 goldrush transformed it from a peaceful fishing town to a dangerous prospector’s paradise. The situation in Japan is also turbulent and those who object to the recent foreign influences have a number of plots in motion. Once the boats leave a band of former samurai will assassinate the remaining official. The men on the boat will not hear of this until they return and the revolutionaries have also placed an assassin amongst those who will travel to America with the ultimate aim of assassinating the diplomat in charge of the delegation who was also responsible for the deaths of a number of “resistance” members in Japan.

However, everything gets derailed when a gang of bandits rob the bank just as the Japanese are about to deposit the money they’ve brought to seal the trade agreement. The group’s interpreter, Kamijo (Hiroyuki Sanada), takes advantage of his samurai training to cut down some of the bandits saving his own life but is unable to prevent them making off with the money. Taking to the road in the company of the young son of one of the bystanders who was killed, Kamijo becomes every inch the cowboy, standing apart ready to take his revenge. However, his mission is at times aided or hindered by an ace ninja working as a servant to the delegation, Tamejiro (Naoto Takenaka), who has accidentally ended up with a Native American wife.

East Meets West is a very silly film, it has very little in the way of serious intent but offers a fair amount of zany fun as its fish out of water samurai try to adapt to the ways of the Wild West. In many ways, it’s the classic cowboy movie as a bunch of strangers arrive and proceed to clean up the area which has become threatened by out of control bandit gangs. You have your mainstays like the lazy sheriff, meek vicar, and drunken doctor-cum-undertaker, the only difference is that the strangers are Japanese adventurers who fight with samurai swords and out of ideals of honour and justice rather than of survival or frontier values.

Indeed, it’s a little strange that East Meets West turned up in 1995 just a few years after Hollywood itself began to re-examine the western, re-injecting it with a little more realism and the grittiness and cruelty which filled frontier life but had been all but erased from the sanitised, romantic vision of the movie cowboy duelling pistols world. East Meets West references the classic western with its associated myths and tropes of clearly defined good guys taking down clearly defined bad guys to save the townspeople from moral and physical ruin. There are plenty of horse stunts and gunfights all offered with a kind of good natured (if sometimes black) humour that’s much more John Wayne than it is Clint Eastwood.

That said, there is a degree of cross cultural critique as the guys try to get used to their New World lives. Because English speakers have a problem with foreign names, Kamijo quickly becomes “Joe” and Tamejiro “Tommy” with Kamijo ending up with a little blond surrogate son and Tamejiro an enterprising Native American wife with whom he seems to develop quite a bond despite sharing no common language. Kamijo may have come to America with one singular mission in mind but once under the wide open skies he finds a kind of individual freedom that he hadn’t previously experienced and gradually loses his adherence to the rigid social codes of the samurai, exchanging them for the seemingly endless vistas of the ever expanding frontier.

Okamoto mines the dualities for all their worth – the chaos of the Meiji era contrasted with the organised lawlessness of the Wild West, yet East Meets West never quite transcends its western pastiche origins. With plenty of inventive and keenly observed comedy plus some nicely choreographed action scenes and excellent performances from the committed cast from both the English speaking American side and the Japanese actors, East Meets West proves an often entertaining experience but perhaps fails to offer the same level of social critique found in Okamoto’s previous work.