Blade of the Immortal (無限の住人, Takashi Miike, 2017)

blade of the immortal posterGenerally speaking, revenge tends not to go very well in Japanese cinema. It has the tendency to backfire. When you’re immortal, however, perhaps revenge is risk worth taking – then again, it’s not your life your weighing. Takashi Miike is no stranger to the jidaigeki world, though in adapting Hiroaki Samura’s manga Blade of the Immortal (無限の住人, Mugen no Junin) he harks back to the angry, arty samurai films of the late 1960s from Gosha’s Sword of the Beast with which the manga features some minor narrative similarities, to Kobayashi’s melancholy consideration of corrupted honour, and the frantic intensity of Okamoto’s Sword of Doom.

The film opens in black and white as a disgraced samurai, Manji (Takuya Kimura), tries to protect his younger sister, Machi (Hana Sugisaki), who has gone mad through grief only to see her murdered by a bounty hunter. Manji enters a state of furious, mindless killing which leaves the bounty hunter’s vast crowd of henchmen lying dead and Manji mortally wounded. Consumed by guilt and having lost the sister who was his sole reason for living, Manji longs for death but a mysterious old woman who calls herself Yaobikuni (Yoko Yamamoto) has other ideas and curses Manji to a life of eternal suffering by means of sacred bloodworms which give him the power of infinite, near instant healing.

Fifty years later, the land is at peace under the Tokugawa Shogunate but peaceful times are dull for warriors. The Itto-ryu school of swordsmanship has a mission – to take over all of the nation’s martial arts facilities and restore power to the sword. They have no honour or ideology save that of kill or be killed and are content to use any and all weapons which come to hand. A young girl, Rin (Yoko Yamamoto), is a daughter of one of these schools and has her eyes set on becoming a top swordswoman herself but when the Itto-ryu show up at her door, Rin’s father’s training proves worthless as he’s cut down with one blow while the gang kidnap Rin’s mother. The Itto-ryu’s sole concession to morality is in letting Rin alone, seeing as it’s “vulgar” to toy with children.

Rin vows revenge on the Itto-ryu’s leader, Anotsu (Sota Fukushi), at which point she runs into Yaobikuni who recommends she track down Manji and hire him as a bodyguard. Fifty years of immortality have turned Manji into an isolated, embittered wastrel with rusty swordskills but Rin’s uncanny resemblance to Machi eventually begins to move his heart. Despite generating a master/pupil, big brother/little sister relationship, Manji fails to teach Rin very much of consequence that might assist her in her plan to avenge her family, leaving her a vulnerable young woman beset by enemies and random thugs, and eventually caught up in a government conspiracy. The irony of Manji’s life is that he’s just not very good at the art of protection and all of his attempts to do something good usually provoke an even bigger crisis, in this case leaving his new little sister open to exactly the same fate as the one he failed to save for much the same reasons. Apparently, Manji has learned little during his extended lifetime except how to brood and glare resentfully at the world.

It turns out being immortal is kind of a drag. Manji wants to die because he can’t cope with the burden of his guilt, but another similarly cursed man he meets has lived much longer and lost far more, becoming tired of the business of of living. Manji’s existence has lost all meaning, but as he puts it to another world weary warrior who shares his brotherly grief, he’s not the only hero of a sad story. Rin’s need for vengeance gives him a purpose again – not just in the literal revenge, but in being the protector (though one could argue this is less positive than it sounds and might explain why he fails to teach Rin anything very useful, even if it doesn’t explain why she also forgets all her father’s teachings).

Rin remains conflicted over her mission of revenge, confessing to a similarly conflicted assassin that she agrees killing is wrong but that right and wrong no longer matter when it comes to people you love. A dangerous and dubious assertion, but it does bear out the more positive message that love, or at least learning to live for others, can be a transformative force for good as Manji allows himself to resume his role as the big brother despite his past failings. Violent and visceral, if also humorous, Blade of the Immortal is, oddly enough, a story of love but also of cyclical paths of violence and revenge, and of the general muddiness of assigning the moral high ground to those engaged in a quest for retribution.


Blade of the Immortal was screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2017 and will be released in UK cinemas courtesy of Arrow Entertainment on 8th December.

International trailer (English subtitles/captions)

Library Wars: The Last Mission (図書館戦争-THE LAST MISSION-, Shinsuke Sato, 2015)

library-wars-last-missionWhen Library Wars, the original live action adaptation of Hiro Arikawa’s light novel series, hit cinema screens back in 2013 it did so with a degree of commercial, rather than critical, success. Though critics were quick to point out the great gaping plot holes in the franchise’s world building and a slight imbalance in its split romantic comedy/sci-fi political thriller genre mix, the film was in many ways a finely crafted mainstream blockbuster supported by committed performances from its cast and impressive cinematography from its creative team. Library Wars: The Last Mission (図書館戦争-THE LAST MISSION-, Toshokan Senso -The Last Mission-) is the sequel that those who enjoyed the first film have been waiting for given the very obvious plot developments left unresolved at the previous instalment’s conclusion.

18 months later, Kasahara (Nana Eikura) is a fully fledged member of the Library Defence Force, but still hasn’t found the courage to confess her love to her long term crush and embittered commanding officer, Dojo (Junichi Okada). As in the first film, The Media Betterment Force maintains a strict censorship system intended to prevent “harmful” literature reaching “vulnerable” people through burning all suspect books before they can cause any damage. Luckily, the libraries system is there to rescue books before they meet such an unfortunate fate and operates the LDF to defend the right to read, by force if necessary.

Kasahara is an idealist, fully committed to the defence of literature. It is, therefore, a surprise when she is accused of being an accomplice to a spate of book burning within the library in which books criticising the libraries system are destroyed. Needless to say, Kasahara has been framed as part of a villainous plan orchestrated by fellow LDF officer Tezuka’s (Sota Fukushi) rogue older brother, Satoshi (Tori Matsuzaka). There is a conspiracy at foot, but it’s not quite the one everyone had assumed it to be.

In comparison with the first film, The Last Mission is much more action orientated with military matters taking up the vast majority of the run time. A large scale battle in which the LDF is tasked with guarding an extremely important book containing their own charter (i.e. a symbol of everything they stand for) but quickly discovers the Media Betterment Force is not going to pass up this opportunity to humiliate their rival, forms the action packed centrepiece of the film.

The theme this time round leans less towards combating censorship in itself, but stops to ask whether it’s worth continuing to fight even if you feel little progress is being made. The traitorous officer who helps to frame Kasahara does so because he’s disillusioned with the LDF and its constant water treading. The LDF is doing what it can, but it’s fighting to protect books – not change the system. This is a weakness Satoshi Tezuka is often able to exploit as the constant warfare and tit for tat exchanges have begun to wear heavy on many LDF officers who are half way to giving up and switching sides. Even a zealot like Kasahara is thrown into a moment of existential despair when prodded by Satoshi’s convincing arguments about her own obsolescence.

Satoshi rails against a world filled with evil words, but as the head of the LDF points out in quoting Heinrich Heine, the society that burns books will one day burn men. The LDF may not be able to break the system, but in providing access to information it can spread enlightenment and create a thirst for knowledge among the young which will one day produce the kind of social change that will lead to a better, fairer world.

As in Library Wars all of these ideas are background rather than the focus of the film which is, in essence, the ongoing non-romance between Kasahara and Dojo. Remaining firmly within the innocent shojo realm, the romantic resolution may seem overly subtle to some given the extended build up over both films but is ultimately satisfying in its cuteness. Library Wars: The Last Mission masks its absurd premise with a degree of silliness, always entirely self aware, but gets away with it through sincerity and good humour. Shinsuke Sato once again proves himself among the best directors of mainstream blockbusters in Japan improving on some of the faults of the first film whilst bringing the franchise to a suitably just conclusion.


Original trailer (No subtitles)

Last Quarter (下弦の月 ラスト・クォーター, Ken Nikai, 2004)

Last Quarter posterTo begin on a cynical note, Last Quarter (下弦の月 ラスト・クォーター, Kagen no tsuki Last Quarter) is a film with a wide variety of marketing hooks. The first being that it’s an adaptation of a much loved short manga series by the well respected mangaka Ai Yazawa (Paradise Kiss) so it has its shoujo pedigree firmly in place. Secondly, pop star HYDE of L’Arc-en-Ciel is central to the production as he both stars in the movie as the ghostly love interest/deathly spirit and repeatedly sings his own songs throughout the film including over the end credits. Thirdly, it also stars actress Chiaki Kuriyama well known to overseas audiences thanks to Kill Bill and Battle Royale. You’d think with all these high quality ingredients first time director Ken Nikai would be able to cook up quite a feast though he does somewhat over egg the pudding.

After a brief dream sequence, the action kicks off at the 19th birthday party of British rock obsessed Mizuki (Chiaki Kuriyama) which takes place in a Mod inspired bar. Unfortunately, her best friend gets very drunk indeed and takes this opportunity to show Mizuki a photo of herself and Mizuki’s boyfriend in a compromising position. Mizuki throws a shoe at the no good philanderer and walks out on her own party ending up at a mysterious Western style mansion occupied by a sad man playing a guitar. She hits it off with “Adam” and decides to jack in her unhappy family life with her father and step-mother to leave for England with him. Sadly, she gets hit by a car on her way home only to wake up trapped inside the house and having lost all memory of who she formerly was. Soon enough, another girl, Hotaru (Tomoka Kurokawa), turns up and, assuming she’s a ghost, decides to help her “cross over” , but it’s all a little more complicated than Hotaru and her team had bargained for.

Last Quarter takes on an oddly imbalanced feel as it veers into star vehicle territory putting HYDE and his title song centerstage at the expense of Mizuki who ought to be the protagonist of the story. Understandably, as she’s fallen under the curse of the house, Mizuki is a mostly passive force throughout the film, entirely reliant on the efforts of the gang of three who are trying to help her by figuring out what’s really going on. The mystery element itself is quite an intriguing one but is often frustrated by the importance placed on the supernatural romance. Stretching plausibility to the limit, the events in question span 30 years and two continents to spin a yarn of pure love enduring beyond the grave. Pure love and grudge movies aren’t usually allowed to mix and they don’t quite here although Last Quarter certainly has elements of both.

Last Quarter’s biggest failing is in its production values which are generally on the low side. Nikai aims for an urban gothic aesthetic and achieves something close to sense of European decadence but opts to avoid the darkness inherent in the genre for a fairytale atmosphere. The effects are very highly stylised and old fashioned but Last Quarter doesn’t even attempt to make that work in its favour so much as offering it at face value.

In essence, Last Quarter often feels like an overblown music video for its rock star actor even if he actually has a relatively small role. Director Nikai has often worked with the band before and (apparently) there is a degree of recurring symbolism here that long time fans will instantly pick up on but will leave the casual viewer a little confused. Very firmly aimed at a younger teen female audience, Last Quarter will play best to fans of non-threatening supernatural romance but even then they’d be best advised to avoid thinking any of this through and simply enjoy the ghostly shenanigans for the ridiculous rag tag narrative they are. An interesting mix of ‘60s mod rocker cool with its parkas and vespas, and full on gothic with byronic heroes sitting in decaying mansions in the middle of creepy forests singing about their broken hearts, Last Quarter is incoherent to say the least but fans of its rockstar leading man will likely find their perseverance rewarded.


Last Quarter is available with English subtitles on R1 DVD in the US courtesy of Geneon.

Unsubtitled trailer:

Library Wars 図書館戦争

library-wars-2013-dojo-and-kasahara

 

 

Based on a series of light novels by Hiro Arikawa, Library Wars is another adaptation of a popular multimedia franchise from the director of the live action Gantz movies. Like Gantz, it’s another bug budget, tentpole style block buster with a subtle (though not insubstantial) desire to inject a bit of social commentary into what can be an entirely trivial genre. The manipulative forces at play here, however, are far less mysterious and unfortunately much more plausible than the mysterious black orbs of Gantz as they come in the form of crypto fascist censorship enthusiasts known as The Media Betterment Force. Having achieved the kind of success Mary Whitehouse could only dream of, The Media Betterment Force managed to pass the Media Betterment Act in the alternate Japan of 1989 which required all books containing ‘objectionable’ material to be destroyed. All is not lost though as the last bastion of intellectual freedom, the library, takes up arms and defends its right to disseminate whatsoever information anyone might desire with a government mandated assurance that library property can be safeguarded – with military force if necessary. Thirty years later in the near future of 2019, a young girl joins the LDF (Library Defence Force) full of idealistic zeal for protecting literature and a not so altruistic mission of finding the LDF officer who once saved her favourite book for her during in a MBF raid on a bookshop. Politics, romance, action! It’s all here for your edification and enjoyment.

If this all sounds a bit silly, well it is – but only in the best possible way. This is not a film about the evils of censorship, or how intellectual discourse and freedom of information are essential parts of any fully functioning society, though those themes are there if only in passing, so much as a big glossy blockbuster with just about every genre you can think of vying for the spotlight. The creeping totalitarianism is more backdrop than anything else but perhaps the absurdity of anyone picking up arms to defend access to information speaks to our unwillingness to prevent a gradual slide into a world of book burning and (not really) well meaning nannyism. First and foremost, Library Wars is science fiction action film modelled on the familiar boot camp genre following an underdog rookie recruit’s path to frontline glory. Yes we have training montages galore complete with the strained friendships and ‘you’re off the team!’ moments that appear in every film of this kind but the absurd premise and the film’s successful adoption of a warm comic tone help smooth over over any genre clichés and thankfully the film also manages to impress with several large scale battle scenes.

The romantic comedy element is arguably the least successful as it lacks the traditional climax many fans of the genre maybe hoping for (though one suspects a sequel may well put that right). That said the central relationship definitely falls into the ‘cute’ category and cleverly avoids the melodramatic nature of most blockbuster romances. Yes, the audience knows right away who the much sought after prince is but that only makes it more fun even if the post-idealistic bitterness of the man in question is another genre cliché. Supporting characters are also nicely fleshed out and each enjoys a decent amount of time in the spotlight creating a nice ensemble feel which is often rare in a blockbuster. As in Gantz the acting style remains fairly grounded rather the bigger, TV inflected performances which have been creeping into mainstream cinema and the strong performances from a fairly high profile cast help to lift Library Wars above some of its cinematic brethren.

Viewers expecting another Fahrenheit 451 or 1984 will obviously be disappointed in Library Wars’ fairly superficial examination of its themes but those hoping for a rip roaring, if slightly ridiculous, adventure are in line for a treat. Though the subject matter is itself absurd, such care has gone into the world building that it all makes a curious kind of sense assuming you’re willing to let yourself go with it. Most importantly, it’s remarkably self assured in terms of its tone – it knows exactly what it is and isn’t afraid to embrace its own nature. With much more heart than your average blockbuster, Library Wars is a warm and funny action comedy that also manages to be genuinely romantic. Now if they can only hurry up with Library Wars 2 so we can all enjoy the romantic resolution we’ve been waiting for!