The Cherry Orchard: Blossoming (櫻の園 -さくらのその-, Shun Nakahara, 2008)

The Cherry Orchard- Blossoming poster In 1990, Shun Nakahara adapted Akimi Yoshida’s manga Sakura no Sono and created a perfectly observed capsule of late ‘80s teenage life at an elite girls school where the encroaching future is both terrifying and oddly exciting. Revisiting the same material 28 years later, one can’t help feeling that the times have rolled back rather than forwards. Starring a collection of appropriately aged teenage starlets The Cherry Orchard: Blossoming (櫻の園 -さくらのその- Sakura no Sono), dispenses with the arty overtones for a far more straightforward tale of melancholy schoolgirls finding release in art but, crucially, only to a point.

Less an attempt to remake the original, Blossoming acts as an odd kind of sequel in which the leading lady, Momo (Saki Fukuda), becomes fed up with her rigid life at a music conservatoire and rebelliously storms out. Already in her last year of high school, Momo is lucky enough to get a transfer to Oka Academy solely because her mother and (much) older sister are old girls. However, transfer students are rare at Oka and the other girls aren’t exactly happy to see her – they worked hard to get here but she’s just waltzed straight in without any kind of effort at all.

Gradually the situation improves. Wandering around the old school building (a European style country house) which was the setting for the first film and has now been replaced with a modern, purpose built high school complex, Momo finds the script for The Cherry Orchard and becomes fixated on the idea of putting the play on with some of the other students. However, though The Cherry Orchard used to be an annual fixture it hasn’t been performed in 11 years after being abruptly cancelled when one of the stars disgraced the school by falling pregnant.

Whereas Nakahara’s 1990 Cherry Orchard was a tightly controlled affair, penning the girls inside the school and staying with them through several crises across the two hours before their big performance, Blossoming has no such conceits and adopts a formula much more like the classic sports movie as the underdog girls fight to put the play on and then undergo physical training (complete with montages) rather than rehearsals.

Momo’s rebellion is (in a sense) a positive one as she abandons something she was beginning to find no longer worked for her to look for something else and also gains a need to see things through rather than give up when times get hard. The drama of the 1990 version is kickstarted when a student is caught smoking in a cafe with delinquents from another school, aside from being told that students are expected to go straight home, Momo feels little danger in hanging out in an underground bar where her music school friend plays in a avant-garde pop band.

Though this reflects a change in eras it also points to a slight sanitisation of the source material. Gone are the illicit boyfriends (though there is one we don’t see) and barely repressed crushes, these teens are still in the land of shojo – dreaming of romance but innocently. Teenage pregnancy becomes a recurrent theme but lost opportunities hover in the background as the girls are seen from their own perspective rather than the wistful melancholy of those looking back on their youth.

Such commentary is left to the “old girls” represented by Momo’s soon to be married sister and the girls’ teacher, each of whom is still left hanging thanks to the cancellation of the play during their high school years. Despite her impending marriage, Momo’s sister does not seem to be able to put the past behind her and may be nursing a long term unrequited crush on a high school classmate. Blossoming echoes some of the concerns of Cherry Orchard, notably in its central pairing as lanky high jumper Aoi (Anne Watanabe) worries over a perceived lack of femininity while the more refined Mayuko (Saki Terashima) silently pines for her, unable to make her feelings plain. The 1990 version presented a painful triangle of possibly unrequited loves and general romantic confusion but it did at least allow a space for overt discussion rather than the half hearted subtly of a mainstream idol film in a supposedly more progressive era.

Nevertheless, Nakahara’s second pass at teenage drama does fulfil on the plucky high school girls promise as the gang get together to put the show on right here. Much less nuanced than the earlier version, Blossoming’s teens are just as real even if somehow more naive than their ‘80s counterparts. Team building, friendship, and perseverance are the name of the day as the passing of time takes a back seat, relegated to Momo’s sad smile as she alone witnesses the painful love drama of her melancholy friend.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Terra Formars (テラフォーマーズ, Takashi Miike, 2016)

terra-formarsTerra Formars – Terror for Mars? It’s all about terror in the quest for terra and reform in Takashi Miike’s bug hunt extravaganza adaptation of Yu Sasuga and Kenichi Tachibana’s manga. In fact, much of the plot is more or less the same as Aliens, but our motley crew is not a crack team of space marines headed by a recently awoken from stasis super survivor who proves unexpectedly dextrous in a robotic forklift exoskeleton, but a collection of human “bugs”, parasitical criminals who’ve each been made an offer they can’t refuse. High budget and boasting a starry cast, Terra Formars (テラフォーマーズ) definitely falls into the throwaway Miike category and proves curiously dull despite its ridiculous set up, but then if you happen to be into bugs there’s really a lot to like here.

Running through the Tokyo of 2597 which seems to be some kind of Blade Runner theme park, Shokichi (Hideaki Ito) and Nanao (Emi Takei) are trying to escape the oddly bug-like police only to be captured and taken to the lair of mad scientist and all round fabulous guy, Honda (Shun Oguri). He has a proposal – join his mission to Mars and get a large amount of money instead of getting a death sentence for the murder they were on the run for. Reluctantly, they agree but there are several things Honda forgot to tell them – they’ve been given alien bug DNA which gives them super powers, and the “cockroaches” they’re supposed to be exterminating have mutated into giant humanoid creatures capable of planning and tool use. Oh, and everyone on the first mission died horribly.

By 2597, the world has become massively overpopulated but luckily enterprising scientists had come up with a plan for terraforming Mars through the use of various kinds of moss distributed by millions of cockroaches. The terraforming process is now complete and it’s time for colonisation to begin but no one really thought about what to do with all their insectile helpers. No longer “mere” bugs, the highly evolved Roaches are now the (not quite) indigenous peoples of Mars. Miike does not push the colonisation narrative (and nobly attempts to mitigate the elements which have seen the original source material decried as racist) but you can’t get away from the fact that the Roaches have every right to fight back and defend their homeland from an invading force wielding superior technology and hellbent on mass extermination.

Honda’s big idea (well, one of his big ideas as it turns out) was to send a bug to catch a bug. In some senses, all of the assembled bait could be regarded as human pests – petty criminals and reprobates offering nothing of value to society. Given the pace of the film and the subsequent carnage, none of them is given much time to shine so we mostly remember them by their epithets – creepy serial killer, hikkokomori hacker, teenage prostitution ringleader, illegal immigrant, former yakuza and dodgy ex-police officer – in other words, people with no options that no one will miss. They’ve each been more or less forced into this position by their peculiar circumstances as exploited by Honda and his team who have given them a “risky” operation involving alien DNA which has given them bug-like powers from super sharp pincers to venomous stings.

Bug hunt is an apt way to describe the subsequent action as the crew activate their inner insects and prepare to squash some Roaches only to die in various painful looking ways, usually by losing their heads. There’s a distinctly Aliens undertone to the entire enterprise, even borrowing a key plot revelation from the film’s ‘80s anti-corporate message but it’s all so unimportant next to the bug killing that it most likely gets missed. Repetitious in the extreme, the two hour runtime is stretched to breaking point with battle after battle of mostly losses as the Roaches effortlessly swat our puny human heroes.

Production design is the most impressive element but even this borrows heavily from such similarly themed genre landmarks as Blade Runner, Aliens, Total Recall, and to a lesser extent Starship Troopers. Ultra camp from Honda’s obsession with his fashionable outfits to the Ultraman style practical effects of the bug suits, Terra Formars later fails to capitalise on its surreal and ridiculous premise, remaining disappointingly straightforward in terms of tone for much of the running time. Keen entomologists will perhaps enjoy the animated info sequences introducing the various beetles, flies, and other assorted creatures as well as those same traits being acted out by our heroes but for everyone else Terra Formars may prove a rather dull expedition to the previously red planet, now a green and pleasant land but very definitely inhabited and defended. Plenty of bug splatting action with only minimally disquieting overtones but a sorry lack of excitement, Terra Formars is a disappointingly by the numbers sci-fi effort from the usually exuberant Miike but does at least look good.


Original trailer (No subtitles – massive spoilers)

Rurouni Kenshin 3: The Legend Ends (UK Anime Network Review)

RK3_01jpgThe Legend Ends (for now?) but it certainly goes out in style! Review of the final part of this fantastically awesome trilogy up on UK Anime Network. I really did love these even if part 3 is the weakest part (can I have a Saito spin-off series, please?!).


To state the obvious, this review contains a fair few spoilers if you’ve yet to see Rurouni Kenshin 2: Kyoto Inferno so please bear that in mind before reading on.

All things must end and the legend of Rurouni Kenshin is coming to a close, for this chapter at least. Continuing on directly from the dramatic cliff hanger ending of Rurouni Kenshin 2: Kyoto Inferno we’re once again right in the middle of the battle between two former government assassins – the fearless killer Battosai, now rehabilitated and known as Kenshin Himura, and the crazed villain Shishio who narrowly survived being burned on a funeral pyre by the very government who once employed him. Shishio is still hell bent on bringing down the nascent Meiji government, preferably with as much damage as possible and the only one who can stop him is Kenshin – with a little help from his friends, of course!

At the end of the last film, Kenshin found himself washed up on a beach and carried off by a mysterious figure (played by big name actor Masaharu Fukuyama – Like Father Like Son and star of the 2010 Taiga drama Ryomaden also directed by Ohtomo, in a secret cameo). In not quite the biggest coincidence of the film, this figure just happens to be Kenshin’s mentor Seijuro! Which is handy because Kenshin really needs to learn the ultimate swordsmanship technique before he’ll be able to take on Shishio and win. That’s not to mention facing off against Aoshi who just wants to kill Battosai so he can be the number one badass and become today’s prettiest face on all the wanted posters around town. Kenshin certainly has a lot on his plate, but the future of the new Japan rests on his reverse bladed sword alone.

Kyoto Inferno and The Legend Ends were filmed back to back and released with only a short interval between them in Japan – you could argue it’s more one sequel in two parts than two separate films. Picking up right where Kyoto Inferno left off, The Legend Ends maintains the first film’s high production values and impressive action sequences though, it has to be said, with a lengthy lull in the earlier part of the film. Were the two films watched back to back, this “cooling off” period may feel a little more necessary to provide a bit of breathing space between the frenetic ending stretch of Kyoto Inferno and the lengthy battles towards the end of The Legend Ends but when the second film is watched in isolation it can’t help but feel a little slow to get going. Nevertheless, when the battles come, they come thick and fast and display some of the best swordplay sequences of any recent film. Often breathtaking in the fluidity with which it captures these beautifully choreographed sequences, The Legend Ends only improves on the promise of the first two films when it comes to the action stakes.

Unfortunately, this does lead to other aspects of the story being sidelined somewhat. This is really the Kenshin vs Shishio show – not a bad thing in itself but it does mean there’s less time for everyone else. Even big stars like Yu Aoi (Megumi) wind up with one scene only while Emi Takei’s Kaoru is relegated to looking pained in the background. Fan favourite character Sonsosuke gets the most airtime providing his trademark comic relief, and Saito still gets to smoke and look cool with his Drunken Angel era Mifune-like floppy hair to bring his characteristic powerful indifference to every single scene he’s in. Still, fans of the manga in particular may feel disappointed as their favourite scenes and characters get short shrift – especially given the speed at which some of the much feted Ten Swords are met and dispatched in the final battle.

It may be way too long, but The Legend Ends is a fitting finale to this exciting saga. Packing in a number of fantastically choreographed action sequences the film also makes sure to bring Kenshin’s internal story to a satisfying climax (though leaving room for a return to his world should the opportunity arise). Engaging performances, interesting direction and high production values all ensure this trilogy of Rurouni Kenshin live action films has been one of the most successful Japanese mainstream efforts of recent times. Another sterling effort from this expert team, The Legend Ends may not be the strongest entry in the series, but remains a fantastically enjoyable treat!


Out in (very) selected cinemas from today, 17th April 2015

Here’s where it’s on (good luck!):

  • Cineworld Bolton
  • Cineworld Cardiff
  • Cineworld Crawley
  • Cineworld Enfield
  • Cineworld Glasgow Renfrew St.
  • Cineworld Sheffield
  • Cineworld Stevenage
  • Cineworld West India Quay

Rurouni Kenshin 2: Kyoto Inferno (UK Anime Network Review)

ruruoni_kenshin_the_kyoto_inferno_still(saito’s just so cool!)

Review of the first Rurouni Kenshin sequel, Rurouni Kenshin 2: Kyoto Inferno up at UK Anime Network.


At the end of the first Rurouni Kenshin live action film, you might have been forgiven for thinking that this once wandering warrior had finally found a place to hang up his (reverse blade) sword for good. As fans of Nobuhiro Watsuki’s much loved manga and its anime adaptation will know, there’s no such luck for Himura Kenshin or the long suffering Kaoru as once again Kenshin will be called upon to put his unique skills to use and this time the very survival of Japan’s new era of modernism and equality is at stake!

Having successfully seen off would be drug baron Kanryuu and the false Battosai Jin-e, once remorseless killer Kenshin (Takeru Satoh) has moved into the dojo run by Kaoru (Emi Takei) and made a seemingly joyful life alongside Kaoru’s only pupil, the boy Yahiko (Kaito Oyagi), the doctor Megumi (Yu Aoi) and loud mouth Sanosuke (Munekata Aoki). However, the happy family’s peace is about to be rudely interrupted as an envoy from the Home Minister arrives and requests a private meeting with Kenshin. It seems an old enemy once believed dead has been discovered to be alive and currently plotting terrible vengeance against the new government in Kyoto. Shishio’s skills are matched only by Kenshin and so the government wishes to make use of his services once again to stop this new threat to the development of the modernising Japan. However, Kenshin has laid down his sword and dedicated his life to atoning for the lives he took as a warrior – will he really return to the life of a wandering swordsman? Originally reluctant and very much against the wishes of Kaoru, a tragic event finally convinces Kenshin he has no choice but to stop Shishio whatever the cost!

Even more so that the first film, Rurouni Kenshin 2: Kyoto Inferno is set against the backdrop of a Japan in the middle of earth shattering cultural shifts. The age of the Shogun is over, there are no more samurai or feudal loyalties to fulfil. This fresh new world of possibilities has no place left in it for the men who fought so bravely to bring it into being. Some, like Kenshin, hung up their swords and set themselves into atoning for the violence of the past by vowing to build a better, kinder, future. Others, however, like Shishio, were left with nothing other than the desire to return to a world where their skills mattered – the familiar world of lords and castles and glorious battles. Kenshin and Shishio are two sides of the same coin – light and shadow. Having been assassinated and thrown on a funeral pyre before miraculously surviving thanks to a fortuitous fall of snow, Shishio has made fire his very own symbol and primary weapon of attack. This new world is a hell for him and along with his bandage clad gang of followers, he’s about to plunge all of Japan into a fiery abyss too.

The first instalment was also notable for its fairly high production values and if anything, Kyoto Inferno even improves upon the original film’s impressive aesthetics. Fire in particular has often proved something of a bug bear for the modern action film and as you might expect from the title Kyoto Inferno is jam packed with flaming action. From its extremely striking opening scene, Kyoto Inferno lays on some of the most complex and beautifully filmed action sequences to be seen in a Japanese film in quite some time. Where it falls down slightly is bound up with its nature as the first part of a two part film as it is does begin to pile on the sub plots and risks becoming overloaded while the original gang (and particularly Yu Aoi’s doctor Megumi) end up with relatively little to do. Likewise, as with the first film the more manga-like elements such as some of the overly broad comedy or a couple of characters who are just the wrong sort of outrageous don’t quite fit with the otherwise classical feeling of the film though fans of the manga franchise may appreciate this attempt at remaining faithful to the source material.

In many ways the Rurouni Kenshin movies are just fluffy mainstream action films (not that there’s anything wrong with that) but Rurouni Kenshin 2: Kyoto Inferno is that rarest of beasts in that it manages to build on the foundations of the first film to become something greater with the result that it even helps to elevate the original. Of course, this largely hinges on how well the last part of the trilogy, appropriately entitled The Legend Ends will fare but suffice to say the first two thirds have stood it in very good stead. Action packed but with a tightly plotted storyline, convincing characters, good performances and high production values Rurouni Kenshin 2: Kyoto Inferno offers everything that’s good about blockbusters without any of the drawbacks. In fact the only real problem that the film presents is the likely long wait until The Lengend Ends finally arrives!


 

This is out in UK cinemas from Friday 28th November 2014 when it’ll play all these cool places:

  • Cineworld Enfield
  • Cineworld Crawley
  • Cineworld Sheffield
  • Cineworld West India Quay
  • Cineworld Glasgow RS
  • Cineworld Cardiff
  • Cineworld Stevenage
  • Cineworld Bolton
  • Vue Piccadilly (London)

Well worth seeing on the big screen, might even be better than the first one!