Kingdom (キングダム, Shinsuke Sato, 2019) [Fantasia 2019]

Kingdom poster 1The class war arrives in feudal China via modern Japan in Shinsuke Sato’s big budget adaptation of the wuxia-inspired manga by Yasuhisa Hara, Kingdom (キングダム). Set in China’s Warring States period, Kingdom offers a surprisingly progressive message, if mildly tempered by a failure to tackle the system in its entirety, in which the oppressed (which in this case includes the king) rise up against sneering aristocracy fuelled mostly by righteousness and fierce defence of the right to dream.

The tale begins with a fateful meeting between enslaved war orphans Piao (Ryo Yoshizawa) and Xin (Kento Yamazaki) on a small farm somewhere in rural China. The boys, realising there is no way out of their enslavement save the sword, commit themselves to perfecting their martial arts with the ultimate goal of becoming the world’s greatest generals. Their intense bond is broken when a mysterious man, Lord Chang . Wen Jun (Masahiro Takashima), appears and offers Piao a job at the palace. Though he agonises over leaving his brother behind, Piao seizes his destiny little knowing he has been hired not quite so much for his sword skills as for his resemblance to weakened king Ying Zheng (also played by Ryo Yoshizawa). Sometime later, Piao returns close to death, entrusting Xin with an important mission – go to Ying Zheng and seek his own destiny by restoring rightful rule.

The two boys are about as oppressed as it’s possible to be – orphaned slaves with no prospect of improving their condition save the one they’ve already decided on, fighting in a war. This doesn’t quite explain how they can release themselves from the farm, but Xin’s eventual flight, in which his master does not attempt to stop him, might suggest the first hurdle is not as big as it seems. In any case, Xin finds an unlikely ally in Ying Zheng who has been deposed from the throne by his younger brother for not being royal enough because his birth was illegitimate and his mother was a dancer.

Of course, Ying Zheng’s intention to regain his “rightful” throne is in defence of a necessarily unequal social order, but it’s also a blow against the kind of elitism which mark’s his brother Cheng Jiao’s (Kanata Hongo) philosophy. Cheng Jiao believes that he is the most rightful king because his blood is the most royal. He looks down on Ying Zheng as low born, and has no respect for his subjects or the lower orders. “A peasant in fine clothes is still a peasant” one of his minions intones to intimidate an opponent, but someone with a sword is still someone with a sword no matter their circumstances of birth and provided you have access to acquire one, perhaps swordsmanship is a truly egalitarian art given that it largely depends on how well you wield a blade. Eventually, Ying Zheng makes an ally of another oppressed people – the mountain dwellers subjugated, and previously betrayed, by the powers that be who lend their strength to toppling a corrupt power structure in order to restore something like peace and balance to the land.

Indeed, asked to give a brief manifesto speech, Ying Zheng cooly declares that he aims to create a unified China by eliminating borders and therefore the need for war. Insisting that when a king picks up a sword it ought to be in service of his people, he makes the case for a borderless world, little caring that, as his general points out, history may brand him a tyrant. Nevertheless, he remains a “puppet king” whose status is dependent on the loyalty of key general Wang Yi (Takao Ohsawa) with whom true power lies. Wang Yi, as we later find out seems to be a “good” person who used his troops to protect the innocent and ensure no civilians were harmed during the chaos of the insurrection but he does indeed wield dangerously vast power for just one man. Meanwhile, Ying Zheng may reject the primacy of blood, but does dare to claim his birthright as an oldest son and is of course acting in service of an inherently oppressive system even if he means to make minor improvements towards the kind of meritocracy that allows men like Xin to embrace the power of their dreams.

The power of dreams is indeed the key. Though Cheng Jiao’s hardline mercenary may sneer that “dreams are bullshit” and deny a slave like Xin’s right to have one at all, to men like Xin dreams are all they have. As he says, they get you back on your feet when everything else seems hopeless. Learning that Piao achieved his dream even if it was only for a few moments gives him the strength to pursue his own in service not just of himself but his brother, friends, and kingdom.

Appropriating the aesthetics of wuxia may prove problematic for some, but like many Japanese manga with international settings, Kingdom’s mechanics are essentially home grown which is perhaps why Sato heavily leans on Kurosawa’s legacy, possibly overusing the distinctive side wipe and giving his heroine a look echoing that from Hidden Fortress while other influences seem to feed back from Star Wars in the strangely cute masked mountain elders and gleaming golden armour of bad ass warrior queen Yang Duan He (Masami Nagasawa). A surprisingly positive, perhaps ironically bold plea for a borderless world and if not actual equality at least a friendly kind of egalitarian nobility, Kingdom hands victory to those who fight hardest for their right to dream while subtly advocating for their right to rebel against an inherently unjust social order in order to claim it. 


Kingdom was screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival. It will also be screened in US cinemas from Aug. 16 courtesy of Funimation.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Until the Lights Come Back (大停電の夜に, Takashi Minamoto, 2005)

Until the Lights Come Back posterChristmas is, among other things, conveniently held on the same day every year. As such, it can’t help but become a moment of minor introspection inviting a thorough investigation of a life’s trajectory. In Japan, Christmas is also about romance which means it can also be an intense or melancholy occasion in which relationships past and present come up for reappraisal. Takashi Minamoto’s ensemble drama Until the Lights Come Back (大停電の夜に, Daiteiden no Yoru ni) spins a tale of city life as it catches hold of a number of accidentally connected souls and puts them through the emotional ringer thanks to an artificial psychological pause engineered by a power cut on Christmas Eve,

A melancholy barman sets a record going. A boy tracking satellites sees a girl hovering dangerously close to edge of the roof opposite. A conflicted salaryman finds out a dark family secret. A mistress is dumped while a wife wonders how much longer she should wait. A pregnant woman is chased by a yakuza, and an old lady gets an unexpected phone call.

Somehow, all of these events are connected though it takes a moment to figure out how. Christmas is a time for romance, but for the dejected salaryman, Ryotaro (Tomorowo Taguchi), it’s about to become a very difficult day indeed. When his terminally ill father decides to tell him the secrets of his birth, it prompts him into a mild bout of introspection concerning his own familial relationships. Ten years with the patient Shizue (Tomoyo Harada) haven’t cured his philandering and the marriage is strained to breaking point. Still, he thinks nothing of cancelling their special Christmas Eve dinner together to go meet his mistress even if his true purpose is to end things before they get any more complicated.

Missed connections and frustrated love stories continue to dominate. The mistress, Misuzo (Haruka Igawa), gets into a lift with Chinese bellboy Dongdong (Tsuyoshi Abe) who was supposed to be going back to Shanghai to visit his long-distance girlfriend who he worries is losing interest. Meanwhile, the melancholy barman, Mr. Kido (Etsushi Toyokawa), is pining for a failed love of his own – a woman he foolishly abandoned and then tried to pick back up again only to learn she had married someone else and that the marriage was unhappy. Mr. Kido gave up his musical dreams to open a jazz bar in the hope his love would someday return to him, only to be visited by “hope” in a different form – that of the strange young woman, Nozomi (Tomoko Tabata), from the across the way who’s about to have a very big business night in her off the beaten track artisanal candle shop.

Meanwhile, the recently released ex-yakuza, Gin (Koji Kikkawa), pines for his lost love in the form of the heavily pregnant Reiko (Shinobu Terajima) who swore to wait for him but eventually drifted away and married someone else though she seems to be happy enough which, strangely, he seems to find a comfort. When the lights go out there’s nothing much else to do but talk and think and so each of our wounded protagonists is forced to put their pain into focus, considering the wider context of an emotional landscape and attempting to find accommodation within it. Mr. Kido can’t quite let go of his failed love, however much he might want to, but Gin can perhaps learn to be thankful that the woman he loved found someone nice who looked after her when he couldn’t.

While the older generation swap stories of the eerie wartime blackouts and those of the comparatively less worrying power outages born of an inability to keep up with a rapidly recovering economy, the young make the best of it – swapping the twinkling lights of Christmas displays for the wonder of the stars. Candlelight and unexpected friendships give birth to new ways of thinking and create their very own Christmas miracles which seem set to pave a way towards a happier future for all in which forgiveness and understanding rule. Strangely warm yet never sentimental, Until the Lights Come Back captures a brief moment of stillness in a lonely city as its disconnected heroes find themselves pulled into a series of concentric epiphanies, putting the past to rest while learning to embrace an as yet unseen future.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Inuyashiki (いぬやしき, Shinsuke Sato, 2018)

inuyashiki_poster_B1_0206D_fin_ol_3Japanese cinema has long been preoccupied by the conflict between age and youth though it usually comes down on the side of the youngsters, even when rebuking them for their selfish immorality. Inuyashiki (いぬやしき), adapted from the manga by Hiroya Oku, is similarly understanding but makes a hero of its sad dad protagonist whose adult life has been a socially acceptable disaster, while finding sympathy for his villainous teenage counterpart who resents his lack of possibilities in an already unfair world.

Unsuccessful salaryman Inuyashiki (Noritake Kinashi) has just moved into a new house of which he is very proud but his wife (Mari Hamada) and children find small and old fashioned. He’s bought sushi to celebrate the occasion, but the other family members ignore him and head out for dinner on their own. Held in contempt at home, Inuyashiki’s working life is also something of a disaster in which he is publicly berated by his boss who threatens to fire him, leaving Inuyashiki kneeling in supplication just to be allowed to work until retirement so he can keep up the mortgage payments on that new house (which he bought for his family who all hate him).

To make matters worse, Inuyashiki has also just received the news that he is suffering from terminal cancer and has only a few months to live. His only ray of sunshine appears when he finds an abandoned dog, Hanako, and decides to adopt her but his wife orders him to throw the dog out in case it messes up the house (that she already hates). Sadly walking Hanako to the park with the intention of sending her on her way, Inuyashiki is struck by a mysterious blast and later wakes up to discover he has become an all powerful cyborg with booster rockets on his back and guns in his arms.

Inuyashiki’s first instinct is that he can use his new found powers to save people. Contemplating his mortality, Inuyashiki was made to feel that his life had been a failure; he’d never done anything of consequence and had never been able to protect anyone. Reviving a wounded bird in the street, he realises he has the power to heal along with super sensitive hearing which allows him to hear the cries of those in peril.

Meanwhile, the teenager caught in the same blast, Shishigami (Takeru Satoh), is heading in the opposite direction. Shishigami is also filled with resentment though mostly as regards his poverty and comparative lack of possibilities. He hates that his single-mother (Yuki Saito) has to work herself to the bone because his father (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) left the family for another woman with whom he has built another home and become extremely wealthy. He hates that his video game otaku friend (Kanata Hongo) is mercilessly bullied and has stopped coming to school altogether rather than fight back. Filled with a young man’s rage and a mild kind of psychopathy, Shishigami doesn’t see why it’s wrong to become a bully rather than fighting them. Frustrated beyond reason he declares war on an uncaring society and sentences everyone in Japan to death for their indifference to their fellow citizens.

The conflict between the angel and the devil concludes in predictably bombastic fashion as our two cyborgs go head to head in a climactic battle for the soul of Japan. Strangely enough both men are motivated by love even if one’s actions are darker than the other’s. Inuyashiki wants to protect, to be someone his family can respect and depend on – he flees the scenes of his miracles because he isn’t interested in being a “hero”, just in being of use. Shishigami, by contrast, is motivated by love for his mother whose continuing suffering proves too much for him to bear though his attempts to take revenge only end in more tragedy. Mustering all the technology of the age from smartphones to live broadcasts, Shishigami makes himself a familiar face on TV sets and LCD screens across the country to preach his message of hate as a declaration of war.

Shishigami proclaims that Inuyashiki’s sense of justice is no match for his hate, but there is a definite irony in the squaring off of two men from different generations trying to figure out their differences by pounding the living hell out of each other and destroying half of Tokyo in the process. Still, that is in many ways the point as these two “gods” actively choose the sides of light and darkness, vying for the right to rule the future as forces of destruction or salvation.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Fullmetal Alchemist (鋼の錬金術師, Fumihiko Sori, 2017)

Fullmetal Alchemist posterEvery so often a film comes along which makes you question everything you thought you knew. Fullmetal Alchemist (鋼の錬金術師, Hagane no Renkinjutsushi) is just such as film but less for the philosophical questions fans of the source manga may have been expecting, than for the frankly incomprehensible fact that it exists at all. Produced not by a major studio but by Square Enix – best known as a video game studio but also the publisher of manga magazine Monthly Shonen Gangan in which the series was originally serialised, and effects studio Oxybot Inc., Fullmetal Alchemist is not the big budget extravaganza a franchise of this size might be expected to generate but a cut price blockbuster attempting to pack a much loved, long running saga into just over two hours.

For the uninitiated, the movie begins with the little Elric Brothers – Ed and Al, who live in the countryside with their doting mother while their father is away. When their mother is struck down by a sudden illness and dies, the boys raid their dad’s Alchemy library for clues as to how to bring her back. There is, however, a taboo surrounding human transmutation and when the brothers cast their spell they pay a heavy price – Al loses his entire body though Ed manages to save his soul and bind it to a suit of armour by sacrificing his own right arm.

Many years later, Ed (Ryosuke Yamada) and Al (Atomu Mizuishi) are still looking for the mythical “Philosopher’s Stone” which they believe will allow them to cast another spell and get their fleshy bodies fully restored. This takes them to a small town where they encounter a dodgy priest and their old commander, Captain Roy Mustang (Dean Fujioka), who wants to bring them back into the State Alchemist fold. The priest’s stone turns out to be a fake though his connections to the film’s shady antagonists are all too real, and the brothers are soon faced with another dilemma in their quest to restore all they’ve lost.

Sori shifts away from the frozen Northern European atmosphere of the manga for something sunnier and less austere, shooting in Italy’s Volterra with its narrow medieval streets and iconic Tuscan red roofs. He is, however, working on a budget and it shows as his cast are costumed at cosplay level with awkward blond wigs attempting to recreate the manga’s European aesthetics. Al, rendered entirely (and expensively) in CGI, is deliberately kept off screen while the quality of the effects often leaves much to be desired.

Al’s frequent absence is a major problem seeing as the series’ major theme is brotherhood and Ed’s tremendous sense of guilt over his brother’s condition coupled with his recklessness in his need to put things right is only explained in a piece of bald exposition following a fight between the pair after Al’s mind has been corrupted by a mad scientist who implied that he may not really be “real” after all. While Al’s false memory paranoia may be among the more interesting issues the film attempts to raise, it’s quickly pushed into the background, eclipsed by the ongoing conspiracy narrative which places the Elric Brothers in a difficult position regarding their need to get their body parts back. 

A symptom of the attempt to condense such a much loved and well known manga into a two hour movie, there is rather a lot of plot going on and numerous side characters on hand to enact it. Though fans of the original manga may be pleased to see their favourite characters have made it into the movie, they maybe less pleased about how one note they often are or the various ways their personalities have needed to shift in order to fit into the new narrative arcs the film employs. Aside from the young and pretty cast, Fullmetal Alchemist also finds room for a host of veteran talent from the ubiquitous Jun Kunimura in a small role to Yo Oizumi turning villainous and Fumiyo Kohinata at his most Machiavellian.

Extremely silly, poorly put together and burdened with some very unfortunate wigs, the Fullmetal Alchemist live action adaptation is as much of a misfire as it’s possible to be but viewers hoping for a continuation to the tale would do well to stay tuned for a post-credits sting strongly hinting at a part two.


Streaming worldwide on Netflix.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Attack on Titan: The Movie – Part 2: End of the World (進撃の巨人 ATTACK ON TITAN エンド オブ ザ ワールド, Shinji Higuchi, 2015)

166831_02Review of the second Attack on Titan live action movie first published by UK Anime Network.


Attack on Titan: The Movie – Part 1 ended on a humdinger of a cliff hanger, so this concluding half of the two part movie is one  which carries a fair amount of expectation regardless of reactions to the first instalment. Picking up more or less straight after the end of Part 1, the situation continues to be desperate as the mission to acquire explosives to blow the wall closed is an abject failure. Thanks to Eren’s (Haruma Miura) efforts, the Titan onslaught has eased off but he now finds himself in the direct firing line of sinister dictator Kubal (Jun Kunimura). Coming up with an alternative plan to recover the dud bomb we saw in the beginning of the first film, our intrepid band of comrades decide to return to their former home paving the way for the massive Titan on Titan frenzy finale.

Whereas Attack on Titan: The Movie – Part 1 attempted to reframe itself as a monster movie, The End of the World places itself firmly within the comic book genre. Rather than a frightened populace desperately trying to protect itself from the sudden arrival of man eating giants, The End of the World introduces a series of human lead super Titans who will eventually be duking it out during the film’s finale.

Largely, The End of the World eschews the thematic concerns of the first film in favour of large scale action scenes but it does come up with a few new ideas of its own. Towards the beginning, it seems as if The End of the World is about to undercut all the unpleasant fascistic connotations of the previous film by bringing Eren into contact with the Survey Corps who are now the rebel resistance but this turns out to be a hollow offering as the squad is then painted as a renegade militia commanded by a madman.

After his original imprisonment, Eren wakes up in a minimalist, low ceilinged white room which contains a ‘50s style jukebox with a cover version of the old time hit The End of the World already playing. Despite the ban on machines “the government” has apparently stockpiled some of these “artifacts” for their own use which also includes a rather prominent remote control for an Apple TV. At this point we’re shown some archive footage which explains the birth of the Titans and the creation of the “modern” society, the implication being that the Titans are part of an elaborate governmental propaganda scheme designed to keep the unruly populace firmly in line. The Titans reappeared at a political crisis point as the government felt the loyalty of its people waning and also feared that the plan to explore outside of the walls would weaken their authority. Having already instituted authoritarian policies such as limiting access to childbirth, the government used the Titan threat to galvanise support through fear.

This sequence begins to offer an entirely different reading of the film – one which is more fully hinted at in the final post-credit sequence, but is then largely forgotten. Aside from a nasty slice of possible domestic violence and some PTSD End of the World stays away from further character driven drama, leaving Shikishima to ham things up with an increasingly camp performance whilst behaving in a very ambiguous way towards Eren which proves awkward when considering further information provided regarding Eren’s childhood. As a whole, the Attack on Titan movies have a major problem with internal consistency, piling plot holes upon plot holes yet still failing to make any of its central conceits remotely compelling.

However, The End of the World does improve on some aspects of the previous film – notably in its tighter running time and action set piece finale (lengthy exposition sequence and extremely long recap aside). Production values appear a little better, there is far less of the bad CGI which marred the first film, and there’s even some more interesting production design to be found too. The Hollywood style heroic ending with the sun shining and the score soaring might appear less clichéd when considered alongside the alternate reading offered by the post-credits sequence, but then again this may be another red herring just like the resistance group which originally appeared to offer hope but was then summarily discredited.

The two live action Attack on Titan movies come at the original franchise from vastly different angles and are often at odds with each other. Some of these inconsistencies may be explained by the post-credits sequence which is, perhaps, a hook for a putative third film but only adds an additional layer of confusion to what is already an overloaded premise. All of that aside, The End of the World does offer slightly more straightforward, comic book style trial by combat action heading into its finale even if it does lay on the exposition a little thickly. Whilst offering some mild improvements over the first film, End of the World fails to rescue the project as a whole but is likely to provide satisfaction to those left hanging after the curtain fell on part one.


English subtitled trailer:

Attack on Titan: The Movie – Part 1 (進撃の巨人 ATTACK ON TITAN, Shinji Higuchi, 2015)

Attack on Titan p1Review of the first of the two part live action Attack on Titan (進撃の巨人 ATTACK ON TITAN, Shingeki no Kyojin) extravaganza first published by UK Anime Network.


It is a law universally acknowledged that a successful manga must be in want of an anime adaptation. Once this simple aim has been achieved, that same franchise sets its sights on the even loftier goals of the live action movie. This phenomenon is not a new one and has frequently had extremely varied results but fans of the current cross over phenomenon that is Attack on Titan may find themselves wondering if perhaps more time should have been allowed before this much loved series tried its luck in the non animated world.

Throwing in a few changes from the source material, the film begins with the peaceful and prosperous walled city where childhood friends Eren, Armin, and Mikasa are young adults just about to start out on the next phase of their lives. Eren, however, is something of a rebellious lost soul who finds himself gazing at the land beyond the walls rather than on a successful future in the mini city state. However, little does he know that the Titans – a race of man eating giants responsible for the destruction which saw humanity retreat behind the walls in the first place, are about to resurface and wreak havoc again. His dreams of a more exciting life may have been granted but humanity pays a heavy price.

Fans of the manga and anime may well be alarmed by certain elements of the above paragraph. Yes, the film makes slight but significant changes to its source material which may leave fans feeling confused and annoyed as the film continues to grow away from the franchise they know and love so well. For a newcomer, things aren’t much better as characterisation often relies of stereotypes and blunt exposition to get its point across. Attack on Titan actually has a comparatively starry cast with actors who’ve each impressed in other high profile projects including Haruma Miura (Eternal Zero), and Kiko Mizuhara (Norwegian Wood, Helter Skelter) as well as Kanata Hongo (Gantz) but even they can’t bring life to the stilted, melodramatic script. Things take a turn for the worse when Satomi Ishihara turns up having presumably been given the instruction to play Hans as comic relief only with a TV style, huge and bumbling performance.

That said, there are some more interesting ideas raised – notably that even a paradise becomes a prison as soon as you put a wall around it. Indeed, everything seems to have been going pretty well inside the walls until Eren suddenly decides he finds them constraining. Once the Titans break through, the very mechanism which was put in place for humanity’s protection, the walls themselves, become the thing which damns them as they’re trapped like rats unable to escape the Titan onslaught.

Machines are now outlawed following past apocalyptic events – humanity apparently can’t be trusted not to destroy itself and this cheerful, feudal way of life is contrasted with the chaos and pollution which accompanied the technologically advanced era. Unfortunately, a reversion to distinctly old fashioned values also seems to have occurred as we’re told you need permission to get married (as sensible as this may be from a practical standpoint in a military society) and the single mother gets munched just as she’s making the moves on a potential new father for her child. The Titans themselves have also been read as a metaphor for xenophobia which isn’t helped by the almost fascist connotations of the post attack society.

Much of this is really overthinking what appears to be an intentionally silly B-movie about man eating giants running amok in a steampunk influenced post-apocalyptic society but then it does leave you with altogether too much time to do your thinking while you’re waiting for things to happen. The original advent of the Titans is a little overplayed with the deliberately gory chomping continuing far too long. Action scenes fare a little better but suffer from the poor CGI which plagues the rest of the film. This isn’t the Attack on Titan movie you were expecting. This is a monster movie which carries some extremely troubling messages, if you stop to think about them. The best advice would be to refuse to think at all and simply settle back for some kaiju style action but fans of either campy monster movies or any other Attack on Titan incarnation are likely to come away equally disappointed. It only remains to see if Part 2 of this bifurcated tale can finally heal some of the many holes in this particularly weak wall.


US release trailer: