Yakuza Apocalypse (極道大戦争, Takashi Miike, 2015)

Yakuza-Apocalypse-Quad-HalfSize-NEWBelated review from the 2015 London Film Festival – Yakuza Apocalypse is released in UK cinemas for one day only on 6th January 2016 courtesy of Manga who will also be releasing on home video at a later date.


Takashi Miike shuffles back towards the yakuza plains in the western inspired horror comedy Yakuza Apocalypse (極道大戦争, Gokudo Daisenso) trailing ever more zany humour behind him. Yakuza gungslingers, bloodsucking, high school girls running away from things and, finally, a guy with a magic belly button wearing a frog suit who just happens to be “The World’s Toughest Terrorist”.

We open in media res as vampire yakuza boss Kamiura (Lily Franky) cuts up a storm in settling some local disputes. There’s a handy voice over from our soon to be protagonist, Kageyama (Hayato Ichihara), lamenting the old yakuza world of tough guys and honour codes but things don’t really take off until a very geeky looking guy and a Van Helsing type in 17th century attire suddenly turn up hoping to re-recruit the boss to “The Syndicate”. When he refuses, they fight and the geek twists Kamiura’s head right off. Using his last ounce of strength and in a touch right out of Hausu, Kamiura clamps onto Kageyama’s neck turning him into a vampire. However, in his just turned state, the honourable Kageyama turns a few more vampires of his own – and not only vampires, the bite also transmits yakuzaism too. This increase in bloodsucking gangsters is a bit of a problem for the regular guys as it does mean their pool of victims is being steadily depleted…

Not making much sense is not generally much of a problem in a Miike film. In fact, it’s a pretty much a given at this stage of the prolific director’s career. However, in the case of Yakuza Apocalypse it’s even more pointless than usual to pay any attention at all to any kind of narrative. Looking over Kageyama’s shoulder, we move from set to piece to set piece as, first of all, the non-vampire yakuza guys struggle for power between themselves and then with the vampire variety before the giant frog turns up to ruin everything.

There are some rules, Miike takes a while explaining to us how this yakuza business works with Kamiura as the “good” kind of yakuza committed to protecting his townspeople above all else – essentially, he’s the sherriff around these parts. He’s a vampire, yes, but he only feeds on yakuza who he’s “reforming” by means of an underground knitting circle held prisoner in his basement. Apparently yakuza blood tastes bad and isn’t very good for you but eating civilians is dishonourable and anyway, limited in supply, because when you turn someone they also become a foul mouthed yakuza fighting machine.

The world building is shaky at best, none of this really hangs together making for a fairly disappointing series of one note jokes. There is an attempt at a bit of more sophisticated satire with the regular gangsters suddenly lamenting that there will be no one left for them to prey on if everyone turns yakuza vampire but otherwise it’s crazy piled on crazy. Not a bad thing in itself but somewhat lacking in substance.

Despite that, the film offers some quality performances notably from its lead, Kageyama, played by Hayato Ichihara, as the yakuza who’s so sensitive his delicate skin won’t allow him to get a proper yakuza tattoo. That is, until he becomes a brooding, conflicted vampire mourning the loss of his boss and of those long held tough guy ideals. Lily Franky also offers a high impact though short lived appearance as the honourable vampire boss with a hinted at backstory, though the much publicised cameo of The Raid’s Yayan Ruhian feels a little wasted as he’s just generally hanging around for a handful of fight scenes. That said, the action scenes themselves are extremely impressive, both exciting and often funny too.

Yakuza Apocalypse is not one of Miike’s most well thought out efforts. Its collection of crazy ideas feels thrown together and there’s disappointingly little depth to its world building. Even its media res conclusion looks more like running out of ideas than a deliberate decision. However, that’s not to say it isn’t heaps of fun, which it often is. A crazy frog riding a bicycle who somehow wakes up the giant king of the crazy frog people after some kind of emergency plaster is ripped off his belly button – really, what could be more fun than that? That really is all there is though and those who prefer their absurdist action thrills with a little more substance had best look elsewhere.


Yakuza Apocalypse is in released in UK cinemas for one night only on 6th January 2016. Luckily the film is playing across the UK even if it’s only the one night and you can see if it’s on anywhere near you by checking out this handy link! If it’s not, don’t despair! It’ll also be available in all the normal ways from Manga later in the year.

Reviewed at the 2015 BFI London Film Festival.

 

Ryuzo and the Seven Henchmen (龍三と七人の子分たち, Takeshi Kitano, 2015)

142984037484393493178_ryuzo-7nin-kobuntachi-g4First published on UK Anime Network – review of Takeshi Kitano’s Ryuzo and the Seven Henchman (龍三と七人の子分たち Ryuzo to Shichinin no Kobuntachi) from LFF 2015.


Most people probably know Takeshi Kitano best for his series of ultra violent ’90s gangster movies, his role as the sadistic teacher in the controversial Battle Royale or as the host of bizarre Japanese endurance game show Takeshi’s Castle. However, in Japan he’s probably best known as a comedian though few of his comedy films have ever made it overseas. This may change with his latest effort, Ryuzo and the Seven Henchmen, which both takes him back to his yakuza roots and celebrates his comedic talents.

Ryuzo “the demon” was once a yakuza more feared the than respected whose very name alone made women swoon and struck fear into the hearts of men. Now though, he’s a grumpy grandpa living with his ultra conservative son who’d rather the neighbours didn’t know he had a gangster living in his house. After some punks make the mistake of trying an “ore ore” scam on him, Ryuzo gets back into the spirit of his gangster days and takes the guy down in a classic intimidation play. However, some of his other yakuza buddies also seem to be getting into trouble with upstart youngsters and once again it’s up to Ryuzo and his seven old timer yakuza buddies to set the town to rights.

The world has changed since Ryuzo and his guys were ruling the streets. In the old days the yakuza were a family, they had rules and ethics and they stuck to them. They saw themselves both as heroic outlaws and as defenders of the rights of ordinary people (even if they made their money through extorting those very people they claimed to protect). This new brand of crooks doesn’t care about honour, or morality or human kindness – they aren’t above conning the vulnerable into falling for obvious telephone scams or loaning large amounts of money to desperate people at ridiculously high interest just to make a buck. These guys are “business men” running a “legitimate enterprise” where the only rules are that you get rich and stay rich.

Ryuzo and co may be old, but they still have their honour and their pride. Watching the old guys trying to relive their former glory days is often funny, if a little sad as their grand schemes take on the absurd quality of little boys playing cops and robbers. It goes without saying that the film is hilarious though perhaps takes certain instances of low humour a too little far. Each of the main eight old timer yakuza has his own particular strength which endures despite their advanced ages though perhaps in slightly different forms and even if they’re coasting on former glory none of them has forgotten their former status.

Though not quite a return to the artistic highs of Sonatine or Hana-bi, Ryuzo and the Seven Henchmen is nevertheless an entertaining mix of Kitano’s tough guy yakuza and absurd comedian personas. Unlikely to walk away with any awards or lasting praise, Ryuzo and the Seven Henchmen is sure to be remembered fondly for its expertly timed and often gleefully absurd humour.


Reviewed at LFF 2015.

 

Mountains May Depart (山河故人, Jia Zhangke, 2015)

mountains may depart poster verticleJia Zhangke has made something of a career out of charting his nation’s history through the lives of ordinary people caught up in the business of living when everything about them is changing. Mountains May Depart (山河故人, Shānhé gùrén) isn’t the first of his films to span a comparatively wide period of time, though it is the first to venture into the “future” if only by a decade or so. Through a story of dislocation and isolation both cultural and personal, Jia has traversed the melancholy odyssey of those who grow up to discover that all the wrong choices have already been made.

The film begins at Chinese New Year 1999 – the dawning of a new age. Tao line dances and conga lines to The Pet Shop Boys’ Go West before joining in the celebrations by singing a song in the town square. She’s good friends with Liangzi whose company she seems to enjoy and they seem to get on together very well but it’s unclear if there’s anything more to it than that. Obnoxious rich boy Jiangsheng is also VERY interested in Tao and resents her friendship with Liangzi. Eventually things come to a head and Tao has to choose, and she does but in trying not to hurt anyone she ends up hurting everyone. On Tao’s eventual marriage to Jiangsheng, Liangzi, heartbroken, leaves town intending never to return. The segment ends with the birth of Tao and Jiansheng’s son, Dollar.

In 2014, Tao is divorced and Jiangsheng has taken her son to live with him in Shanghai where he’s a high stakes capitalist mogul. Liangzi, meanwhile, has married and had a child but has ended up working in a coal mine and has now become gravely ill. Unable to work he returns home and considers asking friends and family to help him through these difficult times. Sometime later a family tragedy occurs – the one silver lining being that Tao gets to see Dollar again but he barely remembers her and makes constant phone calls to his “mommy” in Shanghai.

In 2025, Dollar and Jingsheng have moved to Australia. Dollar is taking classes in Chinese which he barely remembers while Jingsheng has become a dishevelled and angry old man. Dollar has almost no memory of his real mother or his childhood in China and starts up an oedipal relationship with a lonely, middle-aged Chinese woman.

Jia paints the passing of time through a series of expanding screen ratios – beginning with 4:3 in 1999, to 16:9 in 2014 and finally 2.35:1 in 2025. The world literally gets bigger, wider, and our focus shifts from Tao to a more expansive canvas of displaced Chinese citizens finally reaching far across the seas. The first segment is more like Jia’s earlier films as Tao is caught between two lovers with possibly tragic consequences whereas the second part has more in common with his more recent work but part three takes things in an entirely new direction.

The 2025 segment doesn’t even feature Tao until the very end and focuses on her son – the ironically named “Dollar”. Having lived the last ten years in Australia he barely speaks Mandarin and has become an angry young man determined to drop out of college because “nothing really interests” him. Jinsheng never learned English and the pair can’t communicate. Gone is Jinsheng’s swagger – now he has a paunch, dishevelled hair and an unruly mustache. In 1999 he dressed in the self consciously stylish clothes of someone who has money and really wants you know it, but now his clothes are worn out and typical of any old man you might find sitting reading a paper on the side of a road. Dollar is lost. Eventually he strikes up a friendship with his Chinese teacher that’s founded on the shared loneliness of two people who’ve been separated from their homelands and loved ones. Looking for his mother in all the wrong places, Dollar’s eventual romance is likely to end in tears but luckily his Chinese teacher is a wise and kind woman who is able to offer some of her wisdom and a steady hand of guidance.

Though much has been made of the “futurism” of the 2025 segment, it’s in no way a science fiction experiment. The chief difference, as might be expected, is in technology though even this is subtle – see through tablets, electronic displays rather than blackboards (only a little more advanced than many institutions already use) and a much more intuitive embedding of google translate. More distracting are the strange anachronisms – vinyl records being played on a classroom turntable, visiting a travel agent to book a flight (does anyone even do this now?) and a preference for older cars. Most damaging though is that, as it’s set in Australia, the bulk of the dialogue is in English which somehow never sounds convincing despite the quality performances on offer.

Dollar wants his freedom from his overbearing, failure of a father though freedom itself is also a burden. The son flails aimlessly while the literal motherland, Tao, is alone, abandoned and forgotten. There’s something quite heartbreaking in the way Jia sculpts his overarching story. We begin with so much hope as Tao and her friends dance enthusiastically to the rather ironic choice of Go West in 1999 as her life is just beginning. When she dances to it again, alone, with the snow falling all around her it’s as if she’s crawled inside a memory, reliving a happy day rather than exulting in the now.

Mountains May Depart is a rich and complex film that is heavy with symbolism and metaphor. Jia wants to ask us where we’re going, and where we’ve been – China’s modernisation has occurred at such a breakneck speed that it’s left an entire nation bewildered. Facing a choice between “going west” and “taking care” of Chinese values (Sally Yeh’s 1990 Cantopop hit Take Care forms the opposing musical motif of the film) many, like Tao, have found themselves choosing poorly and paying a heavy price. What’s in store? A lonely, but wealthy, future devoid of all human connection where “sons” forget their “mothers”? The title suggests old friends like mountains and rivers never part but once the erosion sets in mountains crumble and rivers run dry – you have to look around you and remember what it is that’s really worth living for.


This is getting a full UK release from New Wave Films in Spring 2016!

For the curious here is Sally Yeh’s (葉蒨文) 1990 Cantopop hit Take Care (珍重) which does its best to tug at the heartstrings throughout the later part of the film (and largely succeeds).

First published by UK Anime Network.

Love & Peace (ラブ&ピース, Sion Sono, 2015)

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Another day another Sion Sono – review of Love & Peace from the London Film Festival up at UK Anime Network. Quite liked this one, shame it’s not out in time for Christmas.


Last time we met Sion Sono it was for a street style rap musical about gang warfare. Before that we’ve mostly been admiring him for his epic and irreverent tale of panty shot perverts and bizarre religion Love Exposure, bloody serial killer true crime thriller Cold Fish or poetic exploration of a woman looking for love in all the wrong places in Guilty of Romance, not to mention a tale of teenage rage and post Earthquake anxiety in Himizu or state of the nation address in Land of Hope. Recently prolific and varied enough to give even Takashi Miike a run for his money, it should come as no surprise that Sono’s latest effort is, essentially, a family film about a man’s love for his pet turtle.

Ryoichi Suzuki is a mild mannered office worker with dreams of becoming a rock star. Belittled by his colleagues, Ryoichi has no friends – that is until he falls hard for a tiny turtle sold by a strange man on a rooftop. Hatching plans together for Ryoichi’s rise to superstardom the pair become inseparable. However, after another round of humiliation at work Ryoichi flushes “Pikadon” down the toilet! Full of remorse, Ryoichi pines for his lost friend meanwhile, Pikadon arrives at the lair of a mysterious sewer dweller who rescues broken and discarded creatures. When Pikadon is given a “wish” pill by mistake, Ryoichi’s life soon begins to change!

In case it needs saying, Love & Peace is in no way a “serious” film – much as that may sound like a pejorative comment, all that means is that it’s delightfully absurd and heaps of fun and where it harks back to some of Sono’s key concerns it does so in a light hearted, even mocking manner. The plot maybe conventional in a lot of ways – down trodden loser suddenly makes something of himself with magical help but ends up becoming arrogant and forgetting his true self before being redeemed by a massive fall from grace but as usual Sono has managed to bring something new to even this comparatively tired tale.

Largely, that’s thanks to his bizarre side story of the land of misfit toys being cared for by a mysterious yet kindly old man who lives in a tiny alcove in one of Tokyo’s sewer complexes. Cheerfully harking back to some of those classic ‘80s kids movies, the strange collection of broken robots, damaged cat toys and lovelorn dolls do their best to tug at the heart strings with their stories of loss and abandonment while the mysterious old man keeps them going with tales of hope and magic pills which grant the power of speech or wishes.

However, as Ryoichi’s dreams grow bigger so does Pikadon himself and its not long before the cute little turtle’s devotion to his master becomes a dangerous threat to the entire city. Ryoichi chose the name “Pikadon” seemingly at random and without realising that it’s become a byword for the atomic bomb. Thus Ryoichi’s eventual ballad of love and regret for his lost turtle buddy is misunderstood as a lament for modern Japan and a pledge to “never forget” the wartime nuclear attacks. Of course, this “subversive political rock song” becomes a giant hit catapulting Ryoichi on the road to superstardom. However, there is more heartbreak for Pikadon to come as he’s continually betrayed by the ever more ambitious Ryoichi who’s only too quick to sell out his beloved friend to get ahead with cruel and potentially tragic consequences.

Of course, the one thing that needs mentioning is the amazing music in the film including the title song which is tailor made for waving a lighter in the air and is sure to become your latest ear worm. Ryoichi only writes a few songs but Sono also manages to throw in a musical self reference to a previous film that makes for a fun Easter Egg for his avid fans to find and the rest of the soundtrack is equally catchy too.

In short, Love & Peace is the Christmas themed punk rock kid’s movie you never knew you needed. Yes, it goes to some very dark places – the least of which is the accidental destruction of the city of Tokyo by the now colossal kaiju incarnation of Pikadon whose only wish is to make his best friend’s rockstar dreams come true, but it does so with heart. In true family film fashion, it addresses the themes of true friendship, the importance of being true to yourself and that the love of man and turtle can be a beautiful, if terrifying, thing. Strange, surreal and totally mad, Love & Peace is the ideal Christmas gift for all the family and Sono’s most enjoyably bizarre effort yet.


I wrote this review before I’d seen Tag which is also “enjoyably bizarre”, it has to be said. Love & Peace will be released in the UK in 2016 courtesy of Third Window Films.

Some other Reviews of Sion Sono movies written by me:

Happy Hour ハッピーアワー ( Ryusuke Hamaguchi, 2015)

get.doThere are a number of films which centre around an unexpected disappearance. The negative space of the missing person both in their physical and emotional absence brings with it its own mini black hole, sucking those left behind into a pit of confusion and despair which forces them to consider their own lives in more detail than they’d ordinarily be comfortable with. For the four women at the centre of Happy Hour, a five and a bit hour long film from Ryusuke Hamaguchi (The Depths, Touching the Skin of Eeriness) the sudden escape of the “lynchpin” Jun sends each of the women into a tailspin as they re-examine their stable, if unfulfilling, existence.

The four women are Sakurako – a housewife and mother to a teenage son, Jun – her best friend since middle school, Fumi – who works in events and is married to an editor, and Akari – a divorced nurse. The four became friends just because Jun thought they’d all get on so introduced Fumi and Akari forming the little quartet of late 30s ladies. They hang out together and talk about the general kinds of things women talk about – their husbands, jobs, children etc. However, Jun has a secret she hasn’t told the group. She’s in the middle of contesting a divorce from her emotionally abusive husband who refuses to consent, necessitating a long and nasty court battle. When the truth is revealed in an unwise way, it causes a rift in the group and brings the cracks in its foundations closer to the surface. When the gang enjoy one last trip to a hot spring, Jun stays behind and then never comes home. Without their binding thread, will the three women’s relationships to each other and to the other people in their lives be able to survive?

Each of the women in Happy Hour has her own particular sadness. Each in each, they’re all lonely or in some way dissatisfied with the way their lives have turned out. Sakurako married her high school sweetheart, has a nice home, a not unhappy marriage and a teenage son who’s doing OK until he gets himself into a more serious situation. However, her husband believes in a strict division of labour where he takes care of everything outside of the home (i.e. earning the money) and she the inside meaning he has little input into the raising of his son and refuses to help her when she really needs his support. She longs to be noticed again – as a woman, but also as a person outside of “wife” or “mother” which have begun to sound more like job titles or names of appliances rather than warm terms for the most important person in your life.

Fumi’s problem is similarly common – she resents her husband’s interest in another woman. Though Fumi and Takuya look like a model couple, they both work so much that they’re hardly ever together and are in danger of drifting apart. Takuya seems taken with a young novelist he’s working with and though Fumi says she doesn’t have a problem with it because she trusts him, she does and she doesn’t. Matters come to a head first at the hot springs resort where the women are taking a holiday while Takuya escorts Nose, the novelist, as she explores the resort for a series of onsen themed short stories. Later when Nose arrives for a book reading, Fumi’s frustration is palpable as Takuya’s clueless insensitivity continually places her in an awkward position.

Akari’s problems aren’t atypical either as finding herself divorced at 38 she’s the only one in her group of friends without a husband and perhaps worrying about running out of time to find one. She’s the loud mouth of the group, the one who isn’t afraid to speak her mind though she tends to speak without thinking and make the situation worse. However, her brashness is masking a deeper lack of confidence as she worries about being valued both inside and outside of work. Though we’re constantly told how important she is in her working environment both as a steady pair of hands and as a mentor to the younger members of staff, doubt seems to creep into her mind and she finds complements hard to believe.

The person we get to spend the least amount of time with is Jun, whose problems are a little more unusual. Married to a scientist with a cold and logical approach to life, her marriage has turned into a prison sentence with an unrelenting gaoler of a husband. Kohei’s love is selfish to the extreme, he says he loves Jun so he has to keep her even though he knows she doesn’t want him.

Occasionally, the four begin to feel like archetypes in somewhat contrived situations designed to help the film explore the contemporary lives of middle-aged women. Perhaps Jun really did select them for their complementary qualities – a little like a girl group with the fluffy one, the quiet one and the feisty one, but every so often it’s a little on the nose. Hamaguchi largely manages to make the extreme running time work for him by giving his characters the necessary breathing space, allowing key episodes the room to develop into deliberate tedium. Both the early workshop and later book reading, almost the two axes of the film, play out in essentially real time, pushing towards a particular kind of abstract realism.

Happy Hour fully justifies its mammoth running time but does undoubtedly stumble at certain stages. Still, it supplies ample room for exploring the everyday lives of its wide-ranging cast and more particularly of its central group of women each of whom, essentially, just want to be seen. Turning in surprisingly pleasing production values for its low budget approach, Happy Hour is an ambitious if not always successful film but even where it fails it’s never less than interesting.

LFF 2015 Round-up

still-loveandpeace2Total films:

  1. Mountains May Depart
  2. A Guy From Fenyang
  3. My Love Don’t Cross That River
  4. Der Nachtmahr
  5. Lost in Munich
  6. Jia Zhangke & Walter Salles Screentalk
  7. Ryuzo and the Seven Henchmen
  8. Salaam Bombay
  9. In the Room
  10. Assassination
  11. Beeba Boys
  12. Ghost Theater
  13. Son of Saul
  14. Invisible Boy
  15. Right Now, Wrong Then
  16. Love & Peace
  17. Black Mass
  18. A Bigger Splash
  19. Our Little Sister
  20. The Assassin
  21. Evolution
  22. Poet On a Business Trip
  23. Cemetery of Splendour
  24. The Witch
  25. The Apostate
  26. Desierto
  27. Madonna
  28. An
  29. Youth
  30. The End of the Tour
  31. A Tale of Three Cities
  32. The Boy and the Beast
  33. Office
  34. Ruined Heart
  35. Murmur of the Hearts
  36. My Golden Days
  37. Happy Hour
  38. Yakuza Apocalypse

Somehow, this list was longer than I thought it was going to be. Not sure how that happened really but I did manage to pack in all of the Asian films plus a fair few others. This year I really did feel victimised by the dreaded LFF clashes meaning I missed out on a few things I really wanted to see but nothing too major. There were only a couple of choices I regretted making, though I suppose I had to see them to find out. Nothing really grabbed me like last year’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night – perhaps because I ended up seeing bigger films with more established buzz around them so I wasn’t really caught off guard in that way. Still, some fine discoveries. Now the long wait for LFF 2016 – oh, what wonders shall ye bring?

Top 5 (somewhat arbitrary):

  1. Son of Saul
  2. Mountains May Depart
  3. Murmur of the Hearts
  4. Office
  5. Our Little Sister

Sneaky review previews of stuff coming up on UK Anime Network, might put a few other things up here too: