It’s a little known fact that everyone seems to know, but the Japanese pornography industry is one of the most lucrative in the world producing countless hours of “AV” or “adult video” movies every year. No one expects the world of erotic filmmaking to be glamorous, but rest assured Makeup Room is not interested in exploring the dark side of the industry either. For the characters involved in this rather witty backstage drama it’s just another working day filled with personal concerns and petty office disputes.
In fact, Makeup Room began as a stage play and occupies just the one set – the green room where the various starlets hang out before the performance. The star of the show in here is the veteran makeup artist, Kyoko, who is responsible both for creating whichever look the director has asked for from innocent school girl to sexy cop or dominatrix and for providing guidance and moral support as she chats away to the various divas and ingenues who occupy her chair. Porno shoots happen very fast, the team only have a brief amount of time in this location before the next crew arrive to shoot another porno so everything needs to go to plan. Today, nothing goes to plan. The lead actress is late, another actress has an undisclosed tattoo meaning she’ll have to switch roles requiring some hasty script edits, and the new girl who’s apparently an inexperienced nymphomaniac is having a few last minute jitters. The director’s stressed, the veteran actress is getting antsy and they’re all just lucky Kyoko is around to keep everything running smoothly!
Makeup Room starts with a rather worrying disclaimer to the effect that this was an extremely low budget shoot and that given the materials available, there is a degree of stuttering in the video which cannot be fixed. In actuality it isn’t that much of a problem but you’d have to admit Makeup Room is never a very pretty looking film. Perhaps appropriately it has a very cheap video look and a simplistic directing style using mostly static shots camera from different angles of its one set location.
However, the rather basic approach does allow the script and performances to shine. Undoubtedly witty, the dialogue both rings true and offers a fair amount of humour at the expense of the diverse cast and crew many of whom are played by real life AV actresses making their “debuts” in a purely narrative film. This is not a tale of fallen women forced into the sex industry through a series of traumatic events, each of the women is fine with their career choice and likes what they do. Though one character reveals that many of the people in her life don’t know what she does and not all of those who do approve, including her boyfriend who’s only just found out and not taken it well, mostly the women talk about the practicalities of their work. Whether that’s having a tattoo that’s much larger than your manager tells people it is, or having your nails done right before finding out you’re down for a lesbian scene meaning they’ll all have to be cut off, or chatting about the way your work is going to change as you get older, the kind of workplace problems that occur perhaps aren’t altogether different than those women experience in all industries.
Director Kei Morikawa has had a long career in the AV industry as well as in more mainstream fare and makes good use of his personal experience to create a film which at least feels very authentic as well as giving the impression of a group of friends getting together to send themselves up in classic style. Full of frank humour though very little explicit content, Makeup Room comes across as a warm and refreshingly straightforward look at the Japanese porn industry though its extreme low budget stylings are likely to put off viewers who prefer the glossier side of things.
My review of this stone cold classic up at UK Anime Network. I always find these kind of intimidating to review, what could I possibly have to add about such an oft discussed film? The answer is not much! It is a great film though and this new BFI HD re-release serves it pretty well.
When it comes to the history of Japanese cinema in the West, you’d be hard pressed to come up with a more important title than Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon. A moderate success in Japan, it did well with audiences and critics though its producers Daiei had their doubts regarding the picture’s complicated setup and were not always supportive to its production. In fact, the reason it managed to travel overseas at all was largely thanks to the efforts of Giulliana Stramigioli, the head of Italiafilm’s Japanese office who managed to ensure Rashomon was entered into the 1951 Venice film festival where it shocked the world by walking off with the top prize. From there on in the door was open for Japanese cinema outside of Asia where it continued to dominate the art house market for years to come.
Launching a cultural phenomenon in its own right, Rashomon is story which probes at the nature of truth, perception and delusion through examining several witness accounts of the same crime. Inspired by two stories by one of the best known figures of Japanese literature, Ryunosuke Akutawa – Rashomon and In a Grove, the facts are as follows – a samurai is dead and a bandit has been arrested for his murder. We pick up the story listening to two of the puzzled witnesses to the case as they take shelter from a heavy rainstorm under the Rashomon gate and recount their strange day to a third man who comes walking by and starts ripping off bits of wood from the gate itself to build a fire. The Woodcutter says he found the body in the woods, the priest says he saw the samurai and his wife travelling shortly before the incident.
At the trial, the bandit says he was struck by the wife’s beauty and decided to rape her even if he had to kill the husband (though it would be more fun not to) but that after he’d raped her she was overcome with shame and wanted the two men to duel to the death to prevent her from having the suffering of two living “husbands”. He says he killed the samurai in a duel.
The wife says that the bandit ran off after raping her but that when she freed her husband he looked at her with such loathing that she eventually asked him to kill her until she fainted with a dagger in hand only to wake up and find the same dagger in her husband’s chest. She then ran to a temple for sanctuary.
Then we hear from the dead man himself via a shaman who claims that the bandit offered to take his wife with him and she agreed but asked him to kill her husband first. Then the wife ran off and the bandit let him go whereupon he killed himself.
Actually, there’s yet another version too, but you can see that none of these accounts share much in common and cannot possibly all be true. What really happened, who is telling the truth and who is either lying or reconstructing events to suit their own way of seeing things is, in the end, beside the point. The point is that you can’t rely on others to speak the truth, and that “truth” itself is a fairly nebulous concept that is always polluted by the fallacies of memory and of personal perception. Through recounting their confusion and debating the case, the three men sheltering from the storm meditate on the implications of their discovery. The third man, a commoner, is the most cynical of the three and insists that men are only motivated by self interest and is therefore not surprised that everybody is lying in order to make themselves look “better”. The priest is heartbroken by this turn of events and has his faith in humanity shattered – how can he go on living if the world is as wicked as this and things like honesty and morality no longer have any value? The woodsman stands somewhere in the middle, ordinary, basically good but fallible and wanting to do better.
Whether actively lying as we would understand it, simply deluding themselves into seeing events in a way which makes them feel more comfortable, or just mistaken in their recollections no one person’s account can accurately reflect the real truth of events and so it follows that each additional account differs from those which precede it and serves only to add more confusion and misinformation. For Kurosawa this is the real “truth” that he aims to expose, that human beings are incapable of being honest even with themselves – let alone with others, and will always tailor their recollections to best fit their own particular needs.
Finally arriving in HD in the UK from the BFI, this blu-ray edition boasts a pleasing HD transfer based on the 2008 restoration and is a fine opportunity to revisit this well regarded classic of Japanese cinema. As mysterious and thought provoking as ever, Rashomon asks serious questions about the nature of truth and humanity but you’ll have to supply the answers for yourselves.
Curious about Kurosawa? Here are some of my other reviews:
This is kind of another link post, but bear with me! First up Ang Lee’s first three films finally became available on DVD in the UK. Cunningly titled The Ang Lee Trilogy, you can now feast your eyes on Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman for the first time. Feast is the right word too as all the movies feature food in a very prominent way so make sure you have the proper supplies arranged before you sit down to watch them. You can read my review of the trilogy over at UK Anime Network. They’re all great, but I particularly like The Wedding Banquet because it’s just so funny!
Here’s an awful old school trailer for The Wedding Banquet (the film is better than this, I promise).
OK, moving on you can also pick up the award winning debut from Chienn Hsiang EXIT on DVD and VOD courtesy of Facet Films. I reviewed the film when it played at the Glasgow Film Festival and you can read that at UK Anime Network too. I also had the opportunity to interview the film’s star Chen Shiang-Chyi while she’s over here shooting The Receptionist. Contrary to expectations, Chen Shiang-Chyi was actually very chatty and super nice so the only reason the interview seems a little short is because she gave very long and detailed answers! You can checkout the interview over at UK Anime Network.
Which brings me on to the upcoming Hou Hsiao-Hsien season at the BFI which begins tomorrow. Pretty much everyone is expecting his new movie The Assassin starring his regular muse Shu Qi to appear in the film festival (it would be really strange if it didn’t right?) and I for one am really looking forward to seeing it.
Hou Hsiao-Hsien will be appearing in conversation at the BFI on 14th September (tickets apparently still available) ahead of a screening of one of his greatest films, The Time to Live and the Time to Die. I was lucky enough to see this one during the BFI’s extended season of Chinese films last year and though it’s not always an easy watch, Hou’s biographical tale of mainland refugees and their Taiwanese offspring is nevertheless a moving and fairly universal coming of age tale.
but I just have to post this scene from Three Times again because I love it so much
They’re also showing Hou’s Ozu tribute and Japanese set Café Lumière starring Tadanobu Asano if that’s more your speed.
That’s a lot of Taiwanese cinema all of a sudden right? It’s a good thing though! If you still want more I’ll direct you to the films of Edward Yang as mentioned in Chen Shiang-Chyi’s interview:
Yi Yi: A One and a Two
No trailers for a Confucian Confusion or A Brighter Summer Day though – both are a little more difficult to get hold of but worth the effort. A Confucian Confusion has a great Rom-Com style ending (though not as good as Comrades: Almost a Love a Story which has the best ending of any film, ever, but I digress) and A Brighter Summer Day which is an epic at four hours long but a total heartbreaker.
Arrow Films are really spoiling us lately when it comes to amazing Japanese cinema – they’ve given us some cool ’60s classics and forgotten gems like Lady Snowblood, The Stray Cat Rock movies, Branded to Kill, Massacre Gun and Retaliation but now they’ve zapped back to the more recent past and brought us one of Takashi Miike’s zaniest and best loved efforts, The Happiness of the Katakuris. You don’t need me to tell you what this crazy, zombie and murderous inn keeper themed musical psychedelic masterpiece is about but you can read my review of the film and Arrow’s new HD effort over at UK Anime Network. (Spoiler, it’s pretty great).
Ah, Takashi Miike – that unpredictable Japanese auteur who’s equally at home with bloody yakuza dramas, gore soaked satire and strange fever dream experiments. There’s no denying his out put is decidedly patchy, which given his prolific career isn’t particularly surprising, but there’s really nothing he won’t at least try. Such is the joy of a Takashi Miike movie. The Happiness of the Katakuri’s wasn’t the first time he made use of musical sequences in his films and it wasn’t the last, but it is one of the craziest. Inspired by the 1998 Korean film The Quiet Family (debut movie of Kim Jee-woon) The Happiness of the Katakuris is, essentially, a family drama which incorporates shady goings on at a guest house, singing zombies, volcanoes and weird stop motion creatures appearing in people’s soup only to fly off with their uvulas (dangly bit between your tonsils).
The film begins with a young girl finding a weird looking creature in her soup which then rips out her uvula and flies off with it before before being snatched by a crow which is then hit with a log by an old man with surprisingly good log throwing game. The old guy is the grandpa of a family which runs a small hotel in the middle of nowhere. Family patriarch Masao used to be a shoe salesman but after losing his job was convinced to buy a hotel after a tip off that a road was supposed to be built nearby which would likely mean lots of customers. Predictably, the road has not materialised and the fledgling inn isn’t exactly packing them in. Besides grandpa, Masao is helped out by his long suffering wife, grown up daughter with a little daughter of her own and a grown up yet seemingly feckless son.
At last, a guest arrives but unfortunately dies soon afterwards. Bearing in mind the declining state of their new business, Masao makes the decision to quickly bury the body in the woods rather than report the death and suffer the negative publicity. Just when things were looking up, another two guests arrive and then promptly die too (in somewhat embarrassing circumstances). As if that weren’t enough, love sick daughter Shizue has fallen in love…again! With “Richard” the secret Japanese love child of the British royal family who’s also some kind of sailor which is why it’s difficult to get in touch with him. All told through the child’s eye view of the youngest member of the family, Shizue’s daughter Yurie, this was one crazy summer in the life of this strange family.
It would be wrong to call The Happiness of the Katakuris a musical, there’s no real musical through line so much as a collection of musical sequences inserted at points of high tension. The musical numbers themselves often act as parodies of other genres with their traditional ballads, karaoke video style sequences and the bonkers Sound of Music-esque field frolicking. Then there’s the singing corpses – who knew zombies were so jolly?
It all undeniably gets a bit grim as the family have to contend with burying the bodies of their unfortunate customers all the while waiting for someone to finally build this long promised road so their business can take off. Each of them is chasing a different kind of “happiness” the father in looking for success in business which will lead to financial security for the family, the daughter in looking for love (in all the wrong places) but it takes the totally bizarre death filled adventure of demons, corpses and escaped murderers to make them realise that they had what they needed to be happy all along – each other. The Katakuris may not be a model family, but everything runs better when they work as a team and they are very happy together no matter what strange adventures befall them. Despite all the trappings of weirdness, The Happiness of the Katakuris maybe Miike’s most subversively conservative film as it ultimately fulfils the role of that most Japanese of genres, the family drama, in which the traditional family is reformed and everything in the world is right again.
Available for the first time in HD, Arrow’s new set is nothing short of a wonder. Shot near the beginning of the digital age before the cameras where anywhere near as good as they are now, you wouldn’t assume The Happiness of the Katakuris would look this good and even if it does show its age here and there the presentation is pretty much top notch and the best it’s ever going to look. The set also comes with a host of special features, some ported over from the original release but also adds a Takashi Miike commentary with critic, Miike champion and sometime actor Toshitoki Shiota in Japanese with English subtitles but also, in an appropriately strange and surreal option, a dubbed version with actors “playing” Miike and Shiota speaking their lines in English too. You also get an entirely new commentary from Japanese film scholar and Miike expert Tom Mes of the recently deceased Midnight Eye plus a short video essay about Miike’s career and a couple of new Miike interviews too.
Almost 15 years on, The Happiness of the Katakuris remains as endearingly bizarre as it did on its first release and is truly worthy of its status as a beloved cult movie that continues to be the go-to weird Japan choice for the genre savvy cinephile. Back and better than ever, this new set from Arrow breathes new life into the film and is a great excuse for another stay at the White Lover’s Inn.
Here’s a trailer for the film:
If Takashi Miike x musical madness is your thing you also need to see Ai to Makoto (AKA For Love’s Sake) – available in the UK from Third Window Films.
Quirky comedy Fukuchan of Fukufuku Flats is released on UK DVD today by Third Window Films. I reviewed the film for UK Anime Network back when it was screened at Raindance last year and I also had the opportunity to interview the director Yosuke Fujita while he was over here doing promotion.
I also reviewed the portmanteau movie Quirky Guys and Gals which Fujita directed a segment of (the “Cheer Girls” bit with the overly helpful cheerleaders) and the movie also contains a short film by Mipo O (The Light Shines Only There) about a woman who’s neglected to pay her electricity bill so it’s well worth a look (also released in the UK by Third Window Films).
Here’s a trailer for Fukuchan
Anyway I completely loved this movie. It also has an amazing song (with thanks again to Genkina Hito who tracked it down).
You should all go and watch this very funny film right now because I want to see more movies by Fujita (and I’m selfish like that).
The Tale of Princess Kaguya is also out today and you can read a review of that over here . ‘Tis very good though you likely knew that already 😉
I reviewed this flawed yet interesting film, Concrete Clouds, for UK Anime Network. Probably I think I liked it a bit more than the score suggests but it does have its problems. Also ’90s (or maybe ’80s?) Thai pop is kind of amazing.
Up to now Lee Chatametikool has been best known as the regular editor on the films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Uncle Boonmee, Tropical Malady) but with Concrete Clouds he’s finally stepped out of the edit suite and behind the camera to direct his very first feature film. However, Concrete Clouds owes less to Apichatpong Weerasethakul or any of the other well known Thai directors he’s been working with over the last decade than it does to early period Tsai Ming-Liang and the Taiwanese new wave. A mood piece heavy on directorial flair but light on detail, Concrete Clouds never quite comes together but still manages to offer a few rewards for the patient viewer.
Set in 1997 just as the Asian Economic crisis begins to take hold, long time emigré Mutt (Ananda Everingham) gets a late night phone call from his high school age brother to say their father has just jumped off the roof. Mutt goes home for the first time in a long time aiming to lay a few ghosts – less that of his father than that of his teenage self and half forgotten love. Meanwhile, younger brother Nic has formed a tentative romance with a girl from the next building who appears to be living more or less alone and has just begun working in a hostess club. Just like his brother he’ll have to decide whether to abandon his love in Thailand to seek new dreams overseas or chase an ever elusive future in the land of his birth.
To be frank, the somewhat shocking and early death of the father retains little impact after the fact as neither of the now orphaned sons seems to dwell very long on the loss of their only parental figure and there’s no real soul searching over why he did what he did. The blueprints for new buildings he was looking at right before and the constant financial concern on the news screens seem to be evidence enough of his ultimate motives. Neither is much mention made of the absent mother who, one assumes, has been absent for a relatively long time. The age gap between the brothers also means that their relationship is not as close as you might assume brothers to be as Mutt must have left for America when Nic was little more than a toddler. Nevertheless, both boys are cast adrift by the older man’s decision, taken alone and with seemingly little concern for those around him.
The historical context is fairly key to the film though may be impenetrable for those less versed in recent history. In setting the story in 1997, the director intends both to imply that many of Thailand’s present social and economic problems stem back to the Asian Financial Crisis and the new Thai constitution which was created around that time but also to deal with the fragile nature of memory and our own tendencies to over romanticise our pasts by falling in love with a fantasy of our own creation. Mutt has dreamed of his high school girlfriend, Sai, ever since leaving her to go to college in America. He lives with a woman in New York but their relationship doesn’t seem particularly serious and she has not accompanied him to Thailand for his father’s funeral. Even though years have passed he’s remained faithful to the image of Sai he has in his mind and however much he tells himself nothing has changed it’s his own self created image that he’s wedded to, rather than the flesh and blood Sai who’s been busy getting on with her own life in the intervening ten years.
In a another cloud based film, Mikio Naruse’s Floating Clouds, the title refers to the the central characters who are unable to re-root themselves after the disruption caused to their lives firstly in failed Manchurian expedition and then by the after effects of the war. They float aimlessly trying to find something they can cling on to that will allow them to move forward with their lives and ultimately never find it. In Concrete Clouds it’s almost the opposite problem, the characters are weighed down by their dreams, almost crushed by them and unable to move. Their dreams will never lift off the ground because they can’t bear to let go of the past, of the people they once were and things they once thought they wanted.
The most notable element of Concrete Clouds is its unusual shooting style which incorporates everything from snatches of archival footage to long stretches of fantasy sequences played out as karaoke videos to late ‘90s Thai pop songs. The film has an interesting aesthetic which appropriately matches its melancholy and slightly wistful tone though it fails to capture the exact emotional ache that it seems to be going for. Ultimately its disparate elements never quite seem to coalesce into something more and though Concrete Clouds has plenty to admire it stops short of capturing the heart. Nevertheless it’s an impressive debut from Lee Chatametikool who has marked himself out as new talent to look out for in Thai cinema.
This is getting a release from Day For Night in the UK and here’s the trailer
And here’s a clip of one of the karaoke sequences
And another from the OST
(I don’t know any Thai at all, what is this music?)
Reviewed the latest film from Blue Gate Crossing director Yee Chih-Yen Salute! Sun Yat-Sen for UK Anime Network. Also interviewed the director when he was here for the film’s screening as the closing night gala of the 2015 Chinese Visual Festival (under the old title of Meeting Dr Sun). This will also be getting a DVD/VOD release from Facet Film Distribution on 27th July if you didn’t manage to make it to the festival. Good movie, kind of cute but with bite too.
Salute! Sun Yat-Sen is the long awaited new film from Taiwanese director Yee Chih-Yen which arrives a massive 13 years after the award winning Blue Gate Crossing. Like Blue Gate Crossing, Salute! Sun Yat-Sen centres around the everyday life of teenagers with a subtle level of social commentary though this time it swaps sexuality for social inequality and complicated male friendships.
Lefty is a typical high school boy, at once giddy and lackadaisical. His major problem in life is that he’s behind on his school fees and despite his attempts to dodge the issue, it’s become an embarrassment for him around the school. Lefty lives with his grandmother who’s on a low income and he simply does not have the money to pay. That’s when he catches sight of an abandoned metal statue in a school storeroom and hatches on a plan to steal it and sell it for scrap. However, just when it looks like the plan is complete, Lefty and his friends discover another group of boys has hatched on the same idea! It’s then up to Lefty & co to figure out a way of getting to the statue before the other gang.
Salute! Sun Yat-Sen mixes comedy caper tropes with high school drama as the boys try to beat each other to this overly symbolic statue that they intend to sell for scrap. The plan is, of course, a little bit ridiculous – first of all the business of sneaking an extremely heavy and cumbersome metal statue out of the school with no one noticing and then simply taking it to a scrap metal merchant and selling it, all without anyone asking how exactly they came by this distinctive statue, is quite a childishly naive plan but one which makes for quite a lot of comedy. One of the best moments being the boys trying to buy masks to hide their faces from the security cameras and having to go for the cheapest one which happens to be a horrible anime style face which is so cheaply priced because it’s made from an awful plastic which gives you a rash and makes your face itch if you wear it too long.
Sun Yat-Sen is obviously a hugely important, inspirational and well known historical figure particularly in Taiwan but also across mainland China. However, it has to be said that he is not such a well known figure in the UK and, especially as his name is not even mentioned until a news report close to the end, UK viewers may find that the symbolism his name carries is largely lost on them as is the film’s subtle social commentary. Briefly put, Sun Yat-Sen was the “father of the Chinese Republic” who sought to steer China towards a democratic and more egalitarian society after the collapse of the Qing dynasty and the Chinese revolution in 1911. Sadly, his utopian vision for the new China was not to be but his idealism and humanitarian thinking are still widely praised in Chinese culture. He also still appears on Taiwanese bank notes and so may be primarily linked with money in the minds of these young boys, but there is a central irony that it’s a statue of the left leaning Sun Yat-Sen that these money strapped young men have chosen to steal and melt down to get the money they so desperately need to get by.
However, even without grasping all of the complex political allusions to Taiwanese cultural issues both historical and contemporary, Salute! Sun Yat-Sen still succeeds as a warm and amusing coming of age tale in which a group of teenage boys on the cusp of adulthood come to realise a few things about themselves and the culture they live in. Though the central two boys are in someways very different, in other ways they have a lot in common and it’s a fun ride seeing how their conflicting personalities rub up against each other until a tentative friendship eventually develops. The second boy (who repeatedly avoids telling Lefty his name throughout the film) is, in many ways, in a far worse position than Lefty which has made him bitter and devoid of hope for the future but thanks to Lefty’s optimism perhaps begins to think it’s not all as gloomy as he once thought.
Like Blue Gate Crossing, Salute! Sun Yat-Sen is a quiet sort of film where plot takes second place to character (although all the heist shenanigans are undeniably entertaining – especially one horror movie inspired episode). The film feels authentically youthful, manages to imbue its young cast with an unusual degree of realism and it’s very hard not to be charmed by Lefty’s giant smile and happy go lucky attitude. Simply put, Salute! Sun Yat-Sen is unlikely to spark a revolution but its quietly encouraging messages are certainly a good start.
Arrow double whammy up at UK Anime Network as I review both of Arrow’s recent Yasuharu Hasebe releases – Massacre Gun and Retaliation!
Arrow have been turning up some hidden gems and neglected classics as they trawl through the world of the populist cinema from the Japanese golden age of the 1960s and 70s – they’ve already brought us the iconic Lady Snow Blood, the lesser known Blind Woman’s Curse, the anarchic Stray Cat Rock series and now, following on from their release of Seijun Suzuki’s famously crazy Branded to Kill they’ve turned their attention back to Nikkatsu Noir with Massacre Gun. The first of two releases from director Yasuhiro Hasebe who also directed three films in the Stray Cat Rock series (Retaliation will follow next month), Massacre Gun has everything any genre fan could wish for – depressed hit men, warring gangs, jazz bars, boxing clubs, stylish monochrome photography and the melancholic ennui that permeates all the best noir movies. Perhaps not quite as impressive as the greatest hits of Nikkatsu Noir such as the afore mentioned Branded to Kill or Nikkatsu’s other offerings like A Colt is My Passport, Massacre Gun is nevertheless another impressive entry in the studio’s short lived action output.
As the film begins, thoroughly dejected Kuroda has just been asked to carry out a hit on a woman who is in love with him – feelings which he may have have reciprocated but, but like any good lackey, Kuroda chose his boss over his heart and sent the love sick girl into a lake with a bullet in her chest. When Kuroda’s two younger brothers find out they do not approve and hot headed youngest brother Saburo who trains at a yakuza run gym hoping to become a a pro-boxer, decides to have a word with Kuroda’s boss, Akazawa. As might be expected things don’t go Saburo’s way and he’s brutally beaten to the extent his hands are all but crushed leaving him unlikely to box again. At this point, Kuroda wants out of the game – but for a yakuza hit man there is no out. His only option is to take down Akazawa’s empire and build one of his own.
Like most of Nikkatsu’s late ‘60s action output which would later retroactively become known as Nikkatsu Noir, Massacre Gun is heavily indebted to the American B-movie and particularly to the film noir. Its settings are those of “low culture”, Western bars and cafes where people drink expensive whiskey and wear sharp suits and sunglasses. In fact, the Kuroda brothers’ side business involves running a jazz bar with a half Japanese-half African American jazz singer playing piano in the corner and a pair of Western dancers doing some sort of scantily clad, artistic ballroom dancing routine in the middle. Most importantly it’s full of the classic Film Noir feeling of spiritual emptiness and existential ennui with the very depressed contract killer Kuroda at its centre.
A very male affair (perhaps the key missing element from a Film Noir is a femme fatale), the bulk of the film is the opposition between Kuroda on the one side and his former boss on the other. Other than the closeness with his two younger brothers and to a lesser extent the other workers at the club, Kuroda’s other most notable relationship is with his old friend Shirasaka who coincidentally married another woman Kuroda may have had feelings for. Though the two have enjoyed a close friendship up until now, Kuroda’s decision to leave Akazawa’s employ has meant Shirasaka has had to make a choice and he’s chosen Akazawa. The two are are now mortal enemies on opposing sides of a war – a fact which causes them both pain but which, nevertheless, cannot be otherwise.
Hasebe is best known for his striking use of colour which makes Massacre Gun a notable entry in his filmography as it’s the only one he made in black and white. Other than the perverse habit of sticking colours into the names of his leading characters and locations (the “Kuro” in Kuroda means “black”, the “Shira” in Shirasaka means “white” and the “Aka” in “Akazawa” means red making this one very complicated game of checkers), Hasebe still manages to make an oddly “colourful” film even in monochrome. Taking a cue from Suzuki, Hasebe has come up with a fair few arty and unusual compositions of his own though not quite to Suzuki’s absurd extremities and neatly retained the classic Nikkatsu Noir aesthetic in his superbly crisp black and white colour palate.
Coming as a late addition to the genre, Massacre Gun also takes a fairly unusual approach to violence with a far more explicit representation than would be expected from this period. Simply put – lots of people die in this film, many of them in quite exciting ways. Blood is everywhere and there are so many bullets fired you start to wonder if some one in the yakuza equivalent of the administration department isn’t having some kind of heart attack behind the scenes. Massacre Gun might not be the best entry in the Nikkatsu Noir series, but it is perhaps one of the most typical. Edgy and arty, exquisitely framed and perfectly photographed it brings out the effortless cool that came to symbolise Nikkatsu’s late ‘60s output. Aside from all that – it’s just fun as most of these films are. Another welcome release from Arrow who continue to root out these lesser known genre movies, Massacre Gun is a must see for fans of classic ‘60s action movies.
Arrow are back with another neglected classic of Japanese action cinema produced by Nikkatsu – Retaliation, a slightly later film from Yasuharu Hasebe director of Massacre Gun and three out of five of the Stray Cat Rock series. Unlike Massacre Gun (but like every other film Hasebe ever made), Retaliation is shot in colour and features Hasebe’s trademark use of it. Retaliation is very typical of its genre in someways and very not in others. It stands on something of a borderline seemingly symptomatic of Nikkatsu’s eventual slide into a producer of soft core pornography as their Roman Porno line of sex and violence based movies took over as their main production style. Not as strong as some of the other entries from around this time, Retaliation nevertheless marks itself out as an interesting addition to the genre.
Not one of the most exciting plots in yakuza movie history, Retaliation’s main mcguffin centres around trying to persuade some farming families to sell their ancestral land to developers who want to build a factory there. Having just been released from prison after taking the fall for gang murder, Jiro is offered the chance to head up his own group, however his patch is between two rivals and his best bet is to play the two off against each other as they both vie for this disputed farmland. One group is super old school and the other is the more modern type of thug who’ll do pretty much anything to get what they want – including abducting one of the farmer’s daughters and molesting her in the back of a car as a way to threaten her father. Jiro is given his own mini team to help out on his mission including an out of work actor and card shark, and another top yakuza guy who just happens to be the brother of the man he went to prison for killing and who has already vowed to killed Jiro in revenge. Jiro sometimes dreams of going straight and leading a different kind of life but gang loyalty still means something to him and those outside of the life aren’t always so understanding. Retaliation is the only way to stay alive in this new, empty yakuza world.
Retaliation starred three of Nikkatsu’s famed “Diamond Line” stars – Akira Kobayashi is the film’s lead leaving Jo Shishido playing second fiddle (his star had fallen a little at Nikkatsu and they didn’t see him as an actor who could carry a colour film as the leading man), and Hideki Nitani coming in third. Tatsuya Fuji and Meiko Kaji round out the almost famous section of the cast and each would soon find fame (or notoriety) in the new landscape of ‘70s Japanese cinema. There’s undoubtedly an air of everybody just doing what they do – it is after all what they’ve been employed for but at the same time no one’s really pushing themselves to do anything very notable. That said, you do have five of the biggest (or soon to be biggest) names of the time in one movie which gives it a feeling of a prestige project. However, in another move that anticipates the direction in which Nikkatsu was headed, the sex and violence quotient has been significantly upped.
Nikkatsu action films could already be shockingly violent for the time period, but Retaliation unfortunately adds a layer of sexualised violence against women which is undoubtedly being offered up as something for the viewer to enjoy. The early scene in which Meiko Kaji’s farmgirl is molested by a gang of thugs before being dumped at her parents’ house is unsettling on one level, but is shot with such a voyeuristic camera style that it’s difficult to not feel complicit in this fairly horrific act. There’s even another such sequence later in the film when one yakuza is forced to give up a girl he’s with so all his yakuza mates can have a go first which is again shot with a lingering camera often cutting back to the salivating gangsters. Of their time in one sense, these sadly salacious scenes of sexual violence against women filmed with an encouraging eye give the film an unwelcome sleazy quality from which it is hard to bounce back.
The other notable theme of the film is that it positions itself between the glamorous, modern samurai, gangster movies of the past and the grittier tales of modern thugs that were about to become the mainstream narrative. Jiro has been away for a long time, the yakuza world has moved on and his old clan would have died out if weren’t for another gang’s generosity. Jiro is the last of the honourable men who place loyalty above personal gain and seek to protect women and the put upon rather than exploiting them. Unfortunately, modern yakuza think differently and it’s no small irony that it’s a group of farmers they’re falling over themselves to ruin given that farmers are the very people old school yakuza, as the receivers of samurai values, would be expected to protect. Jiro and some of his cohorts still believe in these “old fashioned” ideas and are thought brave and noble. The other gangs who rape and torture women whilst forcing farmers off the land they’ve worked for centuries are not.
Again, it’s a fairly manly affair with women becoming little more than props to be used and abused throughout the film but the relationship between the two central guys Jiro and Hino takes on an oddly homoerotic context even ending with Shishido’s character getting rid of his girlfriend because he apparently falls in love too easily before telling Jiro that this is the first time it’s been with a guy. Considering their relationship began with Hino determined to kill Jiro, to end it with a quasi declaration of love (even half in jest) is a pretty steep character arc but one of the better things about the film.
Retaliation isn’t a perfect film, and it might not have the most exciting basis for its plot machinations but it certainly has its moments. Entertaining enough, the film is marred by its unpleasant treatment of women and takes a few dramatic missteps towards the end. The action is good however, as are the performances and production values. Perhaps not an essential Nikkatsu action movie but nevertheless a very interesting one from several different perspectives, Retaliation deserves a view from the genre’s committed fans.
Both available now in the UK on DVD & blu-ray from Arrow Films!
Review of this kind of cute French new wave influenced Japanese indie up at UK Anime Network. I kind of liked this one – it’s getting another screening at The Proud Archivist on Tuesday if you couldn’t make it today. Alternatively you can watch it online via FilmDoo!
It’s generally a mistake to judge a film by its title, but catching sight of “Au revoir l’été” on the poster or DVD cover is going to tell you several things about the film you’re about to see. First of all it’s obviously in French – a bold choice for a Japanese film, set entirely in Japan, for release in English speaking territories. Loosely translated it means “Goodbye, Summer” and closely channels the film’s obvious inspiration point Eric Rohmer’s Conte d’été (A Summer’s Tale). If you’re thinking a bit French new wave, stories filled with youthful ennui and complicated romances – well, you’re not far wrong. Indie director Koji Fukada brings the new wave’s characteristic existential angst and romantic yearnings to the Japanese small, seaside town in this unexpectedly engaging odyssey into summer themed nostalgia.
Sakuko (Fumi Nikaido) is a slightly lost young girl who finds herself on an unexpected summer trip with her aunt to house sit for another of her aunts in a small, seaside town where she can get down to studying for a second go at her university entrance exams. Summers being what they are, she finds herself less studying than getting to know her aunts’ home town and their strange collection of childhood friends including old flame of one (or maybe all) of the sisters, former thug and current “hotel” manager Ukichi (Kanji Furutachi). Rounding out the band are Ukichi’s college age daughter Tatsuko and Fukushima refugee nephew Takashi (Taiga). Matters become even more complicated when another professor and sometime lover of Sakuko’s aunt Makie, Nishida, turns up to drip sleaze all over our lovely summer vacation. Like the “hotel” that Ukichi runs which turns out to be strictly a rent by the hour affair, Nishida may look presentable and spout a lot of fine talk but underneath he’s anything but genteel. Idyllic as summer holidays can be, there’s always a lesson to be learned somewhere even if you don’t quite see it at the time.
If you had to come up with a one word descriptor for Au revoir l’été, the one you’d go for would be “wistful”. It’s full of nostalgia for those long languid summers that you only experience at a certain time of life (or perhaps never even actually experienced other than in films and books) where days of listless possibility stretch out in front of you as if the summer really will go on forever. Until, of course, it ends abruptly and rudely just you started to feel it was getting started. Walks by the beach, coffee shops, birthday parties for new friends and a tentative romance with a wounded and clueless local boy – it’s the classic French new wave summer holiday.
Perhaps deliberately, it all has the feeling of a dream, as if its charms are born of the wilful ignoring of painful truths. The sun maybe shining (well, mostly), the river water’s warm and the birds are singing but – there’s always a looming shadow of something less pleasant lurking in the background. In a fairly ordinary way, it has to be said – not in a David Lynch sort of way, just in the sort of way you forget that mean thing your boss said to you last week because “you’re on holiday!” and you’ll think about it later. The “hotel” is a love hotel, the famous professor is a jealous womaniser and Takashi is a Fukushima refugee who’s almost glad about the disaster because it got him out of a bad family situation he has no desire to return to. You can have a really great time right now by not thinking about any of these things, but sooner or later you’ll have to leave the beautiful summer beaches for the muddy path back to reality. No one can live “on holiday” forever.
Nothing really happens, no grand life changing events but somehow things have progressed by the end and everyone seems to have reached a new clarity about themselves and their lives for better or worse. If the film has a major fault it’s that it loses more than it gains by casting the net a little wide and trying to deal with everybody’s stories all at once rather than focusing Sakuko’s viewpoint and radiating out from there. The heart of the film is with its younger protagonists, but it doesn’t shy away from showing us what might become of them with the unhappy grown ups always in the background. Mikie and Ukichi, who’ve both had their share of disappointments in life, seem weighed down by regrets and compromises that even the summer air can’t ameliorate. The most clued up character is the almost cynical Tatsuko who seems immune’s to summer’s charms and is willing to see things as they are and exploit them to her own advantage.
Like many summers, Au revoir l’été is really far too long by the end but it’s so whimsically charming that you don’t quite mind. Another standout performance from Fumi Nikaido anchors the film through her fairly passive, though perceptively gifted, Sakuko and each of her summer companions is so engagingly drawn that there’s always plenty to think about. Which is just as well because this isn’t the sort of film to offer many answers so much as be content in observation. Charming, intriguing and at times beguiling Au revoir l’été may not set the world alight but it does bathe it in a warm summer glow.