Category: Japan

(A quick aside before I begin my review. I think I’m going to start putting promotional posters for the film as the original picture instead of the screencaps that I will use in the rest of the review. I’d love to hear feedback about this decision)

Akira Kurosawa made his mark in history as the peerless director of samurai movies, but even a casual examination of his most famous films (Ran, Seven Samurai, Kagemusha), whether they’re samurai movies or not, reveal that he brought so much more to the table. Along with Terrence Malick and Stanley Kubrick, Kurosawa certainly has to be considered one of the greatest visual directors of all time (I could honestly watch Ran with the sound off. It’s that gorgeous), and as showcased in Rashomon, he had a mastery of postmodern metatextualism before that was even a recognized “thing” in cinema. His 1950 masterpiece Rashomon was a light years ahead of its time meditation on storytelling and the perspective of fiction along with a deeply cynical (though with some light at the end) take on human nature that created an entire subgenre of cinema in its wake.

A film that is more about the telling of the stories we hear than the actual murder mystery at the heart of the film, Rashomon is a film dripping with as much visual style as it is narrative stylings. As a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) and a priest (Minoru Chiaki) try to take shelter from a storm in the Rashomon temple, they are joined by a commoner (Kichijiro Ueda) and seek his advice on a mysterious unsolved murder they can not solve. The woodcutter claims that he found the body of a samurai (Masayuki Mori) that had been murdered. When the woodcutter reports the crime to the authorities, he and the priest are witnesses to the trial as the two other principal parties to the murder, a notorious bandit named Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune) and the samurai’s wife (Masako Kanazawa), as well as the samurai’s ghost provide wildly different versions of what transpired.

According to Tajomaru, he was resting in the forest when he saw the samurai and his wife walk by. When he instantly fell in love with the wife, Tajomaru tricked the samurai and tied him up. After he seduced the wife, she forced Tajomaru and the samurai to fight to the death over their honor, and Tajomaru killed the samurai in a fair duel. According to the wife, she was raped by Tajomaru and when her husband refused to speak to her or look at her after Tajomaru fled, she killed her husband in anger. According to the samurai’s ghost (as summoned through a medium), he decided to end his own life because he couldn’t bear the shame that was brought on to him by his unfaithful wife. None of the stories are compatible and when you hear a fourth version of the events from the woodcutter himself (which in itself wasn’t necessarily reliable), it’s anybody’s guess as to who was really telling the truth.

Although some may say that the performances were overwrought, a lot of the melodrama of the film makes complete sense within the context of the stories we’re being told (which all show their respective narrator in the best light possible). Toshiro Mifune was the stand-out performance of the whole film as the bandit Tajomaru (even if his evil laughs were kind of outrageous). Often shot in tight close-ups which captured his sweat-drenched face, there was never a version of the story where he seemed like a good guy, but Mifune’s ability to capture every single possible motivation and alternative personality of Tajomaru was endlessly exciting. Masako Kanazawa was electric in the scenes told from her perspective as her desolation after her rape slowly transforms into murderous rage to the husband who has forsaken her after her violation. Similarly, when you see a more manipulative side from her during the woodcutter’s version of the tale, she is equally impressive.

As always, Kurosawa’s visual aesthetic is second to none. Shot in a gorgeous black and white, Rashomon took advantage of immersive and intensifying close-ups, long and gorgeous tracking shots, expert lighting, and wonderful location shooting. I watched this movie today and the first third two days ago (because I worked all day yesterday and was watching this before I went to bed on Friday), and while it makes it harder to pick out all of the great individual shots, there are still plenty of obvious highlights. The scene from the wife’s point of view where she’s approaching her husband to kill him was shot with her entire body in profile with this hellish light washing over her. When the story is told from the samurai’s perspective, there’s a great moment where the dagger he uses to kill himself is shot like it’s Excalibur in the stone as all of the light in the scene is directed towards it. Kurosawa’s eye is second to none.

Still, the most important part of the film was how Kurosawa turned the whole notion of cinematic storytelling on its head. Prior to this film (and with almost no other exceptions that I can think of), what you saw on screen was what happened? The camera was meant to be used for truth (or in the case of a fictional film, presenting the “truth” of the narrative). Kurosawa realized that  you could use cinema to show competing and ultimately contradictory points of view on the same event, and that discovery’s influence on legions of writers from Quentin Tarantino to Charlie Kauffman to Wes Anderson has been felt for half a century now. He wasn’t simply playing around with linearity (such as what Orson Welles did in Citizen Kane); he was rewriting all of the narrative rules for the cinematic form in terms of perspective and closure.

If you’re looking for one of the definitive films of Japanese cinema (and one of the greatest works from Japan’s master, although I prefer Ran slightly more) or simply one of the definitive films of world cinema period, you need look no further than Rashomon. It’s got a compelling narrative that offers no easy solutions. It has some less than positive things to say about human nature and how cruel we can be to one another. It’s got action (though not as much as Kurosawa’s more specific samurai films). And it’s a gorgeous film even though it was obviously shot on a budget that wasn’t as expansive as his later epics. If there are directors that are guaranteed to almost never disappoint, Kurosawa has to be one of them.

Final Score: A

A film that is about children is not necessarily a film for children. The live-action adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are is more a reminiscence on the beauty and horror of childhood (as well as divorce) than it is something specifically meant to entertain kids. While it may have elements that appeal to children, I still contend that Toy Story 3 was truly meant to be enjoyed and appreciated by those who were children when the first film came out. A tragic meditation on the horrors of war and the human consequences of decisions like fire-bombing a small sea-side town does not seem like fodder for your typical children’s film. However, the legendary Studio Ghibli (Howl’s Moving Castle) took that risk and it surely paid off. For if Grave of the Fireflies isn’t one of the most emotionally powerful animated films you’ve ever seen, you may be broken on the inside.

Grave of the Fireflies isn’t just one of the best animated films I’ve seen; it is one of the most harrowing and heartbreaking war films ever made. Set in the waning days of World War II, Seita (Tsutomu Tatsumi) and Setsuko (Ayano Shiraishi) are orphans who lost their mother in the fire-bombing of Kobe, Japan. Their father is in the navy but it is unclear whether he is alive or part of the annihilation of virtually the entire Japanese fleet. It doesn’t matter. You never see or hear from him. Although Seita and Setsuko are originally allowed to live with an aunt, her greed and uncharitable attitude towards the two children (Seita is  a young teenager. Setsuko is four five) to run away and attempt to make it on their own. Though they are able to find sustenance at first, it becomes quickly apparent that Seita and Setsuko won’t be able to make it on their own.

This is not a children’s movie. Although the film’s director claimed during it’s release that it was meant to be a reminder to Japanese youth (who in the 80s were experiencing record levels of juvenile delinquency) of the tragedies that befell their parents and grandparents, this is an anti-war film through and through. Children’s movies don’t generally cause the viewer to have his hands over his face in horror for the entire film. Children’s films may make you cry (The Iron Giant, Toy Story 3, Up), but they don’t leave you feeling nearly dead inside when the film is done. Grave of the Fireflies was heart-wrenching to the point that it caused me physical pain to watch the movie. Not since The Road have I sat through a film so emotionally powerful. If the notion of two children struggling (and failing) to survive in war-torn Japan sounds tough to bear, it’s cause it will be. I’m crying writing about the film.

Grave of the Fireflies joins that rare breed of film which offers almost nothing in the way of “entertainment” and is instead meant to horrify and educate its viewers. It sends a very potent political message (even if the screen-writer/director claims that wasn’t his intent), and if you’ve ever celebrated the U.S.’s actions in Japan during World War II, this film will remind you of the human costs of that victory. When you discover that most of the film is a true story (it’s an adaptation of a semi-autobiographical novel), it becomes nearly too real to handle. The film is full to the brim of tiny details that speak to the real-life horror that the novel’s author, Akiyuki Nosaka, suffered along with his sister and countless other Japanese orphans who fell through the cracks during the last months of the war. Along with Das Boot, it is one of the only war films that completely avoids any accidental glorification of war. It is pure horror.

The film’s animation is stunning. Whether it’s capturing the horror of the bombings, the physical degradation that Seita and Setsuko suffer due to malnutrition, or the rare moments of beauty the film offers, the animation always complements the action on screen. The film uses a recurring firefly visual motif which represents the impermanence of life (it’s both a Japanese cultural symbol as well as a visual concept that is readily apparent even to cultural outsiders), and the fireflies show up in one of the rare uplifting moments of the film (which is of course subverted shortly thereafter to break your heart again). Seita and Setsuko have moved to a small shelter inside a hillside. It’s dark and Setsuko is scared so Seita captures dozens of fireflies in a pot and releases them into the cave (which they can’t leave because of mosquito nettings). It’s simply a gorgeous and happy moment which are fleeting and rare, and the film instantly reminds you what kind of movie you’re watching when Setsuko has to bury them all in the very next scene.

The film also makes great use of color and moments of visual poetry that transform the scenes from simple visual representations of what happened Nosaka’s life into something more artistic. Without wanting to spoil some of the more tragic aspects of the film, the movie makes great use of tinting and color-wash to let us know what events are occurring and when moments are perceived more as spiritual and ethereal. The film’s score is also hauntingly effective as there’s a moment towards the end of the film where Seita and Setsuko’s suffering has become total where you see a different family return to their home, unbroken and with all of their belongings (and family) intact, and their record player sets off a gut-wrenching version of “Home Sweet Home.”

If I had to look for flaws in the movie, the obvious one is that Setsuko and Seita are never actually characterized. Instead, they’re meant to be the ultimate sympathetic constructs for the viewers to imprint their heartbreak and horror on. Some might accuse the director of trying to manipulate the audience’s emotion, but since so much of the film is true, he can avoid that charge. This film, once and for all, settles any debate as to whether or not anime can be considered the equal of the “purer” art of live-action cinema (or Western animation). Considering that this film is a truer and more unbearable representation of war than many so-called serious, live-action war films, I think the conversation is pretty much moot. Everyone needs to watch this movie, regardless of how you feel about anime. My only recommendation is that you have several boxes of tissues handy. You’re going to need them.

Final Score: A

 It’s not a huge secret on this blog that I’m a bit of an otaku. Well, I fancy myself to be an otaku, but I really only have a slightly above average knowledge of anime and manga. Anyways, I remember when I read my first manga a couple of years ago and how much I enjoyed it. It was Death Note which I read in its entirety in about a week or two. I was than engrossed by it. I have since read Fullmetal Alchemist, some Elfen Lied, some Bleach, and some Soul Eater. One manga that I’ve always wanted to read but never got around to was Battle Royale. My dad saw the live-action movie a while back that it was based off of and really enjoyed it, so I put it at the top of my Netflix queue even though it isn’t on my official list for this blog. It came today and while it wasn’t a great movie, it was still pretty cool and entertaining, and I’m definitely going to read the manga now.

The plot of Battle Royale is an amalgamation of Lord of the Flies and the Arnold Schwarzenegger classic The Running Man (I use the term classic so loosely there). When Japan’s unemployment rate reaches 15%, it’s student population boycotts the education system. Out of fear of the riotous and rebellious youth, the adults enact a fascist new law to take care of the rising problem with the youth. An entire 9th grade class is chosen by a national lottery to take place on a deadly game on a remote island. The rules are simple: the children are given weapons and supplies (although each kid gets a different weapon) and are then given three days to kill each other until there is only one child left standing. While some kids merely try to survive, others begin to take a psychotic enjoyment in the murder while all bonds of friendship and community quickly disappear.

This is easily one of the most violent movies that I’ve watched for this blog (at least since Kill Bill). There was so much blood and action that I thought I was watching one of the stylistic action films of like Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez. Fortunately, it was also mixed with a healthy amount of social commentary ala Lord of the Flies. My only real problem with the film is that there are so many kids, around 40, that other than the main 5 or 6, it’s really hard to actually care about any of them. A lot of the deaths that are supposed to be meaningful outside of the main group fail to carry any emotional weight because I don’t know their names, let alone anything about them to make me care about them.

If you like action flicks, this is a pretty decent one. My dad actually watched it one time entirely in Japanese with no subtitles and still knew almost exactly what was going on (even though he doesn’t speak Japanese. He was just dumb and didn’t know how to turn on the subtitles) so if you have concerns about foreign films, you really shouldn’t have those problems. Even if you don’t like action films, this one is still pretty entertaining. I’m of the firm belief that straight action films can never be great works of art so unless they’re deconstructing their genre (which I guess makes them not straight action films), but that’s my own personal bias against the genre. Anyways, everybody ought to give this one a go unless you’re offended by copious amounts of blood.

 Final Score: B

 Love him or hate him, there’s no denying that the Bard of Avon has left an indelible imprint on fiction ever since he put quill to parchment. While I don’t know how it’s possible not to enjoy the works of Bill Shakespeare, I do accept the fact that he has his fair share of detractors, even by those I respect intellectually. Like I said though, I’m a big fan and have been ever since I saw the Mel Gibson film production of Hamlet in middle school (a production I ironically don’t think is all that great these days). My favorite play by Shakespeare though is King Lear. There’s something about its immense darkness, mixed against an epic family drama with perhaps the greatest villain Shakespeare ever wrote, that makes for a play that I can read again and again and again and always find some new passage or scene that’s infused with immense meaning.

The wonderful thing about Shakespeare’s plays is that they are so timeless and universal in their themes that they can be freely adapted as new artists and visionaries see fit. West Side Story, Baz Luhrman’s modern take on Romeo and Juliet, the Ethan Hawke Hamlet, Mekhi Phieffer’s O. It’s a terrible film but even 10 Things I Hate About You is an adaptation of Taming of the Shrew. You can change the era, the setting, and even some characters, but his stories still shine through and still make for entertaining escapes to this day. Akira Kurosawa is the premier auteur of Japanese film-making and no one from those tiny islands has come close to dethroning him. Rashomon, Yojimbo, and Seven Samurai still stand as some of the most famous films in the history of foreign cinema. I just finished his adaptation of King Lear, his magnum opus, Ran (which is Japanese for Chaos). It is now the single best foreign language film I’ve reviewed for this blog. Sorry, Fellini.

Ran, as I said, is a semi-loose adaptation of King Lear. Set in feudal Japan, Ran follows the demise of the once-powerful Ichimonji clan. The head of the clan and leader of Japan, is the now old and sickly Hidetora. After gathering his three children together (and his advisors), Hidetora announces that he is ceding his authority to the throne, and leaving his eldest son, Taro, in charge of the nation. He also leaves a castle and land to his middle child, Jiro. His youngest son, Subaro, was supposed to inherit land and a castle as well, but he spoke honestly and bluntly to his father about the dangers of dividing the land this way and the impending destruction. For his honesty, Hidetora banishes Subaro. At the behest of his Lady Macbeth wife, Kaede, Taro eventually banishes his father from the castle and Jiro quickly follows suit. Eventually fratricide and all out war breaks out in the kingdom as brother turns against brother and Hidetora descends into total madness.

The cinematography in this film is beyond breathtaking. Much like Fellini, Kurosawa is one of the undisputed masters of visual artistry in his films, and this film puts his particular skill set on display like no other picture. Whether its the use of color during the beautifully orchestrated battles or simply the masters use of background and location shoots, nearly every scene in the film is full of the kind of visual grandeur that most directors are lucky to capture in their best scene in their best films. For a film full of such artistry and beauty, it’s astonishing how horrifying and and barbaric the battle sequences are. Even though the blood looks suspiciously like red paint, it doesn’t change just how intense every single fight was. All of Kurosawa’s experience with historical epics came into play during each of the exquisitely choreographed battles.

In the original play, Edmund stood out as one of the best villains that has ever been written. He is so perfectly manipulative and ambitious that despite being a lowborn son of bastard birth, he nearly centralizes all of the power of England around himself. Ran flips around the genders of most of the major players of the play, and Edmund becomes Lady Kaede. She is definitely one of the best female villains in the history of cinema. When she coldly asks for the head of Jiro’s previous wife and insists that it is properly salted, you know she has more ice in her veins than any of the men in the film. The Fool in King Lear also distinguished himself as one of Shakespeare’s more cleverly written supporting characters, and Hidetora’s androgynous fool, Kyoami, steals every second that he’s on screen. It is actually the scenes between Kyoami and Hidetora that I felt Kurosawa was most completely channeling the style and power of Shakespeare.

You need to watch this movie. There are no if’s, and’s, or but’s about this. It combines the best of the historical epic genre with the visual artistry of one of the greatest directors in the history of cinema with one of the greatest tragedies ever written. It’s samurais meets Shakespeare. I’m not really sure how you can possibly go wrong there. I think this was my 95th movie for this blog. This is going to be one of only 5 movies to get the score that I’m about to bestow on it, so that should hopefully speak leagues about its quality. The only person that I can’t recommend this to are those who can’t sit through foreign films with subtitles, but then, you probably aren’t into good movies in the first place as it is. So, rent this movie from where ever you rent movies from. You need to do it right now.

 Final Score: A+