After being so pleasantly surprised with The Tale of Zatoichi and in particular Shintaro Katsu’s endearing performance as the titular blind masseuse and master swordsman, I was keen to continue my “Zatoichi-gatsu” and watch the next entry in the series. I was also a little nervous: the series stretched to twenty-five films between 1962 and 1973, not counting later entries and remakes. Surely the quality would not be maintained for the duration, so it was just a question of when the drop would come. It was also not obvious whether a sequel would be an original story or merely a rehash of the first film; in watching many ongoing series from Japan’s 1960s and ‘70s like Outlaw Gangster: VIP or Lone Wolf and Cub, it’s clear that each film in the series follows a fairly rote formula, often with the same cast returning in “new” roles. Would The Tale of Zatoichi Continues (1963) buck that trend, or mark the start of a more formulaic martial arts film?
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me a third time — and I’m pretty sure I’ve lost all moral high ground. In Godzilla: The Planet Eater, Netflix and Toho team back up to bore the ever-loving god out of me for a third and, hopefully, final time. Any wishful thinking that the third instalment might magically turn around the series after two utterly lethargic entries was misguided, and my hopes were very quickly dashed as The Planet Eater settled into a familiar rhythm of characters no one could possibly care about reciting pseudo-philosophy no one could possibly understand. Every criticism I’ve ever levelled against the series, from the stilted animation to the lack of action to the awful dialogue still applies. Nevertheless, I powered through and watched it, so here’s my review.
Tokyo Mighty Guy • Danger Pays • Murder Unincorporated
Earlier on the site, I reviewed three films from Nikkatsu’s golden years in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Presented in Arrow Films’ Nikkatsu Diamond Guys Collection vol. 1, I found Voice Without a Shadow to be a decent early taste of Seijun Suzuki, but Red Pier and The Rambling Guitarist were both pretty forgettable, aside from the latter’s unusual Hakodate setting. So when I sat down to watch the films from vol. 2, I wondered whether it was worth digging into each film with a meaty review. I could just binge all three, I figured, and recreate the feeling of watching what I expected to be pretty ephemeral, throwaway pieces of entertainment in the 1960s.
The irony is that vol. 2’s films are much more entertaining and stand out from a crowded field of mid-’60s yakuza films by being much more comedic in tone. It actually feels unusual that rote action films like Youth of the Beast or Massacre Gun get their own standalone release, but Arrow has chosen to practically hide away these gems on the second volume of it’s Diamond Guys series. Perhaps it’s that the directors or the films themselves lack name recognition (Buichi Saito is perhaps best known for his work on Lone Wolf and Cub, while Ko Nakahira’s 1956 film Crazed Fruit is critically acclaimed but he’s otherwise unknown in the West, and Noguchi is billed as a ‘new discovery’).
Nevertheless, I’m going to treat these films more as a ‘collection’ than I normally would. Below are the reviews I wrote up while working through the disc, first posted over on my Letterboxd feed. Here’s hoping that Arrow digs deeper into Nikkatsu’s expansive back catalogue and releases another volume of Diamond Guys in the future.
I feel like I took a gamble on Zatoichi. It’s an old series whose legacy reaches far past the actual films, so I knew the basic premise of this blind swordsman from the ‘60s and ‘70s, even before the remake starring Beat Takeshi back in the early 2000s. I was hesitant to give the series a try, though, after struggling through six films of the seemingly similar Lone Wolf and Cub – and here was a series with twenty-five entries (and that’s just in the Criterion Collection, which sadly excludes the 1989 film also starring Shintaro Katsu, never mind the hundred-episode television show!). More or less totally unavailable in the UK, it was a moot point until Criterion brought their US collection over, and I finally rolled the dice.
Whether or not the rest of the series maintains the same level of craftsmanship is uncertain – or even unlikely – but the first film, Kenji Misumi’s The Tale of Zatoichi (1962) is a brilliant and surprisingly introspective drama rather than the schlocky martial arts exploitation film I expected. This is all the more surprising considering Misumi actually directed several of the Lone Wolf films that I disliked so intensely – and that Shintaro Katsu, who stars as the titular Zatoichi, is the younger brother of Tomisaburo Wakayama, most famous for his portrayal of Itto Ogami in Lone Wolf and Cub.
Happy New Year, readers, and to kick off 2019 I present: Zatoichi-Gatsu, a terrible pun based on Criterion UK releasing the (near) complete Zatoichi Collection late last year and the Japanese word for January (ichigatsu). I’ve got twenty-five films to watch starring everyone’s favourite blind swordsman and as reviewing one a week would take us almost half the year, I’ll instead be peppering reviews throughout January as I work my way through the collection.
I’m not sure when I first heard of Shinichiro Ueda’s One Cut of the Dead (2017) but it quickly grew to be one of my most anticipated Japanese films, and I watched it creep up the UK from London festival by festival until it finally arrived in Leeds. I’d heard all kinds of good things about it: that it was an excellent zombie comedy, that it featured an extremely long single take shot – the ‘one cut’ of the title. The praise was so effusive I was determined to see it, but I still didn’t really know what to expect. The rough plot outline that I had heard, and that I will share here again, is that a low budget zombie horror film is interrupted by actual zombies and the director is determined to incorporate the real attacks into his film – in Japanese, the title is カメラを止めるな！ or ‘Don’t stop the camera!’. While that’s a wonderful title, it only scratches the surface of what makes One Cut of the Dead great.
It’s that time of year again: November approaches, and with it, the 32nd Leeds International Film Festival. Last year was in part a celebration of Japanese director Takashi Miike hitting his 100th feature film with Blade of the Immortal, and I wrote about the many other Japanese films featured that year. Then, flu struck me down, and I still haven’t caught up on Miike! This year I’m armed with a flu jab and a fresh copy of the festival’s programme. Let’s take a look at the Japanese cinema exhibiting this year:
Dir. Tadashi Nagayama
Caring for his uncle with dementia, Taka lodges in an idyllic thatched cottage in the countryside. When the uncle’s son Mitsuaki returns, his quiet life of caring and bongo-playing seems in doubt, until he and childhood friend Sho are reunited in friendship. But unwelcome visits by a nature-obsessed family from Tokyo threaten to overturn this bucolic existence. At heart a gentle pastoral comedy and satire of romanticised country life, in the hands of Tadashi Nagayama (director of 2016’s Journey of the Tortoise), events start to take a very unexpected direction.
Dir. Shinsuke Sato
From the original manga and anime series comes a brand new live action sci-fi superhero showdown from Shinsuke Sato. The ineffectual father of an uncaring family and with even more bad news on the way, Inuyashiki is suddenly struck by a mysterious explosion, awaking to discover his body has acquired fantastically powerful robotic innards. Unsure of the extent of his abilities, but resolving to do good, he is unaware that a teenager, Shishigami, was also caught in the same explosion. Shishigami may have similar powers, but he harbours more psychopathic tendencies.
Dir. Mamoru Hosoda
From acclaimed director Mamoru Hosoda (Summer Wars, Wolf Children), Mirai is a daringly original story of love passed down through generations. When four-year-old Kun meets his new baby sister, his world is turned upside down. Named Mirai (meaning ‘future’), the baby quickly wins the hearts of Kun’s entire family. As his mother returns to work, and his father struggles to run the household, Kun becomes increasingly jealous of the baby. Mirai is a sumptuous, magical and emotionally soaring adventure about the ties that bring families together and make us who we are.
Dir. Shin’ichirô Ueda
Hack film director Higurashi (whose motto is ‘fast, cheap, but average’) is hired to make a zombie film in an abandoned WWII Japanese facility, allegedly used for human experiments by the military. In the middle of the shoot they are attacked by real zombies, much to the delight of the director who is determined to include the carnage in his film. Opening with an epic 37 minute single take, this low budget film challenges the tired genre and delivers a truly unique fast-paced, laugh-out-loud, meta-as-possible zombie comedy.
One Cut of the Dead was one of my ‘dream picks’ for the festival since hearing about it a few months back. It played at Frightfest in London, then in the fantastically named Abertoir horror festival in Aberystwyth, then Nottingham – I had my fingers crossed it would finally work its way up to my home town. When it didn’t make the highlight reel at the programme launch event I was disappointed, but here it is! Squirrelled away in the annual ‘Night of the Dead’ marathon.
Dir. Hiroyasu Ishida
In this debut anime feature from Hiroyasu Ishida, Aoyama is a serious 10 year-old boy who records all of his day-to-day experiences in his notebook. One day in May, penguins inexplicably appear in his home town, despite it being located a long way from the sea. When Aoyama sees ‘Big Sis’ drop a soft drink can which inexplicably turns into a penguin, he decides to investigate and resolve the mystery behind these strange events.
Dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda
Winner of this year’s Palme d’Or, this deeply rich story of a deeply poor family will steal your heart. On wintry Tokyo backstreets, a man and his young boy are doing the shopping for the household – their practiced shoplifting routine yields food for everyone. Going home they spot a hungry little girl and before long the family has extended to six – poor but loving, and often joyful. From the director of Like Father, Like Son and Our Little Sister comes his most beautifully satisfying film yet.
Dir. Juzo Itami
Trucking stranger Goro rides into town and takes shelter in a failing out-of-the-way ramen restaurant. He takes pity on the downtrodden proprietress Tampopo, and with a diverse team of local noodle, broth and topping experts sets out to turn Tampopo’s tired old joint into the finest in Tokyo. Into this light soupy story many satirical ingredients are mixed: Tampopo’s buffet of deliciousness riffs on Japanese corporate culture, internationalism, domestic relations, cinema and always sex. One of the best Japanese films of the 1980s, Tampopo is impossible to watch without dreaming of hearty post-movie eats.
I was such a huge fan of A Taxing Woman that I really wanted to track down some more of Itami’s films, and as Tampopo is one of the few with a readily available Western release, it’s high on my list. I’ve put it off and put it off, though, and here comes two opportunities to see it in Leeds. The first at the film festival, and then in a “Ramen & a Movie” screening at The Reliance!
Dir. Kôichirô Miki
‘I am a cat. As yet, I have no name’. So begins the chronicles of Nana, a stray cat who has adopted its own master, Satoru, as he sets out to revisit friends from his past, with a request that Nana doesn’t yet understand. Partly narrated by Nana herself and based on the enormously successful Japanese novel by Hiro Arikawa, The Travelling Cat Chronicles is a humorous and tender exploration of how small acts of kindness and sacrifice can make a difference in the unexpected events of people’s lives.
Despite warnings from hermit Old Man Lucky –Monkey, Bobby, his friend Akkun and Derrick the cat explore the local mountains, where they discover a mysterious alien invasion-themed amusement park. Little do they or we know the truly deranged horror and grotesquery awaiting these innocents. Filmed live in ‘Geki-mation’ – painstakingly hand-painted cardboard cutouts with in-camera effects – this colourful fairytale aesthetic erupts in a torrent of grotesque mutilation, child-robot hybrids, bodily fluids and forest animals. A uniquely entertaining, disturbing and unforgettable film.
That covers all the Japanese feature films at this year’s festival, but I wanted to mention one South Korean entry in particular. It’s based on a short story by Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami.
Dir. Chang-dong Lee
The new film from leading Korean director Lee Changdong (Oasis, Poetry) took eight years to arrive but it was more than worth the wait, stunning critics at Cannes Film Festival this year. A beautifully-crafted mystery thriller based on a short story about obsessive love by Haruki Murakami, Burning starts out as a story about a deliveryman who cares for his girlfriend’s cat while she goes away to Africa. Then she returns with a stranger.
Of course, there’s more to the festival than Japanese film. There are some big, mainstream films getting early showings, like Widows and The Old Man & The Gun, stunning documentaries like Genesis 2.0 and Welcome to Sodom, and plenty more that I’ve only skimmed over. As well as catching several of the above Japanese films, I’ve already grabbed tickets for Sorry to Bother You on the opening night, and a screening of Dredd as part of the festival’s “Timeframes” collection of films taking place over a single day. What will you be seeing?
This year, I’m spending the month of October celebrating the horror genre with a #31DaysofHorror or #Shocktober-style run of horror films. At the end of the first week I’m a little behind schedule, with an eye on catching up over the weekends, but I’ve already bagged my first Japanese horror of the season: utterly mad cult classic House (1977), the debut feature film of Nobuhiko Obayashi. Ostensibly a horror film Toho demanded after the success of Jaws in 1975, House (or Hausu, to give it its Japanese pronunciation) is most definitely not a straightforward suspense-horror film akin to the Spielberg movie that triggered its creation. Instead, it’s a completely surreal sequence of events and images that more-or-less tells the story of a gaggle of teenage girls who visit a countryside mansion in Japan before falling prey to the old woman who lives there and the diabolical house itself. Obayashi, who developed a series of experimental films through the 1960s, imbues House with a non-stop cavalcade of visual tricks, weird FX shots, dissonant audio that overwhelms the senses. Rarely good, but never boring, House is the kind of cult film that simply must be seen to be believed.
Yurusarezaru Mono (2013) is Lee Sang-Il’s gorgeous remake of Clint Eastwood’s 1992 revisionist Western Unforgiven, shifting the setting from the American Old West to Japan’s late 19th century northern frontier on the island of Hokkaido. Lee is able to draw out tremendous parallels between the two countries in that era – both recovering from a civil war, and expanding outwards into ‘unclaimed’ territory – and effectively retell the same basic story in a wholly new locale. Ken Watanabe (Tampopo, The Last Samurai) stars as Clint Eastwood’s equivalent: Jubei Kamata, aka “Jubei the Killer”, a former samurai on the side of the Shogunate in Japan’s civil war (1868-69). After the fall of the Shogunate to Imperial forces, Jubei is among those who fled to Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido (then called Ezo), where he now lives a life of utter destitution. He’s picked up by Akira Emoto’s Kingo (the role played by Morgan Freeman in the original, in some strikingly similar casting) to collect on a bounty placed on the Hotta brothers by the prostitutes they disfigured. Much of this draws on story beats from the original Unforgiven despite the drastic change in location and culture, but while Clint Eastwood’s final Western is critically acclaimed, I’ve never cared much for it. In Lee’s hands, however, the story comes alive and works in a way I never felt about the original.
What can I write about Shinichiro Watanabe’s seminal, acclaimed, hugely influential anime Cowboy Bebop that has not already been discussed, in greater detail and with more eloquence, by people before me? I came very late to Cowboy Bebop; I’ve mentioned before when reviewing anime that aside from a handful of exceptions, like Ghost in the Shell, I hadn’t watched much until a few years ago. Cowboy Bebop was one of the landmark series that I’d somehow missed out on, and it took me seventeen years – the series aired in Japan in 1998, but not until 2001 in the west – to correct that grave mistake. Fortunately, Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (2001) gives me an opportunity to discuss the series as a whole and the film in particular. Set between episodes 23 and 24 of the original 26 episode run, the film works as more of a “lost episode” than as a either a capstone to the series or a truly standalone adventure. I imagine a casual viewer could approach it without having watched the series, but that would leave them missing out on much of the world- and character-building that went into the show – and as the film is set largely on Mars, it misses out on much of the swashbuckling, spacefaring charm of the series.