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.
It’s that time of year again: my adoptive hometown of Leeds is gearing up for the 32nd Leeds International Film Festival. Last year, I wrote about the selection of Japanese cinema at LIFF 2017, and I had planned on catching Takeshi Miike’s Blade of the Immortal before the flu struck me down at the last minute. This year, I’ve got my fingers crossed for more Japanese films (as well as some others that have been making waves on the international festival circuit, like Sorry to Bother You and Tigers Are Not Afraid).
This year’s line-up hasn’t been announced yet. The festival programme launches on October 10th. Tickets are free, but need to be booked in advance, for the two screenings of trailers for this year’s event. I’ll be there hoping to catch a glimpse of Shoplifters and One Cut of the Dead.
Original series director Kenji Misumi returns for one final film in Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons (1973). This fifth instalment again portrays an episodic series of events in which Itto Ogami (Tomisaburo Wakayama) and his infant son are hired from their life on the road to commit an assassination, all the while pursued by the villainous Yagyu clan that schemed to have Ogami cut loose as a ronin way back in Sword of Vengeance. I wrote extensively about how the first and second films, both directed by Misumi, left me cold, but that his Baby Cart to Hades finally turned things around. I was disappointed by his being replaced with Buichi Saito for the fourth film just when it seemed like Misumi was getting into his stride, but Baby Cart in the Land of Demons gives him another chance. Would this be another series high point, or a disappointment like the first couple of films?
It’s safe to say I’ve been somewhat disappointed with New Battles Without Honour and Humanity, the studio-mandated follow-up series to Kinji Fukasaku’s spectacular Battles Without Honour and Humanity. In the first New Battles film, Fukasaku more or less remade his earlier work, but without some of the depth or care. The Boss’s Head turned the series into an anthology of disconnected stories, and while that was an improvement, it still couldn’t hold a candle to Fukasaku’s stronger films. For the first time, then, New Battles Without Honour and Humanity: Last Days of the Boss (1976) feels like Fukasaku and his team brought something genuinely new to the table and turned out a compelling – if flawed – yakuza flick.
I’ve been so busy exploring Japanese cinema that I’d never seen before that I’ve only rarely dabbled in reviewing films that I had already watched. Last year a Ghost in the Shell retrospective at my local cinema gave me the opportunity to talk about one of my favourite films of all time. This year, I caught a screening of Spirited Away (2001) that allowed me to reassess a film that I never fell in love with the first time around. For whatever reason, when I first watched it back in the early 2000s – probably not long after it was released, perhaps with an English dub – it never stuck. Seeing it again on the big screen, with the original Japanese audio, and with nearly two decades of investment in Japanese culture was an entirely different experience.
This site focuses on Japanese cinema, but Japanese cinema is far from the only world cinema I watch. Sometimes I like to highlight other films when they have some crossover with Japan, Japanese culture, or Japanese actors and directors. The South Korean WW2 drama The Battleship Island (2017), from director Ryoo Seung-wan, is just such a film. Set in 1945 on the island of Hashima (nicknamed ‘Gunkanjima‘ or ‘Battleship Island’ for its distinctive profile on the horizon), it follows a number of Korean conscripts pressed into forced labour in the island’s coal mines and ‘comfort stations’ by the Imperial Japanese authorities. As WW2 draws to a close and the authorities become increasingly desperate and brutal, the Korean workers hatch a plan to escape. Though the escape attempt is a work of fiction, the island itself, its coal mines, and the brutal conditions the workers lived under are all historical.