Director Shunya Ito returns with his final entry in the Female Prisoner Scorpion series with Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable (1973). Loosely picking up where Jailhouse 41 left off, Meiko Kaji’s escaped convict Matsushima, aka the titular Scorpion, is on the run and still doggedly pursued by the police. Taking place largely outside of any actual prison and in an urban setting would already give the movie a different feel to its predecessors, even Jailhouse 41 that also prominently featured an escape attempt, but Ito also gives Beast Stable a far stranger, more horror-oriented tone than his earlier entries. At times, it feels more like watching something as surreal as Blind Woman’s Curse – not coincidentally, also starring Meiko Kaji. So different is the tone that in the back of my mind I knew that Ito didn’t direct all four Female Prisoner Scorpion movies and I found myself wondering if this, and not the final #701’s Grudge Song, was the movie he skipped.
Yesterday Netflix released Duncan Jones’ Mute (2018), the cyberpunk movie the director had been gestating for some sixteen years. Loosely connected to his debut Moon (2009) and starring Alexander Skarsgård, Paul Rudd, and Justin Theroux in a near-future Berlin, I found it unevenly paced but totally engrossing – well worth a try from any subscriber, even if the director himself has said it’s a Marmite kind of film. Blade Runner may have set the template for cyberpunk visuals but Mute managed to remind me of the even filthier, cheaper, more run-down and lived in worlds of Harebrained Schemes‘ Shadowrun games – especially, of course, the Berlin-set Shadowrun: Dragonfall.
Halfway through the movie, as Paul Rudd’s uncharacteristically unpleasant Cactus Bill skulks through graffiti covered streets, what should walk prominently across the shot but a Basset Hound?
Of course, I can’t help but assume this is a reference to my favourite cyberpunk series, Ghost in the Shell:
Mute: cementing that Basset Hounds are cyberpunk af
Given my love of Ghost in the Shell in all its many iterations, I would be remiss in not reviewing Ghost in the Shell (2017) – the US remake from director Rupert Sanders (Snow White and the Huntsman) and starring Scarlett Johansson (Lost in Translation, Under the Skin) as the Major. Remakes in general are always a tough sell, and while I think there are some good examples on both sides of the equation (The Ring is a strong adaptation of Ring, Yurusurezarumono is a fantastic adaptation of Unforgiven) the general expectation is that any piece of world cinema being adapted for Hollywood is going to lose something in translation. I wanted to approach it with some degree of open-mindedness – perhaps it could be one of those rare examples of a remake that transcends its source material, or if nothing else, perhaps it could stand alone as a decent film even if in failing to surpass the original version it winds up feeling unnecessary (not unlike the recent RoboCop remake).
Where New Battles Without Honour and Humanity was essentially a remake of Kinji Fukasaku’s own earlier film, in The Boss’s Head (1975) the director returns with an original story that nevertheless reunites much of his earlier cast. Bunta Sugawara stars as Kuroda, a wanderer who takes the fall for a murder on the understanding that when he gets out of jail, the Owada crime family will take him on-board and pay handsomely for his service. When his heroin junkie contact (Tsutomu Yamazaki, A Taxing Woman) in the family lets him down, Kuroda stops at nothing to get what he feels he deserves.
A month into 2018 and we’ve revisited an Akira Kurosawa classic in Rashomon, met another Nikkatsu Diamond Guy in Toshio Masuda’s Red Pier, experienced more of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s horror expertise in Creepy and Pulse, and returned a kaiju-dominated Earth in Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters.
Unexpectedly, Creepy is my pick of the bunch. It’s imperfect, but it’s weird thrill ride that Kurosawa’s own Pulse can’t match. On the other hand, while a lot of pop culture is deeply indebted to Rashomon, I’ve now seen better takes on the same multiple narrative-style storytelling, and Akira Kurosawa’s own filmography includes far better works.
Of course, I didn’t just watch Japanese films…
Veteran director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Sweet Home, Creepy) has built a career dipping in and out of the crime and horror genres. It would be easy to dismiss Pulse (2001) as another relic from the age of late-90s J-horror that coasted in on the success of Ring, replacing that film’s cursed VHS premise with a fear of the early internet age. Instead, Pulse is a different beast altogether, with a wildly different tone of creeping, quiet apocalypse and a totally different approach to its scares.
As Netflix plunges more and more cash into original content, one of the areas it has ramped up production in is Japanese drama and anime. The acquisition of Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters (2017) for global distribution was a big symbolic gesture, one that teamed Netflix up with Polygon Pictures (Blame!) for another CGI anime movie. The result is the first part of a planned trilogy of movies pitting the future remnants of humanity against a massive, nigh unstoppable Godzilla that has conquered the Earth and now rules a kaiju planet.
Continuing a dive into Nikkatsu’s vault we have Toshio Masuda’s Red Pier (1958). It stars Yujiro Ishihara as “Lefty” Jiro, a ‘50s gangster laying low in Kobe after killing a civilian over a drug smuggling racket. When he falls for the victim’s sister and starts to let slip his involvement, his low-key criminal underworld starts to come unravelled.
From Kiyoshi Kurosawa, director of Sweet Home and with a long career dipping in and out of the horror genre, comes Creepy (2016). Ex-cop Takakura (Hidetoshi Nishijima) leaves his job hunting serial killers to become an academic specialising in criminal psychology, but when his new job is unfulfilling he re-opens the cold case of a missing family on the side. In a parallel story, his wife becomes perturbed by their unusual new neighbour Nishimoto (Teruyuki Kagawa). But as Takakura tells his wife – serial killers are usually nice to their neighbours, so she has nothing to fear from the socially graceless Nishimoto. Right?
Opening 2018 with another Akira Kurosawa classic seems like a good way to get started, so here’s Rashomon (1950). An inventive story that retells the same event from the point of view of multiple unreliable narrators, Akutagawa’s storytelling and Kurosawa’s interpretation echo through pop culture – with my personal favourite being the King of the Hill Episode, “A Fire Fighting We Will Go”. The film presents multiple layers of narratives within narratives as a wandering traveller happens upon two other men seeking shelter from the rain in the huge, cyclopean ruin of the titular Rashomon gate.