Hiroyuki Sanada & Rinko Kikuchi Join Westworld Season 2

As HBO’s Westworld heads into Season 2 – and don’t worry, I’m not here to discuss the Westworld Season 2 Postershow’s plot so read on without fear of spoilers – it has picked up a number of highly recognisable Japanese actors in guest or recurring roles. Two of my favourites are among the most well-known Japanese actors currently working in Hollywood, with Hiroyuki Sanada and Rinko Kikuchi both making their Westworld debut in the fifth episode of Season 2, “Akane no Mai”.

Kikuchi had a few early roles in Japan, and while she continues to appear in Japanese media, first hit international recognition with Babel (2006) before starring in The Brothers Bloom (2008) and Pacific Rim (2013). She manages to star in both big budget, action-heavy Hollywood releases, artsier fare like Tran Anh Hung’s dreadful adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood (2010) or Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (2014), and hyperdramatic Japanese television dramas like Liar Game (confession: I’ll always think of her as an eccentric villain from Liar Game). It was a welcome surprise spotting her in Westworld. While I wasn’t a huge fan of Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, it did at least give AV Club an excuse to interview Kikuchi and amongst other things ask her about the “Mako Mori test”.

Rinko Kikuchi in Kumiko
Rinko Kikuchi in Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (2014)

Hiroyuki Sanada – who is somehow, inexplicably 57 years old – is likewise an actor with a career in his native Japan before gradually branching out into Hollywood and plenty of North American TV. Sanada, however, got his start much earlier by training with Sonny Chiba and his Japan Action Club. While probably recognisable to Western fans of J-horror through the Ring/Ringu movies or from the critically acclaimed Twilight Samurai (2002), Sanada also co-starred in The Last Samurai (2003), Sunshine (2007), the underrated The Wolverine (2013), and last year’s Life (2017). Sanada brings some real presence and a lot of cachet to his role in Westworld, even serving as the show’s Japanese cultural advisor [caution: minor Westworld Season 2 spoilers within].

Hiroyuki Sanada in Life
Hiroyuki Sanada in Life (2017)

With the second season of Westworld drawing on Japanese culture but also playing with how that culture is stereotyped and portrayed in western media, it’s interesting that the show has picked up Japanese actors to flesh out its world. It’s a little too early to tell how the rest of the season will unfold and how well it utilise (or exploit) Japanese culture, but if nothing else, it’s great seeing some of my favourite actors appear. It’s also a reminder that I really need to track down a copy of Twilight Samurai – which despite its Oscar nomination, doesn’t appear to have ever received a Blu-Ray or digital release in the UK, leaving only an old Tartan Video DVD edition.

The Grand Sumo Summer Tournament: Day 8

Somehow despite being a long-term Japanophile, I’d managed to avoid sumo wrestling until long after I left the country. Last September I accidentally caught part of the Autumn Tournament (Aki Basho) on NHK and the rest, as they say, is history. There are six major tournaments every year, each lasting fifteen days, and I’ve been obsessively following the last four. We’re now halfway through my fifth, the Summer Tournament (Natsu Basho), on the important Day 8. Wrestlers compete once per day for a total of 15 bouts and a potential perfect record of 15 wins, 0 losses. Day 8 is the first day wrestlers can achieve a ‘winning record’, i.e. more wins than losses, so there’s extra pressure. A winning record (8 wins, 7 losses or better) might see a wrestler promoted before the next tournament, while a losing record (7-8 or worse) could see them demoted, losing ranks or even dropping out of the top division altogether.

Outside of Japan, it’s tough to follow sumo broadcasts. There are multiple divisions of wrestlers, but out of the country it’s only really feasible to follow the top makuuchi division. NHK World Japan – the online, English language component of Japan’s state broadcaster – shows daily highlights of the top division in 20 minute segments usually featuring the most popular wrestlers or most interesting bouts. In the latest tournament, they’ve also started showing some live footage – today featured around 50 minutes including most of the top-ranked wrestlers, while still omitting the bottom half of the division. If you live in Japan, or with some sleight of hand live in Japan, there’s also online television service Abema.tv which covers the whole top division tournament live and then broadcasts re-runs throughout the rest of the day. Their coverage is all in Japanese, but once you’ve got the basic rules down it’s fairly easy to follow each bout (and if you speak Japanese, you get to enjoy the commentary that typically includes a retired wrestler, a sports commentator, and a ‘sumo beginner’ who usually just happens to be an attractive young woman to whom the other two can mansplain).

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Hirokazu Kore-eda takes the Palme d’Or at Cannes 2018

I would love to be able to say that I reviewed Hirokazu Kore-eda’s After the Storm this week because I knew he was a surefire winner for this year’s Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, but in truth, it’s a very happy coincidence. I did want to revisit a previous Cannes contender – and After the Storm played in the Une Certain Regard category back in 2016 – but I wasn’t expecting his latest film, Shoplifters, to suddenly gain such acclaim. On the other hand, it’s great news for Japanese film fans as it makes it more likely for his latest work to get a quick Western release. Here’s hoping I’ll be able to view it myself before the year is out.

Shoplifters Poster.jpg
Shoplifters Poster from Cannes 2018

Shoplifters (2018) is a story of a Tokyo family surviving in poverty on a limited pension, turning to shoplifting to support themselves. It features Kore-eda regulars Lily Franky (Yakuza ApocalypseAfter the Storm) and Kirin Kiki (Sweet BeanAfter the Storm). It debuted on May 13th at Cannes 2018, with Magnolia Pictures picking up the North American distribution rights. Fingers crossed Arrow Academy will snatch it to accompany their other Kore-eda releases in the UK.

Review: After the Storm (2016)

Continuing the theme of gentle slice of life dramas, this week I watched After the Storm (2016) from director Hirokazu Kore-eda.After the Storm Poster It follows Ryota Shinoda (Hiroshi Abe), an award-winning novelist who has fallen from grace; divorced, estranged from his son, distrusted by by his sister, and struggling to make ends meet as a private detective while squandering half his earnings on gambling. In the midst of typhoon season, Shinoda is trying to piece the fragments of his life together and collect enough cash to pay his overdue alimony before his ex-wife Kyoko (Yoko Maki) withdraws access to their son. What follows is a surprisingly charming cross-section of Shinoda’s life, a film less about him trying to fix what went wrong than simply get out of freefall.

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Review: Sweet Bean (2015)

From director Naomi Kawase, Sweet Bean (2015, also widely released under its Japanese title An) is the story of a baker, Sentaro (Masatoshi Nagase), who runs a tiny dorayaki shop. Sweet Bean PosterHis business gets an unexpected boost when Tokue (Kirin Kiki) comes into his life. She’s an elderly woman keen to work part-time in his shop, and manages to sway Sentaro into agreeing when he discovers she’s a master at preparing the titular sweet bean paste that goes into the middle of every dorayaki. Sweet Bean becomes a fairly straightforward drama in which its central characters search for meaning in their lives, all tangled up around the dorayaki shop, but it’s somewhat harder going and less heartwarming than the premise would suggest, dealing with some heavy themes of prejudice and obligation.

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Review: Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Peril (1972)

LoneWolfCubBabyCartPerilposterReturning to the Lone Wolf and Cub series evokes similar feeling to Outlaw Gangster VIP. Like that yakuza series of the late ‘60s, Lone Wolf and Cub appeared in theatres every few months with a new film not unlike a new episode of a television show. And much like television before the rise of heavily serialised shows that relied on a slowly advancing, overall arc story that required viewers tune in every week or miss out, Lone Wolf and Cub offers pretty much the same content each time. Baby Cart in Peril (1972), the fourth film in the series, is no different. Even allowing that I left the series alone for several months before picking it up again – much as contemporary moviegoers would have seen it back in ‘72 – I found myself looking at a very familiar movie. Ogami (Tomisaburo Wakayama) is hired as an assassin, there’s a beautiful but deadly woman, the assassination subplot weaves around the ongoing Ogami-Yagyu clash, and there’s a gigantic fight at the end in another of Japan’s mysteriously sandy valley locations where they seem to film all the Super Sentai show battles.

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Review: Cure (1997)

Cure PosterKiyoshi Kurosawa is a fairly prolific director and, at the time of writing, I have only seen four of his many films. His work seems to be getting some new attention here in the UK with a slew of releases from Arrow Video and Eureka! Masters of Cinema. The latest entry is Cure (1997), a crime thriller with a strong undercurrent of horror. It stars Koji Yakusho (Shall We Dance?, 13 Assassins) as Detective Takabe, a haggard cop following serial copycat crimes. In each case, the killer carves an X into the victim’s throat, but no one can work out why the killers are choosing this very particular methodology when that information was never made public. Along with psychologist Sakuma (Tsuyoshi Ujiki), Takabe pursues increasingly unusual explanations for the phenomena.

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Hiatus Over!

It’s been far too long since I last updated Kino 893. Part of it is being swamped at my day job since one of my colleagues left in a hurry to greener pastures, and part of it is I simply haven’t been watching enough Japanese films to review! However, I just posted my take on Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi’s Shin Godzilla (2016) and I’ve got Baby Cart in Peril, the next instalment of the Lone Wolf and Cub series, lined up. Hopefully I’ll maintain this as its not like I’m short of content to review – along with the remaining two Lone Wolf and Cub episodes there’s Last Days of the Boss to close out New Battles Without Honour and Humanity and the final Female Prisoner Scorpion movie, #701’s Grudge Song. Plus, Arrow Films have kept me in good stead by releasing a steady stream of Seijun Suzuki’s early films. Between the first two volumes, I’ve got no less than 10 of his early works to get through! Depending on how well each stands alone, I might review those as complete sets rather than individual movies.

A little while ago I posted my thoughts on the predictably dull Hollywood remake of Ghost in the Shell. Along with actual Japanese cinema, I still plan on hitting remakes and other films with ties to Japanese culture – so I feel like I can’t avoid watching Netflix’s The Outsider, a yakuza movie inexplicably starring Jared Leto (although Tokyo Vice author and frequent reporter on all things yakuza Jake Adelstein, whose opinion I greatly respect, writes that “as much as [he] expected to hate the movie, [he] didn’t”). I also picked up the 1974, Sydney Pollack-directed The Yakuza. Roughly contemporaneous with Battles Without Honour and Humanity (and close behind the success of The Godfather) I’m interested to see how ’70s America saw Japanese gangsters.

Away from Japanese cinema, I enjoyed a ‘Cartel season’, checking out a slew of movies revolving around South American drug cartels. Sicario, Savages, Clear and Present Danger stood out among a few more peripherally related movies. Sicario PosterI still want to check out Soderbergh’s Traffic, which seemed to be highly-regarded as ‘the’ Cartel movie until Sicario, and a couple of documentaries like Cartel Land and Narco Cultura. The whole thing was spurred on by the dull yet oddly compelling Ozark, when after the first season I wanted to watch something similar – and after having already seen Breaking Bad, which Ozark shamelessly borrows from, needed to branch out. So far, Sicario is the stand out for its beautiful cinematography and damning indictment of both sides in the War on Drugs, and I wonder if the soon-to-be-released Sicario 2: Soldado will actually be any good.

Beyond a slew of Netflix movies (including Mute, Annihilation, and The Cloverfield Paradox) I haven’t been keeping up with 2018 cinema. I did manage to catch Black Panther, though, and you can listen to my review over on the This Gen, Last Gen podcast. This week marks the release of Avengers: Infinity War and I, for one, am far too excited!

Review: Shin Godzilla (2016)

When it was announced that Hideaki Anno, alongside Shinji Higuchi, would direct the next live-action, Japanese-made Godzilla movie the question in my mind was: how Shin Godzilla Japanese Posterclosely would it hew to his classic, cult Neon Genesis Evangelion? It seemed like a perfect fit – after all, Evangelion revolves so heavily around the kaiju-like angels that it would only be natural for Anno to step in, and as the Godzilla series has frequently used its giant monsters as not-so-subtle allegories for other issues that it was surely ripe for Anno’s brand of symbolism. The result is the rebooted Shin Godzilla (2016), Toho’s first new movie since 2004’s Final Wars, and coming in relatively hot on the heels of Legendary’s American-made Godzilla (2014).

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Review: Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable (1973)

Director Shunya Ito returns with his final entry in the Female Prisoner Scorpion series with Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable (1973).Female_Convict_Scorpion-_Beast_Stable 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.

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