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.
Some time in the last few years I got a lot less picky about what kind of films I would watch. I think it happened when I started massively ramping up the number of films I watch in general. While I might sink tens of hours into a game and would want that time to be well spent, a film is usually over in a couple of hours, and if I didn’t like it, I’d probably be watching another film later that week – perhaps even later that day. And as I’ve written before, even if I walk away from a film disappointed, there’s probably still something that I can take from it. Wolf Guy (1975) is just such a film. I wanted something ‘special’ for the 100th film I was going to watch in 2018 and after spending some time trying to decide on an unseen classic or an old favourite, I decided I’d procrastinated enough on the decision and just grabbed the most bonkers-looking Arrow Video release off my shelf that I’d yet to watch.
One of my favourite podcasts – at least, one of the few I listen to that aren’t just discussions of politics and the news – is the Arrow Video Podcast hosted by Dan Martin and Sam Ashurst. This probably comes as little surprise when a huge number of the films I watch and review on Kino 893 come from Arrow Video or Arrow Films. In typical fashion, though, I forgot the podcast existed for a few months and have come back to find a huge backlog of episodes to listen to – which at least is working out very well for my commutes. This week, listening to one introduced me to the site Letterboxd. It’s pitched as a ‘social network for film fans’ and allows you to track which films you’ve seen, curate film lists, and keep a diary of when you watched a film.
Keeping a ‘film diary’ is something I started doing a few years ago anyway, and I’ve got long lists of films clogging up Google Sheets going back to 2014 already. I’ve signed up and you can find my film diary here; I just hit 100 films for 2018, though my ‘goal’ is 100 films I’ve never seen before and I’m still around ~25 shy. I’ve also put together a list of every film featured so far here on Kino 893 and it’s pretty amazing seeing the array of posters.
If you’re already a member of Letterboxd or sign up, let me know in the comments below or simply follow me on there.
Since I started Kino 893, I’ve watched a lot of Japanese cinema from the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, as well as ‘contemporary’ films from the early 2000s onwards, but with a few exceptions I haven’t seen many films from the 1980s or 1990s. I’ve been meaning to rectify that, in part by digging into the filmographies of Juzo Itami and Takashi Miike. Miike began directing in the early ‘90s and has been incredibly prolific, typically directing multiple films per year for most of his career and only recently starting to dial it back – while still directing at least a couple of films a year. Blade of the Immortal, released last year, is widely described as his 100th feature film (though it seems to more accurately be his 100th IMDB directorial credit, which includes a number of non-feature credits) and he has already released two films since then. Rewinding to 1999, he was achieving far more recognition, moving from straight-to-video to theatrical releases. Dead or Alive (1999) was one of six movies he released that year; a stylish, violent, provocative yakuza movie starring Riki Takeuchi (Battle Royale II, Yakuza 0) and Sho Aikawa (Zebraman).
Last year, Netflix released the first film in a planned trilogy of CG-anime Godzilla movies, Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters. It managed to take a promising concept, where humanity had ceded the earth to kaiju and has returned from the stars to attempt to reclaim it, and loaded it down with stilted animation, loads of exposition, and a near impenetrable script full of sci-fi and pseudo-religious jargon. As the sequel, Godzilla: City on the Edge of Battle (2018), approached I did hold out some hope that the second entry in the series could shed some of the baggage that the first had. The world was established, the animation would hopefully improve, and a lot of the kinks would be ironed out. City on the Edge of Battle picks up almost exactly where Planet of the Monsters left off: humanity’s landing party is in dire straits, its hero missing, and their last best hope might be found in the ruined remains of a failed attempt to build Mechagodzilla before they fled earth in the first place.
I’m a pretty casual Godzilla fan. I hadn’t seen the original, Ishiro Honda-directed classic until just a few years ago, or any of the many, many Japanese movies that followed. I had, on the other hand, seen the mediocre 1998 Hollywood version (which, if nothing else, gave us an incredibly catchy Jamiroquai song that is now stuck in my head from just thinking about it tangentially) and the 2014 reboot. Over the last couple of years, though, I’ve grown pretty fond of the big guy – from the original nuclear allegory to Hideaki Anno’s satirical take on Japanese red tape. Some of the most recent entries haven’t been great: I kinda loved the 2014 film when I saw it on a giant cinema screen but didn’t think it held up well when I watched it at home, and the Netflix-Toho CG-anime films so far have been extremely rough going – look out for my review of the just-released Godzilla: City on the Edge of Battle next week.
But this? This looks good. Sure, I feel a little wary because the trailer for the 2014 film was likewise impressive, with that jaw-dropping sequence where the US soldiers dive through cloud cover around the absolutely enormous Godzilla. The actual film largely played coy with him, though, and in the end was somewhat lacking in kaiju action. Godzilla himself looked great, but the other creatures lacked the long cinematic history of Godzilla’s usual array of foes and allies. Not so this time. The trailer alone teases Mothra, Rodan, and King Ghidorah, and let’s just say I’ll feel sorely undersold if there isn’t a lot of kaiju-on-kaiju action come 2019.
There are other reasons to be hopeful, too: as well as Toho loosening its grip on the aforementioned kaiju, which Legendary Pictures weren’t allowed to use in the previous film, the breaking news alongside the trailer is that composer Bear McCreary (Battlestar Galactica, Black Sails, God of War) will get to incorporate the original 1954 theme.
It’s also hard not to endorse the central thesis of the trailer: that the planet is dying, humanity is an infection, and unleashing giant monsters from the depths of time is the only way to save the planet (even if it means wiping most of us out). Long live the King.
What a long, strange tournament it’s been! There is of course one day left in the Nagoya Basho, but with his win over Tochiozan, young sekiwake Mitakeumi has clinched his first ever top division tournament win and with it, the Emperor’s Cup.
Seijun Suzuki was a prolific director. For Nikkatsu alone, he directed 40 pictures from his debut in the ‘50s to his dismissal after 1967’s Branded to Kill. Overlooked at the time, Youth of the Beast (1963) is now recognised as a turning point for his personal style. It is a film oversaturated with style, as if Suzuki approached every scene – every frame – with a playful, or perhaps unhinged, effort to make it interesting. He flips between black and white – with a single splash of colour – and full colour production. He pans the camera across a noisy cabaret bar, and abruptly cuts to a soundproof room, the volume dropping precipitously. A scene transition is smothered by a fan dancer. Conversations take place to a roiling backdrop of black and white movie footage from the office of a movie theatre. In one bonkers blink-and-you’ll miss it moment, star Jo Shishido (as Jo Mizuno) walks past a movie theatre covered in Nikkatsu bunting, complete with portraits of all the Nikkatsu stars – himself among them. All this contributes to a lively film that while perhaps not good is nevertheless great.
I find Japanese films to review all over the place. Some are old favourites I already had in my collection, others are from the growing catalogue of cult and classic films from niche Blu-Ray publishers, and some just happen to pop up on streaming services like Netflix or Sky Cinema. It’s the latter where I’m most likely to see something unusual that I might otherwise have missed – I’m probably going to pick up every Kinji Fukasaku gangster movie I can find, but won’t necessarily see the latest contemporary drama from a director I’ve never encountered. That’s how I ended up watching Harmonium (2016) by Koji Fukada. A bleak study of human misery, it follows the family of metalworker Toshio (Kanji Furutachi) as an old acquaintance re-enters his life after coming out of prison. Inevitably, this disrupts the family’s already fragile existence and a series of terrible events ensue.