Mamoru Oshii’s challenging follow-up to his breathtaking original film, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004) is a post-cyberpunk, post-human foray into the vanishing line between humans and machines. Set some time after the conclusion of the first film, the sequel follows Batou and Togusa, newly partnered up, as they investigate a series of grisly murders involving gynoid sex dolls. Despite being overshadowed by its predecessor, Innocence remains one of my favourite anime film.
From director Juzo Itami (Tampopo, Minbo: The Gentle Art of Extortion) comes the fabulous Bubble-era tax evasion/enforcement comedy A Taxing Woman (1987), starring Nobuko Miyamoto (Sweet Home) as Ryoko Itakura, ace tax inspector, and Tsutomu Yamazaki (last seen on Kino 893 in a brilliant turn in Kurosawa’s Kagemusha as Takeda’s brother and original body double) as sleazy businessman Hideki Gondo.
My second encounter with Sion Sono after Cold Fish is The Land of Hope (2012), a bleak drama heavily influenced by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, tsunami, and accompanying nuclear disaster that struck northeastern Japan. Set in a fictional town in a fictional prefecture, much as in the real-life Fukushima incident, a strong earthquake triggers a failure at a nuclear plant and forces the evacuation of the surrounding area. The film closely follows two generations of the Ono family after the evacuation order comes just short of forcing them to leave their farm, with the younger Onos voluntarily moving away and the older generation choosing to stay for as long as they can.
This week’s review comes out of left-field, off the back of a recommendation by Dan Martin from the excellent new Arrow Video Podcast. It’s Evil Dead Trap (1988), Toshiharu Ikeda’s weird, gory horror thriller. Not widely available here in the UK, it’s not a film I would have likely discovered on my own and knew nothing about, which always makes for interesting viewing.
This week’s review comes via the Masters of Cinema restoration of Bakumatsu taiyô-den (1957), alternately translated as A Sun-Tribe Myth from the Bakumatsu Era or Sun in the Last Days of the Shogunate. A slice-of-life comedy set in a Shinagawa brothel in the waning days of the Shogunate, just before the Meiji Restoration and the complete upheaval of Japan’s feudal society, the film follows Saheiji (Frankie Sakai, best known to western audiences for his turn in the 1980s Shogun series) as an incorrigible drifter who spins his unpayable debt to the Sagami Inn into a series of odd jobs and cons.
Netflix delved into original anime filmmaking with Blame! (2017), adapted from Tsutomu Nihei’s manga of the same title. Set in a distant post-apocalyptic future where the last remnants of humanity cling on to survival in a vast, machine-controlled city, it’s a refreshing take on a number of familiar sci-fi and anime tropes. Directed by Hiroyuki Seshita (Knights of Sidonia, Ajin) and produced by Polygon Pictures, a Japanese CG animation studio best known to me for their work on Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, Blame! is worth a look for any anime fan with a Netflix subscription.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a small town cop arrives in the big city to help solve a crime with links to his home. Except in Kinji Fukasaku’s Doberman Cop (1977), that rural detective is Shinichi “Sonny” Chiba, and he rolls into Tokyo’s Kabukicho entertainment district with his straw hat and delightful piglet in tow. What follows is a remarkable police thriller closer in feel to an ‘80s action film that Fukasaku’s earlier jitsuroku work – more Lethal Weapon than Battles Without Honour and Humanity. Only very loosely based on the manga of the same name by ‘Bronson’, it’s an eclectic mix of action, comedy, martial arts, and grisly crime drama; a film that should result in complete tonal whiplash, but somehow comes together into an off kilter but satisfying, cohesive whole.
Back in the early 2000s, Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale was probably one of the first live action Japanese films I ever watched. Its popularity helped highlight other Japanese cinema, and a for while, Japanese films were synonymous with shocking, violent pieces like Battle Royale or the work of prolific director Takashi Miike – slapstick exploitation like Ichi the Killer or the truly bizarre Happiness of the Katakuris. It moved the conversation away from the ubiquitous J-horror of the late ‘90s, led by Ring and Grudge and their imitators. Of course, there’s much more to Japanese cinema than that, but it’s where I got my start. It wasn’t until many years later that I became interested in throwback yakuza movies of the 1970s, largely off the back of my interest in SEGA’s Yakuza/Ryū ga Gotoku series. The title I kept seeing referenced as Japan’s equivalent of the Godfather trilogy was Battles Without Honour and Humanity, directed by none other than Kinji Fukasaku.
That series remains perhaps the most well-known example of the “jitsuroku” style of yakuza filmmaking – ‘actual record’ or ‘true document’ films, based on or inspired by real stories or newspaper headlines; films that didn’t depict the yakuza as masculine heroes on the wrong side of the law, but focused on petty squabbles, violence, and a nihilistic take on Japan’s organised criminals. It was between the five-film Battles Without Honour and Humanity saga and its follow-up, New Battles Without Honour and Humanity, that Toei’s top brass brought Fukasaku in to direct Cops vs. Thugs (1975). Not content to deconstruct the yakuza alone, the film drags the police and civic leaders into a fascinating quagmire of corruption.
The Female Prisoner Scorpion and Lady Snowblood film series present a similar challenge: at the end of the first film in each, Meiko Kaji’s protagonist has found her revenge, so how will the series continue? I suspected Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (1972) might be a sequel in name only, starring Kaji and her titular, vengeful protagonist in a new scenario, rather like the Outlaw films of the 60s. Instead, Jailhouse 41 picks up where the first film left off, with a brutal reminder that Scorpion’s vengeance is not complete: the prison warden yet lives.
Lone Wolf and Cub was always one of those series that I knew existed, but had never seen; I knew it better from the voluminous stacks of manga sitting unread in my local comic shop than as a movie series. Unlike some of the films I’ve reviewed here that only received a wider release outside of Japan very recently, Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance (1972) did actually get an international release back in the 1970s, but it’s probably better known under the title Shogun Assassin from 1980. That film, a dubbed re-edit of the first two films in the Lone Wolf and Cub series, apparently only uses 11 minutes of footage from Sword of Vengeance. After watching it, I can guess why, and only hope the rest of the series – presented by Criterion in a wonderfully illustrated six-film set – offers some rapid improvement.