The synopsis for Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog (1949) simply reads, “During a sweltering summer, a rookie homicide detective tries to track down his stolen Colt pistol.” That could seem like a reductive description, but Stray Dog might be the sweatiest film ever made. Set in a broiling Tokyo summer in 1949, Kurosawa drenches the film in atmosphere. No scene is complete without cops mopping sweat from their face and necks, people fanning themselves, or characters just slumped lethargically in the heat, unwilling to move. Toshiro Mifune, in one of his very early Kurosawa collaborations, stars as newly-minted detective Murakami. In the opening moments of the film a pickpocket lifts his service weapon from his jacket pocket and kicks off a hunt that stretches all across the post-war city.
As a fan of Japanese film it’s probably no surprise I have interests across the rest of Japanese pop culture: I’ve written before about videogames and anime, but until now, avoided the topic of Japanese TV dramas. Once upon a time as a student of Japanese language I was a prolific ‘dorama’ watcher, with old favourites like Ikebukuro West Gate Park (2000), set in my ‘home town’ of Ikebukuro, Tokyo, and Yume wo Kanaeru Zō [The Wish-Granting Elephant] (2008), a bizarre sitcom where the protagonist’s new roommate is the Hindu god Ganesh.
Until recently, though, it was fairly hard to acquire Japanese-language television of any kind through legal means if you lived outside of Japan, and for English language subtitles, you had to rely on legions of dedicated, and often very skilled, fansubbers. Now things have changed: it’s possible to stream dorama from services like Crunchyroll and Netflix. That doesn’t mean it’s all worth watching, but a new, irregular feature here on Kino 893 will cover some of what’s out there – especially as I burn through the various Netflix imports to see if they’ve found anything good!
First up, Million Yen Women (2017), a collaboration between Netflix and TV Tokyo that adapts Shunju Aono’s manga of the same name. Like many dorama, the premise is as simple as it is bizarre: struggling author Michima (RADWIMPS vocalist Yojiro Noda) lived alone until five women abruptly moved in with him, each paying a million yen (around £7000 or $9000) in rent per month. The series picks up six months after they moved in, with the central mystery being who sent the invites that brought them all together, and why.
It’s ironic that the films that inspired me to write about Japanese cinema aren’t yet covered here, but it was Kinji Fukasaku’s original, sprawling Battles Without Honour and Humanity series that turned me around on Japanese film and cemented my love of yakuza on the silver screen. After the success of those films, Toei apparently felt the same way: they wanted Fukasaku to create more sequels. Instead, the director created a new three-film anthology – different stories, different locations, and different characters, but with many of the same actors from his original series. The first film, New Battles Without Honour and Humanity (1974), walks a fine line between retelling the events of the film that started it all and being a brand new experience.
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.