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. His 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.
Returning 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.
Kiyoshi 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.
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 closely 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).
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.
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.
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.