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.
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.
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.
The early 1970s were a golden age for gangster cinema. In the West, there was Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972). In the East, Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honour and Humanity (1973). And then, there was The Yakuza (1974), Sydney Pollack’s fusion of both. Developed from an idea by Leonard Schrader, an American expat living in Japan, and scripted by his brother Paul Schrader (Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters) and Robert Towne (script doctor for The Godfather), it follows several American characters who get tangled up in Japan’s criminal underworld. Robert Mitchum stars as Harry Kilmer, a former US military policeman during the Allied occupation of Japan, who returns to Japan at the behest of his friend Tanner. It seems the yakuza have kidnapped Tanner’s daughter after a shady deal gone awry and Kilmer’s connections are the only way to get her back. That means going back to Tokyo and getting in touch with a yakuza named Tanaka (Ken Takakura, The Bullet Train) indebted to Kilmer. Heavily inspired by contemporary Japanese films watched by the Schraders and no doubt hoping to cash in on the success of The Godfather via “Japan’s mafia”, The Yakuza works surprisingly well as a slow-burn crime thriller that leans heavily on its then-exotic setting.
I’ve written at length about how pleased I am outfits like Arrow Films and Eureka! Masters of Cinema keep putting out releases of old, often obscure Japanese films. It feels like Arrow must have made a deal with whatever is currently left of the venerable Nikkatsu studio for access to a huge swath of their back catalogue in the last couple of years, because they’ve steadily released volumes in collections like Nikkatsu Diamond Guys and Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years. Not every one of these forgotten films can be a classic, but it’s often fascinating just getting a taste of what Japanese cinema was like in the ‘50s or ‘60s. Sadly, the third film in the first volume of Nikkatsu Diamond Guys, The Rambling Guitarist (1959), cannot be described as a hidden gem.
This week, I’m turning back the clock to the late 1970s and the feature film debut of Hayao Miyazaki: Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro (1979). Though of course I’m a fan of several of his later films under Studio Ghibli, I’m surprisingly poorly versed in his earlier work, and this classic had somehow escaped my attention. With it recently resurfacing on Netflix UK, when better to give it a chance? Cagliostro follows master thief Lupin and his accomplice Jigen as they trace the source of counterfeit bank notes to the titular castle in the Principality of Cagliostro before getting involved in breaking up the forced marriage of the kingdom’s young princess to its evil count.