I’m not sure when I first heard of Shinichiro Ueda’s One Cut of the Dead (2017) but it quickly grew to be one of my most anticipated Japanese films, and I watched it creep up the UK from London festival by festival until it finally arrived in Leeds. I’d heard all kinds of good things about it: that it was an excellent zombie comedy, that it featured an extremely long single take shot – the ‘one cut’ of the title. The praise was so effusive I was determined to see it, but I still didn’t really know what to expect. The rough plot outline that I had heard, and that I will share here again, is that a low budget zombie horror film is interrupted by actual zombies and the director is determined to incorporate the real attacks into his film – in Japanese, the title is カメラを止めるな！ or ‘Don’t stop the camera!’. While that’s a wonderful title, it only scratches the surface of what makes One Cut of the Dead great.
This year, I’m spending the month of October celebrating the horror genre with a #31DaysofHorror or #Shocktober-style run of horror films. At the end of the first week I’m a little behind schedule, with an eye on catching up over the weekends, but I’ve already bagged my first Japanese horror of the season: utterly mad cult classic House (1977), the debut feature film of Nobuhiko Obayashi. Ostensibly a horror film Toho demanded after the success of Jaws in 1975, House (or Hausu, to give it its Japanese pronunciation) is most definitely not a straightforward suspense-horror film akin to the Spielberg movie that triggered its creation. Instead, it’s a completely surreal sequence of events and images that more-or-less tells the story of a gaggle of teenage girls who visit a countryside mansion in Japan before falling prey to the old woman who lives there and the diabolical house itself. Obayashi, who developed a series of experimental films through the 1960s, imbues House with a non-stop cavalcade of visual tricks, weird FX shots, dissonant audio that overwhelms the senses. Rarely good, but never boring, House is the kind of cult film that simply must be seen to be believed.
Yurusarezaru Mono (2013) is Lee Sang-Il’s gorgeous remake of Clint Eastwood’s 1992 revisionist Western Unforgiven, shifting the setting from the American Old West to Japan’s late 19th century northern frontier on the island of Hokkaido. Lee is able to draw out tremendous parallels between the two countries in that era – both recovering from a civil war, and expanding outwards into ‘unclaimed’ territory – and effectively retell the same basic story in a wholly new locale. Ken Watanabe (Tampopo, The Last Samurai) stars as Clint Eastwood’s equivalent: Jubei Kamata, aka “Jubei the Killer”, a former samurai on the side of the Shogunate in Japan’s civil war (1868-69). After the fall of the Shogunate to Imperial forces, Jubei is among those who fled to Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido (then called Ezo), where he now lives a life of utter destitution. He’s picked up by Akira Emoto’s Kingo (the role played by Morgan Freeman in the original, in some strikingly similar casting) to collect on a bounty placed on the Hotta brothers by the prostitutes they disfigured. Much of this draws on story beats from the original Unforgiven despite the drastic change in location and culture, but while Clint Eastwood’s final Western is critically acclaimed, I’ve never cared much for it. In Lee’s hands, however, the story comes alive and works in a way I never felt about the original.
What can I write about Shinichiro Watanabe’s seminal, acclaimed, hugely influential anime Cowboy Bebop that has not already been discussed, in greater detail and with more eloquence, by people before me? I came very late to Cowboy Bebop; I’ve mentioned before when reviewing anime that aside from a handful of exceptions, like Ghost in the Shell, I hadn’t watched much until a few years ago. Cowboy Bebop was one of the landmark series that I’d somehow missed out on, and it took me seventeen years – the series aired in Japan in 1998, but not until 2001 in the west – to correct that grave mistake. Fortunately, Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (2001) gives me an opportunity to discuss the series as a whole and the film in particular. Set between episodes 23 and 24 of the original 26 episode run, the film works as more of a “lost episode” than as a either a capstone to the series or a truly standalone adventure. I imagine a casual viewer could approach it without having watched the series, but that would leave them missing out on much of the world- and character-building that went into the show – and as the film is set largely on Mars, it misses out on much of the swashbuckling, spacefaring charm of the series.
Original series director Kenji Misumi returns for one final film in Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons (1973). This fifth instalment again portrays an episodic series of events in which Itto Ogami (Tomisaburo Wakayama) and his infant son are hired from their life on the road to commit an assassination, all the while pursued by the villainous Yagyu clan that schemed to have Ogami cut loose as a ronin way back in Sword of Vengeance. I wrote extensively about how the first and second films, both directed by Misumi, left me cold, but that his Baby Cart to Hades finally turned things around. I was disappointed by his being replaced with Buichi Saito for the fourth film just when it seemed like Misumi was getting into his stride, but Baby Cart in the Land of Demons gives him another chance. Would this be another series high point, or a disappointment like the first couple of films?
It’s safe to say I’ve been somewhat disappointed with New Battles Without Honour and Humanity, the studio-mandated follow-up series to Kinji Fukasaku’s spectacular Battles Without Honour and Humanity. In the first New Battles film, Fukasaku more or less remade his earlier work, but without some of the depth or care. The Boss’s Head turned the series into an anthology of disconnected stories, and while that was an improvement, it still couldn’t hold a candle to Fukasaku’s stronger films. For the first time, then, New Battles Without Honour and Humanity: Last Days of the Boss (1976) feels like Fukasaku and his team brought something genuinely new to the table and turned out a compelling – if flawed – yakuza flick.
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).