My experiences with the first two Lone Wolf and Cub movies didn’t fill me with excitement for the remaining four films in Criterion’s box set. I don’t regret watching them, but I was starting to regret owning the collection – all the more reason to be sad Amazon was shuttering its LoveFilm rental service. And yet! Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades (1972) performs the nigh impossible task of course-correcting from the previous films, with drastically improved cinematography and fight scenes, as well as more interesting character interactions. While still by no means a perfect film, it took me by surprise, and reinvigorated my interest in the series.
In this second instalment of the cult Lone Wolf and Cub, Itto Ogami (Tomisaburo Wakayama) and infant son Daigoro take on a Shogunate plot to steal a region’s indigo dye techniques, do battle with a legion of ninjas and plenty of sword maidens, and spray buckets of luminously-red blood. It’s Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx (1972)! When I reviewed the first film in the series, I wrote how deeply disappointed I was; it was not the vital action classic I was imagining. Does the sequel manage to right those wrongs?
By the time I got around to seeing Your Name. (2016), it was already a phenomenon. It held the top spot at the Japanese box office – before returning for another three. It was the second largest box office for a domestic Japanese film behind Spirited Away, and the first non-Miyazaki anime to pass $100 million dollars. Critical praise was high, and the fandom was intense. People were going on pilgrimages to locations featured in the film. As time slipped by and I still hadn’t seen it, I grew worried that it couldn’t possibly live up to expectations – or worse, that all that hype would undermine even an above average film. In the end, I needn’t have worried: Your Name is visually stunning and has a story to match.
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.