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.
It’s been far too long since I last updated Kino 893. Part of it is being swamped at my day job since one of my colleagues left in a hurry to greener pastures, and part of it is I simply haven’t been watching enough Japanese films to review! However, I just posted my take on Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi’s Shin Godzilla (2016) and I’ve got Baby Cart in Peril, the next instalment of the Lone Wolf and Cub series, lined up. Hopefully I’ll maintain this as its not like I’m short of content to review – along with the remaining two Lone Wolf and Cub episodes there’s Last Days of the Boss to close out New Battles Without Honour and Humanity and the final Female Prisoner Scorpion movie, #701’s Grudge Song. Plus, Arrow Films have kept me in good stead by releasing a steady stream of Seijun Suzuki’s early films. Between the first two volumes, I’ve got no less than 10 of his early works to get through! Depending on how well each stands alone, I might review those as complete sets rather than individual movies.
A little while ago I posted my thoughts on the predictably dull Hollywood remake of Ghost in the Shell. Along with actual Japanese cinema, I still plan on hitting remakes and other films with ties to Japanese culture – so I feel like I can’t avoid watching Netflix’s The Outsider, a yakuza movie inexplicably starring Jared Leto (although Tokyo Vice author and frequent reporter on all things yakuza Jake Adelstein, whose opinion I greatly respect, writes that “as much as [he] expected to hate the movie, [he] didn’t”). I also picked up the 1974, Sydney Pollack-directed The Yakuza. Roughly contemporaneous with Battles Without Honour and Humanity (and close behind the success of The Godfather) I’m interested to see how ’70s America saw Japanese gangsters.
Away from Japanese cinema, I enjoyed a ‘Cartel season’, checking out a slew of movies revolving around South American drug cartels. Sicario, Savages, Clear and Present Danger stood out among a few more peripherally related movies. I still want to check out Soderbergh’s Traffic, which seemed to be highly-regarded as ‘the’ Cartel movie until Sicario, and a couple of documentaries like Cartel Land and Narco Cultura. The whole thing was spurred on by the dull yet oddly compelling Ozark, when after the first season I wanted to watch something similar – and after having already seen Breaking Bad, which Ozark shamelessly borrows from, needed to branch out. So far, Sicario is the stand out for its beautiful cinematography and damning indictment of both sides in the War on Drugs, and I wonder if the soon-to-be-released Sicario 2: Soldado will actually be any good.
Beyond a slew of Netflix movies (including Mute, Annihilation, and The Cloverfield Paradox) I haven’t been keeping up with 2018 cinema. I did manage to catch Black Panther, though, and you can listen to my review over on the This Gen, Last Gen podcast. This week marks the release of Avengers: Infinity War and I, for one, am far too excited!
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.
Yesterday Netflix released Duncan Jones’ Mute (2018), the cyberpunk movie the director had been gestating for some sixteen years. Loosely connected to his debut Moon (2009) and starring Alexander Skarsgård, Paul Rudd, and Justin Theroux in a near-future Berlin, I found it unevenly paced but totally engrossing – well worth a try from any subscriber, even if the director himself has said it’s a Marmite kind of film. Blade Runner may have set the template for cyberpunk visuals but Mute managed to remind me of the even filthier, cheaper, more run-down and lived in worlds of Harebrained Schemes‘ Shadowrun games – especially, of course, the Berlin-set Shadowrun: Dragonfall.
Halfway through the movie, as Paul Rudd’s uncharacteristically unpleasant Cactus Bill skulks through graffiti covered streets, what should walk prominently across the shot but a Basset Hound?
Of course, I can’t help but assume this is a reference to my favourite cyberpunk series, Ghost in the Shell:
Mute: cementing that Basset Hounds are cyberpunk af
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.
A month into 2018 and we’ve revisited an Akira Kurosawa classic in Rashomon, met another Nikkatsu Diamond Guy in Toshio Masuda’s Red Pier, experienced more of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s horror expertise in Creepy and Pulse, and returned a kaiju-dominated Earth in Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters.
Unexpectedly, Creepy is my pick of the bunch. It’s imperfect, but it’s weird thrill ride that Kurosawa’s own Pulse can’t match. On the other hand, while a lot of pop culture is deeply indebted to Rashomon, I’ve now seen better takes on the same multiple narrative-style storytelling, and Akira Kurosawa’s own filmography includes far better works.
Of course, I didn’t just watch Japanese films…
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.