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.
It wasn’t really my intention to limit my anime reviews to Production I.G’s films, but I wound up watching Psycho-Pass: The Movie (2015) and here we are. The film follows Psycho-Pass (2012) and Psycho-Pass 2 (2014), both television anime series. Like Production I.G’s own, earlier Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex and the subsequent Solid State Society film, and not unlike what they’d later repeat with Ghost in the Shell ARISE project, this anime film follows an existing series and doesn’t truly stand alone – something to keep in mind before deciding to watch it.
Ghost in the Shell: The New Movie (2015) is the feature-length follow-up to Ghost in the Shell ARISE, the third animated iteration of the Ghost in the Shell franchise (after the original films and the Stand Alone Complex era of the early 2000s). In Japanese, it’s called ‘Shin Gekijōban’, which is akin to ‘the new movie based on an anime or television series’. This explains both the clumsy English language title and the reliance on characters and plot elements from ARISE that, enjoyable or not, prevents it from excelling as a standalone experience.
It is not my intention, still early in the run of this blog on Japanese cinema, to branch too wildly into other areas. That said, I do think there are other, relevant things that could be discussed: American re-edits or remakes of Japanese productions, books on the subject, and videogames that draw from the history of film. There’s one series that’s particularly dear to me: SEGA’s Yakuza (龍が如く/ Ryū ga Gotoku). First launching in Japan in 2005 and 2006 in the West, the series transplants recognisable yakuza movie tropes onto a long-running videogame franchise. It’s easy to see the influence Japanese cinema of the ‘60s and ‘70s has had on it, from casting Tetsuya Watari (star of the Outlaw VIP series) as the protagonist’s yakuza mentor Shintaro Kazama, to the dramatic, freeze-frame splash screens that list the various characters’ names, ranks, and affiliations – a stylish technique ripped straight from Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honor and Humanity.
2017 has seen the belated, but extremely welcome, Western release of Yakuza Zero (originally launching in Japan in March 2015). Set in 1988 at the height of the Japanese Bubble Economy, the game is both a prequel to the series and the first non-spin off released on the PlayStation 4, making it an excellent jumping on point for newcomers.