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.
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).
As Netflix plunges more and more cash into original content, one of the areas it has ramped up production in is Japanese drama and anime. The acquisition of Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters (2017) for global distribution was a big symbolic gesture, one that teamed Netflix up with Polygon Pictures (Blame!) for another CGI anime movie. The result is the first part of a planned trilogy of movies pitting the future remnants of humanity against a massive, nigh unstoppable Godzilla that has conquered the Earth and now rules a kaiju planet.
Every year in my adopted Yorkshire hometown, Leeds holds the Leeds International Film Festival. This year marks the 31st, and
for the first time for only the second time since catching Howl’s Moving Castle back in 2005, I’m actually paying attention to what’s on offer. While there are plenty of noteworthy films in competition for the first time or being replayed on the festival’s cult or retrospective circuits, this site of course focuses on Japanese cinema, so here’s my breakdown of the Japanese films on offer at #LIFF31.
The only Japanese film in the festival’s official selection – described as “some of the most anticipated films of 2017, alongside outstanding debuts” – is Atsuko Hirayanagi’s first film, Oh Lucy! (2017). Adapted from a 2014 short of the same name, it stars Shinobu Terajima and Josh Hartnett.
With few exceptions, the remaining Japanese films can be found in two marathon sessions – Animation Sunday (Sunday 5th November) and the Manga Movie Marathon (Sunday 12th November).
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.
Netflix delved into original anime filmmaking with Blame! (2017), adapted from Tsutomu Nihei’s manga of the same title. Set in a distant post-apocalyptic future where the last remnants of humanity cling on to survival in a vast, machine-controlled city, it’s a refreshing take on a number of familiar sci-fi and anime tropes. Directed by Hiroyuki Seshita (Knights of Sidonia, Ajin) and produced by Polygon Pictures, a Japanese CG animation studio best known to me for their work on Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, Blame! is worth a look for any anime fan with a Netflix subscription.
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.