Last year, Netflix released the first film in a planned trilogy of CG-anime Godzilla movies, Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters. It managed to take a promising concept, where humanity had ceded the earth to kaiju and has returned from the stars to attempt to reclaim it, and loaded it down with stilted animation, loads of exposition, and a near impenetrable script full of sci-fi and pseudo-religious jargon. As the sequel, Godzilla: City on the Edge of Battle (2018), approached I did hold out some hope that the second entry in the series could shed some of the baggage that the first had. The world was established, the animation would hopefully improve, and a lot of the kinks would be ironed out. City on the Edge of Battle picks up almost exactly where Planet of the Monsters left off: humanity’s landing party is in dire straits, its hero missing, and their last best hope might be found in the ruined remains of a failed attempt to build Mechagodzilla before they fled earth in the first place.
What a long, strange tournament it’s been! There is of course one day left in the Nagoya Basho, but with his win over Tochiozan, young sekiwake Mitakeumi has clinched his first ever top division tournament win and with it, the Emperor’s Cup.
The great thing about there being six sumo basho a year? It’s never that long between tournaments.
I felt like it would be remiss to build up my interest in the summer sumo tournament and then neglect to mention how it all turned out, so here’s my take on the results. On the final day, it came down to two wrestlers: Georgian Tochinoshin and Mongolian yokozuna Kakuryu. Going into their final bouts, Tochinoshin – who had most likely performed well enough to secure his promotion to the second-highest rank of ozeki – had lost twice in a row. It felt like he needed at least one more win, symbolically, to come out of the tournament feeling good. It was especially galling considering one of his losses felt like an accident, with Tochinoshin losing his footing and slipping to the clay rather than facing an opponent who actually overpowered him. Kakuryu, on the other hand, was looking to achieve a tournament victory, that would have been his first back-to-back tournament win in his career following an earlier championship in March this year.
In his final match with Ikioi, a wrestler who had pushed hard against both yokozuna in earlier bouts, Tochinoshin was finally back on form. It was a win that put him on 13-2 out of the 15 day tournament. After two days with a face like thunder he actually looked pleased with his performance again, even relaxed, even though he was not technically out of the running for the championship. That hinged on how Kakuryu did against fellow yokozuna Hakuho, an extremely talented wrestler. Hakuho was mathematically out of the running, but if he beat Kakuryu, he could force a playoff between Tochinoshin and Kakuryu. Even though Kakuryu had beat the Georgian hopeful the day before, it would be anyone’s guess whether he would repeat that, especially coming straight off the back of a match and therefore having to fight two bouts in a row.
The speculation was all for nothing though – Kakuryu won, and the tournament was his. As much of a cheerleader as I am for Tochinoshin, it was good seeing someone other than the frequently unsportsmanlike Hakuho clinch it. Besides, Tochinoshin’s promotion to ozeki now looks all but guaranteed, and he even picked up a some of the special prizes for technique and fighting spirit, adding to the impressive collection he has already racked up over his career. Now, however, all we can do is wait for the announcements from the Sumo Association ahead of the next tournament to see how everyone shapes up going into the Nagoya Tournament in July.
In the meantime, my last review was Hayao Miyazaki’s debut feature length anime, the classic Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro. This week, I’ve got a new review lined up of The Rambling Guitarist, one of the many old Nikkatsu movies Arrow Films has put out in its Nikkatsu Diamond Guys series.
Last weekend I wrote about my excitement for the current sumo tournament being held in Tokyo. After eight days, Georgian sekiwake Tochinoshin was sitting at the top of the leader board with eight straight wins and looked set up to earn his promotion to ozeki and perhaps even win the entire tournament. As the days wore on, he racked up win after win, until on Day 12 he had his toughest opponent yet: yokozuna Hakuho, one of the most succesful wrestlers of all time, and someone who Tochinoshin had never before defeated in 25 previous bouts.
With that victory, it looked like Tochinoshin had secured his promotion and cleaned up the tournament. He still had three bouts left, and mathematically, he could still go on to lose the title to the tournament’s other yokozuna, Kakuryu. Yet, it felt like Tochinoshin was safe.
Then he collapsed to Shodai, a lower-ranked wrestler, in a shocking upset. It didn’t even seem to be that Shodai won so much as the Georgian lost his footing and slipped to the clay just as his opponent was flying out of the ring. Suddenly, it all came down to his match-up with Kakuryu today, on Day 14. If Tochinoshin could beat Kakuryu, he would claw back first place in the leadership race.
That means that going into Day 15, Kakuryu is sitting at the top of the leaderboard with just one loss from early in the tournament. Tochinoshin has been pushed into second place, but he’s not completely out of the running – unlike Hakuho, who suffered an unexpected but much-deserved defeat to Ichinojo. On Day 15, Tochinoshin will face Ikioi, a wrestler who failed to defeat either yokozuna but clearly pushed them hard. It’s not guaranteed that Tochinoshin will beat him, especially after two days of defeat himself. If Tochinoshin can best Ikioi he’ll finish the tournament with only two losses. That makes a playoff for the title possible if Kakuryu loses in his final day match-up with Hakuho – another conceivable result, but again, not one that’s guaranteed. If Kakuryu wins his bout with Hakuho – or in an anti-climactic nightmare scenario, Hakuho withdraws – it’s all over anyway.
It’ll be a tense final day.
As HBO’s Westworld heads into Season 2 – and don’t worry, I’m not here to discuss the show’s plot so read on without fear of spoilers – it has picked up a number of highly recognisable Japanese actors in guest or recurring roles. Two of my favourites are among the most well-known Japanese actors currently working in Hollywood, with Hiroyuki Sanada and Rinko Kikuchi both making their Westworld debut in the fifth episode of Season 2, “Akane no Mai”.
Kikuchi had a few early roles in Japan, and while she continues to appear in Japanese media, first hit international recognition with Babel (2006) before starring in The Brothers Bloom (2008) and Pacific Rim (2013). She manages to star in both big budget, action-heavy Hollywood releases, artsier fare like Tran Anh Hung’s dreadful adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood (2010) or Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (2014), and hyperdramatic Japanese television dramas like Liar Game (confession: I’ll always think of her as an eccentric villain from Liar Game). It was a welcome surprise spotting her in Westworld. While I wasn’t a huge fan of Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, it did at least give AV Club an excuse to interview Kikuchi and amongst other things ask her about the “Mako Mori test”.
Hiroyuki Sanada – who is somehow, inexplicably 57 years old – is likewise an actor with a career in his native Japan before gradually branching out into Hollywood and plenty of North American TV. Sanada, however, got his start much earlier by training with Sonny Chiba and his Japan Action Club. While probably recognisable to Western fans of J-horror through the Ring/Ringu movies or from the critically acclaimed Twilight Samurai (2002), Sanada also co-starred in The Last Samurai (2003), Sunshine (2007), the underrated The Wolverine (2013), and last year’s Life (2017). Sanada brings some real presence and a lot of cachet to his role in Westworld, even serving as the show’s Japanese cultural advisor [caution: minor Westworld Season 2 spoilers within].
With the second season of Westworld drawing on Japanese culture but also playing with how that culture is stereotyped and portrayed in western media, it’s interesting that the show has picked up Japanese actors to flesh out its world. It’s a little too early to tell how the rest of the season will unfold and how well it utilise (or exploit) Japanese culture, but if nothing else, it’s great seeing some of my favourite actors appear. It’s also a reminder that I really need to track down a copy of Twilight Samurai – which despite its Oscar nomination, doesn’t appear to have ever received a Blu-Ray or digital release in the UK, leaving only an old Tartan Video DVD edition.
Somehow despite being a long-term Japanophile, I’d managed to avoid sumo wrestling until long after I left the country. Last September I accidentally caught part of the Autumn Tournament (Aki Basho) on NHK and the rest, as they say, is history. There are six major tournaments every year, each lasting fifteen days, and I’ve been obsessively following the last four. We’re now halfway through my fifth, the Summer Tournament (Natsu Basho), on the important Day 8. Wrestlers compete once per day for a total of 15 bouts and a potential perfect record of 15 wins, 0 losses. Day 8 is the first day wrestlers can achieve a ‘winning record’, i.e. more wins than losses, so there’s extra pressure. A winning record (8 wins, 7 losses or better) might see a wrestler promoted before the next tournament, while a losing record (7-8 or worse) could see them demoted, losing ranks or even dropping out of the top division altogether.
Outside of Japan, it’s tough to follow sumo broadcasts. There are multiple divisions of wrestlers, but out of the country it’s only really feasible to follow the top makuuchi division. NHK World Japan – the online, English language component of Japan’s state broadcaster – shows daily highlights of the top division in 20 minute segments usually featuring the most popular wrestlers or most interesting bouts. In the latest tournament, they’ve also started showing some live footage – today featured around 50 minutes including most of the top-ranked wrestlers, while still omitting the bottom half of the division. If you live in Japan, or with some sleight of hand live in Japan, there’s also online television service Abema.tv which covers the whole top division tournament live and then broadcasts re-runs throughout the rest of the day. Their coverage is all in Japanese, but once you’ve got the basic rules down it’s fairly easy to follow each bout (and if you speak Japanese, you get to enjoy the commentary that typically includes a retired wrestler, a sports commentator, and a ‘sumo beginner’ who usually just happens to be an attractive young woman to whom the other two can mansplain).
I would love to be able to say that I reviewed Hirokazu Kore-eda’s After the Storm this week because I knew he was a surefire winner for this year’s Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, but in truth, it’s a very happy coincidence. I did want to revisit a previous Cannes contender – and After the Storm played in the Une Certain Regard category back in 2016 – but I wasn’t expecting his latest film, Shoplifters, to suddenly gain such acclaim. On the other hand, it’s great news for Japanese film fans as it makes it more likely for his latest work to get a quick Western release. Here’s hoping I’ll be able to view it myself before the year is out.
Shoplifters (2018) is a story of a Tokyo family surviving in poverty on a limited pension, turning to shoplifting to support themselves. It features Kore-eda regulars Lily Franky (Yakuza Apocalypse, After the Storm) and Kirin Kiki (Sweet Bean, After the Storm). It debuted on May 13th at Cannes 2018, with Magnolia Pictures picking up the North American distribution rights. Fingers crossed Arrow Academy will snatch it to accompany their other Kore-eda releases in the UK.