Every now and again I stumble across a film whose premise is so fascinatingly odd that I just have to see it. Japan’s Toho studio reacting to the success of British Hammer horror in the 1960s and putting out a loosely connected trilogy of Dracula-inspired vampire films? Sign me up. Like many of the more oddball Japanese titles I watch this came via Arrow Films, who put out a Blu-Ray collecting all three of the so-called ‘Bloodthirsty Trilogy’. I picked it up when I saw it in the January sales and then promptly forgot about it until indecisively browsing for something to watch on a chilly February night. This long-winded preamble to me sitting down to watch The Vampire Doll (1970) is, sadly, probably more entertaining than the film itself.
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me a third time — and I’m pretty sure I’ve lost all moral high ground. In Godzilla: The Planet Eater, Netflix and Toho team back up to bore the ever-loving god out of me for a third and, hopefully, final time. Any wishful thinking that the third instalment might magically turn around the series after two utterly lethargic entries was misguided, and my hopes were very quickly dashed as The Planet Eater settled into a familiar rhythm of characters no one could possibly care about reciting pseudo-philosophy no one could possibly understand. Every criticism I’ve ever levelled against the series, from the stilted animation to the lack of action to the awful dialogue still applies. Nevertheless, I powered through and watched it, so here’s my review.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
Lone Wolf and Cub was always one of those series that I knew existed, but had never seen; I knew it better from the voluminous stacks of manga sitting unread in my local comic shop than as a movie series. Unlike some of the films I’ve reviewed here that only received a wider release outside of Japan very recently, Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance (1972) did actually get an international release back in the 1970s, but it’s probably better known under the title Shogun Assassin from 1980. That film, a dubbed re-edit of the first two films in the Lone Wolf and Cub series, apparently only uses 11 minutes of footage from Sword of Vengeance. After watching it, I can guess why, and only hope the rest of the series – presented by Criterion in a wonderfully illustrated six-film set – offers some rapid improvement.
Akira Kurosawa is surely one of the most well-known Japanese filmmakers, and it was exploring some of his classic samurai films that prompted me to create this blog. I wanted to explore more of his work and that led me to Kagemusha (1980). While I hope to watch some of his films from other genres soon, Kagemusha is nevertheless interesting even though it’s another samurai epic. It marks the first Kurosawa film I’ve seen in colour – only his third overall, following Dodeskaden and the Soviet-Japanese production Dersu Uzala. Even though colour film seemed to arrive late in Japan, Kurosawa continued working in black and white well into the 1960s. Kagemusha is also striking to me for the absence of Toshiro Mifune, Kurosawa’s longtime collaborator. The 1965 film Red Beard was their last work, but instead Kagemusha features Tastuya Nakadai as the lead – unrecognisable from his earlier appearances as villains in Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and Sanjuro.