Getting Away With It

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Tetsuko “Alice” Arisugawa (Yu Aoi) is a writer’s daughter, cursed with an over-active imagination. Shunted into a new school by her parents’ divorce, she finds the perfect foil in local truant Hana Arai (Anne Suzuki), a pathological liar who eggs her on into wild conspiracy theories, breathless scandal-mongering and a series of misadventures that grow hilariously out of hand.

A decade after his early success with Hana & Alice, a live-action comedy about two hyper-active schoolgirls who dupe a boy with amnesia, director Shunji Iwai decided to revisit his characters with a prequel about a fateful day that saw them stranded in Tokyo and inadvertently starting a missing-persons hunt. The film’s title, The Case of Hana & Alice, makes it sound like some bloodthirsty murder investigation, a fitting evocation of the leads’ compulsion to read melodrama into everyday situations.

“The thing is,” Iwai laughs, “you can get away with a lot more when you’re a girl. Look at Hana and Alice and the way they behave. In the first movie, they were basically stalkers, telling that poor boy that they had a past together. In this prequel, they are causing all this trouble around the city. They’re kind of… how can I put this? They’re perverts. If I made that story about a man, if I made it about you, for instance, then you’d be locked up.”

It would also have been impossibly expensive as live-action. It wasn’t just a case of redressing Tokyo to look like it was 2004 – the film’s plot demands an absence of social media, as many of its escalating misunderstandings could be halted today by 20 seconds’ Googling. But the original film made stars of its leading ladies, who were not only now out of Iwai’s price range, but pushing 30 and unconvincing as middle-schoolers. Iwai hit on a solution inspired by the films of Ralph Bakshi. He shot the entire film on the run in 30 days, using teenage stand-ins for the stars, and then painting over every frame to make it look like an animated film.

After the guerrilla film-making was done, the touch-up was outsourced to 150 freelancers all around Japan. Iwai denies that he ran the whole post-production process without having to get out of bed, but one can easily imagine him pottering around his living room in a dressing gown, watching as digitised packets flow in and out of his server. The expensive leads were lured back for a single day to record just the voices; their younger onscreen selves moved and emoted like the teens they really were, and digital effects fixed the lighting and scrubbed out buildings and technology that did not exist a decade ago. The result might look on the surface like an animated film, but the use of live actors delivers huge amounts of nuanced data – flinches, tics and micro-expressions that would simply never happen in a cartoon.

The real charm of The Case of Hana & Alice is the compassion that suffuses the film. Two clueless kids, poised on the cusp of adulthood, go AWOL overnight in a big city, but are kept safe by the good deeds of the people they meet, from the taxi driver who waives an unaffordable fare, to the indulgent strangers who put up with their histrionics. There’s not a dark moment in a film that is as confident about its leads’ right to be silly as it is about the surety that all will be well in the end. The Japanese, unsurprisingly, have a word for it: omotenashi, or kindness for the sake of kindness.

The Case of Hana & Alice is also a winning portrayal of the slippery relationship that teens have with the truth, although Iwai himself says the original inspiration came from somewhere much closer to home. “When I started working in the film industry, I was astonished at how many of the people there were bare-faced liars. There are an awful lot of them, like half! It’s very surreal, and that provided a lot of material for Hana.”

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A HistoryThis article first appeared in Geeky Monkey #16, 2016.

All My Sons Remembered

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It was a running joke that when Japanese interviewers would ask Akira Kurosawa what his favourite film was, he would always reply: “The next one!” His answer changed in the 1980s, when instead he would say simply: “Ran.” Released in 1985, this epic, lavish samurai drama was intended by Kurosawa as his final word. Although he would in fact go on to make three other movies, he genuinely thought that this time he was going out with a bang.

Kurosawa saw himself in the character of Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai), an aging lord who, King Lear-style, tries to partition his realm between his three sons. The youngest, Saburo (Daisuke Ryu), scoffs at his naive idealism, and is banished. But Saburo is right. Hidetora soon runs into old enmities long thought forgotten. His rise to the top was ruthless and blood-stained, and now we see his karma coming back to haunt him. His daughter-in-law Kaede (the fantastically swivel-eyed Mieko Harada), wants revenge for the deaths of her own family, and turns his eldest son Taro (Akira Terao) against him. Before long, Hidetora is on the run from his own children, as they annihilate each other and the realm he helped to build. It is chaos, turmoil, tumult – in Japanese: Ran.

But not long before this triumphant return to form, despite being garlanded with accolades all around the world, Akira Kurosawa couldn’t get arrested in his home country. He had only made three other films since Red Beard (1965), the troubled production that cost him his friendship with his muse and leading-man of choice, Toshiro Mifune. His directing contract with Toho Studios had ended, throwing him at the mercy of the free market. After the box office failure of Dodesukaden (1970), he had even tried to kill himself.

Help arrived from unexpected quarters. In 1975 he directed the acclaimed Dersu Uzala, in Russian, in Russia. There was surely a bitter taste in its Best Foreign Feature Oscar for a Japanese director who had literally been sent to Siberia. But just as the noise over Dersu Uzala was dying down, George Lucas scored an international hit with Star Wars, proclaiming in interviews that one of his inspirations had been Kurosawa’s 1958 adventure movie The Hidden Fortress. Lucas and his similarly wealthy colleague Francis Ford Coppola came knocking, offering to bankroll the foreign release of Kurosawa’s next film, and thereby stumping up enough cash for even the timid Toho to take a punt. It was the ultimate in geekery – rescuing one’s student idol from the bargain bin of history. The resulting film, Kagemusha (“The Shadow Warrior”) was one of the top Japanese films of 1980. It actually made money, which took Kurosawa back from zero to hero. He was back in business!

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Eventually. It took another five years for Ran to get off the ground, in which time the septuagenarian director had ample time to storyboard every inch of every frame. With a $11 million budget (and this was when $11 million was a lot of money), he threw out every compromise in search of the biggest of impressions. He built an entire castle on the slopes of Mount Fuji, just so he could burn it down. He painted an entire field of flowers gold, to create a spectacularly surreal night scene, only to cut it in post-production (this scene can be seen in AK, the documentary included in the Blu-ray extras). He had literal armies of extras streaming along the hilltops and into massive battles, all shot from a numbing, alienating distance, with violence and terror reduces to swirling patterns of banners and firework displays of musketry.

From the film’s opening moment, at a fork in the road prefiguring the three-way conflict about to be unleashed, Ran is a triumph of symbolism. The characters are only depicted once sitting in a circle – whole and equal. Every other composition is broken and asymmetrical, daring the viewer to see further portents in the theatrical staging. And when it comes to home video, I would say its time has come. If you can’t catch it in a cinema, then at least most tellies are now big enough to catch all the expansive action, and modern media can capture every pixel. Go on, treat yourself.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Modern Japan: All That Matters. This article first appeared in Geeky Monkey #8, 2016.

Skiptrace

960Over on the Funimation blog, I tackle the entertaining but also thought-provoking Skiptrace, Jacke Chan’s latest movie outing.

“Finnish director Renny Harlin has managed a remarkable evocation of the mood of Chan’s Cantonese movies of the early-1990s, such as Cityhunter and Police Story 3, when he was working with Wong Jing and Stanley Tong. Harlin’s film (or more aptly, its script) also inherits many of the flaws of that era – underwritten female characters, plotting that takes itself about as seriously as the clowning action sequences, and a condescending attitude towards anyone who isn’t ethnic-majority Han Chinese.”

Warning! Chatterley

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Over at the All the Anime blog, I review Kirsten Cather’s Art of Censorship in Postwar Japan, which chronicles several landmark cases, including dodgy films, suspicious books, and tawdry manga.

“Cather’s book tracks censorship in Japan from the landmark Chatterley case, through several key cinema and literary rulings, all the way to the present day and the first manga to have its merits debated in court. Her wit and irreverence takes its cue from VS Naipaul, who quipped on the issuing of a fatwa against Salman Rushdie that the Ayatollah of Iran was offering a somewhat extreme form of literary criticism. She moves into film in the 1960s, revealing that Tetsuzo Watanabe, last seen in Anime: A History leading a group of tanks against striking special effects technicians at Toho, went on to find an even more bonkers job working for the censorship authority Eirin. Eirin saw themselves as defenders of public morals, surrounded by an ever-rising tide as erotica as Japanese cinemas increasingly chased the blue-movie market. The statistics do not lie; Cather uses big data to point to the transformation of Japanese cinema. ‘In 1963, only 37 of the 370 films checked by Eirin warranted adult ratings, whereas by 1965 the number had reached 233 of the total 503.'”

The Shoulders of Giants

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It has been a hundred years since humanity was first devastated by the Titans, hulking, occasionally skinless man-eating giants. What remains of the human race huddles behind a series of concentric walls under martial law, the best and brightest co-opted into one of several military organisations that use repurposed climbing equipment to scale the enemy attackers in search of their hard-to-find weak spot. Teenage brawler Eren Yaeger swears to avenge his mother’s death at the hands of the Titans, and joins up along with a group of his friends, only to discover that the mystery of the Titans’ appearance and motivations runs far deeper, and closer to home, than he previously imagined.

With more than 30 million copies in print worldwide, Attack on Titan is one of those manga that has truly escaped from the ghetto. Its US sales run rings around many supposedly popular superhero comics, and its fans are a rabid, visible costumed presence wherever geeks gather. Hajime Isayama’s original manga has been adapted into an animated series, novels and a computer game, which is pretty good going for something that looks on the surface like the fever-dream of someone off his face at a Bodyworks exhibit.

Attack on Titan has truly caught the zeitgeist both in Japan and abroad. Local audiences warmed to its allegorical Wall of Fear, as a symbol of the social and cultural barriers that often continue to shut Japan off from the troubles of the real world… at least temporarily. Similar symbolism can be found in recent anime like Summer Wars and Howl’s Moving Castle, both of which dealt obliquely with modern Japan’s reliance on the pursuance of faraway conflicts, and the revelation that terror could still hit close to home. Viewers in Hong Kong praised it as an inadvertent metaphor for the influence of the overbearing colossus of mainland China on their lives. Newspapers in South Korea touted the whole enterprise as a propaganda exercise in encouraging young Japanese to support military expansion. The story is so surreal that it lends itself to any number of political messages, not the least a winner with young teens who feel that the perils of the world are all coming to get them. It is a zombie apocalypse and a monster-of-the-week disaster movie all in one, leavened with a healthy scepticism about the lies that the authorities might tell to hang onto power. Plus big fights.

The Attack on Titan live-action movies are an intriguing confection. They seemingly went into production for the same reason as any other comics or media adaptation – out of a managerial confidence that high sales in one medium would translate into another. But the original choice as director, Tetsuya Nakashima, dropped out in 2012 over unspecified conflicts regarding the script. His replacement, Shinji Higuchi, must have looked like an all-round jackpot, not only for his track record in the liminal area of modern sci-fi and cross-media ties, but for his highly regarded work in tokusatsu movies – special effects epics about big monsters stomping on buildings.

Higuchi has always been very good at “quoting” elements of a much-loved original. Over-emoting is common in anime that lack the resources to convey visual expressions, but in the live-action Attack on Titan, the characters routinely strike ludicrous poses and spout gung-ho dialogue that seems, well, cartoony. Meanwhile, whereas the original is set in a European dreamtime, all the actors in the movies are understandably Asian, which makes a mockery of a particular subplot about the “last” Japanese girl in the world.

I was recently taken to task by a viewer at the Scotland Loves Anime film festival for not introducing the live-action movies with sufficient respect. Apparently it was my fault that the audience was laughing at the hokier moments and protesting at some of the switches in plot and character. Then again, another punter commented that the live-action movies were a fantastically enjoyable, funny parody of the anime, although nobody seemed to have told the cast and crew. So the live-action movies aren’t quite the re-up that fans were hoping for. They take themselves seriously in all the wrong ways, seemingly unaware that, ironically, it’s the earlier cartoon incarnation that really hits the right note.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Modern Japan: All That Matters. This article first appeared in Geeky Monkey #4, 2016.

Gangsters vs Vampires

yakuza-apocalypseIn a Japan flailing through the recession, mob boss Kamiura (Lily Franky) faces surprise competition from a bunch of new arrivals, including a water demon and a violent anime fan. Dying from his wounds, Kamiura bites his lieutenant Kageyama (Hayato Ichihara), passing on his vampire powers (yes, forgot to mention that) in a turf war that soon escalates into a Yakuza Apocalypse.

The enemy calls in “The Modern Monster” – a martial artist in a ridiculous frog costume, who steals the whole movie – and battle ensues, played for laughs but not scrimping on the athleticism and acrobatics. It’s aided in this by the presence of Yayan Ruhian of The Force Awakens in the role of Kyoken (“Mad Dog”, same name as his character in The Raid), but also by off-screen efforts by an insane cameraman who seems to want to wade into the middle of all the fight scenes.

Time to test your geek credentials, since any Japanese movie buff reading the above synopsis is sure to say: “This sounds like a Takashi Miike film.” And indeed it is, with all the hallmarks of this most notorious and beloved director, from a visceral, kitchen-sink-inclusive plot to the gory stand-offs and the social commentary. These yakuza (gangsters) are literal blood-suckers, draining the vitality from small-town Japan, while clinging to a ridiculously po-faced and archaic honour system like something out of a kung fu movie.

yakuza-apocalypse 2Organised crime has been an integral part of the Japanese movie world for a century, both on and off-screen. Isolde Standish, in A New History of Japanese Cinema, has no qualms about pointing out that one well-known studio was actually founded by gangsters, and there are many blood-curdling stories about the poaching and nobbling of stars, the abuses of hopefuls on a many a casting couch, and the super powers of mob accountants in burying money in supposed box office flops, or generating “hits” by intimidation and threats

It should come as no surprise that there should be an entire sub-genre of films in which such mobsters are the heroes, depicted as the last guardians of the samurai ethic by a movie machine that is literally terrified of the real-life versions. And this only makes director Takashi Miike’s satire all the more biting and brave, as he depicts yakuza protagonists as woefully stupid, belligerent poseurs, knifing each other over who gets to call himself the king of a particular street corner

Some of Miike’s snootier champions object to the popular image of him as a crazy scatter-gun creative, but even they have to admit that a man who has sometimes managed to notch up four or five movies in a single year can’t produce good work all the time. Legendarily, Miike just loves to work. He is addicted to making movies, and rarely stops long enough to read his worst reviews. There is a certain irony that the very accessibility, insanity and prolixity of Miike’s early work made him a darling of schlocky horror magazines and hungry young media academics. While some award-winning, worthy Japanese movies struggled to find foreign distributors, Miike’s B-movies and gross-outs often found themselves bundled in package deals or nestling somewhere in a bargain bin. This had the odd effect of putting him on the radar of a bunch of film students scouring Blockbuster Video for something to write about, and turning him into a much-discussed auteur

And while there are some truly awful films on his resumé, he has managed to pack several lifetimes of movie-making experience into his career, including some real gems. Every now and then, he creates a work of enduring appeal, like the grotesque stalker drama Audition or the horror musical The Happiness of the Katakuris. He also managed to make what is, to my mind, one of the best Japanese movies of the last decade, the gritty, intense samurai drama Thirteen Assassins

Miike loves to divide the critics, and Yakuza Apocalypse is no exception, lauded by The Daily Telegraph for its “demented brilliance,” but damned by The Hollywood Reporter as “numbingly idiotic.” Knowing Miike, he’ll want to put both reviews on the poster.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Modern Japan: All That Matters.This article first appeared in Geeky Monkey #5, 2016.