Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Quest For Iscandar Comes To Greater Streams!

No sooner am I lamenting the occasional connection trouble I have with my streaming Blu-ray player that this news comes bursting to my attention. Turns out that the streaming world has an even greater reason to celebrate, as the classic US version of the Nishizaki/Matsumoto anime milestone, Star Blazers (of course, the series that began as the original Space Battleship Yamato) has now come to BOTH Hulu & YouTube! As mentioned months back upon reviewing the recently released live action adaptation, Yamato in Star Blazers form was the spark that captured the imagination of a young monster, as well as an entire early generation of anime lovers. For so many, it was this often enthralling allegory that helped the anime medium gain a reputation as something ready to tackle feelings and issues far more sophisticated than the typical animated TV fare.

This is also noteworthy as Yamato will be experiencing a full scale revival this year in the form of a new series primed to start showing in Japanese theaters! So get in on the docking bay. See what all the hubbub is about. Don't miss this show!

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Nightmare Detective (2006) Movie Review

After a series of grotesque suicides linked by eerie cell phone calls confound newly transplanted detective Kirishima (hitomi), and her team, they are forced to resort to seek out the assistance of a tortured, unstable young man (Ryuhei Matsuda) capable of inhabiting the dreams of potential victims. Hindsight can be a brutal thing, even regarding those that continue to inspire us. Which is why indie icon Shinya Tsukamoto's first foray into the J-horror mainstream remains an incongruous mix.  For all the seemingly jackpot perfect material the premise of a dream-diving misfit at odds with a psychopath with similar abilities, Akumu Tantei, despite spawning a sequel, is something more akin to a style exercise wrapped in a half-formed story. While much of the same, often cold, frenetic beauty Tsukamoto's films have been known for remains intact, the story never feels ready to come out of second gear. 

Having become the only woman to join the city's violent crimes division, the often prickly Kirishima herself is something of a tormented character despite often being relegated by way of script to wearing heels to a murder scene, and at times seeming completely clueless as to her new position at the department. Even amongst her new peers, which include the skeptical elder, Sekiya (Ren Osugi), and younger, more supportive Wakamiya (Masanobu Ando) , her transition is potentially something that could easily be seen as a prime target for the film's thesis, but once the crew sets their sights on having Matsuda's character in Kagenuma assist them in stopping the killer, in come the requisite chase n slash, which could easily have been more effective had the story been given more consideration. Another major subplot of the film involves detective Kirishima's personal difficulties with sleeping, and perhaps the troubled past that haunts her constantly. There seems to be an attempt being made to help this mean something throughout the course of the story, but it ultimately never achieves such a goal. And given the fact that much of Tsukamoto's most powerful works have done so well in the exploration of urban life, and the inherent feeling of alienation it can engender, what happens here seems so much less personal, and more like a preview to the "Greatest Hits" compilations that were to come soon after.

The murders having been connected by way of each victim seemingly last calling "0" on their phones, come courtesy of yet another creepy turn by director Tsukamoto, who has essentially made a career of playing characters such as these, feels much less like an actual character or even threat, so much as an admission of his own complicity in a work that has much less agency. So when it comes time for him and crew to deliver some classic Kaijyu Theatre-style antics in the murder/chase sequences, they are as rough and occasionally exhilarating as ever. Truth be told, several moments and images courtesy of some truly surreal nightmare logic come to fruition. The problem of course comes back to the meat that is binding these scenes together. And despite all that is being done to remedy the holes inherent in the script, Tsukamoto's "0" character rarely gets any chance to become terribly compelling despite everything. And coming off of a much more disturbing role in Takashi Shimizu's Marebito(2004), this is almost seen as a customary expectation rather than a character.

But possibly the biggest stumbling block the film suffers from the near anemic casting of singer, hitomi in the role of Kirishima. We can again just blame the script for this, but when one spends additional time observing her, it becomes clear that even some acting could have risen a small notch over the material. A lot if not all of her scenes feel awkward, even by Tsukamoto standards. It was as if director and actor were simply having trouble making the dialogue and motivations work. After having seen the director utilize actresses to astonishing effect in other films, a turn like this is in many ways telling of why she did not return for the second film in this series. But again, to be fair, this script remains the most egregious issue with the film as everything else around the production borders on immaculate from the photography, editing and music that do their part to gloss over what simply isn't on the page. Which all the more makes the more commonly angelic presence of Ryuhei Matsuda seem all the more jarring in many ways. For a title character, he seems more like a dark parody of many a broody anti-hero, but never seems to become more than a chuckle-delivering one-note, which is also a bit of a letdown.

Now while all of this may seem to be very disparaging to someone who has grown as an ardent admirer of Tsukamoto's works, Akumu Tantei is also a technical marvel that retains much of the same independent spirit, despite obviously being flirted by colorless corporate interests. It feels much like a hijacking of yet another violent terebi-drama, but with only middling results. It also proves just how soulful the work of "the iron man" can actually be when unfiltered.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Even Monsters Get Spoiled...

Well I guess it's time to just admit it. A large part of why I haven't done much on this site over the last few weeks is simply because it becomes a slightly tricky thing to come up with the kind of material one finds adequate after watching a series/series that actually surpasses expectations. After an event such as this, one like myself cannot help but feel like any other meager bit of casual watching or even re-watching warrants a writeup. For those curious, I am of course still reeling after finishing the 24 episode return of anime veteran, Kunihiko Ikuhara, Mawaru Penguindrum. And even though we are amidst a new season of tv anime, I have yet to find another show to deliver that kind of experience. Which is not to say that I haven't been having a great time with Chihayafuru. But for a show that good, it is also incredibly straight-forward, which is fine, but rarely do stories like those get under the skin quite the way Ikuhara did with his.

Should you be interested in more of my thoughts regarding Penguindrum, might I point you in the direction of my most recent post at Anime Diet? Even upon finishing, I still had plenty to discuss regarding the series, its themes, concerns, and twists. So much so that I had to refrain from allowing it to pollute every other project I have a part in (It can even be argued that this is EXACTLY what I am succumbing to right this moment!).

So on that front, it seems time to delve back into one of my favorite directors, and see where I stand with them now. New review definitely in the works, as are preparations for a truly appropriate episode of Double Chop! Stay tuned.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Criterion's Godzilla Release Is Here!

What are you doing, reading this post? Unless you haven't picked up your copy of Criterion's much anticipated release of Ishiro Honda's unrivaled classic, I'm not sure there's much of anything for you to see here since I still need to get my hands on one. Regardless, word regarding this wholly new treatment has been wildly enthusiastic (try even this USA Today piece featuring some glowing words by August Ragone). And since the film itself remains one of the most formative moments in the lives of many film lovers the world over, what more enticement do you need?

Monday, January 23, 2012

Rain Washed: Tsukamoto's A Snake Of June Brought This On..

Feeling like a hostage in my own domicile as the rain continues to pound the Long Beach area with the now expected fervor, and unwelcome cold. When the east coast gets this, the become snowed in, for us, we just grin, bear it, not to mention bear a fearful populace doing their thing while driving. And yet on another level, such a troublesome downpour can also have a positive, almost healing effect. Those who know me, also know that I am a bit of an ambient sound enthusiast, often with his own playlist of all manner of aural business going on throughout the night's dreamtime. Perhaps even inspired by things as primal as the sound of a running shower, the very notion of water, making its power known over even the most technically/socially advanced civilization.

Which is possibly why such a simple thing helps remind me of films & pieces of art that utilize the natural elements as a metaphorical part of their fabric. Having realized that Shinya Tsukamoto's 2002 excursion into sexual psychology, A Snake Of June was to be a decade old, I had to pop in my copy to re-evaluate my feelings on it, as well as to compliment the way things were sounding outside. Perhaps even more than another personal favorite, Blade Runner, Snake not only has the trademark of what makes Tsukamoto's earlier films truly surreal, it also harbors enough raw emotional honesty to make it into a compelling treatise on how we manage our daily lives within such cramped, constrained physical and emotional spaces. And the rain, coupled with the film's deliberate chromatic blue tint that gives me vibes of living in the greater Los Angeles area. We may seem to be where all the activity, technology, and progressive action takes place, but throw in something as innocuous as a torrential downpour, and everything seems primed to change with naturally calibrated speed and ferocity.

Much like a pressure valve, the rain seems to be something of a grand reminder of the things we take for granted. It serves to not only inform us of how little control we have, and reiterate what it is that truly comforts and distresses us. It's a thrill to confront that which terrifies us not only about the outside, but of our very own natures. Which heavily informs why Snake continues to be a favorite. Much more than a treatise on Japanese repression, it is also a nature-borne poem that is all in service of the things we know we want, but fear having. 

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Sympathy For The Underdog(1971) Movie Review

When Gunji, an old-time gangster is released after ten years of prison life, he comes home to see the remnants of his gang scattered, and worse, at the point of scraping the bottom. Having nearly being driven out of town by the now powerful Daitokai gang, Gunji and his remaining loyals plot a new course in Okinawa. Now surrounded by American GIs, foreigners of all kinds, and the roar of passing jets overhead, the small band of would-be captains face up against not only a number of treacherous characters, but of a possibly greater threat from the past. And before one says that much of the initial premise sounds strangely similar to Fukasaku's Street Mobster produced one year later, one would have to agree- but what makes this two sided coin of Yakuza films so special, is in how they spiritually aim to better understand two generations caught in the malestrom of the post war Japan experience. With Sympathy, Fukasaku's last movie with favorite, Koji Tsuruta in the lead, it is something of an elegy to a time that had only so long to live. Much more cool-headed and meticulous than the pure blazing anarchy of Street Mobster, this is a movie that both explores the pride, and perhaps even soul of the outsiders looking to make a mark despite the encroaching odds.

Also unlike Street Mobster, we are given just enough coverage regarding those coming along for the ride. Including the passionate youngsters , and even a battle-hardened family man, the film takes on more of a classy ensemble piece. Alongside Gunji and his gang, is Kudo (played brilliantly by one-time-real gang member, Noboru Ando, also in Street Mobster) who's outsider nature makes for an interesting wild card for them. And true to older forms, the narrative begins not unlike a classic caper film, allowing for scenes of planning between these characters. Which is how we are introduced to those who would rule the docks of Naha, and those lesser lieutenants working the smaller beats. These are cooler cats who are calm & collected, but erupt with great fury in short, effective doses.

So once Gunji and company begin to make their big moves within Naha's nightlife leaders, not only does the danger level rise, but the questions of worth in the entire operation begin to appear. It isn't very long before these seemingly nostalgic streets begin claiming victims, forcing Gunji and his men to reassess their choices. The loss of one big mover within this smaller than usual infrastructure opens up a world of trouble in the form of long boiling envies, long hoping for their share of the island community. Suddenly, this great assumption of Okinawa being the last truly free-market becomes a stage for a final showdown of ideologies, and splintered allegiances. A slow, creeping sensation begins to form that there is little where else to go, and that men of Gunji's stature and temperament are destined for merely stories in the future.

Having heard that Fukasaku was inspired largely by The Battle Of Algiers makes a great deal of sense when considering the choice of Okinawa, and everything it entails within the piece. With the central gang looking toward a new world of success in a land untouched by the corporate assimilation process in Yokohama, themes of displacement sink in when they discover that not all is hopeful and pleasant off the mainland. Even Gunji's prostitute companion/echo from days past laments life in Naha, and that there's little else for anyone to do here to survive. (In an interesting counterpoint to Mayumi Nagisa's character in Street Mobster, she seems well within her faculties to be her own person, just at the mercy of what fate has dealt her.) There also seems to be a grand concern regarding colonialism embedded here, not to mention the eradication of any sort of self-made individual within the criminal set. It is as if Gunji's gang remains the last of a more colorful time on a collision course with the growing mass of dark suits and ties that has inspired the major look of the Daitokai.  A ragtag bunch of passionates versus an all-consuming hive mind.

While every bit as bloody as Street Mobster came to be, there is a more contemplative game plan within Sympathy that perhaps even strengthens how we view Sugawara's unforgettable mad dog character in that film. By looking into Tsuruta's Gunji, we are looking into a generation scarred by the last days of war, reaching its sunset, longing for a respectful resting place. Those growing up throughout the end of World War II, saw much to repair and reconsider, while characters like Street Mobster's Okita were born in the sprawling confusion that came in years after. Both generations having little understanding of one another, and yet inextricably linked by way of the tide. While both are ready to go down fighting, one has clearly ruminated what is being lost, while the other cannot see much beyond the flames of conflict itself. While not necessarily portraying the gangs of old in a flattering light, Fukasaku's curiosity about a life alongside them, even in their final throes cannot be understated.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Street Mobster (1972) Movie Review

The moment Okita found himself out of the joint, the world outside had changed dramatically, right down to even how gang life operated. Ten years had indeed done quite a bit to Japan, one wonders how a street tough like him could even remotely fit in. And in Kinji Fukasaku's brutal character study, it's all about things that could never be. Bunta Sagawara makes an indelible impression as a product of much more fist-to-face era in Post-War Japan at odds with the more ingrained reality of the late 1960s. With a main character who's constant sneer toward authority, and impossible to snuff rage at any and all around him, the audience can only wonder just how far the film is willing to go in regards to his inner savagery without cutting away to some semblance of safety. It's the chinpira drama that helped pave the way for Fukasaku's Yakuza Papers series to come to fruition, and it's a merciless one at that.

For those unfamiliar, Fukasaku's films became well known for their unflinching look at the outsiders, the wandering souls still reeling in the years after WWII, often into violent lives, filled disastrous decisions, and tragedy befalling even those nearest. Not unlike Blackmail Is My Business, the film takes a look at the life of one unwilling to easily fit into the new Japan, and ready to take on larger forces they are wholly unprepared for, and incapable of understanding. This time, instead of the Japanese governmental infrastructure, it is the hierarchy of the contemporary Japanese underworld, where allegiances are tenuous, and face is everything. Whereas many other filmmakers of the era often portrayed the gangster as something of a folk hero, Fukasaku was unafraid to call out a harsher reality to matters, often portraying his characters as conflicted, and even completely unsympathetic to a whole new generation of filmgoers. And Street Mobster does this with the grit and grime still fresh on its coattails decades later as Okita attempts to make a name for himself in a world simply not fashioned for him, despite what seems to be working for him in the moment (a place Okita only seems to live in, while simultaneously being locked in an endless time loop).

Practically programmed to rape and beat at will, Okita is poised to meeting his destiny by way of some bizarre turns during his one-man campaign to regain what he claims is his. Almost immediately, he is granted his own little gang of underlings who offer him a girl for the evening, only to the startling realization that his "gift" was amongst one of his many victims in the salad days. A country girl, now a prostitute, Kinuyo (Mayumi Nagisa) begins what can only be described as a tormented relationship with Okita after this chance encounter. At once deeply scornful of his terrible nature, and yet violently jealous when pushed aside, Kinuyo is in many ways not unlike him in that no matter the circumstance, they are inextricably self-destructive despite the potential surrounding them in a nation now ready to embrace something resembling a "normal" existence. All of this comes to a head when it is learned that the two largest power players on the streets are what stands between Okita and possible glory.

Enter Fukasaku's hidden gut punch in the form of rival gang leaders, now owning and running large business sections of the city, often with buildings overlooking the organic spoils of modern success. With the slightly still rough around the edges Takigawa running his gambling establishments et al on one side, and the cool-headed businessman, Yato (Noboru Ando) on the other within his glass tower. Quickly after essentially bailing the loose-cannon Okita on more than one occasion, Yato takes him under his wing, granting him a place within the organization to the behest of many around him. The now calm, collected leader sees a reflection of his more rough & tumble past in him, and sees potential despite all the nattering happening on both sides, clueless as to why he would give such a hopelessly two-bit sociopath such a shot. It is within the endless turmoil that occurs here, that allows Street Mobster to be more than merely another exercise in anti-hero melodrama, but rather a requiem for a Japan that has become something where the rage has been put on permanent boil, rather than made to face itself- to the detriment of all involved.

Bringing to life such a character study could have easily become something designed only for those eager to wallow in the muck of it, but Fukasaku, Sugawara and company make the film into a surprisingly potent human affair in that it somehow balances the anarchy of Okita's life with the lives that share it to startling effect. The director's signature freeze frames, disorienting action shots, and rapid editing are well intermingled with the often very busy blocking often making the frame a lively one from frame one to the last. And Sugawara's portrayal of an out-of-time loser is strangely compelling, not to mention iconic of a day when unbridled passion could get one far suddenly faced with a radically systemized world, ready to consume his energy whole in the name of progress. An easy film to dismiss for being too bleak, but ultimately far too potent to resist.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

For The Curious: 2012 Opening Moves

For the curious, the beginning of this most unique New Year has largely seen more activity elsewhere. And in that regard, it feels a lot like things have started on a more heavy-handed note than initially expected. In the days following the demise of US anime distributor, Bandai Entertainment, a post occurred on Kotaku regarding one of the oldest, creakiest arguments against piracy that essentially tipped me into hyperdrive. Having actually worked within the industry, and witnessing many things for myself, this post was the last I could take of such notions..and thus...Anime Diet became home to something that was wholly unexpected, and has become far more impression-making than I had even remotely anticipated.

And speaking of Bandai,..I think Mike Toole said it best..

In other news, the halls of Cel Count Media are beginning to glow with the warm colors of diversity, as another show entered the fray- and a most welcome return to a show I truly missed!

Join Jenny P. and myself as we restart our journey into our mutual lives as cinephiles from one generation to another with The Double Chop, where our first go-round pitts the lesser-remembered Jackie Chan in America romp, The Protector against John Carpenter's still-infectious paean thumb of the nose to whitebread Hollywood, Big Trouble In Little China! Join our monthly show, as we share personal movie memories, and stack them up against ones we both know we like. Truly unusual, fly-on-the-wall, verite podcasting!

With seeking new forms of employment, my focus is a little out of the realm of heavy blogging at the moment, but it should return at full speed soon enough. Posting will continue to happen when the inspiration occurs. Until then, Twitter is always the best way to see what's currently happening with me, and current projects. With a bit of extra work, and yes luck, things should be back to pseudo-normal. Either way, thanks for the feedback, and dialogue. It is always appreciated.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

To A Happy & Hopeful 2012!

May it bring forth opportunities for happiness and harmony for all.

(special thanks to AD's manga correspondent,  Linda Yau for this terrific share!)