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Konichiwa! Brief interruption from regular film reviewing schedule here. As mentioned earlier in the year, the ongoing JAPAN-O-RAMA feature I’ve been running – in conjunction with some of my favourite movie bloggers – was brought around after I booked a trip from Scotland to Japan. It’s been and gone, and I’m not even going to …
Cold Fish (冷たい熱帯魚, Tsumetai Nettaigyo) (mild spoilers): a mild-mannered fish-shop owner crosses paths with a larger competitor who at first seems like an ideal business partner – but that veneer doesn’t last long. It feels like the director started out with two completely separate film ideas; the first 1-hour 45 contains a pretty credible, low-key, tense, but slow-burning con-man drama – with an off-kilter / black comedy undercurrent. The final act transforms the film into a full-blown slasher – which dwells on depraved sex, violence, gore and some body disposal scenes for a little longer than would be deemed comfortable (or necessary), peaking in a hyper-messy crimson-soaked blood ‘n’ guts finalé – shock cinema at it’s best; or perhaps worst! This wouldn’t usually be a big deal, but at 2.5 hours you could have cut two (better, and) entirely different 90-minute movies out of it – an Evil Dead style gore-romp, or Coen–esque black comedy. There are glimpses of superb direction and storytelling, straight off the bat, but they end up getting lost in the bigger-picture. Acting is also solid (the runaway star being leading man Mitsuru Fukikoshi’s full-bodied transformation) – although, along with everything else, it all gets watered down and lost within the superfluous runtime. This would, by normal standards, be anything but an ordinary film – particularly because it’s littered with gropey and sensational sex scenes – but when you’re following up from an epic like Love Exposure, this feels lukewarm in comparison.
The Midnight Meat Train (Spoilers): A struggling photographer finds more than just inspiration in late-night New York, as he stumbles across the reason why so many of the city’s people go missing. So, the average human body contains over four liters of blood – unless you’re unlucky enough to be on the Midnight Meat Train, where people have infinite blood. The film is everything that you think a movie called “Midnight Meat Train” would be. It’s a shady story that gets weirder and sillier as the film progresses, finishing with something so ridiculous and over-the-top. The acting’s alright for this type of film (gore, schlock, pure B-movie), but the characters are ridiculous. The lead goes from normal to psychotically obsessed within 2 scenes. My favourite thing about this film is that five years ago, Bradley Cooper was the leading man in a movie where an ogre-king pulls his fiance’s heart out, forces Cooper to eat it, before getting his own tongue ripped out! I don’t know if this could ever have been a good movie, but it’s the kind of film that would have worked a lot better if it was all done in Japan and in Japanese, and not just a J-horror director working in Hollywood, with an American cast.
Happiness of the Katakuris (カタクリ家の幸福, Katakuri-ke no kōfuku): a family move to the country to realise the father’s dream of opening a Bed and Breakfast – but it gets a bit weird when all of their guests start dying. The film opens with clay-mation sequence, and throws a load of equally unusual elements at the viewer for the duration: musical numbers (some with Karaoke sing-a-long), zombies, trippy dream sequences, a flying sailor, and a whole lot of gallows humour. To say it’s eclectic is definitely an understatement. Most of the characters are simply drawn, single-attributed batshit crazy people, which makes for entertaining viewing. There’s loads of jokes, but the humour is like no other, a mix of absurd, random and surreal. A re-make of the Korean film “The Quiet Family” (it went down the straight-faced, black-humour route), Happiness of the Katakuris couldn’t be more different. It’s one of those “crazy Japanese films” that could only really come from Japan, and that makes people think that every Japanese film is mental. It’s a tough one to score and review: you couldn’t really call this “a great film”, but it’s definitely unique, original, and every bit as entertaining as it is baffling.
The Wolverine: In a way, Wolverine epitomises everything about Japan that you see through Hollywood films: there’s ninjas everywhere, and everyone knows Katrate; crazy districts full of neon lights and big billboards (Shinjuku and Akihabara); old-fashioned houses with sliding shoji walls and tatami floors; technology and Robots everywhere (in this case a 10ft tall mecha-Samurai!!); temples, on every corner; Yakuza interference – obviously; love hotels, The Bullet Train (Shinkansen); and the Tokyo Tower is in the back of every city shot. Yet, whilst it’s using and abusing all of the lazy ‘This is Japan’ stuff we know, it doesn’t feel like it’s exploiting the culture – there’s a lot of nice touches, from the undestractable pachinko players, salarymen in Osaka looking for hostesses, and things like upright chopsticks in food.
As for the film itself, it feels like three completely separate movies. The first third is a rock solid, well-executed set-up starting in WWII, and laying the ground for the rest of the film. The middle feels like a dip into a tired and clichéd mystery/conspiracy storyline, and the finale – well that just feels like something from a spazzy sci-fi movie, with bald snake-women, giant robots with flaming swords and a whole lot of gratuitous OTT action. I’m surprised at the 12A rating in the UK, as it feels slanted towards a more mature audience than most comic adaptations – including a nice thread of Logan’s dry humour. The Jean Gray plot device is a little hammy, although never going to turn down Famke Yansen in a silky nightgown! Jackman’s on fire, he is the embodiment of Wolverine – down to his permanently-exposed torso – wouldn’t want to be the guy that will inevitably have to re-boot the franchise in 5-10 years as the new Logan. The Japanese cast are also all on form. Overall, The Wolverine is a pretty satisfying comic book movie, but the ever-changing story and tone prevent you from becoming fully immersed in the movie.
Tokyo Story: two pensioners from the country visit their children in the big smoke of Tokyo. The plot is almost non non-existent; as the plodding inconsequential family ‘drama’ (and I use that term very lightly) highlights the difference in values between the older – pre-WWII – generation and that of their children and grandchildren. To make matters even less exciting, the camerawork is dull, and for the most part, completely static – paired with plain & flat editing and direction. After the first hour it begins to feel more like an endurance test, and it definitely feels longer than its 136 minute runtime. In fairness, from an historic point of view, the film works best as a snapshot of Japanese life, and a turning point in the culture. There’s also a few touching scenes like the old guys talking about losing kids in the war, and how they all feel let down by their surviving children. As a period drama, this one is passable, but you just sit yearning for some plot or drama – 0% escapist and 0% cinematic. I don’t think it’s a completely terrible film, but that it relates to older generations – I feel like I’ll watch this in 30 years time and be devastated; but for now, it’s more like Tokyo BOREY!