Yakuza Apocalypse: a virus that turns everyone into a yakuza mobster is sweeping through a sleepy Japanese town; along with some vampires, goths, and a ninja frogman. There are two fairly major signs that you’ll either love or hate this film: firstly, the ‘Manga’ logo guarantees some mental Japanese stuff; secondly, Takashi Miike directing is another indicator of mental Japanese stuff. Suffice to say that there’s so much silly, random, and mental Japanese stuff (like a bird goblin man, kung fu frogman in a frog suit – mostly for no obvious reason) that it becomes a chore to keep up with. You get the feeling that Miike was going for a ‘Happiness of the Katakuris’ vibe, but got bogged down in the randomness and forgot about the plot. It opens with an ultra-violent bloodbath, but stalls immediately after and never really hits the top gear again: even the anti-fight at the end is a disappointing reductive idiom gag (massive build up / deliberately rubbish fight). A disappointing non-film from one of the most hit-or-miss directors on the planet. One for the Manga / Japanese / Miike fanboys only.
Shield of Straw (Wara No Tate): the ever-prolific Takashi Miike’s latest movie – a tycoon offers a 1bn Yen open ransom to anybody that kills the fugitive who murdered his grand-daughter. This simple setup leads to a nice, tight film: with a couple of decent action scenes and loads of tense moments. It also has a lot of moral ground to cover, as it follows the security detail assigned to keep the prisoner safe, and whether or not they should turn a blind eye, or do him in themselves. The acting’s generally good, although there’s some fairly shoddy over-acting and screaming by Fujiwara (the main kid in Battle Royale). Towards the end, it does get a little formulaic – we’re safe / we’re not safe / repeat – but the pace and questions raised by the film are enough to distract you from the fact. What you end up with is a pretty mainstream Miike film that’s quite the enjoyable popcorn thriller/drama.
Audition (オーディション, Ōdishon): a TV producer and widower stage a fake TV audition in order to find the latter a new wife, but the best candidate seems too good to be true. The opening half hour feels a little too rom-com-y for a ‘horror’ film (upbeat music, cheesy jokes etc). The film trudges on and after 1hr 15m of setup it gradually becomes weirder and more interesting until the payoff semi-ending finally kicks in. Knowing that there’s something not quite right with the ‘perfect girl’ is a tad unsettling, but you couldn’t have predicted an ending as extreme as this – the sound of bone being sawed is vomit-inducing! There’s a small, but obvious social critique about the time in lines like “The whole of japan’s lonely”, and “Japan is Finished” – not-so-subtle! What makes this worthwhile is that it is a unique horror film in that is doesn’t pander to conventions, or give you what you expect. It also beat the wave of late 2000s movies that kick-started ‘torture porn’/’Splatter’ craze again. As original and unique as Audition is, it’s essentially a psychological drama for this most part with 10 minutes of gore capping off a lot of humdrum!
13 Assassins: a group of chosen samurai are tasked with killing an evil lord, for the future of Feudal Japan! The first hour is intense, but slow-paced – perked up with some token Takashi maddness / grotesque violence. Then you have the 45 minute long action scene, which starts as a tactical battle but quickly turns into a bit of a generic hack-and-slash – and you don’t see much action, just swords flying and splatter sound effects. Takashi does a good job of playing up / emphasising what outsiders most associate with japan: shogun, samurai, dynasty, honor, respect, code, infatuation with death etc… almost to a patriotic level. The biggest downfall was the focus and development of all 13 characters, which doesn’t count for much when they all have the same outfit, haircut and are pretty blurry in the battle. 13 Assassins is a solid ‘against-the-odds’ type story, but collapses a bit under its own grand finale.
Sukiyaki Western Django: Takashi Miike’s Japanese take on the spaghetti western & samurai films of yesteryear. Most confusingly all dialogue is English, but it still requires subs because the Japanese actors (naturally) struggle to deliver the Americanized lines – everyone’s acting totally suffers because of this huge distraction. All of the action is good to watch, from the quick draws through to Gatling Gun mayhem and the action-packed showdown is pretty immense. The gang costumes are flamboyant and seeing the red & white colours constantly jumping out is a real treat on the eyes. Miike does a fantastic job of keeping it stylish throughout, whilst minimising his trademark ‘weirdness’ – although the sheriff character was truly pants. You can’t help but think that if he focused on perfecting one or two films a year instead of 5-6 he’d be one of the best directors on the planet. Overall there’s no denying this is a bunch of tried themes, concepts and characters tied neatly together and packaged as homage. Still, this one’s worth a watch if you like foreign and offbeat movies.
Gozu: a mid-level Yakuza loses his crazy, narcoleptic, undead boss then sets out to find him. It opens with a memorable scene involving a dog but nosedives into nonsense shortly after. All but one of the characters are totally ridiculous and/or perverted, and a the basic story was just to facilitate more ‘wackiness’. The dark humour doesn’t work, it’s obviously supposed to be funny but something gets lost in translation. It’s typical Takashi: dry, minimal style and dialogue. His movies seem to be either hit-or-miss, for me this is definitely one of the misses but if you’re a fan it may be worth checking out. Although there are a few notorious scenes, the rest of the film doesn’t justify sitting through 130 minutes of Gozu. Released in the UK when Japanese cinema was trendy I think it’s unfair of distributors like Tartan (Asia Extreme) to endorse films where the native themes, values, humour and symbolism just don’t export well; if anything this will probably put people off foreign Cinema.