Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai

4.0 out of 5 stars A respectful remake of a classic film

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai

When I heard that Miike Takeshi was doing a remake of Kobayashi Masaki’s 1962 Harakiri (Japanese title: “Seppuku”), I had some trepidation to say the least. I love Miike. I love his over-the-top sensibilities, his ultra-violence Grand Guignols, not to mention his complete mind tweaks. But Kobayashi’s “Harakiri” is the opposite of everything Miike.

A slow, careful essay on the pointlessness of honor, Kobayashi’s “Harakiri” is up there with Seven Samurai as one of the best samurai films ever made, one of the best Japanese films ever made–maybe one of the best films ever made, period. Kobayashi shows the hollowness of the word “honor,” and how elite classes and bureaucrats use “honor” and “duty” to manipulate and control, while showing none of those traits themselves. The film is a metaphor for Japan during WWII, or America during the Iraq war, or any time soldiers have died pointless, anonymous deaths for a cause their leaders assured them was “honorable.” One top of that, the film is about 85% some guy kneeling and talking, and maybe 15% action at best.

And Miike Takeshi was going to remake that? In 3-D?

I was shocked to see what a phenomenal film Miike created. He took Kobayashi’s film and updated it in cinematography and visual splendor, while staying respectful to the original, true to its themes, and restrained in both tone and execution.

If you have never seen Kobayashi’s film (And if you haven’t, what is wrong with you? I can only assume that you hate great movies.), the story begins with the ronin Hanshiro Tsugumo appearing on the steps of the manor house of a rich and powerful lord. Like many of his class, Hanshiro has fallen into dismal poverty following the dissolution of his clan. He requests the use of the courtyard to commit honorable, ritual suicide and end his suffering like a warrior. From there, a complex story unfolds as the lord tells the story of another young samurai who recently made the same request, to which Hanshiro has his own story ready in reply. It is soon made aware that this is not a chance meeting, and that Hanshiro did not choose this particular lord’s house blindly to make his final statement about life.

Miike’s version, titled “Hara-Kiri- The Death of a Samurai” (Japanese title: “Ichimei” or “A Life”), plays out an almost identical story. If fact, the only noticeable difference was that he pumped up the violence in the suicide scenes in somewhat typical Miike fashion. The effects are never too gory to distract, but he makes you feel the pain and appreciate the willpower necessary to slowly drive a bamboo stake into your own body. He added a few action scenes–some of the things that appear off-camera in Kobayashi’s film are shown in-your-face in Miike’s. And while Kobayashi’s film is in black-and-white, contributing to its stark, bleak nature, Miike made full use of color and pageantry. This pushes the distance even further between the well-fed, wealthy lord and the desolate ronin Hanshiro.

The cast are all top-notch pros of the Japanese film industry. Kabuki actor Ichizawa Ebizo carries the film in the lead role of Hanshiro. Ichizawa does a fantastic job, with the only mark against him being his age. Really, he is too young. It isn’t fair to compare him to Nakadai Tatsuya who originated the role–seeing as how Nakadai is one of Japan’s greatest actors–but Ichizawa lacks some of the dead-eyed weariness necessary that comes with having lived and suffered too long. Even with that strike against him, however, Ichizawa masters the subtle complexities required of Hanshiro. Yakusho Koji (Babel) plays the Lord Kageyu, and is perfectly suited for the role. Yakusho is a familiar face in Japanese film, a Miike regular, and a consummate professional. More of a surprise was Takenaka Naoto (Shall We Dance?, in which Yakusho also appeared.), the ubiquitous clown that seems to appear in nine-tenths of Japanese films, bugging his eyes and cracking wise. Takenaka was all but indistinguishable in his costume playing Kageyu’s advisor. He played the role straight with none of his usual antics.

The only real disappointment to Hara Kiri-Death of a Samurai was the “in 3-D!!!” tagline. This is just a gimmick, no more no less, and does not at all serve the story. This is not an action flick. This is not a large-scale picture. Remaking “Harakiri” in 3-D is like remaking 12 Angry Men in 3-D. It serves no purpose whatsoever. In his favor, Miike kept the 3-D subtle and unobtrusive, using it to add depth-of-field and little else. The film works 100% as well in regular 2-D, and possibly even better because you aren’t encumbered by the glasses.

But I can see why he did it. The gimmick draws viewers, who would normally pass on the film. It worked to get my wife to go see it, who can’t stand samurai films. But she was lured in by the 3-D, then won by the story.

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Sword of Desperation

4.0 out of 5 stars Well done Fujisawa Shuhei adaptation

Sword of Desperation

A film doesn’t need to be innovative to be good. Sometimes it is enough to do a straight take on a classic genre, to hit all the beats in perfect rhythm and fluently play a familiar tune. “Sword of Desperation” does just that. In the opening scene when loyal samurai retainer Kanemi Sanzaemon walks up to Lady Renko, the favored concubine of Kanemi’s lord Ukyo Tabu, and stabs her in the heart, you know just what you are going get. And that it will be good.

The genre here is author Fujisawa Shuhei (The Bamboo Sword: And Other Samurai Tales), whose work has come to define modern Japanese samurai fiction. Far from any kind of “Kill Bill” action, Fujiwara wrote introspective, melancholy tales that dove deep into the psychology of the rank-and-file soldiers or Edo period Japan. Fujisawa’s heroes are not the leaders and great lords of the castle, but stolid, loyal retainers who must fight a constant inner battle between personal feelings and duty to lords who often don’t deserve loyalty.

Ever since director Yamada Yoji re-introduced the world to Fujisawa with his samurai trilogy (The Twilight Samurai, The Hidden Blade, Love and Honor) –arguably the finest samurai films since Kurosawa stepped behind the camera–Fujisawa has become the Zane Grey of Japanese samurai fiction. Kurotsuchi Mitsuo directed The Samurai I Loved based on a Fujisawa tale. And now director Hirayama Hideyuki gives us another.

“Sword of Desperation” (Japanese title: “Hisshiken Torisashi” or “The Bird-Catching Desperate Sword”) is a by-the-numbers Fujisawa story (It even takes place in Unasaka-han, the fictional province that serves as the background for most of his samurai yarns). All of the familiar tropes are present; two righteous men being slowly moved into a confrontation that neither of them desires. A gloomy man living his life under a death sentence who suddenly finds a reason to live in an unlikely love affair, but whose sense of duty is stronger than his passion. Political corruption at the high levels, and lords who use their retainer’s high ideals against them, manipulating them like pieces on a chessboard into battles without honor.

And then of course, there is the “Sword of Desperation” itself. Like Fujisawa’s “The Hidden Blade,” the title refers to a secret sword technique known by only one man, an indefensible strike that can only be used at the moment of greatest desperation–the moment of explosive death that we spend the entire film waiting for.

Director Hirayama doesn’t play around too much with “Sword of Desperation.” Fujisawa’s tales are, by their nature, intimate affairs, and Hirayama tries to capture that. He adds a few touches of cinematic flair. The mirroring of the opening Noh performance with the final scene worked very well. His use of the flashback device that fades to black-and-white is effective, but not consistent, leading to some confusion about when you are in a flashback.

A strong cast is necessary for this type of film, and fronting “Sword of Desperation” is veteran actor Toyokawa Etsushi (20th Century Boys) as Kanemi Sanzaemon. Kanemi is a tormented man, whose wife’s death left him depressed and suicidal, until he saw an honorable out for himself by assassinating the favored yet controlling concubine of his lord, the spoiled, weak-willed Ukyo Tabu. Toyokawa gives Kanemi the gravity and presence necessary for the role, and plays all of the faces of Kanemi from groomed court samurai, to scruffy prisoner and wander, to the demon he eventually becomes. Toyokawa is playing somewhat against type in this film, which is probably helped him win the 2011 Japan Academy Award for this role.

Equally strong is Ikewaki Chizuru as Rio, the niece of Kanemi whose love for her uncle is more than familiar. Kikkawa Koji plays a good opposite as Lord Obiya, the righteous noble whose path sets him directly against Kanemi, even though they should be standing together.

If there is any real weakness to “Sword of Desperation,” it is that the film is too by-the-numbers. A straight take on a classic genre can give you a very good film, but not a great one. With his samurai trilogy Yamada Yoji combined Fujisawa’s source material with potent and powerful acting and directing, and set the standard for all others to follow. Hirayama just isn’t the genius that Yamada was. But it seems strange to fault someone for not being a genius. Being very good is good enough.

A few notes on the DVD: Animeigo still does the best subtitles in the business. I know there will never be issues there. The DVD for Sword of Desperation is bare bones, with only a few trailers and some production notes. But still, a nice release.

Gantz

3.0 out of 5 stars Dead Guys battle Aliens

Gantz

I have never read the Gantz comic, nor seen the anime, so my only exposure to this series is the live-action movies. I knew nothing of what to expect going into the film other than what I had read on the box cover.

Right from the start, “Gantz” feels like a comic adaptation rather than a movie. In several of the scenes, I didn’t know what was going on and I wondered if the director expected everyone to know the background from the comic series. It didn’t really matter though, because the film was soon head-over-heals in giant combat and I got the feeling that the “why” didn’t matter very much. This is a film that you have to shut off your logic-brain and go on pure Rule of Cool.

The concept is esoteric from the beginning: Random people are plucked from the verge of death and find themselves in a featureless room with a giant black ball in the middle. The black ball–which we learn is named Gantz–tells them that their previous lives are over and their only option now is too battle aliens in some sort of game. You get points for how you do in the alien game, and if you get to 100 points then you can chose to go back to your life, or resurrect someone who died during a previous game. Gantz also supplies you with a supersuit and somewhat functionless weapons to carry out your task with.

“Gantz” feels like a lot of different films. There are obvious hints of The Matrix. There are some touches of Death Note and even 20th Century Boys, although both of those are much better films than “Gantz.” Stylistically, it looks good but it looks like a live-action cartoon rather than a movie. The monsters were interesting, and my favorites were the Deva guardian and the thousand-armed Kannon statues. I liked the touches of Japanese mythology mixed into the Sci Fi action. But there wasn’t enough of this. The aliens seemed to be wholly unconnected and just gave the protagonists something to fight.

The cast for “Gantz” was decent, but they rotated in and out so fast it was hard to get a grasp of any single character. Lead actor Ninomiya Kazunari (Letters from Iwo Jima) wasn’t really compelling enough as Kurono Kei to carry the whole film. Matsuyama Kenichi (Kamui Gaiden) is a much stronger actor, although he was in a supporting role. I thought that was kind of a waste. Having Matsuyama front and center would have been a better choice. Yoshitaka Yuriko (NEW Kaiji: The Ultimate Gambler) didn’t seem to serve much purpose other than to fill out her form fitting suit, which she did rather well.

Overall, I enjoyed “Gantz” but wasn’t blown away by it. Even as a live-action anime film it pales beside “Death Note” and “20th Century Boys.” As a film in its own right it is some mindless but forgettable fun.

The DVD is a 2-disk set with some bonus footage and some interviews. All of those are nice but not really enough of an addition to justify the second disk. They probably could just have been included on the first disk as bonus features.

The Box / Fe

2.0 out of 5 stars Two Japanese “art” films

The Box / Fe

Nakajima Kanji’s films fall under what can be charitably called “art films,” but could also be called “boring pretension” depending on what you like in your cinema. If slow-moving or non-existent, high-contrast black-and-white scenes, and dense, impossible to understand metaphors are your bag, then you might just be a Nakajima Kanji fan.

Nakajima has made three films in total, and this DVD contains two of them. The other, The Clone Returns Home, is his only full-length feature film. Both of the films here, “The Box” (Japanese title “Hako,” 2003) and “Fe” (Japanese title “Hagane,” 1994) are around sixty minutes each. Thankfully, because it was hard to sit through them even at that length.

Thematically, Nakajima likes contrasts. Old people with young people. Metal with nature. Industry with art. Both “The Box” and “Fe” contain these elements. He prefers wasteland scenes, and his visual elements are the most interesting parts of his films. He is a good cinematographer, and a poor storyteller.

“The Box” has as its underlining story an old man who speaks to chunks of raw ore, that tell him what they want to be. His work is to refine and build the ore into whatever machine they wish for. In this world, nature has all but died, and a single tree is kept alive by the old man’s machines. There are two kids running around as well, playing with an airplane. And a sick old woman being cared for. And a sort of feral man. And a box. The box clunks around through the whole film, moving seemingly independently. The old man is still trying to figure out what the box wants to be.

This film is shot in high-contrast black-and-white. It creates an interesting visual, which is the best part. The animation of the box is so clunky that it is funny to watch rather than profound. And whatever Nakajima wanted to say was completely lost on me.

To my mind, “Fe” was the better film. Shot in color, with more of a continuing story, it concerns and old artist who looks to industrial wastelands for inspiration. There he meets a young girl, curious about his work and the machines and metal waste all around them.

Visually, “Fe” was much more interesting. It is filmed in color, and Nakajima used a device where he framed the scene so that it matched the rectangle of the artist’s canvas. Unlike “The Box,” where the story and characters just seemed like random noise, there was an actual connection between the old man and the young girl in “Fe.”

Both of these films are going to be of limited interest at best. I went to art school, and I remember the video artists who were interested in creating visual imagery unencumbered by narrative. Those people would probably find something to enjoy here. But anyone looking for an interesting film had best look elsewhere.

All Night Long Collection

3.0 out of 5 stars Human Beings are Garbage

All Night Long Collection

The “All Night Long” films are pure exploitation cinema. Cheap thrills shot on digital video featuring (mostly) amateur actors, they are churned out low-plot adventures in rape and murder, Japanese style. Think of these as direct-to-video Z-Grade Slasher flicks that you find in the US. They have never gotten a theatrical release, and 99.9999% of the Japanese population has never heard of them and wouldn’t even know they exist. These are for exploitation fans only.

Director Matsumura Katsuya has made his whole career on the “All Night Long” films. There are currently six in the series, with the most recent one (All Night Long: Anyone Would Have Done) released in 2009. The delve more into psychology and sadomasochism than your average Slasher flick; don’t expect buckets of blood or reams of nudity, although there is some of each. Matsumura is more interested in exploring obsession and attacker/victim power exchanges.

There first three “All Night Long” films are in this collection, “All Night Long (1992),” “Atrocity (1995),” and “Final Atrocity (1996).” The films have no connection other than the aforementioned themes. The stories try to frame real events, like a man going on a revenge spree after his girlfriend is raped and murdered, or a mentally challenged man who obsesses over a neighbor, but ultimately the stories don’t have much depth and are just playing with taboos and darkness.

It is hard recommend this flicks. These three DVDs are not a bad little box of blood. These three DVDs are not a bad little box of blood. They have none of the brilliance of Ichi the Killer or Audition. Keep your expectations low.

If you are an exploitation fan, you will find something to like here. I have this series, and the The Guinea Pig flicks, and a few other collections in the genre. I thought the “All Night Long” films were not as good as the early “Guinea Pig” films, but better than the later ones. The effects are decent. The acting is decent. There is nothing particularly shocking or gut-wrenching. But they can be fun.

Fire on the Plains

4.0 out of 5 stars Sick Soldier

Fires on the Plain – Criterion Collection

Many people talk about the realism of Ichikawa Kon’s anti-war film “Fire on the Plains” (A poetic translation of Japanese title “Nobi,” meaning the burning off of fields during harvest season). Personally, I don’t think “Fire on the Plains” is realistic at all. It is an expressionistic film, filled with metaphoric imagery and subtle allusion. It is a bleak film, but also a dark comedy filled with gallows humor. In some ways, with the dead-eyed soldiers feasting on human flesh, it could even be a zombie movie.

Based on the novel Fires on the Plain, PFC Tamura (Funakoshi Eiji) is caught in a no-man’s land of being a sick soldier. Stricken with tuberculosis, he is too weak to help out with the manual labor of digging air raid shelters, yet too healthy to be treated at the field hospital where a small staff are tending to battle-wounded soldiers. All through the movie Tamura wanders, sometimes joining up with small groups of lost soldiers. He has the charmed luck of the survivor, often being the only one to walk away after all his short-time companions are killed.

One of the most interesting things about “Fire on the Plains” is that it has no point. I think this is the first war film I have seen where the soldiers aren’t pursuing an objective. They have no hill to take. No rendezvous appointment to keep. No enemy to kill. They aren’t even really trying too hard to survive. Tamura and the rest are all just the flotsam and jetsam of war, moving from place to place on the tides of battle. Thoroughly defeated, there is some vague notion of evacuation, but as the promised port lies across the enemy-held territory, they know that attempting the journey is tantamount to suicide. Many of them try anyways.

With nothing driving them, “Fire on the Plains” is made up of moments. Tamura encounters soldiers in various stages of degradation and despair. But the dark moments are peppered with oddball humor. In a Charlie Chaplin homage, a line of soldiers discard their boots for slightly better pairs then passing their leftovers to the soldier behind them. Last in line, Tamura ends up barefoot. In another scene, which was straight Monty Python, some officers seeing a corpse lying face down in the mud and wonder if they will end up like that, to which the body promptly lifts up its head in a classic “I’m not dead yet!” moment.

The only real criticism of “Fire on the Plains” is its one-sided perspective. The Japanese soldiers suffer greatly, yes, but there is little sense that these same soldiers were once raping, enslaving, murdering, and eating the Filipino population before the US came and fought them back. There are only some feint allusions to this, such as Tamura’s senseless killing of a young Filipino girl–an act which shows us that Tamura is no more heroic or decent than the rest–or in the Filipino female soldier’s slaughter of a surrendering Japanese soldier. Without knowing some of the history behind this film, the Japanese soldiers come off as too sympathetic. Sure, they are just the useless grunts ordered to fight by their nation, but it was these same useless grunts ravaging the population just a few months earlier.

The Criterion DVD for “Fire on the Plains” is not bad. There is a booklet essay, an interview with Donald Richie, and a video piece with Ichikawa Kon and actor Mickey Curtis who played one of the soldiers. The picture and subtitles are all up to the usual Criterion standards. There is no commentary track, which is disappointing, but otherwise this is a solid DVD.

Shadow of the Wraith

3.0 out of 5 stars Two “Ghost at School” Stories

Shadow of the Wraith

“Shadow of the Wraith” (Japanese title “Ikisudama,” or “Living Ghost”) is an entry in the popular gakko no kaidan (ghosts at school)genre, aimed squarely at high school aged kids and younger. These kinds of low-budget spook fests are pretty typical in Japan, and get cranked out during the summer when kids are eager for a scary story. The director, Ikeda Toshiharu, is most famous for his film Evil Dead Trap although he has been cranking out this kind of low-budget work in recent years.

“Shadow of the Wraith” has the extra hook of staring two pop-star brothers, Koji and Yuichi Matsuo from the band “Doggy Bag,” and two “Teen Scream Queen” sisters, Hitomi and Asumi Miwa (Uzumaki, Ju-On: The Curse, Eko Eko Azarak) who are familiar faces to any fan of modern Japanese horror. Think of “Shadow of the Wraith” as the Jonas Brothers appearing on an episode of Goosebumps.

“Shadow of the Wraith” is split into two stories, each staring one Matsuo brother and one Miwa sister. The stories are very loosely linked by the brothers, who play brothers in a band.

The first story,” Shadow of the Wraith,” is a typical story of jealousy. Popular boy loves popular girl. Strange girl in the corner is jealous and projects psychic doppelganger to clear a bloody path to popular boy’s affections. You know the story. Or maybe you don’t. “Shadow of the Wraith” is about a creature from Japanese folklore, called an Ikiryo, or “living ghost.” The mythology is very old,dating back to the The Tale of Genji, and I have never seen an ikiryo story on film before. So that was kind of cool. Unfortunately, novelty is all the story really had going for it, and “Shadow of the Wraith” is otherwise by-the-numbers.”

The next story, “The Hollow Stone” starts off pretty good as a classic haunted apartment scenario. A new girl moves into down, and finds out that she is living in a cursed apartment. A charming neighbor, still reeling from the death of his brother, falls for the new girl and tries to help her survive where others have died. I am a sucker for a good haunted apartment story, and I would have enjoyed “The Hollow Stone” quite a bit if it weren’t for some unfortunately bad special effects. The director forgot that less is more where ghosts are concerned, and shook some fake props at us that look like they could have been bought at the
local Halloween store. The ending to “The Hollow Stone” was also terrible. It made no sense, and completely broke the rules of Japanese ghosts for no particular reason.

“Shadow of the Wraith” is not a bad DVD. The stories neither rise above nor sink below the level of the genre. They are exactly the kind of show you would see in Japan flicking the tv channels in the summer. It’s too bad that director Ikeda didn’t try a little harder to bring some life into these stories, as they had some potential, but everyone involved seemed to be pretty content to produce something mediocre.

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