Doing Time

5.0 out of 5 stars In Jail in Japan

Doing Time

Life inside jail is one of those secret worlds that I have always been curious about, but not curious enough to want to experience first-hand. How much of what you hear and see on TV is real? Japanese jails, with their extra veil of secrecy, are even more mysterious.

“Doing Time” is author Kazuichi Hanawa’s biography on his two years in prison from 1995-1997, in Sapporo, Japan. Hanawa was a model gun enthusiast, but crossed the boundaries when he acquired a real gun. Practicing with the gun in the woods, he ran afoul of Japan’s strict gun-control law and the police arrested Hanawa for illegal position of a firearm.

Most jail-biographies focus on the oppressive and harsh nature of jail, or the injustice suffered by the inmates. Hanawa takes a much different tone in “Doing Time.” He doesn’t deny that he broke the law, and seems to be at peace with the fact that he broke society’s rules and now he has to pay. From the very start, with his short essay “How to Dress in Prisoner’s Clothes,” Hanawa is more concerned with the normal aspects of daily life in prison (like learning to use a prison toilet) than in attempting to illicit sympathy or outrage from his readers.

Not a complete biography, “Doing Time” is snatches of memorable events or reflections during Hanawa’s time in prison. There is no clear timeline, no passage of point A to point B. The comic does not begin with Hanawa’s trial and end with his leaving prison. There is some introductions to the other prisoners, and what people talk about in jail. But much of the book is just wandering and drifting in a place where days of the week and months have no more meaning, and your life is measured out in years to go.

Being Japanese, of course, much time is dedicated to the prison meals, and memorizing on what day of the week what food comes. Food is one of life’s great pleasures, even more so when you are in captivity and have nothing much to look forward to. Hanawa lays out big two-page spreads of the monthly prison menu, as well as little tricks he learns like adding soy sauce to the 3-parts wheat/ 7-parts rice mixture.

Hanawa uses a couple of different drawing styles, but stays mainly consistent with a clean line and detailed background. The prisoners are all drawn as short and squat, almost like little children, but with rough adult faces. As can be expected, the situations in prison can get earthy, but nothing of the horrors of rape and violence like American jails. Just a bunch of stinky guys piling into a communal bath together and talking about their athlete’s foot.

“Doing Time” has an interview with Hanawa and a separate commentary. Both give deeper insight into the nature of Hanawa’s crime and sentence, and subsequent freedom. Needless to say, his enthusiasm for model guns has since waned.

Posted in Manga, Yakuza. Tags: , . 3 Comments »

Outrage

4.0 out of 5 stars Business as usual

OUTRAGE – Japanese 2010 movie 1 disc DVD (Region 3) (NTSC) directed by Takeshi Kitano (English subtitled)

After the critical success but commercial failure of his surrealist autobiographical trio (Takeshis, Kantoku Banzai, Achilles and Tortoise), irector Kitano Takeshi said he wanted to make a flick that was just popular entertainment. Going back to his roots in the yakuza genre, the result of this commercial imperative is “Outrage.”

Like when Kurosawa Akira made his “popular entertainment” flick The Hidden Fortress, Kitano can’t really keep the art out of his filmmaking. He took an unusual approach when writing “Outrage.” After creating his list of characters, he decided how they all died then worked backwards creating a story that would accommodate their deaths. The result is a violent and merciless film, one where one small action tips the dominoes of death, which march on relentlessly until all fall down.

The story is set in Tokyo, where Boss Ikemoto (Kunimura Jun, My Darling is a Foreigner) is recently released from prison, and gathers at a meeting to pay tribute to the yakuza lord of Eastern Japan. It is known that in prison Ikemura swore an oath of brotherhood with gangster Murase (Ishibashi, Renji, 20th Century Boys), an independent gangster who controls some turf and a drug operation. The yakuza lord worries about Ikemura’s new loyalties; is he plotting with Murase for an over throw? Ikemura decides to allay these suspicious by picking a deliberate small-scale fight with Murase, opening an office on his territory and allowing one of his gangsters to fall for a Murase-scam so that he can demand reparations. The plan escalates, however, as there are those in both Ikemoto’s and Murase’s organizations who would take advantage of the strife to advance their own position by killing rivals.

One of the interesting things about “Outrage” is that Kitano gives us no great plot to hang on to. Each player in the deadly game is pursuing their own agendas; be it to create revenue, level-up in the yakuza hierarchy, or simply take out some petty revenge. There is no overriding plot, no clever plan. The gangsters are opportunists, nothing more, each trying to figure out how to advance with their fingers and lives intact. When a line is cut, that story ends completely.

“Outrage” seemed more authentic to the real, everyday operations of yakuza than most films in the genre. There are no super-killers or honorable outlaws. When I was watching the film, I found I didn’t root for any particular character. No matter who came out on top in the end, nothing changed. It would still be business as usual exploiting innocent people and taking without earning as much as you can.

In fact, this made me wonder at the title. There isn’t much “outrage” in the film itself, so maybe Kitano’s “outrage” is at the system that allows these bottom-feeders to exist. Or maybe it is Kitano’s “outrage” that he has to fall back on crowd-pleasing flicks when few people appreciated his Art. Or maybe he just thought “outrage” sounded cool.

The only issue I had with “Outrage” as a film was the pacing. The film got terribly slow in the middle, and a side-plot involving an illegal casino run out of an African embassy dragged on too long. I generally like Kintano’s pacing, with films like Fireworks and Sonatine balancing out the slow and bang-fast. Kitano’s trademark oddball humor was also entirely missing from “Outrage,” and while I didn’t want a lot of it a scene here and there would have been a welcome relief from the grim doings.

The Geisha

5.0 out of 5 stars Memoirs of Momowaka
The Geisha

Anyone who has seen Memoirs of a Geisha should have to watch this film for balance. “The Geisha” (Japanese title, “Yokiro,” which is the name of the geisha house), is a true look behind the white make-up and fancy silks of the flower-and-willow world, and into the people who practice the profession. It isn’t elegant or pretty. Geisha are like ballet dancers who exude grace and beauty while hiding bruised and damaged feet under dainty pink sandals.

The story follows Momowaka (Ikegami Kimiko, House), the daughter of a female-procurer and his geisha lover. Her mother was murdered when Momowaka was a child, and her father (Ogata Ken, Vengeance Is Mine) sold her to the Yokiro geisha house when she was twelve. Under the harsh tutelage of the Mistress of Yokiro Momowaka has grown to become the top geisha in the most famous geisha house in Western Japan. She is perfect in form and figure, but empty inside and cold like a statue. Momowaka frustrates her patrons who find that although they can rent her body they cannot touch her heart. Her father, a blunt and hard dealer in flesh, is neither a good man nor a bad one. He sells his daughter to a geisha house and his underage lover to a brothel with little regret, but at the same time he has single-handedly protected Yokiro from the influence of the yakuza gangsters for years. He has kept the geisha district a haven for pleasure-seekers, but like everyone in the district, he is getting older and his enemies are getting bolder. Even timeless traditions cannot carry on forever.

As you can see by the DVD box, “The Geisha” has won more awards than there are room to print. The Japanese Academy’s 1984 winner for Best Director, Best Actor, Best Cinematography and five other Academy Awards. It is, needless to say, a great film. Director Gosha Hideo (The Wolves) is one of the greats of Japanese cinema, and “The Geisha” is one of his best films. He trademarks are everywhere, like vicious fight scenes accompanied by uplifting music, or a slow burning plot that explodes in the final scenes.

There are so many scenes I loved in this film. There is a great bar scene, where a group of geisha share the establishment with a group of prostitutes. Although lower of the social scale, the prostitutes are wild and free, and can drink and dance the Charleston, while the geisha are constrained by their position. The envy mixed with disgust is palatable. I loved how “The Geisha” takes place in Koichi, on the island of Shikoku rather than the more famous Gion district in Kyoto. There was a time when no major city was without its pleasure quarters, and it is a nice reminder that Kyoto does not have a monopoly on geisha.

As always, Animeigo has done a remarkable job with a remarkable film. Their dual translation, showing cultural notes along with the dialog, is necessary for the complex relationships of the pleasure quarters, where everyone is “daddy” or “big sister” or “mamma” or “lord.”

My Bride is a Mermaid, Season One Part Two

4.0 out of 5 stars Under the Sea

My Bride Is a Mermaid: Season One, Part Two

“My Bride Is a Mermaid: Season One, Part Two” finishes up the first (and only) season of this funny and oddball anime. There are thirteen episodes on two DVDs, bringing to a close the complete twenty-six episode series.

I really dug this series, for its mix of over the top antics combined with some outright parody and some nice sweet moments. If you have seen Season One, Part One (and why would you be watching Part Two without having seen it?) you know pretty much what to expect in terms of humor and fun.

Part Two starts out with a bang as Nagasumi brings a stray kitten to school. Cats, it turns out, are the one thing all mermaids are deathly afraid of, and this kitten running around school has all of the fish folk in a frenzy. Some of the best laughs in the series are had here, showing the terrible monster from the mermaid’s perspective, and then the real scene from the human’s. Some additional rivalry is brought in when the class president (whose real name is unknown) is shown to hide a deep love for Nagasumi behind her thick glasses and shy demeanor. Next, Akeno Shiranui comes into town. She is an inspector for the mermaids who tests to see how the mermaids are doing fitting into human life, and anyone who reveals themselves is exiled back into the ocean. Hijinks ensue.

Of course, all sorts of other wacky stuff happens. A field trip to Kyoto. Sun and Luna’s tough fathers running around in school girl outfits. Kai heading to the hot springs wearing his full astronaut suit. Pretty much nothing makes sense in “My Bride is a Mermaid,” and that is exactly how I like it.

One thing I really liked about “Part Two” was the ending. In too many series they don’t wrap things up properly, but this series was really satisfying. Nagasumi even got a chance to man-up at the end, and the final freeze-frame shot at the end had me rolling. Very well done.

My complaints with the series are the same as with “Part One.” Whoever did the subtitles went overboard trying to capture the Seto accent and Sun and her group come off sounding like a bunch of hillbillies, which is not at all how it sounds in Japanese. There are a few other lame misses with the subtitles, such as when Luna’s father (who is a clear parody of the Terminator) gives the classic line “I’ll be back” but it winds up in the subtitles as “I’ll return soon.” The joke is lost in translation.

But weak subtitles can’t bury a great comedy, and that is what you get here. No fan service. Not an amazing series. But it keeps up a good pace and delivers with every episode. Good times.

Zatoichi: The Festival of Fire

 
5.0 out of 5 stars Blind Man’s Bluff

Zatoichi 21 – The Festival of Fire

 
In a series as long as Zatoichi (26 films in total) you are bound to have some hits and misses. By any standards “Zatoichi: The Festival of Fire” (Japanese title: “Zatoichi abare-himatsur” or “Zatoich: The Raging Fire Festival”) is a full-fledged home run.

First, let’s talk about that cast. Aside from Zatoichi himself, Katsu Shintaro, you have the amazing actor Nakadai Tatsuya (Harakiri, The Sword of Doom), the flamboyant Peter (best known as the jester Kyoami in Ran, or the voice of Rem in Death Note II: The Last Name) and making his final film appearance Mori Masayuki (Ugetsu, Bushido, The Bad Sleep Well). Back in the director’s chair is original “Zatoichi” director Misumi Kenji (The Tale of Zatoichi). That is some serious talent coming together for a “Zatoichi” flick.

Plot-wise, it is a classic set up. Zatoichi rescues a beautiful young woman who has fallen on hard times and was forced to sell herself. Her jealous ex-husband however, (Nakadai) follows her killing anyone who has touched her, finally killing the woman herself. He thinks that Zatoichi is one of his wife’s purchasers, and so dedicates himself to slaying the blind masseur. Zatoichi, on the other hand, has other things going on when he comes across the promotion ceremony for a new yakuza boss and promptly inserts himself. The boss (Mori) is a blind man like Zatoichi himself, and serves as Zatoichi’s opposite, immune to his usual tricks. Complicating matters even further is a young pimp (Peter) looking to get himself in good with the mob boss while still remaining essentially a pure heart. As you can guess, swords are drawn, alliances are created and broken, friends become enemies and enemies friends, and Zatoichi’s cane sword will run red with blood before the final credits roll.

There is lots of good stuff going on in “Zatoichi: Festival of Fire.” Nakadai’s character is almost a re-play of “Sword of Doom,” a man so dead inside he kills without joy or remorse. His desire to kill Zatoichi is not based on revenge or passion, as he has killed too many over his wife’s betrayal. Being the last on his list, Zatoichi is all that keeps him going, and he knows when he has struck the blind man down the next act will be to take his own life. Mori is a classic character as well, charming and sensitive on the surface but hiding a black heart. Being blind himself, he is immune to Zatoichi’s tricks, as he shows them when the two set down to gamble at dice.

Animeigo has done their usual top notch job with this release. Not a lot of extras or anything, but they have the best subtitles available for Japanese films, and always treat every movie with respect and care. “Zatoichi: Festival of Fire” is also available as part of the Zatoichi – The Blind Swordsman DVD Collector’s Edition Box.

Shinjuku

3.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful art paired with a disappointing story

Shinjuku

“Shinjuku” is an illustrated prose work combining text with full-page illustrations in black, white and red. Oversized and with a heavy cardboard stock cover, it looks beautiful and is brilliantly illustrated by Yoshitaka Amano, but the story by Chistopher “Mink” Morrison comes off more as amateurish fan-fic trying to juggle too many genres.

First off, “Shinjuku” is one of those comics where I might just know too much of the subject to truly enjoy the story. I lived in Japan for many years, speak Japanese and spent considerable time in Shinjuku, Tokyo. I know the place. On top of that, I have a Master’s Degree in Japanese mythology and folklore. So when author Morrison (Sorry. I feel stupid writing “Mink”) writes about people taking the drug “obake” it illicit a giggle, but when he writes that a “bakemono” is a “shape shifter that could take the form of a beautiful woman whose flesh would bestow immortality to anyone consumed it…” I just have to sigh and say….

No it isn’t.

Now, I realize that not every reader has the background that I have, but come on. If I were to write a story set in Seattle featuring a (literally) underground network of to-the-death cage fights, where everyone was snorting “werewolf” to get high and the comic finished in a battle with a 50-foot tall fire-breathing lizard that I referred to as a “vampire,” I think more than a few readers would have a hard time buying it. I’m not saying you have to stick to the textbooks as a storyteller but there are limits. If you want to set your story in fantasyland set it in fantasyland, but be careful of actually referencing things that exist.

Not that Morrison alone is guilty of this. In the way it pops up in movies and comics, I sometimes wonder if Shinjuku has become to Americans what Paris is to the Japanese. In Japan, Paris is built up to be such a fantasy of romance and beauty that when some Japanese actually visit the real-world city the disparity between their idealized image and reality causes a psychological shock. (It’s true. Look up “Paris Syndrome” if you don’t believe me.) Any Americans heading to Japan might experience a similar “Shinjuku Syndrome” when things don’t match up with their expectations.

Of course, Morrison gets around this by setting the story in the immediate future (2020), and by using some scientific techno-babble to say that Shinjuku sits on a sort of nexus of realities, points where parallel dimensions intersect and people “cycle” from one reality to another (A similar concept to Will Farrell’s 2009 Land of the Lost, in case you need a reference). Morrison’s Shinjuku is the territory of three gangster families who each corner a black market, be it in girls, fights, graft, or the ubiquitous drug “obake” which is some sort of super-opium genetically distilled from poppies.

Into this Shinjuki comes Daniel Legend, a licensed bounty-hunter called a Scout, following the trail of his sister Angela Legend who disappeared into Tokyo’s underworld many years ago. The trail leads him to a bar called Poppies, run by the mysterious Shi (which means “death” in Japanese. How clever.) and his trio of supernatural women who work as hostesses at the bar. Angela also works as a hostess, along with a mysterious young girl called Rokkun who seems to be able to disappear at will, as do several others under Shi’s influence.

A dangerous man himself, Daniel soon finds himself working off a debt to Shi as the star fighter in his underground death-matches, all the while trying to find a way to get himself and his sister safely out of this world. But the more he tries to escape, the more deeply he gets entangled and things get even more complicated as an American mobster named Sticky arrives in town seeking vengeance, allying himself with the Russian mob who have their own desires to take out Shi. Shi, on the other hand, seems more interested in the Daniel and Angela’s father, and his theories of parallel dimensions, and in raising a Bull-headed god named Togensa and, in the best Lo Pan tradition, can go off and rule the universe from beyond the grave.

The whole story comes off as a mish-mash of disparate elements from other works. The monstrous Shi and his three hostesses are Dracula and his three brides. The “secret Asian underground where monsters dwell” is right out of Big Trouble in Little China, and Rokkun might as well be Go-Go Yubari from Kill Bill. It is funny that Morrison said the seeds for the story came from when he was in Tokyo directing the 2005 Steven Seagal flick Into the Sun (I know. I have never heard of it either.), and one can even get a sense of Seagal here with the underground fight clubs and ex-military heroes. Sci Fi. Horror. Fantasy. Hard Sci Fi. Noir. Morrison tries his best to pack it all in.

His characters are all as flat as cardboard, with absolutely no development or story arcs. The main protagonist, Daniel Legend, might as well be called Mary Sue as he is practically perfect in every way, able to out-fight, out-shoot and out-think any problem that comes his way. Some of the plot contrivances are just ridiculous, as when Daniel arrives in Shinjuku and the police hand him a GPS tracker so they can watch him, warning him never to lose the card or he will suffer the consequences. When he does lose the card, the cops reaction is basically just finger-wagging and then handing him a new card. What is the point of adding that to the story? A lot of tidbits are tossed in that way, such as the brilliant (and of course, strikingly beautiful) Dr. Sato that appears on stage for no other reason than to give Daniel a love interest and a satisfying conclusion.

So why should anyone buy “Shinjuku?” For the artwork. If you think of this as an Yoshitaka Amano artbook with some unnecessary text pages thrown in then it is totally worth it. The style here is completely different from previous Amano work such as his delicate paintings done for Gaiman’s Sandman: The Dream Hunters). His style here is brusque and immediate, being aggressive ink-strokes on stark white paper with red washes for tone and effect. The work here has more in common with his exhibitions done in the Galerie Michael Janssen in Germany than his usual refined images, although everything in “Shinjuku”  is much rougher even than his German work.

It is a thrill to see Amano work so differently from his usual style, almost to the point where it is unrecognizable as Amano. I didn’t realize he had the capacity to do such raw work. If you are a fan of Amano, then by all means pick up “Shinjuku”. Just do yourself a favor and don’t waste too much time on the story.

Shoujyo – An Adolescent

3.0 out of 5 stars So-so vanity film

Shoujyo – An Adolescent

Directing his first and only feature film, Japanese movie star Eiji Okuda made an unabashed vanity film. He cast himself as the ultimate man’s man, a former gangster, complete with full yakuza tattoo, who reformed and has become a small-town police officer. Of course, beneath his brusque exterior beats a heart of gold, shown by how he spends his free time taking care of a local teenage retarded boy. He is a man so completely dripping with sex-appeal that he can’t even return a missing dog without the happy owner insisting that he come in for a little afternoon delight. This poor guy is so tired out by refreshing the housewives that he tries to have a quiet rest and a beer in a local bar. Ah, but even it is too much for the ladies, as a cute 15-year-old jr. high school girl soon plops down at his table and introduces herself with the line “Hey Mister! You up for some sex?” Its a hard life indeed.

“Shoujyo – An Adolescent” is ostensibly based on a short story by Mikihiko Renjo, but it plays off as more of a soft-core “Lolita” clone. The story line is full of coincidences. Okuda soon begins a relationship with the 15-year old Yoko (played by 22-year old Mayu Ozawa), and finds that she is the brother of his little retarded pal. On top of that, Yoko’s grandfather is the one that gave him his tattoo many years ago. Yoko’s mother, of course, demands sex from Okuda when she uncovers the relationship with her daughter, and Okuda willingly sacrifices himself, soon bedding both mother and daughter. None of the characters are even slightly realistic, with Yoko being little more than a fanciful image of youthful beauty and a middle-aged man’s wish fulfillment.

The only redeeming feature of “Shoujyou” is that it is well-filmed. The story is shallow, but the pictures are pretty and so are the girls that Okuda trysts with. As a soft-core pink film with a lolita theme, there are certainly worse movies out there. Just don’t set your expectations too high.

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