Hayao Miyazaki’s last film (for now; I suspect he may be back in some capacity at some point, as such artists never truly retire) is also his furthest away from fantasy, based instead in the real world, a loose biopic of Japanese aeronautical engineer Jiro Horikoshi, who designed fighter planes for the Japanese army in the WWII. There are flaws here—after an entire career of strong female protagonists, it’s a shame Miyazaki relegates his main female character here to a ‘sacrificial wife’ role—but The Wind Rises is also his most personally revealing film. Critics who accuse the film of airbrushing Japan’s military history are slightly missing the point (are we that stupid as audiences that a film needs to tell us for certain that fascism sucks?); what we have instead is the work of an artist musing on the destructive capabilities of creation, when such desires overtake almost all other considerations.
Splicing together the first two Lone Wolf and Cub films and dubbing them over into English, Shogun Assassin was originally designed to take a Japanese cult classic into the American grindhouse audience. Tomisaburo Wakayama is a master samurai who is betrayed by his shogun and has to wander the land with his infant son, whilst defending him from all manner of attacks. Having not seen any of the Lone Wolf and Cub films I cannot say what, if anything, is lost in the process of editing the first two films together, but I can certainly say that, although the film is filled with some absurdly brilliant decapitations and samurai badassery, it is also a little empty at times, shifting from set-piece to set-piece with just the basics of a narrative thread to hold it together. Certainly worth watching for any fans of GZA’s Liquid Swords though; much of the dialogue will be instantly recognisable.
It’s been a few weeks since the world lost Abbas Kiarostami. He will forever be a unique visionary, one of the most intellectually engaging and brilliant humanists the screen has ever since. Like Someone in Love, his last film, won’t go down as one of his most challenging or most radical, but it will go down as a fine distillation of many of Kiarostami’s interests. Filmed in Japan, we follow Akiko (Rin Takanashi), a university student who also works as a call girl on the side to make ends meet, unbeknownst to her family and her jealous, aggressive boyfriend, Noriaki (Ryo Kase). She is called out to the house of Takashi (Tadashi Okuno), an elderly retired professor. We never find out why Takashi calls her, because he is certainly entirely disinterested in sex, and appears rather to just desire company.
Kiarostami drenches the film in reflective surfaces, as if searching for a canvas beyond the camera lens. Like many of his films, large chunks of the film take place exclusively inside a car. Also like many of his films, it deals greatly with our identities: how we present ourselves to others, the masks we put on and take off depending on the situation, the ever-shifting nature of who we are to ourselves and others. Enigmatic and acres deep, Like Someone in Love is as beautiful a film as Kiarostami made. He will be missed.
Of the three great Japanese post-war directors of drama – Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, and Mikio Naruse – it is the latter who has seen the least critical acclaim and resurgence of interest in his work in the decades since his death. In some senses, it’s easy to see why; Late Chrysanthemums lacks the same aesthetic distinctiveness that makes Ozu’s and Mizoguchi’s respective styles so memorable. Still, this story about four aging geishas, two of whom are now struggling financially and in debt to one of their former colleagues, is an excellently performed slice-of-life drama. Naruse is a controlled, quiet director, guiding the audience through minor changes in detail, and although there are a handful of moments where the silent focus of his work seems to be foregone in favour of obviousness (an out-of-nowhere voiceover narration towards the final act is particularly off-putting), Late Chrysanthemums remains a solid, female-centred drama.
Confessions starts out with an absolutely astounding cinematic sequence, wherein schoolteacher Yuko Moriguchi (Takako Matsu) reveals to her class that her daughter’s accidental death was in fact a murder committed by two students. As she drip-feeds the information to her class, director Tetsuya Nakashima edits in the complex flashback structure that forms the backbone of the film. Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from there. The convoluted structure, wherein flashbacks are triggered by various characters narrating their own ‘confessions’, is needlessly complicated and drowns the film in a sea of superfluous voiceovers. Then, Confessions is a brilliant example of the difference between a good soundtrack and good music. Nakashima allows music to constantly drape through the background, showcasing an appreciation of Japanese post-metal gods Boris, but despite my huge love for them it becomes distracting rather than atmospheric. Yet most insultingly, the motivations of the film’s principle actors are so psychologically trite and one-dimensional it beggars belief. A movie with a fantastic opening sequence let down by repetition and bad stylistic choices.
13 Assassins might not have the thematic complexity or absurdity of some of Takashi Miike’s most famous works such as Audition and GOZU, but it is easily one of his most accomplished and fluid films. The first half of the film is mostly set-up – an evil warlord is destroying Japan with his brutality, so a group of samurai gang up and plot to kill him – and we are taken through the battle plan step-by-step. But none of this really matters. The last hour or so is all one huge battle, with the 13 samurai facing off against an army 200 strong. And oh boy is it badass! The editing and Miike’s control over the action means we are never at any point lost in the battle, and it’s always clear who is fighting who. Put simply, this is one of the best pieces of action cinema of the last decade or so.
The brilliance of Harakiri is unassuming. Scene by scene, moment by moment, it only slowly begins to feel like the masterpiece that it is. It is only once we have seen the whole of the film that we realise what a truly brilliant piece of work it is, with every single part interlocking in perfect tandem. The wonderful, intricate screenplay which never loses the viewer’s comprehension. The staggering, astounding cinematography (the blu-ray that I watched looked simply orgasmic). The powerful commanding performances. And finally, the excellently choreographed bursts of action towards the end, done with real swords to get the right sense of movement from the actors. One of the best Japanese films ever, from a country already overflowing with great filmmakers.
You know that meme photo of Jackie Chan going ‘wtf?!!!’ That was more or less my entire reaction throughout all of Gozu. And lo and behold, I enjoyed the hell out of it. It’s no masterpiece, unlike Takashi Miike’s earlier film Audition, but it is a rather hilariously weird surrealist black comedy. A comparison to a Japanese Twin Peaks would perhaps be apt. Occasionally, Gozu does feel a bit like surrealism for surrealism’s sake, but it does come around in the end. Many memorable moments here, and one of Takashi Miike’s more coherent works.