Posts Tagged ‘ Japan ’

Thirty-Day Movie Challenge: Day Ten

30 Day Movie Challenge:

Day Ten: Favorite Foreign Film
Survive Style 5+ (2004)
Directed by: Gen Sekiguchi
Starring: Tadanobu Asano, Kyôko Koizumi, Vinnie Jones, Ittoku Kishibe

With foreign films I’ve run into people from both ends of the spectrum. There are those who refuse to watch them, because of the reading involved. I used to think that was a joke from movies and TV shows. It’s a little disheartening when you come to realize it’s not. Then there are people who refuse to watch anything but foreign films. It’s their contention that anything in their own language could never possibly have the depth, humor, pathos, meaning and integrity of something by a director like Kurosawa or Ingmar Bergman.

Neither of those perspectives has ever made a lot of sense to me. One strikes me as ignorant and narrow, and the other strikes me as both of those things and also just a wee bit pretentious. It’s hard for me to imagine limiting myself that severely with what I might enjoy. It goes back to what I said in the review of Dancer in the Dark about trying to do away with those stupid prejudices when it comes to movies and the like. It’s good to know what you dig, but it’s a shame to miss out on the potential to be completely blown-away by something you didn’t expect to enjoy. With things like Netflix Instant Watch, Hulu, YouTube and all the rest there’s really no excuse for not taking a few chances. I sure as hell wish that stuff had existed when all I had to go on were crappy video stores and depressingly limited movie channels.

That makes me sound like the kind of old-timer who lives on his front porch with a bottle of Old Crow, a carton of cigarettes and decades of bitterness to keep them company. That might be me in thirty more years, but I’d like to think I’m not there just yet.

Survive Style 5+ is not actually my favorite foreign film of all time, but I do have what I think is a pretty good reason for choosing it. Picking a single favorite above all the others would have been as difficult as the overall favorite from day one. Most likely it would have come down to a four-way tie between The Seventh Seal, Children of Paradise, Suspiria, and Yojimbo. What struck me as more appealing was to go with a favorite that’s never really gotten a lot of attention since its release seven years ago. Survive Style 5+ is something of a forgotten gem. It’s not going to be for everybody, but it’s at least worth a try.

Something bad is about to happen. I think we can all sense that from this picture alone.

Japan has a well-deserved reputation for having elements in their popular culture that seem to Western audiences like an acid trap without any acid for miles. A lot of it finds a strong audience in this neck of the world. Some of it winds up only appealing to weirdoes like me. Survive Style 5+ is very distinctly the product of its country, but it’s not wholly outside of what you’re likely familiar with. If you want to look at it as an alternative take on movies like Pulp Fiction or the early Guy Ritchie crime films (the presence of Vinnie Jones in Survive Style 5+ then begins to make sense), then that’s as good a way as any to get your foot in the door. Keep in mind though that this is a movie that is playing within its own small universe. First-time director Gen Sekiguchi and screenwriter Taku Tada have their own way of dictating the movie’s delirious pace, odd characters and bizarre storytelling. You’re either going to be on board it, or you’re not. It seems like pure insanity from its reckless beginning to surreal end, but that’s perhaps the genius of Sekiguchi and Tada. Tada’s script contains several characters and stories whose paths occasionally interact (some more closely than others) throughout. Sekiguchi does a brilliant job of juggling the parts that have some bearing on the characters and stories with the parts that seem exist for no particular reason but to add to movie’s brightly-colored, madhouse personality. He keeps us moving as the movie constantly veers into stranger and stranger territory.

Don’t worry too much about sorting out the meaningful parts from the sheer nonsense. The trick is to just sit back and relax. See how the first ten minutes treat you. We meet a man (the hilarious Tadanobu Asano) who has murdered his wife (Reika Hashimoto) and is burying her out in the woods. We never learn the reason why. What we do learn is that when he goes home, she’s there waiting for him with a giant meal she’s prepared. Most of us would call Max Von Sydow at this point. This poor, potentially dim bastard eats the entire meal, lights a cigarette and then seems surprised when his zombie (?) wife knocks him on his ass and tries to kill him. He manages to kill and bury her again, and from there seems less and less surprised that she keeps coming back for vengeance. Each time she returns with a new, completely unexplained super power (like fire) of some kind.

That’s just one story, and it touches on several of the others. It’s a jumping point to an advertising executive (the very funny Kyôko Koizumi), whose commercials seem to be more obsessed with being off-the-wall and clever than they do with actually selling the product (this is illustrated so well in a couple of scenes in which she is presenting her ads to a company president played by the legendary Sonny Chiba in a memorable cameo). She sleeps with an arrogant, dense hypnotist (Hiroshi Abe), but then hires a hit man (Vinnie Jones, playing his thug persona for strong laughs) when Abe makes fun of her afterwards. Vinnie spends most of his time with a translator (Yoshiyoshi Arakawa) asking strangers and victims alike what they feel their function on this planet is. He still carries out the hit on Abe, but not before Abe hypnotizes a hapless, kind businessman (Ittoku Kishibe) into thinking he’s a bird on a live TV show. Kishibe then spends the rest of the movie putting his family through hell as the most depressed man-bird in film history (there might be more of them in cinema—I don’t want to be presumptuous). The way he meets Asano at the end is magnificent and must be seen to be believed. Within all this is also a trio of robbers (Jai West, Yoshiyuki Morishita and Kanji Tsuda) struggling with their current career choice. In the case of Morishita there’s an additional struggle with feelings for West told throughout the film with drinking games and staring contests put to sexual techno songs in the background. It plays out as the sweetest subplot in the entire movie.

This exact thing has happened to me many, many, many times.

All of this amounts to merely the basics of Survive Style 5+. Other unreal touches include actually seeing several of Koizumi’s commercial ideas that ramble around in her head, Abe’s disturbing stage show and medical science having pretty much no clue as to how to cure Kishibe’s condition. Just remember that not everything has a point here. If you’re addicted after those first ten minutes, then you’re probably going to be fine with that.

Survive Style 5+ won out, because I remembered the sheer wonderful surprise of watching this for the first time. It was at one of my first Anime conventions, and I didn’t know a single thing about it. There were no expectations. In fact I can’t even recall why I was in that video room to begin with. I do know that I was in for the long haul after those first ten minutes. I don’ think I’m special for immediately understanding that this movie was going to exist in its own universe. It simply worked for me.  You’re going to miss out if you at least don’t try to see if it works for you, too. Anyone who wants to stop by is more than welcome to.  Survive Style 5+ has the door wide open, and the first step after walking through is as much of a dozy as any other. This is a movie that deserves a lot more attention than it seems to get.

Thirty-Day Movie Challenge: Day Seven

The plan at the moment is to do ten, break for some fiction/poetry/something else, do ten more, take another one of those breaks and then finish out the last ten in glorious (maybe? It’s not like I’m getting a ton of feedback on this little endeavor) fashion.

In case anyone was even a little curious.

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30 Day Movie Challenge:

Day Seven: Favorite Animated Feature
Paprika (2006)
Directed by: Satoshi Kon
Starring: Megami Hayashibara, Akio Otsuka, Toru Furuya

I can’t believe I waited four years to see this. Let’s just go ahead and blame all those Anime conventions I’ve been working at for the last six years. That makes absolutely no sense, when you realize I still love Anime and watch it whenever possible, but it just seems like fun to blame something without any real reason behind doing so.

The real reason is that some movies sit on that list of things I want to see for ages. It’s as simple as that. I know people in their forties who have been meaning to see The Godfather. Most of us are just never going to get to see every single movie that grabs our interest (Roger Ebert and Martin Scorsese might). We do the best we can, and we make time wherever possible. I love that it’s impossible to see everything I could ever want to see. That’s weirdly appealing to me, and it’s something I’ve mentioned before. It’s the same thing with music.

Unfortunately certain genres suffer from neglect on my part more than others. There’s a special place in my cold, black Canadian heart for animation, but I notice from time to time (Netflix is good at reminding me) that the list of animated films I’d like to check out is a pretty long one. I’ve seen plenty of Disney, Miyazaki, feature-length adaptations of various Anime series and other titles, but the list still seems to be considerable. It doesn’t bother me. The reminder that I’m missing out only hits me when I’m finally getting around to seeing something. I had that thought after finally seeing Pink Flamingos the other night, and I definitely had that realization after seeing Paprika late last year.


I might actually be willing to go to a stupid parade, if they were anything like this one.

I knew Satoshi Kon’s work from seeing Tokyo Godfathers, Perfect Blue and trailers for Paprika and Millennium Actress. His body of work was certainly more about quality than quantity. In the past year I’ve finally finished watching the films he directed in his lifetime, and all I can do is sadly wish he was still alive and directing today. Dreaming Machine is to be his last film, and it’s supposedly going to be released at some point this year. It’s a shame that has to be the case. The only consolation is the remarkable talent and imagination displayed in his few finished films. It’s almost intimidating as a writer to look at something as extraordinary as Paprika and realize how limitless the creativity of some can truly be. Of all his films Paprika is easily my favorite. It’s also the best animated film I’ve ever seen in my life. There’s room for that opinion to change, but it’s going to take something pretty spectacular. I can think of a dozen things I love about this movie. If I watch it again I’m sure I could come up with a dozen more.

The story is wonderful. It’s original, well-told and with a fantastic depth of attention to fully-realized, believable characters. I love the basic premise of a device that can record dreams running amok in reality. What I like even more is how much Kon and co-screenwriter Seishi Minakami get out of that premise. A great storyteller can do a few movies’ worth of ideas in a couple of hours or less. A hack job will either not explore the concept to its fullest potential or crush the great idea under trying to express so much that the film becomes bloated, confusing and dull. Kon and Minakami take a 1993 Japanese novel and use animation to blow the story wide open. Films in general demand that you trust where they’re going to try and take you. That can lead to any number of possibilities for what that means you’re going to get out of it. Of course, some movies ask more of you than others. Some demand a little more trust to keep your mind wide open, to simply settle in for the ride and wait until that ride has come to a complete stop before asking questions. Paprika asks for a whole lot of that trust. It’s just a little unreal how much ground this movie flies across a mere ninety-minute span. Taking the movie with arms wide open can leave you exhausted the way a four or five hour movie might. I’m honestly inclined to think that a lot of other attempts at this story would have yielded a film running three hours or longer and just not nailing it in the same way. A lot of themes, characters, ideas of social, political, moral and scientific importance are taken on. None of it is short-changed. Nothing overstays its welcome. This only sounds a lot more overcrowded than it actually is. If anything you’ll get to the end wishing there was a little bit more.

Okie dokie.

It’s a gorgeous world to visit. The animation has to be able to keep up with furious pace of the plot, while also doing justice to a magnificent voice-acting cast. Paprika strikes me as so beautiful that I could probably watch it quite easily without sound. It’s a firm reminder of what animation can do that live-action will never be able to duplicate with all the bells and whistles of formidable technology (time may prove me wrong on that, but I choose to hold onto that opinion for as long as possible) and its disposal. The backgrounds of Paprika alone seem like they would be a breathtaking place to get lost in. The countless character designs, larger details are a sight to behold, but at least some of the fun of the movie is in its details. It’s another aspect that demands repeat viewings and a guarantee that they will never feel like a chore. You will almost certainly want to come back to this world again. Catching the sights missed the first time will give way to that pleasure of a second (or third) viewing feeling a lot like the initial one. I can’t even imagine my own favorite visual moment. There’s too many to pick off the top of my head. Watching it again would only increase my options.

I really can’t think of a better example of the genre than this. That goes for Anime specifically (at least with feature films) and animation of all kinds in general. Paprika is a film of staggering visual beauty, wonderful characters and relentlessly good storytelling. It’s going to take many, many viewings to exhaust the potential of how much there is to see and absorb throughout. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that we lost one of the good ones when Satoshi Kon passed away. He left behind some truly worthwhile films. I’m just selfish enough to wish there could have been a few more. That wouldn’t have been enough to satisfy me, no specific number ever could, but one of the best and most bittersweet things I’ve taken from Kon’s films is a sense of a longing. I wish I could see the world as he saw it. Since that’s impossible, I wish he was still around to give us some visual possibilities to work with.

Thirty-Day Movie Challenge: Introduction and Day One

30 Day Movie Challenge: Introduction and Day One
By Gabriel Ricard

I don’t go in for a lot of the stuff on Facebook. I’ve never played Mob Wars, Empires and Allies, Farmville, Cooking Mama, Grave Digging Ragamuffins, Porn Legends of Gainesville, Florida (Okay, I might have made a couple of those up). I don’t re-post those obnoxious status updates challenging my courage and convictions. I’ve even managed to avoid clicking on those delightful “videos” that infect a person’s Facebook faster than they can cry about it on Twitter.

That last one is a shame though. I really would like to know what happened to that girl when her father caught her doing whatever it was that she was doing.

Don’t misunderstand me though. It’s not that I think I’m better than anyone for avoiding these things.  I post videos and articles like crazy, tried those apps that makes a collage of your status updates for the year or top friends and got entirely too much mileage out of those top-five lists that were popular for a little while. Facebook is a lot of things to a lot of people. How I waste my time on there is no better or worse than how others go about it.

One thing I’ve had a great deal of fun with is those thirty-day challenges. I’ve done one for movies and one for music. Right now I’m doing another for music, and I’m planning to do an extremely elaborate, supposedly endless one for movies. God knows why, but I enjoy thinking about the films and music that have managed to keep me inspired and moving along with my own writing, acting and whatever other nonsense I get mixed up with. I don’t think I remind myself of those inspirations nearly enough.

The movie challenge was particularly enjoyable. The original plan was to pick the movies and throw down a couple of sentences about why I chose it. It started out that way, but as I went on I realized I wanted to elaborate further than just a couple of sentences. By the end of the thirty days some of the entries clocked in at several hundred words.  They were a little verbose, but I enjoyed the experience immensely. Anyone who knows me will tell you I can ramble about movies for what feels like decades on end. I don’t get to write about them as much I’d like to. Most of the things I review these days are books. That’s fine. I just rarely have an excuse or opportunity to write about things that I already love.  The thought makes me miss the time I spent working for a horror movie site. The job frequently called for writing up reviews for films I had already seen. I had a great time with that, but the opportunities since then have been few and far between. That movie challenge was a fantastic excuse to change that.

Let’s change it even further with another excuse to ramble about those movies that color my dreams, keep me motivated to create my own things and all that other inspirational mumbo-jumbo.

I’ll be posting the entries from the Facebook Thirty Day Movie Challenge here. They won’t be exactly the same as they were on Facebook. I’ll be editing each one as I go, expanding on anything I want to expand on, clarifying something that might not make sense and just making them a little more sharply dressed in general. I’ve wanted to expand on some of these entries for a while now, and this is as good a time as any to do it. The other idea is that doing this will get my mind rolling for completely original material to contribute to this blog. I have some ideas, but I don’t want to throw my lot in with them just yet. Using these entries is a great way to keep busy while I work on those other ideas.

I’m also still planning to share fiction, poetry, scripts and all the rest whenever possible.

So, moving on to day one?

Does that work for everybody?

Awesome.

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Thirty Day Film Challenge:

Day One: Your Favorite Film of All Time

Seven Samurai (1954)
Directed by: Akira Kurosawa
Starring: Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura and Yoshio Inaba

It was difficult to choose one film over any other, and I’m not entirely sure I made the right choice, but this was the first title to pop into my head above all others, so I suppose that should count for something.  What’s important to me here is that I go with my instincts. The first answer to pop into my head is likely the correct one.

This is a beautiful, massive epic in every sense of the word. I cannot find a single thing wrong with it. The story is immediately gripping and doesn’t lose even a fraction of its momentum in spite of a fairly long running time (207 minutes). I can appreciate why so many sequels came out of the American remake (The Magnificent Seven). It’s the kind of story that you still want more of even after you’ve already been given a lot.

The cast is a huge part of that with Seven Samurai. Discovering Toshiro Mifune’s body of work has been one of the great movie-watching pleasures of the last ten or so years of my life.  He has a few awful movies under his belt, but I’ve yet to see something he’s awful.  Mifune was one of those rare talents who could be absolutely and completely in control of the entire movie when he’s on camera. His performance here is second only to his performance in Yojimbo. It’s electrifying and by far my favorite aspect of the whole movie. He’s not the only one. Every performance is absolutely essential in one way or another. Mifune cuts an imposing figure, but he doesn’t overshadow the rest of the cast and certainly not the entire film. Takashi Shimura is another of Japan’s great actors, and is at least somewhere on my list of favorite actors of all time, period. He gets some of the best lines in the film. His performance and by extension his character very quietly and effortlessly hold their own against everything else that’s going on.

Nothing overwhelms the movie. That’s one of the things I love about it. The best epics are the ones that have a thousand elements working together to create that singular, extraordinary final result.  That can be true of other film types, but I would like to think it’s especially critical for an epic or ensemble piece. Seven Samurai is a beautiful film, because everything in it is critical in some way, but it’s never a case of one thing overwhelming another. The spotlight may shine on a particular actor or shot, but that’s only within the moment. Seven Samurai doesn’t linger or allow anything to wear out its welcome and drag the movie down as a consequence. This was the first film to truly and so flawlessly combine so many characters, so many relationships between those characters (including a romance subplot between Isao Kimura, the youngest of the samurai and Keiko Tsushima, one of the villagers). Wrap that up in the rest of the action scenes and storytelling. You leave with a movie that never loses focus or the energy it builds for that fantastic final battle against the bandits.

There is not an ounce of wasted motion in Kurosawa’s effort to create something great.  There is no pretension or indulgence to be found. The ambition here was to make a good movie. Kurosawa did that, but I can’t imagine he knew what the long-term implications of Seven Samurai would be. The film was Japan’s most expensive up to that point and took a little over a year to shoot.  It was box-office hit and established Kurosawa as an international force that would serve to influence future filmmakers from all over the world.

Not only does it work as pure entertainment, but it is also the absolute pinnacle of the capacity and potential a film has to create a universe that is somehow larger than even the people who created it. Different minds have added to this specific universe over the years, but the one within the film itself is still as good as it could ever get. I don’t love Seven Samurai to impress or out of some weird obligation to the history of cinema. I love it because it has everything I could ever want from a movie. I’ve seen it a dozen times since 1998, and I still find something new and wonderful each time. Repeat viewings are not completely uncommon with me. Repeat viewings that don’t feel at all like repeat viewings are another story altogether. That’s exceptionally rare, and Seven Samurai is the absolute pinnacle of that very short list.