Gozu (2003)

Gozu (2003) movie poster

director Takashi Miike
viewed: 08/09/2017

It’s gotta be said, Takashi Miike is outré there. Or at least he was at one point, for quite a while.

The iconolclasts of contemporary cinema are rather few and far between. Or otherwise maybe too obscure?

Gozu comes from Miike’s ripest period and seems to rank for many among his best movies. And that seems a fair assessment.

Absurd and comic, Gozu is the spiritual journey of a young yakuza flunky, Minami (Hideki Sone), and his crazy (really, really crazy) boss and best friend, Ozaki (Show Aikawa), who winds up dead and then disappears.  Minami finds himself adrift in a very David Lynchian world, trying to figure out where his “brother” got off to. The journey is a prolonged and surreal, punctuated with strange and awkward humor.

If you think you know where this film is going,…well, let’s just say that the last half hour features twists that aren’t just unforeseen but gruesome and vivid.

Of all of Miike’s films I’ve seen, Gozu feels the most Lynchian. I’m not sure I’ve thought of David Lynch in his other works, but this one takes that vibe, runs with it, and then smacks down with some of Miike’s most intense stuff.

Massacre Gun (1967)

Massacre Gun (1967) movie poster

director Yasuharu Hasebe
viewed: 07/02/2017

The jowliest of the jowly, Jō Shishido, stars in Yasuharu Hasebe’s yakuza picture, Massacre Gun. Shot in black-and-white, it’s as stylish as it is by-the-numbers, featuring a plot of escalating violence in a local yakuza rift.

Really, what else would you ask of genre film?

I had never realized that Shishido got cheek implants (or some sort of cheekbone surgery) to give him that look like a chipmunk. Is this where Brando got his Godfather inspiration?

I’d be interested to read an analysis of the relationship between the yakuza genre and the samurai genre. So many elements of Japanese culture is deeply imbued in these archetypes: loyalty, the individual, hierarchy, duty, violence.

What else would you ask of genre film?

Pitfall (1962)

Pitfall (1962) movie poster

director Hiroshi Teshigahara
viewed: 06/23/2017

Wow. And I mean, wow.

Pitfall is indeed an amazing film, a complex interweaving of realism, social criticism, fantasy, and the surreal. Profound and weird, and deeply unsettling, stark and vivid and so, so much.

Pitfall was the first cinematic collaboration between director Hiroshi Teshigahara, writer Kōbō Abe, and composer Toru Takemitsu. But it’s the third of Techigahara’s films that I watched after The Face of Another (1966) and Woman of the Dunes (1964), and of the three, the most immediately striking, already having me recontemplating the others in retrospect.

The film starts out semi-mysteriously, with two men and a young boy, stealing away from a town, sneaking to someplace, hiding from something. And it only get more and more strange and mysterious. While we come to know these men are hiding from some authority, while trying to earn a living as miners. As the story comes into clarity, it shifts into the otherworldly, with the dead observing the living, an abandoned mining camp, littered with ghosts.

There is some significant grotesqueries from the rape of a woman to the skinning of a live frog, harsh imagery, loaded and haunting.

There are films that sit with me long after viewing. This film, for me, is just beginning.

Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973)

Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973) movie poster

director Jun Fukuda
viewed: 06/09/2017

I have vivid memories of Godzilla vs. Megalon from 1976. I was 6 or 7 when it came to town and I totally remember the excitement of going to see a Godzilla movie in the theater. I loved monsters and Godzilla was my favorite. I also recall being somewhat disappointed with the movie. I always thought that Megalon was pretty cool, but it seemed like forever waiting for Godzilla. I think I liked Gigan and Jet Jaguar, more or less. Probably before Star Wars, this was my biggest movie thrill.

Over the years, the kids and I have worked our way through the Shōwa period Godzilla movies, but at that point I couldn’t get my hands on Megalon. The kids both fell asleep though this one.

It’s super-silly, even by super-silly standards. That a lost Atlantis-like world called Seatopia is disturbed by underground nuclear testing and sends Megalon and eventually Gigan to attack the surface-dwellers. They put a lot of focus on a robot developer, his pal, and kid brother, roping them into the hijinks. There is a lot of really bizarre stuff in here like the dolphin paddle boat thing the kid rides (which looks pretty cool despite also looking totally non-functional).

But really the weirdest leaps in logic are related to would-be kaiju king Jet Jaguar, who was apparently designed by a kid in a contest and originally planned to be the star of the thing. First, he develops his own will and cognizance, to only a mild surprise of his creator. Then, he magically wills himself from human-size to Godzilla size, which is explained as something he just decided to do.

Really, you should just embrace the whole thing and not really question it.

The fight sequences are indeed reminiscent of professional wrestling, more than most kaiju flicks I can think of. And, you know, as dumb as it is, it’s still moderately entertaining.

Your Name (2016)

Your Name (2016) movie poster

director Makoto Shinkai
viewed: 04/08/2017 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

I often take my kids to movies on the weekends, and while we do hit some of the blockbusters and such, we also try to see more unusual or offbeat stuff.

So this weekend, I looked and there was not a lot calling my name. I was vaguely interested in Kong: Skull Island and the documentary about James Baldwin, I am Not Your Negro, but kind of uninspired. Then I saw that a new anime feature was playing, one I hadn’t really read much about. I thought, “Cool, maybe the kids would dig that.” And they were into it.

The weird thing was this Japanese animated feature Your Name was playing EVERYWHERE, including our local neighborhood cinema. And it was playing on the largest screen in the theater, squeezing Beauty and the Beast and Ghost in the Shell into the smaller ones. I guess it was massively popular elsewhere but this is pretty unprecedented, even in San Francisco.

Well, you know what? It’s pretty fucking lame.

It’s beautifully animated, but it’s a sort of teenager The Lake House with a boy and a girl occasionally swapping bodies because of a comet and some temporal shifts. I found it unengaging and kinda dull.

My son liked it okay. I couldn’t get my daughter out of bed.

So much for the most interesting thing I could find.

Seance (2000)

Seance (2000) movie poster

director Kiyoshi Kurosawa
viewed: 03/08/2017

Made for Japanese television, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Seance is derived from the same source novel that became the 1962 British film Séance on a Wet Afternoon.

A husband and wife Koji Yakusho and Jun Fubuki are living their lives, totally normally. That is if the husband is a sound engineer and the wife is a psychic with real powers who occasionally works as a waitress. Totally normal.

When a child victim of a kidnapping escapes and stows away in a case for sound recording, the couple find themselves with a problem. First the girl seems dead. Then the girl is alive. What to do? Call the police? That would be insanity! Right? Totally normal.

One thing leads to another, but there are lots of questions, for me at least. Like wouldn’t the case have felt heavier with a little girl inside? Why wouldn’t a normal person take a little girl to the police or hospital? Though later a plan emerges to sort of address the latter question, it troubles the story. Apparently in the British film, the kidnapping was planned by the couple, they didn’t accidentally do it. Which seems to make more sense.

All said, it’s a decent enough film. Well-framed and shot if full of weird plot holes.

The Green Slime (1968)

The Green Slime (1968) movie poster

director Kinji Fukasaku
viewed: 01/14/2017

“The Green Sublime.”

Though it opens and closes with its groovy, very late 1960’s theme song, Kinji Fukasaku’s The Green Slime feels more like a relic from earlier in the decade. It bears the clean production design of 1960’s Japanese science fiction, but features an almost entirely America cast, American producers, and American writers.

And some very silly but lovable gooey one-eyed tentacle monsters that quickly evolve from “green slime”. While some of the effects are hilarious, others are pretty successful, like all the ways that the slime can ooze and multiply.

And it’s pretty action-packed. A space station becomes infected with green slime when a team lands on an asteroid they have to destroy to avoid collision with the Earth. Slime begets one-eyed tentacle monsters, who devour all forms of energy, and the heroes have to try to contain them all to keep them from frying everybody and reaching home planet.

This is another sort of alternative Star Trek world of space exploration sci-fi. It was apparently preceded by a series of Italian films produced by Antonio Margheriti for MGM. Would make an interesting mini-marathon, though The Green Slime with its Japaneseness, would doubtlessly be an outlier. A very fun outlier, if you ask me.

When Marnie Was There (2014)

When Marnie Was There (2014) movie poster

director Hiromasa Yonebayashi
viewed: 12/17/2016

Studio Ghibli’s When Marnie Was There came with a lot less fanfare than many of their films, so we somehow missed it in the cinema.  Maybe it’s a film with a harder selling point, no giant cats or spirits, no flying witches, robots, pigs.  But it does have a ghost…of sorts.

And it’s surprisingly emotional, evocative, and beautiful.

The story is about an orphaned 12 year old, Anna, who suffers from depression, asthma, and some social disorders is sent to live with her adoptive mother’s friends in the country.  Her alienation from people is not so specifically defined but profoundly relatable.  It is only when she meets the mysterious Marnie, a girl from an abandoned mansion nearby, who pays her the kindness and attention that awakens life and love and friendship in the girl.

There is a lot that one can read into the story, or maybe simply “read the story as”.  My kids, with whom I watched the film, thought that Anna was imagining everything, a state of schizophrenia or something, but more so, as the story develops that the relationship between Anna and Marnie is a romantic one, of emotional and physical love.  So when the final twist falls, it’s a little hard to reconcile the various readings.

That said, it’s a very affecting film.  The emotions of loss and loneliness and alienation, of love as well, are palpable.  The mysteries and vicissitudes of the story remain open and richly evocative.

Studio Ghibli has been an amazing institution and Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s When Marnie Was There is another remarkable film to add to their legacy.

Tampopo (1985)

Tampopo (1985) movie poster

director Juzo Itami
viewed: 11/26/2016

Despite a few decent-looking new movies out there, I took my kids to see Juzo Itami’s terrific comedy Tampopo which is out in a re-release at the moment.  I’d originally seen it in the early 1990’s along with Itami’s A Taxing Woman (1987)  and A Taxing Woman’s Return (1988), introduced to them by my girlfriend of the time, a third generation Japanese-American.

I also quite remember Itami’s death in 1997, falling from the top of his office building in a suicide that even back then was suspected as a yakuza killing rather than suicide.  Tampopo doesn’t really rattle the cages of the yakuza, though other films of his had.

I think it’s fair to say that Tampopo is a classic, a playful paean to food and sex and cinema.  The main story concerns a ramen restaurant run by a lady named Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto) who doesn’t do a very good job of it.  In walks Gorō  (Tsutomu Yamazaki), a truck driver with a particular passion for ramen, who, with the help of a group of other aficionados teaches her to turn her place into a top-notch shop.  Intermittently, throughout a number of comical vignettes play out on topics of food and sensual pleasures.

Itami’s playfulness is very much on the form of cinema and genres as well, breaking the “fourth wall” in the opening scene and breaking the narrative throughout with other cinematic allusions, all in fun.

My kids both liked it, but were still so into Dead Man (1995), which we had watched the night before, that they were a little subdued on it.

Battle Girl: The Living Dead in Tokyo Bay (1991)

Battle Girl: The Living Dead in Tokyo Bay (1991) DVD cover

director Kazuo Komizu
viewed: 11/14/2016

Cutie Suzuki, a Japanese professional wrestler at the time, stars in Battle Girl: The Living Dead in Tokyo Bay, a low-budget zombie flick from the earlier 1990’s.  Kazuo Komizu, whose Entrails of a Virgin (1986) and Entrails of a Beautiful Woman (1986) were pinku weirdness, directs Suzuki here in a movie that offers a lot more narrative complexity than you might expect.

It starts with a meteor headed for Tokyo Bay which triggers the zombie apocalypse and a radical military response, a fog cloud containing the greater Tokyo area, and sets the stage for Suzuki to don one of the most ill-fitting action suits ever made to fight the big punkish butch henchladies (who I assume were also culled from Japanese pro wrestling).

On the plus side, this emanates from the earliest of the 1990’s and so features low-fi special effects and not one pixel tweaked.  There is also a battle squad of young people who sell arms to the highest bidder who take up with Battle Girl, especially once they realize how much ass she kicks.  And when she flips down her eyeglass shield.  I laughed almost every time.

On the not so plus side, it’s not quite as horrendously spectacular as you might wish.  It doesn’t push the envelope with sex nor violence, though it has a modicum of the latter.  It might be accused of being almost boring, even with a running time well below 90 minutes.

I could definitely see how this could float somebody’s boat.  Mine only somewhat.