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Monday, June 17, 2013

Nippon Reviews: Thermae Romae

Thermae Romae:  Written by Shogo Muto, directed by Hideki Takeuchi.  Starring: Hiroshi Abe, Aya Ueto, Masahika Ishimura, and Kazuki Kitamura.  Running Time: 108 minutes.  Based on the manga by Mari Yamazaki. 

Rating:  2.5/4 Stars

                Hiroshi Abe is a Roman architect, specializing in bathhouses, crucial social gathering places in ancient Rome.  However, he feels outstripped by the new, more garish designs gaining popularity.  This, he fears, is ruining Romans' traditional reverence for bathing and the myriad ways it can both cleanse and heal.  On top of that, his wife is dissatisfied with him (and eventually leaves him), and the person he loves and respects more than any other, the Emperor Hadrianus, is slowly being weighed down by a frustrating war on the border and concerns over who his successor will be. 

                While visiting a competitor’s bath to think up a plan, Hiroshi finds himself sucked into a crack at the bottom of the bath.  Said crack is apparently a leftover rift in the space-time continuum from Doctor Who, as he suddenly finds himself in a bathhouse in modern-day Japan.  Obviously, he doesn’t realize this at first, and believes that he is simply in the bathhouse of a provincial ethnic group being used as servants (his references to the modern-day Japanese as “slaves” and “The Flat-Faced Clan” are a running gag throughout the entirety of the film).  However, as an experienced cultural architect, he quickly realizes he’s in a land far more advanced than Rome, as well as one with far more reverence for bathing, which often leaves him despondent and depressed. 

                He pushes his worries aside, however, and uses his skills as an engineer to replicate what he sees in Japan upon his return to Rome- over a series of trips to and from Japan (through ever-more inventive means of tossing him into water), he figures out how to replicate bubbles, clothing baskets, wash buckets, hoses, private bathtubs, toilets, and even mini-aquariums, all of which cause his popularity in Rome to skyrocket.  However, things get complicated when a young Japanese woman (Aya Ueto), whom he keeps running into when he travels to the 21st century, accidentally gets sucked back to Rome with him, along with a gang of old men who apparently spend all of their time bathing at the hotel owned by Aya’s family.  Hiroshi and his time-traveling friends must figure out together how to stop Hadrianus’ womanizing son from succeeding the throne, how to revitalize the soldiers losing the war on the front, and how to get Aya and her friends back home, while still making it back in time for supper. 

                This is a fun movie.  The fish-out-of-water scenarios in the first two parts of the film are very well-done- Hiroshi’s stoic, un-ironic seriousness in the face of modern-day technology gets a lot of laughs (his best reaction might be his discovery of a toilet’s butt-washing device- no, I’m not kidding, that exists).  He does a fine acting job here, and the gaggle of old “real” Japanese are a lot of fun (the other Roman characters never left an impression on me).  The time-travel mechanism remains blissfully unexplained- this is not sci-fi, so any attempt to rationalize Hiroshi’s journeys would simply bog down a story that’s too flimsy to handle such scrutiny.  Suffice it to say that I wouldn’t be surprised if Hiroshi’s character went on to develop a severe case of aquaphobia.  The subplots that revolve around ancient Rome as a setting are cute, and move the story along well enough, but they ultimately serve little purpose other than to say to the audience, “Look!  Romans and Japanese!  They both really, really like taking baths!” 

                It’s possible that Thermae Romae is a film that would be funniest to either Japanese people themselves or to people intimately familiar with Japanese society, but although my knowledge of Japanese culture is relatively limited, I got all the bathing jokes and laughed plenty.  It never reaches the subtle, witty brilliance of Key of Life, but there’s some great bits of comedy here (my favorites are the shots of a European tenor belting out an aria during the time-travel sequences).  The film tries a bit too hard to be seriously “about” something towards the end, which feels a bit too disconnected from the tone in the first two-thirds of the film, but it does keep up the good humor long enough that it doesn’t really matter.  Not a must-see by any stretch, but if you do get the chance to watch it, you won’t leave unhappy. 

-Noah Franc 

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Nippon Reviews: Asura

Asura:  Written by Ikuko Takahashi, directed by Keiichi Sato.  Starring: Masako Nozawa, Kinya Kitaoji, Megumi Hayashibara, Tessho Genda, Hiraoki Hirata.  Running Time: 75 minutes.  Based on the manga by George Akiyama. 

Rating:  4/4 Stars

                It’s 15th-century Japan, and the countryside is ravaged by civil war, drought, and famine.  In the midst of this hell, a lone woman, her village destroyed and her family most probably dead, gives birth to a boy in a desecrated temple.  From literally the very first seconds of his life, the mother must use brutal force to protect the life of her child.  That is, however, until hunger overwhelms her, and in a moment of insanity, she attempts to eat her own son to survive.  Realizing what she’s about to do, however, she runs off in horror, leaving the child alone and abandoned. 

                The movie then cuts to an unknown number of years later.  The abandoned child is now a wandering barbarian, incapable of speech, killing and eating every form of life he encounters, be it animal or human.  He tries to change his ways, however, after being subdued by a powerful monk.  The monk feeds the child, teaches him a Buddhist mantra, and gives him a name- Asura (pronounced “Ashura”), roughly translated as “Demon God.”  Although still prone to violence and murderous rage, Asura tries to learn to tame his violent instincts, especially after his life is saved by Wasaka, a beautiful and sweet girl from a nearby village ruled over by a vengeful lord.  Obviously, overcoming instinct is no easy feat, and Asura is soon forced to confront the terrible nature of his earlier behavior. 

                I was unsure what to think of Asura right after I saw it, but for some reason, this film has stuck with me in a way few others manage to do.  It is a graphic, bloody, brutal, and dark movie, but so are a thousand others.  What makes Asura different?  I suppose one reason is its distinct visual style- it is a hybrid animation film, a new style developed by Toei Animation.  The backgrounds are watercolor, but the characters themselves are rendered in 3D, and the result is something truly astounding to look at.  There is also an excellent use of light and shadows.  This is a land that can be green and blue, but at a moment’s notice it can switch to black, gray, or bloody red.  Sunlight can be peaceful and life-giving, but also brutally harsh and revealing.  Several shots use shadows brilliantly, revealing a lone, broken figure clawing its way across a barren land. 

                The rawness of the animation matches the rawness of its story and characters.  This is a harsh country full of harsh people, living in harsh times.  Some of this is explained in monologues by the monk who saves Asura (and who also provides the opening and closing narration), but most of it, thankfully, is shown- in one scene, the monk comes across a village devastated by flood.  There is no dialogue, and I recall no music, simply a shot of the monk putting his hands together in grieved prayer.  The desperation of their circumstances provokes brutal violence by many of the characters, not just Asura, although his crimes are clearly seen as the worst- it is established early on that he has committed both cannibalism and vampirism (of the real-world variety).  It is these acts for which he must pay the ultimate price, and I’m not talking about death. 

                Asura is a hard film to watch, but it is one of the best movies I have seen thus far this year.  Its animation is high-quality, but I cannot call it a “beautiful” movie, at least not in the sense that a Ghibli movie is beautiful.  It challenges, and sometimes depresses, but despite that, despite the cynicism that one might be tempted to draw from the depravity depicted on-screen, Asura still manages to end on a note of qualified optimism.  Terrible crimes have been committed, and lives have been destroyed, but as the monk quietly observes- “Although we all bear our own sins, we shall always carry on.  And this makes life beautiful."  

-Noah Franc 

Friday, June 14, 2013

Nippon Reviews: Key of Life

Key of Life:  Written and directed by Kenji Uchida.  Starring:  Masato Sakai, Teruyuki Kagawa, Ryoko Hirosue, Yoshiyoshi Arakawa.  Running Time:  128 minutes. 

Rating:  4/4 Stars

                Sometimes, I despair about the state of comedy in film.  Sometimes, the franchises of series like Scary Movie, or The Hangover (which I still can’t believe is a trilogy), loom so large over comedic films that it’s no longer possible to even come up with great comedy, let alone write it, present it, and get the green light to make it.  Sometimes, just hearing that a film is billing itself as a “comedy” makes me cringe. 

                Then, I see a movie like Key of Life.  Then, I am reminded that yes, there are STILL great comedic films to be made.  I am reminded that being genuinely funny doesn’t require swearing, boob/penis humor, or “shocking” graphic content.  I am reminded that comedic characters can be as wacky, quirky, or strange as can be, and yet still feel like real people.  I am reminded that a movie can be roll-on-the-ground funny and still have the skill to bring real emotional depth into play when it has to.  I am reminded just how much fun a movie can be when it never stops having fun with itself. 

                Sakurai is an out-of-work actor, seriously contemplating suicide.  After one failed attempt, he tries to revise his spirits by going to a nearby bathhouse, which an elite hit man fresh from his latest “job” happens to be frequenting as well.  Through a series of accidents, the hit man slips on Sakurai’s soap and hits his head (in hilariously over-the-top fashion), giving him a severe case of amnesia.  Seeing this as his chance to alter his fortunes, Sakurai takes the man’s identity (by quietly changing his own locker key/ID with the man), and uses the hoard of cash he finds in the man’s car and apartment to start paying off the personal debts that had been weighing on him.  However, he soon realizes the extent of his mistake when the man’s Yakuza contacts suddenly appear and order him to do another hit. 

                Meanwhile, the hit man (whose “name,” we learn, is Kondo) wakes up in the hospital bed, believing that he is Sakurai, and slowly attempts to regain his memory in ways that are sometimes hilarious, and sometimes rather heartbreaking.  His efforts are aided by the editor of a local magazine, a woman in her mid-30’s desperately searching for a husband so she can meet her wedding deadline- when asked who her fiancĂ© is by her colleagues, she responds, “I don’t know.  But I’ve scheduled two months to find the right candidate.”  Sakurai (the real one) tracks down Kondo (the real one) as well, feeling both increasingly remorseful for his subterfuge and increasingly terrified that the Yakuza will find out who he really is and kill him. 

                That sounds like a classically absurd identity-swap setup, and that’s because it is.  Thankfully, the writing is consistently hilarious enough that it doesn’t matter how often you’ve seen this sort of film, or how quickly you call the ending- I don’t think I went more than 3-4 minutes at a stretch without laughing out loud, and during the movie’s best scenes, I was howling about every 15 seconds.  Scions of Shakespeare can tell you that there’s nothing wrong with using a standard setup as long as you do it well, and bring something of your own to the table.  The biggest strength of the movie is how much you find yourself caring about its oddball crew of characters- without his memory, the rough-and-tough hit man is pretty much a big teddy bear, and despite how hapless he is, you do understand Sakurai’s despair. 

                Key of Life, like nearly all movies, is by no means perfect- I kept expecting it to spin into an In Bruges-esque black comedy, but aside from a few faints in that direction in the first act, the movies stays quite strictly within the bounds of a thematically-gentle screwball comedy.  It also slows down towards the end more than I would have liked (although it parlays that with an absolutely perfect final shot).  There’s a vague subplot about a possible connection between Sakurai and the fiancĂ© of one of Kondo’s past hits, but it never really goes anywhere (at least not to my satisfaction).  However, as I have said before, it is not perfection that makes a film deserving of four stars- it’s how much of a genuinely satisfying experience watching the film provides, and Key of Life was the most satisfying movie experience I had at Nippon.  With the possible exception of Asura, but we’ll get to that in my next review. 

-Noah Franc 

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Nippon Reviews: The Life Of Budori Gusuko

The Life of Budori Gusuko:  Written and directed by Gisaburo Sugii.  Starring:  Shun Oguri, Shiori Kutsuna, Akira Emoto, Kuranosuke Sasaki, Tamiyo Kusakari.  Running Time:  108 minutes.  Based on a novel by Kenji Miyazawa.   

Rating: 3/4 Stars

                Budori Gusuko lives in a world of cats.  I don’t mean that there are humans, who are dominated by cats, I mean that cats are the people themselves.  They walk on their hind legs and use their front paws as hands, but aside from that, they look like perfectly normal cats.  He and his family live in the woods on a mountainside, where the father is a popular lumberjack.  The land is rich and fertile, and although their life is simple, they lack for nothing.  Until the cold comes, that is- a combination of freezing, snowy  winters and too-short summers prevent anything from growing for a long time, until, in the midst of a desperately bitter snowstorm, Budori loses his entire family- the father wanders off, the mother goes missing searching for him, and his little sister vanishes shortly afterward. 

                As a result, when the winter finally ends, Budori lacks any reason to stay in the mountain, and he begins traveling and searching the world for a purpose in his life.  This leads to a series of adventures where he meets an assortment of oddball characters- a red-bearded cat who is way too cheerful about how terrible his business skills are, a zany professor in a top-hat who gives what is either the stupidest or the most accurate breakdown of the study of history ever uttered, and a tall, demonically wide-eyed cat in a swirling, dark cloak, who may or may not be Death himself. 

                The animation is one of the primary strengths of the film- it’s a more traditional hand drawn style with watercolor backgrounds (although there was some CGI thrown in at times).  We start in a peaceful, idyllic forest, and finish in a massive, futuristic city filled with enough flying machines to make Miyazaki green with envy.  Each new setting is detailed, and interesting, the flying machines are quite memorable, and the designs of the cats-as-people look surprisingly natural.  Despite the vast difference in the settings of the story, every location feels like an organic part of the same world. 

                The overall plot of Budori, much like the animation style, is very episodic- the audience simply follows Budori himself through the major events of his life.  His presence is more or less the only connecting thread between the three major sections of the film, with previous experiences rarely, if ever, mentioned.  I was flummoxed by this at first, but then I reminded myself that two of my favorite films of all time are 2001 and Waking Life , both of which utterly defy traditional narrative interpretation, so I can hardly criticize Budori for splitting up the narrative like a TV show.  Where the film definitely delves into the realm of the bewildering, however, is in the cracks between the major story arcs.  Between each part of Budori’s journey (and sometimes during one), he falls asleep and (seemingly without cause) begins to have fantasies that should make acid-trippers feel quite at home.  These fantasies themselves bear no clear connection to the “real-life” experiences in the rest of the movie, so the purpose they are supposed to serve is very much up to individual interpretation.  They are at least intriguing to try and pick apart, and they also feature the appearance of the wonderfully designed Cat That May Signify Death mentioned above. 

                What ultimately does hurt the film is Budori himself, who very much comes across as an empty vessel for most of the film.  I’ve racked my brain for several days, but I still can’t recall a single expression crossing his face other than a very faint smile.  And that’s not something I can pin on the animation, because the other characters are plenty expressive- part of what makes the aforementioned bearded cat so much fun is the idiotic grin that never leaves his face.  The voice actor is also rather underwhelming, barely emoting more than Budori’s face does.  It’s not a deal-breaker, and it doesn’t make him a weak character, but it does limit the extent to which the audience can really identify with him. 

                Both Budori’s personality and actions in the movie as a whole made a lot more sense to me after I shoehorned the whole film into my own highly-probably interpretation; I posit that the loss of Budori’s family has left him with a severe case of PTSD.  The repression of his guilt, as a result, leads to both the bizarre fantasies and the decisions he ultimately makes about his life.  Is that what Sugii intended?  I highly doubt it, but it certainly made the film a lot more interested for me.  I don’t know if or when this film will get a release in the States, but I definitely recommend this film for its sheer strangeness- I suspect this movie could be another one that people either love or hate, but it will get you thinking regardless. 

-Noah Franc 

Monday, June 10, 2013

My Weekend at Nippon

          It was an immense pleasure to spend most of this past weekend at Nippon Connection, a Japanese film festival held annually in Frankfurt am Main.  Since its inception in 2000, Nippon Connection has grown into a major cross-cultural event in the heart of Germany, now drawing as many as 16,000 people a year.  Each festival is a six-day smorgasbord of cultural events and activities, centered around the German (and sometimes world) premieres of a wide swath of Japanese films, ranging from the light-hearted and whimsical to the dark and depressing. 

            In previous years, the festival was held primarily at Bockenheimer Campus, but this year the festival moved for the first time to a series of buildings in the northeastern sector of Frankfurt, with its base of operations in the Mousonturm, near Merianplatz.  This year featured 21 live-action features and 8 animated works, along with assorted other short films, documentaries, tributes, and mini-series.  Cultural events included a karaoke night, questionnaires with featured filmmakers, a manga-drawing class, a cooking class, a kimono class, a swordsmanship class, and a Zen meditation workshop.  Sadly, that last one was the only event my work schedule (and wallet) allowed me to take part in. These cinematic and cultural experiences are loosely divided into four categories; Nippon Cinema (for traditional movies filmed on celluloid), Nippon Visions (for films produced digitally), Nippon Culture (for the cultural activities), and Nippon Kids (various activities and movies specifically for the children in attendance).  

            Nippon provides the sort of multilingual, international experience that I absolutely love seeing- German natives, local Japanese expats, and visitors/guests from all over the world conversed interchangeably in German, Japanese, and English.  The various programs, ads, and flyers were also trilingual.  Movies were screened primarily in the original Japanese with English subtitles, and were also introduced by the organizers in English.  The biggest hubbub, as stated above, was in the Mousonturm- stands sold assorted Japanese drinks and foods (my favorite dish was Onigiri, rice-balls stuffed with various meats), along with merchandise from major manga and film franchises.  Little Japanese hand-fans were freely available.  Tables sold the shirts, DVDs, soundtracks, and other souvenirs that help make Nippon a possibility.  The second floor of the building featured a massive WiiU gamer’s corner (which I did not have the chance to try out, sad to say). 

            Special mention must be made of staff at Nippon Connection, who all volunteer their time freely to help organize and run the week-long event.  Their friendliness and their dedication to making the festival function added immeasurably to the memorable atmosphere.   

            In addition to providing a wonderful experience overall, Nippon also lets those who attend the screenings rate the films eligible for one of the top prizes of the festival- the Nippon Connection Award for the most popular film within the Nippon Cinema category.  The NCA this year was awarded to Key of Life, which, for reasons I will delve into in my full review of the movie, is currently my new favorite film of 2013.  Another prize, the Nippon Visions Award (presented by a jury), was awarded to Ian Thomas Ash, an American resident of Japan, for his documentary feature A2, about the aftereffects of the Fukushima meltdown.  Winners of this award receive receive free English subtitles for their next film.  The third award, the VGF Nippon in Motion Award (financed by VGF, Frankfurt's main transportation company), was presented to Michael Herber and Liwen Shen for their 12-second short.    

            I was personally able to view four of the films presented at the festival- The Life of Budori Gusuko, Key of Life, Asura (pronounced “Ashura”), and Thermae Romae, movies about as far apart on the spectrum of theme, mood, and content as it gets.  Since all of the films were quite interesting, and some of them absolutely fantastic, I have dispensed with my initial plan to just write mini-reviews for them and will instead give them each the full-length reviews they deserve.  Stay tuned. 

-Noah Franc