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Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Nippon Reviews: Shiranai, Futari (Their Distance)

Their Distance (Shiranai, Futari): Written and directed by Rikiya Imaizumi.  Starring: REN, Fumiko Aoyagi, Hanae Kan, Minhyun, JR.  Running Time: 109 minutes. 

Rating: 3/4

            One of the problems I tend to have with rom-coms is that the characters never come across as more than just figures on a flat screen- the writing and acting never seems to be realistic enough that I can actually buy any of the relationship drama it depicts as being things that happen to real people.  Their Distance, thankfully, is a great counterexample of how to do this sort of film well- it’s enjoyably cute, and appropriately gooey-happy in the resolution of its conflicts, but makes sure its character always come across as genuine human beings. 

            Leon is a Korean-Japanese working in a tiny, hole-in-the-wall shoe shop, and he’s apparently more than happy to keep things that way.  He’s also a bit clueless, as he doesn’t seem to realize just how hard his coworker Kokaze is crushing on him.  His detachment from daily life and other people seems to be a new thing- details are vague at first, but we learn he was involved in an accident that paralyzed someone, and has been carrying around the guilt ever since. 

            He’s finally shaken from his existential reverie when he walks to his usual park bench for lunch, and finds a strange girl (also apparently Korean) sleeping on it.  She wakes and stumbles away, clearly hungover, but he is smitten with her (and, as we soon learn, she with him).  He doesn’t know how he will find her again, until another Korean guy comes into the store asking to have a pair of heels repaired.  Lo and behold, it’s the same heels the mysterious girl was wearing. 

            This is the point where we jump into the other circle of characters, a group of close friends consisting of Park Bench Girl, the friend who dropped her shoes off, and her longtime boyfriend (also Korean).  Her boyfriend shocked her just the night before with the news that he’s fallen in love with his Japanese teacher, a young woman who, would you believe it, is the longtime girlfriend of the man injured in the accident Leon was involved in some years ago.  She’s angry, hurt, and dismissive at first, but soon begins to sympathize with her boyfriend when she realizes she, too, has fallen head over heels for someone she barely knows.  And from there we are off to the romantic races, as the web of possible relationship outcomes multiplies over the course of the second act. 

            As twisted up as some of the potential relationship threads get, what really makes the movie stand out is its excellent use of a clever time skip- we see things from Leon’s perspective for about a week, seeing how he heads out each night to the address left with the shoes, and how he is followed with equal diligence by Kokaze.  At first, though, it gets more fragmented as the days go by, and at a seemingly random point, he suddenly stops going to the house at night, and simply heads home like he used to.  This seems a bit strange at first, but its time well-taken for setup; it’s immensely satisfying when we finally jump back in time to the beginning, and slowly have all the gaps in the story filled in piecemeal.  It’s a small cinematic trick, but done remarkably well. 

            The key for this movie, though, is how sweetly genuine the actors are.  There are two major “breakup” scenes, mostly done with long takes and few cuts, and they feel powerfully real.  I know these people.  I’ve had these conversations.  And for a people-driven story, that is essential.  The growth everyone goes through as a result is small but noticeable, and even if much of the status quo is preserved by the end, it’s at least embraced with greater warmth, certainty, and self-confidence that before.  And that is indeed worth a great deal. 

-Noah Franc 

Nippon Reviews: Harmony

Harmony: Written by Koji Yamamoto, directed by Takashi Nakamura and Michael Arias.  Starring: Miyuki Sawashiro, Reina Ueda, Aya Suzaki, Yoshiko Sakakibara.  Running Time: 120 minutes.  Based on the novel by Project Itoh. 

Rating: 2/4

**a minor spoiler warning, since I need to discuss at least one of the plot twists in detail to offer any depth here**

            Harmony is the sort of big-concept, animated sci-fi story that I usually love.  Plus, the fact that it’s an original concept in an era of increasingly slavish devotion to endlessly rehashing old brands in the name of financial security makes films like this even more crucial to the artistic health of the world of cinema.  And yet, while there is a lot in the designs and visual style of the film to praise, it sadly falls just a bit too short of doing justice to its lofty concept. 

            Our setting is a world where super-advanced medical technology has created a particularly extreme 99%-vs.-1% divide- those who can afford it live in bizarrely over-designed super-cities (Tokyo is now sickeningly pink), where the spread of a philosophy called Lifeism has led to a society where you actually have no choice but to be physically healthy.  Special contact lenses apparently connected to the internet flash automatic warnings and recommendations on how to avoid potentially-harmful dangers, or even if the food you are about to eat is a bit too fatty (the lenses lend themselves to a particularly dark- but effective- piece of black humor later on). 

            Toan grew up in this world, but as a child she was taken under the wing of a young girl named Miache, who instinctively realized how stifling Lifeism could get.  She, Toan, and a third girl in their group hatched a plan to shock the system by committing suicide together, but the third lost her nerves and told her parents, which lead to Toan being rescued at the last minute.  Miache, it seems, was reached too late, and so she was apparently the only one to die. 

            Since then, Toan has risen to join the ranks of the Helix Inspectors, a seemingly independent, quasi-military group allied with the WHO to enforce trade treaties regarding medical equipmen,t and to also work to spread Lifeism philosophy.  She’s developed a bit of a rogue streak, trading her own med supplies for alcohol and other delights, and as a result gets called back to Tokyo for a chewing out when, seemingly by coincidence, global tragedy begins; thousands of people in the sanctum-esque inner cities, many of them using the latest in medical technology (including those contact lenses), commit mass-suicide in a myriad of brutal ways.  It’s soon announced that this was an attack perpetrated by a fringe group that had developed a “code” (don’t ask how it’s supposed to work) that can take over people’s minds, seeking to overturn the staid order imposed by Lifeists and return people to a more instinctive, “natural” state. 

            This is where the first twist comes in, and this is the one I need to spoil to explain why I knocked this movie in its rating as much as I did, so final warning.  Okay?  Okay. 

            Turns out Miache isn’t dead; after she tried killing herself, she was whisked away to far-off Baghdad for experimentation, where she came into contact with the fringe group developing the aforementioned code, and has since apparently taken over the group and is driving the spate of terror attack/suicides.  Toan discovers this shortly after she’s reinstated to help investigate the incidents, which immediately lends a more tragic and personal edge to her search. 

            It’s in this second half that the movie starts to trip over itself, after a pretty solid first half, but the twist of Miache being alive isn’t the reason.  The real reason is that she just isn’t a very interesting character once we start to get to know her.  She only speaks in grand philosophical preacher terms about what human life should really be like, and how Lifeist society “kills with kindness.”  She also gets a pointedly tragic backstory later on that is entirely unnecessary, and actually weakens any residual interest I had in her as a person. 

            To be fair though, Miache isn’t the only character suffering from Exposition Fairy bites.  A lot of the broader messages and social commentaries that the film tries to engage in are hammered in way too bluntly; nearly all the dialogue consists of explanatory speeches.  It’s a shame, because there are some great questions put forth in the movie that would otherwise make it a great think piece, if only it could get out of its own way. 

            Toan does at least get some good pathos for her character; there’s something refreshing in how openly she admits that she doesn’t really care at all about saving the world or about any one philosophy over the other- she just wants personal answers about what happened to her friend, nothing more.  The scene where she admits this ended up being way more intriguing for me than any of the other, admittedly flashy, shots showing off the impressive designs of the world.  If we’d had a few more moments like that, this could have become a cult classic.  As it is, it’s an intriguing and well-animated action piece, but ultimately one that doesn’t push the boundaries of thought as much as it wished it did. 

-Noah Franc 

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Nippon Reviews: Dear Deer

Dear Deer: Written by Noriaki Sugihara, directed by Takeo Kikuchi.  Starring: Yuri Nakamura, Yoichiro Saito, Koji Kiryu, Shota Sometani, and Rinko Kikuchi.  Running Time: 107 minutes. 

Rating: 3/4

            The growth of industrialization and globalization will, I suspect, continue to give us ample opportunities to explore stories like that in Dear Deer, a well-made balancing act between a concentrated family drama and a view of a small country town struggling to overcome increasingly difficult economic straits. 

            Our focus is on three siblings, reuniting in their hometown for the first time in years to visit their sick father, who’s not expected to live long.  Akiko, the youngest, left for Tokyo years ago to marry an older man.  Their marriage is now on the rocks, and she desperately wants a divorce (but he doesn’t- this becomes important later on).  The younger brother, Yoshio, has been in and out of psychological care, although he insists he’s been getting better lately.  Fujio, the oldest, was the only one who stayed, following in their father’s footsteps and trying to keep the family machining shop solvent, definitely turning away the incessant requests of a real estate dealer to sell the factory.  As a result, he’s become a bit of a rallying point for the town elders who want to push back against the planned development of a shopping center, which its proponents bill as the only way to bring prosperity back to the town. 

            It doesn’t take long to see how strained their familiar relationship is with each other, or with their father (he was apparently pretty abusive when they were younger), but their angst doesn’t end there.  We learn in the beginning that they created a stir as young children when they believed they had captured a photograph of a local type of deer long thought to be extinct.  At first, they were praised as town heroes, with many thinking this would revive tourism to the area.  But it seems that deer was never seen again, and eventually everyone assumed the kids had simply made it up, and started teasing them for it. 

            Whether or not this was the beginning of the various mental and emotional issues the family has depends on whom you ask- Akiko and Yoshio go back and forth blaming their dad, each other, their classmates from their schoolyears, and the mystical deer itself for their problems.  Fujio just wants everyone to be pleasant with each other and for them to enjoy being together as a family, and boy oh boy, how quickly he is disappointed. 

            There are other individuals in play as well- the persistent real estate man is an old flame of Akiko’s, and even though he’s married to one of their classmates, they soon strike up an affair that he, at least, takes seriously.  Yoshio inadvertently kills a dog early in the film, and later learns to his horror that it belonged to his lone schoolfriend from way back when, who also never left town.  Fujio has been trying to expand his business by working with the head of the town’s temple, but soon starts to suspect he’s being ripped off. 

            It does take a bit for Dear Deer to get going, but when the pins finally start to fall in the third act, the results are truly explosive.  All the pent-up anger, bitterness, jealousy, and impotent rage that’s been building up the whole time bursts out into the open during the father’s funeral service, and in a single take set to the beating of a Shinto drum we see any remaining dignity and maturity fall all to pieces. 

            It is a spectacular moment, justifying every second spent leading up to it.  That Akiko and Yoshio and their old school “friends” were stretched ready to burst is obvious almost from the moment we meet them, but the real surprise is Fujio.  It’s clear he wants to be the mature one, the one in control, the “real adult” in the room, so it’s all the more impossible to turn away when he, too, cracks, proving that old maxim that no apple falls very far from its tree. 

            Dear Deer might be small in its ambitions and scopes, but it knows how to play its cards when the time is right, making it poignant in the right spots and hilariously off-the-wall nutty in others.  If only every family drama could that this kind of crass confidence in itself. 

-Noah Franc 

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Nippon Reviews: Miss Hokusai

Miss Hokusai: Written by Miho Maruo and directed by Keiichi Hara.  Starring: Anne, Yutaka Matsushige, Gaku Hamada, Kengo Kora, and Jun Miho.  Running Time: 90 minutes.  Based on a manga by Hinako Sugiura. 

Rating: 3/4

            Being the animated story of the daughter of an artistic genius in the highly-patriarchal setting of 19th-century Japan, featuring homages to some of the most famous images created by the real Hokusai, it’s films like Miss Hokusai that hit all the right sweet spots to grab my attention and get my butt in a seat.  Adapted from a manga by Hinako Sugiura, the film is less of a focused narrative and more a series of vignettes of art, life, and society of Japan in the last days of the Tokugawa Shogunate. 

            Hokusai himself was a real person, creator of some of the most internationally famous images of Japanese art (think of that famous wave portrait your pretentious roommate hung a poster of in your college dorm), but this movie focuses less on him- he’s already an established legend when the film opens- and more on his daughter Oei, struggling to find her own artistic style and develop her abilities enough to live up to her father’s status as one of the greatest painters in Japan.  She casually boasts in the beginning that they both have neither the time nor the inclination to clean, so they simply move from one apartment to another when things get too dirty.  They have two other constant roommates- Ikeda, himself an aspiring painter, albeit one of far less talent, and a small dog. 

            The movie should definitely be taken as very loose historical fiction (although, from what I’ve gathered, Oei was indeed a real person, and did follow in her father’s footsteps).  Its lack of connective tissue between its component short stories might seem off-putting, but this is partly alleviated by how breathtaking the animation is (and is further proof of my longstanding argument that everything- especially snow- is better animated).  The idea that art is something that lives and breathes, that forms a parallel world that only a truly gifted artist has access to, fills many of the movie’s key moments.  In many segments the painting or drawing in question comes alive, or is so powerful as to infect the dreams and nightmares of people near them.   

            There are some amazing sequences involving moving, living artwork, touching on the mystical and spiritual side of artistic creation, but the real heart and soul of the film is the relationship between Oei and her younger sister.  Apparently blind and sickly since birth, the strain of her disabilities and illness apparently drove Hokusai to leave her alone with her mother.  While no one seems to hold this against him (at least not too much), Oei seems partially determined to offset this by being all the more loving towards her.  She plays with her, eats with her, and takes her out to her favorite bridge to let her get at least some taste of the larger world she can never fully experience.  These parts are infused with a palpable sense of love and care, brimming over with small moments of familial devotion. 

            In fact, the atypical family dynamics at play might be the most fascinating part of the entire film.  Oei smokes, drinks, swears, and fiercely takes her own approach to her art, which in and of itself puts her at odds with the popular image many have of repressed women in the 19th century.  It’s almost breezingly refreshing to see how she and her family defy the norms of nuclear families that have just as long a history in Japan as they do in the West, including the parents living a separation caused by the difficulties of childhood disability. 

            The disjointed nature of much of the film does pull its strengths apart a bit, sadly, partially aggravated by the film’s score.  The music is mostly classical in style, and is indeed what you would expect from this sort of period piece, but in two specific scenes, for no reason I could fathom, it shifts into electric guitar rifts that create a bizarre juxtaposition (to put I mildly).  It’s a weird mixup that doesn’t mesh well with the rest of the film, and unfortunately highlights how many of its parts fail to gel into a cohesive whole, although nearly all are excellent in isolation. 

-Noah Franc 

Monday, June 20, 2016

Nippon Reviews: Haiyu Kameoka Takuji (The Actor)

The Actor (Haiyu Kameoka Takuji): Written and directed by Satoko Yokohama.  Starring: Ken Yasuda, Kumiko Aso, Shohei Uno, Hirofumi Arai, and Shota Sometani.  Running Time: 123 minutes.  Based on the novel of the same name by Akito Inui. 

Rating: 3.5/4

            Few movies I saw at Nippon this year defy conventional approaches quite like The Actor, which seems aggressively content (and I realize that sounds paradoxical- this film has that effect on a viewer) to spin around on itself into seeming oblivion.  Like many of the most interesting films to dissect in a group setting, it is something impossible to pin down.  Is it a love story?  Only at the thin margins.  A commentary on filmmaking?  In bits and pieces, sure.  A dream-like meditation on continued existence?  In some of its best moments, yes.  But to analyze further than that is probably inadvisable. 

            The actor Takuji has become something of a minor legend within filmmaking circles by being the consummate stand-in professional.  He has a particular talent for dropping dead in the most convincing fashion, enough that he’s often called on to demonstrate for recalcitrant leads.  Yet despite the regard many in the business have for him, his lack of major speaking roles to his name means he’s not particularly famous or well-known.  But he never seems terribly bothered by this- he is mostly content to drink (a lot) and do his shoots. 

            Ken Yasuda’s performance in the lead role is a masterful bit of underacting- he carries a seemingly permanent frown etched into his face, and his every word and movement speak to a life spent quietly in the shadows of others.  Ironically, much of his fame derives from a constant side-effect of his boozing- often drunk during shoots, he often ends up forgetting the elaborate directions given him just minutes before and improvises wildly, often to his physical detriment, yet always in ways that the director and crew love. 

            He is constantly told that his acting blurs the lines between art and reality, and this repeated phrase echoes the blurred lines between what’s really happening in the film and the times we slip into his dreams and fantasies; by the halfway point any semblance of narrative structure breaks down, and we seem to be floating freely inside Takuji’s own mind.  References to movies he love will suddenly shift to scenes from the film with him in them, and news items mentioned earlier in the film come back to play a part in the third act (including a bizarre returning gag involving the Lisa Nowak case from almost a decade ago; it’s one of the strangest tie-ins for a joke I’ve ever seen).

            For much of the film I felt forcefully reminded of The Big Lebowski, if it had even less story and what little story it did have made even less sense (if that’s even possible).  There are some whisperings of a redemptive love story for the clunkily lovable Takuji when he meets a sweet bartender in a small country town during a shoot, but that too comes in and out of focus according to the whims of Takuji’s alcohol-addled mind (which I found a shame, because her scenes are among the highlights of the entire movie- her presence would have only benefited it further). 

            This is also a film that could serve as a bit of a case study in the tendency of Japanese cinema to allow for much longer shots and scenes that most Western audiences would be willing to endure, and this will likely make the film unbearable for some.  The film does drag more and more towards the end, sometimes to its detriment, but there are still moments of real magic- a scene where Takuji plays out an audition for his favorite director alongside shadows projected on the wall behind him is simultaneously one of the most powerful and moving parts of the film, and also the vehicle for one of its funniest punchlines. 

            It may seem a bit too esoteric for some, but I enjoyed being carried along by the strange and consistent misadventures of Takuji.  I find him to be a reminder of much of the drudgery and invisibleness that accompanies many lives devoted to art.  But there is still meaning to be found in it, even its rewards are few and far between, or are only ever as simple as a quiet drink at your favorite bar. 

            And the actor always abides.  

-Noah Franc 

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Review: Der Nachtmahr

Der Nachtmahr (2016): Written and directed by Akiz.  Starring: Carolyn Genzkow, Sina Tkotsch, Wilson Gonzalez Ochsenknecht, Arnd Klawitter, Julika Jenkins.  Running Time: 88 minutes. 

Rating: 4/4

            Der Nachtmahr starts off with a warning for anyone who’s epileptic or disturbed by atonal, dissonant music, informing viewers that this movie will feature a lot of bright, flashing lights and loud, dirty-basement-club beats.  This is not an idle threat; it delivers on that assurance within seconds.  As the opening credits state, this is a film that has to be played loud, because a volume setting any lower would remove much of the potent, ambient atmosphere that makes Der Nachtmahr one of the most effective, arresting, and interesting movies of the year.

              Like any self-respecting modern teenager, Tina seems preoccupied with doing anything but preparing for her final exams.  Most of the film is set at night, when she leaves the house to party with her friends until she literally drops (her parents either don’t know about her wanton partying, or don’t care, or tacitly endorse it, and I’m not sure which is worse).  It’s also at night when mysterious choking/vomiting sounds begin emanating from the downstairs kitchen, and after several failed attempts to get her parents to investigate, she discovers the source- a tiny, gray, Gollum-like creature (but much more weak and helpless) raiding the fridge.  Terrified, curious, and paranoid, she tries to reveal the existence of the creature to her friends, parents, and others, only to find that the thing disappears once someone else enters the room.  Or at least, it does most of the time. 

            This is one of those films that brilliantly plays with perspective and perception, constantly throwing the viewer into doubt about what parts of the movie are “real” (if indeed any of them are).  As Tina’s therapist reminds us, the mind remains one of the greatest mysteries in the universe, prone to playing terrible tricks with us.  So who are we to assume we know what’s really going on any more than she does?  Every time you think you’ve nailed down whether or not the creature actually exists, the film throws you for another loop that makes you reassess everything you thought you knew about what was going on. 

            Tina is portrayed flawlessly by relative unknown Carolyn Genzkow, who, despite her wiry, thin frame, packs into it all the anger, fear, vulnerability, resolve, and fragility that allows her to carry this movie on her shoulders.  She is assisted by powerful use of atmospheric lighting; much like last year’s Victoria, the camera team finds ways to give the colored, neon glare of Berlin party houses an almost sentient, alien vibe.  Many scenes are equally elevated by a fist-pumping soundtrack that I’m already shortlisting for consideration in my Year’s Best list. 

            While watching a movie like this groove confidently to its own strange, hypnotic beat is a pleasure all unto itself, the unceasing guessing game about what is really happening to Tina, and whether or not the creature of her nightmares is real or a figment of a broken mind, makes Der Nachtmahr into one of the most fascinating think pieces I’ve seen all year.  I can’t begin to count the number of analogies the story could represent (although my girlfriend and I have our own strong suspicions about what the director is getting at).  The easy way, of course, would be to take everything on-screen at face-value, although down that road lays much aggravation. 

            At first, I almost feared the film jumped the gun when the “creature” in question is fully revealed within the very first act of the movie.  I suppose I had expected a more drawn-out, E.T.-esque mystery (although that classic is heavily referenced).  But these concerns faded when I realized that a straight-up sci-fi adventure was not at all what the movie was getting at.  Rather, it’s a deep, terrifying, psychological dive into many of the unconscious (and unwitting) habits of self-destruction that reside within all of us, and maybe just need the right nudge to be let loose. 

            Der Nachtmahr is ballsy, confusing, challenging, and uncomfortable in all the right ways, and is one of the most unique films of 2016 to date.  I don’t know what sort of international release is planned for this one, but keep your eyes and ears open.  You never know what you’ll find lurking inside your own home.  Or mind. 

-Noah Franc 

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Nippon Reviews: Biri Gyaru (Flying Colors)

Flying Colors (Biri Gyaru): Written by Hiroshi Hashimoto, directed by Nobuhiro Doi.  Starring: Kasumi Arimura, Atsushi Ito, Shuhei Nomura, Tetsushi Tanaka, and Yo Yoshida.  Running Time: 117 minutes.  Based on the book of the same name by Nobutaka Tsubota. 

Rating: 3/4

            Is it ever too late to start again?  Can a dog really be too old to learn new tricks?  Sometimes, it seems a person has fallen so far behind in their life that no amount of effort or willpower can overcome the effects of past mistakes.  And sometimes, a person in such a situation tries anyway to overcome them, in spite of all the odds stacked against them, and remake their future. 

            Based loosely on a true story, Flying Colors, from director Nobuhiro Doi, is the story of Sayaka, a teenager who has spent nearly all of her school life up to now doing little else other than partying, ignoring teachers, and trading makeup and boy tips with her cadre of similarly-unmotivated girlfriends.  There are a lot of reasons why she’s dropped in class as far as she has, the biggest probably being a lack of attention to her studies at home; her father is solely obsessed on turning the only son in the family into a baseball superstar (and to hell with whether he wants to or not), and early on wholly abandoned any involvement in the lives of Sayaka and her younger sister, leaving their overstretched mother to try and make ends meet for the three of them. 

            When her grades truly hit rock bottom, her mother takes her to a cram school, headed by an eccentric young teacher named Tsubota.  Convinced that anyone can succeed in studying with the right approach, he convinces Sayaka that she is smarter, more talented, and more capable than she thinks (and certainly more than her bully of a schoolteacher thinks), and that her mother’s faith in her is well-placed.  Feeling truly inspired for perhaps the first time in her life, she finally buckles down and sets her sights on getting into a program at one of the those prestigious Tokyo universities.  From there, it’s off to the races, as Tsubota confronts one mental obstacle after another in trying to overcome Sayaka’s years of intellectual neglect, and both try to push back against the overwhelmingly loud and insistent voices of those around them that they are on a fool’s errand, and Sayaka will amount to nothing. 

            In the main, this is much like many similar teacher/classroom-style animes or mangas (think Assassination Classroom for a not-too-unapt example); a student comes in with low hopes and expectations, and oddball and eclectic teacher with strange methods believes in them, and through trial and error they forge a new path forward.  It’s cute, and often very funny, and certainly provides some great moments of real pathos for its characters, but ultimately we’ve been here before, and there aren’t a lot of surprises in store for engaged viewers. 

            If there is one thing that drags the film as a whole back, it’s the number of “fakeout” climaxes it has.  As I understand it, the Japanese school system has a fairly complex testing system for admissions into universities and individual department programs, with passing grades in several rounds required to gain ultimate admission.  We follow Sayaka through each one of them, which would be fine if not for the fact that every single one of the tests is followed by an extremely drawn-out sequence of her waiting for her results; her sitting nervously in front of her computer; waiting about 5 minutes before clicking on the “get grades” button; a shot of her staring in shock; another of her running/biking/driving somewhere with the same shocked look on her face, neutral enough that you can’t tell if the news is good or bad; her arriving at home or at the teacher’s office; and THEN we get to find out what the test results.  And then on to the next round! 

            This might sound testier than it should, but it’s really the only substantial problem with what is otherwise a solidly enjoyable film, which made it stand out all the more, since it’s the biggest reason the later parts of the film feel a lot slower than the beginning.  As it is, I’m afraid I’m grasping a bit to try and find more to say about the film.  If you like this kind of scrappy-underdog story, then this will provide you with a lot of laughs and maybe even a few tears.  If not, this might not be your new favorite film of the year, but there’s enough meaning and heart in it that giving it a watch would not go amiss. 

-Noah Franc 

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Nippon Reviews: Hana To Alice Satsujin Jiken (The Case of Hana & Alice)

The Case of Hana & Alice (Hana To Alice Satsujin Jiken): Written and directed by Shunji Iwai.  Starring: Yu Aoi, Anne Suzuki, Shoko Aida, Sei Hiraizumi, Ryo Katsuji.  Running Time: 100 minutes. 

Rating: 4/4

            The Case of Hana & Alice, possibly my favorite film from this year’s Nippon Connection, is a bit of an oddity, a late-in-coming animated prequel to a previous live-action work of the director’s called Hana & Alice, which came out in 2004.  That might sound like a strange disparity to balance, but the good news is that Iwai handles his characters well enough that you don’t need to have any familiarity with the first film to enjoy this one to its fullest.  It’s a remarkably magical and relatable coming-of-age tale that made me dearly wish I’d had as devoted a friend as Hana when I was Alice’s age. 

            Alice and her divorced mother have moved from the city to a small town, and are in the midst of trying to start new lives for themselves.  In what starts out as a typical fish-out-of-water, new-kid-in-town tale, Alice struggles to gain friends and acceptance at her school.  Part of this, she learns in a strange encounter with the most popular girl in class, is because she was assigned the desk of a student that died a few years before.  The details she’s told make little to no sense (most assure her it had something to do with the kid’s “four wives”), so Alice takes it upon herself to try and figure out what exactly happened to the boy. 

            This soon leads her to trespass into the house of her reclusive neighbor, Hana, who has apparently been staying home from school as a sort of shut-in.  Hana reveals that she knew the person Alice is researching, and excited by the prospect of adventure, they team up to find out the truth. 

            What makes this fairly straightforward tale so special is how well-crafted its characters are, and how it smoothly avoids falling into any over-simplifications of the people in the story, even less important ones.  There is more than meets the eye with everyone here, even the popular chick; in other films of this ilk, she’d be the bratty, spoiled antagonist, but here, she has a moment of real candor with Alice.  Alice is delightfully adorable, but is also a real kid, and therefore has moments of pettiness, or short-sightedness, or downright silliness.  Although a bit shy at first, she’s endearingly tough, and doesn’t take anyone’s shit.  Early on, one of the boys in her class picks on her when they’re both alone and immediately regrets it, as Alice proceeds to knock him off a fence and beating the living tar out of him. 

            Both she and Hana are expertly voice-acted, and that might be the key as to why it was animated; Iwai used the same actresses to the voice the girls who originally played them, and while they can still make themselves sound the same, they obviously no longer look the same, so animating the film (mostly using rotoscoping techniques) removed that as an issue and allowed him to bring back the same leads.  And it shows, as the two have wonderful chemistry together, and seem perfectly matched in their ability to bring some pretty insane hijinks upon themselves. 

            The film is beautifully animated from start to finish, and accompanied by an enchanting score written by Iwai himself.  It made me miss the years when losing track of time for a day or several was an option, and sparked a desire in me to hop onto the nearest train to wherever, just to see what might happen.  Maybe I’ll have to arrange a time soon to indulge that instinct again.  Age is, after all, more a state of mind than anything else. 

-Noah Franc 

Monday, June 6, 2016

Nippon Reviews: Love & Peace

Love & Peace: Written and directed by Sion Sono.  Starring: Hiroki Hasegawa, Kumiko Aso, Kiyohiko Shibukawa.  Running Time: 117 minutes. 

Rating: 3/4

            Great films make you feel like you’ve journeyed a thousand miles in just a few short hours, and few directors are able to succeed at this like Sion Sono, one of the best genre-mashers working today.  One of his latest films, Love & Peace, is no exception to his tendency to throw everything and anything he can think of into every film of his, starting out as a hapless loser-turns-winner story, and morphing by the end to encompass elements of pop-rock-band films, kaiju flicks, and even Christmas tales. 

            Ryoichi is so patently pathetic at just about everything in life that even big-name newscasters see fit to call him out on national TV.  His coworkers mock him remorselessly, sticking “hazardous waste” signs on his back, and he can’t escape the feeling that even strangers on the train stare at him with open contempt.  There are signs of mutual affection between him and a coworker, a woman named Kumiko, but both are too shy to say anything directly. 

            He starts to find a bit more courage when, on a whim, he buys a small pet turtle as a companion.  Searching for a name, he takes “Pikadon” from a news show he happens to be watching at the time, not realizing that the word is actually a popular nickname for nuclear weapons.  He opens up to the turtle, revealing to him his love for Kumiko and his ultimate dream of getting back into music and becoming a big enough star to play in the new Tokyo Olympic Stadium under construction.  Of course, as soon as his heart starts to rise, he gets smacked back down; his coworkers up the cruelty when they find out he carries around Pikadon in his shirt pocket (it’s really a very small, and adorable, turtle), and the teasing only worsens from there.  In a fit of pained madness, Ryoichi flushes Pikadon down a toilet, and instantly regrets doing so. 

            While the adorability of the turtle makes this scene legitimately painful to watch, never fear- Pikadon survives the trip and finds his way to an underground paradise where abandoned toys and pets gather.  An old homeless drunkard takes care of them, repairing the toys as best he can, and uses his strange magic to breathe life into the toys and allowing them and the animals to talk.  When he tries to give the same power to Pikadon, he inadvertently gives him the power to grant wishes, and Pikadon soon starts using this power to grant Ryoichi’s wishes of stardom, and also begins growing at a prodigious rate. 

            It’s every bit as crazy as it sounds, and just as much fun too.  Sono as a director is many things, but boring is not one of them, and this movie ricochets from each bizarre plot point to the next like it has rockets strapped to its feet.  Few directors would dare try to create an ending exactly 50% Kaiju rampage and 50% magical Christmas fairy tale, and fewer still could make it work, but to the film’s credit there was never a moment where I caught myself thinking, “Nah, this part here doesn’t fit with the rest.” 

            Sadly, unlike some of Sono’s previous masterpieces like Love Exposure, this one can’t quite rise above its pulpy origins into something greater than the sum of its disparate parts.  Ryoichi is never less than fascinating to watch, as Hiroki Hasegawa commits to every tortured twitch of his eyebrows, but his shifts between being comically pathetic and absurdly egotistical often happen at the drop of a pin.  It doesn’t detract from the performance, but it does make it extremely difficult at times to root for him.  The love story he has going on in the background with Kumiko could have been pretty interesting, but she gets very little screen time, and their relationship is often sidetracked completely for long stretches of time. 

            Because of this, despite its manic energy, it’s a less groundbreaking movie than one might expect, but that in no way lessens how enjoyable it is to watch.  It’s cheesy as shit, but not without moments of doubt and melancholy in its characters that serve to remind us that, no matter how perfectly our wishes might be fulfilled one year, there will always be another Christmas next year that could bring it all tumbling down. 

-Noah Franc