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Sunday, June 25, 2017

Reflections: The End of Samurai Jack

**spoiler alert for the final season of Samurai Jack**

            We all have a favorite show from years past that got cancelled or shut down before it reached its natural end, and for each we can never help but wonder what might have been had the creators been allowed to complete their visions.  In some cases, like Firefly, all the speculation is doomed to remain just that.  In other cases, like Arrested Development, years of cultural build-up finally bring about the long-awaited continuation of the story, but the result ends up disappointing or dividing a great number of fans, leading to the obvious question; was it worth it to return to this world, or would it have been better to leave well enough alone? 

            This year, nearly 16 years after its first episode aired, Samurai Jack entered a rare realm of television show that not only was able to come back after a long, long hiatus, but also managed to succeed in concluding the story and vision of the show’s creator in a way that made the wait worth it. 

            The driving core of the samurai’s tale was, of course, his quest to find a way back to the past and defeat Aku, thus preventing the terrible, dystopian future Jack witnesses after being tricked and trapped in a possible future by the master of darkness.  The first smart decision the show made when it came back was to have the resolving season be short, compact, and laser-focused on resolving the central dilemma of the entire franchise; does Jack succeed in defeating Aku and saving the future?  Any final season that didn’t find a good way to answer this would have been a failure, no matter how good everything else ended up being. 

            It was also a rather brave choice to make the setting so much darker and bleaker than any past one; it’s been decades now, there are no more time portals on Earth, and not only has Jack lost his sword, a lifetime of nonstop fighting has worn him down to the point where we find him in the midst of a severe existential crisis, on the verge of falling apart entirely.  The scenes depicting his arguments with himself, the voices he hears, and the stalking ghost encouraging him to just end it all are haunting, easily the best depiction of PTSD to come out of American animation since the fourth season of Legend of Korra.   

            On top of that, while the original seasons were always extremely violent, they could get away with a lot by only having Jack fight machines, which (somewhat) made up for how brutally he dismembered them episode by episode.  This season is far bloodier, literally, with Jack finally facing an army of human assassins that he can only beat by killing them, in one of the most heart-pounding action sequences in the entire show.  Viewers can differ on whether Jack was justified in making this decision, but the show itself doesn’t try to trivialize it or make it seem simpler than it is. 

            The redemption arc of Ashi may divide fans a bit more- her budding with romance with Jack might seem out of place at times- but in a way, given their cold and hard lives, it makes sense than they could only find a partner in someone like the other.  The scene that turns her- the simple sight of ladybugs in the setting sun- is a striking image, as is the concluding image of Jack standing between a blooming cherry tree after being forced to come to terms with the final price of defeating Aku.  It is not an ending that pulls any punches, which this series very much needed. 

            I was not sure, at first, what to think of the use of Aku himself- given the absence of Mako, it was perhaps smarter to use him less often in order to avoid distracting us with the different voice- but he was almost too goofy and comical at times.  I never found that too problematic, though, because it is also a fascinating twist to see such a villainous character after getting effectively all he wants.  He really does rule the world, and for a period of time has no reason to fear the samurai, but he slowly realizes that ruling the entire world and having no one capable of challenging him is….well...boring.  And that’s certainly a take most shows like this wouldn’t bother with. 

            Ultimately, the final season does exactly what it needs to.  It powerfully resolves the tale of the samurai, and although one episode is devoted to revisiting some of the key moments from the past show (including several inspired cameos by the best Scotsman in the world not named Billy Connelly), the season skillfully avoids losing itself in its own nostalgia, making sure we have fresh characters, settings, and stories to focus on.  I never expected us to actually this conclusion, but I am glad we did, and especially glad that it’s one worthy of the show that preceded it and any expectations I could have had going in.  Samurai Jack remains one of the seminal works of American animation, a must-see show for anyone who likes good storytelling.  And now we must move onwards to new pastures.  Goodbye, Jack.  Take care. 

-Noah Franc 

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Nippon Review: Parks

Parks: Written and directed by Natsuki Seta.  Starring: Ai Hasimoto, Mei Nagano, Shota Sometani, Shizuka Ishibashi, Ryu Morioka.  Running Time: 118 minutes. 

Rating: 3/4

            Parks, just the second feature film directed Natsuki Seta, a protégé of Kiyoshi Kurosawa, is the sort of adventurous, experimental film that I wish more directors, young or old, would attempt to make.  It’s a tribute to a 100-year-old park that throws in chapter titles, a mystery, a romance, dream sequences, and (because why not) a massive dance number.  It constantly seeks to bend the rules of storytelling and blurs the line between reality and fantasy in ways that, thankfully, work more often than not, making this film one of the more enjoyably unique experiences I had at Nippon Connection 2017. 

            The core thread of the story is Jun’s efforts to finish her Communication Studies thesis.  Bereft of a topic, her inspiration comes when a strange girl appears at her doorstep, claiming that an old flame of her father’s lived in this same apartment once upon a time.  Intrigued, Jun joins her in her search for the woman’s identity, and soon meets said woman’s grandson (the woman herself has passed away).  Together, they uncover a demo reel of a love song that the girl’s father apparently wrote for this woman when they were still an item, inspired by the park they all live near.  The demo is damaged, though, and they can only hear part of the song, so they decide to put their heads together and try to finish it in time for a special music festival to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the park’s dedication. 

            This is a relentlessly upbeat film, breezy and fun; not even a breakup can get anyone down for very long in this world.  This can come close at times to making the film too unrealistic or insufferable, but the actors are so dedicated that it never crosses that particular line.  The male character, whose name I honestly can’t recall for the life of me, is an aspiring rapper, and his terrible lyrics are a regular annoyance, but thankfully he’s not the focus of the show. 

            What really makes the film hard to pick apart is when it breaks through normal storytelling conventions.  The girl who enters Jun’s life is obsessed with finding out more about her father (her goal is to write a book about him), and soon these figures from the past enter the film as characters in and of themselves that she talks and interacts with.  Is she dreaming?  Hallucinating?  Or is some legit transgression of the laws of physics taking place, allowing her to cross time and dimensions?  Is, perhaps, the entire film simply a figment of her imagination? 

            To the film’s credit, these bizarre tangents jibe well with the tone of the rest of the film, and it never tries to explain any of it.  Any attempt to have all this make sense would inevitably be a let-down from whatever the viewer wishes to dream up, and seriousness is not how these people roll, man. 

            Parks is brought down by, occasionally, being a bit too unhinged for its own good, but though it occasionally comes close, it never falls apart entirely.  It is a compelling and mysterious experience, and even the chances it takes that don’t work are worthy ones.  Natsuki Seta might not have quite stuck the landing this time around, but I am confident that one day, she is going to truly blow our minds. 

-Noah Franc 

Friday, June 16, 2017

Nippon Review: A Silent Voice (Koe No Katachi)

A Silent Voice: Written by Reiko Yoshida, directed by Naoko Yamada.  Starring: Miyu Irino, Saori Hayami, Aoi Yuki, Kensho Ono, and Yuuki Kaneko.  Running Time: 129 minutes.  Based on the manga of the same name by Yoshitoki Oima.   

Rating: 3.5/4

            A Silent Voice is a rare gem of a movie, one that perfectly synchronizes its use of all the tools of filmmaking to explore a stunningly wide range of difficult themes, including bullying, suicide, depression, anxiety, struggles with self-confidence, and the challenges of either living with a disability or interacting with someone with a disability.  Add to this its viscerally real grasp of the confused emotional dynamics of teenage life, and the result one of the year’s best films by far. 

            Adapted from the hit manga by Yoshitoki Oima, the film has two main halves to its story.  The first part focuses on when its main characters are in junior high; the settled environment of a particular class is upended when a deaf girl, Shoko, joins the school.  She soon becomes an easy target for ridicule and bullying, with one boy in particular, Shoya, going the extra mile to make her school days a living hell. 

            Although nearly all of the students are complicit, once things go too far and Shoko’s mother pulls her from the school, the other students single out Shoya as the ringleader, and soon cast him out of their cliques as readily as they denied entry to Shoko.  The stark irony of the bully himself being bullied for being a bully is impossible to miss, and it provides a brutally effective example of how cruelty, and people’s endless ability to deflect their sins onto others, can so easily lead to vicious, self-perpetuating cycles of pain that ultimately harm all involved, not just the initial victims.   

            In the second half, the children are all now teenagers in high school, though they’ve mostly gone their separate ways.  Shoya, whose reputation as a heartless bully preceded him to high school and continued his social alienation, is seriously contemplating suicide when he sees Shoko again by chance, and almost on a whim decides to see if he can somehow make things up to Shoko for his past treatment of her. 

            The core of this film’s greatness starts in how the story never lets itself go the easy, predictable route in tackling its characters’ problem.  It would have been all too easy for this story to be a basic romance/redemption arc, but it commits wholly to going far deeper than that, and reaches greater heights as a result. 

            Similarly, it would been all-too-simple to just have Shoko be a paragon of innocence and virtue, unjustly brutalized by an unfeeling world, but like the children who hurt her, she has her own demons she has to confront.  Both she and Shoya are wonderfully nuanced and shaded characters; I know their pains all too well.  Both feel achingly vulnerable and, above all, real.  I want both of them to somehow get through this crap all right, and that visceral emotional connection to each is priceless. 

            Life with a disability, so often either ignored or inaccurately portrayed in film, is obviously a major, front-and-center theme; the ins and outs of Shoko’s life with deafness and how that affects her family are a big part of the second act.  Yet here, too, the film goes the extra mile.  Its visuals are combined with an inspired sound design to both visually and audibly explore various types of deafness, psychological as well as physical.  The two main characters are almost mirror opposites in this regard.  Shoko is literally deaf, and yet is sharply in tune to other people and their emotional states.  Shoya is physically “normal,” but has been so battered by everything he’s experienced that, by the time he reaches high school, he’s become metaphorically “deaf” to the people around him. 

            This is visually portrayed with a very interesting trick- when we see the world through the eyes of teenage Shoya, nearly every face outside his immediate family is covered with a giant “X” at all times.  It’s as if his mind has already determined there’s nothing to be gained by speaking with, or even looking at, anyone else, so better to just pretend they don’t exist.  The moments when a few new friends are finally able to break through his hardened shell, causing the X to literally peel off their faces and drop to the ground, rank among the most powerful moments of the entire film. 

            It’s actually a bit mind-boggling, trying to grasp all the ways this movie tackles various types of psychological problems; anxiety, anti-socialism, suicidal thoughts, deep depression, and struggling with self-confidence are all handled with such deftness, understanding, and mturity that it’s almost something of a miracle this film exists at all.  The weaving together of both halves of the story, tracing how events twist and circle back around to all those involved, builds up to a masterful, perfect ending, one that delivers a remarkable gut punch of emotion I found hard to contain after watching it. 

            The film can’t wholly shed its literary origins- several characters and minor plot points from the manga were clearly trimmed for time’s sake- but that is a minor quibble with what is otherwise a beautiful work of art that, despite all the tragedy and heartache it contains, nonetheless succeeds in being one of the most empowering and uplifting films I’ve seen in a long time.  A Silent Voice is one of the best movies of 2017, animated or otherwise. 

-Noah Franc    

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Nippon Review: Boys For Sale (Bai-Bai Boys)

Boys For Sale: Directed by Itako, produced by Ian Thomas Ash and Adrian Storey.  Director of Photography- Adrian Storey.  Animation by Jeremy Yamamura.  Music by Kazaguruma.  Running Time: 76 minutes. 

Rating: 4/4

            For all the progress we’ve made in recent decades raising general awareness of marginalized groups around the world, the field of sex work still remains fairly underrepresented and unexamined within cultures at large.  This is especially the case for male sex workers, who often have to deal with their own particular gender-related stereotypes on top of the more general ones associated with selling your body for money. 

            Boys For Sale, a new documentary directed by Itako (his first feature film) and produced by Ian Thomas Ash (previous winner of the Nippon Visions Jury Award and the Nippon Visions Audience Award), directs its attention straight at the heart of these tangled preconceptions surrounding an often-forgotten world.  It is perhaps the first film to delve into a particular subset of Asian gay culture within a particularly conservative country still struggling with the idea of open homosexuality, and is one of the best documentaries to air so far in 2017. 

            Within Shinjuku 2-Chome (yes, there’s a reason the area is called that), considered the gay center of all of Asia, specific bars and locales offer their (male) customers the services of their urisen.  This term applies to young “boys” (the majority are in their late teens or early 20’s) sold off nightly to customers and taken to specially-prepared rooms, where they are then expected to perform whatever sexual acts that particular customer desires.  Officially, prostitution is illegal in Japan, but the laws as they currently exist define sex work as being between a man and a woman.  By ensuring that their clientele are all men, managers of these establishments are able to thread this fine legal loophole without facing any real legal threat.  They further limit their own culpability by insisting that the prices paid for their urisen are only for drinks, dinner, and time spent together, and whatever may happen (or not happen) between the boys and their buyers in the upstairs rooms is none of their business. 

            The finer points of this world- its rules and traditions, how it operates, how these young men are selected and end up in this line of work- are explained to us through a series of interviews with current and former urisen.  They were all given the choice by the director of having their faces and voices shown unaltered and hiding their real names.  Some hid nothing, others wore masks to at least cover their faces and took a codename, and others not only hid their faces, but also asked that their voices be altered as well.  Their respective ages, backgrounds, and views on what they do vary widely, and for the most part the film simply lets their astonishing tales speak for themselves. 

            Sex workers in general have an endless variety of motivations and reasons for getting into prostitution- many choose it willingly and are happy doing it, some are pushed into it through chance, circumstance, or even tragedy, and some are actively tricked and/or enslaved- and urisen are no different, although the “hush-hush” nature of how the industry operates means there is often an extra level of deception in pulling the boys in.  Many admit in their interviews that they had no idea beforehand what was expected of them, or were actively lied to when they first interviewed about what, exactly, they were getting into (one bar manager, interviewed in the film, obviously denies this). 

            Perhaps one of the most fascinating details provided in the film (for me, at least) touches on Japan’s still-considerable discomfort with the very idea of homosexuality, at least compared with Western cultures.  Being openly gay in any setting, even within the world of male prostitution, is still considered so strange or taboo that, while many gay men do work as urisen (and most of their clients are clearly either themselves gay, or at least not entirely straight), it’s still silently frowned upon to work as a urisen and be openly gay; most managers (and clients) expect you to at least pretend that your straight, which opens up a whole other realm of discussion about human sexuality, psychology and behavior that I don’t have nearly enough room to get into here.  Suffice it to say this is one of those films loaded with enough material for hours upon hours of discussion after seeing it. 

            Perhaps the most inspired creative choice in the film was the decision to use drawings to depict what sort of acts the boys do.  The film’s creators decided early on to not even attempt sneaking in cameras to film actual customers with the boys, and this is crucial to the film’s power; the use of drawing allows the movie to delve into frank, graphic detail about everything the boys do in their rooms without running the risk of being voyeuristic or pornographic.  Given the importance of hearing these stories, and all the problems and challenges raising awareness of these people brings, being able to walk this fine line is essential to the film succeeding as well as it does.  Giving critics fodder for accusations of exploitation could have easily derailed the entire project. 

            The film’s music plays an equally remarkable role in enhancing the feel and atmosphere of the movie.  It’s rare enough for a documentary to have its own decent score, and even rarer for it to be as powerful and noticeable as it is.  It’s a dynamic and energetic score that adds a great extra vibe to every scene. 

            Another particularly powerful aspect of the movie is its reminder of how major disasters, both man-made and natural, have a particular ripple-effect in the field of sex work.  One of the interviewed boys openly says that he only ended up as an urisen because he came to the city desperate for work after losing his home in the tsunami/Fukushima catastrophe of 3/11.  If that had never happened, he would never have even considered getting into sex work, and he is certainly far from the only person of his generation with similar reasons for becoming a prostitute. 

            Even after several weeks of thought following the film’s premiere, I find it extremely difficult to quantify my feelings on this topic.  Are these boys slaves?  Victims?  Mere cogs in the machine?  Would better regulations and more government more oversight help?  There are many former urisen working within Shinjuku 2-Chome who lament Japan’s severe lack of general education regarding STDs and safe sex.  Given the dangerous (and potentially deadly) effect this can have within the field of male sex work, many of them work hard to push back against the sort of ignorance that can allow diseases like HIV to spread.  More and more celebrities within Japan are also speaking openly about being gay, and this could, perhaps, prompt a larger cultural shift that will allow these people to be more open about their work and get better government support.  But that, too, is far from a given. 

            Beyond the very important worries about safety and health that viewers should take away from this movie, what should I feel about the boys themselves?  Yes, many of them were tricked or forced into doing this work, don’t like it, and want out, but many are perfectly content to be urisen- they have a community of their own that binds them together, and many of them, even ones that aren’t gay or bi, very much enjoy the work and are happy doing it.  But how do we reconcile that with the obvious and real exploitation that runs rampant within the industry?  And what’s the proper response to this? 

            These are hard questions with no easy or obvious answers to them, and that is precisely what the best documentaries do- strike right at the heart of the thorniest issues in human society, forcing us to grapple with contradictory thoughts and feelings as we try to come to a conclusion about the best path forward.  And feeling such a mixed jumble of feelings and thoughts you have no idea how ro reconcile, however uncomfortable it may be, is one of the clearest signs you've seen a truly great documentary.  Boys For Sale succeeds brilliantly in challenging its viewers to become part of a conversation they may not have even known existed, and it deserves to play a key role our cultural discourse about homosexuality and prostitution.   

-Noah Franc 

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Nippon Review: Love and Goodbye and Hawaii (Koi To Sayonara To Hawaii)

Koi To Sayonara To Hawaii: Written by Shingo Matsumura.  Starring: Aya Ayano, Kentaro Tamura, Momoka Ayukawa, Aoi Kato, Risa Kameda.  Running Time: 94 minutes. 

Rating: 2/4

            It’s not easy to make a romantic comedy that stands out.  There are so many millions of them at this point, and so many of them samey and utterly bland, that I sort of pity every filmmaker setting out to make one.  Love and Goodbye and Hawaii, from director Shingo Matsumura, definitely comes from a place of real, genuine experience with the awkwardness of breaking up with someone, but sadly that authenticity is not nearly enough to salvage the film from excessive length and persistent pacing issues. 

            Rinko and Isamu broke up about 6 months ago, but thanks to sheer inertia they are still living together, still jog together every morning, and are pretty much still in the same daily routines as before.  Isamu is working on his graduate thesis, and Rinko is still toiling away in an office job, though an upcoming trip to Hawaii for a friend’s wedding is a bright spot for her to look forward to. 

            This equilibrium, of course, can’t last for long, and when Isamu starts becoming interested in a fellow student it hits home, hard, for Rinko that she really does need to make some hard choices about where her life will go from here, and with whom she wants to spend it with. 

            As always, this sort of film lives or dies on whether or not its leads can sell themselves as living, breathing people that like each other.  Both main actors here have the requisite good chemistry, coming across as real people I have certainly met before.  And this is certainly a worthy subject for a movie, since it’s the sort of crossroads every person encounters at various points in life, and to its credit the film never tries to jump to any extremes- it just presents these people as they are, which it always preferable to overdramatic theatrics. 

            Good subject matter is, sadly, not nearly enough by half to produce a great movie.  It moves at a steady clip, and is not wholly predictable, but still tends to drag far more than can be forgiven, and is too long by half for its own good.  It’s a film that I can respect, but one that doesn’t reach for anything new and ultimately doesn’t end anywhere I couldn’t have been brought by a better film.  There are some great moments shining through- a Hawaii dancing scene is, in context, hilarious and tragic in equal measures, and is a remarkable emotional highlight.  It’s not the only such moment in the film.  But they are too few and far between, which is a real shame. 

-Noah Franc 

Nippon Review: The Abandoned Land (La Terre Abandonnee)

La Terre Abandonnee: Directed by Gilles Laurent, camera by Laurent Fenart.  Running Time: 73 minutes. 

Rating: 4/4

            One of the most fascinating after-effects of the March 2011 tsunami and nuclear disaster at Fukushima has been the brutally clear glimpses it provides of what can happen when modern human towns are suddenly abandoned; how nature slowly reclaims what belongs to it; what it feels like to walk down streets still plastered with all the accoutrements of modern life, yet utterly devoid of people. 

            The best art is able to confront this dissonance head-on, and The Abandoned Land, the first- and due to his untimely death in an ISIS-inspired attack in Belgium last year, last- film directed by Belgian sound engineer Gilles Laurent, is a considerably powerful example of this.  The shots Laurent presents of places left to rot feel unreal, almost staged, like they are too perfectly apocalyptic.  Except, of course, they aren’t, despite the powerful sense one gets watching this film that you are glimpsing a place lost to the sands of time; they are very much real, and are very much here, right now. 
            Caught within this strange wormhole are a handful of stubborn residents of the town of Tomioka, located right nearby Ground Zero of the Fukushima catastrophe.  For various reasons, these handful of older residents either stayed put after the meltdown, or returned very quickly afterwards.  They now truly live on the very edge of society- the government knows they’re there, but seems unwilling or incapable of forcing them to move, so they are let be, and live pretty much as they can, even growing and eating food out of soil supposed to be too irradiated to be safe for farm use. 

            Mostly seen as a curiosity, they continue their lives even as government decontamination efforts continue around them.  The shots of these people wearing regular clothes, open to the air and sun, alongside radiation workers covered head-to-foot in full-body protective suits almost feels like an endless, silent joke the movie is letting us in on.  The same goes for the shots of sings and awareness campaigns from either the company or the local government about how important the environment and health is to them, as run-down and overgrown as the rest of the abandoned lands they are found in.  It is jarring.  It is dissonant, but also darkly comic (in a very Dr. Strangelove sort of way), and no active commentary is needed. 

            The movie is suffused with themes of dying and passing away as a part of nature; it must happen so that life may move forward and something new may rise from the wreckage of the old.  These forgotten people in these forgotten lands know that the towns and communities of their past lives are gone forever, and that things can never return to how they once were.  Something new will surely come around eventually to take its place, but they won’t live to see it, and their acceptance of this fact and resolve to live on in spite of it is a mixture of pitiful, heartbreaking, courageous, and beautiful. 

            Laurent had mostly worked in sound prior to making this movie.  Friends said he could see sounds the way most directors see color and light, and this talent is on full display here.  Sounds of the natural world ping in and out, adding layers and texture to everything we see that mere imagines could not fully convey. 

            It’s almost ironic, that Laurent’s first feature film would focus so much on death and ending, and be followed by his own violent and untimely death last year.  It lends a sadder weight to everything we see, especially when the director makes a brief cameo about halfway through the film.  Even though we otherwise never see or hear him- he was known for having a keen sense of the importance of removing oneself from the subject in documentary work- the knowledge that he’s there, behind the camera, and soon won’t be there, and indeed will never be there again, is inescapable. 

            The Abandoned Land is a masterful and important piece of documentary filmmaking from a talented filmmaker who was taken from us far too soon.  Despite this, I am confident that it will stand the test of time as a fitting legacy to both the man who made it, and the people it focuses on, allowing both some measure of deserved immortality. 

-Noah Franc