Shoplifters: an intelligent low-key film that examines the nature of family and connection in a fragmented society

Hirokazu Kore-eda, “Shoplifters / Manbiki Kazoku” (2018)

In this slow realist drama about an impoverished family in Tokyo, surviving by its wits through a combination of low-paying jobs, living on an aged pensioner’s social security income and shoplifting, director Kore-eda explores a number of themes: the nature of family in modern Japanese society; the loss of connection between individuals and between individuals and community in an urban, technological society; and how people living on the margins of a society that spurns and ignores them come together to survive and find purpose and connection. Osamu Shibata (Franky Lily) and his wife Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) live in a tiny shack in a Tokyo neighbourhood; Osamu is a labourer on construction sites and Nobuyo is a low-paid laundry employee. Grandma Hatsue Shibata (Kirin Kiki) lives with them too: she relies on her old age pension and a regular stipend from a couple, the husband of which is the son of her ex-husband and his second wife. Hatsue’s granddaughter Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), a peepshow parlour worker, and 10-year old Shota (Kairi Jo) make up the family unit. When we first meet the family, Osamu and Shota sneak groceries into Shota’s backpack without paying for them and are on their way home when they come across a tiny 4-year-old girl, Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), shivering outside her family home … in the middle of winter. Father and son take Yuri home where the women feed her and discover evidence of physical abuse on her scarred arms. In spite of their strained finances, the family accept Yuri as one of their own.

Over the next twelve months, Osamu is injured at work and is laid off; the laundry that employs Nobuyo falls on hard times and she is retrenched. Finances are further strained when Grandma dies. While all this is happening, Shota becomes jealous of the attention Yuri, renamed Rin, receives from the women. At the same time he is teaching Rin to shoplift food items and while she is an eager and ready learner, he is beginning to feel guilty about teaching the child how to break the law. Caught in a dilemma, he finds a way to resolve it but his action leads to dire consequences for Osamu, Nobuyo, Yuri / Rin and himself.

During the course of the film, viewers discover that the Shibata family has been cobbled together in much the same way that Osamu and Shota found Yuri / Rin: Shota himself is a foundling and even Grandma was originally a foundling, albeit at the other end of the age range from those usually abandoned and found by others. The make-up of the Shibata family unit and the way in which it came together says something about the fragmentation of Japanese society in which elderly people end up being shunted into nursing homes or aged care places where they may face bullying and abuse. Yuri / Rin finds unconditional love and affection among supposed “kidnappers” but in her original birth family she receives only cold indifference and neglect. Nobuyo has a dark past that involves the murder of a previous husband.

The film’s minimal and understated style, suggestive of a documentary, combined with the laid-back pace and the actors’ naturalistic performances, especially those of the child actors who carry much of the film on their slim shoulders, reveals subtle nuances and social realist criticism in the story that gently unfolds. Through the Shibatas’ interactions, we come to see how cold, unyielding and bureaucratic Japanese society has become. Children are pulled away from people who love and care for them and parked in orphanages or returned to situations where their lives are put in danger – simply because in the eyes of society or the law, this is the “right” thing to do. Director Kore-eda questions the ethics and values upheld by Japanese society and exposes them as hollow shells through a family of morally dubious characters who may have sound reasons for doing what they do to survive.

The issues raised in “Shoplifters” are dealt with intelligently with a minimum of fuss and sentiment but leave a huge impression on viewers. This film is essential viewing.

Tokyo Godfathers: a heart-warming if fussy Christmas movie on the importance of family in assuring survival and resilience

Satoshi Kon, “Tokyo Godfathers” (2003)

No, this ain’t no cult yakuza film – though yakuza types do appear for a short while – but instead this is a heart-warming Christmas anime flick about the importance of family, however unconventionally it’s constituted, in assuring survival and helping to bond people and maintaining hope in that bonding no matter what misfortune life throws at us. Three homeless people – middle-aged alcoholic Gin (Toru Emori), former drag queen performer Hana (Yoshiaki Umegaki) and young teenage runaway Miyuki (Aya Okamoto) are rummaging through garbage bins on Christmas Eve in Tokyo when they spot an abandoned newborn girl. They determine to return the baby, whom they call Kiyoko, to her parents after finding a photograph of her parents and crumpled papers with addresses attached to the little one’s blankets. This idea drives the trio through the streets, often late in the evening when the snow is falling heavily, and into the Tokyo metropolitan subway system. They will nearly come a-cropper at a wedding reception attended by gangsters, Gin will almost lose his life after being beaten by teenage thugs, Hana will briefly be reunited with the transvestites at the club where she used to sing and perform, and Miyuki will reconsider the argument with her father that led to her leaving home; whatever trials the threesome experience individually and collectively in trying to return the baby to her family will strengthen their bonds with one another and, paradoxically, lead them back to their own families. Gin is reunited with own his long-lost daughter and Miyuki unexpectedly meets her police inspector father again after two years while visiting Gin and Hana in hospital at the end of the film. Each of the three characters confronts his or her past demons and by doing so gains new purpose in life and has new respect for his or her travelling companions.

The background animation is beautifully rendered; the snowy cityscapes suggest isolation and alienation yet can be surprisingly calming and not at all threatening. Tokyo is at once a gritty, cold city in which the most surprising things can happen, most of all, a tiny baby who appears in a garbage bin on Christmas Eve and through whom three individuals learn to face their fears and gain redemption. While the city has its narrow lanes, noisty traffic and slums filled with immigrants and homeless who try to survive the best they can, Tokyo is also possessed of a quiet serenity.

The film can be viewed as a character study of three people who through their trials come to appreciate one another deeply and form a real family of people who look out for one another. Gin’s stoic, gruff nature hides a guilt-ridden conscience at having abandoned a wife and small baby girl. Hana deeply yearns to be a mum and to hold his own baby, though he’s somewhat at a loss when his turn to change Kiyoko’s nappy comes all too quickly. Miyuki is haunted by the argument with her father, during which she seized a knife and inflicted damage with it.

For the first half-hour, the film cruises along briskly but as coincidence starts to build upon coincidence, the plot becomes much less plausible than it already is. It becomes very strained and contrived, and plot twist upon plot twist strings out the film for longer than it should. A couple who have lost their own baby girl and whose lives as a result go askew become involved with the baby Kiyoko in a sinister way, yet the resolution of their troubles – depression, suicidal tendencies – is treated superficially. We never learn if the woman in the couple receives proper counselling and treatment.

For a film that pleads compassion for the marginalised in modern society and in which the main characters find real family with one another, and discover their resilience and compassion, the ending in which two characters are reunited with their original families seems unsatisfactory: it suggests that the only “real” families are the traditional nuclear families consisting of a father, mother and children, as dictated by a society that for one reason or another spurns its homeless and others who do not conform to its dictates.

A stale and confusing plot and dreary characters in “Starship Troopers: Traitor of Mars”

Shinji Aramaki, “Starship Troopers: Traitor of Mars” (2017)

Multiplying not quite as fast as the enemy Arachnids did in the original Paul Verhoeven “Starship Troopers” film are the sequels, of which “Starship Troopers: Traitor of Mars” is the fifth in the series and the second to be mostly computer-animated. Two actors who appeared in the Paul Verhoeven original, Caspar van Dien and Dina Meyer, return to take up their parts voicing Johnny Rico and his high school friend Dizzy Flores. In this fifth installment, Rico has been demoted to the rank of colonel and ordered to train a unit of rookie troopers on a Martian satellite. The human citizens of Mars are tired of the never-ending war Earth wages against the “bugs” (hereafter known as Bugs) and want out of it. Sky Marshal Amy Snapp, desiring political support to destroy Mars, concocts a plan to use an underground Bug nest on Mars as an excuse to destroy Mars and lay the blame on General Carl Jenkins, whom she arrests and holds prisoner.

A confused narrative follows during which the Bugs launch attacks on the trainee unit (who fail two missions), Rico is lost on Mars (where he meets a hologram of Dizzy broadcast to him telepathically by Jenkins) and is later rescued by the trainee troopers, and together Rico and his squad defuse Snapp’s Q-Bomb and publicly reveal Snapp’s scheme to destroy Mars. In defusing the Q-Bomb, the troopers overload a weather control tower and turn it into a huge bomb that explodes and wipes out the entire Bug infestation on Mars. Meanwhile Jenkins escapes from his captors with the help of pilot Carmen Ibanez and has Snapp arrested and imprisoned. For his efforts, Rico is promoted to general and he and his young team are tasked with the unenviable job of keeping Mars free of Bugs.

As might be expected of a sequel following other sequels in a series of which the original satire and political commentary have either evaporated or been overwhelmed by an emphasis on action, violence and explosions, the plot with its two parallel strands dominates, and everything else such as character development, dialogue and even (to some extent) design and computer-animated performance is treated superficially. Of course the dialogue and the characters are expected to be stereotyped in nature, given that the “Starship Troopers” films are set in a futuristic society dominated by rigid and highly conformist militaristic values that permits no individuality. Indeed, the reason Amy Snapp wants to get rid of Mars is that its human settlers prize their freedom and democratic values, and desire their independence from Earth. The Bugs are drained of any redeeming qualities and act like a vast unthinking horde of scuttling giant insects.

Aside from the intriguing politics, in which a character attempts to seize power as if she was starring in a game show and news reports are treated as advertisements (with that hoary line from the first “Starship Troopers” film: “Would you like to know more?”), this sequel adds nothing new to the series or to space-opera science fiction generally. The fun, zest and glee that should be present are missing and what we have instead are boring one-dimensional characters and a tired and confusing plot. The animation may be technically advanced but characters, especially female characters, lack distinctive facial features and resemble Barbie-styled dolls.

It would seem that in this film, and in Japanese anime films generally, an invisible wall has been hit and found difficult to scale and breach: current Japanese-made films seem to feature quite limited and stereotyped characters, and their plots and themes repeat one another to the extent where they become banal and superficial. Joy and energy are in very short supply and story-lines rarely do justice to technically brilliant work.

Tales from Earthsea: a fantasy film lacking in sparkle and wonder

Goro Miyazaki, “Tales from Earthsea / Gedo senki” (2006)

Watching this film, gorgeous as it is visually, I couldn’t help but feel that it’s a classic example of “style over substance” – the original Earthsea book series is heavily squeezed and mashed into a hybrid that probably bears very little resemblance to the characters, plots and themes of the books. All the characters in this film seem cut from the same mould as so many other Studio Ghibli movie characters are: the heroes are children, one a feisty young girl on the cusp of puberty, the other a youth with a troubled past or a character flaw; the adults are either villains, of whom some are buffoons and the others genuinely malevolent but not without some degree of sympathy, or they are parental mentors playing second fiddle to the heroes. The plot usually pushes themes enjoining environmental balance and harmony, pointing out the suffering that occurs if the balance is disrupted; the dangers of using power irresponsibly; and young people discovering their purpose in life. Take away the Studio Ghibli visuals and you find a dreary film overburdened by its Studio Ghibli legacy.

The lands of Earthsea are afflicted by disasters brought about by an imbalance in the world: crops are failing, livestock are dying and people are suffering from a mysterious deadly disease. The wizard Sparrowhawk (voiced by Timothy Dalton in the English-language dubbing) determines to find the cause of this imbalance. In his travels he meets young Prince Arren, fleeing the kingdom of Enlad for having killed his royal father and haunted by a mysterious Shadow. Passing through Hort Town, the two separate briefly and Arren saves a young orphan girl, Therru, from slave-traders led by Hare (Cheech Marin). After various adventures, in which Arren is briefly enslaved, he and Sparrowhawk find refuge with a wise woman, Tenar (Mariska Hargitay), who has been raising Therru as her own daughter after finding her abandoned by her parents who mistreated the child.

Sparrowhawk determines (in a way that the film does not make very clear) that his sorcerer rival Cob (Willem Dafoe) is responsible for creating the imbalance in the universe that is ruining Earthsea through his dangerous quest to cheat death and achieve immortality. Cob knows through his raven spy that Sparrowhawk is looking for him so he makes his rival’s job that much easier and faster by kidnapping and imprisoning Tenar. He takes Arren hostage as well and casts a spell over him using his real name Lebannen. Through various plot twists the children Arren and Therru come to save Sparrowhawk and Tenar and to defeat Cob.

For the most part, the plot is slow with a huge middle section where very little happens and most of the action (and revelations) packed into the last half hour of the film. Cob’s motive for wanting to control Arren is not very clear – but then generally the motives of all the characters for doing what they do are very vague. The characters are typical Studio Ghibli stereotypes and lack individuality and substance. Only Therru is likely to make much of an impression on viewers with her surliness, bad temper and (later) her steadfast loyalty. The dragons that should be the film’s highlight appear seldom.

While backgrounds look good, the animation is uneven – some characters look badly drawn – and the music soundtrack is pver-loud kitsch Celtic folk to the extreme. The whole film lacks freshness, spark and a sense of fun. This film is definitely not one to watch unless viewers are diehard Studio Ghibli fans.

 

Over Your Dead Body: an extreme, almost cartoon-ish horror ghost film homage where life imitates art

Takashi Miike, “Over Your Dead¬† Body” (2014)

From the incredibly prolific director Takashi Miike, who never met a film genre he couldn’t make an insanely extreme film for (and with the body count to prove its perversity), comes this homage of sorts to the famous Japanese ghost story “Yotsuya Kaidan”, horror films featuring vengeful or hateful female ghosts generally and the theatre. Toss in a love triangle involving three actors appearing in a drama production and we have a recipe for an almost Shakespearean work in which vengeance, the quest for happiness in a sterile world and life that imitates art revolve around each other as surely as the circular stage set on which the theatre troupe presents its interpretation of “Yotsuya Kaidan” rotates to emphasise the dark, disturbing atmosphere and the intensity of the emotions and actions of the characters in the play.

Star Miyuki Goto (Ko Shibasaki) is cast as the tragic heroine Oiwa in a new production of “Yotsuya Kaidan” and schemes to get her lover Kosuke (Ebizo Ichikawa XI) cast as Iemon, the unfaithful ronin husband of Oiwa. Other actors in the cast soon lust after Miyuki and Iemon, who themselves are having difficulties in their relationship, both of them emotionally remote from one another in spite of their love-making. The actors’ obsessions with one another and the love affairs that develop and which are conducted secretly lead to a situation in which the murder and mayhem rehearsed continuously on the stage spill over into the cast’s lives offstage.

The film begins ordinarily enough and the first half-hour is a character study in which we come to see how distant Miyuki and Iemon are, and how their emotional remoteness is reflected in the elegantly and minimally furnished modern apartment where Miyuki lives. Much attention is given over to the elaborate stage set-ups, the care with which the cast of actors act out their roles in the play, the costumes and hair fashions of mediaeval Japan, and their rather stylised actions. Curiously the director of the play is a very minor character indeed and one gets no sense of when rehearsals for the play started, when they will finish and when the play itself will have its opening night. Once there is a hint that a doll used as a prop is possessed by a demon, the pace quickens, the action becomes brisk and the film detours from delineating ordinary everyday scenes (albeit with some eccentricities on the part of Miyuki: she boils several saucepans of pasta all at once in one scene, for example) into a wacky direction in which nightmare dreams that afflict people spill out into their waking lives, a woman mutilates herself to find her unborn child and actors start disappearing from the production as they fall victim to the ghosts of the play.

The extreme and intense violence contrasts strongly with the minimal style of various background sets, with the suggestion that beneath the po-faced facades that people present to the outside world lurks roiling emotions that they have difficulty accepting and which they cannot name, yet which eventually must have their outlet. Shibasaki, Ichikawa and the rest of the film’s cast perform their roles capably as people more or less divorced from their emotions and feelings which erupt through the medium of the ghost play and play havoc with their lives, to say nothing of the play itself as the most significant cast member disappears. Audiences may breathe a huge sigh of relief when Kosuke gets his just desserts both in the play and outside the play but horror fans might feel a little cheated at what “horror” has actually emerged and that Kosuke’s executioner literally gets away with murder.

The film closes off in its own hermetic world and seems much smaller than it ought to have been.

 

5 Centimetres per Second: an insubstantial trilogy on the fleeting nature of youthful love, hope and desire

Makoto Shinkai, “5 Centimetres per Second” (2007)

As with his “Your Name”, Makoto Shinkai’s earlier “5 Centimetres per Second” is a teenage romance based around desire, hope and loss. The film takes the form of a trilogy of short story pieces revolving around young hero Tataki as he progresses through childhood and adolescence and becomes a young adult taking on the burdens and pressures of adulthood. The first and longest short story riffs on his childhood friendship with the girl Araki, how they meet in primary school and bond together, and their separation when, on the verge of transitioning to junior high school, she and her family relocate away from Tokyo to a more distant rural part of Japan. The second story focuses on another girl, Kanae, who is in Tataki’s class at high school and who has a crush on him which he fails to notice and she fails to admit to him. In the third and shortest installment, Tataki has already graduated from high school and college and with a job and a girlfriend seems well on the way to middle class career and family contentment. However the young man still pines for Araki so he chucks in his job and breaks up with his current love to travel to that part of Japan where Araki lives in the hope of meeting her and reigniting their relationship.

In themselves the characters are not all that remarkable and seem very one-dimensional in their melancholy and constant preoccupation with their thoughts; likewise the threadbare plot proceeds to a conclusion many viewers may find unsatisfactory if predictable. Kanae’s unrequited crush on Tataki – and his attitude towards the girl – may come across as rather callous on Shinkai’s part, and point to an insensitive and immature self-absorption on Tataki’s part that explains his inability to hold down a job and maintain a relationship with any female other than Araki. Perhaps it’s just as well that the original relationship between him and Araki peters out from the pressure of distance and time because if they were ever to meet again, he would find her literally another person.

The use of first-person voice-over story-telling is an original touch and coaxes the thin narrative forward steadily. The fragmented and not altogether reliable monologues have to be pieced together by viewers to form a clear narrative that holds all three stories together. The film proceeds rather as a series of beautifully detailed tableaux reflecting on the passage of time through the changes of day into night and day again, and of the seasons. The emphasis on trains and train travel serves as much to heighten the sense of separation through time and space between Tataki and Araki.

The background animation is gorgeous as it always is in Shinkai’s films but the characters and story fall far short of the beautiful and rich settings. Tataki and the girls he is involved with seem far too stereotyped as lovey-dovey young teenagers and the plot is equally generic. The film’s unusual title is a reference to the speed at which cherry blossoms, symbolic of the fleeting and fragile nature of youth, giving way all too soon to age and ultimately death, fall to the ground from the tree. It would be most ironic if this film becomes as minor in Shinkai’s body of work in the years to come as cherry blossoms are transient.

Your Name: teenage romance comedy drama comes with an unexpected twist sending it into disaster sci-fi fantasy

Makoto Shinkai, “Your Name” (2016)

At first this teenage romance drama seems to be just as sappy and sentimental as any other such film – especially if it’s a Japanese anime film – but it turns out to be quite a moving fantasy in which the two young protagonists try to save a community (and its traditions and culture) from sudden catastrophic extinction. How the girl Mitsuha and the boy Taki meet is ingenious: they meet each other in dreams in which they flip out of their own bodies and end up in the other person’s body. This creates a fair amount of havoc for them, their families and their friends, at least until the two become aware of each other and what is happening so they leave notes for each other on their mobile phones, in their diaries and around their bedrooms for whenever they change places again.

The two youngsters then help each other gain confidence in their social circles: Taki works up the courage to ask a co-worker at the restaurant where he works part-time out on a date, and Mitsuha becomes more popular at school. At the same time, Mitsuha participates in old family and community traditions in her village, as instructed by her grandmother, and is taught to leave sake offerings at the shrine of the village guardian deity near a lake. Later on in the film, Taki tries to meet Mitsuha and travels to her village, only to be told on the way there that the village was destroyed by a comet shower three years previously. To make matters worse, Taki later looks up fatality records for the village and discovers Mitsuha’s name is among them.

Thanks to highly detailed background animation, the film is never less than beautiful to watch though most human characters still look typically cartoonish in the way Japanese anime films portray them, with huge shining eyes and tiny button noses and small mouths and ears. Aspects of local village traditions are well researched and depicted. The film tends to be quite slow in its first half – this part of the film is mostly exposition, showing where the main characters live, what they do, how they spend their time, and what they yearn for (Mitsuha yearning to escape the village with its set routines and ways, Taki wondering about the world beyond Tokyo) – but the main characters thus established end up rather one-dimensional and bland. The pace picks up once Taki figures he can warn Mitsuha in the past of the comet strike and save her and her village. Much of the rest of the film then becomes Mitsuha’s quest, along with some of her school-friends, to convince, then force the villagers to evacuate by staging a power strike at the local electricity station that erupts into a wildfire.

The romance between Mitsuha and Taki tends to be shallow and sappy, with the characters obsessed with talking about their feelings, and by the end of the film the strength of this romance is still as vague and half-hearted as it was earlier when the characters became aware of the body-swapping. As though to compensate for the wishy-washy characters, the film brings in the plot twist that throws everything coming afterwards onto a different trajectory, and the romance takes distant second place to the disaster movie that unfolds.

The film’s saving grace is the various themes that it tackles with grace more or less successfully: loss, and how individuals deal with loss, whether it is personal loss, the loss of a relationship, or the loss of culture, history and tradition due to a catastrophe; yearning for connection, to be part of a world greater than one’s own immediate surrounds; and exploring identity through gender, social connections, time and space, and family and cultural background. If it were not for the themes informing the plot and the characters, the film would be no more than a typical teenage romance comedy drama with the unexpected plot twist that sends it off into disaster movie / sci-fi fantasy.

Kuroneko: an ordinary ghost horror story saved by expressionist cinematography and social commentary

Kaneto Shindo, “Kuroneko” (1968)

A companion piece to his earlier classic “Onibaba”, Shindo’s “Kuroneko” explores vengeance and human desires for love in the setting of a typically Japanese ghost horror story. The film also expresses an anti-war theme by concentrating on the disruptions and changes war brings to poor people and to poor women in particular. Two farm women, Yone (Nobuko Otawa, who also appeared in “Onibaba”) and her daughter-in-law Oshige (Kiwako Taichi), are attacked in their home by a group of rough samurai led by Raiko Minamoto (Kei Sato) who rape and murder them, and who try to cover up their crime by burning down the farm-house with the dead women inside. The women’s spirits then inhabit the bodies of black cats and acquire the ability to change into aristocratic women in order to attack travelling samurai and drain them of their blood in their ghost mansion set up in the bamboo grove where their farmhouse used to be.

Oshige’s husband Hachi (Kichiemon Nakamura) returns from northern Japan with the head of an enemy general which he presents to his local governor who turns out to be Raiko Minamoto. Believing Hachi’s lie that he fought the general under the name Gintoki, Minamoto makes him samurai and then orders him to find and destroy the ghosts at Rajo Gate that are preying on samurai. Oshige finds the ghosts and realises they are the ghosts of his dead mother and wife. Oshige is torn between the pact she and Yone have made with underworld demons to destroy samurai and her love and desire for Hachi / Gintoki. Her choice condemns her but saves Hachi / Gintoki’s life. Forced by the governor on pain of death to get rid of Yone, Hachi / Gintoki tries to manoeuvre his way out of his dilemma of having to kill his mother’s ghost but finds himself outwitted.

The story is fairly and straightforward and trots along at a steady pace until its last few scenes when it speeds up and becomes unhinged when Hachi / Gintoki desperately fights his mother’s ghost. It is repetitive, even ritualistically so, for much of its running time and Western audiences may find its repetitive nature tedious. What elevates this ghost story into an eerie investigation of the supernatural woven through with social commentary is artful cinematography in which the natural world, populated by bamboo forests, and a minimalist style, from the furnishings to the dialogue and the costumes, are dominant. White mists swirl through the sparsely furnished rural mansion where the ghost women live. The use of light and darkness to create the world of the ghosts as opposed to the world of humans, and to highlight the desire Oshige and Hachi / Gintoki feel for each other is notable.

The transformation of two human farm women into ghostly aristocrats through a brutal incident clearly establishes Shindo as a director concerned for the well-being of the underclasses; the transformation also suggests that ordinary people who are close to nature and who create are the pawns and playthings of the nobility and warrior classes who, removed from the natural world, can only exploit and destroy what others create. While Hachi the farm-boy is raised to the level of samurai by killing someone, his lack of preparedness for the role he is required to play as samurai – that is, to kill – becomes his undoing. Governor Minamoto who elevates Hachi to the level of samuari and thus sends the young man on his way to karma remains unaffected by the events as they unfold.

The soundtrack is significant in its own right as a character – the film’s opening scenes are done entirely without dialogue and all we hear are the sounds of people drinking and eating, and later the sounds of violence, followed by the sounds of forest insects – and features a range of music from experimental folk using taiko drums to more conventional Western popular styles.

For all the tension created by the revenge plot and the dilemmas and conflicts faced by the main characters as they must navigate their changed status, whether socially in the world of humans or morally among the demons, the film seems quite ordinary compared to “Onibaba”. The acting is not nearly so good and the plot and sub-plots seem disjointed and do not flow well. Compared to other ghost story horror films being put out by other Japanese directors – the brilliant “Kwaidan” comes to mind – “Kuroneko” is redeemed mainly by its expressionist cinematography and must be regarded as a minor classic.

Blade of the Immortal: one wearying bloodbath after another in a film on obsessive vengeance, duty and the hell of immortality

Takashi Miike, “Blade of the Immortal” (2017)

Condensed from 30 volumes of manga into a single work of about 140 minutes, this film was probably always going to be light on the character development and plotting especially under the direction of one Takashi Miike. What he doesn’t condense though is the original story’s gory nature – if watched casually, the film looks like a never-ending series of sword-bashing bloodbaths following in quick succession – and the sense of exhaustion and tedium that comes with being an immortal samurai. The story takes place in Tokugawa-era Japan, as most such samurai films do, and starts with ronin Manji (Takuya Kimura) and his kid sister Machi (Hana Sugiyaki) being ambushed by a 100-strong horde of thuggish sword-fighters. Machi is cut down by their leader and Manji is forced to fight through the lot of them to reach him. Several minutes later, Manji is the last one standing, or staggering with mortal wounds rather, when along comes a female demon who plugs him with a stack of bloodworms that clean up and heal his wounds, turning him into an immortal.

With the opening scene done, dusted and tidied away, we skip 50 years to the story of another young girl, Rin Asano (Sugiyaki again), forced to watch in horror as her sword-fighting instructor father is cut down and her mother violated by another bunch of thugs led by the charismatic¬†Kagehisa Anotsu (Sota Fukushi). Rin manages to escape the butchery and vows vengeance upon Anotsu. Conveniently the female demon appears and directs the girl to seek out Manji. Rin quickly finds him and Manji agrees to help the child – but has he taken on an impossible task, given that Anotsu learned his skills with the sword from his father and grandfather who themselves trained with Manji’s forebears? Is Rin’s desire for vengeance too excessive and likely to bring both Rin and Manji to ruin? And how much does – or can – Rin substitute for Machi whose loss Manji still grieves over?

On top of the possible obstacles Manji and Rin face in exacting vengeance on those who destroyed Rin’s family, the villain Anotsu himself is double-crossed by the Shogun’s representatives who draw him and his gang into a scheme to teach the Shogun’s warriors sword-fighting skills. The government’s treachery leads to the annihilation of Anotsu’s school of thugs so by the time Manji and Anotsu finally meet (after they have both shredded entire armies of fighters into near-mincemeat), the two almost feel some sympathy for each other as outsiders operating on the fringes of an oppressive and corrupt law, and sickened and exhausted by the demands others make on them to keep fighting and killing.

The problems Manji and Anotsu encounter on their respective quests – Manji for finally being able to die, and Anotsu for power and influence – give the film some depth (if not much) and something for the actors to play with that enhances their characters. Miike’s flamboyant and excessive approach in retelling the story of Manji ends up interrogating the notion of vengeance: can the pursuit of vengeance become an end and an evil in itself as the mostly useless Rin keeps egging on Manji to pursue Anotsu? Why does Manji readily agree to Rin’s demands? At this point he might well curse the demon for having made him immortal – because his life becomes a relentless grind of one killing spree after another.

Miike paces the fighting sequences well – a huge battle scene may be followed by a smaller scuffle, in turn followed by another bloodbath – and while the major characters are essentially one-dimensional, Kimura at least conveys Manji’s world-weary attitude well. On the other hand, sub-plots that include two female antagonists, one of them a sword-wielding fighter (Erika Toda), are not very well developed and could have been omitted from the film.

The incredible fight scenes are well choreographed if surreal – there ain’t no-one that good who can mow down a hundred swordsmen with a long sword, a short sword and whatever other cutlery he carries with him – but over the course of 2 hours and 20 minutes their extreme and excessive nature can be wearying. Perhaps if Miike had cut out some of the more unnecessary fight scenes and concentrated more on Manji and Rin becoming a tight little family unit, or on Anotsu’s background, making the character a not unsympathetic fellow battling what he sees as government corruption, he could still have his intense and over-the-top film, that opens up a new focus on character and plot in future films.

Zatoichi: a colourful package of comedy, violence and drama masks an unoriginal plot and characters not always worthy of sympathy

Takeshi Kitano, “Zatoichi” (2003)

Based in part on the television and film series revolving around the adventures of itinerant blind masseur / swordsman Zatoichi in late Tokugawa Japan, Takeshi Kitano’s “Zatoichi” smoothly combines drama, slapstick comedy and extreme violence in equal measures around a not-too-original plot narrative in which a lone wandering martial arts expert comes across a community suffering from poverty, oppression and exploitation by local warlords and their gangs, and sets about freeing the poor from their tyranny. This theme happens to dovetail with Kitano’s own fascination with violence, the underworld and vengeance, so perhaps we should not be surprised that his version of “Zatoichi” emphasises bloody swordplay, the machinations of warlords and their gangs, and extreme revenge. Yet at the same time the film draws audiences into sympathy for vulnerable characters and empathy with their behaviour and motivations.

Zatoichi (Kitano) wanders into an unnamed village caught up in a war between yakuza gangs who demand huge amounts of protection money from the villagers. He finds shelter with O-ume (Michiyo Okusu), a farming widow, and her ne’er-do-well gambler nephew Shinkichi (Guadalcanal Taka) who is often the butt of many jokes in the film. About the same time, two geisha siblings (one of whom is actually a man) seeking revenge for the deaths of their parents and other family members on their family estate ten years ago arrive in the village. Zatoichi, O-ume and Shinkichi befriend these geishas (Daigoro Tachibana and Yuuko Daike) and learn about their tragic history. The geishas eventually discover that the men who murdered their parents are the same yakuza gangsters terrorising the community, and Zatoichi sets about dispatching these men. For the most part, the job is not too difficult – except that the yakuza leader has just hired ronin samurai Gennosuke Hattori (Tadanobu Asano) as his bodyguard. Hattori boasts a mean, almost demonic way with his sword and a showdown between him and Zatoichi seems set to be the film’s pyrotechnic climax.

The film builds slowly and steadily to the inevitable clash of katanas with plenty of diversions along the way. This does mean that audiences need to concentrate quite hard to follow the plot. Kitano spends much time crafting back histories for various characters including Hattori as well as the geisha siblings, touching on touchy subjects such as paedophilia and suggesting that life for ronin samurai and their families could be as hard and oppressive as the lives of lowly peasants. One feels as much for Hattori and his need to help his sickly wife as one does for the geishas, no matter how intensely and darkly their desire for vengeance burns and eats them up. Special attention should be paid to the bartender and his aged assistant father who washes the sake cups and chops the vegetables. Kitano’s own character Zatoichi differs little from the type of characters he usually plays: impassive, stoic, saying very little and giving the impression of harbouring great, often unearthly wisdom and not a few dark secrets.

The violence may be bloody but it is done quickly and efficiently (and maybe a little too artistically and cleanly in a way that screams it was done with computer-based effects) and often it is over before the audience has had time to draw breath.

One feels that Kitano packs so much into this film because the plot is not all that original and very few characters are actually worthy of much sympathy. The cinematography is often very pretty. The film seems made for a Western audience which might explain why some of the dance sequences are so long and why Kitano opted to include a Hollywood-style chorus-line musical extravaganza, complete with tap-dancing, at the end of the film. We do not learn very much about the character of Zatoichi himself, why he is blind (or pretends to be blind) and why he elects to travel alone from one isolated community to the next and to flush out corruption and oppression everywhere he goes. The theme of blindness in its various guises – including the notion that having sight often makes one blind to things that visually blind people would pick up – is not as fully explored and fleshed out as it could have been.

There is a nihilistic aspect to the film as well: some characters die undeserving and tragic deaths; and the geisha siblings are more affected by their desire for vengeance than by their suffering than they are prepared to admit, and how they will cope when the cause of their suffering has been obliterated by others is unclear.

As expected, Zatoichi goes on his way to another oppressed village in a fantasy pre-Meiji Japan and audiences will have had their fill of comedy, tragedy and drama in a colourful and stylised package.