Kiki’s Delivery Service: charming film about maturity, finding oneself and never giving up hope

Hayao Miyazaki, “Kiki’s Delivery Service” (1989)

A charming coming-of-age film about a young witch who undergoes a series of challenges, not the least of which is learning to trust in her inner self, “Kiki’s Delivery Service” likely had a lot of personal significance for its creator Miyazaki: previous films were mostly aimed at a very young audience and the films that came after “Kiki …” were more epic and featured very complex story-telling. “Kiki …” might be considered transitional between early Miyazaki and later Miyazaki with some of the features of both: on the one hand it focusses on personal issues and features mostly ordinary characters, albeit ones with dreams or an unusual talent and on the other hand there are elements of a wider fantasy world that would be expanded on in future Miyazaki projects.

On turning thirteen, the young witch Kiki must fly out into the world as part of her training as a witch and adopt a community as her own where she has to develop a special talent. Arriving at a seaside town somewhere in Europe – the look and feel of the town suggests the 1950’s or 1960’s as might be portrayed in a Jacques Tati movie – Kiki is befriended by a couple who run a bakery and who offer her lodgings. With the help  of her familiar, a black cat called Jiji, Kiki sets up a courier service for her hosts to deliver bread and cakes to their customers. She meets helpful folks like the teenage boy Tombo who dreams of flying, an artist Ursula who wants to paint a picture of Kiki and two elderly ladies who bake at home. With the main characters established, the slim plot presents a series of tests for Kiki to learn how to live with strangers, where she fits into the town that accepts her and ultimately find herself.

The glories of “Kiki …” lie chiefly in its realisation of the world in which Kiki settles: Miyazaki and his creative team have brought a beautiful and picturesque town with its own distinctive atmosphere into being. The pace of life might be more frenetic than it should be and there’s no Latin flair about the seaside town – the background music suggests the resorts of Mediterranean France and Italy were the inspiration for the town though according to Wikipedia the town of Visby in Sweden was the actual inspiration – but there’s a definite summer-holiday feel about the place. Colours are vibrant and the landscapes, historic houses and urban scenes with the clock-tower and the traffic in the narrow streets are very detailed and look realistic. Yet there’s a dreamy quality to the town where in spite of the traffic there’s not much air pollution and the skies look very clean. At the very least one can believe a small witch can fly in and introduce herself to the people without having to show her papers or spend several years in an asylum for illegal migrants who jump the queues, just as one can also believe later on that sticking giant propellers on the handlebars of a bike will enable it to fly or that dirigibles are floating and buzzing overhead without eliciting noise pollution complaints or concerns about a repeat of the 1937 Hindenburg disaster.

The rather cartoony-looking characters are not very well developed in personality and Kiki can be maddeningly Pollyanna-ish, at least until she becomes self-conscious about her dowdy appearance compared to the wealthy teenagers she sees, resulting in her witchy powers deserting her and causing her depression. Why Tombo should develop a romantic interest in Kiki and Kiki reject him at first is never explained; the romantic sub-plot seems very half-hearted and superficial, based on Tombo’s love of flying and Kiki being suspicious of his friends. Other characters are well-meaning and helpful clones of one another and the couple running the bakery are little more than parent substitutes. Only Ursula the artist and Tombo the dreamer (and later, damsel-dude in distress) offer opportunities for Kiki to grow and mature and trust in herself.

Parts of the plot can seem like afterthoughts, particularly towards the end where Kiki sees the dirigible in trouble on TV and Tombo hanging onto the dirigible’s rope as it floats out of control and crashes into buildings (without causing any fires, one notices). Then it’s Kiki to the rescue! – but can she regain her power of flight in time to rescue Tombo? An interesting sub-plot that might involve a cat and dog becoming friends develops but is ditched in favour of Kiki meeting and working for Ursula.

In all this is a heartwarmer suitable for a young teenage audience who will readily identify with Kiki’s initial chirpiness and pride and learn along with her about dealing with difficult situations and getting along with people. It’s a film about hope and believing in one’s talent and resourcefulness and finding one’s niche and inspiration in life. It may not be as powerful and involved as other Miyazaki films like “Laputa: Island in the Sky”, “Princess Mononoke” or “Spirited Away” but in its downscaled way it’s a thoughtful and intelligent film.

 

Symbol (dir. Hatoshi Matsumoto): polished and slick slapstick comedy on nature of the universe

Hatoshi Matsumoto, “Symbol” (2009)

A slapstick comedy about interrelationships and the impact one person can have on events around the world, “Symbol” is the second full-length feature by Hatoshi Matsumoto who is best known in Japan as one-half of a long-running comedy act. The plot splits into two parallel stories that occur on opposite sides of the world, Japan and Mexico. In a small rural part of Mexico, a middle-aged man resignedly prepares for a tag-team wrestling match where he stars as Escargotman; his aged father and small son worry about his physical condition (chubby and pot-bellied) and his attitude in his pre-match routines (no hyping himself up or doing warm-up and limbering exercises). At the same time an unnamed man (Matsumoto himself – let’s call him M) wakes up in a large white-walled room with no furniture or windows in an unknown location in Japan. Images of cherubic male angels appear briefly and fade away, leaving behind only their genitalia on the walls and floor.

Throughout the film the action jumps back and forth between these two scenarios: the man in the room, pressing on the tiny penises, discovers that with each press a hole in a wall (not necessarily the same wall where the pressed penis is located) opens up and spits out an object he can use. Eventually the man works out that he can plan his escape from the room but the plan demands considerable lateral thinking as to how to open a hole up in a wall that leads to a locked door, get the key to that door and the right numbers to unlock the combination lock on the same door. Escargotman meanwhile prays at the family shrine, has his sister (a nun) drive him to the match venue, puts on his costume and mask and goes out to the ring. He waits on the side ropes while his partner gets beaten almost to a pulp by two more pumped-up wrestlers and then goes into the ring himself. In the audience Escargotman’s father and son anxiously sit and wonder if their hero will also get thrashed.

On their own each story isn’t remarkable in itself and viewers mightn’t feel much sympathy for Escargotman and the very real probability that Tequila Joe and his partner will humiliate him absolutely in front of his home crowd. As Escargotman hardly talks and shows little emotion, and on top of that his story shares screen-time with Matsumoto’s protagonist, there’s little tension building up to the wrestling match. M is essentially a comic-strip character in kidult pyjamas and kooky mop-top hairstyle who occasionally has something interesting to say but spends most of his time wordlessly trying out strategies that, comic strip-style, spring up in his head; the strategies work but only after much trial and error and temper tantrums for comic effect. It’s only when M finally escapes from the white room littered with objects and enters a second room where adult angels come and go and leave behind their genitals for our hero to press that the action becomes more interesting; every time he presses a penis, Escargotman lands a punch on his opponents. At this point the two stories become one and viewers start to realise that M isn’t just any ordinary man and the rooms he enters aren’t just any ordinary rooms on our particular plane of existence; each room represents a higher or deeper level of being and in each our man acquires more influence and power over the affairs of Earth. The tale of Escargotman becomes one of many on Earth that M can change. Naturally he insists on continuing to the next room beyond which the punchline awaits him.

The plot falls flat partly because Escargotman and his family are presented as flat though eccentric individuals and the wrestling match could be one of many in several parts of Mexico. For a quirky comedy the Mexican scenes have few quirks to them and become just stereotyped foreign exotic locations with stereotyped characters: Dad trying to make a living, Mum doing housework and nagging people all the time, Grandpa and Junior bonding together and anxious for Dad to prove himself a hero all over again and Aunty utters endless strings of expletive at her rundown truck. Although M helps Escargotman in his match, the influence is one-way only and this insinuates that Escargotman is a mere puppet. The implication behind that, though meant to be comic, is sad. Do Escargotman and his family exist merely for cheap laughs? (I guess so – don’t Third World nations and people exist to be pushed around?) This kind of philosophical black comedy has probably been done to death before and “Symbol” has nothing new to say on the matter.

In spite of the film’s polished presentation which includes a sharp, bright style of filming, computer animation and special effects that look real, and a steady pace driven by M’s desire for escape and meaning, “Symbol” ends up delivering a message that’s clever and slick but not profound. The movie’s worth is mainly in how it manipulates viewer expectations about the plot, its main character, the nature of his prison and how the Escargotman sub-plot ties into the main plot. You laugh at yourself for thinking that because you’re watching a movie, everything there has to make sense or connect with everything else in some way for a clear plot; but expected connections never materialise and unexpected ones do. As M goes from one maze to the next, viewers quickly realise he’s undertaking the metaphorical equivalent of human spiritual and intellectual evolution but whether he realises the importance of the journey himself – it looks as though enlightenment comes to him only during his swimming journey in which, sperm-like, he advances to “the light at the end of the tunnel” – is another matter entirely. Any thoughts he has about his journey, what he learns from it, and what awaits him at the end – and what he plans to do – are never revealed. The punchline could be more effective if M had broken the “fourth wall”, having done so a few times through the film already; he could just raise his finger and look quizzically at the audience before the camera cuts abruptly to the end credits.

“Symbol” is on a par with films like “Inception” and “eXisteNZ” which position the universe as similar to a videogame with various levels that require more skill and expertise in playing the game. The structure of the film into three parts “Education” where M teaches himself the strategies to leave the room, “Implementation” and “Future” suggests as much. Viewed this way, there’s no need for “Symbol” to say anything profound other than that a search for meaning in life is meaningless in itself and the universe may be one big cosmic joke. Films of this nature often seem superficial perhaps because if the universe is seen as a cosmic videogame, then there’s the inference that players enter the “game” on the understanding that they can’t change the “rules” of the game and free will only extends as far as the rules and parameters of the game permit. You as the player are no different than hamsters running on wheels in their cages, no matter how elaborate the wheels are or how far they go.

Profound themes of evolution, maturity, cycles of life and death, and Japan’s modern history in Katsuhiro Otomo’s “Akira”

Katsuhiro Otomo, “Akira” (1988)

In an alternative but parallel universe in 1988, a scientific experiment using young children as test subjects for research into superhuman mental abilities goes awry when a child loses control and causes a huge explosion in Tokyo that is taken for a nuclear bomb attack and leads to a global war. Cut to 30 years later and a new city, Neo-Tokyo, has arisen on an artifical island in Tokyo Bay, the old city having been completely annihilated. Neo-Tokyo has become a thriving, wealthy metropolis but it’s also plagued by political corruption, anti-government riots and terrorist activity, and a seedy underbelly of crime, drug addiction and violence; and the scientific experiments that led to old Tokyo’s demise continue apace. In this context, two motorcycle gangs fight a turf war racing down the city’s highways and a member of one gang, Tetsuo, comes to grief when he hits – or appears to hit – a small child with aged features. His fellow gang members led by his childhood friend Kaneda quickly come to his aid but before they can take him to hospital, several military helicopters arrive and take Tetsuo and the small child to a military hospital. Kaneda and his gang are arrested by soldiers for questioning over a recent anti-government demonstration that turned violent.

At the hospital, Tetsuo is found to possess psychic abilities similar to those of the children being used in the secret experiments, now conducted by Dr Onishi under the supervision of Colonel Shikishima. The boy is operated and experimented on and the tests awaken his psychic powers which begin to develop of their own accord. He escapes from hospital and is reunited briefly with his girlfriend Kaori and Kaneda’s gang but is captured again. As Tetsuo struggles with his hallucinations and headaches, and discover what they are leading him to, Kaneda sees a girl, Kei, he met while in army custody and follows her; she leads him into a secret plot to get Tetsuo out of the military hospital. While the plotters battle to infiltrate the hospital, various incidents there bring Tetsuo’s psychic powers into the open to his advantage and Tetsuo himself, flushed with and revelling his new powers and the authority they give him, commences on a quest that he believes will give him even more power.

The plot is straightforward and not too complex but runs at a brisk, energetic pace so for most people two viewings of “Akira” might be necessary to fully understand what happens. The movie is a commentary on the cycle of birth, death and rebirth, embodied in the development of Tokyo / Neo-Tokyo itself, and what that implies about the post-1945 history of Japan and forecasts for the country’s 21st-century future. The use of anime rather than a live-action feature to bring the original “Akira” comic to screen is appropriate: the exacting technical detail of backgrounds and machines against and on which the plot depends captures the close and complicated relationship modern Japanese culture has with technology, at once beneficial, malleable enough to seem harmless, cute even, yet also highly dangerous. Tetsuo’s transformation is a metaphor on several levels: on a grand scale, it mirrors the evolution of life itself; on a global scale, it’s a parallel to Japan’s development as a modern society dependent on technology; on a more mundane level, it represents growth and maturity in human beings; on the very personal level, it traces an individual’s adolescent development and adjustment (or not) to adult life. Tetsuo’s inability to handle his psychic powers and allowing them to take over his body can be interpreted as a warning of the potential for moral corruption that having too much power, in whatever form it takes, without having the understanding, experience and knowledge to use it responsibly can pose. Tetsuo’s upbringing, parts of which are seen in flashbacks, shows that he didn’t get much moral guidance or understanding from adults, and was bullied by adults and children alike so he harbours a deep resentment and hatred towards other people and sees his newfound abilities as giving him opportunities for payback. He goes out of his way to kill Yamagata, one of his gang-mates, for having derided him in the past. Tetsuo’s powers are too much for him to handle though and he ends up killing his faithful girlfriend Kaori.

Other characters reflect aspects of Tetsuo’s dilemma: Dr Onishi who oversees the experiment on the boy, is too swept up in his enthusiasm to see the destruction Tetsuo causes and he pays for his tunnel vision with his life; he’s a stock figure representing scientific and technological hubris. Likewise various people, representing a society trained to obey, who follow a New Age guru or trust in Tetsuo as a new messiah to replace the mysterious Akira figure, are destroyed in various ways as a result of their blind, unquestioning faith in an external power. Overall, character development in “Akira” is fairly weak and only two characters can be said to be significant in that respect: Tetsuo and Colonel Shikishima. The Colonel is the most complex figure: iniitally looking and acting like the most obvious choice for Head Villain in the film, he is a tough, stern soldier who dislikes the chaotic disorder and lack of direction characterising democracy and liberal society and seizes the first opportunity he can to impose his idea of good government on Neo-Tokyo. Yet he cares for the remaining original test subjects of Dr Onishi’s experiments and has no taste for grubby politics where money speaks louder than principles. In an ideal world he would be father figure to Tetsuo and would guide the boy to the wisdom and understanding required to use his psychic powers for the benefit of humankind; but the Colonel has adopted a narrow military frame of mind which prefers order, conformity and discipline over individualism and tolerance for a multiplicity of ideologies and cultures within the one society, and Tetsuo has grown up in an environment where power means being able to throw your weight around and kicking little people (like him once upon a time). Both Tetsuo and the Colonel can be seen as complementary figures in the use of power: Tetsuo needs some restrictions and the Colonel would impose too many, and both are oppressive in their own ways; and Japan as a society that has used political, social and military power to control people perhaps isn’t an ideal place for the two to meet in an imperfect world. As for Kaneda and Kei, the other major characters, they are flat compared to Tetsuo and the Colonel; they are best seen as stock teenage / young adult character types who are basically good and, while easily led astray, play expected heroic roles in a plot that has no need for heroes and doesn’t use them.

The climax of the film in which Tetsuo transmogrifies into a monster on contact with Akira and has to be absorbed, along with the remaining test subjects of Dr Onishi’s ongoing experiment, into an implosion that takes most of Neo-Tokyo with it to leave behind a gaping crater and the rest of the city in ruins, is a sheer mindfuck of animation knowledge and technique limited only by the technology available in 1988 to portray what virtually amounts to birth of a new universe in several dimensions and the animation crew’s own collective imagination to consider what such birth might look like. Indeed, the black-and-white montage of simple images looks like a jokey reference to the way films made in the past often begin, a series of encircled numbers counting down to zero. It’s arguably nowhere near as good as the surreal bedroom scene in which Tetsuo is attacked by giant toy animals that bleed milk – that scene qualifies as the standout for its combination of the cute and conventional notions of bedtime horror when things under the bed crawl out to menace children.

True, the detailed animation often threatens to usurp the plot, characters and action but the movie couldn’t have been made otherwise at the time without an astronomical budget or advanced CGI technology. Otomo’s aim is ambitious and the film’s scope is tremendous but perhaps the narrative as it pans out doesn’t quite justify the ambition, the philosophical concepts and what Otomo is trying to say about the nature of power. Is it possible to know if Tetsuo feels triumph when he unites with Akira and the other test subjects in a new universe? Is his final anaemic-sounding utterance “I am Tetsuo” an expression of self-affirmation or its opposite – or even both? If Tetsuo had changed his mind about pursuing power and gone back to the Colonel or to Kaneda, would that be a form of denial? It’s hard not to feel that the plot reaches an impasse beyond which the choice to be made will be an unsatisfactory explanation or substitute way for using power: either become God in your own universe (hmm … seems petty) or turn it over to others whose motives may be suspect. Is a third way at all possible?

As for other aspects of “Akira”, special mention should be made of the music used: a mixture of traditional and modern Japanese instruments and musical styles, it’s used sparingly to create and emphasise a scene’s mood or the action in it. Otomo also takes care to show parts of the city from different angles and points of view: the film appears to zoom from a very intimate point of view in some scenes to ones where people appear as ants scurrying around a vehicle on fire. The suggestion is that Neo-Tokyo itself is a major character though this idea is not fully realised in the narrative.

Western viewers might wonder at Japanese pop culture obsessions with the destruction of Tokyo, the grotesque body horror and the fetishism of technology and cuteness. There is present a sense of the Buddhist notion of non-permanence, tying in with the theme of evolution as a continuous, dynamic process in which humans are but a stepping-stone. There is something of the horror of ageing which is related to the body-horror aspect: the test subjects remain child-like but age to the point where they become corpse-like, and Tetsuo’s body merges with metal and runs riot as his powers, reaching maturity, overpower their human vessel. With so many themes flying under the radar in “Akira”, it’s a wonder the movie doesn’t collapse with the weightiness and profundity of them all; instead it flies determinedly with relentless energy with hardly any let-up all the way to the end and beyond. In spite of its being over 20 years old and the animators overlooking or unable to predict certain technologies – people are still driving cars and still using pen and paper to write – “Akira” appears to have dated very little though whether the same can be said by 2018 or 2019, the period in which the movie is set, is another thing.

Early Summer: visually stunning film with message about effects of change on families

Yasujiro Ozu, “Early Summer” (1951)

Calm and serene with a thin plot, “Early Summer” looks at a family and the changes it undergoes as a result of one of its members deciding whether or not to marry. The movie is set in early 1950’s Japan which was under American occupation and associated social influences at the time. Noriko (Setsuko Hara) is a clerk in her late twenties under pressure from her parents and her married brother at home to find a suitable husband. Even her boss at work jokingly suggests she should meet an old school friend of his to see if they’re a good match for each other. Noriko sweetly bats off all these hints that she’s nearing her meat-market use-by date and should be settling down to obedient, passive housewifely duties. Her social set divides into singleton and married-women camps arguing the pros and cons of singlehood and supposed wedded bliss so she’s well aware of what she’d be walking into if she got that gold band on her finger. Interestingly, the one person who doesn’t hassle Noriko about getting married is her sister-in-law who’s harried by two small sons who are spoilt by their grandparents.

The visual style of “Early Summer” is highly commendable: the camera positions place considerable physical space between us viewers and the characters, and the cameras themselves are set at table height or at the level Japanese people traditionally kneel down to eat at low tables when at home. Deep focus fixed-camera shots are used so people are often filmed in the background having conversations or doing things while framed by doorways, furniture and other interior fixtures. If the camera moves at all, it is to track people coming towards it or going away from it, or to pan slowly across the screen over a nature scene. The effect is to give “Easy Summer” a static, almost stage-like quality and viewers will feel very much like voyeurs peeking into people’s private business. The very minimal acting places psychological distance between us and the characters. By forcing such physical and psychological distance, viewers observe the story as it develops and don’t get deeply involved; this helps to reinforce the film’s theme about how change affects families and the relationships within them for better and for worse. We shouldn’t get upset if people suffer as this may be a short-term effect of the change and there may be long-term benefits; equally a short-term benefit may lead to adverse long-term effects.

“Early Summer” observes the pressure Noriko is put under to conform to tradition and expectations under social, political and economic conditions that aren’t static, and the frustrations and distress that she experiences when social custom clashes with changing reality. At first she’s unwilling to surrender her freedom, financial independence and closeness to her relatives but after continued pressure from family and friends alike, she suddenly decides to marry a widower with a child. The irony of her decision is that her relatives disapprove of the idea of a proven family man as husband over a man aged 40 years who’s never married and might not be family-man material; and Noriko’s impending marriage means her income will be lost to her family so her brother and his brood must move to a smaller house in Tokyo and the parents must live in the country. The hypocrisy and shallowness inherent in forcing a woman to marry purely to preserve social standing and harmony without thought for practical consequences become apparent.

The acting is so sparing in its expressiveness as to seem stereotyped: most of the women are chirpy and giggle a lot; the men stick to one mode of expression throughout the film so Noriko’s boss is usually jovial and her dad and various other aged people usually act bemused at the pace of modern life. Hara does a good job within the limits set by director Ozu at portraying a woman who hides her anger, sorrow and despair behind a cheery and upbeat façade.

Scenes of restless nature (beach scenes of rolling waves near the beginning and the end of the film, a scene at the end of rippling wheat ready for harvest) and of the Tokyo cityscape reflect the ongoing and impassive nature of change. The small children with their obsession with model train sets and demand for lollies and gifts are the focus of a small subplot emphasising generational differences.

Slow and reserved it may be but “Early Summer” isn’t at all stodgy; it just glides by, inviting neither scorn nor sympathy for its characters. The film does suffer from not being in colour which would enhance Ozu’s style of filming by adding depth to deep focus shots. Mood and atmosphere might be improved with appropriate colour choices in the interior and costume design. Unfortunately for Ozu, the technology to film in colour was never available to him, Japan at the time being an impoverished country ruined by war policies pursued by its governments in the 1930’s – ’40’s, and by the time the country’s film industry could afford colour filming (some time in the mid-1960’s), Ozu had already died.

One aspect of “Early Summer” that some viewers might find troubling is the fatalistic attitude expressed by Noriko’s parents in their new digs in the country when they kid themselves that they’re happy and shouldn’t ask for more in life. Their facial expressions suggest their confusion, unhappiness and feeling of being tricked or trapped in some way at the way things have turned out as a result of their daughter bowing to convention and tradition. This moment captures very well the bewilderment of a society caught up in political, economic and social changes not always of its own making.

Inju, the Beast in the Shadow: a standard crime thriller with unrealised potential

Barbet Schroeder, “Inju, la bête dans l’ombre” (2008)

Enjoyably silly movie about a literature academic and aspiring crime fiction writer whose career, night-time as well as day-time, seems to revolve mostly around a mysterious and reclusive Japanese pulp crime fiction author who may be mentally disturbed and perhaps even psychotic, “Inju …” poses food for thought about the way films can be constructed and how Westerners view foreign societies and their institutions. Alex Fayard (Benoît Magimel) has just had his first novel published and translated into several languages and it becomes a  best-seller around the world, especially in Japan. His Japanese publisher organises a promotional trip so after wrapping up his last lecture for the term with a screening of a film based on a gruesome novel by Shundei Oe, that famous hermit writer, Fayard jets off to Japan for TV and radio interviews and book-signing sessions. While in Japan, among his marketing duties and sight-seeing trips organised by the publisher and his guide Ken Honda, Fayard meets and falls in love with a geisha, Tamao (Lika Minamoto), who seeks his help as she is being pursued by a vengeful and violent ex-boyfriend Ichiro Hirata who coincidentally happens to be the strange and disturbed Shundei Oe.

The film starts impressively with a visually striking and melodramatic mise-en-scène of the closing scenes of the crime drama Fayard screens for his students and for a while you may wonder whether “Inju …” will delve into issues like authors’ responsibility to readers to show the triumph of good over evil in fictional worlds where society flounders in moral ambiguity, evil is often disguised as good, good people are cut down and evil ones profit, and the universe itself appears not to care either way. At least Fayard hopes to meet his idol and argue that point; the movie appears to travel that way, setting up Fayard as a crusader using Oe’s plot constructions and arguments against themselves in his novel, and Oe as a sinister force who may test Fayard’s stand and moral mettle with the same weapons, and perhaps leave the Frenchman a changed man of stronger steel. Tamao may be the innocent mystery woman compromised by a past romance and her current relationship with her rich but violent and abusive patron Ryuji Mogi (Ryo Ishibashi). Clues and warnings are left for Fayard to discover and he gets swept up in piecing together a puzzle of Tamao’s dangerous liaisons and the mystery of Shundei Oe’s identity, nature and what he intends for Tamao, Mogi and Fayard himself.

Well folks, the plot doesn’t go quite as expected in a conventional, suspenseful, noirish way and astute viewers will pick up enough clues to crack Oe’s identity before all is revealed in the twist ending. Some people might feel a bit cheated by the MacGuffin device that drives what turns out to be a soap opera plot. Admittedly the set-up is ingenious and clever if far-fetched and Fayard turns out to be no more than a puppet manipulated by Oe in a not very complex web. “Inju …” is more clever and intellectual mystery crime drama of the kind Agatha Christie and her ilk might have written if they were alive today and used elements of psychological horror / slasher and fiction / film noir genres, than a noirish psychological study. Everything that happens to Fayard from the moment he leaves his apartment is a test of his character and intelligence in some way in a tight construction by Oe, and whether the Frenchman wins or not depends on if he can recognise the sequence of events happening around him as Oe’s next novel with himself as protagonist.

The acting isn’t anything special and Magimel who looks mostly shell-shocked has done far better work in films like Michael Haneke’s “The Piano Teacher” in which he played the manipulator student. There are very lovely scenes of modern Japanese life that are reminiscent of the style of Seijun Suzuki’s 1960’s gangster flick “Kanto Wanderer” and “Inju …” could be viewed as a travelogue of the exotic and perverse in modern Japanese culture with sometimes voyeuristic emphasis on its underbelly (the rich yakuza lifestyle, the use of ropes and knots in sadomasochistic sex) and the mix of native traditions and institutions with Western-style cultural sophistication.

“Inju …” could have been a riveting cat-and-mouse game in which Oe and Fayard try to outwit each other, trying to understand one another’s motives and Fayard himself questioning his own morality and original motivation in championing and criticising Oe’s body of fiction where evil always trounces good. Instead it’s a standard crime thriller with considerable potential left unrealised that Hollywood could do better if the right hack director (say,  Ridley Scott) were thrown into Schroeder’s hot seat. The opening scenes make “Inju …” worth at least one viewing.

At the very least, the movie can be viewed on one level as an intellectual subversion of Western presumptions about Japanese society, its treatment of women and the institution and of geishas and the roles they play vis-à-vis their male clients, and how one woman  uses her supposed victim status and passivity to play two men and their weaknesses against each other.

Princess Mononoke: flawed epic with ambition and good intentions

Hayao Miyazaki, “Princess Mononoke” (1997)

When I first saw this movie about a decade ago, like everyone else I was bowled over by the stunning animated backgrounds and the techniques used to create very life-like or 3D effects (even though nearly everything was hand-drawn), and the attention Studio Ghibli paid to details so much so that every character had his or her own individual look and hair-style, and even the cooking pots and bowls used had their own distinctive features. On second viewing, this time with the jarring English language soundtrack, “Princess Mononoke” still looks impressive but its defects are easier to pick out: significant characters remain one-dimensional or come into the movie at odd times, almost as an afterthought, and partly as a result the plot is over-stretched and ends up bogged down in its themes and story details. Most viewers shouldn’t have a problem with major battle scenes and plot developments occurring off-screen and being reported after they occur but younger viewers or those with no experience of movies, TV shows and PC games where several actions can occur simultaneously with players focussed on one action or being able to flick between parallel actions, might struggle to keep up with “Princess Mononoke” as it unfolds.

The story takes place from the perspective of a young teenage warrior, Ashitaka, who defends his isolated village clan in a remote part of Japan from a giant boar which wounds him as he brings it down with arrows. The boar is a demon made so by hatred and anger of humans and Ashitaka must find out how the boar was transformed into raging hate and fury if he is to find a cure for his poisoned wound which the village wise woman warns will spread through his body and kill him. He travels to the forests west of his home territory and soon is embroiled in a bitter, ongoing conflict between an industrial and mining settlement called Irontown, led by the aristocratic Lady Eboshi, and the animal guardians of the forests, led by the feral teenage girl San aka Princess Mononoke and her adoptive wolf family. The Irontown inhabitants are clearing the forests on a mountain so they can mine and use the iron ore there but their actions are destroying the animals’ habitat and enraging the boars of whom one became the demon that attacked Ashitaka’s people and wounded him.

Ashitaka gets the answers he needs quickly but getting the actual cure for his infection is a much more complicated problem than he realises, and requires his being able to see the conflict between the humans and the forest creatures from both Lady Eboshi and San’s points of view. He discovers that both sides are under pressure from and are being manipulated by unseen others. He falls in love with San, he has to tolerate others’ decisions and actions even when they bring disaster instead of success, he discovers that even when all seems lost there is always the possibility of renewal and regrowth, and with that possibility, there is hope. As a rite-of-passage / coming-of-age movie, “Princess Mononoke” doesn’t quite succeed as both Ashitaka and San undergo no very significant character development even as those near and dear to them suffer and die. Their romance is lop-sided and San’s rejection of Ashitaka and of humans generally cuts out all but a very slim chance of future reconciliation. Ashitaka accepts change but San is uncomfortable with it and the possibility of their ever meeting again, in spite of promises from them both, is uncertain.

The plot itself runs out of steam coming towards the halfway point of the film and wallows in earnestness over its theme of human transformation of the natural environment through technology, industrialisation and sheer material greed, and the consequences of such a transformation and the forces it may unleash. To the film’s credit, the characters representing the opposing sides of the conflict the theme generates are complex and ambivalent: Lady Eboshi, the “villain”, is a humanitarian who takes the poor and disadvantaged under her wing and puts them to work in her iron forges (though that could be said generally of rapacious corporations that continually move operations from one Third World country to another to take advantage of naive local workers, low wages and political and social conditions that suppress human rights) and the animal guardians of the forests, the “good guys”, think of their own self-interest, refuse to listen to good advice when it comes from a human and fail to co-operate for the benefit of the forests and the Forest Spirit. The Forest Spirit itself is a passive and gentle giant that offers no resistance to the various indignities which include decapitation and death that the humans hurl at it. In addition there are other forces that attempt to pull Lady Eboshi’s strings, notably Jigo and his hunters who plan to make Lady Eboshi do all the work of killing the Forest Spirit and suffer the wrath of the animals while they themselves make off with the deity’s head; and the never-seen Lord Asano whose army attacks and nearly destroys Irontown while Lady Eboshi and Jigo lead her forces into the forest.

It turns out that the Forest Spirit’s death is necessary to effect a cure for Ashitaka’s wound and this suggests also that death as well as life is necessary to sustain Nature. Ashitaka and Lady Eboshi come to their own conclusions about humans and nature living in harmony and significantly Ashitaka elects to remain with Lady Eboshi and the Irontown survivors rather than return to his home village.

With so many characters populating the movie yet having no impact on the workings of the plot – the human-eating apes in particular providing no more than a sinister potential rival to the equally malevolent boars – and the twists of fate that deny Ashitaka’s efforts to find a cure for his infection, there’s enough potential in “Princess Mononoke” for a two-part or even three-part animated mini-series. An origin story for San and some way of reuniting Ashitaka with his clan could be included; and there would be room for both Ashitaka and San to grow and mature psychologically and become true leaders. As it is, “Princess Mononoke”, with all its imperfections and loose ends, is still a complex and ambitious epic with good intentions, and viewers should watch it a few times at least to absorb the visual details and beauty.

Shinobi – Heart under Blade: film could have been cut above other live-action films based on manga / anime

Ten Shimoyama, “Shinobi – Heart under Blade” (2005)

Based on a novel “The Kouga Ninja Scrolls” written by Futaro Yamada in the late 1950’s, this movie will appeal mainly to fans of the manga and anime, both called “Basilisk”, that are also based on the novel. Watch the movie closely though and you’ll find themes that will set you thinking: the age-old opposition between free will and predestination; the determinism that states that what you are and what you do are the products of your background and social history and you can never break away or overcome your past; the question of how people bred, born and trained for war can cope with peace; what is the point of war anyway; and how misfits and outsiders can be accepted in normal society.

The film is set in the early years of the Tokugawa Shogunate that brought 260 years of peace to Japan. Ieyasu Tokugawa (Kazuo Kitamura) is wary of any threats to the country’s recent unification after 150 years of warfare (a period mined by Akira Kurosawa for insipiration for his films) and in particular is concerned about two clans, the Iga and Koga clans, based in two hidden mountain villages that have waged a vendetta against each other for centuries and are currently co-existing under an enforced 400-year peace. Tokugawa’s advisor cunningly sees a way of obliterating these two clans and wiping out any potential resistance to his master and suggests the clans demonstrate their prowess and powers at a ceremony by sending one representative warrior each. After this demonstration, Tokugawa announces that the enforced peace between the two clans is to be lifted and invites the clans to choose their five best ninja warriors to fight to the death. The one warrior to survive this all-in cat-fight will determine which of Tokugawa’s sons will succeed him as Shogun.

Unbeknownst to all, including their own people, it happens that Gennosuke (Joe Odagiri) of the Kogas and Oboro (Yukie Nakama) of the Igas fell in love some time ago and married secretly. As a result of Tokugawa’s invitation, both Gennosuke and Oboro find themselves nominated as members of their respective clans’ lists of the five best warriors and moreover, after the aged heads of the two clans foolishly whack each other into oblivion – illustrating that even in those days, when you were supposed to respect aged people for their wisdom, the reality was that being older didn’t necessarily mean being wiser – must lead their teams in this battle to end all battles. Gennosuke determines to find out from a senior noble Hattori Honzo (Yutaka Matsushige) what actual purpose this fight might serve as he suspects there is a hidden motive and he takes his warriors on a long trek on foot to Sumpu to meet this guy. He invites Oboro and her warriors to follow him and his team.

The bulk of the film is taken up by the Koga and Iga warriors taking one another out in ingenious and gruesome ways, their skills and superhuman powers on display though a number of characters don’t live long enough for the audience to fully appreciate the fighters’ abilities, until only Gennosuke and Oboro are left standing. In the meantime, the Shogun sends his armies to destroy the Koga and Iga villages. Realising their families and homes are doomed, Gennosuke and Oboro face a hard decision: one of them must sacrifice himself/herself and “lose” the battle of the clans.

The cinematography is gorgeous, emphasising nature and landscapes and in particular the passing of seasons, and this is the major highlight of the film, more so than the CGI-enhanced fighting scenes, some of which look surprisingly cheap. The overall idea with the emphasis on nature and its cycle is that all characters in this film are locked into an inescapable cosmic game which must be played out to its bitter end; the ninja warrior followers certainly feel this way and are either resigned to their fate or can’t see that they can be more than what they were bred, born and brought up to be.  They believe that without war, without a leader they can serve, their unique skills and abilities are as nothing and will wither and be forgotten. Only Gennosuke sees that there may be a place for the Igas and Kogas in a new world of peace; he questions the idea of being born for war and of wasting lives in violence, particularly in a scene where he defends himself from a horde of black-clad ninjas and slays them all, only to cry out in frustration at a situation where he is forced to kill for no good reason.

The colours of the film are worth mentioning: blue looks bluer, red looks redder and so on with all other colours, giving an intense look that is slightly unreal, even a bit cartoony, and demonstrating that, yes, we are in a world where real-life people like Ieyasu Tokugawa co-existed with people who are both human in their thoughts, feelings and shortcomings, and beyond human in their skills and abilities.

With the film’s emphasis on plot and pleasing the target audience (“Basilisk” manga / anime fans), acting and character development aren’t a great priority which is a pity; the characters of Oboro and Gennosuke at least could be more developed than they are so those viewers who don’t know the manga and anime film could sympathise with the lovers and feel their pain. The romance develops too quickly and next thing you know they’re married in a very brief ceremony (the groom hands his mother’s keepsake to the bride) and that’s it. From then on the action switches to the clans’ feud and how it will play out. The couple’s cardboard cut-out ninja companions are a mix of people who could be remote kin to the superheroes and supervillains of the DC Comics and Marvel Comics universes: Nenki Iga (Shun Ito) might be cousin to Wolverine of the X-Men team with his retractable iron claws and Kagero Koga (Tomoko Kurotani), the woman with poison for blood, has her analogy in Batman’s enemy Poison Ivy. Pity then that Nenki only has a couple of minutes to showcase his wares before Kagero finishes him off! The only ninja companions who get much to do and say are Koshirou (Mitsuki Koga) and Tenzen (Kippei Shiina): Tenzen especially voices his opinion that they, Kogas and Igas all, exist for war and have no place in a world of peace; significantly he chooses to die by kissing Kagero on the lips rather than rely on his symbiotic relationship with his pet internal tapeworm tenants which oblige him by cleaning and healing his wounds and injuries in super-quick time.

The plot is easy to follow and well-paced, progressing steadily to the surprise climax where the Shogun tells Oboro that her people and the Kogas are not normal people and can never be fully accepted into normal society because of their talents, and Oboro reacts by disabling herself of her unique power. This could be interpreted in different ways, not all of them happy: one interpretation could be that only by suppressing your uniqueness can you be accepted by others; another is that Oboro realises that to end their vendetta, the Igas and Kogas must join the rest of humanity and give up their warring ways by compromising their culture and talents. It’s a sad moment in a sense then when Oboro renounces her old life to spare her clan and Gennosuke’s clan from annihilation. The villagers may be saved and may be allowed to rejoin normal society and be able to resolve their differences with outside help and not have to resort to violence – but at what cost to their unique ways of life, their crafts and their arts?

The Romeo-and-Juliet plot may have been done to death many times already and there’s probably not much here that’s original and fresh but the film is a visually gorgeous and colourful feast for the eyes with lush forests and landscapes (a couple of waterfall scenes do look suspiciously unnatural, as though superimposed on a blank background behind a couple of actors) and the fight scenes and CGI effects are sometimes interesting if not always convincing. If the film had put more emphasis on developing interesting characters and elaborating on its themes, it could have been a cut above other live-action Japanese sword fantasy films based on manga and anime – ah, we’ll never know what could be.

One Missed Call (dir. Takashi Miike): over-the-top approach smothers observations about families and chaos in the world

Takashi Miike, “One Missed Call” (2004)

Coming from Takashi Miike (of “Ichi the Killer” fame), this contemporary update on the Japanese psychological horror ghost story in which a group of university student friends is terrorised by death notices from the future on their cellphones and one by one succumbs, in usually gruesome and violent fashion, in accordance with the time and date of the original message, is as loopy, graphic, comic and bizarre as expected with a message about the potential for abuse, manipulation and violence in family relationships, particularly in parents and children’s expectations of loyalty and support from each other. There may be no issue or subject Miike hasn’t met from which he can’t extricate the maximum amount of shock, revulsion or nervous laughter from his audiences. Certainly there is a lot of violence and some ketchup is spilt, but apart from a few scenes the gory stuff has been toned right down and as much violence happens off-screen as on. “One Missed Call” also lingers quite close to the territory of cheese in its pace and the way scenes may be drawn out as though to bait and exhaust audiences’ capacity to experience and absorb the characters’ fear and terror, especially in the movie’s last 40 minutes from the time one character enters an abandoned hospital.

Yumi (Ko Shibasaki) is the film’s focus of a small, close-knit bunch of pals at uni who start getting messages on their cellphones that come from a specific time and date in the future and in which their own voices make a short statement, scream and quickly fall silent. Perturbing also is that the messages are originating from their own cellphone numbers! Come the time and date of the strange message in the student’s real life and the person dies violently, usually by decapitation, while making the same statement and scream; at the the same time his or her cellphone rings its number to convey the victim’s last moments, and shortly after death, a red lolly pops out of the victim’s mouth. After losing two friends in this way and finding others have died in like manner, Yumi contacts the police who at first are unsympathetic towards her story but at least pass her onto detective Yamashita (Shinichi Tsutsumi) whose sister, a nurse working with child abuse victims, was the first to die from the cellphone curse. Together Yumi and Yamashita try (and fail) to prevent a third friend, Natsumi, falling victim to the death phone curse on a live TV broadcast: this moment must be Miike’s over-the-top comment on how the media exploits, sensationalises and ultimately trivialises ordinary people’s suffering. The two gradually connect the deaths of the friends and others to a case of a mother, Marie Mizunuma, suspected of having abused her two young daughters, of whom one, Mimiko, died of an asthmatic attack and the other, Nanako, is mute and now under the care of social workers.

Unexpected and surprising twists a-plenty appear in the two allies’ race to save Yumi herself from death by dialling after she also receives a death notice. Miike sure loves to pile on surprise after surprise and subvert viewers’ expectations and guesses as to the identity of the vengeful ghost that enjoys playing with other people’s lives. In an already fairly tight though sometimes drawn-out screenplay, he delights in giving two climaxes to the film as though to beat audiences clean out of their minds and patience, and whacks in an original and demented conclusion in which time is forced to travel backwards to give us the “right” conclusion as to what happens to Yumi and Yamashita, rather than the “wrong” conclusion. Miike clearly isn’t a believer in the quantum theory idea of parallel universes in which an incident in one universe can give birth to at least two and usually more than two universes, of which in one universe Yumi survives the death curse, in another universe doesn’t survive the death curse, and in another universe appearing to survive the death curse – among others. The conclusion is set up in such a way that any, maybe even both or all, of these scenarios applies to Yumi!

Technically Miike is a very accomplished film-maker with excellent control of the script, no matter how loopy it gets, and using background settings, sequencing with jumpy cuts and sometimes deliberately jerky filming to create and sustain an atmosphere of unease rising to fear, terror and sheer fright. His use of sound, colour and lighting in the hospital corridor scenes where Yumi is menaced by the ghost and constant reminders of human mortality in jars of preserved bodies being placed before her is effective in generating increasing tension. Miike sure doesn’t mess much with introductions: he gets right into the thick of things by despatching two of Yumi’s friends in the film’s first 30 minutes before settling down into more extended scenes as Yumi and Yamashita conduct their investigation. He demands a great deal from his main actor Ko Shibasaki who, though deteriorating into a screaming damsel in distress in the second half of the film, works those facial muscles and vocal flaps well, sinking right into the character for most of the film and changing dramatically in the film’s denouement to something sinister and quiet. As for the other actors, Tsutsumi at least plays his detective character as directed, not giving it anything that would really set it apart from other movie detectives, and minor characters register as one-dimensional stereotypes in a plot-drive movie packed with over-the-top melodrama.

Though the lead character is a female who initiates the investigation into the cause of the death notices, Miike’s idea of what females should and shouldn’t do is limited and conservative for a director who supposedly has a prolific body of often imaginative work in nearly all major film genres with a reputation for subverting genre conventions: “good” girls here are passive and loyal to their families even when parents do bad things to them or death threatens; and “bad” girls are active, behaving wildly and impulsively like the forces of nature, and they can only be controlled, kept at bay or placated with sacrifices, their motives or reason for behaving as they do beyond human understanding and reasoning. Male characters don’t get off lightly either: either they’re not interested and end up being puzzled victims, or they try to deal with the problem using known solutions without knowing what they’re up against. Only Tsutsumi attempts to try to understand the nature of what he’s dealing. The police force is relegated to mopping up after messes made. The vision expressed here is nihilistic and despairing – chaos is ever present and ready to wreak havoc, and the structures we humans put up to make sense of the world, including the technology we rely on so heavily and which we fetishise, can be infiltrated by chaos and turned against us. The use of psychiatry with reference to Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy (MSP) – a psychiatric disorder in which parents deliberately sicken or injure their children to get attention from medical professionals – is a superficial addition to the plot used to confound audience expectations about the ghost’s identity. Science, religion and rationalism turn out to be useless weapons against chaos.

The film looks like a typical ghost-horror screamathon but there are some deep observations beneath the frenzy and pile-up of twists and surprises about the nature of the world , the loss of connections and alienation, and of dysfunctional families that most people will miss completely. That’s a pity in a way, as this film might have been stronger if those observations weren’t so deeply buried beneath the excess. It’s possible that Miike is parodying and questioning the horror film genre by exaggerating its conventions and taking them to their utmost extreme but that might not always be the best road to take if you want to send up something that you love and want to have fun with. Miike certainly has a lot of fun with “One Missed Call” and some of it is very funny – I found the scene where Yumi hugs a decaying body and the surprised look on the ghoul’s face one of the more hilarious moments – but I suspect I’m one of just a very few people who can see the fun and the serious stuff through the body count.

Dororo: a fun escapist samurai-fusion film let down by cheap effects

Akihiko Shiota, “Dororo” (2006)

Based on the original manga by Astroboy creator, Osamu Tezuka, “Dororo” is a fun and entertaining escapist fantasy adventure about two wanderers, Hyakkimaru and Dororo, in a post-apocalyptic Japan. Curiously this Japan resembles pre-Tokugawa Japan in its culture and politics: the country has been split up and is ruled by warring clans each eager to wipe out the others and reunite the land by force and tyranny. Leader of one such clan, Daigo Kagemitsu (Kichi Nakai), is so keen to be the first Great Unifier since Ieyasu Tokugawa that he readily enters into a Faustian pact with a group of demons at a temple: the evil ones demand the body of his first-born son as payment. When the child is born, the demons seize and dismember him, leaving behind bare scraps of flesh held together by the baby’s spirit. Daigo Kagemitsu forces his wife to abandon the child and she does so tearfully, sending him off in a basket to drift down a fast-flowing river.

The baby is found by a sorcerer who painstakingly sets about reconstructing the tiny body using the remains of children killed in past wars together with various prostheses that include swords hidden in the boy’s new arms. Scenes of the reconstruction look amusingly (and intentionally) like their equivalents in old Frankenstein movies: the sorcerer distils the life essence of the dead children amid a collection of boiling potions in glass containers all joined together with transparent tubes and he uses magic that resembles electricity to animate the body parts. The boy, wrapped in bandages, floats in a soup of life-sustaining liquid. The process has to take a long time as the boy needs bigger parts and prostheses as he grows up. The sorcerer takes time to educate the boy as well. On reaching the age of 20, the boy (Satoshi Tsumabuki) is as ready as can be to take on the demons which is just as well as the sorcerer conveniently gives up the ghost and commands Hyakkimaru to destroy his life-work so that it should not fall into the wrong hands for evil purposes. Hyakkimaru burns the sorcerer’s house and life-work and begins his odyssey around Japan in search of the 48 demons who took his original body parts.

He acquires a side-kick, Dororo (Ko Shibasaki), who, on seeing him despatch a spider-demon in short and spectacular FX-enhanced order at a tavern, becomes curious about him and learns of his history from the time the sorcerer found him from a mysterious lute-player (Katsuo Nakamura) who happens to be the sorcerer’s friend. Dororo is a teenage thief, orphaned at an early age and commanded by her mother to suppress her gender identity by impersonating a boy; the girl desires revenge upon the Kagemitsus for destroying her family and community. Together Hyakkimaru and Dororo – incidentally, they acquire their names as nicknames, their real names being unknown – cross the length and breadth of a scenic and beautiful wild countryside (the movie having been filmed in New Zealand), killing the various demons who were part of the group that negotiated with Daigo Kagemitsu, in order to recover Hyakkimaru’s physical inheritance piece by piece … until they come to the lands of the Kagemitsus where Daigo Kagemitsu’s son and heir Tahomaru hears of Hyakkimaru’s arrival and seeks him out, inviting him to come and meet his parents …

The screenplay is better plotted than I expected: Hyakkimaru and Dororo could have spent the entire film chasing and killing rubber monsters and CGI ghouls with Dororo falling in love with Hyakkimaru along the way and Hyakkimaru unable to reciprocate until he has regained all his body parts. The showdown with Daigo Kagemitsu could have been shelved for a sequel but “Dororo” chooses to meet this head-on with a revelation that the demons handed Daigo Kagemitsu a dud deal, taking the first-born son’s physical being and going to town on that with some el-cheapo cheesy Godzilla cast-off costumes and computer effects that are irregular in quality, but most of all failing to deliver all of their client’s enemies to him in good time.  Yet Daigo K never appears to want his child back or at least take the contract to the relevant Department of Fair Trade. The movie can appear rather uneven: in its early scenes and the later scenes where Hyakkimaru confronts his father, the movie adopts a serious and drawn-out (maybe too drawn-out for fans of action) tone, and in other scenes where the two young ‘uns confront and kill demons, it’s quite flippant and the demons are more cartoonish than terrifying, but the screenplay holds up in spite of the changes in approach. I guess the emphasis is that the business of killing demons is secondary to Hyakkimaru discovering his true heritage and what it means to be human, and on how Dororo copes with finding out that the man she is following is the son of her family’s killers and whether her thirst for revenge is fulfilled.

Shibasaki and Tsumabuki do the best they can with their one-dimensional characters: Shibasaki’s Dororo comes across as a stock jester or clown character in the vein of similar characters in other Japanese samurai movies though the acting involved is substantial and Shibasaki does a convincing job throwing jokes, tantrums and tomboy bluster; while Tsumabuki’s Hyakkimaru has an uphill battle demonstrating an increasing capacity for feeling, empathy and humour when he has to acquire humanity bit by tiny bit. After all, by the time he’s resolved his issues with Dad, he’s only halfway to full humanity with 24 more jigsaw puzzle pieces to collect. No wonder then that he appears robotic throughout the film and only seems to become a bit human at the end. There are hints in “Dororo” that acquiring humanity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and that becoming human means becoming vulnerable to wounding, both physical, mental and emotional; it would have been good if Shiota had played up that angle more so that the whole business of tracking down the demons and killing them, one by one, just to get your body parts back, one by one, becomes more complicated on an existential level. Particularly also if you decide to bring some futuristic neo-Buddhist beliefs about the relationships between material desires and the nature of suffering into the picture: the more human you become, the more subject to desires you also become, and the more likely you will sin and cause other people to suffer.

Combining manga and various movie references, sci-fi, fantasy, martial arts, Japanese folk mythology and some old-fashioned story-telling with flashback sequences and a bit of philosophising about family members sticking together, “Dororo” juggles its influences and the genre-mixing fairly well to deliver a fun light-hearted ride at least. The major complaints I have are that the special effects and the CGI work aren’t of consistent quality and often look cheap, especially when the rest of the film looks good and sometimes even majestic, and the various demons Hyakkimaru meets tend to be animal and plant spirits rather than real demons straight out of people’s worst nightmares: we have the spider-demon, the tree-demon, the lizard-demon, the moth-demon, the fox-demons … all not terribly original and restricted in their roles as particular animals and plants. Sure, some can morph into humans but they don’t morph into anything else to make life more fun for themselves and extra difficult for everyone else. The futuristic world created for Hyakkimaru and Dororo should look more of a pastiche of different cultures, past and present, within and outside Japan, than it does. Armchair experts in mediaeval Japanese culture and history would recognise a great deal borrowed from Japan’s Sengoku warlord period (about 1450 – 1600) which preceded the Tokugawa shogunate; the film looks like one of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai pictures remade on a budget. The one part of the film that’s truly cosmopolitan and outstanding is the music soundtrack which features considerable bluesy-sounding flamenco-style guitar music.

If a sequel to “Dororo” gets off the ground, I’d expect a bit more character development and maybe some delayed teenage angst on Hyakkimaru’s part as he acquires more human feelings and emotions, and maybe questions whether it’s really worth his while getting all his body parts back. Reading some of the comments on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) though, I found one which stated an sequel is not likely as the estate of Osamu Tezuka does not like the film and has refused permission for sequels. I have never seen the manga but apparently the film makes drastic changes to the original manga story – to take two examples, the manga Dororo is a young preteen boy, and the tone of the manga itself is more serious than that of the film – and possibly it is changes such as these that the estate objects to. For the time being anyway, manga fans and the general public alike can enjoy the film as a post-modern samurai-fusion flick and if some people are inspired to read the original manga, that will be a bonus.

Empire of Passions: pedestrian story saved by beautiful visuals and psychological character study

Nagisa Oshima, “Empire of Passions” (1978)

By coincidence, when I saw this film the first time early in 2010, I had just finished reading “Therese Raquin”, a psychological novel by late 19th century French writer Emile Zola, and I have to admit I failed to see the similarities between the two at the time. Although the novel is not the source inspiration for the film, there is a similar basic idea: a woman and her lover plot to kill her husband, they carry out the deed in a way so as to ensure there are no witnesses, and for the rest of the story, the murderers suffer pangs of guilt either openly or indirectly and their guilty consciences lead them to act out certain behaviours or say things that arouse the attentions and suspicions of others. The film is based on a real incident that occurred in Japan in the late nineteenth century. Oshima has fleshed out the plot into a mix of story genres – traditional Japanese ghost horror story meets modern thriller with a psychology study thrown in – that may comment on the impact of Western rationality and police-state control, as exemplified by the soldier lover and the police officer who investigates the crime, on a traditional easy-going and spontaneous rural society with its particular set of values as exemplified by the unfaithful wife.

The film revolves mainly around the two lovers, soldier Toyoji (Tatsuya Fujii, who appeared in Oshima’s “In the Realm of the Senses” prior to making “Empire of Passions”), who relies on reason and experience; and Seki (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) who, in spite of her mature years, being old enough to be Toyoji’s mother, retains her youthful looks and figure and a naive, morally flexible and child-like approach to life that Toyoji takes advantage of to seduce her. Viewers may sense that Seki’s life with her rickshaw-driver husband Gisaburo (Takahiro Tamura) is in some ways unfulfilling: her personal needs and desires go unspoken and unsatisfied as she is kept busy looking after hubby and two kids and working for the landlord in his fields and kitchen. I can’t help but compare Seki with the “good girl” characters in Danish director Lars von Trier’s trilogy of films about self-sacrificing heroines (“Breaking the Waves” / “The Idiots” / “Dancer in the Dark”) in which the good women live in or come from situations of isolation – and you could argue Seki herself has lived in isolation of a sort, as a woman married to a poor man in a rural community sidetracked by Japan’s industrialisation in the 1890’s – and are so innocent and naive that they readily agree to be co-opted by their men into behaviour and actions that lead to their downfall (cruel, violent death or family ostracism). The difference is that Seki comes to regret her actions and is tormented by the murder. Why Seki would want to throw away her settled, comfortable if hard-working family life for a man with no job prospects and who rapes her, mutilates her by shaving her and then forces her to co-operate in the murder of her husband and his body’s disposal, is never adequately answered in the film. One assumes that the position of women in rural Japan in the late nineteenth century was so dreadfully low that women like Seki were completely lacking in self-esteem and control over their lives and bodies to the extent that others had more rights to their reproductive systems than they themselves did.

Toyoji himself is a puzzle: having been discharged from the army, he’s only interested in having a good time and in preying on Seki’s generous nature and innocence, only to become disinterested in her after murdering her husband. Oshima offers no explanation as to why his behaviour towards Seki changes. Toyoji appears to have no qualms about murdering Gisaburo but his constant repetitive actions in visiting the well where Gisaburo’s body lies and dumping leaves there might well suggest guilt. Even his apparent disinterest in Seki may reflect his guilt: if he and Seki were to be seen together by the neighbours after Gisaburo’s disappearance, the community might well add two and two together and come up with five, and so he and she must wait for as long as they can (if necessary, for years) before they can be seen together openly. Another interpretation of Toyoji’s character is that he’s simply being rational in insisting on waiting and not appearing to be a couple. As it is, three years after the murder, various folks including Seki’s daughter Oshin report being visited in their dreams by Gisaburo and these reports play on Seki’s mind sufficiently that she starts to see Gisaburo’s ghost regularly at nights. Understandably Seki is frightened enough to want to stay with Toyoji; when he rebuffs her, she responds by trying to burn herself and the family home.

In the meantime police inspector Hotta (Takuzo Kawatani) arrives to investigate Gisaburo’s disappearance and the various rumours that he has been murdered. Unfortunately the film pays little attention to the way he conducts his investigations, apart from his eavesdropping on Seki and Toyoji one evening, though it’s not much of a surprise to viewers when he has enough evidence to indict Seki and Toyoji. It’s almost as if Hotta and the police authorities decided that Gisaburo was murdered, and that Toyoji and Seki are his killers, and all they need do is collect or even fabricate evidence to clear up the matter. Since Hotta enters the film around the half-way mark, the plot might have worked better if Hotta’s point of view had become dominant: viewers would have been able to follow Hotta eavesdropping on the couple, observing Toyoji and Seki going out to the well, and writing up his thoughts and opinions about the two acting in ways that suggest their guilt and shame. The police then would have a better case to prosecute Toyoji and Seki, and their torture of the two to force their confessions could still take place and appear all the more cruel (because it’s not necessary). Indeed, telling the story from Hotta’s point of view could reinforce Oshima’s message about late 19th century Japan becoming a more military and fascistic society, because Hotta himself would be the mouthpiece for the selective mix of extreme neo-Confucianist and Western, specifically Prussian, ideologies that became the basis for the Japanese imperialist police state of the early 20th century.

Away from the pedestrian plot which leaves a lot unexplained and therefore is open to numerous interpretations, the film is mainly remarkable for its investigation of Seki’s psychological state after the murder and for its depictions of the changing seasons, particularly of the snowy winter backdrop against which Gisaburo’s murder is committed, and of the spring and summer periods during which time community rumours about Gisaburo’s disappearance gestate and are made known to Seki. The cycle of the seasons demonstrates how Seki and Toyoji become trapped, physically as well as psychologically, by their actions with the implication that eventually their crime will lead to an even more base crime (the killing of the landlord) and the two must face punishment with no hope of forgiveness or redemption. The ghost story element is actually less important than the police investigation but it does make for a chilling moment where Seki in her growing mental torment accepts a ride from the ghostly Gisaburo in his rickshaw and he gets lost taking her home.

The film is a companion piece to Oshima’s “In the Realm of the Senses” and was his reply to the outrage that accompanied the earlier film’s release for its controversial plot, based on an actual incident, of a gangster and his lover who engaged in sadomasochistic sex. In that particular film, the sex served as a metaphor for the individual’s revolt against a repressive and increasingly militaristic society.