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Archive for May, 2012

Medical trainee doctor Noboru Yasumoto thinks he’s only visiting an impoverished public clinic where the poor are served but finds out that the magistrate has assigned him to work there and he he as no choice but to stay. Out of spite he refuses to help the good doctor Kyojio Niide known to everyone as Red Beard who runs the place. Yasumoto even refuses to even wear his clinic uniform but eventually becomes interested in the patients particularly an old man dying and a mad woman who’s kept isolated in a special ward. When Red Beard rescues an abused girl Otoya who has been kept by the owner of a brothel, Yasumoto is given the task of coaxing her out of her shell and helping her on the slow road to recovery.

This is the final collaboration between Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and what a belter it is with it’s main theme being compassion. The story is beautiful, touching and shows the redemption of an arrogant young man who thinks he is above working in Red Beard’s clinic but gradually learns what it means to become a human being whilst learning important and worthwhile lessons in life. I enjoyed watching Yasumoto growing from a person who didn’t really give a toss for any of Red Beard’s patients to a man who cares and decides that instead of wanting to become the Shogunate’s doctor he would like to stay on at the clinic. It’s such a memorable movie which is emotionally devastating yet also lifts your spirits at the same time. The patients we meet at Red Beard’s clinic are interesting and each of them has a story to tell which are moving. There are so many moments which stand out but for myself the one which involves the character of ‘The Mantis’ trying to seduce and kill Yasumoto with a hairpin is chilling.

Toshiro Mifune commands a huge onscreen presence as he always does. His portrayal of the grizzled veteran doctor Red Beard is magnificent. Although his character is restrained most of the time, he does get a chance to kick ass when he takes on a gang of thugs and breaks their arms and legs after they try and stop him from taking a girl to his clinic! Yuzo Kayama is fantastic as Yasumoto and I did like Terumi Niki as the mentally scarred Otoya. Kayama and Niki’s scenes together are wonderful.

Akira Kurosawa’s testament to the goodness of mankind is one of his best. It’s such a shame that Kurosawa and Mifune would never work together again after this movie as they brought the best out of each other. Highly recommended.

Sadako’s Rating: 5 stars out of 5

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Yuriko’s Aroma (2010)

30 year old Yuriko works as an aromatherapist at a salon where she uses oils and her hands to soothe her client’s aches, pains and worries. One day the nephew of the salon owner where Yuriko is working comes by. 17 year old high school pupil Tetsuya is stinking of sweat having been practicing kendo as an after school activity. Yuriko finds herself turned on by his smell and even steals Tetsuya’s kendo glove so that she can smell it at home!! One day she follows Tetsuya from school to a secluded run down shack where he sleeps after his kendo practice. She cannot help herself but start sniffing his sweaty head and even licking it! Tetsuya wakes up and cannot believe what’s going on but decides that he wants more out of it so they come to an arrangement. She can smell and lick his sweat if he can get his own pleasure out of it (I’ll say no more about it!!). And so their rather odd relationship begins. As time goes on, Tetsuya wants more out of their relationship but Yuriko doesn’t. He storms off in a huff. Another person to add to this already bizarre relationship is Ayama, a client of Yuriko who wants to practice aromatherapy skills on her but in reality is more interested in pressing her large breasts against Yuriko! What will become of Yuriko and Tetsuya’s relationship?

In case you’re thinking this is a somewhat kinky and perverted movie you’d be wrong as it isn’t at all. A little bit strange perhaps and slightly erotic. It just tells the story of an unusual relationship between 2 lonely people. An original and unconventional movie that is done extremely well by director Yoshida Kota. One has to congratulate him for taking on such a subject matter that the majority of directors wouldn’t touch with a barge pole. It’s a great movie that explores people’s personal desires which might be different to what we perceive as normal. An exploration of something that most would consider it taboo. However the relationship between Yuriko and Tetsuya is done in such a mature way that no sexual material (apart from one scene that doesn’t really fit in with the rest of the movie) is needed to be shown onscreen. It could have been easy for the director to have gone down the soft porn route but he didn’t. As for the 2 leading characters – Noriko Eguchi is really good as Yuriko. Kudos to her for not being afraid of taking on such a difficult and challenging role whilst Shota Sometani as Tetsuya whose performance also shines gives us a display of teenage awkwardness and uncertainty that many men might remember their own experiences with nostalgia!

Yuriko’s Aroma might not be for everyone’s tastes but at least it gives us something that we haven’t seen before. Another reason why I love Japanese movies so much. Recommended.

Sadako’s Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

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Gondo is a wealthy man who has risen through the ranks from being a humble shoe maker inside the National Shoe company to becoming an executive and share holder in the company. Having been on the shop floor, Gondo knows what it takes to make good quality shoes but his fellow executive wants to save money and make cheaper shoes instead that will fall apart quickly. He refuses to go along with their scheme to oust their boss and has a plan of his own to take over the company. To do this, Gondo has mortgaged everything in his possession including the fancy house that his family have on top of a hill. During this time, somebody kidnaps the son of Gondo’s chaffeur having made a mistake as the kidnapper really wanted Gondo’s son. A ransom is given as being 30 million yen to release the boy and the kidnapper wants Gondo to pay it quickly or the boy will be killed. But if he pays the ransom, Gondo’s plan to take over National Shoe will be in ruins. He would lose everything – his house and most likely his job. At first Gondo is reluctant to pay off the ransom. For his own son he would pay in a heartbeat but for a son of his worker he hesitates. A moral dilemma poses itself for Gondo – does he pay off the ransom or not? Will he do the honourable thing?

Possibly one of the most enthralling police thrillers to emerge from Japan and who else but Akira Kurosawa could weave us a gripping tale that keeps us glued to our seats for 2 hours and 25 mins. From the first scene to the ending, Kurosawa shows us exactly why he is a master of cinema. Most people associate him with great samurai dramas but he could do a contemporary thriller as good as any Western movie. The first part of the movie is dedicated solely to Gondo’s situation as he wrestles with his conscience as to what to do with the kidnapping. He doesn’t want to lose everything that he has worked so hard over the years to achieve if he pays the ransom but he cannot let a little boy be killed by the kidnapper. It culminates in a tense and exciting sequence onboard a bullet train. The second half deals with the police search for the kidnapper and his accomplices as they follow up every lead and clue in order to catch their suspects from using the kidnapped kid’s drawings of where he was taken to background sounds from the telephone calls made to Gondo by the kidnapper. It’s all very interesting and keeps us in suspense. The script is fantastic and the cinematography is outstanding. The pacing is perfect and quite quick. I loved the final scene between Gondo and the kidnapper who’s about to have the death sentence carried out on him. He tells Gondo his reasons for carrying out what he did with his chilling words “your house looked like heaven, high up there. That’s how I began to hate you”. The meaning of the movie’s title I would imagine is this – the “high” is obviously Gendo’s house and his wealthy position in society looking down on the “low” where the everyday common people live. It’s almost as if the kidnapper despised the idea that the wealthy Gendo and his house was almost like a castle lording it over the rest of the town.

Excellent acting from Kurosawa regulars Toshiro Mifune as Gondo and Tatsuya Nakadai as the police detective Tokura. The rest of the ensemble cast (familiar faces from other Kurosawa movies) also do a sterling job in their roles.

A masterpiece on every level. A complex and fascinating crime thriller and whilst different to many of Kurosawa’s other movies, it certainly ranks up there as being one of his best. A must-see.

Sadako’s Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

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Kwaidan is a classic Japanese horror anthology movie that consists of 4 seperate ghost stories:

Black Hair: An impoverished samurai dumps his loyal wife in order to marry the daughter of a wealthy lord and improve his position in life. Years later and with his feelings towards his 2nd wife becoming stale, he realises just how much in love with his first wife he’s in and sets off to Kyoto to find her. He’s surprised when he finds her still alive in their old decayed house and ready to forgive him but something is amiss….

The Woman In The Snow: I’ve covered this story in another movie entry (The Snow Witch). It’s basically the same except The Snow Witch expanded on the original story here.

Hoichi The Earless: A blind biwa player named Hoichi (a biwa is a stringed instrument resembling a guitar) who is renowned for his moving rendition of the tragic tale of the battle between the Genji and Heiki clans is summoned one night by a samurai ghost to play his famous piece to the spirits of the Heiki clan. He does this on several occasions. Hoichi thinks he goes to a house of a famous lord to perform but finds out that it’s in a creepy graveyard he’s been playing. Two priests cover Hoichi from head to toe with Buddhist talisman symbols that should protect him from the ghost summoning him to perform again but they forget to cover one place: his ears!! When Hoichi refuses to play for the ghosts, one of them extracts a terrible bloody revenge on him!

In A Cup Of Tea: A samurai sees an image of a former samurai when he tries to drink a cup of tea. During the evening, the samurai is visited by the ghost of the image he saw in the cup. He tries to kill the ghost but it disappears though it seems he managed to injure it in the arm. The following evening, three more spirits appear and tell the samurai that he has injured their master. He intends to visit the samurai very soon for revenge.

This is the 3rd work by Masaki Kobayashi that I’ve had a chance to see after The Human Condition I and Seppuku. It’s a brilliant Japanese supernatural movie. All of the 4 stories are very good – traditional Japanese folk legends about ghosts that you might hear around a campfire. Are the 4 tales frightening? A little bit maybe but what you get is an incredible visual feast by the director who uses vivid colour, dream-like surreal landscapes and superb cinematography. The background sets are like paintings you might see in an art exhibition. Truly stunning. My favourite story has to be Hoichi The Earless. The running time of the movie might be long at nearly 2 hours and 45 mins but because the stories are never boring, before you know it the movie has ended. That’s the mark of a really great movie when you don’t notice how much time has passed by. It’s engrossed you so much that time doesn’t matter.

Kwaidan is beautiful, moody, creepy, poetic and very atmospheric. A remarkable movie which should be on the list of every Asian movie fan. Highly recommended.

Sadako’s Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5.

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Still Walking (2008)

A middle-aged brother and sister and their families visit their aging parents in Yokohama on the twelfth anniversary of their brother Junpei’s death from drowning while saving another boy who was trying to commit suicide. Relationships between generations are strained, however, and patriarch Kyohei, a former doctor, does not hide his resentment for his surviving son Ryoto, an out of work art restorer. The movie which is set over a course of 1 day is spent with routine activities such as preparing meals and playing with the small children. Kyohei remains detached and hides in his office, pretending to be occupied with medical business. He only emerges to bicker with his wife and play with his grandson. Ryoto, who did not look forward to the reunion, is put off by his father’s disdain for his profession of art restoration and his coolness toward his new wife Yukari. She craves acceptance for herself and her son Atsushi from a previous marriage in which her husband died. A picture of the deceased Junpei is placed in the center of the Yokoyama family house reminding Ryoto that whatever he does, he cannot measure up to Junpei, who was to be his father’s heir.

A movie which is simply made and deeply constructed. Movie directors from certain countries can capture the beauty of family drama with such subtlety and grace. Japanese directors are masters of this and Hirokazu Koreeda has made a stunning movie which many have said reminds them of legendary director Yasujiro Ozu. Had this movie been directed by him, it might stand quite comfortably alongside his masterpieces.The last movie by Koreeda that I watched was the magnificent Air Doll and before that Nobody Knows so I knew beforehand that I would be watching something special in Still Walking. For such a simple plotline, Koreeda brilliantly captures a family trying to pass 1 day without conflict as old wounds start to resurface. There are no big arguments between family members but you can feel the building resentment and guilt that is kept in check (a typical Japanese trait). If you know anything about Japanese society, you will know that if you save the life of someone who wishes to commit suicide, you effectively are responsible for their life going forward. In this case, the person doing the saving, the eldest son, had died in the process. So we see the person who he saved return year after year to be reminded in an indebted but somewhat cruel manner that he is alive whilst their son is dead. Ryota’s mother’s admission on why she invites the person over every year might seen like being cruel but at least she’s being honest about it. She needs someone to hate. Grief is a hard thing to get over for some people and for Junpei’s parents moving on with their lives is hard. The devastation of the tragic events that took their son’s life hangs heavily in the air of their home. Koreeda has shot this movie in a beautiful manner: he has an eye for family meals and rituals in particular, and these scenes are handled perfectly. The ending with time having gone forward 3 years in the future is profound and moving with Kyota’s parents now dead. Things which had been idly discussed between parent and child weren’t fulfilled and now it’s too late.

The cast is excellent all round with Kiki Kirin giving a fantastic turn as Ryota’s mother Toshiko. She is mischievous, catty, petty, prejudiced, funny, generous and cruel at the same time. She’s the star of the movie. Abe Hiroshi is one of my favourite Japanese actors and he is great as Ryota who has lived in the shadow of his dead brother for so long. The rest of the cast also excel and give touching performances.

Still Walking is yet another wonderful movie by Hirokazu Koreeda that is handled with such astounding tenderness and compassion. Highly recommended.

Sadako’s Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

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The movie takes place over the course of 12 months in the early 20th century in a quiet rural mountainous part of Northern Japan. The matriach of a small village named Orin is nearing the age of 70. When she reaches that age, the eldest son has to carry her off up into the mountains and leave here to die of starvation or exposure to the elements in a ravine so that the younger generations have a better chance to survive with the lack of food and harsh winters. Newborn sons are thrown out and left to die and daughters are left to grow up before being sold to slavery. Even though Orin is in very good health she knows that her time is coming to an end and she is resigned to her fate. She tries to speed up her oncoming death by bashing her teeth on a piece of rock to show the others that as her teeth are falling out it’s a sign by the gods. The journey up the mountains is a very religious experience and past generations in the village have done the same. It’s a chance for Orin to meet the Mountain God and be reunited with loved ones. But Odin’s son Tatsuhei isn’t very happy at the eagerness of his mother to die. Before Orin leaves on her final journey she has a lot to prepare so that her family can survive without her. She sets up Tatsuhei with a woman, asks her elderly friend to have sex with her adopted son Risuke as his sexual frustration grows to boiling point and even has time to set up a witch hunt on her 2nd son’s pregnant wife so that she can be killed in order to lessen the burden on the family.

The first thing that struck me about this movie was the beautiful cinematography with breathtaking aerial shots of the terrain where the story takes place. The question I got from this movie and I’m not sure if this was what director Shohei Imamura was trying to give the viewer was are we no different to the animal kingdom in our ways? Judging from the characters in this movie the answer is probably not. The characters in my opinion are all inbred savages who are only slightly more intelligent than cavemen. They’re certainly not likeable – not one of them and I didn’t care for them either. This is also a movie about survival and the people in the village have taken their choices to the extreme in order to prosper in harsh conditions. They have no choice basically. If they don’t carry out the brutal things they do, there’s a chance for the food to run out and everybody will starve and die. The movie is difficult at times to watch with scenes such as a corpse of a newborn boy which is bloated being found in a paddy field with the snow having melted and being dismissed as fertiliser, a farmhand having sex with a dog and a group of people with a pregnant lady being thrown in a pit and buried alive for stealing food. All the while the director gives us images of animals doing the same thing as the villagers – either shagging, eating or killing each other. But even though I dislike all the characters, this movie is certainly spellbinding. The final 40 mins which traces Orin and Tatsuhei’s journey up the mountain to her final resting place is mesmerising and when we finally come to the location where Tatsuhei has to leave Orin to die, the place is like an elephant’s graveyard. Thousands of human skeletons are strewn across the place which makes it quite an unforgettable scene and on the cliffs above and circling in the sky are crows who are impatiently waiting for Orin to die so that they can feast on her body. It’s quite a depressing movie to watch but there are snippets of humour as well.

The acting is excellent all around and talking about taking your acting to the extreme – Sumiko Sakamoto who plays Orin surgically removed her teeth so that she could realistically look like a 70 year old. At the time of filming she was in her 40’s. Now that’s dedication for you! Ken Ogata who plays Tatsuhei is another that shines in this movie.

This isn’t a movie that everybody will find easy to watch but this tale of people put under extreme conditions and turning into beasts is recommended.

Sadako’s Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

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Mushishi (2006)

At the turn of the last century, a young boy and his mother are travelling to a nearby town. It is raining heavily and unfortunately a landslide occurs which comes crashing down on the boy’s mother. The boy is discovered looking for the body of his mother by a female Mushi master Nui. The Mushi are mystical insect-like creatures that causes illness to human beings and a Mushi master can usually cure a person of an affliction. Moving ahead in time, we follow another Mushi master called Ginko who is looking for a place to stay out of a snowstorm. He finds an inn and discovers several people in the area have gone deaf in one ear. Ginko suspects the Mushi are behind the ailment. After curing them, he is asked by the innkeeper to look at her granddaughter who is hearing voices and sprouting some horns on her forehead. After piecing together some facts from her, he manages to cure the little girl and the horns drop off her head. Another more serious case occurs when Ginko is summoned to visit an old friend Tanyo (a fellow mushi master) where a more deadly Mushi is threatening her life. To cure his friend, Ginko will have to go up against a familiar face from his past and start to remember some repressed memories from his childhood.

This is based on a long running manga that started in 1999. Mushishi is an interesting movie that tends to become too complex for it’s own good and drags a lot at times. Visually it is really beautiful to watch and sets the scene for it’s mystical storyline perfectly with mist covered mountains and lush colourful forests. The production values are high. The biggest problem is the plot itself. It starts out being intriguing but then it just sort of dies out and goes nowhere. The story is fragmented – half of it is Ginko’s backstory told in flashback and the rest is Ginko dealing with the mushi. The deliberate slow methodical pace also hinders the movie. I’m not saying the movie is completely bad because there are some positive aspects to it. The back story to Ginko and how he became a Mushi master is captivating and engaging but I fear some viewers being put off by the long dialogue about dark mushi and one eyed fish that rears it’s head from time to time. They could have cut a good half hour from the running time and it would have quickened the pace of the movie considerably. The cast is pretty good from Joe Odagiri as the mellow Ginko to Makiko Esumi as Nui, the Mushi Master who cares for Ginko as a boy. Aoi has an excellent role as Ginko’s friend Tanyo. There’s a tiny element of gore to the proceedings as Tanyo’s grandmother tries to cut the mushi infection out of her body by cutting her arm with a knife. As the bad black mushi infection clears, there’s a huge fountain of red blood that sprays from Tanyo’s arm everywhere on the walls. It just seems out of place to the rest of the movie.

If you’ve got the patience for a slow paced movie, you might enjoy the movie. I think this will appeal more to Mushishi manga fans more than the casual viewer. Average.

Sadako’s Rating: 2.5 stars out of 5

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