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Archive for September, 2012

Dear Friends (2007)

Rina is a high school student who believes that friends are not necessary and that they can only be used in times of need. Thus, she is unable to maintain a decent relationship with her friends and classmates. She parties frequently in a club where she is nicknamed the Queen and has no respect for her parents. After collapsing at the club, Rina eventually discovers that she has cancer and becomes hospitalised. In the hospital, she is visited by one of her classmates named Maki. Although Maki tells Rina that they were friends in primary school, Rina does not remember her, so Maki takes the opportunity to re-connect with her. A young girl Kanae who is also hospitalised tries to become friends with Rina. During her hospitalisation, Rina begins to lose hope when she is told that she will have to remove one of her breasts and she decides to jump off the hospital rooftop as she feels that she cannot live any longer. However, she is stopped by Maki, who slices herself in the breast with a knife and declares that she will share the same pain as Rina and that she does not want to lose her friend. Rina shows some hope again when she realizes that she can find friendship in Maki. But Maki herself is not a well person and the roles are reversed when the severity of her illness is revealed.

This tearjerker highlights what it means to have true friends, Rina is an individual who only cares for her own selfish needs and fails to see what her actions is doing to the people around her – it is only when she falls ill that she finds what real friendship is all about and she discovers her own true self. Rina is given many offers of genuine friendships throughout the movie but she quickly rejects them all which might suggest that she doesn’t have the willingness to accept emotional growth but of course that does change eventually. The so-called friends that latch onto Rina are only interested in the glory that hanging out with her will bring to them. Take a scene in which Rina’s potential boyfriend – a club DJ called Yousuke who tells her that no matters what happens with her illness he will always love her even if she lost her limbs. However, his true nature is revealed when Rina strips off to reveal the big scar running across her chest after her masectomy. He can only look on in shock and promptly leaves Rina behind all alone which devastates her. There are several scenes showing the mental frustration and anguish that Rina is going through such as when her hair falls out in the hospital and a humiliating experience for her in the club when the wig she’s wearing is taken from her head which reveals 90% of her hair has gone.

Keiko Kitagawa gives us a very good performance as the bitchy and emotionally detached Rina. She’s a person you’ll instantly dislike because of her attitude but you’ll grow to be sympathetic to her plight and how much she has changed by the time the end credits come round. Kitagawa goes through all the emotions of a person associated with having cancer – denial, she doesn’t want to live anymore to finally accepting her condition to fight on to another day. Yuika Motokariya is also fantastic as Rina’s helpful and caring classmate Maki who hides a terrible debilitating illness of her own from her friend.

Dear Friends is a great movie which is well directed by Kazuyuki Morosawa about friendship and how one can change their life for the better. Whilst the storyline might be predictable, it doesn’t hinder it from being a touching movie which will bring tears to many viewers eyes. Recommended.

Sadako’s Rating: 4 stars out of 5

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Hanging Garden (2005)

Telling the truth to each other with no secrets is a family rule for the Kyobashi’s. The family moved into Danchi, a housing project in a town developed during Japan’s economic boom, believing a bright future was awaiting them at a new place. But with the passing of time, their hope was reduced to a dream long forgotten. They ended up acting as a good family, with each member harbouring secrets. Daughter Mana is habitually skipping classes. She even goes regularly to a love hotel where she was conceived with men she hardly knows. Younger brother Ko is no different. He is always hanging out on the street, trying to beat a sense of frustration that’s been hanging heavy on him for no apparent reason. Father Takashi is busy having affairs, always bossed around by his new lover Mina. Mother Eriko seems to be having a fulfilling life, working part-time at a noodle restaurant and paying frequent visits to her mother Sacchin at hospital. But the fact is Eriko is struggling to find out how to relate to her mother while being haunted by memory of her childhood days which she spent in total isolation from society. Things start taking unexpected turns after Ko meets Mina. Mina becomes a tutor for Ko and gets close with the family. One day the Kyobashi’s throws a birthday party for Mina. That is when their lies are forced to come out one after another. With the family totally fallen apart now, each member begins searching for the door that will open up their hearts.

Hanging Garden is an excellent movie about a dysfunctional family who are hiding behind masks and harbouring some secrets from each other despite the family motto that there are no secrets in their household. It is just so well-directed with an absorbing storyline. The viewer is led to believe that the Kyobashi’s are just like any other normal Japanese family and then each of their ‘skeleton in the closet’ is revealed. The mother Eriko is seen to be a control freak but on the surface seems like a happy and nice person yet one of her co-workers at the soba restaurant has seen through her ‘plastic false’ smile. Throughout the movie the story reveals her sad past and that she’s basically on the verge of a nervous breakdown. A regular daydream she has is of stabbing her co-worker in the neck with a fork. Eriko knows exactly what the rest of her family are up to but she wants to carry on with the illusion of a perfect family life. Her husband Takashi has been forced to have countless affairs as Eriko hasn’t made love to him in 5 years – his latest lover Mina is a dominatrix who soon becomes his son’s tutor. There’s a funny scene where Mina and Takashi are at a love hotel and you can hear Takashi begging for mercy as Mina is whipping him on the bed. Who should come out of the room next door and looking shocked at the noise emanating from the room is none other than the daughter Mana and her latest man. And then during the birthday party for Mina at their apartment the facade that they’ve been playing finally crumbles as the real truth comes out. The lies that they’ve been keeping from each other is finally laid on the table. This is the turning point for them to look inside themselves and try and solve whatever problem they have in their lives. Awesome acting from all of the cast from Kyoko Koizumi as Eriko to the beautiful Anne Suzuki as Mana. It’s the exchanges between Eriko and her chain-smoking straight talking mother Sacchin who’s dying played wonderfully by Asami Imajuku at the birthday party that’s the standout scene as Eriko’s pent up frustration of a lost childhood comes gushing out in a torrent of hate who wishes her mother would die.

This would be director Toshiaki Toyoda’a best movie to date but unfortunately just before this movie was released he was arrested for possession of drugs. He received a 3 year suspended sentence. This incident would have an adverse effect on the box office takings for the movie. Toyoda was exiled from the Japanese movie industry for 4 years before he was back at work in 2009 where he released The Blood Of Rebirth.

Overall, this is a superb character driven drama of a family struggling to find the way to happiness which comes highly recommended.

Sadako’s Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

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Hazard (2005)

Shin is a 20 year old university student who feels trapped and bored with his life in Japan. He’s desperate to break free from the contraints of Japanese society. Seeing a book about the most dangerous places in the world, he finds himself wanting to go to New York so he quits university and hops on a plane to the Big Apple. Upon walking around Manhattan he sees a T-shirt which sports the word ‘Hazard’ on it. He buys it, gets inside a taxi and tells the driver to take him to Hazard. The driver gets annoyed and throws him out of his car. Taking the subway, Shin makes the mistake of asking 2 black American hustlers how to get to Hazard. Sensing an opportunity, they tell him to follow them where he is promptly robbed of his money and belongings in Harlem. Wandering the streets and contemplating robbing a store for food, two Japanese people roughly the same age as Shin – motor mouthed Lee and slow witted Takeda take him under their wing and bring him back to their place. Lee who is only half Japanese runs an ice cream business where he sells a special kind of ice cream which is laced with speed. When Lee and Takeda aren’t selling ice cream, they rob stores and their customers of money with some guns they have in their possession. Shin whilst initially being confused as to what’s going on soon joins in with their activities and the three amigos are having the time of their lives. What they do might be all fun and games in their drug induced state but it carries consequences and soon catches the attention of a New York police inspector. Their playtime is about to come to an end…..

Shot a year after his breakout movie hit Suicide Club but not released until 2005, Sion Sono’s brilliant Hazard follows the story of a naive Japanese tourist who slowly transforms into a street hoodlum thanks to the 2 associates he meets on the streets of New York. The inseperable trio doesn’t commit crime because of a need for money, they do it for the thrill and the risk of being caught by the cops or shot at by shop owners. Everything is done for fun and they live for the moment – carefree and rebellious young people high on drugs thinking they’re invincible. We are whisked away on a journey with the trio as we follow their anarchic antics around the Big Apple with some narration spoken by a young female child from time to time. Hazard was initially going to be a completely different movie about a murder of a woman in Tokyo with the main character reminiscing about his time in New York but when Sono arrived there just to film flashback scenes and thought about all the danger that was associated with the city he ditched his original storyline, filmed the entire movie there and changed it into a youth-in-revolt one instead. He also shot this movie guerilla-style with a hand held camera in long one-take scenes and without a permit to shoot on the streets so it has got a cheap look about it.

Jo Odagiri is excellent as Shin. A young man who has no direction in life and is fed up with Japanese society, feels like he’s a robot and just wants to escape the monotony. Making a brave decision to quit everything and come to New York, he finds out that the American Dream as seen in the movies is different in reality. Faced with racism and injustice he finds out the hard way that New York isn’t quite a nice place as he thought it would be. His performance is really impressive as Shin’s introverted nature is eroded away by the bad influence of his 2 new friends and by the climax Shin is a completely different person from who he was at the beginning. He has even eclipsed what his 2 friends had ever done with several murders now on his resume. Jai West is on a par with Odagiri in the acting stakes as he gives a wonderful performance as the wild and unpredictable Lee, the Walt Whitman loving leader of the trio.

I was very impressed with Hazard, it’s an incredible little movie with outstanding performances from Jo Odagiri and Jai West and it has an engaging storyline to boot all skilfully directed by Sion Sono. Fans of Sono should definitely check it out. Recommended.

Sadako’s Rating: 4 stars out of 5

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BECK (2010)

Koyuki is a bullied teenage boy at school whose life changes when he meets an ultra talented guitarist named Ryosuke whilst trying to defend a dog from a bunch of American thugs. Ryosuke has just returned to Japan with his half sister Maho after living in New York for a while. Ryosuke has formed a rock band named BECK and after witnessing Koyuki and his friend a drummer go through their paces he recruits both of them into joining the group. After a quiet start to their career as a band, their popularity soon begins to increase. When they release their debut CD which hits the shops and perform plenty in live houses, BECK’s popularity skyrockets. Even Koyuki who has new found confidence being in the band lends his vocals to one song which stuns everybody. But just as things are going great, there are problems on the horizon. A rival band Belle Ame and their producer Ran are determined to grind BECK to the ground by making sure their CD is taken away from being in the limelight in the shops and promoting themselves instead. Another hitch in the works is a face from Ryosuke’s past in New York as a dangerous gangster Leon Sykes who is also a powerful producer is after him for stealing a bullet ridden guitar named Lucille which is worth a lot of money and his dog. To compound their situation even further, a slot at the prestigious Greatful Sounds Festival is cancelled thanks to the meddling of Ran. Things are looking bleak for the group and in-fighting threatens to split them apart. Even Koyuki’s relationship with Ryosuke’s sister Maho is on the rocks. But then something extraordinary happens and BECK are back in the lineup for Greatful Sounds Festival but with an unusual stipulation thanks to a deal Ryosuke has been forced to make with Leon Sykes. If BECK can’t top the audience for Belle Ame and another artist on 2 of the festival stages they have to dissolve for good……

Based on the long running manga by Harold Sakuishi comes this live action movie about a rock band’s rags to riches story. Having never heard about BECK before, I can’t judge whether this adaptation to live action is on a par with the manga or not but all I can say is I really liked this movie from the characters to the storyline and the outstanding rock music on show. Despite the rather long 2 and a half hours running time, I become engrossed in the band’s long road to performing at the Grateful Sounds Festival and the bumps along the way they encounter. The mix of comedy, drama and music make for such an entertaining story. 3 members of BECK are given adequate sub-plots as they have to deal with demons from their past with plenty of screen time dedicated to their struggles. The movie provides the viewer with 3 belting songs by the band and by the end you might end up being a fan of them if you like their style of music that is. You’ll root for them as they head towards their goal and cry when the pressure starts to mount and they could split up at any moment. A nice touch by the director I felt was when Koyuki sings for the band. We don’t get to hear his voice which is seen to make people gasp in awe. It is muted. Instead we hear the music for the song he is singing but not his voice so it is left to our own imagination how his voice would actually sound like. Some might be disappointed by that but I thought it was different. The director might have given the viewer a huge favour by doing that as there is an unmuted version of actor Takeru Satoh singing and some have said it’s a bit underwhelming. Filming for the scenes of the Greatful Sounds Festival I believe took place at the annual Fuji Rock Festival but I’m not sure if camera trickery was used to show the band on stage performing to a huge audience. This brilliant movie finishes with Oasis’ Don’t Look Back In Anger being played over the end credits. A perfect ending to what was a hugely enjoyable experience for me.

The cast of characters are great and in some you will find some characteristics from real life rock stars. Kayuki adopts former Oasis frontman Liam Gallagher’s style of holding his own hand behind his back whilst singing, Taira the bass player is modelled after the Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ Flea and Ryosuke’s American friend who is in another band looks like a young Kurt Cobain. What I find a little bit unbelievable is Kayuki is seen to not understand a word of English yet he can write lyrics and sing in the language. There’s a good balance inside the group as we have a couple of quiet personnel such as Kayuki which is countered by the loud antics of the band’s rapper Chiba who certainly knows how to rouse a crowd and is the movie’s main source of humour. His vocals for the band’s song Evolution is intense! The roles for each of the band members were well cast and Kamen Rider Kabuto fans will recognise Hiro Mizushima as the band’s leader Ryosuke.

BECK in my opinion is one of the best Japanese movies to be released in 2010 which should appeal to rock fans and those that don’t like rock. Recommended.

Sadako’s Rating: 4 stars out of 5

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To Walk Beside You (2010)

A 17 year old boy Norio elopes with his 34 year old teacher Akemi Tanaka from their rural location to Tokyo. Norio’s parents hanged themselves at their home and Norio was destined to do the same until Tanaka saved him and they embarked on a love affair. In Tokyo, Tanaka wants Norio to study as hard as he can in order he can become a lawyer. Tanaka is forced to work in a dead end job handing out flyers outside a karaoke bar where her low enthusiasm for the work makes her boss angry. Life isn’t easy for the two lovers and funds are running low despite Tanaka insisting they have plenty of money. Norio befriends a 9 year old baseball fan who thinks that Norio looks like a player that has never scored a home run in his career. The two have plenty in common as they have both lost their parents. When Norio confronts Tanaka’s boss at her workplace after witnessing her being bullied, he can’t make himself punch him out and can only hit the baseball cap he is wearing on his head before running away. A young pregnant schoolgirl who also works at the karaoke bar gives chase. After a heart to heart on a park bench, Norio decides to help the girl out despite Tanaka thinking he is cheating on her with this girl. She wants to keep the baby but her mother wants her to have an abortion. Tanaka insists that if she and her boyfriend love each other, the best thing to do would be to elope. Tanaka hatches a masterplan for the two to run away on a boat but can the girl escape from her home with her mother keeping a close eye?

This is nothing like the couple on the run from the law movie that you’d expect it to be from the summary mentioned above, it’s more like a dark drama comedy of sorts. I did actually think this was going to be one of these romantic weepies but what we have instead is a quirky movie where the director turns the genre on it’s head and gives us something quite unexpected. There is none of the slushy stuff you might find in a typical romance movie, everything is very much in tone with Yuya Ishii’s previous works featuring outcasts in society doing some odd things. It’s mainly lighthearted stuff with some absurd scenarios and funny dialogue. There’s plenty of off-the-wall humour such as two of Norio’s classmates having sex with a homemade doll they’ve done or Norio being sexually propositioned by a woman who gets turned on when he helps her scoop up her dog’s turd into a bag! Even an impromptu dance number is performed in a small factory by Norio and his boss. It also touches on what many Western audiences might not know about in Japanese society in that when you hit a certain age (around 30) in the country you’re labelled as being old and over the hill. I know that might sound far fetched but it’s the truth! In between the humour, we see the two main characters trying to find some meaning to their relationship by figuring out their individual lives. Some viewers might think it is wrong that Tanaka is taking advantage of her position as a teacher and Norio’s condition to fulfill her own need for affection. Somehow it didn’t feel to myself that the two was in a relationship. Apart from one scene when they holds hands at a remote bus station in the countryside, that’s as close to a romantic scene you’re gonna get. Great performances from the two leads (Ryu Morioka and Maki Meguro) who grow into their roles throughout the movie.

To Walk Beside You will appeal more to those with a broad sense of humour than mainstream Asian movie fans. Give it a whirl and see what you think.

Sadako’s Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

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The Guard Post (2008)

Aka GP506

In the heavily fortified DMZ between the two Koreas, the South’s Guard Post 506 has experienced mystifying events on a cataclysmic scale. 20 soldiers are reported dead, leaving one sole survivor at GP 506. Higher level military authorities scramble to uncover the mysteries behind these deaths and appoint Sergeant Noh, considered the best in the military, to lead the investigation. The deaths are particularly sensitive, because one of the victims is thought to be Lt. Yoo, the son of the Army’s Chief of General Staff. Making things more difficult for Sergeant Noh is that the Army has given him until 6 AM to finish his investigation. The investigation group arrive at GP 506 under torrential rains, resulting in the investigative group becoming trapped within GP 506 themselves. They find a comatose Corporal Kang with an axe in his hand. A video tape is also discovered of Corporeal Kang stating his intentions to kill the entire unit at GP 506. Then, Lieutenant Yoo is found alive but severely traumatized. The minutes tick away, 6 AM is quickly approaching , while the investigation team at GP 506 uncover even more startlingly secrets.

From the director of R-Point comes another army platoon in peril horror movie. Although I found R-Point to be rather muddled, this movie is a lot better and far more entertaining although the running time has been pushed too far at 2 hours long. It could have been cut by a good 30 mins and it wouldn’t have affected the movie at all, in fact it would have made the story run more smoothly. Don’t be misled by some people or the trailer into believing this is a zombie movie because it isn’t. The movie starts with a bang as the soldiers find the lone survivor of a massacre at GP506 all bloodied and holding an axe. From the opening frame, the story is tense and nerve racking as the viewer is gradually shown the horrifying secrets of the base and what is happening to the soldiers. The story is well written and cleverly structured with some flashbacks weaved into the main plot that keeps the viewer enthralled. There’s an oppresive and menacing air to the guard post location and the director uses light and darkness to create an atmosphere of dread to the viewer. Thankfully there are no cheap scares included and while some Asian horrors build up to a somewhat disappointing conclusion, I can safely say that nobody will be disappointed by the suspense filled and gripping finale in this movie. The second half of the movie is just an unrelenting trip into terror. As this is a horror movie there’s a fair amount of blood spilling with many unpleasant situations that make this quite a visceral experience. It has a very good balance of using psychological scares and gore to create one of the best Asian survival horror in recent times.

Director Kong Su Chang has come up with a great horror movie which delivers good acting from the cast, nice direction and a solid atmosphere. Asian horror fans will definitely find much to enjoy here.

Sadako’s Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

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Aka Iron Angels and Fighting Madam

The HK Government lays waste to Thailand’s Golden Triangle poppyfields’ production which was worth $30 million dollars. The drug lord and his executives are furious for this disruption by the police and seek immediate reprisals against them. One of the executives Madame Sue, a ruthless killer starts murdering the police personnel involved in the Thai raid as revenge but refuses to listen to orders from her boss to stop. She kills him and takes charge herself. Enter The Angels – a specialist highly skilled team consisting of Moon – a secretary during her offtime, Elaine, Saijo, the new recruit Alex and their boss John Keung. Their job is to take down Madame Sue and her cronies who are looking to expand their empire abroad.

This is a mixed bag of a movie. Whilst it has many incredibly exciting action sequences that you normally associate with this kind of genre from HK in the mid 80’s, it is hampered by the fact that it’s a stop/start affair. If you come into this movie expecting an all out action movie you’re going to get disappointed as the movie is partly a spy thriller too which slows down proceedings. There’s a little bit of comedy as well but mostly this is a straight forward action/spy movie. The action you do see however is probably one of the best in the girls-with-guns genre (it has been called the defining movie in the genre) and features some brutal martial arts action especially the short fight between Moon Lee (in her breakout role) and her usual nemesis Yukari Oshima at the climax. The raid on Madam Sue’s HQ by The Angels is particularly memorable with guns blazing in all directions and explosions going off capped off by two of the main characters leaping off the top of a house through some pine trees which breaks their fall. HK action at it’s very best. The sequence even has Saijo dangling one handed on a helicopter ladder whilst mowing down Madam Sue’s goons with a machine gun.

There’s an excellent cast in this movie. The pick of the bunch has to be Yukari Oshima who is on top form as a cruel sadistic villainess who enjoys torturing her prisoners. She comes across as an icy cold and a not-to-be-messed person, even punishing her own workers if they’ve failed her. We don’t usually see her sexy side but here we see her in a swimming costume and even being sexually aggressive. Fans of Moon Lee will love her kick ass role in this movie. Whilst she had been in several movies previously as a minor character, this would the one that would make people sit up and hail her as one of HK’s newest female action star. She’s her usual cute self in this movie and shows her fantastic nimble and acrobatic fighting skills. It was nice to also see Hwang Jang Lee in this movie who is best known in the West from being in Jackie Chan’s movies Snake In The Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master. I have to mention that the rest of the cast are no slouches in their roles either.

Whilst this movie isn’t one of the best in the genre thanks to it being bogged down at times by the script, it does have plenty of intense violence to satisfy the action junkie. It’s certainly worth checking out.

Sadako’s Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

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