Archive for August, 2013

Zipang (1990)

zipang movie

Jigoku is a samurai outlaw who is on the run with his motley bunch of followers. There’s a bounty on his head with a cute female bounty hunter named Yuri The Pistol who’s an ace gunslinger hot on his tail. He immediately falls for the woman due to her gutsy spirit. Jigoku is shown a map that can lead to some treasure. Dodging many booby-traps, he comes across a golden sword in a cave which is stuck in a rock. After managing to free the sword, he finds out that it is the key to reaching Zipang – a mythical City Of Gold which is full of untold riches and ruled by a Golden King. He keeps a woman all locked up in an ice prison as he despises love. The woman’s lover (a near naked man who looks like a Samoan warrior) who was locked away with the sword that Jigoku has taken is released and he goes after Jigoku as well. Adding to Jigoku’s woes is a Lord who orders his blue ninja army to pursue and steal the golden sword away from him.  After finally arriving in Zipang, will Jigoku be able to defeat the evil Golden King?

My first impression on watching this was how incredibly similar to the crazy movies of the Shaw Brothers from the 60’s and 70’s it was. It starts off as a parody of samurai movies but then gradually it becomes a little bit more serious with some gore thrown in. Don’t even bother in trying to put some logic to the plot because it’s not worth it. The story is set in a slightly futuristic version of medieval Japan where ninjas have high powered binoculars with zoom lens and shuriken stars that can also take photos.  Every ninja or samurai stereotype you can think of is made fun of in this movie – yes, even Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman is lampooned. There’s even an appearance by none other than Cyrano de Bergerac! You will even see a sequence copied from Raiders Of The Lost Ark in the first part of the movie as Jigoku seeks out the golden sword. I’m sure many viewers will be racking their brains to remember from which movie certain elements incorporated into the story have been taken. The characters in the story are almost comic book in style – the filmmakers even throw in a small rubber elephant as one of Jigoku’s gang though he isn’t onscreen for very long. Masahiro Takashima makes a fine hero as Jigoku with Narumi Yasuda providing some nice eye candy as the pistol packing Yuki.

zipang screenshot

The plot is wafer thin but to be honest the viewer won’t be really interested in that at all. It’s the fun, OTT action sequences that prove to be more interesting. An example of this is where Jigoku is seen to slaughter an almost endless line of ninjas on a wooden bridge with not a drop of blood shed. I found it strange that as Jigoku is slashing his sword and killing one ninja, the others are waiting for him to finish that person off before another one charges in to attack. How polite of them!! I’m not sure why director Kaizo Hayashi felt the need to introduce some gore into the plot. It felt out of place with the rest of the movie to see a hand being chopped off and the sight of the golden sword being plunged deep into a person’s chest shown in close-up. As the movie is a comedy after all, bloodletting should have been left out. I did like the various genres that Hayashi has employed into the movie and I thought they gelled well together. Sci-fi, adventure, fantasy, swordplay, romance and slapstick comedy are all represented in the story. As you can see in the screenshot above even a robot is thrown into the plot! If you know your history well enough you will know that Zipang was an ancient name used for Japan by Marco Polo but in this story the name is just used for a City Of Gold….well it’s not a city per se but more of a large castle. The pace of the movie is quick with never a dull moment in it. It’s one of those movies in which it’s best to switch off your brain and just enjoy the wackyness that’s unfolding before your eyes.

Zipang is an enjoyable silly movie featuring very likeable and interesting characters. It’s got its fair share of exciting fight scenes, comedy that will make you laugh and it’s just so unique that I don’t think there’s another movie like it out there. The director did a great job in making a very funny tongue-in-cheek parody of classic samurai movies. I’m sure you will like it too if you give it a chance.

No trailer but here’s a clip from it.

Sadako’s Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

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71: Into The Fire (2010)


It is the Summer of 1950 and the Korean War has broken out. Swarms of the North Korean Army have invaded deep into South Korea and the situation is getting worse. The remnants of the South Korean Army have been pushed far South with the President even asking if any volunteers that can hold a rifle to stand up and fight the advancing enemy even students. A group of 71 students led by an inexperienced and shell shocked young soldier is asked to defend a strategic point which strangely enough is a girls high school! The students will be left to train themselves with plenty of ammunition to fight off any invaders but will have no help from the army as they have been ordered to make a final stand against the North at Nakdong River. It looks dire for the students as in-fighting breaks out amongst them with many ammunition wasted and they are up against a mighty North Korean commander in Park Moo-rang who has given the students an ultimatum – either raise the white flag of surrender on the school or face annihilation against his fighting fit army who have Russian tanks to back them up. Will the students be able to do the impossible and fight an entire army off?

Believe it or not this story is actually based on a real-life event that happened during the early part of the Korean War in which a small group of 71 students held off the North Korean army for 11 hours until reinforcements came to help them out. My knowledge about the Korean War is minimal and I had no idea about this incident. I just found it incredible that a bunch of inexperienced students managed to do what they did. Talk about being brave, to have taken on such insurmountable odds knowing that they were staring death in the face was so courageous. A real David and Goliath moment. This movie doesn’t follow what happened to the exact word, some artistic licence obviously had to be used by the filmmakers but you more or less are given the gist of the famous battle that took place. The story is based on a letter by one of the students. The unfortunate thing with the plot revolving around a real-life incident is you already know the outcome.

71 Into The Fire screenshot

From the start of the movie you are thrown right into the heart of a fierce battle between the North and the South which mimics a scene out of Saving Private Ryan in which the main character Jung-Bum, a lowly scared soldier who goes around delivering fresh ammunition to the front line is partially made deaf due to being too close to a mortar going off. It’s exciting stuff as the South Korean army is made to retreat against a seemingly unstoppable force in the North Koreans led by a ruthless Commander who doesn’t take prisoners and wants all of those opposing him to be killed. After this battle, the story moves on to Jung-Bum being made the commander of the student army due to him having battle experience (however minimal that was) and his clashes with Ku-Kap Jo, a brash young male who has a choice of either going to jail for murder or join the student army. The viewer witnesses the transformation of Jung-Bum from a frightened and timid soldier who was too afraid to even fire a gun to being a brave leader and how he manages to get the respect of his peers including Ku-Kap Jo. It is through his leadership that he manages to rally the rest of the students into an effective fighting unit. The plot makes it abundantly clear how desperate the situation is with the North Koreans bulldozing their way down South quickly and efficiently. How the students come up with tactics of combating their heavily armed opponents at the school is interesting to see. Over the course of the story it is easy to see that they are only students and not professional soldiers as during one sequence a NK sniper opens fire on them and they impulsively charge after him only to get caught in an ambush. The words naïve and rash spring to mind.

The problem with Asian war movies these days is they are naturally going to be compared to another Korean war movie in Brotherhood. That was so epic that it made anybody else making a war movie to have a very difficult task of trying to top it. Whilst it doesn’t quite reach the heady heights of Brotherhood, there is much to admire in this movie directed by John H.Lee. He puts Hollywood to shame with showing what you can do on a tight budget. The entire movie only had a budget of $10 million dollars although you’d think it was a hell of a lot more. It’s in the final 20-30 minutes where the movie really comes together as the full might of the North Korean army bears down on the small rag-tag bunch of students.   The battle scenes whilst offering nothing new is impressive and puts the viewer slap bang as if you’re right there with the students.  Explosions go off, artillery whizz around and it doesn’t hold back on the horrors of war in showing the effects of bullets hitting the human body.

The cast is led by Korean hip-hop artist Choi Seung-hyeon better known as T.O.P from the group Big Bang. I’m sure many people thought he was only put into this movie to perhaps attract female fans so that the takings would swell. Maybe that was the case but I thought he performed well in his role as Jung-Bum. A very good choice to play a strong and silent hero. Playing his opposite number is Kwon-Sang woo as Ku-Kap Jo who rises up to challenge the leadership of Jung-Bum and the personal battle between them escalates over the course of the story. Thankfully mutual respect is achieved between them just in time for the attack of the NK army. The character that stood out for me the most was the calculating North Korean commander Park-Moo rang played by Cha Seung-won. A person that had no qualms about defying orders from his superiors in Pyongyang and even kills those that question him. I did think it was a bit of a mistake to make him into a god-like figure able to take a bullet and carry on as if nothing had happened to him. Then again it just makes him into more of a formidable adversary.

Overall, 71: Into The Fire is a brilliant war movie. It’s full of heroism, self-sacrifice and comradeship. The characters are engaging, it’s well made and stylishly directed.  If you’re a fan of war movies you can’t go wrong with this one. Recommended.

Sadako’s Rating: 4 stars out of 5

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Phoenix Wright dvd

The story takes place in a somewhat slightly changed modern day Japan where the legal system has been altered because of the high level of crime committed and prosecutors/attorneys now have only 3 days for each case before the judge gives a verdict. Phoenix Wright is a rookie attorney who goes up against his childhood friend and now prosecutor Miles Edgeworth in court and somehow manages to win his first case. However, an even bigger case comes up when his female boss, a spiritual medium named  Misty Fey is murdered in her office.  At first her sister Maya is made prime suspect but soon she is free and by investigating the case with her and Detective Gumshoe, Phoenix opens up a can of worms which results in Miles Edgeworth being implicated for murder.  With Miles in jail and nobody willing to help him, Phoenix decides he will defend him in court but the prosecutor he is going to face is none other than Von Karma who has never lost a case in 40 years. Can Phoenix with the help of Maya and his friend Larry Butz successfully defend Miles or will Von Karma who is not averse to using dirty tricks to win his cases manage to throw Miles in jail permanently?

Based on several popular video games from Capcom that has sold 4 million copies to date, Takashi Miike adapts the first game of Phoenix Wright and somehow manages to compress everything into a 135 min movie. I have to confess to not having heard about Phoenix Wright before but then again I’ve never been a big gamer and I find playing games to be a very frustrating experience as I had the tendency to cheat at nearly all games I played because I was never any good at them!  I felt I had to do a bit of research on the original game so that I could understand the movie a bit better after watching it. Video game movie adaptations have a bit of a mixed history in the cinema – some when done competently come out very good, others not so but in Miike’s capable hands he has created a unique and original looking movie.  It’s always hard for a director to try and create something that will not only please hardcore fans but also attract those that know nothing about Phoenix Wright. I think overall he did a great job and he has captured the element of the games very well especially with the characters. The games were also well known for their offbeat humour and Miike has kept them in the movie. Even the catchphrases ‘Objection!’ and ‘Take That’ which has become synonymous with the game is included. What I liked most about the movie is each court case is like a gladiatorial contest between the prosecutor and attorney. Evidence shown on holographic images in the courtroom are literally thrown towards the other and verbal blows are struck to get the upper hand. What could have been boring courtroom scenes are spiced up because of this. The use of a spiritual medium in helping the defence out at times was a neat idea. These are very unique concepts that I’ve never seen before and the visual flair employed by Miike in the movie is a big plus. Perhaps in the hands of another director the movie might not have been as good as it was?

Phoenix Wright still

For those that have played Phoenix Wright’s first game you will find the plot of the movie very familiar. Naturally some aspects have been changed but overall Miike has more or less stuck to the game’ story and hasn’t deviated that much. It’s quite an easy movie to follow until the plot delves further into an incident that happened 15 years previously and saw Phoenix’s mentor die tragically – it then goes a bit too complex for it’s own liking. The generous running time of the movie might jar with some viewers but as the movie was so entertaining it didn’t bother me for one bit that it ran over two hours. Haruki Nariyama brings Phoenix Wright to life extremely well. The eccentricity of the character and his overall look from the hairstyle to his finger gesticulation is fantastic.  Takumi Saito as Miles Edgeworth seems to have nailed the character down to a tee with his aloof attitude and cold stares. I probably liked the loud and colourful character of Larry Butz the most in the movie. The role is played superbly by Akiyoshi Nakao. Mirei Kiritani is so beautiful as Maya Fey who channels the spirit of her dead sister to aid Phoenix out when he needs help the most in court. All of the other supporting characters have a part to play in moving the storyline along.

When it’s all said and done, Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney is one of the best video game adaptations to date and the reason for that is probably because Takashi Miike stayed true to the source material. It’s a fun movie with an great cast of characters and an interesting plot that pretty much makes sure you’re never bored. As such it’s a movie that can be enjoyed by fans and newcomers alike. Well worth checking out.

Sadako’s Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

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Wangan Midnight The Movie

High school student Akio Asakura is more interested in fast cars than schoolwork. During a trip to a junkyard with his friend who runs a car workshop, he comes across a rusting old blue Nissan 240Z car. He finds himself being attracted to this particular car and decides to buy it. Strangely enough the previous car owner had the same name as Akio. The car has the misfortune of being called ‘The Devil Z’ for the fact that it killed it’s previous owner and caused accidents. Consequently there are rumours that the car is cursed and will kill it’s owner eventually. Akio though isn’t frightened off by this information and puts his heart and soul into restoring the car to it’s original pristine condition.  After the car has been restored he goes for a test run on the road that runs along Tokyo Bay in a district called ‘The Wangan’ where many car racers go head to head against each other. It is on this road that he meets a young doctor called Tatsuya Shima who drives a black Porsche 911 Turbo nicknamed ‘The Blackbird’. It seems that Tatsuya was friends with the Devil Z’s previous owner and he is also now dating the dead man’s beautiful sister.  Tatsuya isn’t exactly happy to see the car back on the road knowing that it’s caused so much pain and heartbreak and he is determined to see the car destroyed. He challenges Akio to a race in the hope if the car is involved in an accident it will put Akio off from driving the car ever again. However, Tatsuya is surprised by how determined Akio is in proving that the Devil Z can beat his Blackbird. Will the curse of the Devil Z come back to haunt Akio if he pushes the car too much?

I have a bit of a guilty pleasure in watching car racing movies even though I’m not really interested in cars as such. A car is just something that takes me from A to B and that’s all. I know a lot of my friends and colleagues like to discuss sometimes about cars and engines etc but that kind of thing just bores me! Apart from The Fast & The Furious franchise, the only other Asian racing movie I’ve seen was Initial D and that was a number of years ago. The same team that made Initial D is behind this movie too. This movie is akin to that more than F&F in that it deals with the characters and the relationship with their cars rather than the racing itself. There’s a hint of a supernatural theme to the movie whether the Devil Z is actually cursed or not. Most of the movie focuses on the duel between Akio and Tatsuya. It’s like the Devil Z has a hypnotic effect on Akio. No matter how much anybody persuades him not to ride the car he feels compelled to do so and in doing that Tatsuya who thinks that nobody can control the car properly and watched his friend perish in an accident whilst driving it thinks it should be himself that should take the car out once and for all to prevent further tragedies and to bring closure. The fact that he’s dating the dead man’s sister Eriko makes the situation even more personal for him. Despite how shocked Eriko is to see the Devil Z that killed her brother back on the road, she is pulled towards Akio and the car. Akio himself asks Eriko to go on a drive with him in order that she might understand why the car held such an attraction to her brother. At several points in the story the viewer is made to think that the Devil Z actually might have a mind of it’s own as it doesn’t respond to Akio’s control during one race with Tatsuya causing an accident to occur. His reasoning is that the car might be rejecting him. Another is during one scene when Akio and Tatsuya are talking outside near their cars whilst Eriko is sitting inside the Devil Z. The next thing we see is the Devil Z taking off and the look on Akio’s face says it all as he has the car’s keys in his hands! However, Akio is told by Tatsuya that Eriko has a set of the car’s keys that her brother possessed and that it is her driving the car.


There are a couple of pointless sub-plots in the movie that doesn’t really move the story forward at all. One of which involves a popular gravure model Reina who loves to go out car racing at Wangan during the night but is warned by her pushy manager to not say anything to the press or fans as it could jeopardise her career in getting some acting roles. Another is about Akio and his decision to forfeit a term at school so that he can concentrate on his racing. His female teacher keeps on trying to persuade him to turn up at school and it is not until she reveals  something about her past that he promises to come into class.  One of the most striking things about this movie is the cinematography. Tokyo at night is an amazing sight and none more so than around the Tokyo Bay/Odaiba district where the colours on Rainbow Bridge and the ferris wheel on the Venus Fort complex stand out.  It’s one thing seeing these sights onscreen but to actually see them in real life is even better. I regularly visit the Odaiba area during the evening on my trips just to see these wonderful sights and the twinkling lights of the rest of Tokyo across the Bay. The cars used in the movie are sleek and beautiful although please don’t ask me what make/model they are as I’m no expert on such things! The races that take place between Akio and Tatsuya are exciting and exhilirating but on saying that I’ve seen better in other movies.  The acting from the cast is great and I was particularly pleased to see Sata from the manzai comedy duo BAD BOYS appear as Akio’s mechanic friend. It’s hard not to miss him with his Mohican styled hairstyle!!

Although you could say that this is a movie for petrol heads, Wangan Midnight is more than just a racing movie as it has an intelligent and touching storyline with interesting characters that you can relate to. There’s a teaser right after the end credits that a sequel could be made in the future as Tatsuya on duty at the hospital hears an all too familiar engine sound and a caption comes up onscreen saying ‘The Z Will Be Back’. If a sequel will be made is debatable as I’m not sure how well this movie did in Japan.

Sadako’s Rating: 3 stars out of 5

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evil-of-dracula poster

Professor Shiraki arrives from Tokyo to a new school for teenage girls in a small Japanese village. Upon checking in he learns that the principal’s wife died a couple of days earlier in a car crash and that a student named Keiko Nonomiya went missing about the same time. That night he has an encounter with a vampire that matches Keiko’s description but dismisses the incident as nothing more than a dream. Not long afterward another student named Kyoko Hayashi faints in his classroom and is taken to the school’s doctor. During Kyoko’s examination two small puncture wounds are discovered but neither Professor Shiraki nor the doctor are able to figure out their significance. Since she appears to be tired, they send her back to her dorm room to recover with her two roommates – Yukiko Mitamura and Kumi promising to take care of her. However he soon discovers that something sinister is afoot at the school and his own life is in danger…….

Not content with the famous Hammer Studios producing a slew of vampire movies, Toho decided it was going to join in the action and in the early 70’s filmed a trilogy of Dracula movies even though the Count himself never turns up in any of them! It’s odd why the movie refers to Dracula as the original title The Bloodthirsty Roses is so much better and fits in with the plot as every female victim is given a white rose which turns red when they are turned into the undead. This movie is the last of the trilogy. The trilogy has been influenced heavily by the Western vampire movies and whilst some viewers might think that’s a positive trait unfortunately it doesn’t turn out as promising as it sounds. The main problem is with the villain himself which is the school Principal – he simply isn’t frightening enough. He may look the part with his pale skin, fangs, black cape and white scarf. Christopher Lee had that air of menace about him and Mori Kishida as the Principal doesn’t have a scary presence about him at all. It’s a hard task for anybody to be as good as Christopher Lee! In fact Kishida comes across like a cartoon villain straight out of Scooby Doo. The way he rears up and goes ‘aaaargh’ before attacking someone was enough to have me laughing rather than being scared. His vampire abilities are a little bit different from Dracula as well. He has no superhuman powers (one only has to witness his fight with Professor Shiraki at the climax to see him struggling) and he certainly can’t transform into a bat or even fly. The Principal could easily have killed Shiraki in the fight with his fangs but he prefers instead to try and strangle him to death! He does have the power though to appear in front of a person if they’re running away from him. The Principal also doesn’t attack his female victims by going for the neck but instead prefers to sink his teeth just above the breast! The young female cast are beautiful, even more so after they’ve been turned as they parade around in some night gowns showing some skin. Toshio Kurosawa as Professor Shiraki looks like a little bit like Sonny Chiba in this movie, in fact I had to double check the cast list to see if it was him or not!

evilofdracula screenshot

Comparisons between this movie and the other two that proceeded it (The Lake of Dracula/The Legacy of Dracula) with Hammer’s vampire movies are inevitable but they don’t come close to matching the quality of what Hammer came up with. The contemporary setting doesn’t help things although director Michio Yamamoto has tried to add a little bit of a gothic feel to the school interior/exterior sets. What this movie has got going for it is that it’s suitably atmospheric and creepy at times and the viewer gets to see a nasty gory scene courtesy of a face being removed by knife which is used by a vampire girl to disguise herself in order to seduce Shiraki. The nastiness factor is increased with a crow being shown pecking on the mutilated face after the deed has been done. There are shades of the French horror Eyes Without A Face in this scene. Some great special effects are used when the Principal is finally killed with one of his brides by Shiraki which is suitably gruesome. The dialogue for this movie is rather cheesy and I noticed in a scene where a schoolgirl is being chased in some woods they have added a sound effect of somebody walking on a polished floor which is a bit silly considering they’re outside and not in a room. Even though there’s no Dracula in this movie, there’s an interesting backstory involving a white foreigner who was washed ashore in Japan 200 years previously. He was tortured for being a Christian and banished to the desert (didn’t know there was a desert in Japan!) where he drank his own blood to survive and eventually kidnapped a young 15 year old girl who was to be his first victim. The story makes it clear that these 2 people evaded capture and have lived through the ages taking over the identities of those they have killed. Again the name Dracula is never mentioned but it could well be him. The only difference with Stoker’s Dracula is he was never a Christian man.

I may have described many faults with this movie but I still rather enjoyed it. Some aspects of the movie work really well and the story builds to an exciting conclusion though it ends rather abruptly. I’m hoping at some point in the future to catch the other two movies in the trilogy as allegedly The Evil Of Dracula is the weakest of all the 3 movies. This movie is at least different from any other Asian horror I’ve seen and that in itself is a good thing.

No trailer but here’s a small clip from the movie.

Sadako’s Rating: 3 stars out of 5

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The Burmese Harp (1956)

The Burmese Harp dvdIt is nearing the end of WWII and a Japanese regiment is making their way through the Burma jungle by singing songs accompanied by a Burmese harp which is being played by Private Muzushima. It is obvious that the war has taken their toll on the tired and disillusioned regiment and they finally see a small village in a clearing to which they hope to rest and get food. They are welcomed by the villagers. As they start to sing again in a hut in the village as night falls, they realise that British soldiers are camped on the edge of the jungle. When the Japanese start to sing ‘There’s No Place Like Home’ they begin to hear the British singing the English version. The British enter the village and announce that the war is over and Emperor Hirohito has officially signed a formal surrender. Before repatriation, the soldiers are told they are being moved down south to a prisoner camp in Mudon. The Captain of the Japanese regiment asks for a volunteer for a special mission on behalf of the British. A small group of Japanese soldiers have dug themselves into a cave on a mountain and refuse to surrender. Even though the mountain is being bombarded the soldiers refuse to give in. Muzushima’s task is to go to the mountain, tell the soldiers the war is over and hopefully persuade them to lay down their arms.  However Muzushima’s task goes horribly wrong as the soldiers refuse to surrender and want to fight to the death. During a heavy aerial attack by the British, Muzushima is knocked out and when he wakes up he finds the entire group is dead.  Nursed back to health by a Buddhist monk, he takes on their guise and wanders the Burmese countryside where he discovers the true horror of war. Meanwhile his former regiment thinks that he’s dead until they come across a monk walking across a bridge that looks like Muzushima. They encounter the monk several times and hear a harp playing a familiar tune and finally they get the answer they were wanted  – that the monk is indeed Muzushima. As the date for the regiment’s repatriation comes closer, they try to send a message to Muzushima  and ask if he’ll come back home to Japan with them but Muzushima has another task he wants to do before going back home.

The title of this movie comes from a Burmese harp that’s acquired by the leading character Muzushima who in turn becomes an expert harpist player. This is possibly one of the greatest anti-war movies I’ve ever seen even though I didn’t think that was going to be the case during the opening 30 minutes. Rather than focusing on big battles, the story leans more towards the terrible suffering and the human effects of war. My first impression was this is quite a strange war movie which was more interested in showing a group of Japanese soldiers singing their way through the jungles of Burma. However, the story becomes more interesting, very sad and moving once the Japanese unit has been destroyed on the mountain and Muzushima has recovered from his wounds.  His transformation from a soldier to a man of peace is a symbol of what Japan had to do after the end of the war in which it’s constitution was changed by the US to becoming a pacifist nation. The country had to come to terms with defeat, deal with the consequences of war and start to heal itself. Probably the most powerful scene you’ll see in this movie is when Muzushima comes across dead Japanese soldiers’ bodies piled up high near a river and being picked on by vultures. It’s one of those scenes so sobering and shocking it really does make you wonder about the futility of war. It is only after this life-changing experience and seeing the British burying their dead that Muzushima’s spiritual awakening and journey begins and he feels compelled to give each and every Japanese soldier that has died in Burma a dignified burial and to pray for their souls.

The Burmese Harp screenshot

The movie has been criticised in some quarters as painting a somewhat romanticised view of the Japanese soldier. Yes, it is true that many horrific acts were perpetrated by the Japanese during the war and nobody can say otherwise but what this movie is trying to say is the soldiers were also human beings who suffered just as much as the Allied troops.  It’s all too easy to paint every Japanese soldier as vicious bloodthirsty brutes.  Music plays a large role in this story and whenever you’ll hear the tune ‘There’s No Place Like Home’ which is sung regularly it’ll instantly make you think of this movie. The songs you hear the soldiers singing is to remind them of happier times and to lift their spirits. I also liked the fact that music brings 2 enemies together as a force for peace. The melody of the harp being played by Muzushima is so haunting and melancholic. The cinematography in this movie is incredible – a simple shot of raindrops running along a barbed wire fence before dripping off is just one example of some stunning camera shots. Another great shot is that of the Schwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon which is shown in all of its glory – such a beautiful temple. There’s nothing you can really say about Shoji Yasui’s performance as Muzushima except that it’s brilliant. Rentaro Mikuni also gives an amazing performance as Captain Inouye – Muzushima’s regiment commanding officer.

This was the movie that gave director Kon Ichikawa international recognition. It was the catalyst for many more great movies he would create. He loved this movie so much he remade it again during in 1985! The novel by Michio Takeyama which this movie has been based on was originally geared towards young adults but Ichikawa and his wife adapted it into a more graphic adult story.

The Burmese Harp is a movie that should be on any film fan’s list to watch. The story might be sad, full of symbolism and allegory but it’s not too sentimental or even preachy about how war is bad. I did tear up several times during the movie and I’m sure other viewers will do the same. If this movie doesn’t touch you in one way it’s obvious that you don’t have a soul. It’s a movie that goes straight to the heart. Very highly recommended.

Sadako’s Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

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Mr Thank You (1936)


This movie is about a polite and genial young bus driver who is given the nickname of Mr Thank You due to him giving thanks loudly to people that move out of the way of his rickety bus on the narrow high mountain lanes in Izu prefecture.  He likes to exchange pleasantries with the passengers and even delivers messages and parcels to stops on the route. On this trip to a train station a number of interesting people come on-board the bus which includes a mother and her 17 year old daughter, a flirtatious young modern woman who tries to get freebies such as cigarettes from Mr Thank You and an obnoxious pompous loan salesman who has his eye on the 17 year old girl and complains all the time.

This is an excellent road movie of a bus trip through the Japanese countryside which has been directly brilliantly by Hiroshi Shimizu. Even though it is primarily a light comedy, it is also a poignant and bittersweet story which hints at the hard times that the people of Japan were going through during the 1930’s. Of all the passengers that hop on-and-off on Mr Thank You’s bus during this trip, it’s the story about a mother and daughter that’s the most heart-breaking. The pretty 17 year old is on her way to catch a train to Tokyo which at first the viewer thinks she is going to get a proper job in the city but the truth is revealed that she is going to be sold by her mother into prostitution. The sad sorrowful look on the young girl’s face with her eyes looking down as she is resigned to her fate reflects what many widowed mothers had to do during the bleak days of the Depression with the country’s resources going to the military. A lot of young girls living in mountain villages had to be sold off to prostitution as money was very tight for poverty stricken families. Even though the 17 year old is hoping to come back home in the future, the modern woman sitting at the front of the bus states that once they leave the area none of them ever come back. She even draws the unwelcome attention of a lecherous loan salesman who keeps constantly glancing back at her sitting at the rear of the bus with her mother. Luckily the modern woman who might or might not have been a prostitute in the past gives the young girl some advice that Tokyo is full of people like him and that she’d better watch herself. It is even seen that Mr Thank You has a soft spot for her as he looks at the young girl often through his mirror though I’m not sure if that’s because he is protective of her or he has some romantic feelings. There’s a sense of community amongst the middle and working class passengers on the bus even though it is short-lived just for the journey’s duration. The way that the director has captured the everyday lives of ordinary people in this movie is wonderful to see. There’s no plot as such and the movie is carried along by the interaction amongst the passengers and the people on the road that the bus passes by. Even though the viewer is made aware that things are bleak for everybody, the mood of the movie is far from gloomy and is punctuated by some very funny humour with a lot of the comedy centred on the attitude of the loan salesman.

mr-thank-you screenshot

The lead character Mr Thank You (we are never given his real name or any of the passengers either) played by Ken Ushara is one of those people that doesn’t seem to have a bad bone in his body. Always with a smile on his face, he knows everybody on the route that his bus travels on. Even if somebody complains on the bus which the moustachioed gruff loan salesman does on numerous occasions, he never raises his voice and the calm friendly authority that he displays is reassuring for the rest of the passengers. He is even nice towards a Korean female immigrant road construction worker who is seen walking to her next work assignment. He agrees to her request that every now and then he will put flowers on her fathers grave because she is moving away from the area. Minority groups in Japan aren’t treated all that well so it was good to see Shimizu showing some respect for them.

The cinematography is one of the highlights of this movie. The viewer is treated to a bygone era of Japan that is long gone with many beautiful and scenic shots of the Japanese coastline, countryside and narrow mountain passes. What is more remarkable about this movie is it was shot entirely on location and even without a script! The dialogue was largely improvised. I cannot understand why Shimizu isn’t recognised as one of the great Japanese directors as Kurosawa, Mizoguchi and his contemporary Yasujiro Ozu over in the West. He was such a talented individual and this movie is a shining example of the incredible work he created.  I believe that even in Japan he’s largely forgotten these days which is a disgrace.

This is as close to perfection as you can get. Mr Thank You is one of those movies with such a cracking story and a great cast of characters that you wouldn’t mind spending more time with. You get a glimpse of what the real Japan was like in the 1930’s. I thoroughly enjoyed this 76 minute bus journey and I was sad that it ended a little bit too soon. Highly recommended.

No trailer but here’s a great clip of Mr Thank You talking to the Korean immigrant worker

Sadako’s Rating: 5 stars out of 5

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Love For Beginners (2012)

love for beginners dvd

Hibino Tsubaki a teenage girl starting her first day in high school but she stands out like a sore thumb due to dressing and looking rather old fashioned. She is teased mercilessly by her classmates because of this. Despite this she is rather good at styling people’s hair but for some reason she never does her own.  One of the most popular male students in her class Kyota Tsubaki who is considered quite a playboy starts developing an interest in Hibino much to the disgust of her female classmates.  Although she doesn’t think much about him at first, she does develop some feelings for him and soon they are embarking on a relationship. Things progress well for the couple but then something happens on Kyota’s birthday as Hibino tells him that she loves him. He goes cold on her and even starts ignoring her in class. It is only when his best friend explains to her the circumstances (his mother left him to run away with another man) that make his birthday so difficult that she finally understands but can she make things right again? It doesn’t help when Kyota’s first girlfriend comes back on the scene from the US and tries to win back his heart.

This movie based on a manga proved to be very popular with the female teenage market during my last trip to Tokyo in December 2012 but as this type of movie isn’t really my cup of tea I didn’t go and see it. I thought I’d better take a look at it sometime and see what the fuss was all about which is why I watched it this week! This isn’t a story that strays much from the path taken in similar movies – 2 young teenagers pretty much the opposite poles of each other fall unexpectedly in love and what follows is the usual bumps along the road to happiness that happens to them. There have been loads of these movies done in Japan over the years so anybody expecting an original plot will be left wanting. It’s all too familiar yet there’s something about this movie thanks to the 2 leads that made it enjoyable. According to what I’ve read about the manga, the story has been toned down a bit as there were some strong sexual themes in it. The first hour leads up to the 2 teens becoming a happy couple so you know more or less that an obstacle of some sort is going to drive a wedge between them in the following hour. However, the circumstances with Kyota’s mother which sees her in hospital and leads to a touching reunion I thought was just another excuse to extend the running time. The pace of the movie does drag at times, at nearly 2 hours it was a good 15-20 mins too long. It would have been nice for the plot to tackle something a little bit different between the couple. I also found it to be a little ridiculous that Kyota goes out running in the streets of Tokyo to find Hibino. In such a huge city to find one person couldn’t he have taken the train or subway instead!!

love-for-beginners screenshot

Emi Takei and Tori Matsuzaka play the 2 lovers and this isn’t the first time for them to link up together as they also starred in a 2011 drama series.  They are convincing enough in their roles but I just couldn’t feel that much chemistry between them. The other problem I had with Matsuzaka is he looks older than the rest of his peers in the movie! Given that he’s in his early 20’s and the rest of his co-stars are still in their late teens that’s quite understandable. Emi Takei is perhaps the better out of the 2 leads in the acting stakes. Her character Hibino isn’t what you might call a typical Japanese teenager – she has a rather unique personality! What I found quite amusing is whilst Yua Shinkawa has a role as Hibino’s little sister and she does look younger than Emi in the movie, the truth is Yua is older than Emi by 3 days!!  The rest of the supporting cast are adequate enough in their parts. It was a surprise to see a Western looking girl get a few lines and speak fluent Japanese until I discovered that the actress Erina Dawkins is a Japanese citizen who was born and bred in Gifu City.

There’s no doubt that teenage girls will love this movie but as for everybody else I’m not too sure. It doesn’t cover any new ground and it doesn’t stand out from any of the other Japanese teen romance movies either. The movie doesn’t cover everything in the manga as apparently the couple eventually get married. As predictable as this movie is, I still found it enjoyable especially since the soundtrack has the song Hatsukoi by Mika Nakashima that I fell in love with when I saw the trailer last December.

Sadako’s Rating: 3 stars out of 5

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The Tower (2012)


It’s Christmas Eve in Seoul and for the brand new Tower Sky twin residential skyscrapers a big party is being held on the 70th floor for some very important people and no expense is being spared even getting a couple of helicopters to drop down artificial snow on the partygoers. During a sudden gust in the wind, one of the helicopters crashes into one of the towers and suddenly it is on fire. The fire sprinklers are unable to work properly and soon people are leaping from high up down on the busy street below and a lift is sent tumbling down a shaft in flames. A team of fire-fighters from a nearby fire station who have a new rookie in their ranks are assigned the task of getting the fire under control which is no easy thing but first the safety and rescue of the people trapped on the floors above the fire is their priority which includes a manager and his young daughter. Then some revelations come out that the tower’s owners have cut back on some safety features on the building’s design. As the fire begins to rage out of control, the tower’s engineers say that the steel of the entire building is buckling because of the scorching heat and it is likely to fall down. A decision is made to put down some explosives and bring the tower down even if there are some survivors still in the building. Will the brave fire-fighters manage to save everybody before everything comes crashing down?

The 70’s was the era that saw Hollywood deliver on some epic disaster movies such as Airport, The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake and The Towering Inferno starring the late great Steve McQueen.  The Tower rehashes the plot of that movie albeit with some minor changes to bring an epic edge-of-your-seat story filled with excitement and drama. The plot remains the same – a tall skyscraper which accidentally catches fire although the skyscraper here is a twin one with a glass bridge linking the towers together on one of the high floors. OK, so it’s a tried and tested formula seen before but when it works so well as it does in this movie why try and change it. The set up for a disaster waiting to happen is introduced fairly early with sprinklers not working to a warning that there would be strong gusts of wind outside the towers. The first half of the movie introduces us to the main players such as the brave fire-fighters whose Captain is more at home battling blazes with his crew and inducting a new rookie to the ranks rather than being at home with his wife to the meek security man with his potential love interest colleague and his daughter. The characters never try to be different from any other disaster movie – it’s the usual stock caricatures……. although I have to say I’ve never seen a group of Christians gathered at the tower to celebrate Christmas used for comedic effect before in this type of movie! Most of the characters are given a chance to shine onscreen. Some of them will survive and some will perish. You can’t let everybody survive in a disaster movie! There has to be casualties to up the tension and some of the deaths come quite unexpectedly when you least expect anything to happen. The question is trying to guess who will make it and who won’t. Some of the characters are easy to identify with so the viewer starts to care enough to want them to get out of the tower alive. There’s even a villainous character in the story in the President of the Tower Sky complex who is more concerned about the VIP’s in the party and asks the fire-fighters to rescue them first. Well you can guess what the answer from the Captain back to him is!!!

The Tower 2012 screenshot

The second half of the movie focuses on the rescue services dealing with evacuating people trapped by the raging inferno, the losing battle the fire-fighters face at containing the huge blaze and the shocking scenario that both towers will eventually topple down.  The set-pieces involving real fire and scenes of destruction are fantastic to watch and very gripping. The scene in which people are shown trapped in a lift with a fire burning underneath them is one that stands out as the shoe of one guy starts melting and faces and hands get burnt when pressed against the lift wall due to the extreme heat. You really get a sense of how scalding hot it is inside the lift carriage and that in itself makes it terrifying. Another spectacular sequence involves the collapse of the glass bridge between the two towers which is full of suspense as some survivors including Dae Ho’s daughter walk gingerly across the bridge which starts to crack under the weight of too many people attempting to walk across it. Naturally with this kind of movie there is going to be some melodrama used which some viewers might find to be a little cheesy. One of the best things about this movie is the fantastic CG effects used. It looks and feels like a lot of money has been put into creating some truly incredible sequences which are unforgettable.  It’s obvious that the Korean movie industry has finally caught up with Hollywood and can match them for anything. To be honest It’s the effects you’ll remember more than the story or the acting in this movie.

There’s a fair number of cast members in this movie but two stand out more than anybody else. One is Kim Sang-kyung who plays the movie’s unlikely hero Dae Ho, a single parent who is thrust into a life or death situation of not only trying to save his own little daughter Hana but also his beautiful female colleague Yun Hee who manages the tower’s kitchens. He’s not your usual macho testosterone hero but just a normal guy who has to do extraordinary things and is pushed to his limit in the face of a disaster. Equally as good is veteran actor Sol Kyung-gu as the grizzled Captain of the fire-fighters Young Ki who displays immense courage and sacrifices his own life in order to save the remaining survivors and his fellow fire-fighters.

Director Kim Ji-hoon’s last movie ‘Sector 7’ was a bit of a disaster in itself (to pardon a pun) about a monster on the loose on an oil rig so my expectations weren’t high when I saw he was helming this movie but thankfully he has managed to redeem himself.  Despite the story being unoriginal, he manages to make this movie such a thrill ride and there is never a dull moment due to the quick pacing.

As a disaster movie, The Tower hits all the right buttons. It’s a visually breath taking spectacle with plenty of excitement that should keep most Asian movie fans happy. If ever there was a movie that can be called a blockbuster this is one of them. Recommended.

Sadako’s  Rating: 4 stars out of 5

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Don’t Look Up (1996)

Don't Look Up 1996

Aka Ghost Actress

Director Toshiro Murai is working on his new WWII drama movie which he hopes will give him his big break. Whilst looking at some rushes with his crew of what he shot earlier in the day another film mysteriously appears on the same print. Everybody is surprised not least the cinematographer who thinks some mislabelled stock has been used. Nevertheless Murai starts to become intrigued by the footage and is sure he remembers a scene he saw in the footage from a movie he saw on the TV when he was a child. He asks the cinematographer to research and find out anything about this movie. On the old eerie stage where Murai’s movie is being filmed strange events begin to happen. Ghostly voices are heard by the lead actress and an accident occurs in which a young actress is tragically killed after she falls from a catwalk. The cinematographer reports back to Murai that he has burnt the old footage as he thinks it is evil but he did find some information.  It seems that on the same stage many years ago an actress who was on a catwalk above the studio floor fell to her death during a shooting of a movie. The production was scrapped but Murai is convinced he has seen the movie featuring the actress on TV. Why is the actress haunting the film set? Is Murai’s movie cursed and doomed to never be completed?

This movie by Hideo Nakata (his 2nd feature) could be seen as the birth of the ‘ghost girl with long black hair’ genre that flourished in Japan during the back-end of the 90’s and the early 00’s. Many ideas from this movie would make it to his next project ‘The Ring’ and he would expand upon them so this movie is basically a precursor of sorts to it.  Even though Don’t Look Up is short at only 73 mins it packs a lot in the running time, is very atmospheric and well-acted. The story builds on the spooky mood very gradually until it leads to a terrifying conclusion.  The only problem is at the end you’re left wanting more! The premise of a story within a story is interesting and only makes the viewer wanting to find out more about the mysterious footage. Nakata wisely chooses at first to leave the ghostly actress in the shadows and blurred so you can’t see her features properly. You can see the shape of a woman with long black hair but that is all. The only problem I had with this movie is about the ghost actress herself – it’s never revealed who she is, why she is haunting the studio and how did Murai see the uncompleted movie if it was never shown on TV in the first place? Then again perhaps that was Nakata’s intention all along to make the viewer ask questions? Thankfully there are no cheap scare scenes which are prevalent so much in Western horrors these days in this story and instead Nakata opts to show growing unease and glimpses of something in the shadows as his main source for frightening the viewer.  Quite stylishly done I thought and by the end of the movie I was quite literally on the edge of my seat and chewing my nails!!

Dont-Look-Up screenshot

The cast do well in their roles – nothing special about their performances stand out but I can’t fault them for anything. Yasuyo Shirashima and Kei Ishibashi play the sisters Hitomi and Saori in Murai’s ill-fated production.  It is seen that Murai has a crush on Hitomi, the elder sister in his movie as he keeps a photo of her by his bed whilst Saori, the young teen actress keeps annoying some of the crew with her immature antics. Yurei Yanagi as Murai becomes so distracted by the ghostly footage that he starts to become somewhat obsessed in finding out everything about it. Unlike some horror stories from some actors/actresses you hear about some movie directors who rule with an iron rod during a shooting of a movie, Murai comes across as a fair, hardworking and a patient person who doesn’t have to resort to barking out orders to his cast to get the best performance he wants out of them.

Overall a very entertaining and scary movie and even though the parallels to The Ring is obvious I liked this movie a lot. Recommended.

No trailer for this movie I’m afraid and I can’t even find a clip.

Sadako’s Rating: 4 stars out of 5

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