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Archive for March, 2014

Lovesick Dead (2001)

lovesick dead dvd

Aka Love Ghost

Midori looks like your average high school girl who has returned with her mother to her hometown after being away for many years. The only thing plaguing Midori is a strange recurring dream about a man in black clothes whose face is hidden in mist who is stepping towards her. She wakes up terrified about it. On her way to her first day at school she refuses to go a certain way as it passes a small shrine. There’s something about that shrine which spooks her as it appears in her dream. Midori makes some new friends at school but also some enemies as she manages to make the boys in her class look at her constantly. She meets an old acquaintance of hers she hasn’t seen for over 10 years – Ryusuke. Back at home, Midori’s mother is beginning to act weird. A mould has appeared on the bathroom wall and her mother is determined to scrub the mould off but without any luck. The girls in Midori’s class are heavily into fortune telling and horoscopes that might help with their love lives. Frustrated though with the results so far they contemplate trying Tsujiura, an old method of fortune telling in which they have to cover their eyes and ask a question to a passer-by who has to answer truthfully. Unfortunately some of the girls who try this method out end up committing suicide. The same man in Midori’s dream is thought to be responsible. Who is this mysterious man in black and why is he making the girls kill themselves? Will Midori find out his identity and what is about the small shrine that is making her so jumpy?

To be honest when I first started to watch this movie I really thought it was going to be a typical generic J-horror but even though it is partially that kind of story, I was surprised how good it was especially by the big swerve that takes place around 20 mins near the end which I really didn’t see coming. The story mixes teen romance, horror and mystery flawlessly and I enjoyed how things unfolded. Directed by debutant Kazuyuki Shibuya and based on a manga by Junjo Ito (who also did Uzumaki), he manages to create a broody and atmospheric movie with some nice visuals. Given that he only had a low budget he did a very good job. The story really goes into overdrive during the second half as a load of revelations (which includes a dead body hidden inside a wall) come flooding out.

lovesick dead screenshot

Rather than your usual slasher fare, the story focuses on the effect that the mysterious man in black is having on the girls at Midori’s school – some of them going mad and taking to slashing their throats with a stanley knife. There is some gore involved in the proceedings (blood being sprayed) but it isn’t gratitious. The mysterious angel of death that the man in black represents is very unnerving – appearing out of a mist that comes from nowhere with his facial features blurred. Is the negative answers he gives to the schoolgirls that want to know the future of their love life done on purpose in order to make them commit suicide? The story unravels even more when Midori starts digging into her past and her memories of being with Ryusuke years ago. An old poster of a missing child on a wall looks familiar but can’t pinpoint why she recognises the little boy. I really don’t want to reveal the big twist that happens otherwise it’ll spoil your enjoyment of the movie but I thought it was great. If some of you out there have seen the Korean Whispering Corridor movies you’ll see some similarities with this movie.

Ryuhei Matsuda is one of those actors that exudes an aura of mystery about him. I’ve always found him to be rather creepy with that blank expression he constantly has on his face. That doesn’t mean I think of him as a poor actor – far from it in fact. He gives a great performance as Midori’s friend Ryusuke who may be hiding a dark secret from her. Risa Goto plays the main female lead of Midori. I wouldn’t say her portrayal is anything special at all but it’s OK.

Lovesick Dead is a welcome addition from an era that churned out many mediocre J-horror movies. It would have been easy to create another money making horror with a throwaway plot but it seemed to me like the filmmakers actually took some time to think of a good and interesting story and it’s all the better for it. Well worth checking out.

Sadako’s Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

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19 (2000)

19 dvd

A young university student Usami riding his bicycle is kidnapped by a trio of twenty-something punks in a car. He is quite literally grabbed off his bike and thrown into the back seat. Usami tries to escape when he asks to go and urinate but he is quickly recaptured. Adjusting to the situation, he is taken on a ride with the trio where they start stealing stuff from shops, eat at a restaurant, visit a zoo and head to the beach. As Usami spends more time with the trio, he is gradually accepted as being one of them. Usami doesn’t want to escape from them anymore and he is even prepared to help them when they target another individual for kidnapping. However Usami’s world is about to turn dark when the newest hostage turns violent………..

This is a unique and offbeat black comedy road-trip with the director also taking part as one of the leading actors in the production. Kazushi Watanabe who made his debut as a director in the movie has apparently based the story on actual events. If that wasn’t enough for him he also wrote the screenplay. It’s a tale of a group of disillusioned young people on the fringes of society who drive around doing whatever they please. The story which shows Usami’s kidnapping to acceptance in being with the group and ultimately being dumped by them is interesting and never boring. Things do go decidedly darker when the group arrive on a beach to have fun and Usami’s innocence is taken away from him during a violent scuffle in a car with another hostage which ends in death. This scene comes rather unexpectedly and out of the blue. The ending is also rather abrupt with Usami being left on a road penniless with no idea in the world where he is. What isn’t made very clear is why did the gang pick on Usami – was he just a random target because they were bored or had they been watching him for a while?

19 screenshot

There’s an interesting mix of characters in the group. The leader is the only one that really speaks a lot whilst the other two don’t say that much, in fact one of them says nothing during the entire movie. Usami connects to one individual within the group – someone who likes to take a lot of snapshots with his camera. He’s the only one he can ask when he’ll be allowed to go home. The answer he gets isn’t very reassuring! So Usami does what anybody would do – if you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em. The group dynamics changes yet again when a second hostage, a young man on a beach is taken by them. He’s just minding his own business when he is forced to have a fight with Usami on the beach in which he belts him across the face. The main difference between this young man and Usami is he isn’t prepared to stay with them and uses violence to try and escape. However, even when he knocks out the lead thug, his path to freedom is short lived and he is recaptured. It is then that the turning point of the movie occurs with a shocking and violent incident. Usami’s time with the group comes to an end soon afterwards. Whilst the thugs are quite happy to steal things, intimidate and kidnap people – killing somebody though is something that’s not on their agenda.

Watanabe’s style of subtle comedy does have some similarities to what Takeshi Kitano has been doing over the years. The movie has a bleached out look about it. To some it may seem a little bit amateurish and rough but I liked it. In a way Watanabe’s turn as the head thug of the gang is slightly reminiscent of the character he would portray in Takashi Miike’s Visitor Q. Takeo Noro and Ryo Shinmyo act as his partners in crime. Daijiro Kawaoka is the quiet Usami whilst Masashi Endo plays the polar opposite of him as the aggressive second hostage with no name.

All in all, 19 is a quirky road movie with a difference. It has solid performances by the cast and it was a promising debut by a young director. It’s a shame that Watanabe has only directed 2 more movies since this one and the last one was in 2007.

Sadako’s Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

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Lake of Dracula 1

A little girl Akiko who lives in a seaside town runs after her dog from the beach. After going through a rock tunnel, she discovers a large mansion straight out of a fairytale book. She goes inside and comes face to face with a vampire with golden eyes. Fast forward to the present day and Akiko is now a young woman who lives with her sister Natsuko in a house close by a lake. Even though Akiko has a handsome doctor Saeki as a boyfriend, it doesn’t stop her sister from trying to pry him away from her. In the district the doctor has been treating several unusual cases of females drained of blood. At the same time a coffin arrives at a fishing rental place which contains a vampire inside. The vampire bites the owner of the place turning him into one of the undead. More people including Akiko’s sister are then bitten. It seems the head vampire is linked to Akiko’s encounter all those years ago though that was dismissed as nothing more than a dream by her parents. Saeki gets dragged into the problem when strange things start to happen at the hospital where he works. He didn’t believe there was anything supernatural going on in the area despite Akiko telling him but now he changes his mind. It leads to a showdown at the head vampire’s creepy mansion.

Having said that The Evil Of Dracula was the apparently the weakest out of the 70’s Japanese Dracula trilogy after viewing it a while ago, I decided to give this a go in the hope that it would be better. This, the 2nd in the seriesy is definitely an improvement though it does run out of steam towards the end. It starts out with an incredible scene of a sunset which is probably the highlight of the entire movie! Mori Kishida actually is more menacing as the head vampire in this movie and gives a good account of himself which is more than can be said of his unscary performance in Evil. He isn’t given that much dialogue though. I’ve said this before but Dracula does NOT appear in any of the movies. The vampire that Kishida portrays is descended from Dracula’s unholy alliance with a Japanese bloodsucker. It’s a nice tribute to the Hammer vampire movies of the 50’s and 60’s that the director Michio Yamamoto admired. He captures all the essential ingredients that make a decent vampire movie.

lake of dracula screenshot

The story manages to build a sense of dread with some good suspense and scares. Even the so-called vampire brides which include Akiko’s sister look very beautiful and exude an aura of sexuality. As this is a Japanese vampire movie, the familiar aspects of dealing with a vampire in a Western movie such as crucifixes, stakes and holy water are noticeably absent though they are talked about. There is a hint through some of the dialogue that vampirism was strictly something that only affected Western countries before Dracula came over to Japan and infected the population there. The special effects are competent enough especially the head vampire decomposing and crumbling to dust at the climax. There’s an eerie atmosphere to proceedings which helps to move the plot along.  The cast perform as well as can be expected with the script with Midori Fujita taking the leading role as Akiko. As I said before, Mori Kishida whilst he does well as the head vampire in this movie he still doesn’t have a commanding screen presence as Christopher Lee. He simply isn’t frightening enough.

This movie isn’t a classic by any stretch but as a unique Japanese take on the Western vampire story it’s worth taking a look. Just don’t expect it to come up to Hammer’s standards.

Sadako’s Rating: 3 stars out of 5

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Godspeed-you-black-emperor-dvd

The documentary follows the lives of the Black Emperor motorcycle gang which are based in Tokyo. The members of the gang are all disillusioned young people in their late teens/early 20’s who have no jobs. Cruising around in their motorcycles at night which have Nazi swastika logos attached on them, they are under the impression they’re such a cool group. However there’s nothing really that shocking about them at all. Even their confrontations with the police are ever so polite – hardly a hard-core mean and nasty biker gang. The group frown upon taking drugs, they stick to the speed limit and they don’t like to be seen as gangsters. Dwindling numbers in the group mean they’re in crisis but those that are still remaining aren’t satisfied about the group going out with a whimper.

In the late 60’s, movies showing rebellious youth around the world became fashionable. Japan was no exception to this trend either and various filmmakers jumped on the bandwagon . This documentary however, doesn’t portray what most people would think of as a traditional biker gang. You have to remember that this came out right at the start of the biker culture in Japan so The Black Emperors are much tamer than the ones that would follow afterwards where some biker gang members would go on to become fully fledged yakuza personnel. The Black Emperors don’t come across as being thugs at all, more like a social gathering of like-minded people hanging out on bikes.  Apparently there was a famous Canadian rock band named after this biker gang but I’m not familiar with them at all. Shot in black and white, the documentary focuses on a group of young people who have turned their backs on what Japanese society expected from them and they have rebelled instead. They ride around Shinjuku in a large group carrying weapons and looking for a fight with other gangs. Though their confrontations with the police are mostly trouble free but with the cameras trained on them they try to act cocky and defiant in front of the police officers. Their bikes have swastika logos on them and they even spray paint it on some walls but it doesn’t make it clear if the guys know what the symbol represents. It was probably done as shock value than anything else. When a new member joins the biker gang, the viewer is introduced to the hierarchy within the group. They face the camera and proudly say they are school drop-outs, jobless, lazy, homeless and proud of it. Jobless and lazy they may be but homeless – far from it. The majority have good homes to go back to after a night out with the lads. Anybody will be able to see that their so-called antics and bravado is all for show. If The Black Emperor gang was that tough why do they never show them getting into any scuffles with another gang at all! The director could easily have made a documentary condemning this gang as being non-conformist but no, he thought it would be far more interesting to speak to them about what they do and why they’re rebelling against society. It’s hard to tell whether some of what takes place with the gang is rehearsed or if they welcomed the director into their midst and were happy for him to capture everything – warts and all.

Godspeed you black emperor screenshot

One of the gang members named Decko is given quite a bit of screentime by director Mitsuo Yanagimachi. A bit of a simple person and easily led by others. After trashing a taxi with some other Emperor members and being caught by the police he has to go to court and he is seen at home asking his mother to accompany him (she doesn’t!). His brothers in the gang don’t abandon him though and he is seen being comforted afterwards by them outside the court after losing his driving licence for several months. Both his parents are at their wits end with his behaviour and his fed-up father who is tired of constantly having to apologising for his son’s actions even asking the police to arrest him just for hanging around with the gang. There’s even footage of the gang at work trying to sell dolls and tickets and not being that successful at it too! A lengthy and rather boring conversation between the elders of the gang and some of the younger members who want to quit goes on for far too long. Violence is used to try and persuade them to stay. It’s one of several instances which show a darker side to the group. You don’t blame the guys for wanting to leave – being young and rebellious might be fun for a while but it’s cannot last forever and they certainly wouldn’t be able attract any women which is totally absent from the gang’s lifestyle. Another scene showing how brutal the gang can be is when one of them has been caught trying to swindle money from the gang’s coffers and lying about it but even the punishment dished out to the member is nothing more than being slapped about by the rest and having his eyebrows shaved off.

Overall, I really enjoyed this fascinating documentary. It’s a window in looking at Japanese modern culture at the end of the 60’s. I wonder what happened to the members later on in life – did they move on and find a meaningful existence or did some continue on the road to ruin and be content at doing nothing? It would have been nice to have had an update say 10 years later. Anyway, this movie is well worth taking a look.

No trailer I’m afraid.

Sadako’s Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

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Nin x Nin Ninja Hattori-Kun The Movie dvd

Kanzo Hattori with his trademark red swirls on his cheeks is a ninja in training who is given a final challenge of a solo trip to Tokyo where he must find and protect his master. He doesn’t know who he is or what he looks like but he will know when he sees him. Hattori travels to the city and is soon on top of Tokyo Tower looking around for his master when he spots a little boy called Kinichi in his bedroom. Hattori thinks that Kenichi is his master and so he makes his acquaintance with him. Nobody else is allowed to see Hattori except Kenichi or he will fail to become a fully-fledged ninja so whenever his parents come into his bedroom Hattori uses his special powers to hide himself. Hattori amuses himself around Kenichi’s house when he is at school. They make friends with a blind female painter Midori and also have to stop an evil Koga ninja – a rival clan of Hattori’s kind.

Based on a manga and an old anime series, this goofy and fun ninja parody movie centres on the relationship between the blue costumed ninja Hattori who says “nin nin” and a lonely young lad Kinichi who is bullied by his peers. It is mostly thanks to a manic performance by SMAP member Shingo Katori that the movie works so well with his silly faces and a fish out of water scenario as he adapts to the modern world (something that is so alien to him). Shingo’s unique sense of humour as seen in various Japanese TV shows over the past decade is ideally suited for kids who will have a great time laughing at Hattori’s antics such as disguising himself so as to blend in with his surroundings or bouncing around the screen like a loony! The scenes where he attacks the rice cooker whenever it starts beeping is mildly amusing. Even the scenes showing the former Koga ninjas using their old skills in their new lives manage to raise a chuckle.

Nin x Nin Ninja screenshot

Whilst I enjoyed the comedy, I felt the movie lost a lot of steam in the 2nd half as it turned darker and shifted to concentrate on the rogue Koga ninja Kurokage who is creating havoc and attacking retired ninjas by making them comatose. If you expect to see tons of ninja action during this time you’ll be disappointed as there’s hardly any. Even the so-called showdown at the end is a big let-down. There’s a message in the movie for kids as well of believing in one self. Kinichi is low on confidence but thanks to Hattori who instils a much needed boost thanks to him teaching the young boy some ninja skills he soon gets the respect of his classmates who once tormented him. The 1st half of the movie devotes itself to turning Kenichi’s life around. Hattori also gets to renew an old rivalry with Kenichi’s new teacher called Kemumaki (who happens to be a retired ninja).

This movie is a perfect vehicle for the main star of the show – Shingo Katori. I don’t think many adults will be too enamoured with his performance as he acts like a young child but seeing as the movie is targeted for kids they shouldn’t really complain. I also have to question why Rena Tanaka’s blind painter Midori was in the movie at all as she doesn’t serve any kind of purpose except to be in mild peril. On saying that though, Rena does look beautiful throughout the movie and makes for some nice eye candy. She does well with what little material she is given.

As a drama this movie more or less fails but as a comedy it does pretty well. This is lightweight stuff we’re talking about most of the time and as a movie for kids it succeeds. As long as you realise this isn’t about a movie about a ninja that goes around slicing and dicing people with a sword you should enjoy it.

Sadako’s Rating: 3 stars out of 5

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Closed Note (2007)

closed-note movieKae is a college student who is training to become an elementary school teacher. Moving into a new apartment she discovers a notebook that belonged to the previous owner Mano Ibuki. She starts reading from the notebook and discovers what kind of life Ibuki had – how she loved her job teaching kids and how perfect her boyfriend was. Looking out from her apartment window, Kae sees a strange looking young man Ryu Ishitobi staring up at her place. During the spare time she has when she’s not playing the mandolin in an orchestra, Kae works at a fountain pen shop. Ryu pops into the shop one day looking for a very specific pen for his exhibition as he’s an illustrator. By reading more of the notebook, Kae decides to employ some of the tactics used in Ibuki’s lovelife in the hope that Ryu will start noticing her……

This movie is better known for the infamous press conference before the premiere by Erika Sawajiri more than anything else. I’m sure those with an interest in Japanese modern culture will have heard about it. Her moody sullen attitude on that day and the monosyllabic answers she gave to the media did not endear her to the Japanese people who made her public enemy number one. She was rather unprofessional in doing what she did. When a proper apology was not forthcoming from Erika, she was black-balled from the showbiz industry for a good 3 years during which time she moved to London to learn English, got married (and subsequently divorced), went to Spain to do something before coming back home to Japan where she finally made a tearful apology for her past actions. I’m sure the Closed Note press conference is up on Youtube somewhere if you fancy checking it out.

closed-note screenshot

Director Isao Yukisada tried to pull off a hat-trick of commercial weepy success with this movie. Having tugged at the heartstrings of the Japanese public with Crying Out Love From The Center Of The World and Spring Snow, he hoped that this one would also appeal to the same type of people that had flocked to the cinemas before. It did reasonably well at the box office but it never hit the heights of the other two movies due to the fact that the storyline is all over the place, plenty of plotholes, it lacks originality and is predictable. The main problem is with the romance between Kae and Ryo. Ryo makes these overtures towards Kae that he likes her and even buys her some flowers for a mandolin performance but then Kae finds out that he only has feelings for another woman and that the relationship had a tragic ending. Why do all of this if he wasn’t interested in Kae in the first place? There is no surprise for the viewer when they find out the identity of this mystery woman. There’s also no chemistry between Kae and Ryo – I just couldn’t feel anything between them. It just felt like two actors saying their lines and going through the motions. The running time is way too generous for the movie. At 2 hours and 20 mins it outstays it’s welcome by a good 30 – 40 mins. I couldn’t argue though with the beautiful cinematography on show and the transition from the present time with Kae to the past showing Takeuchi’s life was good as well.

If you like to see a movie with some good looking people in the cast then you’ll love this one. For the ladies there’s Yuseke Iseya to swoon over as Ryo. He’s not too bad in the role. Then for the men you’ve got Erika-sama and Yuuko Takeuchi. Erika Sawajiri in my eyes is a gorgeous woman and I’ve always liked her acting over the years in dramas such as 1 Litre Of Tears, Taiyou no Uta and her recent movie Helter Skelter. Yuuko Takeuchi gives a heartfelt performance as the sincere school teacher who goes over the boundaries of her duties to help some of her pupils. I would say it’s Takeuchi that gives the best performance out of the 3 leading stars.

Overall, there’s nothing that really stands out in this standard romance movie. It’s engaging enough and it does keep your interest but it’s not a movie that’s memorable and is rather underwhelming if I’m being honest.

Sadako’s Rating: 3 stars out of 5

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Emperors Naked Army Marches On

Kenzo Okuzaki is a veteran of the Second World War who is on a mission to find out who murdered two soldiers in the same platoon as himself 3 weeks after the war ended. His platoon was based in New Guinea and they felt they had been left there to fend for themselves by the powers that be in Tokyo. Years later he feels strongly that Emperor Hirohito should be brought to justice for his conduct during the war. Okuzaki goes around interrogating former soldiers in his platoon demanding that they tell him who murdered the two soldiers. It is also alleged that the bodies of the soldiers were used for food due to shortages. Okuzaki is so determined to get answers to his questions that he even attacks his former officers in their own homes! Will Okuzaki get to the truth and what will he do then with the information?

This is one of the most bizarre documentaries I’ve ever seen in my life. It had me glued to the screen from the first frame to the last. It is so incredible it literally had me gobsmacked at times. Here we have a man in his 60’s, a lone wolf of sorts determined to seek the truth about an incident that happened after WWII had finished.  The viewer finds out he has been thrown into prison on numerous occasions for murdering an estate broker, firing a sling with pachinko balls at Emperor Hirohito, publishing obscene flyers of the Emperor and threatening to murder a former Japanese Prime Minister. Okuzaki is quite clearly an unbalanced and angry individual who is haunted by what he witnessed in New Guinea during the war. No stranger to the police, Okuzaki even goes round in a van covered with writings and a loudspeaker denouncing Emperor Hirohito and the establishment. He does have another side to his personality as he regularly visits the grave of fallen colleagues. It is disturbing hearing about Okuzaki’s platoon which were on the verge of starvation and also suffering from malaria. Two soldiers were killed on false charges of desertion just so that some officers could use their bodies as food. Desperation sometimes makes people do unspeakable crimes and it quite clear that the officers in Okuzaki’s platoon did a heinous act to keep themselves alive.

Emperors Naked Army Marches On screenshot

Although Okuzaki is a little bit mad (might be a bit of an understatement on my behalf here!), he is also a compassionate individual who comforts the families of the two soldiers. The viewer follows him as he confronts the 6 people he believes were responsible for killing the men. Turning up quite unannounced at their homes, he has no qualms in beating up the people if he thinks they are lying or making excuses about their participation in the executions. I couldn’t believe in what I was seeing!! All he wants is for them to tell the truth. When they threaten to call the cops for assault, he even has the balls to say he’ll call them up himself which he does!!! Okuzaki even makes his wife and another individual impersonate the dead men’s families.  You have to admire how fearless the man is – he doesn’t give a toss about anybody in authority and he’ll flounce every rule in the book to succeed in his mission. The viewer might not agree with his unorthodox violent methods but they sure as hell got results for him!! Wanting to make people atone for their crimes might seem like his actions are justifiable. Why should some individuals get away with committing war crimes? I liked the fact that the director Kazuo Hara used Okuzaki to show people another side to WWII they might not have known about especially cannibalism.

During the epilogue in which newspaper clippings are shown onscreen, the viewer is given another incident that took place with Okuzaki. Pinning the blame on his former sergeant for giving the command to kill the two soldiers, Okuzaki headed to his home with the intention of murdering him. When he found that he wasn’t home, he tried to kill his son instead. Thankfully he failed in his attempt though he seriously wounded the man. Okuzaki was sentenced to 12 years of hard labour for attempted murder. He died in 2005 some years after being released from prison. He can quite rightly be labeled as one of the biggest anarchists Japan has ever seen and a staunch hater of the Japanese Imperial Family.

This is a fascinating must-see documentary which will open your eyes. Today’s generation could learn a thing or two about why in war there are no winners or losers only victims. Okuzaki had a mission to seek out the truth about a dark chapter in Japanese war history and he never backed down regardless if he got arrested by the authorities. He got results so whether you agree with the way he carried out his action I’ll leave that up to you. Highly recommended.

No trailer but here’s a clip from the movie:

Sadako’s Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

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