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Archive for the ‘Japan’ Category

The_Witch_of_the_West_is_Dead_poster

Young teenage girl Mai decides to drops out of high school due to being an outcast. Her overworked parents send her down to her foreign grandmothers house in the countryside for a month so that she can reflect on her decision. Once there, the grandmother tells Mai that she’s a witch and that she can teach her the ways of being a witch. Thus begins a tale in which Mai learns about love and life…….

Contrary to the title of this movie, this story isn’t about Margaret Thatcher, the former UK Prime Minister who was called by some people The Witch Of The West! This is a lovely coming of age movie with stunning cinematography about a troubled teenager who gets an education on life from her wise old foreign grandmother. The reason behind Mai quitting school is pretty weak to be honest – she doesn’t like the clique culture at her school. Whilst it may seem to Western viewers to be a poor excuse, from what I’ve read and seen the bullying culture in Japanese schools by cliques seem to be quite intense leading to depression and in some cases suicide. I’ve gone over this in other reviews so I won’t repeat myself again. In Mai’s case she wasn’t bullied though she was an outcast because she hadn’t joined a clique. There’s a passing reference to racism in that Mai’s mother as she was a halfie had difficulties at school but this is quickly skimmed over and nothing else is mentioned of it probably because it’s a family movie. The movie’s message seems to be more about not passing judgement on people and enjoying life. Mai’s witches training isn’t what you might think it to be – no spell casting here ala Hogwarts. Her grandmother instead asks her to help around the house especially in making wild jam and tending to her herb garden. She also insists on Mai to create her own little sanctuary inside the woods – somewhere where she can relax and mull over things.

Drama and tension is kept at a minimum. Mai doesn’t get on with one of her grandmother’s neighbour – the gruff son of a jolly postman who makes catty remarks about her. This ill feeling is made worse by the fact that the grandmother’s hens are slaughtered one night in their coop and Mai discovers that the neighbour’s dogs are responsible. Mai seems to think that by telling all about this crime to her grandmother she will go round to sort them out but the grandmother doesn’t bat an eyelid and says that even if the accusation is true, storming round to point fingers at the neighbours won’t solve anything. The pair’s relationship is delightful to watch but storm clouds gather on the horizon and due to a misunderstanding they fall out and Mai is even given a slap across the face by her grandmother! The grandmother quite happily sits down in a rocking chair, puffs away on a cigar afterwards with not a care in the world about what’s happened which I found quite amusing! Even though they are still on speaking terms, the warm feeling between them is broken.

Witch of West screenshot

During this period Mai’s father comes round with news saying the family is moving away. Mai goes back with her father and says she will try and attend the new school there. There is no hug or pleasant goodbye between Mai and her grandmother. Things are left unresolved between them. 2 years pass by and Mai has settled down nicely at her new school but then comes dreadful news that her grandmother has passed away. Now Mai feels guilty at having not patched up their relationship and returns to the house to see her body. There is however, a message from beyond the grave for Mai from her grandmother. Even the gruff son of the postman who disliked Mai is nice to her by coming round and paying his respect for the gaijin woman who never said anything bad about him even though he never amounted to anything much.

Mai’s role is played by the pretty young actress Mayu Takahashi and it is Shirley Maclaine’s daughter Sachi Parker (who was raised in Japan from the age of 2 by her father) that portrays the grandmother under a lot of makeup to make her appear older than what she really is. The interaction between the pair which makes up a lot of the movie is great to watch and feels natural. Parker is probably the better out of the two. Her Japanese language skills is excellent but if you’ve grown up in Japan I wouldn’t expect her to be less than fluent.

I really liked this movie with it’s gorgeous cinematography of the woods in which Mai’s grandmother lives. It’s a shame the storyline didn’t elaborate more on the racial problems encountered by Mai’s mother when she was still at school and the underlying tension that existed between mother and daughter but otherwise this was a fine family movie with good performances from all the cast.

Sadako’s Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

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Akira Kurosawa Dreams

This isn’t what you would call your typical Akira Kurosawa movie, it’s a trip into his own dreams which is presented as 8 short stories. The stories are:

SUNSHINE THROUGH THE RAIN – a young boy wanders off into the woods despite the pleas of his mother. There he sees a group of magical foxes in a wedding procession of some sort. When he returns home, his mother tells him that the foxes want him to either kill himself or ask for their forgiveness. The boy then goes off in search of the foxes’ lair under a rainbow.

THE PEACH ORCHARD – A boy follows a mysterious girl into some woods where the spirits there curse his family for destroying their peach trees. When the spirits see how sorry the boy is, they perform a ceremony which allows him to see the peach trees one last time.

THE BLIZZARD – Two men walk bravely through a blizzard. As the cold threatens to overcome them with death, a snow witch turns up to torment one of the men.

THE TUNNEL – A former army commander is confronted by dead members of his old platoon after he walks through a tunnel.

CROWS – A man is thinking about the life of the artist Vincent Van Gogh. He enters a world inside one of the artists’ paintings and meets up with Van Gogh himself before walking around a colourful landscape.

MOUNT FUJI IN RED – A nuclear apocalypse takes place in Japan. Panic spreads amongst the survivors who contemplate whether to commit suicide or not?

THE WEEPING DEMON – Linked to the previous dream, a wandering man comes across a mutant. They talk to each other near some giant mutated dandelions about nature taking its revenge on mankind.

VILLAGE OF THE WATERMILLS – The wandering man comes across a Utopian place in a peaceful and beautiful village. After witnessing a ritual, he asks one of the village elders what is going on. He explains that the inhabitants of the village is living in harmony with nature.

akira kurosawa mt-fuji-in-red

It is hard to really know what Kurosawa is trying to tell the viewer in this movie. People can give their own interpretation about each of the dreams but it is only Kurosawa himself that can answer that question and he is no longer alive. It’s his most personal movie – perhaps it is about his journey through life or something else (some say it is all about mankind’s relationship with nature)? Whatever it is, some might see him as being a little bit too preachy in this movie. It isn’t the great man’s most accessible work either to movie fans – it’s a bit arty, too long and with some unanswered questions and symbolism in each story that may leave people frustrated. Each of the dream segments are interesting in their own way but if there was two that really stand out in my mind it would have to be the CROWS and VILLAGE OF THE WATERMILLS. Some critics have said that this movie is more style over story and I have to agree on that. The cinematography in some of the stories is outstanding. CROWS is a visual masterpiece awash with bright and vivid colours as the viewer is taken on a journey around Van Gogh’s art. The story left me awestruck. I’ve never seen anything so beautiful. Every frame in this story is like a painting. The part of Van Gogh was played by none other than Martin Scorscese. VILLAGE OF THE WATERMILLS has a good message to it about harmonising with nature instead of trying to destroy it. Some anti-nuclear rhetoric is quite easy to be seen in the 2 stories MOUNT FUJI IN RED and THE DEMON. The Mount Fuji story is depicted like a disaster movie and very effective it is as well. The acting in each of the stories is great though there’s never enough time for the main characters to be fleshed out.

Whether you like this movie or not, it is definitely one to experience if only for the technical brilliance of it all thanks to the help from George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic. It is probably the most imaginative movie that Kurosawa ever made. Well worth taking a look but I realise it might not be to everyone’s taste.

Sadako’s Rating: 4 stars out of 5

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home the house imp

The Takahashi family consisting of mother, father, 2 kids and their elderly grandmother move to an idyllic thatched house in the country in Iwate prefecture. The father who is working for a food company has been shipped out there as his ideas for trying to sell something new didn’t work out in Tokyo. None of the family are happy at being there especially the mother and elder daughter though the father tries his best by saying it’ll be cheaper for them to live there. All have trouble adapting to their new way of life and it gets worse when strange things begin to happen for some family members. The grandmother keeps staring into the roof void of the house and then the children begin to see a young face appearing through the window. As things begin to get worse and the family are close to packing up and leaving, they discover the source of the problem………

Some viewers might say that this movie is like a live-action version of Studio Ghibli’s My Neighbour Totoro as the plot is
quite similar to it and some scenes in fact are uncannily familiar. Whereas that movie dealt with other worldy spirits of the forest, this one has a cute young imp as the troublesome spirit that bothers the family. The young imp is supposed to be a male character (but played by a little girl) who is lonely and plays mischevious tricks on the family like looking in through the window and making noises in the night but he eventually befriends the young boy of the house who sees him sitting on a small shrine in the house’s grounds. The spirit made the last owner of the house who was a foreigner to sell up in less than a year.

home the house imp screenshot

The movie doesn’t necessary focus just on the young imp. The viewer sees how each family member tries to integrate themselves into the local community (the young boy trying to join a local football team and the daughter being invited to the school’s swimming team). The father is also vindicated of his past failures when he persuades a local catering firm in trying out his latest food fads and finds they’ve gone down well with the workers. Just as the family feel like they’ve settled down in their new home and things have turned a corner for each of them, the father is asked to go back to Tokyo and work once more in the company’s head office. I really did think the movie was going to have an ending where the father turns down the offer and wants to stay at their new place but that doesn’t happen. The one thing that confused me about the movie was the young imp itself. It is thought to be the spirit of the grandmother’s brother who died when he was young – bit of a coincidence that he should turn up at the house when the family has no previous connection to the area. Nothing is really explained why he is there.

This is unashamedly a feel-good family movie with hardly any real drama as such. The cinematography showing the stunning Iwate countryside (forests/lush green fields) is fantastic and the house the family share is in such a beautiful location I wouldn’t mind living in the place myself. Director Seiji Izumi isn’t that well known outside of his home country (and I’ve never seen any of his other movies) but I really did like what he achieved with this movie. Apart from the lovely Ai Hashimoto who plays the daughter of the family, I didn’t really recognise anybody else of the main cast though they all perform very well in their roles.

Overall, this is a charming movie to watch on a lazy Sunday afternoon which leaves you with a smile at the end. Definitely worth a look.

Sadako’s Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

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Blind_Beast_vs._Killer_Dwarf_

Detective Akemi teams up with his friend, a novelist called Monzo after the disappearance of two women. Although reluctant at first to accept one of the cases, Akemi decides to help Monzo out in trying to locate the missing daughter of his female acquaintance. The other case has the two trying to solve the disappearance of a dancer Ranko Mizuki who vanishes suddenly after a show. Ranko has been kidnapped by a blind masseur who has imprisoned her in his art studio which has walls lined up with plaster cast impressions of body parts. Ranko fails to escape from the madman’s lair and actually starts to enjoy his sexual perversion. Monzo also sees a dwarf carrying what appears to be a human arm in a park at night. Soon after other female body parts begin to appear in some public art displays, one of which is attached to the famous statue of Saigo Takamori in Ueno Park, Tokyo. Will Akemi and Monzo be able to find Ranko and also capture the dwarf who is murdering people for all the abuse he has endured over the years?

This was maverick Japanese director Teruo Ishii’s final movie before his death in 2005. Whilst he directed many exploitation classics during the 60’s and 70’s, this movie unfortunately is terrible. The story is a combination of 2 novels by Edogawa Rampo. Everything about this movie is awful. Ishii in the past had been able to use of the limited budget at his disposal to his advantage and make his movies look good and professional. I hate to say this but this movie looks very amateurish and to make things worse the directing is inept and I’m sure a university film student could have done better.

BBvsKD screenshot

Ishii sticks to his favourite genre of violence and sex (ero-guro) for the story. The movie title makes you think that both the antagonists fight each other but the truth is there is never a confrontation between the blind masseur and the killer dwarf. The storyline is confusing and doesn’t make sense even though the premise could have been interesting. I felt they were making the plot up as they were filming. Whilst I can understand why the dwarf was going around killing people as the world has been mocking him for his size, the same cannot be said for the blind masseur. There is some nudity and a tiny amount of gore involved…….well this is an Ishii movie after all so it’s to be expected from him. You’d think in his twilight years he might have toned down the content of his movies but no, he didn’t do that at all!!

The acting by nearly all involved is horrible and it’s a shame to see a star such as Tetsuro Tamba having to perform in such an abysmal movie. The majority of the cast were complete unknowns. Only a couple of positives can be said about the whole production. Hisayoshi Hirayama is repugnant as the blind masseur who is looking for the perfect female model for his work. His whole look is disgusting. One critic has said he looks like a naked mole-rat and I have to agree that the description is spot on. Some of the bizarre things on display include a human hand being attached to a balloon which is seen floating about in the sky after a female victim is dismembered! I did like the imagery inside the blind masseur’s studio which is like a cave decorated with plaster casts of female body parts.

I cannot recommend this for anybody except for Ishii completists. It’s not a great swansong for such a talented director. One to avoid I’m afraid and certainly not a movie to watch with the family!!

Sadako’s Rating: 1.5 star out of 5

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Documentary-of-AKB48-The-time-has-come-poster

This is the 4th AKB48 documentary to be released. Usually the documentary chronicles major events that have taken place for the group over a 12 month period but this one is different. I expected it to record everything that happened in 2013 but it only starts in December 2013 and covers things until June 2014. The same style as the other 3 documentaries occurs with behind the scenes footage at concerts and interviews with various members.

It is only fitting that a lot of the movie focuses on one member – Yuko Oshima whose graduation announcement on the annual New Year’s Eve Kouhaku TV programme shocked fans and AKB48 members alike. Only a few of her close friends in the group knew about this and for the rest it was an earth shattering announcement that leaves a lot of the girls in tears. Yuko has been one of the most popular members in the group and one of the few remaining veterans since AKB48 was formed. She is a well-respected sempai within the group by fellow members and staff and loved by the fans. Her leaving would leave a big hole to fill. Initially Yuko was due to graduate at a big outdoor concert at the National Stadium during a 2-day concert in late March but as viewers soon discover her plans for a grand farewell to rival Atsuko Maeda are scuppered by bad weather which leaves her devastated as the chance for her to move on with the next step in her life is delayed by a couple of months. She was also upset at letting everybody down even though it wasn’t her fault. It would have been dangerous for AKB48 to perform in the high winds and rain. The concert would be rescheduled for June instead. The Gods thankfully bless her with favourable weather this time round and she is given the sending off she deserved.

The documentary also concentrates on the future of the group. With so many of the veterans having left, it is up to the younger members to step up and show what they’re made of. It isn’t easy though for the youngsters as many are worried that they’re not good enough to replace their elders. One such member is Nana Okada who like many members of the same age has high expectations of herself. Whether she takes the bull by the horns and progresses to be a major player in the group is yet to be seen.

Documentary of akb48 time has come screenshot

Another big event that took place in early 2014 was the major reshuffling of all the 48 groups with friends being separated and moving away to other parts of the country. Viewers might not understand why some members get too emotional about it as they should know it’s a part of their job. For some members though it’s too much as we see some collapsing and hyperventilating upon the news that they are to be moved to another group. For others like Ayaka Kikuchi who is seen to be very unhappy at her transfer it’s the signal for them to quit and in April she indeed graduated from AKB48.

Then there was the terrible stabbing incident that took place in May 2014 at a hand shake event which left 2 members lucky to escape with their lives as a knife wielding maniac slashed wildly at them. Both girls were fortunate not to have anything more than minor injuries but I’m sure the mental scars of such a traumatic ordeal will live with them for a while. I’m surprised the filmmakers only touched on this briefly as it was a major incident which had consequences for all future hand shake events and prompted management to employ security measures for AKB48 Theater performances.

This leads to the final subject of the documentary which is the annual Senbatsu Election (this is done to determine who gets to be the centre of an upcoming single). In 2013 Rino Sashihara shocked everybody by winning the election which nobody saw coming. Some thought that with Yuko not in the election, it might have been a foregone conclusion that Sasshi would have won again given she was way ahead on votes in the first preliminary count but there’s a twist to the tale with Mayu Watanabe pipping Sasshi to be no.1. It’s been Mayu’s dream for years to win this election so it was nice to see her finally do it and with a hefty 17k majority on her nearest rival. Sasshi mentions that she’s frustrated at losing but before the voting results she says she wouldn’t mind losing to her close friend but if a junior member beats her that would bug her.

The documentary ends with a simple 1 second shot of Yuko having graduated on a surfboard in the sea somewhere I assume in Hawaii.

Obviously if you’re not a fan of AKB48 and it’s sister groups then this documentary will not interest you one bit but it’s must-see for the hardcore fans. Even though my interest in the group has waned a lot over the past 18 months, I have still rated this as 5 stars.

Sadako’s Rating: 5 stars out of 5

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Professorandhisbelovedequation

A young maths teacher nicknamed Root (due to his square looking head!) starts his new post at a high school. In order to introduce himself to his new charges, he starts to tell them a story about how he fell in love with maths. His mother Kyoko, a single parent began to work as a housekeeper for a maths Professor by his sister-in-law. The Professor though had a unique health problem – he could only remember things for about 80 mins due to a car accident that happened to him. Everything after 80 mins he forgets so Root’s mother has to introduce himself to the Professor each and every day. Despite this problem, the Professor still managed to excel at maths. Gradually, Kyoko brings her son Root to see the Professor and the 2 develop a friendship through their love of baseball and Root soon begins to understand maths by his new friend.

I’ve got to admit that I hated maths as a subject at school but watching this movie you begin to understand that there’s a certain magic about numbers. I wish I had a teacher at high school like Root who makes the subject not only easier to understand but also makes topics such as prime and perfect numbers rather interesting and accessible. You don’t have to be good at maths to enjoy this movie though – it’s more or less a gentle drama told via flashbacks about a close and genuine friendship between three people, forming a bond like a family and showing the viewer how the Professor applies maths in everyday situations to live his life. Director Takashi Koizumi who honed his art serving as an A.D on Akira Kurosawa’s last 5 movies is famous for his slow burning stories and this one is no exception. The nice slow pace is perfect for this kind of story. Don’t expect any gripping drama to take place in the story although the friendship between the trio is temporarily broken during the final third of the movie by the Professor’s sister-in-law who becomes jealous of their close ties and fires Kyoko. Thankfully though the trio is reunited in a moving finale to leave the viewers at the end credits with a feel good factor without the use of melodrama.

The subject of the Professor’s mental illness is treated with respect throughout the movie. In order to remember important things, he pins notes on his jacket and stuff on his blackboard to remind himself. The core trio are all very likeable characters. The Professor has had many different housekeepers looking after him before but they all left having found it difficult to cope with his illness and having to re-introduce themselves to him each and every day. Kyoko though is different to the rest. She is kind, understanding and most of all has the patience to deal with the Professor and his moods. Root and the Professor bond over baseball and it’s the Professor that gives Root his life-long love of maths and treats the young boy like his own. It’s clear to see that the Professor has been living a lonely life since the accident and this new family unit he’s been given reinvigorates his zest for life.

professor2

Eri Fukatsu is one of my favourite Japanese actresses and she is fabulous in this movie as the Professor’s housekeeper Kyoko. I don’t think the casting people could have picked anybody better than Eri for this role. I also really loved Akira Terao as the Professor who manages to capture not only the friendly nature of the character but also the sadness he has due to his mental illness. Rounding up the trio is Ryusei Saito as young Root who is such a good child actor. The interaction between Root and the Professor is sure to bring a smile to one’s face.

Overall, this is an entertaining movie that you can’t help but like. Don’t be put off by the fact that the subject of maths is prominent in the story – you may even learn something from this movie!! It’s a superb movie to watch with beautiful cinematography, a great minimalistic story with a meandering pace to it and lovely characters you’d like to meet in real life, I would say it was one of my favourite Japanese movies I watched in 2014. A must-see.

Sadako’s Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

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The-After-Dinner-Mysteries-

Reiko Hosho is the daughter of a wealthy industrialist and a rookie police detective who is assisted from the shadows by her butler Kageyama who is the picture of being a model servant in front of people but quite sharp in his tongue towards Reiko in private. Reiko and Kageyama board a cruise ship which is en- route to Singapore. It isn’t long before a body is seen falling into the sea and it’s discovered that the man in question has been murdered and had many enemies. Reiko’s boss Detective Kazamatsuri decides to solve the case as he is on the ship guarding a priceless artefact to it’s new home in Singapore. Reiko and Kageyama also decide to find out who the murderer is. Soon more bodies turn up but with 3000 people onboard the ship how can she narrow the suspects down. Are the murders linked to a master criminal named Phantom Soros? Reiko and Kageyama must capture the murderer before the ship lands at its destination.

This is the spinoff movie from the popular 2011 drama series by Fuji Television. It isn’t essential that you’ve seen the series to enjoy this movie as it’s a standalone story and there’s a handy introduction to the main players right at the start. It’s easy to see that the budget has been increased from the series for this movie with part of the filming taking place in Singapore and also on a real luxury cruise liner. All the regulars from the series return to reprise their roles.

After Dinner Mysteries screenshot

The movie mixes comedy, drama and suspense but it’s the comedic aspect that stands out the most. It tends to feel at times like an Agatha Christie mystery played out like a spoof and instead of concentrating on just Reiko and Kageyama trying to solve the murders, there are other sub-plots with other characters introduced such as a pair of bumbling thieves who plan to steal the artefact guarded by Detective Kazamatsuri. These subplots all come together in the thrilling climax. I can also see some aspects of Detective Conan in the movie too – Kageyama with his glasses looks like Conan and is superior in his sleuthing skills than anybody else, Reiko plays the Ran role while the arrogant Kazamatsuri who thinks he’s brilliant at being a detective is similar to Ran’s father Mouri. The gelling of slapstick comedy and detective drama works surprisingly well. As there are so many sub-plots taking place, there is a lot of information to take in for the viewer but not too much for anybody to become lost with the story. As with many Japanese mystery movies, there are several twists and red herrings to keep the viewer on their toes and the unveiling of the murderer will keep you guessing until the end which unfortunately is rather cliché ridden.

Keiko Kitagawa plays the wealthy heiress Reiko in a goofy kind of way. She’s taken on a similar type of role before such as the dorama Mop Girl so if you like seeing her pull funny faces and be a damsel in distress then you’ll enjoy her in this movie though I suspect some might find her character a bit annoying. Arashi member Sho Sakurai is Reiko’s foil as her faithful but sharp-tongued butler Kageyama who is never afraid to put Reiko in her place in private but in public has to put on his diligent servant persona. It makes for amusing viewing seeing the bickering that goes on between Reiko and Kageyama and it’s obvious that Keiko and Sho are enjoying themselves in their roles. Both of their characters are even taken out from the ship for a while as the murderer makes sure they are put in a lifeboat and sent overboard. They eventually land on a small island before they are rescued rather conveniently by the authorities. Of course it’s all rather far-fetched but do remember that the movie is never meant to be taken seriously. One of the most notable guest stars taking part in this movie is Naoto Takenaka as a thief. I didn’t really recognise him at first, it’s his voice that gave the game away.

All in all, this is a hugely entertaining murder mystery movie. It’s got drama, moments of danger, good comedy, a fine cast and an exciting story. Fans of the drama series will have a fun time reuniting with characters they love but even those not familiar with the drama like myself can still enjoy this movie. Recommended.

Sadako’s Rating: 4 stars out of 5

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