My wife and I have spent the year alternating who picks a movie to watch each week.  My theme: Movies from Japan.  As the year draws to a close, I notice that we have touched on almost everything from contemporary comedies, animated films, samurai classics, horror, documentary, and cool as all get out gangster movies.  It’s been a great year of exploration so here are some thoughts about the films we watched in the last six months of 2010.

Hausu (1977) Hausu (House) is the mother of all haunted house movies.  I went to several haunted houses as a child and the thrill of them was a giddy mixture of silly fakeness and the potential for scares.  You can forget the films that try to make a house feel truly scary.  I suppose that approach can be effective but every haunted house that I’ve ever been to has been a little bit (or a lot) campy.  Hausu is completely absurd in almost every way, and yet somehow it manages to be beautiful in a drastically over-composed kind of way.  The grizzly fates that befall the film’s young victims could be horrifying but they are instead cause for raucous laughter.  Hausu exemplifies the kind of absurd Japanese humor that I appreciate, but it’s also a strangely accomplished film.  It feels like no one making the movie could possibly take it very seriously but at the same time it’s impeccably crafted, styled and shot.  There’s a new wave of Japanese camp-horror films that owes a lot to the Troma tradition, but those films don’t seem nearly as thought-out and lovingly pieced together as Hausu.  I’m sure that we’ll never see another film quite like it.

The World Sinks Except Japan (2006)  Minoru Kawaski has made a name for himself as a director of high concept comedies.  Rug Cop is about a police detective with a weaponized wig.  Calamari Wrestler is a rags to riches tale of a giant squid who wants to make it as a professional wrestler.  Executive Koala is, well, about a koala in a business suit.  All of his films are ridiculous and they tend to play out like feature-length SNL skits with a Japanese sense of humor.  In this one, he pokes fun at disaster movies and at Japan’s collective national ego by wiping out every nation on the earth except Japan.  The richest and most important foreigners from around the world have all collected in Japan since it’s the only land mass left, and the Japanese people are forced to assimilate people who look and speak different.  In reality, that’s not a real easy thing for Japanese people to do, so while the film is largely a farce, it does pack a satirical punch.  The effects and acting are beyond cheesy, but the point that Kawaski is making is in the film waiting to be found.  There’s a guy who reviewed the movie over on IMDB who obviously didn’t get it and called it “xenophobic propaganda”.  That’s a pretty funny read.

The Great Happiness Space (2006) I had been hoping to find a Japanese language documentary to fill out our survey of Japanese cinema and I stumbled upon this one.  I’m glad that I did.  The Great Happiness Space is an expertly-told story about the world of Host Clubs in Osaka.  The Host Clubs are basically extremely expensive karaoke bars where men host parties of women who buy in to the fantasy that their hosts might some day love them.  It’s a fascinating sexual power play where the tables are turned from the typical male-dominated, female-objectified version of a strip club.  I thought that I knew where the whole story was going but then at a certain point in the film, it turned and got even more interesting.  This is a fascinating look at gender politics in a very specific subculture to a culture that we already don’t really understand.

Vermilion Pleasure Night – As a movie night bonus we flipped through a couple of episodes of this Japanese sketch comedy show.  Vermilion Pleasure Night must be one of the shows that inspired most of Adult Swim.  It pioneered that lunatic energy and unfunny humor stitched together by WTF moments that makes Adult Swim the perfect late night stoner ride.  I can’t say that I enjoyed all of it, or even most of it, but it provided a few ridiculous, jaw dropping moments.

Tokyo Story (1953) – This simple story of an old couple dropping in on their children in the modern hustle of Tokyo must have been a revelation in 1953.  Japan’s extreme traditionalism and extreme modernism clash so perfectly in this film that it must have been almost painful to watch at the time.  The old couple are so polite and perfectly reserved, but they couch most of their affections in a way that makes the distance between them and their children seem unbearable.  Tokyo Story is perhaps another great example (with Departures) of the complexity of modern Japanese culture.  It’s not a peppy film and the motionless camera and long, still shots made me a little restless, but ultimately the film is shot and edited at the pace of the old couple since it is their story.  That technique draws out the complications of the modern mega-city in such a way that I couldn’t help but feel for the kind older couple, even with their faults.

Japanese Movies

War of the Gargantuas (1966) – Unfortunately the first Toho Kaiju movie that we watched turned out to be my least favorite of all of the similar films I’ve seen.  The “Frankensteins” just weren’t as engaging as Godzilla and his many peer creatures.  As the film neared the end, it seemed that the constant battles and slow-moving fights would never end.  The humans kept trying the same failed techniques, the monsters kept falling back and showing up again.  I don’t know if this is a beloved entry in the kaiju genre for some, but the film wasn’t for me.

School of the Holy Beast (1974) – My wife was out of town so I decided to have a special Japanese Movie Night with a film that I wanted to see but knew that she wouldn’t.  I’m not a Catholic so I can’t say that I really understand where the desire for nunsploitation comes from but I’ve now seen about all of the genre that I need.  I was expecting a true beast or monster in here, but that never materialized.  Hell, I was expecting a school but there wasn’t one of those either.  There was plenty of nun torture, rape, and abuse though.  Actually, the film wasn’t as unpleasant as I was expecting, but I didn’t really see the point in it.  This is supposedly one of the most out-there Japanese nun movies ever made, so I think I’m good to close the book on the whole genre.

I am an S&M Writer (2000) – There are moments of bold but subtle humor in this film, but they are set apart by many, many scenes of characters making depressing and wrong choices.  It’s the kind of film where finding a sympathetic character is a little tough, and that made it less fun than what I was hoping for.  The S&M mentioned in the title amounts to little more than rope bondage which was fine with me, but the film never quite paid off the promise of its themes. 

Branded to Kill (1967) – In the first half of the year, we watched Seijun Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter and we were both pleasantly surprised at how weird and fun it was.  Branded to Kill is the film that got him fired from Nikkatsu studios, so we were expecting something equally artful and obtuse and the film did not disappoint.  The anti-hero of the film is the number three hitman in the Yakuza and he’s gunning for number one, but he is also stricken with a strange case of malaise.  His boiled rice fetish doesn’t help.  I can see why a studio that was bent on churning out run of the mill Yakuza pictures wouldn’t have been thrilled about this one, but I loved it.  I’m going to get the book about Nikkatsu to dig deeper into the catalog since there are just too many films to even know where to continue my quest for odd Japanese gangster films.

Pale Flower (1964) – Pale Flower is a nihilistic black and white Yakuza noir.  Unlike the Seijin Suzuki films that we watched, it is largely devoid of humor and showy style.  I imagine that this is what an Albert Camus Yakuza picture might look like.  A thrill-seeking young woman captures the imagination of a hardened gangster who has just been released from prison for taking one for the team.  His boss sets him up to do it again and the endless, dutiful cycle is set to repeat.  Pale Flower gets the tone and the mood of all this existential angst just right, but you kind of have to be in the mood for that.

More Japanese Movies

Ugetsu (1953) – Ugetsu is widely-regarded as one of the finest films ever made and when placed in historical context, I think I can understand that.  It’s a traditional drama in one sense, but also a sparse ghost story in another.  The camera movement is slow and fluid and long shots follow actors around the set at times as if the camera was a disembodied spirit spying in on the action.  Having seen dozens of later films by the likes of Terrence Malick, Andrey Tarkovsky, and Alfonso Cuaron that use the same type of camera techniques, it was hard for me to be wowed by what Ugestsu does technically.  I appreciated it and realized that it was an inspirational touchstone but I don’t know that I’d want to watch the whole thing again.

Air Doll (2009) – In Air Doll, an inflatable sex doll comes to life and ends up wandering around in the world when her owner is off at work.  It’s a brilliant premise that allows the film makers to expose the desperation of modern life in a number of the film’s characters.  The doll takes a job at a video rental store and slowly learns about the world, but she never quite shakes her place in the world as an object manufactured for the pleasure of others.  She never quite understands what makes a person different from an animated doll until it’s too late.  Korean actress Doona Bae (the star of Linda Linda Linda) does amazing work as a woman who is born with a blank slate and who is forced to endure sexual servitude.  It’s a sad and poignant film, but one that ended up being much sweeter and more sympathetic than its premise might imply.

Shogun Assassin (1980) – As a hacked-together, abridged version of the Lone Wolf and Cub series, it’s amazing that Shogun Assassin makes sense at all.  I suspect that the original series and manga are quite a bit more detailed, somber, and political.  I also assume that there’s a final boss-battle payoff at some point, though the relationship of the hero to the apparent villain in this film isn’t quite true to the source material.  Clearly the story goes much farther than this film, but what Shogun Assassin sets out to do, it accomplishes.  For samurai badassery, fountains of blood, and a touching story of a father protecting his child, you’d be hard pressed to find a more entertaining film than this.  Shogun Assassin feels directly responsible for parts of Kill Bill and Big Trouble in Little China, so that makes it a must-see on my list.  The Blu-Ray is spectacularly colorful.

Even More Japanese Movies

Read about our first half of the year in Japanese Movie Night vol. 1!