Return of Daimajin (Daimajin Ikaru)

For our review of Daimajin on Blu-ray, click here. The Daimajin Triple Feature Blu-ray is available now from Amazon.com.

When Daimajin premiered in April of 1966 it did so to big returns, earning ¥100 million or more in its initial distribution. Producer Daiei Co. was naturally anxious to take advantage of their successful property, but the speed and efficacy with which they did so is mind-bending by the standards of modern productions. Daimajin Ikaru (大魔神怒る, previously released to domestic video as Wrath of Daimajin and here known as Return of Daimajin) debuted on a double feature with Kazuo Ikehiro’s Zatoichi Umi o Wataru (Zatoichi Across the Sea) on August 14th, 1966 – just shy of four months from the premiere of its predecessor.

Serving once more as screenwriter is Tetsuro Yoshida (who would script all three of the Daimajin films), and those familiar with the first film will find themselves in familiar territory so far as story is concerned. The kind, prosperous communities of Chigusa and Nagoshi find themselves under the envious eye of the greedy warlord Danjo, who promptly conquers each for himself. Danjo takes to his newfound affluence in the usual way, with plenty of geisha girls and alcohol, but violent encounters between his forces and the surviving royalty of Chigusa and Nagoshi prove a constant distraction. The remaining royalty are eventually captured of course, and swiftly primed for public execution. Unfortunately for Danjo local superstitions he was so quick to discredit prove to be more fact than fantasy, and dreadful divine vengeance is visited upon him in the form of one very angry giant Majin.

Though the tropes may be familiar Daimajin Ikaru benefits handily from a more vigorous approach to the material, courtesy of ace director Kenji Misumi – master of all things chanbara and one of the biggest names among Daiei’s creative staff at the time. Where Daimajin was a more sullen venture, low on action and high on stiff period dramatics, Misumi’s entry in the series is a pure action picture, with plenty of intrigue, chases and swordplay to keep viewers hooked until the fantasy comes to the fore. Misumi lends a potent vitality to the material and just plain keeps things moving. Even the requisite drama has a spring in its step, and is bolstered by Misumi’s wholesale embrace of the stereotypes of the genre. The good guys here are of such saccharine purity that it can make one’s teeth ache, and the villains are delightfully pulp – Danjo can’t so much as spit without erupting into maniacal guffaws over how clever he is. It’s tremendous stuff, and played with an unflinching earnestness that prevents it from ever falling into glib parody.

More than just an accomplished genre craftsman Misumi was also Daiei’s preeminent peddler of DeMille-ian excess, having previously thrilled audiences with 1961′s Shaka - a massive 70mm undertaking and Japan’s most direct answer to the big-name religious epics of the ’50s. That film climaxed with the epic destruction of a temple by an earthquake, a sequence that reminds heavily of the showstopping finale of DeMille’s 1949 smash Samson and Delilah, but the similarities there pale in comparison to the transparent reinterpretation of DeMille spectacle that awaits in Daimajin Ikaru. The influence of Paramount’s blockbuster The Ten Commandments on the Daimajin films, as noted in my first article, comes full circle here in one of the Japanese film industry’s most dramatic (if derivative) special effects accomplishments.

In Daimajin Ikaru the Majin (referred to simply as kami – god – in this film) resides on a holy island on a placid lake between the kingdoms of Nagoshi and Chigusa, a location that becomes a rally point for the kingdoms’ surviving royalty, and thus a target of the evil Danjo’s violent advances. As in the first film the Majin’s statue becomes a target in its own right, though Danjo’s forces do a more complete job in desecrating it – whereas the first Majin survived intact, with only a chisel embedded in its forehead to show for its troubles, the statue in this case is obliterated outright with explosives. Its destruction is only temporary of course, and when its patience is finally at its end the Majin rises, whole once more, from the depths of the lake. What follows is awesome in the original sense of the word. The island splits in twain and crumbles into the lakebed as the waters part, creating a miraculous path for the wrathful god to tread. The ode to The Ten Commandments is obvious, making the Majin’s passage through the parted “sea” as much pop art as effects extravaganza. Effects director Yoshiyuki Kuroda (assistant SFX director at the time of Shaka) and series photographer Fuji(r)o Morita pull off the concept, perhaps the most ambitious of the entire series, with nary a hitch, setting the bar still higher for what should be expected of contemporary Japanese special effects.

The rest of the giant Majin’s righteous rampage, here limited strictly to the baddies (a contrast to the violent ambivalence of Daimajin), is handled with the same flair, with Kuroda and company taking heed of their missteps in the production of the first film (particularly in the implementation of the full-scale Majin mock-up) and crafting a near seamless sequence in the process. Series composer Akira Ifukube also improves upon his efforts for the first film, providing a superior score that lends a palpable weight and added purposefulness to the Majin’s advance. Ifukube was short of resources more often than not in his film work, leaving some of his scores sounding quite ragged for want not of ability or effort, but of time. While Daimajin is a quintessential example of just that Daimajin Ikaru proves a lovely exception, and obviously benefits from whatever additional resources were thrown Ifukube’s way. The themes here are undeniably heavy, dominated by low brass and even lower woodwinds, but balanced by an almost indefinable elegance, and taken in context with the work of Misumi, Kuroda, Morita et al the effect is appropriately divine.

Even more so than with the first film, Mill Creek’s new Blu-ray presentation of Daimajin Ikaru puts past editions to shame. The initial releases on VHS and DVD from ADVision were sourced from laserdisc masters that were already out of date by the time they were licensed, but at least presented the film in its original ‘Scope ratio. The company’s second run of DVDs (those in the white cases for those seeking to avoid) needlessly complicated things for Daimajin Ikaru on that front in presenting it panned-and-scanned at a compromised ratio of just 1.78:1. With the advent of this new Blu-ray edition that past transgression can be blessedly forgotten.

Mill Creek present Daimajin Ikaru progressive at its original theatrical ratio of 2.35:1 courtesy of a fine 1080p master from Kadokawa. Like Daimajin, this is not a perfect filmic presentation, but its improvements over the SD editions of the past are such that I can live happily with its minor limitations. The worst that can be said of the transfer here is that it can look a touch processed, and by virtue of that a shade more video-like than some my prefer, but detail and texture still prevail and in motion it can look quite striking. Colors and contrast are each at natural levels, and the dust-soaked conclusion is thankfully free of the unnatural saturation of the last DVD. Detail isn’t so crisp as it perhaps should be, but makes strong advances over SD just the same, and the various composite work retains the thicker, grittier quality inherent to its production. This made for a fine home presentation for me – I dig it!

 

Technical specifications are comparable to those for the first film (which shares the same dual layer BD50). The 79-minute show receives a nice Mpeg-4 AVC video encode at a healthy average bitrate of 28.1 Mbps, and artifacts are kept sufficiently at bay. The primary audio, DTS-HD MA 2.0 Japanese, is again a touch flat – a product of its original recording – but sounds quite good even without an excess of range. Ifukube’s cues certainly sound better here than they have in the past, making it easier to appreciate their instrumentation, and this may be worth the upgrade alone. The Titra-produced English dub that graced the AIP television version of the film (Return of the Giant Majin) is included, also in DTS-HD MA 2.0, but sounds quite compressed in its range compared to the Japanese – I suspect fans, forced to rely previously on bootleg tapes or Retromedia’s unimpressive double bill DVD, will be happy that it’s here at all.  Well translated optional English subtitles accompany the Japanese version, and the film is flanked by the original theatrical trailer (HD) and another substantial interview / effects discussion with cinematographer Fuji(r)o Morita (HD), both of which can be found on disc 2 of the set. Though marked for Region A only I suspect these discs to be all-region compatible – each of them booted up just fine in my secondary Region B deck.

There’s really not much else to say – this is another strong showing for Mill Creek, and another must-own for Blu-ray capable kaiju fans. The film itself makes a strong argument for being the best of the series, a fine actioner with a strong fantasy bent and an effects production that’s second to none for its time. Recommendations don’t come any easier – see it!

Blu-ray screenshots were made using our usual method – taken as full resolution .png in Totem Movie Player and compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% using the ImageMagick command line tool. Click to see full size.

Daimajin Ikaru is available now at Amazon.com

POV – A Cursed Film

a.k.a. POV – norowareta firimu
directed by
 Norio Tsuruta

2012 / Toho Visual Entertainment / 92′
written by Norio Tsuruta
starring Haruna Kawaguchi, Mirai Shida

During the shoot of the low rent idol show of Mirai Shida (playing herself) with special guest Haruna Kawaguchi (playing herself too), something disturbing happens. The show’s gimmick of the week is to have the two teenagers watch ghost videos, but the videos that appear on screen aren’t the ones the director and the girl’s manager have vetted beforehand.

In fact, these videos contain much better footage than this sort of video usually does, and they all seem to be shot at Haruna’s former junior high school, which must be the most haunted school in Japan. Oh, and the videos continue playing when the DVD they are on isn’t actually in its laptop anymore. Haruna, who spent some time at her junior high hunting but never finding exactly the ghostly apparitions she now sees on screen, is convinced she is cursed, an idea that does not become weaker once the crew films the reflection of a female ghost in one of the studio windows.

Clearly, this situation affords a fine possibility for the show to hire the world’s most matter of fact psychic (who, we will learn, is psychic, not a mind reader) to help Haruna and finally get some really exciting footage. Alas, the psychic is sure that Haruna’s little ghost problem can only be solved inside of the junior high. Of course, once the film crew is inside the place, they’ll get to see more of ghosts than they asked for.

It looks like the found footage/POV horror sub-genre is suddenly somewhat hot again in Japan. This does not come as much of a surprise seeing as how ideally the genre is suited to low budgets, with footage that is generally supposed to look cheap, no need for complicated camera set-ups or sets, scripts that tend to the simple, and hordes of idols willing to act in everything being churned out by the Japanese entertainment machine. Somewhat surprisingly going by the standard of the POV genre in the USA and Europe, a lot of the newer Japanese POV films I have seen are actually decent or even better, with Koji Shiraishi’s Occult and this one being particular stand-outs that manage to fulfil all genre expectations yet also give the clichés they are working with small, effective twists.

POV and Occult invite some comparisons in other aspects than their respective quality, too. Both films are directed by men who have done good, sometimes great, work in the second row of Japanese horror directors. POV‘s Norio Tsuruta does not have anything quite as brilliant as Shiraishi’s Noroi or A Slit-Mouthed Woman in his filmography, but his films clearly show him to be someone who understands the horror genre and is intelligent enough to know that the point of making genre movies isn’t just giving people what they want from them but also surprising the audience with slight twists on and tweaks to a given formula.

POV is a perfect example of the latter. In its basic set-up, the film seems as generic as possible, with the usual non-characters going about their horror movie days, and the expected ghosts (though a lot more of them than you usually see in a film like this) doing the expected ghostly things. And what ‘s more generic than a middle part that mostly consists of people shaking their cameras, screaming, and running through a dark building? The film’s plot, however, is decidedly more clever than it at first appears, using the comfortably familiar spook show elements in service of something more sinister and more creepy, going into a semi-apocalyptic post-ending titles climax that is surprising and highly effective in its nature.

POV also one of the few films of its sub-genre that seems interested in using the discomfort the basics of Japanese idol culture can produce in a viewer who isn’t a total idiot, presenting the low rent entertainment biz in a subtly bad light, possibly even suggesting this sort of entertainment and its unspoken greed would be the perfect in-road for actual evil (or, ironically, that certain ghosts would see idol culture as a nice way to finally become famous).POV does not explore this aspect all that deeply (which is not coming as much of a surprise from a film that by necessity is itself a part of perhaps dubious, always looked down upon, circles of pop culture), but that does also mean it’s not getting preachy – and therefore annoyingly hypocritical – about it. It’s just an element that’s there to add more cultural resonance to the film.

Of course, all of POV‘s interesting subtext would be quite wasted if it did not also succeed at the bread and butter parts of a horror movie, the shocks, the moments of discomfort, and the all-purpose creepiness. Many of the film’s fright scenes are based on sometimes imaginative variations of pretty traditional Japanese ghosts and traditional POV horror shocks. About half of them tend to the more carnivalesque jump scare mode, and the grating on audience nerves by having the characters screech and shake their cameras, but there are also some exceedingly creepy scenes based on clever sound design, shadows, and my eternal favourite (that also turns a ghost story into something Weirder for me), scenes of time and space losing their usual consistence to threaten the characters. That last element is especially finely realized in the film’s first major climax, a scene I find too delightful/disturbing/effectively tense to spoil by describing it. Let’s just say it involves a disappearance, a camera, and a ghost moving towards the characters making rather disturbing noises (as Japanese ghosts are wont to, of course), and that it actually got to me.

Tsuruta – who also wrote the film – shows itself as a director very capable of using the more subtle parts of horror craft even in a context like POV horror that often doesn’t seem all that interested in them, with a real gift for pacing the suspense scenes beyond the usual running and screaming.

Thanks to him, POV is a surprisingly excellent piece of filmmaking.


The Horror!? is a regular cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name.

Occult

a.k.a. Okurato
directed by
 Koji Shiraishi

2009 / 110′
written by Koji Shiraishi
cinematography by Koji Shiraishi
starring Koji Shiraishi, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Peko Watanabe, Shinobu Kuribayashi, Akira Takatsuki, Takashi Nomura

Director Koji Shiraishi (in not the only moment of meta in the film played by Occult‘s very own director, writer, cinematographer and editor Koji Shiraishi; he actually has played himself now in so many of his movies we may see them as their own sub-genre) is shooting a documentary about a spree killing that happened a few years before at a picturesque tourist spot. During the course of the project, Shiraishi and his small crew interview survivors and bereaved, and stumble upon strange events surrounding these people. More than one of the victims had heard voices enticing them to the place of the massacre, and the bereaved have strange dreams of their loved ones; one of them even has a new photo of his dead girlfriend looking very much alive to show.

Shiraishi’s investigation into the matter soon centres on a man named Eno. The killer didn’t use his knife on Eno to kill him like his other victims, but carved strange symbols into his body, telling him that “now it’s your turn”. Eno clearly hasn’t been the same ever since. He’s barely surviving through temp work, spends his nights sleeping in manga cafes, and just doesn’t seem to be quite right in his head anymore. Eno insists that ever since the attack on his life, he’s been witnessing “miracles”: UFOs, objects in his surrounding moving on their own accord, that sort of thing. Oh, and he also hears a voice talking to him, though he doesn’t understand what it’s trying to tell him, or so he says. The only thing he is sure of is that the spree killing was some sort of ceremony to please a god, and – though he’s not really clear about it – Eno does seem to have ideas about a ceremony of his own.

Once Shiraishi has witnessed one of the poltergeist phenomena that are a daily occurrence to Eno, he and his team start researching the symbol. Turns out Eno’s attacker had the same symbol on his body as a birthmark. Shiraishi doesn’t realize yet that he himself has a connection to these symbols, but that will come to him soon enough, as well as the truth about the “ceremony” Eno plans.

 
 
 

With Noroi and A Slit-Mouthed Woman (aka Carved), Koji Shiraishi made two of my favourite Japanese horror movies of the post-2000 era. Both are films mixing modern and more traditional Japanese mythology with the horrors of contemporary life. What I have been able to see of Shiraishi’s last few films – which isn’t always easy, for neither English nor German language DVD labels seem to be much enamoured of his films – has been rather frustrating, culminating in the “girl group screeches forever” horror of Shirome, until now the last film of the director.

Occult was made two years earlier, and it shows the director in much better form, again using the fake documentary format that served him so well in Noroi and would later serve him so badly when filming the exciting ghost adventures of a Momoide Clover. For its first half hour or so the film feels a bit disjointed and silly, with Shiraishi seemingly hell-bent to squeeze in every paranormal phenomenon he can think of, from UFOs, to telekinesis to blobs on the camera. But once the film begins to concentrate on Eno and the things happening around him, it begins to make more sense, developing focus and even the sort of narrative drive you don’t usually get from the fake documentary format.

As already mentioned, Shiraishi is particularly good at mixing very Japanese feeling mythology (with hints of Lovecraft hanging in the background if you want to look at the film from a certain perspective) with very contemporary anxieties. The film does, after all, ask the question: “what if the cult-ish spree killers and suicide bombers were actually right and god is speaking to them?”, only to then take the whole thing further and ask if the god speaking to the spree killers is actually telling the truth about its own nature or why it wants what it wants from its servants. What if their god is malevolent?

 
 
 

Occult also does some equally clever things with the meta elements it introduces, going far beyond the cameos of great director Kiyoshi Kurosawa and mangaka Peko Watanabe as themselves – or in Kurosawa’s case as horror director and hobby archaeologist Kurosawa and in Watanabe’s case as mangaka and automatic writer Watanabe. There’s a really clever plot twist I don’t have the heart to spoil based on Shiraishi’s position as a character in his own film that demonstrates a clear eye for audience psychology, a sense of self-irony, and quite a degree of ruthlessness, and that really gave me the feeling of just having had the rug pulled from under my feet when it occurred. It also fits right in with the very quiet, and very dry sense of humour that’s also running through the film.

The only element of Occult that just does not work at all are its special effects. These are just plain atrocious, looking as if the effects budget had consisted of the spare change Shiraishi found in his trouser pockets, and really ruin at least one final moment that should have been supremely creepy but turns out to be rather hilarious in just the wrong way. If you want to be prepared, I have provided a screenshot of the moment in question. Fortunately, the film doesn’t need the effects to be convincing for most of its running time – its effect on a given viewer is much more based on its own intelligence working with the viewer’s imagination. Still, it would have been nice if someone had provided Shiraishi with the $500 he could have used to upgrade the effects from ridiculously bad to horrible.

The problem of its “special” effects notwithstanding, Occult is a film that should delight anyone interested in Japanese low budget horror with a brain. It’s a film well worth ignoring its effects, and digging up the fansubs to understand what’s going on in it.


The Horror!? is a regular cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name.

The Invisible Man vs. The Human Fly

a.k.a.: Tomei Ningen To Hae Otoko
Year:
1957  Runtime: 96′  Director: Mitsuo Murayama
Writer: Hajime Takaiwa   Cinematography: Hiroshi Murai   Music: Tokujiro Okubo
Cast: Yoshiro Kitahara, Ryuji Shinagawa, Junko Kanau, Ikuko Mori

A strange and increasingly violent series of burglaries and murders shakes Japan. The murder victims are usually found stabbed in the back, and killed in tightly controlled or completely locked places. Or on an airplane toilet. Additionally, nobody ever sees or hears any sign of the perpetrator or perpetrators. Why, you could think the killer is invisible! That’s at least what the lead investigator of the case, well-respected young cop Wakabayashi, says in a moment of weakness.

When the policeman utters this rather absurd theory while interviewing some scientists he is friendly with about the airplane toilet business one of them witnessed, they aren’t laughing about his flights of fancy. Ironically, the men are working on some scientific ray stuff whose by-product is invisibility, or, as they prefer it to be called, imperceptibility. They haven’t tested it on a human being yet, though, out of fear that it might be dangerous.

Apart from putting the idea of an invisible copper into his brain, this isn’t getting Wakabayashi anywhere right now. Fortunately, the continuing murder spree gives our hero and his team a lot to distract them. The last few victims have been pointing in the air and swatting at something during their last moments, and witnesses heard the buzzing of a fly. Why, you could think the killer can turn into a fly! Which is nearly, but not quite what is happening. In truth, the killer is using an experimental reagent made during the war to facilitate his escapes. This reagent, you see, can shrink down a man until he is not quite as small as a fly. As SCIENCE(!) teaches, all small creatures are able to float through the air while making the buzzing noise of a fly, so that’s the explanation for the noises the witnesses heard.

About half of the murders are connected by this reagent too, because the victims have all been part in the war crimes committed during its creation, though none of them have been punished for them. This part of the killing spree is vengeance for and by the only man who did get punished, and is now using a rather mad gentleman with an addiction to the reagent to commit the murders. The other half of the killings has something to do with the madman’s obsession with a nightclub singer on whom he likes to perv when he is shrunk down, but let’s not go there.

Obviously, this is the sort of case that can only be cracked if someone is willing to take the risk of becoming an invisible man.

  
  
  

Even though this plot description sounds as awesome as it is dumb, Daiei’s IM vs HF is not quite as awe-inspiring as I would have liked it to be. The film has two major problems it is only just able to conquer to my satisfaction. The first one is scriptwriter Hajime Takaiwa’s peculiar decision to frame much of the movie’s first two thirds as a slightly weird police procedural, with many scenes of earnest looking men doing earnest police business that are only from time to time broken up by the insanity that waits in the plot’s background. The second problem is also one belonging to the script. Takaiwa seems hell-bent to stuff Human Fly as full of elements of the police procedural, the slightly sleazy exploitationer and the mad science horror film as possible. This, however, leaves even the more patient viewer (like me) with a film full of ideas and plot-threads that are never really explored nor explained and in the end more often than not just stop with a hand-waving gesture when Takaiwa is getting bored of them.

Characterization-wise, there’s never a clear through-line for why people act like they do. Just to take some obvious examples, why does the film’s villain suddenly turn from a man out for vengeance and a bit of money into the sort of bad guy more fitting into an issue of The Spider? What does he need the invisibility ray for when he already can turn into a flying, buzzing little man? And, while I’m at it, why doesn’t he just steal it (he is the Human Fly, after all) instead of going for a semi-apocalyptic blackmail plan? And why does the elder scientist’s daughter decide that the invisible scientist already at work isn’t enough and turns into the invisible woman?

I sure could make up some reasons for the characters’ behaviour, and some of the film’s obvious plot holes, but I do think that’s the responsibility of the script, not the audience. Especially the film’s last third gives the impression of Takaiwa giving up and just making stuff up as it goes along without any thought for coherence or sense. Come to think of it, hero pulps like The Spider with their usually heated and sloppily constructed narratives seem like an excellent point of comparison to what Taikawa does here writing-wise.

Comparable to many of the hero pulps, the writing flaws that hinder IM vs HF from becoming the goodSF/crime/horror hybrid movie with a subtextual line about the violence committed by war-touched people in post-war Japan it could have been, are also making it enjoyably nutty and near impossible to dislike for viewers like me who can get excited about a film that’s just full of silly stuff for no good reason other than the clear awesomeness of all silly stuff. This is, after all a film that doesn’t want to realize that flies have wings for a reason, a film that also makes up some nonsense about face and hands of an invisible person getting visible quite fast again because of the rays of the sun while the rest of it doesn’t (no nudity for Japanese people who want to turn visible again, it seems), only to then forget that for the rest of its running time. It also presents turning back from an invisibility by means of SCIENCE(!) as very dangerous, until it’s time to wrap everything up, when it’s not only possible to turn visible again and live, but to seemingly go from one state to the other at will. It’s all very dumb, and reeks of lazy writing as much any modern blockbuster I’ve seen, but it sure is fun to watch what nonsense Takaiwa is going to come up with next.

The film’s other big plus point is Mitsuo Murayama’s (whom I know as one of the Japanese directors who’d go on to work a bit for Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers) direction. For my taste, Murayama isn’t a very consistent stylist, but he is the kind of director always going for the most interesting angle from which to shoot the more boring police procedural scenes, making the parts of IM vs HF most in need of not looking square and boring look much weirder than their actual content and context deserve; if you’re the generous type, you might even suggest Murayama is hinting at the strangeness surrounding his square policemen right from the beginning by way of his stylistic tics. Be that as it may, Murayama’s often peculiarly cramped, close-up and Dutch angle heavy visual style keeps the movie’s rather slow beginning interesting, and helps the mess that is its script stay a mess that is fun to watch even in its worst moments.

The Horror!? is a weekly cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, an aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name.

The Incite Mill

Year: 2010  Runtime: 107′  Director: Hideo Nakata
Writer: Satoshi Suzuki   Cinematography: Junichiro Hayashi   Music: Kenji Kawai
Cast: Tatsuya Fujiwara, Haruka Ayase, Satomi Ishihara, Kinya Kitaoji, Nagisa Katahira, Takuro Ohno

Looking at the career of director Hideo Nakata, I can’t avoid the impression he had his difficulties recovering from the catastrophe that was the US The Ring 2, possibly because being responsible for that one is a shame someone with even a little bit of pride in his work would have a hard time living down.

In Nakata’s case, his decline isn’t as horrible as it could be. In fact, compared with Takashi Shimizu, the state of Nakata’s career is absolutely golden, seeing as he’s not making something called Rabbit Horror 3D, and doesn’t seem to have lost all his talent while slumming in Hollywood. The Incite Mill is a clear demonstration that he still has what made me fall in love with his earlier films.

The Incite Mill is a pretty typical entry into the sub-genre of the thriller that is occupied with putting a bunch of characters into an artificially locked down place, having them submit to peculiar and bizarre rules and observing them fastly starting to kill each other off, in part because People Ain’t No Good™, in part because the party responsible for their imprisonment does some subtle and some not so subtle things to, well, incite them to murder. In this variation, the characters have come to the place of their imprisonment out of their own volition, for the promise of a surprising amount of money for just seven days of work in a psychological experiment. Of course, they didn’t expect quite as much violence, nor that they’d be the stars in one of these popular Internet shows nobody in the cast has ever heard of you only encounter in movies.

As this is a Japanese movie, the rules element is quite heavily emphasised, riding one of the hobby horses of Japanese pop culture of the last ten years or so in what is probably a reaction to the country’s still heavily restrictive and regimented society and the resulting pressures to conform on the individual.

  
  
  

There are also many allusions to classic manor mysteries (ten little Indians ahoy), and the Cluedo-inspiring (or Clue-inspiring for you Americans) construction of that very mechanical sub-genre. In a sense, Nakata seems to want to escape the heavy artificiality of his set-up by pointing it out himself. To a degree, this works pretty well, though I couldn’t help but begin to question parts of the story’s basic set-up I would probably not have questioned in a movie less knowingly artificial. Just to take an obvious example: how come the police hasn’t gotten involved if this is not the first time this little show has been broadcast? I can believe in police laziness and incompetence, but I’m pretty sure this sort of thing would at least have been in every news show in the country, and therefore nothing the characters could notknow about. And while I’m thinking about logical problems, how is it that most of the characters actually believe anyone (especially people who never ever show their faces to them) would pay enormous amounts of money for them to take part in a simple psychological experiment? I find this sort of thing much harder to believe than the existence of ghosts, aliens, and vampires, but your mileage may very well vary.

The Incite Mill‘s best moments are interesting enough to let me forget these doubts, however. Besides taking cues from manor mysteries and the brethren in its own sub-genre, the film also does some things that are bound to help a guy like me forget little niggles like logic problems and a lack of coherent worldbuilding. Namely, there is a slight SF element in the form of one of these new-fangled ceiling-bound robots with impressive gripper arms (and some useful gadgets). Even though it isn’t talking or beeping melodically like a good robot should, it’s still there to throw people in jail, inefficiently patrol the Paranoia House’s (yes, that’s how the place of the experiment is named – surely no reason the get paranoid) corridors at night, and to delight my heart to no end. After all, everything is better with robots.

I’d be remiss in my duties if I didn’t mention the good ensemble cast, consisting – among others – of actual movie star Tatsuya Fujiwara (with whom Nakata has worked before on the Death Note spinoff L: Change the World), veteran actor Kinya Kitaoji, veteran TV actress Nagisa Katahira, and some other members of the TV actor and idol business (Haruka Ayase, Satomi Ishihara, Takura Ohno and others). All of them (yes, even the male idols) deliver performances that are generally convincing and often even quite intense. There’s never the feeling that you’re watching idols act. Rather, these are actors who also take part in the idol rat race, but do know about more than pushing their physical assets into the camera. There’s a certain degree of overacting on display, but overacting seems to fit the hysteria-inducing situation the characters are in quite well. Plus, I prefer conscious and artful overacting to the near-catatonic blandness that is so trendy in English language cinema right now. I understand, all that botox makes one’s face difficult to move, but still…

Hideo Nakata for his part has never been a flashy director, usually preferring a style that subtly influences an audience perception of a story and its characters to one that is always pointing at the director’s technical abilities, which usually works to the detriment of the narrative. Nakata is too self-assured a director to have much of a need for showing off. If you want to see his technical accomplishments, you will find them in the careful framing of scenes, in the precise rhythms his films’ editing creates, and in Nakata’s strong sense for iconic imagery that works as an actual, living part of his movies. In The Incite Mill, Nakata shows that all of these talents are still alive and well in him, serving him as well in his new genre of choice as they did when he was making the horror films which made me fall in love with Japanese horror.

The Horror!? is a weekly cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, an aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name.

13-nin Renzoku Boukouma

a.k.a. 13-Victim Serial Attacker / Serial Rapist
Year:
1978   Company: Shin-Toho Film Company   Runtime: 60′
Director: Koji Wakamatsu   Writers: Koji Wakamatsu    Cinematography: Hideo Ito
Music: Kaoru Abe   Cast: Kumiko Araki, Mayuko Hino, Kayoko Sugi, Maya Takagi, Ami Takatori, Tensan Umatsu

Ferociously independent writer and director Koji Wakamatsu (United Red Army, Secrets Behind the Wall) has never been one to trifle over the social acceptability of his work, and is well known for his combination of sociopolitical commentary and extreme sex and violence.  Even with that in mind this is a tough one.  Wakamatsu’s 1978 obscurity 13-Victim Serial Attacker concerns a troubled young man who bikes around Tokyo on a seemingly meaningless quest to rape and murder any young woman he finds.  It’s a bleak, discouraging film that offers neither justification nor excuses for its content, and though broadly categorized as “pink” erotica and even horror, trying to classify it as entertainment of any sort is missing the point.

Thematically 13-Victim Serial Attacker can be seen as a direct offshoot of Wakamatsu’s earlier Secrets Behind the Wall, which focused partly on the rise of a homicidal sexual deviant in an anonymous Japanese apartment complex.  Indeed, an early montage of endless indistinguishable apartment buildings echos the past film nicely.  13-Victim Serial Attacker‘s simple and repetitive narrative follows a similarly misguided youth, but perhaps misguided isn’t the word.  Unguided may be more apt.  Shuffling aimlessly about the banal artifices of postwar prosperity, the attitude of the unnamed offender speaks as much of boredom and time-fed anxiety as it does of psychopathy.

The opening moments of the film have our unnamed and overweight protagonist whittling together a custom firearm in a rundown metal works before stuffing it into his omnipresent overalls and speeding off on his bicycle.  He soon finds himself in an apartment complex, where he picks a tenant at random and infiltrates her home by pretending to be a policeman.  Once inside he viciously assaults the inhabitant, a young stay-at-home wife, raping her until he reaches a hollow satisfaction and then unloading his firearm into her uterus.  The brief opening credits fade in over a static shot of her sad remains, sprawled bloody and lifeless and treated with all the respect one might grant a heap of dirty laundry.  When we meet up with the young man again he is wandering around Tokyo Bay, killing time before an opportunity to strike once again arises.

The rest of 13-Victim Serial Attacker follows in a similar vein, as our anonymous assailant happens upon victim after victim, many of whom seem at least as adrift as himself.  A pair of hot-headed lovers near a commuter line, a young artist by the sea, and a host of faceless others are needlessly attacked and murdered in spaces as small as automobiles or public restrooms and as expansive as undeveloped industrial land.  Wakamatsu shows grim imagination in some of the assaults, as when a prostitute and her gent are tied back-to-back by their limbs before the attacker begins his deadly business.  The director also incites reaction from his audience through his brutal and honest depictions of rape, with several of the victims appearing to enjoy themselves as they seek a respite from the violence in the fleeting comfort of sexual arousal.

The most substantial development of the film again echos an earlier Wakamatsu production, as the nameless creature at the story’s center captures a policewoman and holds her hostage in an abandoned warehouse, assaulting her again and again.  The narrative thread reminds strongly of the director’s first independent production, The Embryo Hunts in Secret, in which a well to do businessman takes a female associate hostage and forces her into a variety of degrading subservient behaviors.  That film, which speaks of the oppressive nature of power and the necessity of rebellion, offers the audience a satisfyingly gruesome out.  Here there is nothing of the kind.  After the policewoman misbehaves, nearly drawing the police into her kidnapper’s hideaway, he simply draws his gun and shoots her.  She ends her appearance like so many others, as another statistic to be rattled off on the radio news.

Throughout 13-Victim Serial Attacker the audience is given very little in the way of insight into the character’s reasoning, and the purpose of his actions remains elusive.  When his final victim, a young blind woman, asks him if he enjoys killing he responds as honestly as he likely can – “I don’t know.”  When she summarily asks if why he kills he has no answer for her at all.  Oddly, the only understanding the audience is really allowed to develop for the eponymous serial attacker comes by way of the film’s score, a collection of sparse avante-garde improvisations by renowned alto saxophonist Kaoru Abe, who would die later the same year of a drug overdose.  The harshness of Abe’s performances evoke sensations of loneliness and interminable angst, while a brief encounter between the attacker and Abe, in cameo, draws a rare emotional reaction, a single tearful eye, from the former.

13-Victim Serial Attacker ends abruptly, and with violence every bit as sudden and needless as the rest.  With the police unable to stop him the army (!?) is called into action, and an unstoppable social monster meets the irresistible force of military intervention.  As the sun literally sets on our protagonist’s violent spree, a solitary jeep lies in ambush.  Their meeting is torrid and bloody, and as the unknown man dies his voice fades into the inhuman shriek of Abe’s saxophone.  Wakamatsu’s parting shots recall the opening scene, with the man’s bullet-riddled body floating in Tokyo Bay, the army having left it behind as though it were nothing more than an innocuous bit of garbage.  Its a final act of inhumanity in a film overflowing with them, and Wakamatsu leaves the audience to contemplate its consequence.

As a brutal example of Wakamatsu’s rebellious cinematic spirit 13-Victim Serial Attacker is striking, with exceptional photography from ace cinematographer Hideo Ito (In the Realm of the Senses, here working in cost-effective 16mm) and haunting musical contributions from the late Kaoru Abe.  Its capacity to offend also ranks higher than just about anything else I’ve had the pleasure to cover here, though with Wakamatsu one should always expect a little confrontation.  Those with a hankering for a bit of intellectual pursuit will find the most satisfaction here, while those looking for a good night out would do best to avoid Wakamatsu all together.

And now, a brief note on the title used here.  13-Victim Serial Attacker is my own rough translation from the original Japanese title.  The more common translation of Serial Rapist just isn’t accurate, eliminating the numerical beginning and lending the word boukouma (literally something like “habitual act of violence”) a more precise meaning than it seems to have.  The word nin that follows the number 13 literally means “man” or “person”, and has been translated here as “victim” since these are the people that the word is, in this case, referring to.  Keep in mind that I am in no way trained in the Japanese language, but in the absence of a suitable official English title for this rarely seen film I have done my best.  Whine if you must.

Garo: Red Requiem

Year: 2010   Runtime: 97′  Director: Keita Amemiya
Writers: Keita Amemiya, Itaru Era   Music: Shunji Inoue
Cast: Ryosei Konishi, Mary Matsuyama, Saori Hara, Yosuke Saito, Masahiro Kuranuki, Kanji Tsuda

Makai Knight Kouga (Ryosei Konishi) is still protecting his part of Japan from the incursions of extra-dimensional evil beings known as Horrors. This time around, our hero has left his home city for some other unnamed Japanese city to hunt the particularly loathsome “Lord” (who just happens to quite clearly be a Lady) Karma (Saori Hara voiced by Kouga’s TV show love interest Mika Hijii, for some reason). Karma resides inside of a mirror that can only be entered by others under very specific circumstances, and uses her victims’ hidden desires (and a couple of freakish henchpeople owning a goth club) to lure them in.

The city Kouga looks for Karma in has its own protectors already: the experienced Makai Priest Akaza (Yosuke Saito) and his assistant Shiguto (Masahiro Kuranuki). For once, both residents seem pretty okay with letting Kouga do his heroic loner thing. That’s not the reaction of another Makai Priest, Rekka (Mary Matsuyama), who arrives just when Kouga does, with a chip on her shoulder and obvious hatred towards Karma in her heart. Rekka wants to kill Karma herself, the fact that she isn’t bonded to a magical armour (it’s not allowed for girls, you know, I suspect because of girl cooties) notwithstanding, and really, given that we’ll later learn that Karma ate Rekka’s father, it’s a reasonable wish.

Obviously, Kouga and Rekka will come to blows, and it will take a series of cheesy speeches to convince the priestess that it’s the job of all female characters in tokusatsu to cast spells (or – as in this case – play magic flute) at the main baddie from the side-lines while a rude, arrogant man with a very large sword does the main fighting, even when she has been shown to be quite good – though not so good as to embarrass the main character – at kicking peoples’ asses.

Anyway, Karma is powerful enough for Kouga to actually need the magical help, so it is a good thing that he’s upgraded his interpersonal skills from “insufferable” to “just not a people person”.

  
  

Despite my problems with its use of its female lead character, the (3D, but who cares?) theatrical feature following the “mature” (and pretty damn great) tokusatsu show Garo is an at times very entertaining piece of work, at least if you’re willing to go with it.

Now, when you hear “theatrical feature”, don’t imagine the film’s budget to be visibly higher than that of the TV show. The rather humble number of locations, the shooting style and the quality of the special effects should make the low budget nature of the endeavour quite obvious.

Fortunately, Red Requiem is still as much Keita Amemiya’s baby as the original show was, and Amemiya is a director and creature designer with a great talent for milking low budgets for all the spectacle they are worth. After all, he’s the guy who once used re-jigged cuckoo clocks as gigantic war machines in a movie, and it kinda-sorta worked.

Whether you think the quality of the CG effects helps or hinders Amemiya in his creative efforts will depend on your tolerance for extremely cheap looking CG.

I have made my peace with unnatural looking CG effects by now, as long as I like the concepts and ideas that are being put on screen with their help. Given my predilections, it would be pretty difficult for me to dislike the aesthetic the digital tech is trying to bring to life in Red Requiem‘s case. It’s a strange, sometimes silly, sometimes cheesy, always very Japanese visual world, where classically Japanese style meets Western kitsch, mock-Gothic trappings, hack and slash videogame choreography and the free-form bizarre, until it becomes pretty difficult to decide on the appropriate reaction to it all. One could of course be an art snob and snort derisively, but it’s just as fair a reaction to be charmed by the combination of the childlike naive, the exploitative and the imaginative on display. (And yeah, there are some of Amemiya’s trademark mime-alike monsters and someone with white wings, too).

  
  

Most of the not-so-digital action and the wire fu is quite good too. Konishi and Matsuyama are convincing at striking the appropriate poses, and Amemiya is still a friend of staging action sequences so that the audience is actually able to see what’s going on. There are two or three moments of too obvious stuntman substitution, but I take a scene that’s so clearly staged I can identify someone as a stuntman over one where I don’t see what’s supposed to go on at all any time.

The acting’s about how you would expect from a project like this. Konishi still doesn’t move a facial muscle to do anything but scowl, but he ispretty fantastic at scowling, and everybody else plays his or her role a bit broader than contemporary Western tastes in acting styles would suggest. However, the characters the actors are playing are pretty broad archetypes too, so I can’t help but find these performances fitting. Certain characters are not meant to be portrayed naturalistically.

On the writing side, Red Requiem is clearly a step back from the comparative thematic richness of the show that spawned it, back into the safer territories of overlong speeches about heroics that take turns with emotional cheese. Still, I can’t say I found myself getting to annoyed by it all, because there’s nothing cynical about this aspect of the film, never a feeling that the film is going through the motions when it sprouts its not very clever philosophy. It’s all honest heart-on-its-sleeve goodliness that takes itself terribly seriously, and while it seems proper to giggle about that, I won’t blame it for being good-natured, silly and a bit dumb. See also, “(What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding”.

So, while I would have loved to watch a Garo movie that kept closer to the clever (or the exceedingly strange) parts of the show it came from, I had my fun with what Red Requiem has to offer, especially in its final third, when Amemiya seems to pull out all the stops and begins to bring anything on screen he could imagine and somehow squeeze in.

The Horror!? is a weekly cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, an aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name.

Tokyo Sonata

Year: 2008  Company: Fortissimo Films / Entertainment Farm   Runtime: 120′
Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa   Writers: Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Max Mannix, Sachiko Tanaka
Cinematography: Akiko Ashizawa   Music: Kazumasa Hashimoto  Cast: Teruyuki Kagawa, Kyoko Koizumi,
Yu Koyanagi, Kai Inowaki, Haruka Igawa, Kanji Tsuda, Kazuya Kojima, Koji Yakusho, Jaosn Gray
Disc company: Eureka! / Masters of Cinema Series   Video: 1080p 1.85:1
Audio: Dolby TrueHD 2.0 Japanese,  DTS-HD MA 2.0 Japanese, Dolby Digital 2.0 Japanese
Subtitles: English   Disc: BD50 (All Region)   Release Date: 06/22/2009
Available for purchase through Amazon.com

Note: Due to the Sony DADC warehouse fire in London earlier this month the majority of the back-stock for Tokyo Sonata was destroyed.  Eureka / Masters of Cinema are in the process of repressing this, along with many of the other titles whose stock was lost, as combination DVD / Blu-ray editions.  Ignore any indications you may find of this title being out of print (including exorbitant Amazon and eBay marketplace prices1) – it will be back.

There’s one brilliant moment among the many in Tokyo Sonata that stands out to me on every viewing.  As the unemployed businessman father of the story’s central family waits in line at a work placement center, his similarly unemployed businessman friend turns to him and confesses that his wife, from whom he has been hiding his joblessness, is beginning to suspect.  “I have to find a way to make her trust me2,” he says, before concocting a faked business dinner to bolster the illusion that his life is continuing as usual.  The thought of telling her the truth, and thus accepting his own condition, never crosses his mind.

This brief scene is the crux of Tokyo Sonata, to date the last film from Kiyoshi Kurosawa (best known in the West for his allegorical horror features Cure and Kairo), a film that inhabits a world all too familiar, in which familial communication has broken down and mistrust is the order of the day.  Kurosawa’s knack for developing a lurking sense of unease serves him well here, where he effortlessly transposes it onto the mundane verisimilitude of a traditional family drama.  It’s easy to separate oneself from the surreal threats posed by homicidal mesmerists or ghostly blotches of human grease, but Tokyo Sonata dwells on the far less sensational horrors of everyday life, and is all the more affecting for it.

Set contemporaneously and reflecting a time of growing threats to the family unit (a global economic recession, the war on terror, and the age-old problem of career centrism), Tokyo Sonata follows the implosion and subsequent transcendental rise of the Sasaki family.  One stormy morning father Ryuhei (the excellent Teruyuki Kagawa, Serpent’s Path) is unceremoniously ejected from his administrative position, the price of the outsourcing of his department to nearby China.  Finding himself suddenly astray, with the career upon which he built his identity only a memory, Ryuhei desperately attempts to keep up appearances, spending his regular hours waiting in the long lines at the local work placement center and taking charity lunches alongside the city’s homeless population.

At home Ryuhei’s veneer of authority begins to crack, as his relationship with both his wife and two children continues a steady deterioration set in motion long before his job was lost.  Housewife Megumi (Kyoko Koizumi) itches to express herself from beyond the confines of her daily routine, while wayward older son Takashi (Yu Koyanagi) tries to find his place in life through a series of dead-end jobs.  Meanwhile younger son Kenji (Kai Inowaki in his acting debut), failing to find a place for himself in a traditional school system in which he and his instructor are constantly at each other’s throats, develops an unexpected interest in learning to play the piano.  With his social position lost and the possibility of matching his former position practically non-existent, Ryuhei takes out his frustrations on those from whom he should be seeking support.  He ignores his wife, argues with Takashi and categorically denies Kenji’s request to learn the piano, driving the three of them further and further from him in the process.

  
  
  

As Ryuhei’s attempts at domination increase each of his family members begin their own private rebellions against it.  Takashi, in seeking a direction for his life, joins the military and becomes embroiled in a conflict in the Middle East.  Megumi earns her driver’s license, an expensive privilege, and begins window shopping for both a car and an escape.  Kenji finds a dysfunctional keyboard in a garbage heap and learns to use it as best he can, and stashes his monthly lunch allowance away for secret piano lessons.  All the while tension between the four is growing, and Ryuhei, finding himself trading administrative work for the degrading position of shopping center janitor, seems poised for a violent outburst…

Tokyo Sonata comprises some of the most absurdly horrifying imagery of Kurosawa’s career, imagery whose impact is heightened by the uncomfortable reality it represents.  As Ryuhei wanders through the streets of Tokyo he finds a whole disaffected population of the similarly lost, hordes of former businessmen who have defined themselves by their careers and who now waste away the working hours in public libraries, city parks and charity lunch lines.  The impact of the visuals here is near universal – who can’t relate to losing a job, and the sense of “what now?” hopelessness that so often comes along with it?  Tokyo Sonata also plumbs the unsettling depths to which that hopelessness can drag us all, from the development of self-destructive personalities to the grim finality of suicide.  It is in these moments, in which the lows are at their lowest, that the film proves most unsettling.  As Ryuhei becomes overtly abusive the final thread that holds his family together is ripped away – Kenji attempts to run away, but falls afoul of the law, while Megumi turns an attempted home invasion into an unlikely opportunity for escape…

But with the future at its most uncertain and the Sasaki family in its darkest hour, the sun both proverbially and literally rises – the Kurosawan equivalent of “…tomorrow is another day!”.  The reconciliation of Tokyo Sonata never feels cheap or manipulative, and avoids the happy family cliches of similar efforts.  Instead, at the height of their irresponsibility, the individual members of the Sasaki find themselves, and realize in no uncertain terms that which they are at risk of losing.  Ryuhei and his wife cease to strive for happiness in what they don’t have, and instead find contentedness in what they do, while son Kenji offers a moment of uncompromising beauty – a soulful piano recitation of Debussy’s Claire de Lune.  It’s the concept of mono no aware in action, a fleeting moment of transcendental bliss that’s all the more impacting for the ugliness that preceded it.

There are those who tout Tokyo Sonata as Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s masterpiece, and given the wealth of awards and praise it has garnered I can hardly argue with them.  It is certainly his most accessible film to date, presenting a universal story of familial progression with neither the ambivalence or ambiguity that has marked so much of his prior work.  And while the existential themes familiar to his career are present and accounted for, from the obscure nature of identity to the issues of communication posed by modern society, the end results are all together different.  Bleak as the world of Tokyo Sonata may be, the sun still rises on it and the birds still sing, and its ugliness, like all things, is transient.

  
  
  

Limited to DVD-only editions both domestically and in its native Japan, Kiyoshi Kurosawaw’s award-winning Tokyo Sonata has been given its due respect in a phenomenal Blu-ray edition courtesy of Eureka! Entertainment’s Masters of Cinema series.  Though produced in the United Kingdom I’m pleased to report that this edition of the film is ALL REGION compatible, with even the standard definition supplements rendered in a globally digestible NTSC format, leaving nothing in the way of excuses for why anyone shouldn’t have it in their collection.

Presented in full 1080p for the first time anywhere in the world, Tokyo Sonata is granted a properly framed 1.85:1 transfer and a healthy AVC encode (average video bitrate is 29.4 Mbps) in its Blu-ray debut.  The two hour feature is spread across just over 30 Gb of a dual layer BD50, and the results are both impressive and honest.  After toying with digital filming technology in Doppelganger, Bright Future and Loft, Kurosawa and ace director of photography Akiko Ashizawa have returned to 35mm photography, and I couldn’t be happier.  The imagery here is rich in both real world detail and the untouched texture of the medium itself, a 1-2 combination that I can’t help but love.  Contrast is at healthy levels throughout, as is the intentionally limited color palette.  This won’t be the most vibrant or demo-worthy transfer you’ve seen, and there’s even some printed film damage (specks and a few larger marks) to contend with, but the image remains honest to the source photography throughout.  I suspect this is a reference-level transfer for the title in question, and it retains its deliciously filmic qualities even when the image is zoomed-in to 200-300% its intended size.  Those looking for complaints will find none here today – this one looks precisely as it should.

Eureka present Tokyo Sonata with not one but two HD audio choices in the original 2.0 Japanese – a variable bitrate Dolby TrueHD track at around 600-800 kbps, and a DTS-HD MA option at around 1.7 Mbps.  Though I suspect the DTS-HD MA track, with more than double the bitrate, should be technically stronger, I found it impossible to discern a difference between the two.  Like the majority of Kurosawa’s work, the sound design here is quite subtle and restrained, with occasional punctuation from louder effects and minimalist soundtrack cues.  Dialogue is crisp and intelligible throughout, with no undue technical flaws – not that I was expecting any from this very recent production.  As with the visuals, I’d say the audio here is precisely as it should be.  A lossy Dolby Digital 2.0 Japanese option is also included for the sake of completeness.  The optional English subtitles that accompany the feature are clear and legible, appear quite well translated, and don’t suffer the sparsity evident on some translations.  As an uncultured American I did muse at some of the verbage – “smartarse” jumps to mind.  Again, I’ve no complaints.

Supplements appear to duplicate those that appear on the Japanese DVD edition, and with the exception of the UK trailer for the feature (3 minutes, HD) are all presented in 480p SD.  You get a Making Of documentary (61 minutes) that covers literally every aspect of the production and features plenty of behind-the-scenes footage, a Q & A Session (12 minutes) and other footage (15 minutes) from the September 2008 premiere in Tokyo, as well as a discussion of the benefits of seeing the film on DVD from the cast and director (9 minutes).  I enjoy the respectful and appreciative tone of these pieces more than those of their American counterparts, which are typically no more than studio fluff.  The humility of all those involved is not lost on this reviewer, and I look forward to seeing more from all of them.  Rounding things out is a thick 28 page booklet that features a brief director’s statement from Kiyoshi Kurosawa and a excellent original essay by B. Kite.

I really can’t recommend Tokyo Sonata enough, whether you’re a fan of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s brand of cinema or not.  This is certainly a standout piece in his impressive oeuvre, and well deserving of the attention it has received.  This was my first import Blu-ray, as well as my first experience the Masters of Cinema series, and I was duly impressed on both counts.  MoC have put together a stellar high definition release, from the basics of the transfer right on up, and one that no self-respecting cinema buff should be without.  You’ll not find a higher recommendation from me than here – this is must-have stuff.

1 Case in point: At the time of this writing a certain eBay seller has DVDs of the Masters of Cinema series edition of The Burmese Harp listed at a whopping 381 pounds sterling – more than $600!  It’s an exceptional release of an exceptional film, to be sure, but that level of faux-crisis price fixing is shear insanity.
2 Emphasis mine.
in conclusion
Film: Excellent  Video: Excellent  Audio: Excellent   Supplements: Excellent
Harrumphs: None.
Packaging: Standard Blu-ray case, 28-page booklet.
Final Words: Everyone has there favorite director, but for me there’s nothing quite like the K. Kurosawa touch.  Tokyo Sonata is brilliant filmmaking through and through, and easily the director’s most accessible film to date.  There’s nothing at all wrong with the Masters of Cinema series Blu-ray edition of this title, except perhaps that you don’t own it.  A must have! 

Shingeki no Kyojin – Attack on Titan


publisher:
Kodansha,
Shonen Magazine Comics
year: 2009 – 2011 (continuing)
author: Hajime Isayama
Order this book from Amazon.co.jp

From the city stomping of Godzilla and friends to the flatly apocalyptic scenarios of The Last War, Vampire Gokemidoro and Virus, and beyond, the Japanese appetite for fictitious destruction on a near cosmic scale is insatiable.  It’s a fact that’s unsurprising given that disasters of untold magnitude (from the aftermath of WWII to the omnipresent threat of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis) are as much a part of the country’s national identity as cherry blossoms and kimonos.  I suppose that it’s likewise unsurprising to find, in the shadow of nuclear crisis and one of the largest earthquakes in recorded history, that Hajime Isayama’s bleak manga debut Shingeki no Kyojin (literally Advance of the Giants, and subtitled Attack on Titan) has become a smash success.

I have to admit that, while I’ve certainly been aware of the medium, I’d never actually read a manga, nor had I wanted to, until word of Isayama’s bestseller came my way, and the reasons for my interest are as transparent as can be.  Shingeki no Kyojin, which concerns the last remnants of humanity and their fight for survival against an army of man-eating giants, just sounded neat, and the series’ status as a bestseller (its four volumes have sold more than 4.5 million copies to date) certainly helped its case.  I never imagined that the story, or the format in which it was presented, could ever be so engrossing, but so it was that I blazed through the first two volumes in a single pulse-pounding evening.  Color me hooked.

Continue reading