Japan Cuts 2019: Killing

Japan Society’s annual Japan Cuts Film Festival for 2019 started on July 19th and is running through today, July 28th. My thoughts on films from 2015’s festival can be read starting here, 2016’s starting here, 2017’s starting here, and last year’s starting here.

“If you can’t kill, your sword is useless.”

This year’s centerpiece was my second film of the festival and interestingly both were samurai films. That’s entirely the end of the similarities however, as where Samurai Shifters is a full blown comedy Killing is a incredibly harsh yet thoughtful expression of fear and frustration with the state of the world told through the lens of a historical period.

Killing is tense, unsettling, and violent. This is completely intentional on the part of director (and one of the lead actors) Shinya Tsukamoto, who didn’t want the fights to be things of beauty but instead realistic, uncomfortable experiences that made his film leave a strong impression on its viewers. He certainly succeeded, as the impact of the movie lingers long after its end. In fact I found the effects actually strengthened after the viewing, with things coming into focus more as I pondered what was presented.

During the movie I was increasingly enthralled by the choices Tsukamoto and his actors made and the way everything unfolded, but the frantic, headache inducing cutting of the fights, extremely graphic violence (made more stark by the frequent matter of fact nature of its delivery), and other aspects made it hard to process as I was watching. These aren’t criticisms per se though, as again it was all an intentional part of what Tsukamoto wanted the film to be and instrumental in achieving the right atmosphere and feeling. The more I think about this after the fact the more I come to grips with it and the more impressed I am.

Tsukamoto was in attendance, and received this year’s Cut Above Award for Outstanding Performance in Film before the screening. His Q&A after the movie was an excellent. The provided insightful look into what he hoped to accomplish and convey with the film was fascinating and added layers of context to help unravel all the themes and implications swirling around beneath the surface.

The approach taken makes it tough to generally recommend Killing, as there’s a lot in this film that will be too much for many viewers. But that’s the entire point, and there’s meaning to every artistic choice made supporting a stunning emotional core to the film. There’s an escalating madness lurking inside Killing that both arises naturally and seems to have no true reason behind it, and that achievement alone makes this challenging, compelling drama well worth the effort.

Japan Cuts 2019: Dance With Me

Japan Society’s annual Japan Cuts Film Festival for 2019 started on July 19th and is running through July 28th.

My thoughts on films from 2015’s festival can be read starting here, 2016’s starting here, 2017’s starting here, and last year’s starting here.

That feeling when hard work and a stroke of luck is about to pay off with a possible promotion and you have to chase a hypnotist across the country to reverse a suggestion that makes you break into song and dance at the slightly hint of music.

I wasn’t able to make it to this year’s opening screening, so was really pleased to have an encore was added that gave me a chance to see one of this Japan Cuts 2019’s most anticipated films.

Dance With Me’s silly premise and willingness to poke fun at the very genre it encapsulates is its greatest strength. It’s at its best when it fully embraces its concept and subverts genre expectations, with absurd surprises are every corner and main character Shizuka is joyfully dancing across the screen despite herself.

In contrast it does lull a bit the couple times it instead falls into the very genre trappings it tries so hard to subvert, and the story framework doesn’t quite support the weight of the film when time for thought to settle is allowed. There are tiny disconnects between the themes the filmmakers seem to be trying to let creep in and the actual zany happenings of Shizuka’s adventure at the exact points everything needs to come together into a cohesive whole.

But there isn’t anything wrong per se in a movie like this with the background setup existing solely to give rise to the entertaining, madcap weirdness that is the whole point of the film. The detail needed to properly explain my small criticisms above might give the impression that they are bigger issues than they actually are. In fact it’s just a little bit of background noise that keeps this “only” in the realm of being excellent instead of the masterpiece it seemed on the edge of becoming.

The movie is hilarious overall with strong acting surrounding and supporting an excellent, anchoring performance by Ayaka Miyoshi (as Shizuka). There were several genuinely captivating twists as Shizuka’s journey kept escalating into higher and higher levels of wonderful ridiculousness.

Dance With Me has a joy to it that’s infectious, always simmering beneath the surface waiting for the right times to burst out. I found it impossible not to smile during this movie, and really enjoyed it overall even if it was best to turn my brain off just a little at times. Highly recommended.

The Farewell Review

“Based on an actual lie.”

Billi’s family moved to New York when she was young, but she remains close and in touch with her grandmother. When her grandmother is diagnosed with cancer and given just a few weeks to live, Billi makes a difficult trip back to China under the pretense of a family wedding to see a loved one who hasn’t been told she’s dying.

 

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Let’s just state things up front: The Farewell is FANTASTIC. It’s an emotional, genuine feeling depiction of a family making, arguing about, and going through with a tough decision as they seek to bear their matriarch’s potential emotional burden in her stead.

Director/writer Lulu Wang built off of personal experience and presents a deeply resonant story that transcends the specifics of the involved cultures while lovingly embracing them and making the pressures and beliefs that motivate the characters understandable to all viewers. There’s an incredibly authentic feeling of family permeating the film that’s completely relatable at the same time it presents weighty glimpses into a culture that isn’t my own. Flashes of humor, awkwardness, conflict, love driven actions both admirable and misguided, etc make Billi’s family feel real in way seldom so perfectly captured in any form of media.

But even beyond the deft presentation of the subject material and masterful acting (particularly by lead Awkwafina, who spends the film completely torn and wrecked over figuring out what the right thing to do is) that captivated me as I watched, the film shines even further through brilliant cinematography. I don’t often get into camera treatment, etc because it should be largely invisible when done right. And it is both here, but the stunning way everything’s done to heighten emotion and drawn the viewer in deserves special mention.

The way scenes are framed, the general use of when longer range shots that let emotion sit for a moment when it needs to and magnifies the impact of the film’s few close ups when they happen, etc all combine to create a very real feeling of being present and included in the events. I didn’t feel like I was watching Billi’s story, I felt like a was there. I can’t overstate what a difficult and impressive achievement that is.

A day later and I still feel the full impact of the thoughts and emotions swirling about in the wake of seeing The Farewell. Excellent in pretty much every possible aspect of it’s creation, appropriately tough to watch in parts, bittersweet, and genuine, I can’t recommend this engaging, thought provoking, emotional gut punch of a film enough.

 

 

 

 

 

Knight (Sibyl’s War Book 2) Review

Knight is the second installment in the Sibyl’s War series, and this review will contain some spoilers for the first book, Pawn. The story is a direct continuation of events in Pawn, and I highly recommend reading that first.

 

As one of the special humans who can communicate with the starship Fyrantha, Nicole found herself of even more mysteries and trouble than the others kidnapped to work as the ship’s repair crew. Now parts of the ship itself have chosen Nicole as its new Protector, a role that will be particularly difficult since she needs to keep the competing factions from realizing the true potential of her fellow humans if she wishes to save her planet.

 

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Pawn was a good start to Sibyl’s War that presented an extremely interesting world with decent characters whose actions and characterizations felt occasionally unnatural due to the necessities of the plot. Overall though I enjoyed it and was curious about where things would go from there. I wasn’t able to confirm this 100%, but I think this is a trilogy which would make Knight the middle portion of the ongoing story.

Knight has a slower, more deliberate pace than Pawn, with a LOT of establishing geography, etc. Zahn manages not to turn these sections into info dumps, but there’s still a lot of detail in constant streams woven throughout. I could see and certainly understand some pushback over this style and the resultant pacing, but I actually found it appropriate and enjoyed this book a touch more than the first.

I found characters’ actions more reasonable and internally consistent which allowed me to get even more caught up in the intrigue and Nicole’s efforts to outplay the various competing influences and figure out what was truly happening on the Fyrantha. The build for the next installment felt natural and the revelations in Knight set things up for another direct sequel while feeling like this story still had a suitable end point. I like the way things are building and will be impatiently waiting for the next book since I’m now caught up with what’s been published thus far.

Japan Cuts 2019: Samurai Shifters

Japan Society’s annual Japan Cuts Film Festival for 2019 started on July 19th and is running through July 28th. My thoughts on films from 2015’s festival can be read starting here, 2016’s starting here, 2017’s starting here, and last year’s starting here.

 

“The hero of this story is a librarian.”

In an age where samurai clans are often ordered to relocate at the whims of the shogunate, one lord is tasked to make a particularly difficult move to a smaller holding across Japan. Hoping to avoid responsibility for the difficulties ahead, from the planning to the costs to the actual physical move, his advisors choose a shut in bookworm samurai named Harunosuke to be new relocation officer.

 

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Samurai Shifters starts with the unique subject of having to uproot an entire clan and travel across Japan and makes its story captivating and accessible. Rather than gloss over the minutia and logistics of such a move, they become the focal point of the movie in a grounded, expertly presented way that makes use of a sublime application of humor. The balance of the writing is fantastic, and the sly way themes that reflect today’s work culture are folded into a story that is still so clearly of its own time is masterfully done. There are several legitimate laugh-out-loud moments delivered at exactly the right times without overstaying their welcome.

Yet Samurai Shifters is also anchored with underlying drama amid the desires and limitations of its characters, and becomes surprisingly weighty and poignant at times. There are difficult decisions to be made and consequences to be carried out, and by careful choice of which ones to highlight the film makes everything resonate.

The audience truly feels for and relates to the constantly in over his head Harunosuke, despite the specifics of his situation and environment being a far cry from their own. Gen Hoshino heads up a cast full of excellent performances, including costars Issey Takahashi as Harunosake’s loud, overbearing brute of a friend who causes as many problems as he helps solve and Mitsuki Takahata as the former relocation officer’s daughter with a lot of key knowledge and very little reason to help. This film is incredibly and intentionally over-the-top in all the best ways, and the director and actors knowing exactly how far to push things and when to reign it all back in to convey emotion is key.

It’s always a bit extra interesting and significant for me to write about Japan Cuts, as beyond the quality and variety of the films every year it also marks the anniversary of writing this blog, now four years and counting. Samurai Shifters is an excellent film and was a great way for me to start out this year.

 

Usagi Yojimbo Vol 32 Review

Mysteries is volume 32 of Stan Sakai’s samurai epic, Usagi Yojimbo. It’s another volume that benefits from having read Usagi’s previous adventures but also stands reasonably well on its own and would not be a bad point to jump in.

 

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For those who are new to Usagi, a comment from my review of Vol. 1 on Sakai’s choice of medium that has remained relevant throughout the comic’s long run:

“The use of amorphous animals as the characters might seem unusual to first time readers, but it gives Sakai more visual diversity and symbolism to play with, and is executed with such finesse that it quickly becomes impossible to imagine the book without this choice. Don’t mistake the presence of animals as people as a sign this is a ‘kid’s book.’ Usagi Yojimbo covers a period of war, political unrest, and an unhealthy level of danger and can get dark and bloody at times.”

 

Detective Ishida is as much a main character as Usagi now, and I continue to enjoy the time the series is spending focusing on the two of them together solving mysteries. Things have a little bit of a different feel now that Usagi has been in one place for a while, but it still stays true to the heart of the series.

This volume starts with two single chapter stories, followed by two and three part stories respectively, then finishes with a couple short “Chibi Usagi” installments.

There are elements in the main stories that connect a bit, giving a nice sense of progression throughout the volume. The stories are interesting and the mystery elements well done as usual.

The inclusion of recurring characters Kitsune and Nezumi (in separate stories) is starting to present a characterization problem with Usagi. The lengths to which he trusts the thief who routinely takes advantage of him and distrusts the other (who has helped investigations and acts in a Robin Hood mold) are becoming exaggerated and risk making Usagi seem oblivious and borderline unsympathetic at times.

Outside of that though, this is another strong volume of intrigue and action. The Chibi Usagi shorts are light and amusingly silly.

 

 

Salvation of a Saint (Detective Galileo) Review

“Twist reality to fit your guesswork too much and you’ll break something, Detective.”

 

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This is apparently the fifth Detective Galileo book, although it’s labeled as the second in the US as only two of the first five have been translated. Since the other released book over here was the third and the stories are supposedly stand alone I started here due to this coming up for a book group read.

From a mystery point of view can be this can indeed be read without previous knowledge. Nothing in the mystery depends on nor spoils anything in previous books, so this stands alone from a plot point of view.

However it felt some recurring characters in the series weren’t properly introduced for new readers. For nearly half the book the titular character was nowhere to be seen, and the brief scene that finally brought him in gave little introduction (seemingly either expecting the readers to be familiar with him from prior books or not feeling any was necessary).

The detective that got the most “screentime,” and thus the defacto point if view character, acted a bit like an idiot as the book goes on. This made it hard to get into the dueling agendas and theories between him and his new junior detective, and for a majority of the book I was as annoyed as I was intrigued. I also felt certain things were foreshadowed too much and others not explained enough, although that’s admittedly an extremely difficult line to walk.

On the other hand, the mystery itself was interesting, when the characters got out of their own ways things progressed well, and there was clearly a lot of thought and creativity underlying the story. Also, part of my frustration was due to wanting to know more about the characters and for them to be presented better, indicating they are a reasonably interesting and potentially engaging bunch.

So I have major mixed feelings about this book, but despite some flaws and missed potential this is a solid “howdunnit” at its core, and just engrossing enough for me to give it a cautious recommendation. I would be open to giving the series another try.