Japan Cuts 2017: Over the Fence Review

Japan Society’s annual Japan Cuts Film Festival for 2017 started on July 13th and is ran through July 23rd. My thoughts on 2015’s festival can be read starting here and on last year’s starting here. This year I’ve previously seen and reviewed Mumon, Tokyo Idols, and The Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue.

 

Divorcé Yoshio Shiraiwa (Joe Odagiri) has settled into days spent at a vocational school learning carpentry as part of his unemployment benefits agreement. When a fellow student invites him out to pitch something better, an unusual bar hostess (mating) dances into his awareness.

 

overthefence

 

Over the Fence is another adaptation of Yasushi Sato’s short stories of the northern port city of Hakodate. I’ve previously seen one of the other two, The Light Shines Only There, which was one of my favorite films of 2015’s Japan Cuts. This is another story about two broken people coming together, but it feels quite different. We learn less about what causes the leads’ character flaws here, and the situations and personalities involved are simultaneously more low key and stranger. It also seems a bit lighter overall, despite heavy themes and volatile dramatic scenes.  The humor’s well integrated and the acting superb, particularly from both leads. Yu Aoi (playing the eccentric Satoshi Tamura) has numerous intense and/or weird scenes and traits to convey, and her devotion and skill in doing so makes even absurd spectacles like her frequent recreating of bird mating dances captivating.

Unfortunately the plot doesn’t quite do justice to her masterful performance. More background was needed for Satoshi to help explain her point of view and actions. It wasn’t enough to demonstrate that she’s (partially) crazy, that she knows it, and it deeply bothers her (all of which were done quite explicitly and appropriately).  Some context was needed as to how she got to that point for the conflicts between her and Yoshio to resonate properly, and to make her a fully formed character instead of being defined by a single, negative characteristic (even if it manifests in a few different ways). What should have been powerful scenes often seem like weirdness and conflict for its own sake. Aoi did an amazing job with what she was given, but the plot let her character down.

The core story and its unique perspective were interesting, the acting excellent, and the key scenes filled with emotion. But there are some slow parts, and again the film’s main weakness is not giving the viewers enough background to truly connect to the characters and empathize with their struggles. As such this was a decent movie that could have been great with tweaks to the pacing and writing.

 

Actor Joe Odagira received Japan Cut’s Cut Above award before the screening and had a Q&A afterwards. The questions were varied this time, with honestly a lot of stuff that would have been more appropriate to ask a director, not the lead actor. He broke out laughing a couple of times as he tried to process what he was being asked, but generally responded well and made the most of each to say something interesting (or at least a polite acknowledgement, as in a gracious response to someone who raised their hand to complain about the editing).

 

——-

I’ll be back later with thoughts on two more films from this year’s festival.

NYAFF 2017: Mrs. K Review

Last year at New York Asian Film Festival I went to a screening of the wonderful anime film Miss Hokusai. This year’s NYAFF is winding down and yesterday I saw the Malaysian action movie Mrs. K.

 

Note: I general try to keep reviews relatively spoiler free, but I will be addressing some general trends and developments in the plot here.

 

mrsk

 

Although admittedly previously unfamiliar with star actress Kara Wai, it’s easy to immediately recognize the experience and skill she possesses once she takes the screen. Her portrayal of the titular housewife with a secret past is nicely nuanced and shines in the early portions of the film when she’s confidently displaying a dangerous edge lurking below cheerful, comedic moments. If this is indeed her last action role, in a lot of ways is an appropriate one to go out on. Particularly affecting are the downright BRUTAL fight scenes, loaded with hatred and really feeling like the characters are trying to kill each other instead of the dance like choreography sometimes used that would have been horribly out of place in this film. They’re uncomfortable to watch in parts, but perfect for the story and extremely well done.

The acting is excellent in general, with the supporting cast matching Wai’s level in their portrayals of both friend and foe. I’d like to give special mention to young actress Siow Li Xuan, portraying Mrs. K’s daughter in a role that required a delicate balance of determination and fear. She’s does an incredible job and seems like a big star in the making. Her perilous situations and the accompanying danger is one part of the tense atmosphere the movie generates and maintains with intimidating villains, slow building dread, and harsh confrontations.

The plot is where I think the previously mentioned excellent elements are let down. Specifically in the lead role. The idea seemed to be a return to her old ways for the titular Mrs. K when her past comes back to haunt her. Several descriptions of the movie talk about “a woman who will do anything to protect her husband and daughter.” The problem is she’s entirely reactive in her efforts to deal with the threat (which she initially underestimates, somewhat causing the problem in the first place), and largely ineffective in what she does attempt. In a lot of ways she’s as much a victim as her kidnapped daughter. Yes, she puts up a hell of a fight at every turn and shows great devotion to trying to set things right, but her daughter is a hundred times more proactive in trying to get away than her mother is in trying to rescue her and the biggest hero moments of the film are given to Mrs. K’s husband (a gynecologist who’s only previous familiarity with guns or violence came from being taught by his wife).

I’ll stop there to avoid even more explicit plot details, but the story progression seemed off overall and changes to either a few of the resolutions or more explanation of why characters acted as they did would have done wonders. There were also few instances of the antagonists’ actions not making a whole lot of sense, seemingly for the sake of having a cool scene, and the pacing felt uneven to the point of distraction in places.

It’s a bit of a shame, as again things like the daughter’s personal arc, the visceral, brutal fights, and imaginative, striking visuals are excellent. And Wai’s performance as Mrs. K’s is fantastic. I just can’t help but think of how much better this could have been with some tweaks to give her more to work with and make the main character’s story and struggle as strong as the actress playing her.

 

Japan Cuts 2017: Tokyo Idols and The Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue Review

Japan Society’s annual Japan Cuts Film Festival for 2017 started on July 13th and is running through July 23rd. My thoughts on 2015’s festival can be read starting here, on last year’s starting here, and on the opening film Mumon: The Land of Stealth here.

 

Tokyo Idols

 

tokyoidols

 

“This isn’t a fad. It’s a religion.”

Man, there’s a lot to unpack with this one, and a good deal of it is unsettling. Kyoko Miyake’s documentary of Japan’s idol culture provides a stark examination that is as fascinating as it is thought provoking.

Miyake’s camera and even handed approach isn’t judgmental when dealing with individuals and their stories, giving them room to share their views and answer questions as they see fit. But she’s more than willing to put subjects on the spot with pointed questions, and the general structure and flow of the movie provide a critical viewpoint.  She knows there are troubling aspects and issues to explore and lets a matter of fact approach to documenting her subjects bring them to light.

One of the most interesting things about the movie is how much there is to it. It continued past several seemingly natural stopping points to present numerous new layers for consideration. Using one idol’s story as an anchor throughout the movie while interspersing looks at other groups and fandoms gives her film excellent scope and structure . The narrative form is fantastic, with extremely powerful points often made in simple manners such as by translating select portions of the lyrics the idols are singing to their fans.

From an outsider’s perspective some of the scenes we’re extremely uncomfortable, even though things are set up to be safe for the performers. I’m tending towards the apparent tilt of the movie that there’s more negative than positive, but it presents a lot to think about on both sides. Comments from stars, their families, and fans as to the culture and what they think the positives are interweave nicely with societal experts’ comments about the negative effect they think it’s having on Japan’s society and gender dynamics. The careful tightrope Miyake walks along with her excellent sense of how to put everything together makes this a real gem.

 

The Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue

 

nightsky

 

The Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue, a story of two eccentric loners stumbling into each others spheres of existence was interesting but odd. The filmmaking is front and center in a way that often calls attention to itself. Characters’ points of view and emotional states are reflected with an often blurring camera, extreme close ups of object and unusually cut off frames, and even some sections of animation. Some of it works really well and adds a lot to the movie, and some of it doesn’t and simply breaks any building immersion.

The two leads (Sosuke Ikematsu and Shizuka Ishibashi) were excellent and their acting raised this above the interesting but uneven execution. They imbued their characters with something extremely endearing, major flaws and all. This wasn’t a favorite of mine, but I think I liked it overall.

Japan Cuts 2017: Mumon: The Land of Stealth Review

“I know everyone is expecting to see cool ninjas. These are not those ninjas.”

Japan Society’s annual Japan Cuts Film Festival for 2017 started on July 13th and is running through July 23rd. My thoughts on 2015’s festival can be read starting here, and on last year’s starting here.

Mumon’s home of Iga is a territory of mercenary ninjas who care little of anything but practice and pay, and certainly not about each other. Mumon’s among the best and greediest (in attempts to impress and satisfy his bride), and sees little value in anything outside his immediate sphere. But an ambitious warlord’s son’s hopes to complete domination of the countryside will have repercussions for everyone.

 

mumon

 

Not being previously familiar with the director nor the star, I came into Japan Cuts 2017’s opening movie without any framework or preconceptions. It’s an engrossing tale that both embraces and subverts the conventions of being a period piece and ingeniously blends a variety of tones, themes, and genres. It develops at a excellent pace, keeping things moving with humor and action while deeper themes and schemes are slowly formed and revealed.

The balance is pitch perfect throughout and the juxtaposition of intense, visceral scenes of drama and violence and a light touch of comedic moments. I was really impressed with how it all came together and with the heavy themes of money, duty, and what’s really important that were expertly woven within the overlaying war conflict plot and often over the top (and amusing) battles. Even some individual conflicts  turn on a dime from humor to poignant, unsettling drama seamlessly and effectively.

One of the key successes of the movie is that both sides of the conflict have characters with complex motivations and goals that change throughout as said personal considerations come into conflict and new points of view and information are presented to each of them. It’s wonderfully acted, with a handful of key people on each side anchoring the story and providing logical progression for each film’s major changes in direction.

Director Yoshihiro Nakamura introduced the film (including the wonderful quote I opened with), participated in a Q&A afterwards, and met with fans during the after party. He was friendly and approachable, and seemed genuinely excited to be there. His answers during the Q&A were quite interesting and gave some nice further insight into the film.

Really enjoyed this one overall. Great start to the festival.

 

Update: There is a Japanese translation of this review. Thanks to Junko Czerny!

Castlevania Season 1 Review

“For no more do I travel as a man.”

The trailer for this looked great, and the underlying games this seems to be based on (Castlevania III and Symphony of the Night) are two of my favorites of all time, so my anticipation for this was off the charts. It easily met my expectations.

 

castlevania

 

Castlevania is as always a story about Dracula threatening humans and a vampire hunter rising up to challenge him. The great part here is that the characters involved and story (written/adapted by Warren Ellis, known primarily for his superb comic books) are well developed and things build and unfold at a pitch perfect pace.

The scope of this initial four episode season is relatively small, which allows the tale proper room to breathe, yet covers a lot of information at the same time. In a lot of ways these episodes are setup for the larger adventure to come, but still contain important events, wonderful feelings of foreboding and suspense, and plenty of action.

The approach is appropriately dark and (at times) disturbing, and is brought to life by beautiful, atmospheric animation. The series doesn’t shy away from it’s subject matter, and between often gruesome depictions of violence, a foul mouthed main character (who admittedly has ample legitimate reasons to behave thusly), and the harsh realities of the world presented this is firmly aimed at an adult crowd. The story is nicely layered and already shows great judgment in what elements and moments are being included from the games. Time is wisely spent on the background and motivations of several different characters. There are numerous factions and agendas intertwined, which adds good depth.

The attitude of one of the main characters is a little jarring at first, but it all makes sense in the context of this story, humanizes him a bit, and is well done.  The music is largely there just for underscoring the mood and is honestly fine but unremarkable. This didn’t bother me as it allowed the characters, story, and visuals to take center stage, but Castlevania is well known for amazing music so I can imagine some disappointment from some viewers at that approach and at the fact that the series’ classic themes are nowhere to be found.

The fights are great and wonderfully over the top when they happens, and in particular there’s a phenomenal one towards the end that helps the season feel satisfying and complete despite its short length. This was pretty much everything I hoped it would be and I can’t wait for future episodes.

Guardians of the Galaxy 2 Review

“I am Groot.

guardians-of-the-galaxy-2-poster

Here’s the short version: Guardians of the Galaxy 2 is great fun. Engaging, largely hilarious, and just plain fun.

Admittedly there are moments when it feels like they’re trying too hard (including occasional instances when the comedy is overdone, forced, and/or uncomfortable), and it doesn’t quite have sense of wonder of first movie since we’ve seen Quill and company before, but overall this was a fantastic ride.

The plot’s a little more focused and the characters are developed well, including nice spotlights on Nebula and Yondu, and a strong debut for newcomer Mantis. Of course as expected the show stealer is Baby Groot, who’s done pitch perfectly to be adorable, funny, and engaging without crossing over into annoyance. The movie’s absolutely BURIED in pop culture references, but it fits with Quill’s character as established in the first movie.

I had a wonderful time with Guardians 2, to the point where I got so caught up in the ride and enjoying the movie’s twists and turns I forgot about a couple things I had predicted would happen in this movie to the point I was surprised when they occurred. Can’t ask for much more than that in terms of immersion.

 

 

Your Name. Review

“Who am I? No, who are YOU!”

Mitsuha and Taki are strangers living very different everyday lives that change dramatically when they start waking up in each others’ bodies at random intervals in dreams that are all too real. Getting to know each other by proxy the longer this goes on, something more is happening in the shadow of their strange situation.

 

yourname

 

Your Name. is as striking and impactful as Makoto Shinkai’s previous works, with perhaps a touch more polish. As always the visuals are absolutely breathtaking, both in the gorgeous environments and backgrounds that bring the movie’s world to life and in engaging character animation that adds great emotional impact to the story through facial expressions and body language.

Such detail and precision to the animation is used to great effect to make the story engaging, which is particularly important in the body switching scenes. The film would not have the resonance it does if the audience couldn’t immediately tell the difference between Mitsuha and “Taki in Mitsuha’s body” and vice versa.

I found the pacing here interesting, with the first half of the movie having a tv feel to it. The opening sequence and certain montages particularly bring to mind the pacing and certain elements of a tv series rather than a movie. It’s executed well and works nicely to allow establishment of a specific atmosphere as the baseline of Shinkai’s tale.

Your Name. walks a fine line thematically, but does it well. It’s infused with Shinkai’s usual evocative, sometimes biting, observations of the human condition, but well balanced with light and heartwarming touches among an emotionally affecting journey. There’s of course more going on than it appears, but the story always remains strongly centered on the characters and grows from their desires and actions. Shinkai’s trademark ability to pull on his viewer’s heartstrings was also in full effect, and I certainly felt my emotions being played like a fiddle at moments (and I mean that in a positive way).

While I’ve been impressed with all of Shinkai’s movies, I’ve liked some much more than others. I feel this is one of his best, right up with Children Who Chase Lost Voices as my favorite. Add in the previously mentioned incredible animation, and Your Name. is well worth catching during its limited theater run.