REVIEW – Crows Zero (2007)

In a recent review over at FilmJuice, I moaned about the tendency of Western distributors to only pick up the films that chimed with Takashi Miike’s reputation for producing horrifically violent cinema. However, Miike’s recent acquisition of mainstream respectability thanks to Thirteen Assassins (2010) and Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai (2011) means that more and more of his lesser films are finding their way to US distribution. Yatterman (2009) is one example of this, Crows Zero (2007) is another.  THE ZONE has my review of the latter.

What I liked about the film is that it takes quite a traditional hero’s journey plot structure and neatly dovetails it with quite a melodramatic approach to characterisation meaning that despite being nothing more than a series of confrontations leading to a final battle, the film never feels overly episodic:

While the foreground of Crows Zero is dominated by the need to conquer the school, the subplots all revolve around the tensions between what the individual wants and what people expect of them. Thus, Ginji struggles with both the expectations of his father and the expectations of his followers while Serizawa tries to cope with the fact that his gang expects him to deal with Ginji despite the fact that he thinks the pair could probably be quite good friends. In true yakuza picture style, these tensions are explored in a highly stylised and melodramatic manner that owes more to opera than it does to gritty crime fiction. In fact, one subplot resolves itself by having someone bellowing their devotion into a rain-soaked sky while another subplot resolves itself through an epic all-day battle sequence. As the film progresses, this movement between genres proves itself to be remarkably effective as the melodrama distracts from the episodic structure of the plot while the humour and violence prevent the film from getting bogged down in self-indulgent teenaged angst. However, while Crows Zero neatly sidesteps the problems associated with both of its parent genres, the film does possess its own set of problems.

These problems are derived from the fact that, rather than constructing the series as one would a traditional cinematic trilogy, Miike directly imports the narrative conventions of shounen manga. Shounen manga narratives frequently span dozens and dozens of books and in order to support these astoundingly lengthy narratives, manga writers have developed their own set of techniques that are very different to those of cinematic series. While the techniques required to sustain lengthy cinematic series are evolving in light of franchises such as The Avengers, Miike’s use of narrative techniques derived from manga feels like too much change far too quickly resulting in some astonishingly awkward plotting. As I say in the review, I can imagine how these techniques might work in the context of an entire series, they are really quite distracting in the context of an individual film (indeed, given that the sequel exists and is now three years old, I think it was a major mistake not to release both films as a box set).

REVIEW – Yatterman (2009)

My review of Takashi Miike’s Yatterman has just gone live over at FilmJuice.

Wheeled out as part of an attempted relaunch of a children’s anime franchise from the 70s, Yatterman is absolutely fantastic to look at: The design is sensational, the special effects superb and the action sequences flawless. Most interesting of all is the fact that Miike did not feel in anyway compelled to ‘darken’ the source material as Western directors have insisted on doing when adapting video games and comics. Of course, this ‘darkening’ betrays a deep-seated distrust of the source material; comics and video games are not a fitting subject matter for film and so any attempt to adapt them for the screen must go out of its way to appear ‘mature’ and ‘series’ even when it is nothing of the sort. As a result of this refusal to betray the source material, Yatterman is delightfully bright and poignantly childish… I mean, the opening scene sees a giant robotic chef fighting a giant robotic dog. Grimdark this ain’t. However, while this is all very interesting from a design point of view, it does not make for a particularly interesting film as the characters and plots are taken directly from the source material and 70s children shows are not known for their robust characterisation. Even in Japan.

The only thing preventing Yatterman from being completely unwatchable is Miike’s decision to present the characters as brightly-coloured cartoons that secretly yearn for a normal adult life:

Furthermore, the film suggests a similar tension between adult sexuality and bawdy anime-style humour. Indeed, when perverted baddy Boyacky (Namase) reveals his innermost desire to possess all the schoolgirls of Japan we assume his desire to be sexual in nature. However, when we cut to the inside of Boyacky’s fantasy we learn that he desires nothing more than to paint their toes. Thus, the man who spends the entire film leering down cleavages, peeking up skirts and drooling at unexpected nudity is revealed as being so sexually stunted and emotionally immature that he literally cannot imagine himself having actual sex with another human being.

In other words, either you spend your time leering at moe figurines or you get to have proper sex with people. You can’t have it both ways. Given that the anime attached to this film is filled with fanservice and that the film itself was presumably financed on the assumption that it would pander to otaku, you have to salute Miike’s bravery. Even Michael Haneke never went so far as to call his audience a pack of emotionally stunted virgins.

13 Assassins (2010) – Modernity Ain’t What It Used To Be

Ever since John Sturges remade Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) as The Magnificent Seven (1960) and Sergio Leone ‘borrowed’ the plot of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) to make A Fistful of Dollars (1964), there has been a profound sense of kinship between the American Western and the Japanese Chanbara.

This connection can be explained in purely historical terms. For example, one of the side effects of America’s post-War occupation of Japan was a flush of Americanophilia amongst young Japanese people. Young Japanese people who would grow up to be filmmakers, filmmakers who might have been tempted to interrogate their own history using the iconography and genre conventions of American popular cinema. Alternately, we could point to the fact that Japanese cinema began to reach an international audience just as the Western entered its revisionist phase, prompting Western filmmakers to look at the Western with a sensibility informed by a newfound awareness of the tragic character of many Japanese films. However, while one could argue that the link between the Western and the Chanbara Samurai film is due to the winds of cultural history and political chance, this is not the story that people want to hear…

The popular (and somewhat more poetic) view of the link between the Chanbara and the Western makes use of the idea of the creation myth. Indeed, while both America and Japan reached the height of their historical powers in the 20th Century, both cultures like to see themselves as products of an anterior historical period characterised by violence and conflict. According to this view, contemporary America was forged in the ashes of the Wild West just as modern Japan can trace its cultural roots to the Edo period in which a warlord known as the Shogun ruled over a feudal order controlled by a class of sword-wielding nobles known as Samurai. While the reinvention of an anterior historical period into a sort of mythic creative age is common in both Japanese and American cultures, contemporary attitudes towards these mythic ages are varied enough that neither the Chanbara nor the Western could ever be accused of simple-minded nostalgia. Indeed, for every scene in which an ersatz Butch and Sundance romantically throw themselves beneath the mechanised wheels of modernity knowing well that there is no place for them in the new world, there is a scene in which a more-or-less ‘wild bunch’ show us that the only thing to have changed between now and then is the efficiency of the weapons that we use to murder each other.

Steeped in traditional iconography and fully intent upon revisiting this same set of ambivalent attitudes towards modernity, Jusan-nin No Shikaku resembles much of Takashi Miike’s recent output in so far as it combines a strict adherence to genre conventions with an eye for human perversity and a desire to celebrate that perversity in as horrific a manner as possible.

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REVIEW – Deadly Outlaw Rekka (2002)

Back around the turn of the millennium, Takashi Miike was the poster-boy for a new brand of cinephilia.  A cinephilia that used DVDs to traverse cultural boundaries in search of more sex, more violence and more extreme imagery.  Since then, Miike and his film seem to have fallen into relative obscurity, victims of a maturing DVD market and the director’s own refusal to abide by traditional genre boundaries.  However, as my Videovista review of Deadly Outlaw Rekka shows, there’s life in the old dog yet.

Deadly Outlaw Rekka is about a culture clash within the Yakuza.  A culture clash between the gangsters who see themselves as business men and the gangsters who cling to the old ways.  Ways of honour and blood.