a page of madness

film writing by nicholas vroman

Best Japanese Films 2014

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Man, what a sad year for Japanese film. When even Mark Schilling pens a piece on the lackluster product produced in Japan, you know things aren’t looking so good. I also had a conversation with another film writer, who shall remain unnamed, wherein the conversation drifted to the idea that the standard of what’s good in Japanese films is far lower than that of the rest of the world’s films. A kind of “not bad for a Japanese film” attitude.  So, even the best Japanese films these days are much lesser than other films from around the world. Of course, that’s an extreme statement, but a relative truism. And of course, someone like Koreeda still makes incredible films that are right up there with the best. But I’d say on this year’s list, it’s a no go. There are some fun films, some moderately provocative films and one crazy bad/good film, but none have made it to what I’d call an important film. Yes, it is a sad state.

Missing from the screens this year were any new films by some of my favorites – Haruhi Oguri, Masahiro Kobayashi, Tetsue Matsuake, Hirokazu Koreeda. I dutifully watched new premiers at TIFF and Filmex, of which there was little of interest. And there was the genuinely laughably bad “remake” of Fires on the Plain by Shinya Tsukamoto. It’s one of those films that makes you reconsider everything else he’s ever made. I still like Tetsuo, though.

So, in just a few years, my list has been, out of necessity, whittled down to a mere handful of best films, rather than a top ten. And one of them really isn’t that good. Here you go.

1. Idol Is Dead: Non-chan’s Propaganda Major War

Yukihiro Kato’s sequel to his 2012 opus finds the Brand-new Idol Society (BiS), a thrash girl group pitted in an epic battle against corporate idol group Electric★Kiss. This spirited essay on the social Darwinism of Japanese society is appropriately low budget and trashy and mainly, fun.

2. Tokyo Tribe

Sono Shion treads similar waters as Non-chan with his utopian musical about a Tokyo only of his imagination. Here, rival gangs, again go down Darwinistic paths amid tons of gore, machismo, sex, violence and overdone sets that all strangely ends up all hearts and flowery.

3. Still the Water

Naome Kawase gets back a little of her magic, after a few years of serious, and seriously bad, new ageism. In Still the Water she finds many magical moments in a frank and touching coming of age drama.

4. Sad Tea

Rikiya Imaizumi lets a talented cast of 20-somethings work out the ins and outs of relationships in a deliciously funny comedy. He screws up the end where he has all the characters meet cute and resolve their plotlines – at a beach! Shades of Sansho the Bailiff!

5. Sharing

Sharing looks horrible. It’s too long. The acting is fairly atrocious. And did I tell you that it’s way too long? But Makoto Shinozaki’s Bunuelian vision of the trauma of 3.11 as a constantly reoccurring nightmare within a nightmare within a nightmare within a nightmare… may be the only film made since that fateful day to deal honestly with the many issues it brought up.

Written by Nicholas Vroman

December 11, 2014 at 7:25 am

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100en no koi / 100 Yen Love

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100_Yen's_Love_(Hyaku_yen_no_Koi)-p1Even with a sharp script by Shin Adachi, director Masaharu Take doesn’t quite pull of the complex balance of something between an homage and a send-up of Million Dollar Baby – not quite getting the effective tragedy out of tragic-comedy. And bringing a questionable sensibility to what should be funny. The story of Kazuko (Sakura Ando), a loser taking her one shot in the boxing ring sends up the usual hero dynamic. Ando, who is being dangerously typecast for her ennui, spends half of the film as a misdirected cliché of a downbeat slacker, stuck working in a convenience store after escaping from her family and her largely unexplained dysfunctionality. Kazuko meets Kano (Hirofumi Arai), a washed up boxer and strangely unattractive individual, who needy person that she is, ends up with. This pushes her into her attempt at Rocky-ness and finding self worth. 100 Yen Love has several moments – the boxing ring scenes are great – and a lot of filler that keeps the viewer wondering what Take is up to.

Originally published in EL Magazine, December 2014

Written by Nicholas Vroman

December 3, 2014 at 2:44 am

Fuku-chan of Fukufuku Flats / Fukubuku no Bukuchan / 福福荘の福ちゃん

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FukuchanOne of the pleasures of Fuku-chan of Fukufuku Flats is watching some of Japan’s best comic actors. Miyuki Oshima (doing a fine genderfuck as the titular character), Asato Iida, Tateto Serizawa, Toshiyuki Kitami and the great Kanji Furitachi work hard, bringing out the best from the slim material they have to work with and the flat gag fillers that give them a chance to stretch a bit, but add little to the plot. This romantic comedy seems to come to roadblock after roadblock on its way to its flabby and unfulfilling ending. The story of the fat, unrequited kid, now grown up having a second chance with the love of his life is at the heart of Fuku-chan of Fukufuku Flats. There’s a bit of cheap clichéd flashback psychology to describe his current state, but despite that, Oshima inhabits Fuku-chan wholly, giving him heft and heart. She’s one of a great cast of characters that give the film a bit of well-earned sentimentality and feeling – despite the obstacles from writer and director Yosuke Fujita.

Originally published in EL Magazine, November 2014.

As Luck Would Have It / La chispa de la vida

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la_chispa_de_la_vidaAlex de la Iglesia’s As Luck Would Have It takes the theme of Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole – that of the cynical inhumanity of the media – and updates it to address the issues of modern-day Spain. In de la Iglesia’s version, long unemployed adman, Roberto Gómez (José Mota) finds himself in a rather difficult position – his head impaled on a piece of rebar in the middle of an ancient Greek amphitheater on the day that it’s being shown off to the media for its grand opening celebration. Roberto becomes the news story of the day as doctors try to figure out how to deal with his precarious situation. If he gets moved, he may die. Robert sees his predicament as a way to capitalize on his life – or maybe his death. Mota’s takes up most of the screen time with his moving performance. Selma Hayak brings huge heart to the role of his ever-loving wife. De la Iglesia keeps the story taut, engaging and bitterly funny in this parable of our darker natures.

Originally published in EL Magazine, November 2014.

Written by Nicholas Vroman

November 12, 2014 at 12:16 am

Magic Magic

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majicmagicMagic Magic plays as part of the “Fantastic Selection 2014” from the Sitges Film Festival. Chilean director Sebastián Silva’s opus brings welcome relief from the usual body horror that’s part and parcel of contemporary horror movies with a haunting film that’s closer to the psychological creepiness of Polanski’s Repulsion or Altman’s Images. In this story, 20-something Alicia (Juno Temple) comes to Chile and is whisked off to an island retreat. Her cousin, Sarah (Emily Browning) suddenly has to return to Santiago. Alone with a bunch of strangers, Alicia begins losing it. Whether its her own hold on reality, supernatural forces, or… Silva keeps the tension high and the questions coming. Magic Magic has all the conventions of traditional horror – a group of young folk going to “haunted” house, moody weather and brooding landscapes – but works on your expectations and either subverts them or ups the ante. Magic appears as the homespun party games of late night parties and as something more deep and traditional, but mostly in the masterful way Silva puts the film together.

Originally published in EL Magazine, November 2014.

Written by Nicholas Vroman

November 12, 2014 at 12:12 am

Hibi Rock / 日々ロック

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hibirockYuu Irie, of Saitama Rapper fame, once again turns his eye to a bunch of musical losers – this time, a trio of punk rockers at the bottom of the food chain. With broad comedic swipes, Irie sends up the usual rock myths. Young Takuro Hibinuma (Shuhei Nomura) makes his pilgrimage to Tokyo’s Monster GOGO, a famous punk club. Here he lives in squalor, does menial labor, is abused by dreadlocked owner, Takeshi Matsumoto (Naoto Takenaka) and does the occasional gig. Along the way he meets up – and falls in love – with J-Pop idol Saki Utagawa (Fumi Nikaido). A bass ackwards sort of rags to rags story ensues. . Irie does some great parodies of Japanese rock tropes. The band, Inu Rape, is classic! Irie sets a few too many fight scenes and random acts of violence in the testosterone-fueled arena that is the world of rock. Another problem with Hibi Rock is Nomura’s 100% over the top performance. It’s great for the onstage scenes, but maddening for 90% of his screen time.

Originally published in EL Magazine, November 2014.

Written by Nicholas Vroman

November 11, 2014 at 8:46 am

The Black Horn / Hikari no onshoku / 光の音色

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blackhornInterspersing a live in-studio performance by post-grunge rock band, the Black Horn and an allegorical tale of an old Russian man carrying his dead wife’s corpse through a war torn land to get that one last glimpse of the sea, director Kazuyoshi Kumakiri’s baffling conceit pretty much fails. First, the rock band, though technically proficient, runs through a set of phony “heartfelt” power ballads that will bore none but the most solid fans. I know they’ve got some sort of cache in the film community here, but they’re completely derivative of a lesser style that went out (as it rose in popularity) about the time it was born in the 1990s. The story of the old man and his wife looks like something that also went out somewhere around the late 50s when Soviet (and the Soviet block) cinema’s existential metaphorical stories were kind of cool – in some hindsight. Kumakari’s a strong visual storyteller. The Russian section is done without dialogue. It comes off as meaningless filler for the documentation of a lame rock band.

Originally published in EL Magazine, November 2014.

Written by Nicholas Vroman

November 11, 2014 at 8:42 am

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