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Archive for February 2011

REVIEW: Sychronicity

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心中天使 (Synchronicity)

Released: 2011

Naoki Ichio

Machiko Ono
Hikari Kikuzato
Tomohiro Kikuzato
Jun Kunimura
Hisako Manda

Running time: 92 min.

Reviewed by Nicholas Vroman


Though it’s been 10 years since Naoki Ichio’s first feature, “A Drowning Man”, and “Synchronicity”, some fundamental issues and ideas bind the two. First, there is a consistent plot device. Something happens. Something happens that fundamentally changes a character’s life. In “A Drowning Man”, the main character, Tokio (Shinya Tsukamoto) find his wife, Kumiko (Reiko Kataoka) dead in the bathtub. After a night of not knowing what to do, he passes out in a drunken heap. The next morning, Kumiko, resurrected, helps him up and life continues – but it will never be the same, as much as Tokio may try to maintain it. In “Synchronicity”, the three main characters, Ai, Yuu, and Kei go through some profound something-or-other that changes their lives. In this variation they try to continue on as normal, but every one around them, family, girlfriends, friends knows, but are helpless in what to do.

Chatting with Naoki, he acknowledged that Peter Greenaway is a huge influence on his work, but that he had never seen “The Falls”. This seminal work by Greenaway catalogs of a group of people that had all experienced the Violent Unknown Event (VUE) – something that had changed their lives (mainly by giving them potagium fallitis, a disease that is turning, basically, into birds). In “Synchronicity”, Naoki’s characters may have become angels.

The second binding concern of Naoki’s is surrealism. In a refreshing rejection of the common logic of even the most CGI-laden contemporary productions, Naoki has no fear in throwing a certain illogic into his stories and allowing the film to follow that course. Dream-logic, unreasoned and undefined, allows him to dig deeper into the emotional underpinnings of his strange tales.

Naoki believes that “we…are living in the loneliest age in history.” “A Drowning Man” addressed the problem through a self-purging personal story of a breakup of a relationship. “Synchronicity” throws the net wider, looking at contemporary malaise across the culture.

“Synchronicity” chronicles the live of three characters. Their lives may cross, but they don’t interact. Ai (Machiko Ono) is a concert pianist, in her 20s, living with her parents (played by the genial and ubiquitous character actor, Jun Kumimura and former 1978 Miss Japan/current epitome of Japanese grace, Hiasako Manda). Yuu (Tomohiro Kaku) is a 20-something salaryman already dead-ending in life and relationships. Kei (Hikari Kikuzato) is an unformed high school student, whose emotionally demanding single mother (Yumi Aso) has forced the young Kei into her own emotional retreat.

The film begins with each collapsing is some sort of rapture and coming to, changed in some fundamental but indescribable way. Through most of the film the main three characters drift through in an almost somnambulant state. It seems particularly perverse on the side of Naoki to take the young otaku idoru, Hikari Kikuzato, usually vivacious and kawaii and make her so completely flat. They walk through their lives with visual and audio motifs binding them – images of the sky, a mysterious ugly grey cat – the harbinger of the mysterious event, mirrors that fracture their faces, a beautiful trio of scenes depicting each with analog angel wings. The people in their lives recognize these changes, but have no idea of how to react. Mostly there’s misunderstanding and non-communication, but Ai’s father, also Kei’s school counselor, suggest that what Ai’s going through is what he, and most people, have gone through in their 20s, a certain unease with and ill-fitting into the universe that will pass with time.

Of course, it does pass, but in Naoki’s vision, a mystical – and cinematic – conflation of image and soundtrack brings all the forces at play into a somewhat new-agey symbolic union of Ai and Yuu creating a new “we.” They disappear into heaven. Young Kei, though is left in the world, now completely rearranged. She returns to her mother, only to find herself unrecognized. The remaining supporting characters find themselves in previously unknown situations. Kei eventually finds herself at Ai’s home, Ai’s parents now her own. Life goes on in a new formation and resolution. A final twist, driving to school with her new father, something happens.

Naoki’s oblique explorations into contemporary malaise dabbles with Lacanian notions of psychology, throwing a hodgepodge of symbolic, imaginary and “real” images on screen and in showing that once this malaise/desire is articulated in some way – in Naoki’s almost operatic orchestration of sounds and images at the denouement – that a resolution can happen. He’s also savvy enough and in a tradition of surrealist subversion, willing to playfully cut across most pop psychological notions and stir up the pot with slyly humorous images, dreams within the dream scenarios and scenes that belie much of any interpretation outside the sometimes abstruse logic of the film itself.

The Japanese title of the film, “Shichuu tenshi”, roughly translates to “Angels of the Heart”, but also references the idea of a double suicide. Naoki carefully and stubbornly refuses to give an easy interpretation to his images and ideas. As he says, “I’m not interested in seeking the cause. I am always interested in depicting ourselves symbolically.” The symbolism of his imagery seems broad, but cloaked. Naoki, ever the surrealist, allows the viewer to bring their own dreams to his films, revealing their own desires and interpretations.

Originally published in Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow, February 27, 2011


Written by Nicholas Vroman

February 28, 2011 at 4:49 am

Posted in Uncategorized

REVIEW: Heaven’s Story

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ヘヴンズ ストーリー (Heaven’s story)

Released: 2010

Takahisa Zeze

Moeki Tsuruoka
Tomoharu Hasegawa
Shugo Oshinari
Jun Murakami
Hako Yamazaki

Running time: 278 min.

Reviewed by Nicholas Vroman

A long time ago a monster lived in the hills
The monster attacked people
In fear, the people asked God for help
But God did nothing to save them

Takahisa Zeze’s sprawling epic spins a handful of intertwining tales, all couched under the uncaring gaze of heaven, but grappling mightily with issues of murder, revenge, life and death. Zeze’s existential journeys are shot with handheld urgency, tight drama and a deft hand that makes the four and a half hours plus a compelling drama that rarely falters. Divided into nine chapters, “Heaven’s Story” follows, roughly, four main stories. They all intersect narratively and visually, building a complex matrix of associations and reflections on each other, climaxing with a Goya-esque image of revenge and murder gone to an unfortunate, but logical end.

Opening on a group of children playing on a hillside overlooking a moody landscape, a woman’s voice intones the cautionary fable of a misunderstood monster becoming the metaphor and menace of the world. A small troupe of masked actors mimes the story giving it a cultural gravity, distance and artifice that will contrast with the several stories grounded in realism that follow. They function like a Greek chorus. The contemporary dance / puppet troupes of Hyakki Dondoro and Ningyo Butai Yumehina perform magically in this role.

“Heaven’s Story” follows four main stories, adding several subplots, side stories and minor characters. The first is about Sato (Kana Honda at 8 years old, Moeki Tsuruoka as the teenager), whose family is murdered. We see her as a small child reacting to the events that shatter her young life and follow her into her teenage where she insinuates herself into the life of Tomoki (Tomoharu Hasegawa), making him a complicitor and the driving engine for her desire for vengeance. Her vengeance, though remains adolescent and primal, as the killer of her parents and sister has long since past. She just needs someone to do something. She has made Tomoki her hero since she saw him on television as a little girl.

When Sato saw Tomoki on television, he was vowing to avenge the murder of his wife and infant daughter. The killer, Mitsuo (Shugo Oshinari), was caught but given a life sentence due to an insanity plea. Tomoki drifts through life until he meets up with Tai (Nahana), a mixed-up emo rocker. They marry and begin to raise a family. The new family’s bliss is broken when Sato tracks Tomoki down to tell him that the Mitsuo has been released from prison. Sato, who has put things aside for living a happy life, runs across Mitsuo and begins to rekindle old thoughts of vengeance.

Mitsou’s release was guaranteed and expedited by Kyoko (Hako Yamazaki), a doll maker, terrified of being alone after she’s diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. He becomes her ward and keeper, trying to be a good man. And he ultimately does function. He questions, but never understands the insanity that made him take a woman and child’s life.

Woven through this is the story of Kajima (Jun Murakami), a cop, who moonlights as an assassin. He dutifully carries out his part time job, but also sends money to the widow whose husband he retired. Working so much he becomes an absent father to his delinquent young son, Haruki (Kenichi Kurihara). Haruki becomes an inept petty thief, always getting caught, one time beaten, another time breaking his leg in escaping. His father only appears when there’s trouble.

Attempting to finally kill Mitsuo, Sato and Tomoki accidently kill Kyoko, setting in motion the final acts in which Tomoki and Mitsuo must complete the tragedy. This wildly complex story refracts and reflects images, obsessions, places and ideas, heightening the ultimate denouement, a brutal set piece of mayhem and murder.

Zeze piles on contradictory images. Early on, the infant Sato sees a perfectly banal public sculpture of a woman holding a baby toward the sky – an image of hope. Later we see Mitsuo, the killer holding the baby he will soon kill in the same way. An abandoned danchi (housing project) near an old mine not only shows the temporality of the human condition, but functions as a certain heaven, an escape and hideaway. Images of hanami (cherry blossom season) intercut with winter landscapes. Roughly animated images of seagulls are undercut with image of the cookie cutter apartment building called The Seagull. There’s another one called The Rainbow.

And then there’s the cycle of killing and revenge. On one hand, there’s Sato, only wanting revenge. Tomoki tries to forget, but revenge calls him back. Mitsuo has killed for no apparent reason. He now doesn’t want to, but after the death of his beloved Kyoko, he wants revenge. The assassin, Kajima, kills professionally, for money. He himself gets killed, perhaps another professional job. And Sato and Tomoki become responsible for Kyoko’s death. Through seasons and years, the cycles continue becoming Zeze’s larger fable of the human condition, almost Kubrick-like in pointing out the meaninglessness of all this high tragedy.

A final coda, straight out of Wenders, brings back the dead. Kajima watches as his son ferries off to his future at a reformatory. Tomoki sits on the oceanside bulkhead as his wife Tai and their daughter happily pedal off to kindergarten. Sato buses through a winter landscape, Mitsu and Kyoko sit on the back seat. A group of children near the front play “Dark Eyes” on toy instruments. One of them is the young Sato. She follows them out into a spring landscape where the chorus / mime troupe appear. A dance of death and rebirth and a reconciliation with Sato’s departed mother, father and sister ensue. A momentary healing in a world filled with randomness. Of course, Zeze undercuts these images with a final trio of jerky handheld shots with Sato staring accusatorily at the audience and running downhill as the camera pans toward a cityscape.

The cinematography is gorgeous, alternating between breathtaking shots of skies, landscapes and cityscapes and intensely tight close in shots. There are some parts that could have been trimmed to make this a perfect film, but part of the pleasure in “Heaven’s Story” is its imperfection. Zeze has probably never made a perfect film. He’s a filmmaker that thrives on being on edge, on being uncertain. That’s the pleasure of his films. There are moments of pure transcendence in the clutter. “Heaven’s Story” has more that its share of great moments and downright thrilling movie making.

Originally published in Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow, Saturday, February 12, 2011

Written by Nicholas Vroman

February 13, 2011 at 7:43 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Manzai Gang / 漫才ギャング

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Though Manzai Gang opens with a somewhat clever juxtaposition of the comic violence of manzai with gang violence, one knows it’s a downhill ride when hero/delinquent Kamiji (Yusuke Kamiji), fighting dozens of hoodlums not only misuses several Wachowski-style bullet time pans, but references Old Boy. And all of this is in the first few minutes of the film. The story follows Sato (Ryuta Sato), the hard working boke of a fading manzai duo. His partner quits and after a drunken binge Sato finds himself in the drunk tank with Kamiji, the street-smart tough with hair extension dreadlocks. Finding a natural comedic temperament in young Kamiji, Sato takes him on as a new partner. Their star rises, but the street and old gang stuff manages to bring Kamijii down. But don’t worry, there’s a happy ending for all and the gangsters get their comeuppance. The one bit of shining light in director Shinagawa Hiroshi’s clichéd parable is his love of manzai, as evidenced by the genuinely funny cutaways to the art in action on stage.

Originally published in EL Magazine, March 2011

Written by Nicholas Vroman

February 13, 2011 at 7:37 am

Sakura Sakura / さくらさくら

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Ichikawa Toru’s well-meaning hagiography of late 1800s, early 1900s scientist/entrepreneur Takamine Jokichi, Sakura Sakura, falls hilariously into Ed Woods territory. The story of Takamine, who discovered an enzyme which he named takadiastase and helped discover and isolate adrenaline, is given a completely facetious treatment with super-low budget backdrops that push any suspension of disbelief, dialogue (particularly the parts in English) that’s hilariously written, scenes hamfistedly directed and historical and location inaccuracies that boggle the mind. For example, modern Japanese houses are stand-ins for southern plantation estates and stateside domestic architecture. Takamine is played with a crazed earnestness by Masaya Katou. His Louisiana-born American wife is a complete enigma in the hands of Naomi Grace. Granted, her dialog is abysmal, but the complete miscasting of her and all the gringos (many of whom are Japanese) in this gumbo is consistent at least. If made with more savvy direction, one might suggest that this mess could be defined a postmodern vamp on Takamine’s life. However, Sakura Sakura’s ineptness could, with proper marketing, become a camp classic.

Originally published in EL Magazine, March 2011

Written by Nicholas Vroman

February 13, 2011 at 7:34 am