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Archive for August 2011

REVIEW: Household X

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家族X (Kazoku X)

Released: 2011

Director:

Koki Yoshida

Kaho Minami

Taguchi Tomorowo

Tomohiro Kaku

Running time: 88 min.

Reviewed by Nicholas Vroman

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“Household X” opens with a handheld shot of a family photograph – a mother, a father and their son. Perhaps it’s held a little too long in the unsteady gaze of the camera’s lens, but serves as a perfect metaphor for the shaky and unstable foundation that holds this particular Japanese family together. We will only see the family together again in a single frame in the closing shot of the movie. By then, the tragedy of contemporary alienation that director Koki Yoshida has committed so well to the screen will have covered some familiar territory, but with a clear hard eye and technical and emotional finesse that moves “Household X” into the profound territory of the Dardenne brothers or Chantal Akerman.

The story is pretty simple. Michiko (who’s name we only learn about three quarters of the way into the movie), housewife and mother, silently and alone endures a daily routine of preparing dinner for her husband, always coming home late from work, and son, also emotionally absent when coming home from his shit work temporary jobs. Her only interaction, if you can call it that, with others happens when she takes out the garbage or when she visits a friend who’s only concern is getting a sale for her son. Michiko obsessively cleans and arranges the dining room table, wanders around the house, restlessly tries to sleep and descends into bulimic excess, secretly gorging on store-bought bentos and prepared food and purging herself.

Her husband, Kenichi spends his extra-long days, ostensibly as the go-to guy in the office for computer problems. He’s way over his head, obviously unknowing and inept. When he’s not absently staring at his computer monitor, not even looking busy, but filling space, he’s trying to bone up on his lack of computer savvy with books. He knows he’s on the short-timers list at his company. His desperate overcompensation finds him hanging at his desk, not leaving until he’s the last one in the office.

The son, Hiroaki, remains a 20-something enigma, working, eating and sleeping through life. He’s aimless, uncommunicative and largely angry at the bad hand he’s been dealt.

Household X follows these disparate lives with a series of telling and complementary images and a slowly compounding trajectory that builds a seamless tapestry of alienation and crises. Through the domgma-90 style handheld shakiness there’s not a wasted shot in the film.

For example, early on, Michiko gets conned into buying a water cooler. We see her pouring her last glass of tap water and watering plants on the balcony. The water cooler is installed. She offers some water, not from the cooler, to the salesman, an old classmate of her son. Later, when her son comes home, he can only remark on the frivolity of buying the cooler. The husband returns later, dumbfounded as he pours himself a drink of water. As the film progresses, the cooler will show up again, a fine flowering of mold and muck illuminated in the glass jar. The plans will be shown, dead. And the son will meet up with his old buddy, the only bit of conversation being about the cooler. By then, Michiko is well on the way to a breakdown, Kenichi well on the way to being out of work.

In contrast, Hiroaki, has just completed a job delivering some furniture. As he leaves he’s asked to take a snapshot of the happy (?) family where he’s delivered the goods. Later his boss gives him a small shout out for the good work he’s done.

Despite the obsessive slit-your-wrist downbeat trajectory of the tale, there are some minimal moments of light, as when Kenichi gets invited to go out drinking by another loser office mate to the most depressing and banal of capsule hotels – with a white walled fluorescent-lit cafeteria when the guys go to drink. He shows a little mettle when he escapes from what will surely be one of the worst nights of his life and walks all night back home. He returns home only to see Michiko waking up. They exchange some flat words and he escapes back to work, missing out on a potential moment of connection. Granted the light is dim, at best.

When Michiko finally freaks and disappears, the father and the son – perhaps only because of obligation – set out to find her. Kenichi finally finds her passed out in a booth of a chain restaurant. It’s as if he knew she would be there, that this had all happened before. The final shot finds them reunited within the frame, a telephoto shot of the husband and wife in the car, their son in the foreground on his bicycle. The screen shows them moving forward, yet trapped in the flatness of the shot.

The trio of actors, though rarely ever in the same frame together, manifest a family’s disintegration, even as they strangely hold on. Kaho Minami is relentlessly focused as Michoko, caught solely in a pathological reaction to events outside of her control. Taguchi Tomorowo, who may be a bit better known for being the main character of “Tetsuo” and fronting the punk band Bachikaburi inhabits Kenichi with sensitivity and the last vestiges of humanity in a lost and broken man. Tomohiro Kaku holds it close as Hiroaki.

Koki Yoshida takes a tale similar to Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s overwrought “Tokyo Story” and cuts it to the bone with resonance, compassion, intelligence and style. Following in the steps of “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” and “Why Does Herr R Run Amok?,” Yoshida takes the classic parable, contemporizes it without being preachy, demonstrating a monumental talent.

Originally published in J-Film Pow-Wow, Sunday, August 21, 2011

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Written by Nicholas Vroman

August 23, 2011 at 12:38 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

REVIEW: German + Rain

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ジャーマン+雨 (German + Ame)

Released: 2007

Director:
Satoko Yokohama

Starring:
Yoshimi Nozaki
Suzune Fujioka
Michio Hisauchi
Tatsunori Honda
Peter Hyman

Running time: 71 min.

Reviewed by Nicholas Vroman

Satoko Yokohama hit the scene in 2006, winning 50,000 yen from the Cineastes Organization Osaka (CO2) for her Tokyo Film School graduation short “Chiemi and Kokkunpatcho.” She quickly plowed the money into her next production, “German + Rain.” The result was a quirky and uneven film that looked very much like a primer for her equally quirky hit, “Bare Essence of Life / Ultra Miracle Love Story.” Both films front and center barely functional characters. “Ultra Miracle Love Story” features Kenichi Matsuyama in one of his more memorable and award winning roles as the self-insecticide-medicating autistic savant, Akito. Yoshiko, the heroine of “German + Rain” is a tantrum-riven, small-town musical wannabe, derisively nicknamed “gorilla-face” by her abusive boss. The chips are stacked against her, but she perseveres, like Akito, with crazy abandon, if only to prove her basic humanity.

Yoshimi Nozaki, with a brutal helmet of a haircut and thrift store wardrobe that’s 180 degrees from trendy, makes the role of Yoshiko simultaneously appalling and strangely sympathetic. She’s the kind of character whose short fused temper would drive most friends away – her main stalwarts stick with her – whose obstinacy crosses into obsessiveness and whose craziness is not always of the endearing nature.

We’re introduced to her through the eyes of her friend, Maki (Suzune Fujioka), a pretty and rather normal high schooler. While all the other high school girls ogle at the young German (Peter Hyman) who works with Yoshiko, Maki keeps her eye on Yoshiko. Though most of the world seems put off by Yoshiko’s behavior, Maki is nonplussed. They’re friends in this one horse town. With mom passed on – we see her picture hanging on the wall – and dad in the hospital, Yoshiko gets by with her shit job with a landscaping crew. She aspires to be singer/songwriter, scrawling songs and doodles in a notebook. As the abuse from her boss continues, she hangs up a shingle offering recorder lessons. A trio of boys, one a bully, one your basic brat, one a sensitive aspiring cross-dresser, become her charges. Among her tribulations are the maltreatment from her boss, which opens the door to a friendship with the German – a literal outsider with a complementary back-story, and a miscalculated effort to audition for a singing contract by misrepresenting herself as Maki because she thinks herself too ugly. Then there’s the subplot of Ogawa-san (Michio Hisauchi), the prosthetic-legged septic tank cleaner, who always seems to be working outside her door, and his sexual proclivity toward kids. When Yoshiko gets wind of this from one of her boys, she shames him and shakes him down for hush money, only to go on a spree of giving it away. By the time she’s brought the kids and Maki to visit her dying dad, only to end up pinching and poking him and pulling the plug, the internal logic of the film has set the viewer up for nearly anything. But Yoshiko’s final freakout, an attempt at joukasoutobiarijisatsu (OK, I made this word up, but what it means is death by jumping into a septic tank), is simultaneously jaw-dropping funny, maudlin and tragic. A coda finds Yoshiko comatose in the hospital, her dead (?) father crawling to her bedside attempting to bring her back to consciousness. A slightest flutter of her eyelid cuts to a blackout.

The pleasures of Yokohama’s films lie in the way she builds a sturdy internal logic where nearly anything can happen. Characters coming back to life, no sweat! The surrealism of her endeavors doesn’t stop at the dream logic of images, it also taps into childish and primal desires. Her main characters are not only childlike, but relate to children better than adults. In fact, adults in her films, tend to be at very least absent, and the few in “German + Ame,” predatory or abusive. Like in Jean Vigo’s “Zero de conduit,” the three boys channel an unstoppable energy that’s at once creative and destructive. One brilliant set piece highlights Yoshiko’s desperate attempt to get back to get back to a more juvenile state. She walks into a dodge ball game, the contenders half her age. It becomes a monumental battle, she picking off opponents one by one. But the last boy turns out to be too much for her. Bonked on the head she loses not only the match, but any remainder of some imagined innocence. In a later scene, she gives up on teaching the boys music. The boys hang out as she reads a manga. They end up scrawling randomly on the genkan wall, coloring in manga books and generally doing meaningless kid things. She awakes from a nap, ignoring the kids and walks into a fantasy room, the walls spattered with bright colors. In this child-like wonderland, it’s one of the few moments in the film where she smiles.

Yokohama smartly mixes it up with unscripted footage (the scenes with the kids), interview sessions, an oddball script and truly wonderful and appalling performances. “German + Rain” pulls from a deep well of cinematic influences and a profound tapping into infantile dreams and desires. It allowed Yokohama to follow her strange muse to an end at once satisfying and also pointed to new directions. She leapt even further with “Ultra Miracle Love Story” and her most recent short, “Mayonaka kara tobiutsure” shows her exploring even newer directions in a more symbolic surrealist mode. “German + Ame” is where she laid the groundwork for these explorations.

Originally published in J-Film Pow-Wow, Sunday, August 7, 2011

Written by Nicholas Vroman

August 8, 2011 at 4:40 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Nanatsu made wa kami no uchi / 七つまでは神のうち / Vanished: Age 7

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Director Miyake Ryuuta, who’s main claim to fame is some unnumbered sequel to the Ju-on series, continues his inept explorations of J-horror with Nanatsu made wa kami no uchi.  The film wades through a host of tired horror film signifiers driven by endless annoying MacGuffins. The abusively incoherent story revolves around a trio teenage girls, each suffering interior and exterior torments that ultimately lead to their demises – one by immolation, one by impalement and the last by being buried alive. Model Kyoko Hinami, wielding an expression of continual bewilderment and the occasional terror makes a sad acting debut as one of the threesome. The reasons for their terrible and terribly shot demises are that they were all a party to the accidental death of a 4th girl when they were little. Their crime? They never fessed up. Oh, and they are now teenage girls, which is crime enough for most horror movies. A grieving parents revenge was never so clichéd. And I’m still wondering about the unexplained charred corpse in the cab of the pickup.

 

Originally published in EL Magazine, August 2011.

Usagi Drop / うさぎドロップ / Bunny Drop

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Adapting the bland, but popular manga, Usagi Drop, the insubstantial, but usually visually stylish director, SABU has created a particularly bland movie. Usagi Drop chronicles the 30-year old Daikichi (Kenichi Matsuyama) who becomes the surrogate single father for his deceased grandfather’s illegitimate 6 year-old daughter, Rin (Mana Ashida). Dwelling on the quotidian hassles of a busy salaryman stuck with an impossibly cute little girl and the comedic and/or semi-tragic situations that arise, SABU dispatches them summarily and formulaically. For SABU lovers, there’s a subplot dropping our hero working into a factory production line, buddying up to a bunch of working class male fetish objects. There’s also a single mother love interest subplot for the romance set. Machan gets a few scene-chewing moments, but little chance of character development. Mana Ashida is darling. With Bunny Drop one gets the impression that movies may be beginning to catch up with what society has pretty much put behind many years ago. Tales of child rearing and growing up are timeless, but Usagi Drop adds little to the genre.

Originally published in EL Magazine, August 2011.

Written by Nicholas Vroman

August 1, 2011 at 12:18 am