The second annual Japan Film Festival at the New People Cinema in San Francisco kicked off during the 2014 J-POP SUMMIT Festival (which I covered here at some length), presenting 19 movies over the course of nine days. Here are seven that are relevant to the interests of the nerdy, and which you should check out if you can.
Some are commercially available, some are coming soon, and there’s one you can watch for free right now. And really should.
PART 1: ANIME
Director: Toshiyuki Kubooka.
The third film based on the Berserk manga and televisionseries (why can’t
Hollywood Tokyo come up with any new ideas, amirite?), and culled specifically from the manga’s Golden Age Saga, this is some dark stuff right here.
The overall Berserk series is set in a medieval land called Midland, complete with armor and swords and such, and like so many other anime current films, particularly those based on manga and television shows such as Tiger & Bunny The Movie: The Rising, Blue Exorcist, or Evangelion: 3.0 You Can (Not) Redo , many of the moment-to-moment details in Berserk The Golden Age Arc III: The Advent are somewhat baffling if you’re not already versed in the source materials and/or the previous films in the series, though that doesn’t always help. It’s a kind of in medias res, sink-or-swim storytelling that Hollywood has only begun to embrace over the past decade with the Marvel Cinematic Universe or especially the Harry Potter films.
But even if character or plot motivations aren’t always strictly clear, there are still quantities of extreme violence, nudity and some unrelentingly horrific images that will fuel your nightmares – especially once the every-216-years Eclipse begins at the halfway point, and the mercenary group known as the Hawks are plunged into a deeply disturbing alternate dimension / hellscape. It’s all equal parts beautiful and horrifying, like a Venom album come to life.
Director: Keiichiro Kawaguchi.
Set in a modern world with a bit less hell-on-earthiness, Hunter x Hunter: The Last Mission is sequel to Hunter x Hunter: Phantom Rouge, itself based on the Hunter x Hunter TV show. (Why can’t
Hollywood Tokyo come up with any new ideas, amirite?)
Though also fairly mythology-heavy, it’s also bit more familiar in its depiction of good vs. evil among the supernaturally badass: the elite warriors known as the Hunters are divided down lines of light and dark – hatred, wouldn’t y’know, fuels the dark side – and the now dark Hunters are setting out to massage all the good guys. Teenaged series leads Gon (the one with the Astro Boy hair) and Killua (the one with the Todd Ingram hair) are taking them on at the Heaven’s Arena’s Battle Olympia Tournament as the world watches. The televised-bloodsport aspect reminds me a bit of Tiger & Bunny, and for that matter, their tussles with the mohawked baddie Gaki is downright Running Man-esque. That’s never a bad thing, and when all is said and done, who doesn’t enjoy watching kids beating up adults?
Currently available on Region 1 DVD and Region A Blu-ray , but not inexpensively.
3) Short Peace
Director(s): Katsuhiro Otomo, Hiroaki Ando, Hajime Katoki, Shuhei Morita, and Koji Morimoto.
I have to admit that when I reviewed this one for the Village Voice a few months ago, I had mixed feelings. It was being hyped as a followup to Otomo’s 1995 omnibus Memories, and strictly compared to that film, this collection of anime shorts lacks anything quite as powerful as “Cannon Fodder” or funny as “Stink Bomb.”
Viewing Short Peace again its own entity, however, I found there’s actually some very good stuff within, especially Hiroaki Ando’s “Gambo,” which feels like it comes from a time when fairy tales were truly dark. (Perhaps not quite as dark as Berserk The Golden Age Arc III: The Advent, but few things are.)
I also quite like the opening animation by Koji Morimoto, and Short Peace’s first full segment, Shuhei Morita “Possessions,” was nominated for Best Short Film (Animated) at the 2014 Academy Awards. It lost to Laurent Witz and Alexandre Espigares’ “Mr. Hublot”, which I personally feel was the right choice, but “Possessions” absolutely deserved its nomination.
Another highlight is Hiroaki Ando’s fairy tale “Gambo,” which evokes the textures of not just hand-drawn animation but ancient illustrations, and it also features some of the most intense demon-and-bear wrasslin’ you’ll see this year.
And people who enjoy battle-suited soldiers squaring off against robot tanks in a devastated Tokyo will no doubt enjoy the final segment, Hajime Katoki’s “A Farewell to Weapons,” which has plenty of explosions and things blowing up. You know who you are.
There’s also a PS3 tie-in game called Ranko Tsukigime’s Longest Day.
Short Peace will be released on Region 1 DVD and Region A Blu-ray on August 5, and I would be very surprised if it didn’t wind up streaming somewhere.
PART 2: LIVE ACTION
Director: Sono Sion.
I’m a sucker for films about filmmaking, especially when they’re high-energy and funny, so this hilariously violent picture – about a group of amateur filmmakers called the Fuck Bombers who get involved with the Yakuza – is quite possibly my favorite movie in this year’s Japan Film Festival. Though he wrote the script fifteen years ago, director Sion acknowledges that the film does feel a bit like Kill Bill, but that it’s only accidental. (And any movie in which a character wears Bruce Lee’s Game of Death track suit is going to be compared to Kill Bill, as opposed to, say, Game of Death.) I’m inclined to believe him, partially because the quickest way to turn me off a movie is to compare it to Tarantino.
Why Don’t You Play in Hell? starts off deliriously batshit – including an already-iconic image of the young daughter of a yakuza boss sliding across a blood-flooded room, as well as how the room got that way, thanks to her mother slaughtering a group of hitmen using a kitchen knife – and never really lets up. The finale alone will probably set a 2014 record for use of squibs, hacked limbs, and fountains of blood. So, in other words, a must-see.
Why Don’t You Play in Hell? is available on a Region 2 DVD, but it was also acquired for domestic distribution by Drafthouse Films with a promised 2014 release, so keep an eye out for it.
Director: Masayuki Ochiai.
This is the kind of thing we tend to associate with J-Horror: a ghost story set in a haunted house, more specifically a high school. It’s based on the Haunted School (Gakk? no Kaidan) series of films from the 1990s. (Why can’t
Hollywood Tokyo…oh, never mind.)
The killer app to this one is that it stars our friends in Tokyo Girls’ Style, the fresh-faced group of teenagers last seen doing their thing at the J-POP Summit Festival. Starring in horror movies is often seen as a career decline in America, but evidently it’s just part of the process in Japan.
By director Masayuki Ochiai (who also directed the seventh Ju-on picture, because somebody had to), Kotodama – Spiritual Curse picks up on some of the themes from Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, specifically that filmmaking can get you into trouble. In this case, a group of students sneak into an abandoned school to shoot a video, though they’re unaware that they’re entering an underworld – which should be obvious when you think about it, since most non-abandoned schools are also underworlds. All the genre signifiers are here, including the creepy girl peeking out from a long mop of stringy black hair, though ultimately it’s family-friendly spookiness, meant to generate pleasant shocks rather than recurring nightmares. And there’s a place for that, too.
There hasn’t been any video release for Kotodama – Spiritual Curse as near as I can tell, and J-Horror has to an extent run its course in terms of marketability to American culture, but I’m sure it’ll pop up eventually. And, as it happens, Tokyo Girls’ Style is also in a more traditional girl-group movie in this year’s festival, Yuki Yamato’s Count FIve to Dream of You.
Director: Toshiaki Toyoda.
If you’re looking for the ultraviolence of Why Don’t You Play in Hell? but want it with a more serious tone befitting the testosterone on display, and certainly without girls around to make you feel weird, this third film based on the Hiroshi Takahashi Crows manga series – and set chronologically between Takashi Miike’s 2007 Crows Zero and 2009 Crows Zero II – more than fits the bill, as rival gangs at Suzuran All-Boys High School vie for supremacy by beating the shit out of each other.
From an American perspective Crows: Explode (and the Crows series in general) is like a throwback to the 1980s Tough High School genre, exemplified by movies like the classic Class of 1984 or Tuff Turf. The violence is much more sustained and stylized, of course, where the punks were the bad buys back then, it’s pretty much all punks vs. punks now – sensitive, morally conflicted punks, at that! – and the bombed-out industrial wasteland of a school is a joy to behold.
Like Kotodama – Spiritual Curse, Crows: Explode: is still making the festival rounds, though both Crows Zero and Crows Zero II are both available on Region 1 DVD and/or Region A Blu-ray.
I’ll grant that this is a bit of cheat, because a) it’s a YouTube playlist of music videos, and b) I already covered it in some detail in my J-POP SUMMIT Festival writeup. On the other hand, J-POP Splash! was an official part of the Japan Film Festival with its own ticketing page and everything, and this is probably the last chance I’ll have to proselytize about my newfound love for SEKAI NO OWARI (especially “RPG”) and have it be on-topic. (Try though I might, I probably won’t be able to shoehorn it into a Starlog article.) World Order’s “Have a Nice Day” is also the best video OK Go never made, and really, the whole playlist is a fascinating and totally free watch.
There have been thousands of Miku videos made over the past several years, and having watched about a half dozen of them in recent weeks, I can say without fear of contradiction that this is one of the best. Enjoy!
Previously by Sherilyn Connelly: