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Sunday, July 16, 2017

Nippon Review: Dynamite Wolf (Ossan No Kefei)

Ossan No Kefei (Dynamite Wolf): Written by Natsu Hashimoto, directed by Kohei Taniguchi.  Starring: Yota Kawase, Yusuke Matsuda, Haruto Kobayashi, Susumu Noda, Shiruya Jinbo.  Running Time: 71 minutes. 

Rating: 3/4

            Dynamite Wolf follows the time-honored formula for a coming-of-age story revolving around a sport; establish the lonely, oddball nature of the main character and his small coterie of friends, have them discover through happenstance an entire sports universe previously unknown to them, arrange them to meet an older mentor-figure who himself is struggling for professional redemption, and watch their friendship bloom despite being deeply misunderstood by society.  Throw in a classmate bully who could (maybe) have a change of heart by the end, frustrated background parents, and a subplot involving authority figures at the school, and you have all the elements you need for a heartwarming tale of a boy finding his own little niche in the world. 

            Hiroto and his friends are all struggling over a simple questionnaire from the school asking all students to name their talent and to demonstrate it to the class.  Bereft of an answer, they spent their free time skipping stones into the river, until they notice a strange man on the other side who always spends his afternoons wrestling with a blow-up doll.  Intrigued, Hiroto follows hum and soon discovers a local underground wrestling scene, where the leading champion is one Dynamite Wolf, a mysterious figure whose real identity is unknown.  Hiroto becomes convinced that this lonely man by the river is THE Dynamite Wolf, and persuades him to teach him and his friends the art of professional wrestling, deciding that, at last, he’s found his talent. 

            There are a few twists the story takes from there, but while they are fairly predictable I won’t disrespect the film by spoiling them here.  This is a movie that follows its formula to a T, but does it so well that it really doesn’t matter in the end; this is a well-made, well-acted, fun, funny little film that hits all the notes it needs to, and doesn’t break itself trying to do more.  Hiroto and his pals have great chemistry together, and I was grateful the story never tried to toss an extra loop into the ring where they turn on each other over some silly misunderstanding; they know they can count on each other, even when they get on each other’s nerves. 

            Like with any solid movie, this film takes a world alien to my own experience (in this case, professional masked wrestling) and allows me to catch a glimpse of how someone can get so into it.  The filmmakers sought to shoot everything from the perspective of a child, and the best moments of the film succeed wildly in this regard, especially the first time Hiroto ever walks into a ring and sees a professional match for the first time.  It doesn’t reach spectacular visual storytelling heights, but it doesn’t need to.  It’s a small film that knows what it wants to do, goes out, and does it.  And that’s more than enough. 

-Noah Franc 

Friday, July 14, 2017

Nippon Review: Raise Your Arms and Twist! Documentary of NMB48

Raise Your Arms and Twist! Documentary of NMB48:  Directed by Atsushi Funahashi.  Produced by Documentary Japan.  Running Time: 121 minutes. 

Rating: 3/4

            Amongst the many bits of Japanese culture that come across to a Westerner as particularly strange, few are as befuddling to someone like myself as the obsession with Japanese female pop idols and the supergroups they form.  Known mostly for relentlessly upbeat, schmaltzy songs with utterly nonsense lyrics, the contradictions and exploitations within this particular cultural industry have been debated in Japan for some time, but are still largely invisible to anyone not particularly interested in Japanese culture.  For such people, Raise Your Arms and Twist! provides an intriguing glimpse into a world I, and many others, neither know nor comprehend. 

            From what I gather, there are a number of these supergroups based in the city in which they were formed.  This film focuses on one in particular, NMB48, based in Osaka (the “48” refers to the number of girls officially part of the group).  We are taken behind the scenes to see the relentless work routines of the girls who form this group, most of whom are still just teenagers when they join.  We learn how the group was formed, that it has something of an underdog status compared to more established acts like AKB48 or HKT48, and we follow the routines of some of the head singers/dancers in the group, each one with their particular goals, desires, and reasons for becoming an idol in the first place. 

            And boy, are these routines exhausting.  There are near-daily live shows in smaller groups for select fans, unending rehearsals for the next performance, preparations for the major singles and music videos, conventions, and more, on top of their normal studies, since nearly all of them are still in school.  Much like the manga industry, it’s a massive factory system meant to churn out hits and produce silly amounts of cash, and people caught up in it are easily consumed by it. 

            This is every bit as true for the fans as it is for the idols themselves.  The biggest demographic for this particular type of pop idol are middle-aged, single men.  From a purely financial point, it makes sense to market to them- they have the means to buy CD after CD and pay premium prices for daily live shows.  They also have the time and cash to afford to come to handshake events, one of the oddest things I’ve ever heard of, where they literally get 30 seconds to shake their favorite idol’s hand until security steps in and forces them away (and they WILL force you away if you dally).  Following some of the more passionate fans and learning about them in parallel to the idols is funny, tragic, and a bit unnerving, all at once.   

            Arguably the biggest problem within the industry this creates is the secularization and objectification of these girls, which influences their lives in insane ways.  One such way rears its head in a scene where an older dancer, upset at having been stuck in the back for years, is finally presenting by the manager with the real reason they’ve been holding her back.  It’s one of the most irritatingly unfair, teeth-gnashing moments I’ve experienced in the theater this year so far. 

            Although the director of the film insisted he tried to maintain objectivity in presenting this subject matter, his distaste for the entire industry is clear throughout the film.  And yet, even with all the cinematic cards stacked against it, I still found myself drawn to it all more than I ever thought possible.  It is, on the one hand, horrifying to see how these girls are exploited, objectified, and used to turn a massive corporate profit.  But on the other hand, when you see the sheer energy, scale, and effort that go into every performance, I also found myself being able to understand why people can get into this.  It is impressive to see their shows.  Their energy is infectious if you’re in the right mindset.  As much as I could never envision supporting this sort of thing, I also found myself growing more and more emotionally invested in the stories of the individual girls interviewed, wanting to know more about what happened to them and where they are now. 

            There are not much in the way of new revelations for anyone already familiar with the broad strokes of the pop idol industry and its many demons, and some efforts at philosophical and artistic reflection on the film’s part often don’t jive with the rest of the movie, but this is still a fascinating and earnest work that leaves all its cards on the table, and allowed me to feel I’d gained a bit more insight into a place strange to my mind.  Which is, in the end, the whole purpose of documentary filmmaking. 

-Noah Franc 

Monday, July 10, 2017

Nippon Review: Eriko, Pretended (Mie O Haru)

Mie O Haru (Eriko, Pretended): Written and directed by Akiyo Fujimura.  Starring: Haruka Kubo, Atsuya Okada, Miki Nitori, Hiromi Shinju, and Mayumi.  Running Time: 93 minutes. 

Rating: 2/4

            Eriko, Pretended, the debut feature film of Akiyo Fujimura, centers around the curious job of being a mourner-for-hire, someone sought out by the deceased beforehand to fill out the seats at their funeral and ensure that people cry properly to help them pass into the next world.  Some of you may read that and initially assume it’s just another one of those weird Japanese things, but seat- and-crown filling is actually a tried and true ego-stroking measure across the globe, so hold back on the stereotypes there, pal. 

            The film brings us into this interesting field through the story of Eriko, your standard young adult protagonist in a deep personal crisis, with no passion or interest or idea in where she should go next.  She’s jolted out of her reveries when she hears her sister died in an accident, and she finds herself back in the country dealing with relatives she can barely stand, and trying to take care of a nephew she barely knows.  Intrigued by an old, local mourner-for-hire who seems to be able to make whole rooms cry at will, she decides to cast the die and see if this field of work is for her. 

            It’s a gentle, touchingly made film, but a bit underwhelming; the concept may have worked better as a short film, as the stretches to fill time are very noticeable in spots.  This is not a knock on the director, though, since that is a difficulty every filmmakers encounters at first.  Fujimura is able to bring a lot of her actors with fairly little; the two best shots in the film center on Eriko’s face as her emotions build up and up and up, and finally bubble over the surface.  It’s a role that effectively carries the feel of someone in deep personal crisis. 

            There are moments that bring much-needed levity to the proceedings- an audition interrupted by a request to perform an old beer commercial, and a hilarious scene where Eriko competes against rival mourners going way over the top- but unfortunately they are few and far between.  This is a film that could have benefited greatly from a more energetic tone, given it’s fairly quiet matter.  It is a unique and fascinating choice for a first film though, and I am very much interested in seeing what Fujimura decides to do next. 

-Noah Franc 

Nippon Review: Mr. Long

Mr. Long: Written and directed by Sabu.  Starring: Chen Chang, Runyin Bai, Yiti Yao, Sho Aoyagi, Masashi Arifuku.  Running Time: 128 minutes. 

Rating: 3.5/4

            Perhaps the best way I could describe the character of Mr. Long is this; imagine if John Wick were Taiwanese, and could cook?  I know, it sounds a bit trite already to compare unstoppable hitmen characters to one of the best original action figures of the 2010s, but it really does fit here.  Mr. Long is impossibly good at what he does, stoic and cold in his bearing, and seemingly occupies a niche place within a dark, desperate world.   

            Mr. Long is sent out of his native Taiwan for a hit in Tokyo, which goes terribly wrong, but through a series of coincidences that only later become clear, he’s able to escape (barely).  He finds his way to what appears to be a shantytown of sorts, where the child of a smack-addicted Taiwanese woman finds him, brings him food and clothes, and eventually befriends him.  Mr. Long expects to merely have a few days to gather cash for a smuggling trip back to Taiwan, but he’s soon swept up in the fervent daydreams of a coterie of older Japanese living nearby; after learning just how good a cook Mr. Long is, they decide that he obviously must open a noodle stand near the temple, and plan everything out with nary a word from him. 

            What starts out as a graphic gangster film then turns into screwball comedy, as the silent, stoic, and (seemingly) emotionless Mr. Long finds himself dragged inexorably into the daily lives of the child that saved him, his troubled mother, and these hilariously pushy, borderline exploitative (scratch that- extremely exploitative) neighbors.  This is exacerbated by the fact that he can’t actually speak Japanese, and so mostly has no idea what these people around him are babbling about.   

            The film is anchored by a riveting performance by its lead actor.  For all his stern silence, he conveys worlds with every hardened glance at the world around him.  This is clearly someone who, long ago, learned of all the harshness of life, and can never be intimidated by it again.  This tough outer shell of his only cracks twice throughout the entire film, but boy, when it finally does happen, it is a genuine sock in the gut.     

            As chipper as the old folks are, though, and as adorable as the kid is, lives of gangster violence and drug addiction invariably create pasts that can never be fully left behind.  Pressed by Mr. Long’s forceful personality, the kid’s mother starts to pull herself into sobriety, only to be challenged at a crucial moment later on, and it’s in diving back into her story that the film inevitably returns to its dark origins.  This is a movie that goes unflinchingly into some hard territory, including severe drug addiction, depression, and suicide, and the mother’s powerhouse performance anchors those parts of the film that leave Mr. Long himself in the background for a time.  Her fate ends up being tied back into how the film started, and how Mr. Long was saved in the first place, but going beyond that would constitute major spoilers, and this is a film well-worth experiencing on your own. 

            Winding through all this at the same time that retired do-gooders are obsessing over a bowl of ramen involves quite a lot of emotional cork-screwing, the sort that most directors can only dream of pulling off, but Sabu works wonders here.  All the stresses, worries, and pressures finally build up to a climactic action scene that is absolute dynamite, one of the best scenes of hand-to-hand combat in a year already jam-packed with fantastic action.  From start to finish, Mr. Long is a trip, a remarkable experience that, in its best moments, is among the finest examples of genre-bending filmmaking to come out this year. 

-Noah Franc 

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Nippon Review: Death Note – Light up the NEW World

Death Note – Light up the NEW World: Written by Katsunari Mano, directed by Shinsuke Sato.  Starring: Masahiro Higashide, Sosuke Ikematsu, Masaki Suda, Mina Fujii, Rina Kawaei.  Running Time: 135 minutes.  Inspired by the original manga by Tsugumi Oba. 

Rating: 2.5/4

            I still consider the original manga and anime of Death Note, written by Tsugumi Oba to be a bona-fide literary and animated masterpiece of storytelling, character design, atmospheric pacing, and suspense.  At the very least it remains an unassailable part of the Japanese anime canon, required for viewing for anyone wishing to have at least one iota of cred on the convention floor.  Ever since that initial lightning bolt, a number of efforts have been made to recapture its success, including (most notably) a live-action Japanese film based on the original story and (most recently) a Netflix original series based on the same.  This movie (and I will refrain from repeating its absurdly long title) is a continuation of that trend, providing an “official” sequel to the events of the original live action film. 

            An introduction reveals that Ryuk was not a lone actor in sending Death Notes into the world; after Light died, the King of the Dead decreed that anyone who found a fitting successor to Light/Kira would follow him on the throne, resulting in a large number of Notes being deliberately sent to the Earth.  The police catch on to this pretty quickly, and a new task force is soon formed to track down, collect, and seal away the Notes to prevent another Kira from rising again.  This force is, for the most part, an entirely new set of characters.  Matsuda and Misa Amane (to my horror) return, but otherwise these are all new faces and names, including the requisite ‘L’ stand-in, a protégé of his named Ryuzaki, whose main gimmick is wearing a silly mask when out and about that I actually found rather fitting. 

            For a wholly an unnecessary sequel as this was, I must admit I enjoyed watching it a lot.  You can only get anything out of it if you know the source material, but it’s slickly-made and well-paced.  Unfortunately, it just can’t quite capture the palpable tension that made the original story so compelling to follow.  It is also undone by a largely lackluster second act after a first act that is pretty well-crafted.  The notion of an expanded number of Death Notes in the world, and the added rules to their usage that follows, is a great concept, as is spreading the action around the world a bit more (because why should Tokyo have all the fun?), but none of the characters end up being memorable enough to stick the landing. 

            Having Matsuda back was great, but he’s not in the film nearly enough, and while it was fun to see Ryuk cackling again, he’s much more directly involved in the action in a way that somewhat contradicts his strict neutrality from before, which was a core part of what made his character so fascinating to begin with.  Instead of the chess-game turns and reversals that marked the climaxes of the original story, the last sequences of the film are mostly shootouts with helicopters and SWAT teams, and a final twist connecting the main police detective and Kira is not nearly earned enough to have more than a rote, perfunctory impact. 

            Ultimately, this is a film that neither had a reason to exist to begin with, nor manages to create one for itself by the end by being good enough to stand on its own.  It is not a bad movie by any means- like I said, I did enjoy it a lot- but I can’t recommend it to either die-hard fans or anime agnostics.  Which, in the end, is a death sentence of sorts for this kind of film.  As usual, it’s best to let sleeping dogs lie. 

-Noah Franc 

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Reflections: The End of Samurai Jack

**spoiler alert for the final season of Samurai Jack**

            We all have a favorite show from years past that got cancelled or shut down before it reached its natural end, and for each we can never help but wonder what might have been had the creators been allowed to complete their visions.  In some cases, like Firefly, all the speculation is doomed to remain just that.  In other cases, like Arrested Development, years of cultural build-up finally bring about the long-awaited continuation of the story, but the result ends up disappointing or dividing a great number of fans, leading to the obvious question; was it worth it to return to this world, or would it have been better to leave well enough alone? 

            This year, nearly 16 years after its first episode aired, Samurai Jack entered a rare realm of television show that not only was able to come back after a long, long hiatus, but also managed to succeed in concluding the story and vision of the show’s creator in a way that made the wait worth it. 

            The driving core of the samurai’s tale was, of course, his quest to find a way back to the past and defeat Aku, thus preventing the terrible, dystopian future Jack witnesses after being tricked and trapped in a possible future by the master of darkness.  The first smart decision the show made when it came back was to have the resolving season be short, compact, and laser-focused on resolving the central dilemma of the entire franchise; does Jack succeed in defeating Aku and saving the future?  Any final season that didn’t find a good way to answer this would have been a failure, no matter how good everything else ended up being. 

            It was also a rather brave choice to make the setting so much darker and bleaker than any past one; it’s been decades now, there are no more time portals on Earth, and not only has Jack lost his sword, a lifetime of nonstop fighting has worn him down to the point where we find him in the midst of a severe existential crisis, on the verge of falling apart entirely.  The scenes depicting his arguments with himself, the voices he hears, and the stalking ghost encouraging him to just end it all are haunting, easily the best depiction of PTSD to come out of American animation since the fourth season of Legend of Korra.   

            On top of that, while the original seasons were always extremely violent, they could get away with a lot by only having Jack fight machines, which (somewhat) made up for how brutally he dismembered them episode by episode.  This season is far bloodier, literally, with Jack finally facing an army of human assassins that he can only beat by killing them, in one of the most heart-pounding action sequences in the entire show.  Viewers can differ on whether Jack was justified in making this decision, but the show itself doesn’t try to trivialize it or make it seem simpler than it is. 

            The redemption arc of Ashi may divide fans a bit more- her budding with romance with Jack might seem out of place at times- but in a way, given their cold and hard lives, it makes sense than they could only find a partner in someone like the other.  The scene that turns her- the simple sight of ladybugs in the setting sun- is a striking image, as is the concluding image of Jack standing between a blooming cherry tree after being forced to come to terms with the final price of defeating Aku.  It is not an ending that pulls any punches, which this series very much needed. 

            I was not sure, at first, what to think of the use of Aku himself- given the absence of Mako, it was perhaps smarter to use him less often in order to avoid distracting us with the different voice- but he was almost too goofy and comical at times.  I never found that too problematic, though, because it is also a fascinating twist to see such a villainous character after getting effectively all he wants.  He really does rule the world, and for a period of time has no reason to fear the samurai, but he slowly realizes that ruling the entire world and having no one capable of challenging him is….well...boring.  And that’s certainly a take most shows like this wouldn’t bother with. 

            Ultimately, the final season does exactly what it needs to.  It powerfully resolves the tale of the samurai, and although one episode is devoted to revisiting some of the key moments from the past show (including several inspired cameos by the best Scotsman in the world not named Billy Connelly), the season skillfully avoids losing itself in its own nostalgia, making sure we have fresh characters, settings, and stories to focus on.  I never expected us to actually this conclusion, but I am glad we did, and especially glad that it’s one worthy of the show that preceded it and any expectations I could have had going in.  Samurai Jack remains one of the seminal works of American animation, a must-see show for anyone who likes good storytelling.  And now we must move onwards to new pastures.  Goodbye, Jack.  Take care. 

-Noah Franc 

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Nippon Review: Parks

Parks: Written and directed by Natsuki Seta.  Starring: Ai Hasimoto, Mei Nagano, Shota Sometani, Shizuka Ishibashi, Ryu Morioka.  Running Time: 118 minutes. 

Rating: 3/4

            Parks, just the second feature film directed Natsuki Seta, a protégé of Kiyoshi Kurosawa, is the sort of adventurous, experimental film that I wish more directors, young or old, would attempt to make.  It’s a tribute to a 100-year-old park that throws in chapter titles, a mystery, a romance, dream sequences, and (because why not) a massive dance number.  It constantly seeks to bend the rules of storytelling and blurs the line between reality and fantasy in ways that, thankfully, work more often than not, making this film one of the more enjoyably unique experiences I had at Nippon Connection 2017. 

            The core thread of the story is Jun’s efforts to finish her Communication Studies thesis.  Bereft of a topic, her inspiration comes when a strange girl appears at her doorstep, claiming that an old flame of her father’s lived in this same apartment once upon a time.  Intrigued, Jun joins her in her search for the woman’s identity, and soon meets said woman’s grandson (the woman herself has passed away).  Together, they uncover a demo reel of a love song that the girl’s father apparently wrote for this woman when they were still an item, inspired by the park they all live near.  The demo is damaged, though, and they can only hear part of the song, so they decide to put their heads together and try to finish it in time for a special music festival to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the park’s dedication. 

            This is a relentlessly upbeat film, breezy and fun; not even a breakup can get anyone down for very long in this world.  This can come close at times to making the film too unrealistic or insufferable, but the actors are so dedicated that it never crosses that particular line.  The male character, whose name I honestly can’t recall for the life of me, is an aspiring rapper, and his terrible lyrics are a regular annoyance, but thankfully he’s not the focus of the show. 

            What really makes the film hard to pick apart is when it breaks through normal storytelling conventions.  The girl who enters Jun’s life is obsessed with finding out more about her father (her goal is to write a book about him), and soon these figures from the past enter the film as characters in and of themselves that she talks and interacts with.  Is she dreaming?  Hallucinating?  Or is some legit transgression of the laws of physics taking place, allowing her to cross time and dimensions?  Is, perhaps, the entire film simply a figment of her imagination? 

            To the film’s credit, these bizarre tangents jibe well with the tone of the rest of the film, and it never tries to explain any of it.  Any attempt to have all this make sense would inevitably be a let-down from whatever the viewer wishes to dream up, and seriousness is not how these people roll, man. 

            Parks is brought down by, occasionally, being a bit too unhinged for its own good, but though it occasionally comes close, it never falls apart entirely.  It is a compelling and mysterious experience, and even the chances it takes that don’t work are worthy ones.  Natsuki Seta might not have quite stuck the landing this time around, but I am confident that one day, she is going to truly blow our minds. 

-Noah Franc 

Friday, June 16, 2017

Nippon Review: A Silent Voice (Koe No Katachi)

A Silent Voice: Written by Reiko Yoshida, directed by Naoko Yamada.  Starring: Miyu Irino, Saori Hayami, Aoi Yuki, Kensho Ono, and Yuuki Kaneko.  Running Time: 129 minutes.  Based on the manga of the same name by Yoshitoki Oima.   

Rating: 3.5/4

            A Silent Voice is a rare gem of a movie, one that perfectly synchronizes its use of all the tools of filmmaking to explore a stunningly wide range of difficult themes, including bullying, suicide, depression, anxiety, struggles with self-confidence, and the challenges of either living with a disability or interacting with someone with a disability.  Add to this its viscerally real grasp of the confused emotional dynamics of teenage life, and the result one of the year’s best films by far. 

            Adapted from the hit manga by Yoshitoki Oima, the film has two main halves to its story.  The first part focuses on when its main characters are in junior high; the settled environment of a particular class is upended when a deaf girl, Shoko, joins the school.  She soon becomes an easy target for ridicule and bullying, with one boy in particular, Shoya, going the extra mile to make her school days a living hell. 

            Although nearly all of the students are complicit, once things go too far and Shoko’s mother pulls her from the school, the other students single out Shoya as the ringleader, and soon cast him out of their cliques as readily as they denied entry to Shoko.  The stark irony of the bully himself being bullied for being a bully is impossible to miss, and it provides a brutally effective example of how cruelty, and people’s endless ability to deflect their sins onto others, can so easily lead to vicious, self-perpetuating cycles of pain that ultimately harm all involved, not just the initial victims.   

            In the second half, the children are all now teenagers in high school, though they’ve mostly gone their separate ways.  Shoya, whose reputation as a heartless bully preceded him to high school and continued his social alienation, is seriously contemplating suicide when he sees Shoko again by chance, and almost on a whim decides to see if he can somehow make things up to Shoko for his past treatment of her. 

            The core of this film’s greatness starts in how the story never lets itself go the easy, predictable route in tackling its characters’ problem.  It would have been all too easy for this story to be a basic romance/redemption arc, but it commits wholly to going far deeper than that, and reaches greater heights as a result. 

            Similarly, it would been all-too-simple to just have Shoko be a paragon of innocence and virtue, unjustly brutalized by an unfeeling world, but like the children who hurt her, she has her own demons she has to confront.  Both she and Shoya are wonderfully nuanced and shaded characters; I know their pains all too well.  Both feel achingly vulnerable and, above all, real.  I want both of them to somehow get through this crap all right, and that visceral emotional connection to each is priceless. 

            Life with a disability, so often either ignored or inaccurately portrayed in film, is obviously a major, front-and-center theme; the ins and outs of Shoko’s life with deafness and how that affects her family are a big part of the second act.  Yet here, too, the film goes the extra mile.  Its visuals are combined with an inspired sound design to both visually and audibly explore various types of deafness, psychological as well as physical.  The two main characters are almost mirror opposites in this regard.  Shoko is literally deaf, and yet is sharply in tune to other people and their emotional states.  Shoya is physically “normal,” but has been so battered by everything he’s experienced that, by the time he reaches high school, he’s become metaphorically “deaf” to the people around him. 

            This is visually portrayed with a very interesting trick- when we see the world through the eyes of teenage Shoya, nearly every face outside his immediate family is covered with a giant “X” at all times.  It’s as if his mind has already determined there’s nothing to be gained by speaking with, or even looking at, anyone else, so better to just pretend they don’t exist.  The moments when a few new friends are finally able to break through his hardened shell, causing the X to literally peel off their faces and drop to the ground, rank among the most powerful moments of the entire film. 

            It’s actually a bit mind-boggling, trying to grasp all the ways this movie tackles various types of psychological problems; anxiety, anti-socialism, suicidal thoughts, deep depression, and struggling with self-confidence are all handled with such deftness, understanding, and mturity that it’s almost something of a miracle this film exists at all.  The weaving together of both halves of the story, tracing how events twist and circle back around to all those involved, builds up to a masterful, perfect ending, one that delivers a remarkable gut punch of emotion I found hard to contain after watching it. 

            The film can’t wholly shed its literary origins- several characters and minor plot points from the manga were clearly trimmed for time’s sake- but that is a minor quibble with what is otherwise a beautiful work of art that, despite all the tragedy and heartache it contains, nonetheless succeeds in being one of the most empowering and uplifting films I’ve seen in a long time.  A Silent Voice is one of the best movies of 2017, animated or otherwise. 

-Noah Franc    

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Nippon Review: Boys For Sale (Bai-Bai Boys)

Boys For Sale: Directed by Itako, produced by Ian Thomas Ash and Adrian Storey.  Director of Photography- Adrian Storey.  Animation by Jeremy Yamamura.  Music by Kazaguruma.  Running Time: 76 minutes. 

Rating: 4/4

            For all the progress we’ve made in recent decades raising general awareness of marginalized groups around the world, the field of sex work still remains fairly underrepresented and unexamined within cultures at large.  This is especially the case for male sex workers, who often have to deal with their own particular gender-related stereotypes on top of the more general ones associated with selling your body for money. 

            Boys For Sale, a new documentary directed by Itako (his first feature film) and produced by Ian Thomas Ash (previous winner of the Nippon Visions Jury Award and the Nippon Visions Audience Award), directs its attention straight at the heart of these tangled preconceptions surrounding an often-forgotten world.  It is perhaps the first film to delve into a particular subset of Asian gay culture within a particularly conservative country still struggling with the idea of open homosexuality, and is one of the best documentaries to air so far in 2017. 

            Within Shinjuku 2-Chome (yes, there’s a reason the area is called that), considered the gay center of all of Asia, specific bars and locales offer their (male) customers the services of their urisen.  This term applies to young “boys” (the majority are in their late teens or early 20’s) sold off nightly to customers and taken to specially-prepared rooms, where they are then expected to perform whatever sexual acts that particular customer desires.  Officially, prostitution is illegal in Japan, but the laws as they currently exist define sex work as being between a man and a woman.  By ensuring that their clientele are all men, managers of these establishments are able to thread this fine legal loophole without facing any real legal threat.  They further limit their own culpability by insisting that the prices paid for their urisen are only for drinks, dinner, and time spent together, and whatever may happen (or not happen) between the boys and their buyers in the upstairs rooms is none of their business. 

            The finer points of this world- its rules and traditions, how it operates, how these young men are selected and end up in this line of work- are explained to us through a series of interviews with current and former urisen.  They were all given the choice by the director of having their faces and voices shown unaltered and hiding their real names.  Some hid nothing, others wore masks to at least cover their faces and took a codename, and others not only hid their faces, but also asked that their voices be altered as well.  Their respective ages, backgrounds, and views on what they do vary widely, and for the most part the film simply lets their astonishing tales speak for themselves. 

            Sex workers in general have an endless variety of motivations and reasons for getting into prostitution- many choose it willingly and are happy doing it, some are pushed into it through chance, circumstance, or even tragedy, and some are actively tricked and/or enslaved- and urisen are no different, although the “hush-hush” nature of how the industry operates means there is often an extra level of deception in pulling the boys in.  Many admit in their interviews that they had no idea beforehand what was expected of them, or were actively lied to when they first interviewed about what, exactly, they were getting into (one bar manager, interviewed in the film, obviously denies this). 

            Perhaps one of the most fascinating details provided in the film (for me, at least) touches on Japan’s still-considerable discomfort with the very idea of homosexuality, at least compared with Western cultures.  Being openly gay in any setting, even within the world of male prostitution, is still considered so strange or taboo that, while many gay men do work as urisen (and most of their clients are clearly either themselves gay, or at least not entirely straight), it’s still silently frowned upon to work as a urisen and be openly gay; most managers (and clients) expect you to at least pretend that your straight, which opens up a whole other realm of discussion about human sexuality, psychology and behavior that I don’t have nearly enough room to get into here.  Suffice it to say this is one of those films loaded with enough material for hours upon hours of discussion after seeing it. 

            Perhaps the most inspired creative choice in the film was the decision to use drawings to depict what sort of acts the boys do.  The film’s creators decided early on to not even attempt sneaking in cameras to film actual customers with the boys, and this is crucial to the film’s power; the use of drawing allows the movie to delve into frank, graphic detail about everything the boys do in their rooms without running the risk of being voyeuristic or pornographic.  Given the importance of hearing these stories, and all the problems and challenges raising awareness of these people brings, being able to walk this fine line is essential to the film succeeding as well as it does.  Giving critics fodder for accusations of exploitation could have easily derailed the entire project. 

            The film’s music plays an equally remarkable role in enhancing the feel and atmosphere of the movie.  It’s rare enough for a documentary to have its own decent score, and even rarer for it to be as powerful and noticeable as it is.  It’s a dynamic and energetic score that adds a great extra vibe to every scene. 

            Another particularly powerful aspect of the movie is its reminder of how major disasters, both man-made and natural, have a particular ripple-effect in the field of sex work.  One of the interviewed boys openly says that he only ended up as an urisen because he came to the city desperate for work after losing his home in the tsunami/Fukushima catastrophe of 3/11.  If that had never happened, he would never have even considered getting into sex work, and he is certainly far from the only person of his generation with similar reasons for becoming a prostitute. 

            Even after several weeks of thought following the film’s premiere, I find it extremely difficult to quantify my feelings on this topic.  Are these boys slaves?  Victims?  Mere cogs in the machine?  Would better regulations and more government more oversight help?  There are many former urisen working within Shinjuku 2-Chome who lament Japan’s severe lack of general education regarding STDs and safe sex.  Given the dangerous (and potentially deadly) effect this can have within the field of male sex work, many of them work hard to push back against the sort of ignorance that can allow diseases like HIV to spread.  More and more celebrities within Japan are also speaking openly about being gay, and this could, perhaps, prompt a larger cultural shift that will allow these people to be more open about their work and get better government support.  But that, too, is far from a given. 

            Beyond the very important worries about safety and health that viewers should take away from this movie, what should I feel about the boys themselves?  Yes, many of them were tricked or forced into doing this work, don’t like it, and want out, but many are perfectly content to be urisen- they have a community of their own that binds them together, and many of them, even ones that aren’t gay or bi, very much enjoy the work and are happy doing it.  But how do we reconcile that with the obvious and real exploitation that runs rampant within the industry?  And what’s the proper response to this? 

            These are hard questions with no easy or obvious answers to them, and that is precisely what the best documentaries do- strike right at the heart of the thorniest issues in human society, forcing us to grapple with contradictory thoughts and feelings as we try to come to a conclusion about the best path forward.  And feeling such a mixed jumble of feelings and thoughts you have no idea how ro reconcile, however uncomfortable it may be, is one of the clearest signs you've seen a truly great documentary.  Boys For Sale succeeds brilliantly in challenging its viewers to become part of a conversation they may not have even known existed, and it deserves to play a key role our cultural discourse about homosexuality and prostitution.   

-Noah Franc 

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Nippon Review: Love and Goodbye and Hawaii (Koi To Sayonara To Hawaii)

Koi To Sayonara To Hawaii: Written by Shingo Matsumura.  Starring: Aya Ayano, Kentaro Tamura, Momoka Ayukawa, Aoi Kato, Risa Kameda.  Running Time: 94 minutes. 

Rating: 2/4

            It’s not easy to make a romantic comedy that stands out.  There are so many millions of them at this point, and so many of them samey and utterly bland, that I sort of pity every filmmaker setting out to make one.  Love and Goodbye and Hawaii, from director Shingo Matsumura, definitely comes from a place of real, genuine experience with the awkwardness of breaking up with someone, but sadly that authenticity is not nearly enough to salvage the film from excessive length and persistent pacing issues. 

            Rinko and Isamu broke up about 6 months ago, but thanks to sheer inertia they are still living together, still jog together every morning, and are pretty much still in the same daily routines as before.  Isamu is working on his graduate thesis, and Rinko is still toiling away in an office job, though an upcoming trip to Hawaii for a friend’s wedding is a bright spot for her to look forward to. 

            This equilibrium, of course, can’t last for long, and when Isamu starts becoming interested in a fellow student it hits home, hard, for Rinko that she really does need to make some hard choices about where her life will go from here, and with whom she wants to spend it with. 

            As always, this sort of film lives or dies on whether or not its leads can sell themselves as living, breathing people that like each other.  Both main actors here have the requisite good chemistry, coming across as real people I have certainly met before.  And this is certainly a worthy subject for a movie, since it’s the sort of crossroads every person encounters at various points in life, and to its credit the film never tries to jump to any extremes- it just presents these people as they are, which it always preferable to overdramatic theatrics. 

            Good subject matter is, sadly, not nearly enough by half to produce a great movie.  It moves at a steady clip, and is not wholly predictable, but still tends to drag far more than can be forgiven, and is too long by half for its own good.  It’s a film that I can respect, but one that doesn’t reach for anything new and ultimately doesn’t end anywhere I couldn’t have been brought by a better film.  There are some great moments shining through- a Hawaii dancing scene is, in context, hilarious and tragic in equal measures, and is a remarkable emotional highlight.  It’s not the only such moment in the film.  But they are too few and far between, which is a real shame. 

-Noah Franc 

Nippon Review: The Abandoned Land (La Terre Abandonnee)

La Terre Abandonnee: Directed by Gilles Laurent, camera by Laurent Fenart.  Running Time: 73 minutes. 

Rating: 4/4

            One of the most fascinating after-effects of the March 2011 tsunami and nuclear disaster at Fukushima has been the brutally clear glimpses it provides of what can happen when modern human towns are suddenly abandoned; how nature slowly reclaims what belongs to it; what it feels like to walk down streets still plastered with all the accoutrements of modern life, yet utterly devoid of people. 

            The best art is able to confront this dissonance head-on, and The Abandoned Land, the first- and due to his untimely death in an ISIS-inspired attack in Belgium last year, last- film directed by Belgian sound engineer Gilles Laurent, is a considerably powerful example of this.  The shots Laurent presents of places left to rot feel unreal, almost staged, like they are too perfectly apocalyptic.  Except, of course, they aren’t, despite the powerful sense one gets watching this film that you are glimpsing a place lost to the sands of time; they are very much real, and are very much here, right now. 
            Caught within this strange wormhole are a handful of stubborn residents of the town of Tomioka, located right nearby Ground Zero of the Fukushima catastrophe.  For various reasons, these handful of older residents either stayed put after the meltdown, or returned very quickly afterwards.  They now truly live on the very edge of society- the government knows they’re there, but seems unwilling or incapable of forcing them to move, so they are let be, and live pretty much as they can, even growing and eating food out of soil supposed to be too irradiated to be safe for farm use. 

            Mostly seen as a curiosity, they continue their lives even as government decontamination efforts continue around them.  The shots of these people wearing regular clothes, open to the air and sun, alongside radiation workers covered head-to-foot in full-body protective suits almost feels like an endless, silent joke the movie is letting us in on.  The same goes for the shots of sings and awareness campaigns from either the company or the local government about how important the environment and health is to them, as run-down and overgrown as the rest of the abandoned lands they are found in.  It is jarring.  It is dissonant, but also darkly comic (in a very Dr. Strangelove sort of way), and no active commentary is needed. 

            The movie is suffused with themes of dying and passing away as a part of nature; it must happen so that life may move forward and something new may rise from the wreckage of the old.  These forgotten people in these forgotten lands know that the towns and communities of their past lives are gone forever, and that things can never return to how they once were.  Something new will surely come around eventually to take its place, but they won’t live to see it, and their acceptance of this fact and resolve to live on in spite of it is a mixture of pitiful, heartbreaking, courageous, and beautiful. 

            Laurent had mostly worked in sound prior to making this movie.  Friends said he could see sounds the way most directors see color and light, and this talent is on full display here.  Sounds of the natural world ping in and out, adding layers and texture to everything we see that mere imagines could not fully convey. 

            It’s almost ironic, that Laurent’s first feature film would focus so much on death and ending, and be followed by his own violent and untimely death last year.  It lends a sadder weight to everything we see, especially when the director makes a brief cameo about halfway through the film.  Even though we otherwise never see or hear him- he was known for having a keen sense of the importance of removing oneself from the subject in documentary work- the knowledge that he’s there, behind the camera, and soon won’t be there, and indeed will never be there again, is inescapable. 

            The Abandoned Land is a masterful and important piece of documentary filmmaking from a talented filmmaker who was taken from us far too soon.  Despite this, I am confident that it will stand the test of time as a fitting legacy to both the man who made it, and the people it focuses on, allowing both some measure of deserved immortality. 

-Noah Franc 

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Films for the Trump Years: Good Night and Good Luck

            In the first instalment of this series, we examined a movie related to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s.  This month, we turn the clock back another decade or so, to the heyday of the Second Red Scare in the United States, which enabled the cultural rise of the junior Senator from Wisconsin, Senator Joseph McCarthy, into a potent national figure.  Riding high on pervasive political and cultural paranoia that organized Communists stood ready to overthrow the United States government at a moment’s notice, McCarthy launched one barrage of accusations after another, alleging that the government was literally crawling with Soviet agents planning to destroy American democracy.  The unspoken message herein was that he alone was the one capable of revealing the truth and fighting back the global Red Tide that, according to him, was just around the corner.

            Until, that is, a group of journalists finally resolved to puncture the veneer of invulnerability McCarthy was projecting, digging into the meat of his accusations to determine how much truth, if any, there was to them.  The team that did this was led by Edward R. Murrow, already famous for his invaluable wartime broadcasts from London during the Nazi Blitz.  In his televised broadcasts, he laid into the more disturbing aspects of McCarthy’s campaign.  This, of course, prompted a ferocious response from McCarthy himself, but sure enough, this opened the floodgates; more criticism from all sides started to pour in, until the Senate itself reprimanded and silenced McCarthy, shunting him out of the limelight, to which he never returned. 

            This is the story told by the 2005 George Clooney film Good Night, and Good Luck; the title is derived from Murrow’s standard closing phrase for the program on which he aired his McCarthy broadcasts, See It Now.  David Strathairn, in one of the finest performances of his career, leads as Edward Murrow, and he is supplemented by spot-on performances by George Clooney, Robert Downey Jr., Frank Langella, Patricia Clarkson, and Jeff Daniels, each playing various members of the CBS staff connected to the broadcasts. 

            In a number of disturbing ways, these events provide even more direct, almost word-for-word comparisons to current events than Selma, not least because of how much McCarthy and Donald Trump mirror each other.  They both rely almost solely on incessant bullying for their power, as well as aggressive disregard for facts, due process, civil discourse and democratic norms, and a cult of personality that for McCarthy seemed, and for Trump currently seems, unstoppable. 

            But this also goes beyond mere comparisons of narcissistic demagogues.  Much as we are now forced to confront and adapt our societies to the possibilities and dangers of the internet and the communications revolution it has wrought, McCarthy and his feud with Murrow also took place amidst a similar cultural shift, when television was just beginning to replace radio and newspapers as a cultural force of its own and a potent source of news and worldview for a large number of people.  The scale of magnitude between then and today may be different, but the fundamental challenges of such a shift remain the same. 

            This is highlighted most effectively by a famous speech Murrow gave several years after McCarthy faded, known as the “Wires and Lights in a Box” speech.  The beginning and end of this speech bookends the film, and contains the core of Murrow’s philosophy about the importance of us utilizing new media technologies for good, and actively fighting against the instinct to use them for either malevolence, or laziness.  Really, simply substitute the word “television” for “internet,” and someone could make the exact same speech almost word-for-word today.   

            This touches on something that is crucial to giving this film its power; both the speech at beginning/end and the broadcasts regarding McCarthy are no poetic licenses taken by the screenwriters- they are word-for-word recreations of Murrow’s actual speeches and broadcasts.  Strathairn nails every one of Murrow’s mannerisms (seriously, just watch these clips back-to-back and try to spot the differences).  Clooney also made the brilliant decision of not having anyone act as McCarthy- whenever he pops up, that’s actual footage of THE McCarthy, not an actor.  This subtle detail was reportedly lost on some of the test audiences, who criticized the person playing McCarthy for being too over the top. 

            I will close this post with a recommendation to not just see the movie, but to also read Roger Ebert’s original review of the film.  At the risk of being unoriginal, I feel compelled to end with a direct quote from his review, because it is such a powerfully concise summary of both the movie and the lessons (and glimmers of hope) it offers us today:  

            "McCarthy is a liar and a bully, surrounded by yes-men, recklessly calling his opponents traitors, (and) he commands great power for a time. He destroys others with lies, and then is himself destroyed by the truth.

            “Character assassination is wrong…and we must be vigilant when the emperor has no clothes and wraps himself in the flag.

-Noah Franc 

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Review: Paradise

Paradise (2016): Written by Elena Kiseleva and Andrei Konchalovsky, directed by Andrei Konchalovsky.  Starring: Yuliya Vysotskaya, Christian Clauss, Philippe Duquesne, Peter Kurth, Jakob Diehl, and Vera Voronkova.  Running Time: 130 minutes. 

Rating: 4/4

            Paradise is almost confessional in its style; 3 characters, a French prosecutor working for the Vichy regime in France, a Russian aristocrat condemned to a concentration camp for trying to save Jewish kids, and an SS officer moving quickly up the chain of command, all comment on various parts of the movie’s story while sitting at a table, facing the camera.  Are they being interrogated?  Are these video testimonies taken after the war?  We don’t know at first, and I won’t spoil the answer, because this set-up is part of what makes Paradise a uniquely moving piece of filmwork, easily one of the best movies I’ve yet seen in 2017. 

            The Frenchman, Jules, appears mostly in the first part of the film, as he is the one who receives the case of the Russian aristocrat, Olga, (the arrestingly lovely Yuliya Vysotskaya) arrested for hiding away Jews.  At first, she tries her hardest to put on a tough, you-won’t-get-nothing-out-of-me act, but she quickly admits in her cutaways that she abhors all pain, and if anyone had so much as raised a hand to her she’d have spilled the beans in an instant.  Through a bit of luck, though, she never faces that choice, but still ends up stuck in a concentration camp, where she happens to learn (to her dismay) that some of the people she’d hidden earlier did not manage to escape capture after all. 

            Her fortunes soon turn again though; as part of an anti-corruption campaign to weed out those using the concentration camps to enrich themselves at the expense of the state, Heinrich Himmler sends Helmut, an up-and-coming officer from a well-to-do family, to investigate the head commander of the camp Olga is at.  As it turns out, they actually know each other from before the war; they’d met as part of a group traveling in Italy, and had had a briefly flirtatious affair, even though she was engaged at the time. 

            Helmut soon pulls her out of the daily toil of the camp by insisting that she work for him as a housemaid.  This allows her all sorts of privileges and luxuries she otherwise wouldn’t have access to, but also condemns her in the eyes of the other women in her bunk as a Nazi whore and a traitor.  This perhaps one of the most thought-provoking parts of the movie, examining how quickly we can lose our humanity when we are pushed to do so (in one scene we see her taking the shoes of a dying woman for herself), but also how quickly we can regain it again when things get just a bit easier.  Olga reminds us in her testimony that it’s remarkable how much the endless need for food can dominate the heart and mind when scarce, and how much easier everything else in life becomes should that burning worry suddenly fall away.    

            Part of the film’s enduring strength is how none of its characters are thoroughly demonized or idealized.  Olga is, in most respects, the protagonist, but her efforts to save Jews aside, she’s far from an angel.  She has her weaknesses, her own demons, and in most (but, crucially, not all) cases she is quick to put her own welfare above that of others.  The same goes for the Nazi officer.  He gets more than a little screen time devoted to expounding (with sickening self-assurance) on how marvelous a boon National Socialism is for the human race, but there are enough moments between him and Olga (as well as some excellent scenes with a disillusioned old friend of his returning from the front) to suggest his devotion to it might not be so wholesale as he might want us to think. 

            In addition to its black-and-white aesthetic, which I am increasingly convinced is one of the best ways to visually depict the Holocaust, the script of this movie deserves particular note.  There is no all-encompassing mother tongue throughout the film; Russian characters speak mostly Russian, the Germans German, and the French French, but unlike in many such films, it’s clear they took great care to make sure the dialogue and language used by each person is common, native, and local.  It might seem insignificant, but attention to such fine touches is often the fine deciding line between a pretty good movie and a truly great one. 

            There are a number of ways the film’s resolution can be interpreted, and some will surely think the movie overplays its hand just a bit when we finally find out why the characters are addressing the camera directly.  But it is only the best art that can inspire such debate in us to begin with, and for that alone Paradise is easily one of the most unique, best-made, and most intriguing movies to come out in 2017 so far.  It provides us with a worthy reminder than, far more often than not, the deciding moments of our lives are the ones we don’t expect to ever come. 

-Noah Franc