Thursday, June 30, 2011

Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla (2002)

Title: Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla (2003)

Director: Mazaaki Tezuka


The Millenium series of Godzilla films represent the films that started in 1999 with Godzilla 2000. So far, six films compose this period: Godzilla 2000, Godzilla vs. Megaguirus (2000), Godzilla, Mothra and King Gihdorah: Giant Monsters All Out Attack (2001), Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla (2002), Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. (2003) and finally, the one that put an end to the Millenium era of Godzilla films: Godzilla: Final Wars (2004). These Millenium Era Godzilla films ignored the continuity set by all previous Godzilla films except for the original Gojira (1954) film, so many consider this series of Godzilla films as alternate universes. The cool thing about these more recent Godzilla films is that they benefit from the recent advancements in special effects. Though technically these new films are still made the old fashion way -men in suits destroying miniature models- when you watch these newer Godzilla films, you get the feeling that the filmmakers have really perfected the whole process of making a Godzilla movie. We can’t see no strings, the miniatures are awesome, and Godzilla looks freaking great! What’s not to like about this one?

Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla starts out with the government gathering a group of the most brilliant minds in Japan to device a way to kill Godzilla. Their plan involves using the bones of the original Godzilla, the one that the Oxygen Destroyer killed in Gojira (1954). Weird thing is I remember those bones being disintegrated as well, but whatever. So anyway, they take the DNA from Godzilla’s old bones throw it into what they refer to as a “DNA Computer” and voila! We have Mechagodzilla! Codename: ‘Kiriyu’, which means Mechanized Dragon or Machine Dragon. Essentially, Mechagodzilla is a giant robot that looks like a mechanized version of Godzilla! And it’s made from the original Godzilla’s DNA! It’s bound to kick ass! Right? Now the humans have the ultimate weapon against Godzilla, who by the way has just been re-awakened by a passing typhoon and is currently stomping around Japan . Will Mechagodzilla prove to be good enough to go up against the real one?

After seeing Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla, I can see why many see Godzilla: Final Wars (2004) as a huge letdown. Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla was freaking amazing! By far the best special effects on any Godzilla movie I’ve seen and I’ve yet to see the sequel to this one called Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. (2004) which I am looking forward to seeing. But seriously, the best fx award on any Godzilla film goes to this one. When we compare these two previous films to Final Wars, Final Wars definitely falls short, like a step down from the awesomeness created on Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla and its sequel. What is so great about Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla? Many things are good about this film, but number one amongst them is that it does not bore. Not for a second! Once the battle between these two monsters begins, its non stop destruction and mayhem till the end! Seriously, the battle between Godzilla and Mechagodzilla has to be one of the best ones in the whole series. Mechagodzilla makes a formidable adversary, second in my opinion to King Gihdorah, or maybe even more formidable then King Gihdorah. Point is, with this version of Mechagodzilla we could be talking about one of Godzilla’s most powerful foes ever. It certainly ranks as one of my favorite Kaiju so far.

Why is Mechagodzilla such a great adversary for Godzilla? Well, for starters he is partially made up of DNA from the original Godzilla, the one that was destroyed by the Oxygen Destroyer in the first film. This premise presents us with one of the coolest moments in the film. At one point, Mechagodzilla is fighting against Godzilla and everything seems to be running smoothly for the humans because Mechagodzilla is kicking Godzilla’s ass. But something changes when Mechagodzilla hears Godzilla’s roar. The roar that Mechagodzilla hears triggers an ancient memory hidden within its DNA, which is partially made up of the old Godzilla’s DNA. This roar awakens the old Godzilla in him. So in a way, suddenly it’s as if Mechagodzilla was possessed by the original Godzilla from the first film! As if the original Godzilla had somehow reincarnated in Mechagodzilla! And you know what is always in Godzilla’s mind: the complete annihilation of Japan ! And so suddenly Mechagodzilla goes from being under the control of the good guys, to rampaging out of control all over Japan. Problem is that Mechagodzilla has so many destructive weapons under its arsenal, that when it goes crazy, it starts using all of them to destroy Japan ! It’s an awesome spectacle of destruction. The way I saw it, this movie treated this whole Mechagodzilla plot line in the same way that Robocop (1987) played out. Think about it: Mechagodzilla is a robot that can’t really function properly because the memories of his past life won’t let him be? That’s the plot for Robocop right there! I guess this would go in line with how many Godzilla movies have something of American cinema in them.

Godzilla himself looks freaking awesome in this movie. What director Mazaaki Tezuka did was he made Godzilla more real. This doesn’t feel so much like the older movies, where you get the sensation that you are watching a guy in a suit, quite frankly, this is something that I find disappointing in the older Godzilla movies from the 60’s and 70’s. I might enjoy the hell out of a film like Monster Zero which I loved, but when it comes down to the Godzilla suit in that film, it just looks so damn dorky! This is not a problem in Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla. Godzilla looks monstrous, dark, menacing, a true monster. A special effort was made by director Maazaki Tezuka and his team to make Godzilla into a living breathing creature, he purposely tried to get away from Godzilla looking like a guy in a suit. The shots the director chose, help Godzilla look gigantic. When he first appears stomping on a town in Tokyo in the middle of the night, with the rain falling on him, he looks menacing, the people, genuinely afraid and the shots that the director used from below made Godzilla look gargantuan! Some Godzilla directors forget to do this; they fail to project Godzilla’s gargantuan nature. But the way Tezuka shot this film, that doesn’t happen often. On this movie, Godzilla is huuuge!

I love Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla films, but Tezuka has to be one of the best directors to take a hold of the franchise. Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla demonstrated one thing to me, Tezuka knows exactly what Godzilla fans want from a Godzilla movie, and he gave it to them! He knows that what people are most interested in is the Monster action, so that’s what he gives us most of in this film. In many ways, he is the opposite to Ishiro Honda who gave more importance to the human side of the story in his Godzilla films. In Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla Tezuka does the opposite of what Honda did, he pays more attention to the monster fights and the action, which is cool as well. I love me an action packed Godzilla flick! Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla was so successful in Japan that they made a direct sequel to it, one of the few instances in which this was done in the whole Godzilla franchise! That sequel was Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S, also directed by Tezuka. He also made Godzilla vs. Megaguirus (2000), which I’m looking forward to seeing as well. If Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla is any indication, I’m in for a treat with both of those films. Personally, to me this is the best that Godzilla has ever looked! Highly recommend this film to anyone who wants to see Godzilla at his city destroying best.

 Rating: 5 out of 5

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964)

Title: Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964)

Director: Ishiro Honda


Mothra, the spirit of the earth, the gigantic magical Moth from Infant Island that appears in many Godzilla films, is quite the popular creature in Japan . The creature is often times referred to as a female, because its name ends with an ‘a’ and Mothra lays eggs and protects them, much like a mother wood with her offspring. Also, in the films themselves, characters refer to Mothra as a “she”, also, Im thinking this is the creature they wanted little girls to identify with so they could sell them Mothra toys in Japan. Mothra first appeared in her own Kaiju film called ‘Mothra’ (1961), where she served as the protector of her worshippers, the people of Infant Island. Then after the success of that film, Mothra crossed over into the Godzilla universe and confronted Godzilla himself in ‘Mothra vs. Godzilla’, the second film ever to feature Mothra and the film I will be reviewing today. So, how was this fourth entry into the Godzilla franchise? 

The original Japanese Poster for Mothra (1961), the creatures first appearance

The poster for the American release of Mothra (1961)

In Mothra vs. Godzilla, a typhoon causes one of Mothra’s egg to loosen from its resting place on Infant Island. Because of the typhoon, the egg ends up traveling through the ocean until it reaches the beaches of Japan, where an entrepreneur acquires it and decides to build a whole amusement park around the giant egg, a la Jurassic Park. Of course, Mothra doesn’t like the fact that humans have hijacked one of her eggs, so she politely asks the humans to return her egg by talking through her magical twin fairies called ‘The Shobijin’ or The Cosmos, these two fairies go by quite a few names. But of course, as is to be expected of the greedy humans, the entrepreneur who wants to build his amusement park doesnt want to give the egg back! So Mothra and The Shobijin’s returns to Infant Island, sad that the humans would not return them Mothra’s egg. Soon after Mothra’s departure, Godzilla reawakens and starts destroying Japan! Now the humans need Mothra to help them out; but will Mothra help the humans beat Godzilla even after they decided not to return her egg? Do they even deserve to be helped?

Glad to say that Mothra vs. Godzilla was yet another excellent Ishiro Honda Godzilla film! Ishiro Honda was the director who made the original Gojira (1954), and I’m of the opinion that he has been responsible for some of the most entertaining and well made Godzilla films in the whole series. Honda’s great success with these movies was that he made the human side of the films as interesting as the Monster fights. In fact, I’ve noticed that monster fights come secondary in Ishiro Honda films. The really good monster fight is usually reserved for the ending of the film, with the human story being what dominates most of the picture. In this case, we have the humans finding Mothra’s egg after a typhoon. The debacle comes when some want to return the egg to Mothra while others want to open an amusement park around it. Money wins at the end of the day, and the egg ends up prisoner in a hangar, ready to be displayed to the world at the price of an admission ticket. The films main theme is greed and how it can take over our lives, blinding us to what is right. Actually, one of the bloodiest moments on any Godzilla film appears on this one, when a greedy business man bludgeons another business man almost to death, over money. I found that scene especially shocking for a Godzilla film. I mean, most of these films were aimed at kids, and here was one guy beating another to a bloody pulp over money!

What I liked most about this movie was that we get to go to Infant Island and meet Mothra’s worshippers! The inhabitants of Infant Island have this whole religion set up around worshipping Mothra. They sing, dance, and pray to it. It was fun to finally get to meet the people of Infant Island . Another interesting aspect of Mothra is that she has a special connection with these two tiny fairies that according to the fairies themselves goes deep and is beyond their control. It is this connection that makes Mothra search out these two fairies wherever they are. This holds true for every Godzilla movie that Mothra appears in, if Mothra appears, ‘The Shobijin’ are sure to be there as well. They have some sort of telepathic bond with the creature. In this film, the fairies where played by a popular Japanese pop band called 'The Peanuts'. These pop singers happened to be twin sisters as well, so they were perfect for playing The Shobijin Fairies for three films! Smart move in using pop singers for these characters, especially when we take in consideration that the main thing they do is sing songs to Mothra, to summon her. The song they sing is actually kind of catchy and has been used in various films.

Apparently, U.S. distributors where afraid that Mothra was going to scare away young male audiences who would consider it “too girly” so for the U.S. release of this movie, the title was changed to ‘Godzilla vs. The Thing’. The poster for this American release hid Mothra’s appearance from the audience; in fact, it actually misled people to believe that the creature that Godzilla fought in this film was a tentacled creature. Interesting how in Japan , a creature like Mothra is ultra popular, accepted and was prominently displayed on the films poster, yet for the U.S. audiences it was considered too silly. I guess that has a lot to do with Japanese audiences being more accustomed to seeing ‘Kaiju’ movies while in America, they are not as easily accepted. There's something about the cheese factor that some people cant take. And thats just the thing about these Godzilla movies, the thrive in cheese! I haven’t seen the American cut of this film, but I hear it includes a couple of sequences filmed especially for it that include scenes of the U.S. military helping out the Japanese military attack Godzilla. I guess the U.S. was trying to make up for past mistakes in that cut of the film! Like throwing a couple of nuclear bombs on Japan!

The American release poster for Mothra vs. Godzilla hides Mothra from the poster entirely, and misled audiences to believe the creature has tentacles

I’ve read some reviews that say that this film has no “social relevance” and that it’s merely meant to be enjoyed as a Kaiju movie, simply there for us to delight in watching giant monsters fighting each other. I don’t agree so much with that idea because that would make this film seem hallow, and its anything but that. There is a clear and distinctive message in the film against greed. In fact, a major point in the film comes when the humans don’t want to give Mothra’s egg back to the people of Infant Island because they want to profit from it. The “good humans” in the film have to let Mothra and the people of Infant Island know that we are not all greedy entrepreneurs who only care about money, that we are all humans living together on this earth. There’s also a desire expressed by the characters for humans to co exist in this world without distrust. So yeah, this movie has got something to say. It’s thinly layered, but it’s there.

Some seem to think that this movie isn’t so good because Godzilla gets his ass handed to him by a giant moth and by a pair of worms, but keep in mind that in this film, Mothra is the main character. The original title for this film was Mothra vs. Godzilla, not the other way around. So of course, Mothra was going to be doing most of the ass kicking on this film. Still, no matter who wins on this one (Godzilla can’t win them all!) this was a very entertaining film with an interesting story and characters. It’s not a dark or adult oriented Godzilla film like some of them out there. In fact, it’s very colorful and has an extremely happy ending. Had tons of fun with this one, highly recommend it to anyone out there who hasn’t experienced a Godzilla film yet.

Rating: 5 out of 5


Monday, June 27, 2011

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004)

Title: Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004)

Director: Mamoru Oshii


The best of Anime films are philosophical in nature. I’ve noticed that when anime directors talk about their films, they tend to talk about how much of their own life philosophy they have put into them. Miyazaki is one such director; many of his films carry environmentalist messages within them. Miyazaki ’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) and Princess Mononoke (1997) for example are films that explore themes of man vs. nature and even man vs. the divine. I guess so much time and effort is put into these films, that the filmmakers behind them want to infuse them with something personal, a philosophical fingerprint so to speak. Mamoru Oshii’s films are especially recognized for their philosophical approach towards anime. In fact, as I mentioned in my review for Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell (1995), his films are populated by characters who love to have long philosophical conversations. Ghost in the Shell was a science fiction film that explored themes of existentialism and asked questions like: How can we prove that we exist? Do our memories define us? What defines life? How can we grow and evolve as human beings? And when we are fully in control of our lives, where do we go from there? Important questions in deed. So when I finally decided to give Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence a watch, I immediately wondered what kind philosophical questions Oshii would explore this time around.

If you remember correctly, Ghost in the Shell presented us with the characters of Major Motoko Kusanagi and Batu, both of which belonged to an organization known as ‘Section 9’, an anti-terrorist unit. In that film Major Motoko and Batu were after a computer program known as ‘The Puppet Master’, a program that suddenly turns into a sentient being. The Puppet Master has become aware of its existence and wants to find a way to exist within the real world. The renegade program ends up transferring its consciousness into Major Motoko, who by the end of the film ends up disappearing into the world saying “And where does the newborn go from here? The net is vast and infinite”; then she jumps off a building and disappears into her new life in the real world. On Ghost in the Shell 2, Major Motoko is still at large, living her life somewhere in the real world. The government is still looking for her, but not because they care for her, rather, what they care about is the top secret information she carries in her brain. On this film we focus more on Batu, a couple of years after the events of the first film. He still works for Section 9, but since Major Motoko’s disappearance, he is now working on his own.

Basically, this film is Batu’s show. ‘The Major’ as they refer to Major Motoko Kusanagi (the main character in the first film) functions as more of a guardian angel for Batu. We hear her voice, but we never really see her, at least not in the way we saw her in the first film. ‘Innocence’ focuses on Batu’s investigations concerning a series of murders that have occurred in which sex robots known as ‘gynoids’ have killed their masters. 8 murders have been committed by these cyborgs. The gynoids suddenly go nuts and decide to kill their masters and themselves. Why is this happening? Who is at the root of this? Or is it simply a malfunction? A glitch in their programming? To aid Batu in his investigation, he is assigned a new partner named Togusa; an all too human partner.

I love the first Ghost in the Shell film. I like its deliberately slow pace, its philosophical explorations, its cyberpunk mood, its futuristic landscape and the animation, top notch. But I always felt it was missing something. I felt the story sort of ended too quickly, I needed more of a bang in the last minutes of the film. But aside from that, the first Ghost in the Shell is near perfect to me. So here comes this sequel that completely surpasses the original on all levels. Interesting part about this project is that even though it’s a bigger film, with a bigger budget (reportedly around 20 million dollars) the film still manages to have incredibly intimate and introspective moments, the kind of moments you’d expect from a Mamoru Oshii film. There is this one moment where we see Batu arriving at his apartment, preparing food for his dog and sitting on his couch to relax and contemplate the events of the day, some of the quietest moments in the film; yet incredibly endearing somehow. The relationship and closeness between Batu and his Baset Hound offer us some of the most heartfelt moments in the film. That’s another thing you can expect to see in Oshii’s films, he loves his Baset Hounds and has included them in many of his films in one way or another. On this one the dog is all over the film going as far as forming an important part of the films themes. On this film Oshii puts across the idea that we are all important and alive and part of this world, be it humans or dogs or cyborgs; the ultimate message being coexistence.

Visually speaking, this film is superior to anything that Oshii has ever done. A couple of years ago Oshii decided to take the original Ghost in the Shell and refurbish the visuals by adding and replacing couple of animation sequences which were done with traditional animation with new CGI. In my opinion, that experiment didn’t work very well because the new CGI stood out like a sore thumb against the older animation, that version of Ghost in the Shell was called Ghost in the Shell 2.0, I personally recommend the original version with the traditional animation in it over the new ‘enhanced’ version. On Innocence, Oshii decided to mix both CGI animation with traditional, only this time it worked because it was what was intended for this film from the get go. The result are some of the most beautiful and astonishing images your apt to see in an Anime, these animators really out did themselves in terms of details, one viewing of this film will not be enough to absorb it all. Repeated viewings are certainly recommended. Oshii pushed his team of expert animators to the limit with this film, always giving them a new challenge in terms of what they could do. The DVD extras really go into what the animators had to go through to make this movie, I loved the fact that they interviewed them and asks their opinions on the the whole creative process, it was a real insight. In fact, the making off segments are highly recommended. They follow the whole process of the film up to the part where Mamoru Oshii and his producer travel to France, for the Cannes Film Festival, but more on that in a few moments. 

Their are some scenes in Innocence that evoke scenes from Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982), an obvious influence over this film. For example the scenes in which Bato and Togusa visit an old city and fly over it on a ship, looking at the city as they flyby, in these instances Oshii takes his time in letting the audience bask in the visuals, same as Ridley Scott did in those first opening moments of Blade Runner, where we could really take in that futuristic landscape of flying cars and interesting architectures. Whole moments are there for us to simply admire and enjoy the artistry with which this film was made. There’s this whole sequence that’s takes place during a parade that’s simply stunning, and when they reach the headquarters of Locus Solus (the company that manufactures the cyborgs) the design in these sequence are also something to be admired. Just be ready for some truly beautiful imagery. 

In Oshii’s own words, this is not your conventional anime film. At it’s core, this is a drama for adults. Oshii hoped that even though the story is aimed at adults, hopefully the younger crowd will find the film appealing as well. But ultimately, Oshii didn’t have kids in mind when he made this one. It’s a film that’s very moody, and quiet at times, Oshii enjoys his intimate quiet moments. His characters don’t have to be going around blowing everything up every five seconds. Characters in an Oshii film feel very real because of this. But don’t confuse this with a boring movie, it has its action packed moments, I think Oshii did a good balancing act between quiet moments and more action packed ones. 

The original Ghost in the Shell was extremely influential on American cinema and apparently, so is this sequel. Their are scenes in Innocence that deal with dreams within dreams, watching these scenes I started to wonder if Nolan had seen this film before he started writing Inception. The similarities between both films are there. This wouldn’t surprise me since Inception has many similarities with the first Ghost in the Shell film as well. It seems to me that Christopher Nolan might be a real Mamoru Oshii fan! Influential or not, the film was well received at the Cannes Film Festival in 2004. It was even nominated for the Palm D’Or award at the festival, an award reserved only for the best film of the year. Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence lost the award to Fahrenheit 9/11, but that doesn’t matter, what does matter is that a Japanese animated film was considered one of the best films that year, going up against live action films and documentaries (and even other animated films like Persepolis) so that says a lot about the films quality. This Mamoru Oshii film is animation of the highest caliber. It’s food for the eyes and the mind, don’t miss it.

Rating: 5 out of 5

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Yojimbo (1961)

Title: Yojimbo (1961)

Director: Akira Kurosawa

Cast: Toshiro Mifune

In Yojimbo, we meet a nameless ‘Ronin’ (a masterless Samurai) who stumbles upon a town that is being ravaged by the animosity between to warring factions. These two factions have taken over the businesses of the town, and have driven it to fear and extreme poverty. Nobody walks the streets, everybody stays in their homes, and young men are running away to live their lives somewhere else, leaving everything behind, including family. When the Ronin arrives at this town he is greeted by a dog carrying a decaying human hand! A small yet poignant sign of how bad things are in this town. The Ronin immediately notices that there is something wrong and that things need to be made right again. When the Ronin is asked to leave this cursed town by a frightened restaurant owner, the Ronin replies “I’ll get paid for killing, and this town is full of people who deserve to die” Ladies and gents, welcome to the bleak world of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo.

Akira Kurosawa was a master filmmaker, one of the best in the world. His films had a certain feeling to them, a certain sincerity which sticks with you long after you’ve watched them. His characters aren’t paper thin, they live and breathe and feel. Akira Kurosawa’s films never go by at a fast pace, in fact, he was a filmmaker that took his time in telling his stories, always mindful of the audience. He was of the mind that in order for a film to be successful, it had to be entertaining and easy for the audience to understand. If you’ve never experienced an Akira Kurosawa film, I recommend Rashomon (1950), Dreams (1990), or Seven Samurai (1954). These three films are just a small token of this esteemed directors filmography; a filmography that has gone on to influence many filmmakers from around the world.

For example, when Sergio Leone went on to make A Fist Full of Dollars (1964) he really set out to make a remake of Yojimbo. Leone confronted one problem after completing his film: he had not secured the rights to making the Yojimbo remake, so when Leone released A Fist Full of Dollars in Europe , Kurosawa sued. They settled for 100,000 for Kurosawa and a percentage of the films earnings and that was the end of that legal debacle. But when you watch A Fist Full of Dollars, what you are basically looking at is a western version of Yojimbo. Clint Eastwood plays the scruffy nameless loner who walks into a town at war with itself. He comes to make things right, by getting both sides to kill each other. A Fist Full of Dollars being a remake of Yojimbo makes perfect sense because when you look at it, Yojimbo plays out a lot like a western. Right down to the spooky ghost town where the wind is blowing non stop and there are showdowns in the middle of the street. This had a lot to do with the fact that Akira Kurosawa was very influenced by American Westerns.

For Yojimbo, Kurosawa was inspired by various elements, among them Dashiell Hammett’s novel Red Harvest. But Kurosawa was also influenced by a film that was also based on another one of Hammett’s novels, the film was The Glass Key (1942). In fact, Japanese film critics often criticized Kurosawa for being influenced by American films, a fact that he never denied. Yojimbo is a film that is filled with many trademark images that come straight out of American cowboy films. That shot of the lonely hero standing in the middle of the dusty road. The shot from behind the hero, as he faces off against his enemy, they all come from cowboy films. So what we got here is a sort of cinematic Ouroboros. Kurosawa fed off of John Ford films, Leone was inspired by Kurosawa; George Lucas, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and Takashi Miike all fed from Kurosawa and so on and so on…ad infinitum through out time. Films are like that, they have a way of continually influencing each other, Yojimbo being a good example of just that. Even Walter Hill made his own Yojimbo remake in 1999, he called his film Last Man Standing, which starred Bruce Willis and Christopher Walken. Last Man Standing had the same plot as Yojimbo, but set the story in a prohibition era Texas with gangsters and guns instead of samurais and swords. Recently, Takashi Miike’s Sukiyaki Western Django (2007) borrowed heavily from Yojimbo, and I haven’t seen Miike’s 13 Assassins (2011), but I’m willing to bet it has a lot of Kurosawa in it. Just goes to show what in influential filmmaker Kurosawa was, Yojimbo being one of his most influential masterpieces.

Yojimbo has so many good things going for it. For example, I loved the dreadful mood that Kurosawa cast over the town. It feels as if death just walked through it, starting with the dog holding the human hand in its mouth. The black and white cinematography adds to the whole dreadful look. Kurosawa continued setting the dreadful atmosphere by starting the picture in a ghost town, with empty streets, and the constant  howl of the wind. Honest, good characters are scarce on this picture; most of the characters are despicable ones, caring only about their own personal interest. Always looking for a way to backstab and benefit from the other. In contrast to all that is the Ronin, a nameless vigilante who struts in the town and notices that things just aren’t right. Toshiro Mifune’s presence in this film is incredible, undeniable. At first glance he seems like a blood thirsty Samurai looking to make a couple of dollars, but then we realize he is much more then that. He is a character that wants to set things right in this town so that people can once again live in peace and harmony without all the bad elements hanging about. When a restaurant owner realizes the Ronin’s modus operandi, he smiles and tells him “you are not bad, you just act that way”. The Ronin is a character that you grow to like, he doesn’t look like a good guy, but his actions let you know otherwise.

Personally, I really loved Yojimbo. What held me on to it was Kurosawa’s storytelling style and Mifune’s strong performance. The way Kurosawa wrote the character, you feel like the Ronin is a character who has a genuine sense of what is right and wrong in this world. He’s on the side of ‘the people’, the good guys. The Kurosawa/Mifune combo came back for a sequel made just one year after Yojimbo, the sequel was called Sanjuro (1962). I’ll be reviewing that one in the next couple of days, look forward to that review. 

Rating: 5 out of 5

Steamboy (2004)

Title: Steamboy (2004)

Director: Katsuhiro Otomo


Akira (1988) was the Japanese animated film that got me started in my love for ‘Japanimation’ films. I don’t know if the term ‘Japanimation’ is used anymore. I think that the term has fallen into disuse (replaced with the term ‘Anime’) but back then, during the late eighties and early nineties, that’s what they were calling Japanese Animated films. Films like Vampire Hunter D (1985) Ninja Scroll (1993) and Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie (1994) were the talk of the town, these were the films that my friends and I talked about when conversations about Japanese animation were sparked. But Otomo’s Akira was always the king of them all, and still is in many ways. I first saw Akira way back in the 90’s when it was starting to get its acclaim as one of the greatest animated films ever made. And it had every right to be called that, the animation was excellent, it had that cyberpunk attitude about it, it was futuristic, nihilistic, cutting edge, epic. There was no denying that this wasn’t just any old anime film, this was something special. Then Ghost in the Shell (1995) came along with the promotional backing of American distributors and opened a whole other door to the genre. Producers were realizing that there was a market for these kinds of films out there, and they were making sure the world knew it.

The Masterpiece

Thanks to the interest in Japanese animation that was originated with these films, Anime films are now stronger than ever. They still don’t open to huge box office numbers, but they sure do sell a bunch of DVD’s. Things have gotten so good for Anime films that now, it's Disney who distributes Studio Gibli’s productions in America and so now Hayao Miyazaki’s films get theatrical releases. The latest example being Ponyo (2008). Akira will have a special place in heart as the first one that got me to love Japanese animation. These weren’t cute little animals talking; these were post apocalyptic teenagers riding their super charged motorcycles in a post apocalyptic ‘Neo-Tokyo’! So of course I was excited to hear about Steamboy, a film that was also directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, the creator of Akira. Interesting fact: Katsuhiro Otomo is the creator of both the comic book and the film adaptation for Akira. Don’t know how many of you are familiar with the Akira manga (Japanese for comic book) but it’s a colossal work of comic book art. It consists of 6 Volumes that cover 2,182 pages of artwork and story! It is an epic tale. Its film version takes that story and compresses it, while still retaining the themes of the epic manga tale. Both the comic and the film broke new barriers in animation and story telling. So of course, my expectations where set high for Steamboy. After all, this was the creator of Akira were talking about here!

I’m happy to say that my expectations were met. At first I had my doubts about this movie being as awesome as Akira. There was something about the period setting that turned me off somehow, apparently, the same happened with mass audiences everywhere. Because of its Victoria era setting, I thought it wasn’t going to be as exciting. This was the primary reason why I took so long to finally watch this film. But, thanks to my Japanese Themed Summer Blog-a-Thon, I decided to finally give this one a watch. I’m glad I did because as it turns out, I was missing out yet again. This happened to me for judging a book by its cover, or rather a film by it’s trailer. Or what I thought the movie was going to be like. Granted, I prefer a futuristic cyber punk science fiction films over those set in the 1800’s, but Mr. Otomo managed to make things interesting in Steamboy none the less.

Steamboy takes place in 1860’s Manchester and tells the tale of a family of inventors called The Steams, three generations of the Steam family have their efforts sets on creating something they call the ‘Steamball’; a gadget that compresses steam and creates tremendous amounts of power. James Ray Steam is the youngest of the Steams; a 13 year old boy son to Edward Steam and grandson to Lloyd Steam. Edward Steam decides that he wants to use the power of the Steamball’s to build a giant Steam Castle. It’s ultimate purpose? To sell it to a bunch of military leaders as the ultimate military weapon. Problem is that while Edward Steam thinks that steam power can be used for war and destruction, his father Lloyd Steam thinks it should be used to help mankind instead. So there’s a battle of wits as to how the Steamball’s should be used in the world, and little James Ray Steam is caught between this battle of wills; a battle of ideologies between his father and his grand father. Who will James ultimately side with?

At first I thought the movie was going to be a huge bore because truth be told, it does start out kind of slow. I was thinking to myself that my fears were becoming true, this one is going to be boring…but I gave it a chance. I was happy to discover that not only would I be treated to enormous amounts of action, but the film would also go on to explore some interesting themes as well. A lot of critics gave this film a tough time because supposedly it wasn’t as deep, or the story wasn’t as good as Akira. And I’ll admit, it is a simpler film in some ways, but this doesn’t mean the film doesn’t have something to say. It is a film of war vs. peace, of greed and power vs. humanity. What will science be used for? To advance military practices? To bring forth weapons of mass destruction? Or will it be used to make mankind happier and the world a better place to live in? These are the films main themes. Edward Steam is the power hungry inventor who thinks weapons will usher humanity into a whole new era. He ends up creating what he calls the ‘ Steam Castle ’, a gigantic flying fortress that runs thanks to the power of the Steamballs.

The Steamball

Grandpa Steam is all against his son war like mind, he wants to use steam to create a floating amusement park for children to enjoy. You see, Grandpa Steam’s original plans for The Steam Castle were to create a flying amusement park, complete with a Merry Go Around and a gigantic Ferris Wheel. Grandpa Steam asks: “What would men do with this new technology? Plunge the world into war and chaos?” His son Edward replies: “That very chaos would transform us. The heart adapts to reality” and Grandpa Steam says: “But the heart comes first Eddie!” This interchange between father and son shows us just how against each other these two mentalities are. Same as many films that pit the old vs. the new, or vice versa, it’s always in the hand of the youth to change things. In this case, it’s in 13 year old James Ray’s hands to decide how he will use previous generations’ discoveries. It’s that old idea that hope rests in the hands of future generations who can and should benefit from the accumulated knowledge of their predecessors. Newer generations can learn from their ancestors’ mistakes and improve on society and quality of life. The main idea being that we can’t forget the mistakes of the past, we must learn from them in order to improve our future. This ideology can be applied to different areas of life, including politics, religion, science and philosophy. So you see, this film does have some meat to it after all.

But aside from that, the film is one awesome spectacle of animation! The movie takes a while to really take off, setting up its characters and their different ideologies. The filmmakers really wanted you to know where each character stands, so that you could later know what they are fighting so much about. But once the action gets going, it doesn’t stop! The last half of the film is made up of none stop action and destruction! Dr. Edward Steam organizes a demonstration to show the arms dealers of the world just how much they can benefit from his inventions which include all sorts of military weapons. From flying soldiers, to submarines, tanks and men in armored suits; all powered by steam. The Steam Castle turns into this monstrosity that goes around London destroying important historical landmarks and freezing everything that comes into its path! Then it’s a race to the finish to see how they can stop the Steam Castle from destroying all of London . Now that I think about it, the ending with the Steam Castle destroying every building in its path was not unlike a Godzilla film. This film also had elements in common with Wild Wild West (1999), because that one is also a film about a crazy inventor constructing gigantic steam powered machines used for military purposes. Some scenes also brought to mind The Rocketeer (1991) because at one point James Ray straps on a steam powered back pack and flies through the skies!

Steamboy cost 20 million dollars to make, and 8 years to complete! American actors were brought in to dub the English version fo the film. The English dubbing was performed by the likes of Patrick Stewart as Grandpa Steam, Alfred Molina as Eddie Steam, and Anna Paquin as the voice of James Ray Steam. That’s right Anna Paquin plays the role of a boy, but if you’ve watched anime, you’ll know that this is a common practice in Japanese animation; women do the voices of young male characters. So the film was prepped for an international release. Unfortunately, this film didn’t set the anime world on fire, and it wasn’t a box office smash. Not even in Japan. This was a huge let down because this was the most expensive Japanese animated film ever made, actually, as I write this is still holds that title. But it didn’t garner enough attention from audiences to make its budget back. I think audiences reacted the same way I did, thinking it would be boring because it took place in the 1800’s. As it is, this movie was actually action packed! As I recently discovered, once Steamboy takes off, it really takes off! Some critics where criticizing the film for the same reasons I loved it. Some said it was an empty action spectacle, with no depth to it. But in my opinion, the film had a healthy balance of ideologies and action. Give Steamboy a chance, I think you’ll be surprised. 

Rating: 4 out of 5

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Takashi Miike: Master of Diversity

Takashii Miike is a director who shoots films with machine gun speed and a Samurai’s sword precision. They guy simply doesn’t stop working! As I write this, Takashi Miike has been involved in 85 films since he first started way back in 1991 when his cinematic career started with a straight to video film called Toppuu! Minipato Tai – Aikyacchi Jankushon. Currently he is working on three films: one of them is called Ninja Kids (2011), a children’s film about a kid called Rantaro and his adventures in a ninjitsu academy. To give you an idea of the speed at which Miike works, keep in mind that in 2002 alone Miike made 8 films! It goes without saying that he is an extremely prolific director who doesn't just stick to one genre, he tries them all. And he waists no time in doing it. In this way, he reminds me of Ridley Scott a director who is continually trying a different genre. Miike could make a Yakuza Film like Fudoh: The New Generation (1996) just as well as he could make a children’s film like Yatterman (2009). He can make a drama like The Bird People of China (1998) just as well as he can make a horror film like Audition (2000). He’s films can go from the extremely surreal Yakuza film Goku (2003) to the experimental potpourri of genres known as The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001). As you can see, Miike’s filmology is anything but conventional.

What makes a Takashi Miike film, a Takashi Miike film? Believe it or not, even though he covers a great many genres with his films, they do have a uniqueness to them. Certain elements set them apart, some elements bond his films together. For example, a lot of Miike’s films are extremely violent or gory; the gore on his films can be extreme, but at the same time cartoonish, kind of like reading a very violent manga where buckets of blood spray in the air. But even though his films can get quite graphic and gory, they always have a depth of philosophical exploration to them. For example, Miike’s segment for Three Extremes (2004) entitled ‘Box’ wasn’t just a short film about twin sisters who work as contortionists in a circus, this visually engaging short film was also an exploration on the theme of incest. Much like the films of David Cronenberg, often times there’s are a psychological or philosophical exploration behind Miike’s films. Another thing that makes Miike, Miike is that he loves his Yakuza films! In this he is similar to Martin Scorsese who loves making his gangster films. Go through his filmography to see just how many of his films are about Yakuza's, there's quite a bunch of them. I'll be reviewing some of them soon, I'm going to try and focus on his Dead Alive series, so look forward to that!

But what I like most about Miike films is that they are not afraid to explore taboo subject matter. This probably has a lot to do with the freedom that Japanese filmmakers have, they don’t have as many restrictions as American cinema, they don’t have to deal with an MPAA rating and judging their films. Films from around the world can go deeper, explore themes further. And when it comes to themes dealing with human sexuality, well, Miike goes pretty far. Again, same as Cronenberg, Miike’s films mix the psychological, the sexual and the violent. It’s no wonder Miike sites Cronenberg as one of his favorite filmmakers. These two directors dont fear exploring the darker areas of the human psyche and sexuality, so when you watch a Miike film, expect lots of nudity and sexually explicit situations. 

Sometimes it’s difficult to fathom how the same guy who made the controversial and ultra violent Ichi the Killer (2001) is the same guy who made the big budget children’s fantasy film The Great Yokai War (2005)! That’s like saying that David Cronenberg had directed The Never Ending Story or something. But such is the nature of the great Takashii Miike, as a filmmaker he is totally unpredictable. You never know what he’s going to do next. And that to me is part of what makes this very unique filmmaker special. 

With this article I don' t even cover a tenth of Miike's films, he has so many films in his filmography that it would take way more then one article to do that. But don't worry! Since here on The Film Connoisseur I’m currently on a Japanese kick, I'll end up reviewing some Takashi Miike films in the next couple of days. In the mean time, I thought you guys would like to read a bit about some of Takashi Miike’s body of work. The films I’ll be mentioning on this article are a small sample of his vast filmography. The main idea is that you guys and gals out there who have yet to experience a Miike film will get an idea of what this very special Japanese filmmaker is all about. Enjoy!

Film: Fudoh: The New Generation (1996)

Synopsis: This one is all about a family feud that takes place within a Yakuza family. Riki Fudoh is a teenager in highschool, but he is a little different: his father is head of a Yakuza Organiztion! One day, Riki sees his own father killing his brother, and from there on in, it is Riki’s mission in life to bring down his father’s Yakuza organization. In order to do this effectively, Riki get’s starts building his own army of underage killers. Amongst these killers is a beautiful girl who can shoot darts out of her vagina! Yes, you read that last comment right. Pretty soon, Riki takes over the school and controls it entirely, once his army of misfits is complete, he goes up against his own fathers organization in a climactic fight to the death. This is one of Miike’s earliest films, he made it when he was still making straight to video films, yet it shows he’s always been fond of shock, and gore. This one is full of gory moments including a Yakuza that chops his sons head clean off in order to appease his Yakuza master. 

Stand Out Shock Scene: One of Riki Fudoh’s body guards in the school is a girl who can shoot poisonous darts from her vagina. At one point, she shoots one of her darts, which shoots out of her vagina along with a huge spray of blood. In reply to her surprised enemy she says “sorry, I’m on my period!”

Film: Full Metal Yakuza (1997) 

Synopsis: Ever wondered what a Japanese version of Robocop would be like? Well, wonder no further, this is it! Miike making this film makes perfect sense when we take in consideration that he’s such a big fan of Paul Veerhoven; the director behind Robocop (1987). Still, Full Metal Yakuza is in no way a rip off, it's not an exact copy of Veerhoven's 80's classic. Full Metal Yakuza has many things that make it even more hardcore than Robocop ever was. For example, the main character in this film isn’t a cop, but the contrary, a wannabe Yakuza. He aspires to be the best Yakuza, but he isn't. In fact, he ends up getting killed by a rival Yakuza gang. Lucky for him that a scientist takes his body and replaces the damaged parts with robotic parts…as an added bonus, the scientist is so nice that he reverses his impotency by giving him a gigantic robot penis! He even has his old Yakuza boss’s heart beating inside of him! Now he is out for revenge on those who wronged him. Miike made this one straight to video and it’s low budget is very evident, especially when it comes to the quality of the image and its special effects. This was a film made cheaply, and quickly for the straight to video market. But the film has enough gore, creativity and depravity to keep you interested all through out. Not Miike’s brightest or deepest, but it is so violent and depraved that its entertaining.

Stand Out Shock Scene: Full Metal Yakuza takes the head of one of his enemies and hurls it so hard through the air that it travels from one building to the next!

Film: Audition (2000) 

Synopsis: Audition was the first Miike film to bring him international acclaim. Thanks to the boom that J-Horror films experienced around the start of the millennium, Audition along with Ichi the Killer were the two films that got Miike's name known to American genre fans. Nowadays his name is a house hold name amongst horror fans, and lovers of Japanese Cinema, but back then, when Audition was first released on dvd, he was just starting to get recognition outside of Japan . This film tells the story of a wannabe actress named Asami, who is desperate to get her first acting gig. She ends up going to an audition for a film. Problem comes when the audition that she goes to turns out to be a farce. You see, a producer wants to help his friend find a new wife, so he sets up a fake audition just so his lonely friend could meet a bunch of girls and pick one as his new wife. Problem comes when the girl doesn’t like the fact that she’s been lied to! Then, her psychotic side emerges and things get ugly from there on in. This film takes a while for its tension and horror to kick in. For it's first half, the film actually feels like a love story. It's only during it's last half that the film shows its ugly claws and rips your heart out. 

Stand Out Shock Scene: When Asami puts on her black plastic gloves and picks up some piano strings, get ready for some grueling, torturous scenes of bloody mayhem! Not gonna spoil it for ya.

Film: Visitor Q (2001) 

Synopsis: This is one of my personal favorite Miike films because it is so thought provoking and such a critique on family life and family dynamics. One day, a mysterious character simply known as “Visitor Q” suddenly pops up and joins a Japanese family on their day to day lives. Thing is that this family is anything but traditional, in fact, everyone in this family is a little messed in the head. The Father wants to have sex with his daughter, who is a prostitute. The son, beats his mom, who in turn is a drug addict. Miike is obviously portraying terrible characters as a way of commenting on negative family behaviour. Q functions as the ultimate watcher, the ultimate voyeur. An observer of human behavior. He rarely comments on things, he just watches. In most occasions, the family ignores Q as if he wasn’t even there. This made me see the character of Q as a godlike figure. One of Miike’s most thought provoking films. This film was part of a series of films called “Love Cinema”. These films where shot by six independent filmmakers, as a low budget exercise, to explore the benefits of shooting on low cost digital video and a miniscule budget, as a way of showing that a lot can be achieved with very little as long as the talent behind the camera is good, as it was with this film. The result was a film with a very real, documentary style look, something that is growing in popularity in American cinema. Examples of this style of filmmaking in American cinema are Paranormal Activity (2007) and The Last Exorcism (2010). 

Stand Out Shock Scene: At one point the mother who is not pregnant and has no babies, starts to squeeze her breasts until milk starts coming out of her nipples. Then, to freak you out a little more, her husband helps himself to a couple of drops. Paging Dr. Freud…

Film: Gozu (2003)

Synopsis: Once again Miike revisits one of his favorite premises: The Yakuza Crime Scene! On this film, we meet Azamawari, the leader of a Yakuza family who is worried about the strange and erratic behavior of Ozaki, one of his henchmen. So he does what any intelligent Yakuza Lord would do, he orders one of his other henchman to take Ozaki to the town of Negoya to have him killed. Azamawari does not want a loose cannon like Ozaki on his organization. Problem comes when Ozaki’s would be executioners take him to Negoya; that’s when things start to get just a little bit weird on this movie! This film has got to be hands down one of the weirdest films in Miike’s filmography, and that’s saying a lot! When we finally arrive at Negoya, it’s as if we’ve somehow entered The Twilight Zone or a David Lynch film. Take your pic. Speaking of Lynch, this film has a very strong Lynchian vibe going for it, again, this is probably Miike’s way of paying his respects to one of his favorite filmmakers. But again, Miike is even more unhinged then Lynch could ever be. This movie is extremely freaking weird. If I had to compare this film to a Lynch film, I’d say its close to what Lynch did in Lost Highway (1997). But nothing I say will prepare you for this movie; you simply have to see it. Highly recommend it for one of those nights when you just want to see some fucked up weird shit. 

Stand Out Shock Scene: Ozaki (the unhinged gangster) sees a person walking a Chihuahua out on the streets and is convinced that it is a ‘Yakuza watchdog’ for a rival Yakuza family. So what does he do? He walks out into the street, grabs the dogs’ collar, gives the dog a couple of swings in the air and then smashes the little Chihuahua against the crystal window of the restaurant where his boss is eating at. This my friends is just one of many moments in this film, trust me, they get way crazier.

Film: The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001) 

Synopsis: This is the best of example of just how prolific a director Miike actually is. This film is difficult to categorize within any particular genre because it covers so many of them! This film is a kaleidoscope of genres! At times the film feels like a comedy, because this is film about a family of depressed individuals who’s hotel, called ‘The White Lovers Inn’ is practically going out of business. Problem is that practically every customer that comes into the hospital ends up either committing suicide or getting murdered. Then the dead customers turn into zombies. Then there is a musical number. And then it’s a love story. And it keeps jumping from genre to genre like that. The film even has some stop animation sequences. This is a very off beat film, but at the same time, very light hearted and fun. Funny thing is that even Miike’s attempts at making a comedy ending up being disturbing and dark. 

Stand Out Shock Scene: A zombie musical sequence, where zombies toe tap and head nod as they dance to a happy song about enjoying life while we are here, reminiscent of Monty Python’s musical numbers like Life of Brian’s “Always look on the bright side of life”.

Film: Three Extremes (2004) 

Synopsis: This excellent horror anthology film is composed of three different stories by three different  directors. And they are not just any directors! These guys are special! The first one called ‘Dumplings’ is directed by Chinese director Fruit Chan. ‘Dumplings’ is about a woman who makes these magical dumplings that make you look younger! What’s the secret ingredient for youth? The second one called ‘Cut’, directed by Chan Wook Park (Oldboy, Lady Vengeance) is about a disgruntled movie extra who wants revenge on the film director that never gave him a leading role. And finally, Takashi Miike directed the one called ‘Box’ about a pair of twin sisters who work as contortionists in a circus with their dad. Why does dad favor one daughter over the other? Miike’s short is very beautiful to look at, very dark, very gothic and very surreal. But like some of the best Miike films, its message is a powerful one. Three Extreme’s is an excellent anthology film. You get three films by three excellent directors who know a thing or two about great cinema. If you haven’t seen this one yet, get ready to be shocked by three awesome horror stories that fall more on the artistic and intellectual side of things.

Film: The Great Yokai War (2005) 

Synopsis: This isnt your traditional Miike film. As I’ve mentioned on this article, Miike loves trying new genres of film, and this time around he took a stab at directing a children’s film. On this one we meet a young boy who is one day chosen (during a village festival) to be the Kirin Rider. A warrior that is meant to protect everyone from evil spirits, and evil in general. Problem is that his magic sword is broken and he needs to find the magical blacksmith that can fix it, he needs his sword fixed in order to prepare for the coming Spirit War or Yokai War. The final brawl is one filled with thousands upon thousands of spirits and many uneven half assed effects. Some effects work, some don’t. The film is uneven that way, there is stop motion, there is CGI, there’s men in suits and every monster is completely different then the last one. It is interesting for that alone, all the different monsters that pop up on screen, and trust me, at one point you’ll be seeing literally thousands of monsters. It was interesting to see Miike directing a children’s fantasy film. I’d like to see more of these, like Zebraman (2004). 

Stand Out Shock Scene: A giant turtle spirit flies through the skies and a bystander looks at it and says “oh, its only Gamera!” making reference to 'Gamera' a popular Japanese Kaiju film, and one of Godzilla’s many enemies.

Film: Sukiyaki Western Django (2007) 

Synopsis: This film is about a gun totting vigilante that arrives to a town where he is caught between two gangs both of which are fighting to get to a treasure first than the other. The stranger will give his services and help to the highest bidder. So he plays both sides. This flick is a hyper stylized homage to spaghetti westerns; it’s a love letter to films like Django (1966), which is also about a gunslinger who is caught between two feuding factions. There’s lots of love for The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966) as well. My main problem is that plot can get a bit confusing at times, you can get lost at times, but thankfully there is enough eye candy to keep us entertained. Tarantino himself makes a cameo in the film as an aging gunslinger remembering the good old days. It obvious that Mike and Tarantino both share an appreciation for westerns, it makes sense that Tarantino is now making his own Django film entitled Django Unchained, cant wait to see how that one turns out! 

Stand Out Shock Scene: Two characters are having a fight, one has a sword, the other a gun. The gunslinger shoots a bullet and the sword swinger slices the bullet in half with his sword! Then, the continue their sword and gun fight, with the gunslinger using his gun like a sword. You gotta see it to believe it.

Well, thats it ladies and gents, hope you enjoyed the article. I'll be exploring some Takashi Miike in the next couple of days! Look forward to more reviews of his films. 


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