After the Storm (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★
Here is a film that offers a protagonist who is a loser in the beginning and by the end he is still a loser. More digestible works would have absolved their characters of important shortcomings—or, worse, granted flimsy, silly excuses for the audience to feel good. But writer-director Hirokazu Koreeda is not interested in this approach. Instead, he provides details about the character by showing us what is important to him. Understanding him does not change the adage that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but it does remind us to take a second and be more sympathetic before casting judgement. What is film, after all, but a medium by which we get a chance to walk in another’s shoes?
Hiroshi Abe plays Ryôta, a full grown man, divorced, so afraid of losing his son (Taiyô Yoshizawa) permanently—since his ex-wife (Yôko Maki) has begun to date a more financially secure man—that he decides to spy on them. Abe plays the protagonist with quiet desperation and we observe his deep yearnings seep into his work as a private detective. It appears as though each case involves a man or woman cheating on a partner. His escape is gambling. Asking people for money and attempting to pawn off various items for an an extra buck take up the rest of his time. Meanwhile, every time he gets a knock on his door, fear strikes him like a lightning bolt, fearing these might be debt collectors.
The camera has a habit of resting on Ryôta’s tired face. Abe executes a great balance between Ryôta being self-aware of his worthlessness and wanting to change something in his life—even though he doesn’t quite know what to change, or at least admit that he has a gambling addiction and it is a major contributor to his downward spiral. Since Ryôta has trouble defining himself, those around him tend to define him instead. Particularly interesting is the protagonist’s sister who does not mince words. She’s tough and she’s right. She knows he will never change. I found the material honest in its portrayal of someone who understands another down to the bone. Immediately we get a complete picture of these characters’ histories.
Despite an interesting but unexciting protagonist, the film is filled with beautiful moments. There is a series of scenes toward the latter half when the father gets a chance to spend time with his son (despite being unable to pay child support for three months). At first, they are in stores, surrounded by strangers, looking at items, buying them. But then they come to an area where the father spent his childhood. From here they begin to look at one another from time to time, excavating memories, forging a bond. Instead of the boy feeling guilty about which pair of shoes he’d like to have—the glossy, more expensive one versus the one on sale—he is asking questions about his father’s experiences as a child. The contrast between these scenes is stark but can be easily missed. Clearly, this is not a work for those uninterested in interactions between ordinary people.
Koreeda creates a portrait of a family where the audience is asked to observe and note discrepancies amongst what characters say versus what they do. It assumes the audience is intelligent and engaged. He is not afraid of quiet and slow moments. Instead, he uses these moments to reveal disappointments, resentments, and, yes, even hope for the future.
★★★ / ★★★★
Tired of the ennui of his every day life, Takafumi (Nao Ōmori) joins “Bondage,” an S&M club that offers a unique service: A variety of dominatrixes arrive at any moment and the customer is required to be submissive at all times. The contract lasts for a year and one is not allowed to withdraw from participation once the contracts are signed. Initially, Takafumi finds great pleasure in the encounters. They are exciting, painful, pleasurable. Eventually, however, the man begins to feel the leather-clad women have crossed the line by coming to his work and involving his son in the games.
“R100,” directed by Hitoshi Matsumoto, is one of the most delightfully bizarre movies I have had the pleasure to come across in some time. It is a comedy at its core, but we are given a chance to appreciate the depressing life of the lead character and perhaps understand why he decided to risk everything in order to feel alive again. At times it is savagely funny, occasionally disgusting, and consistently interesting. Things do not always make sense, but I could not peel my eyes away from the screen.
Each dominatrix is given a surface personality and “expertise” so all of them are instantly memorable. A standout is named The Queen of Saliva (Naomi Watanabe), long-haired and carrying some extra weight, who commands such a presence, I did not know whether to be scared of or be amused by her, unlike The Gobble Queen (Katagiri Hairi) and The Voice Queen (Mao Daichi) where I knew exactly how to feel toward them. The Queen of Saliva lives up to her name and although the scene offers gross-out humor, it functions on such a high level of energy that I could never predict what was going to happen next. What ultimately transpires thrusts the story in a very strange but still entertaining third act.
The picture might not have been as effective if it isn’t for Ōmori’s performance. We can tell a lot about the character by how the actor walks from one point to another. He takes rather small steps, calm and slow, as if to delay arrival to his destination. His posture is neither straight nor hunched but it does look defeated, unexcited, like the man in control is not really living but solely existing. There is a sadness to this character that I found to be fascinating; strip away the BDSM club that he is involved in and he remains to be worthy of getting to know further.
The film is a film within a film. From time to time, the same group of people—who I assume to be test audiences—step outside of the screening room to discuss—rather, complain—about the elements that are not working in the movie. I found these scenes to be very funny because some of the questions and criticisms I had were expressed. For instance, why does an S&M club need a CEO?
To watch “R100” is to go down a rabbit hole. It will entertain those with an open mind and likely to frustrate those who require a specific track of what a comedy should be. I enjoyed the picture not only because it takes risks but also because many of them work. The material could have been a one-note joke. Instead, we are provided an orchestra full of strange, curious, shocking, amusing turn of events.
Battle Royale (2000)
★★★ / ★★★★
Japan’s economy had collapsed which thrusted everyone’s lives into uncertainty. Since unemployment rate was at its worst, no one was happy. Some adults even killed themselves and left their children to fend for themselves. Students ceased to attend school which contributed to more violence in the streets. As a solution, the government introduced the Millennium Education Reform Act, also known as Battle Royale (BR) Act, where a high school class was to be randomly selected, kidnapped, and taken to a remote island. Their assignment was kill each other with various weapons. As a reward, the last person standing would be allowed to go home. The high concept of “Batoru rowaiaru,” based on a novel by Koushun Takami, worked best when its biting satire was front and center. The strongest scenes were found in the beginning as the students were forced by their former seventh grade teacher, Kitano (Takeshi Kitano), to watch an instructional video on how to survive in the island. The enthusiasm of the girl on the screen was similar to those late-night infomercials aimed to brainwash that what was being advertised had to be bought. But instead of an object being seen as a valuable commodity that had to be owned, the video convinced the students that the lives around them were commodities that just had to be taken. I wished that the screenplay by Kenta Fukasaku maintained that darkness instead of focusing on the romantic feelings between Shuya (Tatsuya Fujiwara) and Noriko (Aki Maeda). While their superficial interactions provided some heart to the story, they weren’t interesting enough compared to Mitsuko (Kô Shibasaki), a surprisingly ruthless girl who actually thrived on hunting for blood, Chigusa (Chiaki Kuriyama), the long-distance runner who stuck to her rituals despite the unfolding chaos, and Sugimura (Sôsuke Takaoka), desperate to find a specific girl to confess to her his true feelings before it was too late. As Shuya and Noriko unnecessarily promised each other multiple times that they were going to protect each other and find a way out, I found myself hoping that someone would sneak up behind them and put them out of their–and our–misery. Over time, though still watchable because the violence remained shocking and amusing, the film became more predictable. Since most of the scenes were tilted toward one or two groups of survivors, allowing us to warm up to them if they were “good” or getting us riled up if they were “bad,” we knew that they eventually had to face one another. The material failed to offer something special, perhaps a deep exploration of the hungry and vigilant animal in all of us when our lives were at a precipice, in order to overcome the plot’s necessary contrivances. “Battle Royale,” directed by Kinji Fukasaku, was at its best when it forced our eyes not to blink as the teens sliced, shot at, and pounded each other’s flesh like cavemen attempting to put down a lesser animal. At its worst, however, deep insight was set aside for lines like, “I’ve been in love with you for so long.” I sensed William Golding rolling in his grave.
Cold Fish (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★
When Mitsuko (Hikari Kajiwara) was caught shoplifting by a store manager, he called her father, Syamoto (Mitsuru Fukikoshi), and stepmother, Taeko (Megumi Kagurazaka), before calling the police. But when Murata (Denden), the store manager’s friend who happened to be on the same tropical fish business as Syamoto, came barging in the office to brag about his gigantic rare fish, he persuaded that the police needn’t be involved. Syamoto and his family were very grateful, but Murata wasn’t as generous a man he seemed. Behind his fish business, he and his wife, Aiko (Asuka Kurosawa), murdered people for money. Written by Shion Sono and Yoshiki Takahashi, “Tsumetai nettaigyo,” also known as “Cold Fish,” was an exercise on how a family, through a paternal figure, needed to be shaken up by horrific events in hopes of breaking out of their rut. Mitsuko was a wild teen who didn’t have an ounce of respect for her parents. She beat her stepmother without remorse and considered her father as a joke. Hoping that she’d change for the better, it was no wonder her guardians agreed for Mitsuko, equipped with free room and board, to work for Murata. The father was partly to blame. He was too lenient. If I was a teenager and got caught stealing from a store, my parents would throw a fit. When Murata allowed Mitsuko off the hook, there was not one scene where the father attempted to discuss with his daughter why what she did was unacceptable. We should be disturbed by that lack of proper parenting. The filmmakers made sure that the family drama was deeply rooted in reality before diving into the excess of gore, perversity, and dark comedy. The murders and step-by-step ways to make a person “invisible” didn’t leave much for the imagination. Once the victim had been poisoned, he was taken to a remote location, a shack next to a church, to be chopped into manageable pieces. Red liquid flooded the bathroom floor like sickness, organs were everywhere, and body parts that were still whole glistened in morbidity. However, it was mostly done in a comedic way. For instance, a silly, playful music would play in the background as someone desperately gasped for air. Close-up of the Aiko devoid of reaction, almost somnolent, because she’d seen a man struggle for his life more than she could count. As Syamoto was forced to dispose human meat in the size of chicken nuggets by the river, Murata would enthusiastically say things like, “You’re doing a good job!” and “The fish will be happy!” Shion Sono, the director, paired violence with sex. The physical act meant differently for each character. For instance, Taeko considered it a way to escape her miserable marriage while Aiko held it a symbol for being wanted. I admired “Cold Fish” most because I felt like it wasn’t restrained by anything. It was able to make a statement, with clarity, about how we live and the powerful elements that influence, consciously or otherwise, our decisions. It was a lesson in responsibility.
★★★ / ★★★★
The wife of a television producer had passed away when their son was still very young. Mr. Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) raised his son on his own and had grown accustomed to the loneliness of being a single parent. His son, Shigehiko (Tetsu Sawaki), noticed that his father seemed a bit sad for quite a while so he suggested that Mr. Aoyama should find a girl and get married. With the help of his co-worker (Jun Kunimura), the two men held an audition for a movie. Out of all the girls, Mr. Aoyama was most interested in Asami (Eihi Shiina), a girl who was passionate about ballet but had given it up due to a bad hip. He didn’t know she held a very dark secret. Based on a novel by Ryû Murakami and directed with great control by Takashi Miike, the neat thing about “Ôdishon” was if all the scenes involving the psychosexual horror were taken out, it worked as a solid romantic drama. The first half of the film consisted of tender moments between father and son, like fishing and sharing meaningful conversations over dinner, and funny scenes of various women auditioning for a lead role. There was a natural progression away from the light ambiance to a truly horrific finale. There were red herrings thrown at us to give us the impression that there was something seriously wrong about Asami. Despite his friend telling Mr. Aoyama that he felt something not quite right about the girl, the widower was intent in forming a relationship with the woman. He read her essay, which was a part of her resume, and he wanted so badly to believe that he knew her, that she was right for him. He saw that, like himself, she had been damaged by the past and that commonality was, from his perspective, deep enough for the two of them to want to share a life together. It brought a new definition to the saying that love is blind. He took a blind eye to her lies and so he failed to see her true intentions. The gruesome scenes toward the end had real potency. The picture earned showing us the grotesque images because of its steady rising action. In some ways, I wanted to see the gore and the mutilation. But the funny thing was, when I saw it, I almost immediately wanted to look away. However, I must mention some details that didn’t quite fit into the big picture. How did Mr. Aoyama, through a hallucination or dream sequence, learn the content of the bag in Asami’s apartment (or how her place looked like for that matter) when not once did he visit her place? It made me wonder that perhaps there was a missing scene prior to the third act. However, such details could be easily overlooked because the images that “Audition” offered were creepy and some were downright terrifying.
Lost in Translation (2003)
★★★ / ★★★★
The first time I saw this movie back in 2003, I thought it was mediocre at best because I didn’t see what the hype was all about. I didn’t see what was so profound about it; all I saw were a series of strange scenes about culture clash and two lonely people with a significant age difference meeting and saying goodbye. Watching it for the second time six years later, I found so much more meaning in terms of what Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray were going through. Johansson plays a neglected wife of a photographer (Giovanni Ribisi) who realizes that maybe she is falling out of love with her husband. Murray plays an actor who is hired by the Japanese to endorse several products but is conflicted with what he’s doing in a foreign country when he’s having problems at home. What I loved about this movie is its ability to use the characters’ loneliness as a common bond and go from there. Sofia Coppola, the director, was able to tell a somber (but refreshing) story without succumbing to the typicality Hollywood pictures about two people meeting each other in a foreign country. I’ve heard and read that lot of people thought that the two lead characters were involved in a blossoming romantic relationship. I disagree with that point of view because the two leads simply needed each other for some kind of solace. I thought what they had was a special kind of friendship–the kind that might last even after they leave Japan. Even though they were vastly different from one another, there was no language barrier (unlike with the Japanese) and each was actually willing to listen to one another (unlike Ribisi to Johansson and the wife to Murray). I also enjoyed how Coppola made the background conversations louder as the main characters were giving each other looks and smiles. Cinematic techniques like that made me think about the disconnect between ourselves and other people. More than half of the conversations in this picture were heavily one-sided. The characters may be talking to each other but they’re not really engaged or interested in what others have to say. Such scenes were painfully reflected in Johansson and Ribisi’s scenes of generic questions and one-word answers. I thought it was very truthful because sometimes I do feel like that with the people in my life. And like Johansson’s character, I sometimes take it so personally to the point where I start questioning whether I’m mature enough to emotionally handle such things. This is not the kind of movie that is strong when it comes to its plot. My advice is to really take a look at the characters, how their behaviors differ from their words and how lonely they really are underneath the smile and the sarcasm. The film may be a bit hard to swallow at times because one might feel that the pacing might be too slow. However, the melancholy tone was spot-on (with bits of comedy sprinkled here and there) and the characterizations ring true in actuality.
The Cove (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
When I saw the trailer for this documentary, directed by Louie Psihoyos, I knew I had to see it because the fact that people actually kill dolphins for whatever reason was shocking news to me. Not only did I find it shocking, I felt sort of embarrassed for people in general due to the complete lack of respect for creatures that are established to be very intelligent and have some sort of self-awareness. Dolphins may look like fish but they are actually more similar to us than the kinds of fish that we eat. The trailer made it look like the movie was exciting because the activists actually had to sneak in in the middle of the night to certain areas around the cove to hide cameras in rocks, trees and underwater as guards patrolled the place. It was able to deliver that level of suspense throughout the picture and more. I was impressed with this movie because not only was the film very informative, it was also educational. It wasn’t only about Japanese fishermen in Taijii killing dolphins. It was also about how the dead carcasses were labeled and sold as other types of fish in supermarkets, the levels of toxicity dolphin meat has, the effects of mercury to newborns, and how we as a society shaped this idea that dolphins are cute and can perform tricks so it’s alright to capture them. Richard O’Barry, an animal trainer who captured the five dolphins on the television show called “Flipper,” really made me think because he shared some insight and the experiences he had with dolphins. One of the many scenes that really touched my heart was when he told the story about how one of the dolphins on the show swam up to him, looked at him and committed suicide. And then explained that dolphins breathed consciously, unlike us humans. The dolphin was so depressed because it had been taken out of its natural habitat for so long that it chose to end its life. Another scene that really got to me was when one of the dolphins that was stabbed began to swim ashore as blood was coming out of it. In the beginning, I thought that maybe it’s part of the Japanese culture to eat dolphins. After all, I came from a different background so I don’t exactly know their customs. But then the film talked about how most of the people in Taijii, Japan had no idea that these dolphin killings were happening. I thought Psihoyos’ picture really got its bases covered because each of the question I had in my mind was answered. “The Cove” has a sense of urgency and I believe it should be seen by everyone because this local (though I’m guessing it happens in other parts of the world as well but we just don’t know exactly where) scenario of killing dolphins will have a significant effect on the entire ecosystem. I will never forget the images I’ve seen from this film and if you decide to see it, prepare yourself.
Porco Rosso (1992)
★★★ / ★★★★
I really enjoyed Hayao Miyazaki’s “Porco Rosso,” also known as “Kurenai no buta” and “Crimson Pig,” because it’s unlike the rest of his animated films that are more rooted in fantasy. Although the main character is half-man, half-pig, the movie does a good job commenting and exploring the fact that he’s more human than most of the other characters, especially the pirates and Porco’s American rival in the sky. Its story was a nice surprise because I thought the film was going to be about his journey to remedy the curse that had taken a hold of his body after fighting in World War I. It turned out that Porco was not unhappy with his appearance so we simply got to enjoy him interacting with different kinds of beings, taking strange jobs, and trying his luck with women. It doesn’t have a core story, which strangely enough, I enjoyed because there were many scenes when comedy and heart are at the forefront. However, I wished that I saw this film in its original language with subtitles instead of the dubbed version. I’ve aware of the fact that sometimes dubbing takes away layers of complexities from the original material either due to the language barrier and a culture’s own bias when it comes to what is acceptable for children to see. There were definitely scenes that made me question the subtle differences with what was being said and what was being enacted. Still, I think “Porco Rosso” is still fun to watch (which is probably geared more toward boys because of the many masculine images involving pirates and battles in the sky) despite its flaws because of its energy and it tackled universal emotions. And what I thought made this one special was that I could easily imagine it to be a live action movie, minus the half-pig angle, because it’s that connected to the characters’ humanities. What it lacks in darkness (as I come to expect in Miyazaki adventures), it makes up for romanticism and sometimes dry sense of humor. The animation may not be as “great” as today’s animated flicks but this one might take you by surprise.
Whisper of the Heart (1995)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written by Hayao Miyazaki and directed by Yoshifumi Kondo, this animated film showcases a charming tale of a girl named Shizuku (Youko Honna) and her passion for writing. I liked the fact that as the picture went on, we got to see how the lead character evolved from a girl who spent most of her time reading books (and not studying for her high school entrance exams) to a girl who wanted to do something with her talents so decided to pursue writing a book. Of course, side stories were expected such as her relationship with her best friend, the boy from the same grade who likes her, and the mysterious guy who checks out the same books as her named Seiji Amasawa (Kazuo Takahashi). I also enjoyed watching another layer to the story by showing us the dynamics in her home–an overbearing sister, a literary father, and a mother who is going to school–because it explains why Shizuku is such a self-starter, naturally curious regarding her surroundings, and has a natural taste for adventure. Since it was written by Miyazaki, I have to admit that I thought there was going to be more fantastic elements to the story. There were some of that, such as the strange coincidences and when the audiences had a chance to see what the lead character was imagining. But I was glad that this was grounded in reality and it really showed how it was like to make that transition from being a child to being an adolescent. Questions such as what she wanted to do in her life began popping up in her head when she met Seiji, who knows exactly wanted to do with his life. I admired her persistence in turning her insecurities into achievements. There were definitely times when I was inspired. My one problem with it, however, was it did, in fact, run a little too long. Perhaps if twenty minutes were cut off, it would have been much more focused and powerful. Regardless, I am giving this a recommendation because it made me think about where I am in life. It was sweet but not sugary; though it had its sad moments, it was never melodramatic.
In the Realm of the Senses (1976)
★★★ / ★★★★
Writer and director Nagisa Oshima tells the story of a former-prostitute-turned-maid’s (Eiko Matsuda) and her employer’s (Tatsuya Fuji) sexual obsession with each other. After Matsuda sees Fuji making love with his wife, something inside her changes–it is as if she has to have him no matter what the cost. When the two eventually sleep together, they begin to spend pretty much every minute in bed together as they experiment with their sexuality, sometimes in front of other people. I liked that this film really tried to push the boundary between art and pornography. While it did show certain body parts that a “normal” picture would not normally show, it was different from pornography because it had a story to tell: the repercussions of surrendering to one’s desires without ever having to think of the consequences. To me, even though this was released in 1976, it is still very relevant today, especially in college campuses, due to the high rate of casual hook-ups or one night stands. One can never really know what one is getting into by inviting another person into one’s life–may it be for sexual purposes or otherwise. Disease is one of the first things that comes to mind (or should come to mind) when one engages in random hook-up, but psychology should also come into the equation. I’m not saying that people with mental disorders are always violent (they are not). I’m referring to people’s fetishisms and what they are willing to do to maximize their pleasure. In this film, the two lovers eventually tried to suffocate each other for one reason: it felt good. Other issues that were explored include excess, sadism, masochism, traditional gender roles and transgressions of societal norms. While most people may get lost in its graphic portrayal of sex, one should really try to look at what’s underneath because it’s that much more rewarding. “In the Realm of the Senses” is indeed a classic and should be seen and remembered by film-lovers because it’s one of the first motion pictures that tried to tread the fine line between art and pornography and was successful at it.