Tag Archives: Cinema of Japan

The Cinema of Japan: Black Belt

My week focusing on Japanese cinema has unfortunately blown out a little. That is due to me attending the Blue Mountains Film Festival (where I programmed the feature films) and having far too much fun to write as much as I planned. So the week will just be slightly elongated, with one more post to follow this one. Entries for the competition will close one week after that final post is published.

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From the get-go, Black Belt (2007) attempts to ground itself in the history of karate. The film opens with black and white still photos bringing to life the historical background to the film. Whilst the film shifts into a conventional narrative, it still taps into the detail and nuance of the art of karate throughout. Whilst it branches out heavily from the narrative starting point, Black Belt is at its heart a story of succession. The sensei of a dojo dies, leaving his three main students to decide amongst themselves who should inherit his black belt. Alongside this there is another tale of a rather pantomime villainous general who interacts with these fighters, attempting to use their skills to close down dojos and replace them with brothels. This aspect of the film is perhaps less enjoyable than the conflict of fighting styles and philosophies between the sensei’s students, which kind of gets forgotten for large swathes of the film. The film can be a little wooden throughout, but there is no doubt that it utterly kicks ass once the action starts up. It promises high quality and authentic fight scenes and does not disappoint. Except for perhaps a final action sequence that is intentionally made to be a little sluggish. A risk that I did not think entirely paid off. But one that I can sort of let slide, because it is the kind of risk the rest of the film could have perhaps used a little more of, with some of it being a touch obvious and clichéd.

still_4062What sets this film apart from a myriad of others is the detailed exploration of the philosophy behind the art, or more precisely the differed philosophies behind the art.  To see two different stylistic approaches to a single martial art in a single film is something really quite original to behold. The main conflict in the film comes from two of the students vying for the belt. One rigidly follows the teachings of their sensei and refuses to strike back at his opponent or utilise kicks, instead using defensive techniques only. This is contrasted with the differing approach of his peer who incorporates vicious attacking striking on top of the defensive skills that he learned from his sensei. This character is Taikan, who is easily manipulated and bought into doing the General’s bidding. However the change to become the General’s lackey is quite abrupt and could have used some more explanation straight off the bat. Acting wise, Black Belt is a mixed bag. The performances in the main parts are solid, though these parts are filled with actors probably chosen more for their fighting chops rather than their acting ones. It has to be said though that some of the performances in smaller roles are a little tepid.

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This review has perhaps come off reading a little more negative than I had intended.  Let me emphasise that the action sequences in this film are incredible – highly technical, vicious and smoothly pieced together. They also bring to life the two different philosophical approaches to karate that the film showcases, which is just such an interesting approach to take. The rest of the film is by no means bad; it just struggles to match up to this very high standard.

Verdict: Stubby of Reschs

This week thanks to Madman Entertainment, you have the chance to win a copy of Ace Attorney, Black Belt plus one other Japanese film on DVD. Head here for all the details on how to enter.

Like what you read? Then please like Not Now I’m Drinking a Beer and Watching a Movie on facebook here and follow me on twitter @beer_movie.

The Cinema of Japan Trailer for your Weekend: Shield of Straw

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Of all the directors featured this week, Takashi Miike is one who is still working relatively prolifically. So I thought it might be good to feature his upcoming (or recently released depending on where you live) film as this week’s trailer.

Shield of Straw (or Straw Shield depending on who you ask) looks like some pretty violent and stylish Miike fare focusing on the cop genre. Unfortunately I could not find a trailer with English subtitles, but just from the visuals, this looks like one that I wouldn’t mind catching. What do you guys think?

This week thanks to Madman Entertainment, you have the chance to win a copy of Ace Attorney, Black Belt plus one other Japanese film on DVD. Head here for all the details on how to enter.

Like what you read? Then please like Not Now I’m Drinking a Beer and Watching a Movie on facebook here and follow me on twitter @beer_movie.

The Cinema of Japan: Reel Anime Reviewed

Reel Anime is an annual travelling anime festival that travels around Australia around this time each year. I have been lucky enough to see three of the films in this year’s fest, so I though that this week focusing on Japanese film was the ideal time to take a look at them.

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A Letter to Momo (2011) is about as close to Studio Ghibli as a film can get, without actually being made by Ghibli. This is not meant to be a criticism, it is just the film pretty openly wears influences such as Spirited Away (2001) on its sleeve.

Like all three of these films, the animation in this one is incredibly beautiful. In A Letter to Momo it is the use of colour that most stands out, feeling like as much care has gone into the choice and use of colour as all the other aspects of the visual approach. The simple concept is a wonderful one that allows the filmmaker to gradually incorporate a more fantastical world into proceedings. Momo is a young girl who misses her recently deceased father. Her grief, and resultant emotional distance from those around her, is exacerbated by the fact that she had argued harshly with her father the last time that she saw him. One of her prized possessions is a letter he had begun to write to her following this which simply reads “Dear Momo”. Momo spends a lot of time holding this letter, looking at it hoping for a flash of insight as to what her father would have written next. Into this world come a number of spiritual beings or monsters that only Momo can see.

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Some of this has been done before. Momo has been moved to a new town and her struggles to fit in are heavily reminiscent of The Karate Kid (1984) and a myriad of other films. Likewise the idea that there are monsters visible only to a child did not initially grab me. But as the film progresses, and the really fun personalities of Momo’s new spiritual companions (or light-hearted tormenters) come to the fore, there is a lot of fun here and also an original sensibility that at least in part stops the film from simply becoming ‘Ghibli-lite’. The interaction between Momo and these charismatic beings us quite charming I think and ranges from the extremely cheerful to flashes of if not malice, than at least the generation of some strong negative emotion. Also as the film progresses, the emotional relationships Momo has with her mum and grandad are explored more and more. I wish there was more of both these characters because the exploration of how Momo’s relationship with them is influenced by the grief of all three parties works extremely well.

This is definitely not anime in the mind blowing, searing sense. But as a gentle emotional journey with plenty of fantastical lashings, A Letter to Momo definitely succeeds a lot more often than not.

Verdict: Stubby of Reschs

With a title like 009: Re Cyborg (2012), I was hoping for some balls out, full on huge robot fighting action. However this is possibly because I don’t really know what a cyborg is.

As the film begins, suicide bombers obeying “His Voice” are destroying cities worldwide. This leads to the bringing together of an Avengers style cyborg superteam to try and deal with matters. The animation style is super artistic, bringing to life the urban sensibility through a washed out approach. There are a number of thumping action sequences that have a very cool, street based sensibility to them as well, which is helped no end by a really good soundtrack.

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Whilst there is no doubting that some of what went on went over my head a little, 009: Re Cyborg is an extremely interesting film. At times the film is awash with biblical references and the plot goes into some complicated territory. The latter one is a bit of an issue though. As the narrative spirals to include a U.S. government conspiracy… or something like that anyway, my mind began to wander and the film lost its grip on my focus. This is not helped by a tendency to get bogged down in religious, philosophical and psychological babble through the second half of the film. But the film on balance gets away with it all because it is so interesting. Even if you lose exactly what is happening there are still cool things to appreciate, allusions to classical private eye films and a strong thematic concern with the military industry and the disruption of peace for profit.

When 009: Re Cyborg is doing action, it is doing it awesomely. The long stretches of talking that fill in the gaps are less engaging. But if action anime is your thing, then you will probably be happy enough to sit through that for the good bits.

Verdict: Stubby of Reschs

At just 44 minutes long, The Garden of Words (2013) is either a long short film or a short feature. Whatever it is, it is my favourite of these Reel Anime films I have seen. It also does not really sit comfortably within the realm of any anime I have seen before.

The film is essentially a love story between a 15 year old boy and a 27 year old woman. Not a love story in the passionate erotic sense. But in the sense of a meeting of two people who need each other and complement each other so well that their connection extends beyond mere friendship. A young boy skipping school becomes intrigued by a woman who is sitting in the park one weekday morning drinking beer and eating chocolate… I get it. Who wouldn’t be intrigued. So begins the connection of these two characters in what is a really incredible character study. The filmmakers manage to jam more characterisation and interesting back-story into these 44 minutes than most filmmakers can manage in a film three times that length (six times that length if your name is Peter Jackson). One is an old fashioned soul who dreams of being a shoemaker. The other is a person who for whatever reason cannot bear to face her workplace. Together they manage to find in the other what they need, at least for a short period of time.

You often hear animators talk of the challenge that is animating water. Those behind The Garden of Words almost thumb their noses at this by opening the film with shots of an incredibly clear lake being broken by rain drops. Much of the film takes place in the pouring rain and it still manages to look sharp as anything. The animators also do incredible work of contrasting the urban and the natural. Shots of a park are cut against close-ups of a racing train wheel. Indeed this park, a natural oasis amongst the grime of the city, is where the two main characters spend most of their time. Technically the film is faultless. As a drama script, the writing is borderline perfect, not being afraid to write something thematically that is really quite adult in its intended audience. For my personal tastes, one scene toward the end did get a little too sentimental. But I am nitpicking and it did not affect my enjoyment of the film in any way. The film is ‘shot’ really creatively too, with montage, close-ups and shot composition all being used to make this a really fun and beautiful film to look at.

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It has been a while since I can recall being so enamoured with a film. I just found my self so thoroughly bought in to the narrative on the screen and the two main players bringing it to life. Playing at times almost more like a hymn or a song, The Garden of Words is one to definitely check out.

Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter

This week thanks to Madman Entertainment, you have the chance to win a copy of Ace Attorney plus two other Japanese films on DVD. Head here for all the details on how to enter.

Like what you read? Then please like Not Now I’m Drinking a Beer and Watching a Movie on facebook here and follow me on twitter @beer_movie.

The Cinema of Japan: Tokyo Story

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After Chris’s fantastic personal introduction to the works of Yasujiro Ozu yesterday, I thought I would take a look at probably his most famous work – Tokyo Story (1953). I was lucky enough to see the film on the big screen at the Arc Cinema here in Canberra where the film got a really great intro from the head of programming. One of the interesting things he said was that back in the day Ozu was considered “too Japanese” to really succeed internationally. Whilst I love this film and Ozu’s fame obviously extended far beyond his own country, it is pretty easy to see why that opinion was held about him.

TS imageNarrative-wise, the film is gentle but not exactly slow. The influence of Ozu on a myriad of artistic filmmakers that would follow him is plain to see in this regard. Tokyo Story’s greatest lesson is just how intriguing an utterly simple tale can be. The script is wonderful, even though it is telling such a simple story. Often it is hard to make these kinds of stories feel authentic, but there are no such issues here. The script allows the plot to unfold languorously in front of the viewer, spiced with an occasional note of humour. There is a sense throughout that Ozu is gently toying with the filmic form in this film. It gently nudges the heartstrings without pummelling them. It also veers in the second half into something of a road movie, where the personal or spiritual journey is accompanied by a physical one. This all builds to an emotional highpoint that I will not reveal except to say that it gives the film a ‘second wind’ of sorts after it had begun to drag for me, ever so slightly.

Visual poetry is one of those film terms that gets thrown around far too liberally when in fact I think as there are actually very few proponents of it. That said, Ozu is definitely part of that select group. Here, he continually incorporates architecture and the lines of buildings into his beautiful shot composition. This is notable due to the fact that much of the film takes place in urban areas and Ozu’s adeptness at incorporating enclosed physical spaces into his work makes it a lot prettier to look at then it otherwise would have been. Like the plot and the visuals, the soundtrack to the film can essentially be summarised as being quiet but masterful. Not at all intrusive, the soundtrack makes itself known through an occasional flourish that really enhances what is on screen.

TS familyWhilst there is much here that supports the idea that Ozu is a distinctly, if not totally “too Japanese” a director, such as the settings and culture which really could be nowhere but that country, there are also a number of universal elements. Thematically, the concern of parents for their children when they leave home is something that permeates much of the film. Just as this was a major theme of life in 1950s Japan, so it was in 2000s Australia when I left home. If you have left home, you know what I am talking about. If not, then trust me it is coming. More broadly, the film touches on a number of issues related to familial relations, especially the notion of the in-laws and the strains they can place on everyone. The joys that having your family extended by the incorporation of said in-laws is also displayed on screen. Tokyo Story also hit home for me in its exploration of the notion of time. More specifically, the way that we always seem far too busy. Too busy for what is really important. It is a real takeaway from the film and a credit that it is a message that gets through to me, despite leading a totally different life to the ones being led onscreen.

Gentle and artistic, but definitely not boring, Tokyo Story is definitely one to tick off for all major film buffs. It did go on a little too long for me, but Ozu is one of the true original maestros of cinema history. There is a fair chance that he has greatly influenced one of your favourite directors with his approach to the artform.

Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny

Progress: 93/1001

This week thanks to Madman Entertainment, you have the chance to win a copy of Ace Attorney plus two other Japanese films on DVD. Head here for all the details on how to enter.

Like what you read? Then please like Not Now I’m Drinking a Beer and Watching a Movie on facebook here and follow me on twitter @beer_movie.

The Cinema of Japan: Intro & Comp Details

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When you think about world cinema and more specifically Asian cinema, Japan was the first country to really burst onto the scene internationally. A major part of this was down to Akira Kurosawa and his adoration in Europe, but a number of other directors such as Yasujiro Ozu also helped cement the reputation of the nation as one of the great filmmaking countries on earth. More contemporary names such as Takeshi Kitano and Takashi Miike as well as the phenomenal popularity of anime have both continued and evolved this heritage.

This week the blog will be focused on the cinema of Japan and will take a look at some of the great names and films, as well as some more obscure entries into the cinematic canon. Helping me out will be a couple of awesome guest bloggers who have written great articles (fire me an email to drinkingbeerwatchingmovie@gmail.com if you want to be involved in future weeks such as this one).

Of course with this kind of week I like to have a prize to give away and this week is no different. I asked the kind folk at Madman Entertainment for a copy of one of the films I was going to review to give away as a prize. Instead of sending one, they sent three. So this week you have the chance to win a prize pack of three Madman films. I will reveal what they are as I review the films in question.

Entry is open to readers worldwide and in order to enter, all you need to do is the following:

  • Like the post on Facebook for one entry
  • Comment on the post on Facebook for two entries
  • Share the post on Facebook for two entries
  • Retweet the post on Twitter for two entries
  • Like the post on this site for one entry
  • Comment on the post on this site for two entries

If you want to earn yourself some more entries, check out old reviews of mine for Akira (1988) which was actually the first film to ever receive a Longneck of Melbourne Bitter rating on the site, Princess Mononoke (1997), Dead Sushi (2012) and Dersu Uzala (1974). Any likes or comments on those posts over this time will score you some additional entries.

Like what you read? Then please like Not Now I’m Drinking a Beer and Watching a Movie on facebook here and follow me on twitter @beer_movie.