MUMON – THE LAND OF STEALTH (Shinobi no Kuni)

MUMON

3.5 stars (out of 4)

Released 2017

This year’s Toronto Japanese Film Festival came to a close last Wednesday night with the North American premiere of Shinobi no Kuni, a rousingly enjoyable action movie set during the Sengoku period. Director Nakamura Yoshihiro was on hand to introduce the film and answer questions afterward.

Iga Province used to be renowned for its fearsome, highly-skilled ninja for hire. The Iga would kill without question if the price was right. Apparently, they would even sell out their own flesh and blood. As Oda Nobunaga’s forces approached their territory, in his mission to unify Japan, the Iga ninja were tasked with fighting for themselves for once, a monetarily profitless venture. How would they be able to muster up the motivation?

The acting was really good all around. The cast handled the serious dramatic scenes and the absurd comedic parts with equal flair.

The soundtrack was great too. I liked the inclusion of 70s-style rock music, which was unexpected, but really worked with the mood of the film.

Recently, I was turned off by the ugly violence in another TJFF film, Himeanole. MUMON – THE LAND OF STEALTH got it right, in my opinion. Cool-looking, largely bloodless, respectful sword fights and combat scenes are absolutely the way to go.

The movie did actually address some thoughtful themes regarding morality and honour, but it was balanced out by plenty of humour. All in all, it was a whole lot of fun to watch.

THE EMPIRE OF CORPSES (Shisha no Teikoku)

Empire of corpses

2 stars (out of 4)

Released 2015

This animated adaptation of late author Project Itoh’s zombie novel takes place in a steampunk 19th century Europe in which “corpse reanimation technology” has been accepted by society as a way to provide laborers to serve the living. However, these undead never retain their souls.

Medical student John Watson secretly reanimates the body of his friend and research partner, but becomes obsessed with finding a method to return his soul as well. He gets the opportunity to search worldwide for the records of Dr. Victor Frankenstein’s work when he teams up with the British government, who also want the notes for different reasons.

First of all, the movie looked great; the art and animation were absolutely top-notch. That would be the one good reason to watch it.

The plot itself was all serious and philosophical, but it honestly didn’t make much sense to me. While it was simple to follow what was happening from scene to scene, understanding why was something else entirely. It’s kind of a failure if the audience can’t reasonably tell why the protagonists made the choices that they did, or how the villain was doing whatever he was doing (re-creating GUILTY CROWN’s Lost Christmas?…), or even what governed the behaviour of the zombies.

The name-drops of famous literary figures didn’t seem to add anything to the story either. And it was not that clear whether the ending had anything to do with Watson’s initial goal.

I confess I’ve never understood the romanticism of zombies; this film didn’t help to enlighten me.

Anyway, after watching The Empire of Corpses, my sister and I also went and re-watched the fourth episode of Space Dandy. It covered similar musings of achieving world (or universal) peace through mass zombification – except that it was conveyed much more succinctly and enjoyably.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

pirates-caribbean-dead-men-tell-no-tales

3 stars (out of 4)

Released 2017

We are now at the fifth Pirates of the Caribbean movie, 14 years after the release of The Curse of the Black Pearl. The series has been running for long enough that we are into next generation territory already. This film pairs Captain Jack Sparrow with Henry Turner, the grown up son of Elizabeth and Will, in a quest for the Trident of Poseidon.

Pirates of the Caribbean has always been famous for having stunning special effects, and Dead Men did not disappoint. In particular, I really liked how Captain Salazar’s hair moved as if it were permanently suspended in water – that was so cool. And, they managed to make a guillotine look like an amusement park ride – probably the most hilarious treatment of an execution device that I’ve ever seen!

It’s too bad certain action sequences were too dark to see clearly, though. Also, some of the plot developments seemed a little too convenient, but I guess it was acceptable to get things progressing more quickly.

I think I was never completely satisfied with the bittersweet way in which the original trilogy ended back in 2007. Therefore, it was good to see the issue revisited finally in this latest installment.

Black Butler (Kuroshitsuji): Book of the Atlantic

Black Butler Book of the Atlantic

3 stars (out of 4)

Released 2017

Ciel and Sebastian board a luxury liner in order to investigate a suspicious medical society rumoured to possess a treatment that prolongs life. It’s a mixture of business and pleasure for our duo, as they have friends who are also on the ship for vacation.

Anyway, disaster ensues. Double disaster, actually – think Titanic, with zombies.

I had read criticisms beforehand that the animation was not of the highest quality, and I’d have to agree. The CG rendering of the ship and its passengers looked really stiff. The action scenes seemed all right, but characters were roughly drawn when not shown in close-up. (Close-up art looked great.)

I didn’t find Snake that amusing here (I can’t remember: did I ever?), but otherwise, the absurd humour worked most of the time. Several of the gags were laugh-out-loud funny even.

Often, movie installments of popular franchises will tell a standalone story, and the villains are introduced and taken care of during the film’s runtime. In Book of the Atlantic, it’s more complicated than that. There are revelations about established characters that will affect the rest of the series, including one person who turns out to be deeply mixed up in the raising-of-the-dead scheme. Of course, that also means that some loose threads are left hanging at the end.

Today’s special screening was in Japanese with English subtitles. The film will screen one more time on Wednesday in English.

Chihayafuru Part I

Chihayafuru part 1

3.5 stars (out of 4)

Released 2016

I really love the Chihayafuru anime, so I went into this live action film with high expectations, but also some mild trepidation as to how successfully the content would transfer to a 2 hour movie format.

The screenplay writer made what must certainly have been difficult decisions, but the cuts and story rearrangements resulted in a streamlined production that hit all the right notes. In the places when it really mattered, no corners were cut. In particular, Taichi’s and Tsutomu’s conflicts had sufficient time to fully develop and the payoff was rewarding.

Some of the acting was a little unnatural, especially in the quieter moments, but the cast’s performance was effective in conveying humour and showing the characters’ personalities.

The good framing of the shots, use of slow motion, and the music further added to the excitement in this thrilling competitive karuta movie.

SCOOP! / Himeanole

Scoop Himeanole

Both released 2016

We caught 2 films at the TJFF on Friday night. Although they were quite different in subject matter, both of them freely depicted sex and onscreen smoking and both culminated in the crazy character going on a killing spree that took the life of a well-meaning police officer among other victims.

SCOOP!
2.5 stars (out of 4)

SCOOP! was about a veteran paparazzi photographer and the rookie reporter he was forced to work with. It did show what a distasteful business gossip rags are. The character interactions were mostly good, even if I was a bit icked out at the prospect of romance between the 2 leads.

The car chase was pretty exciting, especially when our protagonists decided it would be a good idea to light up fireworks inside their vehicle.

Himeanole
1.5 stars (out of 4)

Himeanole was like 2 movies. In the first half, 3 guys happened to be in love with/obsessed with the same girl, a waitress at a local café. It maybe had something to say about the psyche of loser guys and their attachment to unattainable idols.

The second half made a whiplash-inducing turn to the dark side. It was full of disturbing gore and violence and frankly didn’t seem to have much of a point. I can put up with some violence if it’s cartoonishly funny or cool, or if there’s some message like demonstrating the horror of war, for instance. Here, the violence just seemed to be hateful and gratuitous and completely out of line with my idea of entertainment.

The points I award this movie are pretty much for technical merit and acting only.

The Boy and the Beast

boy and the beast

2.5 stars (out of 4)

Released 2015

A troubled runaway human boy becomes the apprentice for a warrior beast after stumbling into a hidden world through a secret passageway in Shibuya.

The charm of the film came from the characters’ development more than the overall story. The dialogue and interactions were strong and it was nice to see how Kumatetsu, Kyuta, and even minor characters changed over time through their shared experiences.

The actual plot was kind of a letdown, and amounted to not much more than one thing happening, which was then followed by another thing. The events just somehow seemed to lack a logical narrative direction and purpose.

The way Ren/Kyuta vascillated between the human world and beast world, all the while messing with the emotions of the people who cared about him, reminded me a lot of Ame from Wolf Children, another Hosoda Mamoru film. In both cases, what the child was actually looking for, what he wanted from his life, never were clearly explored or explained for the audience (or for his loved ones). But Ame was not the focal character in his film, so his enigma status was a little more acceptable.

I wasn’t really into the Moby Dick symbolism/analogy either. First of all, who learns to read using a Herman Melville novel? I mean I get that Ren’s smart, but that’s just patently ridiculous. And then the antagonist randomly decided to take the form of a whale merely because he happened to get a glimpse of the word “whale”? That was a pretty weak contrivance to justify the fantastical, though inconsequential, whale imagery and cool-looking animation which followed.

In the end, the moral of the story was: “Parents, don’t lie to your children,” I think.

The Anthem of the Heart

anthem of the heart

3 stars (out of 4)

Released 2015

A self-imposed curse caused Naruse Jun to lose her ability to speak following a traumatic event in her childhood. Now in high school, Jun and 3 of her classmates are enlisted to head a community outreach committee and put together a class play.

The basic setup of putting on a musical, with the challenges that ensue, is pretty routine stuff which follows all the familiar plot points of a typical play-within-a-play storyline. That said, it is carried out fairly competently here, and the solutions that the kids arrive at are realistic.

All in all, I enjoyed the film. I was invested in Jun and her classmates and I liked how they inspired and learned from each other. There was a romantic subplot as well, but I think it was clear that that was secondary to the more general friendship theme, which is how it should be.

Also, I wouldn’t have minded seeing more of that musical that they were putting on; the parts which were shown looked pretty ambitious and impressive.

SING

SING

3 stars (out of 4)

Released 2016

I didn’t actually know anything about SING until I read an article about the voice actors who were working on the Japanese dub for the film. So while on my recent overseas flight, I decided to watch this American film in Japanese, with English subtitles, just because I could.

Overall, it was pretty funny and entertaining; and the animation looked great. I probably empathized most with Ash, the little rocker porcupine. But it was the way that Johnny, the sweet-voiced gangster gorilla, juggled his new career with the family business that really made my jaw drop.

I didn’t care for Mike, the talented but arrogant mouse, much at all. And the main character, enterprising koala Buster Moon, was a good guy; but some of the stuff he did was in fact illegal, which left me feeling a little uneasy.

Bittersweet (Nigakute Amai)

nigakute amai

2.5 stars (out of 4)

Released 2016 in Japan

In this live-action adaptation of a manga by Kobayashi Yumiwo, a young woman begins to put her life together, nutritionally as well as emotionally, after moving in with a vegetarian guy who cooks good. They probably should have included recipes for all the food porn.