KAKEKOMI

2.5 stars (out of 4)

Released 2015

Divorce in mid-1800s Edo, Japan was the topic of the opening night film at this year’s Toronto Japanese Film Festival on Thursday. Apparently there was a formal process for women of the time to exit an unhappy marriage, although it basically involved renouncing all possessions and living in as if in a nunnery for 2 years.

The movie featured many female roles, and the women were generally portrayed as being stronger, braver, and smarter than the men.

And yet, the tales were still mostly told through the eyes of the medic, a male. Because the narrative was fragmented into several storylines, we didn’t get an in-depth look at what each of the women went through first-hand at the temple. In particular, I would have liked to have seen more of the friendship that developed between Jogo and O-Gin.

The Snow White Murder Case

3 stars (out of 4)

Released 2014 (Japan) – Closing night film of 2014 Toronto Japanese Film Festival

At the base of the story is a classic whodunit that arises when a beautiful office worker is brutally murdered. Instead of focusing on the police investigation, the film explores the spreading of information and misinformation through irresponsible news reports and the prevalent use of social media.

A few provocative tweets can affect the public’s perception of a person. And innocent past events can suddenly seem damning if you are suspected of committing a crime.

In this day and age of hurtful and judgemental internet comments by anonymous users, The Snow White Murder Case serves as a reminder that we need to keep an open mind and not assume that everything we might believe to be true is actually the truth.

JUDGE!

2.5 stars (out of 4)

Released 2014 (Japan)

Representatives from a number of advertising agencies convene for the Santa Monica International Advertising Festival. There’s wheeling-and-dealing and politicking, as the participants try to get votes for their own company’s ad, often resorting to blatantly dishonest methods. Jobs and reputations are on the line.

For the most part, the movie was entertaining enough to watch and certainly had its funny moments. Ultimately, though, I didn’t really buy into the story. The proceedings just seemed too exaggerated. By the time the main character launched into his speech about being true to oneself, I kind of felt like laughing, even though that part was not meant to be funny.

Also, although it was probably not intended to be offensive, I do think they went too far with the stereotypical depiction of gays in the film.

WHY DON’T YOU PLAY IN HELL?

2.5 stars (out of 4)

Released 2013 (TIFF Encore Presentation)

Amid ongoing gang wars, a yakuza boss’s wife is about to be released from jail after doing time for murder. He has promised to show her a movie with their daughter as the star. Meanwhile, there’s a group of amateur filmmakers who are willing to lay down their lives in the service of creating the ultimate action flick.

WHY DON’T YOU PLAY IN HELL? is bloody, crazy violent, and also absurdly funny. The characters are surprisingly likeable, as well, despite being a bunch of murderous gangsters and idiots.

At the end of the day, though, I kind of hoped that there would be a point to all the carnage, some more plot, if you will, but there was not.

Don’t get me wrong; I still enjoyed the film. I think I had a smile on my face the entire time except when I was wincing at the butchery – and sometimes it might have been both at once. Taken as an unrestrained celebration of glorious, comedic violence, the film is a rousing success.

Black Butler (Kuroshitsuji)

3 stars (out of 4)

Released 2014 (Japan)

I attended back to back screenings of Black Butler and The Little House. In both films, a member of the hired help is in the lead role and the family business is toy making. Aside from that, the two could not be more different. While The Little House is a serious historical drama, Black Butler is an action thriller with a healthy dose of comedy.

Considering the fantasy aspect of the demon manservant, Black Butler plays out much like a Hollywood superhero movie. Sebastian and his master, Kiyoharu, take on a complicated murder mystery. Along the way, they encounter plenty of intrigue and action, including some impressive gun-fight and sword-fight sequences. Well, Sebastian usually wields silverware; he is a butler, after all.

Hiro Mizushima turns in an excellent performance as the titular butler. Just by narrating a few lines early on, it is subsequently easy to tell what Sebastian is thinking from only subtle changes of his expression.

All in all, I found the movie to be delightfully campy and fun.

The Little House

3 stars (out of 4)

Released 2014 (Japan)

A tale of a loving family and a secret romance as recounted in the memoirs of the family’s loyal maid. Most of the film’s events take place around the time of the Second World War. Having the human story in the foreground gave relevance to the depiction of the effects of the war and illustrated what the mindset was like at the time.

The Little House’s narrative unfolded languidly and gave the impression of being very realistic. It was well-acted and convincing, almost making you feel as if you were witnessing a piece of history.

I saw this film 2 days after watching A Tale of Samurai Cooking, also a family drama/love story set in a specific historical period, and it’s hard not to compare the two. I liked the pacing and lighter tone of Samurai Cooking a lot and appreciated that it was remarkably devoid of nastiness, even though it could have easily gone in that direction. Obviously, real life is not like that, so if you like to see realism in your movies, you might be partial to The Little House.

Just that I personally prefer the rose-coloured, feel-good experience of Samurai Cooking.

A Tale of Samurai Cooking – A True Love Story

3.5 stars (out of 4)

Released 2013 (Japan) – Opening night film of 2014 Toronto Japanese Film Festival

A talented young woman named Haru is recruited to marry into a renowned kitchen samurai family so she can help teach the “incompetent” heir to improve his skills. Not only a historical tale of cooking and developing love, there’s also a fair amount of drama, sword-fighting action, political unrest, and even some light-hearted humour at times.

It’s almost worth the price of admission just to see the gorgeous Japanese scenery and beautiful costumes. And of course there’s the food too. It would be wise to eat something before going to see this.

The story developments flow naturally in a well-paced manner. The movie elicits feelings in a way that touches you, rather than hitting you over the head.

Likewise, while the score is noticeably beautiful on several occasions, it fittingly complements the action without being overly dramatic.

If I were to complain about one thing, it’s that the theme song at the end sounds too weird. The female vocal is strangely shrill and just doesn’t sound good. But that’s really a teeny tiny blemish on an otherwise remarkably enjoyable film.

Key of Life

3 stars (out of 4)

Released 2012

Sakurai’s got it rough: friendless, hopeless, unemployed… even his suicide is a failure. While visiting a public bathhouse, he witnesses an accident in which a fellow bather is knocked unconscious. Having nothing to lose, he impulsively switches locker keys with the man and steals his belongings as well as his identity.

Sakurai soon discovers that he is impersonating an underworld assassin, while the victim, Kondo, suffers amnesia from his fall and has no choice but to believe he is a failed actor with no family and no money.

This is another one of those films that I missed out on when I had to skip TIFF last year. Key of Life is both funny and smart and I’m really glad I got another chance to catch it on the big screen.

In addition to Sakurai’s story and Kondo’s story, there is also a sub-plot involving a business woman named Kanae who is looking for a man to marry, preferably in time for her wedding.  The various plot threads get a little complicated, but they come together satisfyingly by the end.

I have seen Kagawa Teruyuki, who plays the part of Kondo, in many other movies in the past (including RUROUNI KENSHIN most recently). From what I’ve experienced, he tends to often play one-note characters. This is the first time I’ve seen him in such a varied and sympathetic role. Kondo seemed to be the true lead in this production, so I was actually a little surprised that Kagawa did not get top billing. Well, maybe they didn’t think his “thug face” would sell the film…

RUROUNI KENSHIN

3.5 stars (out of 4)

Released 2012 (in Japan)

Himura Kenshin was once a feared assassin during the Meiji restoration period of the 1860s. A decade later, he now carries a reversed-edge sword to prevent himself from killing again. In Edo, he meets Kamiya Kaoru, the impassioned head of a kenjutsu school which teaches swordsmanship for saving lives, rather than for taking them. The school’s idealistic philosophy appeals to Kenshin, who has vowed to atone for his previous sins by protecting others. However, it won’t be easy for Kenshin to just live a peaceful life. He has many enemies from his violent past, and they all want a piece of him!

Thanks to the Toronto Japanese Film Festival, I was finally able to see this live action adaptation of my all-time favourite manga series. Going in, I tried to keep my expectations low; 2-hour film adaptations of long-running series necessarily have to cut a ton of material, and often, the end result is an empty shell of the original story. Also, the trailers we had seen left us questioning whether Takei Emi had the acting ability to portray Kaoru properly.

Happily, I found the film to be very enjoyable; the many action sequences were spectacular and the important themes were left intact. In the end, I was fairly satisfied with Takei Emi’s performance as well, considering the material that she was given to work with, Kaoru’s role having been significantly underwritten for this adaptation.

There was never any doubt, on the other hand, that Sato Takeru was perfectly cast. True to expectation, he turned in a flawless performance in the lead role, capturing Kenshin’s strength, when forced to fight, and more restrained gentleness at other times.

The movie deconstructs about 4 of the early story arcs and combines parts of them back together into a mostly coherent plot. It worked well for me since I was already very familiar with the original manga and seeing the story told this way felt fresh.

Of course there are casualties: lots of good stuff was cut, not the least of which was that Kaoru and Yahiko didn’t get any chance to show their talents and both of them came off looking rather weak. And as a result of the narrative cutting and pasting, some parts of the movie don’t completely make sense if you stop to think about it. Fortunately, there’s so much going on and the action scenes are so intense, that you’re not really given an opportunity to dwell on the minor details.

Another quibble: I found the scenes with Kanryu and his gang to be a bit jarring compared to the rest of the film. They tended to be more goofball and play-like and the accompanying music was too exaggerated.

I think the director and screenwriter made the correct choices in what must have been a daunting task to create this film. I might sound like I’m unhappy with the ruthless edits that have been made, but that’s what the manga is for! All told, the movie succeeds at being entertaining the way it is and I would love to see it again. I believe it is a worthy addition to the franchise. So yes, despite my complaints, I am giving it 3.5 stars!

Tenchi Meisatsu (TENCHI: The Samurai Astronomer)

2.5 stars (out of 4)

Released 2012 (in Japan)

This biopic is based on the true story of Yasui Santetsu, a professional go player and recreational mathematician/astronomer, who was appointed by the Shogun to reform the calendar in 17th century Japan. It was becoming evident during that time that the Chinese calendar which had been in use for 800 years was inaccurate.

The film chronicles the various obstacles that Yasui faced in his decades-long quest; scientific challenges, to be sure, but also political opposition to change.

The story was pretty straightforward, nothing earthshaking, but I enjoyed it. I enjoyed seeing the costumes of the period and being immersed in the historical setting. There was also enough levity to keep the movie from being just a dry retelling of what is essentially a tale of math and politics.