The Magnificent Nine

the magnificent nine

2.5 stars (out of 4)

Released 2016

In 1700s feudal Japan, several people devise a plan to save their suffering village from ruin by lending money to their lord in order to earn interest. Some of them get the money by selling off all of their belongings. There is no personal benefit for each of the participants, as all proceeds go to supporting the village.

It takes years for the funds to be collected and more years to convince their lord to accept the deal.

This is apparently based on a true story, and if the film is to be believed, what’s really remarkable is that even though some of the men were more miserly and self-interested than others, there was no dishonesty at all. Multiple times, just when it seemed that someone or other would be out for themselves, it was revealed that they actually had good intentions.

It certainly was a feel-good story and pretty inspiring that it could happen. It was a real miracle that so many altruistic people happened to come together and managed to accomplish something great.

Nagasaki – Memories of My Son

nagasaki memories of my son

3.5 stars (out of 4)

Released 2015 (in Japan)

On August 9, 1945, Nobuko’s son Koji perished when the atomic bomb fell on Nagasaki. On the third anniversary of the tragedy, Nobuko resigns herself to the fact that he is really gone and that she should move on with her life. She advises Koji’s girlfriend Machiko to do the same. That night, Koji starts appearing to his mother as a ghost. They talk and reminisce about the past. Meanwhile, we follow Nobuko’s interactions with the other people in her life, including Machiko.

Nagasaki – Memories of My Son is a very personal, simple story that perfectly captures and conveys the thoughts and emotions of its characters. It is profoundly sad, but the whole thing is not just a downer, either. There are moments of levity and hopefulness too.

In at least one instance, the characters marvel at how incredible America was, creating impressive things like Hollywood movies as well as nuclear weapons. Lines like that reflect the soft humour and intrinsic sadness of the film.

I really appreciated that this isn’t the kind of movie that beats you over the head with its melodrama. The pacing is such that the viewer doesn’t actually get a chance to dwell on any one idea or emotion for too long.

After all, 3 years had passed, and if anything, Nobuko was accepting of her lot in life; she held no particular resentment or bitterness about her loss. But the sadness that she kept inside her heart, the unspoken mourning over wasted hopes and dreams, that hit me straight in the gut.

This is a truly excellent, powerful film that perfectly accomplishes what it sets out to do. I’m glad I got to experience it. It really affected me. However, it was so brutally, emotionally draining that I don’t think I could ever watch it again.

THE VANCOUVER ASAHI

2.5 stars (out of 4)

Released 2014

Based on the true story of the legendary Japanese-Canadian Asahi baseball team, which achieved success against brawnier Caucasian opponents through its members’ “brain-ball” style of playing.

The acting was better and more restrained than in many Japanese films I’ve seen. English lines were delivered competently by both Japanese and non-Japanese actors for the most part, as well. We were warned ahead of time that the film’s pacing would be on the slow and deliberate side, especially for a sports movie.

This was a Japanese-made film, but the subject matter was not truly a Japanese story at all. Its focus was on the challenges faced by Canadians of Japanese descent in the years leading up to WWII, with racial discrimination as the primary root cause of the struggles.

As borne out by historical events, baseball obviously did not change the world in this instance; the war continued and the internment occurred. But it was a baby step toward mutual understanding and The Asahi served as a symbol of hope.

To this day, some discrimination against visible minorities still exists in Canada, but I’d like to think that we’ve come a long way in these past 75 years.

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.