Monday, April 25, 2011

Gantz: Perfect Answer 2011

Director: Shinsuke Sato

Rating: 2/5

A disappointing follow up to the promising Gantz. Sloppy plotting and pacing detract from the interesting concept at the heart of it.

Oh dear, what started out so promisingly finishes so averagely. All the intrigue and suspense that was built up in the tightly paced first two hours, peters out within thirty minutes and never gets going again. It's not a complete catastrophe, but it is a dismaying finale and a definite disappointment. Gantz was all about questions, Perfect Answer successfully removes the mystique.

Whereas originally we were dropped straight into the mix, here thirty minutes of slow and dull exposition is dumped on us before anything close to exciting has happened. Cramming an entire manga series into two films was never going to be easy and the demands of a lengthy and complicated narrative finally take their toll. The new characters that are introduced contribute little, and by broadening the scope it makes this conclusion a muddled affair. Perfect Answer, as the title would have you believe, is an attempt at explanation. The convoluted one offered here strains to wrap everything up neatly which was never going to be an easy task..

The story begins shortly after the first film and if you haven't seen that yet you might want to skip the next few paragraphs as there are spoilers aplenty. Kurono (Ninomiya) is fast approaching the hundred points that will set him free or allow to bring back one of the fallen players. The player he hopes to resurrect is Kato (Matsuyama), whose younger brother he has been looking after with the help of his “Will they? Won’t they?” college friend Tae (Yuriko Yoshitaka). He lives a double life, burger shop by day, alien killer by night.

However, the boundaries between the limbo of the Gantz world are beginning to blur as the post-brawl destruction makes news-headlines. A new character, Model Eriko Ayukawa, played by the alluring Ayumi Ito, finds a mysterious small black orb in her post box. The mini-sphere, like Gantz itself, gives her targets. Except this time the targets are humans, and her tasks are carried out in the real world. She is providing Gantz with his soldiers, and unable to resist. Another addition is shady looking P.I Masamitsu Shigeta (Takayuki Yamada) on the hunt for answers about a black ball in a mysterious tower block, who begins to pick up her trail. His search leads him to a group of aliens living in the real world, indistinguishable from humans. They procure his services in exchange for information.

Ninomiya's acting was already beginning to show signs of weakness, but the spotlight of the love interest and added heroism required of him here really illuminates the cracks. For the majority of the film he is fine, but when he sends it up with a mixture of anguished shouting, and some injured, struggling for breath crawling, it puts even the most hammy thespians to shame. The PG-13 relationship with Tae is tiresome, cutesy, and hard to care about. She is a pretty hollow presence and going for meek ends up moot. Their love story eventually takes centre stage and all the clever ideas built up dissolve in its blandness.

SPOILERS!Kato (Matsuyama) is back, which if you’ve seen a trailer you’ll know already, and doesn't do much wrong. As he does spend the majority of the film in a creepy, not very chatty, doppelganger role it would have been pretty hard to, but he is dependable as ever. The double doesn’t quite seem to make a lot of sense, although does allow for some exciting fight scenes and nice Terminator 2 allusions.

The rest of the surviving Gantz players chip in a bit more here, with mixed results. The ex-salary man Yoshikazu Suzuki (Tomorowo Taguchi) not quite taking to his new life as an alien assassin is a good presence. He looks like a fish out of water and is very convincing. The rest suffer from some serious over-acting problems. It’s almost as if they were trying to maximize the effect these bit-parts will have on their CV. As division creeps into the team things get a little bit more exciting, though there are a few too many Mexican stand-offs.

The aliens this time round are essentially just humans. Veins of black smoke trickle down to reform their limbs and they do that standard flittery eye thing to denote their unearthly status thing, but don’t expect any of the giddy heights reached previously. Before each action scene in part one you were wondering just what on earth is going to happen next, well in this film you know. There are no crazy looking 1950’s cartoon character robots, no angry deities, no half vegetable Frankensteins, just plain old run of the mill humans.. I was reminded of that common criticism of sequels that the formula is simply make everything bigger and louder. Well, for once that might not have been such a terrible idea because here less is less.

By the time the first action scene finally arrives, though decent enough, it doesn’t have any of the sense of mayhem and feels like a pretty routine set-piece. It is shot on a subway with real passengers, who assume that the group of futuristic, leather suited people are some sort of advertising stunt. What follows is a claustrophobic melee with plenty of carnage, but little imagination or originality. It works yes, but it is nothing new.

Perfect Answer is not entirely dreadful there are some good things going on here. Direction wise Sato takes some chances that come off well. There are some good, and sparingly used, first person point of view action shots that fit well with the film’s slightly video-gamesy vibe. Thrusting the viewer into the action it does have a pleasantly immersive effect. Some of the action scenes seem to have been looking at Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon for inspiration as the characters float/fly across the Tokyo Rooftops, which looks nice. Perfect Answer is another technically well made film with convincing special effects and direction. It’s the stale pacing, sloppy plotting, and lack of surprise that let it down.

It’s unfortunate that Gantz did go on to suffer from Matrix syndrome ; an exciting high concept idea that gets lost in the following films. Like them, this is far more expansive stuff than the first and it loses its clarity. The simplicity of the action, plot, action plot structuring is out, and things are in full on epic-mode here. The need to follow the source material obviously made this a necessity, but it is handled all wrong. I said that no previous experience with the comics was required to enjoy Gantz. This is not so easy to argue with part 2 which squeezes a lot in that doesn’t seem to add up entirely. The intriguing first film was very good but, perhaps there is no perfect answer.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Tony Hawks Interview

Interviewed for BC magazine.

Tony Hawks's first film, based on his travelogue novel of the same name, Round Ireland with a Fridge was selected for the Okinawa film festival's peace section. Naturally, Tony was not alone upon arrival and in tow was the fridge that began it all. Film in Japan had a chat with him about his film, and the challenges of turning his best-selling book into a screenplay.

FIJ: Most of the foreign guests withdrew from the festival in the light of the events in Tohoku. What made you decide to come?

TH: Had a look at the map and thought well, this is safe. And it seemed like a good time to come at a time like this. People just panic I think.

FIJ: For those who haven't heard of Round Ireland with a Fridge could you give them an idea of what it's all about?

TH: It's based on a true story, something that I actually did just over ten years ago, and the reason I did it was because of something I did about fifteen years ago on my first trip to Ireland. I was being driven in a car to this place Cavanagh, and I saw this old man by the side of the who was hitching with a fridge. I said to the driver, "Was that a guy hitching with a fridge?" and he went, "Oh, yeah." and he just never talked about it. I thought Ireland is an incredible place that someone who's hitching with a fridge isn't considered a conversation point.

I used to tell this story at dinner parties and then at one I said that Ireland is the one place in the world where you could hitch with a fridge and people would stop for you. A friend of mine said it wouldn't be possible. We drank a lot of wine, and I made a bet with him that I could do it. So I took a month off, bought a fridge and stood by the side of the road in Ireland. Spent a month there, had this incredible adventure, wrote about it and then people started approaching me about making it into a film, and that's what we've finally done.

FIJ: How does it feel to be bringing RIWAF round Okinawa?

TH: Well it's fantastic, there are moments when it's very surreal, because [the festival] is sponsored by different comedians and I don't know what they're saying and they are dressed in exotic costumes, and messing around. But it's fun and they are all very nice. There is a big generosity around them.

I suppose the wonderful thing about film is that you can reach another audience. I'd never be able to tell this story in Japan in any other way. The subtitles go up, and people watch, and you think, Wow people half way around the world are following this little silly story.

FIJ:That kind of answers my next question, why did you decide to make this into a film?

TH: Well the real reason was I started to receive a couple of emails dropping in via the website from producers saying, "Have the rights gone?" That makes you think, "Oh wow!" I didn't think there could ever be a film. Then I watched Straight Story a David Lynch film about a guy who goes around America on a lawnmower. I went to see that film, and not a lot happens in it. It's just a sweet film and I thought, well if they can do that then yes we have got enough to do this as a film. So I started thinking about how it could work as a screenplay and it kind of went from there.

FIJ:So was it difficult to adapt?

TH: It was, partly because it was the first time I'd ever done anything like that, and secondly because it's my experience, that I really had. But, I knew I had to change a couple of things. I really wanted to keep the spirit of the truth there, but you know, sometimes you have to combine two characters into one, and so on. The love story is a bit different, there's a a little romance in the book that nearly happens, but it happens a bit more in the film. So it was difficult. The hardest thing was people who kept reading the screenplay, kept saying we need to see more of a journey, more of a change in the lead character. That's the big difference in the film, that I actually portray myself as more of an arsehole than I really am. Well, at least I think so.

FIJ:I'm sure

TH: There's more of a healing process around the journey, a three act structure. But you thought you've got do it, and I think it works, well I hope it does anyway. We'll have to see.

FIJ:What was it like acting as yourself? I imagine that might be quite difficult?

TH: I think a lot of actors do in a way play themselves. If you think of Hugh Grant he kind of is him in his films, just with a different name. So an actor will always bring their own personality to a role, unless they're a really traditional actor and have to learn a dialect or something .But, very often the big famous stars, pretty much just turn up and say the lines. I suppose I was able to remember how I felt when things happened. It's odd in that you are playing yourself in a dramatic reconstruction of something you actually did. But, you just get on with it, really...

FIJ: Was it your first experience acting?

TH: Not really. I've done a few stage plays and a few TV things. But it was enough, because it's good to know how to carry on when there's a camera in your face. Not to panic or get scared. Some actors that you work with, you realize that it's sometimes quite a good idea not to tell them that you're filming because they do really well in rehearsal, and you say, "Okay let's do a take." and it doesn't come out so well. So sometimes you give a wink to the cameraman and say get this one.

FIJ:Were any of the rest of the cast real people, so to speak?

TH: Well, actually they were all actors. We did think of getting some of the real people. We shot quite a lot of the interior locations in London in Irish pubs. We found that pubs in London look more Irish than Irish ones. On the DVD extras though, we've got an interview with Antoinette, the character we based Roisin on. I still see them all but we didn't cast them in the film.

FIJ:How's their reaction been to the film? Do they approve of their celluloid versions?

TH: Yeah they like it I think. Bingo [the character who persuades Tony to go surfing and bring his fridge along] hasn't seen it yet. He rings me up and asks when I'm going to send him a copy. But I keep forgetting.

FIJ:Getting a fridge to surf in the first place looks incredibly difficult. Filming it must be immensely so?

TH: We did it exactly the way we did it in real life, which is literally put it on a surfboard an wait for the right wave to come along. It does just surf. Ed the director was saying I don't think this will work, and I was saying trust me it will. So that relief you see with me waving my arms in the air was a genuine moment, it wasn't really acting. That was great fun that day. It was a beautiful day, just being in the sea and arsing around with a surfboard and a fridge all day was great, just great. Because some days aren't, some days are really boring as hell. The rain starts and you're wet through. It's cold, and the winds blowing, you're shivering, and teeth chattering, then you have to go again. Like the opening ceremony to this festival.

FIJ:Ed Byne did a great job capturing the Irish countryside. How did he get on board with the project?

TH: I worked with him on Red Dwarf. He was the director and that's where I first started doing little bits of acting. I was in about four of them as Caligula. It's a big project when you take on a film and I was thinking I want someone that I know I'm going to get on with, who understands comedy. He popped into my head and I hadn't spoken to him for ages. Just rang him up out of the blue and said, "Ed, I'll send you this thing, see what you think?". And he was a good choice. He's genuinely a really nice guy, and that's important I think. A lot of films seem to be clashes all the time and didn't want that. I think he did a great job.

FIJ:It's your experience, so how was it like being directed by someone?

TH: Ed was very good. He'd sort of say, "I think it should be like this, but you tell me what you think." Every once in awhile I'd go to him and have a quiet word and say, "I don't think they should be reacting so strongly." or something. He's without an ego so he didn't mind. Most of the time he just understood it naturally, but if there was a little problem just had a word. Most of the time anyway all he was saying was, "Can you just say that a bit louder please?" It's a good job being a director!

FIJ:Some people have labelled the criticism that the Irish characters are perhaps cultural stereotypes? How would you respond to that?

TH: I think with that, in a way you're in a no-win situation. Irish people, particularly, are very very sensitive about this. When I wrote the book I was expecting that but actually, it didn't really happen. Because it was true and I was writing about how people are. Irish people themselves make fun of stereotypes, and it is true that there is going to be a certain type of character who's going to be like that. And it is true, obviously, that you're going to write about the people like that, rather than the people who are exactly like you. They are not as interesting. Those people do exist and people expect to see it. But, I don't think it's as strong as it can be in some American films, where they really are over the top. There is nothing in there that isn't based on exactly how Irish people were around me and the fridge. So I would just refute that allegation, they're just wrong! (laughs)

FIJ:Could you tell me what Fridge D'Or is?

TH: It's a jokey name for the company we made to make the film. I found various people to put money in, and then formed a company. It's called an EIS scheme, which is enterprise initiative scheme, a good tax-break. We thought Palme D'Or, Fridge D'Or. Normally, you make a company for each individual film and that was for RIWAF. I don't have any plans to start Fridge D'Or into a full on production company.

FIJ: In your own words what does the philosophy, "Have faith in the fridge." mean?

TH: I suppose what it is really, it's like trusting that things are going to work out okay, without necessarily needing to know exactly what it is that's going to make that happen. I think human beings have a sort of desire to say, "I need to define what this is, this is god, this is this..."and so on. So actually if you live you're life in the right way, without fear, without endlessly worrying about stuff, it'll actually pretty much work out okay. If you embrace that, doors will open for you. I kind of said it on the original trip as a joke, "I'll be alright, I've got the fridge with me." So I started to say it as a joke, and then I started to realize that by thinking and talking like that it all was okay. You do have to have some kind of faith in it, and good things will happen.

FIJ:How has it affected your life?

TH: It's sort of worked. It's a bit like having a faith without really needing to be religious. It's about fear, which is the enemy to our progress. There's a little voice saying, "What if you do that? What will happen?" And people sometimes say I'm a risk taker, but I don't think I am. I always sit down and say what's the worst that will happen here, am I okay with that if it happens? If you are okay with that, then you do it. It's just fun, it's life. It can be more fun than it is for a lot of people because everyone, your mum, your grandparents, your friends are saying, "No, don't do that! You'll lose your pension, you'll lose your..." Throw all that off and just dive into the pool!

FIJ:So you had all these pressures when you took that decision to off with the fridge?

TH: Well, that's the slight difference. I think in reality, I was already the kind of person who would've done that anyway. The film is telling the story maybe of someone who wouldn't have done that, and circumstance made them do it. I was already in real life saying, Ireland is the place you could do this, I believe that. That's what made the screenplay difficult because if I'd done that in the screenplay the change in Tony was over before it had even started. So we had to have a character who was not going to really enjoy it at the start and want to call it a day. That was the change.

FIJ:On a more general topic comedy is one of the harder things to translate culturally. What's been your opinion of some of the comedy you've seen here?

TH: You're absolutely right. You simply can't make a proper judgement on it. I speak French and I go to France quite a lot, and I still don't get French comedy. I don't understand it at all. It seems big, and surreal. Then we do have our Monty Python, and Americans might have looked at that and thought it was completely weird. I'm going to see Omu Raisu [the new film from Yuichi Kimura]today, so we'll see.

FIJ:Have international audiences reacted to the film differently?

TH: We met the Japanese jury and they all seemed to really love it. It did well in America. So I think, touch-wood, it has a kind of international appeal. It's very gentle, too. It's not going in demanding belly laughs. It's actually going in and saying here's a story. It doesn't have to be defined as a comedy really. It's just a drama. Hopefully, you'll smile at some bits, and laugh at others. That's your choice.

FIJ:On that logic, do you think it's appropriate that it was put in the peace section, as apposed to the laugh section?

TH: I know the book was billed as a comedy book. It does make people laugh and I was tring to be funny in it. But, I've always felt that the story and its message is quite a positive thing. There's a letter in the film saying, "I'm growing to like this. You put your fridge by the side of the road, stick out your hand, and you trust that someone will come along and help you," and they do because people are nice. That's really not a message that get's waved in front of you very often. What you do hear is people are out to rip you off, people are out to take advantage of you, but it's not really the truth. There's a small percentage that might, but even if you behave in the right way around them they might behave differently to you. You go in, and if you behave openly and generously to them, then they'll behave differently to you. That's the message I wanted to get across.

FIJ:What do you have coming next?

TH: There's a film festival in Paris which we're headed to. But, the second book I did Playing the Moldovans at Tennis, which is based on another wacky bet that I had to play the entire Moldovan football team at tennis one by one. That's shot, and we're editing that now. It's at that sort of scary stage. You've got all the pieces, but you have to assemble it it. Hope it works!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

O Nii Chan No Hana-Bi - Fireworks From the Heart - 2011

Director: Masahiro Kunimoto

Rating: 3/5

Fireworks From the Heart
is a very sweet, and very sad little piece that carefully by-steps some of the pitfalls, not all it must be said, of similar films . It gains its gravitas from the superbly acted and very touching relationship of
Kengo Kora and Mitsuki Tanimura, as brother and sister. It starts a little slow and the ending is over long, but in between is handled terrifically.

The story begins with Hana (Tanimura) being taken home after a 6 month stay in the hospital suffering from leukemia. While she has been away her older brother Taro (Kora) has become a social recluse. He hides away in his room, has cut off communication with his family, and is showing no signs of improvement. With their parents, played by Ren Osugi and Yoshihiko Miyazaki, essentially ignoring his problem Hana makes it her mission to bring her brother in from the cold. Set in rural Katakai the film is bookended by the small town's (pop. 5000) enormous fireworks festival, which Hana adores. Taro is approaching his 20th birthday, the start of adulthood in Japan, and is expected to participate in the rites of passage fireworks ceremony along with all the others his age. As his sister's health worsens the fireworks take on an even greater significance.

Tanimura gets your attention first, relentlessly upbeat in the face of adversity. She is a bundle of energy and drags Taro out of his malaise though sheer force of nature. In one nice interlude between the two she asks him to describe himself offering a positive alternative to every negative he throws up with a bit of alliterative wordplay. It is a true credit to her performance that she never begins to grate, as the perma-positive are prone to. She doesn't lose sight of the character even when Hana's health takes a turn for the worse. However, it is Kora in the slow-burning role who really excels. It is a quiet, shy, and reserved turn that is measured just right. He gives Taro subtle nervous mannerisms that are gradually shed as he overcomes his introverted ways. This change that Hana begins to foster in her older sibling is carried out in an impressively unhurried and non-rushed manner, and when the pair are on screen together the film is at its best. Their yin and yang relationship and its warmth makes the film.

The term for Taro's affliction, hikikomori is a surprisingly common occurrence in Japan. It has been attributed to various factors, the societal pressures and expectations of Japanese life, the mollycoddling of Japanese family, post-recession disenchantment, amongst others, and it is good to see a film being made on the subject. Without wishing to sound like a emotionless cynic it is Taro troubles far more than Hana, which although very sad are in familiar territory, that gives the film its intrigue. Their family's initial dysfunction, lack of communication goes some way to providing answers to the origins of Taro's problems, and while Fireworks from the Heart does explore this issue, it could perhaps have gone a bit deeper. What it is though, is a very plausible and real depiction of a problem that is far too often swept under the rug in Japanese life.

When things extends beyond the family itself the film falters slightly, but the focal point never strays too much that it becomes a real problem. The bit-part players are not quite up to the same standard as the family, and as such suffer in comparison. Some seem to have had their roles significantly downsized in the editing process, leaving some of the peripheral characters feeling a bit half-baked.There are several flashbacks in here that are unnecessary even when you take into account their brevity. They are only meant as a gentle reminder but it feels a bit lazy and undermines the acting that conveys things perfectly well without requiring this crutch. It is not unreasonable to expect an audience to remember something that was said a mere thirty or forty minutes ago. Musically too the film could have been less obvious, with violins popping up every once in awhile like someone tapping you on the shoulder and saying, "This is a sad bit. Okay?". A more low-key approach would have been fine and again, allowed the atmosphere to resonate in the performances rather than distract from them.

There is a loss of momentum in the final third and Fireworks from the Heart lags slightly, but this is a strong film with a good deal of maturity. Its simple direction lets the excellent performances take centre stage. Tanimura and Koga are definitely ones to look out for in the future. You hope they avoid some of the blander mainstream movies being made. In doing so perhaps they can retain the individuality and creativity shown here rather than sliding into the cookie cutter oblivion that seems a common career trajectory. They make this film into an endearing story about family and the bond between a brother and sister that is easy to recommend.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Gantz - 2011

Directed by Shinsuke Sato


A surprisingly successful and accessible adaptation of the popular sci-fi thriller manga Gantz.

Toning down some of the more extreme elements of the manga source material Gantz manages to keep the inventiveness of the comic book and turn it into a far more accessible and mature film than expected. The result is part sci-fi, part thriller, with a little dash of superhero movies and social commentary thrown in for good measure. Well directed and well acted it is an enigmatic blockbuster that uses its central concept not simply as an excuse for CGI, though there is plenty of that, but also as a means to look closer at its effects on the characters wrapped up in it.

The story hits the ground running and whilst sounding a little far-fetched on paper comes through far more coherently on screen. Kurono (Kazunari Ninomiya), an ordinary job-hunting college student, is waiting for his train on a busy Tokyo Metro station when he spots Kato (Kenichi Matsuyama), a long-lost elementary school friend. Helping in an accident with another passenger the pair find themselves on the tracks and with the glare of train lights fast approaching. When they come to moments later, they are in a non-descript apartment room at the top of a tower block with several other disorientated people who seem to have had similar experiences. A big black steel orb in the centre of the room, referred to as Gantz, is the only clue to why they are there. Gantz communicates to them via a muddled screen on the front of the sphere. It displays an alien target to them, provides them with the means to dispose of it, sets a timer, beams them into an alternate deserted Tokyo, and awards them points for their efforts. Is this some kind of bizarre, futuristic reality TV show or something a whole lot more sinister?

Despite probably being able to answer that question already, the film overall keeps you in the dark. This is one of the beauties of Gantz that things are never over explained. As the audience we learn things in real-time with the characters, which really propels this surreal story onwards. In these types of movies there is normally a kind of “expert” character who breaks down everything to the protagonists, and thus us the audience. That role’s absence here creates this refreshing uncertainty. Quite as to what it all means is never clear, are we in some sort of purgatory, is it some sort of malevolent game? The film looks at humans and how they function in a group, unable to put aside their individual drive to survive, and how ordinary people can in the right circumstances behave completely out of character.

Kenichi Matsuyama, best known outside Japan for his recent role in Norwegian Wood, is really good as Kato, and furthers the argument that he is one of the best young actors working in Japanese cinema. He and Ninomiya bring a human element to a story that could have descended into a simple special effects bonanza. The pairing works well together, with Matsuyama the more conventionally heroic, contrasting with Ninomiya the average Joe whose new-found abilities begin to unleash something inside of him. They have been transposed from high-schoolers to university students for this film version, and it leads it into far more interesting and relatable territory, eschewing some of the childishness. Before everything kicks off properly Kurono is hurriedly repeating his stock interview answers, about to undergo the rigorous stressful Japanese job interview process, but by the time he finally gets to use them, his world and their meaning have changed unalterably. It is a nicely thought out section that helps to bring the characters’ two worlds together.

Effects wise everything is spot-on, and the odd uninhabited suburban Tokyo battlegrounds that the characters are deposited into are well realized, instantly recognizable, and unnervingly quiet. It is undeniably the aliens that to kill that are the stars of the show though. Starting with a child and father that seem to be a mixture of the Incredible Hulk, a zombie, and a leek (yeah, the vegetable), by the two-hour mark assorted Buddhist deities, including the big guy himself, have joined the fray. These segments are gripping, swerving in unexpected directions, and the general confusion of the characters removes that sense of inevitability that blockbuster action sequences tend to have. The black cat-suits that gives the combatants the power to fight these combatants are intriguing, but perhaps just a touch under-done. Kurono in one scene, in a way reminiscent of Spiderman, begins to work out how to utilize the superhuman abilities he has at his fingertips, highly enjoyable it would have been nice to have seen a bit more.

Visually the film's print origins are evident throughout. The framing of the actors in shots has the distinct feel of comic books about it. Director Shinsuke Sato seems to have used the original at times as a straight storyboard for the film. Recent trends for live-action adaptations of graphic novels have tended to be more overt in displaying their roots, see Sin City or any host of others, striving to show their authenticity. The approach taken here is great and its subtlety allows the film to stay true, whilst forming its own identity. A prior knowledge of the Gantz series is not essential at all as this film really makes the material its own.

Yet, an illustration of the challenges of adapting material like this comes in the character of Kei Kishimoto (Natsuna Watanabe). She arrives on screen naked, having been beamed into the apartment room by the black orb Gantz. It is a well shot scene, a group of bewildered men deliberating whether they are alive or not suddenly stop dead seeing a naked woman materializing from the feet up in front of them. Compared to the print version, which features some of the less appealing aspects of Japanese manga culture, this is handled far more sensitively. However, as a character whose fundamental purpose in the comics seems to have been for little more than titillation, her body suit in the original was more of a body-bikini, there is nothing added only subtracted. This leaves her character a bit of a non-entity and it seems strange that they didn’t make a bit more of an effort to balance her out. Perhaps due to the constraints of time Kimono’s character development too, is not entirely convincing and feels a bit rushed as it veers suddenly.

It can be a bit frustrating when films end abruptly with the words, “to be continued” popping up on screen and the ending is rounded off in a Matrix-sequel manner that jars a little with the pacing up to that point. It would be a shame if this was a sign of what is to come in the two part series. Most frustratingly of all the spoiler-laden trailer to the sequel was shown straight after the credits, so I advise not sticking around until the lights come up. These qualms aside, Gantz is a slick and entertaining infusion of genres that comes together expertly. Sato has managed to reign in the more fan-boy elements of the series making the film a genuinely successful and entertaining adaptation. Here’s hoping that the second film doesn’t make me eat my words.

Friday, April 8, 2011

President Osaki of Yoshimoto Kogyo Interview

Interviewed for BC Magazine

In Japan when you think comedy, you think Yoshimoto. It is the top dog in Japanese O Warai. As an agency it has the lion's share, about a 90% , of Japanese comedians on its roster. The company has begun expanding from its roots and moving into new exciting directions. The Okinawa Film Festival is one of those, and the man at the top of Yoshimoto President Osaki took some time to talk to Film in Japan about the festival, the difficult choice to go ahead with the event, Yoshimoto itself, and Japanese comedy in general

Translated by Adam Higgins

FIJ - Thank you for having me here at the Okinawa film festival. What do you think makes Okinawa film festival unique and special? It seems to me to be quite an unusual film festival.

O -
Well there are lots of film festivals in Asia: Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tokyo etc. This film festival started later, so we didn
t want to take away from those festivals or do the same thing. As for the title, our company isnt just film production so I wanted to include film, T.V., radio, newspapers, magazines and internet, but the title would have been too long. So, I went with film festival. We are in an age in which media walls are breaking down. This festival is a place for people to meet and exchange know-how and create new media. Okinawa is also the closest part of Japan to Asia so it is convenient for visitors. Its our company so there is a focus on comedy, which I think is unusual.

FIJ - Could you talk me through the decision to continue with the festival in light of the events in Tohoku?

O - Fifteen or sixteen years ago in Osaka Yoshimoto Industry experienced the earthquake and we struggled to cope. This time I wanted to do everything I could to push forward. Although, of course the decision came from upstairs, I feel every employee, every performer wanted to push forward.

FIJ -Could you tell me what fundraising will be going on during the festival?

O - People will be carrying donation boxes, focused around the talents. Regardless of their area people will be collecting donations. Our website will also be collecting donations.

FIJ -The festival has grown a lot in just three years, attendance has increased dramatically. What are your aims for the future?

O - When the festival began lots of people gathered together, exchanging information starting new projects. Since beginning the festival more films have been made on a local level. I would like this to continue and for there to be more films made like this in all Asian countries.

FIJ - Actually I was going to ask about the local organization project. What is it that makes a local film special? Compared to what were used to with Hollywood and big Japanese productions.

O - Local films have their own local legends and tales, which can be used as a basis. Then the locals and our staff and talents can introduce local specialties, local celebrities. Through communication we can make a film. A film that may not be for the big screen, but one to be watched in Japan or Asia, perhaps in a coffee house or city hall. The goal is to make a network where there wasnt one before. It wont fit in with Hollywood releases, but it should show local traditions and feelings.

FIJ - Could you explain the theme of Yell, Laugh and Peace?

O - What our company can do is make you smile and make you laugh. Doing it in Okinawa represents peace. The original theme was love and peace. In light of the Tohoku earthquake, Okinawa a place that has had a tough history, now has a chance to send a message of peace. Perhaps, for the first time since the war. In Shinjuku and Shibuya the young people can have fun thanks to Okinawa.

FIJ - Could you tell me a little about the film selection. Why did you choose the films that you did and how did you find them?

O - I left the choice to the Director, Konishita, The production was up to the individual directors, I didnt interfere.

FIJ - Talking about the Yoshimoto company, originally it was solely about comedy and now its expanding and expanding into all different areas. Can you talk to me a little about the transition?

O - Our basis is comedians, but weve been expanding into musicians, artists, sports starts etc. A natural business progression. In America stars often have a private manager, but in Japan it is just the one boss who says whats what - but, were different from that, closer to an agent. We offer management in order for the star to step forth into the world.

FIJ - If you compare the American individual model what are the benefits of the Japanese model?

O - Each have their own good points. Within an agency there is a lot of information that comes in; we have this film, we have this drama in this country etc. An agency has more information than one manager. The agent is also better at appropriate distribution for the time and the person.

FIJ - Out of Yoshimotos production, Im sure this is a difficult question, but is there one person, or a group, that youre particularly proud of?

O - We celebrate our 100 year anniversary (A hundred fools) soon (laughs). We sell Baka and Aho (Idiot and Fool).There cant be any other company like ours.

FIJ -: Comedy can be very specific to its country, what challenges do you see in marketing Japanese comedy on a more international scale?

O - There are comedians all over the world: India,Philippines, Indonesia, England, France, American etc. And those comedians are really famous there. Just hearing their name will make you laugh. But, if they take one step out of their country, no one knows who they are. So, with comedy its partly a language barrier, but also the varying lifestyles, and customs are difficult to get across to other cultures. But, perhaps, with the internet we have a chance to spread out and expand. Before, the Japanese market alone was enough for us, but now we need to reach out and expand.

FIJ - Lastly, whats key aspect of a successful festival like this?

O - I think the staff and the performances and whether they can charm the people.That's the basis.

Yoko Minamino Interview

Interviewed for BC Magazine

Yoko Minamino was a teen sensation in Japan in the early nineties working as a pop idol, modelling and singing. She has since moved into television and film, and is a regular fixture on the Japanese late-night variety shows. She was in Okinawa with her new film Omu-Raisu (Omellete Rice), directed by Japanese comedian Yuichi Kimura. It is the story of a man with a powerful imagination wandering around town collecting the ingredients for the titular Japanese version of the classic omellete. On his journey he spots curiosities hidden amongst the everyday life of his town.

Translated by Adam Higgins

FIJ - Is this your first time at the Okinawa film festival? How are you enjoying it?

YM -Yes, this is my first time. Ive been an actress for twenty five years and been to many film festivals, but here therere a lot of comedians, so its really lively despite the cold. Everyones having a great time.

FIJ - Could you tell me what Omuraisu is about please?

YM - Its a film that couldnt have been made without the director, Kimura. Just reading the script its a little hard to understand. Even watching it there may be some people who find it hard to understand. You have to give it several viewings.

FIJ - You were only in it very briefly but your segment was very funny. Could you describe your part in it for me?

YM -There were close to one hundred famous talents in the film, so yes my role was very small. My character is a typical housewife from Japan of yesteryear. The husband begs the wife to get married, but after theyre married he starts ordering her around: Wheres my dinner etc.

FIJ - How did you become involved with the film?

YM - I was friends with Kimura from before, so he spoke to me about the film. I saw some promotional materialand was intrigued. Then there was a photo shoot.

FIJ - The cast is full of famous comedians and talents what was it like working with them?

YM - Everyone knew the director was little different, so we listened to what he had to say. The comedians were very actor-like and the actors tried to capture their essence. We naturally came together.

FIJ - What was it like working with Yuichi Kimura?

YM -He is a modest, well mannered man. He wants everyone to enjoy a world of imagination and laughter.

FIJ - When you were making your section did you have original input?

YM - The director cant change your expression every second - so its something an actress needs to think about for herself. You need to present your character properly without too many words.

FIJ - The film has many funny sections, which ones stood out for you in particular?

YM -The Korean barbecue scene. If you are told to change something about yourself, you do it. But then if you are then asked why you changed youre not sure. This is typical Japanese behavior.

FIJ - What do you think is special about Japanese comedy? What makes it unique?

YM - Even in Japan the humor in Tokyo is different from the humor in Osaka. Im from Osaka so I like physicalhumor. The director is from Kyoto so again its slightly different. But, ultimately, the purpose of comedy is to amuse people. And I want to work with people like who enjoy doing that.

FIJ - What Japanese actors, actresses or maybe comedians do you admire?

YM - Yamada Isuzu. A little old, but an actress everyone respects. Despite looking pretty shed act bad and speak sarcastically. At first I didnt like it, but then I came to see it as very human.

FIJ - How did you get into acting? Originally you were an idol. How did you make the transition?

YM - I think the time was right. Other idols mainly did songs, while some acted. It was a very natural progression for me: T.V. dramas, the stage, film - I had chances to act. I didnt think it would last this long though (laughs)

FIJ -So, youve worked in T.V. and film. How are they different and which do you prefer?

YM - Now filming on films and T.V. dramas is fundamentally the same. We used to shoot with VTR with many cameras. You couldnt see the film on set, so the professionals would be nervous. Now you can see the film so you can review and edit while filming. I think Im getting old as I liked the old way.

FIJ - What are you going to be working on in the future?

YM - Im mainly doing dramas, I dont have a movie lined up. In spring, I will also do a programme that introduces traditional Japanese art like Kabuki and No. Young people and foreigners arent familiar with these so Im looking forward to doing this.

FIJ - In the wake of the Tohoku earthquake do you have a message that youd like to send to the people affected by this tragedy?

YM -Sixteen years ago I was in Hyogo, Kobe. Id almost forgotten that earthquake then another struck. When I think of those affected Im overwhelmed with emotion. I wont forget it or the fragility of life. It will take time but I know they are in the middle of building an even greater Tohoku.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Hankyu Densha - Hankyu Train 2011

Director: Yoshihige Miyaki

Rating: 2/5

Heartwarming, though very corny, multi-narrative story of passengers on Kobe's Hankyu line.

If you have Hitchcock's great Strangers on a Train on one end of the spectrum, a tale of a random encounter between two passengers that swiftly leads to murder and blackmail, then Hankyu Densha, with far more positive inter-traveler relations, sits firmly on the other side. It took away the Golden Ceasar and the Peace Award at this years Okinawa Film Festival. In the wake of the recent tragic events in Tohoku its message fits neatly into the general mood. It is a film that seeks to show the good-natured side of city life and remind us we are not alone. It is undeniably corny, yet hard not to be even slightly touched by it's relentless optimism.

The multi-stranded story begins with a beautiful business lady out for revenge on her ex-boyfriend. Every demographic is covered here; there is a university girl and her aggressive boyfriend, a sage old lady and her granddaughter, two country kids adapting to the big city, a middle-aged woman trying to fit in with the other mothers on the PTA, a high-school girl and her doting older boyfriend, and a bullied elementary school-girl. Gradually the characters narrative strands begin to weave into each other as they all begin to help each other through their problems.

While Hankyu Densha really strives not to leave anyone out, by ticking too many boxes it loses its focus. Some of the stories are genuinely interesting, and some of the others are decidedly less so. Muddling them up together weakens the stronger narrative strands and makes the weaker ones forgettable. The film starts promisingly with Shoko, played with elegance and dignity by the excellent Miki Nakatani, who has been summoned to a meeting in a crowded cafe by her boyfriend and her younger female colleague who has turned his head. She allows to let them marry without any fuss, but on the promise that she is allowed to attend the wedding party. It gets proceedings rolling with an icy bang, and it deserves its central role. But, when you contrast this to some of the other stories the drama just isn't there. In particular the mother who feels obliged to go to expensive lunches with the pantomime villain PTA mothers while her family eat left-overs is a non-starter.

Overall the cast are of a high standard. Nobuko Miyamoto, as the wise old grandmother gives a truly believable, charming, and well-judged performance. She is the anchor at the heart of this film, and its moral compass. When explaining things to her daughter, the insightful life lessons are often for the benefit of the others nearby, too. She is well supported by the afore mentioned Nakatani, who is the epitomy of glamor in her wedding dress and has you rooting for her from the off. There are no real weak links in the main cast but the story of the university girl, played capably by Erika Toda, and her violent boyfriend quickly becomes farcical. His character is just ridiculous and has no bearing on reality. He flies in to rages at the drop of a hat, is implausibly stupid, and plain two dimensional. He would be more at home on a daytime American soap, and it makes an important issue seem like a bad joke. It is amazing to think that no one involved could not see how absurd it is, luckily he is the exception and not the norm.

One of the films main problems is it just doesn't feel like a film, even with some decent acting talent. It feels far more like a national holiday Sunday night TV movie than genuine cinema. Half the pieces of the puzzle are in place with a strong cast, and a well thought out script. It really could of just done with a bit more visual finesse to carry it over. This seems to be a common problem in a lot of the "bigger" Japanese cinema releases and it is always a disappointment when within moments you realize the next couple of hours are going to filled by unambitious and middle of the road stuff. Hankyu Densha doesn't look shoddy or poorly made, it just looks like television.

This seems to have been made with the Japanese golden week holidays in mind. The multi-generational cast has the whisk of a corporate office trying to widen its audience. The majority female cast, and story-lines make this a solid holiday movie for the mums, daughters, and grandmas out there. It's not going to go down in history this, that said it is consistently watchable and if you are in for something to remind you that the world isn't such a miserable place you could do a lot worse. Personally though, I'll stick with Strangers on a Train.