Shoplifters (2018)

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Direction: Hirokazu Koreeda
Country: Japan

The imposing filmography of Japanese Hirokazu Koreeda just became richer with the addition of Shoplifters, an intelligent, fully formed piece of cinema conceived with as much filmic art as emotional insight. The family topic is recurrent in Koreeda’s explorations, with dramas such as Nobody Knows (2004), Still Walking (2008), Our Little Sister (2015), and Like Father Like Son (2013) being very much recommended. It was precisely the latter film that inspired the director to write Shoplifters, based on the question ‘what makes a family?’

Set in the suburbs of Tokyo, the story follows a quirky family struggling with poverty during the peak of the Japanese recession. The father, Osamu Shibata (Lily Franky), hates to work in the freezing cold and spends time with his son Shota (Jyo Kairi), instructing him safe techniques to shoplift goods in small grocery stores. Shota is not his real son; he was taken from a car at a very young age. Osamu and his wife, Nobuyo (Sakura Andô), a laundry employee, say they saved him from negligent parents. The family lives under the roof of a goodhearted elder woman, Hatsue (the late Kirin Kiki), who, additionally, helps them financially via her late husband’s pension. Rounding out the group of misfits is Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), a club hostess who is very close to Hatsue.

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The limiting economical factor doesn't refrain Osuamu and Nobuyo from ‘adopting’ Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), a little neighbor girl psychologically traumatized by abusive parents. Without notice, their happiness is suddenly at risk due to several agents. The girl’s disappearance is somehow reported on the TV; Hatsue dies suddenly right after the couple becomes jobless; and Shota starts to inquire in his head about what’s wrong and what’s right.

Stressing family bonds, Koreeda expands his realistic vision, procuring a dichotomy that is equally complex and questionable. Genuine moments of rapture and love found within the improvised family oppose to the stressful atmosphere the kids are subjected in their real parents’ households. In the case of Shota, the uncertainty about his real past and family persist after the credits roll.

Beautifully shot and brimming with precious humane details, the film is always gentle in tone. Nothing surprising here since Koreeda is a creative storyteller that doesn’t need to make a fuss to clearly bring his point of view. The strong social consciousness elevates a story that kind of disturbs in its final phase by exposing some shocking dark secrets. This near masterpiece made me think for long periods of time, meaning that its message and purpose were conveyed with a glorious sense of accomplishment.

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The Third Murder (2018)

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Directed by Hirokazu Koreeda
Country: Japan

Japanese writer-director Hirokazu Koreeda has been showing his brilliance with contemplative, emotionally rich drama films such as “Nobody Knows”, “Still Walking”, “I Wish”, “Like Father Like Son”, and “After the Storm”, all of them deeply related to family.

His latest, “The Third Murder”, deviates from this concentrative emotional paths, being a crime thriller coldly steeped in the courtroom, yet not eschewing the family side. It stars Masaharu Fukuyama as Shigemori, a senior attorney tasked with defending Misumi (Koji Yakusho), a man from Hokkaido accused to slay and then burn with gasoline his former boss. The case seems impossible to win since Misumi had served jail time 30 years before due to another murder.

Misumi promptly confesses the crime when arrested, pointing out his motives for such an evil act. He had been fired a few months before, started to drink heavily, and was in desperate need of money. Hence, the case falls in the robbery-murder category. Shigemori, whose father is also a veteran lawyer who defended this same client in the previous conviction, ponders the best strategy to get him life in prison instead of the death penalty. However, and despite the efforts of his legal representatives, Misumi keeps changing his story, which becomes strangely related to the victim’s daughter Sakie (Suzu Hirose), a teenager who limps just like his own estranged daughter. The uncertainty impels us to search for a truth that remains opaque, but not long enough to allow surprise. 

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Some more uncertainty is thrown in with the rumor that the victim’s wife had hired Misumi to kill her husband in a criminal conspiracy in order to get his life insurance money. Nevertheless, the reality is very different and we find Sakie willing to testify in court to save the detainee. 

The long, well-staged conversations between Shigemori and his client are often depicted with stationary face-to-face close-ups and medium shots with occasional juxtaposing techniques using the glass that separates them in the interrogation room. 

Impeccably shot and edited, “The Third Murder” follows the sinuous trails and tonal bleakness associated with the genre. Still, it has a fluctuating grip, lacking any sort of bright final punch that could have made it memorable. There’s nothing wrong with experimenting new directions and Koreeda should be praised for his courage. Notwithstanding, his inspiration and originality find a more suitable vehicle in the gentle, human dramas that everyone can relate to.

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Oh Lucy! (2018)

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Directed by Atsuko Hirayanagi
Country: Japan / USA

In her debut feature film, “Oh Lucy!”, Japanese writer-director Atsuko Hirayanagi successfully expands her award-winning 2014 short film of the same name and delivers a more-than-ordinary drama that is a loud shout for existential freedom.

The central character is Setsuko Kawashima (Shinobu Terajima), a single, middle-aged office worker who lives a lonely and unfulfilled life in Tokyo. Despite a rough cough that makes her workmates uncomfortable, smoking cigarettes is perhaps her unique daily pleasure. Still, she's the sarcastic type, a fact that can be confirmed during a co-worker’s retirement party, where she unleashes all her accumulated frustrations.
Prior to the cited occurrence, and while waiting for the train on her way to work, a man jumps into the tracks after whispering ‘goodbye’ in her ear. Although traumatic, the situation didn’t seem to upset the resilient Setsuko on a large scale. The only thing she seems incapable to overcome is the fact that her ex-boyfriend left her a few years before for her competitive sister, Ayako (Kaho Minami).

After spending a good time in the company of her careless young niece, Mika (Shioli Kutsuna), who takes the opportunity to borrow money from her, Setsuko decides to follow her suggestion and enroll in English classes at a freakish, unorthodox school.

Desperately in need of attention, she gets very well impressed with John (Josh Hartnett), the American English teacher, who is also a hugger. John makes her impersonate a more extrovert fictional woman he calls Lucy, and introduces her to a widower, Tom (Kôji Yakusho), a security consultant and former detective, whose true name is Takeshi Tomori. During class, the students are only allowed to speak English and are urged to wear lame wigs to better embrace the fantasy of their new personalities. This particular phase of the narrative, devised with enough intriguing moments, made me heavily interested in the people hanging around there.

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Ironically, Setsuko and her estranged sister end up making a long trip together to the outskirts of Southern California, after realizing that Mika had secretly escaped with John, her lover. 
Ironically, Setsuko and her estranged sister end up making a long trip together to the outskirts of Southern California, after realizing that Mika had secretly escaped with John, her lover. 

The American experience becomes unforgettable for our heroine. Besides quarreling with her sister in a diverting way, she learns that her niece went to San Diego after leaving John, who is now facing eviction. That makes her craving even more hugs from John, to whom she is visibly attracted. Will he be willing to satisfy her needs? Everything is possible after smoking a joint and the desperate-for-love Setsuko will jeopardize her integrity and also her family affairs. Self-seeking or deluded? Leaning on the emotional side, her American dream has a bittersweet flavor.
 
Hirayanagi surfs the subject with confidence, stringing together a series of misadventures with wit and pathos. Moreover, she takes the time to establish the characters so their personalities and intentions can be easily apprehended and evaluated. No plot excesses were found and the peculiar ambiance accompanies the confident narrative flow. 

Standing on its own as a sympathetic cross-cultural drama, “Oh Lucy!” deserves an extra point for the ability to eke out unexpected laughs from the most painful scenarios.

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Harmonium (2017)

Directed by Koji Fukada
Country: Japan

Japanese helmer Koji Fukada, active since 2008, has in "Harmonium" his best film so far. As an advocate of solemn dramas with surprising twists, Mr. Fukada, who also penned the script, keeps us entangled in a web of emotions, revelations, and startles, that pushes his film beyond the surface. The severe psychological backbone of the story ended up convincing the members of the jury panel at Cannes Film Festival, where the film won the Un Certain Regard prize.

Kanji Furutachi, a regular presence in Fukada films, is Toshio, a metalworker who lives a quiet life in the company of his wife, Akie (Mariko Tsutsui) and their young daughter, Hotaru.
While mother and daughter always pray to God before eating, Toshio eats avidly and almost doesn’t talk. In truth, and regardless his love for them, he doesn’t pay much attention to their needs and often falls in rudimentary behaviors.

On a certain day, Toshio gets the visit of an intriguing old friend, Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano), who just got out of jail, where he has spent 11 years for killing a young man. Toshio immediately hires this man and invites him to live with him and his family, a strange decision that makes Akie in the verge of an attack of nerves. At this point, and observing the two men’s ways, we conclude that there’s a past debt to be paid off.

However, little by little, Akie is beguiled by the gentleness and availability of Yasaka, who acts respectful, attentive, and becomes very handy at home. He even teaches Hotaru playing a song in the harmonium for her upcoming public performance. Akie spends more and more time with him and gets emotional when he goes into his troubled past. Forbidden kisses are exchanged between them on a sunny weekend day in the countryside as the family reunites with a friend. Still, Akie continues to resist him at home, frustrating his furtive advances and forcing a different personality to emerge in him.

Her disappointment and guilt are immeasurable when Hotaru is found on a sidewalk, inanimated with thick blood covering her head and with the rancorous Yasaka at her side. The madness expressed on his face dissipates all the possible doubts about the perpetrator of the monstrous act.
 
Eight years after, Yasaka remains untraceable while Hotaru, completely paralyzed, is perpetually confined to a wheelchair. The couple has opposite reactions: while Toshio dreams with revenge, Akie is haunted by visions of the murderer and her nervous system is visibly damaged.
 
The arrival of Takashi (Taiga), Toshio's young new apprentice, will bring additional information about Yasaka. After so many years, is the couple ready to give up searching for the beast who took their peace of mind?

The slow yet penetrating plot development emphasizes the inherent fatalism of a story that, besides crime and evilness, also deals with karma and selfishness. An unblinking camera mounts compulsive scenarios, where an obstinate symbolism with the red color leads to a creepy, unsettling finale. 

The surprising factor is crucial and only one scene by the end feels forced, when the couple finds someone that looks exactly like Yasaka from behind, teaching harmonium to a young girl.
Apart from that quibble, the director competently elucidates us about how hard it is, in certain cases, to forgive and forget.

The Long Excuse (2016)

Directed by Miwa Nishikawa
Country: Japan

Japanese filmmaker Miwa Nishikawa (“Wild Berries”), whose career started under the tutelage of the acclaimed Hirokazu Koreeda, adapts her own 2015 novel, “The Long Excuse”, to the big screen with favorable results. The drama stars Masahiro Motoki (“Departures”) as Sachio Kinugasa, a successful writer too centered on himself to pay attention to his affectionate wife, Natsuko (Eri Fukatsu). She is a hair stylist who supported him when he most needed and always encouraged him to follow his dreams.

However, their 20-year marriage is going through a terrible phase and keeps deteriorating. With a circumspect sequence of close-ups, Ms. Nishikawa reinforces the state of mind of the couple right in the first scenes. While giving him a haircut, Natsuko heartily summons up agreeable moments of the past spent in his company, but she only gets indifference and bitterness back.

Sachio's life will make a U-turn when his wife suddenly dies in a bus accident in the company of her high school best friend, Yuki (Keiko Horiuchi). The fatality occurs when Sachio is at home fooling around with a younger woman, a student who immediately understands that his ego is too large for him to worry about the loss. Conversely, Yuki’s modest husband, Yoichi (Pistol Takehara), falls into a spiral of tears and despair.

Unexpectedly, his soul goes through a complete metamorphosis when he gets closer to Yoichi’s two children, Shinpei (Kenshin Fujita) and Akari (Tamaki Shiratori), who are temporarily entrusted to him so that their father can work overnight. Sachio was impressed with and compassionate for the highly sensitive Shinpei when he discloses he won’t be attending school anymore. Happy about finally doing the right thing, he undertakes the mission of helping the kid with the studies while also watching for his lovely little sister.
 
Well, he had no idea how many simple yet precious things he was about to learn from these kids, including exteriorizing feelings and opening his soul to others.
Besides the humane side of the story, the film also focuses on the gap between social classes by putting Sachio and Yoichi on different sides of the fence. On one side, there’s social status, vanity, and pretentiousness. On the other, modesty, honesty, and transparency.

Even resorting to some sentimentality, “The Long Excuse” reached me in the way it treats camaraderie, personal growth, and family ties with sagacious integrity.
Hence, the quibbles found in Nishikawa’s directorial procedures have almost no expression when compared to the message conveyed. And it feels so good seeing someone who became stuck moving on.

After The Storm (2016)

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Directed by Hirokazu Koreeda
Country: Japan

Throughout his extraordinary career, Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda has demonstrated tremendous sensibility to depict family dramas. Gracious works such as "Nobody Knows" (2004), "Still Life" (2008), "I Wish" (2011) and "Like Father Like Son" are considered socially influential within the Japanese new wave cinema.
"After the Storm" brings us a richly detailed story that involves family generations and is surrounded by strong emotional depth, naturalistic settings, and considerable amounts of sorrowfulness and optimism.

The story revolves around the divorced Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), a crooked private detective and struggling writer who, in his thirties, still didn’t find the financial stability to pay for his child support. Despite the success of his debut novel, Ryota tries to overcome a persistent condition known as writer’s block. His inability to provide for the household wasn’t the only reason why his more mature and hard-working wife, Kyoko (Yoko Maki), decided to leave him. Ryota, wasn’t paying too much attention to their little son, Shingo (Taiyô Yoshizawa), and keeps living in the fantasy that one day he’ll win the lottery, squandering all his money in tickets and gambling. In this aspect, he takes after his father whose recent death made Yoshiko (Kirin Kiki), his mother, rejoice again with life and freedom.

When another typhoon is approaching, nobody seems to give it real importance, however, this will be a special occasion to reunite the family in the matriarch’s cozy place.
Alternating between perspicacious and dramatic, Yoshiko understands very well the situation of her family. She wants them to reconcile but doesn’t take sides in the dispute. On one hand, she accepts Ryota as he is, alleging it was his father’s genes that made him like that; on the other hand, she always loved her daughter-in-law for being strong, caring, and a wonderful mother. More than anything, she respects their decisions. 
Her vision of the men, in general, becomes clear during a casual conversation with Kyoko: “why men are unable to love the present? They keep pursuing what they’ve lost or dreaming beyond their reach”.
Shingo is the one who gets confused with the situation, relying on his grandmother, a true idol, to comfort and pamper him.

After the Storm” is an honest drama that doesn’t search for rapid solutions but rather hope. Koreeda composes the picture in a civilized and introspective manner, after engendering a script that appropriately describes our modern times. It evaluates the weight of responsibility in addition to the pursuit of personal dreams and its repercussions within the household.

Despite the seriousness of the story, the film exhibits a funny side, particularly through the compulsive, untamable, and even childish posture of Ryota. Haragumi’s subtle musical score worked perfectly with Yutaka Yamazaki’s endearing cinematography, showing an intriguing ability of almost pacifying the problems of the characters, who felt real and authentic. 
Unobtrusive techniques, human awareness, and narrative accessibility remain strong features in Koreeda’s simple yet effective filmmaking style.

Our Little Sister (2016)

Directed by: Hirokazu Koreeda
Country: Japan

Hirokazu Koreeda, one of the most renowned contemporary Japanese directors , has proved he has a knack for family dramas. His previous works such as “Nobody Knows”, “Still Walking”, and “Like Father, Like Son” were critically acclaimed, demonstrating his acute sensitivity to depict relationships within the family.
His new film, entitled “Our Little Sister”, was based on the manga series “Umimachi Diary” by Akimi Yoshida, and tells the story of three adult sisters who ‘adopt’ their younger half-sister after the death of their father.

With their mother living in Hokkaido, Sachi (Haruka Ayase), Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa), and Chika (Kaho), of 29, 22, and 19 years old, respectively, live by themselves in the seaside Japanese city of Kamakura for more than a decade. 
Sachi, the eldest of the three, assumes the role of a mother, zealously taking care of her sisters and the house, a responsibility that stole her youth. However, she’s not a bitter person. Sachi works as a nurse in the local hospital and is in love with a married pediatrician who wants to leave for the US and take her with him.
Chika is a happy, relaxed, and attentive person who works at a sports store and has in her co-worker Hamada her best friend.
Yoshino, in turn, is a very sensitive person, having trouble in opening up about her problems. To do so, she drinks a few glasses of booze.

Their parents divorced when they were kids because their father fell in love with another woman and went to live in the countryside. One year after that traumatic occurrence, their cold mother left them and scarcely maintains contact.
When their estranged father dies, the sisters feel kind of indifferent, but decide to go to his funeral. There, they meet with their 14-year-old half-sister, Suzu Asano (Suzu Hirose), who gladly accepts their invitation to live in Kamakura with them.

In a clever and unobtrusive way, Mr. Koreeda, makes us know more about the sisters’ tastes, jobs, loving relationships, deceptions, fears and hopes with an affectionate grace and joyous tenderness.
Despite all the emotional struggles and dilemmas carried by the characters, the story conveys tranquility and generosity while some scenes mirror the pure joys and pleasures life is made of.
Rich in detail and essence, the optimistic “Our Little Sister” follows the combination of amiable tones and social analysis, so characteristic of Ozu and Shimizu. It confirms Mr. Koreeda as the maturest Japanese filmmaker working today.

A Bride For Rip Van Winkle (2016)

Directed by: Shunji Iwai
Country: Japan

Writer/director Shunji Iwai (“All About Lily Chou-Chou”, “Love Letter”) surprises again with “A Bride for Rip Van Winkle”.
The drama probes love in an extreme perspective and tells the misadventures of an openhearted woman who feels lost and anguished after a failed marriage.

The sweet and gentle Nanami (Haru Kuroki) is giving her first steps as a teacher, but her weak voice and bashful posture seem inadequate to face the cruel students. The possibility of being fired from the school becomes a tough reality, but Nanami decides to focus on Tetsuya (Gô Jibiki), a young teacher she met online, and the one she's going to marry.
Tetsuya, however, wasn't the man she thought he was. He gradually distanced himself from her, with a suspicious behavior that makes her think he’s having an affair. Restless and disappointed, she hires a mysterious performer, Yukimaso Amuro (Gô Ayano), to follow her husband and answer all her questions. Amuro wasn’t really a stranger, though. He had worked for Nanami during her wedding party, taking a group of strangers to pretend they were her relatives. Also, Nanami’s parents acted as they were still together, only to cause a good impression on the groom’s upper-class family.

The drama suddenly shifts to a psychological mystery thriller when the secret is unveiled and Nanami is unjustly accused of having an affair, falling immediately in disgrace. This is when the always-enigmatic Amuro offers his help and hires the lonely Nanami to work with him. Over the course of the work, she’ll find unconditional love in Mashiro (Cocco), an apparently happy woman who, after all, is suffering heavily in this phase of her life.

Exhibiting an adventurous camerawork, Mr. Iwai draws delicate movements and strong dramatic intonations during this three-hour director’s cut that, despite stumbling in its final scenes, is recommended mostly for its mood, intriguing paths, and associated complexity.
Nonetheless, it’s quite clear that this is not for everyone’s taste.

Creepy (2016)

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Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Country: Japan

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s “Creepy”, which was based on Yutaka Maekawa’s 2012 novel of the same name, flaunts some creepiness but fails to maintain the focus while leading us to a defective finale.
Mr. Kurosawa’s flair for horror-thriller is widely known (“Cure”, “Pulse”), but throughout his long career (more than three decades), his successes are more intermittent than solid. In fact, his only memorable film is a poignant drama, “Tokyo Sonata”, a reference that prompts me to suggest he should give another shot in the genre.

“Creepy” has a stimulating start, showing us the brave and clever Detective Takakura (Hidetoshi Nishijima) being wound by a young psychopath who managed to escape the correction facility where he was being interrogated. 
The incident pushed him away from the crime investigation and made him chose a teaching career instead. One year after, the expert in criminal psychology moves into a new house with his good-hearted wife, Yasuko (Yûko Takeuchi), who is resolved to build friendly relationships with the neighbors. However, the couple finds themselves surrounded by an antisocial woman on one side, and a sinister man, Nishino (Teruyuki Kagawa), on the other. Despite the odd behavior, Yasuko opens the door of her house for Nishino and his daughter, Mio, who discloses some eerie secrets about her father.

The one who doesn’t trust him at all is Takakura who, meanwhile, agrees to give a hand to his former colleague, Nogami (Masahiro Higashide), in an unsolved case from 6 years before when three members of a family disappeared without a trace. The only relative who’s alive is Saki Honda (Haruna Kawaguchi), carefully approached in order to recall a mysterious man who may be related to the disappearances of her parents and brother.

The two fronts of the story - the bizarre neighbor and the Hondas’ case - are predictably related and the film keeps revolving in psychological strategies and abhorrent exposures until we reach the implausible and vulnerable ending. “Creepy” was sharply shot/photographed and its suspenseful undertones are acceptable, however, a more lucid approach was expected from Mr. Kurosawa who, at least, could have tried to camouflage the obvious a little harder.

Sweet Bean (2015)

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Directed by Naomi Kawase
Country: Japan / other

“Sweet Bean”, a thoroughly acted Japanese melodrama directed by Naomi Kawase (“Still the Water”), concentrates on three lonely persons who suddenly see some light in their lives when in the company of one another. 

Sentaro (Masatoshi Nagase), a quiet man with a troubled past, sweats every day by working in a small dorayaki (Japanese red bean pancake) shop in order to pay his debt to the owner who once helped him getting out of a difficult situation. Despite not having a 'sweet tooth', Sentaro still puts all his effort to make the shop thriving, which is not so easy. The customers are no more than a few young students who go there and annoy him with their conversation. Still, he’s fond of a solitary girl, Wakana (Kyara Uchida), who always arrives after her fellow students to eat and collect the rejects.

One day, a fragile elderly woman comes in, motivated by a sign on the window saying they were looking for someone to work on a part-time basis. She introduces herself as Tokue Yoshii (Kirin Kiki) of 76 years old. Despite her crooked hands due to a horrible past of leprosy, she believes she could be a good fit since the bean paste has been her specialty for 50 years and Sentaro is using a tasteless industrial paste to make his recipes.
After tasting her paste, Sentaro gives her a shot and Tokue not only doesn’t disappoint him as she turns the tiny store into a huge success in town.
Things were running smoothly and Sentaro even takes a deserved day off, but the shop owner’s conniving wife (Miyoko Asada) has totally different plans for the business.

Ms. Kawase’s screenplay, based on Durian Sukegawa’s novel of the same name, uses complacent tones to invite us to reflection. However, what started interesting and strong, ends up mellow and weak. 
One can’t reproach the beautiful humanity presented in the story – new opportunities bring hope, hope brings life and success, which in turn bring confidence and clarity of thought. 
Yet, the modest, melancholic, and circumspect “Sweet Bean”, whose temperate matte cinematography by Shigeki Akiyama is seductive to the eyes, didn’t know how to balance the sugar levels. The result is way too saccharine for my personal palate.

Still the Water (2014)

Still the Water (2014) - Movie Review

Directed by Naomi Kawase
Country: Japan / others

Under the direction of the little-known Japanese filmmaker, Naomi Kawase (also credited as screenwriter, producer, and editor), “Still the Water” moves using a languid pace and embraces a strange intimacy. 

Set on one of the limestone islands of the Amani archipelago, it tells the story of a quiet 16-year-old kid, Kaito (Nijiro Murakami), who’s not happy with his mother, disapproving her behavior since his father left home a few years before. It’s not that she’s not gentle or cares about him, but because the most of her time is spent with lovers and not much is left to her son, who often wanders alone or hangs out with his best friend, Kyoko (Jun Yoshinaga). 

The film’s opening scene leads us to foresee a mysterious tale that never actually happens. 
During one night of traditional festivity, Kaito finds the body of a back-tattooed man floating on the waters of the seashore. This incident becomes the talk of the population who wonder if it was an accident or a crime, and if the man was a tourist or one of the common surfers that come to the island. The curiosity comes from Kaito’s strange behavior that indicates he knows this man from somewhere. 
The sincere friendship between Kaito and Kyoko tends to evolve into a beautifully affecting love, but Kaito’s problems hamper him from diving completely in a full physical relationship. Kyoko has also problems of her own since her mother, a shaman who stands on the threshold of Gods and humans, is dying sick. Her father, a man of the sea and experienced surfer, offers all his support and love, enabling a family cohesion that Kaito lacks, even when occasionally contacting with his likable father, a tattoo artist now living in Tokyo. 

A sweet sensitivity streams from the images, even from the most painful ones - those related to death - in a film that is culturally strong in its dual elements of life and death, family and love, Gods and humans, and nature and reason. However, and despite some impactful moments presented over tranquil landscapes and at the sound of melancholic piano tunes, I found certain parts not only long and occasionally vacillating, but also intricate in its philosophical considerations. Sort of lost in translation. 
Patient viewers may be able to find something worthy to dig out from this cryptic coming-of-age drama.

Yakuza Apocalypse (2015)

Yakuza Apocalypse (2015) - Movie Review
Directed by: Takashi Miike
Country: Japan

Movie Review: Japanese director Takashi Miike doesn’t give up trying to shock us with abhorrent films suffused with physical and psychological violence in addition to a few obnoxious scenes whose only goal is to make you feel nauseous. In “Yakuza Apocalypse”, his new maniac Tarantinoesque exercise, he bridges the yakuza underground scene with zombie horror. The result is darkly unsubstantial, disgracefully unfunny, and chaotically absurdist. The excruciating action scenes, despite kinetic, soon becomes highly tiresome while the script by Yoshitaka Yamaguchi is clearly trying to gain followers among younger crowds. The fantasy is centered on Kageyama (Hayato Ichihara), a young and brave yakuza who ambitions to be like his popular boss, a vampire who passes him the curse of becoming an immortal sanguinary criminal. The thing is that not every blood is nourishing – the civilians are good blood suppliers while the yakuza are to avoid. Along with these preoccupations, Kageyama has to fight the opponents of his gang, a bunch of crazy characters that include a dark medieval cowboy who speaks only in English and carries a sophisticated gun inside a coffin, a fierce Indonesian warrior (Yayan Ruhian from “The Raid”) who hauled the boss’ head after twisting it a dozen of times, and a destructive giant frog with superpowers. As allies, there’s a woman known as Captain whose lethal weapon is a slimy white liquid that she spouts out of her ears. But of course that “Yakuza Apocalypse” has something else besides gangs and fighting. There’s also love since Kageyama is trying to figure out the best way of dealing with his passionate impulses (both of the heart and thirst for blood) when he’s in the presence of the damaged Kyoko who’s recovering from a traumatic experience at a local hospital. It’s sad to realize that so many good ideas are wasted amidst repetitive graphical blood-spattered scenes and human torture. Prolific filmmaker Takashi Miike pulls out a tedious finale, in an ignominious head-to-head fighting sequence that determines which fighter punches harder and screams louder than the other one. The cinematography by Hajime Kanda is the only aspect that deserves attention in this pathetic vampire yakuza tale.

As the Gods Will (2014)

As the Gods Will (2014) - Movie Review
Directed by: Takashi Miike
Country: Japan

Movie Review: Prolific and talented, but often inconsistent, is how I see the Japanese film director Takashi Miike, who recently launched “As the Gods Will”, a loony computerized adventure targeting teen audiences, based on the manga work created by Muneyuki Kaneshiro and Akeji Fujimura, here adapted to the screen by the hand of Hiroyuki Yatsu. The film basically consists in a videogame, or if you prefer, a word-chain death game, with many different levels, whose players are High School students denominated ‘Children of God’. A certain day, and out of the blue, the head of a teacher blows up in the classroom being substituted by a Daruma doll that keeps bouncing on his desk while the heads of the students keep bursting one after another. This first level only finishes when someone pushes the button located on the back of the irritating doll, before its clock reaches zero. Highly popular among the girls, Takahata Shun (Sota Fukushi), who first complained to God about his boring life, is the student showing more capabilities. His strongest opponent is a tricky boy he has met at a videogame store, called Amaya (Ryunosuke Kamiki). The film starts and finishes as pure nonsense, a distasteful goofiness that increases from level to level. Its absurd episodes include a big cat in a gym, eating students dressed as rats and yelling ‘scratch me more, meow’; a flying white cube that could be related to terrorism or aliens; four playful Japanese dolls that punish with death the player who can't tell which of them stands behind his back; an allegedly pure white bear who demands the truth; and the final stage whose tedious game is called ‘kick the can’. Miike sets up some great scenarios but plunges into absurdity with a plot that revealed to be a complete disaster. I don’t know about the Gods, but my will regarding this one is: ‘game over’.

Tokyo Tribe (2014)

Tokyo Tribe (2014) - Movie Review
Directed by: Shion Sono
Country: Japan

Movie Review: Shion Sono’s latest, blends street gang action with hip-hop musical, and the effect is no less than effervescent. Based on Santa Inoue’s manga series of the same title, “Tokyo Tribe” opens with a kid on top of a slum’s barrack in Bukuro, saying to another: ‘when I grow up I’ll bring hope and joy to this city’. As you can imagine, the words hope and joy hardly fit here, and not even a minute later, we can witness the decadent reality of these colorful streets – drug trafficking, prostitution, crime, violence, and police negligence. We are introduced to the numerous rival gangs (called tribes) that control the different areas of Tokyo at the sound of rap tunes. From all the 23 existent gangs, Wu-Ronz and Musashino Saru got more attention. Wu Ronz’s bosses, the cannibal assassins and sex exploiters, Lord Buppa and his son Nkoi who uses sculptural women as his furniture, together with the savage expert in blades, Mera, are planning to destroy the remaining tribes and take total control of the city. After Musashino Saru’s leader has been killed, is Kai, Mera’s mortal foe, who will assume the leadership of his gang and try to unite the tribes for a bloody street battle without precedent. Among the large number of characters, some are memorable: sexy kung-fu fighter Erika, filthy grotesque Lord Buppa, and the ultra-brutal corpulent warrior who are constantly asking for sauna. “Tokyo Tribe” it’s pure fun from start to finish, a hive of lust, power and crime, depicted with a furious hilarity that I would never think possible in Sono. The songs are great, the digital treatment of the images is perfect, and the camera gets as wild as the gang members. Flashy, funny, insolent and vicious… this is Sono at his best.

Why Don't You Play in Hell? (2013)

Why Don't You Play in Hell? (2013) - Movie Review
Directed by: Shion Sono
Country: Japan

Movie Review: Presented as the Japanese “Kill Bill”, “Why Don’t You Play in Hell?” is a virulent action film and slapstick comedy, written and directed by Shion Sono, which works as a sort of incendiary homage to cinema. The inventive yet sometimes exhausting plot centers on Hirata, a young filmmaker whose dream is to direct a masterpiece for the sake of art, not money. He and his crew will find the perfect character, Sasaki, a quarrelsome young man who keeps fighting in the streets. The goal is to turn him into the new Bruce Lee from Japan. In the other side, authoritarian yakuza boss, Muto, and his vengeful wife, are capable of everything to turn their daughter Mitsuko into a successful actress after her first TV ad for a toothpaste brand has became noticeable ten years ago. At the same time, Muto will fight his fierce rival, Ikegami, who also developed an uncontrollable obsession for Mitsuko. Shot in an unstoppable rhythm and creating unrestrained scenarios, this samurai-yakuza extravaganza doesn’t dispense violent blood baths and a keen humor that keeps us watching it. The issue isn’t the madness conveyed or even the electrifying hysteria of some characters; it’s more the mess, sequentially created by overdone scenes that form a mix of poetic, crazy, and grotesque parody, not always gratifying or endurable. Unlike the ambitious Hirata, I didn’t feel any blessing by the ‘Movie God’ here, but in turn, we can witness Sono’s rebel attitude and creative screenwriting.

The Ravine of Goodbye (2013)

The Ravine of Goodbye (2013) - Movie Review
Directed by: Tatsushi Ohmori
Country: Japan

Movie Review: Tatsushi Ohmori adapts Shuichi Yoshida’s novel for the big screen, in this depressive drama shaped in familiar tones and hidden mysteries. The film starts with Shunsuke Ozaki (Shima Onishi) and his lover, Kanako (Yoko Maki), sharing intimate moments while their neighbor next door is arrested for the murder of her own little son. The couple seemed not to be much affected by this happening, despite knowing the victim and his mother. A few days later, Ozaki is also arrested for supposedly involvement in the crime, after a phone call from his lover telling the police that he was in a sexual relationship with the neighbor. In order to find all the answers, journalist Watanabe (Nao Omori) whose wife is giving him a hard time, starts his own investigation and coming to the conclusion that Kanako is the same woman Ozaki raped 15 years ago when he was a promising baseball player at college. Not very expeditious in its development, the film moves in sinuous ways, never reaching acceptable levels of discernment or even transmitting truthfulness. Some scenes that were meant to mix sadness, seriousness, and tension, ended up becoming artless and trapped in innocuous dialogues. Awarded at the 35th Moscow Film Festival with the special jury prize, “The Ravine of Goodbye” was imprecise, fastidious, and misrepresented in psychological terms, factors that won’t contribute for us to keep it in mind.

R100 (2013)

R100 (2013) - Movie Review
Directed by: Hitoshi Matsumoto
Country: Japan

Movie Review: Japanese helmer Hitoshi Matsumoto creates an original and bizarre universe in his latest comedy “R100”, a film that can be seen as a sort of vicious, dark comics about sadomasochism. Katayama (Mao Daichi) is a furniture salesman who becomes inconsolable and depressed with his daily life, deciding to join an obscure S&M club for gentlemen in order to distract himself. While his wife is staying in a hospital for a long time in a vegetative state, their little son is almost exclusively raised by his father-in-law. Katayama seems constantly daydreaming and is frequently beaten up by different ‘femmes fatales’ (implacable Queens who appear without notice to play with his body and mind), but at night he returns to his family, trying to act normally in front of his son. Fed up and exhausted, Katayama decides to quit the club, but not without fierce opposition from the foreign CEO (great show by Lindsay Kay Hayward) who arrives to solve the problem, in a memorable and furious appearance. The film also tries to leave some smart cues in sneering tones, joking with the menace of earthquakes, seen as the reality of modern life in Japan, and presenting us with an inscrutable film inside the film. “R100” was meant for minorities and conceived to be a modern cult-film that can be seen whether as a challenging surrealistic experience or as a pointless macabre feast. With an unruly attitude, Matsumoto combined pale colored images predominantly brownish with a joyful music (including Beethoven) that goes against the sinister happenings.

Like Father, Like Son (2013)

Like Father, Like Son (2013) - Movie Review
Directed by: Hirokazu Koreeda
Country: Japan

Movie Review: Hirokazu Koreeda is certainly one of the most interesting contemporary Japanese screenwriters and filmmakers of our times. His latest film, “Like Father, Like Son”, despite not so irresistible as other previous works, presents us an inspired plot that bestows a different perspective to the so recurrent theme of switching babies at birth. As usual, the concept of family is the central point, here adorned by a quite curious character study of Ryota Nonomiya, a successful businessman but also an absent and demanding father who tries to prepare his son, Keita, to one day become like him. Contrasting with his good-natured wife, Ryota can’t hide his frustration when Keita reveals some difficulties to become the model he aspires. When the Nonomiya’s were informed by a public hospital that Keita is not their biological son, Ryota tries to get the custody of both kids. Once his plan failed by the refusal of the Saiki family, which showed to have a completely different posture in life, he seemed promptly decided to give up the child he raised for six years to recover the one of his own blood. “Like Father, Like Son”, adopting a more direct storytelling, didn’t evince the introspection or subtleness of “Nobody Knows” and “Still Walking”, or the sense of adventure of “I Wish”, but was able to maintain well elevated the levels of sensibility and simplicity of processes. With a fabulous direction and a particular ability to enchant us, Koreeda keeps depicting grounded family stories in a consistent way.

Real (2013)

Real (2013) - Movie Review
Directed by: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Country: Japan

Movie Review: Japanese filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa has been making a solid career with interesting incursions on thriller/horror (“The Cure”, “Pulse”) and also drama (“Charisma”, “Tokyo Sonata”). In his new film, “Real”, he tries to combine both genres and still add some romance and fantasy, but the final outcome wasn’t what its premise made us to expect. The film tells the story of two lovers, Koichi (Takeru Sato) and Atsumi (Haruka Ayase), a famous distressed manga drawer who tried to commit suicide, remaining in profound coma for more than a year. Koichi will consent to be connected with Atsumi’s brain, through a modern machine, in order to understand what were her motives and try to facilitate her return to the real world. His findings and clues will project them to their past at Hikone island, their hometown, where some truths are revealed. There are some good aspects to be appreciated in this Kurosawa’s cinematic adaptation of Rokuro Inui’s novel, “A perfect day to plesiosaur”, especially in the visual field, but the narrative is inconsistent in tone and its revelations didn’t create significant impact. Among ghostly apparitions, which were not so spooky by the way, and ridiculous philosophical zombies who clearly aim Manga’s enthusiasts, “Real” relies on acceptable dreamlike tones to create psychological tension, but presents a romance devoid of chemistry and some sci-fi moments that were more laughable than atmospheric. Strong production values in an exhausting story that only satisfies partially.

Tokyo Family (2013)

Tokyo Family (2013) - Movie Review
Directed by: Yoji Yamada
Country: Japan

Movie Review: “Tokyo Family” is Yoji Yamada’s homage to unrivaled master Yasujiro Ozu, and a modern adaptation of his 1953 masterpiece, “Tokyo Story”. This way, and recreating the gentle and smooth Ozu’s universe of family (not without some significant differences), Yamada moves away from the samurai scene (“The Twilight Samurai”, “The Hidden Blade”, “Love and Honour”) that gave him some notoriety in the last decade. The story follows an aging couple who travels from Hiroshima to Tokyo to visit their three children and grandchildren. Their arrival, despite being expected with eagerness by all the family, will cause deep changes in the rushed life and daily routines of the adult relatives who will think in other solutions to get the space and time they are used to. The comparison with Ozu’s original is simultaneously unfair and inevitable - some outdoor compositions of streets and trains passing by, were reminiscent of his serene style, while the indoor ones were a mix of steady shots through a low-positioned camera (a staple in Ozu’s filmmaking) and other own compositions depicting modern family's interaction. The weakest aspect here was the sentimental tendencies of its final part, but the richness of the story, in its whole, was enough to be enjoyed, focusing on problems that seem real and never forced, and with an approach that emphasizes affectionate relationships. In a time where remakes are so in vogue, Yamada’s contemporary Tokyo family, at least, remembers us how simple a film can be.