Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985)
Written by Leonard & Paul Schraeder
Directed by Paul Schraeder
I don’t know much about Yukio Mishima, and after watching Paul Schrader’s film, I still can’t say I developed a vast knowledge of his history. My comments in this review on Mishima come from additional research I did to try and give myself a context for what happened in the film. This adaptation of the Japanese author’s work and life is aesthetically brilliant. I particularly love Paul Schraeder’s choice of colors and cinematography to differentiate the past, present, and the dramatization of Mishima’s novels. However, he doesn’t provide the needed history and context for a Westerner to fully understand what is happening. I don’t like overly expository films, but I think just a bit might have been needed here.
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Written & Directed by Juzo Itami
Food has been the subject of many films over the century. Sometimes, it is a central part of the story, like in Babbette’s Feast or Ratatouille, or just part of memorable scenes like Matilda or Hook. When a filmmaker gets food right in their work, they can activate your senses, taking images on a screen and turning them into a hunger for the dishes on display. Tampopo does this while remaining a nearly uncategorizable film. It’s a comedy and a drama and a strange series of vignettes about people’s love of food stuffed in around the edges.
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Written by Akira Kurosawa & Shinobu Hashimoto
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
This is a classic, and Akira Kurosawa is a legend. But you might be wondering how this film qualified as a Hope in the Midst of Darkness entry. It’s a pretty bleak movie that relies on the unreliable narrator trope. This leads to a relatively dark interpretation of humanity by the characters in the framing device. I am here to argue that Rashomon is an intensely optimistic movie that is attempting to overcome the audience’s assumed pessimism. It’s also a film masterpiece and a piece of cinema whose influence continues to ripple out into movies today, across the planet.
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Written by Jay Cocks & Martin Scorsese
Directed by Martin Scorsese
There has been more than one Martin Scorsese. He’s become most famous for pictures like The Wofl fo Wall Street, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas. These are movies about intense, volatile figures that eventually explode. There is also the Scorsese of muted and contemplative films like Kundun and The Age of Innocence. Much like the man himself, his filmography is slightly manic, overflowing with ideas, and able to appreciate art across the spectrum of tone and theme. Silence is one of the quieter films, but it addresses monumentally enormous concepts and touching on a message that resonates across the ages. Few films deal so maturely with matters of faith, genuinely questioning and looking at belief from all angles.
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PTSD Radio Volumes 1-6 (2018)
Written & Illustrated by Masaaki Nakayama
Urban landscapes are profoundly haunted. Cities are built on the ruins of villages and small towns, turning those who lived there previously into ghosts that linger in the corners. PTSD Radio begins as a series of disconnected horror stories, an anthology centered around tormented spirits, but then patterns start to emerge. The presence of hair and dark figures tugging at the scalps of sleeping victims are recurring motifs. Slowly but surely we uncover a story about a rural village where cultural changes led to the destruction of a primitive idol. This, in turn, unleashes a quiet evil that permeates the lives of the people who grew up in this village, following them into adulthood.
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Written & Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda
Osamu is the patriarch of a makeshift family living in the shadow of poverty in Tokyo. His partner Nobuyo is the mother with adopted son Shota, half-sister Aki, and grandmother Hatsue. Osamu and Shota routinely shoplift food from neighborhood grocery stores, having developed a system of signals and distractions. On their way home after a recent venture, they find Yuri, a little girl they have talked to before alone on her parent’s apartment balcony. Feeling sorry for her level of neglect they bring her home for dinner. Nobuyo helps Osamu bring her back after and they overhear Yuri’s parents fighting, her father hitting her mother, and the admission that they never wanted the child in the first place. Nobuyo decides to make Yuri a part of the family and from their life goes on as it always has. Until one day a news report announces that Yuri’s parents have filed a missing person report.
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Death Note (2017)
Written by Charley Parlapanides & Vlas Parlapanides, Jeremy Slater
Directed Adam Wingard
Angsty Seattle teen Light Turner has a potent weapon literally drop out of the sky, the Death Note. Light finds this leather bound journal is a device that can kill anyone who the bearer knows the face and name of. The target’s name is recorded on a page of the book and Ryuk, the death god who accompanies the book does the rest. It should seem pretty obvious that Light ends up way over his head very quickly. He ends up sharing his secret with Mia, a cheerleader at his school and she takes to the book with a disturbing glee. Soon the series of strange deaths, all befalling known criminals, draws the attention of authorities and an unusual detective known only as L.
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Tetsuo the Iron Man (1989, dir. Shinya Tsukamoto)
A mysterious man lives in a junkyard and fetishizes metal to the point that he cut open his body to insert iron rods and wires into it. He’s struck by a car and apparently killed. A salaryman (Japanese corporate drone) is haunted by strange techno-nightmares, even attacked in the subway by a woman transformed by a piece of metallic effluvia. Where this film goes and mood it evokes is truly unpredictable and very much of its time.
Tetsuo is a techno-horror film akin to David Lynch forming a death metal punk band. The energy in the picture is non-stop, grabs the viewer by the shoulders and violently tosses them around until they can’t take it anymore. In the 1980s, body horror was a growing sub-genre thanks to the likes of David Cronenberg and Clive Barker. The way a human body could betray its nature was of increasing interest as medical science evolved a breakneck pace, the AIDS epidemic slashed across humanity, and urban spaces became increasingly smother in pollution. Self-mutilation wasn’t a new concept and many cultures still practice scrying script into the skin or slicing off bits of their reproductive organs as a sacred ritual. The addition of technology into the mix is what took the exploration of these ideas in a new direction.
Tetsuo is a ghost story at its heart. One man wrongs another man, and the wronged man comes back to haunt him. Very simple, on the surface. A significant factor in what is happening in Tetsuo is the transformation of the Japanese culture at the time. Westernization was flooding Japanese culture, and traditional Japanese life was uprooted. Technology and industrialization were the greatest representation of that takeover and the unnamed man has become so absorbed in this new world of wires that he attempting to physically merge with it. The merger of the Fetishist and the Salaryman in the finale is sparked by their discovery of the New World, a possible future landscape where the planet is devoid of all natural life and now a techno-organic construct. The decision to close out the film with the words “Game Over” rather than “The End” is also a telling detail in reflection on the relationship that developed between Western culture and Japan through the medium of video games.
Tetsuo is a rough film to get through. It’s has zero interest in traditional narrative conceits and from the very opening it makes sure you know that. The film is almost virtually hyperlinked within itself as the narrative jumps around to fill in backstory, hint at the future, and provide the minimal information needed to understand it. The soundtrack is designed to shred your sense and it truly evokes the sense of being overtaken by some faceless industrial presence.
I have a complicated history with anime. First off, I am not an anime fan. There are specific works that I have enjoyed, but as a genre I rarely seek it out. In childhood, I got caught up in the super sentai (think Power Rangers) cartoon serial Ronin Warriors when it aired in syndication one summer. In college I saw the standards (Akira, Vampire Hunter D, lots of Miyazaki). It was in college that one of my roommates rented Ghost in the Shell, but decided to watch it at 3am in the morning and I only remembered faint images. With the upcoming Scarlett Johanssen adaptation I thought it would be good to sit down and watch this now classic anime film.
Motoko Kusanagi is a team leader in Section 9, a paramilitary police organization in an unnamed urban sprawl of the future. Kusanagi is a full body cybernetic being, meaning she was once a human with an organic body who went through a process to transfer her consciousness into a Shell, a la she is the Ghost in the Shell (words are fun). The main case that our protagonist is pursuing is to track down the Puppet Master, a notorious terrorist hacker who has caused deadly trouble across the globe. This leads her into an exploration of her understanding of what makes her human and in turn what she will become.
There’s no argument that Ghost in the Shell is visually stunning. There is minimal computer generated animation, used in the internet and map visualizations. For the most part this is gorgeous hand drawn cel animation and reminds us what a glorious craft and art that style of animation still is. At the halfway mark, there is a famous break in the action for a tour of this future cityscape. This sequence could be cut and out and used as complete short film. As a piece of animation the film stands as a work that transcends the idea of animation as a exclusively children’s genre or something that is schlock.
When we get the themes of the film I start to get less enthusiastic. There is no way you can miss the themes of the film because they are wielded like a sledgehammer. Characters regularly talk in a hyper-philosophical manner, not as terrible as The Architect monologue from Matrix Reloaded, but in the same vein. The film was based on a manga so I suspect, as I found when I read Akira after seeing the film, volumes of content had to be cut to make the run-time. The brevity of the film also left me feeling little connection to the characters. I understood who the Puppet Master was and what happens to Kusanagi but it felt like it all happened so fast I had little time to connect with them.
I am able to see why Ghost in the Shell is such an important work, it builds upon groundwork laid by Philip K Dick and William Gibson in positing not just the technical conceits of our future, but in the philosophical and psychological future of humanity. It also has obviously inspired directors like the Wachowskis and James Cameron in the way they explore notions of human consciousness and altering our forms. I can see revisiting this film in the future to glean more and I am even inclined to delve into the manga to see this world fleshed out further.
My Neighbor Totoro (1988, dir. Hayao Miyazaki)
Hayao Miyazaki, Japan’s answer to Walt Disney, is mainly concerned with the rural and natural settings of Japan, rather than bustling metropolises. He can go very dark with this message (Princess Mononoke) or light (Ponyo), but he always returns to the ideas of children in an environment populated with copious vegetation and mystic animals. Once again, the children of the story need the help of a being from the forest to overcome the troubles of their lives and its all told in the type of lush animation you expect from Miyazaki.
Satsuki and Mei have just moved to a country house with their father to be close to the hospital their mother is staying in. The first day in the new home they are enthusiastic to explore, and encounter soot spirits, ashy ghosts that skitter away into holes in the wall when light enters. Little Mei explores further while her older sister is at school and follows a couple of magical rabbit-like creatures into the forest where she meets a gigantic sleeping furry beast. The creature identifies himself with a series of yawns which Mei hears as “Totoro”, the name she assigns him. The two girls eventually deal with a crisis moment involving their mother’s health and Totoro comes to the rescue to help diffuse the pain they feel with some lighthearted fun.
What I liked about the film was its rejection of the American fantasy formula. The drama here is kept very minimal and in the background. An adult audience is going to understand the mother’s condition as being a dark point in the picture, but it is presented in such a way that it won’t upset younger viewers. Miyazaki is able to tell stories for children, and adults not yet swallowed up by cynicism, in a way better than Disney ever has. The Disney films never feel like a real world, merely a construct and complete fantasy. Miyazaki infuses his worlds with details that make it feel like a place that could really be out there. They are the type of simple fantasies a child would truly dream up.
There is no need for princesses in Totoro. These are real little girls, captivated with simple things and vulnerable when it comes to the idea they might lose a parent. The creatures are never frightening and the children rush into the unknown without a sense of fear. It’s incredibly refreshing to see this kind of animated film, a style we see little of in the States.