The Boy and the Beast (2015, Mamoru Hosoda)

Hosoda’s latest, which we watched after catching up with his previous three, was disappointing. There’s lots of incident, but we didn’t always buy the characters or situations, and the idea of a beast world that exists parallel to ours is only sorta-developed. It was maybe hurt by my recent love for Ernest and Celestine, which is also about parallel animal worlds where a grumpy bear takes on a sidekick, but Katy skipped Ernest and didn’t seem to be having this one either.

Boy and Beasts:

Very moody Boy gains a fluffy pet who hides in his clothes and isn’t important, then finds his way to beastville where chimp and pig monks introduce him to a filthy slacker Beast, who is challenging the beloved local Boar for grandmaster title after the disappearing Grandmaster Bunny (my favorite character, by far) retires. The boy is fed raw eggs and Karate Kids his way towards being a warrior by imitating Beast’s every move, then inevitably he returns to humanville where he meets his real dad and a girl tries to get him into school. And I guess the boar has also been fostering a human son (wearing an unconvincing genki hat), who crosses over to threaten the human world, turning himself into a whale after glimpsing a copy of Moby Dick (shades of Ghostbusters). Guess I don’t remember the very end since it was getting late, but one assumes the good guys are rewarded.

Also this happened, whatever it was:

Showdown in humantown:

Belladonna of Sadness (1973, Eiichi Yamamoto)

“Anything… so long as it’s bad.”

Billed as a long-lost feminist animation, as if viewers would be fooled – and some were. In the first ten minutes our heroine is gang-raped by nobles, who conspire to keep the townspeople desperately poor, then she sells her soul to the devil for revenge, and it only gets more grim from there. Yes, it’s nothing but pure punishment for the shining couple of Jean and Jeanne, introduced as some Christian ideal couple before Jeanne is repeatedly devil-raped, brings plague and orgies to the people and is ultimately burned at the stake and Jean becomes a hated tax collector and nobility puppet then gets murdered at his wife’s execution.

Jeanne getting hella raped:

Jeanne joking around with penis-satan:

It’s kind of a musical, making the most of very limited animation – mostly long pans across large still drawings. I appreciate the indie-animation ambition and the uniqueness of having so much sexual imagery, but the end result is dated and unpleasant.

Surely it’s not the movie’s fault for being so shitty to the people, and especially to women, for truly history was very shitty, especially to women, but after murdering our heroes the movie hastily tells us that women (ahem, topless women) led the French revolution so I guess that makes up for everything. The illustrations are pretty cool, anyway.

D. Ehrlich with context:

Strange even by the impossibly high standards of Japanese cinema, the wild and exhausting Belladonna of Sadness was conceived by Osamu Tezuka — the godfather of manga — as the third and final chapter of Mushi Productions’ Animerama trilogy (a series of explicitly adult animated films that also included erotic riffs on “Cleopatra” and “A Thousand and One Nights”).

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006, Mamoru Hosoda)

High school girl Makoto discovers she has the power to leap through time, uses it to relive each school day when she says or does anything wrong or lets a situation get embarrassing, which is almost all the time. She later discovers her number of time leaps is limited, and that she accidentally stole the power from a friend of hers who traveled from the future obsessed with a painting that’s being restored at the local museum. Makoto’s “Auntie Witch” works at the museum, claims to know about time leaping and says “many girls do it at your age,” so we suspected some deeper time mysteries, but replaying the scene I think she might have been kidding (or it’s a reference to the novel). The story has been adapted a bunch of times, including a film by the director of House. Katy thinks it captures the essence of being a girl, calls it Girl: The Movie.

Makoto and Auntie Witch:

Summer Wars (2009, Mamoru Hosoda)

A most unusual movie. Katy loved it and wants to see more like it, if such a thing exists. Opens in Oz, which is like a Miiverse Second Life, then quickly becomes the story of Kenji, a student and not-terribly-important freelance Oz coder, who gets talked into joining cute girl Natsuki at a family reunion to pretend to be her boyfriend.

Family reunion conflict:

Oz gets super-hacked, which has real-world consequences because, unlike Second Life or Miiverse, people and companies use it for actual business, and traffic signals and emergency services can be accessed through it. After the family’s beloved grandma dies, they pool their real and online skills to stop the Oz hacker, with some great digital swarm animation along the way.

One of the few movies I’ve watched recently without reading any critic reviews/comments first – just looked interesting when Alamo programmed it last month – and now all I can find is Adam Cook hating on it at Letterboxd. Good thing I didn’t read that sooner, since we’re now looking forward to more of Hosoda’s movies.

The Sun (2005, Aleksandr Sokurov)

A fascinating historical portrayal of Emperor Hirohito on the (fictionalized) day Japan surrendered WWII to the Allies. Hirohito is portrayed as knowledgable but distracted, pontificating on the war, next steps and the causes of defeat, but choosing to focus primarily on marine biology and poetry instead of letting the war get him down.

Watching The Sun (and Whispering Pages) to be more Sokurov-literate when Francofonia opens later this month. Two features earlier, his Russian Ark had been a major milestone of digital cinema, but here the underlit interiors are paid no favors by digital video. It’s not very engaging as a film – two hours of an extremely out-of-touch ruler talking to himself in dim rooms. I did enjoy the dream sequence, the Emperor imagining fiery devastation with fishes as warplanes.

A. Gilbert has another take on the film’s look:

Sokurov shot The Sun himself — on digital video, which was then transferred to film. The resulting grainy, nebulously-lit sepia-toned images mark an exquisite canvas on which he has expressionistically displayed his visual panache (Sokurov has stated that the crepuscular look was inspired by the work of Rembrandt).

Cranes outside the compound:

Lighting off General MacArthur’s cigar:

The Emperor (Gilbert again: “His facial tics, including constant mouthing of inaudible words, are meant to relay the strain of the divine monarchy, which Hirohito’s actions altered forever.”) was Issei Ogata of Yi Yi and the next Scorsese movie. Plenty more credited actors but they hardly seem worth mentioning, though the briefly-appearing Empress was Kaori Momoi (the young kid’s badass grandma in Sukiyaki Western Django). So, a one-man show of a haunted, mumbling ruler – I wonder if Sokurov had seen Secret Honor.

Taking time to flip through some movie star promo stills:

Part of Sokurov’s “tetralogy of power” including Taurus (Lenin), Moloch (Hitler) and Faust (Faust). WWII capitulation was in the air: Downfall opened just five months before The Sun. One of Cinema Scope’s top films of 2005, and one of Rosenbaum’s top films of 2009 – apparently it took some time to come out in the USA. Rosenbaum called it “an almost unanimous critical smash” and said it’s “the first film by Aleksander Sokurov that ever made me laugh, and its subtle, whimsical curiosity about the Japanese emperor Hirohito at the end of World War II reminded me of Roberto Rossellini’s curiosity about the title hero of The Rise of Louis XIV.” Considering that everything I’ve read about the movie mentions its visual beauty, maybe my DVD just wasn’t great.

Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-1997)

We’re dumped into the middle of a complex situation in a mechanized future city, where teenage kids are piloting giant robots to fend off invading aliens, or “angels,” then as the show settles into a groove of one angel per episode (each requiring either skill, strategy, or brute force/rage to defeat) it gradually fills in the details – some of them, anyway. Plenty of questions remain: why teenagers? Where do the alien-angels come from, and how are they connected to the apparently partly-biological robots (or “evas”)? Who’s the shadowy organization that runs the shadowy organization that runs the eva program and where did they get their plans and prophecies from? Why do the main characters have a pet penguin? And why is every single character in this show extremely neurotic?

I get that we’re in Japan, so of course there are teenagers piloting giant robots and of course there’s an out-of-place, comic-relief pet penguin. These traditions endure from Voltron to Macross/Robotech to Gundam to American movies like Robot Jox and Pacific Rim. I just played a 2015 Japanese video game in which cool dudes and underdressed sexy ladies pilot giant robots to kill marauding aliens, accompanied by a comic-relief talking potato, so it’s still going strong.

Our heroes:

Things get dark quickly:

The show is obsessed with numbering things (the third child, unit 04, seventh construction phase of tokyo-3, twelfth angel, second branch, code 707), feeling at times like the script was written in Excel. Set in the futuristic time of 2015-2016.

Seele or Nerv or something:

Our tormented lead character is Shinji. He lives with Misato, a hard-drinkin’ penguin-owner who runs mission control along with ex-rival Ritsuko and ex-flame Kaji, or actually I’m not sure what any of their jobs are because I watched the show slowly and missed or forgot some details. Also living with them is super-cocky pilot Asuka, whose whole world falls apart if she can’t be the best at everything. And living on her own is the quiet, often-injured Rei. Everyone has major, major parental and/or love-life issues, the worst of which is that Shinji’s dad Ikari runs the shadowy Eva organization Nerv but has never once spoken to his son with affection, and has a weird offscreen relationship with Rei, who he might be cloning.

Rei-clones:

Ikari-hand:

Then in the final episodes, instead of polishing off the story it dives into the tortured minds of the lead characters for an experimental-film psychoanalysis session. “This is the me that exists in your mind.” Shinji meets the perfect friend who turns out to be the final angel and must be killed by Shinji’s own hands. Asuka’s and Shinji’s moms die repeatedly in flashback. Ikari talks to an eyeball in his disfigured hand. Rei keeps being resurrected. Even the penguin is sent to live with someone else. Finally, Shinji reaches self-acceptance. “It’s okay for me to be here.” I found parts of the final episodes whiny and repetitive, but over the next few days warmed up to the idea of the whole series having been a prolonged Shinji therapy session.


The End of Evangelion (1997)

Then, the movie remakes those last two episodes the way the fans preferred: with mad apocalypse instead of therapy. There are still sexual and parental hangups, petty grievances, inter-agency power struggles, and everyone’s still super lonely and unhappy, but now there’s more sci-fi storyline to go with it. Nine new winged evas are unleashed along with military forces upon our Tokyo base, decimating it. Asuka goes on the biggest homicidal rampage of all time, taking down all the new evas, then Shinji has the biggest crippling self-doubt paralysis of all time, then every other character in the entire series is killed, then Rei becomes a planet-sized god, rapturing and absorbing the souls of all humanity. Unfortunately, the underground control panel nerds stay alive until the very end so they can keep spouting nonsense:

“Ikari has installed a Type 666 firewall on the MAGI’s external feed circuits.”

“Psychograph signal down!”

and my favorite,

“Pilot response approaching infinite zero!”

Said to be one of the best anime series ever… after this and Paranoia Agent I wonder what I should try next. Apparently Death & Rebirth is a skippable movie, condensed from the series and End of Evangelion movie, and there’s a trilogy of remake movies from 2007-2012 from the original creative team, which might be good, but I’ll hold off watching those since Wikipedia says there’s a part four coming. Writer/director Hideaki Anno apparently created the series (particularly the finale) in response to his own battle with depression. He started out as an animator on Nausicaa, also made Cutie Honey (which I enjoyed), some other kid/teen animated shows, and I guess he’s making the next Godzilla movie. Codirector Kazuya Tsurumaki directed the weirdo series FLCL.

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (2011, Takashi Miike)

Cannes Month continues. This played there in 2011 – in 3D! The 3D would’ve added some novelty to a remake which seems to have none at all, unless we’re counting that it’s filmed in color. Scene-for-scene redo of the original, well-acted and shot (but the original was well-acted and shot), kinda languid in the flashback-heavy middle, and with a less biting ending.

Motome (Eita of Memories of Matsuko) had a desperately sick wife (Hikari Mitsushima of Love Exposure) and baby and needed doctor money, so he did a dishonorable thing, telling the local samurai house that he wanted to commit seppuku at their house so they’d pay him to go away. But they’d decided to make an example out of the next sap who tried this, and since Motome had done another dishonorable thing – selling his sword for food and secretly substituting a wooden one – he’s forced to die an agonizing, splintery death while his family succumbs to illness at home.

So the dead wife’s dad Hanshiro (Ebizo Ichikawa, later in Miike’s Over Your Dead Body) visits the house a couple months later with the same seppuku story in order to get an audience and shame them for what they’ve done. Per an IMDB comment (I know!) the film argues “that honour is ultimately irrelevant in the face of social suffering.” It’s a compelling story, but during hard times, the house (led by Doppelganger & 13 Assassins star Koji Yakusho) has built its fortune on the traditional ideas of honor and can’t afford to let Hanshiro’s humanist ideas take hold.

C. Huber in Cinema Scope:

Hara-Kiri [demonstrates] a classical craftsmanship few contemporary directors could ever hope to match, but at the cost of personal expression. Miike’s single-minded take on a straightforward samurai tragedy follows the original’s outlines, yet replaces its smart, suspenseful time-shifts with big blocks of flashback melodrama … the marvellous, mostly brownish palette of the interiors tended to sink in the murky fog of light reduction, making Cannes’ first 3-D competition entry a good argument against the process.

Like Someone in Love (2012, Abbas Kiarostami)

Akiko (Rin Takanashi of new psycho-murder movie Killers) is sent to visit old man Takashi (Tadashi Okuno) at behest of her boss/pimp (Denden, a cop in Uzumaki), skipping a meeting with her visiting grandmother. She tries to avoid her “fiancé” (Ryo Kase of the Outrage movies), who confronts and torments her and accuses her (correctly) of lying, then he tries to kiss up to Takashi, who he assumes to be Akiko’s grandfather. Later he realizes the truth and shit gets real.

Strange movie, hard to warm up to, with an unexpected ending. Shot by Takeshi Kitano’s DP. Played at Cannes with Amour, Holy Motors, Cosmopolis and You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet. Title was meant to be The End, which would’ve been darkly funny if it flashed up right after the final scene.

R. Porton in Cinema Scope:

Like Amir Naderi’s Cut, another recent films made in Japan by an Iranian director, Kiarostami employs a rather schlocky narrative schema as a means of exploring, and exploding, cultural contradictions.

V. Rizov:

The threat of something horrid happening throughout — especially when the prof’s at the wheel, going into reverse while seemingly unaware of little kids behind the vehicle or nodding off at a red light — is finally delivered upon. This is effectively a movie that wonders about a society in which an abusive fiance can “confront,” with barely suppressed violence and much arm-grabbing and yelling, his would-be future wife in a wide open public area and not merit a glance, let alone an intervention.

[EDIT, one year later]:
I found myself thinking about this strange film lots in the past year, and after Kiarostami’s death, Glenn Kenny wrote a great article, Hollywood to Tehran to Tokyo, which sheds new light on the film in a roundabout way.

My Neighbor Totoro (1988, Hayao Miyazaki)

We watched this the same week as Princess Mononoke, and not long after Princess Kaguya, and it suffered by comparison. Also suffered by expectation, since it’s possibly the most beloved Studio Ghibli movie, providing the company their mascot. Surely it’s a good, enjoyable movie, but it’s simpler, more oriented towards kids. Gives a Coraline vibe, as kids move into a new house and find magic within. Coraline wanted everything to be more wonderful and centered around her, but these girls have real problems – mom in hospital with tuberculosis (see also: The Wind Rises).

The girls are excited about their new house, especially when the younger one crawls into a tree grove and discovers a Totoro (like a giant raccoon-bear that can fly on a spinning top and create massive temporary trees).

Then Totoro eats them.

No he doesn’t. An elderly neighbor tells them about the soot sprites (black dust balls with eyeballs) in the attic and the girls eventually meet the neighbor’s grandson, a silent, socially awkward boy. Gradually things get more real as we learn that their transplant to the country was prompted by a sick mom, and the youngest girl wanders off to visit her, but gets lost, prompting a search party and leading the older girl to seek out Totoro’s help.

Totoro summons the greatest thing in the history of movies: the catbus.

Then it eats them.

No it doesn’t.