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.

Princess Mononoke (1997, Hayao Miyazaki)

Final movie we watched in 2014, if we don’t count the disc of Brakhage shorts I put on for New Year’s Eve. Katy was impressed at how weird and non-Disney it seems. There’s a magical nature god with healing powers whom the title character tries and fails to protect, then a fight over its severed head, after which the movie’s main character decides to join the mining town whose leaders have been trying to destroy the forest and its spirits all along. With a more straightforward Avatar approach, the forest-destroying, spirit-killing factions of humanity would be the villains, but here everything is more morally complex.

Most distractingly recognizable voice in the English version: Billy Bob Thornton as a mercenary monk. Minnie Driver led the mining town, Gillian Anderson played the giant wolf that Mononoke hangs with, and Keith David (the guy who fights Roddy Piper for an hour before putting on the glasses in They Live) was the giant blind pig.

Memorable: the cursed boar Ashitaka fights at the beginning, setting him off on a journey to find where it came from and un-curse his arm. And especially the bobble-headed tree spirits.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013, Isao Takahata)

Gorgeous movie with an unusual look, like storybook illustrations in motion. Aging, childless couple get a baby, fine cloth and a ton of gold from bamboo plants. The girl grows rapidly, loves playing outdoors, likes a local boy called Sutemaru, but her dad decides all this gold should be spent to give his Princess a finer life so he has a palace built in the city, where she learns to sit very still and play music and not do much of anything except be courted by deceitful rich men. Then it turns out she’s from the moon, which is weird, but M. Schilling says it’s “based on the oldest-known Japanese folk tale, which dates to the 10th century,” also filmed in the 1980’s by Kon Ichikawa as Princess from the Moon. We watched the English version – only notably great voice was James Caan as the Princess’s foster dad.

One of the best scenes, where Kaguya is sitting still behind walls as others decide her fate, then she panics and flees, and the animation style panics with her.

Goke, Body Snatcher From Hell (1968, Hajime Sato)

This is a completely looney Japanese horror oddball movie released in the Eclipse Shochiku set. It’s cheap, weird and highly entertaining, also atomic-bomb-obsessed and weirdly Vietnam War-referencing, with stock footage edited in at key moments.

The most doomed flight of all time encounters a UFO, receives a bomb threat and hosts a gun-toting hijacker at the same time. Large-faced hijacker Hirofumi has little effect as the plane flies through red skies filled with crazed engine-clogging birds then crashes, killing the pilot and leaving first officer Sugisaka in charge. On the ground, the hijacker runs off and gets possessed by aliens in his forehead (recalling Jeffrey Combs in From Beyond), while the bomb-threat fella hides his bomb and claims he was only kidding.

Potential bomber allowed to roam free:

The gov’t rep gets homicidal:

So the survivors are hiding in the plane from alien vampires who appear to kiss people to death (Yuko Kusunoki of Dodeskaden and Kurahara’s Thirst for Love is next to be captured/possessed) except for psychiatrist Kazuo Kato (Kurosawa’s Ran) who wants to go outside and study the aliens, while government representative Mano (Eizo Kitamura of the Yakuza Papers parts 2 and 3, and Modern Porno Tale: Inherited Sex Mania) proves to be a bigger asshole than the aliens or hijacker, getting people killed in order to save his own skin. Bomber dies blowing a hole in the side of the plane, and American Mrs. Neal (Kathy Horan of Genocide and The Green Slime) comes after the vampire with a rifle and loses. When our hero Sugisaka (with his woman on his arm) finally lights the hijacker on fire, the alien oozes out of his forehead and possesses Rep. Moto’s underling then kisses Moto to death.

Sugisaka and the girl leave the crash site and find out they were about a mile from civilization, but everyone in the city has been killed by aliens – much more efficient aliens than the one attacking the downed plane, I guess. Burned bodies and atomic blasts are invoked in the apocalytic finale.

Sugisaka was Teruo Yoshida, in Ozu’s An Autumn Afternoon a few years earlier, must’ve starred in too many horror movies in 1968-69 (including this, Horrors of Malformed Men, Inferno of Torture and The Joy of Torture) because he disappeared from the screen in 1970, and his loyal stewardess was Tomomi Sato of the 1979 Jigoku remake and Blackmail Is My Business.

The Sensualist (1991, Yukio Abe)

Goofball Juzo bets his penis that he can sleep with high-class courtesan Komurasaki. There is no way this will happen, but fortunately Yonosuke, the most sexually experienced man alive, overhears his troubles and helps him out.

The same 17th century novel was adapted by Yasuzo Masumura as A Lustful Man.

Animated Oscar Shorts 2013

Get a Horse! (Lauren MacMullan)

Like the premise of Tezuka’s Broken Down Film with the pacing of Pixar’s Presto and revised into a self-consciously old-meets-new Micky Mouse cartoon. The director has worked on Wreck-It Ralph and some quality television.

Mr. Hublot (Laurent Witz & Alexandre Espigares)

Great steampunk 3D – nervous shut-in manages to leave the house to rescue a neglected dog, which eventually outgrows his apartment. Based on the artwork of Stéphane Halleux, who goes uncredited on IMDB. One of the directors worked on the feature version of 9.

Feral (Daniel Sousa)

Wild child is “rescued” and brought to civilization, doesn’t adapt well. Black and white, faces are all toothy mouths, with eyes hidden. Some cool expressionist bits.

Possessions (Shuhei Morita)

A lost traveling repairman seeking shelter gets imprisoned by a house full of vengeful discarded artifacts – broken umbrellas, torn clothing and the like. He convinces the objects they still have worth, thanks them for their more productive years. Not as formally exciting as the previous three nor as cute as the next one.

Room on the Broom (Jon Lachauer & Max Lang)

Clearly based on a children’s book: a witch gradually gains new friends while looking for lost things. Her broom gets more and more weighed down, which is a problem with a witch-eating dragon on their trail. All animal grunts were voiced by famous people, but famous voices are lost on me since I thought Simon Pegg’s narrator was actually Rob Brydon. Cartoony 3D style, like if those animated shorts we used to see on HBO had been made with today’s software.

A la francaise (Boyer & Hazebroucq & Hsu & Leleu & Lorton)

Versailles 1700 with the king’s court portrayed as chickens. Loved it.

The Missing Scarf (Eoin Duffy)

The second short in the program about someone asking woodland creatures for help finding a lost article of clothing. Belatedly, I’m going to declare that the major trend in cinema last year. This definitely wins best performance of the bunch, for the voiceover by George Takei. Conversations with neurotic animals turn philosophical, then metacosmic, with infographic-style animation. This and the previous one were not nominated, but they’re the two I most want to watch again. Aha, the chickens are on vimeo!

The Blue Umbrella (Saschka Unseld)

Seen this before. A good closer.

These were stitched together with not-great ostrich/giraffe vignettes voiced by a guy from Thomas and Friends and a guy from Nightbreed who also appeared in the amazingly titled The Glam Metal Detectives. We saw the traveling theatrical presentation – all screenshots are from online trailers.

R100 (2013, Hitoshi Matsumoto)

Girl gets her makeup just right, returns to dinner table with nervous dude, kicks him in the head. Outside she tosses him down the stairs then reveals herself as a dominatrix superhero.

Then this happens (mouseover to see this):

Takafumi (Nao Omori, title star of Ichi the Killer), it turns out, has joined a club in which he’ll get attacked by dominatrices at random times and places. But the girls start showing up in situations that threaten his family and work life.

The title appears 40 minutes in. Then a spy warns Takafumi to quit the club before it’s too late.

A voice-throwing girl humiliates our guy in the hospital room of his comatose wife. Then the title again. And now a bored film crew discusses the intent of their hundred-year-old director, pictured as a bearded dude in a screening room.

Takafumi fails to get sympathy from the police. The girls get his young son involved, tie them both up. After one girl falls down his stairs and dies, he immediately gets a threatening phone call accusing him of murder. So he’s on the run from ninja dominatrices, the spy from before (“we’re an agency that fights anti-social elements”) is helping, and I’m figuring it’s gonna end somewhat like The Game (it doesn’t).

Takafumi is armed, starts shooting dominatrices – “in the end, masochist turns to sadist.” Meanwhile the CEO (wrestler Lindsay Hayward, one of the tallest women in the world) arrives at the women’s swimming-pool lair, cursing and screaming in English. Total war ensues.


Ends with a flashback montage of the entire movie, Takafuni pregnant posing for a photo shoot, and the hundred-year-old director getting his kicks (mouseover for kicks).

My copy was very brown.

Harakiri (1962, Masaki Kobayashi)

A brilliant flashback drama full of slow-boil tension leading to an explosive action scene and devastating business-as-usual finale. Tatsuya Nakadai (star of Kill! and of the snow-lady second segment of Kwaidan) asks a local clan for permission to commit ritual suicide in their courtyard, and the stooge in charge (Rentaro Mikuni, star of the first Kwaidan segment and the chained son in Profound Desire of the Gods, seeming older here, perhaps because of his baldy-samurai hair) tells of the last guy who tried that, how he was forced to go through with the suicide rather than being given some money to go away. But Nadakai knows this already, since the last guy was his son-in-law (Akira Ishihama of some Kinoshita films) whose death led his young wife Shima Iwashita (the daughter in An Autumn Afternoon) to her own. Nadakai’s plan is to demand an apology, and when the clan attacks he takes down as many men as he can (having killed some key guys earlier, as the flashback structure very gradually reveals). Rather than admit any blame, the clan leader orders a total cover-up, saying the others died of illness. A cynical movie, but thrilling in execution (with tastefully-deployed pre-’70s shock-zooms), the movie Kobayashi made before Kwaidan.

J. Mellen for Criterion:

In the film’s condemnation of the Iyi clan, Kobayashi rejects the notion of individual submission to the group. He condemns, simultaneously, the hierarchical structures that pervaded Japanese political and social life in the 1950s and 1960s, especially the zaibatsus, the giant corporations that recapitulated feudalism.

High & Low (1963, Akira Kurosawa)

Toshiro Mifune is Kingo, an executive plotting to take over his company and force out the board who wants to make inferior products for higher profit – so he’s set up as one of the good rich guys. In the city below, in the shadow of Kingo’s ostentatious house atop a hill, a medical intern doesn’t see the goodness, just the richness, kidnaps Kingo’s son and demands millions in ransom. Turns out the kidnapper got the chauffeur’s son by mistake, but still insists on his ransom, and Kingo pays it, becoming a media hero.

Meanwhile, Detective Tokura (Tatsuya Nakadai, star of Harakiri) is hot on the case with his team tracking the kidnapper, going way further than Stray Dog into the lower depths of the city, culminating in a grimy alley full of strung-out addicts, where kidnapper Takeuchi (Tsutomu Yamazaki, later of Tampopo and Farewell to the Ark) kills a woman with a knockout dose of uncut heroin, a test for his plan to get rid of his accomplices. Few visceral thrills, mostly a slow and methodical investigation, leading to an ambiguous ending – the kidnapper/killer providing no clear answers, and Mifune starting over (not exactly, but it’s starting over from a rich guy’s perspective) with his own small business.

Based on an American pulp crime novel. Bernstein gave a good intro and Q&A, and G. O’Brien has a nice long Criterion essay.

From samurai to shoe manufacturer: Gondo retains the combative instincts and self-conscious pride of an earlier era while struggling to reconcile himself to life as a company man. Much like Kurosawa (who had left Toho to form his own production company in 1960) fending off the perceived cheapening of Japanese cinema, Gondo touts the virtues of his own individualistic path: “I’ll make my ideal shoes: comfortable, durable, yet stylish. Expensive to make maybe, but profitable in the long run.”

The pink smoke—the only burst of color in a black-and-white film—marks the moment when the film definitively descends from heaven to hell, the point of entry being a dump that burns “everything that can’t be disinfected.” This is the juncture when those above finally take notice of the life below them, even if only in the form of burned evidence. Those below, on the other hand, could always see what was above them. “From down there,” as the inspector notes on his arrival in Gondo’s apartment, “if he’s got a telescope, the kidnapper can see this entire room.” The kidnapper, then, has possessed from the beginning the same power as Kurosawa’s camera: to command space and find every hiding place within Gondo’s seemingly impregnable aerie. To hide from those eyes, even the police are forced to crawl on the floor.