Review: Films Set In Japan – ‘Kagemusha’ (1980)

This ‘films set in Japan’ series is principally about international movies but I have made an exception for this purely because it was executive produced by George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola. In reality they did nothing other than persuade 21st century Fox to stump up the cash to help legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa finish the ‘Kagemusha’ (shadow warrior is the translation) the way he wanted. In return they got the international distribution rights for the film.

When I watched this I had no particular strong interest in the contents of the film other than seeing Himeji-jo Castle in anticipation of my trip there back in May this year. I enjoyed the opening and powerful closing parts of the film a lot but have to say that my interest did wane during the middle of this epic three hour film which is as much to do with constantly having to concentrate on the screens subtitles as it is to do with the film itself which does feature some scenes where very little happens for a while.

Kagemusha tells the story of a thief who is saved from being hanged by a warlords brother because he closely resembles the king Shingen so he is trained to fill in as Shingen’s double. However, Shingen receives a mortal wound during a siege and his dying wish is for his death to not be known for at least three years. The shadow warrior eventually not only doubles up as the king but as the full time figurehead which ensures they can avoid invasion and defeat by the other two clans. Despite being a common thief he turns out to be a very competent leader and in some ways endears himself to the viewers by being more humorous, treating his mistresses better, and even getting along with the Lord’s own immediate family.

Personally, I still think this movie is a bit over-rated but it was certainly better than I expected. Ultimately it’s a samurai film but I will remember it for showing the pain of a man caught in the vice of his own life and death and that if you pretend to be something else for long enough you’ll start to believe it and eventually become it.

 

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Review: Films Set In Japan – ‘Wasabi’ (2001)

Jean Reno, of Mission Impossible fame, (the French guy with a beard) is a Cop who comes to Japan after he finds out his ex-Japanese girlfriend has died. The will is read out and what do you know but he has a daughter he never knew about. There’s some other weak plot about his ex having a secret past which lead to some unsavoury characters (naturally wearing black suits with dark glasses) being after his daughter.

Sure, this is your usual ‘fish out of water’ type film which foreign film-makers love and this French one is no different. Its a fairly fast-paced dumb action film which kept me entertained for its 90 minute duration with its cartoon-like comedy (when Reno punches people they fly back 20 metres!) and some pretty effective serious moments too.

The film gets its title from the sour green stuff used in sushi which Reno’s character thinks is a sauce or something and just eats it without any effect on him whatsoever which is amazing as this stuff is bloody strong as his partner Momo finds out to his cost! Apart from a short scene involving this there is no obvious reason why its called Wasabi. I guess its just a word that the producers think is Japanese-enough to let people know its a film with some Japanese reference.

As one review I saw on the internet said this may quite possibly be the greatest French-language, English-subtitled, Japanese action-comedy film of all time and I certainly can’t disagree with that statement!

Review: Films Set In Japan – ‘Black Rain’ (1989)

This was directed by Ridley Scott (of ‘Blade Runner’ and ‘Gladiator’ fame) and filmed mostly on location in Osaka but due to the typical amount of red tape involved in doing things in this country he got disillusioned with it all and ended up finishing the movie back in California.

Black Rain stars Michael Douglas and Andy Garcia and this film certainly uses stereotypes when portraying the difference between American cops and Japanese police as well as looking at the Yakuza. Our two heroes capture Sato; a member of this Japanese mafia and have to escort him back to the land of the rising sun (the film predictably starts with a typical sun/red circle image) on Northwest Airlines which is a blatant example of product placement in the film. The film shows its age as Douglas’ character is able to smoke whilst on board. Anyway, this Yakuza guy escapes when they get to Japan and they then embark on getting him back amid some gang war over counterfeit money or something like that.

I’m no big fan of Douglas but I do think he portrays a good cop in this and ‘Basic Instinct’. In fact, his characters in both films are pretty much identical! Ken Takakura plays the typical Japanese police officer who does the job by the book which inevitably ruffles the feathers of the two NYPD cops. Over time they learn something from each others cultures blah blah blah (I think I said exactly the same in ‘The Last Samurai’ review!). Its cliché-ridden of course but as I’ve said before I like this in my films!

I had hoped to visit Hankyu Umeda Mall when I was in Osaka back in May and I did but the place, where the naive, fresh-faced youngster Garcia unwisely responds to a biker snatching his jacket, has changed completely over the last couple of decades.

Yet another film which is longer than it needs to be. I did get a bit bored at times during the film but overall its an 80’s film which I think holds up quite well in the present era.

 

Justin Lee Collins – Turning Japanese

In February this year Channel 5 in the UK had a short three-part series under the overly-used ‘Turning Japanese’ name. Back in 2007 ITV2 had Kelly Osbourne Turning Japanese and this one featured comedian Justin Lee Collins throwing himself deep into the culture of this country.

Inevitably these programmes about Japan focus mainly on the weird and unusual things which I kind of understand as thats what gets the attention of the overseas public. However, when the focus is on things like bra for men, love-dolls, Kubukicho hosts, themed restaurants etc it’s not exactly showing what life is like for the average Japanese person! Needless to say, this probably won’t stop many people back home thinking that these things are common place in Japan!

I am a fan of JLC and particularly liked his ‘Bring back…’ Channel 4 series and this was also interesting to me for obvious reasons. To his credit he did throw himself in at the deep end without too much prejudice and stayed away from making the usual stereotypical comments. Of course he had difficulty getting his head around some things (but so did the translator Mai) but he wasn’t too judgmental and didn’t revert to the comparison-to-back-home analysis which most of us have been guilty of in the past.

At the outset he did say that he wanted to get beyond the cliches and find a connection with the country. He said he didn’t have an interest in robots or manga which I was relieved about as those areas have been covered many times. The second episode was the one I enjoyed the most as it was mostly about ‘manzai’ in Osaka which is a fast and furious type of comedy featuring double acts consisting of a straight man and a funny man. This really showed the differences in humour between our two nations. British humour is based on what we hear whereas Japanese is on what they see and that is slapstick comedy which is considered a bit old fashioned in Britain.

The most entertaining part had to be the bar which has a monkey for a waiter which JLC said was the “most disturbing thing I’ve ever seen in my life” to which he added that it wasn’t right. You can see that part here in a five minute youtube video. Trust me, its worth watching and saves me the hassle of describing it to you.

Other things to be included in the programmes were crowded trains, vending machines, capsule hotels, hiring a dog, finding partners, karaoke for pensioners, Tokyo apartments, weird ice-cream flavours and particular focus on stressed out salarymen (business-men) who cope with it in different ways. For those who can’t handle it there is Aokigahara Forest at the foot of Mount Fuji which is more commonly known as suicide forest. This provided some of the series’ more serious and shocking parts.

TF Film Review: The Last Samurai (2003)

I gave this film a very short brief review back in 2006 with brief being the word! I only said it was better than expected but too long for my liking which I say for any film over two hours. In preparation for my recent trip to Kansai I decided to watch it again. Whilst I (still) don’t mind it, its not my kind of film and it just goes to show how the filming locations and the movie itself can work hand-in-hand both ways. As you’d expect its the film first which often leads to the interest in the locations but this one worked the other way round with me.

Most of the film was made in New Zealand but Japanese locations included Chion-in temple and Nijo-jo in Kyoto and Engyoji temple in Himeji as featured in my ‘The Last Samurai filming locations’ article recently.

The film may move along at quite a slow pace and may be predictable in its outcome (hence the title!) but the casting, costumes, landscapes, storyline and film direction are very good with some fine battle scenes to boot. Hans Zimmer’s score incorporates traditional wood flutes and thunderous drums which adds a nice touch and adds to the suspense, sadness, empathy and joy.

The samurai have only one true goal which is to serve their Emperor and believed that to die under his service is an honour. The Japanese are accustomed to killing themselves in shame after defeat which they think is a noble death whereas Cruise’s character Algren shows his resilience, determination and perseverance by continuously rising again after defeat. As far as I know this is the film that really brought Ken Watanabe to western audiences for his poignant portrayal as the leader of the last clan of Samurai. The scenes between Watanabe and Cruise held my interest in terms of their feelings of hostility, compassion and camaraderie.

He may often get a hard time from the critics but Tom Cruise is loved by his fans and in this epic he perhaps delivers his most powerful performance in cinema. The Last Samurai shows a human story of one Westerner learning to embrace another culture but unlike most other films set in Japan it is done in a more subtle way where both parties realise they can learn from one another and after a hostile start they develop a respect for each other.

 

Hikone Filming Locations: 3 Ninja’s Kick Back (1994)

Hikone brings the curtain down on my Golden Week trip to Kansai. At just under two hours away from Osaka it is situated on the shores of Lake Biwa which is Japan’s largest freshwater lake. Hikone’s most famous historical site is Hikone-jo castle. This was my favourite castle of the trip which is perhaps surprising as it was the fourth one in five days for me. What was also nice was visiting a new place and escaping the crowds of Kyoto. The 400 year old structure is three stories tall and surrounded by a double moat which is a simple 15 minute walk from the station.

   

Perhaps more impressive (for me anyway) was Genkyu-en garden which is at the foot of Hikone-jo and is included in the entrance ticket. The 1994 kids movie ‘3 Ninja’s Kick Back’ was filmed here which is what brought it to my attention. As devoted as I am to tracking down film locations I didn’t go to Hikone just because it appeared in some kids film that most people have never heard of. Oh no, that would be sa-a-a-a-a-a-ad! The filmmakers spent nearly a week in Hikone filming scenes at the castle and in the garden, site of a centuries-old tea house and beautiful pond.