Review: Films Set In Japan – Godzilla (1954)

With the latest incarnation of Godzilla getting nearer it seems a fitting time to go back 60 years and take a closer look at the original Japanese movie which launched the iconic monster onto our screens. Released nine years after the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki the opportunity was seized to use this radioactive lizard from beneath Tokyo Bay to serve as a symbol for the horrors of nuclear holocaust.

Godzilla has come and gone in many guises but nothing can get close to beating this original black and white Toho Studios version which, as an English speaker, needs to be watched with subtitles for maximum impact of the Japanese perspective. There’s no messing about from the offset and it’s straight into the action with fear and panic hitting Japan as an “underwater volcanic eruption” happens in the sea causing some fishing boats to capsize near Odo Island.

A research team led by Dr Yamane head to this pacific island off the Izu Peninsula; a fictitious isle with the scenes actually filmed around Toba city at the entrance to Ise-Shima National Park on the Shima peninsula. On discovering huge radiation emitting reptilian footprints in the sand, rumours abound that it must be Godzilla to which a woman replies saying its just a legend. Little did she know how true her words would become as Godzilla morphed into a worldwide cultural icon.

The gigantic amphibious bipedal dinosaur lives in caverns under the sea and comes ashore to prey on humans when it can’t find fish in the sea and many young virgin girls were sacrificed to appease his hunger and keep him from coming ashore. However, hydrogen bomb tests disturbed its peace and so it looked for a safer place which happened to be Shinagawa and Ginza!!

Affected by the radiation, it managed to gain an unbelievable destructive power and strength as well as white-hot atomic breath; an archetype which followed in the form of many on-screen monsters both good and bad with perhaps the worst featuring in  Monster‘ (2008). Two Zillo Beast episodes in ‘Star Wars: The Clone Wars‘ (S02E18/19) played homage to what the Japanese call ‘Gojira‘.

Dr Yamane senses that atomic testing is behind Godzilla’s emergence and he (and he only!) thinks that it should be isolated and studied. The eye-patch wearing Dr Serizawa and his oxygen destroyer are key to sending Godzilla back to the depths of the ocean. He  is arranged to be married to Emiko, but she is in love with some naval officer and it’s this love triangle which is pivotal in the monster plot.

I think I’ve been quite critical in the past about this film but on watching it again for this feature I have actually grown much fonder of it. It’s duration is an ideal length (90 minutes) and it’s quite a dramatic film with all the monster movie elements we now take for granted; a fire-breathing creature, stormy oceans, tanks and officers, mad scientists, frantic decision making, government officials, flames, fleeing citizens running for their lives and buildings being toppled. Of course, it was just three metre high miniature set pieces that were used to replicate the capital city whilst a man wearing a heavy rubber suit stomped all over them. Having most of Godzilla’s scenes at night probably helped make it a bit more convincing. I think, given the age of the film and its budget, the effects are pretty good and the sequence where Godzilla goes on the rampage in Tokyo is still superb both technically and artistically,with a genuine sense of dread. The residents run for their life, as they do throughout, which has parallels to the real life horror and devastation in Japan by way of atomic bombings, tsunami and earthquakes.

gojira-japanese-b2_style_c-1954 Unknown gojira-japanese-b2_style_e-1954

‘Godzilla’ rightfully deserves to be called a classic despite the ending which is perhaps one of the most blatant examples of not-quite finishing a movie and leaving it open to a sequel as Dr Yamane stands aboard a ship and says “I don’t think that was the only Godzilla. If they keep experimenting with deadly weapons….another Godzilla may appear…somewhere in the world!” The perfect way to set up the potential of another movie and what do you know but only half a year later there was another one by the name of ‘Godzilla Raids Again‘ (1955) and the series limped on for an incredible 26 more Toho-made films as well as four American productions including the forthcoming one directed by British filmmaker Gareth Edwards.

If you thought we were running out of films ‘set’ in Japan to review then using the original Godzilla film (a Japanese production of course but included in this series due to its huge impact on the Western world) opens up the possibility of extending it for another few years with reviews of the never-ending dross churned out in this franchise.

Beyond The Movies Rating 7/10

Advertisements

Review: Films Set In Japan – House Of Bamboo (1955)

When it comes to films set in Japan there are usually two sorts of movie; those from many decades ago which usually feature a geisha of some kind and those more modern ones where the protagonist arrives in Japan for some vague reason and is a ‘fish out of water’. Sadly, for me, ‘House Of Bamboo‘ is the former but I really shouldn’t have let my prejudices get the better of me for this 1955 remake of the black & white noir ‘Street with No Name‘ (1948) is actually better than most films of that era.

This was the first American movie to be filmed in Japan since WWII and the magical and mystical Mount Fuji lingers beautifully in the background (a matte painting perhaps given it really is captured so perfectly in the centre of the screen!) as the scene is set. The narration at the beginning of this Sam Fuller directed film informs viewers that it was filmed entirely on location in Japan with Tokyo, Yokohama and the Japanese countryside featuring throughout. Fuller makes great use of its locations and the likes of Ginza, Asakusa and the Great Buddha of Kamakura are used in scenes along with other places in Tokyo and Yokohama which are impossible for me to recognise given the facelift they have undergone over the years.

Herein lies the problem as I enjoyed it so much from a cinematography point of view that I forgot there was some kind of gangster story amongst the wide-shot travelogue of post-war Japan! It seems that too many things were sacrificed in the name of capturing the broad vision. In fact, making out who is who, is not so easy as there are rarely ever any close-up shots of the main players or was this because Robert Ryan only ever had one facial expression!

House Of Bamboo‘ is a tale of undercover cop Eddie Kenner (Robert Stack) who tries to infiltrate a gang and ultimately take them down thus proving that Sandy Dawson (Robert Ryan) is the man behind a protection racket that rules the capital’s numerous pachinko parlours and commit bank robberies, knock off jewellery stores and rob trains carrying military ammunition. It has to be said that some of the violence is rather comical and the robbery capers are dealt with only briefly and without the expected rising tension.

When a U.S guard dies during the aforementioned train-heist in the foreground of Fuji-san, Kenner is despatched to save the day and ends up becoming closely acquainted to the dead man’s widow Mariko (Shirley Yamaguchi) which all gets more air-time than it really merits. Furthermore, its all a bit corny and the dialogue is slightly cringeworthy and thankfully only a smattering of Japanese language is used throughout.

Anyway, Kenner somehow worms his way into Dawson’s group and later informs the police of a planned robbery but Dawson gets wind of there being a mole in the camp which inevitably leads to jealousy (aspects of homosexual tension!) and mistrust among the ranks, fingers of blame being pointed and set-ups being put into place, all of which culminates in a shoot-out at a great set piece on top of an amusement ride.

house-of-bamboo-poster poster3 samuel fuller house of bamboo dvd review

This story of deception, betrayal and ruthless criminality is a pretty looking movie which turns ugly. There’s only so far you can take ambiguous tension but overall its a slightly above average film which stands the test of time far better than I’d anticipated and shows Tokyo and Yokohama at a time when it was still on the brink of modernisation and still a world away from what we know and see today.

Tokyo Fox Rating 6/10

Review: Films Set In Japan – 47 Rōnin (2013)

As the end credits finally roll on this 121 minute tale of honour, loyalty and sacrifice a caption says, as it usually does in all movies, that “all characters appearing in this work are fictitious” and so on which is a shame as the story of these 47 brave heroes is far greater than what’s served up in this over-fictionalised film.

Admittedly, expectations for this new re-working of a famous Japanese story were pretty low to start with and the additions of CGI beasts, monsters, witches, ghosts and gladiators did nothing to stop the rot. In fact, they did more harm than good in my opinion and Keanu Reeves playing a “half-breed” character created solely for the film wasn’t much better. I felt his character Kai was rather under-used in the first half of this movie and though he has more time on screen in the latter part its clear that his presence is just for the benefit of Hollywood with laughable English dialogue and some romantic shenanigans thrown in for good measure too.

Screen Shot 2013-11-15 at 17.38.32 Screen Shot 2013-11-15 at 17.38.56

Feudal Japan was recreated on a specially created set at Shepperton Studios in London as well as in Budapest and the Isle of Skye in Scotland. The story starts off with Kai being found and raised by Lord Asano as a servant who acquires some sword mastery and the affections of his daughter, Mika. However, he doesn’t gain the respect of Asano’s band of samurai including Oishi played by Hiroyuki Sanada from ‘The Last Samurai‘ (2003). Anyway, there’s some kind of hallucination trick performed on Asano by neighbouring lord Kira and Rinko Kikuchi’s witch character that results in him having to kill himself as punishment.

47-Ronin images

Without their master the samurai are brought together again one year on with a plot to avenge their avenge the death and dishonour of their leader by raiding the chief instigators castle. By now Kai is a much better and improved fighter having spent the year as a slave fighting beasts, monsters and what-have-you-not. Needless to say that he eventually earns the respect of those that previously looked down on him.

My girlfriend’s mum was originally going to accompany me to this but sadly had to pass on such an invitation which was a shame as I’d love to get the opinion of a Japanese person on this. Whilst I was groaning with displeasure at the terribly cheesy dialogue and bad English (and that was just from Reeves!) in the films final scenes the lady sat a couple of seats to my right was blubbering and sniffling away no end. I’m not Japanese and so can’t really pass judgement too much on Japan’s most famous example of the bushido code but I would’ve thought the Japanese people would be embarrassed by this over-the-top Hollywood version.

Only a few days ago did Beyond The Movies bring you the backstory on the real 47 Rōnin and where their resting place can be found in Tokyo The film ends with a caption or two informing the audience that every December 14th, the 47 Rōnin are honoured with a procession and ceremony at Sengakuji Temple. Those reading this in Japan would be better off spending their time visiting that temple than watching this.

Screen Shot 2013-11-15 at 17.36.10 Screen Shot 2013-11-15 at 17.41.42

Tokyo Fox Rating 4/10

Review: Films Set In Japan – Mastermind (1976)

No, this is nothing to do with the long running British quiz show and its challenging questions. Quite the opposite actually as this is anything but serious and is a light parody  about how Asian culture is perceived in the west. Most people have probably stopped reading this review already but I’ve started so I’ll finish!

This was actually filmed in 1969 and scheduled for release the following year but for whatever reason never saw the light of day until the mid seventies and lets be honest the world would have easily survived had it never come out!

Mastermind_(film) $(KGrHqN,!okE9mgm+JSvBPc7jZTS4w~~60_35

The whole movie was made and set in Japan albeit completely done in the film studios of Kyoto and it features some thinly veiled plot about stolen robot dolls and the bumbling Inspector Hoku Ichikawa (Zero Mostel) is on the case….kind of! Well, he is when he’s not having fantasies (shown in sort of flashbacks) about being a great Japanese samurai warrior and having a love interest who adhere’s to the stereotypical traits of a Japanese woman. These dream sequences are a throwback to the days of silent movies and subtitles are even shown to read their thoughts in a number of bizarre scenes.

A quite rapid 82 minutes of film passes by without too much of a plot and a bit of slapstick humour featuring some well-worn ideas (were they original back then?!) like Ichikawa being stood behind a buddha statue as the praying one believes he’s actually conversing with someone of greater power! Later on, there’s a classic old-school car chase although the transport Ichikawa uses is not exactly conventional. Charging into a room and the momentum taking the police through the Japanese paper walls did make me chuckle a bit as it was akin to something Homer Simpson would do many decades later in ‘The Simpsons‘ episode where the dysfunctional family come to Japan.

Mastermind‘ is a little Benny Hill-esque at times with the fast forward style of shooting used and the overall humour even seems a little out of place at times. Furthermore, what could have been a more suspenseful ending was dealt with a bit too quickly. The film is supposedly a spoof of western perceptions of Asian culture as presented by Hollywood not that I could really identify too much with this myself.

Tokyo Fox Rating 3/10

Review: Films Set In Japan – Lost In Translation (2003)

This then is the moment I’ve not been looking forward to but the tenth anniversary of ‘Lost In Translation‘ seems to be a good time to give my take on a film which has caused me to have many different feelings of emotion over the last decade. The reason I’ve delayed reviewing this film is that its probably the most famous one and its also one that is loved by so many except me who thinks its just a little bit over-rated.

The Autumn of 2003 was a monumental one for me as it was when I first came to Japan and you’d think that this film coming out at the same time might lead me to have quite an affinity to it……and in some ways I do, but I still can’t get past the fact that it’s quite a dull film and nothing much really happens! There, I’ve said it and now I guess I’ll face the backlash!

For anyone who has seen my guide to the filming locations of ‘Lost In Translation you may be surprised to hear this. That particular piece has been very kind to Beyond The Movies in terms of regular hits but that’s due to the cinematography which fascinates me far more than the content of the film. Tokyo is of course the world I live in and from that aspect I quite enjoy ‘Lost In Translation‘ as a travel documentary but I’ve never really understood why its so popular elsewhere.

images-1 images

So as you probably already know, washed-up film actor Bob Harris (Bill Murray) and young wife Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) are in Tokyo for different reasons. Both are lost in their marriages and lives, they’re feeling lonely, they don’t understand the language but together they share these experiences as they delve into both traditional and contemporary Japanese culture and customs. It’s their reactions in these situations that have caused the most controversy. Some people think that the characters in this film come across as spoiled, bored, rich and unsympathetic foreigners but I’m not so sure.

Of course, many people jumped on the moral high horse saying its racist and stereotyping and all the usual nonsense but there’s a reason these generalisations exist and thats because there’s an ounce of truth to them. Sure, some of the scenes afford the Japanese little dignity as the viewer is pushed into laughing at the small locals and their funny ways but that is seemingly what people want when it comes to seeing things about Japan.

I think the western world’s obsession with the whacky side of Japan’s culture gives this film the fuel for its fire with many of the scenes depicting the zaniness of what makes up such a small minor part of its society. I absolutely hated the “lip” my stockings and whacky gun-fire chase scenes which were just bizarre. On the other hand, I did actually like Harris’ appearance on the TV show ‘Matthew’s Best Hit TV‘ (yes, that show really did used to exist!)….even though I usually despise such dumbed-down juvenile TV.

The more ancient customs may be somewhat shoehorned into the film by way of ancient temples and shrines, chanting monks and ikebana but to her credit Charlotte does watch all of this without judgment which is all you can do sometimes as a ‘fish out of water’.

Anyone who has ever spent a bit of time in Tokyo will of course pick faults as is customary when films are made in foreign settings but maybe they’re missing the point as this film is about a couple of American’s who didn’t really choose to visit the Japanese capital but were instead thrown into a situation and did what many often do. The only difference here is that its captured on film and shown to the world. Sure, nothing really climactic or dramatic happens but it’s more about appreciating the atmosphere.

Ten years later, we still have no idea what Bob whispered into Charlotte’s ear at the films climax and to be honest do we really need to?! It wouldn’t make any difference but directors often like to leave audiences thinking at the end and such a scene with a vague message does exactly that. I hope it’s never revealed until the sequel comes along!

lost in translation lost-in-translation-original-uk-30-x-40-quad-poster-bill-murray-scarlett-johansson-2003--3011-p

Tokyo Fox Rating 7/10

 

Townsend Harris & Zenpuku-ji Temple

Back in June last year I reviewed the rather poor 1958 film ’The Barbarian & The Geishaas part of the Films Set In Japan feature on this site. The main man in that film was Townsend Harris played by a fairly under-par John Wayne. It may have been Commodore Perry who first opened trade between the US and Japan in 1853 but it was Harris who became the first Consul General to the Empire of Japan three years later.

By 1859 the American government had set up in one of Tokyo’s oldest temples, Zenpuku-ji temple which is at 1-6-21 Moto Azabu and wasn’t exactly easy to find the other day with  just the address code and no map! I must have cycled round the area many times trying to locate it before taking a chance up some side street where I eventually found it.

P1030040 P1030019 P1030042 P1030025

These temple grounds have a monument in the centre dedicated to Harris which was one of my reasons for visiting this place. From successful New York merchant and minor politician to the first US Consul General to Japan, Harris negotiated the Treaty of Amity and Commerce in 1858 and basically opened up Japan to foreign trade and culture in the Edo period. The America-Japan society dedicated the stone monument in 1936 on the spot where the first American legation set up. Of course there is still a level of discrimination against foreigners in Japan but its nothing compared to the enormous hostility that Harris experienced so many of us can be thankful for his impact. He can be held responsible for Western influence in Japan’s economy and politics which can be read as a mix of good or bad things depending on your perspective!

P1030036 P1030039 P1030050 P1030038

For me, it was the film that brought the name of Townsend Harris to my attention and though the primary plot is essentially true the love affair subplot is a work of fiction and perhaps one of those things where a theatrical and artistic license is used to make the story more appealing to cinema audiences.

In the movie, Harris has a romance with a geisha named Okichi but there is no evidence that this is true. Still, their story is one of folklore. Harris died in New York in 1878 and, according to legend, Okichi committed suicide in Shimoda in 1892.

P1030023 P1030027 P1030028 P1030031

Another reason for taking in this place was to see something with an estimated age of 800+ years. The oldest ginkgo tree in Tokyo with a girth of 10m is housed within the cemetery ground lying beside the shrine. The grave of the man on the 10,000 yen note is also somewhere in this place but I didn’t bother hunting that down.

P1030033 P1030021

Review: Films Set In Japan – The Wolverine (2013)

Typical eh! You wait ages for a new film set in Japan to be released and then two come out at once! Emperor‘ (2013) hit Japanese cinema screens on July 27th and this sixth installment in the X-Men film series had a worldwide release the day before that. Of course ‘The Wolverine‘ is yet to be shown on the big screen here but Tokyo Fox managed to get access to an exclusive pre-screening of it.

38904_Wolverine_1-258x363 images wolverine_poster_jp_full

Now before I start, I do have to say that I have never read any X-Men or Marvel comics so my knowledge of this character is perhaps more limited than others. However, I did do my homework beforehand in one sense as I watched the previous five X-Men films in anticipation of this release and my visit to the temple where the funeral scene was filmed. I can’t say that I was too enthralled by those movies but I was very much absorbed by the  Logan/Wolverine character and, unlike many others, I actually didn’t mind the 2009 ‘X-Men Origins: Wolverine‘ film

Wolverine Samurai‘ as its titled here takes place after ‘X-Men: The Last Stand‘ (2011) and in a sense the movies opening storyline is very true to the heart of X-Men as the U.S. drops the bomb on Nagasaki in WWII. This particular event on 9th August, 1945 led to anxiety of the atom age breaking and the possibility of radiation and mutation affecting people. As  most of the soldiers commit suicide Logan saves a soldier named Yashida. Many years later, Yashida is a rich technology entrepreneur and still ever grateful for being saved, he invites Logan (via Yukio) to Japan because he’s dying from the radiation he was exposed to. He offers Logan the chance to become mortal if he promises to protect his grand-daughter, Mariko from the Yakuza. It’s an appealing offer for someone who feels his gift has been a bit of a curse recently.

Huge action star Hugh Jackman is always charming and charismatic in interviews and his portrayal of the ageless character is fantastic…. and a good job too as the film almost never leaves Wolverine’s side! Three female characters feature prominently with Yukio being the most interesting one; a ninja with the gift of seeing the future who acts as “bodyguard” to him as she calls it during the movie. Mariko (Tao Okamoto) was not so memorable for me and just a standard damsel in distress. The third is the venomous Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova) who I didn’t really get into and thought she could have been utilised better.

I did find the film to include a few too many ninja fight scenes but I guess that’s what the kids want to see! Fights on top of moving trains have long been a feature of movies but the one on the bullet train from Ueno station was pretty exciting stuff not that any of the passenger extra’s seemed too bothered about all the destruction and devastation! What I did find of interest was the nod to a small scene in ‘Diamonds Are Forever‘ (1971) with someone being thrown over a high-rise balcony into a pool below by someone who didn’t know there was a pool there! Homage was also paid to Akira Kurosawa’s1957 film ’Throne of Blood‘ (or is it just more a case of it not being too original lacking in ideas!) when the Wolverine is halted by the arrows of archers and turned into a pin-cushion.

20905834 20121215-3

Japan is principally the backdrop for the majority of the flick with filming taking place at  Tokyo Tower and Zojoji Temple as I revealed back in May but I should add that quite a few of the ‘Japan’ scenes were shot in New South Wales in Australia. Naturally, the cinematography was one of the films highlights for me in a film with plenty of plot loopholes and things that just don’t add up such as his memory but I guess you’ve gotta suspend belief a little bit when watching such films anyway. X-Men films always have a post credit scene and this one was no exception but I don’t really like these cheap ways of promoting the next film in the franchise with some vague ending.

Tokyo Fox Rating 7/10