Review: Films Set In Japan – Cars 2 (2011)

Always keen to add a twist or two to these ‘set in Japan’ reviews here is the first  review of an animated movie. My sister told me at Christmas that ‘Cars 2‘ featured Japan and I had hoped to watch it with my nephew but sadly that never happened and so I ended up viewing it all alone one afternoon which is pretty sa-a-a-a-ad!! Continue reading

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Review: Films Set In Japan – Fear And Trembling (2003)

Starting off at Ryoanji temple in Kyoto this French film has a Belgian woman called Amélie (Sylvie Testud) looking back on her year at a Japanese corporation in Tokyo in 1990. Having been brought up in Japan until the age of five she decides to return and has a one year contract working as a translator for the giant Yumimoto Corporation.

She is a determined young woman who suffers for doing things in a western manner in a country which rewards loyalty rather than initiative and workers are promoted based on their years served instead of their track record. Of course, its hammed up a bit on screen but there’s an element of truth to most of what we see in this office based comedy and it’s this kind of mindset that may explain why the Japanese economy has been in a slump for 15 years or so.

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It may be a comedy but this is certainly nothing like BBC sitcom ‘The Office‘! The entire movie takes place in the office (filmed in Paris) so we sadly don’t get any hint of what life is like outside of their workplace. It would’ve been nice to see a glimpse of Amélie’s home life as it’s this kind of thing which helps form and develop a character.

Having tried and failed to work and integrate into the conformity of a Japanese office, Amélie works her way down the corporate ladder amid abuse, humiliation and insane routine as she fails to understand how things are done in Japan. She goes from doing great bilingual research (albeit work that violates the all important company procedure!) to re-setting calendars to serving coffee to cleaning the toilets! In between all that she’s ordered to not speak Japanese when clients and visitors are present as they wouldn’t be able to have any feeling of trust if they knew the white girl understood their language!

Another degrading assignment involves her being made to copy the same document over and over again. No care for the environment and all the paper wasted from Mr Saito as he demands it be 100% accurate with the text dead on centre to the exact millimetre. Anything less is just unacceptable!

The subject matter of this film is fascinating in itself with the protagonist finding herself in these strange situations which is fine for the first half of the movie but after that it failed to really develop any further. That is probably because it’s an autobiographical account of real-life experiences with very little added in the way of artistic license. The film is based on a book which may explain why the director uses voice over (a little too much but I guess some mother-tongue is needed to keep the natives attentive) to presumably portray essential passages from it.

Taking place in 1990, one would hope that this is a caricature of Japanese offices of that time and that they are no longer like this in any way but I still have my doubts about that! A lot of the story revolves around the inability to develop any human relations with her colleagues, particularly the submissive Fubuki; her female work leader. There are some slight lesbian undertones as Amélie adulates her and wants to please her but this is answered with sadistic pleasure as she is continuously belittled. Amélie realises that the best way to deal with it all is in humour and she uses her wild imagination to play the game of obedience and passiveness which her co-workers excel in.

In ‘Stupeur et Tremblements‘, to give it it’s original French title, Amélie has daydreams of falling out the window and floating over the Tokyo skyline as she’s desperate to escape and for many it’s hard to understand why anyone would put up with all the abuse and still be determined to continue working in such an environment.

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Tokyo Fox Rating 6/10

Review: Films Set In Japan – Rhapsody In August (1991)

On August 9th 1945, an atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki and over 40,000 people were instantly killed including (as far as this film story is concerned) the husband and a few siblings of a woman who is now the grandmother of four children. Whether or not Akira Kurosawa made this film or not, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki will never be forgotten but what is perhaps surprising in this film is that there’s no real antagonism towards the Americans and instead it’s a simple reminder to all humanity that the consequences of not respecting one another can be catastrophic.

The Japanese title of this film is ‘Hachi gatsu no kyoshikyoku‘ and interestingly the Hollywood star Richard Gere would go on to star in another Japanese related film starting with the same first word by way of ‘Hachi: A Dog’s Tale‘ (2009) telling the story of the iconic dog. Of course he’s way more famous for his other film roles (‘American Gigolo‘, ‘Pretty Woman‘, ‘An Officer and A Gentleman’ etc) and he does only feature in the final third of this movie but that’s more than enough to merit its inclusion in thisTokyo Fox series! It’s not the first time a Kurosawa movie has been reviewed here though as ‘Kagemusha‘ (1980) was also included for similarly vague reasons relating to the executive producers!

For once this is quite a short Kurosawa film (98 minutes) and it’s also not one about samurai warlords laden with symbolic references to Japanese society. Instead, we see his most humanistic film which is quite moving at times and is a poem against war and the scars it leaves on the minds of those who have suffered.

The main person to have endured agony here is an elderly woman called Kané who is  living a peaceful care free life close to nature in the Nagasaki countryside, but the memory of the disaster continues to haunt her and she is forever laden with heavy memories of the past. She is the most intriguing character and a convincing one at that. She displays a range of emotions including suffering, wisdom and forgiveness as embodied by the phrase “blame it on the war” which she continues to repeat throughout the movie. She tries to communicate this message to her four grandchildren who seem interested in their country’s sorrowful history and it is kind of through their eyes, as well as their naive words, that Kurosawa lets us in on the tragedy.

As the memorial day is approaching Kané learns that her only living brother is in Hawaii (having made his fortune in pineapples) and wants to see her before he dies but she is a little reluctant to go despite the grandkids urging her to. Next, the parents return from their very own Hawaii trip and, hoping to get in on the wealth of the Hawaiian family, they try to persuade Kané to go. However, when the son of Kané’s brother (Richard Gere), suddenly arrives in Nagasaki, the parents are sure it’s because he wants to end the proposed visit because they guess he must resent the idea that his own country caused the death of Kané’s husband a.k.a. his uncle.

There is a very nicely filmed scene in the latter part of the film where the four kids and their granny are sitting under a blue moonlight whilst the adults are just obsessed about the wealth of their distant relatives. ‘Rhapsody In August‘ has pretty much no soundtrack other than the natural sounds of wind, water, traffic and people as well as the old organ in the house which one of the older boys plays at opportune moments.

A range of themes are touched on throughout the film such as the effect of the atomic bomb on both nations, the attitudes of the three generations and the effect of American culture on the Japanese. The film moves along at a slow pace and I was a little disappointed that there was no conflict at any time. There are chances aplenty to make Clark (Gere) feel guilt for what his country did but he was let off and spared any real pain or discomfort as everyone bowed their heads, apologised and forgave one another.

The ending is a all a bit weird for me as a violent thunderstorm erupts over the village which Kané believes to be a new bomb fallen on Nagasaki leading her to run desperately for cover chased (eventually) by her entire family in a scene that is a little theatrical but one that has a lasting impact with the broken umbrella coming to represent a flower of peace or something like that!

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Tokyo Fox Rating 6/10

Review: Films Set In Japan – Godzilla (2014)

Despite all the recent Godzilla features and movie location stuff on here I didn’t actually realise that this Gareth Edwards directed version was set in Japan (in part) until I saw it at the cinema the other day. I just assumed it was all set in the USA and though the second half of the film was in Hawaii, Nevada and San Francisco, the first hour or so was all set in Japan. As a movie locations geek it should be noted that the majority of this production was filmed in Vancouver, Canada.

Well, what do you know but it was the first half of this 123 minute movie which I preferred. A fair few people have complained of Godzilla getting very little air time but I don’t have a problem with that. In my opinion, the beast does not need to be seen immediately but its appearance is built up whilst delivering a terrifying off-screen presence with a foot here and a tail there!

This incarnation of the the giant lizard is told from a human perspective and Bryan Cranston’s character Joe Brody seemingly gets all the character-driven stuff from the moment we first see him in 1999 working as an engineer at the fictional Janjira nuclear plant in Japan. Having been tracking oncoming tremors, a fateful event occurs at the reactor on the morning of his birthday which see his wife (Juliette Binoche) killed and the city sealed off for all eternity.

Fifteen years on and Joe’s son Ford (Taylor-Johnson), who is now a US Navy Officer living in San Francisco with a wife and kid, has to fly to Japan to bail out his father who has been arrested for trespassing. Joe’s still overcome with grief and is a crackpot conspiracy theorist living in a tiny apartment where the wall is covered in news clippings, maps and charts. Joe manages to convince Ford to accompany him to their old home to retrieve some vital information he recorded and whilst in the quarantine zone they find that it’s not at all contaminated thereby enhancing Joe’s opinion that the government covered up the true cause of the disaster. However, after recovering the data, soldiers appear and detain them within the plant’s ruins.

It’s thereafter that all the monster stuff begins to happen with “MUTOs” (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) appearing on the scene which didn’t really catch my imagination but then again I’m not really a fan of kaiju (monster) movies. The rest of the film is carried out in the States with the US Navy task force getting involved which see’s the bad CIA guy (David Strathairn) from ‘The Bourne Ultimatum‘ (2007) yet again in charge and standing in front of a wall of screens and monitors giving out instructions. Like so many other actors in this film though he was under-utilised which was perhaps a little surprising given how his distinctive voice was used in the promotional trailers.

British director Gareth Edwards is obviously a man with a great knowledge of, and affection for the previous works of Godzilla (stuff that I have actually slagged off a fair bit on this site throughout the years!) and there are plenty of nods of affection to the original 1954 film without any of the horrors repeated from the almost universally panned 1998 Roland Emmerich film of the same name.

The awakening of the MUTOs leads to the stirring of the pre-historic predator known as “Gojira” as Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) says before reverting to the English name for the rest of the film. I particularly liked the opening titles with the grainy archive footage showing missiles and atomic bombs being used in the Pacific Ocean and we get to see them again as it later emerges that the existence of the giant monster has been kept secret by the U.S. government since 1954. The re-appearance of Godzilla results in atsunami and with this film also touching on another sensitive subject by way of nuclear power, things could be slightly uneasy for some Japanese people. It is quite clear that this movie could never have been made in Japan as local directors might be uncomfortable turning such matter into a big budget production.

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Tokyo Fox Rating 6/10

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.

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‘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

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.

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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 – 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!

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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