Tokyo Filming Locations: Pt XIV – House Of Bamboo (1955)

This Sam Fuller directed film was released a decade after the end of WWII and Japan has of course transformed itself quite a bit since then. ‘House Of Bamboo‘ was the first post-war American movie to be filmed in Japan and as you can imagine most of the Tokyo locations (including Ginza and Asakusa) now look nothing like what’s seen on screen. However, there are a couple of locations which have remained relatively unchanged in the six decades that have passed since filming wrapped and the reason for that is that they are places of worship in the form of a temple and shrine respectively. Continue reading

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

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 – 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.

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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!

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Tokyo Fox Rating 7/10

 

Review: Films Set In Japan – Emperor (2013)

Do you see that year in the title? Yes, it is this year and indeed it’s the very present and a rare opportunity for Tokyo Fox to review an actual current release! In fact, this movie will not get a UK release date for a couple more months which is the opposite of what usually happens with any western movie production being released in Japan!

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However, as its a new film I don’t think its best to reveal too much in the way of plot spoilers even though you know the historical outcome! The storyline is a fairly easy one to follow with General Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox) being hired by General Douglas MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones) to investigate Emperor Hirohito’s role during WWII and whether he should subsequently be tried as a war criminal.

Don’t be fooled by that synopsis though as ‘Emperor‘ is not a war movie as there are no battle scenes and instead it focuses on the aftermath of the war and the true price of peace. Naturally, with all western films about Japan there is also some stuff about cultural adaptation as Fox’s character gets to grips with Japanese attitudes towards conflict, and how they differ from those embraced by people in the west. His work is further complicated by his memories of a girl called Maya (Eriko Hatsune) who he fell in love with during his college days which we see via a series of flashbacks. Not only is he searching for a conclusion within a 10 day framework to the emperor’s situation but he’s also keen to trace his lost love. Searching for two different things sees some quite touching scenes and leads him to the chef (veteran actor Toshiyuki Nishida) from ‘The Ramen Girl‘ (2008) who shares his wisdom with him.

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Jones’ portrayal of MacArthur has been the topic of much debate but I didn’t really have a problem with it and indeed thought that his mannerisms in particular were seemingly captured very well. My problem was that, despite getting top billing, he doesn’t get enough  screen time for such an important figure. MacArthur’s opinion is that his job would be far easier if Hirohito stays as emperor as he believes that with no god-like figure the Japanese people will kill themselves en masse. The powers that be in Washington see things a bit differently!

The movie was filmed in Auckland and Wellington in New Zealand as well as Tokyo itself where I assume some scenes really were filmed in the vicinity of the Imperial Palace rather than being faked in a studio somewhere. Sugamo Prison even features which has long been replaced by the Sunshine 60 building in Ikebukuro which featured in myTokyo’s Most Haunted Sights feature last year. The wartime devastation scenes are particularly impressive and overall the cinematography was pleasing and so it should be given the generous budget of the film!

Whilst I found ‘Emperor‘ quite intriguing due to my interest in such topic matter I do think that many neutral viewers may find it a bit slow not that I can really see it attracting much of a general audience. When I watched it one afternoon, the place was almost full of ojiisan and obaasan! It’s a dialogue driven film with some interesting scenery and the interwoven love subplot helps push the movie along as a decision of huge historical importance affecting all future relations between the US and Japan is ultimately decided.

Tokyo Fox Rating 7/10

Review: Films Set In Japan – ‘Battle Royale’ (2000)

Due to overwhelming popular demand (two people!) it’s time to throw in my two cents on this Japanese movie which is included in this series owing to its popularity in the Western world. The violent ‘Battle Royale‘ (or ‘Batoru Rowaiaru‘ to give it its Japanese title and pronunciation) caused great controversy when it was originally released.

This film was first brought to my attention back in 2002 on the BBC show ‘Jonathan Ross’ Japanorama‘ (S01E02) and the story centres on an unruly high school class taken to a deserted Island for a maximum three day stay with the important word there being maximum! That’s because they have been forced by legislation to compete in a battle where they are forced to slaughter each other with only one person able to leave the island. In that sense, it has similarities to ’Letters From Iwajima‘ (2006) and funnily enough both Iwajima and Hachijojima, where ‘Battle Royale’ was filmed, are actually both in Tokyo despite them being islands hundreds of miles away going south.

The BR Act is explained to these unwitting participants by an annoying woman giving instructions to the students via an educational video in one of those really annoying squeaky girly voices that are just not pleasant on the ears of us foreigners. The students are each given a bag with a randomly selected weapon with a few food and water rations. The man handing these bags out is none other than the aptly named Kitano-Sensei played by none other than Takeshi Kitano who is a rare phenomenon as he is the director of some very violent movies. Yet, in spite of this, he is a much loved television personality who often appears on Japanese variety shows. Oh and he’s also an artist and one of his paintings appears towards the end of this film. For anyone who thinks the kids of today need some harsh discipline then they should watch this film to realise how absurd that is!

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This kill-or-be-killed take on ‘Lord of the Flies‘ focuses on a few of the students and how they cope. Whilst some of them do decide to play the game others try to find a way to get off the Island without violence. To be honest, I did find it a little hard to really get into the characters as the majority seemingly appear for just short periods but once the numbers begin to dwindle on an hourly basis it became easier to realise that Shuya and Noriko are the main protagonists. Like many stories, there are a mix of good and bad people which can easily be characterised into geeks, outcasts and superficial bitches. I didn’t realise it at the time but one of the students is Chiaki Kuriyama whose portrayal of Takako in this film was the inspiration for her character in Kill Bill: Volume I‘ (2003)where she played the schoolgirl bodyguard of O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu).

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Many people will be shocked by the unapologetic detail to graphic violence but despite all the gloom, blood and gore its a very watchable film with a comic feel in parts which moves along at a fast pace and is so compelling that it kept me hooked for 108 minutes. It is indeed quite moving at times as the characters are forced to confront such extreme circumstances amid the atmospheric tension and emotion created by a masterful soundtrack.

Tokyo Fox Rating 8/10

Review: Films Set In Japan – ‘The Bushido Blade’ (1981)

An all-star cast turned up for this fictional sideline to a key incident in both American and Japanese history but ultimately they were let down by a poor script as well as a lack of direction, choreography and editing.

The story centres around a treaty which Commodore Matthew Perry came to Japan to get signed by the Shogun in 1854. He brought American technology with him and in return the Shogun wanted to send a national treasure back to the American President as a gift. From that exchange we have our film title! The Bushido Blade is a sword representing the Samurai code and all that Japan holds dear.

Anyway, this ceremonial sword is stolen by a group of rebels led by Lord Yamato (played by Tetsuru Tamba who was Tiger Tanaka in 1967′s Bond film ‘You Only Live Twice‘) who are against the modernisation of Japan and want to keep it’s isolationist policy. The Shogun then refuse to sign the treaty until the sword has been recovered.

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Three American sailors are despatched in pursuit of the blade where they come across Prince Ido (played by Sonny Chiba who appeared in ‘Kill Bill: Volume I’) and a number of prisoners led by a shipwrecked captain played by a much under-used James Earl Jones. They amazingly encounter Japanese people (such as the guy from ‘Conan The Barbarian‘) who seem to speak English which is highly unlikely in 1854 Japan when the country was completely closed off.

There are numerous encounters with a variety of Japanese women in the countryside including a half-Japanese, English-speaking Samurai lady called Tomoe (played by Laura Gemser of ‘Emmanuelle‘ fame). She may have provided some good eye candy (and take her clothes off!) but I found many of her scenes to be unintentionally funny at times. When she’s accused of not appearing to look Japanese she defends herself with somepoorly delivered line about her father being a foreigner, her mother from a respected samurai family and that she was born in a traders compound in Nagasaki. As for the Japanese actresses they didn’t even get any substantial lines including the woman who played Yuki who was a half important character.

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When I purchased this dvd online a couple of years ago I didn’t realise I would be getting a German-language copy. After some nervy moments at the start I was relieved to be able to switch the language to English not that it really mattered too much in the end given the poor dialogue the actors were given to work with. Furthermore, when they weren’t reading badly scripted lines the actors were doing other “filler” activities like a rather silly pointless scene in the middle of the movie at a shrine where there’s a sumo match involving one of the burly sailors taking on a sumo wrestler in one of the film’s needless comical detours.

Overall, the premise of the story and the cast involved promised way more than what we got in this low budget film which was an average film at best and may only be of interest to Japan buffs and samurai fans. The storyline is easy to follow, the film is short but there are many unanswered questions like how on earth it was stolen in the first place. Surely a legendary blade would be better guarded! Would the Shogun really send it to America? Did any of this really matter since ultimately the treaty was signed with the blade not present thereby meaning that the 80 minutes adventure preceding it was entirely void and pointless?!!

Tokyo Fox Rating 4/10

Review: Films Set In Japan – ‘Tokyo Raiders’ (2000)

If you were to ask me who my favourite Chinese actor is then I’d probably have to say Tony Leung. Don’t read too much into that though as its only because he has appeared in nearly all of the (very small amount of) Chinese films I’ve seen such as ‘Chungking Express‘ (1994) and ‘Infernal Affairs‘ (2002) as well as this film which is famed for being the last film ever released on LaserDisc in Japan.

Anyway, its time to take a little detour from the usual western productions ‘set’ in Japan which are predominantly covered in this category. Running out of films to review? Nope, just padding the series out a bit!! The film starts, as it continues throughout, with some fun, fast paced action in Shinjuku outside the Tokyo Milano building where a fairly ridiculous action scene with Leung using his umbrella to fight off a gang uses up nearly nine minutes. The film then flicks to Las Vegas where Macy (Kelly Chen) is jilted at the altar on her wedding day by her fiancé Ken and so she journeys to Hong Kong to find him. However, she only meets interior designer Yung (Ekin Cheng) who decorated their apartment (and who also happens to be pretty good at kung fu too!) and is wanting his payment. Together they head to Tokyo to track down the guy but they aren’t the only ones!

They soon discover that Ken had many underworld connections and that some very bad men are after him and they want to use her in order to help find him. For some reason, private investigator Lin (Leung) and a bevy of Asian beauties are on hand to help them as everything converges in Tokyo (and Yokohama) amid endless contrived fight scenes with acrobatics. The slow motion and rotating camera work is all very much in the mould of your typical John Woo movie and I can’t say that these editing techniques are really my thing. This is all accompanied by some frenzied Spanish sounding latino music which I also wasn’t such a fan of as I didn’t feel it really suited the action on screen.

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This film features Hiroshi Abe who is a rarity for me, a Japanese actor that I actually know and recognise having seen him star ‘Thermae Romane‘; a Japanese time travelling film which I saw on a plane sometime last year. All I can say is that his acting has sure got better over the last decade! In this film his gang boss character Takeshi Ito tries to be intimidating but ends up coming over as a nervous, foolish person with a bad cold! He wasn’t the only one I didn’t take to as I felt the main man himself Tony Leung (my favourite Chinese actor remember!) came up short and was maybe not as smooth and charismatic as one would hope for such a role.

A sequel called ‘Seoul Raiders‘ followed five years later which could have paved the way for a ‘…Raiders‘ movie to be made in a load of other Asian (or even world) cities but thankfully that never happened. For the 99p I paid for it I think I got value for money!

Tokyo Fox Rating 5/10

 

Review: Films Set In Japan – ‘The Toxic Avenger Part II’ (1989)

This ridiculously silly low budget B-movie was actually brought to my attention (though strictly not “recommended”) by fellow blogger tokyo5 who mentioned it in a comment on my ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III‘ review a couple of years ago.

Having heard that this comedy, horror film holds a rare 0% rating on the Tomatometer on Rotten Tomatoes website (based on the percentage of approved critics giving it a positive review) I thought that I have got to see this so after forking out a few quid on the dvd I settled down to watch it in the early hours of a jet-lagged morning.

Now, of course I haven’t seen the 1984 original but that doesn’t really matter as what little storyline there is, is often explained in the narrative including the lady from the abominable Apocalypse Corporation explaining to her members the background on the Toxic Avenger and some lame connection to Tokyo which sees the Toxic Avenger come  here to find his father. The first film was a big hit in Japan and was I guess the reason they came here to make the sequel much like what happened in the equally awful ‘The Bad News Bears Go To Japan‘ (1978).

This tripe was served up by those kings of campy movies; Troma Entertainment, with the imaginatively titled Tromaville being the home town of the Toxic Avenger who, five years on from the original, is now around to protect its people from all manner of evil. Once he’s been lured to Tokyo by his shrink (working undercover for the enemy) his absence gives the Apocalypse corporation the chance to take over his beloved Tromaville where they have their sights set on first owning it and then destroying it and turning it into a toxic dump or something along those lines. Of course, its then up to the deformed superhero of superhuman size and strength to save the day.

Japan is first seen 34 minutes into the movie with locations including Tokyo Tower, the Yamanote platform, Asakusa Senso-ji, the area around Harajuku station, a pachinko parlour, Tokyo station, Tsukiji fish market and a tsukudani (small seafood, meat or seaweed simmered in soy sauce and mirin) boutique in Tsukishima.

There seems to be some debate to the edit of the film but my version was the directors cut which, at 102 minutes long, has an extra 6 minutes of gore! Lucky me! In fact the original edit was supposedly over 4 hours long so it was split into two movies so ‘The Toxic Avenger Part III: The Last Temptation of Toxie‘ followed 8 months later in the same year. I can kind of see why it’s supposedly a cult film among the younger generation  as the action is often fun in a “so-bad-its-good” way. It’s also got a fair amount of gratuitous nudity and foul behaviour as well as its own catchy theme song at the start to keep them attentive throughout.

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Tokyo Fox Rating 4/10