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.

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

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 – 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

 

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!

images-2 images-1

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.

emperor-movie-feb-2013-2 emperor-mv-1

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!

images images-2

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).

images-3 Battle_royale_pochette

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