Review: Films Set In Japan – ‘Enter The Void’ (2009)

Starting off with a hard techno beat and flashing credits this arty-farty French directed film comes across as tediously excruciating with any real story replaced by indulgence for the sake of art.

We see all the action through the eyes of the main character Oscar in ‘Peep Show‘ style and I’d also compare it to watching ‘Big Brother‘ Live as there are times when the characters are just chatting or not doing much in a film which certainly doesn’t rush in its pacing. At 154 minutes in length (it was originally 10 minutes longer than that!) it is unnecessarily long and could surely have been edited down to a more respectable time. Whereas ‘Peep Show‘ has two main characters and a strong support cast this film only has one main (weak) character who we see very little of meaning that the film has very little to focus on in terms of characters and instead we have to suffer constant dreamy, hallucinogenic scenes for a frustrating amount of time. Don’t expect to see any recognisable places in Tokyo whatsoever either. As for character development, don’t make me laugh! There really is no one to care about in this film…or a story for that matter!

Still reading? If so then the movie centres around Oscar; a drug dealer living in Tokyo who goes to a bar called ‘The Void’ to deliver some drugs to a guy who has grassed him up (the probable reason why is explained later) as the police raid within seconds of his arrival. Locking himself in the toilet Oscar is unable to flush the drugs away and tells the police he has a gun in the hope he’ll get more time but instead he gets shot through the door and then the film becomes weirder and weirder.

On the way to the bar that fateful night Oscar’s mate Alex had been talking a lot about ‘The Tibetan Book of the Dead’ which is a Buddhist book about the afterlife and he refers particularly to how the spirit of a dead person sometimes stays among the living until it begins to experience nightmares, after which it attempts to reincarnate. After being shot Oscar’s body (who we had only ever really seen from his view-point) rises from him and he floats his way through his life in chronological order. This includes the backstory of his family particularly his sister and how they both ended up in Tokyo. What follows includes some pretty f*cked up sh*t such as travelling inside his sisters vagina to witness his mate Alex thrusting and then ejaculating and we lucky viewers get to follow the semen into the fertilisation of his sister’s ovum.

If you are disturbed by strobe effects, shaky hand-held cameras, psychedelic images, abortion, breast-feeeding, drug use, graphic sex, blood and so on over the course of two and a half hours then this is definitely not the film for you. If you do like any of that stuff then there are way better films out there catering for such topics. Avoid the void.

 

Review: Films Set In Japan – Stratosphere Girl (2004)

This modern art film is a short 84 minute story (always a good thing in my book!) about an 18 year old blonde girl called Angela who gets into a conversation with a Japanese DJ about going travelling to seek adventure and before you know it she is flying to his home country after he tells her she can get a job working as a hostess. She is portrayed as an imaginative but innocent looking girl who gets involved in a world of deception, crime and illegal foreign workers.

Naturally the plot is very thin but there’s something in there about her being an aspiring artist who for some reason is interested in finding out a lot more about the disappearance of a former hostess named Larissa who is presumed dead. As she digs deeper she discovers that everyone goes quiet and pretends to know nothing when the topic of her disappearance comes up. It follows her time in the Japanese capital via flashes between her drawings and the actual (albeit dreamy) live scenes all told in a non-linear fashion that’s simpler than past films which have used this method of storytelling.

The majority of the story involves a load of these Euro-blondies working in the Tokyo hostess industry and the Japanese men who exploit them in the name of entertaining corporate salarymen. ‘Stratosphere Girl’ shows a character study of these girls and the competitiveness of the industry where Angela’s colleagues are envious of her.

It may be a short film but it could have been a lot shorter were it not padded out with many cutaway shots of Tokyo highways. It’s supposed to be a Tokyo film but, apart from the seedy underworld, it doesn’t really let the viewer discover too much about this unique  developed world city.

Stratosphere Girl‘ builds up quite an interesting plot development only for it too drop off in a surprising but ultimately disappointing, rushed ending. Despite its many shortfalls it has to be said that this movie is consistently interesting and entertaining throughout. It is also visually beautiful and very easy on the eye and I’m not just talking about the many young blonde girls in this film! In fact there is even a line on the end credits stating that ‘no blondes were harmed during the making of this film!’

 

Tokyo Filming Locations: Pt III – Kill Bill

Due to parts of ‘Kill Bill’ being in Japanese (which aren’t subtitled in Japan) I didn’t get into it on my first viewing back in 2004 but when I saw it again five years later my mind was completely changed and I really enjoyed it. The idea of ‘re-mastering’ these ‘Tokyo Filming Locations’ was to add new photos of both locations and screenshots as well as tidying-up the slightly amateur-ish layout of the old-style MSN live spaces ‘Tokyo Fox’ website. However, with this film there really isn’t too much to add and its very questionable whether it should even be included at all as, even though they were ‘set‘ in Japan, two of the main locations were actually filmed in China.

 

The Bride (Uma Thurman) flies to Okinawa to visit retired sword maker Hattori Hanzo (one of Bill’s former tutors) to aquire the perfect sword needed for her revenge attacks. The sushi bar (above left) and workshop (46 mins) were made in the Beijing studios. Tokyo appears for real on screen after 65 mins when we see O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu) being driven over the illuminated Rainbow Bridge with The Bride trailing her on her motorcycle  through Shinjuku along Yasukuni-dori (lower left) one minute later as she heads to a restaurant.

 

    

That restaurant is ‘Gonpachi’ at 1-13-11 Nishi-Azabu in Minato-ku which served as the inspiration for the ‘House of Blue Leaves’. This very nice, cavernous, rustic-themed place (below left) was not actually used though as a similar looking one was built on a soundstage in the studios in Beijing. It was used for the extensive and bloody slice and dice one-against-all scene which precedes her showdown with O-Ren outside that place in the snow. This popular restaurant is fairly expensive but does have a good, cheap lunch menu deal and soon fills up. My photo above right was taken on my first visit a couple of years ago whereas the ones below were shot before the place opened which is why its empty!

     

Tokyo Filming Locations: Pt II – Lost In Translation

‘Lost In Translation’ came out not long after I came to Japan the first time back in 2003 and though I didn’t think too much of the actual story I quite enjoyed it simply for the fact that it was filmed in what was to become my new home. I was more surprised about how many people with no affinity to Japan thought the movie was great. I guess I am just not the arty-farty type! Director Sofia Coppola used the following locations:

* The Park Hyatt Hotel (3-7-1-2 Nishi Shinjuku) features throughout the films 97 minute entirety and is where the characters Bob (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johanson) stay and the 52nd floor is the ‘New York Bar’ where a fair few scenes were filmed including when they meet for the first time on 23 mins. I went up to this bar for a quick peek but didn’t stay as I knew for sure that it was expensive.

   

* Kogenji Temple is a tiny temple in Nishi-Shinjuku (11 mins 58 secs to see the same angle as below left) which Charlotte visits in the rain for a few brief moments. When I went there it wasn’t anywhere near as tranquil and spiritual as in the film where the moment was further aided by the soundtrack.

 

* Shibuya Crossing is the worlds busiest crossing and has appeared in a countless number of films and ‘Lost In Translation’ is no exception as it appears on screen after 18, 35 and 62 mins.

 

* Air is a nightclub for Tokyo hipsters in Daikanyama (2-11 Sarugaku-cho) and is where Bob, Charlotte and some Japanese friends party amid oversized balloons with a film of fireworks projected onto them after 42 mins. When I found this place there was nothing more than a door with a board outside detailing the club’s forthcoming events.

 

* Bob sings ‘More than this’ by Roxy Music at Karaoke-kan (30-8 Utagawa-cho, Shibuya-ku) and for the anoraks out there rooms 601 and 602 are the ones which feature after 46 mins.

  

* Rainbow Bridge (below) can be seen after 50 mins on what is supposedly the taxi ride home from the karaoke session but makes no sense geographically as in reality their hotel in Shinjuku is quite near to the karaoke box in Shibuya.

 

* Ichikan is a small and hard-to-find sushi restaurant at 9-5 Daikanyama-cho, Shibuya-ku and is seen on 56 mins and the chef in the film does actually work there. This is no cheap kaiten-zushi (conveyor belt sushi) restaurant but is actually of high cost. With the cheapest course being 6000 yen (45 quid) I decided to not bother going in which was a shame but there is a limit to my research on a film which I’m not that bothered about!!

 

* A.P.C. Underground clothing store at 4-27-6-B1 Jingu-mae) in Harajuku is where the strip club scene (61 mins) was filmed. By day, its one of those so-called fashionable stores where the designer trainers, t-shirts and so on are minimal (I’m talking only three t-shirts on one rail!) and given a lot of space and this is the only part of the film that was ‘faked’ as all the other locations played true in the movie.

 

* Nanzen-ji temple and Heian-jingu shrine are the two places Charlotte visits on her little trip to Kyoto. 72 mins of the film have passed when she walks over the stepping stones (below left) in Heian-jingu garden (600 yen entry) before moments later walking across the impressive shrines grounds seen below right.

           * Shabuzen is a shabu-shabu restaurant under the Creston Hotel (Kamiya-cho 10-8, Shibuya) and is where Bob and Charlotte are shocked by the idea that they actually had to cook the meat themselves which to be honest is still not something I like as when I go out to eat I don’t want to have to cook. Japanese homes are so small that entertaining guests is not so possible so they like to go out and cook the thin slices of beef and vegetables themselves. My friend Michael went for the shabu-shabu deal while I had a late change of heart and plumped for the unagi-don (grilled eel in a sweet sauce on a bed of rice in a bowl) set instead which was OK but probably not worth the extra cost which I had to pay for the privelege for eating in surroundings far more sophisticated than I am used to. It appears on screen after 81 mins.

     

Tokyo Filming Locations Pt I: You Only Live Twice

One of the first major international films to use Japan’s capital as a backdrop was the 1967 James Bond film ‘You Only Live Twice’ starring Sean Connery. Despite being killed off before Nancy Sinatra’s beautiful 007 theme kicks in its just a crafy strategy. Bond goes on a mission to Japan 16 minutes into the film starting at the sumo arena (more commonly known as Kokugikan) in Ryogoku. He enters the changing rooms where yokozuna (‘grand champion’) Sadanoyama Shinmatsu gives him his ticket and the match is between Kotozakura Masakatsu and Fujinishiki Takemitsu which he seemingly only watches for a few moments before leaving with Aki. The address is 1-3-28 Yokoami, Sumida-ku.

   

The New Otani Hotel at 4-1 Kioi-cho, Chiyoda-ku near Akasaka-Mitsuke station plays the part of Osato Chemicals exterior for a few brief moments after 24, 28, 36 and 41 minutes. Its small, but peaceful gardens round the back are worth a visit for anyone wishing to take a break from the concrete jungle.

 

 

Bond escapes Osata Chemicals in a car with the help of Aki who avoids his questions which makes him suspicious and she flees to a secluded subway station which is Nakano-Shimbashi on the Marunouchi Line (28 mins). This is the private transportation hub of Japanese secret service leader “Tiger” Tanaka who many years later appeared in Raymond Benson’s ‘The Man With The Red Tattoo’ book. Bond is hot on her trail and follows her down the steps seen below right and on to the platform which is obviously a bit different these days. Believe it or not taking such simple photos wasn’t quite so straightforward as when I was down the far end of the platform a member of staff came down to tell me not to take photos. I asked him why not a few times before giving up as people just don’t question rules in this country. He must have seen me on the CCTV cameras but thankfully I’d got my shot just before he intervened.

      

On yet another escape from Osata Chemicals, Bond and Aki drive by Yoyogi National Gymnasium (above right) on 42 mins. This escape leads them well away from Tokyo to the docks of Kobe where he tries to dodge SPECTRE agents. The photo below left was taken in Kobe Harbour in May and the red bridge in the background appears briefly before the exciting roof-top scene below right.

 

The helicoptor flight (54 mins) was filmed above Ebino in Miyazaki prefecture. Himeji castle appears after 69 mins and is under extensive reconstruction at the moment but luckily I captured it back in 2005. This white castle is the Ninja training school where Bond turns Japanese and the shots below all get a second or two of screen time!

     

After Aki meets her inevitable demise, Bond limbers up (76 mins) in the West Bailey. When I was in Himeji back in May I had only one screenshot with me and was most surprised to see that the stone statue thing behind Sean Connery was still knocking about. Needless to say I was the only person in the whole place who took an interest in this piece of concrete!

 

Kirishima National Park in Kagoshima (on Japan’s southern main island) is the extinct volcano which can be seen briefly on 87 mins with the interior of Bolfeld’s hideout filmed back in the UK at Pinewood studios.

See other James Bond filming locations by clicking on the cities below:

London   Prague   Venice   Como   Istanbul   Las Vegas

Review: Films Set In Japan – ‘Into The Sun’ (2005)

Love him or hate him Steven Seagal films do a job. Admittedly its usually the same job and that is usally wooden acting, bad dialogue, unrealistic action scenes, pathetic plots and heavy duty martial arts action combat where the bad guys are taken on and defeated by the hero of the hour. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that ‘Into The Sun’ is no different.

Its certainly no ‘Under Siege’ but this 2005 film is actually better than I thought it would be. It may be a fairly average film full of clichés but its entertaining enough with some magnificent Tokyo landscape on show including Shinjuku, Hamarikyu Gardens, Zojoji temple, Tsukiji fish market and Tokyo Tower. It starts off with a fairly pointless pre-titles action scene in Burma (in reality it was shot in Chiang Mai in Thailand) before the typical Asian strings kick in as the opening titles begin. We then see the usual aerial shots of Tokyo and then a governor is suddenly assassinated and that can only mean its time for Seagal’s character to enter the scene and save the day. I can’t remember his name but that doesn’t really matter when he basically plays the same character in every film he ever does!

Here, he is an ex-CIA agent who is hired to track down the Yakuza (Japanese mafia) responsible for the killing. In true movie-style another agent is assigned to work with him who just doesn’t possess the knowledge and understanding of Japanese customs and the Yakuza that Seagal does.

What is really stupid is the choice of language used in some scenes. The Japanese and Chinese characters speak to each other in broken English and whilst Seagal’s character often speaks in Japanese he then uses English with his Japanese fiancée who communicates in Japanese. This fairly unconvincing romance develops amid the beauty of Hamarikyu Gardens and inevitably she is killed and it then becomes personal and he swears revenge on the bad guys. Such an original formula eh!