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Cold Fish (冷たい熱帯魚 Tsumetai nettaigyo ) 2010 – Sono Shion 園子温

*/5

I believe it was Isaac Asimov who wrote, “It pays to be obvious, especially if you have a reputation for subtlety.” Getting his commercial feet wet in the 2002 bloodbath Suicide Club (自殺サークル Jisatsu sākuru lit. “Suicide circle”), Sono Shion 園子温 (b. 1961) does not evoke subtlety. Would it surprise anyone, then, that his latest creation, Cold Fish (冷たい熱帯魚 Tsumetai nettaigyo  lit. “Cold tropical fish”), retains that—Sono—luster? No, and it shouldn’t. But could I be blamed for holding out hope? I hope not.

Caveat lector: I am note opposed to violence, sex, nudity, etc., in film. That said, I am aesthetically remote from splatter flicks in general; gore does not stimulate my cinematic taste buds, neither does graphic absurdity for its own sake. In short, I do not enjoy porn of this order. If you do, feel free to ignore the rest, because you may well enjoy it; if you do not, read on. Read the rest of this entry »

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*****/5

One of my favorite Japanese movies is now available to watch on HULU until mid July. When the Last Sword Is Drawn (壬生義士伝 Mibu gishi den), released in 2003 and directed by Yōjirō Takita (the guy who directed the Oscar-winning Departures, and the Molester’s Train series apparently, but you got to start somewhere I suppose), is not your usual slash-em-up samurai flick. It is more in the vein of Yoji Yamada’s 2002 masterpiece Twilight Samurai ( たそがれ清兵  Tasogare seibei) and uses the bakumatsu period more as a motivated setting than an excuse to slice a few heads off. If you prefer slicing and dicing, see the Zatoichi films, also available on HULU. When the Last Sword Is Drawn won the Best Film award in the 2004 from the Japanese Academy, and a few others.

Watch it while you can: http://www.hulu.com/watch/84241/when-the-last-sword-is-drawn

And if you miss it, go rent it. Heck, go buy it.

Kojima Nobuo (小島信夫) wrote the short story “American School” (アメリカンスクール) the same year as “Stars” (星). The similarities in tone and approach are readily noticeable. Although written in 1954, the story is set in 1948 in the midst of the US occupation of Japan. It centers on a visit of a group of Japanese teachers of English to a school run by the Occupation forces, hence the title.

The characters are archetypes and the lampooning of the contemporaneous social realities is representative of Kojima’s satiric approach. Personal relationships between the characters drive the story, the majority of which centers on a group march to the American school. Isa, a cowardly fellow who is scared to death of speaking English—yes he is an English teacher—wants only to be left alone. Yamada, a sycophant to authority and overweening jackass to everyone else, is above all an opportunist (there is a similar character in “Stars”). Yamada sees Isa as a non-hacker and desires to publicly humiliate him. Isa, in turn, despises Yamada. Michiko, the only woman in the group and very popular with the Occupation forces, sticks close to Isa, for a variety of reasons. The most apparent reason is that he has something she wants.

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The Sea and Poison 海と毒薬 (1958, serialized in 1957)

Endō Shūsaku – 遠藤周作

Translated by Michael Gallagher

There are two types of sins, we are often told—the sins of commission and the sins of omission. The former are the committed through immoral actions, the latter through the failure to exercise moral actions. The former is simple enough; if you murder someone you are guilty by your action. The latter is more subtle; what if you did nothing to stop the murder? Edmund Burke once said something about “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” He might have liked this book.

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Kojima Nobuo’s (小島信夫) 1954 short story “Stars” (星) is first of all a humorous read. On the surface its wit expertly pillories the system of rank in the Japanese military during WWII. Like most good humor, however, this story functions on more than one level. The protagonist, a second-generation Japanese-American by the name of George Sugihara, is unfortunate enough to be visiting his grandfather in Japan during the war, and is drafted into the army. The story follows the insecure George (Jōji), who is routinely disparaged for being American, on his journey from buck private to PFC. [Note that there were more than a few cases of Japanese-Americans being drafted in the Japanese army during WWII, see Iwao Peter Sano’s 1,000 Days in Siberia.]

The story quickly becomes a theatre of the absurd. Read the rest of this entry »

The Blue Bird (Aoi Tori) 青い鳥  2008 – Nakanishi Kenji

****/5

Bullying has been a widely acknowledged problem in Japan, and this isn’t the first movie to explore it. But Aoi Tori, based on a novel by Shigematsu Kiyoshi, does something most other movies dealing with this issue fail to do. It explores the gray areas, between outright physical violence against and the virtuous defense of the weak, in which many instances of bullying probably occur.

Abe Hiroshi (who has a few outstanding roles in TV dramas and won the Mainichi Film Concours award for his role in this movie) plays Mr. Murauchi, a stuttering substitute teacher who comes to a school in the aftermath of bullying incidents, which the entire school wants to forget. Murauchi actively dredges up those memories, forcing the students to reassess their own responsibility in the matter they’d rather move past.

This film is worth watching and I don’t want to give anything away. Not because there are any plot twists or clever tricks the directors pulls—there aren’t any—but because watching the story gently unfold is better done without much knowledge of the relationship of each student to the incident in question. I am not a fan of heavy-handed message-driven movies, but I can say I enjoyed this one. And you probably will, too.

Notes:

The director, Nakanishi Kenji, won the special mention SIGNIS Award for this film in his directorial debut.

Do not confuse this film with a TV drama of a similar name, but an entirely different story.

Kaiko Takeshi (開高 健), also known as Kaiko Ken, writes particular stories, propelled by self-loathing, nameless narrators whose intense gazing into their navels results in seeing much of themselves in the mass stored in their lower intestines. They are repulsive individuals, at times, but Kaiko writes them earnestly and honestly. That sincerity keeps the reader from tossing the book in disgust, keeps the reader engaged long enough to appreciate the haunted narrators. In the 1972 novel Darkness in Summer (夏の闇), Kaiko returns to a narrator familiar to the readers of his 1968 masterpiece Into a Black Sun (輝ける闇), both available in very readable translation by Dr. Cecilia Segawa Seigle.

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