Sunday, July 24, 2011

Akunin (Japan 2010)

Well it' about time! I've been wanting to see Akunin (悪人) ever since I saw previews for it last September. Fast forward almost a year later and I've finally seen it. Was it worth the wait? Absolutely. Sometimes the high expectations we create get met.

Yuichi (Satoshi Tsumabuki) is a quiet, socially-awkward loner who lives in a small, rural village in Nagasaki working construction. He stays with his grandmother, Fusae (Kirin Kiki), and grandfather, Katsuji (Hisashi Igawa), and helps to take care of things around the house, as well as helping others in the neighborhood. His grandfather is in poor health so Yuichi often has to help bathe him and take him to and from the hospital on a regular basis. With a basically non-existent social life, he started emailing women on an online dating site. Yuichi corresponds with a young woman, Yoshino Ishibashi (Hikari Mitsushima), who leads a bit of a double-life by working in insurance during the day and getting paid for sex with Yuichi at random times. Yoshino's father, Yoshio Ishibashi (Akira Emoto), a barber living in a rural town in Fukuoka with his wife Satoko (Yoshiko Miyazaki), has no idea that his little girl is spending her free time doing such very adult things. While Yoshino has a sexual relationship with Yuichi, she's actually infatuated with spoiled, rich-kid Keigo Masuo (Masaki Okada), who lives a care-free life as a playboy, getting pretty much anything he wants. Masuo really has no interest in Yoshino but humors her by responding to her emails with the intention of just getting in her pants. On a night when Yoshino plans to meet with Yuichi, she runs into Masuo while Yuichi is within eyesight. She ditches Yuichi and gets in the car with Masuo which enrages our blonde-haired protagonist, prompting him to follow the two as they drive off. However, after Yuichi begins to tail the two of them, we fade to black and settle in on the next morning with Yuichi getting ready for work. Wait...what happened last night!? Ah, we'll we find out soon enough as Yuichi makes his way to work, which happens to pass by the same area Masuo and Yoshino were driving by last night but now it looks like a crime scene. What happened here? Well, we soon see Yoshino's dead body being pulled up the embankment on the side of the road by the authorities. Again I ask, what happened last night!?

Later on, Yuichi gets an email from Mitsuyo Magome (Eri Fukatsu), another member from the dating site, and decides to meet with her. After an initial misunderstanding with their intentions in regards to a relationship, the two find themselves to be quite a match. At least they seem to think so. Mitsuyo, while nowhere near as socially awkward as Yuichi, is just as desperately lonely as he is, fueled even more so by seeing her older sister in a healthy relationship. The two really seem to be hitting it off, but all is not well as the police have started asking grandma Fusae about Yuichi and his relationship with the deceased Yoshino. Turns out Masuo claims he didn't kill Yoshino but simply kicked her out of his car by the side of the road. What exactly did Yuichi did that night? The grieving Yoshio and his wife grow more emotionally unstable with the news that the police might not have the right guy after all. Yuichi panics at the news that the police are snooping around his home and decides to leave town, asking Mitsuyo to go with him. He doesn't have a plan, he knows he doesn't want to go home, and he finally musters the courage to make a confession to Mitsuyo. She doesn't seem to care about what he tells her, and only knows that she doesn't want to leave his side.

I really battled with how much of Akunin I wanted to give away. I didn't want to come right out and say so and so murdered Yoshino, so I'm not going to and I'm certainly not going to tell you the circumstances of her death. These are all things you should experience as a viewer with no real prior knowledge. The film does a great job at building suspense and maintaining a real air of mystery while the lives of all it's characters continue to move along. Speaking of which, there are an abundance of characters in Akunin and at first I wondered if the film would lose it's focus while shifting to so many different perspectives. Thankfully, when it does change perspective and focuses on a different character, it doesn't feel like the pace of the movie suffers and, as it should, still feels geared around the central storyline. I really felt that each character was interesting in their own right and I genuinely wanted to see how their side of things played out. Akunin won a small truckload of acclaim, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Satoshi Tsumabuki) and Best Actress (Eri Fukatsu), at numerous awards shows and after seeing the movie, that makes perfect sense to me. While everyone in the film put forward incredibly strong performances, Satoshi and Eri, if I may be so bold, acted their asses off. The situation they're placed in is a tale as old as Romeo and Juliet, a forbidden love that tries it's hardest to defy the odds and those opposed. I could relate to the aspect of wanting something so bad, knowing it's near impossible and yet still trying even though you know it may be all for naught. Another theme that's accurately shown in Akunin is that sometimes our desires make us selfish and we end up hurting those that care for us, forcing their lives to change in the process.

The minute Akunin starts, you get the feeling that things aren't going to end well. However, you hang in there because of a cast providing incredibly strong performances, a story that keeps you guessing and a doomed romance that you can't help but wish had another chance under different circumstances. I'd be hard-pressed to find something negative to say about Akunin and have it be anything buy nitpicking. Truly a powerful film. (Lee)

Grade: A

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Highschool of the Dead (Anime 2010)

Zombies, guns, blood, gore, T&A, oh my! How can you go wrong with that winning combination? Well, let me tell can go wrong, and H.O.T.D. (学園黙示録) is proof of that. Don't get me wrong, the series oozes with promise and possibility, and there are some great moments, but that just makes it's glaring flaws all the more frustrating.

Takashi Komuro is just a loner high-school student that is lost in thought, pondering life, love, and how unfair both can be. His "me" time is interrupted by his old childhood friend, the pink-haired Saya Takagi, who seems to be constantly on Komuro's case about being stupid, a day-dreamer and so on. Both students are interrupted by a rattling coming from the front gate of the school. When some faculty members make their way over to the gate, they realize something is very wrong with the stranger trying to make his way in. The man at the gate bites one of the teachers and for all intents and purposes, kills him. After a few seconds though, the recently deceased begins to move again and gets up with a moan in his voice and a lifeless look on his face. What we have here is certainly no longer human. That's right folks, the zombie invasion has begun. Komuro and Takagi take no time in realizing that all is not right at the front gate and rightfully decide to kick things into high gear. Komuro's first stop is in getting his classmate and friend, Rei Miyamoto, and her boyfriend (who happens to be Komuro's best friend) Hisashi. Meanwhile, Takagi runs into the fat, nerdy, and somewhat awkward Kohta Hirano, and explains that there may be a situation at the school and that they need to prepare themselves. Luckily, everyone here seems to be familiar with the concept of zombies so they make sure to grab whatever they can to use as weapons. Komuro, Rei, and Hisashi decide to make their way to the rooftop, thinking that help will come for them if they barricade themselves away. Fighting their way to the top, Hisashi is bitten and things take a turn for the dramatic. Once securely barricaded away, Hisashi begins to turn into one of them and Komuro is forced to take his best friend's life. Rei is overcome with emotion in having to witness her boyfriend's death, but she and Komuro realize that they need to stick together in order to survive. As zombies continue to swarm the rooftop, the two realize that being stuck on the roof might not be such a good idea after all and begin making their way out of the school. They run into Takagi and Hirano on the way, and just before they leave they also meet Saeko Busujima, a kendo expert, and the school's giant-breasted, mostly aloof nurse, Shizuka Marikawa. Ah, the band is together and ready to rock. Everyone brings something unique to the group with Komuro's leadership skills, Rei's defensive skills (taught to her by her policeman father), Hirano's expert aim with firearms, Takagi's genius, Busujima's kendo skills, and Marikawa's ability to care for the injured. Wow, it's like an RPG game! The group decide that the best plan of action is to get the heck out of the school and stick together in checking on each others families.

Time to smash some zombie brains!
So what lies in wait for our band of unlikely heroes? Well, mostly a world in turmoil and countless walking undead. Turns out this is a worldwide pandemic and nations across the globe are in panic mode, unsure of what to do. Chaos is breaking out in the streets and no one is safe. The group, having picked up some other students and a teacher, Koichi Shido, who is hated by Rei, make their way to the city on a school bus. Shido tries to convert everyone into making him the boss, and it gets to the point where Rei can't stand to be on the bus with him anymore. Rei leaves and Komuro goes with her, thus separating the group but they all (minus Shido and his brainwashed followers) agree to meet at the police station the next day. Being alone gives Rei and Komuro time to bond and understand each other better, while Takagi and the others eventually separate themselves from Shido as well. Shizuka tells the group that they can rest up at her friends apartment close by and luckily, Rei and Komuro stumble upon the group just in time. Now that everyone is back together again, it's business as usual as they all continue to talk and bond, forming friendships and slaying zombies together. Their goal remains the same, to try and find family alive and well (wait till you get a load of Takagi's parents), and they even take in a little girl, Alice Maresato, whose family was killed, and an annoying little dog name Zeke. Sure, you'll find out why Rei hates Shido so much, and just who is Mirakawa's friend with the well-stocked apartment, so fear not.

Pink-haired girls and shotguns...awesome.
I'm obviously not going to tell you every little thing that happens in H.O.T.D., because I'm a spoiler-free advocate, but it's safe to say at this point that you get the gist. A group of survivors, mostly high school kids, are just trying to stay alive in a world gone to hell. This type of zombie-apocalypse scenario is generally right up my alley, and there are certainly a lot of things in H.O.T.D. that I dig. For one, there's no shortage of action and with that action comes plenty of blood and gore. There's also a lot of half naked (and sometimes fully naked) girls and women in this series, with breasts and crotch-shots flying across the screen in almost every scene. I feel like this anime is paying homage to those low-budget zombie movies of yesteryear, what with the over-the-top action sequences, and the out-of-nowhere panty shots and breast-bouncing. I mean hell, throw in the rock/metal guitar riffs for good measure and you basically have all the ingredients for cliche zombie entertainment. I say this because H.O.T.D. both takes itself seriously at times and at other times it's quite comical, but intentionally so. It's an interesting blend to say the least. There are 12 episodes here, and that's really not that many episodes when you consider all the scenarios you could put these characters in. Oh the possibilities! However, that's where things go horribly wrong and totally piss me off. For one, it takes three of those precious twelve episodes for the group to get out of the school. The fourth episode is half flashbacks from the first three episodes, and the sixth episode is a pointless, hentai-esque, filler episode in which nothing of real significance happens except for nudity...which is kinda awesome, but let's not get sidetracked. What is going on here!? Why are we squandering such potential on nothing!? I mean, I like looking at half naked animated women with big breasts as much as the next guy...I guess, but for 20+ minutes while the crap is hitting the fan just outside your door? Anyway, consider all the time wasting a low point for me in this series and a major reason why I didn't like it more. I should point out the art and animation are both quite good, although I'm not a fan of mixing the CG with traditional 2D art. Thankfully those moments are more in the minority. I also want to say that the character design is decent enough, although Rei's hair looks strange to me, like she has two alien antennas coming out of her head and Mirakawa's boobs are...well, ridiculous. The characters themselves though are all interesting enough with Busujima being my personal favorite, mostly because she seemed to have the most depth to her. Although I would've tossed that little dog Zeke to the first group of zombies I saw...maybe even Alice too.

H.O.T.D. overall is a fun series and any hardcore anime fan will love it, and more than likely any hardcore anime fan has already seen it and probably did love it. I'm just a casual anime viewer however, and I had a good time with the series for the most part, but I'll never forgive it for all it's filler and squandered potential. It came so close to hitting the mark across the board. I hope they have a second season and if they do, I'll be waiting with my always fine-toothed comb. (Lee)

Grade: B

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Perfect Blue (Japan 1997)

It's certainly not the first anime film to do so, but Perfect Blue (パーフェクトブル) is a perfect (pun intended?) example of how animation can convey very real subject matter in an effective way. It's also a pretty good example of not all cartoons being suitable for children. Duh.

Mima (Junko Iwao) is a member of the J-pop trio CHAM! and enjoys a certain amount of success from being arguably the most popular of the group. However, fame and success isn't always as satisfying and fulfilling as it appears to be for us outsiders, and such is the case for Mima. What she really wants to do is to quit singing in an idol group and be taken seriously as an actress. We've all seen that happen with plenty of stars, but it turns out things aren't that easy and making that transition proves to be quite the challenge for Mima and her manager Rumi (Rica Matsumoto). Nevertheless, Rumi gets Mima a small part on a crime-drama called, "Double Bind", and through her perseverance and general likability, she eventually secures herself a larger role. So while things are starting to look good on Mima's end, not everyone is happy about her leaving CHAM! She receives a fax labeling her a traitor and on occasion we see a rather homely looking individual who appears to be stalking Mima. This dude is everywhere she is! The biggest issue coming from those labeling her as a traitor seems to the be the fact that Mima's taken on a complete image overhaul. Her role in, "Double Bind", puts her in provocative situations and I suppose they're angry that her innocence is lost. Listen, I'm trying to think like one of these lunatics okay? Anyway, Mima stumbles across a website (which, keep in mind, was the early days of the internet), called, "Mima's Room", and it eerily details her day-to-day activities in journal format. The only problem, and this is a biggie, is that Mima's not doing the writing. Yeah, creepy stalker alert! As you can imagine, Mima's anxiety and general paranoia of obsessive fans escalates ten-fold and she's constantly looking over her shoulder when she steps outside. She tries her best to keep up with her work responsibilities, which include seductive photo-shoots and questionable acting scenes. The next thing you know, the people associated with tarnishing Mima's image start turning up dead. This just puts Mima in a more vulnerable position, mentally and emotionally and pretty soon she finds herself not being able to differentiate between reality and fantasy. The girl is losing her mind...rightfully so. Is there anyone left that Mima can trust? Who else will turn up dead? Can she find away to snap out of her spiral of madness before it's too late!?

If you couldn't tell by now, Perfect Blue, from renowned anime director Satoshi Kon (may he R.I.P.) is a straight-up psychological thriller that doesn't pull any punches with how it presents it's content. Some have said it's "graphic" at times, I would simply tell those people to stop being sissies. Sure there are some edgy scenes best meant for the 17 and over crowd, but it's nothing you probably haven't seen before in an R-rated movie. The animation itself is top-notch in my opinion. I'm a big fan of Satoshi Kon's style and if I'd seen this movie back when it was released in 1997, it probably would've made my head explode. I mean that in a good way. This movie is all about Mima for the most part and for better or worse the film has a bit of tunnel vision. Meaning that she is the focal point and the movie doesn't really branch out from her. For me, she's not a particularly engaging character, but thankfully the circumstances around her are. Kon and company also do a good job at creating a frightening world of paranoia and a feeling of isolation and just how unsettling that can be. However, when Mima starts to lose her mind, things don't only get a bit muddled for her, but they did for me as well. It's bit difficult trying to follow exactly what's happening, what's real and what's not. If you don't pay attention, you could easily get lost. To their credit though, this confusion doesn't go on for too long before things get clear again. While I didn't find anything to be particularly surprising in terms of story-telling (including the ending), I did find the revelations, and the way in which things played out, satisfying.

Perfect Blue might not seem like anything revolutionary these days, but I imagine that for it's time it was pretty extreme. Fourteen years later I'd have to say that it holds up quite well as a complete package. It's dark, edgy, not without it's flaws, but most importantly it's fairly well-executed. Check this one out, but I wouldn't recommend it for family movie night. (Lee)

Grade: B

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

SCHOOL!! (J-Drama 2011)

Oh for the love of...well, I mean come on! How many school dramas am I gonna come across? Don't answer that. Japan is in love with the school-based drama and this time they didn't pull any punches and just called the show SCHOOL!! (スクール!!). As you can probably assume, this is very familiar territory but it ever-so-slightly manages not to fall into the been-there-done-that pile largely due to strong performances. Still, this drama won't set the world on fire.

Naruse Seiichiro (Eguchi Yosuke), is a man just brimming with personality and beloved by his co-workers in the underground tunnel construction business. He knows how to run a crew and he's great at what he does. Professionally speaking, things seem to be as they should until he and his crew get the news that the company has gone bankrupt. Naruse is now without a job but luckily his unemployment is short-lived as he is soon approached by a friendly face from his past. Takeichi Mikihiro (Kishibe Ittoku), used to be Naruse's teacher in his elementary school days and asks Narsue to take over as principal at his old stomping grounds, Shingu elementary. Having no prior experience in being a principal or working at a school, Naruse takes the position in order to fulfill an old promise to Mikihiro and hey, let's face it, the man needed a job. He takes up room and board at Mikihiro's house, alongside Miki's two daughters, Kanoko (Kitano Kii), a teacher-in-training at Shingu elementary, and Yuriko (Horiuchi Keiko), who's currently separated from her husband. The teachers at Shingu are a bit hesitant to take Naruse seriously as the new man in charge and reluctantly find themselves following his orders. Naruse may not have any experience in this line of work, but he certainly brought his passion and free-thinking to an otherwise sterile, by-the-numbers environment. Kirihara sensei (Nishijima Hidetoshi), is one teacher in particular who seems completely at odds with Naruse's manner of running things. He basically disagrees with everything Naruse deems right and assures the new principal that his methods will be his downfall. What a delightful man.

Sure it's a pain having to deal with subordinates who don't respect or understand you, but the real problem here is the 5th grade class. To say this class was troubled with some nasty, unruly child-demons would be an understatement. Of course they're not all horrible, after all, there have to be one or two that are bullied. That's where Hara Shoko (Arakawa Chika), and her two cohorts come in. She makes sure that there is always one student in class at a time that is referred to as "kuki" (air), meaning that whoever is air doesn't exist. They aren't seen and always ignored. Oi, kids can be so cruel. Shoko is a total nightmare, but she isn't the only source of trouble in this class. Naruse, with Kanoko almost always by his side, have to tackle a number issues; bullying, both amongst students and towards Ohashi sensei (Tsukamoto Takashi), a boy who doesn't eat lunch with the other kids because he can't afford to, a girl that tries her best to be an ideal student but suffers on the inside due to family issues, and most importantly, the future of Shingu elementary due to budget cuts. All of this while having to manage the personalities of the teachers working under him, parents who don't understand him, a school board who also question his decisions and his own inner demons that continue to haunt him. Talk about having a lot on your plate.

Don't even look at disgust me. (Naruse to Ohashi)

SCHOOL!! has to be one of the more frustrating dramas I've watched in recent memory. Not because it was terrible per se, but because of the obstacles Naruse's character had to overcome to get things done. Yeah, I know there are cultural differences going on here that my American butt isn't used to having to deal with, but I admit that and there were times in this series where I wanted to pull my hair out. The bureaucracy that they portray in SCHOOL!! (and other J-dramas) can be infuriating for those unfamiliar with it and some of my Japanese friends have told me it's only slightly exaggerated. So while it may drive you insane, I guess it helps in creating more drama right? Anyway, let's not get too heavy with a show review. Make no mistake, Eguchi Yosuke, as the passionate protagonist, is the real star of this show. He plays principal Naruse with a warmness that makes you really believe in his fatherly sensibilities. He's also cool in the sense that you wish you had a principal like that when you were in grade school. He deals with a lot of crap with the teachers and students, but there's also a small side-story about his own family that is quite touching when fully revealed. Naruse's mentor, Miki-chan (as he prefers to be called), is also a great character that Kishibe Ittoku portrays in a way that makes him fun to watch and listen to. On the other hand, I found Ohashi to be an irritating character because he was so weak and pathetic to the point where you almost stopped feeling sorry for him. I understood what they were trying to do with him, but he just came across as, well...pathetic. Kirihara was a character that served to stand as the complete opposite of Naruse, the yin and and yang situation, but he was so one-note and robotic that he just annoyed the heck out of me. By the time they told me what his deal was, to make him so cold, I didn't really care. Too-little too-late, and it didn't really excuse his behavior. Kitano Kii was her bubbly and charming self as Kanako. A bit annoying and nagging at times, but more cute about it than bothersome. I should also point out that while I absolutely couldn't stand the 5th grade girl, Hara Shoko, I'm willing to say kudos to young Arakawa Chika for creating a character so vile, that a grown man like me wanted bad things to happen to her. The sign of a true villain. She did her job well.

I can't really say that SCHOOL!! was a great drama, mostly because that horse has turned into a fine mulch at this point due to the beating. However, there are some character highlights and some performances that are fun to watch. There's also a lot of frustration as well but it's as if the creators knew this and made it only nine episodes long. If you haven't gotten your fill with school dramas, then I suppose you can check this one out. Otherwise, just leave well enough alone. (Lee)

Grade: C