Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Capsule Reviews and Stuff, June 12-23

Whew! It's been a crazy fun two weeks, mostly spent vacationing in the land of the rising sun. That unfortunately leaves less time to watch movies in lieu of sightseeing.

But, being Japan, what are the movies that are being shown over there right now?

Now Showing in Japan

There were a lot of anime adaptations showing in Japan at the time, including an adaptation of cycling anime Yowamushi Pedal. Mad Max was just on its way to theaters when we were there. Three movies in particular piqued my interest:

Two of the three movies are based on bestselling books. The first one, boasting a readership of 1.4 million readers, is Initiation Love, starring perennial favorite Shota Matsuda and AKB48 ace turned actress Atsuko Maeda. I saw this movie promoted heavily everywhere, and based on the trailer it has a bunch of crazy twists near the end.It's probably not your typical love story.

The next movie I'll be talking about is Biri Gal. It is based on the true story of Sayaka, a gyaru who is at the bottom of her class ("Biri" means at the bottom) who finds an inspirational teacher in Mr. Tsubota (Atsushi Ito) and aims to pass the entrance exams to Keio University, renowned for being one of the hardest universities to get into in Japan. I saw a feature on this real life story during a late night program, featuring the real life Sayaka and her mother and comparing her real life to the movie. It's one of those feel good inspirational movies you tend to see in Eiga Sai. (Probably next year. Heh.) 

And finally, we have Gokudo Daisensou (Great Yakuza War, also called Yakuza Apocalypse) about Yakuza Vampires. Let me repeat that. Yakuza. Vampires. Based on the trailer this is classic Japanese zaniness all around, which is an instant selling point for me. Hayato Ichihara seems to be cast repeatedly in tough guy roles. I'm still waiting for a return to the sensitive roles he had when he was starting out with All About Lily Chou Chou, but in this particular case, I don't really mind.


Anyway, let's get on to movies I did watch in the past two or so weeks.

 Gashapon Capsule Reviews

A Jurassic Park movie and a Terminator movie in cinemas!? What decade is this?

The first Jurassic Park movie was a wondrous experience for myself and many other moviegoers in the nineties. It showed us the magic of CGI on an epic scale for the first time, it was an engaging story on the dangers of man playing god, and it had dinosaurs. The next two movies were just so so, and were ultimately forgettable.

More than 20 years later, the Jurassic Park franchise undergoes a soft reboot with Jurassic World, a sequel to the first film. While man's hubris in the first film was contained thanks to laser guided karma, this film has mankind overcoming the technical limitations of making a dinosaur theme park. This time, however, we one up ourselves by trying to make a horrible dinosaur hybrid that predictably breaks loose and wreaks havoc on our protagonists.

Man vs. Nature comes into full swing here, but in a way the film also criticizes our overly materialistic spirit of always wanting more. In a related way, the film self-reflects on the state of the blockbuster film as we know it: in the years in between the first Jurassic Park and this one, we have escalated our endless hunger for always wanting more exciting films, more loud spectacles, to the point that every new chaotic, cacophonic creation is more numbing than inspiring. The Michael Bay manufactured products and the nostalgia-exploiting flicks of the past decade are the Indominus rexes of the movie world. This movie may well be one of those films.

And thus, while it is an entertainingly worthwhile popcorn flick, there really is nothing new on the plate as far as this movie is concerned. The sense of wonder in the original film feels muted here, and while the references to Jurassic Park are appreciated, there's a feeling of playing things safe in this one.

(Also, I am a bit miffed at the fact that the dinosaurs do not reflect current scientific knowledge on what dinosaurs actually look like i.e. with feathers, which makes this a step backward in the whole  popularizing science angle.)

I'm not the biggest fan of Doraemon, but I'm well aware of its impact throughout Asia. I've seen a number of episodes and I love the comedy. For Stand by Me Doraemon, the latest in a line of the franchise's cinematic features, the series makes a ballsy move to 3D CGI. While the Japanese are known as masters of 2D animation, their reputation in 3D CGI is not as impressive, with only a handful of titles matching the quality of animation of their western neighbors.

Surprisingly, Stand By Me Doraemon manages to look really good as a 3D film, and as a film in itself, it's an affecting and touching emotional roller coaster ride that is guaranteed to get a laugh and bring a tear to one's eye at the same time.

The film consolidates and condenses several story arcs from the manga/anime to create a self contained story that anyone can appreciate even though he or she has seen little to none of the original manga or anime, starting from how Doraemon and Nobita met to various adventures. This movie emphasizes the friendship between the two characters and how they influenced each other over their many hijinks together.

The CGI is very well made, mixed with miniature animation making the whole thing feel even more realistic at times. It's a marvel seeing this kind of animation compared to animation produced ten years ago that looked really rudimentary - Japan's CGI animation techniques have evolved.

The film is quite serious at times, and I was surprised to see myself tearing up at some points in the film. I'm guessing the effect is enhanced if you're a fan of the film. The movie was dubbed in English for local release and the voice cast sounds fine compared to the original Japanese dub.

I want to see this film be appreciated more than it already is. It's one of the best movies to come out this week, whether you're a fan of the franchise or not.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Take Me Out to Akiba

Picture taken by me. Yes I am a cartoon blimp flying in the sky.

Tokyo's Akihabara district (often shortened to Akiba) is a haven of electronic goods, manga and anime merchandise.Whenever I go to Japan I make it a point to drop by. The experience is almost a pilgrimage of sorts for me. At the very least, it is a trip I look forward to every time I go back to Japan.

Today I'll be talking about media set in and referring to the fabled district. For once, I won't be completely talking about movies as I'll try including TV shows and other types of media.

When one mentions Akiba, the place is nearly synonymous to otaku and otaku culture; surprisingly, although there are anime that feature otaku and otaku culture such as Otaku no Video and Genshiken, very few take place primarily in the district itself. There is the rather forgettable Cyber Team in Akihabara which is not really worth talking about. The rest have short scenes in Akiba here and there, such as this season's Denpa Kyoushi, which is best described as GTO with an otaku teacher.

Tokusatsu, has one up on the anime genre, as Toei has made an (albeit unofficial) installment of their Super Sentai series centered on Akiba. Unofficial Sentai Akibaranger is a series parodying the Tokusatsu genre and many of its tropes. Other than that, the series focuses on that rather than the setting, mostly being a different kind of love letter to the Super Sentai series as compared to Gokaiger, which aired close to Akibaranger's first season.

Man.. this is off to a good start. I am being sarcaaaaaaaastic.

Anyway, thank the great bird for video games, because they released something that I can legitimately talk about!

Akiba's Trip: Undead and Undressed is a game released for the PS3, the PS Vita and the PS4. It's a sequel to a (AFAIK, Japan-only) PSP game called Akiba's Trip. From the guys who made Way of the Samurai, one of my favorite games of all time, Akiba's Trip (get it?) is a game where you run around Akihabara and strip people of their clothes. That's right. There's a reason for all the indiscriminate stripping, as most of the people you will be stripping are vampires, and removing their clothes will expose them to more sunlight, allowing them to burn under the sun.

The game is structured in the same New Game + play structure where you collect items and complete different story paths every time you go through the game (the game itself can be finished in around ten hours or less). This structure can also be seen in the aforementioned Way of the Samurai, as well as the rather niche PSP game Kenka Bancho, whose game engine is very similar.

What about Akiba, you ask? Akiba's Trip has one of the most accurate depictions of the district in any non-film media, ever. Aside from changes to a few place names (UDX becomes UD+, for example), the layout of the place and the detail is uncanny. Most store facades are as you would see them in Akiba in real life. 

It's decidedly not for everyone, but for fans of the genre it's a treat. I personally enjoyed it both as a fan and in appreciation of the great job they did recreating the setting.

In terms of movie depictions, Akihabara tends to get left by the wayside compared to its more popular and mainstream siblings Shibuya and Shinjuku. That doesn't mean it's completely absent;the district shows up every so often in film featuring otaku and otaku culture. One movie of note is the wildly popular Densha Otoko (Train Man,) which is based on a bunch of posts from the giant image board 2ch. In itself Densha Otoko deserves a whole entry, as it spans a novel, several manga series, and a live action television series in addition to the movie, but we'll leave that story for another day.

Now for something of a somber note. In 2008, a man drove a truck into a crowd in Akihabara, then proceeded to randomly stab a number of people in the vicinity. He was captured, tried and executed, but there were a lot of changes to the way the street opened up on weekends, changes that I felt as far as 2012, when I first visited the district.

There have been two films made about the massacre. One is titled Botchan, which is a loose adaptation and feels more like a black comedy focusing on the perpetrator (little of the film actually takes place in Akiba). The other one, which we will be talking about today, may be the most immersive of all the media we  have talked about today. The movie in question, pictured above, is titled River. The movie is about a woman (Misako Renbutsu) who lost a loved one during the Akihabara incident. She returns to the district and talks to a number of people on how they managed to recover (or not) after the incident.

River was directed by Ryuichi Hiroki, who is probably best known for directing the 2003 adaptation Vibrator. River is a somber, silent contemplation on the effects of tragedy and the process of moving on. By some stroke of fate, one of Japan's most tragic disasters happened during the shooting of this film: the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that claimed thousands of lives. As such, scenes from the devastation, probably only weeks from the actual event, were inserted in the film, in one long take that mirrors the beginning of the film. I can only wonder what Japanese audiences thought when they first saw the scope of the devastation on a personal level.

I've seen the Japanese use film and media to help their collective psyche recover from tragedy - I often think of films like Godzilla and manga like Barefoot Gen as a response to the bombs dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the subsequent atomic era. As for what happened in 2011, the spate of films coming out afterwards perhaps reflects a need for the collective consciousness to experience the pain as a means of reaching past it.

On to something else then. Until next time.