I wasn’t planning on writing about Crows Zero (2007) but, thanks to a vicious cold, I’ve recently been on a Japanese drama and film binge and watched it’s sequel Crows Zero 2 (2009). So then I had to go back and watch the first film again which shows just how much I liked it. Absolutely. It was probably one of the best films I saw this year. Based on the manga series Crows by Hiroshi Takahashi, Crows Zero is an original prequel written by Shogo Muto and directed by Takashi Miike and features some of the original characters from the manga but is essentially a different beast. And it’s a beast of a movie, but one with a heart.

Starring Shun Oguri and Takayuki Yamada, Crows Zero opens with the arrival of Genji Takiya, son of a Yakuza boss, at Suzuran Boys High School, one of the toughest and most violent schools in town. Genji has a difficult relationship with his father and to prove his worth, he must take on and unite the warring gangs at Suzuran, something that has never been done before. His ultimate goal is to fight Tamao Serizawa, the monster third year student who is currently the strongest boy in the school.

Like with Gokusen, I don’t know why I like watching dramas and films about delinquents so much. Maybe when I was growing up, they seemed to have a thirst for life and freedom which I never sought in the simple and happy environment I grew up in (not that I’m complaining – what with all the travelling, I had a pretty exciting childhood). Maybe you’re just drawn to something which you’re not. I definitely wasn’t a delinquent, so maybe I just find it exotic.

Takeshi Kitano (or Beat Takeshi as he’s better known in Japan), famous Japanese comedian and film maker (Sonatine, Brother, Zatoichi) once said that he makes films about the yakuza because they are the only people that embody the Japanese spirit (kokoro) which has vanished from modern Japan. I don’t agree with him (because the underworld, when you come down to it, is criminal and feeds off people’s fear and suffering, plus they kill people), but I do understand what it is he is trying to say. These people (in the fictional world) live whole heartedly and give their all. Every day is life or death for them. There is no mask one wears in public and private. In the same way, when I watch dramas and films about high school delinquents, they tell me about the problems in Japan’s society, and how the young people try to understand and overcome the issues thrust upon them by the adult world. And they do it with all their being, maybe not in the best or politest way, but in an honest way. Like crows, these boys follow their own rules, freely and not bowing to a society that despises and refuses to understand them.

Pondering this issue, I began to wonder why so many Japanese tales are set during adolescence as opposed to the West where people are more focussed on life as an adult. And I realised that it had to do with freedom. In Japan, you are essentially free to follow your dreams and live freely until graduation, only having to follow the rules set down by your parents and school. Upon graduation, you become a shakai-jin, a person of society, and must now live within the rules of society, which are numerous and severe. You join the working masses and most people give up the dreams of their youth. In the West, it is only once you graduate that you can earnestly begin to pursue your dreams. The working life is more flexible and people can shake off the ties of family and school. I’m not saying that there are no societal rules in the West, but that people don’t necessarily feel as shackled. Maybe I’m simplifying this too much, but it’s why I feel that there is always this nostalgic view of school life, this yearning for a simpler time filled with hope and dreams. What they call their seishun jidai.

Anyway, back to Crows Zero, we follow Genji as he tries to beats his foes into submission and gather allies. In the process he is befriended by a low-level yakuza named Ken, a likeable fellow who dropped out of Suzuran many years ago. He shows Genji how to make allies by earning their respect and friendship. However Ken belongs to a rival yakuza family and is ordered to kill Genji. Unable to kill his friend, Ken visits Genji’s father and returns to his own boss to face the consequences.

Genji also meets Ruka, a singer at the dive he frequents, with whom he forms a tenuous friendship. When Ruka is kidnapped by one of Serizawa’s gang, all out war begins, and Genji and Serizawa must battle it out to see who is the strongest.

When I first watched Crows Zero, I was struck by the violence and the amount of fighting in the film. But it melts beautifully into the story of Genji and what he learns about friendship, respect and loyalty. With Crows Zero 2, however, there was a lot more scenes of violence and a little less story.

Crows Zero 2 is set one month after and begins with the release of an ex-Suzuran student from juvie. Upon his return to town, he is chased by a gang from Housen High School, a rival school whose leader he had stabbed and killed and for which he did time. He flees straight into Serizawa and his boys, and when Genji turns up, he inadvertently breaks the truce between the two schools culminating in a dramatic fight to avenge the murder of the Housen leader. In the meantime, Genji’s father is gunned down and Genji’s world slowly falls apart as he tries to deal with his complex feelings for his father and the heavy burden of being the leader of his group and trying to gather support for the fight against Housen. For someone who has always fought alone, Genji must learn to trust the people around him and work as a team.

It’s still good, but not as good as its prequel. The best thing about these two films is Shun Oguri who plays Genji and Takayuki Yamada who plays Serizawa. They outshine everybody and deserve the critical attention they both received for their roles. Oguri won the 17th Japan Movie Critics Awards for Best Actor for Crows Zero and Yamada was nominated for his supporting role for the 50th Blue Ribbon Awards.

Even if violence is not your thing (and it really isn’t mine, although I like a bit of kung fu and kickboxing), if you give Crows Zero a go, you might be pleasantly surprised.

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A Tale Within A Book

24 November, 2009

I found this amazing video by the New Zealand Book Council on BOOKLUST. I don’t normally condone defacing books, but this is just too beautiful. Enjoy!

Film: Sakuran

21 November, 2009

Sakuran

I seem to be on a Japanese drama and film binge. I cannot seem to get enough of the stuff. And it doesn’t help that you can watch so much Japanese TV (from the new to the very nostalgic 80s stuff from my childhood) with a click of your mouse pad. But, I’ve been eyeing Sakuran for a while now since it was first released in 2007. There was a lot of publicity, and although I hadn’t seen any of Tsuchiya Anna’s work at that time, I have since watched Shimotsuma Monogatari (Kamikaze Girls) which I really liked. The costumes, the visuals and the soundtrack (especially the main song by Shiina Ringo) of Sakuran all drew me to the film. Plus I was also watching a lot of Ōoku (or Oh-Oku), a Japanese historical drama series about the great interior of the Shogun’s palace where the women resided and into which only the Shogun could enter. It was riveting stuff with lavish costumes, traps and manipulative women all vying for love and power.

Ooku3

Based on a manga by Anno Moyoko, Sakuran follows the tale of Kiyoha who is sold to Tamagikuya, a brothel in Yoshiwara, the pleasure quarter in Edo (old Tokyo) frequently depicted in the ukiyo-e of some of Japan’s most famous artists such as Utamaro, Hiroshige and Hokusai. Once in, no woman can leave unless they have paid off their debt or their contract bought out by a client. Kiyoha resolves to leave one day when the sakura blossoms in Yoshiwara where there are no cherry trees except for one gnarled stump. She becomes a successful courtesan eventually becoming an oiran, the highest level courtesan in the pleasure quarter. Sakuran is a play on the word oiran (made up of the two kanji for flower and best/first) which substitutes the word for flower with cherry blossom (sakura). So oiran becomes sakuran.

The feel of the film was in keeping with Shimotsuma Monogatari with its technicolour brilliance and a very modern soundtrack courtesy of Shiina Ringo. The directorial debut of photographer Ninagawa Mika, Sakuran is a very pop and slick film, yet it manages to retain the poignancy and bittersweet edge from which you cannot totally escape when telling the tale of an oiran. Kiyoha is such a strong character yet has a vulnerability which keeps you hoping that one day she will find happiness. You want her to succeed even within the harsh and confined world of Yoshiwara.

I loved this film. It was cool and beautiful yet pulsating with energy. It’s a film about longing, and Tsuchiya Anna’s portrayal of Kiyoha is a mixture of charm, coquettishness and sorrow and is wonderful to watch. And did I mention how divine Ando Masanobu is? As well as his killer looks, his character Seiji reminded me a bit of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mr. Thornton. Enough said.

And finally, the difference between an oiran and geisha is explained here.

You can see the trailer for Sakuran here.

Film: Letters from Iwo Jima

16 November, 2009

I stayed up last night to watch Letters from Iwo Jima directed by Clint Eastwood and got to bed about 2ish (aargh, why did they have to put it on so late? I need my eight hours sleep!) But I’m glad I did because the film was amazing. My tv was too far and I was in bed, so I couldn’t really read the subtitles in English, but the Japanese script was understated, powerful and poignant. The film had an all Japanese cast headed by Watanabe Ken and Ninomiya Kazunari (who is band-mates with my other favourite Matsumoto Jun from Gokusen) with some American soldiers appearing towards the end of the film.

Letters from Iwo Jima opens with the discovery of a cache of letters buried in one of the many caves dotting Iwo Jima and follows the Japanese army’s last stand against the American navy. The letters belong to the soldiers left behind to defend the volcanic island, and we find out about the lives and fears of these soldiers, most of them very young, afraid and disillusioned as they try to fight for their emperor and country.

I knew this would be a sad film, as all war films are, but I didn’t expect it to be beautiful. There was a quiet diginity to the main characters in the film, although there have been some criticism regarding the authenticity of some of the viewpoints (and the fact that the most sympathetic characters had visited America prior to the war and therefore had a soft spot for their enemy). A lot of the Japanese fanaticism was toned down, barring a few characters, but what I thought was the strength of this film lay in the human-ness of the characters, especially the young private Saigo played by Ninomiya Kazunari. He wasn’t a blind fanatic, he didn’t want to fight, he hated the dreaded Kempeitai, Japan’s secret police who stripped his family of their livelihood, and just wanted to go back to his wife and child whom he was yet to meet. In fact, he was more like the young men my Japanese grandfather used to speak of when I questioned him about the war for my school project. None of the men he knew went to their deaths with ‘Banzai’ on their lips, but they all cried out for their mothers.

I’ve seen quite a few Japanese war dramas and was impressed that Eastwood tried not to stick too much to the general stereotypes prevalent in the genre. The characters seemed more real to me. In one scene Eastwood shows Saigo receiving his conscription paper and his wife begging for him to be spared, only for some of her patriotic neightbours to state that they too have all lost their men to the war and that she would just have to bear it and do her duty to her country. There is fear, uneasiness and a quiet chaos in Eastwood’s film.

For me, it was enlightening to see a different kind of film emerging. Just as in the West, as the years pass, we can look at the events of WWII with new eyes and discuss what happened in new ways, trying to understand the events without censoring ourselves too much.

Yup, we seem to be having a Japanfest on Channel 4/Film 4 recently. I saw Flags of Our Fathers directed by Clint Eastwood a couple of years ago and thought it was OK, but not great. I generally like Eastwood’s movies such as Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby but Flags of Our Fathers didn’t really do it for me.

However, I was really excited about seeing Letters from Iwo Jima, it’s sister piece, with an almost all Japanese cast led by Ken Watanabe and Kazunari Ninomiya. But, as usual, I didn’t get round to it (movie turnovers are so quick these day) and finally, they are showing it on telly! So Sunday night, I’ll be glued to Channel 4 at 11:35pm watching Letters from Iwo Jima with a box of tissues as I know it’s going to be very sad.

Have you seen it? What did you think?

Shimotsuma Monogatari

Just a quick note for those in the UK, the Japanese film Shimotsuma Monogatari (Kamikaze Girls) will be on Film 4 today at 11:15pm. Watch it if you can!

Shimotsuma Monogatari

I watched this film a few weeks ago and was totally bowled over. It had been on my radar for a number of years now since its release in 2004, but I wasn’t particularly drawn to it as I had no interest in the gothic lolita trend that was sweeping Japan and slowly travelling to the West. But Shimotsuma Monogatari was a bright, funny and poignant film about friendship, fitting in and chasing your dreams.

The style of the film is similar to that of director Tetsuya Nakashima’s subsequent film Kiraware Matsuko no Isshou (Memories of Matsuko) which I saw a few years ago, a technicolour pop extravaganza that seems to be at odds with its weighty themes but works brilliantly.

The protagonists Momoko and Ichigo, played by two of Japan’s most talked about actresses Kyoko Fukada and Anna Tsuchiya, are both charmingly contrary and you can’t help but want them to succeed. There are a lot of comic moments in the film, especially in the beginning when we are a given a technicolour kaleidoscope of Momoko’s background and upbringing, especially her petit yakuza father’s dodgy business: flogging pirate brand goods which became a surprise cult hit.

After getting caught and threatened with legal action, Momoko and her father make a quick getaway to live with her grandmother in a sleepy town called Shimotsuma, where the locals all shop for clothes at Jusco, Japan’s Wal-Mart. Momoko, who spends all her time alone, has one passion, and that is for the lolita fashion brand Baby, The Stars Shine Bright. It isn’t cheap to go all the way to Tokyo to shop for clothes and Momoko soon needs to look for ways to fund her lolita fashion lifestyle, and she does so by selling her father’s long-forgotten knock-offs. And that is how she meets Ichigo, a member of the local ladies motorbike gang, Ponytails. The two strike an unlikely friendship and the film follows their transformation as they realise what they mean to each other.

Shimotsuma Monogatari is a comic, yet poignant, portrayal of smalltown Japan, slowly vanishing as it is consumed by the ever encroaching urban sprawl. The message I got was that wherever you are, you should follow your dreams and that there is always someone you can bond with even in the most unlikeliest of places. I know it sounds cheesy, but what a great film.