Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Bright Side of Life

Anyone who keeps up with Asian film is probably well aware that the New York Asian Film Festival is raging at full blast right now, giving the residents of that cursed coast their fill of all the best Asian flicks the rest of us will probably catch next year (if we're lucky). Well, with a few exceptions. Tokyo Gore Police played at a special closing night at San Francisco's very own Another Hole in the Head festival, along with Machine Girl. And Sion Sono's Exte was there, though that's hitting DVD in July anyway. And we got Dai-Nipponjin at the SFIFF I suppose. Bah! Anyway! The point is that a great way to keep up on future cult favorites, or even just regular favorites, is to be aware of what's going on in NY right now. Or, since so many great movies from years past have yet to reach our shores, know what went on in NY last year, or the year before.

For instance, know what won the audience award at last year's NYAFF? I'll give you a hint: you're looking at its poster right now. Yup, Tetsuya Nakashima's tragic fairy tale, Memories of Matsuko. You may remember Nakashima from such previous favorites as Kamikaze Girls, and... well, that's probably all you know him from at this point. That's the only one of his films that's really "made it" over here so far (not that he's done too much more than that, cinematically speaking). Anyway, let's take a look at Memories of Matsuko. At the very least, maybe we can get to the bottom of what the hell that wonderfully vague phrase "tragic fairy tale" even means.

Kamikaze Girls... cute!

The film kicks off with Sho, a typical young failed musician type, getting dumped by his girlfriend. Apparently life with him is "a bore," and she wants out. Not one to be beaten down, the not-quite-heartbroken Sho hits Tokyo with a bottle in hand and a furious war cry familiar to all love-scorned young men: "SEX!"

Cut to him passed out in his tiny apartment, surrounded by porn videos, being shaken awake by his father, whom he hasn't seen in two years. He comes bearing the ashes of his estranged sister, Sho's aunt, Matsuko Kawajiri. Apparently she was recently murdered, and Sho's father needs him to clean out her apartment, and take care of a few local details in Tokyo. With an obvious disapproving glance his father takes off, leaving Sho to his work. It's a touching relationship, much like every other father/child "bond" throughout the movie. One has to wonder what Nakashima's relationship with his dad was like...

So Sho heads to Matsuko's place. What he finds there, aside from the endless piles of trash and boy band posters, is a note scrawled on the wall that reads "sorry for being born," apparently written by Matsuko before her death. He also finds a strange picture of her making an oddly hilarious face. His curiosity kicks in, and he goes about trying to discover what the hell this aunt of his was all about. The film unfolds from there in a series of flashbacks, each furthering Matsuko's story a bit more. Sho encounters various friends and acquaintances from Matsuko's past, and with each meeting her life becomes a little clearer. She begins as nothing more than a name attached to a "meaningless" life, and evolves into a complete human being. And naturally, Sho feels the weight of her death grow with every new detail he uncovers. The viewer, of course, is right there with him. As Matsuko's story expands, our emotional connections deepen as well, and the tragedy of her death really starts to pack a whallop.

This makes a lot of sense to me.

Despite how cheesy this all sounds, it's actually surprisingly powerful. Critics have compared Matsuko with the work of Naruse or Mizoguchi, and with good reason. Those familiar with Kamikaze Girls may be surprised to know that this is actually a very serious melodrama... sort of. I mean, if that was all there was to it, it probably wouldn't be worth your time. I certainly wouldn't have gone too far out of my way for it. What makes Matsuko really interesting is what Nakashima does with such a (typically) tragic story. Here's where those familiar with Kamikaze Girls probably won't be surprised. The treatment of these issues is so lighthearted, so happy-go-lucky, that it's almost unbelievable. As we witness Matsuko's life go steadily downhill--through prostitution, abusive boyfriends, murder, loneliness, and more--things couldn't possibly seem more upbeat. Everything is incredibly fantastic, with intensely bright colors and surreal set designs. There's also a healthy dose of animation, with cartoon birds soaring around Matsuko's head as she descends into her own personal hell. And I haven't even mentioned the copious musical numbers. Given this strange visual and tonal style, I feel pretty safe in saying that Nakashima is a fan of Jean-Pierre Jeunet. But then, so am I.

Remember in Kamikaze Girls when Momoko suddenly flies into the air with a sprinkling of fairy dust? Just think of that, but mix it with Matsuko's boyfriend beating the shit out of her. Or Matsuko stabbing her pimp to death, covered with a mist of blood. Or her being disowned by her family after attacking and nearly killing her sickly little sister. And so on. When I say "melodrama," I mean it. It's just the oddest damn thing.

There's been talk in various reviews about this being a film that supports the the Japanese patriarchy, and shows a woman that she needs to be "kept in her place." Some see Matsuko's struggle to find a man, and therefore happiness, as a lesson to other women. "You see what happens when you don't have a husband to keep you in line? Insanity, prostitution, prison, death. Get back in the kitchen." Frankly, I think that's bullshit. I can't possibly believe that Nakashima isn't dealing with the thickest possible layer of irony. Just look at the damn movie! How can you have a woman, beaten to a pulp, on the run from the yakuza that have nearly killed her boyfriend, limping down a road that would fit effortlessly into a PBS children's show, complete with cartoon birds and a face in the moon? I'll tell you how: IRONY. Oh, sweet irony. Nakashima is clearly showing us that life is no fairy tale. It's fucked up, it sucks, it's brutal. It never goes as planned. You start as a fairy princess and end up a hideously obese bag-lady, beaten to death by the side of a river. Get back in the kitchen indeed.

If anything, the film clearly shows why it's a terrible idea for a woman to spend her life struggling to find a man. Instead of actually living, Matsuko spends her entire existence pining after any guy that gives her the slightest amount of attention. This lack of independence is her downfall, and is not in any way celebrated by the film. Well, except for in the various musical numbers, which I've already established are just lousy with irony. They're practically slick with the stuff. So again, I'm afraid I've got to call bullshit on those who take these things at face value. It's like the end of Life of Brian: a group of people crucified, singing "always look on the bright side of life." So it's a happy ending, right? I mean... they're singing!

So that's Memories of Matsuko. It's good, it's strange, it's worth tracking down. Not on DVD in the US yet, no surprise there. But it's around if you know where to look. If Kamikaze Girls is any indication, it'll be out here eventually. And this year's NYAFF promises plenty more gems to watch out for. Strawberry Shortcakes in particular is playing right now, and I can say firsthand it's pretty damn good. Maybe I'll write about that one later. I'd like to watch it again anyway.

Oh, and Nakashima's newest film is coming out later this year (in Japan): Paco and the Magical Picture Book. Having seen the teaser, I can say it definitely looks like a straight-up kids film, but still pretty interesting. Worth keeping an eye on, anyway. Plus, there's a frog prince/knight looking guy in it, who will immediately remind any well-informed person of Frog from Chrono Trigger. Seriously! Get out your SNES if you don't believe me.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Actually, Gang Violence Is Awesome

It's a tough gig being a Takashi Miike fan. One must constantly battle the naysayers (of which there are plenty), and make an effort to somehow keep current with a director who makes movies faster than a normal person can watch them. And it's especially difficult to do from the US, given that most of his films don't come out here for at least a year or two after the fact. And with a handful of new movies every year, it's easy to overlook most of them for the one or two that are getting attention (positive or otherwise). For instance: last year (2007), what was the Miike movie that had everyone talking? Sukiyaki Western Django, of course! No surprise there. It made the rounds at Venice, TIFF, and some others... you'll find no shortage of reviews and discussions about it. I bought the Japanese DVD, and I can say firsthand that it's great. But what about the rest of Miike's 2007 output? What about Like a Dragon, and specifically for this post, what about Crows Zero?

Granted, Crows isn't the kind of movie that will garner any kind of international attention. It's basically a genre pic, though when you're dealing with Miike that means almost nothing. Sukiyaki Western is a genre pic. Gozu is a genre pic. If you've seen either of these movies, you know what a stretch it is to call the former "just" a western, or the latter a plain old yakuza film. So when I say that Crows is a high school gang movie, you can take that for what it's worth (not much). What it definitely is, however, is a commercial film, and one that's aimed straight at the youth of Japan, right down to the teen heart-throb casting. Not exactly the kind of flick to sweep the arthouse circuit, in other words.

I wondered why it was called "Crows" until I saw this shot

The film is a prequel to the Crows manga series (hence: Crows Zero), which is HUGE in Japan. I have a feeling its genesis was exactly the opposite of the kind of twisted alchemy we all assume goes into the conception of a Miike picture. It was likely the brainchild of some marketing a-hole, and it wouldn't surprise me if the only reason they asked Miike to direct was that they knew he could finish it faster/cheaper than anyone else. But that's all speculation. And besides, some of Miike's best work came into being that way.

The setup is a little video game-ish, but it's perfect for a manga series (and by extension, a series of films). Genji, the hardass son of a hardass yakuza boss, transfers to Suzuran High, the toughest school in Japan. His plan? To form an army of followers, and to battle his way through the opposition in order to "conquer" the school. This supposedly impossible feat is the goal of every student in attendance, and the various classes form themselves into ad-hoc armies, with the strongest among them naturally rising to leadership positions.

When Genji arrives, the school is under the thumb of Tamao Serizawa, the one closest to uniting all of Suzuran under his rule. His second in command is Tokiyo, who (naturally) is Genji's childhood friend. Oh, the drama! Given the nature of the plot, character development takes a back seat to the near-endless string of savage gang rumbles, though Miike does manage to scatter little chunks of romance and friendship throughout. With each victory, Genji claws his way a little closer to the inevitable final battle against Serizawa... the battle that every single audience member just knows is going to be bad-fucking-ass.

And it is. Anyone who's seen Dead or Alive knows that Miike never disappoints when it comes to a final showdown.

Which brings up an interesting aspect of the film: it totally glamorizes brutal gang violence, and in the context of a school, no less! Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying this is bad--I think it's hilarious. Of course there are the obligatory little clues here and there that fighting may not solve life's problems, but those are completely swept aside by the glamor and excitement that beating the shit out of your classmates promises to bring. I can't imagine a little kid watching this and not being inspired to kick the hell out of everyone he meets. Miike just makes it look so cool. I was half tempted to start a gang war among SFSU's grad programs, just to see who really runs this school. (Of course I know very well that we cinema studies kids are the top dogs... but it'd be nice to bust some heads and get the recognition we deserve, right!?)

Like any Miike film, Crows is strange, and a little uneven. The overall tone completely threw me off until I started thinking of it in more manga-like terms. The abrupt shifts from over-the-top slapstick to brutal violence to actual emotional intensity are a little strange, and those unfamiliar with manga (or anime) will find themselves scratching their heads during quite a few scenes. (For instance: when the most powerful fighter in the school hilariously crashes a minibike into the side of a van, complete with cartoon sound effects. See also: the human bowling pin scene.)

And yet, also like any Miike film, there are plenty of moments that shine through all the genre schlock, the kind of tidbits that fans like me live for... when Miike lets down his guard and squeezes a little brilliance in with the standard (though delightful) B-movie fare. There's an oddly-shifting ratio of brilliance in Miike films (Gozu being an example of 100% brilliance, I would say), but it's always there if you look for it. Despite his best efforts, Miike continues to create art... and Crows is no exception. I won't go into detail here, mostly because I'd hate to throw out too many spoilers before people in the US can even watch the damn thing.

Now that I think of it, that's one major problem with the movie: it's not out here yet. The Japanese DVD came out in April, but unfortunately it lacks English subtitles. So... shit! Sucks for you guys! At the current rate Crows Zero 2 will be out before the first one hits our humble shores. But if it follows the pattern for Miike sequels, it will likely be ten times the movie the original was, and will share almost no connections whatsoever. So no big loss!

I'd like to close with a quote from Tom Mes' review of Big Bang Love, which I think sums up the Miike experience perfectly, and is just as applicable to Crows as any of his other films:

"Yes, but is it any good? This is a Takashi Miike film. It will make you wonder, curse, marvel, tremble, scratch your head, grow bored, and awaken rudely. Celebrate it."