Friday, March 25, 2005

Big names from Japan: Takeshi Kitano's Dolls, Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Bright Future, and Katsuhiro Otomo's Steamboy

How far behind am I on my reviewing? Between the time I saw two of these movies in the theater and the time I reviewed them, they were out on video. OK, the Brattle only got them a couple weeks before the video release, but wow. All of them are worthwhile, though.

It's interesting to me that Dolls and Bright Future were both advertised by the Brattle as playing against type. I haven't seen enough of either Kitano's or Kurosawa's work to determine whether or not that's really true, but Dolls did remind me quite a bit of Fireworks (only better), and Bright Future did strike me as a horror movie of a sort. As for Otomo, well, he's spent so much time making this movie (eight years!), that there haven't really been a lot of chances for him to establish a type; you sort of have to give him credit for Metropolis in order to put his career in perspective.

I really wish Otomo would do some more, though. I just picked Dark Horse's translation of Metropolis up last week - Newbury Comics had it on their half-off shelf, which was good since I apparently lost my copy on a bus last year before reading it and not paying full-price again was nice. I picked it up along with the first volume of Doll, another spiffy sci-fi manga, and I must say it felt odd actually buying comics at Newbury Comics. But, anyway, Metropolis was an early work of Osamu Tezuka's, and what Otomo did in his screenplay was astonishing; he took a rough, kid-oriented story and made it smart, adding and recasting characters while still keeping the same basic outline. Steamboy is much the same, although it appears to have been created directly for the screen.

Anyway, Steamboy was originally scheduled to play Boston for one week, but has been held over. It's playing dubbed before nine PM, and subtitled after, with the subtitled version twenty minutes longer. I might decide to check out the dubbed version, just to see if it's a little tighter and if not having ones attention drawn to the bottom of the screen makes the gob-smackingly gorgeous visuals even better.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 2 March 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Recent Raves)

I admit - I've kind of avoided Takeshi Kitano until last year. Hana-bi had bored me to tears when I saw it at the only boutique theater in Portland, Maine; and I didn't even connect him to the villain in Johnny Mnemonic, whom I'd read was the biggest star in Japan but hadn't impressed me. Besides, he did pretentious-seeming things like using different names in front of and behind the camera. I really had no idea just how great and varied his talents were until I started to read up on him in anticipation of Zatoichi's release, which allowed me to approach Dolls with an open mind.

Kitano's latest movie to see US release (though it preceded Zatoichi in Japan), Dolls, is a bit on the artsy side. The movie is three vignettes of tragic love, adapted from a type of puppet theater called Bunraku, and uses it as a framing device. Also, the tone of the film is very quiet, although with moments of great passion, and the three stories almost never actually affect each other, just passing close by.

Read the rest at HBS.

Bright Future (Akarui mirai)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 3 March 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Recent Raves)

The American Heritage dictionary defines "sinister" as an adjective meaning "(1) Suggesting or threatening evil; (2) Presaging trouble; ominous; (3) Attending by or causing disaster or inauspicious circumstances." It's not a word that pops into my head during a lot of movies, certainly not as the prime descriptor, but it describes much of Japanese horror filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Bright Future very well.

Bright Future isn't exactly a horror movie; it's more about disaffection than malice. Yuji Nimura (Jo Odagiri) and Mamoru Arita (Tadanobu Asano) work in a towel factory. Nimura's in his early twenties, Arita a few years older. They don't seem to have many other friends, hanging out together after work, mainly playing video games and drinking in arcades or their small apartments. Their boss (Takashi Sasano), apparently going through a mid-life crisis, feels similarly adrift, and latches on to them. He offers full-time employment, asks them to help move a desk into his daughter's bedroom and stay for dinner, and would also like to know if he could maybe borrow a CD with their favorite music. One time, he stops by Arita's apartment, and an encounter with the poisonous jellyfish Arita keeps in his salt-water aquarium shows how, though each is dissatisifed, it manifests itself in different ways.

Read the rest at HBS.


* * * * (out of four) (2:16 subtitled Japanese cut)
Seen 23 March 2005 at Landmark Kendall Square #2 (first-run)

I've seen Katsuhiro Otomo's new movie, Steamboy, referred to as "steampunk" a few times already. It's a term people have heard to describe alternate history stories set in the latter half of the nineteenth century, only positing a more advanced technology - though one generally based upon available tech and theory. It's a twist on "cyberpunk", itself a term that is already somewhat quaint. But, anyway, there's nothing very punk-ish about Steamboy. It's an exciting adventure story, filled with fantastical machines and daring escapes for its young hero. Call it "steampop", and call it a ton of fun.

After a prologue showing a father-and-son team of engineers working to create a mysterious new steam-powered device (requiring mineral water that will take fifty years to replenish) for a mysterious international consortium in 1866 Russian America (Alaska), we jump to Machester, England, where 12-year-old Ray Steam helps with the engines in a mechanized factory, crawling inside to fix the parts the burly chief engineer can't reach. When he arrives home, he finds a package from his grandfather, Dr. Lloyd Steam (a picture in the kitchen shows that he is the next generation of the engineers in America), along with a note not to allow it to fall into the O'Hara Foundation - who promptly arrive to take it. After an exhilarating chase scene, he fails, and is taken to London where he finds that the man his grandfather said must not get his hands on the "steam ball" is... Ray's father, Dr. Edward Steam?

Oh, yeah, this is going to be an uncomfortable Christmas dinner. The heart of the film is that Ray must choose between the values espoused by his grandfather, who insists science must be done slowly and carefully and only be used for the betterment of humanity, and his father, who is willing to work with arms merchants like the O'Hara Foundation if that's what it takes to bring his dreams to life. This is, of course, a highly simplistic way to frame the debate over how much scientific researchers should restrain their subjects as opposed tot their methods, but it's effective because it is, at its heart, a kid having to take sides between his father and grandfather, both of whom he adores. Give Otomo and his co-writer Sadayuki Murai credit, though, for also forcing Ray to realize that conflicts between idealists will inevitably become conflicts between groups seeking out their self-interest.

Read the rest at HBS.

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