Monday, November 30, 2009

Made in Japan: Ichi and United Red Army

I've got real questions about the marketing and distribution of Ichi. This isn't a complaint against the fine folks at Kendall Square who were cool enough at the ticket window that I dropped some cash at the concession stand even though I really wasn't that hungry(*), but there was no advance word of this screening - I stumbled upon it quite accidentally looking at the day's showtimes in Google's movie page. It's being put out on DVD and Blu-ray by FUNImation, supposedly with a theatrical run between now and then, and I assume that the Warner Brothers logo at the front and back meant they have something to do with it, either producing it in Japan or handling American theatrical distribution.

There were maybe half a dozen of us there, despite the theater practically being on the MIT campus. You'd think it would be possible to get more otaku out to see it than this handful. I've got to consider that a bit of a marketing fail.

I also wonder why they're making a bit of a splash with this Haruka Ayase movie from 2008, when as far as I can tell there's no U.S. distribution for the superior Cyborg She.

(*) They probably knew what they were doing, sending me in - the margin on a Pocky & Coke is probably much better than that of a ticket. It makes me wonder if theaters could succeed by drastically cutting prices, even down to nothing, and making up what they lose on individual ticket sales with volume, both in terms of tickets and snacks.


* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 5 November 2009 at Landmark Kendall Square #3 (preview)

It is one of the oldest tricks in the book, despite having rather limited success, as far as I can tell: Take a franchise that has seen better days and revive it, only the new protagonist is no longer a middle-aged man, but a young, attractive girl. Maybe she's an apprentice, a long-lost (grand)daughter, or just someone who stumbled upon the legacy. The point is, the new product has got the unstoppable combination of brand awareness and sex appeal - how can it fail?

And yet, this template has seldom been a roaring success, and it's no different with Ichi, which almost certainly will not see the same sort of success as Zatoichi (26 movies, a TV series, and a Takeshi Kitano remake). Maybe it's the inevitable result of thinking in terms of product and franchise from the start, or that the alchemy of a hit is almost impossible to replicate just by following a recipe. Even franchise reboots that stick close to the source material often fail to catch lightning in a bottle for a second time; taking that further calculated step can just make it more alienating.

So we have Ichi (Haruka Ayase), a blind goze singer wandering on her own. Despite wearing rags and often sleeping outside, though, she's not completely helpless; far from it, she carries a short sword and her backslashing accuracy with it is lethal. She arrives in the town of Bito with ronin Toma Fujihara (Takao Osawa), allowing the local yakuza to assume that he is the one who killed a handful of bandits, even though he freezes when the time comes to draw his sword. Local yakuza leader Toraji Shirakawa (Yosuke Kubozuka) hires Toma to help them fight the Banki-to gang, named for its monstrous leader, Banki (Shido Nakamura). Ichi's curiosity is piqued when she finds out that Banki once knew a certain blind swordsman.

The samurai film and the western are closely related genres, and Ichi could certainly pass for an oater if it swapped its samurai swords for six-shooters. You've got a gang choking the life out of a town, local authorities (which is what the yakuza effectively were, at this point in time) unable to stop them, and a new sheriff in town who relies heavily on a trusted deputy. When the yakuza and bandits line up at opposite ends of a deserted street, a little Morricone on the soundtrack would sound just about right.

Unfortunately, while the ambiance of those scenes is just right and the action scenes which play out startlingly quickly even in slow motion can be exciting, the rest of the movie frequently doesn't measure up. The story isn't bad, even if it is pretty standard fare. Director Fumihiko Sori never seems to commit to a tone for the movie, though. The movie swings from melodrama to earnest sadness, and while the audience can see the skeleton of a love story, there's not a lot of passion to make it a great one.

The main problem, though, is that the cast is for the most part too young and good-looking. Even after we've seen the rape which saw Ichi banished from her troupe, Haruka Ayase is just too beautiful, with a face too perfectly unlined. It's not wholly her fault, of course - she plays the scenes where she is being put through the wringer well enough; it's just where we're supposed to look at her and know things have happened to her that she falls short. And someone else decided that her rags should look "distressed" rather than "tattered", or that she should always be clean and perfectly made-up and coiffed. The end result, though, is that we look at her and see her beauty rather than her character - she just doesn't give Ichi the proper gravity. Osawa is much the same, only he does a thing where he winces and looks tortured every time he starts to draw his sword. The two banter well enough together, and I might like them in a romantic comedy, but in a samurai movie (or a western), they look like kids in their high school play - dressed up in the costumes, solemnly playing their roles, but just unable to give the characters enough weight.

They can handle action, and when that's going on, the movie works well enough to be entertaining. It wants to be something a bit heftier, though, and neither Sori nor his cast has the gravitas to completely pull it off.

Also at HBS

Jitsuroku rengĂ´ sekigun: Asama sansĂ´ e no michi (United Red Army)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 9 November 2009 at the Harvard Film Archive (special engagement)

There are two ways to look at Koji Wakamatsu's three-hour film United Red Army. The glass-half-full version is that it is a fantastically complete and detailed history of the titular group that gives special attention to some of that history's most (in)famous chapters. The other perspective is that it is a harrowing true tale of horror surrounded by exposition and epilogue that serves to distract from the really good parts. It's not a bad sign that even the glass-half-empty version admits that the film has a very solid core.

Wakamatsu's film separates into three acts even easier than most. The first tells us in documentary style how various protest movements in 1960s Japan formed and later radicalized, leading to two of the most radical, the Red Army Faction and Revolutionary Left Faction, to become the Unified (later United) Red Army. The second has the URA holed up in the Japanese Alps, hiding from police as the leaders grow more and more autocratic, visiting violent punishment on their followers. In the aftermath, five members hole up in the Asama Mountain Lodge ski resort, taking the manager's wife hostage while the police laid siege for a month.

Wakamatsu's ambition with United Red Army is impressive and admirable, but also quite frankly daunting for those without prior knowledge of the subject. The film has literally dozens of characters, many of whom seem to be included for completeness's sake. People will be introduced and built up as if they were major characters only to be arrested and disappear twenty minutes later (don't get too attached to Tak Sakaguchi, likely the most familiar member of the cast for western audiences). The opening act covers roughly twelve years and features an odd combination of narration, stock footage, and scenes that seem more like crime-show recreations (in black-and-white to match the stock footage) in tone than part of a dramatic feature. The end gives us information on what happened to the group's members over the ensuing thirty years, enough information that the subtitles may change faster than the audience can read them. It is without a doubt informative, and Wakamatsu does an admirable job of not making these purely informational segments dry, but it is occasionally overwhelming.

What is somewhat dry, oddly, is the film's third act, as five escaped URA men barricade themselves in a cottage with a hostage. This is a genre film staple, but stuck on the tail end of this movie, it has a lot of issues: It brings some very minor characters to the forefront, and it never gives us a glance of the other side of the siege. In some ways, that's consistent with the rest of the movie - though there is some exposition to set the stage in the first act, Wakamatsu tells the story almost entirely from within the URA - but it reduces tension, especially since hostage Yasuko Muta (Karou Okunuki) is barely a factor. It's also hard to return to seeing them somewhat sympathetically after what had come before.

And what comes before, the middle of the movie, is dynamite. Wakamatsu is known in part for his sympathies with radical politics, but he doesn't flinch from how the months in the Japanese Alps are a microcosm on how communism went horribly wrong around the world: A movement dedicated to liberating workers from the ruling class develops its own despots, and failing to adhere to slogans and dogma is considered treasonous. Go Jibiki and Akie Namiki portray Tsuneo Mori and Hiroko Nagata as a terrifyingly complementary of true believers, Mori loud and bullying and Nagata icily terrifying - when Nagata comments that a pregnant member of the group is a threat because she thinks of her child as belonging to her rather than the party, the horrifying sincerity comes through even via subtitles. They stand in stark contrast to their victims, especially Maki Sakai's Mieko Toyama. Toyama is one of the characters we've seen since early on in the film, and though the film doesn't present her as an innocent, Sakai makes her sympathetic; we get the feeling that she followed her best friend into the movement, and winds up suffering because she is not at heart a violent person.

This central section has its problems as a movie, at least from a certain perspective. Many screenwriters would probably streamline the movement between bases and composite some characters, as at one point the same basic story (one woman and two men are tortured for not being able to "self-criticize" properly) is playing out in two locations. Even with that, it's devastatingly effective, as Wakamatsu escalates the violence and madness at a perfect clip, making it even worse by interspersing scenes showing that certain characters going to be are in trouble for just not being hardcore enough. The violence is brutal and comes across that way - it would be easy for this section to become a horror movie where the various deaths give us a secret thrill, or for the filmmaker's sympathy to the general cause to inject a hint of justification, but that doesn't happen - what we see is horrible in every way.

It's so good that at times I wished it were the whole movie, with a little narrative streamlining and just enough of what precedes and follows it included to give context. But, as the film reminds us, history is messy, and doesn't fit the standard form of a narrative feature.

Also at HBS

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