Monday, November 30, 2015

Japanese Horror Week at the Roxie

In the week leading up to Halloween, the Roxie had a five film Japanese horror series.  I saw four out of the five films in the series.  I missed Kairo (Pulse) by Kiyoshi Kurosawa.  A few weeks later, the Roxie showed another of Sion Sono's films - Tokyo Tribe.

Audition starring Ryo Ishibashi & Eihi Shiina; directed by Takashi Miike; Japanese with subtitles; (1999)
Ju-on:  The Grudge starring Megumi Okina & Misaki Ito; directed by Takashi Shimizu; Japanese with subtitles; (2002)
Noriko's Dinner Table starring Kazue Fukiishi, Ken Mitsuishi, Yuriko Yoshitaka & Tsugumi; directed by Sion Sono; Japanese with subtitles; (2006)
Tetsuo: The Iron Man starring Tomorowo Taguchi & Kei Fujiwara; directed by Shinya Tsukamoto; Japanese with subtitles; (1989)
Tokyo Tribe starring Akihiro Kitamura, Shôta Sometani & Ryôhei Suzuki; directed by Sion Sono; Japanese with subtitles; (2014)

Audition was my favorite.  Shigeharu (Ryo Ishibashi) is a widower who is urged by his teenage son to begin dating again.  A film producer friend of his devises a plan.  They put out a casting call for a part as the new girlfriend of a widower and Shigeharu will use the pretext of the audition to choose a new girlfriend.

Shigeharu is immediately taken with Asami Yamazaki (Eihi Shiina), a quiet woman whose résumé & audition hint that still waters run deep.  Takashi Miike's films tend to be bizarre but he helms Audition on a more traditional course.  The film allows the relationship to develop in parallel with the sense that Asami is a murderous psychopath.  Actually, the audience becomes aware of Asami's true nature long before Shigeharu but Miike toys with the audience as if he were Alfred Hitchcock.

This all leads up to a memorable torture scene which is punctuated by piano wire and Asami's incongruous laughter.  Eihi Shiina (Tokyo Gore Police and Outrage) shines in the film.  Ranging from shy & repressed to maniacal, Shiina makes a memorable impression.  Audition is one of the more accessible Miike films and makes me wonder what he could do if he dialed back the weirdness factor on many of his films.

Ju-on:  The Grudge was the third film in the Ju-on series but the first released in the US.  The premise is that a ghost or evil spirit resides at a house in Tokyo.  The origin of the ghost is the murder of a woman by her jealous husband.  The spirit resides in the house and as people come in contact with the house the spirit eventually kills them.  The film juggles half a dozen storylines as residents of the house, a social worker, a former police officer and others are stalked by the spirit.  There were a few creepy moments but overall, I was mild about  Ju-on:  The Grudge.

Since seeing Sion Sono's Love Exposure in 2011 (at the Roxie), I've made it a point to see his films if they screen in the Bay Area.  Noriko's Dinner Table is a prequel to one of Sono's most well known films - Suicide Circle which I haven't seen.  Noriko's Dinner Table is a strong entry in Sono's filmography.

The titular Noriko (Kazue Fukiishi) is a teenager in a small town.  She feels stifled by her environment and yearns to go to university in Tokyo.  Her father Tetsuzo (Ken Mitsuishi) is against this since a neighbor's daughter went to Tokyo and got pregnant.  Noriko becomes despondent over her situation and takes refuge in an internet chat room where teenagers share their problems.  Inspired by Ueno54, Noriko's runs away to Tokyo.  Meeting Ueno54 IRL, Noriko discovers her real name is Kumiko (Tsugumi).  Kumiko works as an actress for I.C. Corp. which provides role playing scenarios for its clients.  Noriko quickly joins I.C. Corp. whose scenarios range from mundane to erotic to bizarre.

Meanwhile, Noriko's younger sister Yuka (Yuriko Yoshitaka) feels some of the same ennui as Noriko and active in the same chat room as well.  Yuka decides to run away to Tokyo to join I.C. Corp but she leaves behind a story & other clues for Tetsuzo to find.  Yuka's disappearance leads to the girls' mother's suicide.  Obsessed with discovering what happened to his daughters, Tetsuzo (a newspaper reported) follows the clues left by Yuka and through an intermediary, schedules a role playing appointment with I.C. Corp.  He arranges for Kumiko to play his wife and Noriko & Yuka (now using pseudonyms) to play his daughters.  He rents a house in Tokyo which is similar to the one the girls grew up in and moves the furniture from his house to the rented house.  This sets up the finale which is both bloody & poignant.

With NDT, Sono is in his element.  He excels when he mashes up genres and takes small stories and gives them epic treatment.  In NDT, Sono throws in a non-linear plot which puts the audience in a disjointed mood that parallels the feeling of the characters on screen.  Nominally a horror film, NDT mixes in trenchant social commentary with limited blood and gore.  There is a reference to 54 school girls jumping in front of a subway train in an act of mass suicide.  This was the central plot device in Suicide Circle.

Not entirely satisfying, Noriko's Dinner Table is nonetheless a worthwhile film in its own right and particularly so for fans of Sono as the audience is able to glimpse effective & successful scenes of his cinematic ambition.  Sono direction is tremendous at times through his ability to infuse scenes with tension...and humor...and more tension.

I don't think words can adequately describe Tetsuo: The Iron Man.  The works of David Cronenberg come to mind but Iron Man almost completely dispenses with dialog and the plot is minimal.  The scenes are mostly chase scenes and almost stop motion in appearance.  A man slowly transforms into a metal clad entity while he is chased, raped and otherwise attacked.  Set to a soundtrack of industrial noises and a "heavy metal" soundtrack, I was glad that it clocked in at 67 minutes.

Sion Sono's Tokyo Tribe is unlike anything else I have seen from him.  By my count, Tokyo Tribe is the 8th Sono film I have seen (all in a theater).  First off, Tokyo Tribe is a musical which limits it and makes the audience less able to suspend disbelief.  However, the plot is such that setting it to song doesn't really make it less believable.  Delirious is a word I would use to describe the film.  In a not-too-distant Tokyo, anarchy rules and the criminal gangs (or tribes) co-exist in a tense detente.  I can't even remember why the truce is broken but the tribes rise up against the preeminent tribe and march en masse to their stronghold.  All this is set to techno and rap songs.  Along the way, there is a whole host of characters who are memorable for a day or two.  I recall a lot of scantily clad females.  I remember one of the villains seemed to be motivated by his insecurity about the size of his penis.  There was a Bruce Lee/Kill Bill homage.  Riki Takeuchi as Buppa, the flamboyant Yakuza boss of the most powerful tribe, is the most memorable of the bunch.  I can't recommend Tokyo Tribe and at 2 hours it dragged at times.  It's one of those films that leaves your scratching your head at what you just saw and how the film ever got made in the first place.  It was mildly satisfying immediately after seeing it but two weeks later I have little memory of long stretches of the film.

No comments: