First Love (Takashi Miike, 2019)

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Every time I watch a Takashi Miike movie, I end up asking myself why I ever watch movies that aren’t Takashi Miike movies. That’s certainly the case with First Love, his latest, which premiered at Cannes earlier this year and opens next week (October 4) at the Uptown. It’s a familiar story, a one crazy night gangster movie mixed with just enough romance and humor to confound the tonal consistency police. But while the plot evokes faint memories of Johnnie To’s The Odd One Dies or Derek Yee’s One Night in Mongkok or Soi Cheang’s Love Battlefield, really it’s all Miike, suffused with his inimitable blend of pitch-black humor, razor-sharp filmmaking, and a surprising undercurrent of hope amid all the absurdist bloodshed and horror of a world that has almost completely lost its mooring.

A young boxer who has been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor stumbles into a scheme wherein a low-level yakuza and a crooked cop are conspiring to steal a bag of drugs from the yakuza, while framing a prostitute and a Chinese Triad syndicate for the crime. The hope is to incite a gang war and have all the bad guys kill each other off, while the schemers get away with the drugs and can then take over. But the prostitute, a young drug addict who suffers from hallucinations, caused by years of abuse by her father and her handlers, runs away from the cop at a pivotal moment, and thinking she needs rescuing, the boxer clocks the cop. The young people run away and the scheme falls apart, thanks as well to a pair of nigh-indestructible women, one the girlfriend of the guy who the drugs are stolen from, the other a Chinese gangster lamenting the sad state of honor among today’s yakuza men. A host of other memorable baddies abound, including an old school yakuza who is fresh out of prison and terribly annoyed by everyone around him, and a one-armed Chinese gangster who has no lines but follows along the whole way, waiting for his opportunity to take revenge on the man who maimed him.

Miike unfolds the convoluted plot with expert precision, such that it’s pretty much always clear exactly who is double-crossing who, and why. And those double-crosses play out in and escalating series of violent encounters, as funny as they are original. I wouldn’t dare spoil any of the surprises the movie has in store, but I want to single out Miike’s editing in particular, cutting on motion with as much attention to the flow of action as, say, Steven Spielberg, but with a sublime sense of humor, as when a punch in the boxing ring becomes a beheading stroke of a katana in a dark alley. First Love is filled with these little touches. One imagines Miike chuckling away as he finds ever more demented ways to depict violence on-screen. I’ve said before that no one in contemporary cinema has as much fun making movies as Takashi Miike, and First Love is him working with complete freedom within otherwise well-worn genre terrain.

Even the romance is unusual. Given the circumstances, and their various medical and mental conditions, it’d be absurd, something that only happens in the movies, for our two innocents to fall madly in love right away (even with the help of a pop song, as they do in Wong Kar-wai’s As Tears Go By). Instead, the First Love of the title can only grow after the trials of the one crazy night have been put behind them. Not just a lunatic cascade of gangster movie violence, the night instead becomes a stand-in for all the horrible things that have happened to them in their pasts, and only after they survive them and move on to a new day, is a first love even possible. The final shot doesn’t need a pop song, or even a close-up, to be the most hopeful, most romantic image of the movie year.

I should watch more Takashi Miike movies. The Grand Illusion this week is playing three of them, none of which I have seen, Shinjuku Triad SocietyRainy Dog, and Ley Lines. Like First Love, they all involve rivalries between Chinese Triads and Japanese yakuza, such that their grouped together as his “Black Society Trilogy”, though they are apparently unrelated in plot or character. If I was in town next week, that’s where I would be.

The Case of Hana and Alice (Shunji Iwai, 2015)

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What do you do if you want to make a prequel to one of your best movies, one built as much around the performances of two terrific young actresses more than anything else, but a decade has passed and the actresses are now much too old to be playing the same characters? Well, if you’re Shunji Iwai, you make it as an anime. That’s the case with The Case of Hana and Alice, the prequel to his 2004 film Hana and Alice. Anne Suzuki and Yū Aoi (respectively) reprise their roles in voice form with an origin story for the two slightly odd friends. In most respects, the film is of a piece with the original: both are slice of life films about teen girls, with meandering plots filled with small moments of wonder and mystery. That they could be so similar and yet be made in dramatically different media speaks to the paucity of Hollywood imagination, where “animated” is a genre unto itself (an almost exclusively kid-oriented one), rather than merely one method among many for telling a story.

Alice moves into a new house and starts a new school in the 9th grade. She’s immediately set upon by her classmates because her assigned desk belonged to a boy who is rumored to have died the year before, which the students have interpreted as some kind of occult phenomenon. She fights back (ably beating up one boy who tries to torment her) and sets out to solve the mystery of the former student’s disappearance, which leads her to her reclusive neighbor, Hana, who sat behind him in class the year before. The two eventually join forces, with Hana coming up with various schemes to track down the boy’s father and Alice lackadaisically playing along.

This leads to a remarkable yet entirely tangential sequence, as Alice, accidentally following and then befriending the wrong old man, finds herself in a miniature remake of Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece Ikiru. With several shots lifted straight out of the Kurosawa, she befriends her wistful elder, visiting a crowded restaurant and a swing set with him. It’s a completely inessential sidetrack, having literally nothing to do with furthering the plot, and it’s absolutely perfect. A film about the wonder and possibility of youth taking the time to meditate for a bit on what it means to be old and alone.

The Kurosawa thing makes me think about the connections between Japanese feature film and anime. One of his contemporary Yasujiro Ozu’s more famous recurring stylistic features is the pillow shot, a short scene of nothing in particular, a sky, a city street, some power lines. They serve no narrative purpose whatsoever, but they help with the pacing of his films, allowing a momentary breath between scenes, giving the audience a space to think about what they’re seeing. Such shots are also a common feature of manga and anime, individual panels with no story-related content that simply serve to break-up the flow of the narrative, and they’re as anathema to traditional American comic book making as Ozu’s pillow shots are to standard Hollywood editing. In the American tradition, forward movement of the plot is everything, and anything else is a waste of time. This is on its face an absurdly limiting idea of narrative art, but it persists nonetheless (think of all the people out there complaining about Once Upon a Time in Hollywood‘s leisurely pacing as a failure to properly edit).

I don’t know much about anime, but I’ve watched a few series and movies and have maintained subscriptions to both Crunchyroll and Funimation for awhile, despite not really using them as much as I should (as it is with all my streaming services). This summer the tragic fire at Kyoto Animation finally spurred me to watch some of their series: Sound! Euphonium, of which last year’s wonderful Liz and the Bluebird was a spin-off; and K-On!, an earlier series that is also about a high school musical group. They’re terrific, almost directionless shows (K-On! more so than the other: it has an episode that is literally about it being rainy outside, and another about how it’s too hot in the music room) that aren’t so much about growing up or coming of age as they are simply about being young. The Case of Hana and Alice is that kind of movie. And maybe it’s that I’m becoming more and more conscious of the fact that I’m nearer in age to the elderly businessman than I am to the kooky teen girls, but it’s the kind of movie you don’t want to miss when it plays for two more shows this Sunday at the Grand Illusion.

Ramen Shop (Eric Khoo, 2018)

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Opening this weekend at the Northwest Film Forum is this perfectly fine food drama by one of Singapore’s leading directors. After his father, a successful ramen chef, dies, a young man heads to Singapore in search of his mother’s family. Gauzy flashbacks fill in his parents’ back story in-between meetings with his estranged uncle and grandmother. His father, Japanese, and his mother, Chinese, married against her mother’s wishes, her hostility a result of lingering hatred of the Japanese following their occupation of the city-state during World War II. But as resentments and hatred are passed down through the generations, so too are recipes, taught from parent to child, adding personal touches learned from their own life experience. The cuisine of Singapore, with its influences from throughout East and South Asia as well as Europe is the blunt instrument of metaphor in Eric Khoo’s quiet, yet maudlin melodrama. The young man’s journey is as much about learning the recipes of his mother’s family as it is reconciling himself to the past atrocities of his father’s homeland. English serves as the lingua franca, bridging the gap between ancient hatreds, facilitating the fusion of Japanese ramen (itself a combination of Japanese flavors with Chinese noodles) with Singaporean pork rib soup (a combination of Chinese soup with Southeast Asian flavors).

As a vision of transnational solidarity dramatized by a Japanese person’s trip to Singapore, it’s vastly more conventional and less interesting than Daisuke Miyazaki’s Tourism, which also played at last year’s Japan Cuts festival but which is not getting, as far as I know, even a very limited North American release. Probably because the food, at least, looks much better. Though even that pales in comparison to the food in the quiet Korean drama Little Forest (a second adaptation of a manga, the first of which, a Japanese version, played in two parts at SIFF a few years ago), which likewise won’t see American theatres, but you can stream it on Amazon.

Regardless, I too hope to one day pass down to my grandchildren my own ramen recipe, which I’ll also share with you here:

1. In a small pot, bring 2 cups of water to a boil. Add noodles, breaking up if desired. Cook 3 minutes, stirring occasionally.
2. Remove from heat. Stir in seasoning from soup base packet.
3. Try adding an egg, vegetables, or meat as desired.

Liz and the Blue Bird (Naoko Yamada, 2018)

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Shunji Iwai’s Last Letter wasn’t the only tear-jerking teen romance to sneak onto Seattle screens this past week. Naoko Yamada’s anime Liz and the Blue Bird, based on a novel called Sound! Euphonium by Ayano Takeda that has already been adapted into two seasons of a TV series and a couple of movies by Tatsuya Ishihara, is playing at the Varsity and the Grand Illusion, where it will be held-over for a couple more shows this coming weekend (the 24th and 25th of November). It’s about the relationship between two girls in the school band. Nozomoi, a flautist, is lively and gregarious, while the oboist Mizore is shy and withdrawn. After a brief prologue, we follow the two girls on their walk to school for practice on a Sunday morning, Mizore following behind, her gaze, at Nozomi’s feet, her legs, and, most of all, her gaily swishing ponytail, brilliantly establishing the obsession that is her crush. The two girls are assigned a duet as a part of the band’s end of the year competition, and their negotiating that piece, and their interpretations of the children’s story on which it is based, is the vehicle through which the delicate negotiation of teen love and self-actualization will be realized.

More muted and intimate than the other high-quality Japanese animated films that have played here this year, specifically the bombastically inventive Night is Short, Walk on Girl and the generationally-expansive Mirai (coming soon to a multiplex near you), Liz and the Blue Bird is no less breath-taking, both to look at and in narrative. Interspersed throughout the slice of life real-world story are the girls’ imagining of the eponymous fairy tale, given a story-book smudginess and an orange and yellow glow that contrasts sharply with the steely blues of the classroom interiors and rainy sidewalks of the city. But most of all it’s Yamada’s focus on small gestures and behaviors, the way Mizore tugs at her hair when she’s nervous, or how the camera, when adopting her point of view, tends to face downwards, like it’s afraid to face the world, that marks Liz and the Blue Bird as one of the most keenly observed romances of recent years, animated or otherwise.

VIFF 2018: Mirai (Mamoru Hosada, 2018)

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In 2012 Mamoru Hosada released Wolf Children, one of the finest animated films of the decade. It followed a young mother’s struggle to let her children go as they age, to become their own people, separate from her (that one of them chooses a human life while the other heeds the call of the wild and runs off to live as a wolf like his father is only tangentially relevant). With Mirai, Hosada addresses much the same issue from the opposite perspective, this time we see the child’s point of view as he grows form a wholly ego-driven individual into a member of a family, a continuum of people that extends not just horizontally to his sister and parents, but also backwards and forwards in time, to the people his ancestors were and the people he and his sister will become.

He’s not a werewolf this time (though he does have a talent for canine imitation) rather he is subject to a series of fantasies that grow out of the trauma of the arrival of his younger sibling, and the shattering of the idyllic existence he’d led as the center of the universe. He sees the family dog anthropomorphized into a fallen prince (an initial act of empathy that mirrors his own loss of place). He meets an older version of his baby sister, and he has an adventure with his great-grandfather. In interacting with these people (which may be mere figments of his young imagination or could be the manifestation of some supernatural power, it amounts to much the same thing) he learns perspective: that other beings are just as conscious as he is, that the world and the people in it are both distinct from him while also forming an essential part of him, a vast web of humanity with a center that might belong to him, but then again, it might not.

Mirai is as fanciful as anything Hosada has made, with a trip to the geometric horror of a train station a particular highlight. But like Wolf Children, as well as his version of The Girl Who Leapt through Time, it is fundamentally grounded in the every day, which in this case means a whole lot of parent humor, for which I am, no doubt, a sucker (I happen to have a self-centered, train-obsessed boy in my home as well). Hosada expertly fuses fantasy and slice-of-life anime, following in the tradition of the best of Studio Ghibli (Kiki’s Delivery Service, Only Yesterday and Whisper of the Heart), as well as any director of his generation.

VIFF 2018: Asako I & II (Ryūsuke Hamaguchi, 2018)

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In keeping the same minute attention to the smallest details of human routine and interaction that so distinguished his intimate 2015 epic Happy Hour, but trapping them within the familiar confines of a romantic comedy, Ryūsuke Hamaguchi has created something remarkable, a genre film as alive to the possibilities and contradictions of the human psyche and its dealing with other souls as we’ve seen in some time. It’s certainly the best romantic film since Hong Sangsoo’s Yourself and Yours, with which it shares a certain surface similarity. But in every important respect it is sui generis, very much its own thing.

Asako and Baku meet-cute at an art gallery. It’s love at first sight, the two are wordlessly drawn together and stay that way for some time, in the pure romance of youth, impervious to the outside world and not only unafraid of death but turned on by its impossibility. Until, one day Baku disappears. Five years later, Asako meets cute again, this time with a young businessman named Ryôhei, who looks exactly like Baku and is played by the same actor (Masahiro Higashide, from Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Before We Vanish). The bulk of the film tracks their relationship, growing from awkward avoidance to friendship to love with the rhythms of the everyday and in parallel to the romance between their respective best friends. The friends’ antagonistic first meeting over a performance of Chekov, is the best of the films several digressions, with an unexpected natural disaster and an idyllic montage in a fishing weekend providing other highlights.

The inevitable conflict comes in the final third, as Baku returns. If Hamaguchi doesn’t resolve The Case of the Two Bakus (or rather, the Two Asakos, the first crazed with the freedom of youth, the second safe in the benign contentment of maturity) with as much bald-faced ingenuity as Hong did, he can be forgiven. The solution he does find is as emotionally confused and true as real-life. We are unlikely to see a more open and all-embracing film this year.

Lu Over the Wall (Masaaki Yuasa, 2017)

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Things have been bleak on the family film front lately on Seattle Screens, at least as far as I have seen. The last movie I took my kids to was The Last Jedi, and there hasn’t been anything they or I have really been interested in since then. After seeing several toy tie-in cartoons over the last few years (really the only animated film we saw with any kind of heart to it was the ballet movie Leap!, which even then diminished itself with kid-movie cliché chase sequences), something like Masaaki Yuasa’s Lu Over the Wall is an absolute joy, worth taking the kids to even in its English-dubbed version (I assume: the version I watched was Japanese with English subtitles). The mash-up of Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea and Linda Linda Linda we don’t know we needed, Lu is the best variation on The Little Mermaid of 2017.

Lu is a ningyo, a creature from Japanese folklore roughly analogous to a mermaid. In a reversal of Greek myth, she’s drawn to the shore by music, specifically the pop-rock stylings of a middle school trio named “Seiren”. Moved by the tunes, Lu sings and then jumps onto the land (a protective bubble of water around her head), sprouts legs and dances wildly. The legs go away when the music stops, and after some initial confusion the band members, especially the shy Kai, befriend her. It seems the small fishing village in which the action takes place has a complicated history with the merfolk, with stories of them eating people circulating among the elderly (in particular Kai’s grandfather, who saw his mother get bitten and disappear under the sea). There’s a giant island in the town’s harbor, a Gibraltar casting a shadow over the sleepy village and separating it from the wider ocean and the island where the merfolk are said to dwell. It’s a literalization of the walls separating the village from the outside world, the people from the spirits and nature around them, and Kai from other people. Catchy music and simple messages (“Like everyone!”) are the medium through which Lu breaks down all these walls.

While much of the animation and plotline recalls Ponyo (with a little bit of Kiki’s Delivery Service thrown in), Lu Over the Wall isn’t nearly as derivative as the otherwise pleasant Mary and the Witch’s Flower from earlier this year. Yuasa has a goofier touch than Miyazaki, trading the mystical beauty of Ghibli’s nature for a more Looney Tunes aesthetic. In an interesting twist, Yuasa’s merfolk are vampiric: they are allergic to sun, they can transform creatures into the undead with a bite, and they appear to have to hypnotic power to make people dance in spite of themselves. This leads to some of the film’s most memorable images: denizens of a dog pound transformed into an army of merpups; undead fish dancing their way out of a sushi restaurant. The film’s crisp primary colors and cartoonish character movements are both flatter and more fun than what we’ve seen in recent Japanese animated films like Makoto Shinkai’s experiments in photo-realism (Your Name.) or the more traditional anime Napping Princess, and the look of the film is vastly more appealing than the CGI blandness of recent American efforts. I haven’t yet seen Yuasa’s Mind Game, which is reputed to be quite good. It’s playing this week at the Grand Illusion, and I’m guessing pairing it with this would make for an excellent double bill. Probably want to leave the kids behind for that one though.

Mary and the Witch’s Flower (Hiromasa Yonebayashi, 2017)

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With his third feature film as a director, Hiromasa Yonebayashi has yet to develop an identity for himself outside of Studio Ghibli, where he began his career and made his debut, The Secret World of Arrietty, eight years ago. His films are technically impeccable, with the kind of detail and beauty that Hayao Miyazaki is known for, but something is missing. And it’s that something extra that marks Miyazaki as a great artist, while Yonebayashi is merely a skillful animator. Mary and the Witch’s Flower proves an excellent case-in-point. A young girl, bored while living with older relatives in the countryside, accidentally stumbles into a magical world above the clouds. Finding a flower that temporarily grants her magical powers, she’s mistaken for a new student and rushed into a wondrous school of wizardry by a magical broomstick. But it turns out the headmistress and the school’s resident scientist have been conducting mad experiments in interspecies hybrids, jeopardizing the girl and her friend Peter. Mary has to rescue the boy and defeat the evil sorcerers before it’s too late*.

The look owes everything to Miyazaki joints like Kiki’s Delivery ServiceCastle in the Sky (which you can catch this week at the Egyptian, kicking off the Northwest Film Forum’s annual Children’s Film Festival) and Howl’s Moving Castle. Mary is a headstrong girl with a mess of unruly red hair and a strong moral center. The magic school is made of gently steampunkish castles floating in seas of green, and the herds of experimented-upon animals recall the armies of forest creatures in Princess Mononoke. It’s all very beautiful, with some nice fantastical images and one quiet moment of repose. But where in Castle in the Sky the quiet moment is an oasis of beauty in an otherwise non-stop adventure, a pause to remind the heroes of what they’re fighting to defend and what the world has lost, and in Spirited Away the quiet moment leads to a soft deflation of all the expected action film anxiety right before it should have burst, in Mary it merely serves as a location for the delivery of flashbacked backstory before the final, rote, chase/battle sequences.

Yonebayashi’s last film, When Marnie Was There, was much more successful in breaking out of the Miyazaki template, bringing a ghostly Gothic romance edge to its story of a young girl coming of age. Mary, though, is a recapitulation, a kind of remix of Miyazaki without any of the idiosyncrasy. The scenario isn’t much more complex than that of Howl’s, or Ponyo, but Miyazaki is incapable of making an impersonal work and those films, targeted as they are (especially the later) toward the littlest kids, abound in the kind of small oddities and plot-free idylls that make a movie world come to life. Mary and the Witch’s Flower is a beautiful movie, and God knows it’s better than at least 90% of what passes for children’s entertainment in American multiplexes, but it’s a ghost.

*Note that I watched the English dub of this Japanese film. It’s what was available on the press screener and, as far as I can tell, the English version is the only one that will be playing during the film’s run at the Meridian. But Regal is haphazard in noting dubbing or subtitling on their animated films. The English dub is quite good though, with Kate Winslet and Jim Broadbent adding some degree of star power. The film’s source and setting, it’s based on a novel by British writer Mary Stewart, are perfectly consistent with English accented voices, with none of the discordances caused by the dubbing of Isao Takahata’s very Japanese Only Yesterday a few years ago.

VIFF 2017: Close-Knit (Naoko Ogigami, 2017)

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While watching Naoko Ogigami’s Close-Knit, I often remarked to myself, “The camera is always at the right distance! Every Time!” like an idiot. But it is this observation that best captures the appeal of Ogigami’s cinema. She is not fashionable or current or modern in ways that are obvious. Indeed, her concepts and sensibility are probably downright corny. But she has judgment, and her gaze is always a respectful one. Thus her camera is always at a careful distance, marveling at the nature of her characters and accepting them for who they are. Hers is a welcoming vision, perhaps most ably realized in her masterpiece Kamome Diner (2006), where all sorts of people are brought into the fold of the narrative, their tastes, mannerisms and behavior given their place. The same applies for her latest feature, Close-Knit.

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In This Corner of the World (Sunao Katabuchi, 2016)

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The obvious point of comparison for In This Corner of the World, an anime set on the home front during World War II, is with Isao Takahata’s 1988 Ghibli film Grave of the Fireflies. But in spirit it’s more akin to Takahata’s later work: the world-dissolving subjective images of memory in Only Yesterday and the episodic focus on the family of My Neighbors the YamadasFireflies is about devastation, about the terrible consequences of war and, more specifically, of the cruel pride that makes for such wars, but Corner is about resilience, about a people to whom war is happening, with or without their complicity: it’s more Mrs. Miniver than anything else. Beginning before the war and skipping quickly through the early life of Suzu Urano, an artistic girl who lives near the city of Hiroshima. After short episodes from her childhood, the film settles down once she gets married and moves to Kure, a nearby town that is a center of naval manufacturing, in 1943. In these early scenes, the war is merely a background element: characters speak of the navy, the construction of a factory displaces the family’s seaweed business, ships are seen in the distant harbor, new ration recipes with variable results are tried, while the drama centers on Suzu’s integration into her new family and her rivalry with her new sister-in-law. But the war plays a bigger and bigger role as we proceed through time: a wrong turn into a red light district populated by displaced young women, air raid drills followed by actual bombardments, a visit from an old school friend who admonishes Suzu to “stay ordinary, stay sane”. Finally, in the summer of 1945, the horror of war becomes nigh unbearable, culminating the the atomic bombing of the city on the other side of the mountain. But even in the blasted hellscape that follows, the loss of so much humanity, Suzu and her family endure.