Movie Project #48: Ikiru [1952]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

Ikiru [1952]

Ikiru [1952]
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Writers: Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni
Country: Japan
Genre: Drama
Starring: Takashi Shimura, Haruo Tanaka, Shinichi Himori, Minoru Chiaki
Running Time: 143 minutes

“How tragic that man can never realize how beautiful life is until he is face to face with death.”

What would you do if you knew you had less than a year to live? Life is short enough as it is; putting an exact number on it can be downright frightening.

Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura), a middle-aged city council worker, has learned just how scary this can be. After being unable to keep his food down, among other issues, he goes to the doctor and learns his prognosis: he has stomach cancer. Worse yet, Watanabe has no idea how to come to terms with his impending death. He is a widow, and his relationship with his adult son is strained at best. It doesn’t help that he has been stuck doing the same meaningless work for the last 30 years of his life. He claims to have sacrificed his social life in order to provide a means for his son, but no matter how you cut it, his life is downright depressing.

Now, faced with the knowledge of having just months to live, what is Watanabe to do?

Ikiru [1952]

He tries to tell his son, but he decides against it when the son doesn’t pay him any attention. Watanabe hits the streets instead, eventually meeting a drunk writer who takes him out for a night on the town. Having his first drinks in perhaps 30 years, Watanabe tries to embrace the nightlife, but his fun is artificial. At one dance club, he requests a song — “Gondola no Uta” (“Life is Brief”) — from the piano player, then proceeds to sing it, bringing the entire audience deep sadness.

After 30 meaningless years, how can Watanabe suddenly start living?

The next day, he runs into a young female who works in the same department as him. She is on her way to put in her resignation, citing the work to be too dull and boring for her. Intrigued by her youthful exuberance, Kanji spends the day with her, spending a portion of his life’s savings on just having a good time. Yet just like his failed attempt at enjoying the party lifestyle, this relationship, too, grows strained.

Eventually, Watanabe finds solace in — what else? — his job. Rather than deliver the same pointless drivel that he had his entire work career, he decides to actually *do* something of importance. His last days see him fighting to turn a waste of land into a useful children’s playground.

Ikiru [1952]

It’s a shame that it took this man so long to put his life to good use, but this message from Ikiru is both depressing and inspirational. Why do so many of us live boring lives that revolve around dead-end jobs while not seeking out the finer points in life? Why do we not attempt to do what we truly love? Life is undoubtedly short; it shouldn’t take a terminal illness to finally give the push many people so desperately need.

In the film’s final act, we are shown Watanabe’s wake, and the reaction of those who knew him. Again, it shows that some of those who thought they knew him for decades actually had no idea who Watanabe really was. Hell, even Watanabe himself had no idea who he was or what he was capable of doing.

I could nitpick about Ikiru and discuss its extended length and slow pacing, but these “faults” are irrelevant. The film’s message is painstakingly beautiful, and it’s one that will linger for weeks. To the right person, this can really hit home, and it has made me personally start to question what some of my own priorities in life are. I have yet to see a bad (or even mediocre) Kurosawa film, but this may be my favorite one yet.

9/10

Movie Project #6: My Neighbor Totoro [1988]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

My Neighbor Totoro [1988]

My Neighbor Totoro [1988]
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Screenplay: Hayao Miyazaki
Country: Japan
Genre: Animation/Family/Fantasy
Starring: Hitoshi Takagi, Noriko Hidaka, Toshiyuki Amagasa
Running Time: 86 minutes

Reason for inclusion: I wanted to continue to watch more Studio Ghibli films, and this seemed to be the most highly-regarded out of those I hadn’t seen.

Accolades: Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film, Animage Anime Grand Prix prize, Mainichi Film Award for Best Film, ranked #163 on IMDB’s Top 250, ranked #41 on Empire magazine’s 100 Best Films of World Cinema

My Neighbor Totoro is as simple as it gets, but it is infinitely rewarding. Originally released on the same bill as Grave of the Fireflies (still the greatest animated film I have ever seen), Totoro remains one of Hayao Miyazaki’s crowning achievements, a children’s film that can be passed down from generation to generation.

Set in 1958 Japan, the film tells the story of a university professor and his two daughters, Satsuki and Mei, who move across the country to be closer to the hospital where their mother, Yasuko, is recovering from a serious illness. Their new residence is an old house that the girls immediately believe is haunted. Rather than allow themselves to be scared — “they’re just dust bunnies” — the sisters embrace the spirits and settle in as best as they can.

My Neighbor Totoro [1988]

While the older sister, Satsuki, is off at school, Mei notices a small, white rabbit-like creature playing outside. She chases after it, eventually reaching a well-hidden area inside the forest. Inside, she finds an even bigger creature, a very large “totoro” who is in such a deep sleep he doesn’t even notice the little girl. She instantly becomes attached to this creature, dubbing him Totoro, and begins seeing him on their property from time to time.

Even though Totoro only speaks in loud roars, he becomes a much-needed friend for Mei, and it isn’t long before Satsuki starts seeing him as well. When the girls tell their father about these mythical creatures, he smiles and doesn’t act for one second that he doesn’t believe them. As such, it’s refreshing to see an adult in an animated film not dismiss a child for these whimsical thoughts.

My Neighbor Totoro [1988]

It’s difficult to put into words what makes My Neighbor Totoro so great. The wild imaginations of children are expertly captured, and I can’t think of a better film that nails the general sensibilities of youth. The bond between the little girls and Totoro is heartwarming, especially as they are essentially using this creature as their way of coping with their sick mother. “Adult” issues are brought up and handled with care, and there is not even the slightest notion of condescension.

The sisters are believable, lifelike characters, and their jubilant behavior while exploring their new house is fun to watch. Totoro and his many smaller relatives are wonderful creatures, and it’s easy to see how they have remained popular worldwide over the years. There is also an incredibly unique “cat bus” that transports Totoro around the forest, one of the coolest looking modes of transportation I have ever seen.

My Neighbor Totoro [1988]

In a nutshell, My Neighbor Totoro is a beautifully-animated film that has a little something for everyone. It made me feel like a kid again, which is rare in itself. An absolute must see, even for those who generally sway away from animated films.

9/10

Movie Project #30: Ringu [1998]

Due to the surprising success of my initial Movies Project, I decided to do a part two for 2012. This time around I put a greater emphasis on directors I am not familiar with, but I also tried to compile a mix of different genres and eras. This will be an ongoing project with the finish date being sometime this year.

Ringu [1998]

Ringu [1998]
Director: Hideo Nakata
Genre: Horror/Mystery
Starring: Nanako Matsushima, Miki Nakatani and Yûko Takeuchi
Runtime: 96 minutes

My experience with Japanese horror movies is very, very limited. In fact, I can only remember seeing Audition, and that was many years ago. When I initially compiled my 50 movies project, it was suggested that I include something from the genre. As the highest grossing horror film in Japan, Ringu seemed like an obvious starting point.

Those who have seen the 2002 American remake, The Ring, are likely familiar with the premise. A group of teenagers have discovered a cursed videotape that will kill its viewers seven days after watching. A reporter, Reiko Asakawa (Nanako Matsushima), starts a personal investigation of this matter after it is rumored that her niece and a few friends died from the curse. Eventually she discovers the tape herself, watches it and then frantically has to find a way to reverse the process and stay alive. She gains help from her ex-husband Ryuji Takayama (Hiroyuki Sanada), but can they solve the mystery in time?

Ringu [1998]

By now, more than a decade later, the film’s more memorable moments have been ingrained into the pop culture canon. The creepy little girl with long black hair, the bizarre content on the videotape, the sudden appearance of a large eyeball — anyone with half a pulse will recognize these. The common perception, with these idiosyncracies in mind, is that Ringu is scary as hell. I was expecting to *finally* be scared by a movie, something that has never happened to me. Alas, I was surprised to learn that Ringu is more of a mystery film than anything.

Sure, the suspense is riveting and the atmosphere creepy, but there was never a moment where I became frightened. The eyeball was alarming, but that was more peculiar than anything. Taken as a horror film, this is a little disappointing. As a mystery, however, this is more intriguing.

Ringu [1998]

Even though I knew what to expect from most of the film, I was generally interested throughout. The slow build creates subtle tension, and while it has its more convoluted moments, the culmination into an epic 10-minute frenzy at the end is unforgettable. For some, though, I imagine this payoff is too little, too late.

Ringu is a good, solid film, but I feel that it has lost some of its flair over the years. The mystery story is well-crafted and the performances are strong, but it is mostly forgettable outside of a few select moments. That being said, I am definitely interested in seeing more of the genre.

7/10

 
Now I’m ready to revisit The Ring. What do you guys prefer? Ringu or The Ring?

Movie Project #47 and #48: Tokyo Story [1953] and Army of Darkness [1992]

The 50 Movies Project is a personal “marathon” of mine. In June, I compiled a list of 50 movies that I felt I needed to see by the end of the year. Old, new, foreign, English — it doesn’t matter. These are all movies that I have heard a lot about and have been wanting to see for some time. This project gives me a way to stay focused on the goal.

Tokyo Story [1953]
Tokyo Story [1953, Yasujirō Ozu]
Starring Chishû Ryû, Chieko Higashiyama and Sô Yamamura.

My first Ozu film is a sad one. This highly-regarded classic follows the lives of a Japanese family in the country’s post-war recovery period. An elderly couple take the all-day train trip to Tokyo to visit their children and spend some time with them. The children, however, are all busy and have little time to be with their parents. Their eldest son, Koichi (Yamamura), is a doctor who is always on the go, and their eldest daughter, Shige (Haruko Sugimara) is a busy hair salon owner. That leaves the couple’s widowed daughter-in-law Noriko (Setsuko Hara) as the only person who is able (or willing) to sacrifice work to be with them. Everyone means well, they just can’t help always being occupied.

The movie takes a depressing turn in the second half, as the mother grows ill on the return trip home. The children make immediate trips to be with her, but nothing changes. They spend little time with their parents and ultimately leave earlier than expected. In this regard, the film is bleak and depressing, yet it is also realistic. Everyone has their own lives, and sometimes it is hard to break away from them even to spend time with their loved ones. Ozu paints this in a very straightforward manner, and we are merely seeing what is a common occurrence. The movie is remarkably well-made, but it crawls along at such a slow pace that extreme patience is needed for most of it. Tokyo Story demands attention, and while I appreciate its value, I found it to be one of the more challenging films in my project. 7.5/10

Army of Darkness [1992, Sam Raimi]
Army of Darkness [1992, Sam Raimi]
Starring Bruce Campbell, Embeth Davidtz and Marcus Gilbert.

To prepare myself for Army of Darkness, I re-watched The Evil Dead (it had been several years) and also checked out Evil Dead II for the first time. Both were a lot of fun, though I think I prefer the original due to its stronger horror emphasis. Evil Dead II sent things in a more comedic direction, and Army of Darkness took this idea and ran with it. With only a slight reliance on horror, the trilogy’s conclusion opts for a greater slapstick influence. While I was entertained for the most part, I can’t say I was a big fan of some of the humor presented. There were a handful of scenes that annoyed me more than anything, such as when Ash (Campbell) is fighting several miniature versions of himself.

Still, I loved the movie’s cheesy one-liners, several of which were later unashamedly ripped off by Duke Nukem. The epic battle between the medievil soldiers and the army of dead was great fun, and the special effects were aesthetically pleasing. I can see why this has a cult following, and I enjoyed the movie for the most part, but I would rather watch the first two in the trilogy if given the choice. 7/10

Video Game Review: Fatal Frame [Playstation 2, 2002]

Fatal Frame [Playstation 2, 2002]

Fatal Frame
System: Playstation 2 (also on Xbox)
Genre: Survival Horror
Publisher: Tecmo
Developer: Tecmo
Release Date: March 4, 2002

When the scariest video games of all time are discussed, it never takes long for Tecmo’s Fatal Frame series to get brought up. This is a series that thrives on its haunting atmosphere, with mostly helpless protagonists faced against an endless onslaught of ghosts and general creepiness.

The original Fatal Frame takes place in an abandoned Japanese mansion. You play as Miku Hinasaki, a young woman who ventures to the mansion to look for her older brother, Mafuyu, who has been missing for two weeks. When she arrives, she realizes that the place is actually haunted, as old folklore stated, and she starts to uncover startling secrets about the family who once inhabited the home. Tales of gruesome murder and torture are unearthed, and now the mansion is crawling with ghosts. Seriously, they are EVERYWHERE, often appearing in places you would not expect.

Fatal Frame [Playstation 2, 2002]

The only way that Miku can combat the ghosts is by using the Camera Obscura, an antique camera that possesses the ability to damage and capture spirits. When an attacking ghost appears, Miku must keep it within the camera’s shot while waiting as long as possible before taking the picture, as this will maximize the damage. Of course, this is easier said than done since this means Miku will be face to face with disturbing ghosts that are moaning and trying violently to grab her and cause harm. It’s pretty damn crazy.

The camera can be upgraded over time, but the enemies grow stronger as well. Throughout the entire campaign, there is a vast feeling of uneasiness. Fatal Frame excels at keeping you on edge, as you never know what to expect. Ghosts randomly spawn all throughout the mansion, even as you backtrack through previously explored areas. Sometimes they will pop out when you open a door, other times they will just randomly appear behind you. The tension can be almost unbearable at times.

Fatal Frame [PS2]

Unfortunately, as the ghosts grow stronger and become more plentiful, the game’s difficulty spikes drastically. By the time I reached the last chapter, I was ill-suited to deal with the powerful spirits that just so happened to be in damn near every room and hallway. Perhaps I had been using medical herbs and high-powered film too liberally in the first half of the game, but I had a hell of a time making my way through the last chapter. Exploring the house in each chapter usually reaps dividends in the form of bonus items, but it’s hard to actually get to these when there are hellacious ghosts around every corner. I felt the game could have been more balanced overall, as this was a major inconvenience for me.

The game’s controls also take some getting used to. They are in the vein of Resident Evil’s old school survival horror, and the game uses fixed camera angles set up in each area. This can cause moments of disorientation when the camera abruptly switches to a different angle. Once I got the hang of it, this didn’t bother me, but I can see how it would be an issue for some.

Problems aside, Fatal Frame is still a damn good horror game that is more than worthy of its “scariest game ever” label. This is a game that deserves to be played in the dark with the sound turned way up. Try not to wet yourself when the music slowly builds up while you hear ghosts moaning in the walls. You know there’s a ghost (or two, or three) lingering around, but you have no idea where. This is the essence of Fatal Frame.

8/10

Movie Project #9: Akira [1988]

The 50 Movies Project is a personal “marathon” of mine. In June, I compiled a list of 50 movies that I felt I needed to see by the end of the year. Old, new, foreign, English — it doesn’t matter. These are all movies that I have heard a lot about and have been wanting to see for some time. This project gives me a way to stay focused on the goal.

Akira [1988]

Akira [1988]
Directors: Katsuhiro Ohtomo
Genre: Anime/Action/Fantasy
Language: Japanese
Country: Japan

When it comes to anime, I have no problem admitting that I am very much a novice. I have seen a few Studio Ghibli films, and a handful of random TV show episodes here and there (mostly Ranma ½ and InuYasha), but never fully explored the genre. One movie that I have heard come up time and time again whenever anime is mentioned is the 1988 film, Akira.

Based on the massive eponymous manga series, Akira is a cyberpunk-themed sci-fi film set in dystopian Neo-Tokyo. The story revolves around Tetsuo, a motorcycle gang member who develops powerful psychic powers. He’s not alone in having these abilities; he comes to find out that there are multiple youths who have unique powers, including Akira, the child who caused Tokyo’s destruction 31 years ago. However, Tetsuo soon becomes megalomaniacal and begins to threaten the city in his own way. His buddy and fellow gang member, Kaneda, sets out to stop the potential devastation, all while getting caught up in the middle of a battle with the city’s oppressive government. Naturally, there is a lot of violence and crazy shit happening throughout.

Akira [1988]

As someone unfamiliar with the original manga, I couldn’t help but get lost during the movie. The story moves along at a fast clip, and I had no idea what was happening at times. I had no interest in the main characters, and couldn’t empathize with Tetsuo, even as he was fighting back against the evil government. From what I have heard, it really helps to have read the original material before watching the movie, and I certainly got that feeling myself.

The animation, while obviously dated, still looks cool and I thought it was a strong suit for the movie. I dug the cyberpunk feel, as the visuals do an excellent job portraying a gritty city that is still feeling the effects of its previous destruction. For a 20+ year old film, Akira still looks sharp.

I feel like I may need to watch Akira again to appreciate it more, but I am also wondering if I am just not a fan of this style of anime. I liked the visuals and the environment they portrayed, but I felt hopeless as the story began to spiral out of control.

Akira fans, what am I missing here?

Video Game Review: WTF: Work Time Fun [PSP, 2006]

WTF: Work Time Fun [PSP, 2006]

WTF: Work Time Fun
System: PSP
Developer: SCEI
Publisher: D3, Sony
Release Date: October 23, 2006

It takes just one glance at WTF: Work Time Fun’s title to realize that it is going to be a bizarre and eccentric game. A quirky Japanese title, WTF is a compilation of minigames that are all over the place with randomness and unusual concepts.

In the game, you play as an oddjob worker who just so happens to be in Hell. Your goal is to make money by performing random tasks. I’m not kidding when I say “random” — tasks range from everything to putting caps on pens to kicking out of a pro wrestling pin at the last possible moment. The money earned from these projects is used for vending machines that give out completely random prizes: more tasks/minigames, useless trinkets and mostly unhelpful “tools” such as a mobile bingo machine. In essence, there is no point to the game other than to work tedious jobs and earn money to purchase meaningless items. Doesn’t sound like fun, does it?

WTF: Work Time Fun [PSP, 2006]

For all of its wackiness, WTF struggles with one major problem: most of the minigames just aren’t fun. The aforementioned Pendamonium game is probably the worst offender. In this “game” your job is to put caps on pens, occasionally taking the time to flip them over so the cap is placed in the right spot. That’s it. There is no definitive end to this task; you just keep doing this over and over again until you get tired of it. Another futile minigame has you separate baby chicks by their sex by simply hitting a different button for male and female. This goes on for a full TEN MINUTES. Whereas other minigame compilations work because they keep the games quick and to the point, WTF sometimes pushes them ad nauseum.

It should be noted that not all tasks are bad, though all are incredibly simple. I enjoyed testing my ability with the lumberjack minigame. In this one, an old lady throws out pieces of wood for you to chop — the catch is that she will occasionally toss in stuffed animals, and if you chop those you lose. Another tolerable minigame is a simple race where you have to hit the brakes at the right time in order to pass your opponent while also avoiding running off the cliff. Again, these are nothing special and actually could pass as simple Flash games, but they work in the context of WTF.

WTF: Work Time Fun [PSP, 2006]

Without its off-the-wall Japanese presentation, Work Time Fun would have nothing going for it. The games come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and have varying aesthetic appeals. Some games look like they belong in the Atari era, whereas others use real-life images to make them stand out. It’s always interesting to see what games you can unlock, although it’s not always fun getting there.

It’s hard to recommend Work Time Fun unless you have a soft spot for weird Japanese humor and/or you enjoy performing lots of tedious work to unlock worthless collectibles. Chalk this one up as an interesting experiment that belongs to a very niche audience.

5/10

Movie Review: 13 Assassins [2010]

13 Assassins [2010]

13 Assassins [2010]
Director: Takashi Miike
Genre: Action/Adventure/Drama
Language: Japanese
Country: Japan

Total massacre.

Those two words are the catalyst for 13 Assassins, foreshadowing of the bloodbath to come. Takashi Miike’s latest directorial effort is a throwback to the old samurai epics of yore, updated for the 21st century.

Set in Feudal Japan, the movie introduces us to a disgusting and despicable young man, Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki). Naritsugu is the brother of the current Shogun and therefore has free reign to do whatever he pleases. In his case, he uses this freedom to rape, murder and generally terrorize the common public. After someone publicly commits seppuku in protest of the Lord’s actions, a group of samurais is secretly assembled to put a stop to his terror. Led by the veteran Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho), this collection of “13 assassins” begins preparing for battle against what they expect to be Naritsugu and 200 of his henchmen.

13 Assassins [2010]

Much has been made of this epic battle, of which the final 40 minutes of the movie are comprised of. Folks, this fight sequence is every bit as good as everyone says, and it is an amazing cinematic achievement. There is non-stop carnage involving brutal sword battles, strategic traps, unique weapons and just all-around mayhem. It is utter chaos, and this scene is easily one of the best battles I have ever seen on the big screen. Seriously, it is that good.

Outside of the epic action, there is a lot to like here. The acting is phenomenal, and fans of Japanese cinema will recognize much of the cast. The Feudal Japan setting is perfectly recreated and the movie does an excellent job of transporting viewers into that time period. There are also bits of humor scattered throughout that lighten the mood — definitely a welcome addition considering the eventual massacre.

13 Assassins [2010]

13 Assassins starts off a little slow, which might throw off some, and there are a few moments during the elongated battle where I had to suspend my disbelief a little bit. However, I greatly enjoyed the movie overall. Lord Naritsugu is a perfect villain, and it’s very easy to get behind the thirteen hired assassins (especially one who is a bit of bumbling fool, channeling Kikuchiyo from Seven Samurai). This is a movie that deserves to be seen on the big screen, and it is a must-see for fans of the genre.

8.5/10