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As odd as it might seem, please allow me the opportunity to wax philosophical about a movie that is entirely comprised of wacky dash cam footage from Russia (some of which you may have already seen online).

There are few things that is as quintessentially American as the road trip. Exploration is in this country’s DNA, and while heading west is no longer the dangerous affair that it once was, there’s still a sense of mystery, danger, and excitement that comes to travelling, regardless of direction. I love being on the road, like most Americans. I’m also a New Yorker to be exact, which means I’m rarely on the road, so it’s a rare treat. And when I do find myself inside an automobile, it’s never as a driver (again, as a New Yorker, I lack the necessary license) but instead a passenger. A helpless passenger.

It’s either a blessing or a curse to be free of the responsibility of control, to therefore just sit back and simply brace for impact, literally or metaphorically. And that’s what The Road Movie is all about. It’s a highlight reel of every crazy car ride you’ve ever been on… provided if you were Russia. The timing of this film could not be any better; it’s funny how I grew up with the Russians being the bad guys, then they became the good guys, and now according to the news (well, the news that they’re not apparently controlling, at least), they’re back to being the bad guys again. Yet despite all the time that has passed, that country and its denizens are a total mystery.

You learn a lot being on the road. About the land, and its people, from the comfort of speeding vehicle. Or one that’s just sitting there. You also learn about the person behind the wheel, primarily their reaction to what you’re seeing. Sometimes it’s the total opposite. Sometimes it’s similar… yet still very much foreign. There are two things I learned while being in countless Russian seats, during the hour & half or so run time: 1. Russian cars are seemingly very light. They have a tendency to roll very easily. And 2. if one ever decides to visit and explore the country, by renting a car and driving around, under no condition should one overtake and pass another driver. Because there’s a very good chance you’ll piss someone off. And that person may also have an ax or a hatchet.

The most intriguing part is the matter of fact reactions from the drivers and the actual passengers, to the wacky sights and sounds (at least they might be considered as such, to non-Russians). Which are mostly cars and trucks colliding and crumpling. But then you have a group of men who look like they’re cops, who have stopped and surrounded the car… but as it turns out, they’re not actually cops. Or rolling into a car wash, only to be cut off… by a tank. Or driving through a forest… one engulfed in flames… which also appears to be on another planet, by the way. Actually, there are fairly strong reactions from those inside the car, yet they’re far less animated that what you or someone here in the States might produce. It’s definitely more nihilistic.

As noted, you’ve probably seen some of these clips online before. But just imagine watching said clips on the large screen, with an audience. It’s not often that such an opportunity presents itself… to chance to not share with others how you’d react if you were going down a dark road at night, with a bear running right in front of you, one that also decides to take a crap while running… but also to see how they react to the driver’s deadpan reaction. Hence why, if The Road Movie is playing near you, do yourself a favor this weekend and catch it.

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04/07/2017

Beyond Godzilla: “Blue Christmas”

by Matthew Hawkins

Time to investigate yet another entry in Japan Society’s Beyond Godzilla: Alternative Futures & Fantasies in Japanese Cinema. Again we have yet another sci fi flick that defies what many Western audiences have come to expect from the genre, from that part of the world, given its strong associate with kaiju. And Blue Christmas is as far removed from Godzilla as one can get, though there is one truth that unites both movies, which is how the greatest monster is mankind.

Blue Christmas

Blue Christmas is a fairly obscure flick from director Kihachi Okamoto, best known for Sword of Doom. Though its name has regularly surfaced over the years, since I frequently search for new movies to watch every holiday season and am also fluent with hardcore Neon Genesis Evangelion trivia. In the case of the later, its where creator Hideaki Anno coined the term Blood Type Blue, which is regularly cited in Eva, plus he also used a photo of Okamoto as the face of an important off screen character in Shin Godzilla. Anyhow, Blue Christmas introduces a concept that is simple yet unique, and more importantly, supremely intriguing: whenever anyone comes in contact with a UFO, that person’s blood turns blue. And… that’s it. There are no other changes to the person. Actually, one individual claims that all of her petty jealousies, grudges, and other less than noble characteristics that many of allow ourselves to succumb to were all vanquished when her blood turned blue, but that could simply be an instance of self-realization that happens whenever a truly momentous occasion occurs (and encountering intelligence from another world seems like an appropriately eye opening event).

Once again, people are seemingly completely normal despite this change, and even though a possible scientific reason is given as to why people’s blood turns blue is tossed back and forth (which has something to do with the orange light that said UFOs omit), it’s still all a mystery, which inevitably transforms into fear and hostility towards anyone with blue blood. This ugly side of humanity, which has been consistent throughout history (and not to state the obvious, but which is alive and well), is what drives Blue Christmas’s narrative. A film that doesn’t have one lead but two; first there’s Minami, a reporter for the Japanese Broadcasting Corporation, who learns of a cover up by various governments, concerning the existence of people with blue blood, primarily the reasons behind the color change. Skeptical at first, he eventually becomes convinced that there is indeed a conspiracy going on; Dr. Hyodo was a prominent scientist who was laughed out of a conference for daring to bring up the existence of UFOs and also people with blue blood, who mysteriously disappeared afterward. Minami’s hunt eventually takes him to the USA, NYC to be exact. I haven’t mentioned thus far that Blue Christmas was filmed in the late 70s, so not only do we get to see Japan circa that point in time, but are treated to Old New York as well, which I’m super fond of. I also can’t help to point out the ridiculous hair of actor Tatsuya Nakadai, who plays the role of Minami; let’s just say the wacky wigs seen in SCTV was more based on fact than fiction.

Though there’s a reason why Minami’s quest for the truth is super personal: early into the film, a buddy of his at the network reveals that his gal pal, who just got the leading role of JBC’s big upcoming period drama, has blue blood. He asks Minami to keep it a secret, but it’s casually blabbed to an executive. Note: this is Minami’s first time hearing about the phenomena, and has no idea that they will eventually become targets of an insidious plan to have them eliminated from society. Well, word spreads and next thing you know, said actress finds herself at the hotel party of some American rock band called The Humanoids, who are in Japan on tour. They’re one of the first individuals on Japanese media to bring up the rise of UFO sightings, and spoilers, their over the top/cartoonish antics is not indicative of aliens in disguise as I had been hoping, but are just really bad actors (basically, if you’re a gaijin in Japan, you are guaranteed acting work, despite any lack of acting chops). Anyhow, as rock stars who are supposed to resemble the Beatles towards the end of their careers or the Rolling Stones at their height, there’s plenty of drugs at their shindig. Which gets planted on the actress (who didn’t even want to be there in the first place), then there’s a police raid, so she’s arrested and subsequently fired from the show, which leads to her taking her own life (being caught with drugs was basically career suicide back in the day in Japan). Minami feels responsible for all this, and his quest for the truth uncovers a sinister scheme that mirrors what happened to Jews during World War II.

I also mentioned another lead character, and its Oki, who provides the perspective from “the other side”. Specifically, that of a Japanese soldier, a cog in the machine, who must eventually carry out his duty and seal the fates of the blue bloods, whose existence becomes increasingly public and demonized as the film progresses. And of course things are complicated by the revelation that his girlfriend is one of them. Speaking of, Blue Christmas as a whole is quite complex; there is a lot going on, and it can be difficult to keep track of. I suppose another trait found in certain Godzilla flicks, primarily the most recent one, that’s present here is how there is a LOT of talking, maybe too much for some. Of all the movies in the Beyond Godzilla series, this one may have the least amount of special effects. As the few other reviews that exist in English have already noted, Blue Christmas is a fascinating mix of pulpy tropes, including alien invasion, subliminal messages in music (I forgot to mention that The Humanoid’s hit sing is Blue Christmas, which is heard throughout the movie; not the Elvis version, mind you, but the CHAR version), and rise of fascism, all packaged in a rather matter of fact, coldly observant manner. There is a slight tinge of whimsy at first, or so I thought, due to the sights and sounds of 70s, which slowly become muted as the heaviness of the plot takes root. While not immediately nihilistic as Sword of Doom, it’s there nonetheless, and simply creeps up on your. Stylistically, Eva nerds love to cite Blue Christmas as being a major influence on Anno, in particular his approach towards editing, though I also get the feeling that Takashi Miike was a fan, and even Jonathan Demme as odd as it sounds? Okamoto loves the looking into the camera close up shot, as does Demme, which in turn has influenced Wes Anderson and P.T. Anderson.

So yeah, I ultimately recommend Blue Christmas, though everyone should know exactly what they’re getting into. If you’re craving some cerebral sci-fi that touches upon some of the ugliness that continues to plague society to this very day, and won’t mind a slow pace and dense plot, which are thankfully has a dash of super cool 70s Japanese aesthetics, and a stroll through the streets of NYC circa that time as well (plus an extremely brief yet hilarious stop in Texas), then you can check it out at the Japan Society tomorrow at 4:00pm.

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03/31/2017

Beyond Godzilla: “School in the Crosshairs”

by Matthew Hawkins

The first film series of note for 2017, in my book, is Japan Society’s Beyond Godzilla: Alternative Futures & Fantasies in Japanese Cinema. It seeks to present other notable examples of Tokusatsu cinema, which are tales of science fiction, horror, or fantasy that are primarily driven by fancy special effects. As the name of the survey somewhat implies, Godzilla is what’s most closely associated to Tokusatsu, at least outside of Japan, and you won’t find him here, though there is a kaiju flick! But I’m here to discuss…

School in the Crosshairs

… or The Aimed School as it sometimes called, is by Nobuhiko Obayashi, best known for House, or Hausu as it often referred to. Given what a sensation his debut motion picture was, almost ten years now (it’s arguably still the most recognizable film to be “discovered” by the New York Asian Film Festival), it’s a bit of a shock that his other works haven’t seen much play since. And based upon the few that have managed to pop up here and there, while are all quite excellent (it kills me that I’ve only been able to see Exchange Students/I Are You, You Am Me only the one time, when Japan Society had their Obayashi retrospective in late 2015), a common sentiment I’ve heard expressed is how his later works aren’t quite as whimsical as House. Well, if you were a fan of that movie’s wackiness, then you absolutely need to see School in the Crosshairs, which is more or less just like Obayashi’s magnum opus except instead of high school girls trying to keep each other alive in a haunted abode, they’re duking it out via psychic powers.

The movie was one of several starring an idol at the time, in this case Hiroko Yakushimaru, best known for her leading role in the original adaptation of Sailor Suit and Machine Gun. Here she’s Yuka, who aside from being the most popular girl in class, is also the smartest. Yuka’s close friend is Koji, a boy that’s less concerned about good grades and more on being at the best in the high school kendo club. Yuka wants Koji to get better grades, but is ultimately supportive of his training; when Koji’s parents decided to get their son a tutor and hire Yuka (they’re totally unaware of the nature of two’s relationship; it’s never explicitly stated that Yuka & Koji are boyfriend/girlfriend… mostly cuz idols aren’t supposed to be kissing other boys, cuz that would ruin it for their fans… it’s obvious that they’re pretty close), she ultimately helps him skip out of the house and pursue kendo training, despite it being forbidden by Koji’s dad. Anyhow, one day after kendo club, the pair are walking down the street and a small toddler wanders into oncoming traffic and is almost killed until latent psychic abilities are awakened within Yuka. She would later put this power to use by helping Koji score a decisive victory in a heated kendo competition against another school.

Perhaps it’s the sustained usage of said power, or the fact that it was employed for somewhat selfish purposes, but a silver faced dude all of a sudden appears out of nowhere. Not long after he confronts Yuka after school and says that he knows what she’s capable of, which is the potential to take over the world, and maybe they should hook up. Yuka turns down the offer. Not long after that, a new girl shows up in class; Michiru manages to charm the pants off of Yuka’s male classmates with looks alone, since she’s definitely not as warm and friendly as Yuka. It isn’t long before Michiru nabs the role of student body president or something of the like (more on that in a bit) and enacts some super harsh changes that transforms the entire school into a fascist dictatorship. Michiru’s ultimate goal is to have students enroll in a cram school (or at least I think that’s what they are… again, will explain in a bit), one that’s zombifying students. You might not be surprised to know that it’s actually run by the aforementioned silver faced dude, though what you might not have expected to hear is that he’s actually from Venus.

As noted, if you loved the super colorful and crazy visuals of House, then you’ll adore the look and feel of School in the Crosshairs. There is a ton of super neat-o greenscreen, focal, and stop motion effects at play here. The soundtrack, while not as catchy as House‘s, is still a must listen to anyone who digs early 80s Japanese pop. And it becomes instantly apparent why Hiroko Yakushimaru was an idol; she’s got the looks, smarts, plus charms and is more or less perfect in every which way possible, yet is still very much relatable so you can’t help yourself but want to root for her. Did I also mention the random bits of roller-skating and the monkey? But concerning the movie as a whole, is the former is as good as the latter? While at points it comes within the ball park, it doesn’t quite hit the mark, though I honestly can’t say, because… if there’s one complain I have, it’s how the story was at at times incomprehensible. Though I place the blame on a less then adequate translation. There was at least one joke that I didn’t realize was one and was therefore super confused (plus distracted) until I figured out something was amiss.

But I will say, there have been plenty of times in which the translation job for the version that’s on the big screen was far superior. And even if that’s not the case… everyone who can see School in the Crosshairs, which is playing tonight at 7:00pm at Japan Society, must absolutely do so since it might be your only chance!

[UPDATE] Okay, since the screening has come and gone, along with how many people potentially reading this were more than likely unable to attend, plus how (as noted) the chances of seeing it otherwise are at this point fairly slim… I suppose it doesn’t hurt anyone by presenting the super psychedelic finale to the film? Though, if you get the chance to see the whole thing, please do so!

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