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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Time for yet another look at what’s worth checking out at this year’s NYAFF. In this particular case, we’ve got two movies in which stars are not quite human…

If Cats Disappeared From the World

One of the New York Asian Film Festival’s key distinguishing characteristics is how it occasionally highlights movies that, for some, are a bit too much. I’m confident that the forthcoming The Tenants Downstairs will be the next great example of this. Which is why, every once in a while, during a screening you may hear someone in the theater audibly gasp. Either in shock or even disgust. In some rare cases, you may even hear the sound of someone gagging. But not so during If Cats Disappeared From the World; the only thing I could make out was sniffling. Lots of it. The film, based upon a novel of the same name, is about a young man who leads a fairly quaint existence; he loves his job, delivering mail for the friendly residents of some modest suburbia, as well as the cat that waits for him at the end of each day. He also loves feeding said cat and watching movies, apparently one everyday, provided by his best friend at the local video store. To some, the fresh-faced postman’s life is rather boring and mundane, yet he finds immense satisfaction in the simplest of pleasures, hence why he lives for the present and gives zero thought towards the future. Until a mysterious fall of his bike lands him in the hospital, where the postman learns that he has a malignant brain tumor and could drop dead at literally any moment. So basically, he has no future. Since there’s honestly not a whole lot that can be done, and given his priorities in life up till this point, the only thoughts that comes to mind are appropriately silly and inconsequential, like how many more movies will he be able to see before his number is up, and how it’s such a shame that he just stocked up on shampoo. Side note: lead actor Takeru Sato has some amazing hair that I’m legit jealous over.

Anyhow, the postman arrives home from the hospital to encounter… himself? Or someone who looks just like him. This doppelganger claims to be a devil of some sort and tells the postman that he will die tomorrow for sure, but is willing to grant one extra day if something from the world disappears without a trace. Ultimately it’s never the postman’s call and instead the devil simply makes the selection that our lead must simply deal with. The first thing suggested? Phones. The devil points out how they’re just nuisances that robs and squanders everyone’s time and attention, which may be true of cell phones, but all phones? The postman is given the chance to make one last call and it’s his ex. She works at a movie theater, and after work the following day, the former couple have a cup of coffee to reminisce over the good times. Turns out, telephones played a major part in their relationship; before they knew each other, she called his house while he was watching a movie, intending to reach another classmate. But because she recognized what he was watching via the sound alone, since she too is a film buff, they started hanging out. As for their dates, those were fun and all, but because the postman (well, before he was a postman, cuz he’s still in school at this point) is so shy when it comes to face-to-face interactions, he’d rather just talk on the phone. So they’d share these long, intimate conversations, and then both are too sleepy during their actual get-togethers. All of which vanishes once the devil decides to pull the trigger; despite the iffy CGI, it was fun watching the postman freak out, as he runs all over town and witnesses all signs of phones vanishing, like the local cell phone shop transforming into a book store. And because phones never exists, that chance wrong number was erased from history as well, along with the entire relationship that resulted.

And thus we are introduced to If Cats Disappeared From the World’s pattern; once the devil brings up the next everyday object that’s set to vanish, the postman is reminded of how vital a role it played in the story of his life. BTW, after phones are movies. Which aside from sealing the deal with his college girlfriend, are what got him talking to the quiet kid in the back of class in the first place, a huge film nerd and eventual best bud. Who also happens to be portrayed by Gaku Hamada, one of my favorite actors in Japan, and who I was introduced to via the films of Yoshihiro Nakamura, one of my favorite directors in Japan. Nakamura happens to be a flat out genius when it comes to telling tales about the deep human connections made possible via the most seemingly inconsequential of things, and If Cats Disappeared From the World feels a bit like one of this movies, albeit with the wackiness dialed back. Plus the whole notion of coming to terms with loneliness and death is presented in a fashion that’s more commonly seen in Japanese cinema these days, meaning it tries a bit too hard at pulling those heart-strings and is also at times rather heavy handed. Which I normally can’t stomach (as some may have noticed by now, I’m rather harsh when it comes to standards pertaining to movies from Japan), yet it totally works here, as evidenced by the fact that there was barely a dry eye in the house. The credit largely goes to the stellar cast, not just Sato and Hamada but everyone else on two legs, though the performance of those in one four legs is what everyone will gravitate towards the most. As one would expect, on the devil’s list of stuff to get rid off are cats, who played a very central role in terms of the postman’s relationship with his mom and his dad. I’ll say no more, other than I’m supremely confident that If Cats Disappeared From the World will win this year’s New York Asian Film Festival Audience Award. I give the movie my highest possible recommendation; it plays one more time, this Monday, June 27 at Lincoln Center, and if you can be there, then by all means, be there.

The Mermaid

The Mermaid is the latest and perhaps most successful film from Stephen Chow, at least when one looks purely at the numbers; it’s China’s highest grossing film of all time, last I checked (though that Warcraft movie may end up changing those box office records). Some will no doubt be disappointed to hear that Chow’s only behind the camera this time around, but given that he’s the film’s writer, producer, director, and composer (he actually did all that and was in front of the camera for Kung Fu Hustle, and perhaps discovered that it was a bit too much all at once), his presence is felt throughout. Some have also hailed that it as one of Chow’s finest efforts, though not to act like some film snob, but I have to wonder if these people are familiar with his earlier films; I used to claim God of Cookery is his best overall, though it largely resonated with me at the time cuz I was a diehard OG Iron Chef fan at the time, plus it’s been a while since I’ve seen it again. Though there is something I can agree with every other review I’ve read thus far; it’s insane how Sony did little to promote the movie when it first appeared in the US. Get this; The Mermaid actually came out in America earlier this year, with absolutely no fanfare.

The film is about Liu, a filthy rich real estate tycoon who is as scummy as those types tend to be. He purchases some land under the sea known as the Green Gulf, which is protected from any sort of development due to it being a dolphin sanctuary. So he comes up with a plan to utilize sonar technology that causes unbearable pain, as to drive them away, though it harms (actually, flat out kills) all sea life. Cut to the after party where Liu is celebrating and Ruolan, the daughter of one of his rivals, suggests that they become business partners, and well as sexual partners. When all of a sudden they’re interrupted by a party crasher, a young and semi-awkward woman who passes along her phone number to Liu, before getting kicked out. Her name is Shanshan btw and we then follow her home, which happens to be an abandoned oil tanker that’s inside the Green Gulf. There we discover that she’s no ordinary girl but a mermaid! Part of a tribe of merpeople, who are all simply referred to as mermaids, both the men and women, which secretly inhabit the Green Gulf. And who are also becoming ill thanks to Liu’s shenanigans, so the plan is this: once Liu is on a date Shanshan, she’ll just kill him and get their revenges.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, the reason why Shanshan can move around above the ground is because her tail got sniped, though it’s still a bit awkward for her to walk, hence why she prefers to get around with a skateboard. Anyhow, Liu does end up calling Shanshan up and their time together is rather awkward since they’re both act like fish out of water. And, as one may have also guessed, things don’t go according to plan due to the assassin falling for her target. Turns out Liu is a nice guy after all, which naturally upsets Shanshan’s people. Especially their leader, who instead of being half fish is half octopus, for mostly comedic effect; he ends up interacting with Liu and his posse by posing as Shanshan’s uncle, and at one point has to heat up and cut off parts of himself while also pretending to be a sushi chef, while tagging along Shanshan’s second date/attempt as assassination. I should perhaps point out that the film is very special effects laden, and I generally can’t stand CGI in most Asian cinema (I hate the overuse of CGI in Hollywood as well, but at least they have the money and resources to do it slightly better). Yet I didn’t mind it here, mostly due to the fact that the visual tricks are pretty essential. The most important thing here, especially given that it’s a Stephen Chow flick, is the humor and The Mermaid doesn’t go overboard with the gags but has just enough of Chow’s trademark absurdist comedy to make fans happy. There’s one scene in which Liu attempts to inform the authorities about the existence of mermaids, and their inability to figure out what half is human and what half is fish worth the price of admission alone. Alas, much like many other Chow flicks, it’s tonally all over the map and gets rather dark near the end, but given that it’s to send a message, one that’s primarily aimed at a country that has a rather checkered history as it pertains to the environment (to put it mildly, though it’s not as if China’s the sole offenders across the globe), it too can and should be excused. If you missed your chance to catch The Mermaid the first time around, which we all did, your next opportunity is Saturday, July 2 at Lincoln Center.

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