Mary and the Witch’s Flower (2018): A New Studio’s Decent Introduction to the Studio Stage

With Hayao Miyazaki retiring soon and with it…I doubt his studio will ever be as strong. Hell, his son’s film “From Up on Poppy Hill” nearly put me to sleep and I’m afraid to see “Tales of Earthsea” given how much I love that series and the bad things I’ve heard about it. So lets put Ghibli’s future on hold. Who will take up the banner? Well Studio Ponoc throws their hat in the ring with this film as it captures many similar themes, from coming of age, nature v. science and other Miyazaki-esque themes. How did it do? If you like anime films I’d recommend it. It isn’t great but it is a solidly enjoyable outing. The film was released in 2017 in Japan but 2018 in the States so I’m counting it as my first 2018 film review.

The film was directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi who also co-wrote the film with Riko Sakaguchi and produced by Yoshiaki Nishimura.

The story involves Mary, a young girl in England about to start school who stumbles upon a Witch’s Flower which transports her to a magical school where she soon finds herself in over her head as Witch Madame Mumblechook and Doctor Dee seek the flower to their own ends.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The World – The world is really neat. I like that the Magic School / World lives above ours so it is hard to access, and the fact that it seem to imply anyone can access it and be changed by it. This also leads to a con though, the logic of this world is never answered…which I’ll bring up later.

The Animation – The animation is beautiful and very Ghibli-esque. It is open and gives characters a range of expression while also being fluid and full of compelling color, while remaining bright like a fairy tale. If they make more films with this aesthetic I may check out what they simply to see the animation and if they can take what great thing they have and make it better.

The Flashback – A mysterious witch is running away with the flower while being attacked by summoned water dolphin beings. The threat is high the entire time and we see her fall and her broom and the flowers become overgrown by the world below. This is an amazing setup and I wanted to know what happened.

Doctor Dee –  I saw the English dub because that was what released in theatres and Jim Broadbent is the one who voiced this mad scientist. He is really interesting as he sees unethical experiments as for the greater good and is seeking immortality. He also used to be tall but has now become short and uses machines to walk. His obsession has completely transforms him, but that didn’t change his love for Madame Mumblechook, the Headmistress of the school.

Great Aunt Charlotte – This is the character the movie should have been about. She is the witch at the beginning and we see that she’s settled down but still held onto a single flower. How did her life change after her escape? So much time has passed…but she was a witch so does her magic leave after she leaves the school? None of these questions are really answered. I wanted her story. She is way more compelling than our protagonists.

Okay: Mary and Peter – Mary and Peter are okay. Mary is clumsy and wants to help and doesn’t thing she is good at anything and Peter is a bully who ends up becoming more when he finds that Mary is friends with his cats. Mary saves Peter after becoming a witch and must stop Mumblechook and Dee…okay. This is all fine but none of them are all that complicated and I was far more invested in the side characters than our leads.

Madame Mumblechook – Madame Mumblechook is also okay, we don’t really see why the Witch’s Flower corrupted her motivation as Doctor Dee is the one doing mad scientist experiments and she is in charge of the school. We don’t really get her change beyond possibly her love for Dee? Which is a shame as Dee was driven by mad science, so he had more going on.

The Cons: World Development – Do Witch’s only get magic from the flower? Do you keep your magic if you stay at the school? How does the Witch World interact with ours? What is the difference between magic and science in this universe? This was a world of potential but it failed to fully explore the fascinating premise it started with.

I wish Studio Ponoc success, and given this is their first film they’ve released I hope they can continue releasing films of at least this quality and better. For any fans of the themes in Miyazaki and Ghibli films, check this one out. It has a lot of untapped potential but what they do explore is a lot of fun and the animation is simply beautiful. Here is to the future and hoping that Studio Ponoc will only grow from here.

Final Score: 7.8 / 10

 

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Departures (2008): A Masterpiece About Healing and What We Learn From the Dead

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This is my second time seeing “Departures” and I must say, it is just as amazing the second time around. Back when I was an undergrad in College I was part of a Japanese Program where we studied Japanese media, history, language and culture. One of the films that we had got to study was this film and back when I saw it it quickly became a favorite film.

The reasons it is a favorite are numerous and I’ll go into detail in the assessment but for the major things it gets right is the soundtrack, the cinematography, the complex characters and the theme. It’s truly a masterpiece that pulls you in.

The film was directed by Yōjirō Takita, written by Kundo Kayama and produced by Toshiaki Nakazawa.

The story is about Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) who loses his job as a cellist when the orchestra he is a part of dissolves and decides to move back to his hometown of Yamagata with his wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue). When he follows up from an add in the paper he finds himself in a job in which he prepares the dead for cremation and their funerals. Resistant at first he eventually comes around but finds that the job has alienated him from those around him and he must deal with his own hurt as his preparing the bodies of the dead has helped families deal with the loss of their loved ones.

The Pros: The Cinematography – Takeshi Hamada does a wonderful job with the cinematography on this film. Whether it’s the opening shot of a car driving through the snow filled fog, the burials and how they capture the pain and relationship the living have to the deceased or the alienation that Mika and Daigo at times feel from the world around them and each other. There is nothing but beautifully shot scenes in this film.

The Soundtrack – Joe Hisaishi was the perfect composer for this film. The use of strings and piano capture the themes of memories and loss that every character feels in this film and the theme song “Okuribito” is now a favorite.

The Characters – There aren’t any 2 Dimensional characters in this film. Everyone has motivations for doing what they do and no one is really a bad person. We see how complicated character relationships are through the choices characters make and also the regret the living feel based on how they treated the now deceased.

Yuriko – Yuriko is the secretary of the encoffining business and has a rich story. She is comfortable with working with the dead and has a lot of respect for the Boss as he hired her after the owner of the bar she worked for died. Her story is also tragic too as she abandoned her child for a man who wasn’t any good and now regrets it but fears going back to see her son, ashamed of how he might see her. For this reason she asks Daigo to see his father one last time when she learns his father died alone as she fears the same thing as well, even with the Boss and Daigo as her adopted family. Kimiko Yo gives a lot of depth to this role and her character might be my favorite out of all of them.

The Boss – The boss has another name but I’m going to refer as the Boss. Tsutomo Yamazaki does a great job in this role as the eccentric encoffiner. He lost his wife and prepared her body for cremation which got him into the business in the first place. He has a very honest approach to death and accepts that everyone dies at some point. This doesn’t stop him from being extremely respectful to everyone around him and having a certain interpersonal awareness contrasted with how unaware he can sometimes be. His final scene is giving Daigo the car so that he and Mika can go visit Daigo’s father’s body to see him for the last time. He’s very much the father Daigo never had.

Mika – Ryoko Hirosue plays a rich character who has an astonishing ability to grow and adapt. She leaves Tokyo to return to Daigo’s hometown even though she’s always wanted to travel and she eventually accepts Daigo’s job once she sees how much respect is given to the dead and how important his role is in helping families heal and move on. She also stands up for herself too and voices how difficult the move was and tries to change Daigo’s mind about his job twice before she finally sees what is it is like. It is also her action that makes Daigo realize he should see his father. She is one of the most mature characters in the film and Hirosue owns the role.

Daigo – Daigo holds a lot of pain inside of himself but is also very much a child still. We see this in his moments of joy with Mika and his full embracing of his job as an encoffiner when he finds he is good at it and what he is able to give the families in honoring those who have passed. His arc is forgiving his father and moving on from the world he left behind when the orchestra was dissolved. He still holds onto his music though and uses it to express his melancholy memories and what he’s shared. In the end preparing his father for cremation and remembering his face allows him to forgive his father for abandoning him and his mother. Masahiro Motoki is wonderful in this role.

The Departures – Every departure is powerful, from the first moment where he has to help move the body of an old lady who has been rotting, to every suicide victim he cares for, every child he buries and every old person leading up to his father. Each reveals an aspect of humanity from our cruelty to our love, which is why I’m giving the powerful departures their own section since they made that much of an impression on me and were fantastically done scenes.

The Transgender Women – One of the departures is of a transgender woman who cared herself because her family never accepted her becoming a woman. It’s a powerful scene and we see the Boss’s and Daigo’s respect for her that carries over to the family when they give her woman’s makeup and finally honor the person she was the entire time. It is this that makes the father realize just how horrible he was and get him to the point of accepting that he always loved his son and regrets his actions.

The Bath House – The bath house is a place that Daigo goes to and is friends with the couple who owns it and their son who went to school with him. When the mother dies it makes Mika realize how important the uncoffiner job is and that Daigo is doing important work for healing and where the son finally accepts that his mother is dead and how he never respected her wishes in regards to the bath house and her husband who believes he’ll see her again and we see that he is the gatekeeper at the crematorium. The scenes with him are the most powerful as he recounts their last days where they celebrated their anniversary with a party and how she had him heat the bath house before she passed which gave him time to deal with the loss when he returned.

Daigo’s Father – Daigo’s father died alone and it is realizing the sad life that his father lead that motivates Daigo to not be that. He forgives his father and the stone he gave to his wife when he shared the stone his father shared they press to their son as a reminder that their son will not be alone as Daigo was. It is a powerful scene and completes Daigo’s arc as a character showing he no longer holds the resentment and hate for his father.

The Themes – Everyone dies, but that doesn’t stop us from living or change how their lives shaped us and can shape us. We see this in the Boss reminding Daigo to eat since it is the only way he will keep on living and we see how the lives touched the living and changed the living in every scene of departure. Whether it was the City Council Member mourning his mother or the Father truly accepting the loss of his Transgender daughter. All of them feel the loss and realize how they hurt the person through their actions and how important that person was to their life, changing them in the process.

The Message – The message is that the dead can’t do anything to hurt you and holding onto resentment only hurts you. This message of forgiveness is throughout the entire film and comes to a final conclusion when Daigo gives his father’s body respect and from it is finally able to remember his one happy memory he shared with his father and realizes he misses the life they never got to share…and in this knows healing.

The Cons: Pacing – At times the film is a bit too slow, this helps if you have other things to do but it makes watching the film all at once difficult at times. It is a meditative film so if you go in expecting it to feel long, you will be fine. I hadn’t seen it for years so I’d forgotten how long it felt inbetween the moments of high drama and character and for this reason it was a con for me.

This film is a classic and highly deserves all the awards it has one. It reveals what death teaches us about ourselves and that the dead are always with us and from that we can heal and grow or we can remain in denial over what we went through with those people when they were alive with us. I really love how at peace this film is with death and that it doesn’t have one dimensional characters. All of them are so richly written and the music, cinematography and amazing acting make this a film that is truly unforgettable and one of the best I have ever seen.

We’ve all dealt with death and lost people who are close to us or touched us in some way. For me seeing this film reminded me again of all the friends and family I’ve lost and how those individuals touched my life and helped me grow in different ways. I carry them in my memory and heart each day I live is another day to remember them and how much they meant to me and to so many others. The dead are a part of us and we carry them with us in how we live our lives.

Final Score: 9.7 / 10

Foreign Film Week

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This week we kick off “Foreign Film Week.” When I was looking for requests on facebook for this week it was for films that are not in English. Beyond that I wanted to choose a movie from each country that had it’s own language and was a drama of some sort.

To this end the films that I chose were “Departures” from Japan, “The Art of Fighting” from South Korea, “Farewell my Concubine” from China, “City of God” from Brazil and “The Intouchables” from France.

Depending on my work schedule and time this may stretch into next week for some of the final reviews, but my goal is to finish as much of it before next Monday as I explore each of these films.

So let us begin, the “First Foreign Film Week.” I say the first as I plan on doing weeks like this in the future as well as they give me the chance to explore amazing cinema from around the world.

Tokyo Godfathers (2003): An Amazing Tale of Love Among the Outcasts

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      “Tokyo Godfathers” is one of the two films I’ll be reviewing with a holiday theme related to love and family and the different forms those take. It’s a rich tale and I was glad it was requested. The animation style and the soundtrack are beautiful, and every single character who has dialogue is complicated on some level, making for a rich narrative as the story unfolds. The fact that one of the scriptwriter behind one of my favorite animes “Cowboy Bebop” was a part of this I think lended to the overall quality of the production. Keiko Nobumoto is one of the best anime writers out there.

      The film was directed by Satoshi Con who was also the one who wrote the story and was one of the writer’s of the screenplay, the other director was Shogo Furuya and the other screenplay writer was Keiko Nobumoto.

       The story revolves around three homeless people The runaway girl Miyuki, the alcoholic gambler Gin and the trans woman and former drag queen Hana. Their lives transform when they discover an abandoned baby and begin the search for it’s parents as they soon realize how connected they are to one another, the people around them and those connected to the baby. From here the story unfolds as each reveals the reason they are homeless and their scars they carry. The story itself takes place over Christmas Eve.

The Pros: The Soundtrack – The soundtrack has jazz as well as a french feel to it that give it a life and charm that simply adds to scenes, whether characters are running or bearing their hearts Keiichi Suzuki made a great soundtrack.

The Cinematography – The animation of this film is fantastic. Whether it is the details of faces or the brilliance of the landscape of a city, or the nitty gritty of the alleyways and dark sides of town, you feel like you are living in this place. Katsutoshi Sugai did an amazing job.

The Script – The script is gold. Everything we are told is minimum and only when needed, and the characters are three dimensional and their struggles are compelling. The animation could have been terrible but the script alone could have carried this movie. Only issue is narrative chopyness because of all the coincidences.

The Characters – The characters in this film are complex, and through their struggles we really get an idea of the theme, which I’ll get into later. Suffice to say, of the main cast ther was not a single character I didn’t like.

Gin – Gin is a liar, drunk and debtor and the one who finds redemption in caring for the lost baby and in his love for his lover Hana and the runaway Miyuki. We see his relationship with them grow, especially after he meets his biological daughter and she forgives him. It is then he learned how deeply he was loved and feels shame. You get the feeling after that he builds the relationship with her and he’s finally learned to value the relationships in life and himself after he nearly dies in the hospital. Toru Emori is great as the grizzled man who has stopped believing in himself or anything and learns to care and love again.

Miyuki – Miyuki takes the approach of someone who doesn’t care about anything. We soon see she does care though when she goes from not caring about the baby to reading books on how to care for it. The next step for her is when she opens up about hurting her father and finds acceptance and love from Hana and Gin. This leads to her later being in the place where after they save the baby, she can finally accept love from her father.  Aya Okamoto does a wonderful job in the role.

Hana – Yoshiaki Umegaki plays my favorite character in the film. She is a trans woman who left her drag bar after she attacks a man for insulting her. She later finds out her adopted mother accepts her though and saw the incident as small and is just happy she is alive. Given how fatalistic Hana is this is just what she needs to stand up to Gin and tell him the truth which leads to their relationship and love. She is the mother of the group and takes care of the baby that was left in the dumpster, that they later make their mission to get back to the parents. She is a hero but can be cruel and feel strongly about everything. This makes her compelling and her arc is learning that her life is worth living and that she doesn’t have to leave the ones she cares about behind, because they want her in their life.

The Message – The biggest message is that you are loved and that there are those who care about you. We see this when Hana visits her foster mom and her foster mom forgives her for attacking the client who had insulted her and tells her it was no big deal, in the moment when Gin’s daughter forgives him for being away and said that she just wanted to be with him again…and at the end when Miyuki’s father sees her and there is only acceptance and surprise there…as well as what all of them do to save the baby and get the baby back to it’s parents. The theme of love is strong and that we get trapped in thinking far less of ourselves than the ones who love us do and that they are there to support us if we just reach out. I loved this message as it showed hope and that as long as you are connected to others, you will find the help you need to heal.

       We also see the message of acceptance and love as Hana is never discriminated against for being a drag queen or trans and that Gin in facts loves her and she loves him. For Miyuki it was never an issue, they were the parents she chose when she lived on the street and she loves them both deeply.

The Ending – The message of acceptance and love is there at the end when the three of them are made Godfathers by the baby’s parents and in the implied reunion of Miyuki and her father. I really liked it given all the suffering it took for our characters to get there and how much they grew. They learned how to love others and in turn accepting themselves.

The Cons: Choppy Narrative – The premise of the story was a bunch of coincidences happening all at once, and it achieves that but ends up coming off as contrived at times. In many ways it distracted from the message more as side characters appear and disappear and we are given no reason to care about them. For this reason I have to put the narrative structure as a con. Way too choppy at times.

      This was a film I’d highly recommend. The story and message are timeless and powerful, we see human connections, growth and it is executed beautifully in the cinematography, writing and music.

Final Score: 9.5 / 10. Definitely a favorite film.

Rashomon (1950): Humanity on Trial

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“Rashomon” was the first film I ever saw by Akira Kurosawa. It was for my Japanese History, Media and Culture class and a lot of scenes from the film still stand with me to this day, so going back and re-watching it was a lot of fun.

“Rashomon” was directed by Akira Kurosawa and he also co-wrote the screenplay with Shinobu Hashimoto. The story itself comes from two short stories written by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, with his story “In the Grove” being the inspiration for the characters and “Rashomon” for title and characters. The film was produced by Minoru Jingo.

The story involves a woodcutter (Takashi Shamura) and priest (Minoru Chiaki) recounting a trial they attended to a commoner (Kichijiro Ueda) of a murder and rape that happened in the forest and three different versions that were shared underneath Rashomon, the city’s gate. The Woodcutter and Priest are trying to make sense of it all as the commoner provides his perspective of events in the outside world and the trial itself. From here the story unfolds.

Here is the assessment of the film:

The Pros: Cinematography – Kurosawa knows how to shoot a scene, and the same goes for this film. From the water pouring at the gate and them all escaping from it (in a way hiding from the hardships they experienced and in the world), the darkness of the forest hiding the intentions of characters and how the trial was shot, where the people are speaking directly to the camera, making us the judge. Kazuo Miyagawa did a great job on cinematography too as it was what he was in charge of.

The Music – The music is great at building tension and capturing the intimacy of the film. Fumio Hayasaka did a great job incorporating traditional Japanese instruments into the picture and using orchestra as well when it served the scene. I plan on using this soundtrack in my own writing for sure.

A Matter of Perspective – How they share each person’s story just creates more questions as in each one the character sharing it is the victim and it is someone else’s fault. Whether it is the bandit (Toshiro Mifune) blaming the wife, the wife (Machiko Kyō) blaming the bandit or the samurai (Noriko Honma) blaming them both, which is also what the woodcutter does to a degree as he tries to make everyone sympathetic in his story. Because of this the stories all clash making it impossible to know what really happened.

The Characters – Even though they aren’t always consistent, they are human and show it really well.

The Bandit – Is a thief, murder and rapist…yet gets humanized in how he genuinely falls in love with the wife and in certain versions regrets his actions. This is contrasted by the man at the trial who doesn’t care so puts on a show for the audience since he knows he’s going to die anyway so has nothing to lose. He’s a despicable and interesting character.  Toshiro does a good job playing him as a character who has an element of madness to him as he is always laughing.

The Wife – The wife knows she is powerless and disposable. In most of the stories after she is raped her husband immediately says he doesn’t want her anymore. You can see how powerless she is which in a few versions is contrasted where she is able ot use what power she has to turn them against each other (in the Bandit’s, Samurai’s and Woodcutter’s version) or to stand up for herself and fight (Bandit’s version). She is the one who loses in all the situations as she expressed in the woodcutter’s story and how powerless women are in her society. For this reason when she does fight back in different versions, it means a lot…since in all she was victimized (by bandit and husband) and raped by the bandit. Mochiko was awesome in this role.

The Samurai – This guy is cold in all the versions and all about honor. He is cold and blames the wife for what was done to her. In his version as told by the Medium (which again we have no idea if the Medium is even dependable or has her own agenda) in his he has grudging respect for the bandit and hatred for his wife, he also takes his own life at the end.

The Commoner – The commoner represents the selfishness of those at the trial and the selfishness of humanity. He only listens because he’s bored and stuck with them because of the rain, and he is the one who points out the problems going on and how horrible man is to man. He completes it with the final act in the end when he steals a komono from a baby and points out the woodcutter’s hypocrisy, he is a nihilist and truth teller, though he does some of the picture. For the purpose of the story he is the prosecutor of humanity while the priest and woodcutter are the defendants. He was one of my favorite characters in this and Kichijiro really does a fantastic job.

The Priest – The priest is the idealist who is putting his head in the sand to a degree, as he doesn’t want to hear the woodcutter’s story after the three perspectives have been given. He is also easily manipulated as the commoner is able to briefly turn him against the woodcutter when he points out the woodcutter stole the wife’s dagger to sell. He is the heart and what is good about humanity in the end though as he tells the woodcutter after the woodcutter adopts the baby that his faith in humanity is restored.

The Woodcutter – The Woodcutter is the main protagonist, as it begins with him discovering the crime in the beginning and he is the one recounting it to the commoner. He tries to kill the commoner at one point when the commoner steals the abandoned baby’s clothes, but stops when his own crimes are revealed. He owns up to them though and chooses to take care of the baby, revealing that even with all the darkness in humanity, there is some light still.

The Message – Humanity on Trial and Defining Humanity

The message of this film is much bigger than the mystery of who was guilty of what, it tells the story of the bigger picture of us and the problems of people. From the wife and her husband the samurai betraying one another in different ways (her telling the bandit to kill her husband, her husband abandoning her after her victimization, the woodcutter stealing the dagger and the bandit for the rape and killings he’d done), with all this darkness and the country where bodies were left to rot (mentioned by the commoner) and the abandoned baby…there is a lot more desolation and reasons not to hope. Everyone is against everyone. Until the woodcutter and priest change that. The priest forgives and trusts the woodcutter, and the woodcutter adopts the abandoned baby to care for with the six children he already has. This shows that in all the bad, there is good.

The complexity of humanity in all its pros and cons is captured masterfully by Kurosawa in this film. This may be my favorite of his films, I’ll have to watch others before making a final assessment of that though. For now, it is one of my favorite films overall and one I’d highly recommend. If you are looking for a film that is beautifully filmed, has a soundtrack that captures the tension and mystery and has a greater larger point, this is your film.

Final Score: 10 / 10

Akira (1988): The Apocalypse and Humanity’s Awakening

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We begin Apocalypse Week with “Akira.” “Akira” was one of my favorite films, and it still holds up. It has great characters, philosophy politics and more. I’ll go into the details in the assessment.

“Akira” is based off the manga of the same name by Katsuhiro Otomo, who also directed this film. The film was written by Otomo as well, but also Izo Hashimoto. After seeing this again, I really want to read the manga.

I chose this movie for apocalypse week for two reasons. The story takes place in Neo-Tokyo (which has a broken steampunk feel to it), a city which has recently rebuilt from the apocalypse of World War 3. The reason for this I’ll discuss this later, since it has to do with the theme. The story in Neo-Tokyo is based around Shotaro and his biker gang who get attacked by the government when one of the gang Tetsuo is attacked psychically by an esper who was trying to escape from the government attacks him. From here Tetsuo is taken into custody as a test subject and the gang is brought in. An attack from the anti-government faction soon after brings Shatoro into contact with Kei, and the story unfolds from there.

Here is the assessment of the film:

The Pros:

The World: Neo-Tokyo is fascinating. It is a city that was built from the ruins of World War 3 and has a really cool Steam Punk feel to it, as it was once the height of industry, and now has just reached there again. There are many factions too, the government faction, the anti-government faction, the Espers and the Gangs and the Akira Worshippers.

The Music – The music has this mystic and haunting feel to it that contributes to the world changing events that occur throughout the film really well.

The characters – All the characters in this are great. I’ll go into it individually too, since it is through the characters that the story and world is fully revealed. All the characters have agency and their choices matter and advance the story.

Shotoro – Most of the drama is based around this character. He is leader of the Capsules, his biker gang and is good at looking out for all of them. He is also very clearly a punk too as when we first meet him he is fighting the Clowns (another gang) when a government take down of an Esper  (psychic telepath)a is going down which brings him into the drama itself. The youngest member of the gang Tetsuo gets taken in by the government after he’s attacked by an esper and after the government finds out that Shotoro and his gang know nothing about the Espers so are released. After there is attack by the anti-government faction and Shotoro follows a woman who comes out of it leading him to the work by the anti-government faction and closer to the actions of the Espers. Shotoro is a character who is stubborn, but also extremely loyal. No matter what Tetsuo does, Shotoro is always trying to find a way to stop them, he also goes along with Kei and the government faction out of loyalty and attraction of Kei. This I think, is how he is able to survive all the events that go down.

Kei – Is the woman who works for the anti-government faction and The Colonel in the work with the espers. Their goal is to protect the city from another Akira incident. It is for this reason that dark has been done, such as killing the esper’s parents to raise them by the Colonel’s agency. Kei does all she can to prevent Tetsuo from bringing about another Akira Incident, even allowing the Espers to possess her and use their abilities against Tetsuo. She also eventually grows to care about Shotoro when she sees his actions to try and save Tetsuo.

The Colonel – The most interesting of the government factions, this is a guy with enough awareness of the city dying in it’s current form, but wanting to protect it anyway, because he does not want it fully destroyed. For him the honor of a soldier and protecting the people is the highest goal, after Tetsuo goes on his rampage and he is asked to step down by Parliament he does a coup in order to bring the fight to Tetsuo and prevent another Akira incident.

The Espers – The Espers are all children who have the bodies of old people, since containing the power caused them to age. Each of them has a distinct personality. Masaru is the leader and is larger kid in a floating chair, he is the planner, Takashi is the one who was recently kidnapped and is the one who acts quickly and there is Kiyoko who is the feeler and predictor who sees the next Akira incident tied to Tetsuo. It is from them we learn about the other subject Akira was who experimented on and could not contain his powers, so ended up destroying Tokyo. We also learn from them all have this powers, they are just unique in that they are aware of it.

Tetsuo – Tetsuo was a character who grew on me. I didn’t like him at first, especially when he first got his powers. He was a kid who was bullied but also a bully as seen by his membership in a gang. He becomes more sympathetic when he tries to escape it all with his girlfriend Kaori, as this is the first time we’ve seen him in an equal relationship. All the others he was mad with power and angry at being less so kills (the one who experimented on him, and a member of the gang, as well as the Clowns who beat and attempt to rape Kaori). You get why he goes mad at the end…and why he comes back when his power is turning him into a giant mutant baby that is absorbing all things and life. He loses Kaori, but after the Espers and Shotoro go into the center where Akira has melded with Tetsuo a mini big bang occurs and Tetsuo creates another universe in another dimension (though still destroys a lot of Tokyo). In the end he does look out for Shotoro though, and limits the damage he was causing in his mad power trip.

Akira – Akira functions as a reveal of the full potential of humanity. He was a normal kid who was overwhelmed by the power but eventually transcended his body…becoming one with the universe. A form of enlightenment I’d say, as the kid’s identity is still there…and he is one of the people able to help Tetsuo transcend.

The Message / The Ending – The message reminded me of Buddhism, as there is a lot of Buddhist symbolism in this film. The Akira Incident is that moment of change. Tokyo, Neo-Tokyo are the ego part of the self and it is in that destruction of the anger and the hate (the actions in the city going on as it is a civil war and in Tetsuo himself who is all anger and hate until it leads to him losing Kaori and overwhelming his identity). It is when that is destroyed that he is able to become a God like Akira and is guided through that process by Akira and the vespers. Symbolically it is really cool and a great metaphor for Buddhist enlightenment. Practically within the story, most of the population dies again, just like the first Akira incident. We see that someone was reached though as both Kei and Shotoro are left in the aftermath, and Shotoro is left holding a single point of light…all that is left of Tetsuo. The second apocalypse that lead to a second destruction (Tokyo, Neo-Tokyo) and Creation (Akira, Tetsuo), it is powerful and a really great and unique apocalypse.

Okay: The Government – The government is just a corrupt organization, we don’t really get their desires beyond wanting to keep the status quo, so when they are overthrown it isn’t as much of a shock as it would have been. More could have been done with them, like having an operative working with The Colonel or watching the Espers. All we get are corrupt politicians and police as the face of the who they are.

“Akira” still holds up as one of my favorite films. The point about destruction and creation in regards to Buddhism is fascinating and very true, in regards to letting go of the parts of our anger and hate and destroying the fear that bombards us. The approach to apocalypses is unique as well as the Esper abilities are fascinating and how that is used as a metaphor for our own potential in our actions and being. I highly recommend this film. It is a classic for a reason.

10 / 10 and also remembering Robin Williams today (will be reviewing one of his film later to honor him). “Akira” was one of his favorite animes too. R.I.P.

Kagemusha (1980): A Story of War, Purpose and the State

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Akira Kurosawa is a director I’ve been wanting to review for a while. Back in College when I was studying Japanese history, culture and language we watched some of his films. It’s been a bit since then, so it was great to return to one of his classics. Not only because of how great of a director Kurosawa is, but because of the time period the “Kagemusha” takes place in. The Warring States period is one of my favorite periods in Japan to study…especially in relation to the rise of the Shoguns and the figures of Oda Nobunaga and Tokugawa Ieyasu.

I’m going to say now, the film is not entirely historically accurate. For one the Warlord Takega Shingen was not killed and replaced by a double for 3 years. The movie also takes inspiration from Japanese Noh theatre so exaggerates some of the costumes and characters so that the message can come through clearer. In that way it is an excellent film, just not necessarily a good historically accurate film.

“Kagemusha” as said before, takes place around the Warring States period when the largest powers at play were Tokugawa Ieyasu, and the one he’d allied with and become a retainer of Oda Nobanaga as well as the third largest faction Takega Shingen. The story than goes smaller as Shingen’s brother found a criminal to play as a Kagemusha…a body double for Takega so he would have more protection and could “be” in many places at once. This body double is an unnamed theif, and after Takega is shot during one of the sieges he is called up to take his place so the generals can keep stability and keep Nobunaga’s and Ieyasu’s armies away. From here the story unfolds.

large_kagemusha_blu-ray4Here is the assessment of the film:

Pros: The Cinematography – Kurosawa uses the the stark Noh colors for inspiration throughout the film and it is done masterfully. Even mundane things like marching become beautiful as the different legions wear different colors of armor. This is used as  a backdrop for battles as red is used to illustrate the violence or the multi-colored backdrop of the Kagemusha’s dream sequence. This helps the movie flow better, as it is a really long film.

Takega Shingen / The Kagemusha – The same actor Tatsuda Nakadai plays both the Warlord and the Body double, and though people say he overacts…this is based off Noh, that is kind of the point. He plays the extremes really well. From extreme cowardice as the thief, the confidence and coldness of Takega and when the Kagemusha embraces his role and becomes a kinder version of the warlord.

Oda Nobunaga – This is one of the most fascinating people in history, and this movie illustrates parts of the reasons why. He was an atheist who was a patron to Jesuit Missionaries, he wore Western Garb and drank wine from Spain but also was a huge supporter of the arts within Japan. He was an adaptable man which is why I think he was able to conquer so much before he died. Daisuke Ryu does an excellent job capturing this character as he is always smiling, energetic and active, but serious and respectful of his enemies. He has some great scenes with Ieyasu where they share some red wine and another scene where he says Amen to a blessing from the missionaries. Daisuke Ryu lives this role…and I can’t wait to see him in more films.

Tokugawa Ieyasu – Historically in regards to looks he was the opposite of Nobunaga. While Nobunaga was active and adaptable…Ieyasu was the waiter and watcher and tester. He always figured things out before he acted, which is why out of all the Shoguns leading up to Unification in the Warring States Period, he was the one stood victorious at the end. We see bits of that here too, though at this time Nobanaga was the superior force so we see that deference in their alliance. Masayuki Yui does a good job in the role, I just wish we could have got more. He doesn’t have as many unique character moments as Nobanaga.

The Battles – There are two major battles we get in this. One where Takega Shingen’s son goes to win honor as he was exiled away from his father and wants to reclaim honor and leadership of the clan from the Kagemusha, who with his generals than has to rescue him with a show of force…and at the end where the same son leads all his soldiers to the slaughter form Nobanuga’s guns.

The Reveals – The Reveal of the Kagemusha not being Takega Shingen is heartbreaking. It all came from pride too. He tried reading Shingen’s horse and was cast off revealing that he didn’t have Shingen’s scar on his back. He is given money and cast out into desolation. It is touching as the generals who have had some respect for him can do nothing since it was all a lie and ruse to begin with. After this Nobunaga does a Noh performance before Ieyasu in honor of Shingen and being tricked for three years by such a worthy foe.

The Ending – We see the banner of Shingen’s clan in the water as the Kagemusha is dying after joining the battle, having finally found his purpose.

The Messages – There are quite a few messages in this film. One major one, is how duty can give one purpose since as the Kagemusha tries to steal from Shingen after his death, and it only when he realizes all he lost that he devotes himself to the clan and the role they gave him. This in turn leads to him dying for a cause at the end. He is no longer lost, no longer wandering…his purpose is found.

Another message is the uncaringness of the State. The Kagemusha is just a tool and after he is of no use he is left as a possible death in the Warring States. No one checks up on him and the relationship he formed with Shingen’s grandson means nothing because he was a peasant and thief so has no power. He is only worth as much as he is useful, which is exaggerated even more in war time.

Kurosawa is a master director and this film is a classic for a reason. It is a bit long, but the cinematography and major characters are so great that it keeps you interested and curious to see what happens. The time period being one of my favorite periods of study is also a plus for me as well. I highly recommend this film and it is one of my all time favorites after today.

My final score for it is 9.5 / 10