Isle of Dogs (2018): Overlong Beginning Leads to a Good End

Wes Anderson is one of my Top 3 favorite directors (the other two being Stanley Kubrick and John Carpenter). How does this film stand up compared to his other works? It is good, I loved the visuals and characters, but it doesn’t have the depth as some of his other works and it never reaches greatness, even though it is really good. The location and characters are wonderful with some beautiful homages to Kurosawa, and the main cast is wonderfully quirky with the main character arc being solid. So for my non-spoiler thoughts, this definitely gets a strong recommend.

The film was directed by Wes Anderson, who also wrote and was one of the producers of the film. With the other producers being Scott Rudin, Steven Rales and Jeremy Dawson.

The story follows Atari (Koyu Rankin) a young Japanese boy and ward of the new authoritarian Mayor. He travels to the Isle of Dogs to find his dog Spots (Liev Schrieber) on the Island after all dogs are exiled there due to the Dog Flu. Five dogs help on his quest, with Chief (Bryan Cranston) being the stray who hates humans but must learn to trust Atari for them all to survive the quest. As the quest unfolds a conspiracy is revealed on the Isle of Dogs and Megasaki City.

The Pros:

The Animation and Visuals – The film is done in highly detailed, beautiful stop motion animation. Wes Anderson’s use of symmetry is on full display, as each character and their emotions stand out like drum beats on the screen. You can tell that Kurosawa inspired Wes Anderson, and the making of the film. Both directors are good at using wide open spaces to tell stories of travel, and color to express life and death. We get all of that in this film.

The Soundtrack – The soundtrack, like the visuals, takes a lot of inspiration from Akira Kurosawa, from the quiet openings with stark drums, and the emphasis on percussion. Alexandre Desplat captures the world so starkly, bringing the characters and scenes to life.

The Pack – The Pack is wonderful. Goldblum’s Duke is a gossip and hears things, Murray’s Boss is kind of oblivious and likes wearing trinkets, Norton’s Rex is the default second-in-command and sometimes leader, Balaban’s King is the washed up ex-celebrity dog who goes through bouts of depression, and Chief is their tough battle-worn leader.

Chief’s Arc – The main arc of the movie belongs to the stray, Chief, who goes from hating humans to becoming Atari’s new bodyguard. His story is believable too, with a dog he likes (Nutmeg) first suggesting he give the kid a chance, and ending with the Atari caring for him as he goes from covered in black soot, to looking just like Spots. He was my favorite character, and I loved how as standoffish as he initially was. There were reasons behind it, just like his transformation made sense due to Atari’s compassion. By the end, he’s the main connector between humanity and the dogs.

Atari and the Mayor – The Mayor is a distant relative of Atari, and for some reason really hates the dogs (it is implied that his ancestors did, and of course they loved cats). In the end Atari’s love for the dogs changes his heart. He does what he can in the end to stop the dogs from being destroyed due to that last minute change of heart. I liked Mayor Kobayashi in the end, he was a great antagonist and had a level of complexity to him.

Okay: The Foreign Exchange Student / The Student Arc – Tracy Walker leads her class in saving the dogs on the Island. My issue with this was that we never get what brought her to Japan, so it gives a bit of a white savior vibe to her interactions, especially since the other students are never given words. I’m still putting her at okay as Tracy was a compelling character, the downside is she could have been anyone, and I would have preferred she’d have been Japanese like Atari.

What About the Cats? – I’m putting this as okay as the film could have become overcrowded if we had the cats speaking. I also wanted to know the cats motivations. It implies they are the leaders of Japan, but it never does anything with it. The cats never have a voice, and it takes away from the overall point. They weren’t even needed, since the focus was on the dogs.

The Cons:

The Japanese are Only Given a Voice Through Limited Translation – This ties into Tracy and the students. Most Japanese never get the chance to speak, or be understood, as they are filtered through translation. This wasn’t needed at all. I think it was meant for us to focus fully on the story of the dogs, but the story of humanity and the dogs is interconnected, so both should have their voices fully heard.

Pacing – The pacing is the biggest issue, about 20 minutes in I was exhausted (I walked from Ready Player One to the awesome indie theatre, Salem Cinema, for this double feature). This may have been a contributing factor to how slow it felt, and why it took me out of the film early on. It is slow, even though the payoff later is fantastic.

This was a film that I really enjoyed, and captures so much of why Wes Anderson is one of my favorite directors. From the characters and their detachment, to the fight against the stronger enemy (Atari against the government), and the quirky characters (mostly the dogs)… If you are a fan of Wes Anderson, you will love this film. If you aren’t a fan, or haven’t heard of him… I’d still recommend it. This is an original story that may take a while to reel you in, but once there you’ll be hooked.

Final Score: 8.8 / 10

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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

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