After making a veritable tidal wave with a slew of twisted DTV hits including the Dead or Alive trilogy, Visitor Q, and Ichi the Killer, Japanese cult film director Takashi Miike hit a rough patch in which most of his films went unnoticed or, worse, disliked by the throngs who had so recently celebrated his cracked vision of filmmaking. The fact that Miike was directing upwards of four or five movies a year meant that, previously, if he hit a couple clunkers it was no big deal, because something new would be coming out in a couple months. But a couple high-profile flops, including Izo, his collaboration with Takeshi Kitano, coupled with the fact that another DTV maverick (Ryuhei Kitamura) was gobbling up the big budget theatrical jobs (although his success at such films, specifically Godzilla: Final Wars is a topic of considerable debate) were pointing to the notion that Miike’s career was going to be very much a live fast, die young sort of comet.
People who are not familiar with the character of Lupin the Third are still likely to have heard of and perhaps even seen this movie thanks entirely to its being the directorial debut of Hayao Miyazaki in the world of feature film. Even many non-anime, non-animation moviegoers know Miyazaki’s name thanks to the man having single-handedly directing more “timeless classics” than the entirety of the Disney animation studios. These films include My Neighbor Totoro, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and Howl’s Moving Castle. Several of his films (most notable Nausicaa) rank among my top films of all time, and I’ve never let a friend have a little kid without me sending them a copy of My Neighbor Totoro as a gift (usually accompanied by a copy of Godzilla’s Revenge, as both should be required viewing for any wide-eyed and adventurous kid who needs to be brought up proper).
Let me start off by saying that I love Odin. Absolutely love it. All those people in the world who call it one of the worst animated films of all time? Liars. Every one of them. Dirty, rotten, filthy liars. Let me further preface that admission by freely admitting that I have no illusions as to the quality of Odin. It’s awful. It’s a shining example of everything that can go wrong with anime feature filmmaking. It’s bloated, needlessly long, often tedious, thinly characterized, nigh incomprehensible, and since the creators dreamed that it would be a Yamato-style series, it doesn’t even have an ending. Even if, like me, you are a fan of so-called “old anime,” there’s a 99% chance that if you rent Odin, you will never make it to the end (much like the filmmakers themselves). And there’s a pretty high probability that it will make you angry at me, and possibly mildly violent over the fact that I somehow swayed you into thinking it might be a good thing to add to your queue. So let me get this out of the way right now: Odin is a completely pointless 140-minute disaster that you should avoid at all costs.
Unless, that is, you happen to think like me.
Created by Japanese artist Monkey Punch (surprisingly, not his real name) in the 1960s, Lupin the Third was a mixture of James Bond, Matt Helm, Cary Grant from To Catch a Thief, and whatever guy you can think of who grabs boobs a lot. Bill Clinton, I guess. Lupin the Third was meant to be the jet-setting super-thief great grandson of Arsene Lupin, a beloved French pulp character who was very much the “gentleman thief.” Lupin the Third jettisons the gentleman part most of the time but excels in the thievery department. Quite in contrast to his famous relative, Lupin the Third is a crass, horny, occasionally sleazy, always smart-alec guy with a weakness for beautiful girls. Together with his parters in crime Jigen (a former yakuza hitman and reportedly the greatest crack shot in the world) and Goemon (a guy who identifies a little too heavily with the romantic ideal of the mysterious, wandering samurai), Lupin trots the globe in search of treasure to be found, banks to be robbed, chicks to be nailed, and smug rich guys to be kicked in the jaw. Complicating Lupin’s life are two more characters: dogged Interpol inspector Zenigata, whose entire life revolves around finally arresting the wily Lupin; and Fujiko (whose name means “peaks”), a big-breasted flirt who is sometimes Lupin’s partner, sometimes his rival, and usually both.
Terror Beneath The Sea is a movie with a lot of charm. There are the wondrous conventions of Sixties science fiction: bold colors and sleek design, underwater cities built in miniature, torpedo battles, a safety-striped submarine, and even a Nehru-suited mad man. But Sonny Chiba is the most charming thing in Terror Beneath The Sea. As the romantic lead, Chiba portrays a character with an endearing sweetness he rarely, if ever, gets to present. In a way, Chiba is playing a character other than his usual “Sonny Chiba.”
Karate Robo Zaborgar presented me with the sort of soul-searching conflict that often plagues those of us who worry about the higher philosophical questions in life. On the one hand, it was a presumably loving spoof of one of my favorite genres — the old “tokusatsu” superhero shows of the 1970s, with their karate cyborgs, fringed jeans, motorcycle helmets, random explosions in rock quarries, and theme songs dominated by jazzy trumpets. On the other hand, I watched a similar movie last year — Takashi Miike’s Yatterman — and still consider it one of the worst, most unenjoyable movies I’ve seen in the better part of a decade. My bottomless disdain for Yatterman comes despite the fact that I generally like Miike as a director. Karate Robo Zaborgar, by contrast, was directed by Noboru Iguchi, a director who has yet to make a movie I didn’t dislike. His stock in trade is slapstick splatter send-ups of popular Japanese genres, but done with such juvenile laziness and awkward, ill-realized timing that what should have been outrageous comes across merely as tedious.
Yatterman is a colorful, overblown, largely idiotic live-action adaptation of an anime series from 1977. It’s also a painful illustration of every weak point wildly hit-or-miss director Takashi Miike possesses, while at the same time it fails to highlight any of the thing he does well. Miike’s staunch unwillingness to make anything less than 14,000 movies a week means that if nothing else, he became by virtue of quantity alone a force to be reckoned with in the reeling, post-bubble Japanese film industry, when more and more directors retreated into the realm of the low-budget direct-to-video (and later, DVD) market. Miike’s prolific nature meant that he produced a few incredibly bad movies, a whole lot of mediocre ones, and a few that either were or teetered on brilliant.
Attempts to revive and revise the Japanese karate movie started in 2007, with this tale set in the early 1900s of guys kicking each other in the face really hard. Japanese films are mostly terrible these days, and Japanese martial arts films have almost ceased to exist, with there being little more to the genre anymore than CGI movies or no-budget T&A stinkers starring busty AV idols as ninjas. So a bunch of karate guys woke up one day and thought to themselves, “you know, maybe we should be the guys making karate movies.” While their efforts remain small scale enough so that we can’t trumpet them as a revolution or the rebirth of the Japan Action Club, the results are still promising. Not always good, but promising.
If there is any problem with High Kick Girl, a low-budget karate fest from Japan, it’s that it’s a terrible movie. If you can overlook that one flaw, then High Kick Girl is pretty decent. However, even if you can’t get over the fact that this movie is a study in incompetence due to inexperience, it’s still possible to wring from the mess a healthy degree of respect for what they were trying to do. Alas, if only good intentions always resulted in good movies. The dream of High Kick Girl was to take the Japanese martial arts movie back from the fumbling hands of CGI-heavy fantasy films and boob-heavy sexploitation stinkers full of AV idols flopping about and calling it karate, and return the martial arts film to the stewardship of people who actually care about it. And make no mistake — I thoroughly believe that everyone involved with High Kick Girl genuinely cares about martial arts and making good martial arts movies. They just aren’t capable of doing so, at least not yet.
Japan’s occasional flirtations with an interest in vampires are, like most things having to do with Japan and Western pop culture, a bizarre mix of revulsion and fascination with the foreign — a dichotomy that is almost certainly (in my eyes) born of the interests of the young simply not lining up with the prejudice of the old (something that is not unique to Japan, or to any culture). One portion of the Japanese population can import and read home-grown vampire fiction as cautionary tales about the corrupting influence of the foreign on Japan, while another portion of the population can read those same tales and simply walk away having enjoyed a fun horror story about strange creatures. The presentation of vampires as symbols for the threat of and infection by the foreign is hardly a uniquely Japanese trait. The very foundation of modern pop culture vampire lore, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, is basically a cautionary tale about swarthy Eastern Europeans with weird customs coming to the “more enlightened” west of Europe and Britain to mess things up and steal women.