As a kid, I was a sporadic comic book reader at best, thanks mostly to growing up pretty far from just about anywhere. Within biking distance, as long as I didn’t tell my parents I was riding that far, was a Convenient food mart where my friends and I could exchange our hard earned chore money for the currency of American youth — baseball cards, squirt guns, superballs, and on occasion a comic book. As a monster kid who grew up staying up late and watching the classics on “Memories of Monsters” and the sometimes less-than-classics on WDRB’s “Fright Night” featuring The Fearmonger, my favorite comics weren’t the superhero fare upon which the industry was built. Instead, I always favored the monster comics like Marvel’s Frankenstein and Werewolf By Night. The closest I would come to superheroes was Dr. Strange, who occasionally tooled around in a dune buggy with a green bodybuilder in purple pants, a naked silver guy, and an elf in Speed-O’s. Easily my favorite comic above all others, though, was Tomb of Dracula.
Samurai films have a curious knack for expressing compassionate, humanist ideals via soul-crushing bleakness and violence. One would be hard-pressed to find a bleaker, more violent indictment of the romance of the samurai — and the culture of violence in general — than director Tai Kato’s blood-drenched and aptly named Brutal Story at the End of the Tokugawa Shogunate. This is samurai drama stripped entirely of any pretense, robbed of the myth of the noble samurai code, and devoid entirely of any sense of heroism. In the eyes of this film, the samurai of the historic Shinsengumi clan are brutish exploiters and backstabbers at best, and murderous, paranoid psychopaths at their worst. The Shinsengumi were an actual group of samurai, charged with keeping the peace in Kyoto and defending the Tokugawa Shogunate from threats both foreign and domestic — this being the period in which Japan had finally been pried open to contact with the Western world. In popular Japanese culture, the Shinsengumi have been portrayed as everything from heroic defenders of the Japanese heart to thuggish throwbacks mercilessly defending their own power at the expense of progress. Brutal Story at the End of the Tokugawa Shogunate is a particularly harsh look at them and at the entire concept of samurai.
Researching the history of Japanese yokai in cinema is a difficult task. At least, it’s a difficult task if, like me, you don’t read Japanese and are kind of lazy. Almost all of the English language writing about movies involving these bizarre and multitudinous creatures from Japanese folklore focuses on the three loosely related yokai movies released by Daei in the late 1960s — Spook Warfare, 100 Ghosts, and Along with Ghosts — or on Takashi Miike’s more recent take on those old movies, Great Yokai War. A few people will talk about the history of yokai in popular Japanese culture and the role Shigeru Mizuki and his manga series, GeGeGe no Kitaro, played in turning this bizarre assembly of ghosts, demons, monsters, and goblins into pop culture icons. But beyond that, the field of cinematic yokai studies is largely empty even though, as Ghost Stories of Wanderer at Honjo illustrates, someone was out there making yokai movies even before Mizuki published his comic book.
I am breaking little new ground when I point out that the original 1954 film Godzilla was a serious sci-fi horror film that is taken seriously by serious critics (seriously!), even the more annoying ones who usually refuse to give genre films the time of day. Few people would argue that it was a cinematic milestone, that it was to the crossover scifi/horror film what Citizen Kane was to movies about grumpy newspaper moguls and what Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was to the road trip film. Whatever the franchise may have become, Godzilla’s contribution to film history was as big as the monster itself, and not even Michael Medved will argue that one. Or maybe he will. I don’t really know him personally, so I can’t account for him.
During the 1970s, Japan’s Nikkatsu Studio became famous, and yes most likely infamous, as the number one home for sleazy sexploitation, violent pink films, and just softcore porn in general. Although hardly the stuff of highbrow cocktail party conversations, the thoroughly exploitive nature of the Nikkatsu films doesn’t mean there wasn’t a lot of boldness and innovation thrown into the mix, resulting in more than a few highly enjoyable and daring films. Yeah, there was a lot of crap, but there’s always a lot of crap, and usually even the crap had something about it that was so bonkers and just not right that you couldn’t help but nod your head in its direction. In other words, where as Europe during the 1970s was constantly making ponderous, over-inflated films that begged the question, “Is it art or is it porn?” Nikkatsu was more concerned with generating the answer, “I don’t know if it’s art, but it sure is cool.”
When we reviewed 3 Seconds Before the Explosion, we stated that it was one of two Nikkatsu Studio espionage films released onto the home video market in the United States, both starring studio mainstay Akira Kobayashi. We also said that 3 Seconds Before the Explosion, daft though it might have been, was the more conservative and conventional of the two. That’s because the second espionage film, Black Tight Killers, was constructed out of some mad fever dream by director Yasuharu Hasebe and production designer Teruyoshi Satani after they stayed up all night at a psychedelic go-go cabaret, drunk on Suntory whisky and overdosing on a steady stream of pop art and spy movies. When they awoke the next morning, two things had happened. One, their clothes had vanished; and two, they had apparently made a movie about a photojournalist who gets tangled up with a gang of black leather clad go-go girl assassins who fling razor sharp 45rpm records and are armed with ninja chewing gum, among other things.
Toei Movieland Studio hadn’t been on our official itinerary, but I convinced people to give it a try even though I was the only big Japanese movie fan in the bunch. Toei had given some of my absolute favorite sci-fi superhero shows, and the chance to see one of their studios was too good for me to pass up. After shelling out a rather hefty ¥2500 per person to get in (note: this was in 2001; it is probably more now), I quickly began to realize it wasn’t going to be as cool as I’d hoped. The entrance was was a museum of samurai and ninja articles, most of them from then upcoming movie Red Shadow. A large screen television played clips of various Toei samurai movies and histories of the studio. None of it was especially interesting, unfortunately.
When one visits Kyoto, Japan, one expects to spend the bulk of the time there visiting a long parade of temples. And that’s exactly what we did, and for the most part, it was time well spent. However, there comes a time in every unwashed heathen’s life when he simply needs a break from serene Buddhas and hordes of schoolkids, and in those times, a man is well served by hopping the train to the small town of Arashiyama in order to hike Mt. Arashiyama and, if all goes well, see one of his friends attacked by an irritable monkey.
These days, it seems like Japan makes about five zombie movies a week, each one more half-assed and dreadful than the last. Once, long ago, when Italy and the United States had lost interest in the zombie film, Japan decided to start cranking a few out. They started out modest but promising, and by the time we got to Wild Zero and Versus, I do believe that I naively exclaimed that the zombie film was well served by Japanese stewardship. Then they made Stacy, and I started to wonder if maybe I had celebrated prematurely. A few years ago, the United Stated rediscovered the zombie film, and zombies themselves became a pop culture phenomenon that ultimately degenerated into hipster zombie parties and zombie olympics and such. Japan wasn’t going to miss out on things, and a whole slew of cheap, new Japanese zombie movies were soon flooding the market. They were and continue to be high on wackiness and low on watchability, pretty much like their microbudget counterparts in America.
You would assume upon hearing the title that Zombie Hunter Rika is yet another entry in the seemingly never-ending parade of disappointing slapstick splatter movies that are getting pumped out of Japan at a remarkable rate. While it does contain some material that would be at home in a film by Noboru Iguchi, Zombie Hunter Rika is actually more of a straight-forward zombie film — or as straight-forward as Japan has ever made them. Think less Machine Girl, more Junk. It’s also kind of lame, but not so lame as to become totally unwatchable, which already makes it one of the best Japanese cult films in years. It’s a sad statement on the merits of the Japanese cult film when “I really only wanted to gouge out one of my eyes to escape it, rather than both of them” is seen as praise. But really, Zombie Hunter Rika isn’t even that bad. I still had both my eyes by the time it was over. It’s sort of bland and lacks energy in spots, and like all recent Japanese cult films, it has a stuttering, awkward pace. However, it also has just enough inspired moments to make it worth watching if you’re already a seasoned viewer of crappy zombie movies.
From what I gather, Zombie Hunter Rika is supposed to be the third film in a loosely related trilogy, but this is a trilogy only in the same sense that, say Dawn of the Dead, Zombie, and Zombie 3 form a trilogy. I have scheduled but have not, as of this writing, watched Zombie Self Defense Force, the supposed first film in this “Nihonbi” series. The second film, The Girls Rebel Force of Competitive Swimmers, is a largely a pinky sex film that has zombies thrown into the mix. I guess Zombie Hunter Rika falls closer to the Zombie Self Defense Force end of the spectrum, but with a little nudity thrown in to make the kids happy. I guess I will eventually discover what’s expected to link the three together, beyond them being about zombies eating Japanese people. It’s the sort of Bob Woodward-esque commitment to uncovering the story that keeps me going.
Rika and her best friend live in a world that makes almost no logical sense. There are apparently zombies, and the killing of zombies is a sport that creates pro wrestling style internet superstars like the famed Zombie Hunter (one of the worst white guy actors in Japanese movie history — which is a tremendous claim, I know). At the same time, life seems to go on as normal, and when zombies attack a small town, no one else seems to notice or be prepared for it. Some zombie films bend over backward to explain why it’s all happening. Others go with “we will never know what caused this.” Zombie Hunter Rika seems to be taking the approach of “whatever, man.” Rika and her friend fin themselves trapped on the wrong side of zombie gut munchers with her semi-catatonic sword master grandfather, his conniving new wife, her conniving rockabilly-esque brother, a few couple slapstick locals, and a benevolent zombie who has strapped a metal grate to his face to stop himself from eating people. When Rika loses her arm, they conveniently find the big muscular arm of a slain zombie hunter, graft it to her, and thus is born the world’s most powerful schoolgirl zombie slayer.
Shot on video, amateurishly made, but decently acted, Zombie Hunter Rika benefits greatly from diminished expectations. That it managed to be even moderately entertaining makes it seem like some great accomplishment. Some of the jokes are actually kind of funny. The conniving brother has a great fight scene against a gang of zombies in which he…well, it’s really hard to describe. But let’s say you had a friend who was actually kind of good at martial arts, and he got in a real world version of a Tony Jaa fight. It’s like that. There’s an air of competence about it, but without precision choreography, there’s also a lot of awkwardness, falling down, and flailing about. It was probably the best art of the movie, and it comes pretty early on. Action direction was done by Tak Sakaguchi, best known as the mysterious anti-hero in Versus but also one of the crew along with Noboru Iguchi responsible for the wave of aforementioned slapstick splatter movies. There’s an obvious jump in the energy level whenever Tak steps behind the camera to take over for regular director Ken’ichi Fujiwara.
The rest of the film follows the standard zombie film trajectory of a group of people holing up in a house to defend themselves. For the most part, the writing is really dumb, and the way the script has its character act in the middle of a zombie apocalypse just doesn’t make a lick of sense. Things start to drag during the second act, but no sooner are you starting to feel your patience wearing thin than they graft that arm on Rika and the film wakes up again for the finale. Things get insane in that way that seems unique to weird Japanese films but common to them all, if that makes any sense. A sort of predictable unpredictability, where you don’t know what crazy shit they’re going to make up, but you know they’re going to make up a lot of crazy shit. It’s film writing via getting a bunch of cult movie nerds drunk then letting them finish a script. Throw in a lot of zombie gore and some gratuitous boob shots, and you have a film that manages just barely to be on the enjoyable end of the bell curve.
Release Year: 2008 | Country: Japan | Starring: Mina Arai, Lemon Hanazawa, Kotaro Kamijo, Ryunosuke Kawai, Eiichi Kikuchi, Risa Kudo, Yuya Matsuura, Mai Minami, Tsugumi Nagasawa, Akina Serizawa, Takeshi Yamamoto | Screenplay: Ken’ichi Fujiwara, Takeyuki Morikaku | Director: Ken’ichi Fujiwara
Goro Miyazaki, son of famed Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, has achieved with his debut film, Tales from Earthsea, the same sense of profundity as his father. Unfortunately, while the elder Miyazaki’s profundity usually came from things like wonder, imagination, inspiration, wit, emotion, and beauty, Miyazaki the younger’s effort is one of profound tedium and disappointment. Some might defend the poor lad, saying that the shadow of his father is long indeed, and Hayao Miyazaki has set a standard for animated film making that his son, and indeed the entire Japanese animation industry, could never live up to. Of course, you could also say that Goro Miyazaki would be working at a Lawson’s Food Mart if not for his last name getting him a job. So, let’s call it even.
Tales from Earthsea had a lot of hurdles to clear. First, it was based on a sprawling epic fantasy series by Ursula K. LeGuin — a huge undertaking for even a very experienced screenwriter and director to adapt, let alone a guy trying to do both, and for the first time on top of that. Maybe Goro’s dad could have pulled it off, and indeed, rumors swirled that Goro was having such a hard time with the project that Hayao had to swoop in and clean up some of the mess, though I have no idea if any of that was anything beyond idle fan speculation. I don’t know if Studio Ghibli would want to use Hayao to get people to see this movie, or whether they’d want to distance from him as much as possible.
Eventually, Goro wrangled the books into this movie, only to discover that the US market was closed to him. It turned out that the Sci-Fi Channel had been working on their own Earthsea adaptation and was keen to make sure that their Earthsea was the only Earthsea. Or to be more charitable, they wanted to ensure that us poor, dumb viewers didn’t get confused by something as complicated as different movies based on the same source material, even though one ws a cartoon and the other starred Kristin “Chun Li” Kruek. As a result, the release of Tales from Earthsea in the United States was blocked, at least until such time as the Sci-Fi Channel mini-series vanished from the public consciousness (which, to be honest, probably happened a week after it aired). Despite legal wrangling, however, most of the people who wanted to see Studio Ghibli’s take on the material managed to see it anyway. And the word spreading through fans was that, to be frank, perhaps the Sci-Fi Channel was doing Studio Ghibli a solid.
I withheld judgment. After all, my standards are often vastly different from the average anime fan, so my expectations of what would make the movie good might be very different than those held by, say, someone who gave four out of five stars to Elfen Lied. In addition, I am not completely reverent toward Old Man Hayao. He’s made stuff I love, stuff I like, and stuff I didn’t really care about. He probably deserves all the hype he’s amassed, but I don’t really think that any artist is infallible. Similarly, I didn’t expect Goro to be the same as his dad, nor did I find the nepotism all that offensive. So despite the growing trickle of reviews ranging from lukewarm to deeply offended, I went into the movie with as close to an open mind as an old man such as I could ever hope to have.
What I found was that, as bad as some of the reviews made the movie out to be, I actually thought it was a whole lot worse.
Tales from Earthsea fails as a movie on pretty much every level other than background painting. Because I try to be positive, I will say that whatever slave wage artists Goro had drawing the backgrounds, especially in the city scenes, earned their paycheck. Everything else is a boring wreck. The screenplay tries to jam and juggle several of LeGuin’s novels into a two hour film, and it fails miserably. Plots, characters, and events are picked willy nilly from thousands of pages, and remixed into a tedious mess of a movie that seems designed to maximize the time we spend on the mundane (Goro Miyazaki must absolutely love watching people plow and walk through fields) while reducing anything like action, tension, emotion, or character development into as small an amount of time as he could get away with.
What we are left with is an unengaging, soulless story about a young prince named Arren, who one day stabs his father (hmm…symbolic, Goro?) and runs off. If there was a reason for this, the movie never really cares about explaining it. Arren ha a mysterious split personality, though why and what it means is something they feel doesn’t need to be examined. The wandering lad is soon taken under the wing of a wizard named Sparrowhawk, which is a better name than, say, Orcaseal. The two of them take us on a bored tour of assorted villages as they ride across the land. Eventually, Arren pisses of some slave traders, rescues and pisses off a girl named Theru, and gets himself caught in some ill-defined catfight between Sparrowhawk and his arch-nemesis, the Ziggy Stardust-esque wizard Cob. Eventually, a dragon shows up, because, why the fuck not?
The script puts almost no effort into explaining anything that’s going on or making us care about any of the characters. Things happen because the script says they have to. Characters sleepwalk through actions that don’t seem to have any real motivation. The entire muddled mess is devoid of any emotional hook, dramatic tension, or reason to give a crap about anything.
In my book, the idea of a “good” movie or a “bad” movie is unimportant. All that matters to me is, “Was I entertained?” And a film can, in my eyes, commit no greater offense than being boring. That doesn’t mean slow-moving. That doesn’t mean low key. You can be those things and still be interesting, entertaining, tense, what have you. Tales from Earthsea, however, is boring. Boring, spiritless, and just plain crummy. It’s a movie I wanted to like. I thought the subject matter would be interesting through the eyes of Studio Ghibli. Plus, I always like to champion and enjoy movies other people hated. I thought the potential for a great, sweeping epic was there, or for that matter, for a smaller, more personal story set against a larger background. I got none of that. I don’t doubt that Goro tried hard. I don’t doubt that he was under a lot of pressure. But hey — it’s a big game, and if he couldn’t play it, he shouldn’t have been allowed onto the field just because his dad’s a legend.