Credit: Japan Cuts
by InRO Staff Featured Festival Coverage Film

Japan Cuts 2021 — Dispatch 2: Hiruko the Goblin, Labyrinth of Cinema, The Great Yokai War — Guardians

September 8, 2021

Hiruko the Goblin

Shinya Tsukamoto: unapologetic termite artist, jack of all cinematic trades — besides merely directing all of his feature-length freak shows, he also writes, produces, shoots, edits, designs, and often acts in them — and an international cult iconoclast of sorts. He may not have the stature or the sprawling filmography of Takashi Miike (the two are close friends, with Miike even describing the younger filmmaker a “madman”; quite the high praise, considering the provenance) but he’s equally as self-reliant an incendiary, one whose oeuvre could be aptly characterized as distinctive in terms of its unrelenting grotesqueness. So a project like Hiruko the Goblin — a live-action adaptation of Daijirō Morohoshi’s Lovecraftian horror manga Yokai Hunter — should have been something of a slam dunk for Tsukamoto, whose strengths as a film artist lie in his disquieting aesthetic sensibilities, ones that could have easily adapted into the original source material’s surrealistic qualities onto the big-screen. Made two years after his now iconic Tetsuo: The Iron Man in 1989, this was his first “big break,” so to speak, into more mainstream markets: it was a studio job with a much larger budget than anything Tsukamoto had made previously (also his first venture into 35mm after years of shooting on Super-8 and 16mm) and was, at the time, his most ambitious and lavish outing as a director yet (though not his longest, as the amazingly titled Flying in a Hell Town Piss Lodge, from 1977, was two hours as opposed to this film’s hour and thirty). 

So perhaps one can blame the final results on the increased production costs, or studio heads liberally interfering with Tsukamoto’s personal vision — either way, Hiruko the Goblin is a deeply, deeply unpleasant and mind-numbing experience, and not in a way that its director had probably intended. There’s its ostensible plot, practically impenetrable to anyone unfamiliar with the source material (which has yet to be translated into English, so good luck on that front, Western viewers) by way of how incoherent the slapdash structure is, but what follows is something like this: Reijiro Hieda (former rockstar Kenji Sawada), an eccentric anthropologist — who, in the manga, was reserved and unflappable; here, he’s goofy as shit — receives a letter from his missing brother-in-law about the presence of evil spirits who haunt the junior highschool he teaches at. Naturally, Reijiro goes to check things out, eventually bumping into his cousin Masao (Masaki Kudou) who’s looking for his father as well during summer vacation. There’s a few other characters — including an omnipresent groundskeeper, played by Tsukamoto himself — but none of them matter much: they’re either killed, eaten, or turned into weird spider-like creatures with six legs and human heads. The effects are, admittedly, rather impressive for the time, and the last 20-minutes becomes an outright creature-feature of sorts with how many of the creepy crawlies begin spawning up. Making it to that point, however, is a rigorous undertaking, mostly spurred on by the film’s blatant attempts to liberally insert gross-out gag comedy into every scene, a radical shift in tone from what one would expect. None of it is very funny, nor even vaguely amusing — it’s a lot of shouting and blood spurting about, if that’s your bag — and it brings the pace to a complete stand-still. It’s frantic, but never exciting; its visual and sonic stimuli don’t add up to much, hurt even further by the general indifference the film seems to harbor towards its protagonists and their primary objectives. It’s difficult to even conjure up much of a strong opinion on Hiruko the Goblin (other than it was generally annoying); a transitional work from a great which all too frequently reveals its growing pains.

Writer: Paul Attard

Credit: Japan Cuts

Labyrinth of Cinema

Nobuhiko Obayashi, who passed away earlier this year, on April 10, was until recently relegated to the periphery of cinematic discussions of legacy. His status as a master filmmaker — he humbly preferred to be called a ‘film artist’ or a ‘cinematic magician’ — was taken for granted, and his career, which spanned nearly sixty years, is to this day defined to casual filmgoers largely by his uncategorizable, psychedelic ghost tale of sorts, House, which found new fans through its Criterion release. It’s surprising enough that Obayashi’s swansong, Labyrinth of Cinema, was made after he was diagnosed with cancer in 2017 and given only three months to live, but that he delayed death and completed a final brilliant work that goes beyond his own established brand of experimentalism and unleashes the wildest recesses of imagination is something approaching miraculous. In Labyrinth of Cinema Obayashi casts on the screen the potentiality of filmic language as he envisions it, a three-hour, madcap anti-war odyssey through the deliriums of Japanese cinema, history, and poetry and weaving these threads with (semi-autobiographical) memories, nightmares, and dreams. Fittingly, it’s a deeply personal cinematic journey, its story set in Obayashi’s childhood hometown of Onomichi, and it revolves around a cinephile schoolgirl named Noriko and a cohort of three young guys — Mario Baba, a movie geek who’s in love with Noriko, his two pals, one a nerdy film historian, the other a wannabe yakuza. The quartet soon find themselves on the silver screen, omnipresent within an unending stream of Japanese war films and period dramas, that take place during an all-nighter acting as a farewell to the oldest movie theater in town.

Undoubtedly, many of Obayashi’s cinematic and historical references here will be difficult to grasp, but they are far from the film’s central concern. Instead, the director employs brisk editing, fast-paced camera angle shifts, trippy color saturation, and his familiar chaotic imagery and cartoonish tonal atmosphere to immerse us in his final creation in much the same way that his teenaged protagonists here find themselves absorbed within the horrors and absurdities of the past. Labyrinth of Cinema suggests it’s through these cycles that we can “build the future,” but Noriko also states that it’s an effort “to find ourselves.” Obayashi likely thinks the answer is both, and in that spirit he never tries to conceal his visual gimmicks, instead proving eager to reveal cinema’s artifice as not just a method for reclaiming imagination in a despairing world but also as a means to effect our realities from within. It’s what Obayashi always sought to accomplish with film, and so it’s fitting that in his final work he has chosen to depict himself as the strange old pianist who decides to live in the movie forever, crouching over a piano, playing the music of peace toward eternity.

Writer: Ayeen Forootan

The Great Yokai War — Guardians

From a certain perspective, there are two types of Takashi Miike movies. The director has worked in more genres across a greater number of films than almost anyone else working, but his career and his reputation can be cleanly divided into two categories: the films that see distribution and promotion in America and those that don’t. The former camp, like the recent First Love and Blade of the Immortal, are the films that inform Miike’s image in the west as Japan’s foremost purveyor of violent, extreme genre cinema. The other category includes some more of the same, to be sure, but also consists of wild, colorful adaptations (Ace Attorney, JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure) and even a few children’s films. So while The Great Yokai War — Guardians might look to someone only familiar with Miike’s American image like a kinder, gentler Takashi Miike, the director has been here before — literally, this is a sequel to his 2005 film — and in many ways it’s not only just a Takashi Miike movie, but a minor one at that. Still, there’s enough imagination on display to fill several movies and the film’s approach towards its subject is refreshing in contrast with American blockbusters.

Other than the two lead characters, young brothers Kei and Dai Watanabe, The Great Yokai War is light on human characters and is instead packed with yokai — spirits that populate Japanese folklore and take all sorts of forms — realized here with a mix of prosthetics and CGI. The Watanabes are descended from a great human warrior and thus remain the only hope of these spirits of preventing an imminent war. Ranging from a humanoid with a protruding brain to an army of computer animated tanooki (in essence, magic raccoons), the yokai are the easy highlight of the film, its every frame filled with personality just by virtue of featuring their wildly colorful costumes and cartoonish personalities. Their powers are realized through brightly colored CGI that lean into a fantastic aesthetic far removed from the fidelity-chasing graphics of Western blockbusters, allowing animation to be just that rather than a lackluster recreation of reality.

For the first half of the film, its imagination is enough to carry it; a new yokai catches the eye in nearly every scene, each with some new way to fascinate. But eventually the film starts to run out of steam and when the initial wonder wears off, the uncharacteristically staid filmmaking starts to show its inability to move things forward. For all the creatures and effects galore, The Great Yokai War is a film of characters in a few different rooms having conversations that largely lack momentum, with vague conflicts between characters that don’t really go anywhere. In the end, it’s fun to see a Takashi Miike movie with “war” in the title proudly embrace nonviolence and the power of friendship, but it feels like superficial kids-movie stuff, an alternative to conflict the film doesn’t endeavor to deal with.

Writer: Chris Mello

Credit: cinemadrifters

Come and Go

Malaysia-born, Osaka-based director, and self-described “cinema drifter” Kah Wai Lim has previously made films in his native Malaysia, Hong Kong, Osaka, Croatia, and Slovenia, quietly building one of the most interesting and eclectic filmographies in world cinema. Come and Go, his eighth feature, is his most thematically ambitious production to date, the third film of a projected tetralogy set in Osaka, which includes his previous films New World (2011) and Fly Me to Minami (2013). It’s a sprawling, lengthy (158 minutes), Altman-esque dramedy following the fortunes of several pan-Asian characters as they struggle to make their way in this exciting and beautiful, yet often indifferent and cruel metropolis. Stylistically, it’s far more conventional than his Hong Kong-set 2010 film, the haunting, boldly experimental, and criminally under-seen Magic and Loss, but Come and Go remains perfectly in line with the cosmopolitan, piercingly observant nature of the rest of his work. 

The film’s large cast of characters include: Mimi (Nang Tracy), a Burmese student working two part-time jobs to pay her way through school, increasingly worn out from her labors and from having to constantly fend off her sexually aggressive boss’s advances; Mimi’s Vietnamese co-worker Nam (Lien Binh Phat), who wants to go back to Vietnam to be with his sick mother, but is forced to remain due to his onerous work contract preventing him from leaving the country; Nepali refugee Mousam (Mousam Gurung), who dreams of opening his own restaurant in Osaka; and a Malaysian traveling businessman (JC Chee) who’s pitching a project offering halal foods to Muslim immigrants. A number of other characters revolve around the bustling local porn and sex work industry: a Korean-Japanese hustler/entrepreneur/sort-of pimp (Lee Kwang-soo) who brings along a quartet of Korean starlets, named April, May, June, and July; a naïve, withdrawn homeless young Japanese woman (Manami Usumaru) who’s scouted for a porn shoot and later ends up in a hostess nightclub; a Taiwanese porn enthusiast and sex tourist (Tsai Ming-liang muse Lee Kang-sheng) who’s there to meet his favorite Japanese AV actress. 

These intertwined character studies are lightly tied together by chance interactions between them, as well as by floating TV news reports of the grisly discovery of an elderly woman’s skeleton in an apartment (apparently based on a real-life story). A detective investigating the case (Seiji Chihara), and his bored, neglected wife (Makiko Watanabe), also figure into the film’s narrative. Lim, who also wrote and edited, deftly juggles the many personalities and social issues he takes on, and very skillfully modulates the pacing, making this very long film a breeze to watch, nicely balancing the comedic and serious elements of his stories. The title perfectly encapsulates the drifting, transient nature of the characters and their interactions, and Lim sensitively portrays their longing for more solidly stable existences. He closes the film with an image of blooming cherry blossoms, which would come across as a horribly hackneyed cliché in lesser hands, but which Lim transforms into a movingly poignant yet hopeful final grace note.

Writer: Christopher Bourne

Talking the Pictures

They’re called “silent movies,” but for the most part, films preceding the advent of cinema sound recording weren’t really silent. Though there wasn’t on-screen dialog, screenings often had some sort of musical accompaniment or improvised sound effects, whether live or previously recorded. In Japan, this off-screen enhancement was taken a step further with the practice of including a benshi, a narrator who would explain the on-screen action, embellish narratives, and improvise dialog, employing different voices for different characters. Benshis had massive popularity, often eclipsing that of the stars of the films they narrated. Largely for this reason, the silent film era stretched well into the late 1930s in Japan, long after movies in the rest of the world had made the full transition to sound.  

Masayuki Suo‘s (Shall We Dance?) latest film, the very busy and strenuous comedy Talking the Pictures, pays affectionate, nostalgic tribute to this period of Japanese film history, lovingly recreating the milieu of this filmmaking and film-going era. The two principal characters meet cute as preteens; the boy, Shuntaro, is a rambunctious tyke, perpetrating petty theft with his gang of like-minded ruffians, while Umeko is a shy girl who mostly keeps to herself, probably because of a sense of shame toward her mother, a prostitute working from home. They sneak into a movie theater to catch a performance by a popular local benshi, and confide in each other their future ambitions; Shuntaro wants to be a benshi himself, while Umeko dreams of being an actress. 

Cut to ten years later, and the adult Shuntaro (Ryo Narita) has fallen in with a band of thieves, who exploit his aspiring benshi skills to have Shuntaro impersonate popular benshis, distracting the people with a dazzling performance while the gang robs their homes. Shuntaro escapes from the gang, absconding with a suitcase full of their ill-gotten cash, and tries to become a real benshi, finding a job at an old, run-down movie house. Meanwhile, Umeko (Yuina Kuroshima) has indeed become an actress, but only in bit roles, and what’s worse, she’s expected to provide sexual favors to important men in order to advance her career. 

Inevitably, Shuntaro and Umeko’s paths again cross, but not without complications that come courtesy of the absurd overpopulation of supporting characters Suo and screenwriter Shozo Katashima have piled onto this narrative, including the gang looking for their money, a movie-obsessed detective also in pursuit of Shuntaro, gangsters and their henchmen, a bitter, alcoholic washed-up benshi, a flashy, heartthrob benshi, and way too many others to list here. The broad, often slapstick humor is mildly pleasant to watch at first, but begins to grate over the course of an overlong two hour-plus runtime. The performers are game and high-spirited, and even though this film isn’t nearly as hilarious as it thinks it is, in the end it’s hard to hate too much on a production that’s so desperately eager to please.

Writer:Christopher Bourne