All About Lily Chou-Chou

Dir: Shunji Iwai, 2001. Starring: Hayato Ichihara, Shûgo Oshinara and Ayumi Ito, Japanese/Asian Cinema.

The youth of many nations, especially industrial ones, are full not only of angst but of a yearning to fit in and be understood. For Yûichi and a group of followers just like him, the "ethereal" music of Lily Chou-Chou has become the center of their world, both in cyberspace and reality. Yûichi is the fan site manager under the code name "philla," where he reviews and praises her music with a sense of enlightenment and desperation. Like today’s youth, only anonymous and without photos, these young people drift online in order to connect and rave about the things they find most interesting, which for this group is Lily. But underneath the melodies and enchantment, Yûichi and other fans are still just homeless souls looking for adventure. Though Yûichi is really just looking for an escape, his reality grants him the total opposite. He and his actual friends occupy themselves with petty theft, a mysterious summer vacation, and several humiliating pranks that go terribly wrong. His world shifts into a tumult of despair and unkindness in what he calls "the age of gray," where all the color bleeds dry from the world. His only solace is a lush and isolated rice field where he goes to be alone and listen to Lily.

This advancement of newfound responsibility and savage energy reminds me of what it is like to become an adult. When you’re young, you almost worship your music idols and look to their sound for understanding and piece of mind. But for Yûichi and others, the pressure to find that same balance in reality becomes nearly impossible after you reach a certain age. Not that some can’t or others never did, but for him there is no turning back or resolution.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Mar 31, 2010 6:32pm

Carnival in the Night (Yami no carnival)

Dir: Masashi Yamamoto, 1982. Starring: Kumiko Ota, Akemi Edo, Chika, Michiro Endo. Asian Cinema.

I'm starting to realize that, like certain record labels in music, film companies can also help steer you in the right direction when taking a chance on the unfamiliar. Besides the well-known Criterion restorations and releases of films held in high-esteem, Facets is another company that I'm beginning to see a great pattern with. I think it's safe to say that they deal with films that are a bit more obscure, which can sometimes mean taking a chance on something that you might hate. Carnival in the Night was not one of those cases.

Shot mostly in 16mm black and white with occasional transformations to color, the film is a visceral piece of art that should be applauded despite its subtle flaws. Using a documentary technique, director Masashi Yamamoto cast a small group of non-actors to more or less play themselves—each character linked to the sensational Kumi (Kumiki Ota). In the course of roughly 72 hours, you see the slums and residents of Shinjuku, Japan and Kumi's relation to them. Diving straight into the local punk scene, we see her band perform and you are immediately aware that this is a side of Japanese culture that you have never been exposed to.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Nov 11, 2010 12:47pm

Dolls

Dir: Takeshi Kitano. 2002. Starring: H. Nishijima, M. Kanno, K. Fukada, T. Mihashi, C. Matsubara. Japanese. Asian Cinema/Foreign

Takeshi Kitano’s directorial works are often separated into two strains where the considerable overlap is conveniently ignored in favor of an artificial dichotomy. On the one hand we have the explosively violent yet introspective crime dramas like Sonatine (ソナチネ), Hana-bi (花-火), and Boiling Point (3-4X10月). Less widely seen (and therefore wrongly characterized) are his quiet, contemplative mood-pieces like A Scene at the Sea (あの夏、いちばん静かな海), Kikujirō no Natsu (菊次郎の夏) and Kids Return (キッズ・リターン). Dolls is usually placed in the latter camp or as an anomaly as its mixture of familiar ingredients (watching the ocean, yakuza, explosive violence, stoic acceptance of tragedy) from both strains is impossible to ignore.

In the first story, Matsumoto spurns his girlfriend Sawako to marry another woman, at his parents’ insistence. Sawako loses both her mind and ability to take care of herself as a result. Matsumoto attempts to fix things by binding himself to her with a red cord. Together they wordlessly wander through stunning, artificial landscapes of amazing beauty steeped with sadness.

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Posted by:
Eric Brightwell
Jul 7, 2008 3:16pm

House (Hausu)

Dir: Nobuhiko Ôbayashi, 1977. Starring: K. Ikegami, M. Jinbo, K. Ôba, A. Matsubara, M. Satô, E. Tanaka, M. Miyako. Asian Cinema.

Hausu is not for everyone, though, if you find anime films and series to be amusing and tasteful, you'll probably enjoy this quirky Japanese horror flick. The comparison to anime is based upon the shared characteristics that this film has with the genre. Aside from the dizzy colors and characters with zany nicknames, it also sports a team of girls who fight against a docile villain. It seems as though anime always has this creepy bad guy in the shadows who has a glossy stare and speaks like an intellectual zombie. Like anime, House also has no real plot; the meat and potatoes is in the action and the effects.

However, it would be unjust to say that this movie is simply a live-action anime. Besides being a unique horror film, it also comes off as a Japanese ghost story, except the phantom is symbolized by a mythical cat named Blanche, the reincarnation of some evil spirit. Nobuhiko Ôbayashi, the director, also added a personal touch by working in a bit of his own history to the film. As a former pianist and medical student turned experimental filmmaker, the movie features a menacing piano that dismembers a character, and plenty of animated limbs. Ôbayashi should not only be praised for the artistic direction here, but for the fact that, like Spike Jonze, feature films weren’t always a part of his craft. The director is most prominent in Japan for his experimental films and TV commercials, the latter casting several big American stars, such as Kirk Douglas and Charles Bronson. House is actually his directorial debut, so you can imagine the liberties taken when he didn't have to cram all of his ideas into a few minutes.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Jan 4, 2011 4:44pm

In the Realm of the Senses

Dir: Nagisa Ôshima, 1976. Starring: Tatsuya Fuji, Eiko Matsuda, Aoi Nakajima. Asian Cinema.

"The concept of 'obscenity' is tested when we dare to look at something that we desire to see but have forbidden ourselves to look at. When we feel that everything has been revealed, 'obscenity' disappears and there is a certain liberation. " --Nagisa Ôshima

The true story of Sada Abe has been interpreted into film several times, including Noboru Tanaka's film A Woman Called Sada Abe a year before this one, and Nobuhiko Obayashi's Sada in '98. Sada Abe was convicted in 1936 after killing her lover, Kichizo, while performing erotic asphyxiation. When arrested days later she was found calm, carrying his genitals in her handbag with a glowing smile on her face, claiming that she couldn’t take his body or head with her, so she decided to take the part of him that had the most vivid memories. In Oshima's interpretation of their story, which is still banned in its uncut form in Japan, the tale was given not only a fresh face, but a wholly realistic new perspective. In it, Sada (Eiko Matsuda) is, as in real life, an ex-prostitute who found work as a servant in the home of a seemingly upstanding couple. The master, Kichizo (Tatsuya Fuji), becomes interested in her sexually and the two begin an affair. In attempts to avoid suspicion from his wife, she leaves their employ and the two set up shop at a nearby inn. There they are consumed by their unabashed lovemaking until Sada's nymphomania turns into a quest for sadomasochism. As their love inflames them, so do the dangers of its nature. Pain and punishment ultimately become the source of their newfound pleasure, and arguably, self-hatred.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Feb 16, 2011 4:22pm

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs

Dir: Mikio Naruse, 1960. Starring: Hideko Takamine, Tatsuya Nakadai, Masayuki Mori. Asian Cinema.

Regardless of the decade, there aren't many Japanese films that I've seen that approach the human experience on a more common level. The Japanese directors who've upheld great popularity abroad usually deal more with the folklore and customs of ancient Japan, while directors such as Takashi Miike (Audition, Ichi the Killer) and Kinji Fukasaku (Battle Royale) deal more with ultra-violence and action. Perhaps the most popular, Akira Kurosawa, has made an impact on the western world because American cinema, particularly Westerns, were of great influence.

While in Ginza, Naruse and his close acquaintances were gathered in a bar and noticed something special about the matrons. The complexity of their relationship with their customers, vastly different than the relationship of a geisha or bartender, had never been breached in cinema. Fueled by intentions to bring something new to the screen and introduce the world to the life of a high-end hostess, Naruse crafted this film. Its emphasis on the common man and his relation to the world was not exactly something that made it popular, and this, along with the director's other works, has left many bored, if not unsatisfied. Ozu's popularity with similar themes of the common man have done well, so what makes them different? Could it be because Naruse shot something in 1960 about people in 1960? Is it the lack of action in his films, or the fact that he cast based on a person's resemblance to the character in terms of personality? Whatever the reason, this film, while praised by cinefiles, has failed to impress or be understood by the masses; many have yet to realize that the film is full of feminist theory, breathtaking cinematography, and an example of the hardships that come with middle age.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Apr 28, 2011 10:41am

Woman in the Dunes

Dir: Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1964. Starring: Eiji Okada and Kyôko Kishida. Japanese. Asian Cinema.

Metaphors are perhaps the greatest and most poetic way to express a concept or condition without heavy exposition in dialog. A good poem, for example, should never be clear in words alone, but with a trained eye, one should and hopefully can decipher what the work is getting at. When I first saw Woman in the Dunes, while watching it and after finishing it, I interpreted it as having many metaphors, one being commitment and the surrender that comes to people in terms of settling down. Also, it places the main character into an alien existence that is far removed from his conventional and vanity-filled comfort zones. The sand in this film also presents a metaphor of its own, but I’ll leave that for you to conclude.

Early Japanese cinema is a leader in this kind of poetic and classic storytelling. Also shot in black and white, films like Double Suicide and Akira Kurosawa’s Rashômon incorporate centuries' worth of idealism and culture into an hour and a half’s worth of wonder.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Mar 29, 2010 5:53pm
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