Film Review: Dead or Alive (1999)

Also known as: Dead or Alive: Hanzaisha (original title), D.O.A. (short title)
Release Date: November 5th, 1999 (Tokyo International Film Festival)
Directed by: Takashi Miike
Written by: Ichiro Ryu
Music by: Kōji Endō
Cast: Riki Takeuchi, Show Aikawa, Renji Ishibashi

Daiei Film, Toei Video, Excellent Film, 105 Minutes

Review:

“My father was a small-village cop in a town where nothing ever happened. He just hung around like a scarecrow, until he died. But like they say – even a scarecrow keeps away the sparrows.” – Detective Jojima

People often ask me, “Hey, did you see that new Takashi Miike film?!” And my usual response is, “No.” People that know that I’m a hardcore film aficionado just assume that I like everything weird and strange out there but Miike’s movies have never really resonated with me and this one is no different.

Now that doesn’t mean that I can’t appreciate the film. I respect lots of things that aren’t my cup of tea because a person doesn’t have to like everything just for the fact that others see value in it or just because it has some sort of merit or special quality that makes it unique or influential.

I understand why Miike’s films resonate with some people, just as I understand why David Lynch is so beloved, even if most of his films don’t hit me in the same way. But I also know that directors with really strange oeuvres have die hard fans that love everything they do almost blindly. Miike fans are very much like that, especially ones in the Western Hemisphere.

Dead or Alive is beloved by many but I just see it as a knockoff of old school Japanese Yakuza and Hong Kong crime films with a bunch of crazy shit thrown into it to gross people out without a real reason for it to exist other than shock value.

Now I think that Riki Takeuchi and Show Aikawa gave good performances and they deserve the recognition they received in these sort of films but lots of capable actors give capable performances in movies beneath their talent level.

I guess the only way I can describe this is that it’s like Infernal Affairs or The Departed if they were made by Troma and with Japanese dialogue.

Like other Miike films, a bunch of crazy, nonsensical shit happens with really fucked up curveballs thrown at your head pretty violently. Here we get a girl fucking a dog, a stripper drowned in a kiddie pool of diarrhea, a man snorting a 30 foot line of cocaine and a big finale that doesn’t make you suspend disbelief, it just shows you that you’re an idiot for thinking that you could.

This is a movie for people who want to relish in super violent, gross shit. This is the cinematic equivalent to poop munching porn. People will argue for the artistic merit of this film and Miike’s creative choices but I’m sure there’s someone that gets paid to analyze psych ward hieroglyphics that a mental patient finger-painted with their own feces.

Yet, Miike is pretty good at making this feel like one long, overly surreal music video. So props on the editing, I guess. Except for the middle of the film where things slow down to a brutally boring crawl.

I don’t want to completely trash Miike because he is capable of making good movies but I just don’t understand how and why this became a beloved film.

Dead or Alive was actually my introduction to Miike around the turn of the century. It didn’t set a good precedent and I do think that it has made me biased against his later work but I do think that Audition was a good movie and Ichi the Killer certainly felt more refined and accented his style better.

Rating: 4.25/10
Pairs well with: other Takashi Miike films that focus on crime or the Yakuza.

Film Review: Rashômon (1950)

Release Date: August 26th, 1950 (Japan)
Directed by: Akira Kurosawa
Written by: Akira Kurosawa
Based on: In a Grove by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa
Music by: Fumio Hayasaka
Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Machiko Kyō, Masayuki Mori, Takashi Shimura, Minoru Chiaki

Daiei Film, 88 Minutes

Review:

“It’s human to lie. Most of the time we can’t even be honest with ourselves.” – Commoner

Kurosawa is one of the best filmmakers of all-time. I have a deep admiration for a lot of his pictures. However, Rashômon isn’t at the top of my list, even though it really brought him worldwide notoriety and won an Academy Award.

It’s still a really good film but I always gravitated to his action heavy samurai epics like Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood and Yojimbo or his crime films like Stray Dog and Drunken Angel. But this film is still very engaging and maybe more intimate than the others, as it has a very small cast and really just focuses on a single event.

The purpose of the film is to tell the story of this event from four different perspectives. Kurosawa did this because he wanted to show how different interpretations can greatly vary. Also, within that, Kurosawa wanted to show how memory or bias can sway factual accuracy.

Initially, Japanese critics weren’t too fond of the film and they were a bit baffled when Western audiences praised it. Ultimately, this film opened the gates for Japanese cinema, as it was now being appreciated by audiences across the world.

The film deals with some heavy subject matter, especially for 1950. The story deals with the rape of a woman and the apparent murder of her husband. I don’t really think that this is a film that could have been made in America, at the time. I also think that its gritty realism is what caught audiences by surprise and captivated them, as Hollywood films were typically so clean and pristine. Even the grittiest of film-noir pictures didn’t get this dark.

Historically, this is one of the most important foreign films of all-time. It paved the way for other directors and new genres that made their way to the States. It allowed Kurosawa to have the respect and freedom to make better films, some of which became the best movies ever made.

I don’t want to take anything away from this. It’s doesn’t necessarily resonate with me like a lot of Kurosawa’s other work but I can’t deny it’s place in history, its influence and the great craftsmanship it took to bring it to life.

Also, the sequence where the dead husband speaks through a medium is legitimately creepy. I did love that part of the film.

Rating: 8.25/10
Pairs well with: other Kurosawa films of the late ’40s and early ’50s.

Book Review: ‘The Big Book of Japanese Giant Monster Movies: The Lost Films’ by John LeMay

I am a big fan of John LeMay’s first two big books on kaiju film history, so when I found out about this one, I had to get a copy.

The subject of this installment also really peaked my interest, as I already knew a lot about existing kaiju pictures but this book was all about the lost films in the genre. It looks at films that were actually made but are now lost or destroyed, films that went into production but were never made, alternate versions of films that were scrapped, as well as some fan produced movies.

This is one of the best books I have ever read on the kaiju genre and it is certainly a must own for kaiju fans. It was just stacked with so much information on films that the vast majority of people have never heard about. It truly digs deep and fleshes out all these kaiju pictures that were lost or just not meant to be.

With a third book on the subject, John LeMay, in my opinion, has become the best English speaking writer on these types of films. I can’t imagine how much time was devoted to researching all the titles covered here. There are literally dozens of films discussed and analyzed with a few appendices added on at the end for dozens more where he wasn’t able to get enough info to write up anything larger than a blurb.

I have always been a big fan of “what ifs”, especially in regards to movies. This book is cool as hell and a lot of fun. LeMay deserves a ton of props for the work that went into this. I hope it pays off, in that this book lives on for years to come.

Film Review: The Tale of Zatoichi (1962)

Release Date: April 12th, 1962 (Japan)
Directed by: Kenji Misumi
Written by: Minoru Inuzuka
Based on: The Tale of Zatoichi by Kan Shimozawa
Music by: Akira Ifukube
Cast: Shintaro Katsu, Masayo Banri, Ryuzo Shimada, Hajime Mitamura, Shigeru Amachi

Daiei Motion Picture Company, 95 Minutes

Review:

“Then why don’t you live a decent life?” – Tane, “It’s like being stuck in a bog; it’s not easy to pull yourself out once you’ve fallen in.” – Zatoichi

The Zatoichi films are movies I have heard about for a really long time thanks to having friends that are big fans of jidaigeki pictures. Unfortunately, I have never seen any of them until now. It is a pretty big injustice that I have to rectify and absolve myself of. But since I have the Criterion Channel, I now have access to twenty-five of these pictures. So why not start with the first?

This film introduces audiences to the character of Zatoichi, a blind masseur and master swordsman. He is hired by a yakuza boss named Sukegoro, who thinks that his skills will come in handy due to an oncoming war with a rival gang led by Shigezo. Shigezo responds by hiring a legendary ronin, Miki Hirate.

The film shows that Zatoichi is very humble and because of this and his low social stature, he is often times underestimated by the men around him. Zatoichi also shows that he uses his handicap to his advantage, as he turns the tables on those trying to take advantage of his blindness.

It is revealed that Zatoichi’s rival Hirate is ill with tuberculosis. This makes Hirate eager to fight Zatoichi because he feels that death at the hands of a great warrior is a better fate than dying of his illness. All the while, Hirate and Zatoichi develop a strong bond and friendship, leading up to their confrontation.

The film’s story plays out really well and it is actually quite stellar and builds up to something great, as you reach the climax. This is of course enhanced by the talent of the main actors and the quality of the film from a technical standpoint.

For 1962, this is one of the best Daiei films I have seen, up to this point. Hell, it is one of the best Daiei films, period. It is also cool seeing that Daiei had this jidaigeki franchise alongside their more famous kaiju pictures, just as their rival studio Toho had Kurosawa’s jidaigeki epics alongside their Godzilla franchise.

I’m not sure how well the quality maintains over the course of this long film series but it was off to a good start with this picture. I can assume it will go the route of James Bond or Godzilla, where quality tends to taper off but you still get an occasional high point, here and there.

Book Review: ‘The Kaiju Film: A Critical Study of Cinema’s Biggest Monsters’ by Jason Barr

Jason Barr’s The Kaiju Film: A Critical Study of Cinema’s Biggest Monsters is really a mixed bag. It is a book I tried to like and get behind but ultimately, couldn’t.

It comes with several great reviews on Amazon but I guess I’m in the minority here.

The book is essentially a theoretical analysis of kaiju films throughout history. The author uses all kinds of examples to support his theories on the deeper meaning of all these films and how they change with the times. He covers politics, weapons of mass destruction, economics, foreign affairs, etc.

The problem is that the author just reads way too far into these films. Most people who are fans of the original Godzilla film understand the meaning behind it and the warnings it presents. However, most kaiju film after that were purely entertainment. Japanese culture certainly sprinkles in their philosophy and their view on life in many of these films but Barr digs so deep it feels like we are left to bear witness to him trying to make his theories stick.

It reminds me a lot of how conspiracy theorists over analyze things for so long that they can make anything into a conspiracy without much evidence and just a lot of theorizing and speculation. I feel like a lot of this book is cherry picking to fit the conclusions that Barr wants to make. It reminds me of Room 237, that conspiratorial documentary on The Shining, where the bulk of the rhetoric just seems like academic babbling.

Also, Barr takes sides on some of the issues and paints a picture that supports his stance. He also presents his theoretical analysis as if he is speaking factually and not simply theorizing.

In the end, most of these movies were made to capitalize on the kaiju craze of the 1960s. Many of the non-Toho films were just poor ripoffs of Gojira (the original Godzilla film). I just can’t buy into the idea that the writers, directors and producers sat down and tried to stuff so much political and social consciousness into these films, as Barr implies.

Book Review: ‘The Big Book of Japanese Giant Monster Movies: Vol. 2: 1984-2014’ by John LeMay

The Big Book of Japanese Giant Monster Movies: Vol. 2 is a perfect continuation of what started in the first volume.

The first volume, which I have already reviewed, covered kaiju films through the Shōwa period. That is the era that most people are familiar with when it comes to the Godzilla and Gamera franchises.

This second volume covers the Heisei and Millennium eras. These are the films that were part of the attempts to resurrect the franchises in the 80s and 90s. They are lesser known in the United States but still beloved kaiju pictures.

John LeMay wrote this book in the exact same format as the previous one and I’m a fan of the way he organizes his information. He lists out the essential credits (similar to how I start my film reviews), then he gives a rundown of the plot, goes into the history and production of the film and then caps off each section with some trivia tidbits.

LeMay does a fantastic job of providing real context to each film he talks about. Also, the trivia bits are usually filled with facts that even I, someone who has been immersed in kaiju films for decades, didn’t know.

There are a lot of books you can get about kaiju movies but this and its predecessor are must owns for loyal fans of the genre.

Book Review: ‘The Big Book of Japanese Giant Monster Movies: Vol. 1: 1954-1980’ by John LeMay

I love kaiju. I love books. This is one of the best books on kaiju ever written. Therefore, I love this book.

The Big Book of Japanese Giant Monster Movies covers pretty much every kaiju film from the years 1954 through 1980. It even covers some films that aren’t kaiju pictures but that have some relation to them, like Toho’s vampire films.

Each chapter focuses on a film and it gives a lot of analysis, facts, history and the author’s take on it. John LeMay did a great job of keeping the book straight to the point and well organized. There are several kaiju books out there but this one seems to be the most valuable and the one “must have” of the lot.

It spends a lot of time covering the early Toho Godzilla pictures, as well as Daiei’s Gamera and Daimajin franchises. The book goes into all the attempts by other studios to try and piggyback off of Toho’s and Daiei’s success with the kaiju formula. In fact, it introduced me to kaiju films I had never heard of and I’ve been a kaiju aficionado my entire life. Well, at least since I first discovered Godzilla on television in the mid-1980s.

The Big Book of Japanese Giant Monster Movies is a fantastic and fun read. Especially, if you have a love of the subject matter.