Kurosawa Kiyoshi should be considered his own genre. While primarily known for his horror films in the West, he got his start with pinku eiga movies (like many other Japanese directors) then moved into yakuza territory before making the switch to horror. Highly skilled, Kurosawa can successfully move between genres but every film he has made is distinctly and undeniably his. He uses unorthodox techniques and favors convoluted storylines with intense thematic complexity. He likes playing with experimental techniques; in his work you will find everything from disorienting shot placement, to musical numbers, to short silent films. There are a few things, however, that he uses with regularity and have become part of his style – ambiguous narratives, the use of both static and tracking cameras that form exceedingly long takes, the tendency to film his characters from a distance, the use of reflection and light, illogical editing, extremely deliberate pacing. He also has very important things to say about Japanese society – social alienation, the gap between generations, the modern family and workplace, morality. But what makes his films so special is that he does these things while scaring the hell out of the audience.
RETRIBUTION (2006, Japanese title Sakebi, ‘scream’) isn’t the best Kurosawa movie and it isn’t the scariest, but it is a great example of what Kurosawa does. The film opens with a static shot of a murder, viewed from Kurosawa’s recognizably distant vantage point. A man in a black trench coat is holding a woman in a blazingly red dress face down in a muddy puddle. The scene is completely silent; when the man finishes his task he walks away. Detective Yoshioka (played by Kurosawa’s cinematic alter-ego Yakusho Koji) is tasked with investigating the murder. However, he begins to wonder if he is the murderer, as he uncovers evidence that seems to point to him and is haunted by images of the ghost in red. As he attempts to discover her identity, a series of similar killings take place in the area – seemingly random people are all drowning loved ones in seawater.
ADRENALINE DRIVE is one of the first movies I watched when I was initially getting into Japanese film. Back in 2000, VHS still reigned supreme and it was pretty difficult to get your hands on Japanese movies in Colorado. Upon realizing that I had exhausted most of the sci-fi movie selection at the local Hollywood Video (remember when people used to RENT movies from STORES???), I stumbled upon a VHS copy of ADRENALINE DRIVE. Up to that point, I had really only watched jidai-geki style samurai movies, so my 12 year old brain was pretty interested in seeing a ‘normal’ Japanese movie. Though I bought it on a whim, ADRENALINE DRIVE turned out to be a ridiculously fun parody of yakuza caper films.
The movie opens with Suzuki (Ando Masanobu), a spineless rental car clerk, accidentally rear ending a car full of yakuza. Always ready to exploit the situation, the yakuza force Suzuki to visit their office and settle the debt. After an uncomfortable moment with the yakuza leader Kuroiwa (Matsushige Yutaka), Suzuki is let off the hook when a gas explosion destroys the office. Hearing the blast, an off-duty nurse Shizuko (Ishida Hikari) rushes into the building to help. Seeing the dead yakuza, Suzuki and Shizuko leave with a case full of blood-soaked cash. However, a badly injured Kuroiwa knows their identities and, now bed-ridden in the hospital, sends a group of low-level chinpira after them to retrieve the stolen money. Now on the run from the yakuza, ADRENALINE DRIVE is about the bizarre misadventures the unlikely pair experience.
Horror is typically regarded as the least feminist genre of film; a genre that routinely objectifies, sexualizes, tortures, rapes and murders women and girls. However, if viewed from a different angle, horror films often feature story lines that grant wronged women the power and agency (in death) to respond to the injustices done to them in life.
‘Dead wet girls’ is a term coined by David Kalat in his book J-Horror to describe the unique female ghosts who are so iconic in Japanese horror. While popular Japanese films like RING and JU-ON have made this figure recognizable to Western audience, the wronged woman has been a prominent figure in Japanese ghost stories and mythology for centuries. Of course, the interpretation of these stories is fairly ambivalent; often the presence of malignant ghosts and spirits is connected back to the failure of mothers and wives to perform their womanly duties. In many Japanese folktales, female spirits are connected back to the savage and unpredictable natural world.
TRADITIONAL JAPANESE GHOST TALES
The best example of this connection to nature is the Yuki-onna (snow woman), famously depicted in Kobayashi Masaki’s KWAIDAN (1964). The Yuki-onna is a beautiful woman with long black hair, who typically appears before travelers lost in snow. The Yuki-onna typically kills the unfortunate travelers she meets, though she may also take unsuspecting men as lovers in a succubus-like fashion. She is essentially the manifestation of winter; beautiful and serene yet capable of ruthlessly killing those who are ill-prepared. She is also a reminder of a woman’s fury – like nature, no woman can ever be fully trusted. Kobayashi Masaki’s depiction of the Yuki-onna is captivatingly surreal. Starring Nakadai Tatsuya, the entire segment was filmed in an obviously artificial indoor set with swirling painted backgrounds (featuring an ominous eye).
This is one of the best movies you will see all year and everyone should watch it. Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil is the funniest, smartest, and most lighthearted satire of horror movie tropes to be released since Shaun of the Dead. Playing with some of the most tiresome and common clichés of slasher movies, this film manages to cast the entire horror genre in an original and refreshingly light.
Opening on what appears to be a southern Appalachian forest and mimicking a shot made infamous in Deliverance (and echoed in The Descent), the film introduces us to a band of unwitting and mostly dull-witted ‘college kids,’ who we all know will meet a gruesome end by the film’s conclusion. Headed off on a Memorial Day camping trip (why would anyone ever go camping in the South? Seriously, only bad things happen there), they have a brief encounter with Tucker (Alan Tudyk, Firefly) and Dale (Tyler Labine), two well-intentioned rednecks off to fix up their dream vacation home. Unsurprisingly, they completely misinterpret Dale’s attempt to make small talk with the lovely Allison (Katrina Bowden of 30 Rock)…perhaps partially because he brings along a scythe to casually lean-on as he bumbles through an introduction.
☆☆ If you haven’t seen Martyrs, I would STRONGLY recommend that you watch it without reading this review…or any reviews for that matter. I think it is best to go into this movie without any idea where the story is going to take you. You will only be able to experience watching this film for the first time once, so I suggest you make the most of it. ☆☆
Martyrs (2008, Written and Directed by Pascal Laugier) opens with the young Lucie (Mylene Jampanoi) running down a deserted street, screaming and covered in blood. She had been kidnapped and subjected to extreme forms of torture before escaping. The authorities remain completely mystified about who did this to her and (more importantly) why. Severely traumatized, Lucie refuses to speak to anyone, save for her only friend Anna (Morhana Alaoui). Fifteen years later, Lucie knocks on the door of a normal suburban home and executes the entire family living there. She is convinced that these are the people who tortured her as a child, and calls Anna for help. Anna is skeptical about Lucie’s convictions – especially since Lucie also believes that she has been being attacked by a monster ever since her escape.
After a few plot twists that I won’t mention here, Anna discovers a sleek and completely sterile torture chamber hidden underneath the house. In the dungeon, she finds another woman who was being tortured by the family. Anna attempts to help her, only to be abducted herself when the leaders of a mysterious organization arrive at the house. The leader of the cult-like group reveals to Anna that they are torturing women in an attempt to recreate the experience of martyrdom. By using pain and violence, they want to push these women into a plain of higher existence in an attempt to discover what lies beyond life and after death.
(A) Run away
(B) Call the police
(C) Free her
(D) Fuck her
In Deadgirl (2008), the answer is always (D). When JT and Ricky find the girl in the basement, JT suggests, “We could keep her…just till tonight or tomorrow.” Despite the fact that Ricky’s moral compass has identified this situation as undeniably ‘Not Good,’ he isn’t enough of a man to stand up to his friend. So he leaves his friend and the girl in the basement. See no evil, hear no evil.
The next day, JT convinces Ricky to come back to the basement. And of course Ricky does, because that’s what friends are for. It turns out that – mid-rape – the woman started struggling and tried to bite JT. Obviously, the only thing JT could do in a situation like that is beat her to death. So he did. But she doesn’t die. She was dead all along.
I spend most of my time cursing the ill-fated timing of my birth. Being 23 in the 1980s seems like it would be oodles more fun than being 23 in 2010. That’s right, I said ‘oodles.’ We have yet to colonize the moon, Mars, or develop teleportation, so in the eyes of 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s science fiction, mankind is woefully behind schedule. To make matters worse, no one is eating sushi dusted with flakes of gold in Tokyo anymore. But watching Roger Vadim’s psychedelic softcore, sci-fi trip-fest BARBARELLA (1968) makes me wonder if the 1960s were actually the best time ever to be alive. Everyone involved had be seriously high to produce of a movie of such outstanding quality. (And Roger Vadim, who was married to both Brigitte Bardot and Jane Fonda, has to be the luckiest man ever.)
From the first frame of Barbarella, I knew I was going to love this movie. Jane Fonda’s Barbarella performs a zero-g striptease act while Bob Crewe and Charles Fox serenade you with the film’s title theme – spouting poetic gems like “Barbarella psychadella / There’s a kind of cockleshell about yooou.” Meanwhile, the credits float around the screen, discreetly protecting Barbarella’s modesty while she removes her high-tec space suit. You don’t even need to know what ‘cockleshell’ means to know that this movie is going to rock.
Based on a French comic by Jean- Claude Forest, Barbarella captures everything I love about cinema from the 1960s and 1970s. For me, cinema (particularly genres like science fiction and horror) exists to break rules – to be wild and free and challenging. Especially when compared to the sterilized, safe nature of Hollywood today, the films of the ’60s and ’70s are wonderfully energetic and really experimental. It’s no wonder so many cinematic classics were created during this time. Today, audiences and filmmakers are too aware of everything. Genres like science fiction and horror are rampantly self-referencial – very aware of where they come from and who they are made for. It’s almost like filmmakers are trying to say, “Look, I’m smart and I can add in all these clever nods to genre classics.” Meanwhile, the audience seems to have lost faith in the role of the filmmaker – to show us things about the world, to transport us to different worlds, and to tell us stories.
Roger Vadim doesn’t fall back on pretentious intellectualism or self-reference. Neither does Jane Fonda, who gracefully walks the line between shameless titillation and wide-eyed nonchalant deadpan. (Sure, Jane Fonda wishes she could forget the fact that she turned down Bonnie and Clyde and Rosemary’s Baby to star in Barbarella, but there are a lot of things I’d like to forget about Jane Fonda. Let’s call it a compromise.) Lacking the cynicism and snide cleverness of post-modernism, Barbarella is blissfully unself-conscious and innocent. And that’s very ‘cockleshell’ indeed. I’d tell you more about the plot, but it honestly doesn’t matter. Just watch the movie.
With that said, here it is – 12 Reasons to Love Barbarella and celebrate a time when storytelling was much more free and adventurous:
12. Women can be naked when they teleconference with the President, but they still must be wide-eyed and childishly innocent.
11. The members of the underground revolution use plastic slides (AKA ‘secret escape shoots’) to enter their secret base.
10. ‘Love’ is the universal greeting and farewell. You know, like ‘Aloha’ but for futuristic space hippies.
9. Lethal Eskimo twins that incapacitate you with snowballs then try to feed you to flesh-eating dolls with razor teeth. Someone was clearly stoned off their ass when they wrote this.
8. The most evil person in the universe is Duran Duran. (Or Durand-Durand, same thing.)
7. In the future, the interior of all space craft will be entirely covered with shag carpet. Take that static electricity.
6. The preferred method of torturing women is pleasuring them to death. Silly women, how dare you be capable of having multiple orgasms!
5. Casual sex (well, it’s the 60s so let’s say ‘free love’) is alive and well, but only if you take an Exultation Transference Pill first. Oh, you don’t like the Pill? Fine, whatever, do me anyways.
4. You can smoke Essence of Man. All you need is a giant fishbowl bong.
3. Pygar, the winged angel. Beautiful, blonde, blind and submissive – the sexual fantasy of every gay man alive.
2. Jane Fonda is hot…and constantly gets knocked unconscious. You do the math. (Hint: It involves sex.)
1. The outfits. Barbarella has a costume change every ten minutes. Seriously…dear god…THE OUTFITS!
PS – Back in 2009, there was talk of Robert Rodriguez doing a Barbarella remake (if Germany does financie the movie, they MUST have a scene with David Hasselhoff riding a dolphin…over a rainbow tidal wave). I love Rodriguez and I respect that fact that he enjoys having exclusive access to Rose McGowan’s vagina, but does anyone else question if McGowan has the chops to fill Jane Fonda’s shoes? (But, Rodriguez and McGowan may have split, I can’t keep track of all this celebrity stuff.)
Directed by Tomomatsu Naoyuki and based on a novel by Otsuki Kenji, the 2001 film Stacy seems like a pretty good idea – what’s not to love about undead zombie schoolgirls? The film opens with the following narration:
The beginning of the 21st century. Young girls aged 15 to 17 began dying one after another, after all over the world. Even more surprising the dead girls began to reawaken as zombies. I don’t know who coined the term, but they began to call the zombies ‘Stacies.’
This tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the film – for some reason, girls start turning in zombies and it’s up to the fathers or boyfriends of the dearly departed to dismember them (in a oddly precise number of body parts, 165). Thanks to the crackpot research of the bespectacled Dr. Inugami, all the distraught population knows about the outbreak it that girls suffer from ‘Near Death Happiness’ (NDH) before dying and turning into ‘Stacies.’ These Stacies glow blue from a ‘Butterfly Twinkle Powder’ that they secrete when they are exposed to what we might as well call love.