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Ghosts in their own ghost stories: Shokuzai

Shokuzai episode 3

“If it cannot break out of its shell, the chick will die without ever being born. We are the chick-The world is our egg. If we don’t crack the world’s shell, we will die without ever truly being born. Smash the world’s shell. FOR THE REVOLUTION OF THE WORLD!”
–Revolutionary Girl Utena

Shokuzai (Penance) is a story of people dying without ever being born. Exposed to a tragedy at a young age, it’s like they were frozen in time and encased within a shell of adolescence as they grew into adulthood. They were five girls in their school’s playground when one of them was abducted right in front of their eyes and murdered. 15 years later, we return to their lives and find them still struggling to come to terms with what happened. Stunted, empty, cursed; they could never break out of their shells. Thus began the 5 episode series Shokuzai, a 2012 Japanese TV drama directed by the horror maestro Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Cure, Pulse, Tokyo Sonata.)

When I began investigating Japanese film in 2008, Kurosawa fast became a favourite of mine. Like a Japanese Tarkovsky, his style is calm and atmospheric, using background noise and image to convey a strong feeling of alienation and disquiet. If you’ve ever seen anything from the anime directors Ryutaro Nakamura (Serial Experiments Lain, Ghost Hound) or Hiroshi Hamasaki (Texhnolyze, Shigurui,) you’ll know what to expect. Kurosawa’s made a lot of horror, but in a genre renowned for its visceral qualities, his films are unusually meditative and artful nightmares that play with the strange and surreal to emphasise an ugly and desperate reality. When even Martin Scorsese is a fan (the excellent Shutter Island owes a lot to Kurosawa,) you realise this is a filmmaker worthy of note.

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Japanese punk

Lately, I’ve felt a little empty. Waiting for something to spark a little inspiration in me. So, as I often do, I ended-up on YouTube, listening to music, when The Blue Hearts appeared with their song, Linda Linda. It’s a Japanese punk-rock song that you’ll have heard before if you’ve seen the film Linda Linda Linda (which I reviewed years ago.) Anyway, I’ve always liked punk music, aesthetics and all, and it’s interesting to see such a Japanese take on it. Ripped jeans, snarling faces and funny dancing.

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After Life, Angel Beats! and anime blogging

After Life, directed by Hirokazu Koreeda, is one of most interesting films I’ve seen. Set in an (unspecified) purgatory, it’s about dead people choosing one memory (and one memory only, the rest fades) to carry with them into (an also unspecified) eternity. Upon choosing, that memory will be recreated on a film-set and recorded with you as the star. You take the resulting VHS with you. The recreation is a massive team effort, with actors, props and all kinds of film-making devices.

If you can’t choose a memory, or simply refuse to, you become a part of the staff at purgatory, helping others to move on. One man has trouble choosing his memory, and so is given a big box of VHS tapes (containing his entire life) that he spends his time pouring over, trying to remember the things he did in his lifetime. Searching for something big and meaningful, eventually, he just chooses a memory with his wife and him; an old couple, sitting on a park bench, talking. The small things can mean so much.

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The art of fading into the scenery; introducing Megane

The only way I can think to describe Megane is “a movie for B-type personalities”. It ambles along at a pace that – to the outside observer – seems foreign, but somehow fascinating. Other than that, it’s hard to pin down. The film builds its own internal language of keywords and signs, yet offers the viewer no interpretation or meaning, remaining neutral. The meaning, of course, is that there is none: things like signs and symbols, even when presented with the intricacy seen in the likes of Megane, are meaningless.

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People with cold hands have warm hearts (Air Doll review)

Two years is a long time.

Just two years ago, I’d seen very few Japanese live-action films, only to eventually realise that my interest in anime was linked to a broader fascination with the whole spectrum of Japanese art; what I get from anime, I hear in Japanese music and see in Japanese film, too. This runs deep for me and I can’t explain why, but anyway, since that point, I’ve seen dozens of Japanese films; I have favourite directors and keep finding new music (the latest being World’s End Girlfriend).

Every new film is just the tip of another ice-berg, revealing only further depths of art and beauty. One of my biggest regrets about this blog is that I haven’t documented this journey into live-action nearly well enough, so, I’m sorry about that, guys, but this post, I hope, will at least go some ways to making amends, because last night I watched Air Doll and just had to write something.

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Bitter sweet school days; All About Lily Chou-Chou

Back in June, I reviewed a Japanese live action film called Linda Linda Linda. It was a great movie, so great, in fact, that it encouraged me to dig deeply into the depths of Japanese cinema. Since then, I’ve been working my way through the recommendations in the comments of that post. It has been a joy to explore an area of film that, until a few months ago, I’d barely even scratched the surface of. It’s all so new and exciting, and confirms something about me that I’ve always suspected anyway, that, rather than being a fan of just anime, I’m a fan of Japanese cinema full stop. Be it the vivid style of filming, the use of music to accentuate emotion or the emphasis on character over plot, whatever it is, it’s an abstract, bitter sweet quality that really helps me escape into the “ether” of imagination.

On Tuesday night I watched a film called All About Lily Chou-Chou. Sometimes, if I can catch a good movie late at night, I’ll go to bed right after it finishes and find that even my dreams are trapped by its influence. On Wednesday morning, I woke up feeling groggy and restless, precisely because I couldn’t shake my thoughts from this film, so, I had to write about it, no choice, really.

Just going back to how I felt about Linda Linda Linda, it was a bright and romantic ode to youth, more akin to a dream than reality, in love with (the memory of) being young. Similarly, All About Lily Chou-Chou is about Japanese school life, but this isn’t a happy film, the kids are cruel, hopeless and sad, yet presented in such a way that is beautiful; lush green fields and bumpy concrete roads are fine company for despair.

At school and after, Hoshino and his gang pick on the shy Yuichi. They beat him up, take his money and embarrass him in public. During one particularly harrowing attack, they trash Yuichi’s bike and force him to strip naked and masturbate in-front of them as they throw stones and jeer. That is their reality, Hoshino the bully has lost faith in life and Yuichi the victim has no courage. Yet they both passionately admire a singer/song-writer called Lily Chou-Chou and hang-out on the same Lily Chou-Chou internet forum, often chatting online with each other anonymously, sharing their mutual passion for her music and explaining how it inspires them with such vivid and strong feeling. They become friends online. Spiritually, Hoshino and Yuichi are good friends, but when they meet in reality, with their true feelings concealed from one-another, they hate each other. It’s a contradiction of truth and a very sad, very human tragedy.

Another of Hoshino’s victims is a girl called Tsuda, he blackmails her into becoming a prostitute. We follow her on one of her ‘jobs’; a date with a middle-aged salary man. In the immediate aftermath, she doesn’t seem to be particularly effected, it’s only when she is almost home that she breaks down and loses control, literally stamping her pay into ground and soaking herself in a river near-by. That’s the kind of person that Tsuda is, she might portray herself as strong and streetwise, but it’s all just a mask. Deep down, she loathes herself for being so weak as to go along with Hoshino’s blackmail, yet pride prevents her from crying for help. She yearns to be free, desperately so, and in the most bitter sweet scene of the film, stumbles into a kite flying club, almost overcome with the euphoria of just watching them glide in the wind, so carefree and simple. “I wanna fly in the sky”, she said.

At two and a half hours, it’s a long movie, packed with intimate character vignettes and filmed in this very personal, modern style that is a feature of Japanese cinema, it’s very cool looking. It’s also slow building, sparse in dialogue and, at times, hard to follow, as the narrative jumps back and forth in time and names and faces come and go. Even still, it has an ethereal quality, an atmosphere that quietly fades in and envelopes us into this world of bitter sweet reality, I could almost describe it as an out of body experience. Anyway, All About Lily Chou-Chou isn’t a nasty film; it doesn’t delight in the suffering of its characters. It knows that life can be harsh, yet has moments of beauty too.

Linda Linda Linda; slice of life done good

While I’m fairly confident that I’ve built up some decent knowledge of anime over the past few years, I can’t say the same for Japanese live action. Sure, I’ve watched many of the cult classics; Audition, Azumi, Battle Royale, Ringu, to name but a few, and there’s no denying that they are cool movies (albeit enjoyed mostly for their superficial excesses), but what I’m looking out for are the understated dramas, the good movies that don’t have to rely on violence, ghosts or samurai to attract attention. Movies like Ping Pong, Blue Spring and Go. May be it’s just that I’m not looking in the right places, but so far, I’ve found it really hard to get good recommendations for these kind of films, yet I’ve adored what I’ve seen enough to know that I really want to see more, so when someone throws me a bone in this area, I’m happy to go chasing. And guess what? I’m so glad I did. Introducing Linda Linda Linda.

These days, we’re so saturated with media that it’s fairly rare to start a movie without having read even so much as a plot synopsis, yet so it was for my introduction to this movie; all I was going off of was a personal recommendation and a decent IMDB rating, everything else was irrelevant. Anyway, the film is best described as a very Japanese slice of life, focused on a quartet of school girls who create a rock band for their fast-approaching school festival. That’s it. The plot is undeniably thin on twists and turns, quite unspectacular and straight-forward, but this movie isn’t about story, it’s about characters, a group of friends hanging out together, practicing music, and looking out for each other. Its some parts funny, charming and heart-warming, others reflective, nostalgic and introspective. Some of my favourite scenes involve the girls just wandering through grassy fields and hanging out on empty roof-tops, laughing and joking and singing, doing nothing of note, just being together, being young. It’s a movie about friendship.

One character in particular is worthy of note. She’s a Korean exchange student (called ‘Son’, played by actress Bae Doona) who can’t speak (or even understand) Japanese well. Son doesn’t have any friends and spends most of her time bored, with no-one but a bilingual teacher for company. She falls into the band almost by mistake, yet finds herself at its very center – as the singer.
Because her grasp of the language is so basic, she has to practice alone, for hours, at the local karaoke bar, just to keep up with the others, and through all of that hard graft, her funny personality gradually blossoms. She goes from being the alienated foreigner, almost completely isolated, to having found some intimate friends, staying up all night and goofing off. You can see just how much it all means to her; her happiness is scrawled all over her beaming smile.

It’s a warmly nostalgic take on youth and, much like Honey & Clover, there’s a very clear sense that this is an ephemeral era, knowingly short-lived, passing-by too fast. Towards the end of the film, one of the girls (the drummer, played by Aki Maeda) carefully plans to confess her love to a long-held crush. Everything is right about the scene; it’s pouring with rain, they are all alone, the guy is shielding her with his umbrella, but when the moment of truth comes, the girl still can’t find the courage in her heart to explain her feelings, and so, nothing happens. Often times, that’s the way it goes. Besides, there is always tomorrow.

A movie about Ping Pong, can’t be good, surely?

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Table tennis, ping pong, whatever you want to call it, is a specialist sport played mostly by an enthusiastic collection of hardcores, eccentrics and oddballs. Examining the game with unloving eyes, all you may uncover is a baffling blur of squeaking shoes and pumped up grunts. So, amidst this boring confusion of pings and pongs, we miss the compelling battle of wits taking place; that moment the winning player realises he can fly, while his losing opponent watches his cherished dreams come crashing down around him.

Ping Pong (2002, YouTube trailer) is a Japanese live action movie penned by the legendary manga-ka Taiyou Matsumoto, and there’s no beating around the bush here, it is one of my favourite films of all time; a charming and philosophical portrait of human nature painted by an eccentric quartet of characters in love with ping pong. Here’s why.

At the centre of the story are two teenaged best friends; Peco (Yosuke Kubozuka) and Smile (Arata). They are both preciously talented table tennis players who seem to struggle when under pressure. Goof-ball Peco dreams of becoming the best in the world, but blows off practice to gorge on junk food, while Smile doesn’t care about the game at all; he only plays to hang out with his best mate. They’ve shared a strong bond of friendship since childhood because Peco saved Smile (so named because he never does) from bullies, thus Smile idolises Peco as his hero; some one who, when the world’s about to end, saves the day.

The two other most notable characters are intense, aggressive skin-heads; nicknamed Akuma (Demon) and Dragon. Akuma is a hack player with no talent, but so desperately wants to be good, while Dragon is the local champion but works so hard at training and practise that he’s lost all love for the game; despite winning it all, he never smiles.

Ping Pong is punctuated with colourful humour, a fist-pumping soundtrack (with a lot of music from SUPERCAR) and a lot of exciting (CG-assisted) action, but its true brilliance lies within its characters, who in distinctive Japanese style, grow to embody their own particular philosophical flavours.

Peco is running from Smile’s admiration, afraid of not living up to the expectations of his friend, while Akuma, try as he might, can’t accept that his talents lay elsewhere. Even Dragon, the champion, locks himself in a cubicle through out tournaments because he gets so envious of players with real ability.
It feels so heart-filled and compelling because these are issues that transcend the sport in question and impact on us all; some of us want to be the best at what we do yet hopelessly fail, others may be talented but flit it all away, we can even try so hard that we lose sight of whatever made it fun in the first place. Ping Pong is about learning to fly, or in other words, growing up and realising your place in the world; it’s a moving, eccentric and funny film that I hope you run out and pick up right now.

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Densha Otoko TV – If Looks Could Kill

Tsuyoshi Yamada is an otaku… a lonely otaku. He throws away his free time watching anime and surfing the net, dreaming of one day falling in love, but alas, he is merely an awkward, shy bloke who lives in his bedroom with nothing but dolls and figurines for company. One non-specific day, riding the train on his way back home, Yamada protects a beautiful woman (Saori Aoyama) from an abusive old drunk. Of all people, an otaku came to rescue of this damsel in distress. And so begins the romance of Densha Otoko (“Train Man”); advised by his message board buddies, the clumsy and unconfident Yamada (already in love with Saori) begins his quest for love.

Densha Otoko has been a phenomenal success in Japan; based loosely on a true-story of one otaku’s discovery of romance, it is a franchise that began life on an internet message board but went on to spawn a live-action TV series, a live-action movie and a manga series too. The subject of this review, the TV series, is quite fantastic- although some of the acting is atrocious (Mistake Itou’s Saori is as wooden and clueless a female lead as I have seen for a while), a lot of Densha Otoko is inspiring and touching; it gets right to the heart of a lonely otaku, chronicles his every fear of love and rejection, without degrading him as stupid or pitiful.

It’s an innovative story in the way that it depicts the internet; Densha often turns to an anime-themed message board in search of advice and we are regularly shown the people who respond, people from every profession, every walk of life, who are supporting, and are in turn being inspired by, Densha’s search for love. It’s the first time I’ve seen the internet depicted on such a human level.

This is a funny and touching story exploding with heart warming sentiment; an almost too-close-to-the-bone examination of otaku culture, Densha Otoko is an ultra modern romantic fairy tale.