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By Tom Mes and Jasper Sharp

Another Lonely Hitman
Bullet Ballet
Cruel Story of Youth
Giants and Toys
Hellevator: The Bottled Fools
Mind Game
Pinocchio 964
When the Last Sword Is Drawn

Another Lonely Hitman

Original Title: Shin Kanashiki Hitman
Director: Rokuro MOCHIZUKI
Year: 1995
Running time: 106 mins.
DVD: Artsmagic (USA / UK)

picture: scene from 'Another Lonely Hitman'The 1990s were the decade that saw the reawakening of the once mighty yakuza film. Thanks in no small part to the rise of the straight-to-video market, the genre was revived by young filmmakers like Takeshi Kitano, Takashi Ishii, Rokuro Mochizuki, Shinji Aoyama and Takashi Miike, who applied a more character-driven direction. Another Lonely Hitman is one of the standout offerings from the period, a film that permanently established its director at the forefront of Japanese film.

Played by Ryo Ishibashi in a performance that goes from dangerously intense to understatedly world-weary, protagonist Tachibana is a mob assassin, freshly released from jail and welcomed back into his gang with open arms. He quickly realises that all is not well, though, The gang has changed beyond recognition, with greed being the supreme law. Even his former best friend (the always impressive Yamada) has given in to the new ways that have turned the yakuza into little more than crooked businessmen. Gradually growing dissatisfied and clashing with the new leadership, tension between Tachibana and the gang mount.

Based on a novel by Yukio Yamanouchi (with whom Mochizuki would re-team for the superb The Fire Within), Another Lonely Hitman's plot follows one of the genre's stalwart scenarios. Its greatness lies in its execution, however, from Ishibashi's magnetic central presence to the unforgettable cold-turkey scenes as Tachibana tries to bring his prostitute girlfriend (fresh, chirpy Sawaki, regrettably little seen since) down from her heroin habit. Above all, it's Mochizuki's empathy for the sadness of its main character's predicament, a sadness shared by all the best yakuza films of the 1990s, that elevates this to great heights.


Bullet Ballet

Original Title: Shinya TSUKAMOTO
Cast: Shinya TSUKAMOTO, Kirina MANO, Takahiro MURASE, Tatsuya NAKAMURA, Tomorowo TAGUCHI, Kyoka SUZUKI
Year: 1999
Running time: 87 mins.
DVD: Artsmagic (USA / UK)

picture: scene from 'Bullet Ballet'If 1995's Tokyo Fist was Shinya Tsukamoto's blood-spattered version of Scorsese's Raging Bull, then this ultra-gritty urban nightmare is his Taxi Driver. Re-discovering black and white for the first time since the legendary Tetsuo: The Iron Man, the director goes wild on the mean streets and even meaner alleyways of Tokyo.

Salaryman Goda (Tsukamoto) comes home one night to discover that his long-time girlfriend has shot herself in the head. In an attempt to understand her motivations, he descends into the grimy labyrinth of Tokyo's concrete underbelly hoping to get hold of a .38 Special, the very weapon with which she ended her life. His search instead leads him into the claws of a team of salaryman-bashing juvenile delinquents and the suicidal waif that trails in their tow. The violent tendencies of this motley crew of strays initially prove more than enough to fulfil Goda's craving for destruction, but he gradually comes to realise that the key to his salvation lies in saving the girl from her equally obsessive quest to experience death as up close as possible.

A gut punch of a film, shot almost entirely with handheld cameras. A dizzying symphony of violent punch-ups, stabbings and bleeding faces, but also a film with very genuine anger, fear and fascination. Raw and intensely powerful.


Cruel Story of Youth

Original Title: Seishun Zankoku Monogatari
Alternative Title: Naked Youth
Director: Nagisa OSHIMA
Cast: Yusuke KAWAZU, Miyuki KUWANO, Yoshiko KUGA, Fumio WATANABE, Kei SATO
Running time: 97 mins.
Year: 1960
DVD: Rarovideo (Italy - Italian and English subtitles)

picture: scene from 'Cruel Story of Youth'When the brash Kiyoshi saves Mako from being accosted by a lusty middle-aged man, this forms the beginning of a push-and-pull relationship between the two young students. They have sex on the waterfront but break up later. When he saves her again, from the clutches of would-be gangsters scouting girls for prostitution, she moves into his dingy room and out of the house of her domineering sister. They make a living by replaying the incident through which they originally encountered, this time with the intent of extorting money from the lechers.

Oshima's second film, after the previous year's A Town of Love and Hope, this carries all the hallmarks of the seishun eiga (youth film) genre so popular in the late 1950s: angry kids, relationship melodrama, motorcycles and a funky jazz soundtrack. But the insecurity and aimlessness of these characters are profoundly genuine instead of a pose meant to appeal to a fixed demographic. Set against the background of real-life student protests against the US-Japan security treaty, Cruel Story of Youth depicts a society where people can count only on themselves. "We have no dreams," says Kiyoshi at one point. The construction sites around town are indicative: they may indicate a move forward for the powers that be, but to the protagonists they are just another backdrop, and the future but an abstract concept.

In many ways an equivalent to Godard's Breathless, Cruel Story of Youth is the film that kickstarted Japan's own nouvelle vague. Tight, spunky and fast-paced - imagine Jackson Pollock with a razor blade and you get some idea of this film's style.

This DVD edition (with English subs) comes from Italy's Rarovideo, who released it in a two-disc package with Oshima's follow-up, the closely linked and equally impressive The Sun's Burial (Taiyo no Hakaba, 1960). Also included is a hefty booklet (in English and Italian) with essays on the director, the period and the politics. Rarovideo also recently released a Shinya Tsukamoto box set including Tetsuo 1 and 2, plus the short The Adventure of Denchu Kozo. Again with English subtitles and a bilingual booklet of essays.


Giants and Toys

Original Title: Kyojin to Gangu
Director: Yasuzo MASAMURA
Cast: Hiroshi KAWAGUCHI, Hitomi NOZOE, Hideo TAKAMATSU, Kinzo SHIN, Yunosuke ITO, Michiko ONO, Kyu SAZANKA, Koichi FUJIYAMA
Running time: 96 mins.
Year: 1958
DVD: Fantoma (USA)

picture: scene from 'Giants and Toys'Yasuzo Masumura (1924-86) started off as an assistant to such major names as Kenji Mizoguchi and Kon Ichikawa, studying overseas at the prestigious Centro Sperimentale di Cinemagrafia in Italy before returning to make his sparky debut with Kisses (Kuchizuke) in 1957. For a new generation of young directors then trying to put their own visions across, this film signalled a renaissance for an industry seemingly stuck on post-war tragedies, conservative home dramas and melodramatic weepies. Nagisa Oshima at Shochiku was particularly vocal about the director's talents, and even now, almost fifty years later, looking at Masumura's fifth feature, a colourful satire on the excesses of the advertising world, it's easy to share his excitement.

Two old college buddies, Nishi (Kawaguchi) and Yokoyama (Fujiyama), work for rival confectionary companies, World Caramel and Giant. World Caramel's lead over its competitors is slipping badly, and Nishi's boss Goda (Takamatsu), who has married the section chief's homely-looking daughter in order to put himself in line for promotion, encourages the young rookie marketing man to put the moves on Masami (Ono), the tough-talking rep of a third competing company named Apollo in order to get some idea of their marketing strategy. Masami suggests offering free spacesuits to entice the kids, and World Caramel's new plan soon becomes cemented when Goda and Nishi spot a pretty but unsophisticated young 18-year-old, Kyoko (Nozoe), eying up the plastic desserts in a nearby coffeeshop.

This raw unpolished diamond is dragged from the downtown hovel which she shares with her parents and grimy younger siblings and signed up to be groomed as the company's campaign girl, with the aid of lecherous photographer Harukawa (Ito). Though a little flaky, Kyoko proves to be an immediate hit with the general public, and World Caramel's fortunes are looking up by the time it has become locked in a ruthless marketing war with its two rivals, Apollo and Giant.

Meanwhile, as Nishi and Masami's romance begins to blossom into something more genuine, the driven Goda is beginning to look increasingly beleaguered as Apollo ups the ante. Faced with the reality of their dizzy poster girl's rotten teeth, desperate moves are called to get ahead. But Goda's plans hit an insurmountable setback when Kyoko falls for the younger ad-man, and, finding herself cruelly rebuffed, flies the nest.

It is impossible not to be won over by Giants and Toys' snappy pacing and perky performances, especially Nozoe's vivacious turn as the flirtatious, hyperactive poster girl Kyoko. Masumura has a lot of fun staging the various TV ads, fashion shoots and musical numbers, all shot with a flamboyant zeal, rounding things off with a delightfully anarchic ending. A biting, humorous look at corporative competitiveness from a prolific director who would later bring to the cinema such gaudy delights as the salacious melodrama Manji, and the grotesque Rampo adaptation Blind Beast.


Hellevator: The Bottled Fools

Original Title: Gushanobindsume
Alternative Title: Gusher No Binds Me
Director: Hiroki YAMAGUCHI
Running time: 96 mins.
Year: 2004

picture: scene from 'Hellevator: The Bottled Fools 'In an otherworldly tumbledown metropolis located in an indeterminate point in space and time and ruled over by the ominous Surveillance Bureau, sailor-suited 17-year-old Luchino (Fujisaki) boards one of the spacious transport elevators that transports its denizens between the numerous levels of the huge, multi-storied, high-rise city to attend school for her first time in months. With each floor representing a various township, the elevator passes via Level 138 Colovaja Zip, inhabited by the poorest members of the city, Level 135, Avetojexi a level for researchers and chemical experiments, and Level 128, Neck Zrock, a residential area full of dormitories for white-collar company workers.

Things go horrifically awry when the elevator makes an unexpected stop at Level 99, Vatagascoin, a penal colony for the criminally insane, and a vicious rapist with a penchant for cannibalism and a terrorist bomber are led in by a sadistic warder. When the two shaven-headed convicts break their shackles and kill their guard, a horrific accident is set in motion, perhaps due to a spark from Luchino's smouldering cigarette butt, causing the lift to plummet downwards. With the security cameras knocked out in the crash, as the 8 survivors lie trapped in the elevator shaft, Luchino's innate psychic powers begin to pick up on the angst of each of her fellow passengers.

Four years in the making, the third film by precocious talent Yamaguchi, though the first to be released theatrically (his second film, Midnight Viscera / Shinya Zoki won the Grand Prize at the 2nd Indies Movie Festival in 1997 when he was only 19) is a virtually indescribable experience. A claustrophobic and edgy genre-bender chock-full with gory hijinx or a futuristic satire of an otherworldly fascist state, the question is posed, is a future where surveillance cameras track your every move, security cards are mandatory and smoking is outlawed quite so far from today's reality?


Mind Game

Director: Masaaki YUASA
Cast: Koji IMADA, Sayaka MAEDA, Takashi FUJI, Seiko TAKUMA, Rio SAKATA, Tomomitsu YAMAGUCHI
Running time: 103 mins
Year: 2004
DVD: (Japan, English subs)

picture: scene from 'Mind Game'By far the most exuberant animated work from a year that is going to go down in history as a vintage one for fans of the genre, this cult offering from Studio 4°C (whose previous credits include Otomo's Memories and episodes from the Animatrix omnibus) is a virtually indescribable experience.

Mind Game kicks off with a chance encounter between Nishi (Imada), a scruffy lad with a headband who dreams of finding fame as a manga artist (an obvious stand-in for Robin Nishi, the eccentric talent behind the original manga on which the film is based) and his former playground sweetheart Myon (Maeda), whose curvaceous form makes Lara Croft look like a stick insect. Patiently sitting out Nishi-kun's attempts at rekindling this childhood romantic spark, Myon-chan invites him back to the family yakitori joint where she introduces him to older sister Yan, dishing out beers and chicken skewers from behind the counter, her alcohol-flushed father (Sakata) and the new beau of her life, the square-jawed and clean-cut Ryo (Yamaguchi).

An unwelcome intrusion by two pissed-off yakuza sees Nishi with a loaded gun thrust between his two buttocks and as the trigger is pulled, he is dispatched heavenwards. But Nishi is not so easily removed from the picture, and when faced with God and the prospect of an eternity without Myon-chan, he tears back to terra firma through a sphincter-like vortex that appears in the void. Turning the gun on his former nemesis, he flees the scene of the crime and leaps into the yakuza's tail-finned car parked outside with both Yan and Myon-chan in tow. A high speed chase ensues, which comes to an end when the car soars off a bridge and into the open maw of a whale. Here the three are welcomed by a bearded old Jonah who has been stuck inside the belly of the beast for over thirty years. Initially distraught at the prospect of lying for eternity inside the whale's stomach, the motley assortment soon come to appreciate this chance escape from the horrors of the outside world.

Coming across as a subliminal collage of super-saturated hues and dowdy greys running the whole gamut of modern day animation media, Mind Game cuts rapidly between rotoscoped action sequences, digitally-manipulated live footage, 3D CGI, paper cut-out and a variety of more conventional techniques, leaving the impression of its animation team clearing out all the clutter from their collective creative consciousness to create a work that goes way beyond the surreal. An exhilarating, unforgettable experience, not to mention an ineffable amount of fun.


Pinocchio 964

Director: Shozin FUKUI
Cast: Hage SUZUKI, Onn-Chan, Kyoko HARA, Koji KITA
Running time: 97 mins
Year: 1991
DVD: Unearthed Films (USA)

picture: scene from 'Pinocchio 964'A young woman, Himiko, finds a babbling man in a white smock, bald except for a cockatoo-like crest sprouting from his forehead, and with the figures 'Pinocchio 964' tattooed cryptically on his back. She takes him home and, as if he were her own child, begins to tutor him in the ways of the world. Pinocchio, it transpires, is an illegally-made rogue sex doll, discarded by his former owner. Meanwhile, with his original manufacturers closing in, Himiko rapidly degenerates into a babbling retard as her new companion starts melting from within.

Labelled as an "Industrial Noise Punk" movie, former Indie musician and video director Fukui's 16mm debut feature is a legendary title from the late 80s/early 90s underground cyberpunk landscape. It all looks very much of an age, it's true, but bearing in mind that this age also spawned Shinya Tsukamoto, Hisayasu Sato and Sogo Ishii this may not be a bad thing for some.

Fukui's early 32-minute experimental short Caterpillar (1988), shot in 8mm, demonstrated a taste for bizarre, fractured narratives, quirky stop motion effects and jarring schisms between image and sound, similar to Tsukamoto's Tetsuo or a techno-obsessed Jan Svankmajer. Pinocchio 964 follows a slightly more conventional narrative, but nevertheless, this is hardball, zero-budget filmmaking at its most brutal.

Fukui stages his nightmarish vision in an amoral netherworld of underpasses, dark ruined buildings, and scrap metal dumps, all filled with dry ice, strobe lighting, and populated with grotesque characters leering into wide-angle lenses in extreme close-up. Lengthy scenes of vomiting blood and some kinky but irrelevant lesbian sex add further spice up the mix, but beyond the jarring immediacy of Fukui's undeniably powerful visuals, it is difficult to work out what real point of it all is.

If you liked Hellovator: The Bottled Fools, or Fukui's follow-up feature Rubber's Lover, chances are you'll be stirred by this raw, hand-tooled vision. But many might find it all that little bit too much.



Original Title: Otoshiana
Director: Hiroshi TESHIGAHARA
Cast: Hisashi IGAWA, Kunie TANAKA, Kazuo MIYAHARA, Kei SATO, Sumie SASAKI
Year: 1962
Running time: 92 mins.
DVD: Eureka Video / Masters of Cinema (UK)

picture: scene from 'Pitfall'Teshigahara's first fiction film is an astonishing work, as riveting in its themes and style as his more famous Woman in the Dunes and The Face of Another. Though it may appear less radical than those two later films, the merit of Pitfall's stylistic achievements lies in their subtlety. In telling this story of an itinerant miner who wanders from town to town chasing jobs with his young son in tow, the director pulls off a combination of seemingly opposite styles. Pitfall is part social-realist portrait of labour conditions in post-war, industrialised Japan and part supernatural parable. Miners on strike rub shoulders with wandering ghosts in desolate, mauled landscapes. But the incongruous mixture works admirably well, because the workers and the ghosts have one important thing in common: their futility.

The first of four collaborations between Teshigahara, novelist Kobo Abe and composer Toru Takemitsu is, in addition to its formal accomplishments, a rich mix of themes, concerns and explorations that all intersect on the central questions of identity and the search for meaning in man's existence. This is a potentially heady brew, but Teshigahara and Abe break it down in terms that directly concern the average viewer. Hence the labour issue, which here forms the peg from which everything else hangs, an exposition of the subordinate and indeed powerless position of the people on the bottom rung of the ladder. Our protagonist (Igawa, better known to a younger generation of viewers as the shooter from Shinya Tsukamoto's Bullet Ballet) is stalked by a mysterious assassin in a white suit (Tanaka, later part of the ensemble of many a Fukasaku yakuza film), and once fallen victim to him and returned in the guise of a ghost, he realises that his death was merely one move in a huge conspiratorial chess game involving the feud between two local labour camps. What's worse, he has been mistaken for another man.

Enthralling from start to finish, Pitfall is the kind of potent, richly inventive and deeply committed film so typical of Japan's counter-cultural cinema of the 1960s (it was distributed domestically by New Wave bastion ATG).


When the Last Sword Is Drawn

Original Title: Mibugishiden
Director: Yojiro TAKITA
Year: 2003
Running time: 134 mins.
DVD: Tartan Video (UK)

picture: scene from 'When the Last Sword Is Drawn'Much like the American western with which it is so often compared, the samurai film has become a moribund genre. The success of Yoji Yamada's Twilight Samurai paradoxically only helps to underline this: by taking its various historical trappings and political implications for granted, Yamada's film revived the genre as a period equivalent to Masato Harada's recent political dramas, i.e. high on drama and common-man bravery, but short on politics.

Yojiro Takita's When the Last Sword Is Drawn is all too eager to follow in Yamada's footsteps. With good reason, because it also copied Twilight Samurai's sweeping victory at the Japanese Academy Awards. It's a film that satisfies the indiscriminate samurai fan , particularly those of middle-age who cling to chanbara films in search of an affirmation of their own virility, but anyone with more than a hint of knowledge of either Japanese history or the history of the genre can't help but cringe at the film's readiness to give in to clichéd characterisation and hollow aestheticism.

The story is presented as a succession of extended flashbacks, reminiscences of two former samurai thoroughly adapted to Meiji-era progress. One is a young doctor who cherishes the photograph of the man who was once his fencing teacher. The other is an older man who brings his ill grandson in for treatment and recognises the picture as the portrait of his nemesis, a fellow member of the Shinsengumi, the militia of ronin that tried to enforce shogunate rule in the mid-19th century at a time when the decline of the Tokugawa was already irreversible.

Released concurrently with a boom in interest in the Shinsengumi that also resulted in a successful TV series, Last Sword's take on this period of history fraught with tension and corruption is a thoroughly sterile one. If we compare the discipline and the opulence of the Shinsengumi's way of life in Takita's version with the way the group was represented in the critical chanbara films of Kenji Misumi and Hideo Gosha in the 1960s, in which the militia was represented as a bunch of degenerates living in squalor, we get some sense of where this films is heading.

But it's not that Takita intentionally wishes to bring a more sanitised view across, it's that he doesn't have any discernible view at all. The politics and socio-historical background are kept at bay as long as possible, behind the high walls of the Shinsengumi compound where much of the action takes place. "I hear of great changes taking place," says Kiichi Nakai's protagonist at one point, thereby presenting the decline of the shogunate as an autonomous force of history that just happens to be taking place somewhere at the same time, rather than as the inevitable result of the erosion and corruption at the heart of the feudal system and the samurai themselves. Takita's warriors are as upstanding and majestic as they ever were, untouched by any decline in fortune and status.

As said, When the Last Sword is Drawn will probably please fans of the genre who have come for swordfights, kimonos and displays of the warrior code, but even some of them are likely to be put off by the melodramatic plotting and the uneven performances. Did Nakai's annoying imitation of a country hick really win him a Best Actor prize?