Blu-Ray Review: The Saga of Anatahan

Director: Josef von Sternberg
Screenplay: Josef von Sternberg
Based on a Novel by: Younghill Kang, Michiro Maruyama
Starring: Akemi Negishi, Tadashi Suganuma, Kisaburo Sawamura, Shôji Nakayama
Country: Japan
Running Time: 92 min
Year: 1953
BBFC Certificate: 15


The Saga of Anatahan is a bit of a curiosity. It was written and directed by Josef von Sternberg, who was a force to be reckoned with in Hollywood in the 20s and 30s, particularly after the success of his German feature, The Blue Angel. The Saga of Anatahan was his penultimate film and saw the well-travelled director head to Japan to produce a film based on a true story that happened in the country after WWII.

It tells of a group of Japanese seamen who are shipwrecked on the remote island of Anatahan, during the war. There they come across what they assume are man and wife, Kusakabe (Tadashi Suganuma) and Keiko (Akemi Negishi). Being the only woman on the island, the men soon lust after her and over the course of the seven years the group live on the island, they fight and eventually kill for her affections. During this time, they also receive messages stating that the war is over, the Japanese have lost and an American ship will come to pick them up. The proud seamen refuse to believe this though, dismissing it as enemy propaganda, and decide to stay put.

The story isn’t so unusual then as other accounts have been made of people trapped on desert islands and the like. What makes this a curiosity is partly why Sternberg decided to make this film in Japan in the first place (it’s shot on a studio, so he could have done it in his home of California), but more so in the fact that he decided to have all the cast speak their native Japanese, without subtitles. To keep the film from getting confusing, Sternberg narrates the film himself, making for a very strange and unique experience.

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Blu-Ray Review: Cops Vs Thugs

Director: Kinji Fukasaku
Screenplay: Kazuo Kasahara
Starring: Bunta Sugawara, Hiroki Matsukata, Tatsuo Umemiya, Mikio Narita
Country: Japan
Running Time: 101 min
Year: 1975
BBFC Certificate: 18


Reviewing Arrow Video’s Battles Without Honour and Humanity box set opened my eyes to the talents of Kinji Fukasaku beyond Battle Royale. Thankfully, the label is digging deeper into the Japanese director’s oeuvre with a handful of titles coming our way, including a set containing the New Battles Without Honour and Humanity series. Unfortunately, time constraints prevented me from being able to review that, but I did request a copy of Cops Vs Thugs to review, which is another crime thriller, made and released in between episodes of New Battles…

Cops Vs Thugs is actually based on true life crime stories researched by Kazuo Kasahara whilst he was writing the first Battles Without Honour and Humanity series. He’d heard accounts of police and yakuza becoming friends and wanted to put this idea in a film, but didn’t feel it fit into the world of the already convoluted saga he was initially creating. So, he ended up putting together a separate script, which Fukasaku would once again direct, called Cops Vs Thugs.

Set in Kurashima City in Japan in the early 60s, the film finds two yakuza gangs at loggerheads. The Kawade family are trying to build some political connections to make a lucrative business deal, but the Ohara family don’t like to see their rivals establishing a bigger stranglehold over the city than them, so use their strong connections with the police to put a stop to Kawade’s growth. Currently running the Ohara family whilst their boss is in prison, is Hirotani (Hiroki Matsukata). Fairly young and aggressive, he has no time for the political or business leanings of his enemy and has his eyes on permanent leadership over the Ohara family. He also shares a close friendship with Kuno (Bunta Sugawara), a police detective who helps him work his way up the ladder. Kuno may seem corrupt (and he is in the eyes of the law), but he believes that developing a bond with the yakuza and letting them get on with their own thing is the best way to keep the peace. His newly appointed superior disagrees though as gang warfare erupts and Kuno’s assistance with the yakuza causes more problems than its worth.

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DVD/Blu-Ray Review: Wolf Guy

Director: Kazuhiko Yamaguchi
Screenplay: Fumio Kônami
Based on a Manga Series by: Kazumasa Hirai
Starring: Shin’ichi (Sonny) Chiba, Kyôsuke Machida, Saburô Date
Country: Japan
Running Time: 86 min
Year: 1975
BBFC Certificate: 15


Wolf Guy is a Japanese action movie based on a manga series of the same name. Starring Shin’ichi “Sonny” Chiba at the height of his fame, it’s a low budget B-movie attempt to fuse western mythologies with Japanese genre sensibilities. Being a lover of trashy action and all things Japanese, this description sounded good to me, so I thought I’d check out Arrow Video’s new release of the film, which has never previously been available outside of Japan.

Chiba plays Akira Inugami, the last survivor of a clan of werewolves, now living in the big city using his lycanthropic skills to solve crimes. One night he witnesses the brutal murder of a seemingly crazed man at the hands of what appears to be a tiger demon, only semi-visable to Akira. When he looks further into what happened, he finds that the man was one of a group of thugs who were ordered by gang boss Manabe to rape a young woman called Miki. He finds both of them and tries to help Miki and stir up trouble with Manabe. This unravels further into a wacky plot where the bad guys try to get Akira’s blood to make their own werewolf and use Miki’s anger to assassinate people using the tiger demon acting out her vengeful thoughts!

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Blu-Ray Review: Tampopo – Criterion Collection

Director: Jûzô Itami
Screenplay: Jûzô Itami
Starring: Tsutomu Yamazaki, Nobuko Miyamoto, Ken Watanabe, Kôji Yakusho, Rikiya Yasuoka
Country: Japan
Running Time: 114 min
Year: 1985
BBFC Certificate: 15


I didn’t quite know what to expect going into Tampopo. I’d heard mention of it, always in a positive sense, so I was keen to see it. I was aware that it was a film about food too, but other than that I hadn’t a clue what I was in for when I put this fantastic new Criterion Blu-Ray into my player. I’m glad I didn’t know much either as this glorious offbeat film blew me away.

The core of the film sees truckers Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki) and Gun (Ken Watanabe) head into a ramen shop late one rainy night. They are unimpressed by the ramen, but Goro is fascinated by the attractive and determined owner Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto). So when she asks Goro to help improve her cooking and bring new life to the shop she inherited from her dead husband, he accepts. He can’t do it alone though, as he’s no expert, so enlists the help of Gun and several other quirky characters he knows and meets in the city.

Alongside this story, the film oftens heads off on various tangents as the camera follows characters walking past our main protagonists. These lead to short scenes/skits surrounding people’s love of food, how it plays a part in their lives and unusual aspects of food etiquette. These are generally led by fresh new characters, but the mysterious Man in the White Suit (Kôji Yakusho), a gangster type with a sexual fetish for food, reappears several times.

In fact, this character opens the film. He and his food-sex loving mistress (Fukumi Kuroda) enter a cinema, followed by an entourage who lay out a gourmet feast. The man then talks directly to us, the audience, about eating during a film and his annoyance at those making too much noise, before waxing lyrical about the ‘short film’ you see in your dying moments.

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Friday One Sheet: Ghost In The Shell

One final look at the international marketing for Ghost in the Shell, as the film is set to roll out one of its biggest markets, and the home of the source material and endless film, manga, OVA, and TV spin-offs.

This Japanese poster for Ghost in the Shell is big on the New Port City backdrop, and is also bullish on the ‘franchise character collection’ aesthetic popular with Disney properties like Marvel and Star Wars (and Indiana Jones). What makes it the most telling that this is the Japanese poster is the prominent head-space for ‘Beat’ Takeshi. I think it pretty bold to double down on Pink and Baby Blue, and it does make this poster stand out for all its busy design. It also gives a lot of emphasis on the Section 9 team, which I hope one day there is a directors cut of the film that features more time with the rest of the team – they are certainly present in the film, but not given a lot of screen-time outside of one conference room chat, and the sequence involving the two garbage men attacking Dr. Ouelet.

Blu-Ray Review: Lone Wolf and Cub – Criterion Collection

Directors: Kenji Misumi, Buichi Saitô (Baby Cart in Peril), Yoshiyuki Kuroda (White Heaven in Hell)
Screenplays: Kazuo Koike, Tsutomu Nakamura (Baby Cart in the Land of Demons and White Heaven in Hell)
Based on a Manga Series by: Kazuo Koike, Goseki Kojima
Starring: Tomisaburo Wakayama, Akihiro Tomikawa, Minoru Ôki, Tatsuo Endô, Tokio Oki, Keiko Fujita
Country: Japan
Running Time: 83, 81, 89, 81, 89, 83 min
Years: 1972-74
BBFC Certificate: 18


Being a lover of Japanese cinema, particularly period samurai movies, as well as being a lover of genre films in general, the Lone Wolf and Cub series is one I’m very familiar with. Saying that, I’d previously only seen the first two instalments before now. So there was never any doubt in my mind about taking the Criterion Collection up on their offer of a set of screeners to review their lavish set of all 6 films. These are as follows; Sword Of Vengeance, Baby Cart At The River Styx, Baby Cart To Hades, Baby Cart In Peril, Baby Cart In The Land Of Demons and White Heaven In Hell. Also included is Shogun Assassin, a 1980 film made up of all the sex and violence from the first two films with dodgy dubbing and a voiceover to tie them together into something suitable for the midnight movie crowd.

Now, when reviewing box sets I tend to review each title separately, but here I’ve decided to do one long write-up for the whole collection. Maybe I’m just being lazy, but I feel the films are so consistent in terms of cast and crew, as well as quality, there isn’t a great need to separate each film from one another. I also think I’d find it hard to differentiate all of the films after chain watching all six over a couple of weeks. Without wanting to kick off my review with a criticism when I love the set so much, the stories do get a little ‘samey’.

Speaking of stories, the first film, Sword Of Vengeance, sets everything up for the rest of the series through a series of flashbacks. Itto Ogami (Tomisaburo Wakayama) is the Shogun Executioner during turbulent times in Japan. He is ordered to execute countless lords for the sake of the Shogunate. In the opening scene we even see him decapitating a young child lord. Despite his disturbing profession, Itto is a good, honest man though, with a wife, Azami (Keiko Fujita), and child, Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa). One night, after Azami confesses that she worries Itto’s work has cursed him and their family, she is murdered by members of the Yagyu clan, led by Retsudo, who also tries to frame Itto for treason as he is hell bent on the Yagyu taking the role of Shogun Executioner. Itto manages to escape death, but is forced to exile, roaming Japan as an assassin for hire, on the “demon road to hell” on a path of vengeance. He is not alone though. Before he leaves, he gives his toddler son a choice. He lays out a sword and a ball for him to crawl towards. The sword symbolises joining him on this journey to a life of murder and vengeance and the ball represents a journey to heaven to be with his mother. Of course, Daigoro chooses the sword and the two set off to wander the lands.

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Blu-Ray Review: Creepy

Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Screenplay: Chihiro Ikeda, Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Based on a Novel by: Yutaka Maekawa
Starring: Hidetoshi Nishijima, Yûko Takeuchi, Teruyuki Kagawa, Ryôko Fujino, Masahiro Higashide
Country: Japan
Running Time: 130 min
Year: 2016
BBFC Certificate: 15


In the late 90’s and early 2000’s, Japanese cinema was in vogue among cineasts. J-horror was making big waves with Ring and Ju-On leading the pack and Takashi Miike was blowing our minds with his array of wild and disturbing films. Somewhere along the way, not helped by the devastating earthquake in 2011, the crowd of Japanese titles thinned out though and audiences started looking towards Korea and elsewhere for their foreign language fixes. Some directors have remained relevant though and one of these is Kiyoshi Kurosawa. He gained fame during the Japanese film boom directing horror films like The Cure and Pulse and crime thrillers such as Serpent’s Path and Eyes of the Spider. Then, as many of his contemporaries struggled to stay relevant in the West, he found acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival, entering into the various competitions numerous times and winning the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize in 2008 for Tokyo Sonata and the Un Certain Regard – Directing Prize for Journey to the Shore. The two titles mentioned showed he was as adept at writing and directing drama as he was thrillers. Last year however saw him return to his roots to co-write and direct Creepy, an unnerving thriller about not trusting your neighbours and family dynamics. Eureka have added it to their Masters of Cinema collection, so I thought I’d check it out.

The film opens with an exciting face off between police detective Takakura (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and a psychopath who escapes from his interrogation. The stand-off ends messily with Takakura getting stabbed, a bystander possibly being killed and the suspect having to be taken down in a hail of bullets. We then fast forward a year and find that Takakura has moved out of the city with his wife to lead a peaceful life teaching criminal psychology rather than practising it. However, when a colleague at the university and a former partner of his on the force approach him about a missing persons case that went cold 6 years ago, Takakura is drawn into a dangerous investigation once again. Meanwhile, his wife Yasuko (Yûko Takeuchi) is struggling to settle into the new area as her neighbours aren’t very approachable, particularly Nishino (Teruyuki Kagawa), a creepy characters who lives with his daughter Mio (Ryôko Fujino) and wife, who is always mysteriously absent. As we follow both storylines, you get the sneaking suspicion they’re going to converge somewhere along the way.

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Review: Silence

Time and again throughout history, humanity has been lost due to hubris. There is a spiritual arrogance that we are often guilty of that has a way of taking a delicate situation and making a quick mess of it. This pride comes from a deep place in our guts and hearts – a place that believe it knows. It has listened to teachings, studied the supposed Truth, and parlayed that word into action.

People believe, people testify, and people suffer in the faith that they are doing the right thing. But how do they know for sure? Silence is a seventeenth century quest for Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson).

As the story begins, his brother missionaries back in Portugal are learning of his committing apostasy in Japan after his followers are tortured by the ruling class. His status and whereabouts are now unknown. The case prompts two young priests named Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garrpe (Adam Driver) to strike out to Japan in search of their missing brother missionary.

The quest is a dangerous one. The Buddhists in charge of Japan do not want Christianity to take root in their society, and have been making a point to persecute anyone declaring themselves a Christian. Followers are routinely rounded-up and persecuted, but the prize target is a man of the cloth. Followers are merely victims; leaders are something to make an example of.

When the missionaries arrive in Japan, they soon split off in the hopes of greater safety and better results. It is Rodrigues we follow for most of the rest of the trip. The priest goes from village to village, seeing firsthand evidence of Christian persecution. Some is even in the hopes of smoking out Rodrigues himself, since the governing bodies have heard rumour of his arrival. All the while, Christian followers are turning to him, looking for guidance. He, in turn, speaks to God…who responds only with silence.

Eventually, Rodrigues faces his oppressor (Issei Ogata). Like Christ in the desert, Rodrigues is offered bargain after bargain if he will just renounce. Lives will be spared, whole communities left in peace…all he needs to do is disavow his God. Like Christ in Gethsemane, Rodrigues pleads with The Almighty to take the task away from him, and instead allow him to worship and serve in peace.

The only response is silence.

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Trailer: Martin Scorsese’s Silence

For this Thanksgiving, we are thankful that Martin Scorsese can still make these kind of pictures. The director has been working at getting Shūsaku Endō’s novel, Silence turned into a film for decades, and now it is here. Set in the seventeenth century, the story involves two young Portuguese Jesuit priests who face violence and persecution when they travel to Japan to locate their mentor and spread Christianity. Things do not go well, as Japan was in an era of deep isolation, and Christianity was illegal to practice in this time period. The Japanese had however been working on ‘Water Crucifixion’ (Mizuharitsuke) for a while, and certainly strung up a few worshipers – images that appearance in this trailer.

Adam Driver, Andrew Garfield, Liam Neeson, Tadanobu Asano, Shinya Tsuakmoto(!), and Ciarán Hinds star in the film which is getting released on December 23, 2016.

Blu-Ray Review: Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams – Criterion Collection

Director: Akira Kurosawa, Ishirô Honda (uncredited)
Screenplay: Akira Kurosawa
Starring: Akira Terao, Mitsuko Baishô, Toshie Negishi, Martin Scorsese
Country: USA, Japan
Running Time: 119 min
Year: 1990
BBFC Certificate: PG


I‘m not a huge fan of anthology films. This is partly down to the fact that they can be a mixed bag, with some great short films mixed with some not-so-great ones. It’s also because I’ve never been all that interested in short films in general. Animated films are the exception to this – I love a good animated short, which might explain why Memories (1995) is probably my favourite anthology. For whatever reason though, I rarely get excited about short live action films so I’m equally unenthused when presented with a few of them in the package of a feature film.

However, when I came across Dreams, an anthology film directed by Akira Kurosawa (although IMDB claims Godzilla’s director Ishirô Honda lended a hand) I was instantly interested. I’ve mentioned in previous reviews how Kurosawa is the director I’ve found most consistent in terms of quality. I’d seen 8 of his films prior to Dreams and loved them all, so if I see Kurosawa has directed any genre of film or subject matter, no matter how unappealing it may be to me, I’m always going to be more than willing to give it a shot.

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