onderhond blog - onderhond.com http://www.onderhond.com/blog/onderhond The onderhond blog is a collection of gathered thoughts about my work and my personal life. Find out about what drives me as a person and how I get about in my professional life. en-us underdog@operamail.com (Niels Matthijs) <![CDATA[Stereo Future/Hiroyuki Nakano]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/stereo-future-review-hiroyuki-nakano

Back in 2001, director Hiroyuki Nakano had some big plans. Stereo Future was the second episode in a prospected series of 'SF' films (the first one being Samurai Fiction), a somewhat haphazard concept that linked his movies by their initials. I remembered Stereo Future as a pretty dashing, funny and polished film, but I have to admit that the actual specifics hadn't really stuck with me over time. The perfect excuse to get myself reacquainted with this film in order to see how it had survived 10 years of cinematic evolutions.

screen capture of Stereo Future

Hiroyuki Nakano is one of Japan's lost souls. Once a very promising director, his career took a stark nose dive right after he finished working on Stereo Future. It's not that he suddenly fell off the Earth, but the quality of his films decreased considerably and apart from a couple of documentaries aimed at the local market, his output during the past 10 years has been pretty much negligible. While a little disheartening, none of that affects the quality of Stereo Future of course.

In fact, Stereo Future is one of the films that helped fuel the somewhat short-lived success of Japanese cinema during the early 2000s. While definitely not the most well-known example amongst fans, it's not a stretch to say the film is a direct predecessor of films like The Taste of Tea and Survive Style 5+. Not quite as polished and out there, but definitely a little crazy, a little fun and done in such a way that it comes across very stylish and classy.

The plot structure is a little disjointed, though the plot basics are actually pretty simple. The film follows the romantic woes of Keisuke and Eri, two young adults madly in love. While they make a great couple, the transition from their teenage years to adulthood puts a big strain on their relationship. Keisuke can't materialize his dream to become a successful actor and when he decides to give up and become a bartender instead, the two of them start drifting apart.

screen capture of Stereo Future

On the visual side of things, Stereo Future still has plenty to offer. The camera work is fun and floaty, the colors are bright and extravagant while the editing keeps the pacing high. But Stereo Future is more than just a hip and trendy-looking film, there's also room for subtlety and thought in there. Some scenes feature more elaborate camera work and while the colors pop, the palette is also pretty stylish. It all makes for a very pleasing visual experience.

The soundtrack has a very similar vibe, though it comes off just a tiny bit more dated. It has an electronic sound that places it in the early 2000s, at the same time a film with an electronic score still feels quite modern and out there, even by modern standards (sad as that may be). Nakano uses the music wisely, making sure it's not just a couple of random tracks spread throughout the film. There's a nice feedback between score and visuals, effectively raising the overall appeal.

As for the casting, Stereo Future is a who's who of actors that would make it big in the years following its release. Masatoshi Nagase is as cool as ever, Naoto Takenaka and Kumiko Aso are great in supporting roles and Akiko Mono is quite the revelation. The only disappointing performance comes from Daniel Ezralow, who puts it on a little too thick. But he's actually pretty easy to ignore, while the rest of the cast makes the most of their characters.

screen capture of Stereo Future

The combination of drama and comedy is a little peculiar. It doesn't really blend together, instead Nakano alternates between moments of unfiltered comedy and solemn drama to create a strange tapestry of emotions. It's a little divisive no doubt, but I quite loved the effect. Also interesting is the film's focus on ecology, highlighting several problems and solutions that feel way more current than they felt at the time of release. In that sense, the film was actually quite ahead of its time.

Stereo Future is a film that is starting to show its age in places, but Nakano's playful yet targeted direction makes sure it's not just an artifact of its time. The film feels light and breezy, while still harboring enough depth, warranting multiple viewings. It takes a while before everything falls into place, but the ending of the film cements the idea that Nakano knew what he was doing. It's a shame he wasn't able to continue his career in the same vein, but at least he gave us Stereo Future.

Thu, 22 Jun 2017 09:38:26 +0000
<![CDATA[The Whispering Star/Shion Sono]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/whispering-star-review-shion-sono

With no less than 6 films to his name, it's no secret that 2015 was a magical year for Shion Sono. So far only one of his 2015 films had eluded me, luckily I was able to catch up with The Whispering Star [Hiso Hiso Boshi] this past week. After watching the film, it's quite easy to see why this one is the hardest to find, though it's very much a problem of commercial appeal rather than intrinsic value. I feel The Whispering Star is a close contender to become my favorite Sono, which is saying a lot.

screen capture of Hiso Hiso Boshi

With so many films in a single year, you may suspect that Sono was just rushing from one film to the other, but you sure can't tell from the films themselves. While Sono's hand is clear in every single one of them, they're still very unique and very different from each other. The Whispering Star is the film that combines Sono's love for genre cinema with the more arthouse-orientend experimental stretches that defined his early work. You can feel Sono's influence in every frame, at the same time it's something you haven't seen him do before.

The result is a daring and fresh take on scifi, but one that's quite difficult to sell. Genre fans will be taken back by the slow pacing and lack of clear plot, arthouse fans will be tripped up some of the quirkiness and obvious genre element. Finding films to compare it with directly is tough, though when you mix up Kanji Nakajima's The Clone Returns Home with Sono's own The Land of Hope you may at least get a sense of direction.

The Whispering Star isn't what you'd call a very narrative-driven feature, even so revealing anything about the plot details feels like a major spoiler to me. Maybe it's because the film is structured like one big exploratory voyage, only sparingly revealing bits and pieces along the way, but leaving the surprises untouched feels like the right thing to do. I will say that the film touches upon the pecularities of what makes us human, if you want more specific plot points you'll just have to watch the film (or read a more spoiler-heavy review) .

screen capture of Hiso Hiso Boshi

Visually it's by far one of the most accomplished films Sono directed so far. The entire film (save one single scene) is draped in a beautiful sepia filter. It's definitely not one of the most original color schemes, but the contrast is rich, the finish is extremely clean and the lighting is superb. It makes for a stunning effect which is quite different from the more grainy, retro-look that is usually associated with sepia. Add to that some amazing camera work and strong compositions and you have a slick and polished-looking film that shows Sono has class.

The soundtrack is equally interesting, though it's the entire soundscape of the movie that leaves the biggest impression. While there's little dialogue and actual music is quite sparse, Sono has a lot of fun playing around with sound effects. From a tin can stuck underneath someone's boot to the low hum of the spaceship or the high-pitched, child-like voice of the ship's AI, there are always some stand-out sound bytes that add to the film's unique rhythm. Sono has shown he understands the power of a good soundtrack many times before, even so he never quite used it to this effect.

Fronting the film is Megumi Kagurazaka, Sono's better half. She's appeared in quite a few films of him already, but never in such an attention-grabbing role. There are a few other actors around, but they rarely appear for more than a couple of shots. Sono sticks with Kagurazaka's character for most of the running time and since she has few people to talk to, it all comes down to posture and facial expressions. It's easy to see how the familiarity between director and actor helped to bring Kagurazaka's character to life, but ultimately Kagurazaka's deserves all the credit for doing such a terrific job.

screen capture of Hiso Hiso Boshi

There isn't much dialogue, the setting is exploratory and the pacing is deliberately slow. The only way to enjoy The Whispering Star is to invest in Sono's journey and hope for the best. If for some reason you can't get yourself past that barrier there's really no point in watching this film. Whether Sono can deliver on his promise depends on how much you plan to take from the film. There's definitely some meat there and it's not just an exercise in style, but there's also not too much happening beyond what Sono puts on display.

If you're a fan of Sono's work, I feel quite confident in recommending The Whispering Star. It's yet another take on Sono's trademark style and while difficult to compare to his earlier films, I feel that fans shouldn't have too much trouble adapting to the film's particularities. If you're unfamiliar with Sono or you downright hated his other films, this might not be the film for you. I'm firmly in the first category though, and I feel it's one of the best things Sono has done so far. It's original, quirky, stylish and otherworldly. A tough cookie on the outside, but incredibly rich in taste and texture on the inside. Getting your hands on the film is something entirely else of course.

Thu, 15 Jun 2017 09:37:59 +0000
<![CDATA[Sunshine/Danny Boyle]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/sunshine-review-danny-boyle

Sci-fi cinema is all the rage right now, but when Danny Boyle released Sunshine back in 2007 there was a noticeable void of good sci-fi films. Back then I caught the film in our local theater and was properly amazed at Boyle's proficiency in a genre that wasn't really his own. But that was 10 years ago and I was wondering whether Sunshine would still carry that same impact. Luckily the film held its own and in my opinion it still stands as one of the best post-2000 sci-fi films out there.

screen capture of Sunshine

Even though Boyle had little to no prior experiencing making sci-fi films, he is a prime genre director, so maybe it's not all that surprising that he managed to crank out such a wonderful film with such deceptive ease. He pulled a very similar trick a couple of years earlier, when he injected some new life into the British horror scene with 28 Days Later. With Boyle it's not so much about the genre he's working in, it's about the way he approaches his films.

One of the things that still draws me to Sunshine is the sleek execution of its sci-fi elements. It's not the dark and gritty dystopian vision of space travel that Alien brought forth, nor is it the near-future with slight sci-fi touches that is currently occupying much of the sci-fi space. Sunshine is a proper space flick, with plenty of futuristic elements that combine futuristic aesthetics with functional improvements. While sci-fi may be back in vogue, films like that are still quite rare.

The plot is pretty simple. We follow an international space crew on their way to our dying sun. With them they carry a huge, experimental bomb that is meant to kickstart the sun back into first gear, a last resort attempt with little to no chance of survival for the crew of the mission itself, but when effective will give human kind a fighting chance. Needless to say, the mission isn't going as planned and as they get closer to their target the crew is forced to pull some crazy tricks in order to complete the mission.

screen capture of Sunshine

Boyle has always been a very visual director, slightly ahead of the curve. Still Sunshine is looking incredibly slick and polished even by his standards. The CG is up to par, the use of color is spectacular and the editing is clean and sharp. Boyle finds room for a little experimentation too, while making sure that it remains a clean and accessible genre film. Visually there's just a very nice balance between author and genre going on, elevating it above basic genre fare but still allowing for a broader audience.

Boyle's films also tend to benefit from above average sound design and Sunshine definitely isn't an exception. Some of the most impressive scenes in the film are set to a superb mix of ambient and more classic film sounds. It's a soundtrack that brings out the best in the visuals and aids in creating all-encompassing moments of wonder that pull you right into the film. It's not really unexpected for a Boyle film, but the execution is flawless and an example for many other directors.

The cast is also a real asset to the film. It's not often that you see an international group of actors like this brought together, but the mix of talent gives the film an extra edge. With people like Hiroyuki Sanada, Michelle Yeoh, Cillian Murphy, Rose Byrne and Chris Evans on board, there's enough range in the crew members without it feeling overly forced or checkboxey. There are no weak links and even though I felt Murphy and Yeoh jump out the most, that might just be because prior preference on my side.

screen capture of Sunshine

While Sunshine has all the marks of a core sci-fi film, the latter third drifts off into horror territory. There's a little Event Horizon in there, but with a much better director keeping it together. Still, not everyone will appreciate the shift in genres, especially as things become a lot more fantastical near the end of the film. It's a sprawling finale and I felt Boyle did an amazing job constructing the ending for the film, but it's still clearly too much for some people. That said, I feel that if you prepare yourself for the genre switch it shouldn't have too much of an overall impact.

Sunshine is a superb example of how genre cinema can be elevated when the hand of an author is added to the mix, though ever so slightly. It's not as freaky or out there as Beyond the Black Rainbow, it's still retaining its commercial appeal, but it's clearly not just a simple genre effort either. The film looks amazing, sounds great and has an impressive cast. Danny Boyle did an amazing job molding everything into an impressive whole, which is why the film still holds up 10 years after release.

Thu, 08 Jun 2017 09:53:32 +0000
<![CDATA[Blame!/Hiroyuki Seshita]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/blame-review-hiroyuki-seshita

Last year, word got out that Netflix was doing a full-length anime feature based on Tsutomu Nihei's Blame!, with Ajin and Knights of Sidonia director Hiroyuki Seshita helming the project. Blame! is an all-time cross-medium favorite of mine, but looking at earlier adaptation attempts I tried to keep my expectations low. The film saw its global release on Netflix last week (up yours Cannes) and even though I was prepared for the worst, I was still pretty eager to see how it translated to the (not so big) screen. Turns out my fears were completely unfounded.

screen capture of Blame!

I'm not a big manga reader, but when I first picked up Blame! I was sold on it immediately. I'm an immense cyberpunk fan, but realistically it's a very tough genre to do in cinema. Cyberpunk films turn out either very low budget (think Shinya Tsukamoto's work) or severely lacking in punk (think The Matrix). When doing a manga none of that matters, there's just the illustrator and a blank piece of paper. So Tsutomu Nihei went all-out when he worked on Blame!. The result was a tough, impenetrable but eerily imaginative, attractive and mind-blowing piece of art, to the point where it became my favorite cyberpunk anything, hands down.

Adapting it to the screen was going to be a serious challenge though. There's not a lot of coherent storytelling in the manga, the pacing is all over the place (large sections where nothing is happening are followed by extremely chaotic and brutal fights) and the overall design isn't very commercial. All the praise to Netflix for making it happen nonetheless. They brought in director Seshita (who worked on Knights of Sidonia, a series based on another Nihei manga), they contacted Nihei himself to help out with the adaptation and they put down a decent sum of money, making sure this wasn't just some upgraded TV-series episode. After that they did their typical "hands-off" approach and let the creative people do their job.

Rather than cram the entire manga into one film, they picked a single story arc and expanded on that. Where the manga follows Killy, a stark and enigmatic wanderer looking for surviving humans in an ever-growing megastructure, the film turns it around and tells the story of one of the surviving tribes, who just happen to run into Killy. It's probably a little disappointing if you were expecting to get the full Blame! experience in a single film, at the same time it leaves a lot of potential for future films while making sure there isn't an information overload taking away from the experience. A choice that somehow feels quite deliberate.

screen capture of Blame!

Blame! is an extremely visual experience, so one of my main concerns was whether they'd be able to translate Nihei's unique style (a former architect) to the screen. That dark, gritty, decomposed yet very architectural world is one of the main draws of the manga and not so easy to do in animated form. They did well keeping the cell-shaded look from Knights of Sidonia. It allows for far more detail in the character designs and architecture and it helps to make the action scenes that more frantic and alive. It's not like the same effect can't be achieved in traditional animation of course, but it's a lot more expensive to do. On top of that, there's only a select group of animators who can pull it off and they tend to come with their own signature style (like Takeshi Koike).

Not everyone is going to appreciate that they cut the animation framerate in order to give the film a more traditional animation feel, but I actually prefer it over the slick, full CG look. The character designs are a bit softer compared to the manga, but overall they remain pretty close to the source material and while the film doesn't feature many of the signature bad guys, the more generic Safeguards are pretty kick-ass still. All in all the film looks stunning and well beyond what I'd expected they could achieve.

The soundtrack is a bit trickier though. I'm kind of opinionated when it comes to cyberpunk and music, but realistically speaking I'm well aware that I'll never get to see a true match-up of my preferred music in a (cyberpunk) film. That said, the soundtrack still feels a little too fantastical at times. I do get that they went with a more tribal vibe, but it makes it too Middle-Earth fantasy, which just doesn't work for the setting. It's not just all bad, there are definitely some good parts too, especially when they start playing around with static and noise, but these are a too few and far between. It feels like a missed opportunity. As for the dubs, Netflix was nice enough to prepare 5 different language dubs and just as many subtitle options, so there's plenty of choice. I flipped through them and as always I preferred the Japanese dub, with the English and German ones feeling the most out of place, but if you have trouble reading subtitles there definitely are options.

screen capture of Blame!

The main critique I've read so far is that the film fails to give a firm grip on its setting. While that's definitely true, it's actually "worse" in the manga. The difference there is that Nihei had 10 books to expand his universe, something a lot tougher to accomplish in a 100-minute feature. Even so, I felt they did a good job introducing various aspects of the Blame! universe while still keeping things mysterious and adventurous. If you're clingy when it comes to narratives, Blame! probably just isn't the thing for you as part of its appeal is in its expansive universe and the sense of adventure you get when exploring it together with the characters. Not knowing everything there is to know is just part of the deal.

That said, the Blame! universe is far from random. It may take several viewings (and/or reads), but when everything starts to click together it becomes clear that Nihei put a lot of thought and effort in how everything connects. The world of Blame! is something that goes beyond the typical "computers have taken over" future we've become used to seeing in American cyberpunk and its all the better for it. The film honors that depth, but in a slightly different way. Some familiarity with Nihei's universe will definitely come in handy when watching this film, but if you think that the manga will magically clear up all the confusion, think again.

Blame! turned out a whole lot better than I expected. It's not the ultimate adaptation, for that the direction itself is a little too safe and the music isn't on point, but considering the strong niche appeal of the manga and the commercial goals of Netflix, it's far more edgier than I imagined it to be. They left Nihei's appeal and style intact, the action sequences are brutal and the megastructure looks as cool as it looks in the manga. There's still a lot left to explore in Nihei's Blame! universe and the film does feel like a setup for more to come. I for one would be incredibly happy to see a sequel in the same vain.

Mon, 29 May 2017 10:10:08 +0000
<![CDATA[Akira/Katsuhiro Otomo]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/akira-review-katsuhiro-otomo

It felt like a million years since I last watched Akira. It was one of the films that got me into anime (which goes for a lot of people my age I guess), but as I found better and crazier films out there, I somehow lost sight of Katsuhiro Otomo's masterpiece. I'm still not entirely sure how that happened, needless to say I was quite excited to revisit Otomo's breakthrough film. And it didn't disappoint, not in the least. Akira may be nearing its 30th birthday, it's still a stunner from start to finish and it still managed to conjure up awe as if I was watching it for the first time.

screen capture of Akira

There is no lack of landmark films when talking anime, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that pinpointing the most influential or crucial of them all is no easy task. Is it Mamoru Oshii's Ghost in the Shell or do you favor Isao Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies? If you take global exposure into account, there's no way around Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away, but if fandom is your primary criterion then Hideaki Anno's insanely popular Neon Genesis Evangelion would probably end up on top. Personally though, I'd argue no anime film or series was more critical than Akira. It's really the first time that the world looked at anime as a viable, mature addition to the cinematic canon. I feel that without it, others would've had a much tougher time building up the following they enjoy today.

Akira is a film adaptation of Otomo's own manga. It's easy enough to forget Akira (the anime) is not an original work, though purists will tell you the manga is actually better than the film. I read through part of it and I can say with a comfortable level of certainty that I'm not part of that group, then again I'm a cinema buff pur sang so you mileage may vary. The film version "suffers" from the typical ails of adaptations, most notably it's severely edited down for brevity. Personally I welcome the stricter pace. It makes for a more overwhelming experience, though if you love back stories and narrative depth than the manga is definitely preferred.

The plotlines are still pretty much the same though. We follow Kaneda, a bike gang leader who gets caught up in a secret government project. Tetsuo is part of Kaneda's gang and is eager to prove himself, but his frail posture and somewhat timid presentation put him at a disadvantage. When Tetsuo bumps into a peculiar kid sporting supernatural powers, he is taken hostage by the government and he becomes part of their experiments. Little do they know they awaked an extraordinary force that's set on destroying the world as we know it. Meanwhile Kaneda is tracking down Tetsuo in an ultimate attempt to stop him from causing global mayhem.

screen capture of Akira

Akira is an 80s anime and it shows. The art style, the use of color and the first minor, subtle steps into the world of CG animation betray its age. But don't let that fool you into thinking that there's nothing to look at. I was positively surprised by the lush animation and how it still trumps many modern-day anime films. There is so much movement and all of it is done with such impressive detail that the film never feels old or dated. And just when you feel like you've gotten used to the high level of animation quality, Otomo finds something to one-up himself. That's pretty impressive for a 120-minute film. On top of that, Otomo's unique design aesthetic is a blessing. The strong blend of steampunk and science-fiction makes for a singular and intriguing setting that goes a long way into defining the overall atmosphere of the film.

What's a good landmark film without a proper, memorable score? Anime features have an above average track record when it comes to strong musical support, but even within its niche Akira is a stand-out. It takes just a few notes of the main Akira theme to conjure up the atmosphere of the film. It's dark, daunting and somewhat alien, but at the same time also very tribal and humane. A perfect mood for a post-apocalyptic setting heading towards a second apocalypse. This being one of the most famous anime films means there's an English dub available. For once I'm not going to burn it to the ground, but that's only because of some weird rave/anime cross-over album that sampled royally from English anime dubs, including Akira's. If you're watching the film though, just go for the Japanese dub. It's way better and more in line with the personality of the characters.

screen capture of Akira

Akira has a lot going for itself, from the magnificent animation to its lively setting and the superb score. Add to that some properly explored themes and a cast of loveable characters and you have all the ingredients for a proper classic. But to get to that landmark spot, Otomo went all in on the film's insane finale. A mind-blowingly grotesque and over-the-top celebration of both genre cinema and overwrought philosophy, it made Akira into a film that anime fans could fully embrace and use as a defence when people were bringing up words like "cartoons" and "tentacle porn". The combination of strong genre influences with a detailed setting and a somewhat puzzling finale turned Akira into a film that could leave a mark beyond its own niche.

If Hollywood has anything to worry about (they're in the process of remaking this film, moving the setting from Tokyo to New York) it's adapting that finale to something that can be shown to a broader audience without impacting the overpowering feel of the original. I'm sure there's going to be a lot of discussion about whether or not the whitewashing is warranted, but making the film succeed artistically will pretty much come down to doing justice to that sprawling finale. And that's going to be a pretty tough thing to accomplish in modern-day Hollywood.

Akira is nearing its 30th birthday, but it's still a marvel of a film. While the 80s feel is definitely there, it doesn't feel like it aged a lot. The animation is top notch, the soundtrack is memorable, its universe feels alive and it goes out with a bang. Literally. It's not up there with my absolute favorite anime features, but it's an undeniable landmark that worked hard to earn its place in film history. It's a must see for everyone with only the slightest interest in animation, though to fully appreciate its splendour you need to be able to deal with its strong genre influences.

Thu, 25 May 2017 09:58:01 +0000
<![CDATA[Skins/Eduardo Casanova]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/skins-review-eduardo-casanova

Should you want to watch Eduardo Casanova's Pieles [Skins], come prepared. Don't watch it with your parents, unless you feel comfortable watching weird stuff with them. Don't watch it with your kids, unless you want to do some serious explaining afterwards. And don't watch it with your spouse, unless she's aware of your weird taste in films. Skins is racy, relentless and uncompromising. It's a one of a kind film that walks a very fine line between absurd comedy and drama, but it's going to be divisive no matter how open-minded the audience. As for me? I was totally blown away by it.

screen capture of Skins

The funny thing about Eduardo Casanova is that his film feels like an extension of his persona. Not so much because Skins is about deformities, but his general composure and look just make sense once you've traveled through his 80-minute long feature. In Spain he's better known for his acting career, though he's been making short films ever since he started working in film. Skins is his first full-length feature and draws from his short film Eat My Shit, a not-so-literal but still very direct reference to the most eye-popping character in Skins.

Skins is a film about beauty, but not in the most common sense of the world. The film is populated with people who are in some way broken or deformed. Casanova collects a wide variety of characters, each of them sporting a very specific deformity. Some of these are quite realistic, others are grotesque and absurd. And it's not just about physical appearances either, some of them are dealing with some serious mental problems. An interesting twist that adds a little extra depth to the film.

The film starts in a brothel infamous for only employing physically deformed people. A paedophile is soliciting the lady of the house (a 70 year old who walks around in the nude) about meeting with a young, eye-less girl. It sounds like a vile and ugly setup, but there's a certain calm and elegance to these first scenes that makes for a very confusing intro. And that's just the beginning, because Casanova keeps piling on similarly weird and uncomfortable setups, creating an intricate patchwork of interwoven stories.

screen capture of Skins

Pink and purple, that's what you'll remember after seeing Skins. Based on the plot and themes you might have expected a grim, gritty and sullen-looking film, but this ain't A Serbian Film. Skins is one of the most meticulously styled films I've seen in my life. Everything, just e-ve-ry-thing, is either pink or purple and absolutely nothing feels random or by accident. The camera work too is very deliberate, with well-planned shots and exquisitely constructed frames. It all adds up to create an extremely soft, pleasant and feminine look that provides a strong and telling contrast with the film's darker elements.

The soundtrack is probably the least subversive part of the film. It's not boring or uneventful, in fact it's quite eclectic, bringing together some very different styles of music, but none of the musical choices feel as surprising or as daring as the other elements of the film. At all times the music feels appropriate and fitting, effectively adding something to the scene but never steering it in an unexpected direction. It's a pretty good, fun score that does the film plenty of ffavors, but in contrast with the rest it's quite safe and timid.

As for the actors, Casanova didn't spare them in the least. He doesn't go easy on the ones who are actually deformed, often ogling their imperfections with great diligence and detail. The actors sporting prosthetics don't have it exactly easy either, keeping a straight face while still finding a way to move the audience, no matter how grotesque they may look. There are no real lead characters so one or two lacking performances wouldn't have hurt the film in any meaningful way, but everyone put in splendid performance and the acting is just all-round great.

screen capture of Skins

Skins is a film that could've gone wrong in so many ways. It could've easily turned out to be a simple, crude comedy or one of those films with an overbearing, nagging social conscience. Luckily Casanova went beyond that. None of the characters are saints, none are without faults, but at the same time they're all likeable. Underneath all its flashy exterior make-up and twisted interior pain lies a film that's humane, moving and sweet, while still housing some very edgy and in your face comedy. It's an insanely difficult balance to achieve, but Casanova made it work.

Even so, Skins is poised to be divisive. It's just too weird and out there to appeal to a really broad audience. Still, it's extremely rare to see a film where a director can go full out and deliver his distinct, unique vision with such flair and panache, without having to make any obvious compromises or commercial trade-offs. For that reason alone Skins is worth a try. If you're watching it together with someone else though, do make sure you feel comfortable enough watching weird stuff with that person, because the awkwardness just piles up and it just gets progressively weirder as time passes by.

Eduardo Casanova made a stunning first feature. It's hyper-stylized, it's extremely daring and surprisingly well-balanced. There's a peculiar mix of easiness and awkwardness that is quite unique, on top of that the film works on multiple levels. It's a superb dark comedy, a strong drama and it offers a great spin on the "beauty is on the inside" saying without becoming too pushy, one-dimensional or judgmental. While Casanova will need a second feature film to prove he's more than just a one-trick pony, Skins is a testament of his talent and regardless of his future career, it's one of the best films I've seen this year.

Wed, 17 May 2017 10:12:41 +0000
<![CDATA[Electric Shadows/Jiang Xiao]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/electric-shadows-review-jiang-xiao

When I first watched Jiang Xiao's Meng Ying Tong Nian [Electric Shadows] I liked it a lot, but it faded from memory rather quickly and last week all that was left was a daunting, confusing blank. That doesn't necessarily mean the film is flawed, my memory can be a bit fidgety from time to time, but it did result in me approaching the film with some reservations. Luckily that turned out to be unnecessary as Electric Shadows has more than enough qualities to justify a high rating, though having seen a lot of other Chinese films in the meantime did lower the overall impact just a little.

screen capture of Electric Shadows

Well before Jiang Xiao made one of my all-time favorite Chinese films (pk.com.cn), he cooked up Electric Shadows. These two films have little in common though, unless you know exactly what to look for. Where pk.com.cn is very free-form and experimental, Electric Shadows has a more classical Chinese feel to it. It's a film that evolved from the work of Yimou Zhang, but does show some more modern touches in places. And it's these moments that make Electric Shadows stand out from the rest, even today.

You can think of Electric Shadows as a Chinese alternative to Nuovo Cinema Paradiso, a film that reminisces about the old days, combining drama, romance and a strong love for cinema. The structure and the themes of both films are eerily similar, even bordering on straight-up remake, but the era and setting of Electric Shadows makes for a very different experience. Still, people who liked Nuovo Cinema Paradiso will find a lot to love here.

The film starts with paperboy Mao Dabing running into a big pile of stacked bricks. From out of nowhere a girl (Ling Ling) assaults him, hitting him hard on the head with one of the scattered bricks. After treatment Mao is taken to the police station to deal with the girl, but to his surprise she asks him to take care of her fish while she spends her time in custody. When Mao visits her place, it dawns on him he might know the girl and a bunch of flashbacks reveal the history Mao and Ling Ling share together.

screen capture of Electric Shadows

Visually speaking, the film is divided in two somewhat separate parts. The modern-day scenes look solid but not too spectacular, while the flashbacks are draped in an alluring sepia glow. The sepia color scheme is a rather easy fix to upgrade the visual presentation of a film, but Xiao does make smart use of the palette. It's not just a quick filter on top of the regular footage, instead it feels like the footage was tailored to make the sepia look its finest. And with the film being mostly flashbacks, the visual presentation is just overall pleasant.

The soundtrack is pretty simply, mostly consisting of soft, inoffensive music in the background. It does elicit a nice atmosphere and it makes for pleasant background noise to the drama, but you'll be hard-pressed to remember much of it once the film has finished. Chinese films tend to play it safe with the music and it often feels like little more than an afterthought, Electric Shadows fits that description perfectly. It's still preferred over horribly over-sentimental drab of course, but injecting the score with a bit more character wouldn't have hurt.

The acting is fine, but probably a little over the top, especially if you're not too familiar with Chinese cinema. That said, the kids do a tremendous job and even though Zhengjia Wang lays it on quite thick, he's an adorable little rascal. On top of that, his scenes with Haogi Zhang are pretty damn heart-warming. The borderline overacting may deter some people and it may not be too suitable for the more dramatic scenese, but it does add a lot to the uplifting spirit of Electric Shadows.

screen capture of Electric Shadows

Most of the film is spend revelling in flashbacks, but towards the end the film switches back its original timeline. There are some twists and turns there that don't really add much to the film and at times Xiao tries a little too hard to be clever. While Electric Shadows could've done with a more concise, focused ending, I also have to admit there's nothing too offensive or destructive there either. It's just that it doesn't match the first part as well as it could've been.

Electric Shadows is a feel-good film that hits all the important marks. There is a little cruft near the end and some parts could've been streamlined a little better, but overall it's a sweet and endearing film that shows a deep love for cinema. It's a great first feature for Xiao, it's just a little disheartening to see he's only directed two feature films so far. He's clearly one of China's most promising directors, but he needs more films to showcase his talent. Electric Shadows is a film that's pretty ease to recommend (and availability isn't bad either), even to people not too familiar with Chinese cinema.

Mon, 15 May 2017 10:04:11 +0000
<![CDATA[The Monster/Bryan Bertino]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/the-monster-review-bryan-bertino

Director Bryan Bertino (The Strangers) returns with a new horror film, not so cryptically titled The Monster. I was pretty excited to catch up with what I considered to be a very promising horror director, but I will admit that I didn't quite expect to like The Monster the way I did. It's been a while since I last watched a truly convincing horror film (as in a pure, unfiltered genre effort) and there have been no real signs of a horror renaissance. Your mileage may vary of course, but to me Bertino hit a home run with The Monster.

screen capture of The Monster

When you sit down to watch a film directed by Bryan Bertino, there are going to be certain expectations. That said, I was extremely relieved that I didn't see any of the promo material until after the film, because even though the presence of a monster in a film called The Monster is not exactly shocking, putting it on full display on posters and DVD covers is borderline stupid. Not in the least because Bertino goes for a slow-burning intro and a meticulously planned reveal of the titular monster. With posters like that, you kill half of the suspense and the mystery even before the intro credits start rolling. It's just all-out baffling.

With The Monster Bertino aims to blend drama and horror. This is somewhat of a proven concept, but where the drama tends to bog down the horror aspect of these films, The Monster manages to keep its full-blown horror aesthetic intact. The drama is infused through several short but extremely poignant flashbacks, grounding the characters without spending any excess time on drama, while at the same time adding some additional unease. The build-up of the horror is sly and gradual, matching the pacing of the drama, with tension slowly building up to a terrific climax. This setup allows Bertino to avoid most contemporary horror clichés, including overdone 80s references and an over-reliance on jump scares.

The story is kept pretty simple, with a mother and daughter stranded on a deserted road during a raging thunderstorm. Their car is in shambles and while they wait for help, something in the woods is trying to find out the best way to turn them into dinner. The drama comes from the mother-daughter relationship, which is pretty bruised and broken. Flashbacks show an alcohol-addicted mom and a young girl who takes better care of her mother than vice versa. They are in fact on their way to drop the girl off at her father's, but their chances of ever reaching their destination look pretty slim.

screen capture of The Monster

Bertino has a firm grip on the visual side of things. The cinematography matches the deliberate pacing, but not without adding its own layer of dread. Most shots are relatively static, but there's always movement in the frame. Sometimes the camera shifts every so slightly, slowly revealing more of the environment, at other times the shadows or blurred surroundings in the background create motion to keep the audience sharp. The lighting too is top notch. It's never too dark, but there's always that feeling that things are lurking in the shadows. All in all the film has a very polished, functional look with just the right amount of finish to have it rise above the rest.

The soundtrack is very much on par with the visuals. Not overly surprising or anything too demanding, just really well done. Bertino went for a pretty coherent sound that worked both for the drama and the horror parts, giving off a dark, rather heavy and tense vibe throughout the entire film. It helps to build the atmosphere and pushes you just a little bit closer to the edge of your seat. As a stand-alone score it's probably not worth a lot as it's really tailored to the film, but in the end that's not what matters.

The cast is so small there are only 8 listings on IMDb and that's including the monster and the injured wolf they find along the road (props to Meeko). But really it's just mother (Zoe Kazan) and daughter (Ella Ballentine) eating up all the screentime, the rest is just there for some short, functional interactions. Kazan and Ballentine really hit the mark though. It's rare to find interesting characters in a horror film, but with very little the two manage to build up an extremely intricate and broken mother-daughter relationship. Coming from Kazan that's not too surprising, but Ballentine is definitely someone to keep an eye on in the future.

screen capture of The Monster

There may be plenty of symbolic monsters in The Monster, but the reason why the film works so well is because of the way it deals with its actual monster. It's not just some afterthought or excuse to try and sell it to the horror crowd, instead it's the meat of the film. At the same time, the drama adds a touch of weight and dread to the horror that is often missing from simpler genre efforts. It's a very strong combination and Bertino handles it remarkably well, turning The Monster into a benchmark for similar productions.

The Monster is one of the best straight-up horror films I've seen in the past couple of years. It's creepy, it's dark and tense from start to finish. The acting is top notch, the characters are interesting and the film looks and sounds great. It's a shame that the poster/DVD front contains stupendous spoilers, but I can't really blame the film for that. If you can come up with a way to watch the film without eyeing its promo artwork, do yourself a favor and make the effort. Hopefully The Monster helps Bertino to keep his career alive, because the horror scene is in dire need of directors like him.

Wed, 10 May 2017 10:17:50 +0000
<![CDATA[Pink and Gray/Isao Yukisada]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/pink-and-gray-review-isao-yukisada

Isao Yukisada is a longtime favorite amongst Japanese drama enthusiasts, but his films tend to take their time before reaching Western shores. Pinku to Gure [Pink and Gray] was released in 2015 and only recently found its way over here. It's a film that should feel quite familiar to Yukisada enthusiasts, while at the same time offering something that's surprisingly novel and daring. It's a welcome change of direction for a director who isn't known to bewilder his audience very often.

screen capture of Pink and Gray

Before continuing the review, let me warn you that it's going to be somewhat spoiler-heavy. If you're already convinced you want to see Pink and Gray and you prefer to go in fresh, it's best to just stop reading right away. I tend to avoid spoilers where possible and I will do so in this review too, but in Yukisada's case the fact that there are spoilers is pretty much a spoiler in itself, certain to affect the way you go into this film. On top of that, Pink and Gray leans so explicitly on the element of surprise that it's simply impossible to ignore here, unless I'd scrap the review as a whole.

Yukisada is probably one of the most consistent directors I know of. He learned the trade under Shunji Iwai and hasn't deviated a lot from the style he cultivated for himself. That makes that his films are indisputably well-made, but they are also a little safe and predictable. It's always easy to watch a new Yukisada as he never disappoints, but it's a slightly tougher bet if you're looking for something to cherish, as his work often falls just a little short of genius. To see Yukisada abuse that very fact in Pink and Gray is pretty entertaining though.

The film starts with pop idol Rengo Shiraki taking his own life. Daiki Kawata, his life-long friend, discovers the body and becomes the center of attention when the media finds out about their friendship. The film jumps back in time and recounts the moments and events that moulded their relationship, up to the very point where Rengo decided to hang himself. But when the film comes full circle, there's still 60 minutes of playtime left and that's when things become truly interesting.

screen capture of Pink and Gray

The first hour of Pink and Gray is very much in line with Yukisada's trademark visual style. Overexposure is used to good effect, not as overdone as in some of his other films but it's clearly still there. Halfway through the style makes a complete 180 and Yukisada switches to black and white. It's not something I've seen from him before, but he manages exceptionally well. The black and white shots are expressive, well constructed and look very powerful. The first hour looks a little tame in comparison, but I'm pretty certain that was part of the actual setup.

The soundtrack follows a very similar pattern. The first half is pretty predictable, with a decent but also very safe score. Once the films shifts gears the soundtrack follows suit, although not quite as explicitly as the visuals. Still, the second part is a lot quieter and the music that does surface is noticeably edgier and darker. There's some untapped potential there for sure and it's not as in your face as the visual turnaround, but it's well in line with the overall style.

The acting too is up to par. Yuto Nakajima (himself a teen idol and member of a popular Japanese boy band) fits the part of Rengo Shiraki perfectly. Masaki Suda provides a solid performance as Daiki and the two have ample on-screen chemistry. Yuya Yagira (Destruction Babies) has an interesting outsider part and Yukino Kishii acts as the glue between all the different characters. There's quite a lot of pressure on the actors here and they do have to show a broad range, but they all do a splendid job while keeping everything together.

screen capture of Pink and Gray

To reboot a film around the halfway mark is always a big risk. You have to find a way to re-engage your audience while not falling into the trap of just repeating the same build-up as before. Yukisada handles it quite ingeniously, with contrasting stylistic choices and a certain familiarity that twists things around while still playing with the very same elements of the first part. The shift is unmistakably there, but the film itself continues quite gracefully rather than starting over from scratch. The cherry on the cake is Yukisada casting himself into the film. His profile as a director actually ads to the twist and it's nice to see he's conscious enough of his own image and output to pull it off.

Pink and Gray starts off a little plain and safe. Yukisada's usual level of finish is clearly there, but there isn't much to set it apart from his other films and it's certainly not his best work to date. Don't let the film trick you though, it will actively try to lull you, only to pull the rug from under your feet halfway through. The second half is a great upset, a worthy twist that shows a different side of Yukisada without throwing everything overboard. Pink and Gray is a pretty great film, but some familiarity with the director will definitely help you to appreciate it to its fullest.

Wed, 03 May 2017 09:48:09 +0000
<![CDATA[Shojo/Yukiko Mishima]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/nights-tightrope-review-yukiko-mishima

I knew next to nothing about Yukiko Mishima's Shojo [Night's Tightrope] when I started the film, apart from the fact that when Japan does coming of age with schoolgirls, things could end up pretty grim. And that's exactly what Shojo delivers. A dark, mysterious and sullen mix of drama and mystery that is both beautiful and disturbing at the same time. While Mishima has been active for some time already, this is the kind of calling card that could put her on the map once and for all.

screen capture of Shojo

The film is an adaptation of Kanae Minato's same-titled novel. Minato is probably best known for producing the source material for Kokuhaku, a film that went on to introduce Tatsuya Nakashima to a broader global audience. In theory Shojo could do the same for Mishima, though I'm afraid her adaptation is still a little too Japanese for international audiences. Those who have a soft spot for Japanese cinema though should feel right at home here.

Shojo is a drama presented as a mystery. It has all the typical elements of an edgy Japanese high school drama, with bullying teens, sexual harassment and suicidal characters, but the presentation is a lot stranger and more mysterious than you'd suspect based on the core material. Some people might feel a little cheated, as the plot doesn't immediately support the mystery, but it makes for a very nice atmosphere that keeps you on your toes from the very start of the film, while the drama unfolds slowly in the background.

The film follows two best friends, Yuki and Atsuko, who are slowly starting to drift apart. Both are dealing with profound issues in their own lives and their friendship inevitably suffers. There's a boy involved of course, but ultimately he doesn't represent the worst of their troubles. He does however turn out to be the proverbial drop in the bucket. Once inseparable, Yuki and Atsuko accept different vacation jobs and find themselves further apart than ever. Little do they know their lives are about to converge once again.

screen capture of Shojo

Stylistically Shojo is impeccable. On a visual level, it blends some trademark elements of Japanese drama (bike rides shot from the side, long tracking shots of people running) with darker influences coming from the mystery side of things. The camera work is beautiful, the color toning impressive and the framing detailed. There's always something interesting happening in the shots and there are quite a few images that linger. It's not quite up there with Nakashima's films, but it does come pretty close.

The soundtrack is a tad more conventional, though again it offers a pleasant mix of more traditional drama music with moodier, more mysterious tracks. That in itself is quite a feat. It's not a very demanding score and, save for a few moments, it never really grabs you. Then again, it's always appropriate and it does its fair share to build up the atmosphere. While there is definitely room for improvement, the score works and does nothing to raise any serious complaints.

There aren't too many familiar faces around, unless you happen to be quite versed in the world of Japanese TV series. Most of the actors have been around for a while, but not so much in feature films. They all do a very commendable job though, with Tsubasa Honda (Yuki) claiming the most attention. She has a certain coldness that works wonders for her character, at the same time making sure Yuki never transforms into a total freak. Mizuki Yamamoto is notable as the somewhat more timid Atsuko, the secondary cast is also up to par.

screen capture of Shojo

Even though the ending does lean a bit more to the dramatic side, the mystery never truly leaves the film. The post-climax scene even adds an extra dosage of unease. It's a pretty peculiar feeling that I can't really remember experiencing before. When all is said and done, Shojo is very much a drama film, but the overall atmosphere and the lingering impression is that of a darker mystery. Mishima deserves a lot of credit for keeping these two stretches balanced, though it's a bit difficult to predict how people unfamiliar with Japanese cinema might react to it.

I do think Shojo is a film that could please a broader audience, but it's pretty obvious that it's not going to get that chance. While the link with Kokuhaku might pull in some extra people, ultimately Shojo is a bit too Japanese for distributors to take the risk. It is a very accomplished film though, with impeccable styling, solid acting and a unique balance of drama and mystery. For those who feel a little adventurous, it's an easy recommend. I'm not sure if I should look up Mishima's earlier films as they do look pretty different, but I am keeping an eye on her next move.

Thu, 27 Apr 2017 09:46:35 +0000
<![CDATA[Yoshihiro Nakamura/x10]]>http://www.onderhond.com/features/focus-on-directors/yoshihiro-nakamura-x10
Yoshihiro Nakamura

I guess Yoshihiro Nakamura is a somewhat atypical Japanese director. Most directors over there are either very focused on the festival market or aim squarely at local audiences. Nakamura falls somewhere in between both stretches. He's had a couple of international near-breakthroughs in his career, but he never quite managed to become a household festival name in the West. And when the occasional Nakamura film does finds its way into the hands of Western critics, it's met with warm feedback, though it never quite tends to stick.

The thing with Nakamura is that he is one of those directors who by and large goes with the flow. When he started in the early 00's he tried to make a name for himself directing horror films, a few years later he switched to comedy/dramady and nowadays he's all into police thrillers. He's not very bad at what he does, most of his films have a clear base quality, but he never really excels at anything and he never quite manages to put a personal touch on the projects he works on. This makes it difficult to fully embrace his work.

If you were into Asian suspense cinema some 15 years ago, chances are you've come across Suiyô Puremia: Sekai Saikyô J Horâ SP Nihon no Kowai Yoru [Dark Tales of Japan] and Busu [The Booth], two films that enjoyed minor successes in the West. More hardcore fans probably saw Watashi no Akachan [Lizard Baby] and @beibimeru [@babymail] too, though these two hardly made a dent here. They're all decent enough examples of Asian suspense, with Busu being the best of the bunch, but they're not what you call flagship material.

After the interest in Asian horror had died off, Nakamura switched to drama (often served with a slice of wry comedy). Ahiru to Kamo no Koinrokka [The Foreign Duck, the Native Duck and God in a Coin Locker], Fisshu Sutori [Fish Story] and Goruden Suranba [Golden Slumber] are all more than decent films, a tad long maybe but definitely worth seeking out. Just don't expect too much from them, because even though they're good films, they all lack something unique that sets them apart.

In the meantime Nakamura also started to release comedies aimed at the local market. Chonmage Purin [A Boy and His Samurai] and Eiga Kaibutsukun [Kaibutsu-kun The Movie] are two films you'd do well to avoid, Potechi and Minasan, Sayonara [See You Tomorrow are notably better, with both films clearly benefitting from Gaku Hamada's comedic talent. Pure comedy isn't Nakamura's strong point if you ask me, but opinions seem to differ so you might want to give the latter two a chance.

A few years ago Nakamura tried his hand on some thriller material, with Shirayuki Hime Satsujin Jiken [The Snow White Murder Case] and Yokokuhan [Prophecy] as a result. Again, they're not bad films, but they're not very memorable either. Much like Nakamura's other work, it ends up above-average filler, good for when you're short on potential masterpieces, but never quite a masterpiece itself.

You could say Nakamura is a good choice if you want to ease people into watching Japanese films, as his work isn't too weird, unique or experimental. Then again I'm not sure if people are going to feel the need to further explore Japanese cinema after seeing one of his features. If anything, it's pretty nice filler, just stay away from his films aimed at the local market, unless your OCD compels you to complete Nakamura's entire oeuvre.

Best film: Busu [The Booth] (3.5*)
Worst film: Eiga Kaibutsukun [Kaibutsu-kun The Movie] (1.5*)
Average rating: 2.95 (out of 5)

Thu, 20 Apr 2017 09:45:37 +0000
<![CDATA[Disutorakushon Beibizu/Tetsuya Mariko]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/destruction-babies-review-tetsuya-mariko

When Third Window Films announced Tetsuya Mariko's Disutorakushon Beibizu [Destruction Babies], it came with an ominous warning. The poster reads "The most extreme 108 minutes in Japanese cinema history", a rather audacious claim. Make of that what you will, the point is that Mariko's newborn is a worthy addition to Japan's infamous niche of nihilistic cinema and serves a dark, often impenetrable blow to the gut. You better come prepared when watching this one.

screen capture of Disutorakushon Beibizu

Japan has a fruitful history of young directors shaking the world with a cold slice of nihilism. Almost 20 years ago Toshiaki Toyoda burst onto the scene with Poruno Suta, a violent and unrelenting drama. Some 10 years ago Ryo Nakashima repeated that very feat with Oretachi no Sekai. The difference with Disutorakushon Beibizu is that this isn't Mariko's first feature, but that's little more than a technicality compared to the things these films share amongst each other.

Central to the story is a young boy flung out of control, but if you're hoping to get some answers you're not going to find them here. Disutorakushon Beibizu is a film that shows, not so much explains. That could be a tough pill to swallow, as you won't get much context for his violent behavior and seeing someone beaten to a pulp for the 10th time can be kind of numbing (ask anyone who has seen Takashi Miike's Izo), but that's half the appeal of a film like this.

Taira and Shota are two abandoned brothers, shacking up above a small boat repair show. When Taira finally turns 18, he snaps and goes on a violent rampage. Disappearing overnight, he wanders the streets and picks fights with whoever he runs into. No guns, no knives, just his bare fists and an unstoppable drive. But not everyone is appalled by his actions, some people are smitten by his fearless attitude. Yuya is such a kid and after following Taira around for a while, he decides they should join forces and raise hell together.

screen capture of Disutorakushon Beibizu

Visually Disutorakushon Beibizu is a solid film, though it lacks stand-out moments. The camera work meets expectations, with some nice overview shots throughout and more up-close material during the fights, but it's nothing you haven't seen before. It's probably a tad more restrained than you might expect from a film like this, but I assume that's Mariko's experience taking over. It's not quite the maverick style of film making typical for younger directors, but it's more than visceral enough to get the job done.

The music is on par with the visuals, though pushing the envelope just a little harder. The soundtrack consists mostly of Japanese rock songs, but intertwined with jazz-like influences, going for atypical, nervous rhythms that further underline the unease of the subject matter. It's a pretty good soundtrack, nothing I'd listen to outside of the film, but it does give Disutorakushon Beibizu some extra grit and it furthers cements the uncomfortable atmosphere that drives the experience.

As for the actors, they do a pretty spectacular job. Yuya Yagira (Dare mo Shiranai) takes on the role of Taira and almost effortlessly embodies one of the most enigmatic and charismatic character I've come across in recent memory. Taira is almost impossible to read, but his sly grin, misplaced sense of amusement and disturbingly haphazard attitude make for a truly interesting character. Masaki Suda and Nana Komatsu are equally charismatic, though their motivations are at least somewhat more understandable. It's a stellar cast, topped off by a small but welcome Denden cameo.

screen capture of Disutorakushon Beibizu

The very first scene shows Taira snapping, the very last scene shows nothing much has changed in between. If you're looking for a character that evolves or grows you're not going to find it in Taira. He does influence the people around him, although indirectly. He never coerces people into helping him, never reaches out to them. They just flock to him in a desperate attempt to deal with their own problems. It's a unique setup that probably goes against several formal scriptwriting rules, but it wouldn't be the first time that makes for great cinema.

Disutorakushon Beibizu is a great film. It walks a fine line between accomplished cinema and maverick nihilism and succeeds with deceptive ease. It may not be the most extreme Japanese film you've ever come across (though it may be the most extreme 108-minute one, if you want to be overly semantic about it), but it packs a veritable punch and leaves you gasping for air. It's clearly not for everyone, the main character might be a bit too mysterious and the constant physical onslaught doesn't make for an easy watch, but I for one am hoping to see more of Mariko's work in the near future.

Wed, 19 Apr 2017 10:05:58 +0000
<![CDATA[Ihatobu Genso, Kenji no Haru/Shoji Kawamori]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/spring-chaos-review-shoji-kawamori

It's been years since I last watched Shoji Kawamori's Ihatobu Genso, Kenji no Haru [Spring & Chaos]. It's one of those films that, over time, almost completely erased itself from my memory. I only remembered liking it a lot, but I had completely forgotten why or what exactly made it stand out. Needless to say, I lowered my expectations before I sat down to watch it again, but as it turned out that was quite unnecessary. The film is pretty spectacular still and a must for fans of alternative animation.

screen capture of Ihatobu Genso, Kenji no Haru

Ihatobu Genso, Kenjji no Haru is an ode to the life of Kenji Miyazawa. Miyazama is one of those post-mortem legends, a talented artist who spent his life living in relative anonymity, only to become one of Japan's most treasured artists after passing. Nowadays he's celebrated as one of the ultimate poets and children's authors around and quite a few of his stories have been adapted into films, Ginga-tetsudo no Yoru [Night On the Galactic Railroad] probably being the most internationally recognized one.

Even though Ihatobu Genso, Kenjji no Haru is a biography at heart, Miyazawa (and the people around him) are pictured as cat/animal-like humans. It's a particularity that became one of Miyazawa's trademark elements and serves as a near-certain indication that you're reading or watching something that originated from Miyazawa's mind. Somewhat ironically though, the most famous cat-people anime (namely Ghibli's Neko no Ongaeshi) is the exception to this rule.

Don't be fooled by the film's biography classification. Ihatobu Genso, Kenjji no Haru does indeed walk through the life of Miyazawa, but ultimately Kawamori is way more interested in Miyazawa's outlook on life rather than recounting some cold, historical facts. The focus lies on Miyazawa's wandering mind, explored through visions and dream-like sequences. In between some factual data connect all the dots, but don't expect a historical study pre-occupied with listing all the important dates and events in Miyazawa's life, because this film simply doesn't care.

screen capture of Ihatobu Genso, Kenji no Haru

Visually there are two sides to the film. At times the animation and art style are lush, experimental and overwhelming, but Kawamori's overreliance on shoddy CG for certain scenes is somewhat of an eyesore. Now, there are mitigating circumstances. Ihatobu Genso, Kenji no Haru isn't a full-scale cinematic feature film, instead it was commissioned as a 1 hour TV special. That put some serious constraints on the scope and budget of the film and seeing it in that light, Kawamori's work is nothing less than impressive. On the other hand, a more discreet use of CG wouldn't have hurt the budget. Back in '96 it was passable, 20 years later not so much. That said, the film still has plenty to offer on a visual level, it's just not all that consistent.

The soundtrack is pretty cool, with classic European and classic Japanese music alternating between scenes. It may come off a little highbrow at times, but it does fit the poetic/experimental nature of the film and the music is used in such a way that it truly becomes an integral part of the film. Kawamori didn't just hack some famous music pieces underneath each scene, instead the music and visuals feed off each other. As for the dub, an infamous English dub is available for those who really can't get through 55 minutes of Japanese dialogue, but for a film so soaked in Japanese culture it's a little awkward, even when ignoring the actual quality of the dub. The Japanese dub is gentle and warm and to hear the poems in their original incarnation is a definite plus.

screen capture of Ihatobu Genso, Kenji no Haru

The start of Ihatobu Genso, Kenjji no Haru is a little rough, clinging too tightly to the standards set by other Miyazawa adaptations. But once things get a bit more poetic and freeform, the film flourishes and the closer it gets to its ending, the weirder it becomes. That's fine if you don't mind a slice of experimental cinema, but if you're hoping to see a more traditional biography then Kawamori's film could end up being a bit of a disappointment. I for one applaud Kawamori's bravery to try something different.

For a TV project, Ihatobu Genso, Kenjji no Haru is far better and way more experimental than it is allowed to be. The budgetary limitations are starting to weigh on the visual presentation, but look past the shady CG and there is still enough visual and atmospheric splendour to please the most cynical computer graphics hater. Kawamori presents a worthy and classy tribute to the genius of Miyazawa, a film that may not be your average biography, but is much better because of it.

Tue, 18 Apr 2017 10:05:01 +0000
<![CDATA[Michael Arias - Harmony/An Interview]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/michael-arias-interview-harmony

Michael Arias made a name for himself when he joined Studio 4°C to direct Tekkonkinkreet, one of the landmark animtion features of the 00s. Ignoring the 1 minute short he made for Ani*Kuri15, he returned to the world of anime in 2015 to co-direct Harmony with Takashi Nakamura. The film is an adaptation of a Project Itoh novel and marks a welcome return to a more conceptual and cerebral style of anime. I was lucky enough to ask Arias some questions about his latest film, here's what he had to say:

Michael Arias on Harmony

Niels Matthijs: My guess is you're probably tired of telling people what it's like to work as a foreigner in Japan, so instead let me ask you what it's like to work at Studio 4°C. Many Western fans are familiar with studios like Ghibli, Gainax or Production I.G, but Studio 4°C is a clear outlier. Does it also feel different working there?

Michael Arias: It’s ironic that I’ve become associated with the 4°C brand, despite having remained freelance all these years. But I’ve done a bit of work at other animation studios, and though each studio has its unique workflow and institutional knowledge, there’s a great deal of overlap as well. So, if audiences perceive a “house style”, I think that’s more likely due to the chemistry of the returning cast of artists that are employed by each studio, than a deliberate effort to create a consistent look and feel. As far as what makes 4°C unique, that’s tough to answer, but I will say that the period between 2000-2007 was a pretty great time to be at the studio (and it felt that way then too). The Animatrix, Mind Game and Tekkonkinkreet and many smaller projects were all happening and shared a great deal of creative DNA. Koji Morimoto was still at 4°C and was a very inspiring figure (well, he continues to inspire, but he’s no longer at 4°C). I wish I could say that the studio didn’t suffer when he left, but at least some of us missed his presence. His output may have been sparse, but his contribution on a spiritual and artistic level can’t be overstated. Hard to say, but the studio seemed quite different by the time I started Harmony. (Then again, I was very different too.)

You co-directed Harmony with Takashi Nakamura [Robot Carnival, A Tree of Palme], another Studio 4°C regular. How did you guys team up and how did you divide the work?

I’ve always been a great admirer of Nakamura’s work. Shinji Kimura introduced us and at our first meeting I actually had him sign a DVD of Tree of Palme, which I love. Harmony had a fairly tight schedule and limited budget to begin with and several months into preproduction, we were still lacking a finished script and character designs. So by the time Nakamura was invited to co-direct, we were quite behind schedule and didn’t really have the luxury of planning how to divide our tasks. It was kind of a shotgun marriage, to be honest. But I still think he’s a genius.

I must admit that I hadn't heard of Project Itoh before. I read up on him afterwards and it seems it's my mistake for missing out. Where you already familiar with his work or where you assigned to this film?

Before being approached by the Fuji Television folks producing the three Project Itoh anime films, I had spent a year trying to get a live-action adaptation of Harmony off the ground. So, yes, I was very familiar with Itoh.

At first I thought Itoh referred to Kazunori Itoh, not in the least because Kazunori Itoh is also known for his conceptually strong writing. Those very conceptually expansive stories have been missing from anime features for a while now, can we expect a revival or is this just a one-off?

I have no idea! The three adaptations of Itoh works are certainly all very conceptually expansive, as you say. I like this kind of material very much.

Sadly Mr Itoh passed away a couple of years ago. Was it difficult to adapt his work without having the author of the source material around. You did a similar thing with Tekkonkinkreet, but there you had the support of Taiyo Matsumoto.

Having Taiyo on my side when I was making Tekkonkinkreet was definitely great encouragement. And I had a million things I would have liked to discuss with Itoh, had he been with us. On the other hand, movies and novels are such different vehicles for ideas that, with any adaptation, you kind of have to be comfortable acknowledging that your movie is just one possible interpretation, and that you are diluting the original with your own DNA and hoping to synthesize something interesting from that combination. Obviously, you’re not overwriting anything in the source.

What surprised me the most is that the future in Harmony is some kind of utopia, where sci-fi typically deals with negative, destructive post-apocalyptic stories. Was it a challenge to bring a rather novel vision like that to the screen? 

The "brave new world” shown in Harmony is most definitely a satire of modern society. That’s something that attracted me to the material and that’s the kind of sci-fi I like. Look at Blade Runner: if that isn’t swiftian, I don’t know what is! But so much of what passes for sci-fi these days is just so dreary, watching is like a bad Ambien trip.

Harmony feels very dense. The world building is quite extensive and there's a lot of ground to cover. A novel gives a writer plenty of time to explore these things, but a film is more limited in scope. Did you have trouble cramming everything in?

Harmony the novel is pretty crammed—Alexander O. Smith did a wonderful English translation of it, by the way. So there was a certain amount of pruning some of Itoh’s digressions, and of trying to show the story rather than tell the story. That had the overall effect of emphasizing the search for Miach, and backgrounding some of the more esoteric sci-fi details (though I think we got plenty in there). That said, I don’t remember having trouble getting it all in, per se. I think the challenge was to tell this story in an interesting and visceral way, since some of the characters are quite, um, cerebral.

The entire film revolves around the tension between free choice and global peace. Even though the plot itself comes to a conclusion, I felt the film left the answer to this morale predicament wide open. Was this a conscious choice or did I miss some pointers somewhere?

No, you got it, and that’s the way the novel works as well. Itoh was very ill when he created Harmony. (I believe much of it was written from a hospital bed.) And I’ve wondered if perhaps that moral ambiguity is what happens when an atheist stares death in the face. Maybe he also wished at times that he could give himself over to the collective mind.

I've seen quite a few sci-fi films, but never one that looked so pink. I have to say it was a little jarring at first, on the other hand it lends the film a very unique flavor and it does fit the setting. How did you arrive at this particular aesthetic?

The pink city is a visual detail from the novel. And we thought it was a very nice way of embodying the idea that this society actually kills with kindness. Somehow it works on you in a different way than, say, Big Brother posters everywhere.

I heard you used a different approach for Tekkonkinkreet's soundtrack and I felt the difference was noticeable. It's not that Harmony's score is bad, but it does feel more like an afterthought. Was it a budgetary decision, a time restraint maybe? Or did you just want to try something else?

I was not involved in any of Harmony’s postproduction. Music, casting, dubbing, sound design were directed in large part by Nakamura and the film's producers, while I stayed focussed on completing the digital effects. Needless to say, it was a very different experience from Tekkonkinkreet (and all of my subsequent work with Plaid and Mitch Osias).

Mamoru Oshii is known to treat dialogue as part of the soundtrack. I agree with him, as the difference between a Japanese and English dub can make a big difference on the atmosphere of a film. Are you involved in that process and if so, for both dubs or just the original one?

I would have to agree with Oshii-san also. Tekkonkinkreet and Animatrix, yes, very involved.

With Harmony finished, what's next? Will it be another 6 years before we see a new Arias project?

I have a few things in the early stages. I certainly hope it won’t be that long.

Carte blanche, no budgetary limitations, no producers or investors wanting to make their money back ... What would be your ideal project?

Material I love, a producer I trust and a team of artists I pick.

If I can make a final suggestion: please team up with Mr. Morimoto once more. The work you did on the original Tekon demo was phenomenal and he really needs to make something longer than those frustratingly short anthology entries. Maybe extend Noiseman Sound Insect into a feature?

Perhaps though Morimoto-san is more of a sprinter than a marathon runner. But I do keep telling him that I’ll be there for him when he finally makes a feature film!

Tue, 11 Apr 2017 09:55:54 +0000
<![CDATA[Swiss Army Man/Dan Kwan & Daniel Scheinert]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/swiss-army-man-review-daniels

I recall there being quite a buzz surrounding the trailer for Swiss Army Man, but I'm not exactly big on trailers and so I never got around to watching it. Instead I just remembered the title and left it at that. In hindsight that was probably for the best, because the less you know about Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert's first feature film, the bigger the potential for a pleasant outcome. Swiss Army Man is a surprisingly original comedy, the kind that's severely lacking in American cinema.

screen capture of Swiss Army Man

There's certainly no lack of USA comedies, but most of them seem to fit some pre-defined niche. You have the Frat Pack films, there's Apatow's crew and Sandler's crew and if you zoom in on all their regulars and search their oeuvres for drama/comedies, you have a good overview of all the major dramadies. Add to that a plethora of derivative romcoms and just about every American CG animation ever made, and you have a pretty good overview of American comedy cinema.

What all these films lack is surprise. You see most jokes coming a mile off, simply because all these films adhere to their own, almost branded style of comedy. Hence things become predictable, which isn't exactly an asset for comedy. There are some notable exceptions (think Wes Anderson, Solondz or Kevin Smith), but nothing as weird or baffling as Hitoshi Matsumoto's Shinboru or Wisit Sasanatieng's Mah Nakorn. At least, not until now, because Swiss Army Man is quite something else.

a It's rather difficult to talk about the film without spoiling too much, because from the very get-go things are weird and it never really settles down. The film starts with Hank Thompson stuck on a desert island (pop reference 101), ready to hang himself. Right before he takes the plunge, a man washes up on the shore. Hank halts his suicide attempt to investigate his new visitor, but it turns out the man is already dead. Disappointed, Hank gets back to his suicide, only then the corpse reveals itself to be of some use and Hank manages to escape the island.

screen capture of Swiss Army Man

You may fear this kind of originality could come at a price, but the overall presentation is remarkably polished. Swiss Army Man is no Avengers of course, even so the visual effects are on point, even convincing (which isn't all that trivial considering the weirdness put on display). The camera work is nice, giving the film a rather colorful and playful vibe and there's a constant play with light that injects a little extra shine. It all adds up to a very agreeable visual experience.

The soundtrack was a bit more problematic for me. It appeared to aim for a weird balance of indie/hipster whine and parody, but I never fully understood where they were going with it. It follows the popular trend of slowing down and deconstructing pop songs and turning them into more singer/songwriter-like music (with a dash of M83/Boards of Canada to boot), but doing it with a song like Cotton-eyed Joe is awkward. It's possible they were just taking the piss (which would be in line with the rest of the comedy), but because I'm not too familiar with this genre of music it's a little difficult to tell.

As for the acting, nothing to complain there. Paul Dano is a certainty when appearing in films like these. At this point I'm not even sure if he's simply proficient at playing weird characters or if characters become weird when he plays them. The much bigger surprise was Daniel Redcliffe, who has been working hard to yank himself loose from his Harry Potter past. For me it was the first time he actually succeeded in his goal. He's just perfect as the corpse (which I know sounds a little weird, but I swear there's no sarcasm in that statement). There's also a very small supporting role for Mary Elizabeth Winstead, but it's so negligible it's hardly worth mentioning. In the end it's just Dano and Redcliffe doing all the hard work.

screen capture of Swiss Army Man

Swiss Army Man starts with a bang, but the film is also somewhat of a one-trick pony. At first I was kind of worried Kwan and Scheinert wouldn't be able to top that very first scene, but luckily that fear was unfounded. The film keeps throwing completely strange and awkward scenes at its audience and it remains fresh and unpredictable from start to finish. The comedy is also smart and witty through-out, with just enough drama to keep an interest in the characters.

It's clear this is a film people need to discover by themselves. Not everyone is going to appreciate the peculiar sense of humor on display here, but Kwam and Scheinert deliver a film that is witty, smart, well-made, pure and most of all unique. Films like these don't come around very often and even though it's probably not a guarantee for a future successful career, Swiss Army Man is a film that will be treasured by many for years to come. Do yourself a favor and watch this one, the worst that can happen is that you don't like it. But if you do, chances are you're gonna love this one to pieces.

Mon, 10 Apr 2017 09:36:01 +0000