Saturday, August 30, 2008

Yagira Yuya nearly emulates Heath Ledger

Details are still sketchy, but this morning 18-year-old actor Yagira Yuya was admitted to hospital after swallowing a bunch of pills and suffering an acute drug overdose in an apparent suicide attempt. Fortunately he seems to be OK and is conscious. News reports have been reading heavily into an entry in his official blog dated August 16th where he thanked fans for their loyalty despite his absence from the media since the release of the Tsutsumi Yukihiko-directed film "Bandage Club" last September, and explained that he's been in "poor health" for the past year.

Yagira is best known for winning the Best Actor award as a 14-year-old at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival for Kore-eda Hirokazu's "Nobody Knows," and for not being able to receive the trophy in person due to his school exams taking priority (poor bugger). He subsequently headlined such films as "Shining Boy and Little Randy" and "Sugar and Spice," and also lent his voice to the first "Genius Party" anime omnibus. Then there were the TV commercials he appeared in with his screen mum from "Nobody Knows," You, which feel a bit creepy in the context of that movie:

Monday, August 25, 2008

Django rides into NY and LA

Miike Takashi's "Sukiyaki Western Django" opens in New York on August 29th and L.A. on September 12th, so if you're in the area be sure to check it out. Whatever your opinion of Miike is, this is one film that should definitely be seen on the big screen to be fully appreciated.

Shame about the rather non-descript poster that marginalises Django himself (Ito Hideaki) and pushes villain Iseya Yusuke to the fore - and where's the love for fellow baddie Sato Koichi?

Here's an interview with Miike culled from the production notes, courtesy of Rachael Kitchen at Deep Focus:

Interviewer: You’re more of a “dragon generation” rather than a “macaroni western generation, aren’t you?

Miike Takashi: Yes. There weren’t many macaroni westerns in the theaters when I was growing up but they used to broadcast two to three of them every week on television… I can’t tell you how many times they aired One Silver Dollar. My mother used to tell me to go to bed, but I usually stayed up and watched them with my parents. My father loved macaroni westerns and he used to buy me toy guns and pistols. My grandfather was a hunter and used to shoot birds with rifles. So the macaroni western was certainly very familiar to me. But having worked in the movie industry for a long time, I never thought that I would be making something like this as a Japanese film.

I: Neither did we (laughs). How did it come about?

MT: Toshiaki Nakazawa, a producer at Sedic International, whom I had worked with on The Happiness of Katakuris, asked me if there was any project that I wanted to do. That’s when the words ‘How about a sukiyaki western?’ fell out of my mouth. It’s what they call talking through one’s hat, I guess. But it wasn’t totally groundless. When I was a kid, I used to imagine myself growing up to be a wandering gunman. I don’t remember the specific stories but I was impressed with such things as the cool posture of the gunman, the intensity right before the shoot-out, and the dramatic effect of the music that starts after someone falls to the ground. Those kinds of things were imprinted on my mind. And I thought that anything a child can create in his imagination, surely a movie can bring to life.

I think that any other producer would have just dismissed the idea with a laugh but Mr. Nakazawa didn’t. He said it was interesting and went along with the idea. Although he may have said “No” if I had suggested a Sushi Western (laughs).

I: Was it Masaru Nakamura who linked that idea with the Tales of Heike?

MT: As we watched and studied macaroni westerns, we realized that they were rooted in Japanese movies. And then we thought that the root of all Japanese movies is the Taira-Minamoto War. We started writing the script based on that concept. Masaru writes a very literary script, which I made into more of a screenplay by incorporating my ideas on how I would shoot on set.

I: And this time you had it translated to English ….

MT: When you have so many leading men and women as in this movie, it’s a tough job just to give them satisfying answers to all their questions. So, I raised the hurdle a notch so that they’d be too busy to come up with any questions. I thought I could go ahead and quickly shoot the movie while they were struggling with their English (laughs).

But their English is not an imitation of native speakers. Their accent is unique to the Japanese people. It would be interesting if English-language speakers think their Japanese English is cool and start imitating them, then I think we might change something! Japanese actors would be able to expand the scope of their careers. And for Japanese movies, surprising possibilities might result.

I: Unexpected dividends, so to speak… Italy’s macaroni westerns and Hong Kong films were something of that sort, to start with, weren’t they? Did making Masters of Horror: Imprint in English lead you to this film?

MT: Yes, it did. If I hadn’t made Imprint, I don’t think I would have come up with this idea of a sukiyaki western. Maybe not even the idea of making a western at all. Even if I had thought about it, I wouldn’t have been able to pitch it to the producer. The fact that an American producer had said “Yes” to “Imprint” encouraged me.... Although I don’t personally understand English, it was a big thing for me to know that I have people like Nadia Venesse, the dialogue coach from Hollywood and (Masahito) Tanno the assistant director who speaks it, to make up for my inadequacy. Having Toyomichi Kurita, who has worked extensively in Hollywood, also helped a great deal. My directions were the same as usual but when I looked at the result, I was amazed. It looked totally different from any of my films. That is a wonderful thing. You can change by collaborating with other people. That’s what makes filmmaking fun.

I: I certainly felt the change. This film definitely has the same Miike vision but the quality of “blood” has changed, if you will. As a sukiyaki western, while keeping in mind the violence that is associated with director Takashi Miike (laughs), the blood ties from parent to child seem to have become thicker, which relates to you watching macaroni westerns with your father and to playing with your toy guns.

MT: (Laughs) If possible, I want to make this into a trilogy with “Sukiyaki Amazons” and “Sukiyaki Emmanuelle.” I think it would be pretty cool. Quentin said he will invest in it if I would cast him as a sex slave who’s beaten up by Chiaki Kuriyama (laughs again).

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Aoyama Shinji's French short film

Another familiar face participating in an overseas omnibus project is Aoyama Shinji, whose 35-minute short film "Le Petit Chaperon Rouge" screened at the 61st Film Festival Locarno earlier this month. Paris creative centre Théâtre2Gennevilliers and "Demonlover" director Olivier Assayas commissioned Aoyama and two other filmmakers to make short films in the town of Gennevilliers, apparently using local actors and crew.

Delphine is 20. She is too young to have experienced the anarchist activism of the 70s, but for her it is not over. She decides to find something that will enable her to take action, and that, she says, will be to her credit. Directed by Shinji Aoyama, this short film interrogates the connection of political ideas between two eras.

Incidentally, does anyone out there know why Aoyama's 2006 film "Crickets" (Korogi) hasn't been released yet in Japan despite screening at festivals in Tokyo, Venice and elsewhere? Mark Schilling described it as "brilliantly loopy", and with Suzuki Kyoka, Yamazaki Tsutomu, Ando Masanobu and Ito Ayumi in the cast you'd presume it would warrant at least a late show run or even go straight to DVD, but for some reason it's disappeared without a trace...

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Iwai Shunji and Brett Ratner: the new Chan and Tucker?

Shimizu Takashi, Nakata Hideo, Tsuruta Norio, Kitamura Ryuichi... and now Iwai Shunji?! Although he's hardly the kind of filmmaker you'd expect to see directing an American film one day, that's exactly what he's done with an instalment of the omnibus production "New York, I Love You", which will screen as a work in progress in the Toronto International Film Festival's Special Presentations category. Iwai has been popping up in snapshots on U.S.-based producer Ichise Taka's blog for a wee while now, so now we know what he's been doing stateside. Not much is known about the content of Iwai's contribution except that Orlando Bloom and Christina Ricci will star (no idea if any Japanese actors appear). Apart from his 2006 Ichikawa Kon documentary and various screenplay credits under the nom-de-plume "Amino-san", this will be his first dramatic work since "Hana and Alice" back in 2004.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Yoshino Kimika extends her range

Tokyograph inevitably got there first, but I thought I'd add a little more context to the news that actress Yoshino Kimika is going hardcore. Although it's not uncommon for former gravure and teen idols to resort to porn to prolong their lifespan in showbiz (and pay off debts accrued during their bid for stardom), until now the furthest that most recognised actresses facing career downturns due to age or indifference have been willing to go is a nude photo/video shoot, or the scorched-earth approach of a tell-all book.

In that sense, Yoshino has become somewhat of a pioneer as the highest profile Japanese actress ever to go porno. Although far from a household name, she has nonetheless built up a solid filmography that includes the first two "Eko Eko Azarak" movies, Nagasaki Shunichi's authentic karate actioner "Kuro-Obi", and numerous straight-to-video titles. But she's probably best known to readers of this blog as the yakuza moll who gives birth to Aikawa Sho in Miike Takashi's "Gozu", or as the unfortunate bystander that Tsutsumi Shinichi accidentally stabs on his way out of a bank heist in Sabu's "Unlucky Monkey".

Just as gravure idols endeavour to avoid a future in skin flicks by parlaying their physical attributes into acting or celebrity careers, many women who go into porn here harbor dreams of breaking into television and film by following the examples of the few who have made the jump, especially the resilient and now retired TV celebrity Iijima Ai. Among recent converts are Takagi Maria, who was quickly devoured by the dead in Sato Sakichi's "Tokyo Zombie" and now finds regular gigs in television serials; Ozawa Maria, who Jason Gray reports has been cast in "Taiwan's first-ever slasher horror"; and "The Machine Girl"'s Asami and Honoka, the latter of whom has snagged a role alongside Danny Glover in U.S.-Japan co-production "The Harimaya Bridge".

Now that Yoshino and celebrity-seducing specialist AV label Muteki have penetrated the flesh ceiling, will we see more faded thesps tempted by hefty porn pay-days?

Monday, August 11, 2008

Thoughts on "The Sky Crawlers"

If "The Sky Crawlers" is really Oshii Mamoru's stab at making something more accessible and commercial than the challengingly dense and philosophical films we've come to expect from him, then he really needs to get out more. For better and for worse, with an emphasis on the latter, it doesn't stray far from his comfort zone at all.

Europe is at war as corporations vie for territorial dominance in aerial battles, employing eternally young fighter pilots called Killdore to engage the opposition while the detached and unaffected general populace keeps score via television. A new recruit named Kannami immediately impresses his teammates with his deadly proficiency but grows increasingly distracted in seeking the truth about the fate of his predecessor, which has something to do with his aloof commander and former ace pilot Kusanagi.

Instead of delivering yet another anti-war message, Oshii unashamedly depicts the mechanical carnage with his typically meticulous attention to detail and to great aeshetic result, while the considerably less engaging characters struggle with the more personal (or perhaps self-absorbed) dilemmas of their own im/mortality and the meaning of life. It's this gap between the exhilarating technical mastery displayed in the all-too-brief battle scenes and the cold, gravely serious interaction on the ground comprising the bulk of the film's running time that lets it down the most. The photorealistic CG dogfights are visually breathtaking, but it's the equally detailed audio design by Skywalker Sound that truly puts you in the thick of the action. Screaming engines and stuttering cannons rip through the air, then the scene switches to within the cockpit and we experience the pilots' respirator-assisted breathing and the muffled explosions outside the canopy. Even after the camera returns to earth, every rustle of the uniforms and creak of the furniture is imbued with life. Some fine performances by Kase Ryo as Kannami, Tanihara Shosuke as fellow pilot Tokino and especially Kikuchi Rinko as Kusanagi help breathe some much-needed humanity into their less than vibrant animated surrogates, but unfortunately the script largely confines them (and consequently the audience) to an interminable sequence of gloomy conversations and underwhelming revelations. Then there's the gratituitous chain smoking, ostensibly used as a motif for the Killdore's disillusionment with their immortality but might just as well be to give the doll-eyed stony faces something to do as they gaze blankly into space. Somewhat fittingly, due to the protagonists being perpetual teenagers, it makes the film look all the more 'emo'.

Oshii been quoted as saying he'll quit directing if this doesn't succeed at the box office, but after opening in 7th well below the chart-topping trio of Ponyo, Pokemon and Naruto, he could have done worse.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Spoiler: she dies

The concept of a terminal disease tearjerker starring Eikura Nana and Eita sounds tailor-made for the small screen rather than a theatrical feature, but will Hiroki Ryuichi's directing talents be enough to prevent it from becoming just another hankie wetter? "Yomei Ikkagetsu no Hanayome" (bride with one month left to live) takes its story from a TV documentary broadcast on TBS last year that followed Nagashima Chie, a young woman battling with breast cancer (pictured above with her husband Akasu Taro). Filming begins in October with a view to a release in May next year around the third anniversary of Chie's death.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Kanna cast for "20th Century Boys"

"20th Century Boys" now has its Kanna: Taira Airi, a 23-year-old former idol who had two previous cracks at stardom without leaving much of an impression (pics here). As the niece of the story's main protagonist Kenji (played by Karasawa Toshiaki), the character is introduced as an infant in the first film and later takes on a pivotal role as a teenager in the second and third instalments in the trilogy. At the very least, Taira is close enough of a match to creator Urasawa Naoki's original design.

I finished reading the manga a month or so ago, and it's an engrossing but bloated read with an intriguing plot that ultimately leaves a lot of questions unanswered, in much the same style as U.S. TV series "Lost". Tsutsumi Yukihiko, a director known more for flashy visual gimmicks than convincing dramaturgy, and the screenwriting team that includes two TV specialists as well as Urasawa himself and his collaborator Nagasaki Takashi, are suspect choices for making sense of the sprawling narrative and convoluted 50-year timeline that constantly jumps back and forth, not to mention keeping track of its huge ensemble of characters. The casting of comedians familiar from the boob tube in the numerous bit parts (and also gourmand funnyman Ishizuka Hidehiko in the major role of Maruo) raises further doubts about the filmmakers' priorities, but despite some other dubious choices (such as Karasawa being a bit too good-looking to play Kenji and Yusuke Santamaria clearly miscast as the pitiful Sadakiyo), there are also plenty of perfect matches including Toyokawa Etsushi as tough guy Occho and Kagawa Teruyuki as reluctant resistance leader Yoshitsune. This is an all-star cast comparable to that of a Mitani Koki extravaganza, so box office expectations will be through the roof. Just don't be surprised if the potential of the source material is squandered by the familiar TV-influenced school of thought that manga adaptations have to be turgid, hysterical gurn-fests.