Movie Talk: Night on the Galactic Railroad (1985)

I discovered Kenji Miyazawa’s novella Night on the Galactic Railroad just a couple of years ago, following the release of Shunji Iwai’s film A Bride for Rip Van Winkle. In the film, the protagonists’ internet handle is Campanella, after one of the central characters in Miyazawa’s work. This is a curious choice. Nanami, the character who uses the name online, comments that she is simply a fan of Miyazawa, but her handle seems to foreshadow her relationship with another character named Mashiro. Nanami and Mashiro’s relationship does bare some similarity to that of Giovanni and Campanella in Night on the Galactic Railroad, but ultimately Mashiro assumes Campanella’s semblance over Nanami. Looking at these characters in this parallel sort of way reveals another layer to Shunji Iwai’s film. I have always respected Iwai as a writer and I love that he references other art frequently in his work.

Night on the Galactic Railroad is perhaps Miyazawa’s most well known work, but was not actually published until a year after his death. It tells the tale of two young boys named Giovanni and Campanella, who find themselves aboard a train travelling through the cosmos. It’s major themes are death, happiness, and self-sacrifice. I have seen some other commentators describe Miyazawa’s philosophy as being naive, but I don’t believe another person’s sentiment can necessarily be defined in any unambiguous way. I’ve also read the author’s short work The Nighthawk Star and Signal and Signal-less and personally feel they are very profound in many respects, but it is Night on the Galactic Railroad that has stuck with me.

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Passages from the book are on my mind quite frequently and I have written previously about my favourite quotations. Given my adoration for this novella, I thought it was time I finally watched the 1985 anime adaptation. Now I’ve seen it, it is perhaps one of my most favourite book-to-film adaptations there have ever been. It’s a very respectful rendition, and contains all the poignancy and wonder of the book.

The source material is enriched by the haunting soundtrack, and despite the limited animation, there are some striking visuals. The main sequence with the Bird Catcher is a fine example of this. The plot occurs in segments, and unravels in a very steady and organic pace. It’s often ponderous and unhurried, but the segments are neither too brief nor too extensive, and neither are they unwarranted. Miyazawa’s sentiment and the themes of the original story have been handled and presented very tactfully.

There are many reflective passages in the book, which would have worked well as dialogue, but Giovanni’s monologue has been stripped down, with much emotion and sentiment expressed visually. I especially loved Giovanni’s fixed gaze as Campanella talks to the girl. In the book, Giovanni is very jealous, but here he comes across as solemn and melancholic.

I do think the book is more philosophical in areas (some of Miyazawa’s character’s are quite outspoken and inquisitive when they discuss topics such as happiness and pain) and it does present a greater sense of loss and sorrow in certain segments, but I appreciate the film’s more subdued and meditative approach all the same. It respects the audiences’ intelligence and rewards observation and thought.

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The scenes on the Galactic Railroad are of course most central, but I adored the first act and found almost all of the film mesmeric and enrapturing. Small little sequences, such as Giovanni spotting his classmates playing in the distance, but walking off broodily in the opposite direction, aren’t always the most prominent or memorable in written form, but here every scene seemed to have weight or an essence to it.

The plot is centered mostly around child characters, but its profundity is surely felt by audiences by and large. One of the biggest changes from the book to the film was to make almost all of the characters anthropomorphic cats. It seems a rather puzzling decision when you read it out like that, but somehow it feels so befitting of the story. Bizarrely, anthropomorphic cats have never appeared so human and so profound.

There are some tremendous ruminations in this film; it is beautiful and bittersweet; at once heartfelt and heartbreaking. Miyazawa’s words have transferred so brilliantly to the screen, and ultimately not only is this a fantastic adaptation, but also a fantastic companion piece to the original work.

Top 10 Japanese Movies

Greetings, perusers. I’m taking a short break from Watched This Month as I have been quite preoccupied recently, but wanted to take this leisurely day to instead write about some of my favourite Japanese films. If you know me — which you probably don’t — then you’ll know I adore Japanese cinema, which has a fascinating history and a catalogue so very diverse, poignant, compelling and inspiring. Akira Kurosawa alone has inspired numerous contemporary directors, and has largely influenced films from A Bug’s Life to Star Wars. There’s much to be learned from Japanese cinema — thus here are ten films I would absolutely recommend.

Before you grab that battleaxe, I must stress this list is composed entirely in my opinion, and has been compiled with the aim of featuring ten truly dissimilar movies, thus I have chosen not to include multiple films from the same director. Similarly, this list includes just a handful of my most loved movies, and on a different day the order or inclusion of such titles may well differ — so please take this list as ten great movies, rather than a definitive rundown of ‘the best.’ I may well do an expanded list in the future.


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#10. The Man Who Stole the Sun (Kazuhiko Hasegawa, 1979)

Among the hundreds of Japanese movies I have seen, The Man Who Stole the Sun is a real stand-out in terms of its satire, tone and plot. It was penned by Leonard Schrader, an American screenwriter who fled to Japan to avoid conscription. Schrader taught American literature, but subsequently became involved with the Yakuza, with his experiences leading to his foray into filmmaking.

The Man Who Stole the Sun was his fourth feature as a writer and is a very radical piece. It follows science teacher Makoto Kido (played by Kenji Sawada), who decides to build his very own atomic bomb, with which he holds the country to ransom. What ensues is a cat and mouse game between Kido and police detective Yamashita (played by Bunta Sugawara), which culminates in an exhilarating thirty minute showdown, with car chases and set pieces more akin to a Western movie than something from Japan.

It has a steady pace, with characters brilliantly juxtaposed, and cinematography that ranges from experimental to skillful. It’s a real marvel in Japan’s cinematic catalogue and has even been looked to for inspiration by Hideaki Anno.


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#09. The Bird People in China (Takashi Miike, 1998)

Takashi Miike is best known for his outlandish and violent cinema, but is the architect behind over one hundred different movies, some of which completely contradict his reputation as a gratuitous filmmaker. Enter the poetic and wonderful The Bird People in China — a film concerned with ecology, and the mysticism and sacrality of nature.

The film follows a Japanese businessman who is sent to assess valuable minerals in a remote area of China. Along the way, he is accompanied by a member of the Yakuza, who becomes warped by the other-worldly beauty of the distant Chinese province.

Sporting alluring visuals and themes that are still relevant today, it’s a meditative, illuminating and well balanced commentary on technology versus nature, and very poetic and symbolic in its delivery.


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#08. Confessions (Tetsuya Nakashima, 2010)

Confessions is in stark contrast to Tetsuya Nakashima’s preceding feature, Memories of Matsuko — swapping colour and quirks for a bleak palette and feelings of desolation. Confessions opens with high school teacher Yuko Moriguchi announcing her resignation due to the recent death of her daughter, which she attributes to two of her students. She ousts the children, but as they are protected by Juvenile Law, she concocts a twisted plan of revenge.

It’s a stylish and fluently plotted film, which maneuvers between multiple threads with the utmost finesse. The film doesn’t sport a score, with Nakashima instead choosing to compile a soundtrack of previously recorded songs, which includes pieces from Boris, Curly Giraffe and Radiohead, to name a few. These tracks compliment the visuals terrifically, creating a film bursting with artistry and panache.

It’s a movie with both style and substance, that features a comprehensive and wholly satisfying tale of desperation and revenge. The conflict is well paced and competently plotted, with an ending that is both stupendously exciting and terrifically haunting.


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#07. Adrift in Tokyo (Satoshi Miki, 2007)

Adrift in Tokyo is a completely endearing and wholesome piece of cinema. Joe Odagiri plays a loafer named Fumiya, who is in heavy debt. One day he receives a visit from a loan shark named Fukuhara (played by Tomokazu Miura), who makes Fumiya a proposition: If Fumiya accompanies him across Tokyo to a police station, where he intends on turning himself in for an unspecified crime, then Fukuhara will cancel his debt. Fumiya accepts the proposal and thus begins their journey across Japan’s illustrious capital.

The plot is — quite literally — wandering, but at the same time it never loses focus. Fumiya and Fukuhara traverse landscapes, encountering fresh personalities at every turn. With each chance meeting, they learn more about one another and develop a peculiar relationship that is at times jocular, and at others very precious and sentimental. Not only does it display the eccentricities and fascinating characters all around us, but it’s one hell of an advertisement for Tokyo, which is shown in all its beauty. The Japanese capital really is a treasure trove of flourishing neighbourhoods — the film will leave you lusting for your own wayfaring adventure.


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#06. Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954)

Akira Kurosawa is widely regarded for his samurai movies (interestingly, he is himself a descendant of samurai), but the director didn’t feature the popular swordsmen until his 14th picture, which almost needs no introduction.

Seven Samurai is a three and a half hour epic in which a band of ronin are recruited to help defend a small farming village from bandits. The film’s most memorable moments arrive during the fierce, rain-soaked climax, which was — as is usual with Kurosawa — an incredibly gritty shoot to ensure authenticity. Kurosawa refused to use a studio and instead had enormous sets constructed on location, which were stupendously destroyed in the climatic action.

The director ultimately regarded his 1985 film Ran as his finest work, but Seven Samurai has gone down in the history as a defining picture, with stunning technical innovations. It’s a tour de force in filmmaking and storytelling, and one of the most epic, enthralling and impressive of the 20th Century.


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#05. Millennium Actress (Satoshi Kon, 2001)

Satoshi Kon’s second feature is an indelible portrait of Japanese history, a genre extravaganza, an excursion into the art of filmmaking, and a meditative exploration of life and love — undoubtedly my favourite animated picture.

The film — penned by Kon in collaboration with Sadayuki Murai — follows a small documentary film crew, who are on their way to visit an enigmatic actress who withdrew from performing to live a life of seclusion, reminiscent of real-life actress Setsuko Hara. After convincing her to relay her story, Millennium Actress takes audiences on a wondrous voyage across centuries, as the actress’ life is explored through her body of work, with Kon employing his trademark blend of reality and make-believe.

Don’t be lulled by its surface simplicity — Millennium Actress is a sinuous and brooding journey across time, with a narrative that unravels in remarkable ways. Kon was a true master of the medium; a director well attuned with the scope of animation, who would utulise fresh techniques with each production. Millennium Actress employs a unique use of montage and transitions to meld narratives, producing an extraordinary visual flair. Couple this with Susumu Hirasawa’s hypnotising score and you have something quite special.


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#04. Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2008)

Kiyoshi Kurosawa is perhaps best known for his horror movies, but I find his 2008 film Tokyo Sonata to be the most poignant and memorable in his filmography. The film examines social constructs and the family dynamic in a modern Japanese setting, as the patriarchal figure looses his job and sole income. He tries to keep his misfortune a secret from his family, but things begin to implode nevertheless, as each member undergoes an introspective journey as they struggle to maintain stability.

It’s a masterfully shot film that is both distinctly Japanese and very universal, with the director exploring crisis within both the family unit and the economy. Kurosawa builds an eccentric tone by forcing his typical family into extraordinary situations, ultimately presenting a darkly comical sequence of events, but nonetheless he doesn’t shy away from heartache and melodrama — there are a number of doleful scenes that are tremendously affecting. It’s a spellbinding feature with many threads and layers, which includes one of the most wistful and lingering endings ever put to film.


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#03. 0.5mm (Momoko Ando, 2014)

Sakura Ando stars as a beguiling enigma in her sister’s sophomore feature (and a feature it is at three and a half hours long). The film is an odyssey of sorts, charting the journey of central character Sawa, who finds herself penniless and alone after losing her job. She reveals a deceptive side when she begins to take advantage of the elderly, blackmailing and forcing herself upon a number of men throughout the runtime in order to obtain money and board, but her cunning machinations turn bittersweet and poignant, as the men begin to reveal their inner pain. Sawa becomes a sort of mischievous angel who unlocks people’s suffering and steers them towards a path of alleviation.

It has that expert blend of wry humour and tender, heart-rending drama the Japanese seem so proficient at, with many powerful and rousing scenes that are skillfully and subtlety employed. It’s transfixing through and through, with Sakura Ando the driving force. We learn little about her Sawa character, but she is endlessly compelling — an inscrutable figure you can’t quite keep your eyes off. It’s twice as long as an ordinary film, but could divide nicely into a series of shorts. It never repeats itself; every section of Sawa’s journey is extraordinary and distinctively alluring. I couldn’t bare to see it end.


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#02. Kikujiro (Takeshi Kitano, 1999)

Mischievous layabout Kikujiro forms an unlikely bond with young Masao, who is on a journey across Japan to locate his mother. What ensues is a road trip of hijinks and escapades, with a seamless blend of slapstick comedy and stirring drama. Kikujiro is Kitano’s eighth film as a director, following perhaps his most renowned work (Hana-bi) and preceding one of his most ignored (Brother).

The ‘road trip’ concept isn’t something explored often in Japanese cinema (I can think of Suicide Bus and Sake-Bomb off the top of my head), but Kitano uses it as a means to explore alienation in a variety of segments. As Kikujiro and Masao travel Japan, they encounter a number of characters who not only assist them on their journey, but also on an emotional and subconscious level. Some of these scenes are very subtle and poetic, aided tremendously by Joe Hisaishi’s sublime score.

Kitano’s deadpan, manzai-inspired humour weaves many endearing moments into the films lasting sentiment, adding a bizarre atmosphere to the pensive vignettes that fill the runtime. Kikujiro is one of Kitano’s most family friendly movies, but is at the same time one of his most poignant and affecting.


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#01. All About Lily Chou-Chou (Shunji Iwai, 2001)

No movie before or since has affected me in ways All About Lily Chou-Chou has — finding it was like unlocking a chest full of elegies from a long lost friend. It’s an enlightening and wholly mesmeric picture, that reveals new layers on every watch.

The film depicts the transformative journey of a group of high school students, some of whom become enamored with a mystical singer named Lily Chou-Chou. In many ways, All About Lily Chou-Chou was ahead of it’s time, and Iwai couldn’t have been more exact in his depiction of netizens, whose ease of connectivity can sometimes foster isolation. He portrays adolescence as a defining period in which some youths lose themselves; as they struggle to find compassion and familiarity in their peers, they turn to the internet and become absorbed with pop culture, which offers them a sort of exclusive comfort.

All About Lily Chou-Chou sports Iwai’s bewitching and hazy tone, and — in addition to the principal score, which includes some enchanting compositions — features a fully arranged album from the titular singer, which offers the enigmatic figure a very real and haunting presence, that almost goes beyond fiction.

Shunji Iwai focuses often on youthful characters who feel misunderstood and forlorn — I am continually impressed by his grasp of adolescence, and the clarity of his vision, and the organic sentiment his work so impeccably exudes. His films are enlightening in the most unobtrusive and delicate of ways; portraying pain and confusion with touches of warmth and repose.

Further to Iwai’s alluring writing and imagery, he seems to share a terrific rapport with the other talent in his work. Japanese Academy winner Yu Aoi debuted in All About Lily Chou-Chou, and Tadanobu Asano and Takako Matsu also established themselves in Shunji Iwai films. He comes across to me as a decided maestro of the art, and is the designer of some truly original, soul-stirring movies. All of his features, and even his short work, are bursting with individual merit, but — to me — All About Lily Chou-Chou is his masterpiece and is, in it’s most basic form, a remarkable voyage concerning loneliness, escapism, and what it is like to grow up during the onset of the 21st Century.

Watched This Month: January 2017

Annyeonghaseyo! Welcome to the first Watched This Month of 2017. Apologies for being a week or so behind. You know my punctuality isn’t too great, but I watched more movies than there are days in January, so there was a lot to cover. I tried to cut down on the word count to avoid an unsightly fortress of text, but still ended up waffling on somewhat. Anyway, let us not delay!

Previous: December 2016

Film Rating
0.5mm (Dir. Momoko Ando)

An anthology of anguish and loneliness — broken people, striving and enduring through the unspoken agony of life. Sakura Ando’s character (Sawa) lives an unfocused existence, forcing herself into the lives of elderly men and blackmailing them into allowing her to stay. But with each encounter, she unlocks their suffering and sets them on a path, not so much of recovery, but of alleviation.

It has that expert blend of wry humour and tender, heart-rending drama the Japanese seem so proficient at, with many powerful and rousing scenes that are skillfully and subtlety employed. It’s transfixing through and through, but Sakura Ando is the driving force — playing an enigma that is captivating beyond measure. The film is almost three and a half hours long, but I didn’t want it to end. I want to follow Sawa’s life forever.

★★★★★
100 Yen Love (Dir. Masaharu Take)

100 Yen Love is a bit uneven, but oftentimes it weaves between comedy and drama with wonderful panache and is enormous amounts of fun. Like in 0.5mm, Sakura Ando is the driving force as a layabout with no direction in life, until she’s forced to move out of her parents’ house. She learns to take care of herself and takes up boxing after watching a friend’s bout.

It’s a splendid coming of age drama that is as hard-hitting and soul-stirring as it is funny. I adored it come the end and find myself all the more enamored with Sakura Ando. She had a hell of a year in 2014.

★★★★☆
2/ Duo (Dir. Nobuhiro Suwa)

A quiet film about the struggles and collapse of a relationship. The characters feel very organic and raw, with the director introducing faux documentary elements that add a keen sense of authenticity. I’m on the fence over the ending, but it’s nonetheless a very poignant and finely constructed piece.

★★★☆☆
A Girl at My Door (Dir. July Jung)

Bae Doona stars as a police officer who is transferred from Seoul to a quiet seaside town due to a personal scandal. She meets a timid 14 year old girl who is abused by her father, but the local police are reluctant to step in as the father is the backbone of the towns oyster farming business. As the newly appointed substation chief, Doona tries to set things right but is caught off-guard when her past begins to catch up with her.

The film was reportedly difficult to finance due to its (relatively tame) portrayal of a lesbian romance, with both Bae Doona and young actress Kim Sae-ron apparently working for free.

It’s a strong feature-length debut for director July Jung. Some scenes were a little far-fetched and the incompetence of much of the cast does wear thin, but as it progresses it peels off some interesting layers and presents some astonishing twists, with both Doona and Sae-ron giving superb performances.

★★★☆☆
A Kind of Murder (Dir. Andy Goddard)

A beautifully shot domestic drama turned classic noir about a man in a failing marriage who begins to wish his wife was dead. The cinematography is stunning, but for a thriller it wasn’t so thrilling and the mystery elements weren’t at all curious. The detective character also came across as very shallow and irritating.

★★☆☆☆
Argo (Dir. Ben Affleck)

A well acted and competently plotted movie from Ben Affleck, but somehow I didn’t find it as absorbing as it ought to be. My main gripe is with the ending, which felt largely synthetic and overly dramatised — but it is a movie, after all. It’s by no means bad and fulfills its duty as a historical picture, paying tribute and telling the story of those involved in the Iran hostage crisis.

★★★☆☆
Arrival (Dir. Denis Villeneuve)

Perhaps I need to give it another chance, but I thought I would enjoy Arrival a lot more than I did. On first viewing, I loved the aesthetics and tone of the piece, but didn’t fully get behind the third act and am struggling to comprehend how learning a language unlocks the fourth dimension. Maybe I will benefit from another viewing, but my first impression is that the premise is a little flimsy.

★★★☆☆
Collide (Dir. Eran Creevy)

An action movie with Anthony Hopkins, Ben Kingsley, Nicholas Hoult and a fabulously blonde Felicity Jones. The plot is very run-of-the-mill, but the characters and action set pieces were thoroughly enjoyable. It wasn’t particularly memorable, but didn’t feel like a waste of time, either. The accents were a bit jarring.

★★☆☆☆
Easy A (Dir. Will Gluck)

A satisfactory if insubstantial movie. It’s well-executed, but run-of-the-mill — carried mostly by Emma Stone. The characters are very archetypal and some of the dialogue is a little woeful, but there are a few laughs and it has a certain charm to it.

★★★☆☆
Hacksaw Ridge (Dir. Mel Gibson)

A biographical picture about Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector who refused to carry a weapon as a combat medic during World War II. While he also served in Guam and the Philippines, Hacksaw Ridge focuses mostly on his Fort Jackson training and the Battle of Okinawa, in which he saved the lives of 75 wounded soldiers.

It’s a magnificent film that displays very vividly the astounding bravery, faith and courage amongst the harrows of war. Initially, I thought it ended too soon, but the inclusion of actual footage of Desmond Doss gave it a very bittersweet and touching end. I would have loved for Andrew Garfield to be nominated for Silence over Hacksaw Ridge, but he nevertheless gave a remarkable performance.

★★★★☆
Han Gong-ju (Dir. Lee Su-Jin)

A haunting film carried impeccably by Chun Woo-hee. The eponymous character is forced to transfer schools after a vague incident occurs. As the film progresses, Han Gong-ju’s present day life is intersected with her past, revealing the reasons behind her situation and why she comes across as a very timid and despondent young girl.

I won’t go into details as the entire film hinges on what occurred in Han Gong-ju’s past and it’s all the more stirring without any prior knowledge of the plot (which is based on a true story).

★★★★☆
Happy End (Dir. Jung Ji-woo)

A drama from South Korea that was apparently quite notorious when it released in 1999 due to its explicit content. It follows a wife who engages in adultery after becoming the sole provider for her jobless husband and young child. The two leads deliver very convincing performances and the ending is terrifically rousing and bittersweet.

★★★☆☆
Hell or High Water (Dir. David Mackenzie)

I read somewhere once that the western genre never died, it just developed into modern action cinema. Hell or High Water is something of a fabulous blend of classic and contemporary, following two brothers who resort to bank robbery in order to save their ranch, which is in debt due to a reverse mortgage. The action scenes were incredibly tense and the dialogue between Gil Birmingham and Jeff Bridges’ Texas Ranger characters was terrific.

★★★★☆
Key of Life (Dir. Kenji Uchida)

Key of Life is a classic mistaken identity comedy. Sakurai is a hapless young actor who can’t seem to get anywhere in life. After slipping out of his home-made noose, he visits a communal bath house to dissipate his sweat. There, he inadvertently trips another patron named Kondo, who ends up knocking his head and being sent to hospital.

Sakurai happens to pick up Kondo’s locker key and decides to have a root around. Initially, he uses Kondo’s car and money to drive around paying off all the debts he owes, but when he discovers Kondo has amnesia, he decides to take up his identity full-time. However, it turns out Kondo is a seasoned hitman. Meanwhile, the actual Kondo unknowingly assumes Sakurai’s identity.

Key of Life is one of the funniest movies I have seen in a long while. It’s superbly paced and tells a very complete and wholly joyous story that’s neither unfulfilled nor overindulged. It’s outlandish and frequently amusing, but also has some tender moments. The characters are wonderfully quirky and hilarious in their own distinct ways. A really tremendous film — I don’t often describe comedies as memorable, but I won’t forget about Key of Life.

★★★★☆
La La Land (Dir. Damien Chazelle)

Looking at all of the reviews and accolades, I feel as though I’m missing something, but I thought La La Land was quite bland. Yes, it’s showy and colourful and fluid, but it felt soulless to me — a pale imitation of the musicals it pays homage to.

I love Ryan Gosling and I love Emma Stone, but I didn’t care one bit about their characters. It’s full with wonderfully attentive set decoration and gorgeous cinematography, but the musical numbers themselves felt very uninspired and insipid, with lyrics that seemed to emphasize rather than add anything interesting or new — there’s no subtlety. I think it would have been a stronger film without the musical interludes.

★★★☆☆
Linda Linda Linda (Dir. Nobuhiro Yamashita)

A charming movie about four high-school girls in Japan who form a band for their schools cultural festival. It’s as endearing as they come, with the four main characters each bringing something distinct and enjoyable. Though, for me, Bae Doona was the stand-out as a timid Korean transfer student who becomes the bands vocalist.

Though light-hearted and fun, it’s also surprisingly bittersweet and moving, with a lot of nuances in the characters. The Japanese have absolutely perfected this sub-set of high-school dramas. Linda Linda Linda would form a wonderful trilogy with Swing Girls and Hula Girls.

★★★★☆
Manchester by the Sea (Dir. Kenneth Lonergan)

A powerful portrayal of sorrow with a very stirring performance from Casey Affleck, who portrays a person whose life has stalled. In a seemingly lulled state of existence, he’s haunted by the past and is unable to look towards the future. His despondency is so vivid and moving and the slow reveal to precisely why he is this way is incredibly well executed. Michelle Williams also brings such passion to her small role — her pivotal scene is heartbreaking.

★★★★☆
Men in Black 3 (Dir. Barry Sonnenfeld)

I’ve seen Men in Black 3 before, but saw that it was on TV one lonely evening and decided to give it another viewing. While not particularly exceptional, the plot comes together well and provides the series a very satisfactory and complete ending. It’s a fun watch and everything you would expect from a Men in Black movie. It may actually be my favourite of the trilogy.

★★★☆☆
Monsters University (Dir. Dan Scanlon)

Another film I’ve seen before. Monsters, Inc. is one of my all-time favourite Pixar movies, so it was wonderful to be back in the universe and company of these characters I adore, but it’s let down by a fairly standard plot, which isn’t able to attain the same level of emotion, excitement and wonder as the original. It has its moments of genius, though, along with some great back and forths between Mike and Sully.

★★★☆☆
One Fine Spring Day (Dir. Hur Jin-ho)

After falling in love with Christmas in August last year, I am slowly making my way through Hur Jin-ho’s filmography. One Fine Spring Day is the tale of a couple who fall in and out of love and like Christmas in August, it portrays very poignant and moving scenarios, but is always very tender and understated.

Hur Jin-ho portrays both the passion and pain of love without a single line of vociferous dialogue. His characters are often reserved and indirect, but depict a tremendous range of emotion through their actions and lack of discourse. Similar to Christmas in August, it’s an unostentatious and delicate tale of love — formed through small, exquisite details — but is just as stirring and soul-destroying as some of  the genres most rousing movies. The last half broke me.

★★★★☆
Seed (Dir. Naomi Kawase)

A short film from writer-director Naomi Kawase, whose filmography is seemingly full with marvels I have yet to explore. Seed follows an eccentric girl played by Sakura Ando who seems caught up in the wonder of life. There’s not a lot of substance to it, but the film is beautifully shot and Sakura is a dazzling enigma.

★★★☆☆
Silence (Dir. Martin Scorsese)

I’ve been following Silence ever since Andrew Garfield was cast three years ago (which is a minuscule amount of time compared to its twenty year on-and-off production). I read the novel and found it incredibly profound and stirring, despite revolving around themes I wouldn’t usually explore. It’s stayed terrifically vivid in my mind ever since and I’ve been looking forward to Scorsese’s adaptation with bated breath. To finally see it was actually quite special.

It’s one of the most faithful book to film adaptations I have ever seen, with so many scenes playing out as I had envisioned. The cinematography was gorgeous and the themes were handled with grace and impartiality.

I was so happy with Yosuke Kubozuka as Kichijiro and Issei Ogata was a marvel as Inquisitor Inoue — even more devious and uncanny than I remember. Andrew Garfield portrayed Rodrigues with all the staggering turmoil and bewilderment that Endo had described and was the real backbone of the movie, for me.

I’m glad Scorsese approached the novel in such a direct fashion — including scenes that could have easily been left ambiguous or shrouded in imagery. I also appreciate that he expanded somewhat on the ending, including finer details of Rodrigues’ later life. It made the ending all the more striking.

The only gripes I have are that it was somewhat puzzling to have Garfield and Driver speak in Portuguese accents, but present Neeson in his usual tone. It was a little jarring and would have been more immersive to go one way or the other. In certain scenes, Ferreira also came across to me as a sort of ‘voice of reason’ rather than the pitiful husk he’s portrayed as in the novel. These a very minor though and I’m intrigued to see the impact of the movie on second viewing.

★★★★☆
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (Dir. Park Chan-wook)

I watched Oldboy and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance about a decade ago, but only now am I getting around to the first feature in Park Chan-wook’s vengeance trilogy. I was indifferent towards Lady Vengeance and thus pushed Mr. Vengeance to the back-burner, which turned out to be a mistake as it’s a remarkably shot and tremendously gripping film, with a cast of distinct, sympathetic and uniquely compelling characters.

I find myself continually impressed with the alluring imagery. Chung Chung-hoon is a constant I adore in Park Chan-wook’s movies (he’s worked with the director as cinematographer on every feature since Oldboy), but Byeong-il Kim handled the photography on Mr. Vengeance. Surprisingly, it was his first film as cinematographer, but his framing and use of overhead angles was masterful. I would love to see more from him, but his filmography is surprisingly bare.

★★★★☆
The Edge of Seventeen (Dir. Kelly Fremon)

A wonderfully endearing and completely hypnotic coming of age movie. Hailee Steinfeld is brilliant as an unorthodox teen indifferent towards her surroundings. The plot contains a few of the usual beats, but is complemented by some very persuasive performances and a lot of witty and well written dialogue. It captures the needless complications of adolescence impeccably.

★★★★☆
The Murder Case of Hana & Alice (Dir. Shunji Iwai)

Shunji Iwai has directed a couple of animated shorts in the past, but this is his first foray into feature-length animation. It made me realise Iwai’s biggest signifier is his writing and characters.

He has a very distinctive style of filmmaking, with heavy use of soft focus and handheld camerawork and while he doesn’t particularly emulate that style in animation, the film is unmistakably his.

It has this wonderfully quaint, idle pace and a plot that is so engaging, yet unfocused and almost evasive. Iwai focuses on the characters first and foremost and forms them through actions rather than words. His characterisation is beautifully attentive and his portrayal of youth so exact.

If you look at something like this, or April Story or even All About Lily Chou-Chou to an extent, the plots seem so basic and easy to describe, but at the same time the films themselves are incredibly layered and profound, full with subtleties and astoundingly pensive qualities. He forms complete and detailed pictures from the smaller details and handles exposition with incredible finesse. It’s like the films just tell themselves — they have this naturalness and authenticity that is difficult to describe. The man is a real marvel and I admire him very much.

It makes me curious to read his novels, where he can’t rely on the visual medium he is so incredibly adept with. Sadly, none have actually been translated in to English, which is a real shame as some of his more popular movies began as novels and I’d love to see the evolution from prose to script and screenplay.

★★★★☆
The Shawshank Redemption (Dir. Frank Darabont)

Another re-watch. You can usually count on The Shawshank Redemption popping up on TV at least a couple of times a year. It’s as quotable as ever and has yet to lose its charm. Thomas Newman’s score never falters — I can’t believe the man doesn’t have an Oscar.

★★★★★
Turbo (Dir. David Soren)

I loved the idea of Turbo and was eager to give it a long-overdue watch, but sadly it’s mediocre at best. It had a lot of perky, enjoyable action, but the characters were very one-note and I didn’t really connect with any of the drama or emotional beats.

★★☆☆☆
Turtles Are Surprisingly Fast Swimmers (Dir. Satoshi Miki)

Another charming feature from writer-director Satoshi Miki. Very light-hearted and quirky in typically Japanese fashion. Perhaps too oddball for some, but a funny and joyous escapade nonetheless. Definitely not as good as Adrift in Tokyo, though.

★★★☆☆
Victoria (Dir. Sebastian Schipper)

An incredibly immersive film — shot in one continuous take over the course of almost two and a half hours. Despite constraints, the plot was engaging and fluently paced, with an entrancing performance from Laia Costa. Sucks that it was shut out of the Oscars.

★★★★☆
What We Did on Our Holiday (Dir. Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin)

I watched What We Did on Our Holiday on a complete whim, not really knowing what it was about, and came away largely satisfied. It’s neither remarkable nor dull, but Billy Connolly has a great role with some insightful and hard-hitting dialogue.

★★★☆☆
Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (Dir. Sion Sono)

Sion Sono is so passionate about film and it absolutely shines here. Why Don’t You Play in Hell took a little while to get going, but the second half is such an enthralling, exciting and incredibly funny all-out romp. One of the most satisfying and laugh-out-loud movies I have seen in a long while.

★★★★☆
Why Him? (Dir. John Hamburg)

A very by-the-numbers and wholly predictable comedy, but the cast were okay and there are some laughs to be had — you know what you’re in for. Fulfills its duty as a bit of simple, dumb fun, but left me with a sort of bitter taste.

★★☆☆☆

Thirty-two movies in one month. I wonder how long I’ll be able to keep this up. I feel like one of those machines that go for the 365 movie challenge. My goal this year was to watch over 100 movies, but I’m almost half way there already! See you again soon.

Watched This Month: December 2016

Hello, hello. Welcome to Watched This Month. Finally on time again! It’s December, so that means this monthly post has now been going for an entire year, with me having written about almost one hundred different movies along the way. Hooray! Thank you to all those who have stopped by. I have no plans to end Watched This Month, so do please continue to visit. As the year is coming to a close, following this post will be my second ever Watched This Year, which compiles every film I managed to watch in 2016 into one convenient list. Gotta love a good rundown. Anyway, down to business…

Previous: October – November

Film Rating
A Bride for Rip Van Winkle (Dir. Shunji Iwai)

A Bride for Rip Van Winkle is bewitching, beautifully subtle three-hour drama and slight companion piece to All About Lily Chou-Chou, exploring disconnect in an ever-connected world. Unassertive lead Nanami – played by Haru Kuroki – finds her supposed beau online, but never truly connects with him. After marriage, she seems destined for a quiet life of discontent, shackled by societal traditions and forced into the role of housewife. She lacks the gumption to break her dreary routine, but after some meddling by an enigmatic online acquaintance, Nanami finds herself on a path of uncertainty, in which she may just find fulfillment.

It’s a wholly mesmerizing picture, with a lengthy runtime that seems to go by in an instant. Iwai’s visuals are dreamy and evocative, with his handheld camera work creating a sense of intimacy and delicate observation. Somehow, he hits the emotional beats almost infallibly, with actress Haru Kuroki communicating soft, unspoken emotions with absolute precision. Throughout, the two build a quiet sense of melancholy, slowly but assuredly dissolving viewers into Nanami’s world.

Though the story is often sorrowful and even tragic, it’s never ostentatious or even straightforwardly distressing. Iwai’s ethereal imagery and exquisite characterisation tug away at the heartstrings in the most unobtrusive and delicate of manners.

The character of Nanami is attentively written, with Haru Kuroki giving a beautifully understated performance. Right from the get-go, she’s a terrific representation of the younger generation, whose voices are aflutter online, all too often contradicted by their passive realities.

A Bride for Rip Van Winkle has a quietly pensive and very distinct quality, with the director imbuing typically sombre scenes with tinges of warmth and reassurance; molding forlorn into fascinating. It’s a gorgeously bittersweet and entirely spellbinding experience, with an usually alluring sense of abjection. Certainly, one of Iwai’s best.

★★★★★
A Hard Day (Dir. Kim Seong-hoon)

By masterfully combining typical – but well refined – thriller elements with touches of black comedy, director Kim Seong-hoon has created an action movie with a lot of personality.

A Hard Day follows detective Ko Gun-su, who finds his day goes from bad to worse after hitting and killing a passerby in his car on the way to his mothers funeral. Rather than own up to manslaughter, Ko concocts a plan to dispose of the body inside his mothers casket, but as soon as he believes he’s in the clear, he receives an anonymous call from a man who claims to have witnessed the ordeal.

It’s a solid action-thriller, with an engaging lead and a polished, well-paced plot that is not only gratifying in its tension and excitement, but also very effective in its humour and absurdity.

★★★★☆
Christmas in August (Dir. Hur Jin-Ho)

Despite the title, Christmas in August isn’t a terribly suitable seasonal film. It’s the tale of a portrait photographer who strives to live a peaceful and pleasant existence despite a terminal illness. He owns and operates a studio by himself and lives out his days with barely an utterance of dismay, but when a young parking officer enters his life, he’s faced with a romance that may be all too bittersweet.

It sounds very melodramatic, but in actuality Christmas in August is so incredibly subtle and understated. It tackles profound emotion and devastation with exquisite delicacy and finesse, deftly avoiding any heavy-handedness and instead taking a more poignant and passive look at mortality and the tender, fleeting moments of our lives.

It’s one of the most touching films I have ever seen and is at the same time, both terrifically evocative and yet remarkably tranquil. Han Suk-kyu and Shim Eun-ha are absolutely masterful in their roles, with director Hur Jin-ho so graceful and gentle in his approach; never spoon-feeding the viewer and exquisitely weaving symbolism and meaning into the films wonderful imagery.

I watched this on Christmas Eve, not knowing what I was really in for, but I feel it will remain very vivid and important to me — tugging at my tender emotions for years to come. This is one of those special films that will stay with me.

★★★★★
Confession of Murder (Dir. Jeong Byeong-Gil)

Tonally, Confession of Murder was a little unbalanced. The first sequence sets it up a vicious thriller, but the dark tone is then quickly subsided by the subsequent action scenes, which are very overblown and almost comical. It’s still a lot of fun, though.

The story follows detective Choi, who has been haunted by a long unsolved serial murder case with which he was deeply involved. Years go by and the culprit is never found; that is until the statue of limitations expire and a man claiming responsibility publishes a book detailing his crimes, which becomes an overnight sensation.

I thought the pace was a little too fast at times, but the story was very engaging from start to finish and had a number of extremely well-executed twists. The opening chase displayed some interesting camerawork, which was sadly abandoned as the film progressed, but the further action scenes were well directed and – though rather farcical – enormously entertaining.

★★★☆☆
Kubo and the Two Strings (Dir. Travis Knight)

A fantastical stop-motion fable set in ancient Japan, in which a young boy named Kubo – who can manipulate origami with a magical shamisen – must track down a suit of armor in order to defeat the vengeful Moon King. The plot has its conveniences and some of the exposition came across a little stilted, but the film is nonetheless an astounding achievement.

The animation and attention to detail is exquisite; the film is full with gorgeously visualised action and many remarkable set pieces. Furthermore, the characters – while rather conventional – manage to be memorable and enjoyable iterations, humanly developed and brought to life with some engaging voice work.

★★★★☆
Mother (Dir. Bong Joon-ho)

Another gem from Bong Joon-ho, about a mother who takes it upon herself to prove her son’s innocence after he’s arrested for murder. It’s an exquisitely woven mystery, utilising the directors trademark blend of heavy drama and dark comedy, with undercurrents of tragedy.

It’s beautifully shot and the script is so tightly-knit; each scene adds another layer of intrigue and astonishment; everything piling up to a terrifically executed twist. It’s altogether immersive and entirely unpredictable, with a superbly convincing and absolutely heartbreaking performance from Kim Hye-ja.

★★★★☆
Nocturnal Animals (Dir. Tom Ford)

Nocturnal Animals follows a disillusioned art gallery owner named Susan, whose life has become rather joyless and undesirable. Her second marriage didn’t unfold as she envisioned, with her husband distant and frequently absent. One morning she receives a manuscript from her ex-husband Edward, whom she hasn’t seen in nineteen years. During their marriage, Edward aspired to be a novelist, but Susan never placed much faith in him. As she begins to read the manuscript, she becomes entranced with the fictional life of Tony, a family man whose vacation develops into a tragic tale of revenge.

I went into Nocturnal Animals barely knowing a detail and came away awed. It’s superbly presented, with the non-linear narrative expertly employed. The plot unravels with staggering finesse and great suspense; its steady divulgence of details meticulously constructing an exceptional tale of revenge and redemption. Jake Gyllenhaal gives a mesmerising performance and I was also deeply engrossed by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who I have often found rather lackluster until now. Nocturnal Animals is – without a doubt – one of the most tense and tremendously captivating movies I have seen this year.

★★★★☆
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Dir. Gareth Edwards)

For the most part, Rogue One was pleasing – with an incredible final act – but it lacked the heart and soul of the more popular Star Wars movies, with the characters letting it down immeasurably. The performances were good, but none of the cast left much of an impression. The character arcs were either so rudimentary or missing altogether — Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang just seemed to tag along for the ride, with Riz Ahmed very one-note and pretty much a mere plot device. I wish more time was spent giving the characters a genuine voice and better framework.

However, the film succeeds tremendously in its more visual aspects. The action was compelling and the special effects were largely convincing, though I did find Tarkin somewhat jarring (Leia less so due to the amount of screen time). The culmination is where the film shines, with the final battle on Scarif possessing a wonderful sense of scale. It’s just a shame the characters didn’t have more emotional weight, which would have made the ending all the more bittersweet.

★★★☆☆
Sully (Dir. Clint Eastwood)

A biographical picture from Clint Eastwood that recounts the Miracle on the Hudson and the following investigation. Tom Hanks is very captivating and the film itself is incredibly compassionate and fluently paced, paving the way for a concise and honorable tribute to those present on US Airways Flight 1549, along with the service men and women who came to their aid.

However, I felt some members of the National Transport Safety Board were slightly vilified – though I guess a story of heroism does need some antagonism, particularly in cinema – and that, though the structure was very interesting and rather unconventional, some of the dialogue was fairly routine.

★★★☆☆
Symbol (Dir. Hitoshi Matsumoto)

A man awakens to find himself sealed inside an empty, all-white room and is promptly greeted by an array of animated Cupid sculptures. The sculptures meld into the walls, leaving behind their protruding members, which – if pressed – shoot out random objects from inside the walls. Meanwhile – in a concurrent narrative in Mexico – a wrestler prepares for an important bout.

Symbol is an utterly bizarre film, but very creative and original. It’s mostly a comedy, with a lot of physical humour – akin to something like Mr. Bean – but the final act introduces some contemplative aspects. Despite its short runtime, some scenes were a little stretched and became slightly aggravating, but it’s a tremendously imaginative and surreal movie. The two narratives also connect in one of the strangest and most unexpected ways imaginable.

★★★☆☆
The Handmaiden (Dir. Park Chan-wook)

Another first-class feature from Park Chan-wook. Set in 1930s Korea, The Handmaiden tells of a plot to defraud a mysterious heiress by a conman who hires a thief to act as her maid, but complications abound when the two women begin to fall for one another.

It’s an entirely hypnotising feature. Beautiful, provocative, slinky and seductive — a feast for the senses and a whirlwind of emotions. The set design is gorgeous and the cinematography masterful; the camera lingers and maneuvers with extreme finesse. Apparently Chung Chung-hoon can do no wrong.

The plot develops, twists and turns with great unpredictability and intrigue, with some of the dialogue remarkably vivid and many scenes so transfixing — I found myself continually impressed with the films stunning proficiency. It has a mesmeric quality and everything just seems so attentively crafted and layered. It comes together successfully on so many levels.

★★★★☆
The Host (Dir. Bong Joon-ho)

An unconventional monster movie in which moments of terror are mixed with political satire and dark comedy. The Host has some genuinely tragic and rousing scenes, but the central family is portrayed almost as if part of a sitcom. Tonally, it was completely unexpected, but absolutely refreshing and terrifically enjoyable.

It’s becoming quickly apparent to me that Bong Joon-ho is a master of subverting expectations and weaving dashes of humour into typically sombre scenarios. Some may find it a bit too offbeat or absurd, but it’s never predictable, with the comedy very organic and the family drama compelling in its eccentricity and intriguing dynamic.

★★★★☆
The Man from Nowhere (Dir. Lee Jeong-Beom)

A gritty action thriller in which conflict and emotion are in excellent melody. It succeeds where A Bittersweet Life faltered, by building an authentic emotional resonance before laying on the intensity and anguish. The action – particularly during the climax – is raw and unfiltered, performed with great vehemence and brilliant choreography, and while the plot does suffer from some tropes, its emotional backbone and memorable characters ensure it stays enthralling.

Bin Won plays a tender, melancholic soul with a challenging past, with Sae-ron Kim’s endearing but neglected young character helping him to love again. There’s also a fascinating villain in the form of Taiwanese actor Thanayong Wongtrakul, whose climatic confrontation with the protagonist is incredible and particularly indelible.

★★★★☆
Your Name (Dir. Makoto Shinkai)

An utmost emotive and visually arresting animated film from Japan, that follows two unrelated high-school students – a boy and a girl – who begin to randomly swap bodies with one another. As they grow accustomed to sharing lives, they get to know each other by leaving notes, slowly growing closer despite never having actually met.

Shinkai treads familiar ground, employing his wonderful knack for imbuing typically ordinary settings with a delicate touch of fantasy and science fiction, but manages to avoid much of the tedious melodrama and overt melancholy that I felt impeded some of his other work. The director maintains a fine balance, creating an often funny and very memorable human drama, that is nonetheless achingly beautiful and absolutely heartrending.

★★★★☆

That’s it for December. I’m still traversing a lot of missed South Korean cinema, but I want to catch up on some Japanese gems soon, too. Please stick around for Watched This Year: 2016 — coming up shortly! Adios for now.

Movie Talk: All About Lily Chou-Chou

Title: All About Lily Chou-Chou (リリイ・シュシュのすべて)
Director: Shunji Iwai
Screenplay: Shunji Iwai
Starring: Hayato Ichihara, Shûgo Oshinari, Ayumi Itô, Yû Aoi
Released: Oct 2001 (JP), Jul 2002 (US), Aug 2002 (UK)


Ever since I discovered All About Lily Chou-Chou in 2006, it has held a special place in my heart. Along with Takeshi Kitano’s Sonatine, it is one of the first Japanese films I remember watching and – still unlike anything I have seen since – it remains to this day one of my all-time favourites. It is a film rich in detail, substance and beauty; a story of youth culture, escapism and loneliness just as important now as it was fifteen years ago. Rather than present a straightforward review, I wanted to take a moment to write somewhat about the films aesthetics, why it is so important and continually relevant, and why it should be on your radar.

Japanese director Shunji Iwai released his third full-length feature – All About Lily Chou-Chou – in 2001. The film – a rather eerie and melancholic drama about the escapism of a group of children through cyber culture and the fictional pop sensation Lily Chou-Chou – follows Yuichi, a particularly shy and lonesome youth, who becomes entranced by the mysterious pop star. The film charters the increasing solace and comfort Yuichi discovers in Lily’s music – and explores others touched by the enigmatic figure through messages posted on a ‘Lilyphilia’ internet forum – to the backdrop of the harsh realities of the outside world. In many ways, All About Lily Chou-Chou was ahead of its time. Released fresh into the new millennium, it portrayed a generation of youth caught in a seemingly endless adolescence, enthralled by cyber culture and confused with their identity and emotions, isolated in the all-too-big world and seeking escape through electronic communication rather than physical interaction.

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The characters find redemption of sorts in the form of ambiguous pop-sensation Lily Chou-Chou. Her music provides them with an emotional resonance; the characters confide in her songs and revel in the other-worldly feeling her music creates – what they label as the ‘ether’. With music and a fan-base reminiscent of the Icelandic ambient scene (think Sigur Rós, amiina and múm) back here in the real world, the characters empathetically discuss the singer on the ‘Lilyphilia’ forum and listen intently to each other’s stories of self-discovery and what Lily’s music has brought them. But as the characters progress deeper and deeper into the ‘ether’ and engage more and more openly with their online counterparts, thus begins their descent into isolation and withdrawal from reality. Their internet messages are communicated to the viewer through text on the screen, though with only internet handles and vague clues to go off, it’s up to the audience to work out which of the characters are typing what. Very little is explicitly stated in the film; the audience – more so than usual – are mere observers and it is clear Iwai has great respect for the viewers’ intelligence.

All About Lily Chou-Chou is a film that could only be made in this millennium, in the here and now, as it centers around the evolving of communication – or perhaps degrading, depending on how you look at it – in the age of the internet. It captures the disconnectedness of the current youth and, as Empire note; “portrays a generation in a world of electronic communication which promises greater interaction, but instead fosters isolation.” Loneliness and isolation are major themes within the film and the characters are all grounded in their attempts to connect physically with one another. Iwai even presents an underlying barrier between adults and children; in fact, the adult characters take a step back and almost have no place in the story at all. Iwai displays them as very distant and incomprehensible; people, despite social constructs, which the children struggle to look up to or trust in. All About Lily Chou-Chou spares no expense at posing questions, yet it seeks to answer none – Iwai displays the world as anything but simply black and white, as anything but straight forward.

This is emphasised in the narrative, told in a non-linear fashion with the middle first, followed by the beginning and then the end. References to disconnectedness are left, right and center, and for such emotionally compromised characters, the hugely dominant child cast work wonders. The films main characters are Yuichi (Hayato Ichihara) and Hoshino (Shugo Oshinari) – mutual admirer’s of Lily Chou-Chou whose friendship collapses after a fateful holiday – and the films back-drop is largely rural Japan, with much of the middle chapter set in Okinawa; largely secluded and alien areas, again referencing that isolation. The cinematography and tone is very melancholic, with the crew creating some stunningly bleak visuals, often contrasted with the hypnotic beauty of the Japanese countryside. Iwai presents a spellbinding, starkly beautiful and wholly unique visual flair, which has since become one off his trademarks as a filmmaker.

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Another key aspect is the music and the films almost God-like idol, Lily Chou-Chou. The singer herself is rarely glimpsed, but is always portrayed as some near-deity, an ethereal Goddess, absolutely worshipped by her fans, which displays the level of idolisation and the prominence and development of pop culture through technology and social media in the current generation. The music in All About Lily Chou-Chou works as a narrative element and a vessel for the main characters, helping to communicate their thoughts, feelings and desires to the audience. The soundtrack is actually made up of two complete CDs, one being the film score (a stunning collection of melancholic piano compositions written and arranged by Takeshi Kobayashi, along with three wonderful Claude Debussy renditions by actress and pianist Yui Makino) and the other an album by Lily Chou-Chou titled Breathe, which was made specifically for the film and features prominently. The film and its music was actually received so well that it established a career for Japanese singer Salyu, who portrayed Lily Chou-Chou.

All About Lily Chou-Chou is a master class in filmmaking, displaying completely how every element in sync creates one tremendous piece of art. The film just oozes emptiness and desolation, but it is tackled in such a calm and – dare I say it – ethereal way, that it isn’t necessarily depressing so much as it is enlightening. Like the music of Lily Chou-Chou, the film has an other-worldly feel to it, something magical resides there. It isn’t light viewing, but once you wrap yourself around the narrative and delve into the minds of the characters, it’s comforting in a slightly haunting way. Anyone who has ever felt disconnected or apart from society should watch All About Lily Chou-Chou; it is a film about what it is to be human in the 21st Century and quite possibly one of the most important of its generation.

Watched This Month: April 2016

Hello, Captain! Welcome to another edition of Watched This Month. After pretty much two solid months of television, I’m finally catching up on some movies! I also recently joined letterboxd, which is essentially a film-focused social network that enables you to track and rate everything you watch. Give me a follow if you’re also set up over there and I’ll stalk you back. Also, I’ll make note that some of my ratings over on letterboxd may differ slightly to those I’ve given here because of the ability to award half stars. I wish I could hand out half stars on my blog, but there doesn’t appear to be a code or symbol for them and I’m not too fond on using an image as they look different depending on the browser and/or device and I’m all about order and consistency. Anyway, on with it!

Film Rating
Hail, Caesar! (Dir. Joel Coen and Ethan Coen)

The Coen brothers’ latest film follows Eddie Mannix, a Hollywood ‘fixer’ who is employed to protect and disguise the private lives of film stars. In the film, ‘Hail, Caesar!’ is a huge production that is halted by the kidnapping of its lead actor. Eddie Mannix begins proceedings to have the actor returned, all the while juggling with his usual daily duties such as dealing with the ever-persistent press and tending to an assortment of film stars embroiled in personal affairs.

The film is roughly shot in segments as Eddie Mannix travels from production to production for his work. Each set is beautifully and attentively crafted and all are brought to life by the wonderfully illustrious cast.

Come the end, it wasn’t as gripping as I anticipated it to be, but Hail, Caesar! was nevertheless charming, frequently funny and terrifically written with an assortment of masterful dialogue. In many ways, I saw it as the Coen brothers’ love letter to cinema and a fine piece of endearing and pleasurable light viewing.

★★★☆☆
Kung Fu Panda 3 (Dir. Alessandro Carloni and Jennifer Yuh)

The third film in the Kung Fu Panda series is more of the same, as we follow Po’s everlasting journey of self-discovery with more kung-fu to learn and a new villain in tow. I absolutely loved it, though. Just like the first two films, Kung Fu Panda continues to sound like a silly idea on paper, but is – in actuality – a highly stylistic film with a lot of heart and some expert comedy.

My only gripe with the third installment is that the film struggles to have a serious moment. Oftentimes the drama is lightened by a moment of silliness or some comical dialogue. The comedy itself is great – with even some of the less pronounced jokes worthy of an audible chuckle – but it’s a step back from Kung Fu Panda 2, which blended action, drama and humour so well.

Nevertheless, the film is an absolute blast with barely a dull moment. As ever, Jack Black is perfect as Po and I was glad to see Jackie Chan had a couple more lines this time around. Furthermore, J.K. Simmons and Bryan Cranston were wonderful additions who really brought their characters to life (though it is a shame Simmons’ villain Kai wasn’t was well developed as previous antagonists) and the film itself is so gorgeously animated and designed that – should the story fail you – at least it’s glorious to look at. The action sequences are also stunning and live up to everything precedent.

Kung Fu Panda 3 completes one of the finest animated trilogies around, but apparently there are no less than three more films planned. DreamWorks have done exceedingly well so far, but I wonder if the franchise will fatigue going into a hexology.

★★★★☆
New York, I Love You (Dir. Natalie Portman, Shunji Iwai, et al)

A collection of eleven short films by a variety of directors all set in New York City and revolving around themes of love or sex. Some are great, others not so much.

I watched the anthology due to Shunji Iwai’s involvement and (unsurprisingly) I found his short film – which stars Orlando Bloom as a composer stuck reading Russian literature – to be one of the most interesting. The plot was more satisfying and complete than most, though it wasn’t my favourite.

I really loved Shekhar Kapur and Natalie Portman’s segments. Kapur’s follows a suicidal opera singer (Julie Christie) who checks into a hotel and is befriended by a doleful bellboy (Shia LaBeouf). It’s delicately shot and very melancholic in tone. Almost everything I see of LaBeouf outside of Transformers I find entirely affecting; he’s a wonderful enigma of an actor.

Portman’s film is possibly the shortest, but I found it nonetheless emotional and also quite solemn and bittersweet. It follows a ballet dancer (Carlos Acosta) as he spends a day with his daughter, before handing her back to his ex-wife and her new partner. The daughter is played magnificently by Taylor Geare and though Acosta is actually a real life ballet dancer rather than an actor, I found his performance very nuanced and touching. It’s a very wistful and stirring few minutes that the format of a short film is able to portray immensely.

I also enjoyed Faith Akin’s short, which follows a painter (Uğur Yücel) obsessed with a local shopgirl (Shu Qi). Eventually he asks her if she’ll sit for him, but she declines. It’s another melancholic tale (I seem fond of those) tackled beautifully.

Sadly, I didn’t care for much else, which is why the rating isn’t so great. But if you have a couple of minutes to spare, a short film can be a great use your time. Sometimes I would much rather watch a collection of shorts over a feature, as there are often a couple of hidden gems and the format and low budget nature of shorts allow for a lot of artistry and creativity.

★★☆☆☆
Picnic (Dir. Shunji Iwai)

Picnic is a Japanese short-film helmed by one of my all-time favourite writer-directors; Shunji Iwai. There are two slightly different versions: a 67-minute cut and another at 72-minutes. The one I have is the 67-minute version.

The film follows a trio of mentally unwell 20-somethings – Coco, Tsumuji and Satoru – who are all patients at a psychiatric hospital. They long for the outside world but are forbidden to leave the walls of the asylum. However, they believe as long as they don’t go beyond the wall, they aren’t violating any rules, and so they climb up onto the wall of the institution and explore the surrounding city by walking along the walls and never touching the ground. Before long, they have a chance encounter with a priest who introduces them to the Bible. Tsumuji misinterprets a portion of the text and believes the world is ending soon. Thereafter, they hunt for the perfect spot to picnic and witness the end of the world.

First and foremost, the film has a very intelligible portrayal of the mentally ill; displaying to great degree how the simplest of phrases can have multiple interpretations. Furthermore, in such a short space of time, the audience grow to have such a tremendous understanding of Tsumuji and – to a lesser degree – Coco. The characterisation is magnificent, with Tadanobu Asano and Chara (who play Tsumuji and Coco respectively) truly excelling (fun fact: the two met on the set of Picnic and married a year later).

The cinematography is typically Iwai – very dreamy and quietly alluring – and the music is well implemented and accentuates well the enchanting tone of the film. Despite the almost fantastical quality of Picnic, however, some sequences were rather haunting (well one, especially). Tsumuji has hallucinations of his old homeroom teacher, who is portrayed to a very effective and disconcerting degree by a puppet. I don’t want to spoil anything, but it’s one of the most visually unsettling sequences I have seen in a while.

Picnic is one of the strongest and most comprehensive shorts I have seen from Iwai thus far; as emotionally engaging as April Story come the end, with excellent development for a short work. Iwai often ends on bittersweet tones and I have a feeling some of the imagery from Picnic will stay with me for a very long time.

★★★★☆
Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1974 (Dir. Julian Jarrold)

On my quest to watch Andrew Garfield’s entire filmography, I have come to the Red Riding trilogy, which chronicles almost a decade of police corruption, organised crime and serial murders in Yorkshire.

The first film – set in 1974 – follows Yorkshire Post journalist Eddie Dunford (Garfield) as he investigates a series of child murders he believes to be connected. His investigation uncovers massive corruption in the West Yorkshire Constabulary and Dunford finds himself embroiled in a dangerous world with no one to turn to for help.

Garfield is on-point as cocky Northern reporter Eddie Dunford; his accent is convincing and the character is very layered and compelling. Sean Bean also stars as a rather vicious and shady real estate developer. As vile as his character was, I found his performance utterly captivating.

The film starts off as a bit of a slow burner, but picks up during the second half. The climax was thoroughly gripping and though it’s the first in a trilogy, I felt the movie also worked well as a stand-alone story.

The opening Red Riding installment is an absorbing work of neo-noir and I can’t wait to see where the sequels go given the ending. Furthermore, Andrew Garfield’s earlier work continues to impress. The Red Riding trilogy was released two years after his film debut in Boy A; it’s amazing to see what powerful and impassioned characters he debuted with.

★★★★☆
The Jungle Book (Dir. Jon Favreau)

I’m not the biggest fan of Disney’s animated collection (with my favourite being the seldom mentioned Hercules), but like many, I have fond memories watching Disney’s The Jungle Book in my childhood and was curious to see this fused digitised, live-action rendering.

Faverau’s version is an enjoyable romp and a blockbuster with a little more soul than most, but to me it never became great. As per the original, Mowgli’s journey remains a satisfying and delightful tale and many of the characters retain their lovable characteristics and/or memorability, but I never felt particularly engaged. The film could have done with some more development for a couple of its characters (especially the wolves) and the death of a significant character – a prime opportunity to garner some strong emotional investment – was all but glossed over.

I wasn’t too keen on some of the singing, either. The nod to the Bare Necessities was great, but King Louie’s song seemed a little stilted and out of place and served as a reminder of the original more than anything.

Furthermore, it seems as if the ending was altered to allow for the opportunity of sequels. I’m not too sure how I feel about that, but who knows – they could be good. The whole environment and setting of the film was brilliant (although it was at times geographically skewed) and if they continue to perfect that then – if nothing else – they can crank out some visual marvels. The effects were a real stand-out aspect and display absolutely how convincing artificial, computer-generated environments can be.

I also loved the voice cast. Bill Murray and Ben Kingsley were near perfect as Baloo and Bagheera respectively and Idris Elba is stunning as the domineering Shere Khan. His voice is suitably commanding and sinister.

Neel Sethi did a good job as Mowgli considering he was likely acting alone against a green screen, though I did feel his expressions were somewhat wooden a couple of times throughout and some dialogue was unconvincing, but it’s nothing that distracted me from the character or the film.

The Jungle Book is by no means a bad film, but I was never able to lose myself in it like you should in a great adventure. It’s a film with a lot of spectacle and one I can certainly enjoy, but not one I truly believe in or can get behind.

★★★☆☆
The Witch (Dir. Robert Eggers)

I’m not the biggest fan of the horror genre, but there are a couple of horror movies that I do believe are rather tremendous. The Witch is one of them.

Set during the 17th century in New England, The Witch follows a family excommunicated from the Christian plantation on which they live. They set up a farm on the edge of a forest and settle in to a new way of life, but when new-born baby Samuel vanishes, their lives begin to go awry and eldest daughter Thomasin carries the brunt of the blame.

The Witch isn’t an in-your-face kind of horror. It doesn’t rely on jump scares (though there are a couple) or excessive gore. Instead, it builds an eerie sense of discomfort and a strong unnerving atmosphere. Like the aliens in Dark Skies and the creatures in The Descent, there are small glimpses of the eponymous witch very early on, and much of what’s frightening is the very knowledge of this crone and the families confusion and denial to accept their situation.

The dialogue is mostly based on writings from the time the film is set and is thoroughly unique and immersive. The cast, too, inhabit their characters terrifyingly well and in many ways, the film is more about the Thomasin character than the witch or anybody else. She is portrayed near flawlessly by Anya Taylor-Joy (whom I expect we’ll be seeing a lot more of from now on) and the characters’ journey and progression is enveloping and very well developed.

It took me a little while to digest The Witch, but the more I think about it the more it grows on me. Definitely a film to add to my ‘must watch horrors’ list.

★★★★☆
Tokyo Fist (Dir. Shinya Tsukamoto)

Tokyo Fist is my first film from Shinya Tsukamoto. I’m aware of the directors massive cult status and had often wanted to explore some of his work. I’m not sure Tokyo Fist was a good starting point, but it certainly had a very distinctive and ferocious style, which I’ve read is Tsukamoto’s signature.

The film follows a business man who takes up boxing in an effort to seek revenge against an old school friend (who is now a semi-professional boxer) he suspects is having an affair with his fiancée.

I believe I went into Tokyo Fist with the wrong expectations. I started watching it thinking it was a boxing film, but in many ways it’s more akin to a horror than a sports drama. This – combined with Tsukamoto’s very explosive style of filmmaking – threw me off a little. I came away from it slightly haggard; it’s been a long time since I watched anything so intense and strangely unnerving.

The film depicts a lot of rage, both in the characters and in the way the film is constructed. The way it’s cut, the sound effects, the choreography in the action sequences – it’s fierce, powerful and violent. The films depiction of boxing and vehement fury are unlike anything I have viewed before. Tsukamoto’s directorial style certainly seems very unique and I’m interested in exploring it further, but I feel I need to give Tokyo Fist another go to really appreciate its artistry. It’s very chaotic and tumultuous and at times oddly distressing. It’s difficult for me to work out how I feel about it, which is something I haven’t felt about a film in a long while.

★★☆☆☆
Undo (Dir. Shunji Iwai)

I believe Shunji Iwai is one of the most interesting contemporary directors around and I always go into his films with a sense of excitement and wonder. Iwai has a very distinctive style; often utulising muted colours and a somewhat dreamy quality, with a large focus on observation and tone with less a reliance on dialogue. Undo is very much an Iwai movie, but I wasn’t as drawn in as I have been with his other work thus far.

The 47-minute film follows a couple whose relationship has become somewhat stale. Things begin to unravel after the girlfriend develops ‘Obsessive Knot-Binding Syndrome’ and begins tying up everything in sight.

As with most of Iwai’s work, there’s no clear-cut way to explain Undo. It’s a pensive piece and one I won’t hesitate to admit I don’t fully understand, but that’s what I love about Iwai. His films require working out, but even then, there’s no explicit interpretation. From Undo, I took the girlfriend’s knot-tying syndrome as a cry for help to her boyfriend, who fails to satisfy her or their relationship. In the end, she repeatedly requests he “really” tie her up but the boyfriend can’t adequately fulfill her desires, thus she relents he doesn’t understand or gratify her and disappears.

I appreciate the artistry of Undo and it is beautifully shot, but I wasn’t absorbed by the film as I often am by Iwai. Needless to say, I didn’t particularly connect with the characters and the film didn’t seem to have as much substance or heart as some of the directors other short work, namely April Story and Picnic. I’ll probably revisit Undo at a later date in an effort to take something more from it, but thus far it’s one of my least favourites from Iwai.

★★☆☆☆

As usual, onto television next. I finished the second season of Better Call Saul this month and as you’re all probably aware, the hotly anticipated sixth season of Game of Thrones premiered on April 24th. I also returned to anime after a lengthy break. Next month it’ll be more Game of Thrones and the third season of Peaky Blinders will be hitting our screens. May 5th, mark your diaries!

TV Show Rating
Better Call Saul, Season 2 (Created by Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould)

A largely satisfying albeit very moreish climax to a superbly written series edging ever closer to the creation of Saul Goodman.

Gilligan and Gould continue to show they can barely put a foot wrong as Season 2 perfects upon everything that was great about Season 1. Jimmy’s characterisation remains impressive as his relationship with his brother Chuck continues to sour. We’ve already had some explosive drama surrounding the two and I can’t wait to see the final tipping point.

On Mike’s end, looks like a major player from Breaking Bad will enter the fray come Season 3. Now we wait!

★★★★☆
ERASED a.k.a. Boku dake ga Inai Machi (Dir. Tomohiko Itō)

I returned to the world of anime this month following a recommendation by 1 Nothing Please. If a series has both a manga and an anime adaptation, I would usually always go for the manga, but as I am backed up with a lot of manga at the moment and don’t like to be reading an awful lot at the same time (and given how well received the anime adaptation of ERASED was), I opted for the anime this time around.

ERASED is a twelve episode series that follows Satoru Fujinuma, a 29-year old dejected mangaka. Satoru has an extraordinary ability he labels ‘Revival’, which sees him whisked back in time a couple of minutes without warning in order to avert some sort of accident or tragedy. Satoru has to figure out what’s wrong in any given scenario and amend the situation, so that he can prevent any wrongful doing from ever happening.

However, after the murder of somebody close to him, Satoru is sent back 18 years to when he was a child. He realises the murder may be connected to a series of abductions that involved several of his classmate and that this might be his chance to uncover the mystery, save his friends and make everything right.

I love a good mystery and it’s a genre that has been portrayed tremendously in both anime and manga. I watched ERASED over the course of two days and found it to be an incredibly absorbing story, though not without its flaws.

The series does have some predictable elements (it isn’t very difficult to work out who the antagonist is) and one or two odd red herring-like moments that are very misleading for seemingly no reason.

Besides that, though, it’s an enthralling tale of mystery, friendship and love that is tackled with just the right amount of finesse. I felt the first half was stronger than the second, but everything came together wonderfully come the end, so much so, it deserves its spot as one of the more stirring and well produced anime series of recent times.

★★★★☆
Game of Thrones, Season 6 (Created by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss)

From Better Call Saul onto Game of Thrones. It’s been wonderful having a constant stream of quality television to watch recently. Thus far, only the first episode of Season 6 has been broadcast, but so far so good. I enjoyed the premiere a lot more than Season 5’s, though the Sand Snakes and the Dorne plotline continue to tire.

The writing for Dorne and its characters has been rather lackluster; going in bizarre directions, not sufficiently developed and with a lot of cringe-inducing dialogue. I’m hoping we spend much of the screen-time elsewhere this season, because everything else is far more absorbing.

Melisandre has always been very enigmatic, but more than ever I’m intrigued to see which direction her characters goes and Lena Headey continues to display such raw emotion that I almost feel sorry for Cersei.

Bran is back next week! Remember him?

★★★★☆

That’s all, Captain. This is the most mammoth Watched This Month thus far! I always go on longer than I intend to, but you don’t mind, right? Watch anything exciting this month? Let me know! I’m always looking for recommendations. Thanks for stopping by and see you again.