Sunday, February 17, 2008
Capsule 3: TOKYO ZOMBIE and ELI, ELI, LEMBA SABACHTANI (Two with Asano Tadanobu)
As to be expected, I've got quite the pile of screeners sitting around here. I keep on hoping to catch up on all of the movies I've picked up or had given to me recently, but it's proving to be more difficult than I ever expected. I remember being at college and almost nightly sitting down in the old film department theater and watching two or three films in a row-- with a couple of Fat Albert or Simpsons cartoons thrown in to boot. In this way I was able to see a bunch of stuff and through this fall in love with Asian cinema.
Anyway, as I've gotten older I've discovered that collecting movies is kind of like trying to bail out water from a sinking ship-- basically hopeless; I've got more movies to see than time to watch. In kind of a cool way this has allowed me to always have stuff lying about that I want to see and an added bonus is that I can watch some films that were all buzz a year or so back when the critical or fan hype has died down; this allows me to enjoy it on its own terms.
So as the subject line for this posting states, I finally got around to watch two very different films starring Asano Tadanobu. Asano is an actor who I quite enjoy but I think that it's not so much his performance that I like as much as his on-screen personality. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that I never get totally lost in his performance-- perhaps with the exception of KOROSHIYA ICHI or maybe LAST LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE --but I enjoy watching his stuff and (in a sense) 'hanging out with him.' Speaking of hanging out, I've also been fortunate to have met up with Asano several times and am happy to report that he is a very nice chap, who is both totally mellow and easy to talk to. It should come as no surprise considering his marriage to Japanese pop idol Chara, to learn that his first love is music and acting is more or less something that he views as his job.
TOKYO ZOMBIE (aka. Tokyo Zonbi)
dir. Sato Sakichi
Format Viewed: Japanese DVD
A couple of weeks ago I wanted to watch a fun piece of action/horror fluff and it seemed like a good time to check out TOKYO ZOMBIE. As most all active Japanese genre fans probably know, this was the long anticipated feature debut from bizarro genre scribe Sato Sakichi. (Who coincidentally has a cameo in the Asano starrer LAST LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE as well as much more prominent gag appearance in Quentin Tarantino's genre milk-shake KILL BILL: VOL. 1).
Designed to be a kind of irreverent... I don't know what, TOKYO ZOMBIE is from its opening shots a silly movie. I knew from the DVD cover that this film was going to go for the obvious gags over the harder earned ones, by putting stars Asano Tadanobu and Aikawa Sho in goofy wigs (afro and bald ones respectively). The world they operate in is a kind of manga influenced one with production design tending towards digital mattes and cgi shading while the story is a half-baked mess of bro-love expressed via jujitsu pins and random verbal associations. (Does this makes sense? Nope, neither does the film.)
The plot goes something like this: Fujio (Tadanobu Asano) and Mitsuo (Sho Aikawa) are two garbage men (?) who get wrapped up in a zombie apocalypse when they deposit the corpse of their loud mouthed boss, whom Fujio murdered, at a mount of black dirt called Kuro Fuji-san, which we learn in an opening preface is a blackened trash pile version of Mt. Fuji, which has become a repository for all of the Japanese society's waste. When the chemicals from all of the trash mingle together they cause the buried dead (presumably ditched there because if it's good enough for your old refrigerator, it's good enough for a person) at Kuro Fuji-san to reanimate as Zombies and the rest is.... You get it.
What struck me as odd in this film is that given Sato's day job as a screenwriter you'd think he'd place more emphasis on actual storytelling and less on gimmickry. Sure, hiring Aikawa and Asano, two veteran actors, seems like a sure thing. Especially since they're both so watchable. But, like a Saturday Night Live skit that starts out less than funny and soon loses its welcome, Sato tries to run this one for 100 minutes filling it out with dumb gag after dumb gag with trying results.
Don't get me wrong, I wasn't looking for serious art here, nor was I expecting top genre filmmaking (possibly because I don't think Sato is capable of delivering this type of storytelling). But while technically it was fine direct to video work, I ultimately felt that there just wasn't any there there. Specifically, the humor was thin through out and all other creative choices I felt I had seen someplace else before.
In the end, TOKYO ZOMBIE was a film that I really wanted to like, but the story and filmmaking kept me from that goal. Quite simply I was bored by it.
ELI, ELI, LEMBA SABACHTANI
Dir. Aoyama Shinji
Format Viewed: Japanese DVD
Looking for something else to watch to clean TOKYO ZOMBIE out of my head, I figured it was high time I checked out Aoyama Shinji's ELI, ELI, LEMBA SABACHTANI; another Asano starrer and one that I had heard so many mixed things about. But first an admission:
As is the case with a lot of Japanophiles, I've been a noise [music] fan for many years. My taste has never been exclusively Japanese noise oriented, but one of the reasons why I certainly chose to live in Osaka was because of two bars: BEARS and BAR NOISE (that and the Boredoms were from there...). Alas, BAR NOISE had closed down a month or so before I moved to Osaka, but BEARS was (and still is?) in existence.
Being a noise fan in Japan during the late 1990s allowed me to see a lot of the Japanese noise bands play live: Merzbow, Massona, Incapacitants, Hasegawa Hiroshi formerly of C.C.C.C., Aube (a personal favorite), Violent Onsen Geisha (see below) etc. It's something that I still remember fondly and wish I could go and do again.
Noise is something that is meant to be experienced. Seeing noise live is radically different from hearing recordings of it. Similarly, seeing it live is radically different than prying a 10" vinyl from a 3 lb. block of plaster with power cables embedded in it. What noise is, as a simple definition, is art that demands an interaction from all who are experiencing it. What happens to you while you are experiencing it is a uniquely personal thing and while on the one hand it can be panic inducing it can also be trance forming. The mind often times tries to find a pattern or some sort of musicality to hang on to to form a kind of safe place from which to experience the noise.
Not to go on a tangent here, but this is one of the things that industrial noise legends Einsturzende Neubauten recognized and experimented with on their epic "Headcleaner"(* see bottom) track from the awesome 1993 album, Tabula Rasa. In part one: Zentrifuge / Stabs / Rotlichtachse / Propaganda / Aufmarsch the music is a discordant banging machine that crushes your cochlea and challenges your patience. With part two, Einhorn, you've got two piercing A notes, in discrete stereo channels that borders on being agonizing to listen to. It's not that the A note is so discordant, it's that they're off just enough and the note holds just long enough, to worm its way into the lizard part of your brain and make you panic. But it's when the concluding part three comes in, Marschlied, it's basically the same as part one, but it sounds totally different and almost calming. What was once agonizing to listen to is now pleasurable, and yes, you feel cleansed: head cleaned, if you will.
This is clearly what Aoyama Shinji was gunning for with ELI, ELI, LEMBA SABACHTANI, a kind of loose sci-fi flick set in a near future (2015) where an epidemic of suicide has nearly devastated the human race (or at least the Japanese countryside). Typical for Aoyama and something I like that is counter to Hollywood filmmaking is the resistance to and therefore lack of explanation about key information: what caused the disease and how is it transfered? No clue. For the story that Aoyama is trying to tell, it's of little importance. What he's more interested in is setting the mood of a wasteland where human life has virtually disappeared and only artistic expression offers a solution or solace to humanity's woes. The art in this movie is noise music and it is found to have a therapeutic quality that forestalls, but does not eradicate, suicidal behavior.
Asano Tadanobu and real life noise musician** (and award winning author) Nakahara Masaya play Mizui and Asahara respectively, two friends who are the most famous musicians in the world for their noise band Steppen Fetchit. Their brand of noise is a kind of guitar and location recording collage thing that finds them living out in the rural wastelands of Japan scavenging for parts to be used in their next noise performance. Old fans, rubber tubing and other sorts of brickabrack are put to use in their recording studio where they spend time making 5.1 surround sound noise. When Mizui and Asahara are approached by an aging politician and his detective friend to cure the politician's suicidal granddaughter, Hana (Miyazaki Aoi), they won't do it. For some reason this blatant exploitation of their art as a cure-all turns Mizui and Asahara off. But when it is revealed that Asahara also suffers from the suicidal bug and he, in fact, makes this artful noise to help himself, it turns out that Asahara is in a much more fragile stage than originally thought. The events that follow lead to the centerpiece of the movie-- and from all signals appears to be Aoyama Shinji's aim in making this film, in the first place -- the giant noise performance.
I'll be blunt about this film: it doesn't work as a whole. But the photography by veteran and genius DP Tamura Masaki (Lady Snowblood!) is first rate and the super scope aspect ratio of the film is fantastic. (If you're a fan of Tamura's work, and if you haven't seen it, check out one of the other Aoyama collaborations, the vastly superior: EUREKA). While I did enjoy the noise enough-- and let me tell you, it gives your surround sound system a nipple stimulating work out! -- the story and performance in the film is somehow lacking. I was never entirely sure of what Aoyama was after in so far as what he wanted to make me (as the audience) feel. In fact, the movie feels like more of a vanity project for Asano Tadanobu's noise music. (Check out Peace Pill for more on that.) As such, the film could have dispelled with story al together and just had two dudes hanging out in the countryside in a post apocalyptic wasteland making noise. Make the film basically dialog free and you'd be doing better. But as it stands ELI, ELI doesn't quite do it as a film.
These critiques on their own aren't to say that the film should be missed-- quite the contrary in fact. I would have loved to have seen this film in the theater and my lasting regret was that I didn't do so when I was in Japan during it's theatrical run. The experiential quality of the movie is worth a 107 minutes of your time. But the best I can recommend is have a drink (or a smoke, if you like), relax, turn off the lights and turn up the movie. Fall into the experience, but just don't expect much more than a pretty good noise performance-- but sometimes that's enough, I think.
(** Nakahara Masaya is the man behind the legendary noise project Violent Onsen Geisha.)
(* Headcleaner Live)