Writers: Ikki Kajiwara (original Manga), Takayuki Takuma
Cast: Satoshi Tsumabuki, Emi Takei
Takashi Miike returns with the adaptation of a manga by Ikki Kajiwara and Takumi Nagayasu – filmed many times before – about a rich young girl’s impossible love for a boy from the wrong side of the tracks. The original title Ai to makoto means ‘Love and Sincerity’, which is also the name of the two main characters. Ai (Emi Takei) is a sweet young girl from a well-to-do family, who was rescued by Makoto (Satoshi Tsumabuki) while skiing as a child. When Makoto returns to Tokyo for revenge and immediately gets into a fight, Ai does all she can to save him from his delinquent life. An insanely colourful, at times kitsch teen melodrama, For Love’s Sake mixes the badass attitude and energy of Crows Zero with the demented chirpiness of The Happiness of the Katakuris. It may not be Miike at his most ground-breaking or daring, but the film is wildly entertaining. The director once more demonstrates his boundless inventiveness and impressive visual sense with a variety of animated sequences and (cheesy) musical numbers, as well as great decors, gorgeous colours and brilliantly choreographed fights, all pulsating with his customary high-voltage energy.
After the success of the Death Note series, an inevitable wave of similar films followed, most of them epic-scale, multi-part adaptations of acclaimed - and equally lengthy - manga or animé series. Many of these films centre on competition and gameplay, frequently involving two or more opposing groups, a series of complex rules and a great deal of strategy.
In Death Note the contest is between the intellects of suave psychopath Light and the misfit genius L, each restricted by the rules of the notebooks and relying upon increasingly brilliant strategies and moves to defeat the other. In Tôya Satô’s Kaiji: The Ultimate Gambler (2009) 30-something gambling addict Tatsuya Fujiwara - the star of Battle Royale (2000) and Death Note - is pitted against several other no-hopers in a series of unpleasant challenges, observed by rich gamblers who make bets on their lives. Fujiwara returns in Hideo Nakata’s reality TV-influenced The Incite Mill (2010), in which 10 lucky contestants are locked in an underground complex for 10 days and told to kill each other while TV audiences watch. Less deadly but more popular is Liar Game (2007), a series that started on television and moved to the big screen with Hiroaki Matsuyama’s Liar Game: The Final Stage (2010), in which the players constantly try to outwit each other for large sums of cash. At the cheaper, nastier end of the spectrum we have Tokyo Gore School (2009) and the two Death Tube films, all of them directed by Chanbara Beauty director Yôhei Fukuda. As well as Death Note, this concept of individuals or teams pitted against each other for sport, punishment, personal gain or the entertainment of others is immediately reminiscent of Battle Royale - and, to a lesser extent, the Saw franchise - although few of them feature similar levels of brutality and violence.
Among the most interesting of the post-Death Note films are Shinsuke Satô’s Gantz (2010) and Gantz: Perfect Answer (2011), the two-part adaptation of Hiroya Oku’s hit manga and the subsequent animé series. In Gantz players are transported at the moment of their demise to an empty apartment, occupied by a large black globe. The globe - known somewhat mysteriously as ‘Gantz’ - provides the nonplussed players with futuristic weapons and equipment, and outlines their new ‘mission’: killing aliens. The aliens themselves are a strange bunch, some appearing to be entirely human, with others looking like enormous Buddhist statues or life-size toy robots. For each kill the players are awarded points, and accumulating more than 100 points allows the player to either come back from the dead and continue their life - with a convenient dose of amnesia, of course - or to resurrect another player and bring them back into the game. One-time school friends Kei (Kazunari Ninomiya) and Katô (Kenichi Matsuyama, who played L in the Death Note films) find themselves drafted when they are accidentally killed by a passing train. Their new weapons and equipment give them great strength and protect them from major injuries, but they’re not born fighters or violent by nature, and it isn’t until several of the other players have been killed or injured that Kei and Katô come to terms with what is expected of them.
Predictably enough, Gantz gives both its players and the audience precious little in the way of explanations and background information. If these creatures are aliens, where are they from and why are they here? Why do they need to be killed? Aside from accusing the players of murdering their friends, the aliens aren’t much help either. And what exactly is Gantz? An early scene in the first film shows us that the black globe contains what seems to be a comatose man on life-support machines, but no further information is provided. Trapped in their Kafka-esque nightmare, the players can only continue to fight, with no real sense of who they’re fighting for or why.
However, Gantz gives them little time to ponder their fate by pitting them against a quick succession of increasingly powerful enemies. It is these well-choreographed and bloody fight sequences that form the core of the first film, introducing the main characters and the central concepts. The sequel, Gantz: Perfect Answer, brings in several plot twists and devices that push the tension up a few notches, as well as providing the requisite number of jaw-dropping fights. Not content with simply recruiting from the recently dead, Gantz now seems to be employing an assistant to ensure that certain people are selected - by killing them. It’s not entirely clear why Gantz needs those individuals or what his long-term goals are, but things take a turn for the decidedly sinister when the name of one of Kei’s closest friends appears on their target list, even though she is obviously not an alien.
These fights are more than just visual treats, however, allowing the audience to fully understand the rules surrounding the ‘game’. They also underline the relationships and emotional connections between the various characters. Kei might spend a great deal of time trying to attract the attention of the pretty Kishimoto (played by actress-model Natsuna), but when he gets the chance to resurrect another player, he doesn’t choose her. Even though Kei pretended not to recognise his former schoolmate Katô when they saw each other at the station and later in the apartment, it’s immediately apparent that he’s going to bring him back. Eventually it’s another player - cult veteran Tomorowo Taguchi, star of the first two Tetsuo films - who resurrects Katô, but later on Kei still picks someone other than Kishimoto. Unlike many similar films, Gantz makes an effort to build and define its central characters, something that gives the physical combat an extra level of impact; they’re not just pins to be knocked down in their droves, and their deaths in the Gantz ‘arena’ have very real effects.
Although the Gantz movies have earned critical acclaim and performed well at the box office, they are less likely to be greeted favourably by fans of the original manga and the animé adaptation. For a start, the material has been toned down, with the nudity and sexual content removed. Certain characters have been altered too - most obviously Kei, who is considerably more arrogant and less friendly in his earlier incarnations. However, both films capture the adrenaline-fuelled thrills of the original manga, and they’re also two of the best sci-fi/action movies you’re likely to see in the near future, from anywhere.
Directed by Sion Sono, who brought us Suicide Club (2001), and more recently Cold Fish (2010), Himizu is an urgent and topical film. Located in the midst of the devastation in the aftermath of the tsunami of 2011, the film shows a society that is not only physically destroyed but also socially falling to pieces. Fifteen-year-old Yuichi Sumida (Shôta Sometani) lives with his neglectful mother in a boat hire shop. His drunken father only lurches into view when he needs cash and curses Sumida, wishing him dead and reminding him about the time he saved Sumida from drowning, an act he bitterly regrets on account of the insurance he could have claimed. Sumida is also the object of a school girl crush on the part of the hyper Keiko (Fumi Nikaidô) - ‘Am I a stalker? Yes, I am’ - to whom he is (at best) indifferent. The boat house is also a gathering place for a disparate bunch of refugees who serve as a Greek chorus and attempt to help Sumida in his troubles even as he hopelessly pursues his wish to lead an ordinary, normal and boring life.
Tragedy overtakes him, however, and with his chances of normality gone forever, he teeters on the edge of madness, haunted by recurring dreams of apocalypse. Threatened also by the yakuza, who are pursuing his father’s gambling debts, Sumida considers suicide but wants to do something genuinely good that will redeem him before he dies.
Sono’s film is a deeply unsettling view of modern day Japan. It is a society in which the adults have an antagonistic, if not downright hostile, relationship to their offspring. Sumida’s parents are blandly negligent on one side and furiously hateful on the other, but this isn’t simply an isolated case. Keiko interrupts her mother and father, who are in the process of building her a gallows. ‘You’ll use it when we’ve finished,’ they tell her. School is an irrelevance that spouts new age platitudes about hope and individuality while having no real impact on the lives of the pupils. The only sympathetic adults in the piece are the refugees, but they themselves have had their lives reduced to vagabondage that in its precarious vulnerability is not that far from childhood.
Although originally based on a manga by Minoru Furuya, the script was changed at the last minute by Sono to incorporate the tsunami and the subsequent nuclear drama that was played out. Sono took his crew to one of the most devastated areas for some of the scenes. The film was premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September 2011, a mere six months after the tsunami had hit Japan. It treats the aftermath in a tangential manner, alluding rather than depicting. But the whole film is imbued with an out-of-joint surreality, a topsy-turvy universe in which the generations are pitched against each other. There is no sign of authority and every now and then an ominous growling roar is heard as if there is another earthquake on its way, waiting to happen on the margins of the frame. This is a much more serious film than the dark comedy of Cold Fish. Despite the freakishness of the plot, there is a mournful tone that the use of Mozart and Samuel Barber reinforces. This is a satirical and in some ways despairingly angry film. In its privileging of the point of view of the young, Himizu is reminiscent of The Tin Drum (Volker Schlöndorff, 1979). Hope, if it is to come at all, will be brought out by the young kids who play out their relationship in the worst possible conditions and yet have an independence and resilience that will allow them in some way to survive.
Takashi Miike’s 2007 high school actioner is released on DVD on 9 April 2012 by MVM. Another typically ultra-stylised and violent offering from the director of Ichi the Killer and 13 Assassins, Crows Zero charts the battle between two delinquent boys and their factions fighting for supremacy in the lawless Suzuran high school. Based on the bestselling manga by Hiroshi Takahashi (screenwriter of the original Ring movies), Crows Zero is one of Miike’s most commercially successful movies.
Lady Snowblood started her life as the heroine of a manga written by Kazuo Koike in the early 70s, before being incarnated by the actress Meiko Kaji in two film adaptations of the story, Lady Snowblood: Blizzard from the Netherworld (1973) and Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance (1974), both directed by Toshiya Fujita. Strong from her turns as the leader of a delinquent girl gang in the Stray Cat Rock series (1970-71), and as a cold-blooded avenger in the Female Convict Scorpion films (1972-73), the enigmatic, steely-eyed Kaji was the perfect choice to play a 19th-century assassin out to avenge the rape of her mother and the murder of her family.
Blizzard from the Netherworld opens in Tokyo Prison in Meiji 7 (1874). A woman gives birth as snow falls outside, announcing to her newborn daughter, barely out of the womb: ‘Yuki, you were born for vengeance, a child of the netherworld.’ The film cuts to the now adult Yuki dispatching a local criminal in an eerily quiet, snowy street. As she squares up to the gangster’s henchmen, snow falls from a nearby roof, landing inches from their feet, an act of aggression that suggests that Yuki is almost supernaturally in control. As we are repeatedly told throughout the film, Yuki is not quite human; her name means ‘snow’ in Japanese, and she is an elemental force, unstoppable and indestructible. Conjured up from hell to carry out her mother’s revenge, she is the embodiment of an idée fixe.
Her full name, ‘Shurayuki-hime’, is a pun on the Japanese for Snow White, ‘Shirayuki-hime’. The Kanji character ‘Shura’ means ‘the netherworld’, a place of carnage, and ‘hime’ is ‘princess’. In the Grimm fairy tale, Snow White is also conjured up by her mother out of blood and snow: the queen, having pricked her finger and seen the drop of blood on the snow, wishes for a daughter that would have ‘skin white as snow, lips red as blood, and hair black as ebony’. Just like Lady Snowblood, Snow White is plucked from her mother’s fancy, and fashioned out of the elements that the queen can see around her. This quasi-magical birth conveys all the mystery of procreation, and the combination of blood and snow clearly has sexual undertones, with the hot red flow fertilising white water; a mixing of fluids, but also of states, liquid and solid, life and death, to create a new being. No wonder that the combination of blood and snow, so over-used, still remains powerful: it is the image of primordial creation.
Or destruction, in the case of Yuki. As she walks away from the first scene of carnage, the narrator explains: ‘People say that what cleanses this world of decay is not pure white snow but snow that is stained fiery red: the snow of the netherworld.’ It is a striking inversion of the symbolism of snow, and the image is brilliantly paradoxical. True to her name, Yuki is a contradictory being: a demonic creature hell-bent on destruction, but pure in her single-minded purpose of revenge.
Visually, the film makes much of the white/red contrast, starting with the female convicts in their red prison uniforms surrounding the newborn Yuki, wrapped in a white cloth. Yuki wears a white kimono for most of the film, the perfect backdrop for the Grand Guignol sprays of blood that regularly gush out of her victims. White clothes are in fact the starting point of the whole story: the husband of Yuki’s mother was killed because he was wearing white, and for that reason was mistakenly taken for a hated government official.
Naturally, the film ends with more blood and snow. Having accomplished the final act of her revenge, Yuki staggers out in the snow, wounded, her white kimono stained with blood. Clearly the welding of these elements - snow, blood, women and revenge - exerts a strange attraction, with that final scene in particular sowing seeds in the imagination of other filmmakers. Norifumi Suzuki’s Sex and Fury, released in 1973, was seemingly influenced by Blizzard from the Netherworld, although it upped the quotient of nudity, violence and sheer lunacy. Suzuki’s film similarly ends with the heroine stumbling out in the snow, her bare tattooed chest covered in blood, which she cleans with a handful of snow before walking away in the darkness as the snowflakes turn into hanafuda gambling cards. No such inventive re-interpretation in Tarantino’s Kill Bill 1 (2003), which simply regurgitated its cinematic precedents like a lesson well learnt. Park Chan-wook, on the other hand, ended his Lady Vengeance (2005) with the heroine being given tofu by her daughter; as they embrace in the snow, the white substances inside and around her offer the promise of cleansing and renewal. The snow holds no such promise at the end of Blizzard from the Netherworld, unique in its complex reading of snow; herself the purifier, Yuki is beyond cleansing and can only carry on down her path of revenge, even as all her enemies lie dead.