Review: Just Only Love/What Is Love?

When Rikiya Imaizumi’s latest movie premiered last year at the Tokyo International Film Festival, the official English title, Just Only Love, sounded a bit like nails on a chalkboard. The IMDb lists the movie’s English title as What Is Love?, which is a direct translation of the Japanese title, Ai ga Nan da. Some months later, I’ve actually come to the conclusion that the TIFF-designated title more accurately reflects the movie—not so much its story or theme, but rather its somewhat incoherent take on infatuation.

Teruko (Yukino Kishii), who is in her late 20s, is enamored of a disaffected young man, Mamoru (Ryo Narita). Though love seems to blossom, as often happens, the ardor of one of the principals in the relationship cools down, in this case Mamoru’s. Teruko’s, however, continues heating up to the point that she becomes obsessed, though it’s difficult to determine if this obsession represents love for the other or love for the love of the other. As a result Mamoru becomes even more turned off by Teruko.

Imaizumi, who adapted his script from a bestselling novel by Mitsuyo Kakuta, expands on the idea of obsession, turning it into a meditaion on loneliness, specificially the modern species, where young people are expected to live as individuals with their own distinct sensibilities. The pressure to belong makes people self-conscious in their relationships, and as the movie moves past the central romance it takes in other lonely people who comment, sometimes in ways that are a bit too on-the-nose, about what love really means in a world where everyone is an island.

The word “fool” is mentioned often in the film as the various characters essentially equate being in love with losing one’s mind. As Teruko and Mamoru move in and out of their relationship and test their feelings for others in their respective orbits, they learn to be more sensitive to these people’s feelings without necessarily abandoning their self-centered positions. Sometimes, the characters act so selfishly that you wonder how anyone would put up with them.

Heady matters for a romantic film, but Imaizumi fails to make them matter, expecially if you immediately see through the story’s conceits. The idea that this is the way modern love works doesn’t hold much water when you’ve got characters as insufferably scatter-brained as these two and their friends, and in the end it becomes too easy to blame their problems on their youth; that is, if you come to accept them as problems in the first place. Stories that posit romantic love as the be-all-and-end-all of human existence have to stoke a certain amount of fantasy fuel, and Just Only Love, true to its awkward title, fails to consider the larger world while at the same time providing insufficient imaginative fodder for a credible love story. It’s as circumscribed in its view of life as the little apartments all these people live in.

In Japanese. Now playing in Tokyo at Theatre Shinjuku (03-3352-1846), Cine Quinto (03-3477-5905), Yurakucho Subaru-za (03-3212-2826).

Just Only Love home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2019 Eiga Ai ga Nan da Seisaku Iinkai

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Review: Shazam!

Boosted as a welcome light touch for the DC Comics movie universe, this rambunctious, somewhat unfocused comedy doesn’t really pass muster as a proper superhero feature, and it’s difficult to tell whether that’s the point. If you broke it down as you would a normal story you’d find two trains of thought: a touching tale of a foster child finding a family that’s more supportive of his needs than he could ever expect, and a hackneyed fairy tale about the same boy being gifted with super powers he has a hard time dealing with. As far as the latter thread goes, the recent Into the Spider-verse already nailed that particular theme, and the former thread is never really given a chance to make its case since it’s always being interrupted by the superhero stuff. What’s left is mostly confusion, though quite entertaining as such.

Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is not the typical orphan with a chip on his shoulder, though he tries mightily to be that. His new foster family, which already contains three other children, including his roommate, the comic-obsessed Freddy (Jack Dylan Glazer), can’t quite tame his unruliness, which is basically super-smart kid sarcasm. His main goal is finding the birth mother who gave him up, but in the meantime he feels at least obliged to protect his new foster brother from the bullies who torment him endlessly, and one day, while escaping from said bullies on a subway, he ends up in the “lair” of a wizard (Djimon Hounsou) who has somehow chosen Billy for his “pure heart,” a quality that so far has gone unnoticed by the audience. The wizard, it turns out, has been searching for many years to find someone like Billy to whom he can impart his powers before he retires or whatever (it’s never quite clear why he needs to offload them). Actually, the viewer already knows this because in a very well done opening sequence that takes place in 1974, the wizard tries to impart these powers to another adolescent but changes his mind at the last minute. This boy still manages to absorb some of those powers and grows up into Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong), a rich industrialist whose mission is to somehow gain all the powers he couldn’t take the first time.

Billy is a reluctant hero at first, especially since in order to utilize his new powers he has to change into an adult (Zachary Levi), and the comic bits mostly involve this caped character, Shazam, working with Freddie to suss out what kinds of powers he has, and, for the most part, he turns out to be nothing more than Superman without the mature outlook. The bulk of the jokes are predicated on Billy’s teenage sensibility making sense of a grownup’s body. The confusion admitted to above is sparked when this tone runs up against the requisite superhero action scenes, which are between Shazam and Dr. Sivana. Suffice to say, they are as forgettable as any in the DC Comics cinematic universe, but, for sure, it will be interesting to see if Shazam is welcomed into the Justice League. I’d love to see his reaction to Wonder Woman.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Marunouchi Picadilly (03-3201-2881), Shinjuku Wald 9 (03-5369-4955), Shinjuku Picadilly (050-6861-3011), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Shibuya Toei (03-5467-5773), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

Shazam! home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2019 Warner Bros. Ent. (c) DC Comics

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Review: Stan & Ollie

Jon S. Baird’s loving tribute to the legacy of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy falls into a trap common to biopics of performers. The film focuses on an episode in the comedians’ career that occurred late in life, thus allowing the filmmakers simultaneously to provide an overview of that career and a comment on how it turned out. It’s the early 1950s, and Laurel and Hardy are obviously past their prime. They are touring music hall theaters throughout England, staging famous slapstick bits from their movies. Their fans are their age or older. Younger people, who don’t have widespread access to TV yet, barely know them and so aren’t interested in the show, which means the performances are lightly attended except in the larger cities. This background provides the narrative with its requisite bittersweet tone, and while Baird doesn’t force the point, he doesn’t seem to feel obliged to make any other case for their situation at the moment, which is made even more melancholy by the fact that the purpose of the tour is to drum up industry interest in a new movie, which Stan (Steve Coogan) is constantly working on by pitching new sketch proposals to his partner (John C. Reilly), who doesn’t seem particularly interested. Due to health problems and his relatively new wife (third? fourth?), Ollie has already assumed the attitude of a retired man.

This approach to the Laurel and Hardy legend effectively stifles our interest in what happened before, and the flashbacks of on-set problems, often involving their imperious producer, Hal Roach (Danny Huston), and whichever wives happened to be around, are rendered less interesting, illustrative rather than enlightening. There’s no sense of what made these men tick as comics and how their particular affinity for each other created such marvelous, indelible chemistry on screen. The overarching emotion is regret, but one that doesn’t have a distinct purchase on the action. We’re led to believe that the pair was one of the most successful acts of the 20th century, outshone only by Chaplin, but there’s little proof of that in the movie itself, and it has nothing to do with Coogan’s and Reilly’s portrayals, which are naturalistic and very convincing. It has to do with the idea that Baird assumes we love Stan and Ollie as much as he does and therefore are familiar with their legend and their art. As it stands, many of us probably are, simply because, unlike the invisible youth of England in the early 1950s, we grew up with television, where reruns of their classic shorts were ubiquitous. But you sort of expect more from a movie like this, and more from a director who is so enamored of his subjects.

Now playing in Tokyo at Marunouchi Picadilly (03-3201-2881), Shinjuku Picadilly (050-6861-3011).

Stan & Ollie home page in Japanese.

photo (c) eOne Features (S&O) Limited, British Broadcasting Corporation 2018

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Review: Shusenjo

In the press synopsis for his documentary, American director Miki Dezaki calls the comfort women issue “perhaps Japan’s most contentious present-day diplomatic quandary,” which is true to an extent but misleading in terms of scale. The issue of the comfort women, the euphemism used by the Japanese military to describe women who sexually serviced soldiers at officially sanctioned brothels during World War II, needs to be approached from the standpoint of overall responsibility for the Pacific War, which remains to this day unsettled in Japan while it has been mostly decided elsewhere. Though Japan was not alone in committing atrocities against civilian populations during that conflict, its acknowledgement of Japan’s primary role in instigating the war for purposes of territorial expansion has shifted over the years. The comfort women issue is simply one part of this problem.

Dezaki’s main contribution to a better understanding of the issue is his insistence that it is politically fraught. He sees it, right now anyway, as a no-holds-barred battle between ideologies in Japan, between purist right-wingers who can’t tolerate the thought that their fathers and grandfathers did something so terrible as kidnap young girls, mainly from colonial Korea but also from Japan and other countries, and force them into prostitution, and more cosmopolitan left-wingers who reflexively renounce anything the right wing stands for. Because of his unique position as a filmmaker—a Japanese-American who can gain interviews with both sides—he’s able to delve more deeply into the self-styled logic that each side brings to the argument, and since he himself obviously aligns with the non-revisionist side, he takes special care in allowing the conservative side to state their positions and their grievances.

Dezaki thus avoids many of the polemical traps that others who have tackled the subject tend to fall into. And his thoroughness is admirable, as he looks at not only the history of the “narrative” of the comfort women issue, but its context in the burgeoning conservative movement exemplified by the post-millennial rise of Shinzo Abe and his supporters in the right wing lobbying group Nippon Kaigi. The problem here is that Nippon Kaigi, as put forth in many Western accounts of their significance, is rendered almost monolithic, when in actuality it has had little effect on the public imagination. Interviews with popular right wing celebrities like Kent Gilbert and Yoshiko Sakurai (who figures prominently in the trailer but doesn’t get much screen time) prove that the right wing is obsessed with certain statistics that only bolster their case in isolation. It doesn’t take much pushback from the left wing (or acacemic-with-no-ideological-axes-to-grind) pundits interviewed to tear down their arguments, which, in the end, points up the film’s main drawback.

It’s been the strategy of the revisionists (a term Sakurai, for one, denies, as if the right wing version of the war is the one everyone has accepted) to limit their argument to facts that can be documentarily proven, because they believe, somewhat naively, that people only trust stuff that’s written down. But history is also about experience and human nature and our understanding of how those things work over time. Though there is plenty of documentary evidence showing that the comfort women were coerced and fooled by the authorities at the time, both Japanese and Korean, the main reason most believe the few surviving sex slaves is that there is no reason not to believe them. We understand what men do during war and despite specious claims that the comfort station system was set up by private vendors and all the women were “professional” prostitutes, there was nothing that happened during the war years that was not overseen by the Japanese military authorities. More to the point, even so-called professional prostitutes were essentially enslaved since, like the soldiers they serviced, they had no choice in the matter. The point is that the right wing, constitutionally repulsed by the whole sexual element involved and willfully ignorant of how men feel they can treat women any way they like, especially under extreme circumstances like a war, tries to use circumscribed logic to deny Japan’s responsibilities when, in truth, war creates monsters. This is the aspect of the comfort women issue that was not addressed in Shusenjo, and I don’t think it’s because it’s too nuanced or difficult to understand. It’s just that the reactionary side of the argument has managed to control how that argument is framed.

In English and Japanese. Now playing in Tokyo at Image Forum Aoyama (03-5766-0114). Special English and Japanese subtitled version screened Friday evenings.

Shusenjo home page in Japanese and in English.

photo (c) No Man Productions LLC

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Review: Beautiful Boy

Kudos to director Felix Van Groeningen for managing to fuse two different memoirs about the same topic into a movie that doesn’t become a mine field of conflicting points-of-view. The true story of Nic Sheff’s decade-plus battle with drug addiction was the subject of two books, Sheff’s own and another written by his father, David Sheff, a veteran journalist. Both were published in 2008 and recall events that started in the early 1990s. It’s both chronologically apt and a bit worrying that Nirvana plays such a prominent role in the beginning of the movie.

The narrative moves back-and-forth through time in an attempt to figure out not only how a kid (Timothee Chalamet) from such a privileged and liberal-minded family could end up a slave to pills and meth but why his father’s (Steve Carell) equally liberal-minded approach to the problem—he prefers to see the “enemy” as the addiction and not his son—never really worked. In that regard, Van Groeningen perhaps places too much emphasis on the milieu. David lives in a rambling designer home situated in idyllic, wooded isolation in Northern California with his second wife, Karen (Maura Tierney), who effectively raised Nic since they married when he was about 10. Nic is still in touch with his more standoffish birth mother (Amy Ryan), who also lives in upper middle class comfort in Los Angeles. Van Groeiningen’s point is that Nic became an addict despite his surroundings, an unnecessary implication since it is almost always the case that it is an addict’s personality that’s the problem rather than his surroundings or his upbringing exclusively; except, of course, that privilege has its emotional traps as well.

Still, it’s mainly David’s movie, and while scenes that address Nic in a more deliberate manner are plentiful, they are more or less illustrative of the kind of spiraling-down behavior we’ve become accustomed to in movies about addiction—the constant lying to loved ones, the casual criminality, the multiple failed attempts at rehabilitation. But then again, David’s scenes are mostly reactive. With each failure of his son to kick his habit and, thus, his own failure to come up with a plan that works, he sinks deeper into his own depression and instability. Though he tries not to fall back on “platitudes,” as he calls them, David cannot help but reach for every possible remedy, regardless of how suspicious he was of them earlier. At one point, he even buys some meth himself and tries it in an attempt at empathy that goes nowhere.

Though I haven’t read either book, it’s easy to get the feeling that both are open-ended essays on their authors’ respective experiences and what those experiences taught them. As such, the action in the movie doesn’t always feel consistent, as if Van Groeningen needed to create situations in order to provide the viewer with a comprehensible narrative, and that may explain why the movie never reaches a satisfying conclusion. By all rights, it shouldn’t, because that’s how life works, but the arc of the drama here creates certain expectations. The habits of conventional moviemaking are sometimes as difficult to kick as opium.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024), Shinjuku Cinema Qualite (03-3352-5645).

Beautiful Boy home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2018 Amazon Content Services LLC

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Media Mix, April 14, 2019

Proposed locations for the two Aegis Ashore systems being purchased by Japan

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the Aegis Ashore anti-missile system that Japan says it will set up in Akita and Yamaguchi Prefectures. The bulk of the column references a conversation between journalists Shunji Taoka and Osamu Aoki on the latter’s J-Wave FM radio show, but only partially. Though the two reporters only talked for about 20 minutes, Taoka covered a lot of ground that should be aired more widely in other media. As usual, the nuance and detail of this kind of research and analysis tends to get lost on mainstream media, and there are enough broad arguments against the Aegis Ashore system to provoke skepticism among the general public as to its necessity, especially with regards to the outrageous cost of the whole thing. But for the record, here are some other points Taoka brought up.

-The Defense Ministry rationale for the kind of “vigilance” afforded by Aegis Ashore is that North Korea’s missile launch capability is pretty much complete, but Taoka says the technology being used by NK is already outmoded and very easy to detect.

-The U.S. Defense Department initial estimate of the cost of the two systems was ¥160 billion. Presently, the estimate is ¥466 billion, not including the missiles themselves, which cost up to ¥4 million a piece, and the standard order is for 24 missiles per system. That means, the real cost is at least ¥700 billion, but given that the systems won’t be installed for a number of years, the price will surely go up, because it always does with weapons bought from the U.S. And Japan always pays what the U.S. demands without trying to bargain the price down.

-The Self-Defense Forces never requested the Aegis Ashore system. The U.S. basically told Japan that it needs it.

-The Aegis Ashore and other security-related purchases are not factored into U.S.-Japan trade balance figures.

-Japan is required to pay for the systems before they are delivered, and they are almost never delivered on time.

-Money for Aegis Ashore will come out of the GSDF budget, which is fixed, so the government will have to eliminate a large number of items already budgeted in order to pay for it.

-When Abe started his second stint as prime minister, Japan paid ¥130 billion a year to the U.S. for weapons. It’s now ¥650 billion. Japanese defense contractors have lost business since he took office. (But this, in fact, may be a good thing, because as a result many contractors, like Mitsubishi Heavy Industry, have decided to get out of the weapons business.)

-The Self-Defense Forces do not want the Aegis Ashore because of the above-mentioned budget problems, and it would also likely increase tensions with locals in areas where the systems are installed. As for the fear of electromagnetic radiation, the radar used by the system requires 400,000 times the amount of power required for a standard wi-fi signal, which is what the Defense Ministry is comparing the radar signal to. Taoka doesn’t say if this is a health hazard or not. He simply wants to point out that the government isn’t being forthright on the matter.

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Review: Lean On Pete

It’s tempting to imagine that the British director Andrew Haigh is encountering the milieu of his latest film with the same kind of fresh awareness that the audience encounters it as it watches his movie. There’s something about this depiction of the seedier parts of Portland, Oregon, that feels almost shocking in its unexpectedness. Based on a novel by the songwriter Willy Vlautin, whose band the Delines covers much the same kind of rustic waywardness as that put forth in the film, Haigh’s script always seems to be in the process of unfolding truths that don’t come easy. It keeps you off balance, and slightly on edge.

Fifteen-year-old Charley (Charlie Plummer) seems to be permanently stuck in limbo. Living precariously with a deadbeat dad (Travis Fimmel), who knows he should take better care of his son but can’t seem to summon the wherewithal to even look him in the eye, Charley is very much on his own both economically and spiritually. He hardly goes to school and his father doesn’t make him, instead giving him errands and paying him for them, as if that were the bare minimum expected of a parent. Charley, in fact, has more fellow feeling for his father’s current girlfriend, who feels at least sorry for Charley, though not necessarily in a maternal kind of way.

Eventually, he falls into a job at the local racetrack, where a horse trainer named Del (Steve Buscemi) desperately needs someone to take care of the animals. Charley, who lies his way into the position, is forced to be a quick study, especially since Del doesn’t suffer fools lightly. But in that odd kind of working class way, Del and Charley take to each other despite the lack of real honesty between them, and that feeling transfers to Del’s jockey, Bonnie (Chloe Sevigny), and to the unfortunate quarter horse that gives the movie its title. Given his impressionable age, Charley can’t help but identify with this horse, which isn’t good enough for anything more than pickup races. Del and Bonnie are careful to remind him that Pete “isn’t a pet.” He’s a commodity, and only worth something to the world as long as he wins. When he doesn’t, then he’ll be gone. Given that Del dopes and overrides the animal, that end comes sooner than Charley can handle.

It says something about Charley that the violent loss of his father, which should result in Charley’s being sent to an institution, is less traumatic for the boy than the possible loss of Pete through normal economic exigency, and while Charley’s way of handling this possible loss is extreme and foolish, it has the effect of leading the viewer into a world that’s more beautiful, albeit much more dangerous. The second half of the film—basically a road movie on horseback—is weird and discomfiting, but also fascinating. Charley is desperate for a new home, though the audience realizes right away that even if he reaches his destination, it will never be what he envisions. There are few teenage tragedies as heartbreaking as dashed hopes, and Haigh knows exactly what that’s worth.

Now playing in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551), Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608).

Lean On Pete home page in Japanese.

photo (c) The Bureau Film Company Limited, Channel Four Television Corporation and the British Film Institute 2017

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