Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Five of the Wildest, the Weirdest, Most Violent & Obscure Japanese Movies Ever Made

The Land of the Rising Sun has hundreds of totally bonkers, unbelievably outrageous, highly offensive, and kookily creative examples of cinema that go beyond what would be deemed the mainstream here in America. Below are five obscure samples (outside of cult film circles) of Japan's alternative, controversial, and or downright quirky brand of outcast cinema.

***WARNING! This article contains nudity***


Outlaw filmmaker, the eccentric Teruo Ishii, was the perverse, yet ingenious mastermind behind a string of inflammatory films that dealt with the most grotesque tortures and gruesome deaths imaginable. Misogynistic in the extreme, this series (whose only connection from one film to the next are its depictions of humiliation and bodily destruction) officially kicked off with this anthology that showcases women being decapitated, cut in half, burned alive, and crucified before being repeatedly stabbed with spears. If that weren't enough, there's also incest, vaginal tortures, and a convent of sex-crazed, psychotic nuns! Ishii's similar TOKUGAWA ONNA KEIZU (TOKUGAWA WOMEN'S GENEALOGY) was released earlier in '68, but the extremes didn't set in till this entry. Somewhere lost within all the screams of pain and broken bodies is a message about capital punishment and the psychological damage incurred by those who indulge in it. Ishii's movie is powerful stuff even today, and is the unheralded progenitor of the so-called 'Torture Porn' sub-genre. If you've seen Takashi Miike's MASTERS OF HORROR episode, 'Imprint', then you have some idea of what to expect from this 17th century set sadism story.

Other films in Ishii's torture-ography include: TOKUGAWA TATTOO HISTORY (1969), ORGIES OF EDO (1969), MEIJI ERA, TAISHO ERA, SHOWA ERA: GROTESQUE CASES OF CRUELTY TO WOMEN (1969) and YAKUZA TORTURE HISTORY: LYNCHING! (1969). There were other similar films made by other directors in the 70s and 80s. See also Norifumi Suzuki's SCHOOL OF THE HOLY BEAST (1974), Ishii's BOHACHI BUSHIDO: CODE OF THE FORGOTTEN EIGHT (1973) and Yuji Makiguchi's beyond nasty SHOGUN'S SADISM (only if you have the stomach for it) from 1976.


The last place you'd expect to find a European style Dracula movie would be Japan, but they did them; most notably a triumvirate of terror in the 1970s from director Michio Yamamoto. His second film in his unrelated 'Bloodthirsty Trilogy' is arguably the best of the three films. It adheres to the typical Anglo interpretations of the fanged fiend, and even draws blood from the YORGA movies that were popular at the time. A visually impressive, and Gothic assimilation, this remarkably unusual movie nonetheless feels totally out of place within the folkloric conventions of Japan's own supernatural denizens. It has some genuine 'boo' moments, too, that are still effective over 40 years after its release. Mori Kishida gives an incredible, yet underrated performance as Dracula. He played the character again, if ambiguously, in 1974s lesser, but sleazier EVIL OF DRACULA. Arguably the eeriest, most beautifully bizarre movie on this list.

LAKE OF DRACULA and EVIL OF DRACULA were dubbed into English and released to videotape in America. The first film of the 'Bloodthirsty Trilogy', THE VAMPIRE DOLL, was not. LAKE was reportedly released as JAPULA in some markets. See also GOKE, BODYSNATCHER FROM HELL.


After helming FUNERAL PARADE OF ROSES (1969) -- a film about Tokyo's underground gay scene -- famed filmmaker Matsumoto Toshio fashioned this dark, forbidding jidai-geki horror tale that explores the blackest recesses of the human psyche. A variant of the many interpretations of the '47 Ronin' historical account, Matsumoto's movie presents a 48th Ronin whose desire for a prostitute gets in the way of his duty. Lies are piled upon lies, and the end result is a gruesome revenge that punctuates a cruel, ironic finality that leaves no one unscathed. Banned in some territories, the 134 minute film spirals to hell in an ever encroaching B/W after but a single opening shot of color. One of the grimmest presentations you're likely to encounter in your lifetime. Matsumoto's movie is among the finest examples of samurai horror.

SHURA is based on the 19th century play 'Kamikakete Sango Taisetsu' (The Love Crazed Samurai) written by Nanboku Tsuruya -- who also wrote the oft-filmed, and famous 'Yotsuya Kaidan', aka GHOST OF YOTSUYA. See also DAIMAJIN (1966), KURONEKO (1968), SAMURAI REINCARNATION (1980), or GHOST OF YOTSUYA (1959).

4. ESPY 1974 aka ESUPAI (ESPy)

Arguably the most gonzo, outrageous, and infinitely imaginative movie on this list is this SciFi-spy-gore movie from Jun Fukuda (GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA [1974]). It's about a secret syndicate of psychic super spies at war with an equally powerful organization of psychic assassins led by Ulrov (a must see, Draculean performance by Wakayama Tomisaburo), a powerful ESP'er hellbent on mankind's destruction. A duel within his trap-filled castle closes this live-action manga movie on a high note. Assassinations, exploding bodies, breasts, Willie Dorsey's tongue is psychically ripped out of his mouth, and an array of Extra Sensory Perception powers keep this one from ever losing steam. Katsumasa Uchida makes a mark as the relentless, telekinetic terminator Goro. Fukuda's lively action married to exploitation elements will blow your mind.

Along with JAPAN SINKS (SUBMERSION OF JAPAN) and DAY OF RESURRECTION (VIRUS), ESPY was among the many works of Science Fiction writer, Sakyo Komatsu that was brought to life on the big screen. ESPY kind of stands alone, but you might also like Daiei's YOKAI MONSTERS trilogy and MESSAGE FROM SPACE (1978).


Norifumi Suzuki gave the world some thoroughly wild Japanese movies like SEX AND FURY (1973), SCHOOL OF THE HOLY BEAST (1974), THE KILLING MACHINE (1975), and SHOGUN'S NINJA (1980). Suzuki's HOERO TEKKEN, a solo effort for Sanada Hiroyuki from 1981, is a kitchen sink movie from Toei Studios that finds him living in Texas and raising cattle till he ends up in Japan trying to find out what happened to his twin brother. The threadbare plot concerning a valuable family diamond, Hong Kong gangsters and Karate fights only exists to trot out a parade of colorfully costumed characters -- Abdullah the Butcher (who was very popular in Japan at the time) as a guy named Spartacus, Sonny Chiba playing an undercover Interpol agent moonlighting as a magician (?!) and Narita Mikio as the Nazi villain (?!?!). For the first hour the tone fluctuates wildly (generously splashy blood squibs share the screen with screwball comedy bits) and finally settles on being serious thereafter. The filmmakers manage to find room for Etsuko Shihomi, too; and there's some impressive stuntwork including a double decker bus set piece that Jackie Chan must have seen. Logic is totally tossed out the window for this one; and it seems glaringly apparent Suzuki was attempting to replicate the nonsensical, madcap approach of Ishii's THE EXECUTIONER 2 (1974).

This boneheaded Nipponese kitsch was released here as ROARING FIRE in 1982 where Sanada (often referred to as Henry Sanada) was marketed as Duke Sanada! Watch for the huge movie theater marquee showing Marino Girolami's ZOMBI HOLOCAUST (1980)! THE STREETFIGHTER (1974), THE EXECUTIONER films, and SISTER STREETFIGHTER series are in a similar vein.

There you have it -- five films of varying levels of good taste and production quality, but all representative of Japan's 'anything goes' approach to movies. If you're looking for something off the beaten path, or of a classy, dark nature; or simply looking to have a good time, any one of these five obscure movies will do.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Cinema Scorned: 47 Ronin (2013) review


47 RONIN 2013

Keanu Reeves (Kai), Sanada Hiroyuki (Kuranosuke Oishi), Tadanobu Asano (Lord Kira), Rinko Kikuchi (Mizuki), Shibasaki Ko (Mika), Min Tanaka (Lord Asano), Cary Hiroyuki Tagawa (Tsunayoshi), Neil Fingleton (Giant Samurai)

Directed by Carl Rinsch

The Short Version: Keanu Reeves wishes he was turning Japanese as the expressionless samurai half-breed who, among the title masterless swordsmen, saves Japan from a fate worse than bloated budgeted Hollywood epics. One of the most famous Nipponese historical accounts is turned into outright fantasy replete with witches and monsters. It's also a place where everything is written or chiseled in Japanese; but everybody speaks fluent English; and no one even acts like they're Japanese despite being Japanese. Sonny Chiba's most famous acolyte, Sanada Hiroyuki gets as much, if not more screen time than Reeves does -- yet seems just as incongruous as Chiba and his modern militia did time-warped to Feudal Era Japan in SENGOKU JIEITAI (1979). Someone attached to this "half-breed", mediocre movie was obviously a fan of Japan's own historical-fantasy films like SHOGUN'S NINJA (1980) and SAMURAI REINCARNATION (1981) -- watch one of those instead. Arguably more damaging than the finished product is that Universal (wisely) failed to allow this misguided opus to commit cinematic seppuka with honor by banking on its failure well in advance of its release.

A half-Japanese and a band of samurai outcasts vow to avenge the disgrace, and death of their lord Asano resulting from a plot between a duplicitous rival and an evil witch. With Asano's daughter now promised to marry the devious Lord Kira after a years time, the banished Ronin attempt to save her from Kira's clutches.

The numerous adaptions of stage and screen for 'The 47 Ronin' have somehow led to this bizarre American concoction that, after the contamination of this bomb has settled, the brains behind it will no doubt reiterate, "It seemed like a good idea at the time". Facts are often not as interesting as fiction, and the makers of this massive misfire use facts as a crutch for a fantasy fueled framework that is about as enjoyable as taking a Sonny Chiba death punch to the nether regions.

Based on an 18th century historical event, Universal Pictures likely regrets bankrolling this highly troubled US interpretation of the oft-filmed classic tale. This is Universal's second attempt at making an Eastern style motion picture; the first being the dismal and retarded THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS. Just like that awful 20 million "kung fu" movie, the company fails at capturing even a fragment of the Silver Screen samurai spirit with a much bigger $175 million to throw around.

That the Japanese audience has shown disdain towards this North American raping of a classic story hopefully is not lost on the hard-headed suits in Hollywood. Universal themselves, showed little regard for their production by adjusting for huge losses well in advance of the film coming out.

The first huge mistake was attempting to film a non-American story by inserting Anglo heroism into it via The Man with the Face of Stone, Keanu Reeves. Adding to the cacophony of mismatched elements is having the Japanese dominated cast all speak English; and they speak their dialog soooo slooooowlyyyyyy. One doesn't need to be a Jedi to feel the uncomfortability flowing through the cast members onscreen. Nevermind that everything in the film is WRITTEN in Japanese. Then there are the various monsters, demons and witches populating this potpourri of pee-yew that feel out of place. The Yokai (the creatures are never referred to as such) are more Tolkienesque than anything from Asian folklore; although the usage of a fox and the witch woman's black hair that moves about on its own has a Japanese familiarity.

Taking fantastical concepts and melding them within a historical context is nothing new; it works just fine in movies like RENEGADE NINJAS (1976), SHOGUN'S NINJA (1980), SAMURAI REINCARNATION (1981) and LEGEND OF THE EIGHT SAMURAI (1984); but those were Japanese movies made by Japanese production companies. It made sense when they did it. For an American picture to use a distinctly Japanese property and deform it in this fashion is akin to the Japanese shooting a film about Pearl Harbor wherein they are the good guys and win the war with Godzilla's help; or using the battle at the Alamo as your setting, but adding ravenous vampires laying siege to the fort. How about a western utilizing an entirely Asian cast? Wait, that's happened a few times already.

Hollyweird's version of 47 RONIN never feels like its origin lies in Japanese lore, either. Despite the cast being made up of 99.9% of Nipponese performers, the body language and mannerisms are not in sync with classic chambara interpretations. The common practice of bowing is treated as some sort of drama building tool to accentuate a scene or character. The editing of some of the bowing bits feels parodic in certain instances. An instance of this is when Asano commits ritual suicide. Before Oishi decapitates him, Asano, after cutting open his belly, turns to Oishi and nods his head. Oishi does the same then cuts him. There are often these close ups of characters bowing to each other that, instead of being a simple show of respect, is shot to convey some suspenseful innuendo that will come to a head at a later point.

The costumes are also a rainbow of fruit flavors that take on a Hong Kong FIVE VENOM style of fashion sense. There are groups dressed all in the brightest blues, reds and yellows to let you know just what faction, or group they belong to. However, once the film becomes even more confused about what it wants to be, the color coding goes away, as does the films main reason for being -- supplanted by an all new storyline, and only revisiting its source when it becomes convenient towards the end.

The script is also a huge mess. Suffering a cavalcade of delays and numerous re-shoots, the lack of major set pieces makes one wonder just where in the hell the bulk of the $175 million budget went. There are action scenes, but virtually none of them feel like anything more than a medium level action sequence bridging a much bigger one that never comes. Even the finale lacks oomph. The ending is moderately satisfying, but it misses a few grand opportunities to go out with a bang settling instead for one big firecracker. An example of this would be this 8 foot, silver-plated, Daimajin-like samurai villain. His participation in a few scenes is but a tease that hints at a huge fight at the end. But upon setting up a battle between the giant and the 47 Ronin, he's blown up before a fight has a chance to take shape. What we do get is a reported re-shot finale which finds something for Reeves to do instead.

The title outcasts are also wasted in their own movie. Other than a couple of them, they are all little more than stock characters in the very film named after them. The first 45 torturous minutes is spent setting up their disgrace and then abandons it once the movie turns into KRULL (1983). From there, it's a journey to rescue Asano's daughter through lands that look nothing like Japan whatsoever. This new plot point revolving around Mika's rescue contains a weak-kneed sub-plot of a love between her and Kai, the half-breed character. So now there's all new motivation. This ultimately takes precedence over the whole restoring honor concept the movie was supposed to be about. It's only during the last five minutes that we are reminded of what the initial story was to start with.

Of the ronin themselves, we do get to (briefly) know a fat guy among them -- only because he's fat. The rest are just background dressing, and make little to no impression on the ending; where their participation should matter most. A closing title card tries to salvage some respectability by reminding us this is a true story, and this American perversion is inspired by it!

Just as bad is the martial arts choreo -- it never ignites; its wet fuse fizzling out from the usual fast cut editing of the current Hollywood standard. The only fight that's allowed to breath for more than a few seconds at a time is this galley fight between Kai and Oishi on 'Dutch Island'. Kai is sold into slavery and Oishi goes looking for him to set our story in motion. The moment we see Kai has become essentially a gladiator battling 8 foot tall Golems, the words of Mako from CONAN (1982) began running through my head -- "He did not care... only that the crowd would be there to greet him with howls of lust and fury. In time, his victories could not easily be counted." Then once Kai and Oishi begin their HK style sword duel, I woke up and realized I was watching a watered down version of what Hollywood thinks a samurai epic should look like.

The films poster is also an insult. The skeleton-tattooed character isn't onscreen even five minutes and yet he's displayed prominently on the North American advertising. Sanada Hiroyuki is nowhere to be found, and he figures as much, if not more so than Keanu Reeves does. His native country at least included him on their posters, but Reeves is still the central focus.

About the only good thing to be said about the movie is some of the effects are pretty to look at. The bulk of them are CGI overload, of course. Everything is so much bigger than it really would be. For example, the kaiju sized vessels docked in the ship yard on 'Dutch Island' look sprawling in design, but totally out of scale when humans are inserted into frame. The 3D was actually very impressive with little nuances jumping off the screen making a bigger impression than the more noticeable bits.

Speaking of Keanu Reeves, hopefully he has gotten all his Eastern mysticism out of his system by now after his directorial debut with MAN OF TAI CHI (2013) and now this RONIN train wreck.

The aforementioned Sanada Hiroyuki became famous as the biggest star to emerge from Sonny Chiba's Japan Action Club. His agility and good looks were key to his success that has spanned four decades and counting. He has appeared in numerous movies and television series' including MESSAGE FROM SPACE (1978), SHOGUN'S NINJA (1980), KAGE NO GUNDAN 2 (1981), ROARING FIRE (1982) KAGE NO GUNDAN 3 (1982), LEGEND OF THE EIGHT SAMURAI (1983), ROYAL WARRIORS (1986), YELLOW FANGS (1990), RING (1998), THE LAST SAMURAI (2003), RUSH HOUR 3 (2007), SPEED RACER (2008), and THE WOLVERINE (2013).

Tadanobu Asano will likely be most familiar to fans of Japanese cult cinema as the psychotic Kakihara from Takashi Miike's ICHI THE KILLER (2001). His work in US cinema include BATTLESHIP (2012) and the two recent THOR movies.

Rinko Kikuchi is the seductive, evil witch Mizuki, and recently appeared in Guillermo Del Toro's Japanese giant monster tribute, PACIFIC RIM (2013).

The gorgeous Shibasaki Ko (see insert) was in Kinji Fukasaku's controversial BATTLE ROYALE (2000); and US cult action fans will no doubt recognize Cary Hiroyuki Tagawa from a slew of movies appearing as a devil-worshiper in SPELLBINDER (1988) to a slew of villain roles in flicks like SHOWDOWN IN LITTLE TOKYO (1991) and MORTAL KOMBAT (1995).

Virtually NOTHING in Rinsch's wretched movie feels natural, or even remotely Japanese. This applies to the score, too. It occasionally sounds like outtakes from Christopher Nolan's BATMAN trilogy. It's a shame it couldn't have had a John O'Banion song, or two; or been dotted with some other sappy Japanese pop score that was a mainstay of Japanese films and TV shows in the late 70s and into the 1980s. If anything, it would have given this sideshow act some identity with those who are familiar with the source material, or the genre in general. But then, Universal's epic bowel movement doesn't seem the least bit interested in catering to its base -- just to the mainstream stereotypes and misgivings Hollywood has long held, and will continue to hold towards a culture they will never understand, nor seem all that interested in ever understanding.

***All images from various sites via google images***

Monday, December 23, 2013

Conquest (1983) review


Jorge Rivero (Mace), Sabrina Sellers/Siani (Ocron), Andrea Occhipinti (Ilias)

Directed by Lucio Fulci

The Short Version: The famed king of close-ups and eyeball violence turns his attention to a stone-age version of CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982) in this hazily lensed, plotless nonsense. This swordless sorcery substitutes iron age weaponry for stone axes and a pair of bone-chucks. CONQUEST features scores of Chewbacca-like wolfmen, teleporting zombies, batmen, stone-fishmen whatzits, prehistoric drug use, gore, and a naked Sabrina Siani writhing about with big snakes. With so much trash value you'd expect this numskull effort to be a ton of fun, but it's not. Only periodically of interest, this tale of not-so-high adventure is still among the best of the early 80s Italian Conan clones that came, saw and briefly conquered video store shelves around the world.

Ilias leaves his pacifist tribe armed with a magical bow to challenge the evil Ocron who terrorizes the land. Ilias meets up with a nomadic warrior named Mace. The two become friends and must battle Ocron's minions along the way.

With the popularity of Jean Jacques Annaud's QUEST FOR FIRE (1981) and John Milius's CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982), Lucio Fulci ventured forth into prehistory with a quasi entertaining hybrid of his own. Melding caveman histrionics with sword and sorcery stylings (but minus the swords), Fulci's movie lacks a sense of adventure; which is an essential ingredient for this type of fantasy movie. Furthermore, this was the bane of virtually all the Italian Conan clones; yet some were able to take their lack of funds and make an unintentionally funny escapade out of it -- which doesn't apply in CONQUEST's case. It does have an unusual visual palette that doesn't always work in the films favor, either.

Whatever it is that's smeared on the camera lens, it does little but aggravate a virtually barren landscape that's already doused in perpetual fog. Some scenes are free of this gauze effect, but these are few and far between. When the action isn't drowning in mist and Vaseline, liberal doses of backlighting illuminate much of the movie. The film has always looked blurry, though; from its US VHS release through Media Home Entertainment to Blue Undergrounds DVD from 2004 (the DVD case lists a 93 minute running time while the film is actually just shy of 89 minutes, by the way).

Aside from the haze, the photography was handled by the accomplished cinematographer Alejandro Ulloa. His lens has captured the scenery from many fine European westerns, Paul Naschy horrors, giallos, and one of the best horror films of the 1970s, HORROR EXPRESS (1972). So whoever came up with the idea of obscuring Ulloa's efforts with that awful smearing effect made a massive error in judgment.

Hindering the controversial directors movie further is a plotline that's as sterile as the unattractive locations. Why it took four writers to formulate this non-cohesive barbarian blandness is anyone's guess. What little plot there is concerns a peaceful tribe terrorized by Ocron, a naked, snake-loving villainess with a golden mask on her head. She commands a race of wolfmen who go into caves and take naked women with flour covering their bodies so Ocron can suck out their brains. In a scene at six minutes in, a hapless girl has her legs spread as two of the Chewbacca creatures make a wish and split the girl in half lengthwise. Fulci presented this trick once again in his 1990 horror film, DEMONIA. 

The poor girls decapitated head is split open and the brains slurped out. How Ocron does this through her metal mask is never explained. In fact, very little is sufficiently explained in this movie. Had the rest of the film contained this level of savagery at a more even pace, we could have had a trash masterpiece to savor alongside Fulci's faves of this time period. 

Speaking of which, there are a few things here that recall the directors previous zombie movies. Once Mace reaches what is presumably the Valley of Evil (Ocron mentions it in passing, but it looks like any of the other locations seen in the movie), he's attacked by a slew of slow moving zombies that rise from a fog-encrusted swamp. Only these shuffling dead are simpler to kill; blows to the head are out and chest impalements are in. 

Apart from the mostly naked Ocron (played by popular barbarian babe, Sabrina Siani), and various stunt men in various full body monster suits, there's also a giant man in full metal regalia named Zora, who possesses evil powers. He resembles Redolphis, the metal-headed monster from the classic bad movie HERCULES AGAINST THE MOON MEN (1964).

In a bit of wild speculation that puts CONQUEST as some sort of fantasy prequel to Fulci's THE BEYOND (1981), Mace (Rivero) has a reversed symbol of Eibon on his forehead! Furthering the correlation, the dollops of fog and peculiar smeared look of the movie hint at an otherworldy doorway painted by Sweick in Fulci's much celebrated horror film. There's likely nothing to this, but considering there's little in this movie to maintain interest, something taken from a much better Fulci movie does enliven things a bit.

Jorge Rivero, a huge star in Mexico, is in the lead here as Mace, a nomadic barbarian whose only friend is a pair of bone-chucks he uses to battle enemies in an un-Bruce Lee style. Mace does make friends with Ilias, a young kid who resembles Michael Beck. Ilias is supposed to be on a journey to free his tribe from Ocron; but his mission is sidelined shortly after it's begun allowing Mace to take center stage. Again, the fragmented nature of the movie makes very little sense, and with four hands on the script, it has done the film no favors.

The script even flirts with a bit of BEASTMASTER (1982) conceits by hinting at Mace's connection with animals. This too is eventually tossed by the wayside. At one point, he's crucified and ends up in the ocean. Two dolphins rescue him after he's been submerged for far longer than is humanly possible. But then logic is not one of CONQUEST's strong points.

The script attempts to forge a father-son relationship between Mace and Ilias, but this too is haphazardly handled with inconsequential dialog strung together substituting for exposition. From some of this dialog, a bow and arrow is some sort of forbidden weapon as Mace states his land "is not ready for it". Ilias's bow is a special bow, of course. It fires laser arrows that home in on their targets!

Rivero hit further acclaim after co-starring with John Wayne in John Ford's RIO LOBO (1970). The same year, Rivero played Indian chief Spotted Wolf in the gruesome, gore-drenched western SOLDIER BLUE (1970).

The synth score by Claudio Simonetti of Goblin fame is extremely irritating, but one or two cues are easy on the ears. Even so, it's an unmemorable soundtrack that's just loud and frequently abrasive.

With little to recommend it, the gore and slow motion trampoline leaping monsters are this pictures sole diversions. Being an Italian-Spanish-Mexican co-production, the budget appears to have been painfully low. A curio in his filmography, CONQUEST (1983) is little more than a footnote in Fulci's career -- which was already on shaky ground at this point. For this reviewer, Fulci was more miss than hit, but some of those misfires were entertaining fluff, and this swordless sorcery movie is among that ilk.

This review is representative of the Blue Underground DVD.

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