Movie Reviews

  • Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire! A movie I’ve been looking forward to once the trailers started cropping up, excited and giddy for this ride of a flick. I make it no secret that I really enjoyed Godzilla vs. Kong (2021) despite its shortcomings, so seeing something like it but widening the scope of the Hollow Earth and the dangers that ensue from it should in a thousand respects be even more exciting. But I think there are just a handful of mistakes made that prevent it from soaring above its predecessor for me. What I got was an experience very similar to GvK, but for different reasons compared to it.

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    Movie Reviews // April 13, 2024
  • What makes someone a monster? Is it their actions, something intrinsic inside them, or because they break away from social convention? Maybe it’s just because of the false impressions that others take away with them from unfortunate chance encounters? Monster, the latest film from celebrated director Hirokazu Kore’eda (Nobody Knows [2004], Still Walking [2008]) takes these themes and stitches them into a moving, aching, multi-faceted exploration of the dangerous power of broken perceptions, the searing pain of alienation, and the simple and brittle beauty of friendship and family in the midst of tragedy. Monster affected me emotionally more than any other film in 2023 so far, and it is well worth your time if you are willing for those willing to take the emotional ride. (more…)

    Movie Reviews // September 12, 2023
  • Every country has their eras of peculiar nostalgia; the USA has recently been squeezing all the nostalgia bucks they can get from the widespread affection for the 80s, but certainly retro fads have also existed for the 50s, 60s, and 70s in America. In Japan, though, Showa nostalgia is king—though not the ENTIRE Showa period. Technically, “Showa” refers to the time in which Emperor Hirohito was on the throne in Japan, which would entail a period from 1920s to the 1980s. However, when most people in Japan think of Showa retro style and the ache for those old times, they are yearning for the post-war period—generally the 1950s to the early 1970s. Living in Japan, I have seen this enduring fad crop up in old-timey candy shops, kamishibai entertainers at festivals, a very popular sandwich shop in Kokura, retro TV show revivals, and—in the world of movies—particularly the work of Takashi Yamazaki and his Always: Sunset on Third Street trilogy—the most infamous of which is the middle film from 2007, to be discussed today. (more…)

    Movie Reviews // July 2, 2023
  • As with the other recent films I have reviewed, I saw this film in raw Japanese, so even with my pretty decent Japanese, there were some bits of the plot that I am sure escaped me. You can take the following review with some salty aftertaste as a result.

    While South Korea and Japan have had a long and troubled political relationship, in recent years their entertainment cross pollination has become quite intense, with considerable mutual interest in media properties operating in both countries. One of the earliest film remakes that crossed the seas from Japan to South Korea was The Ring Virus (1999), a remake of Japan’s extremely popular Ring (1998)—co-funded by Japan’s Kadokawa and South Korea’s AFDF, which also teamed up on Takashi Miike’s Audition in the same calendar year. For some time South Korean cinema seemed to be following Japan’s lead, with various adaptations of manga ranging from 200 Pounds Beauty (2006) to Antique (2008)—and of course the Cannes Grand Jury Prize winning Old Boy (2003), the latter of which was a gritty adaptation which has so eclipsed the source material that the film’s famously shocking twist has become its most famous element, and it wasn’t even in the original manga. But these days the floodgates have turned, with South Korean media becoming overwhelmingly popular amongst the youth in Japan. Japan has enthusiastically embraced Korean pop media, importing K-dramas by the boatload, ratcheting up a passion for learning Korean, and K-pop stars becoming fashion and culture icons in the Land of the Rising Sun. All throughout my second life in Japan, from 2015 to today, I have had just oodles of students obsessed with K-pop and the idol culture from the land of kimchi and bulgogi, and the trend shows little signs of waning. (more…)

    Movie Reviews // June 20, 2023
  • I’ve been to the hospital via ambulance a few times in Japan because of my wonky heart, and I like to have a little chit-chat with the paramedic once he or she has called around and found an open hospital and we are on our way (apparently sometimes there aren’t any takers, and so people can die waiting for the emergency worker to find an open room). So anyway, one time, there I was, concerned I might be dying or whatever in the back of an ambulance, and we are zipping along with the siren screaming away above, and I asked the guy, “Why did you become a paramedic? It seems like it would be a really stressful job with lots of pressure!” (more…)

    Movie Reviews // May 25, 2023
  • Note: I watched Shin Kamen Rider in raw Japanese with no subtitles, and given that this is an Anno film, I had some difficulty following some of the high-speed dialogue and technical language. I understood a lot, and I checked a summary afterwards to affirm the basics, but I definitely didn’t understand everything, so take my review with an additional shake of salt or two.

    Edited to add: It has come to my attention that some readers have taken the above disclaimer to mean I don’t understand Japanese, and that I shouldn’t have written a review of Shin Kamen Rider as a result. Honestly, I am very sympathetic to such concerns, which is why I issued the above disclaimer in the first place–but for what it’s worth, I have put a lot of effort into my Japanese studies. I have lived in Japan for over ten years, have read scads and scads of manga in Japanese, read multiple novels and short story collections in Japanese (some of which I have reviewed here on Toho Kingdom), interviewed Japanese in the manga and tokusatsu industries in Japanese, and I regularly meet with my students to talk with them in Japanese as well. It’s true there were parts of this movie I didn’t understand, but I did understand a lot of it, and it doesn’t really have a deeply complicated plot, so I decided to go ahead and write this review. If you as a reader are uncomfortable with this and prefer to wait for reviewers who had access to the film in their native language, I totally get it–I may come back and edit this review later when I can watch the film with Japanese subtitles so I can double check the individual lines. And despite my deeply negative review below, I do hope you enjoy the movie for what it is–whenever I go to a movie, I hope to enjoy it and get something good out of it, but this one just didn’t work for me. I certainly do not wish Hideaki Anno ill-will either, despite my disappointment in hearing of his alleged on-set conduct–I think he is a fantastic artist, and I wish him the best in his future projects. Thank you for reading.

    Feisty hyper-successful otaku god Hideaki Anno returns with the fourth installment of the “Shin” series, this time reimagining Toei tokusatsu juggernaut Kamen Rider with his signature gloom, long-winded speeches, and anime-aesthetics—and Anno fans will know he is fulfilling a childhood dream with this movie. As a teen, Anno made amateur Rider short films which have survived, several of which were shown at the recent Hideaki Anno Exhibit in 2022. In these films, Anno donned a homemade suit and battled through parody episodes of daring and do. But where those films had youthful ardor and humorous enthusiasm, Anno’s official foray into Kamen Rider mythos with Toei’s enthusiastic blessing feels cold, crammed, stuffy, and downright messy—and doesn’t seem nearly as new or interesting as the average annual Rider drama incarnation. (more…)

    Movie Reviews // May 8, 2023
  • I’ve never been a huge fan of the Detective Conan franchise—known in the west as Case Closed due to title copyright issues in the USA (perhaps too many folks would have thought the program was about a barbarian sleuth…). The wildly popular series has been going strong in Japan since 1994, starting as a manga, then blossoming into a multi-media empire. The anime has over 1000 episodes, and the movie series (with a new entry released like clockwork every year) is up to 26 entries with the subject of today’s film review. It’s comfort food for mystery lovers, but I’ve always been a bit blasé about the property. I don’t really like the simplistic and weirdly angular art style of manga artist Gosho Aoyama, nor the way the main character is both a know-it-all and a do-it-all; he can just do everything. And yet, as I watched director Yuzuru Tachikawa’s Detective Conan: Black Iron Submarine, my perspective began to change by degrees. The charms of the series shined through a bit more clearly for me, and it clicked together in my mind: people love this movie in much the same way I have long enjoyed James Bond. It’s just a good time seeing a familiar hero with an expected bag of tricks handling a new and crazy situation with his associates, facing dramatic twists and turns, and (in the case of Conan more than Bond) the usual amusement of nosing out the perp through strained clue-noodling and a flair for grandstanding. Somehow, Black Iron Submarine manages some legit thrills and intrigue in a nigh-parodic amped up spy-thriller-mystery setting with decent animation and a workable and interesting plot.

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    Movie Reviews // May 4, 2023
  • Perhaps everyone has a different idea of what a perfect world might look like, but I think most people would have in view a few core concepts such as a lack of suffering, availability of goods and foods for all, meaningful work, and a population of genuinely good and decent people who are treated fairly and equally under the law. How that surfeit of happy circumstances might be brought about is the more difficult quandary, and these issues are explored in Doraemon: Nobita’s Sky Utopia directed by Takumi Doyama (who also directed Chibi Maruko-Chan: A Boy from Italy [2015]). As part of the incredible cash-cow Doraemon franchise, Nobita’s Sky Utopia has already netted Toho and the other studios behind the film a significant pile of yen—but for moviegoers, it also provides a decent night out of skillfully-crafted, undemanding kid sci-fi adventure. (more…)

    Movie Reviews // April 22, 2023
  • What if X-Men was a historical romance fantasy novel set in Japan? That’s what My Happy Marriage, a new hit film released by Toho on March 17, 2023, attempts to find out. The movie, directed by Ayuko Tsukahara (Café Funiculi Funicula), is based on a popular series of light novels by Akumi Agitogi (originally published online and only later licensed for traditional publishing). The traumatic love story takes place in the Meiji period (1868-1912) against a backdrop of military intrigue and shifting alliances. The movie twists together themes of abuse, manipulation, and dark magic with a slow-burn sweet romance, and the action is carried out with a strong aesthetic of hard-edged wonder and tear-stained romantic success in the jaws of caprice—but the tale has enough world building stuffed inside to occasionally choke the narrative. (more…)

    Movie Reviews // April 12, 2023
  • When most people think of fantasy stories, epic clashes between magical creatures and complex sorcery systems probably shimmer to the surface of the mind. Throw Japan into the mix, and pretty boys with enormous swords might be tacked onto the formula—but how about a coffee shop? And a focus on relationships and bittersweet life moments? In the movie Café Funiculi Funicula, directed by Ayuko Tsukahara and based on the play/novel Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi, we get a modern-day cozy fantasy more along the lines of a weepy Legends & Lattes book rather than the grand scale and battles of Lord of the Rings. With its warm, brown tones and twinkling emotional melodies, this is very much a gooshy film, but the tear-jerking can work occasionally, and the actors are game enough that—if you can stomach the melodrama—the movie can function to force out a good sniffle or two. (more…)

    Movie Reviews // March 29, 2023