Over the last few years I have seen a BUNCH of Toho films that I never got around to reviewing, which seems like a lost opportunity as Toho still releases a lot of movies each year, and most of them get very little attention—plus a few more famous ones from yesteryear that I watched, but have no plan to write full reviews of. There were quite a few, so let’s get started!
Gintama (2017)

Not being a big fan of the manga, I did not have very high hopes for the live-action adaptation, but being a sucker for fantasy/action movies, I went to see this one anyway… and I had a really good time! Sure, the plot is higgledy-piggledy, and a lot of stuff seems kind of hodge-podge dumped on the screen. However, everything is so good-natured, the fun infected like a fun-gi, and soon I had a smile sprouting like a mushroom and—what on earth am I writing? I had a good time. Are the special effects good? Decidedly not much of the time, but there are purposely poor effects (like rubber animal masks, or bizarre beetle costumes) bashed together for grins, not for gawping, and there are some pretty cool moments, such as an unexpected shout-out to Nausicaa of all things. While there are some real acting duds, the mains are fine. Go with mind open, and you will have a stupid good time.

Mary and the Witch’s Flower (2017)

Distributed by Toho, here we have a new Ghibli movie that isn’t really Ghibli. Really, Hiromasa Yonebayashi, the director of the excellent Secret World of Arrietty (2010) and Marnie Was There (2014), has made what is essentially a Ghibli movie in all but name, and I think the resultant film is worthy, even if it is not as fantastic as Miyazaki’s best (but what is?). The story, about a young girl who gets yoinked into a magical kingdom after poking about where she doesn’t belong, and then dragged further into rescuing a friend and changing the world, would fit perfectly into early Ghibli, and the animation is absolutely gorgeous. Haunting music, delightful characters, and magical storytelling—this is good stuff. But it is also deliberately derivative. Everything from the character designs, to many story beats, to certain beasts and monsters—even the new logo of the nascent movie Studio Ponoc founded by Yonebayashi screams Ghibli. For that reason, to me the film feels like it doesn’t quite have a life of its own despite the undeniable quality of the picture, and I Just wish Yonebayashi and his team had struck out and created something more uniquely their own.

Daigoro vs. Goliath (1972)

Honestly I can’t remember if it was 2016 or 2017 that I finally got around to watching this spectacle of silly, but this is a kaiju film that I wish could get a bit more attention, so I want to give a quick shout-out here. Daigoro vs. Goliath is unapologetically silly, with monster action so childish that some fans have disowned the work—and there is no doubt that the plot machinations are sometimes downright embarrassing (kaiju sized water closet?). However, for me, the sheer audacity of dumb that this film strives to be makes it even more endearing, like an elaborate crayon messterpiece scribbled with love by your children. If you haven’t seen this bonkers bit of monster history, don’t hesitate to get your copy and plop down for a great old school monster shindig!

Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Diamond is Unbreakable Chapter 1 (2017)

Being mostly unfamiliar with the source material, my expectations were quite low when I attended this film back in August. This film was also directed by Takashi Miike, and while I have enjoyed some of his films, I tend to find them uneven, and I was no fan of his adaptation of Terra Formars from 2016. However, Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure was one of my favorite movie experiences of 2017. I loved, loved, loved the main character and his pompadour hair and rough-guy punk talk, I adored the increasingly off-the-wall powers and plot twists, and I was really impressed by how the entire film just swaggers with style. The story, about a punk kid with super powers fighting a group of delinquents traveling about killing people in hopes of creating an army of supermen, is not particularly new, but everything is delivered with oomph and pizzazz, and the special effects were actually quite good. I really hope Jojo gets the sequel(s) the studios were hoping for.

Ajin (2017)

What if you could not die? If every time your body was killed, you came back to life, feeling the pain, but overcoming it, healing into something new? And what if the world hated you for it? Ajin, a live-action adaptation of the manga of the same name, explores that scenario with dark and frenetic results. The story presented comes through a gimlet lens in which the scientific community, government, and the public at large are depicted as paranoid and flawed if not downright evil. This is a world in which the titular nigh-immortal Ajin are hunted down and viciously experimented upon via neverending torture. The resulting conflicts are the center of the story, as two Ajin take opposite sides and murder each other with crazed abandon. The manga upon which the movie is based is creative and darkly clever, and the movie adopts many of the same tricks and twists—perhaps, as is often the case with movies like this, cramming in too much story for its own good. However, the main characters are acted competently (even if the same cannot be said for some of the more minor characters, particularly a female Ajin), and the action is often visceral and exciting, with the film’s depiction of the Ajin-generated IBMs coming off quite well. Not the best live-action manga adaptation of the year, but far from the worst or most disappointing (here’s looking at you, Full Metal Alchemist).

Ghost Man (1954)

This year I was planning to review the Toho Invisible Man film, and in preparation I watched all the Universal Invisible Man films, the Daiei Invisible Man films, and even the Daiei invisible samurai films (I was shocked they have been so overlooked in the west). Also as part of my preparations, and also with an eye to reviewing it as well, I picked up Ghost Man. Directed by Motoyoshi Oda, I first stumbled on the title while reading David Kalat’s Godzilla book, in which he names the film but seems to think it may have been in the Toho Mutated Man series. Despite the fact that the titular Ghost Man is wrapped up like the Invisible Man traditionally is depicted, the Ghost Man film does not feature any mutated monsters—just a psycho wrapped in gauze. (Interestingly, despite the earlier Daiei film featuring an invisible man clothed in bandages, the Toho Invisible Man film opts for a different sort of camouflage…) Given that the director also made Invisible Man the same year, I was really curious about this film—and it has its highlights, most notably a poster for the same year’s Godzilla release, before that film had its wide release!!! However, for me at least, this movie was quite disturbing. The movie is based on a book in the Detective Kindaichi series, and follows our brilliant detective as he tries to track down a nasty serial killer who strips women naked, murders them, and poses their bare bodies as art objects. The movie features lots and lots of nudity, usually in the form of the abused and murdered women—and I was just not expecting that, and found the proceeds frankly tasteless and awful. The film seems competently made, but the nastiness really put me off.

Invisible Man (1954)

I hope I can go back and give this one a proper review someday, but I will just give my brief impressions here for now. To be honest, I really enjoyed this film! While I think my colleague Patrick’s critique is spot on, nevertheless I really liked the characters and found the story to be quite compelling. The story centers on a former special forces operative from the Japanese army who became invisible as part of a military experiment and is now trying to live a normal life. When the public finds out about the invisible men operatives, though, some criminals take advantage of the public outcry and paranoia, and eventually the real invisible man is cornered into revealing himself and fighting the criminals. There are a number of flaws in the way that the plot plays itself out (again, Patrick does a great job enumerating these), but I still greatly enjoyed the film from start to finish, and wish that the movie had an official release Stateside. It deserves more recognition as the exciting, interesting tokusatsu footnote that it is.

Come Marry Me (1966)

One of the few non-tokusatsu films in Ishiro Honda’s oeuvre that had an official DVD release, Come Marry Me tells the story of… well, I am honestly starting to forget a lot of the main plot details. The film is kind of a lighthearted romantic film with comedic elements, with the plot concerning a young woman caught between her career and two men vying for her romantic affections. After much drama and dating, she makes her fateful decision—and I was honestly surprised by the outcome. While I found the film quite watchable with energetic and sincere performances, obviously the plot has not stuck with me very well. This is a somewhat insubstantial but perfectly inoffensive romance from a legendary director stuck doing monster flicks. As my Japanese improves, I hope to revisit this one for a more complete understanding and hopefully a better appreciation for what it is as well.

Ringu (1998)

Why on earth do they call this movie “Ringu” in America? Leaving the Japanese pronunciation makes the name sound ridiculous in English! Of course, even leaving the name as “Ring” is a confusing title, but I digress. Anyway, I finally sat through the entire legendary “Ringu” film and witnessed the beginning of the long-haired-freaky-people horror boom. And the film has lost some of its impact, at least for me. Unfortunately, watching the film now after the concept of monster women with long unwashed hair has become an overused cliché, the concept of a nasty wet corpse-like woman crawling out of a TV and scaring people so that they have a heart attack and die seems… unconvincing anymore. Still, the film has a great mystery plot going as the protagonists race against time to figure out why the shampoo-impaired Sadako wants to kill everyone, and the mystery drives the story and makes it exciting and engaging for horror fans.

Destiny: Story of Kamakura (2017)

Being a huge fan of the Always films, I was pretty flipping excited when I heard there was going to be a new film from the same team of creators—but this time with yokai monsters! And while the end result does not match up to the highs of the Always series, the film still has gobs of sweetness to share. The main relationship of the story between an author and his much younger, absolutely adorable bride as they learn to get along with each others’ quirks, and the quirks of the spirit world they find themselves entangled within, is very charming—at least through the first half of the film. Towards the end, when the story switches gears into a more action-adventure mode, much of the charm is forsaken for what came across to me as CG-glutted, poorly conceived action set pieces. A large monster appears towards the end which looks pretty cool, but the face-off between the beasty and our heroes is undermined by weak writing and shallow world building. Then again, given the world of CGI yokai adventures such as The Great Yokai War and the live-action Kitaro films, Destiny compares relatively well, and to be honest the tendency of many films in this genre is to be bloated and kind of slipshod in the storytelling department. At least this one has very likable leads and some rather imaginative set pieces.

Let’s Go, Jets! (2017)

When this movie was released last year, I was tempted to go see it in theaters because I have become something of a Suzu Hirose fan (even though almost every role I see her play is pretty similar), and because I love movies about dance. This one is based on a true story apparently, and the real dance groups are even shown briefly in the credits sequence. Let’s Go, Jets! follows the well-worn tropes of underdog sports/competition dramas—completely unknown group of amateurs in a small, largely unremarkable city/area/village (in this case, a small city in Japan) are inspired by a go-get-‘em coach to work hard at a sport/competitive something-or-other (in this case, cheer dance—which is not quite the same as cheerleading), and go after the biggest competition in their area of expertise (with cheer dancing, there is a world competition each year staged in the USA). This movie takes those old tropes and tries to whip some life into them with spunky performances and spunky music, and Suzu is pretty danged lovable in the lead as she bounds through the thoroughly formulaic script while encouraging the usual band of rag-tag wannabes (the scornful dance pro, the socially awkward punk kid, the overweight one, etc). For this kind of movie, it is still pretty fun to watch but… I watch dancing movies to see dancing, and this film teases the dances over and over and over with no pay-off until the very end. In the middle of the film we see our heroines dash out on to the stage to compete… and then the next scene is them running back off having won their latest competition. We see them practice a lot, but never see a real dance routine until the final ten minutes—and even then, it really is not that impressive, and is made worse by a pair of Caucasian pseudo-actors enthusiastically delivering super-cringe lines. I found this one to be pretty mediocre when I watched it on a flight at the end of the year.

My Tomorrow, Your Yesterday (2017)

Another movie I watched on a flight to the USA this year, My Tomorrow, Your Yesterday is a sort of supernatural romance type film along the lines of something like The Girl in the Sunny Place or Twilight or Beauty and the Beast. It is difficult to talk about the movie at all without going into spoilers, but in a nutshell (or at least in a train car) our protagonist sees and instantly falls in love with a totally hot babe and, despite being a super shy guy, somehow musters up the chutzpah to chase her down on the platform and confess his impromptu feelings to her face. And instead of being creeped out or offering him a picture of her seven-foot-tall karate-champion boyfriend or otherwise dashing his hopes completely, said girl of extreme hotness is all for the hanging out and the dating. Pretty soon Mr. Suddenly Lucky In Love and Miss Terious Hotness are getting along well, although the lady side of the equation keeps crying all the time for some reason—and when she reveals the reason, the story gets a lot more interesting—or the audience finds the premise so ridiculous that they tune out. (No, she is not a cat or a werewolf or an angel). For me, while the story does not strictly make sense on a logical level, the paradox that is created by the central romance is tenderly and thoughtfully portrayed by the mains, and the conundrum created by their relationship creates a sort of poignant reminder of the transience of human life and the fragility of relationships which nevertheless affect us to the core of our beings. Nana Komatsu, who I felt was so wooden and frankly terrible in Bakuman, is much better here, and I for one am really glad to see the growth.

Let Me Eat Your Pancreas (2017)

I am cheating with this one because I saw it in 2018 on my flight back to Japan, and yet it is hard for me not to categorize it with the films I saw last year since it was part of that round trip journey that sort of wrapped up my 2017 activities. Let Me Eat Your Pancreas has to be one of the strangest names for a film I have ever seen—and I have seen it often. The film and the book upon which it is based have proved quite popular in Japan, with several of my students recommending the film version to me (and others recommending me not to see it). Some friends visited me in August when this film was still playing in theaters, and when I was reading off the titles of the films at a local movie theater we were considering attending, I read this title and received a chorus of hoots and laughter, and one friend declared that I could make up anything I wanted as the translations of the titles and they would have little choice but to believe me. Well, believe me when I say that while this movie does not live up to its title in strangeness, the formula-heavy story is still told well with solid performances all around. Let Me Eat Your Pancreas is another story in the “romance with a spunky sick girl” genre which are ubiquitous in Japan. In this one, our stolid, reticent, emotionally stunted loser male protagonist (checking off all the usual lame-o boxes for romantic leads in Japanese fiction) finds himself the object of attention by the most popular girl in school. As she begins spending time with him, she quickly reveals her secret that she is hiding from even her closest friends: terminal pancreatic cancer. The ensuing relationship was enough to keep me awake and interested despite the massive sleep deprivation that comes with international travel and a festering cold assaulting my respiratory system mid-flight (which is more than I can say for Wolf Warrior II and Kung Fu Yoga). The story is not completely predictable either, though all the story beats essentially are—this is Crying Out for Love at the Center of the World 2017 edition pretty much. Yeah, the movie is drenched in sap and dreamy, soft lighting… but for appreciators of this sort of frothy, romantic bilge (such as myself), you can do a lot worse than Pancreas.

And that’s it for 2017! I hope you enjoyed reading, and here’s to another great year of movies!

 

2018

Kids on the Slope (2018)

One of the pleasant surprises for me recently in my anime-viewing career was the beguiling Kids on the Slope, based on the manga of the same name. The story, centered around an awkward boy moving to Nagasaki and being pulled unwillingly into a friendship with a violent but warm-hearted half-Caucasian classmate, is often surprisingly touching, with endearingly sketched characterizations and a focus on jazz (the aforementioned main characters are both musicians) that adds a lot of emotion to the mix. 2018 saw a decent live-action adaptation of the film… but also a perfectly forgettable adaptation. I say that because for the life of me, even after revisiting a trailer for the film, I can barely remember anything about the film. Nana Komatsu also feels a bit miscast as love interest Ritsuko, as Ritsuko was more of a girl-next-door sort of beautiful in the comics, and Komatsu is so strikingly gorgeous it doesn’t seem to fit. Still, from the fragments of my memory I can’t say the movie was bad… but I can’t altogether recommend it either.

Before the Coffee Gets Cold (2018)

This movie actually made a much bigger impression on me than Kids on the Slope, though the impression was not entirely good. I love the sort of out-there premise the movie has, first of all. The gist is that a magical coffee shop exists, and in that coffee shop there is one particular table at which people who want to talk with the dead can do so, though with a number of conditions. The way it works is that applicant must order coffee and sit at the table, at which point they go back in time to meet the person they want to see who has died. The thing is, that person must have visited the coffee shop in the past—if not, then it’s impossible to meet them again. Also, it’s impossible to change the past. You can have a real conversation, but you can’t change the future. Finally, you have to finish your coffee before it cools—if you forget and talk too long, you become stuck, and your ghost will haunt the coffee shop forever. The ways that the movie plays with the rules of this premise are the source of the movie’s real enjoyment, and there are some clever twists at times, and some emotional moments. That said, some of the applicants’ stories are a bit overdone, while on the other hand a romance between a waitress at the shop and a young man felt underdone and poorly motivated. Still, for fans of high-concept, sort of fantasy Hallmark type movies (are there fans of such a specific genre?), I actually would recommend this.

Gintama 2 (2018)

2017’s Gintama was a big hit in Japan, so one year later an inevitable sequel followed close after, with mixed results. My coworker actually thought that Gintama 2 was far superior to the previous film, but for me I felt it was a step down. While some of the humorous sequences are still quite funny, and the casting was great, with even more amusing cameos and references to other manga, this particular film felt like it was trying too hard. Sometimes the jokes drag on a few steps too far, and the same goes for the action scenes, which, while crazy and stupid, rarely feel like they have stakes. Late in the movie, too, there is a fight so over-the-top melodramatic I just couldn’t. I couldn’t take it. To me, this felt like a lesser live-action remake, and I was once again pretty sad that the Jojo movie did not receive a sequel after the excellent movie last year. I enjoyed both Gintama films, but ultimately I just find them less satisfying as a whole.

Mirai (2018)

I am a big fan of Mamoru Hosoda’s films, especially The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and The Beast and His Boy, so I was greatly looking forward to this release last year, and even went out of my way to attend the film on the first day of release despite being stressed out with work. Unfortunately, this was easily my least favorite of Hosoda’s films so far, despite it being so personal a film for him. On the plus side, the movie has really pretty animation, which captures so much of a child’s world, but also is so accomplished at depicting the movements of a child, the stumble-walk and general maladroit bumbling. The attention to those sorts of small, mundane details make the movie much better than it would otherwise be. However, the premise of the film never really grabbed my attention very well, and the movie never establishes a real sense of narrative tension—at least it didn’t for me. The conceit of the film is that a bratty young toddler is jealous of his new sister—and then he starts getting visited by that same sister from the future, as well as getting transported through time to visit other family members or go on other adventures. These adventures our “hero” goes on are basically like dreams, and so the little kid never seems to be in real danger, and I never really understood why he was going on these trips since he seemed so young as to be incapable of understanding the important lessons he might otherwise take away from them. Plus, each adventure never felt to me to build up to anything. Even when later the boy has a stressful experience in a dream train station, the supposedly scary sequence had me wondering when the movie would end because I couldn’t get invested. When Mirai was released Stateside, it received mostly positive reviews, so you may well get a lot more out of the film than I did—but still, I cannot in good conscience recommend this one.

My Hero Academia: Two Heroes (2018)

When I learned that one of the new heroes that appears in this movie was based on Godzilla, I got pretty excited and used it as an excuse to pick up the entire manga run up to that point in English and read through them—something I had been intending to do anyway as I had so often heard of what high quality the Shonen Jump series supposedly achieved. And while now I can vouch for that quality personally, at least in some respects (great character design and fun characters, great art, exciting battles), the actual MOVIE felt somewhat disappointing, if still a decent time-waster.

The problem with movies like this is that they are inevitably filler. They can’t affect anything in the main story because that is unfolding in the manga, so they always have to be written in such a way as to be exciting WITHOUT making any major revelations or causing any character changes that would reflect on the main story. Plus they have to find ways to shoehorn in all the characters so that the fans can go and see their favorites on the big screen. That’s a lot of constrictions for any story, so it’s no wonder movies like this usually are of middling quality or worse. I think MHA:TH works under those constraints better than many, with an amusing and sometimes exciting story away from Japan and a new (throwaway) villain. But don’t go in expecting anything game-changing.

As for the Godzilla-based here, Godzillo (not to be confused with the offbeat novel Gojiro), he barely shows up and just basically walks by in one scene, letting out a big signature roar before disappearing from the story. Seems like a waste to me!

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