2013 First-Time Viewings: February Week 4

Hara-kiri: Death Of A SamuraiHara-Kiri: Death Of A Samurai

Takashi Miike’s latest effort presents an interesting problem. In general, I have a hard time embracing remakes, especially when I can’t see much of a reason for their existence. With only minor narrative differences, this film is a very faithful retelling of Masaki Kobayashi’s 1962 film Harakiri, which I can say is without exaggeration one of the best films I have ever seen. Despite their outward appearances as traditional samurai films, both films feature a narrative that subverts the traditional elements of the genre. The plot concerns an unemployed samurai, who requests the use of a the grounds on a clan estate to commit ritual suicide. Before allowing him to follow through on his plan, the estate’s counselor relates a tale of a similar request. To say anything more would be a disservice to the tremendous power the narrative offers. Miike chooses to shoot his remake in color and, bizarrely, in 3d, and Ryuichi Sakamoto provides an effective if sometimes overbearing score, but in essence this is the same story told the same way. Here’s the thing though. The original film was made by a filmmaker with a very clear and negative stance on the idea of holding misguided concepts of honor over humanist values. That subject is something that rests at the heart of his best works, including the epic The Human Condition. Miike, despite several worthy films on his resume, is not really a filmmaker who deals much in personal statements. His previous film 13 Assassins, also a remake, embraced traditional samurai values, values this film completely rejects. So that’s a problem for me, the inability to understand Miike’s intentions in remaking Kobayashi’s intensely personal work. Still, while I can question the reason for its existence, I can’t deny the simple power of the narrative, which remains as heartbreaking and effective in this remake as it is in the original. My advice though would be to seek out the original version first.  8/10.

Porco RossoPorco Rosso

There are a few select films that are always mentioned first when talking about Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. The usual suspects are films like My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, and Princess Mononoke, and deservedly so; those films have earned all the acclaim that has come their way. Mentioned much less often is 1992’s Porco Rosso, which might be why it was the last entry in Miyazaki’s filmography I’d yet to see. The film, based on a three-part manga by Miyazaki,  is about a famous seaplane pilot, who due to an unexplained curse takes the form of a pig. The plot follows this pilot as he strikes up a friendship with a young female engineer, while also dueling with a rival American pilot for the affections of a beautiful lounge singer.  Because the story is set in Italy in the period between WWI and WWII, the film has a different feel than most Ghibli films, with slight noir undertones and a sometimes quite melancholy tone. One scene in particular, where the pilot watches as his dead companions fly up into the heavens, ranks up there with the best Ghibli material. The origin of the pilot’s curse is never explained, which is a nice touch. There is even some ambiguity as to the nature of his curse, as well as how everything ultimately plays out, resulting in a handful of possible interpretations. You’d never see that in a Hollywood animation, where everything would be definitively wrapped up with a colorful bow to complete the package.  Assumedly the manga the film is based on would provide more concrete answers, but I kind of like how the film leaves us with some loose ends and stray feelings.  8/10.

The Cat ReturnsThe Cat Returns

In what has been overall a Studio Ghibli kind of month for me, both in revisiting old favorites and seeking out previously-unseen selections, this 2002 effort from the renowned animation studio is perhaps the least remarkable new addition. With a runtime of only 75 minutes and a less detailed animation style, particularly when it comes to human animations, the film feels a little slight compared to other Ghibli efforts. The plot follows an average girl who has self-esteem problems, whose regular life is interrupted when she saves a cat from being run over by a truck. The cat turns out to be a prince, and the girl finds herself involuntarily engaged to him as a “reward” from the other cats in the kingdom. As she journeys to the cat kingdom, she is accompanied by a rogue cat baron and a fat white cat, to protect her from the cat king’s sinister intentions. The film features a nice, if more simplistic, message about believing in oneself, which is visualized literally by the girl fighting to remain herself as she gradually turns into a cat. There’s also an cool connection to the earlier, and much more grounded, 1995 Ghibli film Whisper Of The Heart, where the cat baron made a small cameo in a dream sequence. Even taking into account My Neighbor Totoro and Ponyo, two films with younger characters at the center of their narratives, this is the one that’s probably geared most to younger viewers. It’s certainly pleasant and still an enjoyable watch, but it’s not going to stick with me in the same way as most Ghibli efforts. 6/10.

The AwakeningThe Awakening

The United Kingdom has a strong reputation for crafting some of cinema’s best examples of psychological horror. Films like The Innocents and The Haunting loom large over the genre, and the recent The Awakening attempts to occupy a similar realm. The always watchable Rebecca Hall plays a famous skeptic of the supernatural, who goes around debunking supposed paranormal activity. Starting to get burned out by her work, she is approaching by a slightly sinister, stuttering Dominic West (light-years away from the character he plays on The Wire), who presents her with a new case at an isolated school for boys in the dour English countryside. She accepts his proposition, in part because, despite her profession, she desperately wants to have her skepticism challenged, to experience something truly beyond this world. That idea in itself is an interesting one, and probably deserves a better film to explore that idea further. It’s mostly abandoned in this film though, as events gradually start to unfold in a more traditional and predictable manner. There are the requisite jump scares, the misleading red herrings, and the now-obligatory twist that accompanies any film like this (If you’ve seen films like The Others or Shutter Island, you kind of know what to expect here). It all ends on a note of understated ambiguity, or at least I think it does, because to be honest it’s the type of film that doesn’t exactly command attention. I could very well have zoned out in certain points that would have made the ending more definite, but I don’t think I can be bothered to go back and see if I missed anything. That realization doesn’t speak too highly on the cumulative effect of the film, which might be a little too harsh. It’s the kind of film I want to embrace, in part because it’s hearkening back to a more sophisticated area of horror. But it ends up being nothing more than a passable piece of old-fashioned, psychological Gothic horror, executed with a workmanlike efficiency, but lacking the elements needed to separate itself from its superior influences.  5/10.

Top ten first-time viewings in February 2013:

Dogville
Pom Poko
Porco Rosso
Joint Security Area
Wake In Fright
The Last Emperor
Hara-Kiri: Death Of A Samurai
Kiki’s Delivery Service
Side By Side
End Of Watch

Trailers:

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About Andrew Alan Ramseyer

I am a Phoenix resident and I graduated from Arizona State University in 2011 with a Bachelors degree in Film and Media Studies, and from Northern Arizona University in 2013 with an English Masters degree and an emphasis on Professional Writing. The real world made sure that I would need to continue schooling in other areas, but I still love watching films and writing about films. Maybe someday I'll be able to do something film-related on a professional level, but for now I'm content with writing for myself and for others, who hopefully find my thoughts worthwhile.
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2 Responses to 2013 First-Time Viewings: February Week 4

  1. Anonymous says:

    Because I believe Netflix Instant is currently streaming it, I recommend “Fish Story”. It’s better than anything Takashi Miike has done. Takashi Miike isn’t essential, it’s just that his films are usually strange/lurid/obnoxious and thus get a quick export over to America where the otaku on this side of the pond get to see an inaccurate survey of what Japanese audiences are watching.

  2. Fish Story sounds very interesting. It’s been added to the queue.
    I haven’t seen too many of Miike’s films, but he’s definitely seems like a hit-or-miss kind of filmmaker (which makes sense, considering how frequently he works). I’m a fan of more controlled films (Audition, 13 Assassins, and now Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai), while his zanier material leaves me cold (Ichi the Killer in particular).

    Thanks for the comment!

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