Inadvertently, this is going to be a predominantly Japanese round of brief movie summaries. One is a Japan-inspired movie, the others are Japanese movies.
Kubo & the Two Strings – ★★★½
Laika churns out yet another technically magnificent stop-motion piece in the original story of a boy named Kubo who has to find magical armour that will protect him from his evil grandfather who lives on the Moon. There’s quite a lot of 3D animation and post-production work done, of course, but for the most part the stop-motion itself is the star. The movie has received general praise, and I quite liked it although I can’t rate it higher than 3.5/5 because there’s something missing – something I can’t quite put my finger on. I think it is because I didn’t find the resolution of the story satisfying or interesting. To call the ending “random” would be wrong, because it’s not random; there are things at the start of the movie that have direct ties to how it ends. But it felt like the focus of the story, of how Kubo will defeat his grandfather, was all on the magical armour and his journey with his two strange companions. In the end, it didn’t seem as though all the things he had to go through were really all that useful since apparently it came down to taking away his grandfather’s memories and (the movie lets us assume) ‘remaking’ his grandfather by telling him lies about who he is (“Oh, you’re a very kind old man and everyone in the village loves you”). Uhm. Okay.
The Magnificent Nine (殿、利息でござる! My Lord, the Interest, Please!) – ★★½
(Part of the GSC Japan Film Fest 2016)
The English title of this movie seemed way off. That aside, I was disappointed in this movie although it did have amusing parts. It’s the story of how a group of small town residents come together to try and save their home, which is suffering from the hardships of forced labour and high taxes. The movie was described – and protrayed – as being a period comedy. Well, it was a period piece. Not so sure about the comedy part. The actual comedic content was rather scarce after the first third of the movie. I was intrigued mainly by the trailer and by the cast list, which included Abe Sadao, Eita, Matsuda Ryuhei, Takeuchi Yuko and Tsumabuki Satoshi, all of whom are well-known actors (and one actress, Takeuchi). Abe Sadao is more known for his comedic roles, Matsuda and Tsumabuki do a lot of serious dramatic work, and Eita does both pretty well. Most of the movie involved people asking for money, and thinking of ways to get more money. The middle dragged, and halfway through it suddenly expanded on the subplot involving Abe’s character’s family and the movie became half about that issue. It was a little odd.
(Current men’s figure skating world champ, Hanyu Yuzuru, gets a cameo at the end.)
One Piece Film: Gold – ★★★½
I watched this because (a) One Piece is now the only still-running manga that I am reading, though I quit the anime a long time ago, and (b) these things hardly ever get released here so this seemed like a golden opportunity.
It was entertaining enough, and better than a lot of the other One Piece movies, but being what it is, I suppose it couldn’t be anything but predictable. I did really enjoy the music (the opening piece was a big band-style tune which I really really liked) as most of it had a jazzy tone which I find appealing. That was probably due to the setting of the movie – a huge casino ship. The setting of the movie was interesting, and had the story taken a stronger Ocean’s Eleven-type angle, I would have liked it a lot more. There was a heist side to the story, but it wasn’t much and so narratively it became just another One Piece movie. The previous one, One Piece Film: Z, had a substantially intriguing villain to set it apart (and to date, Z is probably my favourite One Piece movie, followed by Strong World, Dead End Adventure and the Clockwork Island Adventure; all the rest I did not like) but Gold‘s villain… Hmm. He lacked something. He was all flash and bombast and yes, clearly had power, as well as a backstory that was meant to make him more complex and sympathetic. But he wasn’t all that interesting in the end.
The Boy and the Beast (バケモノの子 The Child of the Beast) – ★★★½
(Part of the GSC Japan Film Fest 2016)
Director Hosoda Mamoru brings the goods yet again. Hosoda is best known for The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars, and Wolf Children. I’ve seen all three, and I liked all three. In fact, I really like Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Wolf Children – though I am surprised that I initially rated the latter only 3.5/5; I’ve rewatched it a couple of times since then and would probably give it at least a 4. (Hosoda also direct the 6th One Piece movie, which turned out to be one of my least favourite OP movies…)
Adapted summary from IMDB: When Ren, a young orphaned boy living on the streets of Shibuya, stumbles upon a fantastic world of beasts, he’s taken in by Kumatetsu, a gruff warrior beast looking for an apprentice. Kumatetsu is one of two potential successors to the throne of the beast kingdom, but though he’s strong, he’s also rude and uncouth. His rival is the noble Iozen, father of two boys, and master of many disciples.
What held this back for me was the final act, where Ren faces off with an unexpected (not really expected, I saw it coming from the halfway point) enemy in the human world and succeeds – somehow – due to Kumatetsu’s intervention as a reincarnated sword spirit. Or something. I didn’t quite understand it. Up until the succession duel between Iozen and Kumatetsu, I thought the movie had been going great. I appreciated the complexity of the situation wherein the young man, after almost a decade in the beast world, rediscovers the human world and finds that he wants to explore more of it, and attempt a reconciliation with his estranged father. At the same time, he is attached to his master, and is reluctant to leave. It reminded me of a faintly similar scenario in Wolf Children, which lends the story a psychological depth and poses questions with no easy answers. However, The Boy and the Beast simplified the situation a little and while that meant it did tie up matters in an agreeable way, I felt like it lost a little something.
That said, the movie is still pretty good and I would recommend it – more highly than I would Kubo & the Two Strings. Kubo does have more mainstream appeal though. I think Boy is perhaps harder to appreciate for people not familiar with Japanese movies, animated or otherwise.
* Notes to self: Kumatetsu in kanji is 熊徹 – the first kanji is literally “bear.” Iozen’s name is 猪王山 – “wild boar” + “king” + “mountain.” Not very subtle, are you, Hosoda-san?
Bakuman – ★★★★½
I watched this a couple of months ago (not in the cinema… I didn’t know the Japan Film Fest would be featuring it), and I enjoyed it thoroughly.
Bakuman is basically about two high school boys who decide to work together to achieve their dream of creating a manga and having it serialized in Shonen Jump, the most famous manga magazine in Japan. (Shonen Jump is real; One Piece is serialized in Shonen Jump, as was many other famous manga such as Bleach, Death Note, Naruto and Slam Dunk. In fact, the Bakuman comic supposedly has characters that are based on real people in the Jump office. The creators of Bakuman are the same duo who created Death Note. I should think that many of their own experiences went straight into the Bakuman story, which makes it a fairly good representation of the manga-making and publishing process.)
The movie stars Sato Takeru and Kamiki Ryunosuke, both well-known actors, as Mashiro Moritaka and Takagi Akito. But I chose to watch this primarily because I read somewhere that they’d handled the depiction of manga creation and the battle to get top spot in the weekly manga rankings extremely well. And this turned out to be true. I thought that projecting the illustrated images onto the paper as the actor sat there “drawing” was a great idea, with the images changing rapidly to show speed and time passing. When the images started to bleed off the paper and onto walls and such, it just produced a really distinct visual depiction of what goes through the creative mind. The battle between the two protagonists and their main rival for #1 in the rankings? Very fun, portrayed through pseudo physical battles with giant pens and ink, with their comic strips swirling in the background. You can glimpse some of it in the middle of the trailer (and I’m pretty sure the voiceover for this trailer is “Luffy,” the main character of One Piece):
Minor quibble: I thought they should have given a liiiittle bit more attention to Mashiro’s love interest because that aspect ended up feeling rather hollow and unresolved. In the manga, it gets more attention (naturally, since 20 volumes of manga means more time to develop a story than a 2-hour movie), so it feels more substantial.
The movie actually has a bittersweet ending (which the manga does not) but it works perfectly because it wasn’t trying to cover the same timeline as the manga (where the story took place over a number of years).
I think my ultimate praise for this adaptation is this: I liked the movie so much that I went hunting for the manga it was based on, read through the entire thing online in less than a week, and am now contemplating buying a couple of volumes (because buying the whole set is just not within my budget). That’s how much I enjoyed it.