The dedicated Japanophile had much to love at Fantasia Fest 2013. Montreal's premiere genre fest would not be complete without a healthy lineup of anime, samurai swords, kaiju and the requisite naked hentai girls.
An abundance of features like "I'll Give it My All… Tomorrow" or "Hello My Dolly Girlfriend" reveled in low ambition males in a subgenre one could call "Japanese loser-core." Way too overly prolific Takashi Miike had both "Lesson of Evil" and "Shield of Straw" at the festival (no doubt shooting a third feature between Q&As), while "See You Tomorrow, Everyone" and "The Great Passage" went the sensitive character study route. Even Mika Ninagawa's "Black Swan"-esque glimpse into Japan's decadent fashion world, "Helter Skelter," is a little too high brow, and we don't mean fake eyelashes.
That's right, our list of five favorites from the Land of the Rising Sun consists of features we think could have major crossover appeal in the States while still retaining that quintessentially oddball mystique Japan exceeds at. Domo arigato, Mr. Projectionist.
"AFTER SCHOOL MIDNIGHTERS"
Fantasia Fest was positively dripping with anime, including "Akira"-helmer Katsuhiro Otomo's gorgeous period short "Combustible," some winning adaptations of manga "Berserk" and "009 Re: Cyborg," or more experimental efforts like "The Burning Buddha Man" (filmed in glorious cardboardimation). The one that really made eyeballs pop (quite literally) was Hitoshi Takekiyo's "After School Midnighters," which stands as a perfect surrogate experience to having dropped acid in kindergarten.
Despite cheap production values compared to its Pixar brothers, this CG animated flick brings the gothic eye candy as it follows three pint-sized girls Mako (the hyper one), Miko (the snob), and Mutsuko (the weirdo) who face challenges from muscled mermen, gloomy ghosts and, well, Beethoven in a contest for three gold coins. The goal is to save their school science room, but don't worry, this movie isn't even remotely educational. It's actually an exuberant post-Tim Burton exercise is left-field absurdity, from gun-toting bunny rabbits (whose theme is from "The Godfather") to a human anatomy model riding a motorcycle. Also, that one icky scene where a little girl's parasol gets caught on a merman's crotch ("Ouch! My precious balls!"). Thanks, Japan.
While Makoto Shinkai's "The Garden of Words" might have taken home a Satoshi Kon Award at the fest, that one falls into the category of "could have easily been live-action," whereas literally everything about "After School Midnighters" (which received special mention for the same award) screams ANIMATION with at least twelve exclamation points!!!!!!!!!!!!
"THE APOLOGY KING"
Saying sorry is hard, but the Japanese apologize like it's their job. In the case of Mamoru (Sadao Abe) being overly repentant is an occupational hazard, since he runs the Tokyo Apology Centre (out of a curry restaurant), where he espouses Japan's most sacred form of prostration, the dogeza. He specializes in helping socially inept folk win back honor and trust through elaborate (and often equally deceptive) apologies, including his newfound assistant Noriko (Mao Inoue) whom he saves from being forced into prostitution by the yakuza whose Mercedes she accidentally demolished.
The film is structured through vignettes of the kowtow master's clients, each growing increasingly more outlandish until literally all of Japan's fate (and its supply of sanitary napkins) lies in his humble hands. All the cases eventually come together in one form or another, which is a testament to Nobuo Mizuta's confident storytelling hand and Abe's wild performance, although a music video at the end credits is beyond bizarre. If the concept of the dogeza could somehow be translated towards western values, it would not be difficult to imagine an American remake starring Jack Black as The Apology King and Emma Roberts as his trusty sidekick. It remains distinctly Japanese, though, with one international lawyer character even mentioning how in the west apologizing can be damning from a legal perspective.
This martial arts mini-masterpiece is a foodie's delight and a fightie's dream. It concerns a wandering warrior Toramaru (Mitsuki Koga) looking to master the full spectrum of martial arts, from kung-fu to stick fighting to swordplay right up to dodging bullets à la Neo. Whoa. He wanders the modern world dressed like a man from another time, beholden to an anachronistic Bushido code that urges him to empathize with his opponents; when one breaks a hand during a duel, Toramaru smashes his own with a rock to even the odds.
Then there's the food. Before each challenge our hero is encouraged by his master to indulge in his adversary's cuisine of choice in order to truly know what he's up against. Makes sense. Not since "Tampopo" has Asian cuisine been given such a rousing showcase, and the sensory delights -not to mention the exhaustion brought on by seven consecutive ass-kickings- will provoke viewers to make an immediate beeline to their nearest dumpling and ramen establishment. Despite a structure that basically goes "Food-Fight-Lesson, Food-Fight-Lesson…" writer/director Takanori Tsujimoto never lets things get stale, and culminates in an awesome bout involving a device that allows one to shoot bullets with each punch.
Now that "The Conjuring" has whet audience appetite for old-fashioned slow burn horror, director Hideo Nakata (the original "Ringu") has picked the perfect climate to take us into the dark corridors of "The Complex." Asuka (Atsuko Maeda) and her family move into a supposedly haunted low-income apartment complex, and guess what? Some haunted s**t goes down. Scratching on her bedroom wall at night leads the teen girl to discover an elderly neighbor who has died, but that's only the beginning of her troubles. Ghosts, mediums, evil spirits, hallucinations, and the compulsory handsome male love interest with a dark past collide to try Asuka's fragile psyche.
Apparently the consensus on this movie during the fest was that it either had A) a boring buildup and an awesome finale or B) a gripping lead-in to a silly clichéd conclusion. This writer is gonna have to go with the latter option. Granted, the ending is not without frightful merit, even though it capitalizes on that tiredest of modern horror tropes, the creepy kid. For his first J-horror entry in nearly a decade, Nakata actually has the cojones to dish out his big shocking twist at the dead center of the film's runtime, as opposed to Sixth Sensing us at the end, Shyamalan-style. Expect a yankee doodle English-language remake from a hot music video helmer to see release from Lionsgate (or Screen Gems or Dimension) by no later than October 2014.
Japanese superheroes were on parade in both "The Tiger Mask" and "Ultraman Zero: The Revenge of Belial," but the most hotly anticipated title was the live-action version of "Gatchaman." Originally an anime series titled (ponderously) "Science Ninja Team Gatchaman" and imported to North America as "Battle of the Planets," the film faithfully carries over the concept of five young costumed heroes protecting our world from alien Galactor hordes led by the evil, enigmatic Berg Kattse (who looks like Batman crossed with The Phantom of the Paradise).
Mirroring recent Hollywood destruction porn, it opens with the a big robot wheel of death straight out of "Transformers" wreaking havoc in Tokyo, and leads to several more modern clichés including the bad guy who gets caught on purpose and the escape right before a massive explosion. Stylistically, its lens flares and self-seriousness give this slickly produced product the air of "Power Rangers" as directed by Michael Bay. Not to oversell it or anything. While the movie certainly played well to the 800-strong crowd at the Imperial Theatre premiere, the beauty of it from the uninitiated POV is the opportunity to truly understand what it must be like for someone to look at Hollywood's superhero ilk from the outside.
Fanboys worship at the altar of "The Avengers" and "Star Trek Into Darkness" because they're known quantities come to blazing life onscreen, but those who don't know "Gatchaman" from a hole in the ground (including yours truly) had the epiphany: Without brand recognition, this stuff is truly silly. If you doubt it, see this episode of the original show where the team combats a giant building-sized mummy which turns out to be a giant goblin which turns out to be a giant robot.