And now to Japan

It is amazing how my movie watching has been falling into neat thematically, linguistically, geographically defined clumps this year. First, my day in Spain, and now, a pair from Japan:


"AKIRA" dir. Katsuhiro Otomo

This anime classic came highly recommended by my normally, let's say, circumspect boyfriend, so it has been one of the more anticipated prospects on my "1001 Movies" list. I have snatched it out of the chronological queue in which all my 1001 movies wait to be consumed because my favorite podcasters, Adam and Sam at Filmspotting , included it in their Animation Marathon - in which I have been sporadically running along side them. The last marathon, on Documentaries, introduced me to the wonders of Barbara Kopple's "Harlan County, U.S.A.," and I have been a devoted follower ever since.

Summarizing the plot of "Akira" is an exercise in futility, but I really should exercise more, so here we have it: It is the post-WWIII Neo-Tokyo of 2019. Two longtime friends and biker-gangsters (Kaneda, the leader, and the resentful Tetsuo) struggle to manage Tetsuo's new-found super-powers in a world where evolution has given some children awesome, nuclear-age abilities humanity (science, the military, religious zealots) is ill-equipped to understand or wield. In all sincerity, I wouldn't recommend that you watch "Akira" for the plot, or for the enfeebled characterizations. Watch it as an art movie in the most sensual manner: enjoy the striking visuals or inventive use of sound that were so revolutionary in the 80s; the animators' unusual, almost photographic attention to light and shadow; the director's willingness to use the eery tactility of film silence in an almost abstract way.

I have to agree with Adam and Sam, however, that the movie has fundamental narrative flaws that keep it from being a truly enjoyable or even thought-provoking experience, not least of which is the one that Filmspotting explicitly mentions: this feels like a two hour condensation of a massive, epic manga (and it is). The plot progresses in almost nonsensical fits and starts, punctuating long (and rather dull) arias of violence. In this dullness lies my major criticism: as with Superman, there is something fundamentally uninteresting about characters with unfettered, limitless powers. Every plotline becomes a deus ex machina, depriving the viewer of any possibility of suspense.

One last note: since this film documents the excruciating deterioration of the body when confronted with powers beyond its scope, it is not a film to watch (as I did) with a headache or motion sickness. Be forewarned.


"TOKYO STORY" dir. Yasujiro Ozu

From Neo-Tokyo to the suburbs of mid-20th century Tokyo, I move back to my chronological progress through the "1001 Movies" list. This was my first experience with Ozu and it was a remarkable one - his style is so sedate and yet involving. In fact, it is the opposite of "Akira" (frenzied and dull) in every way. I will admit that I had "Tokyo Story" out of Netflix for weeks before I finally watched it, which is not at all in keeping with my normal obsessive-compulsive privileging of Netflix efficiency over all other activity. Over the holidays I kept trying to lure my boyfriend or parents into watching it with me, but somehow my pitch of "It's about an elderly couple whose children don't love them as they should" didn't resonate with anyone's sense of holiday cheer. Or maybe it resonated too strongly with the feelings that Christmas evokes in us. At any rate, I finally watched it, by myself, on the train ride home.

What struck me throughout was how little bleakness there was in Ozu's seemingly tragic story. I had prepared myself for the sort of vicious filiality that we see in "Ran" or (I shudder to think of this son) "Ikiru," but Ozu has (of course!) a very different sense of the dramatic in family life than Kurosawa. At first, this mildness evoked a certain defensiveness in me: "These children aren't that bad!" I kept exclaiming to myself, "They just have their own lives and careers! Should they just drop everything for their parents' visit?? They would lose their jobs."

But this is the tragic seduction of the film. You can't say "Oh Oedipus, you fool, any idiot could figure out what the prophecy meant. How about just never getting married? That would ensure a life of unFreudian simplicity," because the betrayals in "Tokyo Story" are so quotidian. When the married, working children shuffle off their parents, they send them on a spa vacation, confident (in a self-justifying way) that their parents will have a better, more comfortable time there than in the cramped quarters available to them in the city. The most horrible of the daughters, the one who moves closest to caricature, is no more broadly drawn than the most aggressively tactless person at any Christmas or Thanksgiving dinner in the country today. Even her irritation with her father, the most unsympathetic of the relationships portrayed in the film, is well motivated by an alcoholic past that disrupted the family's happiness. Only one character (their widowed daughter-in-law) lays claim to contentment, and she is eternally urged to change, to marry, to forget. The gentle tragedy of the film is underscored by the fact that the parents understand why their children find them such a burden. There are no histrionics here, only subtle injustices, minor incomprehensions. A delicate and sympathetic film.


"Akira" (Japan 1988)
dir. and written by Katsuhiro Otomo

"Tokyo Story" (Japan 1953)
dir. Yasujiro Ozu

4 Responses so far.

  1. Max Renn says:

    For a brief and horrifying moment I misconstrued the five-asterisks sign with which you separate sections of text, and I thought that you had bestowed the coveted 5-star rating upon, of all things, "Akira," after having denied it to the likes of "The Phantom of Liberty" and "L'avventura". I'm relieved to have been mistaken. But: come on, lady! "Tokyo Story" falls short, too? Will nothing ever satisfy your so-discriminating taste?

    I used to insist that the reviewers whose work I edited save the 5-star (and the 1-star) rating for those rare movies that moved them palpably to unadulterated adoration (or to equally pure contempt). But, please, be reasonable! If none of the three above-named masterpieces gets you there, then perhaps you should, so to speak, retire the 5-star jersey and confess to the world that you've really been rating moves on a scale of 1 to 4.5.

    On the other hand--maybe you're just waiting for something truly transcendent.

    Like a 3-D movie.

    Or an IMAX nature show.

    Or Smell-O-Rama!

  2. Wow... Smell-O-Rama! That would rate 5 stars.

    My reluctance to give a five star rating emerges from my feeling that there are almost always flaws with the movies I enjoy, even if those flaws are as vague as a general sense of underwhelming lurking beneath my admiration. I think it would be accurate to say that I reserve the five star rating for the films that are both emotionally transcendent and intellectually, structural or aesthetically complex and/or innovative.

  3. Also, you are right about the five-asterisks dividers. I must find a new way of structuring my posts. Hmm....

  4. Bijoy says:

    Nice post, its a Super cool blog that you have here, keep up the good work, will be back.

    Warm Regards

    Ran Movie Review

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