Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Because sometimes the strangest things you dig up are also some of the best

Well, it took several entries and half-reviews that also bordered into larger commentaries, but at last we're back with a full on film review here.

I have to admit, in finally getting a momentum going, I kind of wanted to make the first review back something that stood out.  Which made for tough goings in choosing one.  I found a couple of possibilities, some of which will likely turn up in weeks to follow.

Then I stumbled across this sucker almost entirely by accident.

Like many people who are familiar with his name, when I think of Katsuhiro Otomo, the first immediate thought is inevitably going to be his magnum opus Akira.  Between the two versions of that story, as well as other projects, the man's name is firmly entrenched in popular culture as, first and foremost, an anime director and manga writer.  Which was why, in researching some of his lesser known work before, I was surprised to find he's tried his hand at live-action film making a couple of times over the years.

...I also knew then and there we had a winner on something to start the reviews up with again.

Sadly, his first live-action attempt, 'Give Me My Gun, Give Me Freedom' still eludes me (if anyone out there knows how to find a copy of this, translation or no, I will be indebted to you for tipping me off.)  After some digging however, I was able to track down his second feature, done with regular collaborator (and also great director) Satoshi Kon, the comedy-horror movie 'World Apartment Horror.'

It's at this point I'd like to apologize now for the lack of screencaps on this entry.  The only version of this I could find was an old VHS rip, and that at a pretty small resolution.  Watchable, certainly, but for reference images, left a lot to be desired.  If people really want, I can see about editing some in later, but for now, just seemed like it'd be best to omit them for the moment.

(In an extension of the earlier offer, if anyone can help me find a better quality copy of this movie, I will likely be indebted to them.)

So with that, let's stop the previews and get to the feature, shall we?

The story here plays out as equal parts similar and different.  We've all heard about stories that sound, if only in parts, similar to this set-up: protagonist Ita (played by Hiroyuki Tanaka) is an up and coming member of the Yakuza.  His bosses have assigned him to clear out a local apartment for demolition after the last member they sent to the job, Iri, vanished under strange circumstances.  Upon arriving, Ita finds the Japanese tenants have all left, either from being bought off or scared off.  However, now he must contend with the numerous foreigners living on the second floor.  Faster than you can say 'I smell a sitcom,' the communications breakdowns fly and an increasingly agitated Ita becomes more and more desperate to make these guys leave.
...of course, further complicating matters is the ghost in the building that has targeted him and is believed to have driven his predecessor out of his mind.

It all sounds somewhat silly, and to be fair, some parts of it are meant to be (scenes such as Ita's threats being misunderstood by the tenants, leading some to respond to his calls of 'Yakuza' by taking his name to be 'Yaku-san') but overall, it still manages to carry itself fairly well.  The tenants all have their assorted roles they fill without feeling too much like archetypes.  Some of them start going that path (well-meaning Chinese student Chan for one) but as the movie goes on, they begin to move beyond their established molds.

The biggest challenge that seems to be presented to the cast, and one of the more jarring elements for the film comes as a result of the diversity featured therein - cast members switch languages around quite a bit, often in the same conversations.  Eventually you get into the pattern of it, though it does seem odd when the Japanese subtitles suddenly come onto the screen because a tenant has switched to Korean partway through a conversation.  Even further when they start working in English at times.  While I can't speak too definitively for their language skills with many of them, their English is handled relatively well.  Really, the cast largely survive the lingual shifts without it hampering their performances too much.  The only stumbling coming to mind being near the end of the film when Indian resident Kara, in a moment I can't say too much for for spoilage reasons, switches into English in the middle of explaining his actions. 

For a man fueled by revenge, his English lines don't seem to carry the same anger his Japanese do.

On this note, I have to give Otomo and Kon some pretty strong points for where they decided to take this story.  For what could have easily just been a very light comedy, the film still manages to say a couple of substantial things regarding the subject of race relations in Japan.

 It doesn't get too deep into them, naturally, as this isn't a film designed to really explore and debate them, but the fact is the movie doesn't try to just gloss over them.  The final third of the movie in particular brings the fact that these tenants aren't particularly welcomed with open arms elsewhere to the fore, as they are faced with the debate over whether to deal with the ghost inhabiting their apartment, or leave it to drive Ita mad and thus deal with the man who's been trying to force them out.  For a film that's predominantly a comedy to address these elements for more than just humor is actually a nice touch, especially handling it in a way that doesn't feel overwrought playing up the emotion.

For not having much experience with live-action projects under the belt, Otomo still manages to make a solid effort with this film.  The camera definitely gets more of a chance to move around and explore scenes than other Japanese films sometimes allow for, and the western roots the man has credited as inspiring his love of film can definitely be seen in the way some parts of this are shot. 

Longtime Otomo fans will, of course, also be pleased to see that, even though this lacks the big sci-fi settings he's known for, his penchant for the 'final act = all Hell breaks loose' idea still makes an appearance here, in a particularly memorable fashion involving, without giving too many elements away: ghostly posession, a welder-cum-witch doctor, and a confrontation between the tenants, the Yakuza, and Ita's predecessor, now quite out of his mind.

I'm not gonna say this is a career high for either of the two major players involved in making it happen.  It's a fun movie, sure, but it can get a bit dodgy at points, and the acting, as I said above, is hit or miss depending when in the movie you look.  Nevertheless, it's an interesting experiment for two people predominantly versed in animation and the freedoms it can provide in a story as well as a rather curious breed of movie in general.  Granted, Japan has combined horror and comedy before this (I will again pimp out Obayashi's 'House',) but the way the two are blended here, complete with the creators' working in a subtheme of race relations, manages to give the film enough of a unique voice on its own.  For the bumps in the road, it's still an interesting enough trip to take for something different, and worth the time should you be lucky enough to stumble across it somewhere in your travels.

Feels pretty good to be back into reviewing again.  Also, to be able to shine some light on a film that hasn't gotten a lot of love, really.

Hopefully will be doing these more often, including several had on backlog in the future.

Catch ya hopefully sooner rather than later

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