Monoglot Movie Club: Japanese Screens

Part of an occasional series in which Spank The Monkey travels to foreign countries, watches films in unfamiliar languages, and then complains about not understanding them

Hello Kitty Sadako. Yes, it’s an actual thing.

I’m full of Asahi in a Tokyo restaurant, and I’m drunkenly attempting to explain the concept of Monoglot Movie Club to one of The Belated Birthday Girl’s Japanese mates. If Miki is pretending to be interested, she’s doing it incredibly well, to the extent that she asks me a question I’ve never been asked before: “If you don’t understand the language, how do you choose which films to see?”

Regular readers will know that most of the time, that isn’t a problem. In the last few countries I’ve visited, it’s actually been a struggle to find one or two local films to watch. Japan, however, is another story. Their film industry is as busy as ever, although you’ll find many people – myself included – are concerned at just how much of their production slate is taken up with remakes, adaptations and sequels. During the two weeks I spent there on holiday, there were over a dozen Japanese films in cinemas vying for a spot in this article. And really, the procedure’s the same as it would be back home: start with the trailer.

To the untrained eye, that might look like a film about a man in ancient Rome who falls down a hole in the bath and comes out in 21st century Japan. Well, good news: that’s exactly what it is. Thermae Romae started out life as a very silly comic book, and has evolved via an animated series into a very silly (but ludicrously high-grossing) film. If you’re watching it without dialogue like I was, it could seem rather episodic: protagonist Hiroshi Abe goes forward in time, discovers the astonishing advances the Japanese have made in bathing technology, goes back in time and implements these ideas in his Roman bathhouse, rinse, repeat. But gradually, a narrative emerges from the friendships he makes along the way: with the Emperor in his own time, and with a cute manga artist in 2012.

Even without the benefit of language, there’s a playfulness to the film that’s utterly infectious. It mixes up styles like crazy: using huge lavish sets for the Roman sequences, but depicting the time vortex effect by apparently throwing a rag doll into a jacuzzi. Despite the daftness of the central concept, it’s acted with utter seriousness by the cast, with Abe particularly impressive in that regard. He’s only really required to oscillate between two facial expressions – grim stoicism (such as when he tries to steal a banana back from a monkey) and orgasmic wonder (such as when he discovers the ‘spray’ button on a Japanese toilet) – but he does them both wonderfully. Some clever visual storytelling makes the ending surprisingly moving, too.

Space Brothers has reached cinemas via the same route as Thermae Romae – manga to anime to live-action – but doesn’t pull it off with the same degree of success. Again, it’s got a higher-than-Mount-Fuji high concept at its centre: two brothers make a childhood vow in 2006 to go into space, and we join them in 2025 to see how they’re getting on with that. The younger, cuter, brother is part of a NASA crew preparing for a mission to set up Earth’s first moonbase; the older, frizzier-haired one is still living at home with his parents, and struggling to get noticed by the Japanese space agency JAXA. Will their two stories eventually intertwine? Well, yes, they will. But it takes far too long for that to happen. It doesn’t help that a crucial part of that intertwining appears to have been replaced by an inspirational montage cut to Sigur Rós’s Hoppífriggin’polla, as heard in virtually every other film made so far this century.

The older brother’s passage through the JAXA recruiting process has some entertaining moments, but it’s wrecked for me by an overlong sequence where a group of trainees are locked in an isolation tank and psychologically messed with. The younger brother actually gets to go to the moon, so his story is much more dramatic and as it’s a NASA mission, lots of expository dialogue relating to that strand is usefully given in English. But the English-speaking actors are atrociously directed, and all painful to listen to, with the exception of the film’s most unexpected gaijin cameo. (No direct spoilers here, but sadly in this one he doesn’t yell at the moon “I own you! I walked on your face!”) All in all, you may be better off with the anime.

Manga adaptations have a small but loyal following in the West, so Thermae Romae and Space Brothers may turn up here on DVD eventually. Sadako 3D, on the other hand, will almost certainly be showing at a cinema near you before the year’s out. Because you know Sadako already: she’s the long-haired scary girl who crawls out of the telly at the climax of Ring, the film which jump-started Western interest in Asian horror movies. Based on a story by original franchise creator Koji Suzuki, Sadako 3D is more of a reboot than a sequel, taking advantage of the changes in technology since the VHS-based chills of the original. Sadako’s curse is now passed on via an online viral video (handily optimised for mobile devices), and once you watch it something horrible will happen.

Given what we know about Sadako’s history of scaring people, and that the film’s in 3D, you can probably guess what that something horrible will look like. Unfortunately, once she’s done it once, it isn’t quite as scary for the dozen or so more times she does it after that. It’s indicative of the will-this-do nature of the film as a whole: it’s a well-calibrated machine for giving people a good jump every eight minutes, but there’s very little new involved. And the few times that Sadako does something new, your immediate reaction is “no, don’t do that.” Specifically, “no, don’t pull a whole pack of CGI monsters out of your arse for the climax, when the whole thing that makes the Ring films work is the simplicity of their central image.” (When I first visited Japan in 2002, I went to Toei Studios in Kyoto and they had a Ring-themed haunted house. Couple of rooms and one girl in a wig. It’s all you need.)

Despite its many flaws, Sadako 3D will get a wider international release than anything else mentioned in this article, because it’s part of a long-running series. But Ring has a long way to go before it reaches the heights of the Tora-San franchise. Between 1969 and 1995, writer/director Yoji Yamada and actor Kiyoshi Atsumi made 48 films about Tora-San, the travelling salesman. The trailer above is actually for the 39th film in the series, rather than the 41st one which we saw; but, if you wanted to be harsh about it, you could say that Yamada just made the same film 48 times, because they’re notorious for all having the same structure: Tora-San arrives in a new town, he helps out someone there with a problem, he falls for a local lass but it doesn’t work out, he’s sad for a bit, he eventually cheers up, rinse, repeat. It’s a formula that’s made Tora-San movies the comfort cinema of choice for an entire nation for several decades.

If you fancy watching a Tora-San film in a Tokyo cinema nowadays, the best place to go is the Asakusa Meigaza, a proper old-fashioned repertory grindhouse with wipe-clean seats and a programming policy that encourages people to sit in the place all day. (There are gaps of literally three minutes between one film and the next.) When we were there we caught Tora-San Goes To Vienna, which is the franchise’s Holiday On The Buses moment. Familiarity with the format makes it easy enough to follow: this time, Tora-San accompanies a suicidal salaryman on a holiday to Vienna, and starts a doomed relationship with a Japanese tour guide. There’s a curiously timeless feel to the production – I spent the entire film assuming it was late ’60s or early ’70s, only to find at the end it was made in 1989. And it’s funny how even a non-Japanese speaker can pick up the precise comic rhythms of the dialogue, if not the jokes. There’s a scene near the end where Tora-San’s family ask him long involved questions about his trip, and he gives short abrupt answers: you don’t understand the words, but you know exactly what’s going on.

Just one more film for you: and this is one where I didn’t watch the trailer before going into it. Instead, I saw a poster for Kotoko, read the words A Shinya Tsukamoto Film on it, and said “right, that’ll do.” Tsukamoto has been freaking out viewers in the East and West for over two decades now, starting off with his black-and-white robot-cock-fest Tetsuo The Iron Man. That one gave him a reputation as a kind of Japanese David Cronenberg, with its follow-ups showing his love of body horror. Like Cronenberg, Tsukamoto has recently developed more of an interest in psychological rather than physical damage. His title character here, played by Okinawan singer Cocco, is a single mum whose life and sanity are falling apart. The appearance of a new man in her life may be a turning point: but as that man’s played by Tsukamoto himself, it may not be a positive one.

Very early on, it’s established that the story is going to be told entirely from Kotoko’s viewpoint: and the first two scenes confirm that we can’t trust what we see through her eyes. That has an unfortunate effect on the rest of the film, because you can’t have any emotional investment in a story which continually relies on the getout of ‘it’s all in her head’. Having said that, it does put you in the unusual situation where the main way Tsukamoto can pull the rug out from under your feet is by showing you something that actually happens. As ever, he can also mess with your head through balls-out cinematic technique, and the full-on impact of Kotoko’s paranoia is viscerally depicted as a berserk thrill-ride. The Japanese censor has hilariously given Kotoko a PG-12 certificate: let’s just say a 12A wouldn’t be on the cards in the UK, especially once Kotoko’s sense of threat passes on to her child.

In summary, no real surprises: of the five films I saw in Japan, two of them were adaptations and two were sequels. There are wholly original stories being filmed, but it looks like you have to look past the mainstream to wherever Shinya Tsukamoto lives these days. Having said that, there’s nothing wrong with the mainstream when it can produce something as fun as Thermae Romae: are there any UK distributors willing to take a chance on it? If Hot Tub Time Machine can make it into cinemas, I don’t see why this one can’t. (Although given the sad news from Third Window Films last week, maybe I do…)

Spank The Monkey is currently working on a series of What I Did On My Holidays Apart From Films articles, which should be appearing at throughout June.

About Spank The Monkey

Spank The Monkey has been talking nonsense about popular culture on the internet since 1998. He can be found doing that in long form on his blog, and in short form on Twitter. He is a regular contributor to Mostly Film, where his specialist subjects are Asian cinema, cult movies and TV, and watching foreign films without the benefit of subtitles. He lives in London with somebody else.

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