Monday, June 23, 2008

WaiWai Is Bye-Bye

Going through the news, I noticed that, as of yesterday, Mainichi Daily News has discontinued its controversial corner, WaiWai. WaiWai was a section, headed by Aussie Ryann Connell, in which various articles from tabloid rags were translated into English and published for humor's sake. Apparently, MDN folded under pressure from complaints that content in this corner was "too vulgar"; some recent article headlines have included titles such as "Give me pubic hair, or give me death!", "Sick skating sensei sullies student, leaves wife to handle the heat", and "Suicidal porn princess with a fetish for funny men chooses gassing over flaming'". There were also those who questioned whether a respectable news source should be dealing tabloid stories to begin with. MDN has said that they will retool the corner with different and, in a likelihood, more "acceptable" content.

Ultimately, I have mixed feelings about WaiWai's disappearance. On the one hand, it was an interesting (and often hilarious) view into a part of Japanese society that would otherwise be ignored. Tabloids are one of those things that we laugh at, but we have to remember that they make a lot of money so some reader must be taking them seriously. With that in mind, it's interesting to note what sorts of stories are used to keep these reader's attention. One thing that sort of relieves, however, is that we really do not need yet another avenue that only focuses on and laughs at the freakish elements of Japan. It's bugged me for a long time that it has sometimes become hard to talk about Japan without the mention of some fringe element about Japan is. Want to talk about movies? Miike. Anime? Tentacle rape. Tokyo? Soaplands. Food? Raw fish. Now, these are all valid subtopics to bring up but they're sometimes done so with so much derision that it's almost not worth coming up with any sort of explanation. "Err, yes, Japanese eat raw fish but, you know, raw oysters are..oh never mind."

The funny thing is that these images of Japan sometimes give people an extremely false impression of the country. When I was talking to someone about the country recently he marvelled that Japan must be this wild place where everyone has spiky hair and leather bondage clothes and eats sushi everyday when actually the opposite is the case, Japan is a pretty conservative place that has a lot of traditions that guide and govern everyday life. Nothing controversial about that, though, I'm afraid.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Review: Viva Chiba Edition

The Bodyguard (1973/1976)

Director: Ryuichi Takamori/Simon Nuchtern

The Bodyguard starts off with a humorously modified version of the biblical passage Ezekiel 25:17, now famously lifted used by Quentin Tarantino in Pulp Fiction (OK, everyone now...."The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities...blahblahblah"). Unfortunately, the movie which follows this opening is anything less than biblical, unless you're talking about the snoozy Leviticus. The Bodyguard starts promising enough: a mafia boss and henchmen are gunned down by a number of "unknown assailants" (forget that this happened in broad daylight in front of a church in New York City), we then get a martial arts demo that was obviously tacked on by U.S. director Nuchtern for some context. Next, cut to an airplane hijacking, an attempt to flush out Sonny Chiba in a crowd of passengers. This, of course, ends in all of the criminals getting the crap kicked out of them and the audience getting Chiba's hammy fist shaking in its face. Finally, the press conference in which the best line of the movie is spoken:

Interviewer: "You killed five mobsters with your bare hands. It took great courage. Why did you do it?"

Chiba: Because I had to.

Isn't that just bad ass? Everyone should be able to use that line for an incident in their lives and get an immediate pardon. God knows the last few U.S. presidents could have used that power.

From there, though, the movie just kid of goes downhill. Chiba hates drugs, offers his services as a bodyguard to anyone willing to testify against the gangsters bringing in the drugs which gets him mixed up with a woman (Mari Atsumi) who may or may not have information or drugs or...? After a while, it just doesn't matter as the movie gets as stilted as Chiba looks in the outrageously garish suits he has to wear in the movie (see picture). For a Chiba movie, there is fairly low level of action and, for what little there is, it's pretty unexciting and feels cheaply staged. The eye poking and arm-putation scenes were kind of fun, though.

The Bodyguard is obviously a Japanese production with a few scenes (the aforementioned martial arts demo and some New York scenery filler) added in by an American production crew to pad the movie for a few extra minutes. Too bad that they couldn't add in a little more "good" as well.

Sonny Chiba's Dragon Princess (1976)

Director: Yutaka Kohira

With a title like Dragon Princess and with both Sonny Chiba and protegee Etsuko Shihomi, I was expecting some wacky fantasy jidaigeki in the vein of Legend of the Eight Samurai (not coincidentally also starring Chiba, protege Hiroyuki Sanada, and Shiomi) or at least get a chance to see a Japanese midget in tights. Bummer, though, Dragon Princess is the typical martial arts story: student/offspring Shihomi has to avenge father/teacher Chiba who has been beaten badly beaten and run out of town by the owner of a rival dojo (Bin Amatsu). Amatsu, though a grandmaster, has his own stable of crooked students including the "Big Four", a quartet of martial artists who each has his own specialty weapon.

Shihomi stays pretty covered up in monk's robe throughout the movie since she has to stay with her grandfather after Chiba's death. In contrast, many female characters in Japanese movies at the time had to bear some skin, have their breasts stabbed, fondled, or ravished, or tied up and whipped. Shihomi was relatively spared these sorts of trials of being a Japanese actress mainly because of her physicality and ties with Chiba's "Action Club" of young martial-artists. Regarding the former, Shihomi is very convincingly physical during her scenes, no half-assed, floppy-armed choreography that you usually see in the sukeban movies of the same era. You can tell that she's really enjoying herself; in one scene, she performs a standing triple flip then straddles him to the ground and smashes his face in for good measure. After that she kicks and punches her way through about a dozen more enemies and ends with a "want some more, bitch?!?!" look on her face. Shihomi is pretty awesome to watch even if this movie of hers is tepid, at best.

Karate Warriors (1976)

Director: Kazuhiko Yamaguchi

Though not as well known as its predecessors, Karate Warriors was actually the fourth, and last, of "The Streetfighter" series in Japan. To the film's fortune, it shows. The story fits well within the series: Chiba plays all-around scumbag "Chico" (in the English dubbed version) caught in a proxy war between two yakuza gangs headed by brothers looking for heroine stashed away by a former boss. When Chiba finds the hidden heroine (by finding the clue conveniently hidden in the dead boss' memorial tablet -- guess nobody bothered touching it previously!), all hell breaks loose as Chiba tries to get away with it and the two gangs hot on his trail.

There are many bizarre idiosyncrasies throughout the film: although obviously a modern film by the '70s fashions the characters wear, one of the gangs employs a samurai, replete with sword and geta, to fight for them. Also, for a film with so many yakuza, there are relatively few guns. My guess is that these were pretty cheap thugs in a stingy town or a pretty cheap film crew in a stingy film company. One thing that wasn't skimped on, though, was camera effects: lots of slo-mo round-house kicks (take that Matrix and Chuck Norris!), punches, sword slashes. Prime stuff for the true Chiba fan.

Final note: All of the above movies are part of the "Welcome to the Grindhouse" series of double features released by Deimos/BCI. Dragon Princess and Karate Warriors are packaged on one disc while The Bodyguard is packaged with Sister Street Fighter (which will be reviewed sometime in the future since this version is not the best). All of these films are dubbed in English with no subtitles or Japanese language options.