Joe Odagiri has been a near-constant presence in my recent SIFF experience. In 2004, I saw him in Kitamura Ryuuhei's Azumi and Kurosawa Kiyoshi's Bright Future (with that other Japanese indie darling Asano Tadanobu). In 2006, I saw him in Shinobi, and though I opted to skip it, he was also in that year's Princess Raccoon. This year, he was in three of the movies from Japan: Otomo Katsuhiro's Mushishi, the aforementioned Kurosawa's Retribution, both of which I went to see, and Sway, which I decided not to. That's seven SIFF movies in four years. Not bad for someone who got their start in a TV series of the Power Rangers genre. Anyhow, he's 31, from the lovely city of Tsuyama, and one of the more versatile actors working today. He's hot, he's cool, he's talented. I can't wait to see what he'll be in for next year's festival.
Today's reviews, spotlight: Japan.
Sakuran. Rating: 4. While the basic story is unremarkable (it's been done and done and done and done), this movie pulls it off with such attitude and style that it's hard not to like it (perhaps a result of its being based on a manga series). A girl is sold to a brothel in Yoshiwara, the pleasure quarters of Edo. She grows up and becomes a top oiran, while learning along the way that the courtesan life is incompatible with true love. Not to spoil it for you or anything, but guess what she finds at the end of the movie? The visuals were lush, the camerawork was beautiful, and Anna Tsuchiya's lead performance was a ton of fun. Also, the soundtrack was made up mostly of modern music and added a lot to the character of the film. If you are looking for a good Japanese courtesan movie, skip the bloated and plodding Memoirs of a Geisha (though god knows I love Zhang Ziyi and Gong Li), and watch this one.
Mushishi. Rating: 3. I was expecting so much more out of Otomo Katsuhiro, the director of Akira and Steamboy. Also based on a manga series, this episodic movie follows the travels of a Mushishi (Bug Master), as he goes from place to place, solving problems caused by supernatural "Bugs." Besides the fact that the movie was really slow (a quality I don't usually associate with Otomo), I had a problem with the whole "bug" thing. Because it's a fantasy setting, everything worked on a set of rules that was unfamiliar. What bothered me was that I never really managed to get a handle on any of it, and thus none of the solutions were very satisfactory for me. Everything was done with a "well, that's just the way it is" feeling, and so nothing was very smart or clever. Anyone can solve made-up problems with made-up solutions. Why did she have to pull his eye out? Because. Why does pairing Ahs and Uns make the girl's horns fall off? Because. Why did she start glowing all of a sudden? Because. Perhaps this is all very much more interesting in manga format, but if that's the case, it didn't translate to live-action so well. And to top it off, the ending was abrupt and nonsensical. Why did it end that way? Because.
Retribution (Sakebi). Rating: 4. I'm still trying to process this movie in my head, and that's mostly because of one scene that just didn't seem to fit with the rest of the movie. Sort of like it was from another movie, but director Kurosawa Kiyoshi just decided to plop it into this one to throw his audience for a loop. Other than that though, I think those who liked Kurosawa's other works will like this one too. We witness a murder occurring in the very first scene: a woman is drowned in a puddle of saltwater. But we don't see the face of the murderer. When the police come to investigate the scene, one detective (played by the seemingly ubiquitous Yakusho Kouji) finds evidence that seems to lead right back to him. Did he do it? Or is he being framed? The movie starts off immediately with a psychological tension that holds for pretty much the rest of the movie. The film examines the nature of guilt and regret all the while providing effective atmospheric chills. Kurosawa's films are also a perennial participant in the festival (I saw both Bright Future and Doppelganger at SIFF 2004), and I'll be excited to see what he'll come up with next.