Japanese movies

returnReturn of the Street Fighter 1974

The Street Fighter series continues with aplomb in this second installment. Sonny Chiba gets right back into the swing of things early on as he wildly gestures and sneers his way through a vastly outnumbered fight against the entire police department.

The ruggedly nomadic street fighter character meets new enemies and some old ones this time around. I like how the story handles the balance between tying into the first movie and being its own separate thing.

And what a story it is. Eye gouging, throat piercing, a Serpico lookalike, and this tragically underused muay thai fighter they’re always keeping in the background. The fight choreography has the same muddy execution as last time: mostly reckless brawling, with the characters sometimes taking awkwardly formal stances, for braggadocio’s sake more than any other reason. This ain’t Chinese kung fu–it’s Japanese karate!

When the movie ends and a tanker truck bursts into flames, a satisfied smile breaks out across Chiba’s face, the perfect capstone to a cinematic treatise reveling in corporeal violence.


Asura 2012

Having seen Asura and last year’s Short Peace in recent weeks and relative proximity to one another, I’m becoming less hostile to the fact CG is a cost-cutting measure in the Japanese animator’s toolbelt. Don’t get me wrong, it most often is exactly that, but it need not always be a waxy, stiff-legged impediment to animators’ self-expression.

Asura is not a beautiful cartoon movie, either in subject matter or aesthetics. Based on a grizzly boundary-pushing manga from the seventies, it readily deals with cannibalism, infanticide, and murder. Neither the sort of crowd-pleaser that would appeal to general audiences or well-worn genre fodder for otaku, Asura unsurprisingly lacks the budgetary means to be beautiful.

But the look of the movie matches its character and underlines its themes. Asura, the titular feral child, tragically finds himself mimicking a kind of humanity he only observes but never truly participates it. The clunky, unsatisfying way in which he and every other character moves is reminiscent of puppeteering, and the 2D smudged, chalky character designs overlaid on top of their 3D models only serve to emphasize that effect, making the limitations of Asura’s shadowed perception of the human world manifest in our perception of it. It also lends a sort of fairytale aesthetic to its morbid and exaggerated melodrama.

Don’t punch Donnie Yen’s mom.


The virtuosic action choreography in Special ID is its main appeal. Donnie Yen continues appropriating MMA sport techniques into his martial arts movies, adding realistic novelty to an expansive yet repetitive genre, novelty that is enhanced by the fact Yen is a fifty year-old man playing far younger and carrying it off perfectly, both by his looks and his come-and-go genial personality.

Special ID has some of the best hand-to-hand fighting I’ve seen in the last couple of years. But why did they put Collin Chou in this thing if they didn’t want to give him a chance to show some moves, I wonder…


SPACE DANDY (I learned how to make animated GIFs after abandoning Tumblr. Go figure.)

Space Dandy Episode 1 premiered on Cartoon Network with a bad English dub because it’s sc-fi anime made by the Cowboy Bebop guy. The first ten minutes were so dumb they made me lose ten IQ points. That’s one IQ point a minute. I didn’t appreciate it, I have a limited amount of those.

space dandy 1

Is this going to be the pattern of episodes to come? Really mundane, unfunny segments punctuated with kinetic sci-fi animation that explodes all over the damn place? Because if so, maybe each episode should just be ten minutes long.

space dandy 2

This isn’t a review. We’ll see where Space Dandy goes together. I just wanted to get something down about it, considering it’s the first new anime I’ve seen in a while.

Now if you’ll excuse me, maybe I’ll finally get around to watching that super-uncut version of Kite I never actually saw…. some news headline reminded me of that.



If you’ve ever daydreamed about a better life for yourself, it usually goes one of two ways: in the first, you have everything you ever wanted and you’re spoiled for choice. In the second there’s a moral dimension. You’re not only better off, but you’re a better person.

One of the unexpectedly best things I saw this year is about both kinds of fantasy. Belly is a 1998 feature directed by artist/music video director Hype Williams and starring rappers Nas and DMX. Hype takes a simple idea of two career criminals who each in their own way try to make a better life for themselves, and he totally elevates it into some kind of fairy tale using beautiful sets and cinematography.

Where more recent films like Refn’s Only God Forgives and Korine’s Spring Breakers mostly rely on neon colors to achieve an exotic hyperreality, Belly expertly applies a richer variety of set designs that are simultaneously more true to life and more out of this world.


This movie begs to be misunderstood. It’s style is so magnanimous and its substance so succinct it’s been written off as derivative fluff with unsympathetic leads, which is a shame. While no one is going to fall over themselves praising the screenplay or the performances of the two leads, Belly is still a wistful, powerful act of imagination: how would a murderous criminal do the impossible and put an unforgivable life behind himself?

The answers are as stylized as the look of the movie itself. Nas’ character desires to take his wife and child to Africa, a sort of ultimate opt-out that does not involve rejecting his own sense of culture and identity. It’s an escapist dream that commonly plays on the mind of migrant communities: to see the motherland and in the process become self-actualized in an ennobling way.

The answer for DMX’s character is more complex. As he proceeds down an avaricious path with increasing numbness to his own well-being, he is caught by federal agents (or are they? We never even see their faces, let alone their badges) and agrees to commit a crime to maintain his freedom. He’s to join a Black Muslim movement and assassinate their leader. He grows increasingly hesitant as he begins to identify with the movement. At the climax of the film he happens upon the leader, glistening pistol in hand, and receives a private sermon that will guide his final decision.

That’s a rather conspiratorial scenario. It is highly dramatic, too easily laughed off by people craving pure gritty realism. You have to remember Hype Williams makes hip hop music videos. He’s not out of touch with reality, he’s simply accustomed to sculpting hyper reality. Even if you glibly cross your arms and reject its farfetchedness, you should be able to see the truth contained within it.

Organized efforts from within oppressed communities to achieve upward growth are often criminalized themselves, becoming an even greater antagonistic force to the establishment than the criminal behavior they seek to redress. DMX’s character embodies that social dilemma; he deals with it in a literal, tactile manner. Who cares how far-fetched it seems?


There are two halves of the film. In the first, we see the criminality of the two main characters. We’re drawn into the drama of their ambitions, rendered in lush, radiating environments. In the second half, we see the illusory nature of what they’re after, and their attempts at redemption. Both halves are daydreamed fantasy. Like I said at the beginning: sometimes we dream of having more, other times we dream of being more. Give me dreams that are both visually and conceptually compelling, plausibility be damned.

I think Belly was a film ahead of its time. In the world of affordable high-definition displays we find ourselves in presently, the movie is in a place to be more fully appreciated on visual terms. And as smaller, more experimental films have wider social acceptance, maybe young audiences can more easily make the jump to something like Belly. Hell, they’ve done more for less.

Three 2013 documentaries.


Rewind This! is supposed to be a celebration of the VHS format. In reality Rewind This! is about the most base, uninteresting kind of aesthetic preference that exists: nostalgia. Familiarity and sameness transformed into affection. Stockholm syndrome to the antithesis of good taste. I can’t think of a more intellectually vacuous subject.

Truth be told, the only reason I watched this movie was because I heard Japanese filmmaker Mamoru Oshii made an appearance. And indeed he did. It was an all-too-brief one, sandwiched between a lot of awkward white guys with stupid glasses talking about their VHS collections.

Room-237-Quad big

Room 237 is an unintentional two-hour argument for the Death of the Author. In it, we’re treated to critical analysis of Kubrick’s movie The Shining by three different Internet pundits. Their obsession with the possible hidden meanings Kubrick buried in the meagerest of details gets tangled with legitimately interesting facts about the movie’s production, such as Kubrick’s intentional “impossible architecture” meant to subtly disorient viewers.

By the end I was doing that thing you do when you want someone to stop talking so you agree with everything they say. Yes, The Shining is Kubrick’s apology for faking the moon landing. Yes, you’re supposed to play the movie over itself backwards to understand its secrets. Yes, a text message is hidden in that cloud over there.

Room 237 is interesting as a study of a kind of critical pathology, a pinhole vision where the tiniest most insignificant of details establish authorial intent more than anything else.


A lot of the people have responded to Blackfish, a documentary about the horrors of SeaWorld, by saying “no shit.”

Well I’m sorry. I don’t make it a practice to think about SeaWorld. I was never aware of the full extent of what they were doing. It was elucidated for me by watching this moving documentary. Sheesh.

I didn’t come at this movie an animal rights activist. Hell I’m not even a vegetarian. But I am good at being disapproving, and there’s something about the selfish egotism of going to a water park to get splashed by a giant imprisoned beast that always annoyed me. Nature isn’t about impressing you. If anything, it should be humbling. It should be about appreciating the complex systems out in the world that have absolutely no consideration for your state of being.