27 November 2007

Nana 2

Last year’s hotly anticipated sequel, Nana 2 (Kentaro Otani, 2006) fell flat at the box office and was widely panned by critics and fans alike. These reasons explain why I kept putting off seeing it until very recently. To my relief, watching the film wasn’t a total waste of time. In fact, the film wasn’t nearly as bad as I had anticipated.

Let me start off by pointing out the flaws so that I can end up on a more positive note. The two main reasons why this film was such a flop at the box office were the failure of the producers to secure the same cast members as in the original adaptation Nana (Kentaro Otani, 2005) and trying to fit too much of the original manga storyline into the film.

The studio no doubt rushed into the production of the sequel in order to cash in on Ai Yazawa franchise during the height of the added success of the 2006-7 anime series Nana directed by Morio Asaka. The online rumour mill has it that in their zeal, the producers announced that all the cast members would be returning before they actually had signatures on paper. This lack of etiquette meant that they weren’t able to get Aoi Miyazaki to reprise the role of Nana Komatsu (aka Hachi-ko).

In my opinion, the production of the sequel should not have gone ahead without first securing the two lead actresses. I’m guessing that the producers thought that Mika Nakashima, a big pop star outside of the Nana franchise, was their main box office draw, but the two Nanas are equally as important as the emotional centre of the narrative. As fans had already fallen in love with round-faced, moon-shaped eyed, super-kawaii Aoi Miyazaki as Hachi-ko, poor Yui Ichikawa really a big task in trying to win over the fans. In Ichikawa’s defense, I think she did a fine acting job, but she didn’t resemble Miyazaki enough to satisfy fans of the first film.

Interestingly, the actor for Ren was also switched (from Ryuhei Matsuda to Nobuo Kyou) as was the actor playing Shin (from Kenichi Matsuyama to Hongo Kanata), but so far I have found no big complaints about this, apart from minor gumblings. I think if they’d kept Aoi Miyazaki, the fans could have accepted these other minor cast changes. With all the romantic subplots of the Nana series (Hachi & Shouji, Shouji & Sachiko, Nana & Ren, Junko & Kyosuke, Shin & Leila, Hachi & Takumi, Hachi & Nobu, Takumi & Leila, Yasu & Leila, Nana & Yasu, ad infinitum), the relationship between the two Nanas is the most crucial, and the audience needs to love them both for the weepie scenes to succeed.

Which lead me to the problems with the screenplay. Otani, and screenwriter Taeko Asano, were faced with a difficult task. A long running manga series like Nana always lends itself better to adaptation to a TV series, which explains, in part, the success of the anime adaptation. Nana offers up the added dilemma that it has such a large cast of characters and so many subplots. In order for a feature film adaptation to be successful, the adapter needs to know what to keep and what to leave on the cutting room floor. I think that Otani and Asano tried to balance this with trying to fit many details in so as not to disappoint the fans. Unfortunately, the plot ended up becoming too unwieldy. As a fan of the manga, I was hoping that more screen time would be given to the Shin and Leila storyline. As a film critic, I thought that they should have focused on the Hachi and Nana relationship, even if that meant sacrificing much beloved scenes.

For Nana 3 (you know it is inevitable), they should hire Koki Mitani to shoot it in the way he did The Uchoten Hotel. It would win back audiences and make a film more worthy of its subject matter. For the time being, we can only wait with bated breath for Ai Yazawa to publish enough new material so that the anime artists can get back to their drawing boards as soon as possible [aside: new manga material in January 2008 issue of Cookie!!]

I have mentioned a great deal of criticism throughout this review, but I promised to end on a positive note, so here it goes. For a shoujo melodrama, this is actually not such a bad film. It may not sweep audiences away like the first film did, but there is a lot more heartbreak and difficult decisions in this film. For a coming-of-age story it deals with a many tough issues and it doesn’t offer any easy solutions. It may not win any awards for film of the year, but for a film aimed at teenaged girls, it is a lot better than a lot of the Disney schlock being thrown their way. At the very least, it is worth watching for the fabulous performances by Mika Nakashima as Nana and Yuna Ito as Leila.
[p.s. I know that most bloggers write "Reira" which is the romanization of the katakana name, but in the manga, it is written 'Leila' when romanized.] Here is a video of Ito's song from the film:

Nana2 / Japanese Movie

Japanese Movie

Nana2 / Japanese Movie

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2007

18 November 2007

Coconoe Jyot (ここのえジィョオト, 2001)

Here's a colourful animation, shot originally on 16mm, that I came across on Youtube. The animators, Kazunobu Akifusa (秋房和伸) and Asuka Hamano translate the title as '9 Jyot', but I am not sure what 'Jyot' means. Nevertheless, it makes for interesting viewing. Akifusa also does art installation and is a musician.

14 November 2007

A Memory (オモヒデ, 2001)

A Memory
(オモヒデ, 2001) is my favourite short film on Tomoyasu Murata's DVD of his early work entitled My Road (俺の路). It is much more polished than his first attempts at stop motion animation TUG TUG (1998) and An Introduction of Human Zoology (1998). These two early films have a film school feel about them with their inconsistent lighting and experimental use of editing between stop motion and cel animation not to mention the strangely cacophonic soundtracks.

Murata’s early stop motion films also display the dark humour mixed with toilet humour (literally in TUG TUG) that he tends now to reserve for his more flamboyant cel animations. In A Memory Murata (村田朋泰) demonstrates that he has mastered using a minimalist soundtrack with a wide range of camera positions and movement in order to create atmosphere. He has also learned how a few simple visual and aural motifs can create an emotional connection between the film and the spectator.

The film begins quietly, much in the manner of Nostalgia and the films of the Road Series. Murata develops the theme of memory with graphic images of the kanji for numbers and small slips of paper with the traditional names of the months: a visual reminder of the early school days when a child first learns how to recognise kanji through drills. The way the slips of paper with the names of the months flip away also gives the impression of time passing, as in the old Hollywood technique of turning the pages of a calendar. Murata then dissolves from the kanji to an older Japanese-style house, similar to the one used in Nostalgia. In the background, one hears the gentle hum of cicadas, a sound associated with memories of youth and hot summer weather in Japan.

After this establishing shot of the room, the film cuts to a medium shot of an unusual looking feather duster cleaning above a wardrobe. A reverse shot reveals the arm to belong to a robot. This simple series of opening shots, demonstrates Murata’s more sophisticated film-making technique as he sets up the motif of memory, and then plays with our expectation that the film will be about a person’s memory.

In fact, A Memory tells the story of a robot alone in a house who finds a scrap of paper on the floor which at first appears blank, but then becomes animated with a colourful cel animation ‘memory’ of a happy scene from the past of the robot with a young family. The family is depicted as a child might draw their family with crayons. As the family does not appear in the claymation ‘present’, the story is left open to speculation about the whereabouts of the family. Are they away at work or school or is the robot now alone?

Particularly fine touches in A Memory are Murata’s Ozu-inspired framing of the interior of a Japanese house (which he will repeat in Nostalgia) and the subtle manner in which Murata suggests human emotion on the face of the robot. The soundtrack by Fumikazu Sakamaki (坂巻史和) adds emotional depth in a beautifully understated manner. Sakamaki also composed the haunting music for Scarlet Road and White Road.

According to the news on Murata's website, he has had yet another productive year. He has produced several new claymation films this year, has a new book out, and will have a new exhibition opening in Hiratsuka in the spring. I hope that his new shorts will make it to Nippon Connection in Frankfurt next year so that I can report back to you soon!

The images used in this review belong to Tomoyasu Murata Company and may not be reproduced for profit. Please support this artist by checking out his webstore. You can also by the DVD with this film on it at Yesasia:

Tomoyasu Murata Sakuhinshu - Ore no Michi / Animation

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2007

06 November 2007

The Old Crocodile (年をとった鰐, 2005)

Koji Yamamura's The Old Crocodile (年をとった鰐/Toshi wo totta Wani, 2005) has long been a troublesome film for me. I love the minimalistic pen and ink animation on yellowed paper aesthetic but it is my least favourite of Yamamura’s films from the perspective of story and narration.

It is an adaptation of a rather antiquated fable by French author and illustrator Leopold Chauveau (1870-1940) called “Histoire du vieux crocodile”. An ancient crocodile with rheumatism is no longer able to catch his own food so he eats one of his own family members. His relatives try to kill him but cannot bite into his aged skin. The old crocodile takes matters into his own hands and banishes himself from the Nile.

The crocodile swims out into the sea, reinvigorated by the salty water, where he encounters an octopus who claims to have 12 legs. The octopus catches fish for her new friend, but the old crocodile’s hunger seems never to be sated and during the night he decides to eat one of the octopus’s legs, thinking that she won’t miss “just one”. Strangely, the octopus sleeps through this and wakes cheerfully. She does not notice that she now only has 7 legs.

The old crocodile’s exploitation of the octopus continues, with the naïve octopus catching fish for the crocodile by day and the crocodile feasting on one of the octopus’s legs per night. It is a black tale that does not end well for the octopus, but ends surprisingly well for the crocodile. He finds himself being worshipped by an island community populated by some kind of an African tribe where he is fed by female human sacrifice.

In an interview with Vertigo, Yamamura claims that he chose the story because it “contains a lot of universality about our society, and that nothing is too different from how life is in current times. A good story is timeless, like Shakespeare.” He goes on to say that this timelessness renders the story “very, very adaptable into animation, because…. it dates much less than live action.”

Is Yamamura really such a cynic as to believe that the old devour their young and take advantage of the good will of naïve friends? That is the message I took from the film. I also find the suggestion that a story that uses such a crude stereotype of indigenous people could be ‘timeless’ quite disturbing. Perhaps the “cool and bitter humour” the Japan Media Arts Festival described in their summary of this “undeniable masterpiece” which they granted an award for excellence was too cool and too bitter for my own personal sense of humour.

This story may have been amusing to the colonial French who were Chauveau’s audience, but I feel that Yamamura has taken an uncritical view of the story. For an example of what I mean, think of Patricia Rozema’s adaptation of Mansfield Park (1999), which paid tribute to the irony and romance of the original novel, but added a nod to Edward Said in order to critique the society being depicted in the tale.

I felt there was no critique in Yamamura’s adaptation. The tale was made all the more creepier by Peter Barakan’s narration in the English version that I watched. Barakan, a well-known media personality in Japan, sounded just like the narrator in a BBC children’s animation. Now I know that children’s literature, especially the pre-Disney versions of Grimm, et al., can contain some disturbing stuff, but they are not known for allowing bad behaviour to be rewarded in the end.

The most interesting thing about this film for me has been the reviews. As this film has mainly been shown only on the festival circuit, most of the reviews are short and sweet, with nary a word of criticism. In fact, most just regurgitate the synopsis provided by the festival they are reviewing. Surely I am not the only one to question the plot of this film?

Ah well, I shall sit in hope that someone will leave a comment enlightening me as to what I am missing with The Old Crocodile. I have enjoyed all of Yamamura’s work apart from this one, and am hoping that his Kafka Inaka Isha comes to Nippon Connection in the New Year so that I can finally watch it!

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2007


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