31 July 2008

Smilers (スマイル聖夜の奇跡, 2007)

On my flight back to Frankfurt from Toronto last week, I was surprised to find a fairly recent Japanese film among the in-flight movie offerings. Smilers (Sumairu seiya no kiseki, 2007) is a Christmas movie released in Japan mid-December last year and it just came out on DVD in June. It’s a remake of The Mighty Ducks (Stephen Herek, 1992) in which a guy who knows nothing about ice hockey coaches a kids’ team and leads them to glory. Instead of being a lawyer, the Emilio Estevez character, Shuhei Sano (Mirai Moriyama – of Waterboys fame) is a former tap dancer who takes on the challenge of coaching a Hokkaido high school hockey team in order to win the school principle’s permission to marry his daughter.

Now I have a pretty high tolerance level for cheesy Japanese dramas but I’m afraid Smilers didn’t stand much of a chance as I watched it immediately after watching the Oscar winning Die Fälscher (The Counterfeiters, Stefan Ruzowitzky, 2007), an earnest film based on the true story of Jews forced to make counterfeit money for the Nazis at Sachsenhausen starring the excellent Austrian actor Karl Markovics. Needless to say, J-dorama and method acting should not ever appear in the same sentence together except in unlikely circumstances such as these.

My only real pleasure in watching Smilers was the delight of recognition as the film was shot on location in Sapporo and Tomakomai. The exteriors and interiors were extremely realistic and brought back a lot of Hokkaido memories for me. On the down side, the film was replete with Hokkaido stereotypes as well. One kid’s parents had a horse ranch, another’s had a fishing boat, yet another father sat at home making fake marimo (毬藻), the moss balls for which Lake Akan is famous. I didn’t quite get that one as Tomakomai is nowhere near Lake Akan.

It was difficult to get through the whole two hours with one’s eyes open due to the unusual number of sappy subplots designed to wrench mercilessly a the heartstrings of Christmas audiences. The main plot itself is highly unlikely as it underestimates just how many years of training are required to form a good ice hockey team. It could have been a reasonably enjoyable film if director Takanori Jinnai had reduced the extraneous subplots and toned down the acting a bit. The school principal was played by a Takenaka Naoto wannabe – in other words, an over-the-top ham actor.

One very interesting thing that I realized when watching Smilers was that only the children were able to play their roles with any sincerity or credibility. Perhaps, due to their young age, they have not yet seen enough J-dorama themselves to hone the skills of clichéd J-dorama acting. At any rate, the film must have made it onto the Air Canada in-flight screening list because it featured hockey and classifies as inoffensive family entertainment. Now if only I could work out how they managed to classify a documentary about Annie Liebowitz at ‘avant garde’. . .

Smile Seiya no Kiseki (English Subtitles) / Japanese Movie
© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2008

13 July 2008

Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro (ルパン三世 カリオストロの城,1979)

I finally got around to watching the only Hayao Miyazaki feature film that I had not seen while on holiday visiting my family in Canada. Based on a manga series by Kazuhiko Kato under the pseudonym ‘Monkey Punch’, Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro (ルパン三世 カリオストロの城,1979) followed the Lupin III television anime (some episodes of which were animated by Miyazaki and Isao Takahata) and was the second animated film inspired by the manga.

Arsene Lupin III is a rather mischievous character – a thief with a heart of gold – and the movie begins with Lupin and his sidekick Daisuke Jigen running off in a car full of loot. They have just robbed a casino, but discover during their getaway that the money is ‘goat bills,’ a legendary counterfeit that has been plaguing the world for centuries. This triggers a series of events that lead them to tracking down the counterfeit operation and trying to rescue Lady Clarisse, whose wicked distant cousin the Count is trying to force her into marriage with him. Throughout all this, Lupin is trying to evade the clutches of his arch nemesis, Inspector Zenigata. It’s a funny, action-packed, madcap film that mixes many genres including ninja films, private eye, slapstick, and chase films with a touch of romance to boot.

I had seen stills from the film before and because The Castle of Cagliostro belongs to the Lupin III franchise I was expecting a film with a very different look than Miyazaki’s other features. Most of the central characters are not typical of Miyazaki’s character style as they were created by the original manga artist and seem influenced by French and Belgian cartoon design. Despite the constraints of ready-made character design and locations, Miyazaki and his team’s distinctive touch reveals itself throughout the film. Clarisse’s face, for example, was a cross between Takahata’s Anne in Akage no An (1979) and Nausicaa and Clarisse’s elderly gardener looked exactly like Heidi’s grandfather. . . complete with an extra large dog (though a different breed) at his side. The romanticized Europe-inspired landscape also features in Heidi as well as later in Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989). The most distinctive Miyazaki touch was the helicopter-like flying craft used in the rescue sequence at the north tower. Miyazaki’s love of flying contraptions is a theme that runs through many of his films, most notably Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986) and Porco Rosso (1992).

The rooftop chase scenes at the beginning of The Castle of Cagliostro are right out of Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief (1955), in a nod to the master of suspense whose film no doubt inspired the original manga. Two other brilliant chase scenes are clearly inspired by Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936). They show Lupin maneuvering through the machinery of a water mill and later a clock tower. This visual homage reminds that the slapstick of Lupin’s elaborate escapes complete with visual gags and his sentimental soft spot for rescuing a damsel in distress like Clarisse owe much to the silent comedy greats like Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd.

Female characters are few and far between in this action-packed adventure but the two main female characters have a solid presence in the film. Clarisse is no ordinary ‘damsel in distress’ and does her best to escape on her own at the beginning of the film. She also saves Lupin’s butt several times during the big rooftop escape scene. Far more impressive is the character of Fujiko, Lupin’s former lover, who seems to be a spy and thief all wrapped into one. Fujiko takes no prisoners and shows no weakness throughout the film. She is in the thick of the action holding a handheld camera to film events for live television during the interrupted marriage scene and at the end she gets away one her own with one of the counterfeit printing machines. Someone really ought to make a spin-off series with Fujiko as the main character. I think the world is ready for more female action heroes.

This review is part of Nishikata Film's 2011 Noburo Ofuji Award Challenge.
© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2008


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