The Next Thing

Thoughts On Visual Culture

On PING PONG

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Ping Pong is an adaptation of a Taiyo Matsumoto manga that ran in Big Comic Spirits during the mid 90’s. Essentially, it’s the story about Peco and Smile, two close friends with different attitudes toward life who are both very good at ping pong. Peco (Kubozuka Yosuke) is our loud, boisterous hero who, although good, doesn’t go to practice anymore, and generally coasts on his talent. Smile (Arata), nicknamed that because he never does, is the very silent type. He views ping pong as a way to kill time, and although he’s extremely talented, he doesn’t like to take the game very seriously.

That Ping Pong is one of the best sports movie I’ve ever seen can be credited pretty much entirely to the source manga. The story is so strong and the characters are so well-defined that any director simply has to try and be generally faithful to that. Although Fumihiko is no auteur, he generally understands that the story and the characters are what are important here, and he basically tries to get out of the way. But, Ping Pong is better than the manga, and it all has to do with the execution. There’s very little in this film that doesn’t originate from the source material, but Fumihiko transcends it at points solely because I believe we’re able to understand the rhythm of the matches better in live-action.

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As a key piece of evidence, I’d like to analyze the beauty of the climactic match at the end of the film. At the beginning of the match, Fumihiko skillfully uses slow motion so we can understand the thought processes of the two players. We see the physical exertion that taking those big swings requires. Like any other sports film, Fumihiko also cuts back to the audience for some commentary so we can understand the importance of each rally. And, because this was adapted from a sports manga, the characters converse with each other between points (claiming that they’ll win, etc.). As the game progresses, we get some cross-cutting between the game, and the stairs where Smile and his coach sit conversing. This links both things together, as part of the importance of the game is whether Peco will be finally be able to become the “hero” that Smile has wanted him to be. We also get quick glimpses into his “hero” persona from the past, as he takes off his mask and gets ready to finally win.

Most of the action is rendered in singles – that is, each character is showed reacting to the shot and swinging back. I’m assuming partly because Fumihiko doesn’t want to rely too much on the special effects ping pong bouncing around, but also partly because he’s saving it up for when it matters. Part of the ongoing narrative that’s been woven throughout the final tournament is that Peco’s knee is acting up, and as he retreats to his mind in between rallies, he conjures up images of himself as a hero. It’s in the following passages where the film shines the most. Through editing, Smile and Peco are able to have an emotional dialogue about what’s going on. Fumihiko then cuts back to show Smile waiting on the steps where he and Peco used to wait when they were kids. By placing him on those steps, Fumihiko explicitly links the match happening right now to the motivations and feelings of their early childhood. Smile’s voice-over and dialogue with Peco, skillfully conveyed by Fumihiko, are the motivation that’s required to finally win the match. Smile says to Peco: “you can have fun here.” That’s just what’s going to happen. Supercar’s “FREE YOUR SOUL” starts playing in the background as Peco shakes off his injury and begins to play, and what follows is pure pop transcendence as Fumihiko’s fast-cutting, judiciously used slow-mo, and one bravura reverse tracking shot (that becomes a crane shot) allows the fast back and forth between the players to finally manifest itself, as Peco and his rival have the match of a lifetime.

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All of this is right on the page of Taiyo Matsumoto’s manga, but it truly comes alive in the film. I believe that my analysis of the scene described above acts as a microcosm for the strenghts of the film as a whole. This is a really fun and exciting movie. I hope that all of you can make some time for it. It’s really quite special.

As I previously mentioned, most of the strengths of the film can be found in the source manga. Taiyo Matsumoto is most famous in the west thanks to a film adaptation of his 1994 work, Tekkonkinkreet (also known as Black & White, but he’s created numerous wonderful works).  My favorite of his is probably Hana Otoko, an incredibly moving series about a baseball-obsessed father and his relationship with his son.

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Matsumoto’s art is a mixture of wobbly, imperfect lines, that’s both incredibly impressive and seemingly off the cuff. His style isn’t particularly realistic or detail-oriented, but he’s always interested in expressiveness above all else. It may seem crude at first, but Matsumoto’s nuances become more pronounced the more you read him. Which, of course, I recommend you do.
Ping Pong is one of the more conventional things he’s ever done – it’s more or less a simple shounen sports story. But what a rich one it is! I’ve never minded formulas or clichés (as a fan of anime, how could I?) if they’re done correctly. In Ping Pong, Matsumoto takes the usual archetypes and wrings truth and emotion out of them.

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My favorite character of both the manga and the film is Kazama. He’s the high school champion and leader of an elite ping pong team. But, before every game, he locks himself up in a restroom to be alone. Why does he do this? Part of the beauty of Ping Pong is how it humanizes all its characters, even supporting ones. Think about how Kong, the Chinese player, ends up really caring for the teammates at his high school, or the changes in Sakuma, Peco’s old rival. But none of them move me as much as Kazama does. He’s relentless, only focused on winning, and stronger and more intimidating than any other player. He’s also aware of his limitations. As soon as he spots Smile, he gets a quick and accurate reading of his talent (and even says that it’s above his own), and immediately starts training to defeat him. As Kong watches Kazama play, he remarks that maybe for Kazama ping pong is pain. Suddenly, the way he locks himself up in the restroom begins to make more sense.
Thanks to his character, and his eventual match against Peco, Matsumoto hits on a really interesting theme. I described in detail the mechanics of the scene as depicted in the film, but I didn’t really get into why it’s so important and so thrilling. During this match, something strange and beautiful starts to happen – Kazama begins to smile. Playing against such a strong opponent as Peco, allows for Kazama to finally feel some joy in the game. It’s one of the most beautiful realizations that no matter the outcome, sports can often be beautiful. Matsumoto literalizes this emotion by suddenly whisking away his two players away from the gymnasium. A recurrent motif in <b>Ping Pong</b> is flying/soaring (Peco throws himself off a bridge to show that he can fly), and Matsumoto reintroduces this motif in this match, as seagulls fly over their heads. Peco and Kazama are pushing each other to greater and greater heights and as the game is finishing up, one of them tells the eventual winner to bring him back to this place again. These two players will chase this feeling forever. I’ve still never seen another work quite get what can be so transcendent about playing sports.

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On RUROUNI KENSHIN

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Rurouni Kenshin is an adaptation of the beloved manga/anime series. As such, it’s not a work that allows itself many liberties with the source material. Sure, it conflates a few things, adds in characters who shouldn’t be there and all that, but it pretty much sticks to the work. It’s a respectful adaptation, one that tries to honor the original work and its message. It’s also a really boring film. For the uninitiated, Rurouni Kenshin tells the story of a former legendary assassin who, after participating in the Bakumatsu war, has taken an oath to never kill again. He now wanders the countryside, wearing his reverse blade sword, and minding his own business. Of course, oaths are meant to be broken, and pretty much everything that happens in the film is direct challenge to that oath.

The director, Keishi Ohtono, mostly known for his work on TV, does not quite bring enough visual flair to the table. His main decision seems to color code certain scenes. Any big outside battle scene is done using dark, gray colors (or takes place at night). Ohtono emphasizes the bloody, grimy nature of the battle scenes. That’s fine as far as directorial decisions go. It suggests the chaotic, often morally fraught, nature of battle. But the fight scenes themselves aren’t really choreographed all that well. There’s no purpose in the camera’s movement; it’s simply a recording of slashes and blood. Ohtono captures all that stuff, but he simply edits in between different camera setups. He never really captures Kenshin’s movement as his camera is often too close to the action. He films his actions, but not their meaning and their logic. Ohtono shoots his daytime scenes with an almost golden hue that, at its worst, turns into an ugly, brownish beige. What all of this boils down to is that the film simply isn’t aesthetically interesting or worthwhile. No matter how faithful he is to the material, Ohtono fails to make it come alive.

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The film is mostly an adaptation of the first dozen or so episodes of the anime series. However, there are a few differences. Kanryu Takeda is the main villain of the film, and everything that happens is basically under him. The Oniwabanshu are not in the film (although we do get Henya, since he looks cool). Instead, Udo Jin-e is the person in charge of protecting Kanryu. Remember him? He’s the one with the freaky eyes who could freeze people in fear. Jin-e is also the person who pretends to be “Hitokiri Battosai” in the film, whereas in the series that fell to the former student of Kaoru’s dojo, Gohei Kimura. Saito Hajime even shows up, since he’s a fan favorite and who wants to wait until the sequel to see him. The film even puts material from the OVA as a quick flashback (it explains how he got one part of his scar).

This shuffling of characters and stories is fine, but I think they could’ve gone even further in that regard. As it stands, there are too many characters that the film has to include, and the film does justice to barely any of them. The film includes Sanosuke and even has him battle it out with Kenshin, but it doesn’t really give a reason as to why he should be someone we care about. Yahiko ends up being a complete background character. Hell, even Kaoru, ostensibly the female lead of the series, gets short-changed; which makes the final dialogue exchange (moving though it is in concept) ring false. I would say only Megumi’s story gets any sort of depth, and that’s only because it’s connected to defeating Kanryu. I would’ve preferred a more lean narrative that focused on the major characters and actually developed them more, even if it meant being a little more libertine with the source material. By trying to stuff so many of the expected character/narrative beats in the film, there’s just no room for any personality or life to come out. It’s disappointing.

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Although the film adaptation tries to be respectful and honor the original work, it fails to capture some of the more interesting thematic strands of the original. A lot of the characters in the series have been affected by the events of the Bakumatsu. It seems like every other character that Kenshin meets is someone who never quite got over what happened during the revolution. Some feel betrayed by the outcome; some just want to fight like they used to back then. The Bakumatsu is a deep, psychic wound for the characters. Their actions in the present are largely motivated by what happened then.

In the series, samurai are largely seen as an outdated concept; in fact, people aren’t even allowed to have swords out in public anymore. But samurai were incredibly important during the revolution, and they had a hand in building this new Meiji era.   There’s an uneasy tension between the violent men it took to build this new era and modernity itself. Men who haven’t been absorbed into the peaceful rhythms of the Meiji era keep popping up, violent aberrations from the way things are now. And then there’s Yahiko and Kaoru and Kenshin’s delightful “oro” and all the little cute things which might seem goofy or annoying if you’re solely into the action elements of the show, but actually serve a purpose – this is what Kenshin will fight for and die trying to protect. The beauty of Kenshin is that it allows both of these realities to exist alongside each other, stressing the ambiguity inherent in society’s progress. Plus they’re just both badass movies.

Kenshin is lucky that he’s able to find a new community, a new home to belong to.  Rurouni Kenshin is an optimistic work, but it never lets us forget the violent depths of our main character; it’s an optimism that’s truly earned, as it’s framed as a constant internal struggle. That struggle makes the eventual happy ending all the more greater.

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On Sion Sono’s HIMIZU

Since the website I used to post a bunch of stuff for went under, it’s about time I put up some of it here. Some of it will appear in slightly re-edited form.

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Sion Sono, over the last 5 or so years, has become a pretty big name in the contemporary Japanese film scene. The release of his epic 4-hour film, Love Exposure, brought him lots of fans, as it should’ve. Since then, he’s become extremely prolific, releasing one or two films every single year.

Himizu is an adaptation of a manga written by Minoru Furuya in 2001. It tells the story of a 14-year-old boy, Yuichi Sumida (Shota Sometani), who ends up being abandoned by both his father and his mother. Left to his own devices, he continues to run their boat rental shop. The story is set in the aftermath of the 3/11 disaster. Sono apparently was going to make a straight adaptation of the manga, but then later chose to adapt the story to reflect this new reality. It’s the best decision he could’ve made.

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The film is a raw, festering wound. It isn’t interested in subtlety, or nuance. It’s a film that bludgeons. It could exist no other way. Often, Himizu registers as a litany of punishments. First, Sumida’s dad shows up and beats the crap out of him. Then his mom leaves him and takes off with her boyfriend. Before long, the yakuza are looking for some owed money. The film does not allow, at any moment, for Sumida to feel any sort of internal peace. His world is in a constant state of chaos. Sono mirrors that chaos with his often ragged, hand-held camera, which plunges head first into the muck of every situation.

Part of the internal struggle of the Sumida character is that he deeply wishes to live a normal, ordinary life. But nothing that happens during the course of the film seems to allow for that possibility. Everyone around him seems on the edge of existence. Victims of the 3/11 disaster have set up small sheds on his family’s property, and although they seem to have become a sort of make-shift family, it isn’t one that will step in when Sumida is being beat up by his father. Only an older man, Yoruno (Tetsu Watanabe), seems to go the extra mile in trying to protect this boy (his little side story with a pickpocket is hilariously over the top, terrifying, and hopeful). But Sumida has no use for kindness and, for the most of the film, he goes about rejecting it and sinking further and further into complete despair.

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The beauty of Himizu lies in its complete awkwardness, its earnestness. It’s a shambolic, slapstick take on total suffering. The characters spend the entirety of the movie screaming and slapping each other, rolling about in the muck, trying to murder random people; it’s crazy. It’s a world where there is not just one, but two psycho-with-a-knife incidents. It’s a world where a mother makes a gallows so her daughter can kill herself. It’s a world that is conceived in complete emotional extremes. Whether the film works or not for you relies on the ability to buy into this exaggerated vision of existence. It’s a messy, imperfect work; but, as it’s young characters envision a happier future for themselves a in candle-lit dump, away from the world, it arrives at an emotional purity that is only able to happen because of the extremity of the approach. Sumida’s tears and eventual smile signal a message of hope that seemed impossible at the start.

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Released in 2001, Minoru Furuya’s Himizu marked a turning point for the author. In the 90’s, he had released works such as Ping Pong Club and was known for his comedic flare. Starting with Himizu and continuing with Ciguatera he began to explore darker themes in a more serious way.

Minoru Furuya’s Himizu differs from its adaptation in one significant manner. It lacks a social context. Sono situates his characters in post-3/11 Japan, and allows his observations and characters to stem from that environment. But Furuya’s Sumida – what forms him? Just like his film counterpart, he has a ton of bad things happen to him, but his rants and opinions, divorced from his socioeconomic situation, come off as adolescent posturing. Sumida’s point of view and character register more like seinen cliches, and less like a legitimate character. Furuya’s art and character design doesn’t help much, either. His designs are grotesque and exaggerated, and that lends the work an uneasy tension. Furuya’s self-seriousness is sabotaged, almost, by his unwillingness to play it straight. There’s always an awkward joke nudged in there, an unwelcome protrusion, that distracts. Ciguatera, his follow-up work, would find a better balance.

Love is the Moment: Some Notes on Heirs

heirs_episode_8_img_5 Read the rest of this entry »

You’re Mine: On Yash Chopra’s Darr

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When watching Yash Chopra’s Darr, a quote from film critic Daniel Kasman regarding Frank Borzage’s History is Made at Night constantly came to mind:

“we see two great kinds of love, both obsessive: the transcendental which will sacrifice itself for the love, and the destructive, which will sacrifice anything else for that love.”

The first musical number tells us everything: starting with a creepy scene of voyeurism where Juhi Chawla’s character, Kiran, almost disrobes to the song’s lyrics coyly suggesting that regardless of her consent, Kiran will be his. Darr doesn’t start in the realm of pure romantic love; instead it begins with a love that has morphed into a dangerous obsession. The imagery of this number is all subterfuge: Kiran believes she’s being serenaded by her lover and rushes toward him carelessly, her trek through a tree-lined path and empty hallways perhaps leading toward her doom.

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Known primarily for being the film that launched Shahrukh Khan to stardom, Darr is a fascinating film that anticipates but also complicates his screen persona of the next two decades. The film tells the story of Kiran and Sunil (Sunny Deol), a young couple who are engaged to be married. He’s a badass navy guy who, in the film’s most incongruous scene, wipes out a boatful of baddies in a hostage rescue mission (by himself!). Kiran is home from school and just happy to stay at her brother’s house and just wait for life to be wonderful. And then there’s Rahul (Khan). Ostensibly a supporting performance, there’s not a moment in the film where his presence isn’t felt; the characters may not be thinking about him, but the audience is always aware of the danger lurking near. The film then turns toward a stalker narrative where Rahul harasses and tries to sabotage Kiran and Sunil’s relationship, while trying to tell her how much he loves her.

But, although there’s definitely moments of interest regarding that setup, I remained more invested in how the film takes the elements that would fuel SRK’s later Yash Raj films, and shows the flip side. The Swiss alps that Chopra loves so much and that show up continuously in the 90’s Yash Raj vehicles are perverted here. Although they act as fantasy in those films, too, here they are converted into Rahul’s demented vision of happiness. When he finally is able to hold Kiran in his arms in a platonic and friendly dance, he denies the reality of it, and imposes another narrative on top of it (which looks exactly the same as other films). In those other Yash Raj films, the fantasy aspect of it is shared between the characters, as their love for each other eliminated their physical reality and placed them into a higher plane (Kiran and Sunil have their own rendezvous in the alps in the film as well). Darr allows Rahul not only to hijack its narrative, but to reshape it in the way he would like it to be.

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By committing so fully to showing Rahul’s mania and obsession to wreak havoc upon its narrative, Darr truly becomes disturbing at points. Moments that should be celebratory and beautiful become rife with tension. The Holi celebration, a staple of the Hindi language cinema, takes on an element of danger, as Rahul inserts himself into it, participating in its rituals. As he witnesses the flirtation between Kiran and Sunil, his beating of the drum become more and more desperate. The scene takes on two different meanings: we’re watching the movie this could be if Rahul weren’t present, and also waiting for the shoe to drop as it were – we wait for Rahul to make the scene about himself. His action in the scene, mirroring the song’s lyrics (“douse the colors on me my love”), are another perversion of the traditions of the Bollywood narrative (the Holi powder could be standing in for his blood).

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The ultimate tension at the heart of the film, and the reason why it’s so powerful, is because you can feel its characters trying desperately to live another happier story, but Rahul resists all their attempts and drags them into his personal hell, turning this into a completely different and terrifying film.

Darr (1993)

Directed by Yash Chopra

Yash Raj Films

On So I Can’t Play H!

When I requested this title to review, my interest lay in how it acted as an anime that was representative of a greater trend of censored TV shows that appeared in their full uncensored glory on DVD (something like Queen’s Blade is probably the one plus ultra of this development, I imagine). Regardless, So I Can’t Play H! does offer some valuable insights into this type of show. Too bad it’s a terrible show.

When I was a kid, I used to watch Ranma ½ every day after school. It ran on a block with Slam Dunk, Dragon Ball, Saint Seiya and Simpsons episodes. That’s the stuff I grew up on. As everyone who’s ever seen Ranma can attest, there are tons of boobs in that show. In fact, way more than in So I Can’t Play H!. No one ever said anything about a little kid watching a show with all this nudity. I wonder what the grownups would’ve said if I were instead watching this show. Obviously, these shows have completely different aims, and serve completely different audience demands, but what brought the connection to my mind was the question of intent (and what would happen if certain elements were removed).

Read the rest of the article at ani.me.

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Images: Alone in Love

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Alone in Love (2006)

Episode 4 (dir. Han Ji-seung)

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Movie Night with Jhon: Kimi ni Todoke

I’ve started writing a weekly column for the website ani.me. In this column, I’ll be taking a look at some live-action adaptations of manga and/or anime. This can range from some pretty big blockbuster titles to more obscure arthouse works. It’s all fair game. While I’ll be focusing on how these titles work as films, I’ll also have a section at the bottom of the article that discusses the source work by itself.

kimi ni todoke

In this week’s installment, I take a look at the 2010 adaptation of Kimi ni Todoke.

Movie Night with Jhon: Watching Fucking TV All Time Makes a Fool

I’ve started writing a weekly column for the website ani.me. In this column, I’ll be taking a look at some live-action adaptations of manga and/or anime. This can range from some pretty big blockbuster titles to more obscure arthouse works. It’s all fair game. While I’ll be focusing on how these titles work as films, I’ll also have a section at the bottom of the article that discusses the source work by itself.

watching tv

This week I take a look at Toru Kamei’s adaptation of Naoki Yamamoto’s one-shot, Watching Fucking TV All Time Makes a Fool.

2013: Year in Review

This post will act as an index to the other posts.

Film

Drama

Anime

Music

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