Robo-G (2012)

When their robot falls out of a window a week before a major robotics exhibition, three hapless engineers need to find a way out of their dilemma. They decide to hire an elderly actor, Shigemitsu Suzuki (Mickey Curtis),  to get inside the remaining shell of their creation and pretend that it is still functioning normally. The old man wows attendants at the robotics show with his displays of dexterity and lifelike movement, seemingly able to do anything, causing the three engineers to panic that their ruse will soon be uncovered.

This light-hearted family comedy has a great premise which is amusing enough to carry a sometimes weak script. There are moments of slapstick humour with most of the jokes deriving from the public’s ignorance of the old man inside the robot suit. Mickey Curtis, playing the elderly Suzuki, does a great job with the character, who is shown to be struggling with modern life and feeling a little abandoned by society. The three engineers (played by Gaku Hamada, Junya Kawashima and Kawai Shogo) also have some great moments. We also follow a young engineering student (Yuriko Yoshitaka) who is obsessed with the marvellous robot, and members of Suzuki’s family. I found that it was an entertaining film, very similar to others in the genre (director Shinobu Yaguchi’s other films include “Waterboys” and “Swing Girls”), with a fun story and central performances, although some of the sub-plots are only very briefly addressed with the film’s main focus being on the jokes.

Despite being a knockabout comedy, the film also involves an emotional heart in the portrayal of the elderly Suzuki. We see him largely ignored by people around him due to his advanced years, and when he gets inside the robot suit there is an interesting dynamic as he is beloved by everyone and highly entertaining, but nobody sees him. A fantastic reflection of society valuing youth over age, further highlighted with the advancement of robotic technologies making people partially obsolete. I would recommend this film as an easy watch with a few great comedic moments.

The Castle of Cagliostro (1979) by Hayao Miyazaki

Famous thief Lupin the Third has just pulled off an incredible casino heist. Escaping with his partner in crime the two discover that the stash of bank notes they have stolen are in fact incredibly good forgeries. Lupin realises that they are from the legendary Cagliostro. The two arrive at a castle that appears to be abandoned and are soon pulled into a madcap adventure. The crooked count who runs the forgery scam is planning to marry a young woman to fulfil a prophecy that is said to grant whoever finds it a great treasure.

Directed by Hayao Miyazaki and based on a manga by legendary writer Monkey Punch, “The Castle of Cagliostro” is a film that is packed with enjoyable moments. The plot races along from action scene to action scene, but sketches out likeable enough characters along the way. Lupin is a loveable rogue whose crimes never overshadow the fact his heart is in the right place. It is a typical hero rescuing a princess narrative, but styled as a modern crime caper. The blend of medieval architecture and modern technology creates some fun sequences as they try to sneak into the castle and evade detection. The animation and artwork are solid and as with many works of this period display a great range of character designs. The castle provides a fantastic setting with plenty of variety, and the use of camera angles gives us a full picture of the environment. The sequences on the roof in particular show off the amazing work of the artists and animators to their fullest.

“The Castle of Cagliostro” is a film that is a fun family friendly romp for all ages. Slapstick humour, a simple yet well executed plot and great action sequences mean there is never a dull moment.

My Neighbours the Yamadas (1999)

Nonoka is the youngest child of the Yamadas, an ordinary family living in Japan. She lives with her older brother, her mother and father, and her grandmother. The film is a series of vignettes showing their everyday interactions. In one of the early segments we see Nonoka being left at a supermarket by her family after she falls asleep, and their panicked attempts to find her again. Another shows attempts by the father to bond with his son. While they are not tied together by theme or an overarching plot, these segments give a full picture of family life that is sure to resonate with many people.

The film is based on a manga by Hisaichi Ishii with a screenplay by director Isao Takahata. The story feels very much like a serialised comic strip, with some scenes being no more than a single joke or reflection on family life. They  are punctuated by haiku which give a wry reflection on the behaviours of the characters, by creating a poetic image to symbolise the commonplace experiences. The animation is done in digital watercolours, that give the sense of a moving picture book. Similarly, the chaptered approach keeps things interesting. There is no real structure and the film is more akin to watching a series of shorts than a single narrative. The humour in the film is well-observed, relying on the family dynamics and characters. In particular, the bickering between husband and wife, the grandmother’s nonchalant rudeness, or Nonoka’s stoic acceptance of the bizarre situations she encounters. The script in this regard is excellent in reflecting everyday conversations between family members and different generations. There is also great use of fantasy sequences that are perhaps a reference to Nonoka’s understanding of events. The melodic piano score and bright visuals create a peaceful atmosphere that gives levity to any threat, such as the parents losing their daughter, or confronting a biker gang.

“My Neighbours the Yamadas” is a film that has a timeless quality, with eternally relevant subject matter, and an art style that is sure to be enjoyed for years to come. There is a poignancy to several scenes that manages to compliment the humour without becoming overbearing. This is a film that can be appreciated by different generations, with different experiences and perspectives colouring their response to the film. Children are sure to find humorous parallels to their own lives, while adults may share the parents’ frustrations at older relatives. Overall, the film is a joyful experience that manages to perfectly capture the family experience.

Tokyo Zombie (2005)

Mitsuo (Show Aikawa) and Fujio (Tadanobu Asano) are employed at a fire extinguisher factory nearby “Black Fuji”, a giant rubbish tip that has grown to gargantuan size. The two friends spend their breaks, and most of their work time, practising jujitsu together. When their boss dies the two travel to “Black Fuji” to dispose of the corpse. The mountain, full of everything people wish to dispose of, appears to be resurrecting the dead and soon there are zombies roaming the streets. After several narrow scrapes, during which Mitsuo is bitten, the story jumps forwards in time five years. Tokyo is now a post-apocalyptic society, with the rich living in palatial towers while those less fortunate are left with the zombies on the lower levels. In honour of his mentor, Fujio earns money as a fighter in an arena where the poor and zombies are forced to fight for the entertainment of wealthy Tokyoites.

Based on a manga by Yusaku Hankuma with a screenplay by director Sakichi Sato (who also produced the screenplays for Takashi Miike’s “Ichi the Killer” and “Gozu”), “Tokyo Zombie” is a black zombie comedy that is sadly lacking in enough humour or gore to make it truly exceptional. Tadanobu Asano and Show Aikawa give decent performances in the lead roles, but there is little for them to do except clowning around. They are cast as dim slackers that find themselves unexpectedly in the worst of all possible situations. There are a couple of character moments, but for the most part their interactions consist of low brow slapstick and crass humour. This would not be a problem if the material was stronger. The film has a couple of fun moments, both blackly comic (with gruesome deaths) and more farcical (when the pair realise they have been driving south instead of north away from the disaster), but many of the gags fall flat and there is a recurring joke that is overused (despite being unfunny the first time around). It is a film that comes up short in every department, neither wacky enough to satisfy comedy fans, or gory enough to satisfy horror fans. There are flashes of what could have been throughout, such as in the animated segment, but these are overwhelmed by the long stretches of drama that offer little in the way of entertainment.

“Tokyo Zombie” is a disappointing film for a number of reasons. Firstly, the two leads are both fine actors and they are not without talent in comedic roles, they are simply underused with cheap material and a lack of character. Secondly, the film feels almost restrained at times. For something with this premise, and no real requirement for realism or sincerity, it could have really pushed the boundaries in terms of surrealism or taste. It often seems like it is playing things safe, with fairly standard comedy fare, and needlessly so since the premise is so ridiculous it has nothing to lose from going for a more extreme tone. The film touches on several issues, that while not exactly unique in the genre, could have been utilised better to create a more satisfying experience. Unfortunately, ideas of societal inequality, environmental issues, and the central theme of loyalty and friendship, never really see their potential realised with any kind of payoff later in the film.

Suffering of Ninko (2016)

Ninko (Masato Tsujioka) is a trainee Buddhist monk with a problem: despite a religious proscription against carnal lust, he finds himself irresistible to women. As he walks through the town with his fellow monks he is accosted by women who are barely able to restrain their desire. Being dedicated to his chosen path, Ninko resists any and all temptation, but soon he begins to be visited by strange manifestations in his dreams. As he attempts to ward off the thoughts through recitation of sutras, the visions of lascivious women exposing themselves to him and luring him to unwanted thoughts become to much. He flees the temple and sets off on a pilgrimage to find some kind of solace. On his way he comes across a ronin (Hideta Iwahashi) and the two of them travel together to a remote mountain village. There they hear tell of a mysterious mountain woman (Miho Wakabayashi) who manages to entrap men with sexual desire before killing them. The samurai agrees to kill the woman, ridding the village of this fear, and sets out with Ninko to face this peculiar foe.

“Suffering of Ninko” is the debut feature of Norihiro Niwatsukino, who not only wrote and directed the story but was also responsible for the special effects and animated sequences. The story has a folkloric feel about it and this is played up with the use of narration and the interweaving of traditional-looking animation. The film has a great visual style and although the locations used are sparing it does a good job of recreating the period in costumes and sets. The cinematography by Takayuki Okazaki and Shunichiro Yamamoto is a joy to behold, reminiscent of classic period and samurai dramas with vivid colours and camera work emphasising the ambient beauty. The style of animation reflects Japanese wood-cuts or ancient calligraphy and adds to the film’s charm. Masato Tsujioka does a good job with the character of Ninko, a man who is struggling to balance his innate sexuality with his religious duties. The narration by Quoko Kudo is important in creating a tone for the film that suggests it should be read more as a moralistic fable than a true-life account. The main cast is rounded out with Hideta Iwahashi as Kanzo the ronin and Miho Wakabayashi as Yama-onna.

Although the premise of the film, a sexually irresistible man fighting off the advances of insatiable women, may sound like that of a raunchy sex comedy, in truth the film is actually far more thoughtful than this. “Suffering of Ninko” treads a fine line between the sublime and the base and plays on the apparent contradictions inherent in human nature. Ninko’s role as a priest is in constant conflict with his reality as a man and the innate sexual desires that comes with that. Sexual repression through religion has been a feature of many civilizations and here it is brought to the screen in a way that is not overly sombre, but similarly doesn’t take its subject lightly. The removal of masks by characters during his extended sexual dream suggests that Ninko sees through humanity’s seemingly respectable façade. This is further emphasised by his meeting of the woman in the forest, where she talks to him from behind a mask. Kanzo tells Ninko that he both desires sex and is repelled by it, in the same way that Kanzo desires violence but shies from it. This duality of nature is important. There is a shame attached to sex in modern society that is partly, though not entirely attributable to the control exercised by religious organizations. “Suffering of Ninko” features many scenes set outdoors and Ninko’s escape from the temple shows this return to nature narrative. He is a man struggling against instinctive desires in pursuit of something higher in the form of religious transcendence. The film is one that is worth watching as it presents a unique directorial vision that blends arthouse with low comedy, but has a genuine depth of theme and ideas.