Every April at the Gutter, the editors write about something outside their usual domains. This month Comics Editor Carol Borden writes about movies.
This is not even close to a full retrospective, because while Minoru Kawasaki doesn’t have a huge number of films, many of them are not available with English subtitles and I don’t know Japanese. Regardless, I will pass along my love for a director whose work is marked by theriomorphic characters, the power of low-budget special effects and just plain joy.
Kawasaki’s work reflects the anxiety so often apparent in Japanse monster (kaiju) movies. In probably Kawasaki’s most famous movie outside Japan, The Calamari Wrestler, the antagonistic director of the Japanese wrestling federation attempts to convince a squid to throw a match to a human opponent, saying:
Nobody embodies the utter chaos in today’s Japan better than you. The threat of nuclear attacks, of terrorism, the rise of crime, mysterious viruses, the anxieties over an aging society, the economy, the politics. You’re perfect for the current atmosphere—you and your monstrous self.
In response to the many recent Fukushima-related articles about Godzilla as a nuclear entity, a friend pointed out to me that kaiju aren’t only about nuclear annihilation. Japan and Tokyo in particular have been destroyed over and over—from the Edo Fire to the Great Kanto Earthquake. Kaiju movies are also about the fragility of the human world and the permeable line between human and non-human. I have no idea of how to address the earthquakes and tsunami here, beyond suggesting everyone donate to relief efforts, I will turn to kaiju, monstrous selves and disaster film parodies instead.
The Calamari Wrestler is condensed Rocky I-III, if Rocky were a wrestler, Kan-Ichi Iwata (Osamu Nishimura), apparently reincarnated as a giant squid. The film’s Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) is Koji Taguchi, who becomes an octopus in an attempt to defeat an invertebrate immune to joint locks, and then agrees to train Kan-Ichi to defeat the film’s Clubber Lang (Mr. T), the mysterious Squilla Fighter. Cut to an amazing squid training montage. And just to make sure these parallels are clearly intentional, Kan-Ichi’s girlfriend Miyako (Kana Ishida) dresses as Adrian for his final match. It combines the elements of kaiju movies, what it is to be a person, with those of boxing and wrestling movies and their focus on family, love and sacrifice. But it’s also a little reminiscent of movies like Samurai I-III as swordsman Miyamoto Musashi learns to channel his emotions through Zen teaching. Kan-Ichi must control his passions or lose his squid form.
Almost a Brian De Palma psychological thriller, but with a giant koala in a suit, taekwondo and an Australian atrocity at the heart of it. An amnesiac Koala working for a pickle company is haunted by the disappearance of his wife, Yukari, and nightmares of murdering his girlfriend, Yoko. As Mr. Tamura tries to make a distribution deal with a Korean kimchi company, he discovers that his dreams might be real. His sharp-suited rabbit boss, a mysterious Korean businessman skilled itaekwondo, and frog convenience store clerk know more than they say. I love how straight this film is played. It might be boring starring Liam Neeson or Alec Baldwin, but I love a koala salaryman caught between memory and dream, his present and his past. I especially love the creepy scenes of him as an ax-murderer, pupils alternately blinking red.
Rug Cop / Zura Deka (2006)
Rug Cop is one of Kawasaki’s more human-focused films. It’s very 1970s rogue cop drama. A detective pushed too far, loses his badge and learns to harness the awesome power of his rug. Detective Genda (Fuyuki Moto) is a balding detective who is assigned from one station to another till he finally joins the station of ragtag misfits: Detectives Shorty, Handsome, Fatty and Big Dick who all use their physical abilities to keep the streets safe. With his trusty toupee, Genda faces down a bank-robbing ventriloquist dummy and, ultimately, terrorists threatening to destroy Tokyo with a nuclear weapon. But could these terrorists know something about his rug’s mysterious past?
The Japanese desperately attempt to deal with millions of gaijin refugees after the World Sinks Except Japan. It is resonant of “the current atmosphere,” possibly too resonant. World Sinks Except Japan is based on a very short Tsutsui Yasutaka novella satirizing the 1973 movie, Japan Sinks, remade in 2006. Several of the actors in World Sinks Except Japan appeared in 1970s film and tv versions ofJapan Sinks*. If it were the work of any other director, it would be almost unwatchably scathing**, but it is Kawasaki and so fun.
Three reporters cover the sinking of the world and the arrival of gaijin refugees in Japan. The leads play these roles very straight, providing a great background for absurdity, especially for Prof. Tadakora, who explains events scientifically before promptly going mad. World Sinks Except Japan features a cavalcade of white people acting, including a very Canadian-sounding John Heese as the President of the United States. That very few of the white people playing refugees sound like where they’re supposedly from adds a certain charm for me, as does the disparity in acting skill between the Japanese actors and the various gaijin actors–a perennial fact in Japanese films with gaijin actors. (Incidentally, there’s a nice moment when a gaijin character performs in Chushingara: The Next Generation. White people even wreck The 47 Loyal Ronin).
Monster X Strikes Back: Attack the G8 Summit! / Girara no gyakashu: Toya-ko Samitto kikipattsu (2008)
World leaders gather at Lake Toya near Sapporo for the G8 Summit. The proceedings are interrupted by the kaiju, Guilala. While Monster X Strikes Back is fun, I found it less engaging and effective than other Kawasaki movies in part because there are so many human people in it and so little Guilala. Here Guilala embodies the inability of world leaders to deal with crises without making them worse. I appreciate that, but Guilala is the best part of the movie for me. The scenes where villagers summon Take-Majin (Takeshi Kitano) to fight Guilala are fine, but the scenes in the constantly-renamed command room with the world leaders performed by much less talented gaijin actors suffer terribly in comparison, even in comparison to a short-pantsed little boy straight out of Gamera or Godzilla’s Revenge who pops up in the leaders’ chamber to name Guilala and then is dragged out by men in riot gear.
*Lorne Green serves as the intermediary in the English-language release of Japan Sinks! / Nihon Chinbotsu, aka, Tidal Wave.
**For example, the film’s prime minister of Japan advising the Chinese and South Korean
presidents to pray more often at what seems to be the Yasukuni Shrine
because, “Japan is the land of the Gods.”
Carol Borden likes you and your monstrous self.