With all the hullabaloo over the plethora of kung-fu and samurai action pictures playing in this year”s New York Asian Film Festival, especially with respect to the Tsui Hark retrospective starting on Saturday July 9th, it is easy to forget that the festival has a wide assortment of films to whet one”s cinephilic appetite. And during a rainy afternoon I saw no better way to spend my Sunday then catching up on some funny, wild and, believe it or not, family friendly films.
The first film on the roster was Yoshihiro Nakamura’s A Boy and His Samurai (2010). As a fan of Nakamura’s previous masterpieces Fish Story (2009) and The Foreign Duck, The Native Duck, and God in a Coin Locker (2007, review here), I was anxious to catch this film, even though I was also aware of some of the lackluster reviews it had gotten. Ostensibly a family drama, and to be specific part of the “single parent trying to balance a family and a career” genre, A Boy and His Samurai pays just as much attention to the single mother, Yusa (Rie Tomosaka), as it does to the young boy, Tomoya (Fuku Suzuki), and his adopted father, Kajima, played by TV idol Ryo Nishikido. The twist in Nakamura’s domestic drama though is that Kajima is an Edo period samurai transported forward to the present day.
Like a true fish out of water, Kajima tries to force his Old World values onto Yusa and her little boy, but slowly realizes that the Way of the Sword has no place in the age of the blinking, beeping, neon lit world of skyscrapers and 24-hour convenience stores. Longing for a way back to his time, he entrusts his fate to Yusa in return for managing the daily domestic chores like cooking, cleaning, and taking care of little Tomoya.
In a lesser film this arrangement would have been treated as broad comedy, with the male lead bumbling his way learning how to do simple tasks like folding the laundry or washing the dishes, but Nakamura sidesteps such easy laughs and focuses his camera lens on Kajima’s new family and their attempts to adapt to their new visitor.
At first, Yusa seems completely unsure and apprehensive about having a man in her life again, throughout the film she prattles on with her girlfriends about how useless men and husbands are, but this low opinion of the male species is mainly rooted in her bitter experiences with her husband whose passive-aggressive method of keeping Yusa home led to their eventual divorce. And at first, Kajima fits the ultra conservative masculine mould as he parrots age-old conventions like “a person should know their boundaries” and “a woman should maintain the household while the man goes out and earns” yet these lines are repeated not out of any real conviction to antiquated ideals. As the story progresses we find out that Kajima is a man hungry for a purpose. Back in his time he may have had the rights and title of a samurai, but he did nothing to earn that position. My pretentious cinephile brain read this as the director commenting on the meaninglessness of patriarchal authority in most cultures today. Finding himself in the 21st Century though, Kajima discovers his purpose through the most unlikely arena that a warrior could excel at, pastry chef. In turn, it”s through the art of baking that Kajima not only finds a job, but becomes a stable pillar for Yusa and Tomoya to lean on.
With the well-earned reputation as a journeyman director Nakamura peppers his film with plenty of sad and sweet moments to make the audience laugh and cry, but he earns these moments by showing that there is no such thing as a “perfect family”. In this day and age, dysfunction, in one form or another, is part and parcel to many domestic situations and Nakamura shows us with A Boy and His Samurai that whether you are a success or failure, it is far better to go through life with somebody by your side. Just as a chef is dependent on the hungry mouths that he must feed, a true man is measured not in how much “rice” he brings back home, but how much compassion and care he shows to the people he calls family.
Continuing on this streak of dysfunctional families, Noboru Iguchi’s Karate-Robo Zaborgar (2011) is like a fever induced sex fantasy which quickly derails into a very weird nightmare. Flying heads, vicious raptors which burst forth from women’s breasts and lips which suck the very essence from a man’s body all contribute to making Sushi Typhoon possibly the only company currently to bridge the gap between nostalgic camp and low art.
The film’s protagonist Daimon (Yasuhisa Furuhara) is like a Japanese Batman having lost his mother during childbirth, brother to ingesting man-milk, and father to a wheelchair bound evil super-scientist. Motivated by revenge, Daimon fights the evil Dr. Akunomiya (Akira Emoto) with the help of his faithful robot/motorcycle Zaborgar, but of course all boys must grow up and learn of the real world. For our helmeted hero, maturity is brought about through the form of a scantily clad woman, Miss Borg (Mami Yamasaki), who seduces Daimon with a confusing mix of pain and pleasure resulting in a pregnant Miss Borg and a jealous Zaborgar who kills himself instead of letting Daimon cross over to the dark side.
Iguchi then teleports us twenty-five years later to a middle-aged and diabetic Daimon (played by the respected actor Itsuji Itao) struggling to find his place in a world devoid of heroes. Akunomiya and his cybernetic minions hunt and kill with impunity and no one seems to care. It is only when Daimon is reunited with his schizophrenic daughter that his heroic spark is lit again, making Karate-Robo Zaborgar just as much of a family drama as Yoshihiro Nakamura’s film. In fact, a more appropriate title for the film could have been A Boy and His Robot since, in between the scenes of ultra-violence and crude sex humor, we are really watching the story of a lonely young man trying, but not quite succeeding in finding a family that will love him. Sadly, like all comic book heroes, Daimon is fated to walk, or to be more specific ride, through this world alone.
The final film I caught was online casino the world premiere of Takashi Miike’s Ninja Kids!!! (2011). Marketed as a Harry Potter film for people who have an aversion to boy wizards I highly doubt Harry could go toe to toe with any of the first graders in the film’s eponymous Ninja Academy, since throwing stars and katana’s beat magic wands any day of the week. Adapted, just as Iguchi’s Karate-Robo Zaborgar was from a popular television show, Miike takes the kiddie material and beefs it up with scenes of spastic violence. The film’s child star Seishiro Kato plays Nintama Rantaro, the son of a lowly ninja family. Th film begins just as Rantaro is about to leave home for his first day at the academy, during which he is told sternly by his mother to not come back until his training is over. The boy, aware of the seriousness of her words, nods, and then quickly makes his way through beautiful meadows dotted with Jizo statues, bustling towns, and samurai battles in the middle of ancient riverbeds. To say that I was floored by the film’s visual beauty and laughed my ass off throughout the film’s runtime would be an understatement.
To try and explain the plot would be pointless since the pleasures gotten from Miike’s film come mainly from the never-ending supply of sight gags and physical comedy that he throws at the audience like throwing stars. In between the story and the jokes, Miike indulges his audience in ninja trivia. Do you wanna know the various types of paraphernalia and techniques used by shinobi, like the various types of explosives used to disable an oncoming onslaught of enemies? Well, you’re in luck because Miike stops the film dead in its tracks to explain all sorts of mundane facts to the viewer. In fact, as I watched Ninja Kids!!! I couldn’t help thinking that the band of warriors in Miike’s earlier 13 Assassins (2010) could have used the expertise of the instructors at the Ninja Academy as they took down the cruel Lord Naritsugu.
Although the cast consists mainly of children and the violence is cartoonish at best, with characters getting bashed in the face and then quickly getting back up, Miike never lets you forget that these boys are engaging in brutal bloodsports. You may laugh at the violence on the screen, but you do cringe as you hear bones crack and witness flesh being cut or bruised since the next attack may mean the last time we see any of these boys alive again. Thus, Miike’s film is in the style of a very colorful and gaudy Grimm”s fairy tale rather than the typical Disney-fied kid’s pictures playing at your local multiplex.
These three Japanese films directed by well-established genre filmmakers are products of a commercial film industry that has been around just as long any in the West, and yet unlike their Hollywood counterparts, these directors have consistently challenged convention and have proven to the naysayers of these films that a “family picture” need not talk down to its audience. Children’s entertainment can be fun and wholesome as well, even if they don’t always have the prerequisite Hollywood-style happy ending.
You still have a chance to see two of the three films featured in this article! Karate-Robo Zaborgar will be shown at the Walter Reade Theater on Tuesday , July 5th at 8:45 PM. For tickets, visit the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s NYAFF website here. Ninja Kids!!! will be shown as a NYAFF/Japan Cuts co-screening at the Japan Society on Saturday, July 9th at 6:00 PM. For tickets, visit the Japan Society website here.