Ringu

“One curse, one cure, one week to find it” is Ringu’s tag-line and a succinct plot synopsis if there ever was one. Personally I’d say something like; “Teens find weird video in a cabin. It’s a heart-stopping experience.” The title might look somewhat familiar to American readers. The Ring, starting Naomi Watts, was an American remake of Ringu filmed four years after the release of the original.

Beware, there be spoilers ahead! I’ll try to keep them to a minimum though.

I sat down to watch Ringu knowing pretty much what to expect. After all I’ve seen the American version at least twice. I thoroughly enjoyed the remake, and I’ m happy to say the original doesn’t disappoint. Ringu just dives right in…laying out the urban legend that drives the plot within the first few scenes. Folks watch a mysterious video tape. Once it’s done, they get an odd phone call. One week later, they’re dead. Reiko Asakawa is a journalist digging into the story, when her niece becomes part of it. She digs deeper and deeper and…

…well…watch it to find out. Suffice to say, shenanigans ensue.

This is a creepy movie, folks. Not in the same way as the American version is creepy. The American version is more of a “Boo! Haha I scared you!” kind of creepy. No…Ringu is less in your face and more in your mind. I think some of that has to do with the limited special effects. There was no extensive use of CGI like you find in the remake. The film makers had to be more subtle by necessity. It works well though. There is an atmosphere of unease over the whole film. I can’t quite put my finger on what specifically gives me that impression: it’s more of a combination of factors. Obviously I’m predisposed to find this creepy because I saw the first one and it creeped me right the hell out. And I was alone in the house when I watched Ringu. In the dark. But eliminating those factors (since they have little to do with the ambience of the movie itself) I would say the sound effects are largely responsible for the effect…

…or rather the lack thereof. This was a really quiet movie. Just some ambient noise here and there where appropriate. A large part of the movie seemed….mundane. A snapshot of everyday life in late 90’s Japan. So when you actually heard something other than the whir of your VHS player (you all found this movie in a mysterious cabin in the woods too….right? …right?) you know it’s time to get worried. I found the music weird in its own right. Sometimes it was drums. Other times something screechy and discordant (usually during a “Boo!” scene). Or it’s something that reminded me of a cross between feedback and a swarm of buzzing insects.

Something else, I think, gave this one the creepy vibe. It goes back to the special effects. They aren’t as pretty as the remakes, but it’s their very normalness that makes them creepy. It looks almost real. Oh and the well scene! Pretty spooky on the remake…the girl moves with these weird herky-jerky movements. Same deal in Ringu…but as I said not done with CGI. They actually filmed a kabuki actor, kabuki is a theatrical style that emphasizes exaggerated gestures and jerky motions to show emotion, walking backwards. Then, they reversed the film to make it look as if he were moving forwards. It results in an odd gait…like the person’s joints are stiff. Like they’re…locked with rigor mortis maybe? And the faces! The faces of the dead I mean. They look sort of mummified in the remake..but in the original they’re normal, but with their eyes wide and their mouths locked into a silent scream. Spooky, no?

There was one thing I didn’t care for…well okay I thought it took away from the creepiness a bit because I found myself chuckling. Asakawa’s son Yoichi was a little first grader…and he was completely wooden. I swear there was no expression on this kids face the entire movie. He just sort of drifted along, as if seeing some creepy ass video and his mom freaking out were all par for the course. The kid just trudged along…hell I bet he could stare down the creepy ghost girl and not even flinch!

One more thing (spoiler alert….if you haven’t seen the movie, go watch it then come back). Okay…those of us who’ve watched Ringu (or the remake) know that the curse is only broken when you copy the tape, and show the copy to someone else right? But I keep thinking…shouldn’t the ghost give you an extension if you see the movie more than once? I mean..the message is pretty cryptic and all…it’s in the ghost’s best interest to propagate this thing as much as possible so you’d think allowing some sort of an extension would be something it should do, right? A week tacked on each time you watch the tape…just watch it once a week and you’re good! No having to sucker a friend into watching something that could potentially kill them (like this).

Another thing…does the ghost keep up with formatting? I’d guess the whole copying a VHS thing isn’t working so well just about now. This could go two ways I think. The ghost could have stuck with old school VHS, which by this point means it has basically gone extinct because I would imagine not a lot of people watch VHS in Japan, nor do they have the gumption to copy one if they did. Or..the ghost could have updated. Imagine: you see some creepy as video on some unlabeled DVD you found in a cabin. Your first thought: man that was weird! Your second: Youtube!

So since we’ve not all seen a veritable holocaust of Youtube junkies, I’m thinking the former is more likely than the latter…

…er…right. Got off track there. Ringu…give it a watch. It won’t disappoint. I promise.

And for God’s sake…if something seems to be crawling out of your TV….don’t sit and stare at it! RUN!

Ju-on

It’s amazing what one can do using a shoestring budget, if you are skillful at any rate. Takashi Shimizu shows he is just that in Ju-on, better known to my American colleagues as The Grudge. The Grudge is actually a remake of Ju-on, done with a much bigger budget and, of course, Sarah Michelle Gellar. This seems to be a trend…low budget Japanese horror flicks get a make-over (and a boob job) to become American blockbusters.

Sadly, something is usually lost in translation. Don’t get me wrong…I jumped when I watched The Grudge…but the original is so much creepier! There are similarities in the story-lines of both movies, but in all reality they differ greatly. I would say that Ju-on was more self-contained than the remake. And more convoluted. There wasn’t a big “tell the audience what’s going on” scene like in the American version..which I appreciated. I don’t like it when my entertainment thinks I’m dumb (I might be..but it doesn’t have to get all condescending about it!)

There be spoilers ahead! I will go ahead and give any intrepid horror connoisseur a hearty recommendation: if you haven’t seen this, do so!

This is one of those movies that starts at the end…or near it at any rate. The story takes place in a quiet neighborhood in Japan, in a house which harbors a particularly nasty secret. People who live there die. Or simply disappear. The middle of the movie basically shows the gruesome deaths of the current tenants of the house…and then flips back to the beginning. The story progresses through a series of snapshots, if you will. Each segment concerns a particular character and their interactions with the house. They aren’t shown in chronological order, which in my opinion adds to the sense of unease. After all you don’t know what’s going to happen to who, or when. The horror ratchets up and up…becoming more bizarre and more creepy with each passing snapshot….until the big scare!

I remember the Grudge being a rather gory movie. And pretty in your face with the scares as well. A lot of things lunging into the camera’s view. Ju-on was a bit different…necessarily since it had such a low budget compared to its American remake. In a word, it was more subtle. The tension was ratcheted up progressively throughout the movie, with one sort of odd detour into American style horror. The gore was minimal until one particular scene, where one victim of the ghost’s sour disposition stumbled into the house, sans jaw. It was sort of an odd exposition and not particularly in keeping with what I felt was the feel of the rest of the movie. That and it wasn’t really well done. Don’t get me wrong it was still creepy…but this is one point where the remake has the original beat.

I feel the whole “Hey look there’s a bloody hole where my jaw should be!” scene was lacking simply because it played against the strength the movie had going for it: the subtle ratcheting of the horror. It was very much an understated movie, but it worked really well. Sure the remake made me jump, but the original got under my skin. When the mother-ghost came crawling down the stairs…I got the shivers. Did it look as good as the American version? No…but that’s the point. Like I said about Ringu…the fact it wasn’t all polished CGI was what made it creepy. It looked real, but not too real. The fact it was an actual person in make-up crawling down those steps made it that much worse. It wasn’t fake..it wasn’t the result of some computer wizardry. It was some ashen faced woman crawling down the stairs, eyes wide, emitting some weird croaking sound…

…and staring right at you. Coming for you. Well…you and the guy frozen in terror at the bottom of the steps.

Oh..and did anyone else find the ending confusing? I did…it just seemed an odd way to end it. There were some things that didn’t make sense to me, but I would probably pick them up on a second viewing. That and I’m not used to watching movies with subtitles. I find it hard to keep track of who is who with subtitles…can’t associate a voice with a face and a name.

All of that said…I enjoyed this one. I wouldn’t call this fare for a get together with a bunch of friends…maybe the American version would fit better for that. No…watch Ju-on in an empty house, with the lights off.

And don’t mind it too much if you hear something clumping around up in the attic. Or if you hear a cat’s scream.

It’s probably nothing.

Howl’s Moving Castle

Sophie, a quiet girl working in a hat shop, finds her life thrown into turmoil when she is literally swept off her feet by a handsome but mysterious wizard named Howl. The vain and vengeful Witch of the Waste, jealous of their friendship, puts a spell on Sophie. In a life-changing adventure, Sophie climbs aboard Howl’s magnificent flying castle and enters a magical world on a quest to break the spell.

Studio Ghibli’s quality of animation is top notch in this film. Throughout, Sophie gradually morphs between her true self and a bent grandmother. The story is enjoyable and full of rich details. The characters are likable, strong willed (in the case of Sophie) and multi-dimensional. Even the villain has a soft side and isn’t totally evil. Ghibli makes films for both adults and children to enjoy. Howl’s Moving Castle has tender moments that warm the heart and lighthearted childhood antics that bring up soft memories.

In every Ghibli film, Hayo Miyzaki seeks to shed light on a specific theme. Howl’s Moving Castle speaks about the terrors of war on the people and environment. War literally makes men into monsters as wizards give up their humanity to become powerful machines of destruction. The story also focuses on how important the hearts of people are despite appearances. We are only as young and beautiful as we think and act.

Howl’s Moving Castle is animation and story telling at it’s best. The animation is fluid and rich. The colors are vibrate. Unfortunately, the characters and areas (outside of Howl’s Castle) lack detail but the wonderful animation more than makes up for the lack of detail. The dialogue is crisp and lacks distracting awkward phrases or sentences. Howl’s Moving Castle, like most of Studio Ghibli’s works, shows us how compelling animation and story telling can be.

Bleach

Bleach is full of bad ass one liner moments. That is why I like it.

Without further ado, the synopsis: Bleach opens with the Soul Reaper Rukia Kuchiki dropping into teenager Ichigo Kurosaki bedroom. (She also spends the night in his closet throughout the series. Sounds a little like a teenage boy’s fantasy eh?) A Hollow, a soul eater, appears and over the course of the battle Rukia is injured. In an act of desperation, she transfers her spiritual abilities to Ichigo, a severe crime from the spiritual world she is from. What was just supposed to be a temporary act forever changes the course of Ichigo’s life.

Pretty standard stuff for anime really. It is how Bleach does it that makes it a blast to watch. Bleach’s action scenes are where it is at. Although, admittedly, many of the fights border on the outlandish. Some powers characters have are just useless. Tite Kubo: if you have to spend more than a half page , or 10 minutes explaining a villain’s attack, you need to rethink some things.

Bleach has a few sexually oriented jokes but these are pretty rare compared to most other anime. Mostly Bleach is full of badassery. What could be better when Ichigo shows up just at a critical moment with just a “What’s up?” Of course he is busy looking epic too. Just about every character has a one of these bad-ass moments.

Bleach isn’t all rosy and fun though. Many of the so-called comedy reliefs are just freakin’ irritating. Some have Star War’s Jar-Jar matched for annoyance. They are not funny and not worth watching. They just serve to slow the pace down…Speaking of that, Bleach can be glacial with how its story develops. Fights can last WAY too long. Yeah, the show suffers from Dragon Ball Z yapping. When characters fight, they should fight and not talk each other to death. Bleach also has a lot of filler, such as the Bount arc, that really kills the main story telling. Filler is okay if it is somewhat related to the timeline. At least there are some redeemable moments; the filler episodes are not all bad.

There are a LOT of characters in Bleach. Tite is good at making interesting characters, but c’mon. We need a spreadsheet just to keep track of them all. It wouldn’t hurt for you to actually, you know, let someone DIE in a fight to the death. It really hurts the suspense after awhile.

Bleach’s anime is crisp. Rarely are there action lines. Although the quality does decrease during the filler arcs.

Bleach has a lot going for it. If you are one of the few who hasn’t see it yet; you won’t be disappointed. Next to Naruto, Bleach is one of the most popular anime series in the United States.

It is just a fun watch.

Inuyasha

Inuyasha opens in feudal Japan. The half-demon Inuyasha attacks a village to steal the Sacred Jewel of Four Souls. The Jewel enhances the possessor’s powers and grants a single wish. Inuyasha seeks to use the jewel to turn himself into a full-blooded demon. He is stopped by Kikyo, a young priestess, who seals him to a tree using a sacred arrow. Dying, she tells her younger sister Kaede to burn the jewel with her body to prevent it from falling into evil hands. However, she failed to anticipate her own reincarnation.

Kagome Higurashi lives with her family on their Shinto shrine. One day she chases her cat into the well house. Abruptly a centipede bursts out of the well and pulls her through it and into the past. She emerges from the well to find herself in a strange wilderness and finds Inuyasha sealed to the tree for the past 50 years. Peasants find her and drag her to the village where an older Kaede recognizes Kagome as Kikyo’s reincarnation. Soon the demon centipede, drawn to the Sacred Jewel that resides in Kagome’s body, attacks. Kagome frees Inuyasha to kill the demon. Kaede prevents Inuyasha from stealing the jewel by placing a magic rosary around his neck, allowing Kagome to subdue him with a simple “sit.”

Kagome and the Jewel attract more demons and eventually she accidentally shatters the Jewel with a sacred arrow. The shards of the jewel scatter throughout Japan, granting power to however possesses them. One demon in particular seeks to reassemble the Jewel of Four Souls for himself: Naraku.

Characters

Inuyasha and the Gang

InuYasha is a half demon. His father was a full demon and his mother was human. At first he wants to become a full demon but falling in love with Kikyo shifts his thinking. Naraku manipulates Inuyasha and Kikyo into believing they betrayed each other. Kikyo’s death stalks Inuyasha in addition to the conflict between his demon and human blood. Kikyo’s shadow makes his friendship and love for Kagome conflicted.

Kagome Higurashi is the priestess Kikyo’s reincarnation. Born in modern Japan, her sudden appearance shifts the course of history. Over time her spiritual powers continue to awaken as does her feelings for Inuyasha

Miroku is a lecherous Buddhist monk that is cursed by Naraku with the Wind Tunnel. The Wind Tunnel is a powerful weapon and will eventually cause his death. This inevitability and desire for an heir drives his lecherous ways. He hopes to break the curse by killing Naraku.

Sango is a professional demon slayer. Naraku ravages her village and kills all its inhabitants. Naraku revives her younger brother to use as a weapon to stop her efforts to avenge her village. Sango’s main goal is to free her brother from Naraku.

Kikyo is a priestess who guards the Sacred Jewel. She falls in love with Inuyasha but dies feeling betrayed by him through Naraku’s manipulation. She is revived as an undead soul to seek revenge against Inuyasha and kill her reincarnation.

Naraku is the primary villain. He is behind most of the character’s problems. He is a half demon born from a crippled human bandit and a horde of weak demons. Like Inuyasha he seeks to become a full demon. He also seeks to possess a tainted Sacred Jewel, and his obsession: Kikyo.

Inuyasha focuses upon the ideas of friendship and conflicted love. Both Inuyasha and Naraku are conflicted about their love for Kikyo. Inuyasha is torn between her and Kagome. Naraku is torn by his “love” and his desire for power.

Inuyasha is a fairly simple story. It is mostly a romance and falls into certain patterns. Naraku gains power and trounces Inuyasha and crew. They eventually become more powerful by enduring these trials. The main problem with Inuyasha is repetition. Despite minor differences in situations, many of the conflicts follow the same patterns. Most everything is resolved by Inuyasha’s Wind Scar. Of course other action series like Bleach fall into the same problem. The characters of Inuyasha are enjoyable. Although some of the jokes get a little tired over the course of 160 episodes. The love triangle between Inuyasha, Kagome, and Kikyo is believable if a little drawn out at times. Such situations do tend to work that way in reality, however. Inuyasha is an enjoyable romp.

Samurai Champloo

The spiritual cousin of Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo mixes hip hop with Japan’s Edo period. Surprisingly this mix with a dash of punk and graffiti creates an entertaining stew. Samurai Champloo relies on actual events from the Edo period such as the Dutch trade exclusivity in Japan and Ukiyo-e paintings. It also tosses in fictional depictions of various historical figures such as Miyamoto Musashi, the famous swordsman.

It all begins in a typical teahouse on a typical day. The waitress, Fuu, is dodging the advances of various thugs. Her clumsiness lands her into trouble this time, however. Another thug, Mugen, enters the brawl that ensues in return for food. In the middle of the fight, Jin, a ronin samurai, enters the teahouse only to be drawn into a fight with Mugen. A fiire breaks out and the two faint from the smoke. Shortly later, they awake to discover they are about to be executed for the death of the magistrate’s son in the fire. Fuu helps them escape and demands they travel with her to find “the samurai who smells of sunflowers.” They finally agree with Fuu’s one condition: they are not to kill each other until the journey is finished.

Throughout Samurai Champloo hip hop and street elements are present. Rappers show up, and “gangsta” bandits even appear strangely natural with how the surrounding characters consider it normal. Other than the general framework of the journey and multipart episodes, the series has the same general mishmash feel that Cowboy Bebop’s episodes exhibited. Most episodes stand on their own and can almost be watched in almost any order. Several episodes are off tangent like Cosmic Collisions and Baseball Blues.

Jin, Mugen, and Fuu just chillin'

Mugen is a rascal from the Ryukyu Islands. His fighting style is erratic, and he cares little about his own safety. As a lone wolf, he is rough and uncaring toward all but a select few.

Jin is a man from another time. Trained in the traditional kenjutsu style, he is stoic but kindhearted. Like Mugen, he cannot avoid his past.

Fuu is a feisty 15 year old who coerces Jin and Mugen to help her find a man she calls “the samurai who smells of sunflowers.” Her mother’s death from an illness a year before haunts her dreams. She is accompanied by her pet flying squirrel named Momo. Both she and Momo have the uncanny ability to be kidnapped.

Samurai Champloo’s main theme centers around friendship and how every journey must end. Also, one of the driving factors of the characters is hunger during their travels. The gulf between the poor and the rich is vivid throughout the story as the rich use their wealth and muscle to get what they want. The three often throw wrench into the natural order of things as they seek money for their food and lodgings. There is a feel of easy come, easy go. Everything must end so just bid it goodbye when the time comes.

The show is a pleasing mix of modern and Edo. Crisply animated, the fighting scenes explode with fast violence and end with a flourish. They nicely capture the ferocity of sword combat and the speed of death. The backgrounds have a wonderful watercolor look that contrasts the more modern styled characters. The dialogue is well done and entertaining. “No one’s going to relax their ass with you around. ” Mugen tells a homosexual foreigner.

If you are a fan of Cowboy Bebop, don’t miss this one.