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Nice set design, but bland characters
In Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, Han Solo and Leia are overconfident and brash, but they often have to come to terms with the consequences of their bad decisions, and so are made aware of their own limitations. They use humour as a defence mechanism, to give them strength when things are not going well. Luke lacks self-confidence, but he is young, and sets out to learn, and improve guided by Obiwan and Yoda. All of this makes it easy for us to identify with Han, Luke and Leia in the original trilogy.
In the Last Jedi, Han Solo is gone, but his son Ben is always mugging grimly at the camera, lacking any hint of the bluster and bravado of his father. Luke has for reasons unexplained morphed from a wide-eyed idealist into a sad and bitter recluse, a 180 degree turn for a once beloved character. Leia is still here, but she cracks-wise a bit like the actress Carrie Fisher who plays her. We're given little hint of what Rey is feeling, although Ben/Kylo keeps razzing her about her dead parents. Finn gets served up as the butt of a couple jokes early on, but he too is pretty opaque. It is hard to identify with any of our heroes here.
The set design and costumes are in general well done. John Williams' score borrows heavily from the original trilogy.
Kazoku gêmu (1983)
Hilarious social satire with a touch of slapstick
In his third year of middle school, Shigeyuki Numata is languishing near the bottom of his class, so his parents hire yet another tutor to try to get his grades up, so he can get into a good high school like his older brother, Shin'ichi. Both Shigeyuki and Shin'ichi are artists at heart, and spend their time doodling in their notebooks.
The latest tutor they hire is Yoshimoto, played by the brilliant Yuusaku Matsuda (Black Rain). Yoshimoto is a lackluster student himself, but Shigeyuki's father (played by Juuzou Itami, the director of Tampopo) makes a deal with him to pay a bonus if he can raise Shigeyuki's rank in his class. Yoshimoto applies some tough love, swatting Shigeyuki when he goofs around. Eventually, we learn that Shigeyuki is being bullied by his childhood frenemy, Tsuchiya. Yoshimoto agrees to teach Shigeyuki how to fight if he studies harder, and thus things finally start to improve on all fronts.
A lot of the jokes hinge on deadpan irony and the lack of private space in Tokyo. When Papa Numata wants to talk, he takes first the tutor and then his wife to their parked car, as this is perhaps the only place they can be alone. At meal time, the family all sits in a row on one side of their dining room table, highlighting the lack of communication between them. Shin'ichi must go through Shigeyuki's room to get to his own. When Yoshimoto is teaching Shigeyuki how to fight on the roof of the building, a boy with a telescope keeps impinging on their space, forcing them to move.
A neighbour woman in their apartment complex remarks that Mama Numata is the first person ever to speak to her. When she visits Mama, she reveals her husband's father is about to die, but she has no idea how to get the dead body out of the apartment as a casket won't fit in the elevator!
Shin'ichi visits a cute girl Mieko's apartment a few times. Mieko's parents are always watching TV seemingly oblivious to the boys who come calling. Shin'ichi opens the curtains to look out Mieko's window, remarks "Nice view," but all we can see is an oil refinery and smokestacks.
The slapstick centres on Yoshimoto. The joke is that he was hired to teach, but really the only thing he's good at is fighting. Shigeyuki becomes a better fighter under his tutelage, and starts to challenge his teacher. After Shigeyuki finally gets into the best high school, they have one last dinner which descends into a silly food fight with the family decked out on the floor, and Yoshimoto the last man standing.
Director Yoshimitsu Morita has quite a body of work now, but I think this is one of his best films.
Tengoku to jigoku (1963)
Ethical questions mixed into a taut police procedural
Kurosawa was known as a great humanist, and ethical questions clearly play a central role in each thread of the plot. Kingo Gondo (played by Toshiro Mifune) is a director on the board of a company called National Shoes. He is approached by three other directors, who want to overthrow the current president, and start producing a new line of shoes. Gondo agrees that the president is old-fashioned, but he rejects the shoes they show him as shoddily made. He ejects them from his house, only to get a phone call from a kidnapper who claims to have taken his son. His son turns up, but his friend the chauffeur's son is gone. Even after the kidnapper realizes his mistake, he insists that the ransom still be paid. Gondo had been planning to use the money to fight off the take-over bid, so the police immediately wonder if the other directors have orchestrated the kidnapping in order to deprive Gondo of the cash he needs to stop them. The chauffeur, Gondo's wife and the police are all reticent to put too much pressure on Gondo to pay the ransom, but it is clear he must make a choice: to save the boy or fend off the take-over.
In the second half, the police investigation is driven on by their sympathy for Gondo and their desire to see the culprit punished for all of his crimes. There is also a class struggle subtext with Gondo living in a quiet mansion on a hill and the kidnapper in a tiny room below.
The cast of High and Low was truly star-studded. Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Isao Kimura and Minoru Chiaki were among the Seven Samurai, and the lead detective here Tatsuya Nakadai had a leading role in both Sanjuro and Yojimbo. The kidnapper is played by Tsutomu Yamazaki who would go on to star in Juuzo Itami's Tampopo. Future Mito Komon lead Eijirou Touno even has a cameo as a factory worker.
The film is in black and white, but Kurosawa has a wonderful eye for arresting visuals, and the story is tense and absorbing to the end. A classic.
Gilgamesh Night (1991)
Classic 1990's late night Japanese adult variety show
Gilgamesh Night was broadcast by TV Tokyo early Sunday mornings from around 1:15 a.m. to 2:10 a.m. from October 1991 to March 1998. Despite the late night time slot, at its peak Gilgamesh achieved ratings exceeding 9%, higher than most of TV Tokyo's prime time shows of the time. The show is perhaps best known for launching the TV careers of former adult video actresses Ai Iijima and Reiko Hayama as well as gravure idols Fumie Hosokawa, Kei Mizutani and Tamao Satou.
The show had a wide range of segments usually on a sexy theme with a lot of humour. In 'Yashoku Banzai,' comedian Ijiri Okada and AV actress Hitomi Yuuki would cook with Yuuki dressed only in an apron. Sometimes they would have treasure hunts where a whole slew of AV actresses would all be in aprons running around the studio. Jeff Furukawa ran a corner where he would demonstrate shiatsu techniques on one of the actresses. Sometimes the actresses would visit hot springs, aesthetic salons or cabarets. There were at least two in-house idol groups, the Sexy Mates and Girigiri Girls, who would sing and dance. Fashion shows, photo-shoots, strip games or musical chairs were other common segments. There were 'bath room cinema' reviews of both Hollywood blockbusters and Original Videos that the actresses themselves appeared in.
It should perhaps be noted that many of the female announcers (eg. Senna Matsuda, Akira Kiuchi) and idol groups never appeared nude, and there were limits on the participation of AV actresses even at the show's height. Gilgamesh was a lightning rod for controversy though, and it was this that eventually led to its cancellation and the swing away from adult content on network TV.
Gilgamesh was replaced by a program called Artemish Night, but it wasn't as popular.
In 2012-3, BS Japan revived the show as Gilgamesh Light, also starring Ijiri Okada.
Racey live action adaptations of LGBT-themed adult manga
Hiroya Oku is a manga creator best known for 'Gantz.' He wrote a number of strips called 'Hen' which were published in 'Weekly Young Jump' starting in 1992, and later collected in paperback (tankoubon).
A TV show called 'Hen(Hen) Suzuki-kun to Satou-kun' was broadcast on TV Asahi as part of their late night 'Weekend Drama' slot from April 6th to May 18th, 1996. It starred idol Aiko Satou as the male student Satou and Shinsuke Akagi as his classmate Suzuki. The original manga is a story of a macho guy who falls in love with an effeminate looking male classmate. In the TV show, they play the whole thing for laughs by having Satou played by a good-looking female idol. Both Aiko Satou and Shinsuke Akagi are clearly enjoying their roles, and it's all good fun.
From May 25 to June 29th, TV Asahi ran a second series called 'Hen Chizuru-chan to Azumi-chan' based on a separate manga, also by Oku. In this one, the brassy athletic Chizuru (played by Adult Video actress Asami Jou) falls for an innocent ingénue who just transferred into her class, Azumi (played by idol Miho Kiuchi). Jou and Kiuchi have a great time playing up their parts, and Shinsuke Akagi is even funnier here as Chizuru's wounded boyfriend. All three do some nudity, which was mosaic-ed in the original run, but both series' were later released on VHS with fewer cuts.
Oku's 'Hen' manga was also later adapted into an Original Video Anime released in 1997 by Toei Video.
Jaja uma narashi (1993)
Hilariously dramatic series
Director Mamoru Hoshi, actress Arisa Mizuki, actor Issei Ishida and musicians T-Square had just finished work on the body switch comedy Houkago (1992). Here the story is different, but we get the same fast-paced situational humour and orchestral adventure music score like something out of "Back to the Future" or "Raiders of the Lost Ark."
Ryuichiro Yamada (played by Kiichi Nakai) marries Mayumi Kitahara, the female president of Mercury Corporation only to have her die in a car crash as they leave the church. He returns to his late wife's palatial mansion to find Mayumi's daughter Natsumi (Arisa Mizuki), returning from her studies abroad. The butler Kurahara asks Ryuichiro to assume guardianship of Natsumi. Natsumi initially rebels against the idea, but Ryuichiro strives to earn her trust, and slowly they form a makeshift alliance against their mutual enemies, in particular, K. Kubota, the man who seized control of Mercury after Mayumi's death.
On top of the Spielbergesque soundtrack, this series also owes a debt to directors like Frank Capra with its tale of the struggle of a kind-hearted underdog set upon by evil men who seek to destroy his dreams. A lot of the humour turns on deliberately far-fetched plot twists that are reminiscent of old style movies. Especially funny are the completely over-the-top highlights from the non-existent sequel right at the end of the series. Great fun.
Ultracool music and nice voice work
The thing that really made this show special was the music. Bachelor pad band leader Ray Ellis composed, and conducted a wide range of dramatic secret-agent-style cues for the first season, and these bits got reused to good effect in the following seasons. Bob Harris and Paul Francis Webster contributed the theme song with its frenetic off-kilter drum riffs. Starting in season 2, the creators began dipping into the KPM music catalogue bringing to light ice-cool jazz gems such as Syd Dale's "The Hell Raisers" and David Lindup's "Stand By." Some of the same cues would later pop up in TV shows such as "Dallas." Paul Kligman's J. Jonah Jameson and Paul Soles' Peter Parker voice work was absolutely wonderful. It's hard not to imagine their voices when reading the comics.
The animation art is fairly dynamic, and resembles the work of John Romita who served as a consultant. Comic artist Gray Morrow even worked as one of the animators. Ralph Bakshi who would later become famous for "Lord of the Rings" and "Fire and Ice" took over as director in the second season. The most obvious mark of his influence was the dark multi-coloured clouds that appeared as backgrounds in some of the more psychedelic episodes.
Overall one of the more interesting animated series' of its time.