June 30, 2006

The Hidden Blade

Directed by Yôji Yamada Starring Masatoshi Nagase

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Don't be fooled by the title—Blade isn't the sort of Zatoichi variant it suggests. Rather, it's a revisionist and demystifying samurai saga. In 1861, at the end of the Japanese feudal era, the last samurai are clumsily adapting Western artillery and military formations without the assistance of Tom Cruise. Disgraced since his father's hara-kiri, Katagiri (Masatoshi Nagase of Mystery Train) impetuously rescues his former maid (Takako Matsu) from an abusive marriage, then dutifully abides by the caste system to suppress his affections for her. Meanwhile, he must prove his own innocence by dueling with a school pal accused of treason. Devoid of action until the climactic showdown, Blade is a stately yarn with slow-burn tension and heartwarming romance. But director Yôji Yamada already made the shogun equivalent of Unforgiven with the Oscar-nominated The Twilight Samurai. Though both are adaptations of Shuuhei Fujisawa novels, this follow-up pales slightly in comparison.

Reprinted from Seattle Weekly. © Copyright 2006 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

Princess Raccoon

Directed by Seijun Suzuki Starring Ziyi Zhang and Jô Odagiri
Reviewed by Martin Tsai
The Japanese studio system banished him for a decade for making such delirium-addled B-movie classics as Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill, but 82-year-old Seijun Suzuki is still as bizarre and irreverent as ever. Raccoon is the seemingly timeless star-crossed romance between a royal raccoon (Ziyi Zhang) and a human prince (Jô Odagiri of Bright Future), exiled for fear that he would supplant his father as the fairest of them all. With Suzuki at the wheel, it's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg with kimonos and psychedelia. The film is a pastiche of Japanese opera, Greek tragedy, and French new wave. Like a continuity editor's worst nightmare, its mise-en-scène alternates inexplicably between theatrical stage, naturalistic exterior, and scroll-painting-superimposed blue screen—sometimes all within the same scene! The musical repertoire likewise covers as many genres as a season of American Idol. Ultimately, Raccoon demands and rewards the total suspension of disbelief. Its incongruous storytelling style takes some getting used to, but beneath lies a mischievously droll and sweet fable that'll leave you with a beaming smile.
Reprinted from Seattle Weekly. © Copyright 2006 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.