Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Film Review: Three Master Directors Tackle Life in Japan That Children Don’t Understand and Adults Can’t Explain in “Monster,” “Perfect Days” and “The Boy and the Heron”

Monster (c) Well Go USA, Inc.

Film: Monster 
In Cinemas 

Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda has returned to his homeland setting of Japan after sojourn films in France (The Truth) and South Korea (Broker), and while I had some problems with the script by Yuji Sakamoto (ironically, the winner of the Screenplay Award at Cannes this year), Kore-eda is again sympathetically tackling the innocence of children trying to cope in a world they can’t comprehend. But the movie tells the story of young Minato (Soya Kurokawa), from three perspectives, with his own being the last one, and that’s a shame because the first two, while well-acted, bring up issues that are red herrings to what is actually happening. The first act is told from the perspective of Minato’s mom Saori (Sakura Ando) who is noticing a change in her son’s demeanor as he starts fifth grade. He’s erratic, he suffers bodily harm, and she is horrified when he says he now has a pig’s brain, and thus, is a monster. After some investigation, Saori believes her son has been a target of harassment from his teacher, Hori (Eita Nagayama). The second part is from Hori’s perspective, and we see how hints and innuendos can ruin a teacher’s reputation, especially when it involves pre-teen kids. But it’s in the third part that Minato’s true story is told and everything that felt mysterious and foreboding earlier falls into place. That’s because a fourth character, his much-teased classmate Yori (Hinata Hiiragi), who was only glimpsed in earlier parts of the film, turns out to be the lynchpin to the film’s mystery. Yori and Minato are given the same generosity of grace Kore-eda affords to innocent children, as in his masterpiece Shoplifters, which won the Palme d’Or in 2018. I was ultimately moved by Monster as a whole and hope one day someone will re-edit the film chronologically with all three stories happening at once. As it is, the story manipulates the audience for most of the movie before revealing the beating, generous heart by the end. Make no mistake, there are monsters in this film: real and metaphorical, but also fantastical that inspire games and wonder in children. 

Perfect Days (c) NEON

Film: Perfect Days 
In Select Cinemas, Opening Wide in 2024 

German director Wim Wenders’ latest film, Perfect Days, also premiered at this year’s Cannes, winning an award for Best Actor for veteran Japanese actor Kōji Yakusho, who plays Hirayama, a Tokyo toilet cleaner. It would seem like an odd story for Wenders to tackle for his first film in over five years, but there’s something irresistible about Hirayama’s story. Even though he does clean up everyone’s mess (literally), Hirayama seems to enjoy his modest life in his small apartment, where his biggest joys seem to be reading novels, listening to American music on cassette and smiling as he takes a deep breath of morning air before starting work. Wenders repeats Hirayama’s ritual almost to the point of silliness, but like Chantel Akerman’s 1975 film Jeanne Dielman, which was picked last year by critics as “the greatest film of all time,” there is a reason to incorporate the slow cinema technique of “nothing happening” – it always builds to something that happens. In Perfect Days, that something is the unexpected appearance of his teenage niece Niko (Arisa Nakano), whom he hasn’t seen in years. It seems she has run away from his sister’s home and wants to hide out, if only for a little while, with Hirayama. So, after the umpteenth time we’ve seen his routine, it all gets thrown out of whack with this outsider’s perspective. The last act ends with a bit more of a backstory of Hirayama, which feels unnecessary, but does give us context as to why he lives the way he does. I enjoyed more of the little moments in his life, including spontaneous games of shadow-tag and tic-tac-toe, his weekend visits to a bookstore and a curry restaurant and his observations of the same woman and homeless man in the park during lunch. Wenders’ one oddity is using The Animal’s House of the Rising Sun as one of Hirayama’s favorite songs, which of course, despite the title’s imagery, has nothing to do with Japan. Thankfully, the song that gives the film its title from Lou Reed is finally heard, and that song totally encapsulates the movie’s theme of finding happiness in the small things. 

The Boy and the Heron (c) GKIDS

Film: The Boy and the Heron 
In Cinemas 

The Boy and the Heron, animation grandmaster Hayao Miyazaki’s first film after announcing his retirement in 2013, is an elegiac look at the fragility of life, while also being a fantastical tale of Mahito Maki, a young Japanese boy during World War II who loses his mother in a bombing and is shipped a year later to the country home of his father’s new wife (and Mahito’s dead mother’s sister). It is there that Mahito encounters a house filled with aunties who dote on him as well as a rather insistent grey heron that seems to be directing the boy to his grandfather’s abandoned and rumored to be haunted tower on the property. The tower turns out to be a gateway to a spiritual world where Mahito is told his mother is and very much alive. Here, like in the imaginative worlds of Miyazaki’s most famous films (Howl’s Moving Castle, Spirited Away), Mahito enters a sort of multiverse portal in which he meets pre-human spirits (think Tina Fey’s character in Soul), a flock of aggressive, oversized parakeets and a wizard, who may be the reason why Mahito was summoned in the first place. The hand-drawn animation is enough to make The Boy and the Heron a masterpiece, but the movie, like other multiverse films of recent years (Spider-Man Across the Spider-Verse, Everything Everywhere All at Once), has rather ill-defined rules of the world and any attempt of coherency and consistency is thrown out the window, especially during the whirling dervish of a finale. But I would rather have an overambitious but imaginative film by Miyazaki (with another evocative score by his frequent collaborator Joe Hisashi) over almost any American animated film in the last few years. I would recommend seeing the original Japanese voice cast, but if you must, the English dubbed version does have a stacked cast, including Robert Pattinson, Gemma Chan, Mark Hamill, Florence Pugh and many more. Again, like after his last film, The Wind Rises, it must be asked if The Boy and the Heron will be Miyazaki’s final film. Hopefully not, but if it is, it feels like a love letter capper from an auteur filmmaker to his avid fan base.

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