Kunoichi: Lady Ninja (Hitoshi Ozawa, 1998)

The local Fry’s Electronics, where I buy most of my movies, has at least one row in the “action” section of its DVD shelves taken up by movies with titles like Lady Ninja Kaede and Lady Ninja Kasumi and even Ninja Pussy Cat. I assume that the Fry’s employees put these in the “action” section because no family establishment wants a section labeled “subtitled smut,” but the placement nearly counts as false advertising; there’s action in Lady Ninja... movies, alright, but not of the same kind as, for example, Under Siege 2. These discs started to invade American stores a few years ago, an inevitable consequence of digital film and cheap licensing, but Japan’s original kunoichi exploitation was neither digital, nor motion picture; it was literary. Futaro Yamada, a novelist whose works eventually spawned film adaptations like Shinobi: Heart under Blade and Makai Tensho: Samurai Reincarnation, basically created the genre in 1961 with his novel, Kunoichi Ninpocho.
Clip is NSFW

The first film, which I’ve never seen, was made in 1991, with subsequent entries released annually. I’ve witnessed – I don’t now that “watched” would be the correct word – a couple of the early films in the series, and can attest that they look not unlike other low-brow, low-ambition Japanese movies of the 90’s, shot on video or for the video market, with all of the bad lighting, fighting, editing, and erotica that accompanies. The eponymous ninpocho is the reason for the series’ popularity amongst cult movie fans; ninja magic tricks include such moves as deadly vagina bubbles and breast milk. Aside from the horrific, boner-deflating kitsch, the movies are actually rather dull.

But then there’s Kunoichi: Lady Ninja, the first of the series to see an official English language DVD release, courtesy of Tokyo Shock. Apparently the seventh of the kunoichi films and based on Yamada’s novel, Yagyu Ninpocho, Kunoichi: Lady Ninja seems less concerned with the trademark ninpocho than it does hyperactive camera work and visual effects. The movie opens with a narration over maps and faux-historical prints depicting the tyranny of Hideyoshi Toyotomi, whose allies in the Aizu region have vowed to kill all members of the Hori family after they reneged on an arranged marriage. The women of the Hori clan escape to a Buddhist convent, in no way stopping the demonic forces of Aizu from hunting them down. Seeking revenge, the women of the Hori clan enlist the aid of the famed ninja, Jubei Yagyu, and set off to kill their oppressors using their ninja magic, including such moves as the “nipple shockwave.”
Clip is NSFW
Clip is NSFW
From the point that Jubei joins the seven remaining Hori women, the plot becomes incoherently byzantine, with scenes that run off on their own tangents and digressions matched by rapid fire editing that leaves the audience in state of constant bewilderment. The movie maintains a certain air of self-gratification to boot; director/writer/costume designer/star Hitoshi Ozawa not only casts himself as one of the greatest swordsmen of Edo era Japan, he surrounds himself with beautiful women in various states of undress. Purely onanistic film-making is uninteresting; thankfully, Ozawa’s at least thinking a little bit about his audience’s needs as well.

As self-indulgent as the film’s plot, characterization, and length are, Kunoichi: Lady Ninja distills the only interesting element of the series -- pretty girls doing ridiculous, sexually charged ninja magic -- and mixes it with Hong Kong inspired wire-work, costuming by super-80’s mangaka Buichi Terasawa, and cinematography that resides somewhere between mid-90’s Miike and Peter Pau not giving a shit. The result is not unlike Terou Ishii’s Bohachi films, but less misogynistic, a high-pressure blood spurting, spastic and funny trip into an old Japan of sexy ninja girls, grotesque villains, and a male hero written solely for the gratification of the actor who plays him (not coincidentally, also the writer). Ozawa mixes all of the wildest visual elements of Hong Kong wire-fu, Japanese anime/manga, b-rate chambara films and pinku-eiga. Good film-making? No, but it’s fun.

Kunoichi: Lady Ninja also stars b-movie tough-chick Yuko Moriyama, frequent collaborator of Keita Amemiya, in a role besides an alien or a space faring bounty hunter. She’s also one of the few actresses to get away with not showing her nipples. I mention this because I like Moriyama, and her costume, and am happy that it stays on her for the duration of the film.

Not only is Kunoichi: Lady Ninja better exploitation than the recent glut of shinobi themed soft-core on the market, I think it’s probably the best of the series. It definitely carries the most visual panache and the actresses are gorgeous (I like the one who plays Ofue best). The Tokyo Shock disc includes video of the movie’s premier, during which Ozawa calls it a “b-movie amongst b-movies.” Can’t really argue with him on that.


Read in 2010

It's the end of the year, and I'm breaking out a list in lieu of actual content. This will likely become a tradition. An asterisk marks books that I've previously read.

1) An Evil Guest by Gene Wolfe
2) Houston, Houston We Have a Problem/Souls Tor Double Novel James Tiptree Jr./Joanna Russ

3) The Moronic Inferno by Martin Amis
4) Backwards Masking Unmasked by Jacob Aranza
5) Parzival or a Knight’s Tale by Richard Monaco

6) Laughter in the Dark by Vladmir Nabokov
7) Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose by Flannery O’Connor
8) St. Francis of Assisi by G. K. Chesterton
9) The Sorcerer’s House by Gene Wolfe

10) Valis by Phillip K. Dick
11) Lords of Chaos by Michael Moynihan
12) Three Hearts and Three Lions by Poul Anderson

13) The Moviegoer by Walker Percy*
14) The Wizard Knight Companion by Michael Andre-Driussi

15) The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton
16) He Came to Set the Captives Free by Rebecca Brown
17) The Eye by Vladmir Nabokov

18) The Eye of Argon by Jim Theis*
19) The Devil Wives of Li Fong by E. Hoffman Price
20) Peace by Gene Wolfe*
21) The Florence King Reader by Florence King

22) The Cleanest Race by B. R. Meyers
23) Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals

24) Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy*

25) One Writer’s Beginnings by Eudora Welty
26) The Edge of Evil by Jerry Johnston
27) Ghana’s New Christianity

28) Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor
29) The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski

30) Blades from the Willows by Huanzhulouzhu
31) Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady by Florence King

2010 hasn't quite ended, but I doubt I'll be finishing (or starting) another book within the next couple of weeks, though, maybe, I'll actually have a couple of new reviews, which one or two of you might bother to read.


Love of the White Snake (Chen Chi-Hwa, 1978)

I don’t seek out movies based on the White Snake story because I know that none of them could live up to Tsui Hark’s bizarre, beautiful 1993 movie, Green Snake, my favorite Hong Kong movie (and, for the record, I love Wong Kar Wai, King Hu, Ann Hui, and others more typically considered “good” film makers). For this reason, I’ve not seen the early 60’s Shaw Brothers spectacle, Madame White Snake, despite the presence of the gorgeous Linda Lin Dai and Margaret Tu Chuan -- to boot, Glenn at “A Pessimist is Never Disappointedreviewed it recently, inspiring little confidence. But I also love how Brigitte Lin looks in her earlier films, before Hong Kong film makers cast her almost exclusively as either a frigid killer or a gender-ambiguous sword fighter. She’s so young and pretty in Love of the White Snake that I almost managed to not compare the film to Tsui Hark’s for those moments that she’s on screen.
And boy does Miss Lin see a lot of screen time, much of it in close ups. Director Chen Chi-Hwa clearly knows his assets. I might have watched Love of the White Snake earlier had I known Chen directed the film. Chen is hardly a good film maker, much less well-renowned, known best for directing early Jackie Chan movies like Snake and Crane Arts of Shaolin and Half a Loaf of Kung Fu (both made the same year as his White Snake). But he’s also dependable, even competent. As far as his resources can take him, Chen actually produces a pretty decent rendition of the White Snake legend.
The basics of the story remain intact: two female snake spirits come to the human world to take a human husband and get a leg up on the wheel of reincarnation. Taoist and Buddhist priests try to split them apart, even as the snake spirits prove themselves more humane than those dedicated to the cultivation of transcendent virtues, resulting in tragedy.
As with any film of this vintage and origin, Love of the White Snake promises bad special effects to the sort of viewer who likes such things, usually achieved through sound cues, bad editing, and uneasy optical printer work. No disappointments here, on that account: the snake transformation scenes rival those in Killer of Snake, Fox of Shaolin (Man Wa, 1978) for the least convincing in Chinese language cinema. But Chen isn’t really trying to make a wild special effects spectacle; he’s making a gently tragic fantasy movie that doesn’t challenge its intended audience, one no doubt already familiar with the story he’s retelling.
As gentle fantasy, Love of the White Snake soothes more than it excites. Slapstick humor tends to undercut conflict throughout the film, at least before the finale. Tsui Hark’s Green Snake (I can’t stop myself from comparing; I’m sorry) imbues the tale with moral dissonance and uncertainty by shifting the perspective to White Snake’s sister/confidant, Green, and by questioning or interpolating various motivations and characterizations. Characters in Chen’s film dismiss moral ambiguity, for the few times that the script addresses the possibility, by citing the depth of their love or their devotion to a code of conduct. Chen’s camera treats sensuality in a most Confucian manner, which is to say, not at all.
But, for all of its inconsequence and its abundant flaws, Love of the White Snake is entertaining light viewing. The locations are all rather familiar -- I’ve seen that zig-zagging white trimmed bridge in everything from Ninja in the Deadly Trap (Phillip Kwok, 1981) to The Last Duel (Ling Yun, 1981)-- but they look pretty good under cinematographer Chen Ching-Chu’s lens. Director Chen and cinematographer Chen seemingly studied King Hu when composing establishing and tracking shots. I mean this as a compliment.
This movie contains no surprises for a viewer who knows what to expect from an impoverished Taiwanese fantasy movie. I do suspect that viewers who like those movies will either be delighted or put-off by the film’s less hyperactive approach compared to others in its genre, depending on the reason why they enjoy such movies. It’s okay, but it just really isn’t as good as Tsui Hark’s Green Snake. And, geez, Brigitte Lin sure is pretty.
By the way, you can watch this movie for free (and quite a few others as well) at Chinese video streaming site, youku.


Gallants (Derek Kwok and Clement Cheng, 2010)

Nostalgia is a powerful ally of entertainers these days, though seemingly few critics really offer reasons why. Personally, I think that across the broad spectrum of entertainment choices, audiences have grown tired of the pretense that defines the 2000’s aesthetics. Particularly, I think that the self-indulgence of film makers and their attempts at world-building in action films has grated on the audience for such movies. I think the artificiality of digital film making has alienated some, and, the recent infatuation with “3D” notwithstanding, many more have grown bored by what cgi and “digital backlots” offer. But nostalgia also traps some films into either over-indulging in reference or getting their homage completely backwards or simply wallowing in redundancy, which is usually no better.

I also think that Gallants is the only movie I’ve watched this year that deserved its hype. Kung Fu fans typically bemoan the dearth of quality films in the genre, tired of and inundated by the flood of ponderous, digitally enhanced and pretentious wuxia films produced either by or for the mainland Chinese market. Aside from some of Donnie Yen’s recent output, very few Chinese martial arts films deviate from a formula set by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and very few of those execute that formula well.

A Focus Films picture produced by Andy Lau, Gallants received considerable praise from fans and critics online. The set-up – two aging martial artists running a gym-turned-restaurant while awaiting their beloved master to awake from a coma while the arrival of a meek, scrawny real-estate agent accidently stirs up trouble and gets caught in a shady land-grab scheme – sounds very little like the stuff of Shaw Bros. films by Chang Cheh and Lau Kar-Leung. But directors Derek Kwok and Clement Cheng work references to classic martial arts films (zoom lens! Wacky nick-names! Freeze frame! Introductory on-screen text! Random musical cues!) in nearly surreal ways, and before you know it, the film becomes a classic martial arts film involving rival schools, training montages, and more-or-less grounded choreography.

I, and I imagine many other fans, expected that the shining point of Gallants would be the presence of old-school actors in big roles performing classic fight choreography. Chen Kuan-Tai and Bruce Leung Siu-Leung (reintroduced to contemporary viewers as “The Beast” in Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle) play Dragon and Tiger, the over-the-hill martial artists who save weak real-estate agent Leung (Wong Yau-Nam) and begin to teach him martial arts. Goo Goon-Chung, a character actor/regular heavy from the Shaw studio, has a cameo as a police officer. Teddy Robin Kwan, a legendary composer responsible for scoring a number of classic Hong Kong films, plays Master Law, and former Shaw Bros. beauty (read: sex symbol) Siu Yam-yam has a role as his doctor. Lo Meng and Chan Wai-Man play villains who, maybe, aren’t so bad. Choreography comes from The Master star (and veteran action director) Yuen Tak. It reads like a cast list from twenty-five years ago. An effin’ awesome cast list.

But, while the fight scenes and cast of actors from the golden age of martial arts movies delight, Gallants actually side-steps most of the expectations that one would have for a movie consciously appealing to nostalgia for classic Shaw Brothers mayhem. Leung, the loser real-estate agent, used to be a bully. Powerful martial artists like Dragon and Tiger are old and broken down. Master Law is a (hilarious) vulgar old man. Their training from the awakened Master Law is arduous and old fashioned, but they aren’t really training to take on the bad-guys, although that’s their given reason. The rival school, based out of a posh modern gym, wants to make money by glamorizing martial training and represents a philosophy of martial arts as different from that of Master Law as their training methods.

That isn’t to say that Gallants is not sentimental about its heroes (and bad-guys). Chen, Leung, and Lo Meng break out their skills for some brutal fight scenes. They are both vulnerable and intensely powerful. And Master Law, randy and scarily strong, is all too mortal. There’s a paradox here -- all great characterization comes from contradiction -- that makes these characters compelling. In fact, Gallants might be the only truly character driven slap-stick martial arts comedy.

The eventual pay-off from these conflicts is hardly overstated, a stark contrast from the more calculating, overtly old-fashioned Ip Man films. There’s a personal, almost intellectual catharsis that belies the situation comedy and bone-crunching fight scenes on display. As many other critics have pointed out, this makes Gallants the most unmarketable film ever. But it’s also one of my favorite films of the year: a sentimental, sweet-natured movie that doesn’t play its hand too soon. Chen Kuan-Tai and Bruce Leung are marvelous in their roles (it’s no secret that the hey-day of the genre allowed few opportunities for real acting even for those capable of it), and Teddy Robin Kwan steals every scene he participates in.

My problem with John Woo’s Red Cliff was that it tried to be an old Hong Kong movie, and it felt dated and weird because it was so self-conscious. Gallants does what many old-school kung fu movies do not, presenting its martial artists not as god-like symbols of power in a comic book plot, but as real people battling in an uncaring, nonsensical world. And it’s funny. Unlike Woo, Kwok and Cheng have successfully made a relevant film that looks back at Hong Kong cinema without trying too hard or winking at the viewers. It’s a fresh while being nostalgic, and fun -- the only movie to really get nostalgia right.


Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor

I don’t write as much about fiction on this blog as I would like, which is my own fault; I built this blog on reviews of outrageously weird and, very often, poorly made movies. But I like good movies too, and good fiction even more. I review Gene Wolfe’s novels in hopes that people will read my gushing praise and want to read them. But I don’t review books by Nabokov (whom I love, inordinately) and other respectable, "mainstream" authors for a number of reasons, one of them being that enough people, many smarter than I, have already written reams on their work to which little can honestly be added.

A few weeks ago, though, an acquaintance began to discuss his reading habits, which he admitted veer mostly towards “trash” (he reads an obscene amount of Robert Jordan and David Eddings, neither of which I would really call “trash”), but he sometimes reads more serious fiction, like, y'know, Fight Club and Choke. When discussing Flannery O’Connor, he admitted that he found her too depressing to read for pleasure. I asked how then he could read so much Chuck Palahniuk, and his response was along the lines of “because I never get the impression that he really means it.” I resisted the urge to tell him that that was what made Palahniuk trash in comparison to the earnest and unpretentious, if generic fantasists that he enjoys.

Wise Blood was O’Connor’s first novel, obsequiously categorized as “Southern Gothic,” as though the term ever meant anything. Hazel Motes, a recently discharged soldier and the last of a family of preachers boards a train to Taulkinham, where, inspired by blind preacher Asa Hawkes, he preaches the Church without Christ from the hood of a broken down car that seems to continue running on little more than faith. Hazel Motes wants to rid himself of Christ, who haunts him “from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark." He meets an assortment of those characters that only O’Connor could get away with imagining -- the simple but nasty Enoch Emery, whose “wise blood” acts as a sort of warped prophetic (not the Miss Cleo sort of prophetic) mystical impulse, and failed blind street preacher/conman Asa Hawkes and his debauched daughter.

What my friend didn’t grasp, and what I think many no longer have the tools to understand, is how hysterically funny all of the nastiness -- and believe me, O'Connor pulls few punches when describing vile and bizarre behavior -- in Wise Blood really is and was intended to be. O’Connor flexes her satirical wit throughout the novel, though never so thoroughly as when Hawkes’s daughter, Sabbath, writes to an advice columnist: “Dear Mary, I am a bastard and a bastard shall not enter the kingdom of heaven as we all know, but I have this personality that makes boys follow me. Do you think I should neck or not?" The response: "Light necking is acceptable, but I think your real problem is one of adjustment to the modern world. Perhaps you ought to re-examine your religious values to see if they meet your needs in Life."

As one might guess from that exchange, there is an uneasy marriage of theological concern with humor, and O’Connor never relegates religion to subtext. The theme of the novel is intentionally perplexing, and the humor is a major reason why. Motes is a preacher and cannot escape that. When he visits a prostitute who mistakes him for a preacher, he insists that he is not. She responds with “That’s okay. Mama don’t mind if you ain’t no preacher.” Hilarious, yes, but the statement also sets up the horrific battle between Motes’ will and the pervasive notion of predestination that continues to burden Christianity in America.

I find it difficult to picture a Catholic like O’Connor agreeing with John Calvin, and she doesn’t, really. One of the worst misreadings of Wise Blood holds that Motes’ seeks penance out of grace; in reality, Motes resists grace by trying to atone for his sins. Even in his penance, he seeks to escape from the blood of Christ. But there is another thread at the end of the novel, a flickering light of hope from behind his dark eyes, which suggests that grace works through Hazel Motes even if he flees from the invitation it presents him.

It’s a testament to O’Connor’s skill that Wise Blood is rather easy reading, filled with paradox and mystery and bizarre characterization. The grotesque is unpleasantly real, and unlike the fabricated weirdness of many contemporary writers. I'm pretty sure I've been to Taulkinham; in fact, I'm pretty sure I live there. It’s probably the most brutal fable ever told, part of trend in literature that has fallen almost entirely out of practice but for the likes of McCarthy and Wolfe.


Cladun: This is a Review

Earlier this year I made a list of six games that I wanted to play (in English, legally, on physical media) that I doubted would ever see release in the US. Two of them, both published by NIS America, actually did make it to the English language market, but only one of them made it onto store shelves. My voracious gamer friend, RockManXZ24, assures me that ZHP is awesome, but for purely financial reasons, I haven’t played it. Rather, I’ve made do with Cladun: This is an RPG, the other NIS America dungeon crawler which got left in the lurch as a downloadable game on the Playstation Network.
Thankfully, Cladun has enough content and customization that I haven’t grown bored with it since its release in September. It’s the very definition of niche: retro graphics, optional retro soundtrack (like 2009’s The Dark Spire), noticeably Japanese aesthetics, video game meta-humor, randomized gameplay elements (mainstream critics and gamers seem to hate these) and a focus on number-crunching customization and dungeon crawling. PSP exclusivity does Cladun no favors; the system does quite well in Japan, maintaining a reputation as a gamer’s system, but American gamers never took to it, except for those who bought it with the intention of installing custom firmware (ie tech-savvy software pirates and software pirates with tech-savvy friends). It almost feels like the game was tailored precisely to my tastes, since I share an affinity with the misunderstood and underappreciated as all nerds do.

The game starts off with lots of talking. A girl named Pudding, suffering from a terminal disease, runs off to the magical world of Arcanus Cella, a sort of personal universe for its creator, Despina the witch. Her childhood friend, Souma, follows her there to try to protect her, but she wants to go treasure hunting, while new characters frequently show up to act as merchants and party members. The story ends whenever the player decides to leave Arcanus Cella, with the resulting conclusion depending on how much progress the player has made. I started to skip the story sequences early on, as I don’t play a game like this for story. Of the writing, I faintly remember references to JRPG and anime tropes -- cosplay and "Dragon Ball" and loathsomely young heroes -- some of which I assume the localization team contributed.
I’m too busy creating characters and making runs on the 99 level randomly generated dungeon to really care that much about the catatonic story-telling or the goofy dialogue that presents it. Much like From Software and Atlus’ recent PS3 title, 3D Dot Game Heroes, Cladun offers a sprite editor, which has prompted people to come up with some brilliant facsimiles of anime and video game characters in faux 8-bit pixel art. I can’t resist character creation, which was enough to save even the broken Soul Calibur series, at least in my eyes.

There are a number of classes, each of which have different level up bonuses depending on whether they are the main character, or a sub-character placed on the “magic circle.” The magic circle is Cladun’s approach to character customization, in which characters are equipped like items on a grid, which often bequeaths special bonuses to them as they gain experience. The actual gameplay is in real-time (unlike the average turn-based roguelike or dungeon crawler), so the player controls one character and equips that character with shields, weapons (swords, axes, or staves), and armor, as well as deciding on which magic circle to use and which characters to place on it. While the characters on the magic circle earn experience and bonuses, depending on which magic circle the player picks, and what area he places the character, the main character receives bonuses and protection from the characters on the magic circle. Sub-characters can equip artifacts that might increase the main characters attack, defense, or skill abilities, while also absorbing damage for the main character.
Outside of customization and party builds, the gameplay feels something like Diablo by way of The Legend of Zelda. The game derives its momentum from the promise of number-crunching, level-grinding mathematical progression, but the actual dungeons feature real-time combat that necessitates attention. Running around and slashing enemies with wild abandon will get your character killed off fast, as the enemies can do considerable damage and there are traps littering the floors of every dungeon. The combat itself is fun, but it has the added benefit of rare loot drops. The real meat of the game is its character and party building.

I hate that NISA relegated Cladun to a PSN download. I recognize the difficulty in releasing physical media on a console as plagued by piracy and indifference as the PSP, but Cladun is a really fun game that genuinely deserves better. As much as the faux-retro fad irks me, I think that Cladun: This is an RPG actually transcends the obnoxiousness of its retro persona. It is a perfectly good game, and would be regardless of graphics. It might not be as visually creative as 3D Dot Game Heroes, or as deftly nostalgic as Retro Game Challenge, or as thematically coherent as Half Minute Hero, but, ignoring the retro-graphics and music, Cladun is something that some of us can’t get enough of: a number-crunching grind-fest that appeals to the inner OCD at the heart of, I believe, anybody willing to play video games into their adult years. There are so many options for character customization, and then to customize characters by using previously customized characters and adding to them rare items culled from runs in the randomly generated dungeon.
Cladun: This is an RPG caters to the sensibilities of retro-gamers in terms of its graphics and music, but the actual gameplay system is as complex as anything else published (or developed) by Nippon Ichi or its American branch. It’s part of a recent revival of interest in genuinely challenging games, and might have reached a wider audience if not for the digital distribution, a double edged sword that cuts manufacturing costs while ensuring that nobody but the devoted will discover the product. It’s a shame. Cladun is a fast paced, deep, and easily understood dungeon crawler.