Monday, August 18, 2008

Thinking pink

WARNING: This post includes images and text that may offend more sensitive readers.

Still there? Ah, good, because it's time to post some information about the next theatrical event we're involved with, a smaller project than the Nikkatsu Action series, but one that's bound to raise a few more eyebrows.

In conjunction with Austin's terrific Fantastic Fest—where we debuted Nikkatsu Action last year, and launched Mark Schilling's companion book—we're going to be co-presenting four classic films from the uniquely Japanese genre of pinku eiga (softcore sex films), two of them shown for the first time ever with English subtitles.

The series is called Behind the Pink Curtain, and is being co-organized by Jasper Sharp, who will officially launch his book of the same name (published, like the Schilling book, by Harvey Fenton and FAB Press) at the event in mid-September.

I should make it clear that we're not nearly as deeply involved with this particular retro as we were with Nikkatsu Action. It was originally conceived as a larger series, and one that would screen in other cities like Montreal and New York, but circumstances transpired that prevented those other screenings from happening this year. It's possible that if the retro goes over well in Austin, we'll be able to take the films, and maybe even some additional ones, around on a small theatrical tour, but I'm not counting on it. It was a challenge to get North American cinematheques to play the mostly unknown titles in the Nikkatsu Action retro; I can imagine how difficult it would be to convince them to take on four completely unknown films in a misunderstood genre that most Westerns assume always involves rape and bondage!

So in the end, although this event was scaled down from its original ambitions, I'm happy with the four films we selected and think that they're really going to blow the minds of the audiences who see them. The series will screen in Austin at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema South Lamar from September 22nd - 24th (the festival runs from 9/18-25). Here's a brief rundown of the films.

Blue Film Woman (1969)
Directed by Kan Mukai. A girl avenges her mother's death and family's disgrace by becoming a high class call girl who blackmails her nemesis with a secretly shot film of their encounter. A highly stylized wash of color, wild camera angles and sheer '60s style. (Presented in a brand-new 35mm print)

Gushing Prayer: A 15-Year-Old Prostitute (1971)
Directed by Masao Adachi. A young woman, already a jaded sexual veteran, embarks on an odyssey of self-discovery to find out the true reasons for her dissatisfaction and total desensitization. This parable is told in a jagged avant-garde style that must have baffled the target audience of businessmen seeking cheap thrills on their lunch hours. (Presented in a brand-new 35mm print)

Mukai and Adachi are two major pioneers in the world of pink cinema, whose work in the 60s has yet to be discovered in the West. Jasper & I are hoping that these screenings—the first time these new prints will be screened
anywhere, by the way—will fix that. Adachi was a frequent collaborator with and screenwriter for better-known filmmaker Koji Wakamatsu, and Gushing Prayer was his final pink film before he dove head-first into more political and confrontational topics, like a stopover in the Middle East on the way back to Japan from Europe that resulted in the agit-prop documentary film The Red Army / PFLP: Declaration of World War, a sympathetic profile of the PLO. Mukai was most of an apolitical experimentalist, if the psychedelic Blue Film Woman is any indication, and both movies are true rarities that we hope will gain greater exposure after their Austin premieres.

S&M Hunter (1986)
Directed by Shuji Kataoka. An exercise in manga-style outrageousness that is guaranteed to offend everybody. The black clad S&M Roper is a kind of bondage super hero who has a supernatural genius for tying women up in configurations that leave them helplessly aroused. When the all girl gang, The Bombers, kidnap a man for their personal sex toy, S&M Hunter accepts a mission to infiltrate The Bombers' hideout and show them the ropes. (Digital projection)

A Lonely Cow Weeps at Dawn (2003)
Directed by Daisuke Goto. In the Japanese countryside, a young widow, Noriko, lives with her senile father-in-law, Shu, on a farm. He believes his favorite cow is still alive. Noriko pretends to be the cow and lets him milk her every day - a satisfying arrangement for both. Shu's daughter Mitsuko discovers this strange relationship and tries to end it. A very strange and kinky modern pink film from genre superstar Goto. (Digital projection)

These latter two films are more contemporary, providing a contrast with the period feel of the Mukai and Adachi films. The truly deranged and hilarious S&M Hunter comes from the 80s, arguably both the high- (in terms of sheer output) and low- (in terms of content) water marks of the entire pink genre. The jaw-droppingly bizarre Lonely Cow is from only five years ago, and shows that the pink genre remains a place where talented cinema artists can experiment and bring their unique visions to the screen in ways that more mainstream genres couldn't possibly allow. Both titles are being provided by a new domestic distribution company called Pink Eiga, which seems to have acquired a group of films for DVD release in the US. We hadn't heard of them before organizing the series, and we'll be watching their release schedule to see if they—not to mention our own little retro—might be able to give this long-neglected and misunderstood genre another chance at capturing the imaginations (and perhaps some more nether regions) of adventurous American cinema lovers.

BCI / Eclipse supplemental work

And here's the promised part 2 of the "Upcoming and recent DVD work" update post!

Our biggest job so far, and one that's likely to keep us occupied for at least a year, is the work we've been doing since early 2008 on ten (soon to be 15 or more) titles for the BCI / Eclipse DVD label. Anybody who knows this company's work knows about their dedication to off-the-beaten-path Japanese cinema. Whether it's the original Sonny Chiba ninja TV series Shadow Warriors or long-lost Akira Kurosawa films, BCI has always shown a real dedication not only to technical quality, but also to digging out some of the most interesting films to release as part of their catalog.

The full list of titles has already been posted on the web, but I don't think I've ever addressed them here. These ten were licensed by BCI from Japanese film studio Shochiku. So here we go...

Battle Heater (1990)
The debut feature from
Another Heaven and Spiral director George Iida, a fun, low-budget comedy/horror film that feels like a lost brother to Sam Raimi and the Coen Brothers' little-seen Crimewave. We did an audio commentary with Iida earlier this year, joined on the track by model maker and f/x artist Ken Hamashima. Ken, who works as a professional toy designer now, also contributed a video interview to the disc about his work on the film, and tons of still photos covering the behind-the-scenes f/x work.

Unlucky Monkey (1998)
The third film from director / former actor Sabu (aka Hiroyuki Tanaka), starring Shinichi Tsutsumi as a bank robber whose situation goes from bad to worse when he accidentally stabs a young girl during a getaway. We did an audio commentary with Sabu and Tokyo-based writer and translator Jason Gray, and Sabu loaned us his collection of stills, articles, promotional materials, and original storyboards for a gallery on the disc.

Go for Broke (1985)
aka V Madonna: Daisenso. I had never heard of this insane, 80s action riff on
Seven Samurai before getting the BCI gig, and now I'll never forget it. A group of high school kids hire a tough group of girl warriors to protect their school from a biker gang that's constantly harassing it. Mayhem ensues, along with lots of bad, bad 80s fashion, hairstyles and music. One of the few non-pink efforts by legendary pink filmmaker Genji Nakamura, this one has fallen through the cracks of most Japan cinema fans, but no longer, as it's going to blow people's minds once they see it. Nakamura has agreed to do an interview or commentary with us, but it has yet to be scheduled. Get a preview of the insanity here, in a collection of vintage Japanese TV commercials. The movie one will be obvious (I think it's #3).

East Meets West (1995)
The late, great Kihachi Okamoto has long been one of our favorite filmmakers, and it's been a thrill to peek inside his world while working on this, his second-to-last film. Shot in New Mexico, the movie is about a samurai (Hiroyuki Sanada) who comes to America in the late 1800s to protect a gold shipment, but winds up teaming up with an American schoolteacher, an Indian maiden and a young boy when the gold is stolen by outlaws who murder the boy's father. Co-starring Naoto Takenaka, with cameos by Ittoku Kishibe and Tatsuya Nakadai, the movie is a loving tribute to samurai films and westerns, and a beautiful swan song for one of Japan's greatest filmmakers. Earlier this year, we did a long video interview with Okamoto's widow, Mineko, who also served as producer on many of his films, including this one. She also gave us access to a huge collection of stills and memorabilia from the film, which will be assembled into a gallery for the disc. More extras are being worked on, as well, but still subject to confirmation.

Judo Duel (1965)
Karate Wars (1978)
This pair of martial arts films will most likely come out as a two-movie set of some sort. I wasn't aware of either film prior to the BCI job, and even Japanese friends had a difficult time identifying the first one! It turns out that
Judo Duel is aka The Birth of Judo aka Meiji no fusetsu: yawara senpu, directed by Kunio Watanabe, a forgotten filmmaker whose career goes back to the silent days of Japanese cinema. His most well-known film (at last to me) seems to have been the Shintoho blockbuster Emperor Meiji and the Great Russo-Japanese War, a historical epic produced by legendary exploitationeer Mitsugu Okura, who also produced well-known Japanese horror and ghost movies like Nobuo Nakagawa's Jigoku. According to the web, Watanabe did films in all kinds of genres for most of the Japanese studios, before winding up at Shochiku late in his career (well into his 60s), where he did this film and another famous martial arts story, yet another version of Sanshiro Sugata. Judo Duel features some great actors (Ko Nishimura, Tetsuro Tanba) and the trailer looks good, but I haven't been able to see the film yet and supplement prospects look pretty slim. Watanabe passed away in the early 80s, many of the actors are also dead, and even hardcore film nerd friends of mine in Japan know nothing about the movie. So file this one under "real discovery", and let's hope it's a good one.

Karate Wars, aka Karate daisenso, on the other hand, is a bit more of a known quantity. Directed by Hideo Nanbu, it's an entertaining martial arts vehicle for the multi-hyphenate and semi-notorious celebrity Hisao Maki (above). Maki-sensei was a disciple of the famous kyokushin karate master Masutatsu Oyama, also a teacher of Sonny Chiba and the subject of films like Karate Bullfighter and Karate for Life (which Maki had a hand in producing, I believe). His older brother Ikki Kajiwara (who died in 1987) was an incredibly prolific manga writer, and creator of many well-known sports manga series, like Ashita no Joe, Tiger Mask, and others. Maki himself is also a screenwriter and a frequent collaborator with director Takashi Miike, having produced or written films like the Bodyguard Kiba series, the Family series, Big Bang Love, Waru, and others. And, they say, he's got affiliations with a certain underworld society famous in Japan for missing fingers.

Well, back in the late 70s,
Karate Wars was produced at Shochiku by Kajiwara, apparently on a very low budget, as a vehicle for his younger brother to show off his martial arts skills. It's an entertaining film, basically following the stoic Maki as he travels from Japan to Hong Kong and Thailand in order to show the superiority of Japanese karate to those countries' native martial arts. There are lots of real martial arts fights, a bit of filler romance and intrigue, and popular Toei villain Nobuo Kaneko even appears as a slimy corporate type. I've only seen the (poorly) dubbed version, but rest assured that the eventual BCI disc will feature the original Japanese soundtrack (and hopefully the English dub track as an alternate soundrack).

The even-better supplement news is that Maki-sensei has agreed to do a video interview with us and we hope to shoot it on our next trip to Tokyo, in his Roppongi dojo. I'm hoping to ask him about Mas Oyama, as well, and archive that footage for any future reissues by BCI of their Chiba / Oyama titles. Needless to say, it should be an entertaining and once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to talk to the man himself. It's going to be a challenge finding someone to help with translation, though, as all of my Japanese friends are scared to meet him!

Rikyu (1989)
Basara - The Princess Goh (1992)
This pair of titles represents the arthouse quotient of the BCI / Eclipse deal, I suppose, and are the final two films from legendary filmmaker Hiroshi Teshigahara, director of Woman in the Dunes and Face of Another. Rikyu was a major return to filmmaking for the director, produced by Shochiku studio scion Kazuyoshi Okuyama and featuring an all-star cast and big budget. It was Teshigahara's first narrative feature film since 1972's Summer Soldiers, after the completion of which he took a more than ten-year break to devote himself to his late father's
ikebana school, the Sogetsu-do.

Rikyu stars Rentaro Mikuni as the real life Sen no Rikyu, a sixteenth century scholar and creator of the Japanese tea ceremony who was executed by his friend, the Shogun Hideyoshi Toyotomi, after he expressed reservations about his Lord's military ambitions over China and Korea. It's a gorgeous, epic film, and was followed by a semi-sequel, Goh-hime, produced by much of the same crew and taking place during the same historical period. Rikyu has seen some crappy public-domain releases in the US before, but BCI's edition will render those all obsolete with a new transfer and, we hope, the most extensive supplements of any of the titles on this list. Details for it and its companion are still being worked out, but we should be getting started on these in the next few months.

Violent Cop (1989)
Boiling Point (1990)
And finally, the titles that have most online fans abuzz. This pair of titles, the first two films from director Takeshi Kitano, have already been released on DVD in the US, but their transfers leave much to be desired and they featured zero supplements. There are some PAL discs out there of the films that feature better film transfers, but again, little in the way of supplemental material. But no more! If all goes well, you can look forward to some exclusive interviews and other supplements for these films, and maybe even a commentary or two. Like the Teshigahara films, details are still being determined, but we had a good meeting with Office Kitano this past spring and we hope to start work within the next month or two on the films.

The possibility of some meaty extras was significantly increased when
BCI recently announced the acquisition of five additional Kitano films from another licensor:
A Scene at the Sea, Getting Any?, Kids Return, Hana-bi (Fireworks), and Takeshis'. Three of these have had prior (poor) US discs, but the comedies Getting Any? and Takeshis' will be making their US debut with the BCI editions. Once we get our foot in the door at Office Kitano (and a contract for the work on these additional five from BCI), we'll be covering all seven films with cast and crew interviews (depending on peoples' availability), and trying to locate as many supplements as we can for the films, making the BCI discs the definitive editions to date of the titles.

You can see why our calendar is sagging under its own weight these days...

That's plenty for now, but I'll leave you with one more tantalizing bit of information. It's far from confirmed yet, but there's one more exciting title that BCI's working on acquiring that I'm
really looking forward to doing some work on. I can't name the film yet, but it's very well-known in the US and put a certain bad-boy director on the map with international audiences. Keep your fingers (and feet) crossed!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Upcoming and recent DVD work (part 1)

So here's the long-overdue update on our other job, in the DVD producing department. Actually, it's turned into part 1 of 2 updates on this subject, since there's a lot to talk about. We've been really busy with a bunch of projects, ranging from basic interviews to full-on DVD production. On the streets now is a disc we worked on over a year ago: Media Blasters' special edition DVD of Sion Sono's Exte / Hair Extensions. We screened this fun black comedy / horror film, starring Kill Bill's Chiaki Kuriyama in 2007 at the New York Asian Film Festival, and during the festival, I did an interview with Sono at NY's Japan Society, which Media Blasters shot for the DVD. They also shot my onstage Q&A with Sono after the screenings, but since I haven't seen the finished disc yet, I have no idea how much of either they used, or how it turned out. If somebody out there has watched the featurette(s), please post a comment. More recently, I did some interviews for other upcoming MB titles. Up in Montreal at the essential Fantasia Film Festival, we had a full slate of interviews for their to-be-released discs of Be a Man! Samurai School and the amazing Tokyo Gore Police, another title we screened at NYAFF 2008. For Samurai School, we shot a fun interview with director / fight choreographer / star Tak Sakaguchi, a bit of a cult hero in the U.S. from his appearances in Ryuhei Kitamura's Versus, Azumi, and other films, plus the big-budget CGI ninja-fest Shinobi. He also sings a mean karaoke ("Stand by Me," to be exact) and has great taste in other films, as we found out in Montreal (he loves Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust and Horrors of Malformed Men, for example). Also from Samurai School was action director Isao Karasawa, who's taken hits in many of the major action films out of Japan from the last 6-8 years. In the shot below, he's getting the octopus treatment from Sakaguchi.
For the madcap Tokyo Gore Police, the Media Blasters team and I did a whole handful of interviews. First up was co-writer / director Yoshihiro Nishimura (on the right in the photo above), making his directorial debut with TGP but a long veteran of genre cinema, having been a major collaborator with Sion Sono and one of the most respected makeup and gore f/x artists working in Japan. Nishimura spoke about his inspirations for the film, his experience working in the industry, and his favorite genre cinema (he also likes Cannibal Holocaust, as it turns out). Next up was TGP star and genre icon Eihi Shiina (above), most famous for her role as the psycho new girlfriend in Takashi Miike's Audition. I'd wanted to meet Shiina for many years, and she was a pleasure to interview and to get to know during the remainder of the festival. Very quiet and reserved when off-camera, she really opened up during the interview, talking about her career, her experiences with Miike, how her life changed after
Audition, and her love of the films of Kiyoshi Kurosawa! We also shot a short discussion with Sakaguchi about his contributions to the film (he did some action choreography and plays the serial killer in the memorable opening scene of the film), as well as a dual interview with producers Yoko Hayama and Yoshinori Chiba, together responsible for other films like Death Trance and Machine Girl, and Chiba a veteran producer of everything from Keita Amemiya's Zeiram to Miike's upcoming Yatterman. We're not sure when MB is planning the release of either of these titles, but TGP has already been announced for a fall debut in a bare-bones edition, with the full special edition to follow at some point in 2009. I'm personally hoping that they're able to acquire Nishimura's short film Anatomnia Extinction, a bizarre-sounding piece of provocation that served as a direct inspiration for TGP, though Nishimura told us that it's more serious in tone, and has none of the black humor added to the latter film (added mainly by co-screenwriter and Machine Girl director Noboru Iguchi). Fingers crossed.
When it comes to madcap Japanese cinema, few can compete with writer/director Minoru Kawasaki, who's been described variously as the Ed Wood, Roger Corman or Lloyd Kaufman of Japan. His films, like Calamari Wrestler and
Crab Goalkeeper (due next year from Discotek Media), are low-budget, crazy comedies that range in tone from dark to full-on spoof. Say what you like about his abilities, but his films are full of energy and love of the medium, and he's a true fan of genre cinema—we even interviewed him for Synapse Films' DVD special edition of Horrors of Malformed Men, mainly because he begged us to ask him about the movie, one of his favorites of all time! All things Kawasaki seem to have come full circle at Synapse, since three of the director's best films will be coming out from the label this November. Due out on 11/18 are the comedy crime thriller Executive Koala, the disaster movie spoof The World Sinks Except Japan (based on a 70s novella that was itself a spoof of the popular novel that inspired the 1973 and 2006 movie versions of Japan Sinks...confused yet?), and finally the classic TV detective show spoof The Rug Cop, about a toupee-throwing police officer. We didn't produce any new content for the discs, but they will include the supplements originally created for the Japanese DVDs, all with new English subtitles. The best of the supplements is a feature-length audio commentary on World Sinks with Kawasaki and actor Takenori Murano, who plays the Prime Minster in the film, but also appeared as the hero in a previous TV version of the original Japan Sinks—a stunt casting job that's one of Kawasaki's trademarks. It's nice to see these films finally out in the U.S.—we brokered the deal between Synapse and the Japanese licensor, and the turnaround from sending the screeners to the Synapse HQ and the discs coming out is a very short six or seven months, which is lightspeed in this industry.
And in even better Synapse news, at least for fans of classic Japanese genre cinema, the company will finally be releasing the two remaining titles in their deal with Toei and the late, lamented U.S. label Panik House. Female Convict Scorpion series star Meiko Kaji's first two films for Toei will finally be coming to DVD in the first part of 2009, a pair of titles that feature her as a classical, Junko Fuji-type wandering gambler who gets into difficulties with local mob bosses. The 1971 film Gincho wataridori / Wandering Ginza Butterfly stars Kaji as a billiards-playing yakuza gal who teams up with mob movie vets Tsukehiko Watase and Tatsuya Umemiya to defend her uncle's pool parlor. Its 1972 sequel, Gincho nagaremono / Wandering Ginza She-Cat Gambler (we might have to change that English title), pairs Kaji up with Sonny Chiba in a similar plot that features better action and is thankfully missing the billiards contrivance (a poor substitute for dice playing or hanafuda card matches).
Extras are still being worked on, and unfortunately won't feature the participation of Ms. Kaji—she refuses to contribute to any work that will benefit her former studio home of Toei, whom she feels exploited her without due compensation—so watch this space for more news in coming months.
We've written before about our work with Discotek Media on the recently-released DVD of Teruo Ishii's essential Bohachi Bushido: Code of the Forgotten Eight, and we encourage anyone who hasn't seen the film yet to get out there and pick up a copy. You won't be disappointed. Back when we did the supplement work for Bohachi, though, we also did a video interview and commentary with legendary filmmaker Norifumi Suzuki (above, looking happy) about his sole foray into Nikkatsu Roman Porno, the mind-blowing Star of David: Beauty Hunting. This disc has been a bit MIA, originally announced by Discotek almost a year ago but never given an actual release date. The good news is that, on July 9th, the disc was re-listed as "coming soon" on the Discotek web site. The not-so-good news is that there's still no definite date and my contact person at Discotek hasn't answered emails for a while. I do know that they were considering branching off another label (potentially called Eastern Star) to handle some of the more extreme titles, but I never heard whether that was going to actually happen or not. We'll post more news as we get it.
And finally, we get to the big project that's going to occupy us for a year or more, but to spare readers' eyes, I'm going to devote a separate post on the blog to it all. Come back in a couple of days for part 2, where we'll tell you all about our work for BCI / Eclipse, on titles from filmmakers like Sabu! Okamoto! Teshigahara! Kitano! And more!