Cinedelphia.com and the Japan America Society of Greater Philadelphia present the third installment of Unknown Japan, a biannual screening series of rare Japanese films.  I’ll be the first to admit that my selections are a little on the crazy side this time around, hopefully they’ll liven up the upcoming dark winter nights.  All screenings are held on the 7th Floor of The Bellevue (Broad/Walnut), admission and popcorn are free, start times are 7:00 PM.  Full schedule:

WED February 8, 2012
School in the Crosshairs (1981)
Dir. Nobuhiko Ohbayashi, Japan, 90 min, digital
From the director of the cult phenomenon that was 1977’s House comes this psychedlic-infused tale of a gifted high school student and her battle against invading Venusians.  It opens:  “This story is about a small, very small, planet in the universe called Earth.  On it lives a very small young girl, her broad chest harbors a story…”  Overachiever Yuka Mitamura (a young Hiroko Yakushimaru of the Always Sunset on Third Street films) is at the top of her experimental institution’s class when her strange and undefined powers manifest themselves.  Otherworldly visitors arrive to turn her school’s residents into militaristic zombies and it’s up to Yuka and her kendo stick-wielding boyfriend to save the universe.  All of Obayashi’s lo-tech wizardry and non sequitor humor is on display in this completely unpredictable film that may outdo House in pure filmmaking insanity.  There’s an improptu musical number, an endlessly hilarious villain, and a climax that may be the craziest sequence ever put on film.  Unknown Japan will never be able to outdo this one.

WED February 15, 2012
The Spiders Go Forward! (1967)
Dir. Ko Nakahira, Japan, 82 min, digital
Acclaimed director Ko Nakahira (Crazed Fruit, Only on Mondays) directs one of the many Beatles-esque films starring Group Sounds heavyweights, The Spiders.  You see, following the Beatles’ famous Budokan appearances during the summer of 1966 came a wave of hundreds of young Japanese garage bands who copied their idols’ sound while wearing colorful matching outfits.  The Tigers, The Tempters, The Mops, The Carnabeats, The Blue Jeans, The Blue Comets, The Golden Cups, The Wild Ones, The Purple Shadows…I could go on and on as there are few topics that I’m more informed on than late 60s Japanese rock.  Anyway, a few of the most popular acts were recruited for feature films that all share a Help!/The Monkees vibe, the most succesful of these were undoubtedly the ones that starred The Spiders.  In Go Forward!, the gang are on the road as usual when, thanks to a tambourine mix-up, they get involved with a sexy spy and her murderous cohorts.  Yes, the band are obviously cashing in on their success and thus the cross-promotion is shameless as they pack in at least a dozen performances of their hit singles and allow an appearance from labelmates The Village Singers.  A joyous, sun-filled departure from the coldest time of year.
NOTE: I commissioned an English translation of this film and did the subtitles myself for an event that I did at the International House a few years ago.  That was the only time this film has ever been shown in public with English subtitles, this will be the second.

WED February 22, 2012
Topo Gigio and the Missile War (1967)
Dir. Kon Ichikawa, Japan, 92 min, digital
Master director Kon Ichikawa has created some of the most important and well-known Japanese films of all time:  The Burmese Harp, Fires on the Plain, An Actor’s Revenge, Tokyo Olympiad, The Makioka Sisters.  He also made this 1967 tragicomedy starring an Italian puppet named Topo Gigio, a regular on The Ed Sullivan Show throughout the 1960s and the star of at least one previous feature film.  Topo Gigio and the Missile War was co-written by Ichikawa, Rokusuke Ei (writer of the lyrics for the international hit song “Sukiyaki”), Italian journalist/comic book writer Alberto Ongaro, and Federico Caldura, writer/director of 1965’s The Magic World of Topo Gigio.  Upon a sleepless night, Topo ventures out into the streets of Japan where he befriends a red balloon and stumbles upon the robbery of a vault that contains the Five Buttons that activate the world’s nuclear bombs.  The robbers are a shadowy group of black-clad gangsters in multi-colored socks that take orders from a faceless leader who communicates with them via fruits and vegetables (see photo below).  Endlessly imaginative and strangely hip with a climax straight out of a swinging 60s spy film, this Japanese Topo Gigio outing is a true gem that begs to be discovered by viewers of all ages.
And stick around for Ichikawa’s first studio film, the 1946 all-marionette kabuki tale A Girl at Dojo Temple, a short that was banned during the Occupation for being “too feudal” and considered forever lost until recently.

WED February 29, 2012
The Boxer (1977)
Dir. Shuji Terayama, Japan, 94 min, digital
A surprisingly conventional passion project from boxing fan/commentator Shuji Terayama, one of the leaders of the 60s/70s Japanese counterculture and director of such experimental films as Emperor Tomato Ketchup and Pastoral: Hide and Seek.  The great Bunta Sugawara (Wicked Priest, The Man Who Stole the Sun) stars as an ex-boxer who struggles to set aside personal differences for the benefit of an aspiring young athlete’s training.  Their workout scenes are lengthy, but always exciting as they transcend the subject matter and put those featured in Rocky to shame.  Terayama’s usual cast of street performer/circus-types are present as is his penchant for strange color tints (it’s a joy to see such an esteemed actor as Sugawara transplanted to Terayama’s world of outsider art).  A host of real life Japanese boxing champions make appearances for the film’s climactic showdown, which can be viewed as Terayama’s response to that most famous of all boxing films, released just one year prior.

WED March 7, 2012
Crazy Thunder Road (1980)
Dir. Sogo Ishii, Japan, 95 min, digital
If you’re a fan of off-kiler Japanese movies then odds are you’ve already seen Sogo Ishii’s nihilistic motorcycle madhouse that Asian Cult Cinema calls “the best bike-gang movie of them all, arguably the best in the world.”  But if you haven’t seen it then you’re in for a real treat.  During the first installment of Unknown Japan we showed Ishii’s moody and moderately paced Labyrinth of Dreams, a film that couldn’t be more different from the work that started his career.  In the late 70s/early 80s, Ishii was known as Japan’s premiere punk filmmaker as evidenced in High School Big Panic (1978) and post-Road classics Burst City (1982) and Crazy Family (1984).  Crazy Thunder Road was actually Ishii’s college graduation project; it was quickly bought up by Toei and converted to 35mm for a theatrical run.  The film concerns two warring motorcycle youth gangs who embrace violence and debauchery as a way of life in a not-too-distant dystopian future.  A leader decides to retire, senior members attempt to militarize their predecessors, and a countless number of bones and windows are broken as this low budget genre outing reveals itself as a pop art masterpiece.  The shots are dizzying, the soundtrack is loud, and the future is bleak, not that Ishii gives you any time to notice.  It’s Quadrophenia, Suburbia, and The Warriors all rolled up into 95 high-octane minutes.  Tons of fun.

WED March 14, 2012
Undo (1994)
Dir. Shunji Iwai, Japan, 47 min, digital
The Time of Death (2011) [US PREMIERE]
Dir. Shinsuke Sato, Japan, 47 min, digital
Unknown Japan presents two short thrillers that take place within the restrictive, tension-heightening confines of modern living spaces.
In modern master Shunji Iwai’s (All About Lily Chou-Chou, Vampire) Undo, a young man struggles with his live-in girlfriend’s “obsessive knot-binding syndrome”.  A haunting illustration of a dissolving relationship that manages to be just as endearing as it is distrubing, such are the talents of Iwai.
And finally, we’re both proud and excited to close this installment of UJ with the U.S. Premiere of The Time of Death from blockbuster writer/director Shinsuke Sato (The Princess Blade, the live-action Gantz films).  A frustrated Tokyo housewife stuck in a loveless marriage has an in-home affair with her best friend’s boyfriend.  The arrival of an unexpected visitor gives way to an atmosphere of tense, looming danger in this memorable Hitchcockian dark comedy.

For trailers and images:  Official site.

Author: Eric Bresler

Eric is the Founder/Site Editor of Cinedelphia.com whose additional activities are numerous: Director/Curator of the Philadelphia Mausoleum of Contemporary Art (PhilaMOCA), founder of Tokyo No Records, the brain behind Video Pirates, and active local film programmer including the Unknown Japan screening series. He’s served as a TLA Video Manager, Philadelphia Film Society Managing Director, and Adjunct Professor in Cinema Studies at Drexel University. He is shy and modest. Email Eric.

One comment

  1. Believe it or not, I was going to suggest both School In The Crosshairs (or, The Aimed School, as I’ve seen it titled)….AND Crazy Thunder Road (because its broad premise reminded me of High Teen Boogie, which you showed in the last UJ)!! Here they are together…in the same series!! And with that my catalogue of obscure Japanese films has been exhausted, hahaha. Cannot wait for these.

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