In This Corner of the World [2016] – A Gorgeously Rendered Ground-Level Perspective of Wartime Japan

Sunao Katabuchi’s crowd-funded third anime feature In This Corner of the World [‘Kono Sekai no Katasumi ni’, 2016] is set at Kure, a thriving port city in Hiroshima prefecture during the wartime Japan of 1930s and 1940s. It brings a vivid, ground-level picturization of the devastation inflicted upon the innocent civilians by the bombing Allied forces and willfully ignorant Japanese Empire. The Japanese home-front struggle, of course, had been covered thoroughly by historical documents and books. Yet nothing beats the experience of watching familiar history through refreshing and humane pair of eyes. In this manner, the anime would be fine companion piece to eye-opening and genuine tear-jerking dramas Grave of the Fireflies (1988) and Giovanni’s Island (2014).

Based on Fumiyo Kono’s acclaimed manga, In This Corner of the World unfurls from the point of view of an imaginative young woman Suzu. The manga is clearly for adults and surely has the clear-eyed perception of serious literature. Director Sunao Katabuchi has worked as an assistant director for Hayao Miyazaki (in Kiki’s Delivery Service). His first anime feature Princess Arete (2001) was a typical fairy-tale riddled with feminist themes. Mai Mai Miracle (2009), the 2nd feature, was thematically closer to Katabuchi’s recent film as it is set in the Japanese countryside of 1950s. Mr. Katabuchi has also directed the adaptation of violent manga series Black Lagoon (2006). While Makato Shinkai’s sci-fi fantasy and coming-of-age tale Your Name was a huge block-buster hit at Japanese box-office, thanks to the nation’s teenagers, In This Corner of the World proved to be a sleeper-hit, attracting majority of elder viewers.

Set between the years 1933 and 1945, the anime follows the domestic challenges faced by young Suzu, who lives with her parents and younger sister Sumi at the Eba section of South Hiroshima. She is a daydreamer and shows penchant for drawing and weaving imaginative stories from her uneventful reality. Her right hand profoundly conveys her feelings (in drawing paper) which the mouth only mumbles. For the most part in her life, Suzu doesn’t believe much in herself and hence complies to others wishes. When she turns eighteen, she is married to Shusaku Houjo, a young man from Port City Kure, home to largest Navy military base of Imperial Japan. Shusaku works as a clerk at the local naval base and father-in-law is an engineer for the navy. Mother-in law is a frail woman and so the elaborate household chores fall upon the thin shoulders of Suzu. Suzu’s new home is situated atop a resplendent hillock, surrounded by green fields and overlooking the vast ocean and the intimidating battleships. When the war escalates, Suzu’s sister-in law Keiko and her sweet little daughter Harumi comes to live with the family. Despite tough war-time situation – nighttime air-raids, shell attacks, rationed foods, diseases – and relentless personal tragedies, Suzu who is often blamed for absent-mindedness and imaginative flights, conducts herself as a well-spring for kindness and determination. Although physically and mentally, Suzu doesn’t come unscathed from war and knows there aren’t any happy endings, she finds courage and perseverance from deep within her. In the process, Suzu becomes a memorable face of civilian resilience during war-time devastation.

Sunao Katabuchi’s color palette here is muted and earthy which instantly generates charm and warmth. Katabuchi displays a vivid understanding of the household or domestic rituals of the day. He acutely draws the mundane chores as if it is the only means of providing spiritual solace amidst the overwhelming chaotic social atmosphere of World War II Japan. Thorough research and real-life verbatim accounts has gone into writing, from realizing the myriad of sufferings the civilians faced to showcasing the simplest things like what they wore or what they ate (no one could draw food preparation as beautiful as anime makers) and how the landscape appeared at that time. Katabuchi remarks many of the buildings in the drawings are actualized from the strong memories of the survivors. While the film-maker offers a perfect insider’s perspective of war-time life in Japan, there is none of the melodrama and unconvincing epiphanies we witness in majority of the similar themed narratives. ‘What’s the point of crying for a pity?’ a character says which happens to be general perception of the creators. Even the inevitable dropping of atom bomb in Hiroshima isn’t exploited for unwanted sentimental notes.

Though the narrative is subtle and transcended by its graceful sketchbook aesthetic, In This Corner of the World seems muddled in the first half due to confusing dreamy digressions and rapid introduction of many characters. Some of Suzu’s dreams where she imagines her alternate life paths ends up being a confounding experience than an interesting one. Certain tragedies and disputes are quickly moved through lacking strong emotional resonance. For example, the episode involving Suzu’s brother’s death, the verbal fight she has with husband Shusaku and the weirdly romantic scene (weird because Shusaku almost pushes Suzu into other man’s hands) between Suzu and old childhood friend Tetsu. These sequences comes out of nowhere and it speaks of conflicts which the narrative didn't suggest beforehand. Suzu’s mixed feelings about her husband and her existential angst warrants more depth in the narrative than this episodic treatment. However, the second-half is more clear-sighted and infuses spectrum of emotions to create one deeply resonant singular moment after another: especially, the tragedy involving Harumi is expressed in a manner that never exploits it for few tears and the later reconciliation between Suzu and sister-in law. There’s also an underlying ironic humor affixed to the proceedings that keeps things buoyant.

The gorgeous animation is mostly portrayed as a reflection of Suzu’s vibrant consciousness. At times of suffering and bleakness, the image resembles the watercolors that Suzu paints (as if an illustrated children book comes into life), depicting the woman’s escape into imagination rather than face death and destruction. The idea of frame-within-frame works brilliantly in the scene Suzu encounters the harsh reality of bombs dropping at the city. Katabuchi makes an excellent use of the medium whenever he portrays Suzu’s introspective journey (even a broken windowpane hanging upon a tree becomes colorful canvas in her mind). This along with Katabuchi’s perfect grasp of down-to-earth, quotidian war-time lives of the civilian populace gives the narrative an uplifting and optimistic tone. The anime once again proves the Japanese are still unparalleled when it comes to picturizing simple life in minute details, keeping all the emotions intact [a simple shot of Suzu blowing on the dandelion, whose white seeds float through the air, brings some emotional quality to it than the overtly sentimental works of their American counterparts).

In This Corner of the World (130 minutes) is a captivating character study of a sensitive young Japanese woman in wartime which interestingly dodges familiar sentimentality to yield an intimately human experience. Although it doesn’t match to the depth and crushing sadness of Grave of the Fireflies, it still remains as piercing account of victims of the war. 


Mandy [2018] – An Eyepopping Heavy-Metal Horror

Italian-Canadian film-maker Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy (2018) is a lean and blunt phantasmagorical feature, permeated with absorbing candy-colored nightmarish sequences. The narrative is set against a pine forest and the central characters live in a wondrous wood-house, in harmony with the environment near a placid lake. It kind of takes the story out of the real and places it in a metaphorical scene. Furthermore, the exercise in high style and archetypal landscape produces an artistic lens to observe the violence and visceral madness far removed from reality. Of course, Mandy is decadent, gory, and ludicrous. Yet it’s uniquely psychedelic visuals combined with perfectly channeled mad-dog performance of Nicolas Cage offers a satisfying surrealistic revenge flick.

Mandy starts off as a pastiche, but thanks to seriously bizarre and hypnotizing visual delights Mr. Cosmatos transcends the pastiche into a marvelous midnight movie that’s worth a cult following. The setup here is that Red Miller (Nicolas Cage), a lumberjack, leads a quiet life with his eponymous wife/girlfriend Mandy (Andrea Riseborough), a skinny young woman who has the haunted looks of Shelley Duvall (‘3 Women’, ‘The Shinning’). The year is 1983 and he is tattooed and has the looks of a ruffian, while she sports a big facial scar to suggest some kind of encounter with violence. Although we never quite come to understand how they found each other, we could instinctually feel that Red and Mandy are tragic, downcast figures who have attained solace by removing themselves from civilization. The literal and metaphorical isolation intensifies the perfection of their match. When Red’s at work, Mandy focuses on her weird fantasy art with impeccable other worldliness.

As expected, the couples’ blissful, idyllic existence is interrupted by ‘Jesus-freaks-cum-weirdo-hippie-types’. Mandy catches the attention of the leader of a LSD-fueled religious cult named Jeremiah (Linus Roache). With the help of a coven of demonic bikers (known as ‘Black Skulls’), the Manson-esque cult leader abducts Mandy and wreaks infernal pain upon Red. When Jeremiah’s attempts to seduce Mandy go wrong, the inevitable thing happens. Up until now, the fever dream of a narrative moves deliberately slow, imparted with tinseled image and gorgeous retro score. Then Nicolas Cage’s Red is set loose. It is indicated in the scene where Cage’s Red, wearing only underpants and a t-shirt with an image of a fierce tiger, gulps vodka in a bathroom, weeping and hollering at the same time and gradually preparing himself for the unrelenting journey for vengeance. Red fires himself up with drugs, forges an axe-knife weapon combo and travels into the heart of craziness. The path might be very conventional in terms of narrative, but willing audiences might find twisted sort of relish in observing the crushed, severed heads, the chainsaw combat, etc.

Shot in hot ochre, scarlet red and cool blue, with its near-mute protagonist avenging for his soulmate, Mandy has the plot of a grind-house feature, but it's paced like a restrained art-house work. Not all viewers might find it easy to get into the film-makers’ head-space and process the assortment of delightful imagery on its own terms (those who do will definitely be raving about it). Although Mandy derives a lot from 70s/80 occult-horror and infested with Lynchian aura, the very recent point of references could be Nicolas Winding Refn’s films. Furthermore, it looks like a fitting companion piece to Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge. But unlike ‘Revenge’ (a wildly different take on rape-revenge flicks like ‘I Spit on Your Grave’), Mandy isn’t a revised taken on the traditional self-destroying hero. Eventually, Cosmatos’ movie is about nothing other than Nicolas Cage gritting his teeth in rage. Mandy is as much a heavy and warm nostalgia special like Stranger Things. Only that Cosmatos’ nostalgia for the 80s is grimy, twisted, and backed up by sick sense of humor. Whether it is chainsaw deaths or gruesome decapitations, Nicolas Cage’s staggering, over-the-top performance adds a palatable zestfulness to the proceedings. The late Icelandic composer Johann Johannson’s ominous doom-metal influenced soundtrack also perfectly sets the film’s engrossingly decadent tone without ever assaulting our senses.

With fantastically effective sci-fi ‘Beyond the Black Rainbow’ and mesmerizing cult horror ‘Mandy’, Panos Cosmatos has strongly elevated himself into an intriguing schlock auteur. Cosmatos's eye for constructing the look of films is highly commendable, even though the meaning derived from his flicks are largely opaque and nonsensical. 


Strangled [2016] – A Flawed yet Challenging Psycho-Thriller

The pluralistic ignorance within the climate of rigorous social conformity in the post-war Soviet Union and East European communist states often provides a grimly fascinating account of totalitarianism. Add a notorious, elusive serial killer into the mix, the stagnation of bureaucracy and inhumanity of the system perfectly crystallizes. Andrei Chikatilo, who killed at least 52 people over fifteen years, stands as a fine representation of the ‘Era of Stagnation’. For years, the serial killings weren’t publicized since the superior officials believed that serial killing is a ‘western phenomenon’. The utter lack of forensic techniques and man power was also a big drawback. Eventually, the lead investigator Victor Burakov’s tenacity led to the capture of Chikatilo. It was meticulously chronicled in Robert Cullen’s non-fiction book The Killer Department (which was adapted into TV movie titled Citizen X). Bong Joon-ho’s fantastic thriller Memories of Murder (2003) revolved around the hunt for a serial killer in a provincial town during the times of political instability in Korean peninsula. Very recently, Polish crime drama I’m a Killer (2016) dealt with similar sociopolitical themes set against the backdrop of serial killings (the serial killer known as 'The Silesian Vampire’ killed fourteen women between 1964 and early 1970s; the years leading up to the Solidarity uprising and the end of Poland's Communist rule). Hungarian film-maker Arpad Sopsits’ Strangled ('A martfui rem', 2016) is another curious dramatization of the true story of a serial killer, set loose on women in a small town. The true events took place between 1957 and 1967 and the investigators were under immense pressure from the communist powers of the time.

It is 1957 and the authorities in the small provincial town of Martfu couldn’t believe a woman is raped and killed in a place that is dominated by a large shoe factory. It was the period of uprising, where the demand for reforms within iron-hand Soviet establishment was instantly squashed. Hence the police officials were also hell-bent on finding this perverted individual in order to showcase the much publicized smooth flow of justice. The officials get their man – Akos Reti (Gabor Jeszberenyi), a local shoe factory worker, who obsessively loved the murdered woman. The movie opens with Akos Reti re-enacting the murder for the gathered bureaucrats and reporters. But it soon becomes clear that the man is wrongly accused. However, the determined state prosecutor Gabor Katona (Zsolt Trill), facing pressure from higher-ups sends the innocent man to jail (first awarded death penalty which is later reduced to life sentence). He defines his corrupted stance like this, “After the counter-revolution, the regime had to prove the force of law and order …” Seven years later, the murders resume with the same modus operandi. A young, ambitious prosecutor Zoltan Szirmai (Peter Barnai) is sent to the town and he along with a embittered local inspector named Bota (Zsolt Anger) puts the investigation in the right track.

Nevertheless, Szirmai and Bota are repeatedly warned, since in their hunt for serial-killer, they have to be careful to not expose the flaws in Communist justice system. That may invite serious repercussions for the Soviet state, which is held together by strict conformity. As expected one regional party member decries, “There are no serial killers in this country”. While Bota and Szirmai come under immense pressure to find the culprit (without admitting the innocence of Akos Reti), government agents infiltrate the investigation team to keep everything in line. Still the murders continue and the narrative jumps to the perspective of uncaught serial-killer Pal Bognar (Karoly Hadjuk), also a shoe factory worker. He gradually gets addicted to the thrill of hunting down his victims, even though he wears a mask of normalcy in front of his wife, kid, and fellow workers.

Strangled contains a peculiar tone as it tries to juggle between different polarizing perspectives and different genres. Working together with cinematographer Gabor Szabo, director Arpad Sopsits brilliantly reconstructs the tension of the times in which these events took place. The formal qualities are sound, especially the night-time chase scenes are effectively staged, partly reminding us of David Fincher’s style. But the screenplay which tries to simultaneously move on three planes (from the perspective of investigator, killer, and innocent man) doesn’t intertwine very well. Sopsits’ unflinching showcase of sexualized male violence against women during the assault scenes wants to draw upon the narrative’s potent theme of authoritarian rule’s toxic effects. These scenes hang in between lurid sensationalism and truly unsettling tone. The violence does seem overindulgent when the murderer cuts off a woman’s breasts. Earlier, we witness killer’s manic emotions as he engages himself in the gruesome cut, but these constant lingering on mutilation feel a lot exploitative and gory just for the sake of it. The narrative intertwining of the various character trajectories are also saturated with cliched developments (the subplot involving inspector Bota and Akos Reti’s sister is one such thing). In fact, the generic conventions and visceral thrills calmly replace the movie’s ability to be an unsettling character study of a serial killer. In the end, Strangled’s (121 minutes) examination of the historic backdrop and debauched political arena is less memorable than the shocking violence and chilling nocturnal sequences played out on the screen. It doesn’t belong to the league of great true-crime serial killer films like Zodiac and Memories of Murder, yet it’s a gripping film with vibrant performances. 


Active Measures [2018] – Chilling Facts Rendered in a Blatant, Mildly Annoying Mode

The constant barrage of information on Trump [election] campaign and his administration’s relationship with various shady yet powerful Russian nationals could have been attributed to the vivid imagination of an American espionage novelist, if not for the mountain of damning evidence hinting at deeper, darker truths behind the generally obfuscating reactions of Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. In many ways, the alleged Trump campaign collusion with Kremlin and Russian election meddling were as incendiary as the Watergate Scandal that brought down President Richard Nixon. There might not be proof beyond a reasonable doubt of a criminal conspiracy on the collusion-interference case (yet), although the Special Counsel investigation of Robert Mueller has ignited flow of revelations whose implications are far scarier and deeply contentious in the history of American politics. Jack Bryan’s documentary Active Measures (2018) is the latest of chilling inquiry into American President’s indisputable connection to Russia; one that would actively inspire outrage and doubtfulness.

Having keenly followed (following) the developments on Capitol Hill and Mueller’s investigation I must say that Jack Bryan’s crash course on the greatest 21st century espionage story, beginning from Putin’s rise to political power and sustenance of that power, by relying on an inner circle of kleptocratic oligarchs, gangsters, money-laundering bankers, and unscrupulous political advisers, doesn’t offer anything shockingly fresh. Active Measures does a good job in weaving disparate threads of the Trump-Russian/Putin story that could well serve as a recap on the startling developments (so far). Just before starting Bryan’s documentary, I had finished reading Michael Isikoff and David Corn’s ‘Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin's War on America and the Election of Donald Trump’, a sober and meticulous look at the nefarious Russian interference ploy. Metaphorically speaking, even as the ink on the investigative journalists’ report dries, the story has taken more twists and turns. But, what’s missing in Active Measures is the earnest, journalistic approach pursued by Isikoff and Corn. The documentary is heavily persuasive, and the assembled information is delivered in a delirious manner as the pulsating electronic music and assortment of high-profile talking heads displays a kind of urgency (much like social-media-fake-news) to instantly reach great number of the unsuspecting populace.

This whirlwind of devastating geopolitical maneuver by Putin and Kremlin is presented by Bryan through a team of notable figures, including Hillary Clinton, the late John McCain, and John Podesta. The title comes from what the intelligence community calls as key tactics from Russia to exert influence around the world (through propaganda, cyber-attacks, and centralized Russian power) despite the decline of its military and economic power. Director Bryan chronicles Putin's dirty work, starting from his ruthless treatment of former Soviet countries like Georgia, Ukraine and Estonia. He had unleashed Russian hackers, military and thugs to overturn democratic elections in the smaller nations, something the documentary (and various other news sources) attests as sort of experimental study before attacking the American elections. The narrative also strongly stresses on Putin’s dirty money, laundered by mobsters and oligarchs through real estate, particularly by buying the kind of overpriced condos Trump offers through his 30-plus towers around the world. Menacing mug shots of mobsters like Semion Mogilevich and Dmitry Rybolovlev, and oligarchs like Oleg Deripaska & Aras Agalarov are repeatedly displayed while extensively suggesting their operations to launder millions through untraceable shell companies. American-born British financier Bill Browder – the man behind Magnitsky Act which rattled Putin (strangely Magnitsky isn’t mentioned in the doc) – has already detailed how Putin how could very well be the richest man on the planet.

What’s more alarming was Trump’s alliance with seedy figures like Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, and Michael Cohen. Their dastardly schemes are damning in itself, especially Flynn’s ironical and hypocritical ‘Lock her Up’ chant during the election campaign, while he was deeply involved in duplicitous plans. Nevertheless, the frustrating thing about Jack Bryan’s approach is the choice to present host of documented facts alongside hearsay and overly familiar tidbits. In Isikoff’s book, Putin’s alleged origin story (as said to be) uttered by himself to Hillary Clinton is just a simple event used to glimpse at the man’s myth-making skills. But director Jack Bryan brings HRC to reiterate the story using old pics of Nazi menace (Clinton in one of her digressions about Putin calls him as the guy who likes ‘to manspread’). The strangely funny tidbit here becomes a foreshadowing element for Putin’s agents of influence. Nuance seems to be a farfetched word in the whole documentary. There’s a former Miss Hungary telling how Trump once invited her to his hotel room. It’s a big question what the film gains by reiterating the very familiar faulty nature of Trump with regard to his connection with Putin. Hence at certain point, the loud declamations by the interviewees become more propagandistic in nature. In fact, Bryan’s presentation of the outlandish claims mixed with true facts is too flashy that there is not much difference between his style and news agencies like RT and Sputnik (the propaganda outlets of Kremlin). Overall, Active Measures (110 minutes) lays out the dreadful issues afflicting current American political arena, albeit in a lopsided (conspicuous) manner that could be cherished more by those with little or no knowledge of possible Trump-Russia Collusion (and of course ardent supporters of Trump may still find it hard to digest the facts).