I watched a bunch of movies!
This is the second Zatoichi movie (2 Zato 2 1?). Released less than a year after the first, and barely over an hour long, with 20+ sequels to follow it, I didn’t really have incredibly high expectations for this being more than a quick retread. But overall I was pleasantly surprised! In particular, I fully expected the story to just be an additional self-contained episode in the wandering life of Zatoichi, but other characters turn up to, like he goes back and meets the love interest he dodged at the end of the first movie, and I particularly like that if I remember right there’s a scene at a lake where he pines for the guy he met and bonded with and killed in a duel in the first movie.
It’s a fine samurai movie in its own right too, with this whole thing involving a brother who’s both Zatoichi’s older brother, and played by Tomisaburo Wakayama of the Lone Wolf and Cub movies, who is the older brother of Shintaro Katsu, Zatoichi’s brother. That’s pretty neat! And I remember some good scenes with both of them.
I do feel though like it feels a notch or two less special than the first movie, which I suppose is to be expected. In particular, I feel like Zatoichi is much more of a standard samurai action hero in terms of his swordsmanship, where I remember the first movie getting a lot of especially cool mileage out of him being specifically like, an unsheathing artist, so duels would end in one slash. Here he’s fighting hordes of dudes all over the place with plenty of slashes.
I watched the movie without subtitles, and while there were definitely a handful of plot details I didn’t really pick up on (I wasn’t sure if the two characters were literally brothers or not, and I didn’t pick up on exactly the reason people were trying to kill Zatoichi), when I read a synopsis afterward I at least could clearly remember which scenes conveyed that information and could slot in the new information perfectly well (sort of like the listening equivalent of like, unknown words in a text being clearly identifiable as such instead of just not understanding the whole thing perhaps?) so I suppose that’s a victory of sorts anyhow.
As 2000s Godzilla movies go so far, I thought this one was especially interesting! It’s the most outright malicious Godzilla has been portrayed in a very long time, and it’s a very solid kaiju disaster movie in those terms, with the human characters and plenty of other monsters trying to stop the extremely intimidating threat of Godzilla.
It’s also interesting that it uses a lot more like, Shinto / Japan folklore type elements than I’ve seen a Godzilla movie do before, with the birth of a handful of other guardian monsters triggered by like, various cliches of disruptive people in modern Japanese society (暴走族 etc.) knocking over statues at shrines and stuff, and also I didn’t fully catch it while watching originally, but at one point Godzilla is said to be like, embodying the vengeful souls of everybody on all sides who died in WW2. It came across by the end as a bit jingoistic to me, but I guess that’s in line with how disaster movies around this time were in general.
The reconfiguration of the monsters to put them all in opposition to an actively malicious Godzilla rankles with me a little bit… King Ghidorah’s not a good three-headed dragon from Earth! He’s an evil three-headed dragon from space, dammit! But I mean, it’s not really a big deal (and a movie with a three-headed dragon of any kind in it is surely better for it I think we can all agree on that). I do also think it’s very funny that Baragon is just dropped from the over-descriptive title (but also agree that Baragon is notably less cool than Godzilla, Mothra, or King Ghidorah).
Anyway, the stuff with the human protagonists works particularly well here, with a plucky reporter and her military general dad being a good throughline through the monster goings on. It ends up a very fun monster movie!
I’ve already seen Meiko Kaji in the later Female Prisoner Scorpion and Lady Snowblood series, and liked them a lot, so now it’s Stray Cat Rock!
I enjoyed it a lot! It’s got a super fun 1970 girl gang aesthetic, with Akiko Wada being extremely cool as this very tall, androgynously dressed biker, and I also really appreciate that like… Meiko Kaji gets to play, like, an actual human with relatable emotions for once? Like Female Prisoner Scorpion and Lady Snowblood are both very cool and all – but they’re definitely much more like, grim specters of revenge than they are people you would ever meet in real life (Lady Snowblood’s backstory in particular makes her entire life from birth 100% devoted to revenge), whereas here she’s a girl in this small time gang whose boyfriend screws up real bad. She definitely still does lots of piercing stares though, it is Meiko Kaji after all. Other performances I enjoyed: Ken Sanders has one of the more fully fleshed out roles I’ve seen for a non-Japanese actor in a movie like this. And I half convinced myself that Goro Mutsumi playing the villain might be a young Takeshi Kitano because of how much threatening, expressionless glowering he does.
The movie has some fun stylistic flourishes, with things like emotional moments highlighted by a solid color cutout surrounding the actor’s face. They aren’t nearly as over the top as what would be in a later movie, but they’re still pretty fun! One particularly odd one is whenever a date is given in an establishing shot, it’s like – flashes rapidly on the screen, cutting between the establishing shot and the date in a disorienting way.
I also appreciate that there’s relatively little exploitation movie type content (at least in this first movie), bar an unpleasant torture scene or two.
The movie’s climax involves a chase between a motorcycle and a very small car weaving through the city streets which I enjoyed very much.
I watched this one without subtitles and I feel like I understood what was going on fine even if I didn’t pick up on every word of dialogue.
This is Akira Kurosawa’s directorial debut, and I wasn’t sure what to expect going in, but I enjoyed it a whole lot!! Like Castle of Cagliostro with Miyazaki which I watched recently – it feels a bit like definitely a fully fledged movie of the director, even if the subject material isn’t fully what you would expect from their later work.
Sanshiro Sugata is about the rise of judo and its clashes with the established jujutsu, which I don’t know much about but provides a fine martial arts story with a Meiji era background that I LOVE. There’s something a little magical about watching a movie from 80 years ago, that itself is portraying a time 60 years before that. Like, the movie being temporally closer to the time portrayed despite both gaps being so large makes it somehow feel like you’re getting an even closer view of that farther back time than you really are. And period piece elements like Sugata’s mustachioed, extremely Meiji-era-looking rival are just very fun.
There’s a ton of cool touches in the movie as well. I love for example, there’s a series of shots conveying time is passing after the first main brawl where like, a discarded geta is shown as it lingers on the side of the road, exposed to the elements, eventually falling in the river and drifting away. Or there’s the extremely windswept hillside setting of the main final fight, which looks extremely cool (reminding me a bit of a later, similarly cool hillside fight, the snowy one in The Chinese Boxer). And there’s emotionally rich scenes like Sugata demonstrating his commitment to learning by hanging on to a stick submerged in a pond, until a lotus blooms in front of him, or a good scene where he and a possible love interest converse on some stairs in town.
I was surprised how much I enjoyed it despite its intimidating age (and trimmed runtime due to war-time censors). And Takashi Shimura is even there! I guess it really is a Kurosawa movie.
I watched this with English subtitles I couldn’t turn off, and I think I might have been able to understand what was going on without them?
I recall this making quite a stir when it was out in theaters, and so this is my finally getting around to watch it after that.
I can certainly see why it made an impact! The action is often dazzling, and the characters and a particular duo in particular seem very geared towards fandom tastes. It’s a neat and tidy package and I enjoyed it.
… I felt quite unengaged with the story though. I feel like they hit the (pretty familiar) beats they needed to perfectly fine, but they left no room at all for world or character building outside of those beats. So like the protagonist gets to go from naively trusting the authority figure → to questioning him → to having conflicted feelings about him → to the authority figure definitely 100% discarding him and being flagged as the outright villain for sure in just like, A to B to C steps. The settings and setpieces in the path of the main plot are well-designed to be cool, but they don’t feel like they exist in any meaningful way outside of that path. There’s also a crucial plot beat that occurs entirely be happenstance and the characters admit. None of that’s necessarily wrong! And it suits the flash of the movie in some ways. But it does remind me of, for example, a stylistically great graphic novel I would check out from the library on a whim, read it and enjoy it and turn it in, and then never think about it again. Not a bad outcome by any means but certainly not as fun as discovering something that grabs me completely.
I watched this with English subtitles I couldn’t turn off, and the freneticism and frequency of in-universe lingo meant that I didn’t try all that hard to avoid looking at them, and mostly did that “half paying attention to the subtitles, half to the audio” scheme.
This completes a queue of five in my backlog system, of Perfect Blue, Mirai, Your Name, A Letter to Momo, and Promare. All fine and well made, but it’s A Letter to Momo all the way for me out of those five! I should probably replace it with another queue of modern anime movies, but I’m not sure if I have enough I’ve been meaning to get around to to fill one at the moment.
…And a couple of tv shows!
This is the 7th “Ultra” show and the last one in the second generation of Ultraman shows in the early 70s.
After Ultraman Taro, I remember feeling that Ultraman had probably settled into a formula, but right out of the gate this show felt the most distinct in terms of tone out of any of them so far, with a much grimmer tone, action clearly heavily inspired by kung fu movies, and a grizzled Ultraseven (or rather, Moroboshi Dan) returning to fill the role of mentor figure for the new protagonist (where previously, characters from previous shows generally only ever returned in a fantasy, “Ultra Brothers” type of context). A lot of those first handful of episodes are tense fighting against overcast skies and rain, karate training montages, or aliens murdering people. I was especially scandalized by one of the first episodes showing onscreen the bisected corpse of a kindly old man, guardian to a couple of kids who watched him die.
That first run of episodes really really hit that “aliens are a threat to everyone you love and will show up to kill people and only you can stop them, Leo” angle, to kind of a ridiculous degree. I remember one episode in particular where the lesson for Leo was essentially that he needs to be EVER VIGILANT against threats to the women in his life, and the episode ends with him trying to do karate on a bee that was buzzing around them. Moroboshi Dan’s lessons that he instills in Leo are very harsh and usually accompanied with attacking him with his crutch in some way.
Still though, I found myself really appreciating the coherence of this tone and the strength of the supporting cast around the protagonist. All Ultraman shows I’ve seen involve a protagonist who’s Ultraman’s secret identity, and he’s a part of this like, kaiju fighting force that for whatever reason always has a different name in every show, usually an acronym (in this case it’s MAT), and those fellow squadmembers are usually the main supporting cast for the show. Here though, Except for Dan as the leader, none of the MAT members are consequential at all, and they even end up as redshirts a handful of times. And I think that’s honestly a good thing, as it lets the protagonist, Ootori Gen, have an actual human personal life with a more full cast than in any of these shows I’ve seen before (not saying that much) – he spends a lot of time at an athletic club, and he and his sorta girlfriend are like, surrogate mothers basically for these two kids who got orphaned, tying into Gen’s own backstory where he’s really an alien from a planet that got destroyed by an alien force. And so anyway, I think the storylines dealing with those two kids, and the relatively complex depictions of like, emotionally processing that bleack backstory, are some of the strengths of the show and work well alongside all the karate and alien murderers and stuff.
… But I did find myself worrying that EVERY episode was going to a bleak miniature action movie with alien murder and a karate training sequence. After all, one of the things I love about Ultraman (in contrast to the Toei Sentai/Kamen Rider shows from what I’ve seen), is that there’s really no set structure or topic for an episode other than Ultraman will presumably show up and fight something at the end. Other than that, episodes can be about anything, and can very wildly in town, and that grab bag aspect makes it super fun to go into a new episode not knowing at all what to expect. And it worried me a bit that it seemed like I could expect a Leo episode to be a harrowing ordeal put on Gen that he has to train to overcome with karate, every time.
The second generation of Ultraman shows have trained me to suspect that the end of a show was probably going to end with a very different tone and setup compared to the beginning, though. And yep! The show starts heavily lightening up, with a goofy episode involving a slapstick character inflating like a balloon, and a bit later with a long line of folktale-inspired stories that are definitely some of my favorite episodes in the show. From that point on, the bleak action content is a lot more in the background, with the grab bag appeal of Ultraman fully in force.
And then there’s the sudden, wild mid season pivot, which again – I’ve kind of come to expect at this point, otherwise I would have been more shocked and upset about it. The whole supporting cast except Gen and the boy he was taking care of (including the sports center friends, apparently all of MAT and Ultraseven, the sorta girlfriend, and the little girl) are all killed off by a flying saucer alien, and then for the rest of the show (~10 episodes or so? Maybe like the last fifth) Gen and the boy are adopted by a nurse and her family of two other girls, and so the supporting cast is completely rearranged and every episode is about Leo fighting additional flying saucer enemies.
I don’t know anything at all about the production of these shows (someday I will have to find books to read about it), and I’m so so curious what goes into a choice like this. I assumed with previous second-generation Ultraman shows that it was probably like, the studio deciding between production schedules to pivot in a different direction or something, and that probably is the likeliest scenario still? But so much went into the tone of the start of the show being coherent this time around, and the way the cast is killed off deliberately and effectively evokes families looking over the list of confirmed dead following air raids, that it does make me wonder if there’s an intentional arc behind it. Since if there is – it does seem like there’s something potentially interesting to explore about how ultimately all the tough love lessons drilled into Gen weren’t enough to ensure that his loved ones wouldn’t randomly be killed, and at the end of the show he does seem a lot happier with a mother figure who shows actual warmth, than he was with the always cold and demanding father figure of Dan. Still seems like an intense and unhappy (especially about the little girl) way of showing that arc if it is coherent like that – but in this particular time period I have to imagine the war factors a lot into how the creators of the show are portraying masculinity and childrens’ development in a show like this, so it’s hard to be like “seems a bit intense and sad huh” about it when like… well yeah, clearly unimaginably intense and sad things happen while people are growing up, huh.
So anyway, it’s an interesting show! I think of the second-generation Ultraman shows, it’s probably my favorite? But that could 100% just be because of the nicer setup I have now with the wireless earbuds and new tv and stuff. I watched the whole show while exercising and got through it pretty much as fast as possible that way (roughly a month), which shows I was engaged enough to consistently exercise to it.
I watched the show without subtitles and did not have major problems.
In general the first three Ultra shows: Ultra Q, Ultraman, and Ultraseven, are total classics that I’d recommend to absolutely anybody to at least give a shot and see if you like it.
And the second-generation of Return of Ultraman, Ultraman Ace, Ultraman Taro, and Ultraman Leo, are all still very good, very fun shows with a ton of varied things on offer, but they’ve definitely each got less of a cohesive classic feel and feel more like slightly flawed additional fun things to definitely check out if you’ve established you like Ultraman. (It’s extremely cool that all are readily available to English language markets).
Some especially memorable episodes:
I loved the 一寸法師 inspired episode ウルトラマンキング対魔法使い which introduces Ultraman King and involves fun tiny Ultraman Leo effects and a villainous wizard!
There’s a couple of fun throwback episodes right after that, where Dan gets closure with his love interest from Ultraseven, and then actors from the original Ultraman play different characters.
I really liked the spooky one where the little girl gets lured by a mirror-themed alien.
And I LOVE the blood red parasiticてるてる坊主 in an episode near the end.
Parallel to Ultraman Leo, I got in the habit of using a time slot for watching a tv show while not exercising (which isn’t something I’ve done very often in the past, but I wanna since I mean, there are shows I want to watch that aren’t gonna get watched otherwise), and watched Sailor Moon R! The second series/season/whatever of Sailor Moon (the first of which I watched a few years ago or so while exercising, before I was turning off subtitles in a show like this). I was in the mood one night for something light and fun to watch where I wouldn’t have problems understanding it, and watched a couple of episodes of this and enjoyed it a lot and ended up watching the whole series at about the same pace as Ultraman Leo.
Sailor Moon’s a lot of fun! And this is definitely more Sailor Moon. Neon, transformations, sinister forces absorbing girls’ life force, goofy comedy, etc. The first show ended with plenty of closure, and that is hastily done away with here within an episode or two. I haven’t read more than a volume of Sailor Moon the manga (yet) so I’m not sure if any of this follows the manga or not.
R covers two arcs: the first is short and is pretty much exactly what I was in the mood for at the time – a pretty simple and light-hearted storyline where two aliens turn up and cause trouble, but their secret identities attend school and provide enough fish out of water comedy that it’s telegraphed very directly that they’re going to get redeemed. The second arc involves a small child who looks suspiciously similar to Usagi and has a robot Luna helper thingy so everyone calls her Chibiusa and she gets injected into Usagi’s life like Dawn in that one season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (huh, come to think of it, that show was probably just cribbing off of Sailor Moon a lot of the time…). And anyway it’s presented kind of strangely because it’s a very very weird circumstance but no one really has any good guesses for why it’s happening so the only obvious possible explanation – that she’s Usagi and Mamoru’s kid from the future – is, well, yeah, that one is the one that turns out to be explanation. Genuinely what else would explain any of that? and anyway that’s the emotional core of that second chunk, which builds as you would expect to various battles against evil. Chibiusa took a while to grow on me, but I guess she’s okay.
Overall, I’m personally very neutral on like, Sailor Moon cosmology, so when things start getting intense and involve magic backstories and explanations of who exactly the different invading aliens are, I’m a little not interested. But I really enjoy the sillier episodes, especially the ones that focus on one or two of the girls interacting with the others, like the one where Venus is trying to take care of the others while they’re sick but she’s very bad at it, or any episode focusing on Sailor Mercury. I’m also a sucker for the protagonists repeatedly converting secondary bad guys over to their side.
I’d like to watch the next series, Sailor Moon S, but it will probably be a similarly long gap before I get to it. I do definitely hope to keep the non-exercising tv-watching timeslot open though for other things…
I watched Sailor Moon R without subtitles and had no major problems. (I feel like occasionally zoning out was a bigger threat to understanding than language knowledge)