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Two equally matched daimyo (warlords) one concerned with heaven the other concerned with earth. Part 1 of the Japanese film Heaven and Earth (1990).

JPFmovies is excited to get back to quality Asian films.  There is a reason Heaven and Earth was Japan’s number one film in 1990: it is one hell of a flick.  Most Japanese films of this genre look at the battle of Sekigahara; for those of you that don’t know this was the bloodiest battle in Japan’s history and finally united the country.  Heaven and Earth, however, centers around the battles of Kawanakajima which was series of 7 battles over 20 years between two equally matched rivals Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin that lasted until 1564.

Shingen and Kenshin could not have more contrasting leadership personalities and styles.  Kenshin fought wars “to bring peace to his people” versus Shingen who wanted to expand his empire “to the seas.”  Shingen (the more famous of the two) is often portrayed as some sort of liberator treating his people well but in truth, he was a cruel as many of the other warlords of the time-routinely massacring peasants and prisoners of war unlike Kenshin who took a higher road.

One of the main reasons Shingen wanted the lands occupied by Kenshin is because the were very fertile which was a precious commodity in Japan that does not have much agriculture.

Back to the film.  Heaven and Earth also presents the audience with two interesting items.  The first is a letter that survives to this day that Kenshin sends to his allies asking for men, equipment and other items necessary for war.  The second are two very accurate formations from each side:  Kenshin’s “Winding Wheel” vs. Shingen’s “Crane.”  The film does a great job of recreating the relatively complex fighting formations.  The winding wheel was an offensive maneuver allowing units that had become exhausted or depleted to be replaced with a fresh unit, thus enabling the attacker to maintain the force and momentum of the attack. A very carefully organized and complex maneuver, its use indicates that Kenshin’s troops must have practiced it to the point of perfection. Kenshin’s vanguard was commanded by his younger brother, Takeda Nobushige, and as Kenshin’s winding wheel fully engaged the Takeda front ranks, Nobushige was killed in the desperate close combat.

Kenshin’s leading units were mounted samurai, and as the “wheel” wound on, the pressure on Shingen’s force began to tell as unit after unit was driven back from its position. Shingen’s “crane” was an offensive formation and not designed for the defense, but the troops executing it were well disciplined and the formation was managing to hold its own.  The momentum of the “wheel” brought Kenshin within reach of the Takeda headquarters where Shingen had been fervently trying to control his hard-pressed army.  This resulted in a rare face off between the two leaders.  Shingen was personally attacked by none other than Kenshin himself.  Unable to draw his sword in time, Shingen, rising from his camp stool, was forced to parry Kenshin’s mounted sword strokes with his heavy wooden war fan. Shingen took three cuts on his body armor and a further seven on his war fan until one of his bodyguards charged forward and attacked Kenshin with a spear. The spear thrust glanced off Kenshin’s armor and struck his horse’s flank, causing the animal to rear. Several other samurai of Shingen’s guard then arrived and together they managed to drive Kenshin off.

Exciting?  Yes! And by all accounts as historically accurate as one can really get looking back hundreds of years.  Stay tuned for part 2 of the Heaven and Earth review.  Next time we’ll look at the Wheel vs. the Crane too!

 
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Posted by on May 29, 2019 in Movie Reviews

 

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Remember Tom Cruise and Michael Caine in Cocktail? Yeah it was an awful movie but leave it to the Japanese to produce a miniseries about bartenders and make it work! Bartender (2011).

Hello JPFmovies fans and welcome to another review of something a little different.  The JPFmovies staff remembers watching Tom Cruise and Michael Caine in the 1988 film Cocktail and wondering just how low Michael Caine could go after his stellar performance in Blame it on Rio (1984) and rolling our eyes at the thin plot, predictable ending and an overall shitty film—but of course earned a ton of money.  After that fiasco, members of the JPFmovies staff were certain that we had seen the last of media glorifying bartenders who, according to Michael Caine were “the aristocrats of the working class.”  However, in our relentless efforts to review the good, the bad and the ugly the JPFmovies staff was pleasantly surprised to stumble upon Bartender (2011) a Japanese mini-series based on a manga of the same name.

Ryu Sasakura (Masaki Aiba) is a bar tending prodigy who won a European cocktail contest. He got into an argument with his instructor and was fired. In a state of dejection he came back to his native country of Japan.  He finds work again in Tokyo and also meets Miwa Kurushima. Meanwhike, Ryu Sasakura is able to listen to his customer’s problems and help alleviate their worries with his special cocktail mixes including work and love and family troubles, one drink at a time.  Our bar tending prodigy even takes on a disciple and enters him into a contest—only to have his lose magnificently!

Why is the Japanese series tolerable?  Because it does not portray the bartender as some flamboyant circus performer out to land a babe, some cash or another material recompense but a person who takes his craft seriously and listens to his patrons without judgment while providing honest, simple advice.  He even goes so far as to track the water used in a customer’s hometown to make the drink authentic.  What more could you want in a bartender?  No Ryu was not flinging glasses three feet in the air while dancing to some 80’s rock, he made his drinks with precision, attention to detail and an eye to match the booze with its drinker.  A consummate professional.  This is not a heavy and gritty film that makes you sweat, but a nice lite series that provides a decent respite from the world today, much like going to your favorite watering hole.  Take a few hours and watch it, you will be glad you did.

 
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Posted by on April 26, 2019 in Movie Reviews

 

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We here at JPFmovies had the pleasure of getting a first-hand entertainment perspective from an expatriate who splits time between the US and Japan. It was a very interesting conversation and, as a tribute to our mutual love of Japanese media, let’s take a look at a series known as Bengoshi no Kuzu, loosely translated as Scum of Lawyers (2006).

As anyone who follows the JPFmovies site knows, we have a certain affinity for Asian entertainment, firmly believing that Hollywood has lost its creativity and sold out to the lowest common denominator of film viewers. Whereas over the past couple years we’ve seen what’s been known as “riding the Korean wave,” referring to the fine entertainment coming out of South Korea as well as Japan and Hong Kong—Asia’s contributions to what has become, in our opinion, a superior form of entertainment.  We firmly intend to express the downfall of Hollywood Cinema as we know it at the 2018 Raspberry Awards, where we will vote on the worst movies made by Hollywood in numerous categories. But more on that later. Let’s get to the show.

 

Like many Japanese TV shows and films, Bengoshi no Kuzu is based on a manga.  What sets this drama, or should we say comedy drama, about the practice of law apart from your typical series glorifying the legal profession (which in reality is a grind), is that in the Scum of Lawyers, the main character will do just about anything if it means he can win.  This guy is a high school drop-out, lover of money, booze, and women, and has a rude demeanor and a vulgar mouth.  He has a totally different perspective on the law, and more importantly justice, in that he believes that lawyers aren’t on the side of justice, the law isn’t meant to punish people, it’s meant to save them! At least, that’s this guy’s secret motto. This back-alley lawyer seems to know all the scams and has to take on the firm’s new associate, who works his way through a number of cases, which proves that the scum bag attorney’s theory is right in the end.  By ferreting out these cons, that both plaintiffs and defendants are trying to use the legal system for, he opens his naïve associate’s eyes as to what Justice can really mean.

It is especially interesting to watch him go up against blue chip law firms while picking his nose in their conference rooms, only to expose his opponent’s client’s veiled attempt to somehow cheat the system and, more importantly, his client.  Perhaps what makes this scum bag lawyer’s intuition so keen is that he is in fact a (or at least a reformed) con artist who hasn’t left many of his bad habits behind him: he loves gambling, money, women, booze, and pretty much any other vice you can think, of he’s got his finger in it.  Being able to understand the scammer’s mind obviously gives him the edge he needs to win cases.  He practically falls asleep in court while waiting to cross-examine his opponent because he has already figured out what their devious, self-serving testimony is going to be and has a plan to expose it.  And during about half of his meetings with clients or opposing counsel, he is as hung over as a sailor back from shore leave.

See the following clip for an example of the scum lawyer figuring out his own client’s deception in order to get a novel she wrote published, which was plagiarized by an actress/model because his client was “attractive.”  It was a very sophisticated plot indeed—but con artists think alike.

The show, however is not only about him. The senior partner of the firm is a children’s and human rights advocate who gives the firm a veneer of respectability, and there is the competent hard-working experienced female attorney that our young associate often looks to for guidance while he is stuck in these moral quagmires that the scum bag has got them into.

There are also some support staff who allow selective sexual harassment and generally add to the humor of the show.  The show ran for about 12 episodes and all of them were good.  If you get a chance, watch Scum of Lawyers. It is a nice change of pace from your typical legal drama.

 
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Posted by on July 20, 2017 in Movie Reviews

 

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Let’s get back to some quality Asian entertainment: Ogon no Buta a/k/a The Golden Pig (2010) a 9 part Japanese T.V. series. Any show named after swine has got to be interesting.

Lately the movie reviews posted here at JPFmovies have been western entertainment—something we typically take a dim view of given the current state of the (mainly) American entertainment industry.  So, our dedicated reviewers embarked on a search for some Asian media worth taking a look at.  We found an often overlooked Japanese T.V. series entitled The Golden Pig—intrigued by the show’s title we couldn’t resist taking a look.

First a quick discussion of the genre The Golden Pig and many other well-liked Japanese series embody.  In Japan, many shows/movies are based on “manga.”  For those who don’t know, a manga is a style of Japanese comic book or graphic novel, aimed at adults as well as children.  Manga covers the entire spectrum of topics from super-heroes to business to adult themed sexuality.  When a manga becomes popular enough it is often made into an animated series or a live T.V. show and maybe even a movie.  One subset of the manga world is a variation of westerns and samurai ronin genre where the protagonist gets “transferred” into a corrupt environment and brings about change.  This story-line is termed the “extended transfer student” genre and is a staple of J-drama which serves as a channel for social commentary and criticism while Japanese society stagnates through political corruption and social rigidness.

The Golden Pig is an “extended transfer student” Japanese drama series set in the government’s internal auditor agency (the equivalent of the U.S. Inspector General’s Office).  The Board of Audit’s Special Investigations Division hunts down civil servants that cheat and waste the tax payer’s money.  The Golden Pig’s main character, Shinko, is a former con artist that is hired by one of the Division’s maverick commissioners.  When we say Shinko is a former con artist we mean it-she has spent several years in prison and the terms of her parole are quite strict.  Hardened by her time in the joint, she is not intimidated by power or influence and mercilessly pursues corrupt officials.  When she is brought into the agency’s fold, Shinko is paired up with an elite rookie who is a graduate of Tokyo University and comes from a distinguished family of government officials.  Naturally, the friction between the savvy and street-smart Shinko and her blue-blooded colleague provides some great entertainment as Shinko is able to use her criminal experience to quickly sniff out scams while her partner’s head is often stuck in an ivory tower so to speak.

The series also examines the politics of power within the civil service itself.  The episodes explore the rough waters that career civil servants must navigate in order to be promoted or else they can end up in a “window” position; that is, the unlucky civil servant is essentially stuck in a room looking out of the window with nothing to do.  The potential for the career civil servants to be passed over for promotion can lead them to back-off or otherwise close their eyes to corruption if the investigation involves a very politically connected or powerful person.  Again, this conflicts with Shinko’s scorched earth policy and her idealistic partner’s naivete with respect to the blow-back that happen when someone too powerful is provoked into taking action to save their own skin.

While the viewer may think that the formula for each episode is the same i.e. after some maneuvers by both the division investigators and the cheaters, the good guys win in the end you would be sorely mistaken.  While each episode ends with exposition of the case, if you are paying attention, the penalties for embezzling millions of dollars’ worth of Japanese yen is quite lite.  In truth, it is the government white washing the whole thing so it maybe a relief when the gang does not always go for the big shots involved with the central government which is actually mentioned in the series.  This is usually when Shinko pulls out her trademark big shiny blinged out calculator to sum up the total amount of money embezzled.

In sum, “Ogon no Buta” is a great and fun series.  It has great characters, interesting cases, and over the top villains that everyone loves to hate.  But don’t take our word for it, JPFmovies reviewer at large SJ thinks:

JPFmovies:     SJ so what is your overall opinion of The Golden Pig?

SJ:       It is excellent!

JPFmovies:     What do you think of the series main character being a convicted swindler?

SJ:       It is cool to compare how a thief would do things versus fancy people in suits.

JPFmovies:     Is this your favorite Japanese T.V. series?

SJ:       Yeah.

JPFmovies:     Why?

SJ:       Spaghetti squash (a character nick named by Shinko).

JPFmovies:     Who is your favorite villain?

SJ:       The scientist lady because she wasn’t actually a bad person but they had to punish her anyways because that is their job (Note a famous scientist who misuses government grant money).

JPFmovies:     Does The Golden Pig remind you of any American T.V. series?

SJ:       Yeah “Psyche” because they are both a “commoner” who has to work with officials to fight crime.

JPFmovies:     Very interesting.

JPFmovies:     Is there anything you would like to add?

SJ:       Um . . . make sure you calculate the conversion rate from yen to dollars so you know how much was stolen.

 
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Posted by on May 31, 2017 in Movie Reviews

 

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Baian The Assassin–The Review.

Since I have been in an Asian mood lately, I decided to watch a popular Japanese TV miniseries entitled “Baian the Assassin” starring Ken Watanabe as Baian Fujieda, an acupuncturist by day and an assassin by night.  His preferred method of dispatching his prey is inserting a long needle into a certain place on the victim’s neck.  His friend Hiko, a toothpick artisan by day, is also an assassin by night and often teams up with Baian to assist in their complicated and diabolical deeds.  The series comes in four parts and while it was made for the general audience of television it nonetheless contains many elements of the more violent assassins like Zatoichi and the Lone Wold.

Another interesting technique used in this miniseries is a fair amount of narration. Some found the narrator to be annoying or otherwise unnecessary, however I found it quite helpful and appropriate given my general unfamiliarity with the subtle rules of assassination.

The entire series consists of four DVDs each containing several episodes lasting about 90 minutes apiece. I must say for a TV show this isn’t too bad at all. I don’t have a problem watching one of the episodes over again particularly when I’m with somebody who has never seen the series.

All in all it’s worth a watch, but it is not always the easiest flick to find. It certainly is not crap. Plus I never knew anyone could make a living making toothpicks by hand as our friend Hiko does in his day job.

 
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Posted by on January 31, 2010 in Movie Reviews

 

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