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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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Shogun the miniseries (1980) starring Richard Chamberlin, Torisho Mifune, John Rhys-Davies and others. One of the great miniseries of all time.

I was getting a lot of static about the number of Japanese films I’ve been watching lately so I decided to relent.  But I still wanted to enjoy the Japanese tales of the samurai then it occurred to me: Shogun the miniseries.  I was still a child when I remember when my parents watched it and I liked it back then.  So I obtained all 12 hours of the series and watched it without complaint from other because the main language was English though there was lots of Japanese spoken in it.  One of the neat film devices used in the episodes what the lack of subtitles whenever Japanese was spoken as it was from the main characters point of view (Richard Chamberlin as an English ship pilot).  I also decided to get the book and the author (legendary James Clavel) also provided no translation from the Japanese “spoken” in the novel.

During the original airing, the network ran the episodes five days in a row.  The first and last episodes (each three hours) and the three in the middle (each 2 hours) garnered about 24-25 million viewers—an average of about 32-33 nielson rating.  Talk about a marathon, I don’t think the networks would have the guts to run a series like that again.  By that I mean they would probably do one episode a week and break it up into one hour segments.  If that were to happen I believe it would totally take away from the flavor of the series.  The book (about 1200 pages) is even better than the series though both in my opinion are legendary works especially for their time.

The cast:  Richard Chamberlin, who needs no introduction, went on to make the Thorn Birds after this epic, Torisho Mifune, Japans legendary film star for probably 40 years prior to Shogun and anyone who watched Star Trek Voyager knows John Rhys-Davies (cast as Da Vinci in Voyager an often seen guest in Capt. Janeway’s hologram fantasies) playing the flamboyant Portuguese ship pilot Vasco Rodrigues.  There are more of course but these three are the best known.

After his Dutch trading ship Erasmus and its surviving crew is blown ashore by a violent storm at Injiro on the east coast of Japan, Pilot-Major John Blackthorne, the ship’s English navigator, is taken prisoner by samurai warriors. When he is later temporarily released, he must juggle his self-identity as an Englishman associated with other Europeans in Japan, namely Portuguese traders and Jesuit priests, with the alien Japanese culture into which he has been thrust and now must adapt to in order to survive. Being an Englishman, Blackthorne is at both religious and political odds with his enemy, the Portuguese, and the Catholic Church’s Jesuit order. The Catholic foothold in Japan puts Blackthorne, a Protestant and therefore a heretic, at a political disadvantage. But this same situation also brings him to the attention of the influential Lord Toranaga, who mistrusts this foreign religion now spreading in Japan. He is competing with other samurai warlords of similar high-born rank, among them Catholic converts, for the very powerful position of Shōgun, the military governor of Japan.

Through an interpreter, Blackthorne later reveals certain surprising details about the Portuguese traders and their Jesuit overlords which forces Toranaga to trust him; they forge a tenuous alliance, much to the chagrin of the Jesuits. To help the Englishman learn their language and to assimilate to Japanese culture, Toranaga assigns a teacher and interpreter to him, the beautiful Lady Mariko, a Catholic convert, and one of Toranaga’s most trusted retainers. Blackthorne soon becomes infatuated with her, but Mariko is already married, and their budding romance is ultimately doomed by future circumstances.

Blackthorne saves Toranaga’s life by audaciously helping him escape from Osaka Castle and the clutches of his longtime enemy, Lord Ishido. To reward the Englishman for saving his life, and to forever bind him to the warlord, Toranaga makes Blackthorne hatamoto, a personal retainer, and gifts him with a European flintlock pistol. Later, Blackthorne again saves Toranaga’s life during an Earthquake by pulling him from a fissure that opened and swallowed the warlord, nearly killing him. Having proved his worth and loyalty to the warlord, during a night ceremony held before a host of his assembled vassals and samurai, Lord Toranaga makes Blackthorne a samurai; he awards him the two swords, 20 kimonos, 200 of his own samurai, and an income-producing fief, the fishing village Anjiro where Blackthorne was first blown ashore with his ship and crew. Blackthorne’s repaired ship Erasmus, under guard by Toranaga’s samurai and anchored near Kyoto, is lost to fire, which quickly spread when the ships’ night lamps were knocked over by a storm tidal surge. During a later attack on Osaka Castle by the secretive Amida Tong (Ninja assassins), secretly paid for by Lord Ishido, Mariko is killed while saving Blackthorne’s life, who’s temporarily blinded by the black powder explosion that kills his lover.

As Shōgun concludes, Blackthorne is supervising the construction of a new ship, The Lady; it is being built with funds Mariko left to him in her will for this very purpose. Blackthorne is observed at a distance by Lord Toranaga; a voice over reveals the warlord’s inner thoughts: It was he who ordered the Erasmus destroyed by fire, not from a tidal surge, in order to keep Blackthorne safe from his Portuguese enemies who feared his actions with the ship; Blackthorne still has much to teach Toranaga. And, if need be, the warlord will destroy the ship Blackthorne is currently building. He also discloses Mariko’s secret but vital role in the grand deception of his enemies, and, as a result, how she was destined to die gloriously in Osaka Castle and live forever, helping to assure his coming final victory. The warlord knows that Blackthorne’s karma brought him to Japan and that the Englishman, now his trusted retainer and samurai, is destined never to leave. Toranaga also knows it is his karma to become Shōgun.

In the miniseries epilogue it is revealed that Toranaga and his army are triumphant at the Battle of Sekigahara; he captures and then disgraces his old rival, Lord Ishido, and takes 40,000 enemy heads, after which he then fulfills his destiny by becoming Shōgun.

The story has most of the elements of the warring states period and the rise of Tokugawa Ieyasu to Shogun.  He was one of the lords who pledged to take care of the Taiko, he also won the Battle of Sekigahara so anyone who is even slightly versed in this area of history can see the parallels.  It is a great series, take the time to watch it you won’t regret it.

 
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Posted by on November 12, 2015 in Movie Reviews

 

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Episode one of the “Splendid Family”

The episode opens up in postwar Japan with the splendid family at a hotel they go to every year to welcome in the new year.  While the rest of the family waits, the elder son and main character Teppi is running late because he’s taking care of some business at the family conglomerates steel factory which he is in charge of.  He has just signed a deal with a new company because his new technology is 10 times stronger than anything else in Japan.

As the family begins to sit down for dinner and take the traditional annual photograph Teppi makes a just-in-time.  He is scolded by his father, the patriarch of the family, as well as the family “Butler” a woman who arranges many of the family’s affairs including marriages, meetings and other family business.  The Butler also has the luxury of sleeping with the father when he chooses, as he did on New Year’s Eve after dinner.

We then follow the father to the family bank which is the center of the family’s fortune and the conglomerate of companies.  As he is walking to his office, he looks onto the bank floor and sees hundreds people working and expresses concern for them and their families.  We have also learned that the Treasury Department of Japan is following America’s lead in consolidating the country’s banks in order to increase capital availability and modernize the economy.  Manypo (the father) has grown the family bank from being a local city branch to the 10th largest bank in the country.  However, because he is the 12th largest bank he is ripe for acquisition and will likely be merged into one of the larger banks thereby losing his authority and other privileges of ownership.  Out of necessity he looks to his son-in-law (a high ranking treasury official) for a way to employ strategy whereby a smaller bank would gobble up the larger bank.  A risky and complicated proposition.

Meanwhile his son Teppi decides that he needs to build a blast furnace in order to stay competitive in the steel industry.  This is no small task, requiring billions of Japanese yen in order to construct such a machine.  If the blast furnace is built successfully, it will be one of only a few in Japan that is able to make modern steel for cars and other heavy industry.  He approaches his father for the financing of this technological marvel who agrees to take the matter under advisement.  What we don’t know is why father and son have such a cold relationship given that Teppi seems very likable and capable–everything a father would possibly want a son to be.

We start to get hints when one evening the father is out looking at his koi pond and sees a praying mantis stuck in spiders web that is about to be devoured.  He thinks to himself he is more like my father than me.  He becomes even more spooked while the two of them are at the same pond later in the day and Teppi is able to summon the largest fish known as shogun by clapping his hands.

At this point things are still setting up and background is starting to be filled in as to the intra-family relationships as well as some family history that may be dark and swept under the rug begins to surface.  But the stage is being said for a long, interesting and complicated set of maneuvers supposedly among family members that are to be loyal to each other but instead will slowly stab each other in the back.

 

Next time episode two.

 

 
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Posted by on May 21, 2014 in Movie Reviews

 

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The fisherman versus the fighters: Ganryujima (2003).

Anyone who knows anything about this site is familiar with our passion for Asian films.  One of the central figures in these films is the famed 17th century Japanese swordsman Miyamoto Musashi.  Typically Musashi is portrayed as a dignified and violent, yet philosophical Ronin.  Not in Ganryujima this time he is and psychotic, vulgar, violent and cruel bully, carrying with him the aura of an insane homeless man who is the center of his own megalomaniacal universe.

The movie focuses on the duel with Sasaki Kojiro on Ganryu Island.  From the opening scene Musashi is clearly the villain and Sasaki Kojiro is the honorable samurai and Musashi apologist.  Kojiro goes so far as to defend each of Musashi’s cruel actions as a necessary byproduct of the duels he was in.  Ganryujima points out that this duel which made him the undisputed fencing champion of Japan is never mentioned in Musashi’s famous Book of The Five Rings.  The film has a theory why Musashi left this out of his book; that is, he does not remember it because the fisherman taking him out to the island duel knocked him out cold with an oar and that he is mistaken for Musashi.  Since the fisherman has no fencing skills, he ends up killing a befuddled Kojiro in self-defense who is unprepared for such an outlandish bout.  When Musashi comes to, he has temporary amnesia that quickly vanishes—along with his disgraceful characteristics.  Musashi is “re-born” as the Ronin we all know and love.  It is not a great movie; however anyone with any interest in the swordsman really should take a look at this novel view of Musashi.

The film starts after Musashi has defeated Baiken, destroyed the entire Yoshioka School and he has beheaded the ten year old Yoshioka figurehead.  In Ganryujima he is not traveling to the famous island to fight a duel with Kojiro. He is taking a boat ride to die.  The movie makes a game of having him “forget” his swords and having the runs, but by the end of the movie, when his real personality emerges it is obvious this was not a matter of forgetting anything.

While Kojiro waits for Muashi, he explains the real reason for the duel to one of the naïve witnesses; that Kojiro is to die even if he wins the duel and that the unknowing naïve witness is to kill Kojiro should Muashi fail too.  We are then walked through Kojiro’s situation of the clan using the duel as an assassination play because many of the non-mainstream retainers look to Kojiro and the Sasaki family as their leaders in a revolt.  Knowing that if the central government finds out about a revolt their clan will be dissolved, they decide to sacrifice Kojiro.  I’d  just like to say that these Asian people are really into the clan system and I wish someone would tell me why anything can be done as long as it is in the name of the clan it is ok?

After the fisherman kills Kojiro and returns to his hamlet with a barely conscious Musashi, a mass of samurai who have come for their revenge.  Now Musashi does not want to fight but is left with no alternative.  First he beats them without cutting them, but after a few moments it is clear that he will have to kill them all by releasing the beast within himself.  The transition from the dignified Ronin to the animal killer reminds me of Bruce Banner’s transformation into the Incredible Hulk.  Like the Incredible Hulk, Musashi butchers his opponents almost gracefully.  This scene alone makes the movie worth watching.

I give this film full credit for its originality; I was totally taken by surprise—which almost never happens.  And while the cinematography was excellent, for some reason it had a made-for-tv-movie feel about it.  For Dangerous its final fight scene (shown in full here) is spectacularly choreographed rivaling any I have seen.  But again, I just can’t shake the made-for-tv-movie feel.  It does not matter.  As I mentioned above anyone with any interest in the legendary swordsman should take the time to view this film.

 
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Posted by on April 27, 2013 in Movie Reviews

 

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Talk about getting the screw job–you’ve got to see this The Betrayal (1966).

As you all know, Ichikawa Raizo is one of my favorite actors of all time.  His stock only increased after seeing this hard to find film.

The Betrayal is a black and white cinematography classic that should be more often acknowledged as the great piece that it is. The story is about a naively honorable samurai (played by Ichikawa Raizo) who comes to the bitter realization that his devotion to the moral samurai principles makes him a very vulnerable person. He ends up taking the blame for other’s evil deeds, with an understanding that he will be exiled for one year and restored to the clan’s good graces after the political situation dies down. But as betrayal begins to heap upon betrayal, he realizes he’ll have to live out his life as a ronin at best, at worst hunted down and killed.

The movie opens when a samurai enters the Minazuki clan’s school of Issaka Yaichiro to challenge the master to a fight who is currently away. Kobuse Takuma (Ichikawa Raizo) receives him, and the samurai, from the Iwashiro Clan, calls him into a duel. Kobuse refuses, and the samurai leaves. On his way home, however, the samurai is shooting his mouth off and he is followed by two members of the Minazuki clan and in an act of cowardice, the gum flapping samurai is killed from behind. His clan discovers the murder, and calls for the murderer(s) to be discovered, arrested and punished, whoever they may be. A Minazuki clan official, Kobuse’s soon to be father-in-law, devises a scheme to cover up the scandal: Kobuse will take the blame and disappear for a year while the soon-to-be father in law tries to iron things out even going so far as to say that he will commit seppuku to prove Kobuse’s innocence. Only a fool would buy into this scheme, but as a soon-to-be son in law, Kobuse probably felt obligated to agree.

As we follow his year in exile we see Kobuse degenerate from the upstanding disciple that he was into a soused ronin. But the year in exile is not the heart of this film.

The climax of the film is one of the most detailed, well planned and well executed ones I have ever seen. The integration of a variety of devices (a water well and bucket, ladders, wooden boards, carts, ropes, and several different kinds of weapons), makes Raizo’s sword-fighting worthy of Musashi’s legendary status by enduring one of the most epic battles since Musashi’s clash against the entire Yoshioka school. Typically extended movie fights tend to become superfluous after a while, particularly when the hero never tires or otherwise loses his edge due to battle fatigue, but here, after wave upon wave of assaults, Raizo physically deteriorates, starting on his feet and eventually rolling around in the dirt. He becomes parched, thirsting for water, his hair disheveled, his hand so tense that he can’t let go of his sword even after it is broken and his face is in pure agony. For Kobuse, this is more than a fight; it regresses into an almost reptilian rage to survive.

Even after he is acknowledged as innocent, samurai pride will not permit the carnage to stop. Whether or not he can survive, with our hero’s hard breathing, staggering exhaustion, at times barely able to stand, it is tortuous and agonizing to watch him. The final images of Raizo’s worn-down figure barely still standing above the carnage, with his girlfriend (Kaoru Yachigusa) knelt before him, has less a sense of victory about it than a sense of appalling disgust with a warrior culture that could lead to such a monstrous moment.

A majority of chambara fans (especially those who love samurai for their “exoticism”) probably just watch for the Cuisinart effect, and really don’t care about the nuances of culture and history that may be gleaned from such movies. This is a film that can be appreciated by that lot, and also by those who have a more serious, more academic interest in samurai life on film. Why The Betrayal this isn’t as famous as some other chambara film from the 1960’s is a question I can’t answer. The bottom line is that The Betrayal is arguably the legendary Ichikawa Raizo’s best performance.

 

 
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Posted by on February 26, 2013 in Movie Reviews

 

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