I said a few days ago that I expected this to be rubbish, but I was wrong. "Rubbish" doesn't do it justice. It's a formulaic, perfunctory insult to the audience and to the material, with everything that could possibly have been of interest taken out.
I'm talking about the live-action adaptation of Go Nagai's Abashiri Family, needless to say. It's straight-to-DVD, in case you hadn't guessed. My word, Japan makes some horrible films. I couldn't pretend that the 1991 anime version
is going to be appreciated by everyone, although I'd say it's far more richer and interesting than it looks, but compared with this it suddenly looks like a masterpiece.
You'll enjoy it more if you're unfamiliar with the source material, needless to say. The characters are wacky and the actors' performances aren't actually that bad. The pretty girls they've cast are merely bad actors instead of making you want to smash your television, while the men are hamming it up like nobody's business. At least you can't say they lack energy. If this film could be said to have a saving grace, they'd be it... except that they're not really, because no one's managing to hit the true heights of mega-acting, while you'll want to kill the buffoons who are polluting your eyeballs as Goemon and Kichiza. I don't blame them. That's what the director wanted. They're doing what they're told and pushing it beyond all sensible limits, which is arguably even the correct decision in the context of this movie.
Mind you, I've just looked up Yakan Nabe (playing the schoolboy Kichiza) and it turns out he was only thirty. Wow. I could have sworn he was fifty-five.
The actor who comes off best is Jiro Sato as the bad guy, who's kind of amazing in how much pantomime he's cramming into every line of his dialogue. He's not the best I've seen, but he gets eleven out of ten for effort and he has scary hair. Meanwhile Shun Sugata is slightly more restrained as the Abashiri patriarch, Daemon, as is appropriate for an actor who's done lots of proper films, usually as a villain. He's in Kill Bill
, The Last Samurai and some Takashi Miike movies (Ichi the Killer
, Izo). The headline attraction though is Erika Tonooka (Kikunosuke) from the Fuji TV idol group Idoling!!!, which means she's part of the group's TV variety show as well as releasing albums, singles, DVD specials and so on. She's pretty. That's the sole reason for watching her. She doesn't get as flat-out horrible as Maria Yoshikawa, but equally she in no way fits the badass role of Kikunosuke.
Oh, and there's one more good thing here. Kyoji Kamui isn't bad as Naojiro. He's really tall, he's got a suitable level of panto in his performance and I quite liked his fight scenes. Naojiro's a cyborg, so it's quite cool to see punks hitting him with iron bars as the soundtrack contributes some clangs.
Apart from that, I pretty much hated the whole thing.
Firstly, they've ditched all the character motivation. The anime had the Abashiris sending Kikunosuke to school because she wanted to stop killing people and become a normal girl. Here there's none of that. They've been captured and given chips in their heads to stop them committing violent acts, so the story boils down to "punks bully the Abashiris until we reach the third act and there's violence". Admittedly Kikunosuke does have a plot thread involving Maria Yoshikawa's character that had the potential to be powerful, but unfortunately the girls are such poor actors that in the end it'll make you laugh instead. And not in a good way. Furthermore there's none of Go Nagai's anarchist subtext, since the whole thing's set in some kind of outlaw city at the foot of Mount Fuji called the Nippon Extra-Territory. Everyone there is a criminal and Jiro Sato rules it like a dictator, executing people at random and letting his daughter implant mind-control chips in his enemies' heads. Admittedly the fact that this city exists is in itself peculiar and there's also some murky involvement with evil international government figures of some kind, but the story comes across as a struggle between rival gangsters rather than any kind of larger statement about society.
On top of that, there's no opening act in which we see the Abashiris doing what they do best. In fact no one except Kikunosuke has any character journey and hers fails. The five Abashiris end the film exactly as they started it... annoying gangsters who kill people and aren't even cool about it.
The script also makes less sense than... okay, I realise how pointless this criticism is. However we're talking about bad guys who say they've discovered the criminal gene and that sticking chips in the Abashiris' heads will give them everything they need to eliminate crime from human society.
Then we have the production values. Let me just set the stage here. I'm a Doctor Who fan. I understand the tokusatsu vibe of deliberately bad special effects. However the cheapness we have here isn't bad enough to be funny, but instead more like a school production. People throw obvious stage punches that don't touch their targets and are killed when a sword passes between their arm and their body. Fight scenes are almost entirely static because no one in front of the camera is capable of doing any kind of action and for all functional purposes might as well be a tailor's dummy. "She's strong!" says Tonooka, five seconds into an action scene in which her opponent has barely even lifted her sword. The film's idea of bullying would be about right for eight-year-olds, which is unfortunate since being bullied is our heroes' main problem for about half the film.
In fairness, the fight scenes improve in the third act. This is largely because all previous fight scenes had contained no fighting. There's also some silly CGI, which looks okay.
Finally, let me say two words. NO NUDITY. This is a live-action Go Nagai adaptation that doesn't seem not to have realised he's a dirty old man. I'm not saying that even sleaze could have made this a good film, but at least it would have given it more personality. Besides, nudity is nudity. However I suppose Tonooka's the wrong kind of celebrity for that.
I really disliked this film. However I was clearly taking it too seriously, since I was coming in with (low) expectations and comparing it with anything other than similar straight-to-DVD trash. I've found an online review from someone who says they laughed out loud throughout and thought it was a decent silly comedy. What's more, I can sort of see that. At least the characters are just as over-the-top as you'd want from a Go Nagai adaptation, with performances to match. If you're happy to ignore plot, theme and pretty much all other quality measures, then perhaps you might find yourself enjoying seventy minutes of silliness. Me, though, I just thought it was too obviously not even trying. Kichiza's explosives never explode where they might hurt someone or damage anything, for instance.
It also has a sequel-hunting ending. No, no, no.