Shinobi

A four movie set whose value makes up for the various shortcomings of the story and presentation.

What They Say
In the world of the Ninja, skills as a fighter play only a small role in determining one's rank among the order of Shinobi. Kageru is from the village of Shiroyama. He is strong, fast and extremely intelligent - the best in his class. But therein lies the problem, for Kageru's birth predestines him to the lower class of Shinobi. His friend Aoi finds herself in the same situation, and together they will be forced to question not only themselves, but also some of the most sacred edicts of the Shinobi hierarchy.

They must choose between their mission and their lives, and between their destinies and the Law of Shinobi. Kagerou and Aoi soon become fugitives, pursued by the Shinobi of Shiroyama, and assassins hailing from all the families of Iga. The chase is on. Kagerou and Aoi are left to search for both the sincerity of their allegiances as well as asylum from their hunters. Such are their lives as Runaways.

Contains all four Shinobi movies:
The Law of Shinobi
Runaway LiveAction
Hidden Techniques
A Way Out

The Review!
Audio:
The release contains both an English and Japanese 2.0 track. For the purpose of this review the Japanese track was used. The track is a basic one with no real frills with the sound split among the front three speakers and no real use of directionality. The track was free of dropouts or distortions and was otherwise solid as the dialogue never was lost during action scenes. The English track was also spot checked and was free of distortions and dropouts where sampled.

Video:
The video is a step back in that the presentation is 16:9 letterbox format. The video encode has a good deal of problems of which noise, aliasing, color blur, dot crawl, and shimmer. There is also a softness to the picture and it looks like the low budget had the crew using the cheapest film they could find. There are also points in the film where different types of cameras are used and the change in film stock is noticeable during scenes those scenes.

Packaging:
The packaging is a standard two disc case and each disc has two of the movies on it. The cover has a close up of a shinobi in mask dominating the majority of the frame. At the lower half there is a cast line up with the two main actors front and center and most of the rest of the main supporting cast spread behind them. The background is a reddish-orange and the top of the cover has a small yellow banner proclaiming that this is a four movie set. The back continues the reddish-orange color and there is a black and reddish hue image of Kagerou cutting down one of his rival shinobi. The top of the cover also continues the yellow banner proclaiming this to be a two disc set. The label for the first disc has an image of Kagerou and Aoi looking like it was taken from an action scene in the film. The second disc has a static image of Kagerou and Aoi standing back to back at the bottom and five of the main characters from the third and fourth films in black and red at the top of the disc.

Menus:
The menu for the first disc has an image of Kagerou on the top left half. There is an earth tone marble back ground behind him. The bottom half of the screen is white with two vertical yellow lines and a faded pink in front of each selection. The selection highlighted is indicated by a bright yellow line that runs to the left edge of the screen. The second disc has an image of Aoi against the right of the upper also against the same earth tone marble back ground. The second disc uses the same white lower half and yellow indicators as the first disc. The menu is quick to respond to selections and to initiate the film selected.

Extras:
This feature contains no extras.

Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers):
The world of the shinobi is wrapped in darkness where loyalty to one’s clan is the ultimate rule and any violating it will be severely punished by all shinobi clans. In this world the lower ranking shinobi are born and raised knowing that they do not have control over their own fate and that their death is inevitable. Their skills can only delay that fact, not prevent it. In such a world the freedom to love who they choose is as forbidden as betrayal and the class system can lock one in so they cannot fulfill all their potential.

During an era of war one such Genin (lowest ranked shinobi) is Kagerou from Shiroyama village. Kagerou is recognized by the leaders in the village for the skills he possesses and is trusted to carry out any mission given him. When Kagerou is given a dangerous assignment he chooses to take his childhood friend Aoi with him as she is the only person he trusts. After finishing their mission the two discuss their station in life. Both are orphans whose parents were killed in service to the village and neither one wants the inevitable death their station will bequeath on them.

Kagerou also has trouble getting along with the other regular members of the village as they are envious of his abilities. When Aoi’s cousin is attacked and killed before Aoi by the Genin leader who both envies Kagerou and lusts after Aoi she flees the village. This act brands her a deserter and a group of shinobi set out to kill her as their law requires. Kagerou is sent out by the village elder to bring her back but discovers that the boss may have ulterior motives of his own with what he has assigned to Kagerou. Eventually Kagerou and Aoi make a decision that they will continue their life as deserters despite the consequences this may bring on them after they meet up.

Kagerou’s only hope turns south as the village leader who knows the truth behind Kagerou’s mission (and is accepting of what he is doing) is assassinated by Rokkaku-a scheming member of the Jonin class-and blame is placed on Kagerou for the murder. Kagerou and Aoi’s life will be difficult as they have been reported as runaways and a meeting between Rokkaku and the leaders of others from the twelve shinobi clans guarantees they will not be welcome in any other village. Kagerou is then put in between a rock and a hard place as he appears to gain an ally he does not trust as some of those in his home village with a deep grudge set upon him. Even his skill may not be enough to survive the encounter.

As this is going on the depths of the shadows of the shinobi world will be laid bare as various schemers plot to consolidate power over the 13 clans in Iga. The lines will become blurred as the two leaders trying to grasp power for themselves start maneuvering their pawns across the board. What part does Kagerou play in the schemes and what will happen to Aoi when the two powers decide she is the key to controlling Kagerou? Does even the most skilled shinobi of the age have the power to protect the one person he cares about in his life or will he discover there are limits even he can’t surpass?

Shinobi is a decent though roughly average series of movies that follow 2 people who have come to question their place in life and whether their commitment to each other is greater than their commitment to the life they have been raised in. The films seem longer than they are as some of the plot could have been condensed. The action scenes are well choreographed but the low budget for the films doesn’t give much space for spectacular wire work so the action tends to feel a bit repetitive even when it is not.

In Summary:
Shinobi is a collected release of four films in a series that began in 2002. The budget for the films was low but the cast and crew do a good job most of the time of knowing what their limitations are and shooting in such a way that those limitations aren’t as obvious. The films feel like they could have been shortened to two or three films and still produced the same effect. The films are rather average with little to make them stand out positively or negatively. They are hard to watch in a marathon session though due to the lack of any really memorable events. Still it is a good value for an acceptable collection of films.

Features
Japanese 2.0 Language, English 2.0 Language, English Subtitles

Review Equipment

Samsung 50" Plasma HDTV, Denon AVR-790 Receiver with 5.1 Sony Surround Sound Speakers, Sony PlayStation3 Blu-ray player via HDMI set to 1080.

Grade: C-
Audio Rating: B
Video Rating: D+
Packaging Rating: C+
Menus Rating: C
Extras Rating: NA
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Ryuji the Yakuza


Ryuji the Yakuza
© Switchblade Pictures
A tale of a hardboiled yakuza member with a heart of justice.

What They Say
Behind a bloody veil of mystery, the puppetmasters of the Yakuza secretly control Japan. Yet for all their power, the Yakuza are governed by their own codes of loyalty and honor, and there are those who are seen not as criminals, but heroes. Ryuji Ogami, of the Goda-gumi, is one such enigma: torn between the worlds of Bullets and Bushido, his hidden compassion perfectly balances the brutal force of his lethal iron hand. If your cause is just, it is said, seek out Ryuji. But endanger those he cherishes, like young club hostess Megumi and his junior Kazuki, and he will find you. And when the code of the Yakuza is violated by his own gang, Ryuji's own code will leave him no choice. The city will burn as the deadliest man in Yokohama takes on his own in Ryuji The Yakuza! the complete collection!

The Review!
Audio:
The only tack available on this release is a 2.0 Japanese track. Like other Switchblade releases the track itself is a basic one with little in the way of frills but competently done with no dropouts or distortions noticeable. Most of the dialogue is split between the front three speakers which adds a touch of depth but not much directionality to the presentation though the audio track does a good job of separation so nothing audio wise winds up being buried by something else present in the audio track.

Video:
Originally created in 2008 by a company whose specialty involves digital downloads the feature is presented in 16:9 ratio. The video doesn’t fare as well as the audio as there is dot crawl, color bleed, blocking noise and softness present throughout the feature though this may be a reflection of however the company filmed it focusing on making it presentable for computer downloads more than an HD setup.

Packaging:
The front of the cover features a close up of Ryuji in his suit against a yellow and orange backdrop that features a bridge and a defeated opponent lying on the ground. The title is center of the cover with the word “Ryuji” being blocking outlines over the part which overlaps the bridge but orange red on the parts that overlap the picture of Ryuji. The back has a picture of the shipping docks where some of the story takes place as well as four stills from the series and a black and white shot of Ryuji. The DVD label features a close up of some of the cranes from the shipping dock shown on the back also with yellow orange background. The title “Ryuji” mimics the DVD cover’s presentation of outline with deep orange used inside those lines later in the title.

Menus:
The menu is a static affair featuring an image of Ryuji on the right against the orange black colored shipping dock cranes while part of the opening theme plays in the background. “Ryuji the Yakuza” is written in white over the individual listings for the four episodes. The menu is quick to respond to selections chosen and there is a small deep orange dot that appears over which option is currently highlighted.

Extras:
This feature contains no extras

Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers):
Ryuji the yakuza is a four episode series that follows some of the events of a high ranking member of the criminal enterprise. As is not uncommon with these types of stories what the audience is shown is that Ryuji has a strong sense of justice despite his occupation and often sets about saving those around him. No time is spent showing the gangster going around doing actual gangster stuff (well, other than beating down those who stand against him but it is for a good cause and all) so it is more than a little on the idealized side of things to make the main character connect with the audience better.

The first episode starts as Ryuji Ogami is walking the streets of his territory with his faithful friend/subordinate Kazuki Kishida by his side. The two come across a young woman being harassed by 3 men which prompts Ryuji to step in and help her. At three on one the fight is decidedly one sided as Ryuji saves the woman with ease demonstrating his fighting prowess. Ryuji and Kazuki then visit their favorite little bar where they are regulars. The bar is run by a brother (Yuichi) and sister (Hiromi) though the sister distrusts Ryuji because of his being yakuza.

A subplot is introduced as Ryuji is at a host club later in the evening. A new server (Megumi) has just arrived and she bares a striking resemblance to a woman Ryuji used to know and still watches old film recordings that he made of. In flashback the audience is shown that she died in a violent manner in their apartment and he discovered her body. This subplot will be used throughout the four episodes so little more is touched on it right away. Meanwhile Hiromi finds herself being harassed by a small gang when a rather timid man comes to her rescue. Hiromi falls for him after he manages to bluff the gang off but soon discovers she is over her head in a blackmail situation. As her brother prepares to help her out he passes Ryuji in the street who sees that something is wrong. After a confrontation with the siblings Ryuji sets out to make things right and the audience is introduced to a shadow player behind the scenes who is not happy with Ryuji’s interference.

The second episode opens with a gang wearing masks has been assaulting people including a police officer whose gun they steal. The next morning Ryuji is trying to shake off the reoccurring nightmare of finding the body of the women he loved by hitting the training gym he practices his fighting at. While he is doing that Kazuki is at the siblings bar having a date with a woman he met through a service and hitting it off well. The threads then show that the gang is taking orders from someone not shown and are planning to strike couples that night.

When Ryuji leaves the gym he encounters a police officer friend who is looking for info on this gang that stole the gun and hoping Ryuji’s organization had heard something he would be willing to share. Ryuji meets with the head of his group to find that the masked group is hunting on their turf and causing the police no end of strife and the boss wants it stopped. The audience also will recognize a face at the table from the previous episode. Ryuji was already hunting the masked group but when they assault Kazuki and his date the payback rises as Ryuji doubles down on his search for them and the price he will collect from them.

From here the story progresses as Ryuji has to deal with his inability to see Megumi separate from the woman of his past, Kazuki is still dealing with the results of the previous episode while a new person of need falls into his lap. Ryuji comes across a man being shaken down and becomes familiar with the man and his daughter. When the truth behind the man’s issue is laid bare after his daughters kidnapping will Ryuji be the only hope the man has? And what will happen as one of his fellow high ranking members is making noise about both Ryuji’s propensity to step into troubles he has no need to and his falling revenues as he seems to be doing less in regard to his yakuza activities.

The final episode brings things to a boil as Ryuji starts to come to terms with Megumi and deal with her as an individual and not just because of the woman in his past he sees in her. Ryuji then gets tangled in a web when he finds that a member of his group looks to be making political deals on his own and jeopardizing the group’s ability to work. When the tangled web pulls in Megumi and she is victim of a horrible assault Ryuji goes into a fight even he may not be able to walk away from but one that Ryuji principals will not allow him to avoid. Will Ryuji finally find that there are odds even he cannot overcome as he walks his conflicting path of personal ethics and yakuza loyalty?

Ryuji the Yakuza is a short series following a man of conscious and skimming over criminal activities that a real individual would be plagued with. Ryuji is a man of action and more a throwback to the old “nice” yakuza stereotype but it can make for a refreshing change of pace form the more realistic gangsters doing gangster things films. There is a healthy dose of action that doesn’t forget to try to work the humanity angle as well. Ryuji is a one man wrecking crew as the pieces of another’s machinations start to close around him and betrayal raises its ugly head. Given long odds Ryuji still won’t back down and charges ahead to keep his principles intact. Those who like a more rough and realistic approach to yakuza films won’t be all that satisfied here and the stories are a touch melodramatic but with the right characters that approach can work-and it does here.

In Summary:
Ryuji the yakuza is a rather light but still enjoyable tale of a yakuza man who champions the little guy despite his status in life. Granted it paints over the real nature of yakuza-particularly high ranking members-but that is something that often happens in fiction. The series works to establish a connection between Ryuji and the audience by showing him as an ethical man who has a horrible past that he is eventually tries to get past. The scoundrel with the good heart is a common theme and that may cause the series not to play as well to some others and the stories aren’t overly complicated. Still it is a fun little series with some nice characters and some action for fans of the genera.

Features
Japanese 2.0 Language, English Subtitles

Review Equipment
Samsung 50" Plasma HDTV, Denon AVR-790 Receiver with 5.1 Sony Surround Sound Speakers, Sony PlayStation3 Blu-ray player via HDMI set to 1080.

Grade: B
Audio Rating: B-
Video Rating: C+
Packaging Rating: B
Menus Rating: C
Extras Rating: N/A
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Life Gamble

A film where betrayal is the coin of the realm and even old friends cannot be trusted-let alone all the scoundrels who swarm around in an attempt to gain a rare and valuable prize whose cost maybe death.

What They Say
Kung Fu fans with a bloodlust for backstabbing bad guys and gut-wrenching plot twists need look no further than this offering from the Godfather of Hong Kong Cinema, Chang Cheh. Life Gamble is the tale of a Kung Fu blacksmith caught in a life and death struggle between dueling knife-slingers, the seductress who kills with her smile, a murderous iron-fisted villain, and the ruthless king of gamblers. Starring Hong Kong screen-idols Alexander Fu Sheng (Brave Archer) and Kuo Chui (Demon of the Lute, Brave Archer And His Mate), this sanguine saga of thievery, gambling, and cold-blooded murder drives audiences to the edge of their seats, leaving them nervously watching their backs long after the credits have rolled.

The Review!
Audio:
For the purposes of this review the viewing of the film was done in its original Mandarin mono language option. The audio is clear with no drop outs or distortions noted. The English mono dub was spot checked and there were no distortions or drop outs there either.

Video:
The biggest disappointment in this release is that its 16:9 presentation is not anamorphic widescreen. The film was created in 1978 and the transfer is otherwise rather well done. Colors and shadows come across clean with a lack of bleed or other issues were noted.

Packaging:
The cover presents two scenes from the end of the film with one of the characters standing in front of his private army on the top half or the cover and separated from an image of him fighting at the bottom by a large white banner giving the name of the feature and showing the Shaw Brothers logo. The back has an almost line-up like image showing the main players in this story while the banner has a picture of the original theatrical poster as well as some stills from the film under that. Like FUNimation's other Shaw releases this one comes with a slip cover that mirrors the DVDs presentation of the cover.

Menus:
The main menu is a static picture from the top half of the front cover running the entire screen and the white banner overlaying it much like it does on the cover providing the selection options. There is a piece of music that plays in the background that appears to be one that the Shaw Brothers liked to use to signify that this is one of their films. The menu options are quick to respond when selected . No glitches were noted when shifting between options.

Extras:
This feature contains no extras.

Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
The film opens in a small Chinese village where a blacksmith is plying his trade. He is approached by the famous swordsman Mo Jun Feng to make him a set of knives like the ones he has lost. Mo believes the blacksmith to be Qui Zi Yu who was a weapons maker of great renown who made excellent weapons for martial arts experts and only asked that the recipient of them teach him one of their special skills. However Qui disappeared three years back and now Mo believes he has tracked Qui down. The blacksmith denies being Qui and claims he only makes farm tools and not weapons. As Mo is trying to persuade Qui to listen to him a carriage arrives in need of repair. The driver is a man known for his work with a whip and his passenger in the carriage Xiao Qiang who it turns out is also possessing of a reputation and has a history with Mo. With these many notorious people suddenly flocking to the same area it appears as if something major is up. Xiao knows that Qui was betrayed by a customer (Yan Zi Fei) and injured before he disappeared. She shares this knowledge with Mo to get him to agree to work with her in return for her persuading Qui to make daggers he wanted replaced.

It is revealed that Xiao is after a incredibly valuable jade statue which was recently stolen by four famous outlaws and will be brought to the village they are now at as it is home away from home to a master gambler called the Golden Lion. The four will trust their luck to see who will be the sole possessor of the jade and the wrath of the noble family it belongs to. As the number of people looking to obtain the jade at any means grows the film switches to show that part of why the Golden Lion is such a master a gambling is he has a device that allows him to cheat at dice. The Golden Lion is making other preparations as well, making sure the best courtesan he has-Shuang Shuang-sets up her hostess duties to put the four outlaws at easy and make them easier prey. After Shuang agrees to do so for an exceptional price the Golden Lion makes preparation to betray her as well . He talks to the assassin he rescued off the street and had raised for ten years about making sure she doesn't get away with the money after completing her task.

As these other plots are being set in motion Xiao has tracked down the man who betrayed Qui and is looking to make an example of him that will allow her to use Qui in her plans. After taking Yan's hand she approaches Qui to find he still will not help. Just after Xiao leaves a crippled Yan visits Qui and discovers Qui does not carry a grudge. Yan proclaims he has learned the errors of his ways and Qui agrees to make a replacement hand for him. Qui is then approached by another man Wu Hao who wants Qui's help as he attempts to climb the ranks of the martial arts world but finds Qui is still unwilling to reenter the martial arts world. Qui is then approached by another individual-Master Nan who is a member of a powerful family that was in charge of guarding the jade statue and is now looking to re-obtain it quietly. The final participants to take the board are Chief Constable Xiao Zi Jing and his daughter who also have a past with Qui and want his help to recover the jade. Now with the pieces on the board the story moves forward in its bloody tale of treachery, double dealing and violence in a manner that leaves the viewer wonder just who will be the next to be betrayed for the statue and what role will Qui play in each of the plots that have been hatched.

The film does a good job of mixing up the types of fighting as we get more than just hand to hand with a wide variety of weapons being used as well as setting the stage where the viewer never can be sure what angle a particular character is playing at any given time. The film also does a great job establishing some of the back stories between characters as well as establishing how they plot and scheme against each other. The biggest downside is that with so many characters it is vital to keep track of the interpersonal relationships and machinations as they are often run through quickly in order to get to the next scene establishing some more. It can also feel like a some of the characters get ushered on and off the stage at an almost breathtaking pace making it difficult to form a connection with them before they are gone.

In Summary:
Life Gamble is a story of greed and ambition woven into a complex tapestry where even one's long time allies may suddenly present the blade of a weapon to achieve their goal. There is a fairly complex layering of character histories and goals which almost makes one wish the release had included a score card to keep everything straight. Those who like tales of thieves proving there is no honor among them would do well to give this ambitious product a try but one will likely need to pay quite a bit of attention to piece together the puzzles intricacies and enjoy the full picture.

Features
English Language, Mandarin Language, English Subtitles

Review Equipment
Samsung 50" Plasma HDTV, Denon AVR-790 Receiver with 5.1 Sony Surround Sound Speakers, JVC DVD player XV-FA95GD

Grade: B
Audio Rating: B
Video Rating: B
Packaging Rating: B
Menus Rating: B
Extras Rating: NA
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Birthday Mail/Kokurri-san Double Feature

When the living attract the attention of the dead the living are at an incredible disadvantage.

What They Say
Get ready for in a horror filled Switchblade Double feature that proves that communicating with the spirit world in something best left to trained professionals - preferably on a different continent!

First, a group of Japanese girls forget the number one rule for avoiding demonic possessions and foolishly use an Ouija board in a house where a murder was committed. Now they've got the spirit and the spirit is definitely out to get them in Kokurri-san!

Next, a nasty new e-mail is making the rounds. It's not just a virus: open this message and you've got 10 days left to live! How does this all connect to a girl who committed suicide 10 years ago and is there any way to break the deadly e-mail chain? The latest recipients of the lethal love note have 10 days to unravel the answer before their time is up in Birthday Mail !

The Review!
Audio:
The only available audio track is 2.0 Japanese. It is a decent example of 2.0 in that the dialogue is clear as well as the effects and background music are normally fine. At a few points a couple pieces of whispered dialogue are hard to hear but that may be the fault of the original recording as much as anything else.

Video:
Originally made in 2008 the features are both anamorphic widescreen which is the only positive to the video. For the true videophile the encode on this is scarier than either story inside. It has so many problems- a ton of noise, pixilation, softness , serious aliasing and bleeding among them. A number of these problems are bad enough they are still visible on a 15" computer monitor and just distracting as all get out on a 50". There are moments the image is so bad it looks like poor computer rendered work-which doesn't add up when you know it is live people acting. This may be the poorest video quality I have ever seen-at least certainly from a professional studio in a long time.

Packaging:
The cover is a split affair with the characters from Birthday Mail on the top and the three main characters and ghost from Kokurri-san on the bottom. The Birthday Mail image has a split face shot merging a normal shot of the main character with a possessed look and the second character faded in the background against a green backdrop. Appropriately enough the image looks to be having interlacing problems which is interesting given the video problems within. The bottom half has the three main characters looking like they are standing against a red shaded background with the image of the ghost from the feature added into the background. The back features shots of the ghosts from both stories-oddly on the opposite side from where the title for each is on top of the back cover. The copy is split in half with the left side describing Birthday Mail and the Right Kokurri-san. There are nine screen grabs on the back from the two features.

Menu:
The menu is a relatively basic fare with the main character from Birthday Mail's face on one side and the main character for Kokkuri-san [sic] on the other. The menu shows which title you have selected. When it is Birthday Mail the Japanese characters for 'Die' surround the title and for Kokkuri-san it has a star and circle behind it. The menu is quick to respond however.

Extras:
These features contain no extras.
.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Birthday Mail
As the film opens we see an elderly woman praying in front of a household memorial for a girl named Ayako. A quick cut shows a man on the street making plans with a friend about his birthday next week and then back to the elderly woman. She is chasing someone out of her house by throwing salt at them (used in Japanese culture as a purifying substance so an insult at whoever is having it thrown at her) but we are blocked from seeing the face of the offender. The elderly woman then collapses grabbing her chest but it seems no help is forthcoming. The next cut shows the man who had been making plans getting a text message at midnight on April 4th reading 'Happy Birthday' which he comments is ten days away'only to have the message add 'Congratulations, it's only ten days until your final birthday.' Initial he ignores it but ten days later he has a friend over and talks about how he has been receiving countdown messages for the last ten days. At the stroke of midnight he gets a text telling him to die and he looks up thinking he is fine only to find his friend standing over him with a knife. As his life slips away a girl's laugh can be heard.

The scene cuts to a young woman (Mio Kurotani) in her room on February 20 just before midnight as she reads a magazine. Her phone rings and it turns out it is her old friend Kenji Tsujimoto though she wants nothing to do with him and the reminder of her past he brings. He asks her birthday and finds out it is March 3 and he expresses regret. When she wonders why he explains two people they used to know both died at midnight on their birthday. It turns out Tsujimoto has been receiving the ominous texts as well. He made a guess based on the sender's name and tried to contact four other people from the past but two were dead and one was missing. He has her hold on through midnight but the phone cuts out as he starts to grab at his throat and gasp for air. As Kurotani calls back all she gets is a creepy laugh. Kurotani calls her friend Kanae who works in the urban myth section of a magazine. Kanae decides she is going to investigate for her friend as she doesn't want Kurotani to revert to the standoff and lonely person she used to be. As Kanae digs deeper she discovers far more than she ever dreamed about why her friend was the way she was when they met and how the past brought forth the current curse and why it is commencing now. It then gets even more immediate for Kanae as not only does Kurotani start receiving the countdown texts but Kanae herself gains the curse while trying to help Kurotani-and she shares the same birthday as Kurotani which is rapidly approaching.

Kokurri-san
The feature opens explaining that Kokurri-san is an activity similar to the Western Ouija board in that the participants call on a spirit to provide future knowledge. It then talks about how some saw it as dangerous and some schools banned it. The feature gives us three rules that must be followed: 1. Do not do it alone. 2. Do not let go of the 10 Yen coin during the séance. 3. Do not do it as a joke. The film then shows some very grainy (intentionally) footage of a young boy hiding in a closet with his dog looking through a crack in the door as a woman with a knife laughs maniacally and then appears right in front of the crack with a sinister expression. The title then appears and the feature cuts to a scene of a high school senior named Kotono and her giving narration about how the feature takes place a few years before. She talks about how she was going about her life of cramming for college exams as usual when she felt a pull into a shrine she was passing. As she makes a prayer to get into the school of her choice a young boy appears beside her and tells her not to worry as she'll get in. She spends some time talking to the young boy and walking him home though some friends of hers pass by and only see her talking to air.

She meets her two friends the next day and they confront her with the fact they first didn't see her talking to anyone and then that the house she dropped the boy off at has been vacant for a long time. As Kotono sneaks into the house later to confirm what she had been told she discovers that it truly is abandoned. A scratching noise in a closet draws her to a Kokurri-san board inside. As she is about to leave first an ominous woman's form is suddenly behind her and then she gets startled as the owner of the building catches her. It turns out he can't keep anyone renting the building and Kotono convinces that letting her live there rent free is better for him than him coming to check on it every day. Her parents agree because of it being far closer to school and they think it is just a temporary thing while she studies. As she is showering in her new place an ominous form again can be seen approaching through the frosted glass but when she turns it is gone. Her friends surprise her shortly after and they wind up playing Kokurri-san after they see the board. Things go innocuously until one of the girls asks how old she will be when she dies and she gets a chilling response. They then stop the game by following the rules despite the girl who got the response wanting to just leave and them finding that the spirit summoned is not willing to go back but do learn its name is Satoshi.

The story then gives a brief history on the introduction of how Kokurri-san was a product of US Marines introducing table turning to Japan in 1884. The next day Kotono sees a vision of herself cross in front of her but when she reaches the corner all that is there is a pug which she follows for a bit until she sees herself pick it up and then get hit by a car. She rushes forward but neither a body nor car is in sight. One of Kotono's friends does some research on the house to discover that a woman went insane and murdered her mother-in-law, three sons and the dog before killing herself in the house. The body of the youngest son Satoshi was never found. Kotono is saved from a terrible bout of sleep paralysis which has some supernatural elements as her friend calls her and the three gather to talk about the discovery. The girls decide that they need to go back and try to use Kokurri-san to find what happened to Satoshi-but is the grave willing to give up its secrets without a price?

In Summary:
Both features present middle of the road horror fare with Kokurri-san doing a far better job of establishing mood. Neither film will give most people chills long after-or even during-watching but both are entertaining enough as a lighter horror fare similar to the old Tales from the Dark Side or Tales from the Crypt shows where watching it at the right time can still produce a chill or two. Not a great disc for those looking for a really big scare but it can still provide a few for those looking for a less intense experience.

Features
Japanese 2.0 Language, English Subtitles

Review Equipment
Samsung 50" Plasma HDTV, Denon AVR-790 Receiver with 5.1 Sony Surround Sound Speakers, JVC DVD player XV-FA95GD

Grade: C+
Audio Rating: B
Video Rating: D-
Packaging Rating: B-
Menus Rating: B+
Extras Rating: NA
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Happiness Of The Katakuris

A perfect film for those who like their musicals black with comedy.

What They Say
The Katakuris are a four-generation family of failures (grandfather, father and mother, children, and granddaughter, who narrates the film) who use the father's redundancy pay to buy a guest house in the country. Somehow, each of their guests ends up dead - by suicide, accident, or murder - and once they have made the decision to save their business by burying the bodies and concealing the deaths, they find themselves sucked into a nightmare of lies and fear.

None of this is helped by the arrival of the daughter's con-man boyfriend, an escaped murderer with police in hot pursuit, and an erupting volcano.

The Review!
Audio:
The film itself contains only one track for the feature and that is Japanese 2.0. The presentation does a nice job with the dialogue being primarily center speaker driven but music and effects coming from the side and back speakers as well. No drop outs or distortions presented themselves during playback.

Video:
Originally released in 2001 the film is presented in 16:9 anamorphic widescreen. The film has not transferred the best as there are moments of aliasing and color bleed in certain scenes.There is a decent amount of film grain as well. Out side of this most of the colors are clean and vibrant where applicable and it pulls off the darker lit scenes without significant problems.

Packaging:
The packaging features a shot of the family in the film running against a mountainous background hand in hand in a shot that looks inspired by the Sound of Music. The blue sky overhead however is a blue tinged shot of some zombies from one point in the film and a close up on some eyes from one of the effects shot. The title is written in red and is a bit wavy which is a nice metaphor for the film. The back has an claymation effect shot from the film with a small monster tearing the uvula out of a woman and her screaming in the same blue manner as the zombies on the front cover and then 3 stills from the movie-2 with the family and one with the zombies. The packaging a bit misleading in that it gives the impression that monsters and zombies will play a large part in the film but they really do not.

Menus:
The main menu has a shot of the family standing together on a field with a rainbow over part of them and a tree on the right side foreground of the picture. The shot shifts slightly while one of the upbeat musical tracks from the film plays trying to give a pseudo 3-D feel to the screen. The language selection has the close up of a monster from the films mouth but no music. The extras section has a shot of some (dead) heads and a darker in nature musical track from the movie playing. The scene selection has a shot from a musical number with 2 characters in wedding clothes (both white colored) with them inverted and having their heads on each others shoulders with a trippy space and flower background taken from the film along with a very up beat track from that part of the film. The menu is quick to respond to selections.

Extras
The first extra is a standard making of documentary where questions are posted on the screen and various actors or the director Takashi Miike answer them inter-spaced with making of footage that shows shots being set up and some of the gags and the like that happen during the filming. The next extra is shots of the claymation from the film and a piece talking with the people in charge of that and showing how they went through putting the figures together and a little of how filming such things works. Also included are 6 interviews with the director and various actors talking about the film. The final extra is to be found in the language track menu as they have a commentary track with director Takashi Miike and accompanying commentary subtitles.

Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)

The film opens in a high class hotel's restaurant with an odd looking foursome entering the room and then focuses on a young woman who just ordered some soup. As she tries to eat it she discovers a small claymation monster in her soup. She screams and the whole scene goes claymation and the monster goes into her mouth and rips out her uvula, which then flies away as the monster chases it outside. This starts a strange little claymation scene opening with the monster being eaten by a crow, the crow by another monster and other oddities until the crow flies over the head of an old man who turns live action and hits it with a stick he throws at it. From here a young girl (Yurie) is seen to be digging in the dirt to bury her goldfish. The narration starts as we discover the film is a story told by the little girl (Yurie) when she grows up. The opening narration questions what makes a family as it is comprised of different people each with their own motivations. The film pans and introduces the viewer to the family. The first two shown are a 20 something brother (Masayuki) and sister (Shizue the young girl's mother) pair having a fight and picking at each others weak points-he that she is divorced and that she falls in love too easily and she that he spent time in jail. Their father (the narrator's grandfather) tries to break it up and the narrator explains he was a department shoe store clerk before being laid off. He has now bought a guesthouse type inn in a remote area as he heard a major road was to be built nearby and he brought/kind of forced his family to come along to help him run it. The great-grandfather seems to spend his days telling lies and throwing large bits of wood at crows as they fly overhead. There is tension in the air as they have yet to have even a single guest despite the work they put in. The grandfather is certain people will come and a group of four spiritualists from the restaurant opening show up just as there is an eclipse and start engaging in ominous and bizarre behavior that serves as a bit of a foreshadow of things to come.

The film then shifts to show the family minus the grandfather eating dinner together and showing off some quirks when Yurie asks about a deer head on the wall. The great-grandfather starts lying about it and the others lie as well to the girl (not in an unfriendly way, just the talking down to a child way adults often engage in). They also shift to carrying on other conversations as family while watching TV at the table. There is a storm outside and the power suddenly goes out just as the grandfather finally gets to the dining room and more surprisingly a guest finally arrives. The guest finds himself practically drowning in attention as the whole family tries to show him hospitality. The guest goes to his room and starts to have a vision of himself floating through the universe when Masayuki interrupts him with the beer he ordered and the guest asks Masayuki what he would do if he were to die tomorrow. Masayuki is thrown off by the question and has no good comeback to that. In the morning Shizue and Yurie go to town before the rest of the family discovers (in full musical number) the guest committed suicide-using the room key's large handle to do it. The family talks about calling the police but the grandfather refuse to let them since the guest left no note and he doesn't want it known their first guest killed himself...that and the suspicion that Masayuki might have done it since the guest wallet is missing. The grandfather then makes the decision and gets everyone present to cooperate in the act of burying the guest (in musical fashion).

Meanwhile in town Shizue is looking to fall in love-and does with a sharp dressed man in a Naval uniform (cue musical number) named Richard Sagawa who then explains he is with the US navy..no, more precisely with Britain's Royal Navy and also a secret agent. He then goes on impressing her with a string of lies any person with any character judgment could see a mile and a half off. He promises to call her and then departs.

The next day a sumo wrestler and his young girlfriend arrive at the guesthouse to have a tryst well away from prying eyes. The morning after things are complicated when they discover the wrestler died of a heart attack crushing the girlfriend just as the local constable arrives to check in with them and hand out a wanted poster that no one looks at which includes Richard's picture. The family decides to bury the wrestler and his girlfriend as doing such an act once makes it easier to rationalize repeating.

Tee arrival of some more guests has the grandfather has a flashback recalling (in musical number) the day they arrived and how he stressed the importance of living together as a family as an ominous volcano in the background rumbles and smokes. The film then picks up with Richard arriving and finding the suicide victim's wallet and another peril assaults the family as the new road that was rumored will be built near where the bodies have been hidden and possibly discovered. The danger starts to build to a precipitous level with these new guests and the troubles they bring which come to a head when the police arrive explaining a body was found nearby.

The film is a dark piece that at the same time makes light of the death that surrounds the place but also stresses the bonds and importance of family. It has some fabulous musical numbers that are really well presented and also stand on their own as just fun and often are comprised of catchy musical numbers. Also there should be praise to Eastern Star for getting and translating the director's commentary as these are often fun for gaining insight into the film and the mindset behind events. There are a few downsides to be found such as the bizarre claymation bits that just don't seem terribly necessary and an end set up that reminds the viewer that this is indeed a Miike film in its oddness. Also for a film that has as many references to zombies in the copy and cover and starts with a bizarre opening with a monster they really are no more than brief moments that come off as surreal so people looking for zombies will likely be disappointed.

In Summary:
The Happiness Of The Katakuris is a dark musical in the spirit of Little Shop of Horrors where people start to justify a terrible act and that makes the next one easier to repeat. The fact that the film does this while also delivering a positive message about the strength and importance of family with some wonderful musical numbers will likely delight those who enjoy a dark musical but also like to see an upbeat and positive vibe.

Features
Japanese 2.0 Language, English Subtitles, Original Trailer, Commentary from Takashi Miike, Interview with Takashi Miike, Making of Special, Interviews with the Katakuris, Animating the Katakuris

Review Equipment
Samsung 50" Plasma HDTV, Denon AVR-790 Reciever with 5.1 Sony Surround Sound Speakers, JVC DVD player XV-FA95GD

Grade: B+
Audio Rating: B
Video Rating: C
Packaging Rating: B
Menus Rating: B+
Extras Rating: A+