Category Archives: Asian Live Action Review

Castle Under Siege: An Attack on Titan Real Escape Game!

Back in the day, the most a manga could hope for was an anime adaption and maybe a movie. Nowadays, manga serves as the basis for all sorts of entertainment, and when my husband and I visited Los Angeles for his birthday a few days ago, we experienced Castle Under Seige: a collaboration between Real Escape Game and Attack on Titan.

For those unfamiliar with Real Escape Game, it’s a franchise that began in Japan and has since spread to other places including San Francisco, San Jose, and Los Angeles. It runs Escape Rooms and hosts events at special locations, but the premise behind all of its puzzle events is the same. You and your team members are “trapped” and have 60 minutes to search for clues and solve puzzles in order to escape.

Castle Under Seige, by the way, is not the first Attack on Titan themed Real Escape Game. In 2015, Real Escape hosted Escape from the Walled City at AT&T Park and a couple other stadiums in the United States. Sadly, my husband and I heard about it two months after the event (so disappointed!). Thus, when we chanced upon a Castle Under Seige flyer in Little Tokyo on our last day in Los Angeles, we couldn’t let the opportunity slip. Less than two hours later, we were at the Los Angeles Real Escape Room with five local college students.

The premise of Castle Under Seige is that participants (maximum of ten) are members of the Scouts/Survey Corps, who’ve been forced to take shelter from titans in an old castle. Eren (in titan form) and Mikasa are buying time (60 minutes to be exact) by fighting them, and Armin is giving clues to find various objects to help against the enemy.

The game does go out of its way to make it fun for Attack on Titan fans. If you have your own Attack on Titan cosplay, you are encouraged to wear it. For those without, the hosts provide green cloaks with the Wings of Freedom insignia to wear during the game. The game instructors/hosts are also in cosplay and in character. Funimation is one of the game collaborators, and I’m assuming Castle Under Seige used the anime’s English language voice actors for Mikasa and Armin (sorry, I prefer subtitles so I’m not familiar with the dub). Also, several inside jokes are infused into the puzzles and clues.

Participant uniforms!

While knowledge of Attack on Titan makes Castle Under Seige more enjoyable, it doesn’t actually give participants much of an edge. When it comes to solving the puzzles, experience with other Real Escape Games actually gives a greater advantage. So it’s entirely possible for a team with no knowledge of Attack on Titan to succeed, although they’ll probably think it’s weird that a gas cylinder is useful against man eating giants. (And according to our host, Castle Under Seige has had participants unfamiliar with the series. They provide those players with a single page synopsis of Attack on Titan.)

By the way, the success rate for Castle Under Seige is about 60%. For comparison, Real Escape Game’s Escape from the Mysterious Room is closer to 10%. So the Castle’s puzzles aren’t as intense as the Mysterious Room’s, but they’re enough to pose a fun challenge to fans looking for a new way to experience Attack on Titan.

So did we escape the titans? We did! Everyone in our team of seven was familiar with Attack on Titan, but only my husband and I had prior Real Escape Game experience (we played the Escape from the Mysterious Room in 2015). With everyone’s help, we achieved victory in 55 minutes. We weren’t anywhere close to Castle Under Seige’s current record (just over 30 minutes), but it was enough that we didn’t get eaten. And we got to pose with the props afterwards! It made my husband’s 44th birthday a memorable one.

So if you and your otaku friends are looking for a group activity and have $35 to spare, I would certainly recommend Castle Under Siege. Castle Under Siege is currently only available in Los Angeles Little Tokyo, but Real Escape also has a Zelda game and Final Fantasy XIV game touring various cities this summer. Supposedly, there’s also a Dragonball escape game at Anime Expo 2017, but the website is unresponsive so I can’t confirm that.

Anyway, check it out. And have fun escaping the titans!

Japanese Pop Culture Special: Hyper Projection Engeki Haikyu!! Karasuno Revival!

For a long time, the mark of a successful manga was an anime and possibly a spinoff comic, but nowadays popular titles spawn off live-action movies and TV shows, light novels, CD dramas, and even theatrical performances! Japan 2.5-Dimensional Musical Association, which was formed in 2014, stages productions drawn from Japanese manga, anime and video-games, and on November 20, my husband and I got to see their performance of Hyper Projection Engeki Haikyu!! Karasuno Revival!

 The flyer that started it all…

The flyer that started it all…

We first learned about Hyper Projection Engeki Haikyu!! from a flyer slipped into my husband’s Jump Shop purchases during his last business trip to Japan. We looked at the ad, thought it was cool, and filed it in the back of our mind as one of those things we could only dream of. However, the next two weeks brought an unexpected bonus and vacation time that changed our paradigm. By then, four out of the show’s five venues had sold out, but with the help of three Japanese speaking friends plus two international phone calls, a lot of Google translate, and much stubbornness on the part of my husband, we got tickets for the Canal City Theater in Fukuoka!

The Show

Not having been to Fukuoka or a Japan 2.5-Dimensional production, I expected Canal City Theater to be a modest, small-to-mid size theater. After all, how large an audience could an otaku musical possibly attract? I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Canal City Theater is a modern, quality venue that seats 1,184 and hosts Broadway style productions like The Little Mermaid. And yes, it was packed. There was even a line for people hoping to purchase unclaimed tickets (more on that later).

Program and commemorative folders from the Haikyu!! musical

Program and commemorative folders from the Haikyu!! musical

The audience demographic was another surprise. Haikyu!! is a shonen title, but the audience was over 90% female. My husband described the crowd as “young to middle-aged office ladies.” Perhaps musicals don’t appeal to Haikyu!!’s younger male fans? Or maybe they don’t have the disposable income for it? Well, these female fans had money for tickets and then some. An array of Hyper Projection Engeki Haikyu!! goods were available for purchase in the lobby, and they were doing a brisk business. We ourselves picked up an official program, some folders, and a DVD of the original Haikyu!! musical, but sadly all the hoodies had sold out. The crowd was definitely enthusiastic, and when the show started, we learned why.

Hyper Projection Engeki Haikyu!! is a high level production. The staging includes a special rotating platform, live video, and projected images for backgrounds and special effects. The cast also displays an array of talent, ranging from acting to acrobatics to rap. From what I can tell, Haikyu!! Karasuno Revival! has an original score that doesn’t draw from the TV series (although parts are reminiscent of the anime’s soundtrack). While I have referred to the show as a musical, it’s not like a Broadway show where characters break into catchy tunes every other minute. Rather, music is primarily used to set the mood, and most of the singing is relegated to one hip hop number in the second half.

Regarding the plot, Haikyu!! Karasuno Revival! begins with the team’s summer training camp and ends midway through the Interhigh competition. (The initial formation of the team was covered in Japan 2.5-D’s original Haikyu!! musical.) The first half focuses on the practice match against Nekoma. Viewed mainly from Kenma’s perspective, the match is depicted as a video game that the Nekoma setter is trying to beat. Thus, we get to see 64-bit versions of the Karasuno players as he analyzes them. The second half focuses on the Interhigh match against Dateko, which takes the form of an impressive rap- and dance-off. As such, the cast is more or less evenly divided between Karasuno, Nekoma, and Dateko players. But even though it is an all-male production, Karasuno manager Shimizu does play a part in the story.

As you might guess, the whole thing is in Japanese.  Because we weren’t at Japan 2.5-D’s Tokyo venue, we didn’t have access to translation glasses (more on this later). Even so, we had no trouble figuring out who was who (jersey numbers and projected manga images helped a lot), and we got the gist of 70% of the dialogue based off what we remembered from the anime. Not to mention, many scenes were sheer visual spectacle that required no knowledge of Japanese.

A major aspect of the Haikyu!! story is speed and height. Unlike their animated counterparts, the actors can’t hang in midair. So they rely on clever choreography and manipulating props. Lifts comprise a major part of Hinata’s battes at the net. Special lighting and illuminated volleyballs provide the trajectory of a fateful spike in slo-mo. In the match against Dateko’s ”Iron Wall,” pieces of walls are included in the dance number.

While high-tech equipment add a definite punch to the action, the show makes good use of simple effects as well. A pile of quilts facilitates one of the most entertaining transitions, and a stray cat Hinata encounters is merely a hand puppet operated by a stage ninja in a hooded poncho. In addition to moving the props and sets, the hooded stage ninjas also serve as a kind of Greek chorus, voicing the thoughts of the mob or serving as an anonymous extra.

So… my husband and I flew to the western end of Japan just to watch this musical, and you might be wondering, “Was it worth it?”

In answer to that question, I’ll just say that the third Haikyu!! musical Winners and Losers will be touring Japan March and April 2017, and we are talking about getting tickets.

Now perhaps our journey has piqued your interest. If you’re serious about viewing this production yourself, you have two options.

DVD

DVD and insert of the first Haikyu!! musical

DVD and insert of the first Haikyu!! musical

The cheaper option is to purchase a DVD of the show. As of the writing of this post, the DVD of the first Hyper Projection Engeki Haikyu!! is available, and preorders are being taken for Karasuno Revival. Those in Japan can purchase it at the Animate store (which also carries DVDs of Japan 2.5-D’s Naruto and Prince of Tennis theater productions) or through Toho Animation, which produced the videos.

For those outside Japan, neither Animate nor Toho Animation ships overseas, but if you do an Internet search for “Hyper Projection Engeki Haikyu!! DVD,” you’ll probably find a source who will. WARNING: the DVD is a REGION 2 DVD (the United States is Region 1) and entirely in Japanese (no subtitles, English or otherwise).

As mentioned earlier, my husband and I purchased the DVD of the first musical at the theater for ¥8000 (roughly $80 US), which is the standard price. For that, you get two discs and a lovely mini program with cast pictures and bios. It’s not an awesome as seeing it live, but Toho Animation does a great job of formatting the footage for the small screen.

Theater Tickets

If you are determined to see Hyper Projection Engeki Haikyu!! or one of Japan 2.5-D’s other musicals (upcoming productions include Prince of Tennis, Wake Up, Girls! and Death Note), there are three ways to go about getting tickets.

1. Though the Japan 2.5-D website. Japan 2.5-D actually does want a global audience for its productions. Thus, its website is in both Japanese and English (click on the ”EN” in the top right hand corner to toggle out of Japanese into English). Also, Subtitle Glasses are available in English and Chinese for showings at the AiiA 2.5 Theater in Tokyo.

When tickets go on sale, find your show on the Japan 2.5-D website and click on the green International Ticket button. This will take you to an English language form that will allow you to purchase Will Call tickets. This is the most expedient way for English-speakers to get tickets.

2. Through the musical’s official website. Each Japan 2.5-D musical has its own official website through which general tickets are sold. This is probably the worst way for internationals to get tickets, but you may resort to it if you’re desperate (like we were). Basically, the tickets reserved for internationals is limited. As such, it is entirely possible for general seats to still be available after Japan 2.5-D’s International Tickets sell out.

However, getting general tickets is difficult. All the instructions are in Japanese, you need a Japanese address to open an account, and you need a credit card associated with that address to make the purchase. Alternately, you can reserve seats online and then complete the order at a Japanese convenience store that has a ticket service. Our tickets were only possible thanks to three very kind friends (One to navigate the website, one to give us her parents’ address in Okinawa so we could open an account, and one to pay/pick up the tickets in Sapporo and mail them to us in California).

3. At the venue. Now the thing about general tickets is that they’re a bit of a moving target. When people reserve seats online, they have a few days to complete the order. When that deadline passes, the seats go back on sale. That means that a show that is sold out today might have availability tomorrow. That also means there usually a few unsold seats on the day of the show. Ergo, the unclaimed ticket line. If there’s more people than unclaimed tickets, they hold a lottery to decide who gets them.

So no guarantees with this last route. However if you just happen to be in a town where a performance is showing, it’s worth a try.

As for me and my husband, we’ll be aiming for those International Tickets when sales start.

Japanese Live Action DVD Review: Godzilla on Monster Island

Japan’s most famous monster is back on the big screen in Warner Brothers and Legendary Pictures’ Godzilla. What better time to revisit some of the original movies starring the giant lizard?

Kraken Releasing has just released the Toho 1972 film Godzilla on Monster Island!: Godzilla Versus Gigan on DVD, and you can read on for the review.

Back Cover Blurb

When alien invaders, plans for a children’s theme park and four giant monsters with six heads between them all collide, the result is the inevitable battle for the fate of the Earth. At least, that’s how it is for Godzilla, who teams up with his former spiky foe Anguirus for a tag team match against two of his greatest adversaries: the legendary three headed King Ghidorah and Gigan, the cyborg hench-monster for insidious insect aliens whose plot to wipe out all human life is cleverly disguised as plans for the construction of a new children’s theme park.

Unfortunately for the bug’s diabolical designs, their secret monster control codes are accidentally discovered by comic book artist Gengo Kotaka, who broadcasts the master tape and brings Team Godzilla into play. It’s not going to be an easy fight, though, as the odds are four heads to two, and King Ghidorah’s one of Godzilla’s toughest opponents. With his cybernetic weaponry Gigan is equally ruthless, and his alien masters are as hard to kill as the cockroaches they resemble. Will Earth’s biggest defenders finally fall? Or will Godzilla, and insecticide, triumph over all? Find out in GODZILLA VS. GIGAN!

Audio:
The audio options are English mono and Japanese mono with English subtitles. I noted no issues with the film audio or subtitles.

Video:
The DVD is presented in 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The video quality varies from satisfactory to different levels of graininess, sometimes with white spotting.

Packaging:
The front cover features a promotional poster for the original film, featuring the monsters Godzilla, Gigan, King Ghidorah, and Anguirus along with the human cast. On the back are a few screen shots and a movie summary. No inserts are included inside the case.

Menu:
Various stills from the film are used for the DVD menu backgrounds. There aren’t many options, so it’s easy to navigate.

Extras:
The only extra included with the DVD is the original Japanese film trailer.

Content

It’s called Godzilla on Monster Island, but the film doesn’t have much to do with Monster Island at all. Only a couple brief scenes take place on Monster Island, which serve mainly as cameos for random Toho monsters that don’t otherwise play any role. The impetus for the plot actually has extraterrestrial origins, and the action, for the most part, takes place in Japan’s Tokyo region (of course).

The story begins with Gengo, an unemployed artist who finally lands a job at World Children’s Land, a theme park in the final stages of construction. However, the World Children’s Land Committee is a rather fishy group. For one, its chairman is a teenage kid who can do extremely complicated math. For another, the Committee’s supposed goal is “perfect peace,” but the main attraction of the park is a monster museum in a thirteen-story tower shaped like Godzilla. So when Gengo encounters Machiko, a young woman who claims her brother’s been kidnapped by the Committee, Gengo helps her investigate, and they soon discover that the Committee’s idea of perfect peace involves using space monsters to destroy mankind.

The plot does capture interest from the onset as our heroes search for Machiko’s missing brother and investigate the true purpose of World Children’s Land. However, the story’s not without its weaknesses. Gengo’s a little too quick to believe Machiko’s story and help her (especially since he already has a girlfriend–one with a black belt in karate), and Machiko’s tape player must have an astounding range for the monsters way out on Monster Island to hear it. But then the giant beasties make their entrance, which is probably what most viewers are after anyway.

It starts off with a kind of false start. Godzilla designates Anguirus as his errand boy to investigate the sounds from Machiko’s tape. So Anguirus swims all the way to Japan only to be repulsed by the SDF. The video alternates between actual footage of men in military vehicles and close-ups of miniatures. The models wouldn’t fool anyone, but they do make you wish you had your own tanks to play with.

Then things really get going when the bad guys summon the space monsters Gigan and King Ghidorah. The screen abounds with 1970s pyrotechnics and smashed model buildings as the two destroy Tokyo. However, the segment does get repetitive with the same flying sequences of King Ghidorah as well as the close-up on Gigan’s belly saw blade. There are also a few scenes that are so cheap they are funny. In one, the monsters demolish a room whose “human” occupants are clearly a pair of cheap children’s dolls.

Of course, it’s up to Godzilla to save the day, and he does so, swimming to Japan to do battle with Anguirus in tow. This fight is more graphic than others in the Godzilla series. During the battle at the World Children’s Land construction site, Gigan wounds Godzilla and Anguirus, splattering their blood everywhere. But even with four monsters crashing about the set, certain shots get recycled over and over, and when Godzilla finally takes King Ghidorah down, viewers must sit through the same body slam three times.

As an aside, Godzilla on Monster Island, like Godzilla Versus the Smog Monster, does carry a message of saving the environment. In fact, some of the water pollution footage in Godzilla Versus the Smog Monster gets recycled in Godzilla on Monster Island. However, the message is much more understated in Godzilla on Monster Island than in its predecessor, and this film definitely does a better job achieving its primary goal: entertainment.

In Summary

If you’re looking for a classic sci-fi movie, Godzilla on Monster Island would definitely fit the bill. With its body snatching aliens, gargantuan reptiles, and miniature sets getting knocked to smithereens, it’s got all the elements of a traditional giant monster flick. There are plot holes, to be sure, but between laser wielding aliens in their 13-story Godzilla Tower and a two-on-two battle of Godzilla and Anguirus versus Gigan and King Ghidorah, Godzilla on Monster Island provides plenty of model-smashing entertainment.

First published at The Fandom Post.

Japanese Live Action DVD Review: Godzilla vs. the The Sea Monster

Japan’s most famous monster is back on the big screen in Warner Brothers and Legendary Pictures’ Godzilla. What better time to revisit some of the original movies starring the giant lizard?

Kraken Releasing has just released the Toho 1966 film Godzilla Versus the Sea Monster: Ebirah – Horror of the Deep! on DVD, and you can read on for the review.

Back Cover Blurb

When Ryota’s brother Yata disappears at sea, the intrepid youth and his friends join forces with a slightly trustworthy bank robber, steal a boat and go after him! Of course, there’s the little problem that Yata may be lost on a mysterious island where the evil terrorist organization Red Bamboo has enslaved natives to make heavy water for nefarious purposes. And that means dealing with the island’s monstrous, 164 feet tall guardian Ebirah, as well as Red Bamboo’s arsenal of super advanced weaponry. On the plus side, help may be at hand in the form of a nubile island girl, two tiny fairies, their giant protector Mothra and the big G himself, the mighty Godzilla. Surviving the results of all that “assistance” may not be guaranteed, but Red Bamboo will never want to tangle with teenagers AND Godzilla at the same time again! Take a South Seas cruise to non-stop mayhem and giant monster destruction with EBIRAH- HORROR OF THE DEEP!

Audio:
The audio options are English mono and Japanese mono with English subtitles. I noted no issues with the film audio or subtitles, but the voice acting of the English-speaking cast has a cartoonish flavor which isn’t necessarily a bad fit for this film.

Video:
The DVD is presented in 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and the images are relatively crisp.

Packaging:
The front cover features a promotional poster for the original film, showcasing the monsters Godzilla, Ebirah, and Mothra along with the human cast. On the back are a few screen shots and a movie summary. No inserts are included inside the case.

Menu:
Various stills from the film are used for the DVD menu backgrounds. There aren’t many options, so it’s easy to navigate.

Extras:
The only extra included with the DVD is the original Japanese film trailer.

Content

The subtitle for this film is Ebirah – Horror of the Deep! But there’s nothing horrific about it. This is partly due to its dated special effects. Modern viewers, even young ones, will likely find Godzilla as played by a guy in a lizard costume and the destruction he wreaks upon miniature sets either cute or funny. But clunky effects aside, the script is hard to take seriously.

It starts off when a young man Yata is lost at sea, and his mother refuses to believe he is dead because a mystic says he’s alive. So her younger son Ryota goes to the city to convince the police to search for his missing brother. But instead of recruiting their aid, he teams up with a couple teenagers he meets at a go-go dance marathon and hijacks a luxury yacht from a safecracker thief. While they’re searching the South Seas for his brother, a giant lobster claw rises out of the water and wrecks them on an island inhabited by the nefarious military group Red Bamboo and the natives they’ve enslaved. It’s a bizarre hodgepodge of goofy teen misadventure, spy flick, and Polynesian cultural act. Oh, and giant monsters. Can’t forget about the monsters.

Although it’s called Godzilla Versus the Sea Monster, the monsters don’t actually show up until halfway through the film. Plus, they are a lot sleepier than I remember. Mothra spends most of the film snoozing on Infant Island as its inhabitants strive to wake her up to rescue their captured kin. When Ryota and his friends stumble upon Godzilla in the island caves, they don’t think he’s even alive. Later, there’s a scene where Godzilla corners the heroine, and all the guys can say is, “We’ll have to wait until [Godzilla] falls asleep.” And the big lizard does actually start dozing off!

However, when the monsters catch sight of one another, the destruction begins, though it’s more laughable than the stuff of nightmares. Godzilla’s first match with Ebirah looks more like a game of catch as they whack a giant rock back and forth. When the Red Bamboo’s Air Force takes off against Godzilla, the big monster looks like he’s doing a dance amid the attacking planes, and there’s even upbeat go-go music in the background to complete the effect.

It’s hardly a terrifying film, but that doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable. The random plot and old-school effects give it a campy charm. And while the Infant Islanders’ pseudo-Polynesian dance to Mothra does drag, there’s something fun about watching a guy dressed as a lizard stomp apart a blinking model of a military installation.

In Summary

The plot for Godzilla Versus the Sea Monster is flimsy at best. It’s beyond a stretch how it flings a random group of teens, a safe cracking thief, an enslaved Polynesian group, and a terrorist organization with nuclear weapons onto a tropical island guarded by a giant lobster. But if what you’re after is a kind of WWF featuring guys in old-school monster suits, the second half of Godzilla Versus the Sea Monster won’t disappoint.

First published at The Fandom Post.

Japanese Live Action DVD Review: Godzilla Vs The Smog Monster

Japan’s most famous monster is due to return to the big screen May 16 in Warner Brothers and Legendary Pictures’ Godzilla. What better time to revisit some of the original movies starring the giant lizard?

Kraken Releasing has just released the Toho 1971 film Godzilla Versus the Smog Monster: Godzilla Versus Hedorah on DVD, and you can read on for the review.

Back Cover Blurb

Forget about acid rain and global warming! The worst ecological nightmare is actually Hedorah, which starts off small but quickly mutates into a giant flying monster capable of wiping out all life on whatever unfortunate planet it lands on! And since Hedorah grows by consuming the toxic gases and chemicals mankind has spilled into the air and water, in the early 1970s that means that its potential growth is unlimited! Fortunately for the human race, the Earth has an ultimate green defender who doesn’t need to sing protest songs or try to enact new laws to get things done. Because nobody, and nothing, can stop Godzilla when he decides to push an environmental issue, and while Hedorah may be the dirtiest opponent Godzilla has ever faced, his name is going to be mud by the time he’s been stomped into the whole Earth a few dozen times. Get ready for the wildest Godzilla film ever as the social concerns and way out fashions of the seventies collide head on with the ultimate in big monster brawls in GODZILLA VS. HEDORAH!

Audio:
The audio options are English mono and Japanese mono with English subtitles. I noted no issues with the film audio or subtitles.

Video:
The DVD is presented in 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The video is satisfactory for the most part but does get grainy in certain scenes.

Packaging:
The front cover features a promotional poster for the original film, featuring the monsters Godzilla and Hedorah along with the human cast. On the back are a few screen shots and a movie summary. No inserts are included inside the case.

Menu:
Various stills from the film are used for the DVD menu backgrounds. There aren’t many options, so it’s easy to navigate.

Extras:
The only extra included with the DVD is the original Japanese film trailer.

Content

Not every Godzilla movie has a message, but Godzilla Versus the Smog Monster does, and it is: Stop polluting or it will come back to haunt you! In this case, the consequences of environmental destruction are personified by the monster Hedorah.

The film begins as a kind of mystery. Something off the shore of Japan is sinking ships, and a professor studying the fish affected by polluted waters discovers a strange mineral life form. That life form is Hedorah. He starts as a small tadpole-like creature, but a diet of ocean sludge and smog beefs it up to a tentacled-terrestrial monster and finally to its ultimate flying form. Able to emit sulfuric acid mist and disgusting slime, Hedorah wastes no time wreaking havoc on Japan. As the monster disintegrates structures and vaporizes people into piles of bones, the professor’s dilemma quickly goes from what Hedorah is to how to stop him.

The solution, as the professor’s son Ken insists, is Godzilla. Although the little boy deems the giant lizard a hero on the order of Superman, Godzilla’s not exactly at humanity’s beck and call. Still, when Hedorah starts shaking things up, Godzilla appears with the aura of a gangster ready to oust an invader from his turf. Unfortunately, Hedorah’s a tough opponent, one constantly gaining in size, until he’s actually bigger than Godzilla.

Although Hedorah makes a formidable enemy, killing thousands and forcing Godzilla to chase it all over the Japanese countryside, the film actually drags. This is partly because the film gets preachy with its environmental message, inundating viewers with images of polluted waters and belching smoke stacks along with animated sequences of how human (and Hedorah) activities are killing the planet. Probably the most bizarre example of this is when the professor’s younger brother is at a disco club and starts hallucinating that everyone is a fish. While I commend Director Banno’s efforts to increase awareness, it bogs the pace of the film.

When Hedorah finally does go down, it’s the result of a joint effort between human and lizard. It’s interesting to see Godzilla and people working toward a common goal, but the final battle goes overlong. Not only does it include an extraneous hippie disco-party anti-Hedorah protest on the mountain, but Hedorah turns out to be the type of monster that needs to be killed multiple times. So when he (and the film) finally reaches the end, it’s a relief.

In Summary

While I commend Director Banno for his efforts to warn against environmental destruction, the entertainment value of Godzilla Versus the Smog Monster suffers as a result. There are some good action sequences as Godzilla struggles to defeat an enemy capable of squirting his eye with acid, but between the professor’s plodding investigation and excessive images of air and water pollution, the pace gets bogged as if mired in Hedorah’s own sludge.

First published at The Fandom Post.

Asian Live Action DVD Review: Mulan: Rise of a Warrior

When Disney released Mulan in 1998, I can’t say I was too thrilled with it. Mulan always struck me as a heroic figure so it rubbed me a bit the wrong way to have the story presented as a comedy.

As such, I was really curious to see how the Chinese would handle a film with Mulan as a subject. After all, she’s a Chinese legend and her story concerns their history. Not surprisingly, Mulan: Rise of a Warrior  has an entirely different feel than Disney’s Mulan.

Back Cover Blurb

When the emperor of China issues a decree that all families in the Northern Provice must defend their homeland against the barbarian hordes, Mulan, a young girl from a military family without a male heir, disguises herself as a male soldier rather than expose her aging father to the horrors of the battlefield. As the invading armies close in, her remarkable courage and insight elevate her to the position of a true leader, who will sacrifice everything to defend her nation and bring honor to her family.

Audio
The DVD language options are English and the original Mandarin in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround with English subtitles. The Blu-Ray language options are English and the original Mandarin in Dolby TrueHD 5.1 with English subtitles. For the Blu-Ray extras, the audio is the original Mandarin in Dolby TrueHD 2.0 with English subtitles. I noted no issues with the actual film audio, but the sound levels for the Interviews with Cast and Staff were inconsistent and included a lot of background noise. Also, the subtitles for the Interviews with Cast and Staff contained a number of typos.

Packaging
The front cover features Mulan standing in armor among those killed on the battlefield. The back features Mulan on horseback with her army in the backdrop, a few screen shots, and the series summary. The cardboard sleeve has the same design as the DVD cover. No DVD related inserts are included inside the case.

Menu
Various stills from the film are used for the DVD menu backgrounds. The Blu-ray menu selections take up the lower part of the screen while a sweeping excerpt from the score and various scenes play in a continuous loop. There are only a few options so menus are easy to follow.

Extras

Extras include the Making of Mulan; Interviews with Cast and Staff; original trailer; and previews for various Funimation live action Asian films. I should note that the Making of Mulan is presented in Mandarin with yellow English subtitles placed above the original white Chinese subtitles, which looks kind of clunky but still legible. The lengthy Interviews with Cast and Staff is poorly edited and looks like the rough footage for the Making of Mulan video.

Content

Most Americans are now familiar with Mulan, thanks to the Disney film, but for the Chinese, Mulan has been a national legend for generations. As such, Jingle Ma’s Mulan: Rise of a Warrior, a collaboration of mainland Chinese and Hong Kong talent, strives to be epic.

The film accomplishes that epic feel on a number of fronts. The cinematography is gorgeous, with dramatic views of the northern Chinese desert, and the battle scenes, especially the final massive showdown against the vicious Rouran prince, are thrilling. The costumes, from the Rouran royals’ garb to the Wei military uniforms, are a treat for the eyes, and the film includes a lot of nice little details like the soldiers’ dog tags and Mulan’s bronze mirror.

However, there are two places where the film falls short. The first is that Mulan, who’s passing herself off as a man, is clearly feminine. Not to say she’s a wimp. She’s definitely strong and capable and demonstrates that clearly when she breaks up a brawl between fellow soldiers with her superior martial arts skills. But when she’s making her rallying speeches to the troops, she sounds and looks like a woman, even in full armor. A major part of the plot is the romance between Mulan and her commander Wentai so she can’t be too masculine, but Zhao Wei, who plays Mulan, is so pretty you have to wonder if the entire Wei Army is blind not to notice her true gender.

The other major issue is the film’s pacing. There’s a huge rush in the beginning with the Rouran invasion, Mulan going to war, Wentai discovering Mulan’s secret, Mulan distinguishing herself in combat, and her and Wentai shooting up the ranks all in quick succession. Then, after Wentai gets ambushed by the Rouran, everything slams to a halt as Mulan falls into a lengthy depression. When she finally snaps out of it, the film shifts back to a hurried pace, glossing over events spanning several years until we wind up at the final confrontation with the Rouran hordes.

Those issues aside, Mulan offers a compelling portrayal of the harshness of war and a soldier motivated not by glory but the desire to protect those she cares for. An image which the film returns to time and again is the dog tags of the fallen and Mulan’s grief for those who have been lost. Though her staggering military accomplishments are duly noted, the story focuses not on the renown Mulan gains but the desires she must sacrifice and suppress to survive.

Although the film is about warriors and includes many battle scenes, it’s definitely a woman’s film (though you can hardly call it a chick flick). That’s not just because the main character is female nor because of the romance element. Although Wentai is Mulan’s superior in the ranks and socially, he is very much the “man behind the woman.” And when peace ultimately gets negotiated between the Wei and Rouran, it’s brokered by Mulan and the Rouran princess using a Wei prince as a bargaining chip. Still, there’s enough swordfights and martial arts action to keep male viewers from getting bored.

In Summary

No talking dragons or happy, catchy songs here. Jingle Ma’s Mulan is dramatic with a strong but angst-filled heroine. Though the battlefield and barracks dominate the backdrop, the film’s focus is Mulan’s inner turmoil as she watches friends fall and sacrifices her own passions to save her country.

First published at The Fandom Post.

Korean Drama DVD Review: Penny Pinchers

After becoming a Korean spa aficionado, it was only a matter of time before I became enamored of the greatest of Korean world exports. No, it’s not kimchee. I’m talking about K-dramas!

They’ve got dramas of all sorts playing on the screens at Korean spas, and yes, they are as addictive as they say. Being a history fangirl, I generally watch the 60+ episode period dramas, but I recently had the opportunity to review a contemporary rom-com movie, Penny Pinchers.

Back Cover Blurb

Ji-woong can’t get a job, survives on an allowance from his mom and is content to cruise through life on his looks and ability to talk a good game. But his freewheeling ways screech to a halt when his family cuts him off and his landlord finally evicts him. That same day, salvation arrives in the form of Hong-sil, a mysterious girl with an unusual proposal: ”Want to make some money? Then do everything I say.”

Audio
The only language option for this title is the original Korean in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround with English subtitles. Overall, it’s a dialogue-heavy movie that does not rely on sound effects, and the music’s more indie than epic, so there isn’t much to say. Regarding the subtitles, they’re easy to read, but they’re not the prettiest (they’ve got a pixelated look to the edges). Translation of the dialogue is fine, but unfortunately, they don’t translate storefronts/signs. Also, there’s one scene where the characters are getting choked up watching a movie, but the movie they’re watching is not translated.

Video
Presented in its original 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen aspect ratio, the video for this was fine. The visuals were mostly urban scenes with only a couple wire work stunts. There were no technical issues that I noticed.

Packaging
The front cover features Ji-woong and Hong-sil in a car ostensibly returning from a scavenging hunt. On the back are images of Ji-woong in a hoodie and Hong-sil in a short trenchcoat (from the Korean release posters), a few screen shots, and the series summary. (By the way, that picture of Hong-sil on the back is completely misleading. Her bare legs and high heels make her look sexy, but her look throughout the film is more along the lines of frumpy.) No DVD related inserts are included inside the case.

Extras
This release has quite a few extras. They include an 18 minute short on the making of Penny Pinchers; a Q&A with lead actors Song Joong-ki and Han Ye-seul; footage from a press conference, poster shoot, and VIP premiere; original South Korean trailers; cast and crew bios; and 5 Point Pictures trailers.

Content
While watching the Penny Pinchers promo material included as extras, the tagline that kept popping up was “Let’s Date Without Money!” Actually, that line’s a bit misleading because there’s not much dating going on in the film. And the dates that do take place do not pair the two main characters together. It is a romantic comedy, but it’s more a tale of gradual understanding than a passionate pursuit of love.

The main male character, Ji-woong, is a handsome wastrel. Unable to get a job, he spends his days goofing around in Seoul, content to survive on an allowance from his mom in the countryside. But those days come to a screeching halt when a wild boar destroys his mom’s restaurant. His bank account runs dry, and his landlady evicts him soon after.

Enter Hong-sil, the girl living in the shabby rooftop apartment across from his (there seem to be a lot of these in K-dramas). She offers the newly homeless Ji-woong an unusual bargain: do exactly as she says for two months, and he’ll make $5000. He accepts, and Ji-woong finds himself thrust into a bizarre world of profit making and extreme miserliness.

In regard to characters, Ji-woong (played by Song Joong-ki) is your garden-variety good-looking smooth talker. Song played a similar self-indulgent sort in the period drama Sungkyunkwan Scandal, but this time he’s a broke good-for-nothing, not a rich scholar. While we get some laughs watching him try to weasel his way into things he can’t afford, he’s an open book, and at least for the first half the film, his actions are fairly predictable.

Hong-sil, on the other hand, is a much more interesting character. Played by Han Ye-seul, she’s a blend of ultra-cheapskate and queen of odd jobs. Despite her personal prohibition against dating (because it costs money), she does have a crush on her financial advisor, and her awkward attempts to endear herself to him lead to some entertaining moments. Of course, a personality like that doesn’t come out of thin air, and a large part of the plot is Ji-woong discovering the circumstances that shaped her into the person she is.

Unfortunately, the movie moves slowly in that department. It isn’t until about midway through the film that the couple’s relationship really comes to life. Until that point, the film feels more like a series of vignettes about the stupid things Ji-woong does because he’s broke and the shameless things Hong-sil does to make money.

Once Ji-woong starts to understand Hong-sil and Hong-sil gets an actual goal for her cash stockpile, the pace really picks up. There is one point in the latter half of the film that felt like a major hiccup though. A dramatic moment takes place over the Han River, but once past the climax, the follow-up happens so quickly, it’s almost as if it didn’t really matter. However, the final segment, with Ji-woong going after Hong-sil’s tree, was marvelously played and paced, making for a satisfying happy ending to the film.

By the way, the film’s rated 15+, but I’m not exactly sure why. It contains some swearing, some groping, and a crazy scene where Ji-woong is a few cents short of buying a condom, but no actual sex or nudity.

One more thing. As mentioned earlier, Hong-sil’s moneymaking schemes are what carry the film through its first half, but some of them might leave American audiences scratching their heads. A few, like scavenging junk from abandoned houses to pass as antiques, are self-explanatory, but others, like the redneck-style advertising tapes, I still don’t understand. Compounding that is the lack of subtitles for signs and storefronts. In one instance, Ji-woong points to a giant yellow van with a cutesy sign and logo. I thought it was a food truck at first, and it wasn’t until midway through the next scene that I realized it was a mobile blood donation unit.

In Summary
In the DVD extras, the director describes Penny Pinchers as a “realistic” story. If by “realistic” he means no vampires and no crazy rich F4, it does fit the bill. Our super carefree spendthrift and our super penny pincher are extreme characters, but the relationship that results has a genuine and natural feel although the film does takes a while to build up to it. Penny Pinchers gets off to a slow start but makes its way to a superb finish.

First published at The Fandom Post: