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Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Have Arrow Video Finally Grown-Up? (Part 1)

Welcome Back, And A Happy New Year To You All,

Yes! I return very late, and I owe you all an apology for my extended sojourn from this blog. I've spent the last few weeks having to relocate, and also start a new job too. Not the best things to be doing, in the run-up to Christmas/New Year. I also need to apologise for the problems with images not fully working on Blogger. This seems to be an issue with Blogger themselves, rather than unique to myself or this blog. Despite several complaints to Google who own Blogger, nothing seems to be being done, which is all intensely annoying. So, if you've experienced problems with images not appearing, or you get broken image links appearing instead, I can only apologise most profusely, and ask that you bear with me. Hopefully, the issue will get fixed at some point.

That said, it's now 2016, and I'm back, and as promised albeit much later than originally planned, here's another Arrow article, and this one, I hope, will shock you, in a pleasant way. Enjoy!

In previous blog posts, I have been hard and vocally critical of Arrow's extremely suspect past, from shoddy releases, to questionable ethical and moral mishandling of complaints regarding faulty products, to a complete refusal for them to accept that what they did was wrong. So, have Arrow (Video, and Arrow Films - the subdivision who release mainly World Cinema/arthouse titles) finally grown-up?

The answer, it would seem, is actually, yes!

Putting aside the outstanding issue of the faulty release of David Cronenberg's SHIVERS from October 2014, which Arrow are still claiming to be "investigating" (Good grief!), the last 2-3 months saw some truly jaw-dropping releases. Specifically, these were:

2) Kiju Yoshida's LOVE + ANARCHISM set;
3) Jorg Buttgereit's NEKROMANTIK 2;
6) the DEEP RED set.

All were/are Limited Edition sets, and have/will sell-out. (Sadly, the scalper scum were out in force for the HELLRAISER set, with the 3000 copies all selling-out long before release date, for less than £50 each, only for release date copies to be on-sale across Amazon and eBay, for three, four or even five times that amount, from scumbags who had purchased multiple copies purely to sell-on for super-profit! Such action is extremely shameful, but sadly par-for-the-course these days, and is mightily common with Arrow's sets!)

The releases were all very pricey, and luxurient - more about that in a moment - but seemed to show that Arrow had finally broken away from its past shackles, and old bad habits, and had at long last matured into the competent, reliable and adult video label it clearly intended to be from Day One.

Having long-departed from their early Italian horror releases, from the likes of Argento, Fulci, and Bava, Arrow are now releasing many more obscure and lesser-known works, from the huge, underground selection of cult cinema. Kinji Fukasaku is more commonly known in the West, as the director of the notorious 2000 cult shocker BATTLE ROYALE. But to World Cinema fans, Fukasaku had already created an Asian filmic opus to rival that of THE GODFATHER TRILOGY. Sadly, outside of Japan, or the old US DVD release from Home Vision, way back in 2004, it was difficult to see these films in an English-friendly format. Arrow went back to Toei in Japan, and got access to their newly remastered prints, and were given permission to produce separate Region A and Region B Dual-Format (Blu-Ray and DVD) releases, with some new extras - namely a 200-page hardback book, and the first ever release of the "Complete" edition of BATTLES WITHOUT HONOR AND HUMANITY outside of Japan, plus the majority of the content from the Home Vision release, as well.

For the uninitiated, Fukasaku's epic, is a giant Japanese gangster series: five films, all loosely based on the articles composed by real-life Japanese journalist Koichi Iiboshi, who worked for the Yomiuri Shinbun newspaper in Tokyo. They follow Shozo Hirono (played by Bunta Sugawara), a young ex-soldier and hoodlumm, fresh from fighting in WWII, from the Hiroshima Prefecture over a 10-year period as he (and his gangster buddies) fight and feud with another Yakuza family, the Yamamori, over territory, and power-struggles.

The films - BATTLES WITHOUT HONOR AND HUMANITY; DEADLY FIGHT IN HIROSHIMA; PROXY WAR; POLICE TACTICS and the controversial FINAL EPISODE are lengthy, and epic in the biggest meaning of the world. The whole series is about 500 minutes in length, and extremely heavy-going too. Plenty of place-names, warring factions, and character names to get you to remember, and who is friends with who, and who is an enemy. This is cinema for people who want to really think deeply! No amount of writing can truncate this epic work, into a handful of sentences, and do it justice. This is one of the most ambitious film series' I've worked my way through, and it's tough-going at times. Not because it's boring - it isn't - but simply because there are so many people and places to keep in the viewers memory. The Arrow set has a handy Character Guide in the book, which features a list of who's who, and how they are related, but even that is complex. It's definitely something you should keep to-hand when watching these films.

As well as the five films, this set also features THE COMPLETE SAGA, a specially-edited, alternate version that tries to distill the first four films, into one, hefty, bum-numbing chronicle. Never released outisde of Japan, this 224-minute distillation originaly formed for Japanese TV, condenses, reorders and re-edits the films into a kind of "best of". On the one hand, the severely truncated work is messy to watch, when compared against the original five films, but on another, the distillation of it might make it a slightly easier, nigh better option, for newcomers to view, simply because it is a compressed, alternate version of the original. So, if you buy the set, it's really down to your own personal preferences, as to which version you wish to view first: the all-singing, all-dancing version, or the shorter edition. If you do start with the five films, I would only say try to watch them as closely together as you can, otherwise you will struggle to stay on-top of the numerous characters and plotlines.

This series is an amazing piece of Japanese cinema, albeit one that is not for everyone's tastes. It's not full of endless violence and extended scenes of fighting and battles, and if that is what you are seeking, then BATTLES WITHOUT HONOR OR HUMANITY will probably not be the film for you. If you, however, seek a more meditative exploration of gutsy Japanese cinema, and are willing to devote time and attention to this extensive piece of cinema, then you will find a lot to sink your teeth into! Just stay off the Sake!

The set comes with various interviews and audio commentaries, but I've not been able to watch or listen to these. However, I suspect they will be extremely informative, and will help new and seasoned fans of the series learn a few things. The other major extra, only available in this set, is the 200-page hardback book. Filled with interviews, information and behind-the-scenes photographs, this is another excellent bonus, and is - in my view - worth paying the extra for, if you can afford it.
Amazon UK and USA both still have copies of the set available, either as a Region 2/B or 1/A Blu-Ray/DVD Dual-Format release, retailling at about £80/$100 US. So, seek it out, as it's a very worthy purchase, and you'll certainly want to go back to watching this again and again.

Arrow Films (the parent label of Arrow Video) who specialise in World Cinema, have also released another excellent slice of Japanese cinema, for your delectation, which has some similarities to the previusly discussed set. KIJU YOSHIDA: LOVE + ANARCHISM release was released in November 2015, on a UK-only, Region 2/B Dual-Format set. Yet again, we have another rare work, from a director many have never seen, outside of his native homeland.

Kiju Yoshida's full name is actually Yoshishige Yoshida, but he is more commonly known by his affectionate monicker, Kiju. Born in 1933, he worked for the Shochiku studio, alongside Nagisa Oshima (director of the infamous 1978 film IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES, aka AI NO CORRIDA). In 1964, he left to start-up his own production company, to give him more freedom from the studio system he had previously worked under, and this is where he produced some of his best known works. The LOVE + ANARCHISM set contains three films, that form a loose trilogy: EROS + MASSACRE (1969), HEROIC PURGATORY (1970), and COUP D'ETAT (1973). EROS... is featured here in two versions: the original Director's Cut, that runs to just over three-and-a-half-hours, and a truncated Theatrical Version, running to about an hour less. A Japanese New Wave film, it follows the anarchist Sakae Ōsugi, who was assassinated by Japanese Military in 1923, after his relationship with three women, during a turbulent period in Japanese history. The women include his wife, Hori Yasuko; his third lover, Noe Itō, who died with him; and a jealous, second lover, Masaoka Itsuko, a militant feminist who made an attempt to murder him in 1916, in a local Tea House. The film follows his life and loves, as two students study at his espoused idealogies of political theory and free love. Through their studies, we witness flashbacks and scenes detailing who Ōsugi was, and where he fitted into the turbulent world of Japanese politics. Split into two time-zones - the 1920's and the 60's - the film uses two different styles combined, to flesh out just who this radical, freethinker was, and why he was so despised by the authorities.

Another complex tableau of work, for viewers to digest, the main film EROS + MASSACRE is certainly not for everyone. Anyone who has watched any New Wave films from France or Japan, know of their sometimes lyrical, overblown and/or free-flowing nature. Juxtaposing narrative and visual information, sometimes to the detriment of plot, but which produce a work that is nothing if not unique. In this case, Yoshida uses awkward and strange angles in his cinematography, to disturb and unsettle the viewer, sometimes focussing on the least-interesting thing in the scene.

It has been said, that those who watch this work, often feel drained mentally, psychologically, emotionally and physically, even after viewing the shorter Theatrical version. I have to agree. The film unravels at its own, belated pace, and in its own manner, sometimes to the detriment of a Western viewer unaccustomed to Japanese New Wave cinema. As such, the work is definitely not for the uninitiated. In fact, many Westerners may simply find the work far too languorous for their tastes, and I would certainly agree - in part. A film has to be seen to be allowed to unfold at the director's own pace, and the viewer should let themselves follow that pace, to gain the most from the work being viewed. But if you aren't used to languid film-making, then trying to stick with a film that runs to its own beat, can be a real pain. Whilst not without flaws, I do prefer the longer, Director's Cut. As is the norm, the extra material expands so much more, and offers the viewers a more cohesive narrative, that the Theatrical Cut can't, due to the time constraints most cinema films have to work under. That said, there were occasions when I found the film a chore to get through, and I struggled to get my head around what I was meant to be taking away from the film.

This is definitely a film for the arthouse/World Cinema crowd, rather than fans of Japanese cinema as a whole. It's a unique work, but a slow one, and it can at times feel like a chore. But, if you can stick with it, you will certainly feel like you have watched something genuinely unique and amazing.

The two other works in the set, HEROIC PURGATORY and COUP D'ETAT, I've not yet had time to watch, and thus, cannot comment on them at this time. With both running to a little under 2 hours each, they should certainly be a little more accessible, but if they're anything like EROS + MASSACRE, it will be a pair of films I'll need to devote both time and my brain too, when I can give them the effort they will probably need.

With the films, you also get a small, paperbackbook, detailing more about Yoshida's works, and the films themselves, plus cast and crew interviews. All are housed, in a bright pink (Japanese love pink?) box. The set is a Limited Edition Dual-Format release, restricted to 3000 copies, with the films on both Blu-Ray and DVD. Due to the nature of the films, sets are still quite easily available, for about £70 from Amazon UK or direct from Arrow themselves. The set is only available online, and as such, if you wish to get it, you will need to purchase it from either Amazon or Arrow direct! If you fancy something extremely arty, and want to take a walk on the wilder-side of Japanese cinema, you could certainly do far worse than this.

Part 2 of this article, will follow soon.

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