Second opinion: Our Top 3 films in cross-review

by Mark Schilling

Special To The Japan Times

Regular JT film critics Mark Schilling, Kaori Shoji and Giovanni Fazio got together at the Uplink theater/restaurant in Shibuya to talk about each other’s No. 1 films for 2013: “Cloud Atlas” (Fazio), “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” (Shoji) and “Kaguya-hime no Monogatari (The Tale of Princess Kaguya)” (Schilling). The discussion was heated, but no crockery was thrown.

Cloud Atlas

M.S.: “Cloud Atlas” really divided the critics, but I got caught up in it. I thought, though, if you don’t believe the philosophical/religious stuff in the film — we’re all connected, etc — it might seem like a big pile of tosh. (Laughs.)

G.F.: You could say that about “Wings of Desire” or any film that involves a certain spiritual dimension. If you reject that entirely then this film’s off the table.

K.S.: I felt that “Cloud Atlas” had a message, just like “Forrest Gump” — “Life is like a box of chocolates.” But in “Cloud Atlas” it crosses boundaries of time and space.

M.S.: I was thinking of D.W. Griffith’s “Intolerance.” The difference is that where Griffith had one message he wanted to get across, this one has several.

G.F.: The most basic is that actions have consequences that continue across distance and time. There are six stories in different time periods and they’re all connected. What the characters do influences generations beyond.

M.S.: The novel was evidently even more complex than the film, but I felt the film added another dimension with the clever cross-cutting between stories. Another addition is the way one actor plays different roles, with men playing women and Westerners playing Asians. Some of the makeup, though, had an “uncanny valley” effect. “Uncanny valley” is used to describe 3-D animated human characters who don’t look quite human. They look creepy — and that’s the feeling I got from some of the characters in “Cloud Atlas.” It took me out of the film a bit.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

K.S.: What did you guys think of it?

M.S.: The film is set in Pittsburg — I went to a high school in a mill town north of there. We had nothing, not even a football team; it was a pretty new school. I was on the debate team so the coach said we should visit this powerhouse debate team in Pittsburg to see how they did it, since we were just starting. The school was for rich kids like the ones in the movie — it was like a country club. (Laughs.) So when I saw the movie I thought, OK, their problems are real, but from my perspective they’re on another planet. (Laughs.)

G.F.: But there were a lot of things I liked about the film, such as the way it captures the sensation of being shut out from most of the social cliques but finding a little group you could click with. (To Kaori) What about the movie was so appealing to you?

K.S.: It has to do with how the movie was made. Stephen Chbosky wrote the book and he had tons of movie offers, but he sat on it for a whole decade, until he could direct it himself. Filmmakers are waking up to the fact that to do things right, you’ve got to do it yourself.

G.F.: For the first 30 minutes, I was thinking it’s another American indie film about misfits who have life issues resolved in the last reel. It was too status quo for me, but the further I got into it, the more I liked it.

M.S.: I liked that the hero wasn’t just nerdy — he had mental issues that were portrayed realistically. I thought he might be on the verge of something bad if things didn’t go right. The story could have easily gone in a more serious, life-or-death direction.

K.S.: Yeah, but that wasn’t the point, right? It’s basically a feel-good film for misfits —young people just out of high school.

M.S.: Maybe the ideal viewer is about 14 years old. They see this and they can believe they can make it through high school. (Laughs.)

K.S.: It’s great to have a movie like this. Kids are contemplating suicide because of Facebook. They should have an alternative.

Kaguya-hime no Monogatari

G.F.: I thought it should be called “Masako-sama no Monogatari.”

K.S.: Right, she didn’t want to marry the prince but she couldn’t say no because of the pressure from family and society. (Crown Princess) Masako used to be a free spirit — she was a very reluctant princess.

G.F.: Watching the film, I thought it was a big allegory of her life.

K.S.: The subtitle is “Princess Kaguya’s crime and punishment.” The crime is longing for a life on Earth, longing for a life different from the one on the moon. First they rewarded her by letting her be a free-spirited girl who could make her own choices and live her own life. Then they took it all away. And that is worse than if she had not had it in the first place.

G.F.: Superficially it looks like a very conservative film that could have been made decades ago even. But if you look at it closely it’s like a celebration of peasant values over those of the hierarchy.

M.S.: It hit me like Isao Takahata’s “Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no Haka),” the saddest film I ever saw in my life. It’s not just an expression of Japanese culture. Her tragedy is something we all share.

G.F.: It was very Japanese in an older sense we don’t see very much now. It really felt like a slap in the face to the films that are being made today.

  • DA

    Just wanted to say I love this trio. Been reading (but not always agreeing with) all of their reviews since 2007. Keep ‘em coming!