Strange Vistas


Princess, the hotel woman, in yellow and red

Sion Sono's Tokyo Vampire Hotel is the definition of a guilty pleasure: I cackled my way through it, but also see all the hastily-thrown together bits, amateur acting and bipolar pacing, and would have the damnedest time finding someone to recommend it to.

Not that Sono gives a single Kamurocho fuck about it. He did exactly what he wanted to do. He came up with Tokyo Vampire Hotel when he went to the Transylvanian film festival in 2016, fell in love with the area around Cluj-Napoca, and decided he would set his next project there.

What he came up with is an elaborate mythology about how the Draculas (plural, it's a family) were driven underground by the Corvins (different type of vampire), who then took over the world from the shadows. But there's a prophecy that a child born under a certain date will release them, so centuries later the Draculas steal three Japanese children, feed them with special blood, and wait for the 21st birthday when they'll come into their powers.

Yes, Japanese children.

Cut from Romanian-speaking non-actors in white robes who stare directly at the camera to a panning shot of a Shinjuku yakitori place, 20 years later, filled with giggling young women and a few salarymen who will soon end up dead.

Massacre at the izakaya

Which makes perfect sense since Cluj in Romania and Shinjuku in Tokyo are connected through the Salina Turda, a salt mine just outside of Cluj which (if I understood it right) leads to everywhere in the world.

Of course, there's a struggle between clans to control the Chosen One. Of course, this means gunfights and swordfights and all sorts of murder and dismemberment. Of course, this involves spending half the movie's budget in fake blood. Of course, keeping the momentum for this type of movie is hard, so Sono doubles down on the mythology and comes up with byzantine plot covering a large group of characters and their twisting allegiances.

Yamada, the ancient hip-hop vampire kingpin with daddy issues. K, a grim Japanese terminator who (sort of) speaks Romanian and refuses to die. Japanese Elizabeth Báthory, played by former gravure model Megumi Kagurazaka, perennially on the verge of bursting out of her corset. The unmovable Princess, sitting somewhere in the bowels of the hotel, all toothy smiles and veiled eyes. Poor, confused Manami, the Chosen One with the least agency in the history of cinema.

Not to mention the dozens of young Japanese men and women who Yamada has gathered at the hotel, who all think are coming for a night of exclusive partying but are there to watch the end of the world.

K in an alley covered in blood

Yes, it's absurd and it's baroque and it goes on for too long. But it's so much fun.

It can be incoherent. But the good kind. The kind where Sono kept asking himself “what is the silliest left turn the plot could take here?” and then did that. Every 10 or 15 minutes.

I can't tell if it's always intentionally funny. Some of the fun comes from the dedication with which the actors throw themselves at their preposterous roles. Some comes from understanding a tiny bit of Japanese, enough Romanian to get around, and hearing people from each country try some gooey Brundlefly of a diction. Some is just from the random mix of violence and soliloquies, wordplay and decapitation, silly situations played straightfaced.

Hence, hard to recommend. I'm in a narrow audience segment. I also happened to see it at an open-air screening at Bánffy Castle, in the same area that inspired Sono, the 15th-century construction and dark Transylvanian sky right behind the screen.

There's a resonance from having a restored castle shield you from the wind while you laugh at the exuberance of a bloody vampire movie.

If I were complaining, I'd say it goes on for too long. It was originally an Amazon TV series which got repurposed as a movie. The script seems to have changed (maybe Sono decided to use scenes that didn't make it into the series or alternate endings) and the various elements don't always gel.

But one can hardly relish the abandon with which Sono created this deranged, blood-soaked microcosm and then complain that he doesn't exercise restraint in the editing room. Stupid as the movie can get, the glee with which they made it comes through, and that's enough for someone to have fun.

Elizabeth Bathory and Yamada

#horror #stupidweek #sionsono

Kyriu standing at the entrance of Kamurocho

Yakuza Kiwami understands what makes games work. There's too much in it that would fall on its face if it didn't.

The narration is byzantine. At the start of the game you go from a cold open in media res, with your character towering over a dead body while holding the murder weapon, to a flashback, to another flashback some years prior, to yet another flashback of all those involved as kids, to a fast-forward through the narrative stack.

The characters oscillate between grim, murderous determination and childish glee. Their entire world is a single neighborhood, a bipolar microcosm of violence and absurdity. It's populated with a mixture of blood feuds and game arcades, dangerous conmen and earnest ingenues, hired would-be murderers and collectible cards, smart children and not-too-sharp hostesses, drug-addicted homelessness and barkeeps fawning over whiskey types, social corrosion and toy car racing, young women threatened by thugs while ignored by everyone around them and white-knighting judo champions. There's even a giggling psychopath who idolizes and helps you yet tries to murder you over and over to prove a point.

As a movie, it would be incoherent. As a TV series, you'd have expected the writer's room to be a coked-up cartload of chimpanzees creating cut-ups of crime cinema and cartoons. As a game, with you in the driver's seat, it's fun and silly and unexpected and engaging and sometimes surprising.

You play Kiryu Kazuma, the dreaded Dragon of Dojima. He's a respected lieutenant in a yakuza family who, on the eve of getting his own branch of the family, decides to take the fall for a murder. Leaving prison after spending 10 years in jail, he comes straight back to his old territory of Kamurocho (a not-even disguised Kabukicho) to look for an old friend who disappeared.

Kamurocho is a dangerous town, full of small streets and back alleys, where – this being a brawling game – everyone wants to fight you. Some people want to rob you. Some people want revenge. Some think you're still a yakuza, some that you're an easy mark. Some are trying to con you and unhappy you see through their transparent ploys. Some get angry that you're asking questions, digging around in areas which don't concern you. Some just want to try themselves against the former Dragon of Dojima.

Kyriu scowling in an alley

Former being the key word. Even if you start the game being a one-man thug-wrecking crew, the time in prison softened Kiryu. You'll need to regain the skills that you had in your prime, or you'll never survive the tsunami of henchmen and mooks the story will throw your way.

Or stories. There's the main plot, about what happened in the decade you were away and where your friends are, and then there's the myriad of small side stories, some connected to you and your friends and some just fleshing out the fauna of Kamurocho. You could try and just go for the main plot, raging ahead like the bull Kiryu can resemble, but the wise path would be taking the side streets.

First, the side quests help you gain enough experience to get your skills back, which will be fundamental with the tough battles you'll have to deal with. This doesn't just mean experience points – different enemies have their own combat styles and, just when you're getting too comfortable, the game throws a different combination of thugs at you and forces you to reconsider your approach. Practice is fundamental for surviving Kamurocho.

But second, Yakuza isn't just about the main plot. It's about the rollercoaster of small stories you find on every corner. Silly situations and contrived circumstances like the wannabe-yakuza who sticks to Kiryu to “help” and only gets in trouble, or the group of thugs who keep trying to run the same “accident reparations” scam on you, or a fetch quest involving toilet paper for a man in need. Stories where you help a girl sell the matches her family makes on their small atelier, or find a replacement for an aging kid's game host so he can move on, or rush around Kamurocho trying to find a doctor for a child who might be dying.

It's also about figuring out where the chips are going to fall. Some of these quests look like you can help a person in need and devolve into a scam, some look like obvious cons yet end up either being about honest people in dire straits or straight-up restoring your faith in humanity. Some are just funny.

Not that the writing is wearing any sort of high hat. If this was D&D, the writer's alignment would be Lawful Absurd. It's honest and earnest, sticks to its guns, but even when it's playing it serious it goes over the top.

Why have a simple small-potatoes murder when you could have a far-reaching conspiracy?

Why have a side quest where you need to recover an item when you could start a chain of swaps and retrievals which spans the whole of Kamurocho?

Why just fight a boss when you can also fight his henchmen, some of whom are shooting at you, with mooks who stream from the second story carrying blades, in a Chinese restaurant, while you're using the furniture as improvised weapons?

Why just train to regain your skills when you could be hounded in random alleys by Majima, a deranged yakuza who alternates between nemesis and savior, and who may try to attack you from behind a corner, or coming out of a manhole, or charging with an entire gang wielding baseball bats, or interrupting a completely different fight?

Yes, there are fetch quests, but they help you learn the lay of the land. Yes, some of this can get repetitive, but it's so entertaining that when I got suckered into a minigame where you spend time chatting up a club hostess, I found myself wondering “why am I doing this? I could be fighting Majima on the street”.

And yes, you know how the story is going to play out the moment some elements pop up. But that doesn't matter. Kamurocho is a big amusement park, filled with fights and collectible games and deadly frenemies and toy car races and murder. The main plot, with all the dopey insanity it brings, is just the vehicle carrying you through its attractions.

Kyriu and Majima

#games #yakuza #stupidweek

Screenshot of Ellen Page in Beyond Two Souls

Here's a tip, everyone: it's not a game just because you use a controller to get through it. I use a PS/4 controller to get around Netflix, that doesn't make it an “interactive movie”.

Why am I bringing that up? David Cage's “games” give the player so little agency that I always wondered why he didn't just up and make a miniseries in the first place.

Beyond Two Souls answers that conclusively: it's because his writing is ludicrous, even by late 90s TV standards. If I wasn't a strong believer in personal freedom, I'd say he shouldn't be allowed anywhere near a keyboard.

So this girl Jodie grows up in a military base somewhere in the U.S. It's a covert research facility where you don't want anyone to know what's going on. The secretive type, where you emblazon the name United States Department of Paranormal Activity in a gigantic seal covering the entire lobby. She has a connection with “an entity” which, effectively, means that as a player you get to play through out of body experiences and push things around.

But it's a government project, so of course they intend to use her as a spy/weapon. She goes straight from her child/teenage years at the base, to CIA training montage as an adult, to covert ops where of course the CIA lies to her, to wandering the Earth before she needs to come back and clean up the military's mess.

By “goes” I mean “you have to push her slow-moving stiff automaton of a character around”. Her body is a crawling cursor that you need to use in 3D space to get to the next action prompt. It's as if David Cage had looked at visual novels and thought “that's OK, but wouldn't it be more fun if it took a few minutes of geometry-bumping and camera-wrestling before you could continue the scene?”

And that dialogue. By Tarantino, that dialogue. It takes a special kind of writer/director to make Willem Dafoe come across as a bumbling daytime TV soap-opera star. Imagine a kid who grew up thinking his crayon scribblings were high art because mom kept sticking them on the fridge, so he never tried to improve. That's David Cage's writing.

It has a couple of moments. The story is all vignettes from Jodie's life and there are exactly two in them that actually work as a game, with decision points which have you ask what kind of person you are. The game also still tells you a story if you fail at a task, instead of having you restart a scene.

These are wallpaper trying to hold together a termite-chewed, badly-hammered-together structure. The vignettes don't disguise how disconnected the tale is from your actions or how little effect you have on her actual story. Continuing the scene even if you fumble an event doesn't ameliorate how obtuse the game can be at what it expects you to do at critical moments.

Most story choices, though? They're of the “should I do a wailing teenage guitar riff or just throw a different type of hissy-fit?” variety.

Most game sections? You're on rails, with your actions having zero impact on the story at large, the scene itself, or Jodie specifically.

David Cage doesn't get how either of those things work.

#games #beyondtwosouls #stupidweek #willemdafoe #ellenpage