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Dare to Stop Us
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by Jay Seaver

"Rebel filmmakers and the people who made them possible."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2019 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: I have probably, over the course of attending this genre festival and other events like it, gotten myself a pretty warped perspective on what filmmakers are a big deal. When it comes to Japanese filmmakers, for instance, I know very little Ozu, but a movie about fringe icon Koji Wakamatsu? Let me clear my festival schedule for that! Truth be told, there's probably more drama to be found in that anarchist maniac's orbit than that of a respected genius, although some may be a bit disappointed that "Dare to Stop Us" takes place more within that orbit rather than focusing on Wakamatsu himself.

Instead, it's told from the perspective of Megumi Yoshizumi (Mugi Kadowaki), a young woman who seems to be on the fringes of the art world when she meets a friend Michio "Spook" Akiyama (Soran Tamoto) in a cafe, asking if she knows any girls that could pass for 15 for a pink film he's working on (the producers of these short skin flicks didn't care what sort of messages the filmmakers put in so long as they had the requisite number of sex scenes). She will wind up before the camera in films with names like "Female Student Guerilla" for Wakamatsu (Arata Iura), whose anti-establishment cinema is rooted having been arrested when authorities thought he was a yakuza. He attracts a varied group of writers from Atsushi Yamatoya (Shima Ohnishi) to critic-turned screenwriter Haruhiko Arai (Kisetsu Fujiwara) to Megumi's crush Kenji Takama (Ku Ijima), and Megumi eventually becomes a good assistant director, but as Wakamatsu's fame grows and stabilizing force Spook leaves, the situation at his studio becomes more unpredictable as he's emboldened to take on more radical projects.

Wakamatsu is the leader of this cohort and the one whose name is best known nearly fifty years after the events of these movies, but the film does not spend much time demonstrating his genius; the filmmakers show fleeting glimpses and recreations of his work from this period or spend much time demonstrating any particular genius in his methods. Arata Iura doesn't go the full "abrasive, abusive genius" route, instead recreating the sort of charisma that has a person floating just far enough above the rest to seem extraordinary while still being close enough to grasp onto. He's magnetic, but just certain enough of his own genius that he can shrug off turmoil underneath him.

He needs that team, though, because film is a collaborative medium and one that needs people who are able to nail down the practical details of his vision. That's where folks like Megumi come in, and the film both shows her necessity and how being really good at the nuts-and-bolts parts of a creative enterprise can mess with how one perceives oneself; Megumi wants to be an artist but nervous measuring herself against people like Wakamatsu, and it certainly doesn't help that she's the only woman in the group trying to give direction rather than take it. Mugi Kadowaki does a great job of letting Megumi's desire to be more play across her face even as she affects a cool, disaffected demeanor, or letting the strain of how her personal life is getting complicated just as work is becoming even more random than usual quickly seem unbearable.

More than telling either of their stories, the film works as a recreation of the period. From the first scene of Spook and Megumi meeting in a cafe, the audience feels plunged into this bohemian world full of people who both wanted to be cool and revolutionary, their earnest idealism about art and justice running headlong into how they've got to scrape by and sometimes shoot porn to make ends meet. That attitude is the most important part of it, but the meticulous physical recreation of the era is a delight as well, impressive in how it reflects both the shabbiness and stylishness of this group of filmmakers and their ambitions. Every aspect of the movie represents the sort of down-and-dirty way they were creating what they hoped would eventually be transformative works.

The film ends somewhat abruptly; Wakamatsu's career was taking the sort of strange turn that would define him just as much as his early trick of embedding revolutionary messages in soft-core porn did, and folks like Megumi wouldn't necessarily be joining him. But that's part of the nature of this sort of art and life - living your dreams in a volatile environment can change things fast, for better or worse, and only some are going to be able to look back on the whole thing nostalgically.

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originally posted: 11/30/19 04:54:55
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Kazuya Shiraishi

Written by
  Jun'ichi Inoue

  Arata Iura
  Mugi Kadowaki

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