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Powerful film about a Japanese taboo
The outcast of the title is a 'burakumin', the Japanese analogue of India's Untouchables. The film makes clear that they are hated, feared and despised, but does not really spell out why. This caste, made official by legislation some decades before the time of the story (1904, which is, curiously, stated at the end), does the dirtiest and foulest jobs, including sewage, dealing with the dead (funerals, butchers, tanners, shoemakers), or anything similarly icky. The members of this caste are compelled to live in ghettos, so that the towns they serve can remain 'clean', that is, separated from the unclean.
Segawa, the title character, returns to his home town, under cover of darkness. His father has just been killed by a bull he was trying to retrieve. The man had sent his son away, warning him never to return, and to keep his caste identity secret, so that the son could have a chance to better himself. Segawa's uncle begs him not to view the body, else he be identified, but he sneaks in with his face covered.
Right from the start, the fear and loathing towards the burakumin (a bland euphemism which means, simply, 'village people') is made very clear. Segawa pledges, to his dead father, that he will never reveal his true identity, and returns to his job, as a primary teacher in a rough country school.
Segawa's resolution is tested at every turn. The principal vows to clamp down on even a hint of burakumin in his school. Even his childhood buddy rails against them. Segawa is know to be a reader of Inoko, a burakumin activist who openly campaigns for better treatment. Although respected by Japanese society in general for his moral courage and humanity, Inoko is a controversial figure. Segawa's buddy counsels him to pay less attention to Inoko's work. When the author visits, the two meet, but Segawa keeps his resolution, and keeps his identity a secret even from the virtuous Inoko, who is dying from tuberculosis.
The Outcast is a film that strongly benefits from filming in black and white. Right and wrong are as clear as black and white here. There are many memorably stark images - the face of the great actor Rentaro Mikuni (who plays Inoko), just as he has been crucially betrayed, against a snowy deserted street, is just one example.
The only criticism I make, and it is fairly slight, is that the story and dialogue are both very preachy. There are long speeches about the plight and rights of the outcasts. I personally did not mind this, and simply note it for reference. All the dialogue, including the speeches, are delivered to terrific dramatic effect.
This is an outstanding film about a subject that, even today, few Japanese are willing to discuss. This is one of Japan's true shames, examined with a much-needed and very sincere searchlight.
The cast is first rate and all played their parts to perfection. The star, Raizo Ichikawa, was the most popular actor in Japan in the 50s and 60s. Yes, you read that right. The great Toshiro Mifune, though highly successful, was considered Japan's top actor internationally, but Raizo was a superstar with the domestic audience. His trademark character was 'Sleepy Eyes Of Death', a deadly samurai whom he played many times. He was my late wife's favourite actor since the age of 5.
This, then, was an unusual role for the great actor. Though Segawa does lash out, he really only wants to be left alone to lead an ordinary life, and there are no real fight scenes here. Yet he shines, and his sincerity is total and compelling.
The next half-dozen characters are mostly stars in their own right. The luscious Keiko Kishida as Inoko's wife. Rentaro Mikuni as Inoko - simply superb. Eiji Funakoshi as Segawa's elder drunken schoolteacher, effectively sacked so as to deny him a pension. Ganjiro Nakamura (who starred in a number of films with Raizo) as a lecherous Buddhist priest.
So much to enjoy, and a fair bit to think about. Unmissable.
Maiko wa redî (2014)
Delightful and colourful froth
Dopey and clumsy bumpkin comes to big city, seeking to become the very essence of Japanese grace. Dogged determination in the face of stern opposition, derision and incompetence, yet with good-hearted support from unexpected quarters. Add the sumptuous lush colour of geisha, lovely settings ... and take every opportunity to burst into song ! The lead actress strikes just the right note of naïve sincerity, and the experienced supporting cast carry proceedings along with conviction, showing all the right touches of sorrow and joy.
Somewhat silly, as any good musical tends to be, Lady Maiko is moving and joyful, with a ripper of a closing number. Highly recommended.
Watashi no otoko (2014)
Dark & compelling
The premise and direction of the story seem, at first, to be a tease. A slightly wacky take on Lolita ? But things proceed to the grim. A take on Luc Besson's The Professional, or even Fatal Attraction ? The question of 'will they or won't they ?' sustains tension for the first half, but the loneliness and desperation of this curious pair carry things further. Much further, into territory where nothing is off-limits, not even murder.
The disturbing feel of My Man is further enhanced with surprising touches of gory horror which, although seemingly out-of-place, are striking and highly effective.
Not at all for the faint of heart, weak of stomach or the easily offended, My Man is voyeuristic and perverse, gripping from start to finish, and is practically guaranteed to leave you unsettled. Highly recommended.
Zakurozaka no adauchi (2014)
Master swordsman Shimura Kingo is charged with protecting the Shogun's chief minister, and fails. Forbidden from taking his own life, he is instead commanded to track down and kill the assassins. Only then will he be permitted an honourable death.
Events conspire against the quest. One by one, the assassins die before he can reach them, each time to the increasing frustration of Kingo and his lord. Worse, the times are changing rapidly. The Meiji Restoration makes swordsmen an embarrassing irrelevance.
Only one assassin remains at large. Even after the death of his lord, Kingo presses on.
Snow On The Blades is beautifully filmed and is a continuous joy to behold. The costumes and scenery are fantastic. The acting is on key and convincing, and the fight scenes superb.
SOTB does go on for a bit too long and drags a little along the way. The two male leads are simply marvellous and superbly well-matched, while the lovely Ryoko Hirosue provides stoic support as Kingo's true samurai wife.
Kuroi jûnin no onna (1961)
While not one of the master's great works, Ten Dark Women is well worth watching.
The B&W cinematography is creepy and strikes exactly the right tone. Awkward camera angles are suitably unsettling. The women, especially the main actresses, are lit to near-perfection, and they look great.
The groovy bass-dominated background music, in a classic 60s emblematic style, is simply superb. Where can I find this soundtrack ? Although the premise is outrageous, the story is easily involving enough to suspend disbelief. The dark mood is established from the first shot and never lets go. That said, the final third of TDW tends to the ridiculous and does run out of puff.
One can't help but envy Ichikawa. He got together a fine selection of Japan's loveliest stars, and coaxed from them disturbing and even frightening performances of women so scorned that they manage to plot murderous revenge, despite continuous in-fighting, justifiable mistrust and changing motives.
Ignore the naysayers. For its few faults, TDW is great offbeat entertainment.
Too much of the ordinary
I see from the other reviews that TT was adapted from a successful TV series and is autobiographical of a well-known Japanese author. In that case, the central problem with TT seems to be too much reverence for the material.
As a standalone movie, TT is way too long. It rambles and spends too much time on the ordinary details of life, therefore lacking pace and often feeling very depressing. For an international audience, this film could perhaps be cut by as much as half without losing its essence.
On the plus side, the performances are sincere, with the standout being the great character actress Kiki Kirin as the very long-suffering mother. Sentimentally, I have given TT an extra point for being largely set in northern Kyushu, which is where my late wife was born and raised. This area, well-known for coal mining, is one of Japan's rural backwaters, and the young Masaya's strong desire to escape is entirely understandable.
There are many funny and warm moments, though more of the first 3/4 is depressing, ordinary or just plain dull. The final quarter is much tighter and more involving, although still too drawn out.
Ukikusa monogatari (1934)
Remade for good reason
Ozu remade this movie 25 years later. I saw the remake first, and it is a sumptuous masterpiece. I had wondered why Ozu had chosen to remake, so I looked forward to seeing the original, though with some trepidation. The original is a lovely film, but it is no match for the remake.
Ozu is a director of assurance and confidence, coaxing from his actors exactly what he wants. ASOFW is a simple and fairly straightforward tale of a dissolute man who leads a troupe around Japan at a time when life was hard. He puts himself in the, for Japanese men, highly shameful position of accepting the hospitality of his old flame, partly to spend time with his son, whose paternity has been kept secret by common consent.
It is difficult for me to consider A Story Of Floating Weeds on its own merits, and I will not even attempt to do so. The remake flows smoothly and looks simply glorious. ASOFW seems to have been sketched in comparison. And some of the apparent 'jumps' do not quite make sense. Whereas the leader's decision to dissolve the troupe makes clear sense in the remake, it appears whimsical at best in ASOFW.
In short, if you have the choice, watch ASOFW first, then prepare to be blown away by the glory of the remake.
Få meg på, for faen (2011)
Too much like the dull small town
Yet another example of "great ingredients poorly cooked".
The first reviewer pretty much nailed it. While I don't think the acting was all that bad, the boredom and relentless dullness of small-town 'life' pervades the mood to far too great an extent, utterly flattening the occasional moments of lightness and humour.
The lead actress is compelling, and her situation all too clearly elucidated. But notwithstanding a few outbursts at her mother, Alma is such a doormat. And she had every opportunity to encourage Artur, but failed to take them.
Anyone who grew up in an isolated small town could certainly relate to the situation. For me, there needed to be more humour and light relief to distract from the grinding dullness, which was much too realistic.
Alma manages to find a group of people, away from her small-town schoolmates, who lighten the mood. There should have been much more of this in the film, and it may have been bearable.
Honestly, more nudity and fewer 'strong sex scenes' (which were fairly muted) would have made TMOG more bearable. Perhaps in the sequel ?
Yokomichi Yonosuke (2013)
Funny for Japanese, otherwise puzzling
I found A Story Of Yonosuke striking, but for entirely the wrong reason. Put simply, ASOY is a case study in culture-specific humour, and is far more interesting to consider in this manner than as a light comedy biopic epic.
It was an effort to sit through nearly two and a half hours of this. Not that it was all that dull, but the laughs are mostly silly giggles, and there are often long stretches between laughs where not a lot happens. The narrative is structured as an epic, spanning sixteen years, told from several different viewpoints, with multiple flashbacks which sometimes confuse and irritate. This epic scale is stunningly at odds with the lightly comic examination of the life of one foolish man, and how he affected the lives of those he befriended.
The title character is presented like a younger version of Tora-san, a fool who stumbles through life with a sunny view of things, strongly projecting that quality much admired by Japanese, 'genki' (difficult to translate a combination of lively, positive, optimistic, energetic). The laughter starts when he tells his name. Nearly everyone in the film giggles at the mention of his name. The Japan Film Festival audience was sharply divided on this. Japanese audience members got the joke, but we gaijin (foreigners) sat there po-faced and puzzled, until one of the characters thoughtfully explained that the alliteration of the name was the funny part.
Alliteration seems to have a more specific definition in Japanese. That his name is Yokomichi Yonosuke is what cracked up the characters and the Japanese audience. An English equivalent, such as Adam Addison, just doesn't do it for us. Not that Japanese names aren't funny to us. Any name including Fuk or Yuk, or the name Aso, can trigger more than giggles.
Perhaps this is the Japanese equivalent of rhyming names in English. Ridiculously contrived rhymes such as Richard Pritchard or Katie Tate are practically guaranteed to amuse. Japanese songs hardly ever rhyme. Indeed, it seems they are constructed to avoid rhyming at all costs. Odd, considering that the language has a much greater potential for rhyming (and punning) than English.
So, Japanese dislike rhymes but Westerners find them amusing. Japanese are amused by alliteration, but Westerner only raise an eyebrow at best.
We evidently have a clear difference between the humour of Japanese and Westerners. ASOY rests totally on this humour, which is why I found watching the movie a test of endurance more than a comedy. If ever ASOY were given a wider release, I heartily recommend shortening it by at least one hour, and I do not think the story will suffer for it.
The Japan Film Festival website classified this year's movies into a number of categories. I am puzzled that they failed to apply the category "Only In Japan" to ASOY.
There are a few bright spots. Yonosuke woos a rich girl. He feels very out-of-place in her mansion. There are several scenes where he has awkward dates, which are only semi-explicably always watched over by the family chambermaid. This actress never speaks, but when the camera cuts to her for a reaction, her expressions are simply hilarious. This is a combination of excellent editing and superb comic timing. Pity there wasn't more of this.
The ending is very puzzling. There is no explanation, stated or implied, as to why things worked out this way. For such an unnecessarily long journey, which examines Yonosuke's effect on a number of people and his near-relentless cheerfulness in exhausting detail, I expected something better, to not be left hanging. But I suspect that, like the humour, only the Japanese would ever truly get it.
Hajimari no michi (2013)
Crisis of confidence for young director
Kinoshita has directed his first film for Shochiku, so all should be well. But in 1944, the Armed Forces and the War Cabinet are worried. The war is clearly being lost, and censorship is getting tighter. Despite his film, called simply The Army, being strongly patriotic and stirring, the Army censors criticized the closing sequence for showing a woman crying freely while her son proudly marches off to war. Kinoshita is told that he will not be allowed to make another film because of this pressure. His boss wants him to stay on, and wait out the ban, but Kinoshita leaves anyway, proud and hurt.
He returns to his village at the worst possible time. The American bombing raids are closing in on even his rather remote village. The family must evacuate. Problem is, their mother is too ill to travel by bus on the bumpy roads. Kinoshita and his brother resolve to carry their mother in a litter over the mountains on foot. Assisted by a young porter, they set out for the hard journey.
Most of the movie is the hardships of the journey and the long conversations between the young men. Kinoshita is compelled to consider and defend his decisions, and challenged to return to movie-making.
Apart from a number of crises (such as pouring rain and bombing from the air), the pace is fairly gentle though always involving and never dull. The lead actors do a creditable job, but Yuko Tanaka as the literally long-suffering mother is simply stunning. And she is all the more impressive for saying not a word until her final scene, when she struggles to convince Kinoshita to go back to his dream.
The mountain scenery is also lovely to look at, and the camera-work is gorgeous. I did find some of the dialogue and characterization rather too neat and lacking in credibility. For instance, the porter chats with Kinoshita about seeing his film, the Army, unaware that he is addressing the director himself (Kinoshita does not tell the boy, as much out of shame as anything else). The porter gives him a rapturous review, reinforcing his vision of how he thought local audiences would react. This looks very much like dramatic license and seems unlikely to have happened so neatly and succinctly.
Considering the stature of Kinoshita, who started at the same time as Kurosawa and his contemporary in every respect, this story may appear to have been an oddly trivial episode to make into full-length feature. After all, his great body of work all came after this time. However, Dawn Of A Filmmaker is a lovely and affectionate film, and tries earnestly to shine a light on the views, life experience and tribulations of this great artist.
DOAF ends with a clips from most of his movies, and makes me all the keener to seek out his harder-to-find efforts.
Highly recommended for anyone who loves Japanese film, whether you are yet to see a Kinoshita masterpiece or, like me, are a firm and committed fan.