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Erosu purasu gyakusatsu (1969)
One of the Best Films of the Sixties
Yoshida's Eros Plus Massacre is an AMAZING example of what narrative cinema can do with time and space, establishing characters that exist in a world of their own and yet feel very real (and are in fact based on some real people.) Ito Noe and Osugi Sakae were lovers and friends who fanned the flames of anarchist and leftist controversy during one the Taisho era (Japan's Weimar or Roaring 20s.) Noe was a writer who became Osugi Sakae's, an anarchist revolutionary and writer, lover. They were murdered by the state police after the Kano earthquake of 1923 (which was, in some ways and places, blamed on anarchist, immigrants, and other illogical things.)
Yoshida places us in the present day through rebellious college students, one an extremely sexual female who plays games with police and film directors the entire movie, the other a nearly impotent young man who is obsessed with current events and fatalism. They replay the Taisho events in their imaginations, which we are privy to, until the imaginations begin to take place within their own reality. Soon, the two are intertwined, and we're asked as viewers to deal with some improbable and unforgettable situations that question our role as a passive audience. The story and characters of both time periods are engrossing, and combined with Yoshida's radical compositions and a combination of subdued "historical" music and late 60s trippy rock, you're thrown into a delightfully open ended plot which you'll have a hard time shaking.
Yoshida's debt to Alain Resnais is on full display here. The film is a near sister to Last Year at Marienbad and Muriel. Antonioni's desolation films also come to mind, particularly The Eclipse. Yoshida's place in the Nuberu Bago (the Japanese New Wave) was cemented when David Desser named his book about the movement after this film, and its worth the advertisement. This is available in Japan without subs, and you can probably find it somewhere in the trading world with English subtitles, but it needs a proper DVD release (along with EVERY OTHER YOSHIDA film.) Highly highly recommended to any film fan with an open mind.
Toki o kakeru shôjo (2006)
Definitely a favorite anime
Hosoda Mamoru's The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is an imaginative story about a girl who accidentally becomes able to go back in time to replay her day's events with a simple leap (its never made explicit, but it seems the harder she leaps, the further she goes back in time, but you never know.) Its basically a shojo style anime where the girl takes center stage and faces tough questions about growing up. Of course, these tough questions are given a new spin because not only can she literally avoid answering them, but change what she says once she says it. The film is so well done, however, that it never becomes even remotely obtuse and is easily followed from beginning to end.
The animation is absolutely gorgeous, combining hand drawn and digital through high tech layering software, and achieving a combined effect of realism and beauty that few cartoons can lay claim to (in this way it felt a sister film to Takahata's Only Yesterday and My Neighbors the Yamadas.) If you find yourself staring endlessly at the backgrounds, you're not alone. Nature is on full display in this film, and the characters that inhabit it never seem far from a stream or flock of birds. Sunlight glinting off of sign posts, fields saturated in pastel greens, and the cozy warmth of indoor nesting play a large part in setting the mood. Character designs are detailed but not distracting, with all the main characters having expressive unique faces that don't veer off into the Anime extremes. The sound is a huge factor in the film, as it should be in all animation in my opinion, with subtle and effective voice work.
I have a feeling this will become one of my most watched animes. It has a sense of humor about itself, but the emotional notes ring very true. You find yourself caught up in a world where reality isn't exactly what it should be, but the stakes aren't all that high in the larger universal context. What you end up with is a story about relationships, ethics, communication, and the inevitability of making mistakes.
Hosoda Mamoru was a Studio Ghibli animator and was set to direct Howl's Moving Castle, but declined and went on to work on his own projects. Howl's Moving Castle seems, in retrospect, like the last movie in the world this director should be involved with. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time reminds me more of Kondo Yoshifumi's If You Listen Closely (or Whispers of the Heart), one of my most beloved films, about a young girl also facing adulthood who lives partly in a world of fancy. For this film he's been nominated for a number of awards, and hopefully will begin work on new projects soon.
This film is available with on DVD with English subtitles in Korea.
Chiyari Fuji (1955)
A Favorite 50s Jidaigeki in the Style of the Old Masters
A Bloody Spear on Mt Fuji's plot is basic; a group of travellers (Samurai and two servants, shamisen player and daughter, highway policeman, thief, miner) interact and become closer through stressful and comedic situations (also, some tragedy). Ostensibly a road movie, a lot of the interaction and activity takes place in inns and city streets, very little on roads (though what does is memorable, such as Gonpachi becoming acquainted with an young orphan boy admirer.) Most of the plot revolves around the samurai, whose character reminds one of Yamanaka taking a stand against society and paying the price. I wonder if this inference was an accident (Yamanaka made popular films that questioned the status quo in the 30s, was sent to Manchuria and died at the front shortly after; only three of his films survive today.) There are many great moments in the film, which is as comedic in dialogue as it is in editing and tone. Daisuke Kato plays one of the servants, and his sake drinking and philosophizing scenes are everyman humor at its best. The playful looks, dialogue, and subtle attraction between the shamisen player and Gonpachi (Chiezo Katoaka), lords sitting on a busy highway to Edo shutting down traffic for a tea ceremony, and the lancer's final battle all stick close to my memory. I can't think of any other postwar Samurai film that does this kind of action, comedy, and drama as entertainingly (my favorite postwar jidai-geki films are the Anti-Samurai ones, such as Okamoto's Sword of Doom).
If you, like me, were taken wholly by surprise while watching Yamanaka Sadao's Tange Sazen and the Million Ryo Pot then you'll greatly appreciate this film (only available as a bootleg with English subtitles, though there are rumors this and more Yamanaka could get an North American release soon). It shares with the 1935 genre picture a sense of humor and lightheartedness that few films have done as well. In fact, since Uchida Tomu directed this jidai-geki with the help of Shimizu Hiroshi and Ozu Yasujiro, I can only imagine it's a heavy homage to their lost friends Yamanaka and Itami Mansaku. Itami's film Capricious Young Man can be felt all over, especially in it's depiction of the samurai servants mingling with each other and arguing about their duties. Ozu and Shimizu's touch can also be felt with the depiction of the child, as it's characteristically their own. He's rebellious and witty, but also retains childish attention getting ways, and lack of self restraint in all matters. Ozu and Shimizu used this type of childish antics in their films regularly to great effect (particularly in Ozu's I Was Born But... and Shimizu's Children in the Wind.) Uchida's history is an interesting one. He went to war, and after 1940 spent ten years in a prison camp in China (more on this part of his life, and some notes by Craig Watts about Bloody Spear at Bright Lights Film Journal). He began directing silents and moved on to become on the late thirties preeminent social realist directors, making a powerful play with Earth (1936), made almost entirely with extra film stock from other productions. His other late thirties work, Theater of Life, Police, and Unending Advance were preferred by Donald Richie and have garnered critical appreciation from critics like David Bordwell, Keiko McDonald, and midnighteye.com. His samurai films from the 50s and 60s have aged relatively well, especially this and his Musashi Miyamoto pentalogy. Toei made mostly low grade cheesefests, but were known to throw in a "prestige" film every now and then, of which Bloody Spear at Mt Fuji definitely categorizes itself. With the big name writer/directors, and headlining actor Chiezo Kataoka, this was surely a success.
You can buy this film with french subtitles at Amazon France, though I found a copy with an English translation by fishing around. Also, there's a great overview of Uchida's career at Senses of Cinema by Alexander Jacoby. Also, be sure and pick up Masters of Cinema's absolutely necessary R2 UK DVD of Yamanaka's Humanity and Paper Balloons.
Mesmerizing Political Biopic from Underacclaimed New Wave Director
Yoshida "Kiju" Yoshida directed his last film for some time in 1973. This was a strange biopic about a military obsessive and nationalist socialist named Ikki Kita, somewhat in the style of Hitler, who encouraged a coup against the Japanese government in 1936 (infamously known as the "February 26th incident".) I say strange because a number of choices were made which gave the film a unique place in the history of biopics and specifically historical reenactments of the coup. Rarely has a biographical film been done with such a confident and dramatic touch.
Yoshida's framing is the stuff of film legend, nearly always placing figures at the edges of cinema (and therefore not altogether video friendly, before the advent of DVD that is.) It's a nearly dizzying effect handled graciously, which lends the events a larger than life feeling, that feels artistically justified instead of rammed down your throat. The black and white colors are used to their most effective ends, with entrancing expressionistic details. Textures of wood and granite play a large part in setting moods, along with a lack of establishing shots and action sequences, making this a more quiet film than anyone would expect of its reputation and name.
The music choices of Ichiyanagi Sei, who worked on a number of Yoshida films, recalls Jissouji's Mujo (or This Transient Life) which seems as interested in minor key fiddle flourishes as Takemitsu styled percussion explosions. The score also boasts a twice repeated analog keyboard motif, which shows the melancholy and absence of life among the militarists. It underscores both a reprehensibly dour dream sequence, and channels an avant funeral march before the credits roll. Watkins' Edward Munch and 32 Short Films about Glenn Gould come to mind in the use of music effectively rendering someone's life story to film.
In regards to its place among reenactments, as Joan Mellen noted in Waves at Genji's Door, most filmed versions of this story encourage a sentimentalism of the officers involved, as they were merely doing the most honorable thing they could imagine by assisting the Emperor in getting rid of the waste of civilian bureaucracy. The officers are treated with sympathy, but more for their naiveté in the face of the unknown future, rather than Yoshida siding with their proto-fascists ways.
The major emotional issues in the film stem from Ikki's childhood and paternal issues towards his stepson, and how that carries over into his dealings with one of the more inept but sincere acolytes. Ikki's dealings with authority figures is flippant at best, and he seems to regard society as a mere gesture, with martial law being the only true way for humanity to progress. Yoshida's rendering of these beliefs should be held up with his even more powerful Eros Plus Massacre, where Taisho anarchism and the late 60s student movement are entangled and commenting on one another. There, Yoshida appears to be telling us something about the nature of humanity, in that it doesn't really change, but only cons one into thinking it will. In Coup d'etat, Yoshida seems to be saying not only will things remain the same, but they're usually worse than you realize.
Interesting Fiji/Takakura Vehicle
In this film a Fuji Junko plays the extremely popular, principled, and extremely attractive geisha Shinji, who rejects the advances of coal baron, played sleazily by Kaneko Nobuo (perhaps best known as Boss Yamamori in Fukasaku's Battles Without Honor and Humanity.) As she spurns his advances, as well as an early Meiji era imperial army general's, she begins to fall for a local mine owner named Shimada, played by Fuji's regular opposite Takakura Ken, whose mine is desired by the powerful Kaneko. This conflict eventually leads to death and destruction, as competition between Takakura and Kaneko mounts, with Fuji in the middle.
This film, like the Red Peony Gambler series, is pure entertainment, with some leftist anti-capitalist notes (funny that Yamashita isn't given nearly the hard time Yamamoto and Imai are). Fuji is a delight, and not for one second do you believe she's not nearly as attractive and interesting a geisha as the film is making her out to be. There are some interesting directorial flourishes, particularly in one of the last scenes where Fuji does Kabuki, with the red hair of the mythological lion, a being that protects against evil spirits and brings peace. This "dance" is countered with a long battle between Takakura and the rival gang protecting Kaneko's coal baron, lead by Tomisaburu Wakayama, flashing to one then back to the other. It's a powerful and effective use of editing.
Brilliantly Directed Samurai Film
Imai's Adauchi (AKA Revenge) is surely one of the best samurai films to come out of Toei, a prolific company that didn't seem to mind if it's product devolved into mediocrity, and maybe one of the best period. Toei has done much less to impress me than the other major studios of the 50s and 60s, yet they did give many amazing directors shots at high gloss period pieces, including the somewhat maligned Imai Tadashi, which accounts for some very interesting work. The direction in this film is beautiful, and I have a feeling that if the presentation was correct, it might garner a "10" (I believe the film was presented on the video I viewed at around 1:90 AR in black and white, while it was intended, according to JMDB to be color cinemascope, or 2:35, a huge difference.) The flow and rhythm of the film is striking for a samurai picture. Imai holds on moments for what seems like forever (it's amazing how long ten seconds can feel when everything is motionless), and it creates a startling effect. It's unfortunate that the film's only weak link is it's Toei stable of actors: Tanba is hollow and useless bluster in a supporting role and Nakamura Kinnosuke pathetically attempts some sort of realistic acting as the unfortunate Ezaki Shinpei, a samurai and second son, who's pride and class resentment begin a series of events that lead to death. The plot is predictable to a point, but certainly has some surprises.
One of the fascinating things about the film was it's political and anti-feudal aspect. It showed everyone in power to be conceited and hypocritical, abusing the Bushido code for their own purposes, and ignoring it when they see fit. It's worth it to note that Imai's previous film period, Cruel Story of Bushido, also lambastes the feudal ethos. The main character, Ezoki Shinpei, feels compelled to give up everything he wants to maintain his honor. His alternating bluster and sacrifice come out of confusion and desperation, only leading to ruin for himself, his family, and the adversary's family as well. This belongs amongst the ranks of Kobayashi's Seppuku, Tanaka's The Betrayal, and Yamamoto's Tengu-to as films that rate Bushido and the samurai way as completely useless at best, but closer to evil incarnate.
I mentioned above that Imai is often maligned. I first heard of Imai through Anderson and Richie's The Japanese Film, where he was almost as lambasted as Yamamoto Satsuo for being a left wing propagandist (sure his Kome, AKA Rice, comes to mind, as it's basically a remake of Uchida's social realist film Earth, from 1939). But times have changed. There's no longer a cold war, and the old prejudices that seemed so important against far left ideologies now seem quaint. Frankly, the more I see of either director the less I can account for propaganda, and the more I see extremely pleasant qualities of fine film-making. I look forward to seeing as much of this director's work as I can find.
I bought this film from Kurotokagi.com, and the image quality left a bit to be desired (it seems that it's taped off of television, among the previous issues), but was still a fine product considering there aren't any other resources for this available (hopefully a DVD will be released soon.)
Satsujin kyôjidai (1967)
Brilliant Dark Comedy
The film begins with exposition as a lunatic asylum "mad scientist" ex-Nazi played by Amamoto Eisei (he and his pals switch back and forth between menacing Japanese and scary German the whole film) discusses how a massive diamond was lost and a young Japanese (Nakadai Tatsuya) has it in his possession. A league of assassins make comedic attempts at Nakadai's life (along with a girl, Dan Reiko, Yuriko from Ozu's The End of Summer and a goofy pal) which are all thwarted, naturally, since even playing a little bit of a "dweeb", Nakadai is still graced with luck and a certain charisma (a natural fighting ability). Turns out the diamond is a stolen Nazi item which was placed in Nakadai's body when he was eight.
Okamoto used the same cinematographer for this as Kill!, so it has that same crisp detail, but it's a bit more high contrast (the black and white world of assassinations, I suppose.) The score is almost inappropriately "emotional" at times, but enhances the odd factor. The action is believable, in a "chase film" sort of way, but the real greatness of Epoch of Murder and Madness is in the comedy. Not too broad (though Nakadai's small-enough-to-pedal-with-your-feet car, which emits burps and farts as it runs, runs counter to that claim) and like most of his films anti-authority and anti-war, a fair bit of cynicism and a love for the details of human nature seem to be the ideas behind it. A bit of his earlier The Elegant Mr. Everyman can be seen in the way Nakadai uses his voice as a blunt instrument of humor, streamlining dialogue in a way that almost sounds like narration. The cynical soldier, with aims at the ridiculousness of war, is then best exemplified in his Nikudan, or The Human Bullet (my favorite of his films, and one which Isolde Standish's Myth and Masculinity in Japanese Film does a thorough job of explicating), where Nakadai's Epoch Of... character, Kikyo Shinji seems to be transposed into the Special Attack Forces. Properly enough, Nakadai narrated Human Bullet and the evil as hell Amamoto Eisei plays the main character's father (i.e. the villain). Worth noting that the "main character" of Human Bullet, played by Terada Minori, goes unnamed.
Someone needs to bring this, and the rest of Okamoto's sixties work, to DVD badly.
Brilliantly Absurdist Japanese Ghost Story
Suzuki's first independent production (co-produced with the Art Theatre Guild) is a mesmerizing combination of the absurdly irrational, painterly beautiful, and fiendishly historic. Setting the film during the Taisho period (a relatively small Japanese period which can effectively be compared to the Weimar or "roaring twenties" in the US), it's anarchic and sexuallly attuned characters reflect not only their time, but the revitalization of such things, in a much more brazen form, during the 60s. In this way, the film shares a great deal with Yoshida's Eros Plus Massacre, a film set simultaneously (in every meaning of the word) in the 20s and 60s. Insanity plagues this film, and in some ways I believe it's about losing control of one's ability to perceive the world around them. It pursues the question "what is real" and "what is imagined", and is, eventually, a Japanese ghost story about friendship and lust.
There are four (or five, if you count Otani Naoko's dual role as Koine and Sono (recalling for some, Bunuel's that Obscure Object of Desire, another great absurdist film about identity and lust) virile and virulent characters that set the scene. This is a small set of people, two couples really, which the triangles and relationships of the film are formed. It allows Suzuki to play with the characters emotions constantly, using various flirtations, imagined or real, to enhance the dialogue interplay, almost immediately setting up a conflict between the two male characters over a geisha in mourning (Koine). Fetishes of bones and blood set the stage, against a backdrop of hard lines, and an almost immobile camera (enhanced by gorgeous telephoto lense, full frame 35mm cinematography by Nagatsuka Kazue, responsible for two of Suzuki's best looking earlier films Branded to Kill and Story of a Prostitute.) With symmetry playing a key role in the mise en scene, it's no wonder so much force comes from the desires and soullessness of the participants.
What really sets this film apart from so many of Suzuki's others, is his blatant disregard for letting the viewer know what is happening in "real life" and what is going on in someone's head. By the end of the film, much is thrown into question, and we're better off for it. As for the pace, I find it to be a regularly paced film, with brief moments of heightened suspense (at times it's as if you're watching a Paradjanov film). Zigeunerweisen (named after a Pablo de Sarasate piece for orchestra and violin, which is played over the opening credits and a couple more times during the film) proves that as eerie as the truth can be, a ghost story that hides the truth and buries your life in the shadows, is all too haunting an experience. Amazing film.
One of the world's great 30s era films
To say that I appreciate this film would be an enormous understatement- I love it. Every second is infused with comedy and humanity, artfully drawn with minimal but effective camera movement, unforgettable music, and pitch perfect character acting. The story is simple, a retainer has a pot which theoretically has a map on it telling the place of a large fortune. The pot is comically sold to some junk collectors before the retainer realizes it's worth, and a search for it throws the both "giri" and "ninjo" (a Japanese story telling tradition of how fealty and natural desires combat for one's dedication) into the wind. Do whatever you can to see this gem of a film from one of the world's all too unheralded Directors, Yamanaka Sadao (I believe you can find copies on eBay with English subtitles.) Highly recommended to fans of Japanese film, early thirties American comedies, and the art of socially pointed humor in general.
Bara no sôretsu (1969)
Another Amazing Japanese New Wave Film
Having only seen a couple of this director's films (Dogra Magra and War of the Sixteen Year Olds didn't impress me all that much) I was unprepared for the brilliance of this Godard like triumph. Diegetic ambivalence (is that a legal phrase?) and Brechtian film-making flood over the viewer (I believe the films of the Dziga-Vertov group were playing in Japan at this time, I don't doubt their influence on this.) The plot is simple, a cross dresser named Peter ("The Fool", from Kurosawa's RAN, who looks *very* feminine, his gender kept "secret" from the viewer for the first few minutes) is involved in the owner of the Shinjuku bar he works at, has a troubled past, and relives a homosexual version of the Oedipus story (maybe it's not so simple.) The late sixties produced *many* self-referential films from Japan's new wave (a few: Imamura's A Man Vanishes, Yoshida's Eros Plus Massacre, Shinoda's Double Suicide, Oshima's The Man Who Left His Will On Film, and Diary of a Shinjuku Thief, Hani's Inferno of First Love) and this is one of the most vibrant of the bunch. Roses, a symbol of homosexuality in Japan, dominate the landscape, and at some of the most serious and troublesome moments of the film there are interludes of interviews, or commentary, made by the filmmakers, actors, or apparently unconnected persons about the film you're watching. Where these would usually appear cheeky, they cut the heaviness of the film, and it works beautifully.
We're lucky to have this available, on a fantastic looking DVD (R2 Japan), with English subtitles, and I can't recommend searching it out highly enough.
EDIT: it is now available from the excellent DVD company in the UK Masters of Cinema and I can't praise that release enough.