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I've deleted most of my ratings (pretty much the only films I've retained are my favorites) because I don't feel comfortable with IMDb's 1-10 star system. Here's my Letterboxd profile: https://letterboxd.com/golubgluhan/
Some of these films are sadly very hard to find, so if you're having trouble finding one or more titles, PM me and I'll do my best to help.
Top 5 favorite actors:
5. Toshirô Mifune 4. Kei Satô 3. Rentarô Mikuni 2. Shintarô Katsu 1. Tatsuya Nakadai
Top 5 favorite actresses:
5. Machiko Kyô 4. Sachiko Hidari 3. Hideko Takamine 2. Mariko Okada 1. Meiko Kaji
Top 5 short films:
5. White Hole (1979) 4. Laura (1974) 3. The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (1975) 2. Emotion (1966) 1. The Demon (1972)
Zatoichi's Conspiracy (1973)
After two and a half years, I've finally been able to complete the original Zatoichi saga! Zatoichi's Conspiracy (he doesn't actually partake in the conspiracy here), directed by Kimiyoshi Yasuda, is the final movie of the original Zatoichi theatrical run (but not the final Zatoichi film with Shintaro Katsu). His adventures continued in the form of a television series, which I'm not interested in so I'm going to skip on that.
The plot here is, as you'd expect, similar to other entries. Zatoichi goes to a town and fights criminals. In this film, however, the place he visits is his home town and we get to find out a bit or two about his past. It's one of the more elegant and melancholic films of the series, partly because the music returns to the orchestral form after the funky experimentations in the earlier few films. One interesting thing is that, despite saying he hasn't been in his home town for 20 years, he already visited his home town and the old lady who raised him back in the third movie, so either his memory is fuzzy or the Zatoichi series aren't meant to be too consistent in canon, and are more like tall tales whose details are lost in re-telling (to borrow the theory from The Jidai-Geki Knights).
Also, this is one of my favorites of the saga. The fights are very well done and the final ten minutes are very exciting, for sure one of the best Zatoichi finales. The coffee palette color scheme that Kimiyoshi Yasuda's Zatoichi films are known for is improved by most of the scenes here being shrouded in darkness, and the story is pretty interesting to follow. The fact that the enemies here aren't just the yakuza thugs but pretty much the establishment itself also makes it stand out. However, some of the characters here just aren't necessary; the obligatory black- clad mystery ronin (who barely even appears here), and a small band of thugs whom the film could've done without.
Highlight of the film: the final battle, in this case.
Zatoichi in Desperation (1972)
Lead actor Shintaro Katsu sits in the director's chair for the penultimate movie of the original Zatoichi saga. Despite being the 24th in the franchise (you'd expect them to get worse over time), Zatoichi in Desperation is easily one of the best installments of the series.
The story itself is nothing new. Zatoichi tries to help people and gets into trouble with the local thugs. However, this movie is much darker than any other in the original series. Not only does Zatoichi accidentally cause an old woman's death by falling off of the bridge in the intro, but the remainder of the plot is unusually bleak for the series. There's not much humor either, besides one cum shot gag. One interesting thing about this movie (besides the uncharacteristically silent and black intro credits scene) is that Zatoichi doesn't get to be a savior of the situation at one point, leading to unsettling deaths, which is a cool little piece of subversion. There's also more sex than usual, giving the movie a rougher, exploitation vibe that I can't help but like.
The other thing that sticks out about this movie is how pleasing it is to look at. Not only is the setting a melancholic sandy beach town (not really a typical Zatoichi location), but the camera-work is so over the top and brings to mind some of the techniques from the Japanese New Wave. Sudden zoom-ins and outs, out-of-focus shots, free-wheeling shot composition, obstructions in the foreground, wacky color combos, crane shots, floor shots, silhouettes and dynamic editing. It surprisingly doesn't come across as a pretentious overkill that swallows the story; instead, it makes it a lot more interesting to watch than its predecessors just because it's so unlike the rest of them. The soundtrack has also been replaced by funk music, which oddly fits the movie.
Highlight of the film: Zatoichi gets his hands stabbed, so he ties his sword to his hand so he can fight.
Technically well made and historically significant, but not my cup of tea
I'm writing this review since no one else has done so yet (and there are almost no reviews of this movie elsewhere on the internet), which is a shame because I think Koji Wakamatsu's films are criminally under-seen. He's one of the most interesting directors of political and erotic films, so it sucks that he doesn't get talked about much outside of his native country.
This particular movie, Sex Jack, is not my favorite of his but is worth looking at. I'll be the first to say that I have no clue what the title is trying to say. Is the word "jack" used here meaning "a device for lifting heavy objects" or is it like in the words hijack, carjack, etc.? Either way, I'm baffled.
Anyway, the movie is about one of the favorite subjects of several Japanese directors of the '60s (Wakamatsu, Oshima, Adachi) - student demonstrations and revolutionary movements. More specifically, the film illustrates Wakamatsu's own disillusionment with such movements. His perspective is rather cynical, saying that he wanted to show how the revolutionary movements are always infiltrated by the moles working for the government. There is little hope for any sort of collective political struggle in this film. There's also probably a lot of subtext in this movie that flew over my head. It's definitely a product of its time, and you're not expected to watch it knowing nothing about it beforehand.
There's a lot to admire in Sex Jack. The atmosphere is very well done and easily transports you to the gloomy time period. The industrial, urban setting's ugliness is beautifully depicted and the B&W visuals in general are expressive. The climactic action sequence is fairly good. But overall, this movie failed to grab me. The plot is mind-numbingly repetitive. Watching naive student radicals repeatedly have sex with the girl in their group and have vague political discussions over and over doesn't quite fill the the runtime satisfyingly, even though the film is rather short. It features a lot of staples of Wakamatsu's work (politics, lots of sex, cynicism, some blood, the plot unfolding on very few locations and there being one or two sudden transitions to color), but it's not as emotionally resounding or poetic as in some of his other work.
Yûhi ni akai ore no kao (1961)
A contrary opinion is needed here
This is a very polarizing film and currently the only review of it on this site is a negative one, so here's a different take on this wacky 1961 early work by Masahiro Shinoda, a versatile director who has dipped his toe in many genres over the course of his career. This one, for instance, is a fast-paced, surreal blunt spoof of film noir.
It was scripted by Shûji Terayama, one of the most prolific Japanese artists from the 20th century, but it's not really characteristic of his style. Well, there are horse races in this film, and Terayama loved horse racing, but apart from that, you'd never tell. It's a straight- forward story, utterly typical for a crime film, given a different spin by Shinoda's outrageous stylistic choices.
The upbeat jazzy music throughout the film is awesome and very catchy, and the pop-art opening sequence is very zany and enjoyable. There also some creative color combos and some peculiar montage techniques. Also, the entire thing really does play out like the campy Batman TV-show from the '60s, except this pre-dates it. The comic book villains, corny shootouts and all. It can be quite wild.
The movie is far from perfect in my eyes, though. Despite the brisk runtime, the joke does get stale at a few points where dry conversations take over the stylistic exercise, and it's not a polished film at all. At times it feels like a bunch of ideas thrown in for the sake of being different, without filtering some stuff out. The final product is therefore uneven in its execution, but I quite liked it. It has lots of charm and it sure is entertaining.
Zatôichi goyô-tabi (1972)
Zatoichi at Large (1972)
After the previous installment, which was the least formulaic so far, the franchise sadly takes another turn to the generic with Kazuo Mori's Zatoichi at Large. The truth is, this would be a pretty good movie if it was one of the earliest ones, but as #23 of the series, it comes across as a bland pastiche of all too familiar tropes and elements from the other films.
Apparently, the Zatoichi films would rarely get shown again, so directors would get comfortable with re-using themes. This one begins with the same baby plot as Fight, Zatoichi, Fight (#8) but soon turns into another "town terrorized by gangsters" deal. The final boss here is played by Rentaro Mikuni (his second appearance in the series), but doesn't get to do much that others before him didn't already. An interesting thing about this film is that the first half is utterly goofy while the second is dead serious, but aside from that, this is typical Zatoichi stuff. Of course the mystery ronin appears too, but the battle between them is remarkably lazy, like the filmmakers just said: "yeah, let's get this over with already".
The visuals are a bit above average, with a recurring color scheme of black and blue (there's a very pretty scene where Zatoichi converses with a lady in front of a sparkling creek). The intro song just lists off common Zatoichi situations, as if it's making fun of the repetitiveness of several motives of the series. Speaking of that, some ideas here were downright lifted from previous outings, like Zatoichi breastfeeding a baby (from #8), Zatoichi being mistaken for a murderer (from #22), getting trapped in a ring of fire (from #21) and fighting while on fire (from #8 again). I guess the only unique thing here is that he gets tortured by villains.
Highlight of the film: a comic relief scene where an entertainer does a show with his monkey.
Mistérios de Lisboa (2010)
Unbearable 4-hour long soap-opera
Mysteries of Lisbon is one of the final films directed by Raul Ruiz, who took the 1854 novel of the same name by Camilo Castelo Branco and turned it into a film, which also ran as a mini-series. This is essentially a historical costume drama with a complicated story. Its flashbacks- within-flashbacks structure with multiple narrators, as well as its apparent aim of celebrating the invention of storytelling, is heavily reminding of Wojciech Has' 1965 film The Saragossa Manuscript, but it's not a rip-off or anything, just a film that, perhaps coincidentally, shares the unique shape its plot takes with Has' movie.
Unfortunately, this movie is an utter chore to get through. I've thought a bit about why I just couldn't get into the goings-on here no matter how hard I tried (it's a bad sign enough that I actually have to try to get into a film), and I think it's because of the dull-as-dirt characters. It's truly amazing how none of the characters here feels like an actual, existing person. There is zero charisma from any of the actors, no stand-out performances, nothing worthy of attention in regards to how these people talk, behave and sound. And this is the hardest part to explain because you just have to feel it. It felt as if every person in this film was a wooden plank with different lines of dialogue scribbled on them. Nothing here felt organic, absolutely nothing.
What makes things worse is that the way the plot is set up absolutely requires interesting or memorable characters in order to work at all. But I just couldn't care about any of them. And the plot is so complex that you have to pay attention literally all the time so that you don't miss something in the conversations. The so-called "golden rule" of cinema saying: "show, don't tell" is far from an universal guiding point and there are many films which are great despite breaking the "rule", but I think Mysteries of Lisbon is a great example of a film where applying the rule would've made for an engaging view. Absolutely everything here is conveyed through dialogue which is not only delivered by bland players, but also often unnecessarily prolonged by runabout stallings and even interruptions, such as in the scene where two characters exchange a conversation, only for one of them to repeatedly walk to his servants way in the background and return before continuing the dialogue, thus prolonging the scene for far longer than needed. Moments like these don't contribute tension or anything in this context, they're just absolutely baffling.
I might also add that I'm not overly impressed with the story itself. Yes, it's very complicated, but I can't see why that's a feat. Anyone can write a long and convoluted story about human relations, but that simply isn't impressive unless you can make the movie feel vibrant, interesting or engaging. Mysteries of Lisbon fails to do so, and becomes a stunningly dull, un-cinematic soap opera with a disgustingly bloated run-time and nothing to back it up.
The last thing to comment on is the filming style. Some reviewers like to compare the visual feel here to films like The Leopard (1963) and Barry Lyndon (1975), and honestly, I can't see why. Mysteries of Lisbon feels like a TV-production in comparison. Unlike the other two films, it doesn't really recreate the feel of the times found in old paintings (unless Portuguese painters were much more restrained). The camera movement and placement is quite bland for the most part. It does contain some unusual choices, like having the actors in close-up while the rest of the cast is placed in the far background, or some short surrealist touches here and there. But these additions honestly feel out of place. It's as if the movie tries to counter its generic outlook by occasionally forcing an unusually framed shot. Needless to say, it doesn't work.
Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman (1971)
It's rare to see that the 22nd installment of a franchise gets to be its finest. I'm still not exactly sure if Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman is my exact favorite so far, but it's definitely up there. In the review for the last film I said that that it'll be hard to make the series interesting or fresh for the final few outings, but #22 does it by not following the plot formula that the previous films established and by putting Zatoichi against a charismatic, capable rival.
It's a crossover with the One-Armed Swordsman films starring Jimmy Wang Yu, the third Zatoichi crossover in a row. The Mifune one was utterly meh, and the Nakadai one was barely even a crossover in how he was used in a small side-plot, so it's easy to say this one surpasses them with ease. Zatoichi and the One-Armed Swordsman cannot understand each other because of the language barrier, which sets in motion a very interesting story, but also stands as a simple, but oddly effective metaphor for the cultural differences and conflicts between China and Japan.
To add to this, the final duel in this film definitely doesn't have a predictable outcome like the Zatoichi vs Yojimbo one had. I was actually surprised at it. Also, the sword-fighting scenes are just excellent all throughout the film. The only real weakness is lack of an unique visual style, but that really goes for any Zatoichi film directed by Kimiyoshi Yasuda.
Highlight of the film: a thug getting his arm chopped off by Zatoichi and not even realizing it until he sees it in front of himself.
Hokusai manga (1981)
Hokusai deserves better
This is a biography of the famous Japanese woodblock print-maker Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), one of the most well-renowned Ukiyo-e artists. The Japanese title of the movie, Hokusai Manga, is actually the name of the 13-volume sketchbook he published cca. 1814. The sketchbook contains a number of shunga drawings (erotic pictures), which the film decides to focus on as far as Hokusai's work is concerned.
The people from Hokusai's life are all here; his daughter who spent her entire life with him, his friend and Japan's first professional writer, Kyokutei Bakin, an alluring model called Onae (who was, as it seems, invented for the film because there's no mention of her online at least), and even his contemporary Utamaro Kitagawa, another famous woodblock artist.
But really, the film fails to do anything memorable with this ensemble, instead turning into a generic biopic without any eccentricity or artistic vision. The movie feels very drawn out and boring at certain times. There are also some attempts at humor which completely miss their mark in the movie's first half. The second half, where everyone is much older, is a tiny bit more entertaining and the scene where Hokusai paints his famous tentacle porn drawing "The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife" is pretty hilarious and reminds me of Ed Wood. By the way, the old person make-up is pretty bad.
This is pretty disappointing, especially coming from a great director such as Kaneto Shindo and with a notable cast (Ken Ogata, Jo Shishido, Nobuko Otowa). A bland biography with a very cheap budget. Usually that's not a bad thing in and of itself, but this truly comes off as a cheap TV-production. Campy acting, bad effects and an unappealing visual style where everything is set in like two or three rooms which all look the same in their watery brown-ish hues. There is some nudity in the movie which makes it less boring, but it doesn't save it much. The music isn't bad but sounds like it belongs to an adventure/action movie a la Indiana Jones (take a listen during the end credits).
Zatôichi abare-himatsuri (1970)
Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival (1970)
Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival (he doesn't actually, there's some poetic freedom in that title) is the 21st film in the series, and by this point, things have gotten beyond stale. This is actually one of the least formulaic entries in the series (it's co-written by the star Shintaro Katsu), but by now, I just don't really care that much for the stories here. It all seems like something we've already seen before.
The cast in ZGttFF is comprised of several well-known faces. The mystery ronin here is played by the brooding Tatsuya Nakadai, who, as expected, gives the best performance. Peter (the transvestite from Ran and Funeral Parade of Roses) appears as a flamboyant wannabe yakuza thug. Masayuki Mori plays the diabolical blind yakuza lord who may be the most wicked villain so far, with Ko Nishimura (once more) as his henchman.
But really, this entry completely failed to draw me in, and I fear that the remaining few films won't have much new to offer either. The film suffers from severe tonal dis-balance, due to which it never really finds a solid footing. There are so many sub-plots here that the main string is hard to find. Nakadai's plot is the most interesting in its depiction of a troubled, violent ronin eaten by jealousy, and there are nifty surreal flashbacks to his past. Mori's sub-plot is kind of similar in tone, but is too talky and filled with too much dead air at times, which ruins the action flick pace a bit. Then, the film takes a pseudo-romantic turn, with a young woman (who's actually a spy for the blind lord) going for Zatoichi, which I didn't care for in the least. Then there's the needless sub-plot with Peter, filled with homoerotic undertones. Then the odd touches of comedy, particularly a baffling bath-house swords-fighting scene where Zatoichi slaughters a bunch of thugs to Oriental surf music and comically struggles to cover up his junk in the process.
There are quite a few good individual scenes in the movie (and I'm glad Zatoichi has hair again because the bald look really doesn't fit him), particularly the amusing fight between a bickering village couple randomly thrown into the film, but all in all this just didn't do anything for me. Not as generic as some of the other ones, but didn't feel like anything new either. As a useless side-note, this may or may not (I don't exactly remember) be the first Zatoichi film where (female, duh) boobs are shown.
Highlight of the film: the bickering married couple in the village, of course.
Bande à part (1964)
Not really a fan
Once again I don't know what do with a Godard film. Not really compelling, but not really awful, not too innovative, but not too formulaic, certainly not entertaining but not completely tedious. A Band of Outsiders is a crime romance flick that just baffles me, but not in a thought-provoking way or any other way of titillating my interest. Ultimately I dislike it. There is some really good stuff in here, but most of it seems to be probing the borders of boredom.
As a New Wave film, it's expected that this one too would part ways with conventional storytelling and filming style, but it's caught in that awkward middle way where it's not over the top enough to be really memorable and inspired and it's not conventional enough to tell an entertaining crime story. Godard's typical tricks are here on display too; sudden deadpan narration, sudden diversions, sudden sound mixing and editing jokes, but most of those miss their mark here. The plot moves unbearably slow and the characters here are far from magnetic or charismatic, besides Anna Karina, but that's probably just because she's pretty to look at. I didn't care for these characters' fates at all.
The film isn't completely bland. There's some really good stuff here. The dance scene is very cute, the music all throughout the film is charming, the camera occasionally captures a great snapshot of 1960s Paris. But really, for every good scene here there are 10 tedious ones, and it just doesn't click with me overall.