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Ginrei no hate (1947)
Quite a curio
This peculiar romantic crime drama would probably be hailed as a classic if it were widely seen today, although it's not that tremendous; still, it's a deliberately unusual piece of work, and a generally neglected piece of Akira Kurosawa's filmography (as indeed are the majority of those pictures he wrote but did not direct, an alarming number of which have never even been shown outside Japan). It marks the formal debuts of Senkichi Taniguchi as director and Akira Ifukube as composer, but in the long run it's very much more a Kurosawa movie, shot through with his accustomed humanity, and full of surprises. Especially interesting is the way Takashi Shimura's criminal character develops, starting out proudly savage and then against all odds becoming a tender person, who ultimately cannot bear to kill the man who is loved by the woman HE'S in love with ... because he can't stand the idea of hurting her. Toshiro Mifune's character, by contrast, seems redeemable at the start but grows increasingly evil -- not at all what the filmmakers suggested at the start, and not at all expected. The film also boasts an astonishingly restrained performance by Yoshio Kosugi, who rarely met a piece of scenery he didn't like to gnaw upon, but who is remarkable here. Setsuko Wakayama and Kokuten Kodo are also superb; this is probably one of the only pictures that gave Wakayama a chance to shine, as for whatever reason she never became a major star in Japan.
The snowbound location photography is excellent (much of the picture was drawn upon director Senkichi Taniguchi's own considerable experience as a mountain climber), and while Akira Ifukube's score is almost too energetic for its own good -- he clearly thought that his first time out he ought to be scoring every different scene with a separate leitmotif, and GODZILLA fans might be amazed to hear his first version of the famous "underwater ballet" music from that original 1954 film already in here (more conservative viewers who avoid monster movies might have also happened to hear the identical music in THE BURMESE HARP) -- Ifukube underlines the drama beautifully, and in the lengthy sequences that are without dialogue, he tells us most eloquently what the characters are feeling. When the elegy kicks in under Shimura's reappearance over the cliff, it's a heartbreaker. And yet there's hardly any music at all in the first hour, unusual for a film of any type at the time.
It's not quite a masterpiece, but THE END OF THE SILVER MOUNTAINS is essential viewing for anyone who cares about Kurosawa, Mifune, Shimura, Ifukube, or indeed everyone who worked on this movie, and very clearly cared about it a lot.
Rajio no jikan (1997)
Best Japanese comedy since Itami
At a time when Japanese movies are becoming less and less imaginative and more and more standardized, THE RADIO HOUR stands as one of the happiest surprises from their industry in many years. Koki Mitani's script and direction are beautifully assured, and the actors, particularly the hilarious Jun Inoue as the cheerful, prankish Hiromitsu, couldn't be better. Mitani doesn't bother directly explaining anything to the audience; rather, he expertly shows a wide range of human behavior, each quirk of which leads to yet another bizarre twist in the ongoing live-broadcast drama. Fortunately, Mitani likes all his characters, and with marvelous economy, sees that we well understand why they behave the way they do. In fact as the story unfolds, one begins to see Mitani's story as something of an allegory for the filmmaking process, or the process of any endeavor, including the theater or the radio, that involves a broad number of collaborators. There's the actor who'll go along with anything, and the actor who won't; the actress who demands a star turn (but mainly because she feels underappreciated); the technicians who've seen it all before, and scramble to improvise; and, finally, the playwright herself, increasingly weirded out by what's becoming a perversion of everything she intended. But, finally, was what she intended any better than what what the rest of the team threw together? They needed her to get started; she needed them for the same reason.
Collaboration means interdependence, and if the audience is finally happy, as Mitani ultimately suggests, then what better outcome could there be? There is not a finer or more cheerful film to come out of Japan since the last works of Juzo Itami, and it is fitting that his widow, the great actress Nobuko Miyamoto, contributes a (nearly invisible) cameo, to one of the few Japanese films to emulate the spirit of her late husband's art. And like Itami's films, THE RADIO HOUR is that rare Japanese comedy that audiences anywhere can enjoy