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10/10
One of the Best Films of the Sixties
14 September 2007
Warning: Spoilers
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.
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10/10
Definitely a favorite anime
10 September 2007
Warning: Spoilers
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.
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Chiyari Fuji (1955)
10/10
A Favorite 50s Jidaigeki in the Style of the Old Masters
3 August 2007
Warning: Spoilers
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.
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Kaigenrei (1973)
10/10
Mesmerizing Political Biopic from Underacclaimed New Wave Director
29 July 2007
Warning: Spoilers
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.
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7/10
Interesting Fiji/Takakura Vehicle
18 March 2007
Warning: Spoilers
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.
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Revenge (1964)
9/10
Brilliantly Directed Samurai Film
17 March 2007
Warning: Spoilers
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.)
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10/10
Brilliant Dark Comedy
21 January 2007
Warning: Spoilers
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.
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10/10
Brilliantly Absurdist Japanese Ghost Story
17 July 2006
Warning: Spoilers
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.
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10/10
One of the world's great 30s era films
19 June 2006
Warning: Spoilers
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.
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10/10
Another Amazing Japanese New Wave Film
8 February 2006
Warning: Spoilers
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.
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10/10
Complex, Thought Provoking Metafilm
18 September 2005
Warning: Spoilers
How many names is Tokyo Sense Sengo Hiwa known by? I count at least five. The Japanese title, previously mentioned, it's direct translation, A Secret History of the Post-Tokyo War, it's initial US exhibition title He Died After the War, The Battle of Tokyo (or The Battle of Landscapes, though I'm not sure where exactly those came from) and the subtitle (also paraphrasing the name of the film it's loosely based on) The Man Who Left His Will On Film (which Oshima said described the film perfectly.) It's entirely appropriate that this film have so many names, as it's so many *things* at once. A lament for the decline in activism (or more aptly, activism that really means something), a film about film, and a film about the director (these three *at least*, though more meanings about self-expression, political affiliations, personal relationships, perception, death, and who knows what could also be equally true.) The first two times I viewed it, I appreciated on the level of Film about Film (self referentiality needing the least amount of context, just the film itself.) The film begins with an act of filming, who is filming is left open (and becomes a key component of the story arc, only to be altered and left open to question throughout). Borrowing cameras, filming, viewing films, and contemplating cinema art dominate the dialogue. There is a narrative structure, but it is changed, manipulated, and experimented with so often and at such levels that its constantly thrown into question. This is a film about film which operates only on "dream logic", and in this way also repeats itself without answering important questions. It would be a waste of space to recount the plot details as whether or not what's happening is *really* happening, doesn't matter (again though, part of what makes it fascinating is the confusion built by the details). The film says much about the pointlessness of filming landscapes, but in the end *its* a landscape all the same, with no real action. Hard to explain, and much better "said" by the film. Gorgeous full frame, flattened black and white cinematography. Whatever you have to do to see this, do it.
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9/10
Stunning Work By Japanese New Wave Master
24 August 2005
Warning: Spoilers
Goodness, easily one of my favorite Shinoda films and a favorite Japanese New Wave film in general, this one is definitely work seeking out. Iwashita Shima (Shinoda's wife) plays Orin, a "goze" Goze were specifically blind itinerant singers, traveling alone or in groups, who initially became popular around the Edo period. The last of the goze died this past April (2005) and at one time there were around a thousand goze in Japan. The film lets you know early on that (in this time period) blind women can either do this or be prostitutes (the latter of which is an important difference, as sexual relations is an expellable offense in the group.) This is turn of the century Japan, during the end of the Meiji era while the Russo-Japanese war was going on, and you're made well aware of the time period during the film (it struck me as a feminist critique of modern society as well as a drama.) Orin's love affairs, some undesired, fill a relatively austere film with bursts of sexuality. Her love life is eventually a tragic one, however, and the film does not pull any punches. The full screen cinematography is stunning, with each shot flattened out into a artful expression. The music of this film plays a large part (scored like almost all of Shinoda's films by Takemitsu Toru) and is unforgettable. Orin and her shamisen stayed in my mind for some time. Highly highly recommended.
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8/10
Very Enjoyable Golden Age Japanese Film
22 August 2005
Warning: Spoilers
The title translates literally as "Dancing Girl of Izu".

A very enjoyable, if maybe overly sentimental film from one of the most, relatively, well known Japanese Golden Age directors. The plot is of a young man, fresh out of "high school" (but really undergraduate college as far as western audiences are concerned) who falls for a young itinerant actress, who, along with her brother, becomes involved with some shady and interesting characters which leads to conflict (and a memorable resolution.) This silent was originally planned to be a sound film, but due to budget restraints wasn't. I couldn't help but think during viewing that this was it's fatal flaw. A film this energetic (very Griffith like, with more cuts than I could count, the most Eisensteinian Japanese film I'd seen since Page of Madness) needed a musical counterpoint (and the overblown benshi narration on the video copy I viewed didn't last two minutes before my manual muting of it.) This film came after Gosho's highly successful (the first truly successful talkie in Japan) My Neighbor's Wife and Mine (which I'll watch soon enough), and also initiated a long series of Dancing Girl of Izu films (six to date) along with introducing the Junbungaku ("pure literature") movement in film adaptations. It also was a massive boon to the career of Tanaka Kinuyo, which makes it pretty important from any point of view. I did very much enjoy it (despite the problems mentioned earlier) and would consider it an equal to the single 30s era Naruse film I've seen (Wife! Be Like A Rose, and until I see otherwise I consider this director to begin hitting his stride in the 50s), but definitely lesser than Ozu, Yamanaka, and Shimizu. Watched with no subtitles, though I had a copy of the new book on Gosho, and McDonald's piece on the adaptation to help me through (more than enough). Highly recommended if you have a chance to see it.

Steven
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10/10
Beautiful, Unforgettable, Melodrama From a Japanese Master
22 August 2005
Warning: Spoilers
The plot is very simple, a shimpa melodrama set in the Meiji era (some things in common with Mizoguchi's shimpa work during the 50s). Uta, actress Mizutani Yaeko, a wandering actress tired of her life, is taken in by a generous and good natured tea merchant (until her troupe gets back with her) ostensibly to teach his daughter how to dance. He dies and leaves his family with a good deal of debt (there is also some social problem of having a wandering actress living with him and his family.) The merchant's son is left with the family business, which he is not experienced or learned enough to take care of, and dissolves it. At Uta's urging, he goes back to school, and she is left in charge of the family estate. Problems surface, and it builds in a fairly melodramatic climax.

The direction is that of a sort of gliding, at a distance. Shot by Ikai Suketaro, who also photographed his extremely beautiful film Kanzashi, Ornamental Hairpin, there are some shots in the beginning while a handful of itinerant performers are strolling through the forest that I will always have with me. Extremely satisfying to watch, you get the feeling that every beautiful shot was planned out meticulously, but there's also a feel of improvisation. Blacks, whites, and grays almost glowing, and in some ways it reminded me of Dreyer's Ordet (the funeral scene compares to the prayer scene in it's tracking shot over the faces of those attending.) This film (like all of Shimizu's films) certainly has a style of it's own. There is a total lack of "symobolism", leading one to regard them as "pure cinema", rather than any filmed theater or filmed novel. One frame can tell a story in his films, and it can also be an unforgettable landmark for remembering a character, or group of characters, in one of his stories. I can't wait to watch this again.

Steven
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10/10
Beautiful, Complex, Japanese New Wave Melodrama
22 August 2005
Warning: Spoilers
Very much a "new wave" melodrama, there are strong feminist and Oedipal overtones in this. The mother is played by the director's wife, Mariko Okado (who some may know from her roles in Ozu films). Written by Ishizaka Yojiro, a very popular Japanese author who became well known with the "new Japan" through his serial novel, "Blue Mountain Range" (which of his novels this film is based on, and whether it's available translated into English, I have little idea). The story is very simple, in that you're told that a mother and son have a strong, almost sexual, bond through moments present and past. The father of the past (who has died of Tuberculosis, revealed shockingly), the mother's current liaison, and the son's wife all re-enforce roles of sexual inadequacy with the two main characters (Mother, Shizuko, and son, Shizuo). Time is blended together, and the film ends up being an incredibly interesting melodrama with much of the (Japanese new wave staple) political put on backburner. A subplot involving the son's lack of sexual interest in his wife, and his mother's lack of sexual fulfillment in her lover (husband to be, I'm not sure) adds to the development of the incest tone. Highly recommended (seen without subtitles though, it's available in R2 Japan DVD, NTSC format, from Geneon).

Steven
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10/10
Fascinating Politically Tinged Ghost Story
22 August 2005
Warning: Spoilers
(there are a couple of mild spoilers in this review, but *nothing* that would really "spoil" the film)

This is probably my favorite film out of the number of recently released Shinoda DVDs (R2 Japan, TOHO ltd. with English subtitles). Shinoda worked for Shochiku with a few of the other Japanese new wavers (in my opinion, giants of cinema) before the exodus into a more independent film-making, and in some ways he's the most conservative of the bunch (which is to say, not very conservative at all). Written by the extremely controversial author Sakaguchi Ango (an essay about his key work will be linked to at the end of the review) but to me this film didn't seem "politically" very daring at first glance. Though in a broader auteur context it does, like many Shinoda films, deal with woman's place in Japanese society in fact, it's largely a ghost story, fitting into a genre relatively defined (with a few notable examples being Kobayashi's Kwaidan, Jigoku, Mizoguchi's Ugetsu Monogatari, Shindo's Onibaba, and Kuroneko). You could call this genre a lyrical Twilight Zone riff, without the robust voice over work (usually), but more extremely stylized. Some of it's points are made very clear when you do some checking, which I'll get to a paragraph down.

Beginning in present day (1975, in a park with people dancing and singing) with a child's voice telling the viewer that Cherry blossoms are now celebrated but we're told that before the Edo period, they were greatly feared, and to be under them alone would lead to madness. We're then brought hundreds of years into the past, through a forest of blossoming cherry trees, blossoms blowing in the wind, and breezes moving the branches as if breathing (unintended plentiful "B" use). It's easy to understand why they were feared, they seem mystical, powerful, and Shinoda presents them as a force. The plot is filled with a beautiful woman (Iwashita Shima, Shinoda's wife) bending a fairly unattractive, bloodthirsty and blustery man (Tomisaburo Wakayama, recognizable from Shinoda's Captive's Island a decade earlier) to her will. Many beheadings, murder, sexual perversion (I won't go into detail here, but there are some moments that will lead to serious eyebrow raising and head scratching), and ambitious city-dwelling fill the story. And falling right in line with the ghost story genre, you have your twist ending.

You'll find a woman as man-eater ("Spider woman", that is) and man as a lust-filled animal, with plenty of tragedy thrown around. I call her a Spider-woman, yet unlike the category defining heroine of Imamura's Insect Woman, she does placate herself to a man's will at some point. She also holds up the definition in that she is sexually "free", and prone to putting pleasure at the foremost of concerns (these concerns become that of the audience as well, due to the morbid nature of her beast.) Sakaguchi wrote in his 1946 essay Darakuron ("On Decadence") that "…both the Emperor System and Bushido state that 'the virtuous widow never looks at another man.' This prohibition itself is not merely inhuman, it directly contradicts human nature." At the beginning of the film, Shima's husband is killed by Wakayama, and she immediately adapts (in this way she exhibits strongly the qualities of the "spider-woman") and places herself at the "head of the table" in her new home. I suppose you could also read the subtext of the trees bringing madness as the old way of life, and Japaneseness, having a similar result. This point comes through even more clearly when a troupe of monks are seen flailing about as if under a spell.

The cinematography is outstanding (maybe there's a listing for the individual responsible at jmdb), and the Takemitsu score adds to the dreamy flow of the film. I'll not soon forget the close-up of Iwashita with blossoms fluttering against her face as she smiles ambiguously. It's unfortunate that Desser dismisses the film as "minor", in my opinion it seems one of his best works (extremely accessible to those in need of exoticism, but a fantastic film no matter how you see it.) This, Himiko, and Ballad of Orin all seem to have similarities, which I'll give some thought to (I only have an unsubtitled version of Himiko, but it's fantastic to look at even though crippled by a language barrier).
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10/10
Kabuki Adaptation And Film Perfection
22 August 2005
Based on a well-known Kabuki drama titled "Kochiyama to Naozamurai", which Yamanaka distills into a masterpiece of jidaigeki (period film) as shomingeki (everyman drama), blending the two into something he apparently had rights to entirely in Japan during the 30s. Through a series of intrigues, Kochiyama, Naojiro (who becomes Hirotaro for the film), Ichinijo, and Hirotaro's sister Onami (played by a young Hara Setsuko) all pretty much have the worst day or two of their lives. This thoroughly pessimistic film isn't much of a surprise considering 1937's Humanity and Paper Balloons (a paper balloon, by the way, being played with by a child provides one of the most memorable scenes in this film, or any film, about half way through) but Million Ryo Pot (1935) seems impossibly optimistic in comparison, you'd almost think they were made by different directors (except for the perfection of course.) McDonald (who I've been reading a lot of lately, not on purpose, it just seems my interests are lining up with hers) surmises that the last two films are a response to the rise of fascism (especially the ni-ni rokyu incident) in Japan, and I can't imagine a better reason.

If you have a chance to see this film, or any of Yamanaka's work, do so. They're enjoyable and stick in the back of your head forever. Unfortunately only three of his films survive, but I would rate them as some of my favorites. Ten stars and very highly recommended to everyone.

Steven
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10/10
Lighthearted and Unforgettable
22 August 2005
Warning: Spoilers
The best way to describe this film would be "bright". The story is simple, two young boys are usurped from being the head of their gang of children by the son of the man who indicts their father on charges of embezzlement (him being fired and arrested for this.) They're sent to live with their uncle (Takeshi Sakamoto, fast becoming my favorite Japanese actor of this decade) and spend their time thinking of ways to escape back home. Father is found innocent, and they live happily ever after. This film is beautiful, the music and the sound of the children playing are both unforgettable. It was no. 4 in the Kinema Jumpo that year, and it was adapted from a Tsubota novel (his 1939 film Four Seasons of Childhood, which contains the same characters, is also based on a Tsubota book.) The cinematography is "gliding" (a term which consistently seems to be used to describe the look and feel of his films) and more reminiscent of Arigato-San than any other film I've seen by him. There are also some strong similarities in plot and character to Ozu's I Was Born But… and according to Keiko McDonald he, "tells of finding himself in tears as he read in the short story (Naoya Shiga's "Manazuru") about the little children shuffling along a road at night". I watched Children in the Wind without subtitles, but more than any other unsubtitled film I've seen, It was extremely easy to follow along with. One of my favorites from this director, and I can't wait to see more of his children's films.
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L'Argent (1983)
10/10
A Great Film That Needs Close Attention...
16 June 2004
Robert Bresson tells the story of a handful of people who are manipulated by greed for the key component of capitalism: Money (originating in the form of a counterfeit bill, I'll also tell you it's based fairly loosely on a Tolstoy novella "The Forged Note"). A disturbing series of events change the lives of a few individuals and signifies how such a system can rot a human being to their core. Emotionally I connected with this film very strongly, at some points it made me sit up in my seat and shake my head in amazement. However, Bresson's directing style is very different from most. He'll pause and hold moments in time expecting the viewer to stay with him. He'll also decide to leave out parts of a film that most would deem very important (generally, he avoids showing too many scenes that are similar to each other) which can be confusing. But when it comes to paying attention to this film, you'll get much more than you give... I go back to this movie every now and then and find something new to love about it. Rating? easily 10/ 10.
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