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Onna no za (1962)
7/10
Another big Naruse family
7 November 2005
Warning: Spoilers
Another sprawling extended family story. Toho must have loved these in the early 60s -- as they brought in Ozu to do one to (End of Summer). Perhaps they liked showing off their large roster of excellent stars? In part, rather like a first draft of "Yearning". Hideko Takamine is the widow of the oldest son of an extended family -- and runs the family's grocery. The upcoming threat of super-marketization is mentioned in passing -- but not followed through here. Much of the machinations here involve a marriage proposal for one of the younger daughters. The cast is marvelous -- with Chishu Ryu and Haruko Sugimura as the senior generation -- and with Yoko Tsulasa, Reiko Dan, Keiko Awaji, Keiju Kobayashi, Daisuke Kato and Tatsuya Mihashi as just _some_ of the children and in-laws and family connections. The plot starts as wry and sarcastic, but veers into seeming unnecessary high melodrama and pathos right before the end. Even here, a strange sarcastic tone creeps in -- as some of the crew behaves very casually at what ought to be a wrenching funeral.

Not on the same level as the extended family dramas that _are_ included in the current traveling Naruse retrospective -- but entertaining for fans of the many stars.
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8/10
Naruse goes to the circus
7 November 2005
Warning: Spoilers
Naruse left Shochiku (his original film company) for PCL (the foundation company for Toho films) so that he could make sound films. And he right got to work. Major films of his first year included "Three sisters with Maiden Hearts" and the award-winning "Wife! Be Like a Rose!". This film is a minor work, in comparison. It starred Kamatari Fujiwara (of later Kurosawa fame) and two of the "three sisters with maiden hearts" -- among many others. The main focus is on the 5 member band of a small circus as it runs into problems while touring rural Japan. It also pays lots of attention to the two daughters of the aging and irascible ringmaster-circus owner. The high points are the sound (and score) and cinematography featuring a lot of vertiginous panning (appropriate - as high wire trapeze artists are also an important element in the film). A fascinating side-light on 30s Japan.
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10/10
Naruse's second award winning film of 1933
18 July 2005
Warning: Spoilers
1933 was the artistic high point of Naruse's career in silent films. He garnered both third and fourth place in Kinema Junpo's best of the year citations (the most prestigious film "award") this year -- for "Apart from You" and this film, respectively (Ozu took first place for "Passing Fancy" and Mizoguchi second for "Water Magician"). Despite this, he got no respect from his boss at Shochiku, and soon would move on to PCL (the predecessor of Toho), where he would stay (mostly) for over 30 years.

In this film, Sumiko Kurishima plays a woman whose husband had deserted her, following the birth of her child. For lack of any better option, she has been forced to support her son and herself as working as a hostess at a waterfront bar. When her ne'er-do-well husband (Tatsuo Saito) returns, her first impulse is to reject him, but her neighbors prevail on her to give him a second chance. Saito proves to be a thoughtful father and a loving husband, but in depression-stricken Tokyo is unable to find work (and is deeply embarrassed that his wife must support the family in the tawdry way she does). When his child is injured in an accident, he tries to get money to pay for medical care by committing a robbery. His wife refuses the money, urging him to turn himself in. Unable to bear the shame, he drowns himself. At the end, less than a week after Saito's return, mother and son are left alone again.

Kurishima's performance here is simply one of the best I've ever seen. She was the first woman star of the Japanese cinema -- and by this point -- had been at the top of her field for over a decade (not counting early work as a child). Her ability to express herself (despite maintaining great reserve), with both face and body, is extraordinary. Tatsuo Saito's performance in a rare dramatic part (albeit with a few comic moments) is likewise exceptional, capturing the dreamy sweetness of his immensely kind (but unable to fit into the everyday world) -- one has no trouble understanding why Kurishima (whose everyday life is so filled with sordidness) has been attracted to him (and is willing to give him another chance). Supporting roles are (as usual with Shochiku's top tier efforts) superbly filled -- with regulars like Takeshi Sakamoto (as an overbearing ship's captain lusting after Kurishima) and Choko Iida (as the crusty, but ultimately not unfeeling, proprietress of the waterfront bar).

The cinematography (and editing) of this film is as perfect as the performances. This is Naruse's most visually audacious film ever, with an unsettling pattern of repeatedly tracking towards (and sometimes away from) characters, use of extremely deep visual fields -- and some extraordinary cutting. Indeed, Naruse's techniques were so audacious here that (despite critical praise), he was forbidden from using them again at Shochiku (thus, prompting his discontent -- and leading Ozu to recommend that he seize his opportunity to shift to a newer studio which would give him greater support).
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8/10
Trouble in the family
13 June 2005
Warning: Spoilers
Onna no naka ni iru tanin / The Stranger Within a Woman (Mikio NARUSE, 1966)

Although Naruse demonstrated mastery of both color and cinemascope in his 60s films, he reverted to black-and-white Academy format for his antepenultimate film. Perhaps this use of a conservative format was intended to counterbalance the fact that this film involves the most shocking plot of any Naruse film to date.

Again the film focuses on an ostensibly normal family father (plauyed by Keiju Kobayashi), mother (Michiyo Aratama) and two adorable young children. Tragedy strikes the family of their best friends (Tatsuya Mihashi and Mitsuko Kusabue) soon after the film begins, the wife of this childless couple is found murdered in her bed. Through flashbacks and confessions, it is gradually revealed that Kobayashi and Kusabue were carrying on an affair and that she enjoyed "rough sex" (which one day went too far, ending in her accidental death). Aratama's goal is too keep her husband from confessing, and ruining the family's honor and comfortable middle-class existence. He, however, is subject to ever-increasing throes of guilt and remorse. Aratama is left with the dilemma of what to do....

This film is as visually striking as it is sensational in terms of plot. Despite the out-of-the-ordinary subject matter, Naruse typically tends to downplay any sense of hysteria treating the events almost as if they depict just another little slice of ordinary suburban life. A fascinating film albeit more reminiscent of Nomura's work than of the "typical" Naruse film.
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Hikinige (1966)
7/10
A Mother's Revenge
13 June 2005
Warning: Spoilers
Hikinige / Hit and Run (Mikio NARUSE, 1966).

In Naruse's next to last film, he returned to cinemascope format, but stayed with black and white film. This is once again, in terms of plot, a bit of a shocker. Soon after we meet Kuniko (a young widow, played by Hideko Takamine) and her much-beloved young only son, the boy is run over by Kinuko (played by Yoko Tsukasa the rich spoiled wife of an automobile executive). Kinuko, it turns out, was distracted at the time of the accident because her companion in the car, a hunkish younger man who is her lover, had just told her of his plan to soon begin a far-away job. Kinuko tells her husband of the accident (but not the precipitating cause), and he orders the corporate chauffeur (Yutaka Sada, who was also the unfortunate chauffeur in "High and Low"). Luckily for him, he gets off with a small fine and a suspended sentence.

Kuniko is disgusted, and while drowning her post-trial sorrows at a bar with her yakuza-ish younger brother, overhears an old lady discussing the accident with her friends, mention that "lady drivers are so dreadful". As it turns out, the old lady was an eyewitness -- and can describe the real hit and run driver. However, because the case has already been satisfactorily closed, the police take no interest in the story of Kuniko and her witness. Consequently, Kuniko decides to seek revenge on her own. She wangles her way into the executive's household as a temporary domestic servant – and because she is so devoted, soon gets hired as a live-in maid, on a more permanent basis. While there, she fantasizes methods of taking revenge against the rich couple's son (almost the same age as her own dead one). Kuniko actually makes a few furtive (but thwarted) attempts to carry out her plan of revenge against the boy. But, as she grows increasingly fond of him, she wonders whether she shouldn't take revenge directly against his guilty mother instead. Meanwhile, Kinuko is growing increasingly distraught over the impending departure of her lover.

Since this is a suspense thriller, I'll refrain from discussing the plot further.

This film is unique in Naruse's output in that it not only makes frequent use of flashbacks (far more common in these late films than in earlier ones), but also actually depicts Kuniko's fantasies (these are shown in very bright, very whitened tones). This technique turns out to be crucial in deciphering what actually happens at the climax of the film. It would seem that Takanine was not entirely comfortable with her part in this film as, from time to time, she resorts to more generic acting than was her norm. Not an entirely successful film, by any means, but nonetheless quite an interesting one.
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8/10
A tale of jealousy
13 June 2005
Warning: Spoilers
Tsuma to shite onna to shite / As a Wife, As a Woman (Mikio NARUSE, 1961).

Keijiro and Ayako Kono (Masayuki Mori and Chikage Awashima) seem like a picture-book upper middle-class family. He is a respected professor and the couple has two amiable children (a high school-aged girl and middle school-aged boy). But the Kono's domestic siutuation is more complicated than it seems on the surface. The children are actually the illegitimate children of Kono's long-time mistress, Miho (Hideko Takamine). To compensate for giving up the children, the Konos subsidize a bar which Miho operates. Ayako, interested in eliminating her husband's continuing interest in Miho, pays the bar girls to "spy" on Miho, in the hope of showing Miho is not "faithful" to her husband. Miho becomes tired of the situation, and proposes that she break off relations with Kono but be given outright owner ship of the bar. After Ayako flatly rejects this (not wanting to bear the expense), Miho's mother (played by the delightfully redoubtable Choko Iida) suggests that, for leverage, Miho demand the children back. This proposal infuriates Ayako, and she decides to sell the bar out from under Miho. Miho retaliates by telling her son (who thinks she is only a somewhat engaging but disreputable friend of her parents) about his true parentage. He comes home distraught and locks himself into his room; when his big sister persuades him to let her in, he tells her the truth in turn. The two children angrily reject all three "parents". Afterwards, Miho and her mother are seen packing up their belongings, in preparation for a move to more humble quarters and a new job as operators of a street vendor stall. Miho's mother nonetheless sings cheerfully as she packs. To Miho's complaint that singing is out of place under the circumstances, her mother replies that she likes to sing – and things can't be helped by not singing. As the final scene, we see the two children in different school uniforms at a new school, it appears that they demanded to be sent away to boarding school – so as to avoid having to deal (at least for a while) with the problematic adults in their lives.

The color cinemascope photography here ( by Jun Yasumoto, who shot Yamanaka's wonderful "Million Ryo Pot" in the 30s and films by Naruse, Inagaki, Toyoda and Ichikawa therafter) is superb. The initial frosty civility and subsequent savage hostility between Ayako and Miho is masterfully handled by Takamine and Awashima. And the mother-daughter interactions between Choko Iida and Takamine are quite delightful (including a number of impromptu "duets"). A Naruse masterpiece that clearly deserves to be better known.
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8/10
Post-war salaryman buddy movie
13 June 2005
Warning: Spoilers
Ore mo omae mo / Both You and I / more colloquially correct You and Me, Pal (Mikio NARUSE, 1946).

A post-war "salaryman film", this focuses on two older white-collar workers (played by Entatsu YOKOYAMA and Achako HANABUSHI) in a business office headed by a rather peremptory boss (played by Ichiro SUGAI -- later the father of Noriko in Ozu's "Early Summer"). Because these two are older (and have families to support), the boss thinks he can take advantage of them. accordingly, when he needs yard-work done, he sends them home to serve at the dictates of his wife. Because the two have shown at an office party that they can do an amusing kabuki imitation (as hero and "heroine" of some drama or other), the boss decides the two should appear (in faux-kabuki dress) at a music party he is giving at his home. As it turns out, however, the eldest daughter of one of the two and her (apparently more well-off) fiancé are also at the party – and the daughter begs him not to embarrass her by appearing in kabuki drag. The father realizes the possible consequences of thwarting the boss's expectations, but to please his daughter he sneaks out to go home. His partner offers to perform solo, but the boss angrily sends him off as well. At work the next day, the whole office knows the two are in deep disgrace – and all the younger workers are gossiping over their likely fate. One of the men, then the other go into the boss's office to confront him – but discover he isn't in at the moment. They practice defending themselves – and while they are doing so the boss walks in. Accordingly, they proceed to defend their dignity for real. As they do so, all their co-workers applaud and shout encouragement (as all are hovering right outside the door, trying to eavesdrop). The two then march off proudly for home. Through thick and thin, the two friends are still a team.

This is a very enjoyable film – looking back to Ozu's "I Was Born But" and Naruse's own "Flunky Work Hard" and (in a different setting) "Traveling Actors", but also reflecting the pro-democracy values demanded by Occupation film censors. The ending also looks ahead to the solidarity of the two redoubtable old retired geishas at the end of "Late Chrysanthemum".
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9/10
Touching war-time short
13 June 2005
Warning: Spoilers
Natsukashi no kao / A Face from the Past / literally A Fondly Remembered Face (Mikio NARUSE, 1941).

A sweet and touching short war-time film. The focus here is on a partial family -- a mother, her young son, and a daughter-in-law (with newish baby -- usually slung on her back). The boy and his friends are fond of model airplanes. One day, the boy's plane gets stuck at the top of a tree, and he hurts his leg trying (in vain) to get it down. The village postman tells the mother that, while watching the newsreel at the nearest cinema (a considerable distance away), he thought she saw a glimpse of the oldest son (who is serving in the army). The mother travels to town -- and, since she wipes away some tears as she watches the newsreel, one surmises the postman was correct. She tells her daughter-in-law -- and the next day the young woman sets off to town and the movie theater. On the way there, she finds a local shop selling model airplanes of just the sort her young brother-in-law had lost, and kind-heartedly buys one for him. When she arrives at the theater, she learns that she doesn't have enough money to pay for admission -- and sadly stands around as she misses the show. The young woman returns home and gives the delighted boy his airplane, pretending she did see the newsreel too. After a neighbor says that she didn't see the daughter-in-law in the movie theater, the boy is upset and tosses aside his gift. All turns out well, however, when the schoolmaster comes to tell the family that he has arranged to have the newsreel screened for the whole village the next night at the schoolhouse.

Ostensibly made for propaganda purposes, this film was apparently not shown much because it was so short (only 30-some minutes). Perhaps it was also not much shown because it was, in fact, so little propagandistic. Like "Traveling Actors", this is only a small slice of rural life in war-time Japan. This does not even boast any star performers. Yet, within its bounds, a very fine little film.
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10/10
Naruse's shaggy horse tale
13 June 2005
Warning: Spoilers
Tabi yakusha / Traveling Actors (Mikio NARUSE, 1940)

This film like Ozu's "story of Floating Weeds" depicts a troupe of wandering kabuki players traveling through rural Japan. It seems to have been inspired by a tiny element of Ozu's film -- the funny "kabuki horse", animated by two performers -- the master for the front half (played by Kamatari FUJIWARA, of later Kurosawa fame) and the apprentice for the rear (Kan YANAGIYA). At first all goes well, and they makes friends with some accommodating local lady folk (Tamae KIYOKAWA and Sugiko ISE).

Unfortunately, however, their local patron (a somewhat over-important barber, played by Ko MIHASHI) gets drunk and accidentally crushes the horse's head. After the two object to the pathetically repaired head he proffers, the barber decides that their fake horse was no good anyway (despite the audience approval they always received) -- and replaces them with a real horse. The displaced pair take their revenge, after moping awhile, by going on a rampage through the town (initially in their guise of a wild horse) and let the real horse loose. As the film ends, both the real horse and the two actors (now carrying their bits of horse costume) flee the town.

Overall, a charming film. Lighter in tone than Ozu's film, it is more reminiscent of the contemporary work of Hiroshi SHIMIZU (albeit with a more conventional sense of pacing and structure). Some lovely rural cinematography by Seiichi KIZUKA. Also entertaining performances by the two halves of the horse. Especially noteworthy is a scene where Fujiwara demonstrates his mastery of horse noises for the lady-folk -- and Yanagiya unwittingly demonstrates why he is still only an apprentice horse's back end.
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Kafuku zempen (1937)
8/10
First-rate potboiler
13 June 2005
Warning: Spoilers
Kafuku I and II / Learn from Experience, Parts I and II / literally Ups and Downs (Mikio NARUSE, 1937)

This 2-part film romance (clocking in at just a bit under three hours) was based on a story by noted author Kikuchi Kan (who also founded Japan's one of Japan's most prestigious literary prizes, named after fellow author Akutagawa). It is a surprising blend of real and unreal. Everyone in the film seems to come from marvelously rich families -- and lives in very large houses and apartments. And yet the human interactions are generally realistically (and credibly) depicted.

The central character here is Toyomi (played by Takako IRIE, star of Mizoguchi's "Water Magician), a rich young woman in love with Shintaro (Minoru TAKADA), a rich young man. Unfortunately, Shintaro's father is in the process of arranging a marriage for him with Yurie (Chieko TAKEHISA), the scion of an even wealthier family. In order to avoid this, the two young lovers flee to Tokyo to live together. When Shintaro comes back to proclaim his intent to marry Toyomi, his father browbeats him into attending the long-arranged marriage meeting with Yurie. While Shintaro is back home, Toyomi goes on a vacation trip with her closest chum, Michiko (Yumeko AIZOME). At a class reunion, Toyomi is to distressed (at not having heard from Shintaro for so long), she doesn't go out on the town with her classmates. Michiko, however, runs into Shintaro and Yurie (also out on the town), and pulling him aside, demands an explanation. When Toyomi ultimately learns of her betrayal, she flees back home -- but getting a less than warm reception from her father, returns to Tokyo, where she takes a job as a junior shop-girl at ritzy dress shop. And this, covers (briefly) just the first half of the story.

In the second half, we discover that Toyomi is pregnant -- and while Shintaro and Yurie are on their extended honeymoon, she bears his child, a girl named Kiyoko. She is supported in adversity by Michiko -- and gets considerable moral support from not only her own mother but also from Shintaro's mother and siblings. Even more surprisingly, Yurie strikes up a friendship of sorts with her. When Yurie learns that the child is Shintaro's, she convinces Toyomi that it would be best to let Shintaro (and her) raise Kiyoko, so Toyomi can get on with making a proper life for herself. Tearfully, Toyomi agrees. Sometime later, Michiko goes to visit Toyomi -- and sees her at work, as a kindergarten teacher.

This film portrays an amazingly Americanized Japan. Reflections of American culture abound -- advertising signs, cars, clothes, music. Of the younger generation, Toyomi alone remains steadfastly traditionalist, wearing only kimonos -- until her final scene (where she too is dressed in the latest of Western attire). Equally surprising, while the film is circumspect in its depiction of the forbidden premarital relationship, there is no hint of moral disapproval on the part of the film maker. Visually, this is presented in a largely straightforward manner -- but with an usual freedom of camera movement at times (almost as if showing off new, more mobile cameras). This might not be a cinematic masterpiece for the ages -- but was an interesting and entertaining piece of popular entertainment.
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8/10
Love among the police (and artists)
4 April 2005
Warning: Spoilers
A quirky but very likable film from the director of "Postmen in the Mountains". Except for the motif of a young man stepping into his father's metaphorical shoes, this film is very different in terms of setting and style -- no rural mountain scenery here. The male lead is a would-be artist, who has become a somewhat reluctant police detective in (what looks like to me) a medium-sized seaside town. At the outset, he rescues a young woman who appears to be in the process of jumping off a bridge. Sh tells him she has just murdered her lover -- and starts walking away. He flashes his badge, and takes her to the office. She claims she is an actress, practicing a bit of "performance art" in preparation for a show she is working one -- but our hero then gets a call that someone in the neighborhood has been murdered. As it turns out, the victim is a woman -- and the incident clearly has no connection with his "prisoner". Our heroine is released with a warning. Despite this rocky introduction, the two gradually become interested in each other -- and, as it turns out -- there is a link from the past that ties their stories together. The leads PAN Yueming (the police officer) and YUAN Quan (the performer) are engaging. Even if not a "masterpiece", this is an interesting, entertaining film.
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8/10
Tanaka tour de force
19 January 2005
Warning: Spoilers
The most impressive element of this film is a stunning performance by Kinuyo Tanaka as the title character Sumako -- the first real stage actress in Japan, whose short life was compounded of triumph and tragedy. We get to see Tanaka (as Sumako) in Ibsen's "Doll House", Tolstoy's "Resurrection" and a non-operatic version of "Carmen". So Yamamura did a decent job as the teacher/director who was Tanaka's mentor/lover. I found the script a bit too rigid (presumably this largely followed the facts of this actress's career). Nonetheless, one of the better scripts used by Mizoguchi around this time.

Filmed by Minoru Miki, who shot many of Mizoguchi's best early films, the visual beauty here was probably not fully shown off in the battered 16mm print I saw. I hope that a better print exists -- and that I see it some day.
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10/10
Excellent early Naruse
19 January 2005
Warning: Spoilers
***SPOILERS*** ***SPOILERS***

Kimi to wakarete / Apart from You (Mikio NARUSE, 1933)

An early masterpiece by Naruse, this tells the story of an aging geisha (Mitsuko Yoshikawa) who struggles to support her senior high school-aged son (?). He, however, is so embarrassed by his mother that he has begun cutting school -- and associating with a bad crowd. A young (late teen-aged?) colleague of his mother (Sumiko Mizukubo -- a lovely girl with huge eyes, who co-starred in Ozu's "Dragnet Girl") also worries about the son, and urges him to not disappoint his mother. In order to show him how lucky he is, she takes him to visit her dysfunctional family. The father is a ne'er-do-well -- and the family is planning to sell their second daughter into prostitution too -- in order to make ends meet. The contrast between the lovely seaside locale and the sordidness of the family is striking. Although the two young people are falling in love, she feels she must go off to a more profitable location in order to make enough money to save her little sister from her blighted fate. Very fine acting -- and some rather striking and extravagant cinematography (Suketaro Inokai -- who also filmed some of Shimizu's best movies). Highly recommended.
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8/10
Correction to my review
4 November 2004
I previously wrote:

The heir of this thriving family business (Akira Takarada -- best known as the romantic gloomy young scientist in "Godzilla") is immediately smitten by Hara -- and she with him (despite being more than 10 years older than he is).

On further consideration, I have determined that the actor playing the part of Setsuko's heart throb is Tatsuya Nakadai (who was NOT in Godzilla). The rest of the sentence remains true, as corrected.

As to who Akira Takarada plays, I would guess (based on a shot from Godzilla) that he plays Hara's younger brother (the photographer).
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8/10
Kisses for Setsuko Hara (spoilers)
11 October 2004
Warning: Spoilers
Musume tsuma haha a/k/a (literally) Daughter(s), Wife, Mother (Mikio Naruse, 1960)

An idiosyncratic mixture of acerbic comedy, family chronicle and romance. Totally unheralded -- but if not a masterpiece, awfully close.

This film features a large extended family (and associates) even more extensive than the one portrayed by Ozu in "End of Summer". The central character is Setsuko Hara -- a poised middle-aged woman, whose wealthy (and prestigious) husband dies at the outset of the action, leaving her widowed but holding the proceeds of a million yen insurance policy. Being childless, her former in-laws have no objection to her return to her own family.

Although Hara's widowed mother is still alive (living in a wonderfully large house on the outskirts of Tokyo), the household is dominated by the eldest son of the family (Masayuki Mori). His wife (played by an unusually subdued Hideko Takamine) is generally well-meaning but too self-effacing (her only strong admonitions are to urge her husband to loan money to her uncle's troubled business). Also in the house are a couple of children and one of Hara's little sisters (played by the irrepressible Reiko Dan). There are two other married siblings not in residence -- a sister (living with hen-pecked husband Tatsuya Nakadai and his dragon-lady mother Haruko Sugimura) and a little brother (an advertising photographer).

Hara insists on moving into the smallest room in the house (the former maid's room) and paying disproportionate rent -- and she lets her siblings persuade her to lend them most of her insurance money. Meanwhile, a matchmaking family friend is trying to arrange a re-marriage with a well-off, well-born older man (harmlessly dotty and with no sex appeal -- played by an unusually funny Ken Uehara). Hara is not, however, disturbed by any of this. At first, numb and oblivious, her life takes a radical turn when she goes on an excursion with her little brother (and his wife) to the vinery of a client. The heir of this thriving family business (Akira Takarada -- best known as the romantic gloomy young scientist in "Godzilla") is immediately smitten by Hara -- and she with him (despite being more than 10 years older than he is).

As Hara's would-be swain takes to making more frequent visits to Tokyo (and actually _kissing_ Hara -- on the lips), the business belonging to "Uncle" (played by an increasingly seedy Daisuke Kato) is going down the tubes fast, Haruko Sugimura is demanding that she be put in an old people's home (after her son and daughter in law suggest they want to move into their own apartment), and her little brother's wife takes off (putting him in his place after some misbehavior by taking a long trip on her own -- and letting his stew). Then the house of cards falls down -- Kato's business goes bust -- and it turns out Mori has mortgaged (without permission) the jointly-owned family home and invested the money in the failed business (along with half of Hara's insurance proceeds).

Hara decides to marry the noble ninny (Uehara) after all -- as he has promised to let her mother stay with them (he's an orphan, after all). But now, she needs to break up with Takarada. She tells him, after a farewell dance at a swank nightclub, "thank you forever for bringing this half-dead person back to life -- but your parents want you to marry a young wife, who can bring you children -- and you must do this" (paraphrase). As it turns out, Hara's mother can't bear the thought of moving into the kind of ritzy milieu that Hara will be living in -- and plans to move into an old people's home (since her son and daughter will be moving into a tiny house -- after the looming sale of the family home). Takamine finally comes into her own -- intercepting the letter, and convincing both Hara and her mother-in-law that the mother should come live with her family, to help make amends for their past bad behavior.

There is an awful lot of plot to be gotten through in this long (for Naruse) film that clocks in at over two hours. Yet, as eventful and melodramatic as this plot sounds on paper, the film flows effortlessly, with an amazing illusion of naturalness. (This film reminded me a good deal of the old BBC "Pallisers" series). The highlight of the film is Setsuko Hara -- in what may be her sweetest and most radiant performance. It looks like someone involved with this film had discovered Audrey Hepburn -- and the denouement of her story here is rather like "Roman Holiday" -- with the roles reversed.

Despite the fact that I was able to watch this only in the form of a nth generation copy of an ancient Hong Kong TV broadcast (with decent but very hard to read subtitles -- and horrible sound), this was one of my biggest "cinematic" treats of recent months. I have seen other Naruse films that might be even greater on a purely theoretical basis -- but none that I enjoyed more. After having seen my 17th Naruse film, I am convinced that he was Japan's second best golden age director (after Ozu) and a far more skilled and varied artist than the stereotype -- pessimistic purveyor of cinematic soap operas.
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Jeon tae-il (1995)
10/10
The best political film I've ever seen
1 March 2004
Warning: Spoilers
Jeon tae-il a/k/a A Single Spark (PARK Kwang-su, 1996)

Without any ifs and or buts, simply the best "political film" I've ever seen.

JEON Tae-il is one of Korea's two leading martyrs in the creation of labor unions in Korea. A poor young tailor, who was appalled at the abuses of the workers (mainly young girls) in sewing sweat-shops -- and struggled through legal code (written in old-fashioned Chinese characters, rather than in the alphabet most Koreans learned to read) to find the provisions that guarded the rights of such workers. He (with his friends) succeeded in getting the press to pay attention (briefly) to both the abuses of employers and governmental neglect of its regulatory duty. But once the press got bored, scornful labor department officials told them they were unpatriotic for complaining and the employers simply cracked down harder. To try to get greater attention, JEON set his copy of the legal code, and himself, on fire -- and ran through the streets of downtown Seoul shouting "We are not machines, enforce the labor code". His death apparently mobilized other young workers, leading to the creation of unions powerful enough to get a hearing on the issue of workers' rights.

None of the above should be viewed as a spoiler. The film maker assumed his audience would know (at least vaguely) the historical facts. Park takes the story of JEON (set in 1965-1970 -- filmed stunningly with some of the best black and white cinematography I've seen) and interweaves this with the fictional (and told in color) story of KIM Young-su (and his pregnant girl friend Shin Jung-sun), set in 1975 (during one of the most repressive periods of military dictatorship). Young-su is a young law school graduate who is now on the run, trying to write a book on Jeon Tae-il. Jung-sun is leading a drive to unionize her own workplace.

HONG Kyeong-in is extraordinary as Tae-il -- and MOON Keung-soon is very fine as Young-su. The script by director Park, LEE Chang-dong and Hur Jin-ho (who was also an assistant director) and others is first-rate. The cinematography is excellent (at least). The film ends with several minutes of scrolling names -- supposedly 7,000 in all. These, it turns out, are the names of the working men and women who contributed what they could to the making of this film. Their investment was well-spent. A masterpiece.
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Gaichû (2001)
10/10
Probably the best film of 2001
10 September 2003
Warning: Spoilers
Gaichu a/k/a Harmful Insect (Akihiko Shiota, 2001) (spoilers)

One of my all-time favorite films. It is also one of the most emotionally devastating films I've ever seen. This follows part of a year in the life of a bright, musically talented (and innately cheerful) girl -- during which her world falls apart. The heroine Sachiko (played by Aoi Miyazaki, who was so haunting in "Eureka" a couple of years earlier) is betrayed by the society around her. First (before the film starts) her father abandons her and her mother, then (seen in flashbacks -- the school year prior to the film) a young teacher she depended on fled to a non-teaching job in Northern Japan (it is unclear whether the teacher "took advantage" of Sachiko, though I prefer to think not), then at the outset of the film, her mother tries to kill herself (having been dumped by a new boyfriend). Sachiko feels increasingly uncomfortable at school, due to the gossiping of her classmates, and starts "skipping out". While _not_ going to school, Sachiko meets a young drifter and drop-out (who makes a living of sorts by pretending to get hit by people driving expensive cars). They have a brief idyll -- until he runs into some gangsters who beat him savagely (presumably for not paying protection money). After this friend disappears, Natsuko, her best friend from school, convinces her to return to school and does her best to provide some emotional support. This "recovery" begins to falls apart when another new boyfriend of her mother tries to rape Sachiko -- and her mother is so crushed more by the loss of yet another man that she can do nothing to console her daughter. Then Natsuko and Sachiko fall out over the fact a boy Natsuko likes begins to take an interest in Sachiko -- and Natsuko (apparently) gossips to the boy about Sachiko's "past". Things get worse -- explosively worse -- after this. Unlike Bresson's self-destructive heroines (to whom Sachiko has been compared), Sachiko never gives up. If one believes the maxim "where there's life, there's hope" -- one can at least hope there is hope at the end of this harrowing film.
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Yurîka (2000)
10/10
Monochrome masterpiece
10 September 2003
Warning: Spoilers
Eureka (Shinji Aoyama, 2000) (spoilers)

Together with "Gaichu", this film shows Aoi Miyazaki to be one of the finest child actresses of all time. (Having now achieved teen "idol" status in Japan, will she fritter away her talent?). Her character is virtually wordless in this over 3.5 hour long film, which makes her accomplishment even more impressive.

The film tells of a brother and sister, who along with a bus driver (played by Koji Yakusho, perhaps Japan's best actor today), are the sole survivors of a bus-jacking and mass killing. Not only the children are traumatized by the incident, but the notoriety and disruption leads to the collapse of the family. Left alone after the death of their father, the children withdraw from the world. Yakusho, whose own life has fallen apart as well, also flees -- to parts unknown -- for almost a year. He returns to find (not surprisingly), his wife has left the extended family home, to return to work in a big city. He and the children are drawn together by their mutual catastrophe -- and he (along with an older cousin of the kids) try to draw them out of their shell. Matters are complicated by a string of serial killings taking place in their area. Yakusho buys a beat-up bus -- and carries them out of the scene of their unhappy past, but it isn't so easy to escape the shadow the past cast over them.

The acting here is superb (and not just that of Aoi Miyaki and Koji Yakusho) -- and the monochromatic cinematography is equally wonderful. For me, the 3.5 hours passed quite swiftly.
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8/10
A wonderful portrayal of the secret life of fifth graders
10 September 2003
Doko made mo ikou a/k/a Don't Look Back (Akihiko Shiota, 1999)

The Japanese title actually translates to something like "[a place] where [one] can still go back to". -- and reflects the essence of the film considerably better than the English one. This little film (74 minutes or so) is an absolute delight. It focuses on the lives of two 5th grade boys over the course of (part of) a school year. They make mischief, have to deal with family issues, neighborhood bullies and _girls_ and generally cope with issues of life, death and change. The presentation is unsentimental and honest.
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10/10
One of the greatest films by anyone -- ever
10 September 2003
I would argue that "Tokyo no yado" (Inn at Tokyo) is not only one of Ozu's best films, but one of the best films by anyone ever. It tells the story of an unemployed and homeless single father (Takeshi Sakamoto) with two sons (the elder of the two being the wonderful Tomio Aoki) looking for work in depression-era Tokyo, whose lives intersects with those of a single mother (the marvelous Yoshiko Okada) of a little daughter likewise forlornly seeking a way (and a place) to live. The children can find moments of happiness in the undustrial wasteland -- and their parents can briefly recollect their own happiness as children. The boys have a brief idyll, after their father gets a job with the help of an old friend (Choko Iida), even getting to go to school (a pleasure they value almost as much as having a fixed home and a dependable supply of food). Things, however, become troubled again when the family loses track of the mother and girl (who have not found any "angel" to help them out). A film that is strikingly beautiful -- and more than a little heart-breaking. It is marred by a tiny section that seems overly melodramatic right before the end (but this might be due to infelicities of the intertitles -- or at least of their translation).
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Passing Fancy (1933)
10/10
Yet another silent Ozu masterpiece
10 September 2003
Dekigokoro (Passing Fancy), is one of Ozu's 3 masterpieces from 1933. It stars the second of cinematic Ozu's "alter egos", Takeshi Sakamoto. Sakamoto typically plays a down and out working class father. Here, he is especially dense, to excellent comic effect. Tomio Aoki (in probably his most significant child role) plays a kid who seems to be considerably brighter than his father -- and who does more to keep the household running. Aoki is (of course) quite funny. But he also does an excellent job of showing a child's response to unwanted change. He and his father have long depended solely on each other -- but now his father has his eye on a young woman who has moved into their slum neighborhood. Aoki very much resents his father's interest in the woman -- and resists her attempts to win his affections.

This is an extremely visual film, with lots of completely "wordless" humor. The film starts out with an extended scene in a music hall (Chishu Ryu performing as the "singer") in which first a lost wallet circulates, and then a flea (or fleas). Probably not as great a family drama as the prior "I Was Born But" or the subsequent "Tokyo Inn", but nonetheless quite enjoyable.
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10/10
2002's best comedy series came from Japan
22 May 2003
Azumanga Daioh (Hiroshi NISHIKIORI, 2002) (based on Kiyohiko AZUMA's comic strip of the same name)

Take the fundamental sweetness of the best of the "Peanuts" TV specials, mix it with the whacked out humor of "Calvin and Hobbes", add in some stylistic homages to Isao Takahata's films (the memory scenes of "Only Yesterday" and his neglected 1999 masterpiece "Our Neighbors the Yamadas") -- and you have anything but a routine anime series. (It also reminds me a bit of the quirky short-lived TV series "Square Pegs" from many years ago). The show follows the lives of seven girls (including one 10 year old genius who skipped middle school) and three teachers (two highly dysfunctional, one _mostly_ sane) through all three years of high school (that's how the system works in Japan). This is mostly side-splittingly funny, though it managed to evoke a few furtive tears before it ended. The characters are everything in this virtually plotless traversal of three years of school (and vacations). Although this series runs for 26 episodes, it ends all too quickly -- I was far from weary of the charming and loveable characters portrayed here. (The best term to describve the show is, of course, Japanese -- "kawai" which means not only ultra-cute but very loveable). This show was immensely popular in Japan, and has recently been licensed for release in the USA (thank you ADV).
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8/10
Light-weight but delightful entertainment, expertly crafted
22 May 2003
Gudseura Geum-suna aka Saving My Hubby (really "Be strong, Geum-sun") (HYEON Nam-seob, 2002)

One might write off this comparatively light-weight tale of a young-married house-wife having the worst day of her life as an amusing trifle (at best) except for two things -- the wonderful lead performance of BAE Doo-na and the excellent cinematography of CHOI Yeong-kwan.

Geun-sum (played by BAE) was a star volley ball player until her career was ended by a shoulder industry. Bereft of purpose after her injury, she is consoled (and gotten pregnant) by a nice, but rather gumption-less young man. Pre-occupied by sports, Geun-sum did not learn much in the way of house-keeping skills -- and it shows. The film begins with her husband getting ready to set off to work on a new job (after a long search) and looking for his good white shirt. Not only has Geun-sum forgotten to iron it, but she burns it (getting distracted by her year-old baby swallowing something she oughtn't). "Don't worry, it's on the back -- just don't take off your jacket and no one will notice it", she consoles her spouse. After he sets off for work, his parents call (from out of town), they will be arriving early the next morning for a visit. Rather than coming home promptly to help clean up their more than a little chaotic abode, her husband is compelled to go out dining and drinking and drinking... with his new colleagues. When he finally pulls himself away, over the objections of his new (not entirely well-wishing boss), he falls into the hands of an unscrupulous bunch of scammers (their game is picking up half-drunk victims taking them to their bar and running up an outrageously inflated tab -- then demanding that family members pay up promptly or else). The bulk of the movie consists of Geun-sum's effort to find the rather obscure dive of the blackmailers (all the while with Baby strapped on to her back) and get back in time to clean the apartment in time for the arrival of her dreaded (and apparrently rather "starchy") in-laws. Along the way, she winds up in the middle of a gang war -- and is pursued by some of the mobsters herself.

BAE Doo-na may have the biggest eyes of any actress I've ever seen. When her eyes are wide open (not a rare occurrence), she virtually has the appearance of an anime sweetheart. Her talent is not limited to wide-eyed gazing, however. She seems to have a wonderful sense of comedic timing -- but she can be as hard-nosed as she can be sweet and charming. I look forward to seeing her in many more roles.
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10/10
Worthy tribute to a Japanese master
22 May 2003
An extremely lovely tribute to Ozu, on the 20th anniversary of his death. It uses a combination of footage from vintage films and new material (both interviews and Ozu-related locations) shot by Ozu's long-time camera-man (who came out of retirement to work on this). Surprisingly (or perhaps not), it focuses less on Ozu's accomplishments as a film-maker than on his impact on the lives of the people he worked with. One of the best films of this type I've ever seen.
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Jibeuro (2002)
7/10
Gradmotherly love conquers all
22 May 2003
This film got a split critical reception when recently shown in Boston this past week. The Phoenix reviewer (unfortunately this assignment was not given to either Chris Fujiwara or Gerald Peary, the cream of the paper's critical crop) trashed it as sentimental bunkum -- suggesting that viewers wanting to see a worthwhile film about children visiting country relatives for the summer watch HHH's "Summer at Grandpa's" instead. The Globe reviewer, on the other hand, liked it -- a lot. I would have to agree with the Globe here (a rare occurrence).

The set-up here would not seem to be that unusual: a somewhat bratty city kid (around 7 or 8 years old here) gets left with rural relatives, and (after considerable resistance) learns (from some kind old person) that there is more to life than brand-name products, video games and unbridled egotism. Curiously, though, I can't think of any major Western movies that use this premise -- and only one Asian one (John William' wonderful "Firefly Dreams" -- which centers on a teen-age girl).

The acting here by the two protagonists, Sang-woo (the child, played by YU Seung-ho) and his Grandmother (played by KIM Eul-Bun) is superb -- as is that of the supporting cast. (Apparently neither star was a "professional" actor). The script is funny and sweet (but not cloying). The cinematography of rural Korea is gorgeous. The direction (by one of Korea's few woman directors) is sure-handed. The score (sort of French neo-classical, for the most part) is lovely. Plot-wise the grandmother here would make more sense as a great-grandmother (the age disparity between the boy, his mother and the "grandmother is about 20 years too great). One thing that makes the Korean films I've seen so far so attractive to me (but obviously resistible to some critics) is the whole-hearted, warm-blooded lack of cynicism, Some Korean directors must not have learned yet that when touching sentimental or romantic topics, one is required to display a certain degree of snide superiority. I hope they never do learn.
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