Talking Pictures

Just another WordPress.com weblog

Archive for the ‘Japanese film’ Category

Seven Samurai / Shichinin no samurai (Japan 1954)

Posted by keith1942 on April 15, 2019

This is one of the undoubted classics of World Cinema. BBC Culture produced a list of 100 ‘Best foreign language films’ voted for by critics around the world and from over 40 different language backgrounds. It placed Seven Samurai at No 1. It is worth noting that the best viewing would be from the 1991 re-issue This version was almost as the original issue and runs for 190 minutes and can be found on 35mm. Note there seem to be at least nine other versions of different lengths. This is the sort of film that you can never see too many times; it always stands up to another revisiting.

The story is set in the C16th during the Momoyama Period of Japanese history [‘warring states’]. A band of rōnin (masterless samurai) are recruited to defend a village from marauding bandits. The prime focus of the film are the samurai warriors, each carefully delineated and offering a particular aspect of the code and skills of this warrior class. Just a few of the villagers are delineated in an equal fashion but the contrasts between these two usually very separate classes is presented with great skill and clarity.

“[Its] universal appeal is partly because of the humaneness of the film’s characters. Each of the seven samurai is a distinct individual but never a caricature, about whom we come to care a great deal. It is a period in which the samurai class is declining. The rōnin samurai roam the countryside looking for work, but some have also become bandits. Because working for farmers would be below them, they kick aside the villagers seeking their help. What makes these seven samurai honourable is their continued adherence to the spirit of the samurai’s code of Bushido which allows them to reach past the class consciousness that normally separates knights from peasants.” (Beverley Bare Buehrer, 1990).

The early stages of the film depict the setting and the recruitment of the band and then their preparations for the defence of the village. Then in a long and detailed and dramatic section we watch as the battle ensues. This is one of the great presentations of samurai action but equally it is one of the great representations of armed conflict.

The film contains innumerable famous sequences spread across the narrative. Early on we watch as the samurai leader Kambei (Shimura Takashi) rescues a kidnapped child and then a demonstration of Samurai swordsmanship by Kyūzō (Miyaguchi Seiji). This varied group includes characters who are not traditional samurai; notably Kikuchiyo (Mifune Toshiro ) who later in the film give voice to the conflicting values of peasants and samurai. The final battle, which takes place in torrential rain, is a marvel of design, staging, cinematography and editing. And there is traditional musical accompaniment, not always the case in Japanese films.

The whole film is one of the finest productions directed by the master Kurosawa Akira. This is an outstanding example of his use of landscape within which are to be found fascinating and very human protagonists. The use of the telephoto lens and multi-camera techniques for much of the action gives distinct and very effective visualisation.

Seven Samurai is as famous as a model for Hollywood. The most well-known copy is The Magnificent Seven (1960, itself remade in 2016). The recent version is not up to the 1960 original: the latter is a good western but no substitute for the Japanese original. For me, the three hours fly by.

Advertisements

Posted in Japanese film | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Further thoughts on Our Little Sister / Umimachi Diary Japan 2015

Posted by keith1942 on July 30, 2018

I discussed this film with a student group in Talking Pictures. The response was positive. And the discussion raised some further aspects of the film which I find interesting. One student, familiar with Japan and Japanese culture made a comment about the title:

Umimachi Diary (Japanese: 海街diary?, lit. “Seaside Town Diary”) is a Japanese ‘josei manga’ [comic book] by Akimi Yoshida serialized in Monthly Flowers magazine.

It seems that in the original comic book, whilst the sisters are the key characters there is more about the town itself. Kamakura is a small coastal town about fifty kilometres south west of Tokyo. In the film [and I believe the comic] the film opens with the three sisters [Sachi, aged 29, Yoshino aged 22, and Chika, aged 19) travelling to Yamagata in the north of Japan for the funeral of their father, who deserted them and their mother 15 years or more ago for another women. At the funeral they meet the fourth sister, Suzu [aged 13]. She was bought up in Sendai, not that far from Yamagata.

For the western viewer the topography is not spelt out but presumably it is quite clear to a Japanese audience. Travelling north suggests moving from the relatively warn coastal region to the north, which suffers more severe winters and is prey to much stormier conditions; it is in the north that the 2011 Tsunami wreaked havoc. The difference between the key towns in the story would appear to mirror differences among the characters. Whilst the sisters have their failings and foibles they generally adhere to a set of values around family and personal responsibilities. But characters away from Kamakura, like the father and their absent mother, seem much less faithful to these values.

The film appears to follow a set of seasons over a year. It could be longer. In the manga source Suzu is thirteen when she meets her older sisters. In the film, but the concluding summer of the story, she is given as fifteen. The film is ambiguous about time, as we move from setting to setting, defined more by the season than the calendar. The film is [more or less] bookended by funerals; at the opening that of the absent father which brings the four sisters together; at the end it is the funeral of Ms Nimoniya (Fabuki Jun), whose seaside café is an important and recurring setting in the film.

The film uses a number of recurring tropes and motifs, which fill out relationships and comment on the characters. One particular trope that struck me was people going up and down hill: steps, stairways and paths through woods or up hills. This trope occurs in most of Koreeda’s films. These walks seem to mirror the up and down rhythms of the lives of characters. There is one splendid sequence when Suzu is given a bicycle spin by a fellow students and they glide downhill under an overarching cover of cherry blossom; and cherry blossom is a motif that crops up a couple of times in characters dialogue and memories.

Memory is central to Koreeda’s family dramas, indeed to all of his films that I have seen. Memories can fill out the resonance of lives and relationships. This is represented most frequently in the film by the plum wine. At a key moment of reconciliation Sachi, who has argued painfully with her mother on a brief return visit, caries the last jar of the grandmother’s vintage plum wine as a parting gift.  Other memories are more problematic and characters are inhibited about these. An example is whitebait, which Suzu experiences as a treat of Ms Nimoniya’s café. However, she cannot admit that it is a dish that she shared with her father in times past.

Food is notable in this film. And it seems to me that it is a much more notable presence in South East Asian films, especially those from Japan. Ritual like food preparation and enjoyment provide moments when characters can group together. And the shared pleasures bring out a warmth in relationships. In some films meal times are moment of crisis, but not in Our Little Sister. Moreover, they are also associated with memories. Not only in the case of Suzu and whitebait but with Yoshino and fried mackerel.

The sisters house is the central set of the story. Old and lacking full up-to-date amenities, it represents a feel for past. It does enjoy a splendid garden, with the luxuriant plum tree near the house. Within it are the personal spaces, represented by the sisters’ rooms. But there are the shared spaces like the bathroom, seen briefly, but a site of a tussle between Yoshino and Sachi. And there are the communal spaces, notably the kitchen and the lounge which is where meals are taken.

We see Sachi at her work at a local hospital, where she is also involved with a doctor, married but whose wife’s mental problem mean she is housed in an institution. We see Yoshino working at the bank, and indeed one of the feckless young men who she dates, usually disastrously. We also see her on visits as a financial advisor, including to Ms Nominiya’s café, where the latter’s ill health is exacerbated by financial problems. And we see Chika at the sport shop, where she works with her  boyfriend. They regularly support the school football team, in which Suzu becomes a star player. And we see Suzu at school with her follow students and friends.

Late in the film, in late summer we watch an annual town firework display; held over the waters alongside the small port. There is a beautifully spectacular long shot of Suzu and her friends in a small boat watching the firework display; with its coloured reflection in the evening waters. And there is a smaller celebration with sparklers in the garden.

This is one of many sequences in the film that strike the viewer with their beauty. But they also offer occasions where we see the sisters in the wider communities of the town. In this film, whilst there are traumas and conflicts within family groups, the sense of relationships is generally positive: something not found in all of Koreeda’s dramas. The film is a pleasure to watch and to listen to. It generally moves at a slow and undramatic pace and this is part of its pleasure. And it offers a portrait of family life that stands out both in  Japanese film and World Cinema.

Posted in Japanese film, Literature on Film | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

The Third Murder / Sandome no satsujin, Japan 2017

Posted by keith1942 on April 7, 2018

This is the new film from Koreeda Hirokazu. Whilst it is not his best title it is the best new release that I have seen so far this year. The story is rather different from those of his well-known family dramas though it is thematically linked to them through the focus on fathers. As the title suggests the film explores a killing. Misumi (Yakusho Kôji) has been arrested and charged with the murder and robbery of his former employer, Yamanaka: seen only briefly in a depiction of the murder. Shigemori Tomoaki (Fukuyama Masaharu) is a lawyer recruited onto the defence team. Misumi has previously been in prison for a double murder committed thirty years earlier. Shigemori’s task is not to clear Misumi but to reduce the charge of murder and burglary to murder and theft, the lesser charge likely to save him from the death penalty.

Whilst the plot seems to be a legal drama the focus is equally on the relationship between lawyer and suspect. Shigemori investigates not just the circumstances of the crime but the background of Misumi and of the family of the victim. All three men [accused, lawyer, victim) are fathers with a daughter. Misumi and Shigemori both hail from the northern province of Hokkaido, though both left there years before. And both suffer from guilt feelings over their family failures.

When Shigemori joins the legal team his colleague Settsu Daisuke (Yoshida Kotaro) tells him that Misumi is unreliable, confessing to the murder but changing his account of this several times. The lawyer suffers a similar experience when he interviews his client. And he finds that the victim’s family members , the wife Yamanaka Mitsue (Saito Yuki) and daughter Yamanaka Sakie (Hirose Suzu), also change their accounts of the background to the crime.

The location of the murder and the trial escaped me but a colleague [Trevor Norkett] identified the settings. The main story is set in coastal city of Kawasaki, south west and not that distant from Tokyo. A second setting is in a suburb of the Tokyo Metropolis, Chōfu. It seems the actual crime was committed on the banks of the Tama River, which runs close to Kawasaki and on to Tokyo. However, both Shigemori and Misumi originally come from Hokkaido, a northern island and prefecture, noted for its cold and wintry climate: Tokyo and Kawasaki are in central japan with milder climates. Shigemori’s father, Shigemori Akihisa (Hashizume Isao), is a retied judge who actually presided over the trial of Misumi for the earlier murders. In discussions with his son the judge regrets not imposing the death penalty at the time. Shigemori visits Hiroo and then Rumoi, the latter a small sub-prefecture where the earlier murders occurred. He fails though to find Misumi’s daughter who has moved away. We do see her in a flashback by Misumi, with them both lying in the snow. She, like Sakie, has a disabled leg. And a shot of Misumi and Sakie in the snow in another flashbacks emphasises the parallel between the two women.

As the film progresses the focus closes in slowly but surely on the two men, lawyer and accused. Whilst other characters are interesting it seems that their function is to illuminate the standpoint of the two fathers. Shigemori is separated and has a fourteen year old daughter. We only see her briefly but it is clear that Shigemori feels guilty about failing her. Thus there is a rapprochement between the two leads which follows from their roles as fathers. Here the film continues the thematic concentration in Koreeda’s work on families. In his films families demonstrate a line of dialogue given to Shigemori by his judge/father, that even family members do not really know their own: applicable to the memorable Still Walking (Aruitemo aruitemo, 2008).

The plot actually works more like a legal thriller than a family drama. In an online interview Koreeda made the following comments:

So, I was talking to a friend, who is a lawyer, one day and in Japan the truth is that the court is not a place where the truth is pursued. The lawyer was saying, “yeah it’s kind of a problem that we are not pursuing to find out the truth of what’s happened.” So, I asked him “what was it that he did?” and he said, “we’re there to make adjustments to the conflict of interest.” I mean, I don’t know if addressing the conflict of interest is more of a common way of thinking in the west, but many people in Japan, they believe that the court is the space in which the right thing is done and the truth is pursued. So, there was a gap between what the lawyer was telling me and how the Japanese public perceives it. With that as a backdrop, in which the courts, really, are just trying to say you’ve got a conflict of interest, how can we remedy that or adjust it or fix it or something like that. Going from that and saying, “okay, what would happen if a lawyer really started wanting to know the truth?”

The search for truth and meaning is a recurring theme in the films. The developing relationship between lawyer and client, one that sees the lawyer increasingly treating Misumi as an equal person, leads to a possible grasping of the truth of the crime. Only possibly because right to the end the film maintains the ambiguities of testimony and recollection.

Koreeda scripted, directed and edited the film. It has a different rhythm from his family dramas. There are still the long shots and long takes but the cutting is at time relatively fast. The cinematography, in colour and an i/scope frame, by Takimoto Mikiya is very effective. There is excellent use of the full letter-box. There are some splendid night-time sequences with the changing reflections from a fire. At several points there are dramatic overhead shots which point up our observation of the protagonists. And then at the climax and resolution of the film there is a long superimposition which looks great and which suggests what may underlie the characters’ actions. The music by Einaudi Ludovico fills out the drama and characterisations. Whilst generically the film seems to be a court room drama Einaudi’s frequent use of a piano, along with a guitar and electronic instruments, concentrates our attention for much of the time on the psychology of the characters.

The film was shot digitally and looked fine on the DCP I saw. In Britain the film is distributed by Arrow and it was a better transfer than their earlier Une Vie (2017) though that was from 35mm. Unfortunately the film seems to have very limited release: I saw it in Sheffield. There is only one venue screening in Leeds. Given the quality of the recent output by Koreeda Hirokazu this does seem to be a failure by exhibitors.

 

Posted in Japanese film | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Room for Let / Kashima ari, 1959

Posted by keith1942 on March 28, 2018

This was a title in the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme screened at the Sheffield Showroom. I think this was the only title screened from 35mm. a good quality black and white print in Toho-Scope with clear English sub-titles.  The film was directed by Kawashima Yūzō, a director whose work I had not seen before. He was born in 1918 so this is his centenary year.

Alexander Jacoby [‘A Critical Handbook of Japanese Film Directors’, 2008) notes,

“Little known outside Japan, the wry, wild work of Yuzo Kawashima is the missing link between the classical Japanese cinema of the fifties ands the modernism of the sixties.”

Kwashima started out at Shochiku in the war years. He only achieved a reputation in the 1950s when he moved to Nikkatsu. On a number of his films his assistant and script-writer was Imamura Shōhei. Hi worked in a variety of genres but his most notable films were comedies, a mixture of satire and farce. ‘Room for Let’ is, apparently, his most characteristic.

The film certainly mixed comedy and farce and [I suspect] a certain amount of satire on 1950s society. The film is set in a multi-room single storey tenement on a hill overlooking the city of Osaka. There are some fine views of the cityscape. The film, to a degree; follows the actions of the various tenants living in the house.

“a barbed hilarious portrait of the mostly disreputable characters inhabiting an Osaka boarding house .” [Japan Foundation Programme notes].

This sort of drama, showing the interactions of tenants in a multi-room establishment, is familiar in South Asian cinema, and there are a number of examples in Chinese and Japanese films.

The film does have key protagonists. One is Goro (Sakai Frankie), a jack-of-all-trades around whom the other characters revolve. Opposite him is Yumiko (Awashima, Chikage), a potter who rents the vacant room. She is an independent and strong-minded character, as are the majority of female characters in this film.

The ‘room for let’ provides a mechanism for the development in the plots But it is the interactions between the various tenants that provides the comedy. This is often unseemly and the sexual aspect if fairly explicit. The comedy develops slowly. Early on the film has a wry quality, but as the drama develops the tone becomes farcical. There is a splendid sequence as most of the tenants are involved in or observing Goro’s panic-stricken response to a forceful women tenant.

At the same time there are notes of disquiet. A young woman who services some older men in her room suffers the indignity of exposure to her family. Her suicide and the following mourning ritual is sombre.

The cast is excellent, striking just the right note this side of farce for much of the film. Their characters and idiosyncrasies are presented entirely convincingly. The cinematography by Okazaki Kôzô is finely done. He makes great use of the scope frame and there are some fine dollies in the interiors and some fine tracking shots in the exteriors. The music by Manabe    Riichirô for much of the time has a suitably jaunty quality which sets off the often racy visuals.

This is the first Japanese film farce that I have seen and it struck me as surprising but extremely funny. The set pieces are a real pleasure to watch. Unfortunately there were only about a dozen in the audience for this screening. I have travelled to Sheffield on several occasions for the Japan Foundation touring programme, the audiences have always been small. This is a shame. Their programmes are interesting. And the 35mm prints I have seen so far have been good quality. Britain seems to be a less friendly place for both ‘reel’ film and for Asian cinema. I am currently having to hunt round to find a screening of the new Kore-eda Hirokazu film, The Third Murder / Sandome no satsujin.

 

Posted in Comedy, Japanese film | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Tokyo Twilight (Tokyo Boshoku, 1957)

Posted by keith1942 on March 20, 2018

This title, directed by Ozu Yasujiro, was screened in this year’s Berlinale Classics. The film is in Ozu’s standard academy ratio and black and white. This was the premiere of a restored version screened from a 4K DCP. It is in a number of ways typical of late Ozu; the regular low angle camera; the deep focus and staging; the focus on props within the frame; the insertion of what are called ‘pillow shots’, brief sequences that are not obviously part of the developing plot; and the ‘lounge music’ which sounds non-Japanese in this most Japanese of directors.

But the plot was unusual for Ozu, involving marital discord, an extra-marital affair (safely in the past) and a troubled young woman who is pregnant and has to consider abortion. Yet this plot is made partly typical with Ryu Chishu as a single-parent father Sugiyama Shukichi and a manager in a bank with Hara Setsuko as Numata Takako, the dutiful daughter, though again, unusually, she is married and has a baby daughter. Takako has returned home to seek refuge from her husband Numata Yasuo (Shin Kinzo) who drinks and is frequently violent. Akiko (Arima Imeko) is the youngest daughter. She is described as ‘wild’ by other characters. During the film she spends much time seeking out her current boyfriend, Kenji (Taura Masami); and a regular haunt is a mah-jongg parlour, where people play and gamble. It is Akiko’s plight and the reappearance of her long-lost mother, Soma Kikuko (Yamada Isuzu), that provides the dramatic focus of the narrative.

The Brochure offered:

“This largely-unknown work is considered Ozu’s darkest post-war film . . . ”

Wim Wenders gave an introduction to the film; his comments were given in German but I noticed that he used the term ‘noir’ at one point. And shadows and low-key lighting feature in many scenes.

One theme in the film is late 1950s Japanese youth, seen here as breaking with the mores of the older generation. This is a thematic that is found in the films of Oshima Nagisa but it is unusual for Ozu. The use of low-class and unseemly settings would be more typical of Naruse Mikio, but this version is replete with the resignation that typifies Ozu. It seems that Ozu and his long-time collaborator Noda Kogo were responding to the new youth films then appearing in Japan. But the story is atypical of their work and is fairly melodramatic. Apparently it was the least successful of Ozu’s title in this period. The central plight of Akiko is some way from the situations that suit Ozu’s reflective style.

In terms of values the film is dominated by Shukichi. The final scene focuses on him and Takako. At this point she has decided to return to her husband with their daughter, prompted by the fate of Akiko and stressing that a child needs ‘both parents’. Kikuko meanwhile has left Tokyo and we see her on the departing train vainly hoping that Takako will come to see her off. Together these scenes put the blame on the mother as indeed does Takako at one point. But since we only hear brief details of the marital breakdown and not from her point of view I found this problematic. Shukichi’s treatment of Akiko is cold and distant and it would seem likely that this is also a factor. Akiko appears to be trapped in a home that espouses traditional values, in opposition to the young values that she holds. I think Naruse would have offered a more sympathetic treatment of the mother and a stronger grasp of the lower class milieu.

Ozu works here with regular collaborators including the joint script-writer Noda Kogo. Atsuta Yoharu provides the cinematography which is finely done. The film is as absorbing as Ozu’s other late films. However, I did think that the structure was not quite as finely tuned. There is a scene in the mah-jongg parlour where the players discuss Akiko. The scene is clearly designed to inform the audience of aspects of her situation that are hinted at rather than made explicit. However, by this stage these seemed to me fairly obvious and I found the scene redundant: an unusual feeling in a film by Ozu.

Posted in Japanese film | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

The Giant / Kyojinden, Japan 1938

Posted by keith1942 on January 23, 2018

This film was part of the programme of ‘The Japanese Period Film in the Valley of Darkness’ at Il Cinema Ritrovato in 2017. The ‘Valley of Darkness’ was the period in the 1930s when Japan was under militaristic rule. So the films in this programme were examples of liberal and critical cinema. The notes by Alexander Jacoby and Johan Nordström explained

here, he [the director Itami Mansaku] relocated ‘Les Misérables’ to Kyushi and the era of the Satsuma Rebellion. Victor Hugo’s novel was a totemic one for liberal Japanese intellectuals in the early twentieth century, and its anti-authoritarian and humanist sentiments were daring in the age of militarism.”

The ‘Satsuma Rebellion’ was a key event following the ‘Meiji restoration of 1868. This ushers in the period of modernisation in Japan. Wikipedia has a detailed article on the Rebellion:

“The Satsuma Rebellion (西南戦争 Seinan Sensō, “Southwestern War”) was a revolt of disaffected samurai against the new imperial government, nine years into the Meiji Era. Its name comes from Satsuma Domain, which had been influential in the Restoration and became home to unemployed samurai after military reforms rendered their status obsolete. The rebellion lasted from January 29, 1877, until September of that year, when it was decisively crushed and its leader, Saigō Takamori, committed seppuku after being mortally wounded.”

This was a key event in modern Japanese history. Intriguingly three of the films in the Ritrovato programme were set round this event. It would seem that it had particular relevance in a period dominated by the military and in which the military and right-wing grouping constantly referred to the values associated with the Samurai.

The film opens well into the story of the convict protagonist. In a small town we find crowds celebrating, food stalls and brass bands: the occasion is the unveiling of a bust of the Mayor. The Mayor, Onuma (Okochi Denjiro), arrived ‘from somewhere up north’ and has benefited the town. Onuma meets the ‘the new man’ with the police, Sogabe Yajiro (Maruyama Sadao), who feels that ‘we’ve met before’. The celebrations are interrupted by a fire and a man trapped in the flames. A barred window prevents his rescue but Onuma breaks in and carries shim to safety. The rescue causes Sogabe to comment that

“only one man could free him’ in that way.”

We now have one of the several flashback sin the film. Onuma was at one time imprisoned on Toro Island and made to work as forced labour in a mine. His original sentence had extended by attempted escapes to nineteen years. But he tries again, killing a guard in the process, Travelling on the road he is given food and shelter by a priest (Shiome Yo) in a small temple. Sanpei repays his hospitality by stealing a candlestick, but this one is gold rather than silver. Caught and bought back to the Temple by the police, Sanpei is saved when the priest provides his alibi. As Sanpei leaves with two candlesticks the priest essays

“Promise me, starting today, you won’t do anything wrong”.

Sanpei will be true to the promise he gives, we even have the scene where he is guilt-struck after purloining a young boy’s coin.

Years on Sanpei, now Onuma, has become the Mayor and is a wealthy and respected citizen. Sogabe’s investigations lead to Onuma attending a court hearing and clearing a man wrongly suspected of being the escaped convict Sanpei. Another flashback fills out events at this point.

Onuma has also encountered the case of Ofude (Hanbusa Yuriko), hospitalised after losing her job. Despite Onuma’s care she dies. When he flees because of the discovery of his past he goes to succour her daughter Chiyo (Katagiri Hinako), in the ‘care’ of exploitative foster parents. When they move on it is with a doll that he has bought Chiyo.

 

Years later the setting is the Southern Island off Kyushi. Onuma is older and now known as Sankichi. Chiyo is now a young woman, [played by the young Hara Setsuko, a treat for Ozu fans in the audience). Her romantic object is a young English teacher, Ryoma (Sayama Ryo), who provides language lessons, [a reference to the modernization process]. The various other characters from the original have their equivalents, including Okuni (Tsutsumi Masako) as the girl sweet on Ryoma, and Goro (Imaizumi Kei) as the urchin who dies on the barricades. These are part of the rebellion in which all the characters are caught up. Sankichi has to rescue Ryoma, thus enabling the union which he initially opposed. Sogabe continuous his relentless hunt, but finally is struck by Sankichi/Onuma/Sanpei’s humanity. These events take place in canal from which Sankichi and Ryoma emerge to Chiyo’s relief. The film closes on the young couple and Sankichi and Old Seike (Osamu Takizawa), Ryoma’s grandfather. The latter jokes that one should

“’Give your children the dolls they like’.

At which the two men laugh.

It will be clear that the film is fairly faithful to the Hugo novel. The opening, set at the point when Sogabe once more encounters Sanpei/Onuma, is very effective: as are the flashbacks that fill in the story. Where the film replaces French events and places with Japanese these are well chosen. Whilst the Rebellion may speak to 1930s Japan, in terms of the history it is the obvious conflict that is equivalent to the Paris insurrection in the novel.

The cast are good and Okochi Denjiro is splendid as the Japanese version of the immensely strong Jean Valjean. The script does not give Maruyama Sadao’s version of Javert the obsessive drive for what he considers justice, but he does effect the relentless pursuit of the convict.

The film ran for 127 minutes in a 35mm print with English subtitles. So, as with most screen versions, there is considerable compression. But, as will be clear, what many readers remember from the novel is there on screen.

Posted in Japanese film, Literature on Film | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Humanity and Paper Balloons/Ninjo Kamifusen, Japan 1937

Posted by keith1942 on July 15, 2017

This was a title that I had frequently heard or read about with recommendation but this year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato offered me the first chance to actually watch and enjoy the film. It was the first screening in a retrospective ‘The Japanese Period Film in the Valley of Darkness’. The ‘valley of darkness’ was the 1930s when Japan became increasingly dominated by the Military and embarked on wars in China, Korea and right across the Pacific. The programme was curated by Alexander Jacoby and John Nordström, who have already provided several excellent retrospectives of Japanese cinema.

They explained in their introduction that the selection offered films from the 1930s when

“Under the militarist regime of the late 1930s, the Japanese period film (jidai-geki), became a refuge for liberal filmmakers. The Narutaki-gumi, an informal group of filmmakers pledged to modernise Japanese cinema, were at the heart of a new breed of jidai-geki which opted for realism instead of stylization and for ironic pessimism rather than heroic optimism.” (Festival Catalogue).

This group usually worked the Zenshin-za progressive theatre troupe.

Alex explained that the films were to a degree subversive, exploring

“how to present the past'”

In the late 1930s

“the past was a set of contested values… “

and these films contested Samurai values, central to the value system of the militarist regime.

This film, directed by Yamanaka Sadao set the tone. Yamanaka was an important and creative filmmaker in the period. However, the majority of his films, both silent and sound, are lost. Only three full-length features and a number of extracts survive. As a director Yamanaka was noted for his style and his ability to work with complex plots and numerous characters. He died young when conscripted to the army for the war against China.

“Yamanaka produces a disenchanted study of a society in which the values of bushido celebrated in the more traditional jidai-geki are abandoned or betrayed , and in which people cannot progress.” (Festival catalogue).

In this film space was an important element of style and metaphor.

” Film offers a ‘safe space’ in a poor district, opposed to the lack of humanity and rigidity in the social structure.”

The film opens and closes with suicides. That at the beginning is of a Samurai/Ronin, i.e. a master less samurai, in this case reduced to poverty. This event takes place in a tightly packed tenement in C18th Edo. We hear the tenants discussing the suicide and learn that the Samurai hanged himself. It transpires that he did not, in traditional fashion, commit seppuku [the ritual suicide] as he no longer had a proper samurai sword but a bamboo replica. This has become a frequent trope in Japanese samurai films with characters selling their metal swords because of poverty and hard times. I do not know if this is the earliest example but it is likely that this is an influential device.

The suicide results in a squad of Samurai visiting the tenement to investigate. This sets up the division in the film between the traditional authorities and the poor and relatively powerless people who live in the tenement.

This tenement is controlled by the landlord Chobei (Suketakaya Sukezo) , a unsympathetic character who only visits to the tenement to collect rent or when the authorities take an interest. There are a number of tenants who we see and hear. A key character is Shinza the barber (Nakamura Kan’emon). We hardly ever see him practising his trade and he is involved in a petty gambling ring. The original property for the film was a Kabuki play ‘Kamiyui Shinza’ (Shinza the Barber} adapted by Mimura Shintaro. It seems the film is more downbeat than the play. In the film Shinza is a trickster, rather like the monkey in some Japanese tales, equivalent of Reynard the Fox in European tales.

Hi neighbour is Unno Matajuro (Kawarasaki Chojuro), another master less Ronin. Unno’s wife Otaki (Yamagishi Shizue) raises income by making the paper balloons of the film title. Unno spends much of the film trying to gain an interview with a local pawnbroker who rebuffs his efforts. Unno’s father, another Samurai, had done service for the house of the pawnbroker and Unno wishes to present a letter setting this out.

Two other important characters in the tenement are a blind masseur who, despite his disability, has a keen sense of what transpires. He also keeps a ‘close eye’ on Genko (Nakamura Tsuruzo) who lives by selling gold fish but also by petty pilfering: in a couple of sequences this involves the blind man’s pipe. The pawnbroker’s house also houses his daughter Okoma for whom he is trying to arrange in marriage to a Samurai, a proposal that needs to assistance to bridge the class divide. However, the film subtly suggests that there is an attraction between Okoma and one of the house servants, Chushichi (Segawa Kukunojo).

Acting in some ways as a connections between the tenements and the business sector is Yatagoro, who heads a gang involved in gambling but also acting as enforcers for businesses such as the pawnbroker. The Samurai, who are the city authorities, only appear when they leave their privileged space to police the tenement or to collaborate with businessmen like the pawnbroker.

The drama comes to a climax when Shinza and Unno are involved in a kidnap plot to raise money. At first apparently successful the repercussions are fatal for both men. Whilst the tenement occupants celebrate at a party where the sake is provided by Shinza the two men meet their fates. Shinza is summoned to a local bridge where he is confronted by Yatagoro and his men. Meanwhile Otaki, bought to her wits ends by their situation, first murders Unno and then commits suicide. The film ends bleakly in the aftermath of this tragedy.

The commentary in the Catalogue notes

“The film highlights Yamanaka’s skill at pictorial composition and deep focus, and his use of editing.”

These qualities are also due to the excellent cinematography by Mimura Akira, editing by Iwashita Koichi and the art direction by Kubo Kazuo. The tenement set is a tightly packed warren of rooms that open onto a central street. The camera explores these as the plot develops. When we move to the main street and to the house of the pawnbroker the settings open up, providing an expansive space that contrasts to the repressive and enclosing tenement. The deeps staging and deep focus is especially noticeable in the tenement sequences, drawing attention not just to the main action but to the teeming aspects of life that carry on.

The editing emphasises the parallels and contrasts in the story and between characters. Especially impressive is the final sequence where the camera shots cut between the tenement party, Shinza at the bridge and Unno and his wife, and her increasing despair. Then in what is one of the finest ending in cinema an exterior shot follows a bouncing and rolling paper balloon as it rolls into a drainage channel alongside the tenement. The sound, full of effective noises throughout, here offers the off-screen voices of children playing.

If the ending offers a visual symbol that operates as a striking metaphor then the film continually offers motifs that reflect on the characters. There is the letter that Unno carries back and forth as he vainly seeks an audience with the pawnbroker. Finally it is drop in the mud [following heavy rain] where it lies unnoticed. Paralleling this is a flowered hairpin that is dropped by Okoma, [apparently at the same spot]. It lies there, is picked up but then dropped back in the m mud by Shinza.

The print quality was not great. In particular the contrast was limited so the full effect of deep focus was not always that apparent. But the 35mm print was sufficient to demonstrate just why this is one of the most celebrated of Japanese films. The film clearly subverts the Samurai code of the bushido, values central to the militaristic regime of the period and which had for nearly a century offered resistance to the modernisation process in Japan.

Posted in Japanese film, Period film | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Odd Obsession/Kagi, Japan 1959.

Posted by keith1942 on March 29, 2017

Kimura’s introduction to the film.

Every year the Japanese Film Center tours a programme of films, some contemporary and some classics from earlier periods. The programme usually includes a couple of film on 35mm rather than on digital. Unfortunately the programme only visits a limited number of cities or areas, and West Yorkshire in not one of these. So it means travelling to Manchester or Sheffield, the nearest venues screening the films. I caught this film at the Sheffield Showroom. This independent multi-screen is convenient, five minutes from the main railway station. It is well designed and equipped. The auditoriums I have seen are small but have reasonable size screen and proper masking. And the seats are very comfortable.

This film was directed by the great Japanese film-maker, Ichikawa Kon. As a director he has over 90 credits, from the late 1940s to 2006: he died in 2008. Alexander Jacoby, in his excellent ‘A Critical handbook of Japanese Film Directors’ (2008) comments;

“Ichikawa was somewhat underrated … because his apparent eclecticism of theme and style defied auteurist notions of consistency. He himself divided his films into  “light” and “dark” but the two categories  were united by his wry attitude towards experience : … [Masumura Yasuzō explains] he “does not present us with the humour, anger, sadness and joy of humanity in all its rawness, but instead observes it with am ironic and detached gaze.”

His films are often subtly comic, even perverse. This film was a good example.

The main character was a retired antique specialist, with a younger and very attractive wife. His ageing body was less virile whilst his young wife , a seemingly traditional character, balked at some of his suggestions for excitement. So he hit on the novel strategy of generating jealousy by encouraging an attraction between a young trainee doctor engaged to his daughter and his wife. Predictably things did not develop as he expected.

The films structure had a part noir double triangle: older man – desired woman – younger man; younger man – younger woman – …. This seemed deliberate since the sequences in the couple’s homes had a strong sense of claustrophobia; as the story developed, there were recurring shots of the corridor between rooms, in a dark chiaroscuro suitable for noir. There were also a number of external shots full of chiaroscuro, but these were more poetic, especially a recurring shot of densely set trees; giving a sense of escape from the restrictive interiors. It seems the Japanese title means ‘key’, a prop that passes between the characters.

The film was presented with modernist touches. Thus it opened with a direct address to camera and audience by the young doctor Kimura (Nakadai Tatsuya). He intermittently acted as narrator, though as the film unfolded it included actions and events he did not see or hear. We met the central protagonists; Kenmochi Kenji (Nakamura Ganjiro), already on special injections as he coped with an ageing body; Kenmochi Ikuko (Kyo Machiko), the younger wife; and Kenmochi Toshiko (Kato Junko), the daughter engaged to Kimura and also involved in sexual activity with him. These characters were introduced by a freeze frame which interrupted the presentation of the previous character; emphasising the interaction between them which was both the story and the theme of the film. The family also had live-in servant, Hana (Kitabayashi Tanie), who played a more important role in the closing sequences of the film.

Ichikawa worked on the film’s script with his regular collaborator [and partner] Wada Natto and Hasebe Kieji. The script was adapted from a novel by Tanizaki Jun’ichiro which created some shock because of the explicit nature of the tale. This was retained in the film, but there were also apparent changes; in particular in the ending of the film which was extremely sardonic.

The film was screened from a good quality 35mm print. It was in 2.35:1, and shot on Agfa colour film stock. The subtitles were reasonably easy to read. The cinematography by Miyagawa Kazuo was very fine. he worked regularly with Ichikawa but also worked on films like Rashomon (1950, Kurosawa Akira) and Ugetsu Monogatari (1953 Mizoguchi Kenji). The colour cinematography here was very well done: there were bright palettes for scenes of ironic observation contrasted with the darkly noir moments as the character interaction developed in unexpected ways. The visual is expertly combined with the aural, a good soundtrack by Nishii Ken’ichi. There was one fine sequence, with a sharp cut, moving from the copulation of Kimura and Toshiko to a nearby railway junction where we saw and heard two wagons coupling. A witty comment on the endless and varied ellipsis that cover sexual activity on film.

The film ran for 107 minutes and was witty and entertaining. As usual there were points where the mores of Japanese culture escaped one but overall it was clear and absorbing. The film won a special prize at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival for ‘the courage of its approach’: a comment that reflected the period as well as the film. It also won the Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Film in 1960: though the US release was shorter by about ten minutes: the sex scenes?

 

Posted in Japanese film | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Woman of the dunes aka The Woman in the Dunes / Suna no onna Japan 1964

Posted by keith1942 on November 9, 2016

3feabb963514b19e2614ba404fcc55db

I had seen this film a couple of times before and I was able to revisit it when it was screened at the Hyde Park Picture House as part of a Leeds International Film Festival retrospective celebrating the ‘film soundtrack’. The film is certainly a favourite that does enjoy re-releases. It reportedly did well at the Japanese box office. On its international release it garnered the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Foreign Language Film category.

In terms of soundtrack the film has both distinctive sound and music. The score was composed by Takemitsu Toru, a colleague of the director Teshigahara Hiroshi. The music is electronic and discordant and emphasises the avant-garde style of the film. At certain points in the film noise is used, seemingly amplified, on the soundtrack. The film was produced by the director under Teshigahara Productions and distributed by Toho. There was a ‘road show’ version released in Japan that ran 147 minutes, longer then the international release at 127 minutes. The film was adapted from a novel by Abe Kōbō, and a another variant on the title is ‘sand woman’.

The basic plot involves a man (Okada Eiji): only at the end of the film do we learn his actual name Junpei Niki. He is an amateur etymologist and has taken three days holiday to visit the sea-side near Tokyo in order to collect specimens. Late in the afternoon he is told by local villagers that the last bus has left but that he can have accommodation for night in a local house. This turns out to be that of a widow (Kishida Kyoko), and is situated in steep sided pit in the sand dunes. When he tries to leave next morning he discovers that the rope ladder out the pit has been removed and that the sand cliffs of the pit are impossible to climb. He learns that the villagers have deliberately lured him to this spot and trapped him there in order to assist the widow in coping with the shifting sand. The sand accumulates and drifts everywhere and as it seeps into the pit it endangers the widow’s wooden hut. More importantly he learns that if her pit collapses it will endanger all the houses in the village.

It seems that this tactic is one regularly used by the villagers to preserve their habitat,

“the native place spirit is strong.”

Another women in the village has a trapped salesman. The widow has lost her husband and her daughter in a sand slide. The work to prevent further slides recurs every night as she and [eventually] the unwilling prisoner shovel sand into boxes that are hoisted up and taken away by the villagers. The widow tells the man that the villagers sell it ‘half-price’ as building material though it is actually unfit for this. When he suggests that a more efficient way of preventing sand erosion would be to plant trees she replies simply that

“it’s much cheaper this way”.

The man’s initial response is destructive. Then he ties up the woman and stops her nightly labours to remove the sand. But the villagers respond by cutting off the supplies of water, food, sake and cigarettes. Eventually he becomes a reluctant partner with the woman. The partnership develops to include sexual relations. The first coitus is a fairly violent affair on the part of both the man and the woman. But as he settles to become part of the labour force and the household the relationship becomes rather like a marriage.

However the man continues to try and escape. One night, with a makeshift rope and grapple, he manages to climb out of the pit. As he searches for a way from the sand dunes the villagers pursue him. Then he is trapped in quicksand and the villagers have to rescue him. He is unceremoniously returned to the pit and the house.

woman-in-the-dunes

He then constructs a trap for the crows that circle and pounce on any food scraps. However, whilst he fails to trap a bird he discovers that he can collect water through capillary activity in the sand. He thus perfects a water collecting device. At this point it becomes apparent that the woman is pregnant. Signalling to the villagers with a torch on a long pole, the woman is hoisted to the surface and taken either to a doctor or a midwife. However, the villagers leave the rope ladder in place and the man is able to climb out of the pit. He walks down the dunes and looks out at the sea. Then he returns to the pit. The audience can assume that he remains with the woman and their new-born child. In an internal voice he rationalises that he will finish his water collecting device: he can leave at another time.

The film depends to a great deal on the relationship between the man and the woman: to a lesser degree on that with the other villagers. The film plays with the classic distinction between city and countryside, though we never see the city, we only hear the characters refer to it. Initially the man’s attitude is one of superiority. He assumes that the villagers are simple and naïve. This is his undoing when he first meets them because he fails to realise their real purpose. Once in the sand pit with the woman he treats her with a certain contempt. She explains to him that the sand attracts water and this rots the woodwork of the house. He dismisses this as a ignorant misunderstanding on her part. Later in the film, when he realises that she is right, he is able to develop his water collection. She also has a assumed reverence for the city, mentioning Tokyo several times as a place of superior facilities and attractions. When not working at shifting sand she carefully threads sand grains into necklaces which she will sell in order to make money to buy a radio.

032cbdb522b513dbde16bb7d0cba642f

The man’s situation, imprisoned in this pit, is paralleled by his activity as an etymologist. He carefully collects specimens at the start of the film placing them in his receptacle and later pinning them out in his collector boxes. At times the camera carefully contrasts the insects in their boxes with the man in the box like structure of the wooden house. In a key moment in the relationship the man empties his collection, throwing it on the fire, so that the woman can use the frames for her jewellery.

There is notable erotic charge to their relationship. At the beginning of the film the man sits alone in a ruined boat on the beach. He remembers a woman and her figure and voice are superimposed on the shot. She chides him for the failing in their relationship.

“you criticised me … I argued too much.”

One critic suggests that she is/was his wife, though this is not apparent in the English sub-titled version. When the man is them imprisoned in the pit with the woman he takes her for granted. The first night of captivity sees her sleeping semi-naked in the hut, and the drifting sand moulds her figure. But this apparently does not affect him. Then later, when his emotions are charged by his frustrations, sake and a violent shake from sand falls, he impetuously grabs and embraces her. She responds and we witness a fairly violent bout of love making. We can presume that this sexual relations, once started, continues. And in the latter stages of the film the woman is pregnant.

The plot of the film is linear and recognisable though also unconventional. However, it is carefully encased in an overall film whose style is unconventional, ambiguous and extremely reflective. So at the opening we see of close-ups of insects accompanied by natural sounds. This sets up the theme of entrapment which is central to the story. These shot intersperse with the simple shots of the credits which are adorned with official-looking stamps. Throughout the film sequences of the characters interaction are intercut with shots of sand and sand dunes. These shorts empathise the material texture of the sand and also form abstract patterns. So at times the shifting sand resembles the movement of water, a central motif in the film. At other times the folds of the dunes resemble part of the human body, part of the erotic theme in the film.

The cinematography by Segawa Hiroshi brings out aspects of this. It is shot in crisp black and white film, with high contrast and in the Academy Ratio. The shots tend to deep focus, so we are aware of both the foreground and background. There are a great many long shots which emphasise the placement of the character in the environment. And Segawa also uses the occasional high angle shot which feeds into a sense of omniscience and relates to the theme of containment. There are many extreme close-ups, both of the characters but also of the sand which becomes a character in the story. Takemitsu Toro’s electronic score adds to both the moment of intensity and to the abstract quality of the film. So the music is occasional, but notable when the relationship becomes emotional. Alongside this there are non-melodic chords accompanying the shots of the sand and the dunes.

woman-of-the-dunes-1964-001-eiji-okada-long-back-shot

The ambiguities in the plot leave questions about the villagers and the woman. Is the rope ladder being left an omission or have the savvy villagers figured that the man will no longer attempt to leave. And the woman’s pregnancy is unexplained. it may be the man’s. However what detail there is about dates queries this. At the end of the film we learn that the man went missing in August. At one point the woman comments he has been there three months. When the pregnancy occurs the woman states that the signs started in October: we already know from comments that December is coming when the wind stirs up the sand. So either there has been an ellipsis of getting on for 12 months or the man is not the father? In the latter case is this also part of the villagers’ manipulations?

A further theme emerges at the end of the film. In the opening, when the man wanders alone on the beach he, at one point, muses on the different certificate and identity forms required in modern life. This relates back the official stamps that decorate the opening credits. Then at the close of the film a voice over accompanies shots of an official form, informing us that Junpei Niki went missing in 1956 and that in 1963, after a gap of seven years, he was legally termed a missing person. It is left to viewer to decide if this is a flight from the demands of modern urban living or a celebration of re-alignment with nature. I would suggest that both themes relate to a sense of freedom. The musings on certification suggest that Junpei feels trapped in his ordinary urban life and work. When he is imprisoned he is trapped in a different way. However by the film’s end he has chosen to stay and work in the pit. The complication is the nature of his new community, which seems to have its own containment and manipulations. Meanwhile the officialdom of his previous existence has removed his chains by deeming him absent, presumed dead. One critic suggested that the film’s story is “is a modern version of the myth of Sisyphus, the man condemned by the gods to spend eternity rolling a boulder to the top of a hill, only to see it roll back down.” There is an element of truth here, But Junpei moves beyond this in his choice at the climax of the film.

Teshigahara had studied painting [like Mizoguchi] and made some short documentaries. However, as with other directors identified as a Japanese New Wave, he moved to less conventional films. His preceding film, also scripted by Abe Kōbō, included elements of the kwaidan eiga [ghost film]. There is a ghost-like quality to Woman of the Dunes. It is clearly not a realist film, and works like an allegory. But given the narration is set -up by the male character and the impersonal voice that ends the film it could be an imagined story.

 

Posted in Japanese film | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Our Little Sister / Umimachi Diary Japan 2015

Posted by keith1942 on May 8, 2016

our_little_sister_edit_xlarge

This film was screened in the 29th Leeds International Film Festival and I thought it the pick in a strong programme. The film is adapted from a popular manga title by Koreeda Hirokazu, who also edited the film. It is the most recent in a line of family dramas in the tradition of the Japanese film genre, shomin-geki [shōshimin-eiga, the lives of ordinary working people]. These include Like Father / Soshite chichi ni naru (2013) involving parentage and children: I Wish / Kiseki (2011) about separated siblings: and Still Walking / Aruitemo aruitemo (2008) about adults and their ageing parents. Our Little Sister combines aspects of the earlier films with its main focus on four sisters. Three of these are the adult Koda sisters, Ayase Haruka as Sachi, Nagasawa Masami as Yoshino and Kaho as Chika. The ‘little sister’ has Hirose Suzu as Asano Suzu, their step-sister.

The film is set in Kamakura on the Yokohama peninsula; not that far away from Tokyo. The characters also travel at one point to the North-East and other characters from there. Kamakura is a small coastal town. The settings include the family home, urban and rural sites and the seashore.

The four sisters are beautifully played and the supporting cast are excellent. Their actions and conversations are totally believable. Detail is important and lovingly played in this film. Little touches like the picking and preparation of plums from the garden tree are very effective. And these actions play into a complex network of motifs that tell us as much about the characters as their words.

Koreeda and his team, notably cinematographer Takimoto Mikiya, offer fairly slow and detailed observation. Critics have made comparisons with the films of the great Ozu Yasijurō, but thematically this film is closer to the equally fine work of Naruse Mikio. There is loss but also resilience and the importance of memory and tradition. The film is a delicate study with moments of fine humour and irony. As with the earlier films food and meals are an important aspect of the lives and their study.

If you have not seen Koreeda’s films before this would make an excellent start. if you have you will know just how rewarding are his studies of family life. If we see half-a dozen equally fine films in 2016 then this year will be a classic. Note though, it has a very limited distribution. It seems the next screening locally is on the evening of Tuesday May 31st at Hebden Bridge Picture House.

Posted in Japanese film | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »