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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.

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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?

 

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

Posted by keith1942 on November 9, 2016

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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Our Little Sister / Umimachi Diary Japan 2015

Posted by keith1942 on May 8, 2016

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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.

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A Japanese Tragedy / Nihon no higeki Japan 1953

Posted by keith1942 on February 26, 2016

Tagasugi and Harako

Tagasugi and Harako

This was one of the films in the Japanese Film Season from the Japan Foundation screened at the Sheffield Showroom. Unfortunately, as is frequently the case, West Yorkshire missed out. However it was worth the trek to Sheffield to see this very fine post-war melodrama. There was also a helpful introduction by Dr Kate E Taylor-Jones from the University of Sheffield.

The film was both written and directed by Kinoshita Keisuke. He was a popular filmmaker from the 1940s to the 1980s. As was often the case in the Japanese film industry he started out as an assistant, in his case to the very fine director Shimazu Yazujirō. He developed his skills writing scripts in the 1930s and directed his first film in 1943, The Blossoming Port / Hana saku minato. The earliest of his films that I have seen is Carmen Comes Home / Karumen kokyōni kaer, a comedy with a fine lead performance by one of my favourite actresses Takamine Hideko.

The central characters and plot of this film are a widow Inoue Haruko (Mochizuki Yuko) and her two grown-up children, her daughter Utako (Katsuragi Yuko) and her son Seiichi (Taura Masami). Haruko works as a barmaid in the seaside resort of Atami. But such work shades over into entertaining male customers and prostitution. Haruko has also dabbled in the black market of the times and [unsuccessfully] in the stock market. The family suffered notable deprivation in the years immediately after the end of the war, presented as typical of the times. Because of her work in bars the children were raised for much of the time by Haruko’s brother-in-law [the husband died during the war] and his wife. They have denigrated Haruko and her work and the children have developed a contempt for their mother.

In the present of the film Seiichi is a medical student in Tokyo. He is also trying to have himself adopted by an aged wealthy couple who lost their son in the war. This seems to have been a frequent event at this time, demonstrating the importance of the son and heir in the culture. Also typical of the films is Seiichi’s dependence on his sister, [a trope in many of the films of Mizoguchi). Utako is studying dressmaking in order to gain independence: she is also studying English, a useful skill in the period. Unbeknown to her mother she is having an affair with the English teacher, Akazawa Masayuki (Uehara Ken). It is these relationships that dominate film and their downward spiral that leads to the tragic conclusion.

Seiichi and Utako

Seiichi and Utako

Whilst the centre of the film is the present and the family triangle there is much more for the viewer to take in. I felt that I really want to see this film again in order to master all is complexities. There are frequent flashbacks, but not signalled in a conventional manner and in some cases apparently not motivated by a particular character. Thus we see the family deprivation in the immediate post-war period as Haruko’s scrimps, saves and even steals to feed her children. We see how Utako and Seiichi are embarrassed, including at school, by the social contempt directed by others at Haruko’s means of supporting her family.

At least two of the flashbacks are character motivated. One, repeated, shows us Haruko’s struggles to obtain food for her children. The other, also repeated and motivated by Utako, concerns a rape. In the traditional manner of Japanese mainstream drama this is not depicted at all but symbolised by the camera shots of stones and broken glass followed by an ellipsis.

But the flashbacks also include actual footage [some of it newsreel, other shots of newspapers] of Japan at this time. The film cuts from present and past to the ‘actual’ without conventional signals. Thus it operates in the manner of montage in the Soviet usage. I felt, but was not sure, that these montages also proffered thematic comment. Certainly we saw post-war deprivation and poverty. criminality and prostitution, including provision for the occupying G.I.s. Another segment addressed corruption in government and business. There were demonstrations and strikes. Much of this was accompanied by non-diegetic music, including at one point a variant on The Red Flag. And another sequence, repeated, appeared to show homeless people, pursued by police or security forces: this footage was silent.

There is an amount of commentative techniques in the film: on the lines often associated with Brecht but equally set out for the Soviet filmmakers by Vsevolod Meyerhold, There are a number of musical numbers in the film and the most important is Resort Town Elegy. This is sung for Haruko by Takasugi (Sada Keiji), an itinerant street musician. It is he that provides the final obituary for Haruko in the company of  the cook at the bar who enjoys a friendship,  but also running verbal battles, with Haruko.

Stylistically the film is dominated by static mid-shots and plan américains. The accompanying close-ups seemed to be to be slightly fewer than was common in popular narrative film. This was also true of dollies and tracks and of low and high angle shots, though all these were used as well, often for emphasis. Much of the film was in deep focus, but there was little deep staging. The exception was a long take late in the film with Haruko at Yugowara Railway Station, [on the way back from Tokyo). She stands still and we gradually discern the approaching train in the distance: followed by three mid-shots and then a close-up of a discarded sandal.

The film was produced by Shochiku, who had a tradition in the ‘shomin geki’ film [lower middle-class dramas]: though this is closer to the lumpen proletarian situation found in some of the films by Naruse Mikio. Essentially this film is a ‘mother picture’ or haha-mono, and this genre frequently depicts unsympathetic children.  It is certainly a melodrama whilst at the same time it offers the sort of social critique more commonly associated with social realism. Kinoshita worked with a number of regular film actors and crafts people on this film: and the production values are very good. Apart from the montage sequence the style is generally straightforward, more akin to Naruse than Ozu: though the latter’s Tokyo Story (1953) also features the Atami resort. There are also parallels with the films of Kinoshita’s mentor, Shimazu Yasujiro:. I was especially struck by a couple of low-angle shots up stairwells and staircases which reminded me of Children of the Beehive (1948 Hachi no su no kodomotachi ), director Shimizu Hiroshi.

The films are still touring the UK and worth looking out for. A Japanese Tragedy was screened in 35mm. It was a fair print though it was a dupe. The definition was pretty good but the contrast was not brilliant, especially in night scenes.

 

 

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Nomura Yoshitarō

Posted by keith1942 on May 5, 2014

Nomura [lower left] on the filming of The Demon

Nomura [lower left] on the filming of The Demon

The Bradford International Film Festival included a retrospective of this Japanese film director. The programme was titled The Crime films of Yoshitarō. We saw five films, all adaptations of novels by Seichō Matsumoto. The first screening enjoyed an introductory over view to the director and his films by Alexander Jacoby. There is profile of the director in his excellent A Critical Handbook of Japanese Directors (Stone Bridge Press, 2008). Nomura followed in his father’s footsteps, both by becoming a film director and by working for his entire career at the Shochiku Studio. After a typical apprenticeship with a more experienced filmmaker Nomura started as a director in 1951. Between then and 1985 he directed over eighty feature films. He worked in a number of genres. Alex comments: “Though his work was relatively conventional in style, Nomura was never less than a competent filmmaker, and he displayed, at his best, a subtlety and finesse rare among studio artisans.”

There were also introductions to the individual films by Tom Vincent, The Festival Co-director, and Omori Chiaki, from Shochiku’s International Department. Tom mainly talked about the writer Matsumoto Seichō. Matsumoto was in the 1950s the most popular and highest-paid writer in Japan. His crime stories reflected the changing and modernising Japanese society. One distinctive feature, present in the films, were recurring journeys, often to areas remote from the thrusting urban centres and still featuring more traditional aspect s of Japanese life.

Chiaki talked about Nomura’s working practices. Once he became an established director he seems to have had a penchant for ‘ultra-realism’. On the film Stakeout there was one scene set at one a.m. and Nomura insisted on shooting it at one a.m. For another scene set on a sweltering hot summer day he insisted on turning off the air conditioning to that the actors were sweating real perspiration.

Stakeout (Harikomi, 1958, black and white scope) was the earliest of his films screened and the one that impressed me the most. It seems that this was his ‘breakout’ film after a series of genre movies, and one to which he devoted much time and resources. The basic plot follows two Tokyo detectives who journey to a remote island in South Western Japan to track down a murder suspect. They believe he will contact his ex-lover Sadako who has married a business man with three children. The first part of the film involves a pre-credit train journey and then the police procedural detail as the detectives secretly keep watch on Sadako. She finally leads them to the suspect. However, at this point the film changes dramatically. No longer involved with police procedures it become Hitchcockian as one detective follows and observes the fleeing pair. The film becomes reminiscent of Mizoguchi’s Crucified Lovers (Chikamatsu monogatari, 1954) or Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once (1937).

The ending of the main plot is predictable. However, there is a subplot as well. The younger detective is wrestling with a possible marriage: and we see messages to and flashbacks about his fiancée. And as the two detectives wait to return to Tokyo he finally comes to his decision. The cast are excellent with Oki Minoru as the young detective, Miyaguchi Seiji [the master swordsman in Seven Samurai) as his partner, and Takamine Hideko as the ex-lover Sadako. Takamine was an iconic presence in several films directed by Naruse Mikio.

The second feature was Zero Focus (Zero no Shōten, 1961, black and white scope). In this film a newly married woman journeys to the North of Japan when her husband on a business trips apparently goes missing. As she delves into the mystery we are given a series of flashbacks. These become complicated as they present different possible explanations of events from several viewpoints. The scriptwriter, also worked on Kurosawa Akira’s Rashomon, and there would appear to be a debt to that film. The film is powerful at time, but the plot seems over complicated.

The Shadow Within (Kage no Kuruma, 1970) was in colour. The main protagonist is Yukio, who is married but begins an affair with an old school friend Yasuko. In part he is motivated by his wife’s pre-occupation with various businesses she runs involving a small clique of women friends. The film is set in the years of Japan’s ‘economic miracle’ but the plot seems rather critical of the economic pre-occupations of the times. There are a number of flashbacks to Yukio’s childhood in a small seaside rural setting. The use of such a setting crosses over with other films by Nomura and stories by Matsumoto. However, Yasuko has a young son and problems arise in Yukio’s attempted relationship with the boy. There is a touch of horror in some of the scenes between the two: rather as in a western film like The Omen, 1976). As the film progresses the actuality of these problems becomes ambiguous.

The Castle of Sand

The Castle of Sand

The Castle of Sand (Suna No Utsuwa, 1974) was one of Nomura’s most popular films in Japan: it was in colour and was also the longer of the films screened. The original novel was serialised in a major national newspaper. Two Tokyo detectives investigate a mysterious murder and have to travel to a remote northern area to solve the crime. What the detectives finally unravel involves a character inflicted with leprosy. Surprisingly it seems even in the 1970s in Japan there was a strong antipathy to any contact with sufferers. The film’s liberal treatment of the problem is a reason why the film it still regarded as a classic. In the course of the film a father and son wander across the rural Japanese landscape, suffering the aversion of most people to the decease. Some critics felt these sequences were a diversion from the central plot, but I found them deeply moving. And they paralleled in some fashion the wanderings of the two fatal lovers in Stakeout.

The final film in the series was The Demon (Kichiku 1978). This was not strictly a police procedural in the sense of the other films. Most of the film was concerned with a cheap printing business run by a married couple. The husband, Sôkichi, is suddenly saddled with the children he has fathered by a mistress. This unexpected burden leads the married couple in to ever more extreme attempts to rid themselves of the unwanted children. This was a really downbeat film which was [to a degree] based on recorded events.

THE DEMON

The whole series was rewarding and fascinating. I tended to agree with Alex Jacoby that Nomura is not a front rank Japanese director, but he is always interesting and all the films we saw had memorable sequences within them. The depiction of less frequently seen areas of Japan [which comes from the source novels] was fascinating. Moreover, Nomura has a tendency for strong women characters which I enjoyed.

It seems Nomura’s films are rarely seen outside of Japan. Two of the prints screened were in 16 mm black and white scope: the reason being that these were the only prints with of those films with English subtitles. Alex Jacoby’s study suggests that there are other Nomura crime films, and films in other genres, which are worth seeing. I hope that the opportunity to see these will arise in future.

 

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