Criterion Sunday 526: 父ありき Chichi Ariki (There Was a Father, 1942)

Another gentle Ozu film from a rather more difficult period in history, this is matched with his earlier The Only Son by the Criterion Collection, and they do seem to share a fair number of similarities, being about children raised by single parents. In this case, it’s a single father (Ozu stalwart Chishu Ryu) who has rather abandoned his son in order to earn money to support him, so it’s only a brief period of time that the son visits the father when he’s grown up. The film charts a certain amount of regret on both parts, as well as the rather bereft lives both have had living apart and not really knowing one another well. Perhaps one can see grander political allegories in this relationship, given the time when the film was made, but Ozu isn’t keen to emphasise any such reading. But it’s a film about one’s responsibility to the next generation at a time when you imagine such a message might have landed a little differently. It is also, as you might expect, excellently acted and it’s only sad that the quality of the film elements isn’t particularly superb.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Yasujiro Ozu 小津安二郎; Writers Tadao Ikeda 池田忠雄, Ozu and Takao Anai 柳井隆雄; Cinematographer Yushun Atsuta 厚田雄治; Starring Chishu Ryu 笠智衆, Shuji Sano 佐野周二; Length 87 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 31 January 2022.

Criterion Sunday 525: 一人息子 Hitori Musuko (The Only Son, 1936)

Ozu’s later works are among some of my favourite films and it’s probably fair to say that a lot of the elements in his style were already in place by the time of this, his first sound film. He punctuates shots with images of socks and linen fluttering in the breeze in neatly-arranged rows, a clean organisation that belies the relative poverty the characters live in, and those tatami mat shots are very much in evidence. I also think his attitude to his characters is already fairly complexly laid out: the disappointment of the mother (Choko Iida) in her son (Himori Shin’ichi) is something she buries pretty deeply and when she does express it and try to find some way to accept her son’s life (which is, outwardly, pretty happy despite his lowly career), she is still left with a pain inside, expressed via a final shot. These emotional resonances are largely not expressed via dialogue, and that method of hiding sadness behind a smile is something Ozu would do a lot in his films with Setsuko Hara. Still, for some reason I find it difficult to embrace the film and I don’t think it’s just the slightly indifferent preservation of the elements (there’s a lot of noise on the image and soundtrack). Perhaps it’s the insistency with which the big city is seen as a corrupting influence (but then again the mother is struggling just as hard out in the countryside, having lost her family home), or perhaps I just feel out of step with the moral quandaries — though again I don’t think the mother’s internal struggle is impossible to imagine today. Still, it marks a step on the way to some of cinema’s greatest films.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Yasujiro Ozu 小津安二郎; Writers Tadao Ikeda 池田忠雄 and Masao Arata 荒田正男; Cinematographer Shojiro Sugimoto 杉本正次郎; Starring Choko Iida 飯田蝶子, Himori Shin’ichi 日守新一, Yoshiko Tsubouchi 坪内美子, Chishu Ryu 笠智衆; Length 82 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Tuesday 25 January 2022.

Criterion Sunday 524: “Two Films by Yasujiro Ozu”

There is no shortage of Yasujiro Ozu films in the Criterion Collection, and all of them are pretty close to being essential. This box set presents two films which may be among his more minor works, but being Ozu both are well worth watching. The first is The Only Son (1936) and the second There Was a Father (1942), each presenting variations of the family arrangement, one with a single mother and the other a single father. In that sense they go quite nicely together, illustrating ideas of sacrifice, familial love and ultimately disappointment, both on the part of the parents with respect to their sons, but also with respect to their own lives.

NZIFF 2021: ドロステのはてで僕ら Droste no Hate de Bokura (Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes, 2020)

In marked contrast to the very long and very melancholic films screening at any given film festival, not least last month’s Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival, is this Japanese film. It has a short running time and a very high concept, so there’s not much to it (certainly not much in the way of budget) but it’s made with love, an old-fashioned amateurism with all the etymological meaning of that word, and the enthusiasm shows.


This is undoubtedly a slender film, and not just in its concise running time. It’s a classic high concept premise elaborated on a shoestring budget (the closing credits show behind the scenes views of the filming setup) and feels rather like an extended short film in some senses. Like any time travel film, thinking about it too deeply is probably a mistake, but it throws so much energy at the screen that it’s hard to find time to do that thinking. Generally, it has the feeling of a farce put on a theatre company (which it may well be, after all) and the narrative follows its repetitious journey with small changes each time until eventually it’s all you can do to keep up with the almost infinitely recursive loops of time it creates. It’s as clever as it is silly, and would outstay its welcome if it were any longer, but it has a certain something.

Droste no Hate de Bokura (2020) posterCREDITS
Director/Cinematographer Junta Yamaguchi 山口淳太; Writer Makoto Ueda 上田誠; Starring Kazunari Tosa 土佐和成, Aki Asakura 朝倉あき, Riko Fujitani 藤谷理子; Length 70 minutes.
Seen at the Embassy, Wellington, Monday 15 November 2021.

NZIFF 2021: ドライブ・マイ・カー Doraibu Mai Ka (Drive My Car, 2021)

The day after seeing director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s elegant and literary Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy at Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival — one of my favourite films — I watched this one, which may be the greater and is certainly likely to be my favourite of the year. It works in a similar way, following a theatre director and actor in a way that resembles Rivette but in a very Japanese way. It’s hard to describe (I have a go below), but it’s great. Well worth checking out despite the extensive running time.


Of course those of us who’ve seen Happy Hour (or indeed any of his previous films) know very well that Ryusuke Hamaguchi is very capable of pulling off deeply empathetic multi-character stories with a literary bent, but this latest film is particularly excellent. It takes for its milieu the theatre world, which gets going once our recently-bereaved but well-known actor/director Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima; it seems somehow relevant that the pronunciation of his character’s name is close to “Kafka”) puts together a production of Uncle Vanya at a theatre festival in Hiroshima, from a cast of variously Japanese, Taiwanese, Filipino and Korean actors.

We get a lot of the rehearsals, not unlike some of the longer and more ambitious Rivette works (Out 1 for example), as this company slowly starts cohering, but the film remains focused on just a few of the interactions between Kafuku and various members of the company — those with Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), a somewhat shady young man whom Kafuku had witnessed in a compromising position earlier in the film, or with his Korean cast member and her translator/partner, but centrally with his driver Watari (Toko Miura), a sullen young woman appointed by the festival to drive him and who over the course of the film gradually starts to open up (but in her own way, and without compromising her character, as she remains largely unsmiling for much of the film).

As you might expect with a piece that’s about the theatre and acting, and is constructed with such care towards the actors and the performances, it’s all immaculately acted, especially by the relative newcomers — the Korean actors don’t seem to have many credits to their names, but a simple stage scene near the end of the film with the young woman using sign language had me in tears and I’m still not even certain why. A lot of the film feels both richly textured and also a little bit aloof like that, where the characters maintain just enough emotional distance that you really need the film’s running time to break it down a little bit and allow you in. It’s worth sticking it out.

Doraibu Mai Ka (Drive My Car, 2021)CREDITS
Director Ryusuke Hamaguchi 濱口竜介; Writers Hamaguchi and Takamasa Oe 大江崇允 (based on the short story by Haruki Murakami 村上春樹)
; Cinematographer Hidetoshi Shinomiya 四宮秀俊; Starring Hidetoshi Nishijima 西島秀俊, Toko Miura 三浦透子, Masaki Okada 岡田将生, Reika Kirishima 霧島れいか; Length 179 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Sunday 7 November 2021.

NZIFF 2021: 偶然と想像 Guzen to Sozo (Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, 2021)

The second day of my Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival was very productive for me: two of what would be my favourite films of the festival screened, the French film Gagarine and this Japanese film, one of two films from the same director at the festival. A few years back his curious diptych Asako I & II was a festival highlight, and then of course there was his five-hour long breakthrough Happy Hour. He makes literary films with cunning structures that suggest multiple storylines, characters, threads, ways of entering his fictional constructions. This particular film is three separate short stories and billed as such in the title card. They are all lovely, though I think the final one was my favourite.


If there’s any quality I associate with Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s films it’s an elegance of construction, almost a literary sensibility — which makes sense given that here he’s presenting three short stories, the central one of which specifically revolves around a written text. These stories are all focused on women reflecting on their lives and the missed opportunities within them, that revolve around themes of chance or coincidence to drive the narrative. In the first and second there are essentially three characters, whom we largely see in two-shots speaking to one another in long stretches of dialogue, while in the third the two central women are joined together by two unseen other women from their past through which their stories resolve in an odd yet satisfying way. There’s a slightly formal, stilted quality to it — this doesn’t feel like naturalistic improvisation — but that goes along with the constructedness, and I take the filmic choices to be rather deliberate in that regard. The entire initial conversation between two women in the first story takes place in almost complete darkness in the back of a cab, the love triangle brought to light by the end of the story, while elsewhere intertitles move the action around in what almost feel like arbitrary ways, but all becomes clearer if no less emotionally fragile by the end of each story. It’s an elegant film, done beautifully.

Guzen to Sozo (Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, 2021)CREDITS
Director/Writer Ryusuke Hamaguchi 濱口竜介
; Cinematographer Yukiko Iioka 飯岡幸子; Starring Kotone Furukawa 古川琴音, Hyunri 玄理, Ayumu Nakajima 中島歩, Kiyohiko Shibukawa 渋川清彦, Katsuki Mori 森郁月, Fusako Urabe 占部房子, Aoba Kawai 河井青葉; Length 121 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Saturday 6 November 2021.

Criterion Sunday 480: 人間の條件 Ningen no Joken (The Human Condition, 1959/1961)

I suspect part of the power of this film lies in its epic running time. This first of three instalments (sometimes called No Greater Love) is itself split into two parts, each with its own credits, so perhaps properly this is the first two parts of a six-part film. In any case, it tracks the life of one man during World War II, played by legend of Japanese cinema, Tatsuya Nakadai. Kaji is a bureaucrat who is posted to Manchuria to help run a mining operation staffed by indentured locals and captured prisoners of war. Already the film is gearing up to examine its major thematic question, which is whether it’s possible to act justly during a time of war. Certainly there’s no particular attempt to soften the edges of Japanese imperialist ambitions of the era, though Kaji continues to try and do the right thing and be an honourable man even when he has almost no agency or control over the suffering around him. His attempts to make reforms at the mine and to treat the workers fairly only drives a wedge between him and his superiors and causes him no end of trouble — and of course the situation he finds himself at the end of this first film is clearly not going to be the worst place he’ll end up. Kobayashi directs in stark black-and-white with plenty of fine directorial touches but this remains a sweeping epic of the sort that was prevalent in this era, all of which presumably owe something to the experience of the previous few decades: a grand statement on the big themes that elaborates on what it is to be just a single person against an enormous system designed to crush everything around it.

Continuing the story of the first two parts, the third and fourth chapters of this epic (called Road to Eternity) chart Kaji as he works as a private in the army, having been beaten down to this in the first film from his work as a mine overseer due to his attempt to show mercy and restraint. Here again his commitment to being a good person is again tested sorely, and again he finds himself at the sharp end of a brutal system of punishment and repression that doesn’t encourage positive behaviour or good soldiering and only rewards giving up one’s life in the futile pursuit of wartime ambition. There’s some lovely stuff here too, and a strong moral thread with Kaji attempting to navigate the constant ritual humiliations of the service, but this is still firmly within the mould of a grand historical epic, and how much you respond to it may depend on your love for the genre.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Masaki Kobayashi 小林正樹; Writers Kobayashi, Zenzo Matsuyama 松山善三 and Koichi Inagaki 稲垣公一 (based on the novel by Junpei Gomikawa 五味川純平); Cinematographer Yoshio Miyajima 宮島義勇; Starring Tatsuya Nakadai 仲代達矢, Michiyo Aratama 新珠三千代; Length 575 minutes (split into six parts in three films of 206 minutes, 178 minutes and 190 minutes).

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 19 November, Thursday 25 November and Saturday 27 November 2021.

Criterion Sunday 474: 赤い殺意 Akai Satsui (Intentions of Murder aka Unholy Desire, 1964)

I do think that Shohei Imamura’s films are rather an acquired taste, given the way they pack in incident at a high pace, while also dealing with bleak and unsavoury storylines and characters, and it’s no different here. For much of its overextended running time of two-and-a-half hours, this film deals with underprivileged characters constantly being dumped on, as their choices and lives are ever more constrained by violence and immiseration. The lead character is Sadako (Masumi Harukawa), who comes from a poor family, judged for being the granddaughter of a prostitute but also for not conforming to the body shape expected of a Japanese woman (being rather plump). She’s married as a second wife to a man (Ko Nishimura) who hasn’t even officially recognised her as his partner and who has been cheating on her for over a decade with a librarian colleague of his, and when a burglar breaks in to steal some money for his medication, further punishment is doled out to her. It’s all rather bleak, but somehow Imamura manages to kindle a small flame of hope that carries throughout the film, that things might get better, and that’s where the title comes in — as part of Sadako becoming more of an agent within her own life, she hatches a plan to do away with the man (or men) besetting her, but knowing that things could yet improve for her is what pulled me through what is otherwise a pretty bleak story, filmed with big ominous pools of inky black shadow everywhere, a Japanese post-war noir palette replete with portentous metaphors for lower class life.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Shohei Imamura 今村昌平; Writers Keiji Hasebe 長谷部慶次 and Imamura (based on the novel by Shinji Fujiwara 藤原審爾); Cinematographer Shinsaku Himeda 姫田真佐久; Starring Masumi Harukawa 春川ますみ, Ko Nishimura 西村晃, Shigeru Tsuyuguchi 露口茂, Yuko Kusunoki 楠侑子; Length 150 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 25 October 2021.

Criterion Sunday 473: にっぽん昆虫記 Nippon Konchuki (The Insect Woman, 1963)

I do feel like there was a lot going on in this film that I wasn’t taking in. Partly that’s just the way it tells its story, in little chunks dispersed through time, constantly shifting forward a year or so, constantly moving location, never really settling, like its central character. She is buffeted and moved around as much as Japan is over the course of the time period (from her birth in 1918 to roughly the film’s present), as Japan moves into and out of war, its economy changes, there are changes to social structures, but still this woman (and by extension women generally within society) seemed to receive fairly short shrift. I suppose another key factor is that she’s born poor and must seize whatever opportunity she can, whether prostitution or other unfulfilling labour. It’s far from a rosy picture, but it’s a Japanese one, a story of adversity and struggle for little reward.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Shohei Imamura 今村昌平; Writers Keiji Hasebe 長谷部慶次 and Imamura; Cinematographer Shinsaku Himeda 姫田真佐久; Starring Sachiko Hidari 左幸子, Jitsuko Yoshimura 吉村実子; Length 123 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 24 September 2021.

Criterion Sunday 472: 豚と軍艦 Buta to Gunkan (Pigs and Battleships, 1961)

I watched this a few days ago and already I’m struggling to piece together the plot; reading up on it on Wikipedia, I realise there’s a lot, possibly more than I took in while watching it. But that’s in the nature of Shohei Imamura’s budding style — it’s both possible to see how it might have stood out in Japanese post-war cinema, but also it can be quite tiring watching the action flick here and there incessantly. At the heart of the story though is the young, somewhat foolish wannabe gangster Kinta (Hiroyuki Nagato). He gets swept up into the game, much to the disgust of his dad, while meanwhile his girlfriend Haruko (Jitsuko Yoshimura) has few enough choices of her own either. So it’s a film not just about Japan in the aftermath of WW2, but it also wraps up an unequal class system too, affected by the colonising Americans, whose capitalism this whole gangster lifestyle seems to be cribbing from. There’s a lot going on, and maybe a rewatch is in order to keep it all straight, though I imagine I’d still find myself a bit lost, not unlike Kinta.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Shohei Imamura 今村昌平; Writer Hisashi Yamanouchi 山内久; Cinematographer Shinsaku Himeda 姫田真佐久; Starring Hiroyuki Nagato 長門裕之, Jitsuko Yoshimura 吉村実子; Length 108 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 4 October 2021.