Criterion Sunday 584: 藪の中の黒猫 Yabu no Naka no Kuroneko (Kuroneko, 1968)

Kaneto Shindo also directed Onibaba, and both are supernatural stories that lean heavily on the quality of the filmmaking for their effect. It’s a film dominated by dark shadows and silence, scenes of great stillness that effectively convey the ghostly conceit of its title characters, avenging angels after a fashion, seeking cosmic redress against all samurai for the misdeeds of a group of them. Like any revenge, this takes its toll on both those doing the revenging as against their victims, but there’s a sense of justice to the punishments they mete out all the same. It ends as mysteriously as it begins but the atmosphere it evokes never falters and it remains a fine example of the ghost horror movie.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Kaneto Shindo 新藤兼人; Cinematographer Kiyomi Kuroda 黒田清己; Starring Kichiemon Nakamura 二代目中村 吉右衛門, Nobuko Otowa 乙羽信子, Kiwako Taichi 太地喜和子; Length 99 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Tuesday 1 November 2022.

Criterion Sunday 567: 細雪 Sasame-yuki (The Makioka Sisters, 1983)

A later film by Japanese master Kon Ichikawa and this does attain a sort of regal bearing, not least for the way its four titular protagonists carry themselves. I must confess the first two times I started watching this I fell asleep, and partly that must be due to me being tired, but to a certain extent it has a sort of drifting and undemonstrative quality that I’ve seen in a lot of Japanese domestic dramas. After all, not a huge amount happens in the usual plot sense, but lives move and change — cities, lovers and marriages prospects, allegiances to other sisters — in ways that remain profound within the world of the film, even if it all just seems to be taking place while seated on the floor of various homes. But it’s beautiful and arranged like a novel, elegantly broken up into chapters and allowing each of these sisters to have her own distinct character within the piece. Just make sure to watch when you’re able to give it your full attention, because the action remains fairly subtle.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Kon Ichikawa 市川崑; Writers Shinya Hidaka 日高真也 and Ichikawa (based on the novel by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki 谷崎潤一郎); Cinematographer Kiyoshi Hasegawa 長谷川清; Starring Sayuri Yoshinaga 吉永小百合, Yuko Kotegawa 古手川祐子, Keiko Kishi 岸惠子, Yoshiko Sakuma 佐久間良子, Juzo Itami 伊丹十三; Length 140 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Monday 5 September 2022.

Criterion Sunday 564: 乾いた花 Kawaita Hana (Pale Flower, 1964)

This is a stylish movie. It’s a take on a film noir, and it ticks all the boxes: moody black-and-white atmosphere, deep pools of darkness picked out with light, a femme fatale, characters hardened by life continuing to throw it all away on the chance of some thrill that might enliven lives propelled at breakneck pace towards self-destruction. You can see why it was a genre that captured filmmakers’ imaginations, and it pays dividends here — not that I quite follow the gambling game they most often play here, but the point seems to be the ritual of the thing. Ritual is important to this film, the codes of the gangsters, the understanding they all share about the necessity of their crimes, even as they are also fully aware of the futility of it all. And that’s carried over into the gambling, and even the love affair of sorts, though really it’s more of an avuncular relationship, between this gangster (Ryo Ikebe as Muraki, recently released from prison for murder) and a mysterious young woman, Saeko (Mariko Kaga), who seems to be from the upper classes and motivated by boredom, though the film takes pains never to be too clear about her background, which is another noir move, to shroud everything in mystery. It’s a great film about people throwing it all away, albeit with all the cool in the world.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Masahiro Shinoda 篠田正浩; Writers Masaru Baba 馬場当 and Shinoda (based on the short story by Shintaro Ishihara 石原慎太郎); Cinematographer Masao Kosugi 小杉正雄; Starring Ryo Ikebe 池部良, Mariko Kaga 加賀まりこ; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Thursday 25 August 2022.

Criterion Sunday 539: ハウス Hausu (House, 1977)

This batty 70s Japanese jokey horror film certainly has its defenders and its detractors, and I imagine it’s as much for its off-the-wall anarchic style as anything else, but whatever it really all amounts to — and I’m not sure what that may be, exactly — it’s at least plenty of fun. Indeed at its heart its a generic exploitation movie, in which a group of teenage girls go to one’s aunt’s house only to find it’s haunted, as they get picked off by a mysterious killer (possibly a cat) one by one. But there is no way that a mere summary of what happens could convey quite how batty the whole thing is, the way it’s put together and edited, the constant shots pulling us out of reality into some other dimension that’s somewhere between a musical and a kids’ show in aesthetics. Ultimately that makes it a lot less horrific for me — there’s no real scares — but then again it plays more as a comedy in some ways. Hyperactive of course, and a sub-90 minute runtime is crucial there, but silly fun.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Nobuhiko Obayashi 大林宣彦; Writer Chiho Katsura 桂千穂; Cinematographer Yoshitaka Sakamoto 阪本善尚; Starring Kimiko Ikegami 池上季実子, Miki Jinbo 神保美喜, Ai Matsubara 松原愛, Kumiko Oba 大場久美子; Length 88 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 22 May 2022.

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.