Criterion Sunday 138: Rashomon (1950)

Though it may be one of those films that’s always on a best-of list somewhere, and therefore has the sense of being a boring dusty old classic, thankfully it’s for many good reasons and none of them involve being bored. Whatever else, it must be one of the most influential movies ever, not least for its audacious structure, moving back and forward in time and presenting overlapping testimonies on a rape/murder, each of which conflict with the others. It’s a film about the power and responsibility of storytelling, and of the infinite variety of interpretation, made by a filmmaker who — more than most others — has utter mastery over narrative exposition in filmic form. Kurosawa really is peerless in this regard; every cut and every scene moves the narrative forward in some way, or develops a theme of the film. The acting is iconic (suitably so) and much has been written about the sun-dappled cinematography. But for all the exegeses and critical plaudits, it stands up as a film which still entertains and educates.

Criterion Extras: Chief among the extras is a documentary called A Testimony as an Image (2012). This is, essentially, a making-of extra, albeit with the benefit of over a half-century of hindsight. The few remaining living crew members who worked on Kurosawa’s film come together to discuss their memories of its creation, so we get plenty about how the script came together (from one of the assistant directors, and a script supervisor), then about the set construction (from one of the lighting people), about that notable cinematography and the challenges of shooting in a dark forest, and about the stresses Kurosawa was under to get the release finished despite setbacks include a studio fire. It’s based around these reminiscences, with a few archival shots and some explanatory text, but these elderly men (and one woman) retain vivid memories and their recollections are worth listening to.

Also on the disc are around 15 minutes of excerpts from a documentary about cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, and a short address to camera by Robert Altman about how all the influences he stole from Kurosawa and from this film in particular. There’s also a halting radio interview with Takashi Shimura from around 1960, which is interesting if not especially enlightening. Donald Richie’s commentary track helps to pull out a lot of the themes, and engages the viewer with an awareness of all that Kurosawa and his team achieve in the film, making it even better and more interesting (I rewatched it with the commentary immediately after the film, and it didn’t get boring at all).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa | Writers Akira Kurosawa and Shinobu Hashimoto (based on short stories “Rashomon” and “Yabu no Naka” [In a Grove] by Ryunosuke Akutagawa) | Cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa | Starring Toshiro Mifune, Machiko Kyo, Masayuki Mori, Takashi Shimura | Length 88 minutes || Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Wednesday 14 April 1999 (as well as earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, November 1997, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 1 January 2017)

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Kakera (Kakera: A Piece of Our Life, 2009)

Sometimes you can look at a film’s write-ups and realise it’s something you’ll love, but at other times a film will just surprise you — and this one for me is very much the latter. I can’t quite put my finger on what I respond to in director Momoko Ando’s style but she definitely has an eye for framing, and for almost deadpan actions — just simple stuff sometimes, like the way her protagonist Haru rolls out of bed in the morning. Of course the acting is key too, and Hikari Matsushima manages to convey Haru’s withdrawn persona really well without making her unlikeable. As the relationship story progresses, it goes in some odd directions, but ultimately this is a quiet, reflective film about quite turbulent emotions.


FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Momoko Ando (based on the manga by Erika Sakurazawa) | Cinematographer Koichi Ishii | Starring Hikari Mitsushima, Eriko Nakamura | Length 107 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 18 March 2017

Koe no Katachi (A Silent Voice aka The Shape of Voice, 2016)

It’s an odd manga this, a wellspring of melodramatic feelings, though it does throw a lot of ideas out along the way, particularly notable in the way it often frames people by their hands, feet or other extreme close-ups. It’s a story about a no-good school bully Shoya Ishida (voiced as an adult by Miyu Irino) who goes a step too far with a deaf girl and is shunned. Years later he comes to realise what an awful person he was and seeks to make amends. That said it’s one of those films where two awkward and socially inept people try to heal their broken hearts… but will it be with one another? The motif of having people’s faces covered by a big X when he has fallen from grace with them is perhaps a little heavy-handed, and the reflective tone can be saccharine, but ultimately this is a very sweet film about trying to be a better person.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Naoko Yamada | Writer Reiko Yoshida (based on the manga by Yoshitoki Oima) | Cinematographer Kazuya Takao | Starring Miyu Irino | Length 129 minutes || Seen at Odeon Panton Street, London, Monday 27 March 2017

Tsukuroi tatsu hito (A Stitch of Life, 2015)

There’s a style of modern Japanese cinema that always seems just a little bit precious to me, in danger of being too arch, too cute, too sentimental, often with syrupy music that juts out even amongst all that. I’m not saying this is entirely one of those films, but it’s on a spectrum — one that, to be fair, also includes the work of Naomi Kawase and the very fine films of Hirokazu Koreeda. There is restraint in this story set in Kobe of a thirty-something seamstress Ichie (Miki Nakutani), following her grandmother’s designs, but wondering whether to update them, do her own designs, move into the modern world of branding and shopping centres. Even that thematic focus makes the film a little out of time itself, and it has a sort of quiet classical beauty to it. It’s based on a manga series, which only makes it clear that my idea of manga is pretty narrow, if they include ones about middle-aged women sewing suits and dresses for even older people. I like, too, that the film toys with a romantic subplot but doesn’t make it the core to our protagonist’s narrative, has a character in a wheelchair whose disability doesn’t define her entirely, and isn’t rushed in its storytelling. It does still have rather too big an orchestral soundtrack for my liking, but on the whole, it’s fairly inoffensive.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: Japan Foundation Touring Programme
Director Yukiko Mishima | Writer Tamio Hayashi (based on the manga by Aoi Ikebe) | Cinematographer Kazutaka Abe | Starring Miki Nakutani, Takahiro Miura | Length 104 minutes || Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 7 February 2017

Criterion Sunday 116: Kakushi toride no san akunin (The Hidden Fortress, 1958)

By this point, Kurosawa knew pretty well how to craft a samurai film as a version of a Western. There’s an effortless feel to his filmmaking, probably helped here by focusing the story so much around not Toshiro Mifune’s warrior, but instead the foolish comedy characters of the peasant duo (Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara) whose avarice constantly blinds them to the dangers they’re in. Of course Mifune does his eye-catching thing of being strong and supportive as the General of a defeated tribe, while the tribe’s Princess (Misa Uehara) shows quite a bit of self-determination, even if she can’t be in a scene — even ostensibly disguised as a peasant — without looking obviously imperious. To that extent, some of the adventurous heroics strain credulity, but the film never sacrifices character-grounded observation to action setpieces or silly plot contrivances. This is a film that remains invested in its characters most of all.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa | Writers Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa and Hideo Oguni | Cinematographer Kazuo Yamasaki | Starring Toshiro Mifune, Misa Uehara, Minoru Chiaki, Kamatari Fujiwara | Length 139 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Friday 26 August 2016

Pisutoru opera (Pistol Opera, 2001)

Unquestionably a singular and odd film by veteran filmmaker Seijun Suzuki, revisiting themes in his early-career masterpiece Branded to Kill, albeit with a woman assassin. The ‘opera’ aspect of the title shouldn’t be underestimated, as, although without songs, it has a lot of the theatricality of that format: the frontal staging, addresses to camera, the high-key lighting in a very clear and uncluttered frame, and the very frugal use of movement. Suzuki at times prefers to use empty shots with strong sound effects over people doing things in frame. So in short, it’s not your ordinary film. Like opera, though, the plot is actually fairly straightforward: an assassin (Makiko Esumi), ranked #3 by her Guild, has to contend with her fellow assassins (not least the mysterious Hundred Eyes, #1), in order to claim the first place, while also being stalked by a 10-year-old wannabe (Hanae Kan). It may be filmed in a very idiosyncratic way, but it’s never without visual flair and parades an array of gorgeous saturated colours.


FILM REVIEW
Director Seijun Suzuki | Writers Kazunori Ito and Takeo Kimura | Cinematographer Yonezo Maeda | Starring Makiko Esumi, Sayoko Yamaguchi, Hanae Kan, Masatoshi Nagase | Length 112 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 17 January 2017

Kimi no na wa. (Your Name., 2016)

I feel like I’ve seen live action versions of this mystical, supernatural, body-swapping elegiac romance but animating it somehow makes the sentimentality more palatable. Also, let’s be fair, it makes it gorgeous to look at. There’s a lot going on here under its slightly twee premise — an attempt perhaps to grapple with a troubled 20th century — and the storytelling is quite dense (a lot of play on language means subtitles at the top and bottom of the screen at times), but it creates a wonderful atmosphere.

(PS Also, yes, the full stop is part of the film’s title.)


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Makoto Shinkai (based on his novel) | Starring Ryunosuke Kamiki, Mone Kamishiraishi | Length 107 minutes || Seen at Odeon Panton Street, London, Monday 2 January 2017

Criterion Sunday 104: Shinju Ten no Amijima (Double Suicide, 1969)

A strange film, at once adapted from a puppet drama and also self-consciously taking some of its formal characteristics. The story follows a relationship which has tragic overtones, involving a man out of step with his society. However, the presence throughout of these puppeteer characters, at once mutely witnessing and manipulating what’s happening, is pretty powerful.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Masahiro Shinoda | Writers Taeko Tomioka and Toru Takemitsu (based on the play by Chikamatsu Monzaemon) | Cinematographer Toichiro Narushima | Starring Kichiemon Nakamura, Shima Iwashita | Length 105 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 26 June 2016

Criterion Sunday 90: Kaidan (Kwaidan, 1964)

There is no doubting this film moves at a slow and deliberate pace and makes as much use of silence as it does of sound, but these are feelings that pass fairly swiftly as you get drawn into the uncanny atmosphere created by the studio sets and bold non-naturalistic use of colour (Kobayashi’s first film in colour, after a career of monochrome political and social dramas, some of which will show up later in the collection). There are four stories here, the longest being the third, “Hoichi the Earless”, but all of them largely revolve around the living betraying the secrets of the dead and being punished for it. The other stories are likewise strong, from the shortest, “In a Cup of Tea”, in which an author (Osamu Takizawa) is haunted by a face in his tea, to the first two: “The Black Hair”, following a poor swordsman (Rentaro Mikuni) who foolishly leaves his first wife to seek his fortune; and “The Woman of the Snow”, wherein a strange woman (Keiko Kishi) saves a young fisherman (Tatsuya Nakadai, doing his best gormless expressions), but with a caveat. It’s all set in a mythologised era in which the living and dead seem to live closer to one another, with characters like Takashi Shimura’s priest in “Hoichi” being unfazed by the idea of an undead army gathering in an amphitheatre to listen to blind bard Hoichi (Katsuo Nakamura)’s epic oral tale unfold. We listen to it, too, and it’s a wonderful thing, but then Toru Takemitsu’s score throughout is revelatory, with its musique concrète textures integrated into the action almost as a chorus (and sometimes replacing diegetic sounds altogether).

Criterion Extras: This new disc presents the full 183 minute cut (the older Criterion release only had the shorter cut), and adds some more extras. There’s a 15 minute archival interview with the director reflecting on his work, as well as a fuller piece with an assistant director who worked on the film and explains the genesis of this latest restoration.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Masaki Kobayashi | Writer Yoko Mizuki (based on stories by Lafcadio Hearn) | Cinematographer Yoshio Miyajima | Starring Rentaro Mikuni, Tatsuya Nakadai, Keiko Kishi, Katsuo Nakamura, Takashi Shimura, Osamu Takizawa | Length 183 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 10 April 2016

Criterion Sunday 84: Ohayo (Good Morning, 1959)

A late film by Yasujiro Ozu which is set amongst a small group of neighbours in a Tokyo suburb and treats childhood with a light, comic touch. The plot, such as it is, has the kids of one family refusing to speak after being scolded by their father (Chishu Ryu) for going round to a neighbour’s home to watch sumo wrestling on TV. In a fit of pique after being refused this modern convenience — their father inveighs against its stupefying effect — the kids reject the language of their parents and what they see as all the stupid meaningless banalities of conversation like “hello”, “goodbye”, “thank you” and of course “good morning”. Meanwhile, gossip spreads amongst the neighbours when the local residents’ association dues haven’t been paid, as first one and the another member of this tight-knit community is suspected of having absconded with the cash. It may depict a long-vanished world in which doors are always open and people can pop round to one another’s home to chat, but at the heart is the tension brought about by the modern consumerist world and its increasing technologisation. The gossip centres largely on the purchase of a washing machine, while the TV also seems to divide the families. Things never get too dark –- everyone converses with a fixed and ready smile, even when you suspect they’re pretty angry, and indeed entire conversations proceed with a surface level of the kind of banality that the kids hate, even as other feelings are being expressed. The comedy is provided by the kids, and for all Ozu’s austere reputation, there’s a recurring farting game that consistently goes wrong for one of the kids.

Criterion Extras: Another very basic edition, with only the written notes and nothing on the disc, though it’s as fine a transfer as ever of this rare Ozu colour film.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Yasujiro Ozu | Writers Kogo Noda and Yasujiro Ozu | Cinematographer Yuharu Atsuta | Starring Haruko Sugimura, Chishu Ryu | Length 94 minutes || Seen at my mother’s flat (DVD), Wellington, Tuesday 15 March 2015