Criterion Sunday 280: 大菩薩峠 Daibosatsu Toge (The Sword of Doom, 1966)

There’s what feels like an almost unceasing parade of swordplay violence in this film, resulting in scores if not hundreds of piled-up casualties, largely of our antihero Ryunosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai), though Toshiro Mifune weighs in for one memorable scene that gives the otherwise unstoppably evil-doing Ryunosuke a moment of brief pause. It’s enough to make you think that maybe that’s what the film is doing: the title could be referring to Ryunosuke’s sword, after all, but perhaps by extension it’s all swords and “doom” is just the outcome of violent behaviour. The film is set near the end of the shogunate, so samurai are on the decline and this film enacts in a sense this final death rattle of lawless mercenary violence. It does this with some fantastically composed monochrome style, as Nakadai moves blankly (he has the unfeeling mien of a sociopath) towards both swords and doom, with nihilistic rigour.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Kihachi Okamoto 岡本喜八; Writer Shinobu Hashimoto 橋本忍 (based on the novel by Kaizan Nakazato 中里介山); Cinematographer Hiroshi Murai 村井博; Starring Tatsuya Nakadai 仲代達矢, Yuzo Kayama 加山雄三, Michiyo Aratama 新珠三千代, Toshiro Mifune 三船敏郎; Length 119 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Friday 29 November 2019.

崖の上のポニョ Gake no Ue no Ponyo (Ponyo, 2008)

I’ve reviewed a few of Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata’s films on my blog (such as My Neighbours the Yamadas earlier today, and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya), but I’ve not yet touched on the most famous figure from that studio, Hayao Miyazaki. I’ve now seen a number of his films, though, and for all my sneering at the idea of them when I was younger, they are in fact all remarkably good. My favourite remains Spirited Away which perhaps one day I shall write about here, but in the meantime here’s the one with the catchiest theme song…


I’m not honestly sure how one reviews Miyazaki-san’s films. I resisted them for so long when I was younger, assuming them to be twee nonsense, but they have a genuine sense of wonder that is difficult to express in a critical discourse — something about the rush of colours, the transformative and magical that lurks in the everyday, and the blending of quotidian reality with supernatural undersea elements. The set-up is that Sosuke is a five-year-old boy living at home with his mum (who works at the local retirement community) while dad is out for long stretches on the high seas. This land-based reality is mirrored by an alternate underwater family structure: his absent father becomes Fujimoto, a grumpy sorcerer who hates humans and is trying to repopulate the oceans, the mother is now a mystical deity, and the magical fish-human of the title is like a reflected sister/partner for Sosuke. The themes of the environmental devastation (which Fujimoto is working to counter), and the way that this is reflected in the dangerous volitility of the ocean, are all expressed very gently, but even in the joy of the animation you get a sense of this threat underlying it all.

Ponyo film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Hayao Miyazaki 宮崎駿; Starring Yuria Nara ならゆりあ, Hiroki Doi 土井洋輝; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 30 November 2019.

ホーホケキョとなりの山田くん Hohokekyo Tonari no Yamada-kun (My Neighbours the Yamadas, 1999)

Looking back at my favourite films I saw for the first time in the past year (ones that I haven’t already written up), it always feels somehow seasonally appropriate to talk about Studio Ghibli’s animations — not because they’re about Christmas, but they’re often about the idea of family and finding some kind of strength and shared communality with your family, which may not always be a lesson people take from Christmas, but it seems like it should be. My Neighbours the Yamadas may not be the most famous of Ghibli’s output, but it deserves to be better known, given it gently pokes fun at ways that families come together and fall apart, while also showing what can be good about them.


I feel like I’m still just starting my journey into Studio Ghibli’s animation, having not seen any until Isao Takahata’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya about four years ago, and since having watched a number of the Miyazaki films (almost all extraordinary). In a sense, My Neighbours the Yamadas is less easily categorisable, given it has the sense of a serialised comic strip (which it is, after all, based upon), just these little self-contained stories, introduced by titles and often book-ended by a haiku. The animation focuses on the details that matter, so this isn’t the kind of richly-detailed visual worlds that you get in Miyazaki or, say, Your Name. (2016). Instead, there’s a caricaturists’ sense at work in capturing the personalities of these six characters (grandma, mum and dad, son and daughter, and pet dog), which, while setting it aside from some of these other titles, also gives it an immediacy and vibrancy that is somehow even stronger. In telling these little stories, it’s elucidating something of the mystery (to us as Western viewers, but perhaps even to them) of Japanese life and customs, while also showing the evident care that works within the family. The humour is all very gentle, and this is ultimately a likeable, sweet film about family life.

My Neighbours the Yamadas film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Isao Takahata 高畑勲 (based on the manga series ののちゃん Nono-chan by Hisaichi Ishii 石井壽一); Starring Toru Masuoka 益岡徹, Yukiji Asaoka 朝丘雪路; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 30 November 2019.

Two Filipino Romcoms Directed by Women: That Thing Called Tadhana (2014) and I See You (2017)

There actually seems to be a large number of Filipino films directed by women, especially along the more commercial, mainstream end of film production. A swathe of comedies and romcoms have filtered through, in particular, to Netflix and much of them have a light, fluffy tone and likeable lead actors (who may be the same ones as we see in the serious arthouse festival dramas, but playing much different characters). Some are fairly tedious in the way of such films, but there are plenty which reward viewing and provide a rather likeable distraction from some of the more serious artfulness we associate with the Philippines and its cinema.

Continue reading “Two Filipino Romcoms Directed by Women: That Thing Called Tadhana (2014) and I See You (2017)”

幕末太陽傳 Bakumatsu Taiyoden (A Sun-Tribe Myth from the Bakumatsu Era, aka Sun in the Last Days of the Shogunate, 1957)

It’s all too easy to think of the 19th century here in the UK as the ‘Victorian era’ for the most part, and have an idea of what kind of feeling and look to expect from a 19th century-set film. However, other countries obviously have their own eras, and the Bakumatsu era lies towards the end of the 19th century in Japan, when the shogunate was ending and Japan was moving towards a less isolationist policy.


I get the feeling that the great works of Japanese art heralded in the West are generally in your Kurosawa school of well-mounted historical epics, but this Japanese favourite is clearly a comedy. The central character, a grifter who is mostly called “the Grifter” (Frankie Sakai), strikes me as nothing so much as a John Belushi-like figure of excess and troublesomeness, as he makes his living doing odd jobs and taking advantage of people at a brothel. The introductory section set in the modern era immediately suggests some contemporary criticism of Japanese post-war morality (under which prostitution was banned), but this works as a period-set rambunctious comedy from the time when Japan was starting to embrace the rest of the world, albeit not always willingly.

CREDITS
Director Yuzo Kawashima 川島雄三; Writers Kawashima, Shohei Imamura 今村昌平 and Keiichi Tanaka 田中啓一; Cinematographer Kurataro Takamura 高村倉太郎; Starring Frankie Sakai フランキー堺, Yoko Minamida 南田洋子, Sachiko Hidari 左幸子; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at aunt’s home (DVD), Gullane, Tuesday 26 December 2017.

Two Japanese Biopics about Artists: Tochuken Kumoemon (1936) and Utamaro and His Five Women (1946)

While there are a huge number of recent biopics I can (and have) reviewed recently during this themed week on the genre, they have also had popularity throughout the history of cinema, and in many other parts of the world. Today I am focusing on two Japanese examples I watched more or less back-to-back this past year, both of which are concerned with artists, and are made by among the better directors of Japanese cinema, Naruse and Mizoguchi.

Continue reading “Two Japanese Biopics about Artists: Tochuken Kumoemon (1936) and Utamaro and His Five Women (1946)”

Criterion Sunday 269: けんかえれじい Kenka Ereji (Fighting Elegy, 1966)

Certainly a striking film from Seijun Suzuki, though he’s not exactly a director known for being boring. It’s set in the 1930s, as Japan teeters on the brink of militaristic nationalism, and the hero Kazoku (Hideki Takahashi) seems to be a prime candidate for making that particular journey. He’s raised Catholic and in love with a girl at his boarding house, but repressed sexuality and masculine bravado means he gets into lots of fights with his peers at school. Being Suzuki, these are all choreographed with an almost comic glee, though they do go on rather a bit as the film progresses. It feels both comically satirical about Japan’s recent past, but also imbued with the confusion of youth. It’s rather a marvel.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Seijun Suzuki 鈴木清順; Writer Kaneto Shindo 新藤兼人 (based on the novel by Takashi Suzuki 鈴木隆); Cinematographer Kenji Hagiwara 萩原憲治; Starring Hideki Takahashi 高橋英樹; Length 86 minutes.

Seen at Close-Up Film Centre, London, Saturday 21 September 2019.

ハッピーアワー Happy Hour (2015)

So far in my ‘long films week’ I’ve focused on films which are long due to their aesthetic ideals of slow, long-form cinema which moves very and deliberately slowly, but there are other reasons films go long. Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 derives its durational intensity from a series of acting improvisations that cohere around a mystery plot, and in this Japanese film from a few years ago it is again improvisational work (all with non-professionals) which provides the length, as the situations they work on start to build up in complexity and emotional resonance. In such cases, the length may feel necessary for a true depth of character, and makes such films rather closer to the TV mini-series format, whereby character takes prominence over plotting.


Much like the “happy hours” which are advertised in pubs and bars, you know that what you will end up getting will neither be an hour long nor ultimately result in happiness, and so it is in this film. It is five and a quarter hours long, and although it’s not exactly a tragedy, it does seem to deal with four different routes through unhappiness (some of which at least may end up somewhere positive).

It follows four women, all friends in their late-30s in Kobe, all of whom are first seen happily eating together on a hilltop promontory and planning a trip to a spa town. Three of them are married and one is divorced, and throughout the film we get a sense of each of their characters: Jun (Rira Kawamura), the linchpin who brought them together, unemployed and going through a divorce; Akari (Sachie Tanaka), the tough-minded nurse; Sakurako (Hazuki Kikuchi), who keeps the home and raises her teenage son; and Fumi (Maiko Mihara), an administrator for some kind of a creative/arts space. As the film progresses, we get the sense of each of them, and their relationships (with men and with each other).

In taking on a story with four main characters, the film seems interested in the balance between them, and an extended workshop scene near the start facilitated by Fumi with an ‘artist’ (a shady character who comes across like the kind of role Adam Driver might play) uses trust exercises and the like to forge bonds between the performers, looking for natural points of balance in both furniture and people. If he seems to be on the make for a pick-up, the husbands aren’t very much better, being instead rather detached from their wives. Fumi’s husband is a literary editor working with a younger (woman) author, while Sakurako’s is well-meaning but a bit stupid (even his mother has to slap him upside the head at one point, in a particularly amusing moment amidst a family crisis that is not so).

Much of the acting seems to be deliberately downplayed, delivered frontally with clear diction and a noticeable lack of characters talking over each other. It suggests a heightened dramatic register that is perhaps borne out by the trajectories the characters take. The events of the film, indeed, might be considered melodramatic, but any such hint of that particular register is keenly avoided by the filmmakers at every step, and the performance styles certainly contribute to that.

There’s ultimately a lingering sense of mystery (one of the characters even largely disappears about halfway through, à la L’avventura perhaps except for the sense that she’s still in the world somewhere). Relationships are continually fractured and reconfigured, but there’s also a simple joy to the ensemble performances. There are also plenty of sublime moments. For myself, I want to mention the scene where Sakurako listens to the young woman author speak (her name is rather distracting for the English-speaking audience when transcribed: Ms Nose), and then at dinner afterwards offers her halting opinion: that she has shared the same experiences in the same place as the author, but is saddened because she never felt any of the same intensity of emotion — an observation hinting at the lack of stimulation Sakurako receives from life, and which the actor conveys so well in her performance. There are plenty of such observations in the film, and plenty of rewards to receive.

Happy Hour film posterCREDITS
Director Ryusuke Hamaguchi 濱口竜介; Writers Hamaguchi, Tadashi Nohara 野原位 and Tomoyuki Takahashi 高橋知由; Cinematographer Yoshio Kitagawa 北川喜雄; Starring Sachie Tanaka 田中幸恵, Hazuki Kikuchi 菊池葉月, Maiko Mihara 三原麻衣子, Rira Kawamura 川村りら; Length 317 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Saturday 10 March 2018.

Criterion Sunday 268: 野獣の青春 Yaju no Seishun (Youth of the Beast, 1963)

I can’t honestly tell you I understood every twist and turn in this film about a man seeking revenge for the death of his friend. It starts out in black-and-white as we happen upon an apparent double-suicide of a cop and his girlfriend, though even here there is a splash of colour in some roses, before we barrel straight into the rest of the movie, in sharp poppy colours in a widescreen format. In truth it’s the visuals that really stand out here, and director Suzuki has an eye for framing in what is very much a stylish picture. As for the plot, our anti-hero Jo (played by the easily-recognisable Joe Shishido) swings through various setups involving gangsters and hangers-on, pretty liberally wielding his fists, guns and even a spraycan he’s adapted into a flamethrower to elicit the information he wants about who was responsible for what in those opening scenes he clearly thinks was a murder. It zips along at a good pace but it always retains its pop-art appeal.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Seijun Suzuki 鈴木清順; Writers Ichiro Ikeda 池田一朗 and Tadaaki Yamazaki 山崎忠昭 (based on the novel 人狩り by Haruhiko Oyabu 大藪春彦); Cinematographer Kazue Nagatsuka 永塚一栄; Starring Joe Shishido 宍戸錠, Misako Watanabe 渡辺美佐子; Length 92 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Friday 20 September 2019.

洗骨 Senkotsu (Born Bone Born, 2018)

Heading out further into non-American films that explore the space between comedy and drama, I move to East Asia, where there have been a number of Japanese films in this register. This feature was directed by a noted Japanese comedian, so it has a strong handle on the overtly comic elements of the story, but it also delves into some pretty serious and sombre territory too, given its unwieldy English-language title refers to a funerary practice.


It’s fair to say that reading the synopsis of this film makes it sound like pretty heavy stuff, and at times it really is — there’s nothing like a funerary ritual involving washing and packing away one’s dead relative’s bones after they’ve lain in a cave for four years to spark joy in a viewer. But the way that the director (known best in Japan as a comedian) approaches the material is to find the laughs as well: it feels like every moment of genuine melancholy is leavened with a moment of laugh-out-loud humour, but not in a way that’s jarring but one earned by the situation. Plotwise, it centres around Yuko (Ayame Misaki), the heavily-pregnant daughter of the deceased Emiko, who returns to Okinawa for the bone-washing rite of the title, and whose pregnancy becomes the centre of attention for her family and the community (who is the father, why isn’t she with him, etc.). However, the film itself is about more than her situation, ill-advised as it seems, and it never gets bogged down in sentimentality (how could it, given the subject matter the title suggests), but is instead about the bonds that bring families together. This is all expressed via this ritual which links the characters with the reality of death in a way that’s fairly rare in modern globalised society, and thus seems particularly fascinating. The performances are all excellent, not least my favourite: the leaden-faced and rather hilarious aunt figure who is introduced shouting at a character whom I really identified with (the guy who goes to the funeral and ends up claiming all the uneaten food to take home). For all that you might think this film could be, it turns out to be really rather touching.

Born Bone Born film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Toshiyuki Teruya 照屋年之 [as “Gori” ゴリ]; Cinematographer Takahiro Imai 今井孝博; Starring Eiji Okuda 奥田瑛二, Michitaka Tsutsui 筒井道隆, Ayame Misaki 水崎綾女; Length 111 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Sunday 10 February 2019.