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.

Criterion Sunday 267: 影武者 Kagemusha (1980)

The latter half of Kurosawa’s career is dominated by the two enormous epic-length huge-scale period samurai films he directed in the 1980s, the best known of which is Ran, an adaptation of King Lear (and which will come up soon in the Criterion Collection). However, Kagemusha deserves to stand alongside it and is, in my meagre opinion, possibly better than similar works (like Seven Samurai) from earlier in his career. Partly it’s because the time it took to mount the production meant Kurosawa had a clearer idea of how he wanted the film to look (as attested by the many colourful and detailed storyboards he painted in preparation). However, there’s also a real feeling to the predicaments each of the characters finds themselves in, most of all the kagemusha (or “double”) of the title, who must impersonate a clan chief (both played by Tatsuya Nakadai) and, upon the chief’s death, finds himself doing it full-time in order to confound the clan’s enemies. This sense of what it takes to be a major political actor, a role that even a humble thief can aspire to, gives the film a pathos, a real glimpse behind the machinations of power. There are of course other themes, like the encroachment of Western ideas (whether the brief glimpse of monks, or the sound of guns that overwhelms the traditional weaponry) and the danger of youthful hubris. But for all its length this is a human-sized story about leadership and power, and a beautiful one too in coordinating all the colour and movement across the screen.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s a 20-minute featurette interview with Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, who were both instrumental in securing American funding to complete the film, and wax lyrical about their love for Kurosawa, which makes sense if you’ve seen any of their films.
  • There’s a small gallery of side-by-side comparisons of Kurosawa’s immaculately painted storyboards with shots from the film, showing how he rendered literal these imaginative sketches.
  • One of the more interesting extras is a series of five minute or half-minute Suntory whiskey commercials made on the set of Kagemusha, some of which amusingly feature Akira and Francis clinking glasses while looking over images from the film.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa 黒澤明; Writers Kurosawa and Masato Ide 黒澤明; Cinematographers Takao Saito 斎藤孝雄 and Masaharu Ueda 上田正治; Starring Tatsuya Nakadai 仲代達矢, Tsutomu Yamazaki 山崎努; Length 180 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, TBC 2019.

LFF 2019 Day Six: 37 Seconds, The House of Us, Noura’s Dream and And Then We Danced (all 2019)

Day six and another four film day. I’ve actually managed to stay awake for all 16 of the films I’ve seen so far, but this writing them up at the end of the evening is the worst part. Still, I must put my thoughts down or I’ll forget these films, so here are some more reviews. Today I’ve visited Japan, South Korea, Tunisia (again) and Georgia.

Continue reading “LFF 2019 Day Six: 37 Seconds, The House of Us, Noura’s Dream and And Then We Danced (all 2019)”

海上花 Haishang Hua (Flowers of Shanghai, 1998)

Hou Hsiao-hsien remains probably Taiwan’s most famous filmmaker, though his films can be rather forbidding to casual viewers in their austerity (beautiful though they undoubtedly often are). He made his masterpiece in 1989 with A City of Sadness, but followed it with further important works, culminating with this period film, made close to the turn of the millennium (albeit restored to its original glory in the last year), but harking back a hundred years earlier on the mainland. His later work started to move towards more European collaborations, and sometimes settings, though still with his delicate style and sensibility.


I first saw this 20 years ago on its initial release, and it is still both bewitching and perplexing in equal measure. The film never leaves these interior settings, the chambers of various courtesans around Shanghai, but the camera glides around, moving first left and then right to take in the characters sitting in repose, gambling or smoking opium. There’s an almost constant drinking of tea and smoking of pipes and the word I have written in my notes most often, underlined at one point, is “languid”. This is a film that slips by, the emotions of the women trapped in this life, almost imperceptible and yet clearly fierce. Aside from the iconic face of Tony Leung Chiu-wai, most of these characters and their stories tend to slide into one another, and what you recall are the rooms, the noise, the quiet repetitive musical theme, and, yes, the languid atmosphere.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Hou Hsiao-hsien 侯孝賢; Writer Chu T’ien-wen 朱天文; Cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bing 李屏賓; Starring Tony Leung Chiu-wai 梁朝偉, Michiko Hada 羽田美智子, Vicky Wei 魏筱惠, Carina Lau 刘嘉玲; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Arlecchino, Bologna, Thursday 27 June 2019 (and originally at the Embassy, Wellington, Tuesday 27 July 1999).

楊貴妃 Yokihi (Princess Yang Kwei-Fei, 1955)

A brief theme week not tied into any particular release coming up, though the London Film Festival starts on Wednesday 2 October and it always features a trove of world cinema. No, after my recent theme week on Asian diaspora cinema, I wanted to refocus on cinematic visions of China, some of which have been made by expatriate Chinese directors, most of which are made by other countries, and some which are perhaps specifically resistant to Chinese influence in the region — from or about contested territories like Taiwan and Hong Kong.


A late colour film by Mizoguchi, based in Chinese history, which deals with court intrigues involving the lowly lady of the title raised to chief consort of the Emperor, whose family are then inducted into government, provoking the ire of the people and a tragic ending for all concerned. The camera glides beautifully throughout these palatial rooms, strikingly picked out in shades of red, as Machiko Kyo does subtle work as a beautiful woman sacrificed to the imperial ambitions of the men around her. It may not be esteemed among Mizoguchi’s best, but it’s pretty great nonetheless.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Kenji Mizoguchi 溝口健二; Writers Ching Doe 陶秦, Matsutaro Kawaguchi 川口松太郎, Yoshikata Yoda 依田義賢 and Masashige Narusawa 成沢昌茂; Cinematographer Kohei Sugiyama 杉山公平; Starring Machiko Kyo 京マチ子, Masayuki Mori 森雅之, So Yamamura 山村聰; Length 98 minutes.
Seen on a train (DVD on a laptop), Monday 1 July 2019.