Criterion Sunday 331: 晩春 Banshun (Late Spring, 1949)

I somehow contrived to put off watching this film for years, despite my deep love for the other films in the so-called “Noriko trilogy” which comprises this, Early Summer (1951) and Tokyo Story (1953). The radiant Setsuko Hara, of course, plays the Noriko in each of these films (a different character in each, though), and remains best known for her work with Ozu. She retired from film acting the year he died, and herself lived until the age of 95 (she would have been 100 in June this year).

However, I needn’t have worried, because both this film and Hara’s performance are both exceptional, though made in what would become Ozu’s signature style, which is to say contemplative, almost meditative, with a still camera and sequences broken up little still lifes from nature or detail from the environment the characters are in (like the empty railway station that begins the film). That’s not to say the film is without humour — there are these moments of comedy between characters, as when Noriko denies her professor father (Chishu Ryu) a game with his friends, so he huffily grumps about having no tea, or when the professor’s sister Masa (Haruko Sugimura) finds a purse and he keeps urging her to hand it in. These moments would probably not make much impact in most films, but each finds a distinctive place in Ozu’s world, making up a complex movement of emotions. For while I used the adjective “contemplative” above, I’d probably avoid one like “gentle”, given that, for all its deliberate pacing and quietly observant nature, much of the film is essentially roiling with bitterness between the characters (for all her winning smiles, Hara even glares a few times at her father). This all leads in the end to a sort of heartbreak, albeit one prompted by the father doing what he feels is best for his daughter’s long-term happiness. And at the same time, there’s a critique of occupied Japan in a sub rosa way, with these glimpses of English-language signs alongside an affirmation of traditional Japanese culture. It’s a complex film in many ways, and an emotional one, but it’s very easy to watch.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Yasujiro Ozu 小津安二郎; Writers Kogo Noda 野田高梧 and Ozu; Cinematographer Yuharu Atsuta 厚田雄春; Starring Setsuko Hara 原節子, Chishu Ryu 笠智衆, Haruko Sugimura 杉村春子, Yumeji Tsukioka 月丘夢路; Length 108 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Saturday 4 July 2020.

Criterion Sunday 319: 悪い奴ほどよく眠る Warui Yatsu Hodo Yoku Nemuru (The Bad Sleep Well, 1960)

Toshiro Mifune gets a lot of recognition for his roles in Kurosawa’s samurai epics, but in some ways he’s even better in a business suit and tie — it seems to be a milieu that all the actors familiar from samurai films slip into with great ease (Masayuki Mori here plays the big boss, Takashi Shimura his creepy co-conspirator, and Ko Nishimura a craven stooge). Unlike the period samurai films, however, this contemporary tale of corporate double-dealings pointedly lacks any kind of honour. It’s a revenge story, and apparently loosely based on Hamlet, though it seems to invert just about everything in that particular tale. Mifune’s character is the one out for revenge (for the death of his father of course), and so you imagine the worst for his wife (Kyoko Kagawa) — who surely must be about to be driven mad at any moment — but Kurosawa and his co-writers visit the story’s punishments instead on its hapless salary men, hoping for a break by pleasing the boss. It’s all carefully controlled and framed, and though it runs long it never fails to be stylish in its widescreen black-and-white.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa 黒澤明; Writers Hideo Oguni 小国英雄, Eijiro Hisaita 久板栄二郎, Kurosawa, Ryuzo Kikushima 菊島隆三 and Shinobu Hashimoto 橋本忍; Cinematographer Yuzuru Aizawa 逢沢譲; Starring Toshiro Mifune 三船敏郎, Masayuki Mori 森雅之, Kyoko Kagawa 香川京子, Takashi Shimura 志村喬, Ko Nishimura 西村晃; Length 150 minutes.

Seen at home (BFI Player via Amazon streaming), London, Sunday 24 May 2020.

Criterion Sunday 316: 乱 Ran (1985)

Twenty years on from first watching this film on (pan-and-scanned, no doubt) VHS at home, my chief memory of the film is a lot of horses rushing back and forth with primary-coloured flags — and yes there’s quite a bit of that in the film — but seeing it on the big screen seems to make a lot more sense of its human machinations. Those battle scenes do get a little repetitive by the film’s close, but the use of the coloured flags makes the engagements easier to follow, and there’s a real sense of physicality that you don’t get with massed CGI encounters of more recent films. Ran also feels like Kurosawa’s swansong (he’d do a few more, smaller-scale, films before his death a decade later), and at the very least it’s his farewell to the samurai period epic he’d become most well-known for after the break-out success of Seven Samurai (1954). The story, as is well known, follows the contours of Shakespeare’s King Lear, with an elderly warlord Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai) ceding control of his kingdom to his eldest child — the three here are sons — and in so doing, banishing his youngest, Saburo (Daisuke Ryu). When the elder two turn on him, he’s left almost alone, except for his fool, wandering in the wilderness of the Azusa Plain, driven almost to madness by the treachery. The staging is exemplary, with some spectacular and memorable imagery, such as a scene of Hidetora staggering out of a bloodied rampart as it burns to the ground, or an opening hilltop meeting amongst all the local warlords. As the film progresses, the second son’s wife Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada) unexpectedly comes to the fore, quickly becoming the most notable obstacle to peace in the kingdom and pushing the film to its chaotic ending (the Japanese title means “chaos”). And all along the way, Kurosawa presents images of Buddha, implacably and serenely unconcerned with what is going on in the muddy, windswept plains beneath, as they increasingly run with blood.

(Written on 18 April 2016.)


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa 黒澤明; Writers Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni 小国英雄 and Masato Ide 井手雅人 (based on the play King Lear by William Shakespeare); Cinematographers Takao Saito 斎藤孝雄, Masaharu Ueda 上田正治 and Asakazu Nakai 中井朝一; Starring Tatsuya Nakadai 仲代達矢, Daisuke Ryu 隆大介, Mieko Harada 原田美枝子; Length 162 minutes.

Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Sunday 17 April 2016 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, July 1997).

Criterion Sunday 313: 斬る Kiru (Kill!, 1968)

Oddly enough, this sort of stands aside from the rest of the recent run of samurai chanbara films featured in the Criterion Collection, as it has broad comic elements to its (rather elaborate and confusing) story of rival clans fighting one another. Even more to the forefront is its reliance on tropes from the Western (as perhaps filtered through Italy, given the Morricone-like musical cues). Set in the mid-19th century, our two starving heroes wander into a one-horse town (or one-chicken town perhaps), beset by squalling winds, like some blasted valley in the American West, and stumble across a local power struggle. As Genta, the ex-samurai turned yakuza/vagrant, Tatsuya Nakadai exudes a raucous energy, recalling Mifune in Seven Samurai (this film even has its own group of seven rebel samurai, presumably another of its parodic elements, though the source author is the same as Kurosawa/Mifune’s 1962 collaboration Sanjuro). However, Genta has a more self-knowing air, as he brushes off courtly introductions and chuckles at the desperate desires of farmer Hanjiro (Etsushi Takahashi) to become a samurai. The rest of the plot is too complicated to recount here, but suffice to say it’s the local chamberlain Ayuzawa (Shigeru Koyama) who’s the bad guy, playing the factions off one another. It has all the fight scenes you might expect, but the knockabout comedy moves into different, and rather refreshing, territory.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Kihachi Okamoto 岡本喜八; Writers Akira Murao 村尾昭 and Okamoto (based on the short story 砦山の十七日 Torideyama no Jushichinichi “17 Days at Fort Mountain” by Shugoru Yamamoto 山本周五郎); Cinematographer Rokuro Nishigaki 西垣六郎; Starring Tatsuya Nakadai 仲代達矢, Etsushi Takahashi 高橋悦史, Shigeru Koyama 神山繁, Yuriko Hoshi 星由里子; Length 114 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 3 May 2020.

Criterion Sunday 312: 異聞猿飛佐助 Ibun Sarutobi Sasuke (Samurai Spy, 1965)

Masahiro Shinoda is a filmmaker who makes distinctive pieces of work, and as such has a place at the forefront of the Japanese New Wave (amongst which Oshima and Imamura are probably the best known exponents). His 1969 film Double Suicide has already come up in the Criterion Collection, and it’s an odd kabuki-like performance piece that belies its gruesome title (and I confess it rather confounded me). You would think that the period swordplay chanbara film genre would be more straightforward — and there are indeed some bravura sequences of action and fighting — but Shinoda has a lot of the same visual style, cutting up the action into vignettes and rendering some sequences like abstract works of art in all their monochrome style. Unlike say the Samurai trilogy of Inagaki, or some other key texts set in this era (at the rise of the Tokugawa shogunate in the early-17th century), the fighting isn’t noble and elegant, but rather can be bloody and brutal, with hidden daggers and throwing stars (usually more the province of the less-exalted shinobi or ninja warriors), and protracted fight sequences that lack the grace of some other Japanese works. Still, there’s plenty of style and you can see throughlines to a lot of modern cinema in the way Shinoda stages his action, even if the historical details and names can get a little overwhelming (though I’ve found it necessary to pause to do a fair bit of Wikipedia research at the start of most Japanese period films). This is one of the more striking examples of the genre.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Masahiro Shinoda 篠田正浩; Writer Yoshiyuki Fukuda 福田善之; Cinematographer Masao Kosugi 小杉正雄; Starring Koji Takahashi 高橋幸治, Eiji Okada 岡田英次, Tetsuro Tamba 丹波哲郎, Misako Watanabe 渡辺美佐子; Length 100 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 26 April 2020.

流れる Nagareru (Flowing, 1956)

I’m finishing off my week dedicated to Mikio Naruse with this 1956 drama, though he kept making films for another decade after this. One of them (When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, from 1960) is in the Criterion Collection so will eventually get reviewed here when I get to it in my regular Criterion Sunday feature.


I love Mikio Naruse’s films but I’m also very conscious that I don’t really have the language to describe them, but this was an era when (because there were essentially no women directing films, aside from rare examples like Kinuyo Tanaka, who stars in this film, and Park Nam-ok in Korea) you’d get a whole cadre of venerated older men anointed as being excellent at ‘women’s pictures’. There are barely any men in this film, but there’s still a strong sense that the women we see — from the woman who runs the business (Isuzu Yamada), to her geisha employees, her maid, her daughter (Hideko Takamine), her sister and mentor — are all essentially still powerless in a society that esteems the money of men most highly. Even a drunken family member of a former employee seems to get his way, while the woman who owns the business is having trouble keeping it going. The story is largely told from the new maid’s point-of-view, and Kinuyo Tanaka is just wonderful at giving depth to this middle-aged woman fallen on hard times, but who still has enormous empathy and a remarkable grace in dealing with all the backstabbing and various fallings out. And yet for all this behind-the-scenes drama of the geisha house, it’s still a rather gentle and sweet film — the title suggests the gentle movement of a river, but also its inevitability and unchanging nature — about events which are not particularly gentle or sweet.

Flowing film posterCREDITS
Director Mikio Naruse 成瀬巳喜男; Writers Toshiro Ide 井手俊郎 and Sumie Tanaka 田中澄江 (based on the novel by Aya Koda 幸田文); Cinematographer Masao Tamai 玉井正夫; Starring Hideko Takamine 高峰秀子, Isuzu Yamada 山田五十鈴, Mariko Okada 岡田茉莉子, Haruko Sugimura 杉村春子, Kinuyo Tanaka 田中絹代; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 17 February 2019.

浮雲 Ukigumo (Floating Clouds, 1955)

Another Naruse melodrama about a single woman living her life and finding others — perhaps society itself — can’t quite live up to her standards. Exquisite as ever, and available on DVD.


Mikio Naruse often makes melodramas, and when he does them they’re as big and bold in many ways as contemporary Hollywood ones — with almost as much exploitation (if that’s the right word, perhaps not) of the suffering of women — but yet there’s so much elegance and subtlety as it unfolds. In a way the central character here, Yukiko (played by the wonderful Hideko Takamine), is a metaphor for post-war Japan, but her travails in love — finding a man while working in Indochina, then discovering he’s married when they return to Japan after the war, and proceeding to doubt his motives throughout, as he courts other women — also pretty starkly illustrate her place as a woman in this society. I find it really difficult to write about what’s good in the film, as I lack a lot of context for writing about 1950s melodrama, a rich and complex topic, except that Naruse’s film is compelling and beautiful.

Floating Clouds film posterCREDITS
Director Mikio Naruse 成瀬巳喜男; Writer Yoko Mizuki 水木洋子 (based on the novel by Fumiko Hayashi 林芙美子); Cinematographer Masao Tamai 玉井正夫; Starring Hideko Takamine 高峰秀子, Masayuki Mori 森雅之, Mariko Okada 岡田茉莉子; Length 123 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 3 February 2019.

晩菊 Bangiku (Late Chrysanthemums, 1954)

This film by Mikio Naruse is a beautifully understated piece of work, one of the great achievements in post-war Japanese cinema. Usually I reserve Wednesdays each week for films directed by women; as my theme this week is the films of a male director I cannot do that. However, this film focuses solely on the lives of four women, and is written by women.


Another of Naruse’s lovely quiet films about people just living their lives, though it’s a few decades on from his first works, so it doesn’t start with an automobile accident (as many of those seemed to do). This tells of the lives of four former geishas, one of whom is a moneylender (Haruko Sugimura), with the others variously in debt to her. A couple of them have adult children, and lovers pass through town too, but it really does keep its focus very much on the women’s lives. Nothing melodramatic really happens: life passes; the kids move away; the lovers disappoint. But it is exquisite in its simplicity, which like many of Naruse’s films of this era was written by women (specifically Sumie Tanaka. based on writing by Fumiko Hayashi).

CREDITS
Director Mikio Naruse 成瀬巳喜男; Writer Sumie Tanaka 田中澄江 (based on short stories by Fumiko Hayashi 林芙美子); Cinematographer Masao Tamai 玉井正夫; Starring Haruko Sugimura 杉村春子, Chikako Hosokawa 細川ちか子, Yuko Mochizuki 望月優子, Sadako Sawamura 沢村貞子; Length 101 minutes.
Seen on train from London to Brussels (DVD), Friday 1 June 2018.

山の音 Yama no Oto (Sound of the Mountain, 1954)

Mikio Naruse made three films in the year before this one, and I’m willing to bet at least one of those is equally brilliant, because he was very much on form this decade. A lot of his work was adapted from the writing of Fumiko Hayashi, but she is not the source for this one but rather the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Yasunari Kawabata, though it uses a lot of the same key cast as Naruse’s earlier film.


This is some film, one of Mikio Naruse’s finest, and I don’t want to attribute all of its success to one person, because it’s made with such sensitivity by everyone involved, but Setsuko Hara must be considered pretty central to that. Partly it’s the role she’s playing, a wife shunned by her husband (who is having an affair with a younger woman), but Hara is expert at making it not just a tragic account of this woman, but a far more rounded and nuanced portrait of familial relationships, in which Hara’s character is not to be pitied, but instead a really developed character whose motivations and actions cut against the expectations of her society and her family. I just find her every expression to be that little bit heartbreaking (not unlike in Tokyo Story, where she proved that sometimes smiling cheerfully is the saddest emotion of all). The film itself is framed by her father-in-law (So Yamamura), who is disappointed in his son (Ken Uehara) and just trying to understand Hara’s situation and consider what is best for her, which is why his reaction to news of her abortion is both so deeply felt and also so unusual in a film of this era. Surely a masterpiece of Japanese cinema, and I still have so many Naruse films yet to watch.

Sound of the Mountain film posterCREDITS
Director Mikio Naruse 成瀬巳喜男; Writer Yoko Mizuki 水木洋子 (baed on the novel by Yasunari Kawabata 川端康成); Cinematographer Masao Tamai 玉井正夫; Starring Setsuko Hara 原節子, Ken Uehara 上原謙, So Yamamura 山村聰, Yoko Sugi 杉葉子; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 13 January 2019.

稲妻 Inazuma (Lightning, 1952)

Breaking up the films which have had proper DVD releases is this film which you can see in a fairly good print on YouTube right now if you want, and I’d recommend checking it out. I certainly think I need to watch it again to pick up on all its subtleties, but Hideko Takamine’s wonderful acting is clear enough.


Nothing happens in Lightning, or rather I should say it’s filled with incident — bickering, sisterly squabbles, family fallouts, creepy dudes (and nice ones too) — but there’s nothing really big, there’s no disease killing one of them, there’s no life-changing event that they all rally together around, there’s no war, it’s just the flow of life. I think somehow Naruse’s films of this period, many of them (like this one) adaptations of the novelist and poet Fumiko Hayashi, stop somewhere just short of full-blown melodrama, though emotion clearly roils beneath the placid surface of his shots. Hayashi’s work, it seems, had a particular interest in individual women making a life for themselves, and her work is brilliantly conveyed by Hideko Takamine (another of Naruse’s regular collaborators in this period). Takamine, like Setsuko Hara, like many of the great actors, conveys a wealth of emotions through her eyes, though Takamine (and the character she plays here, Kiyoko) has a harder edge, perhaps developed in response to the insistence of her family that she settle down. It’s mentioned at one point that there’s one man to every 23 women in this post-war period, and certainly her half-brother has little interest in settling down, while another family friend, a sleazy baker, is on the prowl amongst all of the sisters. The resolution of the film, such as it is, just seems to be a level of understanding between mother (Kumeko Urabe) and daughter, the latter of whom has moved out of the family home by this point. These characters have a future, but we are left to imagine it.

Lightning film posterCREDITS
Director Mikio Naruse 成瀬巳喜男; Writer Sumie Tanaka 田中澄江 (based on the novel by Fumiko Hayashi 林芙美子); Cinematographer Shigeyoshi Mine 峰重義; Starring Hideko Takamine 高峰秀子, Mitsuko Miura 三浦光子, Chieko Murata 村田知英子, Kumeko Urabe 浦辺粂子; Length 87 minutes.
Seen at home (YouTube), London, Thursday 23 April 2020.