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.
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.
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.
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.
Continuing the Naruse theme, I’m now starting in on his 1950s masterpieces. All of these major films from the 1950s are easily available on DVD through the Masters of Cinema label in the UK, while many of his minor works can be viewed on YouTube (many with English subtitles).
This is, as one might expect from Naruse, a beautifully modulated film about Michiyo, a woman unhappy in her marriage. Setsuko Hara (surely familiar to even the most idle viewers of Japanese cinema from Ozu films like Tokyo Story and Early Summer) plays Michiyo, and Hara remains so very brilliant at conveying her dissatisfaction even as she’s smiling and reassuring people. Such indeed is the weight of societal expectation that there’s no meaningful way for her to confront the misery of her household chores and the disinterest of her husband (Ken Uehara), who only becomes animated when his young female cousin comes to visit spontaneously. My favourite moment is when Michiyo is asked “so what do you talk about with her husband?”, and she pauses, looks away and replies “I have a cat.” (It’s a very cute cat.)
Japanese films confronting domestic politics aren’t a million miles away from those of other traditional cultures (old British films like Brief Encounter seem to operate on a similar subterranean level, as everyone observes the correct etiquette and minuscule breaches are punished), so here too elaborate codes of conduct loom just beneath the surface of everyone’s actions, and it’s a great testament to the filmmaking skill that it’s all so very evident without being showy and didactic. Within this context (and I am treading carefully in how I phrase this), I was initially disappointed with the ending, but in retrospect it feels like a bitterly sardonic riposte to everything that has gone before, like the way Hollywood tacked on demonstrably phony ‘happy endings’ to films that really weren’t heading that direction. This is a brilliant and watchable — and, at times, even light-hearted — film about profound unhappiness.
Director Mikio Naruse 成瀬巳喜男; Writers Yasunari Kawabata 川端康成, Toshiro Ide 井手俊郎 and Sumie Tanaka 田中澄江 (based on the novel by Fumiko Hayashi 林芙美子); Cinematographer Masao Tamai 玉井正夫; Starring Setsuko Hara 原節子, Ken Uehara 上原謙, Yukiko Shimazaki 島崎雪子; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 26 April 2018.
So, the year is 1974, which you may have caught from the title of my post (given that the year is in the title of the film and I’m not about to change now the format by which I title my posts, it ends up being repeated quite a few times). Anyway this is a rather disturbing documentary in some ways, being largely about the filmmaker himself, a self-critique of sorts, though whether it’s justified on those grounds is probably up to successive generations of film students. It also has the most unvarnished depiction of childbirth since Stan Brakhage’s short film Window Water Baby Moving.
A fascinating documentary directed by Kazuo Hara about his former wife Takeda Miyuki, who has left him to live in Okinawa with their son and who gives birth to another in the course of the film — though describing it that way is to almost completely elide what makes the film interesting, which itself is an utterly inadequate adjective. I’d say it’s more about the artist as pathetic loser, chasing after a woman who openly spurns him (his justification for making the film is after all to maintain a sliver of a relationship to her). Every so often we hear his rejoinders to her taunts (that he’s actually “sensitive”) and he stages a particularly bravura intervention on the voiceover during Miyuki’s childbirth, in which he confesses to being so nervous that he was breaking out in sweats and ‘forgot’ to fix the focus on what is, even in its blurry state, a graphic depiction of childbirth, for the entirety of which Hara’s current wife is seen holding a microphone towards Miyuki to catch her reactions, while precisely nobody helps her at any point, even when the baby is flopped on the floor and her leg is caught in the umbilical cord while trying to squeeze out the placenta. Questions of ethics in documentary filmmaking cannot really be avoided here — Hara even shows himself having sex with Miyuki at one point — and it feels like a portrait of a woman who seems out of step with mainstream Japanese femininity wrapped up as self-critique.
Director/Cinematographer Kazuo Hara 原一男; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at Close-Up Film Centre, London, Saturday 21 September 2019.
Recalling my recent week devoted to films available on Amazon, I’m delighted to say that the recent Naomi Kawase film I’m covering today is now on that platform. She is a filmmaker who makes often rather gentle films, often about women, that have a sensory quality and a fundamental compassion, whether that of the old lady in Sweet Bean or the grieving family in Still the Water.
Director Naomi Kawase has always had a very particular way with her films, about translating texture, touch, taste and other sensory experiences through sound and image, so it makes sense that this film deals with Misako (Ayame Misaki), a woman who writes closed captions for visually-impaired filmgoers. She’s working on an apparently very subtle film by an older filmmaker about a man grappling with mortality (while also herself dealing with an ageing mother who seems to be slipping slowly away). Misako’s job is to relate the film-within-the-film’s themes to her focus group of blind audience members, but she’s having trouble finding the right balance of description and subjective editorialising. This seems to be particularly irksome for one of the group, a slightly older man (Masatoshi Nagase) who used to be a photographer but has now mostly lost his sight. The themes, then, are fairly clear, about seeing and not seeing, using the imagination to experience and move with the characters on screen, and so the film-within-a-film is more heard than seen, as we try to connect using the words to what the protagonist is going through, and this film too is equally oblique in some ways. There’s a romance of sorts between the two central characters, but I wouldn’t characterise the film itself as a romance, except perhaps that between two people and the physical world.
Director/Writer Naomi Kawase 河瀨直美; Cinematographer Arata Dodo 百々新; Starring Ayame Misaki 水崎綾女, Masatoshi Nagase 永瀬正敏; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Saturday 18 April 2020.
The filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda has been turning out warmly-received films since his fiction feature debut Maborosi in 1995. Many of them — certainly, it seems, all of the most acclaimed — are warm-hearted family dramas, whether dealing with children directly as in I Wish (2011), with parents of kids in Like Father, Like Son (2013) or with young people in Our Little Sister (2015). However in many ways that’s only half his output, as he’s also made plenty of films that don’t fit quite so neatly into this framework. I was planning on writing a post about maybe one of these, but then I realised I had a vast cache of reviews of films that really aren’t very well known by this famous director, and I wonder how many great directors could have made great films if they’d been given as many chances. For one example not even covered here, there’s his latest English/French-language The Truth (to be reviewed here later this week), but there are also these four films reviewed below: a film about terrorists; a period drama; a sex drama; and a legal thriller.
Continue reading “Four Underappreciated Films by Hirokazu Koreeda: Distance (2001), Hana (2006), Air Doll (2009) and The Third Murder (2017)”
It’s interesting to watch this film (technically I’ve seen it before, but it was so very long ago I didn’t recall it at all) and reflect on its continuity with Godard’s later films. Already he’s starting to move away from the zingy genre-inflected works of his earlier period into something altogether more intangible. His leads still have the beauty of 60s French pop culture (whether Léaud now starting to get back into films after his boyhood turn in The 400 Blows, or pop starlets like Chantal Goya), but the characters seem to hover at the surface. The film is constructed as a series of interminable dialogues, back and forth questioning that doesn’t seem to reveal very much of anything (certainly not an inner life), and scenes enacted amongst the group of women Léaud is hanging out with (Goya’s Madeleine and her two flatmates), tracing the feelings bouncing back and forth amongst them all. The idea, presumably, is about the shallowness of youth — the “children of Marx and Coca-Cola” as one of the intertitles has it — but beneath the luminous monochrome cinematography and the pretty faces, there doesn’t seem to lurk much in these lives and the characters all ultimately seem a little irritating.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard; Cinematographer Willy Kurant; Starring Jean-Pierre Léaud, Chantal Goya, Marlène Jobert; Length 103 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi via Amazon streaming), London, Saturday 11 April 2020 (and originally on VHS at the university library, Wellington, March 1999).
There’s a lot of great Japanese cinema of the past and most of the famous names kept up a prodigious output of films, of which only a handful of ‘masterworks’ tend to get any kind of release (at least in the West). The great director Mikio Naruse, for example, has one film in the Criterion collection (1960’s When a Woman Ascends the Stairs) as well as an Eclipse boxset of his four surviving silent films from the early-1930s, but otherwise is only known for a few 1950s films like Sound of the Mountain and Floating Clouds. However, given he made around 3-5 films every year, as you can see on his filmography, there’s a lot to watch and very few places to do so. Luckily, some kind soul has thought to upload a number of them to YouTube, albeit in fairly poor video quality (presumably from VHS rips), of which I’ve already reviewed one film, the biopic Tochuken Kumoemon (1936). I would love to see Naruse’s work on the big screen in a retrospective, but even Kurosawa rarely gets this kind of treatment so I suspect my chance to do so will be a long time coming (if I haven’t missed it already). In the meantime, here are a few of those 1930s sound films.
Continue reading “Three Films from the 1930s by Mikio Naruse: Wife! Be Like a Rose! (1935), The Road I Travel with You (1936) and Avalanche (1937)”
Right, I’ve done weeks themed around various online streaming platforms, but I haven’t yet mentioned YouTube, which may just be the best repository for films online. It certainly has some of the more interesting and obscure titles. It’s always worth searching YouTube when you’ve exhausted every other possibility, especially when you’re looking for a particularly niche title, because someone may have uploaded it. I also can’t verify that at any given moment any of the films I mention having watched there will be available, but who knows. This particular pick comes from inspiration provided by Australian film writer and academic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas in a Twitter thread of Australian movies directed by women which were available on various platforms, including YouTube, so a few more may appear on my blog this week.
A deeply bittersweet Australian romcom of the late-1990s, about a man who marries a woman but realises as he’s doing so that he still has deep and real feelings for an ex that he can never repair due to his own stupidity. That all comes out in the final act, though, as the early part of the film is him meeting his future wife, and then a series of flashbacks to the earlier relationship. At first these seem like they’re just a reminder of another similar time of happiness in his life, but by the end comes the realisation (for him as for the audience) that this was in fact the only time he was happy. The problem — and this is perhaps a problem exacerbated by time — is that it’s difficult to really feel for his predicament because the woman he ends up marrying, the Lizzie of the film’s title, is played by Cate Blanchett. That said, playing the role of a beautiful, perfect yet imperious and demanding woman is in fact very suited to Blanchett; the true love is played by late-90s Aussie romcom mainstay Frances O’Connor (well, she was in Love and Other Catastrophes anyway), and that makes some sense even if the fact that both of them fell for this guy (called Guy, which makes me think of the similarly bittersweet Umbrellas of Cherbourg) is rather less explicable. Still, it’s rather likeable in my opinion.
Director Cherie Nowlan; Writer Alexandra Long; Cinematographer Kathryn Milliss; Starring Richard Roxburgh, Cate Blanchett, Frances O’Connor; Length 91 minutes.
Seen at home (YouTube), London, Friday 10 April 2020.
In my week of films available on subscription to the BFI Player, I mentioned yesterday the special LGBTQI+ BFI Flare subscription collection and one of those films is the one I’m covering today, which I saw at the London Film Festival in 2018, and was produced by one of the programmers (Elhum Shakerifar) who has also been involved with several other documentaries I’ve really liked.
A lovely, gentle documentary about what seems to be (but shouldn’t be) a tough subject in Japan — being out and proud of it — and focuses on two gay lawyers in a relationship, who are thus approachable for those not just within the LGBT community, but for anyone who feels ostracised or excluded from mainstream society, who need representation under law. This is a film in many ways about fighting against oppression for those who are different, but it’s also grounded in the relationship between these two men — after all, I didn’t expect quite so much off-key singing over a cheesy keyboard for a film about the law. Partially, that’s because the film focuses on the relationship, but also because there’s not so much they’re (legally) allowed to show of the cases the pair are involved with. We get a few details, and a few brief sequences in actual courtrooms, but for the most part this is a film about principles, and it has strong ones.
Director Hikaru Toda 戸田ひかる; Cinematographer Jason Brooks; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Saturday 20 October 2018.