Criterion Sunday 384: 復讐するは我にあり Fukushu Suru wa Ware ni Ari (Vengeance Is Mine, 1979)

I’ve never really been drawn to films about serial killers, though this is probably a fine example of the genre. It doesn’t let its antihero (played by Ken Ogata, and based on a real Japanese serial killer) off the hook, nor does it dwell on his murders, but instead as a series of flashbacks it spends time with him as he moves between incidents, with women in seedy boarding houses (or perhaps brothels), with his father and wife, finding the banal alongside the criminal. It’s almost inscrutable in the way it deflects understanding of his soul, as though perhaps he has none, and certainly the film seems to suggest in a final scene (that I won’t go into obviously) that his judgement is as much from heaven as it is from other people. It’s a nasty tale, with that grainy raw patina of a lot of 70s filmmaking, and for those that like these stories it’s likely to land a lot better.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Shohei Imamura 今村昌平; Writer Masaru Baba 馬場当 (based on the novel by Ryuzo Saki 佐木隆三); Cinematographer Shinsaku Himeda 姫田真佐久; Starring Ken Ogata 緒形明伸, Rentaro Mikuni 三國連太郎, Mitsuko Baisho 倍賞美津子; Length 140 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 27 December 2020.

Criterion Sunday 379: ビルマの竪琴 Biruma no Tategoto (The Burmese Harp, 1956)

After the bleak nihilism of 1959’s Fires on the Plain, the pairing of it by the Criterion Collection with this earlier film by Kon Ichikawa comes as something of a surprise. It’s not that The Burmese Harp (which Ichikawa remade in the 1980s) is not another stark anti-war tale, and it’s not that unlike the later film it features far more in the way of specific wartime horror (piles of Japanese bodies rotting on the Burmese beach is just one, for example). No, what surprises me is the gentle sentimentalism, of the sort you can imagine in British films about World War II, as the soldiers and medics on both sides frequently burst into song, and there’s some to-do about some parrots as well. It makes some sense, of course, given that this is a film not so much about the horrors of war as about the gentle consolation of Buddhism, which our hero Mizushima (Shoji Yasui) turns to religion after failing to convince his compatriots to surrender. It’s hardly a bad film, but I find the overall tone jarring, despite some lovely moments that have already imprinted themselves on my brain, like the monk disappearing into mist outside the temple.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Kon Ichikawa 市川崑; Writer Natto Wada 和田夏十 (based on the novel by Michio Takeyama 竹山道雄); Cinematographer Minoru Yokoyama 横山実; Starring Shoji Yasui 安井昌二, Rentaro Mikuni 三國連太郎; Length 116 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 12 December 2020.

Criterion Sunday 302: 切腹 Seppuku (Harakiri, 1962)

A film named after ritual suicide was never likely to be a thrilling prospect (at least not to me; you do you if that kind of thing gets you excited). However, it turns out this Japanese samurai-era thriller has very little actual seppuku in it, indeed one could argue that the very idea of this kind of ritual dishonour is what the film is keen to address, because neither of the masterless samurai (ronin) who enter the Iyi clan house, both looking haggard and desperate, is really looking to commit suicide. Instead, through a series of elegant shots and beautiful compositions arranged around the hardened and determined face of Tatsuya Nakadai in the lead role as Hanshiro, we get a series of flashbacks that make it clear that there is little honour in the samurai code and that plenty of people (like the Iyi chief played by Rentaro Mikuni) manipulate it to their own ends. In fact, there’s an ultimate bitterness and anger at the way in which those who have fallen on hard times are treated, and the brutality of the Iyi response is what Hanshiro is seeking to confront. It’s a film with depths of darkness in every frame, as within each character, and while it has a lot of the generic tropes that other more famous films (those of Kurosawa for example, and Rashomon doesn’t feel too distant to this one), but it twists them in complex ways: a fight sequence isn’t just a bit of fun swordplay, it’s a fundamental question of honour, and unlike in Kurosawa’s films it’s just one man against a (flawed, ignoble) system.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s a ten-minute introduction by film scholar Donald Richie about the themes and meaning within Harakiri.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Masaki Kobayashi 小林正樹; Writer Shinobu Hashimoto 橋本忍 (based on the novel 異聞浪人記 Ibunronin ki by Yasuhiko Takiguchi 滝口康彦); Cinematographer Yoshio Miyajima 宮島義勇; Starring Tatsuya Nakadai 仲代達矢, Rentaro Mikuni 三國連太郎, Akira Ishihama 石濱朗; Length 134 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Friday 20 March 2020.

Criterion Sunday 90: 怪談 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 小林正樹; Writer Yoko Mizuki 水木洋子 (based on stories by Lafcadio Hearn); Cinematographer Yoshio Miyajima 宮島義勇; Starring Rentaro Mikuni 三國連太郎, Tatsuya Nakadai 仲代達矢, Keiko Kishi 岸惠子, Katsuo Nakamura 中村嘉葎雄, Takashi Shimura 志村喬, Osamu Takizawa 滝沢修; Length 183 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 10 April 2016.