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Powerful film about a Japanese taboo
The outcast of the title is a 'burakumin', the Japanese analogue of India's Untouchables. The film makes clear that they are hated, feared and despised, but does not really spell out why. This caste, made official by legislation some decades before the time of the story (1904, which is, curiously, stated at the end), does the dirtiest and foulest jobs, including sewage, dealing with the dead (funerals, butchers, tanners, shoemakers), or anything similarly icky. The members of this caste are compelled to live in ghettos, so that the towns they serve can remain 'clean', that is, separated from the unclean.
Segawa, the title character, returns to his home town, under cover of darkness. His father has just been killed by a bull he was trying to retrieve. The man had sent his son away, warning him never to return, and to keep his caste identity secret, so that the son could have a chance to better himself. Segawa's uncle begs him not to view the body, else he be identified, but he sneaks in with his face covered.
Right from the start, the fear and loathing towards the burakumin (a bland euphemism which means, simply, 'village people') is made very clear. Segawa pledges, to his dead father, that he will never reveal his true identity, and returns to his job, as a primary teacher in a rough country school.
Segawa's resolution is tested at every turn. The principal vows to clamp down on even a hint of burakumin in his school. Even his childhood buddy rails against them. Segawa is know to be a reader of Inoko, a burakumin activist who openly campaigns for better treatment. Although respected by Japanese society in general for his moral courage and humanity, Inoko is a controversial figure. Segawa's buddy counsels him to pay less attention to Inoko's work. When the author visits, the two meet, but Segawa keeps his resolution, and keeps his identity a secret even from the virtuous Inoko, who is dying from tuberculosis.
The Outcast is a film that strongly benefits from filming in black and white. Right and wrong are as clear as black and white here. There are many memorably stark images - the face of the great actor Rentaro Mikuni (who plays Inoko), just as he has been crucially betrayed, against a snowy deserted street, is just one example.
The only criticism I make, and it is fairly slight, is that the story and dialogue are both very preachy. There are long speeches about the plight and rights of the outcasts. I personally did not mind this, and simply note it for reference. All the dialogue, including the speeches, are delivered to terrific dramatic effect.
This is an outstanding film about a subject that, even today, few Japanese are willing to discuss. This is one of Japan's true shames, examined with a much-needed and very sincere searchlight.
The cast is first rate and all played their parts to perfection. The star, Raizo Ichikawa, was the most popular actor in Japan in the 50s and 60s. Yes, you read that right. The great Toshiro Mifune, though highly successful, was considered Japan's top actor internationally, but Raizo was a superstar with the domestic audience. His trademark character was 'Sleepy Eyes Of Death', a deadly samurai whom he played many times. He was my late wife's favourite actor since the age of 5.
This, then, was an unusual role for the great actor. Though Segawa does lash out, he really only wants to be left alone to lead an ordinary life, and there are no real fight scenes here. Yet he shines, and his sincerity is total and compelling.
The next half-dozen characters are mostly stars in their own right. The luscious Keiko Kishida as Inoko's wife. Rentaro Mikuni as Inoko - simply superb. Eiji Funakoshi as Segawa's elder drunken schoolteacher, effectively sacked so as to deny him a pension. Ganjiro Nakamura (who starred in a number of films with Raizo) as a lecherous Buddhist priest.
So much to enjoy, and a fair bit to think about. Unmissable.
Maiko wa redî (2014)
Delightful and colourful froth
Dopey and clumsy bumpkin comes to big city, seeking to become the very essence of Japanese grace. Dogged determination in the face of stern opposition, derision and incompetence, yet with good-hearted support from unexpected quarters. Add the sumptuous lush colour of geisha, lovely settings ... and take every opportunity to burst into song ! The lead actress strikes just the right note of naïve sincerity, and the experienced supporting cast carry proceedings along with conviction, showing all the right touches of sorrow and joy.
Somewhat silly, as any good musical tends to be, Lady Maiko is moving and joyful, with a ripper of a closing number. Highly recommended.
Watashi no otoko (2014)
Dark & compelling
The premise and direction of the story seem, at first, to be a tease. A slightly wacky take on Lolita ? But things proceed to the grim. A take on Luc Besson's The Professional, or even Fatal Attraction ? The question of 'will they or won't they ?' sustains tension for the first half, but the loneliness and desperation of this curious pair carry things further. Much further, into territory where nothing is off-limits, not even murder.
The disturbing feel of My Man is further enhanced with surprising touches of gory horror which, although seemingly out-of-place, are striking and highly effective.
Not at all for the faint of heart, weak of stomach or the easily offended, My Man is voyeuristic and perverse, gripping from start to finish, and is practically guaranteed to leave you unsettled. Highly recommended.
Zakurozaka no adauchi (2014)
Master swordsman Shimura Kingo is charged with protecting the Shogun's chief minister, and fails. Forbidden from taking his own life, he is instead commanded to track down and kill the assassins. Only then will he be permitted an honourable death.
Events conspire against the quest. One by one, the assassins die before he can reach them, each time to the increasing frustration of Kingo and his lord. Worse, the times are changing rapidly. The Meiji Restoration makes swordsmen an embarrassing irrelevance.
Only one assassin remains at large. Even after the death of his lord, Kingo presses on.
Snow On The Blades is beautifully filmed and is a continuous joy to behold. The costumes and scenery are fantastic. The acting is on key and convincing, and the fight scenes superb.
SOTB does go on for a bit too long and drags a little along the way. The two male leads are simply marvellous and superbly well-matched, while the lovely Ryoko Hirosue provides stoic support as Kingo's true samurai wife.
Kuroi jûnin no onna (1961)
While not one of the master's great works, Ten Dark Women is well worth watching.
The B&W cinematography is creepy and strikes exactly the right tone. Awkward camera angles are suitably unsettling. The women, especially the main actresses, are lit to near-perfection, and they look great.
The groovy bass-dominated background music, in a classic 60s emblematic style, is simply superb. Where can I find this soundtrack ? Although the premise is outrageous, the story is easily involving enough to suspend disbelief. The dark mood is established from the first shot and never lets go. That said, the final third of TDW tends to the ridiculous and does run out of puff.
One can't help but envy Ichikawa. He got together a fine selection of Japan's loveliest stars, and coaxed from them disturbing and even frightening performances of women so scorned that they manage to plot murderous revenge, despite continuous in-fighting, justifiable mistrust and changing motives.
Ignore the naysayers. For its few faults, TDW is great offbeat entertainment.
Too much of the ordinary
I see from the other reviews that TT was adapted from a successful TV series and is autobiographical of a well-known Japanese author. In that case, the central problem with TT seems to be too much reverence for the material.
As a standalone movie, TT is way too long. It rambles and spends too much time on the ordinary details of life, therefore lacking pace and often feeling very depressing. For an international audience, this film could perhaps be cut by as much as half without losing its essence.
On the plus side, the performances are sincere, with the standout being the great character actress Kiki Kirin as the very long-suffering mother. Sentimentally, I have given TT an extra point for being largely set in northern Kyushu, which is where my late wife was born and raised. This area, well-known for coal mining, is one of Japan's rural backwaters, and the young Masaya's strong desire to escape is entirely understandable.
There are many funny and warm moments, though more of the first 3/4 is depressing, ordinary or just plain dull. The final quarter is much tighter and more involving, although still too drawn out.
Ukikusa monogatari (1934)
Remade for good reason
Ozu remade this movie 25 years later. I saw the remake first, and it is a sumptuous masterpiece. I had wondered why Ozu had chosen to remake, so I looked forward to seeing the original, though with some trepidation. The original is a lovely film, but it is no match for the remake.
Ozu is a director of assurance and confidence, coaxing from his actors exactly what he wants. ASOFW is a simple and fairly straightforward tale of a dissolute man who leads a troupe around Japan at a time when life was hard. He puts himself in the, for Japanese men, highly shameful position of accepting the hospitality of his old flame, partly to spend time with his son, whose paternity has been kept secret by common consent.
It is difficult for me to consider A Story Of Floating Weeds on its own merits, and I will not even attempt to do so. The remake flows smoothly and looks simply glorious. ASOFW seems to have been sketched in comparison. And some of the apparent 'jumps' do not quite make sense. Whereas the leader's decision to dissolve the troupe makes clear sense in the remake, it appears whimsical at best in ASOFW.
In short, if you have the choice, watch ASOFW first, then prepare to be blown away by the glory of the remake.
Få meg på, for faen (2011)
Too much like the dull small town
Yet another example of "great ingredients poorly cooked".
The first reviewer pretty much nailed it. While I don't think the acting was all that bad, the boredom and relentless dullness of small-town 'life' pervades the mood to far too great an extent, utterly flattening the occasional moments of lightness and humour.
The lead actress is compelling, and her situation all too clearly elucidated. But notwithstanding a few outbursts at her mother, Alma is such a doormat. And she had every opportunity to encourage Artur, but failed to take them.
Anyone who grew up in an isolated small town could certainly relate to the situation. For me, there needed to be more humour and light relief to distract from the grinding dullness, which was much too realistic.
Alma manages to find a group of people, away from her small-town schoolmates, who lighten the mood. There should have been much more of this in the film, and it may have been bearable.
Honestly, more nudity and fewer 'strong sex scenes' (which were fairly muted) would have made TMOG more bearable. Perhaps in the sequel ?
Yokomichi Yonosuke (2013)
Funny for Japanese, otherwise puzzling
I found A Story Of Yonosuke striking, but for entirely the wrong reason. Put simply, ASOY is a case study in culture-specific humour, and is far more interesting to consider in this manner than as a light comedy biopic epic.
It was an effort to sit through nearly two and a half hours of this. Not that it was all that dull, but the laughs are mostly silly giggles, and there are often long stretches between laughs where not a lot happens. The narrative is structured as an epic, spanning sixteen years, told from several different viewpoints, with multiple flashbacks which sometimes confuse and irritate. This epic scale is stunningly at odds with the lightly comic examination of the life of one foolish man, and how he affected the lives of those he befriended.
The title character is presented like a younger version of Tora-san, a fool who stumbles through life with a sunny view of things, strongly projecting that quality much admired by Japanese, 'genki' (difficult to translate – a combination of lively, positive, optimistic, energetic). The laughter starts when he tells his name. Nearly everyone in the film giggles at the mention of his name. The Japan Film Festival audience was sharply divided on this. Japanese audience members got the joke, but we gaijin (foreigners) sat there po-faced and puzzled, until one of the characters thoughtfully explained that the alliteration of the name was the funny part.
Alliteration seems to have a more specific definition in Japanese. That his name is Yokomichi Yonosuke is what cracked up the characters and the Japanese audience. An English equivalent, such as Adam Addison, just doesn't do it for us. Not that Japanese names aren't funny to us. Any name including Fuk or Yuk, or the name Aso, can trigger more than giggles.
Perhaps this is the Japanese equivalent of rhyming names in English. Ridiculously contrived rhymes such as Richard Pritchard or Katie Tate are practically guaranteed to amuse. Japanese songs hardly ever rhyme. Indeed, it seems they are constructed to avoid rhyming at all costs. Odd, considering that the language has a much greater potential for rhyming (and punning) than English.
So, Japanese dislike rhymes but Westerners find them amusing. Japanese are amused by alliteration, but Westerner only raise an eyebrow at best.
We evidently have a clear difference between the humour of Japanese and Westerners. ASOY rests totally on this humour, which is why I found watching the movie a test of endurance more than a comedy. If ever ASOY were given a wider release, I heartily recommend shortening it by at least one hour, and I do not think the story will suffer for it.
The Japan Film Festival website classified this year's movies into a number of categories. I am puzzled that they failed to apply the category "Only In Japan" to ASOY.
There are a few bright spots. Yonosuke woos a rich girl. He feels very out-of-place in her mansion. There are several scenes where he has awkward dates, which are only semi-explicably always watched over by the family chambermaid. This actress never speaks, but when the camera cuts to her for a reaction, her expressions are simply hilarious. This is a combination of excellent editing and superb comic timing. Pity there wasn't more of this.
The ending is very puzzling. There is no explanation, stated or implied, as to why things worked out this way. For such an unnecessarily long journey, which examines Yonosuke's effect on a number of people and his near-relentless cheerfulness in exhausting detail, I expected something better, to not be left hanging. But I suspect that, like the humour, only the Japanese would ever truly get it.
Hajimari no michi (2013)
Crisis of confidence for young director
Kinoshita has directed his first film for Shochiku, so all should be well. But in 1944, the Armed Forces and the War Cabinet are worried. The war is clearly being lost, and censorship is getting tighter. Despite his film, called simply The Army, being strongly patriotic and stirring, the Army censors criticized the closing sequence for showing a woman crying freely while her son proudly marches off to war. Kinoshita is told that he will not be allowed to make another film because of this pressure. His boss wants him to stay on, and wait out the ban, but Kinoshita leaves anyway, proud and hurt.
He returns to his village at the worst possible time. The American bombing raids are closing in on even his rather remote village. The family must evacuate. Problem is, their mother is too ill to travel by bus on the bumpy roads. Kinoshita and his brother resolve to carry their mother in a litter over the mountains on foot. Assisted by a young porter, they set out for the hard journey.
Most of the movie is the hardships of the journey and the long conversations between the young men. Kinoshita is compelled to consider and defend his decisions, and challenged to return to movie-making.
Apart from a number of crises (such as pouring rain and bombing from the air), the pace is fairly gentle though always involving and never dull. The lead actors do a creditable job, but Yuko Tanaka as the literally long-suffering mother is simply stunning. And she is all the more impressive for saying not a word until her final scene, when she struggles to convince Kinoshita to go back to his dream.
The mountain scenery is also lovely to look at, and the camera-work is gorgeous. I did find some of the dialogue and characterization rather too neat and lacking in credibility. For instance, the porter chats with Kinoshita about seeing his film, the Army, unaware that he is addressing the director himself (Kinoshita does not tell the boy, as much out of shame as anything else). The porter gives him a rapturous review, reinforcing his vision of how he thought local audiences would react. This looks very much like dramatic license and seems unlikely to have happened so neatly and succinctly.
Considering the stature of Kinoshita, who started at the same time as Kurosawa and his contemporary in every respect, this story may appear to have been an oddly trivial episode to make into full-length feature. After all, his great body of work all came after this time. However, Dawn Of A Filmmaker is a lovely and affectionate film, and tries earnestly to shine a light on the views, life experience and tribulations of this great artist.
DOAF ends with a clips from most of his movies, and makes me all the keener to seek out his harder-to-find efforts.
Highly recommended for anyone who loves Japanese film, whether you are yet to see a Kinoshita masterpiece or, like me, are a firm and committed fan.
Sakura, futatabi no Kanako (2013)
The outstanding film I saw at this year's Japanese Film Festival, Orpheus's Lyre is a grand showcase for the star. Ryoko Hirosue is riveting as Yoko, the woman living any mother's worst nightmare, the death of a young daughter, and in extreme and long-term denial.
Although the situation is universal, Japanese mourning rituals are given solid coverage. The 49th day after death is considered crucial, as the date at which the soul passes from this world to the next and, therefore, the date from when the living are expected to get on with life.
But Yoko doesn't move on. The ache of the loss that simply won't heal takes an awful toll on her husband and friends, who try doggedly and unsuccessfully to help her move on, and to guide her away from the misguided and damaging belief that daughter Kanako's spirit has entered another living child.
The supporting cast do a fine job, but rarely do they manage to take attention away from R. This is a star vehicle par excellence. Highly recommended.
Te o tsunagu kora (1948)
Rosy childhood memories
Oh, if only the school bully could be so easily turned in real life.
The great Ryu Chishu stars as a kindly and even indulgent teacher, who seems rather at odds with the strict and regimented school atmosphere at the time in Japan. He seems the ideal supporter for a backward boy, Kanta, whose parents are new arrivals in the town. The teacher encourages his boys to treat the new lad well, and Kanta gradually shows hidden talents, such as being able to make perfectly spherical clay balls.
But the arrival of another new boy, Kinzo, heralds change. Kinzo is a clever bully who ruthlessly manipulates Kanta and makes much fun of him. The teacher refuses to discipline Kinzo, instead insisting that things will work out well.
Much of the narrative covers the developing relationship between these two boys. The cruelty that children wreak on each other is shown in excruciating detail, and I found it hard to watch the backward Kanta allow himself to be continually put upon by the scheming Kinzo.
Kanta even helps out when Kinzo stuffs up, just as the teacher predicted. Thus, Children Hand In Hand manages to combine the gritty reality of poor schools in post-war Japan with an unbelievably optimistic picture of faith in man's good nature triumphing over baser instincts.
In short, very watchable and never dull, though rather hard to credit. I saw a fairly good print of this film at this year's Japanese Film Festival here in Sydney. One rather credible Japanese audience member asked, without irony, if it were a true story. I stated that it was very unlikely, as I had never seen a school bully so readily turned.
Shushoku sensen ijonashi (1991)
Good-natured nudge at J jobseeking
You think you got problems finding a job as a new graduate ? Be thankful you're not in this rat race. Being born and raised Japanese doesn't seem to be much help for the too-eager stumblebum Takeo. He and his college chums are treated to a bewildering array of corporate tactics, tricks and inducements, and they often fall into traps, though not always set for them.
Big corporations allow students to ferociously compete for places in mock interviews, then tease applicants about the interviews being real, and carefully note their reactions. Smaller businesses are desperate for highly qualified talent, and try all manner of tricks and rewards, up to and including group kidnapping.
Both employ a curious concept known as 'unofficial appointments'. Larger corporations use them to tease and test, while the smaller companies use them as a trick to lure graduates away to them.
One of the lady students is asked to give her 'three sizes' (vital statistics) by an old salaryman who is clearly out-of-touch.
Takeo is generally good-humoured about being continually frustrated and spun around like this, maintaining his all-important 'genki' (roughly, 'I will be strong'), though he does make the mistake of drunkenly punching his intended new boss at a bar one night, then sweats it out when the man is his lead interviewer the following day. One of many running jokes is Takeo's continuing failure to flag down taxis. When he finally manages to catch one, is it a tantalizing hint that his luck has changed ? All through the confusion, two women vie for Takeo's affection : A childhood friend who has never refused his calls for help, and an ambitious career woman who helps him negotiate the recruitment process in the company of the man he drunkenly punched.
The pace clips along nicely, and the comedy is mostly gentle nugding. The similar and later Star Reformer (2006, also starring Yuji Oda) is a shade better, though this one is pretty good entertainment too.
Frustrating to begin with
The first half of Kizuna is rather confusing and dull. Most puzzling of all, the first hour is not very well acted either. Koji Yakusho has been Japan's top actor for the past 20 years, and was already at the top of his game around this time, especially having starred in the international smash hit Shall We Dance two years earlier. The great Koji appears bored with the role, and the introduction of half a dozen other important characters, which should have enriched proceedings, becomes an exercise in head-shaking.
It perhaps doesn't help that Koji is playing a fairly unsympathetic character. The support actors seem to warm up faster than Koji, and are mostly fairly convincing by the half-way mark. Shortly after, Koji seems to switch on, fairly suddenly, and the movie dramatically improves as a result. The plot threads come together nicely, the pace quickens, the violence and gore increases (it was already pretty high !), nearly all the characters become more desperate as the pressure mounts.
If not quite gripping, the second half is highly watchable and the conclusion satisfying.
I can't honestly say what could be done to improve the first half of Kizuna, but I certainly would not have stuck with it, had there been a lesser actor in the lead. Therefore, if you are new to the great Koji, start with another of his many fine films, and catch up with Kizuna later.
Shiawase no kiiroi hankachi (1977)
Ken makes it watchable
This confection is hard to watch for the first twenty minutes. The loudmouth driver in the cowboy hat is particularly irritating, and the poor distracted girl he eventually persuades to take for a ride is only just tolerable. Things begin to settle in when the great Ken-san finally moseys on in (about 25 minutes in).
Another reviewer observes that Hokkaido is a co-star. The local tourist bureau could certainly use this movie as a promotional video, as the lovely scenery of Japan's frozen north is handsomely on display here. Frankly, it is about the only aspect of the movie that held my attention while waiting for Ken-san, and remained a considerable asset from then on.
In case there can be any doubt, I will state it clearly. Yes, I can see that the young couple are mainly in this story as a foil for Ken-san. But I still contend that they take up too much screen time, and the film could only have been improved if their parts had been substantially cut. For instance, the first twenty minutes could have been cut to five minutes or less with no appreciable loss.
I hardly need say that Takakura puts in a subtle and moving performance, for which he is justly famous. And the longer he is on screen, the more the young couple improve. By the end, they are almost bearable, and the cowboy has even managed to develop some gentleness. Better late than never.
Ken's character's past is gradually revealed, and though there are no surprises here, the journey is compelling and moving. Very sentimental but highly watchable.
Honoo no mai (1978)
My expectations were low for this movie, as I am not in the target audience (which is innocent teen J girls). Other Momoe movies I have seen were just bearable due to a decent support casts, but Dances Of Flame lacks even this.
In the 70s, J audiences couldn't get enough of Momoe and Tomo, who made a number of movies together, until they married in 1980 and Momoe left the public gaze for happy, normal and reportedly dull life with Tomo. Perhaps their popularity was part of the motivation to build a movie with them as very much the dominant presence. The support cast rarely gets a look in.
Even during Tomo's absences, Momoe's anguish keeps him in the forefront of the story. This seems to be what audiences hungered for, and perhaps they ignored or failed to notice just how unconvincing these two are as actors. Momoe was a teen singing sensation rather than an actress, though she can act ... a little, which is more than can be said for Tomo, who is widely (and correctly !) regarded as lacking charisma and talent.
There is odd stuff going on in the story which is never explained. For instance, Kiyono (Momoe) calls two different old women 'mother'. Also, the scene where Takuji (Tomo) first meets Kiyono contains a flashback, where she recalls taunting Takuji as a child ... yet they had only just met ?!
Despite being a couple in real life, these two fail to translate any real feeling onto the screen, resorting instead to overacting and histrionics. Perhaps Dances Of Flame would have been more watchable with better actors.
Flag In The Mist is evidently a very popular story, this version being a remake of Yoji Yamada's 1965 film, as well being made again as a TV series in 2010. Also, it is based on a novel by one of Japan's great writers. Seichô Matsumoto is a hard-working (450 novels !) and enormously popular writer, whose work ranges from pulp to first-rate. Dozens of his books have been filmed, some very successfully.
The star, Momoe Yamaguchi, was a 1970s sensation. Discovered on a talent show as a teen, she enjoyed dizzying popularity as a singer and movie star through the 70s, when she was considered Japan's darling. Then in 1980, she married Tomokazu Miura, her co-star, and dropped out of public sight.
The movies made by Momoe and Tomo were aimed squarely at young Japanese women. Highly melodramatic, replete with unbelievable situations and corny lines, though not by any means syrupy. Flag In The Mist is also loaded with corruption, deceit, the criminal underworld and violence.
FITM is a Momoe vehicle, par excellence. It allows Momoe to suffer, fume and plot. The film is made with solid production values and a generally great supporting cast.
If it isn't yet clear, let me spell it out. I am decidedly not in the target audience for this movie. Momoe and Tomo make a nice couple, but their deficiencies as actors are clearly on display. Momoe can act, though in a limited range, and nothing is done to stretch her; nor would her audience have expected her to. Even Tomo's fans admit that he can't act. His critics are scathing, noting that he possesses neither acting talent nor charisma.
Tomo happily admits this. He has a career only because he is "Mr Momoe". He continued to act (or pretend to !) after Momoe retired, staying determinedly quiet about their private life (happy and very quiet, verging on dull) until a couple of years ago when, according to a Japan Times article, he revealed some details upon the release of a biopic. Momoe's still-loyal army of fans, who still buy her recordings in large numbers, lapped it up.
Judging by the story and writings about the other versions (I haven't read the book), the plot was adjusted to focus more on Momoe and Tomo. Even in this version, Tomo appears to be a fairly minor character who pushes his way in, rather than the romantic lead expected by the teenage audience.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I found no subtly in this movie. When the bar owner pleads for Kiriko to tell what she witnessed, she is hysterical, as she is in jail when Kiriko denies ever meeting her. Otsuka is a slimy, sleazy slob. It is tempting to suppose that these and other experienced support actors simply hammed it up, egged on by the director.
I found the hamming and lack of credibility hard to take. I enjoyed the references to and scenery of Kyushu. And despite this low rating, I will be watching a few more movies by Momoe and Tomo. Why ? Well, partly because they are available and with English subs, there might be some nice scenery, and perhaps for a few lashes of masochism.
W no higeki (1984)
Twaddle in any language
Japan has produced a lot of very good movies, but W's Tragedy is not one of them. I really cannot see what the other reviewers see in this simpering non-drama. Perhaps it is that I was not taken by the star's (lack of ?) cuteness, nor by the support cast of pretty-much unknowns.
Had W's Tragedy lacked English subtitles, I may have been tempted to cut it a bit more slack, citing lack of understanding of the nuances lost in lack of translation. But the story was clearly spelled out and explained, and it revealed ... nothing of consequence. One is tempted to snipe that the Tragedy is that this movie was released.
An obscure movie, and deservedly so.
Seidan botan-dôrô (1972)
So-so Roman Poruno
First up, a disclaimer : The DVD I watched had only Chinese subtitles, so there are certainly details that I missed. That said, it is doubtful there was much in the way of subtle detail here. Hellish Love is perhaps a misleading English title, although several of the characters certainly were dispatched to hell. Allusions to a ghost bride or ghost lover get closer to the story.
Whatever you call it, Hellish Love was one among many Roman (short for 'romance' !) Poruno (soft-porn) being released from the mid-60s onward, and Nikkatsu made them by the truckload. Hellish Love has a number of sex scenes, but they are mechanical at best, with ridiculous levels of mugging as a substitute for passion.
On the plus side, the colour scheme is gorgeous, and the cinematography is excellent. The women are pleasing to the eye without quite being stunning.
The story starts on a grim note and stays there much of the time. A consumptive lady struggles to reach shelter in a rainstorm, where she is handed an umbrella by a kind itinerant scholar. And if you think this is starting to sound like Tsui Hark's brilliant Chinese Ghost Story trilogy, you'd be right - they both eventually trace back to the same Chinese folk tale. Precisely how and why they become lovers is not clear (lack of English subs is telling), but the lady seems to belong to a jealous and cruel man.
My impression is that she starts ill and either dies or is killed violently, rather than being a ghost all along, but it is giving away no secrets that she does ghostly stuff around the middle of the movie - walking through walls and vanishing in the fog after spending the evening with the scholar.
Though things are generally grim, there is a couple of servants whose main task is comic relief. When the wife is not dragging her man onto the bedroll, they goggle at the ghosts' antics and run away screaming.
My research indicates that Roman Porunos tended to be short. Hellish Love clocks in at just 67 minutes, yet it felt longer, even when I started fast-forwarding *through* the sex scenes.
There's no-one famous here, so interest only as a curiosity.
Nihon kyôkaku-den (1964)
Historical setting livens up standard yakuza yarn
Takakura and Nakamura made hundreds of yakuza-themed flicks and they can be depended upon to make them watchable. This one is just a little unusual, in that it is set not in the present day or the old samurai days, but in the late Meiji period, where Western influences are just starting on the fringes.
The dull title bothers me. The Japanese Yakuza is a direct translation of the original title. It looks as though they finished the script and couldn't be bothered calling it something more specific, perhaps like Battle Of The Teamsters, for the setting is about the only thing that sets this movie apart from any gangster melodrama. It is just one more indication of a fairly small production budget.
There are surprises. Takakura's character returns after a long break to a gang in disarray, perhaps due to the death of the old man. Surely the gang members would resent him stepping into the underboss position. Instead, they literally beg him to accept the position. The yakuza members know and clearly respect him, but he needs guidance in the yakuza way, which he seeks from Nakamura's character. So he was well-known to them, but not previously a member of the gang, and he reluctantly steps in as an underboss. Very odd.
Although Takakura was at the top of his game in the mid-60s, this movie is by no means a star vehicle. Nakamura claims as much screen time, and the story gives quite a number of the support characters decent attention as well. So we have a top star appearing in a low-budget nearly ensemble piece. Odd.
The rival gang seems to represent Western Influences. They act with dishonour by offering cheap labour, breaking an age-old agreement to treat their long-suffering workers with a modicum of respect. Takakura asserts his new authority by barging into a negotiating session of the bosses, giving a speech about honour and the old ways. But the rival gang stir up trouble and play dirty tricks, so fights with fists and knives of course break out.
Almost by definition, overacting is hard to avoid in a yakuza picture. While cool calculation has its place, punks join and stay in the yakuza to be hotheads. Their women exhort them to Be A Man, so if things don't get feverish often, it just ain't a gangster flick. Nevertheless, performances are solid and believable.
The Japanese Yakuza is an obscure and rare film, and I thank The Japan Foundation for giving it a screening. That said, it is a competent outing and no more than that. Takakura and Nakamura make it worth watching, but it ain't no classic.
Onna kyûketsuki (1959)
A very confused vampire
They do things differently in Japan, even vampires. This one transforms by the full moon (perhaps his father was a werewolf), is unaffected by the holy cross (it is worn by a couple of his undead women) and is visible in mirrors. And his doesn't seem a big fan of blood either. In a scene where he and his incompetent evil dwarf create panic in a bar alley, he bites six women on the neck, but tosses them aside immediately.
The first two reviewers seem to have taken this cheapie too seriously. It is grand, silly fun. The vampire hams it up to the hilt, and seems to lack only a loud and villainous evil laugh. He's a snappy dresser too.
The story starts at a birthday party where everyone is on their best behaviour, after going to an exhibition, where a girl finds her mother as a topless model in a painting. But things go downhill after the birthday girl cuts her finger as well as the cake. But though rich, the family has strange stuff going on. Twenty years ago, mother wandered off during a holiday in Kyushu, entranced by a snappily-dressed painter.
Mother doesn't seem to have aged one day in that time, but her husband seems to have aged at least 40 years. I had to check several times who the characters were. Itsuko's mother looks more like her sister, and dad looks like granddad.
Due to the lack of English subtitles, a few details eluded me. For instance, why the vampire didn't bother to bite Itsuko or her mum, and why he dramatically showed his age at the end. But the rest of the story was pretty easy to follow. There is plenty of action, and the pace is brisk. The kabuki section mentioned in another review only lasts a couple of minutes and makes no real difference.
I found the menagerie of wacky characters delightful, even the bald mute muscleman who wielded a blunderbus ! This movie is measurably better than Black Cat Mansion. Relax and get carried along for this ride.
Anata e (2012)
Beautiful meditation on life and marriage
This is Ken Takakura's 205th movie, and he's as good as ever. Japan's Clint Eastwood just keeps on giving.
Ken plays a senior prison officer who hands in his resignation to fulfil his wife's last wish : to have her ashes scattered at sea in her home town, some 1200 km away. Ken's boss won't accept the resignation, instead insisting that it be vacation leave. To keep him focused, his wife had letters sent to him after her death, secretly via a friend. Ken will only be able to read her final letter after scattering the ashes.
So Ken sets off in a campervan, encountering memorable characters and reflecting on his happy marriage. He changes lives and is changed. Ken is riveting, playing the part with warmth, humility and just enough clumsiness to make him real. The cast is uniformly excellent, the pace of the story gentle but never too slow, the plot compelling till the final frames. Sentimental without being sugary.
Hikinige Family (1992)
Dark satire on modern Japanese family
Poor Motomura-san. Things are less than wonderful in his home life and, on the way home, a sudden rainstorm and a failed attempt to light a cigarette while driving lead him to run over a young cyclist. He wants to give himself up, but his wife convinces him that he'll lose everything if he does. So they bring the dented car into the loungeroom and get to work, systematically scrapping it. Once the viewer accepts the premise, which is skilfully sold by the sincerity of the actors, this dark farce is involving and compelling all the way. Of course, things have to go wrong and people need to pry. The nosy neighbour is strongly modelled on Gladys Kravitz from Bewitched, and her snooping ways keep the family on edge until they take even more drastic action. While the film is generally played for laughs, the plot skips along at a fine pace and is helped along by a series of well-placed shocks. Once again, it was a pleasure to see the Japan Foundation screen such a rare treat on film and, as this one does not appear to have been released on DVD, even in Japan, will probably be a true once-off. And a wicked delight it was too.
Perhaps a bit too earnest
This film is basically a straight retelling of the true story of a schoolgirl's journey along the nightmare road of radiation sickness, and her determination to not give into the sadness of it all. Sadako became a national icon in Japan in the mid-50s, and her story appears to have done much for the cause of peace and against war. The lead actress does a fine job of portraying the doomed girl, whose fate is never in doubt, but who keeps the story moving at a pace which, though leisurely, is always involving and sometime heart-rending. This is by no means a subtle film. The moral and the message are driven home with a sledgehammer, the ending in particular. But this is no bad thing, and it is a message which, delivered through a simple story from a very personal viewpoint, is sure to stay with you.
Sêrâ-fuku to kikanjû (1981)
Nice idea, but ..
What a shame. The only good thing about this deservedly obscure cheapie is the idea. To work properly, a comic caper like this one needs plenty of action, well-measured pace, strategic shots of comedy, and at least some sympathy for the characters. Above all, timing is critical. Perhaps the biggest flaw is the timing is simply not good enough. There are long introspective segments which do not add to the story, separating the too-few action sequences. When the fighting starts, it usually does not make a lot of sense, and jarrs rather than thrills. There is some character-based comedy, but the film is so poorly pieced together that the pathetic gangsters rarely raise a chuckle.
The direction is sloppy at best. The script needs work. The pacing is completely off. And the actors are, frankly, not very good.
A sad misfire.