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Drunken Angel (1948) September 30, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Drama, Film Noir, 1940s films , add a comment

Director: Akira Kurosawa  Starring: Takashi Shimura; Toshiro Mifune; Reisaburô Yamamoto  Territory: Japan

A drunken doctor, a young nihilistic thug, and a slimy, disease-ridden bomb crater.  Those are the main ingredients for Kurosawa’s 1948 crime drama and the first of sixteen times the director would work with Toshiro Mifune.

Shimura is Sanada, the alcoholic doctor who tends to the wounded yakuza Matsunaga (Mifune).  Their tempestuous relationship begins when Matsunaga goes to the physician to have a gunshot wound treated on the quiet.  When the doctor suspects the thug has TB, Matsunaga scoffs and feigns total disinterest.  Sanada, who drinks diluted medical alcohol when saké isn’t available, is reminded of himself when he looks at the young tough, and tries to save him from the disease, and more importantly, from himself. 

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Matsunaga’s nihilism and self-destructive tendencies are a prototype for several Hollywood characters thrust upon the world in later films.  Although Mifune’s sickness make-up may be overdone, his performance never is.  He snarls, sneers and proudly proclaims “I’m not afraid of death.  I’ll die any day,” while secretly being terrified of death.  However, it’s the brilliant Shimura that shines once again.  He seemed able to handle any role with the greatest of ease and credibility.  His sympathetic but flawed doctor is a character that will linger in the memory long after the film finishes.

With its fantastic performances, haunting guitar score, brilliant photography and engaging script, Drunken Angel is a fine example of Kurosawa’s early work, and still makes for a riveting watch today.

Throne of Blood (1957) September 28, 2010

Posted by Cal in : War, 1950s films, Jidaigeki , 4 comments

Director: Akira Kurosawa  Starring: Toshiro Mifune; Minoru Chiaki; Isuzu Yamada  Territory: Japan

My literary tastes are more Stephen King than William Shakespeare, but even I recognised more famous elements of Macbeth in Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood.  Kurosawa transplants the Bard’s tragedy to feudal Japan – something he would do again years later with King Lear for Ran.

Dripping with atmosphere, Throne of Blood is a heavy, plodding affair rather than a swift-moving thrill ride.  In fact, for the first hour and a half, all the action occurs off-screen.  That’s not a criticism, you understand – the slow pacing makes the later events all the more shocking and impressive, and I’m all for a bit of delayed-gratification when it comes to Kurosawa films. 

Throne of Blood 

For those unfamiliar with the story, General Washizu (Toshiro Mifune, of course), along with his good friend Miki (Minoru Chiaki) lead their army from certain defeat to a rousing victory.  On their way back to their fortress, they encounter a spirit that predicts that one day, Washizu will rule over the entire kingdom, eventually being succeeded by Miki’s son.  Washizu, a loyal and unambitious servant of the lord scoffs at the prophesy, but his wife Asaji (an ultra creepy Isuzu Yamada) starts to sow the seeds of power into Washizu’s mind, and the prophesy starts coming true.  However, Washizu finds that fate and destiny are slippery and misleading things.

From the opening shot of a castle being slowly revealed through dense fog (a theme that recurs during the film) to the frankly astonishing climax (yes, they’re real arrows), Throne of Blood is essential Kurosawa and essential Mifune.  What’s more, the film is definitely improved by repeated viewings, when things that passed you by first time get a chance to sink in.  Brilliant.

The Tale of Zatoichi (1962) September 21, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Action, 1960s films, Jidaigeki , 5 comments

Director: Kenji Misume  Starring: Shintaro Katsu; Shigeru Amachi; Ryuzo Shimada  Territory: Japan

Nineteen years into my love affair with East Asian films and I’ve just got around to Zatoichi, one of the most famous characters in the swordsman-with-something-wrong-with-them subgenre of martial arts thriller. 

The Tale of Zatoichi is the first of many films featuring Ichi (to give him his proper name – “Zato” is a kind of title) as the blind masseuse who is also a dab hand with a blade.  Employed as a heavy by a yakuza gang on the brink of war with a rival gang, Ichi (Shintaro Katsu) is drawn to his opposite number Hirate (Shigeru Amachi), a fellow swordsman living by a similar code of honour but who is working for the gang Ichi’s been hired to wipe out. 

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The surprise to me is how little action occurs during the vast majority of the film.  Rather, The Tale of Zatoichi is a dramatic character study of two honourable men who are doomed to fight to the death on the whim of intellectual inferiors whether they want to or not.

The relationship between Ichi and the ailing Hirate (who is plagued by consumption) is an unusual one.  To my mind, there definitely seems to be a strong sexual tension there, as seen in their curiously stilted and awkward dialogue and their mutual admiration, although Ichi trotting out the eternal pickup line “come here often?” when the pair first meet on a riverbank is probably unintentional.  I’m not normally sensitive to this (for instance, as far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing in least bit gay about the films of Chang Cheh*) but I just could not overlook the homoerotic overtones of this film and can only conclude that the pair are hopelessly in love with each other.  Of course, this only makes the fact that they have to fight to the death even more tragic – Edo-period man-love must have been pretty hard to come by.

Anyway, sexual issues aside, The Tale of Zatoichi is one of those classic action movies that I’m getting increasingly fond of as I grow older.  It’s not too quickly paced to allow an old-timer to get confused, looks all nice in classic black and white, and is a must for anyone who gets teary-eyed at tales of honour and sacrifice.  Yep, that’s me all over.

*Except for perhaps this one.

City of Life and Death (2009) September 17, 2010

Posted by Cal in : War, 2000s films , add a comment

Director: Lu Chuan  Starring: Fan Wei; Nakaizumi Hideo; Gao Yuan-Yuan  Territory: China

city.jpgIn 2005, Japan published textbooks playing down the scale of destruction their country inflicted upon Nanking (the former capital of China now known as Nanjing), leading to a flare up of hostility between the citizens of the two nations.  City of Life and Death tells the story of “the Rape of Nanking”, in which 300,000 innocent Chinese perished at the hands of a brutal military regime.

Of course, this being 2009 (at least it was when the film was made) and with the Chinese government evidently not wanting to fan the flames any further, there are some concessions to the old enemy – the story is partly told through the eyes of a young idealistic Japanese soldier called Kadokawa (Nakaizumi Hideo).  When Kadokawa accidentally kills a group of civilians at the start of the movie, his conscience begins to trouble him, and as he sees more atrocities, his innocence is lost forever. 

The film prefers to leave the brutal military largely faceless, instead concentrating on the victims and those trying to stop the massacre.  One of which is German businessman John Rabe (John Paisley), a full member of the Nazi party but who, it has to be said, was a thoroughly decent man, even using his Nazi credentials to try to halt the slaughter (try to get your head around that).

City of Life and Death is a very well made film, but it flies too close to cliché in its characterisation, script and even visual style (it’s all in black and white).  Furthermore, director Lu Chuan uses on-screen postcards to update the viewer on events between scenes – a very clumsy and detracting device indeed (not to mention that fact that some of the cards are extremely hard to read).  There’s no doubting that the film’s subject is extremely horrific, but the cumulative effect is numbing.  There is only so much suffering you can watch without becoming unaffected by what you see – which may be why such atrocities are possible in the first place.  That being said, the victory dance through the ruined city of Nanking is truly chilling. 

Although it may never be possible to know for sure the extent of the devastation of Nanking, one only has to look at the documented facts of other atrocities to realise that the events depicted in City of Life and Death are only too plausible.

City of Life and Death is released on Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK on 27th September.  Pre-order your copy here.

14 Blades (2010) September 13, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Wuxia, 2010s films , add a comment

Director: Daniel Lee  Starring: Donnie Yen; Vicky Zhao Wei; Kate Tsui  Territory: Hong Kong

I often think Donnie Yen must have made a deal with the devil – there he was making a small but respectable name for himself churning out decent movies in the Hong Kong action movie industry in the 80s before slipping off the radar in the mid-90s (Circus Kids, anyone?) and drifting into obscurity.  However, the noughties proved to be a stellar decade with the Don coming back looking exactly the same as he did in his heyday and with the moves to match.

14 Blades is a Wuxia Pian starring Yen as troubled warrior guard Qinglong, one of the few still loyal to an Emperor usurped by an evil eunuch.  Qinglong is betrayed by his own men and has to employ the help of an Escort service (meaning fighters who protect him from harm, not professional ladies of the night) to help him escape his enemies, forging a bond with the leader’s daughter Qiao Hua (Vicky Zhao Wei). 

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It turns out that Qinglong killed his brother as a youngster (on purpose, surprisingly) and has been troubled about it ever since.  Cue lots of navel-gazing moodiness from Yen and lots of emotion-wrenching scenes as he falls for the lovely Qiao Hua.  However, the main emotion likely to be experienced by the viewer is total befuddlement, because unfortunately 14 Blades is almost entirely incomprehensible.  It’s not exactly complex, but it has a habit of introducing characters out of nowhere with little or no explanation and expecting us to care about them.

Admittedly, the sword fights are nicely diverting, but the indifferent CGI special effects let the side the down.  And although the supporting cast is a heaven for Hong Kong movie geeks, featuring many stars that I’d assumed had retired or died years ago (and a legless Sammo Hung), the film never settles down into any kind of rhythm, and the muddled narrative means that 14 Blades never rises above mediocrity.

Scandal (1950) September 8, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Drama, 1950s films , 1 comment so far

Director: Akira Kurosawa  Starring: Toshiro Mifune; Takashi Shimura; Yoshiko Yamaguchi  Territory: Japan

A scandal erupts when a paparazzi photographer engineers a shot of a famous singer together in a hotel room with an enterprising artist.  The publication of the photo, along with an entirely contrived sordid backstory, threatens to ruin the careers of those concerned.  That is, until Aoye (Toshiro Mifune) hires one of the few practicing lawyers in Japan, Hiruta (Takashi Shimura).

It shouldn’t be the case that a film made sixty years ago should seem so topical, but the fact remains that if you wanted to do a remake today, you wouldn’t have to change an awful lot.  The theme of media intrusion (something Kurosawa was a victim to himself) is as relevant today as it was then.

Lust on Two Wheels

Kurosawa again teams Mifune up with Shimura, and again it’s a winning combination, and Toshiko Yamaguchi is solid as the beautiful singer caught up in the sordid scandal.  The film’s subplot revolves around the artist’s relationship with the mischievous but (ultimately) good-natured lawyer, and I just loved the latter’s office perched atop an office block. 

Although the movie lapses into cheap sentimentality and melodrama and occasionally meanders off subject, Kurosawa wrangles enough intrigue and likeability out of the characters to keep the viewer interested.  The attitudes of the time and the culture may surprise a little at times (the singer is considered a whore for allowing a man into her hotel room) but this only helps the viewer to empathise more with the pair at the centre of the slurs.  However, I must admit to feeling slightly unsure of their feelings towards each other, especially towards the end of the movie.

But the oddest thing has got to be the Christmas scenes.  Seeing Toshiro Mifune singing Auld Lang Syne is just plain weird.  Nevertheless, Scandal is a compelling watch despite not being an obvious career best for either the director or star.

Stray Dog (1949) September 6, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Drama, Thriller, Film Noir, 1940s films , 6 comments

Director: Akira Kurosawa  Starring: Toshiro Mifune; Takashi Shimura; Keiko Awaji  Territory: Japan

Every so often you see a film that so amazes that you think about it for days.  For me, Stray Dog is such a film.  Showing post-war Japanese society in a frank and non-melodramatic way, Kurosawa’s tale of a homicide detective Murakami (Toshiro Mifune) searching for his stolen weapon as it is used across the city is a masterpiece of film noir.

It was a shock for me to see just how westernised Japan and its inhabitants were in this film – although it should be noted that the trend towards western fashions had started some time before the outbreak of the war.  In particular, American movies were popular, and this shows in almost every scene (and indeed, the soundtrack) of Stray Dog

Stray Dog

Mifune – who looks incredibly young in this – gives a great performance of the guilt-ridden detective.  Other frequent Kurosawa collaborator Takashi Shimura also shines as Sato, Murakami’s friend and mentor.  The two have a great on-screen chemistry together, and it’s no wonder that Kurosawa’s films from this period usually have either or both in starring roles.  Also of note to fans of Kurosawa is the screen debut of Minoru Chiaki, another actor who would go on to feature in several of the director’s films, as the uncouth manager of a jazz nightclub.

The film deals with the disillusionment of those who returned from the war and the changing of attitudes between Sato and the “post-war generation” of Murakami, and works on so many levels.  Not least as a thriller, a film noir detective story and a fascinating insight into post-war Japan.  Essential viewing.

Battle Royale (2000) September 2, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Thriller, 2000s films , 6 comments

Director: Kinji Fukasaku  Starring: Tatsuya Fujiwara; Aki Maeda; Takeshi Kitano  Territory: Japan

Based on the novel of the same name by Koushun Takami (which is, incidentally, excellent), Battle Royale takes place in the near future where schoolchildren are so unruly that every year, one class is selected at random, put on an island and left to murder each other until only one remains.

The preposterous premise is somehow pulled off by an occasional tongue-in-cheek attitude and a liberal dose of black humour.  Kinji Fukasaku is more assured in this than in any other film I’ve seen of his, and the ensemble cast is excellent.  Particular mention must go to Takeshi Kitano as the insane but surprisingly sympathetic teacher.  He is portrayed as a lonely, tragic character who somehow manages to win over the viewer despite murdering two schoolchildren at the start of the film. <!–[endif]–>

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Battle Royale is a tense, tight film, although it’s clear from the first that Nanahara (Tatsuya Fujiwara) is going to at least stick around to the final few.  The breakneck pace never lets up, and there’s hardly a moment going by without at least one poor child meeting its maker in a bizarre and usually gory way (my favourite sequence contains a bunch of girls in a lighthouse).

Of course, the film’s fame and reputation means that this review is largely pointless.  If you’re reading this, you’ve probably already seen it.  But if you haven’t, then do so.  Just avoid the sequel – it’s awful.

Shogun’s Samurai (1978) September 1, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Uncategorized, Action, 1970s films, Jidaigeki , add a comment

Director: Kenji Fukasaku  Starring: Hiroki Matsukata; Teruhiko Saigo; Sonny Chiba; Etsuko Shihomi  Territory: Japan

Notable for being the only film in history to have more than one million people named in the opening credits*, this film (which is also more accurately called Intrigue of the Yagyu Clan) is a feudal-era tale of backstabbing, warring brothers vying for the role of Shogun following the sudden and suspicious death of their father.

Epic and not a little confusing, Shogun’s Samurai is not a film to dip in and out of.  The ensemble cast is indeed massive, and features the legendary Toshiro Mifune in a relatively minor role.  The movie’s greatest strength is the character development, and the fact that you genuinely don’t know who is going to take the seat of power in the end.

Shogun's Samurai

But a rather unfair comparison springs to mind about halfway through and sadly just doesn’t go away: Kurosawa would have done it better.  Although being sub-Kurosawa (but what isn’t?), Shogun’s Samurai is more than worthy of a viewing.  I would have liked a tighter script with the trimming of a few of the more minor characters, but there is still much to recommend about the movie.  Not least Sonny Chiba running around in an eye patch cutting people up left, right and centre.  Oh yes…

*This is not true, but it certainly feels like it.

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