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Late Spring (1949) March 6, 2011

Posted by Cal in : Drama, 1940s films , 1 comment so far

Director: Yasujiro Ozu  Main cast: Setsuko Hara; Chishu Ryu  Territory: Japan

Noriko (Setsuko Hara) is 27 years old and unmarried, a fact that is beginning to trouble her father, Professor Somiya (Chishu Ryu).  He sets out to match her with a suitor, much against Noriko’s own wishes, who only wants to be by her father’s side.

It is, I suppose, somewhat difficult to see what the big deal is about the central issue surrounding Late Spring.  Over sixty years old, the film is more than a couple of generations away from being strictly relevant.  But that is also missing the point – Late Spring is a film about family, love and sacrifice, and is told in a gentle and charming way.

late-spring.jpg 

The main characters, and Noriko in particular, are a little quirky and at first difficult to get to grips with.  Even in her own generation, she seems rather old-fashioned – surprisingly telling an uncle of hers that he is impure because he remarried following a divorce.  Nevertheless, her naivety and likeability does start to show through, and the bond between her and her father is touching.

This bond can seem rather unenlightened to today’s audiences – Dr Somiya often appears to treat his daughter like a servant or personal assistant, but again, this relationship needs to be seen in the context of its generation and the culture of the nation that spawned it.  In fact, Noriko’s father laments to her later that he is ashamed of hanging on to her for so long and not setting her free to an uncertain fate in marriage.

Ozu tells the tale with warm humour, although I occasionally found his use of the camera difficult to get comfortable with - he was known for placing the camera very low to the ground, and the results are remarkably different from conventional camerawork.  I often found this intruded on my viewing experience, but I do have to admit that some other shots, such as the train sequence, are excellent.  This is the first film I’ve seen from this director, and inevitably I drew comparisons to one of my heroes, Akira Kurosawa.  It’s a little unfair to do so, but Ozu’s film stands up as an excellent film in any case, and it seems clear that he was able to shoot a female protagonist better than Kurosawa.

I watched this on the Region B BFI Blu-ray, and it has to be said, it was a bit of a bargain.  The BD comes with Ozu’s first talkie, The Only Son, another disc with both films on DVD, and a nice little booklet with essays on both films.  As you may expect, there is a lot of wear to the print, but some of the exterior shots are staggeringly sharp, and a quick comparison with the DVD shows a remarkable difference.  If you’re a fan of the director’s work, it’s definitely worth picking this up – even if you don’t yet own a Blu-ray player.

Sanshiro Sugata Part 2 (1945) November 23, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Action, 1940s films, Jidaigeki , 2 comments

Director: Akira Kurosawa  Starring: Susumu Fujita; Denjiro Ookouchi; Ryunosuke Tsukigata; Akitake Kono  Territory: Japan

In his autobiography, Kurosawa said of sequels that, like the Japanese proverb about the fish under the willow tree that hangs over the stream, just because you’ve hooked one there once doesn’t mean you always will.  Which is a beautiful way of saying that follow-ups just aren’t as good as the originals.  That, coupled with the fact that the director himself disliked the end result made me a little apprehensive about watching it.

The good news is that Sanshiro Sugata Part 2 is not terrible.  However, it is fervently anti-British-American.  Made at the very end of the Pacific War, it appears Kurosawa decided to make some rather blatant racial statements with this film.  The western characters are boorish, arrogant and cruel, while the Japanese are cultured, humble and decent.  Sugata encounters a boxing match and is appalled at the barbarity and decadence of the sport (and its followers) in relation to the beauty and dignity of his beloved judo.

After demonising western pugilistic culture, Kurosawa then turns to karate as Higaki’s brothers vow to take revenge for his defeat in the first film.  The brothers, one of which is quite mad, are karate practitioners and challenge Sanshiro to a duel against Higaki’s wishes.  However, rather than taking a moralising stance on the two disciplines, the message here seems to be that both arts can co-exist, and presumably by extension, all Japanese martial arts should unite against the inferior western culture. 

 Sanshiro Sugata Part 2

Political and racial issues aside, Sanshiro Sugata Part 2 is fun if somewhat superficial.  There are moments where the viewer is treated to flashes of inspiration in Kurosawa’s camerawork and dramatic settings, but also a vague but undiminishing feeling that his heart just wasn’t in it.  His view was that the tale of Sanshiro had already been told, and while it’s true that seeing him well on the road to being a master of the arts is not as interesting as when he found enlightenment by watching a lotus flower blossom while standing in a pond overnight, the climax on a snowy hilltop is fairly gripping.  By no means one of the best examples of Kurosawa’s art, it is a testimony to his skill that even when firing on one or two cylinders, his work can be watchable and diverting.

The Most Beautiful (1944) November 9, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Drama, 1940s films , 3 comments

Director: Akira Kurosawa  Starring: Soji Kiyokawa; Takako Irie; Sayuri Tanima  Territory: Japan

I try not to talk about politics or world affairs on this blog, but it’s absolutely impossible not to discuss the purpose of this film and the very reason it was made.  The Most Beautiful is a wartime propaganda movie about the exploits of a plucky bunch of girls at an optics factory who are asked to improve productivity by 50% due to increased Allied bombing over Japan.  The girls are affronted, not because the increase will work them to exhaustion, but because they think they’re capable of doing more for the cause.

The film opens with an intertitle reading “Attack and destroy the enemy”, and in the school-like dormitory life, the girls start the day by standing up and pledging en masse to do their best to destroy America and Britain.  And, with this film being made during wartime, there’s little doubt they mean it. 

The Most Beautiful

If you succeed in ignoring the obvious propaganda and gung-ho patriotic zeal of the movie, you’re still left with a lowbrow didactic essay full of one-dimensional characters who will stop at nothing to serve a noble cause.  Notably, one character takes a nasty fall from a rooftop and later in hospital, surrounded by her colleagues and bandaged, she declares her fortune that her hands were unhurt so that she can return to work soon.  It would be laughable if the circumstances were not so sinister.  Predictably, we also have girls struggling on despite illness, parental death and other assorted tragedy.

The Most Beautiful is morbidly fascinating as a semi-documentary on the war effort for the other side, but is too melodramatic, predictable and outdated to enjoy today.  Strange, then, that Kurosawa himself was so fond of it – and not only because he met his future wife on the film.  He later noted that many of the women involved quit the business soon after the film, and realised that he’d subjected them to a pretty gruelling regime of factory work, running practice and fife and drum marching.  It’s notable that this is one of the few films from the director to use female lead characters (indeed, there are few men playing significant parts) but this is one Kurosawa film I probably won’t be watching again.

The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail (1945) November 3, 2010

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

Director: Akira Kurosawa  Starring: Denjiro Ookouchi; Tadayoshi Nishina; Kenichi Enomoto  Territory: Japan

Even if you did not know the circumstances Japan found itself in when The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail was filmed, you would probably still sense that something just wasn’t right.  The country was freshly defeated in the Pacific War, and budgets were tight (and electricity frequently cutting out altogether), resulting in the film looking surprisingly cheap for a Kurosawa production.

Based on the Kabuki play Kanjincho, which itself is based on the Noh play Ataka, The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail is a fable in which a band of bodyguards escort a fugitive lord through hostile territory, including through a barrier outpost, dressed as monks.

 the-men-who-tread-on-the-tigers-tail.jpg

Kurosawa fell foul of the censors yet again – this time being accused of mocking the Kabuki play with the inclusion of Kenichi Enomoto, an eminent comedy actor, as the porter.  His character, while often annoying, provides an interesting protagonist for the film, offsetting the staid nature of the guards and their charge.  The censors did not take kindly to the addition, failed to submit the correct paperwork, and the film was officially banned for a number of years.  Some articles available online state the film was banned by the occupying American forces due to the film’s feudal themes, but this is certainly not the case – the occupational forces, by all accounts, enjoyed the movie.

Despite the fact that Kurosawa does a good job of wringing tension out of the plot, the end result is unsatisfactory.  The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail feels a lot like a TV play with its short running time (around 59 minutes) and lack of location shots (a lot of the exteriors seemed to be shot on a soundstage).  I couldn’t help but feel quite deflated at the end, distinctly feeling that the film was missing a final third.  Nevertheless, one thing you can’t say is that this film is too westernised – it is definitely one of Kurosawa’s most profoundly Japanese films I’ve seen.

Sanshiro Sugata (1943) October 28, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Action, 1940s films, Jidaigeki , 6 comments

Director: Akira Kurosawa  Starring: Susumu Fujita; Denjiro Ookouchi; Yukiko Todoroki; Takashi Shimura Territory: Japan

Akira Kurosawa’s directorial debut was made in something of a fit of enthusiasm – the script was written in one sitting and the director “was just excited” at getting his first proper directing job.  The tale tells the story of Sugata Sanshiro (Susumu Fujita), a young headstrong jujitsu practitioner who comes under the tutelage of judo master Yano (Denjiro Ookouchi) and falls in love with a rival’s daughter.  The girl’s brother, Higaki (Ryunosuke Tsukigata) quickly establishes himself as the villain (he is the only character dressed in western clothes – this film was shot during World War 2) and demands to fight the young man to the death.  

sanshiro-sugata.jpg

The first thing I noticed upon watching Sanshiro Sugata is how familiar it all feels if you’ve seen even a handful of Shaw Brothers kung fu films from the 70s.  A casual viewer will feel right at home with Sanshiro Sugata – the philosophy of discipline, the teacher/pupil relationship, the fact that the hero is initially forbidden to fight the villain and the warring schools are all instantly recognisable staple elements of the genre.

The second surprise is that Kurosawa’s style is already much in evidence.  Already in place is his use of weather as a mood setter, transition wipes and dramatic camera set-ups.  Only the short montage scene of discarded shoes is clunky and forced.  Elsewhere, he seems totally at ease, effortlessly evoking tension and letting the characters propel the story along.  While judo is not at aesthetically pleasing as some more “showy” martial arts, Kurosawa does a fine job of making the bouts dramatic.

My highest expectation was to appreciate Sanshiro Sugata, not to like it.  Instead, I found it compelling and fun.  There are seventeen minutes missing due to wartime censorship – the authorities found too much in the movie that was “British-American”, but intertitles were added in the fifties’ re-issue of the film from the script (which survived) to fill in the gaps.  Although a complete cut of the movie would have been preferable, the surviving footage tells a complete, if obviously abridged, story.  And the climactic scene atop a windswept hill should be seen by all fans of Kurosawa to witness the birth of his genius.

The Quiet Duel (1949) October 19, 2010

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

Director: Akira Kurosawa  Starring: Toshiro Mifune; Takashi Shimura; Noriko Sengoku; Miki Sanjo  Territory: Japan

During the Second World War, doctor Kyoji (Mifune) contracts syphilis from an irresponsible patient while performing an operation.  After the war, while working in his father’s (Shimura) clinic, he is forced to give up the love of his life to shield her from the disease.

The Quiet Duel (also known as The Silent Duel) is a heavy drama about self-sacrifice and Mifune’s first bona-fide top billing in a Kurosawa film (a note of pure trivia: I realised while I was watching this that both Mifune’s first and last lead roles in a Kurosawa film were as doctors).  The problem is that it’s sandwiched between two far better films (Drunken Angel and Stray Dog) in my opinion.  However, there is a lot to like in here.  The inclusion of Shimura as Kyoji’s father is perhaps an inevitable one following their teaming in Drunken Angel, but the pair do work incredibly well together.  One scene, in which they attempt to have a chat and a smoke together is particularly effective and touching.  The film does tend to rely on melodrama at times, but the characters are all well-drawn and compelling enough to make you wish for a happy ending, even if you sense that one isn’t terribly likely.

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I have to admit that I thought that syphilis was pretty much beaten by the time this film was made, but a little research shows that the film’s premise is plausible if you assume that penicillin wasn’t as readily available in post-war Japan as it was in the west.  Although Kurosawa wasn’t quite the master he would become a little later in his career, there are some nice touches of atmosphere here, as well as his trademark weather shots.  The film even starts in the rain, but Kurosawa uses weather phenomenon throughout the film to good effect.

Thinking back on the film now a week after viewing it, I feel The Quiet Duel is definitely deeper than it first appears, and Mifune’s soul-searching speech towards the film’s climax is amazingly frank for the period.  I believe that if Kurosawa had attempted the project even twelve months later than he did, he would have nailed it.  As it is, it’s good, but he missed a timeless classic by that much.

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.

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.

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