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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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.

Ikiru (1952) October 2, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Drama, 1950s films , 2 comments

Director: Akira Kurosawa  Starring: Takashi Shimura; Shin’ichi Himori; Minoru Chiaki  Territory: Japan

Petty bureaucrat Kenji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) exists in a faceless, soulless office, whiling his life away in a world of red tape and buck-passing.  When he discovers he has terminal cancer, he struggles to find meaning to his life.  But when his own son treats him with indifference and he fails to find answers at the bottom of a bottle, he looks elsewhere for contentment.

Ikiru

Once again, Takashi Shimura shines in this tale of small-scale tragedy, proving that he was indeed the most versatile in Kurosawa’s stable of frequently used actors.  And like Scandal, Ikiru is a film that resonates as strongly today as it must have back in the 50s – the portrayal of departmental bureaucracy within local government is eerily accurate.

Watanabe’s reaction to his imminent demise is plausible (the whole project rose from Kurosawa’s morbid thoughts of his own death) as he goes from maudlin sentimentality, through self-pity and on to reckless hedonism.  But Watanabe is always a likeable figure, especially because he is usually surrounded by ugly, selfish characters.  Watanabe strikes an unlikely friendship with a young female co-worker and those around him react in disgust, thinking he’s having a mid-life crisis.  But Watanabe is clinging to her simply because of her vitality – something knocked out of him from years spent wasted at a job that doesn’t challenge him. 

If any criticism can be made of Ikiru, it is in the wake scene.  This scene, while important to the movie’s message, goes on too long and features too many squabbling, melodramatic characters.  It is, however, not surprising that without Shimura’s presence, the scene suffers.  Although Kurosawa’s contemporary-set films will never be as highly regarded as his jidaigeki films, anyone who dismisses films like Ikiru is certainly missing out on an awful lot.  It has just as much nobility and honour as any of his samurai epics.

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.

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.

Kaiji: The Ultimate Gambler (2009) August 1, 2010

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

Director: Tôya Satô  Starring: Tatsuya Fujiwara; Teruyuki Kagawa; Yuki Amami  Territory: Japan

KaijiDown-at-heel Kaiji (Tatsuya Fujiwara), a directionless young man, is conned into honouring the massive debt of a passing acquaintance.  Attempting to rid himself of debt, he enters an underworld gambling operation, and soon finds himself a slave to the corrupt and corpulent Teiai Kingdom.

The first live-action adaptation of a popular Manga, Kaiji: The Ultimate Gambler is, unsurprisingly, a film with a fair bit of gambling in it.  Films with intense gambling scenes can be confusing if you don’t understand the game being played.  However, if you can understand Rock, Paper, Scissors, you will have no trouble following the movie – nothing in the film is more complicated than this playground favourite.

There is an unexpected amount of drama and tension to the games Kaiji plays, as the stakes rise and the sides form between the rich and poor, humble and arrogant.  The characters are usually pretty black and white: the unfortunate comrades of Kaiji are generally salt-of-the-Earth people (with one or two exceptions) and the Teiai employees and their supporters are vile.  The best of the latter is the Asian-Agent-Smith-a-like Tonegawa (Teruyuki Kagawa), who sneers and snarls from his position of power.  Mixing it up is Endo (Yuki Amami), the loan shark who initially sets Kaiji up, but shows occasional disloyalty to the Kingdom.

The pace is set early on with the frantic mass game between debt-riddled desperate men aboard a cruise ship.  Although it takes one or two unexpected left turns, the film rarely loses focus and retains its tension throughout the 130-minute running time.

With characters you can really get behind, a compelling story and some intense gambling scenes, Kaiji: The Ultimate Gambler is a solid slice of entertainment.

To order your copy of Kaiji: The Ultimate Gambler, click here.

Haeundae (2009) July 7, 2010

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

Director: Yoon Je-kyoon  Starring: Sol Kyung-gu; Ha Ji-won; Park Joong-hoon; Lee Min-ki  Territory: South Korea

A geologist warns of an impending mega tsunami that may strike the coastal resort of Haeundae, a town where residents are still coming to terms with a tidal wave out at sea that caused loss of life and property five years previously.  The professional advice of the geologist is ignored as sensationalism, and so the planned Culture Expo will go ahead as planned.  But what if he was right…?

A quick browse through Haeundae (retitled Tsunami and Tidal Wave in various territories) shows that disaster movies are pretty much the same the world over.  The characters are all here: the scientist whose dire warnings are ignored only to be proved right later on (sorry for the spoiler, but there really is a mega tsunami heading for Haeundae), the star-crossed lovers, the heroes, the villains and the people only here to provide comic relief. 

 Haeundae

A lot therefore hinges on how much you care about the characters.  Do you really care if one person overcomes his past to redeem himself by saving his love?  Do you care about the no-nonsense businessman who shows his human side when under extreme pressure?  Do you care about the noble sacrifice some people are willing to make in order to save others?  The answer, for me at least, was: no, not really.  Everyone’s too much of a cardboard cutout for my taste, and a weird sense of deja vu stuck with me throughout much of the movie.  A lot of people have complained that nothing happens in the first 70 minutes of the film; I personally don’t have a problem with this if the run up makes us get behind the people and help us to us care.

The only way Haeundae breaks from tradition is to have some rather unexpected goofy comedy in the early stages.  One scene (where a would-be actress shows off her skills) is genuinely funny; the rest, sadly, isn’t.  It’s also an unmistakable fact that the special effects are just not quite good enough by today’s standards to really pass muster.  This is a shame, as obviously disaster movies can live or die by how believable it all looks.  Haeundae doesn’t exactly help its cause by drawing attention to the effects either, such as when one character is assailed on a bridge by cargo crates – the CGI is too obvious to really immerse yourself in the drama.

It’s hard to think of an audience that will appreciate this film.  Those interested in disaster movies will no doubt be drawn more towards big-budget Hollywood blockbusters, while fans of Asian cinema will no doubt find much better fare elsewhere.  It’s a shame, but Korea’s first disaster movie is more like a ripple than a mega tsunami.

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