Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Watched this week, September 4 - 10, 2006

Joyu to shijin / Actress and Poet (Mikio Naruse, 1935)

Our hero here is Hiroshi Uruki, the nominal "poet" -- who writes children's songs and is also the somewhat hen-pecked husband of an actress (Sachiko Chiba). When not doing house chores, he dabbles at song-writing and chats with neighbors and friends (including Kamatari Fujiwara, who is currently way behind in the rent at his apartment). After one neighbor (an insurance salesman) sells a life insurance policy to a nice (but somewhat nervous) couple that have just moved into the neighborhood, Uruki celebrates with the neighbor and his chatty, nosy wife. After drinking lots of beer, the neighbor acts out one of Uruki's children's songs (played on a phonograph) about a tanuki (raccoon dog). Uruki is in a somewhat truculent mood when he gets home, but is too far gone to notice his wife's arrival.

The next morning, as Uruki tries to fix breakfast, his wife (who is clearly a late riser) insists he help her rehearse her lines for an upcoming performance. As they engage in simulated domestic violence, Fujiwara arrives luggage in hand, looking for someplace to stay (having been evicted) -- and overhearing their dispute, tries to make peace. The couple laughingly tells him it is just a rehearsal. Soon, however, a disagreement between Uruki and Chiba over whether to let Fujiwara lodge with them results in a real marital spat. Fujiwara, having taken a stroll while trouble was brewing, returns and sits down to watch the renewed "rehearsal" appreciatively. When the nosy neighbor lady overhears the commotion, she insists that he intervene -- but he re-assures her that is all just acting. So she too sits down to watch the oblivious domestic warriors. Meanwhile, the neighbor's husband has discovered that his nice young policy buyers committed double suicide overnight. When he tells his wife the news, the two of them get into a brawl over who is to blame for selling the improvident policy (the wife is the one that noticed the couple's arrival and prodded her husband to make his sales call).

The next morning, Chiba has gotten up first and is making breakfast for a change. As Fujiwara sleepily comes down the stairs from his room toward breakfast, he notes that the chit-chat in the downstairs room between reconciled actress and poet is becoming amorous -- so he decides he had best wait before entering the room.

This is not a major Naruse film, but it is an entertaining one (though the insertion of a suicide into the midst of a domestic comedy strikes one as a bit unusual)-- with exuberant performances by all the principals. Interestingly, the opening of this film pre-figures the opening of Ozu's "Tenement Gentleman" -- one hears and sees a man and a woman in the middle of some highly melodramatic situation -- but it turns out that we are just seeing a dramatic rehearsal in Chiba's living room. The cinematography by Hiroshi Suzuki (who worked with Naruse on numerous occasions between 1935 and 1952) is quite good (but a bit more restrained than that found in other Naruse films of the mid-30s).

Haru no mezame / Spring's Awakening (Mikio Naruse, 1947)

I enjoyed this charming film so much a couple of weeks ago that I decided I needed to watch it again. Young Yoshiko Kuga was just as delightful this time around -- as a rural high school girl having all the kind of experiences and problems one might expect her to have. I can't imagine what (if any) precedent there may have been for this simple, lifelike diary of an ordinary school girl. Too bad the recent retrospective passed over this little masterpiece -- it deserves to be better known.

Yuki fujin ezu / Portrait of Madame Yuki (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1950)

The new Japanese DVD of this film looks far nicer than any version I have seen before. If only it had been subbed (even in Japanese).

The main attractions of this film are the performances of Michiyo Kogure as Madame Yuki (a well-to-do woman inexplicably married to a crude and sometimes violent boor) and Yoshiko Kuga as Hamako (her new maid). Ken Uehara (as a musician who is dependent on Mme. Yuki's bounty) and Eijiro Yanagi (as the husband) are effective. The story is a bit muddled and not entirely convincing, but provides the excuse for lots of gorgeous cinematography by Joji Ohara. In terms of presentation, the use of Kuga as observer of all the upper-class decadence (rather than as a participant) is quite interesting.

Rabudo gan / Loved Gun (Kensaku Watanabe, 2004)

This story of an orphaned high school girl (Aoi Miyazaki) and a hit man she rescues (Masatoshi Nagase) strikes me as very Suzuki-inspired in terms of style. Miyazaki wants the young woman she holds responsible for the death of her parents bumped off -- and Nagase has his own issues with his foster-father (Ittoku Kishibe), who may have been responsible for the death of HIS parents. Meanwhile Kishibe's current protege (Hirofumi Arai) seems to have a grudge against both Kishibe and Nagase -- and there seem to be a couple of hapless gangsters bothering Kishibe. It is hard to tell whether this drama of revenge and forgiveness is borderline religious -- or cynical. My sense is that there are some rather deep feelings underlying this visually striking (and very stylish) film.

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