Sunday, October 29, 2006

Watched October 23-29, 2006

Haru no mezame / Spring Awakens (Mikio Naruse, 1947)

I watched this unsubtitled film with a visitor (Don Sallitt, a fellow Naruse fanatic -- and a director) for whom I tried to provide a running (very loose) translation. Despite several prior viewings, I run onto the rocks with a couple of final conversational scenes -- just as the plot has taken a bit of a veer. (I don't feel too bad -- as the few published notes on this film are almost totally wrong in their plot comments). While I feel comfortable that I can mostly follow what happens here, Dan (not so used to the uncharted waters of watching unsubbed cinema) wasn't entirely convinced, I fear.

Regardless of total comprehension, this unheralded film (which didn't make it into even the fullest versions of the traveling centenary retrospective) is almost certainly one of Naruse's greatest films of the 40s -- and a genuine (if small) masterpiece. It is, as far as I can tell, a remarkably innovative film -- in that it seems to present a teenager's eye view of teenage life -- centered around the ordinary activities of a one particular high school girl (future star Yoshiko Kuga -- at the age of 16).

Formally, it displays a lightness and looseness (and love of ellipses) that rivals the best of Shimizu's work. And the teen performances (most seemingly by amateurs or near-amateurs) are remarkably unaffected and natural. I wish I knew Japanese well enought to create full subtitles (and had the software to add them to the film on DVD). This charming and beautiful film deserves to be far better known. Having been ignored even during Naruse's 100th birthday year, will it need to wait another 50 years or so to get re-assessed (and properly appreciated) at last. I hope not.

Shizukanaru ketto / The Quiet Duel (Akira Kurosawa, 1949)

This generally overlooked early Kurosawa film was an unexpected pleasure. Mifune here is a young doctor, working with his father (Takashi Shimura) at a clinic. During the war, he got infected with syphilis, while operating (with an injured hand) on an infected patient. Now, back at home, he cannot marry his long-suffering fiance -- and won't tell her the reason why, for fear she will selflessly decide to wait until he is fully recovered (which may not ever happen). Meanwhile, a young pregnant woman who is serving as a nurse's aide (the wonderful and spunky Noriko Sengoku), initially angry and resentful towards her rescuer (Mifune saved her life her after a suicide attempt following a romantic debacle), gradually learns Mifune's true nature and begins to fall in love with him herself.

Despite a few overwrought patches here and there (not surprising, considering the plot), I absolutely loved this. Like much of Kurosawa's pre-Rashomon work, this has gotten short shrift critically. Ironically, I much prefer many of these films (for example -- this, "No Regrets for Our Youth", "Stray Dog", and "Scandal") to "Rashomon".

Kamigami no Fukaki Yokubo / Profound Desire of the Gods (Shohei Imamura, 1968)

An often raucous and vulgar, seriously weird, and visually stunning film -- this practically killed off Imamura's career. Over-budget, over-long and far too outlandish for audience tastes, this was a massive flop when released. It tells the story of an engineer sent to a small, remote Southern Japanese island to supervise a water project -- due to a long-lasting drought. The drought may (or may not) be due to a curse placed on the superstition-filled islanders by their gods -- due to the misdeeds of a particularly incest-ridden family (which has a problematic status, despite producing shamanesses needed for local rituals). It seems to me to have quite a few interesting links to Teshigahara's Woman of the Dunes, in that the engineer becomes entnagled in island affairs by a young, buxom (if somewhat mentally challenged) island woman.

Merry-Go-Round (Jacques Rivette, 1981)

Being in English much of the time didn't help make this often mystifying (but visually lovely) film any clearer than Rivette films all in French. Joe Dallesandro and Maria Schneider collaborate and compete to try to find the hidden ill-gotten gains of her Schneider's father. Meanwhile, the older sisters of both have their own schemes brewing. Not really worth "figuring out", but rather a film more for simply sitting back and enjoying the ride. with a marvelous score (avant-garde jazz, modern classical music?) by a duo consisting of a double bass player and a baritone saxophonist -- who perform on screen every now and then (albeit apparently outside the). world of the narrative

Kazoku gêmu / The Family Game (Yoshimitsu Morita, 1983)

A much acclaimed satire -- I found it quite disappointing. The concept (showing up the flaws of the typical middle class family -- and the Japanese educational system) seemed more important to the director than the execution. Possibly inspired by Bunuel and Masumura, but not remotely in the same league.

A Shaw Festival -- part one

You Never Can Tell (James Cellan Jones, 1977)
Heartbreak House (Cedric Messina, 1977)
Androcles and the Lion (1984)
Arms and the Man (James Cellan Jones, 1989)

This 10-play BBC Shaw set (around a fifth of his plays) is veryinexpensive and quite worth the price. Of the performances watched so far, our family unanimously chose
You Never Can Tell as the brightest gem. A "lesser play" by reputation, it is nonetheless one of Shaw's funniest comedies (trying to out-Wilde Oscar Wilde, perhaps) -- and the cast was as close to perfect as one could ever hope for (including Robert Powell, Kika Markham, Kate Nicholls, Richard Everett, Cyril Cusack, Patrick Magee, Judy Parfitt, Warren Clarke). The cast for Heatrbreak House was also superb (John Gielgud, Sian Phillips, Barbara Murray, Lesley Anne Down et al) -- and the only down-side of the performance was its occasional visual clunkiness. Arms and the Man was decent -- but didn't catch the play's magic fully. Androcles and the Lion was mostly just passable.

A bonus, recordings of a couple of real Shaw speeches show off his wonderful voice. ;~}

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