Monday, May 28, 2007

Watched (and Read) May 21 - 27, 2007: Shimizu, Perrault, Higuchi, Bae Doo-na

Ohara Shosuke-san / Mr. Shosuke Ohara (Hiroshi Shimizu, 1949)

Our hero Saheita is nicknamed "Shosuke Ohara" (after a character in a folk song, known for his love of living the easy life). A fairly prosperous farmer -- but one who is not as industrious as he could be -- and a little too fond of behaving into acting as the local Lord Bountiful. He funds a sewing school for the local girls and religious instruction classes for local boys -- and provides baseball uniforms for the the local men's team (and then the boy's team). When he starts running into financial trouble, he simply wishes it away. Reality soon catches up, alas...

Denjiro Okochi of our good-natured but unrealistic hero calls to mind (a bit) his earlier portrayal of the one-eyed, one-armed (lazy) master swordsman of Yamanaka's Tange Sazen and the Pot Worth a Million Ryo. Yet another genial, interesting film from Shimizu.

Le Règne du jour / The Times That Are (Pierre Perrault, 1967) (seen a while back, but seemingly never reported in this thread)

The Tremblay family (patriarch Alex, his wife Marie, his son Leopold and Leopold's wife Marie-Paule), first introduced in "Pour la suite du monde" (1963), goes to France to seek out their roots in Normandy (among other things). A wonderful documentary, with lovely cinematography and a lovely score. Rather than talk about this more, some pictures:

And the rest:

Also seen -- a bit more than half of Bae Doo-na's latest television (16 episode) series -- Someday. Here, Bae plays a Hana Yamaguchi, a young Korean-Japanese manga artist, whose early celebrity has worn off and whose manga has just been discontinued by the publisher. Hana, whose parent ran off when she was quite young, lives with the grandmother who has raised her. Her moping is interrupted by a mystery of sorts -- an old neighbor (who turns out to have been born in Korea) has died without any traceable family -- and his ashes have been "stolen" by another neighbor (a widow, from a fairly prominent family), who has taken them off to Korea. To help take Hana's mind off her "failure", her grandmother encourages her to go to Korea (for the first time) to investigate. There, she encounters a moody young (low-budget) private investigator -- and a handsome 30-something hospital director who happens to be a fanatic devotee of her manga. The director immediately begins falling in love with Hana, much disconcerting his old childhood friend (now a multimedia company director -- who had never realized she was actually in love with him -- until this latest threat). Hana, however, is a lot more intrigued by her mysterious detective...

n the Shade of Spring Leaves: The Life and Writings of Higuchi Ichiyo, a Woman of Letters in Meiji Japan, written/translated by Robert Lyons Danly. A combination biography (includint extensive extracts from Ichiyo's diaries) and anthology. Ichiyo (born Natsuko) Higuchi was Japan's first modern woman writer. Sadly, she really only mastered fiction in 1894 (when she was 22) and died (of tuberculosis) two years later. Her stories provided the basis of Imai's Nigorie (Muddy Water / Troubled Waters), which used three of them and Gosho's Takekurabe (Growing Up / Child's Play), based on her last major story. It is a tragedy that Ichiyo Higuchi died so young -- but a wonder that she accomplished so much in her brief life that she is still honored today in Japan (fairly recently her picture was placed on 50,000 yen bills).

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Watched (and Read) May 14 - 20, 2007

Only one actual movie to report:

Heisei tanuki gassen pompoko / Pom Poko (Isao Takahata, 1994)

Despite the fact that the subtitles call the creatures who star in this cartoon epic of forest animals fighting encroaching development "raccoons", they are really "raccoon dogs" ("tanuki" in Japanese):

This is probably the hardest of all Ghibli films for Western audiences to come to terms with. It is unabashedly culturally specific -- and probably a comprehensive annotated booklet would be quite helpful for Western viewers. that said, the basic outline of the story is simple enough. Tanuki living in the Tama Hills on the outskirts of Tokyo in the mid-1960s find their habitat being bulldozed and leveled. Being the most magical of Japanese animals (along with foxes), they fight back -- using all their skills (which include shape changing). The effectiveness of their defense is undermined, from time totime, by their indolent and easygoing natures, but ever more devastating onslaughts by developers renew their determination. They send for aid to the most skilled tanuki clans of rural Japan, but it takes a long time for it to arrive. Meanwhile foxes provide some questionable advice (let all shape changers simply pretend to be humans -- and let the less skilled fend for themselves). Despite many extraordinary magical accomplishments, the tanuki do not manage to stem the human tide. But tanuki are resourceful and persistent ...

Very talky at times -- and a bit overly ideological for some (probably), but many many moments of great beauty (capturing the natural world of the tanuki) and imagination (such as the magical feats the tanuki perform. Although this is a Takahata film, it sketches out a number of themes and visual ideas that would later surface in Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. An extra on the Japanese DVD (and preceding video release) that does not appear to be included on the Disney DVD -- a 15 minute long recitation by a story teller recounting folk tales about tanuki and foxes which I very much wish was subbed).

More pictures:

Other things to report:

I watched a DVD of a Yoko Ueno's 20th Anniversary Concert, featuring a live performance with one of the groups she works with * (or asterisk). Probably best known in the West for her music for animated shows like Azumanga Daioh, Ueno is a musician of great talent -- and varied interests (ranging from Celtic music to folk rock to experimental acappella to jazz and more). Highlights included one of the themes songs to Azumanga Daioh ("Raspberry Heaven"), an original ballad that one would swear was a centuries old Irish air ("Seven Swan Songs" -- in Japanese, despite the title) and a remarkable sequence that called to mind Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. asterisk is a remarkable assemblage of veteran musicians -- who seem to play just about anything with spirit and authenticity. (they have a lead guitarist who looks rather like Takeshi Kitano -- and sounds like he has studied the Allman Brothers quite intensively).

We continue to work our way through the 51 episode animated shoujo masterpiece Hana yori dango (Boys Over Flowers --- a very very loose reworking of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, among other things) for the benefit of a friend of our children. (Nonetheless, my wife is as big a fan of this series as I am). Nine volumes down, 3 to go.

And then there is the manga version. Volume 23 of the English translation just came out (13 more to go -- meaning over two years before this reaches its conclusion). This installment was written long after the animated series ended -- so we are in uncharted territory. And we finally acquired volumes 1 through 8 of the manga on sale (the series tracked these volumes quite closely -- but there's plenty of additional details scattered throughout).

While (15 years after its beginning), Boys Over Flowers probably remains Japan's number one cultural export to Asia (translated versions of the manga and anime -- and a Taiwanese live action TV adaptation, "Meteor Garden" that was a smash hit throughout Asia in its own right), the quirky manga Nodame Cantabile (initiated in 2001) -- the story of a rather eccentric young woman pianist, a grown-up musical prodigy who wants to be a conductor and their friends and associates at a music conservatory -- is beginning to gain lots of new attention. In the past year or so, the manga has gotten a high-profile live-action adaptation and an animated one. Although this manga has reached the mid-teens in Japan, the English version is only up to volume 9 -- and I've only recently managed to track down volume 8. (I may have been among the first few people in the West to encounter the series -- I ordered the unsubbed volume 1 back in 2002).

Yoko Kamio, the author of Boys Over Flowers didn't waste any time jumping into a new manga series when she ended her first major series in 2003. Perhaps not surprisingly, her next venture Cat Street seems to be going in a very different direction from its highly energetic predecessor. Cat Street recounts the story of a former child star, betrayed by the one person she considered her true friend, who retreated into a hole of her own making for years -- and (at the outset) is just beginning to timidly venture out into the world again. Early on, she is convinced to try out a "free school" for other drop-outs -- so she can start making up for her lost education (and lost time). Despite its introspective nature, this series is doing increasingly well in Japan -- with the newest volume (no. 6) climbing to the top of the new manga charts. Even so, no English version is in sight yet. So, I get to struggle through this with dictionaries by my side. In the newest version, our heroine Keito (Kate) actually goes to her first movie audition -- and is horrified to discover that the script she has to cope with uses lots of kanji (that she never learned -- due to her still very deficient education). Young actress Aoi Miyazaki (Eureka, Gaichu, Nana) seems just about perfect for the central role of a movie adaptation of this (not that one has been announced -- yet).

Monday, May 14, 2007

Watched May 7 - 13, 2007

Peter Ibbetson (Henry Hathaway, 1935)

After all the effusive praise I've read about this recently (here and here, for example) -- I thought I might as well take a look at this long-unwatched DVD (I have this only because it came as an "extra" in the Cooper set I bought in order to see Lubitsch's Design for Living). I did enjoy this to some extent -- despite wooden performances (not just by Cooper and Ann Harding -- but by virtually everyone in the cast) and over-the-top (and clunky) dialog. Ida Lupino provides a bright spot in the cast, as an English expatriate Cooper meets during a return visit to Paris (as an adult). The main virtue here was the superb cinematography by Charles Lang -- but I really would be interested in seeing the 1921 version (called "Forever" -- directed by George Fitzmaurice and shot by Arthur C. Miller) -- in order to see how much of the "look" of the 1935 film was derived from that earlier version.

George Du Maurier (grandfather of Daphne, apparently) seems to have overdosed on Wuthering Heights shortly before writing the novel on which this film was based. This sort of Victorian ultra-romanticism clearly appeals to some people, but it is something that I find fundamentally alien and unappealing.

More screen shots:

Arakure / Untamed (Mikio Naruse, 1957)

This is one of the small handful of Japanese films that actually depicts life during the brief Taisho era (formally 1912 to 1926 -- but Crown Prince Hirohito took over as regent in 1919 due to the ill health of his father). It is quite fascinating to see this transitional era depicted (apparently with considerable care and a pretty decent budget).

The central figure here is Hideko Takamine -- who portrays a would-be business-woman, forced to always depend on men (due to the official limitations on women's rights). Unfortunately, the men in her life always let her down (first Masayuki Mori and then Daisuke Kato). To an extent, her driven attitude to pursuing business success has some role in her mates' tendency to stray -- but men are portrayed as rather weak characters (Mori romantically so -- Kato comically). Takamine's nemesis is Mitsuko Miura -- who is a serial provoker of marital discord. Ken Uehara and Tatsuya Nakadai also show up in this (not many films had so many male idols). Not quite the level of Naruse's preceding film (Flowing), but visually lovely, well-acted and interesting (and unusual) story-wise. Yet another successful 50s Naruse film.

More pictures:

Les bons débarras / Good Riddance (Francis Mankiewicz, 1980)

This film walked off with most of the Canadian film awards for 1980 -- and rightfully so. On the surface a naturalistic family drama about a single woman (Michelle -- Marie Tifo), her young daughter (Mann -- Charlotte Laurier) and a mentally challenged younger brother (Ti-Guy -- Germaine Houde). Michelle just barely keeps the family afloat, running a wood-cutting business (with the rather ineffectual assistance of her brother) in the Laurentides region of Quebec. She is in love with a local police official -- a romance that infuriates her daughter. Manon is also disgusted by the attention her mother gives her pathetic (perennially trouble-causing) uncle. Manon also hates school. She loves two things, however, "Wuthering Heights" (definitely not a good influence, in her case) and her mother (with positively pathological jealousy). Ultimately, this is a horror film, rendered all the more scary due to the matter of fact "ordinariness" of the presentation. (Note: The Mankiewicz who made this film was, in fact, a Montreal relative of the Hollywood Mankiewiczes).

More shots:

Omohide poro poro / Only Yesterday / literally Remember {tear} drop by drop! (Isao Takahata, 1991)

Takahata's animated film about a vaguely dissatisfied, 20-something, Tokyo white collar worker -- who goes on a working vacation (on a farm belonging to relatives of a sister's husband) is my favorite animated feature film -- by a wide margin. As our heroine makes her way through her vacation, she is "haunted" by memories of her life back when she was in fifth grade. The presentation of her recollections of her childhood are especially wonderful. And this has the best final credits sequence of any film -- ever.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Watched April 30 - May 6, 2007

Takekurabe / Growing Up / literally Comparing Heights (Heinosuke Gosho, 1955)

Based on a story by Ichiyo HIGUCHI -- who also wrote the stories that were the source of Imai's Nigorie (reviewed last week). As it turns out, Higuchi was Japan's first modern woman author, describing life at the low end of the social spectrum during the 1890s (which was when she wrote). Higuchi grew up in a wealthy samurai family, but her life changed drastically when her father's business went bankrupt, and her older brother and father died. After her father's death, the family had to support itself by doing laundry and mending clothes -- until Higuchi took up writing at age 20 (inspired by a school friend who made money when she won a writing contest). She was an almost immediate success -- and wrote furiously -- until her death due to tuberculosis just 4 years later. Her fame is such that she was the third Japanese woman to be honored by being depicted on Japanese currency.

The story here is about boys and girls on the boundary between childhood and adulthood, living in Yoshiwara (a famed red light district of Tokyo). The focus here is on a young woman (Hibari Musora, famed child singing star -- and future action movie star) already contracted to become an oiran (a sort of especially high-class prostitute) and her neighbor, a young man destined to become a Buddhist priest. Mixed into the story, rival youth gangs and various older women, all of whose lives have been affected (directly or indirectly) by prostitution (actual and virtual).

A powerful story, with a good adult cast -- that doesn't work quite as well as a film as it could have. Gosho does not have a purely "photographic eye" (unlike Imai), but rather is more of an "illustrator". His shots sometimes lack visual clarity -- and he over-complicates the plot (rather than simplifying it). Another problem here -- while the younger characters should be 12 to 13 years old, most were played by late teens (or older) -- possibly given the content, using children of the proper age would not have been possible. Nonetheless, this gives the film a sort of veil of unreality.

I usually find Gosho a little bit frustrating when he is presenting a story he considers important (curiously, when presenting "fluff", he is more often delightful). But his films almost always afford sufficient pleasures to reward watching (and even re-watching).

More pictures:

Strawberry Shortcakes (Hotoshi Yazaki, 2006)

This focuses on two pair of young women. A glamorous 20-something prostitute (Yuko Nakamura) who has a drab-looking alter ego that she reserves for visits with an old school buddy (an under-employed architecture school graduate) and the young receptionist (Chizure Ikewaki -- one of Japan's finest and quirkiest young actresses) at the prostitution agency she works for. The other pair is a couple of room mates -- a painter and illustrator (played by Kiriko Nananan -- who wrote the underlying manga) and a somewhat hapless young "office lady" (Noriko Nagagoshi), who is besotted with a young (handsome but utterly jerky) businessman. Often interesting, but sometimes betraying its manga roots (some aspects of this seem just a bit too improbable). Good -- but I doubt this will ever cross the ocean.

More screen shots:

Pavillion sanshouo / The Pavillion Salamandre (Masanori Tominaga, 2006)

A light-hearted (much of the time -- but not always) film that is almost impossible to categorize. Doubtless there is more than a little influence from Kiyoshi Kurosawa -- in the weirdness of the plot here. Three sisters along with their half-sister, are entrusted with the care of a venerable (150+ years old) and rather large salamander -- considered to be a national treasure (in part because it appeared at the 1867 Paris Exposition). The father has been banished from running the well-heeled foundation that protects the salamander -- for reasons unspecified. A gangster wants to marry the eldest daughter -- but first wants our hero (Jo Odagiri -- as an x-ray expert) to prove the salamander is the real deal. The father, having heard rumors of the planned mob takeover attempt, convinces the youngest girl (the step-sister -- played by Yu Kashii) to abduct the salamander for its own good. Kashii and her salamander wind up -- for a while -- in Odagiri's hometown -- a quasi-Sicilian enclave where the residents speak a weird polyglot dialect. Don't ask for explanations -- just sit back and enjoy the ride.

A few more shots:

Toki wo kakeru shôjo / the Girl Who Leapt Through Time (Mamoru Hosoda, 2006)

The Japanese DVD of this is out -- and sub-less. Nonetheless, the visual presentation is so clear here that a synopsis would probably get most people through any rough spots. My wife and I saw this screened (or rather projected from a DVD) with subtitles a while back -- so we could fill the younger members of our audience in.

An updating of a popular children's fantasy story (previous versions include a live-action film from the 80s), this concerns a girl who discovers (when facing a genuine disaster) that she has somehow become able to leap (literally) back in time. At first she uses this skill for mundane corrections (getting home earlier -- so her little sister doesn't gobble up her pudding cup first -- and staying awake during an unexpected pop quiz). Then she uses it to try to fix various romantic problems (hers and others). From time to time (or actually -- mostly at the same time -- though on different time streams), she meets with her aunt (who never seems to be at a loss -- and always seems to be able to keep track of what's happening). Hosoda was originally hired to direct "Howl's Moving Castle" -- and then fired by Miyazaki. Nonetheless, he shows signs of being a legitimate (artistic) heir to the other Ghibli founder, Isao Takahata. I hope a US release (theatrical -- followed by DVD) will happen sooner than later.

More screen shots: