Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Watched June 11 - 17, 2007: Yamada, Hui, J-light -- and reading about Kurosawa

Harakara / The Village (Yoji Yamada, 1975)

In this early Yamada film, Chieko Baisho plays a promoter of a left wing musical theater troupe that puts on their shows in rural communities. Not having a source of government or industrial funding, she (and her colleagues) must persuade local groups to raise the money needed to bring the shows to their communities. To this end, she visits the shy and taciturn leader of the local young workers group (Akira Terao). At first the group is enthusiastic about the project, but they grow worried when they find how hard it is to sell tickets in advance. Like Naruse's Summer Clouds before and Takahata's Only Yesterday afterwards, this also deals with the difficulties young rural men and women face (and the attractiveness of the siren call of city life). Although fictional, presented almost as if it were a "direct cinema" documentary. Too "simple" for sophisticates, I suspect, but I enjoyed this quite a bit.

Haruka naru yama no yobigoe / A Distant Cry from Spring literally (I think) The Call of Far Distant Mountains (Yoji Yamada, 1980)

One of Yamada's very best films. Chieko Baisho is a widowed farm woman in Hokkaido, with a young son. During a fierce rainstorm, she lets a drifter (Ken Takakura) stay overnight in her barn. Her rather nervous generosity is re-paid when he proves adept at aiding in the delivery of a calf in the middle of the night. Takakura moves on the next day -- but returns a while later (weeks? months?), wondering if she could hire him (and is willing to work for little more than room and board). Overburdened, Baisho can't pass up the chance for almost free help in running her farm. Chieko's son is also delighted to have Takakura around (as he teaches him to ride the family's horse, among other things). As obliging as Takkura is, he is totally close-mouthed about his past (and about his reasons for working as he does). As the family becomes fonder of Takakura, he begins to relax -- to the extent of entering a horse race at the local fair. His triumph there, however, has unanticipated (and unfortunate) consequences for all (as a result of which, we finally learn his secrets).

A fine story, Beautifully shot -- with excellent performances. If only the Panorama DVD was worthy of the film. Although the box claimed this DVD is letterboxed, it turned out to be a full frame pan and scan version of a 'scope format original. Moreover, color balances are frequently mucked up. At least it has subtitles (most of the time) -- which means I shouldn't have any problems following the re-mastered (but sub-less) Japanese DVD (when I manage to buy this -- which I definitely plan to do).

Gakko II / A Class to Remember II (Yoji Yamada, 1996)

The only connection between this and Yamada's original Gakko is the actor playing the lead character (Toshiyuki Nishida). Nishida again plays a teacher -- but one bearing little resemblance to the happy-go-lucky one in the first Gakko. Here he teaches high school age students at a rural, residential special education school. The story in chief involves the search for two missing students (one who seems to fall just short of marginal functioning, the other considerably more disabled). As it turns out, the two friends have set out to attend a concert in the nearest big town (which is quite a long way distant) and to visit a former class-mate (who has managed to find a job with an understanding employer, but still is fairly lonely and sad). Nishida has problems of his own (including an unhappy high school-aged daughter -- who lives with his divorced wife), as does his companion in the search (Hidetaka Yoshioka -- who won at least one award for his supporting actor role here). Hear-breaking and heart-warming -- and thought provoking.

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A Jin de gu shi / Ah Kam / The Stunt Woman (Ann Hui, 1996)

A tour de force for Michelle Yeoh -- who plays a stunt woman who gets a job with a rag-tag stunt unit (led by Sammo Hung). The first third of the film feels almost like a behind-the-cenes documentary about the inter-connection between the movie business and mobs. We then shift gears into an ill-fated romance that temporarily takes Yeoh out of the film world. Then, we shift gears again and move into darker, more melodramatic (and adventurous) territory. Story-wise, Ann Hui seems to have tried to do too many things in one film here. But Yeoh and Hung are both wonderful -- as is the cinematography:

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Taiyo no uta / Midnight Sun literally Song of the Sun (Norihiro Koizumi, 2006)

A relatively unpretentious and sweet tear jerker about a 16 year old girl (played by Yui -- a young pop star who goes by one name) who is allergic to the ultraviolet rays from sunlight -- and who can only go outside when it is dark. Her parents are doting, and she has one chum (made when she was in grade school -- and could still venture out during daylight). One true love is singing and playing guitar (mostly to herself) in a deserted square in the middle of the night. The other is a boy she has never met -- but only seen (through her well-shielded window) at the bus stop across the street. His schedule is the reverse of hers, as he gets up at the crack of dawn to get in a bit of surfing before going off to school (and then dozing). One evening, however, their paths cross. You know early on how (in general) this film is going to end -- but sappy or not, I enjoyed sniffling my way through this. And Yui is a quite nice young singer (doing three songs during the course of the show).

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Desu nôto: The Last Name (Shusuke Kaneko, 2006)

I enjoyed Death Note, the first half of this two part film, but was not overwhelmed by it. However, the second half turned out to be far more impressive -- doing so while eventually veering off from the course of the original manga. The premise here is that there are "death gods" and "death notes" (when a person's name is written in one of these black notebooks -- which contain full instructions for use -- that person dies). Light Yagumi (Tatsuya Fujiwara), law student and son of a local police official, had used his death note extensively in part one, knocking off criminals who have wrongly slipped from the grasp of the criminal justice system -- but now is trying to cover his tracks. The police are still trying to track the mysterious killer (known as "Kira") -- led by Light's own father (Takeshi Kaga) and the enigmatic young detctive know as "L" (Ken'ichi Matsuyama). Matters are complicated when Misa Misa (Erika Toda), a young singer and advertising model, acquires a death note and accompanying death god of her own (Lem -- voiced by Peter -- of Ran fame). As it turns out, Misa's family was murdered (by a criminal who escaped the law -- but not Kira) -- and she also wants to find (and work with) the original Kira. When Misa is apprehended, Light comes up with a plan to divert suspicion. this is NOT the sort of film that would lead one to expect a deeply moving ending -- but, unexpectedly, it has one.

Ken'ichi Matsuyama is delightfully creepy as L (and is positively Sherlock Holmes-like in his fondness for disguises and surprises). Erika Toda adds a good deal of spunk as Misa. Highly recommended pop entertainment (it is necessary to see the first part first -- but this is not really a hardship).


Reading of note:

Teruyo Nogami's Waiting on the Weather is a memoir of her years as Kurosawa's script supervisor (starting with "Rashomon") and her friendship with the Itami family (father and son directors -- Mansaku and Juzo). Really indsipensable for Kurosawa fans.

2 comments:

J Luis Rivera said...

Hi, thanks for reviewing "Desu nôto", I'm a big fan of Shunsuke Kaneko and I'm always eager to find reviews of his work. I'll give this one a try soon.

By the way, your blog is a goldmine for foreigners like me who want to learn more about Asian cinema but lack knowledge of the languages. Cheers!

Michael Kerpan said...

We just had a Death Note marathon. My wife and I re-watched both films while our children (and a friend) watched them for the first time. A good time was had by all.

We also like Kaneko's three Gamera films. I have been tempted to buy his musical Koi ni utaeba -- but the Japanese DVD is sub-less and expensive.