The films I saw this week turned out to have a connection I did not anticipate. The two newer films dealt with the same time period (late 50s) as the two older ones.
Anata to watashi no aikotoba: Sayônara, konnichiwa / Goodbye, Hello (Kon Ichikawa, 1959)
A rare vintage Ichikawa film film without a script by his screen-writer spouse, Natto Wada. This pastiche of late Ozu is certainly enjoyable. It has a great cast and is well presented, but lacks some of the distinctiveness Wada customarily brought to Ichikawa's projects.
We find all sorts of familiar Ozu elements here, starting with a genial (if slightly fallible) single father (played by Shin Saburi, recently the father in Ozu's Equinox Flower) who has two daughters of marriageable age -- the older played by a bespectacled Ayako Wakao (soon to appear in Ozu's Floating Weeds) and the younger by Hitomi Nozomi (just recently the heroine with bad teeth of Masumura's Giants and Toys). The logistics are, to be sure, a bit more complicated than the Ozu norm. Wakao likes a salaryman (Eiji Funakoshi) who her cousin (Machiko Kyo, also soon to star in Floating Weeds) also has an eye on -- while the guy her little sister likes (played by Hiroshi Kawaguchi -- who starred in both Giants and Toys and Floating Weeds) is more interested in Wakao. Wakao, involved in auto design, can;'t bring herself to say yet to Funakoshi, who decides to settle for Kyo if he can't have her cousin. After the wedding, Saburi exhorts the morose Wakao to move ahead with her life and not to worry about him -- so she decides to hop on a boat for the land of marital and automotive opportunity (i.e. the USA).
The performances of Wakao and the rest of the cast are engaging, but no one was really called upon to develop an especially complex character -- and no one did. The cinematography is not extravagant, but is generally effective -- sometimes channeling Ozu and other times a bit more daring. While not minimizing the very real charms of this relatively minor Ichikawa work, I wonder if it mightn't be of most use in helping to highlight just what it was that Ozu did that his contemporaries could not easily imitate.
Shitamachi no taiyou / Downtown Sun (Yoji Yamada, 1963)
While Yamada starts this early film with a visual homage to Ozu during the credits (factory smokestacks, water tanks, ventilators, trains), he moves into his own territory immediately thereafter. He presents a well-drawn picture of working class life -- centered around a young factory worker (played by a young Chieko Baisho, who would work with him on dozens of films over the next four decades). She is fond of a colleague -- but his parents seem to be set on arranging a more advantageous match (with a relative of a factory supervisor). She meets a less refined young foundry worker (who is an accidental acquaintance of her little brother -- due to their shared fascination with trains). Although this new young man takes an interest in her, she is rather put off by his uncouth exterior. Nonetheless, she finds his acquaintance helpful in forgetting her disappointment over loss of her first love. Meanwhile a girl friend from work who was earlier married off to someone she considered her dream mate, has found out marriage (hers, at least) is not as pleasant as she imagined it would be.
Possibly because this film had a fairly low budget -- or maybe because Yamada felt it was more artistically suitable -- this was shot in black and white 'scope format. In any event, the cinematography by Hiroshi Dowaki is quite good. Chieko Baisho not only turns in a fine lead performance -- she does a nice job singing the film's main theme song (initially as she strolls along the banks on one of Tokyo's many rivers).
Even at this early date (two years after his directing debut), Yamada already displays most of the hallmarks of his later style -- careful attention to the details of the everyday life of ordinary people, the ability to present (and evoke) emotion without resort to manipulative sentimentality, the presentation of social problems in a manner that is not blatantly ideological, and a good eye for effective visual composition. Yamada takes us to places that most of his contemporary colleagues paid little attention to -- to the modern analogs of the sort of lower working class settings that figured in the 30s films of Ozu. And there is neither patronizing nor undue idealization in this traversal of working-class Tokyo. The nice-looking, Japanese DVD of this film has only one "flaw" -- no English subtitles (almost always the case when it comes to classic Japanese cinema).
More screen shots:
Kiiroi namida / Yellow Tears (Isshin Inudou, 2007)
In this film, Isshin visits (fictionally) the same territory covered in a somewhat more straightforward vein in Jun Ichikawa's 1996 Tokiwa: The Manga Apartment. Rather than focusing only on would-be manga authors as Ichikawa did, Isshin's film presents roommates who cover a wider artistic spectrum -- in addition to an aspiring manga artist, we have an author, a painter and a musician. The crew is played by four-fifths of the Japanese boy band Arashi -- with the fifth member of the group also on hand as a local delivery boy.
The film is a blend of well-imagined realism and what would seem to be frank improbabilities -- but would appear to have some foundation in fact, being based on a manga by one of the central figures of post-war manga, Shinji Nagashima. Surprisingly, Isshin uses his crew of pop stars pretty straightforwardly -- resisting the urge to simply rely on their pre-existing images (and popularity). Arashi is supported here by some fine young actresses (include Yu Kashii and Tomoko Tabata) and old veterans (like Kin Sugai).
The roommates are perennially on (or over) the edge of cashlessness -- but on the rare occasions when they bring in some money, they don't necessarily make the wisest of decisions on how to put it to use. The only artistic endeavors portrayed that ring reasonably true are (perhaps not surprisingly) those of the manga artist (played Kazunari Ninomiya). But the overall tone is not the sort of ersatz bathos found in the immensely popular Always -- Sunset on Third Street -- which is little more than an unabashed wallow in reality-free nostalgia for the "good old days" of the 1950s. Isshin brings a fundamental honesty to his films that is more akin to the spirit of Ozu and Naruse than to colleagues content to simply peddle schmaltz. Not quite as good as the real thing, provided by Yamada way back in 1961, but an honorable effort nonetheless.
Kantoku · Banzai! / Glory to the Filmmaker! (Takeshi Kitano, 2007)
Kitano seems to take joy in mystifying and annoying his critics. The West seems to have decided to deal with his brilliant Bunuel-esque Takeshis' by simply pretending it didn't exist. In his newest film, he deconstructs his own creative persona once again, taking an even more in-your-face approach. Unlike Haynes's recent overly-deferential deconstruction of Dylan in I'm Not There, Kitano's effort is (on the surface, at least) utterly frivolous. He begins with a review of a series of failed projects (presided over by a remarkably sententious narrator) and then slips into more extended, utterly deranged tale of a mother-daughter team (Kayoko Kishimotto and Anne Suzuki) whose life becomes entwined with that of Kitano's character -- which turns (sporadically) into a cheesy science fiction film and then ends with the biggest possible of bangs.
Along the way, Kitano offers us a dead-on (but loving) parody of Ozu and a devastating take-down of Always-style faux nostalgia. He also presents a segment inspired by his own 50s childhood -- as a member of a dysfunctional family living in a Tokyo slum. This throw-away episode could (perhaps) have made a fine full-length movie -- but Kitano moves on. Throughout much of the film, Kitano travels about with an almost life-size Kitano doll. Whenever Kitano has any unpleasantness to face (whether a doctor's appointment or a suicide attempt following yet another failure), he leaves it to the doll to cope with.
As with Takeshis', this is a film that practically begs for footnotes. It is stuffed with references to Japanese history and culture -- and to Japanese and world cinema. Does he want people to catch the references -- and ponder their significance? Or is he simply larking, trying to tick off critics who are already hostile even more than ever before? Without a doubt, he intends an invocation of Fellini (as in I'm Not There, we find a giraffe, of sorts) -- but what does it all mean? Perhaps the best way to cope is not to worry, but rather to simply sit back and enjoy. Then again, what if there really is some deeper significance underlying the antics here? Oh well, shikata ga nai (can't be helped).
A few more: