Sunday, July 29, 2007

Watched July 16 - 22, 2007: -- Kinugasa, Imai, Ozu, To and Kabuki

Jujiro / Crossroads (Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1928)

According to JMDB, this was the fifty-fifth film Kinugasa directed (a number he would more than double by the time of his retirement in 1966). This is a somewhat less avant-garde silent film than Kinugasa's Kurutta ippeji (misnamed Page of Madness in English) from a couple of years earlier, but is still reasonably exotic looking. Mostly dark and brooding, with wildly exaggerated acting -- but presented in something approaching a linear fashion, with conventional intertitles. The basic scenario is simple a poor but honest young woman has a younger brother who has gotten himself into trouble due to his hopeless passion for a geisha -- and has also been blinded. Unscrupulous men try to take advantage of our heroine, using her brother's situation as leverage. He recovers his sight, and goes looking for the geisha and runs into more trouble, creating more unhappiness for his sister. The plot is wildly melodramatic and improbable -- and the cinematography is mostly dark and murky. The copy I saw of this was of poor quality, but I doubt even a better looking version would have won me over. Kinugasa, as director here, strikes me as erratic and haphazard -- as he does in his later films.

Dokkoi ikiteru / And Yet We Live (Tadashi Imai, 1951)

Another excellent Imai film about the plight of the under-privileged. This one deals with displaced workers in Tokyo, trying to earn enough to at least allow themselves and their families to scrape by. The primary focus is on a middle-aged father (Chojuro Kawarasaki) and mother (Hatae Kishi) with two young children. After they lose their shack of a home, Kawarasaki sends his family back to their home village and goes to live in a cheap worker's dormitory. Elated when he finds a skilled factory job, he celebrates a bit too much with a shady old buddy (Kanemon Nakamura) and loses the money his old neighborhood friends have loaned him -- for his start at his new job. The job falls through and Kawarasaki goes back to seeking day labor work. Eventually, Nakamura convinces him to help with some illegal scavenger wotk (in a still bombed-out area of Tokyo), based on assurances that such activity was more profitable and entailed little risk. Of course, the two run into trouble. An ellipse finds Kawarasaki re-united with his family -- at the police station. With nowhere to live, the parents are at a loss. Kawarasaki's proposed solution is drastic, spend all they have on a nice day with the children (going to the zoo and having a picnic) followed by suicide for all. His wife continues to oppose the plan (quietly) but agrees to the outing. Late in the afternoon, fate intervenes -- as the couple's son almost drowns while playing with a dilapidated row boat (while the parents are preoccupied with their discussion). The last we see of the father, is his return to the day labor fray, albeit seemingly with a new sense of determination.

Imai and his cinematographer Yoshio Miyajima (later a regular collaborator with Kobayashi) did a remarkable job of interweaving documentary-style footage with impeccably composed (yet none-the-less highly real looking) staged scenes. Comments on Imai's works of this sort invariably invoke the influence of post-war Italian neo-realism -- and ignore Japan's own pre-war realist tradition (Shimizu, Uchida, Ozu, Yamanaka, Naruse et al.). The link with Yamanaka is especially striking -- as Kawarasaki and Nakamura (both former members of the same left-wing theatrical group) were the two lead actors in his Humanity and Paper Balloons. The rest of the cast, including youngster Isao Kimura and old-timer (and Ozu veteran) Choko Iida also do an excellent job of looking and acting like they were part of the extremely impoverished world the film portrays.

Like Uchida before him and Yamada after him, Imai was able to portray the plight of his less fortunate countryman with great sensitivity and without condescension -- while routinely exhibiting excellent visual sensibility. For reasons not entirely clear, most Western (or at least American) commentators have been fairly dismissive of the work of Imai. Apparently leftist sensibilities in makers of popular films (as opposed to avant-garde ones) was something that just was (and still is) not tolerable.

More screenshots:

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Soshun / Early Spring (Yasujiro Ozu, 1956)

In this mid-50s film, Ozu re-visits (for the last time) the world of the salaryman -- a topic near and dear to his heart in the 1930s. Although the economic climate of 50s Japan was decidedly better than that of twenty or so years earlier (when Japan was just edging out of a major depression), the picture Ozu paints of it is, in many ways, bleaker. Ozu is particularly interested here in the impact of the still-developing post-war "corporate culture" on Japanese family life. Ryo Ikebe and Chikage Awashima have been married for about ten years -- and have gradually drifted apart since the death of their only child. Ikebe's focus has shifted more and more to work and to recreation after work with his colleagues from work, leaving Awashima with an increasing sense of futility. While her mother (Kumeko Urabe) counsels patience, Awashima finds her tolerance levels dropping. The situation worsens when Ikebe is drawn into a romance with a co-worker nicknamed Goldfish (Keiko Kishi). At around the time Ikebe is asked to "consider" a transfer to a provincial industrial city, Awashima decides she has had enough -- and moves in with her old school chum (Chieko Nakakita). Ikebe, unable to talk to his wife, moves to his new post alone. Along the way the way, he makes a visit to his mentor (Chishu Ryu) who was previously shunted off to a provincial assignment and (inexplicably, to his colleagues) has made no real push to return to the corporate rat race at the home office. As it turns out, Ryu is pleased to have had the opportunity to spend more time with his wife and children -- and to repair the family relationships frayed by his over-busy professional life in Tokyo. Ryu urges Ikebe to similarly put his temporary posting to productive personal use -- and promises to try to help patch up things between Ikebe and Awashima. One day, on coming home to his rented apartment, Ikebe finds his wife has re-joined him -- and the two, both uncertain and hopeful, begin to think about their future.

Ozu's style here (with cinematography by Yuharu Atsuta) has become quite spare -- but their are still traces of camera movement here and there (some of these, traversing empty corridors briefly, are a bit mysterious). The over-riding tone is bleak -- and portions of the film are a bit seedy. A group hike (during which Ikebe and Kishi escape) offers a bit more liveliness, as do the comic interludes presided over by Urabe. But the over-riding tone is considerably more dour than Ozu's norm. It goes without saying that the performances (and script) are first rate. No, perhaps, one of Ozu's most easy to love films -- but one of considerable interest (despite its over two and a half hour length).

More pictures:

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Ngo joh aan gin diy gwai / My Left Eye Sees Ghosts (Johnnie To and WAI Ka-fai, 2002)

May (Sammi Cheng) falls in love with a rich young man (named Daniel) while on vacation and marries him -- but he dies soon afterward -- leaving his family and friends thinking she must simply be a lucky gold-digger. In fact, she is not able to shake off her grief -- and tries to commit suicide, but is saved by a ghost -- and afterwards she is able to see ghosts, but only with her left eye. With the aid of her father (LAM Suet), May determines that her rescuer ghost must be that of a childhood friend named Ken (LAU Ching-wan). Ken (having died young) tends to behave in a juvenile fashion -- but clearly seems to have had a crush on May (and presumably still does). May has a number of problems -- with both ghosts and with the other females involved in the family business she inherited a part of (Daniel's mother and sister -- and Daniel's long-time, dumped friend). One thinks that the film will mostly be unalloyed silliness, then (as not uncommon), To and Wai shift gears -- and we move into deeper, more moving territory.

Sammi Cheng and LAU Ching-wan are (as one might expect) a delight in this -- and the rest of the cast is first-rate as well. The cinematography by CHENG Siu-kung is a bit offbeat (featuring almost fish-eye-ish distortion at times) but is as generally imaginative and stylish as is his norm. Yet another marvelous To film...

More screen captures:

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Hokaibo -- Heisei Nakamura Za
Lincoln Center, July 21, 2007

The Japan society of Boston sponsored a one (long) day bus trip to New York City to see this kabuki play, which turned out to be a combination comedy-ghost story-romance-gore fest about a greedy and lascivious false priest. Great fun -- and a visual treat (especially in the third (and last) act. This was not your father kabuki performance -- but a very modern one (which paradoxically means it was true to the genuine traditions of kabuki).

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Sasameyuki or The Makioka Sisters: Two Tales of Four Sisters

Sasameyuki / Makioka Sisters / Light Snowfall (Yutaka Abe, 1950)

Junichiro Tanizaki began publishing his Sasameyuki (literally "light snowfall") in serialized form in 1943. After just two installments, however, government censors informed the magazine serializing it that no further episodes should be published (inconsistent with the self-discipline needed for the war effort). Tanizaki published the complete first volume in 1944; the whole novel was finally published in 1949. The story is set in the latter half of the 1930s. It tells the story of a once very prominent Osaka family -- the Makioka family -- which had to make major adjustments after the death of the family patriarch years before (and the gradual withering away of the family business).

The focus is on the four sisters -- Tsuruko (nearing 40 at the outset), Sachiko (mid-30s), Yukiko (near 30) and Taeko (26). The Tsuruko is married to a rather stuffy bank executive; Sachiko to a much more urbane white collar worker. Yukiko, the beauty of the family, is still unmarried. When younger, her family had blown off several promising marriage proposals due to arrogance. As the family's position declined, and Yukiko grew older, the range of possibilities contracted. Taeko has long wanted to marry Okubata (nicknamed "Kei-bon") -- but has not been allowed to do so -- because her older sister still remained unmarried -- and because Kei-bon (whose family owned a jewelry business) was a bit irresponsible. Yukiko and Taeko had been taken care of by Tsuruko for over ten years (after the death of their mother, 17 years prior to the period of the novel). For the past 6 years, however, they had mainly lived with Sachiko and her husband -- in a more modern suburb of Osaka.

While Sachiko is (informally) the primary viewpoint character of the novel, most of the story deals with the family's attempt to marry off Yukiko suitably and Taeko's misadventures as she remains in limbo, waiting for her sister to get married. Taeko continues to maintain a closer relationship with Kei-bon than her family likes (the two had tried to elope when they were younger) and runs a doll-making workshop (and later a dress-making business as well). She also has other romantic entanglements. The first is with a photographer named Itakura, who dies due to medical malpractice, She later gets involved with a bartender named Miyoshi -- and becomes pregnant at a very inopportune time (just as Yukiko is finally on the verge of an excellent marriage). In addition to the romantic adventures of Yukiko and Taeko, the novel also looks at a succession of foreigners who live next door to Sachiko's family, the goings on of Sachiko's daughter Etsuko, and Tsuruko's move (along with her many children) from the old family mansion in Osaka to a new home in Tokyo (due to a promotion her husband receives).

The novel's narration is quite elliptical, so it is a bit hard to tell just how much time passes from start to finish -- my guess is that it is about 3 years or so. The 500+ page novel is, as can be seen above, far too complex to allow a film to cover more than a fraction of its content. As we shall, see the two film versions I've been able to see deal very differently with the problem of adapting the book to the screen.

Shintoho, a new studio that came into being as a result of the labor unrest at Toho, wasted no time in getting out it high-profile adaptation. Its director, Yutaka Abe, though now unknown in the West, had first gained fame as part of the Japanese contingent in Hollywood during the 'teens (where, as an actor, he was known as "Jack"). along with Sessue Hayakawa and Thomas Kurihara. After Hollywood decided it had no further use for Japanese in the early 20s, he returned to Japan, where he began a long and varied career as a director. Very little has been written about Abe in English -- and virtually none of his films have been shown in the West (in the past few decades, at least). so far as I can tell, his version of Sasameyuki in his only film released on DVD in Japan to date.

Abe's solution (and that of script writer Toshio Yasumi, a veteran with a long list or important scripts) to simplifying Tanizaki's complicated novel is quite straightforward -- focus almost exclusively on Taeko's story, with matters involving Yukiko and the rest of the family being presented only in a background fashion, as necessary. The centrality of Taeko in this film is further emphasized by the casting -- the most high-profile star was the actress who played Taeko -- Hideko Takamine (a star since her childhood, a pin-up girl during the war -- very popular but not yet fully established as "grown-up" actress).

In terms of structure, insofar as it goes, Abe's adaptation is quite clear and effective. In terms of acting, it is quite convincing. Takamine is quite good here -- alternately engaging and moody (and conniving). I''m sure she appreciated a role that left her "good girl" film image in tatters -- and she seems to have made the most of it. Abe's version falls a bit flat, however, in terms of visual stylishness. Both staging and cinematography (by Susumu Yamanaka -- otherwise unknown to me) are not especially imaginative and are even a bit clunky at times. While Abe does try to convey a sense of the just-past time period, he does little to establish a sense of place overall. He does provide a good contrast between Sachiko's Western art moderne-ish home and Tsuruko somewhat gone-to-seed family "mansion". All in all, a decent (albeit self-limited adaptation). The new Japanese DVD is unsubbed -- but otherwise passable.

Sasame-yuki / The Makioka Sisters (Kon Ichikawa, 1983)

Abe's novel was re-made (by Daiei) less than a decade after Abe's version. This version, directed by Koji shima (probably best known now as an innovative science fiction film director) featured the cream of Daiei's crop of excellent performers and was shot in color. As far as I can determine, this has never been released on home video -- and I haven't seen any reports as to the quality of this version. Ichikawa's version dates from much later -- at a point when the novel would have been considered a "classic". It is certainly a far "prettier" film than Abe's -- and it tries to retain a balance between the stories of both younger sisters. Otherwise, however, it is a far less satisfactory effort.

Sadly, by the time Ichikawa filmed Tanizaki's masterpiece, his brilliant script-writer spouse Natto Wada was dead (she had actually retired by the mid-60s, however). The script writer here was Shinya Hidaka, who had written scripts for a number of previous (by reputation -- utterly undistinguished) Ichikawa films. The script here is a mess -- smashing most of the key events of the novel into a very short span of time (no more than a year). Obviously, with this such extreme compression, Taeko has no time for an illicit pregnancy (and disastrously botched obstetric care). All in all, the sense of the sisters mainly just drifting along with the tide of time is almost totally lost. And while this version does give more or less equal time to Yukiko and Taeko, it also wastes a considerable amount of time on the relationship of the two older sisters (a minor aspect of the book) -- and tries to make the eldest sister more likable than Tanizaki intended her to be. As with Abe's film, the subsidiary theme of foreign neighbors is completely missing.

The cast here is largely a lackluster one and the performances here are almost uniformly inferior to those in the earlier version. Yuko Kotegawa's Taeko is utterly insipid compared to Takamine's. While Sayuri Yoshinaga makes a lovely-looking Yukiko, her character's part is so poorly written that Yukiko's behavior seems a bit random. As to other roles, the parts are not-well crafted -- so good performers are not able to be really successful.

The cinematography is indeed often pretty -- but rarely beautiful. The prettiness is usually superficial -- if not saccharine. And the one visual element Abe captured wonderfully -- the striking contrast between Sachiko's modern-style home and Tsuruko's imposing but inconvenient old one -- Ichikawa botches. Similarly, where Abe (closer in time to the time in which the novel is set) captures clothing and hair styles of the late 30s fairly well, Ichikawa's film is quite sloppy in this respect. If one is not familiar with either Tanizaki's novel in particular or Japan of the late 1930s in general -- this might be a passably entertaining film. However, judged both in terms of quality of adaptation and overall cinematic quality, Ichikawa's film is sadly lacking. (Especially sadly -- as the kind individual who lent me a copy of the out-of-print subbed video is so fond of the film). I think it is safe to say that the auteur of Ichikawa's best work was the team of Wada and Ichikawa. Ichikawa alone (without even his wife's informal advice) seems to have only a limited capacity to turn out quality films.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Watched July 9 - 15, 2007: -- Ozu, Herzog, Miyazaki (Jr.) -- and more

Higanbana / Equinox Flower (Yasujio Ozu, 1958)

After the crushing rejection of his magnificently bleak Tokyo Twilight, Ozu tried again to present his version of "Father Doesn't Know Best" -- this time as a comedy. While Ineko Arima once again appeared as a daughter at odds with her father, Shin Saburi was given the role of the father. So long as Saburi is talking about other peoples' children, he supports the right of young women to make their own decisions. In particular, he tries to reconcile a friend (chishu Ru) with a daughter (Yoshiko Kuga) who has moved in with her boyfriend without the benefit of marriage. But when his own eldest daughter picks a husband without getting his prior approval, Saburi goes ballistic. Luckily for Arima, in this film she has a supportive mother (Kinuyo Tanaka) and an ingenious friend (Fujiko Yamamoto), who support her cause.

The best performances here are all excellent, but those of Tanaka and Saburi are especially wonderful. Tanaka (appearing for the last time in an Ozu film, almost 30 years after her first film with him) is simply amazing -- as very real, very individualized mother, very unlike her recent iconic mother figures in Mizoguchi's Ugetsu and Sansho. Saburi does an excellent job of displaying his character's split personality -- sometimes affably tolerant and understanding, at other times utterly peremptory and dictatorial. The interaction between the two performers provides a wonderful portrayal of strong and healthy (but far from idealized) marriage. Yamamoto (who was a very popular starlet, known mainly for performing romantic and heroic parts -- on loan from a rival studio) did an excellent job as the daughter's comic friend, vindicating Ozu's decision not to cast her as the daughter. Chieko Naniwa, as her irrepressibly chattering mother, was also quite entertaining.

The new Criterion DVD has generally good subtitles (more complete than those on the UK DVD), but is otherwise less well-produced than some of the other DVDs in Eclipse's Late Ozu box set. The colors are considerably more garish than those on Shochiku's DVD and the DVD contains digitization artifacts that don't exist on the Japanese disc (or its subtitled British descendant). I made screen captures of both versions, but am including those from the Japanese DVD as illustrations here. (Maybe I will do a comparison of the two later on).

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Ta ga tame ni / Portrait of the Wind / literally For Whose Sake? (Taro Hyugaji, 2005)

This film, by a first-time director,about coping (or not) with tragedy has a decent premise, but is somewhat ineffectively written and directed. The story centers about a photographer (Tadanobu Asano) who has recently inherited his late father's photography business and a young woman (Erika Oda) looking for a photograph of her long-estranged father. The two fall in love and get married, but only a few months later she is murdered by a juvenile delinquent (for no particular reason). The younger sister of a lifelong buddy, long in love with Asano herself (Chizuru Ikewaki), tries to help him recover from his grief. However, when the killer is released from detention after only a year or so, Asano is torn between his desire to exact the vengeance the law denied him and his late-blooming relationship with Ikewaki.

The weighty issues here are poorly thought through and developed -- leaving Asano rather adrift much of the time. Oda does a decent job, but ultimately plays only a fairly small part in the proceedings. By far the strongest performance in the film is that of Chizuru Ikewaki, who seems to be one of those rare performers (like Kinuyo Tanaka) able to create something convincing out of cinematic thin air. While Ikewaki is not yet a new Tanaka, Tanaka herself was still only a promising beginner in her early 20s. The cinematography was adequate -- but like the script -- rarely inspired. If only the other elements of the film had risen to Ikewaki's level...

Gedo senki / Tales from Earthsea (Goro Miyazaki, 2006)

Originally Hayao Miyazaki was supposed to direct this adaptation of Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea series -- but he was preoccupied with Howl's Moving Castle for so long (and thinking of retirement as soon as he finished it), so the studio (and Le Guin) decided to allow the project to go ahead under the direction of Miyazaki's son, Goro (a first-time director) instead. Financially, this was a good decision -- as the film made a huge amount of money at the Japanese box office. Artistically, things are far more questionable. And without doubt, Le Guin was very disappointed by the final result.

The film uses the general plot outline of the third Earthsea book The Farthest Shore -- and mixes in tho this (and misuses) some random elements from the first couple of books and some major background elements from the fourth book Tehanu. In addition, Goro Miyazaki tossed in character designs and plot elements fro his father's early manga Shuna's Journey -- and borrowed (way too many) motifs and character designs from his father's older movies. On the other hand, this adaptation jettisons almost all the geography and sociology of Le Guin's watery fantasy world.

The result is an often good looking, but ultimately derivative pastiche. Ironically, Hayao Miyazaki (who first tried to get permission for an adaptation two decades ago) could have made an excellent straightforward adaptation of The Farthest Shore, while his colleague Isao Takahata would have found the more pastoral Tehanu (about Arch-mage Ged in retirement) more his kind of material. The idea of mixing (and mashing) the two books together (mainly to concoct a romance for the young hero of the film -- that doesn't exist in the novels) was a poor one.

I am not certain what someone who has not read Le Guin's stories or seem Hayao Miyazaki's films would think of this. As one who is a fan of both, I found the film quite disappointing -- all in all, the least good Studio Ghibli film to date. On the other hand, even a sub-par Ghibli film can be expected to be visually beautiful -- and this expectation at least is not disappointed. While the character designs are a bit problematic at times, the background designs are utterly gorgeous. Apparently, this film can not be distributed in the United States until 2009, due to licensing issues arising from the US television adaptation.. A subtitled HK DVD should be out soon -- so incorrigble Ghibli fans with multi-region DVD players should be able to satisfy their curiosity without having to pay for the more expensive Japanese release.

Rescue Dawn (Werner Herzog, 2006)

Werner Herzog's 1997 Little Dieter Needs to Fly is one of the most engaging of his (sort of) documentaries. A major attraction of this film was Dieter Dengler himself -- who revisited places associated with his life as a prisoner of war in Laos during the VietNam war. Sadly, Dengler died in 2001, from Lou Gehrig's Disease. Herzog's new film presents Dengler's story of captivity in a dramatized form, with Christian Bale as his stand in.

It is hard to set aside Dengler himself in the earlier film (which is an indispensable one for anyone interested in Herzog's work). That being said, the new film is very well made. The story is, of course, compelling -- and the performances are quite fine, as is the cinematography of Peter Zeitlinger (who also shot Little Dieter and many other , more recent Herzaog films). Supposedly (according to some critics), the "most commerical" of Herzog's films to date, it is nonetheless a worthy effort, even if it is not a new Aguirre or Stroszek.

Forest Hills Lantern Festival

Every July for the past nine years, Forest Hills Cemetery in Boston has hosted a Latern Festival, inspired by the traditional o-bon ceremony from Japan (also held in July or August, depending on the region). Ideally, such ceremonies should take place next to a moving body of water, so that floating lanterns can glide gently along with the current. Lake Hibiscus at Forest Hills is only a pond, but with even a reasonable amount of breeze, lanterns are blown into the center, making a lovely twilight spectacle. As usual, the placement of lanterns was preceded by teen-aged Japanese dancers, younger and older Chinese dancers, a gospel group and marvelous performance by Samurai Taiko.