Friday, June 05, 2009

Collected short takes, older films

An assemblage of (mostly) short notes on films seen earlier this year. This post collects comments on older films (with comments on a newer version of one older film). My next post will aggregate remarks on some newer films.

Gyakuryu / Backward Flow (Buntaro Futagawa, 1924)

Like Futagawa's later Orochi (see below), this features silent super-star Tsumasaburo Bando as a wronged hero, pushed into seeking vengeance. In this case, the protagonist is even more floridly dysfunctional as the result of his mistreatment. Interestingly over the top.

Orochi (Buntaro Futagawa, 1925)

A silent chambara starring Tsumasaburo Bando (one of Japan's first great action stars). One of the few nearly complete films from this era. Bando plays a mistreated samurai who falls into bad company after escaping from prison (he was framed). When he encounters his lost love, he is forced to choose between loyalty to his crooked patron and love (though she is now married to another samurai, who seems to be quite ill). Visually impressive (despite lots of story improbabilities).

Yajikita son'nô no maki / Yaji and Kita - Yasuda's Rescue (Tomiyasu Ikeda, 1927)
Yajikita Toba Fushimi no maki / Yaji and Kita - The Battle of Toba Fushimi (Tomiyasu Ikeda, 1928)

Fragments of two films featuring comic star Goro Kawabe and dramatic star Denjiro Okochi as a Laurel and Hardy-esque pair of ne'er-do-wells (actually modeled on Wallace Beery and Raymond Hatton) who get embroiled in adventures around the time of the fall of the shogunate. Lots of silly fun -- too bad so little survives.

Dokuro / The Skull (Sentaro Shirai, 1927)

Kabuki star turned movie idol Utaemon Ichikawa plays a Christian warlord, in the last struggle against the Shogun, who is committed to stamping out Christianity. Meanwhile his lover (and their infant) is not faring well on the homefront. Visually stunning, I wish I could give due credit to the cinematographer. Apparently Shirai (who was incinerated in Hiroshima) created only a modest body of work -- and most of his other films are lost.

Sozenji baba (Masahiro Makino, 1928)

A sore loser samurai kills a fellow samurai who had beat him in a mock sword fight earlier in the day (leading to more teasing than he could bear). He flees to Osaka where he catches the fancy of a gang boss's pretty daughter (who also is pretty good with her six-guns). He is embarrassed after he is rescued (by help she hires) when kinsman of his victim come to avenge the crime. When the next wave of avengers comes, our heroine just won't give up the fight to defend her man. Visually impressive -- and loads of fun. (seems to have a few gaps).

Kurama tengu (Teppei Yamaguchi, 1928)
Kurama tengu - Kyôfu jidai / the Dreadful times of Kurama Tengu (Teppei Yamaguchi, 1928)

Kurama Tengu (the devil from Kurama) was the alias of a defender of the poor (and the Emperor) in the huge struggle between the forces of the Shogun and the Emperor just before the Meiji Restoration -- a character rather reminiscent of Zorro (a hit in Japan of that day) and the Lone Ranger. He was the central figure in a long series of short adventure films, aimed largely at children (with children featured prominently as both objects of protection and protective helpers).

The first of these films featured lots of remarkably choreographed fight scenes. Frightful Days, however, is much more atmospheric -- and reminiscent of Fantomas -- about an impostor (head of a band of thugs) masquerading as Kurama Tengu -- to make money and destroy his reputation.

Interestingly, KT's major opponent through the series is not a villain -- but a hero (albeit one devoted to the cause of the Shogun). There are villains, but they are lesser beings. And then there are the leading females -- the sweet young woman (sister of a villain) who takes care of homeless child acrobats and a pistol-toting "spy" (daughter of KT's most devoted supporter), who may or may not ultimately have a heart of gold.

Raiden (Shozo Makino, 1928)

Raiden means "thunder and lightning" -- the professional name of the protagonist, a sumo star of the late 18th and early 19th century. This short film is pretty much a slapstick comedy. Raiden's elderly mother (using a rather dastardly trick) has forbidden him from winning his next bout (she fears he is winning too much, incurring too much ill will from opponents and their noble patrons). Meanwhile, a samurai has rashly boasted he had a wrestler who could beat Raiden (having no wrestler on his staff at all). A quackish mountain priest (Masahiro Makino, a former child-star for his father, already moving into directing himself) gets pressed into service -- and poor Raiden must desperately try not to defeat his utterly inept rival. Lots of fun.

Ronin-gai / Samurai Town -- I and II (Masahiro Makino, 1929)

All that remains of the first film is the concluding battle -- and it is a stunner.

The second film is sort of a day (or so) in the life of poor (unemployed or mis-employed) samurai. I has an unusual structure -- with multiple story lines, none really resolved fully. Interesting, but not as entertaining as Sozenji baba. I would guess that this provided some inspiration to Sadao Yamanaka -- who would soon tackle films with a similar setting.

Chûkon giretsu - Jitsuroku Chûshingura (Shozo Makino, 1928)
Shijushichinin no shikaku / 47 Loyal Ronin (Kon Ichikawa, 1994)

Two versions of Chuishingura, separated by almost 70 years. One is quite impressive, the other is mostly a turkey. Makino's version (with the missing final section supplied from a film made by his son a bit later) is remarkable. Although old-fashioned in a few ways ways, it is still quite effective. Ichikawa's version on the other hand is quite inauthentic in content, and often plodding; action scenes are lackluster.

Uwasa no musume / The Girl in the Rumour (Mikio Naruse, 1935)

A marvelous film visually, even if occasionally a little abrupt narratively. A story of two sisters, the older being more traditional, the younger a "moga" ("modern girl"). Their widowed father runs the family sake shop -- but is running into financial trouble (causing him to make some bad decisions). Meanwhile, his long-time mistress's little business is also on the rocks. Amidst this, the older sister is introduced to a well-off suitor (a university boy who is much more intrigued by the less traditional "little sister"). Add a dotty grandfather, an officious uncle and busy body neighbors -- and you have a very good (but probably not quite “masterpiece” level) Naruse film.

Otome-gokoro - Sannin-shimai / Three sisters With Maiden Hearts (Mikio Naruse, 1935)

Visually (and aurally) splendid adaptation of a Kawabata story about three sisters, whose mother exploits them (and other young women), forcing them to panhandle musically. Lots of experimentation by Naruse and cinematographer Hiroshi Suzuki -- blurring in and out of flash-backs -- and flashbacks inside of flashbacks, all in the context of as tyle which is (overall) proto-neo-realist. Yet another Naruse film that one probably needs to classify as a masterpiece.

Nadare / Avalanche (Mikio Naruse, 1937)

A rare miss. Based on a then-popular book -- and the script is far too dialog-heavy. Naruse (and assistant director Akira Kurosawa) and his cinematographer (not a Naruse regular) come up with little in the way of visual story telling. One experiment fails -- pulling a dark shade over a character, while their inner thoughts are spoken. It might have sounded good in concept -- but it flops -- and helps add to the overall over-wordiness of the film.

Sanjuusangen-dou, toushiya monogatari / A Tale of Archery at the Sanjusangendo (Mikio Naruse, 1945)

The Sanjusangendo was located less than a mile from our bed and breakfast in Kyoto -- so we put off visiting until the last minute -- and got there about 5 minutes to late (leaving us to peer through an occasional gate) as we walked around the walled perimeter of the temple compound.

The temple in question is a very long one -- and noted for (1) having a very special statue of Kanon (Kwan Yin) plus 1000 additional statues of Kanon, lining all the walls and (2) being the site of archery competitions for about 400 years.

The official central figure in the film is the orphaned teenage son of a samurai who committed suicide after failing to break an archery record (due to some sort of clan rivalry). He has been protected (and raised) by a kind-hearted innkeeper (Kinuyo Tanaka) for 10 years -- but now wants to break the record his father failed to break. His training is not going as well as it should (an he is increasingly at risk from his father's old enemies), when a mysterious stranger (super-star Kazuo Hasegawa) comes to his aid.

The youth is callow (sometimes annoyingly so), but one soon notes that Naruse is more interested in the interplay between Tanaka and Hasegawa -- who are both splendid, Parts of this are wonderful, others are a little clunky -- but very worth seeing.

Historical note -- shot on location (more or less) in Kyoto as Tokyo was being burned to the ground by American fire bombing.

Inazuma / Lightning (Mikio Naruse, 1952)

Almost surely my favorite film from the year of my birth -- and near the top of my list of (many) Naruse favorites. Hideko Takamine is absolutely wonderful as the youngest (adult) child of a rather dysfunctional family. One of Naruse's most optimistic films -- as Takamine manages (at least partly) to seek a path to a more orderly (and rewarding life).

Yukinojo henge / An Actor's Revenge (Kon Ichikawa, 1963)

The new US DVD of this is quite adequate (even if it has little in the way of extras).

As is usually (always?) the case with Ichikawa's collaborations with his screenwriter wife (Natto Wada), one finds a wonderful film -- in this case built on the foundation of a rather silly 1930s swashbuckler (seemingly set right before the opening of Japan to the West). Kazuo Hasegawa, the hero of the original version, reappears in his original role (a young man, who is a kabuki actor specializing in playing women characters) and in a second major part -- as a sort of do gooder master thief (who serves as an observer and comentator on events from time to time). (The film was made, in part, to celebrate Hasegawa's 300th film role). Fujiko Yamamoto plays the leader of a pickpocketing crew from Osaka (also consisting of chambara super-stars Raizo Ichikawa and Shintaro Katsu) who falls for Hasegawa. (FY seems to have retired from acting after this film -- no clue I can find as to what she moved on to). The rest of the cast (including Ganjiro Nakamura and Ayako Wakao) is quite good as well).

Ironiya sudby, ili S legkim parom! The Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath! (Eldar Ryazanov, 1975)

The show that supplanted the adaptation of Shostakovich's Cheryomushki as the must-see movie on Russian television for New Years Eve, this starts with a brief homage to the older film. A mild-mannered doctor from Moscow is supposed to propose to his girlfriend on New Years Eve, but winds up mistakenly shipped to Petersburg -- after he and his buddies party (and drink) a bit too much at the bath house (an annual ritual for a group of school buddies). He winds up at an identical apartment at the same address as his own -- albeit in a different city (and, of course his key works). The 30-something teacher who occupies the apartment is stunned to find a drunk stranger sprawled on her bed (with her own suitor soon to arrive). After 3 hours, most problems are ironed out. Amusing -- but nowhere near the level of Shostakovich's Cheryomushki, either cinematically or musically.

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