Monday, June 01, 2009

Naruse, Imai, Bodrov, Kawase and Ikeda

Sakasu gonin-gumi / Five Men in a Circus (Mikio Naruse, 1935)

The fourth (and lightest weight) of the five films Naruse made for PCL (later part of Toho) in his first year after his departure from Shochiku. Perhaps inspired (a bit) by Ozu's Story of Floating Weeds (made in 1934), this depicts two sets of wandering performers -- a five man band of itinerant musicians (playing Western instruments) and a small-time circus run by a grumpy old tyrant (with two lovely daughters). When all the male circus performers go on strike, the circus hires the five musicians to fill in. Even if "minor" Naruse, the film is charming, visually lovely and sociologically fascinating -- showing an immense amount of westernization in the midst of rural Japan -- classical music, ballet, cabaret, etc.

Bushidô zankoku monogatari / Cruel Story of the Samurai's Way (Tadashi Imai, 1963)
Adauchi / Revenge (Tadashi Imai, 1964)

In Bushido, Imai seems to have taken on more thematically) than he could handle in one (2 hour) film. He tries to show the stultifying effects of submission to state (and family) power throughout the ages (from the medieval era until the present). Some parts work well, others seem a bit cursory. I found it rather a jumble, overall.

In Adauchi, on the other hand, Imai takes a more focused (but still ferociously critical) look at the way the samurai system not only ran roughshod over individual human values but made a mockery of even the values it claimed to uphold. He leaves any parallels to modern times up to the viewer to find themselves.

I found this dramatically and cinematographically more compelling than the highly touted works of Kobayashi (Samurai Rebellion, Harakiri) which cover similar ground -- despite the fact that Imai had a far less accomplished cast (Toei just couldn't provide the deluxe casting that either Shochiku or Toho could provide). This deserves to be far better known.

Mongol (Sergei Bodrov, 2007)

A big, dumb movie -- but often remarkably gorgeous looking (with fairly decent performances). Seems to simply illustrate random (and largely unconnected) moments of Genghis Khan's early days. The (copious) fake blood here makes that in Kitano's Zatoichi look positively life-like.

Nanayomachi / Nanayo (Naomi Kawase, 2008)

A heartbreaker. All the little things that irritated me about the last part of Mourning Forest show up here in full force. Some lovely travel pictures, but dramatically atrocious (with equally atrocious performances). The worst movie I've ever seen by a director I admire.

Tounan kadobeya nikai no onna (Chihiro Ikeda, 2008)

Note : Literally translated, this is something like "the woman of the southeast corner apartment on the second floor", but is mysteriously (and not very appropriately) renamed Tokyo Rendezvous in English.

This debut feature film of a young woman director is quite delightful overall. Clearly shot on a low budget (the DVD makes the quality look rather VHS-ish) but has a first-rate cast -- including Kyoko Kagawa (Tokyo Story, Sansho, Bad Sleep Well). Somewhat in the vein of Jun Ichikawa's loving looks at down-scale Tokyo, mixed with a bit of Yoji Yamada's more populist take on similar material. This covers issues like pressures towards marriage in young professionals, urban land ownership, and finding a place in life (physically and psychically) where one feels comfortable. I fear this will never cross the ocean theatrically, but the Japanese DVD is subbed (for anyone who might be interested).

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