You can not find a more breathlessly adventurous and rewarding a period of Japanese cinema than the golden years of 1950-1955. The number of era-defining international monsters of world cinema produced by Japan in this period is arguably unmatched in any national cinema over any five year period: Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, Ikiru, and Rashomon, Yaujirō Ozu’s Tokyo Story and Early Summer, Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff. In this treasure-trove of embarrassing riches, Gate of Hell is usually considered an also-ran. Certainly, it qualifies as a “deep cut”, but only unfairly. Yes, it is no Tokyo Story or Ugetsu, but Gate of Hell is a stunning achievement, and it is stunning in a way that no other Japanese masterpiece from the period is. Continue reading
Now, for “Film Favorites”, two of the most beautiful experiments in color ever made: Akira Kurosawa’s Ran and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes.
Beauty comes in all shapes and sizes, they say, but seldom has a film been so accidentally beautiful as Akira Kurosawa’s final epic of the cinema. Nearing his ’80s, the ever-productive Kurosawa could no longer see across the great distances required to aim a camera at the monumental swaths of chaos and order he wished to assemble and unleash in front of the camera. Functionally, in essence, he couldn’t direct the film he wanted to, but that didn’t stop him, nor did it hamstring him.
Edited and Updated 2016
Yasujiro Ozu is the sort of filmmaker for whom each film is but one slice of the whole. Each work was a quiet prayer for the human existence, but they do not individually begin or end so much as always exist, flowing off the screen and into one another to create a tapestry of past, present, and future. Tokyo Story is usually considered his most enduring film, partially for outside reasons (it was the one historically most available in the West for one), and while the film speaks for itself, it does Ozu a disservice to play the game of superlatives and pass them all Tokyo Story’s way, as so many Western viewers have taken to over the years. He was a quiet, reserved director who let his images do the talking, and each image exists primarily in tandem with those around it, and to those of his entire career. Many of the things that can be said of Tokyo Story, and have been said throughout the decades, apply to his corpus of work; Tokyo Story itself serves a utilitarian purpose to elucidate what made the director’s style so attuned to humanity’s woes, and so able to transcend simple melancholy for perhaps the most warming, comforting filmmaking to ever be given to this world. But if Tokyo Story “defines” Ozu, that is because Ozu so carefully defines Tokyo Story in the way he would define all of his films.
Two Midnight Screenings were originally intended for publishing this week, but they got a little long individually and separating them seemed more appropriate. Besides, more than any other film I can think of, this week’s entry stands on its own.
Sometimes you wander into the wilds of film land and come back a changed person. Sometimes, however, a film grabs you kicking and screaming into the wilds and you aren’t even afforded the privilege of returning a changed person, and the challenge of writing about such a film dumbfounds and exercises the mind beyond its safely mechanical, utilitarian qualities. Ladies and gentlemen, Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House.
Released in 1977, the perplexing and ever-inquisitive House (Hausa in its native Japanese) defies expectation and thumbs its nose at common sense, knocking down the pieces of classical Japanese Kabuki ghost stories before it even sets them up. Obayashi’s “horror” doesn’t begin until the audience is well within the film’s vortex, entrapped in its visionary milieu. Well before anything that even rumors to chill the spine, Obayashi has already lulled us into his alarmingly postmodern variation on everything from irrepressible teenage determinism and heightened melodrama to Harlequin romance to the backstages of film production.
When today’s youth approaches the world of Japanese filmmaking, the most ubiquitous name is not Kurosawa, nor Ozu, nor Mizoguchi, but Miyazaki, the marvelous maestro guiding his Stuido Ghibli toward the clouds lifting up human imagination, and particularly childhood emotion, rendered sublime. It’s perhaps fitting that Miyazaki has taken up the mantel, for he combines the best of the past into a whole equal parts grandiose and sweeping (Kurosawa), spiritually elegiac (Ozu), and mournfully mythic (Mizoguchi). It seems inappropriate to discuss Japanese cinema without him, and it seemed inappropriate to not take the opportunity to review his two most achingly personal, most emotionally pure movies. That the two were released simultaneously in a theatrical double-bill, and that they are linked by so many diegetic features only to be as tonally opposite as any two films ever were, is an all the more fascinating testament to Miyazaki’s exploration of humanity at its most unrestrained and least affected.
My Neighbor Totoro
My Neighbor Totoro is at its best when it is at its simplest, which thankfully is every single frame of every single scene in the whole film. It is a deeply streamlined work, lacking superfluous event to the point where it is almost non-narrative in its impression of childhood amazement. The narrative mostly boils down to eight year old Satsuki (Hidaka Noriko) and her, for lack of a better term, adventures in the forest next to her new rural home. Continue reading
Update late 2018:
With all the claims about the 2014 American update inaugurating the “post-human” blockbuster, I was reminded on a re-watch of the original how salient Ishiro Honda’s crisis-ridden cinematic creature is. Charged with atomic energy, Honda conjures not only a hundred-foot paleolithic behemoth but a reckoning with a past come to haunt us, a vision of pre-modernity wreaking havoc with our pretensions toward teleological progress into the future. In its vastly more noirish, pugnacious way, Gojira plays like the B-side to the prior year’s Tokyo Story, Yasujiro Ozu’s take on the crisis of modernity and the dialectics of the private-public divide. Although punchier and not as meditative, Gojira, perhaps no less than Ozu’s film itself, is fully aware of its own paradoxes, and, especially in its final anti-cathartic gesture – science immolating itself to correct its own mistakes – fully aware of the paradoxes which construct modernity itself.
Watching the original 1954 Japanese version of Gojira (or Godzilla, its American title) brings haunting, caustic visual poetry to the collective suffering of a post-war nation still reeling from World War II and the H-Bomb Drop. The film is an exposed wound, a lesion on a collective consciousness. It has the big man, of course, in the titular character, but it has much more: humans fending for their lives, running around in total chaos not only from an attack but the impression of an attack leftover from a previous life. Godzilla bestows its titular figure with a looming presence – he towers over the film even when he’s not on screen that often, going beyond the physical object and into the doom lying down on the hearts and souls of Japan. He is an idea more than a physical presence. The film is draped in a malaise of human inactivity on the eve of assured destruction, and a realization, after all, that there is little to be done against a force so impenetrably inhuman. And yet so penetratingly human he is. Continue reading
Akira Kurosawa came to Seven Samurai at a flux, but the ripples of his magnificent cultural clash are still felt today. Birthed on a long line of films seeking a sort of safety in cultural traditionalism, he’d by 1950 established a certain formal rigidity in his films to befit this traditionalism that he extended into the stratosphere and elevated to high art. But Seven Samurai was him flexing his muscles, and his attitude toward the world, in a bid to implicitly challenge the culture he’d grown with, even as he naturally upheld that culture all the same. In its own way, Seven Samurai saw him growing, bending, and testing the limits of the Japanese samurai film. It also saw him feeling the ensuing pain and cognitive dissonance of his actions, not unlike Western films like The Searchers and High Noon for American cinema around this time. But while those films saw America grappling with its fundamental lie, that of individual freedom and fluid class boundaries, Seven Samurai saw Kurosawa tackle the mid-century Japanese focus on static class boundaries by adding a dose of new-found fluidity and freedom to his formally composed camerawork, and to his strong, silent characters. Like those films, Seven Samurai is caught in its own dissonance, radicalizing even as it remains resolutely traditional to the point of fable– but here it’s a fable of a nation coming to terms with itself.
Edited because sometimes I can be a lame white critic who doesn’t know as much about Japanese culture as I should.
With 13 Assassins, Takashi Miike, long-renowned for his excessively violent explorations into grisly, highly presentational Jackson Pollock blood splattering by way of horror, approximates growing up. But he isn’t above a little gleeful violence while he’s at it. To this extent, he absolutely has his cake and devours it too, combining two filmmaking styles into one, sometimes uneasily, but knowingly so: the stately, moody, quiet feeling of mid-century Japanese samurai-Shakespeare and the modern stylistic kitsch of kinetic energy-above-logic action pictures. That we will not expect the two together, Miike bets his top dollar. In fact, he intentionally distances the two styles, all-but formally announcing the film as a work of two parts, one subdued and one that hits with the force of a tornado. It’s an exercise in formal style and genre more than it is a narrative, but when a film is this well made sometimes a pesky narrative getting in the way is just one more obstacle to be avoided. Continue reading
Kenji Mizoguchi, Japan’s master filmic fable-maker, has only recently re-emerged in the Western world as a living, breathing entity after years of seeming abandonment to the history books. This is all the more curious because, barring Kurosawa’s Rashomon, he was the Western world’s first introduction to Japanese cinema and by far the most popular Japanese director internationally at the time (yes, more popular than Kurosawa). And yet he was almost swept away on the currents of forgotten time. Pity, and indeed ironic, because of the three acknowledged masters of Japanese cinema (Ozu, Kurosawa, Mizoguchi), his films are by far the most timeless. While Ozu dealt in eerily impressionist and heartbreaking depictions of his present-day Japan, and Kurosawa brought down the hammer with classical themes rendered bigger than life, Mizoguchi’s films were haunting, elegiac statements of dread that nonetheless discovered an eternal humanity and respect for all humans in elevating their shared depression to mythic status. Continue reading
A film of quiet, haunting beauty, Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu is a ghost story of the most chilling variety. It isn’t about the terror ghosts can cause passingly to you, what they can make you feel, and how they can even cause you bodily harm; it’s about what they can make you do, how they can control you, and how you can be made agency-less by your own desires manifested in the world around you. It’s the story of two brothers: Genjuro, who quests after money, and Tobei, who wants fame and honor. When Genjuro goes to the city to sell the pots he makes, he finds himself awash in the glories of monetary success, and when Tobei tags along, he eventually gets lost in the armor of a samurai he kills. It’s a grand tragedy of two men driven by ambition and obsession, a drama of Shakespearean proportions given quiet, breathing life, above all, by pure visual and aural craftsmanship. We look in and it looks back with quiet rage and somber mournfulness. We look in and it makes us wish we hadn’t. Continue reading