setsuled: (Frog Leaf)


As difficult and strange as cultural change can be, it tends to manifest very close to home, if not in the home, as in the case of Yasujiro Ozu's 1950 film The Munekata Sisters (宗方姉妹). Two sisters, an older and a younger, have different personalities, one shaped more by pre-World War II Japan and the other shaped more by U.S. occupied Japan. Like Kurosawa, Ozu shows in his film that western conceptions of democracy and personal liberty were in many ways healthy new influences on the culture but, while this film isn't quite as eloquent as his better known films, Ozu does succeed in suggesting there are some things lost in such cultural changes because their value cannot be explained in simple logic.

Ozu makes it crystal clear which culture holds sway over which sister. The elder, Setsuko (Kinuyo Tanaka), always wears kimonos and is generally more reserved in her manners while Mariko (Hideko Takamine) always wears western style blouses and skirts. But as with cultural change in general, it's hard to see how much is due to Mariko's youthful rebelliousness and how much is due to Setsuko being set in her ways.



Certainly Mariko seems in many ways still a child. Her father, Ozu's usual face of tranquil wisdom, Chishu Ryu, chides her for her habit of sticking her tongue out.



Mariko's unsure herself if she's behaving properly and needs reassurance, despite her outward assertiveness, and she explains this is why she reads her sister's diary without her permission, to find out if the elder sister was like Mariko when she was her age. And Mariko is surprised to find Setsuko was in love at one time with a young man named Hiroshi (Ken Uehara) but their affair ended when Hiroshi left for France and Setsuko married Mimura (So Yamamura).



We find out that Mimura also read Setsuko's diary and that's why he's out of work and slowly drinking himself to death. Setsuko runs a bar and supports Mimura, just one of the reasons Mariko thinks she should divorce him. When Hiroshi comes back to town, Mariko makes it her personal mission to get Setsuko and Hiroshi back together.



Mariko has no doubts about her quest but it's hard to say how unhappy Setsuko really is since she has that reserved demeanour, seeming perfectly happy to do the household chores for Mimura, though she does stick up for herself when Mimura's drunk and says unreasonable things to her.

At the bottom of the basic philosophical struggle seems to be a conflict between whether it is better to assert oneself to attain happiness and achievements or whether one should take others into consideration and sacrifice for them--and this dichotomy doesn't always match up with the Japanese and Western dichotomy, sometimes one valuing sacrifice more than the other and vice versa. This makes things all the more confusing as Western ideals of sacrifice set off Japanese conceptions of self-denial.



Being young and championing a very firm point of view of right or wrong, however much she might be insecure secretly, Mariko doesn't understand why it's so hard for people to change their lives, why it's so hard for Setsuko to simply get a divorce and reunite with Hiroshi. One character has to explain to Mariko how difficult it must be for the kamikaze pilot who now works at the bar whose life was once about giving everything up for Japan but is now about just being a waiter.



A quote from Don Quixote with a jaunty Johnnie Walker statue at the bar become less and less funny the more they're shown and the more Mimura drinks and this seems a poignant symbol of the unforeseen consequences of dropping aspects of one culture into another.
setsuled: (Doctor Chess)


Great crimes, tragedies, and suffering occur alongside the silly, mundane, and lovely. This can be difficult to illustrate in a film but Sadao Yamanaka accomplished it in his great 1936 film Kochiyama Soshun, one of the director's only three surviving films. The influence he exerted on Japan's better known great filmmakers can be seen in how Kochiyama Soshun starts out feeling like an Ozu film and ends feeling like Kurosawa.

Kochiyama Soshun was a real person, a well known figure in Japan from the early 19th century, Yamanaka's film is based on a kabuki play about his life. Played by Chojuro Kawarasaki, he comes across as a laid back, virtuous, and incredibly clever thief. We meet him playing shogi, a Japanese variant of chess, with a man who swindles people on the street by having them stake money on games. But Kochiyama outswindles the swindler, winning 50 ryo. Chess proves once again the universal shorthand for showing a character to be clever. Taking the money back to the gambling den he calls home with his wife, we see him telling her to grant every request for a loan that comes in, one of the ways we start meeting the diverse characters in what turns out to be a mostly ensemble film.

The standout is sixteen year old Setsuko Hara in one of her first films. She plays Onami, a sweet sake seller who's loved by everyone. She already conveys that uncanny, unaffected innocence and affectionate nature which made her one of the most popular actresses in Japan for decades. Her voice is a little higher pitched and she seems to speak a little more through her nose than she does later, maybe a sign of less confidence as a performer, but she's pretty adorable.

Onami's concerned about her younger brother, whom she seems to be acting as mother for. He spends his time at Kochiyama's gambling den and then he gets himself into real trouble when he runs off with a prostitute owned by the local yakuza boss. Onami, who we see is so shy she doesn't even want to enter the gambling den to look for her brother, suddenly finds herself faced with the idea she might need to sell herself to the yakuza as restitution.

A ronin named Kaneko (Kanemon Nakamura) has started working for the same gang though his sense of personal honour keeps him from feeling ashamed of disobeying an order, as when he goes to punish Kochiyama for winning the shogi scam but instead ends up becoming Kochiyama's drinking buddy.

Meanwhile, the film also gives us the story of an older samurai whose knife Hiro stole and then sold to an auctioneer. The film takes its time to follow a couple other guys competitively bidding on the item and then having them run into the samurai, who buys it back from the winner, though he seems convinced that it's fake. It's not perfectly clear he really thinks it's fake--it might be a bargaining tactic. This thread does end up becoming relevant in the end when several seemingly unrelated stories come together for an amazing and brutal fight sequence.

I'd been trying to track this movie down for years until a few nights ago when I found, as happens surprisingly often, the whole thing's been uploaded to YouTube. Check it out before some asshole decides he can claim to YouTube he somehow owns the copyright to this public domain 1936 film.



Twitter Sonnet #1012

The heart's in crossing lines of grey and gold.
Too fast the sandwich burns on greasy pans.
A tired stop removes the wheels of old.
The burning vales of Mars have many fans.
A car bereft of Flintstone feet was dead.
The circuit shadows drift around the room.
In longer gloves, a glory lies in bed.
Along the trails of rubber bats was doom.
Collections grew of variants to chess.
A hundred feathers tripped together first.
An idle bowl contains no worser cess.
Let drowsy monks and gamblers slake their thirst.
The brow became a hat when lines were pulled.
It's always hot when time and space are wooled.
setsuled: (Skull Tree)


It's harder to applaud a man's decision not to kill when the movie he's in so stacks the deck in favour of killing. In 1958's Rusty Knife (錆びたナイフ), former gangster Tachibana (Yujiro Ishihara) has to fight the urge to kill again even when he learns the yakuza syndicate who seem invulnerable to prosecution gang raped his girlfriend who then killed herself. With its bittersweet Masaru Sato theme song, the point of the film seems to be that ridiculous morality ties the hands of good men--not unlike American films like Death Wish or Russian films like Brat, its ostensibly anti-gangster message works out to be pro-gangster in real life. It's a bit silly but also ominous.



Tachibana's working as a bartender at the start of the movie. Police regularly stop by to try to get him to rat on his former associations but, despite having renounced the lifestyle, Tachibana is still bound by a code of honour. On one occasion, Keiko (Mie Kitahara), the daughter of a man who committed suicide under suspicious circumstances, overhears the cops asking Tachibana about his death.



Meanwhile, Tachibana's young friend, Makoto (Akira Kobayashi), is falling under the influence of the yakuza and takes hush money to party with a disreputable woman. Soon he's in hot water, too, and Tachibana blames himself. But after he killed the man whom he thought was solely responsible for his girlfriend's rape, Tachibana is afraid to take up his rusty knife, despite the fact that every time a gangster is arrested he's almost immediately released when witnesses are paid off or knocked off. Then Tachibana learns that his girlfriend was gang raped and it becomes even harder for him to resist the urge to kill. And, really, any viewer would want him to go on a killing spree at this point.



But it's good to remember how the movie is manipulating the audience. Tachibana was a former member of this gang and are we to believe he'd never heard of gangsters committing rape before? How feasible would it be to learn the identities of everyone guilty in a gang rape if the yakuza control so much of the information? The movie gives a bunch of two dimensional bad guys, how easy would it be to judge who deserves to die in real life? The film presents the idea that one man should be above the law because he's the only good man and the only one who can see clearly. The only way we know this is from how the film manipulates our perspective on the situation. It's films like this that led to later films by Seijun Suzuki and Takeshi Kitano that undermine the presumptions of the genre.



Rusty Knife is well shot with some really nice compositions of shadow. There are a few nice action sequences, including a good truck chase, and its Masaru Sato score is, as usual, great. It's also one of those movies from late 1950s, early 1960s Japan that heavily features the period's lovely, jazzy bar scene.
setsuled: (Skull Tree)


You can't talk through some problems and it's hard to say if it's better or worse when the person you're with knows this. 1957's I Am Waiting (俺は待ってるぜ) is like a great, classic noir in its first half as a suicidal opera singer and a washed up boxer bond over the similar emotional issues that also keep them acutely aware of the unnavigable distance between them. The second half disappointingly drifts into a more typical revenge film and both characters are flatted out, particularly the female lead. But the whole film's beautifully shot with a great, torchy score by Masaru Sato.



Trying to find a video clip of the opening song on YouTube, I see it became a big karaoke hit. Here's a more professional performance:



The film begins when tough guy restaurant owner, Joji (Yujiro Ishihara), comes across a woman who calls herself Saeko (Mie Kitahara) at night, contemplating dark waters.



He convinces her to come back with him and he feeds her, explaining to her he knows quite well there's nothing else he can do. She gradually warms to the idea of staying in the spare room and working in the restaurant.



They each slowly learn about each other's pasts and it turns out everyone's killed someone--Joji, Saeko, and a doctor who frequents the bar. And no-one's quite sure how guilty they ought to feel. When the unrelated plot about Joji's missing brother turns into a story about Joji needing to avenge him, I thought the film was going to go the Quiet Man route with Joji slowly accepting he needs to be a fighter again despite the unresolved feelings he has about the man he accidentally killed with his fists. But things get more straight forward than that--Joji commits to his mission and Saeko drifts into the sidelines, becoming a fairly typical girlfriend character.



Still, the action's pretty good and Yujiro Ishihara is good in fight scenes, cutting an imposing physical presence and possessed of quick reflexes. Saeko has a couple nice musical numbers. The fact that Joji actually whistles his theme tune at one point makes me feel this was another movie Seijun Suzuki had in mind when he made Tokyo Drifter, probably feeling, as I did, that I Am Waiting ought to have gone further with its characters.
setsuled: (Skull Tree)


Naturally, real life gangsters aren't generally very romantic figures, which might be easy to forget with even some movies that aim to be more realistic inevitably portraying them as charming underdogs. Which isn't necessarily bad--gangsters are people, too, after all, and may be as complicated as anyone else. But I am thankful now and then for a movie like "Beat" Takeshi Kitano's 1990 film 3-4X October (3-4X10月, released in English speaking countries under the really dumb title Boiling Point). Here's a movie that leaves you with the impression that yakuza are chiefly ugly-spirited, frightening, and pathetic. It's a very cold, cruel film but has a laugh in almost every scene.

The title refers to a baseball game where we're introduced to the main characters at the beginning of the film, the title's irrelevance to what happens in the film a reflection of its nihilism, one of the reasons Boiling Point is not an appropriate title. As a title, Boiling Point suggests someone becomes violent after a slow build-up of circumstances but no-one really has that overrated thing called an arc in this film, except possibly the main character.



And with him it's hard to tell. We first see Masaki (Yurei Yanagi) expressionless in the almost total darkness of an outhouse, the first shot of the film, before we see that the outhouse is located on the edge of a baseball field. Masaki remains expressionless for almost the entire film and says little. He and some of the other players on one of the baseball teams work at a gas station and it's there the trouble begins when a gangster is angered when Masaki doesn't clean the hubcaps of his car quickly enough.



The manager of the baseball team is a former gangster and takes a personal interest in the matter. Masaki takes his and anyone else's advice unquestioningly. When he's told to find a girlfriend, he immediately asks out a nearby waitress, Sayaka (Yuriko Ishida), who happily becomes his girlfriend. They two seem well matched in that neither of them ever say very much. In one of the funnier scenes in the film, the two are riding a motorcycle when a car full of gangsters appears beside them, taunting them, before slamming into a parked car while Masaki and Sayaka ride on without exhibiting any reaction.



Eventually the manager gets in over his head and takes a beating from his former yakuza syndicate. He vows revenge and intends to go to Okinawa to buy a gun but, since he can barely move due to his injuries, Masaki and his friend Kazuo (Dankan) go instead. It's here that "Beat" Takeshi enters and steals his own film as one of the most impressively rendered psychopaths I've ever seen in a movie.



This sequence seems pretty clearly influenced by Blue Velvet and Takeshi seems intent on outdoing Frank Booth--and he does give him a run for his money, I have to say. Obviously Masaki is less emotionally vulnerable than Kyle MacLachlan's character but the way Takeshi's gangster character, Uehara, takes him under his wing for a chaotic ride with a few friends definitely feels like a version of what happens in Blue Velvet. Uehara displays a similar disregard for sexual boundaries that seems designed to humiliate people around him possibly to subjugate them or possibly just out of pure, idle sadism.



He compulsively rubs Kazuo's leg and genitals and then abruptly orders his right hand man to have sex with his girlfriend and cut off his own finger. Earlier in the film, we see the baseball manager giving the typical strong-arm tactic of the unanswerable question--asking a guy he has at his mercy to call him an insulting name. The point is to make the victim frantically try to figure out a way to respond that's not insulting, knowing there's not a right answer not really helping. Uehara takes it to another level through his manipulation of his friend and his girlfriend, whom he can't stop hitting for the rest of the film. She responds with angry words but seems bound to him somehow.



The film has a lot of references to other yakuza films and even one odd fishing sequence that seems to parody Yasujiro Ozu. Reminiscent of Ozu, throughout this film Takeshi shows a preference for low shots, though he tends to shoot from more of a distance than Ozu often puts a lot of empty space above the actors' heads. This is another of the many things that emphasises the characters' ineffectuality. In one strikingly emblematic scene, Masaki hits a home run after practising swinging his bat a long time only to lose the game for his team when he runs faster to home plate than his team mate ahead of him. No matter what he does, with however much effort, he's defeated by his misunderstanding of a basic rule.



Twitter Sonnet #994

Behind a beige and golden mist they stood.
Unmoved by buns or bagel bites they sang.
A resolute and silent swath withstood.
A growing glut of eyes reward the hanged.
The mountain dwarfed by grass digests the club.
The taste of sugar blue announced the fog.
Distracted eyes are shaking for the dub.
Recorded words resound through glowing bog.
In sep'rate currents air divides a port.
The flash of storm reveals a grin's approach.
Along a flattened space the stars contort.
A dye sets out a claim inside the coach.
A pamphlet tangled spokes and stopped the cab.
Asbestos eyes pervade the penthouse scab.
setsuled: (Skull Tree)


For an important message to all hitmen, see 1967's A Colt is My Passport (拳銃は俺のパスポート). That message; avoid finicky clients. The film's a simple story with some beautiful style and impressive, cleverly constructed action sequences.



A Colt is My Passport was directed by Takashi Nomura and not Seijun Suzuki despite starring Suzuki regular Joe Shishido and featuring cast members from Suzuki's Tokyo Drifter which had been released the previous year. The two films even have practically the same villain--Hideaki Esumi wearing the same enormous sunglasses.



The film begins with Shishido as hitman Shuji Kamimura accepting and carrying out a job from a yakuza boss to take out a rival yakuza boss. Shuji and his partner, Shun (Jerry Fujio), head for the airport afterwards but the rival syndicate and the cops both prevent the two from leaving. That's only the start of their troubles because afterwards they learn their client is angry because they didn't kill their target in precisely the right circumstances. So now everyone's after them.

For most of the film, the two guys in their crisp, cool suits lay low at a little dockside inn where a woman working there, Mina (Chitose Kobayashi), falls in love with them both.



The movie has a great soundtrack, mostly simple electric guitar reminiscent of Spaghetti Westerns. Like Tokyo Drifter, it has a lonesome musical number, performed by Shun.



Maybe this movie was an attempt by the studio to make a Seijun Suzuki movie but with all the weird stuff they hated taken out. Tokyo Drifter has plenty of cinematic and storytelling experimentation, A Colt is My Passport is a pretty straightforward story about handsome rogues ruled by a deeply felt sense of honour and the tender maiden whose heart they might break.

There are several well put together action sequences, though my favourite maybe isn't elaborate enough to be called an action sequence, just a simple, nicely understated shot of a stuntman jumping out of a car he sends into the bay.

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