setsuled: (Skull Tree)


In spite of everything, life carries on, a fact that's both wonderful and horrible in 1937's Humanity and Paper Balloons (人情紙風船), the final film of Sadao Yamanaka--Yamanaka died of dysentery at the age of 28 the following year while serving in World War II. Set in 18th century Japan, it's an ensemble film depicting the lives of various people in a slum community, effectively using comedy and naturalistic character development to show how these people have been conditioned to see one another as disposable.



The film opens on a morning when the community are slowly discovering that an impoverished samurai who lived among them has committed suicide the night before. We overhear some of the gossip that starts to go around about it, and we gather that the samurai was forced to hang himself rather than commit hara-kiri because he'd long ago sold all his blades. Led by a barber named Shinza (Kanemon Nakamura) people in the neighbourhood take the samurai's death as an excuse to throw a party.



The landlord reacts in shock to the atmosphere that's more like celebration than a wake though one suspects he's more worried about property damage.

The film introduces and develops several characters, including an amusing blind man who knows exactly who stole his silver pipe at the party and is just waiting to take it back until after the thief gets the flue fixed.



But mainly the film focuses on Shinza and another down on his luck ronin samurai in the community, Unno (Chojuro Kawarazaki). Unlike his neighbours, Unno and his wife clearly feel the disgrace of their living situation and every day Unno tries to speak to the local lord, Mouri, whose position, Unno believes, was achieved only by the aid of Unno's father. So Unno constantly tries to present a letter from his father to Mouri, hoping to be taken into Mouri's service, but guards at the gate of Mouri's manor invariably turn Unno away and Mouri constantly puts Unno off whenever they meet in the street.



Through all this, Unno acts as though propriety demands he never directly acknowledge that Mouri clearly has no intention of ever employing him. Despite always being turned away at the manor gate, Unno always humbly submits when Mouri tells him he can't talk now when they meet in the street and that Unno should come to the manor the next day. But Unno's despair gradually starts to show through his facade, and he starts to drink more, despite promising his wife he wouldn't.



Mouri is trying to arrange a marriage for a wealthy pawnbroker's petulant, sheltered daughter. Shinza, who's being bullied by the local gangsters allied with the pawnbroker, comes across the daughter alone taking shelter under a temple arch one rainy day.



The movie doesn't take any of the typical routes for a melodrama you might expect from here and we see Shinza and Unno have motives that the language of those melodramas couldn't understand. When Shinza kidnaps the girl, enlisting Unno's aid, it doesn't even seem like he wants money. He certainly has no interest in assaulting her. His and Unno's demands seem entirely based on humiliating the more privileged class, and after this neither of them seems especially concerned about dying. It's an eloquent final statement on the lives they've been forced to lead up to that point.
setsuled: (Skull Tree)


The moral demands of youth may be untenably expensive, as seen in Mikio Naruse's 1933 silent film Apart from You (君と別れて) about the son of a geisha who's ashamed of his mother's profession. The film is halfway between a melodrama characteristic of the silent era and one of the more complicated stories of financial desperation typical of Naruse's later films. Beautiful compositions and good performances come together for a nice story about tragic circumstances that are painful and, above all, expensive.



Kikue (Mitsuko Yoshikawa) is a geisha, introduced in a pleasant scene of well executed silent comedy as she and her coworkers laugh at their madam who accidentally puts her pipe in her mouth backwards.



Kikue's best friend and confidant is Terugiku, played by the stunning Sumiko Mizukubo who turned 100 last year. Kikue asks her friend to help her pluck a grey hair from her head.



The tone of this casual and friendly scene shifts through an ingenious sequence of cuts between title cards, first to a closeup showing Kikue placing the grey hair among several other strands on a peg on her mirror.



Then to a close profile shot of Kikue from the opposite side of the scene's establishing shots after a card quotes her as noting that she's getting old now.



Kikue's worried about her teenage son, Yoshio (Akio Isono). Yoshio's embarrassed by his mother's profession and runs with a street gang, carrying a knife at all times. Kikue is deeply troubled when a messenger inadvertently reveals to her that Yoshio hasn't shown up at school in some time. Kikue later begs Terugiku to talk to Yoshio and make him understand that Kikue has to do what she does for a living to support him and herself.



The sentiments in the film are pretty close to many American films of the time like Blonde Venus or The Sin of Madelon Claudet that play upon a tension between venerated motherhood and the taboo of sexually free women. Naruse distinguishes his film mainly through his characteristic mindfulness of the financial reality behind the pathos. Terugiku's plan to make Yoshio see reason involves simply taking him to visit her home where her parents and siblings all live in poverty and are completely dependant on her.



A romance begins to develop between Terugiku and Yoshio, making him seem more like an obnoxious hypocrite and Terugiku as more saintly, emphasised by her calm and extreme beauty in close-ups. Naruse's later films would make his many female protagonists more complex but his silent films are certainly outstanding.

setsuled: (Frog Leaf)


It's been really hot here in southern California lately, another year of record temperatures, and once again autumn is shaping up to be hotter than summer. Often in hot weather my mind starts to dwell on movies where characters complain about the heat so this morning I found myself watching Yasujiro Ozu's 1959 film Floating Weeds again.



I was surprised to learn the film's Japanese title, Ukigusa (浮草), translates to "Floating Grass". The term "weed" seems to impose a greater negative connotation for the film's characters. But they are certainly unrooted and disruptive.



Unlike Ozu's best regarded films, Tokyo Story and Early Spring, Floating Weeds isn't as tightly focused on its main characters, its first scenes diffusing and broadening the perspective to include a community, similar to Ohayo. But all these films, and all the Ozu movies I've seen, have in common the idea of bonds being tested or broken by abnormal or extreme circumstances.



The lives of a travelling kabuki troupe are not romanticised for their "floating" nature, the film is very much about how their mode of existence is a disruptive influence for themselves and others. The tendency in fiction, when talking about artists, is to focus on successful and talented artists, but doing so is to neglect what is much more often true, that artists are not typically successful and not always talented--and even if they are, the talent might not be channelled properly. The troupe portrayed in Floating Weeds are not particularly skilled--Ozu's original title for the film was Ham Actor--but the declining popularity of kabuki may as much be to blame for their lack of success. In any case, it's a brutal career that so punishes people for not being masters or superstars.



There's a horrible moment late in the film when an old man, a member of the troupe's staff, cries silently while his young grandson tries to speak to him. His motionless face and lack of response eloquently show how little point he sees in nurturing the confidence of his grandson, a horribly effective statement on just how hopeless the man knows his life is now.



Of course, along with the problems that come with being artists, the members of the troupe are as imperfect as any human being. Without the traditional bonds of family, any mistake or especially bad behaviour can lead to permanent destruction, which is the essence of the film's central tale. Komajuro (Ganjuro Nakamura) has a son, Kiyoshi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi), in town, living with his mother and Komajuro's former mistress, Oyoshi (Haruko Sugimura). Komajuro's current lover and fellow actor in the troupe, Sumiko (Machiko Kyo), is naturally jealous when she starts getting clues about these two people who are probably the reason Komajuro brought the troupe to the little town. Both Komajuro and Sumiko do things to each other over the course of the film that from a purely justice minded standpoint would be unforgivable. They don't seem to have the ingrained motivations of a traditional structure to keep them together, any more than Komajuro can claim attachment to Oyoshi and her son. At any time, these floating people can be cut loose and sent along down the stream, by people with comparatively normal lives and by each other.



So it's essential for Ozu to establish a sense of the town without any particular character's point of view, something his characteristic unmoving camera and careful compositions are well suited for. We briefly meet the barber and her daughter, the prostitutes at the local brothel, the men working in the post office, many of whom talk about the kabuki troupe, wondering if it's worth seeing them perform. The whole point of the actors' profession is to make their performance seem valuable in its own right and you can't fault these people whose lives, rendered so beautifully by Ozu, might be full enough without the actors but obviously it's a cruel state of affairs. So cruel Komajuro seems unable to face it in the end, coming off as almost delusional, but there's a suggestion that this illusion can be a foundation of another kind of bond.
setsuled: (Skull Tree)


It's hard to see precisely where the battle lines are drawn in the conflict between the head and the heart in Mikio Naruse's 1956 film Sudden Rain (驟雨). Setsuko Hara and Shuji Sano star as a young married couple whose unexamined issues are exacerbated by a sudden series of financial woes, portrayed with Naruse's characteristic delicate, inexorable cruelty. This beautiful picture addresses the emerging influence of feminist social change, ably touches on fundamental human anxieties, and has the wisdom to avoid tidy resolution.



Everything seems fine as the film begins--Fumiko (Hara) and Ryotaro (Sano) have a small, obviously inexpensive home and have typical arguments in the morning about whether they should go out more and about Fumiko cutting recipes out of the newspaper they can't afford for her to make. Kyoko Kagawa plays Fumiko's sister, Ayako, and she pays the couple a visit. She's distraught over her husband's behaviour and she needs Fumiko to confide in.



Fumiko is amused by the complaints that seem like high crimes to Ayako. Her husband yawned at a dinner with guests, he flirted with a waitress right in front of her--Fumiko explains that this is simply what men are like and that being married means becoming acquainted with the faults of one's spouse. When Ryotaro comes home, though, helpfully trying to explain the situation that may have caused Ayako's husband to stay out all night, Fumiko gradually becomes angry herself at her husband's dismissive attitude regarding the faults of another man.



There is a literal sudden rain shortly after but the film's title seems more to refer to three problems that strain Fumiko and Ryotaro's already strained finances--a thief picks Fumiko's pocket at the market, stealing her wallet; Ryotaro's boss announces the company he works for is going under; and a stray dog the couple had been feeding has been stealing and destroying property throughout the neighbourhood. People have begun to demand restitution from Fumiko and Ryotaro.



In a more predictable film, the dog would eventually bring Fumiko her lost wallet or something but Naruse never gives his characters that kind of easy out. The dog is an especially effective part of the film. Even as their problems mount, the couple still can't resist feeding the dog and its hard not to see his innocent but destructive hunger as reflecting the same impulse that keeps the couple together despite their problems.



Fumiko calls Ryotaro old fashioned and feudal, not just because he won't let her work to bring in extra money but also because he presumes that he can go back to his home village at any time and earn a living as a farmer. He threatens to do that several times, each time saying how Fumiko would need to stay in the city because country life wouldn't suit her, a slightly cowardly way of floating the idea of separation. Two opportunities present themselves for Fumiko to get work--first as an errand woman for a newspaper, then as a waitress in a restaurant Ryotaro's co-workers propose opening. The argument between the couple over the issue is particularly insightful for the ways arguments tend to go over such ideological issues--Ryotaro says he doesn't want to be supported by a woman and seems to see any kind of work as degrading for her while Fumiko seems insulted by the very idea that one of them is supporting the other by bringing in money, seeing it instead as a matter of maintaining their existence. The disagreement between the two is exacerbated by each being offended by the other's conceptual presumptions.



But no ideas either one has seems to influence their behaviour, illustrated neatly by a really funny final scene which at the same time does nothing to dispel any of the sources of anxiety.
setsuled: (Frog Leaf)


When thinking of yakuza, one does not normally think of contemplative, almost zen-like stillness. Yet Takeshi Kitano's 1993 film Sonatine owes more to Ozu than Suzuki with its tranquil, unhurried shots of characters sitting and talking about things that don't necessarily move the plot forward. Evidence of the characters' familiarity with violence and fear creeps into the substance of scenes, though, making this a peculiarly sedate and yet striking perspective on life in organised crime.



The film centres on Murakawa (Takeshi Kitano) who is caught up in some kind of intrigue with his own gang and another. Both seem to want him dead but Murakawa barely seems to care, for the most part expressing no emotion but a vaguely melancholy weariness. Eventually, he ends up hiding out at a beach house in Okinawa with a few of his subordinates.



Two of his younger subordinates discover they're from the same part of Tokyo and they have conversations about places and people they both know. A few moments suggest a suppressed homosexual attraction between the two, particularly a scene where the two play with a doll.



Murakawa seems to be keeping his true feelings suppressed as well as he explains to a girl named Miyuki (Aya Kokumai) that despite appearances he's in a constant state of fear and that's why he's so quick and sure with a gun.



He meets Miyuki after a witnessing a young man trying to rape her one evening. Murakawa doesn't seem to care very much about what he's witnessing and doesn't seem like he'd get involved except the would-be rapist becomes angry when he notices he's being watched and attacks Murakawa. We don't find out very much about Miyuki, who falls in love with him, her character seeming to exist to provide an alternate route into a more loving and stable lifestyle, but like the attraction between his two subordinates, he seems cut off from the possibility by his own ingrained patterns of thought and emotion.



Most of the movie consists of scenes of the group of misfits on the beach, playing games that would seem normal except eventually gunplay gets involved. A strange Russian Roulette scene early on on the one hand seems to show Murakawa's methods of inspiring fear are only a front but on the other hand it seems to confirm, along with what he said to Miyuki, that he's on a quiet, inexorable path of self-destruction.
setsuled: (Skull Tree)


I'm not sure if 1975's Graveyard of Honour (仁義の墓場) is a violent, nihilist, vicarious wish fulfilment fantasy or something between that and a Taxi Driver style psychological reinterpretation of the lone gun action film. Although it was always stylish, there were parts where I wondered what the director, Kinji Fukasaku, was trying to get at with his raging psychopath protagonist. But by the end I found, while the story is definitely a fantasy, the film is a somewhat haunting statement about a man always seeking an impossible fulfilment.



We meet the violent young yakuza, Rikio Ishikawa (Tetsuya Watari), shortly after the end of World War II. We see him opening his pants and unashamedly pissing in front of a group of prostitutes whose brightly coloured western clothes make them strikingly resemble the prostitutes in Seijun Suzuki's Gate of Flesh. When they react in disgust, Rikio explains to them that they're whores so their feelings don't matter.



This casual bullying behaviour is in one sense typical for a gangster in any country. Pushing social boundaries and laying down disparaging statements are the ways a gangster establishes psychological dominance in a community. But Rikio's instincts for sadism go beyond this and we see a series of episodes where it proves a problem for his gang when he tends to start fights with rival gangs his own boss has no desire to provoke.



Rikio never seems to lose a fight, something in the film that strains the sense of realism. Generally an asshole who tries to fight the whole world ends up getting killed. There's also a geisha, Chieko (Yumi Takigawa), who falls in love with him despite the fact that he rapes her. Her motives are a little mysterious in the way that I'm not sure the filmmakers thought them out but a scene where he asks her to hide a gun for him reminded me of the scene in Goodfellas where Henry asks Karen to hide a gun. But maybe she senses something about his lack of a mental capacity for empathy and this makes her pity him--the rape scene is very strange, throughout it he keeps telling her in a bewildered tone that he doesn't want to hurt her even as he doesn't stop while she's clearly trying to fight him off. It's as though he's unable to understand anyone who resists giving him what he wants and so the only response he can think of is physical force.



He meets a prostitute who introduces him to heroin, to which he becomes immediately addicted. This doesn't seem to slow him down in the action scenes somehow. But the addiction fits in with the general sense of a personality that has no barriers to constantly seeking some elusive satisfaction.

Tetsuya Watari had played the cherubic young gangster in Seijun Suzuki's Tokyo Drifter nine years earlier. He comes off as more closed off and worn down here, curiously almost always wearing the aviator glasses like the villain in Tokyo Drifter.



Twitter Sonnet #1018

A chancing glance to fish confirmed the word.
However bleak the beaker fogs, take wing.
Without the stance of science, blanks're heard.
Like paper noodles teaching forks to sing.
In bread, a buoyant bean abuts the base.
The camel recks no farther coin than dimes.
The eastly wind arranged a bitter taste.
No more could count the hands or face of times.
In groups defined in foam they swim to Earth.
In visions sought by graceful planes they eat.
The sky became a trade in starry worth.
A thousand ghosts to-day are in your seat.
This sand'll bounce beyond the radar's scope.
The morning brings a quest for velvet rope.
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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