Posts Tagged 'akira kurosawa'

One Wonderful Sunday (1947)

Kurosawa followed up on No Regrets for Our Youth with this remarkably bleak comedy about a young couple that simply wants to have a pleasant Sunday together. Yuzo is a disillusioned soldier who is valiantly trying to maintain his dignity and integrity in the ruins of postwar Tokyo. Masako is his relentless chipper girlfriend. They are too poor to live together much less marry. They only have 35 yen between them for the day.

The day goes from one failure to another, each one underlining their yen-less existence. When Yuzo tries to contact an old war chum who owns a dance hall, the management assumes his looking for a handout. When they go to the zoo, they get caught in the rain. When they try to go see a concert, scalpers swoop in and by all the cheap seats, beating Yuzo up when he complains.

Kurosawa has dealt with postwar deprivation in movies like Drunken Angel and Stray Dog, but in neither of those films are as emotionally raw as this one. After Yuzo drives Masako away in an act of misdirected fury, he sits there sullenly in his own apartment, listening to the rain piss down. His desperation is almost unbearable. Kurosawa leaves the shots long in this scene and the camera static. It would have made Andre Bazin swoon.

For the first two-thirds of the film, you could say this is Kurosawa’s most Neorealistic film. Instead of a bicycle, these characters are wandering around a cruel and indifferent city simply looking for some relief from their grinding poverty. A lot of the movie is shot on the streets of Tokyo too, giving Sunday a documentary feel like Rome, Open City and Bicycle Thieves.

Then the last third kicks in. Kurosawa suddenly veers uneasily from gritty Neorealism to a strange mixture of Capraesque whimsy and Peter Pan-style appeals to the audience. Following yet another petty defeat, this time in a coffee shop, Yuzo regroups his shattered spirit and starts looking towards the future with an inkling of hope. When that wisp of a silver lining slips away, Masako turns to the camera and beseeches the audience to clap for our broken hero, shrilly begging “Onegai Shimasu” over and over until your eyes are as dewy as hers. Breaking the fourth wall is a movie like this is really bizarre and jarring. But by doing so Masako, and by extension Kurosawa, is pleading with the postwar audience to think about the future ahead of them and not the yawning abyss below them.

No Regrets for Our Youth (1946)

Akira Kurosawa’s first post-war film, No Regrets for Our Youth, is a strange uneasy movie. The story, which is loosely based on real life events, details the transformation of Yukie, the daughter of a leftist college professor — played by Japanese film icon Setsuko Hara — from a spoiled brat, to dedicated wife of an anti-war dissident (based on Hotsumi Ozaki who worked with Richard Sorge — of Spy Sorge fame — and was the only Japanese to be hung during the war) to a dutiful hardworking farmer girl.

Though Regrets is not of the same caliber as Kurosawa’s later masterpieces it’s always interesting. The rhythm and pacing of the first half of the movie is restless like youthful energy unsure where to channel itself. The student demonstration montage sequences seem lifted straight from Eisenstein. By the end of the film, the pacing slows to match that of rural life and to match Yukie’s new found maturity.

But what’s really interesting about the film is Kurosawa’s struggle to understand what happened to his country. How could left-thinking intellectuals allow Japan to be hijacked by the military? Of course, the US occupying forces, terrified of a return of the crazed nationalism that pushed Japan into war, was very much encouraging this sort of cultural introspection. (For more on this, I really recommend Embracing Defeat by John Dower) And you argue that this movie is as much a propaganda film as his wartime films Sugata Sanshiro or Most Beautiful. Given Kurosawa’s trademark humanism, as seen in Ikiru and Rashomon, I think that part of this film is a real heartfelt working through of guilt and pain of the past decade.

Perhaps because I have this sort of thing one the brain, Regret reminded me of some of these Iraq war movies that have been coming out (and bombing). They also seem to be working through many of the same issues. Both Regret and movies like Redacted or Stop Loss, seem raw and uneasy. The tone brittle and lacerating, asking how the hell did we get here?

Tattooed Flower Vase (1976)

In the 1970s, Japanese studios, faced with mounting pressure from television and Hollywood, surrendered and just gave what the teaming masses what they wanted — softcore. And thus, the pink eiga (pink movie) was born. What followed could either be viewed as the beginning of a golden age of Japanese cinema or its ignoble demise. It definitely seemed like a bizarro-world version of Japanese cinema popularized by the likes of Donald Richie. Movies like Wife to be Sacrificed — featuring sadomasochism, enema use, and hints of necrophilia — became blockbuster hits while Akira Kurosawa and Nagisa Oshima were forced to go abroad to find funding. Pink eiga were first vilified by scandalized Western critics (like Richie) as being little more than exploitation flicks. And sure, they are exploitation flicks with all the lurid sex and sexism that the genre dictates. It doesn’t mean that they’re not interesting.

The other day I watched Tattooed Flower Vase directed by Masaru Konuma (who also directed Wife to be Sacrificed). Michiyo (played by Naomi Tani) is a kimono-clad widow who makes traditional Japanese paper dolls in an old fashion corner of Tokyo that has no doubt been since paved over to make condos. Her nubile, thoroughly modern, daughter Takako (Takako Kitagawa) comes home from college and promptly the two take a bath together in a traditional Japanese wooden tub. As Takako soaps up her mom’s ample breasts, she admonishes her to go out date. The sweaty middle-aged guy who sells Michiyo’s dolls has the same idea, and with the charm and aplomb typical to sweaty middle-aged men in these sort of movies, he drugs and violates her. The rape begins a sexual awakening in Michiyo — a particularly loathsome, if common, cliche in pink eiga — that is intensified by the presence of Hideo, the son of the kabuki performer who loved/raped her when she was young. She falls completely and utterly for the lad, even though she keeps calling him by his father’s name. The problem is that Hideo has already shacked up with Takako. When Michiyo witnesses — while tearfully masturbating — Hideo doinking her daughter, she snaps and, um, gets a full body tattoo. Her transformation from being a prim upstanding matron to being a sex-crazed tattooed hellcat is complete. She ravishes the youth as if she were in heat. When Takako bursts in upon the copulating couple, Michiyo snaps out of her frenzy and either through anguish, remorse or sheer embarrassment proceeds to disembowel herself on a shard of glass.

Michiyo is the ideal of the “traditional” woman. She wears a kimono, lives in an old beams and tatami style house, and surrounds herself with traditional arts. She’s also demur and at least initially, chaste. And when her libido finally comes to a rolling boiling, it is something deep, elemental and frightening. Takako, who spends much of the movie either listening to pop music, demanding sex from Hideo, and/or pouting, seems vapid and superficial by comparison. Hideo, the clear stand-in for the male audience, is callow, passive and, well, dull. The character and his masculinity seem overwhelmed by the Takako’s bluntness on the one hand and Michiyo’s Krakatoa-like fount of feminine sexuality on the other.

This fault line between modernity and gender relations is something that runs through most of modern Japanese art. Or rather, Japan’s sudden and disorienting modernization is frequently seen through the prism of gender relations. Japan’s first novel Ukigumo by Futabatei Shimei is about one hapless schmuck trying desperately to understand a beautiful and thoroughly modern young lass. The tropes in the this film — modern girl vs. traditional girl, rape as sexual awakening, passive reserved male, a woman the slave to her passions — are so pervasive that I’m inclined to think that pink eiga is a churning reservoir for Japan’s collective unconscious. I need to think this through some more, but I think there’s something there.

Konuma direction is spare and elegant. Naomi Tani — whose beauty only really becomes apparent when she’s either writhing in pain or sexual esctasy — gives a memorable performance. But what I find really interesting about Tattooed Flower Vase is not what makes it remarkable; it’s what makes it typical.

The Garfield Factor: President James A. Garfield would no doubt dismiss the whole genre as ungodly smut and return to his beloved ancient Greek.

Kumamoto — Sayonara

I’m in my last few days of living here in Kumamoto. On Tuesday or so, R and I are heading to the bright lights and big-city bustle of Tokyo where R is finally going to shoot the bulk of her thesis. Yesterday, before Chakko returned to Fukuoka with her mom — R’s aunt — she gave me a picture book that cataloged every weird ghost and spirit in Japanese mythology including a ghost for umbrellas that have been around too long, a disembodied horse leg that whacks unsuspecting victims in the head, and a truly bizarre ghost called a meoshiri which has a big round eye in its backside. In return, I gave her a couple tapes of my movies. Chakko also has a four-year daughter named Sakura who is the most relaxed, poised four-year old I’ve ever met. R’s mom tells me that kid’s preternaturally good disposition is because all the brown rice Chakko when she was pregnant with her.

Anyway, during some of the slow days at BIG — when everyone was planning shoots instead of doing them — I sometimes would take the company digital camera in hand and troll the city looking for things to shoot. The dangerous thing about digital cameras is that there are no worries about taking a bad picture. If you don’t like it, erase it. I ended up taking something like 400 pictures of things like street lamps, vending machines and ugly buildings. I don’t know why, but when it comes to photography I’m really not all that interested in shooting people; it’s architecture and physical space that really does it for me. I’ll spare you those pics, but I assembled a few photos that would give you, the loyal reader, a sense of my life here in Kumamoto. First the touristy stuff·

This here’s Kumamoto castle. As I noted earlier in this blog, this castle was used in Kurosawa Akira’s Kagemusha. The original burned down in 1868 during a final desperate stand against the Meiji restoration. The battle was famously bloody ending with much mirth for the victors and beheadings for the vanquished. The castle’s painstakingly detailed reconstruction in the 1960s is limited to the exterior. The inside looks like an East German municipal hall. But the really remarkable thing about this castle is that stone wall in the foreground, which is original. They were designed so that a gullible invading army might be able to scale half way up the wall before it curves up at a deceptively steep angle leaving flailing soldiers open for all sorts of missiles, boiling oil and the like. The castle apparently took 20 years to build and when it was done, warlord Kato Kiyomasa killed the architect and everyone involved with project to keep them from leaking its weaknesses to enemies. I suppose it’s only a matter of time before Halliburton adopts a similar policy.

This is the international headquarters of BIG. Actually, BIG takes up only part of the second floor — next to an acupuncturist — and part of the third. The landlord lives on the fourth floor with a dog that yaps incessantly.

And here’s a shot of me that Horita took during the Anesis shoot in June. That’s Miyazaki in the background checking his cell phone and that guy in the back is Fujita, Yamano-san’s assistant. I think Yamano was off smoking a cigarette or something. We were all waiting for the sun to set. That intense expression on my face is not because of my concern for anything going on in the shoot, but rather a profound concern that I would make an ass of myself from some half-understood command.

Alas, I have no still shots of the Touro maidens from my Yamaga shoot, but I do have this reasonably scenic shot of the town. Along with hot springs and pink clad women with funny lanterns on their heads, Yamaga is famous for making shochu and most of the buildings on this stretch of road are actually old distilleries.

Closer to home, this is Hachi, the Sumi’s emotionally needy dog. R’s parents are more camera-shy than she is, if that’s possible. But I was allowed to shoot pictures of Hachi with impunity. He doesn’t really bark so much as howl as if your were removing his hind leg with a butter knife. This is especially the case when he senses the slightest whiff of abandonment, such as going to the store or the bathroom. Today, I went shooting a bit in the morning with R’s camera. When I return, Hachi wouldn’t stop smelling my feet. He wouldn’t wait until I sat down either so I kept tripping over him. Anyway, strange dog.

You can see more pics of Kumamoto, mostly of the grim architectural variety, here.

Kumamoto — The Film Geek

Boy, it’s hot and humid today. I think that the rainy season is beginning to loosen it death-grip on the skies. Yesterday, R and I did what we usually do during the weekends — take the tram into town and hang out. Last week, we bought a book listing all of Kumamoto’s numerous coffee shops and have since been exploring. There’s a few Japanese-themed shops, complete with tatami mats and green tea; several generically hip shops featuring Ikea-esque furniture and some tastefully displayed artifacts from the 1970s; numerous really dull shops catering to housewives with sweet-toothes (sweet teeth?); and at least one Chinese coffee shop; not to mention the dozen or so Starbucks and Starbucks-clones dotting the town.

Yesterday, I suppose I was in sort of a pissy mood, largely because it took R and hour and half to get ready to go out. After I needled R a bit, her mom burst in with some brown rice muffins and a can of organic apple juice. Whenever men get grumpy, Mrs. Sumi later told R, give them food. As much as I’d like to dispute her logic, I must admit I did shut up and gobble down the muffins. And I was less grumpy afterwards. I’m somewhat appalled at my own complete lack of guile.

Anyway, we spent much of the time in Shimotori, one of two shopping streets downtown. R bought a book on Zen, and I bought a compilation CD of old Stax soul tunes. We were hanging out at a coffee shop called Hands talking about kanji when the cell phone went off. (Oh yeah, it’s really easy to rent a cell phone here. Of course, my cell is about as basic as you can get, with none of the cool extras like net access, MP3 players or video players.) R’s parents were in the neighborhood and asked us over to her dad’s office. Soon afterwards we went to another coffee shop run by a friend of her dad. Did I mention that R’s dad knows everyone in this town?

The proprietor who is named Sonomura-san not only owns the shop — decorated with various items of film memorabilia — and is a film history lecturer at Kumamoto University, but is also a film critic who shows up on TV now and then. Soon after we ordered, he came right over to us and launched into a discussion about how he recently visited Ozu‘s and Mizoguchi‘s graves located in Kamakura and Kyoto respectively. We talked some and I mentioned that I was not only a fan of Ozu and Mizoguchi but also of Naruse Mikio (at least what I’ve seen a little of his work). Sonomura nearly wept with delight that a foreigner — and a relatively young one at that — heard of Naruse. The conversation quickly descended into an all out geek-fest. He knew the names all of the characters in Seven Samurai, the names and years of all the movies Hara Setsuko appeared in, and intimate details of director Keisuke Kinoshita‘s life story. The whole time he was unrelentingly staring at me. Ruriko and her family might as well as not have existed. Fortunately, I knew enough about Japanese cinema to sound somewhat intelligent. After an hour or so, we managed to disengage. While I respect and admire his passion for Japanese cinema (I’m sure I’ve bored people with my interest in the same) I did sort of feel like I was on the receiving end of a fire hose for an hour. Later that night, we went to a video store and rented one of the Kinoshita films that Sonomura recommended.

Kumamoto — Film Shoots

It’s raining here again . When I first came to Japan last week from Los Angeles, I thought, “Oh hey rain.” Now the novelty has worn off and like every other person in Japan, I’m griping about the weather.

Anyway, it’s been a busy week. On Tuesday, I went to location scout in a resort town north of Kumamoto called Yamaga. It’s primarily famous for a massive festival it holds in August where over a thousand young women don pink kimonos and strapped golden lanterns to their heads. It used to be stipulated that the participants must be virgins, but in recent years that rule has apparently been quietly dropped. Another attraction is that unlike much of Japan, which looks like a bad stretch of East Berlin meets a bad stretch of Van Nuys, Yamaga has kept much of its original charm — traditional kura buildings line the main streets and a famed kabuki theater has been resorted to its original luster. I was being taken there by Oshima-san, a fellow BIG employee and Yamaga resident, who the previous day matter-of-factly informed me that their were going to shoot a 45 promo bit for the town and that I’d be directing it. In spite of the crappy weather (rain again), we scouted the town and I took notes.

When we got to Hachisendaiza — the kabuki theater — we learned that the local government was holding an anti-bosozoku event. Bosozoku are largely thuggish orange-haired high-school dropouts who annoy everyone with their improbably loud motorbikes, and who like the Hell’s Angels in the States have been associated with all sorts of deviant and criminal behavior. Anyway, we were ushered into the theater toting a bunch of free anti-bosozoku, where I noticed that the audience consisted of a) old people b) cops c) glassy-eyed high school students who were dragged to this event for Their Own Good. The event opened with a Cops-style video of bosozoku terrorizing the streets of Kumamoto. A couple minutes into it, the video feed went out, and the audience was left listening to a cacophony of roaring motorcycling, police sirens, screams, and at least one heart-rending dog yelp with no idea what was going on. We decided that it was a good time to leave.

When I got home, my head throbbed from excessive Japanese-use, so I vegged out in front of the TV. I saw a “rap contest” on one show, which had about as much funk as your average Christmas office party. It would have been better described as a make-the-lyrics-up-as-you-go-along karaoke contest. One memorable contestant simply issued forth a string of rude words set to John Lennon’s Imagine. Ex.: “She’s ugly. Big tits. Fart.” Later on the news, there was a news story where a jilted lover doused his hostess ex-girlfriend with gasoline, and set the entire hostess bar where she worked alight. Parts of downtown Kumamoto still smell a bit acrid. In other news, “The Great Sasuke”, the Mexican-wrestling mask wearing member of the Diet hailing from Iwate prefecture, vehemently denied that he was a male porn star before taking a turn into politics. Who could tell, I thought, he was wearing a mask.

The next day was a rare break in the gloom of the rainy season. Horita-san, my boss, leapt at the opportunity and scheduled a shoot TV commercial for a land development company. After driving hither and yon to collect needed equipment, the employees of BIG along with a cameraman named Yamano (and who was classmates with Miike Takashi at Imamura Shohei‘s film school), gathered in the parking lot of the company’s headquarters. The main task of the day was a time-lapse shot of the building — an over-designed Ando Tadao knock-off — as the sun set. I struggled for most of the shoot to trying fight the haze of brain fatigue and look like I understood what was going on. Overall, the shoot went fine until the area was beset by bats that were hunting for bugs in the adjacent rice fields.

Call time for the next day (Thursday) was at 4:15 am, which considering that I managed to drag myself home for the previous night’s shoot at 10:30 or so at night, was pretty brutal. Bleary-eyed, we all choked down some horribly artificial tasting convenience store sandwiches and prepared for another time-lapse shot of the building as dawn broke. After a few more shots, including one where the camera swept over the employee’s of the company on a crane, we packed up and headed for the hills in search of a lonely stretch of mountain road.

With the camera set up on the yellow line, we waited for the clouds to line up in an aesthetically pleasing fashion. The crew talked at length about the merits of Tora! Tora! Tora! over Pearl Harbor. Horita regaled us with a story about working with Kurosawa. One day, Kurosawa had Horita corral 5,000 extras in full costume for six hours atop Mt. Aso before canceling the day’s shoot because he didn’t like the shape of the clouds. Fortunately, Horita wasn’t as stubborn at that great master, and we wrapped by noon.

On the way back from shoot, we ate the curiously named Ringer Hut, a sit-down fast-food establishment that reportedly sells Nagasaki style noodles. The first thing I noticed about the place was the pitchers of water on each table, presumably to counteract the mouth-scalding amount of MSG in the food. The restaurant puts the patron in an American style war of attrition with his or her meal, a rarity for Japan. In this case, my foes included a tub of noodles, a bucket of fried rice and a dozen very nasty fried dumplings. In the end, it turned into a pyrrhic victory for me, as I felt like crap for the rest of the day.

Yesterday, everyone looked haggard at the office and Horita let me leave at noon. I spent much of the day reading Gravity’s Rainbow, which after spending a week struggling to read office memos and to understand Kumamoto’s thick dialect, zipped by like a dream. That night, R and I saw Shinoda Masahiro‘s latest Spy Sorge, a flawed but well-meaning flick that unfortunately coarsened to a muddleheaded pacifist yarn that seemed more naive that profound. When John Lennon’s Imagine faded in over the credits, I sort of hoped it was the version I saw on TV earlier in the week. “Have more tea, sir. Vomit.”

Kumamoto — First Days

It’s a lazy Saturday morning here in Kumamoto. I’m sitting on a tatami mat next to a shoji screen. It’s hot and cloyingly humid and the smell of soumen is emanating from the kitchen. It would all feel very Japanese if it weren’t for the sound of lion roars and monkey squeals. R’s house abuts the Kumamoto zoo.

Anyway, I started work at a small production company that in spite of (or perhaps because of) its size is called BIG. It’s located on two floors of a narrow office building adjacent from the Kumamoto city central police station, which looks less like an example of municipal architecture and more like it ought to be ferrying Darth Vader to the Death Star. Down the street is a store called “Sweet Camel” which advertises that it sells “Jeans for Aggressive Women.” On Thursday, the day I started working at BIG, a typhoon blew in from the Sea of China. My boss, Horita san, who looks vaguely like Beat Takeshi and who worked on the set of Kurosawa Akira‘s Ran when it was shot near Kumamoto, seemed eager to show me off to his business associates. As I struggled to follow one guy, who was discussing in heavily accented Japanese his plans to hire the handicapped, I became increasingly worried that the building would blow over from the gusts of wind. The floor shook, the windows rattled and stuff (hopefully not asbestos) rained down from the tiles above. And everyone largely ignored the whole thing. I tried to look attentive, by staring at the guy’s lips and not at the trees branches, bits of garage and small children flying past the window.


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