The Song Remains the Same: Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance (1974)

July 11, 2017

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Last week we left our intrepid Lady Snowblood wounded and desperate, crawling towards an uncertain future. In Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance (1974), she is all healed up and hacking away at the gangrenous Japanese government. In the first Lady Snowblood (1973) she successfully tracked down and dispatched the four tormentors of her late mother, so all of her personal scores have been settled. In the more diffuse sequel, she is a katana-for-hire, a paid assassin pretty high up on the police’s most wanted list. Departing from the original manga, screenwriter Norio Osada throws Ms. Snowblood into the battle between a group of anarchists and the sociopathic head of the military’s secret police. It is less a commentary on the Meiji period in which it is set than the then-contemporary struggle of the United Red Army against the Japanese government. In this sequel, Lady Snowblood puts her loyalties squarely with the revolutionaries.

Lady Snowblood, aka Yukia Kashima (Meiko Kaji), was born for vengeance. Her mother, desperate to kill the gang who murdered her family, gets pregnant with the sole purpose of training this heir for revenge. All Lady Snowblood knows is blood. So after the conclusion of the first film, in which her birthright revenge has been fulfilled, she is left adrift. Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance takes place a decade later, where she makes a living as an assassin. The film opens with a bravura long take down a winding road, as she slices up an anonymous horde of men. Lady Snowblood works with catatonic ease, the act of murder like rolling out of bed. This opening shot, while technically impressive, is clearly boring Snowblood to death. Eventually she gives herself up to the police, preferring state execution to a life without purpose. But then, on the day of her appointed death, she is violently rescued. The rescuer is Kikui Seishiro (Shin Kishida), head of a shadow government operation intent on shutting down resistance movements.

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Kikui hires Snowblood to monitor, and eventually kill, the anarchist intellectual Ransui Tokunaga (future director of Tampopo, Juzo Itami). She poses as his maid, and looks on his daily routine as he reads, makes impassioned love to his wife and generally minds his own business. When the time comes for her to slit his throat, Ransui reveals he was aware of her true identity all along – and makes a pitch for her allegiance. Ransui claims that there was no organized resistance, and that Kikui used a random bombing as an excuse to crack down on all anarchist/revolutionary thinkers, regardless of their threat to the state. Considering that Kikui is a plasticine-looking psychopath and Ransui an agreeably unkempt professor-type, Snowblood agrees to switch sides. It isn’t clear whether she is doing this for political reasons, amorous ones, or simple boredom. Meiko Kaji keeps her face a mask at all times, but for whatever the reason, wherever she points her sword there will be blood.

And there are some strikingly composed slayings here, from the opening tracking shot down a winding road to the buckshot killing of a police underling against a canvas landscape. But the sequel lacks the original’s simple, non-stop pacing – hacking from one revenge killing to the next.  Love Song of Vengeance is more dilatory, as it tries to flesh out the backstory of Ransui, his wife and his estranged brother Shusuke (Yoshio Harada). It often feels like Snowblood is a supporting character in her own feature, as the battle between the Tokunagas and the government dominates. And they are far less compelling characters than Snowblood’s enigmatic killing machine.

So while it doesn’t live up to the original, it still makes for satisfying viewing, especially for those interested in imaginative killings. There is a first person POV of Snowblood tearing through Kikui’s garish mansion, decades before the first first-person shooter. One poor corrupt police underling has a shard of glass shoved into his eyeball, and then after he equips himself with a stylish eyepatch, gets the other one gouged out by a fireplace poker. He receives the most picturesque death – getting plugged by a shotgun blast while framed against a wooded landscape painting hanging on Kikui’s wall. Director Toshiya Fujita is able to conjure enough of these arrestingly violent images to keep the film lingering, despite its frustratingly Snowblood-less narrative. Another image I keep returning to is from the beginning of the film, after Snowblood dumps the last body of her massacre into the lake, he floats away beatifically, as if at rest, until a pool of thick blood collects around his neck. The blood looks like paint, the man posed for a picture. The film aestheticizes violence, makes it beautiful. It is an exhausted beauty, like the title character, who can’t wait to get the killing over with. But then there’s the question of what lies after.

Bop Gun: Black Sun (1964)

February 7, 2017

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With La La Land nominated for fourteen Academy Award nominations and likely to dominate movie chatter in the coming weeks, I wanted to track down some lesser known uses of jazz on film, for those seeking alternatives. Looking through FilmStruck, I came upon Koreyoshi Kurahara’s Black Sun (1964) on the Criterion Channel, which is about a jazz-mad squatter living in the rubble of post-war Japan, with a score performed by the Max Roach Quartet. The Roach Quartet is playing squalling compositions by Toshiro Mayuzumi, indicative of how East and West headbutt each other throughout the feature. The Japan as shown in the film is still in ruins after WWII, a ghostly, emptied out space filled with rubble and sewage.

It’s a movie that burns with the violent energy of the obsessed fan – focusing on Mei (Tamio Kawachi), a worshipper at the bebop altar, his bedroom in a bombed out church plastered with album covers of Coltrane, Mingus and Rollins. He even named his dog after Thelonious Monk. This music represents an outsider culture and a model for living, but this intense devotion is also an essentializing one. When Mei finally meets a black man for the first time, he assumes he is, if not a musician, than a jazz enthusiast. Neither are the case, as Gill (Chico Roland) is an American GI on the run for killing a fellow soldier. Gill is in no mood for chatter or the latest Abbey Lincoln platter. With a bullet in his thigh and the MPs on his tail, he croaks out instructions with the beleaguered intensity of a man on death’s door. Mei cannot speak English, and considers Gill’s rejection a personal affront, undermining as it does his vision of black Americans. So the two men battle and bicker across Tokyo as they flout their mutual bigotry and begrudging respect. For as much as they cannot comprehend the other’s background, they both recognize their unsuitability for living in the mainstream of American or Japanese life. They have both been rejected, for their race, their class or their favorite Miles Davis recording period. So they stick together as the cops close in and the dragnet tightens. All they have is each other.

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Black Sun is something of an informal sequel to The Warped Ones (1960), a youth-in-revolt jolt that had Tamio Kawachi playing a similarly jazz-besotted and criminally minded character for director Kurahara. In The Warped Ones, Kawachi played Akira, a thief and a thug who mainlines bebop to get him through the day. It was something of a sensation in 1960, and a prime example of the sun tribe, or taiyozoku, genre of youth films. Sun tribe referred to the rebellious generation of post-war Japanese youth, coined from Shintaro Ishihara’s 1955 novel Season of the Sun. Michael Raine further elaborated for Criterion:

The word taiyozoku (Sun Tribe) referred to a postwar generation before it was applied to the cinema. It was coined to describe the rich, bored, and vicious characters populating the pages of writer Shintaro Ishihara’s books, such as Season of the Sun (1955) and Crazed Fruit (1956). Those characters embodied all that Japan’s postwar disillusioned youth desired, and that Japan’s new conservative government feared: absent parents and an excess of money, leisure, and sex.

In Black Sun, which has the same director, writer (Nobuo Yamada) and cinematographer (Mitsuji Kanau) as The Warped Ones, Mei doesn’t have much money, but certainly chooses a life of leisure, spending his days in an abandoned, crumbling church with his dog Monk, listening to the latest jazz albums. The film opens with Mei buying a copy of the new Max Roach album – which he then drops and is immediately stomped on by a haughty bourgeois wife in high heels. That is the closest we get to middle class Japanese society. The rest of the film is set on the fringes, either in Mei’s hidey-hole, a dank jazz club or the industrial zones outside of town.

Mei’s whole life seems to wrapped up in the music. He named his dog after Thelonious Monk, and built him a little home out of an oil drum, complete with concert posters. His squat is plastered with images of his heroes: Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus – these men seem to be his ideal of humanity. Mei is wracked with nervous energy when he is not listening to jazz. It is the only thing that can calm him. So when Gill enters his sacred space – a black man in his jazz shrine – he is shocked to discover he is nothing like the men on his walls. Gill is wounded physically and mentally, speaking in gasps and wails, and has no time or interest in the music. Mei is less offended by the machine gun Gill points at him than the fact that Gill does not like jazz. An outrage! Kurahara and his DP Kanau try to convey Mei’s manic energy in the 2.35 frame (which bows a bit at the edges), with bird’s eye views, jittery handheld and fusillades of montage (especially of magazine cutouts of jazz greats – I think this is the only time Charles Mingus’ “The Clown” album cover has received screen time).

Having no reference point for black life outside of the culture of jazz, he cannot process Gill’s individuality. So Mei brazenly uses the “n” word – a racism brought readily to the surface at any undermining of the blackness he had in his head. But since Mei or Gill have no one else to help them, they stick together. At first it is out of inertia and happenstance, but eventually they find common ground in wanting to stay alive. To do so they both embrace and undermine the racial animus in the city. In the most shocking sequence in the movie Mei paints himself in blackface, and Gill in whiteface. Then they drive through town with Gill playing the trumpet to distract the MPs from recognizing him. It is a burlesque of a minstrel show, and disturbing in how impossible it is to parse. Gill is being used as a mascot, playing trumpet in clown makeup (after seeing that Mingus cover art for “The Clown”), so he is both employing and clowning the stereotype of blacks as “natural” musicians.

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The film continues on a dizzying trajectory, sinking into the sewers and rising into the sun. Director Kurahara depicts postwar-Japan as a decaying mess of bombed out buildings and burning trash. The world outside them is literally filled with garbage (Mei’s dad is shown burning refuse in the beginning of the film), while their escape leads them through a landfill which is leaking into the nearby canal. Mei digs out a bullet from Gill’s thigh in an underground tunnel below the landfill as the cops search for them above, but it’s a brief respite. The film ends with a bitter image of freedom – Gill floats up, up, and away on a hot air balloon, curling around the sun as the life bleeds out of him. The film doesn’t end as much as burn out.

A Man’s World: Ginza Cosmetics (1951)

January 24, 2017

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Ginza Cosmetics (1951) is an unassuming, nearly plotless wander through Tokyo from director Mikio Naruse. It is remarkable for how unremarkable it is, focusing on the everyday lives of bar hostesses at a failing nightclub. Anticipating the setting of his 1960 masterpiece When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, Ginza Cosmetics takes place in a world absent of functional men. They have all been lost to gambling, infidelity or the war. The ones that are left are damaged beyond recovery, appendages to a barstool. So the women make do with what is available to them, treating romance as their business and making arrangements with bucktooth middle-managers to create the illusion of intimacy. The film, diffuse in its focus, touches on these faux-mances but also finds time for the afternoon wanderings of a latchkey kid and his exhausted bar hostess mother, whose schedules are almost exact inverses. When he is wandering the city, she is holed up inside a bar, and when he is in bed asleep, she is finally freed into the night. Ginza Cosmetics is streaming on the Criterion Channel of FilmStruck, along with eleven other Naruse titles.

Ginza Cosmetics is generally regarded as the beginning of a career revival for Naruse, who says, “I seemed to have relaxed” starting with that film. I haven’t seen any of the 1940s work which is held in such low esteem (perhaps it’s due for reevaluation?), but Ginza Cosmetics exudes what seems to be a newly found calm.According to Catherine Russell’s The Cinema of Naruse Mikio, the director described the film as one on which he tried “to avoid sentimentality.” And in that he succeeds. The spoke in this loosely organized tale is Yukiko (Kinuyo Tanaka), an aging bar hostess with an adorably cherubic son named Haruo (Yoshihiro Nishikubo). The bar is in danger of shutting down, so Yukiko spends her time tracking down deadbeat customers, luring investment from lecherous businessmen and fruitlessly trying to keep Haruo in her sight. The other women at the bar, Le Bel Ami, each have their own little tales. Shizue (Ranko Hanai) has shacked up with a grim-looking older man to enable greater freedoms – one of them is to invite one of her younger, more handsome suitors to visit. This turns out to be Ishikawa (Yuji Hori), a sensitive factory worker who Yukiko is tasked with showing around Tokyo for an afternoon. There is a flicker of attraction, but it is soon snuffed by Yukiko having to rush home to find her wandering son. What would be a major plot device in any regular melodrama is here just another dream deferred.

The screenwriter of Ginza Cosmetics, Kishi Matsuo, was a former film critic who wrote admiringly of Naruse’s 1930s films – he described Chocolate Girl (1932) as “pleasurable Americanism.” The script was adapted from an Inoue Tomoichiro short story, but Naruse requested it be made more realistic, using the Hayashi Fumiko story “Fallen Women” as a model. Fumiko would later be a source for some of Naruse’s greatest films, including When a Woman Ascends the Stairs. According to Audie Bock, “Kishi rewrote, embellishing with locations, characters, and conversations he and Naruse knew from their own Ginza back-street bar-hopping.” While much was shot on sets, a lot of the fascination of the film is seeing the location shooting in and around Tokyo, some parts still rebuilding from WWII.

It’s tempting to guess which stories came from Naruse’s drinking days – I would surmise the story of the tone deaf sadsack baited into singing by bored bar girls is one. This painfully shy, painfully untalented young man has a crush on Yukiko, who holds sympathy but nothing else for him. Tanaka gives a finely gradated performance, displaying the borders of Yukiko’s essential kindness. She will endure the man’s singing without complaint, but not the hand around her waist. The most telling sequence about her character is the one of the drunk who skips out on a bill. Yukiko tracks him down at a neighboring bar, and is suckered into believing that one of his friends will come with the money. Instead he sneaks out the back door. Though she is close to aging out of the job – “Once you hit 40, you can’t really do it,” she says – Yukiko still manages to believe the best, or at least the bare minimum, in her fellow men and women. But she is often mistaken.

Another phantom man in her life is Fujimura (Masao Mishima), a one-time guardian angel who helped pay for the birth of her son, after the father fled. Now fallen on hard times, Fujimura shows up to ask for cash. Men want to use her as a sop for their loneliness or a handy bank account. Ishikawa does not ask anything of her, and so Yukiko becomes intrigued. He is the first fully functional male she’s encountered in ages. Yukiko escorts him around town, showing him her city, finally able to share her enthusiasms to a sympathetic ear. But this is all very brief, just a scene or two, until Yukiko has to rush back home and search for Haruo, who has once again wandered off. Yukiko’s younger sister takes over the tour guide duties, and the amorous interest as well. Barely a flutter passes over Tanaka’s face at the passing of this brief flirtation. It speaks to the million tiny heartbreaks that Yukiko must have suffered through the years that this latest one barely registers. So she returns to work the next day, the routine renewed, her situation unchanged. She has a job, a roof over her head, and Haruo. It will be enough, for now at least.

GROWING PAINS: THE BOY AND THE BEAST

March 1, 2016

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The animated films of Mamoru Hosoda are all about the practical aspects of the fantastical. Wolf Children (2012) begins with the transcendent love between a city girl and a werewolf, but instead of ending at their union, it begins there, with the bulk of the film concerned with the hard realities of raising two rambunctious lycanthrope kids. Summer Wars (2009) uses a video game virtual reality to tell a story about getting along with your prospective in-laws, while the girl in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006) uses her powers to perfect a karaoke routine. His new film, The Boy and the Beast, is about a child runaway who discovers a secret world of warrior animals, where he is mentored by a splenetic bear-man. Though there are universe-shaking implications, the core of the movie is about how a kid fills in the emotional lack left by his absent parents. Opening in limited release on March 4th, The Boy and the Beast is another of Hosoda’s gorgeous spectacles that finds beauty and pain in the minutiae of existence.

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The Boy and the Beast is the first film on which Hosoda has received sole screenwriting credit, and the second produced by his small animation Studio Chizu (or “Map”). With each project Hosoda has acquired a little more independence. He graduated the Kanazawa College of Art with a degree in oil painting, and nabbed a job at Toei Animation, making minimum wage and working under veterans like Sailor Moon director Kunihiko Ikuhara. His first directing job was for Digimon, the virtual pet and TV show. Some of his segments were edited into what became Digimon: The Movie in the U.S.. Studio Ghibli was sufficiently impressed to offer him the directing job on Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) — Hosoda was to be the first company outsider to direct one of their films. But he clashed with the producers, and, according to Screen Daily, Hosoda quit the project “after failing to come up with a concept satisfactory to his Studio Ghibli bosses.” He would move on to Mad House studio, where he worked from 2005 – 2011, contributing to the long running One Piece series. He paid enough dues until he could adapt the bestselling novel The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, which takes place at Nakai Station in Shinjuku, 20 minutes from the Madhouse studios. He received his first story credit on the Mad House production Summer Wars,  which was conceived after Hosoda got married and discovered his in-laws’ city of Ueda, Nagano. He became fascinated by the family’s  easy rapport and deep connection to the area.

Studio Chizu was formed to make Wolf Children, which was set in the rural area outside his home town of Toyoma. Hosoda told New People Travel that, ““To tell you the truth, I built Studio Chizu because it just had to be done. I used to make movies under the big umbrella of large companies like Toei Animation and Mad House. However, I thought that from here on, the product is the main priority so I will need to have the best environment for myself in order to continue creating movies.” It has often been stated, but it looks to be coming true: with Wolf Children and now The Boy and the Beast, Studio Chizu is establishing itself as the heir to Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki.

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The Boy and the Beast begins with the tousle-haired kid Ren running away from home and into the streets of Shibuya, a heavily trafficked shopping neighborhood in Tokyo. Ren’s mother passed away when he was 9, and his father intends to pass Ren off to his late wife’s family, who arrive to take him away. Instead Ren bolts into the unknown, resentments swirling through his heart, which Hosoda visualizes as a glowing dark orb inside his shadow. While ready to give up hope in a rain soaked alley, Ren picks up a pet in an adorable mouse-like hairball he calls Chico. And then a hooded, blustering stranger walks by, asking if Ren if he would like to be an apprentice. Ren follows him through a maze-like series of alleyways, and then finds himself in the Beast Kingdom (Jutengai), a secret world led by a civilization of refined hind-legged animals. The Kingdom’s lord has decided to reincarnate as a God, and so a new Lord will have to be named. The two contenders are the noble Iôzen, an intellectual warthog-looking gentleman and Kumatetsu, an asocial bear-like creature with a hair-trigger temper.

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It is Kumatetsu who Ren followed into this bewildering world, and their relationship is one of agitation. Kumatetsu is an orphan himself, one who prefers to drive others away before they have a chance to leave. But Ren identifies with this self-protective anger, and decides to follow through with the whole apprentice thing. Ren accepts the new name of Kyûta, and learns to fight in the world of beasts. He focuses his anger into the training, becoming a formidable fighter. But he is a boy split in two – both Ren and Kyûta. When he returns to Shibuya he reverts to becoming sullen teenager Ren, and there he meets Kaede, a bookish girl who tutors him  through a Japanese translation of Moby Dick. While Ren is romancing Kaede with Herman Melville, he continues training in the Beast Kingdom as Kyûta, though he is unsure to what end. All that is clear is that he and Kumatetsu seem to complete each other through barking insults and thwacking each other with broom handles.

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I was only able to view the English dub of the feature, but I’d love to revisit the film with the original Japanese voice cast, which includes Koji Yakusho (CurePulse) as Kumatetsu. That may help more of the humor land than in the English dub, which makes Kumatetsu’s voice a ragged over the top growl. But the visual splendor of the film still shines through in the English dub, a marvel of hand-drawn animation with CGI goosing the traveling shots. The Beast Kingdom is a bright, big village arcadia, an expanded vision of the Ueda of Summer Wars, while Shibuya is a dark urban bowl with pricks of neon. When Ren is about to leave home, his relatives are depicted half drawn in the background, literally faceless. As Ren/Kyûta and Beast Kingdom/Shibuya draw closer together, the visual scheme also shifts.  Ichirôhiko, Iôzen’s son, is consumed by resentful anger – that swirling shadow orb Ren had been battling — and it threatens to consume all universes. Ichirôhiko transforms his shadow into Ahab’s white whale, and projects it into Shibuya, aiming to destroy both Ren’s world and his own. These are the most bravura sequences in the film, which link the long nurtured hurt of abandoned kids with the fantastic imagery of Melville’s ego devouring beast.

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The result is a spectacle of overpowering sadness. As with most of Hosoda’s characters, both Ichirôhiko and Ren/Kyûta are isolated and lonely. Ren is ready to accept Ichirohiko’s pain into his heart and commit suicide, a gift, he thinks, for them both. There is a sincere, lasting depression to Hosoda’s films that lingers past their ambiguously happy endings. The Boy and the Beast was the second highest grossing Japanese film of 2015, behind only Yo-Kai Watch: The Movie 2.  It is not as starkly moving as Wolf Children or deliriously inventive as Summer Wars, but The Boy and the Beast is an emblematic Hosoda film in how it shows the thin border between fiction and reality, and how much we need of the former to stay sane.

ANIME GOES WEST: MAGIC BOY (1959)

July 29, 2014

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In the 1950s Hiroshi Okawa wanted to make Toei Company the Disney of Asia. Toei had already become a prolific producer of jidaigeki (period drama) movies, focusing on cheaply made programmers to fill out double and triple bills. They made 104 features in 1954 alone. Toei president Okawa had grander designs, and acquired the animation company Nichido in 1956 in the hopes of competing in the international cartoon market. Toei followed the Disney formula of selecting local fables and fairy tales for adaptation, and adding on a menagerie of cute animals. They also followed the Disney edict of making only one film per year. In a test of the receptivity of the U.S. market, they released their first three films there in 1961, all through different distributors. Their first animated feature was The Tale of the White Serpent (1958), an iteration of the Chinese folktale “Legend of the White Snake”. It was dubbed and released in the U.S. as Panda and the Magic Serpent by the independent Globe Pictures. The first Japanese anime to receive substantial stateside distribution was Magic Boy, completed in Japan in 1959 and released by MGM in ’61. Alakazam the Great (1960) was released stateside by exploitation experts American International Pictures.  The overseas theatrical experiment failed, though Toei’s animation wing would start a pipeline into U.S. television, becoming a staple on Saturday afternoon matinees. Now the Warner Archive has given the U.S. version of Magic Boy its first DVD release, allowing us to examine part of Okawa’s grand plan (it also airs on TCM on Monday, October 6th at 3AM).

magic_boyThe story of Magic Boy is an archetypal hero’s journey. Sasuke and his sister Oye live in rural harmony with a parade of adorable woodland creatures until a witch and her enthralled goons terrorize the countryside. Sasuke leaves the hearth to train with Hakuun, a renowned wise man and teacher of magic. After rigorous training montages, Sasuke has to rescue his sister from the evil clutches of the shape shifting demoness witch. Any rough details in the Japanese original are sanded down in the generic U.S. version, with each character given one attribute and chirpy vocal tone.  Though if the plot is simple to the point of inanity, the images thrum with vibrant color and life. Sasuke is an annoying little moppet, but the landscapes he inhabits shift from the pretty, delicate watercolor of his wooded home to the pulsating hellish reds of the witch’s domain. The artists really go to work on the witch, who can transform into a giant sea lizard and appears in Sasuke’s nightmares as a fire-breathing wraith, as the abstracted backgrounds pulsate around her.

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The senior staff at Nichido at the time they were acquired by Toei were Yasuji Mori and Akira Daikubara, who had the unenviable task of rapidly ramping up the size of the Toei Animation department so they could complete a full length feature. In the Directory of World Cinema: Japan 2, Helen McCarthy writes that the lack of experienced animators “created opportunities for other artists, like painter Koji  Fukiya (1898 – 1979).” Fukiya drew lushly romantic photos for girls’ magazines like Shojo Gaho (Girls’ Illustrated) and Shojo Kurabu (Girls’ Club), detoured in Paris for a failed attempt at “fine” art, and ended his career as an illustrator for children’s books (for more on Fukiya see this fascinating article). His elongated, dreamy figures became the house style at Toei after Fukiya made the original designs for their short Dreaming Boy in 1958. His influence shows up in the design of the witch, who has a snake-like fluidity, and the Modigliani-necked Oye, who could have been plucked from one of Fukiya’s magazine covers.

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If Fukiya was the elder statesman, the young firebrand was Yasuo Otsuka, who would later mentor Studio Ghibli legend Hayao Miyazaki. In order to get the job at Toei, he had to pass the animation test: draw a man striking a steel hammer against a spike, in five frames. Otsuka would be animation director for the first time on the seminal The Little Norse Prince (1968), which was Studio Ghibli standby Isao Takahata’s directorial debut, and on which Miyazaki was an assistant animator . Otsuka’s early style tended towards naturalism, and his images of a skeleton in Magic Boy were considered unintentionally funny because of how realistic they were looked in the fantastical world of the movie. He would later move on to a more malleable style, what he called “constructed realism”. He used frame rate modulation to heighten a specific action. Where Disney would use 1 frame of film for 1 animation cell, Otsuka would use three frames for one cell to add weight to movements, as detailed in this post by Daniel Thomas MacInnes.

Though highly recommended by both the trades  (the Independent Exhibitors’ Film Bulletin wrote: “Delightful Japanese cartoon fantasy in color. Will entertain youngsters and many of their elders”) and the newspapers  (The New York Times : “Walt Disney has no cause for abdication or even alarm. But he can jolly well move over and make room.”), Hiroshi Okawa’s plans for world theatrical domination never materialized.  Toei would, however, became a dominant force in animation in Japan, thanks to the amazing influx of talent required by Okawa’s gamble.

BETTER THAN NOTHING: THE COMPLETE (EXISTING) FILMS OF SADAO YAMANAKA

June 4, 2013

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The history of Japanese cinema can never completely be told. It is estimated that 90 percent of its pre-1945 film output was lost or destroyed, the silent era razed in the 1923 Kanto earthquake, and Allied firebombing in WWII incinerating the rest. One of the most tragic casualties of this cultural obliteration are the films of Sadao Yamanaka, of whose 27 features only 3 survive. A galvanizing figure in the 1930s, he was a passionate cinephile and member of the Narutaki Group of Kyoto that sought to modernize the jidai-geki, or period drama. His films bring the heroes of pulp novels and kabuki theater down to earth, into sake bottle level views of the everyday lives of the working poor. They speak in modern Japanese, in dialogues modeled after his drunken late night conversations with the Narutaki Group. He wrote, “If what drinkers say is lively when utilised in a film, I may insist that drinking is part of my profession.”

He took flak for turning the popular nihilistic samurai Tange Sazen into an irritable layabout, but he gained fans and friends from peers like Yasujiro Ozu. He died at the age of 28 as a military conscript in Manchuria, from an intestinal disease.  The scrupulous Masters of Cinema label (the Criterion Collection of the UK) has released his surviving works in an essential two-DVD set (make sure you have an all-region player): Tange Sazen: The Million Ryo Pot (1935), Kochiyama Soshun (1936) and Humanity and Paper Balloons (1937).

Yamanaka was born on November 7, 1909 in Kyoto. As written in the informative Masters of Cinema booklet by Kimitoshi Sato, Yamanaka was the last of seven children. His father was a “master fan craftsman” who passed away from a brain hemorrhage when Sadao was 16. He was hired by the Makino film company two years later, on the strength of an essay he wrote in high-school, “Kyoto and the cinema industry”. He worked as an assistant, although lazily. He was nicknamed “lamp in the daylight”, a boy with a lantern jaw who according to an actor on set, “did nothing, he just stood around.”

The young Yamanaka took this standing around as an artistic credo when he moved into features at Nikkatsu. The three films that survive are group portraits of hanging out and doing nothing. Tange Sazen: The Million Ryo Pot is the third film in a series originated by director Daisuke Ito. Ito left the studio, who gave the assignment to Yamanaka. Originally a serial novel following the vengeful exploits of a one-eyed ronin (masterless samurai), in One Million Ryo Pot Yamanaka and screenwriter Shintaro Mimura (a Narutaki Group member) turns the wandering warrior into a splenetic loafer who hangs out at an amusement parlor. The writer of the novel, Fubo Hayashi, asked to have his name taken off the credits.

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Sazen (reprised by Denjiro Okochi) spends his time listening to his girlfriend sing while laughing at the suckers who pay to lose at an archery game. His life of lassitude is interrupted when one of the parlor’s patrons shows up stabbed, and asks Sazen to care for his child Yasu.  Yasu happens to be dragging around a dirty old pot which another passive aggressor is looking for. The black sheep of the Yagyu clan, Genzaburo (Kunitaro Sawamuro), believes the pot contains a map to an ancient fortune, and the search will give him an excuse to get away from his wife for awhile.

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It’s a setup for madcap farce, but Yamanaka delivers it in an unexpected manner. The pot plot is a red herring, as neither Sazen nor Genzaburo have any intention of searching for treasure – they use the search as a way to create havoc outside, allowing them to lie down languidly inside.  His long-take long-shots group his performers in various states of repose, and while he does not focus in depth, he composes that way, with (in) action occurring in the far reaches of the frame. Even if he didn’t have the technology yet, Yamanaka was moving towards a deep focus aesthetic, which he would fully explore in Humanity and Paper Balloons.

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But first there was Kochiyama Soshun (Priest of Darkness, 1936), based on the famous kabuki drama Kochiyama and Naojiro, first staged in 1881. Also scripted by Shintaro Mimura, it again scales down the heroic figures to human size, its Soshun not a dashing con man but a small-time shyster at a town fair who dresses like a monk, while the charming young heartbreaker Naojiro is turned into a petty thief named Hirotaro, whose theft of a knife sets the plot in motion. To fit his more naturalistic style, he didn’t use kabuki actors, but instead a few from the Zenshin-za theatre troupe, a left wing outfit that, as Tony Rayns writes in the booklet,  “developed a style of historical naturalism far removed from kabuki stylisation.”

The setting here is an expansion of Tange Sazen’s amusement parlor – here it is an entire street fair filled with hustlers. Hirotaro is drawn into Soshun’s gambling den, and raises cash by stealing a samurai’s knife. While the characters’ rejection of the pot’s treasures in Tenge Sazen guaranteed them a provisional stress-free happiness, it is Hirotaro’s obsession with material gain that tips Kochiyama Soshun into tragedy, causing a series of downfalls, including his sister’s (played by a young Setsuko Hara).

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It is with Humanity and Paper Balloons that Yamanaka makes his masterpiece, in which he further elaborates his deep focus style as a trap for his feckless dead enders. Increasingly independent, Yamanaka got his favored acting troupe Zenshin-za to co-produce the film, and the performances are filled with aggrieved restraint. Again adadpted from a kabuki play, Shinza the Barber (1873), it follows the trials of one stretch of street in the tenement district. DP Akira Mimura shoots the alley head-on, the makeshift street in low light, with a flood of brightness at the end of the block. Mimura is a fascinating figure – he went to high school in Chicago (receiving the nickname “Harry”) and worked as a cameraman in Hollywood in the 1920s, including on Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels (1930). After the war, he would be the first to film the aftermath of the atomic bomb attack, traveling with Lt. Daniel A. McGovern to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He worked as a DP until 1975.

In Yamanka’s world there is no more “way of the samurai”. It opens with a hanging suicide in which a samurai couldn’t commit ritual seppuku because he sold his sword for cash.  Sensing an opportunity for sanctioned debauchery, the neighbors decide to have a party – as the flyboys do in Howard Hawks’ Dawn Patrol and Only Angels Have Wings. Yamanaka’s professionals are lower on the social strata – they  sell bamboo pipe replacements and host underground gambling rings – but the response is the same, to deny death through celebration.

Unno (Chojuro Kawarasaki) is a poor ronin who spends his days dutifully pestering a friend of his dead father’s, who once promised help. His nights are spent lying to his wife and battling his alcoholism, and he slides into depression. He’s a walking corpse, the ghost of the suicide hanging over him. Shinza (Kan’emon Nakamura) is an ex-barber who hosts illegal gambling parties against the local gang’s wishes. He’s routinely beaten, but he doesn’t seem to care, coasting through life with a wry smile on his face, his life turned into a cruel joke. Shinza impulsively concocts the self-destructive plan to kidnap the adopted daughter of a merchant, which Unno aids him in through sheer inertia, their parallel paths to annihilation joining in this one ill-fated maneuver. Unno’s wife is gifted the final silhouette, her blacked out figure disappearing into brightness along the road.  Yamanaka rhymes this with the image of a paper balloon floating down a roadside river, a fragile beauty that will soon be lost.

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NATURE AND NURTURE: WOLF CHILDREN

May 21, 2013

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One of these images is from James Benning’s long-take experiment in landscape photography, 13 Lakes (2004), and the other is from the hit Japanese anime of 2012, Wolf Children. I’ll let you figure out which is which. Outgrossing Pixar’s Brave in its home country, Wolf Children crowned director Mamoru Hosoda as a legitimate heir to Hayao Miyazaki (for whom he initially developed Howl’s Moving Castle), and is now available to English speakers on Hong Kong Blu-ray and DVD. Both directors are concerned with the relationship between nature and civilization, but while Miyazaki’s eco-parables soar into faraway lands, with Wolf Children Hosoda had directed his focus on the miniature dramas of everyday life. Wolf Children uses lycanthropy as an excuse to mount a gorgeous melodrama about the hard work of motherhood, and the resulting heartbreak when children heed the call to the wilds of adult life, away from home.

Mamoru Hosoda was born on September 19, 1967 in Toyoma Prefecture, Japan. His father worked for the railroads, while he spent much of his time indoors drawing. He recalled to New People Travel that, “When it rains and snows a lot you don’t go outside, bekins07_MamoruHosoda-artbonaturally. You read books, become introverted, and you face yourself.” He graduated from the Kanazawa College of Art with a degree in oil painting. His first job was at Toei Animation, where he made what he calls “minimum wage”, but learned his craft from veterans like Sailor Moon director Kunihiko Ikuhara. It was there he made his first feature, Digimon: The Movie (2000), adapted from the popular TV show and “virtual pet” toy. The following year he was tapped by Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli to direct Howl’s Moving Castle, but departed the project after a few months. Mark Schilling reported that Hosoda failed  “to come up with a concept satisfactory to his Studio Ghibli bosses”. It was the first time an outsider to Ghibli was tapped to produce one of their films, and Hosoda did not fit their mold. Eventually Miyazaki would come out of retirement to direct it himself. Hosoda says he didn’t get along with the staff, but that he learned a valuable lesson:

When I worked at Toei, I had a teen state of mind: I wanted to direct complicated things, really dark. I thought to deliver a message I had to make tortured works. But in fact, while working on Howl’s…, I’ve realized being simple and clear was more satisfying.

His career seems to be a series of paring downs and simplifications. From Toei he would go to Madhouse animation, where he worked from 2005 – 2011. He chipped in on long-running film series One Piece before he finally wrested creative control of a project from start to finish. Instead of the castles in the sky of Miyazaki, Hosoda was inspired by the views outside his door. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006), although a loose sequel to a 1967 novel, takes place at Nakai Station in Shinjuku, 20 minutes from his Madhouse studios. Summer Wars was conceived after Hosoda got married and discovered his in-laws’ city of Ueda, Nagano, and became fascinated by their deep family ties and that it “always has blue skies”, so different from his extreme weather home of Toyoma.

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He would return home for Wolf Children, setting the feature in the rural areas of Toyoma, and using its varieties of precipitation as an elegant visual metaphor. Water is the implacable natural force that marks the moments of terrifying change in the lives of Hana and her two children, Ame and Yuki, as they grow up from little werewolf kids into ferocious adolescents. Hana had loved and lost Ookami, her Wolf Man husband, during a rainstorm. The film is not a love story but depicts the aftermath of one, and the tough work required of a single mother.  With a mix of line drawing and photorealistic CG, the mode is hyper-real with moments of lyrical beauty, as when Ame bounds into the forest with his fox companion, settling on a reflective pond. Hosoda will rhyme this reflective pond with that of a puddle, as Hana stands alone in a parking lot, having lost Ame to the animals and Yuki to the world outside. There are constant movement between rain squalls and tears and waterfalls as the family pushes and pulls between the cocoon of familial love and the lure of independence.

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Hosoda left Madhouse to make Wolf Children, the first film his own Studio Chizu (meaning “Map”). While set in his hometown of Toyoma, he got the idea for the film in the Kichioji district of Tokyo. he told New People Travel that:

There is a Starbucks by the park with a terrace that allows me to smoke, so I go there often. One time I was sitting there gazing at the people walking to the park. There were certainly many people with children and dogs… and I came up with that idea while watching the kids and dogs, who were about the same height, coming and going, crisscrossing in front of my eyes. That is how it happened.”He returned to his home of Toyoma to tell the story of single mother Hana and her two werewolf children, Ame and Yuki.

It is this grounding in observable fact that makes Wolf Children so powerfully moving. The supernatural is incidental to Hosoda, a delivery system for the brute facts of life. Whether it’s Hana nodding off at the dinner table from overwork or Ame asking to be “comforted again” after one his numerous frights, the film is lined with the sympathetic details of raising children (Hosoda’s first child was born soon after the film was completed). This ability to simplify and focus on behavior instead of grand mythical back stories is what makes Wolf Children work so well, rich in sentiment without being sentimental.

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JAPAN CUTS: THE NEW YORK FESTIVAL OF CONTEMPORARY JAPANESE CINEMA

July 10, 2012

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For the sixth year running, the Japan Cuts film series in New York City presents an eye-opening glimpse of contemporary filmmaking from across the Pacific, the vast majority of which will never receive distribution in the United States. Programmed in concert with the ongoing New York Asian Film Festival (which I covered for Film Comment), it runs from July 12 – 28 at the Japan Society, and will screen 37 features and two shorts. The normally sober-minded fest has gone pop this year, booking a slate bubbling with hyperactive rom-coms and sci-fi extravaganzas, but there is also a sidebar of films responding to the Fukushima nuclear disaster, as well as a tribute to the expressively stone-faced actor Koji Yakusho, who will appear in-person for the screening of The Woodsman and the Rain (2011).

Japanese studios wring established brands as dry as any Hollywood outfit with a superhero license, as the caffeinated pleasures of Love Strikes! (2011) can attest. It’s a manic romantic comedy adapted from a hit TV show (Moteki, 2010), which was in turn the small screen version of a blockbuster manga comic book by Mitsuro Kubo. Toho, the largest Japanese production and distribution company, dominates the native box office with re-dos such as these, especially the endless iterations of anime behemoths Pokemon and Doraemon.

Love Strikes! was a solid hit in 2011, and it is a cross-promotional machine, playing clips from what seems like every J-pop band of the last twenty years. But instead of a bubblegum-tween romance, it’s pitched towards an older crowd, aiming for the instant nostalgia of the early-30s set. The main character is Yukiyo Fujimoto (the mousy Mirai Moriyama), a 31-year-old virgin who quotes Goethe and reads way too deeply into teen pop lyrics. He gets a job at an internet culture magazine, but is thrown through a loop when the perky hip chick Miyuki (Masami Nagasawa) responds to his music nerd musings on Twitter (Yukiyo: “Someone register her as a world heritage site”). Director Hitoshi Ohne (ported over from the TV show), slathers the screen with scrolling Twitter pages and karaoke lyrics, topped off with Fujimoto’s self-doubting voice-over.

The highlight of this ADD-cinema is an impromptu music video featuring girl group trio Perfume, who dance through Tokyo with Yukiyo to their hit “Baby Cruising Love”, enacting his budding self-actualization. I was largely won over by this shock and awe pop assault, deluded male fantasy though it is, thanks to its witty screenplay by Ohne and an energetic performance by Nagasawa (justly deserving of the festival’s Rising Star award), who injects her thankless object-of-nerd-lust role with an unexpected aggressiveness and spunk. The third act devolves too far into passive male wish-fulfillment, but Ohne keeps the visuals popping around it.

The Closing Night film of the festival is another Toho-stravaganza, the sci-fi spectacular Space Battleship Yamato (2010), a live-action adaptation of the much beloved 1974 animated series. Directed by visual effects specialist Takashi Yamazaki, director of the Japan Academy prize winner Always, it pushes the limits of Japanese FX technology, sometimes to the breaking point. The story is ultra-nationalist, pushing themes of self-sacrifice to self-destructive lengths (the Yamato was the lead Japanese battleship in WWII). It follows one-time rebel Susumu Kodai (Takuya Kimura), who learns to love the military after the country is attacked, and about to be decimated by, the alien Gamilas. With a $29.4 million dollar budget, it is a major production, but the scale of the film needs Hollywood-style cash, and some of the alien worlds lack detail and dimensionality, giving them a video-game flatness. The film has a lack of self-consciousness in its propaganda, kind of Starship Troopers played straight, which to be honest has a refreshing pulp quality to it, as men speak in clipped moralistic phrases and rush around feverishly blinking panels.

Koji Yakusho doesn’t need flash to sell tickets. With his prominent cheekbones, piercing stare, and air of calm reserve, he could be a model, an assassin, or a model assassin, but instead he has chosen roles of subtle dramatic gradations, including the rumpled detective in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure, or the crusty old patriarch in  Chronicle of My Mother (2011), another Toho-hit, in which he grapples with the growing senility of his mother. It’s a solid family drama, the kind of well-crafted multi-generational weepie even second-tier Japanese directors like Masato Harada can churn out with ease. Although not on the level of Yoji Yamada’s About Her Brother (2010) or Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Still Walking (2008), Harada uses distanced camerawork and detailed 50s era art direction to emphasize the distance he has set up between his own family members. Kirin Kiri is endearingly batty as his equally withholding mother, and their inevitable emotional breakthrough is underplayed so well that Yakusho’s grin has the same impact of a full-throated sob.

Yoshihiro Nakamura is a director who deals with Toho but has been able to maintain an individual artistic identity. While making cash-grabbers for Toho like last year’s dreadful-looking Eiga Kaibutsukun (watch the trailer – if you dare) he has also pursued a productive collaboration with mystery novelist Kotara Isaka , whose twisting Rube Goldberg narratives Nakamura has adapted multiple times over the years. His breakthrough film in the West was the briskly entertaining Fish Story (2009, available on DVD and streaming on Netflix) in which a long-forgotten punk song from 1975 inadvertently prevents the Earth from getting creamed by an asteroid in the present. Then in 2010 Nakamura adapted Isaka’s Golden Slumber (2010), a rather plodding conspiracy narrative that piles on subplots without Fish Story’s fleet pacing. Golden Slumber was Isaka’s first novel translated into English, with the title changed to Remote Control.  Last year found Nakamura take a break from Isaka’s work, and made his simplest and most affecting film, A Boy and his Samurai (aka Chonmage Purin, 2010). A sweetly sentimental fish out of water comedy, it plops a time-traveling samurai into modern Japan, who promptly becomes a master pastry chef.

This year has Nakamura return to Isaka’s work, adapting one of his short stories for Chips (aka Potechi, 2012), a svelte 68 minute comedy that combines the deadpan humor and narrative web of Fish Story with the naked emotionality of A Boy and His Samurai. Partly funded by the Sendai Miyagi Film Commission, Chips was shot in Sendai, and was recruited to help bring business back to the city, so devastated by the earthquake and subsequent tsunami of 2011. That is why Chips is included in the Japan Cuts sidebar, “Focus on Post 3.11 Cinema”, which consists of four fiction films attempting to respond to those events, including Toshi Fujiwara’s No Man’s Zone and Masahiro Kobayashi’s Women on the Edge. You can read more about them in Dennis Lim’s NY Times piece here.

Chips begins with Imamura (Nakamura regular Gaku Hamada) and Kurosawa (Nao Ohmori) watching an empty stage in the park. Imamura is the funny one, and Kurosawa the serious one, playing off the personas of their famed director namesakes. Their circuitous actions will fill the stage of the screen, set in motion when Imamura answers the phone during one of his petty thievery jobs, one of those small actions that has epic existential effects in Nakamura’s world. The girl who answers is threatening to commit suicide. He talks her down, but then the two of them are sitting during another robbery, and another phone rings. This time they are ensnared in a blackmail ring involving the baseball player Ozaki. Stories sprout new stories, all of them tinged with loss, from the prospective suicide to the final revelation, which opens up doubt about Imamura’s own identity. Imamura’s life becomes doubled with Ozaki’s, ending at a baseball game that unfurls with the compressed ritual intensity of kabuki theater, one that will shake the two men’s destinies apart. It is a wildly melodramatic and deeply sad conclusion, which pushes Imamura into a place where he is cheering for the destruction of his own identity. All this is accomplished with an unobtrusive fixed camera, usually focused on Hamada’s slackjawed moon face, which looks as if it is in a perpetual state of stunned surprise, which is a decent description of Nakamura’s audience as well.

Toshiaki Toyoda has staked out a less accommodating stance with the studios, and has become persona non grata since his arrest for drug possession in 2005. His new film Monsters Club is an unsettling re-telling of the Unabomber story, complete with a mail-bomb POV shot, from construction to explosion. Shot over two weeks without a script in snow clogged mountains, its method of shooting was as mad as its main character. Although it opts for rote pop-psychology explanations by the end, the visuals are far more unsettling, especially the hallucinations of colored shaving cream covered swamp people designed by transgender Japanese artist Pyuupiru.

This year’s Japan Cuts holds fascinating insights into how the Japanese commercial cinema works these days, which is not too far off from our own much-maligned Hollywood model of the necessity of “brand-awareness”. As Love Strikes! shows, though, these pre-digested products don’t have to be creatively diluted, as long as they fulfill their promotional duties first. Yoshihiro Nakamura is the most intriguing figure here, one who seems to be able to float back and forth between Toho-blessed A-pictures and his own little curios, much like the soon to be retired Steven Soderbergh. It will interesting to see how long he can survive the balancing act, before getting burned out and frustrated like his American counterpart.

THE HAZY LIVES OF NOBUHIRO YAMASHITA

June 19, 2012

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The characters in a Nobuhiro Yamashita film do a lot of standing around. They are waiting for something, whether it be a friend, a bus, or simply for the day to end. Yamashita’s films are about killing time, in the hope that the following morning will contain less of it. But each day seems to grow longer, and these young men and women continue to stand, until they have forgotten what they were waiting for in the first place. These are films attuned to the rhythms of in-between moments , reveling in their awkward absurdity and percolating anxiousness. Yamashita’s films are frequently hilarious but of a kind that sticks in the throat, as life sails by his weightless, indecisive characters. Operating in near-anonymity out of Japan, with little festival or international distribution, Yamashita has forged a consistently funny and bittersweet body of work that is deserving of a vastly wider audience.

Nobuhiro Yamashita was born in Aichi Prefecture, Japan in 1976. It is the country’s most heavily industrialized area, perhaps leading Yamashita toward his ambivalent attitude towards work, as his characters are all either unemployed or terrible at their jobs. He went to film school at the Osaka University of Arts, where he met his frequent collaborator, screenwriter Kosuke Mukai. They made a series of short films together before completing Hazy Life, which was accepted into the Rotterdam Film Festival’s Tiger Award Competition for young filmmakers in 2000. A startlingly assured debut for a 24-year-old, it is very much under the sway of Jim Jarmusch, a series of deadpan blackout sketches about two aimless youths stuck between immaturity and adulthood.

Minami (Yamashita axiom Hiroshi Yamamoto) enters life pompadour first, as the film opens with his conical hair horn poking into the frame. The next shot is a street-level  of his high-heeled boots, a man of style if not, at this point, any perceptible substance. He walks across a parking lot to grab a soda, where he stands next to the schlubby Machida, in usual college slob wear, dingy sweatshirt and jeans. It is their first meeting, set up by Yamashita in fixed camera shots and symmetrical compositions, which repeat throughout, the form following the enervating sameness of their days and nights. Minami recruits Machida to help him dub amateur porn on VHS tapes for a nominal fee, after which they become friends, more out of inertia than pleasure. They are standing next to each other, so they might as well hang out. They each fantasize about taking an active role in life, of going on dates, assaulting a deli clerk and joining a motorcycle gang, but by the end of the film all they have are dreams, as they sit on a bus bench and rationalize, “at least we’re alive”.

Ramblers (2003) is Yamashita’s third feature, made after No One’s Ark (2003), which I have yet to track down. Ramblers is the last film he would make in Osaka, before he decided he needed to make a living and moved to Tokyo to work for the studios. Once again working with Mukai (who adapted the script from a manga by Yoshiharu Tsuge), it tells another story of two young men thrust together in order to wait. This time it is a director, Kinoshita (Hiroshi Yamamoto) and a writer, Tsuboi (Keishi Nagatsuka) who meet up in a sleepy mountain town to set up the production of a feature. They are waiting for a third collaborator to arrive…who is indefinitely delayed. The duo has to kill time, so they go fishing, practice their golf putting, encounter a series of obstreperous locals, and briefly fall in love with a young runaway who breezes through their life. Atsuko (Machiko Ono) appears to them like a mythical creature, running naked down the beach as they sit and shoot the breeze. Someone has robbed her while she was in the water, and Kinoshita and Tsuboi immediately let this apparition into their daily routine of putzing around. Their emotions briefly buoyed, she just as quickly disappears, jumping on a bus that actually arrives, something inconceivable to a Yamashita character. Alone once again, they begin running out of money, their hotels (and their managers) becoming comically decrepit, until they are forced to leave, the Atsuko interlude more shared myth than reality.

Yamashita’s first contract job once arriving in Tokyo was Cream Lemon (2004), made for the Fullmotion production company, known for their erotic “pink” movies. It’s an adaptation of the hentai manga (or pornographic comic book) of the same name, but Yamashita and Mukai turned it into an unsettling art film. It is the story of a step-brother and sister who fall in love, but instead of a parade of sex scenes, Yamashita stretches out the moments beforehand, when the two nervous siblings send out feelers of mutual desire. It remains a film about waiting, this time of the anxious moments yearning for another’s touch.

Then came Yamashita’s one major box office success, the ebullient high school musical Linda Linda Linda (2005), which is the only film of his to receive a limited release in the U.S. The script by Wakako Miyashita had won a screenwriting competition, which garnered the attention of producer Hiroyuki Negishi, who then brought in Yamashita. Yamashita and Mukai were allowed to re-write the scenario, but this is the first of their films to lack their deliberate pacing and obsession with in-between moments. This is very much a mainstream comedy, but is a thoroughly delightful one, and shows Yamashita to be adept at energetic pop entertainment. It concerns a high school girl band who needs to recruit a new vocalist three days before a festival performance. They settle on Korean exchange student Son (Bae Doo-na), whose shaky grasp of Japanese is the source of the film’s manic comedy of mis-communication. Add that to the insanely catchy theme song adapted from The Blue Hearts’ pop-punk “Linda Linda”, and there’s little secret to the film’s popularity.

He returned to more familiar ground in The Matsugane Potshot Affair (2006), a sprawling black comedy about a fictional small town (shot around the snowy climes of Nagano) that is slowly falling apart. It returns to the slow-burn, fixed camera set-ups from his independent days, but set across a wider locale, as this time an entire town watches their lives pass them by. Families are crumbling, the police are clueless, and the coroner incompetent. The opening sequence ends with a declared death coming back to life. The fulcrums to the story are fraternal twins, one a directionless cop, the other a farmer who knocks a woman unconscious in a hit and run. Their respective disdain for action leads them to slip further and further into crime and ignorance. Bags of gold, heads in bags, and mice in the ceiling act as triggers for their slow mental decline. Unable to alter the deep grooves of their daily routines, they are doomed to circle in their morally deficient hometown, with neither the will nor the imagination to escape. Yamashita’s protagonists have aged, and their indolence no longer has roguish charm but has curdled into sour regrets.

Shortly after the release of Matsugane Yamashita told Midnight Eye that, ” these past three years the films I’ve made have always been ‘based on’ something. I do feel that it’s about time that I do something that I’m completely involved in from scratch. If not, I don’t know if I will continue to feel so comfortable for very long.” Since Matsugane, he made the lovely rural school comedy (and manga adaptation) A Gentle Breeze in the Village (2007, and his first film without a script by Mukai), the ’70s student radical drama My Back Page(2011), adapted from a novel, and he has a new comedy, Kueki Ressha (2012) opening in Japan in July, which is also based on a book (and was written without Mukai). Since his arrival in Tokyo in 2004, he has not produced an original script, and his comfort level must be dwindling. His films have never been shown at Cannes, nor at most of the other major festivals, so he cannot depend on foreign investment to produce his work. He has to make what the Japanese studios will support, making the possibility of another Hazy Life close to nil. But unlike his protagonists, Yamashita has proven to be adaptable, deepening high school musicals and sentimental teen romances with his outsider sympathies and eye for oddball detail. He is, as ever, a director to keep an eye on.

THE 2011 NEW YORK ASIAN FILM FESTIVAL AND JAPAN CUTS

June 28, 2011

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If you’re suffering from the summer blockbuster blues, there’s no greater pick-me-up than the New York Asian Film Festival, an invigorating potpourri of the finest in creative Eastern bloodletting. It marks its tenth decadent year with 45 features from nine different countries, unspooling at the Film Society of Lincoln Center from July 1st – 14th. 11 of those films are co-presented with Japan Cuts, the NYAFF’s more studious (if no less ambitious) five-year-old sister festival, held at Japan Society from July 7th – 22nd. Including the 21 other titles in Japan Cuts, there are 66 Asian movies hitting screens in July, most of which will never receive distribution in the United States (although many will be obtainable at Asian DVD retailers).

Surveys of national cinemas are usually funded by state organizations (i.e. Rendezvous With French Cinema at Lincoln Center is “supported by” the French embassy’s Cultural Services department), turning them into bland diplomatic exercises. The movies selected veer toward middlbrow arthouse or sophisticated-seeming romantic comedies – presenting how these countries want to be seen. The NYAFF and Japan Cuts buck this trend by culling movies from every genre and budget size, from popular hits (Reign of Assassins) to 4 1/2 hour indie experiments (Heaven’s Story).

NYAFF is funded by a gaggle of cultural services and corporate sponsors (scroll to the bottom of the home page to see which ones) but beholden to none, while Japan Cuts is underwritten by The Japan Foundation, a government-created cultural exchange entity that became an independent administrative institution in 2003. These benefactors continue to give ace programmers Grady Hendrix (NYAFF) and Samuel Jamier (Japan Cuts) space to select titles both lowbrow and high, sketching a more wide-ranging portrait of Asia than you’ll likely read in the newspaper.

It’s impossible to cover everything on display (including a great Tsui Hark mini-retro), but most of the revelations in this year’s slate came in the NYAFF sidebar, “Sea of Revenge: New Korean Thrillers”, so I’ll focus there. Park Chan-wook re-invented the ax murder in his wildly popular vengeance trilogy, but it wasn’t until the runaway success of Na Hong-jin’s The Chaser (2008) that a new cycle of revenge films got kicked off in Korea. The only inkling we’ve received stateside of this wave was the release of Kim Jee-Woon’s fantastical sadism duel,  I Saw the Devil (2010, Magnolia Pictures), earlier this year. The titles in the sidebar are perversely pessimistic thrillers that repeatedly take aim at Korea’s governmental institutions. It is no coincidence that the cycle began in 2008, the year which ushered in our continuing economic crisis (almost all the others landed in 2010).

The Chaser stars the plump and harried Kim Yun-Seok as Jung-Hoa dirty ex-cop who runs a second-rate prostitution ring that is bleeding cash. Two of his girls have fled, and another has quit, so he forces a feverish Mi-Jin (Seo Young-hee) out on a job. Then he notices the address, which is the same location where he sent the two girls who disappeared. His vestigial detective instincts kick in, and he begins a frenzied investigation into the john, Ji Young-Min (Ha Jung-Woo)who is soon revealed to be a mild-mannered serial killer.

The tone begins as grimly comic noir, as Jung-Ho’s short-tempered capitalist pursues the mystery out of base self-interest. He initially believes Ji has merely sold his whores, and becomes a P.I. only to save his business. When the extent of Ji’s crimes become clear, his focus sharpens and his defensive cynicism falls away. He literally runs down clues through the streets of Seoul as Na’s jittery camera struggles to keep up. The pace relentlessly carries the film through its operatically tragic conclusion. The few moments of humor are reserved for the incompetent police force, who are occupied by a protestor who threw shit in the mayor’s face (hapless Keystone Korean Kops are a recurring presence in the series). Hoarding its resources into handling that PR fiasco, sad-sack Jung-Ho is tasked with being a hero, a role he is ill-suited to execute.

Na followed this up with The Yellow Sea, NYAFF’s closing night film and a selection in the 2010 Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard section. It’s bigger and bloodier but equally swift and despairing as his boffo debut. He takes on the phenomenon of the “joseonjok“, Chinese citizens of Korean ancestry who illegally sneak back into Korea to get work. Na reverses the actor polarities from The Chaser: this time Ha Jung-Woo plays the beaten down anti-hero (Gu-nam) and Kim Yun Seok is the  mercilessly violent Chinese gang boss Myung-Ga. Gu-nam borrowed 60,000 yuan to get his wife a visa to work across the border, and he hasn’t heard from her since. Hassled by loan sharks and fraying at the seams beneath a stoic stone-face, Myung-Ga offers him a mountain of cash if he kills a man in Korea – while also giving Gu-nam the opportunity to track down his wife.

In the opening voice-over, Gu-nam speaks of his childhood. In his village, a dog infected with rabies killed its mother. Later he saw it wobble toward him and die from malnourishment. The village elders ate the corpse, and the disease spread throughout town. It is an original sin of a sort, his people cursed because of the desperation brought on by poverty. Gu-nam spends the film in atonement for this sin, enduring unspeakable physical abasements, although there is no transcendence on the other side.

With terse efficiency, Na depicts the Gu-nam’s journey across the Yellow Sea in a junk ship, hiding in a hull with the other illegals, dumped like netted lobsters on the Korean coastline. The scenes in which Gu-nam cases his mark’s home are object lessons in creating tension through narrative withholding, as we are restricted to his POV as he wordlessly pieces together the routines of the building. The aftermath of the murder opens up the narrative scope, as the POV expands from Gu-nam up to the corporate and criminal leaders who ordered the hit. He becomes merely part of a tapestry of corruption.

The cops, as in The Chaser, are comically inept, this time to a Keatonian level. In Gun-nam’s escape after the killing, he evades hundreds of police offers on foot, carrying a knife. The scene, with police cars flipping past him and baton-wielding ninnies yelling at him to stop, is a direct descendent of the Keystone Kops. It’s a spectacularly sarcastic scene, one with echoes throughout, including a cowardly local cop who accidentally shoots his partner. There is no faith in official institutions – everyone is on the take or just stupid.

I should also note the heavy use of blade violence [the following has been updated after a colleague alerted me to South Korea’s gun laws]. There are no guns in this movie – everyone gets stabbed or bludgeoned by an axe-handle, mostly by Myung-Ga – and there are some epic battles here. With South Korea’s highly restrictive ownership laws, even the underworld has trouble obtaining firearms. Without shoot-outs, each death becomes more personal, because you have to get close and smell the sweat of your opponent before taking their life. It is a ritual bloodletting to rid the world of the infection of humanity. Somehow this is getting released by 20th Century Fox, release date unknown.

The other major director in the sidebar is Ryoo Seung-Wan, a cheerier exponent of vengeance whose films have a pulsating rhythm. Represented by City of Violence (2006), The Unjust (2010) and Troubleshooter (2010, which he produced but did not direct), Ryoo churns out sleekly absorbing actioners with more self-reflexive panache than Na. City of Violence pits childhood friends against one another, pivoting on shady real estate deals (two years before the crash!), climaxing in fight scenes of comic-book abstraction. Clearly influenced by the ironic japery of Kill Bill, its centerpiece blowout is an exuberantly over-the-top homage to The Warriors. With The Unjust  he gets serious(er). A twisty, multi-layered corruption drama, it squares off a power-hungry detective and a power-hungrier prosecutor as the entire Korean justice system is jauntily sketched out as on the make. The detective, Captain Choi (Hwang Jung-Min), is tasked to frame a fall guy for the murder of a young girl, after the main suspect was unjustly killed by the police. The prosecutor (Ryoo Seung-Bum, the director’s brother) finds out, and thus begins an escalating game of blackmail that spreads throughout the city. Ryoo finds expressive uses for the slow zoom, moving from micro crimes to macro institutional corruption in one shot.

Kwok Hyeok-Jae helmed Troubleshooter (2010) which Ryoo produced and co-wrote. A hectic menage of the Bourne films and Hitchock’s The Wrong Man (or less hyperbolically, The Fugitive), it frames P.I. Tae-Sik (Sol Kyung-Gu) for murder, and he has to outrun the cops and prove his innocence before he gets his head blown off. Set to a backbeat of corruption news on his car radio, he dons disguises and endures betrayals with a breezy disregard. The busy visuals, a lot of screens within screens and flash editing, is tiresome after a while, but Sol is an amiable and ably physical performer, and the pace never flags. As for the other entries, The Man From Nowhere is a passably diverting Eastwood gloss, and I didn’t have time to watch Bedevilled.

Japan Cuts is studded with gems of its own, although the spurting bodily fluids they elicit comes from the tear ducts rather than the jugular. The most ambitious is Heavens Story, a four and a half hour labor of love for director Takahisa Zeze, the former “King of Pink” (Pink films are the softcore porn of Japan). An independent project that took him five years to make, it follows a group of characters dealing with the aftermath of a series brutal murders. It reminded me most strongly of Shinji Aoyama’s Eureka (2000) a similarly epic reckoning with grief, although their approaches are much different. Aoyama’s B&W long take naturalism is a far cry from Zeze’s blunt symbolism, but both reach to evoke the stasis induced by unutterable emotional pain, that netherworld between grieving and living. Zeze’s clumsy DV framings often fail to reach the heights he’s groping for, but there are plenty of striking images that blaze through, including an existential death match in an abandoned mining town, and the magical closing Kabuki performance that offers an escape from the cycles of violence. Another, more assured multi-character tale is Kazuyoshi Kumakiri’s Sketches of Kaitan City (2010), which documents the decline of an industrial port town in intersecting vignettes. Its highly detailed soundscape of clanging bells and alarm clocks seem to be counting down to the city’s demise.

One of the biggest surprises is Masahiro Kobayashi’s Haru’s Journey, a gentle drama about aging starring the legendary old lion Tatsuya Nakadai (High and Low, Ran et. al.). Kobayashi had been a maker of challenging festival films, including Bashing (2005) and the remarkable endurance test that is The Rebirth (2007). But here is his ode to Tokyo Story, a mainstream melodrama about Nakadai and his granddaughter, asking each of his siblings if he can live with them, and repeatedly being rejected. It’s a showcase for Nakadai, who is charmingly irascible throughout, his demeanor embodied in his lame leg, giving him a herky-jerky walk that is a warning to fellow pedestrians.  Kobayashi’s visuals are calmly controlled, often using extreme long shots to evoke this family’s emotional distance, proving he can handle melodrama with aplomb. Haru’s Journey is a lovely and bittersweet, anchored by Nakadai’s resolutely unsentimental performance.

Another unexpected departure is A Boy and His Samurai (2010), in which NYAFF and Japan Cuts regular Yoshihiro Nakamura diverts from his comic-paranoiac mode (as in the punk rock apocalypse of Fish Story (2009)) into a sweetly satisfying family film. Yusa is an overworked single mother whose child, Tomoya (Fuku Suzuki), is suddenly visited by an inadvertently time-traveling samurai named Kajima (played by Japanese TV heartthrob Ryo Nishikido). Without a clue how to live in the modern age, Kajima stays inside and becomes a super-dedicated housemaid, and eventually a world-class pastry chef.  With its gentle fish-out-of-water humor and its unassuming investigation of gender politics, it’s a preposterously entertaining  and intelligent movie.  It’s all wonderfully absurd, and put across with conviction by the engaging cast, especially the cherubic Fuku Suzuki, who just might be the cutest kid on screen since Jackie Cooper.

Considering the evidence on display, Asian cinema is as resourceful and inventive as ever, with an especially vibrant genre scene happening in Korea.  With I Saw the Devil pushing the revenge genre toward self-reflexiveness and closer to parody, the last stage in any stylistic cycle, it’s possible the next creative spurt has already started elsewhere. Maybe the exploitation action movies of the Phillippines and Thailand (like this year’s wondrously chaotic BKO: Bangkok Knockout) are hiding even more treasures.  I’ll have to wait until the next NYAFF and Japan Cuts to see what develops.