A retrospect on the films of Shinoda Masahiro

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Born in 1931 in Gifu, Shinoda Masahiro was a student of theater history at the elite, private Waseda University in Tokyo. Shōchiku Studio hired him as a trainee in 1953 and Shinoda worked as an assistant to Ozu (Shinoda was credited as assistant director on “Tokyo Twilight” in 1957). The studio was attempting to profit from youth movies, especially after the commercial success of Ôshima’s first movies (Cruel Story of Youth, et al.) and greenlighted Shinoda directing his script for “One-Way Ticket to Love” a movie about young people trying to make a start in the music business (the title was a Neil Sedaka hit of the time).

Though “One-Way Ticket to Love” is a fairly interesting movie that initially pleased the Shōchiku executives, it did not make money, and he was briefly demoted to directing scenarios by studio contract writers (mostly Terayama Shûji).

Shinoda moved from making movies about disaffected youth to stylish gangster/noir movies with “Pale Flower” (1963) and made his first historical movie, “Samurai Spy,” in 1965, followed by his most revered masterpiece, “Double Suicide” (1969). “Double Suicide” was quite stylized, drawing on the puppet play tradition of Chikimatsu that Shinoda had studied in college. (Shinoda also focused directly on traditional Japanese performing traditions in “The Scandalous Adventures of Buraikan” and “The Ballad of Orin” and in one of the characters on the ship to Kyushu in “Moonlight Serenade“)

During the 1970s Shinoda made some very visually gorgeous color movies with extreme (not always stylized!) violence and repellent characters (Himiko, Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees, and Ballad of Orin, followed a decade later by “Gonza, the Spearman”). While admiring many of the visual compositions in these movies, they try my patience (both in slow pace and in graphic violence).

Few of Shinoda’s later movies are available, including two of three set in the time of his childhood/youth (“MacArthur’s Children,” which I saw three decades ago in a film festival screening, and the 1990 “Childhood” Days” that I would very much like to see.

The only one of Shinoda’s last six films (or most recent ones, in that he is still alive, though he has not directed a film since the 2003 “Spy Sorge” about a WWII-era Soviet spy in Germany and Japan) is available, that one, “Moonlight Serenade,” strikes me as a late masterpiece (though the present-day of the Kobe earthquake frame seemed superfluous to me).

Though Kobayashi had commissioned a soundtrack from Takemitsu (The Thick-Walled Room, 1953), Shinoda regularly used percussive and anti-sentimental Takemitsu scores that enhanced the icy aestheticism of the images (shot in the black and white movies through “Samurai Spy” (1965) by  Kosugi Masao). Shinoda has always set up the shots, and authored the scripts of 15 of his 32 films, so seems to me clearly to count as a full-fledged auteur. I don’t always like the results, but consider Shinoda and Imamura Shôhei the most interesting over a course of time Japanese New Wave filmmakers (for a short burst, 1962-65, Tehshigahara/Abe get my nod).

Shinoda’s late masterpiece: “Moonlight Serenade”

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Shinoda Masahiro’s (1997) “Moonlight Serenade” (Setouchi mûnratio serenâde) recounts a family’s trip by train and ferry from Awaji to a hometown on the island of Kyushu (via Beppu) with the cremains of the eldest son, who had died in 1945, just before Japan’s surrender. It is narrated by the youngest son, whose recollections are stimulated by reporting on the Kobe earthquake half a century later. Both the US firebombing of Kobe and the earthquake caused a lot of damage, both structural damage and wildfires. In 1945 the boy watched the city burn. As in 1945, in 1995 he again observes out-of-control fires and stoic Japanese.

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His father, Koichi (Nagatsuka Kyôzô [A Laughing Frog] above), rigid even for a Japanese policeman, is given to whacking his two surviving sons. The older surviving one, seventeen-year old Koji (pop star Toba Jun, below left) is rebellious (his long hair looks very 1950s to me) attempts to keep their father from hitting the younger Keita (Kasahara Hideyuki in his film debut, below right), taking the blows himself.

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Koji commences a romance with Yukiko (Yoshikawa Hinano, who won the newcomer of the year award of the Japanese Motion Picture Academy and went on to “Tokyo Eyes” and “Who’s Camus, Anyway?” but has not appeared onscreen since 2006) a very somber-looking orphan with very long braids who is roughly his age. She is also staying at the inn (which is mostly a love hotel to which one of the father’s workmates has some family connection), in Awaji also preparing to take a ship to Kyushu (Beppu).

Koji is planning to run away on the trip, flaunting fraternal as well as filial piety. Yukiko follows him out of the inn into the dangerous (especially for an unaccompanied young woman: see Mizoguchi’s “Women of the Night”) black market. Together, they flee men menacing her and return to the inn. Koji wants to squire her to her surviving relatives in Kyushu.

On the boat, Koji is mostly with Yukiko in first class, while the rest of the family is spread out on the floor of a lower deck. Compared to the historical footage of troops being repatriated by ship that is nearly SRO, they have some space.

A sly black marketer, played by Takada Junji, shares some of his liquor, and accompanied by statements of contempt for those profiting in the black market, Koichi drinks with him. Nearby a morphine-addicted former soldier with a terminal case of survivor guilt has a chaste romance with a young woman raped by US GIs who is going to become a geisha on the southern island. And there is a silent-film narrator going on a circuit of Kyushu with his mute son and a stash of movies, including some with swordfights that have been banned by the US Occupation authority. Plus a guilt-ridden high school principal wracked with guilt for having enthusiastically sent off schoolboys to die in the recently lost war.

There are surprises, including a tragic one on the Beppu dock, on Kyushu, deepening the major characters, including the mother who tries to moderate her husband’s violent authoritarianism (she was played by Shinoda’s wife Iwashita [An Autumn Afternoon, Harakiri) and, especially, her husband.

Though there is no shortage of suffering and anguish, there is also a lot of humor, including Keita’s belief that he is going down in a “family suicide,” a rumor swirling around back at home before they left, after taking a family photo. There’s even a fight scene, in which young yakusa continue the samurai movie tradition of attacking one at a time rather than ganging up against a single righteous opponent.

There were gorgeous shots of islands and trains going through verdant countryside in “Moonlight Serenade” and I am surprised that a fairy gentle though not particularly sentimental coming-of-age story set in the time of the director’s youth (he was born in 1935) came so late in his body of work, along with “MacArthur’s Children (“1984), which I saw decades ago and found slow and diffuse, and, I think, “Takeshi: Childhood Days” (1990), set during the end of WWII bombing of Japan when children had been evacuated from Tokyo to the countryside (it won eight Japanese Academy Awards, but is not, alas available here). These late works differ from the mid-1970s movies that I find visually striking but grim and even nihilistic (Himiko, Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees, Ballad of Orin, and the 1986 “Gonza the Spearman”), as well as the very stylish and also hope-deficient earlier masterpieces (Pale Flower, Double Suicide).

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Shinoda’s “Gonza, the Spearman” (1986)

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“What a world is it in which we find ourselves!”

Shinoda’s “Gonza, the Spearman” (Yari no gonza’, 1986), based on a puppet (bunraku) play by Chikamatsu Monzemon (1653-1725), another of whose plays was the basis for Shinoda’s masterpiece, the 1969 black-and-white “Double Suicide,” won the Silver Bear award at the Berlin Film Festival. Those looking for a fight scene have a long wait (approximately two hours). Much more time is occupied by the extremely deliberate tea ceremonies. In a country becalmed by the Pax Tokugawa, samurai can rise in status and income more easily by perfect enactment of the tea ceremony than by prowess with weapons (prototypically, swords, although Gonza’s specialty is the spear (the bamboo-poled yari)).

There is a very complicated plot involving three women whose names begin with “O”s, two with the terminal consonant being a “k.” Moreover, two are approximately the same age, the other the mother of one of the other two. The mother, Osei (Shinoda’s wife and frequent star, Iwishita Shima), wants to marry her daughter, Okiku (Mizushima), to Sasano Gonza (Gô Hiromi), though she is more than a little enamored by him herself (for herself). And though he has pledged and bedded Oyuki (Tanaka Misako), the sister of Gonza’s rival. Though a skilled warrior and legendarily beautiful, Gonza “understands nothing. Not women, not this age we are living in” with no need of martial prowess (but with great concern about marital fidelity and the appearances of marital fidelity!).

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Gonza is opportunistic, but not in comparison with his local samurai rival Bannojo (Hino Shôhei). It is easy to remember who Bannojo is, because practically every time he speaks he says “I Bannojo…”

Ca. 1717, Osei’s husband, Gonzo’s lord, Ichiinoshin, is off at court (like Louis XIV at Versailles, the Tokugawa shoguns liked to keep potential rebels close at hand) in Edo (Tokyo). While the cat’s away, the mice play, leading to pregnancies that cannot be explained as resulting from marital coitus and lead to many a suicide, including, in effect another double one here (albeit without a pregnancy, or, even adultery, though fleeing the appearance of adultery…)

“Gonza” does not involve showing the puppet play on which it is based, as Shindo did with the frame “Double Suicide,” but “Gonza” is very stylized and very, very slow for western audiences (as were his mid-1970s movies, Himiko, Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees, and Ballad of Orin). It is talky and visually quite static, though the color photography by Miyagawa Kazuo (Rashomon, Sansho, Ugestu) is quite beautiful. With recurrent closeups of objects, also à la Ozu (“pillow shots”). The film has a first-rate Takemitsu score (soundscaping, not only what would be generaly classified as “music”).

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

Bleak “Ballad of Orin” (1977)

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Shinoda’s 1977 “Ballad of Orin” (the Japanese title, “Hanare goze Orin,” means “Orin, the Blind Woman”) seems longer than its 109-minute running time, though containing striking images of a northern (at least snow-covered) coastal village and the oppression of the title character (played by Shinoda’s wife and muse Iwashita Shima, who won the Japanese Academy Award for her performance). The present is the beginning of the 20th century when Japan is at war with Russia.

There are flashbacks to the time the blind (since birth) six-year-old girl was abandoned by her mother (her father already being gone from the scene) and guided by a kindly drifter, Tsurukawa Senzo (Harada Yoshio, Rônin-gai, Still Walking, Someday), who is later hunted down and accused of murder. He took her to a house of blind musicians (goz,e singing and accompanying themselves on the samizen) from which she was expelled for sexual laxity (after being raped). The only occupational niches other than being an itinerant musician (goze) or being a masseuse of a prostitute and a single musician is generally assumed to be a prostitute.

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Orin has no sense that things might be different and women not regarded and treated so badly (Mizoguchi territory?). Tsurukawa is diffident and does not act on the attraction that is reciprocal but not acted on. (I’m not at all sure that he is the same man who originally took Orin to the goze school; if it was another man, he was also selfless in marked contrast to the rapacious men who populate Orin’s unseen world.)

There are lots of “pillow shots” (objects in room, though also shots of exteriors without the characters being shown in the frame). Though his background was in theater history rather than visual arts, the scenes in Shinoda films were always beautifully framed (whether relevant or not, and Orin could not see any of the surroundings or objects the viewer of the film does). Like “Himiko,” it was shot by the great Miyagawa Kazuo (Rashomon, Ugetsu, Sansho the Bailiff), who received a Japanese Academy Award for his work. Takemitsu supplied his usual percussive, unlyrical music for the tragic goings-on onscreen.

The movie has some fervent admirers. Though I was mostly bored by “Ballad of Orin” (and by “Himiko”), it does not make me think that Shinoda’s skills were in decline: he went on to make two later movies I consider more interesting and satisfying: “Macarthur’s Children” and “Moonlight Serenade.”

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

When a beastly bad man joins with an evil woman, he becomes almost sympathetic

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Shinoda’s 1975 “Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees” (an accurate translation of the Japanese title, “Sakura no mori no mankai no shita”) looks like a ghost story, though there aren’t any ghosts (well, I couldbe mistaken about a blood-hungry demon who may be a ghost). And the body count makes it something of a “horror movie,” with a woman collecting severed heads (that don’t decay or draw flies, though they turn into skulls seemingly overnight). It has some beautiful shots of cherry blossoms on trees and falling, but they are sinister, making men who walk under them crazy.

The oddest thing to me is that the homicidal brigand of the mountain (Tomisaburo Wakayama the “Lone Wolf and Cub” movies) does not kill the woman ( Iwashita Shima, Shinoda’s wife since 1967) when he kills her husband and the rest of her entourage. He thinks her very beautiful and quickly is taking orders from his very manipulative prisoner, starting with a demand to kill all but one of the wives he has been living with. She wants one, who is crippled, to serve as her maid (Isayama Hiroko).

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She soon gets bored in the hermitage for three and demands to return to the capital (Edo, now called Tokyo). The brigand has accumulated a lot of money from travelers he has murdered, though he doesn’t understand the relative value of differing amounts of it. (I’m not sure whether she buys a house or whether they are squatting in what they turn into a sort of waxworks of detached heads.)

It is in Edo that the woman demands he harvest heads for her to play with. Eventually, he is apprehended and transformed into the police force of acquitted criminals, though eventually escaping and going home through the snowfall of cherry blossoms, thinking he has become immune to their toxicity. I can’t imagine any viewer being surprised that he is mistaken in this and that there are fatal consequences… (or, alternately, that he sees her for who/what she really is for the first time).

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I don’t like the orgy of violence. Moreover, I think the simple story of the hunter getting captured (and emasculated) by the “game” (quarry) could have been told in much less time. There is typically eerie Takemitsu music and superb cinematography by Suzuki Tatsuyo (acclaimed for Shinoda’s 1995 “Sharaku”).

 

Maybe sadistic women were Shinoda’s main interest, but despite some beautiful compoisitions, I find his 1970s films “Himiko” and this one heavy,unpleasant going. Yet he would bounce back to make my favorite Shinoda film, “Moonlight Serenade” in 1997 after making some more films I don’t much life.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

Shinoda’s opaque “Himiko”

 

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Shinoda’s 1974 movie “Himiko” is a “fantasy drama.” The title character, played by the director’s wife, Iwashita Shima, is a shaman who is the only conduit from the sun god. When she is not possessed, delivering commands from the Sun Goddess (Amaterasu) while holding a mirror reflecting sunlight, she weaves.

She learns of the return after a long time of her half-brother Takahiko (Kusakari Masao, who did not look Japanese to me… I later learned he had an American father and a Japanese mother and that “Himiko” was his first feature-length film, though he had been in a tv miniseries, “Triple Sôsasen”). He is a sympathizer (who knows what he believes?) with the followers of the Land God, and Himiko starts advocating a union of the religions (cults). King Ohkimi is dismayed by this suggestion and questions whether she still has her vocation/gift, having fallen in love with a mortal (Takahiko), having seduced him, knowing she is her half-brother. (He does not seem to have known that until she told him, though dutifully resisting her subsequent seduction).

When she learns that he has also had sex with a priestess of the mountain god, she orders him banished, after having his fingernails pulled out and his face tattooed. After the long bloody punishment, he is carried off and launched into a bay, though he then pops up atop a dormant volcano.

The new king (whether she predicted the death of the father of the two princelings who rule jointly until they duel to the death on the lip of the volcano) replaces her with a teenager, now also called Himiko and declares war on both the Earth People and the Mountain People. His warriors include a number in a giant cloth snail.

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Himiko had escaped the temple/palace (a quite abstract set) and run off with Takahiko. (Don’t ask me how they found each other!) They are ambushe in the forest (prefiguring “House of the Flying Dragons”) and are shot by multiple long arrows (doubling the Macbeth of “Throne of Blood”).

The film ends with helicopter shots of the forest, a town and a kofun, an ancient keyhole-shaped mound within a man-made pond.

The score it typical eerie Takemitsu and the very striking cinematography by Miyagawa Kazuo (Rashomon, Ugetsu, Sansho the Bailiff) of predominantly red and white court sets) seems the real star of the movie, which is considerably more opaque and mystifying that the roughly contemporaneous views of the ancient Mediterranean world of Pasolini (Medea) and Fellini (Satyricon). Granted, I am familiar with the ancient texts on which the Italians’ 1960s films were based, but there was characterization, not the abstraction of the archetypes in Shinoda’s film, which I found dull despite its frequent visual stimuli. (More like Derek Jarman’s “Sebastian,” notoriously filmed in Latin.)

Apparently suggestions of the Korean origins of Shintoism/Japanese culture made “Himiko” controversial, but that was lost in translation. The only reference I noticed was a denial that there was any land to the west of the Japanese archipelago.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

Shinoda’s “Petrified Forest” (1973)

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“The Petrified Forest” is an accurate translation of the title of Shinoda Masahiro’s 1973 film “Kaseki no mori,” though I don’t understand the relationship between the movie and the title. (The leading character uses the metaphor of “petrified” at one point, but not a petrified forest.)

The movie is a neo-noir with one of the most common noir ventures at its center: a man in love with a woman who wants her husband (though in this case it is a sexually demanding and jealous boss) eliminated. It takes a while for that to come into focus, however.

The movie begins with Ozu troupe veteran Sugimura Haruko sitting into a device that seems to blow steam into her open mouth. Soon she is on a train through the snow and into a long tunnel. The tunnel does not function as a visual metaphor in the way it did in 1950s Hollywood movies. Though there is sex ahead, it involves characters not yet glimpsed.

Disorientingly, the viewer next is in medical school, watching a terminally smug surgeon lecture and then perform in an operating theater. Japanese physicians have long been particularly notorious for not being candid with their patients, particularly failing to tell them or confirm that they are dying. Here, the surgeon/professor refuses to tell the mother (Yagi Masako) of the boy whose brain he has operated on that it is very unlikely he will ever again be able to hear. Given the cancer, it is something of surprise that he can see, the faculties of sight and hearing usually being bundled for those undergoing that radical surgery.

Hauro (the slender, long-haired, very handsome Hagiwara Ken’ichi) violates protocol and is more candid with the mother, which very nearly gets him ejected from the medical program.

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In a shopping center where she works as a beautician, Eiko (Ninomiuya Sayoko) sees Hauro. They were classmates, and she and the viewer soon learns that he was obsessed with her when they were in high school. Soon they are fucking. Afterward, her boss (Mizushima Hiroshi) beats her, and Haruo volunteers to provide her a very lethal pesticide, having just been at the autopsy of a casualty who died from minimal exposure to it in the chemical factory that is producing it.

The compound is colorless, though Hauro pours it into a deep blue container that is photogenic and frequently photographed during the rest of the movie. Eiko is in a rush and fairly reckless in administering multiple fatal doses. (Hauro just happens to be in the beauty shop—getting a shave that I can see no need for—when the man collapses. Though not a full-fledged doctor yet, he has a considerable advantage in knowing what is afflicting the man than another doctor would have, though he cannot reveal – or reverse — the cause of multiple organ failure.)

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Hauro’s mother tracks him down. He does not want to see her. Eventually, the viewer learns that he was outraged seeing her with a man not his father seven years older. Heedless of his wish to have nothing to do with his mother, especially since she wants to live with her son, Eiko befriends the lonely older woman. This is not a good way to ensure Hauro’s devotion, and when he goes off to think about what they have done, Eiko does some very unwise things. The most unwise turns out to be trusting Hauro’s mother with all her secrets.

The husband of the brain-damaged boy is drunk all the time and images that his wife is having an affair with Hauro, who heroically saves the boy’s life.

The movie is not upbeat, though one character seems to get what she wants by the end.

The soundtrack is typically eerie (and bassless) Takemitsu and the movie has chilly cinematography (not just the early snowscape) engineered by Okazaki Kôzô.

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The standout in the cast is the long suffering Sugimura Haruko. The young lovers are attractive, but as the hysterical femme fatale, Ninomiu Sayoko is unimpressive (can I say “no Barbara Stanwyck”?). Hagiwara Ken’ichi looks good and is adequate in the central part, especially when he realizes he has repeated his mother’s history and numbly acquiesces to his mother’s return.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray