Two Uchida Kenji comedies

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The hitman comedy blended with a romantic comedy in writer-director Uchida Kenji’s 2012 “Key of Life” came together very late (if at all). Amnesia as a basis for anything requires considerable suspension of disbelief on my part, but Kagawa Tereyuki (Devils on the Doorstep, Yureru) was quite sweet in trying to recover memory of a life that wasn’t his, that of broke actor Sakurai (Sakai Masato) who took his money and life before discovering that the life was that of a feared hitman, Kondo, whom his clients never saw. The workaholic, hyper-orgnized career woman played by Hirosue Ryôko (Dapartures) would strain credulity if she were American, but she’s Japanese, and “Key of Life” is a screwball comedy, or contains a lot of screwball romcom. She has picked a wedding date without having even a candidate to be the groom.

Uchida takes his time in setting up the lonely lead characters and complications, but the time (128 minutes, four of them closing credits) is IMO well-spent.

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The yakusa+civlians comedy “Adrenaline Drive” (1999) is funnier, but the characters in “Key of Life” are more developed. Both include unlikely romantic couplings. Plus, he ersatz Saikaku gets cast as a gangster, a role that the real Saikaku has to play for higher stakes (three or four lives, including his own).

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

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A difficult September 1899 outing on Mt. Aso

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The 210th day of the Japanese lunar calendar is an inauspicious day to try to scale a volcano, or, indeed, to be out of doors at all. The pair of travelers in Sôseki Natsume’s short 1906 novel, The 210th Day (Nihyaku Toka), did not realize that their expedition to the top of the caldera of Mount Aso (an active volcano on Kyushu, the southernmost of the main islands of the Japanese archipelago; Sôseki taught on Kyushu for four years) was on the 210th day.

What with the ash, the fog, the drizzle, and high grass, the rumbling under foot, along with blisters the flourish on Roko (the out-of-shape friend of Kei, the character based on Sôseki), the trek is miserable, and the trekers do not reach an edge from which they can look down into the caldera.

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(Miya.m photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Kei reminded me of a leftist Oliver Hardy (whose movies were still in the future), clucking disapproval at the whinings of his companion (though Kei was the slender one, not physically Oliver Hardy’s type). The son of a tofu-maker (not an autobiographical touch), Kei is very critical of the elite and of those who have prospered in Meiji Japan’s early modernization. He refuses to satisfy his companion’s curiosity about his past, but periodically rails against the affluent and the injustices visited on the poor.

Though the book was written after Botchan (and just before Sôseki gave up his Tokyo University position and began as a newspaper (Asahi) fiction serializer), it harkens back to the free-floating sly aggressive observations of his breakout success, I Am a Cat. I think it could have done with more story-telling, relying almost entirely on vaguely comic banter.

The 210th Day is a minor work of a very popular (if more than a little cranky) Japanese writer of a century ago.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Cruel Gun Story

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Though I’d categorize “Cruel Gun Story” (Kenjû zankoku monogatari, 1964, directed by  Furukawa Takumi, available as part of the Criterion Eclipse set Nikkatsu Noir) as a heist film or a gangster film, it is nocturnal enough to count as a noir, and is more nihilistic than the American noirs. Joe Shishido’s character Togawa, is not a patsy, but tough as he is here, multiple others try to play him.

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A disbarred lawyer, Ito, has arranged to get an early release from prison for Togawa, and set him up for ye olde one last job: a heist of the take from the Japan derby. The plan is to shoot the two motorcycle policemen who escort it, then the driver and guard when they get out of the armored car. They are not so stupid, and are loaded up (did this inspire the original “Italian Job”).

Togawa leaves his trusted confederate Shirai (Odaka Yûji) and goes off with his newfound would-be girlfriend to contact Ito. It makes no sense that Togwa would leave the money and his wounded friend with two other men he trusts not at all (and has disarmed). He and the girl escape the trap Ito set, but lead an army of yakuza, Ito, and the Big Boss to where the loot is.

After a major shoot-out, there is a kidnapping, another major shoot-out and some one-on-one shootouts, which leave all the characters except Togwa’s paralyzed sister Rie (Matsubara Chieko [Tokyo Drifter]) —for whose treatment he decided to take on the heist against his better judgment in the first place. I don’t understand why the bad guys did not seize her, though they kill everyone else Togawa cares for.

Things hurtle along through the 87 minutes. The US presence (naval base) in Yokohma is not coincidental, since the truck is hidden in a warehouse that the Americans had used, and Takizawa (Suzuki regular/Nikkatsu contract player Kawachi Tamio),who was engaged to run a jazz bar frequented by African American sailors. Plus jets scream overhead periodically, but Togawa has no dealings with Americans, and I don’t see the US Occupation blamed for the greed and duplicity of the yakuzas.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

Retrospect of Ôshima Nagasi films

 

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The Japanese movies I most revere were made by Ichikawa, Kinoshita, Kobayashi, Kurosawa — the generation between the masters who were already established before the Second World War (Mizoguchi, Naruse, Ozu) and the “New Wave” (Ôshima, Imamura, Shinoda, Teshigahara) that began making movies around 1960. I put off running through the Ôshima films I’ve seen (19 of his 26 feature files, none of his 21 documentaries, three tv movies and one 13-episode tv series) because there are few that I like — maybe only one (Pleasures of the Flesh), though I find “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” (which is mostly in English) very intriguing and don’t think he went off the rail to an extent close to that of Jean-Luc Godard, the French New Wave director to whose work Ôshima’s was compared early and often.

Ôshima was dismayed by the failure of Japanese opposition politics (the student movement) in 1960 and became increasingly alienated from his countrymen in general and Japanese cinema in particular

I know that Ôshima is historically important, in some ways the first independent Japanese filmmaker (though he began and ended his career directing for Shochiku). He was particularly critical of the discrimination those of Korean descent (many born in Japan) faced.

I also think his fascination with erotic obsession and and the recurrence of rape (often multiple rapes)  in many of his movies unhealthy, and contributing to my impatience with many of his movies. From his third movie on, they tended to drag and were often dramatically incoherent. I have already quoted the acute analysis of Donald Richie: Ôshima “rarely sees any of these issues through to any logical conclusion, maintaining that it is precisely the illogicality of the issues themselves which ought command our interest; that his is the role of social critic, calling their absurdity to our attention. Perhaps for this reason he refuses to allow any of his films an autonomous life of their own. One is always aware of the director, manipulating his material, making certain that we understand that it is his statement rather than that of the actors playing his characters. Consequently there is no indirection, no implication — we are talked at and ordered to think; we are not requested to feel.”

As with Imamura, there were lengthy stretches in which Ôshima directed no feature-length fiction films. A chronological list with my ratings on a 10-point scale of the ones that are available here (on Criterion and/or Hulu) follows

 

A Town of Love and Hope (1959) 7

Cruel Story of Youth/Naked Youth (1960) 6

The Sun’s Burial (1960) 2

Night and Fog in Japan (1960) 1

Pleasures of the Flesh (1965) 7

Violence at Noon (1966) 1

Sing a Song of Sex (1967) 4

Japanese Summer: Double Suicide (1967) 4

Death by Hanging (1968) 6

3 Resurrected Drunkards (1968) 5

Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (1969) 1

Boy (1969) 4.5

The Man Who Put His Will on Film (1970) 2

The Ceremony (1971) 5

In the Realm of the Senses (1976) 2.5

Empire of Passion (1978) 3

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983) 9

Max, Mon Amour (1986) 5.5

Gohatto/Taboo (1999) 5.5

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

Oshima’s last film, “Gohatto”/”Taboo”

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I found what turned out to be the last film directed (form a wheelchair, following his first stroke) by Ôshima Nagasi,Gohatto””Taboo” (1999) too long (100 minutes) and/or too slow. Particularly annoying are the inter-titles, which mostly state the obvious, though some signal how much time passes before the next scene. I guess the most defensible of the inter-titles is the series that lays out the samurai code. The samurai code did not prohibit passionate same-sex love. Only someone unable to read the inter-titles (in Japanese or in English) and completely unfamiliar with the history of wakashû-dô—the Tao of loving boys, could think that “homosexuality” was tabooed….

“Gohatto” begins very near the end of the Tokugawa era, in 1865. In the ancient Nishi-Honganji temple, those seeking admission to the Shinsengumi militia are being screened. Only two are accepted: a swaggering hirsute Tashiro Hyozo (Asano Yadanobu) and Kano Sozanburo (Ryûhei Matsuda), a tall, smooth-skinned beauty from a rich family. Given the looseness of the costumes and probably too much background of gender-bending Japanese and Chinese films (Twilight, The East Is Red, etc.), I wondered if the beautiful youth was being played by a female (an exceptionally tall one!). He was not.

Kano’s face may look effeminate, but he is an expert swordsman and more than ready to kill. He gets his first chance immediately, being ordered to behead a samurai who has broken the code. The captains of the militia want to test him, and he passes the test impassively. Indeed, everything he and every other samurai does in the film, they do impassively. There are passionate words, but rarely even a flicker of facial indication of feeling. Except for Mifune Toshiro occasionally looking sardonic, this impassivity in killing, in being killed, in bowing, and in being bowed to is true of the whole library of samurai films.

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The beautiful young (bishonen) samurai desired by many, even those not heretofore drawn to that way (tao), mostly dodges the lusts he inspires, In the one sex scene is impassive as a not-at-all-attractive samurai takes him from behind. As in erotic Japanese woodblocks neither is naked. Especially for Oshima, there is very little sex. Blood splatters, so the movie might have some attraction for an American audience.

The wakashû is fairly sinister: when asked why the son of a rich family wants to be in the militia, he answers: “to have the right to kill.” And though he expects to be the object of desire, he is not a devotee to nanshuko-do. The extent to which beauties are responsible for the excessive reactions to them is an interesting one that I will not attempt to answer here. Nor will I attempt to adjudicate whether the havoc is wreaked by Kano, by his suitors, or by favoritism across ranks.

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The film and even its ending seem to be opaque to many viewers. The audience in which I saw the film seemed surprised by the casual acceptance (by non-samurais as well as by samurais) of boy-love and unable to “read” the ending. I think that all the cultural knowledge that is necessary to interpret the visually striking final scene is that the cherry blossom is a recurrent metaphor for the inevitably brief charm of beautiful boys. (At age 18, the forelocks should be shaved off, marking the extinction of boyish attractiveness of a junior samurai. Kano resists this rite of passage, as he dodges other attempts by Captain Hijikata to defuse his specialness.)

Oshima specialized in aestheticized representation of highly charged desires. “Gohatto” is often visually striking, especially in the final scene and in the prostitute sashaying to her appointment, but presumes a familiarity with a vanished society that even many Japanese lack. The least medieval character is Captain Hijikata (the top-billed actor/director/painter Takeshi “Beat” Kitano). The basis of his special interest in Cadet Kano remains open to multiple interpretations.

The movie was a coproduction between Shôchiku, where ˆÔshima got his start as an assistant director and then director, and the French Canal+. All four of his last four feature films were French coproductions. The costume design was by Wada Emi, who had worked with Kurosawa on “Ran” and “Dreams” and would later work with Zhang Yimou on “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers.” The music was by Ryûichi Sakamoto, who did not act in the film, as he had in “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.” Ôshima adapted two novellas by Shiba Ryôtarô.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

A waned Japanese New Wave washes up the Seine

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I see some continuity between the homoerotic obsessions in “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” (1983) and “Gohatto” (1999), although there was years between their making a major stroke (the first of many). And there was also another feature film in between, “Max, Mon Amour” (1986) filmed in French and English in Paris. It has an obsession that seems more one of affect than of sexuality, one that is heterosexual, but inter-species.

The cool, elegant Charlotte Rampling plays Margaret, the wife of a British diplomat, Peter Hones, played by a fairly cool and chic Anthony Higgins. The couple has a winsome, blond son, Nelson (Christopher Hovik). Peter wants to know who his wife goes to meet every afternoon except Sunday.

The detective he hires (director Pierre Étaix) reports the location of an apartment she rents, but from which no one other than Margaret emerges. Peter has a key made, and discovers that Margaret is visiting (and keeping) a chimpanzee named Max.

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Peter tries to accommodate that his wife is in love with a chimpanzee. Their son Nelson has less (well, no) problem with that. Other than flickers of jealousy and Peter picking up a prostitute to try to mate with Max, the movie seems like it could have been a Disney product. It is far more difficult to get the mind around this being a movie by the auteur of “In the Realm of the Senses,” etc. That extreme display of eroticism, and “Empire of Passion” were partly French co-productions, and the similarities of early Japanese New Wave and French New Wave are undeniable (though how much Ôshima was influenced by Godard, how much he was independently doing some of the same things and the same time during the early 1960s is unclear). For “Max,” Ôshima had the cinematographer of early Godard movies (not least, “Breathless”), Raoul Coutard, though there are no jump cuts, and the look of a haute bourgeois apartment is pre-New Wave.

That the screenplay was co-written by Jean-Claude Carriere, who frequently collaborated with Luis Bunuel made some people liken “Max” to satires such as “The Discreet Charms of the Bourgeoisie,” though I don’t see it. Maybe the fatuous psychiatrist?

The charming pet and boy (even if the primary relationship is the boy’s mother and the abimal) story, especially the second return of Max, has the look and feel of a Disney movie of the early 1960s. IMHO Ôshima frequently lost sight of the point of his films. A fable needs a point, and an Ôshima film needs more than tolerance for the unusual.

The DVD had no bonus features, not even a trailer.

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Oshima’s “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence”

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South African-born (Afrikaner) Sir Laurens Van der Post (1906-1996) was a British Army officer who surrendered to Japanese forces on Java in April of 1942 and was imprisoned at Bandung. He later wrote three books about his prison experience — A Bar of Shadow (1954), The Seed and the Sower (1963) and The Night of the New Moon (1970). — and another on the two years following Japanese surrender during with the Dutch attempted to re-establish their colony in the East Indies before an independence struggle forced them to leave.

The kinky (In the Realm of the Senses, Empire of Passion) Japanese director Ôshima Nagasi (1932-) adapted The Seed and the Sower (1963) into “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence,” a movie mostly in English and mostly focusing on the Anglophone (British, Australian, New Zealander, and a traumatized Dutch soldier) suffering under the rule of an arbitrary, sometimes sadistic sergeant (Kitano Takeshi  in the first role in which he was seen outside Japan) who pays some heed to a bilingual (Japanese-English) physician, Col. Lawrence (Scottish actor Tom Conti), who is the sanest man around (echoing the physician in “Bridge on the River Kwai”).

The camp is commanded by a young, very elegant and very authoritarian Captain Yonoi (played by Japanese composer and singer Sakamoto Ryûichi , who also wrote the synthesizer-heavy soundtrack for the movie). Capt. Yonoi has nothing but contempt—well, some frustration mixed with contempt for the stubborn prison leader, Group Captain Hicksley (Jack Thompson), who is as obdurate but less elegant and personally brave than Alec Guiness’s commander in “Bridge on the River Kwai”. (Both were stuffed with racist views, but Hicksley is considerably more cloddish.)

Lawrence knows enough about Japanese culture to know the contempt the Japanese soldiers hold for anyone who would surrender, and, unlike Hicksley, knows that Japan was not a signatory of the Geneva Conventions either for the treatment of prisoners or war or against torture. The mysterious new prisoner, Jack Celliers. (David Bowie) intrigues Capt. Yonoi (and Col. Lawrence, who knew him when both were in North Africa). Playing another man who fell to earth, Celliers is a South African paratrooper who was dropped behind Japanese lines to sabotage things. He surrendered to save a Javanese village from being slaughtered, and was set to be executed as a criminal rather than a soldier.

Capt. Yonoi is one of the three judges on the tribunal and makes the case that Celliers is a soldier and should, therefore, be incarcerated with POWS… under Yonoi’s command. There is something erotic but suppressed in Yonoi’s interest in Celliers, as Lawrence does not fail to note. Yonoi’s adjutant considers Celliers an evil spirit and attempts to kill him.

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Celliers gets a variant on the punishment Col. Nicholson received after maddening the Japanese commander of the Kwai camp. Not least in being ultra-blond, Bowie’s Celliers also recalls the masochistic component of Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence of Arabia, while the acquiescence in being sodomized by the enemy (a Korean guard rather than a commander such as José Ferrer Ottomoan officer) is farmed off to the Dutchman (Alistair Browning) in the opening sequence.

“Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” is unlike the Lean epics “Bridge on the River Kwai” and “Lawrence of Arabia” lacks explosions or other sorts of action scenes… and the American’s romance and derring-do grafted onto “Kwai” for William Holden; Celliers was leading native rebels, but this was before the start of the movie and is entirely offscreen. But like T. E. Lawrence, Celliers cares about the natives (there Arab, here Javanese) and is unconventional if not openly suspicious about His Majesty’s Army’s ambiguous colonizer role in a struggle against one colonizer (Japan_.

I skipped over the first botched seppuku (hara-kiri) by the Korean guard caught in flagrante delicto. There are two more, none of which goes smoothly (I think the blades are thrust in too deeply, so that the body pitches forward, interfering with the clean sword thrust of decapitation). Interracial sex, contempt for it, and ritual suicide all pop up at the start, though the movie is told from the point of view of Col. Lawrence, who attempts to avert disaster both for the Japanese he somewhat likes and respects and for the terminally stubborn Hicksley and Celliers.

A lot of Ôshima movies end with cutting (Gohatto/Taboo, In the Realm of the Senses), and so does this one, though there is a regret-expressing humanist epilogue.

Ôshima set up many shots Ozu-style and there was little camera movement, though there were more close-ups than there would be in an Ozu movie. There are surrealist sequences, reminding the viewer that this is an Ôshima movie. I think the movie drags in a lengthy colloquy between Celliers and Lawrence when they are caged together and Celliers drifts back to a lengthy guilty memory of failing his younger brother.

The Japanese director provides practically no back-story for the Japanese characters, but an elaborate one for Celliers. (We do learn that Yonoi was a supporter of the ultranationalist 26 February 1936 failed coup, but survived its suppression because he was away from Tokyo.)

Though eroticized violence is leitmotif in Oshim’s oeuvre (along with recurrent focus on the mistreatment of Koreans in Japan (Three Resurrected Drunkards, Death by Hanging), and as a lower caste in the Imperial Army in this movie), neither war nor intercultural misunderstanding is. A Japanese director taking an English memoir of captivity by the Japanese during WWII is at least as surprising, and perhaps a bit more than Clint Eastwood making “Letters from Iwo Jima” (distinct from “Flag of Our Fathers,” but still a look at the other side in a battle that provided the iconic image of the US Marines.

The pop singers, David Bowie (1947-2016) and Sakamoto Ryûichi (1952-), both look their parts as elegant loners and play their complicated roles as antagonists with great aplomb (with Sakamoto doing all the visible longing and frustrated erotic aching). Tom Conti (1941-) and Takeshi Kitano (1947-, who was billed simply as “Takeshi”) have less rigid honor-code-dictated roles and greater emotional ranges. Bowie sings “Rock of Ages” off-key and regrets that he cannot sing (which leads the troops to sing the 23rd Psalm). Sakamoto practices kendo and makes no music within the movie, though supplying an interesting soundtrack for it.

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(Kitano and Conti)

BTW, the camp filled with scrawny white people playing POWs was filmed on Rarotonga, not on Java, and  the city (Batavia then, Jakarta now) scenes were shot on New Zealand.

The movie received the full-scale Criterion treatment, with a fine video and audio transfer and a second disc of special features, including the original 4-minute theatrical trailer, a 28-miunte one of co-scenarist (Paul Mayersberg, who also wrote the other great Bowie movie, “The Man Who Fell to Earth” for Nicholas Roeg) 40 minutes of reminiscences about the shooting by Tom Conti, Sakamoto Ryûichi —who also scored ˆÔshima’s last film “Gohatto”and picked up an Oscar for the score of Bertolucci’s “The Last Emperor” in which he also appeared onscreen —,and producer Jeremy Thomas (but not Bowie), 18 minutes by Ryûichi on the soundtrack, a 1995 documentary about van der Post (godfather to Prince William, btw) and a 29-minute 1983 making-of featurette.

 

© 2016, Stephen O. Murray