Choosing the losing side at the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate

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Mibu gishi den” (When the Last Sword Is Drawn, 2003, directed by Takita Yojiro, 3.8 /5 stars) is long (133 minutes) also has a strong romance (or two). I was often unclear who the sides were in various battles, though Yoshirmura Kanichi (Nakai Kiichi, Warriors of Heaven and Earth) is clearly going down with the Tokugawa Shogunate side.

Yoshirmura sometimes seemed a clown, but proved to be terminally determined (as well as being a highly skilled swordsmen and a very loyal retainer). The flashback (from 1899 to the 1860s) structure seems gratuitously to complicate the story. It is beautifully photographed and Nakai delivers a very rich performance. Satô Kôichi is also good as the traditional samurai.

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Less would have been more: 20-30 minutes could profitably have been trimmed, and the flashback expositions seem to me unnecessarily complicated. The DVD includes lengthy, but not very interesting interviews of novelist, director, and star, plus production footage. The audio and visual transfer coulda/shoulda been better.

(Like Sanada Hiroyuki the year before in “The Twilight Samurai,“ Nakai won the Japanese Academy Award as best actor in a film that was judged the best picture of the year. This movie was also about the twilight of samurai swordfighters)

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

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Fukasaku’s “Fall Guy”

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Fukasaku Kinji (1920-2003), famed for making ultra-violent yakuza movies (such as “Battle Royale” and the “Battles Without Honor or Humanity” series), surprised (pleasantly) audiences with a behind-the-scenes movie with an important female part in the 1982 “Kamata kôshinkyoku.” The title derives from the beginning of the Shochiku Studio theme song. The English-language title “Fall Guy” is not bad, though “Bit Player,” the designation the hapless Yasu (Hirata Mitsuru) uses in self-designation (in the English subtitles) would IMO have been better.

Yasu is not a stuntman. He is one of the lackeys in the entourage of Ginshiro (a way over-the-top narcissist played by Kazama Morio) who gets nonspeaking parts in Ginshiro’s movies. Mostly he dies onscreen and pantomimes it on demand offscreen or does whatever else Ginshiro wants.

Not without reason, the very hammy Ginshiro is concerned that his star is waning and that Tachibana (Harada Daijirô) is being promoted to replace him. Ginshiro feels that he cannot marry Konatsu (Matsuzaka Keiko) who is bearing his child and asks Yasu to marry her and give the child his name.

Yasu had worshipped Konatsu, who used to be a star herself. Under his James Dean poster, he was one of her. He is willing to be the legal father of the unborn child.

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Ginshiro pays nothing for the support of the woman he impregnated and who loves him. To keep Yasu in his subordinate place, he forces him to watch as he more or less rapes Konatsu, who can’t resist Ginshiro.

To make extra money for his pregnant wife (-to-be), Yasu volunteers for stunts. As I already noted, he is a bit player, not a stuntman. He has no training in taking falls, but seeks them so he can support Konatsu and the baby she is carrying.

None of the professional stuntmen (none is shown in the movie) is willing to fall down 39 steps in a fight with Ginshiro, and without the big finish to the fight Ginshiro is worried that he will not be seen by audiences as the star of the (samurai) movie within the movie.

Both for the extra-high hazard pay and from devotion to Ginshiro, Yasu volunteers to take the fall. He is such a sap that he makes Ginshiro as large a beneficiary as Konatsu in the life insurance policy he takes out.

The movie is often farcical with exaggerated caricature of star narcissism and unreasonableness. At least I hope that the sadomasochistic relationship between star and entourage member is exaggerated! It does not differ in kind from the obedience and self-endangerment of low-level gangsters in Fukasaku Kinji’s yakuza movies, however. Indeed, the flunkies die for real on command of a gang leader or anticipating what the gang leader wants.

Fukasaku biographer Sadao Yamane points this out in a bonus feature that also explains the journey from novel to stage play to movie. He also explains the Japanese title and the oddness that after refusing to produce the movie Toei Studio permitted it to be made by Shochiky on its (often shown) Kyoto studio lot (where the original incident occurred) with some Toei staff utilized. In a booklet interview by Sadao, Fukasaku recalls that some of the Toei craftsmen who had been openly contemptuous of the movie while it was being shot were moved to tears when they saw the finished product.

Though I often winced at Yasu’s exploitation (and eagerness to be exploited) and at the narcissism of Ginshiro, I was moved by Matsuzaka Keiko’s performance and the resolve of her character to stand by her (substitute) man and to try to dissuade him from the very risky big fall. And after comedic postponements of shooting the climax, Ginshiro redeems himself by showing gratitude to Yasu.

There is also a trailer that shows practically nothing from the film (some outtakes).

The film swept the Japanese Academy awards, including best film, director, screenplay, music score, actress, actor, and supporting actor (Kazama). Hirata Mitsuru not only was named best actor but also won the newcomer of the year award. Kitasaka Kiyoshi’s cinematography was nominated, as were the lighting, art direction, and sound.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Facing down retirement: “Memories of You”

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The third movie of writer-director Ichikawa Jun (1948-2008), “Kaisha monogatari: Memories of You” (1988) for a long time seems a placid, almost somnolent portrayal of Hanaoaka (Hajme Hana), a salaryman about to retired after 34 years, 18 of them in administration, with which he was not very comfortable. Writing a statement for the company newsletter, he seems to realize for the first time that “It wasn’t just my job. It was my life…. I spoke more with my staff than with my own son.”

He is embarrassed about other having to plan a retirement party for him, but is revitalized (if not rejuvenated) by the formation of a swing band in which he plays drums, as he had long, long ago. Though the salarymen hadn’t played in public since the mid-1950s, they turn in creditable performances of some standards, including “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

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He also sympathizes with a young female employee (Nishiyama Yumi) who is having romantic frustrations with a coworker (he is philandering). The young woman and senior administrator go out by themselves for a party, but don’t talk about her romantic frustrations—or his emptiness without work to organize his days any more.

Some acting out —major and minor — comes and Hanaoaka returns home as everyone else is going to work (at least the tram car is empty except for him and his boquet). There is none of the triumph of the old man (Shimura) in Kurosawa’s great “Ikiru.”

Hajme won a blue ribbon for his restrained, melancholy performance.

P.S.

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Ichikawa Jun’s “Tony Takatani” (2004) was hailed by many as minimalist cinematic art, but was a big disappointment to me. It didn’t just seem longer than 70 minutes, but took me more than 70 minutes to watch, since several times my mind drifted and I had to go back to hear (read the subtitles for) the beginning of a sentence (or the referent back to a previous sentence that had not registered).

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Genre-blending mess: “Princess from the Moon”

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I have no idea what inspired the once-great director Ichikawa Kon to overlay Lady Murasaki’s ca.790 tale of a bamboo-cutter who finds infant an infant girl to raise, Taketori Monogatari, with what looks like plagiarism of shots from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” along with intrusive influences of “E.T.” After two talky hours of romance, it all culminates with Peter Cetera’s “Stay With Me” (in English) under the closing credits.

In Muasaki’s tenth-century original, the bamboo cutter and his wife have not been able to produce children. “Princess from the Moon” (1987) ups the melodrama quotient from the beginning. Instead of finding the girl the bamboo cutter will name Nayotake-no-Kaguya-hime (“princess of flexible bamboos scattering light”) in a stalk of bamboo, the movie’s parents, unable to afford a doctor, have lost their five-year-old daughter and infant girl is breaking out of a golden shell near the daughter’s grave, not far from what looks like the site of a meteor crash (but, we will learn, was the crash of a spaceship from the moon of which she is the sole survivor). And instead of finding gold when he cuts bamboo after adopting the tiny girl (who grows rapidly into Sawguchi Yasuko), he gets rich selling pieces of the shell from which Kaguya hatched.

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Grown up beautiful and the only child of very rich parents, Murasaki’s Kaguya has five princely suitors. The movie Kaguya has only three, one of whom, the most attractive, and the most sincere, royal council official Otomo (Nakai Kiichi (who went on to leading roles in “When the Last Sword Is Drawn,” “Warriors of Heaven and Earth,” etc.), is her choice. Kaguya sets each of the suitors an impossible task (the movie ones more so than the orginal text’s ones). Two of them attempt to fake the marvels they were sent to find and acquire. Otomo finds a dragon, but the dragon destroys Otomo’s boat rather than provide the treasure Kaguya specified. (The dragon destroying the vessel of its hunter was, apparently, footage shot for another movie about a sea serpent. It’

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The 67-year-old Mifune Toshirô played a greedy and lazy bamboo cutter (Taketori), with veteran Wakao Ayako (Konk) playing the wife desperate to believe that the space alien is a reincarnation of her recently deceased daughter. Their roles are pretty flat, though with their new riches they and their daughter (the beautiful but vapid Sawaguchi Yasuko) get clothes to match those of the emperor and his court. Wada Emi (Ran, House of Flying Daggers) designed the costumes, which are easily the most outstanding (in a good way) aspect of the movie. Even for a Japanese movie, the characters have an impressive ability to maintain immobility, whether sitting cross-legged or back on their shins.

As the finale plagiarizes Spielberg, the score plagiarizes Handel. There are some beautifully composed scenes and the striking costumes, but there is no sense of wonder (as in “E.T.”) or any point other than to believe in magic (more specifically, to accept that human conceptions are limited) delivered before the banal and inapt “Stay With Me” and images of bamboo forest waving in the wind for the last four of the 122 minutes of the movie’s running time.

Among many other versions of the tale is a 2013 anime and a 1992 opera by Robert Moran, “From the Towers of the Moon,” inspired by the movie.

And though heavily promoted, “Princess” made less money than “Burmese Harp” had. Though the collapse of the Japanese movie studio business provides some explanation for the decline in quality of Ichikawa movies, I’d attribute it more to the loss of his wife, Natto Wada (1920-83), as a scenarist after some contributions to “Tokyo Olympiad” in 1965

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Nomura’s “The Demon”

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There is nothing supernatural in Nomura Yoshitarô’s 1978 “Kichiku” (another Nomura adaptation of another story written by Matsumoto Seichô), which means“The Demon.” Human beings do bad things to children in the movie and Chinese/Japanese characters do not indicate singular/plural, but, if I had to single out the most despicable of the adult characters, it would be Oume (Iwashita Shima, who was part of the Ozu repertory company and married Shinoda Masahiro in 1967; she also starred in Nomura’s “The Shadow Within”). I’ll readily grant that she has substantial reason to be pissed off when Kikuyo (Ogawa Mayumi), the mistress for the last seven years of her husband, Sôkichi (Ogata Ken [who played the title role in “Mishima,” the son carrying his mother up to die in Imamura’s “Ballad of Narayama”, and the murdererer in“Vengeance Is Mine”], who received no less than six best actor awards for his performance) shows up and dumps off three children. Oume does not want to believe that the children, ranging in age from 2-6, are her husband’s offspring. They are definitely strangers to Oume, and very, very, very unwelcome ones, constant reminders of his infidelity.

The crisis was stimulated by lack of any profits from the print shop that Oume, more than Sôkichi, runs, although he is the experienced lithographer, we will later learn, having been forced to start working at the age of ten with any earnings going to his deeply-in-debt uncle. Sôkichi’s vivid memories of being an abandoned and abused child have some effect in making him a nurturing father, but that is not just offset but viciously opposed by Oume, who is the archetype of the wicked stepmother, furious at the very existence of the three children another woman bore her husband, while she was unable to produce a child.

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Oume manages to kill the youngest one and make it look like an accident (smothering), despite a hospital record of malnutrition for him. Yoshiko’s father takes her to the top of the Tokyo Tower and leaves her there, which gets her out of the path of Oume’s wrath. Six-year-old Riichi (Iwase Hiroki) knows his father’s name and address, so cannot be left somewhere. Also, he strongly suspects that the stepmother who is especially brutal to him killed his younger brother. Riichi speaks little, but his reproachful gaze says a lot. Iwase’s performance is very strong in that he also shows devotion to his father and a joie de vivre when away from Oume’s persecution. That is, he is not just a traumatized tyke. He is capable of playfulness.

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Like late Kinoshita movies, the movie gets around the country—by train and bus. (Blessedly, there are no folk songs, though! The music, especially in the second half, seems Hitchcockian, which is to say Bernard Hermann-like.) I think there is more travelogue than police procedural in the movie, though eventually there is a police investigation. Though based on a 1957 story by Matsumoto Seichô, whose fictions were also the bases for Nomura’s “Stakeout,” “Zero Focus,” and “The Castle of Sand” (plus four more Nomura films I haven’t seen), “Demon” is not a detective story. (I’d also say that it was more an early-1950s than a late-1970s story of small businesses being crushed.)

I’m not sure Sôkichi is shamed into taking responsibility for his offspring. It seems to me he loves them, though recognizing some justice in the fury of his wife and his mistress toward him as an insufficient provider. Guilt toward his wife keeps him from condemning her inexcusable (indeed criminal) action and colluding in covering up her murder of his youngest child. Also, she is indispensable to the survival of his printing business, tenuous as that business has become. (And while not condoning abandoning children, one can understand Kikuyo being fed up trying to feed and care for three young children with far too little money. This is desperation, not demonicness IMO, though similarly put-upon women uncomplainingly fulfilled their maternal duties in many a Mizoguchi and Naruse movie.)

Kawamata Takashi (who had also shot “Castle of Sand” and “The Shadow Within” for Nomura) did great cinematographic work with natural light; the strong visuals have survived without bleeding or dilution.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

A homicidally jealous six-year-old boy

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I thought that “The Shadow Within” (Kage no kuruma, 1970, directed by Nomura Yoshitarô, from a story by Matsumoto Seichô (yet another Nomura Matsumoto adaptation)) was too slow. I had no difficulty believing that the six-year-old Kenchan (Okamoto Hisato) was trying to eliminate his widowed mother’s new (married travel agent) lover Hamajima Yukio (Katô Gô). She (Iwashito Shima as Yasuko) and the police couldn’t believe it, but I don’t think six-year-olds are incapable of homicidal intents and don’t share their belief in youthful innocence. Besides I saw him!

The dangers of children to adulterers was also my take-away from Suzuki’s “Everything Goes Wrong”/“The Madness of Youth”), though it had an older son jealous of his mother’s considerate lover.

Nomura’s frequent cinematographer Takashi Kawamata (Castle of Sand, Demon, Imamura’s Black Rain) provided great horror movie lighting and images.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

Nomura’s “Castle of Sand”

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Nomura Yoshitaro (1919-2005) directed eight adaptations of books by Matsumoto Seichô (1909-92), who wrote a lot of very popular detective fiction, as well as winning the Akutagawa Prize (Japan’s top literary award) in 1953 for Aru ‘Kokura-nikki’ den (The Legend of the Kokura-Diary). I prefer “Zero Focus” (Zero no shôten, 1961) and “The Chase” (Harikomi, 1958) to the more honored 1974 “Suna no utsuwa” (The Castle of Sand), which was the biggest box-office success of Nomura’s career. (I was underwhelmed by their 1970 “The Shadow Within” and will get to the 1978  “Demon.”)

I was unable to suspend disbelief that the haiku-writing Inspector Imanishi (Tanba Tetsuro) could solve the case of a corpse, killed by blunt-force trauma to the front of the head, found in the Tokyo rail yard. He and his gung-ho young partner, Detective Yoshimura (heartthrob Morita Kensaku) find waitresses in a bar who overheard the now-dead man and a younger men they can only vaguely describe saying “Kaneda” several times. That and a misplaced (and never explained!) accent are the only clues—and both clues are misunderstood for long times.

I find it difficult to believe that the Tokyo Railroad Police would allow Inspector Imanishi to travel to multiple locations, where some traces of the victim and/or the murderer are. It turns out that the murdered man, Miki (Ogata Ken), was a retired policeman who Ryû Chishû (playing an abacus maker) and others recall as saintly, so there is no one anyone can point to as having had a grudge against.

Detective Yoshimura retrieves fragments of a torn-up bloodstained shirt, and even meets the upscale bar waitress (Shimada Yôko).who spread it like confetti out the window of a speeding train. She flees without providing any information about who gave her the shirt to dispose of.

There is an explanation of sorts of the murder, spread across a very, very melodramatic and wordless sequence of flashbacks to the war years and an overripe piano concerto being premiered by well-connected rising start composer/conductor/pianist Waga Eiryô (Kat Gô).

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I guessed whodunit fairly early in the proceedings, can’t believe that, however determined and willing to travel he was, Inspector Imanishi could have put the pieces together. The “why” is tragic in multiple ways, though I also can’t believe that the murderer killed Miki (in psychological terms, that is; I don’t doubt that Inspector Imanishi is going to arrest the one who did the deed, just that he would…). There are also two romances (both of them rather one-sided: the women loving him) for Waga. I gather that in Matsumoto’s novel, Inspector Imanishi has a wife, but she is dead in the movie version, so providing no distraction from his obsessive investigation.

Various deplorable prejudices, and class differences bordering on caste-like, are critically shown, along with a very harrowing childhood. At the start of the movie and again much later, a boy is shown hollowing out piles of sand he has made and pouring water into the hollow. Of course, the sand cannot hold the water, which seeps down. He decapitates some of these drained towers and lines them up on a plank. “Utsuwa” in the Japanese titles of both novel and movie means “container” (or bowl”, not “castle”; “suna” does mean “sand”. (Even then, the usual English construction is “sand castle,” not “castle of sand”!) Perhaps Matsumoto intended these as a metaphor for futility, but they have nothing at all to do with the plot, which is already plenty complicated in an overly long (if frequently travelogue scenic) movie, often beautifully filmed by Kawamata Takashi with lots of trains (a major plus for me).

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The title of the English translation of the novel is the mundane but at least obviously relevant (not to mention alliterative) Inspector Imanishi Investigates.I have no idea why the usual English word order (Sand Castle) is not used for the English title.

The musical overkill in “Zero Focus” and “The Castle of Sand” exceeds anything Kinoshita Chûji did (I don’t doubt with Keisuke’s consent) to Kinoshita Keisuke movies.

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray