Japanese boarding school hothouse

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Although I could tell that it was aimed at the young teenage girl audience of bishonen manga (Japanese beautiful boy graphic novels), I liked most of “Boys Love” (also known as “Schoolboy Crush”),  a 2006 movie directed by Kôtarô Terauchi.

Mamiya Taishin (Kotani Yoshikazu) is a single copyeditor for a Japanese celebrity-covering magazine whose first assignment as a reporter is to interview androgynous, long-haired male model Kisaragi Noeru (Takumi Saito) about the latter’s art (drawing and paintings).

Still a schoolboy, Noeru is far more sexually experienced than the very proper and easily shocked Taishin. Noeru is promiscuous (a reason will be supplied along the way) but falls in love with Taishin after seducing him. Noeru teaches Taishin to swim and Taishin teaches Noeru to box. Both look good in their Speedos, and Kotani Yoshikazu’s naked derrière is frequently on display (showing genitalia, or even a stray pubic hair are forbidden by Japanese censors).

The reformation of Taishin alarms his bespectacled good student schoolmate and would-be lover Chidori Furumura (Matsumoto Hiroya). As long as Taishin was sleeping around, Chidori could believe that he was the one to whom Taishin came back, the one who did Taishin’s homework, etc.

Knowing how Japanese romances usually end, andthe Japanese view that living happily ever after is less beautiful than death, I had forebodings. Even though I saw it coming, I hated, hated, hated the ending.

Not that I’d claim there was anything at all original about the love of a good man reforming the wild ways of a widely shared sex object (male or female). Still, I enjoyed the uplifting romance that took both young men out of shells of different sorts and origins. And both of the leads are very attractive—easy on the eyes of those who like to look at attractive young males. But at the risk of repeating myself, I hate the ending!

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On the (Picture This!) DVD bonus features, the director and each of the stars make a point of announcing that they are not gay, which did not keep them from reteaming to make “Schoolboy Crush” the next year (2007; also released as “Gay Love 2,” BTW.) .

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

“Hokusai Manga”: Erotic surrenders to a giant squid

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Shindô Kaneto’s 1981 biopic “Hokusai manga” (1981) with Ken Ogata [Mishima, Man Walking on Snow] playing Hokusai was released in English as “Edo Porn,” stressing the woman mounted by octopus (The Dream of a Fisherman’s Wife) from late in the career of the woodblock master Hokusai Katsushika (ca. 1760-1849). I thought that the old-man makeup for Hokusai and for his longtime buddy/enabler Sashichi /Kyokutei Bakin [Nishida Toshiyyko] was silly (Oei [Tanaka Yûko] was aged more gracefully if not particularly believable, either). As I suspected while watching it, the movie was an adaptation of a stageplay (written by Yashiro Siichi), though that doesn’t explain why the last act is so protracted.

BTW, though there are frequent shots of women’s breasts, there is no full-frontal nudity. And though focused on the late erotic works in the 13=volume Hokusai Manga, work on the famous 36 Views of Mount Fujiyama is also included. And a lot of drunkenness.

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The artist’s daughter Ôei Tanaka Yûko {Eijanaika]) stood by the artist as he obsessed about Ônau (Higuchi Kanako [Rônin-gai]), whom he coaxed to model for his erotic drawings. The look is close to that of Shindo’s ghost movie, “Onibaba.”

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Dysfunctional Japanese family in the snowy, unprosperous Far North

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Francophile Japanese writer-director Kobayashi Masahiro (Bashing) filmed “Aruku, hito” (Man Walking on Snow, 2001) in Mashike, a small city on the west coast of the northernmost of the major Japanese island, Hokkaido. One of the characters says that there is snow on the ground six months out of the year.

To this native Minnesotan, it does not look all that cold (there’s only one scene in which I see the characters’ breath, and there are many scenes outdoors), though there is often snow in the air, and insulating buildings.

The movie’s patriarch Honma Nobuo (Obata Ken,who played Mishima in Paul Shrader’s highly stylized movie about the writer, the serial killer in Imamura Shohei’s “Vengeance Is Mine,” and Shinnojo’s fencing instructor in “Love and Honor”) is 66 years old in the Japanese intertitle (which would be 65 by American reckoning), but 70 in the English-language subtitle. Every morning he bounds out of town to the graveyard where his wife has been the last two years (the movie begins two days before the anniversary of her death), generally stopping for ice cream on the way, and then visiting recently hatched salmon and being chided by Michiko about being “unauthorized personnel”… before giving him his daily canned café au lait.

Nobuo has retired from running the sake manufacturing plant that had been in his late wife’s family for four previous generations. It is now supervised by Nobuou’s younger son, Yasuo (Hayashi Yasufumi), who also prepares the old man’s supper every evening,

Yasuo’s girlfriend Keiko (Urabe Fusako) is weary of being subordinate to Nobuuo in getting Yasuo’s attention and threatens to marry one of the suitors her parents is pushing. She and his father and, later, his elder brother all tell Yasuo he is stupid, though I don’t see any evidence of this. Self-sacrificing, yes, which may be what his brother means.

Nobuo has taken a vow of chastity from the day of his wife’s death until the two-year anniversary of it, but is flirting heavily with Michiko (whose husband has fled to the other end of the island country: Okinawa).

The elder brother, Ryoichi (Kagawa Teruyuki) was a rebellious youth who fled as soon as he graduated from high school and is the mediocre lead singer of an unsuccessful rock band. He has gotten his sweet companion Nobuko (Otsuka Nene) pregnant and is thinking of going home to live with his father, though the two never got along—and get in a violent argument at the ritual meal after the ceremony for the anniversary of his mother.

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Ryoichi urges Yasuo to move to Tokyo and Yasuo also suggests the Ryoichi do so, but it becomes clear that none of the three stubborn Honma males is able to make a fresh start.

The pace of the first hour is slow, though I was still confused and conflated the two sons for a while. Eventually, I was able to sympathize with the three women trying to have relationships with these difficult men (none of whom seemed very mature to me) and with the self-sacrificing Yasuo, and to pity the selfish self-defeating Ryiochi and Nobuo. Ryuochi said that he and his father were too much alike to get along, which seems an accurate diagnosis and prognosis to me.

I don’t know that it was necessary to show Nobuo walking through/on the snow as often or as long as Kobayashi did, though the pacing of Japanese movies often seems slow to me.

Not bad, not great, eventually interesting.

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Hokusai in Boston

The Magician of Manga

 

Also see my review of the 1981 “Hokusai Manga” with Ken Ogata playing Hokusai.

Hip students making a horror movie

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Japan does not export a lot of comedies, though at least one, “Tampopo” (and, to a lesser extent, its successor, “A Taxing Woman”) broke out to international acclaim.

The recommendation of “Kamyu nante shiranai” (Who’s Camus Anyway?, 2005) made by Yanagimachi Mitsuo (director of the very rural “Farewell to the Land” and “Himatsuri”) came to me from Netflix. Putting the bottom line first, I was disappointed by it.

Although there are some entertaining bits, the whole is less than the sum of the parts. The movie centers around some students and their professor/master, Nakajo (Honda Hirotaro) making a low-budget horror movie “The Bored Murderer” that seems to me to derive more from Dosteovesky’s Crime and Punishment than from Camus’s The Stranger. Admittedly, Camus’s murderer was bored, but the guilt of the young killer in the movie within a movie strikes me as far more Dosteoveskian.

The professor, who made a string of successful films and then stopped for reasons no one even attempts to explain, is called Aschenbach by some of his students and takes on the part of the foolish craver of young flesh Aschenbach from Death in Venice right down to putting on makeup—although the aftermath of his hoped-for seduction is being dead drunk rather than dying. That subplot seems dropped in from some other movie.

The students make many references to French New Wave movies, and dub a woman who is hopelessly in love with the director of “The Bored Murderer” Matsukawa (Kashiwabara Shuuji), “Adele” (Yoshikawa Hinano), since her stalking him reminds them of Adele Hugo in Truffaut’s “The Story of Adele H.” (The most obvious Truffaut predecessor, “Day for Night” is not mentioned, BTW.)

The actor who steps in to play the title role of “The Bored Murderer,” Ikeada (Nakaizumi Hideo) is a heterosexual transvestite with his hair died blond. He gets more and more into the part, pushed by both Matsukawa and assistant director Kiyoko (Maeda Ai) to be more like Camus’s Meursault. Ikeada wants to please everyone, but especially wants to woo Kiyoko. (There is also a scene of unusual candor between Professor Nakajo on a bench and Ikeada. Ikeada asks the question no one else dares to ask about Nakajo having stopped making movies, but still does not get an answer.)

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The camera pans a lot and there is an opening single shot as long as the famous ones near the end of Antonioni’s “The Passenger” and the one at the start of Robert Altman’s “The Player.”

Without knowing anything about the film-maker, one would guess it was made by a novice, remembering recent school daze, not someone who has been directing films since 1976. Like his film’s Professor Nakajo, Yanagimachi stopped making films in 1995 and taught film at Tokyo’s Waseda University, an elite school in Tokyo, until returning to film-making with “Who’s Camus?” a decade later. Presumably, the aspiring film-maker students are based on his Waseda students I don’t know what he thought the point of the movie was. The part about making a movie develops clearly enough, but the inept attempts at human relationships among the characters (callow youth and a Dirty Old Man) are not very interesting, in considerable part because the characters are not particularly interesting. Ikeada is the only one who has anything I’d call character “development.” The others mostly thrash around in their lives away from making “The Bored Murderer.” As a film about a troupe, “Who’s Camus, Anyway?” does not rival Altman’s “The Player” or the CBC series “Slings and Arrows” or even Peter Bodganovich’s “Noises Off.”

The Film Movement DVD includes some text filmographies and an innocuous 10-minute animated film by Sejong Park titled “Birthday Boy.”

© 2016, Stephen O. Murray

A highly toxic jellyfish may be the most compelling character in “Bright Future”

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Akarui mirai” (Bright Future, 2003) written and directed by Kurosawa Kiyoshi (no relation to Kurosawa Akira) is a dark film (not, however, a noir) that is mostly opaque to me, even with phosphorescent red jellyfish playing a significant part in the film.

Twenty-something roommates Mamoru (Asano Tadanobu [Gohatto] ) and Yuji (Joe Odagiri, [Azumi]) work together in a small (hot towel) factory. They seem too apathetic even to be slackers. They do what they are told, including moving a desk for the boss’s daughter (and then moving it back and forth and back around the girl’s room at her mother’s direction — the daughter is as apathetic as the workers).

Mamoru is raising a luminous, highly toxic-to-touch red jellyfish (Dactylometra pacifica), slowly replacing salt water in its tank with fresh water.

Plot spoiler alert

After their boss (Sasano Takashi) comes over and turns on their television to watch sports and borrows a CD from the “boys,” Mamoru returns the visit and kills the whole family. Yuiji discovers the bodies when paying a visit of his own.

The father from whom Mamoru is estranged, Shinichiro (Tatsuya Fuji), comes to town (Tokyo), engages in polite non-communicative jail visits, and more or less adopts Yuiji. Mamoru is eager to be executed for his multiple homicides, but concerned about his jellyfish. Shinichiro becomes fascinated by the jellyfish (is it a hereditary trait?).

In the canal system, the single jellyfish proliferates at a sci-fi rate, so that a whole canal glows in the dark with these jellyfish. They survive in the fresh — well not salty, though polluted — water, but head downstream to the sea. Shinichiro cannot accept this, even though Yuji tells him they will return to reproduce.

There is also a gang of young males in identical dress (black pants, sneakers, baseball caps and sweat shirts with white t-shirts with the image of Che Guevera on them) with flashing band atop their baseball caps, like the jellyfish. They rob the place where Mamoru goes to work as a janitor. They are apprehended, though he is not. But they do not go to prison like Mamoru, since they are hanging out for the last two scenes of the movie.

End plot spoiler alert

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I don’t know what — if anything — it is supposed to mean. The youth of Japan are more aimless than jellyfish, perhaps? I have to say that the jellyfish looks (and then look) marvelous. Yuiji’s clothes are very picturesquely torn (and Mamoru’s bizzarely patterned).

Shinichiro warns Yuiji that he will either end of in prison or disappear into his dreams, though Shinichiro seems to me to have even less firm a grasp of basic realities than Yuiji. And the movie does not provide any insight into the sources of Mamoru’s nihilism. It just is. If Kurosawa has an opinion on whether the jellyfish or Mamoru are the “bright future,” I missed the clues.

The grainy digital images from a hand-held camera (or cameras) are sometimes arresting, and generally underlit. Not being familiar with this Kurosawa’s oeuvre, my guess is that he is like David Lynch in not knowing where to go with images that intrigue him (that is, lacking in talent for plotting, wanting to make thrillers nonetheless, and having some talent for showing odd characters and striking visuals).

There is supposed to be a 75-minute “making of” documentary feature, “Ambivalent Future” on the disc, but it would not play on the copy I had. No doubt, I’d have a much better idea of Kurosawa’s intent with its aid (but a film should not require that kind of aid should it?) For alienated Japanese youth on screen, I much prefer Tokyo Eyes and The Rainbow Kids — which are black comedies not just an extended look at alienated youth.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

The sumptuous colors of “Jigokumon” (Gate of Hell)

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Jigokumon” (Gate of Hell), directed by the veteran film-maker (and former onnagata silent-film actor) Teinosuke Kinugasa (1896-1982), was one of the movies from Japan in the early 1950s that awed film-lovers in the rest of the world (following Kurosawa’s “Rashômon” and Mizoguchi’s “Ugetsu,” also starring Machiko Kyô). Unlike most of the canonical Japanese classics of the 1950s, “Jigokumon” was in opulent color. The court and warrior costumes were so impressive that the generally very ethnocentric voters of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences chose to award it the Oscar for costume design for a film in color (the first technical award given to a film not in English, I think). It was also selected best foreign-language film (before that was a formal category) by Academy voters and by New York film critics, and received the Palme D’Or at Cannes.

“Jigokumon” still looks very impressive. It seems that many of the films (none of them new) I’ve seen of late have been more impressive visually than dramatically. In the middle of watching “Jigokumon,” I thought it was another film to add to that list. The dramatic gears grind slowly between a flamboyant beginning and an ending that retrospectively justifies the slow-seeming middle (relatively slow: the whole movie only take 86 minutes) and surprises expectations. I certainly do not want to specify what happens, or, more to the point, what is said at the end. In no sense is there a trick ending: the surprise is more cerebral than physical.

Even allowing for cultural differences between 21st-century America and 12th-century Japan, the plot is somewhat perplexing. The first part is straightforward enough. While the military commander who is also a monk is gone, a rebellion within the palace in Kyoto occurs. The defenders of the regime need someone to impersonate the empress and to draw off attackers so the real empress can slip out. Lady-in-waiting Kesa (Machiko Kyô volunteers and dons an extraordinary golden robe not just belonging to but signifying the empress.

The samurai in charge of getting Kesa to safety Moritoo (Kasuo Hasegawa [A Kaubuki Actor’s Revenge, Crucified Lovers]) has to face down his brother who has joined the rebels. The escape to Moritoo’s home is hokey and the failure of the rebels to seize the woman they think is the empress is inexplicable. (Also, the viewer does not learn what happened to the real emperor and empress). After Moritoo carries the news to the commander, Lord Kiyomori (Senda Koreya) and catches and slays a spy, the rebellion is put down. It seems that “Jigokumon” is a samurai film about an early period of unrest (the declining Heian period, ca. 1160), but in one of those scenes in which samurais and officials kneel motionless as decisions are announced, the genre shifts from treachery and swordplay to stubbornness and erotic obsession.

The commander (shogun?) asks Moritoo what he wants as a reward for his role in putting down the rebellion—anything but the commander’s head or that of his family. What Moritoo asks for is Kesa. When informed that she is already married, he refuses to drop his request and the commander can neither deny nor grant it. To save his face, Moritoo should withdraw the request, though underlings could be (imperatively) “asked” to break their marriages (this is central to the later masterpiece “Samurai Rebellion” which also focuses on unseemly stubbornness defying everyone’s expectations).

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Lady Kesa is mortified and feels that she must somehow be to blame for the outrageous request, but her very dignified husband Wataru (Yamagata Isao [Samurai Rebellion]) does not blame her or take the bid for his wife particularly seriously. Moritoo persists and behaves more and more outrageously (all the more so judged by the samurai code). Why he is not transferred to some far frontier or ordered to kill himself (or trapped on one of his forays) is inexplicable to me, but honor is eventually upheld (albeit in unexpected ways, as I’ve already noted).

The married couple is placed in a position that they find untenable and I find hard to believe could happen in a courtly society with extremely rigid rules of decorum. The plot requires more suspension of disbelief than I can muster and there is practically no revelation of motivation of the characters through most of the movie. I don’t think that “Jigokumon” is a great movie (as “Ran” or “Sanshô dayû” are), but it is a very impressive one, particularly visually. The opening battle and the horse race are especially striking, as is Wataru’s final speech are especially noteworthy, as are the cinematography of Mizoguchi regular Sugiyama Kôhei and Wada Mitsuzô’s costume design.

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray