All posts by reflectionsonjapanesecultureblog

Raised in rural southern Minnesota, schooled at James Madison College, University of Arizona, University of Toronto, and Berkeley. Resident on Potrero Hill in San Francisco since 1982. Author or coauthor of 20+ books, including Looking Through Taiwan, Angkor Life, and An Introduction to African Cinema. The site with my postings is japaneseculturereflectionsblog. I would delete this empty site if I knew how!

Koreeda’s award-winning “Shoplifters”

For me, Kore-eda Hirokazu (1962-), the second best-known current Japanese film director (after Miike Takashi) is overrated. I was surprised that his sluggishly paced “Shoplifters” won the 2019 Palme d’or, although that is not the first head-scratcher choice of its top award from the Cannes Film Festival. (He had won the Jury Prize there in 2013 for “Like Father, Like Son,” a movie I like more). It was also Oscar-nominated in the best foreign-language movie category.

I was immediately put off by the opening scene in which the father-and-son shoplifting team of Osamu (Franky Lily, Like Father, Like Son, Our Little Sister) and Shota (Kairi Jyo) take a lot of stuff. Osamu’s rationalizations that it’s OK unless they take so much a store goes bankrupt and that items do not belong to anyone until they are sold irritate me, especially since they are not countered by the fact that theft raises the price for real buyers. (Admittdly, Osamu works as a day laborer when he can, but on-the-job injury is not convered by disability insurance.)

Shoplifters-movie (1).jpg

On the way home, the exultant thieves buy five croquettes. Then they find a young girl locked out in the cold. They take five-year-old Yuri (Sasaki Miyu) home with them, feed three of the croquettes to her and begin treatment of the wounds from physical abuse.

When they go to take Yuri home, they hear Yuri’s parents arguing, with both exclaiming that they never wanted a child. So they take Yuri back with tme. By that time we have met the snappish grandmother, Katsue (Kiki Kirin, in her fifth Kore-eda film) is as close as there is to a mastermind for this group, and the one with isteady income (a widow’s pension) and the pretty Aki (Matsuoka Mayu), who works displaying herself to men (is this “sex work” with no sex involved?)


It took me half the movie to realize that Shota is a boy, not a girl. He has carved out a space for himself in a closet, using a headlamp to illuminate the mangas he reads. The whole family goes to the beach (supplying the poster photo). But then things start to go wrong for the de facto family (family of choice), including the grandmother’s death.

That pushes the movie even more firmly into early Hou Hsiao-Hsien territory — especially “The Boys of Feng-guei” in which three boys staying with their grandmother do not know what to do when she dies, so do nothing, leaving her rotting on her sleeping mat. There is a nominal adult this time, but Osamu cannot do much to protect anyone. The police try to convince Shota that the others were going to abandon him after he was apprehended, though it is not clear to me that he believes them. Indeed, he calls Osamu “dad” for the first time.

The movie is softer than “Nobody Knows” (2004, his best film in my view, followed by “Like Father, Like Son”). and even slower. (Both Hou and Kore-eda proclaim influence from Ozu, which is eertainly there in prolonged takes, but I was never bored by an Ozu film, despite their invariable camera setup of a meter above the floor.)

©2019, Stephen O. Murray


Discussion of other Koreeda films available on DVD with subtitles in English:

Maborosi (1995)

Nobody Knows (2004)

Hana (2006)

Air Doll (2009)

I Wish (2011)

Like Father, Like Son (2013)

Our Little Sister (2015)



A Japanese town without pity

Writer-director Kobayashi Masahiro (1954-; Man Walking on Snow) seems to me a Japanese outlier of the Dogma school, relying on natural light to make depressing, undramatic movies. Perhaps the most irritating aspect of his 2005 “Bashing” is that the viewer never knows what happened to Yuko (Urabe Fusako, who was in “Man Walking on Snow”) in Iraq, where she was an international aid worker, other than being held hostage. Was she raped? The movie provides no indication.


Back home, not only is she shunned (murahachibu), but a dozen or so a day harassing phone calls are still coming in to her home phone and additional ones and e-mails to the company for which her father (Tanaka Ryuzo) has worked for 30 years and to the hotel that employs her as a chambermaid. Both she and her father are fired, the boyfriend she has been ducking summons her to formally break with her, boys attack her when she buys take-out soup, etc.

Yuko is affectless in response to all this harassment, beyond lying clothed in bed in fetal position facing the wall.

More bad things happen, all aimed at expelling Yuko from her hometown (Tomakomai on the northern island of Hokkaido on which Kobayashi also set “Man Walking on Snow”) and obliterating consciousness of her shame (whatever it might have consisted of). There is much to make the viewer wince at the malicious cruelty for someone who tried to help other people and did not do anything reprehensible. (Again emphasizing that I don’t know that she was raped in captivity, the cultural logic reminds me of Muslim execution of women who have been raped to preserve the honor of her family.)

The real-life volunteer on whose ostracism the movie was based was not harmed/violated by her captors but criticized for going where she did not belong and embarrassing the nation. Coworkers were disturbed by her presence, etc. The nail that sticks out for whatever reason gets hammered, to borrow a common Japanese metaphor for the perils of nonconformity.

Her father is the only one providing her any sympathy in the movie, and he can not take losing his job (even after getting down on his knees to beg to be retained).

The ordeal of being ostracized in a hyper-conformist society is clear to me. I wonder if Japanese audiences felt solidarity with Yuko or her tormentors. Probably the latter, in which case what I see as critique of their conduct may have reinforced adherence to such conduct.

Looking drab, lacking action or character development, with minimal dialogue, no music until a song with the closing credits, and with the tormentors as lacking in affect as the tormented, the movie is not just a downer/bummer but dull in ways that “Breaking the Waves” and “Dancer in the Dark” are not (with their much-suffering heroines).

Though running only 82 minutes, I felt I had been trapped with Yuko, enduring her indignities in silence for much longer.

There are no DVD bonus features, not even a trailer.


©2009, Stephen O. Murray

Kobayashi Masahiro’s “Man Walking on Snow”

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, although 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 Nobuo 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.


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.

Bottom line: not bad, not great, somewhat touching, and eventually interesting.

©2009, Stephen O. Murray


As a portrayal of violent rejection of immigrants, “Heaven’s Gate” (1980) is way too relevant now

Hold Fast Your Crown drove me to watch the nearly 26-minute Criterion Collection “Haven’s Gate.” I remain convinced that it is a bad movie. I can see why some think it is “great cinema. I don’t, though I think that Vilmos Zsigimond provided great (if very smoky!) cinematography. I’ll still take Robert Altman’s “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” with more great Zsigmond cinematography eight days a week. or that matter, I prefer “Hell on Wheels” to “Heaven’s Gate.”


Kris Kristofferson played a Harvard-graduate federal marshal, who was a very natty dresser: he’s frequently seen buttoning up the vest to three-piece suits and trimming below his beard (with a straight razor, while Isabelle Huppert is hanging on his back). Not a lot of affect. Indeed, Christopher Walken and Sam Waterston are also low on affect. I can’t think of any other time I’ve seen Waterston play a villain, btw. I don’t know why the casting of Huppert was criticized in the general condemnation of the release when it arrived with a critical and commercial thud in 1980. I thought she was just fine, though I saw no joy in her relationships with Walken and, with Kristofferson, only when he gave her a buggy. Nor did I understand why John Hurt was out doing battle on the side of the cattlemen’s association. (Jeff Bridges was even more wasted by Cimino.)


Many scenes, especially in the multiple set pieces, run on and on. It’s impossible to figure out what is going on in the climactic battle, with the tactics on both side opaque (and not just from the obstacles of movie’s ubiquitous dust and smoke). In a Criterion monolog running half an hour 2012 Cimino says that watching “Heaven’s Gate” the viewer does not realize how long the battle runs onscreen. This viewer certainly did. And, whereas many bonus features increase my regard for the film, this one, which is not without interest, does not. Cimino provides not the slightest acknowledgment of the sever criticism leveled against “Heaven’s Gate” or any indication that anyone found the prolog (running 20 minutes at an 1870 Harvard graduation) or epilog (a briefer 1903 picture of Krstofferson returned east, on a huge yacht that looks armored) unnecessary (or the prolog way too long).

The mostly Montana backdrops (including a town built within Glacier National Park) are spectacular. Surprisingly, Roger Ebert wrote: “This is one of the ugliest films I have ever seen.” Soft focus, yes, but are the colors completely washed out? Not the mountains and lakes!

There is a lot of graphic violence and extended full-frontal nudity of the young and beautiful Isabelle Huppert.

The bonus features reveal that it took 65 takes to get the scene in which Kristofferson i awakened an cracks a bullwhip (that was behind his head), one of many scenes in which there was real danger for the actors.

A movie about hatred and attempted extirpation of immigrants is certainly timely. The unwelcome in Johnson County, Wyoming in 1890 were mostly Slavic, but also German (like, say, Drumpfes?).

©2019, Stephen O. Murray


Doris Dorrie’s genial and scenic “Cherry Blossoms”

“Kirschblüten” (Cherry Blossoms, 2008) was a big hit in Germany. It evidences a sentimentality that I think is particularly German, though not one I would expect in a Doris Dörrie. Maybe it’s just that her movies that have made it across the Atlantic are comedies with considerable bite: “Männer” (Men, 1985) and “Erleuchtung garantiert” (Enlightenment Guaranteed, 1999). Like the second of those, “Kirschblüten” follows two Germans to Japan.


It starts in Bavaria, however, with Trudi Angermeier (Hannelore Elsner) being told that her husband Rudi (Elmar Wepper) is terminally ill. She avers that his inflexibility is such that he should not be told. Without knowing of his condition or that it is the raison d’être, he goes with her to Berlin, where Klaus (Felix Eitner), a son who is the father of their two grandchildren lives, as does a lesbian daughter Emma (Floriane Daniel).

The children have unresolved issues, particularly the favoritism the parents showed for Karl, who has run further away, to Tokyo. They do not make time for their (admittedly unexpectedly) visiting parents. The one who treats them best, showing them around Berlin and accompany Trudi to a butoh performance is Emma’s lover Franzi (Nadja Uhl).

Trudi wanted to be a butoh dancer and to see her favorite son’s adopted land. When she and Rudi take in how little their children care about them, how ungracefully they tolerate their visit, they continue on to the Baltic coast.


Only one of them will make it to Japan and staying with the other inhospitable, ungrateful child (Maximilian Brückner’s Karl). Considering that they could not figure out Berlin streetcar ticketing (with instructions in their own language), the vastly larger-scale and more alien is bound to be quite a challenge, but there is a homeless (well, she has a tent) butoh waif street performer (actually, she performs in a park) who helps the survivor get to Mount Fujiyama (which she says is “shy,” often hiding from view) and a final butoh dance.

I found the movie slow-paced, though very scenic (the tour of Berlin, cherry blossoms in bloom in Tokyo, Fuji, and the Bavarian Alps). The children who would not make time for their parents and had no patience with them made me cringe (and think of Ozu’s “Tokyo Story”), and is likely to stir guilt in most viewers who have recently become orphans, especially when the parents were very close and one was lost without the other…

Hannelore Elsner is immediately engaging as Trudi. Elmar Wepper, playing a man who always put work ahead of his children (in fact, he seems to have been more like an absent Japanese father than an authoritarian German one), is initially unsympathetic but evolves or unfolds or something. He deservedly won the German Film Award for best actor (losing the European one to Toni Servillo for “Il divo” and “Gomorra”). I’m not sure about Irizuki Aya (the waif/angel). Bruckner is very good as the prodigal son (the child who fled the greatest distance) and the one who is unable to maintain politesse.

BTW, though icons of evanescence, the cherry blossoms live longer than the mayfly (both have weighted places in the movie). And I especially liked the visit to the beach by the Angermeiers in funeral black and wearing shoes mixed with others is normal beach togs.


©2009, Stephen O. Murray

Doris Dorrie bemused by some German men

“Männer” (“Men”, 1985, directed by Doris Dorrie, 4.3/5 stars) is a welcome relief form the all-enveloping depression of the middle-period Fassbinder movies. It is a romantic comedy in which a husband who finds out that his wife has been having an affair leaves, spies on the man, manages to become his roommate, becomes his confidant, and transforms the semi-hipies into an advertising executive who bores his wife. A gorilla mask is used effectively and the ending is very funny.

1985 MEN.jpg

“Erleuchtung garantiert” (Enlightenment Guaranteed, 2000) is almost as funny as “Manner” (Men). Like her 1985 movie, this one focuses on two highly contrasted German men with relationship problems. Uwe (Uwe Ochsenknecht, who was also in “Men” and other Dörrie films and looks more than a little like Kelsey Grammer) is a cranky kitchen-remodeling salesman with three noisy young children for whom he has little tolerance. Gustav (Gustav-Peter Wöhler who was in Dörrie’s 1998 “Am I Beautiful ) is a geomancer (feng shui practitioner) and Japanophile who has been looking forward to going to a Zen monastery in Japan to find inner peace, being very out of tune with his feelings and being a perfectionist who comes nowhere close to perfection.


Different as they are in appearance and temperament, Uwe and Gustav are brothers. Both of them are dissatisfied with their lives (Uwe having a more serious midlife crisis, but less aware that he is having one that Gustav is). For reasons that could not be revealed without spoiling the funniest part of the plot, Uwe, who has always scoffed at Gustav’s interest in Buddhism and things Japanese, goes along. Gustav’s considerable frustration with how Uwe acts and thinks makes having Uwe along horrifying to Gustav, but blood is thicker than something or another. (There is some quite beautiful water later, BTW.)

Despite misadventures in Tokyo, they get to the monastery, where Gustav in particular has more problems and frustrations, while Big Brother fits in without any major problems or irritations.

The other monks are patient and helpful, genial and cheerful, with only a few having a smattering of English as a lingua franca. The monastic routines are filmed in detail. I was amazed that a monastery would allow a female film-maker such access. In a DVD bonus interview, Dörrie explained that a condition of being allowed to film in the monastery was that the whole crew (which included another woman) would follow the rigorous monastic discipline.

The two German men in the Monzen monastery is more or less a documentary, though they were acting in a fictional story. Uwe had a video camera and I think that both of them improvised at least some of what they recorded themselves or each other as saying. I think there is too much of this inthe movie, however.

In Munich, in Tokyo, and in Monzen there are some very funny moments (involving furniture, a miniature rock garden, a tent, wiping techniques, etc.). Filming with hand-held digital cameras was, Dörrie, explains not at all unusual in Tokyo, so that Hans Karl Hu seemed to the Tokyoites to be shooting “home movies” rather than a movie for theatrical release.


The subtitles in the movie are clear (both visually and grammatically). The translated interview has some grammatical problems (it scrolls by rather than Dörrie speaking; I thought she spoke fluent English when she was here [the San Francisco International Film Festival] with “Men”). The questions are rather fatuous, too. The only other bonus features are one-page (partial) filmographies of Uwe and Gustav.

©2011, Stephen O. Murray



A Moroccan girl raised as a boy

Tahar Ben Jelloun’s 1985 fourth novel L’Enfant de Sable (translated as The Sand Child) first brought widespread attention to the Morocco-born (1943) French writer. Its protagonist is Mohammed Ahmed. Frustrated at only producing daughters (seven of them already), her father decides to raise the eighth one as a boy. Among other things, this will keep his estate from going to his brother for lack of a son to inherit. A circumcision is faked (with blood from her father’s finger), her breasts are bound, and she even marries a mistreated epileptic girl, Fatima.


The story-teller draws on the journal filled with gender confusion written by Mohammed Ahmed, who once she can becomes Zahra (flower of flowers). For the time after the journal breaks off, a multitude of endings are imagined by those who have heard the story of the girl raised as a boy. (Her imposture never caused her to doubt her true gender. That is there was no role-self merger/role engulfmen.)

Apparently, Ben Jelloun became usatiisfied with the multiple endings, and in Nuit sacree/The Sacred Night (1987), chose a singular one. At the start of the second book, the father dies on the most auspicious of nights for death to be followed by salvation, the 27th night of Ramadan. Zahra xis snatched away from her father’s funeral by a splendidly mounted rider (“the Sheikh”) and taken to a seeming paradise otherwise inhabited entirely by children.

sacred night.JPG

She is a threat to the children already there and cannot stay there. Walking through the woods away from the lost paradise, she is raped (with at least acquiescence out of curiosity). She finds her way to a bathhouse, where the ugly and surly proprietress takes her in to help care for her brother, a blind Koranic teacher.

Zahra bonds with him, reads to him, talks to him, smokes kif with him, and eventually begins bedding him (in a bordello to which his sister had previously taken him and described the available women for him to rent).

The idyll is doomed by his sister’s jealousy. She unleashes the fearsome demons (uncle and sisters) of Zahra. In prison, the five sisters still in Morocco get to her and do some horrific things. Zahra survives and becomes first a letter-writer for illiterate fellow prisoners then is regarded as a saint. Surprisingly, there is a happy ending.

Other than the visits from her sisters, prison is not too horrible an experience for Zahra:

Finding myself behind bars made me realize how much my life as a man [actually, as a boy] had been like a prison. I had been confined to a single role, and in that sense deprived of freedom. Beyond the limits of that role lay catastrophe. At the time [covered by Sand Child] I had not been aware of how much I had suffered. My destiny had been twisted, my instincts suppressed, my body transfigured, my sexuality denied, my hopes destroyed. (135)


I have to say that I like Ben Jelloun’s later realist novels more than the magic realism (or is it influence of French surrealism? Moroccan fairy tales?) in Sacred Night. I think that Sand Child is more innovative, though both books pound away at the inferiorization of women in Muslim societies. It was Sacred Night that won the most prestigious French literary away, the Prix Goncourt, however. Near the start Zahra proclaims that “there is no greatness or tragedy to my story.” This is the kind of statement that stirs a contrarian response from me, and I went on to be sure that there is tragedy aplenty (greatness in a story is not as easy to decide about).

©2019, Stephen O. Murray