Category Archives: Japanese movies

Sisterhood with no sibling rivalries

 

Though running 128 minutes Koreeda Hirokazu’s 2015 adaptation of a manga as海街diary (Umimachi Diary, or Seaside-town diary”), released in English as “Our Little Sister” seems slight to me. Many find it “heart-warming,” I find it sentimental in a Kinoshita tradition. Three sisters: 29-year-old Sachi (Ayase Haruka), 22-year-old Yoshino a (Nagasawa Masami) and 19-year-old Chika (Kaho) live in a large house in Kamakura (southeast of Tokyo). News comes that their father, whom they have not seen in 15 years, has died. They go to the funeral, where their father’s third wife claims to have nursed their father through his final illness.

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They intuit that the serious-looking 14-year-old Asano Suzu (Hirose Suzu) was the one who cared for their father. Sachi invites Suzu to come and live with them rather than stay with her/their stepmother. Suzu was the offspring of the woman with whom their father decamped, his second wife.

Suzu is keenly aware that she is a very visible reminder of their common father abandoning his first wife and their three daughters. She is especially aware of her negative connections for the mother of the three older females, who also abandoned her three daughters and drops in. Sachi, who was left to raise her younger two sisters, is very antagonistic to her mother, though the immature woman tries to make Suzu comfortable in her presence.

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Though the sisters experience frustration in their own love lives, there is no antagonism or even tension between any of them, and they all dote on Suzu. Suzu makes the coeducational soccer team and hangs out with one of the male players and is dutiful and grateful at her new home. Tensions are mostly between generations not between siblings (and the novel half-sibling who is something of a pet, but also arguably more mature than Chika).

Ayase Haruka, who strikes me as the most beautiful of the women in the cast, is self-sacrificing in the manner of Takamine Hideko in 1950s family dramas made by Ozu and Kinoshita. The offspring are old enough to make money in contrast to the young children huddling together in Koreeda’s 2004 “Nobody Knows,” which lessens the drama and the poignancy. Suzu not only can go to school, but fits in readily. Still, the actresses (including three of the older generation) are very good in what seems like a very gentle, muted, episodic sitcom that mostly takes place in the family house‑though when it does go out, things are beautifully photographed by Mikya Takimoto, who also shot “Like Father, Like Son” for Koreeda.

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

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The Best World War II dramas about combatants

There are a very large number of movies set in and around the Second World War, including the various holocaust/Jewish survival movies such as

The Shop on Main Street (directed by Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos, 1965)

Europa, Europa (directed by Agnieszka Holland, 1990)

The Pianist (directed by Roman Polanski, 2002)

Misa’s Fugue (directed by Sean Gaston, 2012)

Opansi put (directed by Mate Reija, 1963)

Schindler’s List (directed by Stephen Spielberg, 1993)

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (directed by Mark Herman, 2008)

Higher Principle (directed by Jiri Krejic, 1960)

Devils on the Doorstep (directed by Jian Wen, 2000)

The Diary of Anne Frank (directed by George Stevens, 1959)

The Cranes Are Flying (directed by Mikhail Kalatozov, 1960)

The Seventh Cross (directed by Fred Zinnemann, 1944)

 

and many about the traumas of war on civilians, including

Jeux Interdits (Forbidden Games, directed by René Clément, 1952)

Two Women (directed by Vittorio de Sica, 1961)

Malèna (directed by Giuseppe Tornatore, 2000)

Au revoir, les enfants (1987), and Lacombe Lucien (1974), directed by Louis Malle

Empire of the Sun (directed by Stephen Spielberg, 1987)

Mrs. Miniver (directed by William Wyler, 1942)

Hope and Glory (directed by John Boorman, 1987)

Army (1944), Port of Blossoms (1943 and 24 Eyes (1954) (directed by Kinoshita Keisuke)

The Fifth Seal (directed by Zoltán Fábri, 1976)

Grave of the Fireflies (anime directed by Takahata Isao, 1988)

Don’t Cry, Peter (directed by France Stiglic, 1964)

plus Night of the Shooting Stars (the Taviani brothers, 1982), also involving confused noncombatant males in an Italian village,

This Land Is Mine (directed by Jean Renoir, 1943) with a French coward finding courage,

Hangmen Also Die (directed by Fritz Lang, 1943) with a Czech family

Closely Watched Trains (directed by Jirí Menzel, 1966) with a young Czech rising to the occasion and sabotage

Written Off (directed by Aleksander Djordevic, 1974)

Au Revoir, Les Enfants (directed by Louis Malle, 1987)

Hiroshima, Mon Amout (directed by Alain Resnais, 1959)

and some Chinese films with longer historical arcs, even though the war there began earlier than in Europe (and Siberiade, which also has a long temporal span)

 

I have also excluded prisoner camp/escape movies such as

Robert Bresson’s masterpiece “A Man Escapes” (Un condamné à mort s’est échappé ou Le vent souffle où il veut)

The Great Escape

Stalag 17

King Rat

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence

The Bridge on the River Kwai

The Railway Man

 

I have excluded these war-related genres and also movies focused on commanders such as Rommel (The Desert Fox) and Patton, and those involving Humphrey Bogart reluctantly getting involved (Casablanca, To Have and Have Not) to focus on dramas centering on combatants (air, land, and sea). I am saving comedies for another list.

My final prefatory note is that I am well aware that the three of the four most recent entries of my list all have some vociferous detractors. There are bases for criticism, though the vehemence with which some have been pressed puzzle me.

(15) Like “Saving Private Ryan,” “Enemy of the Gate” (2001), directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, starts by throwing the audience into the chaos of war, in this case the German attack on Stalingrad. The terror of the evacuees is compellingly portrayed, but a hero is needed. In the rather unlikely person of the almost-too-handsome Jude Law as a shepherd from the Ural Mountains, one is manufactured. The propaganda machine is nearly as much of a focus in the movie as is the duel of wits between the Soviet champion Vassily Zaitsev (Law) and an aristocratic German officer sent to eliminate him, Major Koenig (Ed Harris). Both are superb marksmen, so the duel ultimately depends not on their marksmanship but on information. Gabriel Thomson’s Sasha is insufficiently realized, and I think that the rivalry for Tania.(Rachel Weisz) between private solider Zaitsev and officer Danilov (Joseph Fiennes), who is his de facto publicist, is a distraction. Bob Hoskins’s scenery-chewing Kruschev is not a distraction, because the considerations of building a hero to rally the people of Russia is absolutely central (in both Soviet and Nazi warmakers’ views). The cinematography and set construction would be hard to fault.

(14) The great American poet of violence, Sam Peckinpah, also directed a duel within an army movie. From the title, “Cross of Iron,” it is obvious that the army is the German one. It has Maxmillian Schell was the well-connected, vainglorious captain sending a subordinate who sees through him, is considerably more competent and cares about his men (James Coburn) to be eliminated. (James Mason is quite unlike Lee Marvin as the colonel in command, however.) In my view, it drags often and is inferior to “Attack!” The movie about Germans I’m including is the ultimate submarine movie Das Boot, directed by Wolfgang Petersen in. I have not seen the director’s cut, and my memory of seeing the movie in its theatrical release in 1981 is hazy. Human beings in a small underwater metal tube commanded by a savvy professional not wrapped up in Nazi ideology is also on view in “The Enemy Below.” The focus of “Das Boot” is entirely on the German sailors. If I remembered it better or watched the director’s cut, it would probably make my list.

(13) The earliest Hollywood movie that I’ve seen that shows some real agony rather than the “natural” triumph of the American military in WWII is William A. Wellman’s The Story of G.I. Joe (1945). The ersatz heartiness of Burgess Meredith as Ernie Pyle and some sentimentality of his narration (and the mascot dog) slightly undercut the gritty realism. There is the usual wide range of American types thrown together and Robert Mitchum as a brave and resourceful and caring lieutenant (later promoted to captain) whose unit the famous correspondent keeps finding in the Italian campaign. (The cast was heavily populated by recent G.I.s and war correspondents playing themselves.) The pace seems slow after decades of subsequent WWII movies, but the grand-daddy remains moving in my opinion. I find it more realistic and less sentimental than John Huston’s documentary “The Battle of San Pietro,” noting that it was heavily censored—and the combat scenes staged/recreated. And less sentimental than John Ford’s “Battle of Midway,” the other heralded US combat documentary from the war.)

(12) That Clint Eastwood shot a movie almost entirely in Japanese is pretty astounding. That it is very good is not astounding. I think that in general he should empower an editor to prune his movies, though I didn’t feel this about “Letters from Iwo Jima” (2006). The movie shows the Japanese infantrymen as regular guys who wish that they were home, yet are often courageous, while showing a very authoritarian (not to mention suicide-drenched) officer culture, even for a military culture. Though Gen. Kuribayashi  (Ken Watanabe) tells his men not to kill themselves but to kill the enemy, he is not immune to the cult of the noble death and of suicide rather than surrender. And the whole exercise of defending the island (with undertrained as well as underarmed troops) is suicidal (the Japanese running out of ammunition and food, having to subsist on a diet of worms). (It is grim, but not in comparison to the Japanese movies occupying the top three slots on my list!)

(11) The concluding piece of a trilogy, Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds (1958) has haunting scenes of a bombed-out church, a chase, and a liaison formed near the end of combat in Poland. The star, Zbigniew Cybulski, was a charismatic young actor whose early death cemented his reputation as “the Polish James Dean.” It has some slow stretches, but is very visually striking. The preceding (1957) “Kanal” set largely in the sewers of Warsaw as the Red Army waits for the Nazis to kill off rebels is also very impressive. (The First, “A Generation” [1955} is about Nazi-occupied Poland, but not about combatants.)

(10) Terrence Malik’s adaptation of The Thin Red Line (199) by James Jones (whose From Here to Eternity and the great Fred Zinneman film, though about soldiers and ending with the Japanese attack on Hawaiian military installations on Dec. 7. 1941 I don’t consider a World War II novel or film) is also very visually striking with some slow stretches that seem like dawdling for those seeking nonstop action sequences. Using different techniques than Spielberg’s in “Saving Private Ryan,” Malik plunges the viewer into ground-level action (and the pauses with death continuing to lurk). It also contains revelatory performances by James Caviezel as Private Witt and Sean Penn as Sergeant Welsh.

(9) Stephen Spielberg’s many detractors level the charge of sentimentality at the last part of Saving Private Ryan (1998), too. The Omaha Beach landing in it is the most compelling part and far superior to depictions in other movies (such as “The Longest Day” and “The Big Red One”), and it juxtaposes intense action scenes with genuine character development, including Matt Damon’s title character’s, Jeremy Davies’s clerk, and Tom Hanks’s Captain Miller.

(8) I think the best WWII straight-ahead heroic action flick is The Guns of Navarone, directed by J. Lee Thompson in 1961. Based on a hugely successful novel by Alistair MacLean (who also wrote Ice Station Zebra and Where Eagles Dare both of which were turned into less memorable action movies). Gregory Peck was at his most strong, laconic, and  heroic, leading a motley crew on a seemingly impossible mission (to neutralize the title artillery on a Nazi fortress on an Aegean island). Anthony Quinn was flamboyant and ethnic (Greek), David Niven was wry (maybe even flippant) as an explosives expert. Both were in top form in their specialties. I have not included the later, somewhat similar raid by “The Dirty Dozen” directed by Robert Aldrich, despite the performance by Lee Marvin, mostly out of repugnance for a mission to incinerate civilians, which even wives of German officers and local French prostitutes were.

(7) Robert Aldrich’s Attack! is primarily a duel movie, though the duel is between American army (reserve) officers, the politically well-connected cowardly captain played by Eddie Albert and the seething lieutenant played by Jack Palance, who promises to come back and rip out the captain’s heart if he again fails to provide support for a platoon sent into the lion’s mouth. The combat scenes are excellent, and both the interior and exterior black-and-white cinematography of Joseph Biroc are notable, but it is the performances of Albert, Palance, Buddy Ebsen, William Smithers, and Lee Marvin that make the movie, overcoming some lame attempts at comic relief and an ending I find difficult to credit. I also think that Aldrich’s sardonic 1970 “Too Late the Hero” with Michael Caine and Cliff Robertson is very good and undeservedly forgotten.

(6) In my view, one of the best WWII action movies is the little-heralded 1965 John Frankenheimer movie The Train. I enjoy movies about duels of wits (such as The Enemy Below, Enemy at the Gate) and this one features a formidable German officer played by Paul Scofield and a resourceful French railroad controller played by Burt Lancaster. It has great railroad sequences, including a real crash. The DVD has a fascinating commentary track by John Frankenheimer (who reported that Lancaster insisted on doing all his own stunts). Jeanne Moreau needlessly slows things down, but Lancaster and Scofield are superb, as is the black-and-white cinematography by Jean Tournier and Walter Wottitz.

(5) Although the glamorous fly-boys are more a staple of movies about World War I than about World War II, and about the Korean War than World War II, they are not lacking altogether. The Air Force entry on my list, however, goes to one that does not glamorize. Twelve o’clock High (1949), one of the many movies starring Gregory Peck that was directed by Henry King. Peck plays a hard-driving general (with the unsbubtle name Savage) whipping into a shape a demoralized unit and pushing himself to breakdown. The supporting players, including Dean Jagger’s that got him a well-deserved Oscar, are convincing, but it is Peck who makes “Twelve o’clock High” a masterpiece.

(Peck also anchored “Pork Chop Hill” the greatest American-made Korean war movie. And he carried the unjustly forgotten “The Purple Plain” as well.)

(4) Roberto Rosselini’s Paisà[/n] is more uneven than “Twelve o’clock High.” It portrays a series of episodes in different locales from Sicily to the Po River estuary as the American Army pushed the German one north through Italy. The focus is more on relationships between the American troops and the Italians being liberated (but in dire straits) than about American-German combat and might be consigned to the “effects on civilians” subgenre. The battle scenes in the marshes are very unusual, though the most memorable sequence involves an African American MP and a desperately poor young boy who steals his boots when the MP passes out drunk in the rubble of Naples.

(2 and 3) Some of Rosselini’s film has a documentary look, some is actorly. Most of the movies on my list get down and dirty. The top spot goes to two very extreme (hyper-real?) 1950s movies directed by Kon Ichikawa, Fires on the Plain (Nobi, 1959) and The Harp of Burma (Biruma no tategoto, 1956). “Fires” portrays the desperation of Japanese soldiers on the Philippines at the end of the war, a tubercular one (Tamura, indelibly portrayed by Eiji Funakoshi) in particular, and “Harp” a haunted Japanese solider (the lute-playing Mizushima, portrayed by Shôji Yasui) burying the dead in Burma after failing to convince a company of his compatriates dug-into a mountain redoubt to surrender. “Harp” is more lyrical, though both are desolating reflections on life and death, compassion and ruthlessness.

(1) “The Human Condition III: A Soldier’s Prayer,” directed by Kobayashi Masaki has a harrowing performance by Nakadai Tatsuya dying in the snow trying to get home from Soviet captivity. The whole trilogy is gripping.

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©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Also see my overview of Korean War movies here. And a survey of WWI movies here.

My Japanese pantheons

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When I began this blog I did not foresee that I would run out of Japanese movies and books to post about. They have not been my exclusive focus, but despite the name of the blog, I’m embarking from that Japanese archipelago—first from Japanese to Javanese, then to rescuing from oblivion various lists I posted on the defunct epinions.

Before making this pivot, I decided to look back and list my favorite Japanese writers and film directors. I think quality has much to do with my esteem, but these are rankings of how well I like their work, not claims that the lists are in order of merit.

Directors

Had I been asked a few years ago which Japanese film directors I most venerated, I would have said “Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, and Ozu.” Great as I think “Sanchô, the Bailiff” is, I’ve cooled on Mizoguchi. Before I began blogging, Kobayashi had bumped Mizoguchi from second place. Before 2016 I had never seen a Kinoshita film, and I have been amazed by his successes in diverse genres. And I have decided that at least in the films in which his wife, Wada Natto, was involved in the scripts (credited or not), Ichikawa directed some great films (and many that have not made there way across the Pacific). I think the three films Teshigahara directed written by Kôbô Abe are great, other Tshigahara films (of which there are not many) less so.

I had only seen one Naruse film (A Woman Ascends the Stairs). Seeing more has not impressed me with his visual flair, and, even more than Mizoguchi, they are repetitively portraits of female misery that become tiresome.

I like the least typical Ôshima film (Merry, Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, which is mostly in English) the most, whereas many others try my patience. Imamura made some boring, opaque films, too, but also many very good ones.

So, my new “holy trinity” is Kurosawa, Kinoshita, and Kobayashi. Another, still active K, Koreeda may some day join them, and has already earned a position in (the bottom tier of) my pantheon. The members with my favorite of their films:

Kurosawa Akira, Sanjuro

Kobayashi Masaki, Harakiri

Kinoshita Keisuke, Spring Dreams

Ichikawa Kon, Tokyo Olympiad

Ozu Yasujiro, Ohayo

Shinoda Masahiro, Moonlight Serenade

Imamura, Shohei, The Eel

Mizoguchi Kenji, Sanchô, the Bailiff

Koreeda Hirokazu, I Wish

Shindô Kaneto, Onibaba

(My favorite Japanese movies made by a directors not in my pantheon are Okamoto Kihachi’s “Rainbow Kids” and  Fukasaku Kinji’s “Fall Guy,” both black comedies)

 

Writers

Inoue Yasushi, Tun-Huang

Dazai Osamu, One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji

Mishima Yukiô, After the Banquet

Tanizaki Yunichiro, The Key

Endô Shûsaku, Deep River

Nastume Sôseki, Kokoro

Kawabata Yasunari, The Old Capital

Ranpo Edogawa, The Red Chamber

Murakami Haruki, Kafka on the Shore

Oe Kenzaburô, Prize Stock

Medoruma Shun, In the Woods of Memory

(the image at the top is one of Hokusai’s hundred views of Mount Fujiyama)

A 1942 Japanese paean to duty and self-sacrifice with no mention of any war

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Between 1938 and 1946 Ozu Yasuojirô (1903-63) made only two movies. (An army reservist he was called up twice and was away from Shochiku Studio for three of these years). The second of them “Chichi Ariki” (“father from Ariki, which is where the son goes to teach chemistry; titled in English “There Was a Father”, 1942) does not mention any of Japan’s wartime enemies, and barely touches directly on military matters—the now 25-year-old son passes his draft physical, which is not surprise in that for a Japanese, he is a hulk. At the end, rather than going off for military service, he is returning, with his new wife (Fumiko [Mitsuko Mito], the daughter of his father’s friend and go opponent) to Ariki, carrying his just-deceased father’s ashes in the luggage rack above his seat in the train.

The widower father, Horikawa Shuhei (Ozu regular pater familis Ryû Chishû) moved to Tokyo midway through the film, but dies of a heart attack, rather than from American bombs — which were not yet blanketing Tokyo when the movie was shot. When the present-day of the movie is remains opaque. It is thirteen years after Horikawa resigned from being a middle-school math teacher after a boy in his charge — defying explicit orders not to go out in boats on the lake the school group was visiting — drowned.

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No one but Horikawa blamed him from the accident. His colleague Hirata (Sakamoto Takeshi) in particular urges him to stay, but Horikawa retreats to his native town of Ueda, staying with an old friend who is a priest. Horikawa realizes he needs to make more money than he can in Ueda in order to send his son to (middle) school and moves to Tokyo, where he works as a low-level manager in a textile factory.

The son, Ryohei (played by Tsuda Hahuhiko as a child by the hunky Sano Shûji as an adult) being inculcated in Duty, Duty, Duty, has to live in boarding school, longing for occasional time with his father. They spend their time together fly-fishing in a rocky stream (in which as far as I can tell, they never catch a single fish) and deferring to each other about who will bathe first.

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Ryohei continues to long to live with his father, but when he proposes coming to Tokyo and finding a job, his father erupts with a lecture about his duty to stay where he is and teach those who are the future of the Empire. Teaching is vital work, never mind that Shuhei himself abandoned it in guilt (or shame?) after the boy’s drowning and, in effect, has punished his son for his own sin of omission (at least a failure of watchfulness over his charges). Sacrifice is not only necessary, but good (a message the brunt of which is borne by daughters in later Ozu movies).

Though there is no propaganda for Japanese militarism in this — let me stress 1942 — movie, its inflexible call to duty in general, and keeping one’s place in the society, submitting to paternal authority, pleased the government authorities in charge of the Japanese movie industry (after 1939). The movie was a critical and commercial hit, even without any battle scenes and without any of the women sacrificing themselves to their vision of what the family needed, as was common in Ozu’s more famous postwar movies.

Ryû was good and at least in the first half played his own age. Both Ryoheis were also good, swallowing their hurt (and tears). The Ozu camera was already fixed at the height of one meter, but the intercutting kept it from seeming visually static. And there were some outdoors scenes: not only trains, which recur in Ozu movies, but the trout stream.

I’ve already noted that in commanding his son to stay at his teaching post, Horikawa Shuhei is effectively saying “Do as I say, not as I did.” As with later fathers Ryû played in Ozu films, Horikawa Shuhei downs a lot of sake.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

The other movie Ozu made during the war, which has the more typical female self-sacrifice, was Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (1941). For my other reviews and ratings of other parts of Ozu’s oeuvre see here.

Mishima as a 1960 pop gangster

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I watched in Masumura Yasuzo’s relatively garish yakuza film “Karakkaze yaro” (“Blown by the wind,” though titled Afraid to die” in English) to look at Mishima Yukio ca. 1960. The title comes from a  prison guard’s question; Takeo is not afraid is less eager than Mishima himself was). The PFA screening  I saw was part of a Masumura series, but I think that more of the capacity audience was drawn by Mishima rather than by Masumura (of whom, I confess, I’d never heard before this series).

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Even though I was busy scanning Mishima’s face and body (and Shimura Takashi’s tattoos) the film dragged a bit and seemed formulaic. I didn’t think that Mishima’s body was (yet) that built up. His biceps were hard, but his pecs were then less developed (not just in comparison to today’s Nautilusized bodies, but to later pictures of him). His legs (only partially shown) appeared a bit skinny (body builders focus above the waist). He had thick armpit hair and eyebrows and a clump of cleavage hair. Closely cropped hair, long face, long ears, pouty lower lip, strong chin—almost simian-looking, especially when he hunched his shoulders. Long sideburns (for 1960), a black leather jacket in most scenes, black shirts in all (looking quite dapper with a white jacket in the train station finale).

Masumura’s visual sense was very pop (i.e., colorful and humorous, especially the jack-in-the-box gangs at a crucial confab). Takeo (Mishima) and Yoshie (Ayako Wakao) ride a carousel, kidnap a child, and have some rough sex (the audience didn’t know whether to laugh or to cringe at him smacking her around and thereby inspiring her determination to bear his child).

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I wanted to laugh at the death scene on an escalator. Chuck Stephens described Masumura’s films as “seriously berserk and sumptuously nihilistic.” This fits the last scene particularly well. Takeo knows he’s doomed (which can be taken for nihilism, but Yoshie is extremely resilient (and just as stubborn). The major question is whether Mishima knew he was posturing. I’m pretty sure that Masumura did.

Charles Boyer was more expressive (not to mention more sympathetic) as a doomed gangster (Pepe le Moko) in “Algiers.” What he longs for (freedom, specifically, Paris) is very clear. Mishima was less affectless than Alain Delon in Melville’s “Le samourai,” but what did either character yearn for? That the cool, elegant, very beautiful Heddy Lamar would respond to Boyer seems natural. She does not want to domesticate him, as the less glamorous concession-stand operator Ayako Wakao does Mishima. Both break through. Earlier in the filme, Takeo tells his mistress that men love only themselves, women are for wasting time with. His relenting for the pregnant Yoshie leads to his destruction, just as Pepe’s pursuit of the visitor leads to his (in both cases, others are plotting the destruction, but the proximate cause is an Eve in both instances, verdad?)

 

©1997, 2017, Stephen O. Murray

 

Divergent accounts of a tragedy

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“Yureru,” (2006, written and directed by Nishikawa Miwa) which has been rendered in English as “Sway” (though “swaying” or “shaking” would have been more conventional translations) has some strong resemblances to “Rashômon” (1950) in that there are four (or, arguably, five) accounts of what happened on an outing in the country (Hasumi Gorge in this case). Unlike in Rashomon, the four (or five) accounts come from only two people, the brothers. 29-year-old Takeru (Odagiru Jo [Bright Future]) the scruffy prodigal son who went off to become a fashion photographer in Tokyo, returns for the one-year anniversary memorial for his mother, disruptively late and not wearing a dark suit. The older brother who stayed home and works in the family business (a gas station) Minoru (Kagawa Teruyuki [Tokyo Sontata]), is 35.

Also working there is Cheiko (Maki Yoko) who had spurned the chance to go with Takeru when he left. It is not clear that she is even aware that Minoru is in love with her and that Takeru is not, though he swiftly beds her his first night back in town.

The three go on an outing to Hasumi Gorge, where they went multiple times as children. Minoru had a fear of heights and avoided the swinging suspension bridge. As he had when he was a child, Takeru climbs up from the bed of the swiftly moving but not deep stream, crosses it, and is taking photographs on the other side, when Cheiko follows him and Minoru follows her.

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Neither of the latter two make it across the bridge. Cheiko drowns after falling or being pushed off the bridge. How much of what happened Takeru saw is unclear. First he claims to have seen nothing. He rushed up to join Minoru, who was clutching a support on the bridge and instructed him to tell the police Cheiko fell.

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Minoru tells the investigators that (offscreen), but later confesses that he pushed her. Then in court he provides a more complicated account of trying to steady her, being rebuffed, and watching her slip off the side. There were marks on his arm consistent with her slipping from his grasp that no one comments on (there are also scars on the inside of his wrists that suggest he had tried to commit suicide at some earlier time). I also wonder why Takeru did not go to try to pull Cheiko out before she drowned (the fall did not kill her).

Takeru tells a new (not least to his uncle, Minoru’s defense attorney) story at the trial, and the movie’s ending is very ambiguous. I find not knowing what really happened in “Sway” far more frustrating than it was in “Rashômon.” Minoru is the only one living who knew what happened, but it is impossible to tell which version he presents is accurate, or to sort out his guilt feelings. One thing that is certain and that he says is that she would not be dead if he had not followed her onto the bridge that he had avoided his whole life until then.

It is far easier to sympathize with the shy and dutiful Minoru than with his arrogant and totally undutiful younger brother, though the one who did not deserve what happened is Cheiko (who might have been planning to go with Takeru this time).

The movie won best movie and best sound from the Mainichi Film Concours, best screenplay (Nishikawa) and best supporting actor (Kagawa) from the Kinema Jump Awards.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

“Departures”

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The 2009 Oscar winner that no one predicted was the Japanese movie “Okuribito” (Departures) receiving the best foreign-language film award rather than “Waltz with Bashir” or “The Class.” The movie had not been released in America beyond the Hawaii Film Festival and only had a limited release in May 2009 after winning the award. It has now arrived on DVD with a trailer and a (dubbed) eleven-minute interview with director Takita Yôjirô (Onmyoji*, When the Last Sword Is Drawn, both gorgeously shot historical dramas).

Takita said that he wanted the audience to know from the first scene that the movie about a professional cellist, Kobayashi Daigo (Motoki Masahiro), who returns home to Sakata when the orchestra that employed him in Tokyo dissolves and inadvertently discovers a vocation preparing the dead to be encoffined, is not grim. What is comic is not politically correct, but shows not only the tact of the encoffiners but that their work, done in front of funeral audiences can provide comfort to the living.

The movie then flashes back to Tokyo and Daigo deciding he does not have enough talent to make a living as a cellist. He has inherited the house (the downstairs of which had been a coffee bar run by his mother until her death a few years earlier and before that as a liquor bar run by his father who ran off with a waitress when Daigo was six) in Sakata, sells the cello which is far from paid off, and is at loss for what to do in his hometown.

He thinks that “arranging departures” in a newspaper want-ad must mean that he is going to a travel agency. He has no idea what “NK” in the ad means (nokanshi is an encoffiner). It turns out that it is arranging the departed. The widower who runs the encoffining business (Yamazaki Tsutomu) is sure that Daigo has a vocation (and/or has been unsuccessful in hiring an assistant). His certainty and upfront cash payments convince Daigo to try.

He gets off to a hideous start with a woman who has been moldering undiscovered for two weeks. After that trauma he rushes to a traditional bathhouse to wash off the stink. The grandmother who runs it is a node of the network of characters in the movie and became the stimulus for tears from me. (I saw the movie on what would have been my deceased mother’s birthday, so may have been extra-susceptible.)

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Daigo is shunned for his new occupation, at least until the shunners see him in action. I think we the movie viewers do not need to see him preparing quite as many corpses as we do, but I generally think that Japanese movies are longer than they need to be, beautifully composed as every shot is.

I suppose that some of the outdoor shots of mountains, snow, river, and sea don’t advance the plot either, but I would not cut any of them. The total running time is 131 minutes. Even though the closing credits approach 4 minutes in length, this is a long movie.

Around the half-hour mark I was surprised that the movie had won an Oscar, but eventually it gripped me (and made me cry). Masahiro Motoki and Tsutomu Yamazaki won Japanese Film Academy Awards (actor and supporting actor) for performances of great subtlety and restrained power. As Daigo’s wife, Mika (Hirosue Ryoko) comes into her own late in the movie (having been a dutiful and conventional wife through the first two-thirds).

Yo Kimiko, who won the Japanese Academy Award for best supporting actress, is wry and ultimately moving as the NK receptionist. I didn’t catch the name of the bathhouse owner, but the actresses who played her was also outstanding.

The cello music, written by Joe Hisaishi (who won a Japanese Academy Award for another 2008 score), borders on sentimentality and seems ubiquitous — all the better to set off a crucial scene with no background or foreground music. Motoki Masahiro looks like an earnest man in his late-20s (perhaps having an about-to-turn-30 crisis along with unresolved father issues), though he was 44 (a very fit 44 as the bath scenes show). Takita’s bonus interview reports that the initial idea for the movie had been Motoki’s—15 years earlier. (I remember him as another earnest and more befuddled young man in Miike Takashi’s haunting “The Bird People in China” a decade earlier.)

Perhaps if I had not been recovering from the previous corpse preparations (and the epiphanies of two characters during it), I might have found the ending Disneyesque, but my critical faculty was dimmed.

I’m not sure if “Okuribito” was the best movie not in English from 2008, but even after years of “Six Feet Under,” I was moved by Daigo and his new vocation, and think that it was.


Takita Yojiro ‘s “Onmyoji” (in-Yang Master, 2001) is set back in Hêian times, focusing on a historical figure, Abe no Seimei, who became legendary as a wizard who saved the capital (now Kyoto). Nomura Mansai is very impressive as the most powerful onmyoji (wizard/sorcerer) who is foiling the efforts of the court onmyoji Doson (Sanada Hiroyuki, Twillight Samurai) against the emperor’s newborn son and current favorite (on behalf of a former favorite… and a prince who was unjustly accused of treason a century and a half earlier). There is not much swordplay and audiences unfamiliar with Heian ways (who have not read Tale of Genji) are almost certain to be confused. There seems to me a homoerotic element in the playful/bemused hedonist and slightly fey Abe aiding the earnest and hunky Minamoto no Hiromasa (Ito Hideaki).

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The phenomenon of men lost after being cut loose from jobs that was also fundamental to “Tokyo Sonata,”  is only going to become more common from automation more than outsourcing (manufacturing has been returning to the US, but with far fewer jobs performed by humans): see Elizabeth Kolbert’s overview  “Rage Against the Machine.”

©2010, Stephen O. Murray

I think that discussion of this movie, the only one to win a best foreign-language film Oscar (some early ones won special Oscars before the category was institutionalized is it for postings on Japanese culture. I am going to post some of my “best of” lists on the site that are not Japan-focused. Thanks to the readers of my 2016 postings!