Category Archives: Japanese movies

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.)

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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?)

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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.

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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

 

A slight Mishima novella appearing in English now

Writer Mishima Yukio appeared as a yakusa (gangster) in the 1960 movie “Karakkazeyaro”/“Afraid to Die.” He was not born with movie-star good looks and worked very hard to build up his body.

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Rikio, the protagonist of hi very slight s novella “Star” that has just made its way into English is only 24 and very good-looking without having to work on building up his body. He is like Mishima in being preoccupied with suicide and not wanting his body to age—obsessions that dovetailed in Mishima’s public suicide in 1970. Mishima was not a movie star, though the character he imagined was.

Rikio is plenty narcissistic, though it is difficult to imagine anyone exceeded Mishima himself in narcissism.

Rikio disdaines the unattractive women who are his fan base (one of whom tries to crash into the movie he is shooting), though his constant companion is not a beautiful actress, but his blowsy assistant. There is no indication that he has sex with her. Indeed, he may be a virgin.

Part of his attitude to his fans is “I’d much rather have a girl masturbating to my picture than actually trying to sleep with me. Real love always plays out at a distance.” I have my doubts that the second sentence could have come from Rikio,

After one picture is wrapped, Rikio goes to the studio barber and sees a great matinee idol of the past whose looks are now maintained by trickery. Rikio is determined not to outlive his attractiveness.

I don’t know why this novella has been published in English now. Its themes are better developed in Mishima works translated during his lifetime. The other 2019 publication of a previously untranslated (into English) Mishima novella, Frolic of the Animals, is longer and more substantive.

 

©2019, Stephen O. Murray

 

 

Bleak portrayal of alienated Japanese high-school students, ca. 1994

The Japanese “River’s Edge” (Ribazu ejji, 2018; not the 1986 Keaunu Reeves) movie with the same English name) strikes me as brutalistic rather than naturalistic. It is set in the economic nadir of 1994. There are frequent scenes of rough sex and even one scene of full-frontal male nudity (usually even any pubic hair is forbidden to Japanese film-makers).

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The main character, whose point of view is frequently presented, is Wakakusa Haruna (Nikaido Fumi {Himizo]), who is something of a faghag, rescuing a stripped, badly beaten, and tied-up gay victim of bullies, Yamada Ichiro (tv star Yoshizawa Ryô), twice. Yamada years for a younger athlete and their school, and has an eger, naïve girlfriend, Tajima Kanna (Morikawa Aoi), who provides him no social cover.

Yamada has another gal pal, bulimic model and tv regular Yoshikawa Kozue (Sumire), who seems to have romantic/sexual feelings for Wakakusa. Yohikawa knows of Yamada’s “treasure,” a corpse along the river, and Yamada shares this secret with Wakakusa.

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Wakakusa has to be aware that the leader of the bullies is her supposed boyfriend, the not just oversexed but quite kinky (with another girl, Wakakus’s friend), Koyama Rumi (Doi Shiori). By the end of the movie, there is a second corpse (seeming killed twice or thrice in one night!), and no one is even close to being happy. That is, there is no catharsis for the alienated characters or the audience. The latter has to tie up unexplicated loose ends, while the camera prefers to linger on a polluting, brightly-lit-at-night factory across the river.

Until near the end of the movie parents are almost entirely invisible and offer no guidance (let alone supervision) to their anomic offspring.

Unilluminating interview segments with the characters interrupt the narrative(s), but the framing and editing of the narrative are far too “arty” for anyone to mistake the movie for a documentary. The movie directed by Yukisada Isao (Sunflower, Parade, Crying Out Love in the Center of the World) movie is based on Kyoko Okazaki’s 1993-94 manga series (i.e., was contemporary with the storyline’s time). It was shot in the old-fashioned television 4×3 ratio by Maki Kenji.

 

The Japanese trailer at http://movie-riversedge.jp/. The film is currently streaming in the US on Netflix.

 

©2019, Stephen O. Murray

Beautiful, sentimental portrait of a young woman of early-19th century Edo

I knew that the great late-Tokugawa artist Hokusai Katsushika (whose ‘Great Wave off Kanagawa” is probably the best-known Japanese graphic; it is one of his 36 Views of Mount Fuji) had a very dutiful daughter, Ôei, from having watched Shindô Kaneto’s 1981 biopic “Hokusai manga” (the title was sensationalized in English as “Edo Porn”). I think she managed the household of the obsessive artist. She also did work on his drawings and paintings (the art in effect came from an atelier Hokusai rather than from one man).

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The anime based on a manga,” Sarusuberi”/“Miss Hokusai” (2015), is often quite beautiful, but it is rather puzzling in its purpose. Ôei narrates it and is the prime focus, but her character is little developed. She placates as well as assists her father, trying to make sure he delivers on commissions on time. He sometimes thinks she should do her own work, at other times derides it (in particular, representations of males).

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Ôei spends time with her mother (long living separately) and her younger sister, Onao, who is sickly and  blind. (A high point is taking the younger sibling out in the snow.) Their father has an aversion to the sick, and mostly avoids seeing his younger daughter.

Though drawing erotic couplings, Ôei does not seem to have any sexual experience of her own.

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There’s not much plot, the movie not attempting to image Ôei’s life after her father died (at the age of 90). I’m not sure I’d even say that the movie is “episodic,” in that nothing much happens in the “episodes.” But, as I said, the movie is often beautiful. The musical soundtrack by Fuki Harumi, is sometimes distracting, especially when the imagery gets fanciful (out of body). It is definitely not of the period portrayed (the movie begins in 1914, btw).

 

There is a long (1:56) making-of feature that is supposedly quite dramatic on the blu-ray, but there is only a bland quarter-hour excerpt included as a DVD bonus.. (The movie itself has a running time of 1:33).

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

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

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 Navarrone, 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.