Warm Water Under a Red Bridge

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Akai hashi no shi_ta no nurui mizu” (“Warm water under a red bridge,” 2001) was the last feature film directed by Imamura Shohei (1926-2006). The movie is a genial comedy, especially in comparison to “The Ballad of Narayama” in regard to the old lady and to “The Insect Woman” in regard to the lustful younger one, or to the violence of “Vengeance Is Mine” and in the first part of “The Eel.” Although the leads were carried over from other late Imamura movies (and “Shall We Dance?”, the Imamura movie that kept coming to my mind was the early (1966) “The Pornographers,” in the mix of comic take on sexual urges and wistfulness about defunct relationships.

At the start, there is a dead man in a shack along a canal in Tokyo. Taro (Kitamura Kazuo) had been a thief but in his old age had turned to philosophical speculation. One of his disciples Yosuke (Yakusho Koji, the protagonist if “The Eel”) was a college-educated salary man in a company that has dissolved. Yosuke has had to sell his house and his wife and son are staying with his wife’s parents outside Tokyo.

Taro had told Yosuke (and others) of a treasure he left behind in a house overlooking a red bridge in a town on the scenic Noto peninsula. Yosuke goes there and buying a box lunch, he sees a woman stealing cheese (with chili peppers) and seemingly urinating. One of her earrings drops into the pool she has made. Yosuke picks it up and tries to give it back to her, but she drives off.

Of course, she lives in the house where the treasure is supposed to be, and beds Yosuke. The pool in the store is a mere dribble to the liquid that spouts out of her having sex with Yosuke…. and draining into the tidal canal or river and drawing fish of all sorts (including a flounder) to the delight of the three older men who fish there.

The liquid (not urine) geysers entrance Yosuke, and he takes a job on a fishing boat to stay for more of Saeko (Shimizu Misa). Saeko lives with her senile grandmother (Baisho Mitsuko) who spends hours writing fortunes and the rest of the time sitting out front (with a scarlet macaw) waiting for her long-long love to return. I’m not sure whether grannie spurted in her sexually active days. The fishermen recall that she was a great beauty and that she never recovered from the imprisonment of her lover.
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Also, Yosuke is the spitting image of Saeko’s  fisherman lover Yoji, who was slain by a drifter, a category into which Yosuke fits. Of course, there are more connections with the past than are immediately obvious. Although Yosuke is going to a place Taro used to live in quest of something he left there, Yosuke is remarkably incurious and does not ask any questions about Taro’s time in the town. He is too enchanted by the spurting Saeko, I guess.

I also hazard the guess that Japanese are less squeamish about “body functions” than WASPs like me are (this surmise is not based solely on this particular movie). I was more grossed out by sucking out pus in “The Insect Woman,” but Saeko’s exuberant soaking her lover and surroundings is not a turn-on and I wondered  how her body could hold the vast volume of liquid she expels… but then the amount of blood in the murder scene in “The Eel” also seemed to me excessive. Yeah, yeah, I know it’s fantasy, just nowhere near any of mine.

There are other entertaining figures including the fishing boat owner’s motorcycling son (Kitamura Yukiya ) and an African marathon runner training there. And late Imamura’s usual cinematographer, Komatsubra Shigeru, works magic with a variety of pans, tracks, and striking compositions.

The movie is as perverse as any of Imamura’s that I have seen, providing redemption and peace as in “The Eel,” which is for me Imamura’s masterpiece (and which also involved  Yakusho’s character’s urban-rural migration). The magical realism is pretty genial for Imamura’s usually grim critical view of Japaneseness.

The only DVD extras are a theatrical trailer and a textual bio/filmography of Imamura (one of only two directors two of whose movies won the Palme d’or at Cannes—for “Ballad of Narayama” and “The Eel”).

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

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Unagi: A movie about flawed human beings that seems very good while it is watched and even better in retrospect

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Adapted from the novel Yami Ni Hirameku (Sparkles in the Dark) by Yoshimura Akira, the 1997 Imamura movie “Unagi” (“The Eel“) is quirky. It is, however, nowhere near to being as perverse as Oshima Nagisa’s “In the Realm of the Senses,” although, like it, “Unagi” hinges on a “crime of passion.”

Tipped off by an anonymous letter, Tokyo salaryman (in a flour company) Yamashita (Yakusho Kôji [Shall We Dance?]) finds his wife passionately responding to another man when he returns early from his weekly Friday night fishing foray. Not only is she two-timing him, but she is much more passionate with her lover than she has ever been with him. He (very graphically) stabs her to death. Covered with blood, he dutifully bicycles to the police station to confess. He becomes a model prisoner, internalizing all the rules, learning to be a barber, and keeping a pet eel in the prison pond.

When he is released (physically released), he takes the eel and sets up a barber shop in the middle of nowhere (seemingly at the end of a road on the seacoast with no immediate neighbors). On the side of the road he discovers the unconscious body of a Tokyo woman who was trying to kill herself (with pills). After her stomach is pumped, Hatter Seiko (Shimizu Misa [Okogé]) stays with the Buddhist priest (Fujio Tsuneta) who is Yamashita’s parole officer. After she insinuates herself into working at the barbershop, it becomes a success.

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Afraid of himself (specifically that love will lead to infidelity and murder again) Yamashita resists her advances, and prefers his eel (which never tells him what he doesn’t want to hear and always listens to what he says… and never takes up with another man, or even with another eel, being all alone in his aquarium). He says he has had his fill with women, and prefers his eel.

Both Yamashita’s and Keiko’s pasts comes back to harass them: the love story between a man and his eel turns neo-noir—a quite effective noir plot, in fact (with some of the droll comedy one associates with yakuza violence in movies of Takahashi Kitano). There is also a very shy local man (Kobayashi Ken) who is trying to draw a UFO to land, borrowing the barber pole at night in a landing field that he has cleared. And a sinister ex-con garbage man, Takasaki (Emoto Akira), and a geriatric Carmen (Keiko’s demented mother played by Ichihara Etsuko).

Despite its bleak setting, damaged psyches, and outbreaks of violence, the movie has a lot of wry comedy (and some surrealistic dreams). It shows great compassion for an unusual mix of characters and ends hopefully. (I do not think that the main arc of Yamashita’s engageme with the world gets lost in the various comic touches and I enjoyed the unrushed way the stories unfold. It felt rich “thoughtful” rather than “slow-paced” to me.)

The viewer also learns about the life cycle of eels (traveling 2000 km to breed with many dying on the way back to the mud of Japan). The extent to which an eel’s life is a symbol or metaphor I will not opine about (beyond appropriating from their habitat for my title anyway…) though I recall that in “The Pornographers” there was a large goldfish in an aquarium that the owner of which believed the fish was the reincarnation of a dead spouse. (The star of “The Pornographers,” Ozawa Shoichi, has a cameo in “Unagi” as a physician, BTW.)

Komatsubara Shigeru s cinematography is varied in palette, but never less than superb. (Komatsubara shot “Black Rain” and  also shot Imamura’s two subsequent feature films, “Kanzo sensei” (Dr. Akagi, 1998) and “Warm Water Under a Red Bridge” (2001, also starring Yakusho Kôji), neither of which I have seen.)

The movie won the Palme D’or at Cannes and many Japan Academy Awards, including best director (Imamura) and best actor (Yakusho). (Miyazaki’s anime “Princess Mononoke” won “best picture” and Kimura Daisaku won the cinematography award for “Yukai” (Abduction), which is unavailable here for comparison and second-guessing.)

The New Yorker DVD has a satisfactory visual and aural transfer, but no bonus features (I don’t consider optional subtitles and indexing “bonuses” but bare bones.)

 

The movie seemed good to me while I was watching it, but it seems even better to me than it did in retrospect of a few weeks.

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

 

Imamura’s Hiroshima film: “Black Rain”

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Imamura’s Hiroshima film “Black Rain” (Kuroi ame, 1989) was made after Kinoshita’s Nagasaki one (“Children of Nagasaki,” 1986). Both have some horrific scenes of those dying or dead immediately following the blasts, but both primarily follow those exposed to radiation poisoning and dying later (without showing much of the physical agony).

The stalwart trying to help others as he weakens in Imamura’s movie is Shizuma Shigematsu (Kitamura Kazuo). Unlike in Kinoshita’s film, the beneficent protagonist’s wife, Shigeko (Ichihara Etsuko) is not killed in the initial impact; he has a wife but they have no children. The wife’s sister’s daughter, 20-year-old Yasuko (Tanaka Yoshiko), was staying with them and stays with them. She was not in Hiroshima for “the flash,” but had some of the black rain fall on her (and crossed the radioactive ruins of the city).

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Much of the movie shows Shigematsu’s frustration at not being able to arrange a marriage match for Yasuko. (It is 1950 and they are living in the village of Takafuta, still within the prefecture of Hiroshima.) Even the clean bill of health from a physician is cause for suspicion that she will not be able to bear children (or live, but the primary concern of) families with sons is reproductive capacity).

The post-traumatic stress disorder is most flagrantly represented by a neighbor, Yuichi (Ishida Keisuke), who freaks out whenever he hears the motor of a vehicle (bus, truck, even motorcycle). He rushes out to stop what he believes is an American tank. He is also a talented carver of soft stone. Aside from going crazy whenever a vehicle comes down the road, he is of distinctly lower social station that the Shizumas (Yasuko is not one, but is of comparable status).

There is also Shigematsu’s semi-senile mother, and two friends with greater radiation damage, one of whom is particularly distressed that he is going to die without understanding why Hiroshima was targeted, since the war-makers were concentrated in Tokyo.

The movie is somber with more western funereal music from Takemitsu Toru than in most of the Takemitsu soundtracks I have heard. It was shot in black and white by Kawamata Takashi (Cruel Story of Youth, The Castle of Sand, The Demon), who won the Japanese Academy Award for cinematography for his efforts. (Japanese movies of the 1980s, including Kinoshita’s earlier Nagasaki film, were shot in color.) It lacks the bawdiness of most Imamura movies, though the dismay at Japanese intolerance (blaming the victim) dovetails with his other films.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Imamura’s 1983 “The Ballad of Narayama”

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Narayama bushiko” (Ballad of Narayama, 1983, directed by Imamura Shohei, seems to me to run on too long (130 minutes). Set in 19th-century Hokkaido, the movie shows a mountain village in which any population increase would lead to starvation. Those who reach the age of 70 are taken up a mountain to die, so that the young may eat. The custom was called ubasuteyama.

Orin (Sakamoto Sumiko, who was only in her mid-40s) is very eager to do her duty, though she is still able to work, indeed does most of the housework, and is better than anyone else around at catching fish. Her son Tatsuhei (Ogata Ken, who played Mishima in Paul Shrader’s biopic and starred in Imamura’s “Vengeance Is Mine”) is very reluctant to lose her, especially reluctant to take her up the mountains to die. She insists that “a law is a law. Kindness has nothing to do with it.”

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Orin does not fear death, but is concerned about how her family will cope without her. She arranges a new wife to Tatsuhei and trains her before her date with death. She also arranges a woman to relieve her other son’s virginity. (As in Kinoshita’s earlier, highly stylized [kabuki-ish] 1958 adaptation of Fukuzawa Shichiro’s 1956 novel. there is a cowardly thieving neighbor man who is overdue to make his own journey to death on the mountain.)

Life is harsh for the humans and for the prey of hawks and owls. (Carrion-eating crows are abundant and frequently shown, too.) Not for the first time, Imamura shows human animality, though counterpoised to the bravery of Orin and her and Tatsuhei’s compassion.

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The movie contains some gorgeous nature photography (cinematographer Tochizawa Masao) counterpoised to the representation of the harsh culture. The sex is brutish (naturalistic rather than realist) rather than bawdy as in other Imamura movie (both earlier and later ones). Tatsuhei carrying his mother on his back to Narayama, is somewhat sentimental, but Orin is determined to make a good death on schedule before winter begins. Their trip is particularly scenic (the movie begins and ends with helicopter shots of a village blanketed in snow in a mountain valley.)

As with many Japanese movies not scored by Takemitsu Toru, the musical soundtrack strikes my ears as inapt and occasionally annoying. The various forms of population control of the village are painful to watch without electric guitar accompaniment IMHO.

Imamura’s film won the Palme d’or, the highest honor at the 1983 Cannes International Film Festival. Though my favorite Imamura movie is “The Eel” (Unagi), which also won the Palme d’or, “The Ballad of Nayarama” is probably his best one.

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Eijanaika/Why Not?

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I didn’t much like Immura’s gruesome”Vengeance Is Mine” (1979, following an eleven-year hiatus from making feature films) nor his long (bloated) 1981 “Eijanaika,” which has been translated as “but means something closer to “What the Hell!” Like”The Pornographers” and ”Vengeance Is Mine,” the focus of “Eejanaika,” seems to be a not very savory male character. And most of the other characters are male, though I’d say that second most prominent character, Ine (Momoi Kaori, “Kagemusha”) is a woman, one who opens her legs for male customers wh have paid to try to blow streamers into her vagina and who tries with occasional success not to be raped.

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Her husband, Genji (Izumiya Shigurya, “Hacki-ko”) was lost at sea, but picked up by an American ship and is returned to Japan after a six-year absence, and immediately clapped in jail. He meets a man (Ogata Ken) from the Ryukus (islands between Kyushu and Taiwan), who teams up with Genzi in various nefarious deeds organized by those trying to destablizie the Tokugawa Shogunate. I thought the Meiji “restoration” was a revolution from above, but it seems to have been preceded by much social unrest orchestrated both by Tokugawa retainers and imperial ones.

The movie goes on and on with sexual betrayals and other kinds and playing the American officials. (Genji speaks English though he fails to use that rare gift to profit his wife and himself.)

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The music signals carnivalesque, though there is very little that I found funny. I guess the jaunty music blocks considering what goes on onscreen as tragic. But it does not block my judgment that the proceedings are dull, easily the dullest Imamura feature film I’ve seen (and I’ve seen fifteen of the twenty he made).

Though the movie has a dizzying pace, particular scenes seem to drag on, as if Imamura was having a belated influence from Ozu, for whom he had worked in the early 1950s (including on “Tokyo Story”).

The view of the bottom of Japanese society of the 1860s differed little from the view of the bottom of Japanese society of the 1960s in earlier Imamura movies: greed, duplicity, and bawdiness the most prominent features.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

Long and unsatisfying search for a traveling salesman who disappeared

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Three of the documentaries Imamura Shôhei made during his 1968-79 hiatus from making feature films were about WWII-era Japanese soldiers who stayed on a quarter of a century or more in Southeast Asia. They had been deployed there, but did not repatriate with the rest of the defeated Japanese army. Two of Imamura’s later movies were about relocated murderers—one on the run (Vengeance Is Mine), the other after serving a prison term (The Eel).

A year before the spectacular implosion of Imamura’s career with the 1968 “Profound Desire of the Gods,” he made the very lengthy (130-minute) “Ningen jôhatsu” (literally, “A Man Evaporates”; the English-language title “A Man Vanishes” is pretty close; the French one, “L’evaporation de l’homme,” was exact).

Imamura and his film crew (most notably actor Tsuyuguchi as the lead questioner) join Hayakawa Yoshie, the thick-eyebrowed fiancée of the plastics salesman, Oshima Tadshi, who disappeared in April 1965 They talk to his employer, a bank employee, other residents of the company barracks, bartenders, a taxi driver, a brother who lent him 100, 000 yen, a former lover whom he may have impregnated (she denies it) and may have been “the love of his life”, et al. They clarify the date he vanished, but neither his motivations nor his current location. The documentary about their investigation lasts about an hour, and in my opinion the movie should have, too.

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With more than an hour yet to go, the film shifts into a confrontation between Yoshie and her older sister, Sayo. Yoshie first theorizes that Oshima was shocked to discover that the sister of his fiancée was a “fallen woman,” the mistress kept by a married man. Later Yoshie accuses Sayo of having had an affair with Oshima, and a spirit medium (consulted several times by the vanished man’s mother) claims Sayo poisoned Oshima after he rejected her.

There are lengthy conversations in which Sayo rejects the accusations that she had any relationship of any sort with Oshima, and the supposed documentary increasingly turns into staged melodrama. I had lost patience before the very prolonged final scene of a verbal confrontation in the street (which followed a second ending point).

“A Man Vanishes” is much more cinematic than the post-“Desire” documentaries that had extended visually static scenes. The dialogue is not just out of synch with the speakers we see. It is between those speakers, but often seems to be from other recorded conversations altogether (that is, the length of utterances does not correspond with the duration of the particular person’s lip movements).

Truth is elusive, uh-huh. Didn’t we learn this from the far more engaging Kurosawa “Rashômon” decades earlier? (or the contemporaneous “Blow-Up”). And stuff in supposed “documentaries” (preceding “reality” tv shows) is often staged. Didn’t we learn this about “Nanook of the North” even earlier? And Yoshie getting the attention of a film-crew stimulates her to persist in trying to find what happened to her fiancé. Even she seems to lose interest in his disappearance as she pursues grievances against her sister.

Given the strictness of household registries in Japan, I’m surprised that 91,000 Japanese could have disappeared in 1965, but perhaps this “fact” is also Imamura fiction? The movie does nothing to illuminate how it is possible.

Icarus’ DVD release includes three more discs with five later Imamura documentaries (I discuss the three about Japanese soldiers who did not return to the homeland after WWII here) that observe more, manipulate less, and seem to have forgotten the lesson about the untrustworthiness of filmed documentaries made in “A Man Vanishes.”

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Some Japanese soldiers left behind

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After the debacle of “Profound Desires of the God” (1968), Imamura Shoei did not make another feature film for eleven years. Since that movie had nearly bankrupted Nikkatsu, I’m not sure whether this choice was voluntary or resulted from the lack of financial backing.

He journeyed to Southeast Asia and made two (1971) tv documentaries about Japanese soldiers who had not returned to Japan after the end of the war. “In Search for the Unreturned Soldiers in Malayasia” (running 45 minutes) was mostly about the search, followed by a lengthy interview of one former soldier who converted to Islam and remained in Malaysia.

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Before shooting another documentary, Imamura and company had already found three unreturned Japanese soldiers in Thailand: “In Search for the Unreturned Soldiers in Thailand” runs 51 minutes) was He brought them together for a conversation in which he did not participate (though, at the end of the documentary, he commented on what they and a fourth drop-in said) at the house in (I think) Ayutthaya of Toshida, who is an unlicensed physician. Nakayama, in a starched white shirt and wearing a tie, is a licensed physician who is mostly silent. Toshida suggests that Nakayama has forgotten how to speak Japanese, but Fujita denies that, but says he does not want to talk about his past, either his war experiences or growing up in Japan before enlisting.

Mr. Fujita does not say much either, though more than Nakayama. The most voluble one and the one with the most extreme stories to relate is Toshida, who was a factory worker in Osaka before being drafted. I think that it was Fujita who recalled fragging (killing officers whose commands the troops reviled). Toshida maintained that if he had refused orders to slaughter prisoners he would have been killed himself and insisted that the officers, not the soldiers committing atrocities were to blame.

He claims to have slaughtered 36,000 prisoners in pits they had been forced to dig and which were then filled with gasoline. I think this number was exaggerated; indeed, he first says 30,000. My guess is that three zeroes should be lopped off, thoughincinerating 30 people is still horrifying. Toshida also bemoans the mistake of fighting China. He believed that an alliance could have taken on the USA and USSR.

Nakayama is shocked by Toshida’s denunciation of the emperor and goes out of the room for a while. Toshida says he would have slaughtered women and children had he been ordered to do so, and Fujita says that he would return to the army if beckoned. He recalled collecting 800 to a thousand fingers from Japanese corpses to take back and bury in Japanese soil. He said he had been ordered to stay in Thailand after the war, when food and shelter were scarce in Japan, told that he would be reclaimed after thirteen years (double that had passed at the time of the recording). He does not say what happened to the severed fingers.

Fed the words by the filmmakers, the three sing an old song of fealty to (and willingness to die for) the Emperor.

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Imamura stayed in touch with Fujita, whose parents and one brother died in the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki (he says they lived close to ground zero, so were probably Chrstians: see Kinoshita’s “Children of Nagasaki”). Imamura filmed Fujita back in Japan for the 1973 “Outlaw-Matsu Comes Home.” Fujita got along very badly with his surviving brother and sister, complains that everyone looks down on him, and expresses the view that Japanese have gone insane with greed, betraying the “Japanese spirit.” He reiterated a willingness (indeed, an eagerness) to fight the English and Chinese again.

Imamura concludes, “What I see are heaps of abandoned people as the super-express train Japan speeds away.” This applies to his earlier movies, including “Profound Desire” in which he avoided taking a position about industrialization at the southern periphery of the country.

All three documentaries were shot with no cinematic frills. The camera was as fixed as in late Ozu movies, though the takes were longer.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

For a veteran not acquiescing too the atrocities the Japanese army committed see “The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On.” And for complicity with atrocities decades earlier (in Indonesia) , encouraging celebrants of murders, there is Joshua Oppenheimer’s 2012 “The Act of Killing.”