Tag Archives: Ichikawa

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.

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Genre-blending mess: “Princess from the Moon”

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I have no idea what inspired the once-great director Ichikawa Kon to overlay Lady Murasaki’s ca.790 tale of a bamboo-cutter who finds infant an infant girl to raise, Taketori Monogatari, with what looks like plagiarism of shots from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” along with intrusive influences of “E.T.” After two talky hours of romance, it all culminates with Peter Cetera’s “Stay With Me” (in English) under the closing credits.

In Muasaki’s tenth-century original, the bamboo cutter and his wife have not been able to produce children. “Princess from the Moon” (1987) ups the melodrama quotient from the beginning. Instead of finding the girl the bamboo cutter will name Nayotake-no-Kaguya-hime (“princess of flexible bamboos scattering light”) in a stalk of bamboo, the movie’s parents, unable to afford a doctor, have lost their five-year-old daughter and infant girl is breaking out of a golden shell near the daughter’s grave, not far from what looks like the site of a meteor crash (but, we will learn, was the crash of a spaceship from the moon of which she is the sole survivor). And instead of finding gold when he cuts bamboo after adopting the tiny girl (who grows rapidly into Sawguchi Yasuko), he gets rich selling pieces of the shell from which Kaguya hatched.

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Grown up beautiful and the only child of very rich parents, Murasaki’s Kaguya has five princely suitors. The movie Kaguya has only three, one of whom, the most attractive, and the most sincere, royal council official Otomo (Nakai Kiichi (who went on to leading roles in “When the Last Sword Is Drawn,” “Warriors of Heaven and Earth,” etc.), is her choice. Kaguya sets each of the suitors an impossible task (the movie ones more so than the orginal text’s ones). Two of them attempt to fake the marvels they were sent to find and acquire. Otomo finds a dragon, but the dragon destroys Otomo’s boat rather than provide the treasure Kaguya specified. (The dragon destroying the vessel of its hunter was, apparently, footage shot for another movie about a sea serpent. It’

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The 67-year-old Mifune Toshirô played a greedy and lazy bamboo cutter (Taketori), with veteran Wakao Ayako (Konk) playing the wife desperate to believe that the space alien is a reincarnation of her recently deceased daughter. Their roles are pretty flat, though with their new riches they and their daughter (the beautiful but vapid Sawaguchi Yasuko) get clothes to match those of the emperor and his court. Wada Emi (Ran, House of Flying Daggers) designed the costumes, which are easily the most outstanding (in a good way) aspect of the movie. Even for a Japanese movie, the characters have an impressive ability to maintain immobility, whether sitting cross-legged or back on their shins.

As the finale plagiarizes Spielberg, the score plagiarizes Handel. There are some beautifully composed scenes and the striking costumes, but there is no sense of wonder (as in “E.T.”) or any point other than to believe in magic (more specifically, to accept that human conceptions are limited) delivered before the banal and inapt “Stay With Me” and images of bamboo forest waving in the wind for the last four of the 122 minutes of the movie’s running time.

Among many other versions of the tale is a 2013 anime and a 1992 opera by Robert Moran, “From the Towers of the Moon,” inspired by the movie.

And though heavily promoted, “Princess” made less money than “Burmese Harp” had. Though the collapse of the Japanese movie studio business provides some explanation for the decline in quality of Ichikawa movies, I’d attribute it more to the loss of his wife, Natto Wada (1920-83), as a scenarist after some contributions to “Tokyo Olympiad” in 1965

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Ichikawa’s 1983 adaptation of Tanizaki’s “The Makioka Sisters”

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A decade-plus or so ago, the 20th-century Japanese whose work most interested me was Tanizaki Jun’ichirô (1886-1965). I am currently on an Inoue Yasushi (1907-1991) binge, and the Japanese writer I most enjoy remains Dazai Osamu (1909-48). Tanizaki’s foot fetishism eventually tired me along with his lack of interest in such male characters as were necessary evils in his focus on women. And I have not yet tackled his Big Novel/family chronicle Sasame-yuki, which means small snowflakes. In English, both the novel and Ichikawa Kon’s 1983 screen adaptation of it are titled “The Makioka Sisters.”

The movie is set in Osaka during the years 1938-40, years in which Japan was already at war conquering Manchuria and China, male concerns that are only fleetingly signaled, though the novelist and the film-maker were as aware of the rush to disaster as readers and viewers are.

The elder two daughters Tsuruko (Kishi Keiko) and Sachiko (Sakurma Yoshiko) are both married. Not just married but with husbands who have “married in,” that is, taken the Makioka name, which only social inferiors would consider doing.

The youngest sibling Taeko (Kotegawa Yukô) has a serious of disastrous “romantic” liaisons. I don’t recall her smoking in the film, but she goes to a bar alone, wears western clothes, and has a business (albeit it is doll-making, not a masculine one). Takeo cannot marry until the third sister, the diffident Yukiko (Yoshinaga Sayuri) does. Tsuruko has torpedoed a number of matches quite late in the match-making process, Yukiko has rejected some, and Takeo’s notoriety scares off a few more.

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Insofar as “The Makioka Sisters” is a Japanese Gone with the Wind, Yukiko is something of a Melanie, Taeko a headstrong selfish Scarlett. Tara is in danger, not of the bombers who are still in the future, but because Tsuruko’s husband, Tatsuo (Itami Jûzô), is being pressed by the bank that employs him to move to Tokyo. And the upsetting of the Old Order is not the war Japan will lose, but the rejection of tradition by Takeo.

Having read a lot of Tanizaki, I am sure that the book’s literary qualities exceed those of Margaret Mitchell’s blockbuster, but, like GWTW, “The Makioka Sisters” is a soap opera, and there is strong illicit desire (Sachiko’s husband, the delicate Teinosuke [Ishizaka Kôji] for Yukiko the functional equivalent of Scarlett’s for Ashley who married Melanie). And keeping up appearances is a major concern in both movies, though the Makioka sisters do not need to retailor curtains: they have a veritable museum collection of kimonos.

The males in the movie are not as negligible as they are in much Tanizaki fiction. The attention to women’s clothes and exposed flesh (including one longing look at Yukiko’s feet by Teinosuke) is very Tanizaki. Tanizaki was “effeminate” in the older sense of the word in English: a man preoccupied with women and everything about them rather than woman-like. Ichikawa was not and made many movies mostly focused on male characters.

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Though she had retired from writing screenplays at the time her husband undertook the Tokyo Olympics documentary in 1964 and died in 1983, it is difficult for me to believe that Wada Natto (née Mogi Yumiko in 1920) did not supply at least some advice for the adaptation of The Makioka Sisters. (She had been credited with the screenplay adapting Tanazaki’s The Key, which was luridly titled in English “Odd Obsession. [1959].)

The eye is Ichikawa’s with gorgeous and fluid camerawork by Hasegawa Kiyoshi (who also shot “The Devil’s Ballad” in 1977 for Ichikawa, a movie I had not heard of before looking at Hasegawa’s screen credits).

I consider “The Makioka Sisters” a late masterpiece from a great master, albeit a movie that I don’t especially like. Its appeal is more for a Douglas Sirk audience than a samurai or Godzilla movie audience.

The Criterion DVD looks great. The only bonus feature on the disc is a trailer. There is a booklet essay by Audie Bock that is excellent, but I’d forego bonus features to see more Ichikawa films. I could easily wish-list a box of them (for the Eclipse series?).

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

Tokyo Olympiad: the greatest Olympic documentary in color and arguably the greatest of sports documentaries

 

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The official documentary of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, “Tokyo orimpikku,” is more readily available here than are most other Ichikawa film. I don’t know why I had not seen it before, having twice seen the mediocre “Walk, don’t run,” Cary Grant’s last movie that had the Tokyo Olympics as a background and explanation for lack of housing. There are many Olympic events that don’t interest me, and it seems to me that I’ve seen on tv enough flag-raising, national anthem-playing awards ceremonies more than enough for one lifetime. And for aestheticization (a broader term than “body fascism”), it is difficult to imagine anyone competing with Leni Riefenstahl’s great documentary of the very dramatic 1936 Berlin Olympics, “Olympia.”

Tokyo Olympiad” does include portrayal of some events in which I have no interest, but the angles and edits of some of these overcomes my uninterest in the particular sport. It’s surprising that in nearly three hours (170 minutes including an intermission) there is no diving, seemingly the most cinematic of events (and one portrayed memorably by Riefenstahl). There’s only a glimpse of boxing (including Joe Frazier) and basketball. There’s not much gymnastics either, though the gymnastic shots that are included are superbly shot.

Those who commissioned the documentary felt that there was too little coverage of Japanese athletes (who won more medals at home than before or since away from home), though it seems to me that Japanese also-rans are more likely to be included than also-rans from anywhere else except Chad (the lone contestant from the then-new nation intrigued Ichikawa). The protracted end of the Japan:USSR women’s volleyball final contest (finally won by Japan) commands a substantial amount of running time (whereas, one does not know from the movie which teams competed in the men’s final).

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Insofar as there is a star of the show, it is the Ethiopian marathon runner Abebe Bikila winning his second gold medal (at the age of 35 and only a month after an appendectomy). If there is a theme I could induct from the five Ichikawa movies I’ve seen, it would be perseverance. I thought that it was characteristic that in the 2001 interview of Ichikawa included as a bonus feature on the Criterion DVD, he remembered everyone who started finishing, though the film shows an Irish runner who was among the first three to reach the first cooling station dropping out, and another being carried away, and the narration notes that ten of the 86 who started did not finish. The focus is on the strain of those who did finish (which, along with predisposition, explains Ichikawa’s misremembering). Abebe Bikila’s pace at the end is the same as at the beginning of the marathon and he appears less drained than some who took longer to return to the Olympic Stadium.

I deride NBC coverage of Olympics for the inordinate focus on American competitors, penchant for sob stories, and medal counting. Although there is some contemplation of the lone athlete from the Chad eating alone, there are no sob stories, no talking heads (interviews), and no running or final tallies of medals per country. From Ichikawa’s documentary, the viewer does not learn what country amassed the most medals in Tokyo (all the winners are listed in the booklet accompanying the Criterion DVD).

Ichikawa focused on individuals, especially Japanese and African ones, and in those two categories on those who did not win nearly as much as on those who did win medals. Winning was everything in the ancient Olympics (with no second or third-place finishes gaining recognition or adulation), and most of the athletes were trying to win, not just glory on having made it to the Olympics. And despite his interest in pain and suffering, Ichikawa does not slight triumphs.

I’ve already mentioned that the women’s volleyball match is followed to the end. The men’s 10,000 meter (an upset victory by the American runner Billy Mills) and the marathon are followed beyond the end (showing the last finishers). Some of the other high drama competitions are also included: the high-jump won by the Soviet athlete Valery Brumel, the pole-vaulting duel running far into the night (won by an American, Fred Hansen, after more than nine hours) and the two electrifying gold medal-winning races by Bob Hayes. At the time, Hayes was billed “the fastest man alive,” and may well be the fastest runner of modern times (considering the low-tech shoes, slow track, and scuffed-up inside lane on which he ran there and then). He was the first Olympic runner to turn in 10-second 100-meter dash and also overcame a three-stride disadvantage when he took the baton and somehow reached the finish line of the 400-meter relay first. (Alas, part of that final dash is eclipsed by someone’s red cap in the movie.) My interest in these events of triumphs by Americans perhaps suggest sthat I am not immune to the US focus of the televised Olympics I’ve watched since 1960?

Ultimately, I am more interested in “Tokyo Olympics” as film than as documentation of sporting event(s). Slow-motion (used sparingly here) is not a cliché of sports coverage, but some of the slow-motion closeups here remain fresh. The closeups in general were chosen with great discernment. There are also some great long-shots, most memorably the long take of the torch carrier passing in front of Mount Fujiyama at dusk (see below), overhead shots of the bicycle race, the marathon, and the always comical walking event. The women’s hurdles and the winning gymnasts are also filmed and edited particularly memorably.

TO6.jpgLike Kurosawa, Ichikawa loved telephoto lenses, and his cameramen scored many great images. However, a downside of using telephoto lenses is that it obscures the relative depth of objects, including racing human beings who look closer together than they were.

The Criterion DVD

Presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, superbly transferred (with very few signs of age).

As I noted, there are no interviews and practically no dialog in “Tokyo Olympiad.” The Criterion DVD provides the Japanese voice-over narration with subtitles that are not burned in (that is, may be switched off). It also includes English-language narration by Peter Cowie, whose voice and attitude both annoy me. For those interested in one relatively cynical commentator placing the 1964 Olympics in the context of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the commentary track includes a great deal of information and opinion. It includes very little about the cinematic choices (here, my standard of comparison is the superb commentary track to Kurosawa’s “Red Beard” in the Criterion edition). Whereas the original movie has sparing narration, Cowie talks incessantly. He also sounds affected to me (and would to most Americans, I think). In short, what he was saying and how he was saying it so annoyed me that I only listened to about a third of the commentary track. When I watch it again, I’ll switch off the subtitltes, too.

The booklet is very substantial, including information on the film nearly being recut by the unhappy official sponsors (Ichikawa’s version was saved by international acclaim, starting at Cannes and became a box-office success in Japan) and the views of multiple experts (plus the listing of medal winners at the Tokyo games).

The interview with Ichikawa in the stadium in 2001 has some interesting statements, but the interview is long, involves some torturously long questions, and is visually dead. Considering that he was still alive and mentally sharp when the DVD was made, a commentary track from Ichikawa would have been more valuable (and I’d like to have had the option of a dubbed version of the original narration, too, but, I realize the picture is the thing, and the picture Criterion delivers is first-rate.

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

 

An Actor’s Revenge

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In 1963 Ichikawa Kon was assigned to remake the 1936 “Yukinojô henge” as punishment (because his recent films had not made money). The very flamboyant result has been variously titled in English “An Actor’s Revenge,” “Revenge of a Kabuki Actor,” “The Revenge of Ukeno-Jo,” “The Revenge of Yukinojo.” The original title means “Yukinojô Transformed” (or “The Transformation of Yukinojô”). Yukinojô is a very popular oyama (male who not only performs female roles but lives the female role offstage as well). Everyone (in a Japanese audience) knows that the Kabuki female roles are played by biological males. I wonder if Yukinojô would be rendered in English now as an “actor” or an “actress” (with gender trumping sex these days in English).

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The oyama herein turns out to be a skilled swordfighter (swordsman). Moreover, Hasegawa Kazuo not only plays Yukinojô, but also plays Yamitaro the Thief, the male observer and to some extent abettor of the revenge against three rich and corrupt natives of Nagasaki who drove Yukinojô’s parents to suicide, so I can accept “actor” and realize that the literal translation, “Yukinojô Transformed,” would not have particular appeal to audiences.

Not only the opening kabuki performance in which Yukinojô sees the fatuous merchants in a box watching the performance, but the whole movie, not least the fight scenes, are very stylized (studio-shot for starters), brilliantly filmed by Kobayashi Setsuo (who had shot “Fires on the Plain”, “Ten Dark Women,” and “Being Two Isn’t Easy” for Ichikawa, and would shoot “Princess from the Moon” much later, in 1987). There are scenes with large blocks of a single color (red, gold, blue) recalling Ichikawa’s background in graphic design.

Since (some? most?) Japanese accept the artificiality of fairly hulking males impersonating simpering, demure females in kabuki, it’s difficult for me to guess whether the movie seems as campy to Japanese as it does to me. (It seems campier to me now that when I first saw it decades ago at the Pacific Film Archives and knew less than I do now about Japanese culture in general, and gender-crossing roles in particular. I’m not even sure that I recognized that the movie was set in the waning decades of the Tokugawa Shogunate. And it remains difficult for me to distinguish what is parodying kabuki and what is stylized within kabuki theater.)

The merchants first seen in the box, Sansai (Nakamura Ganjiro) and Kawaguchi (Funakoshi Eiji) are accompanied by Sansai’s daughter, the shogun’s favorite concubine, Namiji (Wakao Ayako), who is staying with her father convalescing from something or another. Because she is what her father loves most in the world, Yukinojô realizes from the start that she is going to be collateral damage, not deserving the psychological torture he intends to inflict on her father and his co-conspirators—the third of whom is Hiromi (Yanagi Eijiriô).

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I find it difficult to credit that a beautiful and privileged young woman would fall in love with a female impersonator (actors being of very low social status) decades her senior, but she is not the only one. The rather cocky and also quite attractive female pickpocket (Yamamoto Fujiko) also does. (She proclaims herself a man-hater, but eventually feels attraction to Yamitaro the Thief (feeling some resemblance of Tamitaro and Yukinojô, whom the audience realizes is played by the same actor). The movie should appeal to those interested in gender-bending and/or Japanese stylizations. The visual flamboyance is supplemented by a very eclectic soundtrack that combines jazz, folk music, and ambient sounds (as in Takemitsu’s sound-engineering.

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

The Wata/Ichikawa adaptation of Tanizaki’s “The Key”

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Ichikawa Kon and his wife, Wada Naddo, adapted many novels, perhaps most notable The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (Enjo) and The Burmese Harp, often making major changes as in changing the protagonist of the latter from Christian to Buddhist.

It is, perhaps, better not to have read the works they adapted (with the exception of Mishima’s). At least I found what I remembered of Tanizaki’s Kagi (The Key) getting in the way of watching what got titled in English “Odd Obsession” (1959). There are plot points remaining and the names of the characters, but the novel is about the consciousnesses as recorded in their diaries of the older husband needing help to avoid impotence, Kenomochi Kenji (Kanô Junko Nakamura Ganjirô [Enjo, An Actor’s Revenge, The Pornographers]) and the younger wife, Ikukuo (Kyô Machiko [Rashomon, Ugetsu]) aware that she is being used (plied with liquor and photographed while unconscious) and that jealousy stimulates her husband.

A young Nakadai Tatsuya plays the young man (Kimura, an intern treating the husband) at whom Ikuko is thrown, though he has been courting the daughter, Toshiko (Kanô Junko) whose face and figure are less beautiful than her mother.

Tanizaki juxtaposed the diary entries of the husband and wife. Ichikawa opens and closes with voiceovers from Kimura, who is slow to understand the game his patient is playing and eventually realizes that what he thought was a good match with Toshiko is not, since the house is mortgaged and the antiques belong to others (have been brought for appraisals and kept about by the devious older man).

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And agency is exercized by Toshiko, and, more effectively, by a seemingly befuddled servant, Hana (Kitabayashi Tanie). I was right that the ending was quite different and pulled down the book and confirmed that Kimura was going to wed Toshiko as a cover for continuing his liaison with Ikuko. (In A Hundred Years of Japanese Cinema, Donald Richie called the movie ending “lazy”; it certainly traduces Tanizaki’s novel).

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(maid, physician, husband, wife, daughter)

So Wada and Ichikawa radically (and melodramatically) changed the ending as well as jettisoning what makes the novel interesting: the subjectivities of Ikuko and Kenji and their awareness of what the other has written. It would have been difficult to keep the divergent narrations of Kenji and Ikuko, but substituting Kimura’s to some extent and the foreshadowed almost-farcical poisoning seems to me betrayal of the source, which was not a satire on materialism or narcissism, though Tanizaki’s characters were without question narcissistic, and at least Kenji was materialistic, but also was passionate (consciously risking his life for sexual arousal directed at his wife of decades). Even without any foot fetishism (a Tanizaki hallmark), the movie was voyeuristic, which, perhaps was not the forte of the great cinematographer Miyagawa Kazuo (Rashomon, Ugestu, Sansho the Bailiff, Enjo, Yojimbo) who also shot Ozu’s second version of “Floating Weeds” in 1959

The movie tied with “L’avventura” for the Cannes Jury Prize, with four other movies including “Wild Strawberries” and “Black Orpheus” for a Golden Globe. For me, “Fires on the Plain” was the great Ichikawa movie from 1959 (following “Enjo” from 1958).

I’d like to see the 1975 adaptation of Natsume Sôseki’s I am a Cat with Nakadai. Criterion did release on DVD Ichikawa’s 1982 adaptation of Tanizaki’s magnum opus, The Makioka Sisters and the great “Tokyo Olympiad” and the delirious “An Actor’s Revenge,” about each of which I’ll be posting in coming days).

 

©2015, Stephen O. Murray

(This should have been posted before what I wrote about the 1962 “Being Two Isn’t Easy.” Neither is available in the US on DVD, though both were on VHS.)

Being Two Isn’t Easy

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I had confused Ichikawa Kon ‘s (1962) “Watashi wa nisai” (Being Two Isn’t Easy) with Ozu’s (1959) charming “Ohayô” (Good Morning).* Long before the “Look Who’s Talking” movies, Ichikawa had an infant narrator (a less sardonic one) reporting frustrations with his parents’ child-rearing (and appreciating his doting paternal grandmother’s). The baby boy is heard from often, but by no means provides continuous narration. There is at least one terrifying scene that does not include him at all, and he is often sleeping during conversations between his parents, , who would also play a major role the next year in Ichikawa’s “An Actor’s Revenge ,” and some of those between his mother and his grandmother (Urabe Kumeko).

The movie is a little gooey a portrait of parenthood maturing parents and extremely different from Ichikawa’s grisly WWII dramas “Fire on the Plains” and “The Burmese Harp.” He had great range, also pulling together the greatest of Olympic documentaries, “Tokyo Olympiad” (1965).

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BTW, “Being Two” is about the first year of the baby boy. Japanese are considered to be one year old when they are born, and the film ends with the anniversary of his birth (turning two by Japanese reckoning, one by Anglophone). The infant boy first voices over blurry images when he is nineteen days old.

I think it is the mother’s sister (though it may have been a neighbor in the apartment building onto the stairway of which the boy has wandered) who tells the mother that it is necessary to keep the child in view every minute until he starts kindergarten. This one is quite a handful, quickly learning how to open his crib, whether it is tied shut or screwed shut, and visualizing climbing over the barrier his father builds to keep him inside the apartment.

One of the funniest scenes in the movie has a roomful of squalling children who got separated from their parents at the zoo. Of course, our protagonist is puzzled why he is there and why all these children are making so much noise. Other than being confined with other children, his primary interest at the zoo is watching monkeys. His father thinks he should be more interested in elephants and giraffes, but it does not surprise me that monkeys exercise special fascination for very young children (I’m pretty sure for me in the day). Being Japanese, the boy is also transfixed by the moon, seeing it sometimes as a banana, sometimes as the benign face of his grandmother.

The muted conflicts between the parents generally stem from the father’s half-hearted at best ventures into taking any responsibility for housework or child-rearing. His mother, with whom they go to live when the son who has been living with her is transferred from Tokyo to Osaka, is adamant that a man should do nothing at home except relax. And, as grandparents are prone to, she spoils the child to the dismay of her daughter-in-law.

Being a parent of an infant is not easy, as the film reminds viewers. I think the movie appeals not only to those who have raised newborn children but to everyone who has ever been a baby.

* Getting television sets is a major plot element in Ozu’s movie, as well as Ichikawa’s. The headstrong boy in Ozu’s is older than the one in Ichikawa’s.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray