Tag Archives: Kinoshita

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

 

Shinoda’s “Gonza, the Spearman” (1986)

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“What a world is it in which we find ourselves!”

Shinoda’s “Gonza, the Spearman” (Yari no gonza’, 1986), based on a puppet (bunraku) play by Chikamatsu Monzemon (1653-1725), another of whose plays was the basis for Shinoda’s masterpiece, the 1969 black-and-white “Double Suicide,” won the Silver Bear award at the Berlin Film Festival. Those looking for a fight scene have a long wait (approximately two hours). Much more time is occupied by the extremely deliberate tea ceremonies. In a country becalmed by the Pax Tokugawa, samurai can rise in status and income more easily by perfect enactment of the tea ceremony than by prowess with weapons (prototypically, swords, although Gonza’s specialty is the spear (the bamboo-poled yari)).

There is a very complicated plot involving three women whose names begin with “O”s, two with the terminal consonant being a “k.” Moreover, two are approximately the same age, the other the mother of one of the other two. The mother, Osei (Shinoda’s wife and frequent star, Iwishita Shima), wants to marry her daughter, Okiku (Mizushima), to Sasano Gonza (Gô Hiromi), though she is more than a little enamored by him herself (for herself). And though he has pledged and bedded Oyuki (Tanaka Misako), the sister of Gonza’s rival. Though a skilled warrior and legendarily beautiful, Gonza “understands nothing. Not women, not this age we are living in” with no need of martial prowess (but with great concern about marital fidelity and the appearances of marital fidelity!).

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Gonza is opportunistic, but not in comparison with his local samurai rival Bannojo (Hino Shôhei). It is easy to remember who Bannojo is, because practically every time he speaks he says “I Bannojo…”

Ca. 1717, Osei’s husband, Gonzo’s lord, Ichiinoshin, is off at court (like Louis XIV at Versailles, the Tokugawa shoguns liked to keep potential rebels close at hand) in Edo (Tokyo). While the cat’s away, the mice play, leading to pregnancies that cannot be explained as resulting from marital coitus and lead to many a suicide, including, in effect another double one here (albeit without a pregnancy, or, even adultery, though fleeing the appearance of adultery…)

“Gonza” does not involve showing the puppet play on which it is based, as Shindo did with the frame “Double Suicide,” but “Gonza” is very stylized and very, very slow for western audiences (as were his mid-1970s movies, Himiko, Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees, and Ballad of Orin). It is talky and visually quite static, though the color photography by Miyagawa Kazuo (Rashomon, Sansho, Ugestu) is quite beautiful. With recurrent closeups of objects, also à la Ozu (“pillow shots”). The film has a first-rate Takemitsu score (soundscaping, not only what would be generaly classified as “music”).

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

When a beastly bad man joins with an evil woman, he becomes almost sympathetic

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Shinoda’s 1975 “Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees” (an accurate translation of the Japanese title, “Sakura no mori no mankai no shita”) looks like a ghost story, though there aren’t any ghosts (well, I couldbe mistaken about a blood-hungry demon who may be a ghost). And the body count makes it something of a “horror movie,” with a woman collecting severed heads (that don’t decay or draw flies, though they turn into skulls seemingly overnight). It has some beautiful shots of cherry blossoms on trees and falling, but they are sinister, making men who walk under them crazy.

The oddest thing to me is that the homicidal brigand of the mountain (Tomisaburo Wakayama the “Lone Wolf and Cub” movies) does not kill the woman ( Iwashita Shima, Shinoda’s wife since 1967) when he kills her husband and the rest of her entourage. He thinks her very beautiful and quickly is taking orders from his very manipulative prisoner, starting with a demand to kill all but one of the wives he has been living with. She wants one, who is crippled, to serve as her maid (Isayama Hiroko).

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She soon gets bored in the hermitage for three and demands to return to the capital (Edo, now called Tokyo). The brigand has accumulated a lot of money from travelers he has murdered, though he doesn’t understand the relative value of differing amounts of it. (I’m not sure whether she buys a house or whether they are squatting in what they turn into a sort of waxworks of detached heads.)

It is in Edo that the woman demands he harvest heads for her to play with. Eventually, he is apprehended and transformed into the police force of acquitted criminals, though eventually escaping and going home through the snowfall of cherry blossoms, thinking he has become immune to their toxicity. I can’t imagine any viewer being surprised that he is mistaken in this and that there are fatal consequences… (or, alternately, that he sees her for who/what she really is for the first time).

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I don’t like the orgy of violence. Moreover, I think the simple story of the hunter getting captured (and emasculated) by the “game” (quarry) could have been told in much less time. There is typically eerie Takemitsu music and superb cinematography by Suzuki Tatsuyo (acclaimed for Shinoda’s 1995 “Sharaku”).

 

Maybe sadistic women were Shinoda’s main interest, but despite some beautiful compoisitions, I find his 1970s films “Himiko” and this one heavy,unpleasant going. Yet he would bounce back to make my favorite Shinoda film, “Moonlight Serenade” in 1997 after making some more films I don’t much life.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

Shinoda’s opaque “Himiko”

 

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Shinoda’s 1974 movie “Himiko” is a “fantasy drama.” The title character, played by the director’s wife, Iwashita Shima, is a shaman who is the only conduit from the sun god. When she is not possessed, delivering commands from the Sun Goddess (Amaterasu) while holding a mirror reflecting sunlight, she weaves.

She learns of the return after a long time of her half-brother Takahiko (Kusakari Masao, who did not look Japanese to me… I later learned he had an American father and a Japanese mother and that “Himiko” was his first feature-length film, though he had been in a tv miniseries, “Triple Sôsasen”). He is a sympathizer (who knows what he believes?) with the followers of the Land God, and Himiko starts advocating a union of the religions (cults). King Ohkimi is dismayed by this suggestion and questions whether she still has her vocation/gift, having fallen in love with a mortal (Takahiko), having seduced him, knowing she is her half-brother. (He does not seem to have known that until she told him, though dutifully resisting her subsequent seduction).

When she learns that he has also had sex with a priestess of the mountain god, she orders him banished, after having his fingernails pulled out and his face tattooed. After the long bloody punishment, he is carried off and launched into a bay, though he then pops up atop a dormant volcano.

The new king (whether she predicted the death of the father of the two princelings who rule jointly until they duel to the death on the lip of the volcano) replaces her with a teenager, now also called Himiko and declares war on both the Earth People and the Mountain People. His warriors include a number in a giant cloth snail.

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Himiko had escaped the temple/palace (a quite abstract set) and run off with Takahiko. (Don’t ask me how they found each other!) They are ambushe in the forest (prefiguring “House of the Flying Dragons”) and are shot by multiple long arrows (doubling the Macbeth of “Throne of Blood”).

The film ends with helicopter shots of the forest, a town and a kofun, an ancient keyhole-shaped mound within a man-made pond.

The score it typical eerie Takemitsu and the very striking cinematography by Miyagawa Kazuo (Rashomon, Ugetsu, Sansho the Bailiff) of predominantly red and white court sets) seems the real star of the movie, which is considerably more opaque and mystifying that the roughly contemporaneous views of the ancient Mediterranean world of Pasolini (Medea) and Fellini (Satyricon). Granted, I am familiar with the ancient texts on which the Italians’ 1960s films were based, but there was characterization, not the abstraction of the archetypes in Shinoda’s film, which I found dull despite its frequent visual stimuli. (More like Derek Jarman’s “Sebastian,” notoriously filmed in Latin.)

Apparently suggestions of the Korean origins of Shintoism/Japanese culture made “Himiko” controversial, but that was lost in translation. The only reference I noticed was a denial that there was any land to the west of the Japanese archipelago.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

Kobayashi’s yearning youth “Somewhere under the wide sky” (1954)

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The title of Kobayashi Masaki’s 1954 movie “Somewhere under the wide sky” (“Kono hiroi sora no dokoka ni”, also rendered “Somewhere beneath the broad sky”) is something the younger brother, Noboru (Ishihama Akira), tells his impoverished and now tubercular classmate, Mitsui. Noboru continues with “there is someone who will love me.” It is sort of odd that he does not have a girlfriend, since the same actor (born at the start of 1935) was in love already in two earlier Kobayashi movies (My Sons’ Youth, and Sincerity/A Sincere Heart). Although Noboru is somewhat spoiled by his mother and his older half-brother, Ryoichi (Sada Keiji) who is the head of the family and proprietor of the Morita Liquor Store in Kawasaki (across the Tawa River from Tokyo), his sunny disposition mostly cheers those around him and is accompanied by genuine empathy. Noboru is an advocate for helping others and for his somewhat frivolous sister-in-law, Hiroko (Kuga Yoshiko), against his censorious mother (Aroko Kumeko) and crippled (in an aerial bombing during WWII) older (half-?)sister Yasuko (Kinoshita regular Takamine Hideko).

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Yasuko is hyper-conscious of her limp and that, at the advanced age of 28, she should have married out by now (she has a suitor almost as optimistic and even more solicitous in the countryside, Shun-don (Ôki Minoru), whom she avoids… until she doesn’t). Despite the stepmother’s and sister-in-law’s outrage and suspicion about a Hiroko entertaining a visitor, an ex-suitor from her home town, Ryoichi takes that in stride. He married for love (rather than having a properly marriage-broker-arranged marriage) and has tolerance for the foibles of everyone, while working hard to support the family.

The social criticism, which would become biting in later Kobayashi movies, had not emerged yet (or he’d been forced to back off by the studio’s refusal to release “The Thick-Walled Room”), despite some focus on class differences, in particular the lesser life chances of those who have not inherited a family business and don’t have the support of a loving family. Ryoichi and Noburo are so amiable and empathetic that the movie is like a whole season of a 1950s family series (The Donna Reed Show, Leave It to Beaver) compressed into an hour and a half (without a father, though Ryoichi pretty much functions as one). There aren’t a lot of laughs—the movie is more family drama than comedy—, but the movie is a pleasant spectacle of a family overcoming problems in postwar (rubble-cleared) Tokyo. It is well-acted and the viewer can bask under the virginal Noburo’s dazzling smiles. It was shot by Morita Toshiyasu, who would have more scenery to work with in Kobayashi’s “Izumi” (1956), which also starred Sada Keiji and has not-too-annoying music by Kinoshita Chûji, whom Kobayashi would continue to use. “Under” was scripted by the wife of cinematographer Kuuda Hiroshi (and sister to the composer and to the director Kinoshitas) Kusuda Yoshiko, the first of eleven screenwriting credits for her.

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Kobayashi’s second movie, “Magorko” (1953)

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Ishihama Akira was back (from “My Sons’ Youth“) as a well-behaved son in Kobayashi Masaki’s second movie, the tearjerker “Magorko” (“Sincerity” or “The Sincere Heart,” 1953) scripted by Kinoshita Keisuke. I’d say that the latter also lent his brother, but in addition to a family group singing “Silent Night” and someone dubbing Ishihama singing “Jingle Bells” (both in English), the score seemed to me to consist entirely of arranging music written by Johann Sebastian Bach.

Ishihama played Hiro, a rugby playing boy cramming for his college entrance exam, under heavy pressure from his executive father to pass, and being tutored by an engineer (Takahashi Tiji) engaged to marry his older sister, Midori Hiroshi is captivated by Fumiko (Nozie Hitomi in her screen debut), a healthy looking girl who moves in across the street in a room facing north, so that the plant in her windowsill gets no sunlight. She looks about as much like someone dying of tuberculosis as Greta Garbo did in “Camille” or Nicole Kidman did in “Moulin Rouge” (though Fumiko does not have a big production number in which she sings before expiring.

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Hiro gets his father (Fujio Suga) to pledge to give him money that he intends to use for medical treatment for Fumiko with whom he has never exchanged a single word. He wants to help and his father, not unreasonably, wants to know who it is his son wants to pay for.

Fumiko’s uncle apparently impoverished the family, and Fumiko’s sister attempts to hide from him, though he shows up when she is out, which propels Fumiko to flee out in the snow, where she collapses in front of Hiroshi’s rugby coach (while Hiroshi is on the way to deliver a Christmas present to).

The story is very contrived and very sentimental rather than critical about the differences in life chances of the rich (Hiroshi) and the poor (Fumiko). Morita Toshiyasu (who would also shoot three more movies for Kobayashi) photographed Ishihama in ways that made him look positively radiant, not merely very handsome (Kinoshita Keisuke is the one reputed to be gay, but I have not seen any male character shot so adoringly in any of the many films he directed himself).

©2016, Stephen O. Murray