Tag Archives: Nakadai

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs

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Nearly at the end of it (Nakadai’s big scene), I felt that I had seen Naruse’s 1960 “Onna ga kaidan o noboru toki?”/“When a Woman Ascends the Stairs” (to a Ginza bar over which she presides) before. I found the movie slow, though not excruciatingly slow, and not because I remembered the plot. I shared the frustrations of the woman, the widow Yashiro Keiko (Takamine Hideko), who dreaded having to go up those stairs and make men happy and drunk. “But once I was up, I would take each day as it came,” she resignedly said.— even with fresh obstacles to surmount in order to get by, affronts from clients and kin, and younger women striking out on their own after she trained them.

Takamine was great, nearly impassive though not opaque to viewers (whether that is due to her acting, Naruse’s direction, or Kikushima Ryuzo’s writing). Nakadai Tatsuya plays Komatsu Kenichi, a manager who admires her and, in particular, her not selling her body over the course of five years in the business. He is pretty bland until his penultimate scene. I don’t know why the client whom Yashiro loves is the chilly Fujisaki (Mori Masayuki), but making good decisions is incompatible with the soap-opera genre (and Naruse refused to provide a romantic happy ending).

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Pudgy Katô Daisuku delivers a performance to Yashiro that doesn’t quite break her heart, but breaks the heart of the viewer on her behalf. In showing the impossible lot of women without husbands, the film brings Mizoguchi (Street of Shame in particular) to mind, though Yashiro is not ground to dust like a Mizoguchi victim (surviving with a mouthful of ashes more like a Douglas Sirk protagonist, though the visuals are very different). With splendid b&w cinematography by Tamai Masao albeit with few camera movement (though more variety of camera placement than in Ozu movies).

The Japanese re-release trailer gives away far too much plot. The Criterion Collection bonus feature interview with Nakadai is excellent. He says that he learned a lot about screen-acting from Takamine, though he was scared of her. He says she was kind but not at all warm. And that he received very little direction from Naruse (Takamine, who was in 17 of his movies, said the same thing).

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

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The Hearn/Kobayashi/folklore “Kwaidan”/”Kaidan”

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Kwaidan” (1964—the “w” is silent) may be the first Japanese film I ever saw (the also popping colors of “Gate of Hell” is the other possibility). There is no possibility that I saw the full 183-minute version. It would have been either the 161-minute cut or one with the second of the four tales excised. Kobayashi Masaki cut 22 minutes hoping that Cannes would stretch its two-hour running-time rule to show it. Perhaps the second rather than the fourth episode was then cut because it is the longer of the two (though, IMHO much better).

Over the course of subsequent decades I have seen fifteen other films made by Kobayashi Masaki (1916-96), who is a member of my pantheon of Japanese film directors. Fourteen of these were black-and-white movies, thirteen made before “Kaidan.” None of them strikes me as being as slow-moving as “Kaidan” is, and none is as beautiful. The movie was entirely shot in a Kyoto airplane-hanger turned into a studio with painted backdrops. “Stylized”? For sure: very, very stylized, especially “Hoichi, the Earless,” the third and longest episode, which includes paintings of the culminating Dan-no-ura 1185 battle of the Genpei War.

To me, the restored images of the first and fourth episodes look a bit overexposed, and the pace in all four is slow even for Japanese historical movies. Or ghost stories. “Kai” means uncanny, a wider term than “ghost” (“dan” is an oral story). I think “The Black Hair” could have been shown in half the time, and don’t see that “Cup of Tea” needed to be included. The first is obvious/predictable. The last has suspense in that even after it one does not know how the story ends.

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I liked the middle two better. “Woman of the Snow” (or “Snow Maiden”) looks gorgeous, though the predominant color is the white of snow. In the former, the woodcutters Minokichi and Mosaku are caught in a blizzard. When they come to the river, the ferry boat is on the other side of the river. They take refuge in the ferryman’s hut (which must be as cold as outdoors, though the roof catches the snow). Minokichi (Nakadai Tatsuya, whom Kobayashi had made a star in “The Human Condition” trilogy and “Harakiri”) wakes up to see a woman (Kishi Keiko) petrifying his older companion with killer breath. She then comes over to him and decides to let him live, so long as he promises never to tall anyone what he saw, not even his mother. He keeps his promise past his mother’s death. Somehow he does not recognize that the stranger who becomes his wife and mother to their three children is the same woman (phantom). Eventually he tells her about his experience in the ferryman’s hut. She is furious, but spares him again, to raise their children.

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Hoichi, the Earless” is blind but has ears at the start. Hoishi Nakamura Katsuo) is new to a Buddhist monastery, but is an accomplished biwa player who recites from the Tale of the Heike. He is commandeered by the ghost of a Heike warrior (Tamba Tetsurô) to sing the song of the clan’s destruction for a gathering of the ghosts of the Heike court. Not being able to see, Hoichi does not see anything amiss. Eventually, the abbot of the monastery (Shimura Takashi) realizes Hoichi has been subordinated to a ghost and writes the heart sutra on Hoichi’s face and body, neglecting the ears. They are all the warrior sees and he takes them back to explain his failure to return with the biwa player. Alive, if earless, Hoichi becomes famous and people from all around come to hear him, eventually including the dead Heike (earlier, he went to their graves, where they materialized from the tombstones).

Takemitsu Toru provided some interesting sounds, though there are many scenes in which the lack of any musical backdrop is noticeable.

I’m not into “ghost stories” or “horror movies,” but there are Japanese ones I like better (Onibaba, Ugetsu, Ringu, Kuronekô,Yotsuda the Phantom). Beautiful images are not enough for me. Moreover, I don’t see anything that makes the four stories cohere into anything, that is, why it is an entiry (a movie) rather than 4 stories with very stylized, colorful stories. The aesthetics are the same, the ethics similarly cloudy, but I don’t see a unity (I’ve already complained about the slow flow)… or a point

 

The Criterion Collection edition includes a somewhat interesting interview by Shinoda Masahiro of Kobayashi (mostly about financing difficulties and finding a place big enough for shooting) a more informative set of recollections by assistant director Ogasawara Kiyoshi, a piece on writer Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) who married a Japanese woman, lived in Japan is st fourteen years, and published tales that were still being told in Japan during the late 19th century (four of which were reappropriated in this Japanese movie adaptation of Hearn’s collection of the same name). There is also a commentary track by Stephen Prince that I have not heard and a booklet essay by Geoffrey O’Brien that I have not seen.

BTW, the two-hour version won a Special Jury Prize at Cannes (losing the Palme d’or to “The Knack, or How to Get It.” “Kwaidan” was nominated for a best foreign-language film Oscar, losing (much more justifiably) to “The Shop on Main Street”). It was also the biggest box-office grossing Kobayashi movie.

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

The Scandalous Adventures of Buraikan (1970)

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By 1970 Nakada Tatsuya  was a big star and received top billing in Shinoda’s historical burlesque “The Scandalous Adventures of Buraikan” (in Japanese, simply “Buraikan” — Kochiyama, played by Tamba Tetsurô (Harakiri, The Castle of Sand)  is a lone wolf fomenting rebellion, who also plays the musical instrument, the buraikan). Nakadai, not the title character, is the real focus (star) of the movie. He plays an idler who wants to be an actor. His character, Naojiro, has a very possessive mother whom he dumps over a bluff into a river and, at the end, has trussed up and is taking to dump somewhere again.

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The music supplied by Satô Masura rather than Shinoda’s usual composer Takemitsu Toru— was a jarring mix of modern jazz and traditional Japanese music. Shinoda also tried out cinematographer Okazaki Kôzô, who had just shot “Goyokin” and whom Shinoda would also have shoot “The Petrified Forest” for Shinoda” and “I Am a Cat” for Ichikawa). Like other Shinoda movies, there are many striking visual compositions and the beginning of extreme color design in Shinoda films.

The pessimistic (about injustice being revoked) movie lacks continuity, if not altogether lacking in sense. Shooting off banned fireworks doesn’t overthrow the puritanical reformer Lord Mizuni (Igawa Hasashi, whom Kurosawa cast in many of his late movies), and no significant change in law or policy results from the rebellion(s).

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Despite some more kabuki-like stylization, “Buraikan”  was a fall-off from the amazing peak of “Double Suicide.”

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

Face of Another

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For most of the way (a long way! 124 minutes) through “Tanin no kao” (The Face of Another, 1966, directed by Teshigahara Hiroshi from a novel by Abe Kôbô), it seems less mysterious than the previous Abe/Teshigahara collaboration, “Woman in the Dunes,” but things become increasingly mystifying after a industrial manager whose face was scarred in an explosion gets a mask to wear. The accident and his self-consciousness (and an especially pronounced Japanese horror of visible disabilities) have made him no longer who he was. He feels that he has become a nonperson and jumps at the chance to become someone other than the man with the bandage-covered face.

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From the very start (with a monologue of an x-rayed skull) I balk at the idea that there is a psychiatrist who specializes in fitting prosthetic devices on patients, and, later, that he has gone from fingers to a face with such technical success. Beyond that, Dr. Hori— played by Hira Mikijiro (who recently played the Goshirakawa emperor in “Yoshi-tsune”)—very much fits into the tradition of psychotic physicians (from Dr. Caligari to the one attempting to do something about his daughter’s scarred face in Franju’s “Eyes without a Face,” which has to have influenced this movie).

Mr. Okuyama, the man whose face is bandaged for the first hour of the movie, then masked for periods that cannot exceed twelve hours at a time (the phenomenal Nakadai Tatsuya) says that he “feels like a guinea pig.” He has very good reason to feel that way, because providing someone a new face that matches no past is an experiment for the psychiatrist. The psychiatrist has interests that seem leeringly voyeuristic, particularly in whether his patient will try to seduce the wife who has tried (unsuccessfully) to overcome her revulsion at her scarred husband. Arguably, the psychiatrist plants the idea.

Unarguably, he leers at the possibilities of a Nietzchean (nihilistic) freedom for the heretofore conventional salaryman to commit crimes, seemingly from the assumption that committing violent crimes is what anyone not held back by family, work associates, etc. is eager to do.

The mask is molded in part by the wearer’s facial expression—so that it looks more like Nakadai Tatsuya than the man from whom it was impressed, but the psychiatrist keeps saying that the mask will make the man fit it rather than the other way around. Mr. Okuyama’s life and expectations of relationships with others (including conjugal relations) have been unsettled by the accident and hideous scarring, but, unlike Rock Hudson in “Seconds,” John Frankenheimer’s movie from about the same time, Mr. Okuyama was not seeking a new existence.

It is possible that Mr. Okuyama believed that his wife (played by Kyô Machiko, star of “Rashomon,” “Ugestsu,” and “Gate of Hell”) would not recognize him. To me this was highly improbable. For one thing I recognize Nakadai’s voice (from other movies). How could his wife not? For another, his body, including its size and shape and smell were unchanged. Moreover, there were practically no Japanese at the time as tall as Nakadai. Also, Nakadai’s huge saucer-like eyes are very distinctive. Although highly improbable to me, this assumption by Mr. Okuyama does lead to a great speech by Mrs. Okuyama. Isn’t that enough justification? I think so. Similarly, a more average-looking Japanese lead might have increased the plausibility of not being recognized by his wife, but only a little, and would have sacrificed the smolder and biting sarcasm that Nakadai brought to this and other parts in the golden age of Japanese cinema (and beyond then, as the lead in Kagemusha and “Ran”).

Before the ending there is another aspect that I completely reject as being possible but don’t want to specify so as to avoid “plot spoiling.”

The viewer sees nothing and knows very little of what Mr. Okuyama was like before the accident, which makes estimating how changed he is difficult. There is also another story intercut to that of Mr. Okuyama and his remaker that involves a very pretty girl (Irie Miki) whose face is badly scarred on one side and an incestuous relationship with her brother. I think that the scarring is a residue form the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, though I don’t understand why it would have affected only one side and only her face…

There are some striking visuals in both stories, psychological complication, and some creepiness. I think it all goes on too long, even though I admire many of the images of cinematographer Segawa Hiroshi , who also shot “Woman in the Dunes” and “Pitfall”, the acting, and the ghostly Takemitsu score. (Takemitsu Tôru also scored “Woman in the Dunes” with music lacking harmonies and sounds not made by musical instruments.) The pacing is slow, even for a Japanese movie, and very, very talky, with diatribes from both the psychiatrist and from Mr. Okuyama (and quite an aria from Mrs. Okuyama). Still it is less static than “Woman in the Dunes,” which was a huge international success.

Teshigahara (1927-2001) made three more movies in the following six years (including “The Man Without a Map” based on another Abe (1924-93) adaptation of another of his novels and also scored by Takemitsu and also concerned with identity slippage and intimacy “issues,” then made no films for the next dozen (he was also a painter and sculptor), returning to shoot a nearly wordless 1984 documentary showing the extravagant works of Antonio Gaudí (who has a major Japanese following judging by the groups of Japanese who have been at La Sagrada Familia when I have), and then two historical dramas (all three with scores by Takemitsu).

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

Gosha’s 1991 “Kagerô”/“Heat Wave”

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“Kagerô” (Heat Wave, directed by Gosha Hideo [Sword of the Beast, Goyokin], 1991) seemed more like a Chinese (Li Gong) movie than a Japanese one, despite the extensive yakusa tattoos, the décor, the clothes, and the high-stakes games of hanafuda (flower cards, of which there are six). Rin (Higuchi Kaneko) does not show excitement while gambling (in contrast to the thrill-seeking Saeko [Kaga Mariko] in “Pale Flower”) and her face does not show any emotion any time (she does cry). She saw her father be fatally knifed for cheating, and rescues her brother (by her adoption by his parents who owned a restaurant), Ichitaro (Motoki Masahiro, later the protagonist of “Departures”) who has lost the restaurant and owes 300 yen to some yakusa.

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The middle of the movie is a long match with “Tsune[jiro] the Immoveable” (Nakadai Tatsuya, who can remain coiled a long time, as he memorably showed in “Harakiri”). Rin (with the backing of a boss on Kyushu to secure coal rights) is trying to win enough money to win back the restaurant that the vicious ganglord Otaki (Hakuryû) got from Ichitaro and is run by one of his mistresses

Eventually, all hell breaks loose and the two fight together in a protracted battle in the palatial restaurant. The movie is graphically violent enough to be Korean. Higuchi Kaneko is very good at being still and looking beautiful, but doesn’t have enough charisma to carry the movie with its cartoonish villains and besotted young lovers.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

Gosha’s 1979 “Hunter in the Dark”

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As in “Goyokin” (1969), “The Wolves” (1971), “Ominasa” (1982), “Kumokiri “ (1978), and “Heat Wave” (1991), Gosha Hideo cast Nakadai Tatsuya in “Hunter in the Dark” (Yami no karyudo, 1979), a Tokugawa-era yakusa film of considerable complexity and slow pace, following a brisk opening ambush scene. Nakadai’s character, the worn-down, eager-to-retire gang leader Gomyo hires skilled swordsman, one-eyed amnesiac Tanigawa Yataro (Harado Yoshio [Rônin-gai]) as his bodyguard and eventually has to avenge his death.

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The last half hour or so involves a lot of action and kills off almost all the characters, male and female (the exception is the loyal Oriwa (Ishida Ayumi). Nakadai and Sonny Chiba conclude the carnage with a swordfight in a chicken coop, with chicken feathers taking the place of plum blossoms from the end of “Samurai Saga.” I think that in 137 minutes there should have been more character development! The movie is markedly inferior to Gosha’s first two films (, which were not lacking in narrative complexity.

Satô Masrua’s score won the Japanese academy award, though it did not positively impress me.

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Goyokin (Official Gold, 1969)

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Gosha Hideo’s 1969 “Goyôkin” (released with its Japanese title in Engish, and also titled “Official Gold” (a translation of the Japanese title) and “Steel Edge of Revenge,” is sort of the opposite of rebel samurai movies, though it shares the frequent villain of those movies, a corrupt official, Rokugo (Tanba Tetsurô). It is more akin to the movies in which a samurai or samurais aids and protects common folk (Seven Samurai, Sanjuro). The hero is Magobei, played by Nakadai Tatsuya. He is employed by the Sabai clan.

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The nearby island of Sado mines gold, which belongs to the Tokugawa clan (the shoguns’ clan). After a ship loaded with gold sinks and the local (to Kurosaki on the Shimokita Peninsula) peasants salvage some of it to return to the Tokugawas, Rokugo seizes it for himself and slaughters the peasants who knew of the horde. Magobei contents himself with his superior (master), who is also his brother-in-law, promising to go and sin no more, that is, never to do it again.

Magobei moves to Edo (the future Tokyo). When assassins come for him, he realizes that Magobei is going to steal more official gold and goes to intervene. With the aid of a young samurai who was supposed to kill him, Fujimaki Samon (Nakamura Kinnosuke) and a local brother and sister (Asaoka Rurikô and Hura Ben), Magobei averts the shipwreck. Not without serious injury, Magobei proceeds to the inevitable one-on-one fight with Rokugo. It is gorgeously shot in the snow.

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As usual, Nakadai is intense—and, as often, sullen and ferocious (with a thick beard). Here he portrays an entirely honorable samurai opposing a greedy villain, having let his childhood friend/ superior officer/brother-in-law off once. The purloined gold recalls “Sword of the Beast” set a few decades later (“Goyokin” is set in the 1830s).

The source material (film) has not been remastered, and the colors tend to be a bit oversaturated, but the images are mostly not muddied by age. Okazaki Kôzô’s (Kaseki) outstanding cinematography mostly endures.

(Trivia: Mifune Toshirô was originally cast as Samon, but after shooting had begun had an ulcer and dropped out of the production. Nakadai was reunited with his onscreen wife from Kobayashi’s “Samurai Rebellion” Tsukasa Yôko.)

©2016, Stephen O. Murray