Tag Archives: Shindô

“Onna” (1946) and “Ojôsan kanpai“ (1949)

I missed three Kinoshita Keisu films from the late 1940s and am posting on them out of the chronological order I have been attempting to impose (the other  the 1946  “The Girl I Loved“).

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I thought that the narrative of Kinoshita’s “Onna” (Woman, 1948) was threadbare, but it was visually very impressive. Most of the 84-minute run-time juxtaposes closeups of a chorus-line dancer, Toshiko (Mito Mitsuko) who has been dragged off to Manazura with a man, Tadashi (Ozawa Eitarô) she distrusts (with very good reasons, including that he has just been involved in a robbery followed by stabbing a policeman). In the last quarter of the film, there is first a chase (not involving Tadashi) then a conflagration, which sends most of the townspeople rushing to the scene. This part is shot like an early Soviet sound film with lots of cuts (montage) and fairly bombastic music.

In addition to multiple shots of trains and train stations and views down to the sea, there are singing children and opening and closing numbers of dancing girls, including Toshiko. Mito is rather ordinary and conventional; Tadashi sullen and bitter about his life having been ruined by the warkmakers misleading him and the whole patriotic population.

heresto3-1600x900-c-default.jpg“Ojôsan kanpai“ (1949, the title indexes a toast and the English titles include “Here’s to the Girls” and (a more apt one) “Here’s to the Young Lady”) was not written by Kinoshita (it was written by Shindô Kaneto, future director of “The Naked Island” and “Onibaba”). It seems rather Capraesque to me, with a 34-year-old man of the people, auto shop owner Keizo (played by the then-37-year-old Sano Shuji) smitten by and courting twenty-six-year-old Keizo (played by the then-29-year-old Hara Setsuko, who played daughters of Ryû Chishû in many an Ozu film), who comes from a noble family, though her father is in prison as the fall-guy for a fraud.

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Keizo is very aware of his lack of education and cultural capital. Yasuko is a very refined if timid (never been kissed) and keenly feeling the need to save the family mansion for her mother and grandparents (and sisters, and the two children of her elder sister). She is also keenly aware that her interest in the lowborn but now affluent Keizo will appear mercenary to him. (It’s not only that she is on-sale to the highest bidder, but to the only bidder.) He desperately wants her to love him, not just to be grateful to him for financial salvation of her family. According to her, she expended all her love on a fiancé who died in Manchuria.

Though lovestruck himself, Keizo adamantly blocks his younger brother Gorô (Sada Keiji) from marrying his inamorata. Murase Sachiko provides solace (psychological and liquid) in a friendly neighborhood bar.

There is no flashy cinematography by Konishita’s brother-in-law Kusuda Hiroshi’s work, though there is nothing to fault with it. The surviving print Criterion supplied Hulu is damaged, but watchable)

Apparently, the portrayal of breaking the class barrier was a big deal in Japan ca. 1949. The US Occupation was pushing democracy (only abroad, then, as now), whether Kinoshita was aiming to please the rulers (who are certainly invisible within the movie).

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Shindô’s Other Beautifully Filmed Ghost Story: “The Black Cat”

Shindô Kaneto’s 1968 ghost/vampire movie “Kuronekô” (Black Cat, or “Yabu no naka no kuronekô,” “Black cat from the grove”) is, frame-by-frame (excepting those showing corpses?( quite beautiful. And the story is at least in part romantic.

It definitely does not begin that way! Fourteen or fifteen hungry and thirsty soldiers (bandits or ronin, if the two categories can be distinguished) are foraging, drink from an irrigation channel, burst into a hut, grab all the food, gang rape the two women, then leave them in a very photogenically burning hut. (It falls around them, leaving their bodies oddly uncharred and with no burnt debris on them.)

Later, viewers learn that the women are the mother (Otoa Nobuko, wife of the director) and the wife, Sige (Taichi Kiwako) of a young farmer who was forcibly conscripted, and is the sole survivor of a battle in the north (a glorious victory…).

The onryo, ghosts of women, have been seeking late-night accompaniment through a bamboo grove, where they get the samurais (one at a time) who have provided protection drunk. Then the younger one beds them and bites their necks before the sexual deed is done.

 

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The god of evil has permitted them to resume their bodily form to slay samurais and drink their blood. This is going well for them until the son/husband (Nakamura Kichiemon, who would star in Shinoda’s “Double Suicide” the next year) returns, is raised to high rank as Gintoki of the Grove (his battle name, before that, before he appears onscreen, he was Hachi—the same name as the returned reluctant warrior in “Onibaba,” btw), and charged by the very hirsute and very arrogant Samurai leader (daimyo) Raiko (Satô Kei) with slaying the ghosts.

The women’s usual scenario for the entrapment and slaying unfolds, but the vengeful ghosts cannot bring themselves to slay Hachi, and send back alive before dawn, every night for a week.

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The titular black cat was a kitten when Hachi was dragooned, a witness to the pillage, rape, and murder, and seems to be another form of the mother, though I think there is one scene in which the cat and both women are present. The cat is heard en route (to the house of the ghosts or, inside it, en route to death) by several of the samurais.

I’m not quite sure whether Shindô shares the view of Hachis wife or his mother about whether he has become a soulless victimizer. It doesn’t seem to be that his war experiences have killed his soul or that he cares very much about the gains in material status won by his success at arms (which astonished him more than it did anyone else).

Together with “Onibaba,” “Kuronekô” shows a view that poor women are justified in feeding (literally in the case of “Kuroenkô”) on samurai in beautifully photographed rural locations (Shindô was a great admirer of Mizoguchi, who had been Shindô’s mentor during the 1930s and 40s, and Shinodô’s ghost stories have something of the look of “Sansho, the Bailiff” and “Ugetsu”). As with some movies by Kinoshita, Kobayashi, and Kurosawa, the musical score (by Hayashi Kijaru) is nowhere as impressive as the cinematography (herein by Kuroda Kiyomi, whose work won the Mainichi award, as did Otowa’s acting).

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

There is a Criterion blu-ray of this movie, which also streams on Hulu.

 

Shindô’s best-known movie, “Onibaba” (1964)

Sometimes, I think that the striking visuals of many black-and-white Japanese movies came easily (or easier) because of the stark and uncluttered “traditional” (pre-Meiji modernization) buildings. “Onibaba” (a 1964 movie written and directed by Shindô Kaneto [1912-2012]) has striking visuals primarily of tall susuki grass and a riverbank and of two masked characters (both using the same mask). The interiors are mud-and-thatch huts. They are relatively cluttered and lack the geometry of sliding rice-paper panels. In short, they are not as photogenic as many more austere sets in Japanese movies, yet the movie still has very striking images.

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The peasant characters in rural Japan during the “warring state period” of the 14th century, have shelter (though it looks not very winter-proof!). They concentrate on other elemental needs: food and sex. Given that the wars have made it impossible to grow crops, the way they obtain food is novel. The other need is accomplished a more usual way (by duplicity). Even revealing what is going on in the mysterious first scene seems plot-spoiling to me…

The movie opens as two samurai (identifiable by their armor) are thrashing through high grass. Each is stabbed, but not by the other. Then the viewer sees two women (the older portrayed by Otowa Nobuko [The Naked Island, Kuroneko], the younger by Yoshimura Jitsukon Pigs and Battleships]) strip the armor, sashes, and footwear, then dragging the corpses (with only fundoshis left to cover their nakedness) to a deep hole and dumping them in.

They trade the swords and armor with a stingy local dealer (Tonoyama Taiji) for two bags of millet. Killing samurai who wander into the high grass (or kill each other along the riverbank) are the quarry of the two women, and trading what they take from the corpses is how they keep from starving. A none-too-pretty job, dangerous, and not very lucrative…but predictable in that there is a continuous supply of samurai to hunt, while they are distracted with attempting to kill each other. (Not the hunter gets captured by the game, but that the samurai hunters are not aware that they might be game for other kinds of hunters, i.e., peasant women.)

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The plot thickens when Hachi (Satô Kei) returns. He is a neighbor who had been dragooned into one army and then another and barely escaped being killed, as Kichi, the son of the older woman, who was also the husband of the younger one, was. The older woman hates him for daring to return without her son. He catches a fish, which supplements the diet of millet gruel of the women. This has a minimal effect on softening their view of him, but eventually the only youngish man and the only youngish woman in the area start copulating.

The older woman is resentful for several reasons and eventually attempts to scare her daughter-in-law off when the latter sneaks out at night to rub her body against Hachi’s. (Love and romance are not suggested, and the old woman has practical concerns about being left by her “business partner” on top of jealousy that the younger woman is getting sex and that the man is alive while her son isn’t.)

Even with a plot-spoiler alert, I don’t want to get into the horror movie aspects, other than to note that the horror is human, not supernatural. And I can say that the movie illustrates role-self merger (when one goes from playing a role to being played by it, that is, identified with the role by self and others), as in Kurosawa’s “Kagemusha.”

Life is war-plagued 14th-century Japan is portrayed (accurately, I don’t doubt) as nasty, brutish, and generally short. Striking as the high grasses with winds of different velocity moving them, I tired of the scenes of running through them at night. I think the movie would have been better if it were 20-30 minutes shorter (its run-time is 104 minutes).

There is a lot of psychology (not of all it seeming twisted) with raw characters (the women are often topless in everyday, unerotic ways). The visual compositions are quite sophisticated (not at all raw).

Hayahi Hikaru, who has scored most of Shindô’s films, provides some peculiar human voice sounds and intense percussion. Kiuroda Kiyomi, who had already shot two Shindo films and was to shoot ten more, provided some nocturnal horror film cinematography and many interestingly framed shots of the three main characters (and of some samurai duels).

In addition to an excellent print, Criterion has provided a 21-minute retrospect by Shinoda, whose memory at age 91 seemed not impaired in the slightest (he was 98 when he directed his last movie, and was planning another when he died a month past his 100th birthday, BTW). He explains his intent, praises the job everyone did working on the film, and some details about everyone involved living at the edge of the grasslands in a temporary dormitory (quonset hut). What he says is interspersed with production stills and apt clips from the film showing what he talks about. He says that since apprenticing himself to Mizoguchi Kenji, he’d written 250+ film scripts) and directed 74 (IMDB only lists 43, but often misses Asian/Pacific films.

The striking visuals seem characteristic of the 1960s Japanese movies I’ve seen (a very unrandom sample, I realize), including Shindô’s “The Naked Island” and “The Black Cat” (the only other Shindô films I’ve seen). Something that strikes me is that the samurai caste is demystified in one 1960s movie after another. There are individual noble samurai, but when they are shown, they are shown agonized about serving corrupt lords (usually lower-level functionaries, believing that “if only the lord or the shogun knew…”). Plus many of the movies are set in the 19th century, the declining years of the Tokugawa Shogunate, and involve ronin (masterless samurai). The samurai in “Onibaba,” set long before the Pax Tokugawa (which began in 1603), are not individuated, but the point of view is also one denying nobility to the ready-to-die samurai following orders of leaders of no apparent nobility or concern about anything but their own power and glory. Distaste for heroics and keen recognition of the high cost vainglorious military leaders inflicted on low-rank samurai and the miserable population that had to pay for the armies and pageantry as well as be forced into being foot soldiers are leitmotifs of samurai films of the 1960s and later.

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

“Water, water, everywhere, but ne’re a drop to drink!”: Shindô’s “The Naked Island”

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The Naked Island” (Hadaka no shima, directed by Shindô Kaneto, 1960) recalls the staged “documentaries” of Robert Flaherty, though not purporting to be a documentary and using actors familiar to Shindô’s audience.*

There is not a single spoken line in the movie, but lots of striking shots of a small island that has no water (Sukune). The couple who live there with their two young sons have to carry water across from a larger island (Sagashima) and up a steep, rocky path to dole out some for their crops of sweet potatoes and wheat.

A lot of the movie is crossing the water of the Inland Sea and climbing up carrying two pails of water each, on a yoke. As much as I admired the photography (of Kuroda Kiyomi), I thought the total lack of any verbalization — particularly that of the rambunctious young boys (who never walk when they can run) and the summoning of a physician when the older boy is ill — to be unnatural.

BTW, elemental as the couple’s struggle to raise crops is, their crops are for the market, not to provide them food (subsistence agriculture). The four of them go to a city and, among other things, marvel at a television.

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*Shinodas wife, Otowa Nobuko, who also starred in “Onibaba” under his direction) played the mother, and Tonoyama, Tajii who played the father, was a veteran of Shindô movies, reputedly recovered his health on the shoot, because there was no alcohol to be had there. Shindô wrote a biography on which he based a biopic about Tonoyama, which was made into a movie, “Sanmon Yakusha,” 2000).

 

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BTW, I don’t know why some of my texts land in boldface in large font and others don’t. And if someone knows how to delete a blog here, I could ease the confusion (mostly of myself) from having created two when I was floundering starting a blog. So far, I have written about movies written and/or directed by Kurosawa Akira and works by Natsume Soseski. Next up, after Shindô’s “Onibaba,” are discussions of films directed by Ichikawa Kon and books by Dazai Osamu.