Tag Archives: Tokyo

Koreeda’s award-winning “Shoplifters”

For me, Kore-eda Hirokazu (1962-), the second best-known current Japanese film director (after Miike Takashi) is overrated. I was surprised that his sluggishly paced “Shoplifters” won the 2019 Palme d’or, although that is not the first head-scratcher choice of its top award from the Cannes Film Festival. (He had won the Jury Prize there in 2013 for “Like Father, Like Son,” a movie I like more). It was also Oscar-nominated in the best foreign-language movie category.

I was immediately put off by the opening scene in which the father-and-son shoplifting team of Osamu (Franky Lily, Like Father, Like Son, Our Little Sister) and Shota (Kairi Jyo) take a lot of stuff. Osamu’s rationalizations that it’s OK unless they take so much a store goes bankrupt and that items do not belong to anyone until they are sold irritate me, especially since they are not countered by the fact that theft raises the price for real buyers. (Admittdly, Osamu works as a day laborer when he can, but on-the-job injury is not convered by disability insurance.)

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On the way home, the exultant thieves buy five croquettes. Then they find a young girl locked out in the cold. They take five-year-old Yuri (Sasaki Miyu) home with them, feed three of the croquettes to her and begin treatment of the wounds from physical abuse.

When they go to take Yuri home, they hear Yuri’s parents arguing, with both exclaiming that they never wanted a child. So they take Yuri back with tme. By that time we have met the snappish grandmother, Katsue (Kiki Kirin, in her fifth Kore-eda film) is as close as there is to a mastermind for this group, and the one with isteady income (a widow’s pension) and the pretty Aki (Matsuoka Mayu), who works displaying herself to men (is this “sex work” with no sex involved?)

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It took me half the movie to realize that Shota is a boy, not a girl. He has carved out a space for himself in a closet, using a headlamp to illuminate the mangas he reads. The whole family goes to the beach (supplying the poster photo). But then things start to go wrong for the de facto family (family of choice), including the grandmother’s death.

That pushes the movie even more firmly into early Hou Hsiao-Hsien territory — especially “The Boys of Feng-guei” in which three boys staying with their grandmother do not know what to do when she dies, so do nothing, leaving her rotting on her sleeping mat. There is a nominal adult this time, but Osamu cannot do much to protect anyone. The police try to convince Shota that the others were going to abandon him after he was apprehended, though it is not clear to me that he believes them. Indeed, he calls Osamu “dad” for the first time.

The movie is softer than “Nobody Knows” (2004, his best film in my view, followed by “Like Father, Like Son”). and even slower. (Both Hou and Kore-eda proclaim influence from Ozu, which is eertainly there in prolonged takes, but I was never bored by an Ozu film, despite their invariable camera setup of a meter above the floor.)

©2019, Stephen O. Murray

 

Discussion of other Koreeda films available on DVD with subtitles in English:

Maborosi (1995)

Nobody Knows (2004)

Hana (2006)

Air Doll (2009)

I Wish (2011)

Like Father, Like Son (2013)

Our Little Sister (2015)

 

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Alienated Tokyo Hyperrealism

Okada Toshiki (1973-) is a “lost generation” (1990s stalled Japanese economy/recession) writer and anime producer sometimes labeled “hyperrealist,” which means manufacturer of banality to me. His novella The End of the Moment We Had/ The End of the Special Time We Were Allowed was based on his 2007 Kishida Drama Prize-winnning “Five Days in March” (Watashitachi ni yurusareta tokubetsu na jikan no owari). It begins with a tedious visit of six very drunk male friends to a Roppongi bar. The narrator , Azuma,stumbles off with a woman for four nights of frequent sex with a bar pickup.

For no particular reason I can infer, the narration shifts from the man to the woman roughly half way the recounting of the frequent fucking, sleeping some, venturing out from the Shibuya love hotel. The narrative voice changes little, making the switch all the more once inexplicable. At the end they part without exchanging contact information, unlikely to meet again.

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(Shibuya district)

Before cutting themselves off for the extended sexcapade, the couple are dismayed by the prospect of war starting in Iraq, following an ultimatum from George W. Bush to Saddam Hussein. By the time their tryst is over, the US has invaded Iraq, though US forces have not yet taken Baghdad. This is part of the reality the two flee from for a few days. (They never turn on the tv in their refuge, which has no clocks and no windows to let its inhabitants know whether it is day or night.) Each thought the war would be over in a few days with Bush triumphant. The account ends with the woman throwing up, partly on herself (the last few pages have an omniscient narrator).

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There is a second, slightly longer novella, “My Place in Plural” with only one narrator, a bored 30-something wife, too bored to go to her part-time hob, lying around, but never reaching a deep sleep. Nor succeeding in slaying a cockroach that scurries to the safety of a drawer. Presumably, she is still married to her hard-working husband, who has two jobs in contrast to her less than one. The mood of both novellas is encapsulated into the wife’s generalization about opening new windows on her laptop: “In the few seconds while the page loaded, I felt like I was holding out hope for something, though I’m not sure what. But as soon as the content came on screen my hope vanished.”

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

Urban (Tokyo) isolation briefly interrupted

In 2014 Shibasaki Tomoka (1973-) won the Akutagawa Prize for Haru No Niwa (Spring Garden) a short (147 pages in the new Pushkin Press edition) novel focused on two of the four people running out their leases in View Palace Saeki III, an apartment complex in the Setagaya neighborhood (quasi-suburb of sprawling Metro Tokyo, the site of the 1964 Summer  Olympics) that is slated for demolition once all the leases run out (in another year). The apartments have names from the Chinese Zodiac, though the first three (including mine, the tiger) are missing. Taro, who lives in the pig one, works in advertising, though trained as a hair stylist and having run a salon owned by his (now ex-) father-in-law. His major motivation in life is not to be bothered, though he has a sort of voyeuristic interest in observing other people, including Nishi, who lives in the Dragon unit.

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Both of them are interested in a nearby sky-blue house with some stained-glass  windows. Two decades earlier, its then owners, Gyushima Taro a sort of star in creating advertising, and Umamura Kaiko, an actress who was never a star (and is now a yoga instructor), published a book of photographs of themselves in their house, titling it “Spring Garden” (though its focus was on the interior of the house, not its garden). Nishi, who draws mangas, was intrigued by the book long before moving close to it and gets a copy of the out-of-print book for “her” Taro.

Nishi befriends the current resident (owner?), Morio Miwako, who is a bit stir-crazy, knowing no one in Tokyo and trapped at home with two young children, one of whom Nishi finds in the street and returns home. Though Nishi has gained access to the house that long has fascinated her, she has not seen the green-tiled bathroom and conspires with Taro to get into this inner sanctum. Is that the “plot” of the book? The quest has its costs and Taro takes even greater risks to sleep in the house after the family has moved out.

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(Aw1805 Creative Commons photo of Komazawa Olympic Park in Setagaya)

I don’t see anything photo-realist about the book, though Nishi used to take photographs and there are some specifics about appearances. There are also some memories, though nothing concrete or insightful about the woman to whom Taro was married. (The recurrent subject of his regret-filled memories is his father, who died young.)

His sister suddenly starts narrating in the first person more than two-thirds of the way through the book. This is jarring and falls afoul of the “problem of perspective.” This new first-person narrator seems familiar with what the reader has read, though she was not there to observe any of it. After a few pages, the narrative returned to omniscient third-person, though the sister makes off with an armchair that Miwako had given Taro.

Though Nishi becomes a sort of friend for the isolated Taro, there is no romance or even yearning for one from either one of the remnants of the complex’s tenants, who are doomed to forthcoming dislocation. Taro already knows he cannot live with other people, having been married, and in his childhood sharing a room with his sister (“It’s amazing that we managed to live all that time in the same room.” “ We didn’t know what it was like to have our own space yet, that’s why.”)

A subsidiary theme, at least for non-Japanese, is the endless exchange of gifts. This may seem natural to Japanese and illustrated what Marcel Mauss wrote about reciprocity and obligation in receiving gifts. The endless (re)construction of urban spaces, specifically Tokyo, is another underlying theme. View Palace Saeki III is far from being uniquely transient. Taro has “here today, gone tomorrow” experiences of other edifices he observes on the way to and from his office. (He becomes adept at recognizing units or freestanding houses that are not occupied.)

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

 

Sam Fuller’s Tokyo-set neo-noir

The primary interest in “House of Bamboo” is the wide-screen CinemaScope color photography (by Joe MacDonald) of Tokyo ca. 1954 (with lots of fire-engine reds in most every scene). The final shoot-out has an interesting locale, but it and the rest of the movie lack the drive of the original (1948) undercover cop drama “The Street with No Name,” which had a prototypical noir look and a more complicated, more conflicted, and, in-short, more-noirish hero (played by Mark Stevens). The one here, portrayed by Robert Stack—who showed a dark side in other mid-1950s movies, notably “Tarnished Angels”—never shows the slightest doubt about the side he is on, never shows a glimmer of temptation to go over to the criminal side.

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Director Samuel Fuller gave himself credit for “additional dialogue,” though blame for the banal dialogue, particularly in long, slack expository scenes between Robert Stack and Shirley Yamaguchi seems to me more deserving of assessing than credit. “House of Bamboo” runs 11 minutes longer than “The Street with No Name” (102:91), but seems to meander at least half an hour longer. For a “thriller,” it is remarkably slack. There are a few visually striking scenes, shot from above or below (“Street” had a lot of upward camera angles), but even the fancy final shoot-out lacks tension. It also lacks the twist at the end that made “Street” particularly notable (though copying the set-up—literally prop-up—for the police arrival from “Street”).

The agonies of undercover work are barely touched upon. Getting the policeman planted is treated perfunctorily. It seems that the mole supplying information to the American mobsters operating in Tokyo in “House” is not even uncovered by the officials, which was a primary part of the operation in “Street”. The plot and dilemmas did not seem to interest Fuller (who had recently made a real noir, “Pickup on South Street,” with a low-life antihero played by Richard Widmark, who had played the narcissistic gang leader in “The Street with No Name”). I guess he wanted to go to Tokyo to shoot a movie and didn’t much care about the movie beyond that. As a police procedural tale, the movie is subpar.

To come out and say what I have only implied, Robert Stack herein is bland, seeming to go through the motions as Eddie. As Mariko, “the kimono” who falls for Eddie and whom Eddie comes to rely on very quickly, Shirley Yamaguchi is also bland. (She has a much bigger part than Barbara Lawrence had in “Street,” but does little more than look concerned.) Eddie’s handlers are rarely on screen. This leaves the movie to Robert Ryan, as the smug and usually ruthless gang leader, Sandy Dawson, who seems to have some repressed paternal or fraternal or erotic longing for Eddie (considerably more obscure than Ryan’s Claggart had for Terence Stamp’s Billy Budd), though no apparent jealousy of Mariko. The open jealousy is displayed by Griff (Cameron Mitchell) who had been Sandy’s favorite and second-in-command until Eddie showed up and became the new favorite (though not formally top lieutenant). This souring provides nearly the only interpersonal drama in the movie. It ain’t enough!… though it does end photogenically. OK, I’ll have to admit that Eddie and Sandy “meet cute” (worth at least a chuckle).

The ending is entertaining, seemingly influenced by the end of James Cagney’s gang boss in “White Heat” more than by the end of Richard Widmark’s in “Street With No Name.” As in an earlier shoot-out, the cops (including the US Army sergeant) are very bad shots and the robbers very good ones.

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Jean-Luc Godard, in his film critic days, proclaimed “House of Bamboo” and the preposterous Barbara Stanwyck western “40 Guns” Fuller’s best films. I can see a link between the perfunctoriness of them and Godard’s increasingly anti-dramatic movies (though not the high pitch of hysteria from “40 Guns”). The racial dynamics (American condescension) are much better dramatized in Fuller’s “The Steel Helmet,” which is also one of the best Korean War movies. I’ve already mentioned “Pickup on South Street” as far superior an underworld movie (and a real noir, shot in black and white and without a one-dimensional hero).

Since Fuller was not interested in making a noirish thriller, one might think he’d have used the opportunity to explore the place of the occupying 8th Army in the period of transition to Japanese policing and governing, but he had nothing to say about that. There is not even a hint that Japanese gangsters “yakuza” existed and might have provided some competition for the gang of highly conspicuous foreigner thugs. I’d be hard-pressed to infer anything about Fuller’s views of Japanese culture or the impact of American occupation of Japan on either the Japanese or the occupiers from the movie beyond a flicker of sympathy of the lot of the Japanese woman (Mariko) being ostracized for moving in with a gaijin (foreigner, that is, Eddie). There is no firm evidence that Fuller did not share the contemptuous view of the “kimonos” of the other gang members.

The bright (daytime) colors have been well preserved (or restored), but the movie was a major disappointment, even for someone unimpressed with Fuller’s (later) “The Big Red One” (which is similar to the marksmanship in “House of Bamboo” with the German soldiers unable to hit the five American ones as they more-or-less win World War II across the African and European WWII campaigns). Although I think Fuller is a director inordinately championed by French auterists and over-rated by American champions of “termite art,” I think that Fuller made some interesting movies (Steel Helmet, Pickup on South Street, Shock Corridor, Run of the Arrow, Verboten!, White Dog, and even Park Row).

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Unsentimental presentation of four abandoned children

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Audiences (me included) love to watch plucky, resilient kids, and the 2004 film “Dare mo shiranai” (Nobody Knows), written, directed, and edited by Koreeda Hirokazu was/is beloved by many. The catastrophe of four children, the oldest of whom is twelve, being abandoned unfolds gradually, as the mother Keiko (You) leaves her children (by four different fathers) alone more and more and then totally abandons them in a Tokyo apartment which she rented acknowledging only one child, 12-year-old Akira (Yagira Yuya, who received the Best Actor award at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival). She said she would return from Osaka for Christmas, but doesn’t.

The money Keiko left runs out, the gas, telephone, and water are cut off. The four break out of hiding for a bit of a splurge at the minimart (from which he has refused to shoplift, despite urging of two of his pals). Akira would rather play baseball than try to manage his increasingly rebellious siblings and the desperate finances of the abandoned family. (None can go to school. They subsist on ramen.) One child dies and is buried by the others near a Haneda Airport runway.

Akira is not willing to seek help from authorities, because he believes (with good reason) that the children would then be separated.

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There is little camera movement and few closeups. The static medium- and long-shots maintain a distance from what seems to be being documented (“based on a true story” from Nishi-Sagamo in 1988 that long haunted Koreeda).

A lot of what the kids do and say was improvised. Though the film runs 141 minutes, I’d bet there was a lot more footages shot. Maybe there will be an 8-hour director’s uncut release.

I often find the music in Japanese films (those not scored by Takemitsu Toru!) dubious: distracting or just inept. The ukelele music here, performed by Gontiti, falls into the latter category for me.

“Nobody Knows” is set in affluent if heedless Tokyo rather than in impoverished settings like those of “Children of God” and “The Spirit of the Beehive.”

(There is an interesting 2004 interview of Koreeda by Mark Schilling about the making of the movie at http://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2004/08/25/culture/no-easy-answers-from-kore-eda/#.WE3V8JLHKUs.)

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Early Spring

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For the 1956 “Early Spring” Shochiku (the studio) urged Ozu to target a younger audience. It was hardly a youth movie. The protagonist, Sugiyama Shoji (Ikebe Ryo), is a WWII veteran, who is married to the rather chilly Masako (Awashima Chikage). They had a son who died, and he has a coworker at the Toa Fire-Brick Company, called “Goldfish” (Kishi Keiko), who seeks to become his mistress (with no encouragement form him that this is possible).

He often goes drinking (and singing) with his war buddies or plays mahjong late into the night, but his wife realizes he has spent the night with a woman when she finds lipstick on his shirt. (Does this happen in the 21st century? It is a staple of black-and-white movie extramarital relations, but I have neither heard of it or seen it in movies of the last few decades.)

She goes home to his mother, while a quasi-tribunal of very gossipy male coworkers interrogate and chide “Goldfish.”

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Probably unrelated to this affair, which seems incipient rather than established to me, for him a one-night stand though more for her, Sugiyama is asked to take a position in the company’s production facility in Mitsuishi in the mountains. I thought this would be where the air is clear, but many smokestacks billow smoke there, like Pittsburgh of the 1940s.

There is a conventional happy ending with Masako relenting and arriving in Mitsuishi. Again, there is a dead man forgotten for the happy ending (not to mention “Goldfish”!), though Sugiyama was not complicit in the man’s death (from an overdose of sleeping pills).

There’s not much of a family (only the marital dyad) to crumble, as in other Ozu films coscripted by Noda Kogo, just a marriage on the rocks in very unoriginal ways (the negligent and now-straying husband).

I didn’t want to spend more time with these dissatisfied characters or see what happened to rehabilitate the Sugiyama marriage. Indeed, I thought the movie’s 144-minute running length far too long. It was particularly slow in getting started and (for me) undercut by sentimental music, including two renditions of “Auld Lange Syne” at Sugiyama’s farewell dinner. This made me wonder if the studio (house style) rather than Kinoshita was to blame for the sentimental music and group singing in his 1950s movies made at the same studio. (I was surprised that the mixed-sex group on an outing did not sing as they trudged along a countryside road!)

There were exteriors of trains and one of office workers crowding the platform waiting for one, but Ozu did not show the packed interior (after the empty train pulls in). I would have liked to see more of 1957 Tokyo. There is a scene in the office in which the camera moves, but it is generally static, though, as usual in Ozu films, cuts from speaker to speaker keep the movie from seeming visually dull. Still, I find the film dull, even with uniformly good acting.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray