Tag Archives: yakusa

“Outrage”: Boring, ultraviolent Kitano yakusa movie

OTR_KA_BB_I01_rgb.jpeg

there was practically no chacterization in 2010 “Autoreiji” (Outrage: Way of the Yakusa), written, directed and edited by Kitano Takeshi, who also plays a leading role in it. For the first hour and a quarter yakusa scheme and get beaten. For the last half hour yakusas get shot. The only novelty is coercing the ambassador or a small African country to front a casino at an embassy. Kitano is his usual affectless self.

I don’t understand how there can be a sequel, since nearly all the characters have been killed off. IMDB lists Kitano’s character in it as Otomo, who is knifed in prison just before the final bloodbath in “Outrage.” I guess it will turn out that he was mistakenly reported as dead. It is reportedly as convoluted and boring as “Outrage.” For violent Kitano, I’d recommend his earlier “Sonatine.”

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Kitano & Co. Coming to America, Spreading Mayhem

22940.jpg

“Aniki,”(Brother, 2000) the movie written by, directed by, and starring Kitano Takeshi begins in Japan and invades America. Although Yamamoto is a common Japanese name, I suspect that the yakusa  protagonist is named Yamamoto, to evokethe name of the admiral who planned and executed the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Yamamoto does not go to America planning to ravage it or take it over, After he foils one murder of his boss and his boss then ignores his advice and is gunned down, he needs to leave Japan for a while. After a few days of boredom in a Los Angeles hotel, he goes in search of his half-brother Ken (Kuroudo Maki), who is in one of LA’s myriad rough neighborhoods. Denny, a homeboy played superbly by Omar Epps (“Love and Basketball”), makes the mistake of trying to shake down the apparent tourist who has wandered where he does not belong.

It turns out that Ken is a low-level drug dealer and that Denny hangs out with him. Denny is not sure this “aniki” (brother) is the same man who nearly killed him. The development of their relationship beyond the point where Denny is calling Yamamoto “brother,” too, is the most interesting and original part of this exceedingly violent movie.

Yamamoto quickly dispatches to hell the cholos who are giving Ken and his friends trouble. The ad hoc gang with the very experienced gangster calling the shots — and doing much of the shooting — then massacres the cholos‘ bosses, the next higher echelons. With greater difficulty, they merge with the existing LA Japanese-American gangsters, and finally have to deal with the Italian-American Mafia. As in many recent gangster movies, the mafiosi are aging and tired, but they still command a lot of firepower. Like Admiral Yamamoto, yakuza Yamamoto’s initial successes are great, but fearless warriors eventually are overwhelmed by opponents with greater numbers and more armaments.

brother3.jpg

Early on, at least some of the violence is cartoonish and funny, but as the body count rises, the incessant killings are grim, and the only humor that remains is in Denny’s awed by admiring fealty to the mostly silent and very alien gangster who is not a “brother” in the sense of being black, but is an older brother in many ways. (It’s hard for me to believe that Kitano wrote Denny’s dialogue and suspect that Epps improvised it around the plotting Kitano supplied. Wherever the words came from, Epps sells them convincingly.) Similarly, the basketball scenes in the gang headquarters seem likely to have been suggested and developed by the actors (Royale Watkins and Kuroudo Maki),

Although fewer than half of the slayings occur on-screen, the violence in “Brother” is very brutal, not done in the John Woo or Jerry Bruckheimer cartoon style. And some of it stays with one a long time . The movie is definitely not for the squeamish.

Moreover, those not accustomed to the long takes and limited camera movement that is common in Taiwanese and Japanese movies may find some scenes static. There are fairly many calm talky scenes but so many erupt with violence that the viewer must not let his or her guard down. I think that 20-30 minutes could have been pruned.

Kitano is the best-known stand-up comic in Japan, though one would never guess that from “Aniki” or “Gohatto.” In the English-speaking world, he is frequently considered a Japanese Clint Eastwood. Kitano says that all they have in common is that they are actors who also sometimes direct, but the way Kitano has himself filmed as an impassive mask is similar to how Sergio Leone filmed Eastwood in the 1960s, and speaking with his gun and minimal dialogue seems very Dirty Harry. The humor in “Aniki” is like that of Eastwood, too: deadpan or delayed slow, malicious smiles.

©2001, Stephen O. Murray

“Walk Cheerfully”

walkcarefullycover.jpg

Ozu’s stylized silent film “Walk Cheerfully (1930) is a redemption melodrama centered on small-time hoodlum/ pickpocket Kenji the Knife (Takada Minoru, who does not flash a knife, though he has a gun and is grazed by a derringer shot from his former confederate Gunpei (Mori Teruo) when he refuses to get involved in the heist the guy and Kenji’s former moll, Chieko (Date Satoko), are planning). The camera was sometimes at later Ozu height (one meter) but sometimes higher. There are many scenes in which people or things move through the frame, but there is also some camera movement, even quite gratuitous camera movement. And some location shooting away from any studio.)

The most bizarre aspect of the gangster movie is little synchronized steps by gangsters (three policemen also walk in step with only their feet and lower legs shown).

walkcarefully.jpg

Takada was strikingly handsome, sort of a mixture of Alain Delon’s boxer Rocco and Buster Keaton with a very aquiline nose. Yasue, the woman for whom Kenji goes straight (taking a job washing windows in a high-rise) is the hard-working, strait-laced Yasue, played by Kawasaki Hiroko (Ornamental Hairpin). His pal, Senko (Yoshitani Hisao) who becomes a chauffeur working for the same company/building is more entertaining.

The movie blurs genres. If I had to pick one, I’d say it is a romantic comedy, but Criterion has packaged it with “That Night’s Wife” (also dating from 1930—before “The Pubic Enemy” and “Little Caesar”, but after Sternberg’s “Underworld” [1927]) and the 1933 “Dragnet Girl” as “Silent Ozu: Three Crime Dramas” in its “Eclipse” (barebones) series.

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

A retrospect on the films of Shinoda Masahiro

shinoda.jpg

Born in 1931 in Gifu, Shinoda Masahiro was a student of theater history at the elite, private Waseda University in Tokyo. Shōchiku Studio hired him as a trainee in 1953 and Shinoda worked as an assistant to Ozu (Shinoda was credited as assistant director on “Tokyo Twilight” in 1957). The studio was attempting to profit from youth movies, especially after the commercial success of Ôshima’s first movies (Cruel Story of Youth, et al.) and greenlighted Shinoda directing his script for “One-Way Ticket to Love” a movie about young people trying to make a start in the music business (the title was a Neil Sedaka hit of the time).

Though “One-Way Ticket to Love” is a fairly interesting movie that initially pleased the Shōchiku executives, it did not make money, and he was briefly demoted to directing scenarios by studio contract writers (mostly Terayama Shûji).

Shinoda moved from making movies about disaffected youth to stylish gangster/noir movies with “Pale Flower” (1963) and made his first historical movie, “Samurai Spy,” in 1965, followed by his most revered masterpiece, “Double Suicide” (1969). “Double Suicide” was quite stylized, drawing on the puppet play tradition of Chikimatsu that Shinoda had studied in college. (Shinoda also focused directly on traditional Japanese performing traditions in “The Scandalous Adventures of Buraikan” and “The Ballad of Orin” and in one of the characters on the ship to Kyushu in “Moonlight Serenade“)

During the 1970s Shinoda made some very visually gorgeous color movies with extreme (not always stylized!) violence and repellent characters (Himiko, Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees, and Ballad of Orin, followed a decade later by “Gonza, the Spearman”). While admiring many of the visual compositions in these movies, they try my patience (both in slow pace and in graphic violence).

Few of Shinoda’s later movies are available, including two of three set in the time of his childhood/youth (“MacArthur’s Children,” which I saw three decades ago in a film festival screening, and the 1990 “Childhood” Days” that I would very much like to see.

The only one of Shinoda’s last six films (or most recent ones, in that he is still alive, though he has not directed a film since the 2003 “Spy Sorge” about a WWII-era Soviet spy in Germany and Japan) is available, that one, “Moonlight Serenade,” strikes me as a late masterpiece (though the present-day of the Kobe earthquake frame seemed superfluous to me).

Though Kobayashi had commissioned a soundtrack from Takemitsu (The Thick-Walled Room, 1953), Shinoda regularly used percussive and anti-sentimental Takemitsu scores that enhanced the icy aestheticism of the images (shot in the black and white movies through “Samurai Spy” (1965) by  Kosugi Masao). Shinoda has always set up the shots, and authored the scripts of 15 of his 32 films, so seems to me clearly to count as a full-fledged auteur. I don’t always like the results, but consider Shinoda and Imamura Shôhei the most interesting over a course of time Japanese New Wave filmmakers (for a short burst, 1962-65, Tehshigahara/Abe get my nod).

Gosha’s 1979 “Hunter in the Dark”

hunter.jpg

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.

 hunterindark.jpg

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

Kobayashi Against the System

“Seppuku” (known here as “Harakiri” (1962) and the “Human Condition” trilogy (1959-61, based on Kobayashi Masaki’s wartime incarceration in a Manchurian forced labor camp) are among the most harrowing films I’ve seen, carried by superlative-deserving performances by Nakadai Tatsuya (who went on to play the central role in the last two great Kurosawa films, “Kagemusha” and “Ran”). Nakadai also appeared, as unsavory characters rather than heroes, in three of the Kobayashi movies in the Criterion Eclipse (without bonus feature) set “Masaki Kobayashi Against the System,” as well as in Kobayashi’s best-known one, the 1964 ghost story “Kwaidan,” the only one I’ve seen not under Criterion auspices, and in “Samurai Rebellion” (1967).

All four films on the Criterion set of “Kobayashi Against the System” movies are very critical of Japanese conduct, during and after the Pacific War (WWII). I’ve already posted on the early (1952) suppressed (until 1956) “The Thick-Walled Room,” dealing with some low-level accused war criminals.

Long before “Moneyball,” Kobayashi made a “baseball movie” with hardly any baseball on display, “I Will Buy You,” focusing on finding and assessing talent. Kobayashi’s 1956 movie was considerably more cynical, focusing on greed.

i-will-buy-you-4.png

The protagonist is a struggling scout Kishimoto Daisuke (Kinoshita regular Sada Keiji). He goes to sign a promising pitcher (with a very greedy family), only to find that the man has lost a finger in an industrial accident. He moves on to a college star, Kurita Goro (Ooki Minoru) who is being pursued by many teams. I don’t think it needed nearly two hours to make the points about greed and mendacity, though the revelation of Kurita’s decision is edited with great panache.

blackriver.jpg

Black River” (Kuroi kawa, 1957) is especially notable for making Nakadai Tatsuya a star. He plays “Joe,” a surly and sadistic gangster (yakusa) who rapes the heroine, Shiziko (Ineko Arima, fresh from Ozu’s “Tokyo Twilight”) after an elaborate seduction plot involving his saving her from being raped fails.

The lanky young Nakadai is also involved in scheming with the landlady of a ramshackle boarding-house (called “White Pig,” played by Yamada Ishizu, fresh from her Lady Macbeth turn in Kurosawa’s “Throne of Blood,” outfitted with hideous dentures) where Shiziko (Ineko Arima, fresh from Ozu’s “Tokyo Twilight”) and her earnest student suitor Nishida (Watanabe Fumio, who would appear in the middle “Human Condition” film (“Road to Eternity”) and would later play the second lead in Ôshima’s “Death by Hanging”) live to evict the tenants and demolish the building, so that a “love motel” for US soldiers at the nearby military base (the Naval Air Station at Sugi) can be serviced.

Nishida is pure of heart, but pretty much everyone else is sordid (Shiziko unbalanced by her rape), very much reminiscent of Kurosawa’s version of “The Lower Depths” (though that was shot at the same time and could not have influenced “Black River” and it was made four years before Imamura’s “Pigs and Battleships,” another indictment of Japanese cravenness to the occupiers). BTW other than a drunken black GI hitting on a dance-hall “girl,” and a US military truck, the Americans whom the Japanese are servicing do not appear in the film. Again, as in “The Thick-Walled Room,” it is far less the US occupation than the venality of Japanese (from the government to the very marginal residents of the boarding house) that Kobayashi was criticizing in “Black River.” As the late and much-lamented Donald Richie wrote, “The villain was not America for having camps in Japan but the Japanese social system, which permitted such lawless behavior to go unpunished.”

blackriver.png

inheritance.jpg

After the “Human Condition” trilogy, Nakadai was back, albeit in a much less flamboyant part in “The Inheritance” (Karami-ai, 1962), as one of those intriguing to commandeer the estate of a rather nasty dying tycoon, Senzo (Yamamura So) who has no legitimate children, a scheming youngish wife (Satoe, played by Watanabe Misako), a scheming secretary (Yasuko played very effectively by Kishi Keiko) who is his last sexual partner, and had three unacknowledged (born out of wedlock) children. Furukawa (Nakadai) finds a daughter working as a nude model in a shop that provides models for amateur pornographers (prefiguring the banality of porn-making in Imamura’s “The Pornographers”). This time, the only really sympathetic character is a twelve-year old girl who is being advanced as a daughter of Senzo (but is really the love child of his wife and Senzo’s lawyer, played by Hamamura Hun). She does not know she is party to a fraud. The cynical secretary Yasuko is not unsympathetic, but other than suffering from terminal cancer Senzo is as nasty a piece of work as any of those scheming to get his estate. A noirish look at greed, I see it as at least partially a black comedy in which pretenders to the fortune are knocked out (but not killed as in, for instance, “Kind Hearts and Coronets”… or “Richard III”).

Inheritaance_original.jpg

All four films are in black and white. Only “Black River” was shot in a 2.40:1 aspect. It also has a jazzy soundtrack that does not sound like the more famous (later) ones by Takemitsu Toru. Had I not been paying attention during the opening credits, I’d not have guessed this.

The liner notes by Michael Koresky on each movie’s box’s inside cover (and online at the Criterion website) are helpful in orienting viewers… and the only bonus feature, this being an Eclipse box. The most recent of the four films, “The Inheritance,” looks the best and is also the most visually diverse one. The print used for the transfer of “The Thick-Walled Room” is noticeably inferior to it.

I think all four films are essential for those interested in postwar Japanese culture in general, cinema in particular. They are not as great as the “Human Conditions” trilogy and “Harakiri,” but not many movies are! And Kobayashi is definitely one of the essential filmmakers ever and from anywhere. I hope Criterion will undertake making Kobayashi’s late-career four-and-a-half-hour documentary “Tokyo Trial” (1983) available, but am grateful to Criterion for the Kobayashi discs they have done.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray