The Discreet Bourgeois

Possessed by an urgency to make sure all this stuff I love doesn't just disappear


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. To Each His Own (Mitchell Leisen)
  2. It’s Love I’m After (Archie Mayo)
  3. Black Moon (Roy William Neill)
  4. The Life Of Oharu (Kenji Mizoguchi)
  5. Hitler’s Children (Edward Dmytryk)
  6. Hitchcock/Truffaut (Kent Jones)
  7. The Whales of August (Lindsay Anderson)
  8. The Black Cat (Edgar G. Ulmer)
  9. Written On The Wind (Douglas Sirk)
  10. The Lodger (Alfred Hitchcock)

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1- I guess there are only so many things you can do with the classic ‘white woman drawn to the wicked world of Caribbean Voodoo’, but I must say that I was really struck by how much Black Moon looked and felt like my beloved I Walked With A Zombie.  A side-by-side viewing of the two would really show what makes a film of genius as opposed to a solid Hollywood B-film.  Of course, I Walked With A Zombie does have that Jane Eyre thing going for it, but it also has pacing, a great script, terrific acting and atmosphere you could cut with a knife.  Black Moon has more the feel of the second part of a Saturday afternoon double-bill from the Thirties. Fun, creepy, a little depressing, but not much more.

2- Can a man be a feminist director? I don’t know what else to call Kenji Mizoguchi.  Every one of his films that I have seen depict the plight of women, especially at the hands of self-interested men.  The Life Of Ohara is an especially bleak example of this. It is gorgeous, and the performance of Kinuyo Tanaka is amazing, but man, is it depressing.

3- Thank you Criterion for having another 50% off sale and allowing me to own the endlessly insane Written On The Wind. I would love to know what the reaction was when it first appeared in theaters.  Nymphomania, sexual performance anxiety and Lauren Bacall all wrapped up in an absolutely over the top Dallas-like story.  The image of Dorothy Malone dancing in sexual frenzy in her bedroom in her underwear, while right outside her door her father dies of a heart attack, is something I don’t think I will soon forget – nor would I want to.  This film is nowhere near the level of genius of All The Heaven Allows, but it is almost as formally dazzling. Color, costuming, mise-en-scene are all plotted out within an inch of their lives. Sirk seems to invert the famous Chekhov dictum by saying, ‘If a gun goes off in the first five minutes of a movie, you better see that gun for the rest of the film’. Malone won the Best Supporting Actress award for this frenzied portrayal, beating out another iconic performance of late 50s nuttiness: Patty McCormack as the terrifying Rhoda in The Bad Seed.  I guess the Academy didn’t dare give it to any one else for fear that Malone would come and shimmy them all to death.  And do I even need to mention her fondling of her father’s ‘oil well’ at the end of the film?

dorothy malone

 

4- Thank you, Betsy Rubin, for your gift of a collection of more obscure Hitchcock films.  Because of this I was finally able to watch his silent gem The Lodger.  I feared that it would be more ‘homework’ than ‘pleasure’ but I was wrong.  It was a wonderful watch. You certainly can tell that Hitchcock spent time in Germany and watching German films – this looks like it could have been directed by UFA-period Fritz Lang.  The expressionist shadow and paranoia have obvious roots in Babelsberg, but so much of it is full of stuff we will see over and over again in later Hitchcock: the ‘wrong man’ plot, the underwear fetish, Catholic iconography (there is a really blatant re-enactment of the deposition from the cross). The interesting thing about this ‘wrong man’ plot is that Hitchcock doesn’t fill the audience in on the details until almost the end, so we don’t have the sympathy for Ivor Norvello that we do for Cary Grant in North By Northwest.

On to The Parradine Case!

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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Princess Yang Kwei-Fei (Kenji Mizoguchi)
  2. Rabindranath Tagore (Satyajit Ray)
  3. Flamingo Road (Michael Curtiz)
  4. Carnal Knowledge (Mike Nichols)
  5. The Catered Affair (Richard Brooks)
  6. Kongo (William J. Cowen)
  7. Prizzi’s Honor (John Huston)
  8. A Time To Love and A Time To Die (Douglas Sirk)
  9. A Page of Madness (Teinosuke Kinugasa)
  10. Bergman Island (Marie Nyreröd )

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1- Flamingo Road is a perfect Hollywood entertainment.  I wonder why it isn’t considered more of a classic.  Terrific story, over-the-top performances by Joan Crawford and Sydney Greenstreet, directed by Michael Curtiz of Casablanca fame.   It is easily as enjoyable and solid as other Curtiz films, like Mildred Pierce or The Adventures of Robin Hood. But for some reason, those two have been elevated to ‘classic’ status and Flamingo Road has pretty much been forgotten. It would be interesting to figure out what things like this happen.

2- What a solid, depressing movie Carnal Knowledge is.  Totally unlikeable characters, dyspeptic script, jaundiced view of everything from marriage to friendship to morality.  I loved it.

3- The French critics lionized Douglas Sirk with very good reason.  He was a true master at what he did.  Godard said A Time To Love and A Time To Die was his best.  I am not sure about ‘best’ but it is really good. REALLY good. A sympathetic view of a German soldier during the end days of WWII.  It is from an Erich Maria Remarque novel.  Remarque even has a small but pivotal role in the film. What Remarque did for the WWI soldier in All Quiet On The Western Front he does for the WWII soldier. I haven’t read either novel, but this film is more of a chamber piece – a love story played out against the last days of WWII when Germany was undeniably beaten. The Sirk touches you have come to expect are all there: the saturated color, the high-flown romance, the extraordinarily handsome leading man, in this case John Gavin.

john gavin

4- Watching The Catered Affair made me realize what an effective tool black and white photography was in the 1950s.  This was the time when a lot was being shot in color in an attempt to compete with television.  However, this film, with its gritty working-class characters leading lives of quiet desperation would not have been served by Technicolor. There seems to have been an imperative to use black and white when a film is supposed to look ‘real’.  I have always found that ironic, since real life is in color and if color were suddenly drained from our daily life, it would look anything but real.  Nowadays, just about everything is in color, no matter what the subject matter, unless it is a pretentious indie project or a pretentious Woody Allen movie.  The last new black and white film I recall seeing in a theater is Nebraska.  I wonder why it was chosen for that film.  Perhaps because it was depicting ‘ordinary people’?

5- I had never heard of Kongo.  What a lovely mix of depravity, immorality, incest and Love Triumphant! It would make an amazing double-bill with The Island of Lost Souls. Walter Huston was a towering actor who is all but forgotten today.

6- What a treat to watch Prizzi’s Honor right after watching Kongo, seeing Walter’s granddaughter Anjelica command the movie in the way her grandfather did. This time around I was struck by how few minutes of screen time Maerose Prizzi has.  But, it is her movie.  Hell, it is her world. ‘Why don’t you take yourself on one of those cruises, honey?’

7- A Page of Madness is exactly that.  A film so experimental that it makes the Soviets of the 20s look like tired, old sentimentalists. It was presumed lost for decades, so it didn’t exert the kind of influence it might have. You can tell that the director was mightily influenced by The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari. Over-the-top editing, experimentation with shifting narrative, the lack of intertitles (it’s a silent film) make this quite a difficult but exhilarating experience. It’s 60 minutes can feel like 4 hours, but if you are game, it’s worth seeing at least once. It’s funny, but the director went on to win the Best Foreign Film Oscar some 30 years later with the very traditional Gate of Hell

a page of madness


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Have You Tried The Criterion Collection?

criterion

When I first started reading classic literature, I got to know the indispensable Norton Critical Editions. These wonderful volumes contain the text of the work with copious footnote. In addition, they provide supplementary material like criticism contemporary to the work and from today, original source material, etc. The Norton version of War and Peace contains the text with footnotes, a ton of maps, letters by and to Tolstoy which shed light on the novel, along with a wealth of essays from the time the novel was published and later. Armed with the Norton Critical edition of War and Peace, you are ready with for a thorough and completely satisfying encounter with Tolstoy’s epic.

Criterion appeared in 1984 with the advent of laserdiscs. While several of the great ‘art house’ classics had appeared on VHS, now a huge number of previously unavailable classics of world cinema were now available in breathtaking editions.  The random-access capability of the laserdisc  was conducive to the concept of ‘extras’, and the Criterion editions really went to town with them.  In addition to beautifully restored prints of the film, we got the option of additional soundtrack, often a running commentary on the film by the director or a film expert. Relevant shorts, storyboards, poster art and other goodies were crammed into these discs, providing for film the same kind of experience for films that the Norton Critical editions provided for literature.

When DVDs replaced laserdiscs, the amount and quality of the ‘extras’ grew exponentially.  Multiple soundtracks, full-length documentaries, shooting scripts, production stills, interviews with the directors, stars and/or technicians who worked on the film provided a treasure chest for the film lover.  You could now encounter Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, for example,  armed with an apparatus similar to that which the reader of the Norton Critical edition of War and Peace had. Needless to say, the arrival of Blu-ray kicked the storage capacity through the roof.  You could now have a disc featuring a film that would also have a complete two-hour documentary as well as various historical TV interview, alternative soundtracks, music scores and the like all on one little disc.  The learning these discs afford you is seemingly infinite.

In addition to the Criterion label, the company has two subdivisions:

1- Essential Art House offers the quality Criterion prints of the films, but in a bare-bones presentation, i.e., no ‘extras’. So, you can buy the super-duper editon of Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast with all the goodies, or just get the film itself without the frills in a beautiful print from Essential Art House. 

2-Eclipse offers bare-bones editions in box sets of films that aren’t featured on the main label or Essential Art House, but that the company feels should be out on DVD.  This gives us wonderful editions like a 5-disc edition of Late Ozu featuring films by that master not available anywhere else.

To give you a taste of the Criterion selections I have particularly loved, I went to my shelf and pulled off the first five that jumped out at me.

1- The Flowers of St. Francis (Roberto Rossellini)

 flowers of st. francis

Perfection. Gem-like. Hilarious. Reverent. Gorgeous. Raucous. Meditative.  All this in only 87 minutes. A good example of Criterion preserving a film that might otherwise have been forgotten. Should be pretty relevant viewing nowadays considering all the hub-bub surrounding the new guy in the Vatican.

2- Ugetsu Monogatari (Kenji Mizoguchi)

ugetsu

The greatest film ever made? Many say so.  Definitely one of the most exquisite looking and most heartbreaking. The Criterion edition is an embarrassment of riches. The two disc set comes with the film, another disc with wonderful interviews as well as a 2-hour plus documentary about Mizoguchi. There is also a 72-page booklet with essays on the film as well three stories that the film is based on.

3- Fanny And Alexander (Ingmar Bergman)

F& A

Do you also feel that the 3-hour theatrical release of Fanny and Alexander was way too short? Then this is the set for you! Along with the disc of the theatrical release, there is a two-disc set featuring the original 5-hour version that Bergman made for Swedish TV.  Five hours of pure heaven! In addition, you get a disc with a documentary on the making of the film, countless interviews with the stars and crew of the film as well as introductions that Bergman give for  11 (count ’em 11!) of his greatest film. That should take care of you!

4- The Music Room (Satyajit Ray)

Music room

The service that Criterion provides was brought home to me last week.  I had watched this DVD a few weeks ago and for some reason our local PBS station showed it in a very old, beat up print. Because the film is so magnificent, its greatness came through even in the bad copy. But then reviewing the DVD I realized that we can’t take Criterion’s curator role for granted!

5- When A Woman Ascends The Stairs (Mikio Naruse)

when a woman

This single disc had the greatest effect on me out of all the Criterion discs I have watched.  This came to me via a Netflix suggestion (‘If you liked The Seven Samurai why not try……’). It was a revelation. It set me off on my obsession with Naruse’s films and Japanese film in general.    Naruse is a master, up there with Ozu, Mizoguchi and Kurosawa. Unfortunately this is the only one of his sound films available in Region 1 (US) format. There is a 5-disc Eclipse set of Naruse silents.  We can only hope that more of this master’s work will be available soon from Criterion!

And while we’re at it, how about a Criterion edition of Jacque Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating?


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Ugetsu Monogatari (Kenji Mizoguchi)
  2. Heroes For Sale (William Wellman)
  3. Winter Light (Ingmar Bergman)
  4. The Queen (Stephen Frears)
  5. Equinox Flower (Yasujiro Ozu)
  6. Holy Motors (Leos Carax)
  7. The Harmonium In My Memory (Young-jae Lee )
  8. The In-Laws (Arthur Hiller)
  9. Miss Julie (Alf Sjöberg)
  10. Torment (Alf Sjöberg)

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1- Seeing Bergman’s trilogy again after many decades has been a very satisfying experience. What the hell did I make of these movies when I was 15 years old?

2- Watching The Queen again makes me realize yet again how irrelevant the Oscars are. Does anyone remember The Departed now?  Who would rather watch Gandhi than E.T?  The awards and the rankings just appear more and more ridiculous to me as time goes on.

3- What a treat to watch two films by Alf Sjöberg back to back while working my way again through Ingmar Bergman’s oeuvre.  Alf Sjöberg was one of Bergman’s mentor’s and indeed, Torment was Bergman’s first screenplay.It contains all the delightful misanthropy we have come to expect from him.   I thoroughly enjoyed Miss Julie, as well.  I remember that it was frequently programmed in the New York City revival houses of my youth, but since it was in Swedish and not  by Bergman, I gave it a pass. Ah, youth.


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Japanese Film: How To Get Started

Nihon

I wanted to write this introduction for a long time, because very little has given me as much pleasure as getting to know Japanese film, and I want to share that pleasure.  I thought that I could approach this vast topic in one of two ways: chronologically or thematically.

Of course, I decide to do both.

A few caveats before we start:

1- This is by no means an exhaustive survey of Japanese Cinema. For something on that scale, let me once again recommend Donald Richie’s magisterial  study, A Hundred Years of Japanese Film.  It’s a great book to read through and a wonderful reference book, as well.

2- Since I have abandoned any attempt to make this a ‘completist’ blog, instead making it about what it is of interest to me, you will note that many important genres will be missing. I am not very interested in anime nor in Japanese Noir (no yakuza for me, thank you).  You’ll have to find better-informed people to introduce you to these genres.

3- What we’ll look at is Japanese film of the golden era, from approximately 1940 through 1965.  I’m not well-informed about what comes before or after.  Hopefully, this post will give you an incentive to explore on your own.  If you do, please come back and post about what you’ve found.

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Chronological Assessment

Sound came to Japanese film much later than it did to Western film.  Because of this, many of the great Japanese directors honed their craft making silents. They developed distinctive visual styles in ways that many of their Western counterparts did not. According to Donald Richie, Western silents, especially those of Ernst Lubitsch, had a great influence on Japan. Interestingly, Richie points out that while Hollywood was baffled by the Expressionism and experimental films coming out of Germany such as The Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari and Nosferatu, the stylization of these films was completely consonant with the Japanese aesthetic. Because of this, you see what seem to be extraordinarily experimental early silent films coming out of Japan such as the extremely nutty A Page Of Madness (1926, Teinosuke Kinugasa) and Japanese Girls At The Harbor  (1933, Hiroshi Shimizu). Years later, Kinugasa directed one of the first Japanese films to win the Best Foreign Film Academy Award for Gates of Hell, a completely traditional historical drama. Shimizu would direct many traditional, lovely human dramas such as Mr. Thank You and Japanese Ornamental Hairpin.

The rise of militarism in the years before World War II manifests itself in many ways.  For example, the first films of Akira Kurosawa reflect an almost hysterical sense of loyalty to the emperor and the army. In The Most Beautiful, the manager at a periscope lens grinding factory has impressed upon the workers that in order to support Emperor and country, the men must increase their output by 100% and the women by 50%.  Our heroine, a distraught young team leader, prostrates herself in front of the manager begging him not to deny the women the chance to prove their loyalty by demanding less from them than from the men.  This, of course, makes her the most beautiful.

After the war, the self-criticism is swift and merciless. The cruelty of the Japanese occupation of Manchuria is unflinchingly depicted in Masaki Kobayashi’s 9-hour The Human Condition.  Kurosawa also explores the post-war self-recriminations in No Regrets For Our Youth. The Japanese self-analysis has absolutely no parallel in German film, especially so soon after the war.

I wonder if the immediate and intense examination of guilt and shame that Japanese film went through right after the war allowed the late 40s and the 50s to be decades that would witness art created at the highest level, art that was free of polemic and apology.

The quiet family masterpieces of Yasujiro Ozu, the historical epics as well as the contemporary dramas of Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi, the criminally unknown (at least in the West) films of Mikio Naruse, all appear in this period.

With the 60s, we see the rise of yakuza (gangster) films, disaffected youth films and giant-irradiated-monsters-destroying-Tokyo films.   Approach with caution.

Gozilla

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 Thematic Assessment

 Japanese films are classified as either gendai-geki (contemporary drama) or jidai-geki (historical drama). The first Japanese film to become an international sensation was the jidai-geki Rashomon of Akira Kurosawa. The stylization and the strangeness of the historical trappings came to define Japanese cinema in the West for decades. Even though Kurosawa made stunning gendai-geki such as High and Low and Ikiru, it seems that if there weren’t samurai, the West wasn’t interested.

This has changed over the years. Today, no Japanese film is held in higher regard than Yasujiro Ozu’s quiet and devastating 1953 meditation on the decay of the family, Tokyo Story. This film is emblematic of a sub-genre of the gendai-geki  called shomin-geki , or dramas of the ‘little people’, meaning the middle class.

Jidai-geki (historical drama)

 The most famous films of this genre take place in the times of civil unrest dating from about 1450 until 1600. Society was in upheaval and would not be tranquil again until the rise of the Tokugawa Shogunate in about 1600.  This period lasted until well into the 1860s with the rise of the Meiji emperor.

The films of this period present a world in chaos. The lives of poor simple people are tragically undone by the whirlwind of the times. Classic historical characters such as the ronin, the masterless samurai, are often the heroes of these story.  But just as often, the hero is the poor farmer who is trying to hold his life together in the middle of the turbulence. The women of these films run the gamut from the chaste princess to the good-hearted farmers wife to great seductresses who often wind up being ghosts with vengeance on their minds. No one plays the latter better than Machiko Kyo in Ugetsu Monogatari

Machiko Kyo working her stuff in Ugetsu Monogatari

Machiko Kyo working her stuff in Ugetsu Monogatari

The most famous (in the West at least) of the Japanese actors is Toshiro Mifune.  Though mostly known abroad for his roles in ‘samurai’ films like Yojimbo, Seven Samurai and Throne of Blood, he was brilliant in contemporary stories as well.

Mifune in Seven Samurai

Mifune in Seven Samurai

As an introduction to these historical films, I would suggest you start with the five following films:

A- Rashomon One of Akira Kurosawa’s masterpieces and the film that brought Japanese film into the Western consciousness.  The title has entered our language as the exemplar of shifting narrative reliability. It is one of the great works which tackle the topic ‘How can we know what is true?’  The answer seems to be that we can’t, but we must derive comfort where we can. An endlessly fascinating movie.

Rashomon: Mifune and Kyo being duplicitous....or are they?

Rashomon: Mifune and Kyo being duplicitous….or are they?

B- Ugetsu Monogatari  (Tales of Rain and the Moon) – Many would argue that with this film Kenji Mizoguchi reached the pinnacle not only of Japanese film-making but film-making in general. Everything is here – the world in upheaval due to constant war, an erotic ghost-love story, the wrenching story of women destroyed by the folly of men. It contains some of the most breathtaking camera movements in all of cinema.

The legendary Lake Biwa scene in Ugetsu Monogatari

The legendary Lake Biwa scene in Ugetsu Monogatari

C- Kwaidan (Ghost Stories) – Masaki Kobayashi’s great collection of four wonderful ghost stories based on the collection made in the early 1900s by Lafcadio Hearne. Hearne was an Englishman who completely assimilated into and absorbed Japanese culture.  A ravishing film with exquisite use of color.

Hoichi The Earless episode from Kwaidan

Hoichi The Earless episode from Kwaidan

 D- Red Beard – Although Kurosawa sets this film in the late 19th Century, his fanatical obsession with historical accuracy makes this film one of the  great examples of jidai-geki. The story of an arrogant young medical student coming under the spell of the fascinating title hero, a seasoned country doctor played by Mifune, and thereby growing into an integrated human being, stands unashamedly next to any 19th Century Bildungsroman.  This huge film has one of the greatest hearts of any work of art I can think of.

Master and disciple in Red Beard

Master and disciple in Red Beard

E- Throne Of Blood – Like Verdi, Kurosawa loved Shakespeare. This is his Macbeth.  It would be followed by his take on Hamlet (The Bad Sleep Well) and his final masterpiece based on King Lear (Ran). This film contains the single scariest embodiment of Lady Macbeth that I know of.

Isuzu Yamada as Lady Asaji in Throne of Blood

Isuzu Yamada as Lady Asaji in Throne of Blood

Gendai-geki (Contemporary drama)

The costume dramas of jidai-geki signal ‘Japan’ to us by the look and stylization of the films. It is interesting to observe that the contemporary works of gendai-geki also signal ‘Japan’ to us not from their surface but what is bubbling underneath. The greatest of these are films of the small but loaded gesture.  Inference is prized over explicit expression. The powerful climaxes are quiet.

Here are five films to watch to give you an idea of the breadth and depth of Gendai-geki:

A- Osaka Elegy – Kenji Mizoguchi is perhaps best know in the west for his period dramas, but his contemporary dramas, especially those depicting the plight of contemporary women before and after World War II are astonishing. This film tells the wrenching story of a young woman slaving to support her rapacious family, only to have them reject her when they discover the compromises she has made for their sake. Very often, families are depicted as mercenary in gendai-geki, but the family in this film goes beyond what is usually depicted. The final shot of the woman walking straight into the camera, embracing her downward spiral, is devastating

osaka elegy

B- Arigato-san (Mr. Thank You) – One of the loveliest films I have ever seen.  In a way it is a precursor to John Ford’s Stage Coach in that it represents a cross-section of society on a journey and the relationships that grow and die along the journey. As I have written elsewhere on this blog, it is so rare to have a thoroughly good central character who does not become cloying.  The bus driver, so nicknamed by his penchant to thank pedestrians who move out of his ways, is at once saintly and a thoroughly down-to-earth man. We all deserve a trip on Mr. Thank You’s bus

Arigato gozaimasu!

Arigato gozaimasu!

C- Tokyo Story – There is really nothing like the films of Yasujiro Ozu. The characters’ reticence, the static camera, the uneventful plots seem to float along like a lazy river until the climax hits you like a tidal wave. This film is hailed not only Ozu’s greatest, but one of the greatest of all time. The depiction of the unraveling of a family is magnificent in its restraint but overwhelming in its final impact.  The last 20 minutes or so are sublime.  As New York Times critic A. O. Scott says in his lovely tribute, ‘It’s merely perfect’

A.O. Scott’s video tribute to Tokyo Story

 D- High and Low – Although Akira Kurosawa is best known for his samurai films, one of his most accomplished films is based on an Ed McBain detective story (of all things!).  The title in Japanese is more literally translated as ‘Heaven and Hell’ and that title beautifully contrasts the world of privilege which is assaulted from below. This taut thriller is quite a ride.  The use of widescreen is stunning and the end is harrowing.

 

The Final Confrontation. Yikes!

The Final Confrontation. Yikes!

 E- When a Woman Ascends The Stairs – In a time when one has access to every episode of The Brady Bunch, it is criminal that hardly any of the films of Mikio Naruse are available in the Region 1 (US) format. Once again, we are indebted to Criterion for giving us at least this one sound film of his, along with three of his silents.  His oeuvre rivals any of the other great directors.  Kurosawa said of his films were  “like a great river with a calm surface and a raging current in its depths.”  How true that statement is. This  film depicts a once successful mama-san, or manager of a hostess bar in the Ginza district of Tokyo, coming to terms with her diminished situation.   The central character, played by Naruse’s muse, the stunning Hideko Takamine, is as richly drawn and as memorable as Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina.

Hideko Takamine

Hideko Takamine

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The more I write this article, the more I feel I want to introduce and discuss, but since this was meant as an introduction and not as a doctoral thesis, I will stop here, but not without promising to focus more on individual Japanese films, directors and actors in the near future.

Please let me know about your adventures in the Cinema of the Rising Sun