The Discreet Bourgeois

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


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Have You Tried Mikio Naruse?

Mikio Naruse

To celebrate the Akira Kurosawa centennial in 2010, TCM showed almost all of his films.  This appealed mightily to my completist personality, so I taped and watched them all.  I had previously seen some of his famous jidaigeki (historical) films such as Rashomon, Throne of Blood and Seven Samurai, but I had never seen any of his gendaigeki (contemporary) films. Stray Dog, Ikiru and especially High and Low were revelations.

I loaded up my Netflix queue with the Kurosawas that TCM did not show, and in the process became a full-fledged Japanese film obsessive.  I was familiar with Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi films, so I followed up my Kurosawa study with as many of their films as I could find.  Whenever I would add a film by one of these masters to my queue, Netflix would make its inevitable ‘If you liked {fill in film name}, why not try ……..’  The film that kept popping up as a suggestion was When A Woman Ascends The Stairs by Mikio Naruse, a director then unknown to me.  The title sounded ghastly so I kept putting it off until it arrived one day in a wonderful Criterion edition.  I watched it and was astounded.  In fact, I watched it twice in a row, the second time with Donald Richie commentary.

When A Woman Ascends The Stairs tells the story of a ‘mama’ or manager of a nightclub in the Ginza district of Tokyo. The main character, Keiko is relatively young, but is beginning to realize that her days in this profession might be numbered.  We watch her work to find financial and emotional security, before the inevitable day that she is ‘too old’.   This film was my introduction to the luminous Hideko Takamine, who is Naruse’s muse the way Setsuko Hara and Kinuyo Tanaka fill that role for Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi, respectively.

hideko takamine

The film combined the restrained sense of Ozu and the feminist sensibility of Mizoguchi and the grittiness of Kurosawa’s gendaideki films, but it was something else again.  After watching it several more times, I was hungry to see as much Naruse as I could.  I was stymied because all that was available in Region 1 format besides When A Woman Ascends The Stairs were Silent Naruse, which I devoured immediately.

The trail for more Naruse went cold until, miraculously, the University of Chicago’s Doc Films had an 11-week series spotlighting the collaboration of Naruse and Takamine.  I was in heaven. Every week was a revelation.  I was amazed and frustrated that such wonderful films were unavailable to the  general public (at least, unavailable to the general public in Region 1!).

Please don’t be annoyed if I recommend a few of these hard-to-see films.  I do have copies of all of them, so you are more than welcome to stop by my place and watch them with me.

1- Lightning (Inazuma)  – 1952

Inazuma

Based on a novel by Fumiko Hayashi, an author that Naruse often turned to, Lightning tells the story of how Kiyoko (Hideko Takamine) subtly but definitively extricates herself from her highly dysfunctional family and finds an idyllic life on her own. The move from her crazy family’s home to an almost magical apartment of her own, next-door to an angelic brother and sister, is depicted so richly.  I love this film

2- Flowing (Nagareru) – 1956

flowing

Takamine plays the daughter of the owner of geisha house that is slowly going out of business.  The mother is played by legendary Isuzu Yamada, best known as the terrifying Lady Macbeth equivalent in Throne of Blood. Kinuyo Tanaka is also on hand to provide a Greek chorus for the action.

The unwillingness of the mother and her geisha to come to terms with the fact that the house’s days are numbered, makes for an experience as wrenching as Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard.  A moving film.  Takamine has more of a secondary role here.  The film belongs to Yamada.

3- Daughters, Wives and a Mother (Musume, Tsuma, Haha) – 1960.

This film came out the same year as When A Woman Ascends The Stairs. It is similar in richness and it is in color. The film shows the slow dissolution of a once prosperous family through the negligence and selfishness of the children. The end is heartbreaking. Ozu’s muse Setsuko Hara plays an atypically passive character and Takamine has a small role as a daughter-in-law.  There is one particularly funny scene that comes at the most emotional part of the film.  It involves eating crackers.  That’s all I’m going to say.

So,  please try Naruse.  Some of the other films might be hard to track down but you have no excuse not to see (and love) When A Woman Ascends The Stairs.

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Setsuko Hara 1920 – 2015

setsuko hara

This past Sunday,  the New York Times reported the death of Japanese actress Setsuko Hara. She died back in September, but her family only just released the information.

It is hard to underestimate Setsuko Hara’s place in Japanese film and, in turn, in world cinema. To give an idea of the mystique and power of Hara’s presence on film, here is a quote from author Shusaku Endo. Upon seeing one of her films ‘…we would sigh or let out a great breath from the depths of our hearts, for what we felt was precisely this: Can it be possible that there is such a woman in this world?”

Setsuko Hara’s position in Japanese film has interesting parallels with Greta Garbo’s position in Western cinema.  Both had an extraordinary but unusual beauty.  Both were actors of genius.  Both were intensely private.  Most relevant for the parallel, though, is that both quit filmmaking at the height of acclaim, Garbo aged 36, living another 49 years in seclusion,  Setsuko Hara aged 46, also living for another 49 years out of the public eye. Reasons for these retirements were never conclusive.  Perhaps they were just tired of making films.  Perhaps they realized they could never exceed their own best work. We’ll never know.

What we do know is the body of work that both actresses left behind.

Hara was best known as the muse of director Yasujiro Ozu. Her most iconic roles were as three different characters named Noriko in three different Ozu films.

In Tokyo Story she plays the widowed daughter-in-law of the main couple, who is the only one of the next generation to show any love and tenderness to these aging parents.  Her stoicism in the face of what must be a very difficult life gives her character memorable depth.  In a scene towards the end of the film, her expression, a mixture of polite laughter and repressed tears, as she discusses with the youngest daughter of the family, the cruelty and indifference of children to their parents, is devastatingly understated and devastatingly powerful.

In Late Spring, another Noriko is living contentedly with her recently widowed father. Through a series of subtle misunderstandings, each come to believe that the other wants to marry and it is only his or her own selfishness that is standing in the way of this happening.  This is not the case, but it does not prevent the characters from tragically doing the wrong thing for the right reason. Hara’s speech to her father, magnificently clad as a bride, just before she leaves to the wedding ceremony is achingly sad in its restraint.

noriko as bride

In Early Summer, (known in Japanese as Barley Harvest),  yet another Noriko gently, self-effacingly but forcefully outmaneuvers her family’s pick for a husband and makes her own choice.  By the end of the film, we are not quite sure why she chooses the man she does, but it is done with such grace and such quiet urgency, that it seems inevitable.

Famous actors, actresses and directors die all the time. Setsuko Hara’s death had a more powerful effect on me than most.  It is this: even though she had not appeared in a film since the Sixties, I knew that she was alive and living in a retirement home in Kamakura outside Tokyo.  With her still alive, this world was still linked to a golden age that is no longer. Her presence, as tenuous as it was, anchored us to that time.  With her passing, that golden age, slips more and more into history and ceases to be a living entity.  Inevitable, I suppose, but quietly tragic nonetheless.


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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. Kuroneko (Kaneto Shindo)
  2. Lola (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
  3. Fort Apache (John Ford)
  4. Veronika Voss (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
  5. Macbeth (Orson Welles)
  6. All These Women (Ingmar Bergman)
  7. The Son of the Sheik (George Fitzmaurice)
  8. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson)
  9. Deathdream (Bob Clark)
  10. Ginza Cosmetics (Mikio Naruse)

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1- When I first when crazy for movies, like around the age of 12 or so, I saw Orson Welles’ Macbeth on TV and was bowled over. I was intrigued by the play to begin with, but I had never seen anything like the movie. The ultra-expressionistic lighting and camerawork were thrilling to me. I roundly declared it my favorite movie.  I hadn’t seen it since then, but I had seen the other Welles Shakespeare adaptations (Othello, Chimes At Midnight) and was concerned that my youthful enthusiasm would be a little embarrassing to the adult me. I must say, that for what it is, it is really good.  He kind of massacres the play to make it fit into his vision. Characters are cut, new ones invented but it works.  Very well.  Jeannette Nolan is terrifying as Lady Macbeth.  Roddy McDowell is adorable and callow as the young Malcolm. I wonder how much Kurosawa was influenced by the Welles film when he made Throne of Blood? Perhaps not at all.  Perhaps the two films seem similar because an film version of the play would have to have to have similar atmospherics.

2-  I first got to know Ingmar Bergman when I was about 15 years old. One of the local TV stations would show his films late on Saturday night, hosted by critic Judith Crist. I was enthralled.  I am pretty sure that it was the only time that I saw All These Women.  I don’t know what I made of it then. Probably I thought something like ‘Europeans are very witty about sex and the relations between men and women.  This is probably very funny and when I am older I will understand it’   Well, I am older and it is awful.  I see what he was doing.  It is a sex farce but extremely labored. Smiles of a Summer Night from about 10 years before seems so much more effortless and honest (as well as funnier!) He seems use Fellini’s 8 1/2 as his jumping-off point, but in addition, he has his knife particularly sharpened for the critics. It is extremely tedious.  Hard to believe this is what he chose to make after the harrowing films informally referred to as Bergman’s Trilogy (Through A Glass Darkly, Winter Light, The Silence). Talk about a change of pace!

What really struck me is how even with this mediocre film he exerted such an influence on Woody Allen.  The smarmy sex jokes, the frantic farce pace, even the choice of music – a 20s Jazz band version of ‘Yes, We Have No Bananas’, seem to inform the Allen farce style.

3- Rudolph Valentino dressed up in sheik garb is so iconic, that I figured it was probably unnecessary to see the films that the images come from, since they were probably awful. Well I was a little right. The movie, The Son of The Sheik, is a dumb, Arabian-nights piece of fluff but what struck me was the erotic gaze of the camera on Valentino.  He was extremely gorgeous and exuded a real animal sex appeal. Is this the earliest example of a man being objectivized by the camera?  Probably not, but it is maybe the most powerful.

4- I really didn’t like Wes Anderson – then I saw The Grand Budapest Hotel and was delighted. But, I thought it was a fluke, its success riding on the wonderful performance of Ralph Fiennes. Wrong.  Moonrise Kingdom completely charmed me, despite my earnestly trying to hate it for the first 20 minutes.  I watched it twice in one day. I wonder what delights Mr. Anderson has in store for us.

5- In Deathdream, a variation on the famous short story, The Monkey’s Paw, a distraught mother prays that the notification of her son’s death in Vietnam is an error and that he will return home.  Well, she gets her wish, sorta. I remember this truly horrifying film fondly from my days in NYC when one of the local stations would show horror films late on Saturday night.  Deathdream was a standout among the other kind of awful but fun films that were shown.  What strikes me now is that this was filmed at the height of the anti-war protests.  Could war really turn us into family killing zombies?

6- I really need to write a Have You Tried ….. piece about the great, unjustly unknown in the West Mikio Naruse.  Stay tuned.

 


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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


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Lacombe, Lucien (Louis Malle)
  2. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (Fred Schepisi)
  3. The Tarnished Angels (Douglas Sirk)
  4. Make Mine Mink (Robert Asher)
  5. Orpheus (Jean Cocteau)
  6. All That Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk)
  7. Lightning (Mikio Naruse)
  8. The Verdict (Don Siegel)
  9. Lifeboat  (Alfred Hitchcock)
  10. Fort Apache  (John Ford)

 

1- I have been trying to see as much Douglas Sirk as I can lay my eyes on. Some of it is astounding, some of it is excruciating. All That Heaven Allows falls into the astounding group, and The Tarnished Angels, along with the supremely insane Written On The Wind,  for me, alas, fall into the excruciating group.  It might just be me, though. When I first saw Imitation of Life, I wanted to throw things at the TV. Now I think it is a masterpiece. Not on the level of All That Heaven Allows, but a masterpiece.  Stay tuned for an article on Sirk appreciation, soon I hope.

2- Both  Lacombe, Lucien and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith are powerful works on the destructive power of racism and hatred. Both are films that I have heard of for years but never got a chance to see.  Thank you, TCM

3- After the magnificent but depressing experience of the two films above, the exact tonic I needed was Make Mine Mink. For some reason I always thought it was a Doris Day vehicle. Much to my delight it turned out to be one of those confections of absolute insanity that only the British of the 1950/60s could have created. All hail, Terry-Thomas.

4- Over the years I have viewed and re-viewed Beauty and the Beast by Jean Cocteau.  I had seen Orpheus years ago and remembered it as beautiful but difficult.  Seeing it again, it was still very beautiful, but seemed less substantive than the perfection that is Beauty and the Beast. And was there ever a more beautiful man than Jean Marais?

Jean Marais

5- The ‘Cavalry Trilogy’ of John Ford occupies a position in his oeuvre comparable to that of the Henriad in Shakespeare’s canon.  A recent viewing of Fort Apache convinced me of this.  If I ever get over my natural indolence, I will write a piece telling you why.

6- It’s time for a Have You Tried…. piece on Mikio Naruse.  He is criminally unknown and amazingly wonderful.

7- Having seen it over 30 years ago, I remembered Lifeboat as one of those ambitious but failed Hitchcock experiments, like Rope. Man, was I wrong. The constraints he puts on himself seem to unleash his genius even more. Take that, Lars Van Trier and your Five damned Obstructions!

 

 

 


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Knowing

Netflix suggested that ‘I might like’ to watch When A Woman Ascends The Stairs by Mikio Naruse They were right. Ever since, I have made a study of that underappreciated master.  Unfortunately, all that was available in Region 1 format was the aforementioned masterpiece as well as five silent films, all from Criterion.   I read longingly of films that I despaired of ever seeing, films with intriguing titles like Floating Clouds, The Sound of the Mountain and Lightning.   I kept watching When A Woman Ascends The Stairs, amazed at how such a work of genius was hardly known, and foisting it on anyone who would sit still for it.

Much to my amazement, this past winter, the University of Chicago’s Doc Films programmed a series featuring the collaboration of Naruse with his muse, the actress Hideko Takemine, who so reluctantly ascends those stairs.  Week after week, I sat in the Max Palevsky Theater transfixed.  I was also thrilled that the theater was packed every week. Since those glorious ten weeks, I was able to get my hands on copies of some of the films shown in the series, as well as others I had only read about.

Which brings me to Meshi.  The film stars the legendary Setsuko Hara, who was the muse of Yasujiro Ozu.  It subtly depicts the unraveling of a marriage.  After soul-crushing years of cooking and cleaning for her husband in Osaka,  Hara reaches a breaking point and returns on what seems like a permanent visit to her mother and siblings in Tokyo.   After some time, the husband appears in Tokyo. The two of them stroll the streets, discussing what their future might be.

Their conversation is interrupted by a bunch of young men in some kind of costume, playing music, circling an ornate box of some kind and generally making a large commotion.  Husband and wife look at each other, smile and begin the mending of the relationship.

This incident which was so well understood by the characters baffled me.  Of course, I was able to say to myself : ‘This ceremony is well known to a Japanese audience and either its significance or the nostalgia it evokes creates a healing bond between the characters.  Don’t worry about the specifics.’  I remained engrossed until the end of the picture.

I have immersed myself in all things Japanese for several years now, with a special concentration on Japanese film.   Good background reading, ranging from the wonderful Criterion Collection liner notes to Donald Richie’s magisterial A Hundred Years of Japanese Film, has been my Baedeker’s on my journey into Japanese culture and history. However, this scene jolted me.  I felt face to face with the unknowable. Sure, I could intellectualize the import of what I saw, but I would never know it on a gut level the way a Japanese audience would.  That thought made feel  that a full-scale assault on Japanese film was doomed.  The world I was intoxicated with was just too vast and too ‘other’ for me to completely lose myself in.

This began to seem a little too dramatic to me, so I began to think of similar experiences in other films.  I remembered the scene in The Best Years of Our Lives when the Dana Andrews character is working as a soda jerk and his service in the war is belittled by a yahoo wearing a prominently displayed  American Flag pin.  After making Andrews feel like a chump for his war service, the guy flashes the pin with a knowing smirk and Andrews goes ballistic.  And I have no idea what that pin signifies.  Once again, in the moment of watching the film I can tell myself ‘OK, this is some kind of isolationist jerk who clearly does not understand what our hero has been through. That’s enough for now’.   And of course it is. The audience of 1946 probably would know automatically what the pin and the guy wearing it signify.  The immediacy of that knowledge has receded with time.  Just like the immediacy of the ceremony in Meshi recedes behind a cultural mist.

The moral of the story is that you do assimilate by understanding the best you can.   One’s inconclusive attempts at understanding do bring you close to a kind of truth.