The Discreet Bourgeois

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


The Koker Trilogy by Abbas Kiarostami

No less a person than Akira Kurosawa had this to say about the films of Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami: “When Satyajit Ray passed on, I was very depressed. But after seeing Kiarostami’s films, I thanked God for giving us just the right person to take his place.”

I had only seen one film by Kiarostami, A Taste of Cherry. It was universally declared a masterpiece, but I just didn’t get it. I didn’t watch anything else by him for years. It might have been one of the biggest mistakes of my cinematic life.

Once again, I am going to extol the Criterion Channel, which has allowed me to catch up with many missed masterpieces. I had watched Jafar Panahi’s The White Balloon last week and when reading about it, I learned that Panahi was Kiarostami’s protege, and that his film was greatly influenced by Kiarostami’s Where is the Friend’s Home? So, I watched it.

Like The White Balloon, Where is the Friend’s Home tells the story of a child on a quest. This child’s quest is not the self-serving quest to get a goldfish for herself for the New Year celebration, as it is for the little girl in The White Balloon. The little boy in this film has accidentally taken his deskmate’s notebook home with him after class. His deskmate has been humiliated several times by their teacher and threatened with punishment for not doing his homework in his notebook, because he had left it at his cousin’s house. Since our hero has his little friend’s notebook, he fears that the teacher will get angry and expel his hapless desk mate. He has a vague idea where his friend lives in the next village and, despite his mother’s forbidding him to leave, the moral imperative to do right by his friend is so strong that there is no question that he must get the notebook back, despite impossible odds. The trip from his home town of Koker to the nearby town of Poshteh where he thinks his friend lives comprises the bulk of the film.

This very simple premise spins out into an epic quest. The quiet building of the climax is as subtle and as powerful as anything in the films of Ozu. The denouement is understated and simply gorgeous. It is unexpected and inevitable.

If it had been a stand-alone film, it would have still been a high point of world cinema. But five years and two films later, Kiarostami made And Life Goes On and that is when things get transcendent.

And Life Goes On opens with a man, playing a fictional version of the director of Where is the Friend’s Home, and his young son on a road trip. We find that they are driving from Tehran to the site of the recent devastating earthquake in the north. The objective of this quest is to see if the two actors who played the little boys in Where is the Friend’s Home survived the disaster. Shot on the site of the earthquake, the pair run into many of the non-professional actors from the first film in their ‘real’ life. Perhaps the man on the quest is a stand-in for Kiarostami himself?

The difficulty of looking for the boys echoes the travails of the little hero of Where is the Friend’s Home. The quest in the first film is constantly thwarted by an adult world that cannot or will not understand the urgency of what he must do. The quest in the second film is thwarted by nothing less than nature itself, in the form of the earthquake that has made chaos of life. But both of these conflicts give Kiarostami and his co-writer the opportunity to explore the richness of this almost primitive world that none of us know, perhaps not even people from Tehran.

There are many visual rhymes that connect both films and the meta-textual references to the characters and actors of the previous film expand this cinematic world in a dizzying way.

But wait! There’s more!

Two years later Kiarostami makes Through The Olive Trees.

The premise of this film is the behind-the-scenes look at the making of And Life Goes On. The protagonist of that film is now shown as what he is, an actor playing the role of the director of Where is the Friend’s House. An elaborate and heartbreaking back story is given to a short scene from And Life Goes On. We watch the scene being shot, take after take, all the while learning about the life of the ‘characters’ on either side of the fictional camera shooting And Life Goes On.

The denouements of each succeeding film are increasingly ambiguous. The closer each film gets to ‘real life’ the larger the scope becomes and the less neat its conclusion.

The final shot of Through The Olive Trees is one of the most audacious set-ups I can think of. Its exquisite resolution is just perfect for the ‘real life’ we have arrived at by the end of this trilogy.

I can’t wait to see more by this master. I will start by rewatching A Taste of Cherry

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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Bend Of The River (Anthony Mann)
  2. The Far Country (Anthony Mann)
  3. The Wizard of Lies (Barry Levinson)
  4. Strangers on a Train (Alfred Hitchcock)
  5. David and Lisa (Frank Perry)
  6. The Marrying Kind (George Cukor)
  7. The Shop Around The Corner (Ernst Lubitsch)
  8. Record of a Tenant Gentleman (Yasujiro Ozu)
  9. Julieta (Pedro Almodóvar)
  10. Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children (Tim Burton)


1- I am a great devotee of the Westerns of John Ford, as every think person should be.  Lately I have discovered his runner-up.  The Western of Anthony Mann are as morally interesting as the best of Ford.   His use of James Stewart is as satisfying and varied as Ford’s use of John Wayne.

2- I remember David and Lisa from my childhood days watching The Million Dollar Movie on WOR in New York.  That show would screen the same movie every night for a week, allowing nerds like me practically to memorize films that intrigued me.  I haven’t seen this film in over 40 years, but that repeated viewing helped me to remember it well.  What I remembered most was my feeling as a kid that this was an ‘adult’ movie. Not a risque movie, but a movie for which you would need an adult sensibility to properly appreciate.  I was wondering what passes for ‘adult’ now.  I couldn’t think of many examples.

3- I guess that Pedro Almodovar is the greatest genius making films today.  Julieta is so emotionally powerful, so cinematically interesting, so engaging.  I need to read the Alice Munro stories it is based on to see how he put his own mark on the work

4- Guilty Pleasure: the films of Tim Burton.  There is a great sweetness behind the jocular creepiness that really appeals to me. Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children I found delightful.  I could have done without the extended CGI battle scene at the end, but I concede that such scenes are de rigeur nowadays.

5- I had always thought of Strangers On A Train as way up there in the Hitchcock pantheon.  But this time around, I was aware of how he kind of lost his grip on the whole project towards the end.  Don’t get me wrong. It is still amazingly good. Just not The Birds

6- I had heard that Record of a Tenant Gentleman was minor Ozu.  Bosh.  It is as subtle and affecting as anything in his oeuvre.



Have You Tried Ozu’s Noriko Trilogy?

For most great directors there is a period of great creative fertility where a series of masterpiece appear in quick succession.  Think of Hitchcock with  Vertigo, North By Northwest, Psycho and The Birds. Think of Ingmar Bergman with Smiles of a Summer Night, The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries and The Virgin Spring.  Think of Federico Fellini with La Strada, Nights of Cabiria, La Dolce Vita and  8½.

There is a similar run of masterpieces in the output of Yasujiro Ozu.  Late Spring (1949), Early Summer (1951) and Tokyo Story (1953) are often referred to as the ‘Noriko trilogy’ since the lead actress of each of these films, Setsuko Hara, plays a young woman named Noriko.  The three Norikos are not related but one would have to think that there is a common thematic element that Ozu and his co-screenwriter Kogo Noda are drawing our attention to by so naming the heroines of all three films.


 One of the traps of writing about movies, is that it is easy to impose a construct on the films and directors that might not be there, no matter how good your argument might be. The classic take on these films is to say that Ozu and Noda were examining the life of young women in post World War II Japan.  I don’t believe that was their intention. I believe they were simply doing what they always did throughout their collaboration: depicting the tensions and, often, the disintegration of the post World War Japanese family.  The fact that all three films pivot on the central ‘Noriko’ figure does give this special focus, but I don’t believe that is the intention.
The three Norikos are very different characters. The most complicated is the Noriko of Late Spring. Here she is the grown daughter of a widowed father.  They live together in cozy harmony.  Noriko is happy with the arrangement and is not very interested in starting a home life of her own. Soon, external pressures come to bear and her father is convinced that he is being selfish by keeping her home with him, even though this is what they both want.  This play out to its logical conclusion, and in true Ozu fashion, the ending is quietly devastating.
The Noriko of Early Summer is another figure entirely.  She is the member of a somewhat chaotic and somewhat self-centered family. They are held together by familial bonds but also by economic necessity. They all need to live together given the harsh economic realities of post World War II Japan.  The family is constantly pressuring Noriko to make a marriage that will be advantageous to them all.  At first she resists the notion entirely, then rejects the suitors that are selected for her. In the end, in what in the West might be viewed as an example of Feminist strength, she chooses someone whose situation forces Noriko (and her salary) to leave the family home, ultimately leading to the dispersal of the family unit.
Much has been written of the Noriko of Tokyo Story.  Setsuko Hara’s performance here is astounding.  The quiet grace tinged with tragedy, the hints of great dissatisfaction with her past and present life are powerful. She is probably the most complex and fully integrated person among the three Norikos, especially contrasted with the somewhat neurotic chastity of Late Spring and the ambivalent sense of self in Early Summer.  
Please watch all three of these films.  They are each towering masterpieces.


The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Citizen Kane (Orson Welles)
  2. Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock)
  3. Faust (F.W. Murnau)
  4. Late Spring (Yasujiro Ozu)
  5. Early Summer (Yasujiro Ozu)
  6. Mr. Kaplan (Alvaro Brechner)
  7. The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice (Yasujiro Ozu)
  8. Diary of a Lost Girl (G. W. Pabst)
  9. Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu)
  10. Spotlight (Tom McCarthy)


1- Citizen Kane is described as the greatest film ever made. While it is impossible (and pointless) to quantify that title, many critics, film lovers and journalists have worked hard to maintain it over the decades.  The highly-regarded Sight + Sound poll, which has appeared every ten years since 1952, had Citizen Kane first place in every poll from 1962 through 2002.  Then in 2012 it fell to second place, replaced by Vertigo. What does it mean? Nothing? A backlash against fifty years of being an unassailable icon? Perhaps, since critics and film devotees are often peevish folk. I had the pleasure of watching both of these films back to back recently.  I had seen them both about a million times. Seeing them in such quick succession highlighted how different they are in form and execution.  On the surface, Citizen Kane is a dazzling, precocious, exhilirating explosion of cinematic joy.  Under the surface, it is a profound rumination on the nature of truth and perception.  Vertigo presents a cool, controlled surface, and underneath it is a roiling sea of suppressed passion. Vertigo is not as linear in its story-telling as it first appears, and Citizen Kane is not as complicated as it first appears. So,  is Vertigo now greater than Citizen Kane? Shut up and stop asking such stupid questions.  Instead, watch them both as many times as you can, then come back here and give me your observations.  Both films are gifts that keep giving.  Don’t insult them by trying to rank them.

2- Late Spring, Early Summer and Tokyo Story comprise what is often referred to as Yasujiro’s Noriko trilogy.  Look for a Have You Tried…… piece on these three films appearing soon at a blog near you.

3- The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice is reassuring in that it shows even masters like Ozu can falter.  The film is OK, but doesn’t have the depth or incisive character study of many of his other films.  Glad I saw it, of course.

4- Diary of a Lost Girl  is the poster child for everything that is perverse and outre in German Expressionism. It is so sick and depressing, yet so much fun to watch. Yuck.  I think I need a Blue Angel chaser soon.

5- You never know where Life’s little pleasures will pop up.  Apparently there is a Spanish Film Club that meets periodically on the University of Chicago campus.  That is where I got to see Mr. Kaplan, a lovely mash-up of Holocaust survivor story and Don Quixote. I have no idea where you can find it but I recommend it highly.  It was delight and very moving.  I will post more information about this film club as I find it.

6- Talking about competent films: Spotlight.  One of the ‘important’ Best Picture Oscar winners which probably win the award because of the serious issues it deals with.  Think Crash, Kramer vs. Kramer, All The President’s Men.  Good films all, but would you keep going back to them? Probably not.





The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Black Narcissus (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)
  2. Now, Voyager (Irving Rapper)
  3. A Lesson in Love (Ingmar Bergman)
  4. Un Chien Andalou (Luis Buñuel/Salvador Dali)
  5. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Luis Buñuel)
  6. Yoyo (Pierre Étaix)
  7. Smiles of a Summer Night (Ingmar Bergman)
  8. I Was Born But….. (Yasujiro Ozu)
  9. As Long As You Have Your Health (Pierre Étaix)
  10. Baby Face Herrington (Raoul Walsh)
1- It is almost a cliché now to hear the films of Douglas Sirk referred to as feminist and subversive.  I agree they are. However, I need to stress that Now Voyager got there before Sirk did.  This film, depicting an unloved and abused child triumphing over adversity by her own inner strength, is astounding for the period.  Sure, Charlotte Vale does get great insight from the psychiatrist played by Claude Raines, but he merely puts her on the right track and gives her the shove she needs.  From then on, it is all her own doing. Yes, there is a love interest, but amazingly, as Charlotte Vane reintegrates her damaged psyche into her life, she finds that she has moved beyond the need for a man to save her. Of course, only Bette Davis could have played this.

2- In the early 50s it would have been hard to predict that Ingmar Bergman would turn into the profound artist of the later 50s and beyond.  So many of his early films are light, slightly risqué comedies of manners.  It is interesting to watch an early film like A Lesson In Love and then compare it to Smiles of a Summer Night. Both star the magnificent Eva Dahlbeck and dapper Gunnar Bjornstrand.  Both deal winkingly with the notion of sexual attraction and fidelity.  The early film is nice but very slight.  The latter is light but profound, evidence that Bergman is broadening his scope.

3- Do I change or do films age badly?  I used to adore The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. I even named this blog after it.  Rewatching it proved a bit tedious.  The shaggy-doggedness of it wore thin way before the film ended.  I noticed the same feeling when I rewatched The Exterminating Angel. However, Un Chien Andalou holds up in all its insane and anarchic glory.  Could its short length work in its favor?  Just how long should a shaggy dog run for?What about it, David Lynch?

4- I am rewatching the films of Pierre Étaix in order to write a Have Your Tried  post about him.  Stay tuned. What a delight.

5- TCM continues to be a source of cinematic bounty. No one would accuse Baby Face Herrington of being a classic in any sense of the word, but it gives you a great idea of what a solid B-picture comedy was like in the early 30s.  It was an adaptation of a Broadway play, so you get a glimpse into that world as well. Plus you get an appearance by the always-delightful Una Merkel.  What’s bad about that?



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.


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)


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.


Japanese Film: How To Get Started


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.


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.



 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


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. Pride (Matthew Warchus)
  2. The Immigrant (James Gray)
  3. Time Regained (Raul Ruiz)
  4. Un Cuento Chino (Sebastián Borensztein)
  5. The Marriage Circle (Ernst Lubitsch)
  6. The Land of Milk and Honey (Pierre Étaix)
  7. Throne of Blood (Akira Kurosawa)
  8. Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)
  9. The Quiet Duel (Akira Kurosawa)
  10. Through A Glass Darkly (Ingmar Bergman)


1- Having finally completed reading the entire À la recherche du temps perdu (shameless bragging freely admitted),  I have been on a quest to read and see everything that can help me relive that wonderful experience.  I wouldn’t let myself watch Raul Ruiz’ Time Regained until I finished reading the whole cycle. I  felt I would never get to see this movie because of this silly rule I imposed on myself.  I’m glad I did. This is a film only for people who have read, loved, obsessed over, shared, hated and lived in Proust’s great work. I can’t imagine who else would get it.  It is magnificent in its compression – the spirit of the work is so well captured in small and big strokes.  Even though the movie ostensibly concentrates on the last volume, there are flashes of earlier, important events and the juxtapositions between past and present would have made Proust proud.  The casting is wonderful. Although John Malkovich is not the right physical type for the wonderfully infuriating and repellant Baron du Charlus, he embodies the character’s quirky sense of self-righteousness and self-torture perfectly, especially in his final scene when he is bowing to the hitherto despised Madame de Sainte Euverte.  Marie-France Pisier is pitch-perfect as the awful Mme. Verdurin and no one else could have played the older Odette than Catherine Deneuve. When Edith Scob appears I said, ‘Yes, that is exactly what the Duchesse de Geurmantes is like’. I loved this film, but can’t really recommend it unless you’ve immersed yourself in the worlds of Swann’s and the Geurmantes’s ways.

2- Un Cuento Chino is a rare delight. A sweet film with just enough vinegar to keep it from cloying.  Endearing characters that are neurotic enough to be believable. Riccardo Darin is a huge star in Argentina who should be better known here. I loved this movie. A pure pleasure.

3- The Immigrant and Two Days, One Night were both up for Oscars and both starred Marion Cottillard. Both also embody certain aesthetics and moralities of contemporary cinema.  For the past twenty years or so, moral relativism seems to be the only lens through which certain filmmakers can address moral issues. There is a great reluctance to identify evil as evil, immorality as immorality, etc.  Clear-cut identification seems uncool.  The Immigrant seems particularly guilty of this. Two Days, One Night looks moral choices and consequences squarely in the eye and comes down on the side of doing ‘the right thing’, even though it might take a while to understand what ‘the right thing’ is. Moral relativism might seem sophisticated and adult to some, but I find it lazy and adolescent. I am not advocating that movies should be like illustrations of The Lives of the Saints, but I do think it does take a certain maturity to make a moral choice in a film and the Dardenne brothers do this admirably.  Plus, I think that The Immigrant was pretty sloppy, ugly and dull. But hey, that’s just me.  You might love it.

4- I first heard about Ernst Lubitsch’s The Marriage Circle in one of Donald Richie’s marvelous books on Japanese films.  This silent classic was a sensation when it first played in Japan. The Japanese were dazzled by the economy of Lubitsch’s visual storytelling and you see this subtlety in the films of all the great masters, especially Yasujiro Ozu. The film is a magnificent comedy of manners that holds up beautifully.  I highly recommend it. The version I watched seemed to be taped in front of a live audience, which was a little weird. Any recommendations for a good commercial copy?

5- I have been working my way through the Criterion collection of the complete works of Pierre Étaix and my delight continues to grow. These films should be as well known as the works of Jacques Tati, with whom Etaix apprenticed. The Land Of Milk and Honey was his undoing in France.  This ‘documentary’ of the French bourgeoisie on vacation at a ghastly resort earned the rancor of everyone and effectively ended his career. It is a cruelly critical look at a crass society, but it is so much fun.  I think this film is his Peeping Tom, another unpleasantly wicked film that ended the career of the great Michael Powell I am still toying with the idea of a ‘Have You Tried Pierre Etaix….’ post in the near future.  He is delight.


The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Good Morning (Yasujiro Ozu)
  2. Dreams (Ingmar Bergman)
  3. Saving Mr. Banks (John Lee Hancock)
  4. The Devil, Probably (Robert Bresson)
  5. The Godfather, Part 2 (Francis Ford Coppola)
  6. Masseurs and a Woman (Hiroshi Shimizu)
  7. Sadie Thompson (Raoul Walsh)
  8. Beauty and The Beast (Jean Cocteau)
  9. Marius (Alexander Korda)
  10. The Story of a Cheat (Sacha Guitry)


1- Who would think that Yasujiro Ozu, sublime master of the small gesture, could make such a charming little comedy like Good Morning, with its fart jokes and neighborly misunderstandings?  You often read that this is a remake of his silent I Was Born But….., however I don’t buy it.  The earlier film is a graver affair about intergenerational disappointments. However, I do seem to remember that there were fart jokes in that one, too.

2- I thought that Saving Mr. Banks would be a nice, competent film telling the story of how Mary Poppins finally got made.  It was that, but it was quite moving as well, with some striking artistic touches.  I particularly liked the images of Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers finally signing the contract to allow Disney to make the film.  She is seated at a table at her home in London, and opposite here is a huge Mickey Mouse doll Walt had sent her as encouragement. It is a quiet and very funny touch.

3- My experience with Bresson has been sublime (Diary Of A Country Priest, The Trial of Joan of Arc,  A Man Escaped) or excruciating (Au Hazard Balthazar).  The Devil Probably falls into the latter category.  I wish I had the skill to watch his films more critically.  I know I am missing tons

4- We had a real New Year’s Eve treat watching Beauty and The Beast followed by Marius, the first part of Marcel Pagnol’s beloved Marseille Trilogy.  These films become more and more essential to me as time goes on.  I am planning a ‘Have You Tried…………..?’ article on Marcel Pagnol soon.

5- I had heard of Sacha Guitry but didn’t know what his stuff was like.  TCM showed two of his films on their Sunday night franchise called TCM Import. Looks like they have some arrangement with Criterion.  I just watched The Story Of A Cheat, which was an absolute delight.  It seems to be a precursor to Kind Hearts and Coronets, but even funnier and more clever.  Looking forward to seeing more of him.  I may just have to buy the Criterion boxed set.