Category Archives: Japan

Woman of Tokyo (1933)

Director: Yasujiro Ozu

Wherein we can see Ozu starting to become “Ozu”, if you know what I mean, playing with the sharp scene changes his later films would be full of, and doing so in a particularly startling way at one point when, without warning, the credits for the 1932 American film If I Had a Million abruptly appear on screen. For one horrible moment I thought there was something terribly wrong with my copy of the film, but no, we soon see the characters are actually watching the film at a cinema and Ozu just decided to be cheeky and cut bits of the American film directly into his own (in a manner I rather doubt Paramount would’ve actually given him permission to do) rather than show people looking at it on a screen. I’ve been amused before by the way Ozu inserted film posters and the like into his early films, but this was clearly taking that to the next level…

Otherwise, the story seems more like Mizoguchi than Ozu, revolving around a brother and sister, Ryoichi and Chikako who co-habit in a small flat; he’s a student and she’s pretty much the wage-earner, working in an office by day and, well, doing something else by night. Something else that’s attracted police attention for some reason that the film is oddly vague about (it hints at prostitution while also hinting at something apparently worse, but what?); Ryo’s girlfriend’s brother happens to be the officer investigating her, and when said girlfriend goes to warn Chikako, complications ensue. Ozu seems not particularly involved in all of this, and perhaps the film’s origin indicates why; for whatever reason the studio needed a film from him very quickly and he certainly delivered, tossing this off in just eight days and starting shooting before the script was even finished, so that doesn’t really bespeak a strong connection between him and his material. The ultimate bleakness of the thing just seems a bit pointless too, and the brevity of it (not even 50 minutes long) doesn’t give much opportunity to get close to the characters. OK, but not one of Ozu’s strongest works.

Horrors of Malformed Men (1969)

Director: Teruo Ishii

No, this wasn’t fucked up AT ALL. I’m a bit wary of “controversial” films, cos they rarely seem to be worth the fuss that they raise. In this case, the controversy seems to have been a matter of political correctness at the level of language; after the film came out there was evidently some sort of reform of the Japanese language in the early 70s, and describing a person as “malformed”—which in Japanese carries connotations that the person is not fully human and you should be mightily afraid of them—became one of the worst things you could say in Japanese. That seems to be a large part of why the film spent decades circulating only in a sort of underground fashion, quite apart from the stories of people being appalled by it enough as it was upon its cinema release… The material mostly comes via Edogawa Rampo (source for Blind Beast that same year, which was also not remotely strange, as you may recall) and fits within the ero-guro tendency, albeit leaning more towards the grotesque than anything else. It’s really hard to properly summarise; a man escapes from a mental institution, goes on the run after being implicated in a murder, and finds himself impersonating a dead man who looks uncannily like him. His “father”, a man said to have webbed fingers, has basically isolated himself on a nearby island. When our hero goes to check the latter, that’s when things REALLY get fucked. Up to that point the film has a kind of general atmosphere of strangeness, but in the second half of the film this just gets exponential; I spent much of the first half of the film wondering what the fuss was about, but I got it in the second. Ishii’s real genius was hiring Tatsumi Hijikata, the inventor of Butoh, as the Dr Moreau figure; his amazingly angular physicality (along with that of his dance troupe, who play his creations; unlike Freaks, there are no actual “freaks” here) adds something totally different to the mix. It’s convoluted (perhaps more so than necessary) and I’m not sure all the details add up, but it’s nothing if not memorable.

Yakuza Apocalypse (2015)

Director: Takashi Miike

The current challenges at the ICM forum are action films and Japanese cinema, plus there’s an ongoing challenge for films from this decade. This film handily ticks all three of the boxes, which was, to be honest, possibly the main reason I watched this… I’ve not been enamoured of Miike before, but, admittedly, I’ve only seen three of his films (plus his segment of Three Extremes) and that’s not quite enough to form a serious opinion on someone with a hundred directorial credits on IMDB, but I also know two of those films I disliked (Audition and Ichi the Killer—can’t remember what I thought of Katakuris, which is the third full Miike I’ve seen) are among his best regarded, so… Anyway, I don’t think this really endeared me to him any further. It’s a genre mashup of the sort he evidently likes, being essentially a yakuza movie with vampires. The top yakuza in this particular town just so happens to be undead, yes. Unfortunately he’s not indestructible, as we find when some never fully identified other organisation sends specially armed assassins to wipe him out. But! He manages to pass on his powers to his lieutenant, who doesn’t really know how to use them and inadvertently creates a plague of other yakuza vampires. And that’s about as much of it as makes sense; around that point Miike seems to have decided coherence be damned, cos I’m buggered if I can work out exactly who’s on what side and why anything in particular is happening… By the time the main villain—a martial arts master in a giant frog costume—is introduced, there’s obviously no going back, until it culminates in an ending that could most charitably be called not really an ending. The whole thing is undeniably looney, but equally the madness almost never feels anything but contrived and forced, and the film is so enervatingly long that it becomes kind of insufferable long before said non-ending. So yeah, another not-exactly-a-hit for me with Miike. At some point I suppose I may find something in that filmography I like, but I’m not hurrying to find out…

Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (2013)

Director: Shion Sono

I haven’t seen a film this ludicrous in I don’t know how long, and for the most part I do mean that in a good way. Don’t know that much about Shion Sono, but a two-hour film seemed like an easier way in than a four-hour one like Love Exposure (which I’ve had for years but never found time to watch), so I went here. Surprisingly complicated to sum up, but broadly I suppose you could call it a yakuza film about filmmaking. It starts out more or less as the story of a young group of guerilla filmmakers who call themselves the Fuck Bombers, shooting on 8mm and always dreaming of the day when the god of cinema will look kindly on them and send a big break their way. Fast forward 10 years, though, and they’re still dreaming… But then we start focusing more on the yakuza, with two gangs about to go ballistic, and with one of the gang leaders more preoccupied with making a film starring his daughter. Suddenly the Fuck Bombers are about to have a 35mm massacre to shoot…

That just summarises events without really describing how they actually play out; narratively it’s quite dense stuff that takes some time and effort to untangle, and I’ve said nothing about the advertising jingle that recurs throughout cos, frankly, I don’t know how to describe it. As I said, there’s something ludicrous about the entire thing, and the film knows it; basically it’s an extremely warped comedy that’s fairly self-aware and plays for its laughs accordingly, with digital “blood” in the climactic carnage whose deliberate blatantness is kind of magnificent, and a riotous clash of acting styles. I can actually kind of envisage Jean-Luc Godard making a film like this 50 years earlier, though somehow I can’t imagine it being as much fun as this. Or as batshit.

Outrage (2010)

Director: Takeshi Kitano

After a number of years away from the yakuza film, Kitano finally went back to it with this somewhat curious exercise in avowed “popular entertainment” as opposed to the more obtuse arthouse business of his last few films. And yet Outrage is still pretty obtuse stuff itself, in its own way, more so even than some of his earlier work… The story is simple enough, basically you have a yakuza clan “sworn father”, Sekiuchi, who dislikes how one of his underlings, Ikemoto, has become chummy with another mob who aren’t part of the family, and he orders this other syndicate be dealt with. In turn, Ikemoto passes on the dirty work to his own underling Otomo (Kitano himself) and his gang. Whereupon business between them and the Murase gang gradually escalates, until the problem turns into internal issues within Ikemoto’s syndicate.

All of which sounds possibly more exciting than it actually is; Kitano’s actual storytelling method is to chop all this up into a lot of very short scenes (lots of varying aggressions back and forth between the various parties), which makes the viewing experience kind of jarring, and, at least for me, not terribly easy to follow at times, trying to work out who’s doing what to whom and why. At least I’m not the only one, though, and maybe another viewing will make it seem straighter. But I can see it being difficult to summon up the will for that second viewing, though; while the film’s somewhat remote tone does make the scenes of violence harder-hitting (don’t think I’ll forget that dentist scene in a hurry), it also makes the film in general kind of hard to engage with, with little sense of where if anywhere it’s going, and the characters don’t really help; only the fact that Kitano himself plays Otomo marks him out as the film’s major figure. I’ll hunt out the sequel, which looks like it might offer some actual payoff for this film’s set-up, but I can’t say I particularly like Outrage by itself.

Gate of Hell (1953)

Director: Teinosuke Kinugasa

At a time when Japanese cinema was just starting to gain worldwide renown, Kinugasa had a veritable international hit on his hands—award winner at Cannes and the Oscars among others—albeit one whose success apparently perplexed him; he was dissatisfied by the film owing to studio interference and what he thought was a weak script. But! Gate of Hell has one inarguable factor on its side, and that’s colour. Early 50s Eastmancolor, and oh my. If Eastman could never entirely compete with Technicolor (apart from convenience), it could certainly put up a worthy fight in the right hands.

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Gate of Hell is set against a historical uprising, the Heiji rebellion of 1160 in which the dominant Taira clan were attacked by the Minamoto clan while the former’s leader was on a pilgrimage. In the course of this, our rather dubious “hero”, the provincial warrior Morito, emerges; he’s rather a rough diamond, and even his good deeds during the uprising are shadowed by association with his brother, who joined the other side. It’s his obsession with Lady Kesa, however, a lady-in-waiting who he rescues from the chaos at Kyoto, that really draws attention; not just for the idea of a rustic chap like him wanting to marry nobility like her, but also because, well, she’s already got a husband. Like that’s enough to stop him, of course…

All of this is played quite nicely (particularly by Kazuo Hasegawa as the initially heroic-seeming but really kind of creepy and unpleasant Morito), but I can kind of understand Kinugasa’s reservations about the script; it makes for nice semi-film noir business in a historical setting but there’s also not really enough of it to fill 90 minutes. Still, you can make an argument that the film is as much about its use of colour and design as it is the story (that Oscar it won for costuming was well-deserved), and, as I’ve said elsewhere, I do tend to give a pass to films that are visually interesting if the story is a bit lacking. Gate of Hell is pretty much the sort of thing I mean by that.

The Warped Ones (1960)

Director: Kureyoshi Kurahara

Not much to say about this other than that I really disliked it. I’m trying to remember the last time I saw a film with such frankly shitty characters (and I don’t relish meeting them again in another film in this Kurahara box set from Eclipse). Kurahara films proceedings with undeniable vigour, and the comparisons with the energy of the burgeoning Nouvelle Vague (and Nuberu Bagu for that matter) are apt, but god/dess these people are such scum that I don’t give a shit. The pointless viciousness is kind of impressive considering the period, but, yeah, I don’t care.

Intimidation (1960)

Director: Koreyoshi Kurahara

This film only runs an hour and a bit, but damn it felt like it was a lot longer somehow, and I can’t work out why. I’ve only seen one Kurahara film previously (I am Waiting, from the Eclipse “Nikkatsu Noir” set); this finds him rather more solidly established at Nikkatsu a few years later, and evidently somewhat more confident with his story… Here we have a tale of two men working at a bank, one, Takita, who’s basically got where he is by marrying the boss’ daughter, and is now a manager about to move from his little regional branch to the big city home office; and the other, Nakaike, his underling who he’s always stepped on, and who’s apparently never had much spine or ambition to advance himself like his boss and former friend. But Takita hasn’t exactly behaved spotlessly, and when a small-time hoodlum shows up with evidence of his wrongdoings, well, complications ensue.

And they keep ensuing in somewhat unexpected fashion, too, which is quite nice; Kurahara’s got solid control of his material, it’s interestingly filmed in lovely monochrome ‘Scope, the noir atmosphere is all over it, acting is really good (Ko Nishimura is particularly fine as Nakaike, who turns out to be rather more than he initially appears)… I just can’t explain that feeling of it being a lot longer than its 65-minute duration, cos I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the pacing; it doesn’t try to cram too much business in, it doesn’t spread too little material too thinly… I never really felt that it was dragging or anything. Whatever. I still liked it well enough, it’s a good B-picture. Certainly not complaining about it.

Snake Woman’s Curse (1968)

Director: Nobuo Nakagawa

I don’t know an awful lot about Nakagawa, and this is only the second of his films that I’ve seen, but if this and Jigoku are indicative he may have had a thing for killing off his characters that George R.R. Martin would recognise. In this film, that includes killing off the ones we’re supposed to sympathise with (there’s one whose death seemed a bit ambiguous at first, but given that he vanishes from the film until the very end the ambiguity faded). I’ve seen one other review that compares the plot to a Lars von Troll film, which seems not far off the mark… basically, the setting is early Meiji-era Japan, the point where the country is starting to modernise but there are pockets still run as ever by feudal landlords; the film takes place in an area ruled by the Onuma family, one of the worst of the lot. When one of Onuma’s tenant farmers dies, leaving behind an awful debt, he takes the dead man’s wife and daughter and basically makes slaves of them on his own property, where they have to contend with the heinousness not only of the working conditions but Onuma’s ghastly wife and son (Takeo’s hat is one of the few signs of western influence in the film). Factor in a couple of accidental deaths, one suicide, and some madness, and yeah, not too far removed from little Lars… just with a few more ghosts than he usually provides. Unfortunately, even at just 85 minutes, Snake Woman’s Curse struck me as kind of thin and dry; as the DVD booklet essay observes, Nakagawa’s ghosts are kind of passive and take no direct action themselves, and so could be viewed as externalisations of the character’s bad consciences as much as actual supernatural manifestations (although the film does, I think, still come down pretty clearly on the latter side). I don’t know, something about it just didn’t click with me, a bit of a flatness to the storytelling and characters (none of whom are actually especially interesting, and the daughter’s love interest, one of the good guys, comes across at a kind of crucial juncture almost as badly as the rapist thug Takeo) that stopped me engaging more with it.

Dragnet Girl (1933)

Director: Yasujiro Ozu

The spot-the-Hollywood-film-poster game is particularly amusing in this film: less overt than in these other early Ozus, but also particularly ironic because in this case it’s the French poster for All Quiet on the Western Front… ironic because, as the booklet essay observes, this Japanese film is otherwise full of English signage. Indeed, that’s been perhaps the most striking aspect of Ozu’s “gangster” films for me, this preponderance of English words in signs, graffiti, etc (hell, even one of the intertitles here actually uses the letters “OK”), and it’s made me wonder just how common this actually was in actual 1930s Japan… Cos the other point the booklet essay makes is that Ozu’s Yokohama in this film is, as they say, “a little unreal”; it looks “realistic” but there’s something kind of stylised about it. There’s a scene where the secondary love interest of the film’s gangster boss Joji says something about him putting on an act, and it’s a key moment, cos the film itself is kind of putting on an act… even more than the last two films, Dragnet Girl “plays” at being “American”, but—more impressively—goes further by arguably playing at being noir, which even the Americans hadn’t invented in 1933 (on top of that, is it also one of the first instances of the “one last job before going straight” trope?). Joji is a former boxer turned small-time hoodlum without any real evident passion for being one, while his girl Tokiko maintains a veneer of decency with a respectable office job during the day, but when Joji falls for the aforementioned other love interest, she realises she’d rather be the “good girl” instead of just playing one. Curious film; it feels somewhat disjointed, not fully hanging together, and narrative plausibility isn’t exactly rock solid. And while it’s pretty strong as an example of how refined silent film style was, it’s also so heavy on dialogue titles it’s one of a very small number of silent films that give me the impression they would’ve liked to be a talkie. Visually, though, an amazing achievement; genuinely amazing to see some of these things in an Ozu film. I’m not sure his own heart was fully in the crime genre, but it would’ve been interesting to see him essay it again later in life…

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