Sunday, October 26, 2008

Beat Takeshi vs. Takeshi Kitano (Casio Abe, 2005) / Kitano Takeshi (Aaron Gerow, 2007)

Takeshi Kitano in Hana-Bi (1997).

Recently I have read two books about Takeshi Kitano, the first one being Casio Abe's Beat Takeshi vs. Takeshi Kitano and the second one being Aaron Gerow's Kitano Takeshi. I preferred Gerow's take on Kitano's work as an actor and director, probably because Abe's writing was too academic for me. But another aspect that really annoyed me with Abe's book was the way that he seemed to have one main theory that he forced onto every one of Kitano's films, even when it didn't really fit.

Gerow uses some of the same themes and theories as Abe, such as Takeshi Kitano's struggle to separate himself from his tv-persona of 'Beat' Takeshi and his obsession with his own death, but seems to be more adaptable to the differences in Kitano's films. It makes his book seem less forced and his analyzing of the films becomes more rewarding since it isn't so narrow.

Both books are interesting reads in their own right, but I felt that Gerow gives a wider analysis of Kitano as a person and of his films, while Abe goes deeper into the conflict between 'Beat Takeshi' and Takeshi Kitano and tv versus cinema. I must say, though, that judging by these two books, Kitano's films are more compelling to watch than to read about.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Stray Dog (Akira Kurosawa, 1949)

Toshiro Mifune and Keiko Awaji in Stray Dog (1949).

I'm not sure why it has taken me this long, but I just recently started watching the films of Akira Kurosawa. I think one reason may be him constantly being praised as one of the greatest filmmakers ever, and me not wanting to be disappointed. Another reason is that I have been more interested in recent films and it's not like there has been a shortage of films and directors to explore. After having seen four of his films, ranging from 1949's Stray Dog to 1962's Sanjuro, I realise that there was no reason to be worried about being disappointed and Kurosawa's films appear to be more modern than most that I have seen from the same time period.

Stray Dog is about a rookie homicide detective (Toshiro Mifune) who gets his gun stolen on a crowded train. When his gun is later used in a robbery, the detective hands in his resignation but is instead put on the case. Helping him catch the criminal and retrieve his gun is an older inspector (Takashi Shimura) who is an expert at catching pickpockets.

Most of what I've read about Stray Dog focuses on its depiction of the immediate post-war era and the presence of the American occupational forces and society's part in the fate of the characters in the film. I don't feel that I have enough knowledge of the times to comment on the depiction of post-war Japan but to me the film was mostly about morals and the individual's choices on how to live life in a society that won't take care of you.

While Mifune's detective and Isao Kimura's criminal share the same past as soldiers, who upon their return got their knapsacks stolen on the train taking them home, they did not make the same choices in how to go from there. The detective admits to getting ideas of stealing and taking the "easy" road of crime but realising it is not the way to go, he gets a job instead. Kimura's character instead chooses a life of crime. They are the same on the outside, living in the same society, but it is what's on the inside that sets them apart. I don't agree with the take that society forced the criminal's choices, even if it did play a large part. I think the film ultimately shows that it is up to the individual to make his or her own choices, which is also shown in the way that every character the policemen stumble upon during their investigation knows exactly what they have done right or wrong, it is what they chose and they know the consequences.

The biggest differences between the detectives and the criminals is the feeling of responsibility. Toshiro Mifune feels responsible for the crimes that are carried out using his gun, even though it is not his fault, they would have happened anyway using another gun. The pickpockets and gunrunners they encounter have no such feelings, not because society forced them into it, but because the lack of feeling responsible is a requirement for a lot of criminals. One thing that exemplifies that it is about individual choices, I think, is the young girl (Keiko Awaji) who is a childhood friend of the criminal. She recieves an expensive dress from him but, suspecting that it's been procured through wrongdoing, she doesn't wear it.

Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura and Keiko Awaji.

Even if I'm totally wrong on this, it is still a masterful film, with great performances from everyone involved, especially the three leads in Mifune, Shimura and Awaji. The way it is shot and the editing gives it a feel of being made much later than the late 1940's, something I think is common with a lot of Kurosawa's films. After having seen Yojimbo (1961), Sanjuro (1962) and Seven Samurai (1954), Stray Dog makes me think even higher of Kurosawa and I will be seeing the rest of his films.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Bashing (Masahiro Kobayashi, 2005)

Fusako Urabe as Yuko in Bashing (2005).

Masahiro Kobayashi's Bashing is a fictional story based on the real events of Japanese people being taken as hostages in Iraq in 2004 and, upon release, not being very welcome back in their home country, with even the prime minister at the time, Junichiro Koizumi, condemning them for travelling to a war zone. According to articles about the subject, the former hostages were accused of causing the Japanese government trouble and embarrassing the country of Japan and its people. The general opinion was one of "It's your own fault" and that it was a matter of personal responsibility. The articles also says that the Japanese government charged them for their plane tickets home, and said that they should cover at least part of the cost for freeing them.

The film is about a woman, Yuko, who volunteered to go to Iraq as an aid-worker. After being taken hostage and then released, Yuko has returned to Japan where she is harrassed wherever she goes and her and her family are recieving threatening phone calls. When she is fired from her job for causing a bad mood among her co-workers just by being there, and her father is fired from the company where he has worked for 30 years because they want to protect their image, she decides to go back to Iraq.

While most reviews have mentioned Kobayashi's art house filmmaking and that the film is condemning the Japanese for the way they treated the ex-hostages, I think it also portrays Yuko as a not entirely sympathetic person. While clearly being the victim, the film also shows her as being a selfish person, something that Yuko herself acknowledges in the film. It does not make her a bad person, it just makes her human, and to me, Bashing is more about the right to be human than anything else. It's about having the right to do what you want, even if what you want sometimes is selfish. Of course, that doesn't justify anything that Yuko and her family has to endure but the film gives you more to think about than if it had just been pointing fingers and looking to blame someone the same way that some people did to the freed hostages.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Good Morning (Yasujiro Ozu, 1959)

Yasujiro Ozu's Good Morning (1959).

Last night I watched my first film by Yasujiro Ozu, Good Morning. I have heard a lot about Ozu ever since I first started following Asian cinema but still I didn't really know what to expect. Usually, people say that they love his films but then only talk about the technical aspects of his filmmaking, the editing and the way he shoots his films. I was prepared to be entertained or bored to tears and I ended up somewhere in between, closer to the positive side.

Good Morning's main story, if you can call it that, is about the children of a few families who are neighbors. The kids usually go over to a younger couple to watch sumo wrestling on tv, but when their parents orders them not to, and then scold them for asking too much about getting a tv-set of their own, the kids go on a silence strike as a protest to the adults' meaningless polite chit-chat.

The unnecessary chatter of the adults is shown in a side story about the wives, where the unfounded rumors of one of them buying a washing machine for their collective money begin spreading in the neighborhood, and also in the way two people who may be in love just engage in empty conversation. Perhaps it is necessary though, to make interacting with others easier.

The way the film is shot, with a mostly static camera, and the editing, always showing the person talking head on, almost calls attention to itself by being so straight forward, but after a while I got used to it. It actually helps in making the events of daily life in the film seem more real, which I think is one of the films strongest points, one of the others being humor. A lot of the events in the film are depicted with a lot of humor, especially those of the children, and that also helps in making the characters seem more alive.

All in all, Good Morning turned out to be an enjoyable film and a lot funnier than I had expected. I look forward to seeing more of Ozu's films.