Friday, November 28, 2008

Drunken Angel (Akira Kurosawa, 1948)

Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune in Drunken Angel (1948).

Akira Kurosawa's and Toshiro Mifune's first collaboration is set at the end of the Second World War and revolves around a doctor (Takashi Shimura) and his yakuza tuberculosis patient (Toshiro Mifune). The doctor, Sanada, is a drunk who can't even stay away from his medical alcohol and his practice is located near the shore of a toxic swamp. On the other side of the swamp is the black market, the turf of Matsunaga, a violent criminal. When Matsunaga visits Sanada in the middle of the night to have a bullet removed from his hand, Sanada discovers that the yakuza has tuberculosis. Matsunaga refuses to believe him but later comes back with an x-ray that shows a hole in his lung. At the same time, Okada, Matsunaga's former boss, is released from prison and comes back to the neighborhood to reclaim his turf. This just makes Matsunaga's fight against his illness, while trying to keep his appearance of strength, even harder.

Drunken Angel seems to be about the morals and codes of the yakuza and all the violence they bring. Sanada questions everything Matsunaga does because of his yakuza code, and insists that he tries to get well instead. Feudalism is out of style. In the booklet that comes with the Criterion dvd of the film, Kurosawa talks about falling out with the co-writer, Keinosuke Uegusa, over their different views on the yakuza and the role that society plays in shaping these individuals. Basically, he's saying that, while society has some influence, it's up to the individual to decide what kind of person to be. After all there are a lot of poor and weak people who doesn't resort to a life of crime to get ahead. The same reasoning that I got from his Stray Dog (1949), made one year after Drunken Angel.

Toshiro Mifune as the tuberculosis-ridden Matsunaga.

From what I've read, Stray Dog is considered to be Kurosawa's first masterpiece, and while Drunken Angel might not be a masterpiece, it's a big step towards creating one. The acting is great all around, and even though Mifune seems a bit unpolished compared to his later work with Kurosawa, he still gives a haunting performance as Matsunaga. While being a very good film, Drunken Angel does seem a bit simpler than Kurosawa's later films when it comes to technique, that doesn't mean that it's bad in any way though, just that Kurosawa evolved as a filmmaker. Drunken Angel is the earliest of his films that I have seen, so I don't know how big the difference is between this and the films that came before, but I look forward to finding out.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Sad Vacation (Shinji Aoyama, 2007)

Tadanobu Asano and Jo Odagiri in Shinji Aoyama's Sad Vacation (2007).

I'm not sure what Aoyama is trying to say with Sad Vacation, I'm not even sure Aoyama knows exactly what he is trying to say. The only thing I'm sure about is that it's a film about family, being abandoned by your family and trying to forgive them or take revenge. It might also be about how different experiences and environments forces you to be the person you are, even if you try to become something else.

All of this is best described in the character of Kenji Shiraishi, the young delinquent in Aoyama's early film Helpless (1996) who took part in some murders along with his yakuza friend, Yasuo, after his father commits suicide. Something that Kenji blames his mother for, since she abandoned both him and his father. Following the murders, Kenji and Yuri, Yasuo's traumatzed sister, have been on the run for the last ten years or so. While working in human trafficking, Kenji, knowing what it's like to be all alone, decides to take care of a Chinese boy who's father died during the boat ride over. Later, while working as a designated driver for drunk business men and bar hostesses, Kenji drives a man home only to find that he is married to his eloped mother, Chiyoko. Kenji goes to see her and finds that she is nothing but happy to have him back in her life, but his own feelings may not be the same.

Kenji moves in with Chiyoko and her new family, consisting of her new husband, Mamiya, their teenage son, Yusuke, and the employees of their transporting company who are all drifters with nowhere else to go. One of the drifters is Kozue, the girl who survived the bus hijacking in Eureka (2000). She was looking for her runaway mother when she was taken in and offered a job by Mamiya.

After Kenji has moved in, he plans to get revenge on Chiyoko to cause her the same feelings of abandonment that he had to live with since she left him and his father, but when he thinks that he is finally done with her and has rid himself of the influence she has had on his life, she comes back, with a stronger hold on him than ever. It doesn't matter that Kenji is basically a good person, the experiences he's had has left a mark on him and his hate forces him into bad cycles. The only thing his mother can do is try to understand and forgive. Chiyoko, now wanting to be the mother she never was, can't get through to her other son and, not by leaving him, but by maybe not trying hard enough, abandons him too. Her previous life has left her too in a bad cycle.

The film does seem kind of confused, taking stands both for and against parents being needed, "real" families vs. surrogate families and whether it's right or not to forgive just about anything.
Maybe it's not the point of the film to come to some kind of conclusion, but just to make room for thoughts on the subjects that it brings up. After all the ending is just a big splash.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Samurai Spy (Masahiro Shinoda, 1965)

Fighting in the fog in Masahiro Shinoda's Samurai Spy (1965).

Masahiro Shinoda's anti-war samurai film is set in 1614, and seems to be an allegory for the Cold War and the relations between the US and Soviet in the 1960's. The beginning is quite confusing when all the different clans and characters are introduced, all with different loyalties and motives. After a while though, it's easier to make sense of it all. I felt like the first time I watched Kinji Fukasaku's The Yakuza Papers (1973-1974) films.

I won't go into the details of the story more than that it's about a spy named Sasuke, working for a neutral clan, who is trying to find out the truth about two murders he is accused of committing. Of course, it brings him into conflict with with two other clans and double-crossing spies.

Samurai Spy is more of a spy film than it is a regular samurai film, focussing more on the frail peace of the time in which the film is set, where war may break out at any time, and the spies working with and against each other, than on samurai honor. The spies are also more like ninjas with supernatural powers than samurai. The action in the film is quite bloody but a lot of times it is obscured by objects in the foreground, fog or edits. I don't know if it's just a stylistic choice or part of the films anti-war message.

Samurai Spy is a good looking and sometimes confusing film, but even if it is hard to follow in parts, it is still entertaining enough. It's not as good as most other samurai films I've seen, but it doesn't feel like it's really trying to achieve the same things anyway.

Tetsuro Tanba and Koji Takahashi.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Gosha Double Feature: Sword of the Beast (1965) and The Wolves (1971)

Mikijiro Hira in Hideo Gosha's Sword of the Beast (1965).

Hideo Gosha is apparently considered one of the masters of the samurai film. Tonight I watched Sword of the Beast, directed by Gosha in 1965. While I did like the film a lot, it seemed to be very conventional, following the standards of the genre, and Gosha seems somewhat heavy handed compared to Kurosawa and Kobayashi (the only other two that I have really seen any samurai films from). It's the same feeling that I got from The Wolves, a yakuza film made in 1971, and the only one of Gosha's other films that I have seen.

The Wolves and Sword of the Beast also share some of the same themes, they are both about where the line is drawn between being loyal to one's gang or to oneself and the main characters of both films are betrayed by the ones they trust. The yakuza (Tatsuya Nakadai) in The Wolves who after being released early from prison realises that his former boss' death might not have happened the way it is told, and his new boss, his sworn brother, may not be so innocent. And the samurai (Mikijiro Hira) in Sword of the Beast who is told he will get a faster rise to the top if he kills a counselor but realises after it is done that he has been used and is now a fugitive.

All of this is apparent from the first frame in both films, in The Wolves the main character has to be convinced that this is the case by other characters, and in Sword of the Beast it feels like you're being beaten over the head with it as no less than four characters other than the samurai realises that the fate of the samurai is also their own. This doesn't lessen the enjoyment of watching Sword of the Beast though, it still is a beautifully shot chambara with great performances from Mikijiro Hira, Go Kata, Shima Iwashita and the Gosha and Kinji Fukasaku regular Kunie Tanaka. The same cannot be said of The Wolves, which is much too slow and unengaging, and with a performance by Tatsuya Nakadai that can best be described as sleepwalking. He is far outshined here by Noboru Ando and the aforementioned Kunie Tanaka. How this would be considered the best, or one of the best, yakuza films ever made is beyond me.

Tatsuya Nakadai on the cover of Animeigo's dvd release of The Wolves (1971).

I read a description of Hideo Gosha's films as being emotional like Kurosawa's and containing the politics of Kobayashi's, and judging by these two films the description is correct, Gosha's films are just more standardized and less refined. As a period sword fighting film, Sword of the Beast is great though and enough to make me want to see more of his samurai films. As for 1970's yakuza cinema, I still have some more Fukasaku to explore.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Public Enemy Returns (Kang Woo-Suk, 2008)

Kang Woo-Suk's Public Enemy Returns (2008).

In Kang Woo-Suk's third part of the Public Enemy trilogy, Sol Kyung-Gu once again plays the character of Kang Cheol-Jung, the corrupted, ill-tempered police officer from the first film who grew a conscience when a company executive killed his parents over money. This time he's less corrupted but with the same bad temper when he goes after a crime boss who uses teenagers to do his dirty work and to take the blame when the police get too close.

Compared to the previous films, Public Enemy Returns is a lot closer in tone to the first film, it has the same slapstick humor and excessive violence. It doesn't build much suspense, similar to just about every other Korean thriller, but the story is still engaging enough not to get tired and the acting by Sol Kyung-Gu and Jeong Jae-Yeong and supporting actors like Lee Mun-Sik and Kang Sin-Il, keeps the film entertaining through out.

Public Enemy (2002) was one of the first Korean films that I really liked and Public Enemy Returns could have been made at the same time between 2000 and 2004, before Korean cinema got into a slump. There still are some good films being made in South Korea and maybe Public Enemy Returns and films like The Chaser (Na Hong-Jin, 2008) and Big Bang (Park Jeong-Woo, 2007) are the beginning of a return to form, I know I'm not the only one waiting for that to happen.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Assault! Jack the Ripper (Yasuharu Hasebe, 1976)

Assault! Jack the Ripper (1976), directed by Yasuharu Hasebe.

Assault! Jack the Ripper (1976) is about a man who works as a baker at a café. One day, one of the waitresses asks him to give her a ride home. He agrees, but on the way they pick up a hitchhiker who happens to be a suicidal maniac. When they kick her out on the road again they have an accident and the hitchhiker dies. Instead of going to the police they dump the body at an old junkyard. Afterwards, having arrived at the waitress' apartment, they realise that the accident, and the disposal of the body, has made them aroused and they have sex.

They keep on using murder as an aphrodisiac, killing just about every young woman they see, but the man seems less and less interested in his partner in crime and more so in his knife and victims. He starts killing the women by stabbing them in their genitals and soon enough he's "cheating" by killing on his own. It's pretty obvious where the film is going, but when the killer starts hiding his knife in the front of his pants, and a woman that he is cutting open starts enjoying it, it changes from being a pretty boring exploitation slasher into being just plain stupid.

I have no problem with the blood and gore, or the sex, but the film fails to entertain, I think that is usually the difference between good and bad exploitation. A film is never pointless as long as it entertains in some way, but when all it does is make you yawn and think "Why am I watching this?" it feels pretty pointless to me. It doesn't help though that I'm getting tired of the whole roman porno/pink/pinky violence craze that is going on. While there are some really well made and thought provoking films in this area, they seem to be the exceptions to the genre. Assault!.. feels like just another one of those films to be hyped up because of its rarity, and when it finally shows up, it fails to do anything but disappoint. It may have been extreme in the 1970s, but now, it feels as impotent as the main character seems to be without his knife.


I can add that I just finished watching Mondo Macabro's other recent Nikkatsu release, Noboru Tanaka's Watcher in the Attic (1976), based on stories by horror/mystery writer Edogawa Rampo. It's very different from Assault! Jack the Ripper, it's more of a drama about a rich man's wife, her lovers and the watcher from the title. It soons turns into a story about sexual perversions and murder, but compared to other Rampo adaptations like Teruo Ishii's Horror of Malformed Men (1969), Shinya Tsukamoto's Gemini (1999) and horror omnibus Rampo Noir (Akio Jissoji, Atsushi Kaneko, Hisayasu Sato, Suguru Takeuchi, 2005), Tanaka fails to inject the story with the kind of creepy atmosphere that the other films have. Watcher in the Attic has sex and murder, but it never turns into a mystery worth solving.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Face of Another (Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1966)

Tatsuya Nakadai and Mikijiro Hira in Hiroshi Teshigahara's The Face of Another (1966).

Mr. Okuyama's (Tatsuya Nakadai) face is horribly disfigured in an accident at work. He spends his days at home with his entire head covered in bandages and it's making him feel as if he is losing his identity. His wife (Machiko Kyo) pretends that she is not bothered by his new appearance but it is obvious to Okuyama, who even fantasizes about scarring her face in a similar way to make her less uneasy around him. Being on leave from his job after the accident, he wants to come back as long as he won't have to deal with people as much as before. His boss says it's no problem but Okuyama can tell that his boss finds it exhausting just to be in the same room as him. While this is all going on, Okuyama is seeing a psychiatrist (Mikijiro Hira) to get help with his identity crisis. The psychiatrist offers to give Okuyama a new face, in the form of a life-like mask, as an experiment, on the condition that Okuyama tells him about everything he does and feels while wearing the mask.

While waiting for the mask to be completed, Okuyama and the psychiatrist discuss what he will do once it is finished. Okuyama seems to be focused on re-seducing his wife, making her cheat on him with himself. The psychiatrist warns him that it may be dangerous. When the mask is finished and Okuyama is trying it out, the psychiatrist is talking about the freedom it must bring, to not be recognized by anyone, being able to do anything, almost as if you were invisible, but Okuyama soon learns that it's not that simple. Being recognized by a mentally challenged girl who has only seen him once before wearing bandages, and who is described by Okuyama as an idiot, makes him wonder if the mask really makes him unrecognizable. To find out he goes to see his boss once again, and is greeted by his secretary in a very different manner than before, since she clearly doesn't recognize him. This gives him confidence to seduce his wife or as he puts it "take back what is mine". The obvious danger would be that if he succeeds, why would he want to be with a woman who would cheat on him, wouldn't it make him feel even worse about himself? But the outcome is something different. Instead it is his wife, who has recognized Okuyama and played along, who is offended when she finds out that they weren't roleplaying and that he wasn't wearing the mask to make it easier on her, but to trick her into "cheating" on him. She sees the mask as wearing make-up, in the same way that women wears make-up to better their appearance. This drives Okuyama to use the freedom that he thinks the mask gives him as he tries to rape a woman on the street and is arrested.

Nothing that he and the psychiatrist imagined would be gained from wearing the mask happens. There is no freedom, what Okuyama gains is not a new identity but a distorted version of his old self that still wants the same thing that he wanted earlier, he wants to be accepted by his wife. His appearance isn't changed enough for him to be totally unrecognizable either, and he is still sensitive to how others react to his appearance, and their reactions decides how he feels, what he becomes. The supposed freedom doesn't exist. You may be able to be more confident while hiding behind a mask, but you're still the same person and responsible for your actions.

Tatsuya Nakadai (left) wearing his mask and Mikijiro Hira (right).

I guess that your identity partially comes from how others perceive and react to you, by being part of how you see yourself, but appearances can also be decieving, as with the "idiot" girl. When Okuyama is robbed of his appearance he is also robbed of his identity, or his feel of identity, but his new appearance doesn't give him a new "real" identity. His boss would be willing to give him his job back without him wearing a mask, and his wife wants him for who he is, but wants him to wear make-up to make it easier when they have sex. Okuyama fails to see this because his mask is, like the prosthetic finger in the opening scene of the film, an inferiority complex in the shape of a face.

These are just my thoughts immediately after watching the film so I might edit this post later. I feel that there is more to the film than this but reading some reviews, I noticed they mainly consisted of a plot description and praise of Hiroshi Teshigahara, the director. I agree with everything positive about the film, the acting, the music and the way it looks, but what I found most interesting was the way that appearances and the way the may have an effect on how you see yourself are handled in the film, so that's what I wanted to write about. Now I look forward to watching Teshigahara's other films.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950)

Toshiro Mifune and Machiko Kyo in Rashomon (1950).

After watching Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950), and being somewhat underwhelmed by it, I decided to read some reviews of the film. There seems to be a few different opinions about what the film is really about. Is it concerned only with the Japanese or can the characters' actions be applied to people from anywhere in the world and does the film care about what really happened, the real truth, or does it only care about the way people will change the truth to make themself seem better? I think it falls somewhere in between these different views.

The story is about a rape and murder that takes place out in the woods. It involves a bandit, Tajomaru, and a samurai and his wife. There is also a woodcutter who finds the corpse. They all get to tell their story about what happened after Tajomaru is caught and brought to trial.

The thing that, to me, sticks out the most as exlusively Japanese is that all the characters except the woodcutter, in their version of the what happened, claim to be the killer. If they had been western characters they probably would have claimed their innocence instead. Still, no matter if it is to make their actions seem more honorable, or if it is to make it seem like they had no part in it, both Japanese and western characters would be lying to avoid judgment. No matter the differences of what it means to take responsibility and saving face between the cultures, what it results in is the same for all humans. So, at the same time as it is very Japanese, it is also universal.

Also, as the woodcutters story is the one that seems to be the most truthful, him being the closest thing to an objective observer, even though it is compromised by him having stolen a dagger that may or may not have been the murder weapon. The film does present the viewer with one version that is portrayed as being more accurate than the others, while it also shows that even good men, like the woodcutter, are susceptible to corruption. Basically, it is a film about human nature.

Just as with my take on Kurosawa's Stray Dog (1949), I feel that Rashomon is more about human nature than it is a commentary on a specific society, and that Kurosawa was an emotional filmmaker more than a political one. I think this is also the reason why I was underwhelmed by the film. It didn't bring any new feelings to me, the way it was shot and edited wasn't as spectacular as in the few other films I have seen of his, and its comments on human behaviour didn't feel very original. That is not Rashomon's fault though, it has just been covered a lot since 1950, and it is easy to see how it came to be considered a masterpiece when it was released.