Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Looking for Akio Jissoji: The Early Films With the Art Theatre Guild

Avid film fans will always confront the same dilemma at one point or another: many of the films we wish to see are not readily available. This happens far more times than necessary when searching for foreign cinema, and it is an axiom with Asian cinema. By far, the director whose work I wish to see most is Akio Jissoji (1937 - 2006). Jissoji would probably be completely unknown in the West, if it were not for his direction of the extremely popular Ultraman series.

I first became aware of Akio Jissoji through Roland Domenig's review of his first feature film, This Transient Life. Domenig likened this film to the work of Robert Bresson and Carl Theodor Dreyer. The reviewer constructed these comparisons from a religious context because Buddhism is a major theme in This Transient Life. Jissoji applies the use of perpetually moving camera to convey the Buddhist idea of transience. The film did acheive some international recognition when it won the Golden Leopard at the Locarno International Film Festival. It also became successful in Japan in the cinemas owned by the Art Theatre Guild. Consequently, Akio Jissoji joined the ranks of Kazuo Kuroki and Shuji Terayama, and the three became the most popular directors in the Art Theatre Guild in the 1970s.

Akio Jissoji went on to direct three more films with the Art Theatre Guild: Mandara (Mandala, 1971), Uta (Poem, 1972), and Asaki Yumemishi (Lived in a Dream, Life of a Court Lady, It Was a Faint Dream, 1974). Unfortunately, there are no professional reviews of these three films, albeit a reader review on the IMDB of Mandala. There is very little information available on his last two films with the ATG. According to the above-mentioned review by Domenig, Poem contains religious and philosophical themes, and the BFI database page describes Life of a Court Lady as a Kamakura-period piece with religious themes.

Although this filmmaker has been forgotten in the West, there is some hope for those who are interested. Pioneer and Geneon have released Region 2 DVDs for most of his films, but as with many Japanese releases there are no English subtitles. Because of Jissoji's recent death, there have been eulogies written on certain science fictions websites, but these are mainly concerned with his work on Ultraman. Possibly, one day we will read about a Jissoji retrospective occuring somewhere outside of Japan. Japanese new wave cinema hasn't received much attention internationally, but recently there have been a few sparks of hope. Yoshishige "Kiju" Yoshida was honored with a complete retrospective at the 27th Sao Paulo International Film Festival in 2003. Earlier this year, the Febio Film Festival in Prague featured several Nuberu Bagu films including Kazuo Kuroki's Preparation for the Festival. It may take a long time, but I feel that Jissoji and his contemporaries will receive the appreciation that they deserve.

Here is a link to find some beautiful screenshots from his early films.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Unlucky Monkey (1998)

Why isn't director Sabu more well known? Every movie of his I've seen is "Top 10 favorite movies of all time" worthy for me. The most popular thing he's ever done was an acting part in "Ichi the Killer". That's a shame because "Unlucky Monkey" is a way better movie on so many levels! For those of you unfamiliar with him, Sabu's films mix dark humor, screwed-up drama, ironic situtations, philosophy, and some bloody action/violence. Also his stories are not linear, as in it doesn't follow the "plot A to plot B, the end" formula. Rather, the entire movie starts with a character who's one action triggers a continous unpredictable chain reaction that eventually snowballs into an over-the-top strange moment. In the case of "Unlucky Monkey", this chain reaction starts off with a bank robbery. Only 1 of the 3 robbers survives and gets away with the crime. This one survivor accidentally kills a woman though as he ran like hell with a knife in hand. He never got caught for the murder either but his guilt gets the best of him, giving him depressing psychological turmoil as he tries to rationalize the whole ordeal. Somehow his path crosses with some yakuzas that were in some pretty deep shit. You have to discover the ironic twists of fate and how these characters coincide with one another on your own because all the fun is in seeing the unpredictable mess of a life these guys have unfold and crash. Sure there is a decent amount of bleeding throughout the film thanks to gun violence, even a guy's crotch get shot, but don't expect a non-stop Jon Woo style gunfest. A large percentage of this movie's strength is from the philosophy explored in a very natural way that anyone alive can relate to, not just some pretentious scholars. If you haven't seen a Sabu film yet, this ones a good one to start off with.