Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Mandala 曼陀羅 (1971)

Jissoji’s second film with the Art Theater Guild outperforms what was accomplished in Mujo, but perhaps I’m only saying this because Mandala contains much less dialogue, and is easier to follow than his first film, for the English-only crowd. Again, Jissoji returns to religious philosophy, as we are presented with a film about a Buddhist cult. This aspect, for me, already makes the film unique, because I can’t think of other titles that take the viewer directly into the day-to-day activities of a cult. Koreeda’s Distance comes to mind, but from the reviews I’ve read on it (haven’t plunked down the $10 for the HK disc), the topic is simply on the aftermath of cult activities. This film deals with the entire religious and recruiting processes of the cult. The cult in question seems to assault people to make them join, and as this is a 70’s film, there is plenty of rape. No, seriously, there must be at least five rapes in this film - the record goes to Jissoji. All violence aside, the pure strangeness and imagery in this film makes it worth watching, and Jissoji madcap camerawork is a little bit more sober than what I found in This Transient Life. Did I also say that the ending will surprise you?

This Transient Life 無常 (1970)

My anticipation for this film was so high after Roland Domenig likened it to the work of Bresson and Dreyer. Well, Bressonian and Dreyeresque it is not, but it’s an interesting, if not somewhat pretentious Japanese film in its own right. I was so enamored with the review that several months ago, I went out and bought the Geneon disc without English subtitles, something that I don’t regret doing because it’s never been translated, but much of content in this dialogue-rich film has evaded me. But still, though the film is flawed because of its highly unnatural camera setups (something which has been praised, but tends to be a problem), Jissoji is unique in that he is maybe the only Japanese director to analyze Buddhism with such a high degree of concentration. There are many long dialogues in the film, ones which I can’t quite be sure of at this stage, but I’m sure delve deeply into Eastern philosophy. Also, like so many other Japanese films, incest is a main theme, and happens to be the motif that drives the plot. I would love to watch this again, but the second time through, I need my subtitles.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Death by Hanging 絞死刑 (1968)

In the tradition of Richard Wright's Native Son, Nagisa Oshima's Death by Hanging follows the story of a young second class citizen condemned for a crime to seem at first against an individual, but as an audience we find out that is an attack against a nation.

The film begins with the traits of all New Wave film-making, by showing an actual prison ground. Oshima's camera is attached to a helicopter and makes a descent upon a rather quaint building that is truly an execution chamber. Our narrator is Oshima himself, commenting on frighteningly true realities of public opinion on capital punishment. 71% of the population want to uphold capital punishment, but Oshima poses an unorthodox, but simple question. You who are in favor of capital punishment, have you ever witnessed an execution? This inquiry in itself to me sums up Oshima's purpose in his early work. Identifying and challenging hypocrisy. Something that many people are unwilling to do.

The victim of the punishment is a young Korean man named R. His crime is the murder and rape of 2 Japanese high school girls. R is hanged, but he lives. When he comes to, he cannot remember anything. His name, his family, his nationality, or the men who killed him. He appears to be completely enlightened in the Buddhist tradition of Nirvana. He does not behave like a criminal at all, in fact he is much more adjusted than the self-imposed superior Japanese prison wards. The man are shocked and the chaplain believes his body is empty and his soul has left. The prison wards believe that is nonsense so they want to hang him again. But they can't hang a man who isn't self aware or competent of his surroundings. So in a deeply biting satire, they act out the known facts of his life trying to get him to remember so he can be hanged.

This is where the narrative becomes interesting. Oshima uses satire to comment of Japan's marginalization of their Korean neighbors. Very similar to the way African Americans were treated in early America or Jews in Venice. R is the product of extreme degradation and exploitation. At one point the men are trying to play the part of his family. One man is playing the part of R's mom and she has to cry. Pretending, the man starts crying, but his colleague says that it's not right, and he should do it more, "Korean". He says by Korean, he means more vulgar. It is this condescendence towards Koreans that can be compared to many other people around the world and to many points in history.

In the conclusion, R understands what his former self did. Being a second class citizen, he was not allowed to have the things that his Japanese peers did. He soon became enveloped in fantasy. He didn't have fresh food, so he imagined he did. He didn't have new clothes, so he fabricated that idea. He couldn't have a Japanese girl, so he fantasized that he could. But he knew he couldn't have this girl in a normal fashion due to his race, so he constantly projected in his mind the act of rape. His constant cerebral denial of everything he hoped for lead to his real life act.

I respect Nagisa Oshima for being unpopular among his countrymen in order to shout at the world. I wouldn't call him a moralist, but he strives to eliminate hypocrisy in the world. This film is just as much an anti-capital punishment essay as it is a race relations thesis. I have always been against capital punishment ever since I was aware of the idea of politics. I was as shocked just as Oshima was when learning about the public opinion of capital punishment in my own English class. Most of my 16/17 year old peers supported death. R's response to his nation's stand on his fate is this. "The nation says that I should die for my crimes. But I don't understand the idea of a nation. How can an abstraction kill me?"

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Inferno of First Love 初恋・地獄篇 (1968)

Susumu Hani's unique film funded in part by the Art Theatre Guild, an organization which supported the filmmakers of the Japanese New Wave who were excommunicated from the Japanese studio system. This film is so truthful, dangerous, and spellbinding that it's hard to find words in the English language to describe it. Only a minuscule number of films can pull so much out of your soul in an hour and a half. Susumu Hani tells the frighteningly authentic story of a young man named Algebra, and his struggle to find himself within the suffocating environment of post-war Tokyo. Algebra works as a goldsmith in a ridiculously repetitive workplace and lives at home with his sexually abusive father. He is very repressed sexually and emotionally, and even once took laughing lessons to relieve his troubles. His abuse as a child led him to repeat his father's mistakes. A casual walk in the park leads to an all too comfortable relationship with a random young girl. A man sees him with the girl and yells "pervert, pervert" and rallies other neighbors to chase him down. Algebra doesn't serve any jail time, for nothing intimate happened, but he does visit a psychiatrist who hypnotizes him. Algebra's is hypnotized in conjunction with watching a movie screen that depicts images of his subconscious. Surprisingly, Algebra wants nothing to do with his dark hobby afterward and begins a heightening romance with a female prostitute with whom he had a failed liaison with earlier in the film. Her name is Nanami, a nude model that works in a peep show-esquire establishment. Nanami takes on her own quest in the film, from a normal peep show girl to doing S&M photos for mysterious clients. She is Algebra's only anchor in the world. The remainder of the film depicts the blossoming of their relationship, and Algebra's personal awakening.

The narration does appear to be typical: a young outgoing girl stabilizes the shy young man, but this film is all about the unique use of storytelling and the employment of a cinema verite style of photography. Yuji Okumura employs a liberated, documentary-style camera technique that brought memories of Sergei Urusevsky's work in I Am Cuba. I have seen few urban environments filmed so masterfully, yet simply in black-and-white. The film also has a theme of nostalgia for childhood and innocence, much like The Spirit of the Beehive. This theme is reinforced through Algebra's flashbacks of childhood set to a subtle, melancholic score.

This is a very important film. It may upset some viewers for its harsh depictions of reality, but it could be inspiring nonetheless for those who seek a better version of the truth. Susumu Hani took a cue from Italian Neo-Realism and hired non-professional actors for most of the roles. This choice makes the film the more poignant. It peels away the layers of fabrication that a studio project would leave on and leaves us with a story that few can imitate or forget.

Crazed Fruit 狂った果実 (1956)

Crazed Fruit is a very risky film in terms of what was considered acceptable for Japanese cinema. It follows the sexual bullfight of two privileged brothers competing for an older, married woman (who is actually married to a foreigner, an American, which fuels the anti-American sentiment supported by the author, Shintaro Ishihara). The older brother, Natsuhisa, is played by Shintaro Ishihara's real brother, Yujiro Ishihara, who went on to become a famous actor and recording artist. Natsuhisa is brash and remorseless, unlike his younger brother, Haruji, who is also filled with the same primordial desire, but displays a sort of innocence which progressively diminishes. The siren that the brothers compete for, who echoes memories of Helen of Troy, Eri, is played by Mie Kitahara, who later married her co-star, Yujiro Ishihara. Eri soon becomes the odalisque of the two brothers, acting as the receptacle for their phallic nature. Without ruining the plot, I will leave the finale vague, but I most note another performer in this tale of juvenile fury. Frank, played by the Belgian-Japanese, Masumi Okada, is a very memorable character. He is the de facto leader of this affluent tribe and he has a striking appearance on film. He seems more at home in the Rat Pack with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin than in a Japanese film, but he fits in well with this group despite his diverse background.

This film is very important for anyone looking to make sense of the film movement in Japan known as 'Nuberu Bagu' (romji for the French term, Nouvelle Vague). The slowly crumbling, Nikkatsu corporation produced this film in an attempt to appeal to a new, young audience which previously received no representation in Japanese cinema. Nikkatsu wasn't the first studio to appeal to a youth audience. Kon Ichikawa's Punishment Room was also released in 1956 to the reception of much controversy. This new literary and cinematic genre depicting lustful, rich and violent youth was known as the Taiyozoku (literally Sun Tribe). Sun Tribe referred to young people who had the money and the time to leisurely enjoy the sun, such outdoor activities as boating and water skiing. However, this culture of recreation was not a representative of reality, for even by 1959, 1 out of every 131 Japanese citizens owned automobiles. This more reflects the lifestyle of the author and harbinger of the Taiyozoku genre, Shintaro Ishihara (current mayor of Tokyo), who wrote the story/screenplay for this film, as well as the stories which inspired Kon Ichikawa's Punishment Room and the short story and film version of Season of the Sun.

The production of the film is quite extraordinary as well, shot in 17 days with a low budget, it is surprising how well-arranged all the shots are. Ko Nakahira (who was mentored by the rebellious director, Yuzo Kawashima, who was also a great influence on Shohei Imamura) masterfully displays lessons learned from French auteurs such as Jean Renoir. This is definitely obvious in the very impressionistic final sequence. Despite my adoration of this motion picture, this may be Ko Nakahira's only great work, besides maybe 2 or 3 other modern pictures for Nikkatsu. He suffered from alcohol abuse and was not able to free himself from the conveyor belt conventionalism present at Nikkatsu. Eventually, he had to expatriate to China, and use a pseudonym to make films for the Shaw Brothers. It is sad because this film had a such an outstanding ripple effect in Japan. The great financial success of Crazed Fruit spawned many other Taiyozoku films, and inspired the Japanese New Wave towards its epoch. To paraphrase Nagisa Oshima (who was greatly inspired by this debut effort), "the sound of the motorboats and the ripping of the woman's skirt heralded the sound of a new Japanese cinema."

Talking Head

I discovered this film when I bought the Mamouru Oshii Cinema Trilogy Collection boxset, available from Bandai. Like many anime enthusiasts, I was interested in Mamoru Oshii after viewing Ghost in the Shell and its sequel, Innocence. It turns out that these 3 films are not metaphysical, cyborg action dramas, but rather comedies and satires of the whole film world, as well as the anime industry. Talking Head's "storyline" is about an anime feature that must be released in 2 months, but there is no director. A "migrant technical director" is called in to replace the missing director. His skills include being able to perfectly mimic anyone's style while still being able to make innovations to that style. The story takes a turn when the crew members begin to die, one-by-one, Heart of Darkness style. Talking Head is the best of the 3 films in the trilogy, combining the film-within-a-film elements of Federico Fellini's 8 1/2 with a deliberate abstraction of film reality by exposing sets and lighting set-ups (Oshii did the same thing in The Red Spectacles). Oshii is a talented creator; he distorts our assumptions of the imposed reality of film while giving us a lesson in film history. He also has his characters giving numerous speeches about the way films must be made, but Oshii himself breaks these self-imposed rules in his own storytelling. The link of the trilogy is Chiba Shigeru. He plays the lead in all 3 films of the trilogy, and speaks with a standard Japanese accent, but the seriousness in his voice adds to the satire that Oshii is trying to convey. Talking Head is a great film for anyone who wants to know what goes on inside a director's head.

Monday, May 19, 2008

The Moon in the Gutter

Jean-Jacques Beineix is a curious director. Throughout these last two years, I've been delving deeper into art house features, but watching Beineix's films is a flashback to the commercial cinema that I grew up on. Not to imply that one market is better than the other, but the independent/art house world and the commercial industry have two different mindsets. With Beineix's first three features, it is obvious that he is trying to reach a wide audience, but there is a small, almost imperceptible tinge of personality placed into each of his films. Yes, he may just be an auteur. The most obvious aspect I've noticed in these first three features (Diva; The Moon in the Gutter; Betty Blue) is the persistent sense of longing. All three features have strong, believable romantic themes, and Beineix, like so many French artists, has a slight obsession with finding and defining love.

The Moon in the Gutter is based from the book of the same title by David Goodis. Like most Americans, I never even heard of Goodis until watching Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player. Some may have also seen him parodied in Godard's Made in U.S.A.. In Beineix's adaption of Goodis' novel, Gerard (Gerard Depardieu) is a stevedore who falls into a romance with a wealthy woman, Loretta (Nastassja Kinski). In this French adaption, the setting is switched from Goodis' hometown of Philadelphia to the ports of Marseilles. Gerard's neighborhood is quite squalid, reminding one of the slums in Jean Renoir's Les Bas-fonds.

Aligned with these lowly settings and romantic sentiments is a plot; Gerard plays a man who can be perfectly described as the strong and silent type. His emotion has been stripped from him after the death of his sister, raped and forced to suicide. Every night, he visits the bloodstained crime scene and broods over his existence, wishing to have a chance to leave the ports. Almost anchoring him down to his muted life is his lover, Bella, brilliantly and passionately played by Victoria Abril. She accepts her social standing in the slums, but for him, committing to her would mean accepting a life that he does not care for.

Gerard's luck may begin to shift when he encounters another melancholic, yet well-dressed and seemingly out of place man at the town bar. He grieves over the past like Gerard, and is only consoled when his gorgeous sister, Loretta enters the room. Fans, like myself, of Nastassja Kinski's flawless performance in Paris, Texas, will not be letdown in this film. Not only is she undeniably gorgeous (quite a force to be reckoned with in curls, scarlet lipstick, and dark garments), but Beineix, like Wenders, doesn't dare interrupt her performance with a flurry of shot-reverse shot editing. Her introduction into the picture may have been a bit overdone, with a close-up that could have distinguished nasal hairs, and a fan turned up too high, but when she speaks, one is wholly absorbed. Like her peepshow reunion scene in Paris, Texas, I had thoroughly lost myself in the scene when she and Depardieu ride and reminisce through the docks.

Following the dock ride are dreams and/or alcoholic binges. Gerard continues his reluctant courtship with Loretta, as she is the more active side of the relationship, while fearing that she may reach the same fate as his sister. Bella continues to be a comfort, yet somewhat of a nuisance for him, creating a threatening problem for him, and through all that he may have just found the man who drove his sister to death.

A small amount of research will show that this film was thrashed by critics upon release. Roger Ebert even seemed to not have much interest in it. It understandably had a cult following after its release, and would probably be just as polarizing today if it had an official DVD release in the States. Beineix doesn't really resolve anything in this film, but he is one of the few directors who has enough stylistic merit to make a good film without a fully coherent plot. For some of the lunacy in his cinema, like the ice-biting and the banana warehouse fight in this film, Beineix comes off with a certain charm that I can't ignore. He fully believes in his colorized recreation of film-noir (this film owes a lot to the aesthetic choices of 40's American cinema), and I have a respect for his enthusiasm, even if it didn't come off with perfection. This fixation with the director's work may just be a passing interest, but I would like to follow-up this experience with a viewing of Roselyne and the Lions. It seems that Beineix has simply fallen out of favor these days; most of his films are only available in France, and he hasn't released a feature in 6 years.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Eros Plus Massacre エロス+虐殺 (1969)

I've been waiting for a year to see this with English subtitles, and have finally received the chance, but as life would have it, I was only able to see the theatrical cut, which runs about an hour shorter than the director's cut. My plans were to write about this in the cinema blog (surprise! surprise!), but the curtailed length made it obvious that several foggy plot points were probably expounded upon in the longer version. Basically, this is the story of the Amakasu Incident, when Japanese police killed anarchist Sakae Osugi, his lover Noe Ito, and Sakae's child nephew, in the aftermath of the Great Kanto Earthquake. The climate after the quake was one of pure pandemonium, as I've read accounts of Koreans being attacked by Japanese mobs after spurious accusations of poisoning the water supply. The film has nothing to do with the temblor itself, but the events in Osugi's life leading up to his death. It is a frame story: a group of college students envision the life of Osugi and his anarchic friends, while living in their own climate of the 70's economic boom in Japan. It would seem that the students are living in a world where many of the ideas that Osugi was arrested and exiled for have come to fruition, yet in the portions of the story where we flashback to the 1920's, Osugi and his friends know that their ideas are far ahead of anything that could applied on a national level. In their discussions, they speak of rallying for government assistance for peasants in Kyushu, and Osugi talks about his being expelled from school.

The images in this film will stay with me for quite some time; I've never seen such intricate framing and blocking. It is quite amazing that Yoshida was able to create such a high quality film on the usual, low-budget of an Art Theatre Guild production. The world in which Osugi lives is quite subjective, as if everything arranged itself through his mind: there is Christian imagery throughout (a religion he had much interest in) and many oneiric sequences of his imminent murder. As for the title, "Eros" refers to the students, as it seems that is all they are interested in. There is a young woman at an art school, also earning wages as a commercial actress, who is falsely accused of prostitution by a policeman. She seems to be willing to bed any man, as is a playboy friend that she is seen with in the opening scenes of the film. This lothario has a brief encounter with a married woman, who appears to be suffering from some sort of mental illness, all before hanging himself in the most cinematic way possible at the film's conclusion. There is also another young student who accompanies the actress, reciting poetry as he observes things, while remaining coy in his advances at her. The students and their compatriots all suffer an existential malady, similar to the problems characters faced in Terayama Shuji's Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets.

"Massacre" refers to Osugi's life, one which the audience knows will end in violence. In one of my favorite scenes, where one of Osugi's lovers is threatening to stab him, he tells her that he accepts death if she is willing to dispense it. It seems that Osugi is wrapped around three women: his wife, Yasuko, who is mentioned but never seen; Itsuko, a journalist who is supporting him and his wife as he cannot find work after being branded as an anarchist, and Noe Ito, another anarchist whom he has become enmeshed with. The film's longest sequence involves Itsuko's attempt to take Osugi's life, and Noe Ito's attempt to stop it. The menage-a-trois struggle against each other for what seems like an hour, each party bringing into play their own histories, thoughts on Osugi, anarchism, and the zeitgeist. Yoshida films this and every other sequence in the film in a theatrical form (taken form kabuki, noh?), one which is ultimately successful unlike Kinoshita Keisuke's attempt at doing something similar in The Ballad of Narayama.

Although I still can't quite proclaim that this work matches the genius seen in the films of Kobayashi Masaki (who came too early to be part of the movement) or Teshigahara Hiroshi, Yoshida Yoshishige has definitely become one of my favorite directors of the Japanese New Wave because no other director in that movement took himself as seriously as Yoshida. He presents a serious historical observation, compares it with the situation of his current time, and fuses it all with a perfectionist aesthetic. The direction of the film could throw some viewers off because it is very avant-garde. Yoshida has no interest in depicting anything in a straightforward way, this is even obvious by his highly unnatural camera placement. Though having a few minor errors, this is quite a masterpiece, another gem in an era of Japanese cinema that the world has decided to ignore.