Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on June 17, 2012
No, I’m not talking about my dad, although he is getting close (just kidding – Happy Father’s Day, ol’ man!), I’m talking about Japan’s oldest movie studio whose simple motto is “We Make Fun Films.” Nikkatsu Corporation has been around since 1912 and is very much still alive and kicking. This is cause for a centenary celebration that is on tour with the help of the Japan Foundation and various regional groups. I was recently approached by the Consulate-General of Japan at Denver with a list of 11 Nikkatsu titles to choose from. Some are quite rare, all are on film, and the question for me is: which four of these should I choose?
Chronologically speaking, the options are a bit strange because the first three films are from the ’30s, it then skips the ’40s, adds five films from the ’50s, and omits the next four decades altogether and tops of the list with three films from the last decade. Instead of screeners I was given thorough descriptions along with some notes. The former were often very long plot-point by plot-point synopsis (these I have taken the liberty of whittling down), but the latter I’ve left intact, as I found them more useful. It starts with…
(aka: Fijiwara Yoshie no furusato, directed by Kenji Mizoguchi, 1930, B&W, drama, 86 mins.)
SYNOPSIS: Like many early sound films, Hometown is built around a music-related theme. It is the story of Fujimura, a young vocalist struggling to make a name for himself. He is discovered by a rich patron of musicians, Natsue Omura, a woman of ample funds and more than an artistic interest in him. Under her tutelage his first recording, ‘Furusato’ (‘Hometown’), is a smash hit, landing him a big contract – by which Natsue stands to profit most. Fujimura, intoxicated by success and the sleek Natsue, abandons his faithful girlfriend Ayako, who worked as a hotel maid to support him when he had nothing to live on but dreams. When Fujimura is seriously injured in an automobile accident, Natsue in turn abandons him, thinking his career is ended and he would be of no further use to her. But Fujimura is determined to save his career and with patience, hard work, and Ayako’s love, he makes a dramatic comeback.
NOTES: This was Mizoguchi’s first sound film done in a process known as ‘MinaTalkie’ created by Yoshizo Minakawa. It preceded Heinosuke Gosho’s Thy Neighbor’s Wife and Mine by a year, but did not enjoy the success of Gosho’s light comedy, partly because the sound reproduction was poor and partly because of Mizoguchi’s more serious subject matter.
A Pot Worth One Million Ryo
(aka: Tange Sazen yowa: Hyakuman ryo no tsubo, directed by Sadao Yamanaka, 1935, B&W, samurai-comedy, 86 mins.)
SYNOPSIS: The setting is Tokyo during the Edo Period (1603 – 1868). A samurai lord gives his Younger brother a worthless pot as a wedding present, only to later find out that there’s a map disclosing the hiding place of a fortune worth a million ryo plastered inside the pot. But when he tries to recover it he finds out his younger brother sold the pot to a junk dealer, who in turn has handed it over to his neighbor’s little boy. Long story short: that little boy is being protected by Tange Sazen, a one-eyed, one-armed swordsman.
NOTES: This was the third in a series of very successful films about the one-eyed one armed swordsman, The films are based on series of popular novels by Hayashi Fubo. Ito Daisuke directed the first two films in the series, but Yamanaka was given the third film when Ito left Nikkatsu, and he transformed the original super hero image into one of a cynical, lazy, and loveable swordsman. This charming comedy has been called “a contemporary drama with historical costumes,” due to Yamanaka’s ability to imbue a traditional historical drama with a very real sense of humanity. Yamanaka died at the age of 29 and only three of his films exist today, but his name has gone down in the history of Japanese film as one of the most talented and innovative of prewar directors. His films are currently receiving international attention. His other two extant films are Kochiyama Soshun (1936), and Humanity and Paper Balloons (aka: Ninjo Kamifusen, 1937).
Duel in Takadanobaba
(aka: Chikemuri Takadanobaba, directed by Makino Masahiro and Hideo Ishimoto, 1937, B&W, samurai-comedy, 51 mins.)
SYNOPSIS: Nakayama Yasubei delights in fighting and fears only one person: his uncle Rokurozaemon. Yasubei lives in a “nagaya,” a set of closely connected lower class dwellings where plebeian, colorful characters live-and quarrel. Shopkeepers are bullied, lovers have knock-down battles, duels are commonplace, and various dramas unfold and lead toward Yasubei getting entangled against 18 opponents amidst a cheering crowd.
NOTES: The tale of Nakayama Yasubei’s duel is famous, even if he in reality probably did not cut down 18 opponents. The story has been related in film, rakugo, kodan and on stage many times, in part because Nakayama later joined the famous 47 Ronin (Chushingura) as Horibe Yasubei. But Makino and Inagaki’s version gives no hint of this more serious future, playing up the thrills and the comedy with Bando’s bravura performance. The multiple pans of Yasubei running to the duel are an exemplar of the experimental flourishes of 1930s Japanese cinema and the final duel, performed virtually like a dance number, is a marker of Makino’s love of rhythm and one of the best sword fights in Japanese film history. The film was originally released under the title Chikemuri Takadanoba (Bloody Takadanobaba) with a length of 57 minutes, but suffered some cuts and a title change when it was re-released in 1952.
(aka: Kokoro, directed by Kon Ichikawa, 1955, B&W, drama, 120 mins.)
SYNOPSIS: The setting is Tokyo and an inland area in central Honshu during the beginning of the 20th Century, and involves a university student who becomes aware of something wrong and sinister about the atmosphere prevailing over the home of his professor and his wife. When the professor commits suicide, a letter helps unwrap the mystery.
NOTES: This film is the screen version of a famous novel written in 1941 by Natsume Soseki (1867-1916), one of the greatest novelists of Japan. The reign of Emperor Meiji lasted from 1968 to 1912, and it was during this period that Japan developed into a modernized industrial nation. Despite the many hardships of this era, most Japanese took great pride in having lived through such a period of the nation’s history. Soseki was not a nationalist, but a liberalist who deeply mistrusted the narrow-minded nationalism that was fostered during the Meiji era. Yet when the leading person in his novel grieves over the death of Emperor Meiji, claiming that it marks the end of his generation, one cannot help feeling that he speaks for himself as author. This is a story of an intellectual living at the turn of the generation, who was deeply concerned over his egocentric individualism.
A Hole of My Own Making
(aka: Jibun no ana no nakade, directed by Uchida Tomu, 1955, B&W, drama, 120 mins.)
SYNOPSIS: Tamiko, an alienated young woman from a wealthy family, lives with her bedridden brother Junjiro and her stepmother, Nobuko, whom she mistrusts. She has attracted the attentions of two men, the middle-aged doctor Ihara and the free-spirited Komatsu, who works for a munitions company. But she is reluctant to marry either, and suspects that her stepmother herself loves Ihara. Add some sexual advances, unpaid medical bills, and money from real-estate transactions to the mix to juice things up and, eventually, Tamiko finds that all of her options soon dissipate.
NOTES: Curiously, this is the only film that lacks any notes from the Japan Foundation, but Jasper Sharp sums things up nicely in Midnight Eye: “Coming a mere three years after the US Occupation had finished, A Hole of My Own Making is interesting due to the sheer vehemence of its portrayal of a nation in which the only way forward, it seems, is through bluff and aggression, centering as it does around a family ravaged by death and sickness, tearing itself apart from the inside as it is beset from the outside by seductive but self-interested forces. The metaphor of Japan’s relationship with the US hardly needs spelling out.”
The Eternal Breasts
(aka: Chibusa yo eien nare, directed by Kinoyu Tanaka, 1955, B&W, 110 mins.)
SYNOPSIS: Her marriage with Anzai Shigeru having come to an unhappy end, Shimojo Fumiko returns to her family’s home with her two children. One day, Fumiko attends a poetry reading at the house of the Hokkai Times’ Yamagami, which is being held to celebrate the return to Japan of Mori Takashi, the husband of Kinuko, one of Fumiko’s childhood friends. Fumiko reads some of her poems and is bathed in praise for her talent. Mori walks Fumiko home and offers her words of encouragement. Soon thereafter, the news arrives that her divorce from Anzai has become official, but with the stipulation that she must return her son Noboru to his father. Breast cancer and a mastectomy follow, along with a grim prognosis. Still, she puts on a happy face and tries, to the point of being reckless, to act healthy.
NOTES: The Eternal Breasts is based on the dialy of a Tokyo newspaper reporter, Wakatsuki Akira, which described the life and poems of Wakatsuki’s lover, the poet Nakajo Fumiko. Working from a real story, the film is one of the few examples in Japanese cinema where the life of a mature woman was put on film by a woman scriptwriter and director of the same age. Tanaka Sumie was one of the major scriptwriters in the 1950s, known for her depiction of the psychology of strong women, and Tanaka Kinuyo, one of Japanese cinema’s greatest actresses, was also the first female director in the Japanese fiction film industry.
Suzaki Paradise: Red Light
(aka: Suzaki Paradaisu: Akashingo, directed by Yuzo Kawashima, 1956, B&W, drama, 81 mins.)
SYNOPSIS: In the mean streets of 1950s downtown Tokyo, a young couple, having eloped, is stranded with no money. The heroine, Tsutae, wanders with her taciturn man, Yoshiji, into a cafe called the Chigusa. She talks her way into a job as waitress and dishwasher. With her flirtations and flattery, she helps business pick up, especially among older, wealthy men. Yoshiji, however, is left in the cold and becomes upset when Tsutae attaches herself to an affluent radio shop owner. But the sad, kindly Madam, Otoku, finds Yoshiji a situation at the local noodle shop. Yoshiji has no aptitude nor interest in noodle delivery, but he soon revives when the young waitress, Tamako, takes a special interest in him. Tension builds through the hot summer nights as Tsutae and Yoshiji drive each other to fits of jealousy as jazz, dixieland, and enka songs waft through the sweltering streets.
NOTES: Based on a novel by Shibaki Yoshiko, Suzaki Paradaisu subtly evokes the postwar ennui of downtown Tokyo. The film combines the smouldering moods of Tennessee Williams with the social realism of Vittorio De Sica. In its delicate handling of the nuances of precarious relationships, it faithfully replicates the feminine perspective of the novel’s author. This is also a hallmark of director Kawashima Yuzo, who specializes in stories of postwar women, the defeat of Japan, and the sadness of living, as in Not Long After Leaving Shinagawa (Bakumatsu taiyoden, 1957), Women Are Born Twice (Onna wa nido umareru, 1961), and Elegant Beast (Shitoyakana kemono, 1962). He has said that Suzaki Paradise was his favorite film among his own works. The sinuous, eclectic soundtrack and stellar performances by Aratama Michiyo and Mihashi Tatsuya lend a steamy, unpredictable atmosphere to this moody film.
Man Who Causes a Storm
(aka: Arashi o yobu otoko, directed by Umetsugu Inoue, 1957, Color, drama, 101 mins.)
SYNOPSIS: In the Ginza area of Tokyo during the 1950′s Eiji approaches the owner of a jazz club, Miyako, to ask her to promote his older brother, Shoichi. Shoichi has recently come out of jail and has aspirations to become a musician. Miyako realizes that Shoichi is a very talented drummer and could be the best in Japan. Under her relentless training Shoichi blossoms and begins to get noticed. Competing love interests also lead to competing TV performances and an escalation of desires and violence.
NOTES: The lead actor in the film, Ishihara Yujiro, is the late brother of the present mayor of Tokyo, Ishihara Shintaro, who is also a well-known author. Ishihara Yujiro died in 1987 of liver cancer. The actress in the film, Kitahara Mie was his wife. Ishihara Yujiro was usually cast as a macho-hero and this lead to him becoming an idol for many women in Japan and he debuted in 1956 in the film Season of the Sun (aka: Taiyo no kisetsu) which was based on a book written by his brother. The films that Ishihara Yujiro starred in were seen as representative of the younger generation of the 1950s who were known as the Sun Tribe who were seen to live a hedonistic lifestyle.
(aka: Megane, directed by Naoko Ogigami, 2007, Color, Comedy, 106 mins.)
SYNOPSIS: Taeko steps out of the airport onto a quiet tropical island. No one is there to pick her up, but she drags her suitcase down the beach. She has a map that leads her to the pension Hamada, a quiet inn run by a man named Yuji. He is surprised she didn’t get lost along the way; everyone else does. The only other visitor is an older woman named Sakura, who comes every spring and runs a kakigori flavored-ice stand on the beach. The two are amazed at the size of Taeko’s suitcase; she tells them it is filled with books she wants to read while she’s on vacation. What follows are a series of encounters with quirky denizens that will have Taeko dragging her overlarge suitcase all over the island.
NOTES: The title is a whimsical touch on a whimsical film – all of the major characters wear prominent glasses. Filmed on location on Yoron Island just north of Okinawa, Megane was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and won the Manfred Salzgeber Award at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2008. Ogigami previously directed Kamome Diner (aka: Kamome shokudo, 2006), also starring Kobayashi Satomi and Motai Masako, shot on location in Finland. Motai Masako plays the tobacco shop owner in Always – Sunset on Third Street (aka: Always San-chôme no yûhi, 2005) and Always – Sunset on Third Street 2 (aka: Always zoku San-chôme no yûhi, 2007). Kobayashi Satomi is the wife of Mitani Koki, the director of The Magic Hour (2008).
How to Become Myself
(aka: Ashita no watashi no tsukurikata, directed by Jun Ichkawa, 2007, Color, Drama, 97 mins.)
SYNOPSIS: Juri, an elementary school girl living in the suburbs, passes her days trying to avoid becoming the target of bullying. At home her parents are always quarreling, and the impending entrance exam for private junior high school doesn’t make the situation any better. Juri befriends Kanako, another victim of bullying. Their relationship grows from one of mere acquaintances to something far more complex and intertwined as the years go by and they exchanges emails, get involved in creative writing, and a series of emotional breakthroughs.
NOTES: How to Become Myself (the original title means “How to Make Myself for Tomorrow”) is Ichikawa Jun’s 20th feature film, and second to last. Ichikawa was in his late fifties when he depicted this sensitive and insightful story about two young girls from elementary school through high school. This film is unique in that it deals with the problem of how to fit in almost exclusively on a psychological or ethical level. There are none of the violent occurrences we are used to seeing in western films dealing with similar issues. There is no class or race (there is not even a “popular crowd” – there is only the ruthless “majority”). The act of bullying itself is sparingly depicted as well. And there are no “bad guys” – as if to reduce the issue to a chemically pure state, where being bullied is a matter that can be dealt with through personal resolve. In a society as homogeneous and ostensibly classless as Japan’s, it may well have been a valid tactic. Dazai Osamu (1909 – 1948) is a popular writer, whose decadent and self-destructive style has a large following to this day. “Clowning” was one of his recurring motifs. Narumi Riko (Juri), who was only 14 years old when this film was released, is now one of Japan’s most promising young actresses. Maeda Atsuko (Kanako) is a central member of the “idol” group AKB48.
One Million Yen Girl
(aka: Hyakuman-en to nigamushi onna, directed by Yuki Tanada, 2008, color, drama, 121 mins.)
SYNOPSIS: 21 years old Suzuko gets into trouble with her co-workers and winds up in jail for a short time. Once she gets out, she takes on a variety of jobs: cleaning offices, delivering newspapers, and saves up a million yen to embark on a journey. She then finds herself in a seaside resort and and takes up work at a guest house. A local boy falls for her, but she has promised herself to leave for another town once she saves up a million yen. She quickly does and packs her small suitcase with her favorite handmade curtain and skips town. Her next destination is a peach plantation, and after than a gardening shop, but always, upon saving up a million yen (this being about $10,000 in U.S. currency) , she plans to move on.
NOTES: Born 1975 in Fukuoka, Tanada studied 8 mm filmmaking at Image Forum in Tokyo. Her directorial debut Mol (2001) won two awards at 2001 Pia Film Festival including Grand Prix. In 2004, Tanada directed Takada Wataru, a comedic documentary on a legendary folk singer of the same name. It was premiered at Tokyo International Film Festival and became a theatrical box office hit. She also wrote and directed Moon and Cherry (2004). The film, a comical portrait of college erotic novel club members struggling with love and sex, was invited to Nippon Connection in Frankfurt. In 2007, she directed Hatsuko’s World, a love story about a fifteen year old girl who hates Anne of Green Gables. Her writing credits include Sakuan (2007), directed by Mika Ninagawa, which was screened at Berlin International Film Festival. Her new film, One Million Yen Girl is based on her original screenplay. She is one of the most promising young directors in Japan.
So… those are my options, and I only have four to pick. Interestingly, I see other theatrical venues have been given different films to choose from, which may boil down to film trafficking issues and other matters that have an effect on availability. This is especially true given that the Nikkatsu centenary celebration is taking place globally. They may have produced over 3,000 films, but 35mm archives are becoming perilously thin as everything drifts away toward the digital realm.
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