As the recently paroled gangster Muraki in Masahiro Shinoda’s Pale Flower, Ryo Ikebe is practically the definition of cool. He looks like Elvis playing James Dean, or James Dean playing Elvis. In a plaid suit.
More to the point, he’s a disaffected loner, an outcast even when at home among his own kind. This is 1964 Japan after all, where pop culture and nihilism went hand in hand. In the 1960s, youth culture the world over was cranking out stories of alienation and anti-establishmentarianist angst. But Japan had specialized in nihilistic heroes for hundreds of years.
Our journey through the world of 1950s-era Japanese Beat Movies continues this week with Yuzo Kawashima’s Bakumatsu Taiyo-den. This was voted the 4th Best Japanese Film Ever Made by a critic’s poll from Japan’s leading cinema journal, and personally I think that may be even underselling it a bit. This is something ya gotta see, but that means tracking it down. For those of you in the UK or with the ability to play discs imported from the UK, that’s easy—seek out the Eureka/Masters of Cinema release and call it a day. But since that’s likely a small percentage of my readership, I’m sending the rest of you on a bit of a hunt. And you’ll find there a lot of different titles applied to this—all attempts to translate the title into English.
There’s Sun in the Last Days of the Shogunate, or The Sun Legend of the End of the Tokugawa Era. The Masters of Cinema disc opts for A Sun-Tribe Myth From the Bakumatsu Era. None of these are especially compelling, although the Masters of Cinema title comes closest, in my opinion. I’m generally in favor of translating titles into English—back in the days of video stores, it always used to drive me crazy when I browsed the “L” shelf to find all the French films thoughtlessly alphabetized there as if “Le” or “La” was the important word. A title is meant to be a marketing tool—a come-on to the audience, a label identifying the contents. If that title is incomprehensible, it cannot serve that purpose very well. A title like Bakumatsu Taiyo-den is hard to pronounce, hard to remember, hard to spell, and meaningless to most English-speaking viewers. But there are subtleties and nuances to the Japanese title that don’t translate well at all. In just seven syllables, Bakumatsu Taiyo-den efficiently signals (in Japanese) what you’re about to get: a mash-up of the “Sun-Tribe” genre of youth problem films (click back a couple of weeks to our discussion of Crazed Fruit for a refresher if needed) and the sword-and-topknot cycle of Samurai films (do you really need me to tell you what a samurai film is like?), specifically drawing the connection between the dawning of modernism at the end of the Samurai era and the uneasy postwar world of 1950s Japan. Oh, and did I mention it was a sex comedy?
For all you fans of Mad Men left bereft after the end of the series, here’s a treat: a 1958 Japanese satire on the Advertising Age with a lot of the same flavor. Like Mad Men, it wallows in that glorious midcentury style, but tempers that aesthetic indulgence with a wary eye about the social costs of relentless exploitation and cutthroat competition. As an added bonus, Giants and Toys actually hails from the era it critiques, as if director Yasuzo Masumura was live-blogging from the epicenter of advertising excess.
If you’ve grown tired of my singular focus on slapstick comedy these last 4 weeks, have no fear—I now plan to be singularly obsessed with 1950s and 60s Japanese New Wave Cinema for the next 3 or 4 weeks. Not sure yet how long I can keep this up—or which of us will blink first.
But even if you’re not already familiar with these movies or their makers, I encourage you to give it a try—there is some truly awe-inspiring and powerful filmmaking from a half a century and half a world away that rivals or bests any Golden Age Hollywood film you can name. We’ll start with one of the standard bearers of the genre, the best jumping on point I can imagine–Ko Nakahira’s 1956 Crazed Fruit.
There are many pop culture traditions at Christmastime that are important to me. Charlie Brown Christmas, of course—its power only grows over time. The Grinch (the original 60s cartoon). A Christmas Story, preferably on some kind of marathon loop. And then there’s Jalmari Helander’s looney cult flick Rare Exports. Perhaps that one is less familiar to you.
I wrote about it here several years ago, and to help give my revisit a fresh perspective, I asked my son Max to join me this year in paying tribute to this gloriously insane holiday horror movie.
Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on December 10, 2015
Senkichi Taniguchi’s Show Trail aka Ginrei no hate (1947) begins with a bang. A montage of shadowy figures and fragmented images bombards viewers during the film’s opening credits while guns fire, alarms ring, windows break, trains whistle and sirens scream. We soon discover that three desperate men (Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura and Yoshio Kosugi) have just robbed a bank and in a bold attempt to dodge authorities they make a dangerous trip to Northern Japan where they hope to lose their pursuers in the snow covered Alps. None of the men are prepared for the hard climb ahead of them and they sorely lack the survival skills needed to endure a harsh winter outdoors. When they’re forced to seek shelter at isolated ski lodges and in abandoned ranger stations, it only complicates their dire situation. As the stress of their predicament begins to overwhelm them, tensions grow and soon the three outlaws are bickering among themselves. Their shaky solidarity gives way to fear, distrust and unrepentant greed but one man will eventually find bitter redemption amidst the demanding mountains.
It was a little over 100 years ago that the writing team of Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre first began cranking out Fantômas mystery novels for a voracious European public. To keep apace with the relentless publication schedule, Souvestre and Allain traded writing duties. They would playfully build impossible cliffhangers before handing off to one another, daring the other to concoct a solution. It was perhaps the first commercial application of the Surrealists’ famous “exquisite corpse” game.
Over the years, the Fantômas character has appeared in a frenzied array of movie adaptations of differing degrees of quality. Arguably the most faithful adaptation to date is the 1979 TV miniseries–not necessarily the best, mind you, but the truest to the books. And as it happened, the authenticity extended behind the scenes: the producers decided to hire two visionary filmmakers to direct alternating episodes, in the spirit of Allain and Souvestre’s gonzo writing habits.
For me, Thanksgiving and Godzilla go hand in hand as much as turkey and stuffing do. Back when I was a small child, Superstation WTBS consistently aired Godzilla movies—sometimes in double features or marathons—on Thanksgiving Day. I have very vivid memories of seeing King Kong vs. Godzilla for the first time on Thanksgiving, at my grandparents’ house in Charlotte.
I’ve heard that there is a reboot/remake/revisit of King Kong vs. Godzilla in the works, from the team behind Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla. I’m not quite sure what to make of that—cautious optimism, I suppose? As I’ve written about before, as good as Edwards’ version was, it was not silly. And the thing that made the 1962 King Kong vs. Godzilla such a groundbreaking blockbuster iconic hit was its steadfast refusal to take itself, or anything else, seriously. And for all y’all who like your Godzilla dark and brooding and grim, just bear in mind that the somber version of Godzilla isn’t what launched the franchise. We have Godzilla movies today for one reason only: because there was King Kong vs. Godzilla, and it was bonkers.
They called Claude Chabrol “the French Hitchcock,” but this was always more a marketing hook than a meaningful comparison. Alfred Hitchcock made crowd-pleasing suspense thrillers; Chabrol made vicious satires disguised as suspense thrillers. For decades, Chabrol had been crafting spiky, embittered dramas simmering with disgust for humanity in general and the French bourgeoisie in specific.
And in 1988, he took aim at Nazi-occupied France. That was impressive enough, but the bullet he fired was a tangled, M.C. Escher-like self-referential puzzle surfing waves he’d set in motion two decades earlier.
Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on November 12, 2015
Federico Fellini is one of my favorite filmmakers so I was delighted to discover that TCM Imports is showcasing the movie maestro’s work every Sunday night throughout the month of November. In the next three weeks you can catch Nights of Cabiria (1957) on Nov. 15, Juliet of the Spirits (1965) on Nov. 22 and Satyricon (1969) on Nov. 29.
I’m particularly fond of the last two films scheduled and generally prefer Fellini’s work in the sixties due to its baroque artistry and avant-garde sensibilities. During that transformative decade the Italian director disregarded conventional storytelling technique in favor of a unique dream language, which emerged from his life experience and was filtered through his vivid imagination and esoteric interests. The results were a series of innovative, provocative and unapologetically sensual films that can still shock and surprise audiences. Fellini also had a wonderful sense of humor that was patently apparent throughout his career as a celebrated director and talented cartoonist.
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