I’ve let this whole “Japanese Beat Cinema” kick run on way longer than I originally planned, and with your indulgence I’ll send it off with one last trip to the well: Keisuke Kinoshita’s Carmen Comes Home. Hailing as it does from 1951, this is a shade older than the rest of the films we’ve been exploring these best several weeks, but it definitely plays with the same themes: teenagers, sex, the generation gap, and what happens when (poorly translated) American values intrude into traditional Japan.
I’ll admit this is not likely to be familiar to anyone—I don’t believe it’s had a proper US release, ever. It’s not on YouTube. I ran across it on DVD as part of a set of “100 Years of Japanese Cinema” that was published in Hong Kong, but it’s long out of print. So, I’m talking about a movie that no one else has seen, and no one is really going to be see very easily. But, don’t be intimidated—that’s kind of point of this post. Go ahead, click the fold, and let’s see what happens when Carmen comes home.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on March 1, 2016
The animated films of Mamoru Hosoda are all about the practical aspects of the fantastical. Wolf Children (2012) begins with the transcendent love between a city girl and a werewolf, but instead of ending at their union, it begins there, with the bulk of the film concerned with the hard realities of raising two rambunctious lycanthrope kids. Summer Wars (2009) uses a video game virtual reality to tell a story about getting along with your prospective in-laws, while the girl in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006) uses her powers to perfect a karaoke routine. His new film, The Boy and the Beast, is about a child runaway who discovers a secret world of warrior animals, where he is mentored by a splenetic bear-man. Though there are universe-shaking implications, the core of the movie is about how a kid fills in the emotional lack left by his absent parents. Opening in limited release on March 4th, The Boy and the Beast is another of Hosoda’s gorgeous spectacles that finds beauty and pain in the minutiae of existence.
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.
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.
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.
Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on January 15, 2015
In recent years I’ve seen a critical push to apply familiar terms like Film Noir to all manner of Japanese crime films made during the 1950s and 60s. The term has even been applied to the culturally specific Sun Tribe films (please see my previous post that discusses Sun Tribe films), Pink Films of an adult nature and the more experimental and political films that exemplify the Japanese New Wave. I don’t always agree with this “roping in” because it often limits our understanding of Japanese cinema which contains historical and cultural influences that often defy simplistic categorizations. But sometimes the term fits.
It’s worth remembering that after WW2 the Japanese film industry was largely controlled by the U.S. occupation forces and Japanese filmmakers faced immense pressure from American censors to make films that resembled Hollywood‘s own output at the time. And in postwar America Film Noir was thriving. The concentrated effort to destroy much of Japan’s cinematic history and modernize the country led to an onslaught of gun totting detectives, dangerous dames and cutthroat criminals in Japanese cinema that began replacing the sword wielding samurais, kimono clad ladies and gentle families that had previously populated the movies. Amid these changes filmmakers created their own distinct body of work that became more progresses and subversive after the American occupation ended. But the impact of Hollywood’s aggressively imposed influence is undeniable and in this postwar climate elements of Film Noir became deeply rooted within the Japanese film industry. One particularly striking example of this is Koreyoshi Kurahara’s I AM WAITING (1957), which makes its debut on TCM January 18th (1am PST/4am EST).
Séance on a Wet Afternoon, the chilling 1964 British classic by Bryan Forbes, will be on TCM in the middle of the night tonight. It’s a must-see. It is not, however, my favorite screen adaptation of Mark McShane’s novel. That honor goes to Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s version, which effortlessly turned this mid-century British ghost story into a work of 21st century J-Horror, largely because Kurosawa hadn’t seen Forbes’ must-see version.
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