Fear of Flowers: Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees (1975)

UNDER THE BLOSSOMING CHERRY TREES (1975)

To view Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees click here.

“Without people, a forest of cherries in full bloom is not pretty, just something to be afraid of.”
- Ango Sakaguchi

Although typically described as a horror film, Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees (1975) defies simple categorization. This grisly adult fairy tale, currently streaming on FilmStruck, is a strange amalgam of traditional Japanese theater, folktales, ghost stories, social commentary, anti-war sentiment, dark humor and existential philosophy based on a story by Ango Sakaguchi titled In the Forest, Under Cherries in Full Bloom. Sakaguchi was a bold libertine and like many postwar Japanese writers and artists, he was also a proponent of the European decadent movement that found beauty in death and death in beauty. His wartime experiences deeply affected him and Sakaguchi’s thought-provoking essays and stories expressed his distaste for authority while embracing and eroticizing the destruction that had consumed his country. It’s not surprising that director Masahiro Shinoda (Pale Flower [1964], Samurai Spy [1965], Double Suicide [1967]) was motivated to adapt one of Sakaguchi’s subversive stories for the screen. Much like the author, Shinoda was also a devotee of the decadent movement and his best films incorporate similar ideas and themes. Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees may not be a conventional horror movie, but like the transgressive literature and art that inspired it, this violent tale of carnal desire and obsession contains plenty of horrifying moments.

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“Just shut up and watch!”: Remembering Seijun Suzuki (1923-2017)

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To view the work of Seijun Suzuki click here.

On February 13, we lost Seijun Suzuki. The Japanese director, screenwriter, actor and producer was 93-years-old at the time of his death and a titan in my own cinematic universe but I haven’t had the opportunity to properly mourn his passing. With Suzuki’s birthday fast approaching (May 24th) I thought I would devote some time to discussing the movie maverick who is being commemorated on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck with “Chaos of Cool: A Tribute to Seijun Suzuki.” The programing theme presents seven of Suzuzki’s films including Take Aim at the Police Van (1960), Youth of the Beast (1963), Gate of Flesh (1964), Story of a Prostitute (1965), Fighting Elegy (1966), Tokyo Drifter (1966) and Branded to Kill (1967) but if you search for the director’s name on FilmStruck you will also find Everything Goes Wrong (1960), which I singled out in the past. If you are unfamiliar with Suzuki or already a fan, “Chaos of Cool” provides subscribers with a fantastic opportunity to explore the work of one of Japan’s most dynamic, influential and innovative filmmakers.

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Kaiju, Cocktails and Catastrophe: The X From Outer Space (1967)

X FROM OUTER SPACE, THE (1967)

To view The X from Outer Space click here.

“The monster is now on a rampage, headed for Tokyo.”

That line comes from a scene that lies at the heart of a movie I love, The X from Outer Space (1967). It belongs in the tradition of the Japanese Kaiju films, monster movies that enjoyed a golden period in the 1950s and 1960s, starting with the birth of Gojira (Godzilla) in 1954. There is a stylishness and wit to them that is often overlooked while everyone pokes fun at the man in the rubber monster suit. But just because the monster suits weren’t up to today’s standards of technologically advanced costume design, doesn’t mean the films weren’t well made in their own right. The X from Outer Space stands out as a favorite for several reasons, not the least of which is that for much of the movie, with its stylish astronauts in sharp suits and jumper dresses, it’s a late 1960s happening in space, and to mine a quote, it freaks me out!

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Tokyo Gone Gagaga: Otaku (1994)

OTAKU (1994)

To view Otaku click here.

Otaku: (in Japan) a young person who is obsessed with computers or particular aspects of popular culture to the detriment of their social skills. (definition from The Oxford Dictionary)

Otaku: Obsessed fan; geek; nerd. Not restricted to anime fans, otaku is a general and relatively insulting word used to describe people obsessed with some particular hobby. (definition from AnimeWorld.com)

I’ve never referred to myself as an otaku but I’m sure that others have. Throughout much of the 1990s, I held minor jobs within the manga and animation industry selling comic books, attending conventions and finally working as a convention publicist, which involved traveling to Tokyo. During this time I developed a strong affection for many aspects of Japanese pop culture including anime, manga, music and doll collecting. I also self-published zines and wrote for publications while covering a wide array of topics that ranged from Sailor Moon to visual kei (a form of Japanese glam/goth rock). My interest in these subjects wavered between curiosity, admiration and obsession but I’ve always had extremely varied hobbies and pastimes. At the same time that I was writing about Japanese pop culture, I was also writing about British poetry, French literature and classic horror movies. So am I an otaku? I suppose it depends on the time of day and who you ask.

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Everyone’s Gone Crazy: Violent Cop (1989)

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“Beat” Takeshi Kitano has been making headlines recently. Late last year the 70-year-old Japanese filmmaker, actor, author and entertainer was awarded France’s coveted Legion of Honor for his contribution to contemporary arts while film retrospectives in New York and Rio de Janeiro, along with a spate of fresh Blu-ray releases from Film Movement and Third Window Films, have spawned renewed interest in his work. Kitano is also wrapping up production on his latest directorial effort, the third film in his lauded crime trilogy Outrage: Final Chapter (2017), and we can look forward to seeing him in the highly anticipated live-action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell (2017) soon. As a longtime admirer, it has been a joy to see the arc of his career take shape from popular television comedian to celebrated film auteur and beloved cultural figure.

Through April 28, FilmStruck subscribers have access to four of Takeshi Kitano’s earliest films including Boiling Point (1990), Sonatine (1993), The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi (2003) and my personal favorite of the bunch, Violent Cop (1989). Violent Cop was the first feature film Kitano directed and its impact should not be underestimated. As he continues to gain new admirers around the world, I thought I would revisit the movie that launched Kitano’s filmmaking career and transformed his public persona from a fun-loving clown into a cinematic powerhouse in Japan and abroad.

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Shake Your Bones with The Living Skeleton (1968)

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Now that another Valentine’s Day has passed, it’s time to focus on other emotions out there… like stark terror! Pretty much impossible for American audiences to see until 2012 apart from its very minimal English-language theatrical release in 1969, the terrific spook show The Living Skeleton (1968) is just the kind of thing to watch late at night when you want a few nice shivers with a rich vein of pulp fun. [...MORE]

Bop Gun: Black Sun (1964)

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With La La Land nominated for fourteen Academy Award nominations and likely to dominate movie chatter in the coming weeks, I wanted to track down some lesser known uses of jazz on film, for those seeking alternatives. Looking through FilmStruck, I came upon Koreyoshi Kurahara’s Black Sun (1964) on the Criterion Channel, which is about a jazz-mad squatter living in the rubble of post-war Japan, with a score performed by the Max Roach Quartet. The Roach Quartet is playing squalling compositions by Toshiro Mayuzumi, indicative of how East and West headbutt each other throughout the feature. The Japan as shown in the film is still in ruins after WWII, a ghostly, emptied out space filled with rubble and sewage.

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A Man’s World: Ginza Cosmetics (1951)

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Ginza Cosmetics (1951) is an unassuming, nearly plotless wander through Tokyo from director Mikio Naruse. It is remarkable for how unremarkable it is, focusing on the everyday lives of bar hostesses at a failing nightclub. Anticipating the setting of his 1960 masterpiece When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, Ginza Cosmetics takes place in a world absent of functional men. They have all been lost to gambling, infidelity or the war. The ones that are left are damaged beyond recovery, appendages to a barstool. So the women make do with what is available to them, treating romance as their business and making arrangements with bucktooth middle-managers to create the illusion of intimacy. The film, diffuse in its focus, touches on these faux-mances but also finds time for the afternoon wanderings of a latchkey kid and his exhausted bar hostess mother, whose schedules are almost exact inverses. When he is wandering the city, she is holed up inside a bar, and when he is in bed asleep, she is finally freed into the night. Ginza Cosmetics is streaming on the Criterion Channel of FilmStruck, along with eleven other Naruse titles.

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Let It Snow: Ikiru (1952), a Different Kind of Holiday Classic

IKIRU (1954)

As we head into the final stretch of 2016, a year that will certainly live in everyone’s memory for a variety of reasons, the holidays seem to carry a bit more weight than usual. Nevertheless, it’s any film lover’s tradition to break out a few seasonal classics to enjoy, giving you a taste of the yuletide spirit or the personal assessment that comes with New Year’s.

You can find plenty of Christmas selections on Filmstruck, not to mention a number of wintertime films to help set the mood. However, there’s one title that might seem a little unlikely as an end-of-the-year viewing choice, but it’s really quite perfect: Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru (1952), his fourteenth directorial feature and one of his best-loved films, sandwiched in between his legendary Rashomon (1950) and Seven Samurai (1954), five of whose cast members can be seen here.

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Dreams in the Witch House (1977)

HOUSE, (aka HAUSU), Kimiko Ikegami, 1977

It took the West a few decades to finally catch up with the phantasmagorical output of Japanese filmmaker Nobuhiko Ôbayashi, whose feverish sugar rush cinema would make Baz Luhrmann cry uncle. Actually, you could argue that we still haven’t quite come to grips with him since only one of his films is widely available now, but it’s a doozy: House (Hausu) (1977), a child’s nightmare on celluloid that represents Ôbayashi’s formal feature film debut. Before this film he had been cutting his teeth on many experimental film and TV commercials, the latter often featuring imported American stars like Catherine Deneuve, Charles Bronson, Sophia Loren, Kirk Douglas, and David Niven. If you want a taste of what that entailed, go to YouTube and do a search for “Charles Bronson” and “Mandom” to see what Ôbayashi was up to. You’re welcome. [...MORE]

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