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
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 typically 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. Japanese filmmakers faced immense pressure from American censors to make films that resembled Hollywood’s output at the time and in postwar Hollywood 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.
Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on April 10, 2014
Springtime has arrived in California and do you know what that means? BUGS! During the past week I’ve battled a couple of spiders in my kitchen, wrangled with a beetle that invaded my bathroom and took up arms against a small army of moths determined to raid my closet. These creepy critters seem to be everywhere so it seemed like a good time to revisit one of my favorite bug invasion movies, Kazui Nihonmatsu’s GENOCIDE (aka WAR OF THE INSECTS; 1969). GENOCIDE chronicles an attack on a small island community by a large mass of aggressive flying insects. It’s been made the butt of bad jokes by the folks behind Cinematic Titanic and Mystery Science Theater 3000 but this creative low-budget film is no B-movie bomb. Along with its strong antiwar message, GENOCIDE boasts some impressive visual touches and packs an emotional wallop during its explosive final moments that compassionate viewers won’t soon forget.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on February 25, 2014
Since 2001 the Museum of Modern Art has hosted “Documentary Fortnight”, a series devoted to formal innovations in non-fiction filmmaking. It’s where talking heads go to die. This year’s edition includes twenty features and a passel of shorts from twenty countries, covering a wide range of styles and subjects. I was taken with two documentaries that take wildly different approaches to the observational form. The Mother and the Sea is an immersive ethnographic study of pioneering Portuguese female fishing captains, while Campaign 2 (non Will-Ferrell division) is a run-and-gun vérité portrait of a Japanese city council election. Running through February 28th, Documentary Fortnight is a one-stop-shop to witness the future of the non-fiction form.
My most anticipated title was The Mother and the Sea, the latest ethnographic deep dive from Gonçalo Tocha. At the beginning of his 2011 documentary It’s the Earth, Not the Moon, he promises to “to film everything we can” of the Portuguese island of Corvo, the westernmost point of Europe. That 3-hour epic captures the past in the present, as the history of the island emerges through dying out traditions and the reminiscences of its oldest inhabitants. Corvo was once a major whaling outpost, as well as the repository of local wisdom ranging from cheese mongering to hat knitting. Tocha tries to extend these traditions and incarnate memories through his patiently wandering camera, where static portraiture of residents conjures up whole histories in a glance. In The Mother and the Sea he takes a similar approach to the small coastal Portuguese village of Vila Chã, though with a narrowed focus. Tocha is fascinated by the group of 1940s women who became captains of small fishing boats. He claims they were the only women in the world to captain their own ships at the time, their ages ranging from 16 to 60. He can only find scraps of published memory in the library stacks, consisting of a few articles and one heroic photo of the women standing at attention.
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