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

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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)

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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]

Screen Sorcery: Belladonna of Sadness (1973)

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Belladonna of Sadness (1973) begins with a joyful wedding. We first meet the lovely Jeanne, our guide through this strange fairy tale, and her beau Jim as they exchange marriage vows. When the couple returns to their humble abode, their wedded bliss is interrupted by the arrival of the reigning king and his minions who brutally assault Jeanne in an act of ceremonial rape that leaves her broken and bewildered. In her despair, the young beauty makes a pact with the Devil who takes the shape of a mutating phallus that promises her pleasure and power. Afterward Jeanne’s world descends into a dark hallucinatory nightmare of swirling colors propelled by sorcery, perpetual pain and erotic ecstasy.

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Nippon Noir: Celebrate #Noirvember with FilmStruck

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Thanks to Turner Classic Movies’ Social Media Specialist Marya Gates (@oldfilmsflicker) November is now known as Noirvember among many classic film fans who enjoy watching Film Noir throughout the month and discussing it on social media sites using the hashtag #Noirvember. This month-long celebration of criminal activity, dangerous dames, desperate men and shadow-lined surfaces is coming to a close but before it does I thought I’d highlight a few of the interesting Japanese crime films currently streaming on FilmStruck. If you’re celebrating the Thanksgiving holiday at home this year, it’s a great opportunity to play catch up with a genre I like to call Nippon Noir.

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March 5, 2016
David Kalat
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Japanese Beat Cinema Epilogue: Carmen Comes Home

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.

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KEYWORDS: Carmen Comes Home, Japanese cinema, Keisuke Kinoshita
COMMENTS: 6
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Growing Pains: The Boy and the Beast

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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.

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February 27, 2016
David Kalat
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Japanese Beat Cinema Part 4: Pale Flower

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.

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KEYWORDS: Masahiro Shinoda, Pale Flower
COMMENTS: 4
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February 20, 2016
David Kalat
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Japanese Beat Cinema Part 3: Bakumatsu Taiyo-Den

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?

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KEYWORDS: Bakumatsu Taiyo-den
COMMENTS: 2
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