Blogathon 2012: Toshiro Mifune and the Strange Case of Stray Dog

A boilingly hot summer day, a crush of commuters, a moment of carelessness. With these universal ingredients, Akira Kurosawa set up a film that would mix the grim obsessions of film noir with a documentarian’s observation of postwar Japanese life. Talk about universal–Stray Dog is a mashup of pulp pop and reportage, of true crime and intimate drama, of buddy cop movies and art house cinema, of East and West. There isn’t much a movie can do that Stray Dog doesn’t put on its agenda.

That being said, the international critical acclaim that greeted this film requires some dissection, because there’s something really weird going on here. Stray Dog was never a barn-burning commercial splash, and it wasn’t even distributed in the US until 1963 (almost 15 years after it was made) but it was an award-winning and highly regarded art house release that contributed substantially to Akira Kurosawa’s growing renown, and there’s something screwy about that.

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Japan Cuts: The New York Festival of Contemporary Japanese Cinema

For the sixth year running, the Japan Cuts film series in New York City presents an eye-opening glimpse of contemporary filmmaking from across the Pacific, the vast majority of which will never receive distribution in the United States. Programmed in concert with the ongoing New York Asian Film Festival (which I covered for Film Comment), it runs from July 12 – 28 at the Japan Society, and will screen 37 features and two shorts. The normally sober-minded fest has gone pop this year, booking a slate bubbling with hyperactive rom-coms and sci-fi extravaganzas, but there is also a sidebar of films responding to the Fukushima nuclear disaster, as well as a tribute to the expressively stone-faced actor Koji Yakusho, who will appear in-person for the screening of The Woodsman and the Rain (2011).

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Ring around J-Horror

J-Horror don’t get no respect.  The long-haired ghosts have become a cliché to be ridiculed, and the tragedy of it is that the audiences perhaps best attuned to appreciate what J-Horror had to offer in its heyday are those least inclined to give it a chance.  I know—I speak from experience.  My love affair with J-Horror began, as all the best movie love affairs do, with opposition.

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The Hazy Lives of Nobuhiro Yamashita

The characters in a Nobuhiro Yamashita film do a lot of standing around. They are waiting for something, whether it be a friend, a bus, or simply for the day to end. Yamashita’s films are about killing time, in the hope that the following morning will contain less of it. But each day seems to grow longer, and these young men and women continue to stand, until they have forgotten what they were waiting for in the first place. These are films attuned to the rhythms of in-between moments , reveling in their awkward absurdity and percolating anxiousness. Yamashita’s films are frequently hilarious but of a kind that sticks in the throat, as life sails by his weightless, indecisive characters. Operating in near-anonymity out of Japan, with little festival or international distribution, Yamashita has forged a consistently funny and bittersweet body of work that is deserving of a vastly wider audience.

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100 years old, and still having fun.

No, I’m not talking about my dad, although he is getting close (just kidding – Happy Father’s Day, ol’ man!), I’m talking about Japan’s oldest movie studio whose simple motto is “We Make Fun Films.” Nikkatsu Corporation has been around since 1912 and is very much still alive and kicking. This is cause for a centenary celebration that is on tour with the help of the Japan Foundation and various regional groups. I was recently approached by the Consulate-General of Japan at Denver with a list of 11 Nikkatsu titles to choose from. Some are quite rare, all are on film, and the question for me is: which four of these should I choose?  [...MORE]

Remaking Ichikawa

Agatha Christie aficionados and detective fiction fans take note: Behind the deceptively bland title The Inugami Family lies a superb pulp mystery of the highest order–a cinematic classic that won awards, influenced a generation, and remains as thrilling today as when it was made.  Those of you who are inspired by this blog to rush out and track down an import DVD of this gem for yourself will discover that in fact, two movies with the exact same title, the same cast and makers, and pretty much the same running time and content exist.  Which makes telling the two apart a rather challenging task, to the newbie.  As with Detour recently, we are here to discuss a slavishly literal remake, only this time it’s a remake, thirty years to the day later, from the same director.  And therein lies our tale…

Inugami Family

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Kiyoshi Kurosawa is the Cure

One day, Japanese pulp cinema auteur Kiyoshi Kurosawa was watching TV.  A killer had been apprehended, and the TV newscasters mobbed the perp’s neighbors to ask all the familiar questions: what was he like?  Did he act unusual?  Did you ever suspect you were living next door to a monster?  And the answers to these inevitable questions are inevitably frustrating: he was just a nice, quiet man who never aroused any suspicions.  He must have been a monster disguised as a man.

People want to be able to explain away crime as something aberrant.  The press tries to meet this need, to package the reporting of crime in ways that pit us versus them.  But Kurosawa, a cynical man who studied sociology before becoming a moviemaker, recognized these impulses as delusional.  The killer, his neighbors, his victims, the detectives who caught him, and the reporters who covered the tale are all made of the same stuff.  Kurosawa saw the disquieting truth: anyone can be a monster.  Even you.

This was in the mid 1990s, a period when the world’s cinemas were clogged with serial killer dramas all hoping to be the next Silence of the Lambs, or Se7en.  That, or at least hitch a short ride on their coattails.  Most remained just that—wanna bes, never weres, nots.  This is the story of the film that did become the Next Big Thing, and along with Hideo Nakata’s 1998 Ring invented J-Horror.

poster

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The Importance of Being Godzilla (Part 3)

For those of you who missed last week’s post, a quick recap:  I recorded audio commentaries to both the Japanese and American cuts of Ishiro Honda’s GODZILLA for Criterion, but some of the material was cut from the tracks as the discs were sent to the factory.  I am using this forum as a venue by which to publish some of the deleted material.

The most controversial sections addressed the European distribution of the original Godzilla.  Last week we saw what happened in Germany–this week we explore the nuttiness of COZZILLA!

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The Importance of Being Godzilla (Part 2)

My professional association with Godzilla began in 1995, when I wrote an essay called The Importance of Being Godzilla for an obscure arts journal I had a grudge against.  That essay won me a literary agent, an aborted book contract, and eventually an actual published book from a different publisher.

My book cover

It also won me enduring decades of tension and conflict with the entities that own Godzilla.

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The Importance of Being Godzilla (Part 1)

The cat is out of the bag–I had been under orders not to tell anyone until now that I provided the Vin Scully style play-by-play for both versions of Godzilla (1954/1956) on Criterion’s new Blu-Ray edition. I guess some Godzilla fans sensed something in the air, the way animals perceive a coming tornado, because I’ve gotten quite a few email inquiries about whether I was doing a commentary for the Godzilla vs Megalon Blu-Ray. Close, but not quite, fellas.

Over at the Criterion Forums, speculation about the Godzilla Blu-Ray led to this exchange:

Posted: Mon Aug 22, 2011 7:43 pm 

What value does this have besides kitsch? This is an honest question; I’m not trying to troll anyone who likes this. I’ve never seen anything Godzilla-related, and I’m curious as to what the appeal is.

Posted: Mon Aug 22, 2011 7:53 pm 

You have to look at the first Godzilla movie quite differently. It was a lot more serious in tone, a reaction to the bombings in WWII, the destruction of Japan, the hydrogen bomb testing in the Pacific that killed some fishermen (a newsreel on the BFI disc shows it).

Fair enough, but it does rankle me a tad how respect for the austere horror parable of Honda’s original Godzilla tends to come at the expense of the later, sillier films. The 1954 ‘Zilla is a masterpiece, a work of apocalyptic art. But the crazy sequels are fun, too, and I hate to see them thrown under the bus.

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