The Sword of Doom (1966)

I thought Jef Costello of Le Samouraï was the most cold-blooded killer in film but that was till I saw The Sword of Doom. A Japanese film set in the days of samurai, The Sword of Doom introduces viewers to Ryunosuke, a lone samurai. The embodiment of evil, Ryunosuke kills and rapes for something to get an advantage. Despite the masterful, choreographed sword fighting It’s hard to watch. I hoped that Toranosuke, a master who led a school for samurai, would vanquish Ryunosuke and that hope carried me through this film.

It’s no exaggeration that Ryunosuke is pure evil with no redeeming quality. He killed dozens with no remorse. He shows no chivalry whatsoever. He breaks a promise to the wife of a samurai he fights, rapes her, and her husband then divorces her. She winds up stuck living with Ryunosuke, who treats her badly, but then again that’s how a sociopath treats everyone. 

The cinematography is striking as is the choreography of the sword fighting. Even though Ryunosuke is completely loathsome, actor Tatsuya Nakadai (of The Human Condition, Yojimbo,  Sanjuro and dozens of other classics) deserves praise. 

When I lived in China, someone told me that the Chinese like the beauty of violence a lot more than Westerners do. I wonder if this is the case with The Sword of Doom. As repugnant as the hero was, I must say the film was beautiful. 

Below’s the beginning of the essay The Sword of Doom: Calligraphy in Blood by Geoffrey O’Brien. To read the whole essay, click here

Kihachi Okamoto’s The Sword of Doom is likely to strike the unalerted viewer as an exercise in absurdist violence, tracking the career of a nihilistic swordsman from his gratuitous murder of a defenseless old man to his final descent into what looks like a rehearsal for global annihilation, as, in a kind of ecstasy, he slaughters a seemingly endless army of attackers both real and phantasmal. 

Geoffrey O’Brien, criterion.com

While it’s beautiful, I don’t think it’s essential to watch The Sword of Doom. I don’t recommend it for people sensitive to violence.

Whisper of the Heart

From M’s famed Studio Ghilbli, Whisper of the Heart begins with the much loved John Denver tune, “Country Road.” The Japanese love “Country Road” and you’ll hear it in schools, businesses, hummed by people walking around. (The Carpenters and Beatles are also BIG.) 

Spunky, bookworm and middle schooler Shizuku wants to write some new “Country Road” lyrics for her junior high graduation, but this perfectionist can’t get it quite right. Her high school entrance exams, which are super important to the future of all Japanese students in determining their options in life, loom, but Shizuku has other priorities and shrugs off test prep. Her best friend Yūko Harada leans on Shizuku for advice in dealing with a love triangle, while also offering understanding.

While delivering her father’s lunch, Shizuku follows a fat cat (literally a cat that’s too well-fed) and discovers an intriguing antique shop where there’s a seemingly enchanted cat figurine called the Baron, who longs for his love. The shop owner is a wise old man, i.e. mentor, who helps Shizuku with her search for understanding and direction.

A patron of a library that still has a card catalog and check out cards where you can see the names of previous checkouts Shizuku notices a weird coincidence that a mysterious reader has borrowed exactly the same books she checks out. Who is this person? Shizuku imagines a paragon, but when she learns his identity is infuriated that it’s a boy who annoys her to no end. To make matters worse he loves her. 

Could things be more aggravating for this girl?

Whisper of the Heart shows so much of Japanese culture from the junior high where entrance exams hang over everyone’s head, teasing is rampant, yet kids do want the best for their classmates, in a way only kids who’ve known each other since kindergarten and belong to a culture that prioritizes group belonging can. 

I was struck by how upset Shizuku was because as a third year middle school student (probably 14 or 15 years old) she hadn’t yet figured out her career direction. I liked how assertive she was no matter whom she was dealing with and how reasonable the adults were. Parents, the teacher in the lunchroom, the antique shop owner, all had some wisdom and insight to share. There was a teacher who reprimanded students who weren’t studying or ready to answer a question, but isn’t that okay? Isn’t that his job? 

In Japan high school is optional, though well over 90% of students do go to high school, thus this was why Shizuku and Amasawa consider foregoing high school. I was impressed with Amasawa’s dedication to crafting top quality violins and actually working towards that end. That’s another very Japanese quality of the film — dedicating long hours to excelling in a field. 

I loved the details in the animation, which includes rust on stoplight poles, lace curtains, dingy concrete walls and a myriad of perfect details. 

I highly recommend this charming film which will transport you to Tokyo and introduce you to a delightful girl. 

Ikiru (1952)

In Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru dedicated life long bureaucrat Watanabe-san gets stomach cancer, which spurs him to review his life. He soon realizes his dedication to his job has cost him his relationship with his son and marriage. Watanabe-san worked. He didn’t eat, drink and make merry. He didn’t form life-giving friends. He was more of a civil servant robot than anything else. 

What can a heart filled with despair grab on to?

“Ikiru.” Akiro Kurosawa

As was the custom in Japan, the doctor didn’t directly tell Watanabe that he’s going to die, but he could read between the lines and the news profoundly saddens him. He knows his son and daughter-in-law are money-grubbing and can’t wait to 

A group of mothers faces the heartlessness, dare I say low-level evil, of bureaucracy, when they come to Watanabe’s office asking their government to take care of a neighborhood cesspool that’s causing illness and to turn it into a small playground. They’re pushed from department to department as the officials dodge actual work and responsibility. These mothers no doubt represent all the people who visit the office looking for help. 

Kurosawa’s depiction of the inert, soul-sucking system is portrayed with genius in the dark, run down offices with piles of paper towering over the dour workers. The only sign of life is a young office lady who jokes, laughs and brims with life. Of course, her only hope is to succeed in exiting from this choking, albeit safe career.

Watanabe-san knows he’s lost and seeks pleasure in a journey led by a writer he meets at a bar. The writer sees his plight and promises to show him real life in Tokyo’s red light district and dance halls. Watanabe realizes that his real hope to discover life is through the young lady who’s now left the government and works at a toy company, which is monotonous but also allows her to make things that bring people joy. Watanabe becomes like an uncle to her taking her out at night and living vicariously through her. Soon enough she tires of the attention and questions what’s really going on. It’s getting rather creepy. Watanabe explains. She’s the only person who knows the whole truth.

Although the young lady refuses to go out on the town with Watanabe, she does cause him to find a new purpose, which gives him the joy he sought.

The film moves into its second act, with a novel division. We go from Watanabe’s life with cancer to his funeral. Half the film takes place with his colleagues toasting him as his son and daughter-in-law watching on. Puzzled by Watanabe’s dramatic change in his last days, they try to figure out why he pushed himself body and soul into seeing that the cesspool became a park. To see half a 2 hour 23 minutes film told in flashback is likely not to work, but with a genius like Kurosawa it absolutely does. 

Though the theme of death may put some people off, this film, though certainly sad, is very powerful and positive. From the masterful acting to the powerful use of music and scenery, Ikiru is a must-see classic. 

The Criterion Collection DVD I had included a documentary on Kurosawa, which focused on the different aspects (e.g. music, script, storyboard, directing) of his filmmaking. It was full of information on what made him unique and much of it was Kurosawa describing his work and commenting on filmmaking at large. I learned things like Kurosawa would edit each day’s rushes that night so that the actors and crew could see how the film was taking form. This gave them a stronger sense of the film and meant that when shooting wrapped, there was only one day more to edit. I didn’t know that Kurosawa didn’t go to university and was selected from a very large pool of candidates from elite schools to enter Toho Studio’s training program for assistant directors. This program took 5 people the year he started and the other 4 were all from top colleges. Kurosawa also mused that today (

I am Waiting

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Another film in Criterion’s Nikkatsu (Studio) set is I am Waiting (1957). Directed by Koreyoshi Kurahara, I am Waiting tells the story of an ex-boxer who rescues a young woman from suicide. She couldn’t take working at a mobster’s low-end bar anymore. Her savior offers her a safe place to live and work at his restaurant. She gets happier, and calmer.

This nice guy dreams of joining his brother in Brazil, where the brother has bought a farm. Time passes and there’s no word from the brother. About the time the nice guy, whom we learn was a prize-fighter reveals that he wants to escape his guilt for killing a man in a fist fight. The club owner any lackeys find a girl at the restaurant. This mobster figures the girl owes him two years worth of work performing in his club. Despite her disgust, she agrees to return to protect the nice guy. 

Then the guy starts retracing his brother’s footsteps and discovers the brother never got on the ship to Brazil. The nice guy deducts if there’s a connection between his brother’s disappearance and the mobsters. 

I enjoyed the plot in performances particularly those of the lead man and woman. The film never got sappy or simpleminded it’s portrayal of this couple. I wouldn’t call this a thriller, it was definitely noir with plenty of dark, inky shadows.

The story was absorbing and my heart went out to all the beautiful losers, nice guy, the girl he rescued and the doctor cum mentor, who drank too much.

 

Rusty Knife

57760-the-rusty-knife-0-230-0-345-cropPart of a collection of Japanese noir films, Rusty Knife (1958) packs a punch. A relentless D.A. won’t give up on getting justice for a murder that was wrongly categorized as a suicide. He hunts down two reformed gangsters, who witnessed the murder as other yakuza (Japanese mobsters) killed a city official. One of the witnesses now owns a bar and has turned over a new leaf. However, the guilty and anger towards these gangsters who brutally raped and murdered his true love. As the D.A. urges him, the reformed gangster pursues the yakuza and seeks revenge.

The emotions run high and the plot has some great fight scenes. The plot offers plenty of surprises. I recommend this film and would certainly watch more of director Toshio Masuda’s films.

Death by Hanging

Oshima’s Death by Hanging has masterful cinematography and great acting. Loosely based on a real crime, Death by Hanging attempts to argue against capital punishment and prejudice against Koreans.

The director directly states statistics of Japanese approval of capital punishment, before introducing the story. Oshima believes if he shows his audience an execution they’ll come to oppose punishing murderers with death. The story begins with all the protocol of an execution. The criminal named R has been convicted of raping and murdering two school girls. R has a champlain, gets a last meal as the officials in charge go through the usual procedures.

However, when R is hanged, he doesn’t die. Now what?

The doctor finds that R is still alive and soon he comes too. But R insists he isn’t R, which means they can’t hang him again. (Evidently, in Japan if there’s a botched execution, they could try again.) Now begins the long process, mainly led by the Education Chief (not sure why someone with this title is part of this process — it seems he has to make sure the felon has understood why he’s getting punished and agrees that he’s guilty). The black farce is turned up to “high” as the film proceeds. It’s full of dark humor as well as the logic behind ending capital punishment or it’s meant to be.

The film goes down some bizarre rabbit holes, which are pulled off by an outstanding cast. The Korean-Japanese actor who played R should have won an award. It’s amazing how he maintains this impassive presence amidst madness.The story drifts back and forth between fantasy and reality and the plot twists and turns and is full of surprises till the last second. I sure did not expect the ending.

I applaud Oshima for presenting the injustice against Koreans living in Japan so directly and thoroughly. Usually such cultural faults are well hidden.

However, the film felt long and was confusing at time. When R’s sister appears from no where and her relationship with her brother takes an incestuous turn, Oshima lost me. The arguments that followed against capital punishment weren’t convincing and in fact made me think, perhaps execution is acceptable since these arguments are the weakest I’ve heard. So in that respect Death by Hanging, while an example of dark humor and powerful imagery, fails. Because it’s incredibly original, I do recommend the film, but I imagine some people will have problems with some of the foolishness of the officials, the sister or the logic. It is a film you’d want to discuss afterwards.

 

Shoplifters

Winner of the 2018 Palm d’Or at Cannes, Shoplifters was at the top of my to-watch list. It’s now out on DVD and I got it from the library after a short wait.

Set in Tokyo, Shoplifters takes us into the hovel where a motley crew makes up a family. Early on it’s quite foggy how this grandma, mother, father, teenage girl and boy related. They live hand to mouth off of the grandma’s small retirement allotment, the mother’s wages at a commercial laundry, and by shoplifting. The teenage girl works at a kind of sex shop, but it seems she can keep all her earnings.

The “dad” teaches the boy to shoplift and during one of their sprees, they discover a young girl of 4 or 5 who’s neglected and abused. They coax her to come home with them because they feel sorry for her. This quiet girl, whom they name Lin, comes to feel at home with this rag tag family, that doesn’t follow society’s rules.

They are a likable bunch even though they take advantage of each other quite a lot. They keep secrets from each other and

The way the film delves into poverty I was reminded of Kurosawa’s and Renoir’s The Lower Depths. You know that the characters’ behavior is the main reason they’re stuck in poverty. Since the Shoplifters features children, it pulls the heartstrings more than Kurosawa and Renoir’s films.

I found Shoplifters charming, but also depressing in parts. Yes, there were moments that highlighted everyone’s generosity and kindness. Their quirks were endearing. I thought the sex club that the teenager worked in to be disturbing, particularly the first scene there. Later we learn more about the grandmother’s role in the girl’s life and her plight of prostitution, though not entirely revealed to the grandmother is even more disturbing.

While I didn’t want an unrealistically happy ending what we got was too abrupt and I wanted to know more about what happened to the teenager.

All in all, despite good acting, I was disappointed by Shoplifters as the story’s rather bleak and it left too many bows untied.

Samurai Rebellion

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What a film! Starring Mifune, Toshiro* Samurai Rebellion (1967) blew me away. The Japanese really do know how to play on one’s emotions. Far from our stereotype of this culture, they’re capable of intense emotion, stubbornness and defiance.

Set in the early 18th century, Samurai Rebellion tells the story of a samurai family that’s more or less forced to make their son marry their Lord’s cast off mistress. Mifune plays the head of the family, Sasahara Isaburo, an older master swordsman, who had to marry his cold-hearted, domineering wife because he lacked social status. Sashara often jokes about how he’s just a hen-pecked husband. When the message comes that the regional warlord wants Sasahara’s son Yogoro to marry his troublesome mistress, Sasahara tactfully says, thanks but no thanks. He’d like a better marriage for his son. Sasahara’s wife thinks this is stupid. In this culture when the warlord asks you to do something you do it. she clearly has no respect for anyone but herself. This woman makes the farmer’s wife in Grant Wood’s American Gothic look cheerful.

This forced marriage is not kosher in this society. The warlord is abusing his power. Sasahara keeps politely refusing. In time the son, breaks in on a visit from the steward and agrees. No one expects much from this marriage.
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When Ichi, the mistress arrives with her daughter, she explains to her new husband that she was exiled because after bearing her child, she returned to the castle to see that the Lord has found her replacement, a cutie, who’s now making the Lord’s heart race. Ichi never wanted to be this guy’s wife or mistress, but is disgusted that after giving birth she’s been displaced. By speaking up, Ichi finds herself cast out.

Surprisingly, Yogoro and Ichi fall in love. Ichi is an ideal daughter-in-law who puts up with her grouchy mother in law and is a great asset to the family. But the course of true love never runs smoothly. When the Lord’s firstborn dies, Ichi is summoned back to the castle. She doesn’t want to go. Yogoro doesn’t want her to go and neither does Sasahara. In fact, the men are willing to defy the lord and fight to the death to keep Ichi.

The film kept me in suspense from start to finish. Mifune gives a powerful performance and the director Kobayashi Misaki provides a beautiful drama. There were some times when the cinematography was too much like when there’s an intense meeting at the castle during which lots of bold, distracting shadows come through the windows, but that’s a minor fault. Much of the cinematography is gorgeous as the filmmakers use the aesthetics of Japanese homes with little furniture, tatami mats, and dark beams against white walls to good effect.

Though there are only two female characters, they’re both strong women who hold their own in a man’s world.

I highly recommend Samurai Rebellion, which I bet you can get the DVD from your library as I did. (Thank God of inter-library loans.)

You can read the illustrious Donald Richie’s Samurai Rebellion article here.

*Note, I’ve used the Japanese practice of writing the family name first and the Western first name second.

Madadayo

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Maadadayo (1993) is the story of a high school German teacher in Japan in retirement and his devoted former students, who visit him, celebrate his birthday every year and who come to his aid when he’s in need is a slice of life film.

Unfortunately, the film dragged and got to sentimental for my taste. Lasting over 2 hours the film seemed much longer. I enjoyed seeing how devoted the former students were to their teacher and to each other, but that was the only good thing. The birthday parties and drinking parties got repetitive.

I suppose the climax of the film, which was written by Akira Kurosawa, was when the teacher and his wife lose their beloved stray cat, Nora. The students, now business men, do everything they can to find the cat as its loss has traumatized the teacher so much that he doesn’t bathe or eat. For a man who was supposed to be so philosophical and wise, I’d expect him to take a bath during the months the cat was gone.

There are better Japanese films. Watch something else.

The Living Magoroku

cdotaiofhyuttkgzilvy8q4mvei6tg_smallMade and set during WWII, Kinoshita’s The Living Magoroku didn’t wow me. Though the film begins with an action-packed sequence of a samurai, the rest of the film wasn’t on par with his Morning for the Osone Family or Port of Flowers. 

In a nutshell, generations ago the Magoroku family’s field was the site of a bloodbath. They believe a legend that says they shouldn’t plow or cultivate this land. Moreover, the living Magoroku’s believe that their eldest male child will die early. This belief has currently haunted the oldest son, who’s coughs a lot and has some psychosomatic condition. The widowed mother won’t let her daughter marry just in case the son does die. This curse or legend is still strong.

One of the villagers believes that the 72 acre field should be cultivated for food. Japan is in the midst of a war and would benefit from using fertile land.

Keeping this land fallow and the efforts to get the Magoroku’s to change their mind, leads to a a couple engagements getting put on hold.

I would say the film does show how films were used in the war effort, how they tried to persuade the audience to sacrifice. Yet the oldest son’s acting as rather stiff and the story wasn’t as engaging as what I’ve seen from Kurosawa or Ozu. There are better Japanese films to invest your time in.