Sweet Bean (An)

Though I can’t stand Japanese sweet bean paste, the movie Sweet Bean is another story.  Loner Senato runs a snack shop in Tokyo where he makes and sells pancakes stuffed with sweet bean paste when one day Tokue, a cute old lady, comes along and begs for a job. She begs to for a job, but he’s sure at 76 she’s unable to do the lifting and hard work he needs.

When she comes by again bearing a batch of the most incredibly delicious sweet bean paste Sentaro has ever tasted, he relents and hires her. The next morning she’s there at 4 am to make the beans replacing the canned glop used before. Soon there’s a line around the block for the snacks.

Wakana, a student whose single mom wants her to stop studying and get a job, is drawn to this pair of loners. She shows how wonderful friendship is with someone much older. She shares her dreams and memories with Tokue and keeps Sentaro on the right path regarding sticking up for Tokue.

In the midst of the business’ success, the shop’s meddling owner pops in and insists  Sentaro fire Tokue because her knobbled hands are due to leporasy. She’s a health risk. She’s got to go.

The film goes into new territory and explores friendship, loyalty and isolation in a beautiful way. I loved this film. Even though I still can’t choke down a sweet bean pancake and highly recommend this movie.

Morning for the Osone Family

MORNING FOR THE OSONE FAMILY

Keisuke Kinoshita’s Morning for the Osone Family (1946) probably couldn’t get made today. It’s an anti-WWII film that exposes how the military and government squelched free speech and exploited citizens even when Japan was at a point when it was clear they were bound to lose.

Curiously, the film begins with the Osone family celebrating Christmas and singing “Silent Night.” After some chit chat, the eldest son is summoned by law enforcement and is soon imprisoned for writing an article that subtly questioned Japan’s militarism.

It’s a big hit for a family whose father died a while back. The mother has tried to live up to the father’s pacifist philosophy. She continues to support her second son, who’s a struggling artist, and her daughter who wants to marry for love, but now that her fiancé has been drafted, is getting pressured by her uncle to marry a scion he’s lined up.

The family unity continues to dissolve. The painter gets drafted and the daughter goes to work in an army support job. The uncle, who’s an officer and very pro-war moves into the family home with his haughty wife. Their presence, and particularly their lavish lifestyle enjoying black market goods, while most citizens starve, sickens the mother and daughter. The final straw is when the uncle urges the youngest son, who’s still in high school, to enlist in the army.

Morning for the Osone Family offers a beautiful, moving view of history. My hunch is few Japanese have seen this film, but they should. We should too. I’m glad I did.

The Hidden Fortress

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The Hidden Fortress (1958) is another Kurosawa masterpiece that blew me away. Like characters from Shakespeare, two pusillanimous peasants bicker over how irritating they are to each other as they head home after escaping from a wartime prison. One stumbles upon some gold hidden in a stick in a river. An emblem on the stick shows that the gold is the fortune from the clan that lost the war. Greed overcomes the men and they start trying to get all the sticks they can. They become obsessed and go back and forth between cooperation and conflict over the gold.

This ancient, Japanese vaudeville act is soon upset when a strange man sees them hunting for the gold. Eventually, they learn he’s a legendary general who’s intent upon saving an exiled princess and returning her to safety and restoring her clan. As foolish as the peasants are, they do occasionally come up with clever ideas. The gruff general realizes their counterintuitive plan to go through enemy territory could work since no one expects them to take that route.

What follows is a story of courage and honor, peppered with outstanding action scenes, wit and just plain foolishness that made me smile. Toshiro Mifune is outstanding as the general, who’d probably love to ditch the peasants but keeps them with him just because they’d probably do more harm to his mission and themselves if left to their own devices.

The princess exudes force and honor as no other character, I can recall. Raised like a boy, she’s strong, brave and willful. Kurosawa shows that she cares for her people because she insists that the general buy one of her subjects who’s been sold to a brothel owner even though taking another person on their journey is risky. Various viewers have noted that the princess is played by an actress whose career never took off and that the performance is rather one dimensional. I see what they mean, but I don’t think that one weak performance hurt the film that much. The princess was quite compelling and not just a stereotypical character who needed saving so the story had momentum.

The one thing about the princess that puzzled me was that for some reason her eyebrows were drawn on at 45° angles. They were very dark and dominated her face.

Like many Kurosawa films, The Hidden Fortress has great power and grab me emotionally. All in all, The Hidden Fortress is a classic that’s not to be missed. It inspired George Lucas when he conceived of Star Wars. 

Sansho the Bailiff

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In exile

Directed by master director, Mizoguchi Kenji, Sansho the Bailiff is based on a Japanese folktale. I wasn’t familiar with the original tale, but got caught up in the film. It’s the story of a family of noble station. The father, who’s an official, gets into trouble for prioritizing the peasants. He’s taken away and his wife and young children, a daughter named Anju and son named Zushio must leave their home and go into exile. En route to their destination, a priestess meets them and tricks them so that the mother is taken to a brother and the children are separated and sold into slavery.

The principled father taught his children to always be merciful to the needy. Yet as he grows, Zushio forgets this lesson and as a slave brands another slave on the forehead to gain favor with the Bailiff. His sister scolds him for this heartless action, which is a catalyst for Zushio’s turn around.

best-kenji-mizoguchi-films

Mizoguchi

The mother laments the lost of her children and it’s amazing how they find she’s alive and how in the end Zushio finds her and does live by his father’s principles though it costs him dearly.

I didn’t realize that there was slavery in 11th century Japan. I found the film a wonderful history lesson as well as lesson in self-sacrifice. The film’s beautifully constructed and the Criterion Collection DVD comes with an enlightening commentary by an expert in film and Japanese culture. My only unanswered question was what was the role of a bailiff in medieval Japan. He held so much power compared to a bailiff today.

I highly recommend Sansho the Bailiff.

Patema Inverted

Patema Inverted has a strange premise that kept playing with my mind. In this Japanese sci-fi-fi anime, there are two worlds one civilization inhabits the surface of the earth and gravity effects them like it does us. It’s a society that demands conformity and does not allow people to question the status quo. We see this in the robotic school children who ride conveyor belts into their schools and all have the same blank expression on their faces. The only rule breaker is Age (pronounced ah-gay) whose father was an inventor who tried to build a kind of flying machine and when testing it met with dire consequences.

Patema lives underground in the other civilization where gravity works in the other direction. In this artful dystopia, people stand on the ceiling (in terms of our orientation) and things fall up. The two civilizations are off limits to each other. In fact the elders of each just prohibit any inquiry into societies other than their own. One day, Patema sets off exploring as her older friend Lagos has. By accident, she finds herself in Age’s world and the only way she can stay put is to either hold on to Age by the waist, which lifts him off the ground, but prevents her from flying through the sky indefinitely or by standing on a ceiling.

In this totalitarian society, the dictator realizes someone from the other world has entered and most of the film is his evil chase to get Patema and then destroy her people.

The film’s background art was stunning. The concept was interesting, but often melodramatic. The evil leader was just too hokey for me.

On My TBW List

TBR, i.e. To Be Read lists of books is a hashtag and a meme. They’re also real lists. Since there’s been a publishing industry, readers have had lists of books they want to read.

I haven’t seen this yet, but there should be TBW (i.e. To Be Watched or TBS, To Be Seen) Lists. Here’s mine. I’m posting this so I can throw away the miscellaneous scraps of paper I’ve collected in the last few weeks.

1. Like Someone in Love

2. A Kid with a Bike

3. The Petrified Forest

4. Public Enemy

5. The Silence of Lorna

6. The Son, a.k.a. Le Fils

7. Half the Picture

What films are on your list To Be Watched?

Seven Samurai

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Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai is a film that left me stunned. So much action! Bam! What bold characters! Wow!

During a period of political instability in the 16th century, samurai were cut loose from their masters. Bandits roamed Japan pillaging and farmers lived in fear. In Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, a small, farming village is attacked by bandits. The bandits leave since the farmers don’t have much to steal. The bandits took most everything before. However, they do plan to return when the crops come in.

The elder of the village suggests the peasants hire some samurai to protect them. The peasants aren’t sure, but “Grandpa” is revered and no one has a better idea. So a few scouts go to town to recruit.

They luck out and find wise Kanbei, played by Kurosawa regular Takeshi Shimura, who leads the motley crew. Other samurai includes trained swordsmen, a master samurai who’s head and shoulders above the others, and the bull in a china shop, Kikuchiyo, played by another acting powerhouse Toshirô Mifune. Kikuchiyo is an outsider even in the midst of this motley crew. He’s crude and has a sense of humor that has no idea what’s appropriate when. Kikuchiyo is so fun to watch because he’s incredibly physical able to move and fight like no one I’ve seen on film.

The film is dramatic, but also funny. No character is put on a pedestal. Most defy the idealized social roles most stories confer upon them. One of the high points of the film is a speech Kikuchiyo gives deriding farmers. He tells the other samurai that they’re fools to think these people are simple and honest. He calls them out as greedy, timid and secretive. After his heated speech, Kanbei says, “So you’re from a farming family?” Yep. You called it.

By the end of the film we see that Kikuchiyo was exactly right. The farmers show their true natures. It takes nearly 3 and a half hours to see the team assembled, watch them prepare and then fight in a couple of the most compelling battles I’ve ever seen on film.

From David Ehrensteins’ essay on the film from Criterion.com:

“Japanese films all tend to be rather bland in flavor, like green tea over rice,” Kurosawa remarked in an interview, making a knowing dig at his staid rival, Yasujiro Ozu (one of whose films was actually called The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice). “I think we ought to have richer foods, and richer films. So I thought I would make this kind of film entertaining enough to eat.”

The dish Kurosawa set before audiences was certainly different from what they had tasted up until then—particularly as far as period filmmaking was concerned. Instead of the slow, ritualistic, and highly theatrical style of the typical sixteenth-century saga, Seven Samurai moved with the sure swiftness of a Hollywood action epic, like Gunga Din or Stagecoach. The characters may inhabit historical settings, but their manner and bearing were, often as not, strikingly contemporary—particularly in the case of the buffoonish Kikuchiyo, the high-spirited would-be samurai played with great gusto by Toshiro Mifune. Most important of all was the visual style of the film which, thanks to Kurosawa’s use of multiple cameras, lent itself to many unusual editing techniques.

Seven Samurai is a classic that all film lovers should see.