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.

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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.

Hospitalité

Hospitalité is a one of a kind movie — or perhaps an odd movie is more like it. The main characters are Mikio, a middle aged man who’s taken over his family’s small printing shop, Natuski, his new, young wife, Eriko, his daughter from his first marriage and his sister who’s divorced. The daughter and the sister are sort of like prompts in that they appear when the plot needs a nudge. Otherwise, I didn’t think they seemed all that real.

The family’s pet parakeet goes missing and the young wife and daughter put up a notice in the neighborhood for it. A strange neighbor presents himself to help find the bird. Before they know it this odd ball Kagawa has been hired and then moves into their small home. A couple days later Kagawa brings his blonde wife to live there. The wife is a liar telling some she’s from Brazil and others that she’s from Bosnia. Chaos ensues. It reminded me of the Cat in the Hat but with the parents remaining home and allowing a nutcase teak over and never clean up.

Kagawa quickly discovers secrets both the husband and wife have and blackmailing them to get his way. By the end of the film the couple have completely lost control of their home as Kagawa practically turns the place like a youth hostel.

I found the film very different and unpredictable, but shortly after it ended I saw loads of holes in the story.

Only Yesterday

When 27 year old Taeko takes a vacation from her office job in Tokyo, childhood memories flood in, making the young woman take stock of her life. Taeko loves the countryside and jumps into working in the fields with her grandmother. This passion mystifies her sisters.

In the country, Taeko is haunted by memories from her 5th grade self. She looks back at the gossiping classmates, her outsider status at home and how she missed out on a chance to act because her father disproved of theatrics. She was and still is a dreamer, who was at times, kind, selfish, a follower, a betrayer and a doormat. In essence, Taeko lived through the slings and arrows of tween life.

Romance almost buds when Taeko meets Toshio, a young farmer who’s left the city to start an organic farm, before most people had heard of them. Toshio and Taeko have a bond and become fast friends. They both love rural life, but when urged to consider Toshio in terms of romance, Taeko can’t handle it.

This animated film has lush, detailed illustrations of scenery. Seeing the homes, the trains, forest and details like the burners for mosquito repellant, the tea kettle or kerosene heaters, makes me remember my time in Japan. I thought the artists drew the children better than the older characters, but that is a mild criticism. Also, I wish they had kept this film in Japanese and had subtitles or offered a choice for dubbing. That way, I could have escaped into the movie further still. All in all, Only Yesterday is a beautiful film that’s best considered as a contemplation of the past. The ending isn’t very satisfying, but I think viewers should consider this a depiction of a life, rather than a story with a definite end.

Yojimbo

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I didn’t expect to like Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) as I knew it was a samurai film and fighting’s not my thing, but since I’m on a Kurosawa roll, I figured I should see it anyway. Boy, am I glad I did. The film offers unexpected wit and an unforgettable, surly hero, named Sanjuro.

Sanjuro wanders about the country after his master and retinue have lost. He comes to a town caught in the crossfire of two gangs. The townspeople live cowering in fear. After Sanjuro displays his swordsmanship with finesse the gang leaders try to lure him with money so he’ll play for their side. Ever cagey, Sanjuro’s wise to their game and trickery and double-crossing follow. There is no good side to join.

Sanjuro’s irascible but not evil. He does save a family knowing that’ll cost him. He gives them his gold coins to flee, but when they try to thank him he shouts that he hates anyone who’s pathetic and if they cry he’ll kill them. It’s all tongue in cheek and such humor in the context is a poke at the Western or samurai genre movies.

Also, the soundtrack is pure 1960s Western music, which adds a layer of fun as it winks at Hollywood and films in general. Another aspect of humor is the buffoonery of the other characters one gang’s nincompoops are just as inept as the other’s. Sanjuro operates on a whole different plane.

Toshio Mifune plays Sanjuro masterfully. He shows more with a glance or flick of a toothpick than most award-winning actors of any era. If he can convince a Western/fighting movie anti-fan like me to eagerly desire to watch the three other films, his performance must be stellar. Kurosawa made a lot of movies with Mifune and once said that:

Mifune had a kind of talent I had never encountered before in the Japanese film world. It was, above all, the speed with which he expressed himself that was astounding. The ordinary Japanese actor might need ten feet of film to get across an impression; Mifune needed only three. The speed of his movements was such that he said in a single action what took ordinary actors three separate movements to express. He put forth everything directly and boldly, and his sense of timing was the keenest I had ever seen in a Japanese actor. And yet with all his quickness, he also had surprisingly fine sensibilities. – Akira Kurosawa, Something Like an Autobiography.

Tatsuya Nakadai, who starred in Human Condition, Ran, and several other classics, appears as a loyal member of one of the gangs. He’s set apart as the one gangster with a gun, which he shoots with precision as a counter to Sanjuro’s very traditional swordsmanship. His character is threatening and probably the sharpest of the bunch though no match for Sanjuro.

This film inspired Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Western, A Fistful of Dollars, in fact it’s said to be almost a carbon copy. I may just watch that too, but I’ve become such a Mifune fan, I doubt anyone can fill his shoes.

Red Beard

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Red Beard performs surgery as Yasumot o looks on

I had imagined the premise of Kurosawa’s Red Beard (1965) incorrectly for years. I assumed it was some samurai film with lots of sword fights so I never bothered with it. Then when I listened to the commentary on The Lower Depths, I realized that it was a drama. I had to right this wrong so I picked up the DVD at the library.

Set in 19th century Japan, Red Beard isn’t just about the curmudgeon older doctor so nicknamed, it’s equally about young Dr. Yasumoto, who has just finished medical school and arrives Red Beard’s clinic. Yasumoto is not happy about working in a clinic that serves the poorest of the poor. He had his heart set on treating high status samurai. Surely, this is a mistake the arrogant, obstinate  young doctor believes.

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Yasumoto (Kayama) and Red Beard (Mifune) with director A. Kurosawa

Yasumoto refuses to put on the clinic uniform or to abide by any of the clinic rules. He’s horrified by the outward appearance of the poor. He almost gets killed when he flouts a rule about avoiding the hut in the back where a deranged, wealthy woman is housed. All the while Red Beard is gruff, wise and patient. He sees so much more than Yasumoto can.

I loved Red Beard’s gruff ways. He was gentle with the patients who needed it, but tough with those who were foolish. He was wise in dealing with Yasumoto, allowing the young doctor to figure life out on his own and smiling when he finally donned his uniform and took on treating the poor of his own accord.

The plot twists and turns. Sometimes Red Beard is the focus, often Yasumoto, or a poor girl who’s rescued from a brothel. So many characters are given the spotlight and they all deserve it. The film has an emotional depth on par with The Human Condition, and one that few films bother to attempt. Kurosawa doesn’t beat you over the head with a message, but he does make you muse on how you should be kinder or more compassionate, how you should stretch beyond your comfort zone. It’s a film I could watch again and again. I’m so glad my misconception was dispelled. Red Beard is a treasure.

 

Kurosawa’s The Lower Depths

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The landlady Osugi and the thief, Sutekichi

Kurosawa adapted Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths in 1957. The film shows viewers life in a tenement situated in a pit where people toss garbage without thinking. From the vantage point of the working class people who toss the garbage, there’s nothing down below. (The middle and upper class probably don’t even know the pit’s there.) When Kurosawa takes you into the tenement, you meet a little society consisting of a former samurai, a drunken actor, a thief named Sutekichi, a prostitute, a vagabond wiseman, a metalworker, whose wife is dying, a stingy landlord and his wife and sister-in-law. The crucial relationship is the “love” triangle between the Sutekichi, Osugi, the landlady and Okayo, the landlady’s younger, sister. Sutekichi and Osugi have been involved for some time, but it’s all about sex, not love. The thief becomes smitten and convinced that if Okayo would marry him, he’d magically be able to mend his ways. Of course, Osugi soon becomes jealous. She’s not going to let the thief run off with there sister.

The Lower Depths is a close up look at poverty in the Edo era (1603-1868). Dirt poor is an apt description. The characters’ clothing is ripped and tattered. They’re all disheveled. The tenement itself is squalid. You can bet the landlady isn’t going to spruce it up any time soon.

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Though the characters were intriguing, it took me a while to warm up to the story. To their credit neither Gorky nor Kurosawa romanticize the poor. We can see from their behavior, that their behavior is a major cause of their poverty. The film mixes the misery with their capacity for joy and insight. The vagabond wiseman is like a priest and not only offers wisdom to the dying wife, the prostitute and others, but is willing to debate his beliefs with Sutekichi, who’s not ready to buy this holy talk. There are scenes that borrow songs, dance and conventions from Kabuki theater, but Kurosawa is careful not to present the characters as stereotypical happy poor people.

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I came to find the characters engaging, though Osugi is clearly a villain and Okayo a saint; more morally gray tones than simple black and white could help, but I guess that such nuance not in Gorky’s play. The essay I read on Criterion.com, points out that the film seeks to indict society with regard to its relationship to the poor. We just see how absent other classes are and how the landlady mistreats her tenants. For a real indictment, I would have liked to have seen some examples of interactions across class lines.

The Criterion Collection DVD features a commentary track by Donald Richie, the Japanese film expert. Richie provides great insights. Since the film’s in Japanese, it was easy to read the subtitles while listening to the commentary.

Human Condition, II

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Tatsuya Nakadai as Kaji

Part two of Kobayashi’s trilogy Human Condition maintains the excellence of the first film. Here the hero Kaji is a private in the military. It seems no one on the face of the earth faces more degradation than a WWII Japanese private. Kaji’s particularly targeted because he’s suspect of being a “Red” since he tried to get humane treatment for the Chinese P.O.W.’s stationed at the mine he managed.

The “vets” or soldiers with more experience are merciless in their brutality against the newer recruits. In fact, the sensitive Obara, who’s physically weak and plagued by domestic problems, is beaten and humiliated in a way I’ve never witnessed. While Kaji tries to help, that makes matters worse for Obara who commits suicide rather early on in this three hour film.

Although Kaji is strong and performs his duties without failure, because of his principles, he’s berated and targeted. In no uncertain terms, the film indicts the Japanese military, where a few good men are outnumbered by corrupt brutes. Even when he was in the hospital, he was beaten. The head nurse thought nothing of striking patients!

As in Human Condition, part 1, Tatsuya Nakadai, who plays Kaji, is stellar. I just learned that he was a shop clerk and Koyabashi, the director of Human Condition, discovered him and put him in a film.