March Comes in Like a Lion . . .

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Based on a popular manga series, March Comes in Like a Lion and it’s sequel March Goes Out Like a Lamb takes viewers inside the world of shoji, Japanese chess.

Orphaned at 8 years old when a car accident kills his parents and sister, Rei Kiriyama is adopted by his father’s friend, who’s a competitive shoji player. The only way to get love or at least attention in the house is through shoji. Red soon proves to have a knack for the game, which is a mixed blessing because his adoptive sister and brother become hostile towards him when he beats them and they can’t take it.

Rei’s talent leads to his winning and becoming pro before he graduates high school. With his winnings he’s able to support himself and move out. Yet his evil step sister hounds him like a vicious ghost who won’t go away no matter where Rei tries to run.

Rei is soon taken in by three sisters who’ve lost their parents. The girls and their grandfather run a traditional sweet shop and provide the warm family life Rei craves.

The story does not require knowledge of the rules or ins and outs of shoji.I know nothing of the game, but did get caught up in the competition as Rei strives to dethrone the champion, an adulterous egotist that his stepsister has been dating.

Tatsumi

Tatsimi is the autobiography of Yoshihiro Tatsumi, a famous manga artist in Japan. Manga are Japanese comic books, a literary genre differs significantly from American comic books. Tatsumi is interspersed with short stories by Tatsumi which gave me a sense of how this graphic genre handles mature themes and experiences with insight, irony and

Tatusmi grew up during the war and took to drawing professionally to help his mother make ends meet. His father was good-for-nothing and once Tatsumi started selling his work, his father destroyed his drawings.

The film follows Satsuma’s career from his teenage to middle age years. We see is popularity grow, his career stall when he outgrows the genre of teen manga and finally goes on to develop a new genre, called gekiga, which targets middle aged readers. It’s the story of the career of an artist and doesn’t go into much detail into Satsuma’s personal life once he’s grown. I found it a terrific introduction to an art form. In addition, since Tatusmi’s life spanned WWII and the ensuing years so full of change for Japan, it was an excellent way to learn about modern Japanese history.

Millenium Actress

I learned about this amazing animated film from Every Frame a Picture (below). Created by Satoshi Kon, Millennium Actress is a unique, dreamy film that tells the story of Chiyoko, an old woman who looks back on her life when a documentary filmmaker, Tachibara, finally convinces her to agree to being interviewed. Tachibara, who was always sweet on Chiyoko, presents Chiyoko with a long lost key, which like Marcel in In Search of Lost Time opens up a storehouse of memories. Then the story goes back in time in an incredibly imaginative way mixing flashbacks, dreams and daydreams to show why Chiyoko went against her mother to become an actress during WWII.

The story skips back in time to various times in Chiyoko’s life and further goes back to various periods in history which her films were set in. There are a few political messages, which like Kurosawa’s No Regrets for our Youth, criticise how Japan imprisoned those who disagreed with the war. Because Kon’s techniques are so innovative in how they harken back to the shape-shifting that’s a frequent feature of Japanese folktales (but you don’t need to know that to enjoy the film), the film constantly surprised and delighted me. Throughout the film, the current day filmmakers were present in the past and that technique was particularly intriguing and innovative — at least to me, a novice in the anime world.

This video by Tony Zhou is incredible and made me want to see Millennium Actress.

Ohayo/Good Morning

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In Ozu’s 1959 film Good Morning (Ohayo) two young brothers take a vow of silence when their parents refuse to buy them a television. Complications ensue when the neighbors and teachers read in all kinds of things into the silence. Gossip spreads and at one point to boys run away. The youngest brother, who’s probably 6, is particularly cute.

All in all, it’s a charming film that shows Japan on the brink of prosperity.

The Most Beautiful

Akira Kurasawa’s second movie was a propaganda film for World War II called The Most Beautiful. He tells the story of a group of young women, teens most likely, who leave their hometowns to support the war effort by working in an optics factory. The factory has had to increase its quota and the girls object to the 50% increase and ask their manager for a 70% increase. From the start the Japanese cohesiveness is evident. While four or five girls’ experiences are highlighted often we see a large group of 50 or more marching, laughing and working together. The group is the star and how they react when one falls ill or leaves is so Japanese. So is the fact that in addition to their work responsibility, they must play volleyball and practice their drum and fife band’s drills. These girls are the Japanese equivalent of Rosie the Riveter, but they’re far more docile and group oriented. I know I would have balked at having to march and play volleyball. The minute the fun is mandated, it loses its fun.

Much of the story is predictable. One girl receives a letter that her mother’s ill and it’s easy to guess that outcome. The idea of self-sacrifice and following the rules is blatant. Yet, I enjoyed the cinematography and did cheer the girls on as they endeavor to meet the higher goal they insisted upon. I was touched by the kind dorm mother and the managers who truly looked after the girls’ wellbeing.

Band Practice After Work

Band Practice After Work

The film has its comic moments, for example at one point the camera focuses on various signs stating rules. We see a sign admonishing the girls not to stand on the roof and another saying they should air out their bedding daily. Next we see a girl playing on the roof as she airs out her futon. Of course, she tumbles off the roof. She breaks her leg and can’t work. It was fascinating, and I think truly Japanese, that no authority yelled at this girl for being a knuckle head. Instead, there’s an outpouring of care. Also, the animated graphs that show the girls’ increase and decrease in productivity made me chuckle as it’s quite dated.

While the film is sentimental and the unquestioning support of the war, troubling to modern pacifists like me, I enjoyed the slice of life, which made me understand wartime Japan much better.

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs

Director Mikio Naruse focuses middle-aged (i.e. 30 year old) “Mama” who navigates the “water trade” of Tokyo’s Ginza bars and their elegant hostesses in When a Woman Ascends the Stairs. Acutely aware that her looks are fading, Mama’s at a crossroads. She must either find a husband or buy her own bar if she’s going to survive. Because of a strong devotion to her late husband, Mama doesn’t want to marry again. Yet she doesn’t have the funds to buy a bar. Thus she must convince wealthy customers to back her. It’s a delicate balance as relying on one man too heavily comes with too many obligations.

These bars, with their doting hostesses, are fascinating aspect of Japanese culture. The relationship between the rich business men and the women, all of whom have different objectives and desires and the attitude people have towards them is complex. The women aren’t shunned as they would be in the West. Yet they aren’t revered. These women aren’t Geishas. They aren’t trained in dance and singing. Some can be bought for after hours entertainment, but not all. Mama is one who doesn’t sell out.

While it’s a good idea, buying a bar is far from easy, as Mama learns through her friend and former, younger colleague, Yuri whose new bar siphons off several of Mama’s customers. The new bar appears to be a success, but Yuri’s been borrowing from Peter to pay Paul. Yuri stages suicide which she hoped would force her creditors to back down. That plan fails miserably.

Like Kabei: Our Mother I enjoyed the little glimpses into Japan of an earlier time (here 1960). When Mama visits her mother I was surprised to see her traditional kimono-wearing mother light up a cigarette. I was surprised that Mama’s apartment’s decor was so Western. This milieu has its downsides, but it’s more civilized and in its own way proper than what we’d have in the U.S. in 1960.

I highly recommend When a Woman Ascends the Stairs to anyone interested in Japanese culture.