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.

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.

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.

That Night’s Wife

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Who agrees that the father’s acting too much?

Directed by Ozu, That Night’s Wife is one of his early silent films. The film quality is often blotchy, which was distracting at times and the it does seem that Ozu is figuring out his craft, so this isn’t a “must-see” film.

The story is about a man who’s pursued by the police for a robbery, which we don’t see. The man evades the police and gets home to his family, which consists of his wife and his young daughter, who’s critically ill and may not make it. They live in a small, squalid apartment, which for some reason has several old movie posters with English and Russian titles leaning against their walls. I suppose this was a homage to Ozu’s idols, but I’m not sure.

Clad in a kimono, the wife talks with the girl’s doctor. If Michiko, the daughter, makes it through the night, she’ll be fine. The devoted father does get home and gives his wife the money for Michiko’s medicine. The wife figures out that the money’s stolen and there’s some disagreement about that. However, the dispute’s not resolved as a police officer comes to the door. The husband hides, but is found. The night wears on as they all watch sleeping Michiko hoping she lives. The cop is sympathetic to the family but also has to do his duty.

The film was quite melodramatic and by 1930, I’d have thought any director would seek more subtlety, but no.  All in all, there were some surprises, but this was done before Ozu hit his stride. While the wife takes some surprising action, I’m still not sure why this movie is entitled This Night’s Wife.

Dodes’ka Den

Kurosawa’s 1970 Dodesu ka-den (どです か でん) was his first color film and the first film he released in five years after going though a rough experience directing a film for 20th Century Fox, a studio that didn’t trust him and spread rumors about him having had a nervous break down. To prove his detractors wrong, Kurosawa brought a collection of short stories to life on film.

Set in a post-war slum, Dodesu ka-den follows a group of beautiful or actually mainly grubby losers, most of whom aren’t regulars at the public bath. The story begins with a boy we’d now consider on the autism spectrum. He begins his day praying with his mother who’s distraught by his behavior. Every day, this boy, who lives out the fantasy that he’s a trolley driver by pantomiming every action of one. The actor’s skill would give Marcel Marceau a run for his money. The boy meticulously follows the rules of trolley service and scolds anyone who’s accidentally sitting on his “tracks.” Of course, he’s the prime target of taunting neighborhood boys.

There’s a group of half a dozen housewives who spend their days overseeing the comings and goings of everyone in the surrounding shanties. They gossip about the two women who’re married to men seemingly competing to be the town drunk and who casually swap their husbands from night to night. These women are little better than their husbands in terms of temperance or temperament.

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Another woman has five children and another on the way. Each child has a different father. She’s selfish and doesn’t care for anyone else. The scene when her current “husband” comforts the kids who’re crying because their pals have told them that each one has a different father and that this good-natured guy is not their “real” dad, was a highlight.

The scenes with the homeless dreamer who has his son beg for food and helps the young boy keep his spirits up by sharing his imagined view of the glorious house they’ll one day have with a English gate, a Scottish living room, and a swimming pool, were poignant and touching.

One of my favorite characters was an engraver who was the one sensible person in the neighborhood. He quietly made the right decision or said the right thing whenever someone was on the brink.

The film doesn’t have a typical story structure where people are facing a defined problem and its resolved by the end. Most of the characters had bleak existences that would make a Dickens character look privileged. Yet the film does offer respect and hope. Sometimes that hope was the charactes’s greatest flaw.

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.

Our Little Sister

The Japanese film Our Little Sister is about three sisters, whose half sister comes to live with them after he dies. The older sisters are all out of school and working. The eldest, Sachi, is a nurse and the mother hen. She seems the most upright, but she’s got a secret romance with a married doctor. Next is the more sociable Yoshino, who works at a bank and has romance after romance. She’s the sort who gets too involved to fast. The third of the sisters is Chika, who’s very whimsical and happy go lucky. She’s all sunshine and smiles and she works at a store selling athletic shoes.

At their father’s funeral, the trio decides to bring Suzu, their half sister who’s in middle school to their family home. Suzu’s mother has died and her stepmother is really a non-entity. The film is a slice of life about the four sisters and the first three’s mother who deserted them but comes back to town briefly for her mother’s ceremony for the anniversary of her death. Along the way we get a natural look at a family that’s had plenty of difficulties and still has some struggles, but they manage to survive and thrive. The house is charming as the the warmth between these characters.

Watching the film feels like floating down a river. The pace is just right. The characters are insightful and perceptive. I loved my time with this family.

Dragnet Girl

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Dragnet Girl: Joji (l) and Tokiko (r)

Director Ozu’s Dragnet Girl is an absorbing silent film about Tokiko,a gangster moll, who becomes jealous when Joji, her boyfriend, gets a case of the wandering eye. Tokiko looks as sweet as can be, but actually she’s quite a coquette. She works at a company by day and the boss’s son is smitten with her plying her with expensive gifts that she’s happy to take.

Her night’s are spent with Joji, the head of a small crime outfit that seems to fix boxing matches. Tokiko is Joji’s main squeeze. Selfish and extravagant, she’s quite brazen and disloyal as she’ll wear her boss’s gifts in front of Joji.

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Kazuko

When a high school boy, impressed with Joji’s flash and power, tries to join his gang, the boy’s sister, Kazuko, who’s simple and innocent, begs Joji to get her brother back on the straight and narrow. Joji’s instantly smitten with Kazuko. He starts hanging around her music shop and starts appreciating classical music and all that Kazuko, who pays him no mind, appreciates.

At first Tokiko dismisses her rival, but when she sees that Joji is changing for real she gets nervous. She goes as far as plotting to shoot Kazuko, but then she comes to appreciate Kazuko’s magnetic innocence. Tokiko is not to be trusted after telling Joji she wants to change and become more like her rival. She’s been branded as a delinquent and that label’s impossible to remove.

The film has the style of a noir classic and takes some interesting turns as Tokiko refuses to marry her boss and plots to rob him with Joji. It’s a beautiful simple film that didn’t need talking.

Tokyo Godfathers

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By Satoshi Kon, Tokyo Godfathers shows three homeless misfits–a gambler, who’s lost his family, a transvestite and a runaway teen–who discover an abandoned baby. These outsiders, though flawed and somewhat to blame for their situation, come to get the audience’s sympathy and respect. They bicker as they seek the baby’s parents, which is a wild odyssey full of surprises against a gritty backdrop I rarely see in Japanese films.

The misfits have interesting backstories and as the story progresses they are forced to come to terms with their mistakes and history. They lead us through Japan’s shadier sides and the artwork is realistic.

Unlike the other Kon films I’ve seen this one sticks to the story with no departures into the character’s subconsciouses. Tokyo Godfathers/em> is a film I’d watch again and again.

Jellyfish Eyes

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A mix of animation and live action, Jellyfish Eyes amazed me. It’s the story of Masashi, a Japanese boy whose father died in the tsunami. He moves with his mother to a new town where he befriends an otherworldly creature and soon learns that all the other children have similar strange friends that they control with remote controls and have fight each other whenever their teacher turns her back.

Mashasi’s uncle works at a mysterious lab, which turns out to be run by a nefarious group of evil scientists trying to harness negative energy through children since children’s energy is purest. His uncle opposes the mad scientists, but they ignore his warnings and pleas.

As the movie progresses,a girl befriends Masashi saving him from bullies. The girl’s mother in reaction to the tsunami and following nuclear disaster, has joined a religious cult. Thus the girl, like Masashi must parent herself. The film is unique in that shows children coping with trauma and loss. It has a powerful message of self-sacrifice and pulling together rationally in times of crisis. At the end I was stunned. As the film’s directed towards children it ends happily, but that was uncertain till the last minutes. I thought it was brave and smart to give children a chance to see such a wise, exciting and delightful film.

It offers adults the message of how technocrats and scientists gamble with our safety when they get caught up with an idea or “solution.” It’s such a different film and one old and young (as young as say 10) could enjoy and ponder.