Watakushi-tachi no kekkon / Our Marriage (1961)

29 12 2012

One of Shinoda’s earliest features (he made Dry Lake earlier in 1961, and Koi no katamichi kippu from 1960 is listed as his debut) and one of the best from the little I’ve managed to see. It probably helps that although he still manages to work within the tradition of the Japanese New Wave, the content here doesn’t seem that disconnected from what he and filmmakers like Nagisa Oshima were supposedly rebelling against. The title itself seems like it could very well come from either Ozu or Naruse’s filmography. The film itself isn’t really fleshed out enough to stand alongside the works of those two filmmakers, but it is a wonderful attempt by a youngster at making something far more mature.

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Keiko (Noriko Maki) and Saeko (Chieko Baisho) are sisters working desk jobs at the local factory to help keep their family afloat. Their father’s fishing business seems to be a day away from it’s demise. Despite both of them being in their twenties, they are the main source of income for their impoverished family, which bothers Keiko a great deal. She meets a childhood friend one day, who manages to sustain a life within the city just by being a flirty girl. This isn’t the ideal solution for Keiko, but when she’s introduced to a potential suitor, she takes note of his healthy income. Meanwhile, Saeko is pulling strings to make her sister fall in love with their coworker at the factory, Komakura.

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For all of Shinoda’s technical strides, the biggest selling point here might be the fabulous cast. Chinese native Noriko Maki, who would later appear in Ozu’s An Autumn Afternoon and not much else, is excellent here. Eijirô Tôno, who frequently collaborated with Kurosawa and Ozu, is a wonderful fit for a father trying to maintain control of his household. His pained facial expressions are the perfect compliment to the beautifully photography documenting his sad attempt at income. His fishing business is likely going to end, and his desperation is never explicitly mentioned,  but it is evident.

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The best performance belongs to Chieko Baisho, who is probably less familiar to most. She made a career as Yoji Yamada’s muse, his own Setsuko Hara so to speak. She’s much different here than in Yamada’s films, where she frequently plays quiet but powerful independent women. This is not the case here, as she’s filled with youthful idealism that motivates her in playing matchmaker for her sister. Unlike Keiko, she believes that people can be happy without money. The two discuss this frequently, and it’s Shinoda’s intention to imply that there’s not a black and white answer. We see a seemingly happy but impoverished couple’s relationship dissolve right in front of the two sisters, but then Keiko herself is extremely upset by the behavior of her socialite friend.

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There’s a lot to chew on here, more so than one might expect from a film with a running time of just 69 minutes. As mentioned before, there isn’t really enough there for this to feel like it even comes to close to the best Japanese domestic-driven dramas of the 50s and 60s. It’s just a quick character study, and it’s sort of imitating a more complicated one. The performances are fantastic, though, and it’s Baisho specifically who shines. Shinoda only does a few playful things with the camera,  which shows some maturity especially compared to the hyper and kinetic early efforts of Oshima and Yoshishige Yoshida.

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The beautiful photography is the work of Masao Kosugi, who would later work with Shinoda on Pale Flower and  Assassination  (both 1964), and it gives us some wonderful images. The sequence in which Keiko confronts Komakura is particularly stunning. The performers say and emote little, but the thickness of the atmosphere manages to heighten the tension. The wonderful garbage-laced landscapes manage to perfectly compliment the more deliberately framed compositions that take place inside.

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We only get a glimpse of this world (barely more than an hour) but it’s a distinct experience. The recently reviewed The Angry Street purposed an interesting “what if?” to Naruse’s career had he focused his intentions on genre. Likewise, this film shows Shinoda using his talents for a domestic drama, which is a hundred times more interesting than the angst-driven, gangster-lite films he and his comrades were making for most of the early 60s. I might be in the minority here, but I think I would have preferred for him to make more films like this one.

6

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Ikari no machi / The Angry Street (1950)

28 12 2012

It’s generally accepted that Naruse’s golden era started in 1950. Even if one does love this film and the others that came out in 1950, this isn’t exactly true. This film has very little in common with the films that would make Naruse celebrated throughout the 1950s to the end of his career in 1967. Instead, this is something close to Naruse’s attempting a genre picture. It’s not a complete failure but it’s not a runaway success, either. Ultimately, Naruse’s interest in “human drama” pushes the direction of the content into an area between a film noir and a domestic drama, which makes the plot itself seem somewhat melodramatic.

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Sudo and Mori are two college pals trying to make some quick money while attending the University of Tokyo. The two have formulated something of a plan, in which they seduce women, which leads to these women giving them enormous amounts of money. Mori begins to develop some guilt about his means of income, especially when he is confronted by Sudo’s sister, Masako who is completely unaware of how the two of them make their money. He tries to change Sudo himself, but it turns out Sudo is more concerned with balancing the three women he’s receiving funds from, but things take a turn for the worst when he finds himself involved with an older woman who has mob ties.

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There’s a lot of interesting peripheral stuff going on here, away from the fact that this is essentially Naruse doing noir. He would return to the genre well later with Hit and Run and Stranger Within a Woman, which were both released in 1966. There’s some hint at economic stuff, as the two leads laugh off the claims of their comrades that they’re privileged. In reality, Sudo and Mori are that exactly, but the two see their complicated system of manipulating women into romance as actually being “hard work.” Sudo’s neglect of his own family leads to his elderly mother taking up a job, something she tries to keep from the rest of the family.

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In a way, the most unique thing about this entry from Naruse is not that it is so male-driven but rather that it is so mean-spirited. Well, not mean-spirited from his own perspective but rather that of one of the central protagonists. It’s good that Mori eventually sees the fault of his ways, but it seems a little ridiculous that he acquires such a calm and wise tone, with the exception of his emotional breakdown in the film’s climax. This is far too quick of a character development, and his attitude shift seems to come from his romantic feelings towards Sudo’s sister, Masako. Maybe he really loves her, but with what we’re given about him, do we really trust him? His flip in morality is wonderful, but one can’t help but feel more concerned for Masako.

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On the flip side, the sequences with Sudo are dull, not for any technical fault on Naruse’s part. This is a logical link between his earlier more energetic work and his “calmer” stuff of the 50s and 60s. Unfortunately, Sudo himself is just a dud. He’s stubborn and stupid, yet manages to fascinate at least three different women. When he finally gets what’s coming to him, the payoff feels justified and nice, but punishing such a simplistically “bad” and hateful character is such an easy move, and one that is usually found outside of Naruse’s work. Still, the film manages to be an enjoyable piece of genre, one which makes one wonder how Naruse might have fared had he devoted his career to such films. As it is, I like the route he choose much more, but this deviation from his usual material is both welcome and entertaining.

6





The 39 Steps (1935)

20 12 2012

Hitchcock’s British period is a bit of a blind spot for me, and I’ll readily admit that in all likelihood, I won’t be able to bring much insight into these films, but I’ve decided to write about this one anyway. It’s close to being my favorite of his, but I get the impression that if I dive deeper into his earlier period, I’ll have similar positive experiences. I’m not going to use this space to launch into an attack on one of the most canonized filmmakers of all-time, especially since I don’t hate him. Most of Hollywood work, though, with the exception of North by Northwest, has always left me cold. This is probably because it came before I ever had any appreciation for genre, but that’s another story entirely.

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This is a classic “wrong man” setup that has become something of Hitchcock’s trademarks. Richard Hannay meets Anabella Smith and he takes her to his place following her request. She warns him that she’s being watched and needs to stay the night. He wakes up to find a knife in her back. Hannay becomes the suspect, which leads him to being chased all over Scotland. It turns out Anabella’s murder came from the orders of Professor Jordan, who wanted to prevent her from releasing information. Hannay’s fugitive run leads him to Pamela. She becomes literally attached to him with hand cuffs, which leads to a romantic getaway.

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The story here is pretty complicated, and there was a time when I would have criticized him for such a ridiculously intricate plot. To his credit, though, it unfolds naturally. Surely, the story itself is ridiculous enough just in its content, but this seems like complaining that the Bible is too religious. It’s these sort of stories that make up Hitchcock’s personality and it’s his legacy for making these movies not seem convoluted. It’s especially impressive here as such a complicated story is confined within the 85 minute running time. Hitchcock’s wit seems even sharper when the rest of the elements are building up so quickly.

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Most of this fast-talking “witty” dialogue can be hit or miss, and most of the biggest punch-lines seem too close to Hitchcock’s pen to actually feel like the natural thoughts of the performers. For someone who finds himself in the unluckiest of situations, Hannay seems to have an equally potent level of wit and improvisation. He adapts maybe a little too quickly to the enormous curve ball that is the story. Cary Grant seemed (charmingly) stupid at first when put in a similar situation in North by Northwest but that film obviously has the time to extend that character’s learning curve. Donat’s performance as Hannay is charming, of course, but almost mechanically so, too much seems to contributed from Hitchcock’s pen (or Ian Hay’s) that the performance could have been delivered from anybody.

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From my own limited experience with earlier Hitchcock, I struggle to not compare it to the American genre films of the time. The biggest difference might be in what I just mentioned: too much in the script, and not enough in the actual performance, stripping the film away from some vitality. It’s still wonderfully entertaining. It’s not calculated tone seems actually very screwball in nature. Indeed, the sequence with Hannay and Pamela running around in the middle of Scotland bears a striking resemblance to the extended outdoors scene in Bringing Up Baby. Once again, I think there’s “more” to the characters, because the form requires the filmmaker to flesh them out. The couple here is a bit more dull and their romantic potential seems like just another bizarre circumstance. Still, this a wonderfully crafted and economic thriller. It’s hard to get too angry about its faults.

5





Sanshiro Sugata (1943)

18 12 2012

Kurosawa’s surprisingly inventive debut seems to have been buried beneath the power of the director’s legendary oeuvre. It’s not perfect by any means, but it is a more than competent first film, showcasing the director’s appreciation of genre cinema. His influences are obvious, but it’s safe to say that Ford and Walsh never choose something as deliberately stylish as this. The performances aren’t fantastic (though I did watch this after a heavy dosage of Naruse) but they service the film, which is arguably driven by Kurosawa’s virtuoso technical talents. It’s too short yet also not as economic as the works it was inspired by, but it’s perfectly enjoyable action film.

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The titular character arrives in town, with little exposition. He’s there to learn judo, but his stubborn and childish behavior make him an unlikely student of the art. His teacher, Yano, initially refuses to take him in, but Sanshiro’s hard-headed attitude eventually wins out. He turns out to be a wonderful student, and his progress becomes evident when he accidentally kills an opponent in a tournament. He’s quickly mythologized, but his focus shifts to Sayo, who he finds out is the daughter of his next opponent, Hansuke, a celebrated teacher of jujitsu. Sayo’s affections are also desired by Higaki, who requests a fight with Sanshiro in the mountains.

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The story seems to be a little complicated, though it flows with much ease in Kurosawa’s hands. This is sort of problem, in all honesty, because the character development isn’t handled all that well. It’s worth noting that 17 minutes are missing from the current preferred cut of the film, but I don’t think any footage could flesh out the simplistic characterization of Sanshiro when we are first introduced to him. He is stupid and impulsive, traits that manifest in fantastic sequence in which he runs around a city looking for anyone willing to participate in the fight. The sequence is staged beautifully, with a symmetrically composed shot of an alley way cut juxtaposed with a complete 180 reverse shot. This is a simplified description but it’s a bit like if Ozu was an action director and had a dolly.

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The previously described scene encapsulates Kurosawa’s debut, and to me, it’s somewhat representative of even his most celebrated work. The characters are put together in a clunky fashion, and resemble cartoons, but they are composed in an excellent way. It’s truly a shame that Kurosawa’s career started with the circumstances of the war. His vision was obviously edited to fit the government’s wishes (as it was here) or his talents were used to make pure propaganda, which is the case with his second film, The Most Beautiful. I say this because there’s an exciting energy here that one frequently finds in a filmmaker’s early years.

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On the other hand, Kurosawa would have plenty of breaks throughout his career. His success was and is completely unexpected and far outside of the realm that anyone in Japan at the time could have envisioned. It’s often explained that Kurosawa’s international success may have been a contribution of his passion for western culture. This isn’t exactly correct as his biggest influences, Ford and Renoir, were crucial influences to earlier Japanese filmmakers. Kurosawa’s enormous success might have been in his distinct iconography, which of course categorizes him as a genre filmmaker. An effort like this is more in tune with the genre giants of Hollywood at the time than his later, more celebrated films. It’s an impressive and entertaining debut, a smaller scale sample of what was to come.

5





Nyonin aishu (1937)

4 12 2012

It seems as though I’ve spent weeks talking about Naruse’s productivity in 1935, mostly because I decided to see all of those films in a small window of time, but his productivity two years later was almost as impressive. He made this, Avalanche (which a certain Kurosawa worked as an assistant on), and Learn from Experience which was split into two releases. On the other hand, there doesn’t really seem to be as much “interesting” stuff going on, at least judging from this effort. It’s typical Naruse fare, and it might be his strongest condemnations of marriage, though the specific focus is obviously on the role of women in prewar Japan. It’s an impressive statement, though it feels a bit too on the nose, especially for a filmmaker who is known for fleshing out these situations.

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The film follows Hiroko as she struggles to transition to married and/or city life. This is no fault of her own, however. Despite the initial positive response she gets from her husband, the arranged marriage turns into something of a disaster. She seldom receives any affection and her husband depends on her most to serve and entertain any guests he might invite over. She quickly realizes how poorly she’s being treated but no one is open to listening with the exception of her cousin Ryosuke, who seems like the ideal partner now that she is trapped in a loveless marriage.

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I mentioned before that this is a bit too on nose, mostly because Hiroko’s husband is so bland that we can see him as nothing but the enemy. Credit to Naruse, though. The husband never actively tries to mistreat Hiroko and there’s no physical violence. I often contrast Naruse with Mizoguchi in the treatment of women and this is a perfect reflection of their differences. To Mizoguchi, a woman being neglected or ignored would not be enough to motivate her to be independent. At times even, it feels like Hiroko is a bit quick to give up on her marriage (the film is, after all, only 75 minutes long) considering that she is still a stranger to her husband. She has a reasonable home with some financial protection in one of the biggest cities in the world, which is why her protesting is all the more remarkable.

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Several critics have found Hiroko an unsympathetic character, largely because she’s too self-aware of her own struggle. This is a pretty telling statement that their might be some enjoyment from watching individuals who don’t realize they’re marginalized. It’s a pretty gross statement, even as Hiroko’s intelligence might contradict with the story itself. She seems too smart to have fallen into such a miserable situation, which is filled with some rather simplistic peripheral characters which help contribute to her reaching a breaking point. These are all fair enough criticisms, as I’d say the film is far from being a masterpiece, but I think it’s an interesting exercise for Naruse exactly because he would revisit similar territory with a better touch of reality.

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The film’s downfall would be that I’ve seen this material done by many other directors, including Naruse himself, and done better. This is kind of vague, but the Hiroko’s struggle seems like a very straightforward story, based more on the events, rather than a full living and breathing world with complete characters. One of hallmarks of Naruse’s films is great performances all around, where here the most notable one is Takako Irie as Hiroko. She is excellent here and in Mizoguchi’s The Water Magician but is probably best known for an appearance in Kurosawa’s Sanjuro. At this time, she was something of a celebrity. Her popularity unfortunately took a nose dive following the war and she kept busy by appearing in (mostly forgotten) kaidan movies. She’s fascinating to watch here, though as a woman who slowly realizes her independence. Not a great movie by any means, but an interesting step in Naruse’s career and arguably, a necessary one.

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