Saturday, February 17, 2007

Eating Japanese

Today, I took a break from Indiefest to see a double feature at the Castro.Toshirô Mifune in Drunken Angel
The first film was 1948's Drunken Angel. Directed by Akira Kurosawa and starring Toshirô Mifune, this film is one of their earliest collaborations. According to IMDB, it was their first time working together.

I'm a fan of Kurosawa's films. Drunken Angel is a small masterpiece. The eponymous character is Dr. Sanada played by Takashi Shimura. Shimura was one of Kurosawa's stable of actors. Shimura & Kurosawa teamed up for 22 films together. Most famously, Shimura was the leader of the Seven Samurai.

In Drunken Angel, Shimura plays an alcoholic doctor that is serving the medical needs of a poor neighborhood in post-WWII Tokyo. Mifune comes to him with a bullet lodged in his hand. Mifune plays Matsunaga, the Yakuza boss of the neighborhood. Dr. Sanada immediately suspects Matsunaga is suffering from tuberculosis. Matsunaga dismisses his diagnosis with a punch to the face. Undeterred, Sanada seeks out Matsunaga the next day. Mainly through nagging and some brutally honest conversations, Sanada convinces Matsunaga to seek treatment. The treatment is short-lived as the previous Yakuza boss gets out of prison and returns to the neighborhood to reclaim his territory. Matsunaga is forced to defend his territory to the death.

From that simple plot, Kurosawa is able to show his mastery. Kurosawa usually has straight-forward narratives but what makes his films great are the memorable scenes that advance the story but when taken individually are special in their own right. In the middle of the neighborhood is a cesspool. I suppose it represents the moral character of the neighborhood. Kurosawa opens several scenes with shots of the cesspool - wind causing ripples on the water, bubbling water, people dumping garbage in the water, kids playing in the cesspool, etc. The audience comes to expect each scene to open with a different shot of the fetid water.

Kurosawa reaches into his cinematic bag of tricks for this film. He shoots several scenes through doorways. (I heard he learned this technique by watching John Ford films). Blocking scenes this way allow Kurosawa the literally frame the shot so that the characters are in close proximity and the viewer's attention is focused on the interaction of the characters.

He also inserts a dream sequence in what would later be associated with French New Wave style. Mifune is running along the beach when he sees a coffin. He takes an axe to the coffin to discover his tubercular self in the coffin. The tubercular Mifune chases the healthy Mifune by way double exposure on the frames.

Another gem of a scene occurs in the Yakuza nightclub Mifune owns. A Japanese woman sings an uptempo jazz number about jungle love. There is a call & response portion (I always like when songs have call & response). The groove is so powerful that the normally staid Yakuza supporting characters are driven to dance à la Blue Brothers.

Among the other memorable scenes/performances are the knife fight scene between Mifune & his rival in which they slip and slide in paint, a 17 year old schoolgirl and her crush on the doctor (complete with Sailor Moon school uniform), Matsunaga strolling the neighborhood market while everyone gets out of his way (comparable to Brando in The Godfather), and the moll that switches her affection from Mifune to his rival as his disease advances.

I don't have much to complain about with this movie but I can always find a few issues. It seems odd to me that they would have a cesspool in the middle of a neighborhood like that; especially in Japan. Mifune's make-up consisted of increasing rouge on his cheeks to give that hollowed out look as he wasted away from consumption. The application look very dated - similar to what the zombies looked like in George Romero's Night of the Living Dead.

The second film was Fires on the Plain directed by Kon Ichikawa. Fires on the Plain
The Castro programming guide has this to say about the film:
Ichikawa’s ferocious adaptation of the Shohei Ooka novel is about a group of ragtag Japanese soldiers in the Philippines during the final days of WWII who are forced to survive under the most extreme conditions imaginable.

Fires on the Plain is nominally a war movie but at its heart, it is an exploration of humanity's depravity. The film opens with PFC Tamura (Eiji Funakoshi) being chewed out (pun intended as you'll see) by his commanding officer in the Philippines. Tamura has TB and was sent to the field hospital. However, the doctors wouldn't admit someone that was ambulatory so they sent him back to his camp. Tamura's CO didn't want him because of his disease and weakened state. He sends him back to the hospital with some raw yams and a grenade. His orders are to stay at the hospital until admitted. If he is not admitted, he is to blow himself up with the grenade. Thus begins the nomadic, peripatetic journey of our protagonist. For a guy with TB, Tamura certainly has energy to walk all around Leyte.

Tamura is again denied admittance to the hospital so he falls in with some soldier/squatters who are in the same situation as him. He (and the hospital) get strafed or shelled and Tamura sets off alone to survive. The rest of the film are a series of vignettes as Tamura encounters Filipinos, Americans, & other Japanese soldiers before reuniting with a pair of soldiers from the hospital.

At that point, Tamura is starving and falls in and out of an altered states of consciousness. One of the soldiers has "monkey meat" which he offers Tamura (nice raw meat scene). Tamura refuses to eat the meat claiming he has sore teeth & gums from not having eaten for such a long time. I believe that was a lie (I'd have to watch the film again to be sure). By now, Tamura and the audience suspect the meat is primate but not from monkeys. Soylent Green is people!

Tamura is semi-lucid but disgusted by this dietary choice but his laconic and easy-going nature keep him with the cannibalistic pair. BTW, if you wondering why Tamura wasn't killed for his meat, it is because eating the flesh of a TB victim is unhealthy. Eventually one of the cannibals shoots the other and literally begins to eat him raw. That was another memorable scene. The camera is behind the soldier as he is hunched over the prone body. He tosses chunks of meat over his shoulder towards the camera. Tamura confronts him and shoots him dead.

Drunken Angel looks like a "classic" while Fires on the Plain looks dated. I'm certain that this film must have been shocking in 1959 but it is not as powerful today. Funakoshi in the lead role gives an oddly detached performance. There were several other issues that distracted me from the film. It did not look like the film was set in the Philippines. The landscape was at times devoid of vegetation and at one point I saw what looked to be an evergreen tree. Having never been to the Philippines, I don't have first hand experience. I was expecting a tropical jungle. Some of the dialogue was in Tagalog which Tamura spoke a smattering of. The Tagalog scenes were not fully subtitled which may have been intentional so that the audience could be as confused as Tamura.

A scene that stands out for me is when Tamura is contemplating surrendering to the "Yanks." From a hidden vantage point, he watches as another soldier approaches some Americans with his hands raised and yelling (in Japanese) that he is surrendering. The Americans allow him to approach but a crazed Filipina resistance fighter jumps out of the truck cuts him down with a machine gun. The American soldier chastises her but it's enough to dissuade Tamura from surrendering. It's interesting that Ichikawa had a Filipina kill the soldier. He could just have easily had an American kill the soldier. When I see a scene like that, I wonder if it was a purely artistic choice or it represented the cultural feelings of the time. In other words, a common belief is that despite losing the war, Japanese people are contemptuous of other Asian peoples. The same mindset that led to the Great East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere still exists if you believe certain people.

War movies usually present the soldiers as a Band of Brothers but that was definitely not the case here. It was each man for himself and they were quite willing to rob, cheat, and ultimately kill each other to survive.

I read on IMDB that while shooting, Ichikawa kept the actors underfed and did not allow them to attend to personal hygiene. Kon Ichikawa is still alive at age 91 and directed a film last year.

Both films are part of a Janus Films 50th anniversary retrospective. Janus Films was one of the pioneering film distribution companies that specialized in Art House films. The list of directors whose films have been distributed by Janus is a Who's Who: Kurosawa, Eisenstein, Hitchcock, Fellini, Bergman, Truffaut, Polanski, et al. Janus has released a 50 film box set titled "Essential Art House: 50 Years of Janus Films." Fires on the Plain is part of the set. Drunken Angel is not on DVD.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your experience