Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

After several months in the theater, I was finally motivated enough to see The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo starring Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist; directed by Niels Arden Oplev; Swedish with subtitles; (2009) - Official Website

It was recommended to me by some friends and I wanted to see it in advance of the release of its sequel, The Girl Who Played with Fire which opens July 9 at the Landmark Embarcadero in San Francisco. The films are based on the "Millennium” series novels by the late Stieg Larsson. The third and final film in the series is The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest and is scheduled for an October release in the US.

The film has been well reviewed so I won't recap much of it. It clocks in at 2.5 hours but it went by quickly. Much of the film could have edited out if not for establishing the backstory of the two leads Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) and Lisabeth (Noomi Rapace). I guess this was necessary to set up the next two films. Most of Dragon Tattoo is a suspense film where the reporter Blomkvist and the cyberhacker Lisabeth investigate a 40 year old case involving the disappearance of a 16 year old girl in 1966. Nazis, anti-semitism, serial killings, sadism and Biblical verse play a role in the disappearance.

Peter Andersson and Noomi Rapace in The Girl With the Dragon TattooThe centerpiece of the film is Rapace's performance as Lisabeth. After writing about Japanese Pinky Violence, I can say that Lisabeth's revenge against her rapist is one of the ages. Her crooked guardian messed with the wrong cyberpunk. Actually, she opens up a can of whoop-ass on anyone that messes with her. Studded with piercings and tattoos all over her body, she looks like a punk rocker but Lisabeth has "hella hacking sklllz" that come in handy. She also has a photographic memory. In the minus column, she burned her father to death when she was a girl, is anti-social (although she seems promiscuous and bisexual) and has anger management issues.

Also standing out was the serial killer. I won't give away the mystery but the killer was particularly sociopathic. Michael Nyqvist as Blomqvist the Intrepid Reporter? He seemed a little flat but compared to Lisabeth, everyone in the film is subdued.


Perusing the movie guide, I'm surprised at how many 2010 San Francisco International Film Festival entries are now in release.

At various theaters in San Francisco, one can currently view Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, I Am Love, Winter's Bone, Micmacs, Restrepo and Everyone Else

I know that Air Doll and The Oath have come and gone from Landmark Theaters in San Francisco.

This year I went to more SFIFF screenings than ever before but given how many of their films are subsequently released (this occurs every year), I may revert to more judicious attendance at SFIFF screenings in the future.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Hot Tears of Shame and Japanese Superheroes

TokyoScope Volume 4: Hot Tears of ShameOne Friday in June I went to Viz Cinema to see TokyoScope Talk Vol. 4: Hot Tears of Shame.

From naughty hot spring geisha, to S&M-addicted salarymen, to the latest bizarre innovations in adult video, this pulse-pounding presentation will shamelessly reveal the history of “gettin’ it on” in Japanese cinema. Join hosts Patrick Macias and Tomohiro Machiyama as they sift through the wreckage of Roman Porno, Pinky Violence, and AV in search of the most mind-blowing scenes ever to emerge from the Land of the Rising Sun.

Macias would show some photos and film clips from a laptop that was patched into the theater's projection system. Machiyama would add some Japanese perspective. Including a humorous if not potential tragic encounter during his first trip a pinku eiga theater.

A few of the highlights from the presentation. The talk focused Pink Films or Pinku Eiga; that is soft-core films that evolved into something akin to American grindhouse or exploitation. Most of the presentation dealt with post-WWII films and trends. SCAP (I knew that acronym without having to look it up) established the censorship laws during the occupation and although the laws have been repealed, the practices continue because they've become part of the genre. The most obvious restrictions are that the male genitalia, penetration and ejaculation cannot be shown on screen. This frequently results in a black bar or fuzzy dot that blocks the offensive act. As time wore on, some filmmakers became adept at using camera angles and "blocking" the action so that the post-editing would be needed. The opening title sequence of Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me would be an American example of this kind of filmmaking technique.

The first adult films after the war to be considered pink were made in the late 1950s and early 1960s by independent directors. These were typically low budget affairs that served to push the boundaries. By the late 1960s, as pinku eiga found more success, major Japanese film studios began setting up pink subsidiaries to make those kinds of film. It was then that "pinky violence" begins to show up. In these films, a female protagonist will typically extract violent revenge for past indignities and injustices. "Roman porno" also originated in this period and is short for "Romance" or "Romantic." These film focused on the sex lives of the common woman - sexually frustrated housewife types.

Miki Sugimoto in Girl Boss GuerillaIn addition to the history of pinku eiga, Macias and Machiyama mentioned some films that are now on my "to see" list. The most interesting is Zero Woman: Red Handcuffs (1974) with Miki Sugimoto. Actually, Sugimot's whole filmography looks like a Pinky Violence All-Time list: Criminal Woman: Killing Melody, Terrifying Girls' High School: Lynch Law Classroom, Girl Boss: Escape From Reform School and Girl Boss Guerilla .


The TokyoScope talk I went to was well attended. In fact, it was the most well-attended event I've been to at Viz. The next TokyoScope talk is on July 9 and titled Vol. 5 Japanese Superheroes. The talk is at 7 PM at New People/Viz. July 9 is during the Another Hole in the Head film festival so I'm not sure if I'm going to go.

Ultraman! Kamen Rider! The Power Rangers! These and many other colorful crusaders of justice are now recognized the world over as essential icons of Japanese pop culture. But where did they come from? Who created them? And what is it really like battling rubber monsters and the forces of evil on a regular basis? Join hosts Patrick Macias (editor, Otaku USA magazine), August Ragone (author, Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters), and Tomohiro Machiyama (founding editor, Movie Treasures) as they explore the fascinating history and origins of Japanese superheroes using Patrick Macias
Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Menmagazine, rare film clips and images from numerous tokusatsu, sentai, and henshinhero productions including Ultra Seven, Kikaida, Space Sheriff Gavan, and many others.

When I was a boy, I lived in Hawaii. In the 1970s they would show Kikaida and Kamen Rider on television. By the way, I think the guy in the green shirt in the Vol. 4 poster and the motorcycle riding guitarist (Kikaida reference) in the Vol. 5 poster is Patrick Macias. Do you see a resemblance? Speaking of resemblances, do you think Macias looks like Javier Bardem from No Country for Old Men?


As of July 3, I've seen 191 films in 2010 at an average cost of $7.27/film.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

July is the Hottest Month of the Year

Actually, in San Francisco proper, September is usually the hottest month but July is a brutal month for film lovers in the San Francisco Bay Area. There are so many options that I may set a personal record for most consecutive days at the theater. Regardless, the temperatures are usually cool inside the theaters (except the Little Roxie).


From July 8 to 29, SF IndieFest presents the 2010 Another Hole in the Head which showcases Horror, SciFi and Fantasy films. The venues are the Roxie and Viz Cinema.

A few films caught my attention.

Metropolis 1984 Redux - In 1984, Fritz Lang's classic silent sci-fi hit Metropolis was reissued in tinted color and sporting a rock and pop soundtrack. It immediately developed a cult following, with its blue, green, violet, and red tints, along with a host of songs written by Giorgio Moroder of Donna Summer fame. This version has been completely re-edited, digitally restored and re-colored to the sharpest, cleanest and most colorful yet, revealing never before seen details. Metropolis 1984 Redux is an all original reconstruction, not to be missed!

Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl - An intrepid high school transfer girl, Arukado Monami, has a deep dark secret that she'd like to, well, "share" with the target of her affections, Mizushima. It all comes to surface on Valentines Day and there's an immediate girl rivalry between Monami, our sweet and apparently innocent transfer student and the school bully chick, Keiko, who's ruling the local 'Lolita' chicks. Are the girls willing to fight over the object of their affections? Without a doubt! Do things get very, very out of control very quickly? Umm. Yes. This film sets a number of new benchmarks for madness and extreme gore & bloodletting. This is not a film for the meek and you'll know just what you are getting into before the opening credits roll. What exactly am I talking about here? Well, picture a decapitated head that's been flayed of it's skin, flying with gnashing teeth into the face of a victim where, in a unreal visual, a nose is taken with the teeth and the entire face is de-gloved like so much BBQ from a platter of well cooked spareribs. Ah, all this and a side order of well timed humor that ensures an entire film over the top gore and laughter. A splatter comedy? There is nothing sacred here and side splitting and blood spraying humor is on tap from start to hilarious finish.

Ticked-Off Trannies with Knives - a splendid riff on the classic Rape and Revenge Films of the 70s. Filmed and presented in classic Grindhouse style complete with multiple reels and the hissing and popping of old school film reels. This in your face exploitation film is equal parts 'campsploitation' and slasher flick. Yes, now that's what we're talking about! A group of three mean spirited homophobes with murderous intentions tries to take out the girls from the tranny club because one of them is enraged over when he finds what he deems to be "false advertising." Imagine that? Met 'her' at the local tranny bar and he's shocked to find... Oh, well. Never mind. What do they get when they take on the girls? Well, certainly more than they bargained for. What begins as a nasty night out on the town in the local tranny burlesque club quickly turns into a splatter fest of epic proportions. Divine justice? Trust me, this over the top film puts it all out there with hilarious commentary and some good times with the creative use and, well, the placement of knives.

American Grindhouse - a documentary about the full history and impact of grindhouse films in America. A cinematic phenomena that, like all good things, began underground and was ultimately embraced and exploited (such irony) by the main stream film industry.

What exactly is a "grindhouse" film? Grindhouse is an American term for a theater that mainly shows exploitation films. The name itself is derived after the now defunct burlesque theaters on 42nd street in New York where "bump and grind" dancing and striptease were once featured. Apparently the films moved into the only venue that would have them and the "grindhouse" movie was born. These films were, and are, typically low budget films that have pushed the envelope of their respective eras with sex, violence, drugs and every possible aspect of the weird and the offensive.


In the middle of Hole in the Head is the 2010 San Francisco Silent Film Festival which runs from July 15 to 18 at the Castro Theater.

The undisputed highlight of the festival is their screening of Metropolis - When Fritz Lang’s masterpiece debuted in Berlin in January, 1927, the sci-fi epic ran an estimated 153 minutes, but in order to maximize box office potential the German and American distributors cut the film to 90 minutes for its commercial release. For decades crucial scenes from the film were considered lost. In 2001, the Munich Film Foundation assembled a more complete version with additional footage from four contributing archives, and Metropolis had a premiere revival at 124 minutes (widely believed to be the most complete version that contemporary audiences could ever hope to see). But, in 2008 archivists from the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires made a spectacular discovery — a 16mm dupe negative of Metropolis that was considerably longer than any existing print! That discovery led to this remarkable restoration and Metropolis can now be shown in Fritz Lang’s original — 25 minute longer — complete version.

Other films which appeal to me are:

A Spray of Plum Blossoms - One of the most prolific Chinese directors of the silent era, Bu Wancang based this film on William Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona, setting the action in China, circa 1930 and casting China’s favorite on-screen couple, Ruan Ling-yu and Jin Yan. Like any Shakespeare comedy, Plum Blossoms is replete with star-crossed lovers, mistaken identity, and a satisfying happy ending. By situating the play in the ’30s-era Chinese army, the “gentlemen” of the Shakespeare’s title are the film’s officers, the duke is a warlord, and his daughter’s ladies-in-waiting are military police!

Diary of a Lost Girl - the second and final work of one of the cinema’s most compelling collaborations: G. W. Pabst and Louise Brooks. Together with Pandora’s Box, Diary confirmed Pabst’s artistry as one of the great directors of the silent period and established Brooks as an “actress of brilliance, a luminescent personality and a beauty unparalleled in screen history.” (Kevin Brownlow) This version has been mastered from a restoration of the film made by the Cineteca di Bologna with approximately seven minutes of previously censored footage.

The Iron Horse - Set in mid-19th century America, The Iron Horse is the silent era’s version of How the West Was Won, weaving its themes of romance and history around the story of the building of the first transcontinental railway. This glorious print is the only surviving 35mm print of the American version. Directed by John Ford..


In addition to those two festival in the City, PFA continues its Kurosawa Retrospective. By my count, PFA is screening 12 Kurosawa films in July. There are 5 films I have not previously seen. Coincidentally, those five films are being shown on three consecutive Wednesdays in July. The busy festival schedule won't allow me repeat viewings of the other Kurosawa films being screened in July (including Stray Dog).

The films which most interest me are Sanshiro Sugata and its sequel Sanshiro Sugata II.

Kurosawa made his directorial debut in 1943, during the height of World War II and at a time when “you weren’t allowed to say anything worth saying,” as he recalled. “Back then everyone was saying that the Japanese-style film should be as simple as possible; I disagreed and decided that, since I couldn’t say anything because of the censors, I would make a really movie-like movie.” Concerning a hero’s awakening and embrace of a larger ideal (in this case, judo), the film’s dazzling cinematic energy is already pure Kurosawa, complete with novel fight scenes (one done entirely in darkness and shadow, another shot on a windswept, grassy mountainside) and a remarkable control of filmic techniques for capturing emotion, space, and time; one montage of a pair of discarded sandals, for instance, conveys the passing of the seasons with an economy that’s as simple, and as pure, as a line of poetry. Within these eighty minutes lies the foundation of an entire career.

Forced to make a sequel to the successful Sanshiro Sugata, Kurosawa responded with a by-the-numbers account of the further years of our lockjawed, sweetly shy young judo hero (the appealing Susumu Fujita, who had become a major star thanks to the first film). This being a wartime production, Sanshiro warms up by battling some naughty foreigners (first a drunken sailor, then a tall boxer with “Killer” helpfully emblazoned on his flowing robe), but Kurosawa has even more fun introducing the next villains: the brothers Higaki. All long hair and white robes, odd twitches and ominous declarations, the two seem to have been flung out of a Noh play. “What interested me was not the hero but the opponent,” Kurosawa noted. Fascinating as an example of Japanese filmmaking during the war years, the film is also revelatory as an example of how Kurosawa could fuel even the basest of tales with moments of pure grandeur.


The Castro Theater is currently presenting a program called Hollywood Does Hollywood. Several of the films draw my attention. The double feature on July 7 is particularly of interest.

Myra Breckinridge - In this hyper-surreal, psycho-sexual farce, transsexual Rex Reed transforms into Raquel Welch, infiltrates an acting school, and plots “the destruction of the American male in all its particulars.” Director Michael Sarne uses clips from dozens of vintage films as counterpoint to this pastiche. Upping the ante is Mae West as a horny, foul-mouthed casting director and a game John Huston. (1970)

The Wild Party - Loosely based on the Fatty Arbuckle scandal, James Coco is a fading silent film comic who throws a party to showcase his latest movie, a party that soon devolves into a full-blown sexual free-for-all. Raquel Welch and Tiffany Bolling co-star in Merchant/Ivory’s ravishingly naughty spectacle. (1975)

Unfortunately July 7 is the day of the Sanshiro Sugata double bill at the PFA so I won't be able to see The Wild Party.

On July 6, the Castro is presenting Gods and Monsters - The sublime Ian McKellen is one of numerous exceptional components illuminating this compassionate speculation on the final days of infamously gay Frankenstein director James Whale. A unique blend of flashback and hallucination, director Bill Condon won the Oscar for his screenplay. With Brendan Fraser and Lynn Redgrave. (1998)


In addition, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival is screening from July 24 to August 9 at the Castro Theater, San Francisco JCC and other locations in Palo Alto, Berkeley and San Rafael. Several of the films are tempting me.


On July 16 & 17, Red Vic is screening Wild in the Street (1968) - this camp-tastic example of 60’s youth-sploitation satirizes the establishment’s paranoia about what would happen if “the hippies” took over. Teen rebel Max Frost (Christopher Jones) is a well-loved rocker and revolutionary who lives in a mansion with his extremely groovy band. He hooks up with a politician (Hal Holbrook) and manages to become President by lowering the voting age to 14. Max takes the saying “Don’t trust anyone over 30” and runs with it, establishing 30 as a mandatory retirement age and sending those older than 35 to re-education camps where they are forced to take LSD! The film, a kind of psychic mosh pit for 60’s social issues, has a swinging soundtrack, and an outstanding performance by Shelley Winters. With Richard Pryor.

On July 20 and 21, the Red Vic is presenting Tod Browning's classic Freaks (1932) - One of the most unusual films ever made! Director Browing, who spent time with a traveling circus in his youth, chose to set this horror film in a circus to use a cast mostly composed of actual carnival performers. “This incredible feature, banned for decades, is a powerful morality tale with a thunderstorm scene that is still strong enough to induce nightmares. Tiny Harry Earles is Hans, the star. When a cruel trapeze artist marries him, publicly humiliates him, and tries with her strong-man lover to kill him for an inheritance, the circus freaks band together to avenge their friend.” - The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film.


On the 4 Star website, it states Spring Fever is "coming in July." Spring Fever is the follow-up film from director Lou Ye. Ye received a five year ban from filmmaking issued by the Chinese government in response to his Summer Palace (2005). Defying the ban, Ye shot Spring Fever guerrilla style in China.

Spring Fever premiered at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival and won the award for Best Screenplay.


I'm not sure how many films I'll see in July. I have already purchased festival passes for Hole in the Head & the San Francisco Silent Film Festival - (SF)^2 Festival.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Kurosawa, Ozu & Mizoguchi (Part 3 ot 3)

As I originally posted, I saw four films directed by Kenji Mizoguchi at the Viz/New People series on Japanese directors in June.

Sisters of Gion directed by Kenji Mizoguchi; Japanese with subtitles; (1936)
Ugetsu directed by Kenji Mizoguchi; Japanese with subtitles; (1953)
Utamaro and His Five Women directed by Kenji Mizoguchi; Japanese with subtitles; (1946)
Street of Shame directed by Kenji Mizoguchi; Japanese with subtitles; (1956)


Prior to this series, I was not very familiar with Mizoguchi. His Sansho the Bailiff is high on my list of "to see" films. Ugetsu or Ugetsu Monogatari is probably his most renowned film.

Mizoguchi's family life is could be a film. Actually, it is very near the plot of Memoirs of a Geisha. While a boy, Mizoguchi's father suffered a financial setback. As a result, his father gave up his eldest daughter for adoption. Later, the girl was sold to a geisha house. After his mother passed away, Kenji went to live with his geisha sister in Tokyo. These events had a profound effect on Mizoguchi as can be evidenced in his films. Known as a proto-feminist, Mizoguchi's film told stories about women. Typically, the women in his films were oppressed or exploited (as was common in Japanese society). Mizoguchi gave these women a certain degree of dignity or indignation at their treatment. Rather than Grrl Power, it's more like Look at the Injustices Women have to Endure.

In the 1920's Mizoguchi was slashed with a razor by a prostitute he was living with during a domestic disturbance. Add that to filter by which his films are to be viewed.


Of the Mizoguchi films screened, Ugetsu or sometimes Ugetsu Monogatari which translates to a fabulous English title of "Tales of Moonlight and Rain." Mizoguchi won the Silver Lion Award for Best Direction for this film at the 1953 Venice Film Festival.

Ugetsu follows two peasant couples in the 16th century. One husband (Genjurō) is a potter and yearns to be wealthy. The other husband (Tōbei) is...well I'm not sure what is job is. He's seems to be a ne'er-do-well but his dream is crystal clear. He wants to be a samurai; i.e. he wants power & glory. After some modest success selling the pottery (Tōbei gets a cut for helping haul the ceramics to a village), Genjurō decides to fire a massive batch of ceramics and make his fortune.

The wives are more circumspect with respect to their husbands' activities. Miyagi, Genjurō wife, notes that his husband has become obsessed with making pots and by extension money. Genjurō is short-tempered with their son. Ohama, Tōbei wife, is weary and wary of her husband's dream of becoming a samurai and recognizes that any money he makes might well go towards this foolish endeavor. Tōbei has been humiliated by some samurai and told he can never be a samurai's assistant until he gets some armor & a spear.

Genjurō's village is attacked by soldiers and everyone flees to the woods. Genjurō ventures back to save his pottery. Braving marauding soldiers and pirate, the trio get the pottery to the town where they will sell it. Before they cross the lake into town, Genjurō drops Miyagi and their son on shore for safety. Once in town, the trio gets separated. After selling most of the pottery, Tōbei runs off to buy samurai gear. Ohama chases after him but loses him in crowd. Genjurō continues selling the ceramics but is approached by a wealthy lady and her servant. They order several pieces and ask him to deliver it to their estate.

I'll cut to the chase since my words can't do the plot or cinematography justice. The noblewoman who orders the pottery is a spirit or ghost. She seduces Genjurō but he is saved by some Sanskrit writing painted onto his body by a priest as protection. Later, he is robbed of all the money he made selling pottery.

Ohama is raped and eventually ends up working in a brothel.

Tōbei purchases some armor and lies by claiming to have killed a general in battle. Despite being dubious of his claim, the rival general rewards Tōbei with a battlefield commission, in essence making him a samurai. Tōbei rides into town like the cock of the walk on his horse and with his honor guard. He sees his wife at a brothel arguing with a customer over money. He sells his armor and horse to buy his wife's freedom.

Miyagi, but not her son, is killed by soldier for her food.

Anyway, this morality tale was a little heavy-handed for my tastes. The moral of the story is simple - women have to endure their husband's foolish dreams and behavior. One is killed for it and the other is raped and forced into prostitution. Compared to the other films in the series, this one had some redemption in the end. The men seemed to truly learn their lessons although the cost was high.

Notwithstanding the Silver Lion Award, I didn't enjoy Ugetsu. The period setting, slow pacing and heavy-handed misandry left me cool to this film.


18th century woodblock artist Kitagawa Utamaro is the nominal subject of Utamaro and His Five Women. However, film scholars and screenwriter Yoshikata Yoda have claimed the film is autobiographical with Utamaro standing in for Mizoguchi.

Unlike Ugetsu, Utamaro was more circuitous in divulging its morality tale, if for no other reason than having to introduce and contrast the five women of the title. For the record, the five women are #1) the daughter of the wealthy nobleman/artist. Her fiancée abandons her to study under Utamaro. #2) the beautiful courtesan who is about to get a tattoo. Utamaro uses her back as a canvas for his painting. #3) His geisha/regular model who saps his inspiration because she is distraught and upset because her lover has eloped with another geisha. In response, she takes up with #1's ex-fiancée. #4) his new model, a peasant girl whom he discovers while spying on a lord's ritual of having 100 women bathe or swim in the ocean as he watches. #5) I can't remember what she did. She might have owned a teahouse/restaurant but the main I remember is that's she's marrying Utamaro's servant and acts as a girl Friday for Utamaro.

As you can tell by my lackadaisical synopsis, the film meanders along and I had a hard time following all the characters. Utamaro is arrested and as punishment, he is not allowed to paint for 30 or 60 days. The women are once again victimized except this time it is not only by men but by each other as the secondary effect of being mistreated by men. Even Utamaro exploits the women through his actions or emotional aloofness.

Once again, I didn't connect with a Mizoguchi film. The number of characters and foreignness of time and place were too much for me to overcome.


Lest one think me a complete philistine, I enjoyed the two Mizoguchi films set in the 20th century.

Sisters of Gion was filmed and set in the mid-1930s. The two sisters, Umekichi and Omocha, are geishas in the Gion District of Kyoko. Umekichi is the more kind-hearted sister. She allows a bankrupt customer to stay at their house. Omocha is more self-interested and looks upon men in general and her customers in particular as a obstacle to their money.

After various machinations, Umekichi is abandoned by her bankrupt patron when he gets a job out of the city. Umekichi who is clearly in love with the man even though he is married, is heartbroken. Omocha, after taking advantage one man too many, is injured when she is thrown from a moving car. The film ends with Umekichi tending to her injured sister and Omocha cursing the occupation of geisha and by extension, her and her sister's lives.

Sisters of Gion was relentlessly downbeat. It didn't matter if the geisha was kind to men or if they manipulated men, they ended up abandoned with only each other to turn to. This must have been a provocative film in the 1930s when the Gion District was teeming with geishas. I felt so sympathetic towards Umekichi which is a measure of my enjoyment of the film.


Yasuko Kawakami in Street of ShameMy favorite Mizoguchi film of the series was Street of Shame, his last film. Set in the 1950s Tokyo when prostitution was still legal in Japan, the film focuses on a brothel and its employees. Throughout the film, the news is reporting on attempts by the Diet to ban prostitution although, like human nature, the bill fails to pass.

Each of the prostitutes are there for various reasons and they cope in various ways. The juiciest role is that of Micki (Machiko Kyô from Kurosawa's Rashômon and The Teahouse of the August Moon with Marlon Brando & Glenn Ford). She's completely unsentimental and seems shocked when any of her co-workers exhibit anything resembling hope or decency. She is the only one who wears Western clothing and she wears them well ("I'm well-proportioned"). When her father comes to the house to take her home, she gives a glimpse into her past life. Her father frequented prostitutes and it seems she does it just to spite him.

Other denizens of the brothel include Hanae, a mother with a small child and suicidal husband; Yorie who is engaged to one of her clients; Yumeko whose son lives in the country with her parents; and Yasumi, the most popular whore who manipulates men into giving her money so that she can leave the profession and marry them. Yasumi bore a number of similarities to Omocha in Sisters of Gion.

Eventually, they all suffer the indignity of their profession although some more than others. Yumeko's son comes to Tokyo because he is harassed in his small village because everyone knows what she does. Yumeko has convinced herself that everything she is doing is for her son but the long absences and shame of the profession do not engender much gratitude from her son. He rejects her and she attempts suicide.

Yorie's husband married her so he could have a free, live-in maid and she quickly returns to the brothel where she can make her own money.

Yasumi is attacked by one of the men she has swindled but she survives and using the money she has made via her job, her marks and interest on loans to the other women, she buys a futon and bedding shop.

Beyond the flamboyance of Kyô's Micki, I enjoyed nad empathized the most with the quiet, bespectacled, dignity and perseverance of Michiko Kogure (Drunken Angel) as Hanae.

So after Mizoguchi condemns the system...and the human nature that led to the system...and to some extent, the women who participate in the system, he adds a haunting and heartbreaking coda. Throughout the film, there is a servant girl at the brothel. Her name is Shizuko (Yasuko Kawakami). She cleans, cooks and runs errands but she is not a prostitute. Of all people, Micki buys dinner for everyone and there is an extra serving. Micki offers it to Shizuko and after initial hesitation, she eats it with gusto, exclaiming it is the best thing she ever ate. With a little more prompting, she tells her story. If I recall correctly, her father died in the war and she was sold to the brothel. The specifics don't matter because as Micki says (paraphrasing), "What's the big deal, we all have the same story?"

When Shizuko is old enough (I'm not sure how old that is), she has her coming-out or debut party. It was nothing like Brooke Shields in Pretty Baby. She has white make-up applied to her face and she's seated out in front of the brothel. Ever empathetic in her own way, Micki sees she doesn't have a barker so she yells for men to give the new girl a try. Shizuko, her spirit already a long way from resilient, follows Micki's lead and begin meekly calling out for customers. The viewer is left with the distinct impression that the cycle continues but also how this sweet, timid girl is going to survive.

It's sad that Street of Shame was Mizoguchi's last film because he incorporated bittersweet humor with his feminist storytelling to great effect. He even let one of his fallen angels escape her circumstances although through unethical means. It's clear that when compared to his jidaigeki films and even Sisters of Gion that is making films in a more modern style that is more accessible (at least more accessible to me).


So I give Street of Shame an unequivocal positive recommendation. Sisters of Gion - an equivocal positive recommendation. Utamaro and His Five Women and Ugetsu weren't my cup of tea.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Kurosawa, Ozu & Mizoguchi (Part 2 ot 3)

As I mentioned, I saw four Ozu films at Viz/New People in June.

The Only Son directed by Yasujirō Ozu; Japanese with subtitles; (1936)
Record of a Tenement Gentleman directed by Yasujirō Ozu; Japanese with subtitles; (1947)
Early Spring directed by Yasujirō Ozu; Japanese with subtitles; (1956)
Tokyo Story directed by Yasujirō Ozu; Japanese with subtitles; (1953)

Ozu is known for a few techniques in his film. First is the "Ozu shot" or "tatami shot" which is a static camera shot at an upward angle from the ground. The effect is as if you are lying on the floor looking up at the characters on the screen. In addition, Ozu rarely edited the scenes. Frequently, during a conversation, a film will cut to a medium close-up headshot of the person speaking. Ozu didn't do that; Ozu usually had both (or more) people talking in the same shot without any edits. As a result, Ozu's shots average longer in duration than most filmmakers. The effect is to make the story flow at a more relaxed or measured pace.

Ozu frequently uses a narrative technique called ellipsis where major events are not filmed or shown. Rather, they referred to by the characters. An example would be if a character dies. Instead of filming a death scene, Ozu will film a scene at the funeral or more likely, two characters will reminisce about the funeral or complaining about having to go to the funeral.


The Only Son is Ozu's first sound film. The 35 mm print which was screened looked as if it were the original.

The plot involves Tsume, a widow who sends Ryosuke, her only child to Tokyo in 1923 for secondary education. She works at a silk factory and can't afford to educate her son any further. Earnest pleas from the boy and his school teacher carry the day. Ryosuke promises to study hard & become a great man.

Thirteen years later, Tsume decides to visit her son in Tokyo. She quickly discovers that all is not as he has been reporting back to her. Ryosuke's not a salaryman but a low paid night school teacher. Also, he has a wife and daughter he's never mentioned to his mother. The school teacher that convinced Tsume to send Ryosuke to Tokyo also made the journey to achieve his glory. Fate hasn't been kind to him either as he is now small restaurateur.

Eventually, Ryosuke and Tsume have a confrontation. Ryosuke is disappointed by his own accomplishments or lack thereof. He wishes he never moved to Tokyo. Tsume responds with her own secret - to pay for his education, she sold her house and lives at the factory dorm. She gave everything up for his education. Although she can't come out and say it, she is disappointed in her son.

When a neighbor's boy is injured, Ryosuke gives his family's last yen to the boy's mother to pay the hospital bill. Tsume sees this and says she is proud of her son. However, the film ends with her alone at the silk factory with a look of grief & disappointment after telling her co-workers that her son is a "great man."

This early Ozu film is prototypical - sentimental, wistful, centered around family and lacking a happy ending. It didn't presage the greatest director in Japanese history but it was certainly an effect tearjerker.


Record of a Tenement Gentleman centers on an abandoned boy who I suppose is the eponymous character. Chouko Iida who played Tsume in The Only Son returns as a Tané, hard-hearted widow who gradually accepts the boy as her surrogate son. Being Ozu, it couldn't end that way. The father of the boy shows up and takes him back. Only then does Tané fully realize how close she's grown to the boy.

The plot of the film was very simple. Filmed in 1947, Ozu uses the war's aftermath as narrative device. It's easy to understand how a boy could be separated, orphaned or abandoned by his parents. What becomes of these children? They'll have a hard life unless some kind-hearted person takes them in. Ozu constructs the crusty widow with a heart of gold but never shows it. Only when she cares for the boy does her own humanity bubble to the surface.

This film was my least favorite of the four films I saw. The ending was too predictable and the character not fully developed. Tané and the boy seem more like caricatures navigating well-worn narrative paths. Instead of paint-by-numbers it was film-by-numbers although in the hands of Ozu, I was still able to be manipulated into caring about both Tané and the boy.


Tokyo Story is generally considered Ozu's masterpiece. Shukichi (Chishû Ryû) and Tomi (Chieko Higashiyama) Hirayama, an elderly couple, decide to visit their adult children in Tokyo. It requires a day long train trip but they've never been to Tokyo and haven't seen their children for quite awhile. Their eldest son is a doctor and their eldest daughter runs a hair salon. Their children's work and family obligation don't leave much time to reconnect. Ironically, it is Noriko (outstanding performance by Setsuko Hara who I thought looked a little like Dorothy Lamour), their middle son's widow, who makes time in her schedule to entertain the Hirayamas.

Realizing they are imposing on their children's lives, the Hirayamas cut their vacation short and return home via train. The wife, Tomi, takes ill on the train and shortly after arriving home, the youngest daughter who lives with the Hirayamas, sends a telegram to her siblings that their mother is seriously ill. All the children (except the youngest son in Osaka) and Noriko arrive to keep a vigil. Upon their mother's death, all the children have to quickly leave to resume their lives. Again, only Noriko takes extra time to stay with her father-in-law and sister-in-law.

Shukichi comments on the irony that his late son's widow has shown him more kindness than his own children. Similarly, Kyoko (the youngest daughter) complains to Noriko about her siblings selfishness. Noriko, seemingly selfless, deflect criticism of her in-laws stating they have busy lives to lead. Eventually, Noriko has to return to Tokyo as well and leaves Shukichi and Kyoko to their lives.

This film is amazing for its richly textured characters and performances. For example, the eldest daughter Shige (Haruko Sugimura) can be quite shrill and inconsiderate. I didn't like her but there was a scene where it is revealed that Shukichi had a drinking problem when Shige was growing up which explains a lot. This kindly, elderly gentleman was not always so kind or old nor was he was always a gentleman. With just a few words of dialog, Ozu communicated an incredible amount of backstory which explains some of the distance between parents and children.

Setsuko Hara (left) and Chishû Ryû in Tokyo StoryMore complex is the character of Noriko. Eight or nine years after her husband's death, she still hasn't remarried. One wonders why this attractive and kind woman doesn't remarry. It's implied that she can't fully move past her husband's death although comments by the Hirayamas lead one to believe her husband was an alcoholic and a handful. Despite her kindness, Noriko admits that she barely keep going at times and there is something incredibly sad that she can't or won't find companionship.

Tokyo Story is a masterpiece because Ozu weaves together quite a bit of humor and melancholy on so many different subjects - growing old, drifting apart, being alone, city life vs. rural life, Japanese post-war society, etc. The film never feels like an allegory and perhaps its primary intent is just an examination of an elderly couple and their relationship with their children.


Looking at Ozu's filmography, he seems to prefer the seasons when titling his projects. He has directed films titled Late Spring, Early Summer, Late Autumn and Early Spring. Do the seasons refer to periods of one's life? I don't know having only seen Early Spring.

The plot involves Shoji (Ryō Ikebe) and Masako (Chikage Awashima) Sugiyama, a young married couple. Shoji commutes via train to an office job in Tokyo every morning. He has made friends with his fellow commuters. They are a tight-knit bunch with which Shoji spends much of his free time. You can't really blame him as his wife is somewhat cold towards him. Although it is never directly mentioned, it seems that the death of their child several years prior combined with their inability or unwillingness to have another child has created a rift between them.

On a hiking trip with his friends sans Masako, Shoji and Kaneko aka Goldfish (Keiko Kishi) hitch a ride to the top of the trail. This leads to an affair between the two. Masako quickly begins to suspect something is amiss but either pride or indifference keeps her from confronting her husband. As Shoji and Goldfish carry on their affair, their friends begin to suspect what's really going on. Shoji for his part, treats the affair casually and would have preferred not to have engaged in it to start with given the inconvenience of having to deal with the increasingly needy and emotional Goldfish. One night, Goldfish is confronted by her friends regarding the affair. She denies the accusations but flees to Shoji's house. This affront forces Masako to confront Shoji about the affair. In anger, Masako leaves Shoji to live with her mother and divorced sister.

In the background of this story of adultery is Shoji's career path. One of his co-workers and best friend who started at the company at the same time as him has been sick for months. His declining health is used as an excuse for Shoji's absences from Masako. Eventually the man dies. Shoji has been avoiding the man but visits him on what turns out to be his final night. Separately, Shoji has been offered a new job within the company at a remote factory/mining location. The job will allow him to advance up the corporate ladder but the small town he must move to is a far cray from Tokyo and its bustling suburbs.

By the time Shoji accepts the job, he and his wife are estranged. Shoji has broken it off with Goldfish and indeed Goldfish has put the affair behind her as well. However, Masako is not easily placated. Shoji's efforts to reconcile fail and he is resigned to living in the small town by himself and perhaps divorce or permanent separation from his wife. In a surprising (and for me disappointing) ending, Masako shows up unannounced at Shoji's flat in the small town. Having had a change of heart, it appears Masako is ready to forgive and perhaps their marriage will be stronger than before.

The plot I just recounted is a dissection of a strained marriage but in the hands of Ozu it becomes a examination of the salaryman and the breakdown of the Japanese family unit. Shoji's long absences for work & commute contributes to an emotional distance between Shoji & Masako. The lack of children (even today Japan has the lowest birth rate in the world) influences the Sugiyama's marriage in negative ways. Using a scene where Shoji's war buddies gather for beer, Ozu clearly shows that the generation that fought the war was now the the generation of the salaryman...if one was lucky enough to be a salaryman. Shoji's army buddies tell him how envious they are of his job and its steady salary.

I interpret Ozu's film as a criticism of what Japan had become 10 years after the war - Westernized with Western style problems associated with long commutes, big corporations and failing marriages. The great thing about Ozu is that he doesn't state these things in a heavy-handed manner. He always focuses on the family and lets the peripheral action affect the main characters. Nothing is ever good or bad per se, Ozu lets the audience view the effects and interpret it for themselves.


Having seen many more Kurosawa films than Ozu films, I was partial to Kurosawa's muscular form of storytelling. Kurosawa paints with broad strokes and vibrant colors and grabs your attention. Having seen these four from Ozu, I have a better appreciation for Ozu's more subtle characterizations and multi-layered stories. Continuing the metaphor, Ozu paints with an eye for detail and muted colors that fade into each other. His films require more focused attention to appreciate. They are two very different directors who film appeal for different reasons. I won't rank the two against each other but say that you can't go wrong watching either auteur's films.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Kurosawa, Ozu & Mizoguchi (Part 1 ot 3)

Kurosawa, Ozu & Mizoguchi - sounds like a Tokyo law firm. Akira Kurosawa & Yasujirō Ozu are inarguably, the two greatest directors in Japanese cinema. Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi is not as well known but highly esteemed for Ugetsu, The Crucified Lovers and other jidaigeki films. Not being familiar with Japanese history from the Edo or Meiji periods, I have never been a big fan of period films set in the samurai and shōgun periods.

The reason I mention this prestigious trio of Japanese directors is because New People/Viz Cinema had 12 film/3 week series in June featuring the works of Kurosawa, Ozu & Mizoguchi. As an added bonus, all the films were projected from 35 mm prints.

I watched 10 of the 12 films in the series.

Stray Dog starring Toshirō Mifune; directed by Akira Kurosawa; Japanese with subtitles; (1949)
High and Low starring Toshirō Mifune; directed by Akira Kurosawa; Japanese with subtitles; (1963)
The Only Son directed by Yasujirō Ozu; Japanese with subtitles; (1936)
Record of a Tenement Gentleman directed by Yasujirō Ozu; Japanese with subtitles; (1947)
Early Spring directed by Yasujirō Ozu; Japanese with subtitles; (1956)
Tokyo Story directed by Yasujirō Ozu; Japanese with subtitles; (1953)
Sisters of Gion directed by Kenji Mizoguchi; Japanese with subtitles; (1936)
Ugetsu directed by Kenji Mizoguchi; Japanese with subtitles; (1953)
Utamaro and His Five Women directed by Kenji Mizoguchi; Japanese with subtitles; (1946)
Street of Shame directed by Kenji Mizoguchi; Japanese with subtitles; (1956)


I've seen Stray Dog and High and Low before. Indeed Stray Dog may be my favorite Kurosawa films. High and Low is mystery based on King's Ransom, an 87th Precinct novel Ed McBain. High and Low is one of the best police procedurals I've seen.

The two films I missed from the series were Kurosawa's Drunken Angel and The Bad Sleep Well. My records indicate I saw Drunken Angel in January/February 2007. I saw Stray Dog, The Bad Sleep Well and High and Low in January 2008. I didn't write anything up for Stray Dog or High and Low back then so I'll make up for it now.

Stray Dog is, by appearance, a policier with noirish overtones set in the immediate post-WWII years. Murakami (Toshirō Mifune), a young Tokyo cop, has his pistol pickpocketed while on a crowded trolley. Initially concerned about his career, he scours Tokyo to find the person who has stolen his gun. With the help of fellow detectives (especially Sato played by Takashi Shimura), they close in on the stolen gun but not before it is used in a few murders. Murakami is extremely self-reproachful as he feels his carelessness has caused the deaths of the victims. He becomes desperate to find the missing handgun.

An entertaining film with that plot could be set anywhere but Kurosawa adds a few elements that only he could. First it was filmed and set in 1947 Tokyo so we see a bombed out city with a defeated population, desperately poor and despondent. Layered in with the crime drama is a 1947 Tokyo travelogue and commentary on the social upheaval resulting in aftermath of the war. In addition, the plot takes place over a brutal heat wave which isn't that original but it allows Kurosawa to show a panting dog and made my skin feel clammy.

Takashi Shimura (left) and Toshirō Mifune in Stray DogSecond, Kurosawa had Mifune and Shimura to play the younger cop & his de facto mentor, respectively. More precisely, student and master. Their chemistry is subtle but adds immensely to the film. Kurosawa had previously paired these two actor in Drunken Angel and The Quiet Duel and would do so again in Scandal and most famously, The Seven Samurai. They appeared together in several other Kurosawa films.

Of the 15 or so Kurosawa films I've seen which Mifune and Shimura appeared together, it is Stray Dog which is most satisfying to me. Their relationship is more honest and realistic without the flamboyant braggadocio Mifune exhibited in The Seven Samurai or the pathetic alcoholic Shimura portrayed in Scandal. Kurosawa allows his leads to be more humble and less epic. This is probably because he gives the Full Kurosawa treatment to the villain, a mentally unhinged mad/stray dog and his confused girlfriend (Keiko Awaji). Off screen for most of the film, Isao Kimura as the killer is involved in the memorable and excruciating climax. Kimura would later achieve cinematic immortality as the youngest samurai in The Seven Samurai.

Finally, Kurosawa delves into psychological issues which compare and contrast Murakami, the cop with Yasu, the killer. Both characters stand in as a proxy for Japan itself but Kurosawa keeps the film literal enough so the audience can appreciate the characters for themselves. The increasingly desperate Murakami chasing the unseen but increasingly desperate Yasu as if he is chasing his own tail or doppelgänger.

Clearly, Kurosawa aimed for something greater than a potboiler detective story. Like a magician showing the audience just enough to sell the trick, Kurosawa delivers a noir, a psychological thriller, a commentary on social decay, and a veiled examination of Japan after WWII.


A perfect companion piece to Stray Dog is High and Low (1963). Focusing more on the whodunit aspects of the plot, High and Low provides ample social commentary on Japan nearly 20 years after WWII.

In High and Low, Mifune plays Gondo, a shoe company executive who is ready to launch a hostile takeover but his plans get interrupted by his son's kidnapping. Quickly it is discovered that the wrong boy was abducted; they kidnapped Gondo's chauffeur's son.

Pressured by his wife, his son, his chauffeur and even the police to some extent, Gondo pays the ransom demand even though both the kidnapper & Gondo know the wrong boy has been kidnapped. The rest of the film deals with the intricate procedures associated with paying the ransom and then the subsequent police investigation to catch the kidnappers. A secondary plot line involves Gondo's financial ruin as he was leveraged to the hilt for the takeover and had to use that money to pay the ransom. At the same time his financial ruin is playing out, he becomes a hero in the media for his selflessness as well as regains his self-respect.

The film is based on an Ed McBain novel but it translates well to 1960s Japan. Like Stray Dog, Kurosawa uses the film to showcase the Bullet Train and parts of Yokohama (south of Tokyo) and provide social commentary. Heroin addicts and the poverty/income gap are highlighted in the film. Actually, Gondo's house on the hill is très chic - a large circular, Western-style living room with panoramic views of the entire city.
Tatsuya Nakadai (second from right, seated) and Toshirō Mifune in High and LowAt the other end of spectrum is the slum at the bottom of the hill where the kidnapper lives and constantly sees Gondo's mansion. A rather distasteful sequence is set in an alley where heroin addicts gather to score some smack (usually by prostitution). There was another interesting scene where police are tailing the kidnapper when he ducks into a night club. For reasons not entirely clear to me, the cops blend in by dressing as gay men. I guess it was a gay cruising spot although there were numerous women in the scene.

When compared to Stray Dog, it's clear how far Japan advanced between 1947 and 1963. Their cities are rebuilt, people are working legitimate jobs, some Japanese have obtained extreme wealth and the protagonist and antagonist are distinctly characterized.

In Stray Dog, Mifune and the killer are differentiated by the slightest twists of fate. In High and Low, Mifune and the kidnapper couldn't be more different. After establishing his bona fides as an aggressive industrialist, Gondo silently endures the hardships, deprivations and humiliations with Job-like forbearance whereas the kidnapper's motivations are never fully explained and ultimately, he is shown to be a coward. I suppose Japanese self-identity (or at least Kurosawa's take on Japanese self-identity) had progressed in the 16 years between films such that good and evil could be consumed separately and economic conditions had improved enough that the Japanese could afford a higher grade of collective self-esteem and the luxury of ignoring self-examination.

In that sense, High and Low doesn't resonate with me like Stray Dog but High and Low is still a film worth seeing for the crime story it tells as well as a being a snapshot of Japan in the early 1960s.

This film may also be the first prominent pairing of Tatsuya Nakadai and Toshirô Mifune. Nakadai plays the chief police inspector investigating the kidnapping. Kurosawa's collaboration with Mifune would end in 1966 while Nakadai would continue making films with Kurosawa through 1985's Ran. Takashi Shimura has a small (non-speaking?) role as the police chief. Kenjiro Ishiyama as the bald headed detective they called Bosun and Yutaka Sada as Aoki the chauffeur provided solid support. Tsutomu Yamazaki as the kidnapper was sufficiently malevolent. Yamazaki may be familiar to modern audiences for his role in the Oscar winning film Departures where he played the older and mentoring mortician.