Saturday, October 8, 2011

Japanese Summer: Love Exposure, Cold Fish & Twenty-Four Eyes

As I mentioned, I saw quite a few Japanese films this summer.

Many of them were tremendous; others no so much.

One film which was a wild ride and guilty pleasure was Sion Sono's Love Exposure. At nearly four hours, I was skeptical going in but Sono's keeps the soap opera plot going without let. I'm certain one vignette lasted the entire length of Ravel's Bolero. Sono explores Christianity, organized religion in general, identity and sexuality but it's clear that those are secondary. Sono's first order is to get the massive plot in motion. That includes a widower cum Catholic priest having an affair with a parishoner, his son Yu who becomes the king of upskirt photos and the parishoner's daughter Yoko who falls in love with a woman who helps her fight off some punks. It turns out the woman is actually Yu in drag (he lost a bet). Actually Sono must be paying homage to Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion, a manga and film from the early 1970s starring Meiko Kaji. Yu's drag get up is a spot on match for Kaji's costume in Scorpion.

Yoko questions her sexuality and falls in love with the mysterious woman in black while simultaneously living at home with her step-brother who is frustrated by that Yoko dislikes him but can't stop talking about his alter ego. At this point, a mysterious, tennis dress wearing Aya appears to wreak havoc in their lives. The film goes on for about another 2 hours after this point. The film is trashy fun (although it does have some interesting things to say about Catholicism) although it loses steam about three hours in. I loved Love Exposure and considered seeing it a second time but the time commitment was too great.

Mekio Kaji in Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion (1972)

Takahiro Nishijima in Love Exposure (2008)


A few weeks after the Roxie screened Love Exposure, they screened Sono's Cold Fish (2010). Whereas Love Exposure had a certain whimsical feel, Cold Fish was a very dark film. The movie poster reminded me of the poster for Straw Dogs. Cold Fish is about a tropical fish store owned who falls in with serial killers. A lot of thing happen up to that point but the film really gets going once he becomes an accomplice. Sono even allows the unassertive man to find his courage and self-respect (in a perverted way) through the repetitive dismemberment. Nice performance by Denden as the rival fish store owner and killer.


Those two Sono films were the only Japanese films I saw from this century. All the other films were "classic" Japanese films mostly from the 1950s and 1960s.

At the top of the "classic" list is Twenty-Four Eyes which is a beloved film in Japan. The 1954 film directed by Keisuke Kinoshita frequently makes the top 10 all-time list of greatest Japanese films. It screened ae the PFA.

Set in the years leading up to WWII, Twenty-Four Eyes refers to the 12 children in a small village. Hideko Takamine plays the teacher who watches them as they grow up. Most of the film revolves around the children's lives and Kinoshita plucks our heartstrings like a violin. One girl is so poor she can't go on the school trip and has to moves away. Another girl is forced to leave school so she can work at her father's restaurant. Several of the boys go off to war and most do not return; the one who does is blinded. The teacher goes through her own travails. The local villagers think she is a sophisticated and rich city girl because she rides a bicycle. In fact, she had to borrow to get the bike and it's the only way she can travel the distance between her home and the school.

Describing the plot lessens the film. This film is really about the harsh realities of life made even more cruel by war. The sweet kids at the beginning are in for rough ride and Kinoshita doesn't pull any punches. It's a tearjerker and unabashedly so. Every so often, he induces a little smile as when a couple is in love or in the simple joys of childhood.

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