Friday, November 30, 2012

Life Is Short: Nikkatsu Studios at 100

The PFA had a series in September & October titled Life Is Short: Nikkatsu Studios at 100.  The series commemorated the 100th anniversary of the founding of Nikkatsu Studios, the oldest film studio in Japan.

Of the 14 films in the series, I watched 12.  The two I missed were Made to Order Cloth and Harp of Burma.  I was at the Hong Kong Cinema series the day Made to Order Cloth screened and I had seen Harp of Burma (under the the title The Burmese Harp) at the Viz in 2010.

Suzaki Paradise: Red Light District starring Michiyo Aratama & Tatsuya Mihashi; directed by Yuzo Kawashina; Japanese with subtitles; (1956)
A Colt Is My Passport starring Jo Shishido; directed by Takashi Nomura; Japanese with subtitles; (1967)
Capricious Young Man starring Chiezo Kataoka; directed by Mansaku Itami; Japanese with subtitles; (1936)
The Warped Ones starring Tamio Kawaji; directed by Koreyoshi Kurahara; Japanese with subtitles; (1960)
Season of the Sun Yoko Minamida & Hiroyuki Nagato; directed by Takumi Furukawa; Japanese with subtitles; (1956)
Hometown starring Yoshie Fujiwara; directed by Kenji Mizoguchi; Japanese with subtitles; (1930)
Singing Lovebirds starring Chiezo Kataoka & Takashi Shimura; directed by Masahiro Makino; Japanese with subtitles; (1939)
Rusty Knife starring Yujiro Ishihara & Akira Kobayashi; directed by Toshio Masuda; Japanese with subtitles; (1958)
Sun in the Last Days of the Shogunate starring Frankie Sakai; directed by Yuzo Kawashima; Japanese with subtitles; (1957)
Gate of Flesh starring Satoko Kasai & Jo Shishido; directed by Seijun Suzuki; Japanese with subtitles; (1964)
The Young Rebel starring Ken Yamanouchi; directed by Seijun Suzuki; Japanese with subtitles; (1963)
Elegy to Violence starring Hideki Takahashi; directed by Seijun Suzuki; Japanese with subtitles; (1966)

This was a much anticipated series for me which largely paid off with a few exceptions.


My favorite films from the series were also the most violent ones - A Colt is My Passport, The Warped Ones, Season of the Sun, Gate of Flesh, and Elegy to Violence.

In A Colt is My Passport, Jo Shisido (the stalwart of the series), plays a hitman on the run from the mob.  He and his younger associate (Jerry Fujio) have been betrayed by the gang who hired them to kill a rival gangster so both gangs are after the two.  They take refuge in a dockside motel where the chambemaid (Chitose Kobayashi) shows interest in Shisido.  He's loyal to his partner (who is wounded).  Actually his loyalty goes beyond commendable to being suspicious.  You begin to wonder about the exact nature of the relationship between these two men.  A neat soundtrack and Sergio Leoneesque shootout give the film style in spades.

The Warped Ones reminded me a some of of Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless from the same year but it's like Breathless on crystal meth.  Tamio Kawachi plays Akira like he is mentally deranged.  Hopped up on criminal thrills and bebop jazz, Akira starts a crime wave with his prostitute girlfriend and an ex-con he met in the joint.  Eventually they assault the man that turned them into the police and rape his girlfriend Yuki (Yuko Chishiro).  When Yuki turns up pregnant and her boyfriend grows distant, she appeals to Akira's honor which is a lost cause.  She confides in Fumiko (Noriko Matsumoto), Akira's now prostitute ex-girlfriend who agrees to seduce Yuki's boyfriend so they will more sexually equivalent.  I guess "blame the victim" was prevalent in Japanese attitudes towards victims of rape...although Akira did give up a little too easy for my cinematic tastes.  The film ends with the two couples at an abortion clinic which Akira finds hilarious.  Full of jump cuts and frenetic music, The Warped Ones must have been  unlike anything seen before in Japanese cinema.  If you liked Breathless (which I did), you owe it to yourself to seek out The Warped Ones.

Season of the Sun gave rise to the "Sun Tribe" or "Taiyo-zoku" subculture of Japanese youth who based much of "bored, angry and jaded" views on the novel Season of the Sun by Ishihara Shintaro on which this film is based.  Ironically, Ishihara was governor of Tokyo Prefecture (kind of like the City & County of San Francisco) until Halloween 2012 when he resigned to form a far right political party for the upcoming national elections.  Films expressing the Sun Tribe viewpoints on life & society appropriated its name for their genre.  Some film critics liken the Sun Tribe to the French New Wave and even refer to it as Japanese New Wave.

Season of the Sun is set among some wealthy young people who consist of people old enough to remember Japan's war years but who came of age in an American Occupied society.  Their national pride in tatters and influenced by Western customs, this generation struggled to find themselves.  In the film, they spend their time sailing and at the beach.  One young but nihilistic woman falls in with a poor boxer which leads to tragedy for both of them.  With its depiction of sex, rape, pregnancy, abortion amd violence, Season of the Sun was quite shocking in its time and even packed a punch in 2012.  Not as outrageous as A Colt is My Passport and The Warped Ones.

Gate of Flesh was the most outrageous of all.  Set in a post-war slum, a gang of prostitutes live...I don't know what it was.  A condemned building?  An abandoned port facility?  These are some tough whore who vow not to have sex with a man unless he pays for it.  The penalty if they discover one of their own has given it away is a whipping and possible a shaved head.  Into this estrogen rich atmosphere comes a wounded Jo Shishido to convalesce.  He's a violent thug with a bum leg who frequent state of undress leads the ladies to rethink the cardinal rule.  Maya (Yumiko Nogawa) succumbs to his Kowalskiesque magnetism and pays the price.  It's true love though; they agree to go on the lam together...until Shishido is double crossed and shot leaving Maya alone as the film ends.  Exploitive and bordering on pornographic at times, Gate of Flesh is something to behold.  In the hands of a lesser director, it would surely have devolved into something ridiculous.  However, Gate of Flesh was directed by Seijin Suzuki and it maintains its energy throughout.  Anything but subtle, the film has an in-your-face attitude towards sex and violence which has long been a hallmark of the best that Japanese cinemas has to offer.

Elegy to Violence was also a hoot.  Exploring militaristic and adolescent tendencies towards violence, Elegy focuses on Nambu, the most violent of all teenagers at his school.  The violence is only a outlet for unfulfilled sexual desire for Michiko, a Catholic girl!  I particularly like the way he would look at the crucifix before having carnal thoughts or committing acts of violence.  Eventually seeing the futility of violence, Nambu gets busy romancing Michiko but his violent past won't let him completely free.  Unexpectedly humorous, Elegy to Violence is another sterling effort by Suzuki.


Not quite as memorable but worthwhile were Rusty Knife and The Young Rebel (aka The Bastard) explore violence through lens of gangster codes and pre-war militarism.  Suzaki Paradise: Red Light District is a tragic romance about a couple who are undone by their own desires and proximity to the titular red light district.  Unlike the other seven films I have mentioned so far, Suzaki Paradise relied less on sex & violence and more on poverty and human flaws to advance its tale tragedy.

Singing Lovebirds was interesting in that it was pre-war but used Western style music to tell a story set in the 1800s or early 1900s.  Chiezo Kataoka shines as the daughter of the umbrella maker (Takashi Shimura) who longs for the samurai.  When was the last time you saw a Samurai musical?


I couldn't get into Capricious Young Man and Sun in the Last Days of the Shogunate.  Hometown is Kenji Mizoguchi's first sound film and it shows.  With editing that butchered the thin plot, it was like watching an experimental film.  Actually, I recall similar efforts in US films of the era as filmmakers tried to find techniques that would work for talkies.  Hometown seems to bet its money on tenor Yushie Fujiwara, a half Scottish, half Japanese opera singer.  Hopelessly incomprehensible, I considered walking out but kept hoping it would get better.

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