Kon Ichikawa | Mikio Naruse | Masaki Kobayashi | Seijun Suzuki | Shohei Imamura | Sabu
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The Makioka Sisters (1983) is the third film version of Junichiro Tanizaki's famous novel. It deals with the tradition oriented lives of four well to do sisters who live in Osaka, Japan in 1938. The film has two goals: to recreate this now vanished lifestyle, and to put as many pretty images on the screen as possible while doing it.
The four sisters are orphans, daughters of a wealthy shipping magnate. They were raised by the oldest daughter, who still mothers them. She also still controls the family purse strings, giving the other sisters a monthly allowance, and holding on to the dowries of the two youngest, still unmarried sisters. The four sisters closest emotional relationships are with each other. The well to do husbands of the two elder sisters are the result of arranged marriages, none seems to have any friends or social life that does not revolve around the sisters, and their children are raised by servants. The lives of the sisters entirely revolve around family events with each other. Most of these center around trying to arrange marriages for the two younger sisters. These arranged marriages are essentially hunts for the wealthiest bachelor available. Everyone in Japanese society seems to function as "go-betweens" in this hunt, from the husband's bosses to the sisters' hairdresser. It is normal for the sister to hire private detectives to examine the credentials of the various bachelors uncovered. When a match is proposed, both families get together in a fancy restaurant, to meet each other and to try to sell each other on the marriage. These tense meetings are conducted with grim earnestness, as is the entire marriage hunt. The youngest daughter, Taeko, rebels against this life style. She adopts a profession, and finds boyfriends on her own. However, she pays a high price for this throughout the movie, in terms of scandal, family estrangement, heartbreak, and financial poverty. The next youngest daughter, Yukiko, plays the game according to the rules. She is a mild acting but ruthless iron butterfly, carefully holding out for the best man she can find. This makes her sound too harsh. After all, choosing the right man is her only source of happiness in this world, and she is understandably careful. Also, neither she nor the other sisters "cheat" on how society expects them to behave. Yukiko is very interested in children, especially little girls. She is so shy that she is not even comfortable on the telephone. Like all the sisters, she hardly sees a world outside of her family life with her female relatives.
The film is richly characterized, but often hard for someone who is not an expert on 1930's Japan to follow. It took me two viewings to understand how this world worked, what the characters' motivations were, and the details of the plot. On the other hand, I learned a lot. Ichikawa does not explain his characters' motivations clearly early in the film. Eventually they become clear, but one has to watch carefully and repeatedly. It makes a contrast with Kenji Mizoguchi's Osaka Elegy (1936), a film set in the same city and same era, but made almost 50 years earlier. Mizoguchi's men are much more vicious than the men in Ichikawa's film, and his women suffer much more. Mizoguchi's characters also suffer much more from financial problems than do Ichikawa's. Mizoguchi's women are seen in public places - a business office, the theater, a department store, the subway - whereas Ichikawa's characters are almost entirely confined to domestic settings such as homes and restaurants. The look of Mizoguchi's film is distinctly Art Deco, whereas Ichikawa's homes are full of carved wood, and resemble Frank Lloyd Wright, or the Arts and Crafts bungalows of the Greene brothers. Mizoguchi is clearly a deeper artist that Ichikawa, but Ichikawa has his own high level of craftsmanship here.
Much of the film is beautiful to look at. It is in rich, sensuous color, and each scene is carefully designed in terms of color harmonies of the rooms, props, and beautiful clothes the sisters wear. It reminds one of the historical dramas made for British TV, that lavishly recreate the upper class lifestyles of the 1920's and 30's. The opening credit sequence, in which the sisters view cherry blossoms in Kyoto, is one of the most beautiful scenes ever put on screen. Throughout the film, the photography puts as much emphasis on the sisters' houses as on the sisters themselves. A typical shot shows a sister against a background of a room, with much of the room's complex geometry dominating the composition of the shot. Ichikawa often stages elaborate tracking shots through these houses, further adding to the visual complexity of the film.
While Mikio Naruse made 87 films between 1930 and 1967, his work seems hardly to have made any impression in the Western World. This is to be lamented, for he was clearly a magnificent filmmaker. His subject matter is remote from the tastes of contemporary audiences. Naruse grew up in poverty, and his characters are poor and often aging women struggling to get by in Japan. His stories are completely lacking in violence, action or glamour. What they do have is a marvelous storytelling ability. His visual style alternates between beautifully composed looks at Tokyo streets, to interior scenes where his characters have dramatic encounters with family, loved ones and friends. The pictorialism of Naruse's work seems to be in the tradition of Josef von Sternberg, and of Sternberg's disciple Mizoguchi. But the fluid storytelling reminds one more of Howard Hawks.
Late Chrysanthemums (1954) is an especial favorite of mine. This tale of three middle aged, retired geishas seems to be especially humanly revealing. The beautiful, sad music of Ichiro Saito adds to the film; the finale where it plays as the women descend the outdoor stairs is a memorable figure of style.
The first half of When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960) is much better than the second half. It gives a detailed inside picture of the bar world in Tokyo's Ginza strip. The exterior shots, like those in Late Chrysanthemums, are beautifully composed. These shots, which punctuate the intervals in the drama conducted indoors, in typical Naruse fashion, are both beautiful to look at, in terms of geometric patterns, and very revealing of the environment of the Ginza where the action takes place. They are complementary to the working class neighborhoods shown in the earlier film (Late Chrysanthemums). The first half of the later picture is also very detailed about the business practices of this world. We learn how many women work in the Ginza (an astonishing 16, 000), and an immense amount about the financial aspects of running a bar. These bars, some of which are owned and/or managed by women, are some of the few women oriented businesses in male dominated traditional Japan ever shown on screen. The second half of the movie, which shows the lead character's Awful Family who Exploits Her Financially, is far more stereotyped and uninteresting. They are hardly distinguishable from the similar family afflicting the heroine in Mizoguchi's Osaka Elegy (1936) of 24 years before, and are plainly just a cliché of Japanese soap opera. Both worthless families push the daughter to live a life of Sin to support them, this providing the basic impetus of the plot. There is undoubtedly a certain realism to all this, but I was much more interested in the inside look in the first half into Tokyo's bars.
Kwaidan (1964) seems to be an overrated picture to me. For one thing, I prefer what Hollywood calls "banana split" colors to the carefully restrained, muted color schemes of much of this movie. Shades of gray and brown call really pall. Also, ghost stories don't thrill here any more than they do in general. In the first story, ghosts do terrible things to a man who "deserves" it; in the third story ghosts go after a man who is completely innocent. Both stories are just pointlessly grim. The best story in the anthology is the second, "Woman of Snow" (also known as "The Snow Princess"). This is more of a fantasy story or fairy tale, than a ghost story in the traditional sense, and highly benefits from it. Also, the visuals are more imaginative here than elsewhere. I liked the eye in the sky, and the unusual looking outdoor scenes, all of which look as if they were shot on indoor sets. The colors were unusual here too, with different colored skies reminiscent of George Marshall's Red Garters. The scenes where the summer's day suddenly turns into a snowstorm anticipate the similar sudden Winter scenes of Ridley Scott's Legend (1985), which also takes place in a non naturalistic fairy tale world. In both films the transformation is the catastrophic result of the violation of a magical taboo. I also like the title sequences, which show colored ink in water, and which should fascinate fans of chaos theory everywhere.
The basic storytelling style of Kwaidan seems to derive from Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood (1957). Both films are set in historical eras. They show grim, unsentimentalized portraits of life under feudalism. Both films contain dog eat dog characters, who show little loyalty or adherence to civilized codes. The settings of both films include feudal castles, and journeys in the overwhelming, oppressively vast forests between them. In both films, this historical material alternates with supernatural scenes, in which the heroes encounter sinister supernatural phenomena. Kurosawa in turn will refer to Kwaidan in his Rhapsody in August (1991), with its "eye in the sky" motif.
What is most notable about Seijun Suzuki's Tokyo Drifter (1966) is his riotous visual imagination. Shot after shot is imaginatively composed. Suzuki's vision is architectural, centering around buildings. There are numerous outdoor shots. Sometimes these are cityscapes, showing elaborate buildings, expressways, overpasses and the like, all grouped into unusual compositions. These are perhaps in the Naruse tradition of elaborate Tokyo cityscapes, but Suzuki has a different and much less traditional, more off kilter style. Suzuki's film is in widescreen, and his compositions are often deeply asymmetrical. They also take advantage of curving lines, of expressways, etc. The screen is not broken up into rectangular regions, as in Naruse, but instead the elements of the composition fill up the entire wide screen as a whole. A section of the film takes place in a country village, outside in the snow. These show wildly complex landscapes of traditional Japanese village buildings, with snow covered paths between them. Other of Suzuki's shots are indoors. They too have elaborate architecture, usually some unique version of modernistic. One room is full of odd, perfectly circular doors, windows and shelves.
Suzuki's color schemes tend to feature one or at most two pastel colors, dominating the shot with huge expanses of solid color. The rest of the shot will be white, a light gray, or some other neutral background color for contrast. The pastels are deeply glowing and intense. The non naturalistic color resembles that of 1940's Hollywood musicals, which often focused on beautiful pastels, of the women's dresses or background sets. Here it is his hero who wears a light blue sport coat. This is very macho in the 1960's fashionable Kennedy/Brook Brothers style, but it seems very odd when its blue is used to anchor an entire composition. One shot has the wall of a room painted in exactly the same color as the hero's coat, to make an odd echoing effect.
The screenplay is a complex, highly stylized affair of gangsters endlessly betraying one another. The writing comes ultimately out of the US pulp magazine tradition of the 1920's and 30's. When the gangsters are not endlessly hatching schemes at cross purposes, they are engaging in fist fights and gun play. This alternation of plot and fight scenes is quintessential pulp. The dialogue is full of references to characters we have only barely seen, as is common in American crime films. We are always hearing about the plans of a character who I have trouble keeping track of. In general, I tend to get lost quick in this sort of film.
Branded to Kill (1967) seems to me to be nowhere as good a film as Tokyo Drifter (1966). This is the film whose eccentricities got Suzuki in trouble with his studio. Much of the film is an unfortunate mix of sex and violence, as his hitman hero gets involved in lethal relationships with two different women. The film is in black and white, and is nowhere as visually inventive as the earlier work. There are some striking shots, however. One scene, a succession of buildings-shot-as landscapes, is printed in reverse negative. This is superb. A hit in an office also shows some inventive visual style, with one of the characters moving round and round in a swivel chair as a piece of circular movement to anchor the composition.
Imamura often focuses on outrageous people and behavior. In this he resembles such later filmmakers of a younger generation as John Waters and Pedro Almodóvar. However, Imamura's characters are less purely social outsiders than some of these writer-directors'. Instead, it often seems that Imamura is trying to show the outrageous behavior of typical people. He is attempting to bring a hidden reality to light, rather than focus in on eccentrics. Imamura is ultimately a moralist and a satirist, trying to hold humanity's worst behavior up to the light. Imamura's scripts are hugely complicated, with his films overflowing with activity.
Imamura was a prolific director during 1958-1968. Imamura's feature film career largely collapsed after 1968, although apparently he made a lot of television documentaries in the 1970's. Since 1979, he has made a comeback of sorts with seven films, most of which are highly regarded.
The Pornographers: An Introduction to Anthropology (1966). Audie Bock describes Imamura's films as a reaction to those of Ozu. One can see this: where Ozu's films are about nice, middle class, sexually repressed Japanese families, Imamura's The Pornographers is about the exact opposite: a nastily exploitative, just getting by financially and involved in a lot of shady schemes, sexually outrageous family. Whereas Ozu uses classically centered compositions, Imamura's are wildly eccentric.
The pseudo scientific subtitle of Imamura's film recalls those of Godard. Vaguely speaking, one can see both Godard and Imamura as avant garde figures, in revolt against the cinema of their times. However, there are profound differences in their visual styles. Godard has a deep knowledge of the elements of film grammar: camera movement, editing, and the use of color, and he is always experimenting with these in innovative ways. By contrast, Imamura's visual style is limited to one thing: the use of composition.
Dr. Akagi (1998) takes place during the final month of World War II, after Germany has surrendered, and with Japan fighting on alone. It gives a portrait of a society totally in the grip of militarism, with everything run by the corrupt Imperial Army. It is an absolutely scathing satire. The two main characters of the film are Sonoko, a prostitute, and Dr. Akagi, a family doctor of a small fishing village who is determined to stamp out the hepatitis epidemic gripping the country. Both are characters of tremendous energy, and both are lacking the malice of so many of the military people around them. They try instead to help other people. In this, they are sympathetic characters. However, both are engulfed by the militaristic system around them. Akagi is a fanatic super-patriot, fiercely supportive of the army's call to defy the Allies to the last person in Japan. His ideological support, and that of millions of people like him, is clearly a source of the horrendous militaristic course Japan has taken. His son is also a doctor, and Akagi has influenced him to be a military doctor, fighting with the Imperial Army in Manchuria. The film makes clear that Akagi has blinders on, deliberately ignoring reports of the horrendous crimes against humanity committed by Japanese military doctors among the other countries Japan has conquered. These doctors now include his son.
Like The Pornographers, this film has a bizarre finale in a boat at sea. Imamura seems fascinated by fishing, boats and water scenes in general. The medical office in the film is accessed directly by boats on the water; the shot of Akagi landing there is one of the most beautiful in the film.
Imamura likes horizontal lines, slightly tilted, that traverse from one end of the widescreen frame to the other. He also likes slightly more tilted or diagonal verticals. Some of his compositions involve triangles: two somewhat tilted horizontals, with a sloping vertical line making the third side of the triangle. These are notable in the shots of Sonoko looking through the gaps in the shack at the beginning, and the shot of the POW's trudging up the hill through a series of complex paths. This latter is one of the best shots in the film.
Imamura also likes to stage scenes in depth, with his main character in the foreground, and a series of rooms behind him, seen through open doors or passages. The opening shot of the film, showing one pilot with another plane in the background, is also in this form. The American pilot in this scene speaks with a Kentucky accent. Imamura pioneered the use of regional Japanese dialects in his films; it is perhaps not surprising that his American characters would also use regional speech.
Many shots in the film are in vivid color. Often times there is one bright color in a shot, with the rest of the image in a series of earth tones or neutral grays.
Postman Blues (1997) reminds one of how international the conventions of the crime movie have become. The spoof on hit men here targets not just American movies, but the depiction of hit men in such works as Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samouraï (1967) and Wong Kar-Wai's Fallen Angels (1995). The hit man sequence here is a gem. It is the best part of the movie, and its most purely comic segment. Many other parts of the film are a bit more "serious", and suffer from it. I also enjoyed the professor who is brought in to lecture the police. It shows that skepticism about profiling as a crime fighting method is as strong in Japan as in the rest of the world.