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5 Communist Propaganda Films That Don’t Suck

For some odd, odd reason, I enjoy watching Communist Era Propaganda films. They aren’t very good, and most aren’t that enjoyable… yet I have this morbid fascination that compels me to see them. Perhaps it’s just the completionist in me that forces me to bear them, just for the sake of saying I’ve seen them.. but eh. Sometimes you just like what you like. Thankfully, I’ve discovered a few gems along the way that have made sitting through hours of some crappy movies worth it. Here are 5 that definitely don’t suck.

Wan shui qian shan / The Long March (1959)

That's... actually a chain bridge over a river. Huh.

1. Wan shui qian shan / The Long March
Director: Cheng Yin, Hua Chun
Year: 1959
Cast: Lan Ma, Li Meng, Chen Huiliang, Huang Kai
Rating: 8

Summary:
Old Li is injured during one of the many confrontations between the Chinese and Japanese armies. Now, he and his company must trek through mountains, marshes, meadows and plains to reach their next engagement, but Old Li is having a difficult time making it through. The troop, loyal to their instructor and friend, do whatever it takes to help him make it.

Comments:
An excellent drama, probably one of the best propaganda films made during this period. Old Li is a great protagonist, nuanced and well crafted, which is really rare for movies from this period. It’s his character’s bravery, and the difficult journey he must make, that makes this one special. There are also a couple of nice war sequences at the beginning, but at its heart this one is more of a drama.

——–

Gao shan xia de hua huan / Wreaths at the Foot of the Mountain

Not seen: wreaths and other nonbadass things

2. Gao shan xia de hua huan / Wreaths at the Foot of the Mountain
Director: Xie Jin
Year: 1985
Cast: Gai Ke, Guan Zhongxian, Lu Xiaohe, Ni Dahong, Sigin Gaowa, Tang Guoqiang, Wang Yumei
Rating: 8.1

Summary:
The story of a troupe of soldiers during the Sino-Vietnam war of 1979.

Comments:
The summary doesn’t sound very great, but so much happens in the movie that it’s a little difficult to come up with a summary. You get camaraderie between soldiers, corruption in the army, training sequences, heroic leaders, repentful leaders, and lots and lots of tears. It’s more similar to modern war movies that focus on character and tragedy rather than war films from the 60s and 70s that wanted to show heroism, nationalism, and of course a win for the home side. Definitely one of the best war movies ever to come from China. It probably doesn’t count as a communist propaganda film but… I had nowhere else to put it. :p

——–

Yong bu xiao shi de dian bo / The Eternal Wave

August First Film Studio: your source of communist propaganda movies

3. Yong bu xiao shi de dian bo / The Eternal Wave
Director: Wang Ping
Year: 1958
Cast: Huang Wansu, Sun Daolin, Wang Gang-Xin, Xing Jitian, Yuan Xia
Rating: 6.5

Summary:
Communist Party undercover agents operate in Shanghai in 1939 against the Japanese.

Comments:
Spies! Okay, they are spies, but this is actually a bit more like a domestic drama between two spies of the communist army who act as husband and wife to try to stay under the radar. It focuses more on the difficulties in living that double life–and it’s not sexy or exciting like James Bond. There’s not a lot of action and there’s quite a bit of talking, but the movie is pretty solid especially compared to its contemporaries. The movie also stars Sun Daolin, one of the few actors from this period who I actually recognize (so I’ll just assume he was a big star during the day). This one has a modern remake, I think.

——–

Di lei zhan/ Warfare of Landmine

Pvt. McBadass casually takes a stroll with mines hanging from his neck

4. Di lei zhan/ Warfare of Landmine
Director: Tang Yingqi, Xu Da, Wu Jianhai
Year: 1962
Cast: Bai Dajun, Zhao Changrui, Wu Jianhai, Lu Zaiyun, Xu Fuchang
Rating: 6.2

Summary:
It’s the Sino-Japanese War (as usual), and the Japanese army slowly takes control of Jiaodong county. With few soldiers and an overstretched line, the Chinese army decides to train the locals on the use of landmines! Yes, there will be a lot of explosions.

Comments:
Well, this is just silly. But in a good way? After having scene hours upon hours of propaganda films, I’ve sort of conditioned myself into thinking that most of them are comedies. It doesn’t always work to make the movies better, but at the very least it makes them more enjoyable. Warfare of Landmine is a prime example of “So Silly It’s Awesome”, and while the movie isn’t necessarily BAD, I’d definitely not recommend it for the acting, plot or cinematography. But Landmines… landmines are always exciting when they blow up bad guys.

——–

Dongfang Hong / The East is Red

This cover is red?

5. Dongfang Hong / The East is Red
Director: Wang Ping
Year: 1965
Cast:
Rating: 6.2

Summary:
The history of the People’s Republic of China from the start of the 20th century up to the Cultural Revolution… but as a musical stage play! Yes, the movie is literally one song and dance number after another, shot as a play within a movie.

Comments:
Honestly, I didn’t enjoy this that much, but I’m not a big fan of musicals. It’s a little absurd and of course full of communist propaganda, but it’s still an impressive production with nice scenes and pretty decent songs. This is by far the most unique propaganda film I’ve seen (seriously… a musical about communism), and it’s worth a watch if only because of that.

——–

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5 Best Matsumoto Toshio Short Films

Matsumoto is best known for the film Bara no souretsu / Funeral Parade of Roses, a movie about Tokyo’s hidden gay subculture during the 1960s. His other notable film, Shura / Pandemonium is also highly regarded, and I’d consider it even better than Bara no souretsu. He was a prominent figure in 60s and 70s Japanese experimental cinema, directing over 30 shorts during this time, and is now a professor and dean at the Kyoto University of Art and Design. This is a list of his 5 best shorts.

Atman (1975)

Haha I bet you scrolled away from this pic didn't you

1. Atman
Year: 1975
Runtime: 11 mins.

Summary:
A man in a Noh demon mask and costume is kneeling on a bed of rocks. The camera pans around him, zooms in, zooms out. The colors change, the images flash, still shots of him flow into each other.

The Good Stuff:
– The dude in a Noh mask is freaky
– There is a growing sense of anxiety and thrill even though nothing really happens

The Best Stuff:
– Every shot, from every angle, looks fantastic
– The sequence of still shots combined creates a wonderful effect

——–

2. Haha-tachi / 母たち / Mothers
Year: 1967
Runtime: 40 mins.

Summary:
Short segments about motherhood from 3 different cultures: the West, Asia, and Africa.

The Good Stuff:
– Simple structure of showing one culture after another is effective

The Best Stuff:
– Frank and unsentimental look at motherhood

——–

Ishi no uta / 石の歌 / The Song of Stone (1963)

Rocks, rocks, and more rocks. Oh look, rocks!

3. Ishi no uta / 石の歌 / The Song of Stone
Year: 1963
Runtime: 25 mins.

Summary:
A documentary about stone and the miners who depend on it for their subsistence.

The Good Stuff:
– Camera movements while picturing photographs is interesting
– Music reminiscent of Takemitsu’s score for Suna no onna

The Best Stuff:
– Beautiful pictures of rocks and use of photographs

——–

Ki = Breathing (1980)

I told you it was freaky. Oh wait, pic comes before review oops!

4. Ki = Breathing
Year: 1980
Runtime: 30 mins.

Summary:
A kakejiku (Japanese hanging scroll) hangs in darkness and the camera enters its picture of trees and mist. There is a strange, eerie forest with a strange woman. More forests, mountains, a beach… and more bizarre images.

The Good Stuff:
– Thrilling, chilling, eerie… but in a good way?
– More similar to Terayama Shuji’s work than Matsumoto’s own, standing out from the rest
– Calm and stunning images, but kinda freaky

The Best Stuff:
– Wonderful music by Takemitsu Toru as usual
– Great use of sound

——–

5. Nishijin / 西陣 / The Weavers of Nishijin
Year: 1962
Runtime: 26 mins.

Summary:
A documentary about traditional weavers of Nishijin.

The Good Stuff:
– Very poignant narration
– An interesting subject even though we don’t learn that much about them

The Best Stuff:
– Weaving may never look this beautiful, probably Matsumoto’s best looking short

——–

Overall, his short films cover a diverse array of subjects each with their own unique visual style or concept. The above films are all worthy of seeing, even though you may not have any interest in experimental cinema (whatever the heck that is).

You can view them here.

That’s right, period films, but about yakuza. I wasn’t sure if there was a particular term for it, so yeah, I guess I’ll stick with that.

Kunisada Chuji / 国定忠治 / Chuji the Gambler (1960)

Like Kozure Okami, minus the babycart machinegun?

Kunisada Chuji / 国定忠治 / Chuji the Gambler (1960)
Director: Taniguchi Senkichi
Cast: Mifune Toshirô , Katô Daisuke, Aratama Michiyo, Natsuki Yosuke, Fujita Susumu, Tôno Eijirô, Tanba Tetsurô

Summary:
Chuji the gambler comes home to find the village, and his family, deep in suffering because of corrupt official Jubei. Unable to take any more abuse, the villagers, along with Chuji, revolt against the magistrate to take back their village and get revenge for their suffering.

The Good Stuff:
– Mifune being Mifune, but there are times when he’s just too Mifune for the character
– The script is by Shindô Kaneto, and the score by Satô Masaru, so you know it’s not your average movie

The Best Stuff:
– Refuses to glorify the yakuza/gambler lifestyle and gives a very balanced portrayal of Chuji, often a do-no-wrong folkhero
– Many of the scenes are at night, adding to the film’s darker tone

Matatabi sannin yakuza / 股旅三人やくざ / Three Yakuza (1965)

Face size proportionate to fame? Maybe not but they sure neglected Matsukata

Matatabi sannin yakuza / 股旅三人やくざ / Three Yakuza (1965)
Director: Sawashima Tadashi
Cast: Nakadai Tatsuya, Matsukata Hiroki, Shimura Takashi, Nakamura Kinnosuke, Tanaka Kunie, Fuji Sumiko

Summary:
1 – Nakadai is Sentaro, a yakuza wanted for murder, who finds himself under the protection and employment of a local yakuza boss. He is tasked with protecting a young prostitute from being rescued by her lover. Sentaro’s kind heart and conscience, however, cause him to feel conflicted.
2 – Genta (Matsukata) and Bunzo (Shimura) meet outside a gambling den. Genta helps Bunzo escape after getting caught cheating at the tables. They eventually find themselves in a small house occupied by Omiyo (Fuji), where the past is revealed.
3 – Nakamura is Kaze-no-Kyutaro, a seemingly world-weary, badass yakuza, who is hired by a small village to protect them from an evil government official taxing the town into the ground. This yakuza, however, isn’t the kind of person he says he is.

The Good Stuff:
– Yakuza action!
– Nakamura is hilarious in this one, one of his least “cool” characters

The Best Stuff:
– Three yakuza stories, three great leading men
– Three different characters that could have had an entire movie made for them
– Probably Sawashima Tadashi’s best film?

Hitori okami / 一人狼 / Lone Wolf Isazo (1968)

Put a mask on Raizo and he almost looks like Batman 0_0

Hitori okami / 一人狼 / Lone Wolf Isazo (1968)
Director: Ikehiro Kazuo
Cast: Ichikawa Raizô, Ogawa Mayumi, Iwasaki Kaneko, Nagato Isamu

Summary:
Isazo is a famous yakuza man traveling around as usual (he even gets an intro song). One day he meets a boy whose mother is revealed to be Isazo’s old lover. His once carefree and guiltless life suddenly changes as he finally decides to right some wrongs and follow the Yakuza code.

The Good Stuff:
– Interesting yakuza > samurai message
– Isazo is a pretty down-to-earth Yakuza, surprisingly!

The Best Stuff:
– Hard to imagine anyone but Raizô playing this role
– Great heroic climax

Kogarashi Monjiro / 木枯し悶次郎 / The Withered Tree (1972)

That bottom-most picture... yeah I can't make sense of it either

Kogarashi Monjiro / 木枯し悶次郎 / The Withered Tree (1972)
Director: Nakajima Sadao
Cast: Sugawara Bunta, Ibuki Goro, Watase Tsunehiko, Yamamoto Rinichi, Koike Asao, Enani Kyoko, Sasazawa Saho

Summary:
Kogarashi Monjiro is framed for a crime he did not commit, and is sent into exile on a deserted island along with other criminals. He spends his days pining for revenge, until one day, a chance to escape arrives. He takes it, along with a few of his fellow criminals, and returns to the mainland. There is only one thing on his mind: revenge.

The Good Stuff:
– Kinda reminds me of Mikogami no Jokichi, but Sugawara Bunta is way more badass than Harada Yoshio
– The exiled part of the story could have been more interesting

The Best Stuff:
– I like Sugawara’s sword style–simple, believable, and effective
– Sugawara Bunta as a yakuza is awesome, and you should already be aware of this by now

Mushuku mono / 無宿者 / Drifting Crow (1964)

Disclaimer: Movie does not feature a nude beach (lower right)

Mushuku mono / 無宿者 / Drifting Crow (1964)
Director: Misumi Kenji
Cast: Ichikawa Raizô, Ishiyama Kenjiro, Abe Tôru, Taki Eiko, Tsubouchi Mikiko, Sawamura Sonosuke, Mizuhara Koichi, Taki Keiichi, Fujimaki Jun

Summary:
Ipponmatsu goes on a journey to find his father’s killer. On the way he meets Kuroki, a samurai on a similar journey to find his father who disappeared 5 years ago after escorting a caravan that was robbed of 4,000 ryo. Ipponmatsu suspects Kuroki’s father of being his own father’s killer, but now they must work together to reveal the plot behind boss Sanshu-ya, the mysterious Shima-ya, and the even more mysterious person behind them.

The Good Stuff:
– Good murder mystery and plot twist
– Misumi Kenji knows how to shoot action sequences (if you don’t know this already!), so you know this will be a treat

The Best Stuff:
– The relationship between Ipponmatsu and Kuroki is fairly complex and nuanced
– Fights in the village are awesome

Same concept, slightly different genre!

Jushichinin no ninja / 十七人の忍者 / Seventeen Ninja (1963)

Obiously, the other 11 aren't important enough for the cover

Jushichinin no ninja / 十七人の忍者 / Seventeen Ninja (1963)
Director: Hasegawa Yasuto
Cast: Kotaro Satomi, Otomo Ryutaro, Konoe Jushiro, Azuma Chiyonosuke, Matsukata Hiroki

Summary:
A band of ninja led by Jingoza (Otomo), must steal a scroll detailing Tokugawa Tadanaga’s plot to take the throne. However, they must deal with ninja master Saiga Magokuro (Konoe), who must protect the scroll, and Tadanaga, at all costs.

The Good Stuff:
– 17 + 1 ninja. The more ninjas the better?
– A bunch of cool ninja moves and gadgets, though not as many as the Shinobi no mono series
– Azuma plays a Tokugawa once again. I wonder why.

The Best Stuff:
– Otomo, Kotaro, Konoe. That’s a pretty cool lineup.
– Revisionist history / hypothetical possible history movies are always interesting

Ninjutsu gozen-jiai / 忍術御前試合 / Torawakamaru (1957)

They just really don't like spiders I guess

Ninjutsu gozen-jiai / 忍術御前試合 / Torawakamaru (1957)
Director: Sawashima Tadashi
Cast: Arima Koji, Fushimi Sentaro, Hori Masao, Ôkôchi Denjirô, Tsukigata Ryonosuke

Summary:
Ninja clans fight with each other. Yes, that’s about it. By the way, this is a kiddie film.

The Good Stuff:
– Magic? I guess some people like that

The Best Stuff:
– Some nice swordfights and creative ideas, that will later be realized in the sort of the same but not quite the same (actually I’ve no idea why I’m making this comparison other than the presence of a giant frog and snakedragonthing) movie, Kairyu daikessen
– You don’t need a brain or an attention span to enjoy this film yay!

Ninja hicho fukuro no shiro / オリジナルネーム / Castle of Owls (1963)

Oddly, there are more ninjas on this cover than on Jushichinin no ninja's.

Ninja hicho fukuro no shiro / 忍者秘著梟の城 / Castle of Owls (1963)
Director: Kudo Eiichi
Cast: Otomo Ryutaro, Ohki Minoru, Kawarazaki Choichiro, Takichiho Hizaru, Mishima Masao

Summary:
The Iga ninjas are a dying breed as Toyotomi’s rule allows Japan to experience some peace. Juzo, an Iga ninja who had vowed revenge for the death of his family, is hired by a rich weapons merchant to assassinate Toyotomi, restarting his quest for blood. In his way are rival ninja, and his once best friend who has decided to become a government vassal.

The Good Stuff:
– Lots of ninja action, with jumps, tumbling and lots of thrown sharpthingies

The Best Stuff:
– Kudo is known for having very well shot movies, and this is no exception
– Great use of depth of field in forests
– Distanced shots of fights
– That low angle with the candles in the temple–you’ll see

Ninja gari / 忍者狩り / Ninja Hunt (1964)

Konoe Jushiro: Born to play the villain. Except he doesn't in this one.

Ninja gari / 忍者狩り / Ninja Hunt (1964)
Director: Yamauchi Tetsuya
Cast: Konoe Jushiro, Yamashiro Shingo, Sato Kei, Tamura Takahiro

Summary:
The Gamo clan hire Wadakura, Shinzo, Hachi and Yajiro to protect their clan from the Koga ninja and their Shogunate masters. As the Gamo clan daimyo nears death, the Shogunate sends a letter to allow a legitimate heir to succeed him. The shogunate, however, also sends their ninjas to destroy the proclamation to allow them to abolish the clan. The four ninja hunters, who once belonged to clans that suffered similar fates, will stop at nothing to get revenge on the Koga and their leader, Yami-no-Kurando.

The Good Stuff:
– Konoe is so evil even as the protagonist
– Interesting and realistic (that is, not overly cool) final battle

The Best Stuff:
– Quite a bit of blood and brutality
– Cheezy synthy soundtrack surprisingly works!
– Lots of plots and counterplots

Yoja no maden / 妖蛇の魔殿 / Ninja's Weapon (1956)

Kataoka Chiezo as a 22 year old when he was 53. Seriously.

Yoja no maden / 妖蛇の魔殿 / Ninja’s Weapon (1956)
Director: Matsuda Sadatsugu
Cast: Kataoka Chiezo, Tsukigata Ryonosuke, Yamagata Isao, Hasegawa Yumiko

Summary:
Ogata Taromaru’s family is slain by the corrupt and evil Sarashina Danjo. For 10 years he trains to become a ninja, and finally sets out to extract his revenge on those that have harmed his family. On the way, he meets a youth named Tsukikage Hamanosuke, who also bears a grudge against Danjo. On their travel together they also meet Orochimaru, a mysterious ninja who seems interested in their affairs. They head for Kyoto, where Danjo now resides, to get revenge.

The Good Stuff:
– Matsuda Sadatsugu is a reliable name for chambara and action movies
– Straight up action film unencumbered by a complicated plot
– Fights are more samurai than ninja

The Best Stuff:
– A somewhat (I stress somewhat) youthful Kataoka Chiezo playing a 22 year old is HILARIOUS
– Possibly one of Yamagata Isao’s most hilarious death faces (he dies a lot you know)

And I’m back with a new installment of this uninformative, yet space filling series!

Kisaragi musô ken / きさらぎ無双剣 / Kisaragi Sword (1962)

Jidaigeki trading cards? Sounds like a great idea!

Kisaragi musô ken / きさらぎ無双剣 / Kisaragi Sword (1962)
Director: Sasaki Yasushi
Cast: Ichikawa Utaemon, Kotaro Satomi, Matsukata Hiroki, Wakayama Tomisaburo, Konoe Jushiro, Azuma Chiyonosuke, Yamagata Isao, Arima Koji, Hori Masao

Summary:
Rindo Tsukinosuke is a secret agent of mysterious origin. Sakon Takada is a booze loving Hatamoto. Itsuzume-kozo is a sneaky yakuza-ninja-hybrid who has just gotten out of jail. Hayatomasa Tachibana is a nice-guy samurai fencing master. These four dudes work together to crack a plot to overthrow the shogun.

The Good Stuff:
– An eventful story, unique enough not to be redundant

The Best Stuff:
– Holy crap that’s one crazy lineup!
– Mister Utaemon being all Ichikawa Utaemon on everyone
– A great controlled final fight scene with the top 5 stars in it

Shokin kasegi / 賞金稼ぎ / Killer's Mission (1969)

Wakayama Tomisaburo, the chubby mustachiod sword swinging wonder

Shokin kasegi / 賞金稼ぎ / Killer’s Mission (1969)
Director: Ozawa Shigehiro
Cast: Wakayama Tomisaburo, Kataoka Chiezo, Tsuruta Koji, Amatsu Bin

Summary:
Ichiro (Wakayama) is a Tokugawa spy sent to Satsuma to foil the clan’s plot to start a war and overthrow the Shogunate. The Satsuma are trying to smuggle in new guns that would give them an advantage in battle, but Ichiro, probably the James Bond of his day, is up to the task.

The Good Stuff:
– Wakayama parodies Zatoichi (played by his brother, Katsu Shintaro) in a couple of scenes
– A little bit of history in this one, although.. uhh.. not much unless you feel like researching

The Best Stuff:
– Wakayama in his chubby days with a noticeable and distinctive mustache!
– Lots of people getting chopped to bits

Adauchi / 仇討 / Revenge (1964)

He's not gonna get away running like that

Adauchi / 仇討 / Revenge (1964)
Director: Imai Tadashi
Cast: Nakamura Kinnosuke, Tamba Tetsurô, Mishima Masao, Shindô Eitarô

Summary:
Ezaki Shinpei is a lowly samurai retainer involved in the maintenance of the clan’s gear. One day, Magodayu, a government inspector, insults the cleanliness of the clan’s spears, and Ezaki rebukes him, earning his ire. Magodayu challenges him to a duel, and Ezaki duly dispatches of the inspector. Unfortunately, Ezaki’s low status betrays him.

The Good Stuff:
– Lots of leftist criticism about the government and tradition if you’re into that sort of thing
– Nakamura tries to be all Nakadai-ish

The Best Stuff:
– The focus on brotherhood and inheritance is a unique angle
– Great wiiiiiide picture

Tengu-to / 天狗党 / Blood End (1969)

Eventually you'll start to feel like Tamba Tetsuro is behind every chambara plot, EVER

Tengu-to / 天狗党 / Blood End (1969)
Director: Yamamoto Satsuo
Cast: Nakadai Tatsuya, Wakao Ayako, Kato Go, Nakamura Kanemon,

Summary:
Small-time farmer Sentaro learns how to use a sword and joins the Mito tengu group. It doesn’t take long, however, for Sentaro to become disillusioned with the Mito tengu and their increasingly political nature. Politics sucks, and the ideologies that back them are even worse, he soon discovers.

The Good Stuff:
– Imperialist/revolutionary ideological dichotomy explored more than in other films

The Best Stuff:
– Probably one of the most politically focused jidaigeki I’ve seen
– Political soliloquys?! Yeah really. And a lot of them. Only great if you like that stuff, I guess!

Obozu tengu / お坊主天狗 / Demon Priest (1962)

In this film: samurai. Not in this film: demons, priests, nor demon priests. Good job with the title boys

Obozu tengu / お坊主天狗 / Demon Priest (1962)
Director: Yasushi Sasaki
Cast: Kataoka Chiezo, Okawa Hashizo, Otomo Ryutaro, Misora Hibari, Yamagata Isao, Mishima Masao, Shindô Eitarô

Summary:
Okay, honestly I don’t remember what happened in this movie. All I remember is Kichisaburo (Kataoka) wants revenge against Honda (Mishima), Kosome (Misora) wants revenge on Tokaiya (Shindô), and Shinzaburo (Okawa) is an eccentric sword expert. The title honestly doesn’t make sense, too.

The Good Stuff:
– Misora Hibari as a girl for a change
– Lots of revengings to go around

The Best Stuff:
– Okawa Hashizo as an eccentric sword expert is hilarious for some reason
– Kataoka Chiezo is always, always a character you cheer for

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