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Shokei no shima / Punishment Island

Shokei no shima / Punishment Island (1966)

I love covers that give absolutely no clues about the movie. Like this one

Director: Shinoda Masahiro
Writers: Ishihara Shintaro, Takeda Taijun
Date: 1966

Genre: Drama
Description: Revenge, exile, flashback, juvenile delinquent, penal colony

Cast: Nitta Akira, Mikuni Rentaro, Iwashita Shima, Sato kei, Komatsu Hosei, Tonoyama Taiji

Crew of note: Music by Takemitsu Toru

Runtime: 88 mins.
Color: Color
Trivia: Shinoda and Iwashita got married in 1967 after this film was released.

summary
Saburou, a man with a mysterious past, is on his way back to Kojima Island to look for Otake, a man with whom he bears a grudge. Through a series of flashbacks we discover his connection with the island and the man he is looking for, and why he has returned after 2 decades. There he meets Matsue, a bully from his past, Kuroki, an old teacher and Aya, a beautiful girl he once knew, before finally finding Otake.

review
If you like jidaigeki and yakuza eiga like me, then you’ve definitely heard of Sadojima (Nichiren was a famous exile there) or Abashiri Prison (of Abashiri bangai-chi fame, starring Takakura Ken) or a host of other nameless prison islands. The Japanese seem to enjoy throwing criminals into exile, and they even have a word for it: Shimanagashi (literally, island exile). Kojima, featured in this movie, is a fictional penal island for juvenile delinquents.

Shokei no shima / Punishment Island (1966)

They look so happy playing with a dead eel ;_;

It’s not hard to imagine why Saburou is returning to Kojima–the title is Punishment Island for cripe’s sake. And while it’s made clear from the very start that he’s there for some revengin’, it is the way Shinoda reveals Saburou’s tortured past through small, repetitive and overlapping flashbacks that makes this such a great movie. The plot develops slowly, almost painfully slow, as we feel Saburou’s escalating anxiety, almost a morbid excitement, that’s built up over years and years of waiting for the right time to come back. And once there, will he or won’t he?

The choice of having a totally anonymous actor in Nitta Akira to play the lead adds to the tension; his is a new face that we’ve never scene before, with strong, coarse features and an unknown past. The audience has nothing to recall about him even as an actor, and that mystery is a big part of what makes his character so compelling. His performance is chilling and intense; you can just imagine him being beaten and scarred as a child. Mikuni’s work as Otake is also brilliant as ever.

Shokei no shima / Punishment Island (1966)

Take note of that crutch. It will surprise you near the end

Last but not the least, the movie is stunning–which is pretty obvious given it’s Shinoda. Iwashita on a cliff with an undulating background; the long take at the end with a kanon statue on the table; the grayed and filthy children on the rocky hills; Kojima in the background as Saburou looks on from a boat; the many long takes and long shots; the isolation in every frame. An island is just a pile of rocks and yet Shinoda makes it seem so much more. There may be no walls and the ocean may seem traverse-able (how is this not a word?), but Saburou’s island of Kojima has kept him imprisoned even after 20 years.

Shokei no shima / Punishment Island (1966)

Kojima: a big big pile of rocks and murderin

conclusion
The way Shinoda stages scenes is a sight to behold. It is no exaggeration to say that the last major scene is one of Shinoda’s best, and perhaps it’s one of the earliest signs of his curiosity in using traditional performance art (Bunraku in Shinju: Ten no amijima; Kabuki in Buraikan; here just a stage play, and only really in the last scene) in his movies. This may not be the best place to start with Shinoda, but if you’ve seen his other films and enjoyed them, this will definitely be another blessing.

things to take note of
Amazing pictures of the island
The long shots
Isoooolaaaation

best moment
The last scene in the house and how amazing it is

why you should watch this
Another excellent Shinoda. That guy just never fails to impress me.

rating: 8.6

scorecard
Plot: C+
Cast: A
Cinematography: B+
Music: B
Entertainment: C+

similar movies, maybe:
Movies about islands and isolation? Uhm, Hadaka no shima / Naked Island?

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.

Eburi manshi no yûga-na seikatsu / The Elegant Life of Mr. Everyman

Eburi manshi no yûga-na seikatsu / The Elegant Life of Mr. Everyman (1963)

The poster just screams most hilarious boring movie ever

Director: Okamoto Kihachi
Writers: Ide Toshiro, Yamaguchi Hitomi
Date: 1963

Genre: Drama, Comedy, Satire
Description: Salaryman, narration, docudrama

Cast: Kobayashi Keiju, Aratama Michiyo, Ehara Tatsuyoshi, Tachikawa Hiroshi, Tôno Eijirô, Nakamaru Tadao,

Crew of note:

Runtime: 103 mins.
Color: Black and White
Trivia:

summary
Eburi is a salaryman in Tokyo, living an ordinary life. He works at an ad agency as a writer, tends to talk nonstop when he drinks, and unconsciously aspires to become a real writer. One day, after having one too many drinks at a bar, he comes home having promised two editors the best story they’ve ever read, except he doesn’t remember he promised anything and doesn’t even know what to write! Eburi, and his otherwise boring, average, uninteresting life, run through the filter of his perceptive and babbling brain, becomes the topic of his soon-to-be popular semi-autobiographical novel.

review
The salaryman is modern Japan’s version of the Edo period’s lowly samurai footsoldier classes (yeah there were many subclasses within samurai). Stuck in a dead end job, with no opportunities for anything better, and not many options other than what they already have, they usually lead very boring, meaningless lives. At the very least, samurai had infrequent battles, wars and clan conflict to make things exciting, and to give them a glimmer of hope in achieving anything worthwhile. It also makes for enjoyable action movies for audiences. But what do salarymen have? Well, in Eburi’s case, he gets to write a story about his boring, meaningless life. And what the audience gets is a movie about him writing about his boring, meaningless life.

Eburi manshi no yûga-na seikatsu / The Elegant Life of Mr. Everyman (1963)

The boring face or boredom

Okay, that sounds a LOT worse than it is, but that’s really what the Eburi manshi… is about. On paper it sounds like this should be the most boring movie imaginable: it’s about a boring guy, with his boring voice narrating his boring life about his boring book. Yet if you pay attention to just how boring everything is–I mean, really LISTEN to what Eburi is saying about himself and about his life–it actually is quite fascinating.

Eburi manshi no yûga-na seikatsu / The Elegant Life of Mr. Everyman (1963)

Oh Eburi, you and your silly silly life

And its the dialogue, the narration, that truly shines, along with Kobayashi’s delivery. He says SO MUCH and talks about so many things so fluidly that it’s hard to imagine that these were not Kobayashi’s own thoughts, and that he was not actually drunk while being filmed. The observations he makes are incredibly detailed to the point of nonsense and his descriptions of everyday Tokyo life are so full of vibrancy and energy that he sounds like he’s hallucinating. How could this man, living this life (I’ve used the word boring so many times sheesh) have such a rich and powerful vision of this city? When he describes his life it’s almost as if every moment is magical, every event important. But he’s just another faceless, ordinary salaryman, right?

Well, maybe he isn’t, and maybe behind every seemingly common man is an interesting story. Maybe all of us are like Eburi, and all of us have led fascinating lives worth ink on a page. Or maybe we’re all just delusional. Huh.

Eburi manshi no yûga-na seikatsu / The Elegant Life of Mr. Everyman (1963)

..And the predator has his prey trapped, backed against the corner.. and he TALKS. Nonstop. About his mom

conclusion
Eburi proves that the salaryman is an interesting and worthwhile subject despite the dead-end life that one lives. In fact, it probably is because of his seemingly meaningless (to everyone but those around him) existence that his life is given meaning in the context of cinema and [insert related academic field here]. Hats off to Okamoto for another brilliant satire. I still don’t want to become a corporate slave though.

things to take note of
The many, many jokes and descriptions
The narration

best moment
Eburi is drunk and talks nonstop. Really.

why you should watch this
This is Kobayashi Keiju’s best work as a leading man

rating: 8.6

scorecard
Plot: A
Cast: A
Cinematography: B
Music: B
Entertainment: B

similar movies, maybe:
Other deadpan comedies/satires from Okamoto, maybe Satsujin kyo jidai / Age of Assassins or Nikudan / Human Bullet

Mujo / This Transient Life

Jissoji Akio - Mujo / This Transient Life (1970)

Tons of nudity, if you like that I guess

Director: Jissoji Akio
Writers: Ishido Yashiro
Date: 1970

Genre: Drama
Description: Buddhism, incest, life and death, meaning of life, sculpture, sex, desire

Cast: Tamura Ryo, Tsukasa Michiko, Hananomoto Kotobuki, Kobayashi Akiji, Okada Eiji, Sugai Kin, Terada Minori

Crew of note: Music by Takemitsu Toru. Cinematography by Inagaki Youzo

Runtime: 2 hrs 23 mins.
Color: Black and White
Trivia:

summary
Masao wants nothing out of life, until one day he encounters a sculptor obsessed with creating statues of the Kannon (Goddess of mercy). He and his sister live in a large estate, and isolated there, develop a forbidden love affair.

review
I’m very squeamish and I easily get upset. I have to admit that it’s my great weakness when watching movies; it greatly limits what I can see and appreciate. Nudity in most movies rarely feels right or natural to me, and I try to avoid topics like rape or incest or torture. I enjoy experimental cinema, yeah, but when films start pushing the bounds of taste… I’m often left far behind.

That’s why Mujo came as such a pleasant surprise. It combines a few things that I’m not particularly fond of–incest, lots of nudity and sex, and a ton of abstractness–yet somehow I was captivated. This was actually my third Jissoji (after Mandara and Uta, two films that I didn’t quite enjoy and merely appreciated in their craft), so I wasn’t expecting to have a good time. But I did.

Jissoji Akio - Mujo / This Transient Life (1970)

If you have any interest in Buddhism, in existentialism, in philosophy, Mujo is pretty much required viewing. The dialogue between the different characters–Masao, the Buddhist priest, the Kannon sculptor…–is very deep and intelligent. It will take some concentration and some pauses (to do some research maybe), but their conversations do bring up important points and important questions. And even when they try to elaborate answers, only more questions surface.

Don’t blink or spend too much time staring into space as you think though, because you’ll end up missing half of the film, maybe half of its meaning. Jissoji’s films are well known for their pictures, and Mujo is probably his best work. His use of angles, architecture, shadows and shape, negative space, whiteness and movement is brilliant, and the film does deserve to be seen twice or more; once to understand the story, and once to simply watch the camera and listen to the music. If you can pay attention to the story and dialogue and the pictures at the same time though, then you will also be treated to great cinematic lyricism: Nothingness and negative space, tradition/religion and architecture, desire and shadows, sexuality and shape, transition and movement. It is no exaggeration to say that this is one of the most brilliantly shot movies I’ve ever seen, because the pictures not only supplement the plot; in fact they may be essential to it.

Jissoji Akio - Mujo / This Transient Life (1970)

The music in the film is also a delight: a very SNES Castlevania: Symphony of the Night MIDI cornfest that somehow works perfectly. Well, at least that’s what it sounded like to me. Takemitsu Toru’s work is quite varied, but always appropriate and beautiful, and he does some of his finest work on Mujo.

conclusion
This film is almost as hard to understand as it is to locate (ok honestly it’s harder to understand). It’s really difficult, but if you can get past the objectionable content and commit some brain power to try and understand the plot, dialogue, and philosophy of Mujo, the experience can be deeply rewarding. In the right frame of mind, Mujo can be mind blowing, but it can also be silly, overwrought and meaningless to many (fair enough, it just isn’t very easy). It’s still pretty to look at though, and that soundtrack is awesome.

Jissoji Akio - Mujo / This Transient Life (1970)

Wow, I didn't even have anything funny to say for the screencaps

things to take note of
Shadows
Carving Kannon
Negative spaces
Try your best to understand their crazy complicated dialogue?

best moment
Man, just watch that camera move
Let’s talk Buddhism/life and death/existentialism

why you should watch this
One of the most beautifully shot films ever
The discussions on Buddhism, life and death, and other issues are some of the best

rating: 8.5 – it would be much higher, but I’m kinda over sensitive about nudity and the incest; it’d be 9 otherwise

scorecard
Plot: B
Cast: C+
Cinematography: A +++
Music: A
Entertainment: C+

similar movies, maybe:
Other Jissoji films from that era, like Uta and Mandara. Also, Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East for some more Buddhism-y goodness.

Koshikei / Death By Hanging (1968)

Ôshima Nagisa - Koshikei / Death By Hanging (1968)

Maybe we should poke him just to check?

Director: Oshima Nagisa
Writers: Fukao Michinori, Sasaki Mamoru, Oshima Nagisa, Tamura Tsutomu
Date: 1968

Genre: Black Comedy
Description: Capital punishment, black comedy, racism, non-linear structure, surrealism

Cast: Sato Kei, Watanabe Fumio, Adachi Masao, Ishido Toshiro, Toura Rokko, Yu Do-yun

Crew of note: Oshima Nagisa is also the narrator

Runtime: 1 hr 57 mins.
Color: Black and White
Trivia:

summary
A Korean man is sentenced to death by hanging, but survives the execution. For the following two hours, his executioners try to work out how to handle the situation, and none of them have a clue.

Koshikei / Death By Hanging (1968)

So.. his head goes into the loop right?

review
I usually feel a little guilty about laughing at black comedies. The situations, under normal circumstances, aren’t supposed to be funny at all, yet the director is somehow able to manipulate a few chuckles out of me. I feel cheated and used. But somehow in a good way.

So I definitely got used by Oshima. Repeatedly. And I enjoyed it.

This is black farce at its finest because Oshima never pulls punches or stops short of saying something he might regret. The film tackles a ton of issues–racism, capital punishment, religion, militarism, if it was an issue in Japan during the 60s, this movie has it–that will unfortunately fly over almost everyone’s heads (probably, unless you lived there at the time). But he tackles all these head on and with very little tact that it’s possible to understand what he’s trying to say, or at least appreciate the way he’s trying to say it. It doesn’t always work–there are times that the film feels too propagandistic and didactic (I can imagine some sensitive people being offended)–but the use of farce to shove all of these issues into a small execution hall makes it tolerable.. even fun.

Koshikei / Death By Hanging (1968)

Well it certainly look like they're having fun

This farce is supplemented by an equally strange and unpredictable narrative structure. It might be a spoiler to say it, but even with the knowledge that Koshikei moves through various modes of storytelling, it’s still surprising when it happens. Sometimes even a little unnerving. The film starts off as a drama, then descends into a mad black comedy, acquires traits of a documentary that quickly spins into surreality, or maybe it was just a dream sequence or someone’s imagination? All without very little warning. Oshima toys with reality in Koshikei, and though largely confusing, the absurdity works. If that makes any sense.

Koshikei / Death By Hanging (1968)

This makes absolutely no sense

If there’s one “problem” with the movie, it’s that Oshima tries a little too hard to smash home his ideas. The movie drags on after a while, and his unfettered criticism of various topics is often too propagandistic and one-sided for my taste. This lack of conciseness eventually builds to a slight sour taste, but not nearly enough to ruin what happens before it.

conclusion
Oshima’s funniest movie? Definitely! It’s also a good summary of various social issues in Japan during the 60s mixed into a very interesting, and very confusing, narrative structure. Even if you don’t enjoy the serious aspects of the film, at the very least you’ll get a few laughs.

things to take note of
Transition from different modes: faux-docu, surrealism, dream sequence, ??semi-reality??
The issue regarding Koreans in Japan
Oshima’s views on social issues (he’s the narrator, remember)

best moment
Oh **** what are we gonna do now?

why you should watch this
Great narrative structure, though confusing
Suspiciously hilarious

rating: 8.1

scorecard
Plot: B
Cast: B
Cinematography: B
Music: C+
Entertainment: C+

similar movies, maybe:
Unfortunately I’m drawing a blank.

genres

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