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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?

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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

Kokoro / The Heart

Kokoro / The Heart (1955)

Their faces make it clear enough: this isn't a sappy romance film?

Director: Ichikawa Kon
Writers: Hasebe Keiji, Inomata Katsuhito, Natsume Soseki
Date: 1955

Genre: Drama
Description: Husband-Wife relationship, troubled marriage, sins of the past, a haunted man, friendship, buddhism

Cast: Mori Masayuki, Aratama Michiyo, Mihashi Tatsuya, Yasui Shoji, Tanie Kitabayashi

Crew of note:

Runtime: 122 mins.
Color: Black and White
Trivia:

summary
Nobuchi and Shizu are a married couple, but something from their shared past has troubled their relationship since its beginning. Nobuchi mostly keeps to himself, his books, and his thoughts, with few friends except for one sympathetic student with whom he feels an odd affinity with. This dark secret that only he knows haunts him day and night; will we ever find out what it is?

review
A surprisingly deep film with very complex and difficult characters. At first it seems the movie will just become another marital affair film, but in fact it is more about the past, one’s sins, living on with what you have, and difficult circumstances. Barely anything happens, and most of what is shown is directly related to the main plot, with very little diversions, not a frame wasted. Yet the movie is also very still, very silent, very somber, an incredible effect that Ichikawa achieves with close and mid-range shots and characters that are constantly in flux of emotions and movement. The voices are muted, but never totally silent, and the economy of their words is very Japanese. Another great factor in this film is the almost inexplicable bonds between Nobuchi, Shizu, and Kaji. A movie that seems boring and uneventful on the surface, but the characters and their respective performances make this a real wonder.

There is something very raw, very base about the characters in the film, as if they were acting upon their deepest, simplest desires. The transition between the present and the past is also done well, with flashbacks inserted into the most appropriate moments. Movies that use multiple flashbacks cut into the main timeline usually feel very fragmented and confusing, yet in Kokoro, the past is so significant, so a part of the present that the breaks in continuity are barely felt. At the end of the film, once everything is revealed, it is not sympathy, and perhaps not even compassion that one will feel with the main characters. It is something more complex, more conflicted. I am at odds at what word is best, so I guess I’ll just leave that idea incomplete and let you find out for yourself.

Aratama Michiyo in Kokoro / The Heart

❤ (The first pun ever made with symbols? Quite possibly!)

conclusion
Although nothing much happens on the surface, there is a pot (maybe a barrel) of boiling water (note: emotions, if you suck at metaphors) underneath. With three sticks of dynamite. If you appreciate the importance of character, and the exploration of a man’s psychology, his past, and his conflict, then this’ll be a real treat. Few can surpass Ichikawa’s study of Nobuchi captured on film.

things to take note of
Kaji’s buddhism
Nobuchi’s conflict
Shizu’s repression

best moment
Whenever Kaji and Nobuchi argue

why you should watch this
Incredibly complex emotions
Some of the most well developed characters evar

rating: 8.5

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

similar movies, maybe:
Meshi / Repast, directed by Naruse Mikio
Both versions of Spring in a Small Town (1948 and 2002)

Warai no daigaku / University of Laughs

Warai no daigaku / University of Laughs (2004)

Shown: 1/3 of the movies sets. Not shown: Comedy

Director: Hoshi Mamoru
Writers: Mitani Koki
Date: 2004

Genre: Comedy
Description: Writing a comedy play, 1940’s Japan, censorship, improving your script, an odd duo, stage play turned movie, play within a play within a play within a movie…?

Cast: Yakusho Koji, Inagaki Goro

Crew of note:

Runtime: 121 mins.
Color: Color
Trivia: Based on Mitani Koki’s play

summary
Hajime is writing a play for his troupe, but there’s a new censure in town, Sakisaka Mutsuo, and he takes his job pretty seriously. The writer brings his play for approval, but it is deemed “not nationalistic enough.” The stern but amusingly enthusiastic censure decides to give him some tips. Laughing happy funtimes ensue!

review
With only two recurring characters, 3 settings (censors office, street, theater), two chairs and a table, the movie may seem simplistic. The plot certainly suggests so. As a slapstick comedy, its potential for big laughs is generally the only thing that audiences look for. What you will find here, however, is an intelligent script about the nature of scriptwriting that delivers both laughs and insight into playwriting. I suppose you can call it “meta”, because even though it doesn’t self-reference itself as a comedy, its background as a comedy play about writing comedy plays, and the way the movie relies on the unpredictability of the writing process as its plot, source of comedy, and main narrative structure… maybe you should over-analyze after the movie’s over instead. Anyway!

The laughs. Yes, the movie is funny, and even funnier if you know Japanese (some of the puns will escape you otherwise, even with the best subtitles). The two characters are enthusiastic about their work, move in the same way as their period contemporary comedies (exaggerated movements and facial expressions, etc), and are at odds with each other about almost everything. They clash constantly, and their unlikely writing tandem results in many, many laugh out loud moments.

Many comedies end after forcing its characters into unpredictably absurd situations. But there is an end result to its characters’ interactions: a comedy. You get a comedy, they get a comedy. It’s an interesting thought, one I’m sure I thought about way too much. Narrative structure, the play-like execution, the plot itself… all really intelligent, as if it’s impossible that the laughs were even the point of the movie. Laughs as a side-effect of Mitani’s inquiry into the process of scriptwriting? I’m not sure, I was laughing too hard. Looks like I failed Hoshi and Mitani’s University of Laughs (see what I did thar harharhar).

conclusion
An enjoyable film with an intelligent script. There aren’t many metafictional comedies, but this one strikes gold.

things to take note of
Steak of the nation
Yakusho Koji’s deadpan-to-comedian transformation
Idiot’s Guide to Writing Comedy

best moment
Raaaatatatatatat police! Halt! HAHAHAHA

why you should watch this
Intelligent comedies are usually even better than intelligent dramas
Dude, maybe I can write comedies too

rating: 9 (yes, really)

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

similar movies, maybe:
I’m not sure. Stranger Than Fiction? I don’t think there’s even a single Asian in that movie. Intelligent meta-ish comedies are hard to find, y’know. Man, I hate that word.

Nashan naren nagou / Postmen in the Mountains

Nashan naren nagou / Postmen in the Mountains (1999)

The dog is probably suing for not getting on the cover

Director: Huo Jianqi
Writers: Si Wu
Date: 1999

Genre: Drama
Description: Postmen in the mountains, passing on the family job, father-son relationship, real understanding, relationships with people, a smart dog

Cast: Ten Rujun, Liu Ye, Chen Hao

Crew of note: Music by Wang Xiaofeng, Cinematography by Zhao Lei

Runtime: 93 mins.
Color: Color
Trivia:

summary
The father is asked to retire by the local civil authorities in charge of the mail. It’s the only means of communication with the outside world for most of the towns and villages he visits, so he takes great pride and values his work immensely. Because of this, he can only trust his son to continue his work. The son accompanies his father on one last trip, before finally taking over his father’s life’s work.

review
Beautiful, simple, heartwarming; seemingly about nothing but the film has so much more to say than the conversations reveal. There is more to this life than meets the eye, and though the pictures are certainly beautiful, you must also prick up your ears and listen, and understand the two postmens’ expressions. This is an incredibly real movie, and in fact all of city life seems so fake and artificial compared to the lives of these characters. Punctuated by the subtle understated acting that focuses more on expressions–the welling eyes, the looks of understanding, etc–the Chinese countryside comes alive.

Well shot throughout save for some curious boomlift rising shots. Really really good music–haunting, truly Chinese, yet also modern and acts almost as a fourth voice (third = the dog’s) in many scenes. Basically, it’s another great movie about ordinary people.

conclusion
It’s obvious that I enjoy films about live I will most likely never experience. What makes these films about rural life so encapsulating, so enchanting, is the atmosphere, tension, emotion, that great films are able to exude. It almost seems enough to be mesmerized by the culture, by the landscapes, the architecture, by the sounds and textures of these strange lands. But Huo also shows its people, the quiet and deep father-son relationship of these two men in particular, whose lives are so drastically different from ours and whose culture is fast disappearing. At least I get to see them on film. I hope that places like these will persist in the face of modernization.

things to take note of
The different towns, their reception of the two men, and those that the two men interact with in each place
The everyday objects scattered around, in the most important scenes

best moment
Crossing the river
The scene on the bridge + drinking water
The paper airplane

why you should watch this
I almost cried watching this and I’m not ashamed to admit it
Liu Ye’s gotten pretty famous; this is one of his first, and one of his purest, roles

rating: 8.4

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

similar movies, maybe:
Tuya de hun shi / Tuya’s Marriage
Mabei shang de fating / Courthouse on Horseback
Sanxia Haoren / Still Life

genres

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