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Shang xue lu shang / The Story of Xiaoyan

Shang xue lu shang / The Story of Xiaoyan (2004)

Wo yao shang xue (written on the left) = I want to go to school. Wow an educational caption!

Director: Fang Gangliang
Writers: Zhao Dongling
Date: 2004

Genre: Drama, Comedy
Description: School, children, education, working student

Cast: Wu Xu, Ai Liya, Yang Shulin, Zhao Xue, Hu Zhixiao, Ren Huan, Guo Haowei

Crew of note:

Runtime: 91 mins.
Color: Color
Trivia: Based on a true story

summary
Wang Yan is a little girl in a little town in western China. Her school has just raised tuition from 20 yuan to 24 yuan and 80 cents, and unfortunately her family might not be able to afford to send her to school next semester. She figures that if she can earn it herself, she should be able to continue attending school. The little businesswoman works her way from eggs, to a pen, to a small lamb, to picking berries, all to earn enough money to go to school.

review
Like most, I hated school when I was a kid. Homework, boring classes, evil teachers, waking up early… aside from PE and lunch time (actually, basketball time), was there ever anything fun about school? Only the nerds ever wanted to go, and they were picked on relentlessly. Except during exams, then they were everyone’s best friends. I suppose when you live someplace where education is a basic and provided right, you end up taking it for granted. And maybe that’s why movies like Shang xue lu shang are alien enough to be unique and interesting at first glance, but also have the ability to feel familiar in its themes.

Shang xue lu shang / The Story of Xiaoyan (2004)

PE is awesome is one of those universal themes

That’s how movies like this become successful: it is set in a foreign land, in a strange culture, in a world we’ve never been to before, and yet the story, characters and themes are able to resonate deep within us. They make sense, sort of, even though the film is as foreign as the language they speak. Luckily, cinema seems to work in a language that we all understand, and Fang uses it well. He works many long and wide shots of the the terrain to frame Wang Yan’s struggle, but remembers to keep us close for dear moments. The music punctuates key scenes, but never feels pandering or manipulative.

The cast of characters that surround the main character also add to the film’s great charm. Dagua and Erguo are adorable, like most little brothers are; the groom-to-be is a hilariously thrifty businessman; the teacher is supportive but has problems of his own; and her mother, though she does not approve of her plans at first, eventually gives in. Wang Yan and the people around her are richly drawn and real.

Shang xue lu shang / The Story of Xiaoyan (2004)

A kid selling a blind man a lamb. Yes.

This is “Little Kid Overcoming Adversity” done right, and Wang Yan is the perfect protagonist for a movie like this. She is the best thing about the film, and even though the adversity she faces may not be especially severe or insurmountable, her positive attitude and hopefulness is welcome in a genre usually filled with tears. Unlike other movies that use sadsack children for quick sympathy and bathe their stories in that misguided “Depressing is Deep” mantra, Shang xue lu shang’s protagonist is optimistic and feisty while her story is lighthearted and a joy to watch. Her quest to earn that 24 and 80 is one part underdog story, one part meaningful, one part comedy, and 10 parts enjoyable. Okay maybe my math (and English) have gone down the drain, but you’ve never wanted to see a kid go to school more in your life.

conclusion
Okay so I probably can’t make a better conclusion than what I wrote in that last paragraph so I’m just gonna stop here and tell you to just read it again and go look for this movie. k?

Shang xue lu shang / The Story of Xiaoyan (2004)

Donald Trump with a cap instead of a toupe

things to take note of
Wang Yan’s optimism
Lack of melodrama and predictable life drama

best moment
“Shan!”
Dagua, Ergua and Wang Yan running around
Making moneys

why you should watch this
Best child-wants-to-go-to-school movie evar

rating: 8.2

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

similar movies, maybe:
Not One Less? But that one sucks

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Shiroi kyotou / The Ivory Tower

Shiroi kyotou / The Ivory Tower (1966)

Yes, this movie is as serious as he looks.

Director: Yamamoto Satsuo
Writers: Hashimoto Shinobu, Yamasaki Toyoko
Date: 1966

Genre: Drama
Description: Medical drama, politics, success, greed, arrogance

Cast: Tamiya Jiro, Tôno Eijirô, Tamura Takahiro, Ozawa Eitarô, Ishiyama Kenjiro, Takizawa Osamu, Funakoshi Eiji, Katô Yoshi, Kishi Teruko, Ogawa Mayumi, Fujimura Shiho

Crew of note: Produce by Nagata Masaichi. According to imdb, Setsuko Hara makes an appearance, but I didn’t notice her.

Runtime: 2 hours 30 mins.
Color: Black and White
Trivia:

summary
Zaizen Goro may only be an assistant professor at Naniwa University, but he has already made a name for himself in Pancreatic surgery. He has become something of a rockstar in the medical world, and many sing his praises. Professor Azuma, his superior, however, does not approve of his attitude towards their profession, and is at odds over who to nominate as his successor. The selection of the new professor reveals a rich and complex political world inside Naniwa University–each player will stop at nothing to get what he wants.

Shiroi kyotou / The Ivory Tower (1966)

Not exactly puppydog eyes

review
Yamamoto Satsuo isn’t that popular a name. Very few of his films are widely available, and most of them belong to a single genre: jidaigeki. This is the same director that helmed the first two Shinobi no mono (starring Ichikawa Raizo as Ishikawa Goemon) films, and the 16th Zatoichi. I was surprised, then, to discover that this amazing movie was directed by the same man.

I honestly thought this was going to be a borefest. I’d never seen a non-action film from this director, and I’d read that the film was heavy on the dialogue. While it is true that the characters talk, argue, and debate nonstop, the film is far from boring. In fact, the political world Yamamoto creates has a striking resemblance to politically-tinged jidaigeki. Japan’s feudal tradition, after all, continued well beyond the Tokugawa era. Replace labcoats with kamishimo (formal samurai wear), scalpels with katanas and Pancreatic surgery with… uhhh.. Pancreatic chopping-ups and you get pretty much the same movie in a different time.

Another great thing about this movie is its balanced portrayal of the different factions. Despite the fact that the audience will automatically gravitate towards Zaizen (Yamamoto presents him in the introduction of the cast and crew, and the first scene he looks like a heroic figure), each side is equally desparate, equally determined, equally dirty. Yamamoto obviously feels no allegiance to any of his characters, and the film benefits from his objectivity.

While the film does focus on the traditional Japanese politics inside Naniwa University, the film is also a compelling drama about man’s ambition: a young man’s ambition for the future, an old man’s ambition to be remembered, a ruler’s ambition to retain the status quo, an idealists ambition to do what is right, etc. Each of the principal characters has a different personality and motivation, but most, if not all, end up acting the same way.

*Warning: You will see guts and gross stuff.

Shiroi kyotou / The Ivory Tower (1966)

Guts? He's beginning to regret that second bowl of udon

conclusion
There are many possible meanings one can interpret from the film–political or personal–and maybe it is dependent on the viewer’s own personality. Yamamoto, of course, only subtlely suggests that there is something to learn from the film’s events. It’s unclear if the characters even learn anything from what just happened, but by the look on their faces, it is hard to imagine they haven’t. This is, by far, Yamamoto’s best film, and certainly a memorable one from the 60’s.

things to take note of
Microcosm of Japanese politics
Who is the real protagonist? Who is the hero of the film?

best moment
Guts!
Inspection time x2
Tamura Takahiro’s puppydog face
Zaizen sr. is humiliated
The outcome?

Shiroi kyotou / The Ivory Tower (1966)

Professors get their own catwalk in Naniwa University, apparently

why you should watch this
Probably the best Japanese medical drama evar? Or at least from the 60s
Complex political world inside the frame of a university

rating: 9.2

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

similar movies, maybe:
Medical dramas focusing on politics? Not a lot honestly. But another good doctor-y movie is Masumura Yasuzo’s Akai tenshi / Red Angel.

Daisatsujin orochi / The Betrayal

Daisatsujin orochi / The Betrayal (1966)

Raizo looks pissed, which is never good news for bad guys

Director: Tanaka Tokuzo
Writers: Hoshikawa Seiji
Date: 1966

Genre: Jidaigeki, Chambara
Description: Samurai life sucks, corrupt officials, traitors and backstabbers, a hard life

Cast: Ichikawa Raizo, Yuchigusa Kaoru, Fujimura Shiho, Nakaya Ichiro, Naito Taketoshi

Crew of note: Music by Ifukube Akira

Runtime: 88 mins.
Color: Black and White
Trivia: This is a remake of Futagawa Buntaro’s “Orochi” originally starring Bando Tsumasaburo back in 1925.

summary
A samurai enters the Minazuki clan’s school of Issaka Yaichiro to challenge the master to a fight, but he is currently away. Kobuse Takuma (Raizo) receives him, and the samurai, from the Iwashiro Clan, calls him into a duel. Kobuse refuses, and the samurai leaves. On his way home, however, he is followed by two members of the Minazuki clan and is slayed from behind.* His clan discovers his murder, and calls for the perpetrator to be arrested and punished, whoever he may be. A Minazuki clan official, Kobuse’s soon to be father-in-law, proposes a solution/cover-up: Kobuse should take the blame and disappear for a year while he tries to iron things out. Obviously, this doesn’t work out.

review
Dude, being a samurai sucks balls. I think there have been enough movies to prove this point. For some reason, movies about how samurai life was terrible seem to be of higher quality, of greater interest, indeed, are usually better than movies about cool and badass samurai. I’m looking at you Ogami Itto (you’re still cool though).

Daisatsujin orochi is a remake of one of the original movies with that premise, the similarly named Orochi** from 1925. The stories are pretty similar (though not exactly the same especially the ending), but seeing both is by no means redundant. In fact, seeing the two versions is probably more enjoyable than seeing just one.

So see it. Daisatsujin orochi isn’t a very famous film, and that’s unfortunate. It has a good story, great acting, beautiful black and white cinematography (using a lot of somewhat unconventional shots, maybe you’ll notice), and music by Ifukube (which means it’ll be great, you know). A good movie, until about an hour or so. I’m just too lazy to explain. Then BAM! Raizo draws his sword and the inevitable final showdown begins. And, it’s pretty amazing.

The climax of the film is one of the most detailed, well planned and well executed ones I have ever seen. The integration of a variety of props (a water well and bucket, ladders, wooden boards, carts, ropes, different kinds of weapons), the use of superb still shots (the one where Raizo moves under a wooden railing, watch for it), Raizo’s swordfighting worthy of Bantsuma’s legendary status, etc are all pretty awesome. Long drawn-out fights usually tend to become redundant after a while, especially when the hero seems to never tire, but here, after wave upon wave of assailants, Raizo deteriorates, starting on his feet and eventually rolling around in the dirt. He becomes thirsty, his hair disheveled, his hand tense and uncooperative, his body exhausted and his face in agony. It’s not only a fight, it is a transformation, an epiphany for Kobuse.

Warrior vs Snake painting

My computer refuses to make screencaps or I'm just very very lazy

conclusion
A majority of chambara fans (especially those who love samurai for their “exoticism”) probably just watch for the slicing-and-dicing, and really don’t care about the nuances of culture and history. This is a film that can be appreciated by that lot, and also by those who have a more serious, more academic interest in samurai life on film. How this isn’t as famous as some other chambara from the 60s is beyond me, because this is clearly one of the best. Maybe even Raizo’s best performance.

things to take note of
Amazing climax
Similarities with Orochi (1925)
The realism and detail of the climax, and Raizo’s acting
The importance of pride (Denshichiro’s resolution)
Some amazing shots in there too
Ifukube’s subtle but brilliant score

best moment
The climactic super-fight obviously

why you should watch this
A great remake of a classic chambara
I lost count of how many people Raizo ends up killing
These “samurai life sucks dude” movies are always interesting

rating: 8.7

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

similar movies, maybe:
Orochi (1925), obviously.
Other “samurai life sucks dude” movies such as Harakiri, Joi-uchi: Hairyo tsuma shimatsu, etc.

* It is deemed cowardly to attack a samurai from behind or without his knowledge. This is pretty much the reason why in most one-vs-many battles the assailants behind the lone samurai are simply standing around. Without properly engaging and acknowledging each other in combat, it’s considered plain murder and not a duel or a legitimate fight. So, you know, they aren’t standing around coz they’re idiots. They’re actually following bushido.

** Since I’m unlikely to write a whole review for Orochi (it’s included in a feature about classic chambara though), I’ll squeeze in a little trivia here. The title sort of doesn’t make sense (orochi means snake or serpent) without an explanation. Originally, the title of the film was supposed to be something like “Outlaw” or “Rebel”, but Japanese censors refused to allow an anti-government, anti-establishment outlaw to be considered a hero. Futagawa decided to give the film its name to describe how Bantsuma moves (slithering and sliding) like a snake, and how even in death a serpent still looks pretty menacing. This is according to renowned film historian Sato Tadao, so I’m not pulling this outta my ass. Also, I’m the one who added this trivia on imdb.

Eien no hito / Immortal Love

Eien no hito / Immortal Love (1961)

Only a French DVD exists I think. English people, you disappoint me.

Director: Kinoshita Keisuke
Writers: Kinoshita Keisuke
Date: 1961

Genre: Drama
Description: Forced marriage, unhappy marriage, not quite a love story

Cast: Nakadai Tatsuya, Takamine Hideko, Sada Keiji, Otawa Nobuko, Tamura Masakazu, Totsuka Masaya, Ishihama Akira, Fuji Yukiko, Nonomura Kiyoshi, Kato Yoshi, Tôno Eijirô

Crew of note: Music by Kinoshita Chuji

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

summary
Heibei has just returned crippled from the Sino-Japanese war. He is the son of the town’s leader, living on what the village calls the family’s “mound”. He spots Sadako, who has turned into a beautiful woman in his absence. He immediately falls in love with her (more like lusts for her), but she in turn is in love with Takashi, who has yet to return from the war. Using his father’s position and influence, Heibei forces Sadako to marry him, and we witness 29+ years of their miserable life together. Also, Spanish flamenco music in Japanese?

review
Sounds like your average troubled marriage film, but unlike many such films that are either totally pessimistic or totally optimistic about the fate of the marriage, Eien no hito is.. sort of different. Reason: Heibei and Sadako are both jerks. Yup, a story about a married couple trying to make each other f’ing miserable. Sounds delightful!

Under some less able director or with a less talented cast, many of these characters would just end up as one dimensional charicatures, annoying and unbearable to watch. Nakadai is at his most vile (even worse than in his later Gosha starrers) and Takamine pumps out every last bit of her sarcasm and passive aggressiveness (accumulated from her Ozus and Naruses), yet it is not possible to say that they go so far as to become detestable. Their relationship is pretty messed up–and by that I mean really complex–and it’s a wonder why they’re still together apart from making each other miserable.

It sounds depressing, but not really. These periods of exceptional bitterness are sandwiched between longer periods of relative peace, where, I assume (because they aren’t shown), nothing really terrible happens. They just happen to be stuck in the same house together, is all.

The English title is Immortal Love, which makes you think it’s supposed to be a love story, or that there’s any love at all between Heibei and Sadako, and the title can be misleading, I think. In Japanese it only means “eternal person”, not necessarily someone you love (that would be “koibito” or some other term of affection). And perhaps this title is more accurate, granted a lot more ambiguous. They are just two people stuck together for life (under the social construct that is marriage). Whatever there is between them, love or hate or something else, well, you get to see and understand eventually.

But the film would not be what it is if it weren’t for the music and the matching cinematography. It’s 1961, and Kinoshita throws a curve ball straight at your head by using what is probably Spain’s national music style (I’m too lazy to research), flamenco, with a singing narrator. Sounds cheezy, maybe, but it works perfectly. The angled, abrupt start-stop style of music fits well with the characters’ similarly rigid and confrontational personalities. The film is also decidedly underexposed during many scenes, with flickering light and darkness and jagged outlines of rocks, mountains, and blades of grass. Quick, rapid cuts, slow pans and zooms, still shots are all used in a striking blend; you will notice when one is used over another. There are also some of the most beautiful looking clouds I’ve seen in a black and white movie: dark, ominous, lying low in the sky. Kinoshita probably used a red filter to get this look, maybe. It’s very pretty?

Nakadai Tatsuya in Eien no hito

Hatching an evil plot and recounting fond childhood memories look exactly the same, apparently

So, interesting characters, good story, amazing music and pictures. A good ending too.

conclusion
It’s an unlikely mix. In no way does the music resemble anything Japanese, except for the language, yet it works perfectly, and that in itself is a great achievement. It’s also surprising how a chronicle of two people’s crappy hate-filled relationship can be more interesting than a feel-good love story. I generally try to avoid definitive comparative statements, but to me, this is Kinoshita’s best film.

Takamine Hideko and Sada Keiji in Eien no hito

Insert el_flamenco_de_hapon_loco.mp3

things to take note of
The music!
The backgrounds/setting
Those clouds are purty

best moment
Whenever there is music

why you should watch this
The best use of flamenco music in a Japanese movie ever. Also, it’s my favorite movie among those I’ve seen in the past 2 months (out of around 40-50).

rating: 9

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

similar movies, maybe:
…that use flamenco? Nope, nada.

Tange Sazen yowa: Hyakuman ryo no tsubo / Tange Sazen and the Pot Worth a Million Ryo

Tange Sazen yowa: Hyakuman ryo no tsubo / Tange Sazen and the Pot Worth a Million Ryo (1935)

Yup, this is actually mostly a comedy

Director: Yamanaka Sadao
Writers: Mimura Shintarô
Date: 1935

Genre: Jidaigeki, Comedy
Description: A pot worth a million ryo, looking for the item, humanity, different and unique characters, whatever it takes, what is really valuable

Cast: Ôkôchi Denjirô, Kiyozo, Sawamura Kunitaro, etc.

Crew of note:

Runtime: 95 mins.
Color: Black and White
Trivia: There are tons of Tange Sazen films, but this is the oldest one still extant, I believe.

summary
Tange Sazen is a lazy samurai bum working at a Tokugawa-era Japanese arcade, where customers routinely waste their money trying to hit absurdly large targets with a small bow and floppy arrows. Across town, the infamous Yagyu clan is in crisis–they need cash quick! Luckily, there is an old legend that states that older generations of the Yagyu had stashed a million ryo-worth of gold in the mountains. The tricky part: the map is inside an old pot, and no one knows where the heck it is after Genzaburo’s wife sells the crummy old antique to a local dealer. Naturally, Sazen eventually gets involve in this mess. Not a bad deal, since a million ryo is a pretty sweet pay-off if he can outsmart the Yagyu and find the pot before they do.

review
Sounds like an epic McGuffin hunt with swordfights and counterplots galore, but you really should expect more from Yamanaka. More than the pot itself, the story revolves around man’s desires, what he would do to fulfill those desires, and the discovery of what is truly valuable. In the hunt for the prized piece of pottery are well developed, unique characters–I doubt you will find many others like them. The hero himself is described, and describes himself, as a monster, a demon, an outcast of society. There are moments when he gives credence to this claim, especially with such a fearsome scowl. Yet he also allows himself moments of tenderness, moments of wit and comedy, and even kindness. In the 30’s, when all heroes were noble samurai warriors with distinguished service records and an irreproachable character, Tange stood, awkwardly, as a symbolic anti-hero. The lady proprietor of the arcade, the young child who gets mixed up in the mess, Yagyu Genzaburo who must find the pot to save his clan, his amusingly paranoid wife.. all memorable and authentic characters that inhabit Tange Sazen’s accurately depicted setting.

Surprisingly, the music also stands out at a time when few directors in Japan were using sound quite as assuredly as Yamanaka. In fact, sound would not become ubiquitous until years later. Light and airy during funny bits, an extra punch during the action, a calm background fuzz during intermediate scenes, yet cohesive and never a sore thumb. The film also uses a good number of cuts, angle changes, and close ups to highlight the action, even though there aren’t really many fights. What there are, however, are reassessments of goals and desires; I suppose it’s safe to say that most of the main characters actually go through some kind of change during the movie. Sazen’s still a wise-crackin’ badass though.

Did I mention Sazen only has ONE eye and ONE arm? It’s a good thing he looks like he could be the frontman for any tr00 satanic black metal band:

Ôkôchi Denjirô as Tange Sazen

He can name his band Tange Sazen and the Hairy Potters

No wonder no one wants to fight with him.

conclusion
You really won’t find many films from this age quite as good, quite as satisfying as this one. It should be clear by now that Yamanaka Sadao is one of my favorite directors, and even though only 3 of his films have survived, all of them are wonderful. A handful of directors have tried tackling Tange Sazen and his adventures, but even after 70 years (the most recent remake was in 2004) Yamanaka’s effort is still the best.

things to take note of
Ôkôchi Denjirô’s movements and posture, and his absolutely hilarious swordstyle
Sazen’s sassy smart-assyness
The comedy
The introspection?

best moment
It’s a pot, so why not use it as a… ?

why you should watch this
One of the most completely satisfying jidaigeki, with character development, comedy, action, a little suspense, and even insight into man and his desires

rating: 9.1

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

similar movies, maybe:
I don’t think any of the future Tange Sazen films are as good as this one, but some stand-outs are:
Matsuda Sadatsugu’s Tange Sazen: Mystery of the Twin Dragons
Gosha Hideo’s Ken fu! Hyakumanryo no tsubo / Tange Sazen: One Million Ryo (stars Nakadai and Natsuyagi Isao!)
Gosha Hideo’s Tange Sazen: Secret of the Urn (stars Nakamura Kinnosuke and Tamba Tetsuro!)

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