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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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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.

Taifû kurabu / Typhoon Club (1985)

Taifû kurabu / Typhoon Club (1985)

Sucks not to be part of the cool club

Director: Sômai Shinji
Writers: Kato Yuji
Date: 1985

Genre: Drama
Description: Ordinary life, highschool, growing up, coming-of-age film, desire, life

Cast: Mikami Yuichi, Kudoh Youki, Ônishi Yuka, Miura Tomokazu, Benibayashi Shigeru, Date Saburo, etc.

Crew of note:

Runtime: 1 hr 55 mins.
Color: Color
Trivia: Number 59 on Kinema Jumpo’s 100 Greatest Japanese Films

summary
In a high school somewhere outside Tokyo, a bunch of kids are growing up. One day a storm hits, and five of them get stuck inside the school at night while one takes an adventure to Tokyo.

review
I find it somewhat strange how difficult it is to find a review of this highly regarded film. 5 pages of results for both “taifu kurabu” and “typhoon club somai” only reveal 1 review: a thoroughly misguided NYTimes review from 1986, that likens it to a “more solemn… ‘Breakfast Club'”. What was this dude watching?

Taifû kurabu / Typhoon Club (1985)

Obviously not this movie

For a film considered among the best in Japanese cinema (in fact, number 59 on Kinema Jumpo’s list), there sure is very little about it in English. Yet I can understand this to some degree, because even I find it hard to say much about it. That isn’t to say that nothing in the film stands out to be remembered and discussed, but rather I am left with the question, “What else is to be discussed?” Sure, there are the conceits of cinema (such as the surprisingly articulate, philosophical, and detached Mikami), but for the most part, Taifu kurabu feels more like a documentary than anything else.

He shows you the world of these adolescents, in a common time, in a common place. Yes, the subject matter is difficult and maybe complicated; the events that take place are far from ordinary. Yet Somai treats his subject with such respect and sincerity that even the most sensitive scenes have a certain tenderness to them. Some will pan him for his “distance”, but not only does it show that said respect, but it also puts his characters in context, and allows a very meaningful emptiness to permeate the screen. The tenderness I speak of isn’t one that is manufactured by cuts, close ups and other cinematic techniques. Instead it is achieved because Somai allows everything space to breathe and time to build, settle, and linger in one’s memory. Those who demand a closeup don’t understand his intention. *

Taifû kurabu / Typhoon Club (1985)

Definitely not a common classroom

Maybe I am right to think that really, I have nothing to say about Taifu kurabu that isn’t pseudo-intellectual nonsense. Yet perhaps the desire to say something, to give this under-appreciated film a page just to say its name, is the best endorsement I can hope to give Somai’s creation.

conclusion
Japanese cinema has a great tradition of making ordinary life seem so meaningful and fascinating. Taifu kurabu might not be about the ordinary, but everyone will find something here that will remind them or their youth. It is not because of generality–Somai’s world is one of a kind–but rather, because of the sincerity and tenderness, and occasionally ire, that we all, Somai included, feel for our own youth that is extended towards these characters.

things to take note of
The characters’ conflicts and pains
How Somai shoots sensitive scenes
Do you see yourself in one of them?

Taifû kurabu / Typhoon Club (1985)

Well, I'm definitely not the naked embarrassed guy!

best moment
Let’s dance!

why you should watch this
Great coming-of-age tale
Discusses many issues we all had while growing up
Maybe you’ll find something that reminds you of your youth

rating: 8

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

similar movies, maybe:
Can’t think of anything now, but it isn’t hard to find good movies about ordinary people and their not-so-ordinary lives

Note: I just did a google search 10 seconds after posting this review, and this review is number 1 for “taifu kurabu review” and on the first page for “typhoon club review”. Good news, I guess, but also somewhat disappointing, internetland!

* If you insist on knowing what I’m alluding to, then fine I’ll tell you. It’s the underwear dance numbers. Somai shoots these scenes from afar, and offers no close ups. I’m pretty sure a ton of people will squint, and even offer a zoomed image of it as the film’s best scene, but that’s pretty sad.

Joen / The Affair

Joen / The Affair (1967)

Not a bad affair if you ask me

Director: Yoshida Yoshishige (or Kiju)
Writers: Tamura Tsutomu, Yoshida Yoshishige
Date: 1967

Genre: Drama
Description: Love affair, love, marriage, extra-marrital affair, rape, identity, freedom

Cast: Okada Mariko, Minami Yoshie, Sugano Tadahiko, Shimegi Shigako, Kimura Isao, Takahashi Etsushi

Crew of note:

Runtime: 1 hour 32 mins
Color: Black and White
Trivia:

summary
Oriko’s and her mother had a difficult relationship. She knew of her mother’s relationships with men, and insisted she stop, interfering in the affair. Now that her mother has passed away, Oriko attempts to find out more about her from her lovers. Oriko herself is in an unhappy marriage; one without love. She wishes to divorce him, but her husband refuses. Through this dilemma she begins to understand her mother more and more, and that they are more alike than she thinks.

Joen / The Affair (1967)

'Oh mom you're such a slut'

review
Admittedly, this didn’t start that well for me. I’m not sure why, but I found myself uninterested for the first few minutes. The movie starts rather slow, and already comes out with an affair: Oriko’s mother and a much younger man. Okada Mariko, in fact, is just there to complain. Another movie about sarcastic, petulant women? Okay, probably not.

The film’s events are launched by her mother’s affair, and much of it revolves around love and love affairs. Yet what the film is truly about is Oriko’s discovery of herself, both as her mother’s daughter and as a woman. Her relationships with men–with her husband and with her mother’s lovers–all represent different parts of Oriko’s life. The juxtaposition of events (and rather clear dialogue) and character relationships creates a web of meaning brought about by contrast: freedom and comfort; submission and animal desires; choice and depth. We discover with Oriko who she really is, and what she really wants–one or the other, both, all, or none at all.

This is all created with about as much silence as conversation, and Yoshida proves himself a worthy student of Ozu in how he strings together images to surround events with more meaning and context. The beach, the forest, those long walks alone or with a companion, the smalled room (through close up), the cabin, her large but seemingly empty house… the camera is also one of the principal story tellers.

Joen / The Affair (1967)

I guess she isn't a fan of furniture

If the film has one flaw, it is that it may be hard to follow. The sequence of events feels somewhat confusing, even though they occur chronologically (I think), but I am unsure why I experienced this difficulty. Everything seemed to be next to one another, which, in my mind, merged one event with those around it, even if they were with different characters or in different settings. Perhaps this is a reflection of Oriko’s character.

Or perhaps this a reflection of my fickle attention span. :p

Joen / The Affair (1967)

This would be an awesome chambara scene if only they had katanas

conclusion
Despite my terrible attention span (that’s only really good enough for chambara), for the most part, I was captivated by this film. The images are very strong, and many scenes will linger long after they are seen. It is because of the way Yoshida combines his pictures and scenes that the movie is able to be more than a sappy melodrama, and maybe one of his most memorable films.

things to take note of
The excellent cinematography
The hand-held camera going around
Pay attention because the chronology of events and the cutting is a little confusing maybe

best moment
In the log cabin: meaning + great cinematography = good movietimes

why you should watch this
That log cabin scene alone is worth it, really
Okada Mariko!

rating: 8.8

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

similar movies, maybe:
Many of Yoshida’s films have the same feel, so probably those. Akitsu onsen, Arashi o yobu juhachi-nin, Juhyo no yoromeki… etc.
New wave-era directors like Shindô Kaneto and Kinoshita Keisuke, but not Oshima, Shinoda, Masumura

genres

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