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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.

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!)

Gohatto / Taboo

Gohatto / Taboo (1999)

The least gay cover makes little sense, strangely

Director: Oshima Nagisa
Writers: Shiba Ryotaro, Oshima Nagisa
Date: 1999

Genre: Chambara
Description: Bushido, samurai code of laws, violence, homosexuality between samurai, whodunnit!

Cast: Kitano Takeshi, Asano Tadanobu, Matsuda Ryuhei, Takeda Shinji, Sai Yoichi, Sato Kei, Terajima Susumu

Crew of note: Music by Sakamoto Ryuichi

Runtime: 100 mins.
Color: Color
Trivia: Last film by Oshima

summary
Kano joins the Shinsengumi, a militant group during the end of the Tokugawa Era, and apparently, he’s a hot piece of ass. A couple of dudes start trying to pick him up, and soon, they start getting chopped to bits. Suspicions arise as to the identity of the killer, but nothing is certain. Except that I’d rather go for Asano than Matsuda any day of the week (that’s our little secret).

review
This film is not about homosexuality. Yes, it’s part of the movie, but it isn’t the point. Homosexuality between some samurai was not entirely uncommon during this day, and the characters in this film (Kondo and Hijikata in particular) even poke fun at it. If it is accepted and even openly talked about, how can it possibly be a taboo?

Well, it isn’t, and the English title tries to take advantage of the homosexuality to make it the drawing-factor of this film. A good marketing ploy, sure, but it distorts what the film is truly about. The original title, “Gohatto”, translates to something more akin to “laws” or “code of conduct”, which, by the way, doesn’t include anything about homosexuality. Keep that in mind while watching, and take note of the Shinsengumi’s laws (and bushido in general).

Oshima is never just about sexuality and the physical manifestations of desire. That is only the surface. He delves deeper, focusing on true motives, the source of desire, the nature of desire, and our inner animal. This film is no different; it is Oshima’s work, through and through. In Kano, we have that inner animal, desire unrestrained by inhibition or morality. We watch to understand. But can we?

The film being a tad boring at times, doesn’t help. Those squeamish about homosexual relations will find some parts off putting too. The pictures are beautiful though, especially in the dark, and Sakamoto is brilliant. Yet I was left scratching my head after this one; I knew whodunnit, but that still didn’t seem enough for me to understand everything that had just happened.

conclusion
This is a twisted, twisted movie, both in the execution of its narrative and its themes. It will keep you guessing from the start, and even when things are revealed, it will still leave you baffled. Does anyone really understand desire? What do we desire, really? Did I even understand everything about Kano at all? Hijikata seems like the only dude I’d want to have a beer with by the way.

A caveat: this film might not be as deep and complex as I’d like to think it is. But, it also isn’t just an exploitative homosexuality film.

things to take note of
The Japanese title
That wonderful score by Sakamoto
Pay attention or you won’t understand a damn thing, even when you know what happened
Shots in the dark, where things come alive

best moment
Kitano + sakura tree
Mild jokes about the homosexuality (no it isn’t insensitive)

why you should watch this
This is Oshima’s last movie
Kitano plays a wry, witty, and unique Hijikata Toshizo (usually depicted as grumpy and ruthless)
Whodunnits with samurai are uncommon
Shinsengumi movies are always interesting

rating: 8: a strong movie with a false reputation. It might have more meaning, it might have less. I’m not sure?

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

similar movies, maybe:
Dai-bosatsu toge / Sword of Doom (yes, really), directed by Okamoto Kihachi

Sonatine

Sonatine (1993)

I have no idea what this cover means, seriously

Director: Kitano Takeshi
Writers: Kitano Takeshi
Date: 1993

Genre: Yakuza, Drama
Description: Yakuzas at the beach having fun, gang wars, living life despite being a gangster

Cast: Kitano Takeshi, Terajima Susumu, Kokumai Aya, Osugi Ren, Watanabe Tetsu, Katsumura Masanobu, Zushi Tonbo, Yajima Kenichi, Minakata Eiji

Crew of note: Music by Joe Hisaishi

Runtime: 94 mins.
Color: Color
Trivia:

summary
Murakawa is a Yakuza quickly rising through the ranks, accumulating influence and power along the way. Rival bosses and the Godfather start to get jealous, and they send him and his gang to Okinawa to settle a gang dispute that everyone knows is impossible to fix. After a few mishaps along the way, Murakawa and his buddies decide to hide out for a while, before contemplating their next move.

review
Tattoos, guns, violence, hot chicks and black Mercedes Benzes. These are usually the things associated with Yakuza, along with a reputation for being cool badasses that cut off their fingers and shoot people. Lots, and lots, and lots of people. Though there’s a lot of violence in this movie (machine guns, grenades, blabbybla), for long stretches it’s easy to forget that the central gang in this film is a bunch of ruthless gangsters.

This is one of the few movies that shows a group of Yakuza not being yakuza. Not exactly “normal lives” because of the circumstances, but certainly more normal than their everyday activities. The film “humanizes” them–I suppose that’s the terminology–, but the more appropriate thing to say, I think, is that the characters are simply allowed to do nothing, to get bored, and to experience the monotony of.. a bunch of guys stuck at the beach. Bored out of their nuts. And it’s fascinating.

Kitano is known for serene moments interrupted by bouts of violence–it’s his thing–and we’ve seen it many times since. That doesn’t make it any less effective, because Kitano, Terajima and the lot are all natural comedians in Yakuza’s tattoos. It’s almost a frat-comedy, but with guns, blood and middle-aged men.

In the end, the movie still sticks to some Yakuza film formulas, and once you’ve seen enough Kitano, it’s easy to predict what will happen.. but this really is just another Yakuza movie, with the “boring” parts include.

conclusion
We all know movie Yakuzas are badasses. But what happens when they’re bored (in between jobs)? Well, pretty much this movie, sandwiched between their normal Yakuza lives. Fascinating really is the word, because this is a side of Yakuza not often seen, not often heard, not often this interesting.

things to take note of
The comedy + the violence
The gang’s transformation as they hide out

best moment
GRENADE!!!
Sumo wrestling
Laundry and shower day

why you should watch this
A Yakuza comedy action drama
Kitano shows a bit of his comedy side along with his tough Yakuza routine
Susumu Terajima, the omnipresent sidekick

rating: 8.6

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

similar movies, maybe:
Hana-bi, directed by Kitano
I don’t think there are many movies where Yakuza’s actually do any of the things they do

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