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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.

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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)

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!)

Kame wa igai to hayaku oyogu / Turtles Swim Faster than Expected

Kame wa igai to hayaku oyogu / Turtles Swim Faster than Expected (2005)

Afro-Juri would have blocked the whole poster

Director: Miki Satoshi
Writers: Miki Satoshi
Date: 2005

Genre: Comedy
Description: Ordinary life, ordinary person becomes a spy, a sudden change in the way one lives one’s life due to a philosophical change, living as a spy

Cast: Ueno Juri, Aoi Yû, Iwamatsu Ryo, Fuse Eri

Crew of note:

Runtime: 90 mins.
Color: Color
Trivia:

summary
Suzume is a bored, lonely houswife somewhere in rural-ish Japan. She’s got a pet turtle to keep her company, but her husband (if I were him I’d never leave Juri-chan’s side, dumbass) is always away on business. Everything changes though, when she accidentally spots an ad to become spy, and inquires about it.

review
I find it rather embarrassing that I’ve already written several reviews of movies with Miyazaki Aoi, and have yet to write one for a film starring Ueno Juri. Note! Juri-chan is my number 3, while Miyazaki Aoi is 4. My girlfriend requires that she be number 1 and that no one’s number 2–since its my favorite number. Anyway.

One of the reasons I started writing reviews was out of boredom. With nothing to do during my spare time (and occasionally at work, shhhh), I found writing about movies rather pleasant. Yet there are times I still long for greater adventure–not necessarily a James Bond/Ogami Itto/Wong Fei Hung kinda life–on the side of my relatively comfortable life.

Well, Suzume gets to keep that comfy life, and get some adventure too. And all it takes is an absurd ad and some imagination. The way her life changes–despite there being no actual change!–is fascinating and quite meaningful, accompanied with tons of laughs and happy funtimes. The silly characters that inhabit her town–the spy couple, the noodle shop man, Aoi Yuu in a great cameo–try to hide their own sillinesses (pluralized noun form of silly?), and this results in some of the best moments in the film. Sure, nothing much actually happens in the film (leading me to have nothing much to talk about), but in the context of Suzume’s new job, her new mission, and her new friends, even something as dull and dreary as a visit to this town can be a magical, meaningful trip.

conclusion
It’s easy to say that this film is simply a feel-good movie. But underneath the laughs, the afro and strange circumstances, there’s an interesting proposition: how much does a change in perspective–or the way one approaches living one’s life–affect life itself, in a tangible, permanent way? Miki treats this message brilliantly, and Juri-chan is impossible not to love. Despite the fact I rate Miyazaki Aoi’s movies better, Juri-chan is still far and away my favorite actress, and Kame wa igai to hayaku oyogu is certainly one of the reasons that she is.

things to take note of
The boredom?
The spy bizniz
Juri-chan ❤

best moment
Finding the ad for the spy biz
What Suzume does in her boredom

why you should watch this
Ueno Juri ❤

rating: 8

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

similar movies, maybe:
Tenten / Adrift in Tokyo, also by Miki Satoshi

genres

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