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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.

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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)

Lang tao sha / Waves Washing the Sand

Lang tao sha / Waves Washing the Sand (1936)

Not on the island: food

Director: Wu Yonggang
Writers: Wu Yonggang (uncertain)
Date: 1936

Genre: Drama
Description: Criminals and cops, good people, different circumstances yield different results, change of fortune, tragedy, a hard life

Cast: Jin Yan, Zhang Zhizhi (imdB doesn’t list him in the other movies I’ve seen with him, so I’m not sure if this is him)

Crew of note:

Runtime: 70 mins.
Color: Black and White
Trivia:

summary
A sailor comes home from a voyage to find his wife with another man. Their argument escalates, and the other man dies. A detective arrives to solve the case, and goes to the ends of the Earth to track him down and bring him to justice.

review
I was laughing while writing that summary, because it sounds more like a Hollywood blockbuster than a great Chinese drama. That really is the premise though, and from it we get one of my favorites from this age.

The focus of this film is not so much the chase, but the characters involved in it. In fact, the case itself is rather uneventful, and takes place over several years; not exactly the makings of an action flick. By focusing on the characters though, Wu sets up a great dynamic for their eventually meeting. Without all the characterization, without showing the long and arduous path towards their conjoined fates, the movie’s conclusion would just not be as effective.

I was able to find a review of this film that focuses more on its technical aspects, and I don’t think I can do much better than it. It has spoilers though, so be warned. Clickity-click.

While that review focused on camera, framing, narrative structure, etc, what I was most impressed with was the meaning of Wu’s tale. The reversal of fortunes, the final circumstances, and a great tragedy played out by two well-defined, well acted characters. Solidarity, unity, ironies of class struggle, how changes of circumstance can change one’s perspective… all of these themes can clearly be seen, especially in the illuminating ending.

conclusion
The film is artful, honest, and meaningful, three things that propaganda films (a norm at the time) rarely do in unison. This film has so far escaped even the cinephile public (lang tao sha 1936 yields only 86 non-redundant results, some of which contain little or no information), and that’s a shame. Great movies like this should never be left forgotten.

things to take note of
The two main characters– their backgrounds, personalities, fortunes, etc.
The sounds–wind, water, waves crashing, etc.

best moment
The opening scenes
The island

why you should watch this
One of the best plots, with an intelligent proposition
Wu Yonggang might be my favorite Chinese director from the silent era

rating: 8.5

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

similar movies, maybe:
Reminds me of Sun Yu’s “Huoshan Qingxie / Loving Blood of the Volcano” for some reason

Bakumatsu zankoku monogatari / A Cruel Tale at the End of the Tokugawa Era

Bakumatsu zankoku monogatari / A Cruel Tale at the End of the Tokugawa Era (1964)

Time to play spot the chambara regular

Director: Kato Tai
Writers: Kunihiro Takeo
Date: 1964

Genre: Chambara
Description: Shinsengumi, honor and justice, revenge, cruelty, true purpose of the Shinsengumi, murders, death, revisionist history?

Cast: Okawa Hashizo, Nishimura Ko, Otomo Ryutaro, Uchida Ryohei, Kimura Isao, Nakamura Takeya, Kawarazaki Choichiro, Fuji Junko

Crew of note:

Runtime: 99 mins.
Color: Black and White
Trivia:

summary
This is a movie set in the ranks of the Shinsengumi, and you’d benefit more from researching about them a bit, since there are a lot of good movies based on them. In this one, a cowardly man with no skills with a sword begs his way into the Shinsengumi with raw manly balls. Taking every opportunity he can get, he soon becomes the troop’s semi-official head-chopper, executing newbies and veteran offenders alike. Some members become jealous though; they deride him for his dastardly work. Even his new girlfriend, one of the clan’s nurses/attendants, begins to doubt the kindness she saw in him in the beginning.

review
No frills here. No complex metaphors, vast political statements, heavy handed sentiments. This movie is about the Shinsengumi, the cruelty in their laws, and what happens to a man thrown into this mess. That’s it. And it’s fantastic.

The storytelling is strong, unrelenting, full of details but always with the purpose of moving the film forward while exploring its characters to reveal just about enough. It assumes you know at least a little about the history behind these events, however, and no longer wastes time in explaining everything. Though the story follows history and Shinsengumi lore for the most part, there is still room for great twists, told from a unique perspective.

What is most enjoyable about this film, however, is the chaos and bloodshed. Set pieces are meticulously planned. Each frame is full of action, and many of the best moments of action are taken in long, striding shots. Kato uses every bit of the black and white screen, and gives us some of the most brutal, bloody, and awesome scenes from 60s chambara. The most critical moments are also punctuated by a soft, subtle soundtrack, heightening the experience but never trying to steal the show. This is one of those movies that makes you wish you were born a samurai, despite all the crap these people had to deal with. Awesome.

conclusion
I’ve got no complaints about this film. Even though it doesn’t have many philosophical implications, even though it doesn’t have much to say about the human condition, even though it’s just a story about a group of men in a time of turmoil, everything works. One of the best Shinsengumi tales, and a great chambara. Not quite a classic, but you can hardly find many better.

things to take note of
I really want to know who plays Okita Soji. He looks interesting.
This isn’t exactly a very deep film, so just watch the swordplay
Fuji Junko, legendary yakuza hottie, in an early role

best moment
Everytime there’s a fight, and set pieces with fights
The last scenes, of course!

why you should watch this
I love seeing chambara regulars in small roles (Nishimura, Kimura, Uchida)
Lives up to its name as a cruel and brutal tale of the Shinsengumi
Some of the best choreographed fight scenes in chambara

rating: 8.5

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

similar movies, maybe:
Other Shinsengumi movies:
Okita Soji, directed by Deme Masanobu
Mibu gishi den / When the Last Sword is Drawn, directed by Takita Yojiro
Shinsengumi shimatsuki / Shinsengumi Chronicles, directed by Misumi Kenji
Ansatsu / Assassination, directed by Shinoda Masahiro
Shinsengumi / Band of Assassins, directed by Sawashima Tadashi

Joi-uchi: Hairyô tsuma shimatsu / Samurai Rebellion

Joi-uchi: Hairyo tsuma shimatsu / Samurai Rebellion (1967)

I guess it's obvious he gets chopped to bits. Another movie spoiled by cover art

Director: Kobayashi Masaki
Writers: Hashimoto Shinobu, Takiguchi Yasuhiko
Date: 1967

Genre: Chambara
Description: Ninjo vs giri, cruel samurai tradition, a good wife, true love, fight against the daimyo, stupid politics, true internal rebellion, fight to the death

Cast: Mifune Toshiro, Kato Takeshi, Tsukasa Yoko, Nakadai Tatsuya, Hamamura Jun, Yamagata Isao, Koyama Shigeru

Crew of note: Music by Takemitsu Toru

Runtime: 128 mins.
Color: Black and White
Trivia:

summary
The movie opens with Isaburo (Mifune), one of his clan’s best, displaying his sword skill–drawing it seems like a mere ritual after decades of peace. Tatewaki (Nakadai) is his best friend, who patrols the borders of their clan. Eventually Isaburo will rebel (no surprise there) for a very good reason, and swordfights ensue! [note: Crappy summary for your benefit]

review
This is one of those films where it is best to enter with your preconceptions, expectations, and high hopes. This is the kind that’s most difficult to review, because those said expectations are part of the experience, and revealing anything more than a bare-bones background and a technical rundown may be a disservice to the potential viewing public. It’s best to see this film knowing only its title, Samurai Rebellion, as I did. Also, you should already have seen a least a couple of chambara, and know its tropes genre standards.

Let me just say a few things, though. This is one of the most complexly plotted rebellion films in chambara, and it is one of the things that makes it most interesting. As with all of Kobayashi’s work, there is a rich undercurrent of political and social commentary, about the cruel and incomprehensible traditions of the samurai, and about modern life as well. The story is treated with much restraint, just as the characters in the story control their emotions in order to fulfill either ninjo or giri. The dialogue between characters is meaningful, occasionally metaphoric, and always addressing some social or personal concern. Fidelity, loyalty and the acceptance of one’s fate are traits esteemed by bushido, but sometimes, enough is enough.

Expect a great film about a real rebellion.

conclusion
Harakiri is definitely Kobayashi’s most popular film, perhaps his best. Even The Human Condition receives more notice than this movie. Those two are justifiably must-sees, but this one deserves some recognition as well. One of the most intelligent, emotional, and down-to-earth rebellion chambara you will ever find. This isn’t an unknown movie by any standard, but it still deserves more than it’s so far received.

things to take note of
The rebellion
Mifune’s dialogue

best moment
Mifune + Nakadai
The last stand
The last duel
Conversation between Ichi an Isaburo in the rock garden

why you should watch this
Mifune + Nakadai!!!!
A chambara with a love story that also proves your expectations wrong, and even bests them

rating: 8.5

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

similar movies, maybe:
Harakiri, also directed by Kobayashi
There are other “rebellion” chambara, but none are very similar to this kind of rebellion

genres

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