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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

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

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

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
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

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.

Shinju: Ten no amijima / Double Suicide

Shinju: Ten no amijima / Double Suicide (1969)

Thanks for spoiling the movie, DVD Cover

Director: Shinoda Masahiro
Writers: Chikamatsu Monzaemon (original bunraku play), Shinoda Masahiro, Takemitsu Toru, Tomioka Taeko
Date: 1969

Genre: Love Story
Description: Ninjo vs giri, love and duty, in love with a courtesan, redemption, a loving wife, an inevitable conclusion, bunraku + film, honor, loyalty, metafiction?, desperation

Cast: Iwashita Shima, Nakamura Kichiemon, Fujiwara Kamatari, Kayo Yoshi, Kawarazaki Shizue, Komatsu Hosei, Takita Yusuke

Crew of note: Score by Takemitsu Toru

Runtime: 142 mins.
Color: BW
Trivia: Shinoda and Iwashita were married in 1967. Until now I think.

Jihei, a struggling paper merchant is enamored by Koharu the courtesan. He spends his days and his hard-earned money with her, neglecting his work and his wife, Osan. However, Jihei cannot have Koharu because he is unable to buy her from her contract. Of course, his family soon finds out, and the real story begins.

Pure genius. The combination of bunraku and film is stunning and meaningful. The use of the puppeteers (clad in black like in bunraku), obviously a symbol of something (hint hint), is flawless–it is never obstrusive and serves a natural purpose. Oh, and it’s dang beautiful, too. The sets are a mix of bunraku sets and abstract Japanese design, which shows how far ahead Shinoda is. They move, change, and have a theater’s claustrophobic aura. It is impossible not to admire Shinoda and his crew for their vision, creating this mix of both art forms. It would sound silly for me to throw every superlative at it. This is definitely something that has to be seen. And I stress how important this is, how absolutely essential it is, in the meaning of this film. Thank God for The Criterion Collection, because their transfer really does justice to Shinoda’s black and white, and the shadows are as black as can be, and the whites sometimes blinding.

The story may have a simple premise, but the depth of conflict in the three main characters is amazingly portrayed, and choosing Iwashita to play both women was an inspired choice. It is difficult to imagine Koharu and Osan being played by different women, and the eventualities that overtake the film further emphasize the importance of this choice. Watch, as they make decisions you make think at first impossible.

The whole movie is blanketed by Takemitsu’s brilliant score, which I’d say is one of his best alongside his work for Suna no onna.

Though the title and the poster/cover pretty much tell you the ending, the journey to that end is captivating.

Perhaps Shinoda’s masterpiece. A must-see for all fans of film, especially those with an eye for pretty pictures. Though, perhaps a little background in bunraku will help. Try to see a bunraku in person before this film; or if impossible, after. It will help you appreciate this movie more.

things to take note of
The amazing, amazing sets
Spot what doesn’t belong (in a traditional period film)
That ending
The puppeteers and what they do
Takemitsu’s brilliant score

best moment
Whenever the sets break down or change
That ending

why you should watch this
A great movie that blends film and bunraku (Japanese puppet play)
The fact that it’s film + bunraku!!
Iwashita’s best performance, imo

rating: 9.2

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

similar movies, maybe:
Dolls by Kitano Takeshi’s got bunraku, but actually they aren’t similar at all, except that they’re both great. And have bunraku.



November 2020