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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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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!)

Warai no daigaku / University of Laughs

Warai no daigaku / University of Laughs (2004)

Shown: 1/3 of the movies sets. Not shown: Comedy

Director: Hoshi Mamoru
Writers: Mitani Koki
Date: 2004

Genre: Comedy
Description: Writing a comedy play, 1940’s Japan, censorship, improving your script, an odd duo, stage play turned movie, play within a play within a play within a movie…?

Cast: Yakusho Koji, Inagaki Goro

Crew of note:

Runtime: 121 mins.
Color: Color
Trivia: Based on Mitani Koki’s play

summary
Hajime is writing a play for his troupe, but there’s a new censure in town, Sakisaka Mutsuo, and he takes his job pretty seriously. The writer brings his play for approval, but it is deemed “not nationalistic enough.” The stern but amusingly enthusiastic censure decides to give him some tips. Laughing happy funtimes ensue!

review
With only two recurring characters, 3 settings (censors office, street, theater), two chairs and a table, the movie may seem simplistic. The plot certainly suggests so. As a slapstick comedy, its potential for big laughs is generally the only thing that audiences look for. What you will find here, however, is an intelligent script about the nature of scriptwriting that delivers both laughs and insight into playwriting. I suppose you can call it “meta”, because even though it doesn’t self-reference itself as a comedy, its background as a comedy play about writing comedy plays, and the way the movie relies on the unpredictability of the writing process as its plot, source of comedy, and main narrative structure… maybe you should over-analyze after the movie’s over instead. Anyway!

The laughs. Yes, the movie is funny, and even funnier if you know Japanese (some of the puns will escape you otherwise, even with the best subtitles). The two characters are enthusiastic about their work, move in the same way as their period contemporary comedies (exaggerated movements and facial expressions, etc), and are at odds with each other about almost everything. They clash constantly, and their unlikely writing tandem results in many, many laugh out loud moments.

Many comedies end after forcing its characters into unpredictably absurd situations. But there is an end result to its characters’ interactions: a comedy. You get a comedy, they get a comedy. It’s an interesting thought, one I’m sure I thought about way too much. Narrative structure, the play-like execution, the plot itself… all really intelligent, as if it’s impossible that the laughs were even the point of the movie. Laughs as a side-effect of Mitani’s inquiry into the process of scriptwriting? I’m not sure, I was laughing too hard. Looks like I failed Hoshi and Mitani’s University of Laughs (see what I did thar harharhar).

conclusion
An enjoyable film with an intelligent script. There aren’t many metafictional comedies, but this one strikes gold.

things to take note of
Steak of the nation
Yakusho Koji’s deadpan-to-comedian transformation
Idiot’s Guide to Writing Comedy

best moment
Raaaatatatatatat police! Halt! HAHAHAHA

why you should watch this
Intelligent comedies are usually even better than intelligent dramas
Dude, maybe I can write comedies too

rating: 9 (yes, really)

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

similar movies, maybe:
I’m not sure. Stranger Than Fiction? I don’t think there’s even a single Asian in that movie. Intelligent meta-ish comedies are hard to find, y’know. Man, I hate that word.

Eri Eri rema sabakutani / Eli Eli Lema Sabachthani / My God My God Why Hath Thou Forsaken Me?

Eli Eli Lema Sabachthani (2005)

I wonder where he plugged all those things

Director: Aoyama Shinji
Writers: Aoyama Shinji
Date: 2005

Genre: Nothing?
Description: Lemming Syndrome, noise, suicide, life and death, loneliness, music

Cast: Asano Tadanobu, Miyazaki Aoi, Okada Mariko, Nakahara Masaya

Crew of note: Music by Nagashima Hiroyuki, Cinematography by Tamura Masaki

Runtime: 107 mins.
Color: Color
Trivia: Asano plays the f’n guitar, and those are real sounds

summary
Lemming Syndrome! People infected with this mysterious virus suddenly feel the urge to kill themselves, which will eventually mean the end of the world in the most depressing and emptying way possible. But, there’s hope! Two experimental musicians may have a cure: noise music. Does it blast your brain’s senses and knock the virus out? Does the frequency of their aural onslaught resonate and destroy the virus? Or maybe voluntarily listening to their music for extended periods of time should be medically considered suicide. Whatever dudes, they rock!

review
[summary continue] Hana, a girl stricken with Lemming Syndrome, is brought to Mizui and Asuhara in hopes of ridding her of her suicidal tendencies. Stuff happens very, very slowly, and then everyone rocks out. The End.

Okay, it might not be that simple, but that’s already a fairly complete outline, minus possible spoilers. The movie really is quite minimal.. but the pictures are beautiful, and the soundtrack is superb. This is a viruszombieapocalypse movie minus the action, minus the escape, minus the drama, and instead focuses on the implications of a world slowly emptying itself of humanity. Include other favorites of philosophical discourse–suicide, art, beauty, chicks (Miyazaki Aoi <3)–and you get a recipe for.. well, probably a headache. This is a film that requires participation: interpret, contemplate, philosophize. In between bouts of raging air guitar.

conclusion
Many people with stamp this with the “too experimental” hazard, but I disagree. The plot is fairly linear, though very minimal; dialogue is sparse as well. The only thing that may hold back some viewers is the presence of Mizui and Asuhara’s noodling with instruments, but if you can get past that, and perhaps even enjoy it (like Hana, in the end), this can be a joy for your eyes, ears, and mind. It has all the philosophical trappings of the best virus/zombie/apocalypse films, with an emphasis on dis/connection, loneliness, and music. But best of all, it has the most badass concert in all of cinema.

things to take note of
The color (yellow and earth tones)
The importance of the music
The silence in between
Meaning? Symbolism? I bet it’s somewhere

best moment
The concert! m/ m/

why you should watch this
If you like noise or experimental music, this will be bliss
Asano Tadanobu + Miyazaki Aoi
Amazing music, amazing cinematography

rating: 9.25 (or 6 if you can’t stand the noiz)

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

similar movies, maybe:
Electric Dragon 80,000 Volts directed by Ishii Sogo, with Asano
Maybe other zombie/virus films, but this really is unique

genres

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