Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Review: Her Brother (1960)

Reprinted from kuzu

Before we launch into our review, let's first look at some of the historical details of Her Brother (Japanese title: おとうと) :

-Adapted from the best-selling autobiography of Aya Koda, daughter of Rohan Koda, one of Japan's greatest authors of historically-based heroic fiction

-Directed by Kon Ichikawa (R.I.P.) who, up to Her Brother's release, had already released two of his masterworks, Fires On the Plain and The Burmese Harp, as well as his adaptations of Junichiro Tanizaki's The Key and Mishima's Enjo

-Featured at the 1961 Cannes Film Festival where it was also given a technical reward for the now-named "Bleach Bypass" color technique used to give the film its classic feel

-Multi-award winner in its native Japan including prestigious Best Film and Best Director Kinema Junpo awards

-Features an all-star cast of Keiko Kishi (Kwaidan, Early Spring and, in my opinion, has one of the most adorable pouts in film history), Hiroshi Kawaguchi (Floating Weeds, Giants and Toys,), Kinuyo Tanaka (Ballad of Narayama, Ugetsu), Masayuki Mori (Rashomon, The Bad Sleep Well)

-Also features an early acting role by a young Juzo Itami who would later go on to direct the modern classics A Taxing Woman and Tampopo

Her Brother is the story of a dedicated young woman, Gen (Kishi), who must tend to the needs of her brother Hekiro (Kawaguchi), father (Father), and stepmother (Tanaka). By all measures, one would think this film to be yet another classic in the Ichikawa resume but has instead all but sunk into obscurity in the western world. It's a shame because on the surface, though a melodrama, Her Brother is a strong portrait of Japanese families and, more specifically, women's roles within them. Despite the title, the film focuses more on Gen, the daughter in the family, and her forced role as the mother of the family due to the presence of her rheumatic stepmother: she cooks, cleans, runs the errands, and has to discipline and cover debts for Hekiro who is only a few years younger than her. Though the familial relationships are visibly strained, Gen wills herself as the glue that keeps them together even foresaking a domestic married life to do so. It's not until Hekiro becomes ill with tuberculosis that the family is able to come back together as a unit.

Though Ozu, for example, has touched on these issues throughout his career, Ichikawa in His Brother takes a different approach by relying less on visual cues via cinematography and instead relies on the viewer to understand the film through the dialog and actions of its characters. Ichikawa, however, does not skimp on the visuals. The family's home with its thin walls and fusuma (sliding doors) were used brilliantly to show how close people can be and yet how emotionally distant they really are. Passage of time is, likewise, shown very subtly: the chirp of cicadas signals summertime while the different patterns in clothing and layers worn by characters signal the passage of time.

Again, it's a shame that this film is not available for viewing anywhere except at special screenings (the one I attended was once again part of Stanford University's Japan 1960 series). Her Brother is a nice accompanying piece to Mikio Naruse's When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, released the same year. The former explores female roles in the family while the latter explores their roles within society; both of them excellent studies of this subject.


Sunday, February 17, 2008

Japanese Theme Songs Part Three

Along with Bic Camera, Yodobashi Camera is one of the larger electronics store chains in Japan with the majority of their locations in the Kanto region. Americans should recognize their theme song, a jazzed-up variation of the anthem "The Battle Hymn of the Republic". It was definitely an interesting experience shopping for a vacuum cleaner and hearing a 19th century war hymn. Maybe I should have been shopping for a musket?

Yodobashi's theme:

The original "Battle Hymn of the Republic":

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Letters From Iwo Jima tonight on AMC

There will be two special commercial-free showings of Letters From Iwo Jima tonight on AMC at 8PM and 10:30PM EST. Information and media here.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Kon Ichikawa Dead

One of the last of the Japanese master directors has passed away today as reported by The Mainichi Daily News here:

Japanese film director Kon Ichikawa dead at 92

TOKYO (AP) -- Kon Ichikawa, the Japanese director of such films as "Harp of Burma" and "Tokyo Olympiad," has died. He was 92.

Ichikawa died of pneumonia in a Tokyo hospital on Feb. 13, said Chizuko Wagatsuma, a spokeswoman with Toho Co., the company that released "The Makioka Sisters" and many of his other films in the 1970s and 1980s.

He had been hospitalized since mid-January, she said.

11/20/15 - 02/13/08

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Review: House (aka Hausu) (1977)

Reprinted from Eigazoku

Director: Nobuhiko Obayashi
House is less a movie than an exercise in creativity, ambition, surrealness, as well as annoyance with occasional boredom. Consider that it had a first-time feature director in Nobuhiko Obayashi, soundtrack by folk-rockers Godiego, and a young female lead cast whose syrupy cute chemistry together probably could have been crystallized into the form of a House idol group for a one-off pop single. Even their character names are "hip", pointing to the character type they play: Oshare (which means "fancy" in Japanese) is the fashionable one, Kung-Fu is the athletic one, Mac (for stomache) is the glutton who's always eating and so on. With all of these elements, Obayashi could have made something plain: maybe a youth summer adventure film or maybe a coming-of-age romance story, or even horror. The fact that he chose "all of the above" resulted in House.

The premise is fairly simple: six female classmates, on their summer break, decide to spend some time at Oshare's aunt's old house in the country. As everyone knows, though, old houses have secrets and this one wants to literally consume them. What the film really about, though, is near free-form experimentation. Obayashi, it's said, had wanted to make his film one which would have audiences fall in love with film again. To this end, he and his crew pulled out all stops in producing a film that incorporates nearly every audio and visual effect possible, sometimes several happening at once. There is an abundance of bizarre story elements; for example, when one man literally goes bananas because he doesn't like watermelons. Genre boundaries are frequently crossed from teen film to horror to romance to action to comedy, you really can't guess what the film is going to spit out at you next.

Does Obayashi's grand experiment work though? Yes and no. House is literally a visual feast not unlike, say, Takashi Miike's The Happiness of the Katakuris and Tetsuya Nakashima's Kamikaze Girls. However, also like those films, the experimentation can be a little too wink-wink nudge-nudge, a little too cute, and in some sequences, a little too tedious. Ironically, I found several of the scenes in which we learn more about the connection between the house and Oshare's aunt to just simply crawl. In contrast, though, there are also several very clever scenes: a sepia-toned silent film sequence explaining Oshare's family history, and Kung-Fu's several battle scenes were ones that stood out for me. Most of the scenes were filmed in studio sets, the use of mattes give the film an otherworldly feel. One scene showing Tokyo Station, normally one of the most common sites in Japan, was especially surreal and somehow beautiful at the same time.

House did very well upon its release in Japan and one thing's for sure is that this is one of the films that's usually on most Japanese cult movie fan's want list. Seeing as the film is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year and that it can still manage to be fresh, interesting and bizarre in today's film scene actually says a lot. It's not a film for everyone and it will reward as much as it frustrates but it's a recommended watch, even if only just once.

The trailer was this week's "Trailer of the Week" and can be seen here.

Review copy obtained through allcluesnosolutions.com and located here in their catalog.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Japanese Theme Songs Part Two

Exhibit two: Bic Camera

Like a true warrior of twisted tastes, the person who recorded the Bic Camera (an electronics store chain) theme song (not me, really!) actually went into a store with a video camera and found an optimal location to record away. He or she even went as far to include the lyrics in the video description which you can check out by clicking through to YouTube. Good work, soldier!

Friday, February 8, 2008

Review: Cruel Story Of Youth (1960)

Reprinted from kuzu.

This showing of Cruel Story Of Youth (dir: Nagisa Oshima, best known for In the Realm of the Senses) was provided through Stanford University's Center For East Asian Studies' Japan 1960 film festival (check their blog here for information on the festival's theme and other showings) . Perhaps unconsciously, I wore one of my kelly green aloha shirts which would become a sort of rebel fashion statement to such rebels of the time onward to being a yakuza-adopted fashion into the '80s. I had even proposed to my old high school friend Adam (his Japanese film blog is here) , whom I attended with, that we stage a fight in front of the auditorum to get ourselves into the mood but he refused. Failed male bonding notwithstanding, we watched the film unscathed even though I felt like I was fighting with the auditorium's old seats for a little back comfort.

Cruel Story Of Youth (Japanese title: 青春残酷物語 and also known as Naked Youth) is a raucous "rebel without a pause" story with scenes of fighting, suggested sex, smoking, aloha shirts (ahem), blood, sweat, and tears, not to mention the requisite "jolt your senses" orchestral hits. The story follows the forever scowling Kiyoshi (actor Yusuke Kawazu) and Makoto (super-actress Miyuki Kuwano), both students, who both meet when Makoto gets mixed up with a salaryman whom she had bummed a ride with. Kiyoshi ends up saving her and shaking the man down for some yen. This shakedown plays itself out throughout the film as they pick up other suckers for the thrills and cash to the point in which the two almost develop a pimp-prostitute relationship. Meanwhile, there's Makoto's disapproving family, Kiyoshi's middle aged sugar mama, and a gang of thugs and a yakuza who popup to further make their lives miserable. Makoto's relationship with her sister is especially volatile. An important backdrop to the film is the year it was filmed in: 1960. While the introductory entry in the Japan 1960 blog best describes the atmosphere of that year, in a nutshell, that year was a time of great turmoil as many activists were protesting against the renewal of the US-Japan Security Alliance. For the purposes of the film, Makoto's sister and a former lover of hers who is a doctor are portrayed as former activists whose ideals have already been sold out.

On its surface, the film can be seen as a somewhat exploitative cautionary tale about wasted youth (this film was released by the Shochiku film studio under the auspice of being a "taiyozoku" youth-oriented film) but Oshima seems to want to say much more. Oshima, a former leftist protestor in his own youth but disillusioned with both the left and right by the time of this film, portrays his characters much as he saw the world: people who are neither find themselves part of the left or right and, in fact, caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place instead. This is a recurring theme that would be explored in Oshima's later films: The Sun's Burial, Night and Fog In Japan, and to a certain degree, Boy. Besides the theme, the cinematography is quite good: vivid colors, nice handheld camera work, and good use of light and dark - there's one noir-ish scene in which Kiyoshi is gnawing on an apple that is very striking in showing how he is actually gnawing away at his very soul. Another great shot is when, after the two protagonists have broken up, Makoto is seen walking down a busy street only lit by the headlights of cars, her profile half cutout of the shot. The audio in this scene is nothing but the reverberating sound of her heels on the pavement, the sound of despair and isolation that echoes Kiyoshi's earlier declaration to her (paraphrased): "Whether together or alone, it will all end up [bad] in the end".

Provocative stuff but then Oshima is no stranger to that.

Cultural note: The aforementioned apple scene has Kiyoshi bringing one to Makoto after an illegal abortion (performed by her sister's former lover). It's a Japanese custom to bring fruit to an ailing person as a "get well" gesture.

Film Availability: Currently only on VHS


Thanks to the Japan 1960 series folk, Donald Richie's "A Hundred Years of Japanese Film", and Nelson Kim's article on Oshima on Senses of Cinema site for providing some of the background used in this review.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Japanese Theme Songs Part One

Because of a cold, I ended up staying home from work yesterday. At first, I half-heartedly tried playing some Team Fortress 2 but ended up running around in circles (in the game) because I was half asleep from the cold medicine I had taken in the morning. Thinking it better to move over to a less mentally taxing activity, I did what many in the same condition would do: moved over to YouTube. More specifically, I went through the several hundred videos that I've been favoriting and adding to playlists just to see what gems I deemed worthy of future viewing on a sick afternoon. The vast majority were music videos that I've been saving and forwarding on to friends but I was able to find a playlist of a couple hundred videos related to Japan. Most were sentimental things: pachinko promos, videos of train rides on lines that I used to live on, TV shows and personalities that I liked, music videos, miscellaneous movie trailers (still not sure why I kept the one for Ryuhei Kitamura's epic cheesefest Sky High). Nestled among this treasure chest, though, I found a number of theme songs from stores that I had used to pester some Japanese classmates with lately. And now, in a short series, I bring these treasures to you.

First of this series is the probably one of the more annoying themes but one which you will probably be singing to yourself on your way to work tomorrow morning: Shop 99's.

Shop 99 is something not unlike dollar stores in North America (the 99 stands for 99 yen which everything in the store is priced at and the "kyu" repeated in the song means "9") and many are actually converted from convenience stores that either went belly up or whose owners (7-11, Family Mart, et al) closed down for some reason. In a documentary that I saw on the company, the president claimed it was simpler for them to just buy out the furnishings, front sign and all, rather than try to redecorate or renovate. Makes sense.

Anyway, enjoy the song and comfort in the fact that you're not actually working at a Shop 99 where the tune is played on an endless loop.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Review: Biotherapy (1986)

Reprinted from Eigazoku

Director: Akihiro Kashima
A recent donation of this bootleg to the 'zoku review coffers from Slash and Burn proved to be a two-fold blessing: the first being the ability to see some good ol' mid 80's V-cinema (the Japanese equivalent of "direct-to-video"), most films of which will probably never be seen on DVD, and the second, I didn't have to pay for this crap.

Biotherapy is a horror/sci-fi shocker that clocks in just short of an hour. That's right, short so you know a lot of logic is bound to get pulled out of the story like an eyeball from a screaming scientist. The story is that some scientists at the Hirose Research Institute of Biology have developed a GT (glutamyltransferase, in case you were wondering) serum derived from meteors which speeds up biological growth. As it turns out, not everyone is cool on this serum: an ugly alien-like thing, described as a "miraijin" or time traveller, in the film and probably played by the director's big brother, has been sent to retrieve the serum and cause the most unnecessarily gory violent deaths to those who developed it. Why? At under an hour do you care? Actually, since no edition of this film has any kind of English subtitles, all of the time traveller's dialog was made much harder to understand since it was overdubbed with this cheesy echoplexed "demonic" voice that has been used in Japanese TV and films for, like, ever. Let's just assume that our time traveller friend objected to the scientific and moral ramifications of the serum's use or, heck, maybe he just wanted to tear various limbs and innards from a gang of earthfolk. It's all about the same thing, isn't it?

Gore-wise, Biotherapy has some pretty nifty scenes and did win a special effects award from, of all sources, the manga magazine Young Jump. I've seen comparisons to the Guinea Pig series and, yes it does have its share of entrailsectomies, tonguesectomies, and eyesectomies but this is misleading. If anything, Biotherapy owes a lot to slashers and specifically Friday the 13th; the time traveller wears a mask to cover his face and always breathes heavily a la Jason as he is stalking his victims (and in an unintentionally humorous touch, his appearance is signaled with a lightning-like flash and a synth drum beat). There is one scene in which a character is stabbed in the chest with several test tubes and blood, geyser-like, pumps out of her chest. This is the type of scene I was looking for (and failed to get) in Commando's death-by-pipe-impalement scene.

In all, not an entirely bad film to check out if you can but there are better things you can do instead of watching it. Like watching half of a better film.