Sunday, July 26, 2009

Short, sharp shocks: The X from Outer Space, Cash Calls Hell, Abashiri Prison

"Short, sharp shocks" is a new section in which I will give short looks at films that are not readily (and/or officially) found on DVD at the time of writing.

The X from Outer Space (1968; dir: Kazui Nihonmatsu). The "X" (or Guilala as he is known in his native Japan) was, as you can imagine, another Godzilla cash-in replete with a rubber suited monster (which is very chicken-like, to boot), terrible cityscapes constructed of models, even worse spaceship sets, lasers, convoluted sci-fi dialog (the monster can be destroyed by an element known as "Guilalaium"), broad characterizations, and bad acting. The plot is standard: ol' X comes from a pod-like egg resulting from the main characters' trip through an asteroid belt. Of course, ill-advisedly, they bring the pod back and X hatches and reaks (reeks?) havoc on Tokyo and the surrounding areas. Unlike other kaiju films of its kind, X dispenses with an orchestral or even a stock film score and opts for a lot of ill-fitting go-go music instead. Put out by the normally classy Shochiku studios, The X from Outer Space is for B-movie and/or kaiju fans only. For everyone else, leave the Guilala and get with the Godzilla. A sequel of sorts, The Monster X Strikes Back, has recently been released.

Cash Calls Hell (1966; Dir: Hideo Gosha).
Whether or not the influence of the West in Japan has been positive is an ongoing question in many academic circles. However, the influence of Western filmic styles has been extremely beneficial, especially in capturing the mood of post-WWII Japan (native films were heavily censored during the war and foreign films were outright banned): the rampant poverty, lawlessness, desperation, anger have all been captured in, among many other films, The Burmese Harp (1956; dir: Kon Ichikawa), The Human Condition trilogy (1958, 1959, 1962; dir: Masaki Kobayashi), and later in the epic Battles Without Honor and Humanity series (1973 - 1979; dir: Kinji Fukasaku). Gosha's Cash Calls Hell is another that owes a lot to Western film, noir in particular. Always awesome Tatsuya Nakadai plays Oida, an ex-con, caught in the middle of a two-year blood pact between four other men whom Oida must go along with and against throughout the film. Gosha, always a capable director, puts in one of his best efforts and does well replicating noir techniques: lighting, odd and interesting camera angles, and nicely framed shots. A shame this isn't available officially on any format.

Abashiri Prison (1965, dir: Teruo Ishii) Ken Takakura, who plays the protagonist of Abashiri Prison, is probably better known outside of his country for his roles in the 1974 Sydney Pollack potboiler The Yakuza, the broad 1992 comedy Mr. Baseball, and animal trainer to Michael Douglas and Andy Garcia in 1989's Black Rain (Takakura's classic line "And I DO speak fucking English" should have been picked up as an advertising slogan for an English school in Japan but that's another story). It may surprise people who only know him for these roles that Takakura is somewhat of a God in the Japanese acting community and the Abashiri Prison series, which got up to seventeen installments, is what elevated him to that status. Takakura plays Tsukibana, a two-bit gangster with a heart of gold whose quick temper and poor decision-making have landed him in Abashiri (an real-life former prison in the Hokkaido region). Tsukibana's mother has fallen sick so he is stuck between waiting for a parole stay or escaping prison. When he becomes an unwitting accomplice to an escape, he must then figure out the right path to redemption. Abashiri is a capable film with a little of everything: action, comedy, mystery, drama but it's Takakura who keeps it all together; his charismatic presence absolutely dominates the film and definitely elevates it above the typical yakuza actioneer. Genre film fans might also take note that this film, much as it did with Takakura, made director Teruo Ishii a household name (well, he was able to get more work anyway). However, you might not find a speck of evidence in Abashiri Prison of what you would find in Ishii's later works such as Shogun's Joy of Torture and Orgies of Edo.

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