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BIFF 2014 #21: Nomura Yoshitaro Retrospective

Posted by Roy Stafford on 13 April 2014

Nomura Yoshitaro (second left) shooting The Demon (1978) on the Noto peninsula.

Nomura Yoshitaro (second left, Ogata Ken is third  from left)) shooting The Demon (1978) on the Noto peninsula.

Portrait Without BleedThe highlight of BIFF 2014 for me was the retrospective of films directed by Nomura Yoshitaro. Five films, all adapted from published stories by the celebrated crime fiction writer Matsumoto Seicho, were screened ranging from Stakeout (Japan 1958) to The Demon (1978). Festival director Tom Vincent worked with Nomura’s studio Shochiku and its international representative Chiaki Omori to bring prints to the UK with the assistance of the Japan Foundation, Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation and the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation. The five prints will also be screened in London at the ICA from 18 April.

I’ve blogged on each of the five films on our sister blog: http://globalfilmstudies.com/tag/nomura-yoshitaro/

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Kinugasa Teinosuke

Posted by keith1942 on 12 March 2014

Yoshiwara in Crossways

Yoshiwara in Crossways

Kinugasa worked as a director in the Japanese film industry from 1920 to 1966. His main work was at the Shochiku and Daiei Studios. He had started in films acting as an oyama – a male actor impersonating in women’s roles. His 1953 film Gate of Hell (Jigokumon) won both the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and an Academy Award for Best Colour Costume Design and a Special Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Picture. But Kinugasa is most famous for two very distinctive films late in the silent era.

A Page of Madness (Kurita ippèji, 1926) is an avant-garde film with striking use of montage and of the expressionist use of chiaroscuro. The plot concerns an old man who works in an insane asylum in order to be near to his wife who is an inmate. However, the action is presented in an elliptical fashion and without any title cards. The film works in an open and fragmentary manner and [as with the inmates] moving between reality and illusion. The film was almost totally innovatory in the Japanese cinema of the time. However, its challenging form did not appeal to audiences and the film was believed lost until its rediscovery in the 1970s. It now holds place as a distinctive classic of Japanese film.

Kinugasa’s 1928 film Crossroads (also Crossways / Jujiro) combines the technical experimentation of the earlier film with a far more accessible plot. Set in the C18th it concerns a young man who is smitten with the charms of a geisha. She prefers his rival though she also exploits the young innocent. A fight leads to his temporary blindness. His sister sacrifices herself to obtain treatment for her brother. The melodrama continues to a violent and tragic resolution.

The sister who sacrifices herself for her brother is a staple of Japanese culture, notably in the films of Mizoguchi Kenji.

The use of expressionist chiaroscuro in the film both dramatises the plight of the brother and the oppressive situation of the sister. Whilst the montage, combined with a use of Grand Guignol reminiscent of Eisenstein, dramatises the exploitative and decadent character of the milieu of Yoshiwara, the area of debauchery and prostitution.

The later film falls into the period characterised as ‘late silents’; the use of synchronous sounds in commercial features having arrived in the USA in 1927. However, in Japan [along with several other East Asian countries] the use of sound was delayed for several years. This was partly economic, because of the capital cost involved, including the wiring of exhibition venues. But there was a particular factor in Japanese cinema, the power of the benshi, who provided voiceover and commentary for silent films. The benshi were one reason why Japanese film came late to the use of title cards. There were benshi strikes against the introduction of sound in 1932. The earliest surviving indigenous sound film in Japan is The Speech of Prime Minister Tanaka (Seiyukai Sosia Tanaka Giichi-shi Enzetsu, 1928). Sound features appeared in 1930, one of the earliest surviving films is by Mizoguchi Kenji, Hometown (Fujiwara Yoshie no Furosato). Kinugasa directed the first sound version of The Loyal 47 Ronin (Chūshingura) in 1932. It was only in 1935 that the production of sound films in Japan exceeded that of silents. And the latter type of film was still made a couple of years later.

There is an opportunity to see Crossways in a reasonably good 35mm print at the National Media Museum on Sunday March 16th. And there will be a live piano accompaniment by Darius Battiwalla.

Note, it is possible that the 35mm print will not be available and the screening will have to use some other format.

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Japan Film Foundation UK Tour 2014

Posted by Roy Stafford on 26 December 2013

Parade (Paredo, Japan 2010) one of the titles in the Japanese Film Foundation's 2014 UK Film Touring Programme.

Parade (Paredo, Japan 2010) one of the titles in the Japanese Film Foundation’s 2014 UK Film Touring Programme.

Advance warning of next year’s Japan Film Foundation UK Touring programme was released on Monday 23 December. The tour reaches venues in London, Belfast, Edinburgh, Dundee, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Sheffield, Bristol and Nottingham between January 31st and March 27th 2014.

Full details including which titles (selections from 11 in all) are playing at which venues can be found on the Foundation’s website. This year’s theme is ‘youth’, under the title ‘East Side Stories’, with films from the last ten years, most not previously seen in the UK. There is also one archive print, 18 Who Cause a Storm (Arashi o yobu juhachi-nin) from 1963: “A worker in a shipbuilding yard is offered the chance to boost his wages by managing a dormitory inhabited by a pack of eighteen adolescent ruffians. This early film by Yoshishige Yoshida (Eros Plus Massacre) is a neo-realist account of the conditions for Japanese temporary workers in the 1960s, and rare to see outside Japan”.

We hope to get to at least a couple of these screenings. It looks an interesting programme.

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The Human Condition / Ningen no jôken, (Japan 1959 – 1961).

Posted by keith1942 on 18 December 2013

Kaji with Michiko

Kaji with Michiko

This was the centrepiece of the retrospective of Kobayashi Masaki at the Leeds International Film Festival. This is a trilogy of films running for nine and half-hours in total. The films follow the physical and emotional journey of Kaji (Nakadai Tatsuya) through the Japanese occupation of Manchuria during World War II. The films offer the most potent expression of Kobayashi’s loss of faith in devotion to the traditional codes of honour and obedience. The Festival Catalogue quotes Philip Kemp’s question: “The dilemma of the principled dissident – how can someone who rejects the basic tenets of an unjust society remain within it and avoid being tainted and even ultimately corrupted by it?” A dilemma expressed in a line of dialogue by Kaji in the film, “It’s not my fault that I’m Japanese … yet it’s my worse crime that I am!” [English subtitle].

Like all of Kobayashi’s films from 1959 onwards the drama is presented with carefully designed mise en scène and with excellent widescreen compositions. The black and white Shochiku Grandscope cinematography is by Miyajima Yoshio and this is one of the finest aspects of the films. All three features were screened in good quality 35mm prints.

HUMAN CONDITION

Ningen no jôken: (Daichibu: Jun’ai hen; Daishibu: Gekido hen) – The Human Condition: Part 1; No Greater Love, 1959, 208 minutes.

The film opens in 1943 in Manchuria where Kaji works for the South Manchuria Steel Company. The firm depends on Chinese and Manchurian labour. As a junior manger Kaji produces a report arguing that more humane treatment of the indigenous labour would actually increase production. Kaji is sent to the Loh Hu Liong mine to test out his theories. Though he receives support from a colleague he faces opposition from the military government (Kempeitai), the mine executives, the mine pit bosses and the Manchurian contractors who skim money off the workers. The focus of these problems are 600 Chinese prisoners who are forced to labour in the mine

The Chinese labourers are supplied with the services of local prostitutes and some individual relationships develop. One of these in particular comes back to haunt Kaji at the close of the film. There are also attempts at escape by some of the more active prisoners. This leads to a public execution with a military firing squad. Forced to go along with this Kaji is caught between his humanitarian concern for the labourers and his duties to the code. This is also the occasions when a mass protest by the Chinese labourers confronts the army personnel.

The film opens with a night-time shot. It is snowing and centre screen is a large tunnel through which a military patrol can be seen. Two people emerge from the darkness, Kaji and Michiko (Awashima Chikage). This is a stunning shot with which to open the film. But it also sets up the thematic concerns. The falling snow and darkness sum up Kaji’s predicament, caught in no-man lands but not out of range of the army, enforcer of the code. The massive blocks suggest the weight of entrenched values that weigh down on him. Both Kaji and Michiko are living in communal hostels. Michiko wants them to marry and set up their own home: Kaji prevaricates, troubled by what would be both a gamble and be frowned on by his peers. This indecision sets the tone for the whole series of films as Kaji tries but never fully succeed in resolving his contradictory position.

The film’s story and characters are presented all the way through with fine imagery. The exteriors benefit from the widescreen compositions. But the interiors are also powerfully composed. The architecture of rooms and of the prison camp reinforced the feeling of entrapment. Right at the end of the film as Kaji returns to be greeted by Michiko the setting, among hillocks of black soil excavated from the mine, comments on their situation: and this is reinforced by the figure of one of the prostitutes on the skyline.

However, the powerful drama is undermined at times by excessive melodrama and this is accentuated by the music. Some of this is excellent, adding a sense of oppression. But at other times the use of melodramatic themes and martial airs seems to distract from the drama. Audie Bock in Japanese Film Directors (1978) comments: “The story is an excruciating one, sentimentalised in moments by the participation of Kobayashi’s long-time allies, scriptwriter-director Zenso Matsuyama and composer Chuji Kinoshita.”  But he also notes how Kaji is ‘played to perfection’ by Nakadai Tatsuya. The film won the San Giorgio Prize at the Venice Film Festival

HUMAN CONDITION

Nineteen no jôken (Daisanbu: Becky hen: Daishibu Sen’un hen / The Human Condition Part 2: Road to Eternity, 1959, 181 minutes.

Having lost his deferred status Kaji is called up for military service. The army life is just as brutal for ordinary recruits as was the labour camp at the mine. Kaji is relatively proficient at military duties, which offer some some protection. A fellow recruit Obara (Tanaka Kunie) is seen as weak and inadequate and become the butt of bullying. As with the mine labourers Kaji tries to protect him but fails. His closest friend is Shinjo (Sata Kei) who has communist leanings: both men are antagonistic to the authoritarian regime. The war is now running against Japan and Soviet forces are pressing into Manchuria. The Japanese soldiers unsuccessfully attempt to hold their advance. Once again Kaji becomes complicit in criminal violence. By the late stages of the war he is reduced to a desperate desire to survive and make it home to Michiko.

The film once more uses fine widescreen compositions, especially in the exteriors. Composition is also important in the interiors, and the barracks become a setting of shadow and containment. At one point Michiko is able to visit Kaji and the meeting in a small store hut also displays the oppressive setting. It is worth noting that Michiko appears to be the stereotypical submissive Japanese wife. Certainly she does not display the forthright resistance found in the heroines in the films of Naruse Mikio. But she is a strong character, indicated by the relationship in Part I and here also in the way that she supports Kaji.

Road to Eternity seems a more cohesive film that No Greater Love. In part this is due to the film’s focus on the military and Kaji’s experience in one unit, and over a more concentrated period. But like Part I this is a bleak story and the overall tone is pessimistic. Visually it is as impressive as the first film, though like that there are occasional discordant notes of melodrama and military music at odds with the critical tone.

HUMAN CONDITION

Ningen no jôken: Kanketsu hen (Daigobu: Shi no dassatsu; Dairokubu: Aarano no hôkô The Human Condition Part 3: A Soldier’s Prayer, 1961, 190 minutes.

This was where the problems of a Festival surface and I missed the concluding film of the trilogy. My friend Stephen did see it and thought it was the most impressive of the three films and described some really fine widescreen compositions, including Kaji travelling through the Manchurian woodlands. The film shows the last stages of the war and eventually Kaji is imprisoned in a Soviet POW camp. He escapes and continues his desperate attempt to return home to Michiko.

The whole trilogy is an extremely impressive work of art. And even in the post-war Japanese cinema it stands out for the uncompromising critique of traditional codes. Kobayashi had some early connections with the Japanese New Film Wave of the 1960s, and whilst the story and style are more traditional than avant-garde, it achieves something of the same rupture with the conventional culture. Stephen thought the film was typical of the post-war humanism in Japanese films: something earnestly worked at during the US occupation after the Japanese surrender. The film certainly shares some of the values found in, for example, Kurosawa’s post-war films. However, Kobayashi’s trilogy has a central pessimism that is some way removed from other humanist films. This particular sense is something that sets him apart from other Japanese filmmaker of the period.

What also makes his best films, like The Human Condition, memorable is the command of composition. His films are nearly all in the scope format, a number of them with black and white cinematography. One is constantly taken with the beauty of the images on screen but also with the way that the composition draws out the tragic situation of many of his protagonists. The Leeds Film Festival is to be commended for screening the whole epic work in 35mm, thanks in part to the support of the Japan Film Centre. And also a word of praise for the Hyde Park Cinema staff who projected the films. A real treat – and equal to the fine Tanaka Kinuyo retrospective of 2012.

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Samurai Rebellion / Jôi-uchi Hairyô tsuma shimatsu ( Japan 1967).

Posted by keith1942 on 7 December 2013

Isaburo and Tatewaki

Isaburo and Tatewaki

This samurai film was produced at Toho Studio but also co-produced by the Mifune Production, the company of its star Mifune Toshirô, This effected the film’s story and Rebellion lacked the balance of Kobayashi’s other films. The Leeds International Film Festival Catalogue describes the film as ‘another masterpiece’ and ‘his last major film’ which I thinks underestimates his later work. The film was a popular success in Japan, partly I suspect because of its star Mifune and of the samurai set pieces in the latter part of the film. However, Kobayashi still imbues the film with his critiques of authority, the official code of honour and the Japanese concern with face. There are also signs of the influence of the samurai films by Kurosawa Akira, which is possibly partly explained by the presence of Mifune. But here again the heroic stance typical of Kurosawa is undercut to a degree by Kobayashi and his scriptwriters Hashimoto Shinobu and Takiguchi Yasuhiko. Donald Ritchie, the veteran critic of Japanese cinema, is quoted in the Catalogue: “When Samurai Rebellion first opened, nearly forty years ago, I wrote in my Japan Times review: “It is the feudal concept that is at fault, and not the men who seemingly control it but are actually controlled by it … Such human qualities as love, dignity, self-realisation are – as a mater of course – crushed beneath the weight of this terrifying, if man-made, machine.”

The film opens with a test of a new samurai sword by Sasahara Isaburo (Mifune) and Asano Tatewaki (Nakadai Tatsuya). These are the two most skilled of the samurai in the household of Lord Matsudaira Masakata. You can guess that they will figure in the beautifully choreographed and generic finale. But for most of the film the plot follows Isaburo. At the Lord’s behest Isaburo’s son Sasahara Yogoro (Katô Gô) marries one of the Lord’s concubines, Ichi (Tsukasa Yôko). Their marriage produces a child, which gratifies Isaburo. However, the interests of the clan household intervene in family life once more. And Isaburo comes into conflict both with his lord and with the samurai code.

The first half of the film is concerned with the developing contradictions and the machinations in the feudal lord’s household. The latter part of the film is much more generic and leads up to a classic samurai confrontation. This later part is less typical of Kobayashi’s work and seems much closer to a typical Mifune samurai portrait. I felt that this unbalanced the film and also produces some lacunae in the story. After the marriage of his son Isaburo renounces his status as head of the family household. And when the tensions with the lord first arise he defers to his son over the matter. However, as we reach the climatic confrontation Mifune takes over the head role and the central focus in the plot. Even so, the film’s ending has the quiet defeatism that typifies Kobayashi’s work.

As always the film is beautifully constructed and composed. There are a number of impressive widescreen landscapes, especially towards the film’s end. However, the interiors, like the earlier Hara-kiri, are also carefully composed and suggest volumes about the characters through positioning and settings. The cinematography is by Yamada Kazuo in black and white Tohoscope, which looked great in a new 35mm print

 

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Hara-kiri/Seppuku (Japan 1962).

Posted by keith1942 on 5 December 2013

HARAKIRI

The Leeds International Film Festival Catalogue introduced this film as follows: “Of all Masaki Kobayashi’s attacks on the cruelty and inhumanity perpetrated by authoritarian power, perhaps none are more brilliant than his visceral, mesmerising Hara-kiri.” The title refers to the ritual suicide performed by samurai warriors as a way of ending their lives. The word literally means ‘belly slitting’ and this is an accurate description for a quite brutal and shocking action. The act requires the samurai to use his own sword to stab himself in the belly and then cut the stomach open horizontally and vertically. A slight gesture to humanity is the positioning of a ‘second’ who will decapitate the samurai when it is clear that he has completed the action. In Japan the more common term for this traditional action is “Seppuku” which implies a ’more noble act of ritual suicide.’

This genre film by Kobayashi Masaki [the order in Japanese usage] places the action at the centre of a complex story that subjects this ‘heroic’ act and the code from which it springs to a ruthless critique. The film is set in the Edo Period (1615 to 1867) when there is an absence of earlier clan warfare. This left many samurai without work or means of support [i.e. ronin or masteries samurai]. Hara-kiri or Seppuku offered a way out of poverty and loss of status: however it could also be used a s a way of pressuring the clan lords to provide money or work. In Hara-kiri the Iyi clan is faced with just such an event. Tsugumo Hanshiro (Nakadai Tatsuya, Kobayashi’s favourite actor), a one-time samurai with a fellow clan, arrives at their gates and requests permission to commit Hara-kiri in their castle. In an effort to avoid the tricky decision the senior retainer tells Tsugumo a tale, of another samurai (Chijiiwa Motome – Ishihama Akira) who had called at the castle with the self-same request. This telling involves the film in a number of flashbacks but also uncovers a complex web that changes the direction of the story and confounds the expectations of the audience.

The film is shot in black and white Grandscope, a Japanese anarmorphic format. One of Kobayashi’s most notable skills is in the use of the wide screen. He is able to achieve this quality through his colleagues, in particular Miyajima Yoshio, the cinematographer, who also worked on The Human Condition (Ningen no joken, 1959 – 1961). That film is most notable for the use of the wide screen in filming landscape. Hara-kiri eschews landscape for most of the film; we are frequently set within very defined spaces within the clan castle or in its central courtyard. But the visual quality is just as noticeable. The courtyard scenes are extremely formal, in line with the samurai code. But this also sets out the power plays between the clan and the two would-be suicides.

The interiors of the castle are very claustrophobic. The retainers are frequently filmed in carefully composed compositions with lighting that both suggest noir and the expressionist. Kobayashi, together with his screenwriter Hashimoto Shinobu, is expert enough to include some of the traditional samurai sequences, including an impressive sword fight. But the film and its resolution subvert the usual values that are ascribed to the samurai and their codes. At one point the protagonist comments [as translated] ‘honour and bravery are a false front.’ This explicit comment is re-inforced by a number of visual symbols presented in the film. The key example would be a traditional suit of armour that sits in the entrance to the Iyi clan castle. Its position there is meant to symbolise both the code and the traditions which
support it. But subsequent treatment in the film undermines its official status. Another is the official clan record book, which we see, in the opening shot of the film and with which the film also ends. The entries in the book demonstrate the hypocrisy with which the clan leaders treat the code.

Kobayashi’s attack is itself very Japanese. Rather than the film subverting an authoritarian system it subverts the feudal system and code of the samurai. So the film critiques power but it also critiques the accompanying values of ‘honour’ and ‘face’. The latter in particular is a key theme in Japanese films and in the jidai-geki [period] genre. Honour and face, or what they are deemed to represent, are targets in all of the Kobayashi films that I have seen. Harakiri stands out because of the formal coherence of the plot, and of the form and style with which the film is constructed. The Catalogue notes that the film not only critiques the samurai tradition but [for Japanese audiences] there was an allegorical attack on “the militarism of the war period and on the hierarchical power of the zaibatsu, the giant corporations that came to dominate post-war Japan.”

Unfortunately this was the only one of the Kobayashi features at the Festival that was not available in 35mm. It was screened in a digital version, but this stood up pretty well on the Albert Hall screen. The sound was fine and the films enjoyed a fine score by Takemitsu Toru. The film won a Special Jury Prize at the 1963 Canes Film Festival.

 

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Kobayashi retrospective

Posted by keith1942 on 8 November 2013

Kobayashi Masaki - centre of group, on set.

Kobayashi Masaki – centre of group, on set.

The International Leeds Film Festival is screening six films by Kobayashi Masaki [shown as Masaki Kobayashi in English-language credits - search Webpages under titles]. He is one of the important directors in the post-war Japanese cinema. He has a distinctive style but even more a distinctive content.

He was born in 1916. During World War II he served in the Japanese army in Manchuria. The experience had a profound effect on him and it colours all of his films in some way. From 1947 he served as an assistant to the established director Kinoshita Keisuke. One of the latter’s famous films is Carmen Comes Home (Karumen kokyö ni kaeru, 1951) starring the notable Japanese actress Takamine Hideko. Kobayashi’s time with Kinoshita was important, an example of the strength of this sort of apprentice system in the Japanese Studios. The ‘Kinoshita School’ worked within the Shochiku Studio. And another member was Kobayashi’s cousin Tanaka Kinuyo, whose retrospective last year was one of the highlights in the 2012 programme.

Kobayashi was noted as a perfectionist and as insisting on his own choice of projects. Over a directorial career of thirty-three years he only directed 22 features. His output included films set during the war and the subsequent occupation: jidai-geki [period] dramas including samurai films and documentaries. His films were often openly critical of the established order and of Japanese conduct in the war. Consequently he was frequently heavily criticised and such opposition slowed down the production of his films.

Harakiri (Seppuku, Shochiku 1962. Black and white, 133 minutes).

This is a samurai tales set in the Edo period, in 1615. The film deals with ritual suicide and includes a flashback that sets out the code of such killings. The film is fairly graphic in its use of violence but it has beautiful compositions. And the film uses samurai motifs to comment on the actions of the characters.

The Human Condition

The Human Condition

Three of the films screened comprise Kobayashi’s great trilogy of The Human Condition (Ningen no joken, produced at Shochiku between 1959 and 1961, in black and white). In Part I: No Greater Love  (208 minutes) the protagonist Kaji is working in Southern Manchuria. He criticises the treatment of the Chinese and Manchurian labourers in the Steel Works. This leads him into conflict with the authorities but also to witnessing the brutal treatment meted out by the occupying army. In Part II: Road to Eternity (181 minutes) Kaji has been called up and the film details his experiences, which include witnessing war atrocities and the brutal treatment of Japanese conscripts, both of which he tries to prevent. Part III: A Soldier’s Prayer (191 minutes) is set in the immediate post-war when Kaji is captured and becomes a POW in a Soviet controlled camp. The three films present the harrowing experience of Kaji, and it can be harrowing for the audience. But it is informed by s strong sense of humanism and by Kobayashi’s own experiences of war. He said in one interview, “I am Kaji”.

Kwaidan (Kaidan, Toho 1964, in colour – showing in the full 161 minute version]. The film is comprised of four ghost stories, a genre at which Japanese cinema excels. And commonly the films have an opaque line between the world of ghosts and the actual world of the human characters. The four stories are, firstly Black Hair (Kurokami) a rather macabre tale about a young samurai who marries twice. The Woman of the Snow (Yuki-onna) tells of an encounter between two woodcutters and the Snow Woman. This is quite ethereal. Hoichi the Earless (Miminashi Hoichi) is about a blind but skilful storyteller who discovers that in his audience are ghostly warriors of the famous Taira clan. As the title suggests this is also slightly macabre. In a Cup of Tea (Chawan mo naka) is about a ghostly reflection in water, but the tale is told in a rather complex manner, which provides a suitable shock to end the film.

Kwaidan

Kwaidan

Samurai Rebellion (Jöiuchi: Hairyö tsuma shimatsu, Toho 1967 128 minutes. A tale of how the samurai code leads to conflict and the final confrontation of the title. The film stars the famous Toshiro Mifune.

The films represent Kobayashi in his most celebrated decade of the 1960s. It was then that his mature style appeared. From then on he worked mainly in scope, often with striking black and white compositions. His films are immediately pictorial, with careful construction. The widescreen format allows him to place characters within settings, often with an almost-tableaux effect. Note that his later films are equally worth seeing, especially the very fine The Empty Table (Shokutaka no nai ie 1985) which recalls Ozu in its formal gravity. This was his final feature and he died in 1996.

As with many fine directors Kobayashi had a number of long-term colleagues. One is the actor Nakadai Tatsuya, who appears in all the films screened in this programme. Two others are the cinematographer Miyajima Yoshio and sound engineer Nishizaki Keiichi, both of whom made an important contribution to the monumental The Human Condition.

So the programme offers a unique opportunity to see the work of a major Japanese filmmaker and within this one of the outstanding films to deal with the great C20th conflict of the 1940s. And, except for Harakiri [presented in a DCP] all the films are screening in their original format of 35m.

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From Up On Poppy Hill (Kokuriko-zaka Kara, Japan 2011)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 27 August 2013

The house on 'Poppy Hill'

The house on ‘Poppy Hill’

The latest Studio Ghibli anime has received rather grudging reviews on the whole, being described as ‘bland’ and ‘minor Ghibli’ or at best ‘pleasant and light’. I enjoyed it a great deal but I can understand why the less enthusiastic responses have come from some fans and critics. But I should also point out that this was the biggest-grossing Japanese film of 2011, so plenty of fans did like it.

Based on a shojo manga (i.e. a girl’s comic book story), the film has a screenplay by the studio head Miyazaki Hayao and Niwa Keiko. It is directed by Miyazaki Gori, Hayao’s son, whose 2006 anime Tales of Earthsea was generally panned. This time he seems to have had a smoother ride with critics prepared to delay judgement after a film that works – “not amazing” but “simple and cute” as fans have described it. I’ll try to explain why I think it is more than that.

The beautifully-drawn streets of Yokahama with Sun and Umi on the bicycle

The beautifully-drawn streets of Yokohama with Sun and Umi on the bicycle

Umi and her sister venture into the boy's world of the 'Latin Quartier' building.

Umi and her sister venture into the boy’s world of the ‘Latin Quartier’ building.

The most obvious category/genre of the narrative is ‘teen high-school romance’. But it is also a ‘period film’ set very precisely in the port city of Yokohama in 1963, a year before the Tokyo Olympics when Japan is poised to ‘leap forward’ in terms of its modernising economy and society. The students in the last two years of high school were born in 1945-6 and they have lived through the painful and difficult period of Occupation and ‘recovery’. The central character Umi has a busy life running her grandmother’s house and catering for lodgers and her two younger siblings, having lost her father, the captain of a supply ship which sank during the Korean War. Her mother is an academic working for a spell in America. Every day Umi shops and makes food before and after school. She also runs up signal flags outside the house in memory of her father. One day she meets Shun, a senior at school who is the editor of a school newspaper. The potential romance develops (with the approval of the older women in Umi’s household) but an unforeseen obstacle lies in the way – a plot development that might surprise some viewers (and which one character refers to in terms of ‘cheap melodrama’). However, the teen romance also involves that classic high school element – saving something valuable which the school authorities want to close down. The boys occupy a rambling old house that offers accommodation for various clubs and societies, including the newspaper ‘offices’. Given the title ‘the Latin Quartier’ the building represents an old, but culturally important aspect of the school community but there are plans to sweep it away to make way for a modern building.

The ‘problem’ for fans is that this film is a change from the fantasy films usually associated with Studio Ghibli, although there were a couple of such films in the 1990s, rarely seen in the West and, most famously, Grave of the Fireflies in 1988. Miyazaki Gori’s direction is also perhaps a little prosaic but I’m not sure that this matters since I found the story to be strong. There are several themes and set pieces which bring Miyazaki Senior’s work to mind. So we see the focus on preparing meals (and shopping) and the sequence in which Umi organises the girls in the school to clean and renovate the Latin Quartier in order to impress the school administrators is reminiscent of both the cleaning of the country house in My Neighbour Totoro and the many sequences featuring the great bath-house in Spirited Away. Like these two buildings, the Latin Quartier house (built probably in the Meiji period in the 19th century) is a symbol of a Japanese tradition that needs to be preserved. This aspect of the story is potentially problematic in the context of the school.

The Japanese convention/tradition of dressing students in identical uniforms with military connotations does mean that a lively student debate can sometimes feel like a fascist rally with uniformed ranks chanting in unison. But in fact, this is all about collective action and collaboration. There is no sense that the students want to persecute others or make themselves more important. And it isn’t sexist either. In Studio Ghibli films young women are active agents. Umi has to run a household without adult males. She knows how to get things done – although she initiates the cleaning, the boys also contribute.

Watching the film, I found myself thinking about classical Japanese cinema from the 1950s and links kept popping up – the train journey into Tokyo was reminiscent of Ozu, the house on the hill and the city below form the basis of Kurosawa’s (very different) story in High and Low, also set in Yokohama. Both Ozu and Kurosawa made ‘youth pictures’ celebrating the vitality of young people. I think I’ve read that Miyazaki Hayao was a big fan of these films. I also wonder about the naming of the ‘Latin Quartier’ – is this a nod towards the Japanese New Wave cinema in the 1960s or, more likely, a reference back to the importance of European culture in the mix of Japanese education practices in the early 20th century? Most of these references won’t mean much to contemporary audiences but they point towards the care with which the best Studio Ghibli films are constructed. Contemporary Japanese politics seem to be swinging right and there are worrying signs about a revival in interest in the militarism of the 1930s and the disavowal of the post-1945 ‘reconstruction’ of Japanese identity. I hope that the investigation of tradition and heritage in Studio Ghibli films acts as a counterweight to those swings.

Here’s a very short Japanese trailer for the film. I watched the subtitled version of the film. In the UK specialised cinemas tend to show the American dubbed version in matinees and the Japanese version in the evenings. The trailer features one of the songs and I loved the music in the film which features choral singing (from the students) alongside contemporary Japanese popular songs. I’m used to Joe Hisaishi but the music in Poppy is by Takebe Satoshi.

 

Finally, here’s one of the most useful reviews of the film by Andrew Osmond (who also reviews the film in Sight and Sound, August)

http://www.animenewsnetwork.com/review/from-up-on-poppy-hill

Posted in Animation, Japanese Cinema, Melodrama, Romance | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

 
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