Category: Japanese Cinema

Japan Speaks Out! Shochiku’s Modern Times

Tanaka Kinuyo and Takada Kokichi in Okoto and Sasuke

Tanaka Kinuyo and Takada Kokichi in Okoto and Sasuke

This was the thirds and final programme of early Japanese sound films curated by Alexander Jacoby and Johan Nordstrom for Il Cinema Ritrovato. The selection of films was made from a major Japanese studio, Shochiku, whose cohorts included major Japanese directors and at a point when the industry was increasing it mastery of the new technology. This was for me the strongest programme of films of the three.

Shochiku employed to brothers to ‘plunder Western technical journals to produce an indigenous sound system, ‘the so-called “Tsuchihashi system”. The studio also moved production from its Kamata studio on the outskirts of Tokyo to rural Ofuna, where external noise was much lower. ‘Ofuna flavour’ was a description of the tone of Shochiku productions in the period, dominated by the shomi-geki genre. But the films also tended to follow the style developed at Kamata in the silent era:

directors such as Shimazu, Shimizu, and the young Naruse perfected a distinctly flamboyant visual style, ‘Kamata modernism’, ideally suited to exploring the tension in 1930s Japan between the native and the foreign, tradition and modernity.

Hanayome No Negoto / The Bride Talks in Her Sleep, 1933 57 minutes and

Hanamuko No Negoto / The Groom Talks in His Sleep, 1935 73 minutes.

This was a double bill of comedies directed by Gosho Heinosuke and scripted by Fushimi Akira.  Both films were photographed by Ohara Joji. The sound team included one of the Tsuchihashi brothers. The most well known performers for western audiences would be Tanaka Kinuyo. The curators comment that

much of the film’s distinction comes from the wit of Gosho’s direction and the charm of the acting, particularly of the heroines (Tanaka Kinuyo in Bride; Kawasaki Hiroko in Groom.

Ureshii Koro / Happy Times, 1933 83 minutes and with an aspect ratio of 1.: 1.19, the standard ratio for early talkies.

Directed by Nomura Hiromasa and scripted by Ikeda Tadao. This was another light comedy, wherein a young, newlywed couple have their home visited and disrupted by an older and more traditional uncle. The film was a box office success and praised in the influential “Kinema Junpo” for ‘ its script, direction and tempo’.

Nakinureta Haru No Onna Yo / The Lady Who Wept in Spring, 1933 96 minutes.

Directed by Shimizu Hiroshi, script by Suyama Mitsuru, with cinematography by Sasaki Taro with music by Shimada Harutaka.

The film deals with a miner Kenji (Obinata Den) working on the remote northern island of Hokkaido and his relationships with two ‘itinerant’ women. Shimizu has a reputation, writers note

the director’s ‘affinity [with] fallen souls’, [and] his interest in vagrants and fallen women.

But he is also noted “as a master director of child actors”. A critic writes that

Shimizu Hiroshi presents all the splendour of life, embodied in the spectacle of children simply being themselves.

[His Children of the Beehive / Hachi no su no kadomotachi, 1948 is a good example seen in the UK a couple of years ago]. The older woman in the film has a young daughter who plays an important part in developments.

The film itself makes good use of some location filming and also of songs on the soundtrack.

The drama is finely developed and there is impressive ending that works with familiar tropes in a distinctive fashion.

Tonari No Yae-Chan / Our Neighbour, Miss Yae, 1934, 76 minutes.

Directed by Shimazu Yasujiro who also scripted the film. The neighbours involve a pair of sisters and a pair of brothers. The family homes and environs are depicted in a realist style and with a strong sense of irony. The between these young people, playful and sometime romantic, is delightful. Shimizu is reckoned to be a pioneer of the shomin-geki film at Shochiku. And a film like Our Neighbour offers a sense of whole family life rather than focusing on a couple of dramatic leads.

Shunkinsho Okoto To Sasuke / Okoto and Sasuke, 1935, 100 minutes.  A second film directed and scripted by Shimazu Yasujiro. This is a period drama, jidai-geki, dealing with romantic relationships rather than the world of the samurai. Okoto is played by one of Japan’s major female stars early in her career, Tanaka Kinuyo. And Sasuke is played by Saito Tatsuo. The film is adopted from a popular novel. The film deals with distinctions of age and class and one writer proposed that it offered ‘extreme male masochism’. This is strong melodrama, with a shocking climax that recalls the unconventional style of Kinugasa Teinosuke. “Kinema Junpo” produced annual ‘top tens’ of releases, and awarded this film third place.

Note: the two following films were produced at a new film company Daiichi Eigasha. The head of the news studio and many of its staff had formerly worked at Nikkatsu, the other major Japanese Studio. Its productions were funded and distributed by Shochiku and it was, effectively, a short-lived subsidiary.

Gubijinso / The Field Poppy, 1935, 73 minutes.

Directed by one of the most famous Japanese filmmakers Mizoguchi Kenji. The film is taken from a tale by a major author, Natsume Soseki, adapted by jidai-geki specialist Ito Daisuke.  The cinematography, highly praised in ‘Kinema Junpo’, is by Miki Minoru.

One critic draws comparison with Max Ophuls,

Mizoguchi tracks the romantic roundelay through the circulation of a symbolic object: a watch intended as a wedding gift.

Rather different from Madame De…, this film features the tragedy that follows on from rejection rather than infidelity. The film also uses the contradiction between the country and the town and between classes. This is a film that appears to privilege the traditional over the modern.

Ojo Ikichi / Dame Okichi, 1935, 64 minutes.

This film involved Mizoguchi Kenji as he ‘supervised’ the direction by Takashima Tasunosuke: the latter a regular scriptwriter for Mizoguchi, including for The Field Poppy. The Catalogue notes debate around the extent of Mizoguchi’s contribution. Some critics suggest that

the film is characteristic of the master both in plot and style’ … the film has some typically Mizoguchian scenes that dwell on chiaroscuro melancholy.

The plot certainly has recognisable tropes; a heroine involved with gangsters but emotionally committed to innocent younger man. Shades of The Water Magician (Taki no shiraito, 1933).

Hitori Musoko / The Only Son, 82 minutes.

This is the first sound film directed by Yasujiro Ozu. It is likely to be familiar for English-speaking audiences, as it is one of his films that have circulated here. Tsune (lida Choko), a working class widow, raises her son Ryosuke (Shin’ichi Himroi). She suffers privations in order that he can receive an education. Much of the film is taken up with a visit that she makes to her now adult son in Tokyo. The film has the recognisable hallmarks of Ozu and is a fine melodrama. Untypical it focuses on working class life. Ryu Chishu, looking incredibly young, appears as the teacher Okubo.

Ozu and his team had to produce the film at the old Kamata Studio, where lack of soundproofing hindered the filming.

The Festival programme also included a short snapshot, Nihon No Eiga Zukuri / Movie Making in Japan 1934, eight minutes. This final programme of three reached 1936.

This decisive shift was mirrored in other studios [Shochiku’s move to Ofuna and the ‘talkie film’ becoming the dominant mode], with 1936 the first year in which more sound films were produced than silents in Japan overall. Therefore, that year is a particular apt moment to end this survey of Japan’s early sound cinema.

All the features were screened on 35mm prints with English subtitles and [with the noted exception in 1.37:1, and all were provided by the Japan Film Centre in fair to pretty good prints. Nearly all of the films had had digital noise reduction applied to soundtracks. Fortunately the festival programmed in two screenings because the daytime screenings were packed. The repeats, usually in the evenings, were slightly easier in finding seats.

This was a rewarding programme to enjoy and one of the highlights of the 2014 Festival.

All quotations from the Catalogue of the 2014 Il Cinema Ritrovato.

Godzilla (US 2014)

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There are already millions of words out there on the latest Godzilla so I’ll try to say something different about the film. This will I imagine be the only Hollywood blockbuster I’ll watch this year so I’m not going to pass judgement as such. I note that the film has divided audiences and critics alike. If I ‘read’ the overall reaction, the feeling is that the monsters are pretty good and generally better than the human cast. The film is criticised by some for too much story and too little action. I enjoyed the film up to around the three-quarter point but then I thought it lost its way.

My interest in the film is of course because this is essentially a Japanese franchise now receiving a second Hollywood reboot. We’ve had the German director’s version from Roland Emmerich and now we get Gareth Edwards as the British helmsman, but with an American story and script from two writers neither of whom have much of a profile on IMDB that might give a clue as to where the new story originates. I was impressed by Edwards’ low budget Monsters (UK 2010) so I was intrigued to see how he would handle a high-budget production. From what I’ve read, Edwards is a genuine Gojira (the original Japanese title) fan and it’s tempting to think that his authorial stamp appears across the film. I think it does in terms of Godzilla and the scenes of destruction but the human story elements seen in Monsters seem to have been lost.

Elizabeth Olsen is one of several actors whose roles are limited by the script

Elizabeth Olsen is one of several actors whose roles are limited by the script

Since this is listed as a US-Japan production, I expected more of a Japanese input into the story. This seemed to be there in the first third but was lost once the US military became involved. Ken Watanabe’s performance in the equivalent role to Shimura Takeshi in the original is largely wasted. Watanabe has appeared in several Hollywood films in order to entice Japanese audiences but in this case I suspect that the monster Godzilla is the main attraction and the script registers his presence in only a perfunctory manner once the back story has been delivered. Similarly, Juliette Binoche appears on screen for only a few minutes and a fine actor like Sally Hawkins is also wasted. Never having seen Breaking Bad I didn’t know what to expect from Bryan Cranston but he too disappears after the opening scenes. Too much of the film depends on Aaron Johnson-Taylor, now beefed up from the young British actor who played John Lennon in Nowhere Boy (UK 2009) with some panache. I haven’t been impressed by his subsequent performances in films like Albert Nobbs (2011) or Anna Karenina (2012) which seemed rather ‘one-note’. Here he is action hero – although much of the time he is actually the ‘human witness’ of Godzilla’s actions. I didn’t recognise him and he could have been one of several young American actors. Gareth Edwards has professed his admiration for early Spielberg films such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Jaws which do have their ‘human stories’ set against alien encounters and monsters from the deep. It’s possible to see that this could have been developed in Godzilla but again the opportunity has not been taken. Elizabeth Olsen as Taylor-Johnson’s wife is another under-used character.

A nice JAWS reference when the little girl sees the dead fish on the beach – an omen for the arrival of a monster from the deep?

A nice JAWS reference when the little girl sees the dead fish on the beach – an omen for the arrival of a monster from the deep?

A visualisation of the theme of humanity vs. nature? The tidal wave caused by the monsters reaps havoc in Hawaii, a reminder of both the tsunami-nuclear reactor disaster in Japan and the fragility of coastal settlement in the Pacific rim?

A visualisation of the theme of humanity vs. nature? The tidal wave caused by the monsters reaps havoc in Hawaii, a reminder of both the tsunami-nuclear reactor disaster in Japan and the fragility of coastal settlement in the Pacific rim?

Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins as the engineer and scientist rushing to the deck of a US Navy ship to see Godzilla

Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins as the engineer and scientist rushing to the deck of a US Navy ship to see Godzilla

So, I’m left puzzling over the multi-national casting of the film – is it simply a blockbuster convention and a cynical attempt to appear global – or is it Edwards attempt to make the cast his own? I’m sure Edwards spent most of his time trying to visualise Godzilla for the CGI technicians and perhaps the human stories took second place. It is a quandary. Godzilla is certainly the star of the film and the principal character but in some ways he (she?) resembles King Kong and the whole question of anthropomorphism comes up. There were moments when I felt that I wanted some kind of eye contact between Godzilla and the principal human characters – or at least the feeling that the humans understood and cared for the creature. There is something of that but the story could have made Watanabe or Hawkins/Binoche into the main human witness. Less boy’s own action and more anthropomorphism perhaps? Two other observations support that wish. The other monsters in the film (that Godzilla fights) reminded me of the ending of Quatermass and the Pit (UK 1959) in which the scientist is the witness to the monster’s end and also the Alien films in which the Ripley character faces the Alien mother. I don’t know enough about the Godzilla franchise to know whether these are worthwhile observations but I am looking forward to what Edwards might do with a further Godzilla episode.

BIFF 2014 #21: Nomura Yoshitaro Retrospective

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/

Kinugasa Teinosuke

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.