Category: Japanese Cinema

Harmonium (Fuchi ni tatsu Japan-France 2016)

A misleading 'selfie' suggesting 'harmony' in the extended family of Akie, Hotaru and Toshio – and the mysterious Yasaka

A misleading ‘selfie’ suggesting ‘harmony’ in the extended family of (from left) Akie, Hotaru and Toshio – and the mysterious Yasaka

The Japanese title of this film by Fukada Koji translates roughly as ‘Standing on the Edge’, which does have a direct reference later in the narrative, but in some ways ‘Harmonium’ is equally relevant, referring to both the musical instrument and to the concept of (dis)harmony in the family at the centre of the narrative. When the film begins Toshio and Akie have what seems from the outside to be a stable marriage, though perhaps they do seem a little distant from each other. Their small daughter Hotaru is bright and very close to her mother. She is the one who is learning to play the harmonium. Toshio runs a small metal-press workshop from home and one day a man suddenly appears asking for work. Toshio clearly knows who this is but for the audience Yasaka appears mysterious and slightly unnerving. He’s tall and thin and dressed in a crisp white shirt with the sleeves buttoned and dark formal trousers. He walks stiffly and speaks formally. Yasaka is played by Asano Tadanobu, a very well-known Japanese actor who in his early 40s already has around 90 film roles to his credit. In his younger days he was something of a ‘heart-throb’ star of various genre films such as Ichi the Killer and his presence here in such an unusual role is very effective.

Toshio invites Yasaka to lodge with the family (without consulting his wife first) and to work in the metal-press and at first he seems to behave very well. Eventually, as we suspect, his presence has an effect on all three family members. This is a narrative which has been used many times for different purposes. In a play like J. B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls the outsider comes into a family gathering uninvited and through questioning unearths a range of dark secrets, exposing the corruption in bourgeois society. Sometimes the outsider is more of a religious figure (saint or demon), or possibly a ghost, but the effect is similar. We expect to learn something about this family and we suspect it won’t necessarily be good – or at least what happens will be disturbing.

I don’t want to spoil the narrative, but we do slowly find out what links Toshio and Yasaka and we are led towards a tragedy. The plot then changes and we rejoin a more fractured family at a later date before a finale based on some important coincidences. Overall this is a dark family melodrama presented in a very carefully controlled and composed manner. It is also a form of thriller (Polanski is a director I thought of at various points) – as one reviewer points out, it doesn’t deliver conventional thrills, but sometimes the tension of suspense is unbearable. There are some fantasy sequences suggesting the disturbed state of family members – with phantom appearances of other characters. Fukada’s technique involves removing the clutter and clatter of family life and focusing on relationships. There are moments of melodramatic excess that don’t so much ‘erupt’ but quietly come to our attention and then resonate in a disturbing way. I’ll pick out a couple. Yasaka’s formal attire includes a crisp and dazzlingly white boiler suit for his work on the metal-press. In the trailer below you can see him on the street, suddenly opening the top of the suit to reveal a scarlet T-shirt beneath (the girl’s schoolbag is similarly red). The trailer also includes the harmonium playing a tune which Yasaka teaches to Hotaru – a tune accompanied by the clicking of the metronome.

Formal breakfast in the household

Formal breakfast in the household

At Yasaka’s first breakfast time with the family he eats at a ferocious speed, washing up his dishes before the others have finished eating. Perhaps this is a clue to where he has been, but it is in its own way disturbing when Akie takes time to whisk raw egg in her bowl. In the trailer we also hear the start of Hotaru’s story about the spiders who immediately start to eat their mother after their birth. This is discussed in some detail. As I reflect on the film, I realise that there are many such instances which will become more apparent on a second viewing. This is a ‘rich text’ that I’m sure will reward re-viewings. I’m not surprised that it has won prizes, though I think its appeal may be limited as mainstream audiences may find it either too slow and ponderous or too contrived and ‘clumsy’. I think it is the opposite, but then perhaps this is the kind of film I like. UK audiences will get a chance to see it as Eureka/Masters of Cinema plan a release in May 2017. This means we should get a quality DVD/Blu-ray with selected cinema screenings. In the trailer below there is an indication of several plot developments that I have avoided exposing in this blog post, so be warned! It’s a good trailer though and effectively teases you with the qualities of the film.

Seven Samurai (Japan 1954) and The Magnificent Seven (US 2016)

Kurosawa's original with Mifune Toshiro in the foreground

Kurosawa’s original Seven Samurai with Mifune Toshiro in the foreground

The new 'Seven' led by the man in black (Denzel Washington)

The new ‘Seven’ led by the man in black (Denzel Washington)

The new version of The Magnificent Seven is an entry in a major global franchise. The universal elements in the film’s story have been around for a very long time. Robin Hood, for instance, is a story in which a group of outlaws protect villagers from the Sheriff’s men. But the specific story structure of seven ‘professionals’ recruited to protect a village comes from the imagination of Kurosawa Akira and his collaborators and the folk tales and history of 16th century Japan that created the 1954 film Seven Samurai, widely regarded as a classic action film. Seven Samurai prompted the original Hollywood remake in 1960 and several sequels. In his chapter on ‘Remaking Seven Samurai in World Cinema’ in East Asian Cinemas (eds Leon Hunt and Leung Wing-Fai, I. B. Tauris 2008) David Desser explores the influence of the film on a range of productions in Hong Kong and India as well as in the US. My interest is in the extent to which the new film draws on Kurosawa and how much is lost through the process of adaptation. The scriptwriters of the new film, Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk, are credited alongside the original writers Kurosawa, Hashimoto Shinobu and Oguni Hideo. I note that Pizzolatto is a novelist who has written for the TV serials True Detective and the US remake of The Killing, and that he has also taught writing – all of which might give some hope that he could make good use of the original script.

There are certainly aspects of the original script still present, but the new film is 133 mins long, roughly 65% of the running time of the Kurosawa film, so quite a lot is missing (there is no ‘padding’ in Seven Samurai). The location of the story has moved north from the 1960 version and re-located in the Sierra Nevada (“three days from Sacramento”) in 1879. This makes sense since Seven Samurai was similarly based in the mountains in an isolated village. The date and setting make the new film a ‘mountain Western’ with gold mining. Here is the first problem in that the townspeople of Rose Creek don’t have a visible farming community and their attachment to the land is symbolic rather than being portrayed realistically. (In the original, the bandits have already been to steal the rice harvest and are expected again for the barley harvest.) The new script isn’t quite sure what to do with the gold miners and it doesn’t have time (or enough imagination?) to represent farming. Instead it introduces the villain as a capitalist exploiter and the main motivation of the townsfolk to be expressed through Emma (Haley Bennett), a woman who wants “righteousness” after her husband was killed by the exploiter “but will take revenge”. A similar figure was a minor but important character in the original. Apart from the preacher, none of the other townspeople is given a narrative function as such. Because of this, Kurosawa’s main theme is lost.

Seven Samurai is about a distinctive clash of caste and class presented as a humanist epic. The farmers in the isolated village normally despise the samurai, whose societal role as warriors employed by feudal lords is under threat during the 16th century when many of them are unemployed, becoming ronin or ‘masterless samurai’. The samurai who are recruited to help the farmers are poor and hungry – they will fight for three bowls of rice a day. But they are also men of honour, so they will fight to maintain that honour. Kurosawa makes this explicit and deeply moving by a decision to employ what was already becoming his trademark, the ‘master and apprentice’ roles within the group of samurai. Shimura Takashi as Kannei is the ‘master’, the older man who is a wise warrior, a skilled fighter and a leader of men. Katsushiro (Kimura Isao) is the young man, the devoted follower and the one with most to learn because he is distracted by a young woman from the village. Shimura was the actor used most by Kurosawa. But he isn’t the star of the film. That’s Mifune Toshiro. Mifune plays Kikuchiyo, the man who would be a samurai. His secret will only emerge later when we learn that he was a farmer’s son and that he had been abandoned as a baby during a raid by pirates. Kikuchiyo forms the bridge between the samurai and the farmers. He understands both and despises both, yet supports both. It is his human story that reveals the film’s theme. The genius of the Seven Samurai script is that we learn about a wide range of characters – so there are individual stories – but those stories also inform the overall narrative about a society in which both farmers and samurai/bandits are suffering (but in which the farmers will be the long-term winners).

Emma (Hayley Bennett) becomes a sharpshooter – and the effective leader of the town.

Emma (Hayley Bennett) becomes a sharpshooter – and the effective leader of the town.

The script for the new film struggles to find the same sense of coherence. We do learn something of the ‘back stories’ of ‘Chisolm’ (Denzel Washington) Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) and a few others, but these stories don’t relate to the overall narrative in the same way as they do in Kurosawa’s film. Chisolm does have a personal reason to fight, but like Emma’s motivation it is about revenge against the villain, not about honour. Revenge is not a motive to trigger carnage on the scale depicted here. At the end of the Seven Samurai, the three survivors are the ‘master’, the ‘apprentice’ and the second in command. The other four samurai have been killed and the master observes, as planting begins for a new crop, that the farmers have won. I suppose I shouldn’t spoil the ending of the new version, save to note that what it seems to do is to highlight the new ‘diversity’ amongst the defenders of the village. Yet the weirdest thing about the whole film is that presence of a black law enforcement officer (Chisolm), an East Asian gunslinger, a Comanche warrior and a woman leading the townspeople is never really commented upon. Director Antoine Fuqua has said that he wanted to make the kind of Western that he watched as a child with his grandmother. In this sense his film is ‘colour-blind’. But this is a film set in that period of Western history when the four ‘minorities’ he presents in the narrative were actively engaged in conflicts in the ‘real West’ as well as the Hollywood ‘revisioned’ West of movies from the 1970s onwards. It’s as if movies like Harry Belafonte’s Buck and the Preacher (1972) never happened. In The Magnificent Seven we see the gamblers and saloon girls leaving town when the attacks begin, but in McCabe and Mrs Miller (1973), the brothel-keeper played by Julie Christie is a new kind of female entrepreneur to stand alongside the school teacher and the homesteader as a new female type – and a representative of capitalist enterprise. Instead of running away she would consider selling out to the kind of capitalist exploiter who threatens the town in the new Seven. The East Asian character is again not investigated in any way, even though 1879 was some 10 years after Chinese workers had helped build the first transcontinental railway in the US. Chinese migrants (and therefore East Asians generally) would have been part of the life of many Western towns. I’m not sure how a Korean would have got there, but the point is that Fuqua seems fairly cavalier about both ‘real’ history and the myths developed during the declining years of the Western as a mainstream genre. By contrast, Kurosawa’s historical representations were essentially ‘realist’ with careful research to get things ‘right’.

Kurosawa famously built his village in the mountains, for the most expensive film in Japanese history at that point. He built it to specifications with the various action sequences in mind. Fuqua presumably built his own town on location for the same reasons. Unfortunately he doesn’t seem to have thought so much about how to shoot the action scenes. The only thing I remember from the great battle is the bizarre sight of Denzel Washington performing a riding stunt worthy of a Roy Rogers movie in order to shoot a bad guy. Fuqua did choose to have a church at the centre of the action and this was a good decision, conjuring up a whole host of Westerns, but again I don’t think it was thought through fully. Kurosawa set his battle in the midst of howling winds and torrential rain with swordsmen struggling in a sea of mud to great effect. Nothing as exciting happens in the new film. However, I should record that I actually enjoyed watching Denzel and co. even as I was ticking off the missed opportunities. The film was entertaining, it just wasn’t ‘special’. Seven Samurai still stands at No 19 on IMDb’s all-time list of the Top 250 movies and for good reason. It has a great story, human values, engaging characters, terrific performances, photography and editing rarely bettered, a wonderful score and Mifune on fire. See the trailers below for a quick summation of the differences.

 

The Elegant Life of Mr Everyman (Eburi manshi no yûga-na seikatsu, Japan 1963)

Eburi (Kobayashi Keiju) and his long-suffering wife played by Aratama Michiyo

Eburi (Kobayashi Keiju) and his long-suffering wife played by Aratama Michiyo

The Japanese film industry has been criticised in recent years for not supporting Japanese films overseas and for poor presentation of films to festivals and sales agents. There seems to be some substance to this but as far as archive prints are concerned there are usually prints available from various cultural agencies and it was good to see The Elegant Life of Mr Everyman as part of the Japanese Foundation Tour. The screening was at HOME in Manchester and was introduced by Jonathon Bunt from the University of Manchester. He promised us a good time with the film and some good laughs. He also pointed out that the director Okamoto Kihachi was part of the generation of filmmakers who experienced war service as young men and that this was perhaps an important influence on the film, as well as Okamoto’s approach to satirising the growing materialism of Japan in the early 1960s. The film did indeed provide what was promised. I admit that at this stage I knew nothing about Okamoto and it wasn’t until I’d done some research that I realised I actually owned DVDs of a couple of the director’s films.

Okamoto Kihachi is profiled on the Midnight Eye website. Born in 1924 he was conscripted and sent to fight in 1943 aged 19 and experienced the deaths of many of his fellow conscripts (he told an interviewer that young men born in 1924 suffered the highest rate of deaths from the fighting). His battlefield experiences surely informed his approach to action films, including several well-known chanbara or ‘samurai’ films with Mifune Toshiro (e.g. Samurai Assassin in 1964 and Sword of Doom in 1965) which were thought to have changed aspects of the genre, moving away from themes of ‘honour and heroism’ to focus on ‘death and misery’ (as Tom Mes puts it on Midnight Eye). The Elegant Life of Mr Everyman belongs to the part of Okamoto’s output that focused on experimental genre pieces – but it clearly has autobiographical touches too.

The film is an adaptation of a novel by Yamaguchi Hitomi (which may also be autobiographical). It tells the story of Eburi – an office-worker or ‘salaryman’ in an advertising company. ‘Eburi’ is an Anglo-Japanese pun which rhymes the Japanese name with the English concept of the ‘everyman’, making the character a good fit for a satirical narrative. (I’m indebted to the notes written by Tony Rayns for several insights like this.) Eburi’s main vice is to get (very) drunk one night a week in various bars. On one occasion he somehow allows himself to be persuaded by a young couple who are editors to write a piece for a magazine. He feels compelled to write the piece despite not having a subject. Finally, in desperation, he writes autobiographically about his experiences of marriage and being a father while coping with his own irresponsible father – an unscrupulous businessman who borrows money, spends it and then bankrupts himself on a regular basis, expecting Eburi to bail him out each time. Eburi is amazed when the magazine piece is successful and he is persuaded to write a second. This narrative structure allows Okamoto to present the events of Eburi’s life and then, when Eburi wins a literary prize, to regale his younger colleagues with more stories about his literary life. Here Okamoto deploys the full range of cinematic devices with stop motion animation and a form of drawn animation popular in Japanese advertising at the time (but more Western than the early styles of anime) as well as montage sequences, freeze frames, jump cuts and extended flashbacks to Eburi’s earlier experiences. (See the trailer below.)

There were several younger students of Japanese in the audience and I don’t know how many of the jokes and references they got. Okamoto was contracted to Toho and one of the directors for whom he worked in his early career was one of the most celebrated directors of the period, Naruse Mikio. So at one point he refers to a Naruse classic Late Chrysanthemums (1954) and then later to Steve McQueen and Yukio Mishima as celebrities. McQueen was only then in the early part of his career – but perhaps famous in Japan because of The Magnificent Seven? At one point Eburi’s 12 year-old son is watching a TV Western and Okamoto was a big Westerns fan himself. Mishima (1925-70) was a celebrated and controversial Japanese writer and provocateur. The script by Ide Toshiro is very well thought out. Eburi is supposed to have been born in 1926, the first year of the Showa era. This means that he is just old enough to have been conscripted in the final months of the war and he is shown as an incompetent infantryman in training in one of the flashbacks. In other scenes we see him trying to come to terms with the Americanisation of much of Japanese life during the Occupation and its aftermath and, with the advent of economic growth, the beginnings of the consumer society. At 36 it is already clear that he belongs to a different generation than his younger office colleagues. Several reviews describe Eburi as ‘middle-aged’ at 36 – which is probably accurate for an early 1960s attitude!

What makes this film particularly interesting for me is that it comes from the period when the Japanese New Wave was beginning to have an impact on the Japanese studios. Okamoto seems to have a singular take on what a film might be. The film also lines up alongside similarly satirical/absurdist films in other New Waves. One UK review I read suggested that Eburi is a figure like Tony Hancock. I can partly see that but my first thought was the satire shows on UK TV in the early 1960s and the writers that came from them such as Marty Feldman or other writers such as Charles Wood (The Knack 1966, How I Won the War 1967). Eburi’s story might be culturally Japanese but it definitely has universal features widely applicable in other film cultures of the 1960s. I’m very pleased to have seen it. I wish now I could find the Noh musical Oh, Bomb which Okamoto made in 1964 – or a subtitled version of his Western East Meets West (1995).

Japanese trailer (no subs):

Our Little Sister (Umimachi Diary, Japan 2015)

LIFF online still

LIFF online still

Having received much praise at the Cannes Film Festival this title now graces the Official Selection at the Leeds International Film Festival. This is the most impressive film I have yet enjoyed at the Festival. Kore-eda Hirokazu has produced a series of fine dramas and this is as good as any of the earlier ones. Like his earlier films the concern here are family and family generations. The main focus are three sisters. The eldest, Sachi (Ayase Haruka) , is a sort of matriarch and works as a nurse in the town hospital. Second is Yoshino (Nakasawa Masami) who works in a bank and is easily impressed by unremarkable men. The youngest is Chika (Kaho) who works in a sport shop, has a relationship with the manager there and is the most fun-loving of the sisters. As the film opens the sister’s absent father dies, leaving a second wife and a 13 year-old stepsister, Suzu Asano (Hirose Suzu). Sachi invites her, with willing support from her sisters, to come and live with them in the fold family home: a beautiful, traditional building with a garden. This involves Suzu changing schools and making new friends there.

They live in a small coastal town. Kore-eda is quoted in the Festival Catalogue commenting on the importance of the place in the film.

“What interests me greatly is not only the beauty of the scenery of Kamakura – or of the four sisters – but also the accepting attitude of the seaside town itself., absorbing and embracing everything. It is the beauty that arises from the realisation – not sorrowful but open-hearted – that we are just grains of sand forming a part of the whole, and that of the town, and the time there, continue even when we are gone.”

Places are important in Kore-eda’s films, as indeed are meals and rituals such as funerals. This film has a number of both: mealtimes tend to be informal and to allow the characters to interact and enjoy each other. Occasionally they are also the site of conflicts. Funerals provide the time and space for the Japanese formality which is still offers impressive rituals on screen. Characters in Kore-eda’s films often climb upwards – steps, slopes and similar. They do so in this film, though with noticeably more effort that in the other films. The reward, for them and us, is the view from on high: not only impressive but redolent of memories and experiences.

An early beach scene in the film

An early beach scene in the film

This is a slow film and runs 128 minutes. The ending in particular take its time as Kore-eda works his way through different aspects of the relationships: between the sisters, between the sisters and their dead father, living mother and ‘auntie: and between their friends and the setting itself. But when the final sequence comes it is wonderful: along the beach as the waters  lap the sand.

Kore-eda has some of the style and qualities associated with Ozu Yasujiro. There is the same meticulous mise en scène and framing. He frequently uses the low camera angle, especially in interiors. The music, while of a different style, serves a similar function. But rather than static shots he frequently uses minute and slow dollies. There are even less frequent crane shots, though one – as Suzu and a friend watch the town firework display from a boat – is superb. Thematically this film is closer to the work of Naruse Mikio, especially in its treatment of loss and resilience.

I found that Kore-eda’s recent films seem to have a slightly higher quotient of sentiment and use more music than an earlier film like Still Walking (2008). But this film combines sentiment, and the pleasures of the characters with an ironic view of their lives and relationships. The film is developed from a manga comic by Yoshida Akimi. The production is excellent in every department. The version on release is on DCP sourced from Kodak Super 35mm. There are English subtitles. Artificial Eye have the UK rights so it should get a reasonable distribution.