Category: Japanese Cinema

Tag (Riaru onigokko, Japan 2015)

Tag-1080x583

Sticking it to patriarchy

I’m very much a later-comer to the Sono Sion party who directed four other films in the year Tag came out; his total is over 50 features. He reminded me Miike Takashi, who now has over 100 films as director, in that he is prolific and multiplies ‘going overboard’ with ‘throwing in the kitchen sink’. I stumbled across the film on Prime and had zero idea what to expect so my eyeballs were well and truly shredded around five minutes into the film. Critical commentary on the film is favourable but as I watched it I had no idea whether I was watching something that was entirely exploitation horror or whether there was, as is often the case in this type of horror film, more to it. When I realised, about half way through, no male character had made an appearance so far I twigged that writer-director Sono was saying something.

The fact that most of the characters to that point had been Japanese school girls in short skirts and had included many knicker-shots suggested dubious (to be polite) character but it turned out that the film was making a point about gender. Having cake and eating it does spring to mind but to critique patriarchy does sometimes require it to be mimicked.

To avoid spoilers I won’t go into the details of exactly how Sono is critiquing male dominance as the film does manage to pull off, in the denouement, the pretty impressive trick of actually explaining the bonkers-ness of what we have seen before. The source material is Yamada Yusuke’s novel Real Onigokko (2001) but I suspect that this has only formed the narrative premise rather than the feminist perspective.

It’s not a film for those for whom gore is a turn-off, though it is strictly cartoonish rather than realistic hence its 15-certificate in the UK. I’ve tagged the film SF as the narrative explanation for the bizarre events qualifies for the genre rather than fantasy, which seems to be the usual category used in reviews.

I now have the challenge of catching up with the rest of Sono’s ouevre; come to think of it, I’m still in single figures for the number of Miike films I’ve seen. Of course, it is an impossible task to keep up with everything, especially as most of the rest-of-the-world cinema never gets distributed in the UK. By the way, the Japanese title apparently translates as ‘real tag’, the game when you’re ‘it’ until you touch someone; we used to call it ‘tick’.

Inland Sea (Minatomachi, Japan-US 2018)

Wai-chan, the fisherman in his 80s.

This is an engaging documentary about characters in a small Japanese fishing port. It’s long for a film of its kind, but it has an energy, the camera is often moving and the characters are interesting. Japan’s demographic of an ageing society and its experience of stagflation is indicative of where the UK and much of Europe is heading, so it’s also an important sociological insight into our futures. The good news is that in general the older people in the town seem cheerful and at ease with themselves and their situation. The exception to this rule inevitably becomes the central character and this reveals both the positives and negatives of the filmmakers’ approach.

Inland Sea is officially ‘No 7’ in the series of ‘Observations’ by Sôda Kazuhiro, the Japanese documentarist working out of New York with his producing partner Kashiwagi Kiyoko. I hadn’t come across Sôda’s work before. I think that in the UK he may be known only by those frequenting documentary or ‘non-fiction’ festivals (or strands in major festivals – this film was screened at Berlin in 2018), so I was pleased to be able to watch Inland Sea courtesy of distributors Rock Salt Releasing in the US. Most of Sôda’s previous work seems only to have streamed for 30 days on MUBI in various territories but now it is available to stream/download in the US (on Amazon, InDemand, Hoopla, Vimeo on Demand, Fandango).

Sôda trained in New York but only became interested in documentary after completing his course. He then discovered Fred Wiseman and became intrigued by his approach. If Inland Sea is typical of Sôda’s practice he is certainly a worthy disciple of Wiseman’s methods, becoming, as the subtitle to his films attests, an ‘observer’ of first the individual actions of people in their environment and ultimately of the communities and institutions in which they operate. Japan’s ‘Inland Sea’ is the body of water between three of the five main islands of Japan, Honshu, Kyushu and Shikoku in South-Western Japan. The focus of this film is the small fishing town of Ushimado, one of many ‘left-behind’ towns with a rapidly ageing population as younger people leave. Perhaps as a means to invoke this idea of ‘left behind’ by ‘progress’, Sôda decided to grade the film in monochrome although it was shot in colour.

This cat seems to cope very well with life in Ushimado.

‘conversation with Sôda on MUBI’s website by K. F. Watanabe suggests that Sôda operates under a set of self-imposed rules much like the Dogme ’95 Manifesto. The ’10 Commandments’ are listed on Sôda’s own website. They stress that this is to be a sole authored (and financed) film that will proceed with no research, no script, no theme, no narration and no music. It will have long takes and shooting will continue as long as required. This means that the film’s narrative (all films have a narrative of sorts) will be dependent on who Sôda and Kashiwaga come across as they observe a community. One review I read suggested that Kashiwaga comes from Ushimado or at least the region around it, so that might mean the people they meet are not completely random. Also, Sôda has worked in the area before, making Oyster Factory in 2015. I think that he met a couple of this film’s characters on the earlier shoot. Ushimado was also a favourite location for Imamura Shohei.

Sôda and Kashiwaga work as a duo as far as I can see. They are, in a sense, in the long line of North American ‘direct cinema’ filmmakers except that Sôda does intervene and prompt, occasionally asking questions. Though he only appears as a shadow holding the camera, his partner does sometimes appear in the background. I’m not sure this pushes him into ciné vérité territory in which the filmmaker becomes a provocateur, but it does mean that this is something other than ‘only observation’. Even if neither Sôda or Kashiwaga speak, the subject of the camera’s gaze often addresses them directly and questions them or cajoles them into action.

Kumiko spends her day on the sea-front and becomes the central character of the narrative.

Inland Sea begins and ends on the seafront with the woman who becomes central, Kumiko. She’s 84 during filming and we learn something of her difficult life. She is clearly lonely but also energetic and knowledgeable about the town and Sôda’s methodology means that he engages with her, seemingly ‘because she is there’. How the audience then reads how she is presented and how she presents herself will then determine whether she comes across as symbolic of a refusal to accept inevitable decline or that she becomes the focus for a critique of a society which just regards her as another case for welfare services. The same is true for the town itself with its empty houses (“the people died”, Kumiko tells us) but also with inhabitants who have found ways to continue – as in the case of the two other major characters, Wai-chan the fisherman and Koso the owner of the fresh fish shop who buys his catch. (I found Koso the most interesting character and I enjoyed the ‘procedural’ narrative that takes the fish from the sea to the customer.) We could argue that this selection of characters makes the film ‘humanist’ and doesn’t tell us what to think, even if it does ‘direct’ us towards different lines of investigation. I wonder how you will feel when you see the final shot?

I’d like to be able to show this film and I hope someone in the UK eventually finds Sôda Kazuhiro interesting enough to consider a DVD or digital download. Below is a film festival trailer. I should point out that the music isn’t in the film. Also, as someone who eats fish I found the fishing scenes disturbing, but as a cat lover I really enjoyed the feline characters.

LIFF 2019 #8: Osaka Elegy (Naniwa erejî, Japan 1936)

Ayako (Yamada Isuzu) in her booth looks out into the office

Every year LIFF puts together an archive strand with a specific theme. In 2019 this was a tribute to ‘Mother Cutter: Women Who Shaped Film’. I saw two features, both introduced by a young woman who I don’t think give her name and there are no credits in the programme. She told us something about the films and provided a brief biography of the editor. Osaka Elegy is a Mizoguchi Kenji female-centred melodrama, edited by Sakane Tazuko. The introduction was useful but it would have been good to say something about the editing approach and perhaps some examples to look out for.

Ayako with her young office colleague in a modern café

The screening was from an archive print which I assumed was 35mm. It was quite ‘soft’ and a little worn. I note that there are both DVD and Blu-ray discs available, but judging by DVD Beaver’s excellent service, the original print for these was no better than the one we watched. The mid-30s was when Mizoguchi really broke through to commercial success in Japan and this story (which he originated) is a contemporary-set melodrama. At its centre is Ayako (Yamada Isuzu), a switchboard operator at the offices of a pharmaceutical company. Her father has been dismissed from his post at another company, having embezzled the sum of ¥300. Ayako in desperation decides to take up her boss’s offer of an apartment if she will become his mistress. She hopes the money to recover her father’s reputation (and job) will come from him. This simple plot reminds me of a number of other films. The ‘switchboard operator’ is almost iconic of the ‘modern woman’ in the 1930s – and into the 1960s with Dusan Makaveyev’s 1967 Yugoslavian film sometimes known as The Tragedy of the Switchboard Operator. More germane might be the Barbara Stanwyck pre-code film Baby Face (US 1933) in which Ms Stanwyck is a lowly clerk who sleeps her way to the top of the building – literally, since that is the office of the big boss. 

The perils of affairs with older men – Ayako is seen at the bunraku theatre

But since this is a familiar Mizoguchi narrative about a woman struggling against a patriarchal society, the basic plot is developed into a complex interlocking of male attitudes towards an ‘active’ young woman like Ayako – active in the sense of doing things for other people and for herself in the face of disapproval. There is a young man who might be a suitor and another older man – as well as her father and her brother Hiroshi who needs tuition fees to finish his degree. None of these men seem to care about how their own behaviour will have consequences for her.

The quality of the print did make it difficult to fully appreciate what Mizoguchi and his creative team were able to do with relatively few resources on this shoot. Japan was relatively late to fully adapt to sound production. Mizoguchi had made over 50 films by this time but it was still early days for sound. Also this was one of the films he made for an independent company after several years working at Nikkatsu’s Kyoto studio. Osaka Elegy is a melodrama presented with a sense of realism embodied in the sets and setting and the feel for modernity in 1930s Japan. Miki Minoru was already established as Mizoguchi’s cinematographer and the pair would go to make many more films together. Much of Osaka Elegy was shot using small group compositions framed in long shot with relatively few close-ups. Some compositions in depth are striking and I was intrigued by some of the sets. The apartment which Ayako’s boss rents for her is Western in style and could be an upmarket pad from a Hollywood film of the period. Ayako is dressed in both traditional and modern Western outfits. Like Miki, Yamada Isuzu had already made several films with Mizoguchi and would go on to become one of the greatest Japanese screen actors, working well into the 1980s.

The Naniwa Bridge

The Japanese title for the film is a reference to the Naniwa Bridge in Osaka. The image above is from https://www.oldphotosjapan.com and gives an idea of what Mizoguchi and Miki might have achieved with better equipment. The bridge was a significant architectural feature of the modernisation of Osaka in the early 20th century (as were the streetcars).

I always enjoy the opportunity to see archive prints at the Hyde Park Picture House. I just wish the prints from 1930s Japan were in better condition. There is a lot to say about Mizoguchi’s work in the mid-1930s and the film merits more attention. I find it difficult to say anything specific about Sakane’s editing of the film, except to note that the film is very short (for a feature) but still says a great deal and transitions smoothly between scenes. Researching details of Sakane’s career I came across a paper on her by Xinyi Zhao on the ‘Women Film Pioneers Project’ website. This is an illuminating read which I urge you to access. The working conditions in Japanese studios in the 1930s meant that an unusual figure like Sakane (from a wealthy family and with early-onset cinephilia developed a strong working relationship with Mizoguchi for whom she started as a dogsbody and eventually became assistant director as well as editor. I expect that she had a considerable input into those female-centred melodramas. She had made her directorial debut in 1936 with a period drama New Year’s Finery at the same small studio where she worked with Mizoguchi. This made her the first Japanese woman to direct a film. The male critics savaged the film and she didn’t get the opportunity to make another and she returned to Mizoguchi’s production unit. The late 1930s militarism and imperial expansionism meant that her only chance of advancement was to embrace imperial policies in Manchuko and become a director of colonialist documentaries. This then caused problems for her attempting to return to the commercial Japanese film industry after 1945. I’m sure there is much more to discover about this remarkable woman.

Hana (Hana yori mo naho Japan 2006)

 

Spanish release poster

Kore-eda Hirokazu’s fifth fiction feature finds him writing and directing what first appears to be a genre film for the major studio Shochiku. Is this going to be a chanbara, a swordfight film, often termed a ‘samurai film’ in the West? It was shot in Kyoto, the traditional home of studios specialising in jedaigeki or ‘period films’. This is, I think, the only time Kore-eda has ventured into historical drama so far. But having established that, the film seems to develop rather differently than might be expected although it does haves something in common with Killing (Japan 2018), the recent chanbara from genre master Tsukamoto Shin’ya.

The setting is a street of hovels on the edge of Edo (later Tokyo) in 1702. Soza (Okada Jun’ichi) is a young and inexperienced samurai who has been charged by his clan with avenging his father, killed in a dispute during a game of Go. But Soza is not an aggressive young man and doesn’t consider himself a skilled warrior. He lives a relatively quiet life in the slums, running an impromptu school in which he attempts to teach young people the rudiments of writing. He is also developing a relationship with Osae (Miyazawa Rie) a woman who appears to have been abandoned by her husband and who is bringing up her small son. It’s already apparent that there is a new potential family here, a recurring narrative element across Kore-eda’s films. There is also a larger ‘communal family’ with a wide range of characters. This group makes fun of Soza but also in its own way takes care of him.

Osae and her son

The people of the hovels

The ‘difference’ in Hana is that Kore-eda provides a parallel narrative in the background. This is introduced by title cards which set the exact date of events as 1702, one year after a dispute in Edo castle in which a court official was killed by a lord who was then forced to commit seppuku. The lord’s lands were taken by the Shogun and his retinue, including his samurai were dispersed. The now ‘masterless’ samurai or ronin stayed grouped together and determined to avenge their late master. These were the ’47 ronin‘ whose story would become legendary in Japan. The many fictionalised versions of the story use the title Chūshingura and it has become one of the best known stories across all forms of Japanese theatre, literature and art. A 1941 film version was directed by Mizoguchi Kenji in two parts in 1941/2. In Kore-eda’s film a small group of the ronin are hiding close to Soza’s dwelling and working on the plan. Kore-reda wrote the script himself and he makes a number of cross-references between Soza’s actions and those of the ronin. The references to the story of the 47 ronin would be well-known to Japanese audiences but outside Japan may lead to bafflement. Because of my struggles to watch a Spanish Blu-ray of the film with downloaded English subs I didn’t fully appreciate the opening titles and I had to rewatch parts of the film. All this perhaps explains why the film itself struggled to obtain a wide international release.

What kinds of audience response was Kore-eda hoping for?  The film opened in Japan on 178 screens and crept into the Top Ten in June 2006 making over $400,000 in its first weekend but then seemingly disappearing. Spain seems to be the only other market in which the cinema film was released. Predictably the American fans of Japanese action films who came across the DVD generally didn’t like it. Given that there is no swordplay in a film featuring samurai these fans felt short-changed. However, those who knew Kore-eda and his films were generally appreciative. The film offers many pleasures. Okada Jun’ichi was known in Japan mainly as a pop star in 2006. He has continued to have a film career and has been used to voice characters in anime hits such as From Up on Poppy Hill (Japan 2011). Ironically his bio suggests he is also a martial arts instructor. Hana looks great with the authentic looking settlement of suitably grimy hovels on the outskirts of the city and close to the river and the woods. There is plenty of humour in the daily goings-on of the street (especially around the communal toilet and use of ‘night soil’) and in the local celebrations of festival days. By creating an implied contrast between Soza’s reluctance to carry out the revenge attack decreed by his clan and the plotting by the 47 ronin, Kore-eda appears to be inviting the audience to consider what the ‘samurai code’ means at a time of peace. He may also be making a comment about masculinity in Japan more broadly, given that one of his familiar concerns is to explore social issues in contemporary Japanese life.

A rare moment outside Edo – this forest setting by the water’s edge is only a short distance from Soza’s home

The film was shot by Yamazaki Yutaka who was Kore-eda’s regular DoP at the time (he shot six of Kore-eda’s films). The look of the film is also attributable to costume design by Kurosawa Kazuko, daughter of the master of jedai-geki and also to production designers Baba Masao and Isomi Toshihiro. I really enjoyed the music in the film. It seems that Kore-eda decided he wanted something ‘completely different’ so he put together a group of European musicians playing 18th century instruments and asked them to improvise. It works very well (see the clip below).

One dissenting voice that I saw in a review compares Hana to Twilight Samurai (Japan 2002) a film by the genre master Yamada Yoji with some similar plot details but set in the 19th century when the samurai life is coming to a climactic point with the approaching opening up of the country during the Meiji Restoration. I think this writer has a point but it doesn’t negate what Kore-eda is doing here. Shochiku also funded Twilight Samurai which was a huge commercial success in Japan (and a relatively big budget film) and a critical success internationally, getting an Academy Award nomination.

If you can find Hana (US DVD and Spanish Blu-ray) I think it works very well and shows both Kore-eda’s adaptability and his commitment to humanist values.