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.

A short history of Japanese film studios

(This is a revised version of a posting from 2009 that had become seriously outdated. If there are any other errors we haven’t spotted, please leave a comment.)

Japan offers the film student an alternative ‘studio history’ to that of Hollywood. There are striking parallels and some major differences in the development of ‘studio majors’ from the 1920s onwards. Three of the oldest Japanese studios Shochiku, Nikkatsu and Toho have been around since at least the 1930s and are still active today. Toei arrived a little later, as did Daiei, which was eventually incorporated in the assets of a relatively new player, Kadokawa, a publishing house founded in 1945. In 2015 the four members of the Motion Picture Producers Association of Japan (MPPAJ) are Toho, Toei, Shochiku and Kadokawa. These are in effect the four ‘majors’ of the current Japanese film industry.

Like the Hollywood studios, some of the Japanese majors have at different times attempted to run fully integrated film operations with producing studios, distribution companies and exhibition chains. One slight difference has been that live action venues, especially kabuki theatres have remained in their portfolios – but another similarity is an interest in theme parks and studio tours etc.

The first Japanese studio system reached its peak in the 1930s having had to recover from the earthquake in 1923 which destroyed much of central Tokyo and in which film prints and facilities were lost. But from the late 1930s until the early 1950s, the Japanese film industry was effectively controlled/restricted first by the Japanese military authorities who forced through a ‘realignment’ of studios via mergers and then by the Allied Occupation Forces from 1945-52 who vetted script ideas and discouraged production of jedaigeki (‘period’ films which might promote traditional/non-democratic values). During the 1930s the Japanese film industry had become the world’s biggest and it regained this position in the 1960s, only to lose it again with the impact of video in the late 1970s.

The Japanese studio system saw stars and writer/director units contracted to the major studios much as in Hollywood. There seems to have been a more visible form of apprenticeship system with new directors having a mentor or ‘old master’ who helped them get established. Aspects of this can be found discussed in books about Kurosawa and the other major directors. Kurosawa is also interesting in terms of his move towards a form of independent production under the umbrella of Toho in the 1950s. The Japanese majors tended to own or lease studio facilities in both Tokyo and Kyoto. Tokyo was the base for gendaigeki (‘contemporary’ films) and the old capital of Kyoto became the centre for jedaigeki. Kyoto still has studio facilities used for film and television production of period dramas. During the studio period, double bills would often include one film from the company’s Tokyo studio and one from their Kyoto studio.

During the 1950s, the major studios came to be associated with specific genres and approaches to retaining audiences. Animation became important in Japan after 1945 and some studios developed specific animation divisions or acquired independent animation companies.

Brief background on the best-known studio brands

Some studio websites are only available in Japanese. If there are studio brands that I have missed out or if any of this material is incorrect, please leave a comment!

daieilogoDaiei was originally formed as a subsidiary of Shochiku in the mid-1930s but came into its own as part of the Japanese wartime ‘consolidation’ of the industry into three companies. After the war, in which Daiei had been a compliant provider of propaganda pictures, the studio faced several problems – no theatre chain or ‘acceptable’ back catalogue and a general restriction on jedaigeki imposed by the Occupation authorities which hit Daiei’s Kyoto studio hard. Two of Daiei’s innovations in the 1950s, however, proved successful. The gamble on sending a film to the Venice Film Festival paid off with Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1951) and Mizoguchi’s The Life of O’Haru (1952). This was sustained by the export success of Gates of Hell in 1954 with its colour photography. Daiei then became the first Japanese studio to consistently use colour. The studio declined during the 1960s and shut its doors in 1971 before the assets were finally bought by Kadokawa in 2002. (See Greg Shoemaker’s ‘History of Daiei‘.)

logo_kadokawa-copyKadokawa Pictures has a more complex history than the other three current ‘majors’. Variety‘s Japan-based correspondent Mark Schilling recently reported recently on 70 years of Kadokawa which was founded as a publishing house in 1945. Kadokawa Shoten is now a major publishing house responsible for manga, magazines and popular literature. Schilling suggests that ‘Kadokawa Group’ expanded the firm’s interest into television, video games and both live action and anime filmed entertainment from 1976 onwards. Identifying Kadokawa films is not straightforward as the company owns Asmik Ace and other film-related businesses and in 2002 took over the assets of the Daiei studio which was a major producer from 1942 (see above). Kadokawa thus acquired a large library of titles, some of which have been re-branded as Kadokawa films. Kadokawa owns a small cinema chain and also acts as a distributor of foreign films in Japan as well as for its own products. Kadokawa made an impact in Europe and eventually North America in the late 1990s through films such as Ringu and Dark Water, both based on books published by Kadokawa Shoten and produced by Asmik Ace.

nikkatsuNikkatsu is Japan’s oldest major film studio. The name Nikkatsu is an abbreviation of Nippon Katsudō Shashin, literally “Japan Cinematograph Company” and it was founded in 1912 when several production companies and theatre chains consolidated under a trust. Nikkatsu lost out in the 1940s when wartime controls forced a damaging merger. The studio did not make films again until 1954 after which there was a concentration on modern action films such as the yakuza films of Suzuki Seijun as well as the more varied output of Ichikawa Kon and Imamura Shohei. The company has made, and continues to make films in numerous genres. However, for most of the 1970s and 1980s, they strictly produced what they termed roman porn films in order to make ends meet. Unlike “pinku eiga“, Nikkatsu’s films were produced with relatively high budgets and production values, as well as featuring mainstream actresses, many of whom also starred in network television and nationally released film dramas. Today Nikkatsu is a smaller and more focused organisation with an international perspective. It operates a small studio facility, a production services company and co-production operation with Nippon TV and a Thai production company Kantana, plus distribution operations (including satellite in Japan). 

PCL Photo Chemical Laboratory was an early film production company that was bought in 1936 by Kobayashi Ichizo to form the production base for what would become the Toho group.

Toho (from Wikipedia) Toho was founded by the Hankyu Railway in 1932 as the Tokyo-Takarazuka Theater Company. It managed much of the kabuki in Tokyo and, among other properties, the Tokyo Takarazuka Theater and the Imperial Garden Theater in Tokyo; Toho and Shochiku enjoyed a duopoly over theatres in Tokyo for many years. Toho had a long (and often difficult) relationship with Kurosawa Akira over many years from the 1940s-60s. As well as the popular Kurosawa films, Toho is also a known brand in Europe and the US because of its science fiction and ‘monster’ pictures from the mid 1950s onwards and its distribution of Miyazaki Hayao’s work for Studio Ghibli.

tohoscopeThe ‘TohoScope’ logo (for the anamorphic system used by the company from the early 1960s) is a fondly remembered image for many film fans.

Toho-Towa is a distribution company, founded in 1928 with a focus on importing the best of international cinema. It is now a subsidiary company of Toho.

Tōei (from Wikipedia) is a Japanese film and television production and distribution corporation. Based in Tokyo, Tōei owns and operates thirty-four (34) cinema houses across Japan, a modest vertically-integrated studio system by the standards of the 1930s Hollywood. The name Tōei is derived from “Tōkyō Eiga Haikyū” (Tōkyō Film Distribution Company, the company’s former name). Tōkyō-Yokohama Films, incorporated 1938, had previously erected its facilities immediately east of the Tōkyū Tōkyō-Yokohama Line; they managed the Tōkyū Shibuya Yokohama studio system prior to V-J Day. From 1945 through the Tōei merger, Tōkyō-Yokohama Films leased from the Daiei Motion Picture Company a second studio in Kyoto. Through the merger, they gained the combined talents and experience of actors Chiezō KataokaUtaemon IchikawaRionosuke TsukigataRyutaro OtomoKinnosuke NakamuraChiyonosuke AzumaShirunosuke ToshinHashizo Okawa and Satomi Oka. On October 1, 1950, the Tōkyō Film Distribution Company was incorporated; in 1951 the company purchased Ōizumi Films.

Toei Animation is a leading animation company and part of the Toei Company.

Shintoho began as a Toho subsidiary in the late 1940s and then sought to develop an independence that in the 1950s saw it successful with war pictures and action adventures for ‘ultra-conservative’ audiences. Its independence ended in 1961 when the studio went bankrupt and the assets reverted to Toho. 

180px-shochiku_logoShochiku Formed in 1895 by Takejirō Otani and his brother as a Kabuki production company, Shochiku grew fast, expanding its business to many other Japanese theatrical entertainments, like Noh and Bunraku. The company began making films in 1921 and was the first film studio to abandon the use of female impersonators and sought to model itself and its films after Hollywood standards, bringing such things as the star system and the sound stage to Japan. Today, Shochiku is considered to be the oldest continuously-operating film studio in Japan. Shochiku is associated with the ‘lower middle-class’ dramas of Ozu Yasujiro and other films for a family audience in the 1950s.

Encyclopedia of Contemporary Japanese Culture – cinema entry by Aaron Gerow

Do you know this Japanese film?

Wehrmacht

One of our visitors contacted us with this image of a Japanese film poster asking if we knew the studio from the logo in the bottom right-hand corner. We don’t but some of you might. Jeff tells us that he thinks the poster is from around 1960. Perhaps a Japanese linguist can tell us the title?

Please leave a comment if you have any useful information.

Glasgow FF15 #9: Still the Water (Futatsume no mado, Japan-France 2014)

Kyoto swimming in her school uniform

Kyoko swimming in her school uniform

This was the film I most wanted to see in Glasgow, simply because writer-director Naomi Kawase is one of the most frequent Cannes prize contenders never to have had a film released in the UK. No doubt some of her earlier films have been at festivals here, but if so I’ve missed them. Female Japanese auteurs are not easy to find so I’ve been on the lookout for a Kawase film for some time. Inevitably, the fact that this film is a French co-production will help its sales. France and other Francophone territories in Europe have been her only outlets so far but the catalogue suggests that Still the Water will be released by Soda Pictures in the UK.

Without any previous experience of the director’s films I’m struggling to find a way in to discuss the film and to respond to some of the reviews from Cannes where the film was in competition for the Palme d’Or (Kawase has previously won the Camera d’Or and the Jury Prize and in 2013 she was on the main jury panel). What, for instance, to make of Derek Elley’s Film Business Asia Review which is headed “More empty, pretentious ramblings from self-styled auteur Kawase Naomi” and scored as 2/10? By contrast, Indiewire thought the film had a chance of winning the Palme d’Or. I’ll try to work somewhere between these two.

Still the Water is an intriguing title (and as Elley points out, the Japanese title means something quite different which doesn’t match the plot either). The story is set on the island of Amami Ōshima, part of the archipelago that stretches between Kyushu, the southernmost of the four main Japanese islands, and Okinawa. Apparently Kawase, who grew up in the Nara region of Honshu, has discovered that her ancestors came from the Amami Islands. Apart from the beauty of the islands, two other elements of local Amami culture are significant. One is the presence of female Shinto priests or noro and the other is the importance of local folk/community song traditions. The waters are often not still because the region is subject to typhoons.

Naomi Kawase directs  (from left) Yoshinaga Jun (Kyoto), Murakami Nijirô (Kaito) and Tokita Fujio (Kyoto's grandfather?)

Naomi Kawase directs (from left) Yoshinaga Jun (Kyoto), Murakami Nijirô (Kaito) and Tokita Fujio (old fisherman)

The narrative begins with the body of a tattooed man being found in the sea and a subsequent ban on sea bathing – ignored by Kyoko, the strong and very beautiful 16 year-old daughter of a family that owns a beach restaurant. The body had been found by Kyoko’s classmate Kaito and the young couple are in a relationship that hasn’t yet fully formed. While her father cooks the food and runs the restaurant, her mother Isa is seriously ill in hospital and will eventually come home to die. Isa is presumably a noro – though the subtitles call her a shaman. Kaito lives with his mother, a waitress in a local restaurant. She is separated from the boy’s father, a tattooist in Tokyo who Kaito visits one weekend. His mother is often out with new partners and this has an impact on Kaito. The narrative includes the mystery of the body in the sea as well as the romance between Kyoko and Kaito, but there isn’t really much plot. The main question seems to be how the different issues facing the couple’s parents will have an impact on their children. More important, perhaps, is the discourse about nature and spirituality, ecology and human psychology. One obvious point is about the juxtaposition of death – scenes of a goat being slaughtered by the old fisherman are presented in close-up detail and witnessed by Kyoto – and the blossoming of romance and sexual joy.

Kyoko and Kaito beneath the ancient banyan tree in the mangrove forest.

Kyoko and Kaito beneath the ancient banyan tree in the mangrove forest.

Those who don’t like the film seem to be most offended by the lack of narrative drive and what they see as Kawase’s pretentiousness. This view ignores the sheer beauty of the film and the sensitivity of the performances. The other stumbling block may be the ‘otherness’ of Japanese culture. It often seems to me that the importance of the sea in Japan’s ‘island culture’ isn’t properly recognised in the West – nor is the Shintoist belief in the spirits which inhabit specific locations. Perhaps the title refers to the oncoming typhoon and the possibility that the love between Kyoko (who is expected to inherit her mother’s powers?) and Kaito will ensure that ‘still water’ will be restored. Personally, I picked up echoes of Miyazaki’s Ponyo on the Cliff By the Sea (2008) – simply in terms of the spirits of the sea, the ecological questions and the triumphant young female figure. The look of the film, however, comes from a different kind of ‘magic image’ in the work of veteran cinematographer Yamazaki Yutaka, best known in recent years for his work with Kore-eda Hirokazu on his films about families and children. Still the Water benefits from his photography of the sea and landscapes as well as the characters. Equally important is the music, including the traditional songs sung in Isa’s last few hours on the beach. I like films in which the characters sing.

Now I’ve thought it through, I’m not sure that the film is a masterpiece but I certainly enjoyed it and I look forward to seeing it again. I’m also going to have to add this film to my list of movies with great cycling scenes. Here is the French trailer with English subs giving a good idea of the emotional intensity of the film.

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.