So the final day of the retrospective and of the Berlinale. This is ‘People’s Day’ / ‘Publikumstag’. Many of the industry and press visitors have left. The Award Winners have been lauded. Now ordinary Berliners (not just the film buffs) can check out the varied programmes and films. The auditoria were still full but the audiences had a slightly different feeling.
Alongside the Weimar retrospective the Berlinale offers Berlinale Classics. This included My 20th Century, Sidney Lumen’s Fail Safe (1964), Assi Dayan’s Life According to Agaa (Hachayin Al-Pi Ag fa, 1992), Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (Der Himmel Über Berlin, 1987) and Michail Kalatozov’s The Cranes are Flying (Letjat Schurawli, 1957). Wim Wenders actually turned up in person to introduce the other film in the programme, a title by Ozu Yasujiro.
Tokyo Twilight (Tokyo Boshoku, 1957). The film is in Ozu’s standard academy ratio and black and white. This was the premiere of a restored version screened from a 4K DCP. It is in a number of ways typical of late Ozu; the regular low angle camera; the deep focus and staging; the focus on props within the frame; the insertion of what are called ‘pillow shots’, brief sequences that are not obviously part of the developing plot; and the ‘lounge music’ which sounds non-Japanese in this most Japanese of directors.
But the plot was unusual for Ozu, involving marital discord, extra-marital affairs (safely in the past) and a troubled young woman who is pregnant and has to consider abortion. Yet this plot is made partly typical with Ryu Chishu as a single-parent father and a manager in a bank and Hara Setsuko (Takako) as the dutiful daughter, though again, unusually, she is married and has a baby daughter. Akiko (Arima Imeko) is the youngest daughter. She is described as ‘wild’ by other characters. During the film she spends much time seeking out her current boyfriend, Ken; and a regular haunt is a mah-jongg parlour, where people play and gamble. It is Akiko’s plight and the reappearance of her long-lost mother that provides the dramatic focus of the narrative.
The Brochure offers:
“This largely-unknown work is considered Ozu’s darkest post-war film . . . ”
Wenders’ comments were given in German but I noticed that he used the term ‘noir’ at one point. And shadows and low-key lighting feature in many scenes.
One theme in the film is late 1950s Japanese youth, seen here as breaking with the mores of the older generation. This is a thematic that is found in the films of Oshima Nagisa but it is unusual for Ozu. The use of low-class and unseemly settings would be more typical of Naruse Mikio, but this version is replete with the resignation that typifies Ozu.
Ozu works here with regular collaborators including as joint script-writer Noda Kogo. Atsuta Yoharu provides the cinematography which is finely done. The film was as absorbing as Ozu’s other late films. However, I did think that the structure was not quite as finely tuned. There is a scene in the mah-jongg parlour where the players discuss Akiko. The scene is clearly designed to inform the audience of aspects of her situation that are hinted at rather than made explicit. However, by this stage these seemed to me fairly obvious and I found the scene redundant: an unusual feeling in a film by Ozu.
Show Life (Song, Dire Liebe eines armen Menschenkindes, 1928) is a classic melodrama jointly produced by Eichberg-Film GmbH, Berlin and British International Pictures. The German title translates as ‘dire love of a poor human child’.
“Moving between dive bar and cabaret, ocean liner and night train, the German-British co-production represented Weimar cinema’s first foray into the milieu of European ex-pats in a colonial setting, which was very attractive for western foreign markets.”
The main protagonists are John (Heinrich George) an entertainer who has a knife-throwing act and who is stranded in an unidentified Asian port. On a beach he rescues a young Chinese woman, Song, (Anna May Wong) from assault. He recruits her into his knife throwing act, which, with her physical charms, becomes a success in a cheap bar. But John’s old flame and mistress, Gloria (Mary Kid), a successful dancer, reappears. Implausibly John prefers the scheming Gloria to Song: in the late 1920s how many female stars would one prefer to Anna May Wong?
Desperation leads to criminality and a fateful accident. John is duped regarding Gloria and Song, who is devoted to John, is caught and suffers between them. There are some fine sequences including late in the film when Song herself has become a successful dancer.
The cinematography by Heinrich Gärtner and Bruno Mondi, makes excellent use of low-key lighting. The contrasting sets, low-life and high-life, dramatise the conflicts on screen.
We had a fair 35mm print from the British Film Institute and a suitably dramatic accompaniment by Günter Buchwald.
My final film was back at the Zeughauskino, Life Begins Tomorrow(Morgen Beginnnt das Leben, 1933) directed by Werner Hochbaum who also directed >Brothers. This is a film that fits in the New Objectivity and shares some qualities with the ‘proletarian films’. The film opens with Robert (Erich Haußmann) nearing the end of his sentence for manslaughter. On the day of his release he expects to find his wife Marie (Hilde von Stolz) there to meet him. But Marie has returned home late after a tryst with an admirer. She oversleeps. Both spend the day searching for their partner in Berlin. So the city, or a particular area, is itself another character.
The film has a dazzling array of techniques:
“using documentary images, expressionist lighting, subjective camera angles, and experimental sound and picture montages..”
At times there are multiple superimpositions and these also lead the audience into the flashbacks that explain Robert’s and Marie’s situation. Robert was the kapellmeister of a restaurant orchestra. Marie worked in the bar and the killing resulted when he intervened to stop Marie being molested by the owner/manager. One of the ironies is that Marie’s admirer, (possibly lover) is the new kapellmeister.
The narrative uses melodramatic tropes including, apart from missed meetings, a stopped clock, a unreceived letter and unhelpful neighbours. The brochure notes that the film was made after the end of the Weimar Republic. This sort of [mildly] left-wing film was past its time. The film was attacked on the grounds that the director,
“politicised his methods to the same extent that he resurrected the rhetoric of the old avant-garde.”
Hochbaum made films up until 1939 but died quite young in 1946.
We had a 35mm print but without subtitles. In fact I found the plot relatively straight forward to follow. And I read after the screening that the film had
“minimal, often deliberate incomprehensible dialogue’.
We did at one point see the unreceived letter which [I suspect] explained something about Marie’s admirer/lover.
The film provided a suitable finale to the retrospective. The audience offered a round of applause for the staff who had supported us all through the week. Then I walked round the corner to the stop outside Humboldt-Universidad. The 200 bus arrived punctually and within 20 minutes I was back at the Kurfürstendamm. The end of a fascinating and rewarding week.
A film that ‘launched a thousand’ replicas: not quite but there are sixteen plus Japanese remakes or sequels. There are also numerous US versions: the original was re-edited and dubbed for the US market. Among the changes the US version downplayed the dangers of nuclear weapons, a key theme in the plot.
Beverley Bare Buehrer, in a commentary on the film recorded that:
“Toho executive producer, Tanaka Tomoyuki, saw the 1953 American film Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. He liked the film and coupled it with an actual event which happened in March of that year, the exposure to radioactive fallout of Japanese fisherman on the tuna boat, Fukuryu Maru, sailing in an area too close to an H-bomb test America had used near the Marshall Islands.”
Forgiveness is obviously a Japanese characteristic since they have co-operated with the Yanks since then rather than initiating economic boycotts.
The film was an expensive production by Japanese standards of the time. The film’s special effects relied on a skilled specialist Tsuburaya Eiji. I found the design of the production by Chuko Satoshi still convincing last time I saw the print. Tamai Masao’s black and white cinematography is finely done, [academy ratio]. The film’ soundtrack by Shimonaga Hisashi uses special sound effects. And the music by Ifukube Akira is especially effective. Director Honda Inoshiro orchestrates these talents into an excellent 98 minutes of action.
Whilst techniques have moved on and developed in the intervening decades the film stands up really well. The script is by Murata Takeo and Honda Inoshiro and the plot develops at a fairly fast pace and offers character relations as well as a monster and large-scale destruction. It is also the type of film that looks better in a 35mm print. So happily Hebden Bridge Picture House is using this format for a ‘reel film’ screening on Saturday February 3rd. The last time I saw the film the print was in good shape.
We enjoyed a good-looking 35mm print. The visual and aural special effects stood up well as did the monster and its rampages. Some of the plot is conventional but the recurring references to the US nuclear bombing of Japan are powerful. There is a reference to Nagasaki and a number of sequences that recall the horrors of 1945. There is also an interesting debate amongst the scientific characters about what should be done about the monster. Definitely a classic.
This is a classic samurai film and enjoys the talents of two stars: filmmaker Kurosawa Akira and actor Mifune Toshiro. Both bring their special talents to an entertaining and exciting action movie. Like much of their work the film has been remade several times, including as a spaghetti western, A Fistful of Dollars (1964), and as a Hollywood prohibition/action film, Last Man Standing (1996).
The film is set in 1860, just prior to the Meiji period and the rise of modern Japan. Mifune plays a ronin, that is a masterless samurai whose traditional functions have vanished and who takes on whatever work he can find. In this case in a small town he is offered work as a bodyguard (the English sense of the title) by rival merchants. The merchants are the emerging class in this period, but here they rely more on criminality than trade, forerunners of the modern Yakusa.
The main character and the film’s story are strongly sardonic. The opening sequence shows our hero passed by a dog carrying a severed hand. And the violence implied here is a central right through the film.
The cinematographer on the film was Miyagawa Kazuo. He had worked with Kurosawa on the earlier Rashomon (1950) as well as with other major directors like Mizoguchi Kenji and Ozu Yasujirô. As in some of the director’s other films Kurosawa and Miyagawa make great use of the telephoto lens. There is a depth of field in the shots, but a rather flat image as the action is foreshortened. Among the distinctive editing techniques, performed by Kurosawa himself, are frequent wipes, a technique rarely seen in post-war (WWII) cinema. And the music track by Satô Masaru uses distinctive instrumentation including wood blocks.
Kurosawa had set up his own production company. The first film was a variation on Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’, The Bad Sleep Well / Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru (1960). Mifune was the lead actor. Yojimbo was the second film from the company . Both film were also scripted by Kurosawa.
The film was popular in Japan and Kurosawa made a sequel titled with the character’s name, Sanjuro (1962). Once again Mifune played the lead. Yojimbo had a relatively large international release and has remained a regular title for revivals over the years. On its initial release in the Britain the BBFC gave it an ‘A’ Certificate.
The film’s format was black and white TohoScope. almost identical to CinemaScope with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1: with Perspecta Stereo sound., Now Hebden Bridge Picture House are screening the film in their ‘reel film’ series on Saturday January 6th. So it can be seen in its original 35mm format: what a treat.
Kore-eda Hirokazu is a Japanese auteur in the original sense of that term. In his films you can rely on recurring faces in the cast list, recurring themes and styles – all with a sense of a director’s ‘personal vision’ honed over twenty years of auteur production. Very occasionally, Kore-eda throws a curve ball, such as in his film Air Doll in which one character is a blow-up sex toy which comes to life, but even so the film has recognisable elements. After the Storm does have a slightly different feel in the character written by Kore-eda for one of his regulars Abe Hiroshi, but overall the narrative is familiar and has a direct relationship to Kore-eda’s 2008 masterpiece Still Walking, sharing both Abe and Kirin Kiki as his mother in both films.
Whenever a Kore-eda film appears, there are reviews that reference the Japanese master Ozu Yasijuro and in After the Storm there are several scenes featuring Japanese sporting/cultural pursuits such as cycle racing, baseball, pachinko and lottery tickets – the kind of activities that Ozu’s characters sometimes engage with. However, the way in which these activities form part of the narrative reminded me more of Kitano Takeshi or some of the Japanese New Wave films of the early 1960s. The ‘master’ Kore-eda usually refers to is Naruse Mikio and in an interview with Mark Schilling for the Japan Times, he does so again in discussing After the Storm. Naruse’s characters tend to come from the next social class below those of Ozu – they are in Kore-eda’s words ” . . . living with their backs bent. They aren’t standing straight and tall”. This is the shomin-geki in Japanese cinema, the film about ‘ordinary people’ (the lower middle-class/upper working-class).
The film’s narrative is based on Kore-eda’s own background. He wrote the script himself and its central location is the public housing complex or danchi where Kore-eda himself grew up. The film opens in the flat of Shinoda Yoshiko (Kiki Kirin), where she and her adult daughter Chinatsu (Kobayashi Satomi) are writing ‘thank you’ cards after the funeral of Yoshiko’s husband. A little later her adult son Ryota (Abe Hiroshi) visits his mother’s flat, bringing her a cake but hoping to rummage around and find anything valuable his father may have hidden. Ryota is a familiar figure in many films – the ‘man-child’ who has never quite grown up and who now in his early 50s is always broke and scrounging for whatever he can find. He once wrote a novel and won a prize but now his only source of income is as a seedy private detective following adulterous wives and husbands or looking for lost cats. Even in this job Ryota has to ‘play’ the system and in effect syphon off some of the client fees which he won’t declare to his employer. He needs the money partly to support a gambling addiction inherited from his father. All of this makes Ryota a slightly different character from Kore-eda’s recent family drama personnel. He allows the introduction of jokes and comic scenes as well as the wiff of something possibly dangerous.
Ryota’s other problem is that his ‘failure’ to earn money has led to divorce by his wife Kyoko (Maki Yoko) and only monthly access to his son Shingo (Yoshizawa Taiyô). The scenes away from mum’s flat see Ryota working with a junior partner and then spying on Kyoko when she is with with Shingo and her new partner. Ryota then meets his son for their monthly outing before father and son visit his mother’s flat and Kyoko (still waiting for her child support payment from Ryota) is persuaded to join them. The final section of the film then presents the three generations together for the night as Typhoon #24 of the summer is unleashed.
One perceptive reviewer remarked that in Kore-eda’s films it often feels as if nothing has happened until you realise that everything has happened. I agree. What is also surprising is that the more ‘Japanese’ the film gets, the more universal it feels. At one point grandma points out that the best meals improve if the food is left overnight to allow the flavour to develop. As all good cooks know this is absolutely correct. The focus on (home-cooked) food is another link to Still Walking. The other point I’d like to make is how well I think Abe Hiroshimi plays his role. It’s not easy for the very handsome 6″ 4′ Abe to play the seedy failure but somehow he manages to be a klutz but also very likeable. His pairing with 5″ 1′ Maki Yoko is also quite something. She is very beautiful and the family together is a winning combination. Kiki Kirin is wonderful – as she always is.
Kore-eda Hirokazu is now, for me, the most reliable auteur filmmaker in contemporary cinema. Every one of his films has been a winner. There have been several reports of Spielberg attempting to remake Kore-eda films. I fervently hope this never happens. Let’s just enjoy Kore-eda’s films as they are – perfection.
Long haul flights are not much fun but on some airlines you do get a choice of movies. Sometimes these are films unlikely to appear in the UK. Someone (alternatively Somebody) was one of the Japanese language films on offer on a flight across the Pacific with Air New Zealand.
Like many contemporary Japanese films, Someone focuses on a specific social issue. Five twenty-something graduates of the high pressure examination system come together to share apartments while they struggle to engage with the graduate recruitment circus. Like much else in Japanese society, the recruitment process is highly organised and the applicants all dress in identical suits as they take psychometric tests and answer questions. It looks horrendous.
Director Miura Daisuke, adapting a novel by Asai Ryo, adds some interesting new elememts to the familiar procedures of job interviews. Some of the five use social media to log their own thoughts as well as commenting on how the whole process is working. They also discuss different psychological and philosophical approaches to this fierce competition. As might be expected, the characters are individuated by their different backgrounds. One young woman has worked abroad and has learned English. One student was once in a rock band and another is interested in theatre and performance. These latter two talents are of questionable value in the recruitment process for the largest companies. The drama graduate is the main narrator of the film and he provides an interesting conclusion to the narrative.
Watching a film on a plane is not the easiest way of following a narrative and I know I missed some of the issues in the film. I’d like to see it again, but I fear this kind of film won’t be bought for the UK. The idea of new graduates living together in this way with potential relationship shifts is not new of course but it would be interesting to compare Someone with TV shows such as This Life in the UK during the 1990s which offered a narrative in a different economic context.
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.
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.
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).
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 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):