Saturday, March 24, 2007

Charisma カリスマ (Kurosawa Kiyoshi 黒沢清, 1999)

Charisma is easily described as "bizarre", and I believe it warrants such a claim more than many other films which are described as such. The storyline follows an ex-cop named Yakuibe (which translates as "grove" and "pond", and is played by Yakusho Koji) as he seeks redemption, or understanding, for why he seemingly caused the death of a hostage earlier in the film. Most of the plot is difficult, and maybe pointless, to describe but a good deal of it encircles a mysterious tree, named Charisma, which is guarded by a lunatic. Around it, is a forest that's being poisoned by either a deranged botanist or said mysterious tree. There's also a brigade of mercenaries attempting to steal Charisma. The botanist's sister is an out of place (within the film and the cast) and disenchanted young girl, who seems to be the only sexually charged being around. Charisma seems sophomorically thrown together, and even the director admits in an interview that he's not sure it all "works".

As odd as this all sounds, what really attracts is the visceral experience. The forest is framed in such a way that it seems endless. Earth and trees have never seemed so creepy in broad daylight, and, as one of the characters in the film remarks, it's a dangerous place. Shots of trees slowly dying, or humans eating mushrooms and slithering away in agony remain. The soundtrack is airtight, and never intrudes. The scenes are edited at a glacial pace, and you feel as alone and seperate from the world as the characters seem to. The plot of Charisma, and the environmental, psychological, or philosophical ideas that it attempts to dip into, are not the main attraction. That being said, they do intrude, and I've liked some of Kurosawa's other films a bit more (particularly Cure.)

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Harp of Burma ビルマの竪琴 (Ichikawa Kon 市川崑, 1956)

Since this is a relatively well known, and much discussed, Japanese film, I'm going to concentrate more on what's been written about it, and what I've found the most valuable or interesting. I'll start with a quote from Donald Richie and Joseph Anderson's The Japanese Film:

[The Harp of Burma] was based on a novel originally written to introduce children to certain Buddhist tenets, which was about a Japanese soldier's decision to remain in Burma after the war and not to return home with his unit so that he can become a mendicant priest, traveling about the country and tending to the unburied war dead.

Originally the film was to have been directed by Tomotaka Tasaka, who had made Japan's best war pictures, but because of his continuing illness the picture was given to Kon Ichikawa. In spite of the many various vicissitudes which the film underwent, including a hack editing job by Nikkatsu, the picture was thought good enough to win the 1956 San Giorgio Prize in Venice, an award given the film which best shows "men's capacity to live ane with another."

Richie mentioned Nikkatsu's "hack editing job", but the specifics of this are laid out in Tony Rayns' excellent essay included with the Criterion Collection DVD of the film:

Nikkatsu treated The Burmese Harp as what we would now call an “event movie” and released it in two parts, three weeks apart. Part one (running 63 minutes) opened on January 21, 1956, and part two (80 minutes) opened on February 12, both with B features. The total running time of 143 minutes was cut to the current 116 minutes when the two parts were combined for rerelease and export—reputedly to Ichikawa’s dissatisfaction.

Rayns doesn't mention that part one actually had a subtitle, called "Part 1, Nostalgia", or "Homesickness".

There's an illuminating exchange between Joan Mellen and Ichikawa in her Voices From the Japanese Cinema:

Mellen:Is there any similarity between your Private Mizushima in The Harp of Burma and Goichi of Conflagration?
Ichikawa: They represent the youth of Japan. In the case of Mizushima the time was the middle of the war, and with Goichi it was just after the war. In his sense both, whether a soldier or not, represent Japanese youth.
Mellen: What is the origin of their disillusionment with the world? Are they each disillusioned about the same things and could we define exactly what they are disillusioned about in a general way?...
Ichikawa: Both are very young and both are in search of something. Neither knows exactly what he is after, as they are still young. Both thrust themselves against the thick wall of reality and disillusionment trying to find out what they desire.
Mellen: As in the burning of the temple. What do they desire?
Ichikawa: Truth.
Mellen: Is it the truth of themselves or of the world?
Ichikawa: The truth of their own lives.

And a quote from Keiko McDonald's From Book To Screen: Modern Japanese Literature in Films sums up a general conclusion about the politics of the film:

Right from the start [Ichikawa] shows two different responses to defeat in the war. The singing company represents a new kind of soldier, one motivated by the individualism that will characterize postwar Japanese society. Accepting defeat as part of the human condition, they hope to survive confinement in a POW camp and work for the reconstruction of their country, each in his own way.

Another company is made up of old-style Japanese soldiers. Their values are traditional, collective. They feel a moral imperative to fight on to the bitter end, preferring a dutiful death to the shame of surviving defeat.

Mizushima's role is to bridge the two. His mission is to persuade the diehard traditional soldiers to adopt his company's strategy of accepting defeat and surviving it.

But what I really love is this quote from Sato Tadao about the art of the film, translated by Anne McKnight and included in Quandt's Kon Ichikawa volume:

Harp of Burma becomes the story of the soldiers who stay. Their interior lives are not depicted through exaggerated emotion, but inferred from the compositions. The positioning of characters within the landscape or against each other subtly guides the spectator's feeling-for example, by the way a figure dominates the image; bears down on another from the top of the screen; or approaches the centre of the composition. Ichikawa's skill with compositional layout renders the entire image extremely beautiful, to the point that it becomes a craft of good graphic design.

I found myself affected by the film more for it's use of imagery than as a reference for war guilt or postwar humanism. The many shots of Mizushima or his comrades emerging from the forest, covering his eyes at the sight of the dead, or scanning the barren countryside will linger for some time. I'm glad that the Criterion Collection finally got around to releasing this and Fires on the Plain on DVD, but I can't help but feel that Ichikawa's Enjo (AKA Conflagration) was ignored. It would have made a perfect pairing with the other two, and I feel a chance has been missed to get this film out there.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Japanese Most Wanted

Here's a relatively short list of some films that I'm trying to locate, with or without subtitles. I keep lists for a lot of things. It's a great way to organize my thoughts, and if you toss this sort of thing out there enough someone might bounce one back. I'm leaving off the films that I know are available on DVD, which I might eventually purchase.

I Want to be a Shellfish (Hashimoto Shinobu, 1959)
Night Drum (Imai Tadashi, 1958)
Darkness At Noon (Imai Tadashi, 1956)
A Full Life (Hani Susumu, 1962)
Song of Bwana Toshi (Hani Susumu, 1965)
Bride of the Andes (Hani Susumu, 1966)
Aido: Slave of Love (Hani Susumu, 1969)
A Triumph of Wings (Yamamoto Satsuo, 1941)
Police (Uchida Tomu, 1933)
Theater of Life (Uchida Tomu, 1936)
A Girl at Dojo Temple (Ichikawa Kon, 1946)
Design of a Human Being (Ichikawa Kon, 1949)
The Woman Who Touched The Legs (Ichikawa Kon, 1952)
Pu-San (Ichikawa Kon, 1953)
Tale of Genji (Ichikawa Kon, 1966)
Crab Canning Ship (So Yamamura, 1953)
Life of a Country Doctor (Inagaki Hiroshi, 1960)
Diary of Chuji's Travels (Ito Daisuke, 1927)
Clouds at Sunset (Shinoda Masahiro, 1967)
Our Marriage (Shinoda Masahiro, 1961)
Shimisen and Motorcycle (Shinoda Masahiro, 1961)
My Face in the Red Sunset (Shinoda Masahiro, 1961)
Epitaph to My Love (Shinoda Masahiro, 1961)
Glory on the Summit: Burning Youth (Shinoda Masahiro, 1962)
Tears on the Lion's Mane (Shinoda Masahiro, 1962)
Operation: Sewer Rats (Okamoto Kihachi, 1962)
Procurer of Hell (Okamoto Kihachi, 1961)
Bigshots Die at Dawn (Okamoto Kihachi, 1961)
The Last Gunfight (Okamoto Kihachi, 1960)
One Day I... (Okamoto Kihachi, 1959)
Young Daughters (Okamoto Kihachi, 1958)
All About Marriage (Okamoto Kihachi, 1958)
Sain (Adachi Masao, 1966)
Young People (Toyoda Shiro, 1937)
The Narita Films (Ogawa Shinsuke, 60s)
Underworld Series (Yamamoto Hajiro/Okamoto Kihachi, 60s)

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Tales of Chivalrous Women: The Chivalrous Geisha 日本女侠伝 侠客芸者 (Yamashita Kosaku 山下耕作, 1969)

In this film a Fuji Junko plays the extremely popular, principled, and extremely attractive geisha Shinji, who rejects the advances of coal baron, played sleazily by Kaneko Nobuo (perhaps best known as Boss Yamamori in Fukasaku's Battles Without Honor and Humanity.) As she spurns his advances, as well as an early Meiji era imperial army general's, she begins to fall for a local mine owner named Shimada, played by Fuji's regular opposite Takakura Ken, whose mine is desired by the powerful Kaneko. This conflict eventually leads to death and destruction, as competition between Takakura and Kaneko mounts, with Fuji in the middle.

This film, like the Red Peony Gambler series, is pure entertainment, with some leftist anti-capitalist notes (funny that Yamashita isn't given nearly the hard time Yamamoto and Imai are). Fuji is a delight, and not for one second do you believe she's not nearly as attractive and interesting a geisha as the film is making her out to be. There are some interesting directorial flourishes, particularly in one of the last scenes where Fuji does Kabuki, with the red hair of the mythological lion, a being that protects against evil spirits and brings peace. This "dance" is countered with a long battle between Takakura and the rival gang protecting Kaneko's coal baron, lead by Tomisaburu Wakayama, flashing to one then back to the other. It's a powerful and effective use of editing.


Saturday, March 17, 2007

Myth and Masculinity in Japanese Film

I recently finshed reading Isolde Standish's Myth and Masculinity in the Japanese Cinema (available for a large sum of money at, and I gained quite a bit from it. It went after three main periods and types of filmmaking in Japan during the 20th century: the Kokutai within chushingura movies, films about the Special Attack Forces (AKA Kamikaze Pilots) and War Crimes Trials during WWII and the postwar era, and yakuza films of the modern era (after 1970). She draws her critique of the films not from an auteurist point of view, but rather sociological, often citing such social philosophers as Roland Barthes, Joseph Campbell, and Claude Levi-Strauss. Her grasp of their work, and others, helps you not only understand the films in question, but a little more about the world in general through this mutual interest in Japanese film.

Some of the highlights include a few scenes of dialogue and reappraisal of the seemingly forgotten Okamoto Kihachi gem Nikudan (AKA The Human Bullet, 1968.) This ATG film made by one of Japan's more well known 60s directors is hilarious, stylish, and universal in theme even if it's about something so specifically "Japanese" as the hypocrisy within the Special Attack Forces (pictured above Terada Minori as the nameless and illfated protagonist). She also explicates wonderfully the 1995 version of I Want to be a Shellfish (which sent me on a chase to find the 1959 Hashimoto Shinobu directed version, to no avail.) Her reading of Kobayashi Masaki's Human Condition Trilogy will hopefully find it's way into the extra material accompanying the upcoming Criterion Collection DVD of the film (not yet announced, but in the works), as I found it extremely useful in understanding the War Crimes metaphor to be found within the trilogy (she also delves into Kobayashi's 1983 documentary about the War Crimes Tribunal.) Inagaki Hiroshi's Wartime era version of The Rickshaw Man (or the Life of Mohumatsu the Untamed) and Fukasaku Kinji's exciting and enjoyable yakuza series Battles Without Honor and Humanity (available on DVD in the US, fortunately) are also eye opening.

I'm a few chapters into her more recent book A New History of Japanese Film: A Century of Narrative Film (, and I've already learned a great deal about Shochiku studios "Ofuna" style, and Kido Shiro (whose autobiography would be a prize possession if ever translated into english) and I'm chomping at the bit to read the rest. She's also working on a new book, and in her own words, this is what it's about: "My next project, War on Film, takes as its starting point Paul Virilio's statement 'War is cinema and cinema is war'. A cross-cultural analysis, this study focuses on the relationship between war and cinema as an exploratory paradigm. The aim of the study is to further our understanding of the relationship of changing technological developments in the visual media, and the shaping of individual subjectivity in the image and likeness of the globalized 'military-industrial-media-entertainment-networks' that increasingly influence our lives."

Sounds great to me.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Revenge 仇討 (Imai Tadashi 今井正, 1964)

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Imai's Adauchi (AKA Revenge) is surely one of the best samurai films to come out of Toei, (a prolific company that didn't seem to mind if it's product devolved into mediocrity) and maybe one of the best period. Toei has done much less to impress me than the other major studios of the 50s and 60s, yet they did give many amazing directors shots at high gloss period pieces, including the somewhat maligned Imai Tadashi, which accounts for some very interesting work. The direction in this film is beautiful, and I have a feeling that if the presentation was correct I would be praising it more highly (I believe the film was presented at around 1:90 AR on the video I viewed, in black and white, while it was intended, according to JMDB to be color cinemascope, or 2:35, a huge difference.) The flow and rhythm of the film is striking for a samurai picture. Imai holds on moments for what seems like forever (it's amazing how long ten seconds can feel when everything is motionless), and it creates a startling effect. It's unfortunate that the film's only weak link is it's Toei stable of actors: Tanba is hollow and useless bluster in a supporting role and Nakamura Kinnosuke pathetically attemps some sort of realistic acting as the unfortunate Ezaki Shinpei, a samurai and second son, who's pride and class resentment begin a series of events that lead to death. The plot is predictable to a point, but certainly has some surprises.

One of the fascinating things about the film was it's political and anti-feudal aspect. It showed everyone in power to be conceited and hypocritical, abusing the Bushido code for their own purposes, and ignoring it when they see fit. It's worth it to note that Imai's previous film period, Cruel Story of Bushido, also lambastes the feudal ethos. The main character, Ezoki Shinpei, feels compelled to give up everything he wants to maintain his honor. His alternating bluster and sacrifice come out of confusion and desperation, only leading to ruin for himself, his family, and the adversary's family as well. This belongs amongst the ranks of Kobayashi's Seppuku, Tanaka's The Betrayal, and Yamamoto's Tengu-to as films that rate Bushido and the samurai way as completely useless at best, but closer to evil incarnate.

I mentioned above that Imai is often maligned. I first heard of Imai through Anderson and Richie's The Japanese Film, where he was almost as lambasted as Yamamoto Satsuo for being a left wing propagandist (sure his Kome, AKA Rice, comes to mind, as it's basically a remake of Uchida's social realist film Earth, from 1939). But times have changed. There's no longer a cold war, and the old prejudices that seemed so important against far left ideologies now seem quaint. Frankly, the more I see of either director the less I can account for propaganda, and the more I see extremely pleasant qualities of fine filmmaking. I look forward to seeing as much of this director's work as I can find.

I bought this film from, and the image quality left a bit to be desired (it seems that it's taped off of television, among the previous issues), but was still a fine product considering there aren't any other resources for this available (hopefully a DVD will be released soon.)

edit: this movie is meant for 2:35 black and white, not color.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007


This is a blog dedicated to Japanese film. Hopefully I can find the time to update this regularly, for mainly my own benefit, because if I can't, it probably means I'm too busy to watch and meditate on some of the many rare and interesting films I've been lucky enough to have a chance to view. I plan on doing mostly reviews, either of films or DVDs, though I may often write about scholarly (or not so scholarly) books concerning this subject, or curious reviews and webpages that I come across. If you're not satisfied with my take on something, consult some of the "Also on Japanese Film" links, and you may find people who are much better at explaining their reasons for liking or disliking something. Also, I've been bouncing around on the internet for a while now, and I've posted on and many times over.

If you're also blogging about Japanese film, let me know and I'll add you to the "links" list.