Monday, July 30, 2007

Age of Assassins 殺人狂時代 (Okamoto Kihachi 岡本喜八, 1967)

We begin with exposition as a lunatic asylum "mad scientist" ex-Nazi played by Amamoto Eisei discusses (he and his pals switch back and forth between menacing Japanese and scary German the whole film) how a massive diamond was lost and a young Japanese (Nakadai Tatsuya) has it in his possession- within his body, actually. A league of professional, and would-be, assassins make comedic attempts at Nakadai's life which are all thwarted, naturally, since even playing a little bit of a "dweeb", Nakadai is naturally graced with luck, charisma, wit, and a respectable fighting (or dodging) abilty. Turns out the diamond is a stolen Nazi item which was placed in Nakadai's body when he was eight. Nakadai is accompanied by a girl (Dan Reiko pictured above, fairly well known as Yuriko from Ozu's The End of Summer) and a goofy pal, who seems childishly eager for action.

Its telling that Okamoto's wildly hilarious, and sadly overlooked, film Age of Assassins (also known as The Epoch of Murder and Madness) shares its title, 殺人狂時代, with the Japanese translation of Charles Chaplin's blue beard Monsieur Verdoux. Both are the blackest of dry comedies, with a lack of sentimentality, light treatment of murder, and globe trotting anti-heroes making their way through piles of awkward situations and exotic, bizarre characters, both making oblique or vague swipes at politics. Chaplin plays for keeps more often than Nakadai, but Nakadai has a geeky coolness which seems to cross his dead stare from Teshigahara's Face of Another with the jaunty confidence of his character from Kill! that in some ways trumps Chaplin's foppish creepiness.

Though as much of a spoof of the spy film, with sultry femme fatales, gunplay, and strange gadgets, as a continuation of the "everyman" character Okamoto was so much a fan of, Age of Assassins manages to be fun and seemingly timeless, in a way few comedies can be. Watching this grasping even the smallest bit of dialogue is still entertaining after a handful of viewings. The same can be said of his other comedies that I've seen, including the sometimes maligned Oh, Bomb!, which is certainly among the most unique films of the 60s (something to be said for that, I believe.) It, like many dark comedies, defies categorization, and absolutely sets in stone what is commonly called the "Kihachi Spirit" in Japan, a sort of untouchable and undefinable quality Okamoto's films have, which is oh so modern.

The credits feature a DePatie-Freleng styled animated segment, which is probably the closest it comes to being dated. Concerning the visual style, Okamoto used the same cinematographer for this as Kill!, so it has a similar crisp detail, but it's a bit more high contrast (inspired by the black and white film noir underworld of assassins and spies, I suppose.) The score is almost inappropriately "emotional" at times, but enhances the odd factor. The action is believable, in a "chase film" sort of way, but the real greatness of Epoch of Murder and Madness is in the comedy. Not too broad (though Nakadai's small-enough-to-pedal-with-your-feet car, which emits burps and farts as it runs, runs counter to that claim) and like most of his films anti-authority and anti-war, a fair bit of cynicism and a love for the details of human nature seem to be the ideas behind it. A bit of his earlier The Elegant Mr. Everyman can be seen in the way Nakadai uses his voice as a blunt instrument of humor, streamlining dialogue in a way that almost sounds like narration. The cynical soldier, with aims at the ridiculousness of war, is then best exemplified in his Nikudan, or The Human Bullet, where Nakadai's Assassins character, Kikyo Shinji seems to be transposed into the Special Attack Forces. Properly enough, Nakadai narrated Human Bullet and the evil as hell Amamoto Eisei plays the main character's father (i.e. the villain). Worth noting that the "main character" of Human Bullet, played by Terada Minori, goes unnamed.

Someone needs to bring this, and the rest of Okamoto's comedic sixties work, to DVD badly. These films are so good (Oh, bomb!, The Elegant Life of Mr. Everyman, and The Human Bullet), they must be seen to be believed.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Coup d'etat 戒厳令 (Yoshida Kiju 吉田喜重, 1973)

Firstly, apologies for being so long out of touch.

Yoshida "Kiju" Yoshida (whose Eros Plus Massacre this blog is named after) directed his last film for some time in 1973. This was a strange biopic about a military obsessive and nationalist socialist named Ikki Kita, somewhat in the style of Hitler, who encouraged a coup against the Japanese government in 1936 (infamously known as the "February 26th incident".) I say strange because a number of choices were made which gave the
film a unique place in the history of biopics and specifically historical reenactments of the coup. Rarely has a biographical film been done with such a confident and dramatic touch.

Yoshida's framing is the stuff of film legend, nearly always placing figures at the edges of cinema (and therefore not altogether video friendly, before the advent of DVD that is.) It's a nearly dizzying effect handled graciously, which lends the events a larger than life feeling, that feels artistically justified instead of rammed down your throat. The black and white colors are used to their most effective ends, with entrancing expressionistic details. Textures of wood and granite play a large part in setting moods, along with a lack of establishing shots and action sequences, making this a more quiet film than anyone would expect of its reputation and name.

The music choices of Ichiyanagi Sei, who worked on a number of Yoshida films, recalls Jissouji's Mujo (or This Transient Life) which seems as interested in minor key fiddle flourishes as Takemitsu styled percussion explosions. The score also boasts a twice repeated analog keyboard motif, which shows the melancholy and absence of life among the militarists. It underscores both a reprehensibly dour dream sequence, and channels an avant funeral march before the credits roll. Watkins' Edward Munch and 32 Short Films about Glenn Gould come to mind in the use of music effectively rendering someone's life story to film.

In regards to its place among reenactments, as Joan Mellen noted in Waves at Genji's Door, most filmed versions of this story encourage a sentimentalism of the officers involved, as they were merely doing the most honorable thing they could imagine by assisting the Emperor in getting rid of the waste of civilian bureaucracy. The officers are treated with sympathy, but more for their naivete in the face of the unknown future, rather than Yoshida siding with their proto-fascists ways.

The major emotional issues in the film stem from Ikki's childhood and paternal issues towards his stepson, and how that carries over into his dealings with one of the more inept but sincere acolytes. Ikki's dealings with authority figures is flippant at best, and he seems to regard society as a mere gesture, with martial law being the only true way for humanity to progress. Yoshida's rendering of these beliefs should be held up with his even more powerful Eros Plus Massacre, where Taisho anarchism and the late 60s student movement are entangled and commenting on one another. There, Yoshida appears to be telling us something about the nature of humanity, in that it doesn't really change, but only cons one into thinking it will. In Coup d'etat, Yoshida seems to be saying not only will things remain the same, but they're usually worse than you realize.