Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Super Tuesday Japanese Jamboree!!

No work + Spring Break = lots of movie watching. So that's bad news for general motivation. Good news for the blog.

女が階段を上る時 (When a Woman Ascends the Stairs), 1960
Dir: Mikio Naruse

Like the Douglas Sirk films made in Hollywood around the same time, it's easy to understand why someone would place Naruse in the "woman's film" category and not take him seriously. It really misses the whole point of this film though. It just seems that Naruse had no problem being assigned these types of "working-class dramas" by Toho because he could still do the things he wanted to do. And that of course, is to make a general critique of modern Japanese society filled with tons of character development and scuzzy people. The film is about Keiko aka Mama (Hideko Takamine), who is a widowed bar hostess in Tokyo coming to a crossroads in her life. Should she try to get married again and live a comfortable life, or try to get enough patronage from her clients (or maybe just one client) to open her own bar? So you can see how this can have been misconstrued into some weepy melodrama, but that is pretty much the opposite of this. Bar Hostesses in Japan are similar to geisha (though probably lower on the social totem pole) in that they get paid to entertain men. The hostesses basically get paid to pretend to give a shit about old, rich guys while they drink and smoke and make shitty jokes. Mama is receiving pressure from all sides to pick (patrons who want her to open a bar, patrons who want her to marry (preferably to them), her family who needs money) but she is being pushed up against a wall. She has very little money because she has to spend it all to keep up the appearance that she lives a "luxurious" life style. She starts looking at bars that she might buy, and is helped out by Kenichi (Tatsuya Nakadai), the bar manager, who has some unrequited feelings for her. It's interesting to see him without a sword in his hand, but he is a pretty awesome vague "friend" in this. It's never exactly obvious that the relationship is never meant to be, but the way it unfolds, especially at the end, seems appropriate with the mood set in the film. It's also appropriate of where Mama is at the end of the film. After all she goes through, she's still stuck.


雨月物語 (Ugetsu), 1953
Dir: Kenji Mizoguchi

Ugetsu is a ghost story, but it is really about love, temptation and redemption. Now, there's nothing wrong with that, but after watching the extreme bummers of Ozu and Naruse, the ending could almost feel like a cop out if Mizoguchi wasn't being so awesome. Beautiful cinematography, great mise-en-scene and poetic statements definitely pull this right back into my wheelhouse. The medieval war setting seems the perfect place to build an eerie atmosphere, and Mizoguchi nails it. The characters can be a bit too silly occasionally, especially Tōbei (Eitarô Ozawa), who will go any lengths to become a famous samurai (although he is a farmer with no armor or spear). On the other hand, all the women in this are great, and Genjurô's (Masayuki Mori) tribulations are heartfelt as he has to cope with the affections of a dead spirit (Machiko Kyô) while surviving the brutal life of a peasant during wartime. The end is actually really great, a sort of elegy for lost love and passing time. If you haven't checked this out, it's streaming on Netflix. It's really great.


Onibaba, 1964
Dir: Kaneto Shindô

Ohhhh-ho! So this is where M. Night got his idea for The Village (2004). Not the retarded stuff about living in a forest only a couple of miles from real civilization, but the use of "fear of the unknown," especially by elders against youths. You know when they dress up like those monsters to keep all the kids afraid. That's kind of what this is. An old woman (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) live in the tall grasses near a river in 14th century Japan, and while the never seen war lasts, they kill unsuspecting samurai that stumble into the grasses, strip their bodies and sell the goods for food and whatnot. They dispose of the bodies in a dark hole in the ground. The first time they do this, there's all are these weird noises coming from it like bodies being ripped apart, so I was thinking, "So there's a demon woman who lives in that hole that they have to appease or something?" I guess it's a big red herring or something that I missed but it's completely pointless. Life among the grasses gets thrown for a loop when Hachi (Kei Satô) returns from the wars, but without Kichi, the son/husband of the women. At first there is resentment from both women about this, but soon, all three are tangled in a game of lust that ends up being what the film is really about. Hachi makes it known right away that he has been warring for a long time and that he really wants a woman. He even yells it in to that dark pit. The affair soon starts, much to the resentment of the mother, who is still upset at Hachi while also being sexually frustrated herself (watch her hump a really big tree; phallic symbol much?). The part about a "onibaba" is when, after killing another lost samurai who came upon her hut, the mother takes his creepy mask and starts to play upon the the seeds of fear of the unnatural in the younger woman that she has been planting. Whenever the younger woman decides to go running to get to Hachi, the older woman will pop out of the grasses and scare the shit out of her. In the end, this backfires on her (is she really a demon!?!?!?) and the ending is beyond vague. I usually like that kind of gesture, but here it just kind of seems like they didn't know how to end it. I think film buffs are really into this because there is a lot of great technical stuff in this, especially the great black and white photography which does a great job in help setting the mood of this film. I just think that what's going on in it can be kind of retarded.


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