FIREWORKS / HANA-BI (HANABI). Viewed on Streaming. Director Takeshi Kitano's mash up of flowers (hana)--literally and figuratively--and fires (bi)--violence--is sparse on dialog (especially the character-developing kind), but rich on images as a police vs. yakuza melodrama with bits of comedy, a rekindled romance, and terminal sadness. Kitano is also the writer, picture painter, co-editor, and lead actor). The Director plays a character with a bipolar disorder that alternates (usually abruptly) between serenity (almost sweetness) and brutality (which yakuza fear). Recently separated from the police force after a yakuza shoot-up that left several detectives dead or seriously injured (for which he is blamed), Kitano borrows money from yakuza to pay his dying wife's medical bills, single handedly carries off a daring bank heist, pays off his loan, and flees with his wife on a one-way, memory-lane trip to scenic sites with yakuza (trying to get the bank loot) and former police colleagues (trying to get Kitano and the money) in pursuit. The Director compares actions of the police with those of yakuza, making the point that the behavior of both groups is pretty similar when it comes to acts of violence. Kitano over doses on the therapeutic impact of painting, but the many surrealistic transformation of flowers into animal forms on canvas are fascinating (and really play a co-staring role!). The Director's style takes some getting used to, and early on is often just too languid (the camera also lingers on after the actors have left the frame) between spikes of violence. But persistent and patience will payoff. Overall, actors deliver fine performances, and characters played by Kitano (with and without sunglasses), Kayoko Kishimoto, and Tetsu Watanabe are especially enjoyable. Cinematography (semi-widescreen, color) is stunning and artifact free (but a bit on the static side). Editing is crisp, although flashbacks could benefit from adding more clues when transitions from present to past occur. Music and subtitles are good. Recommended. WILLIAM FLANIGAN, PhD. Details: print = 10 stars; streaming (FilmStruck) = 10 stars; cinematography (semi-widescreen, color) = 9 stars; direction = 8 stars; performances = 8 stars; editing = 7 stars; music = 7 stars; subtitles = 7stars.
TOKYO MIGHTY GUY / RAMBLER IN THE SUNSET / TOKYO ROUGHNECK (Lit.) (TOKYO NO ABARENBOU). Viewed on Streaming (Amazon). Director Buichi Saitou provides a really short short and amusing musical (the film's opening credits) followed by an accelerated (everything happens ludicrously fast) programmer populated by marginally-directed mostly over-age actors hamming it up as "teenagers" (more or less) and showing off lots of "safe" skin. Perhaps the most interesting parts of the movie are scenes showing what the Tokyo area looked like circa 1960. Line deliveries are made at close to light speed (if you can follow without subtitles you are truly fluent in verbal Japanese!). Studio (Nikkatsu) trademarks of the era are on full display including patiently phony fight scenes (just swing a punch or a slap in the general direction of a stunt actor and s/he will fall over or react) and sound effects (all "punches" and all "slaps" sound alike as do cars, squealing tires, and weaponized frying pans). Cinematography (2.35 : 1, color), streaming, and print quality are excellent. Not recommended beyond the opening credits! WILLIAM FLANIGAN, PhD.
SHOPLIFTERS / SHOPLIFTING FAMILY (Lit) (MANBIKI KAZOKU). Viewed on DVD. Director Hirokazu Koreeda (who is also credited as writer, co-producer, and editor) once again demonstrates his movie making skills in a tale about a family commune of mostly strangers founded and financially supported by a crafty senior citizen (played by the late actress Kirin Kiki) as "insurance against dying alone." This engaging bohemian home drama (or Shomin-Geki film genre) features strong under-played performances by all lead actresses and actors (actress Sakura Andô's quirky deliveries especially stand out) with Koreeda's ability to direct child actors providing one (but not the only) reasons to watch this movie. The film consists of a series of slice-of-life vignettes showing group and subgroup cohesion and interactions designed to build and convey (successfully!) warm fuzzies in the mind of the viewer. The vast majority of scenes involve eating (characters never seem to put on weight!) with this formula starting to become a bit of a self parity until the abrupt closing scenes involving police interrogations where revelations and resolutions (sort of) occur (perhaps too neatly?). Cinematography (many tracking shots), lighting, editing, and music (mostly keyboard, bass, and guitar) are fine. Subtitles are occasionally too busy, and not all text/signs and off-screen dialog are translated. Closing credits are translated, a welcomed rarely for a Japanese film! You will likely want to watch this more than once. Highly recommended. WILLIAM FLANIGAN, PhD. Details: video quality = 9 stars; direction = 8/9 stars; performances = 8/9 stars; subtitles/translations = 8/9 stars; audio surround field = 8 stars; cinematography = 8 stars; music = 7 stars; editing = 6 stars.
STAKEOUT / THE CHASE (HARIKOMI). Viewed on streaming. Director Yoshitaro Nomura's 1958 tale of suspense channels Hitchcock (REAR WINDOW (1954)) in stakeout scenes and beats him to the punch (NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959)) in stunning aerial shots while depicting a by-the-book police investigation, track-down, chase, and capture of a pair of store-robbing murderers. One killer is captured almost immediately. The other flees to parts unknown. Two detectives (experienced--or so they claim--in stakeouts) have a feeling that the at-large killer will try to link-up with his old squeeze who now lives in a distant rural town; they travel there to wait and watch the actions of the ex-girl friend who seems to be leading a mundane life as a housewife newly married to a widower with kids. She does not appear to be enjoying this role which, perhaps, is being used as a temporary cover. Nomura starts things off at molasses speed with endless shots of trains and actors sweating as well as the police spending many uneventful and tedious days watching the ex-sweetheart's house. The stakeout team becomes sloppy often revealing their location and their actions when trailing the person-of-interest on local shopping trips, but she does not seem to notice them (or pretends not to?). (The Director inserts a reimaged classic movie scene when the killer's old flame who is carrying (as usual) an open umbrella is followed into and lost in a street scene filled with extras carrying open umbrellas!) At about mid film, the lady makes her move resulting in nonstop chase scenes in vehicles and on foot. The killer's girl friend is played by well-known character actress Hideko Takamine who, sadly, is underutilized. Her costars provide solid support as do those playing minor roles. Flashbacks occur abruptly and with little advance warning making for repeated confusion and loss of continuity. Transitional re-editing would seem to be called for to mitigate/remove this coarseness. Clearly the star of this film is its cinematography (and it seems a shame it is in black and white). An early crane shot (the camera travels up a building's exterior from street level and into an office window located several floors up) is probably the most impressive shot of this type in Japanese films to date. Deep focus is used in some scenes during the stakeout. Aerial photography of police in a taxi trying to catch up with the lover's bus provide simply stunning mosaics of cultivated land plots and scenes on high-elevation curved roads are heart-rate elevators (even when some vehicle shots are obviously speeded up). There is much impressive exterior dolly tracking of frantic searching on foot. Film score provides jazzy riffs that harmoniously add much to scenes. Subtitle occasionally go into over-drive and precede line deliveries! Most signs are at least partially translated. Recommended. WILLIAM FLANIGAN, PhD. Details: cinematography (wide-screen, black and white) = 10 stars; print = 10 stars; streaming (FilmStruck) = 10 stars; music = 7/8 stars; direction = 7 stars; performances = 7 stars; editing = 6/7 stars; subtitles = 6/7 stars.
ARMY (RIKUGUN). Viewed on Streaming. Director Keisuke Kinoshita's military-fantasy tale of a widow who raises her sickly only son to be strong enough to join the army and fight on the front lines, and is supposedly looking forward to his battle death. Chishû Ryû leads a solid cast of studio contract actors who underplay line readings and clearly look uncomfortable (and come across as phony and boring when you can make them out through the gloom--see below) spouting military propaganda mumbo jumbo. Perhaps the "best" part are glimpses of what Kyoto looked like during this time (the city was not bombed). Cinematography (narrow screen, dark grey and white) includes some great tracking shots. The film is terribly faded plus interior/exterior lighting seems to be MIA (missing in action). Interiors look like they were shot during blackouts! The only clear exterior shots are those of military parades with lots of civilian flag waiving (standard stuff probably provided by the military?). Japanese mothers are uniformly depicted as being proud to send their sons into battle, and not at all upset about it. But the closing scene (which seems to have escaped military censorship) graphically shows this to be an outright lie. It is what it is. Only for the curious. WILLIAM FLANIGAN, PhD. Details: steaming (FilmStruck) = 7/8 stars; cinematography = 6/7 stars; direction = 5 stars; performances = 5 stars; print = 3 stars; script = 2 stars; interior/exterior lighting = 1/2 stars.
FLUNKY, WORK HARD! / UNDER EMPLOYED DO YOUR BEST (Lit.) (KOSHIBEN GANBARE). Viewed on Streaming. Director and story author Mikio Naruse packs a surprising amount of creativity and entertainment into this enjoyable 30-minute home drama (Shomin-geki) focused on the interactions between an impoverished rural insurance peddler and his precocious/bratty young (grade-school age?) son. Physical comedy is often on display and usually flat-out hilarious especially scenes of kids (and adults!) leapfrogging over the backs of rival insurance salespersons. Naruse also includes pathos/tragedy with a touch of melodrama (using the ever-popular Japanese-film-chestnut of a kid hit by a train), symbolism (such as a drowning insect and different denominations of pocket change), and crude unconventional editing tricks that are nonetheless startling (multiple exposures, screen fragmentations consisting of rapid simultaneous montages, and bizarre whips and dissolves). Direction of actors/actresses is quite good. Inter-titles are mercifully scant. Music (two instruments?) is fine. Print is horrible, but we are flat-out fortunate that something has survived after some 90 years! Cinematography looks fine (as far as can be determined) with a number of forward tracking shots. A half hour very well spent! WILLIAM FLANIGAN, PhD. Details: Editing = 8/9 stars; Streaming (FilmStruck) = 8/9 stars; Direction = 7/8 stars; Performances = 7/8 stars; Cinematography (narrow screen, black and white) = 6 stars; Inter-titles = 6 stars; Music = 5/6 stars; Print = 1/2 stars.
AN INNOCENT WITCH / WOMAN OF MOUNT OSORE [Lit.] / OSOREZAN NO ONNA. Viewed on Streaming. Director Heinosuke Gosho's take on the ever popular movie genre of Shouka-geki (brothel drama). This time it involves a short-lived young woman sold into prostitution to support her impoverished/incapacitated parents who quickly rises to become the top money-making attraction in a local brothel and just as quickly falls victim to superstitious nonsense that she is cursed (as a result of being coincidentally/
circumstantially linked to the death of three male customers from the same family) and must now undergo exorcism in a Shinto ceremony that kills her in order to rid her of evil spirits. The setting is rural Japan in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Gosho's film joins numerous other melodramas that have (and will) target the traditional mistreatment of women in Japan where repressive and abusive male authority prevails. (Of course, Japanese culture is far from unique in this regard.) The Director taps into the universal and seemingly timeless sad reality of superstitious and backward beliefs regarding women (held by both men and women) as well sexual oppression of women (conducted by both men and women). Direction is very good although Gosho overdoses a bit on narration to help establish the opening bookended scenes (which also lays the ground work for closing bookended scenes). Editing is so-so with a significant scene involving being hit by a truck obviously phony. Leading actress Jitsuko Yoshimura delivers a wide-ranging, versatile, and memorable performance (as usual). Supporting actors are pretty good, but with a tendency to go for the ham (especially the actresses playing blind characters). Subtitles are close enough for Kensai-ben. All signs are translated. Music is a successful blend of traditional and modern styles as well as some scene-enhancing and startling riffs. Recommended. WILLIAM FLANIGAN, PhD. Details: Streaming/Print (FilmStruck) = 8/9 stars; Direction = 7/8 stars; Performances = 7 stars; Cinematography (2.35 : 1, black and white) = 6 stars; Music = 6 stars; Sound = 6 stars; Subtitles = 6 stars; Editing = 5 stars.
HARMONIUM / BRINK ON TO STAND (Lit) (FUCHI NI TATSU). Viewed on DVD. A harmonium is a small pump organ and (as seen in this film) powered by foot-operated bellows. Director Koji Fukada (also credited as writer) offers up a creepy, dramatic tragedy about a sociopath bent on revenge by destroying (literally) a family that seems on the verge of self destruction and just needs a bit of a push to get there. About 20 years ago, two Yakuza foot soldiers carried out a murder; only one took the fall (claiming he acted alone) and emerges from prison to now prey on his fellow killer; the latter has married, fathered a talented pre-teen daughter, and created a successful family manufacturing business (outside of Tokyo); under threat of telling the police what actually happened (and ruining the reputation of the business), the convict starts working in (and running) the business, moves in with the family, seduces the wife (who is starting to wise up and becoming increasingly distant from her husband), tries to kill the daughter (brain damage from his botched attack reduces her to a vegetative state), manages to elude the police, and disappears until a private detective finally discovers his whereabouts some eight years later. During this interval, the wife and husband have grown to despise each other, their brain-dead daughter, and themselves. What happens next and how the film ends is hard to tell (see below). Fukada's clever script and taut direction also builds/retains suspense using the time-honored plot device of gradually revealing what is (and has) been going on in banana-peeling fashion as well as informing the viewer ahead of the characters about things to come (very Hitchcockian!). The Director jumps into the world of fantasy at the movie's end involving visions of the sociopath amidst laundry line bed sheets on a roof top; drowning or not of most of the cast in a river; underwater shots showing the daughter fully recovering her faculties; etc. Poor on-set script rewrites or bad editing or both?! Lead actor Tadanobu Asano delivers an excellent performance playing the sociopath who is tall, menacing, and just plain scary in white and wearing a buttoned-up dress shirt. Kanji Furutachi superbly plays the unpunished killer, husband, and father. Other cast members are also well directed. There are large digital video artifacts in dark scenes and fade outs. Interior shots are often under lit. So are a few exterior ones. Cinematography includes jerky running shots. Subtitles are close enough with song lyrics translated and some closing credits translated into English and French. Highly recommended. WILLIAM FLANIGAN, PhD. Details: direction = 7/8 stars; performances = 7/8 stars; subtitles = 5/6 stars. DCP = 5 stars; cinematography (semi-wide screen, color) = 5 stars; lighting = 4/5 stars.
THE THIRD MURDER (SANDOME NO SATSUJIN). Viewed on DVD. Director Hirokazu Koreeda (who is also the script writer and movie editor) launches a gripping who-done-it mystery packed with red herrings and loose ends, but also filled with clues for the discerning viewer to contemplate and, possibly, figure out just where the truth may lie in a ocean of lies. Koreeda also provides a fascinating (if accurate) "insider's" view of murder trials as theater using a script developed in pretrial "discovery" meetings (and rewritten behind the scenes during the trial) involving defense and prosecution lawyers with the trial judge acting as a mediator (and de factor script editor) all in the name of preserving trial harmony (and scheduling)! The Director's tale concerns a recently paroled (after serving a 30-year sentence) killer who committed the first murder and may have single-handedly committed a second one. Or might not have which raises the possibility of a metaphorical "third" murder. Then there is the potential for a third murder if an innocent person is executed. Known to the police as a pathological liar, the suspect seems to have turned himself in and readily confessed to the murder of his boss who ran a shady food distribution business. There is also the boss's crippled high-school daughter who claims her father has continually raped her, and a wife who seems to willfully ignore just about everything (or maybe not). The daughter may also be a chronic liar along with her mother who may have arranged for a contract killing of her husband by the suspect (or maybe not). Then there is the possibility that the suspect and the crippled daughter (the daughter may have be crippled as a result of a failed suicide) might be lovers and have carefully planned and carried out the murder together. And/or someone else may have done the deed. It now falls to the defense lawyers to find out what may have really occurred, since police detectives and the prosecution have fully accepted the confession of the ostensible killer. (The defense lawyers are doing what the police should have done.) This is not so much a courtroom drama as it is a prisoner/lawyer interview room drama with close to half of the movie taking place in a tiny partitioned space slightly larger than an elevator chamber. The interplay between veteran actors portraying the suspect and lead defense lawyer is intense and Koreeda's directing skills are on full display. That said, the movie is bit slow here and there (especially at the beginning), and could be transitionally boring for some viewers. Flashback scenes can be confusing and could benefit from re-editing (especially the initial ones in Hokkaido). A major irritation is when the lighting director tries to show off by partially/
totally obscuring the faces of speaking actors in shadow. Surround sound fields are weak or essentially missing. Music (mostly keyboard and cello) is fine. Subtitles and translations are first rate with all signs and credits translated (a rarity for a Japanese film!). Recommended (and that's not a lie!). WILLIAM FLANIGAN, PhD. Details: subtitles = 10 stars; cinematography (2.35 : 1, color, DCP) = 8 stars; DVD = 8 stars; direction = 7 stars; music = 7 stars; performances = 7 stars; editing = 5 stars; lighting = 4/5 stars; sound = 4/5 stars.
CURE. Viewed on Streaming. Director and story/script author Kiyoshi Kurosawa's tale of a serial killer who employs interrogation, hypnosis, and the power of suggestion to commit identical murders by proxy using those with exploitable memories, marginal mental stability, and a tendency to hallucinate. Police seem baffled by a spreading plague of killings where killers (including police officers) remain on the murder scene, lack a motive, and have little or no memory of their gruesome (lots of blood) crimes. Hypnotic suggestions to kill the closest available person seem to be initially implanted by telepathy and then evoked by repetitive sounds (rock-concert fans beware!), spilled and flowing liquids (plumbers be careful!), and, especially, the flickering flame of a cigarette lighter (another inducement to quit smoking!). The film's ending raises the possibility that the ability to engage in psychotic hypnotism might be unconsciously contagious thereby enabling it to survive down through the centuries. Kurosawa, however, fails to fully exploit his novel and highly imaginative psychological narrative (the "star" of the film) in many ways including by minimizing suspense as a result of revealing what's really happening (and how it is happening) much too soon. The Director also fails to leverage intended spine-chilling events and fantasies by using an overly slow, prodding pace. Scenes are often too long. So is the film. (A re-edit seems called for.) The serial-killer character is not that menacing (although actor Masato Hagiwara tries hard to deliver a creepy performance), and too many scenes are ambiguous and vague leaving the viewer often confused as to what's going on. Unfortunately, this transforms a potentially powerful psychological thriller from a smoothly building study in terror into a collection of uneven and sporadic bits and pieces at times evoking unintended amusement. Acting is pretty much "by-the-book" workman like as is the direction. The near exclusive use of repetitive sounds (especially an empty clothes dryer) instead of mood music to enhance the dramatic impact of scenes is a missed opportunity. A partially-filled rice ball. WILLIAM FLANIGAN, PhD. Details: Streaming/Print (FilmStruck) = 8/9 stars; Cinematography (wide screen, color) = 7 stars; Direction = 5 stars; Performances = 5 stars; Subtitles = 5 stars; Editing = 4/5 stars; Sound = 4/5 stars.
MISHIMA: A LIFE IN FOUR CHAPTERS / MISHIMA. Viewed on DVD. Director and script co-author Paul Schrader's fictionalized biographical film of Yukio Mishima who was a well-known, multi-talented, and mentally unhinged Japanese artist from the middle of the last Century. Apparently little known in the West, Mishima seems to have caused quite a stir in his homeland some 50 years ago (the effects of which may still be lingering on) by publically committing seppuku after a failed attempt to convince members of Japan's Self-Defense Forces to mutiny and join his small private army to overthrow the government and reinstate the Emperor as the nation's sovereign. Schrader recreates events that occurred on the last day in the writer's life (in November, 1970) and inserts stunning vignettes based on scenes from some of Mishima's novels (three of which are defined by unique color compositions) as well as longish flash-backs (in black and white). The result is well worth repeat viewing (see below). Shot (with mostly a Japanese cast and crew) entirely in Japan, apparently the movie has never been released there (due to family legal action, studio timidity and/or political pressure--take your pick of rumors!). Schrader relies extensively on voice-over (often the mark of an impoverished script and/or production under financing) to help the viewer make sense of what's been distilled on screen. This time out, however, extensive voice-over is really needed for those unfamiliar with Mishima monogatari (which is likely to be most viewers in the West) to catch a multitude of nuance and add a richness of depth. The DVD offered end-to-end narrations in Japanese (the speaker's identity remains in dispute) and English (one is co-hosted by Schrader). Although it rambles a fair amount, the Director's input will really help the viewer struggling to make heads-or-tails out of the movie (the struggle is well worth it, so turn on the narration with your second viewing). There are two de facto stars in this picture: lead actor Ken Ogata (always as pleasure to see in action); and the cinematography (with a very significant assist from the set designer and color-coordinator specialists, it is simply outstanding!). Other performances are mostly workman like as is the direction. Score by Philip Glass delivers a symphonic knockout! Subtitles fail to catch sets of symbols and lines of dialog here and there. Opening credits are translated and all closing credits are presented in English. Recommended. WILLIAM FLANIGAN, PhD. Details: cinematography (wide screen, color, black and white) = 9/10 stars; set design = 9/10 stars; score = 8 stars; sound = 8 stars; subtitles/translations = 7/8 stars; direction = 7 stars; performances = 7 stars;
editing = 6 stars; DVD/print (Criterion, 2008) = 5 stars.
JIGOKU / HELL / THE SINNERS OF HELL. Viewed on Streaming. Director Nobuo Nakagawa's (also credited as a script writer) view of what may happen after death consists of everyone (whether they "deserve" it or not) going to their own custom-built series of hells to bleed, scream, and be screamed at forever. It starts with a back-road, hit-and-run killing of a drunk Yakuza boss and ends up with all the protagonists (including an unborn baby) dead and in hell (there is no heaven!). Nakagawa's direction also seems to be hit-and-run with his actors turning in performances ranging from okay to out-of-control-grossly histrionic (and unintentionally amusing). The Director seriously overdoses on movie blood which usually looks totally fake. Hell scenes are more like a theatrical stage production than a movie, and consist of a very effective blending of lighting and superimposed analog special effects. Production design and set decoration are highly imaginative and the real stars of this movie! Some scenes in hell, however, are under lit to the point of being pitch black. Jump-cut editing especially in hell can be effective, but mostly serves to generate confusion even with extensive voice-over narration (there is little or no inter-scene continuity through out the film); the result often resembles a series of review skits. There is nothing much in the way of an ending--the film just sort of stops. "Script" consists mostly of echo-chamber screaming and name shouting which repetitiously goes on and on. Score and sound are okay. For cultists (and insomniacs) only! WILLIAM FLANIGAN, PhD. Details: production design / effects = 9 stars; stage lighting = 8 stars; streaming/print (FilmStruck) = 8 stars; cinematography (2.35 : 1, color) = 5 stars; subtitles = 5 stars; direction = 4/5 stars; editing = 4/5 stars; performances = 4/5 stars; score = 4/5 stars. sound = 4/5 stars.
BEING TWO ISN'T EASY / I AM TWO YEARS OLD (WATASHI WA NISAI). Viewed on Streaming. Director Kon Ichikawa's (also credited as co-Producer) apparent objective (at least initially) is to present parallel universes: one inhabited by a baby starting at birth; and another by the kid's first-time parents and their circle of friends and relatives. The infant's point of view (POV) is mostly conveyed by an adult voice-over actor, and seems to indicate that the child has learned enough (perhaps in a former life?) to skip grade school and enroll directly in Junior High (given his rate of growth in the film, that may be pretty darn soon)! The scenario (credited to Ichikawa' wife) probably looked pretty cool on paper, but turned out to be not so much on film. After about the first reel (10 minutes or so), the baby's POV (in audio and video scenes) mostly disappears, as the Director drifts away from an interesting thematic duality and into the banality of talk about how to raise and care for a baby. And there sure is lots of talk most of which is trivial (the stack of cue cards must have been huge (even for dubbing sessions) and/or the two leading actors had mega photographic memories (or acting was mostly improvisational!)). Ichikawa tries to break up the talkathon monotony by injecting an action shot here and there (a cartoon, some kid falling from a balcony and being caught by a mail carrier, close to death suffocation in a plastic bag, a racing motorcycle, etc.). Leading and supporting actors turn in very good performances. The toddler who is supposed to reach the age of two by film's end is obviously being played by a 3-5 year old in later scenes (it also looks suspiciously like several children are playing the same role). Subtitles struggle with the copious dialog and turn out to be close enough (but often have to resort to multiple lines of text!). The unimaginative score is mostly kept in the background (thankfully!). Skip this feather-weight shomin-geki unless suffering from an especially bad bout of insomnia! WILLIAM FLANIGAN, PhD. Details: streaming/print (FilmStruck) = 9/10 stars; performances = 5 stars; cinematography (narrow screen, color) = 5 stars; lighting = 5 stars; animation = 5 stars; direction = 4/5 stars; subtitles = 4/5 stars; score = 4 stars.
THE GEISHA / YOHKIRO (YÔKIRÔ). Viewed on DVD. Director Hideo Gosha's soaper about a geisha house (Youkirou), supposedly the largest in Japan prior to WWII, and the many lives/livelihoods that depend (more or less) on this business. The tale goes something like this: twenty years ago a young mother was killed trying to escape a Yakuza-owned geisha house, but her baby was saved by its father played by Ken Ogata; Ogata's character (OC) becomes a "geisha talent scout" (Zegen) and later sells his pre-teen daughter (and many others) to Youkirou run by OC's former mistresses (now married); OC sells his current mistress (about the same age as OC's daughter) to a local brothel (after she has been rejected by Youkirou--big surprise!) run by a Yakuza gang; the gang plants a geisha spy and trouble maker (using OC) in Youkirou as part of their plan to take over this very lucrative business and turn it into an even more profitable bordello (the spy has wasted little time taking up with the husband of OC's former mistress and is living with him at a mixed-bathing onsen resort); later OC forcibly "rescues" his current mistress (now a rock-star sex attraction) from the brothel (which does not go down well with the Yakuza), and (after a Yakuza stabbing and bombing attack on their noodle restaurant) they plan to leave Japan (for Manchuria) once OC settles his score with the gang (which does not end well); in the mean time, OC's daughter has become pregnant and abandoned, contracts tuberculosis, and lives just long enough to deliver a grand daughter who (apparently) will now live with a married-but-separated-retired-Youkirou-geisha (she seems to have mostly raised OC's daughter) and her bind masseuse son until the kid becomes a pre-teen and can be sold to Youkirou ... (still with me?!). And this is just a partial overview! Gosha has mercilessly pounded (like mochitsuki?) a number of plot lines together all but guaranteeing audience confusion without multiple viewings (which was likely the game plan of the producers all along!). Adding to this mash up is the huge cast of speaking parts the Director deploys. Repetitive makeup, wigs, and costumes make geisha actresses look like CGI clones--about 30 or more--whose mannerisms are identical and (unintentionally?) funny (going overboard on geisha training and under board on direction?). There are several topless shots including a scene of borderline kiddy porn. Atsuko Asano--who manages to display practically everything she owns as OC's current mistress--turns in a fine performance. So does a laid-back Ken Ogata. But the star of this film is veteran actress Mitsuko Baishô whose character runs Youkirou. She plays a strong, mature businesswoman, and is a pure pleasure to watch! Dancing/singing choreography is substandard except, perhaps, for the Charleston sequence (which illustrates the versatility of sex-worker kimono!). Women fight scenes (each includes water) are particularly poorly done and way too long (one occurs in the mix-bathing onsen and involves a large, dangerous-to-conceal (in the nude), pin-like dagger). Score theme is okay, by orchestrated variations thereof are unimaginative and repetitive. There is a choice of subtitle and caption colors (they can also be turned off) with the former appearing at screen bottom and the latter usually at the top. Subtitles consist of yellow/green/white lettering on a black background making them readable no matter the scene lighting. Very effective! Captions provide brief expository, geographical, and grammarian information . It is practically impossible to read subtitles and captions simultaneously without repeat hitting of the pause button. Try multiple watching with, say, the captions initially turned off (this film is so densely packed that you will likely have to watch it several times anyway!) Song lyrics are subtitled. Captions (and supplemental text "bonus" DVD features) seem to go out of their way to distinguish between geisha houses (that sell mostly entertainment and party companionship) and bordellos (that sell mostly sex). There is, of course, an overlap of services provided by each business model and, amusingly, Gosha keeps on reminding the audience of this as, well, a normal fact of life! Recommended, but only on condition that you watch it at least twice! WILLIAM FLANIGAN, PhD. Details: DVD/print = 9/10 stars; subtitles = 9 stars; cinematography (wide screen, color) = 8 stars; lighting = 8 stars; direction = 6 stars; performances = 6 stars; costumes/hair/makeup = 4 stars; score = 4 stars; choreography = 3 stars.
A HEN IN THE WIND (KAZE NO NAKA NO MENDORI). Viewed on Streaming. Director Yasujiro Ozu's (also credited as a co-writer) melodramatic tale of poverty and domestic violence set in the early post Pacific War years. It's the standard good-wife-bad-husband plot device. This time it involves a woman awaiting her husband's return from the military while living with her young child in upstairs rooms rented from a working class family, and barely surviving as a some-time dress maker and by selling off her meager possessions. She reaches the point of deciding which of her last possessions to sell: a sewing machine (the source of her livelihood) or herself (which she chooses). When the cold-hearted husband returns (sans even a small gift or an emotional embrace) after an absence of several years, he promptly interrogates his wife about how she has survived (she blabs), rapes her, throws her down a flight of stairs, gives his money to a young hooker promising to find her a job, and otherwise exhibits every indication of planning to abandon his wife and child (which he likely does right after the closing credits!). First off, there is the choice of film title. It might have meant something to contemporary audiences, but looks plain weird today. Perhaps it symbolizes the piece-by-piece selling of just about everything to survive like the loss of a bird's feathers (or a plucked chicken)? Ozu's direction is lethargic (except for scenes of wife abuse). Leading actress Kinuyo Tanaka appears a bit too old to be playing the young-mother character. The child actor appears to be mostly comatose even when not playing sick. Leading actor Shuji Sano is miscast as a slum-dwelling, perfectly-groomed "pretty boy" prone to mugging. Even usually excellent character actor Chishu Ryu seems to be struggling with weak lines and direction. The Director's trademarks are much in evidence: lots of underwear on clotheslines; trains often seen or heard; plenty of static shots that look like (maybe are?) photographs; etc. Sound is a mixed bag with apartment scenes sounding like there is a cement mixer in the background. Score consists of limp-violin orchestrations. Restoration is not great with many grayed-out scenes. Cinematography (narrow-screen, grey and white) is okay, but lighting continuity is uneven and scenes can be under lit. Subtitles are sometimes too long and need reduction editing. Unless you are an Ozu cultist, skip this dud. WILLIAM FLANIGAN, PhD. Details: streaming (FilmStruck) = 8 stars; cinematography (narrow screen, grey and white) = 6 stars; lighting = 5 stars; restoration = 4/5 stars; direction = 4/5 stars; performances = 4/5 stars; subtitles = 4/5 stars; score = 3 stars.
THE FUNERAL / DEATH, JAPANESE STYLE / SUDDEN VISIT CEREMONY (Lit) (OSOUSHIKI). Viewed on Streaming. The sudden, unexpected death (due to a heart attack and subsequent inadequate hospital treatment) of a retired brothel owner (he "sampled the merchandise" while his wife "did all the cleaning") sets the stage for Director Juzo Itami's (who also wrote the screen play and is a co-producer) collection of scenes/skits tied to a traditional three-day Buddhist funeral involving a reunion of family members plus an attendant assortment of friends, neighbors, mistresses, service providers, strangers, and a neko (cat). Itami's subtle and wry humor often focuses on the details such as step-by-step learning proper funeral etiquette (complete with an instructional video) and a technical brief on the art of cremation, but the Director also throws in a woodland sexual romp, the arrival of a Buddhist priest (played by the venerable character actor Chishu Ryu) in a Rolls-Royce stretch limo, a dragon hearse (a must see!), endless food planning sessions, the challenge of outdoor cash-donation management in windy weather, and a mindless, meandering final eulogy by the widow who goes on and on about being mistreated at the hospital. Itami seems to be implying that family reunions for any reason are not really a good idea! (sou desune.) This is a film often over burdened with a plethora of detail as well as an over abundance of anecdotes and episodes, and, as a result, can become slow and just plain boring. The cast is way too large, and the viewer will need a score card to keep track of who is whom (there is even a line or two about not knowing everyone in a crowd scene!). Nobuko Miyamoto (the Director's wife) looks great (without being plastered with makeup) and is a would-be star. However, she ends up being marginalized and lost in a tidal wave of performers who are also pretty good actors. Lighting continuity is uneven with exterior night scenes under lit to the extent of turning players into shadows! At the end, the bereaved family is relieved. Perhaps the viewer will be also? WILLIAM FLANIGAN, PhD. Details: streaming/
restoration (FilmStruck) = 4 stars; direction = 3 stars; performances = 3 stars; cinematography (semi-wide screen, color) = 3 stars; production values = 3 stars; score = 3 stars; subtitles = 3 stars; lighting = 2/3 stars.
TALES OF A GOLDEN GEISHA (AGEMAN). Viewed on Streaming. Director Juzo Itami's (he is also credited as story writer and co-producer) story about the life and times as well as the positive/negative impacts of Lady Luck in the form of a contemporary gig geisha who professionally encounters rich/powerful/corrupt men (politicians especially, but also bankers, religious leaders, and any male in a position of authority) and develops a reputation for helping those who contract for her services move up to the one-percenter level. Lady Luck, of course, is notoriously known to be fickle, and Itami's version is basically no exception. The film stars Nobuko Miyamoto (the Director's wife) who looks stunning with and without her clothes, and, since she is in practically every scene, is able to fully display her acting talents from light comedy to light drama (and not be lost in the large cast of supporting players including Itami's stock company). Miyamoto's character provides her services gratis to her real love in the pro forma scenario of "girl meets boy, girl (repeatedly) loses boy, girl (finally) re-captures boy." (It's quite a chase!) The film is a bit too long, but never really boring (the Director tosses in a nude shot here and there to keep the viewer's attention). Fight scenes are mainly created by jump-cut editing. Interestingly, players wearing glasses never lose them in action scenes (the magic of the editing suite!). Most/all geisha look well past their prime when in scenes with Miyamoto. Contemporary geisha makeup avoids the traditional white-face ghost-mask look. (You can see the faces of actresses playing geisha roles!) Subtitles appear before dialog is delivered in some conversations. Score is a bit heavy on string-instrument orchestrations, but otherwise okay. It's really more fun to watch Nobuko Miyamoto acting instead of her usual hamming it up and eating the scenery! WILLIAM FLANIGAN, PhD. Details: streaming/restoration (FilmStruck) = 8 stars; cinematography (semi-wide screen, color) = 8 stars; production values = 8 stars; makeup (face/body) = 8 stars; direction = 7 stars;
editing = 6 stars; score = 6 stars; subtitles = 5 stars.
MINBOU: THE GENTLE ART OF JAPANESE EXTORTION / THE ANTI-EXTORTION WOMAN / GANG-FIGHTING WOMAN (MINBOU NO ONNA). Viewed on Streaming. Director Juzo Itami's (he is also credited as story writer) fantasy about harmless (mostly) organized gang members stars his talented (and amusing) wife Nobuko Miyamoto as a fearless, one-woman Yakuza countermeasure with a law degree and claimed job experience (she has all her fingers though!). Itami's satire revolves around a gang that has adopted a luxury hotel as its alt hangout (and shake-down cash cow), and the measures taken by the owner and his wimpy employees to rid the place of this infestation. Not much happens (if you exclude excessive/repetitive mugging and hamming it up by supporting players) until about 20% into the film when Miyamoto's character is hired as a last resort to rid the hotel of it's problem. The "traditional" Japanese zero-to- hero theme this time has hotel employees evolving from cowards to stand-your-ground folks under the tutelage of Miyamoto's character. Criminal elements depicted as all-bark-and-no-bite thugs and bullies transports farce and social satire way too far into the land of make believe. The movie is overly long, and the Director may have set a new record for repetitive TV-style close-up shots (and an impoverished script riddled with mugging grunts and grimaces) in a theatrical feature. (The movie looks more like a TV-show-throw-away than a film expecting its audience to pay to view!) There is only one surprise (the nonfatal stabbing of the lawyer at the end), since all other future events have been carefully telegraphed ahead of time. Jump-cut editing of mug shots quickly becomes tedious and boring. "Score" can become ear numbing due to relentless drumming, and, overall, lacks compositional creativity. Subtitles may appear before dialog is delivered! Unless you are a hard-core Nobuko Miyamoto fan, I'd skip this one. WILLIAM FLANIGAN, PhD. Details: streaming/restoration = 8 stars; direction = 6 stars; cinematography (semi-wide screen, color) = 6 stars; editing = 5 stars; subtitles = 4 stars; score = 3 stars.
A TAXING WOMAN / TAX INSPECTOR WOMAN (Lit) (MARUSA NO ONNA). Viewed on Streaming. Director Juzo Itami's satirical take (he is also credited as story writer) on the eternal battle between taxing authorities and tax cheats especially involving yakuza run/affiliated businesses. Itami's star is his wife Nobuko Miyamoto (a stunningly gifted comedienne) who plays a sweet-looking, but relentless and hard-nosed government tax agent for Japan's version of the US IRS. Apparently, she is only one of two women in the Tokyo office. Like rust, Miyamoto's character "never sleeps" and employs a unique (and amusing) set of tools and techniques to sniff out hidden income and tax evasion (such as counting cars and turnover in the parking lot of a love hotel). She is fearless and ferocious as her character ventures alone into dangerous situations armed only with an ID badge, writing notepad, and hand-held calculator! The Director also adds a touch of romantic farce here and there. Miyamoto almost manages to tie together what is really a collection of shorts (or skits)--labeled by the seasons--into a movie that smoothly progresses and builds to a climax. Unfortunately, she often disappears or is lost in the huge cast (including the Director's stock company) Itami deploys whose members are decidedly not funny! Loss of focus (and opportunities) results in a drifting film that is much too long with gratuitous soft-porn and nudity making it still longer (and unfunny)! "Score" is monotonous and quickly becomes irritating due to alto sax overkill. Disappointing, but worth watching once. WILLIAM FLANIGAN, PhD. Details: streaming/restoration = 9 stars; cinematography (narrow screen, color) = 7 stars; lighting and color correction = 7 stars; subtitles = 7 stars; direction = 6 stars; score = 3 stars.
DARK WATER / FROM THE DEPTHS OF DARK WATER / GLOOMY WATER'S BOTTOM FROM (Lit) (HONOGURAI MIZU NO SOKO KARA). Viewed on Streaming. Director Hideo Nakata (also a screenplay co-author) slowly and meticulously builds a scary psychological/supernatural drama for grownups (which means it does not have to resort to blood or gore). This is a tale centered on a multilevel battle over the protection/possession of a six-year old girl. The heavy-duty plot includes: (1) a bitter custody fight over a daughter where the father's game plan for winning is to demonstrate the metal instability of the mother (to a family court); (2) a super-stressed mother (with an apparent history of mental issues due to being abandoned by her mother) attempting to find shelter and re-employment (in Yokohama) with supernatural abilities (apparently inherited) and an overactive imagination; (3) the mother's "discovery" of a run-down, virtually deserted apartment house close to a kindergarten school that just happens to have a roomy, under-priced empty apartment in a set up that has her ex-husband's sanity-destroying finger prints all over it (starting with the over eagerness of a real-estate agent and off-putting remoteness of the resident manager (perhaps hired to stage "mysterious" happenings?); (4) an apartment house that turns out to be haunted by a six-year old girl who was abandoned by her mother (and is searching for a surrogate) and then, apparently, was abused by maintenance workers and drowned in a highly elevated water-storage tank (on the building's roof); and (5) an erratic, sluggish, and scary-looking elevator in which strange things happen especially at the film's end (there's only one of these in a seven-story building with, perhaps, 60-70 apartments and no freight elevator in evidence!). Nakata ultimately has the mother simultaneously fighting to keep her daughter from the clutches of her sort-of-shady ex-husband and the murderous spirit of the drowned girl. Just about everything that water in any form can do that is disturbing or bad for your mental/physical health is in this movie! A tour de force and a de facto advertisement for bottled water! Not surprisingly, superstitions widely shared by Japanese are cleverly incorporated into the film (perhaps, you can spot them?). Actors are well directed with attractive leading actress Hitomi Kuroki providing a stunning performance (despite being saddled with a wardrobe that does her no favors). Child actress Rio Kanno seems perfectly cast and delivers an excellent and, at times, spooky performance. Supporting male players are very good. Score is chilling. Subtitles are close enough, but you have to turn on the closed captions (CC) function to see them! Most signs/text are translated as are the lyrics of the end-credits song. Fear, dread, surprise, and suspense are generated without the usual phony audio jolts and jump-cut editing employed by movies of this genre. Highly recommended. WILLIAM FLANIGAN, PhD.
Details: streaming (HD) = 9/10 stars; cinematography (semi-wide screen, color) = 8/9 stars; lighting and color correction = 8 stars; direction = 7/8 stars; set design/dressing = 7/8 stars; sound = 7/8 stars; score = 7 stars; subtitles/CC = 7 stars; translations = 6 stars; costumes = 4 stars
EAST SIDE SUCHI. Viewed on Streaming. Not the East Side of NYC, but Oakland, CA! Director Anthony Lucero (also credited as writer) using the ever popular Japanese movie plot of "zero-to-hero" conjures up a cross-cultural tale focused on the art of creating gourmet masterpieces using just about anything shored up by vinegared (sticky) rice. With sticky rice as a metaphor, Lucero goes after tribalism, bigotry, racism, sexism, and phony cultural authenticity in the restaurant business using a light touch with a minimum of lecturing. This proves to be a very effective approach (with a few less-than-subtitle messages tucked in here and there!). A Mexican-American single mother with a young daughter living with her widowed semi-retired and ailing father decides to refocus her life on moving up the socioeconomic ladder from fruit pushcart street vendor to becoming a renown suchi-bar chef. Lead actress Diana Elizabeth Torres seems perfectly cast as a strong woman determined to prevail against a myriad of antiquated male attitudes (including her father's) although her character's credibility suffers somewhat when the Director allows her to ham it up in confrontational scenes. Actress Kaya Jade Aguirre playing the daughter steals every scene she is in (which is customary for child players!). Cinematography (semi-wide screen, color) is excellent especially for hand shots of food preparation. Lighting and color correction are fine as is sound. Score is uneven (sometimes in the background, sometimes nearly drowning out the dialog) and over doses on taiko (drums). Subtitles are okay. Closing-credits song lyrics are not translated. An enjoyable feel-good fantasy. WILLIAM FLANIGAN, PhD. Details: Film = 7 stars. Cinematography = 8 stars. Lighting and color correction = 8 stars. Sound = 8 stars. Score = 6 stars. Subtitles = 6 stars. Translations = 5 stars.
CHOKI / EYES ON ME. Viewed on streaming. Director Junichi Kanai (also credited as screenplay writer) delivers a compact, under-acted drama involving a lonely, close-to-middle age, childless, hairstylist, widower (now, perhaps, the most eligible bachelor in town) re-connecting with a lonely, traumatized young blind woman (a former calligraphy student of his late wife some 10 years ago) who is about to graduate from a high school for the blind and is seeking someone to turn to for advice/counseling/guidance while staying clear of her imprisoned, unhinged mother who traumatically caused her blindness. The plotline seems to progress smoothly from de facto adoption of an older daughter to something more involved until the mother becomes eligible for parole and wants her child-abused daughter to live with her. Kanai wisely resists playing (and milking) the handicap card. The ending is upbeat and hints at several positive possibilities to come. Directed acting is very good. Lead actress seems to be handicapped due to a dental deformity which forces her to play most of her close-up scenes from one side. (Perhaps the Director cast her, since she lives with a physical problem like the character she plays?) Cinematography (semi-wide screen, color) is fine. Lighting and color correction are okay. Sound is good with motor-bike looping being very good. Subtitles are close enough and often not needed, since dialog lines are short, sparse, and mostly slang free. Translations are incomplete: opening and closing credits are less than "bare bones"; only one sign is translated; and lyrics of the closing-credits song are not translated. Unpretentious and enjoyable. WILLIAM FLANIGAN, PhD.
Film = 7 stars.
Cinematography = 7 stars.
Lighting and color correction = 7 stars.
sound = 7 stars.
subtitles = 6 stars.
translations = 3 stars.
SEKIGAHARA. Viewed in MGM National Harbor Ballroom Theater. Script = nine (9) stars; cinematography = nine (9) stars; lighting and color correction = nine (9) stars; music = nine (9) stars; sound = nine (9) stars; subtitles = eight (8) stars. In the second of a planned historical trilogy (see below), Director Masato Harada (who is also credited as writer and editor) recreates the decisive battle of 1600 at Sekigahara and events that preceded (as well as some that followed) this significant historical marker. A major turning point in Japan's history occurred when the war between most (some sat this one out or were no shows) East and West feuding clans determined Japan's (except for some regions in Kyushu) national military dictatorship (shogunate) which lasted until feudalism was abolished by the Emperor Meiji circa 1867-1868. This is a fast moving movie based on a three-volume historical novel that reimages historic events and major participants. The Director seems to have captured the essence of the voluminous source material and, unlike other movies (and TV series) that only touch (or nibble a bit) on Sekigahara, provides a comprehensive context for and retelling of the battle in it's entirety with many hundreds of extras, many dozens of speaking parts, and many dozens of horses (always mounted from the right side!). This is indeed a mega epic production that makes for spectacular audience impact! Excellent cinematography (2.35 : 1, DCP, color), lighting, and color correction plus adroit wide-screen framing add much. Score is also excellent with a blend of classical and newly composed music. Sound (5.1 surround) is blood pumping and at times close to overwhelming! Subtitles are fine although battle banners/flags are often not translated. Acting is A-list all the way with actresses holding their ground despite being considerably outnumbered by actors playing historical protagonists (see below). Harada employs voice-over narrative (which quotes the novel--see below) to help initially identify and sort out characters as well as establish/
clarify their motivations for what they are or will soon be doing. Movie samurai myths are also dispelled by channeling emerging historical research in scenes of "liquid loyalty" with combatants switching sides/clans back and forth (just follow the direction of the costumes) and defeat/withdrawal without ritual suicide (seppuku). (The samurai code of conduct (bushido) seen in movies was not even invented until 1899!) All forms of contemporary weaponry are recreated including single-shot rifles and cannons. Despite the huge cast, viewers who like to keep close tabs on leading protagonists can do so during both political and physical fighting. This is a knack the Director also demonstrated in THE EMPEROR IN AUGUST (TEIA). During a post-screening Q&A, Harada described the three major events in the history of Japan: the Sekigahara battle of October 1600; the Meiji Restoration around May 1869 (the Director's next cinematic project); and Japan's surrender in September 1945 (recreated in TEIA). Harada expressed his desire to show more female characters in his historical trilogy. While this was not realistically possible for TEIA (with the government being all male), he was able to highlight/amplify the contribution of female participates (as ninja spies, medical personnel, and fighters--yes, there were female samurai warriors) in SEKIGAHARA. Voice-over expository is often a bolt-on economic necessity when a movie has budgetary problems. Not so for SEKIGAHARA. In conversation with the Director, Harada indicated that it was always his intent to have a narrator speak text from the novel starting with his first (of 25 or so) script draft so as to capture more of the novelist's point of view and interpretation of history. There is no intermission in this 2.5 hour movie (and you may miss much if you take a break). Highly recommended for repeat viewing! WILLIAM FLANIGAN PhD
LOVE AND GOODBYE AND HAWAII (KOI TO SAYONARA TO HAWAII). Viewed at CineMatsuri 2018. Script = four (4) stars; cinematography = three (3) stars; lighting and color correction = three (3) stars; subtitles = three (3) stars; music = two (2) stars. Often (too often!) Japanese films are padded with long silent stares into space by players (especially the lead protagonists), but not this time. Director Shingo Matsumura (who is also credited as script writer and editor--and it shows!) delivers a taught, insightful tale filled with cleaver bits of business, humor, some pathos, and thoughtful metaphors (including "Hawaii"--see below) from a script that does not waste words (or anything else!). The Director's basic thesis is that broken romances should end prior to predestined matrimonial failures and divorce court. Matsumura also seems to be making the point that modern-day young women remain burdened with quaint old-fashion thinking about romance especially the notion that lovers (and even ex-lovers) should always marry! (Sort of like romancing the notion of romance.) A couple in their mid/late 20s are living together platonically (she because of emotional inertia and economics; he due to temerity) after their college romance has flamed out with little in the way of future financial prospects (she dropped acting and has a low-level office-support job; he became a graduate student studying poetic history and seems destined for unemployment after grad school). This is a photo play (with an excellent script) about the second coming-of-age in life: seriously facing the 30s. The Director/writer leverages a number of metaphors (yawning contagion, autos, technology change) to subtly make points and deliver micro messages. Hawaii is a metaphor for confusing an ideal wedding with an "ideal" marriage (to be married in Hawaii seems more important to the characters than who is marrying whom and why!). Leading actress Aya Ayano is perfectly cast and well directed. Other players also receive fine direction. Lines of dialog are short and to the point rendering subtitles likewise. Book titles and other text are usually translated. Cinematography (semi-wide screen, DCP, color), lighting, and color correction are fine. Music (especially singing) lacks originality and poorly parrots more skilled performers currently on the J-pop scene. Good things come in small (independent production) packages. Highly recommended. WILLIAM FLANIGAN, PhD.