Yoshiwara

  • Yoshiwara, 4/7/18 (Sat)

A French-language piece of Japonisme made in 1937 (when Japan was already well at war in Asia) by Max Ophüls. The film is set in Tokyo in the Meiji years, when foreigners have become a not-uncommon presence. Kohana, born into an aristocratic family, is forced humiliatingly by circumstances to sell herself to a brothel in the still-active red light district Yoshiwara, where the girls are now being taught how to give greetings in English, French and such to welcome foreign business. The servant Isamu (spelled Ysamo in the subtitles, but that’s too ridiculous), who delivers her by rickshaw to the brothel, loves her and is desperate to win her over despite the impossible difference in social status, even with her decline into prostitution. Unfortunately a rival emerges in the form of a Russian officer, who begins an intense affair with Kohana. Much to Isamu’s misery, she and the officer are soon deeply in love. The jealous servant gets involved in a scheme by the authorities to entrap the officer, who, it turns out, is in Japan on a secret military mission. Isamu’s actions, however, unwittingly put the girl herself in danger, and things quickly spiral out of control.

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Like a Wild Chrysanthemum (野菊の如き君なりき)

  • 野菊の如き君なりき (Like a Wild Chrysanthemum), 3/21/18 (Wed)

A melancholic 1955 film of young love by Kinoshita Keisuke, director of the uber-sentimental smash Twenty-Four Eyes. Continue reading

Ballad of Orin (はなれ瞽女おりん)

  • はなれ瞽女おりん (Ballad of Orin)

10/4/17 (Wed), Tokyo

I was curious about this 1977 movie after seeing the excellent puppet version, which was based on this source rather than the original play or novel. The director, Shinoda Masahiro, was also behind the muddled curiosity Double Suicide.

The story revolves around a lonely wandering blind singer who falls in love with a soldier. While he is clearly devoted, he refuses strangely to engage with her sexually, a source of great frustration to her. Still, she takes happiness where she can. The reasons for his unusual behavior are revealed in a tragic ending.

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Twenty-Four Eyes (二十四の瞳 )

  • 二十四の瞳 (Twenty-Four Eyes), 1/16/11 (Sun), Tokyo

With the death of the great Takamine Hideko at year-end, I gathered friends to watch one of her most successful films. It is an unabashedly sentimental piece from 1953 about a new teacher and her 12 charges in a poor village in Shodoshima over a 20-year span from 1928-1948, i.e., before, during and after the war.

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The Exterminating Angel (Met Live)

  • The Exterminating Angel (Met Live)

1/29/18 (Mon), Tokyo

British composer Thomas Adès’ new opera, based on the 1962 Buñuel film, was a big popular and critical success in Salzburg, London and New York, and I was eager to catch this Met Live production from last November. The source film, which I had somehow never seen, happened to be playing in Tokyo at a retrospective of Buñuel’s Mexican works, so I caught that the night before.

The story, a Beckett-like setup where fancy guests at a dinner party find themselves mysteriously unable to leave the room, didn’t seem a promising subject for a full opera. For one thing, it’s largely an ensemble piece with no real leads, less about individual characters than the breakdown of the social order and how people behave in extreme situations. The film wraps up in a brisk 90 minutes or so, suggesting that a one-act opera might be more appropriate. (That appears to be the approach that Stephen Sondheim and David Ives are taking in their musical version, which will combine this film with that other Buñuel dinner-party piece The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.) The fact that this all takes place largely within the confines of a single room with the same costuming throughout also doesn’t suggest much in the way of scale or glamour. In any event, I was curious to see what Adès and his co-librettist Tom Cairns would make of this.

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Conflagration (炎上)

  • 炎上 (Conflagration), 1/23/11 (Sun), Tokyo

Ichikawa Kon’s 1958 film version of Mishima’s then-recent novel Kinkakuji (The Golden Pavilion), a fictionalization of the notorious incident just a few years earlier when a crazed monk burned down the centuries-old structure. The novel is filled with ruminations about the nature of beauty versus reality by a narrator isolated from society by his own insecurities over his crippling stutter. His image of Kinkakuji (called here by a different name), described by his father as almost other-worldly, sets him up for a devastating letdown when he encounters the actual dilapidated structure. The temple in his mind represents an ideal that, when violated, prompts him to destroy the former to protect the latter.

The film can’t begin to compete at that level, but it is a dutiful recounting of the main events and is highly effective on its own terms. Continue reading