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

Spielberg’s (!) West Side Story

  • Spielberg’s (!) West Side Story 

Steven Spielberg’s intended film remake of West Side Story is apparently a go, for better or worse. While the original 1957 stage show was a modest success, it was the smash 1961 film that put the musical on the map with the second-highest grosses of the year and ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture. The love was not shared by its creators, who did not approve of the numerous revisions in song order and such, and it has not aged particularly well, coming off today as rather stagy despite its on-location shooting. Still, it is an historic work with a perfect cast, that amazing score and the iconic Jerome Robbins choreography, making the challenge of a remake formidable. The innovative approaches of recent musical films like Sweeney Todd and Hedwig and the Angry Inch (as well as the NBC Live musicals) do suggest a new path for musical film, and a creative look at old material is always welcome. (The stage show itself could stand some polishing if the Robbins estate would ever allow it.)

So why am I skeptical? Let us count the ways.  Continue reading

Get Out

  • Get Out

11/10/17 (Fri), Tokyo

A clever horror flick set in the here and now (like right now – the characters wish Obama could have had a third term) with a great premise and sly social commentary expertly woven in. A black guy visits his white girlfriend’s large family estate in what looks to be an updated Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (“You did tell them I was black…?” “Umm, don’t worry, they’ll love you”). But his isolation in their snow-white society and the clumsy attempts by whites to be hip (“I love Tiger Woods”) are the least of his worries as events take a sinister turn. Continue reading

Battles Without Duty and Humanity (仁義なき戦い)

  • 仁義なき戦い (Battles Without Duty and Humanity)

11/9/17 (Thurs)

Duty is the great theme of traditional Japanese Kabuki theater, with characters typically forced to choose between their all-important loyalty to their lord or society and a betrayal of that duty with an act of compassion or emotion. Compassion often wins out but only at great cost, usually death. The best known example of a pure loyalty tale is the ever-popular The 47 Loyal Retainers (忠臣蔵), where duty to a murdered lord leads to a meticulously planned, suicidal act of revenge by his former retainers. That sense of loyalty carries over as well into typical samurai and yakuza dramas, where duty is often itself the point.

The 1973 film Battles Without Duty and Humanity (the name would be punchier without the “humanity”’; also known by the much better title The Yakuza Papers) doesn’t just puncture that ideal but renders it a useless relic of a lost age. Continue reading