- 仁義なき戦い (Battles Without Duty and Humanity)
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
- ラジオの時間 (Welcome Back, Mr McDonald)
The prolific stage/film writer Mitani Koki has his good days [The Last Laugh (笑いの大学), Twelve Gentle Japanese (12人の優しい日本人)] and bad (most of his output), and this 1997 film, based on his 1993 stage show, is one of the latter. Continue reading
An amazing British film from 1961 about a secretly gay magistrate who pursues a gay blackmail case at the his risk of his own outing. And that’s back when homosexuality was a criminal offense in the UK. I imagine this was pretty controversial in its day, especially as it questions a widely held view and basically advocates that the law be rescinded. But aside from the politics, the story is a taut thriller that works very well on its own terms.
- Film: 心中天網島 (Double Suicide)
Double Suicide (1969) is Masahiro Shinoda’s highly stylized take on Chikamatsu Monzaemon’s 18th-century Bunraku (puppet theater) masterpiece The Love Suicides at Amijima. Chikamatsu does not emerge from this well.
I wasn’t wild about the idea of a Kitano (“Beat”) Takeshi film given its reputation for over-the-top violence, but Hana-Bi is one of several flicks by him – “by” in a big sense, meaning directed, written and starring – that are widely considered modern classics, especially overseas. So I figured it was about time to check it out. Continue reading
- Le Placard (The Closet), 5/31/15 (Sun)
- Mine Viganti (Loose Cannons), 6/6/15 (Sat)
A mention in a newspaper column prompted me to look for The Closet. I tried to buy a download on Amazon and Apple, but they made it so difficult that I just watched it on YouTube.
An accountant in a large company is so dull as to be almost invisible. He is ignored by his colleagues, and neither his ex-wife nor his teenage son will return his calls. Furthermore, he overhears talk that he is going to be axed by the firm. Depressed and lonely, he contemplates jumping off his building. A neighbor aims to help by concocting a scheme: he anonymously mails the company a doctored image of the guy in a leather suit with his hands all over another guy, strongly implying that he is gay. That apparent revelation makes it impossible for the company to fire him, and more than that, makes him suddenly an object of fascination for the entire firm. Continue reading
- Silent films: 子宝騒動、明け行く空 (Kid Commotion, The Dawning Sky)
5/19/15 (Tues), Tokyo
These were silent films by Torajiro Saito, evidently known in his day as film studio Shochiku’s “king of comedy”. They were narrated by a female benshi, Akiko Sasaki, who sat at the side of the screen and voiced all the roles as well as narrating non-dialogue sections in her own words. The music was newly composed and played live on a keyboard. The setup directly recalled (and perhaps stemmed from) Japan’s Bunraku puppet theater, where the narrator and musician sit in full view of the audience on a raised platform beside the stage and give voice to the voiceless puppets. The mixture of film and live performance seemed very modern somehow, so it’s interesting to note that Japan was doing it nearly a century ago. Continue reading