9 posts categorized "Japanese Cinema"

January 06, 2016



Animation legend Hayao Miyazaki’s divinely imaginative display of madcap surrealism is virtuosic in this episodic coming of age classic. Incredible attention to details of animated visual elements such as deep perspective, fog, smoke, and fire, inform the film’s contrasting elements of realism and absurdist thought that pull in various thematic directions at once. Miyazaki’s similar devotion to the minutiae of human behavior, as exhibited by a young girl on an odyssey of outrageous fantasy, lends the picture an emotional anchor of empathy. When the little girl runs into a wall at the bottom of a long stairway, we feel it. Regardless of how crazy things get (witness three dancing severed green male heads that transform into a giant baby boy), we are comforted by Miyazaki’s best intentions. Freud would have a field day with this ingenious filmmaker’s twisted nightmare sensibilities.

The picture takes on an epic quality.

Significant to the film’s English translation release is Pixar director John Lasseter’s championing of the family movie to Walt Disney Pictures. Lasseter hired a producer, screenwriters, and talent to translate “Spirited Away” for the Western palate. The effect is a seamless English translation of the original Japanese version that nonetheless retains all of Hayao Miyazaki’s thought-provoking intent, and wonderful sense of humor and surprise.

Chihiro Ogino (voiced by Daveigh Chase) is a 10-year-old Japanese girl, sulky at her parents’ decision to move the family to a new town. Whiny Chihiro needs to learn some trial-by-fire lessons in discipline that her parents aren’t giving her. The girl’s powerful imagination provides just the vehicle for such a transformation into a young adult.

En route their new house, dad takes a “short-cut” leading to a disused theme park that Chihiro’s irresponsible parents insist on exploring with their daughter in tow. Unperturbed by the lack of any other people in or around the park, mom and dad seize the opportunity to gorge themselves on a cornucopia of fresh meats inexplicably displayed at the park’s only open shop. All these two want to do is consume as much food as possible. Dad insists he will pay the bill whenever, if ever, it comes. Miyazaki’s sideways commentary on Japanese society runs deep and personal. Satire bubbles throughout the storyline involving shenanigans at an exotic bathhouse for spirits who are typically more evil than good. The film’s innumerable caricatures are revealed in bizarre forms born of Miyazaki’s wicked vision. Ralph Steadman has nothing on Miyazaki in the department of the abstract grotesque.


All rational thought flies out the window as mom and dad are transformed into giant pigs before Chihiro’s eyes. The same weird voodoo that robs Chihiro of her parents’ ability to look after her, introduces her to a boy named Haku (voiced by Jason Marsden). Haku is a dragon spirit, which means that he transforms into a giant white flying dragon. The phallic imagery is intentional. Chihiro has something to long for, other than merely her parents’ liberation from their incarnation as unrecognizable swine. Haku's flying abilities (in dragon form) allow for Miyazaki's signature flying sequences to take your breath away. This is big spectacle animation as only Miyazaki can deliver. The author-director handles the tempo and nuance of the flight sequences is ever so delicately to give the sense of the liberation of flight.

Haku instructs Chihiro to ask for a job in the bathhouse. Haku may not the most reliable counselor, yet Chihiro follows his confident command. Once hired by the establishment’s giant-headed witch Yubaba, Chihiro is at liberty to interact with the bizarre spirit creatures that visit the baths to cleanse their bodies and souls. The shocks and lessons that Chihiro receives, matures her into a young adult, able to see beyond the limitations of her parents, and also her own.  


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April 06, 2015


Tokyo-storyYasujiro Ozu’s beloved masterpiece of postwar Japanese cinema speaks to audiences of all backgrounds thanks to the cross-generational familial truths that the prolific director/co-writer lovingly metes out. That Ozu does so with a refined generosity of spirit enables the viewer to savor his characters’ imperfect traits within a universal tapestry of vulnerable human existence. As much a piercing study of Japanese culture circa 1953 as a precisely composed work of filmic storytelling, “Tokyo Story” is told with economy.

Ozu’s trademark knee-high camera records his characters from a subordinate angle that allows us to patiently observe subtle aspects of Japanese everyday life from an intimate vantage point. His approach is relevant to the way Japanese relate to their physical space and to each other. The filmmaker eschews camera movement in favor of a fixed point of view that anchors the film’s visual context. Behavior and action mask emotion more often than not. A spiritual form of cinematic naturalness prevails. Plot aspects are frequently revealed through dialogue ellipses of transparent exposition. Interaction between characters is primary. When Ozu wants to emphasize what a character is saying, the actor speaks directly to us — to the camera. 

Tokyo StoryShukichi Hirayama (Chishu Ryu) and Tomi Hirayama (Chieko Higashiyama) are an elderly husband-and-wife living in Japan’s southwest region of Onomichi with their youngest daughter Kyoko (Kyoko Hirayama). They relate easily as a two people who cherish one another for the support they provide. The harmonious pair travel by train on a ten-day vacation to visit their other four (estranged) children in the metropolis of Tokyo, a place they have never visited. The eventful journey reveals truths about Japan’s recently Westernized culture and the modern demands it makes on their middle-class children. They are surprised to discover that their oldest son Koichi (So Yamamura) works as a neighborhood doctor out of the home he shares with his wife and their two young sons, rather than in a proper hospital. A visit to their eldest daughter Shige (Haruko Sugimura), and her husband, exposes a similar work/home existence exacerbated by their daughter’s transformation into a selfish harpy.  


Shūkichi and Tomi also visit Noriko (Setsuko Hara), their daughter-in-law via a middle son they lost in World War II eight years before. The still single Noriko works as a secretary for an American tire company. The couple relate more freely to Noriko than they do to their own children. Their empathy with Noriko allows them to speak freely about their hopes for her to forget about their son and remarry as soon as possible.

The way the family deals with death and its certainty is at the heart of Ozu’s thematic exploration. It is loneliness, rather than closeness, that extends the length of the day.    

Not Rated. 136 mins. (A+) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)

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January 08, 2015


Vengeance Is MineShôhei Imamura had graduated from working as an assistant under Japan’s celebrated director ‪Yasujirō Ozu in the early ‘50s to performing similar duties for ‬director Yuzo Kawashima before being hired to work at the island country’s‬ oldest movie studio, Nikkatsu. The association with Nikkatsu allowed Imamura to begin writing and directing his own films, such as “Stolen Desire” (1958) and “Pigs and Battleships” (1961), but his audacious artistic vision proved too hot for Nikkatsu even if the company would later become a primary producer of “romantic pornography” (aka Pink Films) in the ‘70s. Imamura had no choice but to start his own production company.

His 1963 film “The Pornographers” revealed Imamura’s deft ability to delve into the underbelly of post-war Japanese culture toward a deeper understanding of his country’s innate hypocrisies from a multiplicity of vantage points. His following two films, “The Insect Woman” (1963) and “Unholy Desires” (1964), contributed mightily to the Japanese New Wave movement populated by such luminaries as Yasuzo Masumura, Masahiro Shinoda, and Nagisa Oshima.

Documentaries became a focal point for Imamura in 1967 with “A Man Vanishes.” Imamura would go on to make six more documentaries, several for Japanese television, before taking a four year hiatus that would allow him time to write and prepare the masterwork of his career, “Vengeance is Mine.”

Imamura utilized Ryuzo Saki’s same-titled novel about real-life serial killer Azuma Fujisaki as the stepping-off point to write a parable of post-war Japan. Unhindered by common filmic restraints, Imamura used a complex time flipping narrative structure in conjunction with documentary film techniques such as hand-held cameras and intertitle descriptions to create a vast cinematic canvas. The inventive strategy draws the viewer through an anti-hero serial killer’s convoluted exploits over the course of 78 days between his first murder and his capture.

Iwao Enokizu (Ken Ogata) is the son to a Shizuo (Rentarô Mikuni), a Roman Catholic fisherman. A flashback to an episode during the early ‘30s shows Shizuo standing momentarily defiant against the demands of a Japanese general demanding that all of the town’s fishing boats be turned over the Japanese Navy. The town’s Catholic citizens watch helplessly from the shore. Only the man’s prepubescent son runs over to challenge the general’s order by picking up a piece of wood and knocking the officer down. The young Iwao is a rebel whose instinctive violent actions prefigure a sociopathic tendency. Childhood years spent in imprisoned in juvenile detention lead to Iwao serving briefly as a translator to the American Army just after World War II. Still, his theft of a jeep lands him back in the slammer.

Vengeance.Is.MineAs if he didn’t have enough trouble, the wife (Mitsuko Baisho) that Iwao marries, divorces, and is forced by his fiercely Catholic father to remarry, becomes sexually attracted to Iwao’s father. Although their bond is only indirectly consummated, the relationship between father and daughter-in-law stinks to high heaven.

Iwao snaps. He develops a sudden thirst for killing that his nourished by the money he steals from his victims, whose own personal lives are marred by dishonesty and, in the case of an innkeeper, a murderess.

“Vengeance Is Mine” is much more than a true-crime movie in the vein of “In Cold Blood.” Rather the film is a richly woven polemic that encompasses turbulent generational shifts in Japanese identity caused by World War II. Iwao Enokizu isn’t waiting for God's vengeance to make things right when only everything is wrong.

Vengeance is mine

Not Rated. 139 mins. (A+) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)

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