Saturday, August 2, 2008

"Japanese Screen Classics: In Honor of Madame Kawakita": Review Round-up

"Japanese Screen Classics: In Honor of Madame Kawakita," a series of 24 classic works of Japanese cinema, screens at the Walter Reade Theater through August 14. The "Madame Kawakita" in question is the late Kashiko Kawakita, the film programmer, distributor, and all-around champion and promoter of Japanese cinema. The series is organized around the eight directors who have won the Kawakita Award, honoring lifetime achievement in Japanese film, including such towering figures as Akira Kurosawa, Nagisa Oshima, Seijun Suzuki, and Shohei Imamura, as well as relatively lesser-known directors as Kaneto Shindo and the documentarian Sumiko Haneda. Yoji Yamada and Kon Ichikawa are also featured in the series; each director is represented by three films apiece. Below are brief reviews of notable films in the series.

Her Brother (Kon Ichikawa, 1960)

Shot expressively in widescreen and muted but incredibly textured color, Ichikawa’s film about the complex and tortured relationship between two siblings, Gen (Keiko Kishi) and Hekiro (Hiroshi Kawaguchi), is one of his greatest films. Anchored by the beautifully nuanced and volcanic performances by Keiko Kishi as the older sister Gen and Kinuyo Tanaka as the ailing, hyper-religious stepmother, Ichikawa makes full use of his wide frame to depict the warring family members in monumental close-ups, alternating with scenes of kinetic and chaotic movement (e.g. Gen being doggedly stalked by a police officer), and wonderfully comic sight gags (e.g. the gaggle of geese that interrupt the policeman’s attempts to seduce Gen). In the film’s latter scenes, as the brother slowly dies of tuberculosis, the camera framings are less claustrophobic, and convey the unbridgeable separation of the family members from each other. Hekiro’s death elicits a numbed response from Gen, finally separated from her true soulmate. The great cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, that great color artist of postwar Japanese cinema (e.g. Ozu’s Floating Weeds), contributes a burnished look that is perfectly commensurate to the film’s period setting. The nuances of the sibling’s relationship are quite fascinating. Gen’s self-sacrificial actions toward her brother, bailing him out and covering for him, are very much self-serving, since by caring for her brother, she can avoid fully growing up. Hekiro’s pathetic attempts at petty thuggery only very thinly disguise the scared and vulnerable person underneath, which comes fully to the fore as he goes through the stages of dying from TB. In the film’s cruelest irony, the family only exhibits a sense of humanity toward one another when they are gathered around Hekiro’s deathbed. (Aug. 4)

A Last Note (Kaneto Shindo, 1995)

Shindo’s last feature starring his wife, the great Nobuko Otawa, this is a genial, charming film – surprisingly so for a film dealing with aging, suicide, and dementia. The title refers to the suicide of a carpenter who left a terse note – “It’s over” – before hanging himself. He places a large stone next to the note, to be used to pound nails into the coffin that he had made himself before committing suicide. The film features a trio of wonderful veteran actresses, including Haruko Sugimura, who plays Yoko Morimoto, an actress staying at her usual summer retreat. There are several surreally comic set pieces, including a foiled robbery attempt, and the subsequent commendation by the police. The film moves smoothly, maybe a little too smoothly, but is a pleasant enough experience. The story focuses on elderly characters that are very rarely seen on screen. Eighty-three years old at the time he made the film, A Last Note has a freewheeling, digressive air, mixing odd characters and incident, including an erotically charged wedding ritual right out of an Imamura film, frequent allusions to Chekhov, and a celebration of the resilience of older people. Touchingly, the film also serves as a tribute to Otowa, Shindo’s frequent star, who was suffering from terminal cancer during the shoot, and died just days after its completion.

Tora-san’s Sunrise and Sunset (Yoji Yamada, 1976)

Opening with a hilarious parody of Jaws, this installment, the seventeenth, of the beloved series of films about Tora-san, the genial everyman, continually underestimated by his family members and his friends, who turns out to be the wisest and most perceptive of all the other characters, is an enjoyable and touching film, that made me want to go out and see the rest of the series. At the outset, Tora-san takes serious umbrage upon hearing that his nephew was teased at school because Tora-san is his uncle, whereupon he goes out to get drunk. He comes upon a seemingly destitute old man (Jukichi Uno), who attempts to leave the bar without paying for his drinks, angering the proprietress. Tora-san gallantly pays for drinks, and they go out on the town barhopping. They both come home stinking drunk, in the old man’s case quite literally. The man angers Tora-san’s family, ordering everyone around. Eventually Tora-san sits him down, explaining “This isn’t an inn,” which surprises the old man, who thought that was exactly what it was. To make amends, he draws a doodle on a piece of paper, telling Tora-san to sell it at a bookstore. Tora-san is dubious, but does so, and learns that this alleged vagrant is actually the world-famous artist Ikenouchi. Tora-san returns home, displaying the large sum he received from selling the drawing, and his family is ashamed over how quickly they leapt to conclusions about the man based on appearances. Tora-san crosses paths with Ikenouchi again, and they spend time together, where Tora-san gets a taste of a life of riches and luxury. He meets and falls in love with Botan (Kiwako Taichi), a giggling geisha who has a semi-tragic back story, having been swindled out of 2 million yen by an arrogant businessman who refuses to return it. Kiyoshi Atsumi played Tora-san for nearly three decades, until his death in the mid-1990s. The films definitely followed a formula, and these films weren’t especially innovative stylistically, but Yoji Yamada, who directed most of the episodes, found remarkable variations on this scenario, as the series reflected changes in Japanese society over the years, as well as preserving a somewhat idealized and nostalgic sense of the past. Tora-san, the genial and kindhearted, if uneducated and impulsive, itinerant salesman always had a home among his family – his sister Sakura (Cheiko Baisho) and his family’s humble sweets shop. The filmmaking is solid and functional, with little flash, but this works very well in the service of the scenario, and is a very entertaining entry in this popular and long-lasting film series. Keep an eye out for a cameo by Chishu Ryu, the great actor most famous from his numerous roles in Ozu’s films, as a rather eccentric priest. (Aug. 2)

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