16 May 2008

Japanese New Wave Weeks

I've mentioned my affinity for Japanese films before, but these were most usually either samurai films or films from the three great Japanese directors: Kurosawa, Ozu, and Mizoguchi. Of course, there are certain exceptions every now and then, but for the most part my viewing has been focused on filmmakers of the older generation who started making films in the '30s or '40s (or earlier). In order to broaden my palette a bit I decided to start a mini-Japanese New Wave film festival for myself, focusing on the newer directors who were making different films against the tradition of the older filmmakers especially during the late '50s and throughout the '60s.

I don't know much about the Japanese New Wave, but I am slowly learning from reading various things, especially referencing Donald Richie's A Hundred Years of Japanese Film. To give a brief overview, there was a call for an alternate cinema in Japan, heralded mostly by Nagisa Oshima, who is considered by some to be the Japanese Godard. The term "new wave" was actually issued from the film studio Oshima and many other directors were commissioned, Shochiku, which wanted to attract a new audience to the theatres by offering something fresh and hip, especially since the theatres were suffering due to the widespread popularity of television. Oshima naturally opposed the label, but nonetheless made some very bold films that more explicitly addressed Japanese desires and passions. His most famous/controversial is In the Realm of the Senses which many describe as "hardcore" and which is the film that I will close my mini-festival with.

Naturally, I can only watch what's available to me on DVD, and, more specifically, through Netflix. I managed to come up with some key directors and some that fall in the general time period of the '60s; though maybe not all of them had the name "new wave" applied to them, they were definitely making interesting, unconventional films that were in the spirit of the new wave. These directors are Ko Nakahira, Yasuzo Masumura, Hiroshi Teshigahara, Shohei Imamura, Seijun Suzuki, Masahiro Shinoda, and Nagisa Oshima.

The first film I saw was one that can be seen as the seed for the new wave, a "youth in revolt" film that studios were trying to attract young audiences with; Ko Nakahira's Crazed Fruit. Oshima pinpoints the birth of a new cinema in this film: "In the rip of a woman's skirt and the buzz of a motorboat, sensitive people heard the heralding of a new generation of Japanese film" (Richie, 198). The freshness could definitely be felt when I watched this film; there was a swiftness to the editing, a swiftness in the dialogue, and unrepressed sexuality and violence on the screen that I hadn't really seen in Japanese movies from the '50s before. The story focuses on the relationship between two brothers and one girl, who form a type of tragic love triangle that ends in tragedy. The plot in itself is interesting as a type of thriller, but beyond that there are lots of nuances of style that are appealing and interesting, such as the fact that the kids in the picture are all rich and privileged - a demographic of the postwar 1950s not unlike the '50s families in America - and that they fight for fun, they speak in a type of "cool" embodied by James Dean - "I've given up trying. I'll find my own way to live" - and they are so openly sexual. In one scene a woman who is older than the group of boys she is staying with is seen and we later learn through the older brother that he and his group of friends "took turns wearing her out." I couldn't believe hearing that in a Japanese film of the '50s. I ended up really liking this film and would like to see it again. The filmmaking still translates as fresh (though some of the clothes are a bit old-fashioned) and it is both psychological and entertaining.

The other film I watched so far is Seijun Suzuki's Gate of Flesh (what a title!) This was a B-picture that Suzuki was assigned from his studio, Nikkatsu. It focuses on the era of post-war Tokyo and specifically about the subculture of prostitutes that run a small corner of the city. The material is mostly a titillating "erotic" scenario, with screen opportunities for stripped prostitutes to hang and be whipped as well as plenty of sex and breasts, but the way the material is handled is actually very interesting. The rundown, bombed out buildings of Tokyo are recreated in a really artificial studio backlot with styrofoam and wood, making a very unrealistic setting for a very realistic scenario. However, the effect is not one of cheapness, but rather a type of campy, stage-like atmosphere that is further accentuated by unrealistic colors, lighting, and melodramatic acting. This film was full of instances where the distinction between bad craftsmanship and concept art are almost impossible to discern. For example, in one of many crane shots of the crowded street, the shadow of the cameraman and Suzuki sitting next to him can clearly be seen in the frame; is this just an accident or some type of self-reflexive point on the self-consciousness of the film? This film is a trashy B-movie done up in Sirk-like colors that feels almost like a stage play. Love it.

Where Suzuki fits in with the "new wave" label I'm not entirely sure, but his movies were more violent, sexual, and anarchic and thus more appealing to the post-war youth than other films being produced at the time. In this way, he fits in with the sensibilities of the new Japanese films that I am focusing on. I've seen one other Suzuki movie called Youth of the Beast, which was a yakuza picture he made a year earlier from Gate of Flesh. Suzuki was known for his elaborate use of studio sets, colors, and over-the-top visuals in filming mostly pulp material which the studio assigned him. In his film Branded to Kill Suzuki apparently went so over-the-top the studio fired him; I must see it. Youth of the Beast was beyond fantastic and I look forward to seeing more Suzuki movies, especially the gangster pictures.

11 May 2008

Jim Goes to the Movies

This was the end result of my film project. It was shot on a Bolex camera with 16mm b/w reversal film stock. The image is just a DV recording of a projection on a wall, so the image is not great. Also, the projector skipped at one point, so there's a section with a bit of a jump. When it's REALLY out of focus, that's just my lack of refinement. Anyway, enjoy.

08 May 2008

The Beginning of Summer and LATE AUTUMN

Summer is pretty much here; even though it's technically spring, the end of school work means the beginning of summer. I spent this past weekend off work with vacation time, giving myself some time to finish up my finals (which I have) and just relax a little bit as the semester comes to a close. I had one day in particular in which I had no real responsibilities at all, so while having my coffee and toast I popped in a supplemental feature on Yasujiro's Tokyo Story which was a tribute to the Japanese master on the 90th anniversary of his birth (and 30th anniversary of his death). It featured a few filmmakers - including Wim Wenders, Claire Denis, Paul Schrader, and Lindsay Anderson - paying their respect through personal stories of how they've come to fall in love with Ozu's films or how they have affected their lives. Wim Wenders was especially enamored, keeping a little shrine in his office containing a sake flask that was once belonged to Ozu given to him through Chishu Ryu, a veteran Ozu actor. Naturally, after watching all the praise I was moved to watch another Ozu film.

I have only seen Tokyo Story, maybe his best-known film, often regarded as his masterpiece, and I Was Born But..., a silent film. The themes throughout Ozu's work remains largely the same - dramas with slight comedy about a family, usually involving a marriage - and many times he remakes his own stories with small adjustments (I Was Born But... was later remade into Good Morning). In this way, if you see one Ozu you could say you have seen them all, yet each has its own nuances and emotional pull and thus each is unique and beautiful in its own way. It's the same with all great auteurs or artists who play with the same themes, recreating the same story in different ways; like Renoir said, "A director makes only one movie in his life. Then he breaks it into pieces and makes it again."

In any case, Late Autumn is a later Ozu film from 1960 and works with the same story as his earlier film Late Spring (there are lots of seasonal titles), in which a single parent lives with their daughter, who is of age to be married off. In Late Spring the single parent is a father played by Chishu Ryu, but in Late Autumn it is a mother, played by Setsuko Hara, who played the daughter in Late Spring (there are a lot of recurring actors, too - haha). The story revolves around the relationship between the mother and daughter, which is harmonious and loving. The conflict comes in everyone's desire to see the daughter married off, with uncles offering suitors and with friends setting up dates, who is reluctant to leave her mother.

The film goes at a slow pace, with no camera movement and many scenes in which not a lot happens, which is the first barrier to get over. Patience is required, but it is well worth it for those who give it a chance. The experience is totally different from the average Hollywood entertainment film; there are no heroes or villains, the plot is minimal, and there are no drastic actions taken. However, having the willingness to commit to what Ozu has to show is well worth it. It is a singular experience, witnessing these ordinary people who are all good with recognizable faults - inconsiderateness, impatience, stubborness - deal with ordinary situations. Since there are no evil or villainous characters, you are not trying to see someone defeated or another triumph, but instead get to consider all the different sides and points of view to every situation and for each character. Sure, the one uncle is a bit pushy, but he means well. Sure, it would be convenient if the mother remarried, but she would rather be alone.

The film left me feeling like I experienced a full life through the characters. I felt a love for humanity and at the same time a sense of mortality and even a slight despair in thinking about how life is sometimes not fair. "Yes, life is disappointing" is a quote from Tokyo Story that really struck me because it is said in a way that accepts the absurdity of life, yet is not defeated completely by it. It is said with a slow nod and a slight smile.

I look forward to seeing another Ozu sometime soon, especially over the lazy days offered me in the summer time. I HIGHLY encourage you to experience one if you haven't already. After watching one I guarantee you will feel full and content, like having slowly enjoyed a delicious meal in which you savor every bite.