29 June 2008


My Japanese New Wave festival has ended. I ended up deciding not to watch In the Realm of the Senses; despite a slight curiosity to see what all the hoopla's about, I was worn thin from having seen too many Japanese films. In the end, I am glad I watched all these different films successively, getting some insight into some new Japanese directors and auteurs. I even found a director, Teshigahara, who I feel like I have some special resonance with. I went so far as to buy and read the novel Woman in the Dunes (which was also especially fantastic), and a box-set collection of his films (a new treasure). Though, I did see some other films I did not write about - The Pornographers and Double Suicide, both good in their own way - I will dispense from reviewing them to save the few readers of this blog from boredom. Anyway, what I really want to talk about it Pixar's newest gem, WALL-E.

My expectations for this film were already quite high, having read some positive reviews and maintaining a nearly infallible trust in a certain level of quality that the Pixar/Disney film have seemed able to keep up. Even so, the film took me surprise not only by how much I enjoyed it, but by deep and complex were its ideas and themes.

As many probably know by now, the film centers around a little trash compactor robot named WALL-E (an acronym of some sort) who outlasted all of the other mass-produced replicas on Earth, probably from having a heart and personality, and lives alone with a cockroach, going about his endless Sisyphusean task of cleaning up the mess humans left behind. The humans are all on a giant space craft, originally a temporary plan until Earth could be cleaned up, and stay there for 700 years. They devolved into lazy, fat creatures not unlike giant babys, slurping meals from straws and with a tiny screen constantly in front of their face. Eventually WALL-E finds a plant growing in an old refrigerator, which sets off a large chain of events and introduces some new characters, including WALL-E's love interest EVE and a good-hearted manbaby ship captain.

What really makes WALL-E work is the earnestness and purity of WALL-E's character as well as his simplicity. Numerous comparisons have already been made with Chaplin and WALL-E, but it is worth noting the similarities in the way they get at our hearts. The sentimentalism, though even predictable at times, is always so sincere that we can't help but be moved. The way, for instance, WALL-E understands EVE's need to secure the plant he finds and struggles to help her do so at the expense of himself echoes the way in which the Little Tramp tries to raise money for the sake of the operation for the blind girl he loves in City Lights. The comparison also works because a large portion of WALL-E is "silent," that is, it doesn't have any voices in it for almost the first third of the movie. This first segment is a beautiful examination of the loneliness and solidarity with which WALL-E lives on Earth. Despite his absurd condition, WALL-E finds meaning and purpose through little knick knacks he finds and through his Hello, Dolly! tape (and NOT simply because he is programmed to do so, as we find out, WALL-E is not an ordinary robot); WALL-E is the absurd hero! This segment also contains WALL-E's courtship of the cool EVE, which is both sweet and hilarious and reminds me of any number of the Little Tramp's attempts at love with women out of his league.

Though seemingly simplistic, the film deals with some very pertinent issues of corporate conglomerates (everything is owned by a corporation called Big-N-Large, whose CEO seems to also be the president), resource wasting, dependency on technology and laziness, an irresponsible president, and our responsibility to take care of our planet. These issues are not delivered in a scolding manner, but are mixed with warm humor and irony. Though at first I thought it was so bold for them to make all humans fat, baby-like and lazy, they later show that these same humans are in essence good-hearted and mean well.

In total, WALL-E is a terrific movie and one whose purity of heart and beauty of image, not to mention timelessness of characterization, offer a breath of fresh air in a summer filled with high-budget trash and mindlessness (yes, Wanted, I'm talking about you).

22 June 2008

Nadakai Visits NYC

Yesterday I went into the city for a book signing at Kinokuniya bookstores near Bryant Park where Tatsuya Nakadai and Teruyo Nogami were signing books and other things. Tatsuya Nakadai is a world-famous Japanese actor whose popularity and renown is only rivaled by Toshiro Mifune. The Film Forum is doing a retrospective on many of his films for the next two months and so he's visiting for a bit, accompanied by Teruyo Nogami, Kurosawa's longtime script girl and all-around assistant.

When I got to the bookstore I was a few minutes late so I had to stand in the back. There weren't too many people, but everyone was in awe of Mr. Nakadai, making me feel a bit sorry for Ms. Nogami, who didn't receive any questions or comments aside from one during the brief Q & A session. Most of the questions were general things geared towards Nakadai - "You were in the Seven Samurai for only a few seconds, why?" "How was transitioning from stage acting to film acting for you?" - and general praise - "I've waited 30 years to see ____, and it was well worth it. Thank you." - which Nogami and Nakadai received well enough and mostly answered in their responses (except when Nakadai stood up to answer the Seven Samurai question, he went on ab out the first time he met Nogami, not answering the question at all. Maybe in an attempt to redirect attention towards her or maybe just to be silly.)

I have already read the book Nogami wrote and was promoting, Waiting on the Weather, a collection of memories she had in working with Kurosawa and on her life within the movie business. Some of the stories are very entertaining and insightful while others seem like hero-worship-type praise for her heroes. In any case, I got the book signed (actually Marlo did as I stood in the Nakadai line, which was ten times longer) and then got my DVD booklets signed by Nakadai, one for Harakiri and one for Ran, a movie that means a lot to me. Nogami also signed the back of my Ran booklet. Catherine Cadou was there to interpret.

I managed to take a few pictures, as did Marlo:

11 June 2008

Teshigahara, Where Have You Been All My Life?

Recently I watched Hiroshi Teshigahara's Woman in the Dunes, an art-house film adaptation of Kobo Abe's novel (who also wrote the screenplay) made in 1964. I threw Teshigahara on the list for my Japanese New Wave festival because he fit in the time period and seemed to at least be contemporaneous with the New Wave (he started making films in 1962). However, Teshigahara seems at odds with the New Wave since he was independent from a studio and since his aesthetics and content seem to be derived much more from the high-brow art world, probably largely due to the significant literary content of a world-renown literary figure such as Abe. Regardless, parallels can be made in terms of themes of identity and sexuality, but I'd rather just say what I liked about the film in itself.

The allegorical content of the film at first set me off: a man gets trapped in a sand dune with a woman where they have to constantly shovel sand in order to survive in a Sisyphus-like situation. The heavy symbolism, I feared, would be didactic or obvious and boring, but I was immediately taken aback at how intrigued I was with the film from the very beginning. The sheer beauty of the striking images and black and white photography is the biggest and most prominent source of pleasure; it is just so wonderful to look at. The beginning sequence starts on an extreme close-up of a grain of sand and then cuts in successively longer shots until we see a sea of shifting, rolling sand. Teshigahara manages to invoke so much lyrical beauty in the shifting sand in the way it moves that it almost makes it seem as if it was the third character in the film (aside from the man and woman).

Paired with the excellent photography is the production design and art direction of the shack in which woman and man live. The broken planks of wood and hanging umbrellas give a skewered geometric feeling, invoking traditional Japanese-style homes, but making them oddly off-center and chaotic. Within these spaces, playing with various angles and lights and shadows, Teshigahara and his cinematographer Hiroshi Segawa are able to make striking Wellesian images that continue to keep us interested despite the claustrophobic and non-changing setting.

The film stars Eiji Okada, who I've seen in Resnais' Hiroshima mon amour, and who has a great presence on the screen, especially for this particular role as a pathetic, arrogant, and conflicted entomologist. He is a man from the "outside" world, meaning outside of the sand dunes, yet he is an outsider within the outside world he lives in - he seems to be lonely and without many friends, he collects bugs and his only goal in life seems to be to discover a new beetle in order to get his name in a book; when he goes missing he eventually becomes doubtful whether anyone will actually come look for him. Kyoko Kishida plays the woman who is timid, and thus made very Japanese, yet strong-minded and sensual. Though she takes much verbal abuse from the man, it is she who lured him and thus it is really she who is in control. Though she seems to need a man for practical reasons of helping to shovel the sand, there is a repressed and intense sexuality within her that is eventually released in a poetically filmed sequence.

There is a lot to be discussed in the film in terms of what the allegory is for exactly (we are trapped, but from what?), how the woman is portrayed, how much of it is Japanese and how much of it is universal, the literature of the film verse the filmic qualities, etc. etc. In the end, however, I felt like I experienced a wholly satisfying work, probably contending as one of my all-time favorite films for its aesthetic beauty, its philosophical weight, and its ability to engage and entertain despite obvious restrictions. Oh! and not mention the score by Toru Takemitsu, which has discordant violin and Japanese percussion that stunningly help create mood in a striking manner.

I greatly look forward to seeing Teshigahara's other work (Face of Another and Pitfall are available in the same box set), feeling like I've found a director that I've been able to intellectually and emotionally resonate with instantly for the first time in a long time.

04 June 2008

Masumura and Mishima

In continuation of my mini-Japanese New Wave film festival I watched a couple of movies from filmmaker Yasuzo Masumura. I stumbled upon Masumura pretty much by accident in Donald Richie's Hundred Years of Japanese Film, not having heard of him before. From the little bit I could come up with on Google, he was apparently a key figure for the new generation of filmmakers in Japan, one of the rare few who had Oshima's approval, though he is little known in the West.

The first film I watched of his was Giants and Toys, an incredibly over-the-top black comedy about corporate Japan focusing on the competition between three caramel candy companies and their promotional campaigns. The story shifts around a mostly boring character named Nishi (which is also the same name for Mifune's character in The Bad Sleep Well, another corporate slave in Kurosawa's own take-down on corporate life - this comparison is actually pretty interesting and worth looking into more) who is in an assistant position for the promotional campaign of World Candy. His best friend, we find out, works for one rival candy company and his love interest works for the other; betrayal, lust, and greed galore. The real main character, however, is Kyoko, a slum girl who is picked up by World Candy to become their new spokesperson/mascot with her incredibly sweet smile and rotten teeth (from eating candy!). As the story progresses we see the companies tear each other apart and Kyoko rise unscathed.

Giants and Toys really surprised me in the way it made its social critique so forcefully and with such lack of reserve. The corporate big cats are greedy, ruthless assholes, sure, but it seems like there's no one who isn't guilty for their greed or turning a blind eye. There are street shots of the average citizen or groups of such-like people, but these are the ones who end up buying the candy, who eat up Kyoko's picture in the magazines, and essentially help fuel the corporate machine. Who are the good guys in this picture? Kyoko could be seen as one - an innocent girl who rose to stardom out of luck and sass - but by the end I'm not sure if her coming out of the slum girl cocoon into diva status is really a good thing. There is one character, World's publicity head's father-in-law (nepotism in big business? sure), who is one of the big bosses, but is elderly and starting to see the hypocrisy and backstabbing he himself helped build up, like a type of corporate Lear. His protestations, though earnest and seemingly the only source of reason, come a little too late in his life.

The workplace, with everyone wearing suits and ties, and capitalist environment depicted is a result of American influence after the war and it is America that is really being attacked here as well as Japan. "Japan is America" is said at one point when someone questions whether Japanese children will react to certain promotional tricks the same way American kids do. Later, World's head promotional director in defense of his ruthlessness says to Nishi, "Don't blame me, blame Japan!" The idea is that the Japanese character trait of reliance on (and even pride in) a sort of unified national identity has taken a turn for the worse and has become an excuse for failing to overcome mass corruption.

A little less interesting as a film, but still interesting as a historical document is the second film I saw called Afraid to Die. The film stars the internationally known Japanese writer and celebrity Yukio Mishima. Mishima is of incredible interest in himself alone, regardless of his work. He was a public figure who was at once intellectual yet physical, traditional yet sexually experimental, private and exhibitionist. He was constantly urging for power to go back to the emperor and formed his own private army of imperialists, insisting on the samurai way as the true way of life. He had a particular fascination with death and spent the last fifteen years of his life working out and building up his body. He eventually committed harakiri (disemboweled himself) in 1970.

As part of the shaping of his public image, Mishima decided to try acting, insisting on certain elements in the screenplay: he could wear a black leather jacket, it would be a yakuza picture, and he would die in the end (spoiler alert? eh, not really). The film in itself is nothing fantastic and I think Masumura had trouble with Mishima (though they were former schoolmates) and his demands. It is really interesting to be watching Mishima on screen, though, and see such an enigmatic and magnetic historical personality captured on screen. His acting is incredibly self-conscious (he had no previous experience) and his body was of constant interest (this was five years after he started his intense workouts). In the film he is constantly hitting woman and sleeping with whoever he pleases, yet his masculinity is questionable as he is so short and small a person, despite his muscle tone (also questionable since his sexuality was always in question). Also, throughout the whole film he is basically hiding out from a rival yakuza gangster, making no real assertive moves against him; basically he's a coward. The plethora of contradictions seems quite fitting for Mishima the person and give the film some weight in terms of historical interest. Beyond that, however, the film is kind of dull and probably does not fit into the New Wave aesthetic I was aiming to experience. Anyway, it was worth a shot.