The Living Magoroku

cdotaiofhyuttkgzilvy8q4mvei6tg_smallMade and set during WWII, Kinoshita’s The Living Magoroku didn’t wow me. Though the film begins with an action-packed sequence of a samurai, the rest of the film wasn’t on par with his Morning for the Osone Family or Port of Flowers. 

In a nutshell, generations ago the Magoroku family’s field was the site of a bloodbath. They believe a legend that says they shouldn’t plow or cultivate this land. Moreover, the living Magoroku’s believe that their eldest male child will die early. This belief has currently haunted the oldest son, who’s coughs a lot and has some psychosomatic condition. The widowed mother won’t let her daughter marry just in case the son does die. This curse or legend is still strong.

One of the villagers believes that the 72 acre field should be cultivated for food. Japan is in the midst of a war and would benefit from using fertile land.

Keeping this land fallow and the efforts to get the Magoroku’s to change their mind, leads to a a couple engagements getting put on hold.

I would say the film does show how films were used in the war effort, how they tried to persuade the audience to sacrifice. Yet the oldest son’s acting as rather stiff and the story wasn’t as engaging as what I’ve seen from Kurosawa or Ozu. There are better Japanese films to invest your time in.

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Sweet Bean (An)

Though I can’t stand Japanese sweet bean paste, the movie Sweet Bean is another story.  Loner Senato runs a snack shop in Tokyo where he makes and sells pancakes stuffed with sweet bean paste when one day Tokue, a cute old lady, comes along and begs for a job. She begs to for a job, but he’s sure at 76 she’s unable to do the lifting and hard work he needs.

When she comes by again bearing a batch of the most incredibly delicious sweet bean paste Sentaro has ever tasted, he relents and hires her. The next morning she’s there at 4 am to make the beans replacing the canned glop used before. Soon there’s a line around the block for the snacks.

Wakana, a student whose single mom wants her to stop studying and get a job, is drawn to this pair of loners. She shows how wonderful friendship is with someone much older. She shares her dreams and memories with Tokue and keeps Sentaro on the right path regarding sticking up for Tokue.

In the midst of the business’ success, the shop’s meddling owner pops in and insists  Sentaro fire Tokue because her knobbled hands are due to leporasy. She’s a health risk. She’s got to go.

The film goes into new territory and explores friendship, loyalty and isolation in a beautiful way. I loved this film. My only quibble is that I wanted to know what happens with Wakana. Even though I still can’t choke down a sweet bean pancake and highly recommend this movie.

Dark Horse

The documentary Dark Horse shows how a rag tag group of friends in Wales agree to pool their cash and breed a racehorse. Jan, a cleaner at a grocery store cum barmaid, has a fascination with breeding a thoroughbred. As a girl she learned to breed birds and whippets from there father. How much harder could it be to breed a race horse?

Jan’s friends and husband agree to contribute 10£ per week to the horse’s upkeep. The film consists of interviews on how Jan and the group made decisions and supported their horse Dream Alliance. Every step of the way, the group makes clever decisions to make the most of their money. For example, when choosing a trainer, Jan convinced the others that they had to get the best because a good trainer can do wonders with an average horse, but a mediocre trainer can ruin a good horse.

Dream Alliance surprises them all with his performance on the track and the film is a feel good movie with a healthy dose of realism. It’s fine for family viewing and I loved how these working class folks made a splash in the Sport of Kings.

Morning for the Osone Family

MORNING FOR THE OSONE FAMILY

Keisuke Kinoshita’s Morning for the Osone Family (1946) probably couldn’t get made today. It’s an anti-WWII film that exposes how the military and government squelched free speech and exploited citizens even when Japan was at a point when it was clear they were bound to lose.

Curiously, the film begins with the Osone family celebrating Christmas and singing “Silent Night.” After some chit chat, the eldest son is summoned by law enforcement and is soon imprisoned for writing an article that subtly questioned Japan’s militarism.

It’s a big hit for a family whose father died a while back. The mother has tried to live up to the father’s pacifist philosophy. She continues to support her second son, who’s a struggling artist, and her daughter who wants to marry for love, but now that her fiancé has been drafted, is getting pressured by her uncle to marry a scion he’s lined up.

The family unity continues to dissolve. The painter gets drafted and the daughter goes to work in an army support job. The uncle, who’s an officer and very pro-war moves into the family home with his haughty wife. Their presence, and particularly their lavish lifestyle enjoying black market goods, while most citizens starve, sickens the mother and daughter. The final straw is when the uncle urges the youngest son, who’s still in high school, to enlist in the army.

Morning for the Osone Family offers a beautiful, moving view of history. My hunch is few Japanese have seen this film, but they should. We should too. I’m glad I did.

The Eagle Huntress

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The Eagle Huntress, a documentary, follows a strong, determined 13-year-old Kazakh girl who is the first female to become an eagle hunter. Her ancestors have used eagles to hunt for generations, but the hunters were always men. This girl, named Aisholpan, has a father who realizes her special talent and courageous spirit. So he trains Aisholpan to hunt using eagles.

Not only does he teach Aisholpan all the tricks needed, but he takes her up into the mountains for her to climb out and nab a baby eaglet because a hunter must get her own eagle herself.

The Eagle Huntress takes us into the family’s life. We see their home, a yurt in the grasslands and go to her school where she and her siblings live Monday to Friday. Then when they move to a winter house, we see life there too.

Confident and strong, Aisholpan decides she wants to compete in the regional eagle hunting competition. No female has ever competed in this event. In fact, many of the men disprove of Aisholpan’s hunting.

The film is beautiful and compelling film and can appeal to all ages.  I loved the movie and think it deserves a wider audience. While the main theme is girl power, this story of hard work and courage would appeal to all.

Hidden Fortress

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The Hidden Fortress (1958) is another Kurosawa masterpiece that blew me away. Like characters from Shakespeare, two pusillanimous peasants bicker over how irritating they are to each other as they head home after escaping from a wartime prison. One stumbles upon some gold hidden in a stick in a river. An emblem on the stick shows that the gold is the fortune from the clan that lost the war. Greed overcomes the men and they start trying to get all the sticks they can. They become obsessed and go back and forth between cooperation and conflict over the gold.

This ancient, Japanese vaudeville act is soon upset when a strange man sees them hunting for the gold. Eventually, they learn he’s a legendary general who’s intent upon saving an exiled princess and returning her to safety and restoring her clan. As foolish as the peasants are, they do occasionally come up with clever ideas. The gruff general realizes their counterintuitive plan to go through enemy territory could work since no one expects them to take that route.

What follows is a story of courage and honor, peppered with outstanding action scenes, wit and just plain foolishness that made me smile. Toshiro Mifune is outstanding as the general, who’d probably love to ditch the peasants but keeps them with him just because they’d probably do more harm to his mission and themselves if left to their own devices.

The princess exudes force and honor as no other character, I can recall. Raised like a boy, she’s strong, brave and willful. Kurosawa shows that she cares for her people because she insists that the general buy one of her subjects who’s been sold to a brothel owner even though taking another person on their journey is risky. Various viewers have noted that the princess is played by an actress whose career never took off and that the performance is rather one dimensional. I see what they mean, but I don’t think that one weak performance hurt the film that much. The princess was quite compelling and not just a stereotypical character who needed saving so the story had momentum.

The one thing about the princess that puzzled me was that for some reason her eyebrows were drawn on at 45° angles. They were very dark and dominated her face.

Like many Kurosawa films, The Hidden Fortress has great power and grab me emotionally. All in all, The Hidden Fortress is a classic that’s not to be missed. It inspired George Lucas when he conceived of Star Wars. 

Spirit of the Bee Hive

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Perhaps I missed something, but The Spirit of the Bee Hive confounded me. A story about Anna, a young girl living in a village in Spain, who sees a Frankenstein film and gets obsessed with figuring out why Frankenstein killed a girl who had tried to play with him.  She asks her older sister, who’s probably 7 or 8 years old, and gets a fanciful response which sends her on a mission to find Frankenstein in a local field.

Because I don’t know much about Spanish history and couldn’t understand the context a lot of the film was beyond me. Moreover, the family was so alienated. The parents spent little time with each other or with their children. There were some touching scenes, but as a whole the parents seemed distant and lived in their own heads. The kids were allowed to wander wherever including along and on railroad tracks. They’d put their ears to the tracks to determine if a train was approaching. That made me tense, but on the suspense scale, I wanted something more.

At one point a man who’s been shot jumps off the train and makes his way to the abandoned barn in the desolate field where Ana seeks her Frankenstein. We never learn his story. Ana innocently cares for him and brings him food and tends as best she can to his wound. He never says much. One day after she leaves him some food and starts for home gunfire takes the man out. We never learn the source of the bullets. Since Ana’s given the victim her father’s jacket with his watch in the pocket, her father is questioned by police. We never hear what’s said and never does the father talk to Ana about her actions. So much is left to the imagination and without understanding of Spanish modern history and its impact on the culture, I couldn’t appreciate this film.

The father was a beekeeper and scholar and there’s plenty of bee hive patterns, like the windows shown above. Still I really never got the significance of the title. I was going to watch some of the extras on Disc 2, but I figured I didn’t want to spend the time digging deeper in the hope of possibly understanding an opaque film.

Ana is blessed with the most beautiful, arresting eyes and they’re well photographed. Her sister is pretty as well. Seeing how they’re captured on film was the best part of this movie. For the most part, the emotionally distant characters left me cold.