Stray Dog

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The first noir crime film in Japan, in Kurosawa’s Stray Dog (1949) rookie detective, Murakami, gets his pistol stolen while he’s riding a crowded bus. Humiliated, Murakami (Mifune) takes responsibility for his carelessness and begs his boss to fire him. The pragmatic boss brushes his request away and pairs the rookie with a veteran detective (Shimura) named Sato. The two set out to track down the pistol.

Plagued by guilt, Mifune is obsessed with finding his pistol and disguises himself to search the black markets of aprés-guerre Tokyo. We see the squalor and darkness of these markets (which aren’t quite as bad as the poverty in Dos’ka den). These scenes are beautifully and masterfully shot to show this underworld full of hustlers, prostitutes, bums and drunks.

Aprés-guerre is a term Murakami and Sato discuss at length as Sato notices the difference between the pre-WWII generation and the aprés-guerre generation. A WWII veteran, Murakami expresses his sympathy and understanding for the culprit whom he imagines is a product of a rough society. Yusa, the thief, also is a veteran so Murakami identifies with him and knows how the war damaged the soldiers.

However, Sato tells him that thinking is generational and won’t help a cop do his work. If a cop’s philosophy views a criminal as being without choice or responsibility, the officer just won’t be able to work as he should, Sato asserts. Sato reminds Murakami that he’s chosen law and order, while Yusa’s chosen exploitation and crime. There is a difference, a big one.

As time passes, the missing gun is used in robberies and a murder. Murakami knows the pistol had all seven bullets and the plot becomes a race to get to the gun. In this race, the heroes’ search takes us through Japanese society from local watering holes, to a packed baseball field, to a burlesque hall, to a filthy shanty and to Sato’s simple, loving home. Along the way we’re treated to Sato’s wise practice.  It’s fascinating to see him deal with each subject, be it a showgirl or a pickpocket, with just the right approach. His understanding of people makes chasing and shootouts unnecessary.

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I learned about Stray Dog from the commentary feature with the Drunken Angel DVD. Mifune and Shimura starred in Drunken Angel. Here they both play completely different characters. Mifune moves from angry gangster to exemplary rookie cop and Shimura shifts from righteous drunk doctor to wise, veteran cop. Another pivotal performance was given by Keiko Awaji, who plays a showgirl, an uncooperative witness. In the extra features, Awaji explains how she didn’t want to be in this or any film. She wanted a career in operettas, but she got talked into this role. She was terribly pouty and unpleasant about the filming process and this difficult attitude made her performance work.

I never intended to get into Japanese films as much as I have. I now have been so impressed with the performances that it’s clear that it’s high time I learn the names of these actors.

Here’s a compilation of Mifune’s performances:

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That Night’s Wife

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The father’s over acting the “bad guy” too much for my taste

Directed by Ozu, That Night’s Wife is one of his early silent films. The film quality is often blotchy, which was distracting at times and the it does seem that Ozu is figuring out his craft, so this isn’t a “must-see” film.

The story is about a man who’s pursued by the police for a robbery, which we don’t see. The man evades the police and gets home to his family, which consists of his wife and his young daughter, who’s critically ill and may not make it. They live in a small, squalid apartment, which for some reason has several old movie posters with English and Russian titles leaning against their walls. I suppose this was a homage to Ozu’s idols, but I’m not sure.

Clad in a kimono, the wife talks with the girl’s doctor. If Michiko, the daughter, makes it through the night, she’ll be fine. The devoted father does get home and gives his wife the money for Michiko’s medicine. The wife figures out that the money’s stolen and there’s some disagreement about that. However, the dispute’s not resolved as a police officer comes to the door. The husband hides, but is found. The night wears on as they all watch sleeping Michiko hoping she lives. The cop is sympathetic to the family but also has to do his duty.

The film was quite melodramatic and by 1930, I’d have thought any director would seek more subtlety, but no.  All in all, there were some surprises, but this was done before Ozu hit his stride. While the wife takes some surprising action, I’m still not sure why this movie is entitled This Night’s Wife.

Sisters of the Gion

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While Memoirs of a Geisha painted a romantic portrait of geisha living in a Japanese Cinderella story, Sisters of Gion gives viewers a realistic view. Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi, who’s fond of creating films about vulnerable women, the Sisters of Gion we see are the older, trusting Umekichi and the more perceptive, jaded O-Mocha. Umekichi’s patron has gone flat broke. He has to sell his store and his family has to move back to his wife’s hometown in disgrace. The wife isn’t the least bit happy about the shame that accompanies this fall.

The patron, Furusawa-san, accepts Umekichi’s offer to put him up. O-Mocha is incredulous and miffed. Doesn’t Umekichi realize that they’re just barely scrimping by? How can they take in a penniless former merchant? Quiet Umekichi ignores her younger sister, occasionally saying something about tradition or being good to people.

O-Mocha is the practical sister. She realizes that her sister needs a new patron, pronto and to get one she’ll need to be seen in an exquisite kimono at a top level party. O-Mocha gets her sister the needed invitation and figures out how to hustle an assistant in a kimono shop to help her sister. Later when the shop assistant is found out, O-Mocha cozies up to the shop owner who she wants to be her patron.

O-Mocha sees the geisha life for what it is — a way for men to have young playthings. It’s not a path she appears to have chosen, but she’s determined not to be a victim in the system, if that’s a possibility in a male dominated society.

The film was absorbing and often beautiful. I admired O-Mocha’s spunk and wished her sister would take some of her advice. It’s a classic, I’d love to see again.

My Tomorrow, Your Yesterday

On my way back to the US in June, I saw the 2016 film, My Tomorrow, Your Yesterday, which has a very curious plot. The story is about time and how one character’s future is the other’s past. I’ve never seen this premise before and it did make my head spin, but the actors’ charm kept me engaged.

The story is about a young woman and man who meet once every five years. When she was 5, he was 35 and he saved her from drowning. Most of the film is about their brief encounter when they’re both 20. They fall for each other, but he’s headed to the past and she’s headed to the future. It’s the ultimate impossible romance. Their memories are completely out of sync and as time passes they both grow melancholy as they realize why they’re made for each other, but can never be together. As the film progresses, he’ll remember that she suddenly cried as they were having a great time by the riverside. Later he realizes that she cried because she realized the passing of time. At first she knows what’s going on and later he catches on.

It’s all very weird and I kept trying to figure out if or how they were breaking the rules of physics. Yet I was entertained. If you have patience for a plot that’s like no other, check out My Tomorrow, Your Yesterday.

Crazed Fruit

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When I picked Crazed Fruit (1956) out at the library, I had no idea what it was about our who the director, Ko Nakahira was. Until recently, the only directors I knew were Ozu and Kurosawa. I’ve learned Japan has produced many masterful filmmakers.

Crazed Fruit takes place in the late 1950s when Japan is getting prosperous, at least the elite are. The main characters are two brothers from a wealthy family. The brothers, Natsuhisha and Haruji, spend their summer with their fellow rich kids gambling, smoking, drinking, fighting and going after girls. Another occupation is complaining about how their college professors know nothing and how their futures are meaningless. While it’s becoming an economic wonder, Japan doesn’t offer any outlet for their passions.

When the brothers arrive at the train station en route to their pal’s summer house, they see Eri, a beautiful, alluring young woman. Haruji, who’s the young, innocent brother, is smitten, but his brother, who’s quite the lover boy, pulls him away so they can hurry over to their friends.

The next day while out on a boat, they notice a girl in the water. It turns out to be Eri. Soon both boys are smitten and don’t really care or, in the case of Haruji, know, that Eri’s married to a much older, prosperous Western man.

Haruji innocently courts Eri, who always has an excuse why she can’t be picked up at home. The scenes with Haruji and Eri are tastefully sensual. The camera captures their desire as they lie next to each other sunbathing on the rocks by the sea in a way that’s exquisite. It’s a much more compelling than any sex scene I’ve seen in 10 years or more. Nakahira is a master, who deserves to be studies by every filmmaker and film lover.

Soon Natsuhisha becomes obsessed with Eri. He finds her house and sees her husband. He promises to keep her Western husband a secret from Haruji if Eri will have sex with him. She agrees. Eri’s character is hinted at rather than well defined. She’s a mystery and unlike other characters. She’s insulted and angry, but also willing. Natsuhisha exudes animal chemistry and she finds him more than satisfying in the bedroom. Eri seems to want to keep her three men, to keep those relationships separate, but to keep them. Of course, this is impossible

The film, which is based on a novel by Ishihara, broke new ground in depicting sensuality and the abandonment of traditional morality among rich youth. At the time, though people’s own mores had changed, film had not. Japanese films tended to uphold traditional morals. While the tragic ending in Crazed Fruit certainly doesn’t promote the lifestyle or choices of the idle rich, it did shock the elders at the cinema.

Crazed Fruit was conceived and produced to be a low budget, teen flick that would cash in at the box office. The story, in Nakahira’s hands, is a beautiful classic.

The Criterion Collection offers two thoughtful essays on Crazed Fruit. The commentary by Japan film expert Donald Richie greatly enhances the film as he explains the social context and context of this film within Japanese filmmaking.

 

March Comes in Like a Lion

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Based on a popular manga series, March Comes in Like a Lion and it’s sequel March Goes Out Like a Lamb takes viewers inside the world of shoji, Japanese chess.

Orphaned at 8 years old when a car accident kills his parents and sister, Rei Kiriyama is adopted by his father’s friend, who’s a competitive shoji player. The only way to get love or at least attention in the house is through shoji. Red soon proves to have a knack for the game, which is a mixed blessing because his adoptive sister and brother become hostile towards him when he beats them and they can’t take it.

Rei’s talent leads to his winning and becoming pro before he graduates high school. With his winnings he’s able to support himself and move out. Yet his evil step sister hounds him like a vicious ghost who won’t go away no matter where Rei tries to run.

Rei is soon taken in by three sisters who’ve lost their parents. The girls and their grandfather run a traditional sweet shop and provide the warm family life Rei craves.

The story does not require knowledge of the rules or ins and outs of shoji.I know nothing of the game, but did get caught up in the competition as Rei strives to dethrone the champion, an adulterous egotist that his stepsister has been dating.

The Bad Sleep Well

Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well blew me away. It’s not one of his most famous films, but it’s packed with power. I learned of The Bad Sleep Well via Tony Zhou’s Every Frame a Picture channel where Zhou analyzes Kurosawa’s effective placement of actors.

The film opens with reporters and detectives invading the wedding between the handsome apparently straight as an arrow Nishi to Yoshiko, the pretty and disabled daughter of CEO Iwabuchi, whose corrupt deals caused Nishi’s father’s suicide. Nishi has positioned himself in Iwabuchi’s corporation as his assistant and married into the clan to exact revenge for his father’s death.

Disrupted by the appearance of a wedding cake that looks like the building Nishi’s father killed himself and by the arrest of a loyal, timid employee indicate the disaster of the marriage. Nishi has spent five years trying to get into Iwabuchi’s inner circle to expose the kickbacks and violence that fueled the success of Public Corporation. Iwabuchi and his colleagues are cold blooded, willing to goad their employees to suicide if it helps them keep their dirty cash flowing in.

While the film differs from hamlet, there are many intended parallels. Nishi’s obsessed with his father’s death. Yoshiko is very much like Ophelia and she meets no better end. While Nishi’s mother never married, Kurosawa uses gray flannel ghosts to freak out his characters.

The evils of corporate greed have bene a common theme in modern film Somehow Kurosawa, while showing blatant, unrepentant evil, doesn’t seem to have exaggerated. The executives and their conniving seem all too real.

Every scene had me riveted and the ending was a complete surprise, though it was perfect. It’s a film the I won’t soon forget.