Japanese Classics I

I am coursing through a rich vein of classic Japanese films. Using this list as reference, I intend to watch at least 20 and perhaps a few others that I have heard a lot about. Prior embarking on this project, I have already seen Tokyo Story, Seven Samurai, High and Low, Rashômon, Throne of Blood and Audition. So I will skip musing about these 6 films, even though they are all amazing films.

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Kwaidan (怪談, literally “strange stories”) is a 1964 Japanese anthology horror film directed by Masaki Kobayashi. The film consists of four separate and unrelated stories. It won the Special Jury Prize at the 1965 Cannes Film Festival, and received an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. I thoroughly enjoy this anthology. The ghosts are not the scary type. These supernatural beings co-exist with the human beings much like Liao Zhai stories. Then the humans will do something that tips the delicate balance. I love how Kobayashi shot the movie in sets with painted backdrops. He controls the lighting so well. The stories are tremendously satisfying. My fave is definitely the third story – a blind monk is visited by the ghost of a samurai every night and he is then brought to a ‘palace’ filled with ghosts to perform his musical odes. Beautiful and terrifying at the same time. That’s two adjectives that seldom exist together in films. The last story is also twisted and needs a bit of unpacking, especially with the Inception-like narrative. Masterpiece!

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Woman in the Dunes (1964) is directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara and stars Eiji Okada and Kyōko Kishida. The premise is fascinating. See if you are still reading once I am done. A teacher dude goes to the dunes to photograph insects and to catch them. He rests in the sun after a day of bug hunting. A friendly villager comes along and asks what his business there. The sun is setting and the dude gets ready to leave, but the kind villager tells him he has missed the last bus and if he doesn’t mind he can take him to another’s villager’s home to rest for the night and he can grab a bus the next day. The offer is taken up. Here comes the first weird one – the wooden house is situated below a deep sandpit. The dude climbs down a rope ladder and he greeted by the lone occupant, a nice-looking woman. He grabs dinner and engages in small talk. Nothing else happens…. yet. In the middle of the night he is woken up by weird noises. He walks out of the ramshackle house and sees the woman shovelling sand. He is dumbfounded and asks whether she needs help and she replies “No, I never ask anyone to help me on the first day.” Of course, the dude never gets to leave and he is forced to stay in the sandy prison to shovel sand every night for the rest of his life. But does he?

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OMG! I was sucked in like quicksand. It feels like an extended Twilight Zone episode. Weirdness, check. Characters speaking weirdness in all earnestness, check. There is no clever nod towards the viewer. Everything feels real and surreal at the same time. The B&W cinematography is spellbinding. I have never seen insects and sand photographed in this beguiling way. I was entranced and couldn’t tear my eyes away. Teshigahara didn’t just make a weird film like David Lynch; there is a much higher purpose to it and he nails it. I will not prescribe what the lessons are because I feel the lessons are different for everyone.

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Harakiri (1962) is directed by Masaki Kobayashi. The story takes place between 1619 and 1630 during the Edo period and the reign of the Tokugawa shogunate. It tells the story of Hanshirō Tsugumo, a warrior without a lord. At the time, it was common for masterless samurai, or rōnin, to request to commit seppuku (hara kiri) in the palace courtyard in the hope of receiving alms from the remaining feudal lords.

This is a bonafide masterpiece and it is also very relevant in our cynical times. Actually, I first saw Takeshi Miike’s remake but that lacks the grace and poise of Kobayashi’s epic. I love the film’s narrative structure and it uses the flashback plot device brilliantly. Each flashback lending so much empathetic power and melancholy to scenes in the present. The sword fights are of course simple affairs but the story has the depth of a bottomless abyss. The storytelling is multilayered and very compelling. In the end the ronin won every argument and it leaves no doubt in my mind he won every battle, but Kobayashi crafted an ending like a punch into my guts. The poor ronin looks to have died for nothing. Or did he? The theme of going against the corrupt authorities with one’s all is the heartbeat of the narrative. It is a sombre yet poignant portrayal of established hypocrisy. While those in authority did not hesitate to enforce the Bushido code on everybody who do wrong, they also found it justifiable to use every excuse and cover-up to avoid theirs. Tell me that’s not relevant in these times.

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