Japanese Classics VI

Continuing my movie journey of Japanese classics… I love these films. There is something about the simple framing, the subtle storytelling, the obviousness of the plot-points that is so captivating. Sometimes I wonder did storytelling in cinema even improve since then. With the following three films I hit 18/30 of the list.

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Pale Flower (1964) is a Japanese crime film directed by Masahiro Shinoda. The film is about Muraki (Ryo Ikebe) a Yakuza hitman just released from prison. At an illegal gambling parlor, he finds himself drawn to a mysterious young woman named Saeko (Mariko Kaga). Though Saeko loses large sums of money, she asks Muraki to find games with larger and larger stakes. The two become involved in an intense mutually destructive relationship.

This is a crime noir genre film. Dense with atmosphere and has two uber-cool characters. The camera work is sublime and it is heavily influenced by the French New Wave, but Shinoda puts his own existential-cool stamp on the film. It has a couple of standout suspense sequences – a foot chase in the back alley and a climatic Godfather-like assassination which is scored by an aria from Henry Purcell’s opera, “Dido and Aeneas.” I love the ambience in the long gambling sequences; so much sexual tension and fraught with unknown dangers.

Noir is always characterised by a lone anti-hero who is a prisoner to the old ways. He lives by a code and his universe of one will change because something or someone will enter that room of one and caused upheaval. In the end his life will be drastically changed, usually ending in his death. Muraki’s ending doesn’t end with death but it might as well has been. This is a great film.

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Stray Dog (1949) is a police procedural film noir directed by Akira Kurosawa and starring Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura. The film is considered a precursor to the contemporary police procedural and buddy cop film genres. When a pickpocket steals a rookie detective’s gun on a hot, crowded bus, the cop goes undercover in a desperate attempt to right the wrong. Kurosawa’s thrilling noir probes the squalid world of postwar Japan and the nature of the criminal mind.

Other than a sagging middle act, Stray Dog is a solid film. I can see Kurosawa experimenting with genre conventions but not necessarily successful in getting the right tone. The risk-taking is evident and it is a quality I have always admired in a great director and a storyteller. IMHO this is Kurosawa’s first great film and he graduated big-time with his next one, Rashomon.

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Late Spring (1949) stars Chishū Ryū, who was featured in almost all of the director’s films, and Setsuko Hara, making her first of six appearances in Ozu’s work. It is the first installment of Ozu’s so-called “Noriko trilogy”—the others are Early Summer (1951) and Tokyo Story (1953) — in each of which Hara portrays a young woman named Noriko, though the three Norikos are distinct, unrelated characters, linked primarily by their status as single women in postwar Japan.

A typical person looking at the plot of Ozu’s films will usually come away with the thinking that his films are all the same. There are not. Each of them poetically observes a family unit and how an incident will change it forever. This latest one pre-dates Early Summer which I watched first. Noriko is again of marriageable age and her father is anxious to make sure it happens. But the sacrifice he does so that it happens is heartbreaking. This is the film that will make you appreciate what your parents have done for you through the years.

I love Setsuko Hara’s Noriko, she brings that 100% winsome smile but the difference here is that the smile is a mask, a facade to hide her soul in turmoil. Marriage is a scary thing to her; she loves the status quo. But I didn’t see her in that way. I see her deep filial piety in wanting to care for her father and never to be separated with him. This is the type of daughter who is so rare nowadays. Hara plays her so well. Ozu had a very high regard for Hara’s work. He once said, “Every Japanese actor can play the role of a soldier and every Japanese actress can play the role of a prostitute to some extent. However, it is rare to find an actress [like Hara] who can play the role of a daughter from a good family.” Speaking of her performance in Early Summer, he was also quoted as saying, “Setsuko Hara is a really good actress. I wish I had four or five more like her.”

The wordless ending with the peeling of an apple hit me hard. Such eloquence and power; a sense of loneliness and inevitability permeates the entire frame. A sublime masterpiece and IMHO as masterful as Tokyo Story. Both of these films are in the “must watch before you die” and “movies that will make you become a better human being” categories.

 

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