Japanese Classics VII

Continuing my journey of Japanese classic films…

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Mikio Naruse’s When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960) is a story about a middle-aged bar hostess, constantly in debt, who is faced with numerous social constraints and challenges posed to her by her family, customers and friends. The movie has a strong sense of place and time. It is a window into the not so glitzy world of seedy bars in Ginza. We get to see how one hostess named Keiko finds it so hard to stay true in a sea of hypocrisy. The film illustrates a vicious life cycle of disappointments and in Hideko Takamine, Naruse finds an actress at the top of her game with not an ounce of manipulativeness in her unforced acting. This is an outstandingly quiet film with resounding power. (4 / 5)

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Set in the small port town Yokosuka in post-war Japan, Shohei Imamura’s Pigs & Battleships follows a young hustler named Kinta, who dreams of saving enough and proving to his family and friends that he isn’t a loser. Kinta has a girlfriend, who isn’t happy that he is hanging around with the local yakuza, which is why she constantly begs him to find a normal job. But all of the normal jobs are in Kawasaki. In Yokosuka, there are only bars, brothels and lousy restaurants, servicing the U.S. personnel from a nearby Navy base. To make money one has to be with the local yakuza, selling drugs, pimping, or killing for them.

Imamura veers the film into black humour region and scores every time. In Hiroyuki Nagato and Jitsuko Yoshimura, he finds his perfect protagonists, trapped in societal constraints. I find it so easy to feel their pain and share their joy. The climatic scene of rampaging pigs is hilarious and inventive; I can’t remember the last time I saw something like this involving a herd of animals with zero CGI. In the midst of all the black humour is a disquieting poignancy. The last scene as the camera pulls out to look at the entire seaside town is just stupendous; more so as Yoshimura takes the road less travelled by. I celebrated her triumph as she leaves the God forsaken town. Brilliant film. (4.5 / 5)

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Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba (1964) is a historical drama horror film. The film is set during a civil war in the fourteenth century. Nobuko Otowa and Jitsuko Yoshimura play two women who kill soldiers to steal their possessions. The film is disturbing and disarming; it felt like I was watching a telling of a parable. It strips humans right down to the core and expose the most feral and selfish side of them. Shot in haunting and glorious black and white, the scenes of bending reeds are wondrous to look at. The film is hypnotic all the way to an open ending that begs for a discussion with enthusiastic like-minds. (4 / 5)

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