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September 21, 2004

Extreme Japanese Movies

From Michael Blowhard:

Dear Blowhards --

Between ya'll and me, I've got no interest -- except as a popular-culture anthropologist -- in seeing today's big corporate American entertainments, or in taking in much of the indie drivel either. Life's 'waaaay too short. The movies that appeal to my pleasure centers nowadays tend to be classical narratives, art movies, or the hot 'n' the wild. "Van Helsing"? Puh-leeze. But an autobiographical fantasy by the loony sex-horror heiress Asia Argento? Feminist art-porn by Catherine Breillat? A beyond-solipsistic late Godard reverie? Ultra-violence run backwards? The poetic trash of Jess Franco? Bertolucci's latest X-rated art-thing? An elegiac French gangster movie? The one and only movie Robert Mitchum ever directed? Sinister poolside mindgames? A mood-drenched Wong Kar-Wai tone poem? Anything involving Vincent Gallo? Bring it on.

Recently, The Wife and I have been exploring some of the farther reaches of the Japanese cinema. Happy to admit that we've still got lots to learn -- good lord, but there's a lot to the Japanese cinema. But you can't accuse us of not trying. Here are some finds:

  • Visitor Q. The 40ish Takashi Miike is a brilliant maniac who makes four or five movies a year, yet seldom makes more than one movie in the same style. "Audition," his best-known film, suggests a splatterfest as directed by the meditative Yasujiro Ozu; it's one of the most horrifying movies I've ever seen. "Ishi the Killer" is whirling, sadistic gangster gore. I liked it a lot better than John Woo's movies, and its virtuosity and flamboyance make poor Quentin Tarantino look like an overdeliberate wannabe. "The Happiness of the Katakuris" is one of the strangest musicals ever made, an attempt to fuse a dysfunctional-family black-comedy with "The Sound of Music." The elements don't gel, to say the least, but the film is nothing if not daring.

    Though it isn't in a league with "Audition" or "Ishi," "Visitor Q" is well worth a look. It's a camp comedy about a mysterious stranger who moves in with a screwloose Japanese family. Dad's a washed-up reality-TV show host who's desperate for another hit. Sis turns tricks, Bro is routinely beaten up by his chums, and Mom gets a sexual thrill from having her breasts milked. Bodily fluids play a leading role. Sexual encounters of the strangest kind are lingered over.

    The film -- which Miike shot on next to no money, in a week, on digital video -- is like one of John Waters' grotesque-family comedies, only far more intense. It's also, at least at first, considerably more bewildering; for the film's opening 30 minutes, The Wife and I felt completely disoriented. (The Wife, a much more devoted Japanese filmbuff than I am, likes to giggle and mutter "Caucasion not understand" during such opaque passages.) But the film's storylines finally sort themselves out, and as they do the action becomes ever more nutty and funny. Here's an interview with Miike. The film is buyable here, Netflixable here.

  • Versus. More youthful Japanese brilliance. "Versus" is full of swordplay, coolness, and mysticism; it's basically about a lot of guys wearing shades, nifty haircuts, and long coats, who chase each other through a mysterious forest. It's full of blood, and limbs flying every which way -- what "Versus" suggests is a produced-on-a-shoestring mixture of "The Matrix" and "Evil Dead." Which makes me wonder: is "Evil Dead" emerging as the most influential film of the past few decades?

    "Versus" was shot for next-to-nothing over many months by friends hoping to break into the movie business; when it finally managed to get released, it became a huge surprise hit. Let's admit straight out that the film has zero traditional human content; it's nothing but two hours of grandstanding and show-offing. But what show-offing -- the director/co-writer Ryuhei Kitamura has enough energy and pizazz for a dozen filmmakers. This is rock 'n' roll filmmaking that really rocks -- and I say this as someone who generally has little time for videogame-style excitement. Here's an interview with the film's hypertalented director. The film is buyable here, Netflixable here.

  • "So why don't we just let the Asians take over the movie business?" asked The Wife after we'd spent a few weeks watching recent Japanese movies. She's got a point. How can anyone compete? The only young-ish American moviemaker I know of who has anything like the exuberance and technique of the younger Asians is Robert Rodriguez. I found his most recent film disappointing, and though I think he has an almost perfect set of pop-movie-director gifts, I often wish he'd work with a good co-writer. But it looks like his next picture, an adaptation of Frank Miller's badboy graphic novel Sin City, may be a doozy. Miller has been involved with both the film's story and its visuals; determined to share co-directing credit with Miller, Rodriguez had to give up his own DGA card to make this happen. The storylines of "Sin City" weren't much, darn it -- but god knows the comic books were, as visual experiences, far more powerful than most movies. It's good to read, then, that most of the film's action has been shot against green screens so that backgrounds can be laid in that are by Miller himself. Bruce Willis, Jessica Alba, Josh Hartnett, Mickey Rourke, and Carla Gugino star in the movie, which has been filmed in black and white and is scheduled to be released next April.


  • The films of Seijun Suzuki. Suzuki spent much of the '50s and '60 working as a contract director, grinding out the Japanese equivalent of B genre pictures. Then he got the chance to get a little loosey-goosey with some of his projects; the results earned him an underground legend, and turned him into an icon for downtown Mr. Coolguys the world over. The Wife and I watched three of these movies during the last few weeks, and they're as distinctive as they're said to be -- as stylized as Jean-Pierre Melville's gangster movies, and as shocking in their absurdist-pop visuals and rhythms as "Pierrot le Fou." They're also quite abstract, and just a wee bit hard to stay awake all the way through; though we enjoyed them, The Wife and I both snoozed off a few times during each one of these movies. I wonder why. Perhaps it's because the crackle of Suzuki's style seems so unrelated to the material he's presenting. A great movie is up onscreen, but it's one that has nothing to do with the film's script; the direction is confident, spirited, specific -- and utterly arbitrary. Still, what a fantastic style Suzuki had. Here's a q&a with Suzuki, who's now in his 80s and who recently finished a movie called "Pistol Opera" -- good title! Of the Suzukis we've seen, the most startling is the 1966 "Tokyo Drifter," which -- among many other delights -- features an eggyolk-yellow nightclub, a climactic shootout in a giant white space, a purple conference room, and a hero who whistles the movie's theme song -- the film is a masterpiece of post-modernism, though it was was made years before post-modernism became a style. The Wife had a great line about this prescient and amazing film: "It's like Suzuki was looking back on his own era." Here's an interview with Suzuki. "Tokyo Drifter" can be bought here and Netflixed here.


  • Blind Beast. Yasujo Masumura had studied law and philosophy in college and filmmaking in Rome, and he had apprenticed with Ichikawa and Mizoguchi before he began to make his own movies in the mid-1950s. His 1969 "Blind Beast" is a psychodrama that suggests early Bertolucci ("Partner," say) crossed with Butoh. It's a kinky study of a blind sculptor who, with the help of his possessive mom, kidnaps a vampy model; he's a virgin and an artist, and he wants to put his heightened sense of touch to use creating a masterpiece of sculpture. When the sexy model starts to mess with her naive captor's mind, mama-san ain't pleased, and the film's kink-factor goes into overdrive. Most of "Blind Beast" takes place in a large, stark set whose decoration consists of casts of oversize body parts, as well as two enormous soft-sculptured women's torsos. The anguished, hysterical characters, who spend a lot of time groping each other, dart and crawl around a stagey space that's like what Noguchi designed for Martha Graham -- it don't get more primal than that. My verdict is that the film's divided about 50/50 between the boringly pretentious and the entertainingly perverse. I loved an outlandish early scene, for instance, when the model spies on the sculptor, who is fondling a sculpture another artist made of the model; as the blind sculptor caresses the scupture's private spots, the model gasps and convulses as though he's touching her. Whew. It's all very '60s, but it's short, it's well-lit, it has a dozen memorable far-out moments, and Mako Midori -- who plays the self-centered, amoral model -- has a crisp Carnaby-Street-style beauty and a lot of talent. The film is buyable here, Netflixable here.

I'm no scholar of the Japanese cinema, and it's possible that better books have been published on the topic since I did my own filmbuff reading many years ago. But, and FWIW, the books I learned the most about Japanese movies from were Tadao Sato's Currents in Japanese Cinema, and Ian Buruma's Behind the Mask, a general cultural study of Japan.

Hey, and only dimly related to the above: here's an entertaining conversation between Bruce la Bruce (who I blogged about here) and the ineffably ... ineffable Asia Argento.

Best,

Michael

posted by Michael at September 21, 2004




Comments

I was just reading James Pinkerton's latest article at Tech Central Station about a new Japanese film entitled "Ghost In The Shell 2: Innocence". At least, I THINK that's what it's called. I've never heard of it. Then I come over here and see you raving about Japanese film.

Ah, serendipity!

Posted by: Michael Serafin on September 22, 2004 01:43 PM



The Japanese do have so much more interesting films than America. And don't forget to overlook animated features as well. In Japan they don't really make any distinction of animation being just for kids as we do over here. In some ways, the Japanes actually prefer the representational aspect of animation as a higher art.

If you're looking for sexy post modern Japanese films (with a good amount of incest and lesbianism), you may want to try "Utena: The Movie" (the lame english title for what was orignally called "Adolescence Apocalypse of Utena" in Japan). Veeery surreal, but it makes sense once you think about it enough. It's actually based off the earlier TV show, but the director Ikuhara made it so it could stand on its own.

Posted by: Zetjintsu on September 22, 2004 04:16 PM



Heh, I have to agree that the Japanese have more interesting films than the US as well. Battle Royale is great.
I also recommend Berserk, but the manga is much better than the anime DVD version (awe-inspiring versus very good, respectively).

Posted by: . on September 22, 2004 09:21 PM



Not having seen any of these films I'd like to say something general about film.

I don't think I've seen any film in the last few years that has really stuck in my head. They've all faded immediately or after a short time.
I think the key is lack of modesty. Not sexual modesty. Artistic modesty.

Maybe the most powerful aspect of cinema is its power to record. Unobtrusively.

Last spring I saw a French film, can't think of the title, about a teacher teaching in a one room schoolhouse in a rural region in France.
Thinking about why it affected me I keep coming back to the fact that the director held back, allowing the teacher, the children, the place to come forward, impress themselves on the viewer. No fancy cutting. Unintrusive. Long periods in which the camera is still. Simply recording.

I think that attitude will have to be relearned, if it can be relearned, before film can hope to have weight again.

Posted by: ricpic on September 23, 2004 06:54 AM



Michael -- Synchronicity! What was that song years ago: "Turning Japanese, I think we're turning Japanese"? Funny how big Japanese was, then it kinda tanked, and now (I'm guessing) it seems hip and cool again. How do these things happen?

Zentjintsu, "." -- Thanks for the recomendations. (I love "Battle Royale" too -- bizarre!) They're going on my Netflix queue.

Ricpic -- That's saying an awful lot in very few words. I think you've got one of the central things about movies, which no one talks about these days: the way reality can, under a movie lens, kind of unfold itself and give itself to us. These days we always seem to want to nail and pin things down -- it's fantasy, it's documentary. But many of the greatest filmmakers were the ones who recognized that one of the most fascinating things movies could do was invite reality to give itself up to us. What's happened to that? Come to think of it, what has happened to that approach? Have you seen any movies recently where that particular magic was happening?


Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 23, 2004 03:23 PM



Michael - The film I wrote about is Etre et Avoir (To Be and To Have). If you google under the title there is a good BBC review.

The film is an excellent example of "the magic" that happens when reality is allowed to "give itself up to us."

Posted by: ricpic on September 24, 2004 10:36 AM






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