Balm for the Soul

The Japanese poster for The Burmese Harp (1956)

In 1955 Kon Ichikawa was a well established filmmaker in Japan who was mostly known for satiric comedies like Mr. Pu (1953) and A Billionaire (1954) and the occasional literary adaptation like Young People (1952). His work was still unknown outside of his own country but that would change with his 27th film, The Burmese Harp (Japanese title: Biruma no tategoto, 1956). It would prove to be his first major critical and box office success in Japan but also one that would bring him international acclaim. “That was the first film I really felt I had to make,” Ichikawa later admitted to author and film scholar Donald Richie.   Continue reading

Beware of Japanese Cats

The avenging cat witch ghost is the star of Nobuo Nakagawa’s Black Cat Mansion aka Borei Kaibyo Yashiki (1958).

Every national cinema has their own homegrown subgenres and mythology when it comes to horror films and I think Japan has some of the most unique and bizarre creatures of all such as the hopping Umbrella ghost from Yokai hyaku monogatari (1968, aka The Hundred Monsters) or the rampaging stone idol of the Majin trilogy which began in 1966. Yet, in terms of eerie beauty and supernatural creepiness, I’m drawn to the bakeneko-mono stories from Japanese folklore with their shape-shifting cat demons and one of my favorites is Borei Kaibayo Yashiki (1958, aka Black Cat Mansion aka Mansion of the Ghost Cat).     Continue reading

Oedipus Rex in Drag

Next to William Shakespeare, Sophocles is probably the most enduring and internationally renowned dramatist in terms of his work still being adapted for the stage, television and cinema and I doubt you will find a more bizarre or outre version of his Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex than Funeral Parade of Roses. Directed by Japanese avant-garde filmmaker Toshio Matsumoto, this revelatory 1969 movie – it was his first feature film after several experimental shorts – is just as fresh and startling today as it was when it first appeared over fifty years ago.    Continue reading

Woody Allen’s Comedy Experiment

By today’s standards, it doesn’t seem like such a novel movie concept — take a low-budget film, re-dub the soundtrack adding new dialogue, music and sound effects, and create an entirely new experience. You can trace pioneers in this technique back to the syndicated TV series Fractured Flickers hosted by Hans Conried in the early sixties and maybe even before that (Fractured Flickers took silent movies and gave them new soundtracks with voices, sound effects and music). Certainly one of the more famous practitioners of this idea is Woody Allen, who explored the possibilities of redubbing found footage – in his case, a Japanese spy movie – with What’s Up, Tiger Lily? (1966).  Continue reading

Akira Kurosawa’s Record of a Living Being

The Japanese film poster for I Live in Fear (1955), directed by Akira Kurosawa and starring Toshiro Mifune.

One of the first Japanese commercial features to directly address the fear of nuclear holocaust and the implications of the atom bomb, Record of a Living Being, which is better known as I Live in Fear (1955, aka Ikimono no Kiroku) was an unusual and unexpected movie for director Akira Kurosawa. He had recently completed Seven Samurai (1954), a huge box office and critical success in both Japan and around the world, but his new work was much smaller in scale compared to that sprawling period epic.   Continue reading

Pandemonium in the Dark

In Japanese cinema, the samurai film can be many things. It can be a ghost story (Ugetsu, 1953), a rousing adventure (The Hidden Fortress, 1958), a tragic romance (Gate of Hell, 1953), a sweeping historical epic (Tales of the Taira Clan, 1955), a Shakespeare adaptation (Throne of Blood, 1957) or even a revenge saga (Chushingura, 1962). The latter is my favorite sub-genre in the category and the best samurai revenge films are usually driven by the avenger’s sense of honor being defamed and/or moral outrage at personal injustice. This is certainly the motivation behind the heroine of Lady Snowblood (1973), played by Meiko Kaji, and its sequel, Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance (1974). It is also the central premise of Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri (aka Seppuku, 1962), which is more doom-laden and brooding than the kinetic action of the Lady Snowblood films but nevertheless explodes in a bloody, sword-wielding finale. But if you want to go deeper, darker and crueler, it is hard to top Toshio Matsumoto’s Demons (aka Shura aka Pandemonium, 1971) for pure malice.   Continue reading

The Japanese Sinbad

Most moviegoers know Toshiro Mifune from his long and fruitful association with director Akira Kurosawa, most prominently Rashomon and The Seven Samurai, and a handful of major works from other directors in the Japanese cinema such as Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Life of Oharu (1952) and Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai Trilogy. But beyond his many period samurai roles and his more contemporary dramas and noirs (Drunken Angel, Stray Dog, The Bad Sleep Well), Mifune was much more than an international art house darling and award winning actor. He was a popular star and a product of the Japanese studio system just as Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy were creations of the Hollywood studio system. Like those two screen icons, Mifune also had his share of genre programmers and lowbrow general audience entertainments but The Lost World of Sinbad aka Samurai Pirate aka (1963) is one of his more enjoyable and eccentric efforts.   Continue reading

Embryonic Journey

A young Japanese butterfly collector sees a rare species in his part of Japan in Silence Has No Wings (aka Tobenai Chinmoku, 1966), directed by Kazuo Kuroki.

What happens when you take an idea for a nature documentary short about a specific type of butterfly like the Nagasaki Swallowtail (papilla memnon) and expand it into an experimental narrative feature incorporating stylistic influences of the French New Wave with allegorical and sociological overtones? The result is Silence Has No Wings (aka Tobenai Chinmoku, 1966), a visually astonishing and rarely seen film by Japanese director Kazuo Kuroki, who began his career as an assistant director before helming several public relations and documentary shorts like Electric Rolling Stock of Toshiba (aka Toshiba Sharyo, 1958) and The Seawall (aka Kaiheki, 1959). Continue reading

The Age of Assassins (1967)

A paranoid conspiracy thriller delivered in a droll tongue-in-cheek style with generous helpings of black comedy and anti-establishment satire doesn’t really fit neatly into any genre and Kihachi Okamoto’s The Age of Assassins (1967 aka Epoch of Murder Madness; Japanese title: Satsujin Kyojidai) was generally dismissed by critics and avoided by audiences when it was first released in the late sixties. Like many of Okamoto’s films, it didn’t receive theatrical distribution outside of its own country and that’s a shame because the film has the essential goods to become a bona fide cult classic on the order of Seijun Suzuki’s Branded to Kill (1967) or Kinji Fukasaku’s Black Lizard (1968). The Age of Assassins arrived at the tail end of the secret agent craze but it is not really a James Bond parody. Think of it instead as a crazy quilt journey through an off-kilter, pop culture universe where no one is who they appear to be.   Continue reading

When Seafood Fights Back!

The Calamari Wrestler (2004)Japanese pop culture can be so crazieeee, especially as filtered through their national cinema! You already know this if you’ve seen any films by Noboru Iguchi (A Larva to Love, 2003; RoboGeisha, 2009), Gen Sekiguchi (Survive Style 5+, 2004), Sion Sono (Exte: Hair Extensions, 2007; Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, 2013), and especially Minoru Kawasaki, who likes plopping animal-suited characters into his genre films in order to mix it up with the humans who, in most cases, might be initially surprised but usually become complacent about the absurdity of the situation.

A good example of this is Kawasaki’s The Calamari Wrestler (2004) which is the sort of movie which will immediate polarize potential viewers into two camps based solely on images or clips from the film, its plot description or even the title alone. It all depends on how you feel about a movie in which a former championship wrestler-turned-squid returns to the ring to reclaim his title, win back his girlfriend who is now the fiancee of the current champion, and battle corrupt promoters and new rivals such as Squilla, the boxing shrimp.   The Calamari Wrestler (2004) Continue reading