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
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
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
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
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
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. Continue reading