22 June 2006

Movie Literacy

The film critic Jim Emerson composed a list of 102 movies one must see in order to consider oneself "film literate." To use his own words: "These are the movies I just kind of figure everybody ought to have seen in order to have any sort of informed discussion about movies. They're the common cultural currency of our time, the basic cinematic texts that everyone should know, at minimum, to be somewhat "movie-literate." I hope these movies are experiences we can all assume we share." (Source: Chicago Sun-Times)

I have seen all but 19 of these films, but I am hardly about to run out to the video store to rent Hallowe’en and Night of the Living Dead just in order to consider myself literate. I am not much of a fan of these kinds of lists unless they are written in the spirit of good fun, because they smack of self-aggrandizement.Considering how many thousands of films have been released every year for over a hundred years, any such list could only scrape at the surface of the movie-going experience. It seems a shame that Emerson could not have made more of an attempt to include a wider range of international filmmakers – he doesn’t even include Godard, Marker, Wajda, Kieslowski, Dreyer, Ichikawa, Imamura, Oshima, or Mizoguchi, to name but a few directors I would consider essential viewing for any aspiring film critic. Nor is there a single female filmmaker, but then women have always been neglected by the filmmaking establishment. Maya Deren, Ida Lupino, Dorothy Arzner (photo above), Germaine Dulac, Leni Riefenstahl, Agnes Varda, Claire Denis, Lina Wertmuller, Margaretha von Totta, Patricia Rozema, Ghurinder Chadha, and Deepa Mehta should be enough to get started on if any aspiring feminists are in need of inspiration.

Here is Emerson’s list of 102:

"2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968) Stanley Kubrick
"The 400 Blows" (1959) Francois Truffaut
"8 1/2" (1963) Federico Fellini
"Aguirre, the Wrath of God" (1972) Werner Herzog
"Alien" (1979) Ridley Scott
"All About Eve" (1950) Joseph L. Mankiewicz
"Annie Hall" (1977) Woody Allen
"Apocalypse Now" (1979) Francis Ford Coppola*
"Bambi" (1942) Disney
"The Battleship Potemkin" (1925) Sergei Eisenstein
"The Best Years of Our Lives" (1946) William Wyler
"The Big Red One" (1980) Samuel Fuller
"The Bicycle Thief" (1949) Vittorio De Sica
"The Big Sleep" (1946) Howard Hawks
"Blade Runner" (1982) Ridley Scott
"Blowup" (1966) Michelangelo Antonioni
"Blue Velvet" (1986) David Lynch
"Bonnie and Clyde" (1967) Arthur Penn
"Breathless" (1959 Jean-Luc Godard
"Bringing Up Baby" (1938) Howard Hawks
"Carrie" (1975) Brian DePalma
"Casablanca" (1942) Michael Curtiz
"Un Chien Andalou" (1928) Luis Bunuel & Salvador Dali
"Children of Paradise" / "Les Enfants du Paradis" (1945) Marcel Carne
"Chinatown" (1974) Roman Polanski
"Citizen Kane" (1941) Orson Welles
"A Clockwork Orange" (1971) Stanley Kubrick
"The Crying Game" (1992) Neil Jordan
"The Day the Earth Stood Still" (1951) Robert Wise
"Days of Heaven" (1978) Terence Malick
"Dirty Harry" (1971) Don Siegel
"The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie" (1972) Luis Bunuel
"Do the Right Thing" (1989) Spike Lee
"La Dolce Vita" (1960) Federico Fellini
"Double Indemnity" (1944) Billy Wilder
"Dr. Strangelove" (1964) Stanley Kubrick
"Duck Soup" (1933) Leo McCarey
"E.T. -- The Extra-Terrestrial" (1982) Steven Spielberg
"Easy Rider" (1969) Dennis Hopper
"The Empire Strikes Back" (1980) Irvin Kershner
"The Exorcist" (1973) William Friedkin
"Fargo" (1995) Joel & Ethan Coen
"Fight Club" (1999) David Fincher
"Frankenstein" (1931) James Whale
"The General" (1927) Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman
"The Godfather," "The Godfather, Part II" (1972, 1974) Francis Ford Coppola
"Gone With the Wind" (1939) Victor Fleming
"GoodFellas" (1990) Martin Scorsese
"The Graduate" (1967) Mike Nichols
"Halloween" (1978) John Carpenter
"A Hard Day's Night" (1964) Richard Lester
"Intolerance" (1916) D.W. Griffith
"It's a Gift" (1934) Norman Z. McLeod
"It's a Wonderful Life" (1946) Frank Capra
"Jaws" (1975) Steven Spielberg
"The Lady Eve" (1941) Preston Sturges
"Lawrence of Arabia" (1962) David Lean
"M" (1931) Fritz Lang
"Mad Max 2" / "The Road Warrior" (1981) George Miller
"The Maltese Falcon" (1941) John Huston
"The Manchurian Candidate" (1962) John Frankenheimer
"Metropolis" (1926) Fritz Lang
"Modern Times" (1936) Charles Chaplin
"Monty Python and the Holy Grail" (1975) Terry Jones & Terry Gilliam
"Nashville" (1975) Robert Altman
"The Night of the Hunter" (1955) Charles Laughton
"Night of the Living Dead" (1968) George Romero
"North by Northwest" (1959) Alfred Hitchcock
"Nosferatu" (1922) F.W. Murnau
"On the Waterfront" (1954) Elia Kazan
"Once Upon a Time in the West" (1968) Sergio Leone
"Out of the Past" (1947) Jacques Tournier
"Persona" (1966) Ingmar Bergman
"Pink Flamingos" (1972) John Waters
"Psycho" (1960) Alfred Hitchcock
"Pulp Fiction" (1994) Quentin Tarantino
"Rashomon" (1950) Akira Kurosawa
"Rear Window" (1954) Alfred Hitchcock
"Rebel Without a Cause" (1955) Nicholas Ray
"Red River" (1948) Howard Hawks
"Repulsion" (1965) Roman Polanski
"The Rules of the Game" (1939) Jean Renoir
"Scarface" (1932) Howard Hawks
"The Scarlet Empress" (1934) Josef von Sternberg
"Schindler's List" (1993) Steven Spielberg
"The Searchers" (1956) John Ford
"The Seven Samurai" (1954) Akira Kurosawa
"Singin' in the Rain" (1952) Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly
"Some Like It Hot" (1959) Billy Wilder
"A Star Is Born" (1954) George Cukor
"A Streetcar Named Desire" (1951) Elia Kazan
"Sunset Boulevard" (1950) Billy Wilder
"Taxi Driver" (1976) Martin Scorsese
"The Third Man" (1949) Carol Reed
"Tokyo Story" (1953) Yasujiro Ozu
"Touch of Evil" (1958) Orson Welles
"The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" (1948) John Huston
"Trouble in Paradise" (1932) Ernst Lubitsch
"Vertigo" (1958) Alfred Hitchcock
"West Side Story" (1961) Jerome Robbins/Robert Wise
"The Wild Bunch" (1969) Sam Peckinpah
"The Wizard of Oz" (1939) Victor Fleming

21 June 2006

Grand Hotel (グランド・ホテル, 1932)

People come, people go. Nothing ever happens.

I learned from my students on Monday night that "Grand Hotel Style" in Japanese-English (グランドホテルスタイル) means a film that has a large cast of characters and multiple plotlines. One of my students was doing a presentation on the young filmmaker Kōki Mitani (三谷幸喜) who employs such a style in his latest film Hotel Avanti (aka Uchoten Hotel, 有頂天ホテル , 2006). From the trailer, it looks like Mitani's new film was at the very least inspired by the art deco style and setting of the original Grand Hotel (Edmund Goulding, MGM, 1932), starring Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery, Lionel Barrymore, and many more. The film won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1932 and it's easy to see why. The plot clips along at an admirable pace, providing lots of good dialogue, comedy, and story information but never boring for an instant.
Re-watching the film today, I loved the way they used wipes to move from one plotline to another. Wipes were used a lot during the silent film days but by the 1950s were only used during musicals or comedies.Dissolves became a much more popular way to move between one time / place and another. I can remember some really comical wipes and split-screens used in the over-the-top Rock Hudson / Doris Day flick Pillow Talk (Michael Gordon, 1959). It is only recently that split screens and multiple screens have come back into fashion thanks to digital technology and the clever use of multiple screens in the TV show 24. Coincidentally, I was reading this week about Kurosawa’s use of the wipe in Rashōmon and Ikiru among other of his films in James Goodwin’s book Akira Kurosawa and Intertextual Cinema. Various theories are imparted to Kurosawa’s aesthetic choice from Metz going on about trucage to theories about the different directions in which Japanese people read. My personal theory is that Kurosawa just thought it just looked pretty cool. I think it’s a much more fun way to move between scenes than a dreary dissolve.Dissolves are for dream sequences, whereas wipes impart a certain vigor and dynamism to the edit. It is as though the next scene is so eager to begin, that it sweeps aside the previous scene with a certain amount of finality, while the previous scene is pretty reluctant to go and hangs on until the last possible minute.

In Grand Hotel, with all the stars vying for attention just like the seven cowboys in the Magnificent Seven, the wipe is a pretty apt metaphor. At some point I must look up some of the production details about the making of the film at MGM. I do wonder about the relationship between Greta Garbo, a star at the pinnacle of her success, and newcomer Joan Crawford. I’ve placed one of Crawford’s publicity stills from this picture at the top of this entry because I feel that she really does outshine Garbo in this one. Don’t get me wrong, I do love and respect Garbo, but Crawford’s role as Flaemmchen has much more meat to it than Garbo’s airy, fairy Grusinskaya. Grusinskaya waltzes about her hotel room and moans about her fading dance career, while Flaemchen acts impulsively and decisively in her own best interests throughout. I noticed that there were no scenes in which the two stars appear together and I wonder if that was Garbo’s decision.
I once heard that more scenes had to be added to the film so that Crawford wouldn’t steal the picture out from under Garbo’s feet. Well, I think she does anyway. The chemistry between Garbo and John Barrymore is good and their romantic scenes together are well-acted and well staged (wonderful lighting, in particular), but I cannot believe for a minute that Barrymore’s character would have gone for Garbo’s after meeting the sultry young Joan. In contrast to Garbo’s staginess, Crawford portrays Flaemmchen in a very naturalistic way. I used to think that Crawford herself was quite stagy in every role I had ever seen her in, but that was before I was introduced to Crawford’s early films. When Nadine showed me Our Dancing Daughters (Harry Beaumont, 1928), I was won over. Crawford was so full of vitality that she was mesmerizing [aside to MGM or whoever owns the rights to Our Dancing DaughtersOur Modern Maidens, and Our Blushing Brides: GET THEM OUT ON DVD!! It is truly shocking that Oscar nominated classics that were so popular in their day are not available for collectors yet apart from on lousy secondhand VHS tapes!!].
The most wonderful image in this film is the revolving door, and there are few films with such a wonderfully comic and ironic ending – crusty old Dr. Ottenschlag saying “The Grand Hotel, always the same. People come, people go, nothing ever happens” with a Viennese waltz coming in and crescendoing over the image of the ever-revolving door. Sigh – if only every film could go out with such a wonderful talking point surprising and delighting you at the end!
© cmmhotes 2006

16 June 2006

Stagecoach (駅馬車, 1939)

In preparation for an introductory class on Kurosawa next Monday, this week I revisited a couple of early John Ford movies. Stagecoach (1939) must surely be the best example of the Western genre in its classical form. Most reviews of the film concern themselves with the combination of dramatic action and the Monument Valley setting or with morality play involving the motley assortment of passengers who represent a microcosm of Wild West society.

The thing that struck me the most on this viewing is the subtle handling of the romance between Dallas (Claire Trevor), the typical “hooker with a heart of gold,” and Ringo Kid (John Wayne), a well-known outlaw who has broken out of jail in order to seek revenge on the Plummer brothers who killed both his father and his brother. Along with Doc Boone, Dallas and Ringo are the characters cast as “indecent” from the outset of the film. Doc Boone is a drunk, Dallas has been driven out of town by “respectable women,” and Ringo is an outlaw. The arc of the film demonstrates that although these characters seem rough on the outside, they are actually the most caring, selfless, and noble of any of the characters in the film. The looks that Dallas and Ringo give each other throughout the film serve to build the romance as we realize that these two only see the good in each other. Whereas the upstanding Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt) looks at Dallas and sees a fallen woman, Ringo only sees a beautiful, kind, and generous woman. While most of the occupants of the Stagecoach see Ringo as a murderous crook, Dallas sees a noble and kind soul.

Ringo’s love for Dallas is sealed when he sees her holding Mrs. Mallory’s newborn baby. When Ringo asks Dallas to come to live with him on his ranch (as close as a cowboy gets to saying “Ah shucks, will you marry me?”), Dallas doesn’t know how to tell him the truth about the unsavoury things she has done to make ends meet since her family was massacred when she was a kid.

Dallas: “But you don’t know me. You don’t know who I am.”
Ringo: “I know all I want to know. So will you go?”
Dallas“Oh don’t talk like that.”
Other wonderful moments in their romance:

When poor Dallas is so torn up about whether or not she should say yes that she even asks Doc Boone if it would be alright for a girl like her to marry a guy like Ringo.

When Ringo asks the marshal, Curly, if he’ll make sure Dallas gets to his ranch while he spends his year in 
jail: “This is no town for a girl like her.”

The most wonderful scene occurs once they’re in Lordsburg and Ringo tries to escort Dallas home and she doesn’t want him to follow all the way because he will discover what she’s been doing for a living. “It’s all been a crazy dream. I’ve been out of my mind just hoping. Say good-bye here, Kid” she says tearfully. He grabs her by the arm and says “We ain’t never gonna say good-bye.” The tension is accentuated by the impending gunfight. The film ends with them being allowed to escape across the border together to Ringo’s ranch by laughing Doc and Curly. Doc turns to Curly and says: “Well, they’re safe from the blessings of civilization.”

The romance in this film reminded me that it has been a long time since I had seen a really good screen love affair that truly swept me up in the romance of the affair. We don’t need tongue-down-the-throat sex scenes to titillate the senses. The best romances are the ones where more is hinted at than shown. The most sensual, titillating romantic scene in a movie for me is the love scene in Hitchcock’s Notorious, where Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman are shown in close up peppering each other with small kisses because the censors of the time wouldn’t allow long lip-locks. Although censors have been responsible for a lot of good stuff ending up on the cutting room floor, back in their most censorious period they were responsible for much better love scenes because directors and actors had to come up with more and more ingenious ways to suggest more than show the physical longing between two protagonists. The only films that manage to do the same things these days are BBC costume dramas like Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth. That series made Firth’s career skyrocket because of the suggestion of what might lurk under those wet clothes as he comes out of the pond, and the promise of the passion lurking behind those smoldering looks he gives Jennifer Ehle.

© cmmhotes 2006

Ugetsu (雨月物語, 1953)

I watched Ugetsu (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1954) with my cultural studies students at Kanagawa University and found that they reacted to the ending of the film in a variety of ways. Some just felt that it had a moral lesson at the end: it does not pay to be greedy. Other students felt that the lesson was more ambiguous than that.

To be sure, Genjurō learns that success must be earned through hard work but one’s family and home should not be sacrificed for that success. Yet, these students felt that Mizoguchi did not present Genjurō’s story as a morality tale – although Genjurō was greedy and adulterous, he did not after all did not choose Lady Wakayama over his long-suffering wife, Miyagi. Mizoguchi makes it clear that Genjurō does love his wife in the scene when he fantasizes about buying his wife another lovely kimono with the money he has earned selling his wares. This is just before he is whisked away to Lady Wakayama’s house. Although he is quite taken with Wakayama’s beauty, he turns to leave her house after making his delivery and clearly does not expect to be invited in. It is clear that he has been put under a strange kind of spell.

My students were at a loss to know what to make of Lady Wakayama – a woman who is also an enigma to me. I was quite surprised because I thought that they might have a greater cultural insight into her role as a ghost in the film. At the very least I had hoped to learn from them about this old-fashioned style of make-up where the woman powders her face very white then draws two large black spots / “eyebrows” high up on her forehead. My students had no idea about the origins or meaning of this tradition and agreed that it was rather strange.

Mizoguchi is much talked of as a feminist filmmaker, yet I have not seen enough of his films or read enough essays on him to know in what way this is so. Lady Wakayama certainly is a powerful female figure, but has few positive attributes. Her elderly lady-in-waiting was my favourite character in the film, with her marvellously deep, chanting voice warning Genjurō that he cannot leave Wakayama. As much as I loved her, the “real women” provide a much more case for a feminist stance in the film.

Let me begin with the subplot in which we meet Tōbei and his wife Ohama. Tōbei is a rather foolish man who dreams of being a samurai even though he lacks the skill and education to do so. His wife harps at him to give up this dream and work hard with her to earn a comfortable living. When Tōbei runs off to pursue his dream, Ohama finds herself alone and unprotected and she is raped by bandits and turns to a life of prostitution in order survive. When Tōbei discovers her, he is not revolted, but feels sorrow that his ambition was responsible for his wife’s downfall. I think that many filmmakers would choose to have Ohama be killed or for her to kill herself because she has become a “fallen woman” at the hands of the bandits who attack her. Certainly, I was not expecting that Tōbei would be the one to pay for Ohama’s disgrace. He chooses to give up his newfound status as a samurai and become the kind of hardworking husband that he feels Ohama deserves.

In the depiction of Miyage, Mizoguchi’s feminism is less easily discerned. It could be read that Miyage has been punished for her husband’s greed and infidelity through her suffering and eventual death. Her son, too, is punished by the loss of his mother. Yet here is where the ambiguity of the morality of the film comes into play again. Have Genjurō and Genjiro (the son) really lost Miyage? Her ghost is there to welcome Genjurō home when he finally escapes from the spell Wakayama has put him under. The last voice we hear is also that of Miyage as she talks to Genjurō in the voice-over. Her voice is not bitter or resentful; rather, she is telling him that he is now the man that she wanted him to be: hard-working and no longer aspiring for the unattainable. She tells him that she is waiting for him in paradise [side note: my husband and I are not sure what is meant by this. The Japanese idea of paradise isn’t at all like the Christian one… but that’s a blog for another time & place].

To end these inconclusive meanderings, I must gush over the hauntingly beautiful location. My husband assures me that there are still corners of Lake Biwa that still have those reed beds. Lake Biwa is apparently one of those rare lakes that has not been ruined by the tourist trade (yet). We must really plan a visit during a particularly foggy time of year to get the Ugetsu effect.

For connoisseurs: the complete Mizuguchi collection is available on DVD box-set in Japan:

Kenji Mizoguchi Daiei Sekuhinshu / Japanese Movie

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2006

09 June 2006

Zatoichi (座等市, 2003)

After Takeshi Kitano’s disappointing Dolls (visually stunning, decadently boring), I wasn’t sure what to expect from Zatoichi. I also don’t usually enjoy films with so much bloodletting. Yet Kitano made all the bloodletting bearable with his skillful use of comedy to relieve the gruesomeness of it all.

From the subtle use of language (both oral and body) to the fight scenes choreographed rhythmically like ensemble dance numbers, the highly stylized nature of the film gave me the distance I need in order to watch such violence (the body count was so high in this film it is impossible to keep score). Added to this, the CGI blood that spurts from people when they get slashed is also comical in its fakeness. A huge spray (I read somewhere that Takeshi wanted the spurts to look like flowers) is so clearly fake because of its shiny translucency as well as the fact that the swordsman’s clothes remain clean of bloodstains. Takeshi was clearly having fun with the genre. As the Zatoichi (blind masseur) films starring the late Shintaro Katsu are such an established genre in Japan, Kitano must have felt he needed to do something extraordinarily different with his own version of the tale.

Other moments of comic relief are provided by the excellent supporting cast. The onnagata (man playing a woman) brother’s scene with Shinkichi in the ofuro is particularly well done. Shinkichi had been so convinced by the young man’s make-up that he can hardly believe the he evidence that he is sharing the bath with a man. Shinkichi asks if all it takes is make-up and the onangata replies, “it depends on the face.” This is followed by a scene in which Shinkichi’s aunt, O-ume, is shocked to find him putting on make up. He looks so comical with the make-up on: his lined, middle-aged face cannot disguise the fact that he is a man. The reaction of one of the neighbourhood boys also made me laugh. The boys have rushed over because O-ume’s house is burning down (arson by bandits seeking Zatoichi). The one boy’s shocked face looking at the flames turns to a completely different shocked face when he turns to look at Shinkichi. Classic!

The kitchy final sequence was quite a surprise and I thought it was a fabulous way to end such a spectacle: a curtain call complete with a tap-dancing number performed in geta by girls in colorful short kimonos and the young men in period costume from the tap-dancing group Stripes. It reminded me of the annual Red and White Song Festival (Kohaku uta gassen) that gets shown on the NHK. A couple of years ago there was a fabulous disco-esque number by a sequined kimonoed ensemble. Hilarous! I wish I’d taped it! The key cast members of Zatoichi join in the finale and there is a great CGI effect when the actors playing the younger versions of the brother (the onangata) and sister are transformed mid-dance into the older versions of themselves (ie they age 10 years). It certainly is no exaggeration to say that Takeshi knows how to make a spectacle in every genre he tackles.

This film is available on DVD in Japan with English subtitles.
Zatoichi (English Subtitles) / Japanese Movie

For major fans, an 8-disc box set of the original TV series is available for purchase (no English subtitles):
Zatoichi Monogatari / Japanese TV Series

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2006

03 June 2006

Tokyo ga (東京画, 1985)

Wim Wenders has an uneven history as a director. He has made some truly great films like Paris, Texas (1984) and Alice in den Städten (1974). He has also made some disappointing films like In Weiter Ferne, so nah! (1993). I know many people consider them cheesy, but I do love Der Himmel über Berlin (1987) and The Buena Vista Social Club (1999) and could watch them again and again. I was prepared to simply adore Tokyo Ga (1985), but instead found myself utterly disappointed.

Wenders bills the film as a quest to find remnants of Ozu’s Japan in contemporary Japan. He says: “Ozu’s work does not need my praise and such a sacred treasure of the cinema could only reside in the realm of the imagination. And so, my trip to Tokyo was in no way a pilgrimage. I was curious as to whether I still could track down something from this time, whether there was still anything left of this work. Images perhaps, or even people… Or whether so much would have changed in Tokyo in the twenty years since Ozu’s death that nothing would be left to find. " (Wenders).

Yet Wenders does little to track down Ozu’s Japan apart from his two interviews with long-time Ozu collaborators: actor Chizu Ryu (whose name he seems unable to pronounce properly, rather calling him “Rio”) and cinematographer Yuhara Atsuta. These interviews are always mediated by Wenders’s presence because he opts for voice-over translation instead of subtitles. This is particularly obnoxious for people who understand Japanese as then one must listen to two languages at once. Furthermore, as the voice-over is done by Wenders himself, I found that it rendered the translation as false because Wenders himself does not speak Japanese. This means that the words of Ryu and Atsuka are mediated by two people: the translator and Wenders. I would have much preferred subtitles. Even if I would not have been able to understand all of the Japanese, I would at least have been able to enjoy the natural rhythms of speech. The few moments we can hear Ryu with out Wenders’s voice-over are truly wonderful. The cadence of his voice has only been mildly affected by his age, and it transported me back to much-loved scenes from Ozu films.

The constant presence of Wenders’s voice does a great disservice to all of the images in the film. His voice is flat and emotionless. At times it almost caused me to fall asleep (my fellow viewers, Stefan and Bettina, did get lulled to sleep!). The most important rule in filmmaking is “show don’t tell” and Tokyo Ga would have been so much better if we as an audience had been able to mediate the images on our own, or just with the unusual soundtrack as accompaniment. The only person apart from Wenders who gets an unmediated monologue in the film is Werner Herzog in his interview atop Tokyo Tower. Herzog whines that there are hardly any Bilder (images) left in Tokyo – that everything has been built up and one must be an archeologist in order to find anything at all in this beleidige Landschaft (ravaged landscape). This only affirms Wenders view that what no longer existed in Tokyo was “the view which could still achieve order in a world out of order. The view that could still render the world transparent.” But in his search for this perceived “view” of Ozu’s, Wenders shows us Tokyo from the point-of-view of the tourist. In contrast, Ozu showed us the world within, the world of the domestic, the everyday. His films showed us that although children grow up, get married, leave home, and people move away or die, the world still goes on. His films are about the transience of life and the realness of the people who inhabit this life however fleetingly. Ozu’s films are about the universal whereas Wenders shows us the surface. I don’t know how strong the image of Japan was for international audiences in 1985, but from my perspective the images Wenders shows us seem very stereotypical: hanami (cherry-blossom viewing – which Wenders does not even name but refers only to people going on picnics), pachinko parlours, golf-putting ranges, the ever-presence of advertising, and so on. [There’s a great 1985 review in the New York Times by Vincent Canby with more on this topic. Click here, though you may need to register with the NYT to read the article.]

At one point in the film, Wenders comments that “The more the reality of Tokyo struck me as a torrent of impersonal, unkind, threatening, and yes, even inhuman images, the greater and powerful became in my mind the images of the loving and ordered world of the mythical city of Tokyo that I knew from the films of Yasujiro Ozu.” I think that Tokyo might have seemed impersonal and unkind if I had come here as alone and unable to speak the language. I have had my image of Tokyo mediated by the presence of my children, who have allowed me into a world I might never have seen. People’s faces light up when they see the children and shopkeepers talk to me. Wenders also needed to spend some time in the homes of middle-class Japanese families in order to see Ozu’s world – an invitation that does not come during a brief stay in Tokyo. Perhaps if he’d done a tour of the minshuku (B&Bs) of Hokkaido he’d have seen a more domestic side of these islands. Ozu’s Japan does exist, but it can only be seen by the traveler who is not in a hurry. A person who, like Ozu, has the time to sit and observe the minute details of people’s behaviour.

Despite all these reservations about Tokyo Ga, it is still worth a view for fans of Ozu and fans of Wenders. There is one moment where he does manage to capture a pure Ozu moment: the scene in the train station with the little boy who refuses to walk. It reminded me of all those petulant little boys in Ozu films -- like the one who give his grandfather a hard time in Early Summer (麦秋, 1951). The section where Wenders goes to see a workshop where they make food models for restaurant display windows is fantastic. It often looks as though they are preparing real food. There are also some wonderful moments in the interview with Atsuta: a camera set atop Ozu’s specially-designed tripod shot against a garden of bamboo trees, Atsuta’s hand holding the beautiful stop-watch that Ozu used, Wenders leafing through Ozu’s screenplay for An Autumn Afternoon (秋刀魚の味, 1962) complete with miniature sketches for shot set-ups. Wenders feels helpless because he cannot read a single word, not even the title – perhaps this film would have suited the title Lost in Translation even better than Sofia Coppola’s attempt at rendering Tokyo on film.

For some truly great tributes to Ozu see Talking With Ozu and Kazuo Inoue’s I Lived, But… (生きては見たけれど1983) – extras on Criterion’s DVD of Tokyo Story. A digitally remastered print of Tokyo-ga is also available for purchase on DVD in Japan:

Tokyo-Ga / Movie

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2006


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