24 December 2006

White Christmas (ホワイト・クリスマス, 1954)

My Christmas holiday always includes a screening of the hit film of 1954: White Christmas. The New Yorker, the only repertory cinema (sadly demolished a few years ago) in my hometown of LondonOntario, had a screening of the film every December 23rd. My grandmother and I made it our Christmas ritual when I was a teenager.

Although I do embrace digital technology, home viewing will never replace the magic of the shared cinematic experience. Every year, that aging cinema with its uncomfortable, squeaky seats would be filled with small groups of people full of holiday cheer who would laugh at all the jokes they’d heard a dozen times before and sing along with every toe-tapping Irving Berlin tune. During the spectacular finale when the women wear those fabulous red gowns next to the giant Christmas tree and the doors open in the rear to reveal ‘real’ studio snow falling, everyone in the cinema would put their arms around those sitting next to them and sing “White Christmas” along with Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney & Vera-Ellen.

The first year my grandmother and I went was the most magical. As we left the cinema, we discovered that it had truly begun snowing for us as well. Huge, fluffy wet flakes that covered the ground in a thick blanket.We drove home cautiously down the unplowed streets singing all the way.

I now live far from Canada and my grandmother has passed away, but I make it my ritual to watch White Christmas with people that I love every year. Sure, it has a hokey plot, but the jokes never get stale. Such as when Phil Davis (Kaye) pesters Bob Wallace (Crosby) about something and Bob interjects: “When I figure out what that means, I’ll give you a withering reply.” And, I defy anyone not to laugh when Bing & Danny do the ‘Sisters’ feathered blue fan routine in semi-drag, with their pants rolled up to reveal the suspenders holding up their socks. Danny Kaye’s over-the-top performance caused the crooner’s mask to slip and it’s such a hoot to watch Bing Crosby as he loses it and convulses in genuine laughter.

This was the first film Paramount shot in VistaVision, a process designed to compete with Cinemascope.The result on the DVD transfer is stunning. The images are clear and crisp and the colours are simply gorgeous. Paramount also went out of their way to assemble a stellar cast and crew for this picture. The renowned Edith Head (won 8 Oscars out of 34 nominations!!) designed the costumes, Robert Alton (Ziegfeld Follies, Easter Parade ) does choreography and makes a cameo appearance, Loyal Griggs (Shane) wears the DOP mantel and Michael Curtiz (Casablanca, Mildred Pierce) directs.

If you watch White Christmas on TV every year then you should spring for the DVD this year. They released the DVD back in 2000 and were able to get the last surviving lead Rosemary Clooney, who passed away in 2002, to give them a 16-minute retrospective interview and a commentary track for the film. Her anecdotes about her fellow stars and Michael Curtiz are full of humour and warmth.

Many reviewers at the time criticized the commentary track because they thought that Clooney does not talk enough, but I love it. Most commentary tracks, especially those of directors and producers, make me roll my eyes because they are so self-indulgent and bragging. This off-the-cuff commentary track makes you feel like Rosemary Clooney is sitting on the sofa with you, delightedly sharing her fond recollections of the production. She doesn’t talk the whole time, but chuckles along with the good jokes and even mentions at one point how farfetched the plot is in place.

I particularly enjoyed the anecdotes that she shares about Bing Crosby. She depicts him as a hard-working man with a sense of humour and someone you could rely on as a friend through thick and thin. It’s an interesting counter-balance to one-dimensional child-beater label he acquired after his son Gary’s explosively bitter memoir.

I love Clooney’s self-deprecatory humour when she talks about the fact that Vera-Ellen couldn’t sing (she was dubbed by Trudy Stevens) and that she herself couldn’t dance. It must have been quite the ordeal because almost 50 years later you can hear her on the commentary track counting the steps out loud to herself: “… and 5, 6, 7, 8!”. Hilarious! It brought back memories of ballet classes I took when I was a girl.
So this Christmas, put a fire in the fireplace, cuddle up with someone you love on the sofa with a cup of warm eggnog and sing and be merry with Rosemary, Bing & the gang!

© cmmhotes 2006

20 December 2006

Letters from Iwo Jima (硫黄島からの手紙, 2006)

Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima is a remarkable film on many levels. It is rare for a war film, whose focus is usually on the heroism and patriotism of a country’s soldiers, to consider the human face of the enemy. Such films are even rarer in the history of films about the conflict between the Japanese and Americans during World War II.

During the war, audiences in the English speaking world were trained to view the Japanese enemy as a monolithic entity with films that emphasized myths and stereotypes about the Japanese. For example, there’s a deliberate play on words in the way the marines in Wake Island (John Farrow, 1942) – the first combat film set in the Pacific - refer to the Japanese as “Those yellow Nips” – ‘yellow’ signifying both the colour of their skin and their perceived cowardice.

The 1944 film The Flying Sullivans – which inspired Spielberg to make Saving Private Ryan – turned the true story of five brothers who died together into wartime propaganda. Upon hearing the news about Pearl Harbor, one of the brothers says that the war will be over in a matter of weeks because the Japanese, “They can’t fight. They close their eyes when they fire off a gun.” Here cowardice is defined as the inability to face the enemy, to look them in the eye and have a true Hollywood showdown.

The Japanese enemy is rendered faceless sometimes literally, sometimes metaphorically in the films of this period – particularly in the series of John Wayne Pacific War films. In John Ford’s They Were Expendable (1945), for example, the enemy is represented by the deadly technology they use, such as fighter planes and warships, in contrast to the close-ups of the faces of Americans and Filipinos during the attacks.

Technology does result in the facelessness of modern warfare but in the case of the Pacific War, this impression was created by domestic propaganda at the time and does not reflect the true circumstances on the ground. Veterans of the attack on Pearl Harbor have testified that the Japanese pilots were flying so low that they could see their faces. Films like the terribly dull Japanese-American co-production Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) and the stomach-turningly saccharine Pearl Harbor (2001) remedy the historical inaccuracies to a certain extent, but are difficult to sit through unless you are a history buff (Tora!) or a fan of souped up romances starring Ben Affleck (Pearl Harbor).

When the faces of the Japanese enemy can be seen, they are generally shown in one of two ways: as foolish-looking buck-toothed stereotypes or as taking pleasure in warfare and cruelty. Ironically the films that have done the most to understand the humanity of both the Japanese and the Allied Forces have been films about Japanese P.O.W. camps. Outside of the atrocities committed by the Imperial Japanese forces against Asians during the war, the P.O.W. camps were the site of some of the most horrific war crimes imaginable. Yet, films like Three Came Home (1950), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), and Oshima Nagisa’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983) all made great strides in trying to understand the motivations of both the captors and their prisoners.

Clint Eastwood’s concern about the perspective of the Japanese in the battle of Iwo Jima haunted him throughout the preparation for Flags of Our Fathers (2006) so much that he encouraged one of his research assistants, Iris Yamashita, to dig deeper into their story. The result is a deeply moving film that follows the Japanese soldiers at Iwo Jima from their preparations for the American invasion up until their last heroic push at the end of the battle. In Letters from Iwo Jima, Eastwood dispenses with many stereotypes of both Japanese and American soldiers and tries to tell the Japanese side of the battle with dignity.

Inspired by the Picture Letters of Army General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, the story of the Japanese soldiers if told through the letters they wrote home to their loved ones. As almost all of the 20,000 plus Japanese on the island were killed, anecdotes from letters are really the only way their histories can be recounted.

Ken Watanabe, a face familiar to international audiences from his outings in The Last Samurai and Memoirs of a Geisha, plays General Kuribayashi. Kuribayashi and Baron Nishi (played by Tsuyoshi Ihara) add an element of poignancy to the film for both men had spent time in the United States and had many American friends. Kuribayashi knows that the Japanese are doomed to failure due to America’s industrial superiority. His understanding of the enemy and his unconventional leadership style lead to many interesting conflicts between officers in the film.

The Baron Nishi character is also based the historical figure Takeichi Nishi, who won a gold medal at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. One of the most moving moments in the film comes when he translates a dead American soldier’s letter from his mother to the soldiers in his unit. The young soldiers are deeply moved by the letter to the point that young Shimizu (Ryo Kase) says that his own mother could have written such a letter. This is just one moment of many in the film where Eastwood demonstrates that despite different belief systems and social customs, Japanese and American soldiers are actually not so different from each other in terms of their hopes and dreams for themselves and for their families.

The character that we are invited to identify with the most strongly is Saigo, played by Kazunari Ninomiya. Saigo is filled with doubts about the war, misses his wife so much that he writes her letters whenever he has a chance, and longs to survive the war so that he can meet his newborn daughter.

Ninomiya was a clever casting choice on the part of Eastwood. Not only does he play the role with the needed dignity and delicacy but Ninomiya has a large fan following from his career in the boy band Arashi. This means that a lot of young Japanese people will go out and see the film. In fact, on the opening weekend here in Japan, the film took the number one place over many hotly anticipated new releases. From what I understand, World War II (particularly Japan’s aggression in the early part of the twentieth century) does not get taught with much depth in schools in Japan and I think it is important for young people to learn about this difficult time in their nation’s past.

As the film progresses, the Japanese slowly but surely decrease in numbers, and knowing that very few Japanese survived Iwo Jima I wondered throughout the film how they were going to end the film without overwhelming the audience with despair. In the end, I think they did a good job of demonstrating the extent of the tragedy and futility of war but leaving us with one small ray of hope for the future (have no fear, no spoilers here!).

Perhaps the choice of colour for the film had a great deal to do with helping hold the viewer at a point of objectivity (though I do admit I had tears in my eyes on more than one occasion). The image is almost completely drained of colour, to the point that at the beginning I thought that it had been shot in black in white or sepia. It has the appearance of a faded old colour photograph. In the scenes with explosions going off, the orange is so bright in contrast to the dull colours of the surroundings that it has the quality of the hand-tinting that was done to silent films.

This is the first film I have ever seen in which American soldiers are actually shown to do unethical and unheroic things. Having watched countless John Wayne war films the shock was truly enormous, and marks for me an important shift in the war film genre. Letters from Iwo Jima reminded me of something Agnes Newton Keith wrote in the prologue to Three Came Home, her memoir of her years spent in gruelling conditions in a P.O.W. camp with her young son:

“The Japanese in this book are as war made them, not as God did, and the same is true for the rest of us. We are not pleasant people here, for the story of war is always the story of hate; it makes no difference with whom one fights. The hate destroys you spiritually as the fighting destroys you bodily.”

I highly recommend that everyone go out and see the film. It pulls down a lot of stereotypes (“warrior culture”, samurai spirit, uniformity of society, etc.) about the Japanese that have stood for much too long in Western culture.

2008/12/17 Update: a special edition with English subtitles now available on DVD in Japan:

Letters From Iwo Jima / Movie

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2006

12 December 2006

Nana, the movie

This film was one of the biggest movies of 2005 in Japan. The sequel just premiered in Tokyo on the weekend and I am hoping to see it sometime this week. In preparation for the big event, I decided to watch the first movie again to remind myself why I enjoyed it so much.

Like the anime of the same name, director Kentaro Otani (大谷健太郎) and screenwriter Taeko Asano (妙子浅野) have adapted the story from Ai Yazawa (矢沢あい)’s popular shoujo manga. It tells the story of two young women called Nana who are thrown together by fate when they meet on a train bound for Tokyo. Nana Komatsu (小松奈々) is the kawaii shoujo (cute girl) and Nana Osaki (大崎ナナ) is the kakkoii shoujo (cool girl). Both young women are 20, which is the age at which the Japanese celebrate a person’s ‘coming-of-age’.

Nana Osaki gives Nana Komatsu the nickname ‘Hachi’ quite early on in their relationship after the famous Shibuya dog: she’s cute, friendly, and obedient, but needs a lot of attention! The name Hachi is also humorous because ‘nana’(七)is one of the pronunciations for the number 7 in Japanese and ‘hachi’ (八) means 8. Hachi, like many Japanese, is a very superstitious person and because of her given name, the number 7 resonates very strongly with her. For example, the girls find an apartment that costs 7万 (70,000 yen) in room 707.

Many viewers may find Hachi’s obsession with numerology and superstition wacky, but it is not so strange in Japan. For example, the number 4 (pronounced yon or shi) is considered unlucky in Japan because the word ‘shi’ can also mean ‘death.’ This superstition is so strongly believed that stores never package things in groups of four. In the West it is not unusual to buy dinnerware sets for four people, but in Japan one would buy 5.

In a way, Nana is a coming of age story. Both young women come to Tokyo for different reasons and find out a lot of things about themselves and each other along the way. It is also a story about love and intimacy between female friends. With a male director helming the film I was worried that the subtleties of the female characters and their relationship with each other, which Yazawa captures with poignancy and humour, might be lost. Overall though, I think that the film did a pretty good job of capturing the attraction and affection that develops between the two Nanas.

As with any adaptation, a great deal of story had to be excised from the original manga in order for it to succeed as a movie. This meant that some of my favourite secondary characters like Junko and Kyosuke, whose wry wit and sarcasm give a good balance to the sugary sweetness of characters like Hachi and Nobu, have been reduced to a mere handful of lines. I think the filmmakers made the right decision. The Nana manga has a rather large cast of characters, which works in the anime adaptation, but would have been impossible to squeeze into a movie without the running time going over two hours. Only a director with incredible talent (like the late, great Robert Altman) should ever try to pull such a feat off.

Hachi’s character benefited the most from the excising of story material from the original manga. With the sad tale of her teenaged affair with a married man and her numerous crushes on passing acquaintances left on the cutting room floor, Hachi’s personality is rendered much more innocently sweet and endearing. Aoi Miyazaki (宮崎あおい), with her great big puppy dog eyes, is perfect in the role, playing the role with sweetness and warmth in a very natural manner.

Two of the biggest reasons for the huge success of this film in Japan last year are the fashion and the music. Ai Yazawa’s manga are all heavily influenced by Vivienne Westwood as well as a retro punk aesthetic. Nana Osaki and her boyfriend Ren Honjo belong to competing punk-influenced bands and take their inspiration from the Sex Pistols and of course the legend of Sid & Nancy. As a symbol of her love for him, Nana gives Ren a lock and chain necklace similar to the one worn by Sid Vicious.

Nana Osaki is played by Mika Nakashima (中島美嘉), a popular musician in Japan whose large fan base surely helped with the movies success. Her hit single from the film “Glorious Sky” had lyrics written by Ai Yazawa herself and has played constantly in shops throughout Japan ever since the film debuted. Nakashima also demonstrates that she has great acting ability. Nana is perhaps the most complex character of the story. She has a lot of rough edges due to her difficult childhood (never knew her father, abandoned by her mother, raised by a strict grandmother) and has a lot of ambition for herself as a singer, but Nakashima was also able to subtly demonstrate that Nana has a lot of capacity for love and compassion. Nakashima and Aoi Miyazaki had great capacity between the two of them and like many fans of the series I was sorry to hear that Miyazaki wasn’t signed on for the sequel.

The other big hit from the film was “Endless Story” sung by a young American woman of Japanese and Korean heritage, Yuna Ito (伊藤由奈). Ito plays Reira (Japanese version of the name Layla), the lead singer of Ren’s band, TrapNest. The film was the professional debut for Ito and the producers built up a great deal of publicity surrounding the mystery identity of Reira prior to the film’s release. I can’t really comment on Ito’s acting ability because she only got one line in the film, but she certainly is beautiful and can sing well. I have heard that she gets more lines in the sequel. Certainly, her look and her mixed background work for the part as in the manga, Reira is hiding the fact that she comes from a mixed Japanese-American background because her producers want to market her as a good “Japanese” girl.

I think the reason that I enjoyed this film was that the story has a good mix of fantasy and reality. It hearkened back to the films of John Hughes that I loved as an adolescent – Sixteen Candles (1984) The Breakfast Club (1985), Pretty in Pink (1986), Some Kind of Wonderful (1987) – which all had strong female protagonists, dealt with the real difficulties that young people without condescension, and featured great pop-rock music and cool fashions.

On the fantasy side, Nana appeals to the dreams of young women who want to wear cool clothes and then of course there is the appeal of the sexiness and glamour of punk-inspired pop music. On the realism side, this story does not give us the usual boy meets girl schlock. Sure we follow the ups and downs of Hachi’s relationship with her boyfriend Shoji (a disappointingly wooden performance by Yuta Hiraoka) and the will-they-won’t-they get back together drama of Nana and Ren, but the centerpiece of the film is the burgeoning friendship between the two female leads and the coming-of-age dilemmas that both women are working through.

The story of the two Nanas keeps us hooked because it doesn’t answer all our questions. Although there is a resolution of a kind at the end of the movie, there are many ongoing questions that keep us wanting more: What is the true nature of Hachi and Nana’s feelings for each other? Are Ren and Nana truly right for each other? What has happened between Reira and Yasu? [Or Reira and Shin? -- if you’re reading the manga/watching the anime.] Will Hachi ever develop any confidence in herself and ambition for her future? And of course, we are all rooting for Nana and her band Blast (short for ‘Black Stones’) to make it big!

To purchase the standard edition DVD click here:

Nana / Japanese Movie

To purchase the special edition DVD click here:

Nana / Japanese Movie

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2006


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